~~ The South Wind ~~

by TJ


Evening had come to Four Corners and almost everyone had settled down from the morning’s excitement. Everyone except a angry, menacing gunslinger…

After confronting the woman, Larabee had stormed off and had been alone in the sheriff’s office ever since. No one had dared disturb the foul mood he’d worked himself into.

Instead, the town and its peacekeepers had gone about their daily business. The remainder of the day had been uneventful and now the setting sun had brought out the usual assortment of nightlife. Excluding the intense poker game going on at the corner table, the saloon was its normal center of activity.

Bill Thomas and Harry Watkins had been traveling east on the late stage to Eagle Bend. They had decided to stop over in town before continuing on their journey. Both men had exchanged knowing looks when a fancy southern gentleman had suggested a ‘friendly game' of Five-Card Stud. Neither, of course, knew of the gambler’s reputation and Standish took full advantage of that fact.

Along with several of the townsfolk, four of The Seven stood around the table watching the card game. Nathan and Josiah had agreed earlier that Ezra would prevail at the end of the evening and were now positioned behind him to observe the outcome.

Buck stood squarely behind his newest friend. He’d warmed nicely to the woman and believed she could beat the southerner again tonight.

As usual, John Dunne was just caught up in the excitement of the moment and migrated around the table as he saw fit.

The only wild card at the table tonight was Athena. The two new visitors had strongly objected at a ‘woman’ playing but the gambler had assured them that she had money and could play. It was as though Ezra and Athena had been playing a game of cat and mouse the past few days. Domination of their nightly poker games had alternated equally, yet the gambler seemed to have lost no money. He somehow found himself drawn to the young lady but they still had not spoken.

During this evening’s game, assets had been exchanged between all participants and none of them were ready to give up. All the players had money left in their pockets as the last round was called. The kitty still held a small amount of money left over from the last hand. The ante had been upped a couple of times during the night and now sat at five dollars. Watkins was to deal the final round and as he shuffled, everyone threw in their money. The gathered crowd grew silent as Harry slowly dealt out the hold and up cards. Bill’s three was the lowest card showing after the deal and he started the game by adding another five in the pot. The remaining players matched that bet.

The next round of up cards was dealt and Ezra smiled inside. He had a pair of queens while Bill and Harry appeared to have nothing. Opposite the gambler, Athena had an eight and jack of diamonds. Everyone bet with their cards and the dealer handed everyone another up card.

Bill now had a pair of sevens while the woman drew the seven of diamonds. Standish had received a two and Harry still had nothing. At this point in the game, none of the hold cards had been touched. The southerner raised the bet another five and Bill and Athena called. Watkins was frustrated and finally checked his hold card. He cussed under his breath and threw in his hand.

Standish took in his remaining opponents as Harry dealt the third round of up cards. Thomas seemed nervous to the experienced eye but the young lady across the table showed no hint of emotion. She held the possibility of a flush in her hand but no one could tell by her face.

The gambler tested the lady’s resolve with a gentle smile as he caught her eye. Still there was no emotion to be read as she simply stared at him. She certainly does possess excellent skills.

The game continued.

Excitement grew as the onlookers talked quietly amongst themselves. Harry had completed the deal of the final up card to the remaining players. Ezra drew another queen while Bill drew another seven. Athena’s card was the nine of diamonds. Thomas fumbled with his cards and then chose to peek at his hold card. After several anxious seconds, he folded. There was just no way his sevens could beat the queens and four of a kind was out of the question as ‘the woman’ already had one.

Standish studied the hand and face of his last opponent. Still he could see no hint of emotion. After looking briefly at his three of a kind, he glanced at each one of their hold cards. Neither he, nor the young lady, had looked at them yet.

Athena closed her eyes while the gambler considered the cards. After careful deliberation, she heard him call. As her eyes opened the corner of the woman’s lips curled and she bet.

The gambler weighed his chances. He showed three royal ladies and a deuce. The woman had an eight, jack, seven and nine of diamonds. If she held another diamond, she would beat him but if he had another lady, he would win.

Understanding that the game could go either way, he decided to finally look at his hold card. The gambler turned the corner of his card up gently and considered his options again. Several anxious seconds past before he saw the bet, raised it another ten and called.

The woman sat still and looked deep into the green eyes that now pierced her soul. From this man she needed no touch to tell her his deepest thoughts. He was so very good at this game they had been playing but he was even better at another. In her heart, Athena could sense his deep longing. If this desire was so strong in his essence then why did he hide it so much? These green eyes told a much deeper story than their owner cared to admit. This man’s journey to a new place would need to happen before…

The southerner had become accustomed to the lady’s unusual stare over the past few nights. When she looked at him, he had a hard time concentrating on his cards. Tonight though, he sensed that she was completely lost in thought. He shuffled in his seat to regain her attention. Although she still hadn’t looked at her hold card, Athena smiled at him, matched his bet, raised another ten and called.

Ezra’s smile was wide as he turned up his hold card to reveal the remaining queen. Applause sounded as everyone congratulated themselves on a game well played. The crowd seemed pleased with the gambler’s win and Nathan and Josiah congratulated him.

Disgusted with the outcome, Bill and Harry departed with the thinning crowd.

Athena held her stare throughout the long moments it took for the crowd to disperse. Still unmoving in her chair, she finally stood, tilted her head and gave the gambler a gently ingratiating smile.

Standish nodded an acknowledgement before tipping his hat and reaching to gather the pot.

Intent on collecting his winnings, the southerner was still leaning across the table when he noticed Athena slowly pick up her hold card.

Without looking at it, she placed it carefully in his breast pocket.

Confused by her actions, the gambler frowned.

Looking deep into his sea green eyes, the young lady tilted her head once more. Smiling coyly, she turned and walked silently out of the saloon.

Ezra followed her with his gaze before glancing at the other four peacekeepers still present.

They all shared the same questioning look.

Straightening his stance, Standish slowly removed the card from his pocket and turned it over. The card he held was another diamond… but it was the ten.

As he climbed the stairs towards her room, the gambler could feel his apprehension growing. She obviously knew her straight flush beat my four of a kind! Why did she conceded defeat and let me take the money that was rightfully hers? Lost in his thoughts, he stood outside her door quietly contemplating his next move. Slowly Ezra retrieved the money from his pocket and considered it carefully. Well, she did give it to me!

Movement prompted his attention and Standish raised his head and looked at the young woman who stood in front of him. He hadn’t heard Athena open the door. Her appearance had altered slightly from an hour ago. Her long blond hair flowed freely around her shoulders and she was barefoot on the cold, wooden floor.

The couple held each other’s gaze complete…

After a long minute of silence, she waved him in.

The southerner removed his hat and gave a brief, courteous nod before entering.

Athena slowly closed the door.

The southerner stared at the wall rather than face the woman. A declaration of this nature might be simple for most but for Standish, the words would not come easy. He had no idea how to relate the facts… let alone look into her eyes when he made the statement. Although he had no clear understanding of why, the way Athena looked at him always made him…

The words will just be easier if I didn’t have to see her eyes.

Standish cleared his throat. "It appears there has been an error," he began. "The victory and the spoils of our final contest are rightfully yours, my dear lady." He turned and held out the money for her but still avoided her eyes.

The woman made no move to retrieve the currency. She looked at the gambler intently. She wanted only for him to return her stare.

After several long seconds, he complied with her silent request. Yet, as he gazed at her, Ezra knew something was different. He had unknowingly, become accustomed to her gentle smile and couldn’t comprehend why it wasn’t there. What could I possibly have done wrong? Perhaps my actions are repulsive? Perhaps it’s just me! Moving past the woman quickly, Standish reached for the door handle.

She watched him move towards the door. "Do not go," Athena beckoned quietly. She looked deeply into his eyes as he turned around. "I can not take the money, sir. I conceded the game to you before my hold card was revealed."

Ezra shook his head. "But you already knew the identity of your card." He was certain of his facts. "You knew your hand was triumphant. Why did you relinquish the victory?" He truly could not conceive her actions. Crossing the room again, the gambler placed the money on the small table. His back was to the lady once more. "The money is rightfully yours," he turned slowly to look at her. "I will not profit from deceit!"

Athena still had not moved. "There was no intended deception, sir. I simply cannot take the money. The one hundred and forty seven dollars was meant for you."

Standing beside the table, the southerner sighed and set his hat down. He leafed the money before turning to look at Athena again. He simply stood and stared. How could she possibly have known the amount of money that the kitty held? "How did you…"

"The numbers have set your play in motion, sir. The outcome is yours alone to resolve."

Her words were poetic but their meaning was lost on the gambler. He looked deep into her beautiful hazel eyes and became transfixed. Never before had he witnessed such unguarded emotions in a simple look.

Athena returned his gaze with growing excitement. This man was so very handsome… even to the point of distraction. Yet, it was not his physical form alone that attracted her. She could feel the depths of his soul and see all that he hid from the world. There was truly more to this man than she had anticipated.

And, the lady wanted… more.

As they slowly drew closer to each other her words softened to a seductive pitch. "You are no stranger to deception, sir… It is a performance you have mastered well."

Ezra’s poker face was in full play as they held each other’s eyes. Again, they moved to close the distance between them.

"Why do you hide your true self from those who stand strongest beside you?" she moved the conversation to the topic she needed to pursue.

Standish was taken aback by the direct nature of the questions. Clearly, she could see right through the obscurity in which he chose to surround himself.

"Why can you not reveal your doubts and fears to your friends?" she questioned again.

They held each other’s gaze so completely.

"My associates do not view the world in the same manner as I," he tried to convince her.

"Might I suggest that only you, are of that opinion, sir?"

The southerner was truly beginning to dislike the designation she called him and thought he might distract her from her current conversation. He smiled. "It would please me greatly, if you would call me Ezra."

She acknowledged his attempt to divert her attention but could not pass up this opportunity to set this man on his path. Her words were but a whisper as she spoke. "Your brotherhood within The Seven is deserved, Ezra Standish… but the fellowship will be tested. It is vulnerable unless all components understand their place. You must embrace the solidarity of your peers."

Clearly disheartened by her statement, the gambler tried again to distract the woman from her train of thought. His voice, too, barely audible outside of their close confines, "You seem to indicate that I beguile my associates in some way. I must take exception to that statement, dear lady. When a conflict is at hand, I believe we all contribute equally. If you had been present for any length of time you would have observed this for yourself… instead of jumping to false conclusions."

They were so close now that each could feel the other’s breath.

"And when those battles have been fought you simply mask your existence and turn away from the men who stand strongest beside you."

"I do not welcome your observances," he tried to be angry and lowered his chin. "They are untrue." Standish spoke the words but in his heart, he did not believe them. He knew every word she uttered was the truth. His belief was simply... That no matter how hard he tried, he just didn’t fit in with the others… But, I… really don’t try that hard… Do I? Could it really be true? Do I bring this estrangement on myself? Could it truly be damaging to our little fraternity?

As he raised his head to look at her again, Athena’s lip curled ever so gently.

Ezra could not resist touching her. He returned her smile and the momentary anger faded as he slowly ran his finger through her hair. When she showed no resistance, he leaned in to kiss her gently.

And, when the embrace was over, they repeated it twice more.

Athena welcomed his touch. It would afford her a greater opportunity to look more deeply into his heart. She blushed under his gaze and they kissed again… this time longer and harder. When their lips parted, the woman’s eyes lowered and she drew in a long easy breath. Slowly, she backed away to the door before turning. She stood staring at the key for several long seconds before she felt his hands on her shoulder.

Sensing her hesitation, Standish took his own deep deliberate breath and forced back his longing. Ever the gentleman, he smiled for her. "My dear lady," he whispered. "I believe it is time for me to go."

She too, smiled softly, closed her eyes… and turned the key.

Tanner had spent the night silently watching over his leader.

It had been late when the tracker finally couldn’t stand his thoughts anymore. The town was quiet and the woman’s reflections were strangely absent from his mind. With nothing else to occupy him, Vin’s attentions had drifted to his best friend’s disposition. He knew the blond was seething below the surface. He understood that nothing bothered Chris more than no having control over his own fate.

The sharpshooter had tossed ideas around in his head as he made his way to the jail. But, he was no more in control, than the gunslinger was. How could Vin possibly defuse the growing tension between Larabee and the woman? Different scenarios played through his mind, but nothing seemed practical given the two personalities involved. Stubborn ain’t always s a good thing! Finally deciding that maybe his presence alone would be enough to calm his best friend, the tracker went on inside their office and found a chair.

They didn’t talk. They barely even acknowledged each other’s company. They were simply together and each man took comfort in that fact throughout the night.

As the townsfolk slowly awoke and went about their business, Tanner finally took in his leader’s form. At first glance, the blond appeared calm, but Vin’s refined senses told him otherwise. It had been well over a week since Chris had left town. It was obvious that he was feeling hemmed in. Athena had been here all that time and her constant presence was matters worse. Perhaps he could convince Larabee to visit his place for a couple of hours. It might give the gunslinger a better perspective on the situation. Nodding his concurrence with his own idea, the tracker sat up in his chair. "Figured it’s ‘bout time ya took a ride out tah ya homestead," he suggested. "Me and the boys can look after things here for a spell."

The gunslinger didn’t react but he considered the offer for a while. Maybe the sharpshooter was right. A little space and fresh air couldn’t do him any harm. It would be good not to have that woman looking at him all the time. "Maybe!" was his only reply.

"Reckon while yer thinkin’ on it, I’ll go get maself some coffee." He got to his feet and waved to the door. "Join me?"

Larabee eyed the man curiously. The tracker knew just when to back off and just when he could break Chris out of his moods. He looked at Tanner and bestowed upon him his usually hidden smile. Gaining his feet, the blond joined his younger friend as they headed out to get some breakfast.

The rising sun cast long shadows across the suite as the dim light revealed the room’s occupants. Athena rested face down on the bed, while Ezra lay gently against her back listening to her breathing and her heartbeat. He moved her hair aside and gently ran his fingers over the tattoo that adorned her back. The intricacy of the design fascinated him yet; he couldn’t help but notice how it was etched into her skin. "Did it hurt when they did this to you?" he asked quietly.

He could not see the woman close her eyes in response.

A long moment past as they both contemplated the red wolf.

Standish had no real understanding of the creature depicted in the marking. It looked much like the wild animals he had seen once. He could only wonder why the ‘red wolf’ was so significant… And, why the woman seemed branded with it.

Studying the markings, the southerner smiled gently. It was beautiful. This woman was beautiful… He slowly began to question why she would waste her time worrying about The Seven… and him? His thought finally got the best of him… "Why do you concern yourself so readily with my attachment to my… friends?" Standish hadn’t noticed how uncomfortable he felt using this word. Umm, Perhaps I should use it more often!

"All of you must belong completely if The Seven are to endure. You must see Destiny together."

Standish allowed the woman to turn under him before resting his head on her chest.

"You must believe in your heart that your contributions are important. You must understand without questioning. History must know The Seven," she fingered his hair softly as she spoke.

Ezra acknowledged her poetry with a sigh. History must know The Seven? How Curious!

Glancing up at her, the southerner smiled. "I fear I will never belong ‘completely’..." he huffed. "Mr. Larabee sees to that. "

Her caressing stopped. "Then it is only the dark one that you fear?"

Ezra laughed. "My dear, Athena," he smiled, setting his head back to her breast. "The ‘dark one’, as you call him, is ‘The Seven’. Without Mr. Larabee I conclude, there would be no brotherhood."

The woman frowned. "Then you believe another man holds your fate?"

Standish thought hard on her words. This can’t be true! … Can it! Do I really look at Chris Larabee in those terms?

Suddenly Ezra was standing high above the Seminole village. A very irate gunslinger growled his caution… Don’t ever run out on me again!

Ezra gazed at the curtains that hung in the window. Have we really been at odds with one another since that day? … Or is it me? Am I the one who prevents any relationship from forming? Not just with Chris… but with the others, too.

The gambler was seriously questioning himself. He frowned, clearly confused. But, the more he thought on her words, the more they made sense. His view of his friends slowly began to change. Until this very moment, he had believed that the men, who stood beside him, really didn’t want him there. He doubted their gestures of friendship and as such, continually detached himself from them whenever he deemed it necessary. But, …maybe it wasn’t them

Ezra thought deeply… This woman was succeeding in showing him a completely different way of looking at his world. Perhaps there really were seven of them after all!

Wrapping his arm around her body, he cuddled the woman close. "What price do you pay for such inspiring insight, Athena?"

Standish watched as the smile slowly left the woman’s face. He leaned up and kissed her gently. "Perhaps, knowing a man so completely… is not as effortless as you convey."

Athena closed her eyes for a brief second. Yes! …He is so very good at this game he plays.

Taking a deep purposeful breath, the woman quickly wiped the distracting reflections from her mind. She returned his smile, satisfied in the knowledge that she had accomplished what she set out to do. Given enough time to consider her words, in combination with his own thoughts, Ezra Standish would understand his place within The Seven.

Playing with his hair, Athena smiled. Three more… but the others will not be this easy!

Entering the saloon, John Dunne looked around and frowned. Seeing the gathering at their usual table, he ventured over. "Anyone seen Ezra today?"

The preacher considered the question. "Come to think of it… not since last night."

"He can’t still be in bed at this hour," added Jackson. "Even Ezra’s not that lazy."

JD took up a seat. "Nope… already checked his room," he clarified. Pulling out a deck of cards, he sighed. "I was wanting him to finish teaching me how tah do that fancy shuffle but I can’t find him anywhere. Thought I’d at least see him at lunch… but nothing." The disappointment was so clear in his voice that he hadn’t really realized what he was saying.

Hearing the hidden words in the kid’s declaration, Josiah sat up straight in his chair. "Maybe it’s time we take a look around, brothers," the preacher suggested.

Jackson was deep in thought. "Ya know…" he huffed, "Now that you mention it… I ain’t see the girl neither!"

Suddenly realizing what the implication was, Wilmington looked at the healer suspiciously. "Now hold on there, Nathan… You ain’t suggestin’…"

The healer pursed his lips humorously. "Ain’t suggestin’ nothin’. Just sayin’ I ain’t seen her, is all."

At the bar, the tracker tipped his hat to Inez and headed out the door. He overheard the conversation and stopped. "Ain’t seen who?"

Smiling at Vin’s arrival, the kid’s expression quickly changed to disappointment. "Ezra…" he responded.

Looking at Buck teasingly, Nathan smirked. "Or Athena."

Tanner considered the statement for a minute. Come to think of it… he hadn’t seen the woman either… and her thoughts were still absent from his consciousness. "I’ll take a look around," he suggested suspiciously. Nodding to the others, he continued towards the door.

Settling back in, the remaining men continued their previous discussion.

Once outside, the sharpshooter gazed about town trying to figure out where best to start looking. Glancing south his eyes came to rest on Ezra and Athena as they departed her hotel together.

Standish kissed the lady lightly on the cheek as they parted company. She headed for the livery, while the gambler headed toward the restaurant.

From deep inside the tracker, some unexplained rages came rushing out. Tanner moved to intercept the southerner as he crossed the street. He looked at him sternly as they met up. "You got somethin’ you wanna tell me?" the sharpshooter questioned.

"And a pleasant good morning to you, Mr. Tanner," the gambler smiled at Vin and continued to walk.

"It’s long past noon, Standish." the tracker almost growled the name.

Ezra stopped. He was a little surprised by the sharpshooter’s tone but made light of the situation. "Really? …Well… I don’t believe I have anything that requires discussing at this point in time," he raised an eyebrow and slapped his friend on the shoulder.

The tracker frowned. His refined senses told him that Ezra just wasn’t his usual self. He grabbed the man’s arm and swung him around to look in his face. "Yeah… I think you do," he insisted.

"My dear, Mr. Tanner..." Standish started… He quickly rethought his words as he looked into the tracker’s eyes. For some unknown reason Ezra was amused with his fellow peacekeeper… He smirked. "Why, Vin…If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were jealous."

Vin! …

Oh, now the sharpshooter knew something was wrong… And, he still couldn’t shake the feeling he had in his gut. He’d seen too many women taken advantage of and it was second nature for him to make all of them feel like ladies... no matter who they were. And, while Tanner didn’t think Ezra would ever intentionally… do anything to hurt… Oh, but that ain’t the point… "I ain’t being jealous," he retorted. "I’s just looking out for the girl is all… " He looked at Standish curiously and for some mysterious reason the question just spilled out of his mouth. " …Did you…?"

The southerner puffed his chest as he looked back in the direction Athena had gone. His coy grin was wide. It wasn’t normal for him to disclose such personal information but he felt like a new man today. "We did indeed, Mr. Tanner… we did indeed," he smiled again and took a deep, refreshing breath "… and I do believe that young lady has shown me where I truly belong," he added. Releasing his arm, Standish patted the tracker on the back and gave his friend another big grin.

Vin watched the gambler go with a disbelieving look on his face. Ezra really ain’t himself today!

Turning to look back the way Athena had disappeared, a stern look grew on the sharpshooter’s face. For the first time in more than a week, Tanner found himself questioning the woman’s reasons for being in their town. What’s she really up to?And, why won’t she speak to me?

The tracker approached the livery guardedly. He was looking for Athena but he spotted Chris preparing his horse. "Heading out for a couple ‘a hours?" he questioned cautiously.

Larabee was adjusting the strap on his saddle. "Thought I’d wander out to my place and check on things." He mounted up and adjusted into positioned. The blond had considered the tracker’s suggestion carefully. Things in town were quiet and he really did need time to calm down.

"You seen the girl?" Tanner asked as he glanced around.

Chris could sense a little different in his friend’s tone. "Something wrong?"

Vin shrugged. "Nah…" He was trying to convince both of them. "Just ain’t seen much of ‘er is all." Looking at the gunslinger on his horse, the tracker felt anxious. Maybe the advice he’d given Larabee that morning wasn’t so good. Maybe Chris leaving town wasn’t such a good idea after all. But, Tanner didn’t want to alarm his leader. The man really did need some time alone. Trying to lighten the mood, the tracker cracked a smile. "Don’t be gone too long… hear."

Larabee returned the tracker’s smirk. "Be back tomorrow morning… maybe," he called back as he spurred his horse north through town.

Tomorrow morning… Maybe! The sharpshooter couldn’t help believing he shouldn’t let his leader go but it was too late to stop him now. He’d suggested Chris take a ride. Going out to check on his place seemed like a good excuse. Vin watched his friend disappear in the distance. …Hadn’t figured on ya stayin’ out all night though…

Jackson demanded the tracker’s attention as he rushed in the door. "Vin… I think you need tah see this?"

Wilmington and Tanner had been talking over their morning coffee. Their attention was quickly drawn to the open doorway.

Athena stood right in the middle of the Main Street. Her hands were outstretched and her eyes were closed tightly.

Beside her stood a sure-footed silver beast...

The sharpshooter’s eyes locked on the animal as he jumped to his feet. An Arctic Wolf?The fourth guardian?

With Tanner leading the way, the three peacekeepers moved cautiously outside.

"It’s too early in the day for any kind 'a prayin’. Ain’t it?" Jackson questioned as they stepped off the boardwalk. "But what else could she be doin’?"

Close on Vin’s heels, the ladies’ man shrugged. "Maybe she’s callin’ that horse of hers. That’s kind ‘a like she did it the first mornin’ she was here."

Tanner frowned. "Don’t think so…"

Buck and Nathan could sense that their friend’s mood had become all too serious, far too quickly. They held back and watched as the sharpshooter moved closer to the girl as she began to speak softly.

The tracker’s movements were deliberately and slow. He glanced cautiously at the wolf before focusing on the woman.

"Hotamema sephao’o," she repeated, over and over.

Jackson could make out the Indian dialect. "What’s she saying, Vin?"

The sharpshooter listened for a moment. He cocked his head. "Crazy dogs!"

"Dogs?" Wilmington repeated.

"Crazy dogs… as in renegades," Vin clarified. He’d heard the terms native people used to refer to all manner of rebels and traitors… white or red skinned. Looking back at Athena, Tanner tried to remember his words. "Tonesto?" he asked.

There was a long silence before she answered his question, "Na’ha."


Neither the woman nor the wolf moved, as the sharpshooter turned to the others to explain. "She’s warnin’ us of riders comin’ in and I’m guessin’ they ain’t aimin’ on bein’ too friendly."

Buck jaw line grew tense. "Does she know how many?" he asked apprehensively.

"I just asked that," Tanner replied anxiously as he looked around town. "… All she said was three times as many."

Nathan’s eyes widened with concern. "Three times as many… as us?"

"I reckon."

"Sweet Jesus!" Jackson exclaimed. The words served as both his declaration of dread and as a prayer.

Buck looked around cautiously. "Where’s Chris?"

Tanner looked at his friend before averting his eyes. "I sent him out ‘a town yesterday. Was hoping maybe he’d cool down some…" Rubbing his chin, he cocked his head. "Reckon I thought… he’d be back before trouble came."

The rogue pursed his lips angrily. "Reckon you thought wrong!" His emotions quickly heating up, Buck shook his head. He was exasperated with the tracker and his news and his tone conveyed that. And Larabee… Just when they needed their leader, the most, he wasn’t around. His oldest friend’s brooding was really starting to piss Buck off again. "How long, Athena?" The ladies’ man tried to question the girl.

Vin’s eyes traveled back to the woman.

A long moment past before she finally replied. "Exanenestse."

The sharpshooter cocked his head again. "All she’s sayin’ is tah get ready," he translated. "Can’t be long… best get the others."

As Nathan and Buck moved out to gather the remaining peacekeepers, Tanner considered the girl as she stood in front of him. Clearly, she was still lost on the winds. Guilt suddenly plagued his consciousness. He’d been wrong to question her motives yesterday. Just as she had said when she arrived, she really was here to help. Vin laid a hand softly on her shoulder before turning to walk away.

Slowly, Athena opened her eyes and watched the tracker retreat. Unlike the others, this man’s mind was free. He had learned much during his time with the tribes. He was able to hear and speak with his heart as she did. Yet, he concealed a profoundly intimate secret that he believed distinguished him from his friends. He kept this confidence hidden so deep within, that she had not been able to discover its nature. Now even his touch had not cleared his thoughts for her to read. She saw instead something that worried her. His gentle hand had revealed the path he was to walk. The tracker’s touch told Athena that Vin was to question more than just her intentions in the hours and days to come.


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