Chapter Four
©2004-2005  All Rights Reserved

This is a story about  tragedies and triumphs faced in the journey of life.  For the most part, it is a work of pure fiction, though some parts draw upon a host of life experiences.  Though not in the beginning, this story will eventually contain sexual acts between consenting adults.  Gay characters have gay sex, so if this bothers you, or if it is illegal to read such materials due to your age or where you live, then please do not read further.  All copyrights are held by the author, so please do not duplicate, print, alter, or resubmit (or anything else I may have missed ) this story without first obtaining written permission from the author. 

This is my second story in the Raven Cliff series.  For those of  you who read OF LOVE AND CHANCE, you will find ONE RAY OF LIGHT  to be quite different. For one, it is told in limited third person narratives, rather than various individual points of view.  It is also a much darker, more complex delve into the nature of humanity.  It contends with spiritual and social issues, but in a completely different manner.  In similarity, it is ultimately a romantic love story that is not meant to be a quick fix, jerk-off session.  You might also recognize a few characters here and there, for lives often interconnect in ways we do not realize.  If you haven't read OF LOVE AND CHANCE, don't worry, for this story stands alone.

A special thanks to Paul for all his efforts with editing, and to Tob for his input and feedback.

If you have any comments, ideas, suggestions, etc., I would love to hear them.  Please contact me via

"Hell is too good for you!"  She sneered. "You are an abomination to the Almighty, you disgusting pervert!" 

Coal lay helpless on the ground, weeping with the deepest of sorrows as his mother spat her venomous words of hatred upon him.  He tried to call out, to plead for mercy, but his voice was nowhere to be found.  So, there he lay in grief and shame while Twila Black ranted in yet another sermon about Coal's worthlessness.

It was well into the nightfall, and the pitch of blackness reigned.  Neither a single star shined in the heavens nor did the moon cast its luminous glow.  The only source of light was from a bonfire that flickered within the distant field.  Trees, long devoid of any life, glimmered from the far away fire.  Shadows danced about them, and Coal could swear that each tree bore a demonic face.  The pungent stench of swamp grass filled the air as Coal began to shiver from both the cold and fear.  Coal again tried to speak, but still his voice was silent.

Twila shot a sharp glare at Coal before she burst out in a joyous cackle.  "This is His judgment upon you.  He sees you for the nothingness that you truly are!  You have defiled His glorious name, so He smites you and your evil ways."

Rotting vines began to creep their way up from the earth around Coal, twisting and intertwining themselves along his person.  The vines became tighter with every inch as they continued to spiral along his limbs and torso.  Soon, they were strangling his body, cutting into his very flesh. 

>From out of the shadows came a hooded figure dressed in a white robe.  As it came closer, the grass beneath its feet erupted in a blazing fire.  The fire spread along the ground into the shape of a cross, passing only a few feet away from Coal's left side.

The hooded figure then stood beside Twila.  Slowly, the hood was removed, and Coal was startled when Eric Sneed revealed himself.  His chest pulsed in a hefty chuckle.  "Well, well, pussy boy!  It looks like you are finally going to get what you deserve."  Eric cheered.

Twila wrapped her arms around him, pulling Eric into a firm embrace.  "Now, this is a man, Coal.  He is someone I would be proud to call my son."

Eric smiled broadly as he cast Coal a look of pure contempt.  "Time to burn, faggot!"  He proclaimed.

Flames began to engulf the area all around Coal.  Pillars of blackened smoke rose high towards the heavens as the fire consumed the swamp grass on the ground.  Coal lay helpless, like a sacrificial lamb on the altar; in his mind, he pondered if that were not exactly what he was supposed to be.  As Coal prepared to meet his maker, he wondered if he would be forgiven or if all he had to look forward to was an endless burning in the fires of hell.

'It cannot be any worse than the hell I have lived through already.' Coal told himself, trying hard to steady his nerves for the end that was sure to come.  'If only I could see Rory, just one last time.' he sighed.

Though he could not see them, Coal heard Eric and Twila laughing with delight as the flames grew higher.  Twila began singing traditional church hymns while Eric shouted profanities about Coal's worthlessness.  Coal's heart sank as he began to believe his mother was right; he had squandered his life away, as he could not recall one single act he had committed that had a redeemable quality to it. 

'Well, other than loving Malice.' he determined to himself.  'Hmm... and loving Rory, too.' he added in afterthought. 

Then, he wondered if that was not the source of his misery, his transgression from grace.  The love he cherished so purely in his memory might have been the cause for all the trauma he had endured.  As Coal pondered this, a single tear trickled down his cheek.

'No.' he thought.  'Rory was the only good thing in my life other than Malice... maybe Kal and the Turners, too... but if God wants to strike me down for that, then let him strike me.  I will not betray Rory's kindness, not even to save myself from the bowels of hell.' he vowed.

As if to counter his defiance, the flames shot up quite high in that moment.  The heat began to singe his flesh as the fire drew closer.  Pain unlike anything Coal had ever experienced before racked his body as the flames engulfed him.  His very soul screamed out in agony, but his heart held on to one thing:  Rory Hampton.

Coal drew in a strong rush of air.  Sweat was dripping profusely from his trembling body.  His face was cradled to a warm chest, as loving arms had firmly wrapped themselves around him.

"Sh-h-h.  It was only a nightmare, buddy."  A soft voice soothed.

Coal panted as he looked up to behold the most angelic face he could possibly imagine.  His sun-bleached hair fell partially over his jade colored eyes.  His soft pink lips spread into a slight yet supportive smile.

Coal sighed in relief.  "Rory!  Thank God you're here!"  Coal clung tightly to the young man, clutching onto him for dear life.

Rory smiled more broadly, then leaned down to kiss Coal's forehead.  "Of course I'm here.  Where else would I be?"

After Coal reoriented himself, he realized that he and Rory were snuggled together in a sleeping bag along side a small stream.  In the foreground glowed the dying embers of their campfire.  Coal's hand slowly descended down Rory's side, stroking his naked flesh delicately.  He smiled as he looked into Rory's eyes.

"Where else would you be?"  Coal softly replied.  He swallowed hard as tears threatened to trickle from the corners of his eyes.  "Growing up, you were always there for me, Rory.  You were the only one on my side, in fact." 

Coal intertwined his fingers with Rory's, giving his hand a gentle squeeze.  "I was always so shy that I could never even speak when I drew near you.  I was never able to tell you just how much you meant to me."  Coal cast him a sheepish smile.  "I was so in love with you, you know."

Rory ran his fingers along Coal's face, caressing his cheek tenderly.  "You didn't have to say anything, Coal.  You never have.  I always seemed to know, anyway."

Coal let out a deep sigh as he felt Rory's fingers trickle lightly down his back.  Tingling shivers danced along his spine from the steady, sweeping motions as Rory stroked his hands up Coal's sides and along his triceps.  As Rory continued to caress his body, Coal marveled in all that was Rory.

He stared into Rory's eyes, watching the golden flecks dance about as they reflected the light of the dying embers.  Coal noted the way the tip of his nose turned slightly upward, something Coal always found adorable.  He smiled as he took in the soft lines that formed into furrows along Rory's forehead whenever he knitted his eyebrows together in deep thought.  And then there was his smile, a smile that would all but cause Coal's heart to stop in mid beat every time Rory would grace the world with it.  Coal wanted to remember every last detail, from the small freckle-like mole on Rory's left earlobe to the tiny little scar just below his chin.  He knew, after all, that this would be over far too soon.

Rory seemed to be aware of Coal's very thoughts, which was evident in his response.  "You know, Coal, I don't have to leave for a while yet.  We still have time, so let's not think about that right now."

Coal sighed softly as he shifted himself to rest on his side, using Rory's shoulder as a pillow.  He gently traced small circles along the center of Rory's smooth chest.  "I wish you didn't have to leave me.  I've been so lonely without you."

Coal took a deep breath as he contemplated what he was about to do.  In his experiences, being open and honest only made you vulnerable to heartache.  But, he needed to do this.  He needed to come clean and be honest.  "If I could ever love someone, I think it would be you, Rory.  But, I don't think even you could love me.  I've done some horrible things in my life since the last time we saw one another."

Rory's hands moved to cradle Coal's face, raising his head so he could look him in the eyes.  "You have to learn to let go of the past and move on with life.  Otherwise, you're gonna be stuck in this rut you live in forever."

Tears pooled in Coals eyes.  "Rory, you don't understand.  I was a..."

"I understand, Coal, and I know that you are not that person any more.  You've been rebuilding your life, making things better for yourself.  I'm afraid you are gonna have to rebuild some of it again."  Rory stroked his thumbs across Coal's forehead, giving him a slight smile.  "But, this will give you new opportunities.  Let go of the mistakes, Coal.  Acknowledge them, confront them, learn from them, and move on.  Make the most of each day.  Don't just exist, Coal, live."

 "I'll try."  Coal said weakly, if not unbelievably. 

Rory simply shook his head at Coal, sighed, then smiled.  "What am I going to do with you?"

Coal and Rory talked for some time.  All the while, Coal felt truly at peace as he rested in Rory's arms.  Rory leaned in and gave Coal a long, passionate kiss.  Everything seemed to give way around them, as Coal felt himself floating.  He opened his eyes to find that he and Rory were in the midst of nothingness; a black void was all about them.

Rory kissed him once more, then smiled.  "There is a long night ahead of you, buddy, one filled with many tough challenges.  No matter how bad it gets, though, just don't give up.  I promise you, Coal, a new day will dawn.  You just have to make it through the night."  Rory took Coal's hand in his own, stepping back somewhat in the distance.  "You have a destiny to find, my friend.  Watch for the signs, as they are all around you."  Rory's hand slipped away, until only the tips of his fingers gripped with Coal's.  "Look for me.  I'll be there when you need me.  You just have to look for me."

With that said, Rory faded away into the darkness.  Coal cried out.  "Rory!  Rory, please!  Please, don't leave.  Don't leave me!"  Tears flowed down his cheeks.  "Don't leave me alone."  He sighed softly, hanging his head in the lonely void of nothingness.  It was just like his life had been, he thought.

The light all but blinded him as Coal's heavy eyelids blinked slowly.  Everything was a dazzling haze at first, but Coal could make out a figure in the distance.  As his eyes began to focus better and the figure moved closer, Coal felt as if his heart were going to stop in his chest.

A soft voice stated, gently covering Coal's lips with his finger tips.  "You w-were h-having a b-b-bad dream." 

Golden flecks glistened within his green eyes as he gave Coal a comforting smile.  His sun bleached blond hair cascaded across his forehead, almost hiding the lines that furrowed there as his brows moved together in thought.  His nose turned up slightly at the tip, and Coal noticed the tiny scar under his chin.  As he turned his head slightly, there was a small freckle-like mole on his left earlobe.

'RORY?!?' Coal tried to say, but nothing came out.  His throat burned sharply, and Coal went to rub it with his hand.  Panic began to strike at that point, as Coal found his arm would not move.  Nothing did, in fact.

His silver-blue eyes went wide but then calmed as he felt the young man's hand gently stroking his face.

"Sh-h-h.  D-don't b-be scared.  Y-you..." 
His voice paused a moment.  Then, he shut his eyes and began to hum lightly.  As his eyes opened once more, Coal found he was losing himself in those familiar pools.  "I-I'll go get Uncle K-kal."

He started to turn, but then looked at Coal with a strong concern evident upon his face.  "J-just don't t-t-try to t-t-t-talk."

Coal watched as the young man exited the room, noting the broad, stocky shoulders and the trim waistline.  Coal was so confused, so disoriented.  'That had to be Rory!' he thought to himself.   'But, that's impossible!  Rory is thirty years old by now.  Yet, he looks exactly like Rory... at least like he did the last time I saw him.'

He pondered this over and over in his mind.  'What the hell is going on here?  Why won't my body move?  Why did he tell me not to speak, and why does he look exactly like Rory?' 

As he scanned the room with his eyes, he thought some more.  'Where the hell am I, and where is my baby girl?!?' 

Despite his overwhelming anxiety, Coal found his eyelids to be growing heavy and himself getting tired.  His mind, however, raced about in thought.  Something had happened. 

'What was it that happened?' he wondered, trying his best to remember.  'I was just talking to Rory when I awoke here.' he recalled.  ' No, that can't be right.  I haven't seen Rory since we were fifteen.  But, I could swear I was just talking to him about something.' he argued with himself.

The memories of his visit with Rory became more sketchy as each moment passed.  The time between opening and closing his eyes increased.  The next thing he knew, Coal was staring into a pair of loving jade eyes.  However, as he took in the face, he felt more at ease and less disoriented.  Coal attempted to give Kal a slight smile, but his face had difficulty moving.  Coal also felt sharp pain when he attempted to move his mouth.

Kal raised Coal's hand up and rested it on his own shoulder, still clutching it within his hands.  He gave Coal his patented smile, but Coal could tell Kal was quite tired.

"You're hardly one to tell me I look like shit, you know."  Kal chuckled.  "Oh, Coal.  Thank God you're alive!"

One of Kal's hands stroked itself down Coals arm and caressed his shoulder and chest.  Tears threatened to pour from his tired eyes.  "You had me worried, buddy.  All of us, in fact."

Coal started to speak, but then thought better as he remembered the pain.  A questioning look crossed his brow, and Kal seemed to read it just fine.

"Love and the boys are with me."  He smiled.  "So is Nathan, Aaron, Cindy, Max, and Philip."  He added.  Then, he chuckled lightly.  "I believe you have met Nathan, already.  He's the one who was with you when you first awoke."

'So it wasn't Rory.' Coal thought somewhat sadly.  'At least I know I am not going crazy.  Nathan, huh.  Who the hell is Nathan?' he wondered.

"Nathan is our nephew, if you were wondering.  He works here at the hospital, and he is the one who..."  Kal paused a moment, and Coal began to worry.  He knew something bad was about to follow, so he braced himself as best he could.

"Look, Coal, I don't know how much you remember, so I will fill you in as best I can."  Kal took a deep breath.  "Sometime yesterday evening, you were found injured by the side of the road.  It looks as if you and another young man were attacked... for what, we don't know.  I'm not even sure myself...  I mean, I didn't even see this coming..."  Kal faded into a mumble, pausing to collect himself. "I think you stopped to help him, Coal, but like I said, I'm not completely certain.  Anyway, Nathan was the one who found you... along with Aaron, Cindy, and Max.  They brought you here to the hospital."

Tears gathered in Coal's eyes as he looked at Kal.  If only he could get his thoughts across to him.  Coal sighed, knowing good and well that he could not speak or even move his hands at the moment.

"Oh, buddy, don't worry!  Malice is just fine.  I promise you, she is just fine." Kal soothed.

Coal felt such a relief hearing this. 
He could deal with whatever injuries he had sustained, just as long as his darling Malice was safe and sound.

Kal squeezed Coal's hand.  "I know exactly how you feel, Coal.  But rest assured, Malice is being well taken care of as we speak.  She woke up about an hour ago, and Chance and Aisa have been keeping her company down in the staff lounge."  Kal winked at him, and Coal wondered what he ever did to gain such care and concern from a wonderful man like Kal.  "We kinda have to keep her hidden, seeing that it is a hospital and all.  But, with the storm, I don't honestly think too many will mind, even if they notice her."

Coal wondered how long it would be before he was able to hold her again.  His thoughts were interrupted, however, as he heard Kal sniffle.  Coal looked at him only to find him fondly staring back.

"She loves you very much, Coal.  In fact, she is a big part of why you are still with us."  Kal managed to get that much out before his tears took his voice.  "See, you had been cut... along your throat, and she... she cuddled up next to you and... well, she kept you from bleeding to death, Coal."  Kal cried.

As Coal thought of how many times he owed his life to his beloved pet, tears drenched his cheeks.  He longed even more to see her, if only so he could thank her in whatever way he could.

"I'll see what I can arrange for you to see her.  Dr. Kersey is sympathetic with the situation, so maybe he can help."  Kal said, wiping his eyes and trying to smile.  "Evidently, he is a friend of Nathan's.  Actually, I think Nathan is a bit smitten by him, but that is another story for another time." 

'Nathan.' Coal thought.  So, he also owed his life to Kal's nephew, the kid who was a dead ringer for Rory.  Coal thought of how strange things worked out sometimes.

"Before you try to move..." Kal started, bringing Coal quickly from his thoughts, "...Dr. Kersey has you numbed up pretty heavily.  I'll let him explain all the details to you, but the gist of it is that he does not want you to move.  At least, not until you are healed somewhat."  Kal squeezed Coal's hand again.  "I didn't want you to panic and think you were paralyzed.  Well, you are right now, but only because Dr. Kersey wants you that way.  As you get better, though, it won't be necessary and you'll be able to move more freely."

Kal then gave Coal a stern look.  "That means you are going to have to cooperate with everyone.  None of that stubborn, hardheaded crap, either."

Coal chuckled to himself as he realized just how well Kal knew him.  Despite his best innocent look, Kal still glared at him sternly.  Finally, Coal rolled his eyes, yielding to Kal's demands.

"Good.  Then I won't be expecting any phone calls from the staff about you getting all pig headed."  Kal laughed.  Carefully, he stroked Coal's hair and the top of his scalp.  "You won't be going this alone, Coal.  We will all be here for you."

As Coal looked somewhat puzzled, Kal countered with a smug grin.  "Hey, you were the one who listed me as your next of kin.  Like it or not, that makes us family.  So, I guess you are stuck with the lot of us from now on."  Then, he petted Coal's cheek.  "We're not going to lose touch this time, either.  I'll make certain of that."

That brought Coal to a deep thought.  Why was it that he had pulled away from Kal?  It had been obvious that Kal deeply cared about him, even offering Coal his friendship.  So, why was it that he pulled away?

As Coal looked at Kal, he could not fathom a single reason to reject such a kind, loving man.  Kal was his hero, after all.  Why was it that he always pulled away, just when he found himself beginning to care about someone else?  Would he ever be able to overcome it?  Those thoughts captivated his mind for some time. 

Coal looked back at Kal, only to find his hero was losing his battle with sleep.  Kal cast him a lopsided grin.

"It's been a long night for all of us, buddy.  Mind if I sack out for a few minutes?" He asked.

Coal did his best to respond with his eyes, and he felt relieved that it seemed to do the trick.  Kal lay his head snugly to the corner of Coal's lower chest, bringing his hands, which still encased Coal's, to rest upon his cheek.  Within a few minutes, Coal's hero was fast asleep.

As Coal breathed in heavily, he could smell a mixture of Kal's shampoo, cologne, and personal scent.  Coal had always thought Kal had smelled wonderful for some reason.  The familiar scent brought back hoards of memories of the times the two of them had spent together.  Those pleasant thoughts accompanied Coal as he too was swept away into slumber.

Perhaps it was paranoia that awoke him.  Regardless, Coal opened his eyes to find a pair of dark blue eyes staring intently at him.  The black hair, the handsome rugged face, the strong jaw line, those things seemed familiar to Coal.

"Just what the hell is going on here?"  He bellowed.

His booming voice startled Coal a bit, the sleeping Kal as well.  As Kal raised his head sluggishly, a slight smirk crossed his face.  It was then that Coal realized who the man was, though he could not remember his name.

"Love, I am not the jealous kind.  Ok, so we both know that is purely shit, but still.  I come in here and find my husband snuggled up to another man, wrapped in his arms no less.  Well, what is a man supposed to think about such a sight?"  Kal's husband said, somewhat less forcefully.

Kal just snickered and shot him a sleepy look.  "You caught us, Love.  I didn't want you to find out this way, but Coal just looked so sexy in that hospital gown."  Kal replied in a straight laced manner.  "He is quite talented, too, Love.  He managed to do it with his catheter still intact."

A frown lined the face of Kal's husband as he leaned down to  peer deep into Coal's eyes.  "You just had to be a show off, didn't you."  He then looked over to Kal.  "Hmm.  Maybe we can get Nathan to swipe us one of these catheters, since you seemed to enjoy it so much."

Coal could not help but laugh, bringing with it a sharp pain; there was no sound, however, only pain.  Kal's husband patted Coal's chest lightly, giving him a sympathetic look.

"Sorry about that.  But, hey!  I like you already.  You, at least, find my jokes funny."  He smiled.  "Hmm.  You're rather handsome, too.  Don't you find him handsome, Love?"

He had a beautiful smile, Coal decided.  And there was something within his dark blue eyes that made Coal feel at ease, almost immediately.  He could see why Kal was so fond of him.  As Coal studied him further, Coal noticed why he had said Coal was handsome.  In almost the same instant, they both looked over at Kal.

Kal yawned and stretched for a moment before he became aware of the eyes upon him.  With a bemused look, Kal asked.  "What?"  His eyebrow raised slightly as he laughed.  "So, there are a few physical similarities between you two.  Just wait until you get to know each other."

Coal was amused by this, but not near as much as Kal's husband. 

He sneered slightly as he looked at Coal.  "So, I guess that makes me the new and improved model."

'Or just a cheep imitation.' Coal shot back in thought.

"You know, I am not sure what you are thinking there, Mister, but somehow I just know it was snide."  Then, he laughed.  "I believe we will get along just fine, so long as I don't find you snuggled up to my husband again."  He lovingly looked over at Kal for a moment, then turned his attention back to Coal.  "I'm Kanawha, by the way."

Coal made a mental note to remember the name.  Having grown up in the Kentucky mountains, Coal was familiar with the Kanawha River of West Virginia, so he thought that connection would make it easy to recall. 

"Before I forget, Dr. Kersey was in to see you.  He said he would be back later, though.  He seemed to think you needed your rest.  But, after knowing what you did with the catheter and all..." Kanawha shot, bringing about a deep desire to laugh from Coal.

"How are the boys?"  Kal asked as he again stretched.

"Pete and Brad finally went to sleep.  Aisa and Chance have been out for a little while now, along with that cat."  Kanawha replied.  He smiled at Coal.  "She seems to like Love, Aisa and Pete, but she is not too fond of anyone else.  Lord, does she have an attitude."  He snickered.  "Brad had been bouncing around like usual, and I guess that annoyed her or something.  So, she finally hissed at him.  He settled down rather quickly after that, but any time he went to move, that Malice of yours would glare at him something fierce."  Kanawha laughed as he turned his attention to Kal.  "You know Love, we might want to borrow her some evenings to get Brad to bed on time."

"Malice is not one with which to trifle.  That is for sure."  Kal chuckled.

Despite the overwhelming pain it caused, Coal managed to smile.  Hearing Kanawha's recounting let him know that she was not only in good health, but also in good hands.  That lifted a heavy burden from his shoulders. 

Kanawha grinned broadly at Coal.  "You don't have to worry about her being the temperamental sort, either.  We deal with moody on a daily basis.  After all, we live with Hela and Jena."  He laughed.

Kal looked startled, but a smirk quickly crossed his face.  "You would be one dead man if either of them heard you say that, Love."

Just as Coal was wondering who they were discussing, Kanawha fished out his wallet.  He then pulled himself up a chair to the other side of Coal.  He and Kal then took turns explaining each person and their relationships from the numerous photos Kanawha carried with him.

Coal knew a few of them through his relationship with Kal.  Thomas and Jew, aka Jason Edward Wilson, were the most familiar to him.  He was delighted to hear that Thomas and Mic were adopting three children, and he was thrilled to learn that Jason had finally met someone special.

Coal remembered Jason quite fondly.  He recalled how shy and insecure he seemed to be, which only brought out a sort of child-like innocence.  It was a quality Coal felt made Jew even more adorable.  When he learned that Nathan would soon be his legal son, Coal again marveled at how strange life could be.

It dawned on Coal that Jason had a problem with stuttering.  From his meeting Nathan, he realized that the young man shared this difficulty.  If anyone could appreciate Nathan, Coal felt for sure it would be Jason.

Coal was particularly drawn to the family photo of the three of them together.  Jena Wilson also had those same green eyes, the eyes that Nathan shared with Rory.  As he looked at Nathan's face, he could not help but think of his Rory.

Though Coal was happy to know that Jason and Thomas had made a family for themselves, he also felt a loneliness growing inside of him.  If things had been different, he wondered if he and Rory would have had a family together.  Coal then wondered, as he often did, what had happened to Rory.  What kind of life did he live?  Did he ever find happiness and love?  Did he ever sit around and wonder about Coal?

As if he could sense Coal's troubled heart, Kanawha gently caressed Coal's cheek.  "Love is out there, buddy.  It will find you when you least expect it.  You just have to hold on until it comes."

Kanawha then shared with Coal a good bit about his life.  He had been just as lonely as Coal was feeling, up until he happened across Kal.  Hearing how the two had met, as well as how they found their sons, well it seemed to lift Coal's spirits a little.  When Kal explained that the two of them were actually born together and found each other years later, Coal's mind kept returning to his thoughts of Rory Hampton. 

He also wondered why Nathan happened into his life, as well as why Nathan looked so much like Rory.  Perhaps it was just coincidence, but Coal truly wanted to believe there was something more at work in his life.  Without that possibility, it all seemed far too hopeless.

As if summoned from Coal's thoughts, Nathan slowly entered the room.  He was wearing a scrub uniform, and Coal could tell that Nathan's hair was still damp.

"G-garrett want's me t-to get him c-c-cleaned up."  Nathan announced somewhat shyly.

Kal motioned for Nathan and pulled the young man to his lap once he was close by.  Wrapping his arms around Nathan, Kal softly kissed his forehead.  "Are you sure you are going to be able to work today?  You hardly had a moment's sleep last night."

Nathan let out a small sigh as he rested his head on Kal's shoulder.  "I'm real t-t-tired, b-but they're sh-short s-s-staffed 'cause of the s-storm.  So, G-garrett and I are g-gonna work w-what we c-c-can."  Nathan then smiled fondly at Coal.  "I g-get to t-take care of you t-today.  A-and, you're gonna b-be m-moved to my f-f-floor later."

Kanawha had a slight smirk on his face as he seemed to contemplate something.  Kal shot him a look that said NO WAY; at least, Coal thought so.  But, he guessed that Kanawha decided to go with it anyway.

"So, did you have something to do with this?"  He asked, the bemused expression only growing more pronounced.

Nathan blushed heavily as he shot Kanawha a strong I'll get you for this look.  "G-garrett asked N-nurse Channing ab-bout it th-this morning.  Sh-she's the one who t-t-told me."  He said indignantly. 

Coal could not help but think how precious Nathan seemed to be.  He also realized that Kanawha liked to tread on thin ice, for he did not seem to take hints very well.

"That reminds me.  Exactly when did this Dr. Kersey become Garrett to you, anyway."  As Nathan turned bright red, Kanawha shook with laughter.

Kal cradled the young man in his arms, shooting Kanawha a stern look.  "Love, stop.  Don't embarrass him like that."  He then raised Nathan's head, stroking his hair from his forehead.  "Buddy, I think it is kinda cute, honestly.  He might be a little old for you, but who knows?  At least he does have a good job.  Lord knows you could do a lot worse."  Kal said flatly, looking at his husband.  Coal has seen that one coming for a while, and he carefully snickered to himself once he saw Kanawha's face.

"Hey!  That was so not funny!"  Kanawha chuckled. 

"Neither was picking on poor Nathan."  Kal rebutted.  Kissing Nathan once more on the forehead, Kal moved to stand.  "Well, I guess we should let you get to your job then, Nathan."  He looked at Kanawha, extending out his hand.  "Let's go see if the boys want to brave breakfast here."

"I w-would s-s-stick t-to the s-s-snack machines."  Nathan warned.

As Kanawha and Kal left the room, Nathan turned shyly towards Coal.  There was an awkward silence for a moment before he finally spoke.  "Well, i-it looks l-like we w-will be w-w-working t-t-t-together for a while."  He said, looking at everything in the room except Coal.

After a few moments, he finally looked at Coal.  It was then that Coal realized Nathan had been waiting for him to respond.

Blushing, Nathan continued.  "Right.  S-sorry, I f-f-forgot." 

Nathan carefully removed the blanket and sheet that had covered Coal.  Folding them up, he placed them on a near by chair.  He fumbled around with one of the controls until he found a station playing older music from the 80's and 90's. 

"I-is that Ok?"  Nathan asked, and Coal gave him a You do remember I can't talk, don't you look.  "Y-yeah.  Hmm.  I'll g-go get things ready, th-then."  Nathan smiled as he turned towards the bathroom.

Coal could not help but think of how much his smile was like that of Rory's.  There were just so many similarities, it was uncanny.  Within a few minutes, Nathan returned with a pan of water, a towel, and a wash cloth.

Coal felt a little apprehensive as Nathan removed his gown.  He did notice that some of the feeling was coming back in his arms and toes, though.  In fact, he was able to slightly wiggle those on his left foot.  When he concentrated, he found that he could barely move his right thumb, too.  That was a relief, Coal determined.  Then, he remembered Kal telling him that it was drugs not injury causing the paralysis. 

Nathan began cleaning Coal's chest.  As he worked down Coal's right arm, Coal could feel small sensations.  He could feel even more as he cleaned his left.  Being able to feel some of his body again delighted Coal.

This opinion, however, changed once Nathan began washing Coal's abdomen.  Regaining feeling in that area at that particular time was not such a good thing he quickly realized.  Coal began to imagine the most boring things his mind could pull together.  But even images of watching people playing golf on television did little to help the situation.  It had been a long time since anyone had paid Coal attention in that region, and despite his best efforts, it was pulsing to life.

Nathan let out a startled gasp as he realized what was happening.  He looked at Coal and tried his best to quickly recover.  Coal had to admire Nathan's trying, anyway. 

"Th-this h-h-happens a-a lot."  Nathan replied, turning bright red.

'Please, kid.  Spare me.' Coal thought.

Nathan seemed to be studying Coal for a moment.  Then, he giggled.  "Y-yeah.  Y-you're right.  I-it's never h-h-happened to me b-before.  M-maybe th-they just say that s-s-stuff to, um, y-you know, m-make you f-f-feel better."

'Is this kid for real?' Coal wondered.

Just then, Nathan shook with laughter, and Coal realized he was just joking with him.  Coal had to admit it was a good one.

Nathan hummed to himself a moment, then smiled at Coal.  "Well, um, a-at least i-it's b-b-big.  It w-w-would be m-much worse i-if it were, y-you know, a-all t-t-tiny." 

Coal wondered who was blushing more at that point, him or Nathan.  Still, he had to silently laugh, regardless of the pain it caused. 

"M-maybe we should s-s-save that for l-last."  Nathan snickered, as he bypassed Coals groin to wash his thighs.

After Nathan finished washing Coal's body, he excused himself to the bathroom.  He returned with a fresh pan of water and another clean wash cloth.  Sitting the pan on the tray beside the bed, Nathan dipped the wash cloth into the water.

"We have p-p-powder sh-shampoo, but i-it is k-kinda g-g-gross.  I'll j-just wash your h-hair this w-way.  It g-g-gets you, um, c-cleaner, a-anyway."  He explained.

As Nathan gently cleansed Coal's scalp, he hummed along to the music from the radio.  Coal thought he had a very soothing voice, and he closed his eyes to enjoy it further.  After finishing with Coal's scalp, Nathan washed his face and ears, right down to where the collar brace held his neck, shoulders and head immobile.

After removing the pan of water, Nathan returned with a bottle of lotion.  He massaged it into Coal's skin, paying special attention to his feet.  This time, however, Coal was quite thankful that the feeling was returning to his body.  The massage Nathan was giving them felt heavenly, Coal determined.

"Y-you c-could use a, um, p-p-pedicure s-sometime soon."  Nathan noted as he trimmed Coal's toenails.  "M-maybe we'll g-get you one w-with Aunt H-hela."

Coal had never had a pedicure, and he wondered if they felt anything like the massage Nathan had given him.  Coal realized that there were many things he had never tried.  Perhaps once he got his life back in order, he would make a list of new things to experience. 

Once Nathan finished massaging Coal's feet, he went to the sink to scrub his hands.  Then, he styled Coal's hair.  He stood back a moment, then reached into his pocket.

"I-it's not as g-good as a real t-t-toothbrush, but it w-works."  Nathan smiled as he ripped open the packet.  Placing the sponge-like thing on his fingertip, he carefully cleaned Coal's teeth.  "Y-you c-can't spit with that b-brace on, s-so this w-will have to d-d-do."

Coal looked at Nathan fondly for a moment, relishing in the feeling of being clean.  All he lacked was a good shave, but he realized that would be a problem with the brace.  Still, he felt much better.

Nathan retrieved a fresh gown and carefully dressed Coal.  Then, he covered him back up.  Nathan turned the radio up a little, then set out cleaning the room.  Every so often, he would pause a moment and talk with Coal.  While he was cleaning, Nathan would hum and sing.  The more he sang, the more Coal marveled at the young man's voice.

Nathan finished cleaning, then carefully fluffed Coal's pillow.  Just as he was finishing, two men walked into the room.  One of them stopped and called Nathan over to him.  The other took Coal's vital signs, then injected something into his IV.  This man was an RN, and he explained the drugs he was injecting into Coal and their effects.  They were basically to keep his body numb and immobile while his injury healed.

The other man finished talking to Nathan, then ruffled up Nathan's hair before squeezing his shoulder.  Nathan then told Coal he would be back soon to check on him before exiting the room.  The RN soon followed, leaving Coal with whom he learned was Dr. Garrett Kersey.

Coal thought he was rather handsome, but he could tell that the doctor could seriously use some sleep.  This was most evident from the dark circles surrounding his eyes.  Garrett pulled himself up a chair and sat next to Coal.  He then explained in detail everything that had happened.  Coal had no idea the extent to which he owed Nathan until Garrett bragged about Nathan's level-headedness in assessing his injuries.  Coal also did not know about Kal's family and friends being tested to donate white blood cells to him.  Even Kal's youngest sons had been tested, and that fact made Coal feel quite lucky to have Kal in his corner.  While the thought of needing so much blood scared him a little, he realized that he also owed a bit of gratitude to Philip, whoever he was, along with countless others who donated blood regularly.

Dr. Kersey then explained the full extent of Coal's injuries.  The tissue reconstruction that was done would need time to heal, and Coal would have to remain immobile through much of this.  Then, Coal would need to undergo physical therapy.

As Garrett explained this, Coal wondered what would happen with his job.  He had about two weeks of vacation time and maybe 13 sick days that he could use.  After that, he would be in a serious bind with no further money coming into the household account.  Coal also wondered if he would even have a job to go back to once he had recovered.  Still, he was alive.  For that much he could be thankful.

"There is one last thing that we need to discuss, Coal."  Garrett said, gently patting Coal's shoulder.  "I do not want to take away any of your hope, but at the same time, I want to be as realistic as I can be.  During your recovery, it is important that you not try to talk.  Your vocal chords were injured by the attack.  I'm honestly not certain at this point, but it is possible that you may not ever speak again.  On the other hand, you might be singing in the choir before too long." 

He paused to look Coal compassionately in the eyes.  "The one thing of which I am certain is that you run a higher chance of losing your voice by talking while your wound is healing.  It increases the probability that scar tissue will form, and that is not a good thing when it comes to vocal chords."

Coal was all but blown away by this.  He had never considered the possibility that he would not be able to speak.  What would he do then?  How could he perform his job or even his daily life without being able to talk?

Then, Coal wondered if he even wanted to live life as a mute.  He had always enjoyed singing, even though he was not the greatest singer in the world.  What would life be like without music?  It had always been something with which Coal could identify.  It was as if the artists were often telling his life story; somehow, singing those songs brought him what little peace he had known in his life.  What would he do if he couldn't sing? 

As Coal felt his mind spiraling out of control, the drugs began to take effect.  Garrett was consoling him with some story, but Coal could not keep focused on it.  He didn't really want to, in all honesty.  He wanted to retreat in his slumber, letting the nightfall once again engulf him.

At some point, Garrett noticed Coal was tiring, so he stopped with the story.  He smiled at Coal for a moment, then gently patted his cheek.  "You get some sleep buddy.  I'll check in on you later."

Coal did not even manage to stay awake long enough to watch Garrett leave his room.  A dreamless sleep quickly claimed him, holding Coal in its dark embrace for several hours.  When next he awoke, two pair of eyes were set upon him.

One pair was a lighter green.  The other was a blue-grey.  Coal quickly recognized them as Kal and Kanawha's youngest sons, though he was not sure which was Brad and which was Pete.  The two boys were sharing the chair to Coal's left.  The smallest was reading some kind of book, while the larger one seemed to be sketching something on a pad of paper.

Coal cast his eyes around the room, finding the two older sons sharing the chair on his right. Coal remembered that Aisa was the bigger one with the blue hair and looked like Kal, while Chance was the smaller of the two.  Chance was snoring softly while seated upon Aisa's lap.  Aisa seemed to be intently watching his boyfriend, gently rubbing his arm while he slumbered.

The younger green eyed boy spoke first.  "You know, you could be a super hero if you wanted to.  You sure are big enough for it, anyway."  He grinned.  He looked down at his pad of paper, then smiled at Coal.  "I hope ya don't mind, but I'm drawing you.  I'm thinking about putting you in my next comic book."

He then started to stand up, when the smaller one grabbed the back of his shirt.  "Daddy said you had to stay in the chair, Brad.  You might mess up one of the lines or something if you get too close."

'So that one is Brad.  Then, Pete is the little one.' Coal noted. 

Brad struggled his way up, turning sharply to free himself from Pete's hold on his shirt.  "I'm not gonna do nothing, so stop grabbing me."  He said sourly. 

Then, his eyes lit up as he reached for his backpack.  He struggled to lift it up on Coal's bed, and Coal quickly noticed the mischievous smirk that crossed Brad's face. 

"We've got a surprise for you in here."  He said, pointing to his bag.  Then, he looked at Pete.  "Quick!  Go lock the door!"

Pete gave him a concerned look.  "I don't know about this, Brad.  What if something happens?"

"Nothing's gonna happen, so go lock the door already!"  Brad enthused.

Pete looked to Aisa, who simply smiled at him.  "It will be all right.  Go ahead and lock the door, Pete."

"If you say so."  Pete replied softly, then complied with the older brother.

As soon as Pete returned, Brad unzipped the backpack.  Coal was overjoyed when Malice poked her head from the bag.  As soon as she saw Coal, she pounced upon his chest. 

"We had to hide her from all those nosy nurses."  Brad explained.

Malice stood high upon Coal's chest, stretching herself so she could peer into his eyes.  Slowly, she lowered her head and rubbed it against his nose.

'Daddy's glad to see you too, baby girl.'  Coal said in his thoughts.  'I wish I could hold you right now, but I can't move, darling.'

Malice rubbed his face with her own for a few more moments.  Then, she began picking at the blanket with her claws as she turned about in a circular motion.  Soon, she settled herself on Coal's chest, purring contentedly.

Coal couldn't help but cry.  After all, Malice meant the world to him, and she had yet again saved his very life.  As the tears trickled down his cheeks, Coal felt a finger gently wiping them away.  He looked to see it was Brad.

With a concerned look, he asked.  "Do you want to hold her?"  He looked Coal in the eyes for a moment, then studied his hands.  Quickly, Brad darted around the bed to Coal's right side.  "This one doesn't have any of those hose things stuck in it." He smiled, lifting Coal's hand and arm until it was wrapped around Malice.  "There.  Now you are holding her." Brad then scampered back around the bed and took his seat with Pete.

Coal noticed immediately that Malice purred much louder once she was wrapped in his arm.  That lightened his heart, but not nearly as much as Brad's helping him to hold her.   That act meant more to Coal than anything he could think of at that moment.

Brad began to giggle, then decided to share his thoughts with everyone else.  "I tried to draw her this morning, but she wasn't too keen on the idea.  I don't guess she likes me all that much, at least not me drawing her, anyway.  I was just studying her, you know, to get a better picture.  Well, she just looked back at me with this real mean look in her eyes.  I thought for sure she was gonna hiss at me again, but she didn't.  She just hid her face in Pete's arm."  Then, he laughed heartily.  "I guess she didn't want to have her picture done or something."

Coal could quickly see why Kal and Kanawha were so fond of the boys.  If Brad were any indication, he figured that the others must be wonderful to have around.  He could picture the entire scene in his head, and it brought a chuckle to his very soul.  'That's my baby girl!' he thought proudly.  True, Malice was far from the most social of creatures, but she was perfect in Coal's eyes; perfect for him, at any rate.

"Hmm.  I think cats are just smarter than most dogs."  Pete replied softly.

"What does that have to do with anything?"  Brad asked incredulously.

"Well, obviously cats are a better judge of character."  Pete said in response, never once looking up from his book.

Coal thought his sides were going to split open over that one.  That Pete kid had a very keen wit about him and was rather smart, Coal surmised.  He imagined Pete would prove to be quite entertaining, though Coal suspected that Brad was awfully good in that area, too.

"Hey!"  Brad exclaimed, slugging Pete in the shoulder.  "I just got that!"

Pete closed his book, then smirked at Brad.  "You're a bit slower than usual today, aren't you?"

"You'll think slow!"  Brad giggled, wrapping Pete's head in one of his arms.

"OK, enough you two."  Aisa snickered.  "Find something better to do than beat each other silly."

"Well, he started it."  Brad protested.

"And you just walked right into it."  Pete countered.

"SEE!"  Brad said
innocently, pointing a blaming finger at Pete.

Aisa chuckled lightly as he looked at Coal.  "Usually, it is even better.  Angel gets into the middle of it, too."  He then stroked Chance's arm affectionately.  "Of course, I have to side with my Angel, but who in their right mind wouldn't?  Still, I manage to stay out of the argument part of it, at least."

"Yeah.  Aisa is a total suck up."  Brad explained, bringing a snorting giggle from Pete.

Aisa scowled at the two of them, but Pete responded regardless of the threatening glare.  "Brad's right, Aisa.  You're nose is so far up Chance's butt, you can smell his spit."

"Hmm.  Well, I guess next time you want to go somewhere, I'll just make sure Angel is the one driving."  Aisa replied nonchalantly.

The look on the two younger boys' faces let Coal know that Aisa had won this round.  So did their responses.

"You wouldn't really do that to us, would you?"  Brad asked, his eyes as big as saucers.

"Why would I care?  My nose is too far up Chance's butt to see his driving, anyway."  Aisa skillfully replied.

"You.. you sadist!"  Pete declared, and Coal ached from the laughter.

"Maybe Daddy will let him drive us home once they get the roads clear."  Aisa smiled.  "Pop says he needs practice in the bad weather, so maybe he'll get a chance on our way home."

"You're just evil."  Brad said sternly.

Then, the two boys settled down quietly.  Pete resumed reading his book, while Brad continued drawing.  Coal relaxed listening to the gentle purring noises from Malice.

Coal found the silence to be a nice change.  Sure, he found the boys humorous and Kal to be a comfort.  But, he was not used to being around so many people; to be honest, he was finding it somewhat overwhelming.

At least in the silence, he could retreat into his own mind, making believe that he and Malice were back at home and none of this had happened.  Though he knew he had to face reality at some point, Coal did not feel quite up to it at that moment; he didn't want to think about all the troubles that awaited him.  Rather than succumbing to the nightfall, he was choosing a different route; he would simply take solace in the silence, instead.  That realization gave Coal a sense of satisfaction.  Perhaps he might just be able to break free from his old habits after all.

Occasionally, Coal would glance over at Aisa, only to find the young man wearing a contented smile as he watched the sleeping Chance.  After a while, Coal began to ponder how much that smile reminded him of Kal's.  As he studied Brad, he found that Brad too shared Kal's heartwarming grin.  These familiarities of Kal gave Coal an air of contentment, though they also made him wonder where the boys' fathers were at the moment.

As he pondered the likeness of Kal in his sons, Coal again was faced with the uncanny resemblance Nathan shared with Rory.  'Where is that kid, anyway?' Coal thought to himself.  True, he had been in and out of sleep quite a bit, but he still wondered if he had missed one of Nathan's visits.  'Not that it really matters.' Coal determined.  'It's not like he is Rory, after all.'

This thought saddened him a great deal.  Coal then began to realize that the nightfall was again invading his soul.  'Get a grip!' He sternly told himself.  Casting his gaze down to his rising chest, he found something to focus upon.  'At least you still have Malice.  She's all you've ever needed, anyway.' He consoled himself, bringing about a slight moment of rest within his warring psyche.

Coal began to feel sleep again taking him from the world.  Just as his eyes were getting too heavy to keep open, a hearty yawn pulled him back.  He looked over to find Chance had awakened.

As the young man stretched, he turned his head and spied Coal.  A smile of realization crossed Chance's face as he ruffled up the hair that was matted down to his scalp from where he had been sleeping.  As he began to speak, Coal wondered from where it was that Chance had come.  The accent was somewhat familiar, but he could not place it.

"Hey!  You's awake now!"  Chance chimed.  Then, he leaned his head back on Aisa's shoulder, casting his gaze upon his boyfriend's face.  "You should've woke me up, Aisa.  You knowed I was a wantin' to talk with 'im some 'fore he got all sleepy again."

Aisa gently wrapped Chance into a hug.  "Sorry, Angel.  You just looked so peaceful, I couldn't wake you."

Chance giggled sleepily.  "I reckon you's too busy watchin' me sleepin' again, huh Aisa?  At least I got to see 'im 'fore he goes back to sleep, so I'll forgive ya this time."

With that, Chance sprang to his feet and was standing before Coal.  Smiling broadly, he rubbed Coal's shoulder.  "I's Chance.  It's awful good to finally get to see 'em pretty blue eyes of yours, too.  I's beginnin' to wonder if you's ever gonna wake up." 

As Chance stroked Coal's shoulder, Malice raised her head, giving the young boy a defiant glare.  With a rumbling growl, she staked her protective claim over her daddy.  Chance withdrew his hand, his eyes dancing with the smirk that lined his face.

"You know, I don't reckon 'at ol' cat of yours likes me too much.  It ain't like I's done nothin' to her or anythin' like that.  Dad says she's just kinda cantankerous like our Daddy gets."  He laughed.  "She's awful pretty though, even if she ain't all that nice."

"Too bad she didn't rip you a new one!"  Brad sneered.  "That would have been fun to see."

Coal noted that Brad chose to say a new one rather than a new ass.  As images of Kal's shocked face at hearing his son curse danced through Coal's mind, he had to laugh.  Knowing Kal as he did, Coal understood Brad's decision all too well. 

Pete began laughing, shaking his head at his two brothers.  Looking at Chance, he grinned.  "I can see it now.  You running around with Malice's claws dug into your head."  He sighed heavily.  "I don't know.  It just seemed funny in my head.  You kinda looked like Daniel Boone with her wrapped upon your scalp and all."

Though each of the boys found humor in Pete's explanation, Coal wondered just how close Chance had gotten to having Malice pounce on him.  She was, after all, quite protective of her daddy. 

Chance peered into Coal's eyes.  "You really think she'd do that?"  He questioned.  Then, he smirked again.  "Well, I reckon I's 'll have to 'member that next time she's snoozin' on your lap 'n all.  I's sure don't want no cat hat on my head!"

There was something about Chance that made Coal smile.  He had noticed it with Brad, too.  Though he could not exactly put his finger on it, Coal determined that it might be nice to have those boys around every once in a while.  'Just as long as they don't provoke Malice.' He thought, snickering to himself.  Then, he began to wonder about things once he was released from the hospital. 

Chance seemed to study Coal for a few moments.  Just as he seemed like he were about to speak, Aisa wrapped his arms around the young man.

"Careful what you say, Angel."  He softly stated.

Chance rubbed Aisa's arms affectionately.  "I wasn't gonna say nothin' 'bout any of that stuff, Aisa.  I knows we can't, so you ain't gotta worry 'bout that.  It ain't like I's stupid or nothin'."

Aisa kissed Chance's neck softly, bringing a slight gasp from the boy.  "I've never thought you were, Angel.  I just..."

"I's just jokin', Aisa.  I knows you ain't like that.  I reckon that's why I love ya so much."  Chance grinned, snuggling into Aisa. 

As Coal watched their interaction, he wondered what it was that Chance was going to say.  For some strange reason, Coal felt certain that those boys knew something that they were not telling him.  He wondered if there was something wrong, something that Kal and Dr. Kersey had not told him.  He was beginning to panic when Chance reached out and touched his face.

"There ain't nothin' wrong with ya, fella, so you don't go gettin' you'self all worked up over nothin'.  I's just gonna say that I hope you like all us boys, 'cause we's gonna be helpin' to take care of ya soon.  Dad 'n Daddy will be tellin' ya more 'bout that once they get back, but I just didn't want ya to be worryin' 'bout what was gonna happen to ya none."  Chance said with a gentle gaze.

Coal pondered this, and as if reading his very thoughts, Aisa pat his hand gently.

"You're Dad's friend, Coal, and he really loves you.  That is reason enough for the rest of us."  Aisa smiled.  "Dad is an excellent judge of character, so I imagine you are quite a guy.  He and Daddy ventured out to get a few things to make you feel more at home while you are here.  They said they were getting a few of Malice's things, too.  She will be staying with us while you get better."  He explained. 

Coal noticed that Malice did not seemed phased by Aisa touching him, and again the young man smiled.  Pete then stood up and stroked the ears of Coal's baby girl.

"See, she likes SOME of us."  Pete snickered.  "Like I said, cats are an excellent judge of character."

"I's gonna judge your character in a minute."  Chance laughed.  "I still don't know why 'at ol' cat don't like me none, but I ain't gonna go pushin' my luck.  That's for sure."

"You and me both!"  Brad chimed in.  "But, she'll be in good hands, Coal, so you don't have to worry about her."

"Hmm."  Aisa added.  "Malice is especially fond of Dad, but I guess that is because she knows him better."  Then, he laughed.  "Judging from the size of her, I imagine that Malice will be fond of Hela once she tastes her cooking."

Chance snickered in agreement.  "No offense there fella, but she sure is a fat ol' cat!  You's can tell she ain't missed her no meals anytime recent." 

Malice raised her head and glared at Chance, almost indignantly.  This did not escape the young man, as he chuckled at her response.  "You know, guys, I reckon that ol' Malice knows what we's sayin' 'bout her 'n all.  I don't guess I's made her any closer to likin' me, neither."

Coal found himself amused by this.  He had often felt that Malice understood him better than anyone or anything could possibly.  Now, he felt almost certain that her grasp of what was being said was much higher than most people would imagine.  As he prided himself in his baby girl's seeming intelligence, a knock at the door brought the group from their conversation.

"Yeah.  Just a minute."  Brad yelled.  Then, he turned to Pete in a hushed whisper.  "Grab her and put her back in the bag!"

Pete had a snide grin on his face.  "Why don't you grab her?  You're the one who let the cat out of the bag to begin with." 

"You and your sense of humor."  Brad replied wryly.  "You know she will rip me to pieces if I get near her."

Coal noticed that Pete looked deflated, and he thought for sure that it was because Pete realized that his play on words was lost to his brother.  Coal, however, had thought it clever.  When Pete reached to pick up Malice, he looked at Coal for a moment, then smiled.

"Thank you.  At least, someone got it."  He snickered, placing Malice carefully into the confines of the backpack.  As Pete zipped it up, Brad made way to open the door.  Pete grinned at Coal.  "Great.  Now I'm the one left holding the bag."

Coal chuckled to himself, then felt a stirring of relief when Nathan entered the room, followed by Dr. Kersey. 

Garrett gazed at them all a moment, then began to speak.  "Sorry to break things up, guys, but it is time for Coal to move upstairs to his room."

Nathan made his way to Coal, grasping his hand gently.  "You're g-g-gonna be up on m-my floor."  He smiled.  "I-it's a p-p-p-private room, t-too, so y-you won't be bothered by a-a-anybody."  He leaned down and whispered softly.  "Y-you will get to see th-that c-c-c-cat more that way."

Dr. Kersey gave Coal a wink.  "I know nothing about it.  As far as I know, Kal and Kanawha took her home earlier today.  Nurse Channing will know nothing about it either, nor will Nathan."

Coal realized the risk they were taking in letting him see his darling, and he made a mental note that he owed each of them for that.  Pete placed the backpack on Coal's lap as Nathan readied his bed for transport.  Then, Dr. Kersey and Nathan rolled him out of the room and up the hallway to the elevators.  Nathan explained to the boys that they would need to go to 3F, room 342 just before the doors to the elevator shut. 

Once they opened again, Coal was rolled up a corridor and down another hallway.  From there, he was turned and moved into his temporary home.  That thought brought mixed feelings to Coal, but he chose to focus upon temporary rather than let himself get depressed again. 

As they entered the room, there were four people Coal had not met.  He also noticed some flowers here and there in the room as well as a large stuffed cat placed in one of the chairs.  There were a few Get Well Soon balloons that also adorned the room. 

Once his bed was placed to where he could look out the window, the four strangers introduced themselves.

"Hey there, sexy."  A young lady said, smiling at Coal.  "God, help me, but your eyes are just lovely.  Oh, I'm Cindy, and this is Aaron."  She said, grabbing hold of a very cute young man.  "We are friends of Nathan's.  Aisa and Chance's, too, but we were with Nathan last night when... well, when you happened into our lives."  She grinned.

The boy she called Aaron kissed her on the cheek.  "Well, that put a positive spin on it, I guess, but I like the way you said that." 

Nathan let out a slight chuckle, which gained Aaron's attention.  He turned towards Nathan with a bemused look.  "What's so funny, beautiful?"  Aaron asked.

Coal then became completely confused.  He had been certain that Aaron was this Cindy girl's boyfriend, but then he called Nathan beautiful.  He pondered if he were maybe bisexual and the three of them were dating somehow... he wasn't really sure how that one worked out, honestly. 

Cindy seemed to sense his confusion and patted Coal's cheek.  "Beautiful is Aaron's pet name for Nathan, though everyone thinks they are dating when he calls him this.  It's all my fault, really.  I should have never told Aaron that I thought Nathan was hot."  She explained.  "He's my boyfriend, though, so I have to live with him."

Aaron turned and grabbed the stuffed cat from the chair, placing it on Coal's lap.  "I sort of got you this." He blushed.  "I thought it might keep you from being lonely when your cat isn't here."  Then, he laughed as he gazed at Cindy.  "Man, that felt awkward!  I have never given another guy a gift before other than for
Hannukah or a birthday.  You would think with my calling Nathan beautiful, I wouldn't embarrass like this."  He then smiled back at Coal.  "It doesn't change the sentiment behind it, though."

Coal was touched by Aaron's gesture, to the point that he had to look out of the window to avoid tearing up.  It had been quite some time since a man had bought him anything.  As he remembered those other instances, Coal shuddered as he realized the intentions behind the gifts.  No, he decided, this gift was special, and he thought he would cherish it for many years to come.

Nathan pushed an older gentleman foreword, who blushed, then introduced himself as Max.  Coal was sure that Max was shy, though he could easily relate to the feelings himself.  Max then introduced Philip, and Coal realized that he had Philip's blood coursing though his veins at that very moment.  Coal did his best to acknowledge his gratitude to Philip, hoping that somehow he would understand.  When Philip regarded him with a smile, he felt certain that the elder gentleman had understood him perfectly.

They talked for just a few moments before Kal and his family entered the room.  Turning to lock the door, Kanawha produced a fair-sized plastic tray from a bag, along with a large baggy filled with cat litter.  Once Kal released Malice from the confines of the backpack, she made quick use of the make-shift litter box. 

Oddly, Coal wondered why he had not had a bowel movement so far that day.  It had him gripped in a slight fear, as he just knew something would go wrong in his intestines. 

Nathan leaned down and whispered very quietly into Coal's ear.  "Um, we k-k-kinda gave you s-s-something to, um, g-g-get all th-that out while y-you were s-sleeping after your s-s-surgery.  You w-won't have to, y-you know, do that f-f-for a bit.  N-not 'til you eat s-s-solid f-f-foods again."

Coal was relieved hearing this, though he felt embarrassed that someone had wiped his ass for him.  Nathan patted his shoulder, as if assuring him that it was perfectly routine.  Something about Nathan seemed to affect Coal, far more than even Kal. 

'Safe.'  Coal announced in his thoughts.  'That's it.  I feel safe when he is here.'

Coal found that realization to be perplexing.  After all, Nathan was but a kid, really, in comparison to Coal.  Yet, Coal could not argue with the fact that Nathan indeed made him feel more secure.  Perhaps it was his bedside manner, but Coal didn't quite think that was it.  Maybe it was because he looked so much like Rory, but again Coal did not believe this was an accurate explanation.  As Coal continued to argue this out in his mind, Dr. Kersey interrupted his thoughts.

"So, Mr. Black, what do you think of our Nathan so far?"  He asked. 

Coal didn't know what to say about that, not that he could have said anything anyway.  He inwardly sighed with relief that he would not have to divulge what he had been contemplating just before Garrett had asked his question.

Garrett regarded him a moment, then smiled.  "Well, I spoke with Nurse Channing earlier, and if things work out well between you two, then Nathan will be providing private duty services for you during the daytime."

Coal was somewhat startled by this.  He had assumed that he would be locked up in the hospital for a lengthy spell.  But, the idea of recovering at home, in the privacy of his own room had tremendous appeal to Coal.  And, he honestly could not find a reason why Nathan would not be an excellent caretaker for him.

Nathan gasped at the announcement, excitedly turning to Coal and kissing his forehead.  Then, he embraced Kal and Max.  Then, finally, he all but attacked Dr. Kersey with a huge hug. 

"You r-r-really mean it?"  Nathan asked excitedly.

Garrett hugged the boy back fondly.  "Yeah, kid.  It seems Nurse Channing has high expectations of what you will accomplish.  I tend to agree with her, Nathan.  You are going to be a fantastic nurse, someday."

"Thanks."  Nathan said, stepping back and blushing a bit.

Dr. Kersey chuckled softly.  "We actually have another patient in line for you once Coal is better."  He smiled.  "While Coal is in physical therapy, we are having you trained to work with Brian Armstrong.  I believe you would be excellent for him, once he regains consciousness."

A sad look crossed Kal's face.  "Has there been any change for him?"

"Not so far, but we are still hopeful."  The doctor shared.

Chance turned to Coal, patting his shoulder lightly.  "Brian is that boy you stopped to help."  He explained.  "He's our baseball coach's nephew.  Me 'n Aisa knowed who he was soon as we seen 'im, 'n we called coach first thing 'n let him talk to the doctor.  I reckon they's 'll be by to see ya 'fore too long.  They's been in once already.  You's kinda a hero to 'em.  To us too, if'n's you's wonderin'."  He smiled.

Coal then wondered about the boy.  He tried his best to remember everything, but it was just a fog in his mind.  He hoped the boy was alright, though.  Even if he could not remember him, Coal did not want anyone to suffer.

The group visited with Coal for a good while.  It was pleasant, though Coal did find himself feeling crowded many times during the afternoon and early evening.  Around 7:30, Max and Philip prepared to leave, taking Cindy and Aaron with them.  Within the next half hour, Kal was kissing his family goodbye, preparing to stay with Coal for the night.  Aisa and Chance, however, begged their fathers to stay with him, saying it was important for them to be at the hospital.  With minor argument, Kal conceded, making both boys promise to call should anything happen.  Kal then said his goodbyes to Coal, as did Kanawha and their younger sons.

After their fathers left, Aisa and Chance made themselves comfortable, pulling out some snacks from a bag Kal had left.

Chance approached Coal, though Malice again growled at him.  While Coal was glad she was with him, and there was not another medication to be administered until after Nathan would be back in the morning, he was a little worried that they would be caught with her in the room.  Then, he decided that the worst they could do was send him home, so he dismissed those thoughts quickly.

Chance laughed as if he could read Coal's very thoughts.  "Ain't nobody gonna find her.  Dr. Kersey told 'em people at the station not to disturb ya tonight, 'cause you needed your rest.  So, it's just gonna be us with ya."  Chance then produced a green apple sucker, peeling off the wrapper and putting it in Coal's mouth.  "As long as ya don't let that ol' stick slip down your throat, I don't reckon one of these is gonna hurt ya.  'Sides, I figure you might be wantin somethin', other 'n 'em ol' ice chips."  He smiled.

The three of them watched television for a while.  Aisa removed the sucker once it was all but gone and gave Coal a few ice chips.  Coal could not help but like those boys, and they had managed to convince Kal of letting Malice stay with him.  For that, he knew they were special.  Kal was always one to follow the letter of every rule.  Coal almost passed out when he had agreed.  Of course, Kanawha's support on the matter did not hurt matters, either.  Coal felt himself getting sleepy and was soon lost in the nightfall of dreams.

He was again with Rory, lying by the stream when he heard a noise.  A moment later, a blood-curdling cry erupted as he and Rory jumped to their feet, racing to find the source of the scream.  There, Coal found a young naked guy, screaming in terror.  Helplessly, he watched as three other guys beat him senseless.  As Coal tried to move, he found himself frozen in place, his body like stone.  The cries of  the young man haunted him, as Coal too found himself crying out in terror.

He awoke to Chance and Aisa both rubbing his shoulders gently.  Chance was the first to speak. 

"I reckon you's startin' to 'member what happened to you 'n Brian."  He said softly.  "You's safe now Coal, so let it all go.  Ain't nobody gonna hurt you now."

Aisa seemed to study Chance for a moment, and Coal felt like they were talking with one another without ever saying a word.  Then, Aisa looked down at him with compassionate tears in his eyes.  "I really wish Angel and I could help you, Coal, but we can't.  It's going to be a rough night, so you have to hang on.  Don't give up, no matter how bleak things may seem."

"You's just gotta find the light.  Then, it'll lead ya to the dawn.  I don't reckon you's knowin' what we's talkin' 'bout right yet, but you's 'll figure it out.  We's can't tell ya nothin' more 'n that.  Sorry, but we ain't 'posed to.  That's all they's lettin' us say."  Chance added.

Aisa smiled, petting Coal's face gently.  "Try and get you some sleep, now, buddy.  We're here with you, so don't be afraid.  Just get some rest."

Coal processed his dream a moment, truly worrying about that Brian kid.  Then, he felt sleep again calling his name.  As he surrendered to the nightfall, he felt an easiness about him.  Perhaps, just maybe, things would turn out OK.  As he felt Malice stirring under his arm, he took comfort in her presence.  He also cast one last glance at Kal's eldest sons.  At least, Coal thought, he would not be alone in the nightfall.  That thought accompanied him into a restful slumber.

Well, that finishes Chapter three.  The next installment should be out shortly.  Again, if you have any comments, suggestions, etc., I would love to hear them.  Please contact me via