Chapter Five
The Bane Of Blackness

©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

"M-morning."  Nathan sighed, kissing his Moma and Papa each on the cheek.  He gently rubbed Jena Wilson's tummy, which was quite prominently showing signs of her pregnancy. "How i-is N-natalie doing t-t-today?" 

Jena grasped Nathan's hand and pulled it along to her side.  As she held his palm flatly to her abdomen, Nathan felt the baby kick several times.  Both he and his mother laughed.

"I tell you, son, this sister of yours is doing aerobics or something!  I swear, if she doesn't grow up to be some form of athlete, I will be completely surprised."  Jena sighed.

Nathan noted her tired eyes.  "Are y-you OK, Moma?"  He asked in an obviously worried tone.

As his mother's arms snaked around him, Nathan melted into her warm embrace.  There were few places in which Nathan felt completely safe, and Jena's arms were one of them.  He leaned his head down further to rest upon her shoulder, quietly giving thanks for her presence in his life.

Before Jena and Jason had offered Nathan their unconditional love, he had always felt like a demonic spawn from hell.  He was the bane of blackness, a child of the night no one could ever love.  Oh, several had loved him, but only in a sexual way. 

Nathan had never truly known the kind of love he now held tightly to his chest, the one he thanked God for giving him each and every day.  His new Moma and Papa had saved him, and for that, Nathan would defend them with his dying breath.  The idea that something was wrong with Jena had him in a fit of worry.

Softly, his mother stroked the back of his nape, holding him more tightly.  "Honey, I'm just tired.  Honestly, there is nothing wrong with me or the baby.  Well, other than the fact that your sister cannot seem to grasp the concept of bedtime."  She snickered.

Nathan raised his head to look her in the eyes.  As she beheld his face, she moved her hand to wipe away his tears, only to shed a few herself.  "You have to be the most precious young man on this planet."  She said softly.  "Your Papa and I would be completely lost without you, sweetheart."

Nathan smiled contentedly at her, just as he felt his father's hand grasping his shoulder.  Nathan then leaned his head onto Jason's shoulder, pulling both his parents into a long embrace. 

"I l-love you guys."  He finally said.

The three of them descended the stairs and walked through the living room into the kitchen.  There, they were greeted with the heavenly voice of Nathan's Aunt Hela.  It was a sound the entire household had come to cherish.

Hela always sang when she was cooking or in a good mood.  Nathan smiled as he realized that Aunt Hela just about always sang.  He felt certain that music was her gift, her way of touching the lives of others; it was as if her very heart could be felt through her magnificent voice. 

And Nathan was fond of music.  In fact, it was one of his ultimate passions.  Though Nathan figured he had an OK voice, he knew it was nothing like his mother or father's; certainly, it did not compare to the vocal talents of his Aunt Hela, a woman Nathan admired deeply.

Hela was rather selfless, Nathan felt, for she always seemed to be busy doing something for someone else.  This fantastic young woman lovingly prepared most of the meals their larger family consumed.  Nathan often thought that it was her singing, combined with the love that Hela held for her family, which made her cooking so wonderful.  As he watched her happily moving around the kitchen, Nathan just knew he was right.

Hela gave him a loving smile as she placed some biscuits on a cooking sheet.  After washing her hands, she made her way to him, grabbing him up in a strong hug.

"I swear.  My baby just gets more handsome with every sunrise." 
Hela leaned back and held Nathan's reddening face gently in her hands.  "Nathan, angel, there is nothing to be blushing about.  The Lord made you, honey, and all His work is beautiful.  Still, I think He did an extra fine job on you." She said, tweaking his nose lightly.

Nathan sighed as he fondly took in her six foot and one inch frame.  Her warm brown skin glowed with something from deep within her.  Her pale green eyes danced with kindness, and her full lips were stretched into a broad smile.  Her burgundy hair was smoothly tucked under in a chin-length bob.

Nathan grinned as he remembered the day she had cut all of her long hair, swearing off the cornrow braids forever.  Hela had lost almost 65 pounds and had decided it was time to make herself over.  Nathan had always found her to be lovely before, but the changes in her weight and hairstyle seemed to make her even more radiant.  Nathan also noticed that Hela had lost a few more pounds, and although he could care less what she weighed, he was happy for her.
Despite Hela's charming new look and loving heart, she still remained single.  That thought worried Nathan a little, for he felt certain that Hela longed for a romantic love.  If he were able to make one wish for another person, it would be for Hela to find someone special, he decided.

But, then Nathan's mind contemplated Coal Black and Brian Armstrong.  He felt bad for them, and he believed it somewhat selfish that he would wish something for his family over one of those two; if anyone needed a wish in their corner, it was Coal and Brian. 

'Brian the most.'
Nathan sadly thought. 

Nathan realized that there were so many others who needed things; it just made him feel guilty for having everything he could ever want.

'Well, besides a boyfriend.'
Nathan pondered. 

Then, he quickly scolded himself for being such a selfish brat.  It was no wonder there was so much suffering in the world, he determined.  There were far too many people like himself that were constantly consumed by thoughts of only their own well-being and happiness.  Nathan simply could not realize that his thinking was so far from the truth; he still, deep down, saw himself as the bane of blackness.

As Hela kissed his cheek, Nathan was brought back to reality.  He chuckled to himself, as he knew there would be a large red lip print on his cheek.  Still, he made no attempt to wipe it off.  It was a mark of love he would wear... well, until he left for work, at any rate.

Nathan and his parents washed their hands vigorously before helping out in the kitchen.  They all knew that Hela had stern standards for cleanliness when it came to handling food.  They chatted as they worked, and Nathan was asked to once again tell them about the private duty Garrett and Nurse Channing had lined up for him.  Nathan knew they were all proud of him, which was something he strived to achieve.  But, he still felt embarrassed by the attention.  Plus, he kind of felt as if he were bragging about the whole thing.  Still, they were happy for him, and he was happy because they were happy.

As the entire family gathered around the table for breakfast, Nathan could feel the absence of Aisa and Chance.  He knew they were with Coal, which he felt to be a noble and much needed thing.  But still, he missed his cousins.  They had helped Nathan in many ways, and he was very fond of them.  He did take comfort in all those around him, though.  He smiled to himself as he began to give thanks for each of the blessings that constituted his family.

There was Nana, who had raised Kal from the time his parents had died.  She was a feisty old lady, that was for certain.  But, she was so much fun to be around.  There was also Grams, Kanawha's grandmother who had raised him since his parents had also died.  Grams was a tad bit more reserved than Nana, but Nathan did not believe it was by much. 

Uncle Roe was unlike anyone Nathan could think of in that moment.  He was abrasive, yet totally honest, having a very caring heart with a wicked sense of humor.  Roe was often in trouble with Hela for behaving inappropriately around her babies.  Nathan smiled as he thought of all their antics.

Then, there was his Aunt Mic, who had helped so many of the family with her intuitive counseling skills.  She had certainly made a huge impact in Nathan's life.  Thomas was her husband, and Nathan found him to be just a kid in a grown man's body.  He made life fun, and he proved to be an excellent listener, too.  Myra was their recently adopted daughter, and she was a fireball if ever Nathan had seen one.  Patrick and Ryan were Myra's brothers, and they were rowdy and rambunctious to say the least; Nathan had to add a bit annoying to the list, as they tended to pout until they had their way.  Still, he loved them both immensely.

Uncle Ethan was his Mama's twin brother, and Nathan was rather close to him.  He, too, had helped Nathan to get a grasp on his life.  Carmine, aka Shaft, was Ethan's husband.  It was his ailing heart condition that helped Nathan to see his career path in Hospice.  Shaft was in perfect health now, and he was probably the liveliest person Nathan had ever encountered; he was a walking miracle, Nathan thought with reverence.  Carter and Dwayne were brothers whom Ethan and Shaft planned to soon adopt.  They were both caring guys, each in his own unique way.  Mark was another of their sons, and he and Nathan often played board games and such together.  Mark was very intelligent, and he often had insight that Nathan had learned to value.  Though Mark was from the streets, Nathan did not know him well until they found a home at the old hotel.  Last was their son Jonah.  He and Nathan shared a special bond, as they both were survivors of an abusive home; they had also lived on the streets together, assisting each other in times of need.  Yes, Jonah was quite a treasure.  Nathan was thankful he had found two fathers who felt that way about his wonderful young friend.

Aunt Cole was Shaft's twin sister, and Nathan felt she were closer to God than most anyone could possibly be.  Cole's fiancé Allen was the assistant pastor of their church.  The two of them acted as the family's spiritual guides.

Finally, there was Nathan's Uncle Kal and Uncle Kanawha.  They were very loving men, and Nathan felt quite safe with them.  Pete and Brad, their youngest sons, had lived on the streets with Jonah and Nathan; so had Chance, another of their sons.  For obvious reasons, the three held a special place in Nathan's heart.  Aisa was their other son, and Nathan simply adored him; all four of them, honestly.  Somehow, they each made him feel better about his life, bringing him comfort and a sense of steadiness he often needed.

The family rounded out with Nathan, his Moma and Papa, and his Aunt Hela.  There were numerous friends and a few other relatives who frequently visited, but this was the mainstay of Nathan's family.  As he took in all their faces, he realized just how much of a rock they had been for him.  No matter what, they were there any time Nathan needed them.  Unconditionally, they loved him, and that made his heart soar high up to the heavens.

Most times, Nathan felt completely unworthy of their love.  But, that did not make him appreciate it any less.  In fact, it seemed to make him cherish it all the more.  Each day, he tried his best to let them know just how much they meant to him.  In every activity, he strived for perfection, only as a means of expressing his gratitude to his family and for the new life they were helping him to build.

'I need to give Max, Cindy, and Aaron credit in this, too.'  Nathan smiled to himself.  'They are just as much family as the rest of us.'  Truly, Nathan loved each of his dearest friends.

As he finished his breakfast, Nathan began to wonder about Coal and Brian.  Coal had no real family or friends that Kal knew of, other than a lady from whom he had rented an apartment years before.  Nathan fully believed that Coal had felt edgy being around everyone while they visited him in the hospital.  He chuckled to himself as he imagined Coal's reaction to the magnitude of family he had inadvertently inherited.  They were each making preparations to contribute to his personal care once he was released, and Nathan had to giggle as he pictured Coal's handling of this.

'He's the one who put Uncle Kal down as his family.'
Nathan grinned.  'I don't think he has any idea what that will mean for him down the road.  Hmm.  Uncle Kal's not one to take no for an answer, I don't guess.'  He laughed.

Nathan then thought of Brian Armstrong.  He had just earned a scholarship from the university for his baseball skills and exceptional grades that past May.  Dr. Haga was still uncertain as to the extent of the injuries Brian had suffered to his head.   The many fractures throughout his body would give him a strong need for physical therapy, too.  Nathan truly doubted that Brian would be playing baseball anytime soon, so he wondered what that would do to his scholarship.  Then, Nathan wondered whether or not Brian would even go back to the university.

>From what Aisa had said, Brian had been planning on a degree in engineering.  From Nathan's classes, however, he had learned that brain trauma had so many variables as to the effects it would have on the injured person.  He also knew that there were often limitations.  Quietly, Nathan prayed that would not be the case for poor Brian.

Then, Nathan remembered the rape.  As if all this were not enough, the poor guy had been sexually assaulted.  Though Nathan knew brain trauma was not a good thing, he also understood that victims often suffered a lapse in memory.  From that, he held a hope that the memories of the attack and rape stayed at bay from the young man's mind.  It seemed to Nathan that Brian had far too much on his proverbial plate as it were.

"Thinking about Brian, again?"
  Jason asked softly.

"Y-yeah, Papa.  I-I just f-f-feel so b-bad for him." 
Nathan replied.  "We're a-a-almost the same age, e-e-even.  It j-just doesn't s-s-seem fair."

Nathan sighed softly as his father pull him into a firm hug.  Gently, he kissed the top of Nathan's head.  "Life isn't always fair.  We just have to, well, make the most of it, son.  That's all we can do."

Nathan knew his father was right, but it still did not take away the pain he felt in his heart for what Brian had suffered.  "I g-guess."  He replied softly.

As Jason's hand gently petted Nathan, he melted into his father's warm embrace.  Though it didn't relieve his agony for Brian completely, it did make Nathan feel safe.  Turning slightly, Nathan rested his head on his Papa's shoulder.

"As hard as this might be to hear, son, sometimes bad things happen.  But, I like to think they, hmm, happen for a reason, I guess."
  Jason methodically spoke in Nathan's ear.  "At least, I like to think that good things can come out of, well, terrible things like this."  Then, his Papa lifted Nathan's head and looked into his eyes, resting his forehead upon Nathan's.  "You just have to look for the good in it, son. It's hard, I know.  But, it keeps you sane, at least."

Nathan smiled at Jason.  He knew how hard stuttering could be; yet his Papa spoke so well under those circumstances.  He had that inner peace, Nathan guessed, the one Nathan just could not seem to find.  He felt pride for his father's accomplishments.  He also wanted desperately to some day be just like the man before him.

Jason was an inspiration to Nathan, and he thought that was the way it should be; fathers were supposed to be role models for their sons.   Nathan grinned warmly as he realized he was looking at one of the best men after which he could possibly pattern his life.  Jason's kindness, compassion and loving nature were traits Nathan hoped he would develop within himself.  He also prayed that he would one day find a source of tranquility, just as his father had done.

Nathan looked over quickly to his Mama.  Somehow, her love had given his Papa that peace of mind.  He just hoped he would be as lucky with love.

As Nathan reflected upon himself, however, he just could not see that becoming a reality.  He was tainted, used and discarded by countless others.  Nathan wasn't even sure how many it had been.  He had lost count, trying his best to not even think about what he had to do in order to do what must be done.  Granted, Nathan had his reasons for doing it.  But, that didn't make him any less a whore; so he thought, anyway. 

How could someone ever love him?  First, there was the speech problem that few seemed able to overlook.  Then, there was his past.  Sure, no one could know about it just by looking at him, but Nathan learned one valuable thing from his family:  relationships are built on honesty, truth, understanding, and love.  Nathan took that lesson to heart and could never withhold such information from someone he saw in that regard.

So, who could love him?  His family, but that went without question; that was what family did, Nathan speculated.  Cindy, Aaron, and, of course, Max loved him, but that love was very different from the one for which Nathan yearned.  They knew all about his past, well, except for why he did what he did.  Only one person knew of that besides Nathan; that man was his Uncle Kal. 

It wasn't that Nathan had told him, either.  Nathan had wanted to keep that information a closely guarded secret.  He had his reasons for that, too.  But, Kal just knew things about someone, a gift he possessed, as he explained it to Nathan.  In Kal, though, Nathan had a confidant, for his uncle had never disclosed the information to anyone.  That was one of many reasons why Kal's smaller family was so dear to Nathan.

Nathan had told Trace Andrews about his past the day Trace had first asked him out for a date.  Nathan knew Trace found it a bit hard to swallow at first, but he kept his date with Nathan, regardless.  As time progressed, though, Nathan and Trace became more of friends than anything else.  While Nathan cared deeply for Trace, it wasn't the romantic love he sought.  Nathan was certain Trace felt the same way, too; they were friends who went out together, nothing more.

His family was very fond of Trace.  Nathan found him very good looking, but the connection was just not there.  Though Grams and the others held hope that this would someday change, Nathan knew it would never be.  He was happy with Trace's friendship; who wouldn't be?  Trace was a great guy, after all.  But, Nathan still wanted to someday find a romantic love, one that would last a lifetime.

Shaking his head slightly, Nathan tucked those thoughts away.  He hugged his father tightly and smiled.  "You a-always know j-j-just what t-t-t-to say, Papa."  In that, Nathan felt he was being honest.  What his father had said did make him stop dwelling on Brian.  And though it made him think of other things to worry about, his Papa didn't have to know.  That made Nathan chuckle to himself.  His Papa was far too precious.  "I'm g-gonna brush my t-t-t-teeth and then I'll b-be ready."

"Anxious to get to Coal?"
  Jason asked, smirking slightly.

Nathan blushed immediately.  "Yeah."  He admitted.  Though Nathan liked the idea of working with Coal, he also knew that he liked looking at the man.  He was drop-dead gorgeous in Nathan's humble opinion.  That was at least a part of Nathan's eagerness to get to work.  The fantasies he had dreamed of both Coal and Garrett just hours before were still fresh in his mind, only making his cheeks grow hotter as Nathan recalled them.

His Papa just laughed.  "Well, Coal is a good man.  He is rather good looking, I guess."

Again, Nathan blushed, turning crimson this time.  He knew his father was only playing with him, though.  "Hmm.  I s-sure think so."  Nathan laughed.  "His eyes, e-especially."

"They are like husky's eyes."  His father snickered. 

Nathan raised his eyebrows, as a huge grin crossed his face.  "Hmm, he w-wears them well!  Th-that's for sure."

Jason swatted Nathan playfully on the butt.  "Get upstairs before your hormones, you know, make you explode."  He laughed. 

'If only you knew!'
Nathan chuckled to himself, regarding his father with loving eyes.

As Nathan started off to go brush his teeth, his Moma stood and hugged him gently.  Looking at Jason, she smirked.  "He is a lot like you in that regards."  She jibed, and Nathan turned his head to see his father blushing.  Then, she kissed Nathan's forehead.  "Nobody picks on my baby, not even his Papa."

Nathan giggled.  "Hmm. Thanks, Moma."

After brushing his teeth, Nathan met his Moma and Papa at the door.  Hela darted from the kitchen with a larger lunch cooler than usual.

Handing it to Nathan, she smiled.  "There are bacon, egg, and cheese biscuits in here for Aisa and Chance.  There are also lunches for you three boys and that Dr. Kersey.  I even packed him a breakfast biscuit, too."  She leaned over and kissed Nathan on the cheek.  "And, there is some ice cream packed in dry ice for Coal.  I'm not sure if they will let him have it, but it is homemade."  Then, she grinned.  "Just don't let Chance know it is in there, or poor Coal will never see it.  I swear, that kid can sure eat."

Nathan had to agree with her on that.  "Thanks."  He replied, kissing Hela goodbye.

He then made his way to the SUV with his mother and father.  Nathan was amazed at all the snow that had fallen, and still, there was a light amount coming down.  As they walked down the path he and his cousins had shoveled the night before, Nathan watched carefully for any icy patches.  The last thing his Moma needed was to fall.  The bitter winds almost took his breath away as they finally made their way to the SUV.  At least it would be warm inside, he thought, seeing that his father had started it prior to their leaving.

"I th-think Coal will l-l-like this." Nathan said, almost out of the blue.

Jason laughed.  "Maybe even you for bringing it!  This Garrett too, I imagine."

As his father said this, Nathan wondered how his parents would react if something would actually become of his fancy for either of these men.  Then, he quickly dismissed those thoughts as crazy, wishful dreaming on his part.

Jena swatted his Papa, but the three of them laughed over the whole thing.  His father placed a duffle bag containing clothes for Aisa and Chance into the back seat. 

Afterwards, he smiled at Nathan.  "It will be good to see Coal again.  I just wish we could stay longer.  Hmm.  Maybe we can go by after work, too."

Jena was opening the passenger side door.  "Hey, I think it would be great, just as long as we don't overcrowd him.  From what Kal says, Coal sounds a lot like Kanawha used to be.  Stormy was never much for people, especially big crowds." She said in thought.  "I don't want to overwhelm the poor guy."

"Yeah.  I-I think i-it might have been t-t-to much l-last night."
  Nathan replied, remembering what he assessed of Coal's reaction to everyone.  "I th-think he needs some a-a-alone time t-too."  No sooner had Nathan uttered those words than the reality of what he had said came to him in the form of his father's laughter.

"Don't even touch that one, honey."
  His Mama warned as she climbed into the front passenger seat.  "I swear, are all men obsessed with those things or what?" 

Again, his father giggled.  Nathan shook with laughter in the back seat.  He wasn't expecting what happened next, however.

His mother gazed at his father's lap and then looked him back in the eyes.  "There is a huge difference between enjoying something and being obsessed with it, honey.  Don't even try that line on me." She said wryly.  "Your ego might get bruised."

"Maybe w-we can w-work out a s-s-s-schedule of some s-sort."
Nathan offered, trying to change the subject.  Yes, he knew his mother was pregnant, and he knew how the mechanics of that worked; he was almost 18, after all.  But the mental images that invaded his mind of the two of them doing that stuff had poor Nathan shuddering.

'Some things should not be imagined!  Your parents having sex is definitely in the top ten of that list.' Nathan postulated, cringing as he tried his best to shake those thoughts from his brain.  'Hmm. The top three, even.' he added in retrospect.

Jena laughed.  "Sorry, baby.  But, it is a perfectly normal part of life." 

Nathan covered his ears quickly, humming to himself. "I-I-I'm not listening."

As both his parents laughed heartily, Nathan sighed with relief.  Finally, those horrid images were gone.  Slowly, Nathan removed his hands from his ears, smirking at his Moma and Papa, who were turned to look at him.

"Th-that was j-just t-t-t-too much!"  He giggled.  "It p-p-probab-bly scarred me f-for life."

"It's not that bad!"
  His mother retorted with a snicker.  Then, Nathan watched as her face drew up in a look of pure distaste.  "EWE!  I take that back." She shuddered, looking at Nathan.  "I just envisioned your Grandma Jean and my father.  Not a pretty picture."

Nathan again covered his ears and started humming.  "I d-don't want th-that one, either!"

"Hmm.  The schedule sounds like a fine idea, son."
  Jason said, and Nathan gave his father a look of thanks for mercifully changing the subject.  "We should talk to Kal about it."

As they slowly drove across Raven Cliff, Nathan was lost in random thoughts.  They passed Central Avenue, and Nathan recalled many an evening he had spent working on the corner.  Most of his customers were older than himself, though he had occasionally serviced some that were closer to his own age.  One in particular came to mind, a guy who called himself Denver.  If that had been his real name, Nathan was not certain.  But, Denver had grown to be a regular for him.

Denver had been a bit overweight and very shy.  Nathan thought he was a nice guy, though.  At least, he was always nice to Nathan.  He knew Denver had to have been at least 18 when they first met, for he always had a room rented.  He usually even let Nathan have the room for the rest of the night, once they were finished with their business.  On those nights, Nathan would hunt down his friends from the streets to share in the good fortunes of a hot shower and warm place to sleep, if only for a few hours. 

Nathan smiled as he recalled some of the mishaps and adventures he had shared with his friends on those evenings.  Jonah was always fascinated with watching the television, while Chance spent an hour at least taking a bath.  Brad just enjoyed having a bed and pillow, while Pete always found a magazine or newspaper to read.

As Nathan reflected upon this, his father's words came back to him.  'You just have to look for the good in it, son.' Nathan quoted in his mind.  Nathan had his reasons for doing the things he did.  Although this caused him to once again take his place as the bane of blackness, he found himself able to smile about it.  Despite the terrible circumstances, there had been a lot of good that had come of it.  And, for the first time since he could remember, Nathan allowed himself to think that he might not be such a horrible monster after all.

Gently, his arms snaked around Jason from behind the driver's seat, drawing his father into a firm hug.  Nathan laid his chin along his Papa's shoulder, sighing with the love he felt for the man.  A few stray tears trickled lightly down his cheeks as he drew his father even closer.

"Just th-thinking about what y-you said b-b-before."
  Nathan explained.  "Y-you alw-ways know just what t-t-to say, Papa."

Jason's hand drew back and cradled Nathan's nape fondly.  "I love you, son.  Always, I love you."

Again, Nathan found his father saying exactly what he needed to hear.  For in that moment, Nathan needed his father's love and reassurance.  He could not fathom why Jason chose to love him as much as he did, but Nathan understood without any doubt that his Papa did indeed love him.  For that, Nathan was even more certain why he loved his father so dearly.  And, for once, that was all that mattered.  Worthy or not, Nathan accepted the fact that he was loved.

He held his father tightly for the next several blocks.  Then, Nathan settled back into his seat, just fondly watching the two people who meant more to him than anything the world could offer.  They loved him, and no matter what, Nathan realized that they always would.  It was as if things were finally seeping into his thick skull, and this revelation had Nathan grinning from ear to ear.

As they pulled into the hospital parking lot, Nathan found himself bubbling with a new zest and energy.  There was one thought that prevailed in his mind.  He just had to see him.

Nathan grabbed the lunch cooler, eager to find him.  His Papa took hold of the duffle bag, smirking at Nathan.  He could see the glimmering love in his Papa's eyes clearly now.  It had always been there, but never before had it shined so brightly.  As Nathan looked to his Mama, he was pleased to find that same love gleaming there as well.

"It looks like a bright and shiny day for you, son."  She smiled.

"I was thinking the same."  His Papa added, as he softly patted Nathan's leg. 

Nathan grinned at them both.  He was amazed at how well his parents knew him, but he was thankful for that, too.  The closeness the three of them shared was a treasure, one Nathan was beginning to fully grasp.

"Thanks t-to you guys, I-I think it will b-be."  Nathan bubbled with enthusiasm.  "I j-just feel great!"

Jason clasped his shoulder as Nathan shut his door.  The two walked around the vehicle together to escort Jena.  As they walked through the lot to the main doors, Nathan chuckled to himself.  'How many families walk in a group hug?'  He pondered. 

The crisp air did not faze him in the slightest, as Nathan felt a warmth growing from within himself.  He just had to see him.  That's all there was to it.

The three entered the hospital and boarded the elevator.  Nathan pushed the button for the third floor repeatedly, as if it would get them there any more quickly. This time, his mother snickered.

"In a hurry are we, son?"
  She smiled.

"Just a-a-anxious to get s-s-started."
  Nathan grinned.  "I think C-c-c-coal will be glad t-to see you, Papa."  He added, now looking at his father intently.

"Hmm." His father seemed to be thinking.  "I just wish it were better terms for the visit."

"Well, people's paths in life cross for a reason, honey.  Just have faith in that."
  Jena said, stroking her husband's back.  Nathan smiled watching their interactions.

'Someday, that will be me.'
he happily assured himself.  'Someday soon, I hope.'

Finally, the elevator reached the third floor.  Nathan quickly navigated the halls, practically dragging his parents along behind him.  He was excited, and he just had to see him as quickly as possible.

As they entered room 342, Nathan spied the one he sought.  He sat the lunch cooler down in the floor and almost sprinted to him, embracing him in a firm hug.  Nathan then fondly kissed his cheek.

"I reckon you just best get your ol' paws off my Aisa, and 'em lips of yours too."
  Chance snickered.

Nathan smiled at him as he hugged Aisa even more tightly.  Then, he whispered in Aisa's ear.  "I th-think I f-f-finally understand what you've been s-s-saying."  Leaning back slightly, he looked into Aisa's gentle blue eyes.  "Thanks s-s-so much."

Aisa grinned at him.  His hand softly stroked through Nathan's hair.  "Any time you need me, Nathan, don't hesitate.  We're family, so no need to be shy.  Besides, Angel and I love you.  We just want you to be happy is all."

Nathan gasped slightly at the warmth of his cousin's gentle hand.  He so adored Aisa, the boy who was growing into such a wonderful man.  He always gave Nathan encouragement and sage advice, but it was now that Nathan was starting to see the logic in Aisa's words.

'Maybe there is hope for me after all.' Nathan giggled to himself.  That thought had him reaching out and pulling Chance into a three-way hug.  Chance had been there for Nathan, too, giving him every ounce of hope the boy could possibly muster.  And, for that, Nathan was thankful.

"I reckon it's about time you opened up 'em eyes of yours."
  Chance said softly.  "Now you's just gotta find your voice.  Then you's 'll be able to help ol' Coal find his."

Nathan cast his gaze at Coal, who seemed surprised to have a visit from Nathan's Papa and Moma.  "You think so?"  He asked in earnest.

Chance started giggling, and Nathan looked at him cautiously.  He had been known to pull a prank or two, so Nathan wondered what was up.

"I ain't funnin' you, Nathan.  I's just laughin' cause I wouldn't 've said it unless I thought so.  You's 'll just have to see for you'self is all."
  Chance smiled.  He then patted Nathan on the shoulder fondly.  "I reckon you's havin' a real good day, huh?"

Nathan shook his head in answer.  Then, he remembered breakfast.  Grabbing the cooler, he turned and smiled.

"Aunt Hela s-sent s-s-s-something for you b-both."
  Nathan replied, digging out their breakfast biscuits.  Nathan was careful to keep Coal's ice cream hidden from Chance, however.

Aisa chuckled.  "Angel was just complaining about starving to death.  Though I must admit, I am rather hungry myself."

Nathan handed them each their food.  Then, he placed the cooler at the foot of the bed and walked around to Coal.  Leaning down, he gently kissed Coal's forehead. 

"Hmm, morning.  Aunt Hela sent s-s-something special f-for you, t-t-t-too."
  He grinned.  "I'll g-give it to you l-l-later, though."

Nathan carefully wiped back Coal's short black hair, noticing the silky texture of it as it slid against his palm.  He stared into his pale, silver-blue eyes for what seemed like an eternity.  Somehow, Nathan could almost hear Coal through his eyes; he could not explain it, but it was as if there souls connected with even a passing glance.

"Papa was w-worried you, um, w-w-wouldn't want to s-s-see him." 
He smiled at Coal.  "I t-t-told him you w-would, though."

Nathan had picked up on this while in the elevator.  And, as he looked into Coal's eyes, he saw the way the light shimmered off the tiny specks in shades of blue that made up his irises.  For some reason, Nathan knew Coal was happy Jason had come to visit.  That made him smile even more broadly.

"I g-guess I'll get to work, b-but I'll be b-back later, K?"
  He assured Coal.  Something in his eyes let Nathan know he was a bit nervous.  "A-aisa and Chance will be here, c-cause we d-don't have sc-c-chool.  You just have a g-g-good time with Papa and Mama."

Nathan kissed his forehead softly one more time.  Then, he hugged his parents before grabbing the lunch cooler and heading down the hallway.  He packed the cooler away in his locker, then dialed ER from the staff phone.  He talked to Garrett for a moment, finding out that he would be up to check on Coal in a half-hour.  That gave Nathan time to get his work duties in order and go see Brian.

Nathan somewhat cringed when he saw Nurse Proctor was the floor RN for the day.  She was always so flippant and mean when it came to Nathan.  He just hoped he could steer clear of her for the majority of his shift.  As he approached the desk, she looked up at him with an emotionless expression.

"You have a pretty easy day lined up, kid."
  She said with little variance in her tone.  "Nurse Channing has left strict orders with your assignments.  You are to look after Mr. Black and Mr. Armstrong.  Mr. Armstrong is still in the ICU, so you will have to hustle back and forth."  Nurse Proctor pointed her finger and greatly emphasized the hustling part to Nathan.

"B-but I d-don't..."
  Nathan started.

"You will be trained in specifically what it is you are to do for him while you are down there, kid."
  She then seemed as if she were measuring Nathan.  From the growing scowl on her face, Nathan knew he was falling short of her expectations.  "It seems that someone thinks you have talent and ability."

The flat affect in her tone made Nathan feel as if she were inviting him to challenge her, as she obviously disagreed with the assessment.  Nathan thought about it for a moment, then lowered his eyes to the ground.  It would not do him any good, he thought.  No matter what he did, he would never measure up in Nurse Proctor's eyes.

"Yeah, so I guess you will start with Mr. Black.  Once he is bathed and his room cleaned, you can go on down to ICU to attend to Mr. Armstrong.   You will need to check on Mr. Black periodically, and be back here in order to feed him his lunch.  It seems he will be getting jello and broth."
  She continued in a monotone manner.

Nathan was thrilled with this.  He was pretty sure Garrett would allow Coal to have the ice cream Aunt Hela had sent.  Somehow, rewarding Coal with such a tasty treat made Nathan feel excited.  He wondered why that was, but dismissed the thought as he turned to leave.  Thinking, he turned back to Nurse Proctor.

"I'm g-g-gonna go down a-and check on B-brian, n-n-now."  He said softly.

"You still have a little bit before your shift starts, so knock yourself out, kid."  She replied, not even looking up from whatever it was she was reading.  Somehow, she always made Nathan feel worthless.

'Not today.'
he reaffirmed to himself.  Today was going to be a better day, even if it killed him.  He was that determined.

Nathan checked his watch as he stepped off the elevator.  He still had 20 minutes before Garrett would be in to see Coal.  He wanted to make sure he was there to give Garrett his breakfast biscuit and ask about the ice cream. 

Nathan found his way to the ICU easily.  He had wanted to check on Brian the day before, but he had been busy, then exhausted once the extra long shift was over.   As he entered Brian's room, Nathan almost lost his breath completely.

There lay a figure wrapped almost completely in a body cast.  Tubes and wires were everywhere, and only Brian's left hand seemed to be free of any medical gadget.  Nathan softly walked over and grasped his hand.  Gently, he caressed it as he studied what little of Brian's face was not bandaged.

He could see Brian's long, thick lashes as they curled to almost touch his swollen and bruised eyelids.  His nose was discolored and swollen as well, though it still housed an oxygen line.  His lips looked a dark purple and were also swollen significantly.  What little of his cheeks showed through the bandages also showed marks from the beating.

Nathan's heart churned in his throat as he fought back the tears that were quickly building.   Nathan imagined Brian to be a nice guy, though he really had no basis for his speculation.  He had never met him before, and only knew he was Coach Armstrong's nephew.  Still, Nathan was led to see him in this light.  Ever so gently, Nathan stroked his bandage-covered face.  Then, he leaned down and kissed Brian's forehead.

"I d-don't know i-i-if you can hear me or n-not, but I'll be p-p-p-praying for you." 
He said softly.  "I guess, um, w-we will be w-w-working together now.  S-s-so you just g-gotta get better."  Nathan sighed.

Maybe it was the situation in general, but Nathan found his heart reaching out to Brian.  He thought about their similar ages, putting himself in the other man's shoes.  As he did so, Nathan realized what a long road Brian would have to travel during his recovery.  And, as that revelation touched Nathan's mind, he found himself weeping uncontrollably. 

Nathan was startled when a hand gently clasped his shoulder.  He turned to find a strikingly handsome man standing beside him.  The man cast him a sad smile.

"Are you a friend of Brian's?"
  He asked softly.

Nathan found the voice to be quite soothing, so he smiled.  He hummed to himself lightly.  "N-n-no.  I-I-I just w-work w-with him." Quickly, Nathan wiped away his tears with his one free hand.

The man seemed to regard Nathan for a moment.  Then a grin crossed his face.  "Oh, you are the guy who found Brian!  Nathan, right?"  He asked.

  Nathan said almost breathlessly.  He felt his stomach spinning into knots as nervousness began to take hold of him.

"They said you would be working with him.  Brian's dad asked for you specifically."
  The guy stated.  He stared at Nathan for a moment, and then blushed slightly.  "Where are my manners?  I'm Chet, Brian's roommate.  If the staff asks, though, I am his cousin." He laughed somewhat awkwardly.

Nathan was instantly reminded of the family only rule for the ICU, but smiled his understanding to Chet.  'Boy is he a hot one!'  Nathan assessed.  The sparkling grey eyes and gentle smile stirred Nathan to no end.  Still, he managed to keep his raging hormones in check.

As Nathan stroked Brian's hand absent-mindedly, he felt the twitching fingers.  "Th-that's a good s-s-sign!"  Nathan exclaimed with relief.  "H-his f-f-fingers were m-moving."

Chet smiled broadly.  "Yeah.  He was doing that a few times yesterday.  It gives us hope, you know, when he does it.  I just know he can hear us."  Nathan noted the tears forming in Chet's gentle eyes.  "He just has to get better.  I've grown fond of him, even if he is a pain in the ass most days."

"You've known h-him long?"
  Nathan inquired, trying to make a way for Chet to unleash his bottled feelings.

"Just since the start of the semester, actually.  But, he is easy to like, I guess.  We were friends almost immediately."
  Chet said with a half smile.  "I'm not sure, but it was like we had known each other forever or something.  He's just so easy to talk to, and he makes you laugh at almost everything."

Nathan moved slightly to offer Chet Brian's hand.  As he took it, Chet's hand brushed slightly against Nathan's, setting off his raging hormones once again.  Despite his best efforts, Nathan felt his cheeks growing hot.  'Not as hot as Chet by any means.' he laughed to himself.

Chet told Nathan about his first week with Brian as his roommate, and Nathan learned many things about the man with whom he would be working.  It seemed that the talk helped Chet to get his mind off of Brian's attack, at least for the moment.  Nathan found himself lost in the story as he noted the time.

"Hmm.  I h-have to go check on C-c-coal.  But, I-I'll be b-back soon, OK?"
  Nathan explained, patting Chet on the shoulder.

"Yeah.  We'll be here."  The man smiled, squeezing his roommate's hand.  "It will be nice for Brian to have someone to talk to today besides me."  He laughed.  "He always says I am way too boring to be but 18 years of age."

"Well, I'll be b-back."
  Nathan grinned before leaving the room.

Nathan ran to his locker and retrieved the cooler.  He knew if he had not locked it away, Chance would have eaten practically everything.  He laughed about this as he headed back down the hallway and into Coal's room.

Garrett was talking with Coal as Nathan entered.  He smiled at them both, sitting the cooler on the tray beside the bed.  Opening it, he retrieved Garrett's breakfast biscuit and Coal's ice cream and a spoon.

"A-aunt Hela s-sent you this, a-and lunch, t-too."
  He blushed.  "Sh-she also sent C-coal this."  He added, showing Garrett the ice cream.  "C-c-can he h-have it?" Nathan almost pleaded.

Dr. Kersey laughed softly.  "Well, I might have to taste it to make sure it will be good for him."

Nathan chuckled at him.  "Hmm. Aunt Hela m-might get m-mad and s-s-stop sending you lunch."

Garrett's eyes lit up with seeming surprise.  "Well, in that case, Coal can have all the ice cream he wants.  Just be careful he doesn't get brain freeze.  That hurts, you know."  Nathan chuckled as Garrett grabbed his head in mock pain.

As Garrett started in on his biscuit, Nathan gave Coal a bite of the ice cream.  He could tell Coal liked it immediately.  "I-it's h-homemade."  Nathan enthused.  Then, he studied the room.  "Where are Aisa a-and Chance?"

"In the shower."
  Dr. Kersey stated with his mouth full. 

Nathan rolled his eyes and snickered.  "Hmm. Th-that figures."

As Nathan studied Coal, he just felt certain that Coal found that amusing.  Garrett obviously had.  Nathan fed him another bite, smiling as he watched Coal savor the taste. 

"B-b-brian's fingers moved."  Nathan stated, and then chuckled at how off-track his thinking was sounding to himself, much less everyone else.

He noted that Coal seemed interested about this, and as Nathan turned, he found Garrett equally enthused.

Nathan hummed to himself a moment, focusing his thoughts.  "I w-w-went down, just a l-little bit ago.  While I was t-t-talking with his r-roommate, they just s-s-started moving." He continued.  "Ch-chet said they did y-yesterday too."

"Excellent sign."  Garrett said with what seemed to be relief.  "That makes me more hopeful for his recovery."

Nathan fed Coal yet another bite.  "Feels g-good on your, um, throat, huh?"  Nathan smiled.  The dance in Coal's eyes illustrated his enjoyment of Hela's special treat quite well.  "Y-you have fun s-s-seeing Papa and Mama?"  He asked, and again the reflection in Coals eyes seemed to indicate his answer.  Nathan also noticed the minute movements in his eyebrows and forehead.  Plus, the corners of his mouth turned up slightly.  "Yeah, I th-thought so."  He laughed.  "Papa was so e-e-excited to s-see you, too.  I th-think they are c-c-coming back this e-evening."

Coal seemed to be concentrating on something, and Nathan had an idea what it was.  "Not sure who is s-s-staying ton-night, but s-s-s-somebody will be."  He stated.  The look in Coal's eyes had Nathan laughing.  "Yeah, I guess I unders-stand you p-p-pretty well.  N-not sure how, b-but I th-think I do."

Again, Nathan felt certain he had assessed Coal's thoughts correctly.  He felt hands clasp his shoulders gently, and the scent let him know it was Dr. Kersey.

"I knew you would be excellent for this job, buddy.  And, I'm glad Coal has such a perceptive caretaker.  It will make things much easier on him."  Garrett praised.

Nathan leaned his head back slightly to rest on Garrett's shoulder.  "Thanks."  He sighed softly.

"Nonsense, Nathan.  It's the truth, buddy, so there's no reason to thank anyone.  You are going to be a great nurse.  Just you wait and see."
  He continued.  "See.  Coal agrees with me, too."  He chuckled.

As Nathan studied Coal, he could not help but smile.  Something about that man made Nathan feel differently.  He could not quite place his finger on it, but it was there, nonetheless.  Working with Coal was going to be a very rewarding experience, he thought.  Again, Nathan was reminded of his father's words.  He just prayed that much good came from this tragedy that had befallen Coal and Brian.

'Hmm.  I wonder if I would have ever met you if it hadn't happened, Coal?'
Nathan pondered to himself.  To that question, Nathan honestly had no answer.  But, his mind recalled his mother's words to his Papa that morning, that the paths of people's lives cross for reasons beyond the obvious.  Perhaps someday, Coal and Brian would find comfort in those words; at least, Nathan hoped so.  In the mean time, however, they both had much recovering to do.  Nathan just prayed the faith that Dr. Kersey and Nurse Channing had placed in him would prove to be sound judgment on their part; he just hoped he would turn out to be the right man for the job.

As Dr. Kersey talked with Coal, Nathan continued feeding him the ice cream.  At one point, he looked to find Garrett intently watching him.  A thought struck Nathan, and he turned slightly, smiling at the doctor.

"Hmm.  You th-think you m-might, um, y-you know, want t-t-to try f-feeding him?"
  Nathan asked softly.  He observed Coal for a moment, feeling certain that Coal had no objections to Garrett's helping hand.  "It s-seems to be OK with C-coal."

Garrett seemed surprised by this, but a smile broadened on his face.  Taking the spoon, he chuckled somewhat nervously.  "You might find this shocking, but I have never actually fed anyone anything before."

Nathan gently patted his shoulder reassuringly.  "I-it's p-p-pretty easy.  Just, um, d-don't make the b-b-bites to big."

Nathan watched as Garrett fed Coal a bite of ice cream.  He noted the huge grin this act seemed to bring upon the doctor's face.  Garrett gave Coal a few more bites, then giggled in a bemused manner.

"Yeah, guys.  Little things like this excite me.  I guess that makes me weird or something."
  His cheeks flushed with a strong pink color.

Nathan chuckled softly, rubbing Garrett's shoulder supportively.  "Hmm.  I think m-m-maybe you, um, might want to, w-w-well, be a n-nurse s-s-someday."

He seemed to have a fond expression in his eyes as he stared at Nathan for a few seconds.  "The thought does have its appeal, buddy.  Hmm, I guess I can see why you want to do this so badly."  He finally stated.

The bathroom door opened with a huge puff of steam escaping into the main area of Coal's room.  Through the fog emerged Aisa and Chance, affectionately holding hands as usual.  Nathan grinned at them, and he noticed Chance's immediate interest in the ice cream.

"You bring us some of 'at good ol' ice cream too?  I reckon I's still a bit hungry."
Chance enthused.

"Just Coal."  Nathan giggled, noting his cousins' crestfallen faces.  "It's all A-aunt Hela packed."  He explained.

Chance strolled over to the bed, gripping Coal's shoulder gently.  "Stealin' all our ice cream are ya?" He said sternly, though a smile was plastered across his face.  Nathan watched while Chance's hazel eyes twinkled as they turned to blue.  "I reckon we's gonna have to have us a long talk 'bout sharin' the good stuff, ol' boy."

Nathan could make out the slightest smirk on Coal's face, believing he must enjoy the light humor of Chance.  Chance rubbed Coal's shoulder with seeming affection.  As Coal's gaze turned his way, Chance lit up with a smile.

"I guess it's a good thing Jew n' Jena done took 'at ol' cat of yours with 'em to Dad's work.  Otherwise, none of us could a fed you none of that without her a hissin' n' a growlin'  n' stuff." 
He laughed.  "Well, 'cept maybe Aisa, but you don't want him feedin' you nothin'.  He tried that with me 'is one time, n' he liked to stabbed me with the fork right on the tongue."

Aisa laughed as he lightly shoved Chance.  "Oh, Angel.  It wasn't that bad!"

The grin on Chance's face let Nathan know that something good was about to come.  He nearly lost it, however, when he heard Chances reply.

"Well, I reckon if I's wantin' one of 'em piercin's in my tongue it'da been all right.  But, I don't think Coal here wants one of 'em things neither, so we's better just keep you away from 'im with the forks n' stuff." 
Chance then belly laughed as Aisa grabbed him from behind.

As his cousins sauntered around in a loving embrace and Garrett continued feeding Coal, Nathan entertained the idea of having a lover that would do those sorts of things with him.  He admired the relationship that Aisa and Chance had built together.  They had both tender moments and light-hearted play.  It was a nice balance, Nathan felt, and for guys his own age, their love seemed very mature. 

Nathan regarded Garrett and Coal, who were both becoming frequent fantasies for him.  Nathan wondered what life would be like as Garrett's lover.  He pondered this for a while, but then was flashed with images of Coal.  Though the daydreams of Garrett were nice, those of Coal were every bit as good, if not better.  Then, Nathan chuckled to himself.  'You are just one horny man, Nathanael!' he mentally assessed.

Gaining control of his roaming mind, Nathan watched as Coal finished the last of his ice cream.  Aisa and Chance were now snuggled in a chair, and Garrett was telling Coal a story of some kind.  Nathan realized that his trip to fantasyland was a bit longer than he had originally thought.  His face flushed suddenly with embarrassment, wondering if anyone had noticed him zoning out.  If they did, no one was giving him any indication as such.  He sighed with relief as he began planning what needed to be done next.

Interrupting Garrett's story, Nathan started.  "Um, I think C-coal needs to g-get his bath.  M-m-maybe you can, um, c-c-come back and visit l-later." He smiled.  Looking at Chance and Aisa, he added.  "That, um, m-means you guys, t-t-t-too."

Garrett laughed, ruffling up Nathan's hair.  "Well, I guess I should be getting back.  I will check in on you, though, Coal."  He smiled at Nathan intently.  "I am sure you are the right man for the job, buddy.  Not a doubt in my mind."

As Garrett started to leave, Chance and Aisa stood.  "Well, I reckon we's gonna go wonder 'round some.  Maybe we'll go check n' see how Brian's doin'.  Maybe we can even sneak on in there without 'em ol' nurses knowin' it."  Chance stated.

"We can try."
  Aisa laughed.  "If not, we can wait until Coach gets here.  He'll get us in."

"S-stay out of t-t-trouble."
  Nathan snickered as he watched his cousin's leave.

He turned his attention back to Coal and studied him intently.  Then, he laughed.  "Yeah.  I g-guess his s-stories are a b-b-bit boring."  The expression in Coal's eyes let Nathan know he had hit the nail on the head.  "He is n-nice, though."

Nathan started removing the blanked and sheet that covered Coal.  "Y-you think he's, um, c-cute?"  He asked, pausing from his task to look at Coal.  "I was, um, j-just a-asking."  He laughed.  "I k-k-kinda think so, t-too."

After folding the blanket and sheet, Nathan noticed the boxers Coal was wearing along with a button up top.  He had put them on Coal the evening before. "These l-l-look, um, more c-comfortable than, um, th-that gown."  Studying Coal, he again laughed.  "More p-private too, I g-guess."

After carefully removing the garments, Nathan prepared a pan of warm water and proceeded to bath Coal.  Once again, Coal had a reaction as Nathan cleaned his groin.  Nathan noted how flushed Coal was with embarrassment.

Smiling, he decided to lighten the mood.  Humming to himself softly, he made a neutral statement.  "It, um, h-has a, um, h-h-hair trigger o-on it, y-you know."  He held a straight face for only a few moments before he burst out laughing.  He was relieved to see the laughter in Coal's eyes, as well.  "S-see, it's n-not so bad."

Nathan emptied the water and ran some fresh.  He then washed Coal's hair and face carefully.  Afterwards, he massaged lotion into Coal's skin, again paying special attention to his feet.  Once that was finished, he dressed Coal in fresh boxers and a clean button up shirt.  Nathan then combed Coal's hair and brushed his teeth.  Then, he excused himself from the room.

A few minutes later, Nathan returned with another CNA.  The two carefully turned Coal and began changing the bed.  They then turned Coal to the opposite side, working both the dirty sheet off the bed, and the clean one to the other side.  Afterwards, the other CNA left.

Nathan covered Coal up with a clean blanket and sheet.  He then turned on the radio and began cleaning the room.  Frequently, he would stop and make small talk with Coal.  Each time Nathan gazed into Coal's eyes, he felt that undeniable feeling growing stronger.  Though he could still not place a name to the feeling, it was a most comforting experience, nonetheless.

Nathan also reveled in the idea that he could pretty well gage Coal's thoughts through reading his expressions and eyes.  Those eyes were quite alluring to Nathan, and many times, he found himself transfixed with their shimmering sparkles of silver and blue.  If Coal was uncomfortable with Nathan's gawking, he showed no signs of it.  In fact, Nathan often found Coal staring back at him, wearing a slight smile upon his face.

When Aisa and Chance returned, Nathan talked with them for a few minutes, being certain to include Coal in the conversation.  Then, he begrudgingly excused himself to go and check on Brian.  Before leaving, though, he assured Coal that he would soon return.

As Nathan entered the room, he was pleasantly surprised to see Chet still there.  He grinned widely at Nathan, then stood to pull up a chair for Nathan to join him beside Brian's bed.  Nathan bashfully accepted the seat, all the while trying to keep his hormones in check.

Within a few minutes, an RN entered the room, checking Brian's vitals.  She then asked Nathan to follow her to the Nurse's station.  Excusing himself, Nathan quickly complied.

"Well, Nathan, I guess you have been wondering what it is you are to do with Brian.  Right now, there isn't a whole lot, other than keeping the room cleaned.  I mean, it's not like there is much of him you can bathe."  She smiled.  Nathan read her nametag, but he could not recall ever hearing of her before.

Nurse Blankenship patted his shoulder, then continued.  "Nurse Channing and Dr. Haga have left several things for you to read.  It will give you more of an idea as to what we might be dealing with once Brain comes to."  Nathan noted her stressing the word once, and he immediately liked her optimism.  "When we know for certain, we will give you more specific training.  You will also be trained by the PT in exercises that will need to be done daily.  Of course, he will have to heal before we can start any of that."

"S-so why have me w-working with him now?"  Nathan asked.  It seemed illogical for them to pull him from the floor when there were several patients on his floor who could benefit from his assistance at that given moment.

"Well, the family asked for you, for one thing."  Nurse Blankenship grinned, pinching Nathan's cheek lightly.  "Dr. Haga also wants Brian's mind to be stimulated as much as possible.  So, he wants you to talk with him."  She placed her arm on Nathan's shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze.  "He can hear you.  He can't respond much just yet, but he can hear you."

So, that was his task, to talk to Brian.  Nathan began to doubt both his effectiveness at this and everyone's insistence that he were the man for the job.  He felt he was a good listener, but he seriously did not see himself as much of a speaker.

"This will also give you a chance to learn more about Brian and those in his life.  After all, you will be spending a great deal of time with him during his recovery.  Developing a good rapport with the family will make the transition run much more smoothly."  She added.

Nurse Blankenship reached under the counter and produced a couple of books and several booklets.  She handed them to Nathan with a smirk.  "These will make a good start.  Study these and expect random quizzes."

That startled Nathan to say the least.  Nurse Blankenship laughed heartily, patting him on the back.

"Well, that is our job, Nathan.  If you are to work with Brian, you need to be familiar with the ins and outs of brain trauma.  So, we will be asking you questions.  If you are not sure about something, just ask.  We'll do our best to get you through it, and if there is something we don't know, we'll just ask Dr. Haga."
  She explained.  "For now, just talk with Brian and the family.  Learn what you can from them.  Study these as you have the chance.  And, tidy up as it's needed."

Nathan wasn't sure what to think about everything.  He felt overwhelmed and completely over his head.  Still, he would give it a try.  He owed Nurse Channing and Garrett that much, at least.  So, he tucked the materials under his arm and headed back into Brian's room.

There, he spent the next hour and a half listening to Chet's stories of his adventures with Brian.  Nathan made comments here and there, but Chet did most of the talking.  On occasion, he would ask things about Nathan.  During those times, Nathan felt almost on the spot, and he would bashfully give his answers as best he could.  He did notice that he became less and less tongue-tied as Nathan became more comfortable being around Chet.

Nathan then went to his locker to retrieve the lunch cooler.  Once back in Coal's room, he gave Aisa and Chance their lunch.  He also fed Coal his broth and jello.  Coal did not seem too fond of the broth, but Nathan did not allow him to put up much of a fuss.  The jello was better received, however. 

"I think ice c-c-cream is b-better, too." 
Nathan laughed, reading Coal's expressions over his meal.  "M-maybe I can bring, um, m-more tomorrow." 

Coal seemed very pleased with the idea, which made Nathan almost glow inside.  Seeing Coal happy was rapidly becoming a top priority for Nathan, and it seemed completely natural to Nathan for some reason.  One thing was for certain in Nathan's mind:  Coal was special to him.

After visiting with Coal for a little while, Nathan noticed it was time for Garrett's lunch.  He again excused himself, and then rode the elevator down to the bottom floor.  Garrett was waiting for him in the lobby, smiling intently as he spied the cooler.  The two made their way to the cafeteria, finding a table by the window.

Nathan unpacked their lunches while Garrett got them sodas from the vending machine.  As Nathan was getting ready to open his container, he thought of Chet.  'Nobody should have to eat the cafeteria food.' he thought to himself.  Then, Nathan was not so hungry anymore.  He explained his lack of appetite to Garrett as he put the unopened container back into the cooler.   Drinking his soda, he shared conversation with Dr. Kersey as the handsome man ate.  Just as Garrett was taking the last bite, he was paged to the ER.  He hugged Nathan fondly before returning to his post.  Nathan cleaned up their mess, then returned to Brian's room.

As Nathan entered, Chet mentioned that he was going to go to the cafeteria.  He was almost speechless, though, when Nathan gave him the container.  With a few minor protests, Chet finally settled down in a chair to eat his lunch.  Nathan spent that time talking with Brian, taking a few sideways glances at his handsome roommate.  After Chet finished his lunch, Nathan cleaned up a bit.  He then spent the remainder of his shift alternating his time between Brian and Coal.

With Max closing the diner due to the snow, Nathan had the evening off.  Having a couple of hours before his Moma and Papa would be by to the hospital, Nathan headed to Coal's room.  There, he found Coal sleeping, along with Chance and Aisa.  He quietly pulled out one of the books Nurse Blankenship had given him and began reading.  Time escaped Nathan, for soon, he heard the familiar sounds of his Moma's voice.

"Hey!"  He exclaimed, racing across the room and hugging his parents firmly.  "I was j-just reading."  He explained.  "I, um, s-started working w-with Brian, t-t-t-today."  He filled them in on the details of his day.

"My baby must be starving."
  Jena said, curling Nathan up in her warm embrace.  "That was very sweet of you, honey."

Jason giggled softly.  "I guess this Chet found it sweet, too."

Nathan blushed, laughing with his Papa.  "W-well, Chet is real s-sweet to, um, l-look at."

"Somehow, I thought as much, son."
  His father grinned, wrapping Nathan in his arms.  "My little Romeo."

"Well, why don't I run you and the boys home so you can get something to eat.  Your Papa can stay here and keep Coal company, then ride home with Stormy once they get here."
  Jena suggested.

Jason woke the sleeping Aisa and Chance.  Nathan said his quiet goodbye to Coal, not wanting to disturb his rest.  He then hugged his Papa before they left for home.

During the ride back to the old hotel, Nathan chatted with his Mama and cousins about some of the things he had read about brain trauma.  There was still much Nathan needed to read, but he was developing a fair grasp of what Brian might be facing.  This brought about a mixed bag of emotions for Nathan.

After a quick dinner, Nathan took a hot shower.  Thoughts of Coal, Garrett, and Chet brought him to an aroused state.  After dealing with that situation, Nathan dressed in a pair of comfortable jeans and an A & F t-shirt.  He then had a thought, and proceeded to pack a bag with a clean uniform, underclothes, and grooming supplies.  He headed downstairs to the living room.

"Moma.  U-uncle Kal.  I th-think I, um, want to, y-you know, s-s-stay w-with Coal tonight." 
He felt his cheeks growing hot as he explained his decision.

They seemed to be studying him for a moment, before his Moma replied.  "Well, honey, if that's what you want to do, I don't have a problem."  She smiled.  "Anything special we need to bring in the morning?" 

"C-coal liked the, um, ice cream.  M-maybe some more of th-that w-w-would be good."  Nathan stated after a bit of thought.  "I-is it OK with you, Uncle K-Kal."

Kal smiled fondly at Nathan.  "I have a feeling Coal will like the idea, too."  A thought seemed to strike his mind.  "You think you can get Malice into the backpack if someone comes?"

Nathan pondered that for a moment.  Malice had not been unfriendly to him, per say, but she was not exactly sociable with Nathan, either.  "Y-you want m-me to t-t-try now?"  He asked.

Kal giggled as he seemed to be thinking about Nathan's question.  "Maybe it would be better for you to sit beside her in the van.  Let her get used to you first.  Then, you can try to get her into the backpack before we take her into the hospital."  Kal suggested.

Malice looked at Nathan intently during the ride to the hospital.  He tried a couple of times to reach out for her, but she avoided his touch.  Not once, though, did her gaze at him break.  Just as Nathan was about to give up on winning Malice over, she settled down beside him, resting her head upon his thigh. 

Through narrow slits, she continued to watch him.  Her tail twitched back and forth in a slow but steady rhythm.  Nathan was just not sure what to make of her.  He had never really been around a cat before.  As she stretched and yawned, Nathan noticed the size of her teeth; as she flexed her paws, he noted her large claws.  That helped Nathan to decide not to push the issue with the temperamental feline.

Once they arrived at the hospital, Kal got out and opened the side door.  He pet Malice fondly for a moment, then nodded his head to Nathan.  Very slowly, Nathan reached his hand over and gently stroked her back.

Malice tensed immediately, turning her head to glare at him with wide eyes.  Nathan knew for sure that she was about to attack.  But, much to his surprise, she just turned her head back to Kal, arching up to meet Nathan's stroking hand.

Nathan carefully moved his other hand and began petting her under her neck.  After a few moments, he slowly pulled her to his lap.  He petted her for a minute, then picked her up cautiously. 

Kal held out the backpack, and Nathan slowly lowered Malice into it.  "You g-g-gotta hide if, um, y-you w-w-wanna see your, um, d-daddy."  He said in a soothing voice. 

Kal zipped up the backpack and placed it into his arms.  Smiling at Nathan, he chuckled.  "Well, I guess you are one of the elite few.  Malice doesn't like many people, so consider yourself privileged."

Kanawha chuckled as well.  "You've got that right.  That is one moody cat, worse than I've ever seen your Moma get."

Nathan laughed as they entered the elevator.  "Hmm. I f-f-feel like a s-s-spy or s-something."

Nathan saw a look in Kal's eyes as he quickly shot Kanawha a glare.  "Love, don't even say what I know you are thinking."

Kanawha chuckled.  "Am I that obvious, Love?"

"It's a good line, so I know you are dying to say it."  Kal smirked.  "Just don't."

Kanawha wrapped Kal into his bulky arms.  "OK.  Just as long as you know.  Geez.  Take all the fun out of things."  The grin on his face let Nathan know he was only jesting.

Once they arrived to the third floor, the three quickly navigated their way to Coal's room.  Nathan locked the door immediately.  Turning, he smiled at Kal.  "OK.  Y-you can l-l-let her out, now."

Malice found her way to Coal in record time.  Nathan felt humbled as he watched the affectionate way Malice regarded her daddy.  Once she settled down, Nathan made his way to Coal.

"I-I'm g-gonna stay with you!"
  He announced excitedly.  He was relieved to read the same enthusiasm in Coal's eyes.  "U-uncle Kal said he, um, th-thought you might l-like the idea."

Nathan took a seat next to Coal, reaching out to wrap Coal's arm around Malice.  Her purring increased immediately, and Nathan took the opportunity to scratch her lightly between the ears.  Coal's eyes gleamed when Malice did not hiss at Nathan.

"I think sh-sh-she l-likes me."  Nathan grinned.

As his Papa and uncles visited with Coal, Nathan sat by his side.  Occasionally, he would reach over and pet Malice.  And each time, he was thrilled that the picky feline made no move to attack.  As the afternoon turned to evening, Kal announced it was time for them to leave.

Nathan hugged them each goodbye.  "Tell Moma I-I said n-night."  He told his Papa.  "T-tell her I l-love her, too."

"Will do, son."  Jason replied, kissing Nathan on the forehead.  "I love you son.  If you need us, call."

"I w-will.  A-a-and I l-love you, too."  Nathan sighed.

After they left, Nathan secured the door once more.  He turned on the radio and hummed a bit to the music.  Then, from out of the blue, he began telling Coal about his future plans with Hospice.  He also talked about his family and friends.  At some point, Nathan noticed that Coal seemed very tired.

"Hmm. I g-guess I've a-about t-t-t-talked your, um, ear off, huh?"  He smiled.  "You g-get you s-s-s-some sleep."  Nathan stood up and kissed Coal on the forehead.  "I'll b-be here, s-so don't worry."  He assured Coal.  He then kissed his forehead once more.  "N-night."

Nathan rearranged the chair and made it out into a bed so that it was along side Coal's.  He reached over and grasped Coal's hand, stroking it fondly with his thumb.  As sleep began to claim him, something occurred to Nathan.

In the past, Nathan had spent many a night comforting men while he had been a child of the night.  With Coal, however, it was completely different.  And that is when he was finally able to place a name to the feeling he had whenever he gazed into Coal's beautiful eyes.  'Worthy.' Nathan realized.  Coal made him feel like he was worthwhile, not the bane of blackness he had always envisioned himself to be.

Nathan raised Coal's hand to his lips, gently kissing his fingers.  Giving it a gentle squeeze, he returned Coal's hand to rest on the bed, softly stroking it with his thumb.  Smiling contentedly, Nathan settled into a restful sleep.  For the first time in a long, long while, Nathan slept the whole night through, not once being plagued by nightmares of any kind.

Well, that finishes chapter five.  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