If Tomorrow Never Comes by MonkeyAbu
Past Featured StorySummary:

 


Ever since his brush with death as a child, Brian has lived every day with the fear of not knowing when today will be his last. When the heart demons of his past surface once more, he is faced with the struggle of realizing that tomorrow is never promised.


Categories: Fanfiction > Backstreet Boys Characters: Brian
Genres: Angst, Drama
Warnings: None
Challenges:
Series: None
Chapters: 26 Completed: No Word count: 104232 Read: 53071 Published: 03/11/07 Updated: 08/15/15

1. Awards by MonkeyAbu

2. Chapter 1 by MonkeyAbu

3. Chapter 2 by MonkeyAbu

4. Chapter 3 by MonkeyAbu

5. Chapter 4 by MonkeyAbu

6. Chapter 5 by MonkeyAbu

7. Chapter 6 by MonkeyAbu

8. Chapter 7 by MonkeyAbu

9. Chapter 8 by MonkeyAbu

10. Chapter 9 by MonkeyAbu

11. Chapter 10 by MonkeyAbu

12. Chapter 11 by MonkeyAbu

13. Chapter 12 by MonkeyAbu

14. Chapter 13 by MonkeyAbu

15. Chapter 14 by MonkeyAbu

16. Chapter 15 by MonkeyAbu

17. Chapter 16 by MonkeyAbu

18. Chapter 17 by MonkeyAbu

19. Chapter 18 by MonkeyAbu

20. Chapter 19 by MonkeyAbu

21. Chapter 20 by MonkeyAbu

22. Chapter 21 by MonkeyAbu

23. Chapter 22 by MonkeyAbu

24. Chapter 23 by MonkeyAbu

25. Chapter 24 by MonkeyAbu

26. Chapter 25 by MonkeyAbu

Awards by MonkeyAbu

The Awards

(The following are the awards I have won to date for "If Tomorrow Never Comes". I am proud of the accomplishments that comes with winning an award so I thought I would share them.)

 

Runner Up at the first ever Absolute Chaos Felix Awards for Best Unfinished Story:

"If Tomorrow Never Comes" by: MonkeyAbu (Ashley)

 

Winner at the Never Gone Awards: Season 2 for Best Brian:

"If Tomorrow Never Comes" by: Ashley

 

Winner at the Never Gone Awards: Season 2 for Best Novel:

"If Tomorrow Never Comes" by: Ashley

 

Winner at the Never Gone Awards: Season 2 for Best Author:

Ashley Large

 

Winner at the Absolute Chaos 2009 Felix Awards for Best Novel:

"If Tomorrow Never Comes" by: MonkeyAbu (Ashley)


The Nominations

(The following are categories "If Tomorrow Never Comes" is nominated in at other fan fic awards, along with the addies to the respective awards sites. If you feel like I deserve it, then please vote for me! :D)

***NO CURRENT NOMINATIONS***

Chapter 1 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
Surprise, surprise! Talk about me missing in writing action. I know I have been silent in the writing world for quite a few ages now, but I think I may be coming back with new works in progress and possibly one or more collaborated works. This one is just the beginning to one of my new pieces of work! I hope y'all enjoy it and I would really appreciate any feedback I can get. One of my biggest types of inspiration to write more comes in the form of feedback! So enjoy this and let me know what y'all think!
Chapter 1:

Laughter was the only sound ringing in his ears that was recognizable as he planted himself firmly upon the plush couch against the furthest wall. With a sigh of discomfort, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes, willing the pounding pain in his head away and the palpitating of his heart in his chest to grow even. Seconds passed and still the pain weighing heavily on his body grew. For days he had felt his senses gradually begin to cloud over and he found himself unable to make sense of anything. While hardly sleeping at night, he was tired without any reserve of energy. His whole body ached to the point where he wanted to cry out in agony until finally he grew numb to all feelings. He felt like a walking zombie and still found himself unable to cry out for help. After all, it had started out as the simple repercussions of him caring for his son, Baylee, while the child had been ill with the flu. That had been nearly two weeks prior.

“You alright, B?”

Brian opened his eyes to find one of his closest friends hovering over him, frowning in concern. He tried to smile at Howie, to assure him nothing was wrong, but he knew the smile never appeared. The growing look in Howie’s eyes was enough to tell him that. Instead he barely nodded and focused his attention behind the man where his child was sitting at a small rectangular wooden table, deeply immersed in concentration as he showed a curious Nick his entire collection of Hot Wheels cars. Nick was cracking jokes amidst Baylee trying to quickly correct him, although the child failed at containing his own laughter. The pain stabbed at Brian’s ear drums, causing his head to pound harder. He brought both hands up to his face and rubbed tenderly at his temples.

“You sure you’re alright?” Howie prodded. He found himself unable to ignore the fact that nearly every inch of Brian’s body was shaking as if he were freezing. Even more unsettling was the fact that Howie found the temperature in the room to be almost too unbearably warm, so he couldn’t comprehend how Brian could be reacting this way, as if he were almost feverish.

“I’m just feeling a little under the weather,” Brian murmured in return.

"You look-" Howie began, but found himself quickly interrupted.

"Like shit," AJ chided lightly as he strolled into the room carrying several pizza boxes within his grasp. He paused briefly, taking in Brian's composure with his own concern, before walking over to the table and dropping the hot boxes directly on the middle of Baylee's car collection. He ignored Baylee's glare of disapproval and patted the child on the head before turning away. "What's your deal anyway?" he continued, removing his sunglasses. "You've been all emo and shit since you walked into the studio two hours ago. Missing the wifey much?"

Even rolling his eyes burned, but Brian managed the task anyway. He heaved a deep breath, fighting the urge to grasp at his chest from the sudden tightening sensation. He winced desparingly, hoping none in the room had caught notice of the sudden change. "Just not feeling up to par today...I think Bay's flu is finally starting to catch up with me," he answered, closing his eyes again and focusing on slow, steady breaths of air. He felt suffocated.

"You look a little more worse for wear then that," Howie noted.

"Lack of sleep and taking care of a child with a killer case of the flu really takes it's toll on a father. You'll understand what it's like when you have kids someday," Brian snapped roughly, but he sank lower in his seat when he noticed the dejected look etch across Howie's face. "I'm sorry, Howie...I didn't mean it like that."

Howie opened his mouth to answer, but Baylee sprinted over to break up the moment with an over exaggerated grin of excitement. He quickly shoved two metal cars into both of Howie's hands and slapped his father's knee playfully, pointing back over his shoulder. "Extra cheese pizza, Daddy! C'mon! It's lunch time! Time to eat! Eat! Eat! EAT!"

Brian grimaced and shyed away from Baylee's touch. "Go ahead, Bay," he whispered. "You go have some."

Baylee paused, still eying his father. He appeared to be considering the words his father had spoken, but the thought of such a delightful meal allowed him to discard any worries and he ran back to join Nick at the table, who was already tearing one of the boxes open and digging in.

"You must be ill if you're refusing pizza?" AJ questioned with a raised brow. "You and Nick always used to be the first ones to dig in."

"Just haven't been able to stomach much of anything the past couple of days," Brian wheezed and leaned forward quickly to rest his hands on his knees. He paled considerably in the face and felt his heart pound roughly against his ribcage. Pain soared through every inch of his body, making it almost unbearable to even be sitting up right. He struggled to draw a deep enough breath into his aching lungs.

"Honest to God, Brian...you look as if you are about to pass out," Howie mentioned, lowering himself to be eye level with his ailing friend. "Maybe it's time for you to take a break from being a super hero father for a while and slow down. You look as if you haven't slept in days and you just said you haven't eaten much of anything. You need to go home and rest before you do yourself over worse then you already are."

Brian weakly waved Howie's concern away with a quivering hand as he shook his head. "I can't. I have to watch after Baylee and besides, I delayed today's recording enough as it is because Baylee was sick two weeks ago. I can't do that to you guys again and Kev's due to arrive any minute-"

AJ crossed his arms over his chest and stepped forward, signifying his way of closing any room for arguments. He snorted with arrogance for show. "I hate to agree with D, man," he interrupted, "But your ass should be at home in bed. Kevin's a grown man and can adapt to your absence. We'll accomplish whatever we can today as far recording goes without you, and as soon you are feeling better, we'll pick it back up where you left off. We just can't have you dropping dead on us here. Unacceptable."

"You're a nut, you know that?" Brian mustered with a tiny smile and glanced upwards. "You're also terrible with words."

"I try," AJ shrugged.

"Just leave Baylee here and we will keep an eye on him. Besides, he'll be more entertained staying here then he would be stuck at home with you. It'll give you some time to yourself. As it is, he seems entertained enough just being around Nick over there."

Brian sighed and allowed his head to hang limply forward. He knew there was no arguing his case. In all truth he wished he was already home, buried somewhere deep beneath his heavy down comforter, floating along in some sleep induced unconsciousness. Unwillingly though, he leaned further forward and struggled to raise himself from the couch. He smiled briefly as Howie's hand shot out to keep him from falling forward. "Want one of us to take you home?" AJ offered.

"No need. I can make it just fine. You guys need to be here when Kev arrives."

"B-"

"You sure Bay won't be any trouble?"

"We'll call if he accidently kills Nick or causes some sort of other terror around this place," Howie joked lightly. "I highly doubt a call home will be neccesary though. Just go."

Brian nodded absentmindedly. "Right... Just call me if anything comes up," he said, reaching for his light jacket. It was near ninety degrees outside and he still felt as if the temperature was about to drop below zero the moment he stepped out the door. He offered quiet goodbyes to both men and quickly departed from the room so as to not catch Baylee's attention as he was leaving. Leighanne had been away for near a month, working on a few acting projects that appeared very promising and the absence of his mother had left Baylee nervous when it came to being alone. It had resulted in a struggle almost every day when Brian tried to step out of the room. He hated not taking his child home with him now, but found himself relieved in the fact that he would get a few hours to himself and hopefully some good rest. He was starting to believe that he was falling apart.

Stepping out into the air conditioned hallway, Brian felt himself instantly begin to shiver and he paused to wrap his light jacket tightly around himself, although he knew it was a worthless attempt. The thin material of the jacket provided almost no warmth. Inhaling deeply, he focused his attention on walking along the white and grey tiled flooring as his equilibrium became off and it appeared his surroundings spun around him. He slowed the pace at which he was trying to walk, but the sudden change of movement made him all that more aware of the fact that with each new step he took, his steps became more sluggish. Brian attributed the feeling to exhaustion and pressed forward, fighting to ignore the fact that it seemed like he was treading through a thick river of mud and the hallway just kept getting longer.

"Leaving already, Mr. Littrell?"

Brian paused, fumbling an inch and slowly looked to his left, only to be met by a warm and friendly smile. It reminded him so much of the ones he would receive from his mother upon walking through the front door of his parents' house in Lexington. Instead, upon blinking rapidly for a second, he started to recognize through somewhat blurry vision the face of the receptionist. Without even realizing it, he had stepped out into the expansive entry way of the record building. "I-I'm sorry, Sandra?" he questioned in confusion, paying nonetheless any attention to the fact that he was suddenly very much out of breath.

"You're leaving already?" Sandra repeated with the same smile that everyone seemed to remember her by. However, Brian's demeanor faltered and he failed to answer, taking the woman in her mid-fourties aback with concern. She leaned forward to study Brian. "Mr. Littrell...are you ok?"

"Hmmm?" Brian answered, running a quivering hand through his tassled locks of dirty blonde hair. "Y-yeah...just not feeling so well. Heading home right now."

Sandra frowned. "I'm sorry to hear that, hon. Do go home and rest though before you run yourself ragged."

Brian attempted to smile but a sharp pain soared through his chest, followed by a most crushing weight that seemed to slam down on him immediately. He stumbled but fought to keep his composure as he tried to focus on the receptionist. "Can you do...me a favor and...let Kevin know when he gets...here tha-"

"Mr. Littrell?" Sandra called out to him, but her comforting voice sounded distant and faded. Brian opened his mouth to answer, only to be silenced as a another sharp pain soared and he instinctively reached up and grabbed at his chest, a small moan of agony escaping his lips. "Mr. Littrell, what's wrong?"

"I ca-...I can't bre-" Brian wheezed helplessly, his knees wobbling.

"Brian!"

He heard another familiar voice call out to him from up ahead, but before he had the chance to look up, he found his legs giving out from under him and himself sinking towards the cold tiled floor. His body hit hard with a loud thud that echoed throughout the entire room. Two pairs of foot steps thundered across the floor and the sound ripped at Brian's ear drums. He struggled for enough air, but it was as if his lungs refused to expand and the pain in his chest intensified. The pressure weighed his body down. He couldn't move. The next he knew, a pair of hands had grabbed his shoulders and rolled him onto his back. Brian found his cousin's face staring down at him, panic-stricken. "K-Kev-" He gulped for more air but nothing entered his lungs.

"Call an ambulance, Sandra!" Kevin ordered, looking briefly over his shoulder at the receptionist before returning his attention to his cousin sprawled on the floor.

Brian writhed against the cold tile. "Kev, I-I ca-can't br-"

Kevin gripped Brian's hand, trying to keep his cousin's attention, but it seemed as if Brian could hardly focus on anything. "Just look at me, Bri!"

"I-it hurts, Kev..." Brian gasped, fighting against the intensifying force crushing down on his body. "It h-hurts...I can't br-breathe..."

"What hurts, Bri?"

"It h-hurts... Kev...please h-help m-me..."

"Help is on its way, cuz. Just hold on."

Brian failed at a chance to answer as an explosive wave of pain burst through him and the grip of his older cousin's hand grew numb against his own skin. All he could see were the bright neon lights of the ceiling as his eyes rolled back into his head and the last thing he heard was Kevin shouting his name as he fell into a deadly unconsciousness that swallowed his body whole.
Chapter 2 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
Thanks to all of you who have reviewed so far and for all of the great responses I have received! I said I would have the second chapter finished and posted soon, and compared to my recent past history when it comes to me finishing a chapter and posting it, I do believe I was pretty quick this time. I hope you enjoy this chap as much as you did the first. Please keep those reviews coming. I definitely need the continuos inspiration and support to keep writing!:)
Chapter 2:

Kevin was unable to stop his right foot from tapping nervously against the ground as he sat hunched forward in a chair, his elbows pinned on his knees and his head resting in his hands. Steril smells of medicines and chemicals wafted sickeningly through his nostrils, reminding him where he was. Behind him on the wall, seconds on the clock ticked by, but it had felt like hours that they had all been sitting there. Sitting and waiting to be told anything. Images of the previous events replayed in Kevin's mind until it seemed as if his head was going to explode. He couldn't think straight and amidst it all, his stomach had managed to tie itself into extremely tight knots. He felt like he would lose the contents of his stomach at any moment and all he could hear were the desperate strangled cries ringing in his ears of his cousin begging Kevin to help him.

"Any news yet?"

Kevin looked up as AJ seated himself into the chair next to him, offering him a styrofoam cup of steaming coffee. "No, nothing yet," Kevin answered, shaking his head to decline the kind offer. Despite his throat being uncomfortably dry and scratchy, Kevin wasn't so sure he'd be able to stomach anything at that moment, whether it be liquids or not. He rubbed at his eyes and exhaled deeply, turning his head to focus on his somber friend. AJ didn't blink once under Kevin's stare and the redness of his eyes didn't escape Kevin that AJ had allowed himself a fair share of tears. Kevin didn't blame him. Death had become very apparent to all of them that afternoon and not one of them knew whether or not they would see their brother alive again. Just that thought alone hit Kevin hard in the chest like a pile of bricks. Tears had continuously brimmed his eyes since the moment he had watched Brian's eyes roll back into his head.

"Someone should have come in to tell us something already," AJ grumbled and discarded his own cup of coffee on the table next to him. He raised himself from the chair and walked over to the large window on the far side of the room, staring blankly through the sun dusted glass. The glare of the sun burned against his irises, but he made no move to retrieve the pair of sunglasses from his pants pocket and shield his eyes.

"He might not be out of surgery yet," Kevin suggested quietly, pressing the statement more for his own sake in the hope that his cousin was somehow still alive. He watched AJ for a moment longer, but realizing his friend's silence was a personal way of dealing with the present situation, Kevin lowered his head back into his hands. He found himself unable to process any of the thoughts racing through his mind and yet he still felt responsible towards everyone to be able to find a likable solution to everything. He couldn't think of a single thing and it left him feeling the least content that he had ever felt. Moments later a new pair of foot steps entered the waiting room, causing Kevin to glance up abruptly in hope that it would be someone dressed in a white lab coat bearing positive news. However, Kevin found himself frowning apologeticly with disappointment as Howie stepped further into the room. He could see the hopeful question reflecting in Howie's eyes and Kevin felt his stomach tighten as he shook his head, silently answering the question they were all still waiting upon.

"Jackie and Harold should be here tomorrow morning," Howie spoke, his crisp voice slicing through the deadly silence. He'd taken it upon himself to contact Brian's family, although the task in itself had been hard enough. He had volunteered to make the call, knowing Kevin had been in a rather terrible state of shock upon arriving at the hospital and Howie preferred keeping himself busy as opposed to just sitting around and waiting.

Kevin nodded, knowing full well if his cousin made it through the night, then it would do him much good to have his family by his side. "Did you get in touch with Leigh?" he questioned, knowing his cousin's wife had been rather difficult to get a hold of as of late. Her schedule had kept her time rather tight. But Kevin also knew Leighanne would be one of the first people Brian would be asking for. So when Howie shook his head to answer 'no', Kevin figured it would up to him later to reach his cousin's wife.

"God, how long could a fucking surgery possibly take?!" AJ growled, slamming his hand against the window, causing the other two men in the room to jump in their seats.

"It all depends on the type of surgery, Aje," Howie answered uneasily, knowing all too well how quickly AJ's temper could flare whenever he was upset. And given the situation, Howie wasn't sure to what extent his friend could possible take his temper this time. "We just need to stay calm-"

"Stay calm, Howie?" AJ laughed cruely, turning around to face his friends. He narrowed his eyes dangerously, even though both Kevin and Howie could see past AJ's destructive demeanor and knew AJ was falling apart inside. He had never dealt well with tragedy.

"J-" Kevin began.

"No, Kevin! Maybe you can handle just sitting around waiting. I on the other hand actually want to know what the Hell is wrong with Brian. Maybe if I knew what was going on and what kind of fucking surgery they were doing to him, then I'd be content sitting on my ass and waiting!" AJ spat with a burst of broken emotion. He reached for the closed door's handle and slammed it open. "I just want to know what the fuck is going on so I'm going to stop sitting on my ass and go find out!"

AJ made it barely a foot out the door before colliding directly with a man that towered several inches over him. He glared offensively towards the man, until he was met with a soft, apologetic smile and AJ realized the whole attire that the man was wearing. "Kevin Richardson?" the man questioned AJ hopefully, but before AJ could tell the man otherwise, Kevin was up from his seat and speed walking their way.

"I'm Kevin Richardson," he corrected.

"Yes. Mr. Richardson, I am Dr. Henrich," the man replied, shaking Kevin's outstretched hand. "I am one of a team of doctors overseeing your cousin's case."

"It's about damn time!" AJ declared.

"One of a team?" Kevin interrupted, ignoring AJ's outburst. "How many doctors does Brian need?"

"Quite a team of specialists. However I have been assigned as his primary physician," Dr. Henrich answered. Kevin stared at the doctor blankly, unsure of how to read the hesitation in the man's eyes. Somehow Kevin figured he wouldn't like any sort of news this man had brought with him the moment he stepped through the doorway. "I was hoping to speak with you privately in the hall for a moment."

"Of course," Kevin nodded and hushed AJ's disapproval with an icy glare that also pleaded with him to be patient and show respect. The two men stepped out of the room and Kevin shut the door quietly behind them. Once they were a few feet away from the doorway, Kevin turned to the doctor, his brows furrowing and his lips curling into a frown. "What's wrong with my cousin, Dr. Henrich?"

"That is what I wanted to talk to you about, Mr. Richardson."

"Is it the flu? Our friends were saying that he was complaining earlier this afternoon of feeling like he was coming down with the flu. He thought possibly he had caught what his son had two weeks ago." Dr. Henrich's facial features remained set in stone as he looked away briefly. "So maybe it's just the flu?" Even as the words left his mouth, Kevin was strongly doubting his own pathetic assumption. He just didn't want to believe it was anything more.

Dr. Henrich shook his head. "I'm afraid it's something much worse then that."

"What is it then?"

"It's his heart, Mr. Richardson."

*****

He could feel himself floating along, warm and secure in a blanket of darkness. Periodic blurred images and lights flashed in his peripheral vision and skewed sounds faded into an unknown distance. But he could see nothing and had the sensation of sinking lower and lower into a black hole of fate that would never allow him to see the light of day again. He tried reaching out, but there was nothing to grasp ahold of. He tried yelling, but no sound escaped his lips. Only the sound of his heart pounding echoed in his ears. Then a brief, small burst of pain shook his chest and he gasped to suck in a breath of air, but it was strained and difficult as he tried to exhale. His lungs felt constricted and the warmth and security he had previously felt vanished, replaced by an utmost dread and fear. He suddenly felt as if he were drowning in an ocean of confusion, desperately clawing his way towards the surface before time ran out.

A cold air settled over his body, jolting all of his nerves with electricity and pulling him from his numb state. He felt himself breaking the surface of the black hole he had been pulled under and a sufficing breath of air entered his aching lungs. He moaned quietly as his body quivered from the unpleasant temperature and he fought to open his eyes, but his eyes felt like they were held shut by a pair of invisible lead weights. Despite the struggle, he forced his eyelids to part until he began to catch sight of small, blurred objects all around him. The light was by no means bright or blinding, but it stung his eyes nonetheless and he quickly shut them again, hesitating as he opened them once more and blinking rapidly to allow his pupils to adjust.

Moments later he cocked his head to the left and then to the right, attemtpting to get a better understanding of his surroundings which were looking more unfamiliar and foreign as the seconds passed. White walls, bare and sterile in appearance, seemed to close in on him from all sides and the only way out was a windowless door on the far opposite side of the room. Whoever had failed to decorate the bland room was considerate enough to mount a crudely painted picture of a flower vase on the wall to the left of the bed he was lying in.

He looked down the best he could and noticed the white crisp linen sheets and top blanket that were hugging his frame. Several tubes ran next to his body and draped over the side of the bed, connecting with a multipurpose monitoring machine that was obviously delivering different fluids into his body through the tubing. His heart sank low into his chest as he followed the line of tubes and noticed they were indeed inserted into his left hand. A light blue speckled hospital gown lay lightly against the skin of his upper torso, yet he couldn't fail to notice the multiple wires poking out from beneath the thin material that lead to another machine at his right. It all added up but he found himself still unable to make sense of anything.

Before he could think further, the door across the room slowly began to creak open, the hinges squealing quitely as it made way for passage. He turned his head to see a familiar tall figure step through the doorway, eyes down cast and a visible frown cast drawn across his face. Finally the man looked up and for a brief moment, a sigh of relief washed over his demeanor. "I didn't think you would be awake," Kevin mentioned hesitantly with a certain hint of surprise as he closed the door behind himself and strode over quickly. He looked his cousin over, frowning further at the frailty he saw before him. "Thank God you are awake..."

Brian's eyebrows furled in a growing confusion as Kevin pulled a chair next to the bed and took an unsteady seat. "I...I don't understand," Brian whispered, surprised to find that he could barely manage to get his voice to project.

"How are you feeling?" Kevin asked.

Brian felt himself becoming rather unnerved from the small talk his cousin was attempting to begin. Something in Kevin's tone rattled every nerve in Brian's body, forcing his blood to run somewhat cold through constricted veins. "Tired...my whole...body is aching. what happened?"

"You're in the hospital, Bri..."

"I guessed that much," Brian mumbled, wincing as he shifted under the blankets. He gripped at the blankets, waiting for the burning sensation to pass, before pressed his sight onto Kevin again. "What happened?"

"Do you remember anything that happened?" Kevin questioned, noting the pale tone of Brian's skin and how it seemed to be getting lighter and more grey as the seconds passed. He could see his cousin's condition deteriorating right before his eyes and Dr. Henrich's words continued to ring in his ears. It made Kevin sick to his stomach and it took all he had to sit there and face his cousin, knowing what he knew, when all he wanted to do at that moment was run and hide from the world. However, Brian barely shook his head 'no', his eyes begging for an explanation. Kevin felt like he could crumble under the pressure.

"All I remember is not feeling well at the recording studio, then I woke up here," Brian answered after a long thought. "Howie and AJ were making me go home...said they would watch Baylee...Kev...what is going on?"

Kevin looked away, searching his mind desperately for a way out. He couldn't say anything, yet knew that he would be doing his cousin a worst injustice by not telling him what Dr. Henrich had revealed. "You just need to relax right now, Bri..." he replied, his voice cracking. "I'm sure your doctor will be in here in a little bit to see you. You just need to relax and rest until then."

Brian sighed, hating the way his body surged with pain at the mention of resting. Sadly, he was so drained he couldn't raise his head from the pillow, let alone get out of the bed. All he could picture himself doing was resting. "Where...is Baylee?" he asked a few seconds later, closing his eyes as a wave of exhaustion overwhelmed him. He felt so sore and cold.

"Nick's watching him at your place. I didn't think it would be such a good idea for Baylee to be here all night and you've been out for quite a few hours," Kevin answered.

"Is he ok?" Brian whispered.

"He's fine, cuz. I talked to Nick on the phone a little while ago. Baylee was upset that you weren't home, but a McDonalds Happy Meal and Spongebob Squarepants suited him just fine," Kevin attempted to joke.

"Don't tell Leigh."

Kevin nearly rolled his eyes with a smirk towards the comment, knowing his cousin's wife was rather particular when it came to what was fed to her child. Brian was more lenient, however, it drove Leighanne up the wall. Kevin just couldn't understand how Brian could be finding any humor it all and it tore at Kevin's heart. "It's our secret," he answered. Kevin opened his mouth to speak further, hoping to question his cousin about what had led up, but he could see that Brian's breathing had evened out and become more shallow and he knew that Brian had fallen into another sleep. Somehow knowing that allowed him a sense of relief.

Pushing his chair back, Kevin stood upon wobbly knees and moved in the direction of the doorway. He opened the door as quietly as possible and stepped into the hall, fighting to keep his composure. Brian looked as if death had already washed over him and Dr. Henrich warned it would only get worse. He made sure Kevin was well aware of the fact that their options were slim and time was of the essence. As it was, Brian's life was hanging on a thin line and he was living on borrowed time.

Slowly Kevin made his way back towards the waiting room where he had left two of his closest friends to wait in question for his return. He hardly felt each step as the soles of his shoes slapped against the white linoleum tiled flooring and his mind wandered, becoming easy prey to the demons that seemed to be plaguing his soul at that very moment. Hot tears stung the corners of his eyes as he continued walking, fighting to keep his composure. All he could keep asking himself was where everything had gone wrong...how it had all started to so dangerously unravel. He wondered if his cousin had even had the slightest clue that something could be seriously wrong with him before he ended up in the hospital and if so, why hadn't he said a single word to any of them. Brian was a stubborn man, Kevin knew this. But he also knew Brian was well aware of the dangers of playing with fire when it came to his fragile condition that hung in the balance on a day to day basis since so many years before.

Finding himself before the closed door to the private waiting room, Kevin attempted to collect himself with a bated breath and pushed through into the threshold. He immediately saw Howie and AJ sitting in opposite corners furthest from the door; AJ sat with his back almost facing Kevin as he stared blankly out a window into the night and Howie flipped through an old tattered magazine with a certain disinterest. However, the moment Kevin entered, both men gazed in his direction, waiting silently. But Kevin couldn't find it in himself to answer their silent interrogation.

"What did Dr. Henrich say?" AJ was the first to speak as he turned his body fully around and sat straight up.

Kevin remained silent as he paused briefly to study both his friends, then began moving towards the closest seat. He was afraid his legs wouldn't be able to withhold his body weight for much longer a period of time.

"How is Brian doing? You saw him didn't you?" Howie asked hopefully, his deep brown eyes sparking with light. He frowned when Kevin still failed to answer either question and when the older man slumped forward in his chair, only to rest his head in his hands, Howie's felt as if it had just sank into the deepest pit of his stomach. "Kev? Is Brian ok?" he repeated hesitantly.

"Kevin?" AJ called out quietly.

Kevin finally looked up, his eyes washed over with hot tears and his voice came out strained as he spoke. "H-he...woke up b-briefly...hardly coherent and doesn't remember m-much of what h-happened..." Kevin explained softly, his foot tapping nervously against the floor as he struggled to keep a weakened grasp on his composure. He knew he was failing horribly. "He asked w-what happened... My cousin is d-dying and I...c-couldn't even tell him..."

The magazine fell from Howie's hands and hit against the hard floor with a loud slap that sliced through the sudden silence and echoed throughout the entirety of the room. "What do you mean dying...Kev? What do you mean he's dying?"

Kevin shook harder as the tears slipped from his eyes and ran in long streaks down his reddened cheeks. "He h-had a massive h-heart attack today...His heart is f-failing... His heart is failing and I c-couldn't even tell him."
Chapter 3 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
Goodbye writer's block! Although maybe I shouldn't say that all too much considering I might jinx myself. I just wanted to start off by saying thank you to everyone who has reviewed so far. This is my come back story after having been an unactive writer on AC for so long. I hope y'all enjoy this chapter as much as you have enjoyed the first two. Keep those reviews coming! It will keep me writing!
Chapter 3:

"Slow down, Baylee!" Nick called as he moved sluggishly forward, watching as the young child sprinted ahead of him, soft blonde curls flopping in the light breeze that whirled around them. He couldn't understand how the boy could be so full of energy when neither of them had slept much of any the night before. While Baylee awoke every couple of hours begging for his father, Nick had attempted dozing off and on for an hour until he finally gave up and spent the rest of the duration of the night lying on his back in the dark, wondering if he would receive a phone call telling him the inevitable they all feared. Nick thanked God that phone call never rang, but it still didn't ease his nerves as he allowed Baylee out of bed around 6:45 in the morning, knowing it would be pure torture to continue forcing the child to remain in bed once he was fully awake. After fixing a simple breakfast that neither showed an ounce of interest towards, Nick got the both of them showered and cleaned and on a quick route towards the hospital. Now he found himself trying to keep up with the small boy who was overly anxious to see his father as they made their way to the automatic entrance doors.

"C'mon Uncle Nick! I wanna see my daddy!" Baylee screamed back over his shoulder, pressing his body forward as quickly as his tiny legs would carry him. When he realized Nick wasn't moving any faster, he whipped back around and chased back towards his uncle, his light brows set in a deep crease. He reached for Nick's hand and latched on tightly, pulling him forward with urgency."You're too slow, Uncle Nick!"

"So?" Nick challenged, allowing Baylee to pull him along as he gazed up at the towering hospital. He'd always held a major distaste towards hospitals, and avoided them when at all possible. He would have rather been anywhere but where he was at that very moment, given that his best friend wasn't somewhere inside that building possibly dying or already dead. Nick frowned, seeing the sparkle of innocence radiate from Baylee's eyes as the child looked at him, unaware of anything bad that was possibly going on. When Nick thought about it, he was just as much left in the dark about what was going on as Baylee was. Though for Baylee, it was better to leave it that way for the time being.

"It means you are old!" Baylee chided.

"I'm only twenty seven!" Nick argued.

"Well I'm four!" Baylee fired, his nose scrunched upwards as the pair stopped just short of the entrance doors, both hesitating in their own way.

"What does you being four have to do with anything?" Nick asked.

"It means...I'm not old like you!"

"You will be someday."

"I'll still be faster then you!"

Nick sighed, allowing a small crooked smile to form on his lips for the child's sake. "Let's just go inside, alright? We'll find out where your Daddy is hiding at," he suggested, giving a small tug on Baylee's hand and the two of them walked out of the heat and stepped into the air conditioned interior of the building. Nick looked around briefly, noting a few curious stares from innocent bystanders as he walked up to the information desk. A lone old man reading a tattered page of the sports section from the local newspaper glanced up from the paper and smiled softly at Nick and Baylee. "I'm sorry for bothering you, sir, but I was wondering if you could help me?" Nick asked quietly, keeping his tone low in hopes of not drawing any unwanted attention in their direction.

"Well son, that is what I am here for," the man answered, with a broader genuine smile as he lowered the paper and folded his hands atop the counter. "What is it I can help you with?"

Nick opened his mouth to answer, but Baylee pushed into him, standing on the tips of his toes in an effort to see over the surface of the counter top. "My daddy is hiding in here somewhere!" he interrupted, his bottom lip quivering. "I don't know where he's at and I want to find him!"

"My friend was brought in here sometime yesterday afternoon," Nick explained in a near whisper. "We're here to see him, but I haven't the slightest clue what direction to head. I'm not sure what floor he's on or exactly what he was brought in here for."

The man nodded. "And what is your friend's name?"

"Bwian Littwell!" Baylee answered, once more interrupting before Nick could get a single word in. "Do you know where my daddy is hiding, mister?"

"I'm going to check right now," the man answered with a warm smile and slid his chair over to the computer at his right. He tapped the keyboard for several seconds, peering at the screen in concentration, before tapping the glass and sliding back over to Nick and Baylee. "I think I may just know where your daddy is hiding at, kiddo," he said and glanced up at Nick. "The system is showing your friend is currently admitted on the ICU floor. You'll want to take the elevator to your left up to the fifth level. After you step out of the elevator, take an immediate right and you will see a set of double doors. Go through those and you will find the nurses station. They'll be able to help you more there."

"Thank you for your help, Tom," Nick nodded, eyeing the man's name tag wearily. He looked down at Baylee who stared at him expectantly. "C'mon, Bay. Lets go find your dad."

*****

Howie allowed his eyes to wander around the bare waiting room, his body slumping in the uncomfortable hard back chair he sat in. A small tv mounted in the corner wall to his right played a repeating weather report on low volume. More high temperatures were due to come their way in the next several days and that's all he had heard. He'd stopped paying attention long before. Exhaustion was wreaking havoc on every nerve in his body, yet he still wouldn't allow himself the sleep he knew he needed. He wasn't sure he could sleep even if he tried. His mind was running on over drive as he kept going over Kevin's words as if they were the first time he had heard them. He didn't want to believe a single thing his friend had said, but the conviction in Kevin's voice had been too strong and the tears too obvious. Howie knew Kevin would never dream of fabricating such a horrible tale about someone they all cared about so much, especially when it was Kevin's own cousin.

Kevin had voluntarily become a mute since returning to the waiting room the previous night. Visiting hours has since passed, leaving niether Howie nor AJ the chance to see their ailing friend. They were left waiting to suffer through out the night, wondering what all could happen in the hours to pass. Kevin refused to say a further word. Brian's condition seemed to have affected him more then any of them could understand. Then again, how could it not affect any of them. Their friend was dying and it seemed there was not a thing any one of them could do about it.

"I'm going down to the cafeteria for something to eat," AJ spoke, breaking the silence like a hammer slamming down on a sheet of glass. He frowned as Howie visibly jumped in his seat and glanced in his direction. "You want me to bring you anything back, D?"

"No, I'll be fine," Howie answered, watching as AJ launched himself from his seat. He could see past the line of defenses AJ was attempting to put up. His friend wasn't hungry, Howie knew this much because none of them could stomach anything at the moment. AJ was doing what he always did in rough situations, which was running off alone to collect whatever emotions he was losing grasp of. Howie doubted AJ would return with any item of food or drink.

"You want anything, Kev?" AJ called, however Kevin remained as silent and still as he had been since the last time he had spoken a single word. He lay sprawled out on the only padded bench in the room, his hands linked atop his stomach and his eyes closed to portray sleep. They knew he wasn't sleeping, though. AJ sighed and left the room without a further word.

He stepped out into the empty hall, only to find himself hit with a wave of silence that sent shivers down the entire length of his spine. He looked in both directions before finally moving to his left. He didn't care where he ended up at at that moment. Anywhere but sitting aimlessly back in that room seemed better, and more comforting. AJ hated sitting still when he was troubled. Not keeping himself busy only intesified the situation and made the emotions that accompanied feel even heavier. There was no room to breathe and he was feeling rather suffocated. He needed out. Where he went right then, he couldn't have cared less.

"Uncle AJ!"

AJ stopped short a step, hearing the shrill child's voice call out to him, halting him in his path. He slowly turned, just in time to keep himself steady as Brian's son came barreling into him at full force. AJ felt himself taken aback as Baylee latched his arms around his legs tightly, so much so that at any other time, he might have cried out had he not already been physically numb from all of the emotions tumbling through every inch of his body. "Hey kiddo," he finally replied, pulling himself from a silent stupor to keep from traumatizing the child further by not saying a word. "Nick."

Nick finally walked up to him, his eyes narrowed as he watched AJ lower himself to Baylee's level and the two embraced. "I really hate to say it, considering the present situation, but you know what? To put it lightly, I am slightly ticked off that nobody bothered to call me last night," he answered in an uneven tone as he crossed his arms over his chest.

"We're sorry, Nick, but you have to understand-" AJ began to reply.

"You're sorry?" Nick hissed. "I was worried sick last night! And how can I understand a single thing, AJ? Because you guys never even called!"

AJ forced himself to stand, carefully keeping a tight hold on Baylee in his arms. He stared at Nick, his vision blurring ever so slightly as an uncomfortable rush of tears pooled into the corners of his eyes. He could see the question shining in the blonde's eyes, and the desperation in his demeanor to know what was going on with their brother. "It's his heart, Nicky..." he whispered, hugging Baylee tighter. The child seemed to just cling to him.

"Uncle AJ...I wanna see my daddy," Baylee murmured.

"I know you do, Ace. I promise you will be able to soon."

"What do mean it's his heart, AJ?" Nick demanded, his voice waivering. He hated the way AJ's dark eyes were glossing over, causing a sickening feeling to dive deep into the pit of his stomach and his intestines to twist into painfully tight knots. As much as he felt he already knew, he wasn't so sure he wanted to hear the answer anymore.

"Kevin knows more about it then I do," AJ lied, looking away for a moment. He glanced back at Nick. "He spoke with the doctor and he saw Brian. B's not doing good, Nicky...that's all I know."

"W-well...where's Kevin a-and Howie?" Nick stuttered.

"Waiting-room," AJ answered shortly and silently motioned for Nick to follow him, all the while wondering what lay ahead in the day for them and to where it would lead.

*****

Kevin felt like one of the worst people on earth at that moment. He still couldn't keep the image of Baylee's look of contempt towards him from being burned into his mind as the child came bursting into the waiting room with AJ and Nick in tow, immediately hurrying over to Kevin's side and demanding words. Baylee had pestered him for his attention and begged to see his father until Kevin could ignore him not a minute more. Finally he opened his eyes to see Baylee's troubled expression and snapped. He had told the child to quiet down and not be so bothersome, which had struck the small boy with confusion until finally Baylee broke into a wail of sobs that nobody else in the room seemed to be able to tame. Taken aback by his own stupidity and lack of sympathy towards everyone else who was affected by all that was going on, Kevin stood up and silently excused himself from the room, ignoring the icy glares of disappointment both Howie and AJ shot in his direction.

It wasn't that he was incapable of soothing the child and calming his worst fears, Kevin just didn't believe that he would have enough emotional strength for the both of them. Kevin didn't know where to turn. This had all come about unexpectedly and left him unable to know just how to react. His mind was tearing him in all mental directions. His whole body ached and he felt so emotionally drained, that he wanted to just stopping walking and lay on the ground at that very spot. He wanted to curl into a tight ball, ignore the world, and hope that maybe, just maybe, all the pain would go away. He'd already tried to refuse believing it was happening at all. Failing at convincing himself made him hurt all that much more.

He'd walked aimlessly throughout the halls of the ICU floor for over an hour after abandoning his friends in the waiting room. He wanted to be alone, yet he had no idea exactly what he was doing. Kevin felt like he was going absolutely insane as he made multiple circles around the floor and finally found himself stepping out of the elevator and into the hospital lobby on the main floor. It remained partially deserted, considering the hour was still early. Even so, Kevin kept his sight focused downward towards the floor and hurried out through the automatic revolving doors.

The blazing sun hit his face like an uncountable number of microscopic needles poking at his skin. He could already feel beads of perspiration forming along the hairline of his forehead, but he ignored the intense heat and trudged along the light grey paved sidewalk. It was a wonder that nobody had spotted him in recognition, because Kevin knew word traveled fast when it came to everything that was happening. The fact that things still remained quiet at least allowed his mind to stay troubled single handedly with the problem at bay.

Feeling the breath slowly escaping his lungs and his legs feeling heavier with each new step he took, Kevin collapsed upon a small wooden bench and lowered his head into his hands with a stiffled sob of despair. "Your cousin is dying, Mr. Richardson. His heart is failing." Dr. Henrich's voice echoed in his ears. It wasn't possible, he tried to reason. Brian was completely healthy. He lived, for the most part, a healthy lifestyle. He had become health conscious when it came to what he chose to eat and his activities on a day to day basis. He kept fit. Brian was healthy and that's what Kevin kept trying to reason in his mind. His heart wasn't supposed to be failing. The doctors were supposed to have fixed his heart years ago when he had to have that surgery. It was meant to be a guarantee. So how could they have been so terribly wrong? How could nobody have known? Kevin let the trembles roll through his body and his foot to tap nervously against the pavement once again.

Deep in thought, he never heard the double set of approaching foot steps until a strong hand gripped his shoulder, and a soothing, familiar voice sliced through the warm morning air. "Kevin?"

Kevin looked up to find his uncle towering over him, his kind eyes downcast and his mouth set in a deep frown. "Uncle Harold," Kevin mustered quietly. He looked to Harold's left and saw Jackie Littrell clutching to her husband's side, tears of concern sparkling in her bright eyes.

"What are you doing out here all alone?" Harold questioned, holding out his hand to help Kevin stand. He pulled his nephew in for a tight embrace.

"I needed the fresh air," Kevin answered, his voice barely projecting.

Jackie pulled Kevin from Harold arms and offered her own warm hug, although seeing the worry and exhaustion in both their eyes made Kevin even more sick to his stomach. "How is my son?" she whispered, her voice faltering. Neither knew the extent to which their son had fallen ill. Howie didn't know when they had placed the call. But mothers always seemed to have an instinct when it came to their child's well being and Jackie seemed to know at that instant that something was terribly wrong.

Kevin felt the breath catch in his throat. "Aunt Jackie..."

"How bad is it? Howie wasn't able to tell us much when he called. Just said my baby had collapsed and was rushed to the hospital," Jackie rambled, grasping her husband's hand as she let go of Kevin.

"He...he's not doing so well..." Kevin forced himself to answer.

"What is it, Kevin?" Harold pressed.

"I-It's his heart."
Chapter 4 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
As always, thanks to everyone who has read and review this so far! I really appreciate it and it has kept me writing and wanting to write more. So far, I am on a writing roll, which has been pretty unusual, but I'm optimistic that it will stay this way, especially if I keep getting those reviews. So y'all never know...might see a few other new works from me in the near future. And I have plans to start working on "Lean On Me" again since I sort of just left that one hanging. Anyways...hope y'all this installment and in response to a recent review I got...I promise there will be more Nick in the story. LoL.
Chapter 4:

Four year old Baylee Littrell stared down at the pair of dark sunglasses he held in his tiny hands. AJ had said they were magic and promised him that if he felt even the least bit scared, all he would have to do is put them on and he would become invisible, then nothing would be able to hurt him or scare him anymore. Baylee didn't believe him though. AJ just didn't want to hear him cry anymore. But the offering had been enough to turn Baylee's tears from a steady stream into small quiet whimpers. He had every reason to be scared. Kevin had yelled at him then disappeared, Nick was suddenly very upset, AJ hardly said a word, and Howie had left long before to find where Kevin had run off to. But even more traumatizing to the child was still not knowing where his father was and the fact that nobody seemed willing to tell him.

Baylee didn't like the room they had stuck him in. The stark white walls were plain and uncomforting. The chair he sat on was hard and it hurt his bottom. It was nothing like his father's favorite plush recliner at home; the one they would sit in together and read stories before he was tucked into bed at night. Baylee sniffled quietly and brought the sunglasses up to his face, hoping maybe, just maybe his Uncle AJ was right.

Off to his left, Nick let loose of an obnoxious snore; Baylee looked over. The older man hadn't moved an inch since falling asleep on the bench nearly thirty minutes before. Pushing the glasses further up his nose, he looked across the room to his right. AJ stood at the large window, looking out, with his back facing the child's direction. Baylee hated being alone and both of the men in the room were ignoring him. He wanted his daddy and somehow he knew neither would be of any help in helping him find him. Slipping quietly from the chair, Baylee backed towards the door, holding his breath and trying to keep his feet from making any sound against the tiled flooring. He hesitated as AJ cleared his throat roughly, but remained still, never turning. When Baylee felt the heels of his shoes come in contact with the heavy wooden door behind him, he spun around, tugged it open, and slipped silently into the hall.

The hall was even more frightening then the room had been. The space was smaller and he couldn't see a single thing at either end. Tentatively he started to inch down the hall to his right. Numerous doors lined the wall on either side of him, but they all remained closed. Silence was a dense fog that blanketed the hallway and his imagination began to run wild. He could picture monsters of all sorts ready to jump out at him from behind every door and he almost yelped, quickly scurrying along. "Wan' my daddy..." Baylee murmured, tugging at the hem of his t-shirt. He didn't like how there seemed to be no other adults around and that was never a good sign.

At the end of the hall, he found that it split in two opposite directions. He listened carefully, hearing a faint echo of several distinctive voices coming from a spot down the hall to his left. Baylee took off quickly, the soles of his shoes slapping loudly against the shiny tiled flooring. It was only seconds later that he burst into a circular opening and collided directly with a very tall man he didn't recognize.

"Whoa there little guy," the man smiled soothingly and lowered himself to Baylee's level. "Where are you off to in such a hurry?"

"I-I dunno..." Baylee stuttered, clearly shaken from the sudden contact.

"Well, where are your mommy and daddy?" the man asked.

"I dunno...my daddy is here somewheres, but I can't find him," Baylee whimpered, and a few stray tears slipped from beneath the rim of the sunglasses and slid down his reddened cherubic cheeks.

"Now, now...there's no reason to cry," the man answered. His eyes were a deep comforting blue, just like Baylee's father's eyes, reminding Baylee of the same look his father would give him whenever he was hurt or upset. "We'll get you taken care of. Can you tell me your name first?"

"B-but Daddy told me to n-never talk to strangers..."

"And your daddy sounds like a very smart man. But if you knew what my name was, I wouldn't be as much of a stranger anymore, now would I?"

"Are you a doctor?"

"I sure am. My name is Dr. Henrich-"

"Baylee!"

The little boy's ears perked up at the sudden familiar voice that pierced the air. He whipped around and took off running towards three figures that had appeared and were now moving quickly down the hallway. "Nana! Papa!" Baylee cried out and barreled into the three people, throwing his arms around the only woman's legs and begging to be picked up.

The woman quickly obliged and pulled the child up into her arms, hugging him tightly. "Oh sweetheart...what are you doing out here all alone?" she questioned softly, smoothing the soft blonde curls atop his head. She removed the sunglasses from his face to look deep into his charismatic eyes.

"I was trying to find Daddy!" Baylee sniffled. "But I can't find him, Nana! ...And Uncle Kevin yelled at me!"

"Mr. and Mrs. Littrell I presume?" Dr. Henrich asked as he moved tentatively towards them.

Harold stepped forward, offering his hand for a friendly shake. "I'm Harold Littrell and this is my wife Jackie."

"Good," Dr. Henrich responded with a tight nod. He gave a short glance in Kevin's direction before returning his attention back to the Littrells. "Mr. Richardson informed me yesterday that the two of you would be arriving sometime this morning. I'm Dr. Henrich, your son's primary physician."

"How is our son doing?" Harold asked, wrapping his arm tightly around Jackie's waist.

"Well, that is what I wish to speak with you about in private if I could borrow the two of you for a few moments."

"Certainly," Harold agreed and turned to his wife and grandchild. He pressed a light kiss against Baylee's warm forehead and looked to Kevin. "Would you mind taking Baylee to the waiting room? I don't believe it would be in his best interest to-"

"No, Nana! I wanna stay with you and Papa!" Baylee cried out suddenly the moment Kevin's hands tried to pry his small frame from his grandmother's grasp. He screamed out in utter agony, fearful of being torn away and seperated once more from someone who made him feel safe and loved. He was scared of being abandoned all over again. "No! Stay with Nana and Papa! Wanna find Daddy!"

"Soon, Bubba. Soon," Harold whispered, aiding his nephew in removing the child from Jackie's arms, who was left standing there with unshed tears in her soulful eyes.

"Nana! Papa! No!"

"Mr. and Mrs. Littrell...? If you'll follow me this way?" Dr. Henrich interrupted, suggesting the direction with a motion of his head. Harold gripped his wife's hand and they stepped after Dr. Henrich, into his wake, away from the echoing screams of their distraught grandchild.

*****

Jackie Littrell held a hand to her chest and a hand to her abdomen as she followed a few short steps behind Dr. Henrich. Her eyes remained trained soley on the floor before her, her vision misty from the tears that wouldn't stop falling. Her whole body felt numb, although distinctively she could feel her soul aching worse then she could have ever imagined. The hall they were traveling on the ICU floor seemed never ending. They had already passed countless doors, all of which she wondered if her ailing son was hidden behind one of them. But they hadn't stopped yet, causing Jackie's heart to pound against her ribcage. Her head swam with thoughts and unimaginable horrors. She was having a hard time comprehending the words Dr. Henrich had spoken to her and her husband minutes ago in the small conference room. It seemed she wasn't the only one in that room who was having a hard time understanding everything the doctor had explained to them. Harold had grown eerily silent, his facial features withdrawn and his eyes dark, vacant of the spark that always held her attention and attracted her love.

Her youngest son, her baby was dying. She reviewed the information in her head with each numb step she took, fumbling inch by inch. His heart was failing and would continue to fail until it stopped working all together, unless by some miracle they could find a donor. But upon those very words, Dr. Henrich's face had fallen solomn and grim. He didn't even have to say it; they all knew what the chances of such a thing happening were. It was a miracle they needed and Jackie began to pray, but the light in her heart seemed to grow dim as each second passed and brought her closer to seeing her son.

Dr. Henrich stopped abruptly and turned to face the torn woman. He took a deep breath and rested a gentle hand on her upper left arm, knowing the torment going through her mind. He had seen it countless times over his medical career and had experienced it personally on several occasions in his lifetime. As much as he tried to avoid becoming attached to his patients and their families, he knew well enough when it was appropriate to sympathize. "This is your son's room," he spoke softly,"I must apologize though, Mrs. Littrell. Brian is unaware of anything that I have told you and your husband. The anesthesia used during the surgery was strong and I suspect he is still feeling the effects of that, on top of recovering from the massive heart attack he experienced yesterday. I have been unsuccessful so far in catching him in a conscious state. He may or may not be conscious when you go in to see him, which I recommend not to be taken discouragingly. I just wanted to make sure you were well aware of this. Right now I am going to make several rounds I have yet to get to, then I will stop back around and we'll see about me sitting down with you, your husband, and your son to discuss our options."

"I understand," Jackie whispered.

"Just try to remain strong, Mrs. Littrell." And with that, Dr. Henrich offered a sympathetic smile and hurried away, flipping open a seperate patient's chart that he had been holding amidst a pile in his hands the entire time.

Jackie drew in a deep breath and reached out to place an unsteady grip on the door handle. She closed her eyes, exhaling, and twisted the handle down. Hearing it click, she pressed forward and stepped into the room. The door squealed shut quietly behind her as Jackie paused briefly to stare at the sight ahead of her. It was a sight unlike any she had ever been faced with, and one she had hoped to never have to see, at least when it came to one of her sons. "Oh Brian..." she murmured, moving forward and taking a seat in the chair that had already been placed beside his bed.

His face was so ghastly pale that it sickened her very core. The trauma his body had experienced was all too evident in his fragile appearance.
Jackie watched her son's chest rise and fall with each labored breath he took and the way he seemed to be engulfed within the bed he lay in. It was like seeing her son in the same state he had been in with the close brush with death he had had as a child so many years before. Tears stung at the corners of her eyes as she reached out to grasp her son's hand, shivering at the coldness of his skin. Jackie gave it a tight squeeze. He was so cold to the touch and it worried her. It seemed the ashen tone of his skin seemed to get worse by the minute and all she could think of was the fact that he looked as if he were already no longer living. The only thing that convinced her otherwise was seeing his chest continue to rise and fall and the heart monitor beeping steadily, although there was a slight fluctuation with every few beats.

Jackie sighed and moved her other hand up to rest against her son's cheek. It felt nearly as cold as his hand did and was rather clammy to the touch. However the moment hand and cheek came in contact, a soft moan escaped his lips. It was so quiet and nearly inaudiable, that Jackie almost didn't hear it. "M-Mom?" Brian whispered, his eyes fluttering lightly under their lids. He slowly cocked his head to the side and Jackie found herself staring into the set of baby blues she had fallen in love with from the first time she had held him in her arms. Although now, his orbs were only a shadow of their former light, clouded over and confused.

"Hey sweetheart," Jackie replied with a warm smile.

Brian offered a lopsided smile in return and leaned his cheek further into his mother's touch. "Hi..." he mustered, closing his eyes for a brief moment before looking back at his mother again. "What...what are you doing here?" he asked softly.

"Howie called your father and I yesterday and said you had collapsed and were in the hospital," Jackie explained to her son as she smoothed the sweaty hair away from his forehead.

"It's just the flu and exhaustion..." Brian mumbled. "I think Howie may have exaggerated a little. You didn't have to fly all the way out here to see me. I'm a big boy..."

Jackie smiled, noting the attempt at humor in her son's voice. It sounded so weak though and her smile didn't last long. Instead it was quickly replaced with a frown of concern. "You could have been brought in 'cause you scraped your knee and needed stitches and I probably would have still flown out to see you. It's called a mother's concern."

"Is Dad here too?"

"He is... He's in the waiting room with your son right now. Baylee was terribly upset when we arrived. We actually found him at the nurses' station by himself. He was talking to your doctor and trying to find out where you were..."

"Knew Kev shouldn't have trusted Nick to watch him."

"Now don't be so quick to pass judgement," Jackie chided her son lightly, even though it was far less then heartfelt. "Baylee is very imaginative and creative. He reminds me all too well of a certain little boy I once raised."

Brian fell silent, pondering his mother's statement. "Touche," he replied with a smirk. "I want to see Baylee."

"And he wants to see you," Jackie agreed softly. "Your father will bring him in to see you a little later."

"Is he ok?"

"Who?"

"Bay..."

Jackie smiled. Even though her son was extremely weak and couldn't hide that fact even if he tried, he was still more concerned about everyone else but himself, especially when it came to the well being of his own child. "Naturally he's upset...but you know how he loves his papa."

"Of course...when papa is around...it's like 'Daddy who?'" Brian smirked and rested his eyes closed once more. He sighed and trembled visibly, tugging weakly at the blankets to find more warmth.

Jackie frowned. "What's wrong sweetheart?"

"Cold...and hurt..."

"Well, just try to rest right now and I will go find you more blankets. Then when your doctor comes in, you can get something to take care of the pain," Jackie told him quietly, watching his breathing even out the slightest. She wasn't even sure if he had heard a single word she had just said; he was already sleeping again. But she leaned up and placed a gentle kiss upon his forehead. "Just be here when I get back..." she whispered, then turned to leave the room.

*****

"Papa?" Baylee murmured quietly, burrowing himself further into his grandfather's arms. He sighed with content when Harold tightened his embrace in return. Glancing upward to meet his grandfather's stare, Baylee's lips curled into a tiny pout. His brows furled in a sad concentration. "Why is Daddy hiding from me? 'Cause he's mad?"

Harold's heart sank low in his chest as the child's words echoed in his ears. He hugged Baylee tighter, only imagining how difficult it was for the child to try to understand what was happening to his father. "No Bubba, your daddy could never be mad at you. And he's not hiding," Harold explained softly, smoothing the child's curls. "He's just napping. His doctor told him to-"

"'Cause he fo'got to take his nap yeserday?" Baylee interrupted.

Harold chuckled. "Maybe because he forgot to take his nap yesterday. But Bubba, your daddy isn't feeling too well right now."

Baylee's mouth formed a small 'o'. "He's got sickies in his tummy?"

"Lots of sickies. Not in his tummy though. Your daddy has sickies in his heart."

"Oh..." Baylee frowned, trying to ponder what his grandfather was saying. "He gots a heart ache?"

"He sure does."

"Doctor gonna fix daddy's heart ache?"

"The doctor is going to try to."

"Good," Baylee murmured and rested his head against Harold's shoulder.

Harold let loose an uneven breath and allowed his eyes to wander around the waiting room. It was all too quiet and the atmosphere was far too dense. Nobody had found much of a reason to spark conversation. He himself didn't see the need to talk because the same thought was going through each of their minds and speaking it aloud made it feel that much more real and threatening. Although at the same time Harold assumed it would be too far off to guess they were all in their own denial. He was having a hard enough time comprehending what Dr. Henrich has said. How could it possibly be that his son was to die because of a problem they had all thought had been fixed so many years before? Why now of all times was it able to come back to haunt them all? "Has anyone been to get ahold of Leighanne?" he blurted suddenly and looked to the other men in the room.

"Howie attempted to yesterday," Kevin answered before the other had a chance to say a single word. "He got no answer."

"Bri said she's been hard to get ahold of the past few days because they're wrapping up the filming," Howie added with a tired shrug. He had already tried calling Brian's wife again that morning, but came out with the same results.

"She needs to be informed of what's going on," Harold stated, more so to himself then anyone else. "Brian is going to want her to be here-"

Before Harold could get a further word in, he was abruptly interrupted as the door to the room was slowly opened and the form of Jackie Littrell stepped through the threshold, her hands rung together and her disturbed eyes trained on the floor as she slowly walked. She looked up the moment the door shut behind her and the tears she had been crying were instantly evident. "Jackie?" Harold called out, sitting straight up in his seat and preparing to stand if the need arose. When he received not a single word in return, he gently placed his sleeping grandson into Kevin's arms and sprang to his feet. He hurried to his wife's side and pulled her into his arms. "What is it?" he asked.

"Oh Herald..." Jackie trembled, burrying her face into the crook of her husband's neck. "He looks so bad..."

Harold couldn't find the words to say as his wife tearfully trembled within his embrace. Instead, he tightened his hold, closed his eyes and began to pray.
Chapter 5 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
It took me a little longer then I had anticipated to finish chapter 5, but I think that's because our friends came to visit us from Illinois. But I finally got it done. Just to keep myself from appearing completely stupid because of any information in this chap and possibly future chaps that is incorrect or out of context, I am disclaiming myself to be medically smart in any way. I just dug around in my imaginative mind for what I thought may be correct and was dramatically workable for the chapter. I didn't have much of a chance to research it until tonight when I posted the chap. So excuse me if any of the information is incorrect. Just use your imagination. I just got off work and am extremely tired...so don't yell at me! LoL...I'm not a genius...
Chapter 5:

Baylee clung tightly to his grandmother as Harold led the three of them down the ICU hall towards his father's hospital room. "Daddy still taking a nap?" he asked innocently as he craned his neck to look into his grandmother's eyes. The soft blonde curls bounced on his head with every step she took. He had awoken from his nap crying out desperately for his father with a sense of urgency and not a single thing or anyone could calm the distraught child. At least not anyone who had been present in the waiting room. He had thrown a fit in all sense of the word, refusing any and all comfort his grandparents had to offer until finally both agreed it was unjust to keep the child from his father any longer.

"I'm not sure, sweetheart," Jackie answered quietly, purposely avoiding her grandson's stare. She hoped to God, if not just for Baylee's sake, but for the rest of them that her son would be awake.

"He probably will be awake and waiting because he knows that you are coming to see him," Harold suggested, reaching out to ruffle the child's hair. Baylee swatted his hand away with a small giggle. "Nana said your daddy was asking about you earlier."

Baylee's eyes immediately lit up. "What'd he say? Huh Nana?"

"He misses you and wanted to make sure that you were ok," Jackie answered.

"I's ok 'cause I's a big boy!"

"That's funny that you say that, because your daddy said the same thing about himself," Jackie whispered with a smile and hugged her grandson tighter, unable to keep from noting all of the similarities both Baylee and Brian shared. Their looks, their personalities, their smiles...it tugged a painful chord in her heart that she tried hard to push away.

"Nana sad?" Baylee questioned softly as he reached up to place both hands against his grandmother's cheeks.

Jackie forced a smile for the child's sake. "Don't you worry about a thing sweetheart," she whispered.

They continued to walk in silence through the deserted hallway. Harold had always hated the way the halls of a hospital were drearily plain, but he especially hated the way this particular hall made him feel as if he were walking to his own death sentence. He hadn't seen his youngest son yet and his wife had been so upset upon returning from her visit, that it made his mind run wild with thoughts unimaginable. He didn't know what he was to expect when he entered that room, and he was afraid for once in his life that he wouldn't know how to react. The walk felt like it was taking forever and the floor only seemed to keep getting longer and longer.

"Down, Nana!" Baylee suddenly ordered and Harold realized they had stopped several paces behind him. He turned back around to watch as Baylee slid from Jackie's arms and eargerly reached for the door handle, only to be quickly instructed to mind his manners and be very quiet when he went inside. The child nodded and gently pushed the door open.

"Harold?" Jackie spoke to grasp his attention. Harold nodded at his wife and they entered the room together.

Baylee was already half towards the bed, tentatively approaching his father's unmoving form. He once again began to tug at the hem of his t-shirt as he took small steps, his bottom lip curling downward. "D-Daddy?" he called out, stopping at the bedside, but his only answer was silence. He pouted and eyed the machines wearily that were surrounding his father's bed. He didn't like the noises they produced and he was slightly terrified of the two prongs sticking into his father's nose, and the long thin tube that ran from it. Baylee climbed onto the chair that Jackie noticed hadn't moved since her visit and gently nudged his father's arm. "Daddy...you wake up now?"

"Bubba, be careful," Harold reprimanded quietly, but found himself shrinking back in shock from his son's ghastly appearance. If there was ever a time he found his stomach twisting into tight knots, this was certainly one of them. He moved forward with his wife at his side until they stood directly behind Baylee, watching and hoping for some sort of response from Brian, no matter how small or insignificant.

"But you said Daddy would be awake..." Baylee pouted, turning half way around to stare at his grandparents with tear filled eyes. He didn't understand why his father hadn't woken immediately when he called out to him, because he always woke up no matter what. "An' he not wake up now-" However, before Baylee could speak another word, a slight stirring caught his attention and he whipped back around just in time to catch his father's eyelids fluttering until they finally opened to reveal an expression of sleepy haze. Baylee grinned wide, "Daddy!"

Brian blinked for a moment before he slowly offered a crooked smile, instantly recognizing his son's face. "Hey..." he whispered and reached for his son's small hand, giving it a light squeeze. He watched his son's grin grow wider and he looked behind him to where his parents both stood, watching him expectantly in concern. "Mom...Dad..."

Harold stepped to his grandson's side, his eyes shadowed in an emotional darkness that Brian was unable to read. "How are you feeling, son?" he asked, his tone caked in all seriousness.

"Tired and sore..." Brian answered quietly. "This flu is really knocking me down."

Harold had to fight to keep from frowning further. Jackie had said that the doctor had told her Brian was unaware of what was happening to him, but to hear his son say with such conviction that he believed it was something other then what was really going on tugged at his heart. Brian appeared so deteriorated it was unbelievable and Harold found himself beyond speechless.

"'Cause you gots sickies?" Baylee asked knowingly.

"Yeah," Brian nodded at his son lightly. "Lots of sickies buddy."

"You get sickies from me?"

"Well, maybe from you, but ten times worse. It's not your fault though. I just didn't take care of myself."

"Why?"

"Because I was trying to take care of you and scare your sickies away."

"Bad Daddy," Baylee scolded innocently. "Doctor make you feel better?"

"I think so," Brian lied and immediately glanced upwards towards his parents. In all honesty, he was feeling worse in that moment then he ever had before in his entire life. He didn't understand it. Then there was something completely out of character in his parents' demeanors. They were acting too uncomfortably quiet for his liking. His father had hardly spoken a word and his mother had appeared jittery, as if she were unwilling to speak of something when she had visited earlier. "What's going on with you guys? You both are being really quiet."

"We're just really worried about you, son," Harold answered in a scratchy tone. "You gave us quite a scare."

Brian opened his mouth to respond, ready to contradict his father's statement, but a sharp knock on the door interrupted him before he could even get a word out. A short moment later, the door creaked open and a tall grey haired man stepped through the doorway, a manila folder tucked securely under his arm, followed by a young brunette nurse that hesitantly walked in after him.

"Ah, Mr. Littrell... I see that I have finally caught you awake," the man greeted with a friendly smile as he moved further into the room. He turned to Brian's parents and offered them both his hand before returning his attention back to his patient. "My name is Dr. Henrich and I have to say that you've been quite the difficult patient to catch awake, but that is very understandable considering the recent trauma your body has suffered and the effects of the anesthesia still wearing off."

"Anesthesia?" Brian tried to clarify.

But Dr. Henrich ignored his question and turned to the small child, reaching his hand out for a low five slap, which to Brian's surprise, Baylee almost immediately obliged. "I see you finally found your daddy," Dr. Henrich smiled and shook the boy's hand.

"Yeah! Nana and Papa help me find him!" Baylee answered with a proud nod.

"That's good, very good indeed," Dr. Henrich replied with a smile and lowered himself to Baylee's level. "I know you just found your daddy and I'm sure you really want to stay with him, but I was wondering if just for a few minutes, I could speak with your daddy by himself? It'll just be for a few minutes."

"No...wanna stay with Daddy," Baylee answered with a tight shake of his head.

"I promise it will only be for a few minutes then you can come right back in to see him."

"But I wanna stay with Daddy," Baylee whimpered.

"I tell you what," Dr. Henrich tried, lowering his voice as he looked back towards the nurse who stood closer to the doorway. "My friend over there knows where you can find the most delicious candies and it's actually not far from your daddy's room. How would you like to go with her to get some?"

"Mommy doesn't let me eats candy...but Uncle Nick let me eat McDonald's last night," Baylee replied slowly, his bright eyes considering the idea.

"Well, if you don't tell your mommy about the candy then I won't tell your mommy. How's that?"

Baylee looked back at his father. "Daddy?"

Brian's brows furled in confusion as an aching sensation took over his entire body. He ignored it and pushed the feeling aside. He wasn't comfortable with the fact that this man who had introduced himself as his doctor was now trying to usher his son from the room without so much as an explanation, but his parents had already given their nod of approval and somehow he wasn't so sure his son really needed to be hearing what the doctor had to say. As it was, Baylee was already full of questions and he was bound to release a storm of them given he was allowed to remain in the room. "Go ahead, buddy," he finally answered and gave his son's hair a weak ruffle, then watched as Baylee scooted off the chair and scrambled over to the awaiting nurse. He grabbed her hand and the two of them were out the door.

"I should apologize for shooing your son out of the room so quickly, Mr. Littrell, but I feel it would be more appropriate to speak with you and your parents in private," Dr. Henrich started, pulling up an extra chair to the side of the bed and motioning for Harold and Jackie to take a seat. Brian continued to stare in confusion as his parents sat and Dr. Henrich remained standing.

"I don't understand..." Brian trailed.

"Mr. Littrell, it's important that we speak about why you are in the hospital," Dr. Henrich answered.

Brian glanced around shortly. "Why I'm in the hospital?" he repeated, cringing at each word. "I really don't understand-"

"What do you remember about yesterday?" Dr. Henrich interrupted seriously.

Brian's eyes narrowed in concentration as he focused on taking long deep breaths. The action sent waves of pain throughout his chest and seemed to cause his heart to pound harder. "Honestly...spending the morning with Baylee then going to the recording studio. I hadn't been feeling well all day...hadn't been feeling well all week. Then Howie and AJ were forcing me to go home and rest while they watched Baylee..."

"And after that?" Dr. Henrich proded.

"I was walking towards the front door and I think I remember seeing Kevin come in, but...what is this having to do with anything?"

"Mr. Littrell...you weren't brought to the hospital yesterday because of the flu," Dr. Henrich answered. "You suffered from a severe myocardial infarction yesterday."

Brian brinked in confusion. "In english?"

"A heart attack."

"My...my heart?"

"You collapsed yesterday. Your heart gave out two times en route to the hospital. The paramedics were working to restart it upon your arrival here," Dr. Henrich explained. "We have run several tests to determine the cause for your attack, however the answer is far from clear and there are still more tests I would like to perform. I do suspect that one of the underlying causes that intesified the damage and caused the occurence could possibly be viral, which would explain the flu-like symptoms you'd been experiencing-"

"What damage?" Brian interrupted.

"When we rushed you into surgery yesterday-"

"Surgery?"

"Your heart was barely beating when we got you out of the ambulance and stopped again when we were wheeling you in. We had to rush you into surgery and manually restart-"

Brian could feel the tremors pulse through his body, but he made no effort to stop them. All he could focus on was the excruciating pain intensifying in his chest and the stabbing reality of it all. Some how he knew what the doctor was going to say and it released a fear in him unline any other he had ever experienced. He never even noticed his mother rising from her chair and taking a seat beside him on the bed. "No..." Brian whispered, squeezing his eyes shut in disbelief.

"The holes in your heart you had repaired with surgery years ago have reopened and the damage is more extensive then we could have imagined. It appears the sack of fluid that had begun to accumulate around your heart, which could have very well caused your heart attack, was due to a viral infection, which again accounts for your flu like symptoms. But the bigger problem here is the new damage your heart has sustained due to the reopening of the holes. We were able to temporarily close the openings to keep your heart functioning, however, your heart has been weakened due to the new stress. Mr. Littrell, I'm not sure if you understand exactly what I am telling you, with the problem we are faced with here, but-"

"Another extensive surgery to correct the defect," Brian struggled to whisper, his breathing strained.

"I'm afraid it's more complicated then that. We can continue to perform surgeries to correct the openings because they will continue to reopen, but with each surgery, your heart will be weakened further and you will eventually be unable to withstand the strss being put on your heart. Continuous surgeries would be more detremental to your health and would only speed the process."

"I'm going to die?" Brian croaked.

Dr. Henrich paused, exhaling softly. "Unless we are able to find a viable solution..." he trailed, knowing full well that there was no need to finish the statement. There was no hidden meaning in his words.

"No...God no..." Brian wheezed.

"Your heart is failing, Mr. Littrell, but there a options and no need to give up just yet. We are going to do everything we can-"

"I don't want to hear it!"

"Oh Brian..." Jackie mustered, tears springing to her eyes.

"Just stop, please!" Brian begged, gasping for air, and he felt himself succomb to the shock of everything that had been revealed.

*****

The day had already slipped deep into the late hours of the night and Jackie found herself unable to relax even the slightest. She had sat watching the clock as it slipped past midnight and had since lost all track of time. The dark was consuming, leaving Jackie in a lonely despair. Harold had ushered the boys to their respective homes hours before and had finally retired himself to take Baylee home and put the child to bed. She longed to be home with her family, yet refused to leave her youngest son's side. So she sat in the dark, staring at his moon cast body and watching every breath he took.

Jackie shivered even as she pulled a donated blanket tighter around her frame. The temperature in the room had been kept at a decent warmth, but she was still unable to get rid of the chill. The day's events continued to replay in her mind. There was no room for sleep, despite her exhaustion. Brian's desperate cries of helplessness echoed faintly in the nearly silent room and it made her sick to her stomach. She wanted to reach out, pull him into her arms and promise everything was going to be ok, but she couldn't. There was not a thing she could do. Dr. Henrich had said to remain strong, but that was easier said then done.

Sighing, she sunk further into the hospital's version of a recliner, something far less comfortable. Outside the weather had changed drastically and now large angry torrents of rain slammed at the window. Jackie stared in disgust, when the change seemed all too fitting for the mood. A clear beautiful night would have felt like mockery when her whole world seemed to be crumbling all around her, but the storm that was raging outside was tearing her soul to pieces.

And then the silence was abruptly disrupted with a stirring to her right. Jackie snapped her head in that direction and caught her son begin to move in his bed. The machines on both sides of his bed recorded the new fluctuations in his vitals. His eyelids fluttered wildly. A soft and nearly inaudible moan escaped his pursed lips as he gripped tightly at the blankets. Jackie sat up straight, eying her son carefully. He almost seemed to be struggling in his dream world and she wondered what type of demons he was trying to fight off.

"No..." Brian groaned, his head flopping almost lifelessly to one side. His eyelids fluttered harder and his brows creased. "No...please no!"

Jackie was out of her seat within a second and at her son's side. She sat on the edge of his bed carefully, keeping clear of the collection of wires and tubes. She reached out and lightly rested her hand against his cheek. "Brian..." she called out, pondering how possible it was to coax him out of the nightmare he was trapped in.

"Hurts..." Brian whimpered.

"Relax sweetheart," Jackie soothed as she caressed her son's cheek softly.

"Hurts...no..."

"Just relax...open your eyes for Mama..."

Brian slowly began to lean his head into his mother's hand, continuing to struggle. "Mama..." he moaned weakly, his lips parting to release a faltered breath. He struggled to force his eyes open a moment later and stared up at Jackie through hazy vision. "Mom..."

"There there...everything's alright," Jackie attempted to smile, but she found it rather difficult. She leaned forward and pressed a kiss against her son's forehead.

"You're still here," Brian whispered.

"I never planned on leaving your side," Jackie answered.

"The others?"

"Your father made them go home earlier this evening to rest. I stayed behind while your father took Baylee home for bed."

Brian nodded and shifted in the bed slowly. It was still painful to move, with each little movement sending shocking spasms throughout his chest and other parts of his body. He was terrified to move when at the same time lying still was driving him absolutely stir crazy. He had never been one to just sit immobile. His life was about activity and now he felt like he was stuck in some prison waiting for the executioner to come knocking. "It hurts so much," he sniffled suddenly and reached up to grasp his mother's hand.

"What does, sweetheart?"

"My chest," Brian winced.

"It's to be expected. You went through a lot yesterday."

"But it hurts so bad."

Jackie frowned at her son's repetitive complaints. She couldn't imagine the turmoil he must have been going through, both physically and mentally. it chilled her to see the way he kept looking up at her, begging silently for help she wasn't capable of giving. "I know, but it will feel better soon. I promise." She scooted closer to her son. He no longer appeared his age of thirty two, but instead resembled the frail sickly child in the hospital she remembered from so many years before.

"I'm scared, Mom."

"It's alright to be scared, but you have to try to remain strong and keep your faith in God."

"But I don't know what's going to happen-"

"Nobody ever knows what may happen in life and that's what makes the unknown so frightening, but having faith makes it easier to deal with."

"I don't want to die, Mom," Brian choked with a gasp for air.

"Oh sweetheart," Jackie whispered and carefully draped her arm across her son's chest for as much of an embrace as she could manage with out causing him further discomfort and pain. She felt him shaking beneath her and the tears sprang to her eyes, making her realize that much more that there was absolutely nothing she could do.
Chapter 6 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
I'm a bit disappointed because I planned to have this chapter posted a couple days ago and I somehow managed to pass my self-appointed deadline. But good news is I finally got the chapter finished. I just wanted to give a shout out to Lenni who always is quick to leave a review! Thanks girly! I really do appreciate your feedback! And I wanted to also give a thank you to everyone else who has left reviews so far. The feed back is what keeps me writing so I hope everyone will continue to leave reviews and keep giving me the inspiration to continue writing. Hope everyone enjoys this chap. It's the longest one yet. Leave some reviews and let me know what y'all think!
Chapter 6:

He wasn't sure what tore him from a numb slumber, but the one thing his mind resgistered when his senses kicked into gear was a tingling sensation over the entirety of his body. It took moments for him to gather the strength to pry his eyes open, but when he did, Brian immediately felt the pain once again that was draining his body into a weak exhaustion. He glanced around the room slowly. His mother was gone and for an instant he felt a childish fear of abandonment, but swallowed the insecurities soon after. The room was cast in a dull grey glow that spilled from the open-draped window, the after math from the rain storm the night before.

"Good morning, Mr. Littrell," a quiet voice called out from the doorway. Brian craned his neck back towards the door to see the same nurse step into the room who had accompanied Dr. Henrich from the day before. She offered a genuine friendly smile and moved over towards the bed. "How are we feeling this morning?"

Brian watched her for a moment as she stepped sideways from the bed and busied herself in checking the assortment of IV bags feeding fluids and medications into his body. "My mother was just here...do you happen to know where she went?" he questioned, his tone scratchy and hardly projecting. Then he realized just how childish he had sounded.

But the nurse smiled none the less as she turned back to him. "She went down to the cafeteria about thirty minutes ago for some coffee and breakfast. It was doctor's orders and you were still sleeping. She should be back shortly though."

"Oh." The nurse worked in silence severl long minutes and Brian's eyes never left her every move. It never phased him that she hadn't spoken her name. He couldn't have cared less. His mind was finding enough difficulty processing all other information as it was, let alone being able to make new aquaintances. He tried to blink the remainder of sleep from his eyes and continued to watch the nurse work. When she was finally finished and had shifted the IV tubing down the side of the bed, she placed a few markings on a sheet next to her and fixed the blankets covering Brian's body.

"Dr. Henrich should be in soon to see you. Until then, try to rest more," she mentioned.

"Well I don't think I'll be getting up to run a marathon anytime soon," Brian replied with a short roll of his eyes. "I'm sorry...that was a little rude..."

"Don't apologize, Mr. Littrell," the nurse answered with a smirk. "My husband has never been a morning person either." With that, she winked and excused herself from the room.

Brian sunk back into the mattress, allowing his head to rest comfortably against the double pillows. He sighed, wincing against each tremor of pain that just wouldn't seem to vacate his body. He listened to the silence, forcing his ears to catch each beat of his heart. He could hear it echoing and tried to imagine everything the doctor had told him the previous day. It sent a sickening ball of dread into the very pit of his stomach and he bit at his bottom lip to keep his nerves in check. It wasn't long after that his solitary was once again interrupted. Much to Brian's distaste, he watched Dr. Henrich allow himself into the room and he found himself wondering why he held such distaste for the man. Afterall there was no calling for it when the doctor had done absolutely nothing wrong, but all Brian could keep recalling was the sentence of death the doctor had predicted and he just stubbornly didn't want to believe it. The act of denial was nothing more then a slow and painful torture.

"Up and awake already?" Dr. Henrich greeted with an eye of concern. He carried a clear fluid filled IV bag in one hand and a folder of some sort in the other. He walked over to the IV machine and withdrew an empty bag, replacing it with the one he brought in. When he was finished, he placed the folder on the bed at Brian's feet and pulled the stethescope from around his neck and proceeded to place the cold end beneath Brian's gown against his bare chest. The contact alone sent shivers down Brian's spine as he kept his eyes trained on the doctor. "Your heart is sounding decent for what we are working with right now, so that is good. Especially after the surgery," Dr. Henrich mentioned a moment later and stood up straight. He grabbed the folder from the foot of the bed and walked to the opposite side, lowering himself into one of the two chairs that had been placed.

Brian wanted to tell him otherwise, but quickly bit his tongue to refrain himself from speaking anything he might eventually regret. Instead he blinked stupidity, feigning a continuing exhaustion. He wasn't exactly in the mood to be holding a conversation at that very moment, but it was all too apparent that the doctor wasn't fixing to leave the room anytime soon. "When can I go home?" he bluntly questioned and immediately detested the frown that passed over the doctor's face.

"That is what I came in here this morning to speak to you about," Dr. Henrich answered, draping the stethescope over his neck again. "I spoke with your parents yesterday when they first arrived about what we are being faced with here and about the options that are open to us. I want to discuss those options with you right now and try to devise a plan of action so we can tackle this obstacle head on."

Brian's eyes narrowed. "When can I go home?" he repeated.

"Until I feel you are completely stabilized, I would not recommend releasing you from the hospital," Dr. Henrich explained. "Your blood pressure has yet to level out and I'm still a bit hesitant towards the stability of your heart so soon after the surgery. I can't authorize a release until those are safely in check. However, I have you scheduled to be transfered to a regular room later this afternoon. But I don't recommend a release any time soon with the severity of the level of deterioration of your heart, Mr. Littrell."

"Staying here for an extended period of time is unacceptable," Brian replied. "I have a family to take care of and a job to do. I can't spend my time being stuck in some hospital because you are theorizing that my heart is going to fail and I'm going to die."

"It is not a theory, Mr. Littrell," Dr. Henrich pressed tightly, clutching the folder in his hands. "I know learning of this must come as a shock, but it's imperative that you realize what we are dealing with here and that it's not something that a short stay in the hospital can mend. As I told you yesterday, further surgeries are not gonna be the answer. It would only cause further stress and damage to your heart and I'm afraid your heart would not be able to handle it. The ultimate solution would be performing a transplant, but not only is finding a viable heart match a struggle, donor hearts are not easy to come by, unlike other organs to be donated."

"So you're telling me I need a transplant but won't be able to get one because hearts don't grow on trees?" Brian replied in a tone dripping with sarcasm. He could feel the anger radiating from the outside of his body, but on the inside he could feel himself crumbling in terror. He realized it wasn't the doctor he was holding so much hate for, but rather the fate that was being shoved in his face and the fact that he couldn't do a single about it but lie there and wait. To die?

"Rest assured that we have already placed you on the national donor recipient list and have a head start on that. In the mean time, however, we need to carefully map out a plan of medical treatment to keep you functioning for if and when we receive a donor heart to perform the transplant," Dr. Henrich explained.

"If..." Brian scoffed quietly and glanced towards the window. The ball in his stomach tightened further.

"I'm going to be straight forward with this and not lie, Mr. Littrell... the chances of you receiving a new heart any time soon are very slim. But it is no reason to be losing hope. We have two options in the meantime. After we get your vitals stabilized at a comfortable level we can have you transfered to our cardiac unit where you will be carefully monitored until a donor heart arrives. Or...there is a well acclaimed and accredited cardiac rehabilitation care center located a few hours from here that we can transport you to where you will remain thus said until a donor heart is found."

"A hospital prison..."

"I know it might sound like it, but the center specializes in the care of patients such as yourself and carries further medical equipment that we do not have here. I recommend that we look into that option. I can have them contacted this afternoon and made aware of your situation and have you set up to be transported there within a few days-"

Brian shook his head sharply. Being shipped off to a medical imprisonment was something he had never thought of considering. He refused to believe that the situation was as bad off as the doctor was making it out to be. He was healthy, so there was absolutely no reason for him having to be faced with such a problem. His previous team of doctors had promised to of fixed the problem years ago and now he was being told otherwise that along the line somewhere through out the years something had happened and things weren't fixed liked they had originally believed. "That's out of the question."

"Mr. Littrell...I advise you to not be so quick to disregard this option," Dr. Henrich started.

"My family is here. I'm not gonna let myself be shipped away to some care facility that's gonna keep me from my family."

"It would only be a few hours away-"

"I can't leave my family."

"They're going to want you to receive the best care that is available to you."

"Then if it's as bad as you say it is, find an option here," Brian snapped, his voice faltering in his throat. He felt the tears stinging the corners of his eyes as his heart palpitated roughly in his chest. "I can't leave my family..."

"All I'm asking is that you give it some serious thought Mr. Littrell, because time is of the essence," Dr. Henrich said. He rose from his seat a few seconds later. "Get some more rest and we'll get you transfered to a regular room sometime this afternoon. I'll be back to check on you later."

*****

As if they hadn't seen enough of it the day before, the weather had kicked back into gear and was unleashing a second dosage of watery fury. The rain seemed to fall harder, playing a symphony of drum beats against the window; shadows of the droplets streamed down the inner walls of the room. Brian watched it carelessly, his eyes hardly focusing on much of anything. As tired as he was, he couldn't find the energy it took to actually fall asleep. Not that he wanted to anyway. He almost feared closing his eyes, with the thought sending a chill to his very core. They had finally moved him to a regular room, as Dr. Henrich had informed him that morning, and the trip had been nauseating. Just the motion of watching the ceiling tiles fly past over head made him sick to his stomach. He had been somewhat relieved when they had him settled in the new room and finally left him to his peace.

On a tray that spanned the width of the bed, a cold lunch consisting of soft foods sat untouched. It was all unappealing; the green jello, the chocolate pudding, the juice and milk. Brian had scrunched his nose in disgust when the deliverer had brought it into the room, but he received it nonetheless with plans to save the pudding for his son when the child come to visit that day. He knew Baylee would be absolutely delighted with the offer and it would satisfy the child for the time being. Turning his vacant attention from the window, Brian looked up towards the clock on the wall. The seconds seemed to tick by slowly. Although with each second that passed, another moment of his life was gone.

Tick...another moment passed...

Tick... he was one second closer to dying...

His heart jumped at the thought and he squeezed his eyes shut tightly, inhaling short gasping breaths. Tick...tick... If he had been capable, he would have torn the clock from where it was mounted on the wall and smashed it against the hard floor until it lay in a pile of unfixable pieces. But he could hardly move in the bed, let alone cause any sort of destruction.

"Daddy! You is awakes!" Baylee cried out with a cheeky grin as he came tearing into the room, his grandfather lagging closely behind in his wake. The child burst forward with an explosion of energy and nearly tripped over his own feet in the process before he reached his father's bedside. He grinned further as he came to an abrupt halt, peering mysteriously at his father. Brian held his breath as his child as his child seemed to study him. "You take nap like doctor tell ya?" Baylee questioned sternly; his bottom lip pouted outward as he attempted seriousness.

"Yes sir," Brian answered with a small nod, silently recognizing the fact that he was thankful for the humor in his life that his son never failed to deliver.

Baylee's eyes sparkeled towards the response. "I bring you 'prise!"

"For me?" Brian repeated. He glanced shortly at his parents and felt his gut wrench towards their sad smiles. But Baylee stole his attention back as the child struggled to climb up and sit on the edge of the bed. Harold stepped forward to object, but Brian lifted a hand to wave his father off. "He won't hurt me," he whispered and allowed Baylee to scoot closer. Baylee held both hands out and Brian realized his son had been clutching two objects the entire time. He recognized the tattered brown dog with the floppy ears upon eye contact and smiled softly. "You brought me Nuggles?"

"So you won't be sad no mo'," Baylee answered.

"Why do you think I'm sad?" Brian asked in surprise, although he knew Baylee read people like a book.

"You no smile..." Baylee answered quietly. "Nuggles make you feel better and make you smile..."

Brian felt the breath catch in his chest with astonishment as his son pressed the stuffed animal into his grasp. "I love it, buddy...Thank you."

"He insisted on bringing that to you from the moment he woke up this morning," Harold mentioned. "How are you feeling?"

Brian stared at his father for a moment, wondering how he could ask a question as such. He detested the sound of each word. "As best as could be," he finally answered, hoping his father wouldn't catch onto the fact that he was lying through his teeth at that very moment. He would never admit openly that pain had surgered through his body when Baylee climbed onto the bed, but somehow he figured from the reflection in Harold's eyes that they hadn't been fooled for a second. He refused to risk the chance of shattering his son's heart though and cause the child's smile to fade, though. He turned his attention back onto Baylee. "I have a surprise for you too. It's under that lid right there," he mentioned, pointing at the closed lunch tray.

Baylee's mouth formed a tiny 'o' as he tentatively reached out for the tray and slowly lifted the cover. Ignoring the liquids and the jello, his hand instantly shot for the small pudding container. "Choco' pudding!" he gasped in awe and held it up for Harold to see. "I share with yous Daddy!"

"That's alright, buddy...I'm not very hungry right now," Brian replied. He watched his father take a seat in an uncomfortable manner. "Where's Mom?"

"She went to your place for a couple of hours to rest. She will be back later though," Harold answered. He watched in silence for a moment as Brian interacted with Baylee, prying the lid to the pudding open and presenting the child with a white plastic spoon. It pleased Baylee enough, causing him to fall into a silent stupor as he indulged in the sweet treat. "I ran into Dr. Henrich a few minutes ago...I think we need to talk about the conversation the two of you had this morning..."

Brian winced. "This isn't the right time, Dad..."

Harold frowned. "You can't avoid this, Brian. As much as any of us don't want to face it, especially you...it's not something that can be pushed aside and forgotten. We need to not waste anytime in mapping out a plan of-"

"We are not going to discuss this in front of Baylee," Brian snapped in a light headed daze. He brought a hand up to his face to shield his eyes from the light of the room and focused on catching his bearings. "He doesn't need to be hearing this."

"Brian..." Harold started.

"Baylee doesn't need to be hearing this," Brian repeated sharply. It wouldn't be fair to push such a delicate matter on the child, and in all honesty, Brian didn't want to hear anymore about it. Harold sighed with a tight nod.

"Want some more company?" a hesitant voice, laced with familiarity, called out from the open door. Brian and Harold turned their attention across the room to find a haggered looking Nick sticking his head through the doorway cautiously. "I mean, if you're having family time, I understand-"

"No, that's quite alright, Nickolas. I was just about to take Baylee down to the cafeteria for a bite of lunch," Harold explained to ward of Nick's odd uncomfortable stare. "I'm sure Brian won't mind if you come in and keep him company while we are gone."

"Don't wanna go," Baylee whimpered as he finally looked up from the chocolate substance, dark brown smudges along the outline of his lips. "Wanna stay with Daddy."

"It will only be for a little bit, Bubba. It's time for lunch and Nana will be mad at me if she thought I let you eat only pudding for lunch," Harold explained.

"Choco pudding, Papa!" Baylee corrected.

"Even worse. We'll go eat lunch while your daddy talks to Nick."

"Uncle Nicky be here still when we get back?"

"Maybe, but only if we hurry."

Brian watched as his father raised Baylee up into his arms and the two of them departed from the room. A thick silence draped over the atmosphere, leaving the ticking of the clock on the wall to once again echo against his ear drums. Brian focused on Nick, noticing the way his friend seemed to refuse to look in his direction at all costs. "Are you just gonna stand there all day or are you actually going to come in?" he questioned with as much of an attempt at teasing as he could possibly manage.

Nick looked at him slowly. "Yes...I mean no...well, I want to, but...I mean, what if you're-"

"Just because I'm dying doesn't mean I'm contagious," Brian blurted before he had a chance to give his words of choice a second thought. He watched Nick visibly wince towards the comment.

"Don't...don't say that," Nick sputtered as he moved his body fully into the doorway.

"I'm sorry...I didn't mean it like that," Brian whispered in an awe of disappointment towards himself.

"Well, just don't say it," Nick repeated, finally taking a step forward into the room. He hesitated once again, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his pants and he stood there staring at his dirt stained Nikes. Brian noticed just how disheveled his friend actually looked, going as far as to guess that he appeared as bad as Brian himself felt, like absolute crud.

"Really Nick, you don't have to stand the whole time. There is a not so comfortable chair over here, but it's a chair none the less," Brian spoke, his brows raising slightly. "You at least gonna take a seat and stay a while?"

"Sorry," Nick mumbled and slowly began to drag his body over to the chair. He lowered himself into it and stared at the window, past Brian, where the rain continued to fall furiously.

"Nick-"

"I hate the rain," Nick interrupted.

"That...was random," Brian replied.

"I really hate the rain."

"Like I said, that was random."

Nick turned to him, his eyes vacant of their usual spark of life. There wasn't a trace of mischief hidden in his blue orbs. A dismal mask of emotions covered his face and he seemed to try to hide behind it. "How did this happen?" he whispered, leaning forward and unevenly resting his elbows on his knees. "You've been healthy for years. They promised that they had fixed your heart when you had that surgery."

"Don't think I haven't given that any thought," Brian returned quietly.

"Maybe there's been a misunderstanding. Medical files get mixed up sometimes. It doesn't happen often, but it's not unheard of. So maybe they mixed your file up with someone else's file," Nick suggested, but even as he spoke, his voice waivered. It was only obvious he didn't even believe his own assumption. He was just looking for some other way, one that would provide a logical explanation as to how his friend's life was suddenly hanging in the balance.

"I think you watch too much tv..."

"No. I'm trying to make sense of everything, because none of this makes any sense," Nick fired back, his shoulders trembling. "You can be perfectly healthy one day then be dying of heart failure the next."

"Maybe I haven't been as healthy as we all thought," Brian shrugged.

"How can you be acting so nonchalant about this?" Nick demanded.

Brian stared at his friend in surprise. Nick's chest heaved as he breathed heavily and tears brimmed the edges of his eyes. "I'm not acting non chalantly about this, Nicky," he wheezed. "I'm scared to death about what is going to happen."

"Then we need to do something about it. What did the doctor say?"

"I need a heart transplant, but-"

"So we have to find you a new heart-"

"It's not that simple, Nicky."

"We can't just let you lay here and die!"

"You don't think I understand that?" Brian burst. "I don't want to die! God, I don't want to die!" He gasped out and instinctively reached for his chest as pain started to explode.

"Brian, what's wrong?!"

"It hurts..."

"What should I do?!"

"Just..." Brian continued to gasp and let loose a cry of discomfort. He clutched tighter at his chest. He tried to focus on Nick's expression of panic, but his vision blurred from the tears that were streaming down his cheeks and the bursts of pain that intensified in his chest. "It h-hurts...Nicky...G-get...get the doctor...p-please!"
Chapter 7 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
OMG I'M BACK AGAIN!!! So yeah, pirating the internet at home doesn't always work. I beginning to think that who ever's internet we've been catching the signal from is finally starting to figure it out maybe because we haven't been able to connect. Oh well...guess it is finally time to step up to the plate and get our own internet. Ha... Many thanks still go out to everyone who has left reviews for this fic so far. I still greatly appreciate it. Special shout out to Lenni: A little surprise for you in the story. See if you can find it girl. And don't take any sort of offense. But it was the best situation I could come up with for what was going on in the story. And who knows, I may give you a cameo of some sorts in one of my upcoming fics! Keep those reviews coming y'all!
Chapter 7:

Brian watched with a troubled expression as Baylee continued to lay nestled against his side, deep in a peaceful slumber. He was at least thankful for that much because his child had grown extremely cranky throughout the evening hours, refusing to part from his father and begging in a tearful frenzy for Brian to come home with him. The small boy couldn't grasp onto the idea that Brian leaving the hospital just wasn't possible at that moment and it made Brian feel like an unloving parent to have to tell his child so. But after hours of tearful pleas, Baylee had become restless and only agreed to calm down once he had been allowed to snuggle in the bed with his father. It had taken nearly an hour more before the boy finally slipped into a sleep that Brian hoped would last long enough so his child would get substantial rest. Now he sat propped in bed, the first time doing so since he had been in the hospital, and stared numbly at the wall mounted tv directly ahead. The volume had been set down low, but he paid not the least bit of attention to the images that flashed. They blurred one into the other until they were lines and shapes Brian wasn't able to make out individually.

"He's finally asleep," Jackie called from the doorway as she first poked her head in, then stepped onto the threshhold with Brian's father close behind. Jackie moved to her son's side and peered down at her sleeping grandchild for a moment, a frown curling her lips downward. She smoothed the blonde curls atop the child's head before leaning down to press a light kiss against his cool forehead.

"Well...it's late so it's best he be sleeping," Brian answered quietly, avoiding his mother's stare to keep from seeing the overbearing concern and sadness radiating in her eyes. He didn't like it.

"He was terribly upset...wore himself out I suppose," Jackie added softly and lowered herself onto the edge of the bed.

"He's a child who's upset because his daddy is in the hospital and he doesn't understand why his daddy can't go home with him," Brian rambled absentmindedly as he wrapped his arm tighter around Baylee's small frame and pulled him closer, almost more so for his own personal comfort. "He doesn't understand the concept of a hospital...he's just a child..."

"Baylee will be fine," Harold spoke and grabbed the closest chair to take a seat. He could hear the uneven tone in his son's voice and hated that he could read the second meaning behind his words without difficulty. The fear was only all too evident in Brian's eyes and Harold hated the fact that there wasn't a single thing he could say or do that would tame the demons plaguing his son's soul. "What's important right now is that you focus on yourself and make sure you rest."

Brian opened his mouth to object, but realized his argument would be weak in comparison to all that was taking place. He turned his head downward and focused on listening to the soft even breaths that blew from Baylee's parted lips.

"Brian?" Jackie said in a questioning tone as a heavy silence began to settle over the room. She reached out to grasp her son's shoulder, hoping to keep his attention for more then just a brief moment. It stung to watch him trying to avoid their eye contact and made her wonder just what all was going through his head.

"Hmmm?" Brian murmured.

"We spoke to Leighanne-"

Brian immediately looked to his mother, his eyes coming alive for the first time since his parents had entered the room. He appeared absolutely elated at the mention of his wife and seemed to straighten in his posture. "When?" he eagerly questioned, his voice a mere whisper as he struggled to force it to project.

"A few minutes ago before your father and I came back in to see you," Jackie explained, glancing at Harold briefly. "Everybody has been trying to reach her since you have been in the hospital, but she said they are having a nasty bout of weather that has been going on for the past few days and it's been interfering with the phone lines as well as the cell phone towers, so her phone has been off." Jackie frowned towards her son's paling complexion. Dark bags had begun to accumulate under his eyes and only worsened as the time passed.

"Does she know?" Brian croaked with a deep breath.

"Your father explained to her what was going on," Jackie answered, offering a tight nod. She placed her hand lightly over Brian's, squeezing it gently. Seeing the continuing question blaze in his fading blue eyes, she smiled briefly. "She is going to try her best to get a flight home as soon as possible, but with the weather situation, you need to understand that it is going to be difficult. Alot of flights have been grounded because of it, but she is trying sweetheart and she sends her love to you and Baylee."

"When can I talk to her?"

"She said she would call back as soon as she finds out about flights."

"Leighanne will make it here. You know she will do whatever it takes to make that happen," Harold added.

"What am I supposed to tell Baylee?" Brian asked as he gazed down at his son. "He was asking about her before he fell asleep..."

"We tell him that his mommy will be home as soon as she can," Jackie answered. "Baylee will be fine though. It's you we need to focus on. You need to keep from getting worked up-"

"I'm fine," Brian interrupted sharply. "It's Baylee I worry about...and the others. They haven't even been in to see me, besides Nick, and I am afraid that I have scared him off..."

"He's only worried about you and is feeling guilty for earlier today. Your father calmed him though, but he's just as much in the dark about all of this as we all are. He's having a hard time understanding."

"I told him to go home for the evening; he needs to calm down," Harold said, noting Brian's expression of trouble. "AJ and Howie have been in meetings all day with various levels of your management and they said they would be by early tomorrow. As will Kevin with Kristin. She just got back into town late this afternoon; he had to pick her up. But none of them are abandoning you, son."

"Why wouldn't they if I am dying?" Brian stated bluntly, his voice cracking. He looked away almost instantly, ashamed of the statement even as it left his mouth. But his fear of abandonment elevated that much more with their absence and his incapability to know what was going to happen.

"Don't you let me hear you talking like that again, Brian Thomas," Jackie scolded weakly as she leaned back from her son. "I don't want to hear that kind of talk again."

Brian watched his parents for several minutes in a thick silence. He could feel himself melting under their returning stare, yet he still found himself speechless. He knew his words had been foolish, but they just didn't understand. How could they possibly understand? His parents were only outsiders looking in and witnessing a once healthy man suddenly beginning to die. It just so happened that that man was their son. "I'm sorry..." he finally whispered.

"I'm not going to sit here having you talking like you've already given up," Jackie trembled.

"I'm scared Mom."

"You have every right to be scared but don't you start talking like you've already given up."

"Your mother is right, son. And we're going to look into every option we have," Harold said. "But the best thing we can do is stay calm and focus on now. There's no sense in getting worked up over something we have no control over at the moment." He rose slowly from the chair and smoothed out his untucked thin polo shirt, fidgeting with the hem and the sleeves...anything to keep his mind diverted from the sight before him. But there was no getting past it and when he finally looked up again, he found Brian watching him expectantly. "I'm going to take Baylee home for the evening. Mom is going to stay here again tonight."

"You're taking Baylee?" Brian repeated.

"You know the doctors won't allow him to remain here all night with you. Besides, it's late and you know as well as I do that he should be at home, sleeping in his own bed," Harold answered.

"I..." Brian trailed, but he relented softly. "Ok..." He watched his father move carefully to the opposite side of the bed, taking great care to not tangle any of the IV tubing. Harold leaned forward, removing the extra blanket a nurse had brought in, and cradled Baylee in his arms. The boy cried out in his sleep, squirming slightly within a burst of weak whimpers, but sank into his grandfather's embrace, not waking for a second. Brian sighed, both in relief that Baylee remained asleep and also for the fact that he would no longer have his son by his side. And then the two were gone, Harold taking the one thing that could keep Brian sane.

*****

"Alright, Mr. Littrell...we're going to take this nice and slow."

Brian cocked a humored brow in the nurse's direction. This one was different from the one he'd encountered in the days before. Her name was Marge, he believed, if he had read her name badge correctly. He actually felt a sense of comfort from her actions and the tone in her voice, something he was surprised to find. She was up in her years with a kind warm smile that set Brian's mind at ease and her accent, english he was guessing, was refreshing. "I don't believe I'm in a position to be making any sudden moves," he joked as he pushed his legs to drape over the side of the bed. With Marge on one side of him and his mother on the other, he placed his body weight against the cold tiled flooring and slowly began to rise. Almost immediately Brian felt himself waiver and he reached to grab his mother's arm for support. His legs wobbled like jello and his head spun dangerously. He blew out a quick breath. "Wasn't expecting to feel like that..."

"You've basically been lying flat on your back for the past couple of days, Mr. Littrell, and your body has been under quite a load of stress," Marge explained, keeping a firm yet gentle grip on Brian's arm. "It may take a minute for your body to readjust to being upright once again. That's why we need to take this slow."

Brian grimaced as a small tremor ran down the length of his spine. He breathed deeply. "I'm not much in the mood to be up and moving. I mean, is this really necessary?"

"Brian, you haven't even moved an inch," Jackie chided her son lightly. "Don't be so stubborn."

Brian frowned in a pout. "I'm allowed..." he mumbled.

Marge chuckled, working with Jackie to keep Brian steady and upright. "I'm afraid it is necessary, sweetheart. It's Dr. Henrich's orders to get you out of bed and moving around this morning, before they take you down for testing and x-rays," Marge explained further. "It will just be a few paces around the room. That doesn't sound so bad, now does it?"

"Yes," Brian answered seriously. His head pounded as he focused on the wall ahead of him. His heart was beating something horrible against his ribcage, causing a dull pain to echo in his chest. "Should my heart be beating this quickly already?"

"Just relax..." Marge soothed. "Lets have you take a step forward."

Sighing, Brian did as he was told, only to find that his feet didn't seem to want to move as quickly as he had expected and any reserve of energy he had saved drained from his body further. But he trained his focus downward, feeling all too much like a cripple and the helplessness was almost overpowering.

Marge smiled. "There we go. That wasn't so hard."

"Look Mommy...I can walk..." Brian cackled quietly.

"Do you think you can take another step, Mr. Littrell?" Marge asked.

Brian appeared to ponder the question for a moment. "I think I can...I think I can...I think I can..." he mimicked, only to receive a sharp squeeze of warning against his arm coming from his mother's direction. "What?" he whined.

"Stop being so stubborn," she repeated, although she was trying to hide the laughter in her voice.

"You're doing a good job, Mr. Littrell," Marge commented, "Before we know it, you will be running laps around these halls."

"You're joking right?" Brian breathed heavily through several more paces around the room. Only for him, his feet seemed to feel as if they were dragging through a thick sludge. The room spinned further, his heart beat faster, and with each second that passed it became increasingly more difficult to catch his breath.

"Of course I am," Marge answered.

"Good..." Brian wheezed, pausing and leaning slightly sideways into his mother. "Because I'm not feeling so great right now."

Jackie stumbled slightly with the new weight and studied her son's complexion. Beads of sweat had begun to accumulate along the hairline of his forehead. His eyes drooped and he breathed heavily. "Honey, what's wrong?"

"Nothing...just lightheaded..." Brian murmured. He swayed slightly and reached upwards towards his chest. "My chest..."

Marge frowned. "What is wrong with your chest, Mr. Littrell?"

"H-hurts..." Brian murmured and lurched forward. He felt himself falling face first towards the floor, but his mother quickly caught him before he could hit, causing his stomach to churn. His face paled considerably and he gagged as the knots in his intestines tightened. "I-I think I'm going t-to be sick..." Then before he could prevent it, a hot liquid spewed from his mouth, the acids of his stomach stinging the inside of his mouth. He watched pathetically in embarassment as it splattered the floor around his bare feet and Marge's white shoes. "Oh God..."

"My my...now we weren't expecting that to happen," Marge spoke as she slowly diverted the ailing man away from the mess and back to the awaiting bed. Brian sank against the mattress weakly as the nurse pulled the loose hospital gown down from his shoulders. She examined the area of gauze covering the surgical site, carefully proding at the red, irritated skin. "I suppose we may have pushed it a little too far for the first time. We'll take it slower next time."

"The moving around caused him to get sick?" Jackie questioned in confusion as she assisted Marge in readjusting the blankets over Brian's body.

"I suspect it's the new meds I administered when I first came into the room. Dr. Henrich is trying different regimens to see which ones work best in Brian's case. He probably just had a bit of an allergic reaction. It's not unusual," Marge answered and adjusted a few knobs on the IV machine. "We'll let you rest for right now, Mr. Littrell."

"Those weren't new shoes were they?" Brian asked shamefully.

"Hospital issued," Marge smiled. "Don't worry about it, hon. It happens. Just lay back and take it easy. Dr. Henrich should be in soon to see you."

*****

The room was nearly empty with the exception of a few chairs lined against the opposite wall and a small foot table that was oddly placed in the middle of the room. He looked around, his nostrils flaring at the sterile scent. They had brought him to that room nearly fifteen minutes before, promising he would be attended to shortly. Now he sat in the discomforting silence, one that brough a heavy unease. He looked around, but all he saw was a bland dreary sight. Grey walls, cold hard floor, and he could feel the air conditioning that was cranked too high. It was like being stuck in a could lonely cell; all he had to wait for was the lights overhead to go out and enguly him darkness. Brian shivered against the automated draft.

The door opened, echoing an eerie creak throughout the entirety of the room. Brian looked up to watch as a small girl was wheeled into the room by a middle aged nurse, one that reminded him of Marge, only younger. The woman smiled at him briefly before moving the small girl only feet away. "Mr. Henry will take you for xrays in a little bit," the nurse said. "You behave until then."

"Always," the girl smiled sweetly, glancing up. She watched as the nurse left the room, then went back to a small sketch book she had been cradling in her lap the entire time. For a few moments she etched in silence, her face poised in concentration. Then like a flip od a switch, she looked up and studied Brian as if she was just now noticing his presence in the room. "You here to see Mr. Henry also?" she asked simply.

"Mr. Henry?" Brian repeated, blinking.

"The guy that runs the xray machine," the girl explained. "He's really smart...knows lows of stuff. You here to see him?"

Brian nodded slowly. "I guess..."

The girl abandoned the sketch pad in her lap and wheeled herself closer. She continued to study Brian, looking him over from head to toe. She seemed to be contemplating his stature. "Name's Isabella." She thrust her hand out for him to shake.

Brian just stared at the girl. She could have been any older then seven or eight years of age and appeared way too thin and lanky for her frame. It made him wonder. "I'm Bri-"

"I know who you are," Isabella interrupted with a small giggle of awe. "My mom is a fan. But...why are you here?"

"I..." Brian hesitated. His head swam towards the innocence of the child's nature. Yet she still couldn't get past her frailty, despite the air of strength she was trying to create to hide her weakness. "I got really sick a couple of days ago...they wanted to run some tests," he finally answered with a small shrug.

"Is it your heart again?" Isabella asked quietly.

"How do you know about me having a heart problem before?" Brian returned in surprise.

"My mom is a fan, remember?"

Brian nodded and opened his mouth to reply, but never got the chance to speak. A short, stuby man came shuffling into the room, face bearded like a lumberjack. The only thing that said he was otherwise was the generic navy blue hospital scrubs that appeared one size too small for his body. "Miss Izzy! How are we feeling today?" the man greeted with a genuine smile. He walked over and gave the child a tight squeeze. "Still getting those headaches, I suppose?"

"Yeah..." Isabella mumbled and immediately turned her attention back upon her sketch pad. Although this time she just sat there with the pencil poised above the paper.

The man frowned. "Well, hopefully we can figure out today what is causing you to get those headaches. We'll solve the mystery."

"Yeah," Isabella repeated, not once looking up and all traces of the innocent child like smile had disappeared.

The man's name was Mr. Henry and five minutes later as Brian was being assisted onto a stiff retractable board with the help of several nurses who had been waiting in a seperate room, he understood exactly what Isabella had been talking about when describing the technician. The man hadn't stopped speaking once since bringing Brian into the room and showed an obvious need to explain every single detail of the xray procedure Brian was about to undergo. Rudely, Brian hadn't listened to a single word the man had said thus far. Instead he found himself focusing on the large machine he was about to be shoved into.

"Alright, Mr. Littrell," the technician's voice echoed from within the PA system embedded in the wall. "We're gonna get this started and see what's going on with that heart of yours. Just remain still, try to relax, and this will be perfectly painless. If you feel any discomfort at all during the duration, just give me a shout."

Brian let out a slow breath as the machine kicked on with a quiet whirl. He could feel his heart beat rise in pace as he was electronically slid backwards into the encasing. "That little girl out there...Isabella...can you tell me what's wrong her?" he called out, his brows furling as worked to keep his breathing steady against the unease of being stuck in such a small space.

"She's very sick, Mr. Littrell. The poor thing has cancer and her doctors suspect there may be tumors on her brain that are causing her to suffer from migraines constantly," Mr. Henry answered in a hollow tone. A few clicks and low whirl echoed after his voice. "Here we go. Remain as still as possible as the machine scans you. It'll be over before you know it."

Brian bit down on his bottom lip and closed his eyes as the red beam began to slow move up his chest.
Chapter 8 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
*clears throat* So yeah, finally finished chapter 8. Been busy with work so haven't had much time or energy to write lately but I am picking back up on it. Chapter 9 has already been started, so I'm hoping it was take to drastically long of a period of time for me to finish it. I appreciate all of the reviews I have received so far! It's been giving the incentive to keep writing! Anyway, hope y'all enjoy this chap! Please leave reviews! Tankies!
Chapter 8:

Brian's mind wandered as he found himself being wheeled down another seemingly endless hallway. He could finally breathe again, which was saying alot considering his senses had failed during the xray procedure and he felt like he was beginning to suffocate. It was foolish, this he realized when it was all over and they were pulling him out of the machine, but it had felt all too real at the time and being confined in such a small space had allowed his imagination to run completely wild and out of control. He wanted out of that building and far away where he felt nothing could touch him or harm his well being. But right then he couldn't see himself arguing with being able to rest back in his hospital room.

The procedure had only lasted ten minutes. The technician had run several different scans, but didn't once say a word about what had come up. Brian wasn't so sure he wanted to know the details. It was hard enough knowing what Dr. Henrich had already told him. Why he needed further proof, Brian didn't understand. Isabella was still in the holding area when they had wheeled him out of the xray room. The girl was a whimpering mess and being attended to by a young woman applying a cold wash cloth to her forehead. It was then Brian noticed the lack of hair atop Isabella's head; the baseball cap she had previously been wearing was absent.

Now he sat in silence and preferred it that way. The nurse taking him back to his room had attempted small talk, but he never fueled it in return. Room after room they passed. Two floors up on the elevator seemed to move slowly until they were back on the floor Brian recognized from when they had headed down earlier. The emptiness of the hallway hosted a cool draft, sending trembles to the very depths of his bones. "Here we are, Mr. Littrell," the nurse announced and stopped them just short in front of a closed doorway. She stepped sideways, twisted the knob, and pressed the door open. Back into his prison cell he figured.

"Leigh?" Brian suddenly found himself gasping in surprise. There she was standing directly ahead. He didn't understand. It was only the previous night that he had been informed of his wife being contacted. She had never called back and yet there she was right in front of him, appearing more haggard then he had ever seen her look. "When did you get here? How did..?" he asked quietly as Leighanne moved slowly towards him. The next thing he knew, she was leaning down and wrapping her arms carefully around his neck and he felt himself melting in her embrace.

"I got here not even a minute after they took you for xrays," Leighanne answered as she pulled back slightly then pressed a light kiss against his lips. "I don't know how I managed to miss you on the way."

Brian felt a smile curling at the corners of his mouth. "But Mom said you would call back when you found out about flights. I didn't think you would make it here for days."

"I didn't think I would be able to either, but I was lucky to book a last minute flight and barely made it to the airport in time to board the plane. I tried calling your mom when I was on my way to the airport, but there was alot of empty zones and I never had the chance to place the call when I got there," Leighanne explained as she softly caressed the skin of his cheeks. She frowned towards his tassled hair and the bags under his eyes. His skin was such a pale tone it was almost frightening. "I was finally able to call during the two hour lay over in Denver. But you were sleeping and I didn't want you to be woken up."

"I'm just glad you are here," Brian whispered and allowed Leighanne to help him stand from the wheelchair. He grasped her hand tightly and stumbled towards the bed. The nurse, promising the doctor would be in soon, grasped the handles of the wheelchair and excused herself from the room. Brian stared at his wife as they sat slowly. "I missed you..."

"I missed you too," Leighanne replied, carefully situating him against the mattress. "How are you feeling?"

Brian let himself rest comfortably against the pillows, sighing as he reached to pull the layers of blankets over the lower half of his body. "As best as could be expected," he answered, although he found there wasn't much truth or conviction in his voice. He just didn't have the energy to voice just how horrible he was actually feeling at that moment. That and seeing two pairs of eyes in the room radiating concern was overwhelming and only made him feel that much worse. "Tired...but I'm feeling better..."

Leighanne frowned, moving her hand forward to smooth the matted dark blonde curls from her husband's forehead. "I don't understand," she mumbled as she studied the nearly hidden expression of anguish on his face. "When your mom called and said that you had suffered a heart attack and were in the hospital-" Leighanne paused briefly and looked back over her shoulder towards her mother-in-law who was speaking softly into her cellphone. "I don't understand how this happened and so suddenly-"

"I don't know. I-I was feeling sick for a couple of weeks, but I thought it was only something I had caught while I was taking care of Baylee when he was sick. The flu...I thought it was just the flu..."

"But your heart...how could nobody have caught that there was a problem?"

"I don't know," Brian repeated softly. "I didn't feel out of the ordinary...it was sudden."

"But you're gonna be ok now? We'll do whatever we have to do to fix this?" Leighanne asserted firmly, her eyes searching for an agreement in Brian's. But she saw no affirmation and squeezed his hand tightly once more. Her whole body trembled as she scooted closer to his side.

"That was your father," Jackie spoke up, rising from the chair across the room. She slipped the small sleek phone into her purse and moved towards the bed. "Him and Baylee are on their way. He also spoke to Kevin who should be by with Kristin sometime later this afternoon."

"You're overreacting, Howie!" a voicetrous shout wafted into the room from somewhere down the hallway. As the three in the room listened, they could hear two pairs of footsteps slapping against the tiled flooring, hurrying quickly in their direction.

"I am not overreacting!" came the reply, dripping in an anger full of emotional daggers. "You ruined my car!"

"It's just a tiny dent!"

"A tiny dent, AJ!? The whole front left corner is dented in! How can you call that a tiny dent?!"

"Shit man, who lit the fuse to your tampon?!"

"YOU! You ruined my car!"

"Like I said, you're overreacting!" AJ spat as he burst through the open doorway. He stopped short just a few feet into the room, causing Howie to slam into him square in the back. He looked at his shorter friend and glared, only to receive an even icier glare in return.

"Do I want to know what happened?" Brian questioned hesitantly, peering at the two pestered, seething friends.

"D's pms'ing," AJ answered nochalantly.

Howie pushed past AJ. "I'll have you know that I have a perfectly logical reason to be upset right now."

"Yeah, you forgot to take your midol this morning," AJ snickered.

"YOU RUINED MY CAR!"

"Boys..." Jackie warned.

"It was just a minor mishap-" AJ began, but Howie quickly cut him off.

Howie pointed accusingly. "It was not minor! AJ managed to dent the whole front left corner bumper of my new jag while pulling into the hospital parking lot!"

"That speed sign jumped in front of me," AJ shrugged.

"You shouldn't have been going twenty over the speed limit in the first place!"

"Cry me a river, D. I said I would pay to get it fixed. The world is not coming to end. Besides, lower your voice, yeah? Brian's trying to rest. You shouldn't be yelling. Oh yeah, by the way, hey B!" AJ rolled off the tip of his tongue cheerfully and stepped past the burning latino. "Leigh, you made it...we've been trying to get ahold of you."

"Bad weather limited communication...I had no idea anything was going on," Leighanne replied lightly, returning the hug AJ threw around her shoulders.

"Well, it's good you're back. B here was about to have a shit fit with you being gone," AJ rambled as he took a seat in one of the chairs at the bed's side. He contemplated Brian, unable to ignore the worn-down stature of his friend. "Don't you ever scare me again like you did the other day..."

"I'll keep that it mind..." Brian mumbled.

"Howie?" Jackie called out. "There's an open chair with your name on it if you'd like to take a seat? You don't have to stand there the whole time."

Howie continued to stand in place for a moment more, lips pursed tightly together as he watched silently. But as his demeanor slowly broke down, he sighed and shoved his hands into his pants pockets and walked over. However he remained standing. "How are you feeling, B?" he asked, frowning.

"I'm ok," Brian answered shortly. "I'm fine, really..."

"You don't realize how worried we've been."

"I..."

"We're just glad to see you awake. For a while there, we thought we had lost-"

"Nah, can't get rid of me that quickly," Brian chuckled quietly with a small smile. He was hoping a small sliver of humor would ease the tension of the room, but it didn't happen. It was almost unbearable to see the sullen expressions on the faces of those surrounding him, especially when his own wife sat close to his side on the verge of tears. It sent a pang of undescribable guilt to his core, even when he was well aware that he wasn't in control of the situation. He just didn't want to be the center of reason for their sadness. "So the meetings with management yesterday?" he began after minutes had passed by and not a single word had been spoken. The silence made the air in the room almost suffocating.

"Naturally they are curious about what brought this on..." Howie started slowly, shooting a sidewards glance in AJ's direction. However AJ was refusing to meet his stare. "They asked a lot of questions...they weren't expecting anything like this to happen. None of us were."

"I'm sorry," Brian whispered.

"Why are you saying sorry?" AJ blurted in surprise as he looked up.

"I've really caused a mess with this, haven't I?"

"I wouldn't even say you've hardly caused a mess," AJ retorted. "Like Howie said, we weren't expecting this. You weren't expecting to have a heart attack and then find out-" AJ's voice fell short prematurely and he looked away again.

Brian winced; he wondered how long it would be before everyone became comfortable with voicing aloud the fact that he was going to die. Would he ever be able to? "Has it gone further then management?" he questioned hesitantly.

"What do you mean?" Howie asked, although he knew exactly what Brian was hinting towards.

"The press."

Howie inhaled deeply. "No, as far as we are all aware, this hasn't leaked to the press yet. But management brought that possibility up. It's only a-"

"Matter of time before it does," Brian finished. "I know."

"Which we also discussed how we would handle that," AJ continued, rising from his chair and pacing several feet around the room. "If and when the press catches wind of you being here, management will set up a time and place for a press conference. Right now they want to keep it as tightly under wraps as possible."

Brian scoffed sarcastically. "I can just imagine the headlines now when the press finally finds out."

"But they haven't found out yet," Howie repeated. "So I don't think it's worth the stress of worrying over it until it actually happens. You most of all don't need to be worrying about that. Let us take care of it."

"You mean let you take care of damage control when the whole damn world finds out I'm dying?" Brian spat before he even realized the words were slipping from his lips.

"Brian..." Leighanne gasped. Brian's body quivered as he clenched his eyes shut, hiding from the awful stares he received.

"Don't say that," AJ reprimanded weakly as he froze from his pacing abruptly. His eyes narrowed almost dangerously, but behind his stern exterior, the tears were quickly rushing forward. "I'm not accepting that statement...neither should you."

"AJ...I-" Brian began, but AJ quickly interrupted him.

"Just...don't...say...it," AJ stressed each word.

Brian sunk further into the mattress and pillows, clearly taken aback from the conviction in the younger man's voice. His eyes jumped from one stare to the other; the sadness he saw was nearly sickening and all he could think of was he was to blame for it all. He was causing a tear, one that would become irrepairable and there was not a thing he could do to stop that tear from ripping further. He felt like an invalid with a time bomb on countdown, ready to explode at any given second. All he could do was just wonder when the explosion would happen. And when it did, what would he be left with? What would any of them be left with?

*****

Ahead of them, Dr. Henrich stood motioning with his hand towards the xray sheet illuminated from the lightboard mounted against the wall. He spoke term after term, but his words sounded so foreign, Brian was having a hard time keeping up and registering in his brain all that was being said. He looked away from the doctor for a moment. To his left, his parents sat closely together, hands linked tightly for support. Unshed tears welled in his mother's eyes and she was visibly willing them not to fall. His father's expression was set in stone, unwaivering. Brian didn't know how to read it. To his right were the two people keeping him remotely sane at that moment. Baylee remained cradled in the warmth of his mother's arms, the same position he had been in from the moment he walked into the room to the time he ran over to Leighanne in a frenzy of tears. The little boy refused to part from his mother and Leighanne appeared to not want it any other way.

"This spot we can see right here," Dr. Henrich explained, pointing towards a darkened mass on the sheet, "Is the hole we saw during the surgery three days ago. As of right now, it is stable and I don't suspect it to increase within the next few days or really any time soon, but it's stability isn't permanent. That we were able to determine from the visible evidence of damage during the surgery. Now right here, slightly below the hole is a small line referred to as a tear in the lining of the heart. It could be a direct result of the hole or a defect caused from other reasons. As of now it doesn't pose a direct threat and it will continue to be monitored through out your treatment."

"I don't understand how this could have happened so suddenly," Leighanne spoke up as she looked down to hug Baylee closer, noticing the child had lulled himself into a light peaceful slumber. She reached to smoothe his soft curls. "How could this not have been caught sooner?"

"That is the most hopeful outcome," Dr. Henrich replied, switching the lightboard off and slipping the xray sheet in a protective envelope. "That isn't always what happens though. In your husband's case, I suspect the sudden occurence was caused by a viral infection. However, that would not cause the opening of the hole in his heart. That is something that has been happening over a period of time and without any symptoms...there would be no reason for anyone to suspect that something like this could or would happen."

"It just doesn't make sense," Leighanne stated, shaking her head in a vehement manner. "Dr. Henrich...my husband is a healthy active man. He had surgery years ago to fix this problem. Isn't fixing the problem supposed to mean that it won't come back years down the road?"

"At the time, that is what the evidence showed. But when it comes to nature, Mrs. Littrell, science and medicine can't always predict the future. It's never set in stone," Dr. Henrich answered in a soft tone.

"Then what did I do wrong?" Brian cut in, swallowing the lump that had lodged itself in his throat. He had remained quiet for too long and the desperation for answers ringing in Leighanne's voice was enough to eat away at his insides. He clenched a handful of the blankets in his fist to steady himself. "Did I cause this? Somewhere along the way did I do something that brought this all back?"

"No, Mr. Littrell. I don't believe so," Dr. Henrich disagreed. "That's what is tricky when it comes to birth defects. The fact that you were born with a hole in your heart to begin with already set you on a path of instability. Yes, science and medicine have advanced greatly over the years and there are procedures that can correct some defects, but others...there are just some defects that don't come with a permanent solution. There's no way of ever foretelling that, though. Only time."

"So I'm supposed to just sit around and wait to die?"

"I am not saying that. There are always options and like I said before, it's important we explore all the options that are available to us."

"No."

"No?" Leighanne repeated in a whisper of surprise as she turned her attention to look at her husband.

"We already have your husband on the national donor recipient list and I have discussed with him some options that are available-"

"And I told you no," Brian interrupted with a steady glare.

"Mr. Littrell-"

"I am not going to allow you to ship me off to some medical prison hours away where I'll be kept from my family!"

"Brian, son..." Harold called out, releasing his grip on Jackie's hand to rise and take a hesitant step towards the bed.

"No..." Brian muttered, shaking his head. "It's not acceptable."

"But if there is something, some place that could help you," Harold tried to reason with his son, but Brian would have none of it.

"I said no."

"You can't disregard it so quickly," Leighanne argued.

"I can, and I will. There are other ways to go about this," Brian snapped, but his tone wasn't nearly as strong as he had hoped to project it.

"Mr. Littrell, it's something you need to seriously consider and talk it over with your family. Whatever options we have we need to weigh heavily on what we are dealing with at hand here. You need to understand that," Dr. Henrich said.

"I think that's for me to decide," Brian replied pointedly.

Dr. Henrich paused, withholding a sigh of defeat. He knew continuing to argue at that point would be of no help, and he feared the stress in the room would elevate too high to be handled. "All I ask is that you and your family give it great thought. I don't recommend you gambling with the time that you have left." With his last words, Dr. Henrich gave a nod of apology and departed from the room.

"Brian..." Leighanne whispered.

"I don't want to talk about it, Leigh. Please..." Brian mumbled weakly, avoiding her stare.

"But-"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"Mommy..." Baylee whimpered quietly as he began to squirm within Leighanne's arms. His lips puckered into a saddened pout as his tiny fists clung to her simple light grey tshirt.

Leighanne stared down at the sparkling blue orbs of her son's eyes, fighting back the tears that were threatening to burst forth. "Oh sweetheart, what's wrong?" she soothed, offering as much of a smile as she could possibly muster. She watched as her child struggled into a upright position, rubbing tiredly at his face. His curls stuck out in every direction, giving him an all too uncanny resemblence to his father. It struck a sour chord in Leighanne's heart.

"Daddy gots a heart ache," Baylee answered, stiffling a yawn. "Gots sickies in his heart."

"You're right sweetheart," Leighanne nodded softly. "Lots of sickies."

"Doctor gonna make Daddy feel better."

"I sure hope so."

"'Cause no want Daddy sad no mo..." Baylee mustered and unlatched himself from his mother's arms. He carefully climbed from her lap to the bed and paused at his father's side, his bottom lip pouting outwards. Then without saying a word, he threw his arms around Brian's neck and rested his head on his father's shoulder. "Love you Daddy," he whispered moments later, unmoving an inch.

Brian felt himself taken aback from his child's innocence. Baylee had no idea; he was too young to understand. But it still didn't stop him from believing he could change the world and Brian couldn't bring himself to change his son's way of thinking and break his spirit down. Instead, he brought his arms up and wrapped them around Baylee's frame, holding him close. Even if Baylee couldn't change Brian's whole world, he was at least thankful for his son's capability to make him forget his troubles, if even for just a moment.
Chapter 9 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
I'm gonna have to pull the "lack of time" card again to explain why I have been absent from updating for a while. But I have finally finished the chapter and I have most of the next chapter planned. I just need to get started on it. Just wanted to assure you all that I haven't gone on another hiatus like I have in the past. I also have another story idea in the works that is being influenced from Brian and I staying at a haunted hotel this past week for our one year anniversary. So hopefully I will have some new material posted soon. Anywho, hope you all enjoy the chap!
Chapter 9:

The instant the warm heat from the sun hit his face, he breathed a sigh of relief. He sucked the fresh air into his lungs, happy to be free for a short while from the confines of the thick walls of the hospital. The weather had improved considerably since the rain storm they had seen pass through the area days before, and he was at least thankful for the opportunity to venture outside, despite the extra physical stress he could feel weighing down on his body. He sat quietly, listening to Leighanne's footsteps pad softly behind him as she pushed the wheelchair in which he sat. His wife hadn't said a word since they had stepped outside, and for the time being he had been content with the silence, allowing himself to enjoy the warmth. Now it sent his nerves running wild, and suddenly the silence wasn't so comforting anymore. "Leigh..." he spoke out, unable to do anything but stare straight ahead. "Baby, talk to me."

"I'm sorry," Leighanne apologized as she leaned forward and placed a soft kiss atop his head. Yet the show of affection wasn't nearly as friendly or heartfelt as Brian had expected it to be. He found it laced with a tense hesitation and he didn't like it one bit. "I was just thinking."

"Want to tell me what about?" Brian questioned, grimacing as Leighanne wheeled him up over a bump and onto the path that lead into the courtyard in the outside center locale of the hospital. The path curved to the right, taking them further from the opening. "Frankly speaking, the silence is becoming a little deafening, if you know what I'm saying."

"I find it kind of peaceful," Leighanne answered absentmindedly.

"You know what I mean," Brian said, his brows creasing. "I don't like it when you're this quiet. I just wish you would talk to me." Once again Leighanne didn't answer. She moved them slowly along the path, curving again to the right when it split off in opposite directions. Strategically placed bushes lined the path on both sides, the shades of green varying from dark to light, an attempt to provide peaceful privacy and comfort for the patients of the medical facility. Periodically they passed by an eloquently designed half moon stone bench, flowers the hues of purples and pinks littered the grass in perfect setup. As much as he hated to admit at that very moment, Brian couldn't deny the fact that he was in awe of the design of the development. He just wished he was there for a different reason, or not there at all.

Then just as quickly as they had started moving, Leighanne brought them to an abrupt halt. The movement sent a shock of surprise through Brian's body, so much so, that he twisted in his seat to stare at his wife, only to find her hastily turning her head in the other direction to avoid his stare. "Leigh..." he whispered, reaching out to lightly graze her arm with his fingertips, but she shied away from his touch.

"I...I don't know what to say," Leighanne stuttered, hugging herself against a non existent draft. She furiously tried to blink back the tears that were burning at the corners of her eyes, but from the single tear that had slipped down her cheek, she had already failed at doing so. "I don't even know what to think," she continued. "Everything was ok when I left. You were fine. How could this be happening? How did it happen?"

"I don't know," Brian struggled to answer, twisting further in his seat, hating the way it seemed that his wife continued to inch further away from him. "I never knew anything like this was going to happen. I didn't want anything like this to happen. I didn't mean for it to happen. Leigh, please...don't stand so far away-"

"Oh Brian," Leighanne whispered, raising a clenched fist to her mouth to stiffle a soft cry. Her bright eyes glistened over as she took a faltered step forward. She watched him intensely, her body visibly trembling. Stopping at his side, she leaned down and cupped his face in both her hands. "I didn't mean it like that," she mustered, "But you have me so worried right now. What are we going to do about this? How are we going to fix this?"

Brian stared at his wife in a dumbfounded state of stupidity. He had been asking himself the same questions since everything had happened and he had still yet to come up with an answer that would solve it all. "I don't know, Leigh. I honestly don't know," he answered quietly. "I haven't even had the chance to grasp the fact that this is even happening-"

"But certainly we musn't just sit back and let you fade away-"

"Don't say that," Brian recoiled in an awed shock. His wife's fearful words struck an awful chord in his chest and made him physically sick to his stomach. He heaved a deep breath into his lungs, his heart palpitating wildly. "I-I'm not gone yet. I'm not going anywhere."

Leighanne stared at her husband. He appeared so tattered and torn, as if his whole self being had been shattered from his ailment. He resembled nothing of the man she had left behind a month before. It terrified her. His eyes drooped to hint at his exhaustion and his skin had paled so considerably that it hinted nothing towards its normal golden hue that Leighanne adored so much. "I don't want to lose you period," she stressed unevenly, her voice faltering with nearly every word. "This just isn't right, Brian."

"You aren't going to lose me," Brian said and instinctively reached out to grasp his wife's hand, only to be left in surprise as she pulled away. "Leigh-"

"How can you say that?" Leighanne returned sharply. "How do you know? Have you even listened to what your doctor has been telling you? This isn't something that is just going to go away. It's your heart, Brian. Your heart."

"I know-"

"Then how can you just sit there and deny the options that are available to you? Why are you refusing the help?"

"I-"

"You what?"

"It's not that easy."

"What isn't that easy?"

"You think I want this to be happening? God, Leigh, my mind is racing right now! I can't process anything! I'm scared to death because I don't know what is going to happen to me!"

Leighanne lowered herself to her knees in front of her husband, forcing the tears to remain at bay. She placed both hands upon his knees, feeling the way he shook beneath her touch. "Then why are you so against that hospital Dr. Henrich mentioned? If it can help you, why-"

"Because I don't want to lose you and Baylee. I am scared of being taken away from the both of you," Brian attempted to explain, but all he could manage were a few feeble sentences and his voice failed to project further. His vision blurred as he watched the distress intensify within the beautiful features of his wife's face. He had missed her when she was away more then anyone could have understood and he had never imagined their reunion would be anything like it was at the present. Brian had imagined welcoming his wife home into his open arms where he would be allowed to make up with her the time they had been missing. Instead he found himself struggling to make his wife, and himself, understand just what was happening before them.

"What about us though?" Leighanne pressed. "Have you thought about what it would do to us if we lost you forever? Your parents? Your friends? Myself? What about your children?"

"Baylee is-" Brian opened his mouth to answer but found himself falling silent as he searched Leighanne's eyes for what he assumed he had just heard his wife speak. His heart raced further as he fumbled to grab her hands tightly. "Y-you just..." he stuttered, swaying slightly. He wasn't sure if it was from the heat or from the dizzying revelation he was trying to clarify. "My children...I don't understand?"

"I'm..." Leighanne hesitated.

"You're p-pr-...pregnant?"

Leighanne glanced away briefly before offering a short nod.

"When did you find out?"

"Maybe a week after I left?" Leighanne answered meekly. "I had my suspicisions...I had overshot my period by several weeks, but I figured it was probably due to all of the stress leading up to the final filming process. But then...I started getting sick frequently in the morning. I knew what the test was going to say before I even took it. I was having the same symptoms that I had before we found out about Baylee..."

"All those times we talked...why didn't you tell me?"

"I wanted to surprise you when I finally made it home," Leighanne attempted to explain. "I'm naturally worried sick because this is happening to you, but don't you see now there is someone else being affected by this?"

"Leigh, I...we're going to have another baby?"

"We are."

"Does anyone else know?"

"Only you."

Brian sunk into the wheelchair, pulling Leighanne up into his embrace. He held her close, ignoring the pain that surged through his body. Suddenly everything became all the more complicated and he couldn't help but let the tears start to fall once more.

*****

The buzz around the hospital that a high status patient had been admitted on one of the floors had spread like a wild fire, much faster then Marge could have cared for. She could hear the hushed whispers as she passed by the younger female nurses, but she paid not a bit of attention to the gossip. She kept strictly to her daily duties, the job for which she was being paid. However, Marge couldn't help but notice the stares of envy she received each time she prepared to walk into Brian Littrell's room, the man causing all of the excitement. Not many were permitted to enter due to strict orders, and being she was one of the many few on the hospital staff overlooking his care, she saw to it that his privacy remained well respected.

Carefully balancing a medical chart atop the lunch tray she carried in her grasp, Marge paused shortly just before his closed door. She reached out to twist the handle, and upon hearing it click, she leaned her hip into the large door and pushed her way into the room. "Good afternoon, Mr. Littrell," she called out politely to make her presence known. She looked over the stack in her arms to find her patient lying on his side, his back facing her direction. He was the only one present in the room, a change from the group of family that had congregated to his side recently. When she didn't receive a reply, she moved closer, stepping to the opposite side of the bed. His eyes were open, but he seemed to be staring rather blankly out the window. "You are awake. I was afraid you may have been sleeping," Marge mentioned, placing the tray down and opening the medical chart to shortly glance at the scrawls of writing. "I brought your lunch."

Brian shifted ever so slightly under the layers of blankets and mumbled a small reply, not once removing his gaze from the window.

"I'm sorry dear, but I'm afraid you will have to speak up a little. I have become a bit hard of hearing in my old age," Marge chuckled, looking up from the papers. She found a pair of clouded blue eyes staring back at her, although vacant of all expression. "I suppose you will be pleased with today's selection for lunch," she continued. "Dr. Henrich has promoted you to solid foods."

"I'm not hungry," Brian grumbled in reply, looking away once more.

"But you must eat, dear, so you can regain your strength. You haven't eaten a thing since you were admitted. Certainly you aren't feeling well-"

"Exactly. I don't feel well, so I don't want to eat."

"Is your medication making you ill again?"

"No."

Marge frowned, lowering the medical chart. "Why so blue today, Mr. Littrell?" she questioned and began to busy herself in checking Brian's vitals. She motioned for him to sit up and placed a blood pressure cuff around his upper left bicep. "I figured you would be smiling non stop since your wife arrived. Charming woman she is."

A small smile teased the corners of Brian's mouth, but the sign of emotion was gone almost as fast as it had appeared. Brian sighed, feeling the pressure against his muscles as the cuff tightened around his arm. "I'm ecstatic," he answered quietly.

Marge removed the blood pressure cuff from Brian's bicep and set it aside. She placed the end of the stethescope against his chest and listened intently for a moment."Then where is that smile of yours that I have seen a time or two since you have been here?"

"It's on vacation?" Brian answered meekly.

"I doubt that, dear."

"Sorry, I just have a bit on my mind right now."

"Anything you need to talk about?" Marge offered.

Brian shook his head. "No. It's just something I need to be able to process. Haven't been able to do so yet."

"Well, if you need to talk, between the needle poking and vitals checking, I have two ears I can lend you."

"I appreciate the offer, Marge. Really."

There was a disturbance towards the door at that moment as Marge straightened her posture and removed the lid from the lunch tray. The aromas from the meal inside immediately wafted into Brian's nostrils and sent his stomach twisting into tight knots of disgust. He looked back up at Marge as she smiled apologetically. "Sorry, dear. It's hospital food I'm afraid."

"Am I interrupting?" a voice called out from the doorway. Both turned their heads just in time to see Kevin stepping into the room, hesitantly moving forward. He peered towards his cousin's bed, finding the nurse beginning to prepare the meal before him. "Ah, I see I'm just in time for lunch," he attempted to joke, noting the look of disgust upon Brian's face.

"Help yourself," Brian grimaced, motioning to the tray.

"I think I may have to pass," Kevin declined. "Kris and I stopped for lunch before coming here."

"I don't blame you for not wanting to eat this sludge," Brian grumbled in return. "I thought you said I had been promoted to solid food?" he questioned Marge.

"Baby steps, Mr. Littrell," Marge replied with a smile and turned to Kevin. "Very nice to see you again, Mr. Richardson."

"And you as well," Kevin answered politely with a nod.

"I'll leave you and your cousin to visit," Marge said. "I know your lunch appears unpleasant, Mr. Littrell, but do try to eat."

"So that is what they try to feed you here?" Kevin joked lightly as he took a seat.

"I'd hardly call it food," Brian said, replacing the cover on the tray.

"Well, good news is my lunch was decent."

"Ha ha...you're funny."

"I know I am. Just ask me."

"I'd kill for a Big Mac right now."

"I'll keep that in mind."

"Where's Kristin?"

"In the cafeteria getting juice and peanuts."

"Odd combination."

"That's not the worst of it. You don't even want to know about the craving she woke up with last night and made me run out to get at four in the morning."

"Spare me."

Kevin chuckled. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say she's pregnant."

Brian withheld a gasp as a certain pang struck him in the core. He tore his gaze away from his older cousin, unaware of the bewildered stare that cast across Kevin's face. Leighanne's revelation echoed in his mind as he took a deep breath and squinted at the window. "You never know," he drawled slowly. "You guys have been trying for a while now?"

The shrug was evident in Kevin's voice. "Trying, yeah. Just not having any luck. Kris is a bit discouraged. She won't admit it, but I can see it in her face everytime one of us brings the subject up."

"You both deserve a child."

"So what's the latest news?" Kevin questioned casually, although he was sure his attempts at small talk weren't turning out nearly as well as he had planned. He couldn't keep his mind from returning to the moment he had watched Brian collapse to the ground and then the horrifying news they had all learned of shortly after. Kevin had a hard time believing it was even possible at all.

'I'm still dying' Brian thought with a grimace, but couldn't bring the shameful words to pass his lips. He turned to Kevin with an impish smile. "I've been promoted to solid foods," he giggled.

Kevin groaned. "Sounds like something Nick would say when he's supposed to be acting serious."

"I'm easily influenced," Brian shrugged with a grin. "What can I say?"

"Uncle Harold told me Nick stopped by to visit yesterday," Kevin mentioned seriously.

"Stopped by to visit?" Brian scuffed. "He practically ran out on me after five minutes."

"You sound like you were just dumped by a girl," Kevin replied, raising a brow in humor, even when the concern still coated his tone and he hated the dejection reflecting in Brian's demeanor.

"It was his choice."

"You can't hold it against him," Kevin answered quietly, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees. He fisted his hands beneath his chin and studied his cousin further. "He's just scared...we all are. You know how Nick is. He's never reacted well to things like this."

"You mean me dying?" Brian glared.

"Brian..."

"Yeah, you're right. I've never reacted well to myself dying either."

"That's not what I meant," Kevin answered sullenly as he sunk back into his chair, allowing his voice to die out. The two locked gazes in silence for several minutes. Kevin found the tense pressure in the room nearly unbearable as the silence thickened.

"T-they want to send me away to some institution," Brian spoke moments later, catching Kevin off guard from the weakness in his voice.

"Send you away?" Kevin tried to clarify. "Who?"

"My doctor...mom and dad...Leigh," Brian answered, coughing roughly to clear his throat. "It's um...it's a cardiac hospital they want to put me in until a donor heart can be found."

"That's good then, right?"

"No, it's not."

"I don't understand."

"Kev, they want to lock me away," Brian snapped, his eyes turning a deeper darker shade of sapphire. He rubbed at his temples, grimacing towards the pounding that had developed and continued to elevate. "They are trying to send me to this institution where I will be locked up and kept away from my family. And there is a chance that a donor heart may never be found. Do you know what that means?"

"Bri-"

"Why is this happening to me?" Brian trembled, his body shaking with the anxiety that plagued his very being. He drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms tightly around them. "Why now, huh? Why is this happening now? After all these years...?"

It was a question Kevin found himself unable to answer, no matter how far he searched the depths of his mind. He didn't understand it either and that scared him. "I wish I could answer that cuz, but I can't."

Brian scuffed with a strangled laugh. "Nobody seems to be able to."

"They're still running tests aren't they? Surely they will find some cause and be able to give you answers," Kevin suggested, although he couldn't even get the strong conviction to project in his tone. And it was obvious Brian saw the doubt in his eyes.

"Leigh's pregnant again," Brian blurted in such a low octive that he spoke in nearly a whisper. He released his arms from around his knees and pushed the blankets away from his body. Standing from the bed, he stepped towards the window to shield himself from the expression of shock that passed over Kevin's face.

"When did you find out?" Kevin asked.

"This morning after she got here," Brian barely answered, his shoulders slumping.

"That's great news though, cuz!" Kevin said as he rose from the chair and walked towards his cousin. He paused just a step behind him, hesitating. "Aren't you happy about it?"

Brian turned. "I find out I am dying and then I find out my wife and I are going to be having another baby. Where can I find the chance to be even remotely happy?"

"You're going to have another child though-"

"And I'll be taken out of it's life before it will even get the chance to know who it's father is," Brian stuttered, faltering where he stood. "I'm not going to get the chance to watch my son grow up and now another child is being brought into this?"

"But you don't know that for sure-" Kevin began to argue but fell silent as Brian let forth an agonizing sob of despair and all Kevin could do was wrap the shorter man in a strong embrace.
Chapter 10 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
So my original goal was to post an update for the story once a week. Well, obviously that hasn't been happening. It's been more like every two weeks, so I'm going to try to keep it at an update every two weeks now. That seems to be working well for me. Anyway, hope you enjoy the chap. Love hearin' what y'all think of it!
Chapter 10:

As he pulled up to the towering black iron fence and lowered the window, AJ didn't expect an answer when he reached out and pressed the bell that would make his presence known to whoever was within the expansive household ahead of him. The silence thickened as he continued to sit there and wait, but with no surprise, he never received a response. He pressed the button several more times before finally entering the code against the keypad. The heavy gate immediately began to swing open and AJ directed the car slowly forward, peering up at the mansion through the windshield with a sigh of annoyance. Everything appeared in order and if he wouldn't have known any different, he would have suspected that nobody was home. But he knew better; they all did.

Rough gravel crunched under the soles of his shoes and he stepped from the vehicle and into the blazing warm mid afternoon air. AJ pressed his sunglasses further up the bridge of his nose and slowly moved towards the steps leading up to the front door. He contemplated his next move for a moment before raising his fist and slamming it against the door multiple times. Like before, he received no answer and he growled in frustration, knowing more then likely his friend would be unwelcoming.

There was an oddly placed small flower pot stowed in a shadowed corner to the right of the door and AJ crouched before it, studying it carefully. He rolled his eyes seconds later as a memory sparked and he reached toward the uneven potting soil piled inside. He moved the soil around for a moment, making a hole several inches deep until he finally uncovered a tiny metal box which he immediately removed from the pot and pulled towards him. AJ unhooked the small latch on the front and lifted the lid, grinning slightly when he found what he was looking for inside. He grabbed the key and stood, allowing the box to fall to the step with a loud clang, which he ignored. The key slid perfectly into the lock and clicked. AJ twisted the handle and pushed the door open and stepped inside.

The air was considerably cooler and made way for a dead silence. AJ kicked the door shut with his foot and tossed the key to the small table beside him. He looked around, listened. Not a sound registered in his ears. He walked through the front foyer, across the white marble tiles and entered the living room. It was empty just as he had expected. "Where the Hell you at Carter?!" he called out, wincing as his voice echoed through the seemingly empty household. He crossed the threshhold of the living-room and began to ascend the large staircase, dodging randomly placed items of clothing Nick had semed to of just carelessly thrown about. His friend's lack of cleanliness came as no surprise. Nick had never held much regard for order in his life when he was at home. AJ couldn't blame him though. He himself failed miserably when it came to housekeeping.

A long dark hallway loomed at the top of the stairs and AJ hesitated for a slight moment before climbing the final step and trudging along the soft carpet. The floor padding cushioned each step as he made his way closer to the room at the end of the hall. The door was semi closed and he peered in silently, squinting at the darkness shadowed vicinity. With the drapes drawn AJ could hardly see a thing. He stepped in and moved towards the bed where he could barely make out the crumpled form of his friend buried beneath a heavy pile of blankets. Without a second thought he reached for the nearest pillow and sent it slamming down onto the top of Nick's head with as much force as he could possibly manage, producing a muffled, disgruntled groan. Immediately Nick began to shuffle within the tangle of blankets, yelling a string of obscenities as the pillow came slamming down once more.

"What the flying shit?!" Nick spat as he roughly threw the covers away from his body and struggled to sit up. He fought wildly to untangle the blankets from around his ankles, unaware of the bewildered stare coming from the culprit of the pillow attack. It was only when he finally stopped thrashing around that he noticed AJ standing beside the bed, clutching the pillow tightly in both hands. "AJ! What the fuck is your problem?! Better yet, what are you doing here?! No, how did you even get in here?! Breaking and entering is a felony!"

"Shut your flapping trap, Nick," AJ replied non-chalantly as he sent the pillow sailing to the bed. He walked over to the floor to ceiling bay window and withdrew the drapes before turning back around to face his speechless friend. "Don't pull the breaking and entering bullshit card on me. I'm not the retard who, while drunk, told everyone where he hides his spare key. Besides-"

Nick groaned in disgust and collapsed back against the mattress, rubbing at his temples. "What the Hell are you even doing here? It's seven in the morning," he interrupted, dragging a pillow to shade his face from the glaring rays of the sun shining through the window.

AJ was at his side in a second pulling the pillow away. "Try one thirty in the afternoon," he glared.

"Well thanks for the wake up call. Now get out!"

"I came here to get your lazy ass out of this place and to the hospital where you should be."

Nick stared at him stupidly for a moment. "Get out of my house, AJ. I'm not going," he finally answered, his eyes turning a murky shade as he pinched the bridge of his nose in concentration. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and moved to stand up, but AJ defiantly blocked his path. "What is your problem?!"

"My problem is you and your selfish attitude," AJ growled, crossing his arms over his chest and planting his feet firmly against the floor.

"Be your opinion as it may. But I'm not going," Nick repeated. He brushed past AJ and bent to retrieve a crumpled tshirt from the floor, pulling it down over his head. "I can't go there."

"Why the Hell not?" AJ asked, watching him carefully. "He needs you there."

Nick scuffed with a sarcastic nod. "Needs me there? I'm sorry but I disagree."

"Are you even listening to yourself right now? How can you just stand there and turn your back on him like that?"

"You're wasting your time, AJ," Nick sighed. "Just go away and leave me be."

"I'm not going anywhere until you give me a damn good reason why you are giving up on B," AJ gritted.

"Why shouldn't I give up on him when he has already given up on himself?" Nick argued, although his voice didn't project nearly as strong as he had planned. It faltered with each word until he finally blew out a strangled breath.

"You're insane!"

"No! You don't understand! I was there in his room the other day when he was refusing help and I was there when he damn near had another heart attack! I saw the death in his eyes, AJ! You didn't!"

"How do you think Kevin felt when he watched his cousin collapse and nearly die right before his eyes?" AJ suddenly burst, shoving Nick backward onto the bed. He towered over him dangerously, pointing an accusing finger in the man's face. "Did you stop to think that maybe he was scared then and still is? Yet he's at the hospital supporting Brian like he should be. Like we all should be. We weren't there for B like we should have been the first time he had problems with his heart. But I for one don't plan on making that mistake again. What's happening to B is serious Nick...very serious and you're just going to shun him away?"

"J..."

"Because if that's what you're going to do, then I'm not sorry to say that you're a pathetic excuse for a friend and you disgust me!"

"T-that's not fair..." Nick stuttered.

"No?" AJ clarified with a raised brow. He began to back step towards the door. "Then you have five minutes to get dressed and prove me otherwise. I'll be waiting in my car." He slammed out the bedroom door, leaving Nick laying there in a stunned silence.

*****

The ride to the hospital had thus far been completely silent, minus the constant dull hum that came from the vehicle's engine. AJ kept a steady grip on the steering wheel, training his focus straight ahead while Nick hadn't shown any signs of life since slumping into the passenger seat. AJ would periodically steal a glance in the blonde's direction, but chose not to speak a word. He wouldn't admit it right then, but he felt guilty for the dejection reflecting in Nick's eyes. He just couldn't understand Nick's reasoning when it came to the matter of what was happening to their close friend and he wasn't so sure he would ever be able to understand it. For the time being, AJ figured it would be better if the subject was laid to rest. Maybe forcing Nick to face Brian once more would be enough to get the younger man to open up. AJ could only hope.

The interstate was clogged heavily with commuters that afternoon. AJ could feel the impatience radiating from every vehicle around him as he found them stuck in stop and go conditions for nearly the entire duration of the drive. So when he finally sent them sailing freely down the exit ramp, AJ let a sigh of relief escape his lips. Mainstream traffic along the city streets proved to be an improvement from the flow of traffic on the freeway. They encountered only the occasional back up and found navigation to not be a problem. If only the dense blanket of silence could be broken, then he would have found the drive to be rather relaxing. AJ decided to try his luck and attempted to strike up a conversation. "So, uh...you still seeing that one chick?" he asked lamely.

There was a subtle clearing of Nick's throat. He kept staring out the passenger window. "The tennis coach?"

"No, the other one."

"The kindergarten teacher?"

"No."

"The Hooters waitress?"

"Yeah right, Nick. You? Dating a Hooters waitress?" AJ snickered, surprised for once that Nick had broken his vow of silence without putting up any sort of fight.

"Ok, maybe we didn't date," Nick shrugged casually. "But we did have a really steamy one night stand."

AJ chuckled. "Just admit it. You're single right now."

"So what? Maybe I am enjoying not being tied down. Besides, you're in the same boat as I am. I haven't seen a girl hanging on your arm anytime lately."

"Point taken..." AJ trailed, watching Nick sink back into his silent pit. He stared forward once more, ignoring the various buildings and signs that seemed to fly by in a blur of undistinguishable colors. "Would you stop slumping in that seat like a pile of trash? You're making my car look like shit!" AJ blurted before he had even realized he had spoken. He slammed roughly on the brakes as they sped up to a red light, sending Nick flying into the dashboard with a grunt of displeasure. AJ paused for a moment, inhaling deeply. He glanced to his right, seeing Nick gripping the dashboard, puzzled. "Sorry," AJ mumbled, slowly moving them forward. "Listen...I'm sorry for how I acted earlier, alright?"

"I don't want to talk about it," Nick answered flatly.

"Nick," AJ sighed, "We're all in this together-"

"Damnit J, I don't want to talk about it!"

AJ pursed his lips as he directed the car into the hospital parking lot. Pulling into an empty slot, he killed the engine and they sat there in silence for a second. Without a word, they both stepped from the vehicle and into the afternoon blazing heat. AJ slipped the keys into his pants pocket, keeping a steady eye on his younger friend. Nick slumped in posture even as he walked. The blonde kept his eyes focused on the pavement, leaving AJ to wonder. It appeared as if he were fighting back something he wished none in the world be able to see. "Nick-" Before he could say anything further, AJ felt the breath catch in his throat as a rush of foot steps came towards them quickly from behind. Nick gasped out as their path faltered and they were stopped just short of the entrance doors.

"AJ! Nick! A moment of your time!"

"Shit..." AJ hissed beneath his breath as he slowly turned. He felt himself stumble backwards as a camera flew near his face, the flash blinding his vision temporarily. He blinked, catching a glimpse of Nick who appeared just as baffled and taken aback. A slew of reporters congregated around them eagerly. "Please, we need to get inside," he attempted to force his voice strongly, but it hardly projected.

"Is it true that Brian has been admitted as a patient at this hospital?" one reporter called out.

"Brian has been admitted for medical treatment-" AJ started to answer, however he was almost instantly interrupted by another reporter.

"A source has informed us that Brian is on his death bed and will not live much longer! Is this true?"

"Brian is not dying!" Nick burst, moving to take a threatening step forward. AJ grabbed his arm in a tight grip.

"We have no more comments right now and we really must get inside," AJ stated, pulling Nick back.

"And when can we expect an official statement from the group regarding Brian's condition?"

"A press conference will be held soon."

"When?" the reporter pressed. There were more flashes from the cameras.

"When we fucking feel like it! Leave us the Hell alone!" Nick spat. AJ withheld a groan as he dragged Nick through the automatic revolving doors, leaving a flurry of questions unanswered as they hurried from sight.

*****

Kevin watched over Brian's son in an absentminded manner as the small child busied himself with the new electronic car his mother had presented him with as a returning gift. The toy sufficed enough to hold the boy's attention and allow the three adults in the room to keep their minds geared towards more pressing matters. A small smile curled upon Kevin's lips as he felt Kristin reach out and grasp his hand. "I'm ok..." he mumbled, wondering if he was saying it more for Kristin's benefit or his own. He peered across the room to where Howie was standing upon one of the chairs, attempting to switch the channels on the television set. Kevin almost let loose of a humored laugh towards his friend's height disadvantage until he saw Howie abandon the task and sink down into the seat with a troubled frown. He hadn't realized just how much they had worn thin over the past couple of days from the current situation. Kevin could only imagine how he himself must have appeared, considering he hadn't made much of an effort to stop and look in the mirror lately.

"Look Uncle Howie! I can make the car go super fast!" Baylee spoke up, hoping to grab the older man's attention. As Howie turned to look at the boy, Baylee moved his fingers wildly over the buttons on the remote control, grinning in concentration. The small car sailed across the floor in Howie's direction before spinning out of control at the last second and colliding roughly with Howie's feet. Baylee's mouth formed a tiny perfect "o" as Howie cried out in surprise. "Uh oh Uncle Howie..." Baylee whispered in awe. "Car crashed..."

"It hurt too," Howie grumbled, reaching down to massage his sore foot through the material of his shoe. But he managed a smile for Baylee's sake, seeing the sudden frown and hint of tears that had appeared.

"Sowwy..."

"Good, you're both here!" AJ raved as he came storming quickly into the room, Nick following in tow a few steps behind.

"Where's the fire?" Kevin questioned, noticing the bewildered expression his friend was sporting as he paused just a foot in front of him. However, AJ stood there not answering as his chest heaved in and out to catch his breath. "What is wrong, J?"

"Seems someone leaked to the media that Brian is here," AJ finally answered.

Kevin frowned, pulling himself to sit fully erect in his seat. "Why do you say that?" he asked hesitantly, even though he knew it was a pointless question before he let it slip from his mouth. They all knew it would happen eventually.

AJ removed his sunglasses hastily and took a seat. "Nick and I just got bombarded by a group of reporters outside the entrance of the hospital," he said.

Kevin pondered the revelation a moment. "Was it bad?" he questioned, releasing Kristin's hand to rise and move towards the window. He looked out but was disappointed to find they were facing away from the entrance. "What was said?"

"They wanted to know if B was here."

"What did you tell them?"

"I told them yes," AJ started to answer when he watched Kevin's frown deepen. "They're not stupid, Kev. And they're wanting a press conference from us and an official statement."

"And you said what?"

"Nick basically told them to shut the fuck up and leave us the Hell alone."

Kevin grimaced towards AJ's choice of language, seeing Baylee's ears instantly perk up at the sound. "Baylee's in the room so watch your mouth."

"Uncle AJ said a bad word," Baylee gasped in amazement.

"Sorry kid," AJ apologized.

Howie, who had been silent up until that point, spoke. "So where does this lead us-"

"We need to tell B," AJ interrupted.

"Not right now," Kevin answered as he turned back around to face the three pairs of eyes watching him. "Brian's got enough to worry about as opposed to a media frenzy over what is happening to him at the moment."

"What about a press conference?"

"We're gonna have to schedule one. We knew it would happen eventually...just don't think we were planning ahead from when it did happen."

"I'll call management and get a time for a press conference set up," Howie offered distractedly. He rose from his seat and quickly excused himself from the room.

"Kevin," Kristin called out. "Come sit down."

"I'd rather not," Kevin replied shortly.

"Uncle Nick?" Baylee spoke meekly as he tiptoed up to stand in front of Nick. When he didn't receive an answer, he lightly placed his hands upon Nick's knees and patted to grab his attention. "Uncle Nick?" he repeated with a small whimper.

"What's up lil' man?" Nick croaked with a rough voice. He looked down just as Baylee climbed clumsily into his lap and threw his arms around his neck.

"You sad and scared?" Baylee questioned.

"I..." Nick tried to answer, but he found himself at a loss for words. "Yeah...I am..."

"It's ok to be sad and scared, Uncle Nick," Baylee replied and rested his head carefully against Nick's shoulder. "Daddy is sad and scared too."

Nick's jaw dropped at Baylee's words. The four year old couldn't possibly comprehend the meaning of what was happening to their family, yet he had all the ability in the world to comfort those struggling with the reality with such simple words that stung Nick deep in his soul. All he found himself capable of doing at that moment was hold Baylee close and allow the despair to pull him further.
Chapter 11 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
Surprise, surprise! I think I have an update in under two weeks. Pretty amazing I'd say. And I have the four or five next chaps mapped out on paper so I am guessing updates should be quick for the next few chaps. Anyway, hope y'all like this chap. I'd love to know what y'all think!
Chapter 11:

The main lobby of the hospital shut down after seven in the evening, leaving the only entrance inside through the Emergency Room doors. The lobby remained quiet and abandoned until daylight rose the following day and the traffic of visitors of patients moved in and out on an hourly basis. However, on that particular evening, the grand room had been converted into an impromtu media area. It was abuzz with various levels of media personnel who had caught wind of Brian's admission into the hospital. Video recording devices were set up sporadically around the room and the lighting had multiplied a hundred percent its origional strength. A small plain rectangular table had been set up at the head of the room, four chairs tucked neatly behind. Several rows of identical stairs faced the table, waiting to be seated.

Howie stood with his faced pressed against the door, peering silently through a thin crack as he watched everything being set up. He'd forgotten about the cooling cup of coffee in his right hand as he tried to remember the last time they had given a press conference. He drew a blank, the middle of his forehead creasing with a frown. With a sigh he turned from the door and looked around the room for his three bandmates. AJ was at the furthest side of the room, his back turned and his cellphone pressed to his ear. Kevin and Nick stood a few feet to his left, speaking quietly with a representative from the hospital's public relations office. It took him a moment before he realized Kevin was motioning for him to come over. Howie discarded his coffee in the nearest waste bin and took slow steps towards the trio. "What's up?" he asked, noticing Nick's degraded posture and the way Kevin's shoulders seemed to slump as he stood there.

"Mr. Berris," Kevin answered, motioning to the man standing with them, "was just going over how we're going to run this. We're going to get started in a minute. Just wanted to make sure you were ready."

"I'm as ready as I'm going to be," Howie answered with a tight nod. He watched as Mr. Berris said something more to Kevin before turning and slipping out the door. AJ walked over.

"Mom sends her regards," AJ stated oddly, slipping his phone back into his pocket.

"Lets just get this over with," Kevin mumbled, looking from one face to the next. All he saw were the withdrawn expressions of his bandmates and he knew without a doubt they all matched his own expression. When he received no protests, he turned and led them over to the door. The handle was cold as he gripped the metal and gave it a soft twist. Mr. Berris was waiting for them on the other side of the doorway and motioned for them to follow.

The flashes of light started immediately when the four men stepped from the room and into the hospital's lobby. The crowd was small and limited strictly to selected media personnel, mostly local and some from the surrounding areas. They all took their respective seats at the conference table; AJ and Nick guarded the ends while Howie and Kevin filled the two middle places. They stared out at the crowd. Kevin leaned forward, crossing his arms atop the table and cleared his throat. "We want to start off by thanking you all for being here today on such short notice," he started in a somber tone. The microphone in front of him responded with a screeching feedback and he cringed. When the silence returned, he cleared his throat once more and opened his mouth to continue. "We know you are wondering about Brian and we want to be able to answer some questions you may have. Any questions we are unable to answer, you'll have to forgive us. But be assured that a doctor overseeing Brian's care will come forward. First question?"

"How is Brian doing?" a thick male's voice called out from the back row of spectators.

"Brian is doing as best as can be expected at the moment. He is currently recuperating from an emergency surgery he underwent five days ago," AJ answered. He glanced sideways in Kevin's direction and received a greatful smile before adding, "you'll have to excuse his absence this evening."

"What exactly is wrong with Brian?"

"His doctor would be able to better explain the details of his condition. But what I can confirm is that it does have to do with Brian's heart," Kevin explained, blinking as an aray of more flashes went off. He paused for a moment, just staring. There were pens poised above note pads. Hand held voice recorders were held in the air. Tiny red lights on video recorders captivated his attention. "Brian had been feeling ill for a couple of weeks. We don't yet know the exact cause of his illness...they are still running tests to determine that. However, Brian suffered from a heart attack which led to the emergency surgery AJ just mentioned a minute ago. Um-"

"What is his condition called?" It was another shout from the back.

"Again, the team of doctors overseeing Brian's care are still trying to determine the cause of his heart attack."

"Is it a direct result of the heart defect Brian has had since birth and didn't he have a surgery years ago to correct that defect?"

"We believe it is very possible that it could be a direct result and yes he did have a previous surgery that was supposed to of corrected the problem."

A woman in the second to front row stood up with an inquisitive look. "You all are currently in the process of recording a new album. How does this effect further recording plans and release dates?" she questioned.

Kevin looked to Howie. "I'll turn it over to Howie here and have him answer this one. He has been in constant contact with our management team and will be able to give you better details into the matter."

Howie inhaled deeply. "Our management and record is well aware of all that has been happening the past few days and we are postponing all recording and release dates of any album singles until we know for sure what we are dealing with here and until Brian is back to a healthy state, at which point he will be able to return to the studio and continue recording," he said, feeling the pit in his stomach grow deeper with the knowledge that he was basically lying through his teeth to the press right then. Truth be told, none of them knew for sure whether or not Brian would ever make it back to the studio or whether he would ever be performing on stage again. He knew better then to speak of such fears yet.

"When can Brian be expected to be released from the hospital?" another reporter asked.

"As of right now we don't know. His primary physician will be able to give you a better answer."

"Is Brian going to die?"

They all froze as the question was made. Silence seemed to drape over the room as the answer was anticipated. "I..." Kevin stumbled over his next words as he looked to his bandmates. They stared back with the same deadpan look reflecting in their eyes. "I beg your pardon?"

"Is his heart defect fatal?" the same reporter fired.

"Will he need further surgeries?"

"What is the plan to fix the problem?"

"Brian is stubborn," Nick stammered. "He doesn't let anything take him down easily."

"Brian has been placed on the national heart donor recipient list and that is all we have to say about that right now," Kevin interrupted, eying Nick wearily. He motioned for the others to stand as he pushed back his chair. "Any further questions will have to be answered by Brian's doctors. I'm sorry."

*****

Brian sat upright in the bed, staring numbly at the low volume television. It was the same position he had been in since watching the press conference nearly two hours earlier and he couldn't seem to get his mind off all that had been said. it almost sickened him to know the media was so eager to get all the facts concerning his ailment so they could make their evening deadlines and have the story printed in the morning papers, adding their own mind warping twists for just the right touch. He could just imagine how many headlines he would see come morning claiming he was on his death bed or how many would go so far as to claim he was already dead. If only they knew the full story because his bandmates had strategically manuevered around imperative details. His own cousin had refused to reveal the fact that he was indeed dying. Brian couldn't understand it. The media had their own suspiscions concerning Brian's fate and they would eventually find out about the truth. Why try to hide it?

"I'm sure Daddy won't mind if you ask him," Leighanne's voice echoed against his eardrums and pulled him from his seemingly catatonic state. He turned his head and glanced to his wife and son. Baylee's eyes sparkled as he hopped off his mother's lap and moved to Brian's bedside. He stood there smiling impishly up at his father, his lips moving in a whispered request. Leighanne watched, waiting for her son to speak louder and when Brian looked at her questioningly, she rolled her eyes and smirked. "He wants to cuddle and watch cartoons with you," she explained as Baylee nodded his head in agreement.

Brian appeared to ponder it for a moment. "Cat got your tongue?" he teased his young son, but when he received a look of confusion in return, he chuckled and opened his arms wide, beckoning his son onto the bed. Baylee scrambled up and nestled against his father's side. "Which cartoon?"

"SpongeBob..." Baylee answered shyly.

Brian cocked his head to the side. "I reckon SpongeBob may just be on right now," he replied, ruffling his son's hair. He looked to Leighanne with a small playful pout. "Mommy... A little help?"

"Certainly," Leighanne answered with a small smile and moved over to the television mounted on the wall. She carefully reached up to switch quickly through the channels, hoping to find the specific show her child had requested, knowing it would keep her child satisfied and happy for the time being. After several more channels, she landed on the correct station which indeed was playing the cartoon. The revelation produced an excited squeal and clapping of hands from the four year old, causing both parents to laugh. "I guess that will make due?" she continued to laugh, raising the volume.

"Look Mommy! SpongeBob!" Baylee called out, manuevering under the layers of blankets. "Come watch with me and Daddy!"

"Why don't you watch with Daddy while I go get us some dinner?" Leighanne suggested warmly, noticing the frown that instantly appeared upon her husband's face.

"You're leaving?" Brian asked.

"I'm only going down to the cafeteria and your dinner should be arriving soon anyways. Besides, Baylee and I haven't had dinner yet and I am eating for two now," Leighanne answered. "You're a big boy. You'll be alright."

"I guess..." Brian trailed childishly. He puckered his lips for a soft kiss which lingered longer then he expected. He grinned. "Alright...now you can go."

"Brian Thomas," Leighanne groaned and pulled away. She placed a quick kiss atop Baylee's head and left the room.

"Daddy in trouble?" Baylee questioned innocently.

"Not so much," Brian mumbled and allowed the sullen cloud to hang over his head once more as he returned his attention to the cartoon program. Knowing Baylee was content enough with the cartoon enabled Brian's mind to wander elsewhere. He grimaced as his son leaned roughly into his side, the pain radiating in his chest. He reached up to gingerly rub the skin around the surgical area, willing the pain to numb away. He forced a smile as Baylee glanced up at him once more and pulled the child closer, ignoring the pain.

The door opened loudly at that moment, making passageway for whoever was standing on the other side to walk in. Brian craned his neck to watch as Nick stepped into the room, pushing the door shut behind himself. "Hey," he greeted sheepishly, moving slowly towards the bed.

"Hey yourself," Brian greeted in return. He cocked an eyebrow as Nick stopped just short of the bedside, standing silently in place. "We're watching SpongeBob...care to join us?"

"SpongeBob only happens to be my favorite," Nick joked quietly and took a seat. He sat there in an odd position, staring blankly at the television.

"Didn't think I would see you around here for a while," Brian stated.

"Why do you say that?" Nick asked.

"Figured I scared you off pretty good the other day," Brian pointed out. He couldn't help but see the dejection appear on Nick's face as his words echoed throughout the room. "What are you doing here anyway? I thought you were out to dinner with everyone?"

Nick shrugged. "The service sucked so I came back here?" he attempted to explain, although he could tell Brian wasn't buying a word of it. It was a lame excuse, he knew that much. He just didn't feel like trying to explain his reasoning. That hadn't gone over well with AJ earlier that day and he was certain Brian wouldn't understand either. "You scared me shitless the other day...I'll admit that much. But that doesn't mean I don't give more then two cents worth of thought towards what is happening to you. I just didn't feel like being around a big crowd. The conference was bad enough so I came back here. Thought you, Leighanne, and Baylee could maybe use some company."

"You're always welcome with us Nick," Brian sighed, moving Baylee slightly so he could sit up straighter. "Don't ever second guess that again."

"I never second guessed-" Nick started to argue but when he noticed the steady glare Brian was shooting at him, he fell silent. "I'm sorry."

"For what?"

"I'm not sure, but that always seemed to work for Kevin back in the day."

"Well, I was taught never to say sorry unless I knew what I was apologizing for," Brian smirked.

"Now you're making fun."

"Shhh Uncle Nick! I cants hear SpongeBob!" Baylee growled, attempting an icy glare as he bolted upright and jabbed his father sharply in the ribs in the process. Brian cried out in surprise as his hands shot to his ribcage protectively. Baylee shuffled out of the bed and cowered in the chair next to the window.

"You ok?" Nick asked hesitantly.

"I'll...be fine," Brian gritted, clenching his eyes shut as he sunk back against the pillows. He felt foolish upon hearing Baylee's soft whimpers reach his ears, knowing he had frightened his child with his cry of pain. "It's ok Bay...you can come back over here. Daddy is fine."

"No. Hurt Daddy," Baylee whimpered.

"B...you sure you're ok?" Nick moved to stand.

"I'll be fine," Brian repeated sharply.

Nick found himself nodding, wondering whether he was doing it because he believed his friend's words or because he was trying to force himself to believe that in the end everything would be ok. "Brian?"

"What?"

"You alright?"

"Honestly?" Brian clarified in a whisper, sending a steady glare. "I hurt...I'm falling apart from the inside out...and to top it all off Nicky, I'm dying. There's not a thing I can do about it. So how do you think I'm?"

"I didn't mean it like that."

"I know. I'm sorry."

"Now who's apologizing?"

Brian chuckled, bringing a hand down over his face. "I don't think you'll ever change Nicky."

"And I don't think you'll ever stop calling me Nicky."

"Maybe when pigs learn to fly," Brian trailed with a miscievious wink. He withheld a sigh and looked over at his son who was once again captured by the cartoon on the television. He felt his stomach twist hard as a small smile toyed at his son's mouth. It was an innocent expression and it tore him apart inside to know his time was limited to witness such a treasure. "What am I going to do?" he found himself mumbling.

"Say what?" Nick tried to clarify as he leaned forward.

"I..." Brian tried but his voice faltered briefly. "Nothing. Forget it."

"B, just say it."

"Knock knock Mr. Littrell," a sweet voice called from the doorway. The two men looked up and Brian recognized Marge as she gingerly entered the room. She smiled sheepishly as she carried a tray in, one that looked identical to the one from earlier that day. "Ah, I see your cute friend is here to visit you this evening."

Nick could feel his cheeks burning as he attempted to shield his face. It didn't make him feel any less uncomfortable to hear Brian snickering in amusement. He shot a glare of annoyance towards his friend before finally glancing up to give a friendly nod of acknowledgement. "I'm Nick," he replied.

"You're quite the charmer Nick," Marge teased lightly as she set the tray down.

"Don't be fooled by that face," Brian joked. He watched as Marge lifted the lid carefully. "Please be a Big Mac. Please be a Big Mac," he chanted almost silently under his breath.

"I'm afraid not hun," Marge answered with a sympathetic smile. "However, I was able to get you something a little more appetizing this time. A cold turkey sandwich and fruit cup. I think you'll like it."

"Beggars can't be chosers I guess," Brian grumbled, scrunching his nose. "Thank you Marge."

"Will you be joining Mr. Littrell for dinner tonight?" Marge inquired, turning to Nick. "I'm sure I can supply you with a sandwich also."

"Um, no...that's alright. I've already ate," Nick lied, fighting the urge to turn his nose up in disgust.

"Very well then," Marge said as she quickly checked over the readings on the machines. "I can trust you'll make sure he eats every last bite?"

"I'm not his keeper. But ok."

"Do rest up tonight Mr. Littrell," Marge stated as she moved towards the door. "Dr. Henrich has you scheduled for tests and some extensive therapy tomorrow morning."

Brian waited until the nurse had stepped through the doorway before he hesitantly picked at the meal before him. He feel Nick's eyes watching him carefully. "I don't need your supervision."

"I wasn't trying to give it," Nick replied, leaning as far back into the chair as he could possibly manage. But Brian would have none of it, sending Nick's head spinning further. He looked off to the side as his friend discarded the sandwich. "I don't know what to tell you B," he choked hoarsely. "But I'm still here for you alright?"

Brian pushed the tray away with a disgruntled exhaling breath of air. "I appreciate the gesture...but unless it can keep me from dying then you are wasting your time. Just go home Nick."
Chapter 12 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
Ok, so it took me a little over 2 months to get this posted. But with the vaca I took and life in general, things sort of got in the way and I had to put this on the back burner for a while with very minimal progress. I'm starting a new job today so don't be surprised if it is a while before this is updated (as if y'all would be so surprised...). I'm really going to try my best to update this more often. Anyway, enjoy! Please let me know what you think!
Chapter 12:

It was pushing into mid afternoon as Brian sat on the edge of his hospital bed, slowly and carefully pulling a navy blue polo shirt over his head. Leighanne had brought him the clothing the night before, along with a pair of khaki cargo shorts and Nike running shoes to wear for when he was finally released from the hospital that afternoon. He paused in pulling the shirt down, his eyes traveling to the spot on his chest where the surgical site lay. It was covered strategically with medical gauze, hiding away the staples that were holding the incision together. He didn't care to see it much anyway. He had watched Marge and another nurse clean the site earlier that morning and found himself repulsed from the image. It was disgusting and he knew it would only leave another ugly scar from the trauma. Sighing, he hastily pulled the shirt down the rest of the way, wincing as a small pain burned. Although even the faint pain, a reminder of the recent surgery, wasn't enough to taint the joy he felt at finally being able to walk out the hospital doors and return home where he belonged. He felt suffocated trapped within the thick walls and the strong smells of disinfectants were enough to make him more nauseous then he already was. He looked forward to the simplicity of being back within his own household where the restrictions were little and the constant reminders of his ailment weren't staring him in the face from every angle.

Brian stood from the bed and smoothed the hem of the polo shirt before taking a few short strides to the window ledge where he stood stiffly staring out to the paved walkway several stories below. The sun was high in the sky with bright rays that eccenuated the scenic features surrounding the hospital. He could almost feel the fresh air hitting his face and for a moment he closed his eyes, allowing his imagination to drift him away from reality for a few precious seconds of bliss. But when he opened his eyes once more, he found himself still trapped within the walls surrounding him on all sides. He frowned and ran his fingers through his tassled locks, which he had left untamed for days on end.

He was still facing the window when a set of footsteps came into the room with an even pace. Turning, he watched as Dr. Henrich made his entrance. The man appeared worn down, hinting towards the long hours he pulled during each shift. Still the man walked forward with an air of endurance and proved he could keep himself together admist his exhaustion. Brian had to admire the doctor's perserverance. "How are we feeling, Mr. Littrell?" Dr. Henrich greeted with raised brows as he stopped just short of his patient. He clutched a few papers within his grasp and appeared as if ready for a lengthy conversation.

"Anxious to get out of here and go home," Brian answered shortly, wondering the effort to which he would have to put forth to avoid the lecture he knew his doctor was surely ready to give.

"I bet you are," Dr. Henrich answered and surprisingly offered a kind smile. Although Brian could still see the concern reflecting within the creases of the man's facial features. "Your wife just arrived and is down the hall at the nurses station filling out your release forms. However, I was hoping to have a few words with you before you leave.

"I suppose," Brian shrugged and slowly followed the doctor over to the bed. He took a seat on the edge while Dr. Henrich went for the chair beside.

"These are a few slips for the medication I want you to start taking, so you will need to get them filled as soon as possible," Dr. Henrich explained, holding out several small pink sheets of paper for Brian to take. When they had left his hands, he continued. His brows bent as he looked over the other multiple sheets left within his hands. "With the severity of your condition, you are going to have to make some serious lifestyle changes when you leave here today. Your diet will need to change and you will need to keep any strenuous activities at an utmost minimum. You realize this?"

Brian tried to focus on the doctor's scrawl, but the ink seemed to only blend together and form a blur. He was well aware of how his life was changing and what he was to look forward to. They had all made that perfectly clear to him since he had been admitted into the hospital and told that he had only a limited amount of time left to live. When he glanced up briefly, Dr. Henrich was watching him intently, waiting for an answer, though neither knew there was no point in giving one. Brian remained silent.

"Mr. Littrell," Dr. Henrich sighed. "I respect your wishes, and although I can't go against your decision to go home, I only wish that you would reconsider the opportunity you have to go to the cardiac center."

"I appreciate your advice..." Brian drawled. "But I've made my decision. I want to go home where I belong, despite whatever consequences doing so may bring."

"I understand that, Mr. Littrell, but-" Dr. Henrich started.

"I've made my decision," Brian repeated softly.

Dr. Henrich nodded and filed through the papers once more. "Then I can only wish you the best of luck and hope that you do keep in touch," he answered, his tone hinting at the lack of his willingness to let the argument drop. "You will need to schedule a follow up appointment with your regular doctor, at which time I will have your medical files sent over. Do rest up and keep any stress at a minimum."

"I will be sure to keep that in mind," Brian replied and as they rose to their feet, he reached out his hand, grasping the doctor's in his own. "Thank you, Dr. Henrich...for all of your help." Dr. Henrich returned the gesture then turned on his heels and left the room without further words. brian watched his retreating form before allowing the prescription papers to flutter to the bed top. He glanced down, letting his mind wander, until he heard another interruption disturb the silence of the room. Only he found himself pleasantly happy to watch as Leighanne shyly poked her head through the doorway, smiling just as happy as if she had never been absent from the room in the first place. Brian took a step forward. "Hey..." he breathed, nearly unable to contain the smile that was curling upon his lips.

Leighanne moved quickly to him and wrapped her arms carefully around his neck. "Hey yourself," she returned and pressed her lips lightly against his cheek. Leighanne pulled back. "I passed Dr. Henrich in the hall. He said you were dressed and ready to go."

"Been ready since I've been here," Brian murmured.

"You look as if you haven't slept in days," Leighanne mentioned with concern, brushing a few stray curls away from her husband's forehead.

"DIdn't sleep last night," Brian answered sheepishly. "Where's Baylee? I thought you were bringing him today?"

"Well," Leighanne started to explain, absentmindedly bringing a hand to her abdomen. Brian watched the subtle movement, knowing within time he would see a little bump upon his wife's stomach begin to expand and signify the new life that was growing within. "He's been up since seven this morning drawing pictures and helping Nana bake 'welcome home' cookies for his daddy. Now I assume he is still in a deep sleep in his bed where I left him before I headed here."

Brian appeared thoughtful for a moment, imagining the excitement his son must have expressed at the prospect of his daddy finally coming home. As it was, Brian's homecoming was all Baylee had been speaking of for days on end, besides him trying to work out the idea that he would be having a baby brother or sister within a few months time. Brian longed to see his son again. "I was looking forward to him coming this afternoon," he pouted playfully.

"You will get to see him soon enough," Leighanne smirked towards her husband.

Brian prepared to offer a sarcastic quip in return when Marge entered the room, navigating a hospital issued wheelchair closely in front of her. He had to withhold the groan of displeasure bubbling in his throat, but he had already known they wouldn't let him use his own two feet to walk out the hospital doors. "Suppose I won't be able to convince you to stay with us, Mr. Littrell?" Marge questioned, smiling apologetically when she noticed Brian's obvious hesitation towards taking a seat in the mobile chair.

"I'm afraid my wife might miss me too much," Brian grinned wryly and slowly lowered himself into the seat.

Marge patted his shoulder affectionately. "I will certainly miss you then. Your humor especially, when there isn't a frown on your face. You've been one of my best patients yet."

"Oh stop. You'll give me a cavity," Brian returned, pretending to shield his face to hide a nonexistant blushing tone in his cheeks.

"All ready to go then?" Marge chuckled, glancing at Leighanne for her nod of approval before turning her attention back to Brian.

Brian smiled coyly and stared straight ahead. He couldn't help but ignore the faint pain drumming in his chest. Despite the strong unease settling in his system, he found himself able to focus on one thing and one thing only: he was going home.

*****

He was content with the silence that had formed a thick blanket over the interior of the vehicle. The lack of words did nothing to tear his demeanor down, allowing him to sink comfortably back into the cushions of the passenger seat as Leighanne directed them along with the mainstream traffic on the roadways. He wanted nothing more at that moment then to be within his household, ignoring the outside world and all of the troubles that came along with it.

"Harry called this morning to check up on you. He wants you to give him a call when you get home," Leighanne mentioned as she reached to grasp her husband's hand. Brian made a mental note of the request to contact his brother, although his wife's words barely registered in his mind. He watched the scenery passing by thoughtfully as Leighanne turned onto their street of residence. His heart lept in his chest as they approached the gate to their house.

"Kevin's here?" Brian questioned quietly when he noticed his cousin's SUV parked in the half circular drive way.

"He wanted to make sure you made it home alright," Leighanne answered shortly.

Brian eyed his wife. "He didn't think you were capable of getting me from there to here safely?"

Leighanne cocked an eyebrow as she inched their vehicle through the opening in the gate. "Maybe he just wanted to be here when you made it home?" she suggested and came to a slow halt behind the SUV. She killed the engine and withdrew the keys. "Did you think about that?"

Brian glanced away, fumbling hesitantly with the latch on the seat belt. "Whew, pregnancy hormones starting already," he wheezed.

"Brian Thomas," Leighanne sighed and smacked his shoulder lightly.

Brian smiled coyly and stepped from the vehicle, pausing briefly as the sun sparkled against his face and a warm breeze grazed his skin. He looked up at his large household, pondering the massive structure. It felt as if it had been ages since he had last stood in that very spot, not the couple of weeks he had spent in the hospital. Yet he felt absolutely elated to be standing there. "Feels good to be home," he murmured as Leighanne appeared at his side.

"Then lets get you inside so everyone can see you," Leighanne suggested with a raised brow and gently nudged her husband forward. She carefully grabbed his arm and lead him towards the front door, keeping her pace perfect with his slow concentrated steps. "Are you alright?" she questioned a few short moments later when they paused briefly and Brian seemed to wince as he inhaled a deep breath.

Brian blinked and started to move again as if the episode hadn't just phased him. "Still getting used to feeling and moving around like a ninety year old senior citizen," he joked lightly and forced his feet to climb the carved stone steps leading up to the front door. He reached out for the handle but when it didn't turn, he stared at his wife quizically. "Why is the door locked?"

Leighanne shrugged and inserted the key into the lock hole, giving the object a sharp twist. The lock unlatched with a soundable 'click' and she gave the handle a second turn, pushing the door inward. They stepped into the domed entry hallway and immediately the familiar scents of the household invaded Brian's nostrils and took over his senses. "Mom? Dad? We're home," Leighanne called out only to have her voice echo back at her against seemingly empty walls.

Then footsteps were heard hurrying in their direction and Jackie Littrell appeared in the open doorway. Her eyes lit up and glistened with tears at the sight of her son standing before her. Even despite Brian's haggard appearance she was just happy to have him there in front of her. "Brian, you're home," she spoke warmly and moved forward to pull her son into a tight embrace.

Brian wrapped his arms around his mother's shoulders, allowing himself to enjoy the soft expression of his mother's affection. He pulled back after only seconds and noticed the tears that were brimming his mother's eyes and threatening to fall. "Mom, stop...there's no need to cry," he chuckled and hugged her once more.

Jackie muffled a tiny embarrassed laugh into the material of Brian's shirt and wiped at her eyes. "I'm just so glad you are finally home," she said and squeezed her son's hand.

"I'm glad to be home," Brian replied and felt himself being tugged forward as Jackie led them through the front walkway. "I told you I would be back."

"And not a moment too soon," Jackie answered with a delighted smile. "Come now. Your father is down in the den waiting to see you."

"And Kevin too?" Brian questioned.

"Kevin's here?" Jackie repeated, stopping abruptly so that Brian and Leighanne nearly collided into the shorter woman.

Brian raised a brow oddly towards his mother. "His car is in the driveway...?"

Like a lightbulb flashing on above her head, Jackie nodded almost too enthusiastically. "Oh yes, silly me. Of course Kevin is here. I have been far too busy in the kitchen today and haven't been able to visit much with him and your father. They've been oddly quiet too...almost like they aren't even here."

"Dad and Kevin quiet? Now there's an interesting concept," Brian smirked and continued to follow his mother slowly across the threshhold of his home. "Where's Baylee?"

"Asleep in his bed."

"Still?"

Jackie offered an amused smile. "Your son is quite the bundle of energy. It's a wonder who he may have gotten that characteristic from, with him bouncing off the walls all morning."

They walked in silence for several feet before reaching the set of stairs that would lead them to the den below and began to make the short trek downward. Brian's head swam with each step he took and he found himself unable to distinguish the cause of the feeling from his palpitating heart and the overwhelming feeling of exhaustion. Leighanne seemed to take notice in the sudden change in her husband's demeanor as she reached out to squeeze his hand with a small smile. It calmed his nerves and he inhaled a long deep breath.

When they reached the bottom landing Jackie took great care in grabbing the brass door knob and slowly twisted it to the right. The hinges on the door squeaked loudly to give evidence to their presence, only reminding Brian that he had yet to oil the hinges like he had been promising to do for weeks on end. He squinted as the bright lights from the room inside filtered into the darkened stairway and illuminated sillhouetes of their statures against the wall and then-

"Welcome home!"

The shout sent a shock of surprised electricity throughout the entirety of Brian's body. He stumbled backwards a step as he fumbled to look around the gathering in the room. He fought to focus on the bodies inching towards him, but he could only seem to sway dizzingly. His father was quickly making his way over, arms outstretched and he found himself engulfed in a smothering hug that knocked the breath from his chest. "Welcome home son," Harold was saying but the words didn't register.

Kevin was next to grasp his shoulders and give him a welcoming pat on the back. "Welcome back, cuz," the taller man grinned as Kristin gave a nod of agreement, and when their rightful turn for greetings was over, she stepped to Leighanne and engaged in conversation that one could only guess was about the new baby.

Brian stepped backwards from the oncoming engagement. Howie and AJ were coming at him from both sides, but he waved them off with a shaking hand. "W-what is all of this?" he questioned with a labored breath.

"You ok B?" AJ hesitantly asked.

Brian felt his insides twist sharply as their stares of concern radiated against his skin. "Why are you all here?"

"Everybody has been worried about you, son-" Harold started to answer.

Brian brought a hand up to his forehead. "I-"

"Brian, what's wrong?" Kevin called out.

"I don't need your stares of pity," Brian murmured, but his voice hardly projected. "You don't need to be here."

"Of course we need to be here," Howie stated.

"No, you don't," Brian answered, shaking his head.

"B-"

"You don't need to be here. Please, all of you...just go-"

"Brian?" Jackie uttered in a withheld surprise.

"Just go," Brian whispered and turned on his heels, storming up the stair case as fast as his worn body would carry him.

*****

Brian climbed the last step to the upstairs landing and felt his feet almost sink into the plush cream colored carpeting as he paused to catch his breath. His heart slammed madly against his ribcage and he couldn't get the stares of bewilderment from those who were only trying to care out of his mind. He just couldn't understand it and he really didn't care much to at that moment. With faltered steps Brian shuffled down the hallway into the dark shadows that were created from the lack of lighting. He stopped just short of the door of his son's bedroom and listened carefully, waiting to hear the soft even breathing that would mean Baylee was still sleeping. The child's room was just as dark as the hall if not for the small night light on the wall just inside the door.

He stepped through slowly and moved to the far side of the room where Baylee's bed, in the shape of a red race car, was placed. Within the realms of slumber, the child had managed to kick all of the blankets to the foot of the bed only to curl within the soft folds of his favorite blue blanket. Baylee had always been partial to the velvet fuzzy material which had been a present from his grandmother Littrell on the day of his birth. He had to drag it with him almost everywhere he went, which was ultimately causing the blanket to begin to fray along the edges. Brian smiled and carefully lowered himself to the edge of the bed. Golden blonde curls were matted to the child's forehead with a warm perspiration and his cheeks had turned a deep rosey red color. Brian reached out to brush the strands of hair away but paused with hand in mid air as Baylee began to stir. Quiet whimpers escaped his lips and his eye lids fluttered wildly until eventually he let loose of a startled cry that bubbled up through his throat.

Brian instantly brought a hand to his son's back, rubbing it in a circular motion in hopes he could calm his child before Baylee was distraught beyond hope. But Baylee's cries raised in volume, causing Brian's heart to leap into his throat. He pulled the blanket from Baylee's body and brought him into his arms where he sat rocking him gently and whispering soothingly into his ears. "Oh Baylee Boy...everything is alright. You are ok...Daddy is here...Shhh..."

Baylee struggled against his father's embrace as the tears slowly began to slip from beneath his closed eyelids. "Bad...owies! No! W-wan' D-Daddy! Owies!" he cried helplessly and his tiny frame began to quake within his father's grasp, tugging at Brian's shirt and trying to break free. "Nooo!"

"I'm right here buddy," Brian continued to soothe, holding Baylee as tightly to his chest as he could possibly manage with the boy's frantic thrashing of limbs.

"W-wan' my d-daddy!"

"Daddy is right here, Baylee...it's alright," Brian spoke, raising his tone to be heard over his son's wails. He placed a soft kiss upon Baylee's forehead and the sign of loving affection finally broke the erupting howls. Baylee's body gradually relaxed and he wrapped his arms around his father's neck, whimpering. "That's right buddy...no more tears. Open your eyes for Daddy..."

Baylee sniffled and rested his head against his father's shoulder, grasping the collar of his father's shirt within his fist. He tentatively opened one eye and stared up through hazy vision. "D-Daddy?"

"You're ok..." Brian cooed, offering another kiss for reassurance.

"You come home."

"I'm here now, buddy."

"No go...stay..."

"I'm not going to, Bay. I'm staying right here."

"I's scared..."

"What are you scared of?"

"Monsters...bad dweam..."

Brian fought to withhold a small chuckle as Baylle overexaggerated a tremble of fear. But Brian had his own monsters to be afraid of, ones that were all too real. Not the ones that were from a child's dream world. He hugged Baylee closer. "I'm scared too buddy, but you know what? As long as we stick together, no monsters can ever get us."

"P-pwomise?"

"I promise."

Satisfied with the answer, Baylee released a quiet sigh of contentment and fell limp against his father's chest. Brian remained in that position, unmoving as his and Baylee's breaths moved in sync with one another, until a clearing of throat in the doorway made him jump in a startled fashion. He twisted in his seat to see who had interrupted the silence and noticed Kevin had appeared and was patiently awaiting permission to enter the room. Despite the interference that was causing the irritation to course through his veins, he beckoned his cousin into the room with a nod of his head.

Kevin sauntered over and proceeded to take a seat next to Brian. However, before he was even half way down, he changed routes and took a quick seat upon the floor. For a few tense moments they stared. "What's going on?" Kevin finally asked.

"What do you mean?" Brian returned.

"You bolted from downstairs-"

"I wanted to see my son."

"You're practically lying through your teeth right now. I'm not stupid, Brian. You left your wife and your mother down there in tears and the rest of us without a clue. I want to know what is going through your head right now."

"It's nothing, Kevin. I just wanted to see my son-"

"Stop lying to me," Kevin spat, his eyes turning several shades darker, mirroring the stormy ocean that was twisting deep within his soul. "You don't blow off your family just so you can go see your son like you did back there."

"Didn't you see their looks?" Brian whispered, feeling Baylee tense within his arms.

"Their looks?" Kevin repeated.

"They all winced the moment I walked through the door like I was going to break into pieces as if I am some sort of porcelain doll. They looked at me as if I'm death itself. You looked at me that way."

"That's rediculous-"

"Is it?" Brian scuffed.

"We've all been worried about you, Brian-" Kevin started, but once again found himself interrupted.

"Why now, huh?" Brian demanded sharply. "What's different now? Is it the fact that I'm dying this time and suddenly you all feel like you need to congregate around me out of some sort of pathetic guilt to give me sympathy? I don't need your pitious stares, Kevin. And I certainly don't need to be the cause for any unwanted strain that would taint your perfect lives."

The creases at the corners of Kevin's eyes suddenly became more apparent. He leaned away, taken aback from the quiet out burst his cousin had just expressed. "Is that what this is about?" he clarified in a somewhat choked voice. "This is about the first time this happened? I know we weren't there as much as we all could have been, but-"

"You guys were hardly there at all!"

"We made a mistake, Brian, but we'll be damned if we make that same mistake again. We're not gonna just stray away like we did before, so why are you pushing us all away?"

Brian winced as he broke his eyes away from Kevin's stealthy stare. He didn't know how to explain it and knew Kevin wouldn't understand even if he tried. Nobody could possibly begin to understand unless they were in his position and he hated that. He hated the fact that he felt so alone. "Kev, just forget it, ok? I'm sorry...I wanted to see Baylee."

"You're pushing us away Brian and now's the time you need us more then ever." Kevin stood up at that moment and reached out to rustle Baylee's soft curls as the child looked up at him innocently. He mustered a small crooked smile for the child's sake and left the room without another word.
Chapter 13 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
Well darn it, finally another chapter! It actually didn't take me all that long to write this chap; it was just the lack of time since starting my new job. But at least I finally got it finished! Please let know what y'all think! I'd really appreciate the reviews!
Chapter 13:

He was nervous as he directed the SUV into the familiar parking lot that housed the building where they had previously been recording several tracks for their new album. It had been almost two months since he had set foot within the expansive structure and almost two months since he had nearly lost his life, only to find out soon after that he would be losing it faster then he could have ever imagined. Brian hesitated in the driver's seat as the vehicle idled in the parking spot closest to the entrance that he could find.

They were awaiting him inside and yet he found himself unwilling to even want to get out of the vehicle. He replayed in his mind Kevin's phone call from the night before informing him of the meeting that had been set up to discuss the outcome of the album and possible further recordings. It had been solely decided by their management for the meeting to be held Kevin had assured him, but Brian knew better. They were all wondering what was going to happen with the work they had already produced and Brian's deteriorating future. He himself hated to even begin to think about it. He had wanted to tell Kevin to count him absent from the meeting; he wasn't so sure he was ready to face the decisions. But Kevin had dealt the guilt card before Brian had been able to tell him other wise. They had already skirted around the subject for too long as it was.

Brian hadn't seen the others since the day he returned home from the hospital, let alone talk to any of them other then the periodic phone call from his cousin. He didn't blame them though for wanting to stray away from him; he'd been less then friendly upon their welcoming. But there was no use in avoiding them any longer. He was still a big part of the equation, even if his part would be ending sooner then any of them would want to wish for.

Sighing, he killed the engine and withdrew the key from the ignition slot. The perfect balance of cool conditioned air died away and quickly was replaced with the humid heat from the outside. He reached to the passenger seat for the box of freshly baked donuts he had purchased on his way there and stepped from the SUV. Hesitating only a second more he began a slow tredge to the entrance.

*****

Howie was on the very brink between sleep and consciousness when he felt a weightless object bounce effortlessly off the middle of his forehead. He forced his eyes open only to see AJ and Nick quickly turn their attention elsewhere. A typical pair of culprits of course, and Howie had learned over the years to disregard their looks of innocence as anything but innocent. AJ had mastered the art of keeping a straight face, while Nick on the other hand never had and probably never would, even if his life depended on it. So abandoning all ideas of trying to get any sleep, in fear of possibly being subjected to whatever pratical jokes the duo could concoct, Howie sat up in his seat and raised his arms above his head, stretching. He looked down, seeing his long forgotten cup of coffee already cooled. Nose scrunching, he reached for the styrofoam cup.

To his left AJ had just spoken something to Nick that resounded incoherently in Howie's ears. But Nick had obviously understood as he responded by nodding his head and snickering quietly. The two of them sat close, hunched over the wooden table where Nick was busying himself with a pencil and a sketch pad. Howie couldn't see what exactly was being drawn; some sort of cartoon sketches of all of them, he guessed...being it was Nick's expertise. But the close friends were finding an unusual amount of humor in Nick's drawings, leaving Howie's mind to wander. He sat there staring off into space. Thinking, thinking...

It was sad that he couldn't even remember the last time he had witnessed something as such unfolding before him. AJ and Nick had always been the unlikely pair of friends. They were polar opposites when it came to alot of areas, but like Howie had heard, opposites tend to attract. Even despite their differences, the two had always held a certain understanding and Howie attributed it to the fact that they were the closest in age. Even so, it seemed the relationship had faded over the years, just as it had with all of them in the group. But now they huddled together as they had done many times in the past, mischief brewing between them. It drew Howie back to reality, causing him to realize just how much they had really changed and how much they had actually grown apart over their quote-unquote period of "seperation" from one another. Things weren't like what they used to be. Howie had gotten used to that and it had taken him quite a while to accept the fact that things between them would never be the same again. But sitting back and observing old memories peeking through into the present let Howie know that there was still hope. Sometimes hope was all you could cling to and Howie was happy to have just that.

"No, no...his eyebrows need to be more like a...a bush," AJ explained glancing out of the corner of his eye to see Kevin perched at the opposite end of the table and carefully making sure the older man hadn't heard a word. Kevin seemed unphased by AJ's comment, clearly indepth in whatever conversation he was having over his cellphone while making a rather sad attempt to battle it out on some complex game on the handheld system Nick had brought in that morning. "Give me the pencil and I'll show you."

"Dude, you call those brows?!" Nick retorted with a cackle seconds later at AJ's futile attempt of adding to the sketch. He snatched the pencil back just as quickly as AJ had take` n it away, erasing the man's sloppy work. Nick cracked his knuckles out in front of him, shaking the stiffness out of his hands. "Back up and watch the master," he claimed, returning lead to paper. "How's about we add Howie in the background, wearing a tutu and waving pompoms?"

Howie spit dry air from his mouth, gaping at the blonde in disbelief. Nick looked up at him, grinning. AJ peeked from the other side, his expression mirroring Nick's. Howie shook his head, propping his feet onto the edge of the table. "If I wasn't so tired, I would reach over this dead tree and smack some sense into that empty head of yours. But since I'm feeling generous, I'll take pity over you. If I have to wear a tutu and wave pompoms, then you damn well better draw Kevin wearing a chicken costume with a shirt that reads 'I'm a Kentucky fried chicken and I'm proud of it!'."

It was Kevin's turn to sit back, eyes masking his own disbelief. In the short span of time, he had ended the phone call and had paused the game to tune into the conversation. "Howard, you should be ashamed!" he scolded. Holding a dramatic hand to his heart, he continued. "I...I am just...offended! I am offended! What do you take me for? Do I look like a chicken to you?!"

"Ooh, let me answer!" Nick laughed, raising his hand in the air.

"Drop dead you diseased alien," Kevin glared.

"Wow, who would have guessed that Kev could be funny," AJ snickered.

"That was so uncalled for..." Nick muttered, chewing on the end of the pencil and dismissing the comment. He looked up at Howie, reveling in the good fun of the moment. It relaxed him, passing the time like they used to. It brought back a whole dish of memories that Nick at one point feared were lost forever. His grin widened, knowing exactly how to press Kevin's buttons to the limit. "You've got yourself a deal, D. Should I draw him as original or extra crispy?"

"Originally extra crispy," a voice called out from the open doorway. Four sets of eyes stared in the direction of the source and noticed Brian tentatively entering the room with a flimsy white rectangular box within his grasp. Silence followed almost immediately and there was no ignoring the dense blanket of tension draping the room. Brian cleared his throat weakly and held up the box. "Someone order donuts?" he offered meekly. As if he had been on pause the whole time, Nick snapped to life and jumped from his seat, dropping the pencil in a hasty attempt to stand up quickly. He paid no attention to it as it rolled aimlessly off the edge of the table and stepped quickly to Brian's side, snatching the box of pastries from the shorter man's grasp before a reaction could be produced. Brian looked on blankly as Nick half walked/half jogged back around to his and AJ's side of the table. "Ok, so that wasn't exactly the grand entrance I had imagined, but I'll take what I can get..."

As Brian's voice faded away, a thick silence persued in its wake. It was like he was standing within the bathing wash of a spot light that had suddenly turned on above his head, an audience of four staring at him dumbfounded as if he had just produced the world's worst joke. The only difference, as disheartening as it was, they were all staring at him like he was a carrier of some form of the deathly bubonic plague. In all honesty at that moment he just wanted to turn around and walk right back out through the door so the weight of their awful stares wouldn't be pressing so heavily upon his conscious. It was as if they were afraid he would infect them all.

And then Howie rose from his chair and greeted Brian with a short embrace. He could see the tentativeness reflecting in his friend's eyes and the hint of anxiety that mirrored his emotions and absolutely detested the fact that it was even there in the first place. It was a rare sight to ever see Brian step into a room and not feel completely comfortable with the people he was around. In fact, the only real time he had ever witnessed such a characteristic coming from Brian's demeanor was when the man had flown from Kentucky to Florida for the audition that set his fate as one of the members of the Backstreet Boys. He had walked into the room as a young southern boy who knew nothing different outside of his family life. If it hadn't been for his cousin presenting him with the opportunity that would later change his life, Howie was sure Brian would still be the same shy southern boy that he had been before he left home. "Ignore him," Howie finally spoke, motioning back over his shoulder to the blonde who was now tearing the box open. "You know how he acts when he has a lack of food in his stomach."

Brian glanced in the same direction, but it wasn't Nick's lack of hospitality that bothered him so much. "Some things never change, huh?" Brian agreed quietly, returning his attention to the latino.

Howie rolled his eyes. "When it comes to that one, no, because all hope was lost for him the moment he entered this world," he replied, slamming back into his seat as Nick stared up at him shocked, mouth full of powdered donut. "Whoops, did I say that out loud?" Howie grinned.

"You have become terribly brutal in your old years Howard," Nick sputtered, his voice coming out slightly muffled from the mixture of saliva and pastry swirling around within his pink flapping lips. All the while he avoided any and all eye contact with Brian.

"Attractive," Howie retorted, rolling his eyes.

Nick shrugged. "The women love it."

"You're dreaming Carter," AJ snorted and shoved Nick's hands away from the box to retrieve his own pastry. He glanced up at Brian who still stood awkwardly feet away from the table. AJ offered a toothy grin and jumped up, carrying pastry and all over to Brian where he slapped the man on the back and pulled him in for a tight embrace, despite Brian's protests. "Welcome back, man. And thanks for the donuts!"

"Remind me not to wear a black shirt next time I bring y'all donuts," Brian replied oddly as he dusted the white powder from his shoulders and shirt sleeves.

"Uh...you can sit you know?" AJ called out after he and Howie had returned to their seats and found that Brian had remained standing.

Calming himself silently and staring at the floor as he walked, Brian moved slowly over to the table, sinking into the seat across from his blonde friend. Nick briefly looked up in mid bite, but the moment their gazes locked, he looked away painfully.

"Pass me the box Nick," Kevin said as he shoved his cellphone and the handheld game system to the side.

"Get your own old man," Nick replied.

"If you want to live to see tomorrow you will do as I say," Kevin returned and eyed his cousin with a humored smile. He received not even the slightest hint of humor in response though. "You alright?" he finally asked as he watched Brian carefully reposition how he sat and then rub his torso absentmindedly.

Brian looked to find that once again all eyes were on him. He attempted to grin sheepishly, but he realized it was a somewhat failed attempt. "Me? Yeah, I'm fine. Just tired," he answered, hoping that in some way they would buy his pathetic lie. It was no hidden fact that they could see right through him. Sad thing was, he could see right through them too.

"Leigh stay at home with Baylee?"

"For the time being. She has an appointment with the doctor later this morning."

"For the baby?"

"Yeah-"

"How far along is she?" Howie cut in.

"3...3 1/2 months maybe?" Brian answered quietly and shrugged.

"That's awesome B," AJ said. "Don't know if I said it yet, but congrats man."

Brian answered with a crooked smile but immediately diverted his attention away from their stares. He honestly didn't want to talk about it when he knew within time none of it would matter. Kevin seemed to pick up on his unwillingness and cleared his throat, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. "Maybe we should just get down to business?" he suggested, looking around at each individual for agreement. When he received their small nods, he pushed away from the table. "Great. Lets take a look at what we have recorded so far."

*****

Kevin withheld a sigh of frustration as he tweaked several of the knobs on the small sound board they had been set up with that day, soft levels of a single track echoing against his eardrums from a pair of studio headphones. It had been management's idea to bring them all together to work informally without interruption and make some decisions when it came to their album. Kevin couldn't find it in himself to really put forth the honest effort though. It seemed none of them could and they had hardly suceeded in any sort of productfulness, let alone come to any agreements when it came to the tracks and all regards. There was a certain air of reluctance circulating through the air in the room, leaving everyone to disperse to their own areas and create the distance between each of them that only caused the tension to grow thicker.

He withdrew the headphones and dropped them carelessly on the table, ignoring the loud 'clank' that echoed. Leaning back in his chair, he brought a hand down over his face and exhaled deeply. "It's missing something..." Kevin mumbled to no one in particular.

"In the mix or the vocals?" AJ questioned, his tone scratchy as he pushed his body away from the wall where he had been leaning only a few feet from Kevin's left.

"Both. The mix is just...well, the tempo doesn't feel right," Kevin answered as he reached forward to withdraw the headphone plugs from the machine and prepared to replay the track for everyone in the room. "Nick's voice is flat in multiple areas where it shouldn't be flat. You and Howie seem to be trying to overpower one another in the harmony. My voice has cracked in more places then just one. And Brian..." Kevin looked over to where Brian was sitting across the room, hoping to grab his attention. "I don't think I can even hear Brian."

"The track is incomplete," Brian spoke sharply as he looked up to meet the steady stares of his bandmates. His blue eyes turned dangerously stormy as he sat up and rested his elbows on his knees. "Or did you guys already forget? I was at home taking care of Baylee when he was sick the day this was recorded."

"We didn't forget," Howie answered with a slight hesitation in his voice. He looked to AJ, Kevin, and Nick to see the question reflecting in their eyes as they all seemed to sit up straighter. "It's probably just one of the tracks we've spent the least amount of time on."

"We'll just rerecord it then?" AJ said, hoping the statement would be a quick solution to the obvious fire that was already brewing. Silence fell for a few drawn out moments and AJ almost thought he could hear the classic sound of crickets chirping somewhere in the background. It also didn't help that Brian's stare was steadily thickening and he wasn't buying the pathetic offer to fix their mistake.

"The track isn't our strongest and it certainly isn't up to par by no means. We could just trash the track and move onto the next. Certainly we can make do with the rest of the material we have," Kevin replied, but the moment he had let the words slip past his lips, he knew he had struck a very sour chord within his cousin. It was as if the atmosphere had changed from slightly oxygenated to absolutely suffocating and he could swear that Brian's heart had just shattered before their very eyes. "Brian-"

"What?" Brian whispered as he averted his gaze to the floor. "What do you have to say that is going to make me understand why you don't want me to continue the recordings?"

"It's not that we don't want you to continue recording for the album-"

"Then what is it?" Brian demanded, looking up with a deadly glare. "Don't bullshit with me, any of you. You all are obviously thinking the same thing, so just say it."

AJ wheezed a deep breath as he took a step back. "B, we're worried," he started.

"Worried?" Brian tried to clarify.

"About you. Brian, listen, we were talking before this meeting was called," Kevin continued, holding up a hand to silence whatever it was AJ was about to say. "With your condition, we're concerned what the stress of recording could possibly-"

"Could possibly do what?" Brian scuffed with a spit of air. He stared back at them all, his body trembling as his shoulders sank in a defeat he was trying to fight against succombing to.

"We don't think it would be healthy and would only put even more stress on your heart-"

"That's ludicrous, Kevin!" Brian burst, rising unsteadily from his seat.

"C'mon, B. Just calm down," AJ tried.

"You are trying to tell me you don't want me recording anymore and now you tell me to calm down?"

"You don't need to get worked up, Bri," Howie stated calmly. "We just don't think it would be good for your heart."

"Shut up, Howie!" Brian growled, his hands shaking considerably as he brought them up to his tassled locks of hair. "Who are you, any of you, to tell me what is good for me? You aren't in my position and yet you are trying to act like you know otherwise! If I am still perfectly capable of breathing and walking, then I can sing and record like the rest of you! Dammit! I may be dying, but I have news for all of you! I'm not dead yet!"

"And we want to keep it that way!" Nick shouted as he slammed the chair he was sitting in backwards and jumped to his feet. His chest heaved from the outburst and the sudden discovery of his voice. He had kept mostly silent the entire morning, his lack of words not surprising a single one, and now he looked ready to yell until he grew completely hoarse.

"Nick..." Kevin called out, slowly rising from his seat also.

"No!" Nick continued to shout. "You don't even realize how selfish you are, Brian!"

"Selfish?" Brian stuttered.

"You're in fucking denial!"

"You are out of line, Nick!"

"The Hell I am! We're trying to care for you but you are too fucking blind to see it! You are pushing us away!"

"I am not!"

"You are because you only care about the shit that is happening to you and not what it is doing to the rest of us!"

"Nick, stop!" AJ hissed.

"He needs to hear it!" Nick argued.

"You're going to far though!"

Brian stumbled backwards as the argument escalated. Pain surged in his chest as his heart hammered wildly and he struggled to catch his breath. He was unaware of the tears of anguish that had sprung to Nick's eyes or the way his whole body trembled as a sob burst forth. Slowly he began to back towards the door, ignoring Howie and Kevin's approach of concern, nor could he hear a single word they were saying to him. Then, without another thought, he bolted from the room.
Chapter 14 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:

Well, I took a bit of time to actually write the chap and not rush it like I always tend to do which usually ends up with me experiencing writer's block because I want to get it done so quickly. I actually got this chap done fairly quickly and started chapter 15 as soon as I finished. I should have chapter 15 posted soon. I think I may be on a bit of a roll! *grins* Any and all feedback is appreciated!

Chapter 14:

Brian slammed into his household as if there was not a force that could stop him. The silence pushed against him from all sides as he threw his set of keys to the tiled flooring of the front walkway and stormed across the threshhold. His blood pulsed through his veins madly while he took the stairs to the upper floor two at a time and it took all he had not to curse outloud at the emptiness all around him. The cool conditioned air of the second floor hit him full force as he reached the landing, but he paid no attention to the change in temperature. He stumbled over a carelessly abandoned toy belonging to his son and kicked it angrily off to the side. The object ricocheted off the wall and bounced several feet behind him as he entered his personal office. He didn't bother with the light switch; the natural light from the outside was illuminating enough.

Almost immediately the phone upon his desk began to ring, but Brian ignored it. He knew who it was; Kevin had been calling him non stop since he had left the studio abruptly, despite Brian's reluctance to answer the calls. After several more rings the phone grew silent, the shrill rings echoing in his ears. However the silence didn't last long as the incesant sound began once more. A growl of frustration escaped his lips and he sent the phone sailing off the desk and to the floor with a loud crash. Silence encased the room despite his ragged breathing and he sank into the black leather swivel, bringing his hands up to entangle his fingers within his messy curls.

His mind whirled on overload as he remembered the stares of uncertainty ringing true in his bandmates eyes as they shattered his hopes of doing one of the only things that would keep him sane and help remind him that life hadn't ended yet. He just couldn't understand why they were forcing him to stop. Did they not understand that he was breaking apart inside and they were only speeding the process? Reluctantly Brian looked around the room, oblivious to the warm tears that had begun to slowly slip down his cheeks. Everything appeared so neat and in order, much unlike his life and it sickened him to the core. He could feel his nerves pulsing as a throbbing headache set into each temple; his stomach churned deep inside.

A sob of anguish escaped his pursed lips as he reached out to grab a framed photograph of his wife and son, so angelic and perfectly posed for when the picture had been taken. A white sandy beach and crystal blue ocean water spread out for a serene landscape. An orange and red hued sky made for a breath taking sunset that Brian remembered had done just that -- take his breath away. In fact it successfully took his breath away every time he glanced at it. The way Leighanne hugged Baylee close to her in a loving embrace as she smiled beautifully to where Brian stood behind the camera always made his heart flutter. Now instead of seeing his wife's beautiful smile staring back, he could only picture the expression of loss and sadness that would soon be replacing it. To know he would be the cause for Leighanne's heartache tore his world apart. Slowly and carefully he traced their outlines, saving every possible detail in his mind that he could.

Somewhere downstairs the phone began to ring again, jarring his mind. The frame fell from Brian's hands like his sanity was slipping from his grasp, hitting the carpet with a quiet thump face down. He stared down at it, his hands shaking as the tears began to slip faster. He couldn't think straight. The numbness to his reality that he had fought to keep hold of had disappeared, leaving him on the verge of total despair. He was angry, frustrated with what was happening to him. He desperately wanted to find someone, anyone to place the blame on, as if it would lift the heaviness from his chest and make him feel the least bit better. He wanted answers. He wanted a solution, something that would tell him, "Mr. Littrell, are tests were wrong. You are perfectly healthy and you have many happy years to come." None of that would happen though, because it just wasn't possible. The tests weren't wrong. The surgery hadn't been pointless. But that didn't mean he was prepared to die. And he sure as Hell didn't deserve to.

He screamed out and in one swift movement, Brian sent everything remaining on his desk flying to the floor. The open sleek black lap top impacted the floor and broke in two as the lamp landed beside it. A collection of papers scattered all around the desk. Pens rolled across the carpet. It ended in one ugly mess, but did nothing except add fuel to the fire that was Brian's temper. Finally he stood from the chair, turning it over backward, and gained a few paces away.

Leighanne wouldn't be thrilled about the mess he had created, but Brian couldn't have possibly cared less at that very moment. He wanted to see things lying in a pile of broken shards, like that of his tattered soul. Things deserved to be hurting as much as he was hurting. He crossed the room to the book case and began to tear each book seperately from it's shelf, tearing the pages one by one. Torn pages littered the floor around his feet. He stared down, unphased by the racket and even more unphased by the tears that were falling even harder down his wan cheeks. He spun where he stood, the movement sending sharp surges of tensed pain up his unstable legs.

Gold-framed pictures loomed in front of him on the shelves, decorated with candles of various shapes and sizes that always produced a soft warm scent when lit. Leighanne had always held a liking for candles, admiring the different colors, scents, and shapes. Thus led to their household being littered decoratively with them since the moment he had met his wife. It seemed every room was elegantly decorated with the finest candles Leighanne could find. Brian grimaced as he reached for a light sapphire candle, bringing it up to his nose and inhaling slowly. The scent made his stomach churn for the worse and he dropped the candle without a care. Before he realized it, a pile of the wax fixtures were laying in a scattered pile. Overturned pictures lay dangerously close to the edge of the shelf, threatening to fall to the floor without a second notice. Brian reached for the one closest and studied it carefully, his vision blurred by the oncoming of tears that ceased to relent. Leighanne's usually calming smile still beamed out at him from behind the glass. Her flawless features only added to the beauty that had caught Brian's attention in the first place. A strangled sob escaped his lips as he gazed longingly. Guilt hit him hard in the chest. Anger gripped his heart and he sent the picture propelling against the wall. The glass shattered upon impact. He tore the rest of the pictures from the shelf, crying out in despair at the loud racket before sinking to his knees in the middle of the mess. He sobbed helplessly into his hands, his back heaving pathetically.

'God! Why?!' his mind screamed for the answer. How was he supposed to spend each moment with his family knowing it could possibly be the last chance he was able to? To know he would be there forever to protect his family, to see his son and unborn child grow, or to love his wife unconditionally like he had promised to do the day he married her. 'No, God, please no! Not now...I'm not ready to die!'

*****

The moment she pulled up to the house, Leighanne had noticed something was wrong. Brian's car was already in the driveway and she had not expected him home until later in the evening. She was well aware of the group meeting that had been called and how hesitant Brian had been to go in the first place, but she had never expected him to be home this soon. Her nerves tensed as she directed the car along side Brian's in the circular drive.

"Look Mommy! Daddy is home!" Baylee called out from the back seat with a childish bout of excitement.

"Yes he is," Leighanne murmured in response, putting the vehicle in park and stepping out. She carefully pulled Baylee from the back and together they walked up to the front door. Baylee tugged impatiently at the hem of her shirt as she fumbled with the lock and bolted ahead the moment she began to push the door open. It was no surprise he was so quick to move inside. Her son had been especially attached to his father's side since Brian's return from the hospital, something Leighanne understood completely. She found herself dealing with her own feelings of seperation anxiety when she wasn't near Brian's side. As foolish as she sometimes felt, she couldn't help but fear the idea straying away from him at any point. His fragility had become all to aparent in the past weeks. It scared her more then anyone could possibly understand.

"Daddy! We are home!" Baylee yelled as he clumsily kicked his sneakers from his feet.

Leighanne paused just inside the door, stooping low to grasp the set of keys she found lying in her path. No sooner had she bent down did she hear a succession of crashes coming from the vicinity of the upstairs and she glanced wearily towards the stair case, eying the direction the racket had come from. Baylee even seemed to notice the unusualness of the disturbance as he looked back at his mother with curiosity shining in his eyes.

"What was that?" he asked in awe.

"I'm not sure sweetheart," Leighanne answered as she rose again. Placing the keys on the small stand beside the door, she walked over to her son, grabbed his hand and began moving towards the set of stairs as another loud crash rang from above. She held Baylee back as he tried to run ahead and they ascended slowly. "Baylee, wait," Leighanne scolded when they finally reached the top, but the child had already tore his hand away and took off running down the hall. She hurried after him and as she did, a new sound, sobs of anguish, entered her ears, surprisingly coming from the direction of her husband's office. Leighanne stopped just outside of the open doorway along side her son and peered inside. Her heart seemed to stop at the sight before her. The mess...the destruction...

"D-Daddy?" Baylee whimpered.

Leighanne quickly bent to her son's level, smoothing the soft curls away from his forehead. She could see the tears of confusion already brimming his eyes. "It's alright, baby. Daddy will be fine. You go play in your room while I talk to him, ok?" Baylee's bottom lip trembled as he turned and ran to his room without another word.

*****

Soft hands came from nowhere and pulled him into a warm embrace. Brian yelped as he continued to sob pathetically within the safety of his wife's arms, clinging to her thin tshirt with all of the strength he had. Leighanne's voice drifted soothingly into his ears as she rocked his frail body back and forth. But Brian recognized the tinge of panic that coated her tone and the guilt overrid him once more. "Oh God Brian, talk to me!" Leighanne begged in a strained voice. Confusion nipped at the very depths of her soul, tantalizing fear tagging right along. She guided her hands carefully along her husband's shaking back, but failed in offering any sort of comfort.

Brian attempted to pull away, only to find his body not wanting to cooperate with his mind. All four limbs had resorted to feeling like jello, leaving him almost paralyzed as he cried out incoherent sentences. His heart hammered threateningly against his rib cage; the air around him became thicky and stuffy. "N-n-no! N-no!" Brian stammered through a series of hiccups. He felt like he was drowning, being dragged deeper and deeper below the surface. His lungs burned as if from the lack of oxygen and the room seemed to spin. It had to be one horrible carnival ride...a terrible nightmare he would wake up from any moment...

Leighanne's fingers ran soothingly through his tangled and sweaty locks of hair. "Baby, what is it?!" she demanded in a choked voice, fearing the absolute worse. She had learned since their nightmare had started that the worst case scenario was more plausible then anything. Knowing Brian was usually a master at hiding his feelings towards things that bothered him, but sitting there witnessing him in the state he was, sobbing like a new born baby...it sent chills along the entire length of her spine. She didn't even want to begin to imagine... "Sweetheart, what ever it is, you can tell me-"

"I don't have any time!" Brian finally cried out, hatefully shoving himself away from Leighanne's loving embrace. He felt the coldness of the room immediately envelop him as he stumbled back onto jagged pieces of glass scattered across the floor. Sharp pain shot through his right hand but he ignored it. An invisible grip tightened around his already knotted stomach and rung it like a sopping wet towel. His uninjured hand, shaking, shot to cover his mouth as he choked back several heart wrenching sobs, disoriented from every emotion that racked his soul. He could taste the sour bile rising at the back of his throat and he wanted nothing more at that moment then to just black out and be free from all the pain, all the impending heartache, all of the sadness Brian saw etched in his wife's beautiful eyes...

Brian clumsily climbed halfway onto his unstable feet before stumbling in the direction of the bathroom across the hall. His vision blurred, darkening around the edges and clearing before darkening around the edges once more. He didn't even bother with the light switch, unabl;e to prefer between a light and dark bathroom. He collapsed upon his knees in front of the porcelain bowl, leaning over just in time to release a powerful collection of sour projectile. 'God, just make it stop!' his mind screamed in pure agony as he continued to release the contents of his stomach. Brian's head protested against each heave, worsening the rising of his aching stomach.

Then just as quickly as it began, the throwing up halted and left Brian dry heaving until finally his energy drained away and he rested his heated forehead against the cool edge of the procelain bowl. He kept his eyes tightly shut, stubbornly refusing to open them and once again face his situation. A slight scuffle in the doorway announced his wife's arrival into the bathroom but he made no move. Leighanne was at his side in seconds, whispering words that Brian wasn't able to focus on. He just couldn't keep himself from wallowing in his deep pit of depression. Life as he knew it was coming to an end and the worst part about it was he didn't even know how soon that end would be.

A cool soft compress was carefully applied to the back of Brian's neck and he sighed almost inaudibly. He felt bouts of cold and hot flashes run through the course of his entire body, definitely signaling that his body temperature was not right. Beads of sweat dripped down his throbbing temples as he succombed to the relief the cold wash cloth produced. Brian folded an arm across the circumference of the toilet and allowed his forehead to rest on top his arm. The salty tears staining his cheeks were slowly coming to a halt, but somehow he knew they would never completely cease. The feeling of helplessness was overpowering...

Leighanne sat close to her husband, unable to produce the right words that would convey her exact concern. All she could do was sit there and watch every subtle change of emotion Brian expressed, fear taking its place over her heart. She removed the wash cloth from Brian's neck, already feeling the heat radiating, flipped it over, and once again pressed it gently against his skin. She bit down on her bottom lip, cringing at every weak whimper that emitted from her husband's throat, brushing back identical tears that were threatening the very corners of her eyes. Leighanne watched as Brian slowly turned his head, not once lifting it, and gazed up at her. For the first time since she had arrived home that day, she noticed the terrible bags residing under his eyes, the way his usually pristine white eyes with their azure orbs were now red and irritated. The skin upon his wan cheeks was blotched away from perfection and stinging by its apparent redness. The man hunched before her looked as if he had been reduced to a helpless and scared three year old that wanted nothing more then to be comforted and told that everything was alright. It completely shattered her heart.

Brian shuttered, grasping hold of his bearings. His chest rattled with each breath he inhaled, not to mention the fact that it felt heavy and weighed down. Exhaustion lay over him like a heavy winter blanket and for a moment he had quite the difficulty of keeping his eyes open. But he couldn't tear his gaze away from Leighanne's. He just kept staring, his dry lips parted for words. "I...I-I'm so s-sorry," Brian apologized hoarsely.

"For what?" Leighanne whispered, drawing the wash cloth away from Brian's neck as he sat up.

"For failing," Brian answered. He looked away before lying down and resting his head carefully in his wife's lap. Just the simple gesture seemed to rest the storm Brian was feeling as he folded his arms to his chest, rubbing his arms for warmth.

"I don't understand...Brian, what have you failed at?"

"My life with you and Baylee..." Brian trailed, once again clenching his eyes tightly together to stop the on rush of tears.

Leighanne's eyebrows furled in confusin as she brushed the matted hair away from his forehead. "Brian?" she questioned, racking her brain for clarification. Slowly her heart began to sink as Brian scooted closer to her.

Brian didn't answer, afraid of admitting the one thing he had been trying to deny all along.

Brian's silence brought everything to a complete halt. It was funny how the silence draping the bathroom could be so loud at times like this. It was also at that moment that Leighanne finally realized the true meaning behind her husband's emotional breakdown she had just witnessed, even despite the fact that her mind went into overdrive trying to deny what was the inevitable truth. She clasped a hand onto Brian's shaking shoulder, desperately trying to ignore the blurring tears that glazed over her eyes as her composure melted right in front of her. "Brian-"

"I'm dying," Brian interrupted feebly.

"Don't speak like that-"

"My heart is failing, Leigh-"

Leighanne shook her head, almost unbelieving. "Something will happen and we will get it all figured out," she tried desperately.

"But you heard what Dr. Henrich said. I need a transplant," Brian answered with a grimace of pain. "I know I am a fool for not going to that cardiac hospital, but if I don't have much time left, I want to be with my family. I am scared of being alone. God Leigh...I-I'm scared. I'm dying. I'm really dying..."

"Stop talking like that!"

"But-"

"I'm not ready to lose you!"

Brian forced himself into a sitting position, immediately reaching to clutch his wife's trembling hands in his own. "Leigh, please, don't," he begged, his voice breaking as the tears finally began to slip from his wife's eyes. He pulled Leighanne into his arms, suddenly finding the roles reversed, which made the task all the more difficult when he right then more then anything needed and had no one to possibly comfort himself. "I don't want it to be like this," he whispered frantically into her ear as she sobbed into his shoulder. He could already feel her warm tears soaking the light material of his shirt. The dams of emotion burst open again, letting loose the flood gates to all of Brian's pent up pain and misery. "I don't want to die, Leigh!"

"You can't! Not like this!"

"I don't want to!" But there was no answer to receive. He'd managed to push his wife into a terrible bout of denial and Brian knew he was going right along with her. So he did the only thing he could think of and manage to do. He continued to let the tears roll, refusing the effort to stop them.
Chapter 15 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
Whoo hoo! 2 updates in less then a week! Houston we are making progress! I think I have finally got the ball rolling on this again. And I have really appreciated the feedback I have been getting. Let me know what y'all think of the update. Chapter 16 has already been started, and ya never know...maybe I will have it done and posted in less then a week! I should be able to considering I have about 2 weeks worth of overnight shifts coming up and I tend to get a bit of writing accomplished in each one! Let me know what you think of the update!

 

Chapter 15:

"Daddy! Watch me!"

Brian looked up immediately when his son shouted, catching sight of the small boy just in time as he sprinted around the edge of the pool. He sat up, prepared to tell the boy to be careful, but Baylee had already lept into mid air and done a perfect cannon ball into the water. He chuckled as Baylee came back to the top, giggling madly as his floaties kept him safely above the surface. Carefully Brian rose from the pool chair and walked to the edge of the pool where he bent down as Baylee paddled over.

"Did you see me jump Daddy? Did you?" Baylee asked with the excitement obvious on his cherubic face. He stared upward, looking for approval.

Brian reached out to ruffle his son's tangled wet curls. "I sure did buddy," he grinned in return. "You jumped so high that even I would have been scared!"

"No silly Daddy," Baylee giggled and gave a playful splash towards his father. His eyes lit with hope. "You come in pool now?"

The smile nearly left Brian's face as Baylee's lips curled into a pout. He could already see the disappointment reflecting on Baylee's face. As much as he would have loved to jump in the cool water and spend the time with his son, he knew his body wouldn't be able to handle it. As it was, normal day to day activities were becoming more of a difficult task to handle and he could only imagine how much harder it would become to perform those daily tasks as the time passed. "I'm sorry, Bay. Not today," he answered reluctantly and sat on the edge, allowing his legs to dangle in the water. "Daddy just doesn't feel well. Maybe tomorrow."

Baylee's bottom lip quivered slightly as he looked ready to protest, but he turned away without a word and swam out to the middle of the pool where he retrieved a brightly colored beach ball. Brian sat in silence, watching his son entertain himself and couldn't help but think how much he was letting the four year old down. Baylee was having a hard time understanding the subtle changes in his father's demeanor and the fact that Brian hardly ever had the energy to interact with the boy like he used to. Baylee was constantly approaching him for the games they used to play, but Brian found himself unable to keep up with his son's energy.

Within moments Baylee seemed to have forgotten his disappointment and found substantial entertainment in tossing the ball around in the water. Brian watched him carefully, memorizing each and every characteristic Baylee expressed as he splashed in the water. His son had already become the mirror image of himself, developing the same sense of humor and stubborn attitude that irritated Leighanne to no end. Then the resemblence in physical features was all too uncanny; Brian could see himself in his son's facial features more then he ever realized and it tore his heart apart. Brian bit back the emotions as he ran a hand through his locks of hair.

"I can't believe how big he is getting," a voice spoke softly, catching Brian off guard.

"You and me both," Brian murmured, refusing to look in Kevin's direction as the man took a seat beside him. "What are you doing here?"

"I came by to see how much longer you are going to keep on ignoring all of us," Kevin answered, offering a short wave to Baylee when the child called out to him upon noticing his presence.

"Who said anything about ignoring anybody?" Brian replied shortly.

"Lets be real, Brian. I know the fellas have been trying to call you and you haven't been accepting their calls or returning them. You haven't been returning any of my calls either-"

"I haven't felt much like talking lately."

Kevin sighed, looking away briefly. "I know you are mad about what we said earlier this week, but-"

"I have every damn right to be mad, Kevin," Brian interrupted sharply as he turned a stealthy glare in his cousin's direction. He inhaled deeply as the tension seemed to form instantly and he tried to focus his attention back upon his son.

Kevin sat back with a wince. It took him aback to see how much his cousin had changed in appearance. The man's skin had turned a dull pale shade and dark bags had already begun to accumulate under his eyes from a lack of sleep. His clothes hung on his body like loose rags, hinting towards the weight loss that had occured; Leighanne had informed Kevin of Brian's lack of an appetite and the way he seemed more unwilling to eat as the time passed on. And then there was no way to hide the depression. "Brian..." Kevin started slowly.

"You guys betrayed me," Brian stated calmly.

"Betrayed you?" Kevin repeated. "We never meant-"

"You are trying to take away one of the things I love doing most and I don't even know how much time I might have left to enjoy doing it. Don't you understand what that is doing to me?"

"We were only trying to look out for your well being-"

Brian withdrew his feet from the water and stood, clearly annoyed. "I'm dying Kev, whether you want to accept it or not. Whether they want to accept it or not. So let me do what I enjoy doing while I still can. Because I will go back into the studio and record my parts for the album whether you support me or not. It will be easier to get the job done if you all are there to record with me though."

"But Brian-" Kevin found himself stuttering.

"I'm going to do it regardless whether I have anyone's support or not," Brian answered firmly.

Kevin sighed as he broke away from the steady glare that Brian was giving him. Even with his back turned, he could still feel Brian's eyes burning into his skin with the desperation for approval his cousin so badly needed. As much as he hated the idea, he had no place to be making the rules and setting the boundaries. It had just been his own selfish reasoning to try to protect his cousin from a fate none of them had any control over because he just wasn't ready to let go. "I can't stop you from doing what you want to do," he finally answered quietly, his shoulders sagging slightly in his own personal defeat. "I...I'll speak to the fellas..."

The anger dropped from Brian's face at that moment and he frowned. "Can't you understand why it is so important for me to do this Kev?" he asked in a near whisper.

Kevin felt himself shiver from a none existant breeze as he stared down at the ripples on the pool's surface. "I can..." he trailed softly. "It's just hard to accept the reason behind it..."

Brian sat again and grinned at Baylee as his son took another jump into the pool. "I'm scared Kev, but I don't know any other way to deal with it," he said. "I keep thinking about Leighanne, Baylee, and my unborn child and how I won't be able to be there for them like I had always imagined I would be and that kills me inside just as much."

"Leigh told me about what happened the other day," Kevin stated carefully.

Brian winced and looked down to his right hand which was tightly wrapped with white gauze. Flashes of images sped sporadically throughout his mind as he thought back to earlier that week and it was almost as if he could still hear the crashes ringing in his ears. The faint pain was a distant reminder of his snapping point. "I was mad," he shrugged, rubbing his bandaged hand absentmindedly. "Everything kind of hit me all at once and I couldn't stop myself."

"Leigh's worried about you though. Why wouldn't you let her take you to the emergency room for your cut?"

"Because it's not that bad. Just a scratch. Nothing that won't heal on it's own."

"Still-"

"I'm fine, Kev. Really."

"Uncle Kevin!" Baylee interrupted breathlessly as he came sprinting around the side of the pool.

"What's up little man?" Kevin greeted, forcing as much of a smile as he could manage for the child's sake.

Baylee's brows furled as he placed his hands on his hips. "Daddy won't swim with me today. You come swim with me pwease?" he asked hopefully.

Kevin chuckled. "Sorry little man. Auntie Kristin wouldn't let me bring my swim shorts."

Baylee's nose scrunched to show his dissatisfaction with Kevin's answer and he ran off to jump into the pool once more. Brian watched his son sadly. "God Kev, he's only four years old. I won't even get to see him grow up."

Kevin glanced sideways at his cousin and immediately saw the apparent pain in his eyes. "Don't think about that right now," he answered. He placed a comforting hand on the shorter man's shoulder. "You're still here and that's what should matter most."

*****

The blazing spray of the water impacted his bare skin like a waterfall of blissful relief. His mind was still whirling from his encounter with Kevin earlier that afternoon and the prospect that he had actually achieved some level of understanding with his cousin. Though he wondered just how much understanding that really was. Reaching out with one hand to brace himself against the shower wall, Brian exhaled a breath, sighing as he allowed the water to hit his face. His body ached miserably and he found himself wondering how his whole life had managed to become so mixed up in such a short amount of time. He could hardly think straight, let alone process the information that would lead him down the blurry road ahead. It made him physically sick to his stomach every time he even tried to think about it. He was constantly restless and he couldn't remember the last time he had gotten a decent night's sleep. It was like an uncurable daily plague. As it was, Leighanne would move around him tentatively as if he would break at the slightest touch within a moment's notice.

Slowly the water began to turn cold and brought every nerve in his body alive. Frowning, Brian pushed away from the wall, quickly lathering his body with the Axe bodywash he had always been partial to. By the time he finished rinsing away the strongly scented suds, the water had become an icy down fall and he hastily turned the faucet off, reaching for the plush navy blue towel that hung neatly on the wall. The steam filling the room parted slightly as he stepped from the shower and wrapped the towel loosely around his waist. Brian's eyes narrowed as he stepped in front of the fog covered mirror and grabbed the hand towel beside to get the excess water from his hair. However as he was lifting the towel towards his head he paused abruptly and squinted at the obscured image of his body reflecting in the mirror. He reached out, the towel bunched in his hand, and in one swiping motion, he cleared a small section of the glass.

The scar ran only a couple of inches in length but was ugly nonetheless and a constant reminder of what had tainted his life so recently. Tenderly Brian ran his finger over the slightly raised discolored line of skin and frowned. It was a flaw he knew he would never be able to accept, nor did he ever believe he would understand why he had been inflicted with it in the first place. The general area still remained faintly sore, but it was nothing compared to the disgust he felt every time he caught sight of the imperfection. He let his hand fall limply to his side, but he continued to stare. As much as it disgusted him, it still captivated him all the same. How could such a small flaw hide such a terrible and devestating truth within?

He didn't hear the bathroom door open as Leighanne quietly slipped inside. "Baylee is finally sleeping," she mentioned, stepping up behind her husband's stiff form and pressing her hand lightly against his bare back. "Brian?" she called softly when he failed to answer.

"Hmmm?" Brian murmured, still unable to tear his gaze away from the image in the condensation glazed mirror.

Leighanne frowned. "What's wrong?"

Brian blinked, withholding a sigh, and turned to his wife. He forced a small smile to hide the torment brewing within. "Nothing is wrong," he lied. "I was just thinking."

"What were you thinking about?"

"You, Baylee, and the baby."

"Good thoughts I would hope?"

"Of course. I could never think ill thoughts about the three of you."

Leighanne seemed unconvinced as her frown deepened towards the sight of Brian's slightly trembling body. "Sweetheart, you are shaking. You shouldn't be standing here without any clothes on."

Brian felt the unexpected irritation towards Leighanne's concern hit him from nowhere. "I'm fine," he protested, pulling away from her outstretched hand with a small glare, but it melted away immediately. "I'm sorry, Leigh. I didn't mean to snap."

Leighanne almost turned away, but grabbed his hand instead and lead him into the bedroom where she eased Brian down onto the edge of the bed. She took a seat behind him and began to gently massage the tense muscles in his shoulders and back. A small moan emitted from his lips, but she couldn't begin to tell the meaning behind the sound. It left her no ease to see the way he seemed to let his head hang in shame. "Why don't you talk to me anymore?" she finally questioned after a few long moments of silence had drawn out.

Brian straightened a little in his seat as his forehead creased in confusion. "What do you mean?" he breathed. "I do talk to you, all the time."

Leighanne paused briefly, contemplating her words. "No, that's not what I meant. You never truly speak to me anymore. We used to be able to sit and talk for hours, or lie awake in bed and talk through all hours of the night, even if it was about the most nonsense of things. Now..." Leighanne stopped for second, staring at the collection of dark golden damp locks resting messily upon his head. "You hardly say a word. And when you do, it leaves me wondering. I don't know what's going through your head anymore. I worry about you."

Brian felt that same terrible heart wrenching guilt squeeze his gut. "I just have a lot on my mind," he mumbled, knowing it was nothing but a pathetic excuse and he felt worse for even saying it in the first. He knew the pain he caused his wife because of his silence; it reflected all too well within her beautiful eyes. There was no hiding from it every time she turned to stare at him. "I don't mean to not talk."

"I just want to know what's going through your mind," Leighanne repeated, feeling her husband's shoulders tense up immensely beneath her finger tips. It wasn't long before she could tell he had started to cry softly and she wrapped him carefully in an embrace from behind. "Just talk to me," she whispered into his ear.

"You wouldn't want to know what goes through my mind," Brian answered stubbornly, almost childishly in nature as he leaned back into his wife's embrace.

"You'd be amazed at how much I do. Brian, I love you more then you could ever imagine and I worry about you. But I worry about you even more when you close yourself off from me."

"I just don't want to think about it."

"Sweetheart-"

"It hurts too much."

"But you shouldn't keep it bottled up."

"Maybe it's easier for me to keep it bottled up."

"Maybe it's time you learn not to," Leighanne suggested softly.

"It's not that easy," Brian sighed quietly, pulling away from the gentle caresses. He eased his back against the soft down comforter, staring lazily up at the light cream colored ceiling. "Am I a bad father?" he asked suddenly.

"Why would you ask that?" Leighanne asked in a surprised awe.

Brian glanced away. "Am I?" he repeated.

"No, not in a million years. Brian-"

"But I'm letting them down. Can't you see that?"

"How-"

"Baylee looks up to me more then I deserve and I won't be able to be there for him, like I should be. To watch him grow up and teach him all the things I am supposed to teach him. And the baby...the baby won't even get the chance to know me. Where is the fairness in all of that?"

"Don't talk like that."

"But it's true."

"Oh Brian...you can't blame yourself."

"Who can I blame then, if not myself? God? You know, sometimes I wonder if God is really some mean little kid who sits on a hill with an evil magnifying glass and I just happen to be the ant he's trying to fry beneath the glass."

Leighanne couldn't stop the small laugh from escaping her mouth as Brian's lips curled into a small pout and his brows furled. She carefully leaned over his body, an arm on each side, and stared deep into his eyes where the emotions were tumbling like an angry ocean battered by a destructive storm. "You really are something, you know that?" she returned and leaned down to press a soft kiss upon his lips.

"It's in my nature," he shrugged, allowing himself to return the kiss. "I'm sorry Leigh."

"Let's keep it that way and don't say you are sorry."

"I'm sorry?" Brian returned meekly. He reached up and allowed his hand to rest against Leighanne's cheek, the smoothness of her skin sending shocks of sensation through his fingertips. His heart fluttered at the sight of the golden ringlets framing her face angelically and the coy smile she was giving him, as if she knew something he had yet to learn. "I love you," he exhaled with adoration, lightly caressing her cheek with his thumb.

Leighanne placed a trail of feathery kisses along her husband's collar bone, intertwining her fingers with his above his head. "Let me love you," she whispered longingly into his ear and offered the most delicate of kisses to his parted lips.

Brian couldn't help but let the moan escape from his throat. The sensation of pleasure was immediate, but he found himself holding back from Leighanne's advancement in an attempt to move away, his heart pounding eratically. "Leigh...we...we shouldn't," he protested breathlessly as his wife pressed closer against his body. He couldn't prevent the towel from unwrapping away on it's own from the lower portion of his body. The cool draft of the room brushed against hist bare skin.

"It's alright," Leighanne smiled seductively, pressing a finger lightly to his lips.

"But the baby..."

"The baby will be fine."

"But..." Brian trailed almost inaudibly and inadvertently moved his hips upward. He couldn't ignore the pressure that was growing continuously down below or the fact that as much as he could try to deny it, he was enjoying the arousal Leighanne was causing. And his wife knew it too as she pressed her lips hungrily against his own, enticing him even more. "Leigh..." he moaned.

"Just let me love you," she whispered.

*****

Brian awoke with a start, a cold sweat drenching his body. The sheets lay in a tangled mess around his ankles, his wife beater clinging to his torso. He glanced around wearily, blinking the sleep from his eyes, and reached out in the bed next to him. His hand landed on empty mattress and he found that he was alone in bed. He lifted his head from the soft pillow slightly and looked around the room. "Leigh?" he called out hoarsely and cleared his throat. Only silence answered him back. Sitting up carefully, Brian rubbed at his temples, willing the small headache to dissipate. His mind drifted off to memories from the night before; the tender passionate love making he had engaged in with his wife. His lips curled into a small grin. As much as he tried to fight against it because of his own selfish reasons, he couldn't deny how refreshing it had felt.

Somewhere downstairs a loud crash shook the walls and was immediately followed by an echo of excited laughter -- the reason for Brian's startled awakening. He recognized his son yelling out in surprise with more laughter and he couldn't help but chuckle himself. Slowly he stood from the bed and stretched, walking across the threshhold and left the room.

"You need to quiet down sweetheart or you are going to wake your daddy up," Leighanne was reprimanding lightly, but even she couldn't hide the humor in her voice.

"Too late," Brian chuckled as he neared the end of the staircase. He stopped abruptly just short of the bottom, staring across the room at the man who was lying sprawled on his back in the middle of the livingroom floor.

"Daddy!" Baylee cried out in delight as he jumped up from the floor and sprinted over to his father where he threw his arms around Brian's legs. "Look! Uncle Nicky come to play!"

"Morning sunshine!" Nick teased with a lazy grin as he sat up.

Brian didn't try to mask the confusion from his face as he tassled his son's hair. He eyed Nick hesitantly. "What are you doing here?"

Nick laughed as he straightened his shirt. "Dude, have you even looked at yourself in the mirror yet?" he cackled.

"You didn't answer my question."

"You look as if you got laid last night or something!"

Brian glared as the redness crept into his cheeks. "Nick!" he hissed, noticing the Baylee's ears perk up with curiosity.

Nick held up both hands in defense towards the icy daggers. "Wrong thing to say?" he questioned impishly.

"What are you doing here?" Brian repeated through gritted teeth.

Baylee tugged impatiently at the hem of Brian's boxers. "Uncle Nicky come to play," he whimpered, sensing the hostility in his father's tone. "Can he stay, Daddy? Pwease?"

"Why did you come here Nick?" Brian sighed, swallowing his anger and hurt for the sake of his son.

"Well..." Nick drawled slowly, rising to his feet.

"Well what?" Brian pressed.

"I have two tickets to a football game this afternoon...thought maybe you would like to go?" Nick offered, raising his eyebrows. He winced as Brian's glare remained set in stone, only causing the tension to thicken in the room as Leighanne shuffled Baylee off to the kitchen knowingly.

"The others too busy to go with you?" Brian sneered.

"Actually, I thought of asking you first."

"That's touching Nick, really, but I don't need your pathetic charity."

"It's not pathetic charity Brian. If you would stop being so stubborn, you would see that I'm trying to say I'm sorry for what happened the other day."

"And you think something like this is going to make it ok?"

"It's a start isn't?"

"Nick-"

"C'mon B...they're good seats."

Brian glanced away as Baylee's protests rang out from the kitchen. He could see the despairity reflecting in Nick's eyes, yet he couldn't help but feel hesitant towards accepting such a quick apology. Especially when he wondered why Nick was apologizing in the first place. Afterall, Nick had had some sense in saying what he had said in the first place. Brian was selfish and wasn't it his fault that the chaos had suddenly broken loose in their lives?

"You know I suck at being put on the spot, but I'm trying here Brian. I really am."

"Nick, you can stop babbling like a fool. I'll go."

Nick paused, eying the shorter man. "What's the catch?"

"The catch is that while I go put some clothes on you get to go explain to my son why Daddy isn't staying home with him today. He's going to throw a fit," Brian answered with a light hearted smirk, then turned without another word and climbed the stair case once more, all the while wondering where the silver lining was in his nightmare.

Chapter 16 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:

Alright, so I am totally behind on working at the deadline Mare gave me for the 6th, but this is a start. Let's see if I can actually make that deadline and get chapter 18 posted by then. Hope y'all enjoy this update and please let me know what you think!

Chapter 16:

The air inside the vehicle was stuffy as they sped down the interstate. Brian couldn't brush off the feeling of being too closed in; the clutter of the interior was unbelievable. Not to mention the air conditioner seemed to be out of commission and the heat inside was rising in temperature. Even with the light tshirt he was wearing, he could feel the sticky perspiration accumulating against his skin and it felt disgusting. But he had already chosen not to say anything about it. Nick appeared to be on edge as it was and bringing the matter up would only cause a dispute that Brian wasn't so sure he was in the mood to try to tackle. So he let it be and instead hoped they would be arriving at their destination soon.

"You're being rather quiet," Nick spoke suddenly, but even as he said it, he seemed to be hesitant to let the words slip, and he refused to even tear his eyes away from the stretch of road in front of him.

"You're not so talkative yourself," Brian pointed out, allowing his eyes to slip shut as he rested his forehead against the passenger window.

"Maybe not. But shouldn't you be cracking a joke or something?" Nick asked.

"That was random..." Brian mumbled.

Nick frowned as he whipped into the other lane and sped around a succession of three slowly moving vehicles. "I told you I don't do good with being put on the spot," he answered and reached forward to press the power switch on the stereo console. The silence was defeaning and Brian's lack of willingness to speak wasn't making it any less comfortable.

"You put yourself on the spot there. So don't blame me," Brian shrugged and sank further into the seat.

Nick chanced a glance in his friend's direction, staring at him with wonder. He could see the irritation just in the way Brian sat and the unpleased expression that wrinkled his normally calm features. It made Nick begin to think twice why Brian had even agreed to tag along in the first place. "Are you hungry?" he questioned seconds later, knowing it was lame but hoping all the same that he would find some way to break the ice and put the fued to rest.

Brian didn't look up. "You sure are on a roll with the random statements this morning," he chuckled.

"Well, are you?" Nick repeated.

"Am I what?"

"Hungry?"

"No Nick, I'm not hungry."

"Are you sure? Because Leighanne was telling me how you haven't been eating much of anything lately and I figured we could take the next exit and stop at a McDonalds or-"

"I said I wasn't hungry so stop asking me such a stupid question!"

Nick wheezed a breath and pressed back into his seat. It still took him aback to be caught by surprise with Brian's sudden new found irrational behavior or the fact that his friend seemed to have lost all of the personality he was so famous for. He had never seen Brian glare with such animosity or snap at the drop of a single word, the complete opposite of the mild mannered man Nick used to know. "Are you going to be like this the whole day?" he spat out without giving his choice of words a second thought.

Brian's eyes snapped open with an air of offense as he craned his neck. "What the Hell is that supposed to mean?" he demanded.

"It means you aren't making it very easy to be around you at the moment," Nick threw coldly in return.

"Maybe that's because I'm not all too thrilled to be going in the first place. I only agreed so you wouldn't blame me for yet another thing that goes wrong," Brian gritted and returned his attention out the window. "God Nick, has anyone ever told you that you have the personality and warmth of a cold, dead, gutted fish?"

"That was a bit harsh..."

"Might be harsh, but it's true."

"Damnit! I never blamed you for any of this Brian!"

"You sure have a way of placing guilt."

"Get off that already! You placed your own guilt upon yourself!"

Brian's glare tightened as he felt the vehicle speed up extensively. He sat up straighter, making note of how dangerously close they were coming to the edge of the lane and into on coming traffic. "Nick, slow down," he mustered tentatively, unconsciously gripping the seat belt latched across his chest.

"So don't even continue to put this all on me!" Nick continued to rant.

"Slow down!"

"You're not the only-"

"Nick! Watch out!"

Nick slammed his foot against the brake and jerked the wheel to the right, narrowly missing the front corner of an on coming SUV. The tires of their vehicle screeched in protest amidst the blaring of horns and he brought the car to a jolting stop on the side of the interstate. "Son of a bitch!" he growled, his whole body trembling from the near impact. He looked to his right where Brian sat gripping the dashboard with clenched hands, his skin a sudden ashen pale tone. Nick could see Brian's labored breathing as the man gripped the dashboard even tighter. "Brian, I...I'm sorry. I wasn't-"

"Paying attention!?" Brian squeaked, wincing as he closed his eyes to force the air to enter his lungs evenly. "Try keeping your eyes on the road next time!"

"I'm sorry!"

"Just pay attention to driving," Brian returned coldly, eliminating any opportunity to furter the dispute. "I'd like to make it to the stadium alive."

"I'll keep that in mind..." Nick grumbled and after a few moments of silence, he edged the vehicle back into the flow of traffic.

*****

Brian almost sighed in relief as he lowered himself into one of the assigned seats designated by the tickets Nick still clutched protectively within his hands. When Nick had said they were good seats, he had never bothered to ponder exactly how good they were, but it had turned out to be rather impressive by the view Brian found himself presented with. Up close and personal he concluded, glancing down to the proximity of the field. Only a few rows back, Brian was sure they would soon be able to smell the sweat from the players and hear the plays being planned before they were put into action. He didn't care about the details though. It was refreshing to finally be out of the vehicle and in the fresh air.

Nick was babbling beside him, but Brian couldn't focus on a single word he said as he watched patron after patron file into the stadium, closing in the space around them from all sides. He decided making the decision to come that afternoon hadn't been such a bad one after all and knew to continue with whatever fight that had been brewing would be petty. As it seemed, Nick had already forgotten the incident that had happened in the car and remnants of the anger within were no longer apparent. The blonde wore a pro football jersey proudly and Brian was actually surprised to find that Nick hadn't gone so far as to adorn even the least bit of face paint as so many others tended to often do. Brian smiled, happy to know that Nick was allowing himself a moment to act normal and blend in with the crowd.

"Did I provide or did I provide when I said these were good seats?" Nick grinned childishly, waving his arm outward as if to showcase some grand expenditure he had produced.

"Not too shabby," Brian answered, letting Nick have his fun.

"Go ahead, you can say it," Nick nodded.

Brian eyed his friend with raised brows. "Say what?"

"C'mon B, I know you are thinking it."

"I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about."

"You're no fun, you know that?"

"Well, it's not always fun trying to figure out how your mind works," Brian smirked lightly. "Seriously though Nick, I have to admit. This is a good set up and the seats are great. I really do appreciate you letting me tag along. Despite what I might have said earlier..."

Nick shrugged, brushing the comment off. "Don't mention it."

Brian did just that and allowed the subject to drop. He continued to observe the interior of the stadium as it filled more little by little and the overall noise jumped through the roof. He could already feel the beginnings of a migraine start to form, but willed the pain away. He wanted for once to spend a normal day where he wasn't constantly finding himself plagued with the demons that were torturing his soul. And the fact that there was even the hope of getting along with Nick when their relationship had become so tumultuous, Brian couldn't find it in himself to even begin to complain further.

"Dude, where's your jersey anyway?" Nick questioned as he rubbed his hands in anticipation, craning his neck to glance in his friend's direction. He nodded to the simple white tshirt with a faded brand logo on the front that Brian sported against an old pair of light denim jeans that were fraying horribly around the hems of the leggings. Nick wondered how he could even be comfortable dressed in jeans when the temperature outside was just short of being excrutiatingly hot. Even with the khaki cargo shorts and light material jersey he himself had decided upon, Nick could already feel the sweat begin to drench his skin.

"Didn't even cross my mind," Brian shrugged nonchalantly, although he knew he couldn't even begin to explain to Nick that the heat wasn't having nearly the same effect on his own body. Oddly enough he knew the heat was present, but as far as he was concerned if he didn't know any better, he would have said the air merited a jacket to be worn. Brian kept his mouth shut, refusing to strike another match. Nick's temper seemed easily lit as of lately. Then again he couldn't claim his own fuse was much longer. He just wanted to enjoy the rest of the day.

"The first thing that should have crossed your mind when I mentioned the words "football" and "game" together is jersey. Where's your team spirit?" Nick scuffed.

"First of all, I hardly care much about either of these teams other then the fact that it's football. And two, you caught me by surprise right after I had woke up. So give me a little break that the gears don't spin the wheels as effectively inside my head as they do in yours."

"Defensive much are we?"

"No, I was just saying-"

"Chill, B. I'm kidding. Stop being so cranky."

"I'm not cranky Nick, I'm just tired."

"What's the difference?"

"Big difference."

"Long night last night?" Nick asked and quickly turned his face, hiding the knowing grin that formed. He wasn't easily fooled. Brian had never been good with covering up the obvious difference in his demeanor after a deeply intimate night with his wife, even if he refused to outright admit to it. Nick had been able to tell the personal event had taken place the moment Brian had reached the bottom step that morning and sure enough as Brian's cheeks turned a deep shade of crimson, he knew he had hit the jackpot. "Ha! I was right! Why do you always try to deny it every time?"

Brian felt his cheeks grow even more red. "I don't try to deny it," he argued.

"At least tell me...was it good? I mean, was it really hot and steamy and-"

"I hardly think my sex life is any of your business."

"Of course it is my business when I see you walk down the stairs with that dazed "I so got laid last night" look on your face. Honest to God, it's no mystery Bri. You act like a damn school girl every time after you and Leighanne have fooled around in bed. Not that I am saying anything against your sexuality, but you should take a look at yourself in the mirror afterwards sometime. You'll see what I mean."

"You are such an asshole," Brian chuckled, lowering the bill of his hat lower to shade his eyes from the bright glare of the sun, but also to conceal the ever growing tint of embarrassment from his cheeks.

Nick held up his hands in defense. "I'm just saying..." he trailed.

"I think you might be jealous," Brian returned.

"Jealous of who? You and Leighanne? No offense but she don't appeal to me like that," Nick said with a defiant shake of his head.

Brian rolled his eyes. "That's not what I meant. If I didn't know any better, I would say you're testy because of a lack there of from the love department."

"You're oh so funny," Nick answered, his tone dripping in sarcasm. "For your information, I happen to be involved in a well balanced relationship and I get my needs met."

Brian smirked. "Now who's blushing?"

Nick glared. "Shut up."

"Well how am I supposed to know you're seeing someone if you always hide her away protectively like she's some fragile porcelain doll that could break? You never bring her around. For all I know she's just a figment of your imagination."

"A figment of my imagination?"

"Think twice about what you say because if I remember correctly there was an instance in the past when you created a fictional girlfriend because you were jealous that everyone else had someone."

"I'm not that shallow!"

"Not shallow, just desperate."

"I don't know what the Hell you are talking about."

"Aw, c'mon Nicky. Don't lie. You know exactly what I'm talking about," Brian pointed out in amusement. "It was one of the first times we were touring Europe and everybody had someone but you. Kevin had just flown Kristin out for a few days, Howie and I both had someone back in the states, and AJ had just began swooning over some blonde chick he met in Germany. You were the only one left out. Don't get me wrong...I'm sure it didn't help that back then Aje felt the need to rub that fact in your face. But I remember you were so jealous that you concocted the concept of some imaginary girl named Catalina. You said she was from France and you were always walking around gloating about this girl named Catalina. You were always "on the phone" with her. Then come to find out when Lou got charged with a hefty hotel phone bill it was BJ you were always on the phone with."

Nick groaned. "Did you have to bring that up?"

"Yes," Brian answered simply.

"I'll remember to keep my mouth shut next time."

"Glad you finally caught my drift."

"So how was the sex last night?"

"Nick!" Brian sighed and refused to say another word. Instead he sunk back into his seat and resorted to staring blankly out at the field, watching absentmindedly. Nick would never change and comfortably so, Brian was ok with that.

*****

Brian glanced around wearily, squinting from the bright glare and clutching a half full luke warm bottle of water in a tight grip. His hands shook with on going tremors and his mind swam dizzingly. As the day progressed into mid afternoon, he felt himself fall deeper and deeper into a pained position. But he didn't say a word, couldn't say a word. All he could focus on was the excruciating pounding in his head and the roaring of the stadium made it feel as if it would explode without a moment's notice. His stomach twisted into a mess of tight knots which only intensified the nauseating side effects from the sun; he was surprised it hadn't erupted up from his throat. His hands shook harder as tiny droplets of perspiration slipped down his temples. He was begging inside for Nick to look over, but the younger man appeared far too engrossed within the game progressing in front of them. Brian licked at his chapped lips, grimacing as a sharp tinge of pain shot throughout his stomach and spiraled upward into his chest.

Nick jumped to his feet, holding his hands palm up in the air in a frustrated manner. "That was an incomplete pass you assholes!" he screamed as the game came to a temporary halt on the field. His eyes tightened into a deep glare as several agreements of his accusation rang around them. When the game finally resumed, he slammed back into his seat, clearly unpleased by what had taken place and the offical call that had followed. "Fucking morons! That was clearly an incomplete pass!" Fuming, he turned to Brian, searching for his agreement. "You saw that right? That was an incomplete pass!"

Brian looked up from the spot on the concrete he was staring at. "I wasn't watching. I'm sorry," he forced from his parched throat.

Nick paused, watching Brian carefully. "You ok?" he asked, noticing the creases of strain at the corners of Brian's eyes and there was no mistakening the way his hands were shaking so hard that he was barely able to keep hold of the plastic bottle within his grasp. He almost seemed to be gasping for breath as he clenched his eyes tightly shut without a reply. Nick turned completely in his seat, reaching out a hand for Brian's shoulder. "Brian, what's wrong?"

"I..." Brian wheezed as his stomach clenched harder. "I'm not feeling too great right now."

"What do you mean?" Nick questioned stupidly as Brian pulled away from his touch.

"I need the restroom," Brian replied shortly as he stood on unstable feet. He swayed for a moment and clumsily moved away before Nick could get another word in edge wise. His legs felt heavy as he forced each step he took and his stomach protested each movement. It had come on so suddenly that Brian didn't even know where to pin point the beginning. He slowly moved up the looming cement stairs, keeping his eyes purposely trained towards the ground to hide from the numerous odd stairs he received as he passed row after row. When he finally reached the landing at the top of the stair case and stepped under the air conditioned overhang, he nearly collapsed where he stood and he blindly reached out to grab onto whatever he could find to keep him upright.

"Excuse me sir, are you alright?"

Brian looked up to find one of the stadium custodians approaching him tentatively and he squinted to make out the man's stature. "Nearest restroom?" he asked quietly.

"Right over there," the man answered, motioning over his shoulder.

Brian brushed past him with a choked thank you and hurried unsteadily to the door a mere twenty feet away. Inside the air was nearly as hot as it had been out in the open vicinity of the stadium. Then again Brian was hardly able to distinguish the difference in temperature anymore and he felt just as suffocated. He stumbled over to the closest sink and fumbled to turn the faucet on, which only proved to be more of a daunting task then he had anticipated. Cupping the cool water into his hands, he brought it up to splash against his face, but he didn't find the relief he'd expected. His knees wobbled threateningly and he gripped the edges of the sink and stared into the full wall mirror. He couldn't think straight, could barely recognize his own reflection and it sent his heart into a rhythm of wild palpitations.

He didn't understand it. He felt fine that morning, absolutely elated after the passionate night spent with his wife. The heat had been uncomfortable when they arrived at the stadium, but that wasn't it. Something was terribly wrong. Brian gasped for a breath, gagging from the stuffy air circulating in the restroom. He reached into his pocket hastily, searching for the tiny pill bottle but his hand came up empty handed. "No...no..." he mumbled as his stomach churned for the worse. The sour bile was already steadily making it's way up his esophagus as he stumbled back from the sink. Immediately the room began to spin and his vision blurred. Brian felt his knees buckling beneath his weight and he lurched towards the nearest stall, slamming the door open before he came in rough contact with the hard floor.

*****

Nick kept looking around, couldn't stop from craning his neck towards the stairs every few seconds in search of Brian's return. But the Ketuckian had yet to reappear and it sent the nerves throughout Nick's body running madly. He sat stiffly in his seat, restless and unable to focus on the game taking place in front of him. The interest just wasn't there anymore, but the concern was. Brian's sudden departure had been odd and completely out of character, even despite the fact that Brian had hardly been acting like himself lately. Nick couldn't pin point it, but something was flawed in the equation that day. Too much time had already passed, or so he thought, and as he craned his neck once more to look at the set of concrete stairs, his brows furled further. Finally he rose from his seat and inched his way along the row, offering many a multiple apologetic smiles towards the glares he received as he managed to step on more then one person's feet.

He set into a distracted jog up the stairs, hardly realizing the impact from the people he brushed into. 'Something's not right' his mind kept saying as he quickened his pace and took the remainder of the stairs two at a time. Winded and heaving for breath as he reached the top, Nick paused briefly to take a look around. The area was sparsely occupied and unsurprisingly so considering the game was just reaching into halfway through the third quarter. He located the restroom directly ahead and moved quickly forward, his mind buzzing with uncertainty. A blast of stuffy air flew at him as he shoved the door open, but silence was his only greeting. To his left a single faucet poured out at maximum force and he looked at it oddly. "Brian?" Nick called out, stepping further into the room. He walked over to the faucet and turned the system off.

Behind him a weak moan echoed off the walls. Nick spun on his heels where he stood and immediately caught sight of his friend crumpled on the floor inside the first stall. "Shit Brian!" he exclaimed and bolted into the tiny space. He dropped to his knees and grasped Brian's shoulder, hoping to merit a response. If it hadn't been for the barily audible moan he'd first heard, Nick was sure his friend wasn't even breathing. He shook Brian's shoulder harder. "C'mon B, look at me!" he begged, fearing the lack of an answer.

Brian moaned again, forcing his eyes open into tiny slits. His throat burned from the fierce retching and the sour taste of the bile still coated the inside of his mouth. His chest ached from the pounding of his heart against his ribcage. His stomach seemed to of frozen in a tight clench and the stabbing pain in his head remained elevated all the same. "Nick..." he croaked hoarsely.

"What happened to you?" Nick demanded, watching Brian attempt to push himself up with trembling arms into a sitting position.

"My medications..." Brian muttered just above a whisper, his stomach turning again. He grabbed the edges of the toilet once more and released another collection of putrid liquid.

"I don't understand!" Nick fretted, recoiling.

"I forgot to take them today!" Brian gritted and squeezed his eyes shut to will the pain away. He retched further.

"Damnit, I'm getting help," Nick answered and moved to turn away, but Brian quickly gripped his arm defiantly.

"No, don't!"

"B, this isn't right. You need to go to the hospital-"

"I'm fine. I'll be fine."

"You passed out!"

Brian inhaled an uneven breath and pushed himself back from the toilet. He should have known better, should have been more careful. "Nick, I'm sorry. J-just take me home," he begged feebly.

"But-"

"I need my medication-"

"Brian-"

"Please Nick, just take me home!"
Chapter 17 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
Surprise, surprise. I didn't meet my extended deadline from Mare's School of Deadlines. Guess I won't be graduating from that school anytime soon. Haha, but I finally did get this chapter finished. I ended up breaking one of my all time cardinal writing rules. I borrowed Carrie Underwood's song "So Small" and ever so nicely had Brian claim he wrote it. You'll understand what I'm talking about when you read the chap, but I gotta just apologize now. I never do that, but the song just seemed to fit with the chapter. Anyway this turned out to be my longest ITNC chapter yet, so I'm a bit excited about that. And somehow I managed to be nominated for a Felix Award. How did that happen? It's exciting though!:) Let me know what y'all think of the chapter!

 

Chapter 17:

He found the music calming as he allowed his fingers to strum over the guitar strings, a melodious remedy to the torment plaguing his soul. The notes flowed effortlessly from his finger tips and he sighed a slow, even breath. Brian closed his eyes, his mind wandering. He was exhausted and it hadn't helped that he hardly managed to get any sleep the night before. Too many repeating thoughts kept his mind on overload and he couldn't make sense of it all. Baylee was starting to ask questions, far too intuitive towards the fact that Brian seemed to have become almost a lifeless shell of what he used to be. He felt like a terrible father, constantly turning his son away and snapping at nearly every turn. But he couldn't blame Baylee's lack of understanding; the boy was far too young to comprehend it all and Brian knew there was no way to explain to him that his father was dying. It wasn't fair and it wasn't right.

Leighanne's mood had changed drastically within the past week. She blamed the hormones from the pregnancy, but Brian knew better. His wife seemed to be just as much on edge as he was, if not more. She watched him like a hawk, inquiring about his every move. Her persistance was suffocating and sometimes he wanted to just find a tiny place where he could hide and shut himself off from the rest of the world, but he had yet to find any solace from his misery. Late at night he would find himself watching his wife tumble through nightmare after nightmare and it made Brian sick to his stomach to know that he was the cause for so much pain and sadness in his family. What had he done to deserve such punishment?

Baylee had begged for him not to go that morning. In fact, the child had been so distraught when he tried to walk out the front door that Baylee threw himself on the hard floor of the foyer and proceeded to throw the worst tantrum Brian had ever seen his son engage in. It was uncharacteristic and Brian had paused briefly, almost considering to stay home and blow off what was planned for the studio that day, but he forced himself to swallow his irritation and stepped out the door, not once looking back at Baylee's rigid body. Normally he would have given the discipline Baylee was deserving of, but Brian just didn't have it in him. He felt terrible for leaving Leighanne to deal with their son's out of control behavior that morning; he just wanted to get to the studio and have a short period of time to himself to work out what was going through his mind before the others arrived.

He continued to slide his fingers over the strings, listening as each note echoed off the wall and bounced back at him. It all mixed together perfectly and the tone was soothing but he couldn't help the feeling of dread of slipping further beneath the emotional storm of depression. His head ached a dull pounding but it was the least of his worries. Somewhere in the back of his mind he could see a small antique clock ticking the precious seconds of his life away. It was an ominous reminder of how little time he possibly had left. There was so much more to life then this and Brian had never imagined he would reach such a sudden end in the winding path that had become his life.

'God...why is this happening?' he prayed silently, not once slipping from the rhythm that became a continuous string of notes. 'I'm a good man and I've tried to serve you well. I've never hurt anyone...not on purpose. What have I done to deserve this? What have I done?'

His throat clenched as he swallowed the sob that began to swell. 'I can't leave my family, God. They need me. Don't put them through this, not because of me. It's not fair.' Brian couldn't stop his shoulders from starting to tremble as he hunched over slightly and hugged the acoustic guitar closer to his body, forcing his hands to continue moving. He wasn't so sure he could stop the music from flowing even if he tried. 'I'm going to be a father again, God. You're blessing me with another beautiful child and you want to take it all away so quickly. Why would you want to take away such a blessing? My children haven't done anything to deserve this, to have their father taken away. This can't happen, not now. Not like this.'

He opened his eyes, numb to the tears that slipped down his cheeks, and stared up at the ceiling. 'I'm not ready to die God. I've got so much more to do, so much more to give. I want to watch my children grow up. I want to love and grow old with my wife. This is too soon. I'll do anything God, anything to change this. Please. I'm begging you.'

But the answer he was searching for just wasn't there, only the the melodious tune that was birthed from his soul.

*****

"Why praise the Lord if this isn't a sight for sore eyes!"

Nick looked up and withheld a groan of annoyance towards the obnoxious cackling approaching steadily. He watched AJ and Howie moving towards him with quick strides, all the while he stared in wonder at the hyperactivity that seemed to be coursing through AJ's system. Howie held his own expression of bewilderment, but he smiled in greeting all the same and offered a small shrug. Nick rolled his eyes and pushed himself away from the wall he leaned against. "What's his issue?" he asked with uncertainty, noting AJ's sometimes eccentric behavior had a way of popping out at the oddest of times, but AJ seemed to have gone off the deep end that morning. Again Howie shrugged.

"Top o' the mornin' to ya Nick!" AJ said with an enthused toothy grin.

"He's been this way since I picked him up," Howie answered simply. "So your guess is as good as mine."

"Freak," Nick mumbled as AJ tread only a few steps ahead.

"I heard that," AJ replied, but he kept his pace and they heard him mutter something about how lovely of a morning it was.

"I think he's finally gone psychotic," Nick suggested.

"I think you might be right," Howie agreed with a smirk. "At you're least not the one who had to ride in the same car here with him."

AJ stopped and turned to face the two men. His lips pursed into a thin line of arrogance and he crossed his arms over his chest. "You're the one who offered. So stop whining D, because it doesn't look good on you."

"No AJ, you misunderstood me. I wasn't whining, just informing. I'm trying to figure out how you woke up with some sort of mental illness when you were somewhat normal yesterday. And I stress "somewhat" quite a bit."

Nick snickered while AJ stood there dumbfounded. He had to admit, it wasn't often Howie was able to leave AJ without a word to say, but it was rather refreshing when it did occur. Howie was more quick witted with his quips then he tended to receive credit for. Then again that was just one of the traits that made Howie who he was and Nick wouldn't ever wish the man to change. "Where's Kev?" he asked as they continued to move forward again.

"I talked to him on the way here," Howie answered. "He said he would be a little late. Something about an appointment he and Kristin couldn't miss, but he wouldn't say what it was for."

"Odd..." Nick mumbled, following AJ inside.

"My thoughts exactly," Howie returned.

"Ah, good morning Mr. Carter, Mr. Dorough, and Mr. McLean," a pleasant greeting echoed to their left as they stepped forth into the main lobby of the recording building they had all become well accustomed to since the beginning creation of the album. They turned to see the receptionist, Sandra, rise to her feet and offer them a welcoming smile as she so often did for anyone who walked through the door. "You all are rather early. Mr. Littrell is already waiting for you in Studio B."

"Thank you Sandra," Howie replied and led the other two forward. "Guess we're not the only ones who are early."

"I figured Brian would be the last to show up this morning," AJ said as they stepped through a closed door and entered a long hallway. "Seems odd behavior runs in the family."

"Speak for yourself Mr. Psycho," Nick retorted.

"Shut up you midget monkey fucker."

"All hail the king."

Howie glared at them both. "I have a great idea. How about both of you shut up?"

AJ's lips parted as he prepared to snap back but Howie quickly held up a hand to silence him and Nick as well. He kept his hand poised, pointing to the door that was cracked open slightly, and it was then that they heard what had stopped Howie in mid step. The flowing notes of an acoustic guitar wafted faintly into the hallway, accompanied only by the soulful vocals of the man hidden within. Carefully Howie pressed the door open further and they leaned in to hear more clearly. Brian's back was to the door, unaware of the sudden addition to the occupancy of the room, but he continued to sing nonetheless.

"Whatcha got if you got love/ The kind that you just wanna give away/ It's ok to open up/ Go ahead and let the light shine through/ I know it's hard on a rainy day/ You wanna shut the world out/ And just be left alone/ But don't run out on your faith..."

Howie slipped inside the room, followed quietly by AJ and Nick who had set their bickering aside and were listening just as intently. There was no denying their friend's withdrawn form or the way he seemed to be struggling to produce the words from his mouth. It was uncertain whether he just didn't have the energy to create what he was so determined to do or if the cause was hidden deeper, but it took the three aback all the same.

"Sometimes that mountain you've been climbing/ Is just a grain of sand/ What you've been out there searching for forever/ Is in your hands/ And when you figure out love is all that matters after all/ It sure makes everything else/ Seem so small... It's so easy to get lost inside/ A problem that seems so big at the time/ It's like a river that's so wide/ It swallows you whole/ While you're sittin' 'round thinking about what you can't change/ And worryin' about all the wrong things/ Time's flying by/ Moving so fast/ You better make it count/ 'Cause you can't get it back...

"Sometimes that mountain you've been climbing/ Is just a grain of sand/ What you've been out there searchin' for forever/ Is in your hands/ Oh/ And when you figure out love is all that matters after all/ It sure makes everything else/ Seem so small..." Brian heaved a deep breath as he leaned forward slightly on the stool he sat upon, his mind spinning under the intensity of the anger coursing through his system and the helplessness of it all. He felt the tears pooling further beneath his closed eyelids, but he pressed on, heaving another breath. "Sometimes that mountain you've been climbing/ Is just a grain of sand/ What you've been out there searching for forever/ Is in your hands/ Oh/ And when you figure out love is all that matters after all/ It sure makes everything else/ Oh it sure makes everything else/ Seem so small..."

"Damn..." AJ whispered before he could stop the word from escaping past his lips. They watched as Brian twisted on the stool to face them, the guitar slipping from his grasp and slamming against the floor with an ear cringing screech.

"How long have you guys been standing there?" Brian demanded in embarrassment as he recovered from the initial shock and stooped down to pick up the guitar.

"Long enough to hear the whole song," Nick answered timidly, unsure how to read the glare reflecting in Brian's hazy blue eyes. "Dude, where did that come from?"

"It's nothing," Brian said out of distraction as he busied himself in stowing the guitar back in its protective case. He kept his feet firmly planted against the floor and refused to turn back around to face the three pairs of eyes drilling him for an explanation in silence.

"Brian, that song was amazing. How can you say it's nothing?" Howie questioned in surprise.

"Because that's exactly what it is, Howie. It's a meaningless song that has been on my mind for a couple of weeks. You guys weren't supposed to hear it."

"Well I'm glad we did," AJ stated. "You need to record that song."

Brian shook his head, dismissing the suggestion as if it were a foreign idea he would never begin to consider. "I don't want to record it," he mustered and sank down into one of the few chairs placed in the room. He could still feel the heat from his bandmates stares, but he kept his eyes trained solely on the floor around his feet. "It's not that big of a deal. It means nothing. Just a bunch of cruddy lyrics."

"You're a horrible liar," AJ scuffed, studying the dejection etched across Brian's face. There was no denying the way Brian's shoulders seemed to slump forward in defeat and his demeanor was so withdrawn that AJ hardly recognized the man sitting before him. It shouldn't have surprised him that Brian had been so quick to decide against the suggestion without giving it thought. Brian had become less and less willing to agree to things as time passed on and his absence of energy to even care was becoming more apparent. Still, AJ couldn't help but press the subject further. "What are you so afraid of?"

"I'm not afraid of anything Aje-"

"Like I said, you are a horrible liar."

Brian sighed, looking to both Howie and Nick, but he received the same questioning looks. "I really don't want to get into this right now..."

"Maybe you need to. You wrote an amazing song that we just happened to walk in on you singing. If we're telling you it's good enough that it should be put on disc, then why are you so afraid to share it?"

Brian rubbed at his temples, annoyed at their persistence. They wouldn't understand, even if he tried to explain it. It seemed none of them understood a single thing when it came to his predicament, except for the fact that he was a frail sickly man and they were sure to be quick to point that out with every move he made. But it didn't make a difference. They could say they understood all they wanted, but Brian was tired of their pestering. He wanted it all to go away and he just wanted to be happy with whatever time he had left. Maybe that's what they couldn't understand... "It's personal," he mumbled quietly, hoping his reluctance would put an end to the conversation.

AJ's eyes narrowed as he continued to stare at Brian, contemplating the man carefully. "It's time you start realizing that anything personal that happens to you is personal to us also because we are still here supporting you and the sooner you realize that we aren't going anywhere, the sooner you can stop making things so hard on yourself."

Silence, infamous in its own respect, infested the studio. Nick cleared his throat, chancing a side glance towards Howie who appeared just as perplexed. AJ and Brian stared one another down, creating an almost insecure disdain towards the other; Nick wasn't sure what to make of it. "So um, yeah...how about those Cardinals?" he questioned hesitantly, his voice slicing through the dense silence.

AJ blinked, shaking his head as he broke his stare away from Brian. "Isn't baseball season over?" he questioned dully.

"Yeah, but at least you're not glaring at Brian anymore as if you are getting ready to murder him," Nick shrugged, hating the way Brian adverted his sight away once more. "Besides, I was talking football. You know...Arizona Cardinals?"

AJ held up a finger in thought but paused, considering Nick's seriousness. "You really give me a headache sometimes, Carter. After all these years, I still don't understand you."

Nick grinned in a coyish manner. "Thanks for the compliment."

"I'm not sure I would consider that a compliment," Brian muttered.

Nick shrugged. "You and AJ both need to stop PMS'ing."

"Duly noted."

"Something tells me this is going to be a long day," Howie spoke up, finally moving further into the room. He looked around, and receiving no response other then the once again thickening silence, he sat down and rubbed tenderly at his temples. "A very long day indeed."

*****

Howie was beaming from within the recording booth and rightfully so. For the past hour and a half he had been crammed up in the small space, headphones nearly glued to his head as he poured whatever he had into the material they were producing that afternoon. Brian wasn't so sure he had ever seen Howie appear so pleased with his accomplishments as he did right then, but Brian couldn't blame him. There was hardly more that could be said other then the fact that Howie sounded amazing and his vocals were so soulful it sent chills along Brian's spine. Howie deserved it though. He was a man with alot of talent and not enough recognition, at least not the amount that he had worked so hard to achieve for so many years.

"Alright Howie. We're gonna take that from the top one more time and then give you guys a break," the engineer instructed over the intercom as he adjusted a few knobs on the sound board and prepared to cue the music. When Howie gave an enthused thumbs up, the man chuckled and the sound played over the speakers once more.

"You're being too quiet," Kevin noted casually as he leaned back in his seat and stole a quick glance in Brian's direction. He raised his eyebrows in question and waited for an answer.

"I thought I was supposed to be listening right now," Brian replied.

"Well, yes. BUt you're being unusually quiet and you've hardly had a thing to say regarding the material we've worked on so far. It's kind of hard not to notice, especially when you were so adamant about how important it was that we do this today."

"I know what you're thinking Kev, but I'm fine."

Kevin looked unconvinced as he sat up a little straighter and turned to his cousin. There was something hidden in the man's stormy eyes, which only stirred Kevin's reserved unease. He couldn't place the feeling, but it was there. "You're lying to me," he said carefully. "What are you holding back?"

"I'm not holding anything back," Brian answered. "I'm just sitting here doing what I'm supposed to be doing. I don't see anything wrong with that."

"Nothing is wrong with that. I'm just concerned about you."

Brian forced a small smile. "I'm fine," he repeated. "You have nothing to be worried about."

Somehow Kevin still didn't believe him, but he let the short conversation drop and he stared forward again. There was something in Brian's voice, the way he sounded so resigned from where he sat, that made Kevin's skin crawl. He didn't like it one bit, yet he found himself unable to do a thing about it. Brian was stubborn and as always he was refusing to speak a single word about what was going through his mind, even when the pain and fear was evident upon his face. "I wish I could believe that," he mumbled in return. "Bri, you know you can talk to me if you need to."

"I appreciate the sentimental offer, but there's nothing I need to talk about."

"Not even your song?"

Brian's forehead creased in frustration as he turned to stare at his cousin. It shouldn't have surprised him that Kevin had found out about the confrontation from earlier. AJ had made it very apparent that he wasn't pleased with Brian's reluctance to agree to their suggestion and it was a given that AJ wouldn't keep his mouth shut regarding the matter. "AJ told you about that, huh?" he spoke evenly.

"Briefly," Kevin answered with a small nod.

"I'm not recording it."

"He told me that also."

"Then it doesn't need to be brought up."

"You want to tell me why you are so against it?"

"No."

"Brian-"

"Please Kevin. Respect me enough to leave well enough alone."

Kevin opened his mouth to protest but relented towards the irritation reflecting in Brian's eyes. He just didn't understand it and right then Brian wasn't giving him a moment of a chance to even begin to try to understand it. The opportunity to press the matter further ended as the music playing over the speakers in the room faded and Howie stepped from the recording booth. Kevin looked up, unhearing as Howie discussed the outcome of the short recording with the engineer before turning to AJ and Nick for their dual opinions. It wasn't until Nick was standing in front of him waving a hand in his face that Kevin realized the attention had been turned on him. He blinked up at Nick in a blank manner, hardly noticing the humored smirks both AJ and Brian held. "What...?" he drawled slowly.

"You know, you might want to get your brain scanned," Nick told him seriously. He stepped back, crossing him arms over his chest in a very precise manner. "I think you may be suffering from Alzheimer's Disease because I've been standing here trying to get your attention for over a minute."

"Getting old must really suck," AJ agreed.

Kevin frowned at the two. "Very funny."

"Don't worry Kev, we'll still support you. Even after we've stuck you in a nice nursing home."

"You're aware I can still knock the crud out of ya, right?"

"With that girlish grin you've had on your face all day, I'm not so sure..." AJ trailed thoughtfully.

Howie chuckled as Kevin's frowned deepend. "Aje does have a point. You have been acting a little overly, um, how should I put it...joyful?"

"You got laid this morning!" Nick snickered. "Didn't you? That's why you were late!"

Brian rolled his eyes. "Don't even answer that," he groaned. "He said the same thing to me the other day."

"But that's because it was the truth! You admitted it!" Nick pointed out.

"Catalina, Nick. Catalina."

"Wasn't that the name of the imaginary girlfriend Nick used to have back in the day?" AJ piped with a cackle of enjoyment. The spark of embarrassment was immediate upon Nick's face and AJ enjoyed feeding off of that. "Why yes, I do believe it was."

"We aren't talking about me, we are talking about Kevin. Focus AJ!" Nick tried to divert the subject, his cheeks turning a deep shade of crimson as Brian grinned with satisfaction.

"Aw, c'mon Nicky. Tell us about Catalina again."

"Shut up."

"Seriously though," Howie interrupted, turning back to Kevin before the bickering could escalate further. "You never did say why you were late this morning."

"Kris and I had an appointment with a doctor," Kevin replied as he rose from his chair and turned his back to the group.

"They finally decide you were dying from old age?" Nick blurted.

"Mind elaborating a little?" AJ questioned bluntly as he slammed his foot down upon the toe of Nick's shoe.

"She's pregnant," Kevin answered simply.

"Come again?" AJ coughed.

Kevin chuckled quietly as he turned around once more. He couldn't help but to allow his mouth to twist into a grin. "Kristin is pregnant. We're going to have a baby."

Howie was at his side in a second, engulfing Kevin in a congratulatory embrace. "That's awesome Kev!" he praised amidst the older man's beaming pride.

"No shit?" Nick asked with a gaping mouth.

"Yeah. We had our suspicions after Kris took a test the other day, but we wanted to be absolutely positive, especially since we've been trying for so long," Kevin explained and there was no denying the pride waiting to burst forth.

Brian sat back in his seat, speechless, as AJ stepped forward to give Kevin a friendly pat on the back. Somewhere deep in his stomach a tight ball of anguish began to form uncomfortably towards his cousin's revelation. It was true that Kevin and Kristin had been trying for so long to start a family and the blessing had yet to be granted. And now hearing that Kevin would be becoming a father for the first time sent a mix of emotions through Brian's system. He didn't know whether to congratulate the man or let loose a sob of despair towards the news. He was happy for his cousin; he could find no reason to not be, but it gave him the awful reminder that he might not get the chance to witness the birth of his second child and now there would be another edition to his extended family. Brian bit down on his bottom lip, forcing the turmoil of emotions to remain tightly sealed.

Kevin paused, eying his cousin wearily. A small smile toyed at the corners of Brian's mouth, but his eyes were completely vacant. It went without words for the lack of response, but it seemed Kevin was the only one to notice the subtle change in Brian's demeanor and oddly enough hewas relieved to know that much as AJ patted him on the back once more. Kevin cleared his throat. "Now you guys know why I was late this morning," he said, "but this was the soonest date that an appointment could be scheduled."

"And you're apologizing why?" AJ mocked playfully.

"Because that's just me?" Kevin shrugged.

"You always have been rather anal retentive when it comes to being punctual."

"Don't worry Kev. Being late one time is not going to ruin your anal retentive reputation," Nick added smartly.

"Very funny little man."

"Little man? I'm practically taller then you!"

"But I will always be older and wiser."

"Notice you said older first?"

Kevin did the only thing he knew would silence Nick; he rolled his eyes and turned to look at Brian. The smile fell from his face and he frowned when he realized Brian was just as quiet and withdrawn as a few moments before. There was something stormy hidden deep in his eyes, but Brian refused to reveal the extent of the torment and without asking Kevin knew better then to even prod the subject. Instead he brought a hand up to run through his dark short untamed hair, subconsciously reminding himself he was due for another visit to the hair salon for a trim. "We need to talk about the album," Kevin said, holding back an impending frown as Brian continued to refuse to meet his stare. "Management has been pestering us for a while. Considering the situation, they are curious to know what we want to do when we finish recording the album."

There was a slight shuffling of feet as they all took designated seats around the room. 'Considering the situation'...that simple statement held so much more meaning then just that. It seemed that everything concerning the business of the group revolved around those three words now. 'Considering the situation'. Certainly they had all begun to think about the possibilities at one time or another over the past several months, but with great hesitancy. Whether they wanted to admit it or not though, it was something they had all wanted to avoid discussing because it was just another reminder of what was happening and what they were all afraid of happening.

"First we need to get the album completely recorded," AJ said in a gruff tone.

"Naturally," Kevin nodded. "But they want to know about afterwards. They were talking about moving the album release to a sooner date because..." His voice faded and he looked over to see Brian visibly wince at the unsaid indication.

"Makes sense," AJ shrugged quietly.

"What about promoting though?" Howie asked.

Brian grimaced at the way he said it, the way Howie brought up the delicate subject like the way they seemed to have to always walk on egg shells around him. He detested it more then they could have ever realized but he remained calm all the same. "I know what you guys are thinking," he started slowly, adverting his eyes to the floor at his feet. "There won't be a tour."

"It's not that B," AJ immediately intervened with a tight shake of his head. "It's not that at all. I think it's unanimous that we all want to do another tour-"

"But?" Brian returned sharply, finally looking up.

"But," Kevin stressed, "We have to think about what's best for you."

Brian groaned, letting loose a sarcastic laugh of disbelief. "Didn't we just have this conversation a few weeks ago?" he retorted with a quick roll of his eyes. He looked to Nick and felt his glare tighten. "Are you gonna yell at me again like you did last time?"

Nick stared back blankly for a second before the understanding reflected in his eyes. "You're such a smartass," he snorted with a smirk.

"I was actually serious..." Brian mumbled.

"Brian, you need to think rationally about this. We all need to," Kevin sighed, already seeing the disaster capable of causing more devestation. He knew if he didn't do some quick damage control then there would be more of a mess to clean up then they were ready to handle. As it was, Brian's temper had become a ticking time bomb that had a tendency to off randomly and the way things were heading at that moment, Kevin was afraid they wouldn't be seeing Brian for a couple of weeks again like before. "You yourself cannot deny your physical limitations and I'll be damned if I agree to something that is only going to be even more detrimental to your health."

"You mean something that is only going to kill me faster?" Brian shot hatefully in return.

"That was a bit harsh B," AJ wheezed.

Brian gave him a glare of daggers. "It's my problem. I'll make fun of it however I see fit."

"I hardly think it's a laughing matter," Howie noted carefully.

"This is rediculous," Brian sighed as he hunched over in his chair and rested his head in his hands. He could already feel the familiar headache begin to pound and the painful stress radiate through out his body. "I'm sorry..."

"Reality sucks," Nick broke the silence a few seconds later and as they all looked up at him, they could see the evidence of his emotions being torn. "We can't deny the reality that this has changed everything though and we're going to just have to accept that. You need to accept that too B and that's what we're here for."

"Why do I feel like this is some sort of intervention meeting?" Brian said to noone in particular.

"Could you possibly be serious for one second?" Kevin snapped suddenly.

"I..." Brian trailed towards the harsh tone.

"Management is well aware of the limitations we have," Howie interrupted as he rose from his seat and paced several feet around the room to keep himself moving and occupied. The tension in the room had increased tenfold and he suddenly felt suffocated. "A good solution was thought of that I think will satisfy everybody and fulfill what it is we want to do, but on a safe level. And it's important that we take your health and safety into consideration Brian, because we don't want to risk any chance of something happening."

Brian nodded unwillingly, fiddling uneasily with his hands. "...What's the idea?"

"A short promo tour," Howie explained, looking at Kevin for support. "It won't be big, but it will be enough to prove that we're not just dumping the album out there without a care. Basically it'll consist of visits to some of the main stream states; here in California, New York, and so on. Some press appearances, a couple photo shoots, and some mini performances. It'll give us a way to interact with the fans for the last- ...well just to interact."

"You can say it Howie. For the last time."

"We don't know that right now B," AJ answered.

"Management was a little hesitant about the idea...we all were," Howie continued.

"What made them change their minds?" Brian whispered, feeling his heart drop into the pit of his stomach.

"Nick," Kevin stated seriously.

"Nick?" Brian repeated, looking to his younger friend.

"I argued on your behalf," Nick nodded with a shrug. "Um...your welcome."

"Listen Brian," Kevin said. "We don't have to do this if you don't want to. If you're not absolutely positive that you can handle it, then tell us right now and we'll understand without questioning it. The most important thing though is you."

The middle of Brian's forehead creased in thought as he considered the proposition and all of the implications that went along with it. The truth was he ached to set out on another tour and experience it for all it was worth when he knew he would possibly never get the chance to do it again, but the idea frightened him worse then he ever could have begun and he was afraid that was exactly what they say reflecting in his eyes. So without much more hesitation, Brian said the first thing that came to his mind. "Lets do it."

Chapter 18 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
I'm finally back with another update. I know, it was long over due, but at least I finally got it done. Now I can only hope I still have readers out there who are still interested in reading the story. I would seriously really appreciate any feedback I can get on this right now because I am doubting the way I am writing this and it's becoming more difficult to write as the story progresses. I'm not talking about writer's block, but more so the subject matter of the story. So any and all feedback is greatly appreciated. Hope y'all enjoy the update!

 

Chapter 18:

Brian could hardly think straight as he directed his SUV down the private residential street he lived on, but he was pleased nonetheless. Much to his surprise the day spent in the studio recording had been more productful then he could have imagined. They had finally caught up on the small amount of material that still need to be finished and now all that was left were a few touch ups on only a couple of songs. It was a relief to have the album almost complete, and despite the fact that AJ had cornered him when they were leaving and demanded he seriously consider recording that song so it could be included on the final cut, Brian didn't see how the day could have gone any better. And he would consider AJ's reasoning; he had realized the honor and meaning it would hold to have his personal track included on the finished product. But even more pressing on his mind was the idea of the small promotional tour they had discussed. Even the thought of embarking on such a trip made him dizzy with excitement. He hadn't expected it, but he certainly wasn't by no means disappointed.

Carefully Brian pulled into his driveway and came to a slow halt, glancing at his household with wonder. The windows were all alit with a soft glow from the light inside and he smiled. He was anxious to tell Leighanne about the tour, although he didn't honestly know how she would react to the idea, but the excitement brought about a whole new reserve of energy he hadn't felt in a long time. For once he hoped to be able to spend the quality time with his son, the interaction he missed and longed for. Brian removed the key from the ignition and stepped out of the vehicle. The warm evening air was soothing against his skin as he retrieved his guitar case from the back seat and made the small walk to the front door. When he stepped in his house hold his nostrils were immediately invaded with the delicious scents of a wonderful home cooked meal. Brian had suspected that Leighanne would have a dinner prepared upon his return and the delectable smells made his stomach grumble. He'd hardly eaten a thing the entire day and he realized at that moment how ravenous he was. So he quietly discarded the guitar case just inside the door and moved towards the livingroom.

The animated sounds of a child's cartoon echoed through the television speakers and Brian spotted his son's scrawny form sprawled out on the floor in front of the entertainment center. He snuck up on the small boy and before Baylee had the chance to realize there was someone else in the room, Brian lowered himself to his knees and pulled his son up into a playful headlock. The reaction was immediate as Baylee let loose of an ear splitting shriek of terror until he craned his neck around and realized it was his father who had him in a gentle hold. Baylee giggled, swatting at his father's arm. "Bad Daddy!" he scolded teasingly, unable to stifle his laughter. Then he threw his arms around Brian's neck and squeezed tightly. "Yous scared me!"

"Me? Scare my Bayster?" Brian mocked with an expression of shock. "Never! I could do no such thing!"

"Uh huh! You just did!"

"I did?" Brian made a show of effort to exaggerate a disappointed pout which only resulted in the further continuation of Baylee's laughter. Brian grinned as he ruffled Baylee's soft curls. "Where's Mommy?"

"Hers in da kitchen," Baylee answered simply. "Hers doing her cho'es."

Brian chuckled at his son's knowing nod and placed him back on the floor. "Go back to watching your cartoon kiddo," he said as he rose to his feet.

"No Daddy! It's SpongeBob Square Pants!" Baylee quickly corrected.

Brian paused as if comtemplating the correction. "Like I said, go back to watching SpongeBob," he chuckled, but Baylee's attention had already turned elsewhere and Brian was sure his son hadn't heard his last words. He lingered for a moment longer, allowing a small smile to toy with his lips before turning on his heels and walking quickly in the direction of the kitchen. Even before he reached the open doorway he could hear the soft melody of Leighanne's voice as she hummed a tune only she seemed to know. The sound was quiet but heavenly and was a wonderful sound to Brian's ears that he always welcomed. Leighanne's back was to the door as she stood at the sink, nearly elbow deep in soapy water where she vigorously scrubbed at a pile of dishes. Brian's smile thickened and he crept across the elegantly tiled flooring, preparing to pull his wife into a loving embrace. "Miss me?" he whispered into her ear, slipping his arms coyly around her waist. He pressed his lips lightly to her neck for a sensual kiss before pulling her close to his body, unaware of the way she seemed to tense just towards his affecionate touch. "I've got great news."

Leighanne became rigid as she allowed the ceramic dish to slip from her hands and impact the water with a noticeable splash that sent a cascade of water washing up and over the counter. Without a word she pushed herself away from her husband's embrace and reached for a towel to dry her hands. Brian stared at her quizzically, unsure of the hostile vibes. Just by her stiff stature he could tell Leighanne was clearly unhappy about something, but he didn't understand. He certainly hadn't expected it, especially when she had been abuzz with a hidden excitement that morning. Now with the blatant refusal of his touch it was as if she detested his presence and it more then surprised him. "...Leigh?" he called out to her cautiously, reaching to brush her shoulder with his finger tips. Again she dodged the touch and turned to him with a glare that was even more deadly then her unexpected silence. "Baby, what's wrong?"

Leighanne's lips pursed into a thin line, appearing to contemplate the question. However her eyes still harbored a dangerous storm as she wrung the dish towel within her grasp. "I would hope that you would know what is wrong," she snipped, not once waivering with her glare.

Brian stared at his wife with wonder. "Maybe you could enlighten me?"

"I shouldn't have to enlighten you," Leighanne answered in a curt tone.

Brian sighed as he approached Leighanne once more. "Leigh, I've been at the studio all day. I'm tired and you're not making any sense. Why are you so upset?"

The storm brewing flashed within Leighanne's piercing eyes. It was obvious Brian had struck an even worse sour chord as the statement rolled from his mouth, but he couldn't help it. Leighanne's demeanor seemed to be off balance and somehow, despite the confusion, he knew he was to blame. However, that didn't make up for the riff that had formed and Leighanne's patience only grew more thin as the seconds passed. If there was one thing Brian had learned over the years when it came to her personality, he knew Leighanne had a firecracker for a temper and there were certain boundaries he knew not to cross. He had already crossed one of those boundaries and his wife's movements were proving it. "If you didn't care enough to remember earlier, then why would you stop to care now?" Leighanne whispered sharply and slapped the towel against the counter top.

Brian winced as he watched Leighanne side step around him, but he quickly reached to grip her arm loosely. "Leigh-"

"Let go Brian," Leighanne warned.

The glare was so disturbing, mixed with emotion, that Brian allowed his arm to drop listlessly to his side. He winced further as Leighanne brushed past him and he watched the back side of her retreating form blankly for a second before he felt his own feet moving and he began to follow. Baylee's attention had perked instantly at the sound of the bickering and despite the fact that he knew his son was all too intuitive of when things were sour, Brian forced his attention to remain forward. "Why are you acting like this?" he called after her, unable to keep the tinge of impatience from creeping into his tone.

Leighanne paused just in front of the coffee table and quivered. "You promised you wouldn't forget."

Brian's forehead creased with a growing frustration. "If you would just tell me what it is I forgot-"

Leighanne bent to grasp an object from the table's glossy surface and slowly turned. Within the short period of time not a hint of the previous anger remained in her eyes, replaced now with a spark of betrayel Brian hadn't expected as she moved back towards him. "Here," she whispered, forcing a thin sheet of paper into his left hand. "Maybe this will spark your memory. By the way, we're having a girl."

Brian found himself stumbling backwards a step as his wife spun without another word and disappeared up the staircase. Moments later he heard their bedroom door slam shut and he finally forced his eyes downward to the paper he held. His heart immediately began to sink into the pit of his stomach as he squinted at the fuzzy image and realization dawned in the back of his mind. His head swayed and all remnants of the adrenaline he had been running on were gone in an instant. There were no more mental images of the album or thoughts of the promotional tour. All he could focus on were the blurry outlines of two tiny hands, two tiny feet, and an undistinguishable face that had been captured when the image had been taken. He couldn't help but let a strained breath escape past his lips as his knees grew weak. It wasn't until he felt someone tugging on his jeans that he looked away from the paper and realized that Baylee was standing at his side, his bottom lip trembling as he stared up at his father with a hesitant gaze.

"Are you in twouble Daddy?" Baylee asked softly, his voice subdued as he stared upward in curiosity.

Brian bit down on his bottom lip. "Big trouble," he sighed, taking one last glance in the direction of the stairs. All had become silent from the second floor but he was almost certain Leighanne was still fuming and he knew better to give her the time to actually cool off before he approached her again. "Mommy is really mad at me buddy."

"Why is her mad at you?" Baylee questioned in awe.

Brian frowned, wishing the inquisitive sparkle in Baylee's eyes wasn't there. But Baylee was often too smart for his own good and he knew the small boy would only continue to pester him over the recent spat between the parents if he tried to brush the subject off. Slowly Brian walked over to the couch and sank down into the plush cushions, gripping the paper within his fingers. Baylee wasted no time in following him over and scrambled up beside him, prodding him in the arm. "Why is Mommy mad at you? Huh?" he asked again.

Brian glanced at his son. "Because I didn't do what I said I was going to do and it hurt Mommy's feelings."

"Maybe if you tell her you're sowwy..." Baylee drawled, scooting closer. "Then her won't be mad no mo'."

"Later," Brian nodded with a small smile and reached to smooth Baylee's tassled curls.

"What's dat?" Baylee questioned a moment later, jabbing a finger at the paper.

Brian felt that same pride swell in the pit of his stomach, yet at the same time he couldn't ignore the regret that invaded the feeling. He was staring at the first picture of his baby girl, drinking in every detail he possibly could. As fuzzy as the image was, the unborn infant seemed to have one hand curled in a fist next to a cheek and the other hand was slightly raised and open as if to wave in greeting. Brian was certain he counted five fingers on the open hand, but he wasn't worried. She was already beautiful and would only continue to grow more more beautiful. His daughter. His precious little girl. "That's your baby sister," Brian murmured, tracing the outline of the baby with an unsteady finger.

"Baby sister?" Baylee repeated, raising both eyebrows in an amazed disbelief. His nose scrunched as he leaned over to get a closer look. "Her in Mommy's tummy?"

"She sure is," Brian nodded.

Baylee sat back. "Her looks like an alien."

Brian choked on his laughter, seeing the serious yet confused expression masking Baylee's face. He could almost guarantee that Baylee couldn't make out the image, let alone understand it. "An alien?"

"Uh huh. Like the ones in Uncle Nicky's comic books."

"Uncle Nicky lets you read his comic books?"

"When he's not looking."

Brian chuckled. "You looked like this once too you know?" he mentioned.

Baylee gave a displeased shake of his head. "Uh uh!"

"You did and I can show you a picture later," Brian explained, humored towards his son's growing displeasure. He rose from the couch and carefully placed the image back upon the coffee table before turning to Baylee. "But right now it is time for your bath. It's getting late and you need to get to bed." Brian held his hand out for Baylee to grasp and for a slight moment it seemed the child was going to argue, but he withheld a sigh of relief as Baylee climbed down from the couch with only a small grumble. Carefully Brian bent to bring Baylee into his arms, despite the stress and pain the added weight put on his body. He lingered where he stood, holding Baylee close. Baylee smiled innocently, offering a goofy expression that mirrored Brian's own personality. The simple expression caused the emotions to stir deep within, but he pushed it aside and smiled nonetheless in return, finally turning to carry them upstairs.

*****

He used to enjoy sitting out on his veranda on nights when the sky was so clear and the air so calm that there were endless stars as far as the eye could see. For hours he would sit in one of the fold out lounge chairs and just stare, welcoming the silence that allowed him to forget about life if only for a short while. Tonight came as a complete opposite as he sat huddled loosely beneath a blanket. The air wasn't cold by no means, but he couldn't deny the slight chill that bothered him to his very core. He was troubled and his mind was running on overload. Despite the expansive stretch of dark emptiness looming overhead, Brian found himself preferring it over being closed within the lonely space of his household. Going to bed had been an unnerving task and only resulted in him lying on his back staring numbly at the ceiling amidst a daunting silence. Finding no other solace, he finally slipped from the bed and took his normal perch on the veranda. Still it brought him no peace.

Leighanne hadn't spoken a single word to him the remainder of the evening and after putting Baylee to bed, Brian tried to find relief by passing the time in his office with little results. Try as he might, he was unable to eliminate all that plagued his mind. His head ached with an irritating pounding that ceased to relent. He couldn't stop thinking. Then finally after numbing hours of laying atop the bed without rest he retreated to the outside world. Though he felt no better out there then he did inside. He was torn in more ways then he could count and at times he found himself wanting to just throw his hands up in the air and turn his back on the world. But Brian knew that would make him no better off then he already was. There was no forgetting, as much as he tried, and the attention he received was disgusting. It was rediculous to be so enraged with the overwhelming support from those closest, but he just couldn't seem to put it past him. He didn't want it. He didn't believe in the need to be treated any different, even if things were far from the way they used to be and the fact that it would never be the same again. It really was different now. So much had changed in the past few months and it wasn't change a single one of them had welcomed. Forced into realizing what was really happening and had yet to happen made it all that much more difficult to accept. Understanding it wasn't the worst. Accepting it was down right impossible and Brian found himself stuck in the epicenter of it all and without a means of escape to turn to.

Pressing against the back of the chair, Brian pulled the knitted blanket closer against his body and couldn't ignore the tremors that were a constant bother. The weaker he felt, the worse the chill. It was like a permant flu where he couldn't retain his own body heat, but somehow it felt different. He knew what that implication meant and it was just one more nasty reminder; something his doctor never failed to remind him would only get worse as the time passed. He could no longer ignore the physical limitations that grew on a daily basis. What he used to be able to do so carelessly and without thought, minor tasks, had now become a physical chore that often left him breathless and worn. 'It will only get worse' he kept reminding himself and the pains he felt always proved it.

Before he could slip further into his morose thoughts though, a slight creaking of the door behind him caught his attention and a soft whimper sliced through the still of the night air. Brian twisted carefully in his seat and found Baylee standing tentatively in the open doorway, his cherubic cheeks tinted with color and stained with silent tears. Slowly sitting up he held out his arms and waited no time as the child scrambled fretfully into his embrace and cowared against his chest. Brian held him tightly as his son blubbered into the light material of his shirt. "Buddy...what's wrong?" he cooed soothingly, smoothing the mess of tangled curls away from the child's forehead.

Baylee clung to his father with a small hiccup, refusing tearfully to loosen his grip. "Bad dweam!" he moaned and released a despairing sob. "Bad dweam an' you left! Couldn' find you!"

Brian looked down at him, frowning as Baylee curled pleadingly against him. There was a truthful ring in his son's voice that chilled him to no end. He couldn't even begin to imagine the terror of his son's imagination, but still Baylee's words rang too close to reality. If only the child really knew... it just wasn't possible and Brian pulled him closer, placing the softest of kisses to the top of his head. "I haven't gone anywhere. I'm right here."

"Scared...you left..." Baylee continued to whimper.

"I'm not going anywhere son."

"You left!"

"Oh Baylee...no, I didn't go anywhere. I'm not going anywhere. I'm right here. You can calm down. It's alright." Baylee trembled, shaking his head in disbelief and it took only a moment for Brian to realize that his son was still stuck somewhere between reality and a nightmare filled slumber. There would be no reasoning with the boy, only the calming whispers that could bring him back to security and Brian was ok with that because the longer he held Baylee trying to calm him, the more his own insecurities began to rest at peace. He reached for the crumpled blanket that had fallen from his lap and brought it around their bodies for added warmth. Slowly Baylee began to rest against him, his sniffles falling near nonexistent. Brian smiled down at him and their eyes caught in a locked gaze. "There now. No more tears. I'm right here."

Baylee reached up to graze Brian's cheek lightly with a tiny hand as if for confirmation and then gathered a portion of the blanket within a clenched fist. His bottom lip puckered out as his eyes still glistened over with unshed tears of distress. "Missed you Daddy..." he murmured with a tiny sigh.

"I missed you too son," Brian answered, frowning. He felt the pang of guilt settle into his gut as Baylee clung to him with an utter determination to never let go and he could recognize the fear of abandonment reflecting in the child's eyes. Baylee was unable to understand the changes taking place within his father and it often caused his frustration to peak to unbearable limits. Brian didn't blame him for being as clingy as he was at that moment; they had hardly spent the time together that they were used to. Brian just didn't have the energy for it and it wasn't something so easily explained to a four year old. But he couldn't help it and it was wearing Baylee down, crushing the happiness within the child's spirit.

"Stay with you out here?"

"Of course you can."

Baylee pulled away only slightly and looked up at his father with a weary expression. "Daddy sad?"

"Why would you think I am sad?"

"'Cause you cryin' lots and don' wanna play no mo'..."

Brian sat taken aback with bated breath. Baylee was too inquisitive for his own good and Brian wished nothing more then to erase the pain he saw etched upon his young son's face. There was no telling what the child thought and he would have never guessed that he would get cornered with such a question. He had never wanted his son to witness his weakest moments and there they sat, Brian feeling like an overwhelming failure that he couldn't live up to the strong role model he had always believed himself to be for Baylee's sake. "You've heard Daddy cry?" he asked with a shameful hesitance.

"When I's play with toys in my room...and you cryin'. Mommy gets sad too when you cry. Why you cry huh? Mad at Mommy?"

"No, I'm not mad at Mommy-"

"Mad at me?"

Brian's lips parted in awe at the innocent question but it stung more then he would have ever imagined. He pulled Baylee close once more and rocked him gently. The familiar rush of tears pricked at the corners of his eyes but he forced them to remain at bay as he kissed the soft curls atop his child's head. "Oh gosh son, no. Daddy could never be mad you," he whispered frantically. He felt nauseated as Baylee reached up to wrap his slender arms around his neck.

"Don' like when you cry."

"I'm so sorry buddy-"

"Don' wan' you sad no mo'..." Baylee pouted and nuzzled his face into the crook of his father's neck.

"I don't want to be sad anymore either Baylee," Brian choked with a faltered breath. His insides ache with a guilt like no other at the desperation ringing in Baylee's voice. His life was falling to shambles right before his eyes and it was breaking his family apart from the inside out. There was none other then himself to blame and when Baylee's breathing softened moments later to signify the return of slumber, Brian finally succombed to the storm of emotions building dangerously within. He began to sob silently, welcoming the tears.

Chapter 19 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
Woohoo! Two updates in just like a day over a week! Feels like I am on a roll. Maybe it's the fact that it decided to freakishly start to snow here today, but I whizzed by the rest of this chapter. I hope it turned out ok and not too overly cheezy at the end. I really would appreciate any feedback I could get! Thanks much in advance! Hope y'all enjoy! Please let me know!

 

Chapter 19:

Exhaling with a small sigh, Brian sat upright on the examining table as the young nurse excused herself from the room with a promise of the doctor returning shortly, and slipped his long sleeve shirt back onto his shoulders. He fiddled half-heartedly with the buttons, frowning in distaste as he found them almost unmanagable, but he completed the task and rose to his feet. It had been an unnerving morning up until that point. He had awoken with an unease settling in his system and it hadn't helped that Leighanne's mood had proved to be unchanged from the night before. But that was the least of his worries. More pressing on his mind was the countless tests he had been subjected to that only sent his body into an aching spin of distress. He hated it but they told him it was necessary. Necessary...he didn't see the point. Now he stood alone in the cold room with only his thoughts and an annoying ticking clock mounted on the wall to keep him company. Brian eyed it with a frown before ambling over to the window a short distance across the small room.

It was moving into early afternoon and the sky had become clear with the sun lighting it all around. Brian reached up to run a hand through his disheveled hair before leaning slightly forward and resting his forehead against the cold surface of the glass. It felt good against his skin, but it did nothing to calm his nerves. He wanted to be anywhere but there. His shoulders slumped, almost in defeat and he tried to focus on the landscape multiple stories below him, but still his mind wandered dangerously with the thoughts that constantly plagued him to no end. It wasn't helping much that it seemed his heart had suddenly lodged itself high into his throat and was still beating rapidly from the previous stress test they had just put him through not too long before. Brian had plenty of stress to offer them, if only they really knew. His head began to ache with a dull throb and he tenderly rubbed at his temples to will it away.

The door creaked open again a moment later and Brian was no more pleased to see the cardiologist step back into the room then he had been when the nurse left minutes before. Brian withheld a frown of displeasure as the lanky man shuffled further inside and pressed the door closed behind him. He brought with him a medical folder that only thickened with each visit and a large manilla envelope that Brian was almost certain contained the results from the xray procedure. The doctor offered him a tight smile as he discarded the items atop the counter and motioned for Brian to sit back upon the examining table, then turned to switch the light board on. "Your vitals are as best as can be expected after the stress test for what we are dealing with, but I am afraid they are far from normal," he began to explain.

Brian wanted to thank the man for stating the obvious, but he bit back his sarcasm and instead tried to focus upon the xray sheet the cardiologist was putting on the light board. It was a ghastly image of his own heart, the same heart that was pounding so horrendously against his ribcage at that moment that he was nearly ready to bet his life's fortune that it was about to explode from his chest. Brian grimaced as he studied the image and wiped the sweaty palms of his hands against his khaki cargo shorts.

"You're xray is showing what I had been expecting," Dr. Eransen continued to explain and began to outline different areas upon the image that he was specifically speaking of. "As you can see, the hole has already opened further which poses particularly damaging weakening effects to your heart, Mr. Littrell. Although it's increasing at a some what slow rate, it still alarms me to the extent it's increased already. However, right now, that is the least of my worries. What concerns me even more is the fact that the xray is showing your heart is enlarging and already has enlarged a dangerous percentage. This poses the problem of effecting how well your heart is able to operate."

"What does that mean exactly?" Brian asked numbly.

"You were saying earlier that you have been experiencing increased difficulty in breathing, especially when it comes to simple physical activities. Difficulty in retaining body heat. Increased exhaustion. Correct?" Brian could only find himself able to nod as Dr. Eransen listed off the multiple symptoms that had become particularly bothersome recently and even as he listened, he could feel the familiar eerie chill pass over his tired body. "As the percentage at which your heart functions decreases, the less it is able to adequately circulate the blood and oxygen throughout your body. You'll experience exhaustion easily and more frequently, simple activities will start to leave you short of breath, and you will find it more difficult to retain a comfortable level of body heat. With the continuing degradation, the severity of these symptoms will only increase."

"And the enlarging?" Brian forced himself to ask even though he knew the answer, he dreaded hearing it all the same.

"With the passing of time your heart will continue to grow in size and that's what poses the most threatening problem. The heart is not meant to be an overbearing organ when it comes to its size and already at the stage you are at, your heart has passed a dangerous capacity level. It needs enough room to be able to function properly and the larger it gets and the less room it has it starts to shut down."

Brian averted his eyes away from the light board and away from the cardiologist's uncomfortable stare. He attempted to clear his throat, suddenly feeling very suffocated, and rung his hands together out of nervous habit. Anything to ignore the fact that every inch of his body was beginning to tremble and his stomach was twisting into tight knots. "...How long?" he whispered in a barely audible tone.

Dr. Eransen frowned, switching the light of the board off. "There's no way to really say-"

Brian looked up sharply but he could hardly get his voice to project. "How long do I have?" he repeated.

"Without a transplant...months maybe?" Dr. Eransen answered vaguely. "At the rate your condition is progressing it places you at a disadvantage-"

"Yeah, I'm gonna die. So of course that's a disadvantage," Brian interrupted with a tone tinged with a hateful sarcasm. But when he met Dr. Eransen's gaze, Brian's features spoke otherwise. Distressed tears were brimming at the corners of his azure eyes on the verge of spilling over. He looked away again. "I'm sorry. That was uncalled for..." he murmured and leaned over, resting the points of his elbows on his knees and pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers.

"It's alright Mr. Littrell," Dr. Eransen responded softly.

Brian inhaled deeply, hoping to calm his palpitating heart. "So...um, where...where do we go from here?"

Reaching to grab the medical file from the counter top, Dr. Eransen scribbled several notes inside, flipped a couple of pages and scribbled some more. He looked back up. "I'm going to raise the dosage on several of the medications you are taking. I'm hoping by doing so that it will work to possibly slow down the degradation that is taking place. I must warn you that there are some increased side effects that come with taking a higher dosage, but giving your body a chance to become acclimated to it, those side effects should eventually fade with time."

"Is it possible that I could have another heart attack?"

"It's a possibility, but whether or not it will actually happen, I can't give you an honest answer. That's why it is imperative that you keep physical stress to your body at a minimum. What I also want to do is set you up with a portable heart monitor that I want you to wear daily. That way by your next check up I will have some idea of how your heart is functioning on a day to day basis, outside of the stress test you went through today. It's just a small device that you can clip on to your pants and it is easily hideable beneath your shirt. The readings will be stored on a microchip, that way I can get a better idea on how your heart is functioning when you are not here."

Brian nodded but he found no reason to answer. He wasn't so sure he could get his voice to project even if he wanted to and he didn't feel the least bit apologetic for remaining silent. He tried to grasp onto the idea that his death sentence had just been sealed tighter, but it soared past his comprehension. It didn't make sense and Brian doubted it ever would. When he felt a gentle hand land upon his shoulder, he weakly looked up and tried to focus on the cardiologist's sympathetic face, but his vision was steadily blurring. He had always prided himself for being strong emotionally, and at times he'd almost forgotten to some extent that he was still capable of breaking. But sitting there, helpless in the scheme of things...Brian had never felt so small. "T-there's nothing else we can do?"

Dr. Eransen shook his head in a subtle fashion. "I'm sorry, Mr. Littrell. I wish there was. Right now the only thing we can do is hope and pray that we find a donor."

He had lost count of the amount of times he had heard the doctors tell him that and just by the tone of their voice, the outlook never appeared positive. The act of hope seemed like an utter impossibility and his unanswered prayers a waste of his time. "I..." Brian's voice trembled as he struggled to get anything intelligent to pass his lips, but failing horribly he slumped over further where he sat. There were no other words to say, no consolation that could calm his tortured spirit falling victim to a raging storm of emotional despair.

Brian watched as the cardiologist excused himself from the room a few minutes later to retrieve the heart monitor, and as the door closed with a click, he could no longer contain the strangled sob waiting to erupt from his throat as reality hit him head on and he realized the horrible truth.

He really was living on borrowed time.

*****

If there were ever a word to sum up the way Brian was feeling at that very moment, numb would almost be a far cry of an understatement. Aside from the throbbing taking place in each temple, his body felt completely numb to all emotions. He felt nothing, subconsciously building a wall between a fantasy world in his mind where all was well and the nightmarish reality he found himself living in. He couldn't cry. His eyes were dry and bloodshot from the emotional breakdown he had experienced during the twenty minute drive it had taken from the hospital to the solitude of the beach where he found himself escaping to. They itched and the skin beneath his eyes stung where the salty tears had soaked. Brian vaguely remembered planting himself unstably on his two feet and leaving the hospital, only to collapse inside his SUV moments later where he spent the better part of an hour sobbing painfully against the steering wheel. It all just seemed too surreal. Never in his entire existence did he imagine it would come to this. Yet there he was, meeting fate face to face and living out one of his worst fears.

He ambled slowly along the soft sand, his socks and shoes grasped in one hand and the other buried deep within the pocket of his shorts. It used to be a favorite spot of his, this section of the beach. With the golden hues of the sand that glowed from the sun and tickled the soles of his bare feet, he enjoyed the view of the sparkling ocean so close to his finger tips. It was a spot for day dreams to evolve and peace of mind to break away the binds of the real world that every now and then Brian wanted to take a break from. There was no breaking away this time and the once favorite location appeared just as devestating as Brian himself.

He paused abruptly and with a hallowed breath of air, Brian dropped his shoes to the ground without a second thought and sank to the surface of the sand. He could feel the warmth of the sun beating down on his back but it wasn't in the least bit comforting. It hardly concerned him as he pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around his legs. Faint echos of the ocean lapping at the shores became nature's music and a light breeze nipped at the short wispy curls that had accumulated at the base of his head.

Brian reached up and ran a hand through his disheveled locks of hair. Sometimes he wondered if he was destined from the beginning to meet such an early demise. He had come so close to losing his life at a very young age, that he'd always believed it was a miracle he was still walking the earth to that day. Throughout his life he was constantly reminded to never take for granted the life he'd been allowed to keep and he did his best to never stop thanking God for such a precious gift. He was by no means perfect, but he couldn't understand why God would choose him to be so deserving of such a horrible ending. It was nothing but a pathetic attempt to pity himself, but he couldn't help but feel bitter. God had given him a gift and was ready to snatch it back within the blink of an eye. Brian didn't care if it was God almighty and the ultimate creator of his existance to begin with. It was all unjust, no matter how he managed to look at it. Where could faith be found in all of that?

He breathed deeply, closing his eyes to the world surrounding him and tried to fade away from the present concerns that pestered him endlessly. But there was just no escaping it. He couldn't stop from thinking of his family and the sorrow he was putting all of them through. Leighanne's beautiful face remained emblazoned within his mind and it was only a painful reminder that he would be leaving her without a husband and his children without a father. Brian wheezed as the thought crept upon him. Oh God how he thought he was failing his children. He wouldn't be there to protect them like he had promised. Baylee wouldn't grow up having his father ready to teach him the things that all fathers were supposed to teach their sons and his unborn child...a daughter. He and Leighanne were going to be having a baby girl in only some collective months time and it killed himself inside to be unsure of whether or not he would even get the chance to be there to witness the birth of the daughter he had always wanted.

Brian brought an angry hand swooping down across the surface of the sand, unphased by the cloud of dust that resulted as he cursed quietly towards the sky.

"Not too close to the water son!"

Brian slowly looked over to where a ways down the beach he noticed he wasn't indeed alone like he had originally thought. A man was rising to his feet, very similiar to his own height and size, and strolling over to a small boy toying at the water's edge. The boy immediately looked up and grinned before bending to fill a bright red plastic bucket with the cool water and running back over to where his mother sat coddling his infant sister. Holding his plastic shovel up for show as if the baby would understand, the child scooped some of the sand into a small pile and mixed it with the water to make it more pliable. It was the obvious beginning stages of a sand castle and Brian couldn't help the small smile that curled at his lips towards the thought of how much Baylee enjoyed creating such things during frequent trips to the beach.

The infant's giggles wafted through the air as she squirmed within her mother's embrace, straining to reach forward to grasp tiny handfuls of the soft sand that surrounded them on all sides. She couldn't have been any more then eight or nine months of age, but she projected a feisty spirit of determination that didn't seem to falter in the least. Brian continued to watch as the mother propped the baby up on unstable feet, cooing words of encouragement as her daughter kicked at the ground with short grunts and babbles of excitement, not once giving up at attempting to aid her brother in building, or rather destroying the sand castle. In a moment her tiny foot connected with the semi solid structure and sent it crumbling to the ground. Brian chuckled as the young boy began to complain in displeasure and his father quickly helped him to begin rebuilding.

They seemed like the perfect little family with two wonderful children and a happpy couple who appeared to leave each other without doubt. Brian found himself envying them with a deep pitted jealousy that stemmed from his own less then perfect life. It hadn't always been that way, at least not until recently before his whole life seemed to cascade downhill. He had once been in that man's position, interacting carelessly with his young son. Even now he was supposed to be enjoying the anticipation that came with bringing another child into the world. A daughter at that. But that joy had been prematurely tainted when he'd found out there was a chance that he wouldn't even be around to witness the birth of his second child. What would his baby girl be like? He often wondered if she would inherit his looks just like Baylee had or if she would turn out to be just as stunning of a beauty as her mother was. Would she have his personality and determination? Would she share his love for music and develop the same vocal chords that had taken him far in life? Brian was afraid he would never know and that was enough to bring his resolve down around him in shambles.

"Figured I would find you here."

Brian twisted sharply in his seat and was no less then surprised to find a familiar tall figure steadily heading his way. He squinted against the glare of the sun and moved to stand, but a quick hand forced him to remain seated. "How did you know?" he asked wearily a moment later and returned his attention forward to the expansive open stretch of ocean.

"I'm more intelligent then you may think?" Nick offered with a simple shrug as he lowered himself to the ground.

"I'll believe that the day your IQ rises above 50," Brian snorted in return.

"Ah, so you haven't lost your sense of humor after all."

"Not so much. It's just become a little more subtle I suppose."

"Then there might just be hope yet."

"You still haven't answered my question."

"What's that?"

"How you knew I'd be here?"

Nick pursed his lips together in thought as he mindlessly shrugged off his shoes and found a small amount of humor in burying his toes beneath the sand. "Well, you see, the thing about that is-"

Brian sighed. "I really don't have the attention span right now for a lengthy explanation, so please just get to the point."

Nick frowned openly as he leaned back to rest all of his weight upon his hands and stretched his legs out. "I spoke to your wife a short while ago and she told me you had gone this morning to a check up appointment with your doctor, although she still hadn't heard from you and had expected you back nearly two hours ago. You haven't been answering your phone-"

"I left it in the car," Brian answered indifferently.

"Well, why the Hell do you have one if you aren't going to use it?"

"Nick, please..."

"I'm just saying-"

"Did you think that maybe I just wanted some peace and wanted to be left alone?"

Nick smirked. "Which is why I knew I would find you here; the same spot you always go to when you have something on your mind that you need to work out. Now the being left alone part might not be such a great idea though."

"I appreciate it Nick, but why are you really here?"

"Thought you could use some company? Besides, we haven't had much of a chance to hang out since the game and we both know what a disaster that turned out to be."

"Thanks for reminding me..." Brian grumbled.

Nick turned towards the dejection in his friend's tone and contemplated Brian's demeanor. The man seemed far too worn down as he sat hunched over and it concerned Nick even more because he couldn't find a trace of that same smile that usually warmed Brian's face. "Something happen between you and Leigh that I should know about? She sounded pretty damn bitter over the phone."

Brian swallowed his groan of irritation and ran his hands over his face. He realized Nick honestly cared, but he himself was in no means the right state of mind to even be trying to explain his own personal problems. He hadn't even given himself the chance to work it out within his own mind, which was partly the reason why he was sure he had chosen to go straight home. He considered ignoring the blunt question, but Nick was staring intently and silently demanding an answer that he relented after a moment of hesitation. "She's slightly unhappy with me right now."

"What could she possibly be unhappy with you about?"

"Lets just say I messed up yesterday and forgot about the appointment with the Obstetrician. We were supposed to find out the sex of our child."

Nick hissed through his teeth. "Guess the pregnancy hormone are already starting to get bad huh?"

Brian glared slightly. "She has every right to be upset. I promised I would be there and I never showed up. So I don't blame her for being angry. But damnit, I don't know what else I am supposed to do. I'm only one person! I can't do this on my own!"

"No one is expecting you to do it on your own..." Nick trailed slowly.

Brian shook his head irascibly. How many times had he heard them all say that and how many times had he yet to believe them? "Yeah, so I've been told," he murmured, shaking his head in disbelief. He grunted in discomfort as he rose to his feet and brushed the sand from his shorts. "Then why do I feel like I'm alone?"

"But you're not-"

"Feels like it. I don't know what to do anymore. Honest to God Nick I feel like I am going crazy," Brian exclaimed weakly, and he started to slowly pace around, grimacing with each step. "Y-ya know...I just don't get it. I've tried arguing with myself that there is a perfectly logical reason why this is happening and I can't think of a single thing! Why is that? Why is this happening to me?!"

Nick hesitantly stood also. He watched Brian carefully for any sudden irrational movements before approaching him. "Honestly?" he replied quietly. "I can't give you that answer, no matter how much I wish I could. But what I can tell you is that you need to stop doing this to yourself. Stop trying to bear all of this upon your shoulders alone. I hate seeing you do this to yourself. Jesus Brian, I hardly recognize you anymore!"

Brian stared off in the distance, avoiding Nick's thick stare of concern. "I don't know how to. I don't think I can."

Nick stepped up to him. "Yes you do know how to and you are going to start doing it right now."

"Nick-"

"C'mon, I'm taking you out."

"But-"

"No buts B. I'm done standing around watching you trying to go through this alone and stubbornly refusing anyone elses help. That stops today, right now. So shut up for once and let me help you because you'll see I'm not as stupid as you might think."

"But Leigh will-"

"Leigh will be fine. She knew I would find you. Stop with the excuses and lets go. We'll get your car on the way back. But first I'm taking you to get something to eat because you are starting to become even skinnier the pre-puberty AJ and that's...well that's just sick. Afterwards we will work on coming up with a plan on how you can get back on your wife's good side." Nick winced as the silence settled between the two and Brian remained wordless. "B?"

Brian heaved a deep breath as his shoulders almost slumped in defeat. Finally he slowly turned his attention back to his friend and fought to withhold a displeasured frown. But he relented, offering a short nod before whispering, "Deal."

Chapter 20 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
Just wanted to give a special shout out to Ashie for giving me the inspiration to finally get this chapter finished. I hope you all enjoy the update and I'd really appreciate as much feedback as I could possibly get. I'm moving to Florida soon, so I don't know how quickly I will get the next chapter out, but I will try to darndest to get it out quickly. Let me know what y'all think! Thanks!
Chapter 20:

Brian frowned in frustration as he let his hand slip from the strings of his guitar and reached to grasp hold of a shortened pencil that he had managed to chisel down to nearly nothing. Thinking briefly, he leaned forward and made a few careful marks upon the sheet of paper in front of him and stared at it for a moment. The simple revision fixed the corruption of the chords in his mind and he discarded the pencil once more, positioning his fingers. Brian slowly strummed, listening carefully as the tones echoed against the walls of the small music room. He enjoyed being locked away in the enclosed space where he had the freedom to spend hours with only his music to keep him company. It served well as his refreshment from the outside world. Designing it specifically to be tucked into one of the corners of the den, it was Brian's own private sanctuary and that was something he was thankful for.

He concentrated on each individual note, allowing the rythym and melody to be recorded in his memory for later use. He'd been needing this; craving it. A chance to just sit away by himself without interruptions to actually attempt to process everything had been utterly impossible and near the edge of insanity, Brian had finally snapped. He felt like he was drowning, slipping deeper below a surface that was both mentally and physically exhausting. But Nick had managed to cause a connection to be repaired within his brain and it made Brian realize he was doing himself more harm then good. Not that it made dealing with the situation any easier. He was still faced with the every day struggles that kept him tightly bound. Only now it caused yet another thing to weigh heavily upon his mind.

Pausing to make another marking on the paper, Brian inhaled deeply, his brows creasing. He hummed almost inaudibly as he allowed his fingers to slide over the shiny guitar strings without sound. He had been working on the song for quite sometime and despite the constant effort and dedication he had put forth, it seemed he was progressing nowhere. It was more than frustrating because of the deadline pressing down on him and with the small promotional tour the group would be embarking upon shortly after christmas, it was more important to get the song finely tuned. There was already talk from management and the others of putting him center stage with only his guitar. Brian couldn't deny the dread that such an idea caused to swell. It's not that he had never done it before, but everything was different now and somehow he figured there were hidden reasons behind pushing him center stage in the middle of the limelight.

A slight movement through the window caught his attention out of the corners of his eyes and Brian abruptly looked up, pleased as he watched Leighanne attempt to discreetly slip into the room. But his wife blushed deeply when she realized he was watching her every move intently and she paused just inside the den as if waiting for a signaled persuasion that would beckon her in further. Brian's smile widened as he carefully placed the acoustic guitar on the ground and stood from the wooden stool before walking over to the door and emerging from the music room. "Hey," he greeted softly, lingering just within the doorway. He waited, expecting Leighanne to take the invitation for what it was, but she remained firmly planted. His azure eyes softening, Brian took a step towards his wife in concern. "Leigh-"

"I know you didn't want to be bothered, but you've been down here quite a while and I just wanted to check on you," Leighanne apologized, watching his every move with an air of uncertainty. She remembered his strict requests for privacy when he moved past her hours before, his normally calming features contorted with stress as he disappeared down the stairs leading into the den without leaving room for argument. She had even contemplated following him at the time upon hearing the echoing of the door slamming, but not wanting to risk another strain against their relationship which seemed to have been a regular occurance for several days, Leighanne worked to busy herself with keeping their four year old son entertained, hoping to distract the child's questions of why his father seemed so distant. It broke Leighanne's heart to see the lack of understanding reflecting in Baylee's eyes. "I didn't mean to interrupt."

"You weren't interrupting. I was just finishing up," Brian answered and moved quickly to her side where he reached for her hand and gave it a tender squeeze. He noticed her flinch immediately and he stared in wonder. He hated the intensity brewing between them at that moment and the anxiety reflecting in her eyes. Worst of all, Brian was unsure of how to even read it.

"Well it's just that Baylee was asking when you were going to come back upstairs," Leighanne began to explain once more.

Brian quieted her with a light kiss before pulling her closely to him. "I'm not mad," he murmured, burying his nose into her soft golden locks of hair and inhaling deeply. It was calming enough just to have her in his arms.

"Seems that has become a regular occurance for us lately," Leighanne answered with a small frown. She reached out to brush the back of her hand against the flushed tone of his cheek and hesitated from the warmth she felt radiating against her skin.

"I know and I'm sorry," Brian said, grasping her hand to savor the feeling of her skin against his. Snaking his arms around the small of her back, Brian sighed, burying the elements of depression for the time being and enjoying the actual peace he found in the moment. "Would you like to sit?"

"Of course," Leighanne immediately nodded and moved with him the short distance to the beige leather couch across the den. Sitting, Leighanne watched her husband carefully and couldn't help but notice the glint of exhaustion hidden in his eyes. He seemed so troubled but hardly ever spoke of the bothersome thoughts he kept bottled inside. As much as it concerned her to no end, she chose not to pester him over the matter. Leighanne was relieved enough just to have a moment where they both didn't feel on edge and Brian wasn't ready to fly off the handle with the snap of a finger. It was hard enough watching the changes take place within his demeanor daily and knowing there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. It nawed at her insides because Leighanne could almost feel herself losing her husband little by little. "Sweetheart..."

Brian glanced at her sideways and offered her a tight smile. "Hmmm?"

"Are you ok?"

"I'll be fine."

Leighanne didn't believe him for a second, though she bit back her opinion and smiled just the same. He may not have been exactly willing to speak what was littering his mind, but she was thankful he wasn't avoiding her like normal and would accept what little she could get. Moving closer to his side, she took his hand into hers and locked their fingers in a tight bind. "Did you have any luck with what you are working on?" she inquired.

Brian shrugged. "It wasn't anything important. Just a bit of material the fellas want me to work on for the album."

"Sounds pretty important?"

"I suppose, considering they are determined to have it included on the final cut and they want to have me possibly showcase it during the upcoming tour-"

"This is news to me?" Leighanne interrupted with a pointed stare as she sat back slightly. She noticed Brian wince visibly towards her curt tone and she frowned. "You didn't tell me you guys were planning a tour..."

Leaning forward and pinning the points of his elbows upon his knees, Brian rested his head in his hands and rubbed tenderly at his temples. He'd figured her reaction would be nothing short then what it was, and considering the situation, Brian didn't really blame her. But it was still an uplifting idea that he was hoping she would support, if anything for the sake of the matter. He didn't expect her to be completely thrilled about it. "You never gave me the chance to. Frankly speaking Leigh, you weren't exactly thrilled to have me around when I came home the other day."

"I was upset," Leighanne countered quietly.

Brian frowned. "You had every right to be upset, but you didn't give me a chance to explain. I know I messed up and I'm sorry about that, but-"

"Brian..."

"I just have so much on my mind at the moment. And on top of it, I'm having to worry about you, Baylee and the baby. Now, we've got a tour in the works that is supposed to start sometime after christmas. I've got so much on my plate that half the time I can't even think straight. It's driving me insane Leigh. And please, all I need from you right now is for you to tell me it's ok and that you're gonna support this because I don't think I can take another person trying to run my life and tell me what I can and cannot do."

"Brian-"

"God Leigh, just please tell me it's gonna be ok."

"But this tour...you really think it's a good idea for you to do?"

Grunting in irritation, Brian rose to his feet and took several steps away. He reached up to run his fingers through his disheveled locks of hair as his brows creased dangerously. "This is exactly what I don't need!" he snapped, turning back around to face his wife's baffled expression. "I've got everyone else from every angle telling me what is good for me and what isn't, telling me what I should do and what I shouldn't. I would at least hope to expect that you, my own wife, wouldn't do the same. I don't expect you to agree with me, but I would certainly hope that you would support me."

"I do support you, more then you realize. But I worry about you even more-"

"Leigh, this may be the last chance I get to do this because I don't know how much longer I am going to be able to do it. I'm not getting any stronger and I'm only going to get weaker. I want to be able to enjoy it while I still can. This is important to me. Can't you understand that?"

Leighanne watched him as he began to pace heatedly in front of her, the frustration building in his stormy eyes sending her nerves over the edge. Tentatively she rose to her feet and approached him, her heart skipping a beat when he jerked away from her out reached show of affection. "Brian," she gasped with a disturbed stare that softened as the seconds passed. She reached out again to brush her hand against his cheek, but he averted his eyes shamefully. "Please...look at me..."

"I can't," Brian whispered.

"Yes you can. You have no reason why you can't."

"I...I'm falling apart," Brian mustered. "I don't know what to do anymore."

"You need to stop trying to take everything on yourself."

"You sound just like Nick. He said the same thing."

"Maybe it's true then?"

"Must be the truth of the century," Brian answered meekly and allowed Leighanne to lead him back over to the plush couch. He sank into the cushions with a slightly distressed sigh and eventually glanced sideways to his wife to find her watching him carefully. "I'm sorry for snapping, but I just...I'm afraid of letting everyone down, especially you, Baylee, and the baby. I have to do this tour. I don't think I'll get another chance if I don't."

"You're stronger then you think and you wouldn't be letting anyone down. Baby, I admire you for your perserverance more then you know."

'I wish I could believe that' Brian thought but he forced a tight smile to grace his face for Leighanne's sake. He was tired of the black cloud that hung over his life constantly and all of the bickering that tainted his sanity, so as a means of distraction he let his eyes travel downward to the sight that was a prominent thought in his mind. He found his hand sliding onto the evident curve of Leighanne's stomach, slowly grinning thoughtfully. That was his baby girl growing inside, the new precious life they had created. His heart fluttered when Leighanne's hand covered his with her own and not even a second later he noticed the obvious movement from within. "Oh! Whoa!" he exclaimed, his eyes wide with an animated surprise.

Leighanne smiled warmly. "She must know it's you," she told him with a small laugh. "Seems like everytime I talk to her about you she starts moving around like crazy, which is exactly what she's been doing since I entered the room and you first spoke."

"No joke?" Brian drawled in amazement and he leaned down, carefully resting his ear against her stomach.

"Baylee was the same way. Everytime we would be in the same room together and you would be talking, he would start kicking around like he was running a marathon," Leighanne reminded him, watching him in awe. "It surprises you that this one would be any different?"

"Well, no..." Brian trailed with an impish grin. "But...whoa, she really is moving around in there!"

"She certainly has your energy already."

"I'd say." He slowly began to rub his hand over her stomach in a circular motion, tuned entirely to the moving response he received from his unborn child inside. It still amazed him to know that there was another life growing just out of sight and he played a major role in creating it. It reminded him of the same joy they had felt when they found out they were having Baylee. Brian smiled up at his wife before offering a tender kiss to the clothed bump. "Hi baby girl. This is your daddy. Can you hear me? I think you can. Mommy says you won't stop kicking her everytime you hear my voice. You be nice to Mommy in there ok? I love you so much my precious baby girl and I can't wait to meet you. I hope I get to meet you..."

"You will get to meet her," Leighanne tried to assure him, running her fingers through his soft dirty blonde golden locks, but neither of them could deny the quake of uncertainty in her voice.

"God willing," Brian mumbled and offered another symbolic kiss before sitting back up. "What are we going to name her?"

"I don't know...have we really thought about it?"

"I don't think so. With everything that has been going on...I don't think there has been much of a chance to. Besides, we just found out that we are having a girl. We're gonna have a baby girl, Leigh! Can you believe it?"

"I know. It's amazing."

"I suppose deciding on a name isn't too important at the moment. There's time for that later, right?"

"Of course."

"I love you," Brian said and brought Leighanne's hand into his own. Trouble brewing in his eyes, he inhaled an unsteady breath and briefly looked away. "Promise you won't stop loving me..."

Leighanne scooted closer to him and cupped the side of his face, forcing him to look at her again. "Brian Thomas, I could never stop loving you," she promised with conviction. "Don't you ever think otherwise. I don't care what happens...we're in this together." Not hesitating for a moment, she pressed her lips to his to deliver a soft kiss that spoke a million words and more.

Staring at Leighanne with an adoration that sent his heart jumping into his throat, Brian pressed into the kiss, tasting the alluring tone of his wife's nature that always caused his mind to go absolutely wild. He eased her back gently against the couch cushions and leaned over her, staring deep into her gorgeous eyes. "I don't know what I would do without you," he told her honestly and offered delicate kisses to her parted lips. Leighanne quivered beneath him and he snaked her arms coyly around his neck before pressing close to her body without putting too much pressure against her protruding stomach. His heart swelled with longing as he covered her mouth with his once more, a nearly silent moan of pleasure bubbling from his throat. "Leigh...I want-"

"DADDY!!!"

Brian bolted upright with a tiny grunt from the frustrated scream and ran a hand over his face. "And so the tantrums start..." he joked as a pair of feet pounded down the stairs.

"I'm afraid so," Leighanne laughed lightly. "The joys of parenting huh?"

"You're telling me," Brian replied and turned just in time to watch Baylee bound into the den, his brows furled with a boiling temper. He stormed over to his parents with a pout. "What's up buddy?"

"You pwomise you take me to da park today and fo' ice cweam!" Baylee answered and characteristically placed his hands upon his hips.

"I did, didn't I?"

"Yeah! Take me now!"

Brian cocked an eyebrow towards his son. "You're being awfully demanding-"

"You pwomised!"

"Alright Bay. Go get your shoes on and I'll be up in a minute." When the child had spun on his heels and disappeared from the room, Brian turned back to Leighanne with an apologetic shrug. "Sorry. I forgot all about it and I was really hoping-"

"Duty calls Daddy," Leighanne nudged him with a smirk.

"Tonight then maybe?"

"Definitely."

"I'll be looking forward to it then," Brian grinned and placed a quick kiss to his wife's cheek before following Baylee up the stairs.

*****

"Well geez B...has anyone ever told you that pink looks absolutely fabulous on you?"

Pausing in mid task, Brian looked up with a slighted annoyance towards the sarcastic quip and found AJ leaning nonchalantly against the door frame. Brian ignored his humored smirk and motioned him into the room with a small wave of his hand. True to AJ's remark, Brian was indeed surrounded with more things pink then he cared to admit to. It had only taken a short discussion between the women, but Leighanne had eventually decided it would be most fitting to transform Baylee's bedroom into a nursery for the new baby. It would allow the parents to be right across the hall from the little one and Baylee had found no reason to argue after a promise of being moved to the empty guest room at the end of the hall. With more space that left little to desire, Baylee had gladly given up his old room. So while he had taken Baylee to the park that afternoon, Kevin and Nick had insisted on coming over to rearrange the furniture between rooms. Brian was at least thankful for that much and he had even gone so far as to stop by the infant furniture store on the way home to purchase the nursery set up Leighanne had gushed about on the phone. Now, putting it all together was a different story and more of a daunting task then he had anticipated.

AJ cleared his throat and pointed while averting his eyes. "Um, you missed a little bit there..."

Brian narrowed his stare and glanced to his right shoulder, frowning. "I swear, I am up to my ears in frilly pink lacey things," he muttered and flicked the long strand of pastel pink material from his shoulder.

"I suppose Leigh's on a decoration rampage?" AJ chuckled, studying the room. He noticed immediately the peculiar transformations that had already taken place. Absent of all the normal prior furnishings from Baylee's occupancy, the walls had been turned from a dull pale blue to a warming shade of baby's pink and a beautifully constructed white wicker rocking chair took up the furthest corner by the only window in the room. Boxes and bubble wrap littered the carpeted flooring and in the midst of it all, Brian sat clearly frustrated with a power screw driver in one hand, a crib post in the other, and one siding of the crib resting at his knees.

"Could you provide me with anymore of an understatement?" Brian answered, bemused. "She failed to tell me that her and Kristin teamed together a couple of days ago to plan the nursery. And I'll give you one guess as to who she recruited to put the furniture together."

"Can't say I particularly envy you," AJ teased lightly. He winced when Brian threw the screw driver to the floor with a grunt of frustration. "Nope, I don't envy you at all."

"I appreciate your support," Brian frowned.

Ignoring the snide remark, AJ buried his hands in his pants pockets and ambled curiously around the room. "Baylee agreed to the change without a fight?" he questioned and sank into the rocking chair to test the fluidity of its motions.

"Why wouldn't he?" Brian returned. "We moved him to the bigger room down the hall. He was ecstatic. Besides, he's only four."

"Soon to be five next month," AJ pointed out.

"Don't remind me," Brian murmured.

"What? Are you having trouble accepting the fact that your baby boy is growing up?" AJ chuckled.

"Among other things."

"I imagine it makes you feel a Hell of a lot older."

Brian cracked a small grin, shaking his head as he reached for the screw driver once more. "Your time is coming too, you know?"

"What are you trying to get at?"

"That receding hairline you're always complaining about?"

"What's your point?"

"Just saying that you might want to keep an eye on it...you know, just in case."

"This coming from the man whose hair has receded in a shorter amount of time then mine ever has," AJ snorted.

Brian shrugged with a smirk. "Consider it a friendly warning."

Rendered speechless for a moment, AJ clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth in thought. He watched his friend helplessly attempting to connect the two pieces of the crib but without any luck and after the releasing of a final curse on Brian's part, AJ jumped up from the chair. "You're doing it all wrong," he stated casually and yanked the power tool from Brian's hand.

"And you happen to be more of an expert?" Brian challenged him with a steady glare.

"As a matter of fact I am. Who helped you put together Baylee's crib?"

"That still doesn't tell me how you know what you are doing."

"Like I'm going to tell you that much," AJ answered with a short laugh. "Some things are better left unsaid B."

"Sadly enough, when it comes to you, I believe that."

"...Was that an insult?"

"I don't know... Was it?"

AJ's mouth parted in come back, but instead of saying a word he grunted in response and gave a final jolt to the nail he was inserting into the crib post. Satisfied it was connected securely enough to the siding, he looked at Brian again with raised brows. "You were saying?"

Unphased, Brian stared back at his friend. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

"Don't you have something to say?"

"Like what?"

"A little gratitude might be nice."

Brian smirked and reached for the next piece of cribbing. "I certainly hope you aren't expecting me to grovel at your feet or anything, because if you are, you are living in a dream world."

"Well damn. Seems good help around here goes widly unappreciated these days."

"Would a simple 'thank you' work?"

"I guess I'll take what I can get. Still need help?"

"No, I can handle it-"

"Right. At the rate you're going you'll either not get it put together in time or you'll break it in the process. Then what's the kid supposed to sleep on?"

Brian eyed him with a tight glare. "Is harrassing me the only reason you came over here?"

AJ shrugged with indifference. "No, I'm just trying to cheer you up. You've been moodier then squirrel shit lately."

"Wonderful. Thanks for the comparison Aje. Just what I needed," Brian grumbled and discarded the the cribbing with an irritated sigh. Looking only briefly in AJ's direction, he found himself unable to avoid the frown of disapproval, but he tried to ignore it nonetheless and rose to his feet. "I don't need this. Not right now."

"What's that supposed to mean?" AJ demanded quietly as he followed Brian over to the solitary window.

"Nothing," Brian answered just short of a whisper. He leaned forward and pressed his forehead against the cool glass, closing his eyes to the glare of the setting sun. "I'm sorry. I just have alot going through my mind."

Leaning sideways against the window pane with his arms crossed over his chest, AJ eyed the older man with a weary glance. "There's something you're not telling me," he stated seriously. "What's going on?"

"It's nothing-" Brian began.

"Please don't bullshit with me B. I've known you long enough to know when you aren't saying something and this is one of those times. You hardly tell us anything anymore, so just tell me."

Brian immediately turned away from the window with an adamant shake of his head. "No. Just forget it."

"Jesus Brian, what has gotten into you?"

"I don't want to get into it-"

"This is ridiculous," AJ countered sharply and he approached Brian with the slightest bit of hesitation. "You're too damn stubborn and I'm tired of you moping around all the time. This has to stop-"

Brian's brows furled towards the curt tone ringing in his friend's voice. "You don't have any right to tell me how to live my life," he mustered unevenly, though the conviction in the other man's voice was enough to send an utmost quake of distress racing up his spine. He stared back with just as much severity, keeping his feet firmly planted against the ground. "I'll do whatever I damn well feel like doing. Damnit AJ, you think you know so much about what's going on, but you know absolutely nothing!"

"That's because you refuse to tell us!"

"Fine! You want to know? I'm fucking dying AJ, alright?! My condition is getting worse and now I'm being told I don't have much time. So how the Hell would you feel?! Sue me if I don't feel like jumping around, claiming how fantastic life is because it's not! It fucking sucks!"

AJ recoiled in shock and inhaled deeply. Wordlessly he brushed past his seething friend and headed straight for the open doorway. Pausing momentarily to collect his bearings, AJ finally turned and the frustration had vanished from his face along with the tough exterior he'd thrust forth. His mouth curled downward in a deep frown as he searched Brian's stormful eyes for another explanation, but he was met with the same fear he felt coursing through his body at that very moment. "You're not dead yet, so stop acting like it!" he growled quietly and without another word he disappeared into the hallway.
Chapter 21 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
Um...yeah...is there anyone still out there? So after a five month long dry spell, I have managed to not only crank out another chapter, but I also managed to map out an outline of the rest of the story on paper. I figure from here on out that it should be smooth sailing. Anyway, after so long, I hope y'all enjoy the update and let me know what y'all think! And a special shout out to Tri for making me the new ITNC banner. YOU ROCK!!!

 

Chapter 21:

Jolting with a start, Brian felt himself being tugged from a sleep induced bliss and his entire body shook with a disturbing tremor. His eyes snapped open and he blinked rapidly for a moment, struggling to get his eyes to become acclimated to the blinding light that was washing over the room. It wasn't until a tiny pair of hands cupped his cheeks that his son's cherubic face finally came into focus and Brian allowed a clouded smile to curl his lips. "Bayster," he whispered, reaching up to ruffle his son's soft curls.

"Daddy..." Baylee started with a mischievious grin as he sank himself onto Brian's abdomen. He patted at his father's chest playfully with a small giggle. "It's time for you to wake up!"

Brian cocked an eyebrow towards his son, stifling a yawn of exhaustion that was still fogging his mind. There was no denying the twinkle of excitement in the corners of Baylee's eyes and Brian remembered it was an excitement that was well merited. He would have expected nothing less then Baylee's expressive show of energy that morning, especially since the child had been so restless with anticipation when going to bed the night before. "I suppose I am awake now," he answered with a chuckle. Purposely yawning even louder, Brian carefully pushed Baylee from his body and pulled the blankets over his head. He waited briefly, if only for a second, before the small boy whipped the heavy down comforter away from Brian's face with a devilish pout. Brian matched the expression without hesitation. "What?" he whined teasingly. "Can't Daddy sleep more?"

"No! Gots to get up now Daddy!" Baylee growled defiantly as he scrambled to his knees and tore the remainder of the blankets completely away from his father's body. "Up now!"

Brian writhed against the cold draft in the room with an exagerrated whimper. "But I'm tired!"

"No more sleep Daddy! I said time to get up!" Baylee demanded, placing his hands authoratively upon his hips and attempting a steady glare. Though he was unaware of his father's hands creeping up for a surprise attack of the tickles. Squealing madly as he tried to squirm away from the wiggling fingers, he toppled onto his side, laughing harder. "Daddy-"

Brian grunted as he struggled into a pained seated position and continued to deliver the attack. "Who made you boss? Huh?"

"M-Mommy d-did!" Baylee stuttered with a gasp for air. "Her said I boss 'cause it's my special day!"

Brian paused with a dramatic expression of shock and feigned confusion. With wide eyes he pulled Baylee back upon his lap and held the child in place with sturdy hands. "Your special day?" he repeated.

"Daddy, you's killing me!" Baylee giggled with an exasperated sigh.

Brian grinned. "Never. I could never do that to my birthday boy. Not in a million years."

"'Cause it's my birthday!" Baylee nodded in agreement. "I's five today Daddy!"

Smiling, Brian watched as Baylee scampered off the bed and his feet hit the padding of the soft carpeted flooring. It amazed him to even begin to contemplate how quickly time had passed. His son was growing up faster then he would have ever thought to of been possible. True to Baylee's words, five years ago to that day they had been awaiting the newest addition to their family and he had nervously been anticipating the idea of becoming a father for the first time. Although nowhere near being sadly disappointed, Brian knew he would never want to change his son's existence for anything. As it was it had become impossible to imagine his life without Baylee in it, despite the minimal amounts of terror the child often caused. And now it was only a matter of time before he would be welcoming his second child into the world. The thought sent a wave of warmth surging through his system and he swung his legs over the side of the bed, stretching to release the aches from his joints as he ran a hand through his dissarrayed locks of hair.

Looking up, Brian noticed that Baylee had paused near the doorway and was staring tentatively back in his direction, waiting for a silent follow. Brian frowned at his son's sudden withdrawn nature and he held out a hand to beckon him back over. "C'mere for a second Bay..." he trailed softly and opened his arms. Bringing the child onto his lap, Brian wrapped him in a strong embrace and sat there, thinking. "You know Daddy loves you right?" he murmured as he held Baylee close against his chest.

"Love you lots too," Baylee spoke just above a whisper. He twisted slightly and snaked his arms around his father's waist. Craining his neck, he glanced upwards with a small pout. "No more sad Daddy?"

Brian bit upon his bottom lip in awe before placing a kiss atop Baylee's head and forcing a smile. "No...no more sad because it's your special day."

"Gonna have a party?" Baylee questioned impishly.

Sitting back, Brian ruffled his son's hair. "Only the best party ever," he answered seriously. "And I tell you what. We'll make a deal. Since you are the boss today, we will do whatever you want."

"...You play with me and...and go swimming with me too?" Baylee requested hopefully.

Brian nodded. "Deal. If that is what you want to do, then we will do it because you are the boss for the day."

Baylee's eyebrows furled in thought for a moment and Brian was almost sure he recognized the expression of disbelief in his son's eyes that the child had become accustom to, but as quickly as it had appeared it was gone and the innocent sparkle was back. "Pwomise?" he questioned meekly.

"Promise," Brian answered truthfully as an underlying guilt swept into his conscious. There was no mistakening the uncertainty within his son and Brian hated the fact that it was even there to begin with, all because of circumstances he had no control over or the fact that those circumstances grew more unstable as the time passed. Brian grunted and rose to his feet before lowering Baylee to the floor. "Should we go downstairs now?"

"Uh huh! Mommy makin' choco chip pancakes and there's a surprise for you too!" Baylee insisted.

"A surprise for me? Is it my birthday too?"

"No silly daddy. Just my birthday."

"What's my surprise?"

"Can't tell ya."

"Why not?"

"'Cause it's a surprise! Duh! C'mon Daddy, lets go!"

"Lead the way little man," Brian sighed with a chuckled, allowing Baylee to grasp hold of his hand and together they left the room. Sweet aromas were a pleasant greeting as they traveled the length of the upstairs hallway and even with each step they descended down the stair case, the scent became more comforting and his stomach growled with the indication of a growing appetite. Although, the moment they hit the landing at the bottom, Brian came to a sudden halt, his brows scrunching as the echoing of a male's voice resounded from within the depths of the kitchen.

Baylee turned, clearly displeased at the interruption of their travels. "C'mon Daddy!" he stressed.

"Who's in the kitchen with Mommy?" Brian questioned as Baylee continued to tug him forward once again. "Baylee-"

"Ah, he finally decides to grace us with his presence."

"Harry?" Brian choked out. He stumbled back a step in surprise as his older brother rose from a bar stool across the threshhold of the kitchen. Blinking stupidly for a moment, he watched as Harry moved towards him swiftly and he found himself without the chance to react before he was brought in for a tight embrace. "Wha-"

"It's about time you got out of bed. What a great dad you are. Sleeping the day away on your son's birthday. He's only going to turn five once you know," Harry chided lightly, delivering a sharp slap to Brian's back. He pulled away with a toothy grin and was met with his brother's flustered stare. "Geez little brother...let me get a good look at you. If I didn't know any better, with as much weight as you've lost, I'd say Leigh's been starvin' you."

"I resent that, thank you very much," Leighanne scowled from near the stove.

"Just kidding?" Harry replied impishly, glancing back towards his sister-in-law.

"Harry, I don't understand..." Brian started, glancing downward to notice Baylee tugging upon his uncle's pants for attention. "I mean, what are you doing here? I had no idea-"

"Can't the world's best uncle surprise his favorite nephew on his birthday?" Harry shrugged with a small laugh and bent to launch the impatient child into his arms. "Besides little brother, it's been a while. My schedule freed up for a few days and I figured it was about time I dropped in for a visit."

Brian stared back with a show of skepticism. "You never just drop in for a visit-"

"What better time then to start now," Harry chortled. "Right kid?"

"Right," Baylee echoed with a determined nod.

"I was just as surprised as you are," Leighanne whispered into her husband's ear as she approached him from the side to offer him a kiss of greeting.

"Surprised doesn't even begin to describe it," Brian muttered, but he grinned all the same. He stood in place for a solitary moment, watching as Harry bounced in return to the bar stool with Baylee perched carefully upon his shoulder. He hadn't seen Harry in nearly six months and too all of a sudden be subjected to a visit that hadn't been warned of was far out of the ordinary. Though Brian knew it wasn't either the time nor the place to even begin questioned the matter. Baylee appeared perfectly pleased to have his uncle there to celebrate and that was all that concerned Brian. Shaking his head at the pair before him, he followed suit and took a seat next to his brother on the second bar stool. "When exactly did you get here?"

"Before you were awake obviously," Harry snorted, but Leighanne's less then amused expression quieted him quickly. He cleared his throat before holding up his coffee in apology with a charming smile. "More coffee please?"

"Only if you'll place my child safely upon that stool next to you before you drop him on his head," Leighanne chided and grasped the handle of the nearby coffee pot. She slowly stepped over, her other hand resting tenderly on her protruding stomach with a small grimace of discomfort. "Your brother showed up on our front door step at ten to seven this morning."

"My first flight got cancelled but it all worked out because I managed to catch an earlier flight," Harry added indifferently.

"Uncle Harry came for my party Daddy," Baylee noted as he delightfully received the plate of steaming pancakes his mother had prepared for him. "And brought me lots of presents too!"

Brian glanced wearily to his brother and almost had to fight a groan towards the thought of how many presents his son had already managed to accumulate. It was more then the child would even be able to comprehend. But to expect Harry to provide any less was no different. "Trying to out do me?"

"Isn't that what I'm here for?"

"To make my life miserable is more like it."

Harry rolled his eyes. "Aren't you the funny one?"

Ignoring his sarcasm, Brian rose from the stool and sauntered over to the kitchen sink. He reached for the array of medication bottles bearing his name and fanned out a colorful collection before preparing a glass of cool water from the faucet. He stared in disgust at the counter, memorizing each color, each shape, and despising the fact that he had to shovel them down his throat. It was a necessity his doctor constantly told him, reminded him as if he could ever forget. Brian wished with everything in him that he could do just that...forget. Without another though, he swiped up the pills in one motion and funneled them into his mouth. When he turned around, he found Harry in midbit and watching him with question. "What?" Brian asked uncomfortably.

"That was quite the assortment," Harry noted oddly.

Brian frowned. "It's not as bad as it looks," he shrugged, although he could tell his brother wasn't in the least bit buying his simple answer. There was an unconvinced glimmer in Harry's dark eyes that unnerved every sense in Brian's body, but as Harry fell silent once more, Brian took that as his chance to allow the distasteful subject to remain at rest and hopefully the bitter flavor to subside from his mouth. "I'm going to take a shower," he muttered into idle air.

Baylee spun where he sat, allowing his fork to clatter to his plate. "Choco chip pancakes Daddy," he began to insist with a slight tremble of disappointment.

Brian offered his son an apologetic smile as he moved towards him. "I'm sorry buddy but I'm just not hungry right now. You save me some though and after I'm done with my shower, we'll go pick up your birthday cake with Uncle harry. How does that sound?"

"And the balloons?"

"As many as you want."

"Uncle Harry?" Baylee asked hopefully.

"Sure thing kiddo," Harry answered absentmindedly as he watched his brother's form retreat from the kitchen. He finally turned back to the child, forcing a tight lipped smile. "Eat the rest of your pancakes."

*****

"You're missing out on the party."

Brian visibly jumped from where he stood, but straining his gaze into the full length mirror to see AJ had appeared in the open doorway, he quickly returned to undoing the buttons of his shirt to recover from the initial shock of the disturbance. "I thought I said I would be down shortly?" he shrugged as he slid the short sleeve garment from his body.

"Well yeah, but that's been a while and we were trying to decide if your absence merited a search party being sent out," AJ explained with a tight smirk as he stepped into the expansive master bedroom.

"And let me guess...you got volunteered?" Brian questioned, watching him out of the corner of his eye.

"Quite the contrary actually," AJ stated. "I volunteered myself."

"The gesture is appreciated, but I think I can manage just fine by myself for a short period of time," Brian replied indifferently. He inhaled sharply before pulling the white wife beater over his head and stared long and hard at his reflection. He could sense AJ's instense stare almost immediately and it sent a powerful surge of nerves racing along his spine. Pausing for a moment, Brian found his eyes traveling down to the spot on his chest that he knew without a doubt had caused AJ's new fall into silence and he reached up to run his fingers over the electrode patches.

"They trying to turn you into RoboBrian or something?" AJ attempted to laugh, but it was only obvious that the joke had been made in bad taste and had fallen on deaf ears when Brian's mouth curled downward into a frown and he failed to say a word. Looking in every direction but at his friend, AJ scratched uncomfortably at his right temple. "I'm sorry B...I shouldn't have said that..."

Brian's eyebrows folded inward as he teared hastily at the patches and unclipped the tiny device from the waist band of his board shorts. "Don't worry about it," he mumbled and strode over to the night stand to discard the item before tugging the wife beater back upon his chest.

"Brian, wait," AJ called out suddenly. He jumped up from the seat he had taken on the edge of the bed and hurried to block the doorway to prevent his friend from succeeding in a desperate exit. Brian paused just feet short and watched with uncertainty, expecting AJ's grim expression to produce a lecture he wouldn't understand, but AJ's features softened immediately. For nearly a minute they stood there in silence as the air grew noticeably more dense until finally AJ broke his stance with a heavy sigh. "Could you stop this charade for even a moment?"

Brian's eye's narrowed briefly before he shook his head softly and looked away. "I really don't have time for this right now. Baylee's waiting for me-"

"No, you're going to hear me out and stop running like you have been. I'm not going to accept the rediculous excuses anymore," AJ interrupted firmly. His body tensed as Brian appeared ready to plow right through him, but the shorter man remained firmly rooted where he stood. "C'mon B, stop doing this. I know you're mad at me for what happened a couple of weeks ago because you've hardly talked to me since and I'm really starting to get the feeling that you don't even want to be in the same room as me. But this, everything, just stop doing this. Stop doing this to yourself."

"I'm doing the best I can," Brian seethed. "I don't know what you are expecting of me, but you can save your 'I can change my world' speech because you are wasting your time and my time. I can only do so much-"

"Just listen to yourself damnit. It's like you've lost all sense of logical thinking."

"I've been thinking more logically then I have in a long time. Maybe it's you who has lost the ability to think logically AJ. You think this is easy for me to have to wake up everyday and constantly have to think about what is happening to me or the fact that I have absolutely no control over it? And then on top of that I'm expected to just go on living as if nothing is wrong. I'm scared, alright? Is that what you want me to admit to? Because I don't know how many times I've already said that and it certainly doesn't make me feel the least bit better saying it again."

AJ opened his mouth to argue, but he couldn't get the words to project. The defiance in Brian's tone was absolutely sickening, and yet he could see right past it. He wasn't by any means easily fooled and could see the vulnerable man breaking on the inside, despite the tremors of rage that looked to of taken control of his friend's every move. Although there seemed not to be an ounce of reasoning that was capable of breaking through Brian's rough exterior and it was beyond frustrating because AJ couldn't do a thing about it. Brian was too damn stubborn for his own good. "You're losing yourself."

Brian's face fell in disagreement. "I'm losing more then that."

"Brian-"

"Please, for once, respect me enough to just leave it alone. That's all I'm asking," Brian answered and his voice was considerably lower then what was characteristically normal for his demeanor. Rubbing at his temples, he drew in a steady even breath and met AJ's eyes once more. "I've got an impatient five year old that is waiting downstairs and counting on his daddy to keep his promise. So if you'll excuse me..."

"Baylee's not the only one who is counting on you," AJ tried, relenting against the door frame as Brian brushed past him.

"Maybe that's the problem?" Brian returned lightly with raised brows.

"Can you blame me for wanting the old Brian back-"

"I'm sorry J, but I'm afraid the old Brian isn't coming back," Brian whispered and quickly spun on his heels to gain as much ground away from his dumbfounded friend as would allow his security to comfortably return. He was barely halfway from the doorway before he heard his friend's frustrated curse echo through the thick silence and although he winced with regret, he swiftly traveled the remainder of the hallway and descended the staircase without further thought. A cold chill greeted him at the bottom and it brought forth an eerie loneliness that he knew noone else was responsible for creating but himself. AJ just didn't understand. He was so sure he could change the world with a few simple words, but Brian knew how horribly mistaken his friend was. There was no changing reality with a speech. There was no changing reality period and Brian was trying to learn to accept that. It didn't help that those he needed support from the most seemed to want to blind side him at every turn.

Preparing himself for the excitement that was surely unfolding outside, Brian crossed the threshhold of the livingroom in a matter of seconds. It had been decided that Baylee would receive nothing short of a grand celebration for his fifth birthday, suitable to any child's imagination. Leighanne had managed to invite nearly half of their exquisite neighborhood's children to serve as playmates despite her claims that Brian was exaggerating that fact. It was unphase-worthy though; they only wanted Baylee to be happy and Brian would see to it that his son enjoyed every second of it. And maybe, just maybe, he would be able to find it in himself to enjoy it too.

As he drew near to the back door, there was no denying the surging of children's laughter within a mixture of blaring Disney songs that tore into the outer boundaries of his concentration. He focused steadily on the steps he took and moved out into the comfortable outdoor air, welcoming the glare of the sun that washed over him immediately with an inviting warmth. Brian found the scene overpowering, teetering on a near brink of overwhelming activity. Quickly side stepping as a small group of kids chased past him, he strained his sight over all that had gathered in search of his family and was relieved when he noticed Leighanne hurrying in his direction. He pulled her into his arms for a quick embrace. "Sorry I took so long."

"Did AJ find you?" Leighanne questioned, pulling back.

Brian forced a tight smile. "Yeah," he nodded lightly. "He's using the bathroom. Said he would be out shortly."

"Well it's about time you decided to get out here," Leighanne chided. "I think I may need your help keeping control."

Brian smirked as he followed his wife towards the patio table that was lined with an assortment of colorfully wrapped gifts brought as an offering to their eldest child. "Beginning to rethink the number of people you invited?"

"Hardly," Leighanne answered sharply. She glanced back over her shoulder at the pool when a squeal of surprise sliced through the air and tried to catch a glimpse of their child when Brian pulled her attention back to him. She narrowed her eyes at her husband with her own smirk. "In comparison to your bandmates, especially with your brother thrown into the equation, I can safely say that the kids here are rather tame. They're not the trouble."

Brian chuckled and fumbled with one of the packages. "Why am I not surprised to find that it's the adults causing the terror?"

"Because growing up seems to be a concept the six of you aren't able to comprehend."

"Wait, the six of us? How am I all of a sudden a part of the problem?"

"Don't play the innocent card on me. Given the chance, you're just as much trouble as they are."

"It's not my fault they give me a bad reputation."

"You mean to tell me your pranking days have been retired?"

"I wouldn't go so far as to say that-"

"My point exactly."

"Daddy!"

Brian turned with not a second to spare as Baylee barrled into him with a giggle of delight and threw his arms around his father's waist. The child's hair was matted to his forehead and Brian could feel the excess water dripping from his son's body immediately begin to saturate the material of his shorts, but he dropped to the boy's level nonetheless and played into the energy for Baylee's benefit. "There's my birthday boy," he returned with a grin. "I was looking all over for you."

"Really?" Baylee asked with a glimmer of hope.

"Of course I was," Brian answered with a determined nod. He watched as Baylee's eyes widened and he began to bounce on his feet in anticipation. "After all, we did make a deal this morning, didn't we?"

"You said you would go swimming," Baylee reminded.

"Swimming is exactly what I want to do."

Baylee reached out and began to impatiently tug on his father's hand, attempting to pull him forward in a sloppy manner. "C'mon Daddy! Need your help 'cause Uncle Nicky causin' a big war in the pool! He cheatin' and he gots a big butt!"

"Baylee!" Leighanne scolded.

Baylee's bottom lip puckered outward. "But Mommy, that's what Uncle Harry said!" he whined.

Leighanne glanced to her husband and wasn't amused to find him on the verge of laughter. Her eyes narrowed with impatience and irritated hands made their way to her hips. "Just wonderful. Your brother is trying to teach our son his idea of perfect manners."

"Aw, lighten up Mommy," Brian teased with a lighthearted smile as he rose to his feet. "Uncle Harry is just upset because he has a bigger butt then Nick does."

"Brian Thomas!" Leighanne groaned. "You are not helping!"

"Gotta go!" Brian chortled and hurried after Baylee as the five year old took off in a quick sprint to reach the pool. He immediately noticed the commotion in the water when he watched Harry perform a perfect cannonball that sent Nick slipping beneath the rippling surface and he couldn't help but laugh. He was far from displeased with how the festivities were already playing out and it seemed Baylee couldn't have been happier. Stepping carefully to the edge of the pool, Brian shook his head as Nick came up sputtering for air. "You're pathetic!"

"Who you calling pathetic?" Nick argued.

Baylee whipped out from behind his father and sent a jetting stream of cold water into Nick's unsuspecting face with one of the water guns Harry had brought as a birthday gift. "My daddy said you're pathetic and my daddy is the smartest daddy ever!" he beamed proudly.

Nick's mouth gaped in shock. "Says who?!" he challenged but his only answer was another face full. He glared up at his bemused friend. "Shit Brian! Can't you control your kid?!"

"Don't diss him," Brian answered simply.

"Diss this," Nick growled and swiftly reached to latch his hand around Brian's left ankle. He gave a sharp pull and scrambled backwards as the older man tumbled head first into the water with a strangled cry of distress. Grinning, Nick glanced to see Baylee's amazed expression. "You're next-"

Brian burst from beneath the surface and brought Nick into a crushing choke hold before there was a chance for reaction. He winked at his son before returning his attention back to the matter at hand. "Here's how I see this playing out my pale faced friend," he spoke slowly. Tightening his hold, he continued. "I'm afraid you made a very vital mistake with your actions and because of that there's going to be some serious consequences."

"You'll never take me alive!" Nick gagged.

"What's wrong Nicky? Having a hard time breathing?"

"Bite me!" Nick spat.

"No, that won't do at all," Brian shrugged and sent Nick under.

"Sit on his head Daddy!" Baylee clapped.

"You might want to let him up before he runs out of air," Howie smirked as he waded over and noticed Nick beginning to struggle against Brian's hold. "I don't know. Just a thought. I'll let you decide."

"I suppose you have a point," Brian shrugged. "What do you think Bayster?"

"Nope, keep him under," Baylee disagreed with a tight shake of his head.

"Remind me to never leave my life in your son's hands," Howie muttered.

Brian chuckled and released his grasp on Nick's shoulders, allowing the man to rise in a frenzy. He cocked an eyebrow as Nick made an exaggerated gasp for air, flailing his arms in a manner that appeared more comical then desperate and ran his hands through his wet locks of hair. "What's wrong?" he asked innocently, but even so he found himself unable to hide the humor in his voice.

Nick's glare was evident even before he turned around. "You tried to kill me!" he accused.

"Don't you think you're jumping to conclusions?" Brian smirked.

"I almost drowned!"

"Stop being such a drama queen-"

"You tried to kill me!"

"You're overreacting," Brian replied nonchalantly as he brushed past his seething friend and lifted his arms to hoist Baylee into the cool water. Baylee grinned mischeviously and wrapped his arms securely around his father's neck. "I was merely teaching you a lesson."

"A lesson?!" Nick scoffed in disbelief. "You're psychotic!"

"Alright kiddies, can't we all just get along?" Kevin's voice boomed above the commotion. He stepped over to the edge of the pool with a soda in one hand and a DVD camcorder in the other hand that Brian immediately recognized as his own. He appeared to glare downward for a moment, but his eyes brightened and he shook his head. "I'm beginning to second guess who is actually a kid here."

"Very funny Kevin," Harry chortled while approaching. "Keep filming though. You'll be sure to catch some footage good enough to be used for blackmailing at a later date."

"You're one to know," Kevin told him.

"It's been a useful tool many times in the past," Harry shrugged.

Brian rolled his eyes at his brother. "All talk and no game," he mumbled.

"I see where you get it from," Nick snickered.

Brian paused, considering Nick's words. "Wait just a minute-"

"Don't drown me!" Nick squealed childishly and yanked Baylee from his father's arms. When he was certain he had gained enough safe ground, he lifted the child into the air, amidst Baylee's protests. "You wouldn't drown me when I've got your kid, would you?"

"Save me Daddy!" Baylee cried out. "Uncle Nicky is cheatin' again!"

"Tough stuff kiddo," Nick grinned and pulled him further away.

"Drop the kid Carter!" Harry threatened.

"Not a chance!"

Brian ambled slowly backwards and allowed the scene to unfold before him. He had to admit that it was refreshing to find for once that the tension had all but disappeared completely and he was more then welcoming towards partaking in the activities. Despite the fact that Baylee continuously called out to him to come to the boy's rescue, Brian prefered stepping back and remaining witness to it all. And besides, with Harry diving into the water to play the part of hero, Brian was well aware that Baylee was far too immersed in the moment to dwell on the fact that his father hadn't instantly rushed to his side. Hearing his son's laughter ringing through the air as several of the other neighborhood children rushed into the water was like music to Brian's ears and he didn't want to miss a second of hearing it.

Thirty minutes later he was slightly relieved to be climbing out of the water, scampering quickly out of the way as a stampede of tiny feet hurried over to the oblong table Leighanne had managed to set up that afternoon with Harry's help. As moody and emotional as his wife had become, Brian would never have thought about telling her that the decorations were a little bit over the top. Still, he enjoyed it all the same and what mattered most to him was that Baylee could find no imperfections with what they presented him with that day. Carefully he made his way over to his family.

"Can we say someone went a little overboard with the gifts this year?" Kevin joked as he came up behind his cousin with his wife at his side.

"I suppose I spared no expense," Brian answered with a small shrug and the hint of a smile. "Not like you contributed to the pile of toys that will keep Bay satisfied for the next year."

"What is family for?" Kevin answered.

Brian laughed before glancing to Kristin. "We'll see if he's saying the same thing when it comes time for birthdays in your household."

"Please, spare me the horror. I would like to get through this pregnancy before I start to even consider birthdays," Kristin returned lightly. She nudged her husband in the side before rolling her eyes. "Don't give me that look Mr. Innocent. I know what you're thinking."

Chuckling, Brian turned back to the head of the table where he noticed Leighanne situating their son into a brightly colored chair that was just inches away from being lifted off the ground with the amount of balloons tied to each top corner. He could see his son's eyes widening with the prospect of soon being able to dive into the cake set before him as his mother lit the candles and his giggles were enough to brighten anyone's day. "Hold on Baylee," Brian laughed, taking long strides over and quickly reaching out to prevent the child from grasping a handful of the cake. "You gotta let Mommy get the candles lit."

"Baylee, look over here!" Kevin called out as he aimed the camcorder in a steady line.

Brian watched his son offer an impish wave and a toothy grin as a chorus of "Happy Birthday" rose into the air. Joining in on the song, he ruffled his son's matted curls and smiled down at him and when the song was over, he lowered to his level. "Make a wish and blow out the candles buddy," Brian instructed softly.

"Help me Daddy," Baylee insisted.

"You know..." a raspy tone tore Brian's concentration away after the candles had been distinguished and Leighanne had immersed herself in the task of dishing cake to all of the guests that were present.

Brian grimaced as he pushed himself into an upright position and slowly turned to find AJ lingering an inch behind him. "What?" he drawled tentatively.

AJ's mouth curled into a tight, almost sad smile that admitted his defeat. "Just wanted to say that it's great to see you honestly smiling again and having fun."

"I want Baylee to be happy," Brian stiffly answered, but he softened when he noticed AJ's stature was unwaivering. "It does feel great though."

"Not so hard is it?" AJ smirked lightly.

"Don't push it Aje," Brian joked quietly in return. "As long as Baylee's happy, then I'm happy." The conversation was dropped with that last exchange but somehow Brian was ok with it and when AJ offered him a nod of approval before turning to the table where the birthday boy in question was begging for his attention, Brian allowed himself to relax for the first time in months. And for just once he would attempt to forget about his life's imperfections.

Chapter 22 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:

Well after nearly 7 months since the last time I updated this, I'm back with an update that has been looooong over due. But first, a SUPER DUPER MAJOR SHOUT OUT TO MY FELLOW THURSDAY GIRL: Darby (Cabybakes) for all her slavedrivery over the past couple of days and for somehow managing to kick my butt back into gear and because of this I made my deadline! You totally rock girl! And everyone, please go read Darby's story, "Casual". You won't regret it.

And last but not least: Feedback is greatly appreciated! :)

 

Chapter 22:

"Papa! We're here!"

Brian smirked as Baylee bolted into the warmth of the household ahead of him and he followed slowly behind with Leighanne at his side. As he entered into the comfortable setting of his parents' residence, he realized he had almost forgotten just how bitter Kentucky winters could be, but he was at least happy to finally be out of the cold and done with traveling for the day. The exhaustion nagged at the nerves of his body and being two hours ahead of his normal time certainly wasn't doing him wonders. Sighing with relief as Baylee's giggles of excitement could be heard echoing from the kitchen, Brian shrugged the heavy winter coat from his body and hung it neatly on one of the hooks lining the wall just inside the front door. "Home sweet home," he murmured quietly as he inhaled the heavy aromas of his mother's cooking that wafted through the livingroom. His stomach growled, signaling his hunger, and there was no doubting that Jackie had spared any expense when it came to preparing a filling meal in honor of their arrival that afternoon.

"I'm glad you all finally made it," Harold's voice greeted as he crossed the threshhold of the livingroom swiftly and moved to bring Leighanne into a strong embrace. He smiled as he pulled back and glanced over his daughter-in-law's appearance. "It's best that my grandchildren not remain out in that weather any longer than is necessary. Just look at you. You are-"

"Getting fatter by the minute," Leighanne finished for him with a small laugh. But she accepted his second embrace all the same.

"You are becoming more stunning by the minute," Harold chided lightly and helped her remove her coat before ushering her in the direction of the kitchen where Jackie was anxiously waiting to greet her. He turned to Brian and opened his arms to pull him close with an embrace that was nearly suffocating. "My son..."

Brian grinned. "Hey Dad," he responded against the crushing hold, a gasp of breath wheezing from his lungs that resembled laughter that soon mixed perfectly with Harold's. When they finally pulled apart, Brian smirked and layed a hand gently upon his father's shoulder. "What has gotten into you?" he chuckled as Harold glanced away sheepishly, his cheeks crimson from his over abundant show of emotions as he welcomed his son home. Not waiting for an answer, Brian slung his arm around his father's shoulders and led them across the living room. "Miss me much?"

"Can't a father show emotion when his son comes to visit?" Harold returned. "Especially when that son rarely comes to see his parents-"

"Yeah, but Dad, the chick flick moments are really out of character for you-"

There was a flurry of foot steps that rushed in their direction at that moment, forcing their mindless banter to come to a halt as a warming voice pierced the air. Brian barely had the chance to prepare himself before he felt his mother tug him close. "Brian Thomas!" the older woman chided as she cupped his cheeks with a welcoming fury. "We were expecting you over an hour ago!"

"Pilot had to catch the butt-tail wind, Nana!" Baylee attempted to explain as he tugged impatiently upon his grandmother's slacks to hold her attention when she stepped back from his father.

"Baylee," Leighanne warned lightly.

"That's what Daddy said!" Baylee whined in return as he craned his neck to glance up at his mother. He scowled when he caught her disapproving stare and immediately turned to his father. "Tell her! That's what you said!"

"I said tail wind buddy," Brian corrected with a short laugh.

"That's what I said!" Baylee insisted.

"It's hardly a matter to argue over," Jackie quieted her grandson with a quick kiss to the crown of his silken curls. Hoisting the child into her arms, she cradled him close in a tight embrace and offered him a comforting smile. "What matters most is that my favorite little boy has finally made it and Nana has prepared him a feast for lunch."

"Sounds wonderful Mom," Brian nodded his approval before placing a light peck to her cheek. "I'm starving."

"Good. You can help me set the table while your father brings in your luggage and gets everything settled," Jackie announced as she lowered the child back to his feet and swatted his bottom to move him in the direction of his grandfather. Insisting that Leighanne rest momentarily without argument in the living room, she latched her hand onto Brian's upper arm and tugged him into kitchen for privacy where she finally wrapped him in her arms. "It's so great to have you home again," she whispered. "You're looking well."

"I feel good," Brian forced, swallowing the grimace that threatened to surface at the concern echoing in Jackie's voice. He wasn't prepared to withstand her pressing the matter had he admitted to just how awful he actually felt and with the holidays pressing in, he was determined to enjoy every minute he was able to spend with his extended family. As it was, it was refreshing to be back in Kentucky where the surroundings were comforting and that much Brian knew he could be thankful for. "And I'm glad to be here. Baylee hasn't stopped talking about coming here for the past week. He's been driving his mother and I insane."

Jackie laughed honestly as she motioned for Brian to follow her over to the stove. "If his parents wouldn't keep him away from his Nana and Papa for so long," she noted with a playful smirk.

"So you tell me each time I talk to you," Brian returned pointedly, his brows raised.

"Well what do you expect? Is it so bad that your father and I would like to see our grandson? Besides, we wouldn't have to have this conversation if you'd visit more often, Brian Thomas."

"Your lectures don't scare me anymore, Mom," Brian chuckled.

Jackie swatted at him with a shallow glare. "I suppose I'll have to learn to keep that in mind," she murmured before withdrawing a glass cooking dish from inside the stove. "Doesn't mean I'll ever stop trying. You'll always be my son regardless."

"I know," Brian answered. "I really am happy to be here for the holidays. And I have missed you Mom."

"I wouldn't have had this any other way," Jackie told him as she handed him a stack of plates and turned him in the direction of the dining room. "Now go set the table."

"How is that fair?" Brian objected as he kept his feet firmly planted. "Why can't I re-"

"You're not pregnant," Jackie told him simply.

"Thank God," Brian grimaced. "I imagine that would be slightly painfully."

"It's something you'll never be able to understand."

"I'm not complaining about that."

"You're procrastinating..."

"I'm trying to iritate you. Is it working?"

"Go set the table, Brian."

Brian released a hearty laugh as he backed out of the kitchen and made his way towards the dining room that was set off to the side of the living room. Inhaling deeply, he slowly began to make his way around the oval shaped mahogney table, using precarious skill to set the plates and silverware in just the manner his mother seemed to demand. He respected her for her expectations of organization. It reminded him all that much more of home and that in itself was comforting. "You should be resting," he chuckled minutes later when he heard soft foot steps approaching him from the side. Pausing momentarily, he slowly turned to find Leighanne shyly closing the distance between them. "You know Mom will go absolutely postal if she doesn't find you planted on her couch."

"Your mother means well, but I'm perfectly capable of moving around on my own two feet," Leighanne answered him with a tight shake of her head. "At least let me help you. Then I'll be back on the couch before she even knows I was gone."

"And risk having to take the blame because I allowed you to over exert yourself? It's like she's afraid you'll push yourself into preterm labor."

"Like I said, she means well."

"I've got this under control...but thank you."

"Are you ok?

"Of course I am," Brian assured her before pressing a tender kiss to her lips. "I'm just happy to finally be here. It's been too long."

"Baylee's happy to be with his Papa. I could hear them from outside."

"He should manage to keep Dad busy for a while," Brian smirked at the sound of the front door slamming open and Baylee's exaggerated squeals of excitement vibrating off the walls. It wasn't long before the five year old came sprinting through the dining room, his cheeks crimson from the cold and his curls matted from the falling snow outside. "Whoa, slow it down buddy," Brian chuckled as he quickly bent down to catch his son with an arm around the waist.

"No!" Baylee giggled as he thrashed to unlatch himself from his father's hold. "No no no! Tell Uncle Harry no!"

"You better hide quick than," Brian told him. "There's a little corner in the pantry that's perfect. He'll never find you there. Go!" Standing with just enough time to watch his son run off, he turned upon hearing his older brother's tromping footsteps and greeted Harry with knowing grin. "He's in the back left hand corner of the pantry-"

"Shame on you, ratting your son out!" Harry snorted as he sent a curled fist sailing into his brother's shoulder with a wink before disappearing around the corner.

"Nice to see you too jerk!" Brian called after him. Groaning towards the dull pain that pulsated throughout his shoulder, he looked to see Leighanne shaking her head in wonder and his eyes set into a glare. "What? I fly home for the holidays and the only greeting I get from my brother is a swift abusive punch to the shoulder. Where is the love in that?"

"You had that one coming," Leighanne answered.

"Don't support him-"

"I'm merely suggesting that you need to consider reevaluating where your loyalty stands. You led him right to your son."

"That was a bit of a Judas act wasn't it..."

"Slightly."

"And I didn't even get any money out of it-"

"Stop that running around right this second!" Jackie's demanding tone screeched from within the kitchen as Baylee's screams rose in volume once again and Harry's cackling followed suit. Though as Baylee yelped seconds later, his grandmother's cry of surprise echoed and a shattering of glass on the linoleum flooring was a defeaning sound.

"Somehow I don't even want to know," Brian murmured, cringing as he continued to rub at his shoulder and took tentative steps towards the kitchen doorway. Reaching the edge of the threshhold, he surveyed the damage that seemed to have taken place only moments before and couldn't ignore the shards of glass littered around his mother's feet as she pinched Harry's ear painfully between two fingers. "Now THAT is a sight for sore eyes..."

"C'mon Ma! Let go!" Harry grunted. "It's all the kid's fault!"

"Nu-uh! You was chasin' me, Uncle Harry, and Nana say no!" Baylee quickly disagreed with a deeply rooted glare before looking up to his grandmother for reassurance as he cowered against her side. "Ground him Nana! Him in big trouble!"

"You're in just as much trouble young man," Jackie answered him sternly. "You both were acting like a bunch of hoodlums. And don't look at me like that Harold Baker Littrell. You should know to set a better example for your nephew. Screaming like a banshee and running around like you are a chicken with your head cut off. This is not a nut house!"

"He pushed me!"

"You was chasin' me!"

"Don't be a wimp little man- MA!"

"Kind of makes you wonder which one is the adult and which one is the child. I've got my money on Baylee," Brian decided with a tight shake of his head before stepping into the kitchen and crossing the space quickly. "Go wash your hands for lunch Baylee," he instructed him without space for argument and sent the child scurrying from the room. "And this, brother, is for you."

"Son of a bitch, Brian! What the Hell was that for?!" Harry immediately growled towards the offensive hit.

"I thought that's how people shake hands in Kentucky," Brian drawled innocently.

"My fist in your mouth is going to show you how people shake hands in Kentucky, little brother-"

"HAROLD!" Jackie reprimanded with a tough yank to her eldest son's ear as Brian slouched in the midst of his laughter. "What has gotten into the both of you? When I expected my boys home for christmas, I didn't order all of this chaos to follow! Now you both wash up for lunch and I don't want to hear anymore arguing from either of you! Go!"

"She gets worse every year," Harry muttered with an honest grin when they were both safely out of Jackie's reach. He turned to Brian as they paused at the head of the dining room table and he held out his hand with a raised brow. "I suppose in honor of it being the holidays and all, I can accept a truce."

"It's great to see ya again Har," Brian continued to chuckle and disregarded his brother's outstretched hand as he pulled him in for a tight embrace.

"Welcome home, little bro."

*****

Stepping from the warmth of the vehicle and into the frigid air of the early evening, Brian couldn't help the tremors that instantly racked his body. Cupping his hands together, he attempted to warm them with the breath from his lungs and frowned at the sight of his breath hanging idly in the air for several moments after. At least the snow had stopped falling over the course of the afternoon and after much debate, Jackie had sent her husband and sons out to finally retrieve the christmas tree the family had been waiting to get until Brian and Leighanne arrived with Baylee. And the five year old couldn't have been more excited at the prospect of tree hunting with his grandfather and uncle. His son's genuine laughter was like music to his ears that day and it didn't worry him when Baylee bolted ahead of the adults into the maze of christmas trees they would be choosing from.

"All you need to do is ask," Harold mentioned as he held out a pair of wool lined leather gloves in front of his son after slamming the driver's door to the vehicle shut and noticing the way Brian continued to wring his hands together in a desperate attempt to keep his blood circulating. "No use in freezing a good set of hands off."

"Thanks Dad," Brian mustered sheepishly before slipping the gloves over his aching fingers. "Much better."

"You're losing your ability to withstand a Kentucky winter, loser," Harry teased with a light nudge as he brushed past father and son and disappeared into the trees where Baylee's voice could faintly be heard calling out to him.

"I see his attitude has improved since last month," Brian rolled his eyes, remembering remnants of his brother's odd behavior from Baylee's birthday party the month before.

"Your brother always has had a hard time expressing his emotions," Harold mentioned with a humored smile. "He's happy you all are here. Your mother and I are too."

"Like wise," Brian nodded. They inched further along the snow blanketed ground and it was in mutual agreement that the company of being in each other's presence was enjoyable. But searching out the perfect tree was the furthest thing from Brian's mind as he kept a track on where Baylee's distant voice continued to echo. His senses ran wild at every natural scent wisping through the evening air, weaving within a mixture of pine and cinnamon coming from a direction he couldn't particularly pinpoint. Though it was relaxing and he found himself inhaling deeply through his nose, numbing himself within the calming scents.

"Baylee is getting so big," Harold mentioned after several long moments had passed into a thickening silence. "He keeps looking like you more and more every day."

"He's got good genes in him," Brian smirked.

"Can't disagree with that. He's got a lot of Leighanne in him too. It's a wonder how beautiful the new baby will be..."

Brian winced towards his father's withdrawn tone and looking at him, he was able to see past the plastered smile. "What's with the small talk?" he countered with a raised brow.

"Just trying to strike conversation with you, son."

"...You're lying."

Harold stopped walking abruptly as his brows became knit closely together and the creases at the corners of his eyes grew more apparent. "Your mother and I are so happy to have you home," he murmured, but even as he spoke, his frown deepened and he rested a hand gently upon Brian's shoulder. "But you just seem so distant and that worries your mother and I."

"Mom insisted you talk to me, didn't she," Brian snorted.

"She did, but that's besides the point. She's concerned. I'm concerned. And you're not talking about it."

Shrugging away from his father's hand, Brian bit back the sarcasm he felt swelling and took several steps away. "There's really nothing to talk about," he spoke indifferently.

"I want you to look me in the eyes, Brian, and tell me that."

Pausing, Brian collected his bearings and turned to face his father again. It took every thing he had in him to manage the faintest resemblence of a smile but he kept his feet firmly planted against the frozen ground and offered an assuring nod. "I'm doing as well as I can expect to be doing," he spoke slowly. "I feel better than I have in a long time. There have been good days and bad day, but I think things are finally starting to turn around. And my doctors have wonderful. They've kept me in check. So you're worrying for nothing, Dad."

"We have every reason to worry," Harold contradicted.

"I've done enough worrying for all of us," Brian corrected with a weak chuckle that made him sick to his stomach, because he couldn't have been furthest from the truth at that moment. There was no describing the struggles that he'd learned to hide or the fear that only continued to elevate. Though those were his problems to deal with. Seeing the concern in just his father's eyes right then was enough to make him weak in the knees. For once he just wanted to forget.

"Brian..."

"I'm fine, Dad. Really. And it's the holidays. Lets enjoy it, huh?"

"DADDY!"

Thankful for the interruption, Brian whipped around to catch Baylee as the child barrled into his legs. He grunted as he hoisted him high into the air before bringing him close to his chest for a warm embrace. "What's the rush little man?" he smirked at him as Baylee wrapped his arms tightly around his neck with a giggle of delight. "Where's Uncle Harry?"

"Him was chasin' me!" Baylee squealed.

"Why-"

"I threw the snow in his face!"

"Baylee, that wasn't very nice-"

"Said him was gonna bury me in the snow so the snow monster could eat me!"

"He did, did he?" Brian laughed.

"Your uncle has a habit of telling stories bubba," Harold assured his grandson. "He likes to cause trouble-"

"Don't be telling lies!" Harry interrupted as he burst through the trees with a yelp of disgust that followed a flurry of snow cascading down onto him from the closest tree he had collided with. Yanking the ball cap from his head, he shook the icy powder off as he approached. "It's freaking cold!"

"Says the one who told me not too long ago that I couldn't handle Kentucky winters anymore," Brian snickered.

"Uncle Harry is a wimp, right Daddy?" Baylee nodded.

"That he certainly is."

"Your kid is the trouble maker," Harry insisted with a playful glare towards the five year old.

"You was bein' mean, Uncle Harry!"

"You threw a pile of snow in my face, kid!"

"I put you in a trick bag!" Baylee giggled as he quickly lept into his grandfather's arms before his uncle could reach to tear him away. Safely secured in Harold's embrace, he smugly glanced back to his uncle and stuck out his tongue for added effect.

"His way of saying he played a practical joke on you," Brian explained.

"Trouble maker."

"We found a perfect tree, Papa!" Baylee announced proudly and motioned for Harold to take them into the dense patch of bare trees that loomed ahead of the family. Bouncing with a squeal of excitement when Harold balanced him carefully onto his shoulders for a playful ride, he grinned down at his father. "C'mon Daddy! It's a big tree and Mommy and Nana gon' love it! I found it all by myself!"

"That's wonderful, Bay," Brian approved.

"Faster Papa!"

"Think fast little brother!" Harry suddenly called.

Ducking instinctively, Brian released a growl as he gathered a handful of snow and compacted it into a solid ball within his hands. "No Har..." he mumbled just loud enough for his brother to falter in his footsteps. Straightening his posture, Brian hesitated for a short moment before finally whipping around and sending the ball of ice sailing into Harry's left shoulder. "Sorry bro, thought you would have thought faster," he shrugged, his grin devilishly impish.

"Get over here so I can deliver the beating you deserve!" Harry demanded with a glare as he rubbed tenderly at his injury and set off into a quick sprint.

"Not a chance!" Brian growled again. Turning on his heels, he darted into the trees amidst Baylee's cheering. "Give it up, Har! You can't-" Feeling the breath knocked from his lungs as his feet slipped out from beneath him, Brian impacted the ground roughly with a sharp wheeze and slowly rolled over onto his back. "Son of bitch!" he hissed, wincing at the pain that seemed to surge sporadically throughout his body.

"What's wrong, Bri?" Harry scoffed, towering over him.

"You tripped me," Brian spat and not giving it a second thought, he flexed the leg closest to his brother to bring him to the ground. "Jerk."

"I'm getting too old for this," Harry mumbled.

"You're telling me," Brian agreed.

"There it is Papa!" Baylee's voice pierced the still air and shortly after Harold emerged from the trees to their right with the five year old still perched upon his shoulders. "You found my tree, Daddy!"

Brian pushed himself to his knees as Baylee scrambled down from his grandfather's shoulders to run over to him. "This is the tree huh?" he murmured and allowed his sight to scan over the object of his son's delight. Shaped like it had been pulled out of a story book, there was not a branch that seemed to be out of place and the coloring was a perfect mixture of shades of green. The scent was overwhelming and it was only obvious why the tree had caught Baylee's attention in the first place.

"Like it, Daddy?"

"I love it, buddy. It's perfect," Brian whispered as he pulled his son closely to him and wrapped Baylee's trembling frame into his arms for extra warmth. Nuzzling his nose for a moment into the beanie cap Leighanne had insisted Baylee wear before the men had left the house, he leaned over and placed a kiss against his son's cheek. There was no doubt in his mind that things were well at that moment and the pride he felt swelling inside was certainly abudant. He was honestly happy and if not just for the holidays, he would keep it that way.

Chapter 23 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
Wow, okay, hello. *brushes the dust off this thing* So, yeah, it's taken me a bit over six years to write another chapter for this story. Writer's block can be a real pain in the rear and honestly when I stopped writing this story years ago, I never had any intentions of continuing it. But I recently had the urge to read this story from start to finish and once I did, my muse to continue it started to return. So I'm going to give it a shot. Yeah, I realize it's a bit outdated, and I considered rewriting it to bring it up to date, but I feel like doing so may just do it more injustice than good. So here I am, giving it another shot. I make no guarantees, but I do love this story (even if I do feel slightly particularly evil for the torture I put Brian through in it). Any and all feedback is welcomed, of course. :)
Chapter 23:

“I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...”

There was something about the soulful sounds of holiday music that always stirred the warmth deep down in Brian's soul. Even the overly tuned, too cheery for their own good numbers had the same affect on him and he loved it. Too many a memory could he attribute to the songs of his childhood that carried over in traditions straight into adulthood and Brian's mother would tell him it was a part of who he was and he had a knack for deciphering the meaning of every song he listened to. Then again, that seemed to be the way it was when it came to Brian and music in general.

Leaning against the kitchen door frame, Brian allowed himself to drift mindfully to the sound of Bing Crosby's “White Christmas” as he observed his family gathered in the living room. Their joyful chatter all but registered in his ears while they busied themselves around the impressive Christmas tree Baylee had chosen that evening, ornaments, tinsel, and old fashioned candy canes scattered about as the tree slowly became decorated. Brian didn't really care much to listen to what they were saying though. He just wanted to watch, wanted to take it all in and commit it to memory for all that it was worth. He didn't want to miss a single moment and regret wasting the last chance he had to spend the holidays with his family because...

...Would it be like this once he was gone? Would his parents smile the way they were right now as they guided their grandson through the decorating process? Would Harry bounce around obnoxiously in an effort to keep his nephew adequately entertained? Would Baylee still believe in the holiday spirit? Would Leighanne be able to find it in herself to be happy once again with the tragedy of her husband's death behind her?

The disturbing thoughts made Brian sick to his stomach to even be thinking them, but just when he thought he could push them under the rug for the time being to allow his overworked mind a rest, he was unable to deny just how much those thoughts still festered at the corners of his psyche. And they haunted Brian. Truly haunted him in every way imaginable and made him realize even more that this was it. This was the last time he would be seeing this, experiencing this in all its holiday glory. Brian didn't want to forget any of it. But there was something Brian wanted even more...

He didn't want his family to forget him.

Brian's shoulders sagged a little and he released a heavy sighing breath through his nose as he balanced more of his weight against the door frame. Truth be told, he was exhausted at that moment, but he wasn't about to mention it. The trip to the tree farm had taken more out of Brian than he'd anticipated and afterward, it became very apparent, if only to him, that rough housing with Harry and forcing the physical exertion on his body had not been the best of ideas. His chest ached with a dull reminder of his hammering heart that had only settled not that long before and it had been Hell trying to catch his breath. Just a year prior, Brian wouldn't have even given such activities a second thought. It had always been part of his nature. Now, it was a near impossible feat that only threatened to cause him harm in the long run.

“Here, drink this and liven up. You're starting to look like a pathetic wallflower,” Harry's voice suddenly cut through into Brian's awareness and he found a glass being forced into his left hand.

Brian glanced down at the thick creamy liquid filling the glass before his eyes met Harry's and he began to silently question when his brother had broken away from the rest of the family and entered the kitchen. Had he really been that lost in his thinking, that his eyes had been open but unseeing? Shaking his head, Brian started to hand the glass back over to his brother. “I think I'll pass.”

Harry rolled his eyes and held his hands up. “Sorry, no take backs,” he quipped with a chuckle and then lightly nudged Brian in the ribs. “C'mon, little brother. Loosen up. It's Mom's egg nog with a little something special added, compliments of yours truly.”

Brian frowned, but he raised a brow all the same. “You spiked Mom's egg nog?”

This time Harry snorted. “You sound so surprised.”

Brian cringed slightly and looked down at the glass again. “I should expect no less from you.”

“See? You know me too well,” Harry answered. He draped an arm lazily over Brian's shoulders, awkwardly pulling him away from the kitchen door frame. His mannerisms were sloppy and Brian expected his brother had been indulging in the special brand of egg nog longer than any of them were aware of. “One little drink isn't gonna kill ya.”

“Yeah, well...” Brian allowed his voice to trail before he managed to say what he was really thinking. Sighing, he brought the rim of the glass up to his lips and swallowed a small sip. The creamy liquid burned as it slid down his throat and he winced immediately, licking at his lips. “Jesus, what did you put in this?”

Harry grinned at him expectantly as if he'd just made some grand gesture. “You're welcome,” he said, and just like that, his brother pulled away from him and danced his way back into the living room, just as Bing Crosby's voice bid farewell and faded from the stereo speakers.

Brian found himself alone once more, gripping the glass tightly in hand. Harry was right. It would do him good to loosen up a little and maybe even partake in the festivities. One little drink wouldn't hurt him, and besides, the longer he strayed from everyone else, the more they would begin to notice and more red flags would be raised. Then they would start to question if he was okay. They would pester him with their incessant worrying, more than they already were. They wouldn't listen to him when he told him he was okay, even if that was a bold faced lie. 'C'mon, Brian. Pull yourself together,' Brian thought and forced himself to take another sip of the spiked egg nog. 'Enjoy your time here. It's all you've got. No regrets.'

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas...”

As Frank Sinatra's rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” began to play, Brian nodded to himself and took a step into the living room, trying to keep his steps slow and casual as he stuck his hand into his pocket. Baylee's exuberant giggles were just as much music to Brian's ears as was the actual music playing through the stereo speakers and he couldn't help the grin that curled his lips as his son turned to look at him. The grin on the child's face matched his father's as he proudly held up an antique gold star that was to be placed on the top of the tree. Brian recognized the star immediately. For as long as he could remember, that star held tradition in the Littrell household when it came to Christmas time. There wasn't a single Christmas Brian could recall while growing up that he didn't see it atop their tree, Heck, it was probably older than Brian or Harry themselves. So it made sense that the tradition would once again carry over into the current year.

The tree was decorated magnificently from top to bottom with a gorgeous collection of red, gold, and silver ornaments. His mother had even pulled out the boxes of little personalized ornaments they'd collected over the years and it seemed the tree had been showered with tinsel while candy canes dangled sporadically from the tree branches. That last little bit was most likely Baylee's doing, but it made the tree theirs. And that in itself was special. Brian couldn't help but stand there in awe as he admired it.

Baylee bounced over to him, the curls on top of his head flopping with his excitement. “Daddy, look!” he exclaimed as he held up the gold star. “Papa says I get to put it on the top of the tree!”

Brian carefully knelt down to his son's level and gently brushed the tips of his fingers against the star's surface. “Be extra careful when you do,” he replied as his grin became lopsided. “It's pretty old, you know.”

“As old as you?!” Baylee exclaimed innocently.

Brian didn't know if he should chuckle or act offended, so he chuckled anyway and glanced in his brother's direction where Harry was standing at the stereo turning the music up. Their mother chided him to turn it down again and Brian leaned in closer to Baylee, his grin mischievous. “Probably older than me. Like...as old as your Uncle Harry, which is pretty dang old.”

“Yeah!” Baylee agreed with a firm nod. “He's old like the dinosaurs!”

“Nah, Papa is old like the dinosaurs,” Brian countered with a smirk, catching sight of his father glancing at him wearily. There was still that humored twinkle in his eyes though. “But, your Uncle Harry isn't too far off, to be honest.”

Harry snorted at Brian's comment and crossed his arms over his chest as he flopped onto the couch and stretched out his legs. Brian grinned at him before ruffling Baylee's hair and ushering him over to where Harold beckoned him. Baylee obliged willingly and giggled the moment his grandfather lifted him into the air, carefully gripping the gold star in his hands. It allowed Brian a moment to rise back to his feet, steadying his balance so he could continue observing the scene unfolding before him appreciatively.

Harold securely embraced Baylee around the waist as he lifted the child higher. “Okay, Bubba. Keep it steady. Put it right there on the tip,” he coached him.

Baylee's brows knit into a tight line of concentration. “Like this?” he asked as he extended his arm out.

“Just like that,” Harold nodded in approval. “Steady now. There you go.”

It took Baylee several attempts before he finally got the gold star secured to the top tip of the tree and when he was finished, he clapped his hands in his own bout of approval. “I like it! Daddy, look!”

Brian inhaled deeply at the sight, his smile warm, and he offered Baylee a thumbs up. “I see it, Bay. You did a good job.”

Leighanne wandered over to Brian a short time later and leaned affectionately against his side. “Baylee's so happy to be here,” she murmured as her hand absently rubbed her stomach, her posture relaxed.

Brian curled an arm around her waist to keep her held close. “It's been too long since we were last here. He misses them.”

“They miss him too.”

“I know...” Brian trailed thoughtfully, but his statement was more a reflection of troubled thoughts than anything else. He brought the glass of egg nog up to his lips for another sip and decided it was appealing to him more now than it had been before.

Leighanne shifted her gaze to him and studied him for a few wordless moments before she chose to speak up again. “I was thinking...”

“Hmmm?” Brian caught her gaze with his, her statement only semi-registering in his ears.

A quiet sigh left Leighanne's lips and she reached a hand up to brush a drop of egg nog away from the corner of Brian's mouth with the tip of her thumb. “I said I was thinking,” she repeated herself casually and let her arm drop back to her side. “That maybe we could, you know, consider staying here in Kentucky longer than just for Christmas.”

Brian continued looking at Leighanne for a long while, the creases at the corners of his eyes becoming more apparent. His wife's statement sounded simple on the surface, but Brian knew better. He could see it in her eyes and knew there was an ulterior motive behind it. Her voice alone was all telling, despite her effort to sound casual and surprisingly it irritated him. “Leigh...” he drawled in warning.

“Now, just hear me out for a second,” Leighanne replied with a threatening frown. “It would do Baylee good to see your parents more and we both know they want to see him just as much. Besides, it's been too long since you've spent quality time with them without having to worry about-”

“Worry about what, Leighanne?” Brian interrupted, turning to face her.

This time Leighanne was unable to keep her frown from surfacing. She bit at her bottom lip as her hand rested against her stomach. When she spoke again, her was voice quieter. “I'm just suggesting that it might be worth thinking about, all things considered. It wouldn't just do Baylee good. It would do you good too.”

Brian chuckled with an undertone of sarcasm. “It would do me good? What's that supposed to mean?”

“Brian, I'm just saying-”

“No, I get what you're saying and I don't need you saying it.”

Leighanne looked down at the floor briefly, the trouble passing over her eyes. “Brian.”

Brian's voice lowered when he noticed Jackie peering curiously in their direction, his tone harsh. “Listen, the last thing I need right now is another reminder. Can't you understand that? I'm trying to forget.”

Leighanne opened her mouth to respond, but Baylee rushed over to them and tugged impatiently on the hem of Brian's shirt. They looked down at him, the argument forgotten temporarily as he huffed and pointed back towards the tree. It became apparent that not only was Jackie watching them, but Harold and Harry had their attention focused on them as well and their stares were quickly becoming uncomfortable.

“Daddy, Papa says you has to light up the tree,” Baylee insisted with hopeful eyes beaming up at them.

“Is that so...” Brian murmured and stepped forward to set his glass on the coffee table. He was thankful for the interrupting distraction as he followed Baylee around to the back of the tree where the end of the string of lights lay limply on the floor. He could still feel the weight of everyone's stares bearing down on his back, the concern burning in all of them, but he ignored it. Every last bit of it. It was all he could do because Brian's reserve of strength was fragile enough as it was and the last thing he wanted was to crumple completely and openly on the outside like he had already done on the inside.

Crouching down to the floor, Brian took hold of the end of the string of lights and held it up for inspection before looking at Baylee. “Are you sure it's ready?” he questioned.

Baylee nodded proudly and grinned. “Yeah!”

Brian afforded a soft grin of his own and carefully inserted the prongs into the electrical outlet. The tree lit up immediately with a dazzling array of multicolored lights and as he stepped back around to the front of the tree and knelt beside Baylee, Brian felt the awed silence wash over him. It was a grand sight to see; Baylee had every right to be proud of his completed work.

“Do you like it, Daddy?” Baylee asked him.

“I love it, buddy,” Brian whispered and he tugged Baylee close for a tight embrace, swallowing thickly to keep his emotions in check. This was more than what he needed in that moment and he just needed to keep remembering it. There was no use feeding his energy into dreading the approaching future for the time being, no matter what Leighanne suggested. He needed to enjoy the time he had with his family and live it for all that it was worth.

His family just needed to trust him to be able to do it.

*****

The house was finally quite and mostly dark, save for the lights still sparkling on the Christmas tree in the living room. The sounds of music had finally faded from the stereo speakers hours before and everyone, as far as Brian was aware, had long since retired to their respective rooms for the night. Jackie and Harold had been the first to bid good night and Leighanne soon followed. Harry and Baylee were camped out in the living room, per Baylee's request, and the last Brian checked, his brother and son had fallen asleep while watching a collection of recorded Christmas cartoons. In fact, it had been Brian who'd shut the TV off when he came downstairs a while before for a glass of water. It was a sight to see though, Harry and Baylee sprawled haphazardly on the couch together and lost to a wakened world.

Brian, on the other hand, couldn't sleep no matter how exhausted he was and how hard he tried to shut his mind off for a few hours and relax. The silence only made his thoughts seem louder and more pressing. He'd tossed and turned for the better part of the first few hours after joining Leighanne in bed in one of the guest rooms, and after laying on his back and staring blankly up at the ceiling for another hour more, Brian resigned to the fact that it appeared he wouldn't be sleeping any time soon. So, he'd carefully eased out of bed to keep from disturbing Leighanne, and he'd ventured downstairs to check on Baylee. It wasn't much of a distraction for the only one awake it the house hold, but it would have to do.

Sometime in the late evening hours it had begun to snow again. Brian realized this as he'd pulled the drapes back from the window in the guest room before leaving to go downstairs. It wasn't a heavy downpour, but a consistent flow of big fluffy flakes that added easily to the accumulation of their wintry landscape. Brian thought for a moment that it almost looked magical, like he was looking out into a world that was different from his own. Part of him wished that was the case. Either way, if it kept up like this all night, they'd have several more inches come morning.

Brian stood at the kitchen sink, one hand braced against the edge of the counter as he absently sipped water from a glass. It was straight from the tap and not very cold, but it was just another distraction. The darkness of the kitchen felt like it was closing in on him from all directions. He needed sleep and he needed it desperately. The flight and the rest of the day's events had really taken a toll on him. He just couldn't relax though. Even his head was beginning to throb again and his eyes burned. His medications were doing nothing for him and the loneliness of being the only one awake was pestering. Brian almost felt like he was suffocating.

Swallowing the rest of the water, Brian quietly set the glass in the sink and turned to leave the kitchen. It really was too late to be venturing out. The wisest thing for him to do would be to return to where he'd left Leighanne curled up in bed, but he needed the fresh air, despite the bitter cold outside. He needed a few moments where it didn't feel like the walls were closing in on him. A slow walk around the block couldn't hurt.

Brian reached the foyer a few moments later and shoved his feet into his boots, leaning over to quickly tie the laces. When he was finished, he stood straight again and grabbed his winter coat from where it hung on one of the hooks on the wall and thread his arms through the sleeves. The wool lined leather gloves Harold had lent him earlier in the evening dangled out of one of the pockets and Brian slid his hands into them after zipping and buttoning up his coat. Just a few moments out in the world. That's all Brian needed at that moment...

“You should put a hat on if you're going to go outside,” a soft voice spoke to him from the base of the stairs. Brian sheepishly turned as if he'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar and found Jackie standing there, the concern evident at the corners of her eyes. “It's awfully cold out tonight.”

“I...” Brian's voice trailed as he tried to muster a suitable answer. “I'm just going for a short walk around the block.”

“Well, you're not putting on your coat for nothing,” Jackie chided lightly as she stepped off the bottom stair and approached him. “I don't want you catching cold. Please, put a hat on.”

Brian tilted his head to the side in wonder, appreciating his mother's maternal instincts. “I'm a grown man and you still boss me around.”

“I'm still your mother no matter how old you are,” Jackie answered and reached to grab Harry's beanie hat from one of the hooks. She handed it to Brian. “Put this on.”

Not willing to argue, Brian put it on and pulled it down over his ears. “Some things never change.”

Jackie smiled softly. “Some things shouldn't change.”

They stared at each for a drawn out moment before Brian opened his mouth to speak again. “You know, I...could use the company if you don't mind bearing the cold for a short period of time?”

His mother considered the offer, but the nagging concern was still present in her eyes. “You look like you want to be alone right now.”

Brian had to fight the sigh wanting to bubble up his throat. “Maybe that's part of my problem. I've spent too much time lately wanting to be alone.”

Jackie nodded, relenting. “...Allow me a few moments to change into something warmer. I will be right back down.”

Brian watched his mother turn and move calmly back up the stairs until she disappeared from sight when she reached the top. He sagged back against the wall to wait for her to return and looked down at his glove covered hands. Maybe he didn't want to be alone after all and that really was part of his problem. It had been that way for a while now, ever since Brian's life started to crumble around him. He'd been pushing everyone away for too long and shutting them out when what he should have been doing was really letting them in. How could he though? It wasn't that easy. They just didn't understand and Brian couldn't expect them to.

It was his battle, not theirs...

Jackie returned to the foyer dressed in warmer clothing to find Brian lost in thought. He jumped when she gently placed her hand against his arm, then his expression softened with apology. “You shouldn't think so hard,” she said. “Sometimes it only makes it worse.”

Brian waited patiently as his mother bundled herself in her own winter coat, hat, and gloves and wrapped a knitted scarf around her neck. “Sometimes that's easier said than done.”

Life is sometimes easier said than done, my dear,” Jackie replied and opened the front door.

“Ladies first,” Brian mumbled with a small smile, motioning with his hand.

Jackie stepped outside into the bitter cold. “Always the gentleman.”

Brian joined her, shutting the door behind himself. “My mama taught me right,” he chuckled and shoved his hands into his coat pockets as they set off down the porch steps and along the pathway to the side walk.

The flurry of snow was thicker than Brian originally estimated, but he was fascinated with it and found himself with his chin tilted upwards to stare at the speckled dark sky on more than one occasion. They walked slowly in silence for a bit and Brian decided that that was okay. Oddly enough, just knowing his mother was there walking beside him was comforting and he realized just how much he was actually needing this. It felt like peace and refuge at its finest and Brian welcomed it openly.

Gradually, Jackie inched closer to her son's side and looped her arm through his. “There is so much on your mind right now. You are going to drive yourself crazy.”

“I'm afraid I might have already...” Brian murmured in response, his eyes trained forward as they inched along the sidewalk.

“Because you refuse to talk.”

Jackie's rebuttal was a truth that Brian couldn't deny and he frowned, the expression deepening before he had a chance to shove it beneath the surface. And he could feel his mother's stare upon him, which only made it harder. His voice barely projected as a whisper. “I'm scared, Mama.”

“Tell me what it is you are so afraid of,” she gently coaxed.

Brian opened his mouth to answer, but at first he couldn't get his voice to emit again. How was he supposed to answer to that? Or rather, how could he possibly summarize every single fear that plagued him on a daily basis? The fear he recognized in his mother's eyes only made him feel worse too because he knew it should have never been placed there, least of all by her own son.

“If you cannot confide in me...can and do you confide in God?”

Brian snapped his eyes to the froze sidewalk almost bitterly, but his voice came out steady. “I'm not so sure God and I are on speaking terms at the moment.”

The surprise was evident on Jackie's face, had Brian actually been looking at his mother. “Brian Thomas, that doesn't sound like you at all,” she mustered quietly in response and her arm tightened around his. It was a protective gesture and it was familiar. Brian felt the ache of sadness well in the pit of his stomach just from the feel of it. “Where is your faith?”

Brian closed his eyes with a heavy sigh. “My faith...” The words left a sour taste on his tongue. “It feels like God has forsaken me.”

Jackie stopped them from walking any further and turned Brian to face her. She reached up and placed her glove covered hands against his cheeks which were red from the cold. “Oh, my son...” she murmured as she slowly shook her head from side to side, her eyes never leaving his. “You are mistaken. God has not forsaken you.”

Brian swallowed thickly, taken off guard by the rush of emotions that washed over him. His vision blurred momentarily and he barely managed a whispered response. “It feels like He has.”

The tip of Jackie's thumb caught a glistening tear as it slipped from Brian's eye and she brushed it away. It was clear she was struggling with emotions of her own, but she refused to let them surface for Brian's sake. It wasn't fair. He was putting his mother through this. What kind of son was he?

“God does not forsake His faithful,” Jackie said. Her voice was patient and kind and it reminded Brian very much of his childhood when she used to sit him down and explain things to him that he didn't understand, especially when it came to faith.

A shallow breath fluttered past Brian's lips and hung visibly in the air. “I need Him,” he spoke brokenly. “I have prayed and I have prayed. I have begged Him to listen to me and He never answers. Why won't He help me, Mama? Why is He doing this to me? What did I do to deserve this? I-”

“Stop,” Jackie interrupted him firmly and pressed an index finger against Brian's lips to quiet him. “You did nothing to deserve this. You musn't think like that. That is not how faith works.”

“Don't you get it though?” Brian swallowed thickly again. He berated himself on the inside for falling apart so completely in front of his mother, but he couldn't help himself. It hurt too much to try to stop it now. “I...I'm dying. Every day is getting harder. I'm not a fool. I know I don't have much time. And...and the doctors, they can't do anything for me. I need that transplant and I'm not gonna get one. Mama, I'm not gonna get one-”

Jackie swiftly pulled her son into her embrace, hugging him tightly to her. It was only once he couldn't see her face did she allow the tears brimming her own eyes to finally fall down her cheeks. “God has not given up on you. Don't give up on yourself.”

Brian's back quaked with his quiet sobs as he choked on a breath and clung to his mother like his life depended on it. “I'm hurting everyone. I'm ruining everything. You, Dad, my wife, my son, my unborn child. I'm hurting all of you. This is all my fault. And then I'll be forgotten.”

“No no no,” Jackie soothed, hugging him tighter if it were possible. “Forgotten? You are so loved by so many people, Brian. There are so many who care for you. You could never been forgotten.”

“What if you're wrong?”

Jackie pulled back from him and her hands once again cupped his cheeks. Brian fell into a silent awe when he caught sight of the tears falling steadily from his mother's eyes. It made him realize just how much her hurt mirrored his hurt and it tore him apart inside. “You have to stop doing this to yourself, Brian Thomas,” she spoke just above a whisper. “Carrying the weight of this burden on your own is only going to hurt you more. There's only so much you can do, only so much you can handle. You need to let the rest of us help you.”

“Mama-”

“Find your faith...and you will realize God has been listening all along.”

They started to walk slowly again shortly after that and with no words needing said, they kept within the boundaries of their own silent thoughts. His mother was right though. Brian's faith had shattered a long time ago and now, he wasn't sure how to restore it. Even when they came upon his parents' house once again, he was no closer to finding the answer.

How could Brian not think that God had forsaken him?
Chapter 24 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
Another chapter, which means so far so good. Thanks much for the feedback I received with my comeback. I'm glad you guys are still enjoying this story.:)
Chapter 24:

He was drifting somewhere between sleep and not completely awake. It was that warm hazy feeling that kept Brian lulled in place and unwilling to pull himself fully into a state of consciousness and at that point in time, he preferred to keep it that way. Sleep had not come easy to him the night before and even after returning back to the house with his mother, Brian had spent the better part of the night staring wearily up at the dark ceiling while Leighanne slept peacefully beside him in the bed. She hadn't stirred an inch since he'd left her in bed and she never stirred once he re-joined her. Brian had wanted to reach out to her and pull her close, wake her and tell her they needed to talk, but he couldn't find it in himself to disturb her and he'd resigned to wallowing, as always, in his own self-induced misery.

Shortly after dawn, the grips of a light slumber began to take hold of Brian to the point that he'd actually begun to think he'd finally be able to rest, but then Baylee had bolt into the room with a burst of energy Brian decided was unnatural for the hour and insisted he awaken and start their day. Reasoning with the child had been useless. Baylee had awoken that morning with a renewed sense of energy that did not match the rest of the inhabitants of the household. In fact, Harry was still passed out cold on the couch in the living room by the time Brian ventured down the stairs with his son.

Only once everyone else began to rise and Brian was able to turn Baylee's care over to them did he allow himself to kick his brother off the couch and take his place. Harry had grumbled before disappearing elsewhere and Brian tried to relax where his brother had once been, but the task hadn't been easy. His family moved in and out of the living room, cheerily chatting in between good morning greetings and Baylee's giggles of excitement certainly didn't help the ringing in Brian's ears. The more time that passed and the longer Brian layed there, the worse he began to feel physically. Between the migraine throbbing in his head and the aching beat of his heart in his chest, Brian wasn't sure which was worse. All he knew was that he felt ill, actually felt like it was more than just jet lag and a lack of adequate sleep.

Then, sometime between the changing of Baylee's cartoons and some late morning talk-show, Brian finally drifted to the point that he wasn't aware of anything going on around him. Sleep became a welcomed commodity in that moment and it swallowed his body whole, numbing him and taking over his mind. At first, his sleep was dreamless, just a black void where things were neither wrong nor okay. In that void, Brian simply existed...painless and worry free.

Gradually, the black void began to take shape, molding like pliable clay and smothering smoke. The familiar nightmares became as real as they had ever been and they taunted Brian as he tried to run, tried to hide from the pressing in of his reality. The nightmares called him out by name, forced his eyes open and burned images into his mind he wished he could forget but knew he never would be able to erase the imagery. It was anguish that took over his subconscious and tore at him at a soul shattering level. And not just his anguish either. The anguish of his family and friends. The anger and hatred they tried not to let him see. Brian knew better though and the nightmares told him so. His family and friends blamed him for the destruction slowly taking place in their lives. They would always blame him. They probably always had.

At one point, Brian started screaming as he felt himself sinking beneath a suffocating surface of despair and defeat. He'd clawed at the air as the sensation of falling overwhelmed him, begged and pleaded to God to awaken him and just help him, but he found no such refuge. That's when the laughter started. The maniacal, omnipresent laughter that sounded like it was closing in on him from all sides and told him one day soon he would be gone and no one would care. He would be forgotten as if he'd never existed-

Brian gasped awake abruptly. His eyes snapped open and for several moments he continued to lay there, still on the couch, his bloodshot eyes wildly surveying the living room to assure himself of his surroundings while his heart pounded painfully off rhythm in his chest. It took him a while to get his breathing under control and even longer to force the tension out of his aching muscles and joints. But when he did, his body sagged against the couch cushions and he became aware of the thin sheen of sweat coating his forehead and dampening his hair along his hair line.

Brian almost felt feverish and it was questionable whether he was getting sick or not. He lifted his hands to rub his face and forced his legs to stretch out before dropping his arms listlessly to his sides. There was a soft crocheted blanket covering him from the waist down that hadn't been there before when he'd fallen asleep. Brian couldn't be sure who had been kind enough to cover him, his mother or Leighanne were his best guesses, but now he had to peel the blanket away before he started to sweat profusely.

The room spun around him a bit as he sat upright and tried to catch his bearings, his mind still reeling from the plague of nightmares. The house was quiet with only the faint sound of Christmas themed music playing softly in the kitchen. That's when the sweet and savory aromas of his mother's cooking reached Brian's nostrils and he inhaled deeply to take it all in with a smile of appreciation. Without a doubt, Brian knew Jackie had been in the kitchen since waking that morning, all in effort to prepare for a large Christmas Eve feast that night. There was a lot that needed done and more than enough people to feed, considering Kevin and Kristin were arriving in town and coming over with Kevin's mother Anne sometime that evening. It would be a nice gathering. The family needed it.

Brian rubbed at the ache in his forehead as he slowly and carefully rose to his feet with every intention to join his mother in the kitchen. She would probably insist he allow her to make him something to eat to tide him over until later and frankly speaking, Brian wasn't so sure he'd be able to argue with her. His stomach was grumbling with his hunger and the nausea from his nerves and stress wasn't helping. However, before Brian could turn in the direction of the kitchen, a child's sharp squealing laughter from outside caught his attention and he turned towards the large bay window in the living room.

The curtains were drawn, but even so, Brian could still imagine the scene unfolding on the other side. Baylee's laughter was obnoxious and full of glee. He sounded so happy and for good reason too, which Brian was more than thankful for. Baylee needed these moments as much as everyone else. When he reached the window, Brian carefully pulled the drapes aside to let a washing of natural light flood into the living room.

It had finally stopped snowing and though the sky was gray with a blanket of clouds that looked as if they'd spit out more snow at any second, Brian thought he could see the sun trying to break through. The landscape surrounding them was covered in sheer white, save for the residential road which had been well cleared by the plows which Brian suspected had been doing a great deal of work throughout the night and into the day. It looked perfect though. Exactly what Brian thought Christmas Eve was supposed to look like, so it didn't really bother him that it seemed the cold spell was far from over.

His eyes shifted to Baylee where his son was currently chasing Harry around the front yard. The little boy haphazardly stumbled over his own steps through the snow as he forced his legs to carry him as fast as possible to catch up to his uncle, a sloppy compacted ball of snow clutched in the glove of his right hand. Brian could see where this was leading. Heck, it appeared Harry could too because his brother raced circles around the child, waving his arms wildly and shouting unintelligibly as if to ward off the impending icy attack. Standing a bit off to Harry and Baylee's right, Brian could see his father tending to a half built snow man, but Harold's attention was adequately snatched by his son and grandson's antics.

Brian couldn't help but chuckle quietly, especially when Baylee finally caught up to Harry and lunged at the man. Unprepared, Harry was knocked right off his feet and hit the frigidly cold ground hard, his eyes widening as a grimace passed over his face. Baylee hollered triumphantly and smeared the ball of snow he was holding against his uncle's face with a devilish grin Brian had to admit he was a little proud of. His brother, on the other hand, didn't appear nearly as impressed.

“Gosh darnit, you little brat!” Harry shouted so loud that Brian was able to hear him through the window. “You just asked for it! You really just asked for it! Pay back time, you runt!”

“I'm not scared of you!” Baylee insisted, but nonetheless, he scrambled off of where he'd planted himself on Harry's chest and with a squeal of terror that betrayed his previous statement, he took off running once more.

Harry was back on his feet in no time and the chase resumed.

“They've been at it like that for over an hour,” a soft amused voice spoke to Brian from behind. He turned to find his mother standing in the living room door way, clutching a steaming mug of hot tea in one hand. She approached Brian slowly and extended the mug to him. “Meanwhile, your father has been working diligently on that snow man Baylee was insistent they all go out and build together.”

Brian accepted the mug of tea from his mother graciously and lifted it to his nose, inhaling the aroma. Chamomile with just the right amount of honey. “Dad doesn't seem to be too butt hurt that he's been left to do all the manual labor himself,” he replied and swallowed a careful sip of the tea.

Jackie wrapped the long button down sweater she wore tighter around herself with a thoughtful glance towards the window where Baylee had just zoomed past in a blur of colors, squealing wildly. “He doesn't mind,” she agreed in a murmur, her lips curled in a smile of adoration. “Your father is happy that you're all here, Brian. I'm certain he'd stand out there all day doing the work by himself if it meant he could spend time with his grandson.”

“Yeah, I suppose you're right,” Brian mustered and swallowed another sip of the tea. It soothed his dry throat and he was thankful for that as he turned to return to the couch. Jackie stopped him though with a hand on his arm and he raised a brow in question. “What?” he asked.

“You should go join them,” Jackie suggested. “Baylee was hoping you would.”

Brian shook his head before he could stop himself from doing so. He forced a tight smile that he hoped didn't reveal too much. “I would, but...I'm pretty exhausted still. It's gotta be jet lag. I think I might just lay down again and close my eyes for another minute.”

Jackie's frown wasn't easily hidden. “Sweetheart, you slept for a long time...”

Brian casually shrugged in response. “What are you talking about? I only slept for maybe an hour or two.”

“You slept for longer than you realize,” Jackie countered as her frown deepened. She glanced towards the clock on the fire mantle. “And not very well by the looks of it.”

“Mom...” Brian groaned and glanced towards the clock too, taking note of the time finally since he first woke up. It was later than he realized, so it was no wonder his mother was a little alarmed. “I just haven't been sleeping well lately and...I barely slept last night. Bay's not even gonna realize I'm not out there.”

“He was begging to wake you up before they went out, but your father told him to leave you be. If you don't think he notices, then you're mistaken.”

“I seem to be mistaken about a lot of things lately,” Brian muttered and ran a hand through his disheveled hair. He stared down into the cup of tea, his interest in it lost. The silence started to accumulate between the two of them and it almost felt thick enough that Brian thought it could be cut with a knife. He could feel the weight of his mother's stare bearing down on him and with it being the last thing he wanted at that moment, it was all he could do to swallow the sigh of annoyance and offer her a faint smile of apology. “I'm sorry, Mom. You'll have to forgive me. I'm just tired.”

Jackie placed her hand against Brian's back and began to lead him in the direction of the kitchen. “You need to stop apologizing for the way you feel,” she quietly replied. When they entered the kitchen, she made Brian sit at the table. “Least of all, you need to stop apologizing to me.”

Brian stared up at her in confusion. “I don't need to be disrespecting you. You taught me better than that.”

Jackie's hands gently began to massage Brian's shoulders. “Everyone reaches their breaking point, my son. You are no exception to that rule.”

Brian smile mischievously in spite of himself. “My mother, a woman of wisdom.”

“It comes from my many years.”

“You're asking for an “Old Person” joke right now...”

“Don't you dare, Brian Thomas. I can still discipline you, just like your brother.”

He chuckled dryly and nodded at the cup of tea, his shoulders relaxing under his mother's massaging hands. “Duly noted.”

“Leighanne is upstairs napping,” Jackie mentioned a moment later when it became apparent once again that the silence was too much. “The poor thing looked just as exhausted as you. Has she been overexerting herself? She needs to be taking it easy.”

You try telling her that,” Brian mumbled. “Sometimes it's like talking to a brick wall.”

“She worries too much.”

“That's her problem.”

“About you.”

“Like I said, that's her problem.”

Jackie removed her hands from Brian's shoulders and lowered herself to sit in the chair beside him. “I worried about your father before I married him. I worried about him after I married him. And I still worry about him to this day. It's part of the commitment. That will never change.”

Brian pushed the cup of tea away from himself and avoided his mother's eyes. “This isn't what I promised Leigh when we became committed on our wedding day.”

“For better or for worse, Brian,” Jackie reminded him. “That is what matters.”

“I'm robbing her of the better, though. This isn't the better that I promised her.”

Jackie inhaled deeply. “You're right...you promised her different, based on your intentions. Have those changed?”

“Have my intentions changed?” Brian frowned as he stared down at his hands. “That's crazy. No.”

“Have her intentions changed?”

“No...” Brian whispered.

“Then Leighanne is doing exactly what she committed herself to do the day she married you,” Jackie asserted and drew herself close to Brian's side, pressing a caring kiss to his temple. She rose to her feet afterward and straightened her sweater, turning from the table. “You missed breakfast and lunch and you need to eat. Let me make you something.”

Brian's eyes trailed his mother's footsteps as she made her way over to the refrigerator. “Mom, you don't have to do that-”

Jackie waived off his argument before it could really come to terms. “Nonsense. This isn't up for discussion.”

Brian didn't respond, only let his shoulders sink a bit in defeat. Part of him felt it safe to assume that his mother would try to force feed him if he even thought about putting up a fight, but even so, he was too tired to do that. And Brian couldn't deny he was hungry either. Starving even. Dinner from the night before had long since left him and his stomach growled at the thought of another one of his mother's home cooked meals. Those had become few and far between over the years.

Grabbing hold of the cup of tea once more, Brian drew it close and lifted it to his lips for a shallow sip. “Leigh asked you to talk to me, didn't she...”

Jackie didn't answer at first and Brian wondered if she had even heard him. But when he looked in her direction where she stood at the stove, he found her eyes meeting his. “She did...and I told her you would talk to me about whatever it is when you are ready to.”

Brian inhaled deeply and nodded slowly. “...I'm ready to talk.”

*****

His hair was still damp from his recent shower as he stood in front of the dresser mirror in the guest room and studied his appearance in the reflection of the mirror. Downstairs, Brian could hear everyone chatting merrily as they waited for him to finish getting ready, the family already gathered to soon head to the church for the evening's Christmas Eve candle light service. Brian couldn't remember the last time he had attended a Christmas Eve candle light service at the church from his youth. It had been a long time and he wasn't sure how much he was actually looking forward to it. But it was tradition, at least it used to be, and his parents had been insistent that they relive the tradition once again on account that the family was all together. Who was he to tell them no?

Kevin and Kristin had arrived late in the afternoon, after finally catching another flight when their first flight in had been canceled. They'd made it just in time for an early supper with Kevin's mother Anne in tow and Brian had silently welcomed the distraction when the attention had shifted from him to his cousin and his cousin's wife, talk of Baby Richardson becoming the main focal point for quite a while. Kevin had tried to engage Brian in conversation, tried to show interest in how he was doing, but Brian shied away from the attempts and excused the rejection simply as not wanting to take away from the moment. He'd smiled and returned the warm hug Kevin offered him and that was as far as the exchange went before supper fell into full swing.

Nobody really noticed when Brian retreated upstairs as soon as supper was finished. He needed the quite time by himself to prepare for the evening's church service, not just mentally, but physically as well. The shower had done him a world of good, awoke him more than he had been and made him feel like he wasn't literally dragging his feet. It made his skin shine a little more and the bags under his eyes less noticeable. Still, Brian's shoulders slumped slightly with his extending exhaustion as he stood there looking into the mirror.

His white dress shirt hung on his thinning figure and showed the weight he had lost more than he cared to admit. Brian's appearance had changed so drastically over the passing months that there was no denying it, so it was no wonder he kept receiving the passing stares of concern from everyone around him. Somewhere along the way, Brian had begun to lose himself and it showed in every way possible. He'd lost the spunk of his demeanor. Even the light in his normally vibrant blue eyes had dulled and seemed...lifeless.

Sighing, Brian slowly began to fasten the buttons of his dress shirt. His mind kept drifting back to the conversation he'd had with his mother earlier in the kitchen and the way he'd laid himself out completely in the open. For once, he didn't hold back. In fact, he said more than he wanted to, but by the time he opened his mouth to start talking, Brian found himself unable to stop. Jackie had silently sat at his side the entire time, listening intently as she clutched his hand in both of her own and the tears had glistened in her eyes the way any caring mother's would. All the fear, all of the anxiety Brian had kept bottled up inside for months came flooding out of him. There was no more hiding once the dam was broken. He allowed himself to sit there in the raw and surprisingly it had felt liberating, such a relief. And when Jackie began to cry once he was finished, Brian felt no shame in crying right along with her.

He realized then just how much he still needed his mother.

A quiet knock on the door caught Brian's attention as he reached for the checkered navy blue tie he'd placed on the top of the dresser a little while before and as he draped it around his neck, he just as quietly called out. “Come in.”

The door opened and the kind face of his beloved Aunt Anne peeked inside. “There you are, my dear,” she greeted with a soft smile.

Brian couldn't help the smile that curled his lips. “Are they threatening to send out a search party?”

The amusement shone in Anne's eyes. “Not quite yet,” she replied. “May I come in?”

“Of course,” Brian chuckled with a nod.

Anne saw herself into the room and shut the door behind her. “Well look at you,” she said as she shuffled over to him. “All handsome as always.”

Heat crept into Brian's cheeks as he looked in the mirror again and began to fuss with his tie. “A biased opinion from my biased aunt,” he countered, his smile still lingering.

Reaching him, Anne's hands lifted to lightly push Brian's away. “Let me help you,” she murmured.

Brian's arms dropped to his sides without argument. “Thank you...”

“I may be biased, but you always have looked rather handsome in a suit and tie,” Anne stated as her hands calmly fixed the tie the way it was meant to be.

“Haven't felt much like that these days,” Brian mused.

“Such is a matter of opinion, is it not?” Anne asked as she tightened the tie comfortably around Brian's neck.

“I suppose I can't argue that,” Brian nodded, his eyes flitting to the mirror to watch his aunt's hands work.

“There,” Anne spoke up again a moment later once she was satisfied. Straightening the collar of Brian's shirt, she took a step back. “That will do.”

Brian held his arms out to his sides, his brows raised in question. “How do I look? Do I have your approval?” he grinned sheepishly.

“Hmmm...” Anne drawled, the corners of her mouth twitching slightly with the rise of another warm smile. “Tuck in your shirt, young man, if you want to be presentable.”

“Yes, ma'am,” Brian chuckled and did as he was told, carefully tucking the bottom of his shirt into his dress pants. When he was finished, he reached for his watch on the dresser to fasten it onto his wrist. “How are you, Aunt Anne?”

Anne lowered herself to sit on the foot of the bed. “I am even better now that I am getting to spend time with my favorite nephew.”

“Don't go telling Harry that,” Brian winked and focused his attention on his reflection in the mirror in an attempt to tame his still damp wild hair.

“It is just nice to have everyone here for the holidays,” Anne explained with a thoughtful nod. “It's been too long.”

“Yeah, it has,” Brian mustered just above a whisper.

Anne patted the spot beside her on the foot of the bed. “Come sit down for a moment, dear.”

Brian relented with a short nod and claimed the spot next to his aunt. For a while, they sat there in silence, a comfortable silence at that that allowed them to hear what was going on downstairs. Baylee could be heard giggling wildly as he attempted to tell one of his “famous” jokes and Jackie could be heard reprimanding Harry for something or another. It almost sounded dysfunctional at best, but Brian wouldn't have wanted it any other way. It appeared Anne felt the same when she looked up at him. Then she tilted her head to the side, her eyes studying Brian carefully like she wanted to say something. He stared back at her in question before the stare became too uncomfortable and he brought his eyes down to his hands.

Anne placed her hand gently on her nephew's back. “A full mind will only do you more harm than good. Sometimes you just have to let it go and give yourself a break, even if just for a short time...”

“...And trust the direction the wind blows,” Brian finished for her with a knowing nod. He'd heard her say it before.

“Yes,” Anne replied firmly, though her tone was still soft and her hand gentle as it rubbed Brian's back.

“A wise woman once told me that...” he trailed and returned his attention to her, fighting a smile. Her matching smile warmed him a bit on the inside.

“That wise woman has had a few years to understand that very thing herself,” she replied.

“I'm trying, Aunt Anne,” Brian suddenly whispered, his voice cracking. “I really am.”

Anne's hand stilled against his back. “You can only do so much, dear. No one expects any more from you.”

“What if I expect more from myself?”

“Then you may be expecting too much.”

Brian cleared his throat and nodded. “Yeah, you're right.”

“The weary who can admit to such are also wise,” Anne stated and leaned in to affectionately kiss Brian's cheek. “You are loved, Brian. You should not forget that.”

Brian inhaled deeply and opened his mouth to answer her, but before he could get the words to come out, the door to the room was thrown open and Baylee burst inside with a gasping breath. He stumbled a bit before righting his footing and hurried over to the bed with an exaggerated grin of excitement.

“Daddy!” he stated with a giggle. “Mommy says it's time to go!”

Brian ruffled his hair and started to reach for his shoes. “Mommy needs to learn some patience.”

“Her said you are handsome enough,” Baylee answered with a mimicking wag of his finger. “Now lets go.”

“You are quite the handsome one yourself, young man,” Anne said as she rose to her feet and brushed her hand against Baylee's cheek.

Baylee nodded proudly. “Just like my Daddy.”

Brian stood as well once his shoe laces were tied. “That's right, buddy.”

“C'mon, Daddy!” Baylee growled impatiently as he bounced on his feet. “We have to go!”

His son raced out of the room before Brian had a chance to respond. Shrugging with a chuckle, Brian grabbed his suit jacket and thread his arms through the sleeves. “Sometimes that boy has more energy than he knows what to do with,” he mused and straightened the jacket. Brian offered his hand to his aunt with another sheepish smile. “Shall we...before they send up the real search party?”

Anne placed her hand in his with a comforting smile. “We shall.”

*****

Baylee was finally asleep and Brian welcomed the quiet that had once again settled over the Littrell household. It had been quite the task to get the child to settle down once they'd returned from the candle light service at church and while everyone else seemed to enjoy Baylee's rambunctious energy, Brian had been ready for the calm of the night to come. He wasn't much in the mood for the continued company, so when Leighanne insisted it was time for Baylee to go to bed, he wasn't ashamed to say he was happy to see his disappointed son ushered up the stairs. It had just been too much of a whirlwind activity up to that point.

Now, Brian found himself huddled alone in the cluttered space of his parents' attic, searching for a distraction that would keep his mind occupied until sleep came to claim him. Downstairs, the rest of his family was still gathered around the living room, casually talking amongst themselves as the night began to wear down, but he knew they would be dispersing soon enough. Kevin and Kristin were staying with Aunt Anne, respectively so and Brian couldn't be sure where Harry had disappeared to for the night. All he knew was that his brother had promised to return by morning. And really, who was Brian to question him.

His parents' attic was packed nearly to capacity and Brian found himself wondering just how long it had been since the last time either of them had bothered venturing up there. The stacks of boxes and other storage containers were covered in a layer of dust that was visible under the glow of the overhead lights and his finger left a trail as he ran it absently along the surface of one of the boxes. Brian liked it up there though, away from all of the noise and the attention. In fact, he couldn't remember a visit to his parents' house when he didn't steal away in the attic by himself for a few solitary moments at least once.

Tonight was different though. Tonight he was looking for something specific and he had an idea of where he could find it. Across the cramped expanse of the attic, Brian located a large box with his name written in bold black sharpie lettering. Five simple letters in his mother's familiar scrawl, nothing more. Approaching the box, he lifted it from the boxes it was stacked on and set it on the ground before lowering himself to sit on a plastic crate.

The box wasn't covered in nearly as much dust as everything around him and the flaps were bent and worn from many years of opening and closing. Brian carefully lifted the flaps with his fingers and peered at the collection of memorabilia stored inside, a fond smile curling the corners of his lips. His parents had always managed to show their pride in his accomplishments and that had never really changed, even from the time of his youth and especially through his time as one of the members of the Backstreet Boys. Jackie in particular had done what she could to record each milestone he reached and this box was just one of many that showed it...which was one of the many reasons why Brian, himself, enjoyed sifting through each item it contained whenever he got a chance.

He may have been the one to initially live it, but reliving it made it even more special.

Grabbing hold of a framed group picture that sat on top, Brian lifted it out of the box and blew gently at the dust on the surface of the glass. It barely made a difference and he swiped his hand gently against it as he studied the picture intently. It had to of been taken circa 1995 just by the look of it, not that Brian could place the specific memory of the moment captured. They all looked so young though and in the midst of embarking on the whirlwind changing journey of their life.

Even back then when fame began to take them into its clutches, when their feet were still newly wet in the music industry, Brian wondered if any of them had been able to adequately anticipate just where the road was eventually going to take them. Many a night Brian had laid awake dreaming up the possibilities, but there was no way he could have predicted where the road would lead him, where it would take them all. Never in his wildest dreams would Brian have guessed that he would one day end up an award-winning multi-million dollar pop star known by so many worldwide. Yet there he was, America's typical boy next door turned pop star extraordinaire adored by a very passionate fan base.

Brian chuckled at the thought. It was definitely not what he'd seen happening for himself. Far from it. Granted, music had always held a special place in Brian's heart for as long as he could remember and reflected such when he became involved in the choir of Porter Memorial Baptist church in his hometown of Lexington. God had given him a gift, Jackie would always tell him, and his parents encouraged him to use it accordingly. So the older Brian got, the more he found himself nurturing the idea of pursuing a career in music ministry. However, all of that changed in one day during his junior year of high school and it had been a roller coaster ride for Brian ever since.

He found it funny how life always seemed to follow its own plan. Or rather God had much deeper plans for Brian's life than he was ever able to comprehend for himself.

A throat cleared just as Brian was about to place the framed picture back into the box and he shifted his attention to the attic doorway where he saw Kevin standing there awkwardly. His cousin had to stoop over a bit just to stand in the doorway without his head hitting the top edge of the door frame and it was kind of comical to look at if Brian really thought about it. Smirking lightly, he beckoned Kevin into the attic with a nod of his head.

Kevin stepped forward, his steps carefully calculated to dodge all of the boxes and other items laying about. “Wasn't sure if you wanted any company,” he greeted as he narrowly dodged the jagged edge of a metal clothes rack. His movements were haphazard until he managed to right his posture again and Brian had to stop himself from chuckling audibly towards his cousin's misfortune.

“I wouldn't mind the company,” Brian responded and looked down at the framed picture again. “I figured you, Kristin, and Aunt Anne would be heading home.”

“Soon,” Kevin nodded and tested the durability of a wooden crate off to Brian's left before taking a seat on it. His frown was visible just on the surface as he shifted on the crate. “Mom is exhausted, but Kris can't stop talking to Aunt Jackie long enough for me to get them out of here.”

Brian smirked. “It's the grand ol' gossip hour, Kev. Didn't you know that?”

Kevin chuckled in spite of himself. “I think it's safe to say that's understating it.”

“It's a lost cause to argue such. We're kind of out numbered.”

A mixture of a snort and a chuckle slipped past Kevin's lips as he surveyed the attic thoughtfully with posture that was slightly curved forward and his hands clasped in front of him. His brows knit into a tight line. “It's a mess up here,” he stated bluntly and tapped his foot absently against the floor. “Doesn't look like Aunt Jackie has been up here in years.”

“She comes up here occasionally,” Brian murmured.

“I mean no disrespect to Aunt Jackie, but with all of these knickity knacks?” Kevin motioned to their surroundings with a nod of his head. “She would ace a casting call for the TV show 'Hoarders'.”

Brian shifted his attention back to his cousin with a brow raised. A smirk toyed with the corners of his mouth and he wet his lips before responding. “Did you just say knickity knacks?”

Kevin shrugged. “Yeah, I did. What of it?”

Brian scoffed inwardly. “You still sound like a hick after all these years.”

“Speak for yourself, Mr. Southern Bell,” Kevin replied as he rolled his eyes. “Old habits die hard.”

Brian was still amused. “I guess you're right.”

Kevin leaned closer in Brian's direction in an attempt to get a clear look at what the younger man was holding in his hands. “What's got your attention right now any way? You're gripping that frame like you're afraid you're gonna drop it.”

Extending the frame to his cousin, Brian offered him a lopsided grin. “Remember when this was taken?”

Kevin brought the frame closer to study it. “Wow...” he chuckled and rubbed a hand over his face. “This was taken forever ago.”

Brian's smile was honest and fond. “We all look so ridiculous in those outfits.”

“It was the early nineties,” Kevin chuckled again. “Everyone looked ridiculous.”

“True,” Brian conceded. “But we thought we looked cool.”

Kevin's lips curled into a smirk. “Of course we did.”

“You have to admit there were some questionable clothing choices over the years, though.”

“Yeah, but it's not like we had much choice back then. And...I don't think we really had any time to worry about how we looked. We were told what to do and we just...did it.”

Brian took the framed picture back from Kevin and returned it to the box. “That's because we were being given the chance of a lifetime that most people can only dream of.”

“Life dealt us a lucky hand, huh?”

There wasn't an answer Brian could think of at first as he pulled a black picture album out of the box. “We were blessed,” his voice was quiet as he finally spoke again, his fond smile dimming.

Kevin kept a firm gaze on Brian. “We sure were. We still are.”

Nodding, Brian slowly opened the picture album, but his eyes didn't focus on the first set of pictures he came across. It was more a distraction than anything else. “Would you change any of it?” he asked.

“Would I change any of what?” Kevin tried to clarify.

Brian inhaled deeply, flipping to another page in the picture album. Again, he didn't see any of the pictures that had been carefully laid out. “Our life, the way it's been since, y'know...”

Kevin clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth and answered easily. “No, I wouldn't.”

The surprise was evident in Brian's eyes when their gazes met again and for a few moments they just sat there staring back at each other until Brian looked away again. It's not that he really expected Kevin to answer any differently, but it still rendered him speechless all the same and left him in awe. “You wouldn't?”

Kevin shook his head. “No. I mean, sure, there's some things that I wish would have been different. Some things I know more about now that could have helped us out back then, but...I wouldn't change the road we went down or where it led us.”

“Me either,” Brian answered quickly with a firm nod. He shut the picture album and discarded it in the box where he'd grabbed it from. “It's been one Hell of a ride. I've got you to thank for that.”

“It's been one Hell of a ride for all of us,” Kevin agreed.

A heavy sigh passed Brian's lips and he lowered his head as his shoulders slumped. He stared down at his hands, hands that slightly trembled, and he wondered if Kevin was able to see them doing so. “Kev...” he whispered in a voice that cracked and barely projected. Brian could feel the weight of his cousin's stare without even looking at him and it made him uncomfortable and ashamed. Even when Kevin placed a strong hand of support on his shoulder, it didn't make Brian feel any better. “I'm not okay.”

“I know you're not.”

It was a simple statement and yet it spoke millions. Brian could feel the way Kevin's fingers tightened their grip on his shoulder and he nearly crumpled under the touch. There was no doubt in Brian's mind that everyone knew he wasn't okay. How could they not see it? But admitting it out loud, freely and without reserve, was crushing.

“I'm not okay,” Brian repeated, his shoulders beginning to quake. He dropped his head into his hands. “I'm not okay, Kev. I'm not.”

“I know you're not okay, Cuz...” Kevin's voice was quieter than normal. It lacked the bravado that usually accompanied the opening of the man's mouth and listening closely, it threatened to give out before his response was completely spoken. The statement ended on a whisper and silence fell upon them, a silence that was both comforting and taunting all at the same time.

Gradually, Brian gathered his bearings and managed to lift his head from his hands. His eyes were bloodshot from the surfacing sorrow that had his chest tightening and he hesitantly shifted his gaze to Kevin. “I...I haven't been okay for a long time. And I'm scared. I'm scared of what's happening to me. I'm scared of what I know is coming.”

The creases of concern at the corners of Kevin's eyes became more pronounced. “Bri-”

“I don't wanna die.”

Kevin shut his eyes to steady himself, but his hand never left Brian's shoulder. Hearing Brian actually voice his fears openly was a devastation Kevin found himself unprepared to handle, no matter how much he'd known it all along, and it knocked the breath from his chest. Made him sick to his stomach.

Brian's piercing gaze focused on the open box. “This box, it's...it's all I'm gonna become. A stupid box full of worthless memorabilia that's gonna be collecting dust and forgotten up here in this shitty attic once I'm pushing daisies. Forgotten, Kev. Don't you get it?”

Kevin frowned, his grip tightening more without him realizing it. “Worthless? How can you even say that?”

Brian let loose a bitter chuckle, but the sound quickly dissipated and he exhaled a shallow breath that rattled in his chest. “I don't wanna be forgotten.”

Kevin shook his head. “That's not possible.”

“Kevin?”

They both looked towards the doorway of the attic to find Kristin standing there with apprehension, her tired eyes unsure of what she was interrupting. Kevin cleared his throat as an attempt to mask the difficulty he was experiencing. He forced a tight smile at his wife and nodded. “Is everything okay?” he asked.

Kristin tucked strands of hair behind her ear as she leaned against the door frame, resting a hand on her stomach. “Your mom is ready to go home.”

Withdrawing his hand from Brian's shoulder, Kevin slowly rose to his feet. “I'll be down in a moment.”

“Okay...” Kristin smiled softly and departed, disappearing down the stairs without another word.

Kevin turned back to Brian just as his cousin stood also on unsteady feet. “We haven't given up on you yet.”

Brian averted his eyes to the floor. “You should get Aunt Anne home.”

“Yeah...” Kevin mumbled and without a second thought, he pulled Brian in for a tight embrace. “We'll see you in the morning. Merry Christmas, Cuz...”

Kevin pulled away and turned, carefully navigating his way through the clutter filling the attic. When he reached the doorway, he paused just long enough to look back over his shoulder at Brian and then he was gone, his footsteps echoing down the stair case.

“Merry Christmas...” Brian whispered to the empty air and dejectedly he sank onto the plastic crate once more, returning his head to his hands.
Chapter 25 by MonkeyAbu
Author's Notes:
Another chapter down. Yay me! Just means this story is moving right along now and heading towards the end. Thank you for all of the feedback so far! :)
Chapter 25:

“Daddy...”

Brian felt himself being pulled out of a sluggish state of sleep and a flood of warmth rushed into him. The bed shook beneath his body, but still Brian stubbornly refused to open his eyes. He wasn't quite ready to greet the waking world just yet; sleep was what he really wanted and more of it. For once, Brian couldn't remember a single thing he'd dreamed, so maybe his sleep had been dreamless, but either way, he counted it as a blessing. Brian actually felt rested and it was more than a relief.

“Daddy...” Baylee's voice was a little more insistent the second time and his hand smacked at his father's bare shoulder urgently. “Daddy, wake up! Santa came last night!”

“Bay,” Brian mumbled in a heavily sleep-clogged voice. He inhaled deeply through his nose, trying to usher his senses back into himself, even though slipping back into sleep was more than appealing in the moment. He knew Baylee would never allow it and it was only certain that his son would pester him until he obliged to finally force himself out of bed. Slowly, Brian blinked his eyes open and stared up at Baylee through hazy vision. “It's early in the morning. You should still be sleeping.”

Baylee shook his head firmly with a grin of mischief. “I'm a kid,” he stated matter-of-factly with a barely withheld giggle. “We don't sleep.”

Brian couldn't help the groan that bubbled up his throat as his eyes fluttered shut momentarily. Of course Baylee would pick this morning of all mornings to be a bundle of energy before the sun had begun to rise over the horizon. At least Brian could only assume as much, considering it was still dark as night out with a lack of natural light shining through the window across the room. Beside him, Leighanne shifted in the bed with a soft sigh and curled closer to his side, her arm draping lazily across his stomach.

“You knew he would be waking us early,” she murmured knowingly just above a whisper as she brushed her foot delicately against Brian's beneath the blankets.

“It was wishful thinking to hope otherwise,” Brian mustered in response. He scrunched his nose and pried his eyes open again to find Baylee watching him expectantly. “The birds aren't even awake yet, so why are you?”

Baylee grunted and spread his arms animatedly out to the sides. “It's Christmas!” he insisted impatiently. “The best Christmas ever!”

Lifting a hand, Brian ruffled his son's hair with a quiet chuckle. Baylee swatted at his hand and offered him a wry grin in return before sliding off the bed and bouncing on his feet just as impatiently as before. Brian watched him for a few moments, welcoming the humor that began to swell in him and awaken him more. It was the little moments like these, when Baylee was an exuberant bundle of energy, that Brian didn't want to take his eyes off his son. He wanted to commit each of the moments to memory and never let them end. But one day they would end and that was part of what saddened Brian so deeply. He wouldn't be around to see it.

“What time is it?” Leighanne murmured again.

Brian lifted his head just slightly from his pillow to glance at the clock on the nightstand. “A quarter to seven,” he answered and allowed his head to drop heavily onto the pillow once again. His hand lifted to rub at his forehead. “Bay, it is way too early.”

“No,” Baylee huffed as he continued to bounce on his feet. “Nana and Papa are awake. Uncle Harry is too.”

“Harry is back?” Brian questioned in a bit of surprise.

“He must have come back in the middle of the night,” Leighanne noted before pressing an affectionate kiss to Brian's shoulder. It felt good to have the warmth of her body pressed to Brian's side and he curled an arm around her to hold her in place. Leighanne's hand fluttered against his stomach thoughtfully before she returned her attention to Baylee. “Go downstairs, honey. Daddy and I will be down in a minute.”

Baylee raced out of the room before another word could be said, leaving his parents alone in the solitude of the guest room. As the silence washed over them again, Brian began to consider attempting to gain sleep for a little while longer before venturing downstairs to join the rest of his family. His eyes were heavy and truth be told, it had been difficult to keep them open when Baylee was demanding his attention. It was hard to fight the temptation to bury himself deeper beneath the blankets and steal those extra few moments of rest with Leighanne, just the two of them. But he knew even if he did manage to slip back into a state of restful bliss, Baylee would return to fetch them before it really accounted for anything.

Leighanne seemed to know exactly what he was thinking as she propped her head up in her hand and brushed her other hand delicately against the stubble on Brian's cheek. “If you're still tired, I can go downstairs and hold Baylee off for another hour or two. You need to sleep,” she suggested.

Brian pried his eyes open without realizing he had closed them again in the first place. His smile was lopsided and grateful as his eyes met Leighanne's. “You know as well as I do that Baylee will pitch a fit if we don't both go down there right now.”

Hair fell into Leighanne's eyes as she dipped her head to mask a quiet chuckle. “Unfortunately, you're right,” she answered.

“It's Christmas morning,” Brian mumbled and leaned his cheek into the tender touch of Leighanne's hand. “I suppose it would be cruel to keep him waiting when he's dying to dive into all of those presents under the tree.”

“Then we shouldn't keep him waiting any longer.” Leighanne's lips found his and lingered a moment longer than she intended. She didn't pull back from the kiss at first and there was something about it that caught Brian's attention, but his wife didn't seem willing to offer an explanation and he wasn't willing to chance ruining the tender moment of affection. So instead, they just laid there in the silence, staring back at each other wordlessly where so much more was actually said than had they spoken aloud. It reminded Brian much of the early stages of their relationship when they would just often revel in the silence of each other's company and it always spoke volumes more.

“You know how much I love you, right?” Brian spoke up a short time later, his voice tinged with a lazy southern drawl.

The adoration reflecting in Leighanne's eyes was endearing. “I think about it every day, how I was blessed to have found you.”

“I just don't want you to forget how much I love you, Leigh. I don't want you to ever forget it, even when I'm-”

Leighanne placed her fingers against Brian's lips to quiet him. “I will spend the rest of eternity knowing it.”

He kissed her fingers softly. “...Merry Christmas, baby,” he whispered.

“Merry Christmas, my love,” she whispered just as quietly in return.

It took them a while more before they pulled away from each other and made an effort to get out of bed. Brian's body ached with stiffness as he sat up on the edge of the bed and rubbed at his temples, willing the dull ache away. He just needed to make it through the day and he refused to let any complications of his own take away from the joy his family deserved, from the joy he deserved.

The scent of coffee brewing in the kitchen and a breakfast casserole baking in the oven greeted them as they stepped out of the guest room and moved down the hall towards the stairs. Jackie could be heard tinkering in the kitchen while Harold and Harry talked quietly amongst themselves in the living room. And Baylee, oddly enough, was as quiet as could be, which made Brian wonder. Harold looked over at them when they entered the living room and he nodded his head in greeting, telling them good morning before sipping the coffee from the mug he was holding. Harry, however, smirked in Brian's direction.

“Rise and shine, Princess,” he snorted with his arms crossed smugly over his chest. “I see the beauty sleep didn't make any improvements.”

Brian rolled his eyes as he ran his hands through his messy hair. “Bite me, butt hole, and take a look in the mirror,” he quipped sarcastically. “Your face is a tragedy.”

“Guys...” Harold warned, but there was evidence of a soft grin toying with the corners of his mouth which he attempted to hide behind the rim of his coffee mug.

Harry scoffed inwardly and leaned back in his corner of the couch as he propped his feet up on the edge of the coffee table. “Watch your back, brother. I'm gonna punch you when you least expect it.”

“Bring it on, fruit cake. I'll drop kick your pansy ass before your five little friends can raise to say hello,” Brian responded to the playful threat with a glimmer of humor that brought life into his dull eyes.

“Brian Thomas and Harold Baker,” Jackie suddenly chastised from the living room doorway. Brian looked to see her standing there, a dish towel tightly wrung in her hands and her eyes narrowed with disapproval. “I am not impressed by your foul mouths. Behave before I wash both of your mouths out with soap.”

“Ma,” Harry groaned in annoyance and huffed up at the ceiling. “A little ass kicking between brothers never hurt anyone.”

“Don't you test me, boy,” Jackie scolded. Her harsh stare beckoned Harry to challenge her, but he did no such thing and fell silent with a deep gruff that got lodged in his throat. Jackie turned her eyes to Brian and Leighanne. “I brewed you both some herbal tea. Sit and make yourselves comfortable while I get it for you.”

Brian did as he was told, pulling Leighanne over to the recliner with him as Jackie turned from the living room to return to the kitchen. His wife settled easily onto his lap and Brian took advantage of the opportunity to wrap his arms protectively around her. “This is nice,” he murmured just loud enough for Leighanne to hear. “Best seat in the house, if I do say so.”

“You both look well rested,” Harold noted as he leaned forward to set his mug on the coffee table. “The guest room is comfortable enough?”

“It's more than enough, Dad,” Leighanne agreed. “We appreciate the hospitality.”

“You know Jackie and I wouldn't have it any other way,” Harold stated, fixating his gaze on Brian with brows raised. “Which a certain son of mine always seems to forget.”

Brian absently caressed Leighanne's stomach as heat of embarrassment crept into his cheeks. “I always like coming home, Dad. You know that.”

“You don't come home enough. That's all I'm saying.”

“C'mon, do we really have to argue about this right now?” Brian tried to offer his father a crooked grin to dispel the tension he felt accumulating, but it hardly reached the surface. His hand stilled against Leighanne's stomach and his forehead creased into a hard frown he was unable to prevent. “I've been busy, something you and Mom are fully aware of. And y'know, it's not like you guys have gone out of your way to come visit me. It's a two way street, Dad.”

Harold exhaled a hard breath through his nose and stood calmly from the couch. His gaze averted from Brian before he grabbed his coffee mug and carried it to the kitchen without another word.

“Wow, little brother,” Harry wheezed in surprise. “That was a bit harsh, don'tcha think?”

“Drop it, Harry,” Brian muttered.

Harry cocked a brow. “You don't have to be a dick-”

Brian scowled at his brother as he interrupted him. “I said drop it,” he snapped.

Harry held his hands up in defense and muttered, “Whatever you say.”

Jackie ushered Baylee into the living room with Harold following close behind. “Be careful, Baylee. Set the cup on the coffee table so you don't spill it,” she instructed the child who was grasping a Mickey Mouse coffee cup in both of his hands with a considerable amount of concentration. Her tone was warm and caring, but one look in Brian's direction let him know she was fully aware of the confrontation he'd had with Harold and she wasn't pleased about it. Not that Brian could blame her though. It had been uncalled for and he'd felt horrible about it the moment he'd opened his mouth and lost control of what he was saying.

Baylee set his mug on the coffee table just like Jackie told him to do while Jackie handed Brian and Leighanne a mug each of herbal tea. Harold reclaimed his seat on the couch again as Baylee raced over to the lit Christmas tree and dropped to his knees.

“Mommy! Daddy!” he exclaimed as he lifted one of the boxes to shake it curiously. “Santa found me here!”

Brian's grin was lopsided, put at ease by his son's innocent excitement. The distraction gave him the opportunity to let his mind shift to happier thoughts for the time being. “Didn't I say he would?”

“And by the looks of it, you've been an extra good boy this year, Bubba,” Harold added towards the mound of presents that he knew had Baylee's name on them.

“Uh huh!” Baylee nodded enthusiastically. He discarded the box and reached for another one, hardly able to sit still. “I wanna open all of them! Right now!”

Harry propelled himself off the couch so his mother could sit and lowered himself to the floor next to his nephew. “Well, what are you waiting for, shorty?” he asked with a wicked grin and nudged Baylee, nearly knocking him over sideways. “Lets get this party started.”

Leighanne leaned into Brian as she watched, the smile evident in her voice when she murmured, “Like two peas in a pod.”

Brian swallowed a sip of his tea, the same chamomile with just the right amount of honey like it had been the day before. “Double trouble,” he agreed.

“Reminds me of Baylee and someone else.” Leighanne rotated her glance to her husband knowingly.

Brian tried to feign innocence. “Who, me? Trouble?”

Leighanne brushed her lips softly against Brian's cheek. “It's in his genes.”

Brian couldn't argue with her because he knew she was right. Baylee was, in every aspect, a miniature version of Brian, especially when it came to his mannerisms. And that trademark grin of his was often like looking in the mirror. How could he not be proud? His son was part of his legacy and Brian would be damned if he ever lost sight of that.

It didn't take long before the living room floor was littered with crumpled and torn wrapping paper and Baylee was smack dab in the middle of it all, surrounded by his unwrapped gifts. The child was happy as could be and more than pleased with his new collection of toys, noted clearly by the way he animatedly interacted with his new Hot Wheels race track that Harry helped him put together once it was out of the box. It would take a pretty penny to ship everything back home, but Brian knew his parents already planned on taking care of it. It was the price they said they were willing to pay to have the family together for the holidays. Now if only he could convince them to let him foot the bill, which would be more than the proper thing to do.

Because they were right. It was a small price to pay to be home...

*****

The air outside was bitterly cold and wracked Brian's body to the core, but in an odd way, he welcomed it. It kept him awake when what he really wanted to do at the moment was retreat upstairs to the guest room and shut his eyes, give in to the temptation to sleep despite the need to continue socializing with every one. He wouldn't do that though. They expected Brian to be with them in pleasant company. And as it was, Kevin seemed to be keeping a close eye on his cousin after their conversation in the attic the night before.

Exhaling a breath, Brian watched as it billowed like a cloud in front of him and hung in the air for several moments before dissipating. He stuffed his hands deep into the pockets of his coat and shifted his eyes to where Baylee was currently running around the backyard, hurling handfuls of snow at his uncle with giggles that echoed around them. A full stomach after dinner found Baylee with a renewed sense of energy that had Jackie sending the child outside to run it off. Not that Baylee really minded as he seemed happy to oblige without argument, especially when Harry agreed to accompany him. But before Baylee could even make it out the back door, he insisted that Brian come out with them. Brian hadn't been able to find it in himself to tell his son 'no'. So he'd bundled himself up and resigned himself to sitting on the steps of the back porch.

He tapped his foot absently against the third step as he watched the scene unfold before him. There wasn't a part of Brian that didn't long to be out in the back yard chasing his son around like he used to do. It was hard for him to wrap his mind around the fact that it had only been months before when he was still able to do that very thing. Now, on a good day, Brian could watch from the sidelines at best and it made him ache inside. There was no denying that Brian's lack of interaction with Baylee affected the child deeply. It's not what Baylee was used to. It's not what Baylee needed either. He needed his father to be there for him and Brian knew he was failing his son.

Brian sighed as his shoulders slumped under the weight of his thoughts. It was all too much to think of and once again he was unable to shut the thoughts off, just numb his mind, body, and soul to the pressures of reality. One relentless cycle after another. When would it stop? Would it ever stop? Or would the misery consume him whole as he withered away? It terrified Brian to consider any of it.

The back door opened and closed quietly and the sound of foot steps padding across the porch approached Brian. It wasn't long before Harold lowered himself to sit beside Brian on the top step and the older man's gaze swept out over the yard. They sat like that wordlessly, the tension from earlier in the day still present. In fact, Harold hadn't spoken directly to his son since their confrontation and avoided any intentional interaction when possible. There was hurt and confliction in Harold's eyes, that much Brian was able to see, and he couldn't blame his father for feeling that way. Brian had spoken out of character and it hadn't been fair.

Inhaling deeply, Brian looked down at the frozen ground. “Dad, I, um...” he started to speak, but his voice cut off prematurely and another heavy sigh passed his lips.

“I'm not mad at you, if that's what you're thinking,” Harold responded in a tone Brian couldn't distinguish.

“You should be,” Brian muttered.

There was a pause before Harold responded again. “For what reason?” he asked.

“Because...” Brian said and wet his dry lips before continuing. “Because I'm angry at myself.”

“You're angry at a lot more than just yourself, son.”

It took Brian a second to realize that his father was staring at him and when their eyes met, the breath caught in Brian's throat. He stuttered over his reply before finally whispering, “I'm angry at the whole damn world.”

“I know you are,” Harold nodded, keeping his eyes firmly set on Brian. “And I know you're scared and you're feeling lost. But you're not alone. We're all in this with you.”

“Who am I anymore, Dad?” Brian questioned weakly, his voice strained. “I've lost myself.”

Harold returned his attention forward to Baylee and Harry in the yard. “What makes you think you've lost yourself?”

“It feels like I have,” Brian answered.

“That's because you've allowed yourself to lose sight of a lot since this all began,” Harold patiently stated with a thoughtful nod. “...But what I want to know is when you became one to give up so easily.”

Brian winced and refocused his eyes on the ground, afraid to answer, afraid that his voice would ultimately betray him. “I...I don't know, Dad. I don't know anything anymore. Most days I can't even think straight.”

“Brian...” Harold trailed just above a whisper. “It's time you stop trying to take on the world by yourself and it's time to stop selling yourself short. That is not who you are. You and I both know that.”

Brian shook his head. “It's not that easy.”

“Nothing is ever that easy. Otherwise, life wouldn't be worth living. It's the struggles that make us who we are.”

“My struggles are killing me. I'm a dying man.”

Harold's hand clamped down on Brian's shoulder. “Then you need to reevaluate your focus if that is all you really think.”

Brian struggled to get his voice to project. “Dad-”

Harold pointed out to the yard, speaking calmly. “Look out there and tell me what you see.”

“...I see Baylee and Harry,” Brian answered as his eyes flit to where his son and brother were currently wrestling around in the snow.

“Remove your brother from the equation,” Harold continued as he squeezed Brian's shoulder. “What do you really see?”

“My son...” Brian whispered and even as the words left his mouth, his vision blurred with the steady rising of hot tears. “I see my son...”

“You see a part of yourself.”

“Baylee is a part of myself. He's...he's just like me.”

“And there he is, right in front of you. Breathing. Laughing. Happy.” Harold looked at Brian again, though his son's eyes remained fixated on his grandson. His hand tightened on Brian's shoulder. “And who is inside right now, worried about you and loving you no less?”

Brian dropped his head into his hands after pulling them from his coat pockets. His fingers dug against his scalp as his shoulders quaked faintly. “My wife,” he croaked in a choked whisper.

“Son,” Harold comforted and tugged Brian against his side in a one-armed embrace. “Don't neglect to remember what you are blessed with, what you have right in front of you.”

Brian allowed himself to succumb freely to the sobs bubbling up his throat as he sagged against his father's side under the tumultuous stress of his sorrow. The truth of Harold's words hit Brian harder and more painfully than he could have anticipated. How blind Brian had been for months now, selfishly consumed with his own misery that he really had been neglecting what was right in front of him all along. His wife...his son...his unborn daughter...his entire family and friends. While he suffered worse at his own doing, he caused them all to suffer just as much and Harold was making Brian realize it. “I'm a fool. Oh, God...I'm a fool,” he sputtered and gasped for breath.

Harold tightened his arm around him. “You are no fool, because a fool is someone who refuses to ever realize even when the truth is right in front of him.”

Brian dug the palms of his hands against his eyes, trying to ignore the horrendous hammering of his heart as he mentally willed his sobs to cease. His father's reassurance didn't make him feel like any less of a fool. “I've been horrible. I've neglected everyone. I'm...I'm supposed to be taking care of them and I haven't been. I've just been pushing them away. Everyone.”

“You're expecting too much from yourself and that won't do you any good. You need to give yourself a break, Brian, before it tears you apart completely.”

Brian lifted his head from his hands to stare at his father with bloodshot eyes. “I'm sorry, Dad. Forgive me. Please. I'm sorry.”

“I forgive you,” Harold answered with a firm nod, despite the frown of concern he was fighting. He didn't think there was anything that Brian needed forgiveness for right then, but he knew there was no convincing his son of that. There was too much regret in Brian's eyes. “Now, forgive yourself.”

Baylee's yelp of surprise pierced the air and Brian looked to him quickly just as Harry lifted the child into the air and slung him over his shoulder as if he was a rag doll. A sad grin passed over Brian's face as he watched Baylee proceed to pound his tightly clenched fists against Harry's back and demand to be let down. Brian was incredibly thankful for his brother in that moment, but the regret that it wasn't him out there was overwhelming.

“What are you thinking right now, son?” Harold questioned.

“Just...” Brian swallowed thickly and exhaled a hard breath. “It's supposed to be me out there right now with Baylee. Instead, Harry is having to pick up my slack.”

“Harry loves his nephew and he's not complaining-” Harold drawled, but Brian interrupted him.

“I'm thankful for my brother and what he's doing right now. Really, I am. It just doesn't make it hurt any less, y'know? And I'm afraid one day Baylee is going to hate me for it.”

“Do you know what Baylee told me yesterday when we were outside?”

Brian shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. There was a part of him that was almost afraid to hear what Harold was going to say. “No, I don't know.”

“He said that Daddy has owies and he can't play with him anymore,” Harold recalled his grandson's words from the day before, his embrace around Brian keeping the younger man sitting upright. “He said it makes him sad because he misses playing with his daddy, but it makes him even more sad when he sees his daddy upset. Brian, he might not understand everything that is going on, but he's an observer and he doesn't like to see you upset. The biggest thing he said to me is that he just wants you to be happy so you'll smile again.”

Brian wheezed a shallow breath as he listened to his father speak. His eyes remained on Baylee while the child was finally set back upon his feet and when his son offered a wide grin in his direction, Brian managed to easily return the grin with one of his own and followed it with a small wave. “He really said all of that?” he finally murmured.

“He did,” Harold affirmed. “That boy has a heart of gold...just like his father does.”

Brian wrung his hands together in an attempt to generate some warmth into them. “I'm proud of him, Dad.”

Harold's smile was lopsided as he pat Brian on the back. “As you should be. And I'm proud of you too.”

Baylee sprinted over to Brian and Harold and stood in front of them, his chest heaving as he caught his breath. His cheeks and nose were a deep rosy color from prolonged exposure to the cold and Brian drew him close, wrapping him in his arms. Baylee readily curled against his father, wrapping his arms around Brian's neck. “Can we go inside now?” he asked.

Brian chuckled, straightening the beanie hat atop Baylee's head. “Of course we can.”

Baylee giggled. “Nana will let us?”

Harold nudged his grandson playfully. “Nana doesn't make all of the rules. So I'm giving you permission to go back inside.”

“I even have an idea for us,” Brian suggested. He looked at Harry as his brother wandered over and then returned his attention to Baylee. “How about we go inside and you and I will hang out together, just the two of us. We'll do whatever you want to do.”

Baylee's eyes widened with excitement. “Just us?!” he exclaimed.

Brian smirked at his son. “Just us,” he repeated.

“Yeah!” Baylee whooped in approval of the idea. He hugged Brian again and then pulled away to race into the house, no doubt in a hurry to shed his winter garments and decide what he and his father were going to do.

“Where's my invite to hang out?” Harry asked pointedly, but it was clear in his eyes that he was merely feigning his disappointment.

Brian slowly rose to his feet, offering his brother a devilish grin. “Sorry, brother. No losers allowed.”

“You ass,” Harry muttered as he moved up the porch steps. Still, he grinned in return and disappeared into the house.

Harold was just standing straight and fixing the collar of his coat when Brian faced him one again. “Do you realize you just made Baylee's night?”

“You made me realize a lot.” Brian sheepishly shrugged. “There's some things I need to change.”

“This is a good start. Baylee needs it as much as you do.”

Brian stared at his father in thought for a moment. “...Dad, I really am sorry about this morning. I shouldn't have talked to you that way. It was uncalled for.”

“I told you,” Harold started to reply and slung his arm loosely around Brian's shoulders to guide them to the back door. “You've already been forgiven. Now lets get inside out of this cold before your son becomes impatient.”

Forgiven. A term Brian grew up knowing well because of his faith and now...now it sounded so foreign to him.

*****

The quiet crackle of the dying fire in the fireplace cast a soft amber glow around the living room, causing little shadows to dance across Baylee's peaceful face as he slept. Brian stared down at his son in thought where the child's head was pressed against his thigh. Baylee had been asleep for a while, curled under a blanket on the couch after a night well spent playing with his father and Brian hadn't moved from his spot beside him. There was something about his son's company that Brian was really clinging to though and it made him realize further just how much he'd been neglecting his duties as a father lately. He would see to it that it changed, lest Baylee suffered more because of his selfishness.

Gently, Brian brushed his hand through the mound of golden silken curls atop Baylee's head. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Baylee so ecstatic to be spending time with him...or maybe it was also the fact that Brian couldn't remember the last time he'd allowed himself to let go so freely and enjoy the moments he had. Baylee's animated laughter still echoed in his memory and it was a sound to be cherished. It didn't matter that Baylee didn't understand the depth of the time spent. It was the innocence he expressed and the warmth it caused to flood back into Brian's cold and bitter soul. Thankful didn't even begin to explain it.

Harry released a garbled snore from where he was sprawled out in the recliner off to the right of the couch. Brian looked over at him at the sound with a brow raised, but it appeared Harry remained sleeping just as contently. A small glass dangled precariously from his left hand, threatening to drop to the floor at any given second and spill the contents of the spiked egg nog Harry had been sipping before falling asleep. That was a disaster in the making, a disaster Brian could only imagine would result in Jackie's sharp reprimanding, because Lord knows his mother would fly off the handle if someone, especially Harry, soiled her plush carpet due to irresponsible behavior. Of course Brian found a great deal of humor whenever his mother still attempted to punish Harry well into his adult years, but Brian least of all wanted the peace to be broken that had finally settled over the household...even if his brother did deserve a good lecture.

The thought made Brian chuckle quietly to himself as he looked down at Baylee another moment more. His son hadn't moved an inch and it was obvious he would sleep soundly through out the night. He brushed the curls away from Baylee's forehead and then carefully pushed himself up from the couch to step over to the recliner and take the glass from Harry's hand before it could finally slip from his grasp. Brian sniffed the contents of the glass and grimaced at the strong scent of liquor permeating off the creamy liquid. Harry had definitely indulged a little too much with that batch. No wonder he'd passed out cold while drinking it.

Brian afforded a final glance at his brother in contemplation, but he opted out of trying to wake him and instead just stepped past him to leave the living room. After taking the glass to the kitchen and setting it in the sink, Brian made his way upstairs. His parents had already retired to their room for the evening and the door was shut as he passed by it on the way to the guest room where he expected to find Leighanne. She had been particularly exhausted that evening and excused herself for the night before anyone else, which Brian had to admit was a little odd, but there was never really a chance to question it and no one else seemed in the least concerned.

The door to the guest room was partially cracked open when Brian reached it and he knocked quietly before entering. Leighanne was standing at the window across the room as he entered, her back to him and her arms wrapped tightly around herself. Brian tilted his head as he took in the sight of her, fighting a frown as he tried to read her posture.

“...Baby?” he called out, slowly approaching her.

It took a moment before Leighanne glanced at him over her shoulder, her normally bright blue eyes dull with sadness. “Hi...” she whispered and try as she might to smile at him, the expression never quite surfaced.

Brian wasted no time in reaching her and quickly drew her into his embrace, his arms wrapping around her from behind. “Talk to me,” he requested patiently.

Leighanne leaned against him and sighed, her voice still at a whisper. “It's nothing.”

“You're lying to me.” Brian tightened his arms around her. “Whatever it is...just tell me.”

A shallow rattled breath exhaled from Leighanne's lungs and she rested a cold hand on Brian's arm. “I don't even know where to begin.”

It took but a moment for Brian to realize Leighanne was softly crying and when he turned her in his arms, he immediately saw the glistening tears streaking her cheeks. “Leigh-”

“I hate this, Brian. I hate all of it,” Leighanne whispered as she struggled to control her voice. “I hate what it's doing to you.”

Brian's lips parted, but he couldn't get his voice to project at first. He lifted a hand to cup Leighanne's cheek, brushing a thumb beneath her eye in an effort to catch her tears. “I'm so sorry...”

Leighanne leaned her cheek into Brian's touch and cupped his hand with her own. “I love you so much, Brian, and...and I hate that I can't make it better.”

“I haven't been easy,” Brian mustered and leaned in to rest his forehead against hers. “And I haven't made this any easier for anyone. I know I haven't.”

“That's not what I meant,” Leighanne whispered again.

“I know what you meant,” Brian answered her. “But I need to take responsibility for my actions. I haven't been easy to live with these past few months and I know it. It's just...taken me a while to admit to it. I've made life miserable for everyone because of how bitter I've become and I've neglected my duties as your husband and Baylee's father. That's gonna change. I promise you that.”

“Brian, I'm not asking for anything from you-”

Brian pulled back from her and cupped both her cheeks in his hands, locking his eyes with hers. “Listen to me, Leigh, okay?”

Leighanne nodded, her knees nearly shaking with weakness as she searched Brian's eyes and committed to memory what she saw.

“I'm not gonna continue wasting whatever time I have hating the hand that life dealt me.” He swiped his thumb beneath her eyes again, struggling against the swell of emotions moving up his chest. “I can't predict the future and I don't even want to think about that right now. What's important is the time I have to spend with you and with Baylee and everyone else and I haven't been cherishing that time like I should be. But that's gonna change from now on.”

“I don't wanna lose you...” Leighanne's voice cracked as she spoke. “This isn't how our life is supposed to be. We're supposed to grow old together.”

“I know and I'm so sorry...” It was Brian's turn to whisper this time. He found himself unable to hold back the tears that blurred his vision, the tremble in his wife's voice paining him on the inside. “I'm so sorry, baby. I'm so sorry.”

Leighanne pressed herself against him and clung to him tightly as if it was her life that depended on it. The sight of his own tears weakened her and made her desperate for his touch, to feel his warmth and know that he was still there. “For better or for worse. That promise will never change.”

“Never,” Brian agreed. “No matter what happens.”

Leighanne managed a faint smile as she tilted her head back to look up at him. “I will never stop loving you.”

Brian searched her eyes long and hard for a moment before he swallowed thickly and slowly detached her arms from around him. His voice was less than steady, but he offered her as much of a reassuring smile as he could muster. “Come sit down with me. I have something I wanna give you.”

“Another gift?” Leighanne questioned in confusion as she took Brian's hand and allowed him to lead her over to the bed. They both sat down on the foot of the bed. “I thought all of the gifts were exchanged earlier.”

His smile was sheepish as he looked Leighanne over adoringly. “All except one,” Brian chuckled and reached into his pants pocket, pulling out a small black box that wasn't wrapped. “I, um...I wanted to give this to you when it was just the two of us alone together.”

Leighanne slowly took the box from him, fighting a smile that still managed to curl her lips. “Babe, this isn't necessary...”

Brian waved off her statement. “C'mon, open it.”

Leighanne did as he told her and slowly opened the box, the breath catching in her throat when she saw the stunning diamond engraved silver locket nestled on the inside. “Brian...” she spoke at just a whisper and her hand lifted to cover her mouth.

Brian watched her nervously, unsure of her reaction. “...Do you like it?”

Delicate fingers caressed the face of the locket before Leighanne pulled it out of the box for closer inspection. “It's gorgeous,” she exclaimed quietly and set the box aside.

“Look on the inside,” Brian murmured and scooted closer to her.

Carefully, Leighanne popped the locket open to find her favorite picture of the two of them together securely fastened to the right halve. On the left halve was elegantly engraved lettering that she held up to the light to read. “I loved you yesterday. I love you today. I'll love you tomorrow. And I'll love you for always...”

“I loved you yesterday. I love you today,” Brian recited as he took the locket from her and moved her hair out of the way so he could fasten the chain around her neck. He pressed a fluttering of tender kisses to her neck. “I'll love you tomorrow. And I'll love you for always.”

“Oh, Brian...” Leighanne leaned into the touch of affection. “I love it. Thank you.”

“I wanted you to have something special from me.”

“It's perfect.”

Brian's lips found hers in a soft kiss. “Crawl into bed and make yourself comfortable. I'm gonna take a shower and then I thought maybe you and I could lay in bed together and talk for a bit. I think we need to.”

Leighanne caressed his cheek for a moment. “Hurry back.”

Standing from the bed, Brian winked at her, but his smile was charming. “I won't be gone long. I promise.” Offering his wife a final kiss, Brian left the guest room feeling as if a ton of invisible weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
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