"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."
"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..."
"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."
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.
"I'm fine, Dad. Really. And it's the holidays. Lets enjoy it, huh?"
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.
"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.
"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.
"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.