Worst Birthday Ever

Roy's big hands were gentle, but firm as he tried to work a bad cramp from Maria's lower left calf. She was whimpering a little because the knot in the muscle was being stubborn. She was a little too young and tender-fleshed for something like the Ben-gay or icy hot lineament he would use for himself.

It took him a while before it relaxed even a little and the by then hurting young girl looked up at him over her shoulder, with tear-filled eyes. "Uncle Roy..."

"Let's try something else, like soaking it in a warm, Epsom salt bath, this isn't working this time, Maria." He told her, standing and then scooping her small form up and heading for the bathroom.

He settled her on the closed toilet seat, her calf still visibly knotted and she was breathing through her mouth in stutters as she tried not to cry. He plugged the tub, poured out a measure of the salts, then turned on the water, adjusting it to something appropriate for the seven-year-old next to him. He ran his fingers through her hair a few times, attempting to soothe her.

"Worst birthday ever." She told him a wet voice, she'd been fighting tears all day, the cramp in her leg had been the last straw, shattering her control.

"I know." He soothed the child. "I also know that he didn't even remotely mean it the way it sounded."

She just looked up at him, then shuddered as the tears finally escaped. He sighed, tested the bathwater with his hand and stirred it to make sure the salts were dissolved.

"Okay, it's ready, let's get you in it." He stripped her down and put her in carefully. It took a little while, but the hot salts did the job. Soon enough he had her out, cramp free and in a big towel. He handed her clean underwear to put on before the towel came off.

"He didn't." He repeated, "He loves you as much as I do and I wouldn't, so he would not. Which means, either he wasn't talking about you...or he wasn't referring to what it sounded like. You are his little one, remember? So, it's one or the other."

"Then why wasn't he here?"

Roy paused to get her nightgown on. "I don't know." He answered honestly.

"I still think he changed his mind, but you stayed. I don't know why." She told him, clearly grateful, but Roy was trying not to show how angry he was at his partner right then. "I don't want to stay here alone. Can I go home with you and Jo if Cousin Johnny never comes back?" She asked Roy in a tone and voice no seven-year-old child should use, looking at him with eyes far too old for that little face.

He shuddered, but gathered himself and then picked her up and headed for the rocking chair, stopping at the linen closet for a warm blanket. "Of course, but he'll be home soon. There won't be a need for you to."

He sat, unfolded it, wrapped it around her as she started to really lose it, then got her onto his lap and held her tightly, head on his shoulder and kicking the chair into motion as his partner's little girl began to sob, finally letting out the hurt filling her small heart. She cried for a very long time.

Roy DeSoto had no idea why John had apparently decided to take some broad on a date on his kid's birthday and tell the woman 'she's a little inconvenient sometimes but she won't mind all that much if I'm not here' well within the hearing of both the child and Chet of all people, then failed to appear at the child's birthday party. No, he had no idea why Johnny would hurt anyone like that, but he intended to find out what the hell Gage thought he was doing.

Because for all his excuses to the child, Roy agreed with her that it sounded exactly like what she thought it was. Three hours later, her breathing was still hitching after having finally cried herself into an exhausted sleep in Roy's arms, he'd only just put her to bed. He covered the girl and tucked her in, leaving the door cracked so he could listen for her. He wanted to be aware if she nightmared...she wasn't sleeping very deeply at all. It wouldn't take much of a push into a bad dream.

DeSoto was absolutely furious with John.

The child didn't care about birthday presents, she'd just needed John to be there on an important day. Between the comments and the lack of his presence, now the girl thought he didn't want her around anymore. She was terrified.

Roy thought about what he knew of the child, John had gotten custody of the girl four years prior when a first cousin had named him the toddler's guardian in her will, with the option to adopt her, which he had. Her birth father had died before she'd been born, in a wreck a month before that, then she'd lost her mother to long-term heart cancer a few years later.

Now John came in smelling like horses and bone-tired.

He hadn't expected the fury in DeSoto's eyes, looking at his partner in confusion. "What's wrong? Did something happen to my daughter?"

Roy nearly punched him, at the question. He managed to restrain himself, but it was close. In hoarse tones, he told John exactly what had gone wrong. The shift and their families, their kids, including Jo Anne and Roy's kids had gathered for Maria's birthday party. Everyone had been there...except her dad.

Except the one person she needed most. She'd run all over the ranch looking for him, that's how she had developed the cramp to start with. As he explained all this, John grew more and more horrified.

"So, now, she thinks you changed your mind about loving her or wanting her around. What the fuck were you thinking? She actually thanked me for staying with her tonight." Roy shuddered again. "She cried for hours while I rocked her. You come in smelling like that and then you ask 'What's wrong?' How could you hurt her like this?"

"I...I forgot what day it was. I thought her birthday was tomorrow." Tears filled his dark eyes as he considered what he'd been told, "I haven't changed my mind, no way I've changed my mind. I love my daughter, Roy."

Roy blew out a breath as he let the tension go. "I didn't think so and I told her that. But, I don't think she believed me. In fact, I know she didn't, because she made me promise her she could live with me and Jo if you left her and never came back."

"What? I'm not going to leave my kid, Roy."

Roy told his partner what she and worse, Chet, who had been following her to look at a new litter of kittens in the barn, had overheard."

"I was talking about my favorite mare...since we were going to be riding Sara's horses instead of mine." Gage told him in a tired voice. "It wasn't a date, she has some behavior issues with one of her geldings and had asked if I could sort the animal out. It was a training issue. I was focused on her horse. Mary and Sara Anderson are twins, both old enough to be my mother, they are sixty-six."

DeSoto relaxed then and nodded. "You better get in there. I just put her to bed and she was just dozing. Still waiting, I think. I'll wait until we know just how much shit is going to hit the proverbial fan."


John headed for the girl's bedroom, pausing at the door, listening to the way Maria's breathing hitched, caught a small sob in her sleep and ached for his daughter. He moved to her bed, pulled her covers back, sat next to her and drew her into his arms, onto his lap, held her close.

"I'm so sorry. I thought it was tomorrow." He told her as her eyes opened. He hated the fear he saw in the blue gaze. "I wasn't talking about you, I was taking about Bess. Mrs. Anderson was having problems with Roman again. I love you and I'm not going anywhere. Okay? Not happening. No going home with Uncle Roy, unless it's a sleepover with Crystal, right?"

Maria stilled for a moment, then nodded before wrapping her arms around her dad's shoulders and burying her face in his chest. This time, tears helped instead of just making her feel worse.

John let his own tears fall into her hair, even as he soothed her and reassured his hurting, frightened daughter. Roy brought in an extra pillow, just as well given how tear-soaked her's was. She finally slid into real sleep, worn out from the fear she was going to lose him...he held her for a long time before Roy moved forward to help put her back to bed.

He stood, covering her and tucking her in securely, brushed a kiss over her forehead, caught the whispered, 'Love you, Daddy' and his breath caught.

"Love you too, precious." He told her softly. He still hurt for her and resolved never to forget another special day. Not when doing so did this to her. "We'll go camping next month and take a few weeks, okay? Just us and my grandfather. I think it's time to ask that old shaman I'm decended from for the traditional bonding ritual. It will settle us both, make sure we're linked properly and prevent future errors of this nature."

"Okay, daddy."

"It will also make sure we stay as close as can be. I swear, I won't leave you, baby. You don't have to to be afraid."

For a man who spent his life chasing pain from other people away, to have so badly hurt his own kid was devastating. He couldn't imagine loving a natural child more than he did the little cousin he had adopted. He was also ashamed of himself, how hard was it to check a calendar before setting a training date for a horse when he knew her special day was so close? He had seen the signs that a Spirit bonding was going to be needed, but he'd resisted it because of the nature of the thing...and now this.

Roy, being a damned good partner and even better friend, had stuck close, despite the late hour: John had his head buried in his arms at the kitchen table and the slightly younger man's shoulders shook as he wept.

The cousins were a lot alike, that was why her mother had left her to John. They loved with their whole heart, holding nothing back...it make them incredibly vulnerable to those they loved, though. Especially when the adult version crying at his table knew just how much he'd hurt her. Emotionally speaking, she was a younger variation of himself, after all.

Roy was getting a little worried.

When Gage finally sat up, Roy looked at his wet face and red eyes in concern. "You gonna be okay?"

"Yeah." He answered, his voice rough with emotion. "Eventually. I need you to understand something about us. I know exactly how much I hurt my baby girl. She's got just enough physical resemblance from the family that most people can tell we're related, but emotionally...we're nearly identical, she is just like me, in the way she loves, in what she loves, in what will hurt her and the way she hurts.

My father did it to me...I was twelve when he left us after he refused to share his Spirit with me. He couldn't stay without the bond. It's a family thing. You're druid trained, so you'll get it. You know what has to happen...that's why I was fighting it so hard. I'll have to get special permits given she's likely to come home with an assortment of odd pets we'll have to house and feed."

Roy was stunned, finally understanding why they'd gotten so close so damned fast, now. "Oh, Johnny...the physical Rite to anchor the emotions...what is she going to attract?"

"Likely something big, powerful and very much opinionated...but, what's killing me, Roy, is knowing that today, I hurt my seven-year-old like that. I was too lazy to check a calendar and make sure what day I was on, before setting a date for working Mrs. Anderson's gelding.


It's that simple...and I will never forget to do that again. It will take time to reassure her, probably a couple of months before she stops checking to make sure I'm where she can get to me."

"That much alike?" He'd had a very worried John do that to him after an injury or near miss, several times.

"Yeah. We both have the Empathic Gift, deep and powerful, it's a family trait. Quite a few Gages, Fairviews and Tossles have it, strong like this. It's a large portion of what makes me a good paramedic and what guides me to a victim quickly...I follow the sense of pain and panic. It's stronger in some than others, but it's very strong in both of us. It was just as strong in her mother...that is why she sent her to me." His voice had grown thick with guilt. "I couldn't have hurt her more if I'd done it on purpose." Johnny's hands visibly trembled. "Singing Wind trusted me to understand what I was dealing with, to understand how strong of an empathetic gift her daughter has, that she needed a True Bond, that I would provide it and trusted me not to hurt Maria at all, nevermind as much as I did today."