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Author's Chapter 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:


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.