Magnificent Seven ATF
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Eye of the Deceiver

by Deirdre

Disclaimer: The following is a work of fanfiction based on the CBS television series, The Magnificent Seven. It is in no way intended to infringe on the copyrights of CBS, MGM, The Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp., or anyone else who may have legal rights to the characters, settings or song references. I don't own the characters. This story is strictly for entertainment. No monetary gain will be made from anything contained in this story.

NOTE: Big thanks, no HUGE thanks to Julie, for her invaluable, generous and wonderful medical assistance.

NOTE 2: And thanks to Rosy for her gorgeous collage in honour of this story!


Part One

New Orleans, December 1906

She was a seductress, whose hot breath and bewitching adornments left the most staid body transfixed. A lusty entrantress whose alluring call unleashed the beast in man. Sensual and spicy, her name evokes deep romance and the magic of myths. Exotic and lush, she is steeped in Old World elegance and brimming with new blood and vitality; she bows to no one. She's a free-spirited temptress, whose rich Creole voice and murky bloodlines were tempered by Catholic tradition.

Her birth came unexpectedly, in a bath of moonlight and covered in magnolias. In the latter half of the seventeenth century, she sprung from the loins of her impatient French fathers. Their growing pains saw the establishment of many forts along the banks of the Mississippi in Louisanna. It was here in 1719, that Jean Baptiste Le Moyne christened her New Orleans. Her formative years were rooted in France, but the blushing virginal lady quickly became intoxicated by Spanish Influence. She blossomed and grew, adorned with beautiful streets, grand churches and hotels. The opulant mansions and exotic flavors were changed for good in December 1803. It was then that a tall, red-headed American visonary from Virginia, named Thomas Jefferson, pulled off one of the greasted real estate transactions in history, the Louisanna Purchase.

She grew fast, spurred onward by society and economy. The sleepy fishing communities that dotted the geography outside town, were joined by stately plantation fueled by King Cotton. The nineteenth century saw her blossom; full of rich artistry, music, literature and all that was culturally sound. The economy flourished, financed by the wealthy landowners who fed off the steamboats that prowled the great Mississippi. Like most families, she was not without controversy. The older, more cultured, French/Spanish Creoles looked down upon the crude, noveau rich Anglo Saxons from faraway strange sounding places, like Philadelphia or Baltimore. But as the years passed, the family grew and more colorful sisters were added.

Now, just a few years into the new, twentieth century, the city of saints and sinners was bursting with growth. New buildings adorned the downtown area, the center jewel of which was the elaborate, impressive and monsterous Catheral of St. Louis. Founded in 1721 and named for Louis the IX, then the King of France, the magnificent church stood tall and proud. Industry thrived and expansion brought new blood and money.

Such investors made Andre Sauville a millionaire. Like most self-made industrialists, he yearned for more. At fifty, he was a striking man. Although not physically commanding, his style, manner, dress and charm turned many heads. His jet hair was spiked with silver and the pencil thin mustache gave him a devilish smile. The wealthy widower courted and bedded most of the eligible women in town. Now, his only child, the heir to his vast fortune, was about to turn eighteen.

The elaborate grillwork on the homes that graced Bourbon Street caught his eye as the carriage drove past. Tall, pastel shutters blinked at him lazily, over wrought-iron balconies, which hovered above courtyards heady with magnolia. A slight breeze on the humid night, brought the lusty scent of spicy etouffee. His stomach reminded him of the late hour and the important date. His companion seemed to sense his unease as well.

"Why do you worry so, André?"

"You do not know her, my friend, she is spoiled, petutant, headstrong...and mon dieu, what a temper!" he shook his head, thinking on his beautiful, eighteen-year old daughter.

"A firm hand is what she needs," the tall, muscular man sneered, then chuckled, "I will have the pleasure of driving that fury from her, in our wedding bed."

"She is not like those wanton strumpets you use so carelessly," he turned to his old friend and business partner for many years. "and I won't have her spirit ruined. I want her happy and her belly full. I want grandchildren...I want an heir."

"I'll keep her belly full," Raoul Armand Moreau laughed ghoulisly, "...it will be my pleasure."

They continued in silence, until the large, gilded mansion sprung into view. Like many of his neighbors in the garden district, Andre spared no expense in creating and maintaining his estate. The ninety-five hundred square feet of splendou was a gift to his bride over twenty-five years ago. Marie had died in childbirth and his heart died with her. That child, a strikingly beautiful little girl, had become his life. Now, it was time to turn her hand over to another. The carriage drew up the curving driveway, past the beautiful plants, trees and shrubs to a gracious patio. A elderly black man in formal dress stood waiting. A soft rain began to fall as they climbed out.

"Thank you, Henri," he dictated, handing the servent his coat. "Dinner will be in one hour. Where is my daughter?"

"Upstairs, Sir, in her room. I'll have Tess see to it she is on time." He replied and bowed, taking the stranger's coat as well.

"Very good," André nodded, "Mr. Moreau and I will be in the study. "We are not to be disturbed."

Raoul eyed the massive foyer and smiled wolfishly. Soon this magnificent house and all the trimmings would be his. It was breathtaking, to the point of being obscene. The main hall was split by a rose marble staircase, which wound upstairs to the the second floor. A formal parlor, a study, library, an office were on one side. A large dining room, porch, two kitchens and a pantry were on the other. Two more floors were above, full of bedrooms, bathrooms and more. It was then he saw her, crossing the floor above. Her beauty took his breath away. Taller than most woman of the age, her golden curls and heart-shaped face were accented by large, eyes, almost amethyst color. Large, firm breasts were barely cloaked beneath the pale aqua taffeta gown.

"My God," he breathed, "I had no idea..." His head followed her as she stood, unaware of his raking eyes, above.

"Raoul?"

"Coming," he murmured, his loins tingling in anticipation. "I will have you, My Sweet..." he laughed to himself and tore his gaze away. The hour moved like a dying snail. He thought he'd never hear the dinner bell. They strode into the elegant dining room, rich ruby walls covered with fine paintings greeted his eyes. The table was full of wedgewood china, waterford crystal and fine silver. Andre nodded to the same man who greeted them, and a bottle of wine was produced

The vineyards they'd started fifteen years before, were reaping rewards. The burgundy was perfect...or so he thought. Then she appeared and a flame exploded.

"Ah...there you are, My Pet," André stood and held his hand out to the unusually quiet girl. Her features looked drawn and she looked pale. "Are you ill?"

"No, Papa, just tired," she kissed both his cheeks.

"Good," he sighed, taking her to where his quest stood. The hooded gaze was a little unsettling, but he shook it off. "This is Raoul Moreau. As you know, he is to be your husband." He felt her arm stiffen under his hand and sternly addressed her. "We spoke of this day, Petite, you know this must be done. I've known Raoul since he was eighteen. He is my partner, I trust him. I am entrusting him with my greatest treasure."

She drew her head and stared at the tall man. Her stomach soured and her insides turned to ice. He was a few inches over six feet, with thinning dark hair and an intense stare. His black eyes were undressing her and she felt him ravishing her. Those eyes and the sly smile reminded her of a fat, lazy lizard ready to snatch an unsuspecting fly for supper. He lifted her hand and kissed it, nearly causing her to vomit. She trembled, but did not yield, rather she returned the gaze, with fire in her eyes. As if sensing her rebellion, he laughed and raised a black eyebrow.

"Your beauty escapes words, My Dear," he cooed, "Perhaps after dinner, we can become more acquainted in the garden."

"Perhaps you'll die of indigestion," she retorted, causing her father to clear his throat and her intended to laugh outright.

"You have a fire and I like a challenge." He tossed back, "But you will not win..."

She bit her lip and took her chair, barely aware of the conversation. She ate little and let her mind drift. A face came into view, a set of bright sapphire eyes whose depths burned deep within her. Long, black curls and a smile that melted her. Her lips burned for his kisses, her arms ached to hold him, caress him and devour him. He was the only man she'd ever love...or belong to. Raoul and her father be damned. She felt his hand on her back and jumped. At forty-two, he was old enough to be her father.

"Is that satisifactory with you?" he purred, letting his thumb slide slowly across the nape of her lovely neck.

"W..w..w...what?" She blinked, eyes going to her father.

"Saturday, the wedding will be this weekend. Then you and Raoul will travel to Europe and return this summer. By then, you will be carrying my grandchild."

"You pigs!" She spat, rising and throwing her napkin over the uneaten meal. "The both of you...you gave that chicken more thought than my feelings." She nodded to the remnants of dinner. She turned to leave and her father's voice nearly split the large, ornate chandalier.

"Isabella Alexandra Sophia Sauville!" He waited until she stopped in the doorway and turned back. "You will show your fiance our garden. He has expressed interest in exploring it."

"I'll bet," she hissed, cringing as the half-lidded eyes undressed her.

"You will do as you are told!" he ordered, glaring her down. She moved stiffly as the rough hand took her elbow. The humid air was close and caused her to perspire. The garden was one of a kind. It's flora and fauna were varied and colorful. Statues dotted the perimeter and a white gazebo stood inside a maze. He pressed his body closer and closer, forcing her to flee. He caught her at the gazebo, pressing her back against the frame. The kiss was hard and rough. He forced her lips open and forced entry into her mouth with his tongue. His paw moved down the front of her dress, pressing against the curves in the fabric. She slapped him hard and bit his lip, before pulling away.

"How dare you!" She slapped him again, only to have her hand grabbed. "I will not be used like this..."

"What difference does a few days mean?" He growled as the blood rushed to his loins. "I will have you..."

"Never!" She shoved him hard and ran. Her advantage was that she'd planned this maze and played in it as a child. She quickly found the rear exit and continued running. She didn't stop until she was far from her home. She'd lost one shoe and her hair hung loose. She paused to catch her breath and kept running. The house was simple, in one of the poorest parts of town. She slipped into the small, tidy backyard and through the door. She didn't stop until she was in his arms, sobbing hysterically.

"What is it?" He asked, blue eyes full of alarm. He cupped the face of his angel and stared hard at the mezmerizing eyes. From the first minute he'd seen her, he knew he loved her. He was painting on the sidewalk stand he had at Jackson Square. She was in the carriage, sitting with her father. Their eyes met and they both knew. After that, she came every day, then they began meeting in secret. The stolen kisses and clinches were becoming more difficult to arrange. He held her close, sitting down on the bed and felt her trembling. "Talk to me, Angélique..." he used the nickname that she loved.

"He...had...his hands..on my...he used my mouth...he..."

"Who!" He raged, his molten eyes shooting fire. He gripped her arms so tight, he hurt her. No one would touch his angel...no one. "I will rip his heart out..."

"No, Philippe, please, hold me!" She begged, melting in his strong arms. He was bare chested and the feel of that hot skin against her, revitalized her. Here, she felt safe. Here, in his arms, she was home. "I won't leave you again, ever. I love you."

"Do you know how much I love you?" he kissed her, pulling her close and sighing deeply as her hand raked through his long curls. "I would die for you..."

"I would die before losing you," she returned, "We'll leave the city...tonight...get married in Baton Rouge or perhaps Lafayette?"

"Baton Rouge," he decided, holding hand tight. "Are you sure? I have no money, only my paintings. I cannot give you what..."

"Shhhh!" she covered those sensual lips with her fingers and drank in every fine feature on his handsome face. "I don't want money...I'd live in a hovel with you. I need this," she tapped his heart. "Now and forever..."

"Then you shall have it, Angélique..." he kissed her again, soft and tender, then pulled back. "My sister, Lily lives near Lafayette. We'll be safe there, until we decide where to go."

"Paris!" She clapped her hands. "You can be the poor, struggling artist and I will be your model!"

"So be it, Mon Coeur!" he vowed, stroking her cheek with his finger. That is what she was, his heart. "My God, you are beautiful. I have a little bit of wine I was saving." he kissed her forehead and left for a moment. He returned and nearly dropped the bottle. His Athena was waiting for him on the bed, her dress was hanging nearby. He wanted to say something, but her beauty took his breath. She was perfection and the smile she wore was dazzling.

"Come, my Knight," she smiled, taking his hand, "and conquer me. Teach me what love is..." She cried for joy when he covered her body with his own, and their hearts sang together.

Present Day

The traffic into the city was lighter than normal, even for a Friday. Clear green eyes peered through the windshield, noticing the large digital clock on the billboard ahead. Six forty two a.m., he was nearly twenty minutes early. The sun was strong as it caressed the handsome face. He cranked the window down a little more, letting some fresh air in the car. The unusually warm weather had become a magnet for germs. He wondered who in his office would be felled next. Josiah Sanchez was still wheezing and coughing, well into his second week. J.D. and Nathan had been out sick Monday, Tuesday and Wenesday with the same strain of a new viral respiratory infection.

"Mornin' Mr. Larabee," the security guard at the garage nodded to him.

"Morning, George," he replied, taking the long curve around the first level of the concrete structure. He pulled into a spot on the second level and turned the engine off. He clipped on his identification badge, just before picking up the envelope. He smiled as he slid it into his inner coat pocket, thinking on Tanner's reaction. Hell, who was he kidding? He was brewing up a nice pot of guilty pleasure himself.

"Hey Buck, do you want some..."

"No!" The tall rogue replied, waving a plastic necklace of garland at the graying agent. "I don't want anything from you, including that creeping crud you're cartin' around." He made a cross with his fingers and eyed the somber face ambling by.

"Trust me, Buck, your neck ain't worth sucking on," the ex-preacher noted dryly of the vampire protective gear.

"Hah!" the notorious ladies man tossed back with a rakish grin, "Shows how much you know," He waited until Josiah was back at his desk and took out a can of disinfectant spray. "This neck has the sweetest skin this side of the Mississippi."

"Were you the victor of another poll among the toothless clientele that line the soup kitchen, Mr. Wilmington?" The gambler joked, placing a large mug of herbal tea on his desk, neck to the rogue.

"That's the thanks I get for watching your back," Buck launched, rising and holding the can up in the air. So far, only he and the Southerner had been spared the flu-like illness. Chris Larabee was only now feeling one hundred percent, having come down with first.

"If you come within five feet of me with that infernal can, I'll..."

"Shut up, Ezra," Buck interrupted, spraying the air, "It's keeping you germ free."

Before Ezra could reply, the door opened and a sorry soul shuffled inside. The head was down, the eyes were reddened, puffy slits and every step was preceeded by a hacking cough. The lean man's shoulder's jumped from the action, dispelling his invader into a napkin. This action caused them all to part the aisle, like the Red Sea. Ezra and Josiah both suppressed a grin, but Buck didn't. The can was tossed down and forgotten; a new prey was to be had. J.D. and Nathan were in the cantina, eating bagels, wheezing and coughing over hot mugs of tea.

"Well, well, if it ain't Lazarus!" he boomed, clapping the heavy jacket, "Finally rolled out of the tomb, eh?" He paused and waited for the surly, colorful response, but got none. Frowning, he eyed the heavy coat and noted the warm air outside. "What the hell are you wearin' that leather coat for?"

"Moreover, why isn't your body reclining in a bed in that flea hotel you call home?" Standish frowned, lining up his vitamins.

"'m cold," Vin rasped at Buck and just glared outright at the jade-eyed conman.

"You know, Ezra has a point, Vin. You hacking your germs all over this office isn't healthy." He followed the smaller man to the end of the aisle, where one lone desk sat outside the cantina.

"Get away from me Buck or I'll cough in yer soup again." Vin's warning dissolved into a painful collection of coughs. He doubled over the trashcan, expelling into a napkin and tossing it away. The effort moved his chair, so it was turned around.

"What do you mean again?" the -agent frowned, thinking back on his lunches this week.

Ezra smiled, seeing how easily Vin could disarm any suspect, even one of his own team. He gave Buck's back a pat on his way past. A few minutes later, he reappeared, placing a large, steaming mug in front of the ailing sharpshooter. He dropped off a handful of vitamins and a glass of orange juice. He saw the shaggy head nod once and make short work of the pills and juice. The tea mug made a wavy journey north, guided by a less than steady hand.

"Aw, hell!" Vin spit his tongue out and wrinkled his nose. "This is worse that the shit Nate makes me drink!"

"I heard that, Vin Tanner," Jackson boomed, making his way to the Texan's desk. J.D. followed slowly, his head pounding.

"Hey, Vin, how you doing?" the wheezing youth inquired. Vin had been out sick all week, miserable like the rest of them. The city had an alarming number of cases in the outbreak. Several schools had closed for a few days, due to the large number of cases.

"'m'okay, Kid, thanks," he managed, giving Dunne a weak smile. He saw Ezra's pen tap his middle drawer and sighed. He pulled the drawer open and took out a small container of honey, squirting a large amount in the tea.

"Now ain't that cute?" Buck grabbed it, "A little honey bear..."

"Buck, I swear...I...I..." Vin sat forward on his chair, flinched and then rolled backwards. He gasped, jerking his shoulders and twitching his eyes. "Aw, hell...I been waitin' on this sneeze fer near on an hour now..."

"Damn!" the culprit dropped the honey container and backpedaled up the aisle. The others followed suit, making a large arc around the solitary desk. The ensuing expulson started a chain effect that caused an outburst of explosive laughter.

The leader of Denver's most potent team of ATF agents paused in the doorway. Buck was doubled over, slapping the side of his leg. Josiah and Nathan were also convulsive. J.D.'s laugher turned painful, dissolving into a coughing fit. Ezra was grinning like chesire cat, clapping the choking Dunne on the back. He counted heads and frowned. He entered the room and walked up to Tanner's desk, his features marked with suspicion. The puzzled green eyes moved to the steam rising over the Texan's mug, bearing the motto 'Mess with the best, die like the rest'. He eyed the honey container and a crumbled up bag from the bakery at the corner. The laughter continued and he craned his neck, just enough to see a pair of worn brown boots and the bottom of two denim-encased legs. The rest of the sharpshooters's lean body was underneath his desk.

"Morning Boss," Josiah recovered, "Orrin called, you got a division meeting at eight."

Chris nodded, just as a rapsy drawl echoed from below.

"Hey Cowboy!"

"Is there blood involved?" the blond asked, peering at the spot where Vin's body disappeared.

"No, don't think so." the feeble call came back.

"Do I need to fill out a dispensary slip?" The leader asked of the medical form needed for any on site care.

"No," the drawl turned into a cough.

"Good," he retreated into the cantina to get a cup of coffee.

"It was a rogue sneezin' incident," the ailing man defended, still lying underneath his desk. The force of the sneeze threw him right out of his chair, where he'd been perched on the edge. He was breathless again and a little dizzy. "Chris? Chris? Aw, hell..."

J.D. went to his own desk, Josiah went to answer a ringing phone. Nate's eyes narrowed, spotting Buck and Ezra whispering.

"Hey, Ez, did you see that?" Buck asked, elbowing the other conspirator."...there by Vin's trash can."

Ezra smiled and eyed the bin, very close to where Vin's head was on the floor.

"I daresay I am surprised I didn't hear it first," the conman winked, his gold tooth glittering. "I didn't think there were roaches that big outside of Mexico."

"Shit!" The body on the floor moved quickly.

All three men near the desk exploded into laughter. Then they jumped and the winced as Vin's usually silent, nimble body hit three sides of his metal desk on the way out.

Vin rubbed his head where it hit the desk with one hand and then his elbow. His red-rimmed blues found the smirking duo and he scrambled free of the fallen furniture.

"Goddammit Ezra, that wasn't funny!" Vin gasped, "It ain't bad enough I got barely a lung workin', ya had t'near gimme a heart attack too!"

"Not to worry, I'll see to it you have a proper dirge," Standish imparted, pushing Buck ahead of him and out of harm's way.

"Come on Vin," Nate shook his dark head, "Get up off that floor." He rested a hand on the flushed face before hauling the coughing man upright. "You still got little fever..."

"I am kinda warm," Vin mused, settling in his chair and shifting his eyes.

"It might help if you weren't dressed for a trip to the Artic Circle."

Vin glared at the blond speaker, who merely raised a sandy eyebrow on his way to his office.

"Chris's right, Vin, you got too many layers on," Jackson frowned, watching a leather coat and sweater come off. Under that was a damp sweatshirt. "Now I know where that got it's name. You been drinking plenty of water?"

"Yeah," Vin nodded, taking a good sip of the tea and pulling out his mangled doughnut. "All I do is drink, piss and sleep."

"Man's best friend!" Buck hollered out, watching the shaggy head disappear.

"Where'd he go?" J.D. asked, tossing a small rubber ball at the back of Buck's head.

"Bottom drawer, dictionary," Wilmington replied, knowing Vin was looking up 'dirge'.

"Vin?" Nate tapped his shoulder. "You okay?"

"Yeah," the blue eyes softened at the worried tone in Jackson's voice. "Fever broke two days ago, now I'm in the 'decrud mode'. I ain't gotta tell ya how wearin' it is...can't sleep fer the coughin'"

"I've been there," Nate nodded, "but this ain't like home. You've been restin' for a week and your body ain't used to bein' active again. You're gonna feel it after lunch. It's gets to be too much, you go home, understand? I've seen what happens if you get a relapse and it ain't pretty."

"Gotcha Doc!" Vin muffled, reaching for another doughnut. He flipped his computer on and read his emails, while he finished his tea. He went through all his voicemail messages and then picked up the large amount of mail in his in basket. He began the task of making piles and prioritizing them. He flipped open a file and began to read, taking notes on an open arson case.

Chris Larabee eyed the clock and rose from his desk. It was ten minutes to eight and time to leave for the directorate's office. His eyes narrowed as he watched the lone body on the far end of the room, hacking and typing. He shook his head at the large number of wadded up tissues littering the floor. Sighing, he paused behind the Texan, not surprised at how quickly Vin was making up for lost time. He was very organized and easily able to break down a problem. The Texan had a keen mind and sharp eye for details. Adding him to the team had been one of his best moves. But on a personal level, the enrichment went far deeper.

"Some sharpshooter," he teased, as another tissue went airborne.

"Huh?" Vin looked up and then down. "Sorry!" he scrambled, picking up the snowfall and depositing it into the trash. "Ya think we're gettin' called up?" He inquired of the pressing arson case that Orrin Travis had prioritized.

"No, I doubt it," the blond answered honestly. "I think Mike's group will get the nod, they've got eight healthy bodies." He eyed the younger man carefully, seeing his shoulders slump a little. "It's nobody's fault Vin, it happens, besides you're gonna be busy next week."

"Busy?" Vin's head rose, then his eyes narrowed, "Busy where?"

"Look at the time," Chris teased, leaving the bait dangling, "I gotta go."

"Aw, hell, Chris, gimme a clue?" His reply was a cryptic smile.

Chris Larabee wore that selfish half-grin, all the way to Orrin Travis's office. He couldn't wait to see the look on Vin Tanner's face. He thought on the two weeks ahead, anticipating the adventure. It started with a memo a month ago from Division Headquarters. The thought of the trapped hours, stifled him. Then two days ago, a green light went on. With a call to Orrin, the memo turned golden. The director's voice broke his daze.

"Feeling better, Chris?" Orrin noted of the relaxed face before him, bearing a soft hint of a smile.

"Oh, yeah!" The blond nodded, lips splitting as he picked up a copy of the meeting's agenda.

Part Two

One year later, 1907 in New Orleans:

Christmas used to be a holiday he enjoyed. He spared no expense in decorating the house and lavishing gifts upon his friends and family. Family...he sighed and eyed the barren room. There was no tree or crêche this year. He wanted to hang black ribbons in lieu of garland. He knew she would rebel against his choice, but his misunderstood her strength. For twelve months he searched for her. He paid the best dectectives to search far and wide. No a trace was found. He couldn't bring himself to think that she'd killed herself. No, not his Isabella. She was live...somewhere.Just when his hopes were dying, nearly one year to the night she disappeared, the telephone rang.

"André! I think we found her."

"What?" His heart pumped, "Are you sure, Raoul?" There had been false hopes before, several over the year.

"Theodore Garson, one of the Pinkerton's finest, discovered a lead. It seems Isabella met a young man the summer before last. She was quite taken with him. A nobody...a poor artist who lived in the street. It was thought he was an orphan...but today, Theodore learned he had an older sister. She never married and moved away five years ago, when he turned eighteen. She had a different name...different father, so it was hard to find her."

"...and..." the father asked anxiously.

"...and she has a home near Lafayette. That is all we know. We're leaving now."

"Call me!" He ordered, the sun finally rising on twelve months of darkness.

"You spoil them!" Isabella smiled, peeking at her husband through the window.

"How can I not?" He answered, his breath wavering. "Have you ever seen anything so fine?" He eyed his twin daughters, cooeing happily in their baskets. At two months, they already had the mark of beauty. Headfuls of curly black hair and tiny heart-shaped faces looked up at him. Two sets of eyes, a color so unique it was undefinable, took his heart. They were somewhere between amethyst and blue, large and beguiling. Yes, his daughters were the lovliest creatures every born, he was certain of that.

"They are yours, My Love," she answered, joining him outside, "How can they not be beautiful?" She settled happily on his lap and took his kiss. She never tired of these moments. Lost in a year of rapture; was is possible for anyone to be so happy. The tiny cottage was on the outskirts of town, near a river. Philippe travelled each day to the town square to sell his paintings. She cared for her babes, devouring every minute she spent with them. Then at night, the two lovers became lost in each other. "What is that?" she asked, seeing him draw a small velvet pouch from his shirt. "A present?" She squealed, "for me?"

"No, My Sweet, you'll get your present later," he growled, nibbling on her neck and giving her a blush. "These are for my angels..." he announced, drawing out two beautiful lockets suspended on chains. They were gold hearts, each edge trimmed with a single rose and bearing the twins initials. "I ordered them last month. A jeweler from New Orleans was passing through town."

"But..they are exquisite!" She admired the fine work, "Where did you get the money?"

"I traded for it..." He took them back, grinning like a fool has his petite princesses.

"Traded?" She frowned, "I don't understand..." Then she saw his smile fade and her heart sank. "Oh Philippe, you didn't..."

"It's the best thing I've ever done," He defended, "It was worth it. Someday, they will look at those lockets and know how much I love them." He saw her eyes tear and felt bad. The painting in question was the first portrait he'd painted of her. She was draped in a rich orchid silk robe, reclining in wildflowers. He'd been offered a King's ransome by many who'd seen it, but never considered it, until he saw the lockets in the jeweler's case. "He is retiring, his hands can longer do the fine work. They are two of a kind, unique, there is no others like them. Don't you see? They are as perfect as my angels!"

"Angélique Rose Dubonnet," he said, putting one on the babe to his right and kissing her rosy cheek. and "Alexandra Lily Dubonnet," he eyed the fiesty face that scowled at him. One tiny fist waved indignantly in the air, the mezmerizing eyes glared at him. "She is your daughter," he laughed, caressing the tiny cheek. "Mon Dieu what a temper!" he chuckled, letting the tiny fist wrap around his finger. "Open it..." he encouraged his wife.

She picked up the locket on Angelique's neck and popped it open. "Now and Forever..." her breath caught and tears ran down her cheeks. "Oh Philippe...you remembered..." She choked of that first glorious night.

"I'll never forget!" he vowed, kissing her, then each of his angels. "I wish Lily could have seen them."

"I know," she snuggled closer, into his chest. His older sister died of a fever eight months prior. They'd sold her house and bought the tiny cottage, where they lived a full life.

"Well?" Raoul asked impatiently, as the detective and his hired help left the small church.

"She's buried out back," Garson answered, climbing back into the car, "She died eight months ago. The old priest described Isabella exactly. She was married to that painter and they moved away."

"Where?" He demanded.

"We can start by asking around town...I've got men covering the north side."

They turned up nothing, covering two more towns before nightfall. The inn they found to sleep in was small and they got up early the next day, eager to leave. Raoul sighed in frustration, seeing his fortune slip away. The old man vowed he'd take the money with him, leaving it only to a blood heir. His restless pacing took him into the small dining room, where a picture hung on the wall. It was the name that caught his eye.

"Where did you get this?" he demanded, taking it from the wall.

"What?" the clerk looked up. "Oh, my wife bought it from a painter who passed through town awhile back."

"Where does he live?"

"I don't know!" the angry man drew back, until a pile of money appeared.

"Will this help your memory?" Raoul pressed.

"Annette!" The man called, waiting for his plump wife to appear.

"Yes?" She answered, wiping her floured hand on her apron.

"The young man you bought this from, do you know where he lives? These gentlemen would like to buy some of his work."

She sighed and furrowed her brow, thinking hard. She shook her head, "I'm not sure...but he mentioned a cottage...a river...not far??? Does that help?" She asked, "Sir???" She walked around the counter, but they were gone. "That's strange!"

"I have to go to the market." Isabella nuzzled her naked husband, kissing him from neck to hip. " Can you manage?"

"Why wouldn't I?" He perplexed, rising and kissing her. He stretched and moved towards his canvas nearby. He pulled on his pants and a large shirt, eyeing the sleeping babies. "What trouble will two tiny angels be?" He turned at the peals of laughter and frowned, "Why do you laugh?"

"You'll see!" She kissed him again and picked up her purse. "I'll be back. Sara will be close by if you need anything."

"I know," he answered, knowing the small mute girl was never far. She loved their garden and hid all day in it. She lived with her grandmother in the next cottage, a mile or so away. The ten-year old was shy and only came near him once. But she was friendly to his wife and quite taken with the twins, often helping with them

Fearing her father's wrath, they kept to themselves for the most part. The cottage was well hidden and they kept their privacy guarded well. Aside from Sara and her grandmother, no one knew of their existance. The child was amazingly bright. Over the course of the past seven months, since they found the abandoned cottage, his wife taught the silent orphan well. As soon as they were bigger and he had a little more saved, they would make that trip to France. He promised Isabella that they'd take care of Sara. If her grandmother's health continued to fail, she could live with them.

He made sure he went to several towns throughout the district, never presenting a set schedule. When his wife journeyed to town, which was rare, she wore a cloak with a deep hood. Her face hidden, she spoke to no one, making her purchases and resuming the long walk home. He finished his meager breakfast and eyed his jewels. He sighed, watching them dream, their tiny jaws moving in their sleep. God, they were magnificent!

The sun came out and he took the baskets outside, pausing to nuzzle both fat bellies as he changed their nappies. The tiny sounds of their laugher brought tears to his eyes. He couldn't stop staring at them, his chest nearly burst with pride. He walked down to the river, selecting a good place to paint. He deposited his sleeping infants in the cover of a thicket of trees, several yards away, in the shade. Tucking the blankets carefully around their warm little bodies, he eyed the river nearby and decided to quench his thirst. He spent several minutes gazing at the terrain, thinking of what would leap onto his canvas. Finally, his thirst called out. He was bent over, when a hard blow slammed into his ribcage, taking his breath away. He curled up, fell over, watching skyrockets exploding. The next two blows were to his head, cracking it and sending blood down his face. He saw a set of legs and a large gun, but he didn't fear for his own life. From the corner of his eye, he saw Sara appear in the distance, next to the babies. Their eyes met briefly and she nodded once, picking up each basket and disappearing. He sighed and his eyelids fluttered, his angels were safe.

"Philippe?" she called out, putting the parcels on the table. The tiny cottage was immaculate, they had very little to display. The babies tiny things were in the top of the closet. She eyed the few rooms and frowned, before going outside. "Darling? Where are you?" She called out, walking through the garden. She saw the back gate opened and followed the path.

"I told you, she would come..." Garson said, lighting a cigarette.

"So you did," Raoul grinned, watching the lovely vision walking toward them. He stepped out of the shadows as the scream descended.

"Nooooooo!!!!" She ran, stumbling and falling, ripping her dress and landing near his body. There was blood everywhere, on him, under him, covering his beautiful face. "My God...Oh My God..." she wiped the blood with her dress, then saw the eyes blink. His lips moved and she shook her head. "Don't talk..I'll get help...I'll...." She froze then, she knew he was dying. She lowered herself, trying to keep his shivering body warm. She kissed him once and buried her face in his shoulder. Then her heart froze...the babies???

"...angels...safe...Sara...took...safe..." he whispered for her only, "...now and fo...r..ev..." He sighed one last time, letting the last warm touch of her lips become his final memory.

"No! Philippe! Noooooo!" She wept and cradled his body, until the aroma of the tobacco assaulted her. "Who are you? Why have you done this?"

"I told you I'd have you, My Pretty, Raoul gets what Raoul wants..."

It couldn't be, not here, not now. She turned her head and saw him, leering above her. He laughed and spit on Philippe, as the other man pulled his body away. She clung to her husband, screaming until a viscious backhand took her senses away. Through a haze of pain, she saw his body tied up and weighed down. The large stranger hefted it over his shoulder, taking it several yards into the churning current. A pain ripped through her, before he was tossed in the angry water, just before she fainted.

"The house?" he asked, holding her up. He tilted her face forcing a bottle between her slack lips. He then doused her clothing with the liquor as well, before wrapping her in a blanket.

"Empty," the guard replied, "I walked through fast. They were dirt poor...a few bits of furniture...and a bed...some paint and canvas. It was empty."

"Good." He hiked her body up and went to the car. "Let's move...I want to get out of here and find the nearest church. We'll skip a few towns, head back to New Orleans."

She woke up in a strange place. She was lying on a bed in a room she didn't know. She got up too quickly and the room spun around. A soft voice caused her to squint.

"There now...all better?"

"Who are you?" She asked of the middle-aged woman handing her water.

"I'm Mrs. Davis and you'll be late. Come now, here's a new dress. Such a shame about your accident."

"Accident?" She moved slowly, letting the frisky woman help her dress. "Where are we?"

"About twenty miles from Baton Rouge. Hurry now, we don't want to keep Father Daignault waiting" The hostess dragged the pretty woman from the room.

"Waiting?"

"Poor thing, you really did hit your head," She shook her head at the dazed eyes. "Such a pretty girl. Not to worry, that cut on your head wasn't serious." She led her downstairs, watching the legs buckling. "You'll get a nice rest later."

"Later?" Isabella shook her head, her whole body was numb and she was freezing cold. Her mind was thick with mud and she blinked through the haze. She felt the small bandage at her hairline and frowned. Then she saw an elderly priest and a strange man waiting, and her bewilderment increased.

"Here she is, isn't she pretty?" Mrs. Davis announced.

"That's my beauty."

The voice chilled her to the bone, setting off shock waves. The ripple effect caught her off guard, nearly sending her to her knees. "No....no...you bastard!" She screamed, punching his chest. "You killed him...you murdered him....I'll kill you."

"My word, she really did have a nasty bump, eh?" the priest shook his head. "Poor thing," he clucked his tongue. The man told him his fiancé took a nasty spill. She'd been pale and unconscious when they arrived, she reeked of alchohol. He hovered over her, obviously worried, claiming they had to get married. He feared she was with child and wanted to make amends. That and the generous donation made the decision easier.

"She's been talking out of her head..." He gripped her arm tighter. "Babbling nonsense..." He pulled the priest aside. "I'm afraid before I met her, she had a nasty problem with drinking. She goes off the deep end every now and again, like this morning, before she fell. She hallucinates..."

"Ah..." the priest nodded in sympathy. He and the housekeeper both smelled the scent of liquor on her breath, when she was brought inside earlier.

"No...my husband...he killed...they both did...Philippe...in the river...I..."

"No, Dear, you've had a bad dream, I've been with you all day!" Mrs.Davis shushed her. "You must settle down now. The doctor said you would be confused and telling tales. It's very common with a head injury. Now settle down and let's get this done. I have a nice pot of soup waiting:"

"It was a bad dream, Bella," he mock-soothed, patting her hand. "If they continue, I'll find a nice place for you to stay, where no one can hurt you." His intense stare silenced her. She knew it was no idle threat.

She was defeated then. She sagged, her foggy mind wavering. They didn't believe her...she'd end up locked up in an asylum. The cloak of secrecy they'd been so careful to hide under, now smothered her. She studied his face carefully and thought of her angels. She couldn't find the babies, if he locked her away. She had to play the game. She needed to gain his confidence, and money, before leaving him. She'd find her babies and take them away. She'd find them. She blinked and nodded, mumbling and staring at the priest's lips. She didn't hear the vows, she didn't even feel the lizard kiss her. She didn't taste the dinner. She didn't utter a sound, when he turned the lights out and crept into the bed. Later, when he'd fallen asleep, she wept silently. The bitter tears fell not for herself, but for her beloved Philippe. Then she dried her cold eyes, as her heart turned to ice. There was nothing left inside her; she'd never weep again.

Present Day

Two hours later, Chris reappeared, "Everybody in the conference room for a meeting." He paused and looked up, "Where's J.D. and Vin?"

"They're already in there." Nate said, with a wicked grin. "Czar Buck banished the two of them."

"They were too damn noisy," Buck answered the pensive blond's face. "If one wasn't coughing, the other one was. I was trying to get Phil Harker's notes over the phone," he spoke of a detective across town, "and J.D. was barking in my ear, couldn't hear a damn thing." He paused and caught his oldest friend's eye, "The Kid took his files with him; Slick's doing shots of Phenegren," he updated of the strong cough prescriptive cough medicine.

"They belong on rock in the ocean," Ezra noted of the California's famed haven for seals, near San Francisco.

"I get the picture," the leader nodded, "I'll be in there in a minute," he commented, going into his office. The others were gathered, when he went into the conference room a short time later. Josiah, Nathan and Ezra were at the table waiting. Buck was standing a few feet away, shaking his head and grimacing. Chris moved over and eyed the far side of the room. J.D. and Vin were each sprawled on a leather sofa, watching something on television. Two case files were open on a table in between the sofas. He frowned and eyed the cartoon on the screen.

"What the hell is that?" he inquired, his face screwing up.

"SpongeBob Scaredy Pants," Buck mocked of the popular children's show.

"Square Pants!" J.D. corrected loudly, without taking his eyes from the screen.

"Like it makes a difference," the rogue tossed back, rolling his dark blue eyes. "Did you ever see such a stupid cartoon? I'll tell you what's a crime, that somebody is making a mint off that shit. A damn sponge wearin' pants that lives in a pineapple in the ocean with a snail named Patrick."

"Patrick's a starfish, it's his best friend," Vin interrupted, "Gary's the snail, he's Bob's pet. That there," he pointed to the screen, "is Sandy Cheeks, Bob's girl...well squirrel, she'sa surfer and..."

"Vin, spare me!" Chris put both hands up and watched the animated images for a moment. He heard the two youngest laughing and coughing. Buck was right, he decided. He peered closely at Vin laughing and shook his head. "You scare me sometimes," he mumbled.

"Snob!" Vin tossed back, sitting up. He saw a hint of something in the green eyes and smiled, raising an eyebrow. "Plenty o'room..." he patted the couch next to him.

"Vin, I wouldn't be that desperate if I was unconscious," the blond repelled, biting back a smile.

"It's better than that crap ya watch with all them fuzzlebutt's arguin' over a bunch o'stocks. It ain't bad enough they dress like undertakers, they gotta have all them bitty numbers scrollin' across the screen." The Texan declared.

"Well if you had money, you'd be more interested in investing in your future. So you'll be prepared," Larabee assessed.

"I live fer today, Cowboy," Vin coughed, drained his mug of water and grinned. "'sides, got m'future all wrapped up." He spoke cockily, unaware that they weren't alone in the room. Having been on the couch, he didn't see the others enter and sit at the table.

"Really?" Chris nodded, intrigued. "How's that?"

"I'm gonna shack up with Ezra's widda," he annouced boldly, coughed and frowned, eyeing his empty mug. Before he could get up, the mug was taken and a cold bottle of water was placed in his hand. "Thanks," he took the cap off and took a swig. "Where was I? he frowned, swiping his mouth.

"Ezra's widow?" Chris prodded, amused by where the Tanner logic was moving next. He sat down next to the wheezing sharpshooter and waited.

"Oh yeah," Vin nodded, eyeing his best friend carefully. "Ya see I figure, knowin' Ez, she'll be a real looker," he predicted, not seeing the southerner rise and move silently behind the couch, Buck was in tow, grinning like a fool. "'bout six foot, red hair, stacked and hot," he wagged his hands, "with a whole lot goin' up here, ya know?" he tapped his head.

"...and that's important?" J.D. asked, dying to laugh, spotting Ezra's bemused face.

"Hell yeah," the ailing Texan crowed, "So's she can run a bunch o'companies and I can retire."

"You're going to be kept man?" Chris's eyebrows went up.

"No, 'course not!" Vin retorted, coughed into his napkin and tossed it away. "Ya see, after Ez dies..."

"In the line of duty?" Dunne guessed, coughed and drank his coke.

"No, heart attack," the bleary-eyed sniper predicted.

J.D. had to turn away and hide his face, his shoulders quaking. Between Buck's expression and Ezra's mouthing the words 'heart attack', it nearly did him in.

"How's that?" the leader wondered, watching the humor dancing in his best friend's sky eyes. "the heart I mean."

"Oh," Vin nodded, not missing the light in Larabee's eyes. He smiled and continued, "It's real scientific, ya ever see all that rich shit he eats? Got heavy cream in his coffee, cooks and loads all his food in butter or rich sauces and eat's all them fancy desserts...never breaks into a sweat," he noted of the lack of exercise. He shoved the last half of his doughnut in his mouth, which was covered in jelly and powder. "He don't eat right, bound t'catch up with 'im." Vin belched, sending powder all over his face and shirt.

"...and you being the very temple of good health," Chris said somberly, eyeing the junk food king of Denver.

"That's different, perfect cholesterol," he boasted, wiping his face and tapping his chest."'sides I come from a long line of good stock. I'll be one o'them old guys on the T.V. news. A hundred and four, at the nursin' home, all wizened up with a pack of young nurses carin' fer me."

"That's something to look forward too!" J.D. teased, shaking his head and coughing over his laughter. Buck was red-faced and had to bite his hand. Ezra's face was priceless.

"So after you marry the merry widow, where will you live?" the rogue recovered, standing next to Chris, leaving Ezra out of sight.

"I ain't marryin' 'er," Vin made a face, "said I was shackin' up. I'm gonna...uh...uh..."

"Aw, hell, Vin, you havin' another monster sneeze?" Chris jumped up, protecting his expensive dark gray suit.

"No!" the blue-eyes lit with anger. "I was explain' how I was gonna...divest...no...digest...no...invest...no...get us a lot of real estate in other countries."

"With her money?" J.D. chuckled, eyeing Vin's grin.

"Our money," Vin corrected.

"But you retired," Dunne asked, "So it'll be her money."

"She wants this honey," the Texan announced, jutting out his chin and thumping his chest, "She's gotta put up the money."

"What a romatic devil," Wilmington laughed.

"...and just what makes you think the grieving, beloved Mrs. Ezra P. would ever get so desperate?" the conman asked, moving into Vin's view.

"She's got eyes, ain't she," Vin sat back smugly and wagged his eyebrows at the charmed southerner.

"I sincerely doubt that," Ezra sniffed. "Most likely she would have to be blind by that point."

"Makes no nevermind," the cough-syrup-chugging man boasted, heady with codeine. "I can do things t'her that'd make the blind see."

"Oh God, Buck, what did you do to our quiet sniper?" Josiah shook his head as Buck collapsed into laughter.

The rogue saw Vin's eyebrows wag suggestively and that made him laugh even harder. "It wasn't me!"

"I daresay that the high content of sugar in his system, combined with the strength and misuse of that cough medicine has unlocked the Tanner tongue," Standish noted, grinning at the wavering body.

"Yep," the ladies man agreed, grinning widely, "He's loose as a goose," he translated of Ezra's observation. "'runnin' his mouth all over the place."

"So you intend to live in sin with my grieving widow, without the benefit of employment?" Ezra asked the smug Texan, barely containing his own mirth.

"'course not!" Vin defended, coughed into his napkin and sneezed twice. "I'm gonna get a job in Switzerland, that's where one of our houses'll be."

"One of them?" Ezra nodded thoughtfully, "You intend to use my money to invest in many homes?"

"Hell yeah...pays t'travel ya know, but Switzerland will be home." Tanner boasted, drowsy from the medicine he took a short time before.

"Why?" the youth asked, wheezing and rubbing his watery eyes.

"Chocolate, cheese and lots of mountains...and more chocolate." Vin bragged, "I'm gonna need all that energy fer m'job...in the mountains."

"Somehow I can't see you herding goats and yodeling." Buck joked. "But I bet you'd look cute runnin' around the Alps in shorts."

"I ain't gonna be no damn goat boy!" Tanner laughed, "Ski instructor!" he paused, coughed and glared at the laugher cascading among his friends. "What's s'damn funny 'bout that?" He directed his ire at his best friend, who was grinning widely. The short snicker from the blond seemed louder to him than all the other's laugher combined.

"Why the hell would anybody in Switzerland, unless they were blind, hire a scrawny, drawlin' damn Texan to teach them to ski?" Chris shook his head. "Vin, most of the world champions come from that area."

"Reckon," Vin yawned, blinked, coughed and grinned cockily at his boss, "they ain't t'bad...but they ain't Tanners."

Chris saw the effects of the cough medicine on the younger man and slapped his knee. "Come on, I got a lot to discuss before you keel over. Once the meeting is wrapped up, you and J.D. are going home. You shouldn't have come in today."

A half-hour later, the rest stood up to leave. Josiah and Nathan were discussing where to go to lunch and Buck and Ezra were talking about their double dinner date. "J.D., go home." Chris directed of the ailing youngest. "You're not ready to be here. I'm gonna need you here next week. Go on..." He said, signing a sick leave slip and handing it to the grateful Bostonian. The room clear, he turned his attention to his sleeping sharpshooter. Vin's head was nestled in his arms on the table. He'd fallen asleep halfway through the meeting. The blond moved to his side, shaking the damp sweatshirt. "Vin...Vin, wake up."

"Huh?"

"Jesus, what did you take?" He eyed the stuperous face, then recalled Buck's words. "Phenegren? with codeine?"

"No, thanks," Vin yawned, his eyes starting to open. "Already had some."

Chris chuckled at the confused response and disappeared, returning with a bottle of water. He opened the bottle and tapped Vin's shoulder. "Here," he folded the cold hand around the plastic, "You awake? We need to talk."

"Ya takin' t'growin' these?" the ailing man noted of the new bottle. He took a long swig and watched the odd look on his boss's face.

"After we're done, I'm taking you home. You take all your prescriptions and keep that ass of yours in bed. I need you functioning as semi-human again by Monday."

"Monday?" Vin frowned, coughed and recalled a conversation from earlier. "Busy? Ya said I was gonna be busy next week."

"I'm going away," Chris said straightfaced, sliding a paper towards the blinking man.

"Buildin' a better team," Vin read aloud, his eyebrows furrowing, "...communication skills, cooperation and team building, turning weaknesses into strengths, diversity and acceptance of differences," he stopped not quite halfway down the long list. He saw the classes outlined for five days, eight hours a day. "Damn...yer gonna be stuck in a classroom?"

"Uh-huh," Chris said rising, "That's where you come in..."

Vin misunderstood Chris's words and panicked, "Ya ain't puttin' me in that chair. Bucklin can be in charge while yer gone."

"As a matter of fact, Buck and Nathan will be splitting that duty. You'll be busy."

"Busy doin' what?" Vin's head was pounding, the room was closing in and he was tired of the Larabee riddles. "Quit fuckin' around Chris, I ain't feelin' good."

Chris felt the change in atmosphere, before the flushed face scowled and the harsh tone was sounded. He paused and placed a new paper in front of the wheezing agent.

"Tulane University?" He cocked his head, fuzzy with codeine, all the pieces didn't fit yet. "Yer goin' away t'class?"

"Yeah, be gone for two weeks," he said, pulling out the final set of documents.

"Oh," Vin returned quietly. Eight months ago, riding solo, it would have made no difference. Now, his whole world was different. Two weeks without his best friend would be long. "Uh...Tulane, that's in New Orleans, ain't it?"

"Yup," Chris grinned behind Vin's back. He saw the dejected face and that only made his decision sweeter. "You didn't look inside..." he noted of the Tulane information. He watched the slender hand open the folder and scan the list inside. He heard the sharp intake of breath, just before the shaggy head flew up.

Vin eyed the list of names, classes, times and instructors. He saw Chris's at the top of a list and just before that list ended...

"Vin Tanner!" He choked, "Me?" He turned and saw the wide grin and smiling green eyes. "Damn...Goddamn. Two weeks!"

"It's a required course for all of us. It was held hear almost a year ago. I missed it, we were heavy into a case and I couldn't leave. You weren't on the team yet...the makeup session for all federal workers in the southwest conference is in New Orleans.

"They pay fer everythin'?" Vin amazed.

"Airfare, hotel and per diem," Chris grinned, "Which is very generous. Normally, the classes would have run Monday to Friday. But some of the material hasn't arrived yet and so the classes are split up. Three days week one, and Monday and Tuesday on week two." He smacked the gray sweatshirted arm and grinned again. "Me and you, Cowboy, loose in New Orleans!" Chris boasted, enjoying every bit of Vin's enthusiasm. He winced when Vin's war whoop dissolved into a severecoughing fit. He saw the water coming up and got a trashcan.

"What the hell was that?" Nathan asked of the loud wolf call. He joined the others, scrambling to the conference room.

"You told him?" Buck guessed, painfully eyeing the gasping Texan. All he saw was a mane of hair over a trashcan. "Damn, Vin, you don't gotta kiss his feet!" He teased of the close proximity of the expensive Larabee Italian leather loafers to the flyin' matter. He laughed when a single finger came up over the trashcan rim.

"It's refreshing to know you have not lost your quaint sense of humor," Ezra noted with a grin. The finger came up again, directed at him.

Chris waved them all away, before settling Vin into his chair again. "That's why you need to go home and suck up all that medicine. I'm not dragging an iron lung or oxygen tent with us to New Orleans, okay?"

"Yeah," Vin agreed, "They all knew?" He asked of his teammates.

"I told them yesterday, they were almost as excited as you." Chris explained and saw Vin's face soften. The water was sipped slowly, before the head came up. The blue eyes were open and exposed. Few people affected him like this man or those soulful eyes. "You okay?"

"Ya got no idea what this means t'me, Chris." Vin returned quietly, "I ain't never had a real vacation. There's always t'many bills and ridin' solo, well...it never seemed important."

"There'll be plenty of time for play," Larabee agreed, "but you're gonna have homework to do. It looks like a pretty good course, but there is a lot reading and work involved."

"I know ya pulled strings 'r somethin'," Vin read the warm green eyes above him. "Thanks, Chris." He lifted his arm and took a deep breath.

"Your welcome," he clasped the extended forearm. "Come on, let's get you home." He hauled the younger man upright and waited until he got his coat. He smiled as Buck backed up, waving plastic garlic at Vin and coverning his face with a small painter's mask. Vin flushed slightly as the team tossed comments at him, before wishing him well. As the elevator doors opened, he turned to his sleepy friend. "You need anything? Soup? Food? OJ?"

"No, Mom, I got it covered!" He laughed, "Reckon I need t'do some wash..."

"That'd help," Chris nodded. "Josiah'll pick you up Monday morning at 5 a.m., be packed and ready."

"Packed?" Vin grinned as the doors opened and they headed for the parking garage. "All I need is clean underwear and a credit card."

"Yeah," Chris grinned wolfishly, eyeing the sniper's jeans. "That would just about cover it!"

"Ya think yer smart, don't ya?" he shoved the older man, shaking his head. "Ya let me know what I need t'take fer class?"

"I got a list made up, in the car. You'll be fine." He watched Vin duck inside the passenger side of his classic black Ford Mustang and smiled again. Two weeks in sin city with his best friend, damn it felt good. He couldn't know, as he pulled out of the lot, what danger they were flying into.

Part Three

Louisanna, 1907

Stealing silently through the landscape, she reached the cottage in short order. Sweat covered her simple blouse, sticking to her face and light brown hair. Her heart was racing so fast, it caused her to choke. She sat the baskets down on the bench outside the window, grateful the infants were still sleeping. Her breath came in short pants, she clenched her eyes shut, still seeing the blood. She'd hidden the infants and waited, hoping to stop Isabella. But she was too late. After hearing what the bad man said to Isabella, she thought on the conversation she overheard shortly after the babies were born. That prompted her to act fast, in case they returned. No one must know about the infants, it was too dangerous. She eyed the bench and recalled a happier day, when she'd sat there.

She was outside in the garden, and they were talking inside. Isabella was worried about a bad man named Raoul finding her. She was terrified he'd take her babies away. Sara listened as they spoke of the night they fled and their plans to leave once the girls were old enough. Then she heard the handsome painter reassure his pretty wife that they'd not leave without Sara. The kind lady knew her grandmother was dying and she had no where to go. She remembered the warm hug later that day and the promise from Isabella, that she'd always have a home with them.

She opened her eyes and stopped rocking. She felt the tears on her face and quickly dried them. It was a small consolation, that he died knowing his girls were safe. She'd never forget those blue eyes locked on hers. She'd make a silent vow and intended to keep it, no matter what it took. Eyeing the two sleeping infants, she crept into the house. A large burlap satchel was on the small table. A loaf of bread, some cheese, eggs, some sausages and several pieces of fruit were inside. She went to the closet and gathered up the small pile of baby clothes. She saw two shawls on the bed, one in rose and the other in lavender. She placed one over each infant, put their clothes in the sack and looked over the room. She went to the hearth and moved the stone, taking the money Isabella's husband was saving. She put the drawstring bag inside the larger one and eyed the nearly barren room. Something caught her eye, a tiny oval frame near the bed. It was small painting of Isabella. She took that too, so the infants would know of her. Her job completed, all traces of the babes gone, she left for home.

They were cooeing and babbling in the basket, then they both started to cry. Frowning, she realized they were hungry. Milk? She left them under the large tree in the yard and stole into her home. She paused by the bed, eyeing the small, elderly woman. She was dying, each breath fought hard to come out. Sara ran to the small icebox and opened it, taking out a tiny glass bottle of milk. It wasn't very much, but it would have to do. How to feed them? She raced toher own room and rummaged through a tiny box by her bed. It had her old baby clothes and a doll given that had belonged to her mother. She used these to play with and under the pile was an old bottle. She washed the rubber nipple carefully and the glass bottle as well. They have to share and that meant one would need something to soothe her. She grabbed the small container of honey from the cupboard and went back outside. While one ate, the other sucked on her honey-coated finger. She hoped she wasn't making them sick, but she didn't know what else to do. Finally, the bottle was empty and both seemed content. She burped them and played with them a few moments, not missing them each looking around. They missed Isabella. She took the baskets inside, leaving them hidden in her room.

She crept to the small bed where her grandmother lie dying. She touched the waxen face and a single blue eye opened. The thinning, snow colored hair was pulled back and the lips were tinted blue. They parted and she bent closer, listening and holding the frail hand.

"...time has come, child. Get the...box..."

She eyed the door to the bedroom and then went to the fireplace, taking down a small brown box. She walked back to the bed, placing it on her grandmother's lap. The fragile hands were too weak to move, so she opened it for the old woman. Inside was a letter, her birth certificate and a picture. She picked up the picture and studied it closely.

"He's...your...Papa...lives in Santa Fe...address on back..."

Sara flipped the photo over and read the address. She stared at his face, recognizing her own features clearly. She picked up the letter and unfolded it, reading it carefully. She paused halfway through it, not understanding. She was bright child, advanced for her age, Isabella was amazed at how quickly she read and how well she wrote. Mama taught her so much, before she went to heaven. The letter was dated three years ago, shortly after her mother died. He wanted Sara to come live with him in Santa Fe. She always thought he was dead. Frowning, she eyed her grandmother.

"I'm sorry...child..." she wanted to stroke the pretty little girl's cheek, but couldn't move. "...selfish...didn't want...you...leave...forgive." She felt the small face press against hers and the tiny body hug her tight. Two small kisses were placed on her cheek and hand. Then she saw the tears and shook her head. "no...don't weep...give letter to Father Dominic...he'll know...what...to..do...go...now...I need ...blessing...before...go...child..." She saw the fear in the girl's eyes and frowned. "I won't die, Child...not until you return..."

Sara kissed her grandmother's cheek once more and took the box with her. She ate some bread, cheese and fruit, before taking the trip to town. She put new nappies on each baby, scrubbing the old ones. She'd have to boil them later. It was late and would be dark soon, she took the babies with her. She found the church easy enough and went inside. The cool air made her shiver, as did the stern faces on the glass pictures on the windows. All except the one of Mary, Jesus's mother. She had the kindest face Sara had ever seen. She put the baskets down in a pew and went to kneel before Mary. She prayed to the mother above, for guidance and protection. She prayed so hard, her chest hurt. A sound drew her back, one of the babies was crying. Angelique was still asleep, but her sister wasn't. Alexandra's tiny face was red and soon a wait would start. She picked up the basket and took it towards the side entryway, before lifting her out of it. She didn't want the other baby to hear her sister crying and rouse her as well. She paced in the vestibule, patting and hugging the frightened baby, until she settled down. When she looked back, her heart sank. Father Paul was walking up the aisle with a young couple. Before she could act, they spotted Angélique.

"Charles, look!" Catherine Anderson exclaimed. There before them in a basket, was the answer to their prayers. They'd been hoping to adopt a child and were consulting Father Paul Maguire. Father Paul used to administer the largest orphanage in the state before retiring to this tiny hamlet. Charles did the books for the orphanage and had known the priest for years.

"But where did she come from?" Father Maguire exclaimed, eyeing the vacant church. "I just left here five minutes ago, no one was here."

"Don't you see?" Catherine exclaimed, eyeing the stained glass image of Mary looking down on the sleeping infant. "She has answered us. Look at her face, she is looking right on the baby. It's a miracle. She's meant to be with us."

"I don't know, Catherine," Charles, her husband, scratched his dark hair and frowned. "Mabye someone left her here?"

"No, you heard what Paul said, he was just here, the church was empty."

While the middle-aged couple admired the baby, now nestled in the woman's arms, the priest did a quick inventory. There had been no births in over six months. There were no visitors in town with infants. Where did the child come from?

"I can't explain it," he said, "The last three births were boys, over six months ago. She isn't from this area."

"She is a gift from God," Catherine persisted, "She's beautiful...just beautiful." Tears fell down her face and she felt her heart singing.

Charles sighed in frustration, his wife was already attaching herself to the pretty baby. Adoptions sometimes took a few months to finalize. Maybe they could reach an agreement.

"Paul, if we kept the child, adopted her, and nobody claimed her before the finalization..."

"I don't see a problem with that," he nodded, "I could make the arrangements..."

"Thank you!" Catherine whispered, eyeing the Madonna and letting her tears fall freely. "I'll love her, cherish her and raise her as you would. She'll be well loved and cared for. By your grace we found our miracle." She turned to her husband and thought of their new life in Evangeline, a quiet little town in Louisanna. "That's it...her name, I mean. Grace...Mary Grace...yes...that's just perfect."

Sara's heart froze as they trio left, taking Angélique with them. She couldn't go after them, the priest knew her and knew she had no baby at the cottage with her grandmother. Maybe he'd take Alexandra from her too! What if her grandmother died? She couldn't follow the couple, her grandmother needed her. She began to cry, rocking the baby and feeling her heart break. She'd already broken her promise to him. Suddenly the cold church was filled with warmth. The image on the glass window seemed to breathe. She felt an inner peace and understanding, taking her tears and fears away. Maybe she hadn't failed. She thought on the woman's face as she held the baby. Angélique would be well cared for and loved. She'd be safe. Wasn't that what she promised? Her grandmother's face rose again, twisted in pain. The priest...she wanted a final blessing. Leaving Alex tucked safety in her basket, on the floor in a pew, she ran to the small room next to the altar and knocked.

"Sara! What are you doing here?" Father Dominic Auberge asked and saw the tear-streaked face. "Is it your Grandmère?" He saw the head nod and sighed, hugging her for a moment. She was too thin and never complained. Poor child, she couldn't speak. "I'll get my bag, you run along home and stay with her. Have you eaten today?" He saw the head nod again. "We have a lot to discuss. Your grandmother wanted you to enter the convent, after her death. You can study with the sisters there until you are old enough to take your vows."

Sara stared at him mutely, not giving any indication of consent. She would never give up Alex and would go to her Papa's house. She left the priest and went back to the pew, taking time to thank Mary. She would buy some more milk for the trip she planned. She took the basket and stole into the night. As she traveled home, her plan formed. She had enough money for a train ticket. She could pack a bottle and some things in the basket and walk to the train station in the next town. They didn't know her there. She could write a letter, telling the clerk about the address in New Mexico. Yes, she would take Alex to her Papa. He wanted her...she'd felt his words clearly in the letter.

By the time she got home, Alex was awake. She fed her, changed her and rocked her to sleep. Then she hid the basket in the bottom of her closet. She sat on the stool next to the bed, rising to get the door.

"It's me, Sara," Father Dominic said, entering the room. The old woman was in a coma and it wouldn't be long. He administered last rites and prayed the rosary with Sara. Finally, it was done. "I'll take care of the arrangements, Sara. We'll bury her in the morning. I'll have Mrs. Danvers come over and get her ready." He spoke of the undertaker's wife, who worked at the rectory as a cook. "Will you be alright until she gets her later?" He saw the head nod once and her hand still clinging to her grandmother's. She wasn't a child to show open emotion and he knew she wanted some time alone to grieve. "Okay, I'll be back in a short while with Mrs. Danvers."

After he left, she said goodbye to her grandmother. She thought on the many smiles the woman always had for her. The hours by the fire, telling her stories and singing to her. She kissed the still warm face again and went back to her room. Isabella's large satchel would hold food, clothes for the baby and a few other things. It would take most of the afternoon to travel to the next town, after the funeral. How to get away? She'd tell Father Dominic she wanted time by herself at the cottage. He had no reason not to trust her. The service would probably be in the morning. She could beg a few hours from him, and be gone when he arrived to pick her up. She would have Papa call him when she got there. Things would work out somehow. She took the basket to the hearth and sat next to it, lifting out Alex and rocking her. She felt a pain in her chest, thinking on the missing baby. But it was done now and she couldn't turn back. She heard Father Dominic's voice outside and quickly hid the sleeping baby back in her closet.

"Oh, Sara, I'm so sorry," Loretta Danvers stooped and hugged the somber child. The large brown eyes seemed to go right through her. "I've brought you a new dress and some shoes for the service in the morning. Aren't they nice?"

Sara eyed the dark blue dress and black boots and nodded. They'd be warm for her trip and she could use them. The night seemed to drag, Father Dominic left and Sara begged off to go to bed, the other woman seemed to sense her fatigue and didn't bother to argue. She didn't sleep, of course, she was too worried. She'd forgotten about the mass before the burial. She couldn't leave Alex. By the time dawn came, she was sick with worry. She fed and changed the baby, boiling the nappies while Mrs. Danvers slept in the rocker. She took them outside to dry and then felt herself getting sick. She was out front, when Mrs. Danvers found her.

"Oh my, you're not well. That's understandable. You look awful..." She helped the ill child back in the house and sat her near the fire. "I'll make you some tea." She watched the quiet little girl drink the tea and then bolt outside again. She followed, shaking her head. "I'll have to stay with you, you need to put in bed. I hope you're not coming down with the flu."

Sara shook her head and pointed to her grandmother.

"I know you want to go, Sara, but you look dreadful. Passing out in the church will only upset everyone. I'll put you to bed and stay..." She saw the head shake again and the hand point to her grandmother. She watched as the child scribbled on a piece of paper. She read the note handed to her. "Please say goodbye for me...Go for me?" she paused, "Oh, I understand. You want me to take your place, at the grave? Okay, but I'll return as soon as it's over. You will stay in bed, won't you? Father told me about you leaving for the convent. You can stay with Mr. Danvers and myself until that time comes." She winced as the body flew past her again, and the tiny shoulders shook as she vomited. Poor thing...she hoped it wasn't the flu.

As soon as they left, she bolted from the bed. She fed and changed the baby, before packing milk, the bottle and more nappies. She wrote a fast note, left some of the money for the burial and then prepared. She donned the new dress and boots, pulled on her cloak and picked up the basket. It was time for her to start her new life with her Papa.

The clerk looked up when the strange child appeared before her.

"Yes?" She took the note and read it carefully. "You are mute. Your father is meeting you in Santa Fe? You need a ticket? Isn't anyone with you?" She eyed the vacant area and studied the solemn face. Another note appeared. "No, your grandmother died and you're travelling alone. It was just the two of you? I'm so sorry," She paused, " Can I have you father's name and address? She eyed the address and wrote it down, before calling a clerk. "Peter, this young lady is travelling to Santa Fe to her father's home. See that she gets settled into a compartment and keep and eye on her." She handed the ticket to the girl and nodded. "Good Luck."

Finally, the train pulled out and she was alone in the compartment. She watched the landscape roll by, wary of the door. She ate some fruit and sausages, before feeding Alex. The baby seemed to sense her apprehension and was behaving very well. She thought of Angélique again and wondered about her new life.

Santa Fe was a pretty town and she watched the adobe houses and colorful tiled buildings go by as they finally arrived. She was exhausted and hungry. She took the basket from the train and got a cab. She gave him the address and waited. It was a nice house, white stucco with red tiles on the roof. A large garden surrounded it, full of flowers, fruit trees and more. She looked up as the door opened.

"Sara!" James Gavin dropped to his knees. He'd know her anywhere. She looked just like him, plus Louise, the child's grandmother, sent him a photo two years ago. My God, here she was, at last. He hugged her tight and felt the body stiffen. "I'm sorry...I'm so sorry, I hope you can forgive me. We have a lot to talk about. Why are you here? Where is your grandmother?"

Sara handed him the note she'd written on the train. She watched him scan it and then look up in disbelief. He looked behind her at the empty tree lined street and frowned. He ushered her inside and into the large living room. It was big house, he was a succesful architect and he designed it himself.

"Sit down, Sweetheart. You came by yourself? My God, you're a brave soul." He read the second note handed to him and frowned. "You left without telling them...they'll be worried sick. I'll call this Father Dominic now." He felt her hand on his wrist and saw the stubborn set in her jaw. "I won't mention the baby, not until we talk, okay?" He lifted the cooeing infant out and wrinkled his nose. "She's wet....My God, she's beautiful! Don't worry, Sara, we'll figure it out. My wife, she's a nurse at the medical center in town. I'll call her now...She's a wonderful woman, kind and gentle. She knows all about you." He laid the baby back down and pulled his daughter over, hugging her tight. "I'm so very proud of you. To have the courage to do what you did, alone and you never wavered. I love you very much, I always have. Your mother and me ...we were too young when we met. She didn't want to leave and I had to go to college. She never told me about you, not until she got sick. I'd have never left you, please understand that, Sara. I never knew about you..." His words were cut off when the solemn child's hand came up and place itself on his lips. He saw the tears on the smudged, exhausted face. She hugged him back then, hard and it was worth all the wait. "I love you, too, Sweetheart. You and Alexandra will have a home here. We'll be a family, the four of us."

Sara changed Alex while her father called the priest. She eyed the magnificent home and felt a peace finally. She was home, at last. He loved her, she read his eyes right away. Kind brown eyes, full of love and goodness. She listened to him explain to the priest that she was safe and here. He'd send the paperwork over, he had letters from Sara's mother and a copy of her birth records. A lawyer, not a problem. Have the lawyer visit and check on the home, he'd welcome it. She heard him answer every question carefully, never mentioning the baby. Then he made a second call, to his wife.

"Marie's on her way." He held out his hand. "How about some lunch?" While she ate, he noticed she protected the baby like a hawk, never letting her out of sight. He read the note carefully again, and looked when the door shut. He flinched when Sara shot out of the chair and grabbed the baby. "It's alright, Sara, it's just Marie."

"Hello, Darling," Marie Gavin stopped when she saw the baby. "Who's that?"

"We have a lot to talk about..." He greeted his wife with a stern stare and a hug. "It's like this..."

Two hours later, it was nearly settled. James made a call to his brother, a lawyer, who would take care of the paperwork. He'd make some 'quiet' inquiries in the area that Sara left, just to make sure. He could get a 'birth certificate' for Alex and predated adoption papers. That way, legally, she'd have been theirs from birth. Once the priest left, satsified that Sara was safe and where she belonged, they could start their new life. They would take a short trip and return with the baby, telling friends they'd adopted her. It was late nearly suppertime and they were in the living room. Marie, a pretty blue-eyed woman with black hair and an olive complexion, stared at the sleeping Sara.

"She's a remarkable child, to have thought so quickly and acted on it."

"Yes, she is," he lifted the sleepy body and smiled when she nestled into him, trustingly. He stroked her light brown hair from her face and felt tears in his eyes. "I had no idea..." he choked, "How good this would feel. My God, I love her..."

"I know," his wife smiled, kissing his forehead, "I love her too...both of our daughters."

Sara was sleeping soundly, for the first time in years. She didn't have to worry about her grandmother's heart during the night. She had her Papa at last and a new mother with kind eyes. She dreamed about the murder, waking in a sweat. She was alone in a large bedroom. She panicked, not seeing Alex, until the basket appeared in the moonlight. She crept over and peered inside, the baby was sleeping peacefully. She watched the profile at rest and made a silent vow. Taking the tiny heart shaped locket in her fingers, she promised to tell Alex the truth one day, when she was grown and could protect herself. Until then, she would be the guardian, the keeper of the dark secret. She'd keep a diary, from this day on, recording it all. Yawning, she pulled the pillow and blanket from the bed and slept next to the basket.

Present Day
Monday Morning, Denver Airport, 6 AM

Josiah Sanchez yawned as the kid behind the counter counted the change again. He shook his gray head, wondering what the youth of today had come to. That without a keypad on the cash register, telling them what product was bought, they didn't know how to make change. He took back the 31 cents and nodded.

"That's okay, Son, just give me what the register says," he took the change with the large coffee and ambled back to the gate. Chris was reading his paper, studying the world's economic status. Buck was sprawled next to him, studying every female form that wandered by. The ex-minister had picked both Vin and Chris up, for their trip to New Orleans. Buck came along to torture Vin and annoy Chris, both of which he'd accomplished in the car. The three hour plus flight would be boarding soon.

"Where's Vin?" he asked, standing next to the plastic row of chairs.

"Bathroom," Buck answered, "His bladder must be the size of a peanut, he went before we pulled out and his hit that bathroom twice since we got here."

"His nerves are bad, leave him alone," Chris answered, without looking up from his paper.

"What the hell does that mean?" Josiah said somberly, pointing his cup-clenched hand beyond where they sat. He heard Buck chuckle and the paper rustle as Chris was torn away from the business section. The youngest of the quintet was approaching and stopped in the middle of the floor. His eyes twitched, his shoulders jerked and he tugged on both ears with his hands.

"I don't know," Wilmington laughed, nudged Chris and nodded, "But I think one of us is supposed to steal third base."

Josiah laughed and even Chris chuckled. Then he saw the evil light in Buck's eyes. "Leave him alone, Buck," he warned, knowing his plea would fall on deaf ears.

"Hey Vin, you didn't tell me you used to work for the Rangers," he joked of Texas's baseball team.

"Huh?" the Texan squinted, before settling down next to Chris.

"Buck was just leaving, weren't you?" The blond eyed the grinning fool, who stood up and stretched.

"Well, I guess those of us working today need to get moving. Don't call me for bail money." He shook Chris's hand and tapped Vin's knee. "You remember what I warned you about. You check south before you make a landing."

"What?" Chris squinted at the cryptic message and saw Vin blush. "Buck..."

"Hey, I'm just lookin' out for the boy's best interests," he defended, "I don't want him ending up with the wrong kind of girl, so to speak."

"Day I need ya t'pick m'women out fer me, is the day they'll be plantin' me six feet under," Vin said annoyed, "I ain't gonna get tangled up with some wolf in woman's clothes."

"You see that you don't!" Buck teased, "Pretty little fella like you is live bait on Bourbon St. I remember one time..."

"Goodbye, Buck," Chris picked up his paper, covering his face and saw Vin slide his dark glasses on and flop back in the seat.

"Nobody appreciates me," the tall man complained, shaking his head, just as Josiah clapped his shoulder.

"Come on Brother, you can fill me in on the sordid details over breakfast." He nodded to the departing pair. "Have a safe trip."

"Thanks Josiah," Chris nodded and elbowed Vin.

"Huh?" he blinked, "Oh...thanks 'siah...see ya in a couple weeks."

Ten minutes later, they flight attendant announced first boarding. People in the area in first class or with small children began to line up. Chris stood up, picked up his carryon on bag and got ready, they'd be called next. He tapped Vin's leg with his bag, and the younger man stood.

"We're next," the blond said, starting for the line. "Where are you going?" He noticed his young friend headed in the other direction.

"Bathroom," Vin said, dropping his bag at Chris's feet.

"Again!" the leader amazed, "They're gonna need to hook you up to a catheter if you ever have a baby."

"Huh?" Vin squinted.

"Your ears bothering you?" Chris asked.

"No...not really...be right back."

By the time they hit cruising level, Vin was sound asleep. Chris moved to the aisle seat, to give the ailing man more room. He scoured the overhead compartment and found two thin blue blankets, which he used to cover the slumbering sharpshooter. Then he pulled out Time Magazine and settled in for a relaxing flight. Three hours later, the pilot announced they were about to land. He nudged Vin, who was sprawled out over both seats next to him. The bank of blue blankets moved and a shaggy brown head rose, neither eye fully open.

"Wake up," he issued, watching the twin blues blinking slowly. "We're landing. Sit up and get your buckle on."

"Huh?" Vin asked hoarsly, coughing and wrinkling his face.

Chris sighed in frustration and pointed to the seat belt.

"Oh," Vin yawned, moving to look out the small window. "Hey, we're almost there."

"No kidding?" Chris replied sarcastically, which went right over Vin's head.

"Yeah, looks like a nice day. All them tiny cars carryin' folks t'work..."

Vin stumbled behind Chris through the airport, yawning and tugging on his ears. The bags weren't delayed too long, allowing them to get their rental car quickly. Chris narrowed his eyes, when Vin kept smirking. The luggage was in the back and the Texan was already buckled up. The blond slid behind the wheel and eyed his chuckling friend.

"Something funny?"

"Well, it did tickle m'funny bone, seein' ya squat in a light blue car. Makes ya seem downright friendly." He teased of Larabee's vehicles at home, all of which were black.

"Shut up, Tanner," the leader started the engine on the Ford Taurus and they headed to town. Twice the green eyes narrowed, watching the slim hand fidget with the dial. He was just feeling his way through a song, when the hand moved again.

"Leave it alone!" Larabee barked.

"It ain't got no words," Tanner protested.

"I happen to like jazz," Chris replied tersly, lifting one eyebrow and daring the wavering hand to move.

"It ain't got no words," Vin continued his stance, with a scowl.

"It doens't need them, it has feeling. If you didn't have the patience of a hopped up flea, you'd appreciate more kinds of music."

"It ain't got no words," the Texan's brows knit and his hand moved to the dial.

Chris shook his head and eyed the signs ahead. He was eyeing the path to town, when his head was split in half. "Vin!" He warned, of the deafening metal music. "Get the shit off my radio."

"Yer radio?" Vin changed the dial, leaving AC/DC behind reluctantely. He travelled the dial again, pausing as a country song came on. The grin formed and he peeked at the pensive face, spotting a single profiled glaring green eye.

"No!" Chris issued sharply, knowing Vin was fooling around.

Finally, a Van Morrison song came on and he began to hum along, until the hand moved again. "I'll break your wrist!" He barked knocking the hand away.

"Aw, hell," Vin pouted, "Goddamn, old crank." He sat up as they wove their way into the city. His spirits picked up a bit, he nearly forget how sick he felt. "Sure is pretty!"

"Yeah," Chris nodded, "but what until you see her at night!"

"Party time?"

"Oh yeah!" Chris echoed, as they entered the French Quarter."You ever been to New Orleans?"

"Not really." Vin shrugged, eyeing the homes trimmed in lacey iron work. "You?"

"Yeah, we came here all the time," he paused, eyeing the narrow streets and tourists crossing in front of him. "...but I haven't been back, since Sara...." He broke off the sentence as a wave of nostalgia hit him right in the chest. The heat of the burning dagger intensified in his chest and rose with wild abandon. His heart pounded and he felt sweat trickling down his back. She was everywhere...her image still lingered on every corner, from the balcony of the old hotel and quaint cafe table, he could still hear her laugh. Trying to shake himself free of the tormenting grip, he turned to his companion, thinking on the younger man's response. "Not really?" he navigated the small street well, "What do you mean?"

"I was in an ER here once, spent the night."

"Hunting?" Chris guessed of the Texan's former bounty hunting days.

"Yeah, chasin' a murderer through two states. Got stitched up here and caught up t'him in a hot bed. Didn't know who was more surprised," Vin recounted of bursting into the seedy hotel in Georgia, "Me, him or the hooker." He stole a sideways glance and saw the past evolving slowly on the handsome blond's features. He swallowed hard, he seldom saw his best friend so pensive. The eyes were soft and warm, the features lost in time. He remained silent, not wanting to intrude.

He didn't think it would hit him so hard. He felt his chest tighten and his eyes fill. This was their place, Sara and his. A warm, wonderful playground they romped in by day and a nearly magical place to lose each other in at night. He sighed hard, eyeing cafés they used to haunt, holding hands and stealing lingering kisses. A lone man on the street corner played a bayful tune, the notes of the sad blues song entered him hard. He saw her ahead, laughing at him as she exited a jewelry store. Next there would be a table at Café Du Monde, for beignets and coffee. They'd stroll the streets, hand in hand, visiting the neighborhood markets where artists and vendors sold their wares. Antiques, how she loved hunting for them. He found a small smile, recalling their first visit, during Mardi Gras madness. The extraordinary creole fun, charming people and unmatched spirit made it a trip to remember. After that, it had become 'their' place, revisited each year.

Vin's large eyes took in the gingerbread houses trimmed in wrought-iron grillwork. Dozens of tiny shops passed his eye, along with a horse drawn carriage. The formally dressed black man was busy telling the overweight tourists he was lugging, about the towns rich history. Vin caught bits and pieces of the lore, loaded with smugglers, pirates and the ghost of the riverdays. He was assualted with many wonderful smells. Rich pungant perfumes of the food being prepared in the restaurants they were passing. His rubbed his empty stomach, quelling the dizziness he felt. He hadn't eaten breakfast, flying made him nervous.

"Chris?" he interrupted the lost man's trip reluctantly, but the face remained blank. He tapped the black leather jacket, "Chris?" He flinched when the blond jumped in the seat, startled. "Sorry. We gonna eat soon?"

"I'm sorry, Vin," Chris thought back, realizing Vin slept through the snack on the plane. "Did you eat today?"

"No," he coughed, "'gettin' kinda shakey."

"Okay," Chris pulled to the end of Bourbon, where a large church stood over a good piece of ground. "This is Jackson square and that's the catherdral. How 'bout some beignets and coffee?" He pulled in on a side street next to a printing store. Café Du Monde was just a few blocks ahead.The world famous French Market styled coffee stand brought back vivid memories.

"Benwhos?" Vin managed to get out of the car and steady himself, stretching his legs.

"Beignets." Chris moved next to him, noticing him sway a bit. "Right up your alley. Deep fried dough, light as a feather, hot and covered in lots of sugar."

"Lead on, Cowboy!" Vin boomed, watching a large paddlewheeler in the distance. The open air eatery was already crowded. The scent of the frying confectionary gems nearly bowed the starving man over.

"Sit!" Chris ordered, spotting a vacant table. "I'll take care of it."

Vin huddled at the table, coughing and sneezing, letting his bleary eyes roam the busy square. Bohemian artists, colorful street mimes and jaunty jugglers entertained the area. Fancy carriages with horses bedecked in hats bearing flowers were parked nearby. Tourists climbed aboard and were swept away in time, escaping to the colorful past of the charming town.

"They're hot, be careful!"

Vin sat up as a large plate of hot squares of fried dough appeared before him. The mountain of sugar on top nearly made him swoon. He sipped the café au lait first, the heady mixture, half coffee and half hot milk, was perfect. He was devouring his third beignet, when he came up for air. He was about to ask Chris something, when he saw the painful expression. The pensive blond's features were tight and the coffee untouched. He followed the emotive green eyes across the square, wondering where in time his companion was lost. His mind replayed the sudden catch in the blond's voice in the car when his late wife's name came up. He got his answer and remained mute, allowing his best friend time to grieve.

The loud tourists disappeared, the mimes and locals parted and the mists of time unfurled. Her laughter filled his head, taking his breath away. The eyes were next, a color so striking, he was lost in them again. The long dark curly hair framing her beautiful face, he could nearly feel the silken tresses. Hand in hand they strode along the sidestreets, stopping in shops and browsing the open stands. She loved to hunt antiques and every table brought a new smile. Then a child's high pitched squeal of joy broke his heart. He watched as their miracle dissolved into a sea of laughter, the victim of his mother's tickles. His chin quivered as he took a deep breath; God it hurt.

Suddenly, Vin wasn't quite as hungry. He finished his meal and sipped the coffee thoughtfully. He didn't miss the light eyes filling and winced visibly when Chris inhaled sharply. He licked his lips and looked away, wondering how to conquer the newfound meloncholy. He closed his eyes, resting his chin in his hands. The penetrating sunlight only added to his headache. His throat was raw from coughing and his ears had now joined the congestion party. He stifled the first two coughing spells, but the third was too strong.

A harsh sound closed his window into the past in a hurry. He blinked, his shoulders jerked slightly and he turned to his right. Vin looked awful. He was huddled in the chair, blue-eyes rimmed red and gasping for breath. He'd been so lost in the past, he'd forgotten about his ailing friend.

"Sorry," he commented, clapping the younger man's back. It took several minutes for the Texan's breathing to even out. The blue eyes were hard and glared at him sharply.

"This is me sittin' here, Chris Larabee," Vin hissed, annoyed at the moping, apologetic tone, "Ya see ya remember that."

There, in the middle of one of the most historic spots in the Big Easy, he found his salvation. Those soulful blue eyes cut him to the quick. The ghosts from the past suddenly didn't seem as painful. The flavor of this special town would be relished and enjoyed anew. The person, perhaps the one person, who could quell those demons, was at his side. He studied the wheezing body, riddled with germs, and smiled softly. He took a deep breath, stood and released the smile that had grown over the past few minutes. That's all it took, the blue eyes warmed and he nodded, eyeing the lively square.

"Come on, Tanner," he ordered with a gleam in his eye, "You gonna sit there and wheeze like an old man?"

"Go t'hell ya onry jackass!" Vin laughed, following his best friend into the sunlight. As they walked back to the car, he thought on Chris's pensive mood in the French Market. Maybe the wounds were still too fresh. Despite how hard he was trying, he saw the blond head eyeing the small shops and vendor's stands. Maybe Chris needed some time alone, to remember and savor.

"Hotel far?"

"No, it's in the Garden District," Chris replied, waiting for Vin to buckle up. He saw the headache pounding through the squinting sky eyes and sighed.

"Garden District?" Vin sneezed, resting his aching temples against the doorjamb.

"Yeah, it's loaded with old mansions and lots of atmosphere," the leader supplied, easing the car onto St. Charles Avenue. Some of the large, antibellum mansions were over a hundred years old. Others, dressed in Victorian finery, were turn of the century.

"Damn!" Vin amazed at the ornate, huge houses. "Reckon this is the rich folks neighborhood."

"...and then some..." the blond agreed, pulling up a long driveway. "Some of these houses go back to the mid-nineteenth century. Some of them are still occupied, by family members or celebrities. Others, like the one we're staying at, were converted into hotels or bed and breakfasts. We got lucky, this one is one of the best."

"Hope they got indoor plumbin'."

"Why?" Chris teased, opening the trunk and taking out their bags, "Your royal ass too good to squat in an outhouse?" He saw the grin as the shaggy head approached the large verandah, leading through white pillars to the massive oak door. "Hey!"

"What?" Vin turned back, eyeing the annoyed blond bearing four bags.

"I look like the hired help to you?" Larabee ired, dropping Vin's bags.

"Sorry!" the Texan lumbered back and fished in his pocket. He stuck a dollar bill in Chris's pocket and tapped his face lightly. "That outta cover it Old Timer."

"Tanner!"

"Ya got no sense o'humor," Vin complained, picking his bags up and heading inside. He gave a low whistle as he eyed the large foyer. He felt as if he'd stepped through the door and back a hundred years. A large Waterford crystal chandelier hung high above. The marbled floor gleamed and antique tables housing oil lamps and vases of flowers littered the corners. He eyed the massive staircase and the floor above.

"Hello," Chris said, putting the bags down by the door of a small room off the impressive foyer.

"Welcome to Sauville House," a middle-aged black man greeted them warmly. "I'm Nigel Bates, the manager."

"Larabee and Tanner," Chris supplied, smiling at Vin's gape- mouthed wonder.

"If you'll wait a moment, I'll have someone get your bags."

"That's okay," Chris took the key, eyeing Vin rubbing his eyes. "We can manage."

"Up the stairs and to the left. It's a fine suite of rooms, I hope you'll enjoy your stay."

"Thanks," Vin nodded, realizing the man was talking to him. "It's real nice."

"Your room has a coffee service in the sitting area. The kitchen is open from six a.m. until ten p.m. Just dial 12 if you wish to place an order. This is a map of the house and grounds, it should explain everything. André's is on this floor," he spoke of the fancy, fixed price French restaurant. "Isabella's is in the rear, off the garden. It's a charming place for breakfast and lunch. The view of the gardens is quite spectacular. Downstairs, there is a billiard room and Raoul's, the lounge." He left his new guests at the foot of the stairs. Should you need anything..."

"Thanks, Nigel," Chris nodded, nudging Vin forward. They followed the large staircase and turned down the hall, following the numbers until the name appeared.

"The Sophia Suite," he nodded, unlocking the door. "Nice." He walked inside, eyeing the ornate, antique filled entryway. A deep green oriental rug, trimmed in coral script filled the sitting room. Two ivory wingchairs stood on either side of a coral and ivory sofa. An oval marble coffee table was between them, holding a large tray. An ornate silver tea and coffee service stood on squatty legs. A large basket on the floor next to it, was full of gourmet coffee, tea, biscuits, cookies and crackers.

"Chocolate!" Vin rasped, plucking a small box from the basket.

"Nice tracking!" Chris complemented the bounty hunter. They paired off, Vin disappearing through the door to the right, Chris took the one to the left. It was a large handsome bedroom, all done in tones of deep green and beige. A four poster bed was joined by a rosewood desk and endtables. A large set of French doors opened onto a balcony, overlooking the garden. He moved through the room, opening a door. The bathroom was large as well. A black and white tiled floor held a toilet, large sink and mirror and massive bathtub. He saw the twin door and went through. He laughed softly, Vin was sprawled across the large bed, both hands flung wide. The room was done in deep blues and ivory trim.

"I may never leave," the sated Texan drawled of the comfortable bed.

"You okay, Vin?" Chris frowned, eyeing the medicine already on the nightstand. The weary body sat up and met his eye.

"If we're gonna paint the town red tonight," Vin supplied, "I'm gonna need some downtime. I'm sorry, Chris, I'm wiped out."

Chris started to reply and something told him there was more to the answer than met his eye. His radar for 'Tanner logic' sounded and he thought on the quiet stop at the café. He saw Vin duck his gaze away and drop his head. He smiled then, knowing Vin understood. Somehow, the scruffy Texan had read his thoughts at the donut stop. He not only recognized the need inside, he sensed the desire to challenge those long ago memories. Just one more thing that was special about his best friend.

"I think we both need some downtime," he said quietly, watching Vin's sneakers fly across the carpet. He disappeared briefly and returned with a large glass of ice water. He waited until the amoxicillin and phenegren disappeared. He waited through two yawns and half a candy bar, then watched the body fold under the large quilt. "I'll be back, later." He got a grunt for a reply and the tangled brown locks disappeared. He paused in the doorway that led through the bathroom back to his own room. "Hey," he called out, waiting for the toussled head to rise. "Thanks, Cowboy...from Sara and me." The soft smile that returned his words was one he'd keep all day.

Part Four

Early January, 1909, New Orleans

The unmistakable cry of a child filled the night air. The shaky, hesitant cry marked a newborn entrance into the world. André Sauville rose from large, burgundy leather wing chair and poured two drinks into expensive antique glasses. He handed one to his son-in-law and clinked his own to it.

"To the future," he toasted, as his first grandchild's wail was finally calmed. "What a difference a year makes. We've accomplished so much...your investments were incredible, Raoul, we've never been so prosperous."

What a year indeed, the younger man thought, grinning like a sated lion. As he swallowed the expensive scotch, he thought back on the last 13 months. He expected her to mourn the poor bastard who ended up in the river, but she'd surprised him. It was as if her heart went under the churning water that day as well. The fiery temptress who he desparately wanted in the garden that night, had turned into the Ice Queen of New Orleans. Despite the frosty, corpse like pose in their marriage bed, her body was luscious and he took her frequentely. That is, until she became pregnant. He would take no chances with his golden ticket to the Sauville millions. She suffered cramps and shows of blood from the start and was confined to bed. He was a man of insatiable needs and had never given up his frequent trips to the French quarter. He maintained his home there and filled his bed with many women. He had his eye on a ripe young creole lass who did his laundry. She'd fought off his advances all week and tonight he intended to conquer her.His thoughts were interrupted when there was a knock at the study door.

"Yes?"

"It's Tess, Sir."

"Enter," André turned as Isabella's maid entered. She'd been with the family since before the new mother was born. She'd hadn't aged much in the last twenty years and was still very attractive. Her features bore the mark of her French father and her cocoa coloring of her Creole mother. He had a mistress of course, but Tess knew better than to turn him away. She was paid well and had a pretty cottage on the grounds. "What of the child?"

"The child is fine, he is strong boy."

"A boy!" Andre exuded, clapping Raoul's back hard. "First time out...well done!"

Tess bit her tongue and swallowed back her disdain for the primping roosters. She took a settling breath, thinking on the horrid twenty hours of labor her poor mistress went through. The whole pregnancy was horrible, leaving Isabella very ill. The child survived and was well, her mistress was not. She stared hard at Raoul Moreau and felt her blood boil. She had a deep hatred for this man and didn't hide her emotions.

"Your concern for your wife is overwhelming," She spat at the cold-blooded beast.

"You keep a civil tongue, Tess or the face of yours won't be so very pretty..." Raoul warned, watching the color rise. "Well? I know that sharp tongue of yours is dying to wag..."

"She bled heavily, we almost lost her. Doctor Lapointe would like to see you immediately."

"Won't you even look at him?" the elderly physician asked the pale new mother. He'd delivered hundreds of babies and encountered many emotions on new mothers. He didn't know what to make of this cold, lackluster body in the bed. She lifted her face and moved her body away as he approached with the child.

"I've arranged for a wet nurse, she's in the east wing where the nursery will be. As soon as his father sees him, Tess will take him to Annette." She said of the young girl hired to care for the child. She's lost her own baby a week before and was heavy with milk. Isabella stared at the dark head in the blanket and felt nothing. He looked like a frog...his features were Raoul's...a cruel reminder of the brutality she'd endured for months at the onset of their marriage. His actions in their bed were beyond the darkest imagination. But that was finished. She looked up when Raoul entered, kissing her cheek dutifully.

"Look at the size of him!" André marveled.

"He's my boy, did you expect any less?" Raoul gloated.

"Annette is waiting, she's his now..." Isabella eyed the men in the room and felt sick. They were so alike it was revolting. Her father thought the sun rose in Raoul. "Father, I wish to speak with Raoul alone, please."

"Of course, of course, I'm sure you have much to discuss. What name have you picked?"

"Louis André," Raoul bragged, not even consulting his wife. "For his two grandfathers."

"You need your rest," the physician snapped his bag closed and put his coat on. "I left orders and medicine with Tess. I'm sorry, Mister Moreau, the birth was very difficult. There will be no more children."

He was momentarily surprised, but that quickly vanished. He had his heir and the tiny red bundle was the key to the kingdom. He nodded as Tess, André and the doctor left. He turned to his wife and saw the first signs of life in her, since the day they'd wed. The amethyst eyes were alive with fire, set in the very pale face.

"I'm moving into the east wing. I've decided to have it renovated. You will remain here. I'll be the envy of society, the perfect marionette of a wife. I'll nod and make witty small talk with your barbaric friends. I'll make this house the very envy of all of New Orleans. We'll have the very best food, parties and contribute to the right charities. I'll dangle quite nicely on your arm."

"...and..." he took a liberal swig from the silver flask in his pocket.

"...and you can torture every poor whore you heart desires, but you'll never touch me again. Annette comes highly recommended. She's not only perfect to nurse your son, but she's quite educated as well. She'll raise him into a perfect little puppet, just like the beast who sired him."

"Had I known this would turn my cold fish into a fiery dragon..." he goaded, cupping her chin, only to have his arm shoved away.

"You keep your trash in town at your house, don't you dare to bring any of them here...this is my house, Raoul, make no mistake."

"Shall we seal it with a kiss?" He sneered, bending over her. The resounding slap to his face only made him laugh.

She seethed in rage, long after the door shut. She pulled the quilt up and relished the fact that the only light in the room was the fireplace. She stared into the deep amber embers and wondered about her angels. They'd be fifteen months old now. Were they talking yet? Did they still look so much like Philippe? Were they safe? This new phase in her life was step one. She intended on becoming the dutiful society wife. She'd lure Raoul into her web slowly, all the while, plotting her revenge. She'd find her babies and escape...as soon as it was safe. He was a powerful man with influence statewide. She'd have to be careful, or word would leak back to him. He was ruthless and would do anything, even murder, to keep his precious money. As she drifted off to sleep, her beloved's face hovered near. She smiled, feeling his warm kisses and longing for the wonderful sensation of raking her hands through that wonderful long, dark hair. She eased into a deep sleep, readying herself for battle.

Christmas 1911, Santa Fe

The fire crackled in the large adobe fireplace, it's warmth invading the festive room. Strings of bright red chili peppers adorned the mantle. The scent of a roast turkey filled the air, along with cakes, pies and cookies. A nativity sat on a small table by the Christmas tree. Family and friends of the host and hostess mingled throughout the downstairs of the fine home.

"Merry Christmas!"

James Gavin turned to embrace his pretty wife, accepting the kiss and taking the bundle from her arms. The small scowling face was red with rage and the large beautiful eyes were full of tears. At four, his youngest daughter was already showing hints of the beauty she possessed. Her dark, curly hair hung in waves down her back, secured by a white ribbon. Her eyes were large and beguiling, a color neither blue nor amethyst, a shade so mezmerizing, it was difficult not to get lost peering at them. But along with her beauty, she had a royal temper, which she was now displaying. He shifted her to his free arm and kissed the tear-streaked cheek.

"What's wrong Princess Lily?" He ticked her, hoping to gain a smile. Alexandra Lily Gavin had just turned four and was the apple of the parent's eye. Lily, as she was known, was a bright child, who loved her parents and idolized her older sister, Sara. The onslaught of company for Christmas dinner had interrupted her nap. She was cranky and irritable and that meant only one person could handle her. He held the squirming, whining body close and made his way through the room, past the brightly colored candles and the large pile of gifts. He paused, eyeing his firstborn. She was kneeling by the nativity, moving the tiny ceramic figures around. His smile broadened, seeing how she placed Mary and Joseph close to the sleeping infant.

"Look, Lily, look what Sara has," He lowered the small girl, who lauched herself at her older sister. James bent down and kissed the top of his daughter's light brown hair. At fourteen, she was tall for her age and exceptionally smart. Science and math, in particular, seemed to be her strongpoints. She was a star pupil at school and he hoped to send her to college back east, when she was older. She was a plain child, her pale brown eyes set in a calm face. She was so full of love, especially for Lily, that it made his chest swell. "I'm afraid your sister was roused too soon from her nap."

Sara rocked the crying child back and forth, stroking the silken tresses that hung down the dark blue velvet dress. Her eye caught the tiny locket, which dangled on a chain from Lily's neck. She sighed deeply, thinking about Isabella and Philippe. Lily was so much like them. She looked like her father, but had her mother's eyes and spirit. What of the twin? Where was she tonight? Was she as happy as they were? She watched the figurines in the tiny manger and moved the infant again. He needed to be safe and warm. She felt her father embrace them both from behind and nestled into his back.

"Sometimes, Sara, I wonder why God blessed me so," he murmured, catching her solemn eyes. "I love you so much..." He felt her kiss his cheek and smiled, cupping her chin. "I'm so very proud of you. No man should be spoiled as I, with two such fine daughters." He paused and saw a flicker of color in Lily's chubby fist. "What've you got?" He pried the fingers loose, wincing at the vise-like grip.

"No!" Lily wailed, eyes flashing, "Mine!"

"Your Mama has fixed a very special dinner. You can have your candy later." Hetook the candy cane and eyed the sticky fingers. "How about you let Sara wash those hands of yours and that sticky mouth? Then you can announce to our guests that dinner is ready. It's a very important job. Sara needs your help."

"Otay," Lily lisped, through the spot where her front tooth should be. "Sawa?" She tugged on her sister's hand and waited until the older girl stood. "I be good...Sawa..." She waited for the soft smile and happily left the room.

"Looking forward to your trip?" Juan Garcia inquired, sipping some wine and standing next to his good friend and brother-in-law. He knew James had been heavily involved with the fight for statehood. It was a battle he'd waged over the last several years. Despite the committee's best efforts, the voters were very leery of the territory's high mix of Spanish and Indian culture. But that ended earlier this year, when the voter's finally approved the entry of New Mexico as a member of the United States. James was one of the delgates selected to journey to Washington D.D. to meet President Taft when he signed the bill.

"Yes, I leave in the morning. We're all going, I've never been separated from my girls or Marie. It should be quite a trip. I can't wait to show Sara the capital."

"She's quite a little lady," the other commented, seeing his friend's dark eyes light up in pride.

"That she is," He nodded, watching his two daughters return to the room. Sara nudged Lily forward and the smaller girl rung a bell.

"The tookey is weady..." She scowled, hearing the adults and older children gathered laughing. "It is weady!" She insisted, stomping her foot. She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned her pretty face up to meet her sister's. "What?" She furrowed her brow, then pulled free. "I hungry, I eating tookey..." She decided, turning away and leading the guests to the table.

Later, after their family and friends left, the weary host and hostess settled on the sofa by the fireplace. Marie settled back comfortably into her husband's chest, feeling his arms wrapped around her. On the large colorful Indian blanket in front of the fire, both their girls were settled in their nightgowns. Sara held Lily in her lap, helping her feed a bottle to her doll. Marie smiled, Sara was such a giving child, a pleasure to love. They should be in bed, they were leaving on the train early in the morning. But right now, in her husband's arms with her daughters basking in the warmth of the fire, this was the only place to be. As another year ended and a new one about to be born, she looked to the cross above the mantle and send a silent prayer of thanks. They had truly been blessed as a family

Christmas 1911, St. Martinville, LA

Hidden in the mossy bayous and oak trees of Southwest Louisanna, was St. Martinville, in the heart of Cajun Country. It was the adopted home of French Acadians, expelled from Nova Scotia by the British almost two hundred years prior. They preserved much of their language and culture, blending it with that of the surrounding area, giving the region it's flavor. These ancestors of the original expelled French Acadians, or Cajuns, grew to a vast community over the years.

As he finished his lunch on the patio of their fine home, he thought on his idyllic life. At forty-five, he had a successful career, a good marriage and a beautiful daughter. Usually they spent the holidays with Catherine's family in Savannah. But he was too busy this year to get away, so they had a quiet Christmas at home. There was a roast in the oven and a mountain of gifts by the tree. His thoughts drifted to his most precious treasure, his beloved Grace.

This healthy, loving child had brought such happiness to himself and his wife Catherine. She was a quiet child, who loved music and nature. She could be found on most days, barefoot and playing happily in the gardens, amongst the flowers. She already showed early talent on the piano, having started lessons. This exceptional ray of light, their Grace, was indeed a blessed child. He watched through the window, as her long dark curls bounced as she ran. Her eyes, those equisitie jewels, were large and amethyst, with a hint of blue. She saw him and turned quickly, running and throwing herself into his arms.

"Papa! Papa! I saw a butterfuly, come and see..." She squirmed from his embrace and tugged on his hand.

Charles Anderson, an accoutant, based here, working for a nearby oil company. Catherine, his wife, was more than content in her new role as mother. She thrived on it, taking Grace to Mass every morning, then visiting the marketplace or perhaps stopping at his office to have lunch. They did much together, as a family and he cherished them. He felt his wife's smile before he got to the heart of the large floral fantasy that Catherine created on the grounds of their home.

"I'll miss this place," She mused, taking his arm as their daughter skipped ahead, accompanied by the family dog, a mutt named Candy.

"So will I," he added, thinking of his new position. "But it's the right choice. The city can offer her so much, and I always wanted to teach. We still have until June before we must leave."

"We need to find a house," she sighed, "and there's so much to be done here, packing and shipping our things."

"You worry to much," he laughed, kissing her forehead, "We have plenty of time to find a house. Let's enjoy this beautiful day with Grace. She's growing so fast..."

"Yes, it's hard to believe it's been four years already."

They paused and took a seat in the gazebo in the center of the vast display of fauna. The high pitched laugher of their only child, filled the air like sweet music. She romped among the sea of flowers, lost in their heady aroma. Then she spotted her parents and ran to join them. Charles put his arm around Catherine's shoulders and drew her closer. Grace settled on her lap, content and happy. He thought of their future in New Orleans and all the promise it held, especially for Grace. He intended to give her the very best of everything. Expose her to art, music and culture. Yes, taking the position at Tulane University had been a wise choice.

Christmas 1911, New Orleans

Isabella Alexandra Sophia Sauville Moreau was the very center of New Orleans Society. The chairwoman of dozens of charities, she was the most talked about female figure in the city. Her beauty was renowned as was her taste in clothing and jewels. She hosted dozens of parties at her lavish mansion and was surrounded by a bevvy of society ladies like herself. They chatted cattily, had tea and gossiped. They made plans for future charitable fund raisers and discussed the lastest rumors. She felt their envious eyes on her, after all, she had the perfect life. A wealthy, successful husband, a healthy child, a magnificent home full of the finest furniture and décor all at her feet. Yes, the hauty, beautiful blond was the envy of just about everyone and the lonliest woman on the planet.

It was their annual Christmas Brunch held in the ballroom of their mansion. Two dozen of New Orleans most affluent citizens were talking, dining and enjoying the string quartet that played in the corner. Raoul was across the room, with her father and several prominent businessmen. She sipped some champagne and caught the eye of Lord Edward Browne. The wealthy, handsome Englishman had come to stay with them a month ago. His father was an old friend and schoolmate of Raoul's, who was looking for a partner in a new enterprise. The senior Browne's wife was from France. The land the family estate was on, was ripe for grapes. Edward was here on behalf of his father, hoping to seal a deal that would create a large winery on his grandparent's landin France. He was fair-haired, blue-eyed and well built. She saw him nod to the people at his table and rise. He left through the side door, leading to the garden. She waited ten minutes and discreetly made her escape, joining him.

As she made her way through the hallway, she flushed, thinking on the many nights they'd spent together. He was an excepional lover and her skinned burned under his touch. She enjoyed the carnal delights, her body longed it, but her heart remained frozen. The handsome young foreigner was to stay with them, finalizing plans until they travelled back to England. Raoul insisted they all go, making a good show for the Browne's. He planned on building a home in France, on the grounds of the estate, planning on spending summers there.

She made her way through the maze, to the hidden center of it, unbuttoning her blouse as she went. By the time she found him, she was hungry, very hungry. He pulled her hard to his body, kissing her and drawing her down onto a soft blanket. Neither uttered a word, they met in a tangle of hot limbs and lips. Later, as she rested against his shoulder, she thought of their upcoming trip.

"How long will you stay?" He asked, tracing a lazy circle around her navel. He nibbled her neck and felt her pulse racing.

"Until spring," She returned, leaning back and growling low as his hands and lips went to work on her glistening skin. "Raoul insists we return in April. He booked us passage some new ship that will have her maiden run then. Apparentley, there has never been anything like it, it's quite magnificent. The Astors, Guggenheims, Strauss's and William Stead have all booked passage." She noted of some of the world's richest people.

"What ship?" He asked, pushing her back on the blanket, feeling his need rising.

"Something new from the White Star line," She sighed as he worked his magic. She locked her fingers in his hair and sighed. While he sated his needs, she thought on her plans. When they returned to New Orleans, next spring, she was going to leave Raoul. She was secure enough in her position and had established herself. She had a will done a few months ago, knowing something even André hadn't shared with Raoul. All Sauville's fortune, money, real estate and investments, were left to her, in trust for Louis when he turned twenty-one. While attending the wedding of an old school friend in September in New York, she sought out the bride's father, a very sucessful attorney. With what he told her, she fashioned her will accordingly, providing for Louis until he turned twenty one. Then the bulk of the money would be set in trust for her two daughters, the rightful heirs, who she intended to find. Raoul's money would be more than enough for Louis to live on. Yes, with a fire burning inside, she decided this summer, to travel back to New York to finish the conversation she'd had with the lawyer.

"You a million miles away," Edward noted of the blank stare on the face beneath him. His kissed her and stroked her cheek. "What about this wonderful boat? Perhaps I should get a stateroom, I'll grow hungry for you," he teased.

"Oh," She sat up and reached for her chemise. "It's called the Titanic."

Present Day

Chris parked on a side street several blocks from Jackson Square. He eased his lean frame from the car, zipped his hip hugging leather jacket over his form fitting jeans and began his journey. It hadn't changed much, this magical town, but then true classics never do. They retain their charm and body, long after pretenders to the thrown come and go. He walked slowly down the tiny streets of the French Quarter, absorbing all she had to offer. It was so easy to fall in love in this magical place; she romanticizes you like no other city. The large tapestry of vivid colors, brilliant architecture, funky blues and jazzy notes cascading all around, added to the exotic aroma of spicy food was a strong aphrodisiac. He walked down Bourbon Street, his eyes taking in every nook and cranny.

He spotted a familiar haunt ahead and ducked inside. Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop was a tavern that the infamous pirate once called home. A favorite of locals and tourists alike, it had also been a place he and Sara enjoyed. The rustic, eighteenth century cottage is one of the few original examples of old French Quarter architecture. It was built by Jean and his brother Pierre and rumor had it that they used it as a base during their wild adventures. While a blacksmith worked out front, the infamous brothers conducted illegal business out back, selling contraband to Creole businessmen. Dark and cozy, the candles kept the dim interior very cavernesque, which suited Chris Larabee fine. He found a corner table and soon found a curvy waitress at his side. She didn't hide her wolfish gaze as she raked her eyes over his body. The long red fingernails danced across his hand, as she bent over.

"I'm Melody, Darlin' and I got whatever yuh need..."

"I'll bet," Chris grinned, "How about a cold bottle of beer? You got Vienna Amber?" He asked of the Acadian brew.

"For that face of yuhs, Chère," she caressed his cheek and winked boldly, "I'll find it..."

The man in black followed her swaying hips all the way to the bar and back. He enjoyed his cold ale and recalled another evening many years ago. As he guided the tip of the bottle through his lips, he saw a younger Chris Larabee in the far corner. It was nearly four a.m on the first night of the first time they'd been in town. Heady with lust and full of liquor, they couldn't get enough of each other. He clenched his eyes and gripped the bottle tight, still feeling her, tasting her and drinking in her tantalizing scent.

"Ya okay, Chère?" Her voice dropped as her nimble fingers massaged the back of the muscular neck that was damp with sweat. "Maybe ya need Melody ta take yuh troubles away, No?."

"Thanks," Chris whispered harshly, pain filling him. He finished the beer and slid a hefty tip down the front of the low cut blouse. "but maybe some other time."

Daylight pierced his pale eyes as he entered the world of the living again. He made his way to Jackson Square, pausing long enough to buy Vin a box of Pralines. The rich buttery taste created from butter, brown sugar, cream and pecans was a town favorite. The sweet mix was confectionary heaven and would give the Tanner sweet tooth a ride for it's money. He ambled over to the corner and found Sara's favorite spot. He wiggled his fingers, feeling her impatiently tugging his hand.

"Come on, Honey, look at all the vendors. Don't be a grouch or I'll have to punish you!"

"Sara...." He whispered, still seeing her bold eyes and slow grin. He looked at his hand as her image faded, leaving him with bittersweet memories.

Pausing to catch his breath, he shifted the bag to his other hand, adjusted his expensive sunglasses and eyed the French Market. Located on Decatur street, it was a busy venue, full of vendors from all across the state. Everything from CD's and tee shirts to voodoo dolls and other native ware were on display. He stopped at a long table, covered in tee shirts. Some bore colorful representations of Mardi Gras, others held musical notes and scales with saxophones and trumpets, there were alligator shirts and some with harlequin masks and court jesters. He picked up a black shirt with 'We be Jammin'" on the front, along with a pair of gaudy white stick figures, partying hearty. Then he spotted a shirt that brought a warm smile and an image of his Texan friend. It was dark blue with a dog house on front, along with a chained up alligator. The aqua colored snarling beast had it's jaws wide open, displaying rows of sharp teeth. Along the top of the shirt the words 'Louisanna Yard Dog' were splashed in white and aqua lettering. He chuckled aloud and quickly found the right size for the ailing man, already seeing Vin's wide grin. He paid the vendor and turned around, then his breath caught in his throat.

He inhaled sharply as the fog appeared again. He saw her ahead, perusing antique jewelry and bargaining with a savvy local. She turned to him and flashed a triumphant smile, that special 'Sara smile' that lite up her whole face. The mezmerizing blue-violet eyes burned right through him; her long dark hair tickled his skin as she cupped his face and kissed him.

"God..." He murmured, blinking himself back to the present. He eased his tense frame against a street sign on the corner. Here, there were many artists, displaying their talents. Some were painting tourists who were posing, some painting city scenes and others selling their colorful canvases. The mists of time fell again and he saw Sara and Adam. His beautiful wife was holding their dark-haired son on her lap. The three-year old was anxious to 'get down' and his tiny glare gave his dad a proud grin. Sara promised him a trip to see alligators, if he behaved. The gator bait did the trick and the laughing artist completed the portrait. The small treasure was now on the wall in Chris's study. His mind's eyes saw the boy take off as soon as the artist nodded. The flying bundle of boy approached him rapidly, launching his tiny body with an exalted war whoop.

"Daddy!!"

"Adam..." Chris shuddered visibly and paled, physically moving backward and dropping his bag. He eyed the empty space in his arms where his son should be and left out a shaky breath. It was so real...his hands were trembling so bad, he couldn't pick up the bag. He picked the parcel up and made his way back to Jackson Square. He got a cup of cafe au lait at Café du Monde and sipped it slowly, eyeing the vistors and locals passing by. It was a strange sensation, almost as if he wasn't really there, sort of surreal. The sun began to drop behind the large paddlewheeler in the Mississippi, already full of overanxious tourists. He sighed and got to his feet, taking his heavy heart back to the hotel.

The room was dark when he entered and he tossed the keys and his glasses on the table near the door. He took his jacket off, leaving it on the bed and walked into Vin's room. The curtains were drawn, making it difficult to see. He strode over and opened them, letting a low light into the room. There was no signs of life on the bed, the body was completely buried under a pile of blankets. He walked to the pillows and pulled back the blanket, then frowned. Instead of a tangled headful of brown locks, he was staring at two pink feet, one losing a gray sweatsock and the other housing a red one, which was clinging for dear life to the sniper's toes. Rolling his green eyes, he went to the foot of the bed and tapped the lump there.

"Hey, you alive in there?" He waited and watched the lump move, trying to elude. "Tanner! Get your ass up," he tried, yanking the blankets back.

"Fuck off."

He wrinkled his nose at the muffled saucy reply and shook his head as the blanket was yanked back over the wheezing body.

"Come on, Vin, it's almost six o'clock. Get a hot shower and toss some Tanner rags on, you need to eat." Still there was no movement, so he retreated to his room and brought the bag inside. He fished out the box of pralines and opened it. He pulled the blankets back and waved the lid in front of the slack Texan's face. He found a small smile as the nose twitched, the head moved, a single eye opened and a hand reached out. "Uh-uh" he denied, pulling back. "Get your ass up..." he paused as the scowling blue eye bore into him from beneath the blanket.

Vin yawned, sat up and scratched his chest. He eyed the box and his eyes lifted, his tracker's nose told him whatever was inside was loaded with sugar. He licked his dry lips and scowled as the lid went back down. "Hey, them's mine!" He croaked, eyes not quite open.

"Them's mine?" Chris quizzed, shaking his head. "Diagram that into a sentence."

"What?" Vin screwed his face up, not understanding the old English lesson.

"Thanks Vin, make me feel ancient why don't you?" the blond eyed his bleary-eyed friend and couldn't help but sympathize. Slumped over the side of the bed, hair tangled, blue eyes rimmed red and lungs expelling with a harsh roar, the Texan looked bad. Then the green eyes moved past the sweat pants to the sad feet. "Nice socks."

"'s'wrong with m'socks?" Vin growled, eyeing his feet, "M'feet got cold."

"They don't match," Larabee quipped, tossing a praline to Vin.

"So?" the germ-ridden soul grumbled, "Who the hell are ya? The fuckin' fashion police? Leastwise they ain't black." His grumpy face quickly turned upsidedown as the sweet candy was eaten. "Damn," he appraised and eyed his best friend disappearing. "Get yer ass back here with m'candy, Larabee."

"What do you mean your candy?" Chris paused at the doorway of the bathroom they shared and watched the younger man about to argue. Then the coughing began and he went back to the bed, dropped the bag and clapped the sweat-soaked back. "You okay?" He waited until the damp head nodded and filled the glass on the table with ice and water. "Here." He waited until Vin was wheezing again and sat down next to him.

"Thanks," Vin took the glass and drank the contents slowly. He eyed his best friend and saw the pain lingering in the green eyes. He took a deep breath and tilted his head.

"How ya doin', Cowboy?"

The soft, heartfelt drawl gave cause to lift the blond's lips slightly. He turned towards the woeful body next to him and curved his mouth slightly. "I think that was my line."

"I'm okay," Vin assessed, "Slept great," he snatched the bag from Larabee's hands, "This fer me too? Ya got me a present?"

Chris just nodded and watched the Texan's face light up as the tee shirt was revealed. The blue eyes crinkled in warmth and the wheezing mouth broke into a wide grin. Vin loved tee shirts, the more colorful and bolder statments blazing on them, the better.

"Thanks Chris!" Vin boomed, before coughing again.

"Christ, Vin, don't go keelin' over before you get to wear it. You take a long, hot shower and let the steam into your lungs. Then we'll get some dinner in town. I know a great place."

Vin nodded, got to his feet and rummaged in his suitcase, drawing out a clean pair of jeans and a denim shirt. He left his clothes on the bed and eyed the room carefully. "Hey, where's m'candy?"

"What candy?"

"That ain't funny, Larabee," Vin replied to the muffled response from the next room. He peeked in the closet and began opening the dresser drawer's.

"Give up, Tanner and get in that shower."

Vin mimicked the leader's voice as he entered the large bathroom. He flipped the radio on, settling on a familiar tune. As he unleashed the hot water and climbed into the vaporous mist, he began to sing along, loudly.

"We'll get thrown out before we get past the first night," Chris muttered, wincing at the loud, raspy voice. The Texan's drawl and his accented use of the words, through a congested, croaky voice only made the pain more pronounced. Chris fished out his small video camera and turned it own. He did a slow sweep of the room, before settling on the bathroom door.

"Just beyond this door is the watering hole of the elusive long-haired, Texas river rat." Chris poked the door open, wincing as Vin's off key, hoarse rendition of an Aerosmith hit filled the room. "You'll recognize him by his distinctive wheeze..."

"...tell me that yer happy that yer on yer own...yeah, yeah, yeah.
tell me that it's better when yer all a....lone....
tell me that yer body doesn't miss mah touch....
tell me that m'lovin' didn't mean that mu...u...u...ch..."

Chris winced and bit back a laugh as the croaking, unnatural high pitched Tanner voice broke as it hit a high note. He moved the camera closer, as the would be rock star continued.

"...tell what it takes t'let ya go....
tell me how the pain's supposed t'go...
tell me how it is that ya can sleeeeeeep."

"Oh my God," the sneaky photographer gasped in pain as the singer's voice rose too high and cracked.

"...without thinkin' ya lost everythin'
that was good in yer life t'the toss of the di...i...i..c..c..e."

That last high-pitched note was too much and Chris's suppressed laugh turned into a loud snort. The singing ceased and a wet head appeared in the camera's eye.

"What the hell's goin' on? Goddammit Chris! Get the hell outta here!"

"You got soap in your eyes, Vin," Chris said seriously, watching the lather from the shampoo run down the irate face.

"Yer gonna have the whole fuckin' bar up yer ass in a minute if ya don't get the hell outta here."

"What charm school was that you graduated from?" The teasing blond inquired, backpedalling as the blue eyes narrowed and disappeared behind the curtain.

Chris turned the camera off and placed it inside the waist pack that would snap onto his belt. He took his shirt off, took out his toiletry kit and waited for Vin to finish up in the bathroom. He unpacked some of his things, hanging clothes up, placing some in drawers and taking out his magazines and books. Then he took out a five-by-seven oval frame and sat on the end of the bed. He studied the faces closely and took a hard breath, as the lyrics of another Aerosmith tune filled the room.

"I could stay awake just to hear you breathing.
Watch you smile when you are sleeping.
While you're far away and dreaming.
I could spend my life in this sweet surrender.
I could stay lost in this moment forever.
Well, every moment I spend with you is a moment I treasure.
I don't wanna close my eyes...
I don't wanna fall asleep 'cause I'd miss you Babe and I don't wanna miss a thing..."

Vin dried his lean body off and tucked a towel around his slim waist. He combed his hair and was about to plug in the blowdryer, when he realized he didn't pack one. He opened the door wider, and was about to ask Chris for one, when he saw the anguished man's face. His best friend was gazing at a photo of Sara and Adam, his eyes moist and full, full of unabated agony. Vin swallowed hard, realizing that the grief-stricken man was barely holding on.

"Shit," the sharpshooter whispered, ducking back into the bathroom. He clenched his eyes closed as the lyrics hit him hard.

"'Cause even when I dream of you, the sweetest dream would never do,
I'd still miss you Babe and I don't wanna miss a thing.
Lying close to you, feeling your heart beating and I'm wondering what you're dreaming.
Wondering if it's me you're seeing...
Then I kiss your eyes and thank God we're together...
and I just want to stay with you...
in this moment...forever, forever and ever...
I don't wanna miss one smile...
I don't wanna miss one kiss..."

Chris couldn't breath. Every attempt at inhalation ended in a sharp pain ripping through his chest. He clutched the photo to his bare skin, letting their faces press against his heart. The words to the song hit him like fiery bullets, shredding his gut. He let the tears escape, clenched his eyes shut painfully and let out a long, shaky, painful lungful of air.

Vin's first thought was to shut the radio off and his hand launched for the dial. Then he stopped, no that would be too obvious. Chris would know he invaded his private moment. That wouldn't do, he'd have to let his friend ride out the wave. His mind went in another direction entirely. He thought of the small video camera the blond had and a slow grin formed. He padded into his room and pulled his underwear on and a long faded demin shirt, unbuttoned. He picked up his dark sunglasses and donned them, along with a discarded tie of Chris's that he'd hung on the bathroom doorknob. He sat by the radio in the bedroom, tuned to the same station and waited.

"I just wanna hold you close...
feel your heart so close to mine...
and just stay here in this moment...
for all the rest of time...
cause even when I dream of you,
the sweetest dream would never do,
cause I'd miss you Babe and I don't wanna miss a thing."

As the last note of the song finally sounded, Chris remained locked in place. He felt the cold glass of the picture frame pressing into his chest. He swallowed hard, kissed the photo and placed it by his bedside. He dried his face on his discarded tee shirt and tried to lose the tremors that engulfed him. He didn't have long to wait.

Vin dashed quickly to the bathroom and turned the volume down. He scanned the dial and found what he was looking for. The disc jockey of the oldie's station announced the next record and the wise Texan grinned like a fool, turned the sound up full blast and retreated into his room. Clutching the body of the wide-ball deodorant, he leapt onto the bed and waited.

"Jeremiah was a bull frog!"

"Jesus!" Chris jumped up as the time-worn classic song invaded his room loudly. What was worse was the Vin Tanner's loud, phlegm filled voice was drowning out the radio. The blond ran through the room, past the wet bathroom and ducked his head in the other side. He saw the naked tanned legs, still damp, wiggling on the bed. The slim hips gyrated wildly, peeking below the tail of a light blue shirt. A black necktie was tied Apache style around the wet locks and the tune spewed forth into the top of a wide ball deoderant turned microphone.

"....never understood a single word he said but I helped him drink his wine...
and he always had some mighty fine wine.
Singing Joy t'the world..."

Chris moved like greased lightning, gettting the camera out and turning it on. He moved into the blue room, watching the prancing lunatic dance on the bed, before leaping onto the floor and grinding his body against the tall bedpost, representing a woman.

"If I were the King of the World,
I'd tell ya what I'd do...
Throw away the cars and the bars and the wars and make sweet looooveee t'ya..."

Chris began to laugh then, the exaggerated, long drawn out version of the word love, in a deep almost Sanchez like tone, did him in. Vin continued to make love to the bedpost, singing at the top of his congested lungs.

"Ya know I love the ladies...
love t'have m'fun.
I'm a high night flyer and a rainbow rider...
a straight shootin' son-of-a-gun.
Singing Joy t'the world...
all the boys and girls now.
Joy t'fishes in the deep blue sea..."

"Feast your eyes on that America," Chris chuckled, zooming in on the wiggling Tanner butt. Then the would be soloist's air ran out and he began to cough and sputter. He gave up his 'date' and sat on the bed, wheezing hard and grinning at the camera.

"There's goes your career," Chris tossed over with a towel. He watched Vin's smile light up his face, right through those blue eyes.

"Yer just jealous, Old Man," he managed, still catching his breath. He took the blue shirt off, dried his chest and back and winked at the camera, thrusting his body boldly.

"Yeah, that must be it." Chris turned the camera off and his smile widened, "Seein' you humpin' that bedpost's got me green with envy. You keep eatin' your wheaties and one day you'll be ready to conquer a real woman."

"I can 'conquer' yer sorry ass under the table, Larabee," Vin triumphed, eyes shining. It worked. He'd chased the blues right outof the room. He thought of the camera and shrugged. What was a little chunk of pride when you could help mend a broken heart. "Ya just name the time and place...I even spot ya a woman or two, seein' as how yer old and fallin' the hell apart."

Chris smiled all the way back to the room. He picked up the blowdryer and left in in the bathroom. He washed, splashed some CK on and got dressed. The lingering image of Vin's body gyrating against the bedpost, his wet head tossed back and that awful off key singing made his smile deepen. He heard Vin singing woefully over the sound of the blowdryer and laughed again. He pulled his jacket on and picked the picture up again. Funny, it didn't hurt anymore.

Vin pulled his new tee shirt on, tucked it into his jeans and shoved his boots on. He donned his faded brown leather jacket and left the room. He popped his glasses on and met Chris in the hallway. The leader was in black jeans and a shortsleeved black teeshirt, with his classic leather jacket.

"Hell, I didn't know we was goin' formal," he noted dryly of the dark attire. He felt the change before he saw it; the pain was gone and the easy smile was fueled by a teasing light in the pale green eyes. "Where we headed?"

"Crescent City Brewhouse on Decatur," the blond jogged down the stairs and fished the keys from his pocket. "Good food, great beer, atmosphere and good music."

"With words?" Vin scowled, climbing into the car. The cocky grin gave him his reply, "Aw, hell..."

"Look, I'll wait if you wanna run inside and get your deoderant. I'm sure there's a lot of folks down here that have never heard Three Dog Night..."

"Shut the hell up and drive," Vin ordered with a laugh, shaking his damp head. The restaurant was crowded, but they managed to get a table. A waiter appeared, handed them menus and waited to take their order.

"Red Stallion," Vin decided, eyeing the long line of brews.

"Black Forest," Chris said, "...and we'll have an order of the crab cakes and onion rings," he noted of the appetizers. "Vin?"

"Yer the expert," the Texan eyed the long menu and waved his hand.

"Two shrimp and andouille gumbo's and two po-boy sandwiches." He decided on native cuisine.

They ate with gusto, inhaling the savory food and going through several beers. Finally, the bill was paid and the two roamed outside, milling with the large throng of visitors and locals alike who filled Bourbon Street. The air was electric, the crowd lively and the many voices gave the atmosphere a heady edge. Every bar and drinkery that they passed, overflowed with people, each bearing a drink of somekind. All kinds of music filled the air, mixing into a blend of rock, jazz, blues and soul that seemed to fit the night. Chris stole a sideways glance as his younger friend and chuckled at the star-struck face. The Texan's eyes were wide and vivid blue, raking over the street, dancing bodies within in, the balconies bearing woman who displayed their 'wares' and called down invitingly. He fished a hand into his pocket, pulling out a small, throw away camera. He took a picture of the gap-mouthed Texan and then a shot of the street. When he turned back, he laughed outright, taking a photo that Buck would be proud of.

"Damn," Vin gasped as an Amazonesque body filled his vision. He eyed the two large cocoa breasts that were suddenly in his face and blushed. "Double damn," he croaked, before he was hugged high, two well versed hands gripped his butt firmly. He started to call out to Chris, but he words were cut off. An exotic looking creature muttered something under her breath and kissed him hard, sucking all the air from his lungs.

Chris laughed outright, took out the small video camera and zoomed in close. The tall woman towered above his friend, and her fleshy clench enveloped him. Finally, the long kiss ended, leaving the Texan dazed and stuperous. He waited as the bright pink finger nails cupped the wheezing man's chin and the even brigher lips parted. Her eyes left the Texan's briefly, meeting his own, before she spoke.

"Laissez les bons temps rouler..."

"Huh?" Vin croaked, trying to escape. Then one hand disappeared between his legs and she squeezed him hard, causing him to yelp and jump back.

"...joli garcon..." she kissed him again and tapped his cheek, leaving him speechless as she disappeared into the crowd.

"What she'd say?" He managed, eyeing his smirking friend.

"Tell that magnificent blond Adonis I'll see him later," Chris mistranslated, knowing full well she'd given Vin the 'Let the good times roll' standard. He waited a pregnant moment and eyed Vin's rubbing his injured pride. "Short stuff..."

"Yer full o' shit, Larabee!" the blue-eyed man shoved his friend and then narrowed his eyes. "...and I ain't hardly short..." he defended of his manhood.

"No, not compared to most boys half your age," the blond deadpanned, before nudging his friend up the lively street. "You okay?" He asked over the roar of the crowd, spotting Vin's flushed face and hearing his wheezing.

"She damn near sucked m'lungs out...hell I think they moved up a full foot."

"You didn't complain too much..." he joked, clapping Vin on the back and disappearing into the door. "Shorty!"

"Shut the hell up, Larabee..." The Texan sassed, before launching a sneak attack on his best friend.

Chris felt Vin's arm snake around his neck in a mock-choke hold and laughed, cuffing the younger man in the ribs. He watched Vin's wide-eyed wonder, as the younger man took in the incredible scene. Then he drank in the colorful mob, absorbed the lights and loud music, inhaled the scent of the Big Easy and felt lighter than he had in a long time.

"Hey, look at that!"

Chris followed Vin's arm to a window on the second floor of a nearby tavern. He laughed again, his eyes crinkling in mirth at Vin's furrowed face. "Something wrong?"

"Hell, yeah, that ain't spelled right, helluva mistake t'make...could affect their business."

"Oh, I don't think they'll have much time to complain," the blond laughed again and shook his head. "It's not spelled wrong, Vin."

"Course it is," the slim man defended, "It's says' Wash Nude Girls'...Should say 'Watch 'em...like dancin' ....see she's dancin'..." he pointed to the curvy, teddy clad redhead who blew him a kiss and invited him upstairs.

"No, Vin, they mean 'wash' like with water and suds..."

"Huh?" he cocked his head and looked up again, "Oh...Oh..." then he grinned and his voice dropped as he raised an eyebrow. "Oh..."

"Spoken like a true Standish!" Chris teased, then chuckled again, "Close your mouth, Cowboy, you're catching flies!" He propelled the gap-mouthed Texan up the street and into a blues bar. They found two stools near the door and let the cold beer chase the thirst away. He was enjoying the set and noticed Vin smiling softly at him. "What?"

"Nothin'," Vin ducked his head and smiled again, his eyes vivid blue and alive, "Just pinchin' m'self..."

Chris returned the smile and felt the sentiment between the words. He hoped he could share that feeling. They had three days of classes ahead, but then Thursday through Sunday they were free. He intended to enjoy this town through Vin's eyes and share every adventure. That gave him a deep feeling of satisification inside. Somewhere in the darkness, he felt Sara sending her approval, with one of her special smiles.

Part Five

APRIL 14, 1912 , In the North Atlantic
TEN FORTY FIVE P.M:

She wrapped the fur coat around her slim frame, nearly obscured in the dark. She stood against the rails on the top deck, having just emerged from the interior. It was cold night and she inhaled deeply, letting the bitter wind kiss her face. Just hours before, she'd deposited her linen napkin on the table and pushed her chair back. The huge,ornate dining room was full of the world's wealthiest citizens, each enjoying a ten course feast. The food, like everything else on the Titanic, was divine. The first course of Oysters à la Russe was followed by a delicious Consommé, then Salmon in Mousseline Sauce with cucumbers. Filet Mignon and Chicken Lyonnaise came next in a small bouquet of vegtables. Lamb with Mint Sauce, Chatêum;au potatoes and creamed carrots preceded the Asparagus à la saffron champagne Vinagarette. A selection of sweets rounded out the fine meal, painted eclairs with french ice cream, peaches in chartreube jelly and waldorf pudding were followed by a large selection of fruit and cheese. The gentlemen then rose to retire for cigars and brandy, leaving society's top mavens to idle chatter.

She'd begged off, pleading a headache. In reality, nothing bored her more than the wagging, forked tongues of the wealthy women. So she roamed around the large ship, still awed by her majesty. She was brand new, this was her maiden voyage. Nothing ever like her ever existed. The Titanic was almost nine hundred feet long and eleven stories high. No expense on the trimmings had been spared. Their first class cabin, one of four parole suites that were huge fifty feet in length; they cost Raoul over four thousand dollars. Louis and his nanny had a first class suite of their own, nearby.

"'ey, Andy, now there's a somethin' t'set yer eyes on, eh?"

"Aye, Mate," Andy Simmons, a crewman replied to his friend, "She's a real looker, that one..."

They stared openly at the beautiful woman who was standing all alone at the rail. Her eyes were cast on the black sea and she seemed oblivious to them or the biting wind. They quickly hurried past her, already late for their job. They rushed past the entry behind which was the wireless office. Inside, a radio operator ignored the warning issued by the nearby Californian, warning of an ice field ahead. The busy operator had a stack of transmissions to get out, several of which came with a hefy tip if delivered on time. It was ten fifty p.m.

Eleven Fifteen PM
In a Second Class Stateroom

Violet Kelly trembled in the doorway, unsure of her decision. He was already undressed, with his back turned, sipping from an expensive silver flask. He'd met her the day they left England, while she was exploring the large boat. He'd pursued her for several days, gifting her with expensive jewelry. She'd resisted his advances so far, as there was nothing desirable about his looks. Balding on top, with dark, hooded, nearly repitilian eyes, she felt he undressed her with every gaze. Then she found out who he was and his looks dissolved in the word 'millionaire'. She'd saved the money from her work on the stage in London. For her twentieth birthday, she'd purchased the ticket, eager to try her luck in New York. She was good actress, by all accounts and America had more to offer. So she finally relented earlier that day, allowing him to maul her in the private dressing room off the ship's swimming pool. His kisses left her cold and his fingers pinched her pliant flesh cruelly, leaving her marked. She pushed him off, teasing him about her virginity and it's worth. He'd promised a draft of three thousand dollars, delivered at eleven p.m, in her stateroom. She eyed the paper, now in her hand and tucked it inside the tiny safe in the wall. She sighed, dropped her robe and stepped into the bedroom.

Raoul turned at the ravishing beauty walked towards him, filling him with a burning lust. She was volumptous, with a heart-shaped face, large green eyes and a head full of dark wavy hair. The fact she was a virgin led him to believe every male in London were blind or fools. He'd take her tonight and for the remainder of the trip. If she was good, he'd arrange to take her home. He loomed over her, setting her down on the edge of the bed. He felt her pale flesh tremble beneath his fingers and that only made him hungrier. With a low growl, he pushed her back on the bed, letting his teeth roam over her supple nipple, while he rough hands pushed her ample thighs apart.

Eleven Thirty PM
First Class Suite

André Sauville sat alone, amidst the luxury and felt like the lonliest man on the planet. Despite his vast wealth and holdings, his many 'friends' and business acquaintances, he was empty. It was worse than that, he was void of all feeling. As the years went by and Isabella grew more and more into her nickname of the "Ice Queen of New Orleans' he berated himself on the biggest mistake of his life. He'd let his selfish wants blind his heart. Raoul, while an astute and accomplished business partner for over twenty years, was despicable as a son-in-law. Power consumed him...power to conquer money and his seemingly insatable urges. The only light in the old man's life, was Louis. Just past three, the dark eyed, dark-haired, solemn child was his saving grace. He spent the morning at his offices in town, then retired to the mansion, to have lunch and spent the afternoon with his legacy. He read to the quiet boy, walked with him in the garden and was pleased at how intelligent he seemed. However, all his ministrations couldn't produce the one thing little Louis needed most, his parents. Raoul paid little attention to him and Isabella ignored him. He hoped his devotion would give the boy some confidence. He rose and left his cabin, making his way down the long hall to the boy's room. He tapped once, and Annette answered.

"It's late, Sir..."

"Yes, Annette, I know, I'm sorry. I won't wake him."

He brushed past the nanny and sat by the boy's side, stroking his dark hair while he slept. One eye popped half-open and blinked at him.

"Papy?"

"Yes, Louis, Mon Chéri, it's me..go back to sleep."

"Love you, Papy..." Louis murmured, cluthing his stuffed bear.

"I love you to, Fiston..." For that was what the lad had become, his 'little son'.

Andre sat in a chair and watched the tiny features resting in sleep. He vowed when they landed in New York, he would talk to both of the boy's parents. It wasn't too late to make them see how blind they both were and how selfish. He made circles on the boy's flannel backed pajama's under the heavy quilt.

Eleven Thirty-Nine PM

High above the magnicent ship, in a crow's nest the two lookouts cavorted. Suddenly Frederick Fleet shoved his mate, Reginald Lee hard, turning serious.

"Blimey...it can't be...Dear God!"

"What?" Lee turned, squinting ahead.

"ICEBERG....ICEBERG... DEAD AHEAD!" Fleet screamed into the radio, warning the duty officers below.

"REVERSE ENGINES!" First Officer William Murdoch orders harshly into the radio, alerting the crew, "...hard to starboard...hard to starboard..." he barked, a sinking feeling telling him the swift turn wouln't be in time. He grimaced as the horrid scraping sound began and the ice dug her teeth into the ship. He immediately activated the ship's watertight doors and called for Captain Smith.

Isabella had gone back inside, warmed up and now headed back to the promonade deck. She was looking forward to returning home, having spent a long, loney winter in France. She shivered, deciding that the cold night air was not for her. The cough she picked up the day before turned worse. She hoped it was only a cold, put the pressure in her chest persisted. As she turned to take the long walk back, she gripped the rail hard, lurching and falling as the boat struck something. She righted herself and moved quickly, her eyes trained to the large white monster.

"Oh God..." She hushed, as the ship brushed by close enough to almost feel the deadly ice. The silence was painful, the only sound the hiss of the air as they crept by. Then the vehicle slowed and stopped. She moved ahead again, hearing the seaman barking out orders.

Midnight

Captain Edward Smith stroked his white beard and grimaced. This was his last voyage, a farewell from the fleet after his many years of service. He was retiring. He sighed and ordered the radioman, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride to begin the new call for help, an "SOS" replacing the standard CQD distress call. He moved to find his First Officer and assess the damage.

"How bad is it Will?" He paused, seeing the color drain from Murdoch's face.

"We have over 2200 on board, Sir...and only half that room on the lifeboats...

The senior captain groaned and scrubbed a hand across his face. How far were the nearest ships? Would they arrive in time?

"How long?" He inquired of the time they could remain afloat.

"About two hours, Sir..." The First Officer replied. "The Carpathia is on her way, full speed, but she's fifty eight miles away... I'll put the word out, get the passengers in vests and on deck." He watched the grim face nod and left, taking several seaman with him.

Five Past Midnight
Second Class

Raoul eyed the plump derrière poised so invitingly beneath him and smiled evilly, digging his fingers into the pale, pliant flesh. He saw the frightened wide eyes peeking sideways from where her face was crushed against the fabric. Tears streaked the pale cheeks and linens, making it all the sweeter.

"Silence!" He thundered, slapping her rotound rear that sat beneath his flank hard. "Move your knees forward!" He shoved her impatientely. He'd just raised her hips and was about conquer her, despite the feeble objections she cried into the pillow beneath her face. Then the lurch created a frown on his face, following by the slowing and stopping of the engines.

"What the devil?" He pushed his hot body up and pulled his pants on, before padding to the door. Just as he was about to reach the knob, a rap was sounded.

"Yes?" He peeked outside, spotting a seaman in the hall.

"We've struck an iceberg, Sir," the ruddy-faced lad reported, spotting a woman on the bed. "Your Missus, Sir, please get her and any children ready. We'll be putting out the lifeboats and..."

"Lifeboats!" He roared, "Don't be silly, Boy. This ship is unsinkable, I heard Mr. Ismay say so..." he noted of the suave Englishman who was the chairman of the White Star Line who had been bragging about the ship all week.

"She's taking in water, Sir, please report topdeck and have the missus and little ones issued a lifepresever..."

"Foolish Boy," He muttered, shutting the door. "I have every intention of filing a complaint. Of course we aren't sinking..." He strode back to the bed, noting that the terrified girl was trying to get dressed. "Get on the bed and on your knees..." he commanded, slapping her hard enough to daze her. He shoved her slumped body on the bed, on top of the fat pillows and grabbed her hips again.

Twelve Thirty AM

Isabella raced to her cabin and threw the door open.

"Father! Father!" She cried out, before running down the hall. She rapped on Annette's door, just as the frightened woman appeared. "We haven't time to waste, Annette, get Louis and go to the upper deck. Where's my father?"

"He went to look for you Miss..."

"Damn!" She hissed, quickly finishing dressing the sleepy boy. He had heavy wool pants on, socks and boots. She pulled another sweater over his chest and shoved his coat, hat and mittens at the stricken maid.

"We're gonna die..."

"Stop that!" Isabella slapped the shocked nanny, "Not get your coat on and get my son in a damn lifeboat...now!" She grabbed Buttons, his beloved stuffed bear and shoved the now recovered woman into the hall. "I'll find my father and meet you...go!"

Where would he be? She ran back to her room and looked around, spotting a small black bag in her husband's closet. She fingered the soft leather and felt her blood boil. She recalled all to well the first time she had seen it. Several days after they were married, he'd brought it into their room. Unbeknownst to her, the wine he plied her with was drugged. He had no trouble manuevering her stuperous, compliant body into whatever position he desired. Two pairs of silver handcuffs held her to the bed, the wicked pinching tools and small whip did the rest. She knew where he was...she'd seen him with the wide-eyed foolish girl earlier that week. She pulled the cuffs out and then took an item from her own suitcase, tucking it in her pocket. She took five minutes to gather up her jewels from the safe and shove them in her leather satchel. Then she hurried to the second class cabin of Miss Violet the Strumpet. On her journey, she passed by the carts taking the cutlery to the kitchen for cleaning. The strike against ice had delivered the tools to the floor. She laughed aloud, taking a nine-inch steak knife and slipping it beneath her heavy, ankle length fur. She found the room quickly. The door was unlocked and she pushed it open, silently slipping inside and closing the door. Raoul was so lost in his ego trip, he never heard her. The sobbing woman caused her no sympathy.

"Was it worth it?" She said, as the girl's blue eyes spotted her.

"Isabella!" He hissed, his back muscles still rigid and his feeble manhood still planted deeply within the underside of the girl.The click of a gun in his ear halted his motions.

"Get off her, you filthy swine!" she ordered, backing up as he moved. She waited until the shivering girl slid free, rolling on the floor. "Sit on the floor!" she ordered her husband, pressing the gun against his neck. He pushed back against her, seeking the gun and it fired, breaking his shoulder and sending him to the floor. She acted quickly, taking advantage of his shock. Within seconds, both sets of cuffs held each arm to a bedpost. His back was against the bedframe as he sat on the floor. She shoved his soiled, discarded underwear in his mouth, before tying the girl's pantaloon's tightly around his head, gagging him. "Get dressed, layer as much as you can, it's cold outside. Get your coat and whatever whore fee he paid you and get the hell out." She ordered of the other woman.

Violet didn't wait, pulling flannel sleep pants on, over heavy wool socks. She pulled a flannel top on, a sweater and then a heavy wool skirt. Her boots went on quickly, as did the coat and hat. She opened the safe, taking her money and his check and left without looking back.

"You know, Raoul," She pondered, drawing the gun along his face. "I wonder if you'll drown or bleed to death first? Perhaps you'll suffocate slowly..." She put the gun in her pocket and pulled out the large knife. He was scared, terrified, actually and that made her laugh. She ran the blade down his face in one quick motion, opening a large gash. "You're not a man, you've never been one," she hissed, seeing Philippe's bleeding, abused face. She slashed his chest and sneered, "I had the pleasure of a real man and you'll feel the pain...for what you did to him. You murdering bastard!" She grit her teeth, knelt down between his sprawled naked thighs and drove the knife right through his 'arrogance' impaling him to the floor for all eternity. "Rot in hell you son-of-a-bitch" she whispered. His muffled scream was heard by no one and she watched for several minutes, fastinated by the blood pooling under him. She took out the gun, hitting his head just hard enough to silence him for awhile. Then she left, locking the door behind her.

"Everyone get out, Ma'am?"

"Yes," she replied to the approaching crewman, "The room is empty."

One AM

André was racing through the ship, trying to find Isabella. He'd seen Annette and Louis safely loaded into one of the first lifeboats. His loud protest when they lowered the craft, which held sixty five was left on deaf ears. The boat had only twenty woman and children on it, leaving others behind. He protested again and was manhandled roughly. Two large seaman shoved him inside and down a flight of stairs. He rubbed his twisted knee and rose awkwardly. He limped back to the cabin, shocked when he saw his daughter coming down the opposite hall.

"Bella!"

"Papa!"

They embraced and he kissed her cheek, grabbing her beautiful face in both hands.

"I thought I lost you..." He murmured, not letting go. "I'm so sorry Bella, for everything. I should have never forced you to marry that animal. I was blinded by my own selfish..."

"Shh!" She silenced him, seeing the anguish in his eyes. "It's over now...we'll start anew. Raoul will never hurt me or anyone else again. Louis and Annette?"

"Already gone, safe in the first boat to leave."

"Thank God," She sighed.

"Why aren't you with them?" He asked, knowing she'd come from the opposite direction.

"I left something in the room," She clutched the leather sachel bearing her jewels and her diary, "Let's hurry, there's a crowd out there and..."

"No, Bella, woman and children only. There are only enough boats for half of the guests."

"But...you can't mean...you'll die..." She stammered, feeling very young all of a sudden.

"I died a long time ago," he stroked her face, "I want you to keep these for Louis, they belonged to my father." He dropped a watch, money clip and took off his ring, bearing the family crest. "Go, Chéri, before it's too late. I'm joining John Astor and the others in the bar, there's a grand party there..."

"No Papa, I won't leave you." She protested as he steered her up the stairs and out the door.

"You must, that boy needs a mother. You've ignored him for too long. It's not his fault, why do you blame him? Love him, cherish him, raise him to be a fine man, not like the despicable cad who sired him. He's a good boy, so smart and he yearns for your touch. Love him , Cheri...promise me..."

"I...I...I will, Papa....I'll make you proud."

"That's my Girl!" he beamed, kissing her once before the crowd surged and she was torn away from his embrace forever.

"PAPA! PAPA!"

"Getting in, Miss?" A crewman caught her and shoved her onto the lifeboat. "Room for one more."

He watched until she was a speck in the dark sea and then turned back inside, joining the other weathy men in the bar. The best brandy was out and cigars were passed around. They shared their thoughts as the sands of time cruelly slid through the glass. He eyed his watch, it was two a.m. A group of men appeared, haggard and faces painted with unspeakable sorrow. The last of the lifeboats had been lowered. First class, second class and some of the men from steerage, bonded together, sharing tears and alchohol. Language problems did not arise, the common feeling of doom and sorrow bound them for all time. They sat and waited as the boat split in two and the watery crypt opened up, swallowing them whole.

Two Twenty AM

The cries went up in unison and they all wept, tears freezing on their faces. They entered the lifeboat as strangers, but now they were joined by fate — a brave gathering of new widows and orphans. With a deafening crack, the boat split in two and sank, the water around them littered with the frozen dead, their blue faces locked in agony.

"Here, Dear, it will warm you up."

"Huh?" Isabella blinked as an elderly woman next to her, handed her a flask. "Thank you," She took a sip, not wincing at the burning sensation. Her father's words haunted her. How could she too, have been so blind? She blamed him for her misery and yet inflicted the same cruelness onto her own child. She would make his life better, be the mother he needed. But she'd never give up her quest to find her angels. If they were still alive, she'd find them.

On the Carpathia
Eight AM

Despite orders from the crewman of the rescue ship, Isabella remained topside. Her eyes on the horizon, where New York would soon be reached. She took the coffee from the anxious young man and waved him off. She was lost in thought, when a tiny hand and quivering voice, snapped her head.

"Mama?"

She turned and saw Annette before her, with a small, dark-haired boy at her side. She smiled and felt tears brimming on her eyes. She studied his face carefully, seeing so very much of her father. Why hadn't she noticed the strong Sauville resemblence before? She opened the blanket and he crept inside, cuddling against her. She nodded to the tired nanny, who sought relief from the cold air. She kept him under her coat and the blanket, rocking him and rubbing his back.

"I sorry, Mama..."

"For what?" She puzzled, watching his eyes appear from under the blanket. A tiny hand crept up and brushed her tears away.

"...you cry...I sorry..."

"No, Love," She choked, more tears spilling. She took that hand and kissed it, before rubbing it against her face and neck. "I'm sorry, for not being a better Mama. But that will change, it's just the two of us now. I do love you...so very much and I'm so sorry."

"No cry, Mama...all better?" He lifted his face and kissed her, then offered his beloved bear. "Buttons needs a hug too...he's scared."

She continued to cry, watching the sun in the sky and rocked him to sleep. As the hour of nine approached and New York appeared, the feeling of his warm little body pressed to her chest gave her a new breath of life. They'd be fine...she'd show him the world, one which they'd learn about together.

Present Day:
New Orleans, in the Garden District, Tuesday Morning

The large mansions of the wealthy neighborhood loomed around him as he jogged past. Running was a vital part of him, since he was a teenager. It cleared his head and gave him a peace inside. He knew his limits, however, and the normal five-mile run was out of the question. He'd only gone about a mile and already he was wheezing and struggling. He saw an old cottage ahead with a stone bench and headed over. His blue eagle-eyes detected movement and his shifted his gaze left. It was barely dawn and the rose and gold day had just awakened. Two young males were accosting what appeared to be an elderly woman.

"Hey! Hey! Get offa her!" Vin tore across the quiet street, jump kicking and sending one assailant hard into the ornate iron fence. Another kick send the companion hard ontop of his friend. They recognized the black belt techique and took off down the street. Vin bent over the woman, who was dressed in almost gypsy-like fashion. A long skirt went to her black boots, several colorful blouses were tucked under a long black cape. Her dark wizened features peeked from under the hood.

"Are ya okay, Ma'am." He helped her stand and was surprised and the iron like grip. She might be old, but she was far from frail. "Did they hurt ya?"

For several moments, the old one couldn't talk. The hands she gripped created the familiar explosion inside. Hot bolts of electrical-like charges coursed through her veins. She gripped the young one's wrists hard, turning both palms over. Yes, yes, there it was...her journey was over. At last the dark one would be sated. She drew her sharp eyes up and stared at the handsome stranger's face. She intensified the grip, she had to test him, she had to know if he possessed the strength. She didn't want to lose another one...she still saw the faces of those who'd died in the quest.

"Ma'am...can ya hear me?" Vin's voice wavered and he winced at he steel like grip on his wrists. It was painful, sending pins and needles up his arms to his neck. He got a little dizzy and the trees, iron fences and estate behind them started to disappear into a fog. "What the fuck?" he murmured, yanking his hands free. The Herculian effort it took sent her to the ground. "Damn..." he hissed, rubbing his eyes and waiting for the fog to lift and the dizziness to end. "I didn't mean t'shove ya so hard, Ma'am but ya was...Ma'am?" He blinked at the empty street. Where had she gone? He stood on the stone bench and peered at the large lawn of the estate. The fence was twelve feet high, she couldn't have gone over. Both sides of the street were empty. A chill crept up his spine as he saw a large black crow swoop over him, cawing loudly.

"Shit!" He jumped back, shaking his fear away. "Get a grip, Tanner," he murmured of the tight gut he possessed. She was a native to the area and knew the terrain. She was scared and moved fast, maybe he frightened her. He sat on the bench and drained his water bottle, which was strapped to his hip. He kept shifting his eyes, almost feeling like someone was watching him. He sighed twice and stood up, suddenly very eager to get back.

"Lesove...lesove..." the wind whispered of the savior as he jogged away on shaky legs. He'd passed the test, he possessed a powerful spirit, the strength he sent in that brief encounter thrilled her. The information she'd been given was true, she followed him silently, creeping ahead to where she'd knew he'd be. Finally, the day was drawing near, soon...so soon...would the quest be done.

By the time he got back to the Sauville House, he was gasping audibly and still shook up from the strange encounter. His legs were like lead and he wanted to rest, yet he was drawn to the magnificent garden. The scent of the many kinds of flowers was intoxicating and he entered the famous maze. The bushes were several feet above his head and thick and dense. As his trembling legs were pulled forward, his heart began to hammer. Sweat poured down his face and his breath came in pants. The entry grew narrow, the green dense folliage brushing his shoulders. He couldn't breathe and kept jerking his head around. She couldn't have gotten here first...yet he knew she was near. "Oh God..." he croaked, dropping to his knees..."Chris..." he clutched his chest, his heart banging so hard, it hurt him. "No...go away..." He pawed for his medal under this soaked white tee shirt and saw the skirts swirl by him.

"Sleep..." She whispered, "...and forget..." she ordered, blowing gently into his face. He slumped forward and she caught him, letting him lean against the bush. She drew out a small bottle, from the ancient cord around her neck. She annointed him quickly, chanting and calling on the others. She took his hands again, smiling and rejoicing at his strength. Then, as she drew out the silver object, a loud voice and a machine stopped her. Cursing, she tucket her amulet away and fled.

"You okay, Son?" The groundskeeper shut his hedgetrimmers off and knelt by the stilled figure. He tapped the boy's cheek and the face pulled back, eyebrows furrowing. "Hey, hey..." he tapped again and two eyes opened.

"What...happened?" Vin blinked, eyeing the bushes.

"I dunno, Son, I was trimmed the bushes and found you here." He eyed the damp running clothes and the water bottle. "You jogging?"

"Yeah, but...how'd I get in here?"

"Most likely you came in through the east gate, took a wrong turn and got lost. Back here, the maze gets real tight. If you panicked, could be you just lost your wind."

"Yeah," Vin nodded, vaguely recalling feeling trapped. "That must be it, thanks...I'm okay. How do I get back to the hotel?"

"Follow me," he hauled the boy up and led the way.

His restful sleep was interrupted by a deep wet coughing sound, a string of curses, a hissing pop, and gulping sounds, which were followed by a loud belch. He peeled a lid half open, trying to focus on the blurry green image inches from his pained eyes. He opened them wider and blinked, wishing the image hadn't become clear.

"Christ!" he mumbled, rolling into a sitting position and hunching over the side of the bed. He dropped his head and yawned, trying to shake the cobwebs loose.

"Mornin'! Beautiful day outside. I been waitin' on ya fer goin' on a hour. Had my run, showered, got dressed, got m' crud out, took my med's and got me m'Dew."

"Breakfast of champions," Chris Larabee yawned again, wrinkling his nose at the vile can of Mountain Dew in Vin Tanner's fist. "You're gonna rot your insides, you know that?"

"Like guzzlin' all the coffee ya do ain't harmin' ya none..." Vin slid his butt off the bureau and landed on the balls of his feet. He disappeared for a moment, returning with a steaming cup of coffee. "Here, wake yer ass up, we gotta make tracks."

"How far?" the blond grunted, rising, stretching and eyeing the red digital numbers on the clock. It was almost six thirty a.m. He took the mug and sipped carefully, squinting his eyes at the best friend. Vin was in jeans and a red shirt, his sunglasses hanging from his neckline. A silver chain bearing a St. Michael the Archangel medal disappeared under the shirt. The sword toting image on the gift from Josiah suited Vin and he was seldom without it. His eyes looked clear and he didn't seem to be wheezing as bad. "Vin..." he narrowed his gaze again, knowing that normally the Texan ran five miles every morning.

"A mile and back," the younger man assessed, "I was careful...I turned around when I got t'wheezin'...sure is pretty around here."

"How'd you do?" Chris took the coffee into the bathroom, pulling his shaving kit from the large drawer on the right of the vanity.

"Considerin' I'm loaded with crud," he answered of his infection, "not bad...a little over twelve minutes. I took a walk in that garden out yonder, damn near got lost..."

"Some tracker!" the blond grunted, lathering up.

"Weren't m'fault, huge maze out there, confusin' as all hell...the gardener rescued me."

Chris watched Vin's nose wrinkle and his brows furrow. The slim fingers were rummaging through the soft leather Larabee case.

"What the hell's all this fancy shit? Jesus yer totin' more bottles and tubes that a woman...ouch!" Vin cried out as his finger was nipped when the drawer was shut in a hurry. He sucked on it angrily, flashing blues at the blond in the glass.

"None of your fuckin' business, Sherlock!" Chris drilled the blue eyes looking at him in the mirror. "Do I nose around in your stuff?"

"Nothin' t'hide," Vin pulled out the other drawer, which was nearly empty. "Course it ain't yer fault ya need s'much help. Being old and all...plus ya weren't blessed with this face," he crowed in a cocky voice, raised a smug eyebrow and winked, causing the bemused blond to grin rakishly back at him in the mirror. It was a pleasant motion that came without hesitation. There was something about the raspy drawling Texan that made him feel good inside. A part of that was due to the fact that since coming to Denver and joining the team, Vin had started to fill out emotionally. He was still fairly reserved around stangers and more loose with the team. But when they were alone, like this, he as all Tanner, wild and wooly to the bone. He grinned wider, thinking on the great time they had the night before. That he had the power to give that gift to Vin, to let him open up and reveal himself, was a heady feeling.

"Vin?"

"Yeah?"

"Is there a reason your glued to my hip in the bathroom?"

"Oh..." Vin slid out the other door, "Hurry them creakin' bones, will ya, Larabee. They're makin' some kind of crazy banana stuffed French Toast downstairs, they got bitty pecan rolls, all kinds o' funky sausages and bacon and hey ya outta see..." Vin jumped back as the door was unceremoniously slammed in his face. "Crank!" he hollered, then paused, "Old Crank!"

"Beats the hell out of being a long-haired Texan river rat," the voice called back from the shower, "...with no ass!"

"Shut the hell up, Larabee!" Vin laughed, taking his soda and a bag of cookies from the gift basket outside on the patio. He slunk down in the chair and inhaled the perfume liberally dosed by the blushing flowers below. It was a magnificent garden and he wanted to explore it when he had more time. He knew from what the gardner told him, here was an antique gazebo in the center and a fountain. He felt drawn to it and a strong need to find the center. He pushed his head back on the tall chair and let the sun bake his face. He knew the medicine rush wouldn't last all day. The headache and crappy feeling would return. He'd gone over the outline again and the 830 to 430 schedule would seem like 12 hours. Oh well...he sighed and sat up, hearing the water shutting off. He flipped the television on and surfed, until he found a television preacher. He watched for a few minutes and grinned, shaking his head at the antics.

"Hey, Chris?"

"Yeah."

"C'mere...just fer a minute..."

"What?" the leader walked into Vin's room, clad only in socks and tight black jeans. His bronzed skin glistened from the shower and a towel was slung around his neck.

"That little feller in there, the one with the bad toupee," he gestered with his finger, "He cures folks right through the screen. He 'shouts the devil' right outta 'em. Iffen ya put what's ailin' ya on a paper and hold it to the screen, he heals ya...then ya send in a nice donation."

"That's fascinating Vin..." the other rolled his eyes and turned.

"Hold up," Vin called back, "Get yer head over closer and put t'the screen. Maybe he can cure all that hair yer losin'."

"What?" Chris backed up, frowned and narrowed his eyes. "...the hell are you talking about?"

"Oh," Vin said with a solemn face, cocking his to angle it, thereby seeing the side of back of the damp blond head. He lowered his voice and blushed a little, "Uh...nevermind...that's okay, Chris...really..." He turned back, grinning to himself and waited. He then tiptoed into the entryway and caught his friend preening the mirror, holding a smaller mirror up to see the back of his hair. "Gotcha!" He hollered, stumbling as Chris ran to smack him. They landed on a heap on the floor, the blond straddling him from behind and getting him in a headlock. He couldn't stop laughing and that didn't help, it made his coughing start.

"Call it!" Chris ordered, gripping the wheezing trickster.

"Fu...c...k...o..oo...ff..." Vin gasped, coughing again and panicking as his air was cut off. "Chris...don't...can't...brea..the..."

"Nice try, Champ," the blond resisted, "Call it...Vin?" He felt all the muscles go slack and jumped up, hauling Vin up with him and planting him on the bed. "Aw, hell, Vin, I'm sorry...you okay." He was forced back as the angry hands shoved him away, the watering blue eyes were flashing anger. He retreated to his room, finishing dressing and slipped his coat on. He peeked in the other room and saw it was empty. He moved into the hall, where Vin was sitting, holding his worn, brown buckskin coat on his lap.

"Sorry," Vin mumbled, "...lost m'temper..."

"Me too," Chris patted the back of the red cotton shirt. "I shouldn't have done that, you having one foot in an iron lung and all."

"Yer think yer smart, doncha?" the blues eyes teased, he rose and followed the other man down the long hall. "I was thinkin'..."

"There's a scary thought," the older man stonefaced, ducking to avoid a thwack.

"...anyhows, we got three whole days comin' later on, Friday t'Sunday. I got stuff from the internet, brochures from the lobby and a book from Ez..." Vin jogged to catch up with Chris's long strides, which were headed to Isabella's the garden restaurant. "I figure ya know these parts pretty good and ya can show me the city on Friday mornin', then we can have one of them muffleups...mufflewumps...aw hell..."

"Muffulettas," Chris donated, eyeing the Victorian restaurant in front on him. It was like stepping back in time to the turn of the century. The furniture, done in creams, roses and soft greens were all Victorian in style. The marble and crystal accents along with the plants, gave it a restful feeling. He nodded to the hostess, waiting for her to appear.

"Yeah...that's them funky sandwiches, right?"

"Right, at the Central Grocery," he noted of the famous deli and the speciality of the house. "I got twenty ridin' on a bet with J.D. that you can't finish one."

"Hah!" Vin crowed, smiling at the waitress, "...fool born every minute. Mornin' Ma'am, lovely day ain't it?" he flashed his best smile and was rewarded with a comely one back. "Ya got somethin' outside fer two?"

"Right this way, Honey," she took his arm and left the blond man grinning and shaking his head.

The table was on the edge of the garden and the scent of the colorful flowers only made it more pleasant. Chris ordered Eggs Isabella, coffee and juice. Vin ordered the Creole special, which was a spicy omelette, potatoes and peppers, andouille sausage and a small side of banana stuffed french toast.

"Hey, hey..."

"What?" Chris looked up at the animated blue eyes that matched the excited voice. He furrowed his brows in puzzlement as Vin bent over and began whispering.

"Did ya know this place is haunted? The gardner filled me whilst I was lost...s'got all kinds o'ghosts runnin' around, unexpained noises, doors bangin' and such...cool huh!"

"It sells rooms," Chris returned dryly, shaking his head and buttering a flaky croissant.

"Ya know ya shouldn't be s'close minded." Vin tried, "Guess that means ya won't be comin' on the haunted tour of New Orleans at midnight...even goes to a cemetary...and a voodoo place."

"You guessed right!" Chris muffled through his pastry and picked up his coffee. He found that smile again, as Vin continued to talk a blue streak. He nodded at all the sights to see and bars to hit, enjoying every animated Tanner feature. If only Vin was this relaxed around everyone.

"What the hell's that?" Vin wrinkled his nose in distaste as the waitress put a plate in front of his friend.

"Eggs Isabella," she supplied, "It's like Eggs Benedict, but with crabmeat and bechamel sauce. Will there be anything else?"

"Ya got anymore of them bitty pecan rolls?" Vin asked, with another killer smile and beguiling eyes.

"For you Shugah," the waitress winked and cupped his chin. "I'll make some..."

"Don't go t'any fuss fer me, Ma'am...that's okay...yer busy..."

"Shugah fuh that smile I'd pick the pecans..." she tapped his face and sauntered away.

"Don't go to any fuss fer me Ma'am..." Chris parrotted the Texan with a heavy accent, "You ought to be ashamed."

"Can I help it if women like m'natural boyish charm and killer looks?" Vin chirped, '...like bees buzzin' around a pot o'honey."

"You slay, me Cowboy," Chris laughed, shaking his head. "What?" he saw the scowling face peering over the table at his plate.

"It's got...green stuff...spinach?" he saw the blond head dip once, "Fer breakfast? Yer outta yer head...what's it swimmin' in? Is that cooked all the way...it's runnin' the hell all over the plate."

"Vin?" Chris lifted his eyes as well as his fork.

"Yeah?"

"Keep it up and I'm move your whinin' ass to the nearest Motel 6," he noted of the discount chain.

"Hummph!" the sharpshooter dug into this meal with gusto, "Ya outta feel right at home with all them crabs..."

"Here's yuh tea, Shugah," The waitress set down a hot carafe of water next to Vin and opened a retangular wooden box.

"Aw, hell...where's Ez when ya need him?" the blue-eyed one perused the large variety of tea.

"Ya like fruit or maybe herbal?" She coached.

"I need somethin' that don't need milk..." he wheezed, coughed and sneezed, "'scuse me, Ma'am....that weren't very nice...sneezin' at ya..."

"Yuh got a cold Shugah?" She frowned, resting her hand on his forehead and ignoring the loud groan from his companion.

"No Ma'am, it's some kinda germ convention in m'chest...a respiratory thing...I'm fine..." he blushed, ducked his head and eyed the tea again.

"I got somethin' in the back that'll take care of that, Shugah...clear that mess right up."

"Oh, No Ma'am...don't go t'any fuss...really," Vin blushed again and took his wide eyes up to her face.

"Fuss?" She pouted, cupping his chin, "Yuh let Jasmine worry about that...I'll be right back. Where yuh stayin'...I have the maid leave some in yuh room..."

"Upstairs," Vin began, scowling as Chris began to choke, covering his laughter with a celery green linen napkin.

"Yuh sick too?" Jasmine frowned at the blond.

"No, he's fine," the ailing man snapped, "He's full o'somthin' but it ain't congestion."

"The Sophia Suite," Chris wheezed, shaking his head as she left. "You'd put Ezra to shame, you fraud" he chuckled, then laughed aloud when a pink Tanner tongue was thrust at him.

"Here yuh go, Shugah," She placed two herbal tea bags in the hot water. "Rosalie will leave some in yuh room. Yuh need anythin' else, yuh let me know."

"Thanks Miz Jasmine," Vin poured sugar in the delicate china cup and poured hot tea over it. "...name's Vin...Vin Tanner," he extended his hand. "...much obliged..."

Vin continued to chatter through breakfast, planning their outings and discussing all the haunted houses in the French Quarter. Chris left Jasmine a hefty tip and took the bill to the cashier. He watched Vin saunter into the garden, studying the award winning fauna. As he waited, his cell phone rang.

"Hello."

"Hey Stud, how's life in the Big Easy?" Buck boomed, eyeing the clock. "I didn't get a call from the bail bondsman, so I was checking in..."

"Hey Buck, we just finished breakfast and we're headed over to Tulane. Anything cooking there?"

"Nah, all quiet on the Denver front, Rain's got Nate's drawer's in a bunch, turns out he..."

"Shut up Buck!"

Chris grinned as the bantering in the office came through the phone. He signed the check and room number, took his receipt and walked a few feet away.

"How's Slick holdin' up?" the womanizer inquired, shooting a paper ball at J.D.

"Who Huckleberry Finn?" Chris quipped, "He's riding a Mountain Dew high and hasn't shut the hell up all morning." His eyes trained on the world class sniper who was now surrounded by Jasmine, another waitress and the hostess. "He's blushing and Ma'aming his way right up to the fuckin' presidential suite." He paused, hearing the laughter on the other end. "You should have seen him at breakfast, coughing and wheezing all over, batting them blue eyes at the waitress. The little bastard's holding court now, he has three of them buzzing around him." Chris was within a few feet now, hearing the conversation. "They're gonna bring herbal tea to the room, somebody's making him soup for later and I heard the word massage mentioned."

"For his congestion?" Nate laughed.

"That's my boy!" Buck boasted, with a wide grin."You paint the town last night?"

"Yeah," Chris waved to Vin and jerked his head towards the door. "All kiddin' aside Buck, he's havin' a great time. Wait until you seen the video I shot of him on Bourbon Street. We just about got there and some Amazon nearly smothered him." He grinned at the explosion of laughter on the other end. "Listen, I gotta go...I'll check in later in the week. Tell Ezra to get out of my chair!"

"How's he do that?" J.D. amazed, watching the stunned gambler vacate the large black leather chair. They were gathered at the leader's desk, using his speaker phone. "See ya Chris. Tell Vin we were askin' for him."

Within a few blocks of their destination, Chris noticed the change. The flapping gums were stilled and it was a pensive profile he saw when he peeked over. "What happened? Your string get stuck?" He noted of the death of the chatterbox. Then he added up the clues and the eyed the slim fingers tearing the edge of the brochure into tiny strips. "You'll do fine, Vin. Why do you always worry? You shine in every class you take."

"Never liked the first day o'school..." Tanner replied quietly, "...feel like there's a bunch o'wet cats clawin' in m'gut."

"Take a deep breath," Chris commanded, pulling into the parking spot. He pulled down Vin's visor and tapped the small mirror, "look him in the eye and remember you're a Tanner, not some green-assed rookie."

Vin took several breaths and studied his reflection. He finally snapped the visor up, got out and stood tall. He followed Chris through the door and down the hall, until they found the right room. They were a few minutes early and of the thirty students, only about twelve were there. Chris noticed that one of the instructors was a very attractive woman. He saw Vin eyeing the thick binder and study sheets they were handed. The Texan's Adam's apple was bobbing at a record rate. "Worst gets worst, you can always start batting them baby blues, blushing and Ma'aming..." he teased, but Vin didn't grin. Then he frowned as the wheezing started. "Calm down! It's everybody's first day...relax will you?"

"Sorry," Vin mumbled, feeling foolish. He looked up as the tall brunette smiled at them.

"Hi, I'm Heather LaSalle, my partner Mike Kopcho is getting some the video equipment. We'll be splitting the duties." She paused, eyeing Vin trying unsuccessfully to stifle a cough. "Are you alright?"

"Yes Ma'am..." Vin rasped, giving in and coughing. He fumbled in his backpack and drew out a bottle of water. "...sorry..."

"That's okay, and it's Heather," she paused, eyeing the handsome blond.

"Larabee and Tanner, Denver ATF," Chris supplied.

"Right!" She nodded, checking her list . "Larabee, Chris? You're with the Rams...Tanner you're with the Eagles." She saw the confused looks and smiled. "Instead of numbers on the tables, we use NFL teams, to get a better sense of unity, working together...the tables are marked. You have about twenty minutes. There's a cafeteria in the next building that's open until ten a.m. and then from eleven thirty until 1 p.m. We'll break at noon for lunch, one hour. There's also vending machines down the hall, next to the bathrooms."

"Thanks, Heather," Chris shook her hand and shoved Vin forward. "You okay?" He saw the shaggy head nod once and the hand pop a cough drop in the dry mouth. Actually, it would be good for Vin to be on his own team. He knew Vin had leadership qualities and working with a group of newcomers would let him spread his wings. The morning flew by and Chris's table was next to Vin's. Each group has six teammates, the group would elect a Captain by the end of the day. The exercises were fun and creative, the laughter eased the tension and both instructors were good. He kept one eye trained on Vin every now and again, noticing he was relaxing. Vin's perception and quick responses to many of the puzzles didn't surprise Chris. He also noticed Vin's organizational ability coming through. He was the one who gathered the team notes, wrote down the checklist of possible solutions and made excellent responses. Lunchtime came and the decided to at a nearby Italian restaurant. They ordered a large pizza, half sausage and an order of garlic bread with smoked provolone and mozzarella cheese. Vin got an extra-large coke.

"You done good, Tanner," Chris complimented, pushing the straw into his ice tea. "How you feeling?"

"Good...better actually," Vin admitted, popping some Tylenol into his dry mouth, hoping to stop the headache he felt starting. "Real thirsty, though."

"How's the wet cats?"

"Huh?" Vin puzzled, then smiled, "Oh, they're gone. All the folks in m'group are okay. Everyone's from outta town, two from New York, one from California, one from Nevada and one from Florida."

"...and one displaced Texan..."

The pie went down easy, they discussed the class, the book, the homework and the office. The place was crowded and the blond could see his younger friend was getting restless.

"Go on, I got it," he offered.

"Thanks, I'm hittin' the head then goin' outside," Vin nodded, tossing some bills down and heading for the bathroom. He got done quickly, washed his face with icy cold water and headed outside, passing a middle-aged businessman who was entering. He stopped at the newspaper box, reading the headlines. It was on the side of the deserted building. Suddenly, he felt cold all over and turned quickly, hitting a cloaked figure in black. He inhaled sharply and went to move past, but both his hands were grabbed.

"What the hell's...goin'...on..." he slurred, feeling an almost electric current racing through him. His hands and arms were numb and his head was fuzzy.

"Do not fear me, young one," she chanted, staring hard into his now wide, unblinking eyes. "Come with me...I need your eyes...your heart...your blood...come...come..."

Vin blinked and eyed the strange surroundings. It was cold and he was damp. A dense forest was nearby and water rushed past his face. He was kneeling by water, he could hear it, smell it, feel it's mist on his face. Then a hot pain shot through his chest, taking all his breath away. He felt himself falling and felt the earth rise up to meet his face.

Part Six

1925: Santa Fe, New Mexico

The grounds outside of the St. Francis School were filled with proud parents, ready to salute the new graduates. In the third row of chairs were the Gavin family. James clutched Marie's hand, as she wiped her tears away when the name was called. Sara smiled and waved, as her sister rose and walked upon the dias.

"Alexandra Lily Gavin," the principal, Sister Rosa of the Sisters of Loretta, handed the beautiful girl a certicate. At seventeen-and-a-half, she was tall for her age and a ravishing beauty. Her dark curls fell in soft waves, framing her fine features. Her eyes, large and almost amethyst in color, sparkled with excitement. She was a vivacious, outgoing girl whose intelligence and artistic talent earned her a place at the University of Paris. Already fluent in French and having established a name for herself locally for her gift in sketching, painting and sculpture, she was eager to spread her wings.

There was a short reception afterwards in the school hall. The enthusiastic graduate was circled by a large crowd. She was the president of the class and well respected by the staff also.James saw her head turn as they entered the hall.

"Lily! Lily!" he called out, waving his arm.

"Congratulations, Dear, we're so proud," Marie hugged her daughter and kissed her. Where had the years gone? How was it possible that they were losing their 'baby'?

"Mother, don't cry! You'll ruin your makeup!" the pretty girl laughed, accepting a hug from her proud father. "Here, can you hold my awards?" she dumped a large pile of certificates into her father's hand. She turned and grabbed her beloved older sister's hand, "Sara, I want you to meet Mary, Christine and Amelia, come on..."

Sara hesitated, her eyes filling with tears.

"Oh no, not you too!" Lily grinned, shaking her head.

What she couldn't know was that her older sister wasn't in the pretty hall. She was back in a tiny cottage in Louisanna. She was watching a handsome man with long dark curls rocking this same child. She was so like Philippe, was her twin as well? Where was Angelique Rose? Was she happy? The solemn brown eyes regarded the locket dangling from Lily's graceful neck. Her parents had only told her that she was adopted and the locket belonged to her real mother. Sara's diary had all the details and once Lily was older, she'd tell her the truth. For now, she'd bask in the glow of the light that radiated from Isabella's baby.

1925: Baton Rouge, Louisanna

He didn't want to think of how emotional he'd become the day he'd have to give her away in marriage. The graduation from High School had nearly burst his heart. His little girl was growing up too fast. She was a serious, studious child who had a huge heart. From the time she was small, she loved to help people. First, it had been animals, bringing up all kinds of injured strays. By the time she started High School, she was volunteering on weekends at the hospital, delivering mail and meals to patients. So it came as no surprise, when she applied to Nursing School. How proud Catherine would have been of her today. His beloved wife died several years before, during an influenza outbreak. Grace was her crowning glory, a beautiful child, inside and out. Her short curly dark hair and bluish-purple eyes were alive and bright today. He watched as she accepted her diploma and ran to join him. His job in the state capitol kept him busy, but he always made it home by six p.m. The dinner and evening were theirs to share.

"Papa, look!" She smiled, handing him the degree. "Mr. and Mrs. Carter invited us to brunch, is that okay?"

"Sure, Honey," He nodded, Suzanne Carter was Grace's best friend and the two were inseparable.He followed her across the room and outside, into the sunlight.

1925: New Orleans

It was a hot day and he sought refuge in the cool stable. It had become a routine, having breakfast with one of the wealthy families of his mother's inner circle. Every Sunday, they'd make the trek to a different mansion, or in this case, a plantation outside town. After a feast disguised as brunch, the younger generation were expected to entertain themselves, while their parent's spent and idle afternoon full of charity planning or gossip.

At sixteen-and-a-half, Louis was a tall boy and well built. His natural grace led him to success in all kinds of athletic endeavors. A skilled equestrian, he'd just covered the large expanse of the Germaine's property, a vast landscape surrounding the large plantation. The others hadn't arrived yet, seven of them, between the ages of sixteen and twenty, had ridden out. He finished grooming his horse and took his hat, gloves and shirt off. He pumped water from the well into a large sink and ducked his dark head under, welcoming the cold stream.

He'd be glad to escape this boring tradition. His mother was taking him to New York in a week, where they'd be travelling to Italy for the summer. Maybe the sunny hills of Tuscany would help bring the smile back. He still remembered the years before her sadness. He loved her so, she had given him so much. From his earliest memories, it was her steady hand that guided him. His love of art, history and culture had come from her guiding hands. They'd travelled the world together, she showing him the museums, galleries and lifestyle of every culture. Yet everywhere they went, she was always scanning the crowd, ever searching for the babies she claimed she'd lost. For years she tried in vain to find them, yet was thwarted at every turn. She hired the very best private detectives, only to be turned away. There was no record of a child named Sara in the small town she claimed to have given birth. The priest who ran the church was young and tried to be sympathetic, but had no records. Then there was the old family doctor's record of his father's claim of her drinking problem and his evidence of her dependency including opiates. Undoubtedly, the detectives had that knowledge and only pursued the search to a point. Then when he was fourteen, frustrated by yet another dismissal, she'd had a nervous breakdown. She was taken to a 'sanatarium' for 'her own good'. The curious teenager snooped outside the study doors in the house, where a team of lawyers and doctors assessed her condition. He heard the words 'shock therapy' and 'water treatments' and 'extended stay'. His fury rose and he sought out a new lawyer, on his own. Within two months, he secured her release. No one would ever separate them again. But she'd changed and a cape of melancholy was draped on her slim frame. Her face was still hauntingly beautiful, but her spirit wasbroken. He sighed and thought of his own future.

His was a skilled student, with a good head for math and economics; he fully expected to go to Harvard, before returning to take over the family business. He looked very much like his grandfather, André, who he didn't remember. A pair of soft hands around his waist and a nip of teeth to the back of his neck, caused him to jump.

"Don't do that!" he hissed, eyeing the large stable. "Somebody might see you."

"Nonsense! They're at least forty minutes behind, they stopped to rest..."

"Don't...I...can't...not...ready..." Why was it that he was so tongue tied around Helen? At nineteen , the beauty had her choice of males, but sought him out. She was the older sister to his best friend Daniel, so it made avoiding her impossible. Also, just the sight of the blonde beauty tied his tongue up in knots.

"I'm tired of waiting," the full lips pouted, the soft body pressed against him from behind and two slim hands slipped beneath his pants. "I need you...want you...I won't be denied..."

He made the mistake of turning around and was lost in the blond hair and pale blue eyes. That was all Louis heard, the roar in his ears deafened him. He found himself on a soft bed of straw with a pliant body and two willing lips covering his own.

1935: Paris, France

The cottage was just outside Paris and almost fairytalesque. The thatched roof and whitewashed walls, coupled with shuttered windows with hearts carved in the frame gave a grand window on the world. Flowers surrounded the cozy shack and a garden spilled outside the kitchen. The interior was compact and warm. A large hearth in the main room, a tidy kitchen that was full of herbs and spices, two bedrooms and a bathroom were well kept. But it was the studio on the side of the house that was occupied the most.

At twenty-eight, Lily Gavin was already creating a buzz in the art world. Her paintings were on display in several galleries and her sculpturing talent was sought out by the affluent from far and wide. She sat now, studious and earnest in her work. The male nude that appeared on her sketch pad would soon be recreated in clay. Her long, dark curls cascading freely down her back. A large smock covered the slim pants she wore. Her eyes were drawn to the model, a sculpted god with bronze skin and a smile from heaven. His blond hair was cropped short and his eyes were the color of the summer sky. His patrician features and rakish grin fell easy on his handsome face. It was that killer smile that now threatened to interrupt her work.

"Vous tes un garon de naughty!" she tried to argue of his naughty antics, her body already warming. His left his divan, strode arrogantly over and pulled the charcoal from her fingers."No, Pierre..."

All other words were cut off as he kissed her, pulling her to his chest. Would it always be this magical? Would his touch and taste always melt her heart? Seven years and she still hungered for him as she had that first day. He was a starving novelist who answered her ad for a male model. She fell in love with the poet first, having read his notes while he readied himself. Then he spoke, he smiled and he laughed. They shared lingering dinners and walks under the moon. They lived in a tiny flat in Paris during the early years, before her talent earned enough for their love nest. They happiness was complete two years ago, when God blessed them with a tiny bundle of joy. Her name was Shantay, for they had been 'enchanted' with her from the moment they laid eyes on her.

"Mama!"

Lily laughed and swatted Pierre, who groaned at his daughter's interruption. She tossed a pair of pants at him and left the studio. When she returned a few moments later, she watched his face light up. The tiny body squirmed and laughed, her blue eyes wide andtwo chubby fists reaching out.

"Papa...Papa..."

She handed the blond two-year old cherub to her father and went to finish making dinner. As she pulled the bread from the oven, she heard that infectious laugh of her daughter's and smiled. Life was good?very good. Later, after they ate and their daughter slept in her crib, her beloved made love to her by the fire. The tiny locket she was never without nestled comfortably on her chest between them.

1935 New Orleans

Isabella Sophia Alexandra Sauville Moreau was many things. Widow, daughter, society maven and most importantly, mother. She had a child...yes, a boy child, didn't she? At forty-six, she was still slim and beautiful, but the devastating illness had taken it's toll. She shifted in the wheelchair, eyeing the gazebo with haunted eyes. Her restless gaze flitted on the white iron structure and she wondered why she was so drawn to this spot. She saw the fountain nearby where water spouted from the lips of two angels. Her eyes filled with tears again, as they always did when she saw the statues. She saw herself as a younger woman, when the fountain was created her own lost angels. Her heart ached to hold them again. Hold who? Her mind wandered again, to the flowers and the nurse nearby. Agatha? Agnes? It mattered not, she was being dismissed. The air grew cool and she heard a deep voice, she cowered in the wheelchair.

"It's alright, Mother, it's me." Louis bent and kissed the frail soul, amazed that she still had the strength to sit upright. Her lungs were damanged by the night in the cold Atlantic after the Titantic disaster. She was often confined to bed with congestion, but now the doctors suspected a tumor of sorts in her brain. The blinding headaches, double vision and slurred words had given way to total incapacitation. She couldn't speak anymore or walk. The doctor's had given her only weeks to live, but she'd proven them wrong. "How was your day? You do so love the garden...It's getting late and Tess has supper done, shall we?"

She stared at the face above her and frowned. She knew this man...those features... .Papa? Papa? No...Louis...son...boy child...yes...she nodded and he pushed her chair through the maze. The week passed quickly and she grew weaker. Bedridden now, she eyed the large room, freshly painted lavender just a few months prior. She laid on a bank of pillows and watched the door open. He was back, the man ...she narrowed her eyes...Papa...no ...boy child...Louis. Someone was with him, but her failing eyes made seeing the figure difficult. Then the body drew closer and her heart clenched. A name formed, one that filled her with untold happiness and love. The long dark curls, the fine features and those magnificent eyes. Philippe...her beloved...had come back. No...he was dead...she was so confused. It was a woman who sat on the bed next to her, a young, pretty woman with Philippe's face.

"Mother, this is the new nurse. I'm sure you'll get along fine. She's the best in the county and we're lucky to have her...Mother? What's wrong?"

The haze parted then, as the woman bent forward and a heart shaped locket on a delicate chain fell forward. Her weakened hands reached up to touch it...was it real? Could it be real? Her muddled mind went back in time to a tiny cottage by a river and her lost love. His fine hands holding this very chain...putting on... on... angels... her... own... angels. Tears fell from her eyes as she clutched the necklace. Her eyes drew upwards at the beautiful face. Her angel was alive... here... next to her.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you," the pretty nurse apologized. "Do you like that? Isn't it pretty? It was on me the night my mother and father adopted me. It must have been my real mother's. Here, I'll open it... it's inscribed..."

Isabella didn't have to see the words, she knew what they said. Tears continued to flow down her cheeks and her heart sang. She was home... her angel had come home.

"Now and forever," She spoke aloud the words the invalid already knew. "My little boy loves to try to open it, but I'm very careful. I'm hoping this new baby is a little girl and I'm saving it for her. My name's Grace and I hope we'll be good friends."

Time came and went without meaning. Her pain increased and she was on morphine most of the time. From her haze, she saw the angel near, bathing her, feeding her and keeping her warm. Then one night, after she'd had some tea, the room was full of light. A brilliant light that blinded her. From the center of the radiant glow, he appeared, young and viral, arms extended.

"Now and forever, Angel!"

"Philippe... my love..." She called back, rejoicing in the voice so familiar.

Suddenly she was in his arms, young and beautiful again, as they had been when they'd met.

"Come, My Love, I've been waiting..."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Moreau, she's gone..." Grace closed the sightless eyes, wondering about the absolute look of pure radiance on her face. "I'll call the doctor and he can pronounce her. You have my deepest sympathy."

"Thanks, Grace, for everything, her last days were full of peace, that was due to you."

The funeral was large, as she was a woman who was loved by many. Flowers spilled over every room in the ornate house. After the last guest left and the house was dark and silent, Louis tugged his tie off and walked up the staircase. His shirt came next, slung on a chair in the hall. By the time he reached his salon, on the east end of the third floor, he was exhausted and overcome with grief. He so loved her and now she was gone. He was alone. He tugged the shoes and socks off freeing his feet. He sank under the quilt, trying to rid the ache in his body.

"I can't believe she's gone... God I miss her... I'm all alone."

"Shhh!" the deep voice soothed as a pair of arms rubbed his back. "I'm here, child, Tess will take care of you. You go to sleep now...your Mama, she's an angel now."

She covered him up and left the room, wandering down the long hall. So many changes she'd seen in the nearly fifty years she'd worked for the family. She remembered the night André brought his bride home, the night beauitful Isabella was born and now they were all gone. Louis was all that was left. She'd take care of her angel's boy. Yes, she'd protect him.

1945: Santa Fa, New Mexico

Sara found herself out front again, clutching the telegram. At forty-eight, she was a plain woman, with short brown hair and sad brown eyes. Highly educated, the sociology major had spent most of her life traveling the world doing missionary work. Most recently, helping the scores of orphans in Europe. The war had torn many families apart and she'd spent a great deal of time working for the Red Cross. But now, she was home to stay, working for the government on behalf of the Native American and Hispanic children in the state. Her parents were both dead and the family home had been much too large and ornate. She'd wondered about the house, until the telegram came. Lily was coming home for good. Pierre, her lover for many years and the father of her child, had been killed during the war. Lily was bringing Shantay home to Santa Fe. She wanted Sara to help raise her. She said in the letter that arrived last week, that she wanted her twelve-year old daughter to know and experience the 'grace the your Aunt Sara' shines with. That line brought a tear. The house was sold and they'd be moving into an adobe style home closer to town. Lily was opening a large studio and gallery to display her work. The cab pulled up and she walked to the curb, her heart full of anticipation. The door opened and Lily got out, looking so much like her father it startled Sara.

"Sara!"

Lily ran and embraced her older sister, crying for joy. She hadn't realized just how much she missed her quiet, strong sibling, until this moment.

"Come, Petite!" she waved to a tall, blond child. "This is your Aunt Sara, God's own gift to me. It's true... you know it is!" She pushed the blushing woman towards the house.

Sara smiled and hugged her niece, amazed at how much she'd grown since the past summer. Her eyes filled again, when she saw the tiny locket on the child's neck. With one arm around her sister and the other around her niece, they entered the house together, ready to begin a new life.

1945: New Orleans

"It's real nice, Mom, honest!"

"It's too small!" the pretty, dark-haired child pouted, her blue-violet eyes hard.

"No it isn't, Cathy," Thirteen year old Jack Rutherford corrected his ten year old sister "It's nice, isn't it?" he stressed, knowing how hard their mother worked to get the raise to earn the money for the small house.

"Thank you, Honey," Grace smiled at her son, so much like his father. John had been killed in the South Pacific two years prior. She'd gone back to school and refined her talents, earning her a position as administrator at a large hospital. The house wasn't much, three tiny bedrooms, a kitchen and living room, but it was home. They'd lived in a tiny apartment for two years, while she worked two jobs. Now, she had time for them, her hours were better. She eyed all the boxes to be unpacked and the rooms to be cleaned and took a deep breath. She fingered the locket on her neck and smiled, it was good to be home.

1945: Monte Carlo

He sighed and stared at the Riveria , full of rich tourists and wealthy travelers. At thirty-six, he was affluent, handsome and popular. His businesses were booming and allowed him the time to travel. That is how he spent his time, trying to fill the empty days with foreign lands and the lonely nights with cold contessas. He bought art, antiques and other things for the mansion in New Orleans. It was more like a musuem. Since the war ended, he'd grown despondant. During the war, he'd become Captain Louis, someone men looked up to for who he really was, not for his name or bankroll. His missed the comaraderie, the bawdy jokes and closeness with the unit he'd commanded. He'd never felt such a bond. Now, he was Louis Moreau again and surrounded by wolves. Suddenly, he longed to be home, in the garden, near Isabella. She was resting with her mother in the family mausoleum. He still missed her and saw those sad eyes at night, when he was alone. He drained his champagne and went back inside the rented house. Someone was lying in the bed. Carlotta, Constance, Caroline? No matter, she'd be gone by morning.

He poured more champagne and sat in the dark, thinking on his life. What must it be like to feel the power of the money you earn. To need every cent to get by, pay rent and food? He'd been born with a silver spoon in his mouth and never knew a hardship. He thought on those years as Capt. Louis, when he'd been just another one of the guys. Suddenly, he sat up and thought hard, his dark eyes keen. Moreau Enterprises was opening a new office in San Francisco. Maybe instead of sending his top man to oversee the selection of the right property, hiring of the right personnel and outfitting the building, he'd do it himself. He'd leave Louis Moreau, the millionaire in New Orleans and land in California as Louis Andrews. Yes, he'd live as a common man, make friends and perhaps find the love that he sought. Someone who saw him for who he was, not for his pocketbook.

Present Day

Unbeknownst to the peril his friend was in, Chris got another refill on his ice tea and watched ESPN on the television over the bar. He drained half of it and turned, a chill ran up his spine as a shout echoed in the room.

"Hey, some guy's havin' a fit or something back here."

"Shit!" Chris took off, tossing bills at the waitress. "Where!"

"There," the businessman pointed through a small window. "Looks like that kid is having a seizure."

"Vin!"

Chris shot through the door and dropped by his friend's side. His eyes were open and saliva ran from the corner of his slack lips. His upper body was trembling, his hair was soaked and his shirt was damp. An acrid smell clung to him. His face was void of color and his eyes were nearly black. "What the fuck happened? Did you see anybody near him?" He asked the man who found Vin, his trained eyes searching the perimeter.

"No, I came into the bathroom as he left. I was only a couple minutes. I came out and saw him lying there. Is he an epileptic or something?"

"No," Larabee said sharply, then thought hard as he tapped the stilled face. He didn't know much about that disease. Maybe this was a sign? "Vin, can you hear me?" He gripped the back of the wet head with one hand and the side of the wet face with the other. He leaned in and shook it gently. The clouds parted and the confused eyes blinked. A wobbly hand came up and covered the wet face, leaving an audible gasp in it's wake. Chris dropped his own hands to the shaken man's shoulders and waited. Finally, the heaving gasps ended and Vin looked up.

"Wh...at...happened?" he croaked, eyeing Chris, a strange man and two waiters, before dropping his gaze.

"You tell me. How do you feel?" the blond directed, taking a coke from the nearest waiter. "Here, take a drink. Maybe your sugar dropped or something. You're as white as a sheet." He guided the shaky hand until the cold beverage was at the pale lips.

"I'm okay," Vin finally admitted, having taken several gulps of soda. He took a steadying breath and got up slowly, leaning a little on Chris's arm. He did feel alright, just a little wobbly. "My knee's is knockin' a bit, but that's all. M'heads okay, nothin' hurts. Maybe I shouldn't have taken them pills."

"What pills? Not your prescription, it's not time yet, is it? How often should you take it?"

"I don't know...I thought it was Tylenol, popped a couple...couldda swore..." He fumbled with his backpack, pulling out the bottle. "Uh oh..."

"Vin..." Chris growled in a low voice, taking the bottle. "Three times a day is eight hours..." He sighed heavily, ran a hand through his hair and dismissed the crowd, sensing Vin's growing anxiety. He assured the waiter no ambulance was needed. "You scared the shit out of me, Vin. Christ, how could you be so careless?"

"Quit shoutin' at me!" Vin pushed away, heading for the car, only to have his arm snagged.

"Wait a minute, sit down!" Chris ordered loudly and shoved Vin onto a bench. "Look at me, something happened and I...we...need to know exactly what occured. What's the last thing you remember?"

"Uh...uh..." Vin thought, resting the cold cup against his face, after taking a large sip. "Sitting at the table, eating the pie."

"You don't remember leaving?"

"Ain't that what I just said?"

"Calm down, I know you're upset, but I want to make sure nothing happened. You still got your wallet?"

"Shit!" Vin stood up, handed Chris the cup and shoved his hand in his jeans. He check the contents and nodded. "Everything's here."

Chris studied the younger man's face, still pale but better than it was. Something felt wrong, unsettling almost. He studied the terrain again, as he had when he found the stuperous Texan. The parking lot was empty and only a scattering of cars were passing by. He was looking for something, but couldn't feel what he sought. He shivered inadvertantly and moved in front of Vin.

"Are you sure you don't remember anybody...."

"Jesus, Chris, let up!" He defended harshly, without knowing why. He sucked hard on the soda, feeling a rush of strength. "I got the wrong bottle, thought it was aspirin!" he slammed the door.

Chris paused before he got in the car. Was that all it was? Nathan harped on Vin all the time to be careful. The sharpshooter had low blood sugar and often got woozy if he didn't eat right. Did the medicine and sickness cause the spell? What if it didn't? He eased into the car and studied the other.

"Are you sure you're okay? Maybe we out to stop by the ER, just to make sure."

"If I thought I was hurt or sick that bad...I would Chris, I wouldn't take no chances, ya know that. I ain't that stupid." he replied honestly. "This is gonna sound crazy, but I feel really good. Better than I have in a couple weeks, since I took sick. Really, Chris, I'm okay."

For several minuites, the astute drive remained silent, studying the man next to him. "Alright, " Chris surrendered, starting the ignition.

"What's that smell?" Vin sniffed and frowned, fingering his damp shirt. "Why am I wet? Hell, that's me that stinks. What is that?"

"I don't know," the blond assessed, "But you need to change that shirt and dry that mop attached to your shoulders. I'm dropping you off at the hotel, I'll tell them you got sick and..."

"No!" Vin winced, "Sorry, I didn't mean t'shout. I like this class and I ain't sick. The outline says there's a twenty minute break at two-thirty. I'll be back then, I'll get a cab. Tell 'em I spilled somethin' on m'shirt and had to change. Okay?"

"Anything like this ever happen to you before?" Chris worried aloud.

"No...well not really. Just them times when my sugar went low...never passed out, though..." He paused, watching the buildings pass by, "I really feel good, Chris, I can't explain it...m'chest even feels better."

Chris was about to reply, when he noticed the condensation on Vin's large plastic cup was pink. He furrowed his brows and waited for the light to turn green.

"Vin, you bleeding?"

"Huh?" Vin looked down and switched the cup to the other hand. "Aw, hell...musta cut it on that paperbox. Maybe I got dizzy and tried t'grab at it." He studied the small cut on the palm of his hand. "It ain't much of a cut, I'll toss a bandaid on it..." he shot a glance over at the pensive profile. "...sorry..." He waited, but the blond merely looked his way, shook his head slightly and kept driving.

As Vin made his way up the stairs to his room, an ancient pair of eyes followed him. She felt young again, clutching the bag to her chest. Her dark eyes lit up and she sighed in exhiliration.

"Jessenia, what are you doing here! You could have been seen."

"Fool!" She spat, pulling her arm free and disappearing into the shadows of the hallway into a darkened room. "Is the wind ever harnessed!" She stroked the bag, her white teeth shining with an almost unnatural glow. "Your words were true, he is Lesove...and the time is near. I will need eight days to prepare."

"They are booked through next weekend, there is plenty of time. I'll be in touch...now go..." the mansion employee answered, escorting her to a hidden panel which led to the street.

Jessenia Broussard made her way back to her shop. She flipped the closed sign on the front door and went to the table. Gently, she placed the bag on the table and cast her wise eyes to the cabinet. Reverently, she got out the precious rose crystal jar. She chanted as she stroked the ancient glass piece, carefully taking the lid off. She eyed the new items and fell a rush of euphoria rise. First, she placed the lock of wavy. light brown hair in the dish, then the first tube, containing his saliva was emptied. Following this was a sanctified cloth saturated with his sweat. The vial of blood was next, rich and dark red, it made her groan. She mixed it carefully, adding sacred oil, before taking out another dish, an old pewter bowl. Popping the lid, she removed the items given her many years before. His dark hair and a cloth stained with his blood were added to the rose bowl. As the incantation rose, she eyed the ancient mirror, watching the savior and rejoicing again in his great strength. Two rows of candles, flickering in excitement, surrounding the mystical glass. Young Tanner moved about his room freely, his soul and spirit glowing blue in the reflection, a powerful sign.

"Soon..." she purred, putting the lid on the crystal bowl and setting up the circle. "Soon my pretty, young one," she watched as the image faded and continued her work.

"Who's there?" Vin called out, turning around. A chill ran up his spine and he got goosebumps. The room was empty and he shivered, unknowingly lifting the Saint Michael's medal on his chest. "Couldda swore...." he mused of the chilling voice. Shrugging, he made his way to the shower, eager to return to class. The feeling remained strong while he changed and he couldn't shake the sensation of being watched. He grabbed his backpack and headed out the door, ambling quickly towards the stairs. He frowned, hitting his pocket. The key? Did he have his key? Turning, quickly, he nearly ran down someone.

"Jesus," he jumped back, startled. "I didn't see ya there..."

"Sorry, Sir, Did you lose this?" the hooded dark eyes of the dark-skinned man nearly glowed. "I just happened to be coming down the hall."

"Yeah, thanks," Vin muttered, moving away from Nigel Bates. The hall had been empty when he left his room. Where'd that guy come from? "He could give lessons in the creep department." He moved quickly outside, eager for fresh air. He didn't see the evil smile on Bates as he nodded below to the foyer, just as the young man left.

Calvin Johnson looked across the table and shook his head. He took a long swig of his lite beer and resumed eating. The roast beef sandwich was on toasted garlic bread, with sharp provolone and dripping with gravy. Messy? Hell yeah. Worth it? Hell yeah...ask any of the folks who came from miles around to tease their tongues. Seamus's Saloon was crowded as five o'clock approached. The late afternoon crowd, between four p.m. and six p.m. left every booth, table and bar stool occupied. The creamy walls were accented with blown up black and white photo's of Ireland, the birthplace of Seamus 'Mac' McKenna. Closer to the bar was the old man's boxing gloves, shorts and posters annoucing his matches over fifty years ago. A small wall over the bar held the only facisimile of the owner, Ryan McKenna. The former NFL star quarterback, now retired, graced the cover to Sports Illustrated in one framed photo and the other was the photo from the newspaper when he won the Heismann Award.

"Yeah," Cal said sarcastially, leaning his beefy forearms onto the thick mahogny table, "I can why you're depressed. Business like this," he nodded to the crowded pub, "...would give you a long face." The silent man across from him gave no reply. At thirty-four, he was a handsome, six-foot four lean machine. His wavy, blue-black hair, fine features and crystal blue eyes, bespoke his Irish roots. The former black linebacker who played for many years with brooding body, shook his head and speared a pickle from the plate.

"Ye best be savin' yer breath, Calvin me boy, he's been pickin' up splinters in his chin all day."

Ryan glared openly at the tall man whose features, eyes and disposition were akin to his own. Save the few wrinkles and wavy white hair, he was looking in the mirror.

"Don't push me, Old Man, there's a nice room in the rest home with your name on it..."

"Who was it that pissed in yer soup today, Boy-o?" Seamus paused by the table, rapping his sturdy blackthorn walking stick on the table. "Get yer head up, when I'm speakin' to ye... ye weren't raised in a barn. Yer sainted mother would turn over in her grave..."

"Can it!' Ryan's blue eyes flashed and he narrowed them at his best friend. "Something funny Cal?"

"You are, Man," the brown eyes crinkled in mirth, eyeing the daily dose of McKenna banter. Seamus's only son was long gone, and this cocky, brooding young buck, so muchy like the old man it hurt, was his pride and joy. He lived in a modest apartment over the pub, despite Ryan's threats to 'send your sorry ass to a nursing home'. Actually, Ryan held his family close and that started with Seamus, who he idolized. "Mac, it's nice to know the fine name of McKenna has at least one gentlemen attached to it..." the dark-skinned NFL'er broke into a grin as the old man winked.

"Do ye not think I know what date it is? I'm not daft. It's time to move on, Lad, yer a young buck, ye should out with nice girl, not brooding in a bar like some..." He stopped when the young man stood up and attempted to leave, only to have his arm snagged.

"He's right, Ryan, Max would kick your ass all over this bar and out the door for acting like this. It was an accident, it was three years ago, you have to put it behind you. For your sake...and hers."

"I can't," Ryan admitted, still seeing his younger brother's body in the wreck before the car exploded. "I put him there... everytime I see her..."

"Let him go," Seamus advised, knowing the black mood wouldn't last. He watched his grandson grab a diet coke and head for the kitchen. "That's the McKenna luck, then, all the fine beauties in the world and me only two grandsons fall for the same one. Sit down, Calvin. Is there a drink about the place for this poor, old sufferin' soul? I'm dyin' of the thirst."

"You ain't hardy poor, Mac and you sure as hell ain't suffering!" Johnson laughed, "I saw you dancing last weekend with Louisa Parkins," he said of the creole widow who ran a bakery down the block. "You still got some moves!"

"She's a hot one, Lad," Seamus winked, elbowing the younger man. "She good's for what ails me!"

After checking the flow in the kitchen and making some menu changes, the owner took his soda upstairs to his grandfather's room. There on the wall, he paused and eyed the family photo painfully. His eyes went past himself and the old man, pausing briefly on the infant, before resting on the beaming new parents. It still hurt, too deeply to comprehend. They didn't understand, how could they? He loved her more than life itself, always had. But she fell in love with Max, his carefree, grobetrotting, irrepressible younger brother.

"I'm sorry, Cait," he whispered, running a finger over her face in the photo.

The rest of the week passed quickly, the classes flew by. Vin's team was ahead of the pack, having scored the most points for completed assignments. Chris watched his friend grow over those three days, drawing outlines on the large tablets, explaining the problem, posting solutions and using his soft tone to draw out the more reluctant contributors. Finally, it was Thursday and they had three days to howl, before class resumed on Monday.

Vin showered first, eager to change and explore the garden before they left for a night on the town. He had quite a ritual everyday. He'd return from class at five p.m, complete his homework, outline the right passages in yellow and then head outside with a soda to explore the maze. He didn't know why he felt so compelled, he couldn't explain it to Chris. He had a deep urge to find something, he didn't know what, only that it was deep within the large maze. At seven, he'd return tothe lobby and meet Chris and they'd eat out. Tonight, though, they didn't have to get up in the morning, so they intended to live it up. He was in a great mood, felt like shouting at the top of his lungs or riding one of Chris's horses at full gallop, screaming into the wind.

"There's a world outside every darkened door,
where blues skies won't haunt ya anymore.
Where the brave are free and the lovers soar.
Come ride with me to the distant shore..."

Chris winced as Vin's loud, off key, pronounced drawl bounced off every wall in the room. He slid into the lopsided smile again, as only the enthusiasm this cocky-Vin exuded could produce. Tonight they were going to Antione's for dinner and then hitting Bourbon Street big time. The blond took his shirt off and sat down on the bench in front of the large, mirrored armoire. He tugged his shoes and socks off and was just about to stand, when he looked in the glass and his heart began to jump.

"What the hell?" He murmured, eyeing the beautiful woman, whose reflection he as gazing at. "How did you get in here?" She was terrified of something, her large almost amethyst eyes were full of fear. The blond hair was pulled up and off her shoulders in curls, very formally. An off the shoulder, ivory taffeta gown with a plunging neckline was tailor made for her body. She was the most beautiful woman the stunned man had ever seen. Although she didn't utter a word, he knew she was in trouble. She was pleading with him. "What...do..you...want?" he stammered, standing and turning. "What the hell's going on?" He hollered to an empty room. He eyed the open door to the bathroom that connected to Vin's room and flew through it.

"There's no load, I can't hold,
road's so rough, this I know.
I'll be there when the light comes on,
tell 'em we're survivors.
Life is a highway and I wanna ride it, all night long.
Throughout these cities..."

Vin's private show, gyrating in a half towel, singing loudly along with the radio as he scrambled to find his clothes, ended abuptly, as a blond whirlwind flew by. "Hey, Cowboy, what's up?"

"Where is she?" Larabee demanded, opening Vin's closet and eyeing the other parts of the blue room.

"Who?"

"The woman...I looked up and saw her in the mirror. She was the most beautiful woman I've ever seen." He paused, looking around. "Blond hair, swept up, light purple eyes...she was scared, terrified...pleading with me to help her. I turned around and she was gone...she ran in here..."

"Well, hell, Chris, ya can't blame 'er, givin' the choice and all..." he crowed, thrusting his damp chest out. His smile faded, when he realized his best friend was not kidding. "Yer serious, ain't ya?

"Does this look like I'm fuckin' serious!" the green eyes flared in anger. "Where is she?"

"Well she sure as hell ain't gonna fit in there!" the Texan pointed to the small closet the irate blond was standing in front of. "'lessin' she's some kind o'misfit from Oz..." He waited, but the body kept looking, wandering in to the foyer and back. "Chris, nobody came in here..." he grabbed both bare shoulders and stared hard. Then his eyes grew wide and his mouth dropped open. "Aw, hell...ya seen a ghost. Shit, ya get all the luck."

"No!" Chris denied, "Do I look like J.D.?" He announced, going back to his room, the chatty sharpshooter on his heels. "You con him into believin' all that shit...she was real, Vin. I saw her...like I see you. Dammit!"

"Was ya sittin' here?" The eager ghost hunter announced, taking the chair the other had vacated. "Maybe she'll come back, seein' as how there's somebody decent lookin' t'cast her eyes on..." His eyes followed Chris's reflection as it crossed the room and went outside. Frowning, he followed slowly. "Look Chris, I know ya think it's crazy, but it does happen. We were alone in there, she had t'be a ghost."

"I'm hungry, I'm getting dressed and we're going to dinner."

"Well so much fer havin' an open mind," the sharpshooter drawled and raised an eyebrow as the other brushed past him. The tone and body language told him the discussion was over.

Part Seven

1957: Santa Fe

Half a century is quite a landmark, she thought, putting away the photographs from her fiftieth birthday party. Held a month ago, it had been quite the fêum;te. So many friends from over the years had come to the party, thrown by Sara. At sixty, her older sister was still a mainstay in her life. She thought about the diary and the long night after the party, when they'd told Shantay of her origins. She expressed little interest in the story, not wanting anything to disturb her norms. She didn't like waves or to be noticed. She wore her plain and no makeup, seeking to 'blend-in'.

At twenty-four, her blond, blue-eyed daughter was content. That was a word that bothered Lily, for in all her days, she'd never settled for 'content'. Her galleries stretched from coast to coast and her name was known in most of the art world. She worried about her daughter, who was much too quiet and serious. From the time Shantay arrived, she gravitated to Sara, immediately expressing an interest in helping people. Deep down, Lily had been disappointed. She'd hoped her only child would be a creative expressionist like her parents.

The most troubling news had been the man who Sara mentioned in the letters. He was thirty, a plain man with thinning brown hair and 'weasely' eyes, as her sister described. If Sara didn't approve of him, Lily knew she wouldn't. Sara couldn't imagine what Shantay saw in him. She'd shown little interest in boys in high school and had only a smattering of dates in college. Although not a beauty, she was a fair child, with pleasant features. Her doctorate work was in Arizona and Sara had played a key role in getting her the appointment. She was studying ancient civilizations on a Native American reservation. She met this man in Flagstaff, while in town picking up supplies. He was a salesman, bringing merchandise up from Mexico.

"Four months!" Lily nearly dropped the letter. How could Shantay have kept it from them? Even Sara was surprised, she'd only found out by accident, having seen the two of them together in town, walking arm in arm. She confronted Shantay, who confessed to the relationship.

"Relationship?" She was nearly done the letter, when the phone rang. She eyed the approaching hour of ten p.m. and frowned. "Hello?"

"Lily, I hope I didn't wake you..."

"No Trish," the other admitted to Sara's assistant. Trish had been Sara's right hand for over fifteen years now and a trusted family friend. "Is Sara alright?"

"She's fine, it's Shantay, you see..."

"What happened? Is she hurt? How bad? I'll get the next flight out and..."

"No! Lily! Let me finish, she's eloped."

"What!" The shocked mother jumped up and scowled, "When? How?"

"Sometime this morning to Mexico, we just got a phone call. They're staying down there for awhile."

"Why? My God, Why would she do this?" Lily sobbed, sinking into a chair.

"I don't know, Lily, I'm sorry..." the assistant eyed Sara, who was very upset. "I'm worried about Sara, she's blaming herself, she's very upset."

"You tell her that's nonsense and I'll be there tomorrow. Thank you Trish, for taking such good care of her."

Lily hung the phone up and poured herself a shot of Tequila. She sat dumbfounded, thinking on where she'd gone wrong. She drained it and poured a second shot, when the phone rang again.

"Hello?"

"We have a collect call from Mrs. Hank Conley, will you accept?"

"Who?"

"It's me, Mother..."

"Yes, Operator, that's fine...Shantay? Where are you? Are you okay? What on earth have you done!"

"I'm fine, I'm in Mexico with my husband. Don't worry about me, I'm...we're happy..."

"Why? Why did you do this? Do you hate me that much?"

"My God, Mother, why is it always about you? From the time I was small, it was always about you. Your shows, your galleries, you stupid artwork, that's all I ever was to you...another bloody piece of your collection."

"That's not true. How dare you talk to me like that! Where are you? I'm coming down there and..."

"Goodbye Mother..."

"Hello...Hello...Shantay..." She clung to the dialtone until it left. Tears streamed down her face and she slowly collected herself. She packed her bags and called the airlines, securing a flight the next day. She'd check on Sara first, then track down the bastard who stole her daughter. This Hank Conley wouldn't take her baby away.

1963: New Orleans

The coffee in Louis's mouth turned bitter and he swallowed hard. He scanned the repulsive headline and tossed the paper down in disgust. Sighing, he left the table in the sitting room and strode into the bedroom. At fifty-four he was in good health and happy, well until a week ago. When his anniversay lunch was spoiled by a courier bearing a special delivery. It was from a lawyer in Baton Rouge, Armand Brodner. He sighed, recalling the picnic on the floor, and for a moment let the troubles disappear. From the mists of time, back to another sunny day in 1945, when Joey came into his life. For over a week, every contract he sent up to the accountants office in San Francisco had been returned with red penned changes. Furious, on the seventh day he sought out this 'Joey Donetti'. He'd send him packing, who the hell did Donetti think he was. He smiled, still recalling the moment they met. He strode into the office, never bothering to knock, and tossed the documents down.

"I put those clauses in there specifically!' he hollered, to the back of a tall chair.

"...and that's just how I took them all out," a soft voice answered, "specifically."

The soft voice and large brown eyes belonged to Mrs. Josephine Donetti a widow three years his senior. She had a great laugh, a good heart and a mind sharp as a tac. She caught every error, knew every angle of how to save them costs and where to cut corners. She was the best thing that every happend to him and six months later, she was his bride. Now, they celebrated that date, with the same meal. After hours of fighting about clauses, they'd taken a break and ate on the floor of her office. Peanut butter and jelly on crackers, potato salad and ginger ale.

She was the best thing that ever happened to him. She fell in love with Louis Andrews, a common man. That was who she still loved. The money and wealth meant nothing to her. She still held her position at the head of the accounting division in San Francisco. He spent two weeks every month there and she one week with him here.

"I'm not paying you to brood, Mr. Andrews!"

He smiled then, feeling her arms encircle his waist. He turned and caught her hand, kissing it tenderly. "I don't know, Joey...this is bad..."

"She's lying. We'll prove it and send that bitch packing!" The tiny woman decreed, her dark eyes blazing. "We both know you didn't father that child, you can't father a child..."

"Yes, but that will be buried on page nine somewhere with the shoe sales of the local departement store. It won't make three inch headlines like that!" he pointed to the paper.

"FORMER SERVENT TELLS OF FORCED AFFAIR AND SECRET LOVE CHILD FATHERED BY LOUIS MOREAU."

"It's garbage, why did you even read it!" Joey tossed the paper into the trash. "She was crazy...I know it and you know it. That's all that matters..."

Louis wondered about that. Jeanette Cassata had been hired as a maid, to help clean and upkeep the large mansion. She was new to the area and didn't speak much English. But she worked hard and didn't miss any time. Then one day, Manual, who'd been his personal assistant for many years, shook him awake gently, pointing to the bed. There she was, naked asleep next to him. She'd ranted and raved, carrying on and shouted loudly to anyone who'd listen that he'd forced her to have sex with him for months. She'd been let go and given a job out of the state. They thought that was the end of it. Now she was telling wild stories to the press.

"Come on, Mister Andrews," Joey pushed him towards the door. "You have a date with the lawyers..."

It was thrown out of course, once the Judge read the doctor's reports about Louis's condition. Jeanette, of course, didn't believe it and vowed revenge. Two months later she was found unconscious, suffering from drug and alchohol abuse. Apparently, she'd been an addict since she was fifteen. The child was taken away and put into foster care. Joey took Louis on an extended trip to her 'country' Italy and it'd taken years off the troubled man. How he loved his Joey.

1966: New Orleans

Fifty-nine year old Grace Rutherford was still a very attractive woman. Her dark hair was short and yet to turn gray. Her violet-blue eyes were still sharp. She was the head of the Administration in the hospital and taught at the university as well. She came home early today, it was Thursday and Cathy and her husband Jim were coming for dinner. Married five years, the two were devoted to each other, had good jobs and a nice home. The only thing that haunted them was the inability, so far, to have a child. She heard a knock on the door and noted the clock. They were early, not due for an hour yet. She froze when she saw the courier at the door.

"Yes?"

"Mrs. John Rutherford?"

She couldn't speak, she didn't remember anything but his apology. She stood transfixed, unable to read the telegram. She only got through the first few words and it drifted to the carpet.

"We regret to inform you that your son, Captain John Rutherford, Junior, was killed in action in Vietnam."

1970: Santa Fe, New Mexico

The others left, tossing roses and expressing their condolences. A squeeze on the shoulder, a peck on the cheek, a grab of the black gloves she wore, that is what is amounted to. She nodded politely and said all the right words. Her swollen eyes were puffed and red, dry from lack of tears. The pain in her chest was reduced to a dull ache. Had it not been for the tiny tug on her hand, she'd not be able to move her limbs.

"All done?"

"Yes, Sweetheart, we're all done...Say goodbye to Mommy. She's an angel in heaven now."

"But I don't want her to go 'way!" the four-year old pouted, lip trembling.

"I don't either, Sweetheart, but she'll always be watching over us...always. She'll always love you."

"Where's my Daddy?"

Lily cringed, squeezed the tiny white-gloved hand and her mouth formed a grim line. The eyes that many were too beautiful for words, were now hard. Her perfect lips formed a grim line. He should be drawn and quartered, left to rot in the desert. Instead he was behind bars, awaiting sentencing. From the first night she'd laid eyes on that bastard, she'd knew somehow, he'd end up hurting Shantay.

The phone call came a month later, from a third rate medical center in Nogales, Mexico. A slurred voice on the phone, she could almost smell the liquor.

"She lost the kid...she's bleeding bad...they don't know if she'll live..."

That was her introduction to her son-in-law, Hank Conley. Sara had been three months pregnant and married four weeks. She was defeated from the start. Hank already had her beaten down. Lily lost her...she wouldn't listen to reason, Lily even begged her to come home. But Shantay believed in his lies. He was going to change, he wasn't going to drink anymore. There were other women, of course, and that only lowered Shantay's self esteem. They drifted apart, only Sara heard from her. Then a miracle occured, four years and two months ago. A child was born. Not just any child, a spectacular child. Lily took one look at the infant, with glossy black curls and large blue eyes with purple iris's and doubted Hank Conley could have sired such a magnificent creature. Shantay was ill, loaded with infection, from his whores, no doubt. He travelled to much to care for her and agreed to let her and the baby come to Santa Fe to live. Shantay never really got well. Her 'so called husband' hadn't seen her in months. Lily's secretary tracked him down the day she died. He was in a Texas jail, arrested for drunk and disorderly and assault.

"Grandmère...where's my Daddy?"

Despite his other bad traits, he did care about the child and visited her often. On those days, he chose to remain sober and for the child's sake, she was glad. But that changed the day she buried her baby. She'd raise this special child, who not only looked like her, but possessed a fire inside. She was outgoing, exhuberant, extremely bright and a joy to behold. Lily had raised her from the first day and was devoted to her.

"Is he coming to supper?"

"No, Dear, he's...on travel...for quite some time."

"Oh!" She pouted, climbing into the car. "Grandmere, look at my pretty necklace. Mommy give it to me when she got sick."

"Yes, Sweetheart, it's very beautiful and you must promise to be careful with it, it belonged to my mother, it's very old." She eyed the tiny heart shaped locket on the pretty little girl's neck.

"It be safe?"

"Yes, how about if you help Grandmère make a special box to keep it in?"

"Okay...can we put an angel on the box?" The large eyes requested.

"That's a wonderful idea!" Lily touted, pulling Sara Isabella Conley into her lap. "Let's go home." She instructed the driver

"I love you, Grandmere!"

"Not as much as I love you, Sara," Lily hugged her tight.

1984: Santa Fe, New Mexico

Lily swallowed hard and wondered about the balance. For several months, since Sara's death, she'd been inconsolable. Her older sister was everything to her. The cancer was painful and the silent brown eyes begged her in the end. But she had her Sara be her side, the beautiful eyes much too wise for a normal, eighteen-year old. Without her precious jewel, she'd have suffered a horrid depression. They'd taken a trip to Italy and Switzerland, where the beguiling teen had brought the joy back into her life. She watched her now, tall and proud, walking across the stage to get her diploma. Long dark curls cascaded down her back, the beautiful face was equalled by the heart and soul inside. She was treasure, full of love and hope and inspiration. Like her grandmother, a gifted artist, excelling in sketching, painting and sculpture. She was off to college and to conquer the world. Despite the ache in her chest, she felt a happiness inside.

"That's my baby."

Lily grimaced at the voice next to her. Hank had changed a little over the years. He couldn't drink as much, his health was suffering. He didn't work much, but he did love Sara. Four years ago, he'd moved to Santa Fe, getting a small apartment. Sara spent a great deal of time with him and he did care for her. Still, when she saw him, all she saw was the heartless, cheating mean villian who stole her baby.

"Grandmère! Daddy!"

"Here, Sweetheart!" Lily waved, accepting the flying hug. "Your Aunt Sara would be so proud..." her voice cracked, as she stoked the child's face. Her fingers touched on the locket and she studied the graduate carefully. One day, when she was older and had her roots under her, she'd tell her of her ancestry. For now, the sun was radiating from the vivacious girl's face, and that was enough.

1988: New Orleans.

Grace laughed and shook her white curly head, eyeing the pretty teenager. She remained on the porch swing, gliding back and forth, while her daughter and son-in-law packed the car. The cause of the family squabble bounced past, pausing to kiss her cheek.

"See Ya Grams! Love ya!"

"Bye-bye, Honey, take care of yourself."

"Mom! I'm only going across town to college, not across the world. I don't need all those sheets and blankets. There's no room for Buckles in there," she held onto the tattered bunny that had been a gift from her father the day she turned one.

"You can't be too careful!" Cathy Harte warned, smiling at her only child. Caitlin Jaime Harte had been a miracle, born long after they'd given up hope. Just turned eighteen, she was ready to conquer the world. A studious child, with a great sense of humor and a zest for life, she loved history and english. She was off to Tulane to take a dual major. Her dark curly hair was cut short, framing her heart shaped face. Her large eyes were nearly amethyst and suited the pretty face. She was tall and graceful, an excellent swimmer and rider. She'd been their joy for eighteen years, now she was sprouting her wings.

"Bye Pops!" She kissed her father and climbed behind the wheel. "Hey, don't rent my room out yet!"

Cathy and Jim paused, arm in arm as she pulled down the driveway. Grace stood on the porch, waving and crying a little.

"Goodbye Cait!"

1991: New Orleans

He was alone again, after all these years. The dark hair was gone, only a thin scattering of white was left behind. He walked through the garden, slowly, savoring the heady aroma of the multitude of flowers. Finally, he came to the crypt and entered. He sat down on a chair between the two tombs, bearing the two most influencial people in his life.

"Hello Mother," he kissed a single white rose and left it on her tomb, remembering the grand, beautiful woman who held his hand as a boy and given him the world. "Hello Joey," he kissed a pink rose and left it on the new tomb of the love of his life, gone for two months now. He sat back then and remembered, all the fun and adventures these two great women had given him.

1991 Santa Fe

"Grandmère! Where are you! How was your trip?"

"Landsakes, Child, the house isn't on fire!" Lily laughed, her deft fingers working the clay. She'd been away all winter, visiting friends. Sara spent the winter in New Orleans, which she'd been drawn to since college. "What is it?" She paused, seeing a new light shining from the purple-blue eyes. Her cheeks were flushed with a familiar glow and the old ladie's heart sang. "Who is he?" She smiled, accepted the hug and tug to her feet.

"He's Adonis come to life!" Sara bragged, breathlessly. "You must meet him. Blond hair, green eyes...a killer smile...lean and luscious...he's magnificent!"

"How's his ass?" Lily raised an artist's eyebrow.

"Forget it!" Sara laughed, "You're not stealing him. Besides, he too old for you. He's past twenty-one." She noted of the models decorating her grandmother's sketch books.

"Very funny!" the attractive old woman took off her smock and washed her hands.

"Daddy hates him!" the pretty girl admitted.

"Reason enough to marry him," Lily countered, then took the girl's hand and stared into the eyes so like her own. "Follow your heart, Child...if he loves you that deeply...you follow your heart."

"Thanks, Grandmère," She sighed, eyeing this woman she loved so much. Everything she knew about life came from her. "You'll love him too...he's a good man...honest and sincere."

"So when do I get to meet Mister Wonderful?"

"At dinner tonight. We're meeting the boys over there..." Sara decided, "How was Paris?"

"The City of Lovers and Dreams..." Lily sighed, "Now who is this magnificent man and how did you meet him."

"Three months ago at Mardi Gras. Annie bet I wouldn't do it...it was the easiest twenty bucks I ever made."

"Do what?" Lily asked, getting into the car. "Nothing illegal?"

"No, but naughty..." the pretty eyes lit up with violet fire. "We were in the middle of Bourbon Street, full of uh...spirits you might say. I looked up and saw him right through the crowd. My heart stopped, I swear , Grandmère, he saw me and all the noise the street." She sighed, turning on the ignition.

Lily saw the heart shaped locket on her granddaughter's neck glowing just a bit brighter. She smiled, feeling something special had happened. "Then what happened?"

"Well," Sara grinned evilly, "It went like this..."

Chris Larabee watched his partner and best friend manuever around the pretty girl. He chuckled and stood, seeing Sara's car pull up outside the hotel. Before he could signal the womanizer, the resounding sound of a slap was heard. The blond lowered his head and grinned, as the never-say-die Wilmington approached.

"She was crazy about me!"

"Yeah, I could see that," Larabee deadpanned, heading to the door. "Hi, Babe..."

"Hi yourself," Sara accepted his kiss and turned to the woman by her side. "This is my Grandmère, Lily Gavin. Lily this is..."

"Adonis, I believe," The pretty eyes crinkled up as the blond handsome man blushed and took her hand.

"No, that'd be me Darlin, Buck Wilmington, at your service!" the rogue offered, then narrowed his eyes as the elderly woman appeared to be checking out his hindquarters.

"Uhmmm," Lily thought aloud, getting a gentle nudge from her granddaughter.

"Stop that!" Sara whispered in a laugh.

"Would you do the honor of joining me for dinner?" Buck asked formally, with his arm.

"Just dinner?" Lily replied, raising a bold eyebrow that gave Buck a belly laugh. He didn't miss her eyes checking him out again.

"Lily, you and me are gonna get along fine!"

Dinner was great and the conversation was light and humorous. Buck and Chris both stood up as Lily and Sara left to go to the Ladie's room.

"Now that is a woman!" Buck assessed, ordering a stinger from the waitress. "You can see where Sara gets her spunk..."

"You don't know that half of it," Chris sipped his coffee and smiled, "Lily went to Paris alone when she was eighteen to study art. She made her living sketching male nudes...and raised hell all over France."

"Damn!" Buck admired

"That about covers it," he paused watching the two making their way back. "She raised Sara after her mother died, she's crazy about her."

They stood up as the woman reappeared and Buck saw the elderly woman's eyes rake over his backside again. "She's checking out my ass!" he whispered to Chris who smiled wide and winked. The blond leaned over and replied.

"You can run, but you can't hide...S-s-s-t-t-u-d!"

Before they got the chance to sit down, the band began to play a song. Not just any song, a melody that was special to the new lovers. Chris's eye caught Sara's and he felt her warmth fill him.

"I've never seen you looking so lovely as you did tonight.
I've never seen you shine so bright.
I've never seen so many men ask you if you wanted to dance.
They're looking for a little romance
Given half a chance
And I've never seen that dress you're wearing, or that highlights in your hair
That catch your eyes
I have been blind..."

He smiled at Sara with such ardor it took her breath away. His whole face lit up and his eyes were shining with a special glow. Then he walked past her, grasping her hand tenderly and kissing it once, while stroking her cheek. He then reached his hand to the silver-haired force.

"Lily, may I have the pleasure?"

"...there's nobody here, it's just you and me.
It's where I wanna be...
but I hardly know this beauty by my side...
I'll never forget the way you look tonight.
I've never seen you looking so gorgeous as you did tonight,
I've never seen you shine so bright you were amazing..."

With every beautiful lyric that filled the air, Lily Gavin lost a little more of her heart. She felt an ease in the strong arms like she hadn't in years. The hand on her back went right through her and seemed to hold her heart. She looked up and saw his face then, and followed his gaze to Sara. She saw the tears in her beloved granddaughter's eyes and at that moment, she knew her prayers were answered. She nodded to Sara, who made her way to the dance floor, with Buck in tow. She paused and took the girl's hand, placing in the noble one's.

"You take this, Child," her voice cracked, her eyes full of unshed tears, "...and you hold on for all it's worth."

"Thank you, Lily," Chris whispered, kissing the elderly woman's cheek, having felt the impact of her statement.

"No, Son," she turned and took the handsome face in both tiny hands, "Thank you, Christopher Larabee...you woke up this heart of mine...I haven't felt something so strong in..." She couldn't continue, her emotions were overflowing. "Cherish her..." she whispered.

"Now and forever," Sara answered, falling in Chris's arms.

"Come on Darlin, let's you and me get better acquainted." Buck took the old woman's arm and led her back to the table. He saw the silver head turn, raking those pretty eyes on his backside. "You gotta cut that out, Lily. What'll folks think?" He hissed, then yelped as a small hand brushed against his backside. "Hey!" he protested and saw her grin evilly.

"I live here," she quipped, "I want them to think that!" She waited for him to push her chair in and took his hand. "Don't get any ideas, I'm not the marrying kind...Living in sin suits me just fine!" She watched the laughter start and lowered her voice. "Stud!"

Buck laughed then, hard and deep. He couldn't help himself, there was something about this spunky old woman that made you smile. He saw Sara and Chris on the dance floor as the final words of the song died away. Chris sang the last line, stroking her face and then kissing her. Buck almost felt embarrassed, seeing such an intimate gaze they shared.

"I never will forget the way you look tonight...
The lady in red ...
My lady in red...
I love you."

"Good for you, Pard!" he whispered, raising his glass. "You deserve the best."

Present Day

They paused in Bourbon Street, having completed a fine meal and now were eager to paint the town. Vin headed for a nearby establishment that had rock music blasting from the door. He paused, seeing Chris staring a pole on the corner. Frowning, he ambled over and waited, not sure of the wistful look the blond wore. Then the slim hips encase in black cloth moved forward, almost walking in a trance. Vin following, slipping into a chair at table by the door. He signaled the waitress for two beers and picked up a handful of pretzels. He had just swallowed his second mouthful, when the quiet man spoke.

"I met Sara here..."

"Yer kiddin'?" Vin eyed the scantily clad waitresses and frowned.

"No," Chris laughed, taking his beer and sipping it, "Not in here...out there...right by that sign." He nodded at the pole he'd been staring at earlier. " Buck deserted me for a questionable pair of costumed women. It was during Mardi Gras."

"Questionable?" Vin grinned, mentally seeing the flamboyant Wilmington arm in arm with a bevvy of decorated ladies.

"One of 'em was a woman," Chris recalled of the semi-nude partier, "The other, I wasn't so sure about. Buck never said...course he was drunk... Anyhow, I walked outside and there she was... She was across the street. It was like the crowd melted and the noise was gone. I never felt anything like it, Vin. I saw her and my whole world exploded, like a fuckin' Super Nova. Then, she was in my arms and kissing me..." he grinned and chuckled, "Left bank style..."

"How Left Bank?" the Texan asked, enjoying the nostaglic light in the green eyes.

"Right down to the bottom of the Seine," The blond laughed, recalling the French memory. "Squeezed my ass, too, with both hands!"

"Damn!" Vin laughed, watching Chris relax finally. Something told him Chris needed this trip as much as he did. To chase old ghosts away and embrace the nostalgic afterglow of misted memories.

"I know it's sounds corny, but..." he paused, leaning forward, eyes shining with warm recollection. "It was love at first sight. I knew, holding her there in that spot and kissing her back...I knew...I'd marry her. It was like holding the Sun, Vin and dancing in a rainbow." He stared at his hands and closed his eyes, sighing heavily.

Vin watched the strong play of emotions move around the handsome blond's face. He smiled, lifted his beer and took a cautious sip. Wiping the foam away, he waited until Chris was looking at him. He caught the green eyes, smiled deeply and held his glass up.

"Seems t'me...Sara was pretty lucky too.".

"Thanks, Vin," Chris tapped the glass and tossed a crooked grin to his best friend. "Drink up, Tanner. We're headin' to Pat O'Brien's and I'm buyin' you a hurricane."

"Lead on!" Vin drained his beer, belched and followed the leader.

It was a crowded establishment, but Vin felt at home. It had the atmosphere of a neighborhood bar and they found a small table in the back. The Texan's blue eyes roamed over the hundred's of beer steins on the walls. There were champagne bottles for lamps and the mirrored bar was garnished with ornate ironwork. A waitress appeared and Chris ordered two hurricane's, the speciality of the house. A jukebox was playing music by the Fabulous Thunderbirds and there were some patrons dancing and swaggering in the throng of humanity.

Chris saw the slow smile form on his friend's face and found's it twin already in place. This is what he'd waited for, to see the younger man relax and live it up. They took the tall glasses full of a heady, rum based red concoction. The large, extremely potent drinks were served in a lamp sized glass.

"Let the good times roll!" Vin hooted at the top of his lungs, clinking the glass.

Chris just smiled, sipped cautiously and laughed at the resounding war call from Tanner's lips. The blond was going to take it easy tonight, to ensure Vin Tanner had the time of this life. His cell phone rang and he frowned, taking it from his breast pocket.

"Aw, hell...why'd ya bring that fuckin' thing?" Vin hollered over the noise.

"What?" Chris shouted, clapping a hand to his free ear. "Josiah?"

The smile faded and the blue eyes grew wide with alarm. Vin immediately thought of the preacher calling from an ER. Was one of the team down?

"Chris..." he tugged at the burgundy shirt. "Is everybody..." He saw the blond head nod and relaxed, taking a large sip of the strong drink. "Damn..." he mumbled and licked his lip.

"I'll have to call you back... thirty minutes or so... okay." He replaced the phone and leaned in so Vin would hear him over the loudness. "I gotta go back to the room, Josiah needs my notes on the Packer case. I can hit my files through the laptop and email them. You gonna be okay?"

"Like a giddy pig in a pile o'mud!" the blue-eyed man crowed. "Ya gonna be long?"

"Nah, I'll be back in less than an hour. You stay put and go easy on them... they're strong!"

"I ain't a rookie!"

Twenty minutes later, two females on vacation ordered hurricanes at the bar. One let her gaze roam around the room and quickly zoomed in. She elbowed her friend and nodded, her lips forming a grin.

"Do you see what I see?"

"Where?"

"Where?" Becky exasperated, pointing. "There! How can you miss that smile and those eyes...My God I could drown in them. Somebody that fine shouldn't be sitting all alone. He needs a...a..."

"Welcoming commitee?"

"Now you're talking!" Becky triumphed, moving towards the lean, tanned male with long brown hair. "Hi!" She said, with a winning smile, nodding to the empty spot on the booth next to him.

"Evenin' Ladies," Vin nodded and moved a little.

"I'm Becky," She whispered close to his ear, moving in as her friend flanked him on the other side, creating a tasty Texan sandwich, all prime. "You alone, Handsome?"

"Not no more," Vin crowed, fueled the now drained Hurricane. Chris's nearly full glass was now in the process of being emptied as well. His fingers slid around her waist and he took a draw from the bright red liquid. "I'm Vin..."

His conversation with Josiah took longer than he planned. He arrived back at Pat O'Brien's and his eyes scanned the packed room. Then he saw his best friend, nestled between two women and kissing one with Texas ardor. He dropped his head, scrubbed a hand across it and laughed. He pulled his camera out and taped a few minutes, zooming in on Vin's lip action. Getting a lite beer from the bar, he ambled over. He spotted several large, empty hurricane glasses and winced. The boy would be hurtin' like hell come morning. But tonight, that stupid grin plastered on his face was worth savoring.

"Hi handsome!"

Chris nodded to the pretty brunette and raised an eyebrow. Vin was disheveled, his shirt was unbuttoned and out of his pants. Then the bemused blond leader saw the Texan's neck and laughed, sliding to the empty seat next to him, made available when one of the visitors moved.

"Hey Cowboy!" Vin slurred, eye half-mast eyes lighting up, "...me and the girls is gettin' 'quainted. They's r-e-e-a-a-a-l friendly," he emphasized with swagger.

"I can see that," Chris laughed, eyeing the lipstick smudges and the telltale bruising on the younger man's neck. "You've been a naughty boy!" he teased, taking a swig of his beer.

"Heh...heh...heh..." Vin laughed evilly, raising his eyebrows in devilish delight.

"I thought I told you to take it easy with them!" the blond inquired over the roar in the room, nodding to the empty glasses.

"I done just that," the inebriated body agreed, "that's just how they went down...r-e-e-e-a-a-l easy!"

Chris laughed outloud and moved to let the women out. They excused themselves heading for the bathroom.

"Hey Chris," the blue-eyed wonder inquired, trying to nudge the burgundy shirt and hitting the table. "Ya been around awhile..."

"Thanks Vin," he deadpanned, shaking his amused face, "Me and Noah played backfield together in college..."

"No...ah..?" Vin's face wrinkled up, "No...ah...who?"

"Nevermind."

"How...how...ca...ca...come...girls always hit the head in a pack. They don't never g--g-g-go in there alone." his blue eyes narrowed and tried to stay focused on the bathroom door. "Why... why... they do that.... Chris?"

"Strength in numbers," the blond guessed, "they strategize in there... figure out the plan."

"Plan?" the sharpshooter hiccuped.

"Yeah, that's why women will always be one step ahead, they got a plan."

"Oh," Vin slumped, not satisified. Then the girls bounced back to the table, moving in time to "Celebrate!" which was booming on the sound system.

"Come on Tex," one said, snagging Vin's wrist. "They're playin' our song!"

Chris shook his head in wonder and awe as Vin was led to a small opening on the floor. He took the camera out again, taping the cavorting trio.

"Take notes, Buck!" He spoke into the hidden mic, "The boy's giving you a run for your title!"

Good thing they were with him, his legs weren't moving steadily. One got him from behind, gyrating close to his back end, both hands hooked into his beltloops on the front of his jeans. The other pressed in from the front, looping her arms around his neck and grinding to the music. Chris watched with sloppy grin as they took the 'Vinwich' for a ride. He laughed aloud when he heard Vin's war whoop from the floor and one Tanner fist boldly appeared in the air.

"Ride 'em Cowboy!" he saluted with his beer.

"b.b.b.b.ad... t'...t'...t'the... b..b...one...I'm b..a...a...d... t'...t'...t' bone...."

"Shh!" Chris ordered the warbling drunk, doing a very poor imitation of the George Thoroughgood classic. It was nearly three a.m. and the older man was trying to support the other. One hand went around Vin's waist, locking onto a beltloop. The other held the barely conscious man's arm securly around his neck. "Jesus, you're not the lightweight everybody thinks you are... it's all them layers of clothes you wear." He grunted, setting Vin down on the setee in the hall, while he got the key out.

"...risssss..."

"Shh!" he hissed, eyeing the slits where eyes should be. He saw Vin grimace and squirm, shifting his butt around. "What's the matter?"

"...the boys is all fired up..." Vin screwed his face up and tugged on his pants. "...been awhile... since... since... they been s'busy... reckon... can't settle 'em down." he paused, hiccuped and glared through two bleary blues at the other man, who was laughing hard, unable to breathe. "...the hells s'funny?"

"You are, Stud..." Chris wiped his damp eyes. "You do have a way with words, Vin Tanner." He unlocked the door at last. "Come on... we're home."

"...the hell are we?" Vin slurred, eyeing the dark, strange room. "...s'not m'house... s'not yers... rissss..."

"Hotel..."

"Oh...'kay..." he decided, crawling on his hands and knees through the door. "Whoa!" he slurred, feeling a strong set of arms hauling him upright. "...risss... somebody's in here... bugger's got m'collar..."

"I got him, Vin." the other chuckled.

'Thanks, Pard," Vin relaxed, letting the arms push him onto the bed. "...al...ways... watchin' m'back..." He felt his shoes come off and his shirt. A voice told him to stand and he tried, then launched himself and was caught. "Hey... hey... C...ri..s...."

"Yeah Vin?" Larabee grunted, skillfully getting the timeworn jeans off, with one tug, while supporting the drunken Texan with the other.

"I need... need... uh-oh..."

"Shit!" Chris hissed, trying to manage the wobbly tangle of Tanner limbs. "You gonna throw up?"

"Should I?" Vin wondered of his raging battle in the gut.

"No!" Chris ordered, shoving the body throught the bathroom door. He held onto Vin from behind and waited. "Well?" he stared at the weaving body in the mirror. Vin's blue slits opened a bit wider and a dopey, sloppy, saliva coated grin formed.

"Hey... Cowboy..." Vin issued through a wet hiccup, grinning with giddy abandon. "Ya okay?"

"I'm fine, Vin." He waited, "Well, you gonna get sick?"

"Should I?"

"Nevermind," Chris moved the weaving body to the bed, pulled the cover back and Vin fell forward. "What the hell?" the blond turned the bedside lamp on and laughed. He laughed long and hard, until tears formed. He got his small pocket camera, took one shot, before getting the video off his black pouch on his waist. He took a wide shot, then zoomed in on the clock, before turning the lens to the exposed flesh over the waist of Vin's briefs.

"Eat your heart out, Buck!" he chuckled of the phone number that disappeared under the cloth covering Vin's right cheek.

"...cklin... here?" Vin muffled, raising his heavy head.

"No, Vin."

The fuzzy blue eyes went around the room, before scowling. Unaware the photographer moved, catching his bleary-eyed apprearance, the warbling Romeo continued. "...ere's the girls..." he recalled being with them and Chris mentioning Buck...talking to Buck? "...dam...mit... Bu...ck... give... me... m'girls... back... find yer...own..." He issued angrily, sliding off the bed onto the floor. "...uh..oh..."

"Say Goodnight Gracie!" Chris laughed, zooming in on the muddled blue-eyed face.

"Who?" Vin's nose wrinkled. "Ya got another girl?" he tried to look around Chris's legs. "She a looker? Damn Lara...bee... can't see 'er..."

Chris put the camera away, hauled the now greening Texan to his feet and deposited him over the toilet. Once he was finished and cleaned up, he manuevered him back to his bed and shoved him under the quilt. He was back in his own room, just about to fall asleep.

"...Ch..ri...s..sssss..."

"Shit!" He sighed, raking a hand over his face. "Go to sleep Vin!"

Several minutes went by, then the sad voice came through the dual opened bathroom door that connected their rooms.

"...ri...ri...ssssss..."

"Dammit Vin! It's late!" He shouted back, his head beginning to pound. "Go to sleep!"

Even drunk, the younger man, through his fog, recognized that his friend was angry.

"...m'sorry... Chris... just... wanted... t'thank ya... watchin' m'back..."

"Damn!" Chris whispered, feeling wounded and jogging into the other room. Vin was sitting up, trying to get the glass of water Chris left on the bedside. He steadied the glass until it reached the parched Texan's lips.

"Thanks..." Vin sighed, eyeing the bare feet on the blue rug. "...I'm drunk, ain't I?"

"Yup," Chris poured a second glass and waited. The blue eyes closed and tried to open, the slim body swayed on the bed.

"Sorry..."

"That's okay Vin..." he said quietly, pushing the shoulder gently and easing the body back onto the bed.

"I had me a goooood time, Cow...boy..." Vin sighed, yawned and burped. One eye peeled open and through his haze, recognized the warm smile peering back at him. "Thanks, Chris... ya done... this fer me?" He knew, somehow, the other man's sober state was planned.

"For us, Vin. I had a good time, too. Now close what's left of them blue eyes, will you?"

"...m'okay... ya ain't gotta ride herd on me..."

"I know." Chris replied, but he sat by the bed for a little while, watching Vin sleep. What he felt most, what made him feel good inside, was the absolute look of relaxation on the other man's face. He was totally at ease, at peace. Chris knew that total trust on the soft features was because of him... and that... that felt damn good. He kept that feeling long after he climbed in his own bed.

It was a beautiful day and Chris had breakfast on the patio outside his room. He'd already finished the morning paper and picked up his phone. He stetched back in the comfortable chair, eyeing the beautiful flowers below in the garden.

"Wilmingon, ATF."

"Hey Buck-o, how goes it?"

"Slow." Buck sat up and turned his radio down. "How's life in the Big Easy? You get stuck, you can use my name. I'm a legend down there..."

"Yeah, I'll bet," Chris grinned, "I need you to email me the ingredients of the cure. I think I got most of them."

"Vin got tanked?"

"Oh, he went way beyond that!" Chris bragged. "...and I got pictures to prove it. I downloaded a video clip, check your email..."

Curious, the tall agent stood and waved to Nathan and Ezra, who were the only one's in the office. They gathered around the monitor as the images appeared.

Chris heard them laughing and smiled, his face peering through designer sunglasses into the still darkened room where Vin slept, unaware of his 'debut'.

"Jealous?" Chris asked, when Buck's wheezing slowed to the point where he could speak.

"Hell, I didn't think that boy was listenin' to them tips and pearls of wisdom...with the right training, he might shape up..." Buck mused, then laughed again, as Nate replayed the shot of the numbers on Vin's skin. "He know there's a phone number tatooed to his sorry ass?"

"Not yet..." Chris smiled. "How did the meeting go?" Buck put Ezra on, he'd attended the conference with Josiah, Orrin and the agents from the DEA. After the update, he gave some instructions and bid them farewell. He was finishing some notes to send Sanchez, when a body stumbled outside. "Nice roadmaps," he noted of the red lined blue eye, barely open. "Shame you didn't bring a turtleneck with you." Vin fingered his bruised neck, grunted and sat down, curling his body forward and rocking. Chris stood up and disappeared, then called to the younger man. Wordlessly, Vin entered the bathroom and took the cup. He nodded once as Chris squeezed his bare shoulder in a sympathetic show of support. He stayed outside during the retching, cursing and groaning. Then the body staggered past him, picked up the carafe of orange juice and drained it.

"...takin' a shower..." Vin croaked, shuffling back inside.

"Hey, Vin." Chris grinned, "You better scrub your ass real good."

"What?" Vin pondered behind the closed door.

Several seconds went by, before the voice sounded. Chris sat up in his chair and turned his head towards the door.

"Hey Chris...I need a favor..."

"No!" The blond said firmly and turned back to his paper. "I ain't reading your ass, Tanner. You're on your own.

"Fine thing... man asks his best friend fer a little favor..." Vin waited, but no footsteps were heard. "I can't tell iffen one of them number's is a four, a nine 'r a seven.... it's hard readin' backwards in the mirror... Chris?"

"Not for all the money in that excuse for a bank account you have." Larabee denied, going back to his crossword puzzle. "Just one of those mysteries of life..." he sighed, then laughed at the string of curses, English, Native American and Spanish that flew out the door. "Spoken like a true Tanner."

Part Eight

Winter 1994, Denver

Life in the two years since their wedding had been nothing short of blissful. Chris sat by the fireplace, watching the flames flickering and sighed in utter contentment. A man shouldn't have it this good. Having his best friend for a partner and the finest woman breathing for a wife. Coupled with a good job and nice home, it was nearly the American dream. Then six weeks ago, his whole world changed to a more brilliant shade of living color. For at twelve minutes past midnight, during a helluva snowstorm, Adam Alexander Larabee howled his way into the world.

"He's beautiful, like his mother," Chris whispered, kissing the soft black down that fell onto the baby's forehead. Sara was nestled in his arms on the large sofa, the baby nursing at her breast. Life just couldn't get better than this. The choice for the name was easy. Adam for his father and Alexander, to honor Lily. The elderly woman was already quite smitten with the newest Larabee. Lily had moved in during Sara's final weeks and was staying for the winter. Chris and Sara wanted her to stay for good, but she was a free spirit and not used to being pinned down. They hoped to compromise, getting her an apartment near their ranch. The money for the downpayment had been Lily's wedding gift. The purchased the land at a good price and designed the house together. Adam's birth made the house, a home.

"Anybody home?" a voice bellowed from the pantry, near the back door.

"Don't you ever knock?" Chris replied, as Buck ambled through the hall. "Adam's having supper..." he warned, knowing Buck wouldn't want to intrude.

"Hey, is he awake? Wait until he sees what old Uncle Buck got him."

"Uh-oh," Sara frowned, "That didn't sound good."

"Buck, it better not have parents..." he warned of the rogue's attempts on getting his godson a large dog.

"Coast clear?" Buck asked and getting a postive reply, he entered, or rather, staggering inside the cozy den.

"Oh My God," Sara laughed, handing the sated baby to his father, who was laughing. "Chris, do you see a pattern here?" She shook her head at the pile now accumulating by the hearth. A football, baseball, baseball mitt and bat, hockey stick and tiny skates and a basketball were all waiting.

"Gotta start 'im young," Buck crowed, tossing a diaper over his shoulder. "Gimme that boy!" He took the chubby infant and grinned like a fool. "Hey, you know, with his dark hair and blue eyes... he looks like me! Damn lucky Kid..."

"Bite your tongue!"

"Hey, Lily!" Buck turned as the pretty, silver-haired woman walked towards him. "Marry me?"

"Sorry, Stud," She denied, kissing his cheek. "He looks like Sara..." she paused as the baby glared at the adults, "Well, not that... that's all Larabee!" she teased of the intense stare she'd seen on the handsome blond's face.

Like an expert, Buck defty held the hearty boy over his shoulder, patting his back and rocking. He talked to the infant like an adult, the whole time, showing him the sports gear. By the time the baby burped, Buck had made an offer to become the little boy's agent, once he hit the NFL, NHL, NBA or NL. Chris just laughed, kissed his wife and smiled at the look of pure adoration on Buck's face. The big guy didn't have a chance. Adam was already well established in the large heart.

Sept. 1994, New Orleans

Max McKenna ran a shaky hand through his short auburn hair and sighed. He cast his hazel eyes at the door, his handsome features tense. Then he resumed his pacing, in the back room of the chruch. The tuxedo suddenly seemed two sizes too small and it felt like it was 100 degrees in the old church. He took a long swig from the bottle of coke on the table nearby and listened to the organist.

"Come on, Big Brother," He hissed, eyeing the clock. "Where the hell are you?" He kicked a table leg and frowned. "Fine thing, the best man and the ring are late for the wedding."

He drained the lukewarm soda and thought back seven months, to a blizzard in February in New York when his whole world changed. He was a free lance reporter, doing mostly investigative stuff. The twenty-four year old was wild and fearless, already earning him grudging respect from his elders. His stories were good, intense and held the reader rivited. He'd quickly earned a good name and solid reputation, that garnered big bucks. He was covering a high profile murder case in Manhattan and staying at his big brother's condo. The star NFL quarterback had the life of a king. A star in the league, a great salary, a solid future and a dozen pretty girls at his beck and call. Max barely had time for a second date. His stories took him all over the world. Then he made the best decision in his wild, young life. Instead of going directely to Ryan's large apartment overlooking central park, he'd opted for a change. His angle on the murder was that the victim had suspected someone was selling artifacts from the Natural History Museum. He wanted to poke around there, ask questions and interview the staff. So, there he was, on 79th street heading for the museum near Central Park West. He stumbled through the door and literally into her arms.

"I'm Caitlin Harte," she'd said, to which he replied starry-eyed, "Marry me?"

She laughed and that only added to her beauty. He'd never seen anyone so fine. Gorgeous eyes that were blue-rimmed purple, shoulder length curly dark hair and a face painted by the angels. She was working at the museum, as the assistant editor of Natural History Magazine as well as handling a myriad of other assignments within the large facility. She was easy to talk to and it was if he knew her his whole life. Before he knew it, it was midnight and the streets were shut down due to the storm. He left a message on Ryan's machine. He and this wonderful woman shared a meager dinner of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, butter cookies and lemonade. She took him on a tour of the buidling, they explored the exhibits together. He kissed her for the first time outside Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. He didn't think the hero of San Juan Hill would mind. The two weeks of his assignment flew and his trip to Cairo was miserable. He couldn't live without her. He missed her face, her scent, her taste... he needed her. So he got a job at New Yorker Magazine and moved in with her. Then Ryan came home and met Cait for the first time.

Ryan paused in the doorway of the church and felt his heart clench. For the first time in his life, he was in love, truly and deeply, the forever kind. She was witty and charming, wise as well as beautiful. She had a great sense of humor, loved sports and eating messy. She was everything he ever dreamed of... and in ten minutes, would marry his kid brother. He sighed, took a deep breath andwalked into the church.

SPRING 1997, NEW ORLEANS

"Hi Grams, how are you?" Caitlin smiled on the phone, her mind painting a picture of her grandmother.

"Fine, dear, but how are you?"

"Well, if you're not too busy, we'd like to have you over for lunch, around 1 p.m."

"We?" Grace Rutherford paused. "We who? I thought Max was in London?"

"He was, he flew home last night. He's not the one inviting you, however..."

"Child, what on earth are you talking about?"

"You have Mom and Pop bring you over for lunch, at one," she paused, her throat tightening. "Because there is somebody I want you to meet... somebody incredible."

"Oh Cait!" The old woman sat up in her rocker, a smile born easy.

"Her name is Grace Maureen McKenna and she's dying to meet her great grandmother."

"Oh honey!" She sobbed, "When?"

"Five this morning... we named her for you and Max's mother," she noted her deceased mother-in-law. "She's nearly eight pounds, has a head full of black curls and it the most beautiful baby ever born."

After Cait spoke to her parents, Max's grandfather and the folks from both places of work, the exhausted mother slept. Max was beat, having taking a red-eye to get back in time. He eyed the pretty baby his arms and tears welled in his eyes. Cait was right, she was the most precious thing ever born. One tiny hand curled trustingly over his finger.

"You hang on, Honey, I'll always be here for you..."

Ryan froze in the doorway, seeing Cait sleeping peacefully. Her dark hair was cut short and framed her heart-shaped face. The deep lavender gown suited her and he felt his insides turn to jelly. Max had returned to Seamus's apartment and was sleeping on the couch. The old man was downstairs, buying gifts for his 'aingeal'. As he cast his eyes upon his new niece, he had do doubt the old man was right. She was an angel, her tiny features were a duplicate of Cait's. He placed a tiny pale blue bunny at the foot of the incubator. The pastel balloons were held by the largest Raggedy Ann doll he could find. It stood about three feet tall and fit into the bedside chair. Here, in the garish daylight alone, he let his heart out. The agony of the pain he felt shone through his blue eyes, as he brushed a strand of hair from her forehead.

"I love you..." he whispered, pulling his hand back. He didn't see the old man back out of the doorway, his face stilled. He was back over the baby, taking in every perfect feature, when she woke up. He backed up a bit, watching her face screw up. "Uh-oh..." he wrinked his face, as the howl was about to be born. "Shh! Hey don't do that, you'll wake your mother. She's all worn out... shh... go back to sleep." Not wishing to disturb the new mother, he picked the squalling bundle up, holding her away from his body like a timebomb. "Hi there... I'm your Uncle Ryan... damn you got a good set of lungs." He finally lowered the baby to his shoulder and began to rock his body side to side. She grew quiet, then began to hiccup. "God, you smell great..." he voice caught in emotion as the heady scent only a new baby can produce filled him. "I wish you were mine..." he sat down and transferred her to his lap, letting his large hands support her head and neck.

"She likes you!" Cait yawned, having just woke up.

"She's a woman," He muttered cockily, suddenly uncomfortable. "She hungry?" he guessed, watching her little rosebud mouth work on the tiny fist. "Maybe she should eat..."

"You don't have the right equipment, Uncle Ryan..." Cait teased, raising an eyebrow and laughing as he face flushed. "Here... I..." she spotted the doll and squealed in delight. She'd collected dolls her whole life and rag dolls were her favorite. "It's beautiful! I've never seen one so big! Ryan... thank you!"

"I better get going," he gently lowered the baby to her and backed away. "I'll... uh... stop... over... when we get... uh... back..." He said of his upcoming roadtrip. He didn't turn back as he headed to the hall. He didn't see the look of compassion and sympathy from his grandfather.

"Aye, Lad... tis a great burden yer totin'..." Seamus shook his head and went into the room

December 1998, New Orleans

As if fate scripted the final act, he was in the gazebo. It was place he never grew tired, recalling the lost days of his boyhood. His mother loved it here, sitting inside the cupola, reading or doing stitchery, surrounded by the large gathering of flowers. He'd romanced many women out here and of course, it was a favorite stroll for he and his beloved Joey. He was thinking on walking to the tomb to sit with them, once he caught his breath. The gardener looked up as a clatter sounded. He trotted several yards to the gazebo and saw the cane lying on the ground.

"Mr. L?" the black man inquired, peeking through the white iron gingerbread structure. "Bless him Lord!" He made the sign of the cross, seeing the dead man in his final sleep.

The funeral was simple, which in itself stood out in this town. Funerals were celebrated with a style and flavor known only to New Orleans. After the burial, the task of settling the massive estate fell onto a world renowned legal team. The estate was probated and a new fly was cast into the ointment. Louis, in his will, had given his mother her lifelong quest. All the money from his estate and that of his late mother's, was left to heirs of her lost child. He'd seen to it that her living quest, to find her lost baby, would be sated.

While the legal eagles debated the situation in a posh office, across the border, Gussie Trent scowled. They talked of him like he was somebody. Pages of ink spilling beatitudes of his generosity and kindness. Generous! Hah! He dined in splendour, while they lived in squallor. She fidgeted, watching the news coverage... there... there was his face on the screen again. The anger rose up and she threw her dinner tray on the floor.

"Now... now... Miz Trent... that ain't nice..."

"...tough... ap...ples..." Gussie mumbled, the stroke making it hard to talk. She'd suffered so many illnesses over the years, she learned to live in pain. But then a series of strokes took their toll, leaving the eighty year old confined to a bed in a nursing home. "...call... call..." she grunted, moving her atrophied hand, bent at an unnatural angle.

"Yuh best eat this supper..." Lavina, the aide assigned to the cranky old woman ordered, "If yuh eat it all, I'll call him. Deal?" She saw the head dip once and placed a new tray down. She lifted the lid of the pureed meal and began. An hour later, after the old woman was washed, changed and settled in for the night, she picked up the phone.

Gussie was watching reruns of Lawrence Welk, when he came through the door. She fumbled with the remote, turning the television off. "...talk... 'portant... no... have... long..."

He watched through hooded eyes, as her crippled hand clutched the paper. He took it from her and studied the headlines.

"Yes, I read about his death. What does it have to do with us?"

"...fat..her... your...son..."

"What!" He hissed, backing up and closing the door. He leaned over the bed. "What do you mean Aunt Gussie? Louis Moreau is my father?"

"...is..." she insisted, still seeing the dead eyes of her niece, an empty bottle of pills doing what the needles and booze didn't.

"How? Why didn't you ever tell me? Do you have proof?"

"...promised... moth..er... no... tell... shame... shame... wrong..."

He tried to calm the irate woman, giving her a drink of warm Ensure. The milky liquid ran from her drooping mouth. He dabbed it with a napkin. Finally, she steadied her roving eye and looked at him.

"...I ...die ...soon ...no ...take ...promise ...grave..." she caught her breath, the chest pain was back, as it had been earlier. "...mother ...killed self... shame... over... birth... he... didn't... want... her... you... used... her..."

He skimmed his memory, recalling little of his mother. She died when he was what? Ten? She was a junkie and a drunk. Men used her and abused her and she let them. He'd never had any respect for her. But what if what Gussie said was true? What if Louis Moreau had fathered him? If she'd been used by him and tossed away? That would have broken her... They lived in poverty, barely getting by. His Aunt Gussie was his mother's only relative and took him in, raising him as her own. They lived in filth, dirt poor and barely survived. He worked two jobs to support them, until he finally got a decent paying career.

"Is there proof?"

"...suit ... lawsuit... paid Judge... threw her... out... no fight... left..."

"I understand," he nodded, "I'll take care of it... you rest now."

He brushed the gray hair from her face and held her hand, as a spasm overtook her. He stayed with her until the night nurse shooed him home. He drove through the streets, thinking on the claims she made. He began his research on the internet, calling up stories on the Moreau's. He read all he could about Louis' life. He read about the lawsuit and was shocked at how young and pretty his mother was, before Louis Moreau threw her out like old garbage. It was four a.m. when the phone rang. The night supervisor told him Gussie died. A week later, after burying her and making a vow over the grave she shared with his mother, he began his new job. The transfer was the first step, gaining him entry into New Orleans. Once settled, with a good paycheck and a modest apartment, he began his quest to find justice. Several of the periodicals he read, reported a rumor of Isabella Moreau having a secret child, born before her marriage to Raoul. This was alluded to also, in Louis's will. His job didn't allow for much spare time, so he decided to hire someone to dig out the truth. He didn't want anyone to get in the way of his fortune. He had the power and means to see that nobody did. He made the call.

SPRING 1999, NEW ORLEANS

"Hey Sunshine!" Max boomed, lifting his giggling daughter high in the air. A crown of black curls danced on her shoulders. Her large eyes were a deep bluish purple. She was the light of his life.He blew raspberries on her belly and drank in the sweet laughter. "Where's Mommy?" He asked the pint-sized hellion. She ruled the house and she knew it. Her chubby fist pointed to the kitchen. "Ahhh..." he nodded, dropping his knapsack. He ran a hand through his damp auburn hair and snuck up on his busy wife. "Gotcha!" He laughed as she shrieked, tossing flour on his face. He set his squirming daughter down in her highchair, where she happily resumed her meal. Then he caught his protesting bride and kissed her.

"Break out the bubbley!"

"What?" Cait asked, eyeing the light in his hazel eyes.

"I cancelled the gig in Mexico," he said of the assignment to interview a controversial politician. "I'll be busy here for awhile..."

"What kind of busy?" She inquired, finishing the cake and stirring the batter. It's not that she didn't welcome the news, she would have been lonely without him. Since her father's death the year before, her mother and grandmother spent the spring and summer up north in Maine, with her father's sister Dolores.

"I got a job..." he announced, "the big bucks kind, look at this," he tossed down a pile of bills. "That's just the incentive..." he popped the top on a beer and took a swig.

"I don't like it," she flipped through bills and poured the batter into a pan. She popped it into the oven and dried her hands.

"You didn't even hear it!" His anger flashed. She had a good job working for the historical society. She loved her work and was good at it, naming her price for biographies and documentaries. "Actually, it's right up your alley... I've been hired to investigate the Moreau case."

"Louis Moreau?" she frowned, "...you mean the missing heir that he mentioned in his will. Who hired you?"

"I got the call from a clerk in the law office... and the retainer." He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her down on his lap. "So Mrs. McKenna, what to do think?"

"You already cashed the check!" she said icily, pulling away. "You're a little late."

"I can't turn this down, Cait, it's the story of a lifetime. Do you realize if this is true...what it means. " He protested. "They could have picked anybody, they chose me, Cait, me...just think what this could lead to. a book... maybe even a movie... It's a good mystery... you love history, I don't get it..."

"I want to take Grace a walk before dinner," She wiped the chattering toddler's mouth and tied her tiny sneakers on. She saw the dejected look on his face and had no reply. It was the chance of a lifetime and he would be a fool to turn it down. She didn't understand the fear that consumed her. Maybe she was tired. She weighed all the evidence as they walked, then deposited the sleepy child on the large quilt on the floor of the living room. Max was on the porch, in the glider. She snuggled next to him and kissed his neck.

"So, Mr. McKenna, where do we start?" She basked for a moment in the smile on his face and decided it was the right move. After all, what's the worst that could happen?

2002 New Orleans

It was well past one when the two made their way up Decatur Street. The Mississippi River bid them good afternoon, as they entered the crowded store front. It had the markings of an old time Italian Deli, full of flavor, colorful customers and wonderful aroma. The Central Grocery is well known for it's deli-catable masterpieces and it's unpretentious atmosphere. Vin tucked his glasses in his neckline and eyed the overstocked shelves rimming the walls. Pastas of every shape, size and color sat idle, cans of sardines, tomatoes, roasted peppers and other delicacies added to the mystique. But most of all, what locals and tourist alike flock to the deli for is the wonderful muffuletta's.

"Okay if we eat outside?"

"Sure," Chris grinned, knowing that the flock of locals and tourists packed into the tiny place was already wearing on his open-sky friend. Twenty minutes later, they made their way to a bench near the river and sat down.

The plate-sized sandwich starts with a whole load of crusty Italian bread. This is stuffed past the overflowing point with a large variety of Italian meats and cheeses, topped with rich olive salad. A half would fill the heartiest appetite and the Chris carried the one they were splitting, while Vin carried two bottles of Barq's Root Beer, napkins and plates.

As they ate, they discussed the many sights they would cover this weekend. That started with the tour of the town, which Chris would take Vin on after lunch. They roamed the streets, Chris explaining the history, ornate grillwork and exquisite architecture. From Jackson Square and the cathedral, through old town Carrollton, Esplanade Avenue, Audobon Park, Lake Pontchartrain and ending up at a place that was a must see.

"City of the Dead," Chris explained of the above ground tombs that were necessary here. As they walked, he explained the history and the native culture added to the uniqueness of the cemetary. Years of flooding that brought the 'resting' clientele into the streets, caused the ornate, elaborate 'cities' to be built. The blond took his curious friend through Cemetary Number Three, right behind a tour group.

Vin was hanging on every word his friend issued, while he eyed the statues, tombs and crosses.

"How'd ya know all that?" he inquired, when the blond finally paused to take a breath.

One Larabee lip turned up and his eyes crinkled in warmth under the expensive designed shades. It wasn't Vin's question, as much as the near awe hidden in the tone. He through a half-grin at his star-struck friend.

"High I.Q., natural ability to retain knowledge like a sponge..."

"No, really," the Texan persisted with a straight face, "How d'ya know all this stuff?"

Chris narrowed his eyes and fought the urge to grin. "Smart ass..." then they shared a good laugh and continued their trip.

Vin peered at the decorative, rusty iron work and tall marble statues that crowded the cemetary. He listened as the guide explained the history, architecture and paranormal activity. Large crosses, Angels wielding swords raised in victory, a weeping mother and many other oversized statues captivated the quiet sharpshooter. The wealthy families afforded large private crypts, where survivors could enter and visit at length, with the deceased. Rows and rows of these miniature houses with tiny iron fences resembled a strange surburbia. It was then Vin understood Chris's title when they entered. By the time they climbed back in the car, he was beat. He buckled his seat belt and settled back, rummaging in his backpack.

"Never thought I'd be sayin' these words," he shook his curly head and pulled out a soda and something to cure his sweet tooth jones. "Larabee, ya talk t'damn much... wore me the hell out!" He yawned and muched, drank and munched, then his jaw slowed down.

As they made their way back to the hotel, it was near six p.m. Chris stole a glance sideways, while he drove and smiled. Vin's head was resting against the headrest, eyes hidden by his sunglasses. Traces of pralines clung to the lips that were parted, as he slept. One hand clung to a coke, the other disappeared inside the now empty box of sugar-laden candy, which the Texan was now addicted to.

"Your dentist ought to be giving me a commission," the driver noted with a smile.

One of the best places in the country to see live music, the House of Blues was a fine choice for dinner. A local band played blues and rock music, while the busy staff tended to the many patrons filling the room.

After splitting an order of seared Gulf Shrimp blackened in Voodoo sauce with a few beers, they ordered. Vin chose the Slow Smoked Baby Back Ribs in Jack Daniels sauce, mashed sweet potatoes with cinnamon butter and 'nuthin' green on the plate, Ma'am'. Chris went with the Blackened Catfish, shoestring potatoes and greens. The food lived up to it's billing and while Chris was sated with a Irish coffee, Vin perused the dessert menu.

"I'm a little full," he decided, patting his flat abdomen, "think I'll just get one."

"That's using your head," Chris deadpanned, shaking his head. How Vin kept so trim and healthy, despite his diet, was a mystery.

"Reckon I can get somethin' later, after the tour," he noted of his 10 p.m Haunted New Orleans, Voodoo and Vampire excursion. The two hour trek through the French Quarter with two 'geniuine mediums' for guides had him riding a natural high, which need more 'sugar fuel' After much indecision, he opted for the White Chocolate and Walnut Brownie with Vanilla Ice Cream in Caramel Sauce. "Want some?" he offered, the plate to his friend first.

"Hard as it is, I'll pass," the blond wrinkled his nose.

"Yer a snob, Larabee, don't know how I put up with ya."

"Nobody else will have you?" Chris teased and sipped his coffee, enjoying the music. As the hot beverage went down easy, he eyed the other man. Vin was devouring the melting confection at record pace, and the 'damns' of pleasure gave the blond a easy Tannerfied smile.

They moved to the courtyard outside and listened to the music for awhile, before Vin finished his beer and stood.

"Last chance," he winked, raising an eyebrow, blue eyes shining michievously. "I'll put in a good word fer ya..."

"I'm the sane one," Chris replied, sipping his beer. It was decided Vin would do his 'ghost thing' and meet Chris back here. He watched Vin turn to leave and called after him. "Hey..."

"Ya worry t'damn much!" Vin read the light green eye with ease. He nodded his gratefulness and with a wave set off.

By the time Vin returned, carrying a bag of souveneers and full of tales of lurid murders and pirates and the walking dead, Chris was relieved. He listened to the wide-eyed Texan's rehash, watching the slim hands become animated. Vin Tanner had so many facets it amazed him. Every time he thought he had half a grip on the elusive Tanner mystique, the blue-eyed devil slipped through his hands.

"What's that fer?" Vin demanded, seeing a strange, bemused grin on the blond's face.

"Just giving thanks," Chris flagged the waiter, "You being so generous and picking up the tab."

"Yer a cheap bastard, Larabee..." Vin tossed the bills down and picked up his beer, as the band began a new set.

Saturday, Chris took Vin to two plantations outside town, then they explored the back country and bayous. It was midnight when they arrived back in their rooms, tired and sweaty. Two quick showers later, both men fell into an exhaustive sleep.

Chris felt it before he opened his eyes. The room was freezing and a scent of roses was overpowering. He felt the distinctive brush of satin against his face and then a depression on the bed. A soft hand, warm and gentle, caressed his naked back. His heart was hammering and he sucked in an audible breath. When the 'weight' of the body pressed against him, he jerked his eyes open and shot off the bed. She was a few feet away, moving without effort past the bed. The light from the bathroom gave glow enough to see that her beautiful features were twisted in pain. Those slender hands that still burned his flesh, were clasped together in anguish.

"Please... help... I need you... Chris..."

He wasn't sleeping. He was wide awake. He heard the light voice as it sauntered through the room. He closed his eyes, choking on the smell of the roses, willing her to leave. Both fists were clenched and he shivered and gasped, as the hands ran down his arms and naked chest.

"Please... help... me...."

"I'm sorry," he groaned, stiffening his back and walking backwards to...to...anywhere but here. "I can't...please leave." He left out his pent up breath and felt his rising blood pressure near the boiling point. Then the room temperature dropped and the heady scent left. He waited several pregnant minutes, before opening his eyes.

"Shit!" he gasped, raking a shaky hand through his now damp hair. His head was pounding and he headed for the bathroom, seeking Tylenol. He gulped them down, quickly refilling the glass. He dropped the toilet lid and sat down. He leaned his face againgst the cold tiles on the wall and closed his eyes. The pain pulsated between his temples to the point where his eyes hurt. Why him? Vin was the ghost hunter. Read ghost stories, visited haunted ghost towns in Colorado with a converted J.D. in tow. He knew his deep friend was sensitive to all spiritual things and had deep faith and convictions. The blue eyes hungered to learn more about life. Vin loved to read, especially history, Western or Native American lore. But paranormal occurances, aka ghost stories, were a favorite of his. He also knew Vin was much more open-minded than he tended to be. Why didn't the beautiful blond seek him out? The pounding in his head began to recede and he headed back to bed. Then, he noticed the doors to the patio open and frowned, stepping outside. He saw her in the garden, the ivory gown reflecting in the moonlight. Her graceful body disappeared around a ten foot tall hedge, into the ornate maze. Blinking and releasing his breath, he tried to calm his jangled nerves, when he saw a body following her. Not just anybody, a zombiefied Tanner body. Barefoot and barechested, wearing only light sweatpants, Vin disappeared into the hedges.

"Vin!"

Chris pulled on some clothes and shoes, taking the backsteps two at a time. He entered the dark garden, which was as creepy at night as it was beautiful by day. Also, at ground level, it took on a totally different perspective.

The dazed man didn't feel the cold earth under his feet, or the night air clinging to his skin. He walked through the woods, the trees and shrubbery getting dense. The cottage was ahead somewhere. How had he become so lost? His angel was waiting for him there. He longed to see her face, and hold her in his arms. He didn't feel the stones cutting into his feet or the scrapes on his forearms from the bushes. He kept moving, one foot after the other, knowing he wouldn't rest until he found her.

" L'ange, je suis ici..." he called out, seeking to reassure his terrified bride. He called to his angel, telling her he was near.

"Vin?" Chris froze, hearing the distinctive drawl, but not understanding the words. He ran faster, the maze grew thicker, barely meeting his broad shoulders. "Vin! Vin!" he called loudly, over the shrieking wind.

He was close, he could feel her. The cottage was ahead, just beyond the bend.

"Je t'adore " He cried out, his heart full, "Isabella...." She was here, her felt her, stumbling and falling, he reached out, then she was gone. Why did she leave? "Qu'y a-t-il?" His heart was broken. "No No NO ... je suis désolé..." he apologized, voice breaking.

"Vin!" Chris grabbed the rambling man, stunned by the change. Vin was speaking fluent French, in a voice that was not his own. Tears ran down his face, which was locked in pain. Then he turned and it was another shock. There was bloodlust in the wet eyes and the Texan sprang, locking his hands on Chris's neck.

"Je vous tuerai!" Vin growled, gripping the neck of the intruder. He couldn't see a face, but knew, whoever the man was, he had scared Isabella away. For that, he would die!

"Vin!" Chris choked, amazed at the brute strength he friend possessed. He couldn't breathe, spots danced before his vision. The face that was becoming harder to see, was that of a stranger.

"Ahhhh!" Jessenia scowled, eyeing the figures locked in battle in her mirror. The flames on the many candles flickered in protest. The acrid incense clung to the air and the herbs simmered nearby. She stopped chanting, realzing she'd lost him...for now. "The blond one is strong," she noted of the valient heart on the intruder. "He would die for you!" She amazed, feeling his heart's cry clearly. "Perhaps he shall... but not now. You need him... we need him!" she tossed a handful of bitter herbs at the mirror.

Coughing. Someone was coughing. Cold. It was very chilly. Coughing again. Damn... he was the one coughing. He rolled on his side, gasping and swiping the saliva that covered his chin and lips. He shivered in the night air and tasted dirt. He was dizzy and disoriented, but sat up, a strong urge filled him. Someone was in danger. Vin! He recalled the fight, before blacking out. He searched the area, and saw the body curled up nearby.

"Vin!" he croaked, rubbing his sore throat and crawling over. He rolled the unconscious man on his back and felt for a pulse. "Thank God," he muttered, tapping the stilled face. "Vin...Vin, wake up." He didn't stir and his skin was icy cold. He hooked his hands under the armpits of the victim and hauled him upright, over one shoulder. Then, balancing his precious cargo, he began the long walk, or stagger, back to the room. Vin's head banged agains his back, as he struggled to get them both back to safety.

By the time he reached the entry to the maze, the back of the mansion was in view. His legs were burning rubber and his head was pounding. He carefully eased Vin onto a bench, tapping the pale face.

"Vin!" He croaked, out of breath and gasping. "Wake up! I can't carry you up them stairs. Vin!" he slapped the face hard and the body jerked. Vin's eyes slowly opened, but the dulled fixed stare, told the blond that his friend was not aware. "Come on, I'll help you. Vin?" He pulled the pliant body up and slung an arm over his neck. They held each up and managed, barely, to get back to the room. Chris dropped Vin on his bed and knelt by his feet. He winced at the icy skin and the cuts from the sharp rocks. Vin was sleeping again, his chest rising and falling. Cuts, small ones thankfully, scored his arms. Chris ran hot, soapy water in the tub and shook the body awake again. "Wake up...come on, Vin!" he urged the disgrunted face.

"Fuck off!" Vin shoved whoever was pulling at him and tried to free himself from the strong arms.

Chris sighed in relief as the Texan's normal tone of voice returned. He pulled the protesting body into the bathroom, where a chair sat next to the tub. He got Vin's legs inside and used a wash cloth to get the dirt off and out of the cuts. They weren't serious, but needed to be cleaned out. He shoved Vin's leaden arms into the flannel robe that hung on the door, hoping to warm him up. Coffee... he use the electric pot to make Vin a fast hot cup of coffee or better yet, hot cocoa. He was finished scrubbing the left foot, when a moan and a surly voice assaulted him.

Vin lifted his head and saw tiles. Tiles? He blinked through the remnants of the thick black cloak as it left. Water, there was water running. Steam filled his lungs and despite the warm cloth covering him, he was freezing. He was also dizzy, very dizzy and a nausea filled him. His head was filled with dank, stale reams of cotton, clinging to his normal senses. He saw blond hair by his knee and an olive green shirt. Chris? The boggled blue eyes followed the water sound and he realized he was in the bathroom, his feet in the tub. Chris was bathing his feet. Chris was what? He jerked awake then, his senses slamming into him at full blast.

"What the Hell are ya doin'?" He fought, trying to pull his feet out. "Don't be touchin' m'feet. Get away..."

"Shut up!"

Chris growled in a voice so lethel it froze every noun and verb still dancing on Vin's salty tongue. The green eyes were full of ire and fire and caused Vin to swallow hard. His open mouth bobbled a moment, then clamped shut. Then he saw the blood in the water and got scared. He noticed cuts on his arms and felt pain in his feet. The dizziness returned as he tried to remember what happened. They got back, he showered, flopped in bed... and... and... nothing. But something did happen... something that chilled him to the core. It was lurking on the outskirts of his mind, just beyond reach and gave him a sharp pain in his rebellious stomach. "Oh God..."

"I gotcha Vin!" Chris saw the fear chase the anger from the worried face. All the color drained away and he saw the lean, almost concave abdomen rebelling. He shoved Vin over the toilet and stood waiting. Once the vomiting stopped, he provided support. Handing Vin tissues to blow his nose and cough up the residue, then several cups of water. Finally, he sat him back on the chair. The feet were cleaned and Vin never said a word, just pushed Chris's hand away.

"I... can... do... it..." he said quietly, hands trembling badly as he dried his feet. Two of the cuts continued to bleed. They were very small and he applied antiseptic spray and bandaids. He used the chair to propel his body up, but the dizziness remained and he grabbed Chris's arm, as the doorway moved. "Sorry..."

"That's okay," Chris reassured, leading the shaken man to his bed. He was still shivering and Chris got him in bed and under the quilt. "You want some hot chocolate or coffee? Help warm you up?"

"Yeah," Vin nodded, his eyes frantic and darting all over the room. When Chris returned a few minutes later, he was sitting up, reaching for a sweatshirt. He took the robe off and pulled his heavy ATF sweatshirt on, still he was cold. He sipped the hot cocoa gratefully, letting the steam warm his face. Then he saw the bruises on Chris's neck. The other was sitting on a chair across the room, his chest heaving in what Vin mistook for anger. "What happened?"

"What do you remember?" Chris kept his voice level, but the frightening encounter left him very shaken.

"Goin' t'bed."

"..and..." he baited, watching the figure on the bed. He never saw Vin's eyes quite so large. He watched both trembling hands raise the mug and the sky eyes darted, seeking an answer.

"... and... and..." Vin fought hard, thinking and thinking, but it was black wall. "...seein' tiles... yer head... blood in the tub. "Fuck!" He nearly dropped the half empty mug. He placed it on the bedside and made to fists, raising them and pounding the bed. The bruises on Chris's neck were vivid against his pale skin. "Somebody bust in?" He hoped, thinking they'd tackled an intruder. Larabee's head shook and he watched both elbows hit the leader's knees. The blond head dipped, hanging low. "Chris?"

That made him wince. It wasn't often, the words 'nearly never' came to mind; that he heard such a hopeless and incredibly young Tanner voice. Vin had more guts than anybody Chris knew. He wasn't afraid of anything, except the void that now occupied his memory. How could tell him? 'Well, Vin, a ghost came into me bed and then outside, you followed her, speaking fluent French' No, he'd scare him worse.

"Chris?"

Damn, the voice was wavering now and he knew the Adam's apple was bobbing at a record rate. The eyes, large and almost luminous blue, would burn right through his gut. Yet, he had to answer. He raised his head and flinched again. Yeah, those killer eyes could do more damange than a bullet. He walked over to the bed and sat next to the shaken man.

"She came back, you followed her outside, in the maze... cut your feet and arms. I saw you follow her, from the patio and went after you.... brought you back here."

"She... that ghost lady ya saw..." Vin rasped in a voice barely audible. "..the one with the blond hair and the purple choker?"

"Yeah, I... choker?" Chris turned and looked into worried face, relieved that color was returning. "I didn't mention a purple choker, Vin."

"Sure ya did," he nodded, trying to convince himself. "Ya must 'ove... it was matchin' her eyes... had a cameo on it..."

"No, Vin, I never told you about that... Vin..." He sighed as the body in denial, turned away, seeking relief under the quilt. "Something happened out there. You were following her somewhere. Maybe..."

"I'm goin' t'sleep," Vin lied, clenching his eyes shut. Why did he remember a choker that Chris didn't tell him about? He saw it clearly in his head, her face swam before him, laughing and beautiful. He felt her touch his face, his lips... "Shit!" he hissed, twisting in the bed. He sat up, he must have dozed off for a while. Dawn was cresting, filling the room with pale rose-golden light. He went to the bathroom, got washed and tossed his running clothes on. He was just finishing tying his sneakers and crept quietly through Chris's room, to get outthe back door. He was sound asleep, but the now bruises looked worse and Vin felt sucker punched. If they were alone in the garden, then the bruises on his best friend's neck were from his own hands.

"No!" he denied, turning his hands over and shaking his head. He heard the body in the bed move and swallowed hard, unable to meet the eyes of his best friend. "I couldda killed ya..." he sobered up, sitting on the bed as the room swam around.

"No, you couldn't," Chris replied, through a yawn. He studied the profile and frowned, "Still don't remember?"

"No, but seein' yer neck all marked up..." he shook his head. "I done that, didn't I?"

"You were... uh..." Chris paused carefully, "havin' a nightmare, didn't know who I was. It won't happen again."

"I'm sorry," Vin sighed, studying his hands. "I'd never hurt ya..."

"Talk sense," Chris gruffed, sitting up and eyeing the new day. "Look, sun's up. The nightmare's over and there's new day out there. Let's not waste it okay? Thought we were gonna catch some gators?" he teased, knowing how Vin was looking forward to their swamp trip. "Hey," he tapped the slumped shoulder. "We got no room for sulking around this campfire, Cowboy. Get your ass in gear." Still no reply. "Look, Vin, I'm taking a shower and getting dressed. Go for your run, you'll feel better. I'll meet you downstairs for breakfast, okay?"

"Yeah," Vin stood, thinking on Chris's words. He walked to the patio doorway, watching the blond rummaging through his drawers. A thought struck him and he turned back. "Hey Chris?" He saw the body move and turn to him, "Ya think, maybe, it was a nightmare? Maybe from that tour I took the other night? That fella sure was scary," he said of the host, "...and the girl" he shivered of the black fingernails and lipsticked brunette "...real creepy... told a whole lotta stories about the town... she even mentioned this place and that Isabella lady. Ya think that's what done it?"

"Yeah, Vin, " he heard the hopeful sound in the tone and if it would take the fear from those blue eyes, he give it to him, "No more ghosthunting, okay?"

"Okay," Vin sighed, "I'm sorry, Chris."

"You say that again and I'll post those pictures of your tatooed ass in the lobby. Maybe somebody knows that number..."

"Shut the hell up!" Vin tossed back, fueled the warm smile that Larabee sent him. "...and ya leave m'ass the hell alone!" he fired back, taking the arm extended and locking forearms. He didn't say anything then, just nodded and swallowed hard, so very grateful for the having this man to call friend.

While the younger man let the new dawn and warm sun dissolve his fears, his friend worried. While the hot water pulsed over his lean body, Chris mulled over the actions in the garden. He dried off and dressed, before sitting at the desk. He made a list of all he remembered and stared at the phone. Josiah was a very studied person. He had several degrees, including a masters in theology. He'd also studied psychology and knew a thing or two about the mind. Maybe he could offer an answer. He heard Vin return and took his coffee outside. He'd see how the day went and call the preacher later. He let his seagreen gaze drift to the magnificent garden below. What secrets were the elaborate display of flowers and intricate shrubs hiding? Would the lure of the maze be too strong, even for a Tanner? He wondered what it was that drew his friend to wander in it's path. He planned on bringing the subject of finding another hotel up at breakfast. He flinched and hissed, as the face of Nigel Bates stared up at him from the edge of the garden. The dark, hooded eyes seemed to read his mind.

"Jesus..." he muttered, flicking his glasses on and pretending to read the paper. He peeked sideways a few seconds later and the garden was empty again.

Meanwhile, Across Town:

The old woman listened to Bates on the phone and shook her head. "You worry too much... of course the young one will stay. The spell is nearly complete. Two more moons... that's all I need. He is so strong... the blond will yield to him, you will see. We are so close..." her ears listened to his prattle, while her eyes peered out the window at the new day. They narrowed, seeing the couple across the plaza. She muttered a string of curses and eyed the altar again. Two more days... that's all she needed. She hung the phone up and watched the figures at the cafe.

Unaware that they were being watched, they ordered breakfast. He chose French Toast and sausage, she got crepes and turned to the child.

"You want pancakes, Honey?" Caitlin McKenna asked her five-year old daughter. The short dark curly head shook negatively. Two large almost violet eyes in a heart shaped face, so like her own, peered up at her. "Not hungry?"

"No." Grace clutched Emily, her beloved ragdoll and stared at the river.

"I'm sorry, she's a little cranky today," the pretty woman apologized to her guest.

"That's alright," he answered, turning and casting his eyes up the street. He felt a coldness brush over him, almost as if someone walked on his grave. He dispelled it and returned to his meal, eager to finish and get back to business.

To any passerby, they seemed like the all American family, but the old woman knew different. "The blood will spill... justice will be done." she vowed, seeing the blue-eyed savior's face in her mind's eye.

Part Nine

Summer, 1999

It there was a place that defined the word 'hot' it was in Louianna in the height of summer. Sweat clung to every inch of the cotton shirt the weary reporter wore. He held the bottle of ice tea against his face, as he reviewed his notes. At least it was pleasant in the garden behind the Moreau house. The interior of the house was being overhauled in places, as part of the plans to reopen the following year as a Victorian Hotel. Joey, Louis Moreau's late wife, had come up with the idea and actually hired a contactor. But then when she died, Louis clung to the house, promising them to fulfill his wife's wishes after his death. So they'd begun and it promised to be a very elegant Inn when completed.

The elaborate maze and infusion of expensive flowers and shrubbery was the idea of André Sauville, the original owner. There was a reason that Max McKenna sat in the center of the impressive ground after studying the copies of design and the overhead view from the roof.

Upon taking his assignment, he'd done extensive research, starting at the beginning with Andre and Sophia, his bride. After she died and he raised Isabella, their only child. A very beautiful and headstrong young woman, she rebelled against his planned marriage to Raoul Moreau and ran away from home. He highlighted that section of his notes, having since discovered where she hid for over a year. A nagging suspicion inside told him, despite the proof supporting Moreau's claim, that she had been brought back under protest. He had another highlighted section, with some rather questionable cases involving Theodore Garson, the private eye Moreau hired to find his fleeing fiancé.

The next few years were uneventful, but Isabella managed to survive the Titantic and raise her son, Louis. It was during those years, she had a nervous breakdown. The doctor who examined her and treated her, claimed she was delusional. That there was no 'child' missing, despite the frantic woman's claims. He found by reading some of her correspondance over the years, that she was a very intelligent, sensitive woman.

He interviewed the current staff and those retired who were still alive. He spoke with neighbors, the workers of nearby homes and with the affluent members of town who knew both Isabella and Louis. From this, as well as his leg work up north outside Baton Rouge, he came to the conclusion that there was another child. It was during this week's extensive search of the massive attic in the home, that he hit paydirt. Isabella collected dolls, from the time she was a child. Most of them were in the large room on the third floor, Louis's old nursery. But among the trunks and other boxes piled in the large storage area, was a very old, hand made rag doll. It was haphazardly tossed in a trunk with some of her schoolbooks and old clothes from her youth. He'd tossed it aside and later, as he was opening another trunk, he spotted a sliver of paper tucked in the back of the doll's dress.

He held that doll now, in the daylight, and reread the letter he found inside. It was short, mostly a poem, but it was the signature that drew his attention. Dated in early 1906, it was an outpouring of love to Isabella, from a man named Philippe. The intimate details led him to conclude they were more than friends. Some of the phrasing in the letters gave him the answer about the rumors that the other interviews held. That Isabella ran off that night with a lover, a poor painter from the square. This man, the one who penned the letter, used the words, 'my angel on canvas'. So for several days, he haunted the art galleries in town, hunting down anything done by an artist named "Phillipe'. Then as he was passing by an antique store one morning, he saw her. There on the wall, was a painting of Isabella in a purple drape among flowers. The owner stated that the shop used to belong to a jeweler, whose father bought the painting. He didn't know much about the painter, just that it came from the 'Baton Rouge' area. That same area was where some of the earlier inquiries, by Isabella and via the notes of André on where his daughter was found.

He'd journeyed there before, to seek out the town where Raoul found the missing heiress. It wasn't much of a town anymore. Flooding and other natural disasters took the town away. He did find the ruins of a church and discovered that the records were moved to a nearby parish. According to André's diary, which was in the study of the main house, Raoul found Isabella in a drunken state. He claimed she'd been combative and he was forced to restrain her. Max's stomach turned at that, from what he'd read of Raoul, he wasn't fit to have her as a bride, or any bride. André's notes mentioned a doctor and an innkeeper. Neither were alive, but he intended to track down the church where the records were. Also, now that he knew Philippe was tied to Isabella and this painting was tied to that area, he had to resume his search. If they didn't want to be discovered, they'd have hidden. A year was a long time, more than enough to have a child. He tucked the letter back in the doll and thought on the words. This man truly loved Isabella and wouldn't have surrendered her without a fight. Was that the dark secret? Did Raoul murder Philippe and steal his bride? Garson had several shady incidents in his career with the Pinkertons. His death in 1910 was bloody. No murderer was found, but the agency felt he was 'silenced'. His gambling debts were mounting and he'd told his debtors that 'he knew something that would bring in big money'. Shortly after, his body was found. Did Garson know about Philippe or the 'child' of the union? Did Raoul silence him too?

He sighed and stared at the Gazebo carefully. From all accounts, this was Isabella's favorite spot on earth. Louis's memoirs confirmed that fact. His memories as a child and in his formative years, were drawn to his mother's love of the garden and gazebo. Louis mentioned her 'writing in her journals' out here. That at long as he lived, she'd recorded entries in the books. No trace of them was ever found. Louis lost track of them and after her death, realized she'd hidden them. The staff, guests and others in the area all spoke of her ghost . The restless spirit was seen in the upper halls of the house, near the room where she died, as well as roaming the garden. His investigative instincts told him that she'd hidden the books here, somewhere. He'd checked ever inch of the white, sturdy, wrought iron gazebo and came up empty. He'd been inside the family crypt once, and that proved futile. Yet he was sure, somewhere in this floral fantasy, was the key to the mystery. In those books, in her own words, was the proof of the child born of the union of Philippe and Isabella. The child, or rather, the heirs of the child, were the rightful owners of the massive fortune.

He glanced as his watch and tucked the doll under his arm, collected his notes and went to meet his wife for dinner in town. She'd been his greatest asset, doing much of the period work for him. She knew history, the area and the histories of the families in the area. He wanted to run his idea by her, before journeying back north, to seek out the love nest of Philippe and Isabella. He'd return later and finish his report. He was keeping his updates to the clerk at the firm very cryptic. He didn't want to expose his cards too soon.

Summer 1999 Denver

"Well?" Buck elbowed his partner, "Have you thought about it? Come on, Chris..."

"...hard not to..." the blond concluded, making the mistake of taking in the rogue's broad smile, wagging eyebrows and charming grin. "I don't know, Buck..."

"I do, I'll do the thinking for both of us," the younger man protested, "It's gonna be awhile before we get more than a couple days off to string together. This new team the Travis has you putting together will be taking up time. Adam'll be starting first grade in September, you ain't gonna have time to piss, much less get a break like this."

"Five days is a long time, Buck," he mused of the trip, "I don't like leaving them."

"Sara told you to go!" His voice was slightly wounded.

"Yeah," he sighed, "I wish she wasn't so busy with that art class..." His wife was a gifted painter and scupltor. In addition to selling her own work to galleries around town, she now taught at a local art school. Her summer sessions were in full swing and she was gone every morning from 9 to 1, teaching. Lily lived nearby in a cottage on the grounds of the ranch. Tucked away and obscure, nobody knew about it, which is what the old lady liked. Sara hired an assistant to stay with Lily, who was still fit as a fiddle. She resisted every attempt to move in with them, so this was a good compromise. The girl was a student of Sara's and loved Lily's work. She came every day at breakfast and 'studied' with Lily. Actually, she kept her eye on the old woman, until Chris or Sara came for supper. Adam stayed there during the mornings that Sara had class. Lily was crazy about the dark haired boy. She insisted he inherited all her talent!

"Chris?" Buck waved a hand in front of the dazed man's eyes. "You listenin'?"

"I'll think on it..." he decided, glancing at the half-eaten roast beef sandwich. He took his tie off and loosened his collar. "Let's go over this list again. Nathan Jackson..." he eyed one of the men applying for a job on the team. Orrin Travis promoted the highly decorated agent to the team leader position. Buck was his first choice, that had been a given. When the senior Justice Dept. Director proposed the idea to Chris, to form a new ATF team, the blond had made that clear. Where he went, Wilmington went, no discussion. Now they had until the end of the year to pick the other five members.

"Sara's gonna bust you, you know that!" Buck goaded, having already told the pretty artist of her husband's reluctance to go on the trip.

"No thanks to you," Chris muttered, "I'm beat... let's call it a day. Why don't we get changed, pick up Adam and go fishing?"

"Now you're talking!" the proud uncle boasted, hauling his tall frame from the desk. "That boy grows more like me every day."

"Now there's a scary thought!"

The two friends made their way to the elevator. As it descended, Chris knew he'd lost. Between Buck and Sara, he'd have no choice. He so seldom did anything for himself, always putting the family first, that she'd be firm on this. He and Buck hadn't gotten away together, alone to kick back, since before Adam was born. Yeah, Sara would nag him and before he knew it, he and his bag would be on that plane with the grinning, mustached man.

Late June 1999

"I don't like it..." Cait snuggled closer to her husband, tracing lazy lines on his back.

"I have to go.." he kissed her shoulder, neck and temple. "God you're magnificent..." he groaned, finding her lips.

"Don't change the subject," She wiggled away, "I'm serious, Max. You get some mystery message from a crazy old woman... a fortune teller yet. I know this town, Max, and there are alot of strange forces out there. You could get hurt..."

"Then you'd have to play nurse..." he winked, nuzzling again.

"Stop!" she moved off the bed and put her short silk robe on. "I'm scared..."

"Oh, Honey," he sat up and rubbed his eyes. "I've been all over the war, to war zones for Christ's sake. This is our backyard..." He sighed, seeing her fear. "I'll make sure it's in a public place, high noon, okay?"

She didn't like it, but she knew how persistant he was. She fingered the locket on her neck and sighed heavily. Maybe he was right. Maybe she worried over nothing.

Café du Monde was crowded and Max was on his second café-au-lait, having gone to the table, hidden from view, as directed. He jumped slightly when the old woman sat down. Her age was hard to guess, her skin a pale brown. Her eyes were like cognac and her hair long, thick and pulled back, was streaked with white. It was hidden under a wrap of color. More scarves were draped over her layers of clothing. Several chains and amulets hung on her neck. He sat back startled and opened his mouth.

"Do not speak, I have little time to waste," she warned. "You are treading in dangerous waters, Mister McKenna. You have disturbed the spirits..."

"First of all..."

"Silence!" she commanded, "You wish to know the truth? Of Isabella and Philippe and her first pregnancy?"

"Why me? Why now? Why should I believe you?"

"You have been chosen... your pen will write the script of justice..." She leaned in lower, taking his hand and pressing on the soft inside of his wrist. She saw him flinch, "Yes, you can feel that... I have powers, Mister McKenna. I made a vow to my mother on her deathbed, to keep the spirits at bay. But he is dead now and it's time they rest too."

"He being Louis Moreau?"

"My nephew..."

"Nephew?" His hazel eyes darted, while his mind added the clues up at record speed. "Then your father was André Sauville?"

"I was born three years after Louis, just before they left for Europe. It was a surprise for both of them. They'd been lovers for over twenty years, since she was fifteen. She was devoted to Isabella and Louis and protected them. I gave her my word, until Louis died, I'd keep silent. She didn't want a scandal... or worse... to harm him."

"Your mother?"

"Tess Broussard Saint-Laurent..." Jessania Broussard replied. "She came to Sauville manor at fourteen, working in the kitchen. She was very beautiful and André seduced her. She loved him, despite his flaws and remained loyal... all those years. She raised Isabella and loved her as she loved me. She kept the pregnancy a secret, travelling to my aunt's for most of that winter. I was born in the bayou and raised by my aunt and her people... very powerful people... Vodun... I am a mambo." The female priest noted.

"Vodun..." he stuttered, nearly in awe of the offshoot of Catholicism found in the West Indies. "Voodoo... misconstrued by most of the western world. Uh... strong beliefs... deep convictions... bizarre rituals... strong magic... black and white... strong links to the 'other side'... the uh... spirit world."

"Enough!" she urged, "My mother had a prophecy, saw the house covered in blood. She feared for my life, so I became her 'niece'. She connected that prophecy to the bloodline, making me promise to keep the secret until the last of the line passed over." She narrowed her eyes, "Yes, I have proof," she saw him flush, "I can read your thoughts... you think I am a rambling old woman. You are partially correct. I am old in years... but very powerful. Do not cross me, you do not want to make me your enemy. Your path was chosen for a reason..." She rose, sharp eyes darting. "I have stayed too long... it's not safe. You will come tonight to the garden... your proof remains there." She pressed his wrist again, watching him blink and sway.

"Wait a minute!" He shook off the cobwebs and discovered he was alone. His heart was hammering and he hurried to catch his flight. A full day at Baton Rouge, tying up loose ends, then the rendevoux with fate in the maze.

It was held annually from the last weekend in June through the first weekend in July. Men of all backgrounds came together and paid tribute. They gathered in large numbers, put on the blue or the gray, picked up the replica muskets and began the battle again. Now, as the 134th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg approached, those men would once again take up arms. Like many of the re-enactors, one man had a particular reason for the quest. His great-great grandfather had fallen in the bloody fields on July 2, 1863. The three day battle was one of the Civil War's bloodiest. He looked at the photo preserved behind glass and felt his pride swell. He saw a resemblence, of sorts, to himself and the brash Major in the photo. The body was sent home to the new widow, who preserved the medals, uniform, guns, gloves, sword and scabbard for her son. It had been passed down, through the generations and he now owned the relics. He thought of the badge he carried and his own quest to right the wrongs. He smiled again, knowing somewhere, Major John Buckingham Wilmington was damn proud of his namesake.

Her uncle Dan got him interested in the re-enactors when he was just twelve. They did the trip together every year. Dan and Buck's mother, were the last of the line. Dan was a carefree, outgoing larger than life type and Buck idolized him. Having no father, Dan became that to him and a whole lot more. So when his beloved uncle, a homicide cop, was killed in the line of duty, the nineteen year old told his mother he was going to follow in his footsteps. He still had his uncle's badge, it was in the glass case with the Major's things.

He zipped his bag and checked his ticket, eager to get to the airport. He was disappointed Chris didn't come. Since the first year they met, the blond always went with him for the five day stint on the battlefield. But those trips stopped when Adam was born. He was a family man, nobody loved and cherished his family like Chris Larabee. As much as he missed Chris, he understood the choice. He locked his front door and jogged down the stairs, where he was expecting a ride to the airport.

Chris eyed his bride and shook his head. How was it that she was always right? How did she seem to read him so well? How did she see through him, way down deep, where no one else could find him? How was it that there was no word in the Enlish language that conveyed how deeply he loved her?

"Daddy?"

"Yeah, Buddy?" He turned to his five-year old pride and joy.

"We gonna go to McDonalds?"

"No, we're going to get Uncle Buck."

"Yeah"

Chris smiled at that and swung his boy high in the air. The giggles rain down on him in a torrent and he drank in every last one, licking them up. The boy was crazy about Buck, but then again, Buck was just a big kid most of the time. They walked to the stables, checking on the mare. She was due to foal any day now. He loved his quiet times with Adam, especially on Sunday mornings. The sleepy tot would climb in his lap on the sofa and snuggle, still toting his blanket. Chris's left arm automatically gathered him close, while he continued to read the paper. Then he'd read the 'pictures' to his inquisitive son. He explained every one the boy asked about. Then Sara would call them for breakfast. They'd laugh and share ideas and stories. Father and son would disappear for a lazy afternoon together, often with Uncle Buck in tow. Sara would make Chicken and Dumplings, with Lily at her side. Yeah, Sunday was by far his favorite time.

"Come on Guys, we gotta move!"

"Is Mommy the boss?" Adam asked, eyeing his father's face.

"Yup," the blond answered, "Who told you that?"

"Uncle Buck. He tells me lots of stuff about girls..."

"I'm gonna have to talk to him about that..."

"I think Uncle Buck is very smart, the man knows his stuff!" Sara laughed, having heard the conversation.

"He got me for a partner didn't he?" Chris tossed back, embracing his wife and kissing her.

"So I'm the boss?" she asked breathlessly, tracing the lines of his face with her finger.

"Now and forever," Chris replied huskily, lifting the antique locket on her neck and losing himself in those magnificent eyes.

"Hey... I'm gettin' all squooshed down here!"

"Sorry, Champ!" Chris laughed, hauling his boy up. "Let's go get Uncle Buck!"

"Can Sam come?" He implored of the large black Lab that was a birthday gift for his father. It was Uncle Buck's idea, the picked him from a litter. His dad sure was surprised. The nine month pup was his best friend.

"No, Sam stays home, he gets car sick." Chris relayed.

"Yuck!"

"You said, it, Champ!" Chris laughed, ruffling the dark hair.

It was the right choice, he knew that now. Initally, he'd turned Buck down. Then Sara said one simple thing. When was the last time Buck asked anything for himself? She was right, of course. The man was generous to a fault. He gave so freely, that the big Wilmington heart was legendary. This was important to Buck and he now recalled the brief glimpse of disappointment in the blue eyes when he gave his decision. They pulled up and Buck climbed in the back, roughhousing with his cherished nephew. The airport came too soon and they climbed out at the terminal. Buck waited while Sara opened the trunk. Then he saw the other bag and his head swiveled. It was a grin and handshake, no words were exchanged. But within that grin, those green eyes and that firm grip, were something very intangible. Something that Buck Wilmington treasured over all else. Something he was so proud of every time he walked beside this man. He hugged and kissed Sara and Adam, then went inside, letting the family say their goodbyes. Little did either man know, when the plane took off, that it would be the last time they'd see the Larabee family alive.

As he drove to the house, his mind was racing. This novel, which he intended to write, would be a best seller. It had all the elements, star-crossed lovers, a murder, family secrets... even Voodoo! The trip to Baton Rouge was a success. He found an old record of two females being baptized in a village church in a town that no longer existed. Their parents were listed as Isabella and Philippe Dubonnet. The infants, Alexandra Lily and Angelique Rose were barely a few months old, when the marriage to Raoul took place. Garson and Raoul must have tracked them down and murdered him. But why didn't he kill the babies? How had they escaped? No more records of them existed. Were they smuggled out somehow? Did the strange priestess Jessenia know the truth? What of the child Sara, mentioned briefly in the church records as a witness? Did she take the babies? He'd made copies of the records and his notes and mailed one set home.

He was waiting in the outskirts of the maze, when he saw her. His heart was slamming into his chestwall like a jackhammer... his breath in pants, sweat poured down his face. Yet he followed her, without question. She was in an ivory gown, her blond hair pulled back and she was beautiful. Deeper and deeper he roamed, far beyond where'd he'd gone prior. Then she disappeared into a twelve foot high shrub. He dropped to his knees, shoving his arms into the thick bush. Hard... concrete... hard... concrete...

"Ouch!" he yelped, hitting metal. Metal? His fingers fumbled, his arms were to the elbows in the thick bushes. A box... a deep box.... he snapped the lock and opened it... fumbling in the dark. His fingers groped leather... a sachel. "My God!" he hissed, feeling the outlines of books inside. He pulled the sachel free and eyed the crypt on the other side of the wall. The near darkness made it impossible to see. He entered the crypt, closing the door behind him. He got a lighter out and lit two thick candles, that sat on a marble table between the two tombs. He sat on the cold, stone bench and drew out he first book. His fingers trembled...he paused briefly, feeling the power. She'd led him here...to the truth...she sought him out. He said a prayer and opened the first page.

By the time he finished the second volume, he couldn't breathe. He was numb from head to toe. It was too much, too rich and it zapped him. There was drawings of Philippe and the babies... two of them... details on the murder by the river and of Raoul's horrid and brutal treatment. He stared again the the large, painfully realistic sketch of the lockets. It was an incredible likeness... he knew... Cait wore one around her neck, the same one the infant wore... Grace, Cait's grandmother was either Alexandra or Angelique. The other was the infant that Sara must have kept. Somehow, they got split up.

"Oh My God..." he throat went dry. He made cryptic notes on a small pad from his pocket. He reread the passages again, seeking more clues. Isabella only mentioned that Sara lived with her grandmother in a cabin close by. The old woman was sick... near death. They planned on taking Sara with them to Paris. She never knew what happened to Sara or the babies. How tragic. Grace was adopted, that much he knew. She was found in a church, now he knew where. There was no mention of a child there. Why would Sara have left one alone? What happened to Sara and the other child? He needed to check the records again. He carefully replaced the books, fearful of anyone else finding them. He didn't trust the man who ran the house, Nigel Bates. He seemed to be everywhere and was downright eerie. No, until he knew where Sara and the other baby went, he would keep the secret. For some reason, he was afraid for Cait and Grace. Maybe he'd send them north to her mother's. Sighing, he left the garden, his need to protect the family overtook his need to speak with the old woman. He eased his lean frame into his car and pulled out his cellphone, dialing the one person he trusted with his family's lives.

"...yeah..."

"Ryan? I need a favor..."

Caitlin sat up in bed and frowned, eyeing the clock. Midnight? Who on earth was at the door? She walked to the spare bedroom, which overlooked the porch and leaned out the window. She saw the tall man and relaxed.

"Ryan?" she whispered, jogging through the house and opening the door."What's wrong? Seamus? Oh God..."

"No, he's fine," the NFL star entered the home, his face clearly angry.

"What? Max? An accident..."

"No, he's okay" he reassured, gripping her arms. "He's onto something... he wants you and the baby to go to Maine, with your mom and her sister."

"Now?" She shook her head. "I'm not waking her up... it's midnight. What the hell did he do?"

"I chartered a flight for you, at a private airfield. Pack what you need, you can get the rest up there. We gotta hurry, he's worried."

"Tell me, or I don't move an inch," she glared at her handsome brother-in-law. She saw the trace of apprehension in his crystal blue eyes. Ryan knew Max as well as she did, if he was frightened for his brother, it must be serious.

God she was beautiful... just being this close to her, the scent of jasmine clinging to the tanned skin peeking above the short robe. "It's tied into that story about the Moreau estate. He didn't go into details, he thought he was being followed. I know him, Cait, if he's worried, there's good reason. Let's go... now..."

He saw the tail right away. He drove towards the city, hoping to lose himself in the crowd. He turned and swerved, going down the narrow streets of the Garden District. He eyed the tail again, as they passed under a light.

"Shit," he swore, recognizing Nigel Bates. His phone rang and he picked it, barely able to hear. The cell was dying. He recognized his brother's voice.

"Cait and the baby?" he shouted, keeping his eyes on the mirror.

"They just took... ff... re..lax... fine..."

Ryan flinched at the poor reception. "Where are you? Max?"

"I got a stinger... on... tail..."

"Max???" Ryan hollered, watching the plane disappear into the night sky. "Where? At the house? Where?"

"...meet... urry... Ry... need you..."

"Max!" He hollered into the static, "Fuck!" he slammed the phone down and headed for his car.

Two blocks later, Max saw a police car and pulled over. He eyed the rearview and saw Bates turn off. Sighing in relief, he wiped his face with his shirt sleeve. A tap on the window drew his head up. He squinted at the badge, then cranked the window down.

"You okay, Sir?"

"I am now... thanks... Officer..."

"Trent, Geoffrey Trent," the serpent grinned, clicking the gun to the unspecting fly's head. "Slow and easy..."

"Hey, I didn't break any laws!" Max protested, keeping his hands in plain sight and his eyes on the gun. He climbed out and was thrown against the side of the car. "What the hell do..." That was the last words the reporter spoke. He didn't see the gun that slammed into his skull. He didn't feel that tall policeman ease him into the backseat on his belly, cuffing his wrists.

"Worked like a charm," Trent nodded to the caretaker, who'd been well paid. He waited until Bates drove away and eyed the payphone across the street. As he dialed, he thought of his mother, his Aunt Gussie and the poverty they'd lived in, while Louis Moreau and his ate oysters and champagne. "Soon... mother... soon..." he whispered, waiting for the hitman to pick up. "A half hour... just like we planned." He got the reply and hung up. Twenty minutes later, he was on a deserted stretch of road outside town. He pulled the reporter out and rolled him on the ground. He searched his pockets and found the cryptic notes, tucking them in his own pocket. The car held no clues, the reporter was careful. Bates was paid well to watch where he went each night. Tonight, he'd been hiding by the reporter's car and heard part of a message and that 'he'd found what he was looking for'. That meant proof... the rumored diaries Isabella Moreau hid in the house. Once his partner got her, they would transfer him to the other vehicle. They had a spot nearby, outfitted for 'getting information' from uncomplying witnesses.

"You're late," he said, as the other car pulled up. "Give me a hand with him," As they bent to pick up McKenna, he kicked out, sending Trent to the ground. Before he could warn his partner, it was too late. "You fool!" He hissed, dropping to the bloody reporter's side. He touched the neck, where blood was running from the head injury. "You hit him too hard... he's dead. Dammit!"

"Did he give anything up?"

"No... I'll read his notes... if he found in that maze, I can... Shit..." he kicked the corpse. "You'll pay for this, it comes out of your money. Take care of it... off the road..." he issued tersly, striding to the other man's car.

"Hey... how do I get back?"

"I don't give a flying fuck!" Trent hollered, pulling away.

He positioned the body behind the wheel and belted him inside. He released the brake and began the task.

Ryan was driving back the same back road from the airport. He saw a police car drive by and frowned. It was city car, they wouldn't be this far out of town. It gave him a sick feeling in his stomach. A few miles later, his headlights caught a familiar silver Honda. Then he saw the body reclined against the seat.

"Max!" he pulled over, tires tossing gravel. He jumped out and headed to the car.

Trent's partner was in the bushes, relieving himself, when he heard the cry. Zipping up, he snuck up on the unsuspecting instruder and was about to shoot, when the man lost his footing and tumbled over the steep incline. He watched the body roll and roll, finally stopping and not moving. He smiled as his luck and pushed the car over the cliff. He pulled his cell phone out and dialed 911. He changed his voice, making is foreign and older. He feigned being outraged and alarmed. Some nut in a silver Honda nearly ran him off the road, driving like a madman.

Ryan raised his head briefly and saw the car descending. He saw Max's helpless body wobbling in the seat. He wanted to move, but pain shot through his left side, back and head. He heard a sick laugh and turned, spotting a sinister man with a silver hand. Silver hand? He blinked and saw Max's face in the glass. Ryan tried to move, but the pain was too great and he blacked out... just as he saw the car explode.

Geoff Trent heard the call come through and smiled. He'd read the notes and gained a whole new insight into his plan. McKenna had indeed discovered the books and Trent's years as a cop gave him an advantage. From the notes given, along with what Bates overheard, the dead reporter was worried about his wife. He spotted the word 'twins split up' and 'locket' 'ALD' 'ARD' and 'Cait' with an exclaimation point. He spotted the other clues: 'Sara' 'mute orphan' 'missing twin'. There was the name of the town in Baton Rouge where Raoul found Isabella. So, she and her lover lived there. Raoul murdered him and took a bride. Somehow, the babies lived, but were separated. He'd travel to that town and find out about Sara. But his eyes went back to the 'Cait!" He recalled the bio on McKenna and the surveillance photo's he'd taken. Caitlin Harte McKenna was a beautiful woman. In every shot of her, she was wearing a locket, with ARD on it. Could she be the missing heiress?

Three days later, he had his answer. The research in the ruins of the church, led him to the former pastor, now retired. He'd taken on the assignment in 1940. He didn't recall much about the old church. But when Trent mentioned a mute girl named Sara, he perked up a bit. He recalled the retiring pastor mentioning something about such a child. He went up to the attic, where a crate of old records lie dormant. They were the personal effects of Father Paul Maguire. Geoff's heart nearly jumped from his chest. There it was... in black and white. Charles and Catherine Anderson adopted a foundling the same time that Isabella was taken. A female infant with a locket and the initials ARD. The named the baby Grace... Grace was Cait McKenna's grandmother.

A few pages later, a small note was given. Father Dominic Auberge was traveling to Santa Fe to check up on an orphan. Sara Gavin had gone to live with her father there, after her grandmother's death. He called to report it was fine home and the couple had a child, a infant girl named Alexandra Lily. ALD... the pieces came together. Sara must have taken the other infant with her. He thanked the old priest and left, making several calls from the hotel. He only confirmed what the name told him. Lily Gavin's work was world renowned. He wasn't fool enough to kill her, an eldery woman with one foot in the grave. That would make no sense. She'd been dead soon enough. No, he'd make sure her bloodline was wiped out. Her only blood heirs... they must be eliminated. Being a detective had it's bonus's. Over the years, he'd made many contacts and within an hour, had the information he needed.

He dialed the phone and smiled... thinking on how to charm the widow McKenna. He'd find all about her, while he searched for the books. He'd learn her favorite foods, movies and hobbies. He'd give he a year, watching her closely, to mourn. Then he'd move in and court her slowly, before marrying her. He'd have the best of both worlds. The money that Louis Moreau cheated him out of and bedding the beautiful Caitlin. The old man would roll in his grave... yes, suddenly the world seemed so much brighter. On the fourth ring, a voice picked up.

"I have another job for, see that you don't screw this one up!"

"Where?"

"Denver and be careful with this one, the victim's husband is an ATF agent."

"Anymore good news?"

"Don't be a wiseass!" Trent hissed, 'Larabee, Sara and Adam' make it happen..."

Cletus Fowler hung the phone up and got the next flight to Denver. He spent a few days doing research, getting the photo's and layout of the house, grounds and access roads. Larabee wasn't around, apparently out of town. He knew Sara only used her husband's truck, when the weather got dicey. A violent summer storm that day, left the roads a mess. He arrived early on the morning of July 3rd. Mrs. Larabee and her son left the house early, taking the truck. He was down the road, watching through high range field glasses. He smiled, got back in his car and went forward. She came down the mountain road, sick with rain. He took the curve hard, came right at her without warning, forcing her to swerve. She never had a chance, neither did the poor bastard on the bike that she ran into. He forced her car off the steep rocky road, taking the unfortunate biker too. The fireball was pronounced and he took off, driving slowly, the only car on the road. He pulled into a gas station, watching the cops fly up the mountain road. He did a double take at the airport, when through the crowd and dark glasses, he spotted Chris Larabee, the new widower, laughing with a friend, having just gotten off a plane. It was so sweet, he laughed all the way home, already counting his bonus.

Seven AM Outside Denver

Sunday was called the Lord's day for lots of reasons. Just that relaxing, lazy, stretch-and-lay-in-the-sun feeling was reason enough. Today, this Sunday, was no different. Sun was high in the sky, inhaling the cool, crisp air. A trace of snow on the ground and bacon sizzling in a cast iron pan just added to the peace. Josiah Sanchez flipped two eggs with perfection, landing them on the waiting hot plate. The toast was buttered and the peppers were fried. Cold, fresh OJ and black coffee were waiting. He set the perfect plate down, just like a picture from a magazine. He had the fork poised, when the phone rang.

"I'm beginning to worry about your sense of humor," the ex-preacher noted, raising his smokey eyes to the ceiling. He lived in a rough-hewn cabin outside town. It was quiet and he liked it that way. He sighed, pushed his chair back and walked to the phone on the wall.

"Hello?"

"Did I wake you?"

"Chris?" he frowned, walking back to the table. "Everything okay?"

"Fine, well not really..." The vacationing team leader hedged, sipping coffee on the patio. He only had about fifteen minutes until Vin would be jogging back. He knew the preacher had studied many forms of spirtualism and even dabbled in hypotherapy. "Is it possible for someone to speak fluently in a language in their sleep, when they don't in normal circumstances?"

"What?" Josiah frowned, sipping his juice. Where did that come from? "You mind explaining a little more?"

"Vin followed..." Chris paused and thought better, "...uh... I saw Vin wandering in the garden last night. There is a large, huge old piece of landscaping behind the house. In the center, is a maze... a very complex one. The deeper you go, the narrowier it becomes. I followed him, he was barefoot, barechested, not really awake. He was speaking fluent French, I mean perfect diction... it didn't sound like him. I did catch up to him and he attacked him, choked me out."

"Damn," Josiah swallowed some toast and eggs, then sipped his coffee. "He doesn't remember anything?"

"No. Just going to bed and then waking up with his feet in the tub..."

"Huh?"

"Oh, he cut 'em up... they were bleeding and full of dirt. I put them in the tub..."

"He troubled by anything? Worried on something?" the eldest paused, recalling J.D. looking up the Sauville House on the internet. "That place is haunted... you know." When Chris didn't argue, Josiah knew he'd hit a sore spot. "Is that it? Did Vin see a ghost or encounter a cold spot or..."

"She came to me first, a few days ago. Last night, she touched me... talked to me... I denied her... she needed help... I guess she went to Vin. Why can I remember and he can't? Why French? It didn't even sound like him."

"It probably wasn't him. It could be a lot of things and yes, there have been people who go so deeply into a subconscious state while asleep, that they do all kinds of things, and remember nothing. Talking, eating, even driving... we don't know alot about what happens to your brain while you sleep. There are a lot of spiritualists, in all sorts of religious backgrounds, who believe the soul travels while the body sleeps. During this time, the 'body' can be claimed by another soul... another wandering one or a restless spirit."

"Sounds like the fuckin' Twilight Zone," Chris hissed, watching for Vin by the side entrance below.

"Don't scoff at something just because you don't understand it, Chris. I've seen it... in South America and in Haiti. I've seen so-called-dead people, buried for days, dug up and reborn. How is he?"

"In denial." Chris admitted, "Scared... shakey... I think we ought to find another hotel."

"Won't change his problem."

"Why not?" Chris asked, "We won't be here."

"His mind... spirit... soul, his subconscious... that goes with him. Leaving there won't fix it, he has to confront it. Unless he gets hurt... or it's physically dangerous for him to stay."

"No, she won't hurt him." Chris defended the blonde woman. "But some of the other characters around here give me the creeps."

"You are in New Orleans, Chris, they are a very religious people, they believe..."

"How do I help him?" the frustrated friend interrupted.

"Keep close to him... watch over him. If she comes again, don't shut her out. You're the one she wants... you said she came to you, asked you for help. If Vin was speaking French and following her..."

"Shit!" Chris sat forward, "I never thought of that... somebody... something else got a hold of Vin. Somebody she knew and loved."

"Loved?"

"He was crying Josiah, he was heartbroken because he couldn't find her... telling her he loved her..." He sighed again, watching Vin's sweatsoaked, curly head trot by under the window. "I gotta go, he's back. I'll call you later. Thanks Josiah."

"Chris?"

"Yeah?"

"That's a dangerous town... be careful."

"Yeah."

Nine AM, Sauville House

The bountiful buffet was laden with fruits, caesar and other salads, bagels, croissants, mini pecan rolls and other breads, muffins and toppings. There was a carvery with prime rib, ham and roast pork. A chef making omelettes to order and waffles. There was the usual assortment of sausages, bacon, fried potatoes, grilled tomatoes, scrambled eggs, french toast stuffed with bananas in powered sugar and eggs benedict. Also, chicken in wine sauce, seafood newberg, crawfish and one whole table of local specialites. The desserts were in their own room, along with an international coffee bar. Chris sipped a mimosa and watched Vin enter the room. He kept his eyes on the younger man, as he shuffled to the seat. He poured them each a cup of coffee, from the thermal carafe on the table.

"Thanks," Vin managed, dousing it liberally with sugar. He sipped thoughtfully for a few minutes, then sighed. "Go on and eat, Chris, I ain't hungry."

"It must be snowing outside," the blond frowned, "Eat a little, even if it's just toast and eggs or a waffle. We'll talk upstairs... something happened out there, Vin." He watched the lean Texan sit back in the chair and fold his hands across his abdomen. The blue eyes were troubled, with dark circles under them. He came back with a full plate of food for himself and a plate with two sausages, a piece of french toast and some bacon for Vin. The other nodded, put only picked at his food. Finally, he gave up, pushing the plate away. He poured more coffee and looked up.

"Chris, ya don't mind if we skip goin' out today, do ya? I gotta get m'presentation ready fer the class tomorra and I'm kinda tired..."

"No problem, Vin, we can do it later in the week. Class is done at noon on Tuesday. I wanted to explore the marketplace and walk around the river a little. How about if I come back around two or so, pick you up for lunch? Okay? Then we'll talk."

"Yeah, thanks..." he couldn't help but notice the bruising on Chris's neck inside the deep moss green shirt. "I'm sorry about all o'this..."

"I know, Vin, it's all over. Why don't you go back to bed?"

"No!" he said suddenly, not wishing the dreams to come back. "I mean... I ain't tired... I... I'm fine."

Chris sighed and watched him leave, before consuming the rest of his meal. The day was slow and lazy. He strolled along the streets off Jackson Square, eyeing the many shops and then the vendors in the Marketplace. He bought a few things for Billy Travis, J.D. and Ezra. He'd already gotten Buck, Nate and Josiah something. Vin was even more somber when he picked him up.

"Someplace quiet..." Vin requested in a shadow of a voice. He watched the homes with a bored expression, not seeing them at all. He kept seeing her face, that purple choker and the haunted eyes that matched. But nothing else... until the blood in the tub. Why couldn't he remember? His gut instinct told him, this was no dream. Something did happen and it involved both of them. He felt a hand on his shoulder and jumped a bit.

"Sorry, you didn't answer me," Chris turned the ignition off. "Hamburgers okay? This place is pretty good."

"Fine," Vin eyed the St. Charles Tavern and climbed out of the car. He got a bacon cheeseburger and a beer. Chris got one with mushrooms and swiss and a beer also. He didn't realize how hungry he was, until he took the first bite. Swallowing a mouthful, he took a swig of beer and sat back. "Why can't I remember? We both seen her... that Isabella lady... ya remember her, I can't. Something's not right... it ain't no dream."

"I woke up last night and she was on the bed with me," Chris admitted, "I... heard... that is... thought I heard... her speaking... asking for help to... follow her. I chased her away. After I took some aspirin, I saw her again, in the garden. You were following her."

Vin paused, a wounded trio of cajun fries in his hand, bleeding ketchup onto the pile beneath. "...and..." He dropped the hot potatoes, when he saw Chris's face blanch. "All of it, don't be hiddin' nothin', I gotta know."

"Okay," Chris took a swig of beer, then peeled at the label. "I chased you through the maze, way past the tourist parts, right in the heart of it. It was narrow, brushing my shoulders... I thought I lost you... but then I heard you talking to her... in French."

"What!" Vin whispered, eyes wide and Adam's apple bobbing. He swallowed the burger bite hard, hurting the back of his throat. "I can't... don't talk French, Chris. Hell, I can't even talk English right..."

"Josiah thinks that..."

"Ya told Josiah!" Vin cried out angrily. "Hell, who else knows I'm losin' m'mind... shit... it weren't yer place t'be blabbin'..."

"I had to ask, Vin, I was worried!" Chris shot back, "You damn near choked me to death, that gave me a damn good reason." He saw the blue fires die down and turn to shame. "Don't go there, Vin. Look at me when I'm talking to you," he commanded angrily. "He's studied lots of forms of religion, Vin. He's seen things all over the world that defy science or logic. He knows about this... type of thing. He said it's possible."

"What was I sayin'?" Vin asked after several tense minutes.

"I'm not sure... but your heart was broken when you couldn't see her anymore. He... you were telling her you loved her and saying you were sorry..."

"He?"

"It wasn't your voice... I can't explain it..."

"I looked up some stuff on yer laptop, about her... the house." Vin shoved the plate away. "There was a rumor she eloped. Her Pa had some kinda arranged marriage lined up t'some mean old bastard. She run off with a fella she's in love with... well, it's just a rumor. Moreau, he found her near Baton Rouge... claimed she's a drunk, out of 'er head. Some of the stuff on the internet said she had a child by the lover... nobody ever found the baby. Maybe she's lookin' fer the child..."

"Maybe," Chris sighed, "I'm sure sorry I brought you down here, Vin."

"I ain't!" Vin smiled weakly. "I was tired last night, Chris and m'head was full o'all that shit them ghost tour guides was spoutin'. It might never happen again. This week, the class... leadin' the group. I learnt a lot... from you."

"Me?" Chris smiled, shaking his head and picking up his sandwich. "You got that backwards, Cowboy. I've learned more about life from you... well, I'm just glad you parked your boots under the Team Seven star."

"Hell, yer drunk!" Vin blushed, toasting his best friend. "Guess I'll say I'm sorry in advance."

"Sorry?"

"Yeah, fer beatin' the tar outta ya in the presentation tomorra. That Captain's award is up fer grabs and it's got Vin Tanner all over it!" he bragged with new bravado, thrusting his chest out. He saw the laugh born, before the voice came. Chris's eyes always crinkled up before he laughed.

"Your full of shit!" Larabee shot back, "No way a scrawny-assed Tanner is taking me down."

They went down to the river and took a walk, not talking much. Just enjoying the relaxation and solititude that came with each other's company. Chris didn't sleep much that night, worried about Vin. But the younger man slept soundly. Monday was a long day, a full day of class and a review for the test. They got pizza and turned in early. Again, Vin slept through the night and Chris didn't, still worried. Tuesday the test was done early and the rest of the day devoted to the presentations by the six teams.

Chris's team and Vin's were neck and neck. Chris felt a smug pride when the younger man gave the presentation on behalf of his group. How he'd grown since he came to Denver. His confidence and self-assurance were shining today. Plus he blushed twice, an attractive feature which didn't go unnoticed by the teacher. The blond had to smile at that and shake his head. He knew then, he was beaten. Sure enough, Vin's team came out on top. After the enthusiastic round of cheers by the other teams died down, the teacher walked to the table and stood by Vin.

"You remember that questionaire you all had to fill out yesterday?"

"Yeah," Vin hedged, recalling the rating of books, material, teacher, etc. There was also a full page for comments on the work group.

"Well, we review them and send them to headquarters, it helps to improve future classes. But the commentary, well... we use that for the captain's award."

"The what?" Vin croaked, suddenly feeling his face flush with color. He swallowed hard when she handed him a sleek, black leather valise. "I can't... hell, I can barely manage a brown bag..."

The laughter, cheers and whistles only made him more uncomfortable, but he smiled. He didn't miss the fact the his best friend was clapping the loudest. Then he thanked each one of his teammates.

"You didn't open it," The instructor edged, after congratulating the victor.

Vin placed the soft leather attache on his worn jeans and unzipped it. Inside was an envelope with a gift certificate for a local restaurant. "Ya shouldn'a done this..." his voice trailed off. "Thanks..."

There was cake, coffee and mingling for awhile. Chris noticed Vin was missing. He excused himself and ducked outside, spotting the young man sitting alone on a shaded bench. He was about to approach, when he spotted the slow smile form. Vin was reading a card his team signed, with personal notes on it. He watched the shaggy head cock sideways and the smile widen, leaving the Texan's face completely satisified.

"Good for you, Vin Tanner," he whispered, letting the soft breeze life his hair. He waited a few moments, letting Vin enjoy his moment, then he approached.

"Not like you to pass up chocolate cake," he teased of the confirmed chocahololic.

"I got m'eye on the end hunk," Vin grinned, sliding over so Chris could sit down. "Here..."

"Vin, I can't take this, you earned it," Larabee denied the handsome leather valise.

"...clashes with m'wardrobe," Tanner crowed of his nearly all denim daily ensemble. "'sides, that one yer totin' is gettin' ratty."

"It's not ratty! You got balls!" He defended of the leather bag he carried his work in.

"...and I'm right proud of 'em..." Vin aired cockily, arching an eyebrow. The combination of which sent his best friend into a snorted burst of laughter. "Only reason I got a life now, is cause of y'all. ." He ducked his head away, shyly, "I can never give back what ya taught me... it'd never be enough. So ya keep that..."

Chris thought for a moment, met Vin's warm smile and nodded, clasping his forearm. "Your a cheap bastard, Tanner, you know that."

"...right proud o'that too!" Vin laughed, then handed Chris the card. "Hard t'believe they was sober..." he offered of the greetings.

Chris read the expressions written and smiled again, full of pride. Vin had grown so much since joining the team. Reading the notes giving the Texan credit for what was accomplished felt good.

"I wasn't going to say anything, Vin, but I heard they did get toasted last night, when they wrote..."

"Shut the hell up!" Vin laughed, grabbing the other's arms, "Gimme m'fuckin' card back, ya no account jackass..." He tucked the card away in his innner pocket, along with the look of pride on his friend's face as he read it. There wasn't any man he respected more than Chris Larabee and getting it back, well, there weren't words for what that meant. He eyed the gift certificate and stood up, waiting until Chris was walking with him.

"This place one of them that ya gotta tote fifteen forks?"

"No," Chris laughed, "but it's not Burger King. It's got great food."

"Ya busy tonight?" Vin offered and continued, after Chris gave him a bemused look. "...we gotta get cleaned up. I got a new shirt and them black pants in yer closet... that tie with the blue bats on it..."

"They're not bats," Chris held the door, "it's a design. What do you mean my black pants? Maybe I don't want your boys roaming around my neighborhood."

"I'd be doin' ya a favor," Vin continued, "ya can't wear all of 'em... ya brung too many. This way, they get some use." He paused watching Chris's face puzzle up. He gave the dark blue shirt a solid squeeze on the shoulder. "No need t'thank me..."

"Funny, that wasn't my first choice of words," he shook his head again, lost in Tanner logic.

While Chris and Vin enjoyed a three hour gormet feast at the Commander's Palace, across town, Jessenia Broussard was busy. She placed the ancient clay bowl on the table. The room was darkened, except for the flickering candles. She poured some oil in the bowl and waved her hands over it, rocking her body back and forth. She wrote down their names, Philippe Dubonnet and Vin Tanner, and placed them in the bowl. A pattern of cornmeal decorated the floor. She chanted, shaking a rattle and hearing the call of the drums in the distance.

"By blood you're joined and his soul is new. Spirit rise and seek what is true. It's time for vengeance against the dark one. Seven moons have passed and my job is done. With the new dawn, the quest begins with the new, young one. Guide him, keep him, protect him and lead him."

She tossed sacred musk in the bowl, laughing at the burst of blue smoke. She watched him in the mirror, dining with the blond one. He was stong and confident, his aura rippling with blue light. Tomorrow, with the noon sun, he'd protect the bloodline. His journey would begin.

"Damn, it looks like rain!" Vin frowned, chugging hot chololate on the patio. It was about eight a.m. on Wenesday morning. They thought, after breakfast, they'd ask Bates about the alligator excursions in the bayou. But as storm clouds rolled in, they decided to change their plans. There was some museums Chris thought were worth seeing. "Come on, Old Man, I'll treat ya t'breakfast at that Café. I got a hankerin' fer a pack of them doughnuts."

"Money is no object when you can buy us both breakfast and get change from a ten." Chris barbed. They made their way to the cafe. Vin got the food and Chris got on the phone.

"Ezra, what the fuck is this?" Buck spit a mouthful of bagel into the trash.

"It's an herb mixture, I mixed it into the cream cheese..."

"Yeah, well it tastes like foot fungus..." The rogue dismayed, eyeing his ruined bagel.

"Uh...Ezra..you didn't use that cream cheese that was in the fridge, did you?" J.D. approached.

"Yes, why?"

"It was kinda sour... old... You didn't smell it?"

"The fact that I am walking upright with this infernal germ convention is nothing short of a miracle. I cannot smell anything..."

"Wait a minute," Nathan intervened, eyeing the youngest, "If you knew it was bad, J.D., why didn't you throw it out?"

"I forgot."

"That's weak, J.D.!" Sanchez rolled his eyes, cuffing the smirking Dunne on the neck.

The phone rang and Buck picked it up, "ATF, Wilmington." He smiled and punched the conference call button, allowing the voice to come over the speaker. "Hey Chris! You two bums ready to come home?"

"No, and tell J.D. to get his feet off my desk."

"How's he do that?" Dunne amazed, dragging his feet down.

"That's why I get the big money, Kid," Larabee grinned, watching Vin shoving hot beignets in his mouth, before picking the tray up. They were too hot...causing the younger man to put the tray down and spit them out. Sugar graced his lips, sitting under the now flushed face. Their eyes met and the blond laughed, "...serves you right, you pig!"

"Are you talking to me?" Dunne wounded.

"No, Vin," Chris relayed, "he burned his mouth on beignets..."

"Class all done?" Nate asked. Josiah told them the leader would call around nine. So they were in his office.

"Yeah, we got done yesterday. The lone ranger's team scored the highest points in group presentation. Vin got voted the Captains award."

"How much?" Buck asked.

"A gift certificate which we used on dinner last night and a leather attache, which he donated in good sense." Chris paused as Vin sat down, placing two large cups of café au lait on the table and two baskets of hot, sugar coated pastries. "He's right here, guys, hold on..."

"Hey ya'll!" Vin greeted, then winced when a group "Congratulations" assaulted his ear. "Somebodies got a big mouth!" He glared at Chris, who nibbled on a doughnut.

"You sure do blush pretty, Vin!" Nate teased.

"Yeah but you can't sing..." J.D. added.

"Your hidden talents in luring unsuspecting females into your lair is second to none," Ezra nasaled, through his cold, "I tip my cap..."

"Speaking of which, Slick, we've been studying the film, we decided that's definitely a four." Buck grinned, high-fived J.D. and waited.

"What!" Vin hollered in a high octave, sitting up, "How the hell... films? Yer dead Larabee!" he threatened the chuckling blond, who dodged the boot kicking at him.

"Now, Ezra," Nate continued, over the team's laughter, "he voted for a seven, but we all thought it was a four."

"We'll let you know what Mike Ryan's group decides before..." Buck started, only to have the irate Texan blast him.

"That ain't a Goddamn bit funny, Bucklin!" Vin glared openly at the laughing leader across from him. "Ya best get yer affairs in order, Larabee. How much?" he spoke into the phone.

"It's like a mini series, we get a new section every day." J.D. crowed. "I never knew you sang in the shower..."

"Aw, hell," Vin muttered, "I ain't gonna be able t'hold m'head up... ya seen it all?"

"Right down to your cute lil' Tanner ass," Buck laughed, feeling Vin's face flush.

"Tanner paybacks is a bitch, Cowboy, ya remember I warned ya!" He growled, face scowling at Chris raised a single sandy eyebrow and smirked openly.

"Hey Vin, is that phone number your sportin' for the girl with the great teeth you cozied up to?"

"Shit!" Vin hunched down, even though the tell tale bruising was long gone.

"She sure was a looker," the womanizer continued, "I'd do you twice to get to her."

"How come it's always me yer doin' t'get t'a girl?" Vin puffed in anger, "It ain't never J.D. yer doin' er Nate er even Ezra," he voice sneered.

"I think I'm wounded," Standish jested, tapping his chest and winking at Buck

"...it's always me yer doin'..." Vin continued of the running Wilmington gag. Whenever the group was out at a bar and a pretty girl wandered by; Buck would make his intensions known. It always ended him 'doing Vin' if he could get to that girl. "...makes me feel like a damn piece o'meat..." He huffed indignantly. He heard silence on the other end of the phone, until Josiah's deep baritone interrupted. The preacher repeated the line he first said, the first time Buck aired the comment, several months before.

"Well, Son, you do have a cute little ass..."

The riotous laughter rained through the phone line. Vin tried hard not to join in, but lost the battle easily. He handed the phone to Chris, who watched Vin struggle, then lose control. He was laughing so hard, he had tears in his blue eyes. Chris finally got a voice through the hysteria on the other end. Nathan repeated the conversation and Chris grinned, enjoying the comaraderie that made their team unique.

The morning and early afternoon flew by, in a whirl of musuems. Vin enjoyed every minute, especially Chris's acute observations. The man was so knowledgeable, especially about history, it amazed Tanner. They stopped for lunch in the French Quarter. Chris was only beginning his large Aztec Salad, when he spotted Vin squirming.

"Ain't ya done yet?"

"Some of us actually eat, rather than inhale food, Vin," Chris dismissed, eyes taking in the jiggling knee, slim fingers thrumming the table top and butt squirming. He shook his head and picked up his fork. Vin had finished his sandwich in record speed. Not surprising when you consider the unusually high sugar trip he was on. It wasn't bad enough that he ingested a ridiculous amount of beignets, but during their travels this morning, he'd gulped down pralines and coke as well. "Jesus, cut that out!" he barked, slapping the jumping knee. "You're ready to go into orbit! You're worse that a kid. If you can't sit here, while I finish, take a walk up the street. Come back in a half hour."

"Okay," he stood, eyeing the large amount of greens, doused with peppers, jack cheese, hot sausage and other mexican items. "Aw, hell... we only got one bathroom..."

"Go!" Larabee barked, dropping his fork and glaring openly. Vin's chuckling stayed at the table, long after the body left.

The black sky remained as he walked along, eyeing the windows. He'd walked one street and turned back, heading up the other side to meet Chris. A loud clap of thunder caused him to hurry. Then he saw a tiny doorway, as the fat drops fell. He didn't feel them, his gaze was drawn to a rainbowed figure painted on the glass. As soon as he saw it, he got a pain in his head. The outside world went away.

"You have a keen eye, young man," a mezmerizing voice said from his side. "That is the spirit Ayza, the protector... come... come... lesove..."

He nodded, his mouth was dry and his body felt like lead. He saw the door open and walked inside, letting the old woman guide him. He inhaled the insense that clung to the dank air and felt dizzy. Crystals of glass in all shapes and sizes reflected by the candles, caused more rainbows. He felt his body swaying to the drums. Drums? He shook his head and swayed again. Voices were chanting... louder and louder. He clapped his hands to his ears and his knees buckled.

"Rest... your journey is about to begin." She eased him onto a shallow altar, watching him bonelessly surrender. His eyes were dull and heavy, his breathing labored, his fingers curled into balls. She stroked his hair and caressed his cheek, murmuring into his ear. She took the cup, containing fresh goat's blood and other spirit enhancers and drank from it, before holding it to his lips. "Drink..." Once completed, she pushed his pliant body back, stretching him out on the altar. She unbuttoned his shirt, exposing his chest. She took the sacred oil and annointed his forehead, heart and hands. His body slowed down, his eyes shut, his fingers uncurled and rested calmly, he was hers. Smiling, she placed the candles around him, begin chanting and gripped his head tightly between her aged hands. Stroking his temples with her thumbs, she opened the portal, his sharp intake of air, mixed with a cry of pain, began the trip.

Part Ten

Summer 1999, Colorado

It was a blinding pain, more fierce and intense than any other he'd ever encountered. It began that frightning moment on the highway, when the sky lit up with blue and red flashing lights. When despite assurances heard in his ears, his heart knew different. The twisting in his gut told him so... and the charred wreckage confirmed it. It hadn't ended yet... it continued through blinding days, where the garish sun dared to rise and scorch his burned eyes, swollen and hidden behind dark lenses. It continued through the blurry nights that followed the burials; endless hours held together by nameless bars and amber bottles.

They were wrong, of course. He heard the whispers... how could they know? Who the hell were they to be critical of his path? The world... his black world, void of all color... was only tolerable when it disappeared. When his friends Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker Red kept him company. To hell with the rest of them... they didn't understand. How could they? They didn't see the blinding light from the nightmares. That because of his badge, that piece of metal, the two most precious things God ever created were taken from him in a horrid fireball.

Who was that? From a faraway place, beyond the comforting, black fog, that had become home, a voice beckoned.

"Go away..."

"Come on, Chris," Buck rubbed his eyes, having been travelling for hours looking for Chris Larabee. It was the same trip he made several times a week. To many of the small bars tucked away in the mountain towns near the ranch. They knew him now and that helped. Sometimes, he got lucky and the barkeep called him. But not tonight. After putting in a ten hour day on stakeout, he'd been on the road since 8 p.m. looking for lost friend. It was painful to look at. He'd lost weight, his eyes, dull and hollow, were sunken in dark circles. He was unkempt, disheveled and dangerous. Buck had already shelled out a lot of money, covering damages and avoiding lawsuits. It was two a.m. and he was tired. In four hours, he had to get up for work and he was cranky. "Let's go..." He sighed, lifting the inebriated man from the spot on the floor where he'd slid to. They got as far as the door, when Chris rebeled.

"Leave me alone," he snarled, shoving the other man hard. Why wouldn't Buck go away? That nagging voice in his ear... the silent lecture in the car... the cold eyes in the morning. It wasn't his business... who the hell did he think he was. If he hadn't been with Buck in Gettysburg, maybe somehow... "Penance comes cheap..." he accused, not seeing how deeply his words wounded the other. Then a rage filled him... the smell returned, the one that permeated the wreckage... a stench so foul he couldn't rid himself of it... Sara and Adam were gone... burned to death, because of him... them... Sara was in his truck... she didn't even like the truck. He should have been killed... if Buck hadn't pushed him into going to that stupid Civil War stunt.

Buck left Chris leaning over the side of the car, while he got the door opened. He never saw the black whirlwind rise up. The pain exploded in his head, as it was smashed into the car. He was on his knees, dizzy and disoriented, when the Larabee venom exploded.

Summer 1999, New Orleans

Funny, the house was just as empty the day the moved in, yet now it seemed so large and desolate. She knew how that felt, she was empty all the time now. Max's death left her shaken to the core. Seamus was inconsolable, alternating his time between the funeral and aftermath and Ryan's bedside in the hospital. The NFL star was critically injured and his career was done. Deeper and more painful than the broken bones from the accident, was the consuming guilt her handsome brother-in-law was wracked with. He blamed himself for Max's death... and noone could console him. She'd tried, Seamus tried, they all tried, but he was completely withdrawn.

Sighing, she eyed the large empty rooms, recalling a sunnier day, when two life-drunk newlyweds romped through them. They'd 'christened' each one, with passionate picnics on blankets and losing each other in a tangle of hot limbs. God she loved him... she'd never see that smile again, hear that voice... feel the santuary of his arms in the dark.

"Come on, Honey, it's time to go..."

"Yeah," she choked, letting the tears run down her face. She shut door and let her best friend lead her to the car. Grace was with her mother and grandmother. As soon as she got setted into the historic, Victorian home of her best friend, she'd send for her pride and joy. As hard as it was for her, to hear their child ask for "Dada" in that innocent voice was heartbreaking. She snapped the seatbelt in place, put the dark glasses on, took a steadying breath and began her new life.

Summer 1999, Colorado

The pain medication was strong, easing the burning agony that swept through his battered body. But it wasn't strong enough to keep her out. He felt the tiny hand on his face, heard the stifled sob and felt the soothing caress. He peeled the one eye that wasn't swollen and stiched, open and managed a weak smile.

"...only hurts... when I laugh..."

"I'm so sorry, Buck,"

"Not your fault... Darlin'..." He hissed as the broken ribs protested the slight move and send a tidal wave through him. It crashed into the concussion-ridden skull and broken shoulder. It took several minutes to regain his uneven breathing. He shifted, swinging his legs over the bed and steadying the IV pole. He'd seen courageous before, heard about brave and read about valor. But this tiny woman, who'd been through so much pain and tragedy in her ninety years, absolutely awed him. She'd been so strong, from the moment they told her about Sara and Adam through the funeral and beyond. He couldn't face her... his ears still stung with Chris's words.

"I did this... Lily... it's my fault they're dead... God..." he swallowed hard, trying to hold the bitter tears at bay.

"No, you didn't, you're not responsible..." she lifted the swollen, battered, discolored face and felt a fury rise in her. The police said they had no suspects, that Buck 'couldn't remember' but she knew different. He was trying hard not to let go, she could feel him trembling. "You loved them deeply, I know they and so do they. She's smiling on you now and Adam's laughter will always be a part of you. That boy thought the world of you, Buck Wilmington and so do I..."

"But..." Buck denied, blinking hard.

"Shhh!" She pulled him close, wrapping the broken, broad man into her strong, tiny frame. "I love you, Boy, don't you know that?" her voice broke as she heard the shuddering breath start. "You're my family... I'll be here always... so you let go now... I've got you... and I'm not letting go." She inhaled painfully as the tears rained down, saturating her cotton sweater. She rocked him, crooning softly and rubbing his back. Her mind flashed briefly to Chris Larabee and she got angry. She knew what Buck had been through these past weeks. Taking her grandson home, making sure he was safe, paying damages and making promises to the ATF superiors so he didn't lose his job. Sometimes she wondered if he deserved a friend so loyal. She stayed by Buck's side, .long after he fell into a troubled sleep. She used a damp towel to wipe his face and her strong hand to chase away the nightmares. Later, as she was dozing in the chair by his bed, in the dark, a hand crept over, capturing hers and kissing it.

"Marry me?"

She smiled then, for the first time in weeks. That somewhere, deep inside the bruised soul of this uncommonly generous man, the healing had begun.

Autumn 1999, South Pacific

Paradise, that what this area had been described as by many who traveled the world. The Hawaiian Islands had been a place to lose himself in. He let the sun bake his skin, healing the bruises. After several weeks in rehab, his broken limbs were finally free of casts. The headaches still nagged him, but he deserved that. He rented a catamaran and was lying in the sun now, letting the heat penetrate deeply. How far could those rays go? Could they burn the memories away? Take away the sight of Max's helpless body and the fireball that took his life? He didn't want any reminder... no people... no sympathetic clicking of tongues and patting on his back. He didn't want to hear that precious child ask for "Dada" and mostly he couldn't bear the pain in Cait's eyes. That was intolerable. She was too understanding, spending hours by his side in the early days afterwards, when his world was one of pain in the CCU. Every time he woke up it seemed, she was there, touching him, encouraging him, running her fingers through his hair. God he loved her... and that made it more bitter. Coveting his dead brother's wife... a brother he'd helped put in a fiery grave. He shut his eyes and let the world go away... from here, he'd go further... to Austraila perhaps or Thailand or Switerland. Anywhere but back to New Orleans.

Christmas Day, Colorado

"Get up!"

"Go away, Lily!" Chris growled, too hungover to care that the elderly woman was in his bedroom.

"The hell I will!" She hollered, yanking the covers off. "I won't let you dishonor her this way! She loved you... adored you... cherished you." She eyed the unkempt creature in the bed and her voice filled with disgust. "I thought you were a man... you're not even an animal, they keep themselves clean."

Chris grumbled, shivering at the cold air in the room. He sat up, shoved her arm away and stood, belching and scratching his bloated stomach. The room smelled like a savory combination of vomit, rum and urine. The sheets were filthy, dirty clothes were strewn from one end of the room to the other. He eyed the bathroom and more filth appeared through blurry eyes. Her words broke through his haze, "You don't know me... leave me alone..."

"She saw something in you," she persisted, dogging him all the way to the bathroom door, "...a special light. Don't you dare disgrace her by drowning your self in a pool of pity and booze."

"I loved her... you don't know... nobody does..."

"Bullshit!" She was angry now, watching over months how he shut off all attempts at help from her, his friends and especially the man he put in the hospital. But somewhere inside this disgusting creature before her, Chris Larabee was hidden and she intended to find him. She saw a brief glimmer of surprise in the red-rimmed green eyes. "Don't be so arrogant, you don't have the right!"

"You don't understand..." Chris's words were cut off by a slap to he face.

"How dare you!" She vented, amethyst eyes blazing, "I loved her too... I adored that boy... Who the hell do you think you are?"

"The guilty party... that's who the fuck I am!" He bellowed, raking his hands through his greasy, filmy hair. "The badge... my fuckin' badge... killed her and Adam!" He pulled the drawers open, looking for a bottle. He moved on to the chest of drawers, pulling them right out of the cabinet. The sound of glass caught his attention and he wheeled around, leveling his unshaven, dirty face across the room. A burst of cold air from the dancing curtains caused him to panic. "No!" he roared as Lily Gavin, who looked so much like Sara it hurt, hurled two bottles out the window. He ambled over, tripping and falling hard on his hands and knees. A mirror was thrust in front of him and two determined hands held his struggling head in place.

"Not very pretty is it? Take a good look..." she commanded, "If you have the guts. Is that the wonderful man my Sara married? Is that the man a little boy named Adam idolized and longed to grow up to become? Is it? Is it! IS IT!"

"Shut up!" Chris lashed out, whipping his arms back. He heard the sharp cry and froze, horrified. He turned just in time to see her holding her face and edging out the door. "Lily..." he croaked, full of shame. He looked at the image in the mirror again and flinched. Sara would be disgusted, Adam would be scared. They both would have been ashamed. A deep, suffocating blanket of revulsion filled him. He crawled over and picked up their wedding photo, tossed to the floor on another long night. He closed his eyes and pressed the glass to his chest. "I'm sorry..."

Appalled by his actions, he felt vomit rising and staggered to the bathroom. A lost soul entered the disgusting room. In the hot steam, after shaving, showering and scrubbing his flesh and hair until it hurt, Phoenix started to rise from the ashes. He combed his shaggy hair, found clean clothes, socks and boots and went downstairs, swallowing his pride in one painful lump. He paused in the den, not recognizing it. It was clean, vacuumed and all the clutter gone. A fire was blazing and the aroma of home made soup filled the air. His eyes saw the large red pillow that Sam used to sleep on by the hearth. The large, black Lab went to Buck's months ago, somebody needed to care for him. That would have to be remedied too. Adam and Buck picked the dog out especially for him. He belonged here. He walked slowly to the kitchen and felt an invisible blow to his gut. The tiny woman at the stove, so strong and much taller than he, bore a bruise on her cheek. Suddenly, the soup didn't seem so savory. He was full of revulsion for his actions and could feel Sara's eyes burning with horror and disgust. He turned away, seeking the fire. He saw the trash bag outside, the bulky shapes of bottles prominent. The orange and red flames basked his face. Something caught his eye on the fireplace. A bag from the jeweler's in town... he opened it and Sara's cherished locket fell out. The clasp broke and they'd dropped it off that day, when they went to the airport. He brought it close to his face and suddenly she was there... her smell, her laugh, her teasing voice, her kisses...

"Oh God, Sara!" He cried, dropping to his knees and finally allowing himself to grieve. He clutched the locket in his hands and sobbed hard. He felt the small arms wrap around him, when Lily appeared.

There it was, after five months. His heart was beating again and those tears were real and needed. She took the afghan from the couch, pulled the shaken man onto the leather sofa and sat beside him. She wrapped him in the blanket and held him close. For a long time, he sobbed, before lifting his face.

"I'm so sorry, Lily... please forgive..."

"I love you, Chris Larabee, they'll be no talk about forgiveness. I believe in the same things she did... I see it very clearly in those beautiful eyes of yours. We'll heal together... I'll never let you go..." She held on tight, eyeing the picture of Sara on the mantle. She winked and sighed, feeling that they both had a special angel guarding them now. She send a silent message, vowing her love and promise to care for Sara's beloved. Her granddaughter could sleep in peace now.

Denver, New Year's Day 2000

"I'll get it!"

Chris shifted nervously, not sure what to expect. He'd called both Buck and Orrin Travis and the ATF Director returned the call. The message said to come at noon. The leave of absense after Sara and Adam's deaths had extended over five months now. He wasn't sure what the senior Treasury Dept member had in mind. He'd been beyond patient and wouldn't blame Travis if the decision was to be let go. The large wreath on the front door moved as the massive oak piece swung open. A man about his own age stood there, with a blond toddler tucked under one arm.

"Happy New Year, I'm Stephen Travis, this little guy is Billy, my son."

"Hello," Chris nodded to Orrin and Elly's only child. "Is your father around? I think he's expecting me?"

"Sure," he moved aside, "He's uh... in the study. It's Chris, right?"

"Yeah, I'm sorry, Chris Larabee," he shook the man's hand and ducked inside the large home. He followed him through a foyer and towards a door. He waited, while the other knocked.

"Dad? Chris Larabee is here..."

"Okay, thank you, Stephen." Orrin suddenly appeared as the door opened.

"Oppa... oppa..."

"Hello, Billy!" The older man tussled the blond hair and gave the excited boy a smile. "You go with your Daddy now, I'll see you soon." He paused, moving aside. "Chris?"

"Hello, Orrin," he shook the hand and entered, resisting the urge to sit down. He was too nervous.

"Coffee?"

"No, thanks," Chris sighed, trying to figure out what to do with his shaky hands.

Orrin Travis returned to his desk, studying the young man before him carefully. He was human again, his eyes were clear and sharp. He'd lost weight , but looked well. He studied the eyes again, seeking that edge that drew him to the decorated agent in the first place.

"You look better."

"Thanks to Lily, she kicks ass pretty good!"

"I don't doubt that!" Orrin agreed, having met he fiesty woman on several occasions. Even some in the past few weeks, when they'd discussed Chris. "You ready to roll again?"

"Why?" Chris breathed out heavily, wondering about the faith the other man apparently held onto all these lost months.

"Because I know you Chris Larabee and I trust my instincts. It got me this far..." he handed the thick blue folder over. "It's still yours..."

"I don't deserve it," Chris noted of the promotion, prominent role as leader of a super ATF team. "I've said things... done things... I'm not proud of."

"Any man who hasn't is a liar... or not born yet." Orrin noted, sipping his coffee. "You have until April 1st. I need this team organized and formed by the summer. I need you... nobody else fits the bill." He paused, rose and held out his hand. "Welcome back, Son..."

"Thanks, Sir,' Chris took the hand and the faith behind it, "You won't be disappointed."

"I know that, Chris," he nodded to two large boxes, "They're still there..."

"So much for watching the football games..." he felt the nervousness leave.

Later, At the Larabee Ranch

Buck paused on the doorstep, raising his hand again. He'd tried to knock a half dozen times. He'd been shocked at Chris's message. He hadn't seen him in months, not since the day of the attack. Sam shifted next to him, wearing a red kerchief with 'STUD' written on it. The large brown eyes begged him, the nose nudged his hand again.

"Cut that out!" He chastised, "You sure get cocky with a bag of burgers in you. You're gonna lose that waistline and that Irish setter won't think you're so swell." He noted of the pretty female who Sam played in the park with every day.

The dog whined, nudged his hand again and scratched the door, his tail wagging. He was home and he knew it... needed to get inside. Then the door opened and the large dog bolted, nearly knocking down his master. Buck smiled as Chris was forced to his knees, bathed in dog kisses. The Lab's happy yelps and wagging tail attested to his happiness.

"Hey, fella... you look good. Hey Sam... How you doing? Huh?" Chris finally recovered and the large dog ran inside, his Alpha-ness needing to claim every inch of the house. He stood then, took a deep breath and held out his hand. "He looks great, Buck, thanks for taking care of him all this time. I wasn't even fit for his fleas."

"He's a good dog..." Buck agreed, feeling awkward. "Can I come in, Chris?"

"Shit," Chris moved, "I'm sorry, sure..."

"The place looks good..." Buck's eyes roamed around the warm place that had become his second home. "Lily?" he guessed and saw the other nod.

"When she gets her mind set on something..." The blond hesistated, still seeing the photos the angry woman took of Buck in the hospital. Buck didn't know about them, he'd been unconsious at the time. Lily had been wise enough to wait until he was sober. The pictures arrived the day after Chrismas and the force rocked Chris to the bone. "Listen Buck, there's no easy way to say this. I had no right to treat you... call you names... and beat you like that. Christ, Buck, I'm sorry..."

"I missed you," Buck admitted, with a deep sigh, taking the hand and pulling Chris into a fast embrace.

"Me too, Bucko..."

Buck relaxed at that, hearing the familiar call of his nickname. He knew they'd have tough times ahead, and a part of Chris died on that mountain with his family. But whatever road he chose, Buck would be by his side, always. "No hard feelings, Chris... it's water under the bridge. You're fine now..."

That was the first step. After a satisfying steak dinner, a pot of coffee and a heart to heart talk, the air was cleared. They opened the boxes and began their job. Chris was still reading, when Buck fell asleep. He rose, stretched and eyed the late hour on the clock. He got the afghan and carefully pulled it over true friend. That what he was... the 'through-thick-and-thin' type. He studied the strong features on Buck's face and wondered what he'd done to deserve a man so fine.

"Am I worth it, Buck?" He wondered aloud, taking his gaze to the fire. He'd changed, of course, the world now looked black and white to him, rather than color. He felt a compulsion to do this job, a driving force... a need to wield the sword of justice. But he was cold inside, void of the emotional depth and compassion he'd once held. A part of his soul, the best part, died with Sara and Adam. Even Buck's valiant heart couldn't cure that. He snapped Sam's leash on and went outside, letting the cold air bite his face. As they walked, he eyed the silver moon and wondered if' he'd ever feel whole again. Would the dull, emptiness inside ever go away?

Fall 2000, Ireland

Seven short words, that's all they were. But the force of those scattering of black letters on yellow paper sent the tall, handsome man to the airport in Shannon. After a year of wandering and trying to purge his demons, he'd found a old cottage on Dingle Bay. No electricity or phones... primitive and raw, with the wind whipping around the whitewashed walls. That'swhat he'd called home for three months now. Happy to live in his barren cottage, going to the local pub to hoist a pint and bed a lusty wench. Until the wire came... seven short words. They screamed at him all the way to the airport, across the Atlantic into Newark, NJ and then on the connecting flight to New Orleans.

He clutched the wire as he waited for the elevator in the lobby of the hospital. Seven short words:

"Seamus is sick... come home... Love Cait"

It was late when he got to the room and he paused in the doorway. His grandfather always seemed larged than life... fighting the world in one hand and the devil with the other. Now, lying in a bed, with an oxygen mask covering his face, the white hair scattered on the pillow, he seemed human.

"Hi!"

He jumped as a voice whispered in the dark. Suddenly, she was there, in his arms. He froze, stiff and statuelike, not sure what to do. He recovered and hugged her, afraid to look.

"He's okay... it was close. Pneumonia. He's gonna need care when he leaves here..."

"He'll get it. I'm sorry, Cait, I should have been here..."

"You weren't here when you left." She studied the tall man, seeing the pain still in those beautiful blue eyes. His black, wavy hair was longer and it suite him, falling across his collar rakishly. "It was an accident, Ryan, noboby blamed you, least of all me. I've missed you... I... we... need you. You should see how big the baby is... baby... she's three now and quite a handful."

"Like her mother," he chuckled, bravely looking at the face of the angel. God she was beautiful.

"Welcome home, Ryan," she kissed his cheek and drew him in the room.

"Is it yerself then?"

Ryan winced at the weak voice and found himself gripping the rails in a deathclench. Suddenly he felt like he was a boy again. He swallowed the lump in his throat as his love for this cantankerous, colorful patriarch of the clan rose and gripped him.

"You look like shit, Old Man!" he whispered painfully, taking the large hand. When had he not been strong? The weakness he felt shook him to the core.

"I can still take ye with one hand behind me back, Boy-o!" Seamus smiled, tears in his eyes. "I thought I'd gone to see Mary without sayin' goodbye..." he noted of his long dead wife.

"I'm sorry," Ryan felt his eyes burning and bent to kiss the old man's cheek. The hand gripped the back of his head and he felt the strength again. "It hurts, Sheanair..."

Cait began to cry then, to hear the cocky, brash, NFL star, Ryan McKenna, break down and call his grandfather by the name he'd held most dear. He idolized the old man and only called him 'grandfather' when he was lost. She wanted to hold him close and rock the guilt out of those large blue eyes. But now, he needed Seamus, so she pulled back, taking her coat and purse and leaving.

"I know, Lad," Seamus crooned, feeling the tears running from Ryan's eyes falling onto his chest. "but yer holdin' the devil's fork in yer chest... ye leave it go... now... yer not to blame. I need ye, Boy-o... I love ye..."

Spring 2001, New Orleans

Under Ryan's care, Seamus's health soared. He regained the bloom in his cheeks, put some weight on and helped his beloved grandson open 'Seamus's Saloon'. The drinkery with a great menu was soon a favorite among locals and business boomed. Cait came several times a week, toting Grace, who the old man adored. The tiny child easily found her way into Ryan's heart and he couldn't deny her a thing. As Cait watched him rocking her in Seamus's rocker, in the apartment above the restaurant, her heart clenched. He tenderly read to her, tickled her, made her laugh, dried her tears and became the 'Daddy' she needed. But when Cait tried to get close, he froze her out.

Late Fall 2001, Denver

A football game blared on the sixty inch television in the large den. Five bodies were sprawled on various positions on the floor and couches. Bowls of pretzels, popcorn and chips littered the tables. Beer bottles were being hoisted as the Bronco's surged downfield. One anxious body eyed the door, where snow fell heavily out the window.

"Where the hell did he go for the food, Houston?" Buck lamented, rubbing his stomach.

"I'm starving!" Nathan Jackson agreed, "You should have sent Ezra..."

"I am not paid to navigate difficult roadways on uncertain terrain." the southern agent addressed.

"Vin is the tracker," J.D. Dunne, the youngest member of the now completed Team Seven agreed.

"The boy does have a way with nature," Josiah Sanchez agreed. "...like he was born to it..."

"Speak of the devil!" Buck pulled the door open, bringing in a burst of snow and a red-faced Texan with snow encrusted hair.

"Hey ya'll!" Vin Tanner boomed, placing two large bags into Buck's arms. He used his snow encrusted gloves to pat the rogue's face. "Miss me!"

"Goddammit Vin!" Buck pulled away from the icy fingers and set the bags down. "J.D. get over here and give Vin a hand."

"Your legs broke?" the Bostonian replied, not moving from the floor.

"No, but yours are younger, now get up!"

"Yeah... yeah... I get no respect..." he grumbled, trudging outside. Five minutes later, they reappeared, bearing pizza boxes, buckets of wings and egg rolls along with other munchies.

"Hey Cowboy!" Vin boomed, shucking his coat and wet boots off.

"Hey, yourself," Chris replied, shutting the door and not missing the icy road outside. "I was ready to send out the Calvary."

"Them bluebellies couldn't find their asses with a map and both hands!" Tanner crowed with a wink of 'I'm fine'. He knew the blond was worried, he was late returning. He turned towards the television. "Who's winnin'?"

"Denver's up by three..." Nate replied, watching Vin shivering. "Get your ass by the fire! Did you wear that old rag? That ain't warm enough... it's twenty degrees out there."

"Quit' hennin' me, Nate!" Vin barked, but his eyes were grateful. He wasn't used to anyone fussing over him, but it felt good.

"Vin?"

"Yeah, Chris?" he turned around and saw the other's palm out. "Oh! Sorry!" he padded over and deposited money. He saw Chris's confused face staring at the crumpled money. "Somethin' wrong?" he asked innocently, eyes wide.

"I gave you a hundred dollars," Larabee growled, "I'm lookin' at a soggy bunch of bills that add up to thirteen. What's wrong with this picture?"

Vin paused, his face serious as he weighed his move. "Aw, hell, I'm sorry, reckon I forgot..."

"Reckon you did!" the blond agreed as the slim sharpshooter's fingers danced on his hand. Then he scowled as more bills disappeared, now he had only five dollars left!

"...fergot 'bout m'tip... what with inflation and locality and hardship and all..."

"Hardship!" Chris roared eyeing the lonely wet face of Abe Lincoln in his hand. "Vin!"

"Huh?" Vin asked calmly, ignoring the blazing green fire. "Oh, reckon yer right..." he took the other five. "I fergot 'bout gas money... course it cost me close t'fifteen... but ya can owe me the rest... cash'll do fine... no need t'scratch out a check..."

Chris's eyes narrowed and his face scrunched up, as he followed the unsuspecting Texan into the den. "Freeze Tanner!" He ignored the riotous laughter from the others, who were paying rapt attention. This newcomer to their team so easily manuevered the leader into a speechless or erratic state, it was always a treat to watch him work. They saw the beguiling blue-eyed Texan's face and felt the mischief lurking there.

Ezra smiled openly as Vin winked at them, before turning. "Somethin' wrong, Cowboy!"

"Don't call me that!" Chris began, chasing the emotional tug that the drawl and smirk brought since the day they met, a scant burst of a dozen weeks ago.

"It's yer name!" Vin defended with a half smile and a wagging eyebrow.

"What the hell did you buy!"

"Pizza, wings, bitty egg rolls and such..."

"Define 'and such'!" Chris ordered, glaring at Buck who was howling.

"You send a boy to do a man's job..." the womanizer shook his dark head, knowing the contents of the bag he'd unpacked.

"Shut up, Buck!" Larabee growled, bearing in on the smug Texan. "Well!"

"Well what?"

"Goddammit Vin!" Chris hollered, face flushed as he began to lose the battle, "The food..."

"Oh," the younger man nodded calmly, ignoring the green fire, "Well, ya see Chris, I got t'thinkin' whilst I was fightin' them howlin' winds and icy roads. The devil hisself was bitin' m'ass... nearly bought the farm a few times... course I don't mind riskin' life and limb t'tote yer grub... no need t'thank me..." he patted the tense shoulder encased in a navy blue sweater and went to turn.

"Vin!" Chris hollered over the riotous laugher and grabbed the soft flannel shirt.

"What?" the other replied, sky eyes all wide and innocent.

"Oh my God!" Chris clenched his teeth and scrubbed a hand across his face.

"That man missed his calling," Ezra noted, grinning openly. "He's a master of deceit... and you call me a con man."

"Hey, Cowboy, ya got a headache? Yer veins is startin' t'bug out and yer eyes is all funny..."

"Don't call me that!" Chris snarled, as the younger man winked and smiled at him.

"It's yer name," Vin repeated. "Somethin' wrong?"

"What the fuck did you spend my fuckin' hundred dollars on!"

"Damn, this is better than a movie!" Buck grinned, enjoying every minute of the slick blue-eyed artist taking his stoic friend apart inch by inch. "That boy is good... damn good."

"No need t'holler, Chris, all ya had t'do is ask," Vin calmly stated. "Ya don't calm down, yer likely t'get a stroke..."

"Not before I strangle you!" Larabee grabbed the slippery sharpshooter.

"Pizza, wings and such..."

"...and such what!"

"Well, brownies and chocolate essentials." Vin coughed, feeling the pressure of the strong forearm on his throat.

"What the fuck are 'chocolate essentials?" Chris's face wrinkled up. "Dessert?"

"Yeah," Vin's damp head bobbed, "So's when folks ask, ya can say "Care fer a chocolate? Like a brownie?" He ducked under the arm and saw the numb, stunned face of surrender on the blond. He gave the shocked cheek a pat and winked. "No need t'thank me, Cowboy!"

Chris shook his head, trying to get his brains in order again. Why was it Vin's logic always tied his thoughts up in Texas knots and left him dumbfounded or cursing? He didn't see Buck appear or hear the convulsive laughter. He blinked again, eyed his empty palms and saw Vin settle on the couch, a plate full of food on his lap.

"You best surrender now, Stud," Buck laughed, draping an arm of sympathy over Chris's shoulders. "You can't win. That slick, little Texas cuss slid right past the mighty Larabee Defense System!"

"Buck's right, Chris," Nate agreed, getting a beer and pausing by the duo. "You ain't never gonna catch up to him."

"The Tanner Logic does boggle the mind at times," the gambler agreed, slipping by to get some wine.

Later, as he returned from putting the trash out, the room was darkened. Some of the others were dozing, while an old movie played. Vin was sound asleep on the sofa, half his slender frame under a blanket. Sam was dozing next to him, having adopted Vin immediately. Chris paused and pulled the blanket up higher, getting of whiff of chocolate breath as he went by. He smiled and shook his head, not aware his eyes were on display.

"That boy is good for you Boss," Josiah noted, not missing the depth of warmth in the green eyes.

"Yeah," Chris sighed, running a hand on his lean abdomen. It wasn't his imagination. The hole was closing, the void disappearing and the world... well it was beginning to turn to color again.

A Few Days Later, Outside Denver

It was a job they'd worked on for weeks. Here on the barricaded property of a large group of survivalists, in the swirling snow, they made their stand. The armed militants had been fighting the co-op group of ATF and FBI for three days. Now, the compound had been stormed and dozens of agents were engaged in a battle inside. Team Seven and Team Four were on the perimeter, blocking exits and rounding up the rebels who were trying to flee. Vin Tanner, the finest sharpshooter wearing a badge, was high on a hill, rifled trained on his shoulder. Amidst the figures moving in the rocks and brush, was a large man in a jeep. The clear blue eyes didn't fail him, as they peered through the scope. It was Moses, aka Loren Weaver, the leader of the group and wanted in several states for murder, arms violations and robbery. Vin fired, the jeep swerved and changed course.

"Shit!" the Texan screamed, "Chris, get down! Chris!" The madman, bleeding heavily from several wounds, was headed right for the thick bushes where J.D. and Chris were stationed. He saw the kid take off, firing at the jeep. It continued to move, then Chris slipped on the ice and went down. Vin heard Moses scream in delight and raise a grenade. "No!" He jumped in a arch, landing on both feet in front of the jeep.

"Vin, get outta there... Goddammit Vin! What are you doing!" Chris scrambled, as the sniper's rifle fired, sending Moses to kingdom come. "Jesus!" he froze, watching the explosion send the Texan's body flying backwards. The thud of the impact tore his guts out. He was paralyzed in fear, watching the wind blow across the navy jacket. The gold ATF letters were silent. "No..." he denied, staggering, then running to Vin's side. He heard J.D.'s gasp and hollered back, "Get some help down here!!" He fumbled with the commlink on his shoulder. "I got a man down... it's Tanner." He turned Vin over gently, wincing at the blood where the young man's face should be.

"Chris, how bad?" Nate hollered in his commlink, running down the hill. "Chris? Copy?"

"Christ!" he recovered, a shaky hand hovering over the bloody face in his lap. "I can't see his face... there's blood everywhere."

"...he breathin'?" Jackson demanded, seeing the two figures on the road. From his side vision, he saw the others coming, Josiah, Buck and J.D. were closeby.

"Yeah..." Chris let out the breath he was holding, then began to wipe the blood away. "Vin, Vin? Can you hear me?"

"Chris, let me at him!" The dark-skinned ATF agent who was a medic ordered, "Chris, come on now... Chris!" He tried to pry the blond away, but the face was dazed, the arms in a deathlock. He turned to Buck and jerked his head.

"Come on Chris, let Nate look at Vin!" he pulled the smaller man away. He felt Chris trembling and heard the ragged gasps. As hard as it was to see him in this state, he was relieved. Somehow, a cocky kid from Texas with a soft drawl and the eyes of an eagle, had melted the icy box around Larabee's heart. "Nate?" he asked softly, watching the dark fingers expertly working.

"Boy's got nine lives!" Jackson predicted. "Aside from a couple ribs, nothings broken. He's breathing's good, pulse is strong. He's got a nasty head wound... he's bleedin' pretty good..."

"Then do something to stop it, Nate!" Chris demanded, dropping by Vin's side again. "Where the Hell is that ambulance!"

"They're coming, Chris," Dunne relayed, stomach unsettled at the amount of blood. "He... saved us... Chris and me... that nut was going blow us up. He jumped right in front of the jeep... Buck... he just..."

"Yeah, Kid, I know..." Buck nodded.

"Jesus, Nate, he's bleeding the hell all over me, do something!" Larabee snarled, "Where the hell are those EMT's!"

"Right here," the first medic dropped down, "How's he doing?" He eyed Nate Jackson, who he recognized.

"He'd be doin' a lot better iffen some green-eyed jackass weren't bustin' his eardrums..."

The others smiled in relief at the cranky Texan's voice, then relaxed a little as two blue eyes blinked through a bloody mask. "Hey Cowboy... we get him?"

"Yeah, you blew him the hell up, Vin!" J.D. crowed, when Chris's voice died.

"Anybody... get... hurt..." Vin eyed the others, his eyes furrowed.

"Only you, you fool!" Larabee replied, still seeing the body fly through the air. "Goddammit Vin! What the hell were you doing!"

"Savin' yer... un...grate..ful... as...s..." Vin wheezed, his ribs on fire. His hand fumbled and he felt Chris grip it tight, taking the pain away. "...s'mjob... ya know..." He closed his eyes a moment as the medics got a collar on him and began to work on him. He felt the warm hand on his own and gave a small squeeze, letting Larabee know he was grateful. His eye was pried open and a penlight flashed on the pupil.

"Name?" the medic asked, testing the head injury.

"Tanner..." Vin coughed, blinking as his stomach began to churn.

"First name," he continued, putting an IV line in the young man's arm.

"...seems t'be...Goddammit Vin..." he managed with a smile to his friends and a wink to the tense blond, who didn't laugh when the others did. He studied those faces of his teammates, friends... hell brothers. That's what they were becoming to him. Without a family for so long, it was quite and adjustment, but he was enjoying his new boots. "...never... seen... such an...ugly... bunch o'faces... in... all... m'days..." he gasped and took several breaths, nearly passing out.

"Yeah, well from where I'm standing, Vin, you don't have any room to talk!" J.D. squatting down, giving his new friend a reassuring pat on the leg.

"I concur in full, your face hardy worth bragging about," Ezra stood behind J.D, caught Vin's weak eyes and smiled, sending a flash of gold tooth.

"Hell, Slick, you ain't hardly pretty, but your in for a gooood night. The Twins will be on duty at the hospital tonight."

"...twins?" Vin coughed, watching Buck Wilmington's face disappearing.

"Yeah... four best hands on any nursing staff. THem little ladies know how to give a bath... and massage the back... I'll put in a good word for you."

"...took a show..er.. today... don't need nobody... fussin'..." he paused and saw the worried faces and found Buck's eyes. "...twins huh? warm hands?"

"Nothin' finer!" Buck grinned and winked at the injured sharpshooter.

Vin smiled back and saw the EMT holding up fingers and sighed impatiently. "...three fingers... Bush is president... today's Friday and one of ya had garlic fer lunch..."

"Wiseass, huh," the older of the EMT's teased, giving Vin a wink.

"That's his middle name..." Chris recovered, his nerves jangled.

"Goddammit Vin Wiseass Tanner," Buck smiled at the groggy sniper. "You gotta admit, it' suits you Slick!"

"A difficult moniker for the best tailor," Ezra noted, joining his teammates, "Mister Tanner, in the future, a little warning? The sight of you airborne without the benefit of wings was hard on the eyes."

"You hurt anywhere else, Vin?" Nate asked, cupping the tracker's chin and trying to catch the blinking eyes.

"...yeah..." Vin rasped, eyes fading. "Somethin's wrong with m'right knee... hurts like a bitch... like a metal clamp's bearin' on it..."

"Shit!" Chris released his deathgrip, unaware he'd been squeezing so hard. "Sorry, Cowboy..."

"Don't be callin' me that..." Vin slurred, eyes shutting, the wave of reassurance he found in green eyes was fading fast. "Chris?"

"How about flying fuckin' jackass..." Larabee added, sensing the change and moving closer.

"...that's... Tex..as... jack...ass... don't be..."

"Vin?" Chris grabbed the limp hand and bent over his fallen friend.

"He's gonna be fine," The EMT predicated. "You guys need a ride?" he appraised the others, who shook their heads. "Okay, let's load 'im..." They lifted Vin onto the gurney and wheeled him down the hill.

"Well would you look at that?" Josiah said somberly, next to Chris.

"What?" Nate asked, wondering what the preacher was staring at.

"Gray hairs... right there..." the eldest's fingers brushed across the leader's blond locks.

"Oh yeah..." Jackson agreed, as the unamused Larabee turned around.

"You're still on duty, we got a mess to clean up. Let's roll..."

The others went up the hill back toward the compound. Buck paused, as Chris turned when the siren's wailed, taking his best friend to the hospital. "For a moment Buck, when he flew and his body hit..."

"Yeah," Wilmington clapped the navy jacket. "I know... come on..."

Later, At the Hospital

It was just past closing when Buck arrived, passing others leaving as he strode through the lobby. He paused in the doorway of Vin's room, watching the scene carefully. The younger man was being kept overnight, due to the concussion and ensuing blackouts. The elder stood guard by the bed, not moving, sitting rigid in a chair. Wilmington's blue eyes watched unseen, as Vin fought some invisible demon on his dream and began to moan and twitch. Larabee's hand shot out, latched onto he bare shoulder, peeking from the large gown, and gave a solid tug.

"Easy Vin." Chris soothed, keeping his hand intact until the fine features went calm again. That what this was to him. Easy. Vin's smile, the drawl, the skills of the trade he carried so effortlessly, and the peace he'd brought to his heart. He saw Buck appear by his side and rose, gripping the rails of the bed. He stared down then, looking at the Texan's chest rise and fall, feeling his own breaths in matching rhythm. "Why him, Buck?"

"Why ask?" Buck answered the question simply. He knew since those first early days when blue eyes met green, that Vin Tanner was the answer. He didn't know why Fate tossed the shaggy-headed Texan their way. He didn't care... the boy had a gift and used it well. "Just give thanks to the man upstairs tonight when you hit your knees." He paused as Vin shifted in the bed, losing more of the thin cotton gown. "Damn scrawny Texas mutt needs meat on them bones," he adjusted the hospital gown and pulled the thin blanket up.

"I was lost Buck," Chris admitted, "...for so long... cold... alone... in a dark place..."

"...and that boy gave you the sun back," the wise old friend replied, watching Chris's features soften, "He put the light back in your eyes, he gave you a smile again and few new curse words..." he joined the other in a soft chuckle, then rested his hand Larabee's shoulder. "...he gave me back the best friend God ever saw fit to put next to me... and that's something I can't thank him enough for..."

"Buck..." Chris rocked back at the choked off Wilmington voice and turned to the taller man. He gripped the back of Wilmington's neck and gasped, feeling very lucky suddenly.

"If the Weepin' Willa Society o'Denver is done bawlin' can ya leave now? Some of us sick folks is tryin' t'rest..." Vin opened one eye and looked at both men, "...it ain't bad enough m'heads about to fall off, I gotta put up with all yer snufflin..."

"You look like shit, Slick!" Buck boomed, smiling wide and cuffing the injured man's leg.

"Fuck yer sorry ass t'the Alamo and back, Bucklin!"

"Did that sorry-assed Texan rat call me Bucklin?" Wilmington's voice caught as two blue eyes crinkled in warmth as they settled on him briefly, before raking onto the greenones.

"Rat about suits him," Chris agreed, leaning over the rails. The body was settling into the pillows, breathing evenly. "You okay?"

"mmmm... hmmmm...." Vin nodded ,not opening his eyes. How could he not be? He had brothers now, watching his back.

"That's good, real good," Larabee's voice dropped and he leaned over closer, "'cause tomorrow, when I come to pick you up, we're gonna have a talk."

"...ain't much fer gabbin'..." Vin deflected, feeling the lecture

"Too Goddamn bad," the leader continued, "'cause you're gonna hear about all the regulations you broke when you disobeyed my orders and did a Superman impression. That scrawny ass of yours isn't moving until we get a few things settled." He saw one blue eye peel open and regard him for a moment. The fine nose wrinkled up in distaste, a short muttering of displeasure escaped over the square jaw, before the eye closed again.

"..m'ass ain't hardly scrawny. Leastwise I gotta enough sense t'take care of m'boys and not choke 'em t'death..."

"Huh?" Chris reeled back, the short burst of Tanner logic caught him off guard. "Boys?" The explosive burst of Wilmington's laughter caused him to think harder. Buck was doubled over, tears running down his face. Vin's hand shot up, without opening an eye ,and Buck high-fived him, still laughing. Then Chris got the meaning and shifted, "Goddammit Vin!"

"...t's m'name," Vin managed sleepily, "..don't wear... it... out..."

"Vin?" Chris leaned over the bed and looked hard.

"He's out, Chris," Buck recovered, "...chokin' the boys... damn that was funny." He walked to the door and waited for Chris to join him. "Chinese place across the street is pretty good," he asked about dinner and saw the blond head nod once.

Chris saw Buck's large frame head for the elevator, his deep voice teasing every female on the floor. He chuckled and shook his head, thanking God for two such good friends. He glanced back at Vin Tanner, resting in the bed. He felt his own heart beating in a dual rhythm, something he hoped would remain for a long time.

New Orleans, 2002

It was past 3:30 when Chris Larabee drained his beer and picked up the bill. As he ambled to the register to pay, he noted forty minutes passed since he last saw his friend. He waited for his change and saw the black clouds rolling in, just as the wind kicked up and a clap of thunder shook the whole room.

"Thanks," he put the bills away and pocketed his wallet. It was then that a chill ran through him, causing him to shudder and blink.

"Somebody walkin' on your grave, Chèr?" the pretty hostess asked, watching the action.

"Something like that," he acknowledged.

The woods were dense, the sun peeking through the dark treetops. He inhaled a sweet breeze and settled the packages under a tree. God they were beautiful, his little angels... so very perfect. He kissed each chubby cheek and headed for the stream. A pain in his chest, his air was stolen, he felt his ribcage crack and a heat flush his body. His blue eyes shot open as he dropped down.

"Easy, young one, you are safe," Jessenia cooed, stroking the pale forehead of Vin Tanner. A thin sheen of perspiration covered his lean body. Under pale lids, his eyes darted frantically, his breath came in pants and his body trembled. "Look... look and remember... see his face... see the eyes of the deceiver... see him now... study his face... remember... remember... the eyes of the deceiver. Know my words, lesove, remember his face... Look now... look and see through his eyes..."

From the dirt, he turned and looked and saw two men. He saw their faces, then they changed. They wore strange clothes, the taller man had a silver badge clipped to hisbelt. He had short dark hair and brown eyes and a slight curving scar around his left eye and cheekbone. The man with him was thin, ugly dark beady eyes and silver... silver... glove... or something where his hand should be. The voice in his head grew louder, the words scorched his tortured brain.

"...remember his face... eye of the deceiver... see him... remember... remember..."

"Re...mem...ber... face... deceiver... eye... see... re...mem...ber..." Vin mumbled, not aware of the delight in the old woman's eyes as she stroked his temples.

"Yes, young one, now we must fly... see his face... remember..." She held his head firm as he gasped in pain, sucking in a great gulp of air. "No pain... no pain... you are young... and strong... see through his eyes..."

The vortex of brilliant blue lights disappeared and he was on a dark road. Two men were huddled over a body, arguing. The victim was young, reddish hair and alive. Then he moved, a silver hand flashed out and stopped him. More arguments, and the first man left. Tall, good looking, dark hair and eyes, scar under his eye. The other man, with the metal hand, put the body in a car and down a steep, rocky hill. A cry in the night air, a tall man with black hair in anguish screaming the name "Max" fell down the hill. A fireball..a sinister laugh...then the blue lights appeared.

Vin shook and sweat poured from his body. He tossed and tried to flee, but something held him back. "no... no..." he moaned, as the light engulfed his helpless body.

"Not yet... your journey is not done..." the old one soothed, watching the twitching limbs.

Another road, one he knew well, from riding his bike up to Larabee's ranch. A black truck... Chris's truck... a beautiful woman driving. Sara! No! No! Lookout! Another car coming right at her, highbeams on... the rain slicked road... a scream... tires squealing.... Mommy... Mommy... a horrific crash... another fireball... the car stops... a silver hand... sinister face... a phonecall... the eye of the deceiver... dark hair ... dark eyes... scar... remember... remember. He's holding a picture... a pretty woman... Sara? no no another name... he saying it... Caitlin... murder... murder... money... deceit... remember... he laughs and strokes her face in the photo.

"Cait..lin... no... hurt... her..." Vin mumbled, balling his fists...

"Yes!" Jessenia crowed in triumph, at last, they would solve the mystery. "Protect her... find the deceiver... protect your bloodline, young one... protect..." she chanted, annointing him again. His eyelids, heart and temples.

Then another image appeared, a face he knew like his own. Someone he cared for deeply. Blond hair, easy smile, green eyes. A cabin... his friend was in danger... hurt... a gun... dark hair... dark eyes... a scar... a gun rising... the blond man couldn't see.

"Chris!!!!!!!"

The blue light exploded and he jumped through it, shoving the body hard. He ran from the light into a dark cloud. A clap of thunder embraced him as he fled through the unknown darkness. He ran haphazardly, his head was splitting in two. He was freezing, lost and he needed to find someone. Someone... named... Chris.

He was at the door when the pain ripped through him. Vin's scream of agony pierced his skull. He cried out and dropped to his knees, unaware of the hostess and a customer from the bar who scrambled to help him.

"Are you alright?"

"Vin?" he whispered, eyeing the carpet. What the hell was that? He heard it as clear as he was hearing the man who was helping him up.

"Sir?"

"Huh?" Chris blinked, nodding, "Uh... yeah... sorry... lost my balance..." He ran outside, his heart pounding, blood rushing to his ears. He never felt anything this strong. Vin was in danger. His gut instinct took him left, right into the driving rain, high wind and thunder. Oblivious to the rain soaking him, he ran onward.

"Vin! Vin!" he screamed over the howling wind. The pelting rain created a sandy helmet from his hair. Then he saw a body a couple blocks ahead. Brown jacket, long brown hair... Vin. He was staggering, twice fell down and clearly was ill or injured.

"Vin!"

Chris took off, running into the storm, keeping his eyes on the body ahead of him. Then Vin veered off, turning left up a residential street. Chris ran faster, his pulse racing, blood coursing through his veins. He turned the corner swiftly, just as the Texan's legs buckled and he collapsed.

"Vin!" He dropped down and his hand went for the jugular. "Thank God." The pulse was still flowing. He slapped the pale face, noting how clammy the skin was. "Vin, Vin, wake up... Jesus..." his hands trembled and he tried to shield Vin from the driving rain.

"Do fishes sneeze?"

"What?" the driver's sharp blue eyes narrowed as he navigated the slippery road. The storm blew in suddenly, causing their picnic to end in a hurry. The tiny body in the child's seat in the back of the SUV wasn't the least bit concerned. Under the lavender slicker, a short mop of unruly black curls framed the perfect, heart-shaped face. Two large amethyst eyes met his in the rear view.

"I wuv you Uncle Wyun..."

"I love you, too, Buttons," he replied, eyeing the flooded road. They'd have to detour, he eased the car over and turned, seeking higher ground.

"So do they?"

"Do they... what?" he was distracted, punching the buttons on the phone, resting on the steering wheel.

"Do fishes sneeze?"

"No, they can't."

"Why?"

"They don't have noses."

"'course they do!" she answered indignantly, "...they gotta breathe, right?"

"Right, Sweetheart, but they breathe through..." he paused, "Brie? We're gonna be late, we got caught in this mess." Ryan McKenna paused, winking at his five-year old pride and joy. Max's only child was the greatest treasure of his life. He didn't think it was possible to love someone so much. A flash of Cait came to mind, and his heart ached. "No, she's fine... just tell Cait not to worry. Okay." He hung the phone up.

"How do they sneeze?" She demanded, eyeing her uncles wet dark curls.

"Who?"

"The fishes," she exaperated, "For a grownup, sometimes you're not so smart."

"You're right, Buttons," he mused, "their gills, they breathe through their gills."

"What are gills?"

"...slits in their side... just for fishes... for breathing under water."

"So what happens when they get a cold? How do they get the snots out?"

"Don't say snots, you're a little girl!"

"Well? How do they get out? When I get a cold, and I don't... can't... sneeze, it feels like my heads gonna 'splode. Why come them fishes don't blow up?" She frowned, her tiny face screwing up. "You're laughing at me!"

"No," he gasped, his handsome face crinkled in warmth. "I'm not, Buttons..." he continued to chuckle, answering every question she asked. He never got tired of her and his stomach turned at he thought of her calling another man Daddy.

Gabrielle Marquette hung the phone up, relaxing finally. She knew Ryan would be careful transporting Grace in this weather, but hearing his voice helped. She dialed quickly, getting an answer on the first ring. The familiar, almost melodic voice of her best friend and housemate filled the phone.

"Cait? It's me, Ryan called... No, they're fine! You worry too much. He got stuck in the storm, they'll be a few minutes late. You close? Good... see you soon." She replaced the receiver on the cradle and frowned, peering out the window of her office. It was on the first floor of the large, Victorian home. Filled with antiques and richly appointed, it bespoke her French Creole history.

"Oh My God!" She grabbed an umbrella and ran outside, dropping down next to the unconscious man. "I'm a doctor, I can help. What happened?" She asked the stricken blond man, trying to rouse a younger man with dark curly hair. "Sir?"

"Huh?" Chris blinked and for a split second, thought he was looking at Halle Berry. The young woman, about thirty, was exquisite. Short, feathered dark hair framed the beautiful face, set off by large greenish blue eyes. Her skin was creamy and the color of pale cocoa. "I... don't... know... he was running... and collapsed..." He took the umbrella, covering both the doctor and the patient.

"His pulse is racing, breathing rapid and shallow," she commented, picking up his hand. "Skin pale and clammy, fingernails slightly tinged. He's in shock. Did he have a fall? Did something hit him?"

"No..."

"Is he allergic to..."

"Low blood sugar," Chris blurted, "I mean, he had that... he's been having bad nightmare lately, this happened last week too, after a nightmare."

He heard a voice and the black void fell apart. He knew that voice and opened his eyes. A woman, a beautiful woman, he turned away seeking the voice. He relaxed, parting his lips.

"Chr..is..."

"Vin!" the blond jerked his head. "Goddammit, you damn near scared me death! What happened? You look like shit, Tanner. I'm calling 911 and your sorry ass is going to he hospital!"

Gabrielle was about to dress down the snarling blond, the last thing this young man needed was a loud, nasty lecture. Then she heard a weak laugh and saw the blue eyes... amazing blue eyes... open. He was handsome and that weak smile and the hand fluttering up to grasp the blond's caused her to pause.

"...ya had me worried..." Vin managed, seeing the familiar scowl. "...til ya got t'shoutin'... thought I died... no ambulance... I'm okay... just cold... dizzy..." He struggled to sit up, only to have an iron, wet hand stop him.

"Lie still!" Larabee ordered, "This is Doctor... uh..."

"Gabrielle Marquette," she smiled at the pale, fine features.

"Vin... Tanner..." he whispered, "...quit movin' around, Larabee... yer makin' m'stomach twirl..."

"Are you going to be sick?"

"...no... throw up.. on... a ...girl..." he protested valiently, causing a soft laugh to flutter down.

"My office is just inside, let's get him out of the rain... uh... Mister Larabee?"

"Chris," he nodded, handing the umbrella back, and easing Vin to a sitting position, "Okay, Cowboy, easy does it," he draped Vin's arm over his shoulder and used his free hand to snag a belt loop around the slim waist. "Seems we did this before," he muttered of the ill fated trip to the garden. By the time they got inside the door, an warm foyer greeted them. He saw her moving quickly and followed the slim young woman, into a waiting room, through to a large examination room. "He's freezing... shit!" Chris muttered as Vin collapsed. He eased him onto a leather couch, letting him rest in a sitting position. "What's that smell?"

"River water!" she replied, checking his enlarged pupils. "He's in shock. We need to warm him up. Can you get his clothes off and get him on the table. I'll get my bag and some blankets. There's a sheet on that chair, dry him off as best as you can."

"Okay," Chris knelt down and tugged the boots off. Vin never stirred and Chris settled him on the table. He took the excess moisture away and wiped his own face, hair and hands as well. Then, he took the lone blanket from the sofa and covered him to the chin. He began to rub the icy feet, hoping to restore some circulation.

"Here," she put a heavy blanket on him. "Raise his legs," she waited and slid a triangular leather cushion under his knees. "We need to elevate his legs, it'll help." She noted how hard the blond man was holding the other's hand and tried to distract those worried eyes. "Where you guys from?"

"Denver, we're ATF agents?"

"ATF?"

"On vacation, we're staying at Sauville House. He's been uh... affected by that place."

"It's haunted," she said and when he didn't object she looked harder and saw the green eyes flicker. "You saw her? Isabella?"

"He... followed... something..." Chris staggered, "one night... into the garden... when I caught up, he was... wasn't himself. He was speaking fluent French... agonizing over losing her. His heart was broken. He didn't know me, attacked me."

"He doesn't know French?"

"Vin?" he snorted playfully, "Hell, Doc, his English isn't even good."

"And just now... what happened?"

"I was finishing lunch and he was restless... I told him to take a walk. That was before the storm. I was paying the bill and heard him scream... well... I thought I did. I ran outside and took off, spotted him a couple blocks away. He was staggering, holding his head. Then he turned up this street and collapsed. He's okay, isn't he?"

"He will be," She reassured, placing a bandaid on his finger and reading the digital image. "His blood sugar is down and I can help that..." she drew up some liquid into a syringe."...it's glucagon..."

Ten minutes later, Chris heard a moan and jumped up. He'd been sipping hot coffee on the couch and watching her monitor Vin. She took another sample and smiled, "...it's coming up."

Vin eyed the blurry room through a fog. Voices were hovering above...making buzzing sounds. He saw a pretty woman's face and backed away, trying to move. Then he saw a blond blurry head and opened his parched lips.

"Ch...ris..."

"Right here, Vin, you're gonna be fine." Chris spoke to the confused blue eyes.

"...s'wrong..."

"Confusion is normal," she addressed the concerned blond. "You went into shock Mister Tanner, when you're blood sugar fell to rapidly. How do you feel?"

"...thirsty..."

"I'll get you some water..."

"No," she cut the helpful blond man off, "Not yet... nothing by mouth, he could vomit. There's ice in that cup I brought in from the kitchen. You can rub his lips and the inside of his mouth."

Vin shivered under the blankets and tried to control his breathing and anxiety. Chris was here, he was safe. Where was here? Where were they? Who was the pretty girl? He was resting his eyes when he felt something cold hit his neck. He hissed and jumped, both eyes jolting open.

"...ya doin'?" he gasped.

"It's ice, for your mouth, you can't have water..." Chris tried to grab the slippery frozen disc, but it slid further, behind the damp neck.

"...let her do it!" Vin was annoyed, his brows furrowed. "...she don't have ten thumbs... and... she's prettier..."

Gabrielle smiled and gently rubbed the ice cube over his lips, before letting the chargrined blond lift the damp head. "Open up, don't swallow!" She heard the moans and held out a small cup. "That's all for now." She got the cube back as his eyes fluttered. She saw his hand his snap out and fumble.

"I'm here," Chris said quietly, taking the hand and lowering his face down. "Go to sleep... I'm not leaving."

"...sorry... didn't... mean... t'bark..."

"Hell, Tanner, you call that a bark?"

"He's going to need those clothes to keep warm. I have a washer and dryer downstairs..." she needed to distract him. "I also have a large pot of gumbo simmering."

"Coffee'll be fine, thanks," he said, picking up Vin's things and pausing at the door. "Miss... uh... Doctor... uh..."

"Brie," she smiled.

"I'm not normally without manners," he sighed, "Thanks for everything. You took a chance... two strangers... men..."

"Not strangers, friends I hadn't met yet, Chris." She returned the smile and nodded, "its straight back, two lefts and down the stairs. "I'll watch over him."

A few minutes later, she heard him stirring. She took his pulse and was pleased. He was definintely doing better. He was very handsome, with fine features and a strong jaw. Those pretty eyes opened and regarded her curiosly. "Welcome Back, Vin..."

"...where... I... am..." His eyes darted around the room.

"Chris will be back, he's washing your clothes. I'm Doctor Gabrielle Marquette and you're in my home. This is my office. How do you feel?"

"...fuzzy... thirsty... stupid..." he said crossly, frowning. "...coulda swore... dead... lookin' at... angel..."

'Thank you," she smiled, "Do you feel sick?"

"...yeah..."

"Here," she lifted his head up and held out the ice cube. "Suck on this a minute... better?"

"...yeah..." He managed, flushing when he realized he was naked and pressing against a beautiful woman.

As if on cue, she saw his face blush and realized his concern. She eased his head down and pulled the blanket up. "Not to worry, your friend Chris took care of getting you settled."

"...sorry... don't mean t'be a bother... feel like... damn fool..." he rested his eyes and felt her hand stroking his forehead. It felt good and he relaxed, calming his breathing and heart racing.

"That's okay," she eased, drawn to the handsome drawling man, "It's not often Prince Charming lands at my doorstep."

"I ain't... hardly... no... prince..."

"You could be... I'd believe you were..."

"Aw, hell..." Vin panicked, feeling his stomach quelling.

"Here," She held a kidney dish near his mouth, which she turned sideways, so he wouldn't choke. She sighed in frustration, realizing he was holding back. "I'm not just a girl, I'm a doctor. So don't hold back..."

"...it... passed..." Vin finally admitted, gasping and sweating. "I can't... I..."

She eased his head back down and pulled the blanket up. She was on call, due to the storm and high accidents that went with it. She walked to the room next door to call the hospital and check in.

The end of the dream returned... the eyes of the deceiver... the face... a gun... Chris was down... Chris was... was...

"Chris!"

"Shit" Chris hissed, grabbing the doorknob. He had put Vin's things in the wash and even taken some time to toss his stuff in the dryer. At least now, he was damp, not wet. Barefooted, he ran up the stairs, hearing the call. So intent was he to get to his stricken friend, he took a wrong turn and opened the wrong door. Cold rain blew in along with a body, which he knocked down.

"I'm sorry... I wasn't looking where..." His words died in his throat. His heart hammered so loud he felt it coming right through his chest wall. His blood roared in his ears and he blinked, stunned and shocked at the face before him. The dark curly hair, the heart shaped face and those magnificent eyes. "Sara!"

"No, I'm sorry, you're mistaken," She choked, suddenly frightened by the strong, blond stranger who held her arms in a death grip. They were both on their knees. The thunder boomed behind them, adding a colorful exclaimation point. Who was he? What was he doing in their home? Before she could even take a breath, she followed the stunned green eyes.

"Where did you get that!" Chris roared, eyeing the locket that dangled on chain. He knew every inch of that locket. The heart, the rose, the initials...inscription. It was Sara's most treasured possession. How did she get it? It was in the safe at home... wasn't it? "Answer me!"

"You're hurting me!" She cried out, seeing the lost green rage in a dangerous zone. "It's mine... was my grandmother's."

"No, it's Sara's... my dead wife's. How the hell did you get it?" He roared, wanting to ask how she got Sara's face as well.

"I'm sorry, but you're wrong. This locket has been in my family for generations. I've been wearing it for years. It's inscribed..."

"I know... ALD and inside... Now and Forever..."

"But that's impossible... how could you... know?" she stammered.

"Because it belongs to me dead wife, that's how!" He demanded, confused, "Give it back!"

"No, it's mine," She eyed the foyer frantically. Was Ryan here yet? Where was Brie? Had this man hurt her? She listened behind her for her date's footsteps... hearing hard feet approaching .

"Who the hell are you Lady?" Chris demanded, seeing Sara wearing the locket... Sara smiling when Adam's chubby baby fist grabbed it. Sara wearing only the necklace on their wedding night.

Then a beefy fist grabbed him and slammed him hard into the concrete doorway. He tasted blood as his lip split and felt a warmth rush from the new gash above his eye. Steel cuffs were clipped to his wrists behind his back and a knee shoved on his back. He felt his head pulled up roughly by the hair and hot breath on his cheek. Then, he felt the muzzle of a gun against his neck.

"She's my fiancé, Pal, that's who the hell she is," he growled.

"You're buying more trouble than you can handle, I'm Denver ATF..." Chris grunted, spitting out a wad of blood.

"I don't care if you're the head of the fuckin' Government. I'm Lieutenant Geoff Trent of the New Orleans PD and you're under arrest!"

Part Eleven

Oblivious to the peril his best friend was in, just outside the door, Vin was locked in his own nightmare. Chris's face was covered in blood and the murderer's gun was pressed close to his neck. He fought against the arms that restrained him, crying out a warning to his fallen friend. He saw the deceiver's sneer and lashed out, then fell back into a deep sleep.

"Thank God!" Gabrielle hissed, easing the patient back down and running outside to see what the loud argument was about. Caitlin was standing just inside the foyer, a lusty rain hitting her face. The wind shrieked in protest as the doctor's trained eye saw blood on the broad white doorpost. Then she saw Chris Larabee's hands cuffed and a gun to his neck. She didn't have to blink, she knew who the bearer was and her stomach turned. Geoff Trent wasn't a bad looking guy, short dark hair, dark eyes with a rakish scar under his eye and to his cheekbone. He stood several inches over six feet, was a wall of muscle and abused the power of the badge he wore. She hadn't liked Lt. Geoff Trent from the moment she met him. She and Cait had more than a few arguments over the fact that Cait dated him. As the weeks turned to months, the relationship turned serious, with an engagement ring appearing on the ten month anniversary of their first date. Brie's heart sunk, the only man Cait was destined for, Ryan McKenna, was too blind to see what he was throwing away. Now, she felt her disgust build up, watching Trent sneer over the groggy blond and dig his knee deeper in the cuffed man's back, gaining a grunt of pain.

"What the hell are you doing?" She screamed, moving quickly to Chris's side. "There's no excuse for this, you've hurt him..."

"Stay out of it, Doc!" Geoff nearly crowed in delight. Seeing Chris Larabee's bleeding face was an unexpected pleasure. Then a thought knawed at him, why was he here? Had he uncovered something about his wife's death that connected them to the murder? "Who the hell is this guy? He attacked Caitlin."

"He's just a man on vacation... his friend collapsed outside and I was helping them."

Vacation? He relaxed a a little, then grabbed the damp blond hair and laughed as the ATF agent protested.

"...be... a ...sorry fuckin' bastard..." Chris grunted, blinking hard against the dizziness that was still surrounding him. Blood ran in a haphazard line down his face, meeting and mixing with the crimson stream that ran from his cut lip.

"You keep that mouth shut, Larabee, and maybe, just maybe, you won't have an accident on the way in."

"In?" Cait found her voice, "but... he didn't do..."

"Assault and battery and resisting arrest to start... he's going downtown."

"The hell he is!" a six-foot-four wall of blue-eyed menace dictated.

"Ryan!" Cait nearly wept in relief, at the sight of her handsome brother-in-law. His eyes were dark and stormy, locked on the man she was supposed to wed. A pale lavender slicker was nestled tight in his arms. He moved towards her, handing the sleeping child safely over.

"Get her out of here." He waited until mother and daughter disappeared into the back of the house and wheeled around, eyes shooting fire. "Quit playing Kojak, Trent and let that man go."

"Stay out of it, McKenna, it's none of your business," Geoff turned and smiled smugly, "he attacked my fiancé."

It took all of Ryan's nerve to hold back the hatred he felt towards this man. He was an arrogant, over-bearing, egomaniac and what Cait saw in him was a mystery. He was also a very dangerous man who abused his power.

"Geoff, can we at least talk about it?" Brie suggested, pressing a cloth against the cut over the injured man's eye. She felt every muscle on his lean body straining and felt the venom oozing from every pore. She used her free hand to squeeze his shoulder in warning.

"Talk? Go ahead, you follow him to the car while I read him his rights..."

"You're not taking him anywhere, unlock the cuffs," Ryan said in a deadly voice, just inches from Geoff's face.

"You interfering? I'd love to lock you up. I bet the lifers in the Big House would love a piece of your candy ass..." Trent shot back, feeling the rage he always felt when he was near McKenna. He saw Cait stealing looks at the former NFL'er. He knew she loved him.

"You want trouble? My pleasure," Ryan goaded, "The newspapers and television will be all to happy to get my eyewitness account. I saw you beat an unarmed man in handcuff's... a man whose done nothing wrong. I'm sure there are a lot of faces in the 'Big House' that would love a reunion with you..." he lashed out, every chord in his neck straining. "You overbearing mother fucker..."

Chris's first sigh of relief came when he heard Ryan's voice. Having a tough, strapping body who was clearly not afraid of the out-of-control cop, gave him hope. Now, as he watched the exchange of words, he liked the fire shooting from McKenna's eyes. He had balls and guts and Larabee like that. The room wasn't spinning quite so hard and he began to breath better.

"Trent, take these cuffs off my patient," Gabrielle insisted, "he's bleeding and he needs stitches. Caitlin, are you pressing charges?" She asked to the shaken woman, who reappeared alone.

It wasn't a question, Cait knew that. She also knew Ryan had long passed the dangerous zone. Something about the look on Geoff's face made her cringe. It was a feeling that left her cold inside and fearful, the same feeling that prevented her from setting a wedding date. "No," she shook her curly head, "He ran into me, it was an accident. Please Geoff, don't hurt him. I'm fine, no harm was done."

Reluctantly, he unlocked the keys and shoved Larabee hard as he stood up fully. He holstered his weapon and stared hard at Ryan McKenna, seeing bloodlust in the blue eyes. "This isn't over, McKenna."

"Time and place, Fuckface!" Ryan's anger boiled over and he lost control. "I'll tear you apart..."

"Ryan!" Cait moved between them, pressing her small hands on his narrow waist. "Help Brie with Chris, please?"

He grunted and shoved past the cocky cop, bending over and firmly grasping the fallen man's underarm. "You okay?" He asked, hearing the door shut as Cait went outside to talk to Geoff alone.

"Thanks to you," Chris nodded, sighed hard and swayed, grateful for the other man's steadying arm. "I'm grateful."

"Oh it was my pleasure, if he wasn't wearing a badge..."

"Yeah," Chris smiled, catching the other's eyes. "Thanks for that too!"

"What happened?" he asked, having only seen Trent slam and manhandle the blond.

"My name is Chris Larabee, my friend Vin Tanner and I are ATF agents from Denver. Vin got sick... right as the storm broke out. He was running and collapsed, just outside. Doctor Marquette was kind enough to help us... give us shelter, tend to Vin."

"She's really an angel, you know," Ryan said with a wink to the pretty brunette, who he both respected and admired. She was good people, plain and simple.

"A tired angel," Brie said, turning to Larabee, "You heard him cry out?"

"Vin?" Chris blinked, eyeing the closed door to the exam room, "I got turned around in the hall and thought that door..." he sighed, "Yeah, I heard him. I wasn't paying attention and ran into... she's looks so much like my late wife... it stunned me... right down to the locket."

"Locket?" Ryan puzzled, but the doctor intercepted.

"Ryan, how about making fresh coffee, there's soup if you want some. I'll stitch up Chris and we'll meet you in the kitchen. We'll get all of this straightened out, okay?"

"You're the boss, Doc!" he teased, kissing her cheek, "I'm sorry about losing control. I didn't mean to swear like that. It's just the sight of that bas..."

"Yeah, I know," She squeezed his hand. "Go on..."

"Thanks, again, McKenna," Chris nodded, letting the slim, pretty doctor lead him away.

"Over here," She shut the door behind her and pointed to an examination table across the room. She smiled as he went immediately to Vin Tanner's side. One bloodied hand was holding a cloth to the marred eye. The other hand tugged the blanket up to the sleeping man's neck, rested briefly on his shoulder, before moving back. She didn't miss the worry on his face. "He's okay... it was just a bad dream."

Chris moved across the large, clean office and sat down, eyeing the pretty doctor's face. She cleaned the wound and then pulled a metallic tray over, with stitching tools. "Ow!" he hissed inadvertantly, when she dabbed antiseptic on the wound. He didn't miss the fire in her eyes and the stern set of her chin.

"Sorry," she sighed and turned away, picking up the needle.

"The cop friend of yours has an attitude problem," Chris winced as the needle bit his skin. "I could have fun fixing it..."

"That snake's no friend of mine!" She released in a huff, "and I'd pay to see you or Ryan teach him a lesson."

"I like the way you think, Doc," he whispered, "Seems to me, she could do a lot better... she ought to look in her own backyard."

"You might as well talk to that wall," The doctor finished with the head and moved to stitch the lip. "She's in love with Ryan and I know he loves her... but he blames himself for Max's death. The guilt nearly broke him... he keeps her at arms length. The only time he lets the love he has inside show, is with Grace. He's crazy about that child." She concentrated on her work, stopping briefly.

"Grace?" Chris recalled fuzzily a blurry pastel bundle going up the stairs. "Caitlin's daughter?"

"Just turned five and a heartbreaker. They moved in here three years ago after Max was killed." She paused pulling the thread through the wound. "Cait needed him then, in those first months after... but he was a lost soul. After his body healed, he took off for almost a year, travelled around the world. He came home when Seamus, his grandfather, took sick. We hoped maybe once he saw her again..." her voice trailed off, recalling those difficult months after his return, "but he got worse, angry and brooding, shutting us all out, except little Grace. Caitlin is a beautiful woman..."

"You don't have to tell me that twice, Doc, I got eyes..."

"She's smart, loves life and gradually the wound healed, but she was lonely. Almost a year ago, she met ...him..."

Chris smiled, pulling at the stitches in his lip, as the disdain on the pretty face. "How'd you two meet?" He asked, changing the subject.

"In high school," she smiled, "I was a shy, only child, quiet and withdrawn. Cait was outgoing, wild, crazy... we've been best friends... sisters really, ever since. She met Max in New York, working at a museum. They were so happy... until her world exploded with that car..."

"Car?" Chris's ears perked up.

"Three years ago, when Max was killed. His car went off the road outside town. He was investigating the Moreau estate, after the will was probated. Louis Moreau was a millionaire, in his will he left orders to find his mother's lost heirs." She paused, watching him shake his head. "Hold still, I'm almost done... there!" she snipped the edge.

"There's so many coincidences, it's scary..." he eased off the table. "Thanks, Doc, how much..."

"No," She put both hands up, "Forget it..." then she understood the reason for the lingering question in his eyes. "You're staying in his house... Louis's house became The Sauville... named for Isabella's father."

"Max..." He cocked his head, "McKenna... the writer!"

"The same." She paused over Vin, taking his pulse and respiration. She stuck the probe in his ear to record his temp and then took a blood sample. "It's up ...he's nearly back to normal."

"He was good... I read his books, his articles. He was very good. I don't remember that accident, it was almost the same time Sara was killed. But later, there was a retrospective on television, they showed news footage. Wasn't Ryan there... hurt... yeah," he answered himself. "...ended his career."

"Max was almost certain that Isabella had a child, up near Baton Rouge. That her first husband was a painter, a poor artist who her father didn't approve of. Somehow, Raoul, the man her father picked to marry her, found out where they were. Max's theory was that Raoul murdered him. But there was no trace of the baby. Until that night... he called and left a message on Cait's machine. Then he called Ryan and told him to get Cait and Grace out of town... he was scared. Max McKenna covered the bloodiest wars in this world, for him to be scared..." she paused, "Ryan said later Max had proof and whatever it was, it terrified him. Ryan took Cait and Grace to a private airfield and chartered them a flight north to New England where her mother and grandmother were. He was on his way back, when he saw... well... the police said Max was driving crazy... all over the road. The official report has him losing control and going over a cliff. Ryan feels he was murdered. He got there, tried to stop the car and fell."

"What does she see in Trent?" Chris broke the silence following the recap.

"I don't know."

"You don't trust him?"

"No, and I don't think, deep down, she does either. That 's why she won't set a date. If I could only convince that thick-headed Irishman how wrong he is... that no one blames him for Max's death and that he's about to lose the only woman he's ever loved."

"He's seems like a good man..." He theorized, and was usually a good judge of people.

"He is... one of the best." She saw him smile and turn quickly, when the young man on the bed moaned. "You two close?"

"...and then some, Doc. After my wife and son died, I was in a dark place, cold, alone, shut the whole world away. Vin, he brought the sun back, without even trying."

Voices... he heard voices in the woods. A woman... and a man. A woman? Isabella? Was his beloved here? He cracked his eyes open and saw Chris. The man with blond hair and penetrating green eyes was Chris. He knew the name matched the face. But he didn't know how or why he knew this man.

"You're okay, Vin," Chris tried to take the confusion from the fuzzy blank stare that met his eyes. "You remember the doctor? She's been... Vin?" The blank stare grew into fear and the body stiffened on the cot. Twin blue balls of apprehension flew around the room.

Vin? Who was this 'Vin'? He eyed the pretty young woman and the strange clothing she wore. Pants? On a woman? He eyed the man again and wondered about that. He felt the man's hand on his blanketed arm and pulled away. Again he stared at the strange clothing.

"Vous devriez poursuivre votre tailleur en justice," he gasped in distaste.

"Shit!" Chris clenched his eyes shut and balled his fists."Here we go again..."

She laughed and covered her mouth.

"What?" Chris inquired, seeing blue fury in the sharpshooter's eyes.

"He uh... said you should sue your tailor." She whispered and grinned.

"Yeah, well at least I'm wearing clothes!" He shot back and saw the younger man's face flush. He began to speak so fast and furious, Chris lost track. He saw Vin trying to sit up and shoved him back down.

"He wants his clothes and he wants out of here."

"That's enough, Vin, cut it out, now!" Chris hollered and saw Brie shake her head, mouthing words out of Vin's sight. 'He's not Vin'...that rocked him. He backed up and watched the younger man struggling to remain in control. His eyes were large and fearful, his breating in short pants. Somehow, the doctor's soft voice and hand on his cheek was working. "Comment allez-vous?" She asked, wondering how he was feeling.

"Je ne me sens pas bien," he admitted to not feeling well. "vertiges...nausées..." Yes, he was dizzy and nauseous.

"What?" Chris demanded, feeling very left out. "Is he worse?" He got impatient, "Dammit, Vin, speak English!"

"Je m'appelle Gabrielle Marquette," she introduced, moving her face close to his. She could feel his hot breath and could so easily get lost in those limpid blue eyes.

"...Philippe Dubonnet..." Vin stammered, his eyes not leaving hers. Then another picture appeared, his infants... the angels... where were they? Isabella? What about the men by the river? His hands went to his head and chest? There was no pain. "Je ne comprends pas?"

"I know you're confused," she said slowly, addressing his question. "Philippe, Anglais?"

"Where are my babies?" he blurted, eyeing Chris with hostility. "What have you done with, you filthy curr! I am very handy with a saber, you swine and it will be my great pleasure to carve my name on your chest!"

"What?" Chris shot back, leveling a scowl. "Jesus, Vin you speak better English when you're French, then you do when your American. How is that possible?"

"I am not a... a... Vin..." he wrinkled his nose in distaste, "I will have my clothes now... I need to find my wife... my children... I need... those men who attacked me... by the turn in the river..."

"Your wife!" Chris's breath caught.

"Isabella..." Vin felt the room spinning and collapsed, letting the strange-dressing pretty woman lower him back down. "I am... sorry... Madame... I... I..."

"He's out again," she pulled the blanket up, "We need to talk!" She turned on the monitor above the cot and jerked her head, "Let's go."

"How's your friend?" Ryan asked, seeing the lost look on the blond man's face. He put a pot and four mugs on the table. Brie got down a tin of shortbread cookies and flipped the button on the monitor hanging on the wall. Vin's sleeping body appeared, his features relaxed and resting.

"Is he gone?" Chris asked of the abusive policeman. Caitlin quietly nodded. "Good... because I don't trust him, he's up to something."

"Chris, can I call you that?" Caitlin asked and saw him nod. "I know you got off to a bad start but..."

"Bad?" he took a mug of steaming coffee and sipped carefully. "Lady, he tried to kill me." He paused, eyeing Ryan, who he felt clearly was an allie. "You don't trust him either, do you?"

"Not from the minute I had the misfortune of meeting him. What?" He asked, seeing a question lingering in the green eyes. Then drifted to the monitor for a second, before turning back.

"I'm a pretty judge of people and my gut's twisting... and something he said." He paused, sipped and continued. "he said something about uh... 'keep your mouth shut Larabee'." He looked at every face, then stayed on Ryan's. "How'd he know my name?"

"That's right!" Brie leaned in, stirring French Vanilla creamer into her cup. "I didn't... nobody mentioned your name. How does he know you?"

"I don't know, but after this past week and the crazy stuff that's been going on..." he sighedin frustration. He turned to Caitlin then and the shock set back in. It was almost surreal... as if Sara was sitting with him. "I'm sorry, Mrs. McKenna, I hope I didn't hurt you."

"It's Caitlin and it's done now, I'm fine."

"I think, when you see this," he pulled out his wallet and took out a photo of Sara, "You'll understand my severe reaction."

"My God, that's uncanny!" Ryan was the one shocked now, looking at a woman with long dark hair, who face mirrored his sister-in-laws. "How is that possible?"

"Doc, you have a magnifier?"

"Sure..." Gabrielle rose and shuffled through a drawer in the large cabinet. "Here..." she handed it to Cait and stood behind her, eyeing the close up.

"Look at her neck..." Chris's voice was broken... seeing Sara's 'twin' was opening up an old wound.

"Oh my God!" Caitlin gasped, clutching her throat, seeing her necklace on the other woman. "How... can... that... be..."

"May I?" Chris asked, palm out. He nodded in gratitude. "It's identical..the rose, the scalloped edges... the inscription inside, 'Now and Forever'. But this... is different. Yours has 'ARD', Sara's has 'ALD'. She got it from her grandmother too... Lily and she were very close, Lily raised her."

"Lily?" Gabrielle asked.

"Alexandra Lily is her given name." Chris paused, "That's the AL of the locket. She was adopted as an infant with another child, ten years older, Sara. Sara fled Louisanna with Lily when her grandmother died. She had no mother and found her father in New Mexico. He adopted both of them. Sara had Lily's birth mother's journal. She added to it... kept the secret guarded. Something in the book terrified her."

"ALD... ARD... Twins!" Caitlin whispered, "My grandmother, Grace, was adopted in a small church near Baton Rouge. She was found in a basket, by the Blessed Mother's image. I can't believe it... we never knew what the initials meant. She was wearing this... when they found her."

"Aimée... no..." Chris closed his eyes and rubbed them. "Annabelle... no... shit... Sara told me once..." He sighed and tapped his fingers on the table. "She read the journal once, when she was carrying Adam." He slid a second picture over, taken right before the boy died. "He was only five..."

"I'm so sorry, Chris," Cait's heart broke, she couldn't imagine if Grace had been killed. She moved her hand across the table to squeeze his. Her eyes welled up and she choked back a sob.

"Thank you," He saw and felt her pain, for him and nodded.

"Jesus, that's scary," Ryan pointed to a photo on the refrigerator. "That's Grace, she's five, Cait and Max's little girl. With her hair short..."

"Yeah," Chris managed, barely able to look at the five-by-seven color photo. It did look alot like Adam. "Angélique Rose!" He blurted, "that was the other baby. Sara read the journal once... I was only half paying attention to her, but I remember that."

"Chris?" Gabrielle's quiet voice was full of concern, her nearly turquoise eyes went to the monitor. "...that's it, isn't it... that's who he was looking for?"

"Yeah," the blond allowed himself to admit.

"Who?" Caitlin asked, then looked at the image on the small screen. "Your friend?"

"Yeah," Chris sighed, "We're staying at the Sauville House. We were in class in Tulane until Tuesday. For over a week now, Vin's been having strange dreams... passing out... speaking in fluent French. There's a maze behind the house, he spends a lot of time out there. One night, I found him there, disoriented, speaking French, looking for his 'beloved'."

"Isabella!" Cait recoiled, knowing the history of the famous family. "So... you think... my grandmother... was one of her babies?"

"Yeah," Chris sighed, "Just now, we both heard Vin again. He was looking for his 'babies' and 'Isabella', he identified as his wife. He said his name was Philippe Dubonnet."

"ALD, ARD, that's it!" Cait gushed, "My God , Do you know what that means!"

"I'm beginning to get the picture," Ryan observed, thinking of Max's work. "The night my brother was killed, he was in that place." McKenna recalled, then gave a brief recap of the reporter's job there. "There's been a rumour for years that Isabella had proof of her first marriage and a child. That a book was hidden in that house somewhere. He found it... and somebody killed him for it." For a change, he didn't pull away when Cait took his hand and leaned on his shoulder. Instead, he drew her close, gaining strength from her.

"You said Lily's older sister had Isabella's first journal?" Gabrielle asked, moving her hand over the blond man's. She knew this was hard for him, especially since Cait looked so much like his dead wife. "I know it hurts, and I am so sorry. But you have a stake in this too, Chris. You... we... need to find out the truth "

"Your word!" He asked Caitlin, "You can't tell him..."

"I promise, Chris." She vowed, "Where's the book now? Can we see it? Do you have it?"

"No," Chris pursed his lips and eyed the phone on the wall and the clock. "But I know somebody who can. Can I use your phone?" A few minutes later, he heard a familiar voice. One person, aside from Vin, the only person he could trust with this problem. "Buck, I need a favor... a big one. Are you sitting down?"

Although the large leather couch in the room with Vin was comfortable, Chris had a hard time sleeping. It seemed like he'd just fallen off, when he felt something brush against his arm. He blinked in the semi-darkness and saw a body stumble past. The digital readout on the clockradio next to the bed shouted four-fifteen a.m. in large red letters. The low glow provided by a nightlight was enough for him to spot Vin padding into the foyer.

"Vin!" he whispered, tossing off the blanket that covered him. He hoped none of the ladies in the house were up for a snack. The sight of a naked, sleep-walking Texan would be startling to say the least. "Vin, come back here." He caught up to the sleeping patient, just as the younger man was about to urinate on the antique rug in the middle of the foyer. "Whoa!" he hissed, grabbing Vin's arm and slapping his face lightly. "Put the pony back in the barn, Cowboy, this ain't the bathroom."

"Huh?" Vin rasped, squinting in confusion. "...moved... it..."

"Nobody moved it, come on," Chris guided him to the small bathroom in the entryway to the doctor's office. "There," he left Vin in front of the commode and went to get his clothes.

"...it shrunk..." Vin muttered of the tiny room. He blinked, yawned and shivered.

"It rained last night," the other replied, moving to the dazed man's side.

"Oh!" Vin nodded, seemingly satisified. Then he saw the new stitches above Chris's eye, a bruise on his cheek and a fat, stitched lip. "Yer hurt!"

"I took a little fall, it's fine."

"Where we goin'?"

"Nowhere, you need to put some clothes on." Chris answered the confused, groggy voice.

"Oh," Vin sighed, lifting each leg and shoving his arms whenever commanded. He ran his dry tongue around his Sahara like mouth and clucked it several times. "I need a Dew..."

"Here," Chris guided him back to the bed and eased the back up. Once Vin was in a semi-sitting position, he handed him a large cup of fruit juice. The lid was snapped on and it had an attached straw. Dr. Marquette left fruit juice, pudding and cookies if Vin woke up.

"This ain't Dew." Vin burped, having gulped down the cold liquid.

"It's fruit juice, want more?" He inquired, but the redtinged lips were already parted. The eyes were closed and the Texan was sleeping. Chris lowered the bed and pulled the blanket up, before resuming his own sleep.

"Wilma!"

Vin's eyes jerked as the distinct sound of Fred Flintstone's voice filled his ear. When the black and flesh blur in front of him cleared, a tiny face was revealed. Just inches from his own, leaning over peering at him intently, was a heart shaped face with a cap of black curls and large amethyst eyes.

"Miss Emily thinked you were dead."

"Huh?" Vin croaked, rubbing his eyes and adjusting to the new day shining through the window. "Who?"

"Miss Emily."

"Oh," Vin ducked back as an antique cloth doll was shoved in his face. It was wearing a faded blue calico dress and wore a kerchief tied to a cluster of yarnlike curls. "Sorry t'disappoint ya. Where are we?" He peered around the unfamiliar room, still shaking the cobwebs from his head. Other than lightheadedness, he felt fine.

"In my house..." she paused, screwing up her small face. "Well, me and my Mommy live here with Aunt Gabrielle, she's a doctor. My Daddy's in heaven."

"I'm sorry t'hear that," Vin studied the small child, a small girl about five, who was wearing fuzzy pink Barbie blanket sleepers. "My Pa and Ma are in heaven too and I miss 'em a lot sometimes." He ran his eyes around the office again, as images of a very beautiful woman with gorgeous blue-green eyes and pale cocoa skin floated into his mind. Then other images appeared, her caring for him, taking softly to him, calming his fears. A bad nightmare, Chris by his side and a bad storm. When he turned back around, the small body had wormed it's way onto the bed next to him. "Somethin' wrong with yer eyes?" He backed up, as the face leaned into his again, eyes narrowing. "Where's yer kin? Ya the only one up?"

"My what?" She wrinkled up her nose at the strange twang and word.

"Kin... uh... yer Ma, brothers and sisters and such..." Vin translated with a sloppy yawn, which dribbled onto his chin. He swiped at it and eyed the Bedrock bowling alley on television.

"I can spit too, Uncle Wyun teached me, wanna see?"

"No, yer a little lady, ya oughtna be spittin'."

"You sure talk funny!" She giggled, sitting cross-legged on the bed. "Miss Emily thinks you're pretty!" She announced, studying his face carefully.

"Well, Miss Emily," Vin's voice softened, he smiled and shook the tiny, rag doll's hand, "I think yer right pretty too." He winked at the small girl and ruffled the black curls.

"I'm Grace," she said, holding up a ziplocked bag full of sugar pops cereal. "Want some?"

"Tell ya what," he gingerly eased his body over to where a small cooler stood. He vaguely recalled Chris pulling something to drink from here during the night. He saw the scattered blanket on the couch and smelled coffee. Chris must be awake and seeking caffiene. He found the remainder of the juice, poured two cups, snapped the lids on and returned to the bed. "I'm Vin, how 'bout we share?"

"Okay," she nodded, picking up the remote and aiming it at a tiny television that was suspended from a bending iron arm in the ceiling. "Aunt Brie said I wasn't supposed to bother you. Am I bothering you?" She cocked her head and saw him smile.

"No, Darlin' yer not botherin' me," he yawned again.

"Good! Then it's okay to stay," She decided, flipping past the dial. Several children's shows went by in a technicolor blur, when a familiar yellow square shape filled the screen.

"Hey Bob's on!" Vin grinned, taking a handful of the sweetened cereal.

"You like Spongebob?" Her eyes grew wide and her voice rose in awe and newfound appreciation.

"Hell... uh... I mean... uh... heck yeah," Vin crowed, chuckling at the antics on the screen. "I never miss him."

Twenty minutes later, having swapped their favorite cartoon episodes, colors and love for chocolate, they two new friends went into the kitchen. His eyes widened in appreciation, as he took in the large, warm, well-appointed room. The cabinets, countertops and stove bespoke a Victorian kitchen of days gone by. One part of the large wall facing the yard, was a window seat. Outside was a lovely garden and glider. He spotted a note on the table and walked over. It was from Chris, he'd gone upstairs to shower and would return. Nodding, Vin turned as his pint-sized hostess beckoned from a replica of a turn of the century ice box.

"This is my shelf," She announced proudly, "All the stuff I can have are down here, so I can reach 'em, see?" She pointed to juice boxes, pudding, fruit cups and yogurt. "You gonna drink that coffee?" She eyed the brewing liquid and saw him wrinkle his nose and shake his head.

"Nah, I'm a hot chocolate guy... Miss Emily like hot chocolate?" He smiled, spotting a large cannister of Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa Mix nearby.

"Do I... I mean she sure does!" Grace squealed, but then grabbed his wrist. "We can't have that. We need a grown-up to work the stove. We gotta do the milk thing."

"I reckon I can figure out how t'boil some water," Vin reassured, lifting a copper tea kettle and filling it with water.

"No!" Grace flung her body against his legs, "We can't use the stove. That's breaking the rules. We gotta wait for a grown-up!"

"Okay," he backed up, not wanting to upset her, and replaced the kettle. Just then, he heard movement from a staircase nearly hidden by the pantry. A pale face, uncombed wet blond hair and a hard set of green eyes appeared. An image flashed of a storm and the two of them in the street. Chris must have cut his eye there, during the fall. Vin's grin split his face, he loved the 'pre-caffiene-don't-look-at-me-if-you-want-to-live' Larabee look. He bit his lip, trying not to laugh as the bubbly child grew silent and backed up against his legs. Her curly head followed the man in black across the room and back. Vin waited until the brooding man was seated and the mug of black coffee nearly to his lips.

"Mornin' Cowboy!" he boomed, grinning again as the shoulders jumped and the coffee nearly spilled.

"Vin!" Chris growled, "One of these days I'm gonna fu..." He stopped as Vin's loud 'throat'clearing' noise stopped him mid curse. He saw the Texan pointing downward, to a pretty little girl who was leaning against him, eyes wide. "...uh... uh..."

"...remember t'say Good Mornin' back?" Vin offered.

"Yeah..." Chris stared at his friend hard, saw the eyes clear and color on the handsome face. "How do you feel? You collapsed during the storm outside last night. Some kind of trauma mixed up with your blood sugar."

"Pretty good... a little shakey..." Vin patted his flat ribcage.

"You need to eat," the blond decided, sipping his coffee.

"We was fixin' on doin' that... we need a grownup t'work the stove!" he grinned and saw the confused look on the other's face.

"Huh?"

"We was gonna have some hot chocolate," Vin announced.

"So go ahead," Chris replied, picking up his mug.

"Can you turn the stove on, Mister... uh... Mister..."

"Old Grizzly," Vin supplied, watching twin beams of green fire shoot at him. "Reminds ya on one don't he?"

"Your arm broke?" Chris drilled the all too amused Texan.

"We ain't allowed to work the stove. Only a grown-up can work it, so can you, Mister Grizzly?" the small girl asked.

"Vin..." Chris warned, as the sharpshooter's laughter filled the kitchen.

"Puts me in mind o'a whole new theme fer yer birthday, Mister Grizzly. Yup, tee-shirts, mugs, might even spring fer a sign out front..." He saw Chris's confused face. "I ain't growed up enough," Vin's animated eyes lit up even further, as he answered the silent question. "Please, Mister Grizzly... we got an awful hankerin' fer cocoa."

"Yeah," Grace's head bobbed, one hand slide into her new friend's larger one. "Miss Emily's got a... a... hankerafakin... too..."

"Josiah's right, sometimes God has a cruel sense of humor," Chris sighed, rose and turned the kettle on. Vin and Grace sat in the window seat, side by side, watching a mother bird feed her young. He watched for a moment, as Vin's features softened, watching nature at work. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad, not be 'growed-up enough'. When the whistle sounded, he poured two mugs of cocoa and carried them to the table. He settled into his seat, once again attempted to drink his much needed coffee, when the child, who was perched on Vin's lap, whispered loudly to him.

"Miss Emily wants to know if he has a bellyache. Is that why his eyes is all twisted up like that?"

"Could be," the blue-eyed mischief-maker nodded nodded, "I heard tell that's how he got his name!" he chuckled bravely.

"Vin, so help me God," Chris warned as Tanner's shoulders began to shake and he hid his laughter behind his hand.

"Mommy!" she shrieked, throwing herself off Vin's lap and running across the room. She dragged the startled woman across the room, her voice high with euphoric excitement. "Look what I found, his name is Vin and his Mommy and Daddy are in heaven. He likes chocolate and Spongebob Squarepants. He's awful pretty, can I keep him!"

That burst of pure adolation brought Chris his first smile of the day. Vin blushing helped that along. Right behind the smiling, but embarrassed Caitlin, was the tired Doctor. Chris's smile deepened, when he saw Vin's eyes widen and his mouth drop. He could almost feel the Texan's heart racing.

"You're catchin' flies there, Tanner," he joked, kicking Vin's foot.

"Huh!" Vin blinked. "Aw, hell, I'm sorry, I didn't mean t'stare, Ma'am."

"That's okay, Vin," Brie sat down next to him, resting a hand on his forehead. "Your flushed..."

"You noticed that too?" Chris teased, raising a smug eyebrow at his struggling friend, who glared at him. "Looks like you got quite a fever going there, Vin."

"Shut up, Chris!" Vin hissed, swallowed hard and tried not to stare at the lovely face just inches from his own. She was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Short, dark hair feathered in a perfect cut, large, almond shaped turquoise eyes and perfect white teeth peeking through coral lips.

"Your pulse is racing," She noted, "After you eat something, I want to examine you again."

"Again?" Vin croaked, eyes darting sideways.

"I'm Doctor Gabrielle Marquette," she stood up and took the coffee the other woman offered. "This is my best friend, Caitlin McKenna. You've already met her daughter Grace. We live here, my office is where you stayed last night. You passed out in the street. You were in shock and your blood sugar was dangerously low."

"I'm sorry," Vin hushed, dropping his warm face.

"Uh, Honey, why don't you take your hot cocoa and we'll go get dressed, okay?" Cait offered, knowing Vin was not comfortable.

"No, I wanna stay here!" she pouted.

"We'll come back down and help Aunt Brie make pancakes. Right now, she has to talk to Mister Tanner and his friend Mister Larabee."

"That's not his name," she protested on the way up the stairs, "It's Mister Grizzly, Vin said so. He talks funny... it makes my ears tickle. So can I keep him?"

"Your modesty is intact," Brie gave his hand a pat, "Chris got your wet clothes off and settled you in. I monitored you vitals signs until they leveled out." She glanced at the pensive blond, wisely leaving out the rest.

"What's goin' on?" Vin demanded, seeing the exchange.

"You had one of them dreams again, Vin, you were talking in French." Chris said quietly.

"Shit!" Vin slumped, wrapping both arms around his chest and rocking. He closed his eyes and a flash of a forest, water and evil laughter entered his mind. Words filtered in, his lips moved repeating them.

"...remember the deceiver... eye of the deceiver... protect the bloodline... protect her..."

"Vin, what's..."

"Shh!" Brie waved off Chris, who was now at his friend's side. He squatted down, watching the lips moving. "He's remembering, that's good, it means he's fighting back."

"Anything Vin?" Chris asked, when the eyes finally opened.

"Woods... water... a man... two men... laughin' at me... hurtin' me... bad..." he paused, cocked his head. "...a voice... warnin' me...beware ... of... the... deceiver... remember his face... protect her.."

"Who?"

"I can't..." then Vin's face went slack and his eyes rose to Brie's, as the face reappeared. "Yer friend's... she's the one I'm supposed t'protect. I don't understand any o'this..." he whispered, let out a long shuddering breath and rubbed his eyes. He felt two hands, strong ones, on his shoulders. Chris didn't say a word, but the firm massage spoke volumes. "...sorry... Miss... Doctor... uh... fer bringin' all o'this trouble on yer doorstep."

"It's Brie or Gabrielle and don't be, I was glad to help."

"I wanna go home, Chris," Vin asked, raising his bruised eyes to his brother's.

That hurt, more than words could say, but Chris remained firm, "Yeah, I know Vin, but... there's... we can't right now..." He scratched his neck, wondering how to explain.

"Why?" Vin demanded,anger rising, "Ya ain't the one whose head is all twisted up with nightmares... yer not the one speakin' another language... I don't wanna do this no more..." He sighed, sipped the chocolate and let the warmth ride down into his tight belly. "Did I say anythin'?"

"I couldn't understand you, but the Doc could." He paused and sat next to Vin, studying the troubled blue eyes. He felt every bit of the younger man's fear and needed to reassure him. "Whatever happens, Vin, we'll get through it together, you got my word." He waited several seconds until the long haired man's head bobbed and he continued, "Vin, do you remember Sara's locket?"

"Locket?" Vin puzzled, "Uh... that heart shaped one... in the weddin' picture on yer desk? It's got letters wrote on it?"

"Yeah," Chris sighed.

"It's Lily's right?" He asked of the charming elderly woman.

"It was given to her by her real parents, before she was adopted. Last night, I saw it... one just like it... right down to the inscription."

"Where?" Vin was confused and getting dizzy.

"Here," Caitlin supplied, walking closer.

Vin looked up and saw the difference. Her hair was combed and when he saw her face he gasped, shaking his head. "Ya look just like... Chris, she looks... like... Sara..."

"Yeah," Chris winced, biting his swollen lip. "It turns out, Lily had a twin sister. They each got a locket. Caitlin is her granddaughter, like Sara was Lily's." He touched Vin's wrist then, gathering his full attention. "Vin, last night, when you had the dream, you spoke to Brie, told her a name... you said you were Philippe Dubonnet. The twins, were his with Isabella, she was his wife."

"The ghost from the hotel? Damn!" Vin whispered, blinking as images appeared.

He reached out to touch the necklace and his fingers brushed against her throat. The warning came again, roaring in his ears. He cried out and put his hands on his ears, before sliding out of the chair and onto his knees. The words back... protect her... protect her... murderer... murderer. His face appeared again, black hair, black eyes and a scar. Then another face appeared, one that seemed too familiar. Long dark curls, sapphire eyes, strong square chin and a proud heart. Then he felt an almost peaceful strength fill him. His breathing regulated and he shivered a little.

"What's wrong?" Chris asked, trying to get at Vin, past Brie and Cait, who flanked him.

"I won't let him hurt ya..." Vin said in an almost tracelike voice, taking Cait's hand and staring into her eyes. "I give ya m'word... yer safe. I know his face... the eye of the deceiver. I think he killed Sara, Chris... I seen him... some other fella too... with...reddish hair... in a silver car... blowed up..."

"Oh my God!" Cait pulled away, shaking all over. "Max... how could he know?"

"First things first, you're still my patient," Brie took command, helping him stand. "You need food, before you crash again. Then we'll talk."

Grace was in the living room watching cartoons. The adults were in the kitchen, eating. They filled Vin in on all the details from the night before. It was during his second stack of pancakes, when Vin's fork froze halfway to his mouth. He placed it on the table and turned to Chris.

"Dubonnet?" He asked, watching the blond head rise. "Did ya say... Dubonnet?"

"Yeah," Chris sighed, "Do you know a Philippe Dubonnet?"

"No," he furrowed his brows, thinking hard, then looked hard into the green eyes, "Chris, my Ma's maiden name was Dubonnet. That's gotta mean somethin', don't it?"

"What do you know about her?" Cait's voice rose in anticipation.

"Nothin'," Vin shrugged, scratching his neck, "She died when I was five... uh... I seen her name on m'birth certificate. I recall... my Pa tellin' me... her pa died in Viet Nam..." he turned to Chris then, "...a chopper crash in '65 I think, name was... Peter Dubonnet. But I don't know anythin' else. It ain't much, I'm sorry," he apologized, seeing the hope rise in the pretty widow's eyes.

"It might be, Vin, in the right hands," Chris raised an eyebrow and saw Vin's eyes widen.

"Ya think he could find somethin'?"

"I think it's worth a shot!" the leader said, "Can I use the phone again?"

"Sure," Brie nodded, tapping Vin's plate, "Finish!"

"Yes, Ma'am!" he grinned boyishly, flushing slightly as her hand touched his.

In between the rogue's colorful desciption of sending a young lovely to 'another plane of pleasure', the phone in the quiet ATF office rang. "You are so full of shit, Buck!" J.D. Dunne hollered to his best friend, who was engaging them in a tall tale. "Unless she was unconscious, why would Miss Universe look at you?"

"That's professional," Chris grimaced on the other end. "I leave for ten days and you forget how to answer the phone. Somehow, I think 'ATF, Dunne speaking' has a more pleasant ring to it."

"Sorry, Chris!" the youth gulped, "How's Vin? Buck told us he passed out last night."

"He's fine," Chris cut in, "Listen carefully J.D. and then get them magic fingers of yours working," he noted of the computer whiz and information and records bloodhound.

Meanwhile, across town, Nigel Bates was alone in what once was André Moreau's study. Now the office for the Sauville House, he was getting the catering list together for a garden party. His cell phone rang and he turned away from the menus before him.

"Yes?"

"Bates, you alone?" Geoff Trent asked and got an affirmative reply. "That guy you told me keeps wandering in the garden at night? The one the gardener found unconscious? The one that the maid claimed saw Isabella's ghost?"

"Mister Tanner, Vin Tanner, he and a friend are staying in what was Isabella's bedroom. The night watchman saw him running loose out there last week, deep in the garden, speaking French."

"The other man, the friend staying with him, is his name Larabee?"

"Yes, they're from Denver." He replied, "I told you the time had come, the vision she had was right. That Old woman trusted me and led him right into our hands," he noted of Jessanie Broussard.

"I think, my friend, our prayers have been answered. I think the dearly departed Isabella has shown Tanner where her journal is hidden. I need that book, Nigel, my fortune is within those pages."

"What do we do now?"

"You follow him, then tonight, we'll take Mister Tanner for a long ride in the country. I know a place where we can have a nice, intimate chat." He smiled evilly and laughed, "real private... somewhere where no one will hear his screams."

"How?" Bates asked, "and what about the blond? He sticks to him like glue..."

"Him we don't need, he's expendable. I think he'll make a nice snack for an old alligator I know out that way... a midnight snack!"

"I'll be in touch," Nigel paused, "This is going to cost you, they're ATF agents. Two Fed's disappear and folks ask a lot of questions."

"Two visitors unfamiliar with the bayou got lost and their car went off a bridge. When we get through with Tanner, we'll toss what's left into the swamp too."

"You okay, Trent?" Dominic Novelli asked the grinning detective who was practically drooling onto his desk.

"Fine, Captain, never better!" He nearly sang, already counting all those zero's behind his future bank account and feeling the supple flesh of Cait McKenna beneath his body. Oh, life was sweet!

Part Twelve

Cait came back into the house, having walked Grace to the school bus. She heard low voices from Brie's office, where the pretty doctor was examining her patient. She went to the kitchen to have some more coffee and was surprised to find it occupied. Chris Larabee was troubled, she saw that clearly in the brooding face that was staring out the window. The green eyes flicked to the phone, almost willing it to ring.

"More coffee?" She winced when his shoulders jumped. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."

"That's okay, you'd think I'd be used to it," he nodded as she grabbed two mugs, "it comes with Vin Territory."

She smiled, filled their cups and sat next to him. "He's made quite an impression on Grace. She was quite upset that she couldn't keep him."

Chris chuckled softly into his coffee, green eyes keen, "He's good with kids, he completely understands them. He talks to them honestly, not over their heads and never 'down' to them. There's a kid inside Vin that I lost a long time ago... I envy that in him."

For some reason, the wistful sound in his voice made her sad. "Can you tell me about Lily?"

"If I could find the right words," he said not hiding his admiration. "She is... one spectacular lady, with a capital 'L'. Wild, beautiful, intelligent, graceful, tough, willful, proud... amazing." He paused and smiled, "...and she can kick ass with the best of them."

"Wow," she grinned, hearing the pride in his tone, "You care for her very deeply."

"She saved me life," he answered honestly. At first it had been hard to look at Cait McKenna, especially the eyes. They were Sara's, so too the smile, the hair... but it wasn't Sara and he had to get used to that. "You look like her... I mean... Sara... did too. She's a gifted artist, moved to Paris at eighteen and sculpted nude males."

"Good for her!" Cait crowed, "I like her already... God that had to be radical in the... what... 1920's?"

"Radical!" he smiled, sipping the cinnamon-tinted brew. "That's Lily... this is good coffee."

"Thank you, it's Ryan's secret blend."

He was about to say something, when he caught the catch in her voice. It matched the look in her eyes when she'd seen the handsome, ex-NFL'er the night before. How could she not know? How could she marry that creep, when she was clearly in love with Ryan McKenna? "He seems like a good man."

"There's none better," she blurted, then flushed, "I mean... it's been hard for him. He's never forgiven himself for Max's death. If it wasn't for Seamus, I think we'd have lost him too. But that Old Man is a tough SOB."

"McKenna," Chris pursed his lips and thought "Seamus... the boxer?"

"The very same," she nodded. "For a year after Max died, Ryan drifted around the world, homeless and lost, his heart and soul gone. Then Seamus got sick, very sick. We almost lost him. I wired Ryan and he came home. Seamus raised the boys after their folks died. He loves that Old Man... would do anything for him. So Seamus decided to open a saloon, with Ryan's help. It's a wonderful place, Ryan has the golden touch. Good food, Guiness and Harp on tap, lots of dark wood, just like Dublin from Seamus's youth." She paused again, seeing the photo on the refrigerator of Ryan and Grace on her first day of kindergarten. "He idolizes Grace, he's a wonderful uncle... sees her every day."

Chris listened to her words and saw the light in the amethyst eyes. Such beautiful eyes... wasted on the likes of Geoff Trent, blind to Ryan McKenna. It was a terrible tragic injustice.

His eyes shifted to the clock again. Twenty minutes, it seemed like five hours. He kept swallowing, hoping for moisture. His mouth was dry, eyes wide and heart hammering so hard it hurt. Taking off his shirt had been hard enough. But when she leaned in to flick a penlight in his eyes, he moved back so fast, he almost fell off the table. The combination of the delicate almost Oriental musk and the magnificent face had overwhelmed him.

"Aw, hell..." he rasped, flushed and eased himself back upright.

"Are you dizzy?"

"No... yeah... m'cold..." he protested with a shiver, furrowing his brows. He flinched and hissed when she lifted his wrist. "What?" he inquired, seeing the pretty almost aqua eyes open fuller.

"Interesting..." she teased, turning away. She hid her smile, ashamed that she was enjoying his discomfort. Also, there was the fact that she was very attracted to him. He was very handsome, but it was more than that. It was the child in him that appealed to her, the one that Grace was so taken with. The fact he as an ATF agent and what she'd learned of him from his partner spoke volumes as well. Then there was the soft drawl and gentle smile, hinting of something very strong and deep inside.

"Ma'am?" Vin croaked, "I'm drier than a buzzard's butt... ya got anythin' left in that cooler?"

"Sorry," she replied, bringing the glucose monitor, "Just as soon as I take some blood, I want to check your sugar level."

"Ya shouldda done that afore I drank that hot chocolate and ate s'much..." He didn't even feel the pinprick. His whole body was numb. He couldn't take his eyes off of her.

"It's fine..." she replied, reading the digital marks, "Here," she handed him a bottle of cranberry juice.

"Thanks," he popped the top and drank half in one fluid motion. "...m'fine, really, can I have m'shirt?"

"No," she smiled, revealing a perfect set of white teeth. She placed the stethescope on his chest and her left hand on his neck. She bit her lip, when heard the sharp intake of air. "Your heart is racing..." she noted, moving the disc around the fine chest.

"It wouldn't be gallopin' s'bad iffen ya weren't standin' s'close..." he blurted and then rolled his eyes, "Aw, hell. I must be makin' a great impression. I reckon ya had better conversations with a corpse."

She laughed and moved the instrument around to his back, listening intently. "Take a deep breath and hold it. Okay, now breath for me, in and out..." she moved it around, "again... again..." She laid her right hand on his waist as she moved the stethescope up, this caused him to jump and yelp.

"Don't be doin' that!" his voice rose in a near panic tone.

"I'm sorry," she grinned, wiggling her fingers into the firm flesh and hearing him laugh. "Is that your tickle spot?"

"That ain't part o' the exam," he protested and squirmed. "Where's my shirt?"

"I heard some crackles."

"What?" he scrunched his face up.

"Have you been sick recently?"

"Yeah," he nodded, breathing hard as she reappeared in front of him, leaning in to move the disc around. "I caught that creepin' crud that was roamin' around. We all got it, 'cept Ezra and Buck. Reckon they got too much amorosity and that killed off all the germs. I was still coughin' and such when we got here, but I took m'medicine and Chris was harpin' on me like a old hen with a wicked itch..." he stopped and watched her try to cover up her mouth. Her shoulders were quaking in mirth and he realized how badly he was prattling.

"I'm glad you're not a talker," she smiled, handing him his shirt.

"I ain't usually s'much of a jackass," he fumbled, misbuttoning the shirt. His hands fell away as she moved in to button the shirt. "Really... I'm a normal guy... don't usually work up a blister beatin' m'gums together. Can we do this over?"

"I like you just fine, Mister Vin Tanner," she smiled, got to the collar and slid her hand along his collarbone and neck. "You're real... and that's rare and I like that... a lot... your pulse is racing again."

"I... uh... think... uh... I... need... air..." he gasped, feeling pressure in his jeans.

"That door," she nodded to the exit on the side of the room. "leads to the entry to the garden. Here," she handed him a bottle of water. She cupped the square jaw and turned those deep eyes around, "You remember what I told you when you we started this exam. That episode last night was serious. You need to rest today. I want your word, that you'll go back to the hotel and crawl in that bed."

"I can't..." he shook his head, took a long draw and slid off the table. "I don't wanna sleep... them dreams is t'rough."

"Why don't I show you my garden?" she held our her hand, "and we'll talk, okay?"

"I'm s'sorry fer all this trouble," he rasped, unsure of whether to accept the slim hand. He took a deep breath and bit his lower lip. "It was supposed t'be fun. Me and Chris in Sin City. The class was good, I learned a lot, and Chris... we had us a great time... till them things started happenin'..."He felt pressure and let her take his hand and lead him towards the door. On the wall of the hallway that led to the outside, was an oval painting. The woman in the impression was breathtakingly beautiful, dressed in a long rose gown with ivory lace trim over a low neckline. Her dark hair was gathered up in curls, her skin was a creamy light brown. "Damn!" his eyes widened in appreciation. "She yer kin? Ya look somethin' like her. She just about took all m'air away."

"Thank you," she smiled, squeezing the strong hand. He was so refreshing and unaccompanied by the usual baggage males wore. "Vin Tanner, meet Miss Olivia Josephine LaFleur. She was my great-grandmother. That was painted at the turn of the century, she was about eighteen years old. This is her home... mine now, but I feel her here."

The sun was shining, the air was sweet, as it usally is after a storm. The flowers were beautiful and they walked quietly, settling on a glider. He used his long legs to push them to and fro. He didn't even mind that she still held his hand.

Gabrielle looked at the tired profile, seeing pain lingering in the blue eyes. "You have a headache?" He nodded once and continued to stare at the flowers.

"I think... my Ma, she musta liked flowers," Vin said quietly, in a voice from long ago. "I can't remember nuthin' 'bout 'er. But whenever I see flowers, 'specially like this all set out pretty, I can almost feel her. I think maybe, when I was little feller, like Grace, I helped her with flowers in a garden like this." He stopped then, took a deep breath and smiled softly, peeking shyly at the pretty doctor. "Guess that's silly, huh?"

"No," she said in a thick voice, feeling moved by his simple words. There was that little boy again, the one that made him so very appealing. A man so strong, his gentle soul was still haunted by a mother lost too soon. She kissed his cheek and felt his skin warm under her touch. She tipped his chin and studied those lost blue eyes. "I think that's a beautiful memory, Vin Tanner and your mother, she's up in heaven, so very proud. Thank you for sharing that with me."

Vin started to say something, but could find no words. His mouth opened twice and closed again. He looked away, flushed, then nodded and squeezed her hand. Then he lifted her fingers to his lips and kissed her hand. "Thank you..." he croaked.

"You need to rest."

"If I go t'sleep... that fella'll come back... spittin' up a French alphabet at Chris. The first time it happened, I damn near choked him out... what if..." He paused, finished his water and eyed the pretty spill of blossoms.

"I don't fully understand this problem, but the link is there. You, Chris and Caitlin are connected to Isabella and Philippe. That man, the one who you travel to, needs your help. I don't know why, but denial isn't the answer. You aren't alone, Vin, you have us. Caitlin, Ryan and I will do all we can. You're close to something... maybe it's in that garden that Chris said you're so taken with. You need to find the key, then the mystery will be solved. Then those pretty eyes of yours won't house such pain."

He turned to her then, seeing a compassion in those wonderful eyes. She'd taken a couple of strangers in her home. He was unconscious, ill and lost. She'd stayed by him, nursed him and guided him through the storm. "Yer quite a woman, Ma'am... I'm real grateful fer..."

Her free hand came up to cover his lips. "If you call me Ma'am again, Mister Tanner, I'll be forced to take drastic measures."

"Sorry," he smiled, thinking on the names she'd mentioned at breakfast. "Doctor Gab... uh..." he paused, looking at her eyes, "Brielle..." then she moved a bit, as if startled and her eyes filled up. "Aw, hell, I fu... uh... screwed up again. Can't do nuthin' right..."

"No," She caught his chin and cheek, "My mother called me that, she'd been dead so long, I'd forgotten how much I liked it..."

"S'okay then?, it sure suits ya, it's awful pretty." He felt his nerves calming down and as the swing moved back and forth, he felt an ease take hold inside. He could stay here forever. "Chris has m'wallet... I can..." the hand came up again in an attempt to silence him, but he snagged it. "Okay, at least let m'take ya t'dinner, t'thank ya proper."

"I'd like that, Vin,"

"Good," he saw Chris motioning from the inside, in the kitchen. "Looks like Larabee's gotta an itch he can't scratch. I better go... six o'clock tonight okay?"

"I'm on duty at the hospital until seven, how about seven thirty?," she suggested, "there's a nice cafe with tables in a garden out back, I think you'd like it. It's got good food, it's private and very casual."

"Sounds good," Vin shrugged, as she gave him the address. They walked to the kitchen and she entered first, nodding to Chris as she went upstairs. Vin proceeded through the room into the foyer, putting his damp jacket on. "J.D. call back?"

"No, not yet," Larabee replied, "I moved the car this morning, it's out front. I left him a voicemail to email me. They're on duty today, so it won't be for awhile."

During the ride back, Chris updated Vin on the details of the night before, involving Geoff Trent. He didn't hide his disguest, as he told his partner of his suspicions. It was during a quiet moment afterwards, when Vin saw Chris turn to him with a devilish grin. The green eyes were shining with unLarabee-like mischief.

"What's wrong with yer eyes? Ya look like ya ate a fuckin' canary," he growled.

"Well?"

"Well, what?" Vin scowled.

"She a good kisser?"

"I didn't kiss her!" Vin shouted, face flushing up, "What the hell kinda question is that? Ya got balls, Larbee, ya know that! She's a real lady, a fine woman..."

"Can't blame a guy," the other replied dryly, enjoying his little revenge on Vin, "Hell, you're all moony-eyed. I bet your blood pressure shot out the top of the gage."

"I ain't not no moony-eyed." Vin shot back, unclipping his belt as they pulled up.

"...ain't not no..." the blond shook his head. "You're a real Rhodes scholar, Tanner." He followed his grumbling friend up the stairs. "So what time are you picking her up?"

"I'm meetin' her at a café near..." Vin turned around and shoved Chris's arm. "Don't be pullin' no more Pearl Harbors!" he warned of the sneak attack, "I ain't well. Brielle says I'm supposed t'rest... stay quiet like and no stress. So ya can't be shoutin' at me or fussin' and such."

"Brielle is it?" Chris goaded, shoving the squirming body through the door and towards his room. "Getting mighty personal with the good doctor." He hoped his plan worked, to get Vin's mind off the required sleep and the fearing lurking of the dark dreams. Maybe if he distracted him enough, he'd be able to forget for awhile. "She's a beautiful woman, I know a nice Cajun Grille outside town, I might ask her..."

"Ya stay away from her!" Vin shouted, popping his cranky, shaggy head out of the bathroom. "She ain't yer type."

"Really?" Chris quipped, grinning evilly. "What's not to like?" He thumped his chest. " I'm good looking, smart and know how to dress like a 'grown-up'." He paused, dropping his voice to a low, sultry, almost Barry Whitesque tone, "and I know what a lady likes...." he drolled, watching the Texan's blue eyes narrowing. "Whose type is she?"

"She's takin' a shine t'me," he boasted, shoving his bare chest out proudly. "...them scary rags ya wear wouldn't suit her. She likes me, said 'I'm real'..." With a toss of his indignant curls, he turned away, his voice trailing off towards his bedroom. He didn't see the broad, warm smile the blond now wore. He yawned and pulled the quilt back. The curtains were drawn, making the room dark and quiet. He eyed the empty glass and trotted to the ice bucket. Once his glass was full of water and ice, he returned to his bed, only to find Chris there. "How'd ya do that?"

"You're the tracker, figure it out!" Larabee grinned, handing Vin two Tylenols PM's. "They'll help you sleep." The sharpshooter's Adam's apple bobbed several times, the eyes were a large and tinged with fear. He knew where the those were headed, as they flicked to his own and back. "Yellow isn't your color, Cowboy," he reflected quietly. Vin's head jerked up, he swallowed hard and looked at the pills in the palm in front of him. He took them, set them on the table and curled up Larabee's fingers into a fist.

"If that French feller comes back," he rasped, lifting he face slowly to Chris's, "ya use this, okay?"

"Oh, Vin," Chris slumped, placing his free hand over the one Vin held over his fist. "No sorry-assed Texan or his dead French kin is gonna take down a Larabee, okay?" He waited, gripped the hand hard, but still doubt clouded the sky eyes. "I'll take care of him... you... I promise." Finally the head nodded and the hand was released. Chris gave the bare shoulder a tug and lifted a glass of water.

"I'm supposed t'keep m'fluids runnin' good," the Texan announced, sitting on the bed, "She said to push drinkin'." He paused, popping the pills and draining the glass. He rose to fill it, only to be shoved back down. The glass was taken from him and the blond disappeared into the bathroom. "...ya know, water, herbal tea, juice, Dew and such."

"You're full of shit, Tanner. She never said Dew!" Chris smirked, returning to the room. Vin was still prattling.

"...course they got new Dew... red stuff. It ain't bad, but me, I prefer the original. Can't face the day without a Dew." he yawned and blinked, eyeing the full glass of water. "I reckon it was some doctor that thunk it up...like it says 'Mountain Dew... it's gooood fer ya..."

"No doctor in their right mind would approve that shit."

"That's cause yer a snob!"

"Us grown-ups usually are," he teased, "Am I gonna lose my world class sniper to Miss Emily?"

Vin laughed then, pulled the blanket up and sank into the pillow. "She's a spunky little thing. I like t'have a little gal o'my own like that one day." he yawned, thinking of the precious five-year old. "M'okay, Chris, go make yer calls..." he sighed, already half asleep. He felt a single tug on his shoulder and heard the change in the tone. This sarcasm was gone, replaced by the deeper voice, the one he knew in his sleep. It was the one he always found when he was lost.

"I'm right here," Chris said, "Whatever happens Vin, we do it together."

Vin waited until he heard the door shut and popped his head up. Smiling, he reached into the bedside cabinet and drew out his precious green fluid. He muffled the sound of the top popping and poured the sweet soft drink into his cup. The first glassful went down easy, leaving him to moan. He refilled it, left it to chill near him and settled back down.

"Nectar of the Gods..." he murmured, belching a brief burst of Dewness out, before letting Larabee's words and the pretty face of the doctor lull him to sleep.

While Chris used the afternoon to catch up on a weeks worth of emails, work and other job related matters, Nigel Bates was busy. He watched two enter and went to the garden. Using high-intensity binoculars, he studied the room above. If the pattern from their previous nights held true, they'd be leaving for dinner after six sometime. He'd follow them and be waiting.

Six PM, Larabee Ranch

The Whiz Kid went to work, making himself to home in Chris's study. The leader had the very best computer equipment and a lightning fast server. J.D. Dunne crackled his knuckles in anticipation, as the screen lit up.

"You scare me, J.D." Buck Wilmington shook his head. "How long before you have anything?"

"Depends, but it won't be for a few hours."

"I'm gonna head over to Lily's, make her some dinner. You sure you don't want to come?"

"Nah, too much to do, Chris's got frozen pizza, I'll eat later."

Buck watched amazed for a moment as the youth's fingers flew across the keyboard. They had a brief meeting at Ezra's, after work. Buck and Josiah each told them what they knew, based on their conversation with Chris Larabee. They decided to keep it to themselves. Buck was still surprised that Chris trusted him with telling Lily. He didn't know exactly what he'd say, but he knew that his oldest friend wouldn't have asked, had it not been vital. He'd never risk Lily's life. What information he did speak of, was a possible link connecting Lily's journal and the murderer of the Larabee family. He picked up a photo taken on Adam's first birthday. It was on the desk and showed Chris sound asleep. The cherubic toddler, with a face covered in vanilla icing, was kissing his father's face.

"I can come with you."

Buck smiled, put the photo down and turned to face the young man who had become such a part of his life. He saw so much promise in those hazel eyes, fueled with enthusiasm. He pulled his coat on and picked up his car keys.

"Thanks, Kid," he ruffled the unruly black locks and pointed to the monitor. "You work your magic here, Chris only hires the best."

"That's why you were first on his list," Dunne countered, with a sly grin.

"Hell, Son, I'm first on most of the lists in town, just ask any single female between eighteen and eighty with a pulse."

"Oh brother!" the youth rolled his eyes and went back to work.

Chris moved through the darkened room, letting the light from the bathroom guide him. Vin slept soundly, without incident for most of the day. He gently shook the blanketed shoulder several times, until a face appeared. Sometimes, the leader thought his best friend was part mole. Vin 'burrowed' when he slept, exposing little of himself.

"Hey, you alive?"

"Wh...a...t..." Vin croaked, blinking through slits at a body. "Chris? ...time is it?"

"Six-thirty, you need to shower and change."

"Yeah, okay, thanks..." he sat up and licked his dry mouth. Clothes? He frowned, wondering what he had clean. He popped the light on, them hissed in pain as the harsh illumination cut into his eyes. After adjusting, he made his way to the closet.

"What the hell?" He eyed the neatly pressed, clean pair of faded jeans, white cotton shirt and his lucky bolo tie. They were laid out over two chairs. He chucked his sweat pants off and headed to the bathroom. He popped his head into Larabee's room, watching the blond typing on this laptop.

"Ya tell that maid, she does right fine work," he called out.

"You don't pay her enough, she might walk."

"...'s'that right?" Vin grinned, "She'd miss me t'much! Don't know if m'jeans will recover. They ain't never been laid by hot metal 'fore."

"I'd never have guessed that," Larabee quipped, eyeing his relaxed friend. Vin looked much better, the rest had been the right prescription.

"Ya didn't have t'fuss, I'dda found somethin' clean," Vin paused, "thanks."

"Speaking of clean, what's the deal with your socks?"

"...s'wrong with m'socks?" Vin's brows crossed.

"None of them match!"

"So?"

Chris laughed then, not at the blank stare but the total innocence in the reply. No, to Vin it didn't matter, that was part of the beauty of the man.

"Get hosed off, Prince Charming... you'll miss the carriage!"

Thirty minutes later, the two departed, unaware they were being followed.

"Here it is," Chris pointed to the sign adorned with a shamrock and a harp reading 'Seamus's Saloon'. "You and Brie come here after dinner, I'm sure by then J.D. will have something."

"Okay," Vin nodded, mentally making a map in his head, tracing the streets of the French Quarter. "It's crowded Chris, just let me out here." There was no reply and Vin's mouth formed a grim line. "I'm a big boy, Larabee, I'll be fine." Still no reply, then the century old restaurant came into view.

"There she is," Chris nodded to the window, through which the beautiful doctor could be seen. He glanced sideways and saw Vin's hands balled into fists. He hid his grin, enjoying the nervous younger man's anxiety. "Maybe I should come in, she sure looks nice."

"Maybe ya outta take yer interferin' ass elsewheres..." Vin chastised, unbuckling his belt. He paused a moment, eyeing the attire of the woman he was meeting. She was almost as tall as he was. The pale aqua mid-calf length dress she wore set off her complexion and eyes. He ran a hand over his plain shirt and pants and frowned.

"You look fine," Chris offered quietly, "You're real, remember?" He waited but Vin made no move to leave. "For the right price, you could have borrowed some of my... what was that charming phrase you used... oh... scary rags."

"Hah!" Vin chuckled nervously, "Me wearin' yer rags, now that's scary. Guess I better make tracks." He eased his lean body from the car, shutting the door.

"Hey," Chris called through Vin's open window, watching the younger man turn, "Have a good time, okay?"

"Chris, over here," Ryan McKenna called out, watching the lean man enter the bar. He smiled as every pair of females eyes followed the form fitting black-denim pants through the crowded room. He stuck his hand out, gripping the other's firmly. "Guiness?" he asked.

"Yeah," Chris nodded, eyeing the handsomly appointed room. "Nice place."

"Thanks," Ryan's height carried his head above the crowd, "Mac, another round. You eat?" he asked and the blond head shook. "We make a pretty mean roast beef sandwich."

"Sounds good," Chris sat down at the middle chair of the table, which would seat six. He tucked his sunglasses in the pocket of his black leather jacket, which he hung on the back of the chair.

"That tongue of yers is telling long tales again, Boyo," a deep, gruff voice bellowed. "There's no 'we', it's me own secret recipe. Move... move... yer in me way." he swung the cane at his handsome grandson.

"Christ, would you watch where you swing that thing, Old Man?" Ryan growled, moving so the elderly man could take the nearest chair. "Chris Larabee, this is my grandfather, Seamus McKenna. Chris and his friend Vin Tanner are the ATF agents I told you about."

"It's a pleasure, Sir, I'm a big boxing fan and you were one of the best. I've got three of your fights on tape... the one against Barry Caulfield in London in '53 is a classic."

"Why didn't ye tell me this young man had such good taste." He joked, shaking the man's hand. "Ye've a good solid hand, Lad, I like that. Ryan, where's me supper? Me belly thinks me throat's been cut..." He frowned as a tall glass of ice tea appeared in front of him. "I'll not be drinkin' this horse piss. Where's me stout?"

"In the tap where is belongs," Ryan countered, "Don't start! You're not mixing that heart medicine with any more beer. Everybody is under orders."

"Yer all out of me will!" He growled at the chuckling employees. "It's a sad day when the breadwinner can't wet his whistle."

"Breadwinner!" Ryan choked, moving as a waiter appeared with a large tray. "You've been retired for twenty years." Two mugs of stout appeared, with two hefty platters. Long, crusty French bread dusted with garlic butter was piled high with rare roast beer, melted sharp cheese. A pile of cajun fries and some hot pickles completed the entrees.

"Where's me supper!" He demanded, eyeing the empty spot where a meal should be.

"Oh," Chris said, one half of the large sandwich in his hands. "Here, Sir, take this one."

"No, Chris, that yours," Ryan denied, waving his hand."Mike, is it ready?"

"Coming up, Ryan!" the waiter disappeared.

"Ye listen to me Boyo," the white-haired man spoke irately, "If ye make me eat another fuckin' fish, I'll be spoutin' gills."

Chris had taken a large bite of the delicious sandwich, which was outstanding. He tossed some horseradish on it for good measure. He sat back and enjoyed the bantering between the two men, whose affection was obvious to all present. He imagined that Seamus must have been one tough customer in his day. He still was in good shape and undoutedly Ryan helped.

"Did you hear anything?" Ryan asked, chomping on a pickle.

"Not yet, but J.D.'s gonna call me as soon as he gets something. How much do you know about Geoff Trent?" Before the other man could answer, an clearly disgusted reply came from their eldery counterpart.

"Harmmpphh!" Seamus shoved his grilled chicken away, "The day won't dawn soon enough fer the likes of the snake to be playing poker with the devil."

"Ouch!" Chris sat back, watching the twin looks of rage on both faces. "You don't like him either?"

"I don't and that's a fact. I have me reasons." Seamus touted, patting his chest. "Right here... never failed me yet. I'll not have him marryin' me granddaughter. I'll slit him from his neck to his balls first."

Chris jumped as the heavy black thorn walking stick rapped hard on the wood floor. "I'm glad he's on our side," he deadpanned. "Ryan?" He broke the trace of the other man, whose face was darkened with rage.

"He's well connected, the brass in the department like him. He gets good ink on the biggest busts," he noted of the numerous times the detective's face appeared in the paper. "Lots of citations and awards."

"You think he's dirty?"

"I checked around, I've got some regulars who know the talk on the street. There's been some questionable deaths of suspects he's caught. Most of them tied to the drug market. They die off mysteriously before they can reveal too much."

"Translation, he's up to his balls in graft." Chris took a large swig, "He's dirty... I wish to hell I knew how he knew me."

"Maybe he has a partner... someone keeping tabs on you and Tanner." Ryan suggested.

"Or maybe that devil's fangs are deeper then we thought," Seamus stated, "Did ye not tell me he transferred from out of state?"

"Yeah... he's been around. He was dirt poor, raised by an aunt. His mother was a junkie. Put himself though college. Everytime he transfers, he leaves behind a string of 'questionable' actions."

"Denver?" Chris wonderd aloud, thinking maybe somehow, he'd interferred with Trent's drug business.

"No, sorry Chris," Ryan flipped out a notebook. "But I did find out he was linked to the panel that investigated the Moreau estate."

"Bingo!" Chris drew a dollar sign on the table. "That's his angle. I bet he was the bankroll behind your brother's investigation. Somehow, he wanted to know about the missing heir."

"Heiress..." Ryan corrected, "That fuckin' animal! He wants proof that Cait is the rightful heir, that's why he's been pressuring her to marry him quick. I'm gonna beat the truth out of him!"

"Ye'll stop talkin' nonsense!" Seamus hissed, locking one large hand on the tense blue shirt of his pride and joy. "Ye've no proof and he's a powerful man. He's got the whole police department to cover his back."

"Your grandfather's right, Ryan," Chris agreed, swallowing another bite of the sandwich. "As long as he doesn't know we're on to him, we have the advantage. I want to nail this bastard too."

Reluctantly, Ryan nodded, releasing a pent up breath. He took several more, before covering the gnarled strong hand with his own. "Thanks, Old Man."

"Now that ye've yer wits about ye again, can I have some real food? This poor bird is dyin' all over again in me gut."

Chris chuckled as the two began to barb again. He flicked an eye on his watch wondering how both J.D. and Vin were faring.

To Vin, it seemed like no one else was in the quaint courtyard. The magnolias were teasing his nose, the tantilizing food was tickling his belly and the sound of Gabrielle Marquette's laugh was the sweetest music he'd ever heard. The spicy soup was followed by fried catfish, a first for him. He normally didn't eat fish, but she said it was heavenly here and she was right! It was tender and melted in his mouth. They killed a bottle of white sangria and then had New Orleans coffee with dessert. She had melon sorbet. Of course, he had chocolate. Triple chocolate mousse to be exact. White, dark and milk, layered in a pie with a dark chocolate crunchy crust, drizzled in chocolate and sprinked with shavings.

The conversation was light and easy. He told her of the hard years before he joined the team and the redemption he found since. She spoke of her parent's deaths and how Cait and her family were like her own. She talked about her job, how the hectic pace of the hospital, complimented the slower pace of her practice. Before they knew it, the bill was paid and they were walking back towards the Saloon. They strolled hand in hand, the light breeze welcoming their every step. Vin couldn't believe it was ten thirty! He studied her face and saw the weariness there. He'd been in enough hospitals to know that the pace is exhausting.

"Ya look tired," he commented, then noticed her shivering. "Here..." he slipped his time worn leather jacket off and put it around her shoulders. "Better?" he asked and saw her smile.

"You have something right there," she moved in front on him, leaning close.

"Where?" Vin rasped hoarsely, feeling her body melting against his.

"Right here..." she ran her champagne coated fingernail across his sensual lip. "I can fix it..."

"Yer the Doc..." he whispered, pulling her close and kissing her. His hands resting above the curve of her back. He felt her delicate touch at the nape of his neck. Hefelt an explosion of color and fire inside, as their tongues clashed. He groaned in pleasure, before releasing her.

"That's another hidden talent you neglected to tell me about," she smiled, watching him blush.

"Ya got a real trio o'trouble there," he noted, kissing her softly again. God she tasted good. "Them lips, teeth and tongue outta be registered with the Feds... they're more lethal than the piece I pack." He felt his face flame again as she glanced below his belt. "...the gun... I meant m'gun. Yer bad!" He challenged, "Ya done that on purpose!"

"Guilty as charged," she laughed, raised her hand as if under oath. "You sure do blush pretty!" She snuggled closer, forcing him back against a pole at the street corner. "What's my punishment, Officer?"

"Depends," Vin murmured, carressing the skin on her neck and shoulders. "I need t'do a thorough investigation..." He kissed her again, deep and powerful, giving them both chills. He pulled her close then, the top of the feathered dark hair resting under his chin. "It's gettin' late. I'll check in with Chris and get ya home."

"No, Chris wants to talk to you," she burrowed closer, enjoying the warmth of his skin against her cheek. "My car is right over there," she pointed to a dusty blue Rav parked nearby.

"Chic car," he commented, earning him a nip on his neck.

"Don't be doin' that!" Vin hissed, pushing her away. "Ya best get goin' or I won't be able to let ya go."

"Okay," She let him walk he to the car, they kissed again and she cupped his face. "Thank you, Vin Tanner for a wonderful night. Tomorrow, I get off early. How about you let me cook you a slow dinner."

"I like slow," he managed, wondering how much higher his temperature could rise. He shut the door behind her and watched her drive away.

"Vin!" Chris called out, as his friend arrived. It took him a minute to figure out the new look he wore. The flustered face and large blue eyes were accented by a high color on his cheeks. Then he got closer and the blond hid a smile. He handed Vin a napkin on the sly, whispering in his ear."You got lipstick on your neck, Romeo." He heard the tsk on the lip as the evidence was wiped away. He led the quiet man to the table, pausing to eye the back of his pants.

"What's wrong?" Vin asked, trying to look behind.

"Yup," the blond nodded, patting the firm backside of his friend. "That arrow hit your sorry, Tanner ass dead on."

"Arrow?" Vin's face puzzled.

"Cupid!" Chris whispered, wagged a single eyebrow and walked to the table. He made the introductions. Vin sat next to Chris on the other side of the two McKenna's across.

"The Kid call?" he asked Chris, before taking large gulp of soda.

"Yeah," the other replied, "he's emailing me what he found. We can check it when we get back." He said no more, the information the youth relayed was still reeling in his head. He wanted to tell Vin in private. "We came up with some stuff on Trent."

For another half hour, they discussed theories, plausible and not. It was late and they decided to meet again the following afternoon. Ryan stood and gripped Chris's hand, locking his deep blue eyes onto the other man's green ones.

"What you're doing, it's above and beyond, Chris, I want you know how grateful I am."

"I gotta feeling, Ryan," Chris leveled, "that before this mess is over, I'm going to be the grateful one. That bastard knows me from somewhere, and I have to find out the 'whys' and 'hows'. It's good to know you're on my team."

With that, they left, walking in silence past several streets, as their brisk pace quickly made the walk shorter.

"Where ya parked?" Vin asked, eyeing the narrow, dark street.

"At the corner," Chris replied, starting to walk away. His arm was snagged and he turned back."What?" He inquired of the intense blue stare.

"Ya tell me now, what'd J.D. find out!"

"Okay, Vin," he sighed, ran a hand through his short blond hair and pulled the mental notes out of his head. "Your mother's maiden name was Dubonnet. Her father, Peter, was killed in sixty-three in Viet Nam. He was born in 1925 in Lafayette, Louisanna." He paused then, not quite sure of what the reaction would be.

"Spill it!" Vin demanded, grabbing Chris's arm.

"Peter's father was Pierre Dubonnet. He was born in 1886. He has a twin brother, Vin, named Philippe." But before he could finish, he found himself sitting in the gutter. "Vin! Vin wait!"

"Aw, shit!" Vin hollered, shoving Chris hard and running away. It didn't matter where, he just needed to escape. The images slammed into him again, hard and cutting a painful trek in his brain. He cried out, stumbling as the woods, river and laughing faces appeared again. Then the other face, whose features were now all too familiar. Philippe Dubonnet's face seemed real because it was so like the one in the mirror he saw each day. What did this all mean? Why was he being sought out?

"Now!" Trent hissed, shoving Bates into action.

Chris rose just in time to see a car speeding up the street. A small dark car with no plates. The only thing in it's path was...

"Vin!" He screamed, "Look out!" He watched in horror as the dazed Texan seemed unaware of his words. The nimble body disappeard down an alley, the car in pursuit. "Shit!" He took off, racing quickly to the alley.

One minute he was fine, the next he was thrown into a wall. He grunted and crumpled on the ground, all his wind taken from him. He choked and gasped, dizzy and nearly blacking out. He smelled fuel, burning rubber and heard a car door slam. Then he heard a loud growl and saw Chris fly by. He wanted to call out, to warn his friend, but his lungs hadn't recovered yet.

It was nearly pitch black and Chris saw only a hint of shadowed flesh. A body was on the ground on it's side. There was no movement, but he heard coughing and choking. Vin was hurt! He ran to pull his friend from harm's way. He realized his mistake too late, just as the pain exploded in his skull and the scream left his lips.

It seemed to be in slow motion, the club the blond never saw rose high above him and slammed into his head. Blood... blood gushed over Larabee's features as he fell hard on the ground, not moving.

"Welcome to hell, Mister Tanner," a voice whispered in his ear. He felt two hands roughly shove him on his stomach and pull his hands painfully together. There were voices, but he was struggling to stay awake and they sounded like insects buzzing in his ear. Chris... Chris... he tried to see, but the inky blackness of the dark alley made it impossible.

Buck paused in the doorway of the studio, bearing an expensive Oriental wood tray with inlaid colorful tiles. Lily's home was full of such tasteful treasures. Thanks to her worldwide travels, she was an avid collector of antiques and antiquities. He ducked his tall frame through the doorway and set the pretty tray on a table. It held a pot of tea, two delicate blue and white China mugs from Holland and a plate of shortbread cookies. Lily still loved to cook and bake. He moved behind her silently, admiring the steady stroke of her hand. It was a charcoal sketch of Adam at about four years of age. His hands were folded in prayer and his eyes gazing heavenward. He waited until she put the stick down and then gently hugged her shoulders, kissing her cheek.

"Marry me?"

The fine lines of age only seemed to add to her beauty. She smiled and felt her whole chest fill with warmth. She stood up and fell into the strong embrace, her love for this special young man was genuine. For a moment, she relaxed against him, then her hand playfully slipped lower, patting his butt.

"Sorry Stud, I like my men young and firm!"

"Hey!" Buck yelped, chuckling and escorting the timeless beauty to the table. "Don't be bruisin' the merchandise unless you're buyin' some."

"HAH!" she laughed, "I'll pass. I like my 'merchandise' young and fresh."

"Here you are, Darlin'... hot and sweet," he winked and felt his hand gripped. The smile faded and her eyes filled with concern.

"Now are you going to tell me what's been bothering you all evening?" She inquired.

"It's that obvious?"

"I know you, Buck Wilmington," she sipped her tea and watched his large hands caress the delicate cup within them with grace and agility. She heard his deep sigh and saw the cup tremble a bit, before he set it back down.

Buck studied the pattern of the colorful tiles on the tray. Sometimes, Chris Larabee trusted him too much. How could he possibly find the words? How could he tell her what Chris told him? It had taken her so long to recover from losing Sara and Adam. Now, that would be dug up again. Then you add the missing sister and the family legacy. He sighed again, gripped the edges of the antique Oriental chair and dropped his head down.

The only thing that she could think of, that would bring such pain to the handsome young man, was one thing. Her heart clenched and her breath caught. Chris and Vin were out of town.

"Oh no," she gasped, "It's Chris? Something's happened? Oh my..."

"No, Lily," Buck's head shot up and he rose, seeing her trembling. The tea forgotten, he gathered her up and walked to the bench nearby. He sat down, keeping her close and holding on to her."I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you. Chris is fine, I talked to him last night."

"Vin?" she drew her head up, she cared deeply for the quiet, young Texan. He brought a healing peace to her grandson that she rejoiced in. She worried, in these last few years, as her age crept higher. She worried what would happen to him, should she die. Now, he had a brother to care for him.

"Vin's okay..." he reassured, "Chris asked me for a favor, Lily, a big one. He needs information from your journal."

"What kind of information?" She pulled back, a little angry. "What for?"

"Uh... Chris met some people in New Orleans. It turns out, he thinks that," he sighed again, raking a hand through his dark hair, "...they're related to you. That's why he needs the book. To see if there is something in there that would confirm it."

She remained silent, then stood up, walking to an old picture. It was taken when she graduated from high school. Not long after, Sara showed her the book. The beginning of it was written in a stranger's hand... a stranger who had her eyes. An unknown brave woman with mother love that still stroked her, even today. Sara's hand continued the passages, telling of a murder on a river. It told of a chuch and a baby taken away. She thought of the lone sketch in the beginning of the book. It covered two pages, of a handsome young man with long, curling black hair holding two babies on his lap. Each one bearing a heart shaped locket.

"I've thought about her often," she whispered, eyeing her beloved older sister Sara in the photo. "My missing sister... the baby that God took."

"God?" Buck puzzled, "You knew about her?"

"I knew I had a twin," she held out her hand and he stood and took it, letting her lead him back into the main part of the house. "Bring up that fire, Sweetheart," she asked, pointing the hearth. She left for a moment, going into her bedroom to the safe in the corner. When she returned, the golden and orange flames were dancing and the tall man was settled on the couch. She sat next to him, resting the leather bound book on both their legs. "My mother, Isabella, began this journal on the night she wed Phillippe Dubonnet. She added to it, writing her love for him and later of their babies. I cannot show your that part, it's private."

"Of course it is, Lily," Buck's voice caught, "You don't have to show me any of it, I don't want to pry..." His words were cut off when a small hand covered his lips.

"Nonense," she snapped, "you may not be so young and ripe anymore, but you're family and I love you."

"Darlin'" Buck gasped, kissing the strong, tiny hand, "Sometimes, you take my breath away."

"This," she opened to the book to the old sketch, "is my father holding us. Sara said he drew it the night before he was murdered."

"Murdered?" Buck cringed, "by who?"

"You have to understand, Sara was only ten when she witnessed this. It scarred her for life, she was always in fear that he'd find her... us... and kill us too. Money will do that... he was a very powerful man who was ruthless and cruel."

"You knew him?"

"Of him... Raoul Moreau..." she paused, "Not at first, that took many years. Sara would never tell me. I found later, after she died."

"Buy why?" Buck shook his head, "If you knew you were her child...her heir..."

"I promised Sara, when I was eighteen, to leave it alone. She was terrified of him, had nightmares for years. That is what fueled me to succeed. I didn't need or want that money. I didn't know she was alive," her finger went to the other baby. "...or I would have fought for her. Sara said that God chose to give her to the other couple. The a light came through the Blessed Virgin's image in window that day and shone on the other baby. That light guided the other couple to the baby. She was a child, Buck, only ten and had just seen a friend brutally murdered. She had no one... she was alone in the world. She took me on a train, alone to find a man she'd never met. Our father... she gave me my life, Buck, in the woods that night and every day after. I cannot imagine being that brave, can you?"

"No," Buck admitted, staring at the picture.

"I gave her my word, Buck," Lily stated simply, touching the heart that dangled from her neck. "She was everything to me, saved my life many times. Gave me a family, everything came from her. I gave her my word..."

"I wish I knew her," Buck replied, wondering about the woman who drew such admiration from Lily Gavin. Perhaps if J.D. had not called with the information he found out, he wouldn't have seen it. But now, looking at the old, black lead strokes on tinged paper, the image of the murdered victim was eerily familiar. Some of the features were different, but still, he could see Vin there. "There something else you need to know..." He began, and told her the rest of the story.

Geoff Trent's hand twisted the long locks of Tanner's hair painfully. Silver cuffs bound the victim's hands behind his back. He knelt on the younger man's lower back hard, driving his knee into the tender area with force. This action brought silent pain and took the other's air away. Like a air-drowned guppy, his mouth worked and the eyes were wide and dazed. Then the whole body lost air, the eyes fluttered shut and the muscles sagged beneath his weight. A shrill scream brought his head up. Behind the car, on the other side, where Larabee was lying, was a cluster of tourists. He cursed under his breath, unlocked the cuffs and peeked up cautiously.

"Somebody call 911, there's been an accident..."

"This guy's alive... where's the driver?"

"I can't see anything... wait... there's somebody behind the car..."

The voices were getting too close. Cursing Bate's stupidity, he ground Tanner's face hard into the dirt, silently vowing a return match. Then he slipped around the large dumpster behind the car and silently walked quickly to the end of the alley. He turned fast, found his own vehicle and went ahead to the hospital. No one in the Emergency Room would question a police dectective investigating a crime. After all, Vin Tanner was the lone witness and a thorough questioning was required. He smiled, planned out his night and turned onto the highway.

He was cold, that was his first conscious thought. He way lying on his back and someone was talking. It was a strange accent, thick and syrupy. He furrowed his brows, moaned and moved his head.

"Hey, Chèr, yuh wake up fuh me?"

"Wh...at..." Vin muttered, peeling his eyes open. A heavy dark woman's face, loomed above. Her teeth were extremly white.

"That's bettah..." the policewoman kept one strong hand on his shoulder, forcing him to remain on the ground. "Don't move... yuh could be hurt. Yuh remember what happened?"

"Uh..." Vin's eyes widened as the rest of the world came into focus. He was on his back in an alley. A large car was parked a few yards away. The rancid odor of feces, urine, vomit and garbage filled his nose. Large, metal bins of garbage were nearby. An image formed, Chris's face and blood.

"Chris!" he whispered, trying to move. Again, the strong hands held him down.

"Now yuh lie still and don't get Louise mad, Chèr," she turned as the ambulance left. "That blond man we found, is he 'Chris'?"

"Yeah, I'm Vin Tanner. He's Larabee, we're Denver ATF. Someone attacked us. I heard him holler and jumped, hit the wall hard. Somebody used a... a... club r'somethin' hit him hard." Vin nodded, taking a deep breath. "Is is dead?"

"No, he's on his way to the ER, yuh just lie still, there's another wagon comin' fuh yuh." She soothed, studying the worried face. "Yuh see who did this?"

"No, it was t'dark... sorry. I remember hittin' the wall, seein' Chris g'down and then lookin' at yer face." Vin raised both arms and tested his legs, "Nothin' broke... I'm fine. Can ya take me there?"

"Hold on," she said, watching the Emergency Medical Team pull up. "He seems okay," she moved away. "He hit the wall tryin' to dodge the car. Yuh got this? I gotta call in..."

"Yeah, Sarge," Tillis answered Sgt. Louise Hinton, "Go ahead. How you doing, Sir?"

"I'm fine," Vin replied surly, he was angry now. All he wanted was a ride to see Chris. "Let me up!"

"If you cooperate, we'll get done faster," Tillis warned, his veteran training come in handy. For five minutes the squirming irate visitor endured the exam. Finally, he helped the young man stand. "You're lucky, it's just minor cuts and bruises. You're going to be very stiff and sore."

"Thanks," Vin shoved away, walking to the police car. "I need a ride..."

"Get in," she answered, watching him clip the seatbelt. "I need tuh finish muh report anyway. Let's see how yuh friend is doin', Chèr."

The pounding between his temples only increased as the hours passed by. The simple actions became numbing with routineness. He paced the length of the very crowded ER. He passed the same moaning sick people, the young man with a bloody hand wrapped ina towel, a couple with a sick baby and other assorted drunks and injured people. There were no free chairs and his whole body throbbed. He paced, went to the admittance window and got the same nasty woman.

"No, I've told you I don't have any information," she intercepted the question before it went airborne. "If you don't stop pestering me, I'll be forced to call security!"

"Look!" Vin hissed through clenched teeth, amazed that he could still stand. Every inch of flesh was throbbing and his skull was about to explode. He was worried about Chris and tired of getting a brick wall for a reply. "I ain't askin' fer much. I gotta friend bad hurt. Can't ya jes' call back there and find out if he's alive?"

"Sit down, take a number and wait your turn!" She drilled, picked up the clipboard and raised her voice. "Fisher!"

"Look Lady, I've been waitin' ferever!" Vin gripped the edges of the oval cut in the glass separating them. "...long 'afore them..."

"Don't touch that glass!" She cried out, "You were warned." She moved past the desk, out a side entrance and waited until the couple with the sick baby came through the door. She watched the long-haired stranger curse and punch the wall. She was tired and hot and underpaid. Twelve hours was about four too long for this shift. She didn't need him harping on her every five minutes. She had protocol to follow and too many sick people that needed help. After seating the couple in a cubicle, she spotted a tall man with dark hair and mustache. He'd been lingering around the ER, asking the nurses questions about that blond man brought in earlier. He was the one the cursing creep was asking about. Seeing the gold shield clipped to his belt, she approached him and told him about the pest.

"I'll take care of it," he smiled, seeing the blue-eyed fly land in his web. "I want to question anyway about the attack."

"Is he a suspect?" She put her hand to her throat, recalling his anger.

"He might be, we're not sure."

"I'm not surprised," she huffed, "Those long-haired types are always high or something. He threatened me and punched the partition!"

"Where is he now?" Trent asked.

"Just outside, in the waiting area."

"Thanks!"

Vin went to the bathroom just off the Emergency Room and took his jacket off. He unbuttoned his shirt, eyeing the colorful bruises on his chest. He knew by the pain in his hip, they extended down there. He washed his face good and sighed. He eyed the hour of five a.m. approaching. He didn't want to bother Brielle during the night. She'd lost sleep the night before taking care of him and was exhausted. She'd be up now, he'd try to phone Buck again, then call her.

He dried his face on a clump of paper towels and reasoned with himself again. Chris was okay, or he'd have heard. No news is good news, right? Grabbing his jacket, he left the bathroom and saw a small area on the other side. It had three pay phones, some plastic chairs and vending machines. His stomach rumbled and he knew some of the dizziness he felt was his sugar level dropping. He dropped some coins in the box, punched out A5 and a chocolate bar fell down. It went down easy and he tossed the paper away, pulled out some change and headed to the phone.

He'd left messages at J.D.'s and Buck's, but nobody paged him back. He'd given the hospital's name, figuring they would call back and page him. He closed his eyes, the tension headache was rising in red rebellion. What was Buck's cellphone? Think... think... the numbers swam together. Fumbling with his change, he dialed the number.

Buck peered through the foggy night, carefully manuevering the strange road. His phone rang and he pulled the car over and put it into park. He didn't want to tangle with the phone on a curvy road in the dark.

"Hello?"

"Buck!" Vin's voice rose in elation, then fell into anger.

"Vin? What's wrong?"

"Where the hell have ya been? I've been callin' ya all night! Chris is hurt bad nobody'll tell me nuthin' m'nerves's fried he had blood over his head that tightassed ER bitch better not show her fuckin' ass on the other side o'the winda iffen she knows what's good fer 'er..."

"Slow down!" Buck hollered of the long string of high, pitched words that tumbled from the phone in a drawling rush. He put a few key ones together and frowned. Vin was undoubtedly calling from a hospital. Chris was hurt and nobody was telling him anything. "What happened to Chris? Are you hurt? Where are you?"

"We wuz jumped late... round midnight? Hell, I can't recall," Vin pinched the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes, unaware he was being watched. "I don't know what happened. We wuz walkin' t'the car, Chris hollered at me, I jumped and hit a wall, a car damn near hit me. Then somebody hit Chris on the head. I seen blood, then nuthin' 'til the cops woke me up. This fuckin' ER is 'bout fried m'last nerve. They won't tell me shit! I don't even know if he's alive..."

Buck winced at the pain in the voice and eyed the road again. "Where are you, Vin?" He listened carefully and pulled out the map in the glove compartment of the rental car. "You hold on, Slick, the calvary is coming. My flight landed an hour ago and I'm headed your way."

"Yer here!" Vin's eyes snapped open. "In New Orleans? Shit!" he sighed in relief, "Aw, hell..." letting it ooze through the phone. He took several steadying breaths and opened his eyes.

"You okay Vin?" Buck worried, knowing the Texan all too well.

"'m now," he replied in a hushed whisper, needing desperately to feel Buck's strong hands now. "Hurry Bucklin, okay?"

"Yeah," the older man replied, wanting to reach through the phone and take the fear out of the blue eyes he knew were wide and troubled. "You hold on, Vin, I'm not far."

Vin was about to reply, when he saw a familiar face reflecting in the mirrored silver atop the vending machine. He placed the phone on the ledge and turned around, his chest exploding in rage.

"I'm gonna fuckin' kill ya!" he whispered, as a fog settled over the room. The smell of the river returned, as the feel of blood on his face came back. The young man with reddish hair in the silver car exploded again... Sara and Adam being murdered all danced before him. The words came to him again. "...remember his face... know the eye of the deceiver... protect yer bloodline..." he hissed.

"Vin!" Buck hollered in the phone, "What's going on? Vin... Vin..." It wasn't just the sharpshooter's words that troubled him, it was the trancelike tone in his voice. The next sentences uttered by his lost friend, send a knife into his heart.

"Ya murdered Sara and Adam Larabee and the feller in the silver car. Yer gonna pay fer that. I'm gonna hurt ya fer that. Ye'll never touch Cait... I won't let ya... I'll kill ya first."

"Vin!" Buck screamed, hearing signs of a scuffle, then dialtone. "Shit!" He returned to the road and headed for the hospital, hoping he wasn't too late.

The scuffle was brief. He was caught off guard by Tanner's comments. How did he know about McKenna and Larabee's murders? Had Fowler talked? He'd find out soon enough, the well paid hit man was meeting them deep in the bayou. Trent allowed the slim man to get the first two punches in, before overpowering him. He shoved the struggling prisoner-to-be onto his belly and cuffed him. They were between the vending machines and trash dumpster, totally out of view. He withdrew the syringe and held it in his teeth, while ripping the thin fabric of the other's man's white shirt. He stabbed the arm easily, letting the dosage of Valium overtake him. Within minutes, the struggling protestor went limp. He slid the syringe in his pocket and hauled the dazed, stuperous man upright.

"Everything okay over here?" A security guard who had been alerted by a passerby stood in the entryway. "Oh, it's you , Sir," he nodded, recognizing the police detective. They'd crossed paths several times over the past few years, during the night shift in the hectic innercity ER.

"Yeah, Doug," Trent answered the other man who trusted him. "Hophead, I'm taking him in for questioning."

"Okay," the guard backed away, watching the tall, strong dectective easily manuever the starry-eyed prisoner through the doors.

"Listen up, Tanner!" Trent hissed, shoving the staggering man hard into the back of a paneled van. "You're gonna have a nice rest while we take a ride way out into the country. I've got a place your friend will never find. I've got some nice tools to help me loosen that tongue of yours. I want that book and you're gonna tell me where it is!" He twisted the limp body around, gripping him by the front of his shirt, now flecked with blood from the cut lip. One hand was keeping the young man upright, the other cupped the dazed man's cheeks. "That face of yours won't be so pretty when I'm done with you." He laughed, tapped the drooling victim's jaw and shoved him inside on his back. "Looks like you're gonna get to see some alligators after all, real close up."

Everything was slow and fuzzy. He couldn't focus and he could heart heart slowly thumping in his ears. It was hard to breath and his tongue felt like it was crowding his mouth. He heard the killer's words, the voice was long, deep and garbled. The features on the other mans' face were thick and distorted. He felt his boots and socks pulled off and his naked feet tied together. The metallic taste of blood pooled in his mouth, as he rolled on his side. A door slammed, he was thrust into darkness. He couldn't remember anything...no thoughts at all. The gentle motion of the van and the sound of the motor lulled him to sleep. He slept blissfully, unaware he was being driven to a torture chamber.

Part Thirteen

Buck turned onto the two lane road that led to the hospital, when a unmarked van took a sharp turn and nearly hit him.

"Jesus!" he swore, using his fast reflexes to avoid harm's way. He guided the car through the unfamiliar parking lot, following the signs for the Emergency Room. Once parked, he ran into the entrance to the pinched face woman behind the cubicled glass. He knew, without a doubt, she was the one who Vin tangled with. He pulled his badge out and held it up, tapping the glass with his free hand.

"Can I help you?" she asked dully, not impressed by the badge.

"I'm Wilmington, Denver ATF. I was talking to another federal agent, from a phone near here. It sounded like somebody tangled with him. Where are the phones?"

"Over there!" she replied crossly, answering her phone.

Buck followed the bright pink fingernail to a small alcove. His long strides cut the distance in half. He eyed the empty area and frowned.

"Vin! Vin!" He picked up the sharpshooter's worn leather jacket and got a bad feeling. He pulled Tanner's wallet from the pocket and found it full. Robbery wasn't the motive. He saw the bathroom, checked it, found it empty and went back to the phone bank. His dark blue eyes scoured the area, then his heart sank. He squatted over an area near the vending machines, by a large trash dumpster. His fingers touched a red fleck, which was not yet hardened. Blood. "Shit!"

He ran back to the desk and into the cubicle. That got her attention and she hung the phone up.

"You can't come back here, we have rules!"

"Rules? I got rules too! I need security here now! This jacket belongs to that missing agent and there's blood over there. I want the exits sealed. He was waiting for news about another federal agent, Christopher Larabee. He was brought in several hours ago. This," he issued harshly through clenched teeth, flipping Vin's federal identification badge from his wallet into her face. "...is Vin Tanner. Do you remember him now? You've been yanking his chain all night. He was hurt too... What the hell is the matter with you? All he wanted was status on Larabee's condition. Now he's missing and you had a hand in that."

"I didn't... I wasn't... you're out of... line..." She stammered, watching the two security guards appear.

"Trouble here?" the taller one with gray hair asked.

"You bet your ass there is!" Buck roared, flashing his badge and showing the man Vin's ID. "I'm Buck Wilmington, a federal agent from Denver. I was on my way here, when I got a call from this man, another agent. He was waiting for word on our boss, Chris Larabee, who was brought here injured. Not only wouldn't anyone help him,... for hours apparently," he paused to glare at the tight-assed clerk, who stared right back. "...while we were talking, somebody hurt him. I found this," he showed the jacket, "and blood near the phone. I want him found and found now! You think you can manage that without fucking up!"

"Look Pal!" Stan Langley put both hands up, clearly seeing an explosion about to occur. "I'm very sorry that your friend wasn't given help when he asked for it. We'll do all we can to find him. Mike," he turned to the other guard, "Get on the horn to the switchboard, have them overhead page this ... uh..."

"Vin Tanner!" Buck hissed, hands riding on his lean hips.

"Tell him to come to the ER stat. If he doesn't show, we'll call downtown, " he noted of the police, " and get some help. After you call, check the parking lot good. Now," he turned to the smug clerk behind the desk. "You give this gentlemen whatever information he needs about his friend. Did you see this man?" he showed her the photo.

"He was here," she managed. "He was rude, offensive and tried to attack me. He was probably high..."

"Rude?" Buck's voice rose a full octave. "Oh, that's rich, coming from you!," Buck seethed, "Lady, you're not only rude, you're incompetant!" He issued harshly, towering over her, "...and a stupid fuckin' screwup to boot."

"That's enough!" Langely put himself in front of Buck, pushing him back. Then he turned to the clerk. "When's the last time you saw him?"

"About an hour ago? I don't know." She snapped, "This room's been full all night, I'm all alone down here. If he wasn't so impatient and waited his turn..."

"Impatient!" Buck roared, "he was here for five damn hours!"

"Alright," the guard paused, as the operator's voice boomed, with the request. "We'll wait a few minutes to see if he shows. Could be he's wandering around here."

"Could be he's dead or lyin' hurt somewhere too, no thanks to you!" Buck roared

Both men turned when a slim Oriental doctor approached. She paused in front of them, eyeing them sharply.

"I don't know what this problem involves, but you have to keep your voices down. There are sick people back there and this is a hospital."

"Sorry, Doc," Stan said, "This man is a federal agent from Denver. He had one friend admitted here last night with an injury of some kind. Another man, his partner, was waiting down here for status, apparently, all night. He is now missing, there was some sort of altercation by the phones. Do you know anything about a patient named... Larabee?"

"Yes," She nodded, "If you'll follow me, I'll take you to him."

"Go on, Wilmington," Stan advised, "I'll keep looking for your friend and keep you posted."

"Thanks," Buck muttered, following the doctor. "How is he?"

"Ready to be released. He suffered a concussion. We gave him a full skull series and everything was negative. We sutured the laceration on the back of his head and monitored him for several hours. He's been vomiting and has a severe headache. He'll need to be watched, he shouldn't be alone. He could suffer blackouts. He's been stuperous on and off all night."

"Yeah, I'll stay with him, it won't be the first time." Buck paused, hearing a familiar bellow. "Looks like he's awake now."

"You need to calm down, Sir!"

"I am calm! answer me!" Chris yelled, regretting it immediately when the harsh words pounded into his tender skull with vengeance. "Shit..." he hissed, grabbing the rails of the bed. He was sitting on the side, trying to leave. He opened his eyes to find the same unsympathetic nurse shoving him back onto the bed. "You must have been the validictorian at the Nazi Nursing Academy!"

"If you don't get back in that bed, I'll have the resident order restraints. Is that clear enough!"

"Do you starch your underwear, Lady?" he hissed, shoving her back. "I'll talk real slow, try to catch up, okay?" He was beyond angry, for hours he'd been asking about Vin Tanner. It was as if he was speaking Greek. "I had a friend who was hurt too. Vin Tanner. For the fiftieth fuckin' time, I'm gonna ask you again." he said low, slow and lethal. Then he stood up, despite the room tilting and towered over her, his eyes hot and hard. "What the Hell happened to him!"

"Thank God,!" she put both hands up, watching the resident approach. "He's all yours Doctor Chieu."

"Sit down, Chris," Buck ordered, "That pretty ass of yours is hanging out and you don't need pneumonia on top of a concussion."

"Bu..ck?" Chris whispered, letting the taller man ease him on the side of the bed. "Where the hell did you come from?" He kept his eyes shut, and one hand on the strong man's forearm. Somehow, with eyes closed, he wasn't as sick to the stomach. "You gotta find Vin, Buck. He got hit by a car... they won't tell me a fuckin' thing."

"You just settle down, okay?" Wilmington pulled his arm free and massaged the tense naked blond man's neck. "You stay!" he said sharply to the nurse who was trying to flee. "I want some answers. Is that true?"

"I'm a nurse, Mister, not a PR person," she snapped, "You ever work an ER overnight? I don't have time to pee let alone play detective. We had no admit under the name Tanner. He," she jerked her head towards Chris, "...didn't want to hear that. He had a head injury and most likely was mixed up."

"Did you check out front?" Buck said with quiet heat. "Did you even ask someone else, an aide or orderly to check? Vin Tanner was out there, waiting for over five hours." He unleashed his anger, still hearing the wavering, worried Tanner's voice on the phone. "He didn't know if his best friend was alive or dead. Some fuckin' system this hospital has."

"I'm sorry, Mister Wilmington," The doctor offered sincerely. "I came on duty at three a.m. I didn't know anyone was waiting for him. His chart said he came in alone. His ID was from out of town, we thought he was a tourist that got mugged. He wasn't coherent when I spoke with him and I've had several other patients to see. I'm very sorry for the mixup."

"He's okay!" The room stopped moving long enough for a few words to cut into the slamming pain in his skull. Vin was in the waiting room. "He wasn't hurt?"

"No, Chris, he..." Buck started to relay.

"Thank God," Chris sagged, hitting the pillow and running a hand over his face. "I thought they were keeping..." he opened his eyes and his paled. "I thought he was in the morgue."

"Damn," Buck sagged, wondering how to continue.

"I'm sorry," the slim doctor apologized to the upset patient. "I signed your orders, you're free to go. I left instructions..."

"Yeah, fine," Chris managed, "Buck, get me clothes and..." he frowned then, head jerking up and eyes too bright. It suddenly dawned on him that the blue-eyed Texan was not standing with Buck. His green lasers zoomed in on the worn brown Tanner jacket Buck clutched. "Where is he?" he saw something in the other man's features that took his stomach through the floor. "Talk to me, Buck,"

Buck let out a long exhalation and motioned for the two woman to go. "He'll need some clothes."

"His coat, shoes and socks are in there," the nurse pointed to a plastic bag. "His wallet and personal items are at the desk, I'll get them."

"Connie, get a set of scrubs for Mister Larabee." Doctor Chieu advised, nodding to Buck as she left.

Finally, they were alone. Chris stood up, ignoring the dizziness and nausea and grabbed the rogue's arm hard. "Where's Vin!"

"I don't know, Chris. They got security looking for him. He uh... called me on my cell phone, I was just up the road. He was angry... upset... worried about you. They didn't tell him where you were. He waited out there all night... alone."

"GODDAMMIT!" the blond bellowed.

"During the call, he spotted somebody. Somebody he knew... I heard sounds like a fight, then dialtone. I got here and found his jacket and some blood by the phone." He winced, expecting a loud, colorful curse. Chris wasrigid, silent and white with worry. "I... uh... I'm sorry, Chris..."

"Not your fault, Buck," Larabee took a short breath and tried to steady his jangled nerves. "What did he say? You thought he knew the man?"

The nurse came back with his things. He signed for them and climbed into the scrubs. "Well?" He asked, pulling his boots on. He let Buck help him into the coat.

"I wrote it down, it didn't make any sense to me, here..." He handed his notes over. His own stomach sunk as he watched what little color Chris had, drain right out of his face. He grabbed him hard and sat him down, when the leader's knees buckled. "I'm gonna get that doctor!"

"No," Chris answered in a shaken but stable voice. He raised his face to the concerned dark blue eyes of his oldest friend. "He's not here... somebody grabbed him. Those guards won't find anything..." He took several minutes to regroup, then started for the door. "I'll check with them, you get the car." He turned to Buck, his eyes full of pain and anger. "They're gonna hurt him, Buck,' his voice was soft and steely, "and that's gonna be their first," He paused his steely voice full of determination, "...and their last fuckin' mistake."

Ten minutes later, with the phone number of the head of security in his pocket, Buck pulled out of the parking lot.

"Where to?"

"First, the hotel, I need to shower and get some breakfast. Then we'll go to the Saloon."

"Chris, I don't think that's a good idea," Buck misunderstood.

"It's not a social call," he snapped, wincing as the harsh sunlight scored his aching head with fury. His stomach was upset and he felt like shit. "I'll explain... Did you talk to Lily? Did you bring it?"

"Yes and no..." Buck replied, "Let's get you cleaned up and eat. Then we'll compare notes, okay?"

Geoff Trent enjoyed the music on the radio, as he eased off the expressway headed out of town. It didn't take long before he was in the heart of the bayou. Large cypress trees touched the sky, the dense, thick folliage teemed with wildlife. With two precision turns, he was on a small, narrow road, heading into the thick of the swamp. It was the perfect place for his plan. The cajuns who lived out here, disliked strangers and kept to themselves. Even if Tanner managed to get loose, nobody, besides a local, could find their way back to the main road. The van slowed, taking the bumps in the narrow road. Nearby, alligators roamed, looking for breakfast. He pulled up beside an old truck. To the naked eye, the building appeared to be an old, roofless ruin. But Trent knew better. Thanks to a drug bust a couple months prior, his 'interrogation' of the suspect led to this place. Long abandoned a century and a half ago by pirates, it was a perfect place to hide.

Inside the stone ruin, was a passage that led below. In the subterrean area were three rooms, one with iron manacles on the wall. This would be Vin Tanner's new home.

"You're early," Cletus Fowler moved past the window, to the back of the van. He jerked the handle open, peering inside. He used his metal hand to tug the prisoner's ankle hard, pulling his legs out of the van. He grinned as the muffled, unintelligent sound that emerged from the slack lips. He knew it hurt and smiled at the confused, blue blinking eyes. "He's awake."

"No, he's not," Trent answered, moving behind the stuperous man. "He's floating in a sea of Valium. Let's move, I have to get back," he lifted Vin Tanner by the underarms, supported him and jumped out. He moved in front of the sagging man, watching the eyes trying to work. The lips opened again and disoriented grunts emerged on a long trail of saliva. "Welcome to your new home, Mister Tanner, I hope you'll like it." He cupped the hollowed cheeks with his hand, watching the golden brown brows furrow and the eyes smolder weakly. "You would be well advised to save that temper. You'll need all your strength to survive. Let's move," he lifted the upper body and Fowler took the legs. They moved through the ruin, to a spot on the floor secured by a metal ring. Fowler gave a tug and the passage opened, revealing a pair of narrow wooden stairs.

The rooms had been cleaned and readied for their usage. The smallest room held provisions, a table, chair and radio. The second room had several iron manacles on the wall and the third larger room was vacant, save for a custom made chair from South America and a table, bearing the 'tools of the trade'. At the back of the room, was a door that led to the area to be used later in the questioning. They laid the pliant body on the floor on his back. Trent cut the bonds on Tanner's ankles and nodded to the table.

"Get that orange suit and that black bag." he issued, tugging the zipper of the worn jeans down and easing the pants off the willing patient.

Vin Tanner. That was all he knew. His name was Vin Tanner. He didn't know where he was or where he'd been. His past was a blurry, thick place full of murky, untelling clouds. His distorted vision tried to make sense of this place. Cold and dark, that was all he knew. The face appeared again, mean and ugly, distorted like the rest of his world. He couldn't understand the words being spoken but felt the cold, icy hands of fear stroke his bones. This was a bad place and he was all alone. He was rolled on his side, his tender skin shivering as it hit an icy hard stone. Someone was tugging at him, he felt silky fabric on his legs, before he was tugged upright. He saw a new face, equally distorted but much meaner. A killer's face... no soul... no remorse. He tried to call out, to say something, but heard only animal grunts as a thick wad of spittle ran from his numb lips. The killer smiled and laughed at him, then he felt himself hauled to his rubbery, spaghetti legs. He jerked weakly, furrowing his dull eyes in anger, as the killer groped him hard between the legs.

"Fowler!" Trent hissed, "just adjust the snaps, don't fondle him!" he ordered, "...and be careful with that metal hand, I need him alive." He tugged Tanner's arms into the sleeves of the orange jumpsuit, fastening the snaps on the chest and shoulders. They could be undone to allow access to his skin, but that would come later. They sat him down on a restraining chair, which he got in South America. It was a very effective tool in interrigation. He knelt down, rummaged through the black bag and pulled out thick, soft leather boots. He slid them onto the prisoner's naked feet, before securing the thick bands on the chair. The would hold his ankles, calves, shins, knees and thighs in place. The center of the chair was empty, just the legs and buttocks were on wood. He slid thick, black leather mittens on Tanner's hands, before securing the wrists, arms and shoulders. Fowler got the bands across his chest and hips, leaving only his head free.

"What now?" Cletus asked, holding the strange black leather hood with his good hand.

"Nothing," Trent answered, gripping the mangled locks of the victim. He yanked hard, slamming the head to the back of the wooden chair. He saw the eyes flicker in fury and a the mouth opened again, grunting like a animal. A large flow of saliva emerged, which he wiped with his sleeve. "Mustn't be sloppy, Mister Tanner." he cajoled, using his free hand to cup the hollowed cheeks. He leaned in, letting the wide, dazed blue eyes see him close. "Can I call you Vin? I know after the rather 'intimate' get together later, we'll be good friends. I hope you come to like your new home, it even has a pool out back," he laughed, Fowler joined him, already having seen the 'alligator pool'. He gripped the prisoner under the jaw with his right hand and tugged the jaw open. The heavy tongue rolled out and he slid the rubber nozzle onto it. The reflex was instant and Tanner began to suckle. The confused eyes seemed relieved and the grunts changed as well, as cool water came through the hose. He slid the hood in place then, careful to secure the nozzle. Thick earpads blocked all sounds and the dense hood blocked all sight. He secured the neck and forehead straps then and stood back. His little lab rat was now bound tighter than a mummy. The water bottle was secured on a rod over the headpiece and the black nozzle ran along the side of Tanner's face, into his mouth. "Make sure that bucket is emptied before I return," he noted of the container for urine under the chair.

"You're leaving?" Fowler's voice rose in alarm

"This is phase one," Trent noted, "Unable to hear, see, speak or feel, the victim is totally disoriented. It makes him much more compliant later. I'll be back in eight hours and we'll chat with Mister Tanner then."

"Eight hours!" Fowler complained, "I gotta stay in this tomb for eight hours?"

"No," the leader took the large lantern with him to the bottom of the stairs. "He can't move or speak, he'll be fine. Just be back by one p.m." With one last look at the man who would at last provide the key to the fortune, he turned and left, leaving him alone in the dark.

"What happens at one?" Cletus asked, rubbing his metal hand in anticipation.

"Phase two... interrogation," he paused, "then fire and ice," he noted of the effective use of water and electical current.

While the two villians left the scene, far below the victim waited. Cold, confused and alone, he moved weakly against the restraints. He sensed nothing, all sensation was block out. His heavy tongue worked the rubber nozzle again, gaining water as a reward. His chest rose and fell in syncopated rhythm, as he took careful breaths. His muscles would tense up, anticipating the use of force or the killer's hands. Then nothing came and he'd relax, tug on the nozzle and tense up again, waiting for a beating that never came. The exercise tired him and he dozed off, wondering what hell he'd be left in. As he faded away, one face cut through the thick mud in his brain. A clear set of green eyes and sun-kissed hair. Where are you Chris?

"Chris?" Buck tapped the body sitting on the bed, lost in space. The slim man jumped and let out a long burst of air. "Did you hear me?"

"Huh? No, sorry..." the blond tried unsuccesfully to deflect the horrid images that were in his head. Vin being tortured, abused or beaten by a killer.

"The police said we need to wait twenty-four hours before we can report him missing. I talked to Orrin, he'll spring Ezra and Josiah, they'll be one the next plane, on their own time. Officially, they're out sick for a couple days. You gotta eat, Chris..."

"Yeah," he agreed, knowing in order to fight for Vin, he'd need to be strong. The hot shower helped and he slipped into a change of clothes. Tugging his jacket on, he eyed crumpled blue tee shirt in the corner of the room. He picked it up, the sweaty tracker's scent still clung to it. He fingered the white lettering and recalled the youthful smile his friend wore, when he was gifted with it. Where are you Vin?

"Chris?" Buck held the laptop and the open door in the hotel room. Like his friend, he immediately got a bad feeling when he met Nigel Bates. While Chris showered, he'd walked in the garden out back, trying to find what Vin was so attracted to. Now, they were headed to Ryan McKenna's bar. Chris filled him in on the way, about how he met the McKennas. He didn't hide his distrust and disdain when he mentioned Geoff Trent.

"I got no proof, but I'd swear he is behind this," the concussed man noted, as they parked down the street.

"Well, he couldn't have killed Vin straight off," he tried to reassure, "he wants him for something... or some reason. Maybe ransom?"

"No, why Vin?" Chris denied, entering the eatery and seeing Ryan signaling to move to the back room, a private area.

"Hey, that's Ryan McKenna!" Buck exuded.

"I already told you that!" Chris was annoyed.

"I didn't connect it," he noted of the star NFL player "... how 'bout that!"

"Ryan," Chris nodded, moving past, "This is one of my men, Buck Wilmington. I'd trust him with my life."

"My kind of guy," Ryan noted the emphasis Larabee used. He knew this man well enough to know that not just anyone would suit that role. "I'm sorry about Vin," he waved to a table laden with sandwiches and mugs of hot coffee. "Seamus, this is..."

"Me ears are still workin'!" The old man boomed, eyeing the newcomer. "Yer a big lad... did ye ever think about puttin' on the gloves?"

"Actually, I did box when I was younger, football, basketball..." he prattled, shaking the old man's hand. "nice to meet you, Sir. Ryan," he gripped the younger man's hand. "I was a big fan..."

"Thanks," he nodded, "help yourself."

"Where's Cait?" Chris said, "she shouldn't be alone, Grace either."

"I know, I'm moving them here until this is settled. Cait went to get Brie,"

"She doesn't know?" the blond took a bowl of hot chicken soup and a crusty hunk of hot bread.

"That you two had an accident, yes, that Vin is missing, no. Here they are..."

"Chris, are you okay?" Gabrielle moved quickly, placing her small hands on either side of his face. "Have you been having dizziness? Blurred vision... you should be resting..."

"Thanks," he said sincerly, squeezing her hands. "Sit down, Brie, we need to talk..." Before he could continue, the sound of Buck's throat clearing brought his head around. In different circumstances, the look of pure rapture on the other man's face would have brought a laugh. "Oh, sorry, Buck, this is Doctor Gabrielle Marquette. She rescued Vin the other night. Her house is where I called you from. Brie, this is Buck Wilmington, my oldest friend."

When she came into the room, the rogue felt all the air leave his lungs. She was perhaps the most beautiful creature he'd ever seen. So taken by the pale cocoa-skinned beauty with large blue-green eyes, he nearly missed her companion.

"It's a real pleasure, Doctor, and I've never meant those words more..."

"Thanks Buck," She smiled at the tall, handsome man, "Vin warned me about you. I think his exact words were 'Stay clear o'Bucklin', he's got a hundred hands!" she drew out the drawl. Then she frowned and looked around the room. "Where's Vin?"

"Uh..." Chris started to reply, when Buck's voice broke in again.

"Jesus!" he exclaimed, backing up as the other beauty embraced Ryan McKenna, before bending to kiss Seamus.

"Ah... tis like the mornin' sun risin' all over again," the old man proclaimed. "How's me finest jewel?"

"You spoil me, Seamus," Cait hugged him from behind, "and Grace is fine, she's at school."

"Buck, this is Caitlin McKenna, Ryan's sister-in-law. Her husband was Max McKenna, the writer. He was killed right after the Moreau estate hired him to research Louis's claim of his mother's lost child." The leader explained.

"She... Chris... it's... like... she's Sara's twin!" he babbled, unable to pry his eyes away. He saw her flush and felt bad. "I'm sorry, Mrs. McKenna, I didn't mean to stare."

"It's okay, Buck and it's Cait, welcome," she shook his hand. She didn't move away, when he picked up the heart-shaped locket. "It looks just like Sara's!"

"Yeah, I know Buck," Chris hissed, still having a hard time with the lookalike.

"Sorry," Buck winced, seeing a flash or old pain in the green eyes.

"Quit saying that every five seconds and sit down, will you!" the blond ordered.

"Where's Vin?" Brie repeated, sitting next to Chris and staring at him hard. "Oh God... the car that hit him... Oh God..." She began to tremble and shake, until the man next to her held her.

"No, Brie, he's not dead," Chris reassured, gripping her from the side. "At least I hope not... Buck..." He sipped a mouthful of coffee and began to eat, feeling very weak. He heard Buck speak of the incident at the hospital.

"You think Geoff is involved, don't you?" Cait asked quietly.

"I do," Chris reaffirmed, "My instincts are usally right and their screaming that he's dirty. I feel it in my bones. I hope for his sake, I'm wrong. Because if he took Vin... he'll end up in intensive care if he's lucky!"

"He's one mean dude," Buck noted of the information J.D. found, "Too many 'accidents' of suspects in his custody or after their release. Did you know his birth mother sued Louis Moreau? She claimed he was the father. He wasn't of course, but..."

"...but maybe he feels that money is his and Cait is the brass ring. Jesus," Ryan shuddered, "I never trusted that bastard. Not since you made the mistake of going out with him. You're not seeing him anymore!"

"You're not my father and I'm over eighteen, thank you very much!" Cait's anger rose, giving her a very attractive flush of color.

"I won't have him touching you!" Ryan spat back, "and if he as much as looks at Grace, I'll twist his balls into knots!"

"Ye'll watch yer tongue, there's women in the room!" Seamus roared, slamming his walking stick hard on the floor. "Have ye no manners? Have I not taught ye better."

"Watch where you swing that cane!" the younger man warned, then turned to Cait and Brie, "I'm sorry."

"I'm sorry, too," Cait admitted, placing her smaller hand on his larger one. She felt a small charge of electic current as she touched his skin. "You're right... he scares me sometimes. But... I can't just cut him off. He'll get suspicous. I'll think of a way to distract him."

"I can think of one," Chris said, "and it's clipped to my belt," he noted of his gun.

"Chris..." Buck warned. "That won't solve anything. Finish that soup, so we can get on with this. You need to rest."

"If he had a silver hand..." Ryan muttered, taking Cait's hand under the table and caressing the palm.

"Ryan, we've been all over that. You were badly injured. There was not monster with silver hands at Max's accident."

"What?" Chris blinked, shoving the bowl aside and looking at the handsome man with black hair and piercing blue eyes intently. Ryan's head came up slowly and he saw both Chris and Buck exchange a curious look. "What did you say?"

"Silver hand?" Ryan repeated, raking a hand through his wavy, black hair. "Okay, it's like this." He spent five minutes, giving the history of the case Max was hired to investigate. Cait filled in some blanks spots, from information Max told her in private. "So that night," Ryan continued, "Max left the estate. He was excited and worried at the same time. Somewhere in that garden, he found Isabella's journal and proof postive of that missing baby."

"Babies..." Cait corrected, "It's so surreal... So you think Geoff had something to do with Max's death?"

"When I got there," Ryan picked the story up, "Max's car was starting to roll off the road. He wasn't moving, he was unconscious, slumped over the wheel. I tried to stop it and fell. The last thing I saw, after the car blew was a silver hand... a man's hand."

"Was it a silver car?" Buck asked, thinking on Vin's words.

"Yeah, why?" the other replied.

"...cause that's the one Vin talked about today. He said that to whoever fought with him, that he knew he killed the Larabees and a man in a silver car. How'd he know that?"

"I told you about the dreams, Buck, about Philippe... it's all that psychic shit he's hooked into." Chris paused, as Brielle filled in the gaps. Then he looked up, hearing Buck's exasperated voice.

"Jesus, Chris, he wasn't saying 'metal man'..."

"No," Chris whispered painfully, "he was saying 'metal hand'." All of his air was stolen from his lungs and a roaring pain filled his head. Both fists balled up in clenched fury as the tidal wave crashed into his body. He sat back in the chair, panting in agonizing rage as the truth flowed through his veins. His face screwed up in unmasked hostility. "That bastard... killed Sara and Adam. All this time... I thought it was a dirty cop, because of the Scanlon trial. Son-of-a-bitch!" he slammed both hands on the table and stood up, every inch of skin bursting with pent up rage. "They were murdered! God..." he shoved his body away and out the door. Through the small window in the room that showed the yard behind the property, they watched him pace, his curses slamming silently into the glass.

"No," Buck held onto Brie's arm, when she tried to run after the tormented soul. "He needs to get that out of his system. A few months before Sara and Adam died, Chris testified against four cops who were on the take. He... we... thought they went after him that day. Sara never drove Chris's truck. It was a natural conclusion. Someone forced her off the road. The only witness was a kid on a bike. The first cop on the scene found him, with a passerby heard him speak once. He said 'metal man' before he died. He was looking at the silver badge on the cop's chest. We thought..."

"That he meant the killer was a cop, because of the badge," Ryan noted, "He saw the silver hand too. My God... this man is a monster."

"He made his last mistake," Buck said slowly, watching Chris slow down outside. "You just wait until that man," he pointed to the window, "realizes that the monster who murdered his family, now has his best friend."

They saw it then, Chris stopped pacing, his head shot up, eyes wide and full of naked fear. Then the green orbs turned hot and steely. The lips curled into a snarl as the enraged face met Buck's through the glass.

"No!" Buck spoke, moving to the door, just as Chris crashed through. He grabbed the walking lava flow hard, shoving him against the wall.

"Get off of me, Buck, I'm gonna find Trent, rip his arm off and use it to beat the truth out of him."

"You ain't gonna do any such thing!" the taller man roared, using all his muscle to contain the raging inferno. "You're gonna stay clear of him, understand? He's got muscle in this town and we got no proof. "

"He's got Vin, Buck!" the leader hissed, eyeing his friend hard.

"Don't insult me," Buck said with contained ire, "You know damn right well how I feel about that boy." he paused to take a steadying breath, "You go after Trent shooting fire and we'll never see Vin again. I don't gotta tell you how many bodies end up 'gator food in the swamp. Understood!" He waited, "Chris, I want your word. We get proof first. I'll tail him... Josiah and Ezra will be here this afternoon. We'll get him, Chris!"

"Alright," he sighed, as the room began to spin around. "Aw, shit..."

"Chris... Chris..."

Buck's voice seemed so very far away and he didn't even remember falling. His last and only thoughts as he sunk into the blackness, were of Vin in the sadistic killer's hands.

"I got him," Buck said, easing Chris onto a bench by the door.

"Use me bed," Seamus called out as Ryan moved to help Buck. "It's right up those stairs. The lad needs to rest."

"I want to check him out," Brie finally found her voice, trying to control her fear. The soft-spoken Texan had taken a good grip on her. She followed them upstairs and waited until Chris was in bed and covered up. She dismissed them and took his pulse and vital signs, before moving to the window. She saw the tourists going by and absentmindedly rubbed her fingers on her lips. They still burned from his kisses the night before. She ache to have those arms around her again and to fall into those blue eyes. Where are you Vin Tanner?

"Thanks for the hand," Buck said as they returned to the room below.

"No problem, we're in this together. I want that bastard too, he killed my brother."

"Speaking of which," Buck said, looking at the photo on the wall of a small child. A child bearing an uncanny resemblence to his godson. "She looks something like Adam did..." he murmured, "Is she safe at school? Would he take her as leverage?"

"He so much as looks at her and I'll rip his heart out." Ryan vowed.

"No arm... no heart... ain't gonna be much left for me to do!" he joked, taking a breath. "You get her from school and bring her here. I'm gonna check back with the hospital and then pay a visit to Trent's boss. I'll be back later. Here's my cell phone number," he handed the other man a note.

"Be careful!" Cait warned, "both of you." She walked with them, snagging Ryan's arm in the darkened doorway. He turned to her and kissed her lightly on the lips, relishing the sweet taste. "Cait... I... I..." His fingers cupped her face, softly caressing the silky skin.

"I know, Ryan, I'm sorry too. Go on..."

"Lad!"

"What?" Ryan turned back, eyeing his grandfather.

"Ye watch yer back... ye bring me jewel home safely."

"I will Old Man," he smiled, putting up his fists in a mock-boxing stance, "I learned from the best..." he winked and left.

From a car down the street, a figure watched the two men leave. He picked up his phone and dialed Geoff Trent. "It's Bates, McKenna and a tall man with a mustache just left the Saloon. No, Larabee wasn't with them. He's who? Wilmington? Oh, another Fed? You sure you know what you're doing. Yes, of course I understand! I'll take care of it now. Very well..." He shut the phone off and started the engine.

It was nearly noon when Buck Wilmington found himself amidst the clamor and clatter of a busy downtown police precinct. He backed up against the dingy gray painted walls, when two patrolmen blew past, leading an unruly, swearing biker in cuffs. He eyed the controlled chaos and zeroed in on a crusty-faced man with gray hair behind a raised platform. He walked over, his own badge in his hand.

"Good Morning, I'm Buck Wilmington of the Denver ATF, I need to speak with whoever is in charge."

"Marty, get Halpern's office on the horn and tell them we're holding Raymond Flinch." He dismissed a younger officer, nervously shuffling through papers. He then turned back and eyed the young man before him. "So how can I help you, Pal?"

"Is the Captain around?" He eyed the narrow hallway behind the tight-lipped sergeant, which led to a spill of offices.

"Hold on..." He picked up a phone and dialed, "Cap, there's a Fed out here... no not one of ours, ATF... Denver." He nodded twice, handed the badge back and hung the phone up. Totally disinterested, he jerked he head towards the hall. "Third door from the left."

The tall agent found the door and worked his lean body through a network of old brown wooden desks, littered with files, overcrowded in-boxes and harried detectives. Several sets of eyes regarded him suspiciously as he entered. Before he made it halfway through, three large men stood, blocking his path.

"Easy, fellas, I'm on your side," Buck put both hands up defensively. "I'm looking for Captain..."

"Novelli," a gruff voice barked from behind the human 'wall'. "The cities not paying you ladies to stand around!"

With that the wall departed, and Buck found the man he sought. A few inches shorter than himself, about fifty with graying black hair. He wore a wrinked blue shirt with a short spanse of gray hair peeking through the spot where a tie should be. The eyes were black and wearing the look that only comes from seasoning.

"Buck Wilmington, Denver ATF," He flashed his badge and eyed the overcrowded room, complete with cracked walls, water stains on the ceiling and a musty smell. His foot brushed against something and he looked down to find a loaded mousetrap. "Nice..."

"Beverly Hills, we ain't," the brusk Captain read the other's eyes well, "But I only work with the best. What can I do for you?"

"Can we go inside?" Buck nodded to the beveled glass window over a door bearing the name Captain Dominic Novelli. Once the door was closed and they were alone, Buck took a seat. "Thanks for seeing me, it's about a friend of mine, another ATF agent. He disappeared this morning a few blocks from here from the ER." He slid over the photo of himself and Chris flanking Vin and J.D. The younger men were without helmets in their hockey jerseys, following a big win. The two played for an adult league in Denver. "He's the one on the left with long hair. The blond is our boss, Chris Larabee. They were jumped in an alley last night... Chris was kept overnight for treatment. I was on the phone with Vin, coming from the airport, when he had a fight with someone. I talked to the security team there and one guard remembered a dectective from this precinct taking a man from there. He matched Vin's description. We can't find him. I have reason to believe that this cop is dirty... and up to his ass in murder."

The dark eyes glinted with fire and the middle-aged man leaned forward, tossing the badge back. It hit Buck in the chest, at the same time the words did.

"Who the fuck are you to come into my house and talk shit like that!" He rose and walked around the desk, leaning over the stranger. "Gimme one reason why I shouldn't toss your lying ass outta here."

"I'll give you two," Buck replied simply, staring hard, "Geoff Trent." He got his answer when the dark eyes shut and a deep breath was forced through the clenched teeth. He liked the tenacity this man had and could sense he was honest. He watched while the policeman walked to the window and eyed the street below.

Twenty five years on the force and all he had as a reward was a wall full of citations and an ulcer. Trent. He knew from the moment the arrogant shield was assigned to his division, that it would come back to bite him in the ass. He came with too much baggage and the other men didn't trust him. Now, here was his own doubts about the newest member of his squad surfacing yet again. He sighed, walked to the thermal coffee carafe on the file cabinet and poured two mugs.

"So talk..." Novelli finally said, handing the younger man a cup and sitting on the edge of the desk.

A soft breeze fluttered nearby, sending a cool kiss to his face, as the curtains sang. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, not yet surrending his burning eyes. They remained safe, snuggled behind his lids. Another breeze, the curtains danced impatiently and he rolled sideways, groaning as his splitting head reminding him he was awake. He flinched and pulled back, as a tiny finger pried his left eye open.

"Are ya dead?"

His vision cleared enough to see a small face, short dark hair and eyes a color all their own. A child... a familiar face... his aching body and foggy head spoke one name.

"Adam..." he croaked, blinking sharply as the sun cut through the room, hitting his face.

"That's a boy's name!" the tiny tot huffed indignantly.

He rubbed his eyes and saw the face clearly this time. An orchid jumper with a white blouse. The fog cleared a little more. This was Cait's child, not his. "Sorry..." he groaned again, covering his aching face with his hand. His clucked his tongue across his dry mouth, which needed quenching.

"I got Blue Bug Juice, ya want some? Ya can't tell Mommy cause I ain't supposed to be drinking it this early. She's say's it's junk and my insides will rot out. Can that happen? Poppy lets me drink it... it's our secret. I love Poppy, he tells me stories and rocks me in his chair and we go on walks and... do you have a Poppy?"

"What?" Chris rasped in a dry, painful voice. The painful parade of verbs and nouns were stomping on his tender brain. He saw a blue tinged line around the purple lips as a carton was shoved in his face, bearing a blue and purple label. "No..." he denied the offer and tried to close his eyes again. A tug on his sleeve and a pat on his cheek, drew his eyes open again. The face was closer this time, just inches away.

"Were ya drinking the Devil's water?"

"Huh?" Chris managed, squinting at the pretty little girl.

"When Uncle Wyun gets dead like that... with his eyes all scrunched up and his mouth sounding funny... Poppy says he's been at the devil's water. Did ya come down that road too?"

"Road?" Chris whispered, trying to figure out if he was really awake. He turned onto his back, letting the soft mattress grip is lean body. The bed depressed and the imp sat next to him, peering at him intensely.

"...ten miles of bad road... that's what happens to Uncle Wyun's face when he has Devil water. So did ya?"

"What?" Chris made a face, braced his arms on the bed and tried to sit up.

"Here," She jumped down and tugged on his arm. "I'll help ya, Mister Grizzly."

"Thanks, Kid," he muttered, finally sitting up. He eyed the immaculate room, which was spacious and well appointed. If he didn't know it was 2002, he would have thought he was lost in the past. Most of the mahogney furniture, old time radio, pictures on the wall and other appointments in the room, bespoke the 1940s' and 50's.

"This is Poppy's room." She answered his questioning looks.

"Seamus?" Chris guessed aloud and the dark head bobbed. "He got water up here?"

"We'll get some," she trotted off to an open door at the far end, which was a bathroom. A few minutes later, she returned, bearing a large mug of water.

"Thanks, Kid," he grunted, took the cup and drained it. The memories were coming back. Vin was gone and Trent was behind it...along with the murders of three innocent people. He recalled the conversation in the kitchen and the pain in his head. He blinked, realizing that the child was prattling away next to him, clutching an antique doll.

"...I sneaked up here when the grownups weren't looking. Mommy is talking to Uncle Wyun and boy is he mad."

"He's got good reasons."

"He doesn't want Mommy to go... I don't either..."

It wasn't the words, as much as the way they came out, that caused Chris to ignore the pain in his head. He studied the pensive profile of the little girl sitting next to him. Those pretty eyes were now full of fear... a dark fear.

"Go where?"

"...with him... to have dinner tonight," she hissed, "They don't know I heard..." she paused, clutched the doll even tighter. Her purplish eyes were wide and her lips formed into a tight line. "We don't like him.... Miss Emily is afraid of him."

"Who?" He managed to keep his voice steady, even though he knew the answer. He looked hard at the small child's face and felt his gut clench.

"Geoff... Mister Trent." Grace whispered, her chin quivering. "He makes Miss Emily's belly hurt... a lot."

That is when the cold fear in him slashed out in a rage. A long dormant instinct, once so lovingly cherished, now roared back to life. His green eyes glowed like coals and he swallowed hard twice, putting down bile. Keeping his voice calm, he moved from the bed and knelt down in front of the terrified child. It was the parent in him, that aired every father's worst fear.

"Did Mister Trent hurt you... uh... Miss Emily?" He corrected, recalling how she used the doll to speak for her. "Did he ever..." he had to pause and get a breath, his body rippling in waves of anger. Images of that beast hurting a child.... "...uh... touch you... bad... or hit you?" He held his breath and felt his guts churning, for perhaps the longest minute he could recall. Then the pretty face raised, doe eyes damp with tears.

"No," she said in a hushed voice. "I.... we stay away from him. But Miss Emily knows he's bad. He looks at her with skinny eyes... the bad men always have skinny eyes. It makes my... her belly hurt awful bad when he hugs and kisses Mommy. Sometimes he looks at Mommy funny... his eyes are funny and that makes Miss Emily mad."

Chris sighed a huge air as relief soared through his body. Then something she said struck a chord in him.

"How does Miss Emily know Mister Trent is bad?"

"The pretty lady...." she stopped and shook her head, clutching her doll. "I'm not s'posed to tell, it'a a see..kwit..."

"A secret?" Chris thought for a moment, "it must be an important one, for her to trust you with it. She must be a good friend."

"She's not my friend, I only sawed her once... at the big house."

"Big house?"

She sighed heavily, playing with the doll's dress, "We went there for breakfast... he took us." She rolled the word 'he' off her tongue like it was poison. "It was a big fancy house with a big garden in the back. I wanted to see the garden and he hollered at me. He said I was 'rupting the adults and I'd be sorry. Mommy didn't hear him... his eyes were all mean and I got scared and ran up the stairs. I got lost and couldn't find Mommy. I tried and tried and it was dark and I was crying. That's when I met the pretty lady."

"The Sauville House?" Chris said outloud and saw her nod.

"She's got yellow hair like you and a long dress. She helped me find Mommy. She kept moving and I followed her. Then I found the door and opened it up."

"You were stuck in a room upstairs? That must have been scary."

"Yeah, it was," she shuddered, clutching the doll. She relaxed, liking his warm voice. She held out the doll, so he could see her. "That's where I got Miss Emily... from the pretty lady."

Chris looked at the doll closely and thought of Isabella Moreau. The child's clues fit, a pretty lady with blond hair, a long dress. He studied Grace's face carefully, "Did she talk to you?"

"Kinda... but it was funny like... scratchy and fuzzy... like she was whispering..." she thought hard. "She said, 'Hush little one, dry your tears'. Then she moved and moved and I followed her. Right before we got to the door, she stopped and pointed. That's when I found Miss Emily. Then the pretty lady said she'd help me protect Mommy from the bad man."

"She said that?" Chris was doubtful.

"...she said..." Grace rocked the doll, recalling the event, "Me and Mommy were both her 'angels' and she'd protect us from him." She clutched the doll again, thinking of how the sinister man scared her. Her lip quivered and tears splashed from the eyes. "I don't want to think about that no more..." she choked. "...I never told nobody..."

He tipped the downcast chin up with one finger, watching the tears spill from her eyes. He brushed them away, giving her a half smile. "I'll keep your secret, Grace. I'll protect you and Miss Emily from the bad man, okay?"

"I'm sorry," she hiccuped, rubbing her eyes. "I ain't a baby, I'm not supposed to cry."

"It's okay to cry, Grace," he replied, "I had a little boy once, named Adam. Sometimes he would get upset when he cried to. His grandmother would tell him that was okay, that his eyes needed washing anyway." He thought of Lily rocking Adam. "Miss Emily's lucky to have such a good friend."

She thought for a moment, hugging the doll to her neck. The slid off the bed and hugged the startled man. She kissed his cheek and looked up at him. "Miss Emily... she... we... she... could she be your friend too?"

"Sure," Chris smiled, ruffled the dark curls and shook the tiny doll's hand. "Can I have a promise?"

"What kind of promise?" She cocked her head.

"That if Mister Trent ever hurts you... Miss Emily," he corrected, "or touches you or scares you again... you tell your Mommy, or Uncle Ryan or Poppy, okay?"

"Okay," She agreed, shaking his hand. "If you want, you can have the rest of my Blue Bug Juice," she offered the fruit drink, "it might help your face some... 'specially your eyes. They're all twisted up funny..."

"Thanks," he declined, "I think I need aspirin and something cold to drink." Before she could reply, he heard Cait's voice from outside the door.

"Grace? Are you up here?"

"Uh-oh," the imp whispered, running for the back of the room, "Don't tell on me!" She asked, slipping through a small opening to what Chris assumed was a back stairwell. He was halfway to the door, when the concerning mother's head popped inside.

"I'm sorry, did I wake you?"

"No, Cait," he reassured, rubbing his eyes. "You got any Tylenol?"

"Yes, and lunch is ready. It's after one p.m. and Buck just got back, he has news. Come on," she led the dazed man to the stairs.

Cletus Fowler eyed the clock, flexing his good hand. Trent was late. It was nearly one thirty and he was itching to get at Tanner. The prisoner was awake, again. He could tell by the frantic movements of the Adam's apple. He stood in front of the unknowing man, letting the metal fingers of his custom made prostheses flicker in anticipation. The naked flesh on the supple throat was crying out to him. He moved his hand closer so it almost touched. The Adam's apple bobbed again and he nearly crushed it.

Vin felt the ache in his legs returned and his head was like thick pudding. The streams of cold sweat left his body in a rush causing the material to cling to him. He felt it running down his face and neck. He sucked the rubber nozzle again, but nothing came out. His heart started to hammer and the pressure in his bladder caused his head to pound. His brain was about to burst. Where was he? How long had he been here? Was he awake? Was he blind? Why couldn't he hear? Was this real or a dream? He strained against the bindings again, unable to move. What did they watn? Would they kill him? What if nobody returned? Time was something he couldn't sense anymore. Had it been five minutes, five hours or days? Frantic, he tugged at the nozzle again, seeking the need to feel something. Water, that which sustained life, had deserted him too. Sighing, he sagged, gave in and flushed with shame as his bladder emptied.

Fowler stood back and grinned, struggling hard not to laugh. He held his metal hand around the sensitive area expelling waste and was tempted to crush it. So easy... too easy... he pulled back and waited for the warm stream to end. Then he bent down, picking up the urine bucket. He eyed the empty water bottle attached to the nozzle leading into Tanner's mouth and got an idea. Give him a taste of his 'own medicine' so to speak. He bit back a laugh and retreated, taking the bucket outside to toss away. He was in the doorway, when the van pulled up and Trent exited.

"Time to party!" Fowler grinned, leading the way downstairs.

Chris, Ryan and Buck sat around the table, forming a plan. While Novelli was sympathetic, there was no tangible proof that Trent was involved, or that Vin was missing. Officially, they had to wait twenty-four hours.

"You think he believes us?" Larabee quizzed the other ATF man.

"Yeah, he's on our side, but Trent covered his ass. He's off duty today, but there was an incident report called in. He claimed the kid he took from the hospital was a local named Ricky Shaw. A small time dealer..." he showed Chris a copy of a mug shot of a slim young man with long brown hair. "...claims he read him the riot act and let him go. He said he spotted the kid harassing folks in the parking lot and followed him inside. The guard at the hospital couldn't ID Vin for sure"

"That's bullshit!" Chris snarled.

"Where is he?" Ryan asked. "Did Novelli try contacting him, asking him about Vin?"

"No," Buck sat forward, seeing Chris to burst, "Hold on, Chris, he's got a reason. Internal Affairs has suspected for some time, he was dirty. They got a couple men investigating him. Plus, if he does have Vin and we put pressure on, he'll disappear and we'll never find him. Our best bet is for him to think he's got the upper hand."

"Where do we start?" Ryan asked, eyeing the others.

"At the beginning," Buck replied, eyeing the clock, "Josiah and Ezra should be checked in by now. They'll cover things at that end. Ryan's gonna tail Caitlin..."

"Beginning where?" the weary blond asked.

"All this came to a head during that storm, right?"

"Yeah, I guess..." Larabee agreed.

"Okay, you two were having lunch, right? Was he okay then?"

"He's was wired... too much sugar... his damn leg was jiggling, he couldn't sit still. I told him to get lost for a half hour, until I finished."

"So he came back and then acted strange."

"No," Chris shook his head, "he didn't come back. I ran outside, it was pouring, the wind was howling, it got dark. I saw him stagger out and followed him. I caught up to him outside Brie's house and..."

"...stagger out where?" Buck interrupted.

"Uh..." the green eyes rolled to the side and shut, as he mentally hit the replay key in his mind. He raised his left hand and pointed, seeing Vin dart out from a doorway. "There.... from ... a... doorway... near the... corner."

"That's where we start!" Buck exuded, standing up. "Maybe Trent saw him there... or did something to him. Hell, he could have drugged Vin... or maybe he tried to take him then and Vin got away."

"Something happened," Chris agreed, "scared him good... he was traumatized. Okay, let's go. Ryan, we'll check in later." He saw Caitlin enter the room, carrying a small pink knapsack. "Buck, get the car, I'll be right out." He waited until they were alone and turned to the two McKenna's. "Caitlin, can I ask you something about Grace?"

"Sure," She paused, taking out the child's books from the pack, "What?"

"Where did she get Miss Emily?"

The startled mother paused, eyebrows furrowed and then she frowned. "Why would you ask that?"

"It might be important."

"How?" Ryan hand shot out, taking the small one of the widow's.

"Something she told me has me curious," the blond imparted.

"It was right after I met Geoff, he took us to Sunday Brunch at Sauville House. She got lost... I was scared to death. We looked all over for her for nearly an hour. Then she just reappeared on the third floor. She was holding the doll, apparently they stored some old toys and other things that belonged to Isabella in an old nursery up there. Grace was hysterical, she cried so hard she threw up. The manager was embarrased, I think, that she got lost so easily and feared bad pubilicity. She didn't want to give the doll up, there was several dozen people gathered by this time, watching, so they told her to keep it. Why?"

He sighed hard, rubbed the back of his neck and chose his words carefully. "You both need to talk to her, reassure her fears. That doll is her security blanket and she has good reason to hold it close. She's worried about you, Cait. She's too small to carry that around."

"I know," Cait sighed, moving to stand behind Ryan. She rubbed the back of his neck and felt a tingle go up her back. "We are going to talk to her about a lot of things, thanks for your concern, Chris, I really appreciate it."

As they made their way to the restaurant, Buck saw an unnerving calm on the other man's face. He'd have expected cursing, glaring or even a few death threats. But this placid face scared him.

"Chris, snap out of it, we got us a Tanner to find." He tried, then saw Larabee's face slowly turn.

"What if we.... don't." He almost bit the words off, "Buck, what if he's already..."

He couldn't say the word and was still numb, when the door opened and he climbed out. Buck waited patiently, standing by his side. How the hell was he so good at that? He took a shaky breath, rubbed some of the fear from his eyes and nodded, as the hand gripped the back of his neck.

"We're gonna find him, Chris, alive." Buck said quietly, "You got my word on that."

"Wilmington's word's as good as done..." he shot back, as he always did. He saw that winning smile then, the one that was legendary.

"You bet your ass, it is," he issued, releasing the other's tense neck as they started on the road to solve the mystery.

Part Fourteen

Fowler adjusted the harness on the ceiling, waiting until the twin cords of rope were ready. He nodded to Trent who stood by Tanner. The leader knelt and undid the straps, knowing the victim would be compliant. By now, he was numb, unable to discern reality. He tugged the boots and mittens off, before taking the ear muffs off. That left the hood, which he lifted carefully. He smiled as the weak man tugged at the nozzle, like a rat in a cage. The eyes were last and he turned up the large lights he'd brought in.

"Good Afternoon, Mister Tanner," he said loudly, grinning as the weaken man tumbled from the chair. Deprived of activity and bound too long, his legs were useless. He watched amazed for several minutes as the prisoner curled up and uncurled, moaning in pain as the sharp pins and needles of circulation coming back, stabbed at every inch of his tender flesh. The eyes wouldn't stay open, the harsh light was too painful.

"Get up!" He hollered, kicking Tanner hard in the back.

Pain exploded in his lower back, he gasped and jerked, trying to find a way out. He was covered in sweat, his hair stuck to his head like a helmut. He couldn't see and his muscles were on fire. He was dizzy and disoriented; his head was throbbing and he felt weak. It was hard to breathe. He tried to get away, to crawl even, but his limbs wouldn't cooperate.

"Fowler! Strip him, it's time...."

Vin protested weakly as the clothes were taken from him. The jaws of the unforgiving, cold stone floor ripped into his flesh. He curled up defensively, but he was yanked upright, his hands pulled cruelly above his head and tied by a rough rope. The tight cords cut into his wrists and he felt his body rise, as a motor sounded. He was raised to a point where his feet were several inches above the floor. All his body weight was now supported by his overextended upper limbs, which screamed in agony. Each of the dungeon masters put on headphones. Trent moved over and turned on the recording device, turning the volume up. A disturbing combination of drums and chimes filled the room. The prisoner jerked and twisted his head, as his ears were violated.

"...fuck ...are... ya..." He croaked, his mouth dry. The lights were so bright and hitting him in the face, he couldn't see. His ears were pulsating from the pain the sounds were causing. He bit his lip against the pain, drawing blood.

"Proceed," Trent said to Fowler, the two were linked by microphones attached to the expensive headgear, "You know what to do." He waited until the other man was in front of the victim, who was blinking and struggling. He moved behind him, readying the baton. "Be careful..." he warned, knowing how easily the other got carried away.

His whole body tensed and he buckled, when a cold metal hand clamped onto his private parts. The pressure was just forceful enough to be painful and humiliating. Then a hard object traced a warning path up his backside.

"Who the hell are ya?" He screamed, twisting helplessly against the ropes, unsure of how to fight. "Whaddya want... What the fuck do ya want?" His only answer was the sounding of the drums and chimes and the lights changing color, from white to blue to red and back. He was left alone then and shut his eyes. That was short lived. The metal hand came back pressing something on his flesh again. Then another pressure on his big toes and the nipples on his chest. He twisted helplessly, tensing up for what he did not know. But nothing happened, so he sagged again, letting his head drop and shutting out the light. That's when he learned that he couldn't disobey. As soon as his eyes shut, his body exploded in pain, as electrical current was shot through the appointed areas. He screamed and jerked against the ropes, causing blood to run from his wrists and down his arms.

"The current uses the muscles as a conductor," Trent explained to Fowler, who watched the prisoner twitching and jumping, as different muscle groups spasmed at the same time. "This causes extreme pain, the inability to breath and sometimes," he noted with a smile, "the heart stops. But not to fear, we still have much more fun to come." He shut the power off and watched the prisoner's head droop, then turned on again, causing the eyes to shoot open and into the light.

"Don't..." Vin screamed, pulling against the ropes as the pain came again. "What do you want! What the..." His words were cut off as a nozzle was thrust into his mouth, and an ice cold stream of water shot in unrelenting force down his throat.

"Fire and ice," Fowler laughed, taking the hose out and watching the vomit follow. The shaggy head drooped and Trent hit the switch, sending a short wave of current. The body twitched again, like a puppet, the eyes jerked open as the scream came. Then the water followed and the vomiting.

As he choked up yet more bile, Vin's tender insides now joined the protest. The violent spasms shooting through him as the muscles in his abdomen were thrust backwards, even after the water and vomit left. He couldn't see anymore, the lights blinded him. His head was ripped in half by the screaming drums and chimes. His groin and chest were burning from the shock treatment and his arms were on fire from the pressure of bearing his weight. What did they want? What would happen when he couldn't fight anymore? What other tactics would they use? The pattern began again, the brutal shock, the icy water, the lights and drums. He screamed until he was hoarse and then there was no more. With the last burst of pain in his head, blessedly, he passed out, with one name on his lips. Chris...where are you?

Trent turned off the music and lights, while Fowler lowered the now unconscious man. He took the electodes off his body and waited for instructions.

"Put him in the hole," Trent said, dusting a piece of gravel off his coat. "I'm taking my fiancé out to dinner. I'd suggest you eat hearty, Fowler, when I return, we start phase three. Then we'll find out how much endurance he has... when the questioning starts."

Fowler knew part of phase three involved beating the answers out of the victim. Rubber hoses applied to the soles of the feet and lower back. Fists did the upper body and facial work. Then there was the cage. He smiled, lifted the unprotesting body and dumped him into the tiny cell under the floor. It was a dirt covered and barely three feet high, giving the victim little room to manuever. A small cloth sack was tossed in beside him. It contained a pair of sweat pants, a bottle of water and some candy bars. Fowler knelt over the hole, moving his good hand onto Tanner's cheek.

"That face of yours won't be so pretty by morning," he laughed cupped the slack jaw cruelly and eyed the cage nearby. He'd seen the photo's of Trent's earlier victims and couldn't wait to see a live demonstration. He was supposed to shut the door and lock it; sealing Tanner into a dark tomb. He hesitated, as the young man moaned and blinked. He moved his metal hand to the back of the wet curly hair, tugging it harshly. A cry of pain shot up at him, along with two bleary blue slits. Trent wouldn't be back for hours. Maybe he could have some fun after all.

It was almost five p.m., when Buck and Chris stood in the street outside the restaurant.

"Okay, Chris, ready?" He inquired, begininning his journey. The other man remained behind, marking the exact spot from where he saw Vin's flight begin.

Buck walked down the street, while Chris mentally replayed the event. He passed the teeshirt store, the record store and a thrift shop. A window front painted with dark colors with garish images came next, then a bakery.

"Wait!" Chris screamed, "Go back... one..."

Buck turned back to the odd colored window. He peered at the words written in strange gilded lettering. It was shop that boasted both palm reading, tarot cards and aura reading. Also, there were potions and lotions and spells for sale. "Get your Mojo back..." he muttered, shaking his head at the crooked lettering. Unable to see through the dark glass, he walked to the doorway and peered through the window.

Chris was a few feet away, when he heard Buck scream his name. He wasted no time in getting to door.

"What?" the anxious agent asked, looking at the combination of shock, fear and anger on the other man's face.

"That!" he pointed to a silver object on the floor, a few feet inside the door.

"It's Vin's!" Chris hissed, spotting Tanner's St. Michael's medal. He heart sank a little, when he saw the crude altar a few feet away. Who owned this place? What had they done to his friend? Were they connected to Geoff Trent? He rattled the door hard, pounding on the glass, until a strong hand stopped him

"...the hell are you doing!" Buck screamed, seeing the dazed green eyes. "It's closed... see!" he pointed to the sign. "I'll go next store and ask about the owner. You just calm down!"

"Calm down!" Chris snapped, "When I get Vin back, then I calm the fuck down!" he shoved off the arm and stared into the store again, eyeing the candles, herb and other paraphenalia inside. Buck tapped his shoulder, while putting his phone away.

"It's owned by some old woman named Jessenia Broussard. She's some kind of voodoo queen or priestess or something. The night of the storm, when you saw Vin shoot out of here, she had a heart attack. She's in the hospital. I called Novelli, he's on his way."

"Voodoo," Chris screwed his face up, used his fingers to try to quell the pounding between his temples and trying to stop the pain ripping through. "What the hell did he stumble into?"

Nigel Bates pulled into the hotel, after a long day. He'd been tied up at the hospital, then forced to attend a meeting at city hall concerning a security measures for tourism. Finally, he could access the vacated ATF agent's rooms. With Tanner and Larabee gone, he could search their rooms and see if they uncovered anything. He checked in at his office, accessing his emails and voice mail messages. Then he went up the stairs, to the Sophia Suite. He had the key in the lock and was about to turn it, when the door opened. He didn't have time to mask his startled expression.

"Evening Brother, Something I can do for you?"

"Who are you and what are you doing in that room!"

"I'm Josiah Sanchez, Denver ATF, two friends of mine were staying here and one disappeared. I'm meeting my boss, Chris Larabee here. Now I believe I asked you a question, what can I do for you?"

"I was just checking to insure that the room was properly attended to in their absence."

"Were you now?" he said straightfaced, "It's fine, no cause for worry, Mister..."

"Bates, Nigel Bates, I'm the manager here. If you need anything..."

"You'll be the first to know, Nigel."

Bates was standing in the hall, staring at the back of the door. He frowned, knowing that Trent would be calling in for a progess report. He studied the clock for a moment and decided on an alternate plan. He returned to his office and got his car keys.

"It looks like you won't be dining alone tonight, dear Aunt," he murmured, just as his phone rang again. "Yes, this is Nigel Bates." Exasperation forced his eyes closed and he nodded. "Of course, I understand, I'll be right there."

Chris scowled, eyed the traffic in the street and resumed his pacing.

"What the hell is taking them so long?" He growled, as Buck handed a phone to him.

"It's only been ten minutes, Chris. Here, Josiah's on the horn."

"You okay, Boss?" The preacher inquired, "I heard you christened another ER."

"I'm fine," the blond returned, "You and Ezra turn up anything?"

"I met your Mister Bates," he sat on the patio and eyed the garden. "Charming fellow."

"What did he want?"

"I think he wanted to snoop around your room. I heard the lock turn and opened the door, shocked the shit out of him."

"He's tied to this somehow. Find out what kind of car he drives," the leader dictated, "The one that tried to run Vin down was a small dark two door, black or dark green maybe. See if J.D. can do a background on him."

"Already in the works, I just called him. He'll email us in the morning. Oh, did Buck explain about Lily's journal?"

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "That was smart." He noted of the decision to photocopy the journal and keep the original in the safety deposit box. "Did you bring it?"

"Yeah, I'm gonna download J.D.'s emails too, he's digging up associates of Trent. You coming back here? I'm gonna need to access your laptop."

"Yeah, did Buck fill you in about this shop we found?"

"He did," The eldest heard the worry in the other's voice. "We'll find him, Chris..." There was no reply and he heard Buck's voice in the background, before the team leader finally found his voice.

"I gotta go, Josiah, we'll check in later."

Chris shut the phone off as a middle-aged man wearing a veteran's face greeted him. "Larabee," he extended his hand.

"Chris, this is Captain Dominic Novelli, I spoke with him this morning about Vin." Buck moved over to the window and pointed inside. "That's Vin's medal. This place was where he ran from the night he collapsed. Hell, with all that shit in there... they could have drugged him or something."

"The real estate office listed two people on the rental agreement. Miss Broussard's partner is on his way over with the key," the detective replied.

"How long!" Chris spat out, annoyed and fighting a killer headache.

"As long as it takes," Novelli moved closer, "Look Pal, this is my town, don't get your nose out of joint."

"Who is her partner?" Buck intervened, giving Chris a look of stern warning.

"It's not Trent," the detective read the stormy eyes, "It's a relative, her nephew...."

"Nigel Bates," a smooth voice joined the trio, his hand extended to the policeman. "Small world, isnt' it?" He eyed the irate blond who he'd last seen bleeding in an alley. "It would appear as if you had an accident of some kind," he eyed the bandage as the blond growled and leapt in one fluid motion, sending them both to the ground.

"You son-of-a-bitch!" Chris seethed, gripping the man's collar and shaking him. "Where is he? I'll wipe that fuckin' grin off your face..."

"Chris! Chris!" Buck grabbed the out of control agent and forced him up. "Leave him go... step out... come on..." He shoved the struggling band of emotions against the car.

"Get off me!" Larabee fought back, despite the dizziness he now felt. "That bastard's up to his ass in this..."

"Not this way," Buck said in a low voice, catching the other's furious eyes. "You keep this up and you'll be responsible if we don't find him. Understand? Chris?"

"Yeah," he sagged against the car, grinding his hands into his throbbing eyes.

"You okay?" Novelli asked, his instincts telling him this man was a reptile. "Mister Bates..."

"Fine," he smiled, "The key you requested. As a law abiding citizen, I'm always glad to be of service to the law."

"You lying sac of shit!"

"Chris!" Buck shoved him back against the car.

"I assume my presence is not required, I have a rather urgent matter to attend to." Bates asked.

"You assumed wrong," Novelli unlocked the door and entered, "You stay there, I'll tell you when you can go. Wilmington, Larabee..."

"That's Vin's," Chris took the medal, which had Tanner's initials on the back. "What the hell was he doing in here?"

"Hey Captain!" Buck hollered, ducking his head from around the corner of the small room. "You better see this!"

Chris brushed past Buck and froze in shock. "What the fuck..." He moved closer to the small altar under an antique mirror. In the center, was a photo of Vin, taken while they were walking on Bourbon Street. Several candles were arranged around it, along with a small ceramic dish with a pungent gathering of herbs inside. On the wall beside the mirror, were more photo's of Vin and a small oil painting of a man with long dark curling hair.

"Hey, that's the guy in Lily's book... Dubonnet." Buck noted, studying the tiny colored image. "He looks a little like Vin. Maybe she's got something to do with those spells he was having."

"That gloating bastard's gonna answer my questions now!" Larabee growled, shoving his body back towards the door.

"Aw, hell!" Buck hissed, jogging to catch up, "I'm gettin' too old for this shit!"

"No!" Novelli blocked the blond's path. "I'll be asking the questions. You don't have authority here. If he is involved, you fuckin' this up could send him walking, understand?"

"He's right, Chris." Buck felt ever throbbing fiber of frustration pouring off his worried friend. Novelli stepped outside to talk to Bates and Buck launched himself, just as Chris's legs buckled. "That's it, you're going to the hotel. You damn near got your head caved this morning. You need to rest, or you'll end up back in the ER. I'll stick with Novelli. Okay?"

Chris wanted to argue, but the combination of the rising wall of nausea, the room beginning to spin and the jackhammer's blasting his skull, he couldn't form a word of protest. Then his abdomen rebelled.

"You gonna be sick?" Buck asked and grabbed the jerking body, shoving him over an empty trash can. He eyed a small bathroom door in the back and moved. He returned with damp towels and a mug of water. As soon as the pale, sweating blond was cleaned up, he hauled him upright. He felt Chris's legs buckle and helped him outside.

The street was swimming and he didn't regain his breath, until he was seated inside the car. He gulped air noisely, trying desperately not to pass out. He leaned his damp head back on the headrest and closed his eyes.

"Well?" Buck said, watching Novelli writing notes in a small book.

"He's got alibi's for both the day of the storm when your friend staggered out of here and last night."

"You're not buying that this is a coincidence?" Buck frowned, "That wacky witch has Vin's face plastered all over her damn shop. He's her nephew who just happens to work at the hotel where Vin had similiar spells? Hell, he could be practicing that shit too. This stinks, Novelli, you know it does. He's up to his balls in this..."

"Yeah, Wilmington, my gut tells me that," He shut the book and shook his head. "But I got no proof. He suggested that your friend was a client. That he paid Ms. Broussard for her services."

"That's bullshit!" the rogue roared, "Did you ask him about his car?"

"There it is," he nodded to the other man, who was adjusting the seat belt in a light blue Toyota. "It doesn't match the description."

"You can't let him go!" Buck growled, "He could have more than one car."

"Yes, he could and we'll check on that. I want to check over at that hotel, see if anyone there saw Bates with Trent. I know your upset, but until tomorrow, I don't have a missing person case. My hands are tied. I gotta get back, I've got three new homicides..."

"Yeah, okay," Buck paused, "Hey, Novelli, I'm sorry. Thanks for sticking your neck out."

The veteran detective paused and looked at the pale blond man in the car a few feet away. It wasn't hard to see how Tanner's absence affected him. He wondered about the smiling, long-haired youthful face he'd seen in the photo. "This friend of yours, Tanner, must be a helluva a guy, to get to a man like that."

"Hah!" the rogue chuckled, "He's a drawling, stubborn, long-haired Texas river rat, who addicted to chocolate, ice hockey and pratical jokes." He paused and sighed, "and he's the best sniper I've ever laid eyes on... he can read a crime scene like nobody else. He's one damn fine agent. Geoff Trent made the worst mistake of his life when he fucked with Chris Larabee."

"I'll lock up here," Novelli said, patting the other man's arm. "Ms. Broussard is in ICU and I'm going to check on when I can talk to her. In the meantime, keep an eye on that temper of his."

"It's what I do best," Buck noted, climbing into the car. It was a tense ride and by the time they got to the hotel, Chris Larabee was angry. Buck updated him and with every sentence, the jaw clenched tighter and the hand became a death grip on the door handle. Just as they pulled up, his cell phone rang. "Hello,"

"Wilmington, it's Novelli."

"What?" Buck said, keeping his voice level. Chris looked like death warmed over and he didn't want to upset him.

"You remember I mentioned three new homicides? Well I stopped at the scene for one of them on my way back. "I hope to God I'm wrong..." He stood over the battered body of a young man, semi-nude and bloodied. "I got a male caucasian, mid-twenties, long brown hair, slim a few inches under six foot. Somebody really worked him over, before he died. I don't think Larabee is up to an idenfication."

Buck's mouth dropped open in muted horror and a knife ripped into his guts. Blood rushed to his brain, giving him a headache and his stomach rebelled.

"Buck?" Chris peeled a eye open painfully, seeing a blurry profile on the phone.

"Yeah, I can come," he managed to keep his voice calm. He listened to the instructions on the location and "Okay, yeah... thanks... I'm fine... okay." He shut the phone off and pressed his face against the window. He hid the burning eyes and horrific face from his oldest friend. He managed to climb out and shut his door. He rested his face in his hands over the hood, dispelling several long breaths. So many images of Vin tumbled out at once, he nearly drowned in blue -eyed whimsey. He took a settling breath and made his way around the car.

"I'm fine.." Chris shoved off the arm and squinted at the hotel. "You coming?"

"No, Novelli's waiting for me, he has something he thinks might tie Trent to Vin."

"Well, let's go," Chris turned to get back in the car, only to be propelled towards the door.

"You can barely stand. You heard what that doctor said. This is a grade 4 concussion and that's serious, Chris. You're sick as a dog. Go inside, take a hot shower, take some Tylenol and get some sleep. I won't be long. Go on..."

He sighed and eyed the car, then the hotel. He would be lucky if he made it to the door, without collapsing. Buck was right, he did feel sick as a dog. He was very lightheaded and nausious, his vision was blurry as well. Finally, he nodded, clapped Buck's shoulders and struggled to keep one foot in front of the other. He paused at the front entrace, spotting a short path to the garden. He didn't realize he was moving that way, until he was near a bench. He sat down, leaned his aching head back and inhaled the aroma. The name of the old woman from the store kept going through his mind. She was the one person who knew what was going on. She might know where Vin is.

"Seek her out... she has the key... find her... Chris... she'll lead you to him... Seek her out..."

He must have dozed for a few minutes, for he woke with a start.

"What?" He choked, rubbing his eyes. The voice was so loud and clear, he would have sworn...He shook his head again. The dizziness was gone and his stomach was better. The words kept replaying, driving him to a new mission. He stopped by the water fountain and doused his face and neck, before taking a huge drink. He eyed the backstairs leading to his room and then turned the other way. He pulled out his car keys and found his rental parked in the drive. The soft words propelled him the hospital and to Jessanie Broussard's bedside.

"I've been expecting you," she whispered, reaching her hand out. "You must go to him... he is crying out for your. Hear his call... see him... feel him... touch his soul. Only you can save him..."

He wanted to scream at her, ask her about Vin, the shrine in the shop and Bates. But once he took the gnarled hand, all his thoughts were swept away. He felt an almost electrical current shooting from her hand right to his brain. The room faded away and his eyes went wide with horror, when he saw Vin Tanner.

The sun is often strongest at sunset and as Buck turned the ignition off, he felt like the garish light was taunting him. The cruel rays stabbed his eyes, as he slid out of the car. He took two deep breaths, trying to pull himself together. Several yards ahead were a smattering of policemen, detectives, the folks from the lab and gawkers of course. It was a poor section of town, the houses and inhabitants looked rough. A cluster of cops stood in the doorway of an abandoned house, talking shop. A young patrolman put both hands up to prevent him from going further.

"I'm sorry, this is a homicide scene, you'll have to wait..."

"I'm Wilmington," he replied flatly, flashing his badge, "Novelli's expecting me."

"Hold on," the young man replied, tapping the button on the radio he wore, "Captain Novelli? There's a Fed named Wilmington out here."

"Send him down," the gruff voice replied.

Buck nodded and walked past the group by the door, pausing inside the debris filled building. He walked across the dirty floor, past used syringes, garbage and human waste. He spotted the lab crew, the photographer and Novelli, along with a few other detectives. Then he saw the bloodied bare feet and legs of the corpse. He was lying on his stomach, hands tied behind his back. A gaping wound in his side left entrails dripping on the sticky floor. Buck's stomach rebelled then and he slammed his eyes shut, clenched his fists and sucked his breath in. He felt a hand on his shoulder and exhaled slowly.

"I'm sorry as hell about this," Novelli muttered, seeing the agony on the young man's features.

"Yeah," Buck managed in a shadow of a voice. "In all the years I've been wearing a shield, I never had to ID a fr...friend. God..." He took a deep breath and walked forward. There was a horrid indentation on the spot where the back of the dead man's head should have been. The skull was crushed, leaving the brown, curly hair a sticky crimson mess. Gray matter oozed through cracks of white skull. This time the bile got to his throat, before he swallowed it down.

"Fuck..." he whispered, gripping his hips under his jacket. His chest was so tight, he felt like he was wearing a second skin. The roar in his ears did not diminish, as his heart began to jackhammer. He forced his leaden legs to move, cold sweat running down his face.

"You ready? There isn't much left of his face..."

"Get it done," Buck rasped, sucking in the fleeing air. All of a sudden the dank warehouse with a fetid odor seemed to have dropped about thirty degrees in temperature. He'd seen crime scenes and corpses before, hundreds of them. But he wasn't prepared when they tipped the body's head back. The nose and mouth were obliterated, jagged gaps in the cheek were spliced by a broken jawbone. A bullet or some other object had taken most of the right eye and socket.

"Thanks Mike," Novelli sighed, jumped to grab the vomiting visitor, guiding him to a pile of crates several feet away. "I'm sorry..." He kept his hand on the heaving man's shoulder, turning towards another stranger strolling towards them. With a pat of reassurance to the shocked agent's back, he approached the man.

"This isn't a fashion show, Hollywood," he eyed the designer clothes, sunglasses and Italian leather shoes. "Take that pretty face the other way."

"I'll refrain from matching your witty repartee," the conman replied, grateful his sunglasses hid the naked horror in his eyes. He clearly understood his partner's raw response. He was unprepared for the grisley sight that tore at his heart.

"Who the fuck are you?" Novelli wrinkled his nose, eyeing the monogrammed hankerchief, pressed to perfection and standing at attention in the thousand dollar suit. "Fuckin' suit cost more than my paycheck."

"Yes, well maybe you should have a word with your tailor. May I?" He nodded to the body and moved to kneel down, only to have a swarmy hand hit his chest.

"Somethin' wrong with your ears, Hollywood?" The gruff Captain stood his ground.

"I doubt if you can afford my drycleaning bill," the ATF man declared, "Please remove your paw from my shirt. The silk is imported, the garment is custom made."

Through the haze of the pain in his gut and the dizziness that filled his pounding head, a welcomed ranting trickster gave him relief. He pulled himself free of his own vomit, which mingled with the urine, feces and filth on the floor beneath him. "Ezra?" He croaked, reaching his dazed face upwards.

"...P Standish," The undercover man completed, peeling the detective's fingers from his pale green shirt. "Denver ATF, Captain Vermicelli?" He offered, with a purposeful bite.

"Novelli!" the irate man barked, "I don't care if your J. Edgar Fuckin' Hoover. This is a crime scene, not a parade ground."

"It doesn't appear as if it stained," Ezra managed to keep his voice level, brushing his shirt.

"Stain? I'll give you a stain you cocky son-of-a..."

"It's okay, Captain, it's only Ezra..."

"Thank you," Standish huffed, "I'll forgive you that, seeing your disstressed state of mind." He saw the ashen complexion of the large-hearted man, complete with cold sweats and trembling hands. He was trying to stand up and the quick conman stopped him, with a gentle tug on the shoulder. "Remain where you are, I'll take care of it..." He squatted down and eyed the bloody bare skin on the corpse's back carefully. He scrutinzied the left side and eyed the technician by the body. "Turn him, please." He waited until the body was tilted and looked at the chest, concentrating on the naval. Then he tipped the jaw up with a pen and studied the few inches of remaining flesh by the left ear. "Thank you, that is not Mister Tanner."

"God!" Buck dropped his body again, having just stood up. The air left his lungs in such a rush, it took his balance away. Now he was halved, both hands on his knees, his body bent forward. He slide his hand through the unbuttoned neckline of his shirt and pulled out his cross. He kissed it once, closed his eyes and said a prayer of thanks. "Thank you.." he whispered, clutching the silver hope, still shaken.

"We'll get a positive when we runs his prints." Novelli eyed the calm man who had a distinctive southern accent. "You don't know him well?" He noted of the missing ATF man.

"Better than most," Ezra replied quietly, his nerves raw and jangled. The body did bear a close resemblence to his friend and it tore him to the core. Vin was the one he felt closest to in the group and seeing this tortured body rocked him.

"Christ you're a cold fish!" the detective replied, watching the face void of any emotion. That is, until he spoke those words.

"You would be best advised to choose your words more carefully," Standish spat back, eyes burning a hole in the discount rack special, "You don't know a damn thing about me, how dare you be so presumptuous."

"Sorry!" he put both hands up defensively, "You okay?" He turned to the shaken Wilmington who nodded slightly.

"How'd you know, Ez?" Buck managed, finally bringing his head up.

"Scars in all the wrong places and missing tokens."

"Tokens?" Buck frowned.

"Vin has a tatoo of an eagle on his lower back, also he had his appendix removed as a young child. Neither mark is there. That man has a horrid scar tissue from a burn under his ear, our fearless Texan did not. I defer to your fingerprinting confirmation, but that is not our missing colleague.

"I'm glad," he replied, helping Buck straighten up. "Go on and get some air, I'll be in touch."

"Thanks, Captain," Buck nodded, letting Ezra guide him from the rancid room. This time, he embraced the daylight, letting the sun bake his skin. He didn't hear the questions of the reporters or Erza's sharp rebuff. He followed the other man's lead, letting the strong grip guide him. Then there was shade and he was gently sat on a bench. He blinked and looked around, they were in the front of a boarded up house. The cement bench stood by the curb, marking a bust stop. "...sorry..." he choked, still tasting the acid in his mouth.

"For what?" Ezra replied, "Stay here, I'll be right back."

Buck did just that, trying to get the image of the Vin-look-alike from his tortured mind. So close... too close. He took several more breaths, ran his hand through his dark hair and leaned his head back, shutting his eyes. A few moment later, he felt a cold plastic bottle pressed to his hand.

"Courtesy of the lab," Ezra thought to sit, but saw the bird droppings and other debris on the bench and thought better of it.

"Never again," Buck said, after rinsing his mouth, spitting out twice and then taking two long sips of cold water. His hands still trembled and he couldn't shake the nausea. "Christ, I don't want to have to do that..."

"It never changes," Ezra replied, thinking back.

"You've had to do that before?"

"Twice, many years ago." the former F.B.I. agent replied, "My first partner and a good friend who I made the mistake of confiding in. But this time... was different... it was Vin."

Buck's head jerked up then, hearing the first crack in the Standish armor. The Texan's name broke in half when it slid past the tense lips. From the brief inch of eye visible beneath the dark glasses, he saw a glimmer of emotion cresting on the lid. Now, he appreciated just how much guts it took in that grisley mess to remain so calm. "You got balls, Ezra P.," he said with admiration.

"Coming from the expert," Ezra smiled, "and our resident rogue, I take that as a compliment. Shall we?" he nodded to the cars nearby. "I have not wasted my time this afternoon. I have information on Detective Trent..."

"How'd you get here" Buck paused, key in hand at the door to his car.

"Brilliant detective work on my part," he replied with an exagerated drawl.

"No really, how'd you find me?" Buck waited.

"I was approaching the street of the hotel and saw you drive past. Your face did the rest." He noted of the look of raw agony he saw through the glass. "I feared the worst."

"I didn't tell Chris... the call came in just as we drove up. He's in a bad way... damn near passed out a couple times. Let's get to the hotel and compare notes."

The first sensation brought memories of a bad trip he suffered while undercover once. Hallucination was the word that came to mind. The hospital room faded away and he was pulled into a harsh vortex. He felt a hot rush of electric-like current rip through his lean body. The pace was so face, it took his breath away. He saw the interstate, an exit and a turnoff, an old ruin and a trap door. Then a horrid scream ripped his guts. The blue eyes he knew so well were riddled in agony. Blood ran from the lips that were bitten through in pain. The wet curly brown hair was plastered to the anguished face, the crimson lips parted and his best friend's scream cut him like a knife.

"Vin!"

"Yes... see him... strong one... feel him... find him... you... must..." She fell back against the pillows, the effort draining her. With the little strength she had left, she forced him to the summit, realizing he was their last hope.

The hot green eyes took in the damp cell, where Vin was hanging from a rope. He felt the burning pain scorch him as Vin's naked body jerked from the electical shock being forced upon him. He felt the sensation of drowning as water was forced into his lungs, taking his breath away. He felt the abusive hands as finally Vin surrendered. He saw a metal hand... silver hand... killer's hand roll Vin into a hole, cruelly pinching him. Then the blue eyes parted a sliver and the pale, crimson-tinged lips parted, speaking his name. It was then all feeling left his body and he followed his friend into the black void.

"Foolish woman," Nigel Bates spat, stepping over Chris Larabee's prone body. He knew she was dying, that last trip she took the blond on, was too much for her weakened heart. "Did you think you could win? You are not hounan," the powerful priest emitted tapping the cane on the floor. The red eyes of the silver serpent on the head of the cane glowed. "You used your powers on the wrong side... you could have had so much more. You were weak, you turned to the light." He leaned in then, seeing the aged woman's eyes fading. He spoke low, only for her ears. "Go to your God, Jessenia, I will see to it that your blue-eyed savior meets your there."

He knelt down, turned Larabee over and opened the head of the cane. He blew the fine powder over the young victims' nose. "Breathe Mister Larabee... that's it... awaken... hear my voice only." The green eyes opened in dazed compliance and he stood back up. "Rise and follow." He commanded, watching the lean body rise and meekly follow. They got to the door as a nurse came in, with a dinner tray.

"She's asleep," Bates stated.

"Are you alright?" The nurse asked the pale blond man.

"He's been ill, he needs some air." Bates's eyes took on an unearthly glow as the nurse's face went lax. "You came in the room and found Ms. Broussard alone."

"Yes," she said turning her back and entering the room.

"Come, my little puppet," Bates oozed, counting his bonus money. They took the elevator down to the garage and made their way to the light blue car. Once the blond man was strapped in, he got behind the wheel. He leaned over and squeezed the firm jaw. "Not to worry, soon you will see your friend. Maybe, you will swim with him in the bayou, the alligators like sweet meat. Would you like that?" He asked the dull, blank wide eyes. "Yes, I think you would... sleep!" He commanded and the head dropped. He flipped the phone open and dialed Trent. "I have a playmate for Mister Tanner. Yes, a blond one. I know the place, fifteen minutes. I'll expect a generous amount of zero's on that bonus check." He turned the engine on and drove toward the designated meeting area in the bayou.

Josiah used Chris's large, pristine bed to display the photo's, files and other material he brought on the plane. He had the phone in one hand, talking to J.D.

"Yeah, everything came through fine. I'll find a printer, you did great, J.D." He paused, scratched his neck and shook his head, "No, we didn't find him yet. As soon as we get any news...I'll call." He flipped the phone shut as voices loomed outside. "Ezra?" He opened the door and saw Buck's ashen face and felt his stomach lurch. "What happened?"

"A near miss..." The southerner moved aside, letting Buck stagger inside. He moved quickly to his suitcase, taking out a bottle of brandy.

"Jesus, Ezra, that's shit's fifty dollars a bottle," Josiah eyed the label and guided Buck to a chair on the patio.

"I didn't have time to shop around, I had to make do with 'off the shelf'," he noted tartly, taking a glass from the bathroom. He poured it halfway and handed it to the still silent Wilmington.

"Thanks," Buck finally spoke, taking a small sip.

"What the hell happened?" Josiah demanded, eyeing Buck's face.

"I got a call, just before I dropped Chris off. Captain Novelli... they found a body... long brown hair... slim... mid twenties... mutilated to hell..."

"Vin?" the preacher shook his head, "I'm sorry, Brother, helluva thing to bear."

"Thank God Ezra showed up," Wilmington admitted, sipping the liquor and feeling some warmth course through his freezing body. "He knew the missing scars and tatoos and shit. How's Chris?"

"I don't know," the eldest replied, "He's not here."

"What!" Buck choked, coughing up his drink. Even Ezra's hand pounding his back, didn't take the pain away. "Where is he? I dropped him off outside the door over an hour ago. What do mean he isn't here? He has to be."

"I haven't left and he never got here."

"Son-of-a-bitch!" Buck vented, jumping up and pulling out his phone. He dialed Chris's cell phone, but the call didn't go through. "It's turned off..." he jammed his fingers into his pained eyes and dialed again. "Ryan? Is Chris there by any chance. Shit... no I can't find him. Dammit... okay, thanks, let me know." He's not at the Saloon. Ryan's gonna check with the others. Let's have a look around."

Thirty minutes later, having scoured the grounds, they met in the back of the garden. Glum and gloomy would be an apt description of the trio of long faces. Buck slumped at the chair on the end of a table, dejection chisled into his handsome face. "I should have never left him... he wasn't feeling good."

"You trip down culpability boulevard is not warranted." The Southerner snapped.

"Culpability boulevard?" Josiah frowned, "Ezra you've been watching too many old movies." He dropped his smokey eyes on the slumped mustached agent and rested a hand on the downcast shoulder. "He's right Buck, it ain't your fault."

"Mister Larabee has a strong will and resists any form of hand holding," He noted, eyeing a woman folding linen cloths nearby. He saw her eyes flicker at the mention of Chris's name. "Madame?" he questioned that look and she came over.

"Did you say Larabee?" she asked.

"Have you seen him?" Buck rose, towering over the tiny dark woman.

"Lord, you're fine looking man!" She cocked her head and patted his arm. "Yeah, I seen him drive off ... oh an hour and a half or so... heading east."

"Where would he be going? Did he mention anything in the car Buck?" Ezra asked.

"East..." Buck murmured, shaking his head. "Stubborn jackass... that's why the phone is turned off!" He fished his keys out.

"What?" Josiah asked, grabbing the keys, "You're not steady enough, Brother."

"The hospital!" Buck stated, "You can't use cell phones in there." He paused, "When we found Vin's chain and they said the mystic or witch or whatever the hell she is was in the hospital, Chris wanted to grill her."

"Let's go," Ezra said, leading the way.

Fowler hauled Vin out of the hole and sat him up against the wall. The battered, dazed man immediately fell sideways, unable to support himself. The guard gripped the pale, tender flesh of his upper arm with the metal hand and squeezed hard, hauling him upright. Two blue eyes shot open and a weak cry split the dank air.

"Thought that would wake you up..." He cajoled, watching the flesh bruise easily. "Let's play." He knew the dazed man was hungry and opened a candy bar, leaving a piece of it several feet away. He left a bottle of water as well. Then he stood behind him and waited, watching the blinking eye focus.

Chocolate. Vin's nose lifted and he inhaled. The room was freezing and every inch of him ached. He had no energy, yet there it was, just a few feet away. Like an animal, he crawled, the sharp points of the loose gravel on the floor, cutting the skin on his abdomen, groin and thighs. He groaned in antipication when a blurry form rose up behind the chocolate. Water. He moaned again and inched closer, reaching his bloody, raw hand out. He touched the candy, already tasting the sweetness.

"Ahhhhhh!" He cried out as a boot came down on his hand. He curled up, rocking a little to take the pain away. He saw the bottle from the corner of his eye and reached for it, grabbing it. Then it was stolen as well." No.... mine..." he protested, having a hand shove his back hard, forcing him into the dirty, rocky floor.

"You want a drink, Pig?" Fowler baited, waiting for the tortured soul to lift his battered head. Several minutes passed as small grunts of effort got the head up. Blood ran down his face and from a cut on his lip. He started crawling again, only seeing the water. He laughed at the weak man's efforts and brushed the cold bottle against the fine features on the bruised face. He saw the swollen tongue dart out, trying to find a drink. He crushed the bottle then, sending the water into the dirt. "It looks like you're a pig after all..." he laughed again, watching the desperate soul licking up the mud, bugs and whatever else was beneath his mouth. He walked around the slim body and kicked the left buttock hard, feeling a rush as the weak cry came out. His metal fingers stretched out, clamping hard on the back of the wet skin at the base of the neck.

Pain shot through his back and shoulders. He jerked, his mouth like fish out of water. He flopped on the ground, his arms and legs jerking in spasms. He felt his body lifted and thrown hard, hitting the wall and then he knew nothing else.

"Dammit..." Fowler cursed, forgetting his strength. Tanner was out cold again, that was no fun. The phone rang and he listened, his eyes lighting up again. More toys were on the way. He opened the hatch and used the tip of his boot to press the soft underside of the victim's belly. He kicked hard, sending him back into the hole. "Two is more fun that one..." he laughed, shutting the door.

Josiah stopped the first nurse he met entering ICU. "Excuse me, Jessenia Broussard?" He flashed his badge. He followed her to the room and entered, frowning at the elderly, dark-skinned woman on the bed. The peaceful look on her face told him, before the nurse did.

"She's gone," The nurse said, "Just a few moments ago. We've notified her family."

"Did she have any visitors today?" Ezra asked, moving next to the bed. He saw Buck studying the gnarled brown hand on the sheet and frowned. "What is it?" He moved closer.

"No,' the nurse replied, eyeing the graying agent, "She's been sleeping all day, by rights it's a miracle she lived this long. It was a bad heart attack, it did massive damage."

"No visitors all day?" Buck said in a cold voice, towering over the petite nurse.

"No, none, why?" She replied, backing up.

"A friend of ours, another agent, disappeared from this hospital early this morning. Later this afternoon, we found this," he opened his palm and the St. Michael's medal gleamed in triumph, "in her shop," he jerked his head. "My partner, six foot, blond, green eyes, good looking, named Larabee, he has this less than two hours ago. I was with him. So you wanna think about that answer."

She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She shrugged and thought hard, "No... noone... I didn't..."

"Wrong answer!" Buck roared, grabbing her wrist.

"Buck!" Josiah and Ezra spoke in unison, moving quickly and forcing them apart.

"Calm down, that won't solve anything!" the conman drilled, turning to the nurse. "The fact remains, Madame that we are now missing a second friend, the blond man who carried this. How did it get in her hand?"

"I don't now, honest to God..." she began to cry, "I'm sorry..."

"It's okay," Josiah took her out of the room.

"Maybe Chris dropped it," Ezra murmured, but Buck rebuffed that thought.

"That was Vin's, he'd sooner chop his hand off."

Ezra was very unnerved by the tiny woman in the bed. He shivered as a cold air caressed him. "I suggest we depart immediately and ask around. Someone must have seen him. Perhaps the parking lot has cameras?."

"Yeah, that's a good idea," Buck agreed, taking to the hallway.

Despite their best efforts, nobody recalled seeing Chris. They were at the elevators, when Ezra noticed a man moping the floor. It was a young black man, neatly groomed. "Excuse me, have you been cleaning the floors all day?"

"Yeah, why? You an inspector or somethin'?"

"...or something," the gambler noted, using his badge. "We seek a friend who may have been here today." He took the wallet shot of the seven he carried and held it out. "This man..."

"Oh yeah... the stoned dude.... creepy..." He shivered, wrung the mop out and continued.

"When!" Buck grabbed him.

"Back off, Kojak!" the kid snapped, "An hour ago maybe. He was wasted... I know that look he was floatin'. The other dude, he was scary... chill city."

"A man was with him?" Ezra pressed.

"Yeah, a creepy brother... dressed like a bone collector carrying a nasty-assed cane with a snake on the top. I'm telling you, Twilight Zone time..."

"Bates!" Josiah spat, "I'd bank on it. Didn't you say he was related to her?"

"Yeah..." Buck nodded in a fog, "Chris must have confronted her and Bates got a hold of him. Drugged him or something"

"The brother had a mean mojo... that's bad news... Lamont don't play that!" The mopper replied.

"Ezra, stay with him," Buck said, "I'll call Novelli and get him to run by the hotel and get a photo of Bates." He punched the elevator button.

"I'll go to security and look at the tapes from the parking lot." Josiah suggested. "Buck, where you going?"

"To the Saloon to update Ryan and the others. They don't know about Bates and I don't want him near them, especially that little girl. No telling what he might do. Here's the address," he wrote it down and thrust it in the other's hand. "You and Ezra meet me there." His blue eyes grew hard and hot. "I'm tired of waiting. We're gonna find Geoff Trent and he's gonna talk!"

Fowler just finished his second hamburger, when Trent's horn sounded. He met the dirty cop at the door, eyeing the unconscious blond man slung over his shoulder.

"Where to?" he asked, opening the wooden door, leading below.

"The cell." Trent grunted, walking through the room and dropping Larabee on the hard floor.

"Ouch!" Fowler laughed, "That had to hurt!"

"Get his shoes off, the jacket and shirt too. Then meet me in the cell. " He dropped over 'the hole' and opened the door, frowning at the collection of new cuts and bruises. "You fool! What have you done?"

"Nothin' just played with him a little..." Fowler took the boots, jacket and shirt to the corner of the room. "Now what?" He kicked the stilled blond in the back.

"Stop pretending you're Gestapo and get over here! We have work to do!" He pulled Tanner from the hole and dragged him into the cell. He eyed the manacles on the wall and decided against using them. He deposited the unopened bag he'd left prior and went back to help Fowler with Larabee.

"That's it? You're gonna leave them like that?"

"Just like that," Trent replied, turning on the small light switch that gave the cell a dim glow. Tanner looked awful. "Don't touch him again without my permission! I've worked too hard for this money."

"Yeah, yeah..." Fowler shut the door, sealing them inside.

Chris's first thought was that someone turned the air conditioner on. He was freezing. He rolled on his back and felt a cold stone floor biting his naked back. Naked back? Cold stones? He frowned and peeled an eye open. Dirty, dingy, narrow, freezing... he saw something with several legs walk by him and he rolled up, sitting with caution.

"What the hell?" he grimaced as a pain shot through his back. Then he saw another body curled up nearby. A naked body, the flesh marred by blue and purple bruises and burns; cuts and abrasions and dried blood. As if dazed, he was frozen in place, then moved in record time, crawling to his best friend's side.

"Vin!" he cried out, gently turning the body over and pulling him onto his legs. He tapped the stilled face, horrified at the condition his friend was in. "Vin, wake up..." he felt the icy flesh beneath his fingers and flinched. "Christ, you feel like a fuckin' corpse." He eyed the bag then and pulled it over. He saw the sweat pants inside and with great effort, tugged them onto the unconscious tracker's legs and hips. "Here," he opened a candy bar, waving the chocolate under the blood encrusted nostrils. The head moved, the nose twitched and a moan escaped the pale lips. "That's it." He grew impatient , "Open your eyes, Tanner!"

Vin's eyes snapped open as the voice assaulted him. He smelled the candy, saw it before him and opened his mouth.

"You with me Vin?" Chris asked, the recoiled in horror when he saw mud, dirt and worse inside the other man's mouth. "Jesus, Vin you got bugs in your mouth!" He shoved his fingers inside, pulling out the offensive matter. "Here," he nudged a small piece of candy onto the eager tongue. Small grunts of pleasure came out and he felt the hand batting weakly. "Okay, hold on..." he tried to break a piece off and the hand snatched it away.

"Mine... fuck off..." Vin whispered, turning away and huddling over his candy, shoving it in his mouth too fast.

"You're gonna get sick, slow down!" Chris commanded, moving his hand in to take it away.

"No!" Vin cried out, surrending the bar and curling up, covering his face. "...don't... don't..."

Chris's hand froze over the candy and his eyes locked in horror on the pathetic sight before him.

"What did those bastards do to you?" He moved to the other side, trying not to frighten him more. "Vin, it's Chris. Vin, look at me!"

Chris. His hammering heart slowed down. Chris. He felt the icy cold gripping him, lessen a bit. Chris. He felt their hands trying to grab him again and someone stopping them. Chris. He peeled an eye open, afraid it was a trick. He blinked hard watching the face become clearer. He reached a bloody, trembling hand up and touched the apparition's face. Flesh. "...real...ly... here... r...r...is...s?"

"Yeah, Cowboy, I'm here," Chris lifted the injured man, trying to give him warmth. "Here," he held the water bottle and waited until slowly some liquid was taken, then the mouth went slack. He moved his body, shifting the other and a cry of pain came out.

Vin was in the chair again and they were shooting the electricty through his groin and chest. It hurt worse than before and he couldn't bear the pain.

"....don't... please... hurts..."

"That bastard's gonna pay, Vin," Chris's voice was hard as the other man went limp in his arms. He saw too much then, the burns on his nipples and the boot marks on his chest and back. The anger that filled him was a slow, hot burn, glowing green through his eyes. He held onto to Vin and waited, vowing to make Geoff Trent's last moments on earth — pure hell.

Part Fifteen

Who was it that said working helps you to forget your troubles? Doctor Gabrielle Marquette sighed and pushed away the lukewarm cup of coffee. Despite her heavy workload and the hectic pace at the hospital, her mind drifted. She closed her eyes, recalling those wonderful blue eyes of the Texan, she heard the soft drawl, saw the easy smile and felt the electical charge that ran through her when they kissed. God it felt so good... so right... to be in his arms. She blinked when a voice entered the phone at her ear.

"Hello?"

"It's me, Cait, anything yet?"

"No, Brie, I'm sorry," Caitlin heard the worry in her best friend's voice increasing by the hour. "He really got to you, didn't he?"

"I'm no schoolgirl, Cait," Brie waved to the impatient CT Tech, glaring at her, "but he's special... I felt something deep inside..." she bit off the rest, "I've got to go... please call me, if you hear anything."

"I will," she vowed, "Brie, we're gonna find him." She hung the phone up and turned, ducking back through the narrow corridor that led to the busy bar. It was a noisy, crowded room, business was good. She saw a tall man approaching and waved off the two employees who blocked him. "It's okay, guys, let him through. This way Buck," she moved back towards the private room in the back. "Where's Chris?"

"Gone," Buck spat out, clutching both hands to his hips.

"What!" She stopped in her tracks. "How? When? What happened? Did you find Vin?"

"Where's Ryan?" he returned, heading for the coffee pot and stack of mugs on the counter. "We have to talk."

"He's upstairs with Grace, I'll get him."

"Please Uncle Wyun...."

"Sorry, Buttons, it's past your bedtime."

"But this is my favowit part!" She protested, turning her face backwards. She was lying on her side, in front of him on his big bed. Several large pillows were stacked, so they could rest their heads and watch the movie.

"Honey, you've seen this movie twenty-five times!" he laughed, tickling her as Belle and the Beast waltzed across the floor in the Disney animated classic, Beauty and the Beast.

"I love you, Uncle Wyun," she nuzzled his neck and kissed his cheek.

"I love you, too, Sweetheart, but that won't work." He laughed, wondering if that endearing trait most females possessed was inborn. "Come on, Poppy's waiting for you. Where's your fuzzy?" He gazed across the large bed and spartan room, looking for her treasured blanket.

"Under your butt!" she shot back, wrinkling her face and pushing against him. "Move!" she ordered, tugging on the time worn, much loved blue collection of thread, bound by sky colored fuzz and memories.

"Oh yeah!" he growled, pouncing and tickling her until her high peals of laughter soared through the air. He rolled her up like a mummy, then lifted her onto his lap, as he sat up.

"Does my daddy miss me?"

The smile died then, taken too quickly from his face. He sighed, tucked the freshly washed unruly mop of black curls under his chin and pulled her closer. He inhaled that wonderous scent that only comes after a new bath.

"He watches over you every day, he's your own special angel."

"Weally?" Her eyes grew wide as they roamed the room. "I can't see him...."

"Sure you can," he reassured, "Close your eyes...go on," he waited until the trusting little face complied. He smiled ,then, drinking in every inch of her. God how he loved her. He drew up the image of Max's face, the day his daughter was christened. He never saw his brother cry, until that day. He caught him off guard, watching the new father, gazing on the white-lace dress that covered the sleeping baby. One finger gently touched the silken cheek, before capturing a stray black curl. It was then he saw the tears coming down Max's face. He backed away from the door, then, leaving the new father to his time. It was his favorite image of Max, a picture he would never lose. "You remember the picture Mommy has in your room, of your daddy?"

"The one with the cake?" She asked, without opening her eyes.

"Yeah, that one," he recalled of the photo Cait had of Grace on her first birthday with Max holding her over a huge cake. "Look real close... see him now... smiling..."

"Yeah..." She whispered breathlessly, "I do... I do see my daddy!"

Ryan swallowed hard then, lifting his anguished face over the child's head. He held onto her then, needing to feel comforted. That this wonderous child's only sight of her father, was through time and old photos; that she was robbed of the right to feel his guiding hand, embrace him and love him, was a crime that burned a hole in him.

"Can you see him too?" She asked.

"Yeah," he choked, "He's my little brother..." He didn't have time to dispell the cavalcade of images that spilled before him. The imp with reddish hair and his mother's mischievous eyes who tagged along after him everywhere. The mouth that never stopped chattering, not even at night when they were in bed. The prankster who's tricks were well planned and who was never caught. The proud brother who was the first to greet him as he ran off the football field. He blinked away tears then, still hearing Max's bragging to his friends. '....you just wait and see, my brother Ryan's gonna win the Superbowl one day!" The gifted writer whose words brought awards from around the world, and whose smile and charm won the heart of the fairest maiden in the land. The laughter that died forever, in an orange ball of fire on a deserted road. "I miss you, Max... I'm sorry." he choked, eyes burning.

She opened her eyes then, hearing the strange sound in her ear. She saw such pain in the blue eyes of her beloved uncle and it mad her sad. She lifted both hands up, turning his grief-stricken face and lifted her own up, kissing his cheek. "That's okay, Uncle Wyun, he can be your special angel too, okay?"

"Okay," he rasped, brushing his burning eyes and swallowing hard. "He loved you very much, Grace." He kissed the damp black curls and sighed, "He said the day you were born, he heard the angels sing."

"Do you hear them?"

"Every time you smile, Sweetheart!" He choked, hugging her tightly and standing. "I love you, Buttons."

"I love you too," she hugged him hard, pressing her tiny face into his neck. "Don't be sad, Uncle Wyun," she whispered in his ear. "It makes my insides hurt an awful lot." She yawned sleepily, patting his face tenderly and sighing as she rested her head on his shoulder.

"God," he choked, wondering how is was possible to love someone this much. Then he saw Caitlin in the doorway, tears running down her face. One look told him, she'd heard every word. He paused in the doorway, using his thumb to take her salty gift away and stroked her cheek. He inhaled sharply, when she captured his hand, kissing the palm and nuzzling her face there.

"Where the devil are ye, Lad? I'm not gettin' any younger!'

Seamus' crusty voice broke the tender moment, giving both a nervous chuckle. He moved past her to the room next, where the tall man waited. His face softened and he lifted his arms, when the gift was bestowed there. He sat in the old rocker, using his long legs to move it to and fro. "Ah... there's me jewel!" he boasted, cradling his beloved great-granddaughter. "Shall we have a wee song then, Lass?"

"Uh-huh," she yawned, her tired eyes closing. The safe haven found in the strong arms and the steady motion of the rocker allowed her to sleep. "The one about the whiskey..."

"What was that?" Ryan paused in the doorway, narrowing his eyes.

"Tis a slip o'the tongue!" Seamus countered, rocking faster, "The poor wee thing is all worn out... go on... yer on me time now...be gone with ye..." He hummed the Irish Lullaby, until the door closed. "Ye watch yer tongue, Lass, ye'll get us both in trouble!"

"I'm sorry Poppy!" She yawned, kissed the cranky cheek and smiled sleepily. "all better?"

"Ah, yer a wonder, me own precious jewel," he cooed, using his smooth voice to sing Toorah Loorah Lorrah. "That's it, Lamb, close yer eyes so the angels can sprinkle their dream dust."

"...dream... dush... st..." she slurred, already sleeping. "...love you Poppy..."

"Aye..." he nodded, "I love you too, Lamb"

They stood awkwardly in the hall, neither sure of what to do. He wanted to wrap her in his arms and let all the words that were stuck for all these years, deep in his chest, spring forth. She wanted those strong arms to hold her forever. Now, seeing the handsome man whose blue eyes were full of pain, she wondered how could she have been so blind. She made the first move, walking slowly to the brooding male. She lifted her arms and pulled his face down, kissing him slowly, gently suckling on his lower lip. She heard him groan and felt him crush her to his body then. The kiss grew stronger, deeper and she melted in his arms.

"I'm sorry, Cait... I've been such a fool!"

"Tell me again... how much..." she murmured, nipping his neck, before a group of fingers moved through her hair, tugging her head back. She sighed, her whole core shaken, when he kissed each closed eye lid and each cheek, before capturing her lips and claiming her forever. Breathless, they leaned against each other, fingers entwining. "Buck's downstairs... Chris is missing..."

"Oh God," he sagged, "This is an endless nightmare. Trent?"

"I don't know... he's waiting." She led him to the stairwell.

Something roused him from the cold, dark abyss he was floating in. A sharp cry brought his eyes open. A blinding light stabbed him mercilessly, causing him to curl up in pain. His concussed head was splitting wide open. Confusion rained over him. Where was he? What happened? Why was he half naked and cold? Another strangulated cry shot through him, causing his eye to open as the razor sharp talons of reality stabbed his chest. Vin was in trouble.

"Vin!" he screamed, watching an ugly man using his silver hand to hold his best friend up by the hair. The real hand lashed out, splitting the semi-conscious sniper's lip. "Leave him alone you sideshow freak!" he screamed. "You want a fight? How 'bout it?" he gestered, rising up on unsteady legs and making no attempt to quell the rage he felt inside. Silver hand... metal man... this was the murdering bastard who killed Sara and Adam. A beast who now held that which he valued most, in the grips of the metal claw. He eyed the other man's crotch and sneered, drawing his damp blond head back. "I bet that's man made too, huh? You don't have the balls to fight a real man. Picking on women and children and the helpless or unconscious is about all you can handle. Hell, you probably never had a real woman... you got a metal girl friend tucked away, or one of those inflatable kinds... or maybe that fuckin' claw is the only snatch you ever catch!"

His pale green eyes shone then and his lips curled up, as Vin was dropped and forgotten. He was out of harm's way. Fowler launched himself. Again, the leader thanked his father for forcing him to take and master the martial arts. With three swift moves, he had the guard down, hugging the stench of the prison floor. He dropped to Vin's side, tapping the cold fae. "Come on Vin...wake up." The slight body moved away, curling up and trying to hide. "Shit!" he swore, crawling back to check for a weapon. The other man had none. He tucked Vin onto his shoulder and stood up, nudging the door open. The outer room was bathed in inky blackness. He couldn't even see his own hand in front of him. His journey ended in three steps. Something long and hard, a wooden club of sorts, hit his midsection hard, taking his breath away. The next blow came to the back of his knees, sending him to the floor. Vin was dead weight on top of him. He gasped for breath, desperate to find air. A gag was shoved deep in his throat . He heard voices briefly before his hands were tied behind his back. He struck out with his legs, despite the blows that came down. He felt an iron manacle grip each ankle and bit the gag in frustration. Finally, a light was cast on, he blinked and turned, watching Trent string Vin up like a puppet.

Both arms were tied by rough cord, causing caustic reaction on the already raw wrists. Two sharp turns of a crank on the wall, brought the Texan's arms above his head and moved his prone body to his knees. Vin moaned and blinked, as the pain bit hard. The long hair was pulled back and tied, allowing access to the marred, dirty face. Through the hazy cloud of pain and confusion, he saw Chris on floor. He was tied up and gagged, his face bruised and his eyes hot with rage. They came back then, the one with the metal hand and the other one, with the wicked smile. Something bitter was sprayed in his face, causing him to instantely awaken. "...the hell away... stinks..."

"Ah, Mister Tanner, welcome back," Trent said, walking in front of the dazed man. "It would appear we each have something the other wants. I need a certain book that you can provide and you need your friend Larabee back alive. So, I'll make it simple. You tell me where Isabella's journal is and I'll be merciful."

Vin lifted his face and frowned. "What journal? I don't know what yer..."

"Tsk tsk..." Trent nodded turning sideways before unleashing a brutal punch to the victim's right cheek. The brass enhancement on his knuckles added damage. A cut opened under the Texan's eyebrow, spilling crimson over the rapidly swelling eye. He laughed as Chris Larabee strained against the bonds that held him. "Shall we try again. Where is the book?"

"What... book..." Vin gasped, before the fist caught his lip, chin and jaw. More blood flowed.

"Again?" Trent hissed, nodding as Fowler used a rubber hose, smacking the tender area above the tied man's waist. He smiled again as Tanner's screams of pain, caused the irate blond to bellow under his gag. "Feeling left out?" He turned, squatted and used his brass knuckles hard against Larabee's chest. Standing, he turned back to the marred man. Blood covered most of Tanner's face, which was rapidly swelling and bruising. He walked over and turned the crank, lifting the coughing man several feet off the floor. "Where is it?"

"Fuck... yer... murderin' ass t'hell!" Vin lashed out, too tired to care.

"Foolish boy!" Trent spat out, "You and your friends have ruined my plans." He thought of his broken hopes of marrying the soon-to-be wealthy widow and inheriting all that lovely money. "However, all is not lost. I must have that book to insure noone every sees it," he noted. Plan B was now in effect. With the book gone, Cait had no proof and he could proceed with his multi-million dollar lawsuit against his late father, Louis Moreau. "I'll have that book and however much of your worthless skin and broken bones that it takes!" He clenched, nodding to his partner. Fowler used the rubber hose several times, visciously beating the lower back and soles of the prisoner's feet. He turned back to Larabee then, who was foaming over his gag like a rapid dog. "You have a short temper, Mister Larabee. I think you and Barney will get along quite well." That caused the frantic motion of the helpless spectator to halt. "Curious?" He squatted down, gripping the wet blond hair and yanking the head up. He flipped a knife from his belt , teasing the soft part of the very exposed throat. He left a long red line, feeling the body twitch as blade met flesh. "You'll have the chance to meet Barney later," he flicked the knife again, taking pleasure in the muffled cry of pain as a cut formed on the lean man's ribcage.

Chris winced as his sweat ran into the new cuts, biting him painfully. He watched as Trent walked to a table and selected an all too familiar object. He shook his head in denial, as the leering brute approached his dazed, bloodied friend.

"Wake up!" Trent whispered, shoving the cattle prod down the front of the bound victim's loose pants. He laughed again as Tanner screamed and his whole body went rigid as the electrical charge seared his tender flesh. The twin scream emerging from the blond on the floor, caused him more delight. "Good, now that I have your attention," he put a mesh glove on, covered with sharp edges. He slapped the naked chest and neck of the prisoner, repeating the question. The small metal edges brought tiny beads of blood to the surface. The sky eyes were wide in pain and every chord on his neck was straining. "Where is it?"

"..here..." Vin mumbled, spitting a large mouthful of blood in Trent's face. "...eat... shit... and... die..."

Trent turned back then, as Larabee snickered under his gag. "Very well... it looks like Barney will be having a late snack." He kept his cold eyes on Chris Larabee's hot ones, as he grabbed Tanner visciously between the legs, squeezing hard. "Texas prime... Fowler... get him ready!"

Chris's heart began to pound when Vin was cut free. He was no longer moving and that worried him. His hands were tied behind his back and his legs placed in strange leather cuffs with hooks. Both men lifted Vin, hooking his legs to a chain. His heart nearly stopped, when in one swift motion a motor sounded and Vin was hoisted and turned upside down inside a oval metal cage. Only his head and shoulders were visible. His muffled cries of rage brought Trent over.

"Not to worry, you have an important part in the show." He unlocked the manacles and kicked the struggling man hard between the legs, paralyzing him. "Fowler."

Through the multitude of stars and slashes of color that danced before his eyes, Chris felt himself being dragged across the rough stone floor. The air got damp and cool and he smelled the river close by, as they moved through a tunnel. His eyes jerked open as the motor sounded again, taking the caged Vin over the murky water.

"Mister Tanner?" Trent shouted, watching the lithe body struggling upside down inside the narrow metal barred cage. "Can you hear me?"

Hear him? Vin frowned, nearly choking on the horrid stench of the foul-water just inches below his face. He was hanging upside down in a metal cage, trussed up like a turkey. He turned his head only inches, spotting Chris's horrified face. He nodded, indicating he could hear.

"Good, you're awake. I want you to think carefully about my question. Take a deep breath now, Barney is anxious to meet you. He does so love the taste of blood..."

Chris growled and tried to move his still crippled legs, then he froze when 'Barney' arrived. His heart clenched, his chest tightened and his eyes bulged. He screamed against the gag so hard, he dislodged it. "Nooooo...." he hollered hoarsly. "You fuckin' bastard, I'm gonna baste your balls and fuckin' skewer you up the ass and out your mouth."

Few men knew Chris Larabee as well as Vin Tanner did. It was the fear he alone heard crystal clear in the sharp edict, that caused him to panic. He saw Trent's fist fly out, sending Chris back hard against the tunnel wall. Time seemed to be suspended, for a brief moment. He locked eyes with his best friend, just before he gulped air and saw the massive alligator slide into the water as his upper body was shoved underneath the beast's pool.

"Noooo!" Chris Larabee's screams of horror mixed with Trent's evil laughter and Fowler's mad dance, as Barney's tail slapped the water, propelling the body towards 'fresh meat'.

"Dammit to hell, Novelli, that ain't good enough!"

Josiah flinched and moved his large body in front of the raging, wall of muscle known as Wilmington. He paused for a few seconds, choosing his words carefully. Nobody hurt deeper than Buck when one of his brother's were hurting. When it was Chris Larabee, it was well into the danger zone.

"Easy, Brother," he soothed, resting a hand on the tense shoulder. "You know he's right, Buck."

"I'll tell you what I know," the enraged man turned, fists clenched. He pointed a finger at the screen, showing the gray images. It was taken from the surveillance cameras in the parking level in the garage of the hospital. "That bastard kidnapped Chris, I don't care what you say. He's up to his balls in this shit and he knows where Vin is and I'm gonna find out what else he knows."

"You're gonna cool that hot head of yours and stay clear of a police investigation. You got that?" Captain Dominick Novelli moved to confront the frustrated federal agent. "I know how bad you want this hump, but you go charging in there and you're signing their death order. That badge of yours is real impressive, but it's not a NOPD," He noted of his police force, "You're a civilian, stay that way."

"He's right, Buck," Standish noted, feeling every bit of the other man's pain. "Whatever Bates did to Chris, it worked. He's walking next to him of his own accord and climbs into that car without being forced. At no time did the mysterious man use a gun or any other object of force. "

"I got eyes, Ezra!" the rogue growled, slamming his fist into the wall. "If I only would have seen him inside..."

"So that's what this is?" Novelli shoved his face in front of the downcast younger man's. He bounced his index finger off the other's chest. "Get your head outta your ass, Son, your friends need you. This isn't your fault, so stop the fuckin' self pity."

Josiah and Ezra exchanged a sharp look, then saw Buck's head lift, as a sigh escaped. The dark head nodded and he turned back towards those gathered in the room. Cait and Ryan were sitting close, the pretty woman's head on the other's shoulder. Josiah and Ezra were behind Novelli, each wearing a pained look. The old man was at the head of the table, his eyes bright blue with hostility.

"I'm sorry," he sighed, rubbed his neck and kicked the wall. "Okay, what's our next move."

"I got the Sauville House under surveillance, and Trent's place as well. I got APB's out on both of them. Until six a.m. tomorrow, I can't classify Tanner as missing," he saw the quartet of younger men exchanging looks. "No, I don't need the four fuckin' Hardy boys runnin' around my city. You let me handle this. I'm gonna bring Trent in to question him, I'll let you sit in, but that's as far as it goes. Tomorrow, if Tanner doesn't show up, the F.B.I's got jurisdiction, missing federal agent's motivate them. I'll be in touch. I'm sorry," He paused, catching the anguished man's eyes, "I know that bastard's guilty as hell, but I got no proof ... yet."

"Okay, Captain, thanks, we'll be in touch." Josiah nodded as the other one left. He turned back, eyeing the others. "Okay, he has to surface eventually, and we'll be there."

"Most likely he's hidden our companions in a remote area, not far from the city." the Southerner noted, "It stands to reason, he could move freely, without being seen. Yet, be close enough to maintain appearance. Does he have real estate in the area?"

"No, just an apartment in town." Josiah recalled of the profile. "Let's see if the folks at the hotel who know Bates, can help." He nodded to Erza, "Where you two going to be?" His smokey eyes rested on Buck and then slid to Ryan McKenna.

"I got regulars who know this area and that animal," the handsome ex-NFL star assessed, feeling Cait's small hand in his own under the table. "He's got 'snitches' he uses and I know where they hang out."

"Let's go," Buck moved, only to meet a six foot plus wall of resistance.

"Whoa!" Josiah shook his head, "You're not carrying a badge, Ryan and Buck you're already skating on thin ice with Novelli."

"Well now the last time I checked," Wilmington tugged his jacket on, "This was a free country and I can go where I damn well please. If I should happen to meet someone who is easily persuaded into discussing that bastard, that's just a lucky coincidence."

For several seconds, neither man gave an inch, until the grayhead of Sancheze shook. "Be careful, Buck," He slide a sideways glance to Ryan, who was talking to his grandfather. "He's all that old man's got, don't do something, stupid."

"Yeah," Buck nodded, heading outside into the cold winter day.

Despite the blood that ran from the cuts on his torso and the throbbing aftereffects of his concussion, the blond knew the roar in his ears was not due to his injuries. His tormented eyes watched the 12 foot long reptile approach the area where Vin Tanner was submerged upside down to his shoulders. His heart was pounding so hard, it felt like a heart attack. He was sweating profusely, the salt laced flow mingled freely with the blood on his body, causing tiny stings. His throat was dry and his muscles ached from straining against the ropes that held him back. Carrying a badge, you prepare yourself for losing a comrade in the line of duty. Nothing prepares you for the slashing of razors in your gut, as you watch your best friend be eaten alive by a prehistoric reptile. He had to think fast; Vin had only seconds to live. Casting his eyes sideways and watching the almost orgasmic glow on Trent's face, he felt his blood churn and boil. Then he began to laugh.

Trent's brows furrowed and he turned, watching his blond captive carefully. The bound, bleeding victim was laughing and the batterred face looked right at him. Confused, he signaled Fowler.

"Get him up," he commanded.

The burning pain in his lungs finally gave way, his breath ran out. Vin sucked in foul water and through stinging eyes, saw the short stubby feet of the animal peddling furiously. He jerked and twitched, the water was filling his lungs. Just as he felt the hand of the grim reaper, he was yanked upright. As air hit his face, he tossed back the part of the murky water he'd consumed. Being suspended by his feet, the blood rushed to his head, making him very dizzy and disoriented. The bitter bile continued to spew, runnig into his nose and eyes. Through blurry slits, he saw Chris's face and relaxed.

It took all of Chris Larabee's strength not to sigh audibly in relief. Continuing his game, he laughed sarcastically, his eyes not missing the vomit and water coming from Vin's mouth. The Texan was gagging, his rolling eyes were confused.

"You fucked up good," the ATF leader rasped, working the ropes that bound him. His left hand was nearly free. The sweat on his wrists, coupled with the hasty job done tying him and the sharp rocks behind him, all added to his drama. While Fowler and Trent were watching the water, Chris's keen eyed didn't miss the narrow tunnel. Undoubtedly, it was how the beast was brought in. He also noted the cage, the metal rim barely visible under the water. Trent wanted it to appear that the animal was free, but he wasn't. There was enough clearance to get over that wire and swim through the dark tunnel through the moat. That, however, was a lot of 'if's. First, he had to get them to release Vin from his upside down suspension.

"I'm sure Mister Fowler is as curious as I am as to what humor you find in this situation." Trent squatted down, grabbing the short blond hair and tugging the head back painfully. He pressed the blade of a knife against the pink skin. "Well?"

"Cut him loose," he choked, his eyes shooting to where the sharpshooter hung limply. "I'll give you what you want."

"I don't think so," the captor denied, "Do you think I'm a fool?"

"Think..." Chris grunted, "...fool ... no ... you're a fuckin' lunatic with a whore for a mother." He hissed when the knife bit the tender flesh above his collarbone. "Go ahead, do it!" He snarled, glariing openly. "You'll never see Isabella's journals." The dark eyes narrowed and he continued to work his ropes. "He don't know what the hell's going on." he noted of Tanner. "I'm the one she contacted, I know where it's buried in that maze." He coughed, watched Vin struggling and continued. "I know about Max McKenna's notes ... he found that book and I know where."

"You play a dangerous game, Mister Larabee," Trent stood and eyed the semiconscious captive, moaning and sputtering. "But I'm a fair man," he stroked his chin, "Cut him down," he ordered Fowler.

Vin's quivering, moisture filled lungs sucked in air and he hissed painfully as his hair was yanked up. His weak body tried to fight, but the effort was too much. As his legs hit the damp ground, the black curtain fell and he went limp.

Chris's wheels were spinning, as his ropes broke. Fowler's hand snaked through the bars of the cage, and pressed a button. The cage popped open and the metal hand yanked the semiconscious prisoner halfway up. His other hand pushed another button, releasing the leather cuffs that bound his ankles. With a dull thud, his legs hit the cave floor. His wet head lolled on his chest, soft moans forced their way through his marred lips.

"Tanner has just become expendable, dispose of him," He turned his back, nodding to Fowler.

"Get that fuckin' metal hand off of him," Chris warned, noting that the gleam in Fowler's eye matched the one on his wrist.

"I'm not playing games, Larabee!" the irate detective growled, watching Fowler. Holding Tanner in a kneeling position by his hair, the metal hand clamped on the tracker's throat and began to squeeze.

Somewhere from far beneath where he'd fallen, urgency forced his eyes open. Air, or the lack thereof, forced him to rouse painfully. Like an airborne fish, his mouth worked, seeking oxygen. His eyes shot wide and he moved his body feebly. The pain intensified, sending blood from his swollen lips.

"You can't win," Chris panted, his rage far beyond the boiling point. Lethal green eyes burned a hole in the dirty cop's face. "You kill him, you'll never see that book."

"You showed you hand too early," Trent replied, "I have sodium penathol with me, which I had intended to use on Tanner. I'll find how just what you know." Turning to Fowler, "It's dinner time, feed our guest. We have work to do."

With a sadistic gleam in his eye, the torturer lifted the dying man and slammed him hard into the wall. More blood poured out, as he tossed the now unconscious man into the water.

"No!" Chris jumped up, throwing his body visciously into Trent. The large detective was caught off balance and went face first into the moat. He dove over the sputtering warden, who was trying to escape the hungry alligator. "Vin! Vin!" He grabbed a handful of brown curls and then snaked his arm around his friend's neck. He turned him over, slapped him as hard as he could, until two blue cracks appeared. "Wake up!"

"Get me out of here!" Trent bellowed, his feet slipping on the slick mud under the water. Fowler left the pair of captives, running to the other side of the cave pool and dropping on his knees. From the corner of his eye, he saw the pair escaping. "Shoot, you fool, they're getting away!"

The echo of the command bounced off every wall in the dank cavern. Chris didn't have time to inquire on his young friend's state. "Breathe!" he hollered, shoving the stuperous man out of harm's way. The first shot buzzed his his ear, giving him no option. He sucked in a breath and went under, taking Vin with him. He grimaced and swore under the dark water, as the tearing pain in his arm told him he'd been hit.

Chris propelled them both towards where he saw the waterway narrow. Finally, with his lungs burning, he brought his head up. Peering into the darkness, he saw Fowler struggling to get Trent. Then, when it was safe, he brought Vin's head up. The sputtering sound and weak body fighting him, gave him a release. "Vin you with me?" He saw the mouth work and the eyes full of pain. Seeing the image of the metal hand on the other man's throat, he feared a crushed larynx. "Can you breathe okay?" The head dropped down and he slapped the face again. "Answer me!" The eyes jerked open and nodded apologetically. "Get a good breath," he whispered, using his left hand to manuever them and holding Tanner to his chest with his right. His eyes never left the animal, not deciding who to eat for dinner. Fowler had Trent half out of the water, when the other man's feet slipped and he fell back down. That bought them some time. The cave pool was narrowing and it was dark, hard to see. He saw the fenceline approaching and in one motion, hollering instructions and hoisted the semiconscious body over the top. "Deep breath, Vin, now!"

Vin winced as the sharp edges of the fenceline ripped the skin his back as he went over. He inhaled water and his leaden limbs flopped spasmatically, as his brain surged into action. He pushed his head up, grabbed the air for a body, Chris's body. Chris? Chris? He tried to speak, but that only brought burning pain to his throat. The noises came out like muted squeaks, his fingers found the fenceline and he pulled his head up, until his nose was above the water line. His eyes widened in fright, when he saw his best friend face to face with the beast.

Chris was pulling himself up and over the fenceline, in the dark, when he felt the tail of the animal hit his back hard. Pain shot through his entire system, rendering him immobile for several seconds. He turned, just as the gator did. The two advesaries faced each other down, their faces separated by only a scant couple of feet. He didn't have time to turn around, to see where Vin was. He hoped his best friend had the strength to pull himself free. His chest heaved, his eyes never left he beast's, which moved closer. Then the sharp leader's mind snapped into action. He grabbed the head of the reptile under the snout and twisted the body around. Every muscle in his own body screamed in agony, his face was screwed up as he utilized every bit of strength he had, to maintain his hold. Once he was sure the animal was unconscious, he released it, quickly hoisting himself over the jagged fence. He sent a mental thanks to Billy Tremain, his college roomate, who was from the Everglades. For two summers, he worked with the Tremain's whose family business delved into swamp tours and gator wrestling.

"Jesus!" He exclaimed, grabbing both sides of the startled Texan's face. It was swollen, mostly blue and purple, one eye was nearly puffed shut, but the shock was there. "You scared the hell out of me." He saw the look of incredulation and the an old spark of cranky Tannerness, when the marred lips opened and a smattering of angry squeaks snuck out. The blue eye that was visible, was angry and indignant. A wavering hand shot out of the water, pointing to the floating gator. "Hell, you had a front row seat," he teased of the cause of the irate fuss, ruffling the wet curls.. "Most folks pay top dollar for a show like that. Come on, we gotta get outta here before they catch us. I don't know where this goes or how deep it is ... can you swim?" He'd been flexing his wounded left arm under the water, not wishing the younger man to notice.

Vin nodded, despite the fact Chris's voice was getting farther away. He knew Chris would be close by, so he never hesitated. The cavern was dark, murky and cold. He was shivering so bad, his bones were jumping. He could hear water splashing and tried to keep up, but his weakened body was no match. He tried to call out, but had no voice. He balled his fist up, swinging wide and striking flesh, before he sank below.

"Vin?" Chris shouted into the darkness. "Shit ... Vin!" He backpedalled and went underneath, his arms hitting something soft. He tugged Vin upwards and above the waterline. Tucking the unconscious man under his throbbing left arm and close to his shoulder, he fought on alone. Finally the water grew shallow, the underground cavern split into two sections. He knelt in the shallow pool, with water lapping at his thigh. His hot lungs screamed in protest at every breath taken. Vin's limp body was pressed to his left side. Every muscle in his taut body ached. His head was splitting in half and he was very dizzy and felt sick. He had to make a decision and opted for the right side. Finally, he was on mud and felt air coming from ahead somewhere. He lugged the dead weight of Tanner onto the bank and laid him down.

In the near darkness, he lowered his face over Vin's nose and tugged his mouth open. "Shit..." He rolled the slack body sideways and clapped on his back. "Breathe, Goddammit!" He rolled him back and checked again. Nothing. Tilting the wet head back, he pinched the nostils off and began CPR. After every two good breaths, he stopped and then began a chest massage. "Come on ... " he gasped, nearly passing out himself. Twice more he did the breath of life and massage, then as he pressed his lips a third time, he felt the body beneath him convulse. He pulled up, flipped the younger man over his arm and waited until the water and vomit stopped. Coughing ensued and he felt Vin shivering in a combination of fear, shock and cold. "Easy, Cowboy, I gotcha," he soothed, gripping the back of he damp neck. He eased him upright and moved in front, squinting in the shadows. He saw the eyes, muddled and mixed, but half-pen. More importantly, the chest was rising and falling on it's own. "You okay, now? Vin, can you hear me?"

"Uh... uh ... ris ... hap ... e ... r..." Vin squeaked, blinking in the dark. He felt sick, his head hurt and his chest hurt. His throat was sore and it hurt to breath. He had deathgrip on Larabee's belt loop and didn't let go.

"Don't talk, we'll rest a minute and then ... we'll ... find..."

" ...is ... isss...." Vin hissed painfully, frightened when the voice died out. His fumbling, numb arms found a chest and snaked upwards. He moaned in relief when he felt the other man breathing good. He tugged him closer, freezing in the chilly damp atmosphere. He had no idea where they were, but he'd keep the blond safe. He wrapped his arms around Chris, lugging him backwards. When his own back pressed to a cold, hard cave wall, he increased his hold, feeling the wet hair hit below his chin. Twice his head bobbed and he jerked himself awake, fearing Trent, Fowler or another alligator. But the pain, dizziness and lack of food was wearing on the injured man; he surrendered to the darkness, maintaining his grip.

The evening came, sashaying her hips seductively for her hungry entourage. New Orleans, the city that never sleeps, whose beat pulses like no other was splayed at his feet. But he had no appetite and gently shoved the beguiling arms of the city away.

"...longest damn day of my life..." he murmured, eyeing the colorful throngs of partygoers filling the crowded streets of the French Quarter. "Hell, it' ain't even a day..." he shook his head at the flight he'd arrived on fifteen hours prior. He eyed the profiled of the driver and thought on Josiah's words. "Listen, Ryan, you don't have to do this..."

"The hell I don't!" the hot Irishman furied, "That son-of-a-bitch murdered my brother, that gives a damn good reason ... and Cait..." he lips pressed together. "Everytime I think of him pawing her ... Shit!"

For a few moments, they drove in silence, down to Canal Street. Modern, five-star hotels graced the avenue, but on the side streets, a darker clientele existed. Buck was glad he had a native showing him around. It was easy in a city like this for a stranger to get lost ... permantely.

"There it is," he pulled his car in front on a dark, seedy bar with a red neon sign blazing in front. Hot Cats screamed at him in live color, along with the profile of two full figured women. Buck slid from the car and immediately felt the unseen eyes of the dark side of the city peering at him. From high above in small, bug infested flats to the alleys and the streetposts, they lingered on the stranger. People in this city were very leery of those not family. He stayed close to Ryan as the tall man ducked nodded to the beefy trio out front and they were granted entry. It took Buck a few moments to adjust to the light, or lack thereof. A scattering of patrons sat at small, round tables, nursing warm beers, with shots of whiskey and old memories. On the stage, two painted women, with bare chests and tired eyes, danced with boas. A shapely waitress, her skin dark and here eyes inviting, moved slowly towards the pair. One hand was on her hip, the other went to McKenna's neck, pulling him in for a kiss.

"Where y'at, Sugah?" She cooed, "I miss yuh..." She stroked his face and undressed the man next to him with one long glance, "Um- um, ya hungry, Cher? Lola's got what yuh need..." she rubbed her hands over her gaping blouse and saw the mustached man blush.

"Sorry, Darlin'," Wilmington smiled apologetically, "on any other night..."

"Lola, is Carl working tonight?" Ryan asked, pressing a twenty into her cleavage.

"He is ... yuh stayin'? I got an old bottle and a warm bed..."

"Not tonight, Lola," Ryan sighed, gave her shoulder a squeeze and moved past. He nodded to the bartender, a man his own age, about six foot and stocky, with reddish hair and a beard. "Carl," he nodded, "I need some information." He paused when the barkeep's eyes narrowed, going to the man on his left. The large hand paused, cloth wrapping around a dry beer mug. "I'm talking to you, Wilkins, get your eyes over here!" When the gaze met his own, he continued, "We go back a long way, to High School. I set you up in this place, when you couldn't get work anywhere else. You owe me ... Is Snake Parker around?"

"He's in the back with one of the girls..." the bearded man replied and saw the blue eyes smoldering. "We're you gonna be?"

"My usual..." McKenna replied, "and Carl ... keep your mouth shut."

Buck followed Ryan to a dark corner in the back. Before they even got settled, another waitress, appeared and set down a bottle of whiskey and two glasses.

"Good to see you, Stud," she said with a tired smile. "It's been awhile."

"You look good, Trish," he lied, she was using again, the tell tale signs were evident. But she had a good heart and they'd ridden through a lot of dark nights together. He saw Carl reappear and gave a nod.

"You're still a bad liar, McKenna," she smiled and gave his hand a pat, "but thanks for that, I got some good memories. You take care, here?"

"Yeah," he nodded as she left. "After Max died, I spent a lot of time ... years ... running from myself. I look at this now and thank God that Old Man saved my ass."

"He's quite a character," Buck agreed of Seamus McKenna.

"He's the reason, I'm breathing," the dark-haired Irishman paused, sipping his whiskey. "I do anything for that Old Man."

"Yeah," Buck smiled, seeing just how much Ryan loved his grandfather. "This uh ... Snake ... how's he fit into the picture?"

"My best friend, Calvin Johnson, runs a program here, for juvie's," he noted of young offenders. "He was a kid from the streets, ran with gangs, he knows the score..."

"Calvin Johnson," Buck poured another shot, "The Calvin Johnson?"

"Yeah, we played together, roomed together, he's seen me through alot," McKenna continued, "they listen to him, they respect him, he's changed a lot kids lives. Gets them interested in school and sports, keep them in class and off the street. Anyhow, he's been asking quietly about Trent, whose busted a few of the kids. Several of them mentioned that he uses Snake, pays him well for information."

"What makes you think he'll even talk to us?" Wilmington asked.

"He had a falling out with Trent," the other replied, nodding to another waitress who blew a kiss. "From what Cal told me, Parker gave Trent good info on a big drug deal. In exchange, he was supposed to get a cut of the action. Trent's busts have a history of coming up short..."

"...and..."

"...and Parker got picked up for dealing. He called Trent to bail him out and he turned him out cold. Parker did time and he's pissed."

"Nice," Buck winced, eyeing the tatooed body approaching. The man was about twenty-five, short hair cut like Caesar, with a goatee. Dark, skinny shades covered his eyes. He wore a sleeveless black leather vest over worn jeans. He paused by the table, eyeing the two men and extending his palm.

"Save your breath, Pal, only person crossin' my palm is your buddy Ben Franklin," Snake cut off the blue-eyed man.

"Half now, half after," Buck said, sliding two twenty dollar bills and a ten across the table.

The greasy head nodded and his fingers wiggled for the bottle. He took a drink and wiped his mouth with the back of his. "So ... whaddya need?"

"Trent's got a place he uses outside town, I need to know where..." McKenna inquired.

"Trent!" Parker's lips curled up in digust, " ... fucker used me and left me to rot in that stinkin' prison. " He paused and took another drink. "Before I went up the river," he noted of his recent jail term, " I heard him talkin' about a shack in the bayou ... off River Road. He used to brag about it ... a ruin in the middle nowhere ... some old pirate's hideout. He'd get what info he wanted from whoever he picked up and then dump them for gator food." He saw the mustached man's face pale and laughed. "Kiss it goodbye, Pal, whoever you're lookin' for is long gone. That place of his is like the fuckin' roach motel," he laughed again, "you know that commercial, they check in but they don't check out..."

"You got a big mouth, Loser, and a few too many teeth," Buck snarled, grabbing the wrist of the offender with lethal force. "You want to keep the three you got left, you better watch what you say."

"River Road? That goes clear up to Baton Rouge, you gotta do better than that!" Ryan pressed.

"It's not that far ... " Snake paused, "Hell, I ain't a fuckin' tour guide." He saw the twin pairs of blue eyes bearing down and the one with the mustache was pissed. "Uh ... about halfway ... maybe ... off the main road. I don't now, he only mentioned it once."

"Anybody else who might know?" Buck asked.

"Still alive? No. Is this tea party over?" Snake stood up, palm out, "Sweet cheeks is waitin' for me ... she likes it nasty and I'm in a foul mood." He nodded when the fifty dollar bill crossed his palm. "Nice doin' business with you."

"Well, what now?" Buck sighed, eager to get some fresh air.

"We do some homework. He said it was an 'old pirate's hideout'. If it's say, off River Road within maybe fifty miles of town, they're might be a record of it." He stood, leading the way to the door. "I know somebody who knows the history of this whole area. I'm sure she'd help..."

"She?" Buck snapped his seat belt on.

"Caitlin," He pulled the car out, "She majored in history in college."

Buck watched the blur of colors pass by as locals and tourist mingled in drunken euphoria. Music crushed against the air, the spicy aroma of Creole seasonings wafted through the car and partiers held their glasses high, celebrating. He sighed heavily, seeing the ghost-like images of his two missing friends. Only a week before, they had been among the revelers saluting the night. Despite the new information, he heart was heavy. Would they be too late to save the missing pair? Were Chris and Vin still alive? A mental image of the cruel games that the depraved detective would play with them filled his head. He shuddered and pushed it away, leaving a bloody red spilalge. He closed his eyes and saw Vin's lopsided grin as he teased Chris, as only he could. Then he saw the Larabee smile, clear up to his pale eyes. His heart ached and his fists balled up. Whatever the outcome, Geoff Trent would pay dearly for making the biggest mistake of his sorry life.

Part Sixteen

Twice the driver's eyes shifted to the man riding beside him. Although the face was pensive, the machine behind the pale green eyes was working overtime.

"So," the preacher asked, "What's the plan?"

"What makes you think I have a plan?"

"'cause those wheels you're spinning need oil."

Ezra allowed a brief smile and brushed a small fleck of lint from his cashmere coat. "I think it's time my alter ego pays a little visit to that reptile Bates."

"How long you and your 'alter ego' been in business?" Josiah inquired of 'Etienne Auberge' the New Orleans resident that Ezra used in many of his undercover assignments. He'd established himself so well in the role over the years, he was known on site at many of the town's finer restaurants as "Mister Auberge." From his early days with the F.B.I., through his years with Interpol and now with the ATF, he'd added to that background, creating a solid cover.

"It started as a ruse in college, to separate myself from my mother. I created Etienne and established bank accounts, stocks, real estate, attained a driver's license and even registered to vote."

"I didn't think you voted half the time," Sanchez teased.

"Don't tell Etienne that," the conman grinned, "He's a staunch Democrat and contributes heavily to all the right causes."

"Democrat?" the gray-haired man wrinkled his brow, "Damn, that had to hurt!"

"A trial of fire wouldn't have been more painful," the confirmed Republican replied, tapping his chest. "I still check for blood."

"Where to?"

"Royal Street."

Josiah's eyebrows went up, knowing it was an expensive neighborhood. But he wasn't prepared for the beautiful, two story white home in the heart of the French Quarter. He could see hints of the rooftop garden and flowers that graced the lace-like iron grid work of the wraparound porch on the second level. It was on the corner and went well nested in the 'prime real estate' zone.

"Nice little shack," he managed, keeping a straight face. "That's a lot of zeros," he added, figuring the worth to exceed a million dollars.

"Yes, it was a tidy little investment fifteen years ago. It needed a lot of restoration work and I had just come into a nice return on some stock. It was built in 1851 and I've tried to retain that era within."

"I'll bet," the driver nodded, knowing how Ezra loved to shop for antiques.

"The chandeliers in the entryway and dining room are Tiffany and were imported by the original owner. I also acquired his writing desk, his silver service, some first edition books and gun collection. The rest of the furnishings are close to that timeframe or created to give that impression."

"I know you've got dough, Ezra, but this has got to set you back some." He pulled the carin across the street.

"Since it's on the National Register of Historic Homes, I allow tours when I'm not here. You'd be surprised at the large volume of tourists that haul their eager bodies through my humble abode."

"Damn, Brother, I can see dollar signs in those eyes of yours," Sanchez laughed. "Humble, yeah, that's you, Ezra!"

"Would you like the grand tour?"

"I don't think I can afford it," Josiah said somberly.

"It's on the house."

"That's a first," the ex-vet muttered, pulling his large body from the small car.

"What was that?" Ezra turned, not hearing the words.

"Does this tour include feeding the hungry tourists?"

"I think the kitchen might be open," Ezra unlocked the door, flipped the light on and smiled smugly at the inhalation of astonishment.

"Buck wasn't kidding when he said this place made the Taj Mahal look like a sandbox."

"You'd be surprised at how easily that womanizer slid into the good life," he noted. More than a few times, when they went undercover, Buck was his partner. He'd stayed in the home on several occasions and enjoyed every bit of the ruse. Ezra smiled despite himself, recalling the sight of Buck sleeping soundly in one of the bedrooms with two of the most notable 'blue blood's in the area.

The smokey eyes traveled around the pale blue walls of the foyer and widened at the sparkling, antique light overhead. "I can't count that high..." He followed Ezra through a series of rooms, each done in pastels, with ivory woodwork and antique furnishings. Priceless paintings adorned the walls. A den, a living room and impressive kitchen were complimented by a huge dining room, with French doors that lead into a gorgeous garden. Upstairs were three bedrooms, all with fireplaces and a study.

"Mighty impressive," he eased his body into a large wingchair. "but it's not home."

"Hah," Standish's green eyes twinkled, seeing a mental image of the 'rustic' cabin the eldest lived in outside town. "If you're referring to that collection of wood you huddle in, " he paused and handed the other man a snifter of imported brandy. "It's amazing that you haven't contracted a disease."

"Every man's castle is his own," Josiah raised the glass to his host. "Much obliged." He listened while the smaller man contacted a local restaurant and effortlessly ordered something in French. "That was an awful lot of words for hamburgers."

"Perish the thought," the gambler shuddered. "In order of appearance, Shrimp Bisque, Marinated Duck Salad with with Baby Greens, Crawfish and Gouda Bundles, Crabcakes Bearnaise, Filet of Tenderloin Marsala with Mushroom Stuffing, Wild Rice with Pecans, Chicken stuffed with Andouille, Asparagus with Lemon Glaze and Chocolate Tureen for dessert."

"What no French fries?" the grinning preacher teased.

There were no adequate words that he could think of, that would describe that assault on his mouth. It went far beyond delicious and nearly was orgasmic. Food prepared with such precision and skill was a thing of beauty. The wine was perfect too, compliments of the 'Auberge Wine Cellar'. The sated preacher sat back, patting his full stomach as he saluted his host.

"You know, I could get used to this," Josiah smiled, lifted an antique Waterford wine glass and grinned . "Maybe when I retire, I'll move in, become the long lost Lord Auberge from just outside Paris."

"Maybe not," Ezra shot back, cutting into his food, "After we dine, you return to the hotel. I'm going to shower and change. I'll arrive later, seeking out Bates' services. I have made a generous inquiry and have full confidence he'll reply. "

"For what?"

"To retain his unique talents to dissuade a rather nasty business associate."

"Okay, I'll snoop around, see if I can find out anything from the staff. See if you can lift his prints, Ezra."

"Do I look 'green' to you?" Standish scoffed, insulted.

"No, but in candlelight," he winked, eyeing the flickering flames, "You sure look pretty." That did get a laugh and the host nodded, raising his glass.

There was that noise again. Under closed lids, he made a face at the intrusion. It was cold and the musty smell invaded his airway uninvited. His limbs were numb; collection of pins and needles dancing in his muscle walls. There was that noise again. Irritated, he pulled his heavy eyes open, only to discover it was his moaning, coupled with harsh coughing over a set of chattering teeth. Despite the dampness, the skin pressed to his chest was warm. He didn't need light in the inky blackness to see that his friend was developing a fever. His leaden, tingling hand moved, shifting their bodies. He eased his slim torso from under the unconscious leader's and rolled sideways. He tried to stifle the cry of pain and failed. It exploded everywhere, combating the lost circulation for territorial rights. The lower back pain was the worst, it felt like there were glowing hot branding irons shoved in his back. Tears sprung in his eyes and he moved again, causing his head to explode in pain. He managed to sit up and began the painful process of rubbing his limbs. Finally, he managed to get on his knees, then pulled himself up. Both soles of his tender feet rebelled, screaming at him and causing him to cry out. The pain nearly crippled him, but he held fast, walking gingerly. His goal, his only goal, was to get Chris Larabee to safety.

"Who's there?" Chris rasped, hearing a sharp cry in the dark. He clenched his teeth as his bone-shaking chills went into overdrive. "Christ, it's cold in here."

"...could be worse..."

"I don't see how," Larabee grunted, relieved to hear his best friend's voice. "We're beat to hell, bleeding and half-naked, lost in... in... I don't know where the hell we are."

"...still alive..."

"Don't go singing 'Kay Sera Sera' yet, Tanner," he seethed, forgetting his wounded arm, he tried to use it to get up and felt as if a spear went through the arm. "Shit... shit... where the hell are we?"

"Don't know."

"How long we been here?"

"Don't know."

"How we gonna get out?"

"Don't know."

"Well, what the hell do you know!" the irritated, injured, concussed blond asked, his voice hot and his stomach ready to revolt.

Vin paused in the dark, knowing this man well enough to realize his frustration had long passed the boiling point. He thought for a few seconds and shuffled closer, finally feeling some blood running through his cramped muscles.

"I got a cute lil' Tanner ass," he croaked, thinking on the now infamous line that his friends teased him mercilessly about. He heard a snort than turned into a chuckle and as his eyes adjusted to the dim shadows, he saw a wet head move.

"Than how about hauling it over here and getting me up?" Chris raised his arm in the dark, knowing Vin would be there. The first attempt ended with the younger man sprawled on top of him. "Goddammit, Vin!"

"Shut the hell up," the long-haired man sniper shot back, "and get yer elbow outta m'crotch."

The second attempt was worse, Vin got Chris up and then fell, slipping back into the cold water. By the time Chris got him out, both seriously injured men were spent. Lying side by side, in the dark on the damp ground, their panting breath mingled in the cavern.

"... like the blind leading the fucking blind... " Chris managed , "Come on, Vin, there's air coming from that tunnel."

"G'head... I'm right behind ya."

For several minutes, the ragged breathing pattern melded into a surreal concert. Each man felt the Herculean force of gravity sitting on their chest. Limbs ached, skulls throbbed, flesh seared and bones screamed. Finally, fear of losing consciousness again, became the driving force of the injured ATF leader. He bit his lip bloody, rolling over and sitting upright. He snaked a hand out to the darkened, prone image beside him and gave it a shake.

"...heard... y... you... were... some... kinda... tracker..."

"...heard a few things 'bout yer sorry ass too..." Vin confessed, "...come as a real surprise t'me when I found out ya had folks."

Chris grinned at the veiled reference to being a 'bastard'. The smile faded when the other man didn't move. Time, precious and few, was slipping away. Sucking in his breath, he snaked his good arm out and got Vin behind the neck. In one solid move, he pulled him into a sitting position. He ignored the cry of pain and continued his mission in silence.

"...Chris... I don't think..."

"Then don't," the sharp reply came, "I'll think for you, let's go." He gripped the Texan's forearm and felt a slight movement. He heard the grunts of pain and exasperation, as the fallen man tried to stand.

"I can't..." Vin begged off, dizzy as he fought off waves of pain.

"Remember that sign over Nathan's desk?"

"Sign?"

"Together Everyone Achieves More," Larabee used the motto as an order.

"TEAM, " Vin nodded, "Okay... okay... here... goes..." He took in a long breath and vaulted his body up. "Aw, shit..." the whole cave was spinning around and every muscle in both feet were pulsating. "Chris!!!!"

"I gotcha."

The words hit him harder than the arm that supported him. How true those two words were and how much they'd come to mean. He held on for a few minutes, then felt the world stop moving. Nodding, he righted himself and eyed the area. He tilted his head, lifted his nose and paused, then began shuffling. He heard the footfall behind him, as his partner follwed without question. Twice he went down and Chris got him up. When Chris fell, he hauled him up. Then, Chris left his free hand on Vin's waist and Vin snaked the injured arm over his shoulders, using his other hand to secure Chris's belt loop.

"T... t... t... e... a... m...." he coughed, feeling the older man's weight painfully.

"...none... be...tter..." Larabee replied.

Staggering and shifting, they plodded on, their uneven gait troubling at times. With every faltering step and cry of pain, they inched closer to what they hoped was freedom. Neither spoke of it, but each wondered individually about the two captors who were lurking in the dark as well.

It was nearly midnight in the city that never sleeps. Josiah Sanchez sat in the lounge of the Sauville House and sipped an Irish coffee. He eyed the notes he'd taken, having spoken with the house staff and gardner. He was drawing up a list of followups, when his cell phone rang.

"How'd you do?" Buck asked, hearing the deep voice. He was at the Saloon, having a nightcap. The dark Irishman went upstairs, returning briefly to tell him all was well, the family, including Cait, were fast asleep. They agreed to meet at dawn, he'd bring Josiah and Ezra with him. The bar was crowded and noisy, causing the agent to cup one ear.

"Got a couple possibles," the older man replied, "Our Mister Bates has a checkered past."

"Why am I not surprised," Buck stated, "Me and Ryan met up with a snitch of Trent's gone bad. He said he's got a place outside town where he takes suspects to question them."

"Where?" Josiah asked, sitting up and taking notice.

"On River Road, but he thinks not too far. Some old pirate's hideout. Ryan thinks Caitlin might be able to help, she's a local historian or something. What'd you get?"

"Well," he chuckled, thinking on the house staff's warm reception, "our boy Vin's endeared himself to every female that works here. They were happy to help. Plus Bates isn't too well liked... seems he's got a shady past. One of the maids told me he's suspected of several disappearances in this areas and he's wanted in Haiti."

"Nice." Buck sighed, "Is he there?"

"No, I made the cops right off, they moved down the street a little."

"He won't show," Wilmington thought aloud, ordering a pint of Guiness. "He's gotta know we're hunting Chris and Vin."

"Oh, you'd be surprised how influencial our friend Etienne can be..."

"What's he up too?"

"We had dinner at that house of his, if you can call it that."

"Hell, I was half-tempted to marry him, just to get a piece of it," Buck mused.

"You talkin' about Ezra's tail or the house?" Josiah asked, then smiled as Buck's much needed laughter filled the phone.

"What's his game?" Buck recovered.

"He's gonna try to hire him out to, and I quote, 'dissuade a nasty business associate'. He's gotta a call into him. I'm sure all those zero's will move our mysterious voodoo priest to come back. I'm waiting for him now."

"Okay, I'm gonna finish my beer and then ride around. Maybe that prick will turn up."

"Buck, this isn't the kind of town to go prowling around in along after dark." Sanchez warned. "I'm in the lounge, get back here. Maybe by the time you get here, Ezra will have news for us."

"Yeah, okay," Buck hung up and felt a small hand on his backside. "Sorry, Darlin," he apologized to the pretty blonde who was pressing up to him with inviting eyes. "not tonight." He kissed her hand and smiled reluctantly. Draining his pint, he turned his collar up against the cold night air. His eyes raked the sky as he walked to his car. Were Vin and Chris still alive? Images of their mutilated bodies at he hands of that sadist haunted him.

He watched her sleeping, wondering about the powerful effect that the simple act of breathing had on him. He sat next to the bed, drinking in every feature on her face. His fingers burned to rake through those unruly curls and his lips thirsted to taste that mouth again. He brushed the hair from her forehead and she sighed, rolling on her side. He drew lazy circles on the back of her neck and traced a line along her jaw. He bent lower, kissing her cheek and groaning softly into that mass of silky hair.

"Uhmmm..." Caitlin moaned, pressing her face into the large hand. She inhaled the wonderful mix of Polo, Irish Whiskey and wet leather. She knew before she opened her eyes. She turned, snaked a hand around the strong neck and pulled him down. Unlike the first kiss, this one was hot and greedy. Their tongues did the dance of the devil, sparring and warring in a hot duel. She moaned when that large hand slipped beneath her shirt and caressed her breast. Then just as suddenly, he moved away.

"I'm sorry," Ryan hissed, balling up his fists, "I shouldn't have done that."

"Why, am I that repulsive?"

"No!" He reared back, but not fast enough. She was on her feet, pulling him against her and put every bit of talent she possessed in one mighty kiss that made his knees weak.

"You move me, McKenna," she said huskily, nibbling his lower lip and caressing his back under his shirt and jacket.

"I'm a little moved myself," he grunted painfully, stirring against the restrictive denim pants. He winced as the pressure formed into hurricane force.

"Stay..." she whispered in his ear, biting the soft flesh under his ear.

"Are you sure?" He worried, even as the small hands had worked his jacket and belt off. "Caitlin?" he whispered over the roar in his ears, as the skilled hands got his zipper down and the pants fell.

"Does this answer your question?" she looked up at him and untied the clasps of the short gown she wore, letting it fall. He shucked his boots off, and his shirt followed.

He paused, breathing heavily and marveling at the perfect vision of love that was presented to him. He cupped her face and kissed each eyelid, the tip of her nose and then tenderly brushed her lips. He pulled her ripe body against him, wondering at the perfect fit.

"It's like Adam..." He noted of the first male and discovering the power of woman.

His hot breath sent shivers through her as the strong hands roamed over her body. She smiled up at him and arched an eyebrow. "I'm no Eve," she purred, moving her hand, "I'm good at taming snakes." His groan was lost in the kiss she delivered, as they fell onto the bed.

It was a magical moment in time, preserved forever in the new lover's hearts and seared into their souls. Later, as they cuddled, her back was pressed against his strong chest. His arm encircled her waist, drawing her close. Those wonderous curls were tickling his face and he nuzzled her temple.

"I love you Caitlin," he offered with all his heart, "From the first moment I saw you..." He broke off the thought as she turned, cupping his face in both hands.

"Oh, Ryan." Her heart went out, realizing for the first time, just how strong he was. That she was the cause of the pain she'd so often seen in those magnificent blue eyes and mistook. She used her fingers to trace his face, rubbing her thumbs over his lips. She shivered, when he captured one, suckling it gently. "How could I have been so blind? I love you, too... I hope you can forgive me."

"Now and Forever?" he rasped, picking up the locket that was around her neck. Her tears of joy gave him his reply. They became lost again, letting the brash moon cast a silver light on their rapture.

"I'm on my way."

"Where?" Josiah eyed the approaching hour of one a.m. Buck wasn't back yet and if that was enough to worry about, now he had Ezra running loose.

"I'm meeting Bates at the old woman's shop. Mister Wilmington is providing cover. He's already established himself in a room across the street."

"Nice of him to update me!" Sanchez growled.

"Sorry, 'Dad'," Buck's voice, courtesy of Ezra's three way calling, broke into the line. "You can ground me and take away the car."

"Okay, Ezra, be careful!" Josiah ignored the mustached agent.

"Moi? Live on the edge?"

"Hey, Pard, did you update your will? Be a damn shame to let that house of yours fall into the wrong hands. I could do wonders by it... "

"Hah!" The conman scoffed at the rogue, whose voice always brought a smile. "I'd come back and haunt you. I have visions of signs emblazoned with 'Live Nudes' and dancing harlots on the second story porch." He shuddered.

"That house needs a master's touch," Buck whispered in the open line. "It suits me!"

"Like the plague," Standish drolled, "As sterling as this conversation is, I bid you adieu!"

As he rose out of the car, he gave a short shift of his eyes, catching Buck's shadow in the window. He made his way to the door and knocked once, paused, then three more, a pre-arranged signal. After a few moments, the click of the lock granted him entry. A dozen candles lit a small altar and the man before him bore no resemblence to one he'd seen in the video. He was draped in a long cloak, mostly black with a green and gold snake emblazoned on the back. He nodded once, indicating a pair of chairs near a small stone table. The pugnant trace of incence clung heavily in the air and the whisper of chimes sauntered about the room.

"I finally meet the elusive Etienne Auberge." Nigel said, watching the other man's face carefully. The eyes locked on his with vague interest.

"Elusive is befitting my lifestyle," Ezra returned, "I spent most of my time overseas."

"Yes, I know about the jetsetting and your international business transactions," the priest revealed, settling into a chair. "I make it my business to research a client thoroughly, before agreeing to a meeting. No further discussion of your lifestyle is necessary. The less I know, the better you'll fare."

"As you wish," the conman nodded, feeling a little unnerved. It wasn't often that anyone made him nervous. But being a avid reader, he was more than familiar with dark religious practices and powers this man held. He felt the dark eyes nearly burning into his flesh. "I trust the amount offered is to your satisfaction?" He coughed and shifted in the chair.

"More than enough," he noted of the large sum, nearly triple what he charged. "I have a variety of methods, I'll present and explain them. You may choose the one that best suits you. Do you wish this person to disappear forever, suffer mental collapse or physical impairment?"

"How did you come to be... that is, and forgive my ignorance, so well schooled in these arts? Is that something that's inherited or is it training?" He coughed again, several times.

"Both," Bates replied, "I enhanced that which came with my blood, by years of study out of this country. Shall we continue? Ritual, Spell or Potion? I'll explain each method and the expected results. You will bring me half of the money the same time tomorrow night, along with the name of the victim."

As the powerful priest went into sordid detail, providing photos of previous 'client's, Ezra began to feel strange. The combination of the candles, bitter incense and chimes were distracting. What started as a ruse to get the other man out of the room, had turned into genuine throat distress.

"Are you ill?" Bates eyed the watery eyes of the other man.

"No, but would you have Perrier?" He waited, while the other man moved out of the room. He stood and moved, stretching his back and heading for the window. As he slipped the small window up, to gain some air, his eyes fell on a piece of splitering wood. He mentally replayed his entrance and saw the dark-skinned hand of the priest grip that jagged edge. He tapped it, slipping it into a handkerchief and into his pocket. He continued to suck the air in, until the other man returned. He examined the bottle carefully, glad it was glass and sealed. It was cold and refreshing, but he yearned for the warm burn of liquor. Finally, it was done and he left, moving quickly to his car. He was two blocks away, before he pulled over. He shot out of the car and into an all night coffee house. So shaken was he by the dark man, he didn't realize Buck was by his side. He jumped and spun quickly, spilling his coffee when the hand touched his shoulder.

"What the hell was that?" the rogue barked, "You scared the hell out of me. Christ, between you coughing, them chimes, his voice and his damn candles flickering... then you tore off like a bat out of hell." He paused, pressing damp napkins to the area on Ezra's hand where the hot coffee hit. He'd worked with this man for a long time, in dire straights and dodging bullets. He'd never seen his friend so shaken. The jade eyes were wide and tinged with fear and the hands trembled. "Come on, Josiah's waiting in the room. You need something stronger than coffee."

"I'm fine," Ezra snapped, pulling his hand away. "Stopping fawning over me, I'm not a helpless old crone." He tried to convince himself, but didn't shove the hand off his shoulder. Actually, he was relieved to see Buck. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that."

"Yeah you did!" the other man laughed, patting the expensive coat. "Now that's the Ezra I know and love. Speaking of which, is this Etienne a switch hitter?"

"What?" Ezra turned at the doorway, "Certainly not!"

"Don't be so closed minded," Buck winked saucily."I got an idea for you to think over before our next assignment. I could move in... be your house boy! On paper only, of course. I'm telling you, Ezra, me and that house are like a hand in glove. You okay, there?" He eyed the coughing, sputtering smaller man, whose eyes were tearing. "Hey, maybe you caught the creeping crud from the Kid."

"Don't touch me," Ezra backed away. "In my worst fit of delirium I'd never stoop to such standards. You're methods are hardly invisible. As least Mister Tanner had the common decency to wait for me to depart this world, before 'shackn' up with m'grievin' widda' he mimicked the Texan's voice. Both men fell silent and then it was Ezra's turn to wince. Under the lamplight, he saw every feature on the taller man's face freeze and dissolve into anguish. Both large fists curled up and the dark head dropped. "I'm sorry... I didn't mean to rub salt in that wound..."

Buck took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to dissolve the churning acid in his gut. "I can't help thinking... what that bastard's doin' to him... and Chris. What if..."

"If for one moment you believed that, you'd not be fighting sleep and risking your health," he noted sharply of Wilmington's empty question of their friends being alive. "I think we both need that drink."

"Yeah," Buck sighed, toying with the keys in his hands. "Hey, maybe when you kick off and Vin and your widow move in, I could woo her away from that rascal. Hell, she'd have to be blind to pick that scrawny ass of his over this piece of prime beef. Me and her could live the good life down here in the Big Easy."

"As the Stomach Turns," the southerner rolled his eyes of the continuing saga of Buck Wilmington's love life. He was still smiling when he drove off.

The darkness gave way to a murky, gray world, full of strange night sounds and smells. Creatures of air and land skittered about, not hiding their displeasure. As the intruders, they were looked at from eyes hidden in the thick overgrowth. They were both beyond the point of pain, well into the numbing zone. To stop and give in would mean death. So they trudged onward, supporting each other and ignoring the agony of every faltering step.

Chris never questioned where Vin was taking them. He trusted this man's innate knowledge of land and marveled at how his used all five of his senses to gage distance, time and heading. He didn't argue when Vin sat them both down on a large, fallen tree. Blue crept into the dark sky, forewarning of Dawn's upcoming debut.

Vin saw the blond's eyes drooping and elbowed him. The face screwed up and he could see the glaze of fever in the green eyes. He had to keep Chris awake, before the infection from his wound rendered him unconscious. He knew they had a little ways to go yet, he had a good idea where the access road to the main highway was. He craned his neck, taking in the bayou around them. Too weary to wage war with the bugs that attacked, he ignored the bites to his tender skin. That he was able to walk, was a miracle. Between his head, feet and back, he felt crippling pain. As of yet, neither Fowler or Trent had picked up their trail. Then he saw something several yards away and felt a small respite. He staggered, fell and ending up crawling. He picked several of the plants, recognizing them from the eyes of his grandfather, who'd taught him about medicinal herbs. He clutched the 'fireweed' and stumbled back to the clearing, where the blond head had fallen. He dropped to his side, laying his precious cargo at this feet. He quickly tore into the plants, chewing the inner roots of the stems. While he worked, he ripped a section of his sweat pants and laid it across his knee. Finally, he had a mouthful of poultice. It would help combat Chris's infection. He pressed the sticky mess onto the wound on the leader's left arm and wrapped it with the cloth he'd ripped.

"Hey?" he slapped the bare chest, annoyed at the growing warmth.

"Huh?"

"Get them eyes open," He ordered, "...give me that glare that kilt that gator."

"Huh?"

"Hell, ya claim I'm short on talk," he rolled his eyes. "Back there... I seen ya... one minute he was ready to eat ya... Damn, talk about indigestion... next thing, he's on his back, deader than Bucklin's love life."

"...not dead... knocked out... small brain... cold blood... flip over... blood rushes to brain... out cold... Billy Tremain... college roommate... family business...."

"Well," Vin said, putting the cryptic clues together and hauling his friend up."Reckon when yer ass is t'old to hunt felons, ya can open a Gator Wrestlin' business. Give that fella on the cable show a run fer his money. Come on, Gatorboy, let's make tracks."

"...tracks..." Chris coughed, blinking at the unfamiliar terrain. "...fuck are we?" He saw Vin limping, then staggering and nearly falling over. "...some tracker... can't walk straight..."

"Shut the hell up," Vin hissed, when the ache in his back exploded. "I'll leave yer sorry ass here. Ain't like any gator'd get that desperate... end up dyin' of indigestion." He pulled Chris up, not able to bite back the cry of pain.

Chris flinched when Vin's sharp release hit his ear. He tried to pull back, not wanting to add any more misery to his best friend's plight. Instead, he sent a mental prayer of thanks to the man upstairs. Anybody else, and they'd be dead by now. Vin's natural gift for trail blazing had saved their lives. He sucked his breath in and stood up, eyes widening as the dense brush flew past him.

"Come on, Gil Favor, let's get movin'," he tapped Vin's damp head. The younger man was bent over, sucking air through clenched teeth.

"Who?" Vin's face screwed up as he straightened up and moved to catch the outflung arm.

"Rawhide... Gil Favor, trail boss... keep... them... dog...gies... movin'..."

"Yer fever-addled, Larabee."

"Clint... East...wood... Rowdy Yates... Tele...vi...sion... great... show..."

"...black and white..."

"...some..."

"before m'time... I barely recall that Michael... Landon..show..."

"Bonanza?" Chris's voice rose, "...not... possible... on... every fuckin'... cable channel... twelve... times... day..."

"...no..." Vin staggered, nearly fell and cried out again. He felt Chris try to help, by moving on his own. He ended that decision by firmly tugging the arm back on his neck. "...other... one... with Merlin Olsen..."

"Prarie?" Chris chuckled. "...chick show..."

"...I's little... I didn't know... .different..."

"...wuss..."

"...geezer..."

They fell into a disturbing silence, each supporting the other in a gravity defying journey. Vin felt Chris's weight increasing as the blond grew weaker. He held onto the sagging body, quickening his steps. The wounded man was fading fast. They moved on, he welcomed the warmth of the new sun, peeking shyly over the dense area. He was fully supporting his friend now, and the dead weight crippled him. His muscles were on fire and his head pounded so hard he couldn't see. Then he saw it... a slip of trail. Hauling the unconscious man up, he inched his way forward, crying out in pain. He lowered Chris onto a cluster of fallen trees, tapped the wet face but got no reply. He collapsed then, overcome by blinding pain. Then he heard a horn and jerked his head. Sweat ran a crooked river down his body, stinging his swollen eyes. His pounding heart nearly drowned out the roar in this ears. Truckers. They'd be taken their haul on a main road. He narrowed his eyes and saw a slip of black at the end of the trail. A highway!!! His energy spent, his bleeding feet and broken body could no longer support dual weight. He couldn't even stand. But he had to move, to get to that road and those trucks. He laid a hand against the pale throat of his best friend and made a vow.

"I won't let ya die... I'm gettin' help... ya hang on..." With a last gentle tap to the bruised cheek, he turned away.

He crawled, hand over hand, keeping his heavy eyes trained on the road ahead. Twice he collapsed, nearly passing out. By the time he got to the blacktop of the highway, he was paralyzed. He rolled his fevered, bleeding and battered body onto the edge of the road. The light blue sky was swirling in circles, making his stomach churn. His head was exploding and his back on fire. His feet felt like he'd stepped on razors and then rubbing alchohol. He was drifting when a hand rolled him over. Through swollen eyes, he blinked at the blurry figure.

"Help... need..." he coughed, wincing as the demon gripping his lower back, belched loudly. Seeing the blurry figure bending, he reached a trembling hand up. "Thank God..." his wavering voice was full of hope.

"Easy, my friend, I'll deliver you." He took the lower part of the arm of the battered, barely recognizable figure and squeezed hard. He locked onto the fevered eyes and deep within, then shook his head in dismay.

Vin screamed as the 'helping' hand snapped his left wrist, breaking it. He curled up in pain, clasping it to his chest.. In shock and disoriented, he blinked at the blurry dark face and then his blood ran cold. Suddenly the features formed a name and it struck cold fear and defeat in his heart. The pain in his wrist paled by comparison. Not only was his fate sealed, but he'd left his best friend to die. Alone and unconscious, Chris Larabee was helpless prey to snakes or other wild creatures. "No..." he fought weakly, until the strong hand touched his neck and applied pressure. His eyes bulged and watered, his mouth voicing a silent protest punctuated by red-streaked saliva.

"...sorry..." he whispered to the smiling image of his best friend, which hovered in his mind's eye. "...busted... word..."

Then his body went slack, with one lingering sigh, which escaped from his bloodied lips. He didn't feel the strong arms gather him up and place him in the trunk of the car. He didn't hear the hood slam, entombing him. He didn't hear the sick laughter as the driver pulled out, glancing at the red lights of the highway patrol in the rearview.

He drove slowly, until the offensive car was not in sight. Then he pulled over and took his cell phone out.

"Hello?" Geoff Trent barked into the phone. He and Fowler had been up all night, trying to find the needle, or two in this case, in the haystack. The thick folliage around the cabin was difficult to manuever in. They didn't know which of the many tunnels the escapees took and they'd been forced to split up. He was at a roadside dive, getting a greasy sandwich for breakfast.

"I believe I have something you lost," Nigel Bates oozed, thinking of his prisoner.

"Bates?" Trent winced, "I'm not in the mood for any of your fucking games. Get to the point."

"I wasn't able to return home last night, the police are parked outside and my staff has been quizzed by some of Larabee's men."

"Bates, I'm warning you!"

"...I was traveling to my ancestral home, to formulate an escape plan." he spoke of the family's cabin buried deep in Bayou. "and I happened upon a hitchhiker. I'm afraid he's not well at all. But more curious, how on earth did Vin Tanner get loose?"

"What!" Trent was wide awake now, staring at the phone. "If you're bullshiting me..."

"I am not the 'joking' kind." The powerful priest creased his brows, "You should have done your work better, he knows nothing. Where do you want him? How did he escape?"

"It's a long story? Was he alone?"

"Yes, why? Don't tell me... you lost them both! You'stupid fool!"

"Ask him where Larabee is! He knows too much."

"Tanner is unable to speak in his current condition. Perhaps later, your silver-handed friend can extract that information."

"Just take him to the cabin, I may need him as leverage. If not, I'll let Fowler have him. Maybe they split up... I haven't heard from Fowler in a couple hours. Maybe he got the other one. Chain him like a dog..."

"Very well, but I'll expect a bonus."

"Yeah... yeah..." He hung up, quickly dialing Fowler. "Did you get Larabee?"

"No, we need another plan and we need to move fast. If they get picked up..."

"One of them did, Bates found Tanner on the highway. He's taking him back to the hole. Get back there and watch him."

"Just Tanner? Where's Larabee?" Fowler spit into the swamp he was standing next to.

"I don't know... maybe they split up... hell, maybe Larabee never made it out of the tunnel alive."

"Where you going?" Fowler walked back through the thickness.

"To initiate Plan B," he growled, getting behind the wheel.

"B?" Fowler frowned, "The kid? You're gonna pinch that little girl for money? That big fellow won't let you near her."

"Then I'll kill him," He said of Ryan McKenna. "...and Cait will pay anything to get that brat back."

Pete Bosiak whistled as he moved his large body down the path. He winced as the bladder pressure built up. He made a mental note to drink less Big Gulps on his long trips. The trucker nearly groaned in relief, when he let the warm stream out. He zipped up and was turning, when he saw a patch of blond peeking through the bushes. Jogging over, he found a body. A filthy, half-naked, bloodied figure with dirty yellow hair was huddled on the earth.

"Jesus, Pal, what the hell happened to you?" He eyed the blood, bruises and near naked state with shocked eyes. He snaked a hand down to the throat, shocked to find him alive. With little effort, he lifted the injured man. "Don't worry, I'll have them bears here in a flash," he noted of the state troopers. "You're gonna be okay." He moved quickly back to his truck, easing the injured man on the side of the large vehicle and picking up his radio.

Through the hot mud that was sizzling in his head, he heard buzzing sounds. He crossed his brows and tried to move, but felt his body restrained. He felt hands moving all over him. poking and probing his tender flesh. A sting on his arm brought his eyes open. His blurry gaze saw the clear plastic fluid in an IV. His gaze drifted to two unfamiliar faces bending over him. Behind them, he saw khaki pants with dark stripes. Stripes... cops? His inner alarm sounded, he needed to tell them something , but what? The buzzing died out and voices blended in.

"Easy, now, yuh gonna be fine," Derrick Malone's thick accent only caused the patient to jerk back. It was obvious that he alarm in the seagreen eyes was rising rapidly. He followed the line of vision, to where the state troopers were talking to the truck driver. "Hey, Carl, go get that cop..."

"Okay," the junior medic trotted off, leaving his partner to complete the assessment.

Chris was panicked now. His heart was pounding and his breathing was becoming more difficult . The closer they got to leaving... leaving where?... he couldn't recall... the more frantic he became. His brain was screaming at him, to tell them. Tell them what? His head moved again, to the trees and other markers on the terrain. Then he remembered and he opened his mouth, as the gurney began to move.

"No! Vin!"

"What?" the dark-skinned veteran medic asked, upon hearing the strained, weak voice. He felt the injured man's hand move, reaching to the edge of his vision. "Are yuh lookin' for someone?"

"V...v...v...in...."

"Wasn't nobody near yuh when that trucker stumbled on yuh. The cops checked, didn't find anyone else."

"Not... good... 'nuf... get... asses... back... find... Now..." He struggled, trying to rise.

"Now hold on!" Malone roared, "I just got that IV line in a rolling vein and yuh ain't gonna disrupt it. Yuh'r in shock, yuh got a slug in yuh'r arm and yuh'r goin' to the hospital."

"What's up?" Sargeant Dave Brewster squatted over the injured man.

"...Lara...bee... ATF... Denver... partner... missing... Tanner... there!" he gasped, pointing his hand to the wooded area. "...find... hurt... bad... please..."

"Tanner?" The cop frowned, scratched his chin and eyed the area. "I combed that area where that guy found you, you were alone."

"No!" Chris was losing the battle now, his heavy eyes were falling under the pressure of a demon fever. "Buck? there?... find... Vin... hurry... Trent... kill him..."

"Trent?" Billy Barton came up behind his partner, "Hey Dave, that's the guy!"

"Who?"

"Him!" He ripped out a paper from his clipboard. "From roll call, there were two of them, missing Fed's from Colorado. See?"

"I'll be damned," Brewster looked at the drawing. "Where the hell did they come from? There's nothing out there..." He sighed, "Okay, call this Captain Novelli," he read the written report. "Tell him we found Larabee. I'll get on the horn to the Captain, he'll need to call the F.B.I. and comb those woods. Poor bastard, " he noted of the missing man. "if he's as bad off as that one," he nodded to the departing ambulance, "he won't last the day in there... let's move."

The food looked good, smelled better but had no taste, still Buck managed to chew. The coffee was strong, laced with chicory and went down easy. Josiah and Ezra flanked him, with Ryan and Caitlin on the other side of the table. Ezra just finished filling them in on his encounter with the mysterious Mister Bates, when the phone rang.

"Buck, that's yours... Buck?" Josiah nudged his dazed friend. The soul-suffering agent looked like ten miles of bad road. The dark circles around his eyes bespoke the little rest he'd gotten His features seemed numb, a result of the pain he carried inside.

"Huh?" Wilmington blinked, "Oh, yeah... sorry..." he reached for his cell phone, "Probably Novelli, with something on the prints Ezra lifted. Hello?" He sighed, "Yeah, Captain, we're all here... " he rubbed his aching eyes, then his hand dropped as if touching molten lava. He jerked back in the chair and stood quickly. "What? When? How bad is he hurt?" He winced as the other man complained about the decibel level of his voice. "Sorry... where? LSU Trauma Center?" He looked at Ryan who nodded to Cait. The pretty woman rose and moved to the telephone on the wall, then waited. "Where? What about Vin? How bad's he... What do you mean you didn't find him Goddammit!" He threw the phone and walked outside, into the garden. Ezra retrieved the phone. "Hello, Captain Novelli, it's Ezra Standish." He waited several minutes, nodding and writing notes and motioning for Josiah. "Yes, I understand. I appreciate the help. You'll ensure that nobody without proper credentials gets near that room? We'll be right there."

"Well?" Ryan asked hopefully.

"A truck driver found Chris unconscious in a section of the bayou off River Road about twenty miles north of here. He's been wounded and is suffering from a number of minor injuries. He's in surgery and is in guarded condition."

"He was alone?" Josiah sighed, "He'd never leave Vin..."

"Maybe he wasn't with him," Ryan added. "Could be Bates dumped him somewhere else... Maybe they weren't together." He paused as Cait hung the phone up."

Brie's on her way over there, she'll meet us. What about Grace?"

"I'll call Novelli on the way over," Josiah rose and nudged Ezra, "Get him in here..." he said of brooding man outside. "I'm sure under the circumstances, he'll provide protection for all of you."

"I'll stay," Ryan decided.

"No, I'll stay," Caitlin moved over, massaging his neck.

"I think Brie's gonna need you," The Irishman countered, "She's already shook up about Vin, now this..."

"Okay, but I won't be long." She kissed him and followed the tall preacher outside.

"Buck?" Ezra waited, eyeing the small swingset in the yard. "Chris will be able to answer that..." he noted of the mental-anguished mystery painted on the rogue's face.

"He's dead."

"Maybe," the conman agreed, weighing the odds.

"Chris would never leave him... he'd have stayed with... his body... if..."

"I know," the southerner moved closer, "but maybe he had no choice. Whatever transpired, he'll be able to fill in the gaps. In the meantime, we now know a general sector, the F.B.I. is combing that area and that's more than we had a hour ago. We'll find him..." He broke his words when the dark head came up and the dark blue eyes were full of simmering rage.

"Trent and that fuckin' metal-handed maniac he hired better pray that those Feds find them first," he vowed, moving towards the gate that led to the alley. "Because if I find them first, they're won't be enough left of them to fill a shotglass."

"That went well," Ezra sighed, as the gate slammed shut. He followed his tormented teammate, trying to dispell the sinking feeling in his stomach. "Where are you, my friend?" he hushed, thinking of the soft smile the Texan so easily used to manuever into his heart.

Part Seventeen

With one hand covering his free ear, Dominic Novelli poked his head into the hall, watching the elevator doors. He continued to nod, listening to the patrolman on the other end of the phone. The noise from the hallway, overhead pages and construction work outside made it hard to hear. Then he saw the haggard face of Buck Wilmington and waved.

"Yeah, you call when the lab gets something!" he tucked the cell phone away and motioned for the others to join him. "The OR waiting room was too crowded." He noted of his decision to wait in an empty conference room. "Plus, I wanted to keep whatever we find out here. The head nurse will bring the surgeon here, when's he done."

"Did you see him?" Buck asked, worried about his oldest friend.

"No, he was in surgery when I got here. He's stable, that's good. Sit down and I'll fill you in," He moved aside, "Ma'am," he nodded to Caitlin, who was already on the wall phone, paging Brie.

"This road where they found Chris," Josiah inquired, taking a cup of coffee from Ezra. The courtesy table in the corner had coffee, hot water, tea bags and instant decaf packets. "No sign of Vin at all?"

"Not when I spoke with you..." The weary captain replied

"But?" Ezra supplied.

"But they found two sets of tracks... footprints... south of where they found Larabee. The lab is covering that dirt road the trucker used. They did find a set of prints leading to the road. They match one of the pair back further."

"He went to get help?" Sanchez guessed.

"Or he was being followed and attempted to lead those vermin away from our wounded leader." The Southerner put a mug of coffee in front of Buck Wilmington's slumped shoulders. He rested his hand briefly on the downcast cotton, keeping a vigil at the agents side.

"Wherever he went, the trail ends on the highway. Either he got picked up and he's at another hospital or Fowler or Trent caught up to him and took him back." He jumped, like the other's, when the hand smacked the table.

"Easy, Buck," Josiah saw the smoldering blue eyes and wondered how it was possible for one man to hurt so much.

"I assume neither Bates or Trent have appeared in town?" Erza inquired.

"No, the highway patrol and F.B.I are looking for them too." Novell answered. "The truck driver was headed out of town when he stopped to take a leak. He didn't pass anybody going the other way. The EMT's said Larabee wasn't there too long, there was a fresh poultice on his arm."

"Poultice?" Josiah asked, "from a plant or something?"

"Yeah, why?" the Captain eyed the trio who exchanged a sorrowful look.

"Vin," Ezra sighed, sipping his coffee. "is quite the expert on things grown in the wild. What's edible, poisonous and medicinal."

"How come you can't find him?" Wilmington rose and shrugged off Ezra's grip. He paced the room, stopping in front of the defensive veteran cop. "What kind of department are you running? How can you let a pair of maniacs like that run loose?"

"Well let me check," Novelli growled, peeking under his shirt. "Seems I left my cape and the big red 'S' on my chest at home!"

"Whoa!" Josiah moved between them, turning to Buck. "Back off, Buck, he's been bending over backwards to help us. You cool that hot head down, that's not helping Vin. If those tracks are his, that means he was alive and walking as of this morning. That's something to hold onto."

"Sorry," Buck mumbled, shaking his head and heading for the window. He was still standing there, when he saw the body slide next to him.

"I only work with the best, Wilmington," Novelli admitted turning slightly to eye the pensive profile. "Undertand this, I WILL be responsible for putting those animals behind bars."

"I only work with the best too, Sir," Buck turned, extending his hand and relaxed a little at the strong grip.

"I can't stay," Novelli moved to the door. "I got too many pendings all over town. I'm assigning a couple men to Larebee's room. I spoke with Greg Nelson, the F.B.I. agent in charge and he'll be in touch. He's a good man, I've worked with him before." He spoke to them all, but kept his eyes on Buck, needed the young man to get the message. "If I hear anything, I'll call. You check in, okay?"

"Yeah," Buck sighed, "Thanks Captain."

"You can call me 'Clark', Kid," Novelli grinned, winking to Wilmington as he left.

The throbbing pain in his wrist woke him, completing the shouting match with his back and head. For several minutes, it was if he was an unwilling participant on a macabre carousel. The world was spinning up and down and sideways, all at once. The road to freedom had been aborted. But maybe all was not lost. Maybe, just maybe, Chris was free. Vomit came up and he tossed it weakly, panicking as his air was cut off. It took all of his waning strength to supress the cough that needed to go airborne. He used his other senses to see for him. He inhaled painfully, past the damaged ribs and congested lungs. The damp earth beneath him created the mildewed odor that was smothering him. He was curled on his side, hands bound to a rope that went between his legs, up his back and around his neck. He tried to move and the rope compressed, cuttting off his air. He moved his legs slightly, wincing as his back protested. Voices hovered above and he stilled his breathing, concentrating on the words.

"Thanks to your stupidity, this whole area is crawling with cops," Bates hissed, "I cannot wait any longer, Trent knows where to find me, and he better have ALL my money. He knows the consequences..." he left the threat linger, eyeing the almost unrecognizable man on the floor. "You would be well advised to forget about him and save your neck. Remaining her any longer would be suicidal. In an hour or so, the helicopters will go up and then it will be too late."

"How 'bout it, pretty boy?" Fowler ground his boot hard into the blackish-purple bruises on the slim man's marred back. He enjoyed the muffled cry of pain and the weak struggle. "Looks like you and me are gonna be travelin' buddies." He squatted on his haunches, watching the taut abdomen fighting for each breath. "You don't sound so good. I hope you don't up and die on me." He slid the metal hand down the battered body, feeling the weak man pull away. "Now that would be a shame. I have lots of 'games' planned, with new toys all the way from China." The cell phone rang, he hissed and stood, pulling it out. "Yeah? He's here and he won't get away again. What? Yeah, Bates said the place is crawling with cops, we gotta make tracks." He eyed the empty room. "You sure can pick 'em. That Bates is bad news. Just disappears into thin air. He said you'd know where to find him and bring all his money. What other place? Oh, yeah, I remember that old shack, near the river up north. There's abandoned hotel, The Bluebell Inn, about fifteen miles or so south of there. It's the exit before Baton Rouge. Two lefts and a right, follow the long road. I'll meet you there, I'll leave now. You get the kid yet?"

"No, " Trent replied, eyeing the new image he'd created in the mirror. He didn't even recognize himself. The years of undercover work paid off. The large case of makeup and other devices used for disguises sat open on the floor of his van. "I'm down the street. I'll get that brat. Don't lose Tanner."

"Don't you worry about him," He eyed the blinking man on the ground, nudging his crotch with the toe of his boot. "We're got lots of games planned. No I won't kill him!" Fowler barked. "Okay, five p.m. I got it... yeah." He flipped the phone shut and moved away, gathering up the discarded clothing. He cut Tanner's ropes and rolled him on his back, then lifted him forward, shoving the limp arms through the shirt. The socks went on next, no shoes were necessary. Then the leather jacket. He was rolling Tanner on his belly, preparing to handcuff him, when the legs lashed out.

Vin sprung, having waited for the pawing hands to finish dressing him. He needed the warmth and his left hand was useless. His kick boxing lessons paid off royally and he leveled the unexpecting felon. Unfortunately, his body was spent and he couldn't move. He slid down the wall, like a puppet with the strings cut. He was gasping horridly and now feared the pain in his chest was not just from his ribs. He coughed and coughed, watching spots in front of him. Fowler hadn't moved yet and Vin slid sideways, rolling, then crawling towards the stairs. With every feeble inch he progressed, his mantra grew stronger.

"...one more step fer Chris... one more... st...e...p... Chr..is..."

His hand was on the first step and he looked up, seeing a dozen more. "Aw, hell..." he slumped, until he heard Chris cursing at him in his head. "Shut... hell... up... ar..a..bee..." Grunting, he did one step, pulling his body up using his right hand. He was shivering uncontrollably and his vision was blurring. By the third step, he felt as if he'd ran to the top of the Statue of Liberty. He rested his face, then heard a voice and lost his heart.

"Like a rat scurrying from a sinking ship," Fowler grabbed the wet long locks of hair, painfully yanking the prisoner's head back. He pressed his knee into the battered back and closed the metal hand over the tender, exposed throat. "You'll pay for that foolish prank. I'll make you wish you were dead." He paused, pressing his face next to the blue eyes dulled with pain. He licked a trail of blood from the corner of the eyebrow and heard the weak hiss.

"Foolish boy..." He pressed his fingers just enough to scare the victim. The eyes bugged, the body jerked and finally went limp. He dropped Tanner into the back of the van, rolling him on his belly. He pulled the hand cruelly behind the back, eyeing the discolored, swollen left wrist. Peeking at the pale, clammy face, he used his metal hand to grip the wrist and drank in the unholy scream. After tying the wrist and binding the feet as well, he shoved a filthy, urine soaked rag into the agent's mouth. Eyeing his box of toys nearby, he grinned, slammed the door shut and took the back road.

He didn't go far, only to a patch of swamp where an old river boat was waiting. He'd put it there himself, in case the cops closed in, even Trent didn't know about it. He put his box in, before dropping Tanner in the boat. Then he laughed, as the blinking man's forehead hit the edge, creating a new bruise. He caressed the bruised, tender area above the collarbone, watching the weak sparks anger die down as the eyes rolled back and the lids slid down. Satisfied, he glided up the river, far away from the highway patrol.

"What about him?" Andy West asked his partner. They were parked out in front of Seamus's Saloon, which was closed for the day. After a thorough search of the interior, they'd secured the place. Several times, patrons who were used to stopping in for a quick breakfast, shook the locked door. This man parked his shopping car, loaded with bags, boxs, bottles and other junk by the entrace to the ally. Then, he staggered towards the door. His long brown coat went to his feet and his face was obscured by a floppy hat.

"I got it," Dan Brumberger advised, exiting, "See how Sean's doing," he noted of the patrolman guarding the rear. He strode over to the elderly man and paused, waving his hand. The guy reeked of liquor and urine. His soiled clothing bespoke little, if any, sanitation. "How yuh doin', Pal?"

"Eh?"

"Great," he mumbled, watching the old face wrinkle and the hand cup the filthy hair over the ear.

"Move along!" He barked, "Place is closed today."

"Eh?"

"No!" The bald sergeant called out, when the wino went to urinate. "Not here, in the alley."

"Eh?"

"Move!" He shoved the man forward, too hard, the body fell, crying out. "Shit!"

"What the hell are you doing?" Andy hollered, then saw his partner point to the alley. "Okay!"

The stench was overwhelming and having to half carry the old guy only made it worse. The long floppy coat he wore made it hard to estimate his weight, but it was better than two hundred pounds. So intent was he on settling the now struggling, irate drunk, he never saw the body loom up from behind the dumpster.

Trent caught the dead cop, wiping the blood from the knife on the drunk's coat. He'd seen the old guy in the area, he came every day to get handouts, before passing out drunk in the alley. The perfect ploy. He stripped the drunk of his long coat and hat and left them nearby. The he moved over and opened the old coal bin, a throwback to another era and all but forgotten. He slid the dead cop down first, then followed. The basement was dark and he had no time to spare. The cop's partner would be getting curious. He eyed the radio clipped to the patrolman's shoulder and pushed the call button. Using his ring to scratch over the mic, it distorted the signal.

"What?" Andy winced, 'Christ, Dan, get that fixed. I can't hear you."

"...drunk... vomit... clean... up..."

"Better you than me!" West grimaced, "Nothin's doin' out here... take your time."

He eyed his watch, all too familiar with the McKenna scehdule, courtesy of his conversations with Caitlin. The old man would be in bed still. The big Irishman and the brat would be in the kitchen. Taking the dead cop, he crept up the stairs. He eyed the open door to the kitchen and then the dark hallway. He left the body, blood running from the gaping throat wound, in a position where McKenna would see it, as soon as he crossed the room. Then he moved foward, through the passage and towards the backstairs.

"I want pizza!" Grace decided with a wet burp, wiping the chocolate milk from her lips with her fuzzy sleeve. The blanket sleepers were warm and had Cinderella and Prince Charming on the front.

"I want to eat your toes!" Ryan growled, lifting her up and nibbling on the rubber bottoms and cloth covering her feet. Her giggles rained down on him like a rainbowed shower.

"Uncle Wyun?"

"Yes, Buttons," he said, pulling her onto his lap and getting a kiss on the cheek. Her small face screwed up and she pushed her small belly out. Pointing to the dancing couple on her pajamas, she eyed the man she considered 'Prince Charming'. "This is you and the is my Mommy," she paused, dropping her face and curling into the broad chest. "...when I dream." She pulled her face up, amethyst eyes burning with tears. "Why can't you be my Daddy? I love you, Uncle Wyun..."

Ryan's air left his chest as his heart exploded. He couldn't speak, for his love for this child was that great. He cupped the tiny face, so like her mother's, and smiled. Then he kissed the tip of her nose and ran his hands through the unruly curls.

"I think maybe, Buttons, that dream of your will come true."

"For real!" She squealed, "a spit promise," She spit into her hand and waited.

"Don't be doing that," he scolded her mildly, hiding a smile, "You're a little girl."

"So?" She scowled. "Poppy and me do spit bets."

"Poppy and me are going to have a talk," he frowned, wiping her hand with a napkin. "How about a kiss bet?" He waited and she nodded, kissing him.

"I love you, Buttons," he choked, "and your mother, she's got my heart all wrapped up."

Puzzled, the tiny hand snuck inside his shirt. "No, she don't, it's still there..."

He laughed and set her back down, heading for the pancake mix. He took eggs out of the refrigerator and dropped them, gasping in shock.

"Jesus God!"

"You said a swear word!" Grace's head came up from over her coloring book. "What's wrong?" She started to climb down, only to be pulled up harshly and pressed against him. "You're squooshing me..."

"Shh!" He tried not to panic, but the unblinking eyes of the dead cop lying a few feet away with blood running down his chest was unsettling. He picked up the phone and the line was dead. Cell phone? "Shit!"

"You said another swear word." She squirmed. "Put me down."

"No, uh... we're playing a... a... game... like hide and seek..."

"But I'm hungry. You said we was gonna eat..."

"Shh!" He shook his head, the phone was upstairs in his coat pocket. He couldn't do down the dark, narrow hall, he didn't know where the killer was. There were no windows in the restaurant's kitchen, and only one door, leading down that hall. Then he heard a floorboard squeak overhead.

"Oh God, Seamus..." he whispered.

"Poppy's still sleepin'. He don't like to get up s'early."

"Shh!" He wiped the sweat from his face and another horrid thought occured. What if there were more than one? He grabbed a knife from the butcher's block and shifted her to his hip. Then the climbed the small stairs in the kitchen that let upstairs. Nearing the top, he ducked down, peeking into the open door of his grandfather's room. He saw the tall man's chest rising and falling and heard the soft snore. After checking the room, he sat Grace in the closet.

"Don't move, I'll be right back, I have to get my phone."

"Is this part of the game?" She whispered, eyes wide.

"Yeah, you have to be very quiet. Don't open the door unless you hear me, okay?" He kissed her forehead and shut the door.

He was three feet outside the door, when something hard hit the side of his head. The pain was blinding and he dropped the knife. He threw his body hard, hitting his opponent and driving them both into the hallway. He saw the glint of metal and hissed in pain, as the knife sliced into his side. He kept one hand on the wrist of his opponent, warding off the blade. With the other hand, he poked the eyes first, then curled his three middle fingers and jabbed the area over the collarbone hard. The other man fell away, unable to breath. He tried to stand, but blood was flowing freely and coupled with a head injury, it left him dizzy. He reached for the knife and was slashed again in the forearm. He dropped his knee on the man's arm, sending the knife through the air and down the stairs.

"I'm gonna kill you, you sick son-of-a-bitch!" Ryan growled, grabbing Geoff Trent around the throat and squeezing hard. He didn't know about the gun and never saw it slam into his head.

Trent rose and shoved the gun into the stuperous man's mouth. There was no fear in the icy blue eyes that looked up at him. He smiled and pulled the gun out, cupping the man's chin.

"Killing you would be too easy," he purred, "Know this, I intend to have Caitlin, every way possible. You dream about that..." he saw a fire flicker and a fist rise weakly, before the eyes slid shut. He took the container of sedated juice from his pocket and went into the room. He stopped at the closet and opened the door.

"Drink your juice and I'll take you to your mother," He said, dropping the box into her lap.

"No!" Grace's furious little face screwed up and she kicked him hard. "Get away from me. You're a bad man."

"If you don't drink that juice, I'll hurt your grandfather." He pulled out the gun and saw her face go pale.

"Poppy?" she whimpered, unsure of what to do. "Uncle Wyun!"

"Enough of this nonsense." He hissed, lucky that the old man never roused. He grabbed her, keeping her mouth covered and ran down the hall. He forced her on the bed, pinched her nose shut and went her mouth opened, he poured the sedated juice into the protesting, wiggling body. Finally, she slumped and he rolled her in a blanket. Minutes later, he donned the old wino's long coat and hat, put her in the cart and shuffling away.

"Dan?" Andy saw the wino leave and waited for his partner to respond. "Dan! Shit! Sean, get in the house, move!" He ran to the alley and found the real wino, then ran back to the street. The other man was gone.

"Brie!" Caitlin moved quickly when her best friend arrived in the room. She didn't miss the pale face and the aqua eyes tinged with fear. "How's Chris?"

"He's in recovery, Doctor Doumanian is right behind me. It went well. He had some minor cuts on his chest and throat. We stitched them up and they should heal fine. He's hypothermic and dehydrated, we'll be pushing fluids and watching him temp carefully. Oh, Doctor, these are the men who work with Mister Larabee." She moved to allow a middle aged man enter, his gown splattered with blood.

"We were able to get the bullet out of his arm and he should have no long term effects from the wound. It's infected, but the antibiotics should clear that up. Although the bone wasn't damaged, there was extensive damage to the muscle and he'll be in a sling for awhile. We'll keep his arm immobilized for 3-4 weeks and then he'll need some therapy. He'll be in the recovery room being monitored for several hours, then we'll move him to a room. He also has a concussion and we'll be waking him up every hour for the next few hours to check his mental status. All in all, I'd say your friend is pretty lucky. With a lot of rest, he should be fine" He heard the audible groans of relief and trained his eyes on a man with a mustache, who seemed very shaken.

"If he's hypothermic, how do you know he has a fever?" Buck asked.

"That's a good question," the physician answered, "Often patients like that are admitted to the hospital with a lower than normal temperature. Regardless, the important thing is to warm him up. Hypothermia causes a decreased level of consciousness which makes his head injury difficult to assess. What will happen is that they will get his temperature back to normal and then it's going to keep on climbing." He paused, "We'll treat it with Tylenol. It's very frustrating when you fight to get a patient's temp up and then you have to cool them down!!" He took a deep breath, "I don't forsee any complications, we'll keep him here for a few days, monitor him closely. He's a strong young man, I think he'll be fine."

"Thanks, Doc," Josiah shook his hand and Ezra nodded, his eyes cast on Cait and Gabrielle. The pretty doctor was weeping and Cait was rocking her.

"Buck," Standish nudged him, pointing to the stricken woman.

"Damn," he sighed, rising and walking over. He gently massaged her neck, then watched as she lifted her tear-streaked face. "We'll bring him, back, Darlin'. You got Buck Wilmington's word."

"He's dead..."

"Shhh!" He soothed, gathering her close. "You keep your head up. We got no room for quitter's around this campfire."

"I need him, Buck," she whispered, taking a deep breath.

"I do too, Gabrielle," he managed, his heart aching for his lost friend from Texas.

"One of us should stay here," Ezra proposed.

"Buck, how you doin'?" Josiah stood next to the gambler and eyed his stricken friend.

"I'm okay. I wanna go see where they found Chris. Ezra, can you stay?"

"I'll keep close to Chris." He answered, frowning as Buck's cell phone rang.

"Hello? Yeah, Captain. What! How the Hell did that happen! What! Godammit!" He listened for a few minutes and threw the phone to Josiah. He counted to five, before lifting his head.

"What? Is is Vin? Did they find him?" Gabrielle asked.

"No," Buck said softly, turning to Caitlin, "It's Ryan, they're bringing him into the ER."

"No... No..." She stood and backed away. "Not again... I can't lose him too. Oh God, Grace! Grace! Buck, my baby... Buck..."

"I'm sorry, Cait, they took her." He winced and moved, catching her as she fell.

"Trent?" Ezra guessed and saw Buck's head dip. "Seamus?"

"Madder than hell, threatenin' to sue the city, the cops and shoot anyone who gets in his way," Josiah replied, shutting the phone off. "Whoever it was, killed one of the cops inside the house. The old man never heard a thing, until the cop's partner woke him up. They found Ryan in the hall, with a note. He put a fight... he's got several stab wounds and a concussion." He moved to stop the hurricane that swept through the room. "Buck, don't go off half-cocked." He warned, having his arm shoved away.

"I'm tired of sittin' around and waiting. I'm gonna find that fuckin' lunatic and send him straight to Hell!"

"Buck, get back here, Buck..." Josiah moved and took Cait from Ezra. "Go!" He ordered, and the green-eyed man nodded once and ran to catch up to his irate friend.

Built during the second World War, the Bluebell Inn was a modest roadside resting area. Fourteen rooms were sprawled in an even row, just beyond a small clapboard house that doubled as the reservation area. Tucked off a narrow offshoot of the river, it was closed for over ten years and long forgotten.

Fowler pulled the boat to the side, securing the rope to a wooden post. The dock was long gone, but he hauled himself up on the base, then took the supplies up to the backporch of the old house. The door was broken and he entered, setting the box down and slinging a large duffel bag from his shoulder. He walked through the cobwebs and parted the dust clouds, seeking the small office. He took the keys to room number two. The modest sized room was clean; he'd used it not long ago.

"Get up, dog," He snarled, having returned to the boat. There was no response from the unconscious prisoner. "GET UP!" He barked louder, but still there was no movement. Hissing in anger, he jumped back into the boat and slapped the man's face hard. The slim body jerked and two eyes peeled half open. " Get on your feet, I ain't carryin' you. MOVE!"

Vin eyed the metal fingers moving menacingly near his eyes and winced as they hauled him up. The pain in his wrist had dulled somewhat. He stumbed along the path, zigzagging as the weeds seemed to move with ground beneath his feet. He blinked at the blurry building approaching, wheezing heavily and coughing. Saliva and phlegm ran down his chin, he had no strength to clean himself. His wrists were raw from the harsh ropes and his hands numb. He felt the hand grab his collar and propel him towards an open door. He must have blacked out for a second; he roused again as the door slammed. Through swollen lids he noted that he was lying on his side on a mattress. There was a table in the room and a bathroom of sorts off to the side. The curtains were drawn, blocking out most of the light. Fresh airdrifted in through a broken window and every so often, a breeze lifted the tattered drapes, letting in sunlight. He didn't fight the dizziness. He was in too much pain to care and surrendered to the black cloak.

" Sir, can you hear me?"

Through the thick blanket of mud that seemed to envelop him, the fallen agent fought hard. He was cold and in pain. His arm was throbbing and his head felt like it was going to implode. He screwed up his face as the pesty voice persisted.

"Sir, Can you..."

"Go... away!"

She smiled at the irate level in the confused green eyes. They lingered on her face for a moment and then slid around the room. The face scowled and then the eyes began to close.

"Oh, no, not yet," she tapped his leg, causing the head to swivel. He was doing much better, his core temp had risen to 98 degrees. Once she could ascertain his lucidity, he could be moved to a regular room. "Can you tell my your name?"

"Lucky," he tossed back, eyeing the IV lines and feeling the influx of oxygen. "What's yours?"

"Sir, I have other patients to attend to, if you'd just cooperate."

"Christopher Michael Larabee." He shot back, eyeing the short, fiftyish nurse through pained eyes. "You buying?" He inquired, smacking his dry lips. She smiled and gave him a large spoon of ice chips. "Water?"

"Not yet, you're just over surgery. Do you know where you are? What year ..."

"Bush is president, it's two thousand and two, this is New Orleans and I want my Goddamn pants."

She chuckled and put the clipboard down, adjusted his drip and made note of his blood pressure and respirations. She pushed the on call button and a voice came through the intercom.

"Nancy, tell Doctor Doumanian that Mister Larabee is awake."

"Okay, Theresa," she replied, answering the protester's lips with another spoon of ice.

"How long have I been here?" Chris demanded, swallowing the ice without chewing. "What the hell happened?" He frowned, trying to reclaim his wavering memory. The door opened and a middle-aged, dark-skinned man entered. Past his white cloaked shoulders, Chris saw a familiar face.

"Josiah!"

"That's my little boss," the preacher tucked his rosary beads in, eyeing the ceiling with a gleam of humor. The F.B.I. man next to him made the connection and stood as well. "Sometimes I get them confused," Sanchez teased. "They tend to roar at the same decibel."

"...Get your ass in here..."

"Nice," the gray head shook, as he moved past the not-so-amused doctor. "S'okay, Doc, you'll get used him. His bark is much worse that his bite."

"What the hell is going on?" the blond was annoyed, and his temples were jumping in pain. "What's all this shit for?" he shook his arm, jostling the IV lines.

"Mister Larabee, if you'll just calm down," the doctor tried.

"You calm down!" he turned away, glaring at Sanchez. "Well?"

"Can you tell me anything about who attacked you? How did you end up off that dirt road? Were you alone?"

"Who the hell are you?" the ATF's finest rasped painfully at the young, nervous quizzer who was by his bedside. "Get away from me..."

"...or was Vin Tanner with you? Did you..."

"That's enough, Son," Josiah gently moved the young F.B.I man to the side, after all the blood left his boss's face. "Let the doctor have a look at him. You can talk to him later."

The three letters swirled and twisted in his brain. V...I...N... Vin... Vin... Vin... He felt the air leave his lungs in a rush and his brows furrowed. He had a nagging fear something was dreadfully wrong. He remembered darkness, cold and a determined Texan dragging him somewhere. A voice in his memory bank resounded.

"I won't let ya die... I'm gettin' help... ya hang on..."

"Vin?" He whispered, raising a hand in an attempt to snag the whispered drawl that lingered near. "Vin..." he blinked and looked in the smokey eyes of Team Seven's eldest. What he saw there made his stomach drop. "Oh God... he's dead? No... Aw, shit... " he began to tremble, only to have a strong hand on his shoulder.

"Chris?" Josiah sighed, feeling the encompassing agony that wracked the battered body. "We don't if Vin's dead..."

"What?" the blond head snapped back up, dead eyes filtering with anger. "How is that possible? He was right next to me..."

"You were found alone, Mister Larabee."

"Found?" Chris blinked at the doctor, then turned to his teammember. "Found?" he repeated, seeking a reply.

"A truck driver found you near daybreak, on a dirt road off the highway outside town. You've beeh shot in the arm, bone's okay, but you ripped up your muscles. You were hypothermic and covered with cuts and bruises. You have a concussion and the infection from the wound has caused a fever. That about it, Doc?" Sanchez asked and saw the head nodding.

"You seem to be aware and cognizant. I'm recommending you be transferred from here to a regular room. If you can tolerate it, I'll have a clear tray send down to you later. I'll leave new orders with your nurse. You're very lucky, young man. A few weeks in that sling and some therapy and your arm will be fine. Gentlemen," he nodded to the agents, "I have a date with a hot appendix, I'll check on you later." He nodded to the small pink pitcher. "A little water... he should tolerate it."

"Thanks," Chris managed, sipping the water that Josiah held out to him. "He was with me... he carried me. Alone? I don't understand..."

"What do you remember?"

"Uh..." he leaned back on the pillows, closed his eyes and let the cobwebs in his brain part. "...the old woman... said... I saw Vin... she grabbed my hand... saw him... he was in agony... being tortured... by that metal-handed bastard Fowler..."

"Fowler?"

"He killed Sarah, Max McKenna too," Chris replied to Sanchez. "Trent hired him. He's an animal, Josiah, you can't believe what he put Vin through." One weak fist balled up on the bed. "I'm gonna make him hurt..."

"What else?"

"It's foggy next... I woke up in a dirt room... I don't remember getting there..."

"You don't remember leaving the hospital with Nigel Bates?" the F.B.I man asked.

"Bates?" Chris's eyes popped open as the words repulsed off his tongue like battery acid. "No... What's he talking about, Preacher?"

"When we got to the hospital, Jessenia Broussard was dead. You were seen leaving her room with Bates. It's on the surveillance cameras in the parking garage. He didn't force you, Chris..."

"He must have... done... something... I wouldn't..." He stopped, his shaky hands taking a sip of water.

"We'll do this later, Chris, you're not up to..."

"I'm fine," Larabee snapped, "He was curled up in the corner, naked and filthy, like an animal. When I touched him... called to him..."

Josiah's eyes narrowed at the unmeasurable amount of anguish beaming from both green eyes of the leader. The change was evident, also, in the hushed whisper that slid past the tense lips.

"...he turtled up..." Chris managed, the painful moment revisited nearly choking him. He turned his agonized gaze to the eldest, "to me, Josiah. He turtled up to me... Christ..." he raked his shaky hand through his hair, until the larger hand caught it.

"Easy, Chris," he didn't want to upset the IV line. He waited until two cleansing breaths were completed, then listened as the voice grew to normal tones.

"They used everything on him. Electric shock, cattle fuckin' prods, they beat the shit out of him, he's burned and cut and abused. He was confused as hell... he had bugs crawlin' in his mouth for Christs's sake. " He stopped then, took another breath and continued. "They... Trent..." His venom rose, seeping from his eyes like vaporous toxin. "I'm gonna kill that mother fucker, Josiah, mark it down. Sick fuckin' bastard hurt Vin."

The F.B.I. man looked on with envy at the man who was profiled to be one of the finest fed's carrying a shield. Whoever this Tanner was, he must be something, to earn respect like that from such a source.

"They were looking for a book. Trent thought Vin knew where it was hidden."

"The book Max found the night he was killed," Sanchez surmised.

"Yeah... only Vin don't know squat and they found that out too late." He sighed. "They beat him in front of me, with fists and rubber hoses. Then, " Chris swallowed hard, his steely gaze unnerving both men. "They strapped him upside down in some fuckin' metal cage and lowered him in the water... to feed some fuckin' alligator."

"Sweet Jesus," the preacher winced. "How'd you two escape?"

"I convinced him that I knew about the book. He laughed at me, had Fowler take Vin out of the cage and toss him in the water. I rammed him, we both went in... I grabbed Vin and kept swimming. We swam down a narrow tunnel, went over the fence and kept going. I have no idea how long we were passed out... we held each up and stumbled along. Finally, we got out... it was dark... nighttime... Vin took a look at the stars and made his map. I can't remember too much after that. I got shot by one of them when I grabbed Vin. I remember us stopping a few times..."

"You had a fresh poultice on your arm when they found you." Josiah noted.

"Must have been after Rawhide..." Chris heard mental snippets of conversation with Vin coming back.

"Huh?" the F.B.I. man squinted.

"Nothing," Chris sighed. "He'd never leave me, Josiah, you know that. They were following us... I bet he spotted them and took off. Led them away, damn him."

"They found two sets of tracks beyond where you were found," the graying agent replied, "Then one set leading to the highway."

"He went for help?" Larabee theorized, shutting his eyes again. "But, he's not here..."

"No, and he hasn't turned up in any hospitals." He waited a moment, "or morgues." The green eyes shot open and the face blanched.

"Shit... we were so close..."

"You get some rest, Boss, I'll update Novelli and the F.B.I. team. This is Rick Messina, he's with the local branch of the F.B.I. His boss is a guy named Nelson. He's been assigned to guard you. Buck and Ezra are out at the spot where you were found. This prison they kept you in can't be far."

"Don't matter now," Chris yawned, his eyes falling. "They won't be there. They've moved on..." He saw a shadow cross the preacher's face and frowned. "What was that?"

"Trent's getting desperate. He attacked Ryan this morning."

"How bad?"

"He's out of surgery, he had some minor damage from two stab wounds. He's got a concussion. You'll be rooming with him."

"Goddammit, how did that happen? I thought Novelli was going to have men guarding them?" The greens were flashing again.

"He did... and they lost one, a twelve-year veteran, his throat slit."

"Oh God..." Chris's anger was building and the IV lines and his weak body were mocking him.

"It gets worse."

"How?" The patient bellowed, then his heart sank. "No, Caitlin? If he hurt her, I'll slit his balls..." He stopped when the gray head shook. "But..."

"The little girl, he took her."

"Son-of-a-bitch!" Larabee eyed the immobilized arm, which was unable to yank the IV lines out. As if sensing his goal, the older man lashed out, gripping the angry freed fist.

"Cut that out! You're in no shape to be running loose after that madman. The cops, state troopers and F.B.I are on it. They'll find him, Chris. You're not leaving this bed for five days. That doctor said..."

"Fuck what the doctor says. Five days my ass," Larabee squirmed, "Where's my Goddamn pants?"

"In your Goddamn closet at home in Denver." Sanchez added wryly, as the transport team arrived. "You get some rest, I'm gonna check in with Novelli and Buck."

"How's Cait?" He wondered aloud, as a parent, he knew that cold fear.

"Shattered," The other replied, following the gurney.

"Hollywood! Get back here!"

"What now?" Ezra muttered, rising from the crouching position he was in over the disturbing dirt filled cell Vin Tanner had been kept in. "Gentlemen," he nodded to the lab crew, "Be careful, there's holes in the floor and it's dark."

After covering the short area where the truck driver found Larabee, Standish and Wilmington followed the F.B.I team into the bayou. The helicopter found tire tracks in the mud outside an old stone ruin. Fortunately, he'd been in front of Buck as they climbed down the crumbling stairs. He recognized the imported chair from his work with Amnesty International. He also didn't miss the thick boots and mittens. They'd abused his mind first, to weaken him. Then he saw the table with 'tools' and his stomach dropped. Just about the same time a blue-eyed locomotive rushed past. He barely managed to control the much larger, irate body. Nobody felt hurt like Buck Wilmington when one of his own was down. But seeing the devices of torture had rubbed salt on an already open and festering wound. Novelli managed to steer the thrashing body aside, leading him towards a back cavern. That is the spot where the bellow came from.

"You cool his heels or he's loses privledges. I'm not a babysitter," Novelli warned, shoving the flame tempered agent to his partner.

"Enough!" the gambler ired, shoving the cursing stallion against a damp wall in the cave.

"Enough?" Buck vented, trying to break free, "Did you see that fuckin' thing? Vin was in that... he... there's a clump of his hair stuck on the bars... Fuckin' freakshow... there's an alligator in there. What if... they find..."

"They won't," Ezra answered without hesitation. His cool eyes saw the nagging fear. His own stomach couldn't comprehend a reaction if parts of Tanner were pulled from the beast's belly. "He fled with Chris, remember? Wherever they went, it wasn't here..." He paused, "He's still alive and you're wasting valuable energy frothing."

"Frothing?" Buck slumped, totally drained. Suddenly the smell of blood and must and dankess became too much. "I gotta get out of here..." his voice died when the long, tangled stands of brown hair moved in the water. He shuddered and thought of his injured friend, upside down and helpless.

"We'll check in with the hospital and then I journey north."

"North?" Buck asked, kicking the chair as he went by and getting manhandled by the smaller agent.

"That's evidence..." Standish shoved the angry body forward, "North... I have an address where Ms. Broussard spend her childhood and most likely revisited as an adult. Perhaps someone there knows of Bates."

"Josiah?" Buck asked, having dialed on the way. He slid into the car and shoved his sunglasses on. "How's Chris?"

By the time they drove off the road, taking a narrow curvy path toward s house rising over the water on stilted supports, Buck was brooding again. He didn't envy Sanchez, now that Chris was aware Vin wasn't with him. He'd be chomping at the bit to get loose. He put a hand on the pale green coat sleeve of Standish, eyeing the 'clan' that appeared on the porch of the run down property.

"Do you hear dueling banjos?" He made reference to the famous scene in Deliverance.

"Keep that temper under control." The unamused agent replied, "We are vastly outnumbered. For every face you see, there are several more hiding." He held onto the tense agent's jacket and waited, "Understood? I don't want to end up as Wally's dinner." He noted of the famous cartoon alligator.

"Alright," Buck jerked his arm away, "I'm fine." He stood and followed Ezra up the dirt covered planks.

It was cold and his legs were numb. He kept falling and a pair of arms held him up. They supported him, while the dangerous trek continued. He didn't know where he was, only that he was in pain. A persistant voice, heavy on drawl, kept him moving. Then he was resting, the strong hands were pressing something on his arm. It felt good and he relaxed .He opened his eyes and saw the marred face of his best friend. Vin was standing a few feet away, smiling at him.

"I won't let ya die... I won't let ya die... I won't let ya..."

"No! Vin!" he screamed as the voice was silenced. Out of the brush came a large silver hand, severing the unaware, still smiling tracker's head from his body. Fowler's laughter filled the bayou as he held the head up high. Vin's eyes large and shocked.

"Chris, Chris, wake up!"

"Vin... V..." He opened his eyes briefly, feeling the sweat running into them and stinging him. The first sensation he got was heat. "Hot... hot..." he muttered, trying to shove the sheet off. His face was soaked and a soft touch took that away with a cold, wet cloth. Still shaken by the vivid dream, it took several minutes to get his breathing under control.

"Nightmare?"

"...worse..." He panted, squinting at the beautiful face above. The almost aqua eyes seemed lost in the pale cocoa skin. Too much pain lingered there. His eyes shifted to the other bed, where all he saw was a pair of swollen, red-rimmed eyes. "Cait..." he croaked, watching her pale face rise. She dropped the limp hand she'd been holding and came over. He snaked a hand up, over the bars, and brushed the stray tear with his finger. "I'll find her, right before I send that son-of-a-bitch to hell."

"She's my baby, Chris, she's all I have..."

"I know," he hushed, seeing the pretty eyes well up again. "How's Ryan?"

"He won't wake up. It's been too long. They said his x-rays were good..."

"What time is it?" He rubbed his eyes and saw Gabrielle taking his vital signs.

"Time for you to eat some dinner. You've been sleeping all day. You're temp is up to just over a hundred. I want you to take these," She handed him Tylenol. "I'm sending for a clear tray. Here," She handed him a cup with a straw. "I have to make rounds."

"Brie," He grabbed her hand, carressing the fingers lightly. "Don't give up. He's out there, somewhere, and you're one of the things keeping him fighting."

"He's special, Chris," she admitted, gaining strength from this man.

"Preachin' to the choir," he smiled lightly.

"I gotta go, I'll check on you two later. Cait, you need to eat... You're gonna get sick."

"She's right," Larabee agreed.

"How can you think about eating?" The worried mother repelled, crossing her arms over her broken heart. "I can't eat..."

"You getting sick won't bring her back." the doctor advised. "I've got some soup in the doctor's lounge. One mug and some crackers, deal?" Gabrielle offered and led the shaken woman away.

Chris waited five minutes, sipping his water slowly. Then he turned his head towards the opossum in the other bed.

"They're gone."

"You knew?" Ryan pushed the button, raising himself.

"I heard you clenching your jaw all the way over here." He paused, watching the guilt drowning the handsome Irishman's features. "It wasn't your fault. "

"The hell it wasn't. I was supposed to protect her. You weren't there." He whispered, seeing Cait's stricken face. "How the hell can I face her, Chris? I let that monster take the most precious thing God ever sent to this earth."

Chris winced as the tall man's voice broke. He knew what that pain felt like, he'd lived through it when Adam died.

"She's not dead and he isn't that stupid. He won't hurt her, not until he gets his money. So we have time."

"That's great!" McKenna scoffed, wincing as the stitches in his side pulled. "We got no idea where hetook her."

"He has to surface, eventually," the blond predicted, "He can smell the money. " He paused, seeing his best friend's battered body. "Vin'll protect her... with his life if he has to."

"If he's alive..." Ryan muttered, then heard a sharp hiss. "I'm sorry, Chris, I didn't mean that..."

"'s'okay Ryan..." Chris replied as the door opened and a tall, strong man with thick, snowy hair entered. His gaze burned a hole into the other McKenna, who turned away in shame.

"Get yer head up! Yer not a dog!"

Chris jumped when the large, black thorn walking stick hit the chrome rails.

"I'm speakin' t'ye Ryan Seamus Patrick McKenna. Ye'll look me in the eye!" He waited until the head rose and saw the scarlett flush of shame lingering. "I'll not utter a word until ye lose that paint. Twas not yer doin' and ye'll not be wallowin' in a pity pond. Yer a McKenna, and by God I raised ye better."

Chris admired the old man, he must have been quite a hell raiser in his day. He watched in mild amusement as two sets of stormy blue eyes met. For a few brief moments, neither budged, then he saw the younger man's Adam's apple bob and the face got even more flamed.

"Fine, I'll not be wastin' me breath!" Seamus turned and walked to the other patient's bed, giving a stern gaze from head to toe. "Ye look like ten miles of bad road, Man. Ye could do with a drop..."

"Tullymore?" Chris grinned, knowing that Irish whiskey was a favorite.

"Ah... yer a lad after me own heart." He unscrewed the top of the walking stick and poured a 'shot' into a small plastic cup.

"Jesus!" Chris laughed, shaking his head. "I can't, Seamus, but thanks for the thought. You never met a Maude Standish, did you?" He teased.

"Is she a looker, then?" McKenna asked, taking another shot and capping his 'cane'.

"She's a real lady, and more than a little shady."

"Ahhhh... there's not a woman breathin' that can pull the wool over Seamus McKenna's eyes."

Chris saw that Ryan had calmed down somewhat. He was reclining on the pillow, his eyes closed. On hand was pressed to his injured side. He met the old man's eyes and nodded. The gnarled hand came out and gripped the one attached to an IV. With a wink of gratitude, he turned back. He paused over this young man, seeing a lost boy. He ran his hand through the thick, curling black hair and cupped the strong chin.

"Ye breakin' me heart, Lad," he offered, "Yer not t'blame."

"I'm sorry, Sheanair," Ryan whispered, tears brimming. He heard the intake of air, knowing how that one word, the most affection he could show for this man who raised him, left it's mark. He felt the hand open up and stroke the side of his face.

"When I found ye... bleedin' like that in the hall." Seamus's voice shook. "I thought I'd lost ye. It damn near stopped me heart. Ye know what ye are t'me, Boy-o. Get yer chin up, now, and find me jewel." He bent down and kissed his eldest grandson's forehead, gripping the back of his neck. He saw her reflection in the window and eased Ryan back, tapping his face once and with a wink, moving aside. "I'll be stretchin' me legs..." He gave her a brief hug and kissed her cheek, then left.

"Caitlin, God, I'm sor..."

"Shhh!" She put her fingers over his lips, taking the word away. She moved the bars down, sitting on the edge of the bed. She held her arms out and he fell into them, weeping on her shoulder. She rocked him and crooned softly in his ear, letting her fingers stroke his back. "I love you, Ryan McKenna, now and forever..."

It was a curious noise that woke him. The room was dark, the only light coming from a weak bulb blinking in the bathroom. Painfully, he moved, surprised that his wrists were free. As the circulation came back, he cried out, the pain of the broken limb exploded. He rolled onto his back, frowning as he feltan iron manacle on his ankle. The short chain was connected to the wall. Cradling the injured limb, he heard the sound again. Breathing was becoming difficult, he felt like an elephant was sitting on his chest. Lifting his dirty, wet, tangled head, his fevered eyes raked over the room.

"..the hell..." he croaked, seeing something tiny curled up in the corner. His blurry eyes didn't adjust to that darkened area of the room. At first, he thought it was a dog. Then a tiny voice pierced the stilled air.

"Vin?"

"Grace?" His panic-stricken voice replied. He growled as a low heat rose in him. He didn't care what they did to him, but to take a child brought out the lion in him. "Did they hurt ya, Sugar?"

"No." She paused, squinting at the battered, body covered in streaks of blood. "I thought y'was dead. I... I... kept... call..ing... but... y... you did... didn't... answer... I tried to... to... your eyes wouldn't work..." She started to cry.

"Come're..." Vin held his arms and inhaled painfully when the tiny child dissolved into them. Her tears came them, raining down on his bare chest, through the torn shirt. He sat up gingerly, sucking in air as the room flew by. He leaned against the wall, his good arm around the tiny body, now choking and hiccuping. "Cut that out, now, y'all make yerself sick. Look at me," he waited until the tiny tear-streaked face rose. "I won't let anyone hurt ya, ya got m'word." He kissed the tip of her nose and smiled.

"Vin?"

"Yeah?"

"I want my mommy."

"I know, Sugar, " he winced as the tiny cries threatened to spill over. His mind was willing but his body wasn't able. He tried to stay awake, but the pain and fever were too strong.

"Vin?" Grace felt his arm slip and turned around. His eyes were closed again and his head was hanging down. She moved and he fell, landing on his back on the mattress. "Vin... wake up... I'm scared... it's too dark... Vin... please..." she squeaked, then curled up against him, burying her face into his neck. She felt his arm move over her and relaxed a little. Later, she hear him moan, then cry out, clutching his head. "What's wrong? Did I hurt you? I'm sorry, Vin. Don't cry..."

He wanted to soothe her fears, calm the tiny, shivering body, but the pain was too intense. His head was exploding and his chest so heavy he could barely breath. His eyes widened in fear as the horrid thought appeared. He was dying. Just as his eyes rolled, a strange mist invaded him and he lost all his senses. He sat up, held the quivering child and felt his heart bursting. He'd found her... finally... his lost angel... his own precious miracle. Nobody would take her from him again.

"Ne pas craindre, mon ange."

"Huh?" Grace screwed her face up. His face looked the same, but it was different. "Your eyes are all funny? Vin?"

Vin? He wrinkled his face. Who was this Vin? The child was confused. He cupped her face and gazed on the perfection displayed.

"C'est magnifique," he marveled, then felt her stiffen and the tiny face puzzled with fear. What was the matter? "Q'uy a-t-i-l?"

"Why are you talking like Aunt Brie's granny?" She noted of the elderly woman they visited sometimes, who only spoke French. "Vin, don't talk like that, okay?" She cocked her head.

Again with the 'Vin'. He sighed, smiled and nodded. It mattered no, she could call him anything. He'd found his angel. He stroked the tiny head, flinching at the pain that enveloping him.

"I am sorry, little one," he spoke quietly. "You are my angel, no?" He relaxed as she snuggled against him. He rocked her, humming as she finally began to relax.

"I love you, Vin," she murmured, sucking her thumb and pressing herself close to him.

"Je t'aime, sweet angel," he kissed her curly head and held her close. He sung to her in a low voice, smiling as he recalled Isabella's sweet voice. He felt the hot breath on his chest and her stiff body relax. His eyes were sharp now, trained on the door. When the beast returned, he'd slit his throat and go to find his beloved bride.

Part Eighteen

He grimaced and pried his tongue from the roof of his dry mouth. It was too much of an effort to peel his eyes open. Try as he may, he couldn't rid himself of the Sahara desert that seemingly possessed his mouth. Then, something nudged his lips and a voice from faraway suggested 'drink'. The fire died and he sighed in relief.

"Slow down, you're gonna puke."

"Kid?" Chris croaked, squinting painfully into the light. A blurry face appeared with a shock of dark hair. "My Kid?"

"Now that's impressive, even for a Larabee!" J.D noted of impossible potentiality and the age difference.

"Turn that fuckin' light off!" the concussed man ordered, shielding his eyes. The room was cast in shadows, as the curtains were drawn. "Thanks... when did you get here?"

"Couple hours back, we can stay until Tuesday. Nate's here too. Him and Josiah are with that police captain. As soon as you're ready, they're coming over here for a meeting."

"Vin?"

"Nothing yet." He paused, seeing the unnatural light of defeat in the pale eyes. "I'm sorry, Chris."

"Yeah, I am too, Kid. Where's Buck?"

"We're not sure, him and..."

"Not sure!" Chris interrupted. "How long he's been gone? What time is it? Where's my Goddamn pants?"

"For several hours, it's five o'clock and I have no idea." He answered in succession, picking up the phone on the bedstand. He dialed Josiah and gave the green light. Chris staggered to the bathroom and back, taking his IV pole with him. He elected to sit in the tall backed chair, next to Ryan, who was asleep.

"They gave him a sedative, he was having a bad dream, he got violent."

"He's got a damn good reason." Larabee sighed, watching J.D.'s fingers moving again.

"Buck? We're having a meeting," the youth began.

"I thought you said he was missing!" Chris bellowed, reaching for the phone.

"J.D.? Are you here in town?"

"No, Buck, Chris flew back to Denver!" Dunne's replied sarcastically, turning to his boss, "I never said he was missing. I said we didn't know where he was. Where are you?"

"In the bayou, we got a lead."

"Buck, you got a bad cel, I can't hear... Buck?" He pulled the phone away during a burst of static. "Lost 'im. Him and Ezra are tracking down a lead in the bayou. You hungry? The nurse told me to let her know when you woke up. Something about clear liquids."

"Wonderful," Chris grumbled, thinking of lemon jello and bouillon.

"Ezra, this looks like the same damn road we we're on an hour ago," Buck complained, his patience running thin. The family that they initially interviewed said little. When they returned to the car, a filthy paper with an address written on it was under the windshield wiper. It cited urgency and information on the 'wearer of the medal of St. Michael.'

"I never mentioned Vin wearing that, only Novelli knew and that old woman." Wilmington got a chill. "Whaddya think?"

"I think it's slim and none and we take slim," Standish cited.

Now, they were trying to find the reclusive address. Every moss-draped tree looked alike. Suddenly, Buck felt a tingle rise up his spine.

"Turn here!"

"What?" Ezra sputtered, at the loud voice.

"Here!" Buck pointed to a dirt path in the middle of nowhere.

"Have you lost what little remains of your mind?"

"Don't fuck around Ezra, turn!"

"Very well," he obeyed, following the twisting road, dense with trees. "How far?"

"Uh..." Buck's heart was pounding and he was beginning to sweat. "S... s...stop!" He unclipped the belt, shot out of the car and moved through the thick greenness.

"Buck! Come back here!" Ezra ran to catch up, struggling to keep pace with the taller man's strides. He saw a shack appear in the middle of nowhere and a tiny, gnome-like woman out front.

"How are Hansel and Gretel?" he muttered, panting as he reached the perimeter.

"I have been expecting you," she nodded, "Let me see your hands."

"I assure you, Madame..." Ezra started, only to be cut off.

"No, not you," She turned to the taller man, "Your hands, I must see..."

"Buck..." Ezra frowned, then felt a chill as his partner's face went blank. He watched curiously, Buck didn't blink as the old woman studied both palms. Then she gripped his hands and he saw Buck jump slightly and inhale sharply.

"Yes, yes..." She nodded, "Come... You will remain here."

"Like hell I will," Standish retorted, walking up the stairs.

"Very well, but I warn you, do not interfere!"

The interior was small and filled with an acrid scent. Strange objects were on rough hewn tables, candles flickered and she chanted as they entered. She sat on a sturdy bench, pulling Buck down next to her. She turned his palms over, examining them closely, before rubbing them with oil. Then she gripped both tightly, causing the tall man to hiss.

"Buck?" Ezra moved forward, only to run into an invisible wall.

"Silence!" She warned, turning back. "I sought you out because you are tied to them both. Your link to the blond one is strong. His link to the saviour with blue eyes is very rare and deep. He lives, the one you seek with sky eyes and a strong spirit. Although his body suffers from many wounds, his soul thrives. His spirit guide is with him... in him... helping him. He'll remain protected, as long as the dark ones do not find him. The child," she read the thoughts of the mustached man, who was entraced. "she is fine. She will not be injured. He protects her with his life. Do not fear for her. She will remain unharmed. You must find him... before the others."

"What others?" Ezra asked.

"Boudin, he seeks a blood sacrifice and desires the spirit of the blue-eyed boy. "

"Who's Boudin?" Buck asked, his voice returning. He was dizzy and the air seemed shallow.

"Pierre Boudin, the nephew of my sister of the soul. She is on the other side now, my Jessenia, and she cannot rest. She worries for the boy. "

"Boudin?" the rogue shook his head, trying to dispell the lightheadedness, "Bates?"

"He has many names, but he is evil... and very dangerous."

"Why did he wait so long, if he had all this power?" Ezra asked.

"Her power was of the light," the old woman said of Jessenia. "She worked hard to keep that evil from him. Once she closed her eyes on this world, his full potential was returned."

"He wants to kill Vin?"Buck asked.

"Yes, She told me to seek you out. You must find him. He searches for that place where his soul was born. You will find him there. You must hurry..." She placed a leather cord around his neck, with a worn leather pouch on it. "You will give this to the blond one, if Boudin takes your friend, only the blond one can save him. Go... go..."

"But..." Ezra began, only to have a black ball thrown at him. It exploded into a cloud of sweet smelling dust. "What?" he mumbled, blinking and then gasping. His hands were on the steering wheel of the car. Traffic soared by them, racing into the setting sun. The digital clock read six p.m and they were just outside town on the shoulder of the highway. "What the hell?" he mumbled, turning to the other occupant. Had the leather necklace not been on Buck's chest, he'd have thought it was a dream. "Buck?"

"What?" the dark head jerked, blinking in panic. "Where the hell are we? Where'd she go?"

"I don't know and it's not an avenue I wish to pursue. Time is of the essence."

"Get me to the hospital!" Buck commanded.

It was getting dark and she was scared. She heard the door and ducked behind Vin. She curled up against his back and waited until the monster man left. The silver hand scared her, so did his eyes, they were funny. Finally, she pulled her head up, the room was empty. She crawled over his body and snatched the bag.

"Vin... we got food. Vin, I'm hungry. Vin? Want some? I'll give you my french fries... see..." she tried to prod a soggy fry into the slightly parted lips. He didn't move. He looked awful and he was breathing funny. He sure was hot. She sighed again and knelt up. One eye was swollen shut, all purple and black. She pried the other one open and scowled. "Are you in there, Vin? Wake up! We gotta eat! Vin?"

"Oui," Vin yawned, blinked and sat up, wincing as his left wrist hit he wall. He smelled meat and eyed the bag.

"The monster man came and left it... we gotta soda too, see?" She pulled out two cans, along with two burgers and two bags of fries.

"Monster man?" He frowned, "Did he touch you!"

"No," She shrank back, "Don't holler like that!"

"I am sorry, Petite," he cupped her chin. She was perfection. His heart was bursting just looking at her.

"Here, I took the pickles off," She moved to hand him a sandwich and her head hit his wrist. She creased her face, when he cried out in pain. "I'm sorry, Vin. I didn't mean..." the fears and frustrations and horror of the day built up and spilled over.

"No... no tears..." he hissed, forgetting his own pain. He pulled her into his lap with his good hand and kissed the salt streaks.

"I hurted you... I hurted you..."

"No, Petite," he chuckled softly, kissing the top of her head. "You could never hurt me, you hold my heart, no?"

"I'll hold it real good!" She promised with a wet hiccup. "I'll be real careful."

"Oui," He smiled proudly.

"You sit back, I'll take care of you." She vowed, seeing the lines of pain and sickness on his face. She bent down and kissed the injured wrist. "All better?"

"Oui," He hushed, his heart full. "I love you, angel."

"...love you too," she broke off tiny bits of sandwich and fed it to him. She held the soda up and tipped it so he could drink. Each french fry was carefully inserted. Finally, they were done.

"Merci, Madamoiselle Angel," he smiled, pulling her close. He sang to her softly, recalling Isabella's glorious face. Her breathing became slow and steady and the thumb sucking slowed down. His own eyes dropped down, fueled by fever, he slept.

"I'm getting tired of being your servant!" Fowler hissed into the phone. "Yeah, I know what time it is. Yeah, I'll get the brat and call the bitch. Don't talk to be me that way. You owe me! Trent? Trent? Fuck, he hung up!" He was still raging with anger as he entered the room. The little runt was sleeping, curling up against Tanner. He walked over and grabbed her by one arm, yanking hard. That was his first mistake.

"Angel!" Vin screamed, hearing her terrified cry. He moved in one motion. His kick brought the other man down and he slammed the man's head onto the floor hard. The motion caused a white wall of burning pain in his wrist and up his back. He collapsed, unable to breath for the fire inside.

"Vin... Vin..."

"No tears... little one," he heard the crack in the voice. "I am just resting my eyes... for... a... moment..." He finally sat up and eyed the captor. They had no time to spare. "Come, Petite, we will go and find your Mama, no?"

"But what about your leg?" She eyed the chain and wrinkled her nose at the strange words coming from his bloody lip. "Is that a curse?"

"Sorry," Vin sighed, then eyed the black metal object in the waistband of the captor's pants. "Angel, get his gun. Careful, only touch the back part. Good girl," He took the weapon. "Go to the bathroom and cover your ears." He waited until she was safe and then put the gun to the metal bracket and fired. Freed at last, he jumped up and put his arms out. They left hurredly. He eyed the terrian and smiled. "I know this place, Angel, we are not far from home. Come, there is a boat."

"A boat?" She shook her head and tugged his hand. "No, Vin, they got a car. Vin? Vin?" He wasn't listening and she followed him, confused but trusting. He'd never hurt her. She climbed in beside him and they went up the river.

She was dozing when the pulled over and he didn't want to rouse her. He eyed the black bag in the bottom of the boat and frowned, pulling it open. He saw a large tan jacket and pulled it on carefully. Then he gathered her up and left the boat. He trudged for some time, before his eyes grew blurry and his back pain became unbearable. He saw a bench by the side of the deserted road and sat down. He'd rest for only one minute.

"Vin?" Grace yawned, looking around. "Where are we? Vin?" She felt his face, it sure was hot. He sounded funny too, like he had a really bad cold. His face was all swollen and colored funny. He needed Aunt Brie to fix him. "I'll call Mama, she'll come and get us." She snaked a hand into his pocket and brought silver change out. She eyed the bus stop and saw a phone nearby.

He moved his hand and in his deep sleep, knew instictively something was wrong. There was nothing on his lap. His eyes jerked open. He was alone.

"No!" he cried out. "Angel!" He jumped up, spotting the tiny girl in a glass box.

"Aunt Brie?" She paused, wrinkling her nose as the machine came on. "Tell my Mommy to come get us. Vin is really sick. The monster man hurted him bad but I'm okay. Vin saved me, but he needs Aunt Brie to fix him up..." She turned as Vin entered the booth. She backed up, seeing how angry he was. He was screaming in French, took the strange object from her and dropped it.

"I'm sorry, I was getting my Mommy. Don't holler... Vin, please don't be mad. You're hurt and I wanted to help..."

"No, I am sorry, Little One," He relaxed, hugging her. "I woke up and you were gone. My heart, it stopped. I will not lose you again, Petite. The house, it is not far. We will go now."

"But... what about Mommy?" She eyed the phone.

"She knows where we are," Vin decided, so sure Isabella was waiting for them. "Come, Petite."

The meeting with the F.B.I and Novelli went as expected. They had a couple leads on Trent and had confidence that the combined forces would work. The ransom not left strict instructions on the exact breakdown of currancy. It also mentioned a phone call to Grace. So Novell, Nelson, the F.B.I. man and some other field agents left for the Saloon. They had a recording device set up there.

Finally, they were alone. J.D., Josiah and Nathan went to get dinner, they'd return later. Ryan said little during the meeting. Chris knew how deep the other man was hurting. He also knew better than to offer meaningless words. Until that child was in his arms and safe, he's be a lost soul.

"Damn shame Seamus didn't leave his cane." Chris offered, "Some Tullymore would go down good right about now." That brought a small smile. "He's a good man."

"Nothing finer breathing," Ryan said with deep conviction. "One day, I hope to lay his namesake in those strong hands of his. If Cait will still have me..."

"You asked her?" He said quietly, having seen the change.

"Yeah, if..." he stopped, raking a hand over his pained eyes, "no... when Grace comes back to us. A small wedding. I love her, Chris. How could I have been so blind?"

"Guilt does terrible things to a man's soul, Ryan, I know that now. I wasted three years after Sarah and Adam died. I gave up, pushed everyone away. I was so full of anger and unresolved issues. My days were spent drowning in a sea of bitterness. My nights were... well... long and endless."

"What happened?"

"Vin Tanner," he sighed, nearly hearing the cranky Texan cursing him. "and... Buck. Buck never gave up on me. They broke the mold when they made that man. It took that amazing endurance of his to make me realize how much I was throwing away. After Sarah and Adam were killed, I gave up. That was until Lily kicked my ass." He smiled, thinking on the fiesty matriarch. "Wait until you meet her. She's absolutely beautiful. What a woman. Thanks to her and Buck, I found my legs again. Buck and I put the team together. Six men, good men, we were a helluva team. Then one day, we got us a worldclass sharpshooter from Texas. Shot his mouth off as much as that rifle. Cranky, sorry-assed, prank-pulling Texan." His voice cracked. For several minutes, he couldn't speak. "Vin... I don't have the right words. From the day we met, something happened inside. He's a part of me, the best part. He taught me how to see the world in color again."

"That's a helluva compliment."

"He's a helluva man." Chris returned, as the door opened. "Goddammit Buck! Where the hell have you been?"

"Nice to see you too, Pard," Buck grinned, nodding to the other man, who was laughing. "Ryan, good to see you awake." He moved to the bed, gripping the rail. "She's fine, you'll get her back. They won't hurt her."

"How do you know that?" The Irishman questioned of the complete and utter conviction in the tall man's voice.

"I uh..." He shrugged, sat down and eyed Ezra, who remained silent, standing by Chris. "We... got a lead." With that, in a slow, steady voice, he revealed their strange encounter. He'd just finished, when Doctor Gabrielle Marquette broke into the room, hysterical.

"She called me... I think they escaped but I can't be sure because I heard Vin but it's not his voice, it's French but Grace was fine..."

"Slow down," Buck jumped up, grabbing the slim woman's shoulders. "What are you talking about?"

"This!" She put down a small box and swayed a bit.

"Hey, easy, Darlin'," the rogue steadied her.

"I'm fine, I checked my messages at home, this was on my machine. I keep a small recorder with me when I do rounds, to take notes on patients. Anyway, listen!" She eyed Ryan's face and saw the physical tension leave him. His head dropped and she gripped the back of his neck.

"You get that over to Novelli, he's at the Saloon. Don't tie the phoneline up, in case Trent is trying to call." Buck said, handing her the tape.

"Okay," She bent to kiss Ryan's cheek and tugged his hand in reassurance, before leaving.

"Ezra!" Chris nodded, "Go with her. That bastard could be anywhere. Check in, okay?"

"Roger," the gambler nodded and departed.

"I know you heard him spoutin' French before," Wilmington moved to Chris's side, helping him sit up. "But if I hadn't heard it, I wouldn't have believed it. Any ideas?"

"You said she'd be safe... " Ryan sat up, eyeing the somber agent. "That old woman was right." He thought for a moment, recalling her words, as given by the eyewitness. "...he searches for that place where his soul was born..." He stopped, thinking of what Chris said earlier about the changes in both men, when Vin joined the ATF team. "Denver."

"No," Chris said suddenly, easing the IV out. "Buck, Nathan left clothes in that closet for me, get them. I know where he's headed, and it's not far."

"Why wouldn't Vin have called here or driven back?" Ryan wondered.

"It's not Vin," Larabee hissed in pain, allowing Buck to assist him in dressing. "Remember, she said his 'spirit guide was with him'?"

"You mean, Philippe?" Ryan hedged, "Isabella's husband?"

"Vin's a direct descendant, Philippe's protecting his own," the blond tossed back, shoving his feet into a pair of boots. "That's where he's going. At the end of the tape, he said they're 'going to Mama'. I read Lily's journal, the one her sister Sara kept. I know where that cottage is."

"Where they went to live after they married? Up near Baton Rouge?" Ryan recalled of the history Caitlin had compiled. "Shouldn't we call the police?"

"No!" Chris said, then winced as the loud tone hit his tender skull. "I don't want some green cop shooting Vin on sight. He won't understand what's wrong with Vin. You know damn right well, Vin won't give Grace up, not to anyone."

"Okay, Chris, I hear you, but what if Trent finds him? We need to let Novelli know..." Buck tried to argue.

"What are you doing?" Larabee shot his eyes over Buck's arm, watching Ryan climb from the bed.

"I'm going to get her, I lost her."

"You can't be serious? Two of you?" Buck put his hand up. "You'll bleed all over the..."

"Where's my Goddamn pants?" Ryan shot back in a tone so like Larabee's, both of the other man chuckled. "I'll follow you," the Irishman threatened, lifting an eyebrow defiantly.

"You would, too and bleed all over the place. Then Caitlin would have my balls in a sling. Dammit to hell." Buck muttered, walking to the closet. "We need to tell, Novelli, Chris."

"Okay, but not until we get there. Trent doesn't know yet, we got some time. Novelli can use a helicopter and get there in no time. I want to find Vin first. He'll listen to me." He moved stiffly to the door, poking his head out, "Buck, distract the nurses."

"Gimme a hard job!" the rogue finished with Ryan McKenna, getting his jacket on. "Where you two walking wounded gonna be?"

"You got the rental?" Larabee asked.

"Yeah, it's parked outside."

"There's a service elevator that they bring the meal cars up on," Chris whispered, "It just around the corner. I need five minutes. We'll be outback somewhere, on the east side, that's where it comes out."

"Okay, Boss," he slid from the room.

Fifteen minutes later, they were on the highway, heading north. Buck had Chris's gun in his trunk and the blond now had it strapped to his hip. He tugged the leather cord from his neck and handed it to the man next to him. "She said, if Bates gets Vin, you'd be the only one who could save him, with this."

"Hang on Cowboy," Chris whispered into the dark night, eyeing the stars and sending a prayer up to the heavens.

A tiny sliver of silver moonlight came through the crack in the wood covering the window. The eerie glow diminished the century old shack somewhat. The cabin was small and dirty, full of spiders and other crawling insects. A sense of profound sorrow hung heavy in the night air. Only one of the two occupants was aware of the eerie cloud.

She felt something crawl across her hand and jerked it back. Her chest hurt from sobbing and she curled into an even tighter ball. She gasped and shuddered as the last of her tears died, while wiping her nose on the sleeve of her fuzzy pajamas. Her large eyes roamed around the room. She shivered again, and felt his arm tightened around her. He was sleeping too hard and he was awfully hot. She placed her tiny hands on his face and tried to open his eyes again. No luck, they wouldn't stay put.

"Mommy?"

It wasn't a question as much as it was a prayer. She believed Vin when he said her mother knew where they were. She didn't argue when they walked through the dense woods to this place. She didn't understand why he was happy to be here. His eyes got all funny and his voice cracked, when they entered. He was looking for someone named 'Isabella'. He didn't hear her asking who that was, he staggered and almost fell. He was barely able to walk and she couldn't keep him going. He said he was only going to 'rest my eyes for a moment'. But that was a long time ago. Now she was cold and hungry and scared.

"Mommy!" She sobbed, pressing her face into the hot folds on skin where his neck met his shoulder. "I want my Mommy... please God... help my Mommy find us..."

She was ending a series of wet hiccups, when she heard the door open. Her breath caught in her throat, when the the tall figure entered the room. His skin was dark and his eyes seemed to glow. Her gaze caught the metal shimmering on the end of his cane. Her basic instincts, primal and deep down, told her to fear this man. She snaked a hand out, shaking Vin's arm, trying to wake him.

"Vin... Vin... wake up..." She whimpered, her heart pounding as the tall man in a black cape and funny black hat moved forward. "Who... are... you...?"

"I am Voodun," Boudin exclaimed, "You will not fear me, Child. Come... come... come to me." He lured, in a voice deep and hypnotic. He gently blew a handful of herbal powder towards the small protector. With her in the way, he couldn't get to Vin Tanner. Her love for him, being pure and of the light, was a powerful shield. He saw her need and played on that. "Your mother is waiting for you. Take my hand... I will lead the way. Sweet Child, take my hand..." His evil grin spread, as the entraced little girl rose and took small steps. "Come... come... into the night..." he lured her backwards, towards the doorway, beyond which was the dark, churning river.

"You fool!" Geoff Trent backhanded Cletus Fowler hard enough to send the hired man flying hard into the wall of the delapadated hotel room. "What have you done? Where is that child?"

"Tanner took her!" Fowler spat a wad of blood from his split lip. "You do that again and I'll crush your neck like a twig."

"Shut up, you imbecile. I've squashed slugs with more brains. I thought he was chained?" He jerked the broken links. "How could this happen? How long ago? It couldn't have been long, I haven't heard anything on the radio about the child being found."

"I don't know, a couple hours maybe?" Fowler hissed, "He's insane, you went too far."

"Insane?" the dirty cop paused, eyeing the car outside. "He's on foot? Why didn't he steal your car?"

"He's off his rocker, flipped his lid!" the metal-handed monster replied, patting his pocket "He didn't even touch my phone. He charged me, speaking French like he was born to it."

"French!" Trent wheeled around, his hopes picking up. "Are you sure?"

"Why would I make that up? Of course I'm sure. He spouted it like water... why?"

"I know where he went... the fool..." He thought of the errant ghost. "That's why I haven't heard anything on the radio. That stupid boy is being led around... and a hundred years in the past. Hah! Perhaps Lady Luck will smile on us yet." He moved towards the car, "You better pray I find that kid, or you get no money." He turned the ignition on and took the small dirt road that led to he highway. The old Dubonnet cabin wasn't far.

"You can have that brat, she's more trouble that she's worth." Fowler flexed his silver hand, nearly salivating, "Tanner's mine."

Caitlin felt her knees give way, hearing her baby's voice on the tape. "Grace..."

"Easy, now, " Ezra grabbed her, sitting her down. "She's safe. From what we can surmise, Vin has made his escape with her."

"Why hasn't he called?" Josiah frowned, denying more coffee from Nathan. Ezra called them, knowing there were up the street from The Saloon, having dinner.

"Yeah, that's not like Vin. He'd have called 911 right off. Something's wrong." J.D. surmised, tapping the table with his pen.

"You sure that's your friend Tanner? I thought he was from Texas?" Novelli inquired, "That guy sounded like a local," he noted of the heavy French accent.

"I think you may have found a piece of the riddle," Ezra leaned forward, taking Caitlin's hand. "My Dear, I know how hard this is for you. But you may be our only hope. Do you know where Isabella and Philippe lived?"

"Yes, why?" She blinked, "No, you can't be serious... that's not possible."

"This is New Orleans, Mrs. McKenna and I assure you, anything is possible." The Southerner oozed.

"Cait," Josiah leaned in, "My father was a missionary. We traveled all over the world. I spent time in Haiti and in parts of Africa. I've seen things... spiritual things that defied any kind of science or logic. Chris Larabee told us what happened to Vin in the maze at the Sauville house. So it's entirely possible that Philippe was responsible for getting Vin and Grace free."

"You're all nuts!" Novelli turned away, as his cell phone went off. "What! All of them? What the hell am I paying you for? How long ago?" He cupped the phone and eyed the people in the room. "McKenna and Larabee are gone... Wilmington too."

"Call him!" Nathan said, elbowing Dunne.

"Chris?" the youth's voice rose, when his boss answered Wilmington's cell phone. "Where are you? You're in deep shit! What lead?" He frowned, his eyes flashing. "If I pulled a stunt like this, you'd suspend me. What do you mean that's different?"

"Gimme that phone!" Novelli growled, grabbing it. "Larabee, what the hell kind of game are you playing?"

"It's not a game," Chris replied, eyeing the map on his lap and closing his eyes. That was twofold, first for the fierce headache that was rising with every passing minute. Second, he was trying to see the map drawn by Sara Gavin so many years ago in Lily's journal. "He's taking Grace to the old cabin. It's not really Vin, it's Philippe... that's why he's speaking French. It's happened before."

Novelli frowned and eyed Standish, "That's what Hollywood said...."

"Who?" Larabee frowned, pinching the bridge of his nose. Christ, his head hurt like a bitch.

"Ezra," Josiah said, taking the phone. "It kinda suits him, right down to that phony smile."

"Bite me," Ezra mouthed over Caitlin's head, so she didn't see him.

"Where are you, Boss?" Sanchez pressed, nodding. "Yeah," he snapped his fingers at Nathan and pointed to a map. "We'll coordinate from here and meet you. Stay in touch."

"They're close." Caitlin said, following Jackson's finger. "They'll have to pull over soon and go on foot. There are no access roads up there and it's dense and thick, slow going"

"Chopper?" Novelli mused aloud.

"Not yet," Standish frowned. "We don't know if Vin permantly disabled his guards on not. That call was made awhile ago and we've not heard from them since. If Trent or that monster find Vin first, the last thing you want to do is advertise like that," he noted of the approach of a police helicopter. "I'd suggest we journey up the river, since it borders the property. We can radio your comrades in arms in Baton Rouge, if we need additional help. From what Chris described, I am sure Mister Tanner will need to be flown to a hospital."

"Yeah, okay, Hollywood, that sounds good," Novelli agreed, turning to Nelson, the F.B.I. agent. "You call your office in Baton Rouge and update them. You make them understand that we're running the show."

"Let's go!" Caitlin tugged her jacket on, only to face a six foot plus wall of resistance.

"Over me dead body!" Seamus boomed, "Yer not carryin' a badge. It's too dangerous."

"Grace is out there," She zipped the leather coat, her eyes flashing three shades of violet. "...and the monster that murdered Max had his hands on her. You can't stop me... nobody can. I'm bringing my child home and God help that bastard if he gets in my way!"

"Ye sound like the Lad!" Seamus choked of Ryan, then eyed the men behind his stubborn daughter-in-law.

"He's right, Mrs. McKenna," J.D. said, "You shouldn't..."

"The map I've got up here," she tapped her glossy curls, "is better than anything you got." She challenged all of them, raising a eyebrow. "Let's go!"

"Ye bring me jewels back," Seamus ordered, eyeing all of the men leaving. "and the Lad. Ye bring them back or ye'll answer to me, and that's a promise. Ye have me word on that!"

"We'll get them, Seamus," Josiah gripped the worried Old Man's shoulders. "I'll bet you say a wicked rosary."

"I've counted the beads a time or too in me day..." the blue eyes were worried. He nodded, listening as the footsteps died out. He sat in the chair by the window, suddenly feeling very old as he took out his time worn rosary. He kissed the cross, blessed himself and began to pray.

Something was wrong. Under the layers of mud that filled his fevered brain, an alarm went off. Something was wrong. There was a empty spot... .an empty spot... his arms moved, trying to find... find... needing to feel her.

"Angel?" he whispered, forcing his working eye to open. He felt the evil permeate the air, nearly choking him. His heart slammed into his chestwall, when he saw the dark one ready to snatch his beloved angel. He tiny hand was reaching up, the doe-like eyes in the moonlit bath were full of trust. "Noooooo!"

The earsplitting scream broke the spell and Grace jumped, startled and frightened.

"Come Child, Come to Papa..." Boudin's voice was deep and hypnotic. He saw her blink and move, as the other roused. He snatched her arm, gripping it until she screamed in pain. "Leave the boy's body, Dubonnet, or I'll kill her." He used his free hand to move the gun to her neck.

"You are a corpse who still walks," he spat back, fists clenching and his heart on fire, "I will tear that rabid tongue from your mouth, you vile beast. Unhand her... or die." The deep laughter that filled the room bounced off every wall of his aching head. His fury rose and then his fearless angel bit the bastard's hand hard. It was a small distraction and he leapt, kicking the man's groin hard. He slammed the head onto the floor, trying to find the gun. "Go Petite... find the glass box..." he recalled her talking to someone, "...call... your Mama... go Petite..." He gasped, on his knees, pain scoring his lean body. With his last ounce of strength, he shoved her towards the open door. "Follow the path... remember the stars... they will guide you... GO!" his fevered eyes drank in every feature of the tiny face. "Remember I love you, Angel..Now and Forever... Go..." His fevered eyes bugged out when the shot rang out. Pain exploded in his chest and he fell forward. Through a dizzy storm of fire and color, he fought back.

"Vin!" Grace screamed from the doorway, watching his face lock in pain.

"Run Sugar!" Vin cried out in fear, not knowing why. His hot eyes took in the strange place. He didn't know where he was or how they got there. He only knew Grace was in danger. He saw Bates towering over him and his blood turned cold. From beyond the tall man's form, he saw the tiny girl hesitate, her face at the window. The moonbath stroked the tiny features, glittering with tears. "Ya do as I tell ya... Git movin'... Go find yer Ma..." He ordered, and relaxed as the moppet turned away and ran.

"Enough!" Boudin grabbed the injured man's throat, applying just enough pressure to put him to sleep. He leaned over the body, cupping the strong jaw. His smile increased, as his hand moved, over the area where the valiant heart was beating. "Excellent!" He glowed, his eyes lighting up. "Your mojo is powerful... I will have it... at the hour of midnight under the moon... while you watch. I will take rip it from your chest..." He laughed again, feeling the power course through him. He had much to do before the ceremony. The stone wall in the deserted garden would be a fine altar. He lifted the unconscious lamb and took him outside. He removed the jacket and shirt, before laying him on the stone. He opened the black bag, taking out the candles first, then the rest of his tools. He annointed the lamb and lit the candles, which were by either side of his head. He'd prepared the knife before he left, it sat waiting in a velvet pouch. He rested the book on the lamb's chest, then began to chant.

"What now?" Buck asked, easing his tall frame from the car. There was one flashlight in the trunk and the batteries weren't great. He shook his head in disbelief, as Chris and Ryan staggered towards him. "I can't believe I did this. You two can't even stand."

"That way..." Chris pointed, then heard Ryan gasp. "What?"

"Somebody else is here..." the injured Irishman held his aching side and nodded to a car in the shadows.

"Shit!" Buck hissed, pulling his weapon. "You two stay put. I'll check it out." He crept through the woods, sliding up to the dormant vehicle. It was empty. He rested his hand on the hood, it was still warm. He opened the door and flipped the glove compartment. "Great... as if I didnt have enough problems..." He flashed the light again, frowning at the dual sets of prints.

"What?" Chris said when his oldest friend returned looking grim.

"It's Trent's car, his registration is in there. He's not alone. The engine's still warm, they're not far."

"That fuckin' metal-handed freak is with him," the blond hissed, his lip snarled, "and I'm gonna rip it off his wrist and beat him to death with it..." he promised, limping toward the path.

"Are you sure you know where this place is?" Fowler complained, marching through the thick woods.

"If you don't stop bitching at me, Fowler, I'll shoot you for being so Goddammed stupid." Trent warned, then put his hand up. "Shhhh! I hear something..." He strained his ears and heard male voices. He jumped onto a fallen cluster of trees and peered into the inkyness. Three figures were roaming through the woods in the near distance. He rejoined his hired hand, and updated him.

"There's three of them, you take the flank... and take out the back two, they're falling behind. One of them looks hurt. Go... and Fowler, don't fuck this up!"

"You need to sit down before you keel over," Buck warned the staggering blond, grabbing Ryan as he swayed. The determined team leader disappeared into the darkness several yards ahead. "Chris, I'm talking to you." He bit his lip as the Irishman went to his knees. "Hold on, Ryan," He eyed the area and spotted a fallen tree. "Shit..." he nearly dropped his gun, as the other man went limp. "Dammit... " He eased him down and eyed the unfamiliar terrian. "Great... what the hell else can go wrong?"

"Night... night pig meat."

Buck only had time to turn his head slightly, when something hard hit the back of it, sending him into darkness. Fowler stepped over the first body, squatting to slap the face of the second one. He was out cold, unarmed no threat. He took the agent's gunand found handcuffs on the stilled man's belt. Larabee was somewhere near and he couldn't risk a shot. He rolled him on his belly and cuffed the hands. He eyed the trail ahead and grinned. realizing it led right to Trent. "Two down and one piggie to go..." he laughed, jogging to sneak up on the unsuspecting prey.

It was scary in the woods. The sounds of the night terrified the lost little girl. She didn't cry. Vin would be upset. He was counting on her to get help. She kept looking at the sky, trying to remember what he told her about the brightest star. But it was hard and she was tired and cold. She stumbled and fell, sliding down a hill and rolling over, scratching her face. Her lip quivered and her eyes grew full, but she didn't cry. She stood up, dusted herself off and climbed back up the hill.

She blinked her eyes, she couldn't believe it. Her heart began to pound and her small body shook from head to toe. Was it real? She clenched her wet eyes shut and opened them again. It was real! He was here! He was right here! She opened her mouth to call out to him, but couldn't remember his name. What did Vin call him? Before she could think anymore, another figure appeared, just behind the blond man. She saw the gun and screamed.

"Mister Grizzly! Mister Grizzly look out behind you, he has a gun!"

Chris dropped and spun in one motion, rolling sideways as a bullet hit the tree where his head would have been. Grace? What the hell was she doing here? Vin? Was Vin with her? He grunted as another shot rang out. "Grace get down!" He hollered, letting his eyes adjust to the near darkness.

The silver moon cast shadows on the dense thickness, then he spotted a silver hand. "You bastard..." he growled low and lethal, as visions of Sarah and Adam's charred bodies rose up. He crept slowly and silently, stalking the beast for the kill. He managed to climb over a rock and launched his body, taking down the killer. The gun was pressed between both their hands. Twin grunts of pain and frustration merged in the night air, as the two bodies wrestled for the weapon. Chris drove his knee hard into Fowler's side. Then he moved his free hand to poke at the murder's eyes. He chopped the wrist hard, sending the gun skittering off into the darkness.

They rolled again and Cletus found himself on Larabee's back. His meaty thighs pinned the victim's arms to his sides. He yanked the short blond hair up hard, exposing the pale, vunerable neck. He moved his metal fingers of the naked flesh, before snaking into the familiar choke hold. He could break the man's neck, but what fun would that be? No, he do it slowly, crush his larynx and listen for the gurgling sound. He increased the pressure, lowering his lips so his prey could here.

"She died slow... the boy too..." he purred, feeling the still recovering man lose the little strength he had. "They were screaming as those flames melted their flesh. She was pretty. If I'd had more time, I could have had some fun with her... your Sarah..." he laughed, feeling the slobber run over his wrist. Larabee was foaming at the mouth.

Chris fought hard with all he had, but his injured body wasn't ready for this. His arm was bleeding again, the stitches were ripped apart. His concussed skull was screaming like twin jackhammers chopping up concrete. The metal hand was cutting off all his air... slowly... and purposefully. He tried to suck air, sending saliva pouring from his numb mouth. Then he heard the cruel words and his whole body rebelled. The harder he fought, the dizzier he got. He thought of his lost friend. Was he lying near, too hurt to move? Was he counting on that promise being kept? He felt himself fading away, and the cruel, sinister laughter was far above.

"I'm sorry Vin..."

Part Nineteen

"No!"

The high pitched scream jerked his dulled senses back to life. The shot came almost simultaneously, causing his body to tense up. His muscles braced for the inevitable tearing pain of a bullet. Not only was there no new pain, but the tension from his throat disappeared. Deprived of oxygen for too many precious minutes, his shocked body fell over. Gasping, he rolled on his back, choking in large, clumsy gulps of air. His eyes fought hard to stay open, until the squeaking started. Curious, he forced his gaze to widen and search the area.

"God..." he choked, his chest constricting. There a few feet away sat his terrified, pint-sized rescuer. The gun was trembling in her small hands and her body was wracked in shuddering tremors. Tears ran down the small, dirty face. Fearing Fowler's wrath, he moved quickly, rolling his body over to put himself in front of her.

The dark woods were silent and deep, too quiet. Danger lurker close by, he could smell it. His keen eyes raked the shadows, but he saw nothing. He cocked his head, listening for any signs of movement, but there was none. Had the bullet found it's mark? Was Cletus Fowler lying dead at he bottom of the steep hill behind him? What about Trent? Had he heard that shot? His first concern was the safety of this small child. Grunting in pain, he rose to his knees and crawled over to her.

"It's okay," he soothed, taking the shaking gun from her tiny hands. He flinched when the small body hit his chest. His grimace intensified, when the body convulsed in sobs. "Shhh... I know you're scared, Grace, but the bad man might be near here. We can't let him find us, okay? I've got you now, he can't hurt you." He spoke in a low tone, rubbing her small back. He heard the sobbing slow down and a series of wet hiccups follow. "Come on now, get a hold of yourself. You'll get sick."

"...s...s....s...orry..." She shuddered, trembling. "I... I... I... shotted... h...h...him... I... I... he... hurted... you... I... I..."

"I know, Honey, you did a very brave thing and I'm proud of you. You saved my life." He tapped the tiny upturned nose and smiled. She looked so much like Adam it hurt. "Are you okay?" He cupped the back of the unruly black curls. The small head bobbed and a thumb was making a wayward path to the trembling lips. He intercepted that mission, needing some answers. "Grace, is Vin with you?"

"The... the... b...b...oogeyman... has... has... has... him." She managed, eyeing the woods. She nestled closer to the strong body, welcoming the protective embrace. "I'm scared."

"I know, this is a scarey place, but I won't let anyone get you, okay?" He felt the head nodding and cupped the chin. "Vin? Where is he Grace?"

"In... in... the old house... not a real house..."

"A cabin?"

"Yeah..." She agreed, fighting to get her thumb free. "The other bad man hurted me and Vin got us free. We took a boat here. He's sick. He's sleeping a lot and awful hot. Then... then... the bad man... a b...b...big man... a dark man... with black cape and mean eyes... came. He tried... tried to... to... hurt me... Vin saved me. He told me to... r...r...r...un... to Mommy... Then... the man shotted him... he hurt Vin... he... he..."

"Alright," Chris winced, absorbing all the new information. "Shh... no crying, remember? Let's go find you Uncle Ryan, okay?" He rose on unsteady legs, holding her against him with his good arm and holding the gun loosly with his injured one. His first priority was to get this innocent child to safety. Fowler and Trent wouldn't murder another child, he'd see to that. He traced his path back , carefully listening to all sounds around him, ever wary of the enemy.

The moon was basking his lamb in a brilliant silver light. The candles flickered in excitement, as the hour drew near. Bitter herbs burned in several small urns, creating a fine curtain of smoke. The ceremonial oils were marked on his head, heart and hands. The priest's deep voice paused, when a shot rang out. He furrowed his brow, but no more sounds emerged. He quickened his tone, eager to conclude the ceremony. Next to the lamb's head, the knife waited, purified and ready to take the soul of the warrior. He smiled at the confused blue eyes that were slits, making an occasional appearance.

"Soon, Vin Tanner, soon your blood will run free and I will claim that heart... soon..." He smiled as the lamb's brows furrowed over the fevered eyes. His laughter chased the blue slits back into wet head.

He was still on his back, trying to sew the tattered pieces of his brain back together. His head was split in two and his side was throbbing. The dirt beneath him and the dark woods around him held no clues. He moved his head sideways, wincing as the pain flared. A body was lying a few feet away. He rolled onto his knees, biting back the urge to vomit. The world spun at a dizzying pace and he closed his eyes, until the worst of it passed. Then he crawled over to the other man, recognizing the mustached face.

"Buck?" He rasped, still very nauseous. "Buck, wake up..." He found a good pulse and then began tapping he pale face. He turned his sideways, frowning at the handcuffs. "What the hell...." He shook him harder, watching the face begin to twitch. "Buck!" His hand was resting on the other's shoulder, when a scream split the night air. His heart froze and his guts were full of icy shards, ripping them into pieces. It wasn't just any scream, it was Grace. Then the shot came and his heart nearly stopped.

"No!" he hollered, rising and running towards the sound.

"Where's Uncle Wyun?" Grace plucked her thumb from her mouth, long enough to ask. Her large eyes roamed the landscape, seeking her beloved uncle.

"Uh..." Chris paused, spotting one body on the ground. "Buck?"

"Chris? Jesus, I thought that bastard killed you. I heard a shot..."

"I got Grace," He warned, settling the child on the ground. "Stay!" He ordered and saw the tiny head nod. "Keys?"

"Front pocket. You okay?" Buck asked, eyeing the small girl who nodded. "Thank God!" He sighed heavily. "Thanks," He rubbed his wrists, no freed. He sat up and rubbed the back of his head, wincing at the sticky knot. "Somebody clubbed me... after Ryan collapsed. I didn't see... who."

"Where's Uncle Wyun?"

"I don't know, Sweetheart," Buck stood up, immediately picking her up and holding her close. "But he's okay. He was talking to me and took off... he heard a shot..."

"That was Grace, she saved my life. Fowler jumped me and was strangling me." He saw Buck's eyes narrow and the head jerk. "No, I didn't get him... it's so damn dark out there, I can barely see my own hand. You get her back to the car and call Novelli, find out their ETA. I'm going to get Vin. She said Bates has him at the cabin. Buck, don't let her out of your sight!" he ordered.

"Hold on," Buck urged, flipping his cell phone out and handing it over. "Call the Kid... he'll be with Novelli, then you'll know."

It was a cold winter day, with a brilliant sun melting the dusting of snow. The icicles glistened, like crstalized pipes in an frozen, mountainous organ. Crisp, cold air kissed their faces, easing through the snow-laden branches of the tall pine trees. The sky was an incredible shade of deep blue and the air fresh and invigorating. He unleased a loud whooping war call, grinning as the echo came back and surrounded them. He heard a chuckle and turned, casting his animated sky eyes to his best friend.

"Life don't get any better'n this, Cowboy!" he hollered, atop his horse. The green eyes of Chris Larabee lite up in warmth, matching the shit-eating grin he wore. The others were skiing, but he and the blond decided to go riding instead. His face was red from the cold air and his energy level was shooting off the meter. He could spend all day up here and not get tired. That lazy smile on the man next to him was all the fuel he need. "Eat my dust, Old Man!" He hollered, easing his steed ahead on the path and letting his laughter sail on the wind.

Boudin eyed the smile on the unconscious man's face and felt a tremor in the force. Frowning, he eyed the dark yard and listened to the river rushing by. Someone was near, someone whose power filled the lamb with new confidence. His gaze grew stormy and he put one large hand over the lamb's eyes.

"So, you seek the blond one..." he saw the image, "Let him come, he will not stop Voodun. I will have your heart." He insisted, as much to reassure himself. He didn't like the tremor he felt, he had not encountered it since Jessenia died.

"Hello."

"Kid?"

"Chris!"

J.D.'s yell brought the others to where he stood on deck. The boat was splitting the water evenly, racing up the river.

"Where are you?" He nodded and grabbed Caitlin's hand, smiling. "He's got Grace, she's fine. She's with Buck... here..."

"Honey? Oh God," She choked, eyes shutting as she heard the tiny, frightened voice. She rocked backwards, feeling someone grab and steady her. "I know, you're scared. You listen to Chris and Buck and do what they say. I love you too..."

"Chris?"

"J.D. how far away are you? Put Novelli on..."

"Novelli."

"How far away are you? Fowler and Trent are in these woods somewhere and Bates has Vin at the cabin. Vin got shot getting Grace free. Make sure the cops in Baton Rouge get a medivac chopper here."

"Yeah, okay, I alerted them before we left. From where Mrs. McKenna says that cabin is, we're about a half hour away."

"Hurry!" Chris shot back, shutting the phone off. "Get moving, Buck!" He called out, checking the gun and heading for the cabin.

The Irishman's blue eyes did a wipe swoop of the area, but it held no answers. He didn't risk using his voice, in case the enemy was near. He kept low, using the trees as cover. He saw a cabin in the distance and recalled Cait's words. Was that where Grace was? He started forward, only to have his body slammed to the ground. He rolled, using his fists and feet, his eyes catching the glint of a silver hand.

"You fuckin' bastard, I'm gonna kill you!" He roared, his own injuries buried by his lust for revenge. A grisly image of Max's bleeding face as the car exploded, rose up and grabbed him. With renewed strength, he fought hard, his well honed body shot full of andrenalin.

"I don't think so, McKenna," Fowler spat back. "You're gonna so soft, like that brother of yours. Soft head... no brains... I got him good..."

"Ahhhhhh!" Ryan lunged, missing his mark and tumbling hard into a tree stump. He hissed as his wounded side opened. He flinched as the metal hand found the tender spot between his ear and shoulder. He felt a crushing force and fought back, jamming his elbow in the attacker's midsection. The hand wavered, but held firm. He twisted sideways, reaching for something, anything, he could grab. He found a tree branch and shot it backwards over his shoulder. He heard the grunt of pain as the body fell. Gasping for air, he turned and pounced, using his fists brutally.

Fowler felt the raging man's fury rising and his own wounded body failing. That brat hit his upper chest and he was weakening. Still, if he could get McKenna beneath him... he took a deep breath and turned, using his legs to take the other's out. They rolled and fought until at last he was straddling McKenna's back. He jerked the dark hair up and clamped his metal hand on the exposed throat.

"Give my regards to your brother, McKenna!"

Ryan struggled, but the blood loss, concussion and new bruises were too much. He felt himself fading away, until suddenly, the pressure was gone. He fell forward, rubbing his bruised neck, and saw a hint of blond hair. "Chris..." His voice was hoarse.

Chris came into the clearing and didn't waste any time. He didn't risk a shot in the dark, not wanting to hit Ryan. Plus, he wanted to feel Fowler beneath his hands. He needed to drive the monster into Hell with his fists. Like a well honed machine, he beat the enemy with a driving combination of brutal fists. A murderous growl escaped his tense lips with each blow. Fowler's face looked like hamburger, blood steaming from his broken nose and split lip.

Both predators were panting heavily, each injured and feeling the effects of their wounds. Chris swiped at the blood running down his face and grinned ferally. He saw Fowler hesitate and waved his hand.

"Bring it..." he snarled, as the other man leapt. Instead of dodging the body, he laid his right forearm over his left and shoved forward hard, like a human battering ram. He drove the animal back hard, the motion sending his own body to the ground. He rose again, staggered and nearly fell. He felt the warm flow of satisfaction coursing through his veins. The body was a few feet away. He last brutal move had driven the metal-handed felon into a twisted, wizened up arms of a fallen tree. He was dazed and trying to rise, the metal fingers gripping a heavy rock. Chris didn't give him the opportunity. He shot the wrist, sending the metal hand skittering away. He took his boot and placed it on the other's shoulder.

"No!" Cletus Fowler felt the sharp spike-like object pressing into his back. "Don't..."

"You're not a man," Larabee repelled, "You're not even a worm..." He shoved his foot hard, sending the wounded man through a rising, jagged-edged tree limb. "Rot in Hell you yellow, son-of-a-bitch!" He growled, driving the body backward. Fowler was offered up, like a twisted appetizer, skewered to the fallen tree. His slimy entrails were sliding through, the agony on the twisted face reflected the intensity of the pain.

Turning away as his digust rose like a molten flow of lava, the wounded leader dropped to his knees and vomited. All the rage and bile that had built up since his family's death, exploded. Flashing images of their charred remains caused his head to split in half. Vin. Vin needed him. He pushed his warring feelings aside, his mission wasn't over. He was on his knees, trying to rise, when a shout broke the stillness.

"Chris!"

He dove at the call and flattened himself, just as a bullet creased his leg. Without that warning, the shot might have killed him. Rolling and grabbing for his own weapon, he returned fire.

"Shit!" He felt the blood rushing from the meaty part of his thigh and raked his eyes across the night. Ryan was battling with Geoff Trent. Chris rose and hissed again, his leg nearly giving way. He fired again, but his gun was empty. He tucked in his waistband and staggered over to where he heard the grunts of blows hitting flesh. The silver moon was painting an alluring picture on the river. He saw Trent hit Ryan hard. The Irishman's head snapped back and he sagged, but not before grabbing his opponent. They both disappeared over the slippery edge of the raging river. "No!" He propelled himself forward, ignoring the burning pain in his leg , the throbbing head and the searing tenderness in his arm.

"Ryan!" He hollered, dropping down over the short, cluster of rocks. "Gimme your hand!"

He wanted to grab that hand. It was only a few feet above him. He tried to move, but he couldn't. He chest wounds had opened, the blows from the two fights had staggered him. He couldn't seem to open his eyes. The concussion was pulling them closed, luring him to sleep. It would be so easy to let go. Then her face appeared in the dark swirls of the cloak that pulled him down. A beautiful face, two amethyst eyes and a cap of curly black hair.

"Cait...lin..." he whispered, feeling his body fight back. "Cait..." he moved his leaden limbs. Inch by inch, following Larabee's voice. Over the slimy bank and rocky edges, he fought forward, until at last , he felt flesh beneath his hands.

"Come on, McKenna, haul ass. I can't pull up... fight dammit... I'm not letting that little girl lose another father." Chris ordered and felt the tension lessen. Finally, Ryan's shoulders appeared and with one tug, both went sprawling on the bank. For several seconds, they lay side by side, neither having the strength to move. Two battered, broken, bleeding and bashed warriors, gasping and fighting for air.

"I... think... I... owe... you... a... beer..." Ryan coughed, rolling and sitting up.

"I think... I owe... you a... lot... more... than that..." Chris returned, taking the hand offered and sitting up. "You McKenna's are pretty handy at saving Larabee hide. I'm grateful." He got to his feet, trying to shake off the terrible dizziness that plagued him. He staggered a bit, then brought his head up, as something grabbed his ankle. "Fuck!" He fell forward, as a strong hand yanked his injured leg.

"Down!" Ryan ordered, lifting a rock and slamming it on Geoff's Trent's wrist. It snapped like a twig. He pulled Chris free and got him to his feet.

Geoff Trent's first objective had been to kill McKenna and Larabee. But now his priorities changed. When he had fallen into the water with McKenna, he heard the distinct sound of a large tail slapping the water. He didn't have to turn around, he knew the beast was behind him. The harder he fought, the more he slipped. The water lapped at his chest and he groped again, seeking a firm hold.

They each rose a foot at the same time, slamming them down on the fingers. The body slid and they watched with vengence in their eyes, as a fifteen foot Alligator clamped the screaming killer in it's power jaws. Blood gurgled from his open mouth, as the beast went back under the water, taking it's still breathing, prize meal to murky grave.

"It's over." Ryan said, strangely enough, feeling cold inside.

"Not yet, Bates has Vin... I'm going after him."

"Chris..." Ryan offered, his voice full of the pain of loss, "It doesn't feel like I imagined. I thought..."

"Yeah," the other replied, gripping the downcast shoulder, "I know," he appraised of the icy fingers stroking his own insides. "But they got what they deserved... to rot in Hell." Later there would be time to mourn and bury the final pieces of the tragic events that joined them. But now, he had to heed the call.

"Be a shame to break up this team now," Ryan eyed his new friend and saw the damp blond head nod. "Let's go partner..." He clapped the ATF man's back and followed him up the path.

Finally, the hour had come, and not a minute too soon. He felt the blond one growing closer and wasted no time. He crushed the sacred herbs, bones, feathers and oil and set it aflame. He ran the blade of the knife through the rising orange heat. He felt the hair on his neck stand up and knew the other was nearby.

"You will not stop me, Larabee!" he warned, marking Tanner's chest with goat's blood and watching the lamb's blue eyes open.

"...ris..." Vin whispered, hearing the name called out. Through the raging fever, ravishing his body and the smothering pain in his chest, he saw the blurry form above him. "...the hell... goin'... on..." Then he saw the knife and heard the chanting. His heart began to pound and he tried to move, but his body was too weak. Just beyond his captor's shoulder was the face that he sought. Was it a dream? He clenched his eyes shut and opened them again. No, he was real. He drew his waning strength up and moved his hand, sending the flaming bowl of cermonial offerings to the ground

"No!" Boudin hollered, taking his concentration off the lamb for a scant few seconds. He bent over to pick up the bowl, needing the ashes for the final part, to mark the lamb's chest.

"Now!" Chris whispered to Ryan, and they moved in unison, "I'll go high..."

Ryan nodded and went low, taking out the large man's knees. Chris drove hard into his midsection. The effort sent all three to the ground. Chris broke free, jumping up to check if his best friend was still alive.

Ryan couldn't move, the dark hand swept across the plain in front of his eyes and he was paralyzed. A bitter and foul smelling dust setting over his face. He could breathe and see, but couldn't move. He heard the evil laughter, as the other man rose. He couldn't even warn Chris, he could utter no sounds. Sweat and blood ran down his face, as he fought the invisible bonds.

"Vin?" Chris lifted the dangerously ill Texan, who was fighting for every breath. "Jesus, Tanner, you got another hole in that sorry hide of yours," he eyed the messy wound.

"S...s...orry..." Vin managed, his thick tongue sticking to his mouth. He let his head drop on Chris's shoulder, sighing heavily as his chest seem to have a crushing weight.

Chris felt a strange pain between his shoulder blades. It was as if an invisible hand was entering his back and running icy fingers along his internal organs. His eyes widened in panic, he never experienced a sensation like this. Then he remembered the pouch and with a Herculean forced move, he slide sideways, letting the long cord of the pouch fall over both of them. He gripped hard, letting their blood mix and run into the open pouch. A hissing sound was followed by a heat building up. He could feel the pouch growing hotter, as it nestled against both of them. He heard Bates cry out and shield his eyes. It was working. Then he saw the knife and tried to move, but stumbled, his wounded leg was numb and unable to support him. He fell over Vin's upper body, trying to protect that which the evil man sought. His tense muscles prepared for a blow that never came. His body jerked on instinct, as a half dozen shots rang out.

"Chris! You okay?"

"Nathan?" He wheezed, suddenly feeling all his injuries screaming in unison. He felt a set of strong arms pull him up and eyed his team, every set of eyes gleaming with a strange mix of euphoria and fear. The moan from the man still in a death grip in his fingers, drew him back, "Vin, Vin..."

"Easy Brother," Josiah helped Ryan McKenna sit up. The confused eyes weren't fully focused and his face was battered. One eye was swollen, a cut over the other one was bleeding freely and his shirt was soaked. "There's help on the way."

"ETA?" Standish inquired, moving to offer the fallen hero a drink from his flask.

"Three minutes," Novelli called back, "Larabee, talk to me, where's Trent?" He frowned when Ryan McKenna snorted and shook his dark head.

"Playin' the devil's fiddle," the Irishman spat back, echoing an old expression of his grandfather's. "Fowler's back in the woods, you can't miss him... Trent feedin' a fifteen foot 'gator."

"I'll wait for the chopper," the detective said, "Hollywood, what Crackerjack box did that fall out of?" He eyed the small gun in the other's hand.

"It's not the size that counts," The gambler returned.

"That's not what Buck says," J.D. spouted, flipping out his phone. "and he is the expert on women."

"I was referring to my weapon," Standish spat back.

"Yeah, so was I!" Dunne teased, updating his best friend.

"Vin, can you hear me?" Chris tapped the fevered man's face. The long hair was soaked in sweat, clinging to the wet face like a cap. He saw the brows furrow and the pale lips moving. "Come on, Tanner, get your eyes open!"

"Chris, let me at him!" Nathan eased the anxious man back. "You get shot again?" He eyed the bloodied thigh. "Sit down, I'll..."

"Chris... there...." Vin licked his bloodied lips, drawing his good eye open. A hand fumbled and flopped, seeking and searching.

"Right here, Vin," he replied, grapping the weak hand.

"Need t'tell ya... need... rrrisss?...can't see... ya... there?" He blinked, seeing blurry images and hearing buzzing sounds.

"I'm not leaving you, Cowboy," Chris pressed his mouth close to the fallen man's ear. He saw the tongue snake out again, as the mouth worked, trying to talk. "Don't, Vin. Save your strength. We got 'em Vin, sent both them bastards screaming into Hell... Bates too. You just hold on, there's a chopper coming."

"...listen... gotta tell... tell... ya..."

"You can tell me later," he lifted his head, "Where's that fuckin' helicopter?"

"...quit... barkin'... " Vin scowled, leting his weakening attention settle on his best friend's face. He couldn't feel Chris's hand, but he knew the other held it. "...listen... me... now..."

"No," Larabee interrupted, his body draped in a cloak of denial. Not after all they'd gone through; Vin Tanner wouldn't die in his arms. No fucking way.

"Let him talk, Chris," Ezra advised gently, seeing the unnatural sight of fear in the green eyes of the stricken leader.

"Ezra's right," Nathan urged, putting pressure on the bleeding wound in Vin's side. "Leave him have his peace Chris. You ain't got the right to take that away from him."

"...ya give me... more'n... I can... give back... want... ya... know... Ch...ris... Lar...a...bee..." He was fighting now, his bright eye wide with fear. Every breath was like fighting through a brick wall. "...helluva ride... weren't long..'nuf... ya took me away... Cowboy... high above the eagle's call... I touched the stars... felt the sun... thank..."

"Vin?" Chris blanched when the rattling sigh-like breath eased through the parted, pale lips.

Vin fought hard, feeling a scary coldness settle into his heavy body. "...m'cold... Chris... s'cold..."

"No, it's not cold... dammit Vin... don't you fuckin' die on me!"

"Oh God!" He screamed as the air died, his panicked body began to heave. His face turned, seeking one set of blurry green eyes. "Chris..."

The name spilled out along with a stream of blood, pouring over the lips, down onto his chin and his best friend's hand.

"Vin?" Chris whispered, as the head lolled and the body sagged, "Aw, Christ... not like this..." He shook the slim man, then pulled him into an embrace, trying to quell the cripping pain in his own chest. "Noooooo!"

Part Twenty

Numb. No, not totally numb, pins and needles pricked every inch of his skin. His own injuries faded into obscurity. His arms were trembling so badly, he nearly dropped the precious cargo he held. His stunned eyes were trained on the crimson liquid running over his hands. Somewhere, above and around him, a loud group of buzzing sounds hovered. The world faded away, the only thing he saw was that blood and the red-tinged lips it spilled from, parted over the slack jaw.

"Chris, let me at him... Chris?" Nathan Jackson moved in front of the shell-shocked team leader and waved his hand in the field of dazed green vision. "Chris? Josiah, give me hand."

"They're here!" J.D. hollered, watching the helicopter land on the dusty road several yards from the shambles.

"Come on, Chris, let the medics see to Vin." The eldest tried to pry the locked arms from around the injured sniper, but they wouldn't yield. "Nathan?" He saw the strong, dark fingers laying on Vin Tanner's neck.

"It's weak, but he's still alive. He must have punctured a lung."

"What do we got?" Steve Kenney asked, dropping his equipment next to an unconscious, battered and bloodied victim. "Sir, I need you to step away now. Sir?"

"Chris!" Nathan said loudly and clapped his hands hard, causing the smaller man to jump. "Let 'em tend to Vin. I'll see to you and Ryan." He turned to the emergency medics who just arrived. "I'm an EMT in Denver, I'll take a look at these two, they're not serious. He's Vin Tanner," He nodded his dark head, "Twenty-seven, no allergies and hypoglycemic. He was kidnapped and tortured. Cuts, minor burns and bruises, his left wrist is broken and he's been shot. He probably has a concussion as well. He threw up blood and he's breathing is shallow. I think that bullet popped his right lung."

"Thanks, Mister..." Jack Swider, at forty-three, the elder and senior member of the team arrived.

"Nathan Jackson, ATF Denver. We work together." He paused, "Oh, Vin's AB negative. Come on, Chris,"

Not since losing his wife in a unspeakable act of terrorism, had Chris Larabee's soul be ravaged so severely. The uncontrollable trembling in his arms was a sign of the vunerability he now felt. Although he'd never spoken the words aloud, he'd made a vow a long time ago to protect Vin Tanner. Now, he had to entrust the younger man's life to strangers. Perhaps they could mend the torn flesh and marred bones, but no one could heal the Texan's soul. That was his job and he damn well wasn't giving it up. Before he let himself be led away, he pressed his mouth close to the unconscious sniper's ear.

"Fight like hell, Cowboy."

Nathan got Chris away from the quick moving medical team. No sooner had the stricken blond vacated the area, the older medic took charge.Jackson led the shaken team leader to the clearing and checked his injuries. Josiah was using first aid kit to clean Ryan's new cuts and putting a pressure bandage on the re-opened wound on his side. He sat Chris down and made eye contact with his closest friend. He got out he wound cleansing agent and bandages , while his eyes kept straying to where the Texan lie stricken.

"Go on, Brother, I got this," Sanchez relayed, as Ezra moved in to assist.

"Where's J.D.?"

"He went with Novelli to take Caitlin to Grace." the preacher noted, cleaning the last of the unconscious Irishman's wounds. "He's okay, just passed out," he answered the question in the healer's eyes.

"It's a bad graze," Chris hissed with a feral grimace, as Ezra Standish used a pair of scissors in the kit to cut the denim cloth from around the well-honed thigh of the leader.

"His arm is bleeding..." the Southerner moved aside to let the older man rip open a package of bandages.

Nathan jogged back over to where the two medics were working on Vin Tanner. His clothes had been cut away and the two medics were moving with rapid precision. The senior paramedic had contacted the trauma center on the radio by the patient's head. His younger partner was taking the victim's vital signs.

"Whose cuttin' today, Dana?" Jack asked on the open line to the hospital.

"Jeff Roman, Jack." She noted the surgeon on call, picking up a clipboard, "Whaddya got?"

"Three victims, two walking, one critical. He's a caucasian male, twenty-seven, hypoglycemic with no known allergies. He's a mess..." He frowned, doing a quick assessment of the victim, before rolling him back onto his back.

"I got no air sounds, Jack!" Steve relayed, listening to the right side of the injure man's chest and handing a slip of paper to the older man.

"Pulse is 120 and rapid, BP is 80 over 50 and falling, respirations are 28 and extremely labored," Swider read off the information. "He's covered in lacerations and severe bruising, extreme in lower back, could be his kidneys are involved. Also, he's got a fractured left wrist and negative air in the right pleural cavity, from a gunshot wound, no exit. He's shocky and losing blood." He took the gage out of the man's ear and frowned, "he's hypothermic, temp is 95. We were advised by a friend, also an EMT, that he's AB negative. We got O negative with us on the bus, I'm gonna give him some."

"We're gonna tube him and put in an IV with saline, wide open." Steve hollered, inserting a small needle carrying a plastic catheter in Vin's arm. He withdrew the needle, then inserted the line carrying Saline solution. "Get the OR crew ready... our ETA's seven minutes."

"Hemothorax suspected," Jack updated, strapping the body onto the gurney. "Get the Ambubag," he advised his partner. "I'll get the tube in." He tilted the patient's head back and used a small, metal instrument with a light on the end. His veteran fingers quickly moved the tool past the mouth and down the throat. He skillfully lifted the dormant epiglottis, a cartilage lying behind the tongue and in front of the vocal cords. This allowed the tube to be eased into the trachea. "Okay, Kid, get those fingers working," he barked, attaching the bag to the tube. His partner would pump the bag every ten seconds, giving the critical man air, until the tube was attached to a respirator. He lowered his stethescope and listened, insuring that the tube was in place correctly. "Let's go!"

"Hemo... what..." Chris rose, allowing Josiah to assist him into the helicopter.

"Hemothorax," Ezra stated, staying by the unconscious ex-NFL star, while a second gurney appeared. He moved aside as Josiah and the older paramedic lifted McKenna and strapped him down.. "... roughly translated, they suspect the bullet pierced his lung and it's filling with blood. If they don't put a tube in his chest to relieve the pressure, he could drown in his own blood."

"Jesus!" Chris whispered, raising his arm painfully to allow a belt to be placed around him. "Ryan?"

"Vitals are good!" Nathan concluded of his quick check. "We're you taken' 'em?"

"Baton Rouge County General..." Swider replied, squatting to assess the shocked blond man. "Let's move, Ted!" he barked at the pilot.

"Keep the faith, Brother," Sanchez said to Chris, raising a clenched fist as Nathan Jackson shut the side of the vehicle.

"I hope to hell you got good connections with the Man," Nathan said, watcing the chopper move across the night sky. "'cause that boy needs a miracle."

"Could be the right night for a miracle," Josiah said, his fingers going to the rosary beads in his pocket. He followed his two friends back to the boat.

"Grace!" Caitlin dropped to her knees and hugged the sleepy child. She sobbed and rocked, before gripping the tiny face in both hands and kissing her dirty cheek.

"Mommy," the frightened girl cried, hiccuping and coughing. "A bad man came and he took me and he hurted Vin and... and... and... Vin saved me... and... and... then... a... big dark monster man... he... shotted him... and... and... I was... so... scared... and..."

"Shh!" Caitlin lifted her, kissing the tear-streaked face, "I know, baby, it's okay now. Nobody's gonna hurt you again, Mommy's got you."

"...and Buck's got you..." the tall agent moved in, seeing the woman sway. He held both McKenna's, nearly feeling the relief radiating off the concerned mother.

"Oh God... thank God..." Caitlin murmured in the tangled black curls, eyes full of tears.

"I'm awful thirsty, Mommy, you got any blue juice?"

"No, baby, but when we get home you can have all you want!" Cait sobbed, vowing never to let the precious child from her arms again. To come so close to losing her... she shut her eyes and pushed the thought away. She relaxed in the strong arms that held her, glad for the support.

"You okay?" Novelli asked, walking up to where Buck stood. Behind the ATF man were two state troopers and their vehicles. One approached the trio and handed a bottle of water to the very shaken mother.

"Yeah, did you find them?" Buck answered, watching J.D.'s dark head pressed to his cell phone. "Well?" He saw the youth's face grimace in annoyance and one hand came up, signaling a pause.

"Trent's gator food, Bates has a half-dozen holes in him and Fowler is speared to a tree."

"Good," Buck hissed, holding the shaking widow. "They didn't suffer long enough... I hope they rot in Hell. Vin?"

"Larabee and McKenna are busted up a little... that kid, well, he looked bad."

"J.D." Buck's voice was hopeful, even though his heart was heavy.

"Okay, Nate, thanks, we'll wait for you." He put his phone back on the belt clip and eyed his partner. "They're taking them to County General in Baton Rouge. Vin's not good... the bullet popped his lung and it's filling with blood. By now," he eyed his watch, "they should be landing on the roof of the hospital. They need to get a chest tube in and drain his lung..."

"Or?" Buck waited, eyeing the pale face of the younger man

"Or Vin will drown in his own blood."

"Aw, hell," Buck whispered, his chest tightening.

"Come on," a tall trooper walked up to the pair. "I'll give you a ride."

"You go ahead, Darlin'," Buck kissed the pretty woman's cheek and ruffled the moppet's curls. "You take this brave little angel and find that man of yours. I think he needs a hug right about now."

"Where you going?" Novelli asked, seeing the pain in the other man's eyes. "You okay?"

"No," Buck's eyes went to the horizon, the wind lifted his hair. "I won't be... none of us will... until Vin's okay. Here Kid," he tossed the keys to his car at the youth, "You're driving, my head's about to fall off." He winced and rubbed the knot on the back. "We're gonna back to New Orleans."

"Why? Vin's not there..."

"No, he's gonna be in surgery for hours. Nate and the others will be there for Chris and him." He eased his large frame in to the passenger side of the car and sighed, rubbing his eyes.

"Buck you're not making any sense!" Dunne protested.

"There's somebody in New Orleans whose all alone and worried sick about Vin. She needs to see him and he needs to hear her." He sighed, "We'll get Chris and Vin's things checked out of the hotel they were in. Then we'll get Doctor Gabrielle Marquette and head to Baton Rouge County General."

"Go on, Son," Novelli patted J.D.'s shoulder. "I'm gonna wait for the lab and make sure they don't miss anything. You have the pretty doctor take a look at his head, okay?"

"Hah," Dunne snorted, opening the driver's side door. "He's lucky it's only his head that was affected, not his brains. It's a rare thing to be able to pee through your brains."

"I heard that!" Buck groused, "Just get your ass in here, J.D. and don't touch the radio. My head's splitting in half now. I don't need that heavy-metal shit to make it worse."

"Geezers," the youth sighed, turning the motor over, "Can't live with 'em, can't kill 'em."

While a trauma team surrounded the young male, cleaning his wounds and beginning life saving treament, he was limp and unaware. His slack features were as pale as the sheet beneath him, now stained with his blood. The grime and filth were cleaned off and wounds were dressed. A second IV line was started with a dopamine drip and a new unit of blood was hung on a pole by his side. The head of the team, set to work immediately, realizing that they had just minutes to spare. This young man was close to dying.

"I'm in," Dr. Lauren Hollis announced, completing the gory procedure. After cutting a hole in the chest wall and dissecting through the muscle, she placed the plastic tube into the pleural space. Then she connected it to a large plastic container, laced with blue liquid and wall suction, to remove air and fluid from the damaged area. Immediately, bright red liquid poured through the tub, filling the container. "Terry, get that to the lab, type and cross-match!" She ordered the nurse drawing blood. "Dave, get that portable unit over him and take some pictures, so we can see what we have. How's his BP?"

"80 over 40, his pulse is racing, just over 130..." Terry announced, before leaving for the lab.

"Are they ready upstairs?" Doctor Hollis asked of the operating team that had been assembled.

"Yeah," Dave Kauffman replied, watching the vital signs from the pulse oximeter attached to the patient's index finger. He completed a complete set of xrays, eager to get pictures of the problem areas to the doctor.

"They have their work cut out for them," the doctor replied, eyeing the pictures from the xray machine, "There it is!" She pointed to the bullet, lodged in his scapula. "...it got his lung and nicked his clavicle on the way there." She noted of the right lung and shoulder area.

"His left lung is full of fluid, looks like he's got pneumonia," Chris Elliot, the medical resident assessed, stopping by the cubicle. "He's lucky if he makes it through surgery. His kidney's are bruised..."

"Is Escort here?" Doctor Hollis asked, takiing the patient's temperature. "Good," she nodded at the young man. "Get him up to OR 2," she moved away, writing notes and heading to the phone. "Mary?" she spoke into the phone to the head of the ICU, giving her the victim's name and his report. "He's hypothermic, get some warming blankets and make sure the IV's go in warm. I want his vitals checked constantly, and he'll need a central line put in, I think Vic Richardson is on call today, " She noted of the vascular surgeon. "I'm ordering a CT Scan as soon as he's out of surgery and his left wrist needs xrays, it's fractured. The minor wounds can be cleaned and dressed... I'll check in with you later."

Why was it that pacing seemed to be the universal response to worry? It didn't help. The same neutral walls and well-buffed floors met her aqua eyes. She sighed, rubbed her eyes and stared at the clock. It was four a.m. and the ER was finally thinning out. She was off duty at 3, but stayed to help with the extra patients. She replaced the chart in the slot on the gurney and nodded to the x-ray tech, who wheeled the patient towards the elevator.

Three hours seemed like forever. One-hundred and eighty minutes seemed like forever. She'd been stitching up an automobile accident victim, when her beeper sounded. Upon plugging in the numbers, she got Caitlin McKenna. The news was bittersweet. Grace was safe and being checked over by a resident at a Baton Rouge hospital. Ryan was being kept for twenty-four hours for observation and Chris Larabee was being admitted as well. Then the huge pause, the nine-months pregnant kind.

"He's dead, isn't he?" She'd stated to her closest friend in a dull, flat voice.

But he wasn't, dead, at least not yet. Caitlin didn't know much, just the Vin Tanner was in bad shape and a bullet pierced his lung. An hour later Nathan Jackson called. After putting a chest tube in to drain out the blood, he'd been taken to surgery.

In a way, she was glad the ER was crowded tonight, it kept her mind off the smiling blue eyes that she saw constantely. She heard that wonderful drawl and felt that magnificent kiss. She thought of the shy smile from the man in her garden, reflecting on the boy he'd left behind. She sighed, eyed the clock and headed for the water fountain.

"Doctor Marquette?"

"Yes, Jenny?" She turned, as a nurse called to her.

"Someone's here to see you."

She moved through the large circular Emergency room, past the muttering man with DT's and the heart attack patient. She eyed the small set of windows over the entry doors and her heart skipped. She saw the mustache first and then the profile. His eyes were full of pain and he had an ice pack on the back of his head.

"Buck!"

"Easy now," The tall agent dropped the soggy bag and gathered the shaken woman in close. "He's holding his own. I just spoke to Nathan afer J.D. dropped me off. The bullet hit his clavicle, tore up his lung and landed in the scapula. Sounds Greek to me..."

"It's bad." She sighed, rubbing her eyes again. "There's so many arteries in there... he could bleed to dea..."

"Shhh!" Buck placed his finger over her worried lips. "That boy's a Tanner, no lowlife like Bates can take him out. You got my word on that."

"Nathan said you were hurt." Her skilled fingers found the lump on the back of his head and he hissed and pulled away. "Where's your friend?"

"The Kid went to Sauville House to get Vin and Chris checked out. We're gonna stow their things at your place for awhile. Then he's picking up Seamus later and heading back to Baton Rouge. When are you off duty? What's your schedule like?"

"I'm off for the next two days and my shift ended forty-five minutes ago. We'll leave as soon as we get some pictures of that hard head of yours."

"I'm okay, Gabrielle,"

"How about if I don't tell you about arsonists and you don't tell me about medicine?"

"Ouch!" Buck winced playfully at the soft scolding, following her into the ER.

An hour later, after a CT Scan ruled out anything serious and after she'd gotten the tired man a platter of food and some coffee, they were in the parking lot. The dark sky turned to deep blue, a sure sign that dawn was coming. She paused outside the passenger door, after the tall man eased his aching body inside. She knew he was feeling the after effects of a concussion. He could have been taken to the ER in Baton Rouge. He could have been resting all these hours. He'd pushed himself over the edge for her. She smiled and cupped his chin, letting her pretty face flush.

"Thank you," she bent down and kissed his cheek, "I think your middle name must be Lancelot.

"Lancelot?" Buck grinned, "Wasn't he the one fooling around with the King's wife? Yeah, could be we're related!" He saw the gratitude shining from those beautiful eyes and took the small hand in his own. "You're welcome, Darlin', it was worth the trip. I'd have walked back for that smile." His own grin faded , when he saw a pale image of Vin Tanner. "That boy's gonna need you and I'm gonna make sure he gets whatever he needs."

"He's lucky to have a friend like you, everybody should have a Buck Wilmington in their life." She shut the door and made her way to the driver's side, not hearing him chuckle and commiserate.

"Lucky," he muttered, shaking his head. "That boy sleeps in shit... What's that raggedy-ass Texan got that I don't?" He smiled wanely, thinking of the phone call from Chris that spoke of their Texan being smitten. He saw that long-haired face then, eyes blue with devilish light and that winning smile. "I stand corrected..."

"Did you say something?" She asked, slipping inside and turning the motor on.

"Just thinkin' about that... uh... Vin." He eased his throbbing head back on the headrest and shut his eyes, after clamping the seat belt.

"Me too..." She sighed, feeling a shiver.

"It's been five hours!" The patient growled, slapping away the hand on his shoulder. They said to rest, pushing IV's in his arm and fussed with him. The fluids could only do so much, what he needed to heal wasn't in a bottle. It was the brave body fighting for his life in the operating room. Until he knew Vin was going to pull through, they could all go to Hell. "Get away from me!"

"Get back in that bed, Chris," Nathan Jackson crossed his arms acorss his chest and let every inch of his six foot five frame stand tall. "You're not getting up."

"I'm goin' to the bathroom," he stood on his good leg and gently lowered the injured one. One gentle, but firm, push had him on his butt on the bed again.

"Bedpan or urinal?" the medic inquired, making it clear he was the wall of resolve. The hot green eyes flashed and the fists balled, one grabbing the sheet. "No," he answered the silent string of curses. "You can shoot them eyes all you want, you ain't leavin' this bed. You got two IV's in you and a fever. Bedpan or urinal?" He repeated, getting a chuckle from the man in the other bed.

"Shut up, McKenna!" Larabee sassed at the grinning, battered face across the room.

They were alone. Josiah and Ezra went to get something to eat. Caitlin was with Grace in the pediatric unit. The little girl was scratched up and dehydrated, she was being kept for observation and resting.

"Give me the fuckin' thing already and wipe that shit-eating grin off your face, Nathan" The leader warned, pointing to a rose colored urinal. He grabbed it and flashed in anger again. "It's been five goddamn hours, go find out how Vin is..."

Nathan left and went to the nurse's desk. He waited, tapped his fingers and eyed the clock on the wall. It was almost six-thirty. It had been one of the longest nights of his life. He was tired and grubby. As much as a hot shower, hot food and a long nap would feel good, it wouldn't fill the need. They were more than a seven man team, they were a family. When one man went down, they all suffered.

"Sir?"

"I'm sorry." He blinked, scrubbed a hand across his worn features and eyed the nurse.

"They're almost done. I've instruced Doctor Roman to come to Mister Larabee's room. You might want to get your other friends."

"Thanks!"

A half hour later, with Josiah and Ezra sitting on stiff, plastic chairs near the closet on the sideof the room, the door opened. Five heads spun, ten sets of eyes bearing down on the newcomer.

"Shit, it's only you," Chris lamanted, getting a mock face of ire from his oldest friend.

"Mornin' to you to, Pard," Buck Wilmington entered the room, nodding to his friends "How you doing?" He asked both patients. Chris glared and turned away, Ryan nodded politely.

"I'm okay, Buck. Thanks for taking care of Grace."

"I'll tell you what," Buck said, easing his body into the room. "That little girl's is one gutsy little lady."

"She's a McKenna!" Ryan beamed, thinking of the precious tot who held the key to this heart.

"She's her mother's daughter!"

The Irishman's dark head lifted, hearing a soft voice. He smiled when the slim woman found her way to the bed. He reached up to embrace her, when she bent down to hug him.

"Hey, Doc!" He greeted Gabrielle Marquette. "He's gonna be fine..."

"I hope so Ryan," She whispered, gripping his hand and then leaving for the other patient's bed. She saw the raw fear there, in those strong green eyes. It was reaffirmed in the clenched jaw and iron-willed fist. She remembered the man she met that first night and thought on the bond she'd seen thereafter, between him and Vin Tanner. She gripped the rail and cocked her head, brushing the stray locks of his blond hair.

"He's made it through surgery," Chris whispered, making eye contact with the beautiful physician. "That's good, right?"

"Right," she affirmed, hoping to convince herself as well. "We won't let him die, Chris. We'll fight for him. Partners?"

"Deal," Chris managed, sighing heavily and gripping her hand. They both turned as the door opened and a tired young surgeon walked in. His dark eyes were rimmed in fatigue and his black hair was damp and curling at his color.

"I'm Jeff Roman, I left your friend in the recovery room..."

"Is he gonna live?" Chris blurted, staring daggers at the doctor.

"I don't know, I hope so. He's critical. The bullet bounced off his clavicle, clipped the right upper lung and landed in his scapula." He saw the confusion on some faces and clarified. "Shoulder blade. We'll keep it immobilized for about six weeks. It's going to be very painful and require extensive rehab. He's got a chest tube in, due to the internal bleeding and damage done to the right lung. That will be in for five days or so..."

"It hit an artery?"

"Subclavian, that's where all the bleeding came from," He replied to the pretty, pale-cocoa skinned woman.

"I'm Doctor Gabrielle Marquette of New Orleans. Mister Tanner was in my care when this happened. I called ahead and got staff privileges okayed." She replied.

"Okay, Doctor," he nodded. "We had to fix that torn artery first, that was critical. I had to clamp it , in order to fix it, that cut off circulation."

"What about his arm? Will his get full use back?" Gabrielle asked, knowing what that loss of circulation meant.

"I don't know, until he's in the thick of his therapy, that will be a mystery." He sighed, rubbed his neck and stretched. "He's hypothermic and he's got a concussion, we'll do a CT Scan this morning to rule out any other problems. He had some nasty brusing on his throat, we'll do some xrays to rule out any fractures. His wrists were torn up and raw, they'll be covered in a saline-soaked gauze and then a dry dressing for about five days or so. His upper torso, back and front, is riddled with cuts and abrasions, but none serious, just painful. They've been cleaned and treated. His right eye is swollen shut and discolored, the CT Scan will pick up any fractures. When he's stronger, the opthamologist will check that eye. Both kidneys were bruised and he's passing blood. We'll flush him with fluids and put him on a sodium bicarbonate drip for a few days to protect them. Also, sometime tomorrow he'll have an abdominal ultrasound done, so we can get a better picture of any hidden problems."

"Grace, the little girl he found, the kidnap victim," Nathan corrected, "She said Vin was sick... coughing a lot."

"He's got pneumonia," The surgeon stated, seeing the faces full of shock and pain. One face in particular was riddled with anxiety. The patient in the bed before him, a hot pair of hurting green eyes turned away, after exhaling painfully. He saw a single fist clenching the blankets and moved closer. "He'll be getting some good antibiotics for that and when he's stronger, he'll get some chest therapy."

"It would appear our fallen comrade has quite a fight ahead of him," Ezra broke the silence. "Thank you, Doctor, for saving his life," he moved to grip the hand, the others followed suit, except the two patients. The dark-haired man nodded, the pensive blond remained silent, but his face was somber, almost fearful. The green eyes met his and the head dipped slightly, sending a silent vote of gratitude.

"He did fight hard and I think that will make a big difference. Once he's through in recovery, he'll go to ICU. The next few days will be critical. "Visiting hours don't begin until noon, you'll have to leave, these two men need to rest and the nurses have work to do," he announced, watching them move towards the door.

"I'd like to see him," Gabrielle announced, gripping Chris's hand once and walking towards the door.

"Okay, Doc, follow me," the tired surgeon led the way to the elevator.

She stood in the doorway, feeling an invisible weight bag hit her, rocking her back on her heels. How many times had she been in a room similar to this, in an 'official' capacity? My God, when you're in the other shoes, it's a different story. She eyed the pale figure on the bed, so weak and so very frail. His wonderful, silky hair was dull and limp, tied back and behind him. Those strong arms that held her were now immobilized. Those fine features that she dreamed about were battered, bruised and discolored. The hiss of the respirator was keeping him breathing, through a tube down his throat. A jungle of plastic IV lines surrounded the bed as well. The lean, strong man she'd gotten to know was gone; a fragile, pale figure was lying corpse-like in his place. Finally, she moved, the floor felt like mud, but she got to the beside. She rested a hand against his cold skin and felt warm tears well in her eyes. Her lip quivered and she took several shuddering breaths, wiping the tears as they fell. She leaned down, kissed his cold cheek and rested her face against his, easing her lips over his ear.

"It's Brielle, Vin, I'm here, Baby. Chris and the others are close by. We're all fighting for you.." her voice quivered and she sighed, letting the salty tears run down her cheeks, dropping onto his stilled face. She brushed them away with a finger, before resting her face near his ear again. "I miss you... I need you... don't leave me... come back..."

Far beneath the dark abyss he was lost in, a spark of light appeared. It was distant and too far to reach, but it was a start. He felt a change in the cold void that gripped him with razor like talons. Something was calling to him. He wanted to follow, feeling a need, a deep urge to reach out. He didn't know what drove him, but the air was getting warmer and he could breathe again. He kept sight of that distant light and began to fight forward.

Part Twenty-One

Two Days Later, 9 a.m.

The fourth floor of the hospital was unusually quiet today. At the nurses station, two nurses were busy readying three patients for transfers. A doctor was on the phone with a colleague discussing the blocked arteries of a new arrival.

Meanwhile down the hall in room 416, two roommates prepared for very differnent days. One man hissed in distaste at the brown liquid masquarading as coffee and shoved the offensive mug away. He sighed in frustration, flinching as his wounded leg pulled. From within the bathroom, another man finished shaving, wiped his battered face with a towel and limped back into the room. He felt almost guilty, leaving his new friend behind. He knew how anxious he was to be with his still comatose partner.

"All set?" Chris set, eyeing the pale body within a dark blue jogging suit.

"Yeah, Cait and Seamus are on their way up. The house isn't far..." his voice trailed off.

"House?" Chris frowned, scratching his itchy hair, which was long overdue for shampoo. The last two days were a bit of a blur. The pain meds and fever had him sleeping most of the time. "You're not going home?"

"No way," Ryan limped to his bed and sat down, "The tangled up family tree roots, notwithstanding, you're family now, you and Vin both. Until he wakes up, we're staying close. Cait will be back this afternoon, as soon as we get settled. She's got a college friend who owns a real estate office here. She found us a rental, pulled some strings. Your other friends are moving in tonight too. I'd stay, but Brie put her foot down. I got a long lecture about rest and pills and relapses. You'd be surprised how much clout that size 8 foot has!"

Chris smiled and thought of the pretty doctor, "She's quite a lady..." he acknowledged. "Did she get any sleep last night?"

"Yeah, Cait forced her home about midnight. She came back this morning and relieved Josiah. She's worried..." He noted of the vigil Gabrielle had kept by Vin Tanner's side. The other members of the team took turns keeping her company in the ICU.

"She's not the only one," Chris commiserated, thinking of Vin Tanner's still form. He exhaled a long, shaky breath, thinking on the creole doctor's words. That despite all the tubes running into the slack body, and the respirator and chest tube, Vin's sedated state was not unusual. That once his body was ready, it would rouse and he'd wake up. He didn't feel the words penetrate his mind; he wanted to will those blue eyes to open, ready or not. " I wish he'd wake up..."

"I know," Ryan sympathized, eyeing the pain rimming the hollowed green eyes. Larabee's fever was one more thing nagging the frustrated agent. Also, the leader of Denver's finest ATF team had minor surgery the day before, to correct damage he'd one to his wounded arm during the fracas. Without any more unforseen complications, he'd be released the following day. He settled back in the chair to wait for his family to arrive. He glanced sideways and saw the pained eyes clenched shut. He spotted the open blinds, letting in the harsh sunlight. The warm, bright rays were trained right on Larabee's face. He rose stiffly, wincing as he limped slowly to the window and drew the blinds.

"Thanks..."

"Anytime, Partner!"

Chris didn't open his eyes, but smiled and extended his good hand, feeling the strong one grip it once.

"You ever decide to give up bartending... you call me," he offered, hearing a soft chuckle.

"I think I'll retire undefeated," Ryan tossed back of his brief crime-fighting stint, feeling every bit of the high praise, "Thanks, Chris."

He settled back in the chair, flipping through channels on the television, until ESPN came on. They were halfway through an interview with Kurt Warner, when the door opened. He put the 'mute' button on and dropped the remote, holding out his arms. He'd not seen her since before she was taken. The haunted image of Trent carrying her limp body from his home flashed into his subconscious. He shuddered, felt tears burning in his eyes and held the small girl close. She didn't say a word, but lifted her tiny face, kissing his cheek.

"All better?" She asked, kissing each 'boo-boo' carefully.

"Yeah..." he choked, hugging her and vowing never to let her go. "Hello Buttons..."

"Hello Uncle Wyun... I love you..."

"I love...." he paused, taking a deep breath and wiping his damp eyes. He kissed her tiny nose and caressed the glossy dark curls. "...you too, Sweetheart." He saw her peeking over his broad shoulder to the other bed.

"Is Mister Grizzly still sick?"

"He's got a fever and that IV bottle is bringing medicine into him, to make him better." He felt her slide off his lap. He watched as her head cocked and her face screwed up.

"Where's your mother?"

"She's with Poppy, talking to the nurse and gettin' your 'structions..."

"Go on, it's okay," he encouraged, giving her a little push. He smiled as she climbed on the chair, leaning over the rail and inspecting the damaged body carefully. He went back into the bathroom, realizing his watch was missing.

Chris was vaguely aware someone was in the room, the painkillers left him stuperous at times. He welcomed the cool shade the lack of light brought. He was wading through more troubled images of life without Vin, when a tiny pressure hit his cheek. He peeled an eye open and saw the small, pretty face.

"You got too many boo-boos, I can't get to all of 'em," Grace defended, "So that'll have to do it."

"Thanks," he grunted, wondering how traumatized the horrid event left her. He'd like to dig up Trent and beat the hell out of him for doing that to her.

"Miss Emily..." she wavered, holding up her beloved doll. Her chin quivered and she took several breaths, letting her large voilet eyes wander around the room. Finally, as the large hand came through the rail and took her small one, she got her words back. "...Miss... Emily... wanted to... say... she... she... thinks you and Vin are the... bravest... men... she... ever... saw. She... Miss Emily... was awful scared and you... and Vin kept her safe. She wanted to... to... say thank..."

The tears came then and Chris felt a parental rage, dormant but never dead, rise up and strike out. His anger hit the boiling point and he lifted his hand, using a finger to wipe the lone tear that ran down the rosy cheek. He ran his hand through her curls and stroked the side of her cheek.

"You tell Miss Emily, I think she's a hero... she saved both Vin and me out there."

"She was... scared... she... the gun..."

"I know, Honey," he hushed, tilting her chin up to meet his gaze. "I was scared too. It's okay to talk about being scared. You tell your mother, your Poppy or Uncle Ryan whenever you get scared. It'll help that pain go away."

"You weren't scared..."

"Sure I was," he coached, watching her eyes widened in amazement. "When I get scared, I talk to Vin or Buck or..."

"...I keep seeing him... when I sleep..." She whispered, her chest constricting.

Chris bit his lip and tried not to let his anger show. That bastard was dead and still torturing this innocent child.

"Me too," he admitted, "but that'll go away. You got a lot of people who care about you. It's okay to tell them when you're frightened. Okay?" He saw her mulling over his words and then the tiny head nodded. "Good!"

Just then the door opened, and Caitlin and Seamus came inside.

"Ye look like ten miles of bad road, Lad!"

"Thanks Seamus," Chris grunted, nodding to the elderly man.

"Honey, Chris needs to rest..."

"It's okay, Caitlin, we were helping each other get better, right?"

"Right!" she nodded, hearing the toilet flush. "Don't forget to put the seat down!" Her face scrunched up when all of the adults chuckled. Sometimes she didn't understand grownups at all. She went to climb down from the chair, as her mother moved to assist.

"Hold it, Grace, Miss Emily is caught in the rail," Cait warned, trying to pry the antique doll's leg free.

"You broke her!" the unsteady child accused, hearing a tearing sound.

"It's only a seam, Sweetie, I can fix it..." Cait mused, peering underneath the doll's dress.

"Wait a minute, Cait, let me see that," Chris held out his good arm, lying the doll on his blanketed lap, he carefully moved his finger towards the slit. "I won't hurt her," he waited until Grace's head bobbed to proceed. "There's something hidden inside..." he felt around. "It's a velvet cloth... it's got something inside..." His hand froze, recalling Grace's story to him of how she got the doll. His head rose, meeting Ryan's gaze, then Cait's. "Did she tell you how she got the doll?"

"Well," Caitlin paused, "She said a pretty lady gave it to her..."

"Isabella," Chris filled in and saw them both nod.

"She's a creative child, she's always making up stories..."

"Not this time," Chris defended of the suddenly silent child. "It could be important."

"Grace," she turned the small girl towards her and eyed the worried face. "I promise I'll fix Miss Emily as good as new. We can take her to that doll hospital we saw in town. But I need to cut her open.."

"No!" She shrieked, trying to grab the doll.

"It might help Vin get better," Chris supplied and saw the hands freeze. Slowly the small head eyed all of the adults, then the beloved doll.

"Good as new?" She asked, and saw her mother nod. "Can she get a new dress?"

"All the dresses she wants," Ryan replied.

"Okay," She reluctantly handed the antique over, turning her face and pressing into Ryan's chest.

"I know how hard that was, Grace and I'm proud of you," he soothed, rubbing her back.

"It's a pouch," Caitlin drew out the tiny green velvet bag. Opening the pursed top, she pulled out an antique key and a folded piece of paper. "My God... it's a map of the grounds... the maze... look there's a spot indicated near the family crypt... the side wall."

"The key to the journals!" Chris exclaimed, eyeing the map, then toussling Grace's curls. "Look like Miss Emily solved the mystery."

"I'll be damned," Ryan shook his head.

"You said a bad word!"

"Sorry!" he replied to the muffled voice buried in his sweatshirt.

"She's still protecting her babies," Caitlin mused, "She led Grace to the doll... it's amazing." She carefully tucked the velvet pouch into her purse and returned the doll to her owner, who immediately kissed her and hugged her.

A loud burst of voices from the hall caused them all to turn.

"...get out of my way..."

"Visiting hours don't start until 12 p.m... Ma'am. You'll have to leave."

"Leave my ass," the irate voice replied, "Who do you think you're fooling with!"

"If you don't leave, I'll have to get security."

"You can call the National Guard for all the good that will do. Move out of my way!"

"It sounds like senior citizen is mixed up..." Caitlin eyed the door.

"That's no senior citizen," Chris grinned, the first true, genuine smile that graced his lips in days. "That's a Lady!" His voice contained equal measures of affection, admiration and pride.

"Are you going to get out of my way?" The voice continued as the door started to open. "My grandson's in there. The whole damn army won't stop me."

"I can't believe it!" Ryan's voice was shocked, as Caitlin backed up, hitting his side. He wrapped his free arm around her, tucking Grace against him with the other.

"My God!" Caitlin swayed, her voice choking.

"Hello Lily!" Chris exuded with a wide smile, of the indominable force, who looked beauty was unparalled.

ICU, 2nd floor

He paused a moment in the doorway, shifting the hot container of coffee to his other hand. It was so unsettling, all the tubes running into unnatural holes in the slim man's body. A jungle of plastic tubes ran into his veins; a central line was in his neck and the chest tube was in his side. Coupled with the tube running down his throat, helping him breathe, it gave the tall man a frown. He never got used to it; seeing someone he cared for so fragile. He gathered his scattered emotions and walked to the bed.

"Hey, Darlin'" Buck sat the coffee down and rubbed the neck of the weary, but determined doctor. "How's our boy?"

"His fever's spiking... it's over 100. He's respirations are poor and his lungs..." She swallowed hard, lifted the limp hand she held and rested is against her face. Taking a steadying breath, she stood, leaned over and brushed his forehead with her lips. "I'll be right back, Baby..." Relunctantly, she placed the gentle hand back on the bed. Turning to Buck, she allowed the strong embrace, drawing on his strength. "I need... some... air... I'll... be... back..."

"Go on," he rubbed her neck, "We'll be fine. Gabrielle," he turned her around and drilled her aqua eyes. "They don't come any tougher than Vin Tanner. He's gonna be fine. Hell, he'll milk them busted up arms for all it's worth. You mark my words, he'll be usin' that damn blush of his and 'Ma'am'in' every nurse in this hospital. He'll be scorin' chocolate left and right..." he returned the warm smile she gave him. He tapped the tip of her nose and winked. "You two will have plenty of nights chasin' moonbeams... you got Buck Wilmington's word on that."

"I'll hold... you... to... that..." she smiled, gave his hand a squeeze and left.

"You listen to me you mangy-haired Texan," Buck boomed, leaning over the bed and lifting Vin's cold hand. "That is one fine woman, a real classy lady. You quit foolin' around and get them damn blue eyes open. You can't believe the hotel we're stuck in. I put J.D. in with Ezra, their drivin' each other nuts. You know Standish is neat freak and the Kid's a slob." He smiled, sat down and continued to talk, telling the unconscious man funny stories.

The color changed again. It was rosy before and now it was deep blue. He felt good here... it was warm and almost like being in a strong embrace. He felt strong and confident, not scared like when the colors left. The voice was deep and rich; he tried hard to find it... needing to meet the emotive tone. He wasn't frightened here, the blue colors and warm voice made him feel safe. He let the almost musical sound cradle him, as he healed.

Meanwhile, back on the 4th floor

"Never heard of such nonsense!" The matriarch huffed, walking into the room. At first she didn't notice the faces of the others. Then she did and stopped in her tracks, her gaze drawn on the face of the beautiful young girl before her. Buck warned her, when he picked her up at the airport, but she wasn't ready.

"Sar..." she bit her lip. "I'm sorry, you look so much like my granddaughter... I'm Lily Gavin, Caitlin. I'm so very glad to meet you."

"I'm... I can't... believe... it." Cait shook herself free and moved towards the immaculately dressed elderly woman. She was lovely, her eyes were bright and there was a bounch in her step. "You look just like my Grandmother. That's silly, of course you do, you're twins. This is my fiance, Ryan McKenna and my daughter, Grace."

"Hello there," she nodded to the pretty child, who stared at her curiously. The handsome man who held her moved, extending his hand.

"Lily, it's a real honor, I have two of your paintings. I've read a lot about you."

"Only what was printable," she teased, raising a cocky eyebrow. "I could tell you stories about Paris in the thirties that would curl your hair..." She paused when someone to her right cleared their throat.

"Excuse the Lad's poor manners, Dear Lady, to be sure I didn't raise a fool." He glared at his grandson. "Seamus McKenna, it's a breath of fresh air ye bring to the room."

"Oh, you Irishman do have a way with words," she smiled, then moved towards the bed. "You're just bound and determined to put me in an early grave."

"Never happen," Chris insisted, as she bent and kissed his cheek. "You'll bury all of us, Lily. How'd you get here? Did you come alone? I'll kill Buck... I told him..."

"I've been travelin' these blue skies long before you were born, Young Man," she sternly adressed the green glare. "Orrin saw me to the plane and Buck met me there. He's downstairs with Vin..."

"Lily?" Chris's hand shot up, grabbing for her when she swayed.

Ryan handed Grace to Cait and moved in, steadying her and easing her into a seat.

"Thank you," she managed. "I'm sorry..." she took Chris's hand and squeezed it, meeting the concerned eyes. "...but there is something special about that boy..."

Chris let one sandy arch raise, along with a wicked half-grin. "Yeah, as I recall you were quite overcome by his uh... assets..." he noted of the first time Lily met Vin, getting uncensored view of the lean Texan's posterior by accident.

"His assets aside," Lily countered, raking her fingers through the dirty blond hair. "I thought we'd go see him together. I tried to go in the room but... all those tubes..."

Chris didn't miss the rare crack in the strong force's shield. Her voice quivered and her hand shook. Those luminous ametheyst eyes filled with fear. Vin Tanner had worked his magic without trying; he now had a good hold on her heart.

"I like the way you think, Lady." He whispered, squeezing her hand in reassurance.

"Good," She stood up, turning to the others. She took Caitlin's face in both hands, shaking her head. "You look so much like my Sara... that same light shines through your eyes. You have a good heart, My Dear, I can sense that."

"Thank you, Mrs. Gavin..." Caitlin returned, only to be scolded.

"Mrs. Gavin was my mother, we're family now, child, I'm Aunt Lily and I couldn't be happier." She turned to the tall Irishman, with so many bruises on his handsome face. "You take care of her, Son or you'll feel the wrath of Lily Gavin!"

"Yes, Ma'am!" Ryan saluted with a smile, as Seamus took Grace outside.

"You get some rest and I'll get my grandson cleaned up. Tell that mouthy nurse we'll need a wheel chair. Where's the basin? The sooner you have you're bath..."

"Bath!" Chris's voice rose to an unnatural level that gave both McKennas a good laugh. He yanked the sheet up and glared. "They got nurses for that..."

"You haven't got anything I haven't seen before," Lily scolded from the bathroom, "Unless you have cause to beembarassed..." She bit her lip, peeking through the doorway. "Sara told me some stories..." She had no intention of bathing him, but the gentle teasing got his mind off his troubles. She'd already pushed the button for the nurse.

"What kind of stories?" Chris squinted his eyes, hearing the low chuckle. "Lily? Lily?"

Thirty minutes later, after a warm bath, a clean head and freshly shaven face gave him renewed strength. He was in a robe Lily brought with her, his IV poles attached to the carrier on the chair. The orderly pushed them as far as the doorway, leaving them alone.

Every muscle on his body tensed up, as soon as he heard the hissing of the respirator. The only image he could see, from the crack in the curtain covering the glass door, was Buck's profile. The rogue's mouth was moving, as he spoke to their injured friend. He tried to prepare himself for whatever was on the other side of the door. The tremor that formed in the shadows of the riverbank, when Vin's blood shot out of his mouth, now widened into a crack. A ripped, jagged slash in his soul. It was then he felt two small, but strong hands, rubbing the back of his neck. He closed his eyes, gripped one of the hands and kissed it.

"Thank you, Lady... for being here..."

"You know how I feel about that boy, Chris," she managed, feeling the fear rippling through him. She moved in front of the wheelchair, catching his eyes. Such magnificent eyes, she could easily feel how Sara drowned in their pale green depths. "He's lost, somewhere, in the dark, alone and cold. He needs you, Chris Larabee, as much as he's ever needed anything in his life. He needs to feel this," she tapped his chest through the deep green robe, "as much as he needs those IV lines and that dreadful breathing machine. You're the best medicine he can get. So suck it up, get the grit in your eye and get your ass in gear. I won't lose him!"

Buck looked up when the door opened, expecting to see Brie, but the visitors brought him a wide smile. He saw Chris's horrified eyes raking in the tubes, lines and respirator. Then they locked on the reddish fluid in the foley bag, draining from the injured man's bruised kidneys.

"Well, looks like the Cavalry is here, Vin. I'm gonna stretch my legs." He stood, keeping hold of the cold hand, until the shaken team leader was next to the bed. Without a word, he handed the limp hand over, gave the slumped shoulder a good squeeze and moved aside. He embraced Lily, before leading her to the chair on the other side. "It's okay," he saw the paleness in her face and felt her trembling. "He can feel you... hear you. His vital signs improve when you touch him, talk to him. Go on, Lily, give 'im Hell!" He offered, leaving the two to their visit.

"Hello, Sugar," she leaned over, brushing the damp curls from his forehead. The breathing tube made her stomach turn. The hiss of the machines and the fluids running into him was unnerving. But it was the frailness in his slack features that gripped her heart. Those beautiful blue eyes should be open and shining with mischief. Those fine features on his handsome face should be tanned and healthy. She leaned over and kissed him, "Lily's here now, I'm gonna take good care of you" She took her seat, watching her grandson fight for control of his emotions.

"Hey, Cowboy," Chris managed, his whole body numb. He took the hand extended from the sling on Vin's left arm and held it. "You look like a fu... uh... mummy." he noted of the bound right arm, supporting the injured shoulder blade. He studied the pale face, looking way too young and the disturbing breathing tube. Maybe it was better Vin was sleeping, he'd be panicked with that damn tube stuck down his throat.

"Listen up, Tanner, it's like this," he commanded, his tone sharp. He kept his eyes on the stilled eyelids, willing them to open. "I thought I was doing fine. I worked too many hours and closed too many bars. But I got by... cashed my paychecks... caught the bad guys. Then some long-haired damn Texas river rat..." he paused, took a breath. "...came ridin' the hell into town. Dammit Tanner... I can't ride solo anymore." He leaned in closer, his mind forming images of that infectious laughter that the younger man possessed. "It's like that scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy lands her house on that witch. Her life was black and white... then she opens the door and it's full fuckin' color. That's what you gave me... Vin... you colored my soul."

The blue color was gone, this was a new color. It was rich and gold, shimmering and glittering, nearly blinding him. He was drawn to the magnificent light, needing to bath in it's brilliance. The words were full of emotion and wrapped around him, filling him with a healing elixcir. He turned and swam in the glow, feeling an explosion of incredible power overtake him. He inhaled it, feeling the warmth course through his ravaged body. He felt almost giddy; he wasn't lost anymore. He knew where he was now; his compass was back. It was right there... right there... right there.

Not sure of what else to say, he leaned in, dropped his head and began to pray silently. A sharp exhalation from Lily, drew his head up.

"Vin!" He gasped at the two confused blue eyes that wavered from left to right. For a moment, there was no movement. Then the body began to shake; the eyes darted frantically. "Shit!" Chris stood, ignoring the injured leg. "He doesn't know where he is or what's going on..."

"Easy, Sweetheart," Lily stroked the confused face, wiping the fevered brow with a cold cloth. She locked onto him, leaning in and watching the fear screaming silently from the blue eyes.

"Lily... Lily?" Vin screamed, "What the hell... goin'... on? Shit... I can't breathe... I can't... where am I? My chest hurts... God it hurts... I can't...."

"I'll get the nurse!" She decided, making her way to the door.

"Cut that out, Vin!" Chris commanded, his eyes watching the vital signs jumping all over as the panicked man's body reacted. "Look at me!" He waited until the head turned and remained stern. "You're in the hospital in Baton Rouge. You're in ICU and that tube in your throat is helping you breathe." He saw the eyebrows cross and the fingers clawing at his hand. He took the fingers and remained strong. "Quit cussin', that tube is staying for awhile. "

"Shut the hell up, Larabee... it ain't your throat that's got a pipe shoved in it..." Vin sassed back, not happy. He tried to moved and relized his right arm was bound to his chest. The left was in a sling and unmovable. He was totally helpless. "Aw, hell... Chris I can't do this..." He pleaded with his eyes as the pain and pressure in his chest accelerated. "Chris... please..."

"I know it hurts like Hell, Vin." The concerned blond lowered his tone, seeing the fearful eyes catching the tightly wrapped arms and the chest tube. "Look at me, not that damn tube. Look at me... Vin... here..." He got the eyes to train on his own. He leaned in, feeling his leg roar in protest, as he drilled the terrified eyes. "We're gonna get through this together. You're busted up good. It's not going to be easy. It's gonna hurt like hell and you're gonna need every inch of them Tanner balls to gut it out." He waited, watched the eyes mezmerized now, drinking in his words. "We're all here for you, Vin. The whole team is here and we'll get through this together. You're not alone, Cowboy." He lifted the injured left hand, "I'm here, Vin, every step of the way. I won't let you fall. You can't shake me, Tanner ,we're a team, okay?"

Vin considered the words carefully and felt that golden light invade him again. The warmth coursed through him and he eyed the strong hand gripping his weak one. Every step... a shoulder to lean on... two strong arms to help support him. A brother. All the tension left his body and he relaxed. He kept his gaze fixed on those green beacons of hope, long after the nurses and doctor fussed over him. The examination brought a tidal wave of pain and it washed him away. His eyes slid shut and he rode out the storm. The first of many to come, but they wouldn't defeat him. He wasn't alone, he had a brother to lead the way.

The spectators in the lobby of the hospital all turned as the lean blond man limped across the polished floor. It was hard not to stare; his rugged good looks and clean-shaven appearance were hard to deny. If they'd looked beyond the initial clean clothes and hair, they'd have seen the fatigue stirring in the green eyes. Still recovering himself, his senses were dulled by painkillers and the lethargic arms of medicated sleep still gripped his sore body.

Sighing, he pushed the button impatiently, watching the colors descending on the numbered panel above his head. Finally, the slate colored doors parted and he gingerly eased himself past the clerk with a large cart of supplies. The ICU unit was quiet this morning. It was just past seven a.m. when he paused in front of Vin's cubicle. There were sixteen squared-off rooms, four to a side, with a large nurse's station in the middle. From there, the on duty personel could see every patient. He noted that the curtains were drawn on the clear glass walls. Smiling, he realized that Brie was still with Vin. The nurses allowed the curtains drawn when she was there, giving them privacy. He stuck his head through the door and made his eyes look through the tangle of tubes running into his best friend's body. The slim man was so pale and helpless; it pained him to see that vunerability splayed out so vividly. He moved silently, placing the large bag on the sideboard and opened his arms as she stood.

She sighed deeply, feeling the raw power oozing from his strong arms. She laid her weary head against the musculed chest and felt the reassuring thumping of his heart against her cheek. It had been a rough night; Vin was not able to rest. The intubation was getting to him. He gagged almost constantely in panic, not able to get air. Despite her reassuring voice and rhythmic touch, his wide-eyed blue fear still haunted the room.

"How's our boy?" Chris said, sliding past her, not missing her slight tremble.

"Not good... he can't get used to the tube and his lungs are worse. I'm worried, Chris..." She picked up the limp hand and rested the cold fingers against her pale cocoa cheek.

"We knew he'd be in for a rough road, Brie," Chris eased himself in to the vacated seat and lifted his leg. She used her foot to shove the upturned trash can under it, giving him support. "Thanks. He's a Tanner."

She studied the conviction in the pain-clouded eyes and felt an ocean of power. He had been a tower of strength these past five days. His voice alone seemed to calm the worse of Vin's storms. She knew when those eyes bolted open during a nightmare, whose face he longed to see. Chris was good medicine for her man and that was enough.

"Go home... get some sleep, you've earned it." He ordered, lifting his cheek as she brushed it with her lips.

"Chris is here, Baby," she whispered in the unconscious man's ear. Her long fingers went through the limp hair, then moved to his cheek. She rested her face against his, before kissing him. "I'll be back, later. I love you." She gently laid his hand down and pulled the blankets up to his shoulders.

Alone with his best friend, Chris opened the bag and took out a large coffee. He winced and rubbed his injured arm. It was his first day without the sling. He eyed the bagel and decided to wait awhile. He took out the newspaper and began to read. The mini-earthquake in the bed told him the patient was awake. Sighing, he calmly folded his paper and let it rest on the bedstand. He pulled his injured leg off the trashcan and stood, leaning over the rails. Sure enough, the blue eyes were wide and frantic. One was still healing; it's swollen and discolored state only added to the misery. The horrible throat bruises were mottled yellow and green, well on the way to healing. The raw wrist burns were still getting wet saline gauze treatments and the injured kidneys were still being flushed. Pneumonia had set in and the sharpshooter's lungs full of crud. A persistant fever and chills wracked the critically ill man's body. He drew his brows together, leaned his healthy arm on the rail and glared down at the shaking body. Finally the frantic blue eyes settled on his face. Relief poured freely from the wide, wet gaze onto his own.

"You're a mess, Cowboy!" He grunted, shaking his head. "Quit fighting that tube. I'm getting tired of this lecture. It's helping you breathe. You got pneumonia and one lung is healing from a bullet tear."

"...big talk... ya wanna trade places?" Vin glared at the smug blond, trying to shove his hand through a heavy wall of resistance. His eyes never left the placid features on the face above him. He scowled, unable to move. He didn't want to hear about being 'calm'. They all said it, the doctors, nurses and visitors. "...bullshit..." they weren't the ones mummified with a tubes running in an out of every hole. His scowl deepened when the blond above him laughed. "...fuck yer sorry ass to Hell, Larabee..."

"A day with that mouth of yours cursing is like a day without sunshine!" Chris goaded, seeing the anger dispelled over the fair-man's fine features. Mini-sparks of heated silent words sprang from the livid blue eyes. He saw the bump moving frantically and pulled the blanket down. The smile left his face, when he saw how bound up Vin was. His right arm was strapped down, protecting the injured shoulder blade. His left arm was in a cast, protecting the broken wrist. The chest tube was one of several, coming from just about every Tanner oriface. No, he wouldn't want to be in the Texan's shoes now. Vin couldn't stand riding in an elevator, due to the brief confinement. Now, he was riding into Hell. During his sleep, the nightmares plagued him. When he woke up, he was unable to move, speak or do anything on his own. He sighed, took the jumping hand into his own and leaned over. He felt the shivering body, a combination of fever chills and fear, immediately start to rest.

"I'm not leaving, Vin."

The fear scooted out of the lost blue eyes that burned into his own. He felt a giddy satisification at that; it still awed him. That his voice, his presence and his words could do as much as all the damn tubes invading the weak body could. The sky eyes weren't angry now, they were full of gratitude. Combined with the weak squeeze of the grip in his own, it shouted gratitude more powerfully that the loudest choir. He smiled and nodded, sending his strength down onto the bed. The troubled eyes slid shut, the hand continued to grip his own. That was Tanner's lifeline, he needed to 'feel' that. So, the visitor sat, still holding that injured hand. He used his free hand to get his coffee, exuding at the warmth as it travelled down his throat. Suddenly, the eyes shot open again. This time, the fear was raw and naked. The hand left his own and travelled to the tube.

"What?" He jumped up, then read the eyes clearly.

"...I can't breathe... Chris... somethin's wrong... Aw, hell... it hurts... Chris.... I can't.... I..."

"Shit!" He hissed, running for the door. He saw the medical resident on duty, a distant glimmmer of recognition from a prior meeting. "Doctor Shaw!" He saw the newly arrived medic turn, his auburn head rising sharply at the tone. "Something's wrong... he can't breathe!" He moved aside as they ran past, then his heart sank when the body on the bed wasn't moving. "Vin..." his voice faded under the loud tones of the medical staff. The doctor pulled on a protective mask and donned gloves, before touching the infirmed man

"His tube's blocked!" the intern barked, disconnecting the long tube from the mouth portion. "Get me some suction, now!" He commanded, grabbing a suctioning catheter. Using his thumb and fingers with practiced touches, he manuevered the device skillfully. With intermittent suctioning and catheter rotation, he successfully cleared the blockage. The catheter and connecting tubing were then rinsed with saline solution. Once the lower airway had been succesfully cleared of fluids, he turned his attention to the victim's nasal and oral passages. He gently removed the mucus building in there as well.

Chris watched the doctor and nurses work quickly with precise movements. The whole episode didn't take more than a minute. The most difficult part was watching Vin's prone body gagging violently. Now, the clean tube had been reconnected and they righted Vin, easing his battered body into a better position. He blinked and moved closer, allowing himself to breathe again, when the pale head on the pillow moved.

"Mister Tanner? Can you hear me?" Shaw asked, as the man stirred. Two confused eyes opened and panic set in immediately. "It's okay, relax now. Your tube was clogged. I know it's uncomfortable and once your ABG's improve, we'll take you off of it." He saw the brows huddle together and the eyes cross in puzzlement. "ABG's are arterial blood gases, they measure if the oxygen is getting in your blood and the carbon dioxide getting out." He turned then, with a smile as the body in the bed relaxed and a hand shot out. Chris Larabee's presence was vital. "I should have the results back soon. If everything looks okay, we'll start to wean him off that tube. We'll adjust the settings, until he's breathing on his own, then we'll pull it out."

"How long?" Chris asked the question that Vin beckoned silently.

"Let's see what the tests show," He supplied, "I should know very soon. Then we'll replace that tube with a CPAP, it's a mask that supplies oxygen at a certain base pressure. If he does well on that, we'll put him on a regular face mask or nasal cannula."

"Thanks," Chris nodded, waiting for the nurse to finish bathing Vin and then taking up his position. He pulled the blanket up and watched the large blue eyes trained on his own. He patted the free shoulder, and cast a sad smile. "You keep scarin' me like that, Tanner and I'll go bald." For the first time in several days, since Vin rejoined the world of the living, he saw a brief light in the eyes. "You think that's funny?"

"...losin' them yella sprouts ya got? Hell yeah!..." He nodded to the coffee cup and the chair. "...sit down 'afore ya keel over on me. Don't need no more bruises..."

He saw the head turn weakly and indicate the cup. Nodding, he took a seat and propped up his bad leg, before lifting the coffee. After several sips, he saw the eyes fading. The hand bobbed under the blankets and he cocked his head, listening to the silence.

"...thanks, Chris. Ya got no idea how much I need t'see ya squatted there..."

"You're welcome," he whispered with a quiet smile. "Go to sleep. I'll be right here."

"...ya always are, Cowboy..." Vin assured himself sleepily and closed his eyes.

"Now that's what I call lunch!" Buck Wilmington exuded, entering the large dining room of the rental home. It was nearly one p.m. and Josiah and Nathan were over at the hospital. Ezra and J.D. just returned, having spent three hours there with Chris and Vin. The ladies man was taking Gabrielle back at four o'clock. The exhausted woman was still sleeping, having spent nearly all her waking hours for the last five days at Vin's side.

"I'm starving!" Dunne picked up a plate, eyeing the buffet full of food. A large basket of rolls and bread greeted him. Two crockpots simmered nearby. One had roast beef withgarlic and onions in a rich brown gravy. The other had all kinds of sausage chunks in a variety of peppers. A large cassarole of macaroni and cheese was resting on trivet, a tray of several kinds of lunch meat and cheeses was next. A tureen of seafood gumbo was at the end, next to a large bowl of jumbo shrimp, nestle next to a dish of cocktail sauce.

"You were born hungry!" Buck complained, swatting the youth.

"Leave the lad, be," Seamus scolded from the table, picking up a glass of ice tea. "It's good fer 'im to eat hearty."

"Yeah, Buck, leave the lad be,!" the team's youngest boasted, with a wink to his new friend. The old man was great company and they'd gotten on well since arriving. He reminded the youth of his own grandfather, the same rich brogue had fallen from Daniel Dunne's lips. He'd died when J.D. was sixteen, but he still heard the old man's words. Upon mentioning his grandfather was from County Dongeal, he'd made a friend for life in Seamus McKenna.

"I think we should notify the people at Guinness," Standish took a plate full of shrimp and a bowl of gumbo. "There must a record for how much food can be consumed in such a short span of time."

"He ate?" Buck guessed, piling roast beef high onto a large roll with cheese.

"He did, several times. Breakfast on the way over..."

"Breakfast?" Buck frowned, shaking his dark head, "J.D. you got no shame. You ate here before you left."

"I got hungry!" he defended, making room next to his roast beef sandwich for some sausage and peppers.

"...then he scoffed down several doughnuts and a quart of milk after we arrived." the gambler concluded.

"Look, somebody's got to eat Vin's share..." The youth shoved a ladle full of macaroni and cheese onto the plate. "Hey, did Lily make this? Her macaroni and cheese rules!"

"She did indeed," Seamus noted, of the single homemade dish on the buffet. "She's quite a woman."

"You won't get any arguments from us," Buck took his seat and a glass of ice tea from Caitlin. "Thanks Darlin'. Hey, where's half-pint?"

"She's working on a card for Vin," the mother replied, handing a glass of tea to Ezra Standish, how nodded.

"Where's me lunch?:" Seamus roared, shoving a plate away. "What the hell is that?"

"That's your lunch!" Ryan shoved the plate back. "It's flounder stuffed with spinach and some wild rice. You have a nice salad and..."

"Ye can stick that salad up yer arse, Boy-o!" He boomed, "I'll have a beef sandwich and..."

"You'll eat his and be happy," the younger McKenna supplied, blue eyes shining. "I have a list of nursing homes in New Orleans. Yup, I just might start calling a few. They'd put you on a nice pureed diet..." He goaded , watching the old man's face scowl. He leaned over, raising one rakish eyebrow. "Lily made it..."

"Did she now?" Seamus suddenly saw the plate in a whole new light. "and a might fine job she did at that." He took a tentative bit of the fish and smiled. "It's lovely, Lass," he called out to the pretty woman who entered the room.

"Don't be wastin' any sweet talk on me, Seamus McKenna," She warned with a saucy smile, "You can't afford me."

"Besides, I thought you were marryin' me, Darlin'?" Buck beguiled, wagging his amused eyes.

"You're too old, Buck," she regarded Ryan's well shaped hindquarters as he walked away.

"Aunt Lily!" Caitlin laughed, nearly choking.

"Just proves I still have a pulse, Dear," She smiled, sitting next to the charming young woman. She took the slim girl's hand and squeezed it, resting a wrinkled one against the beautiful face. "These last few days, being here with you... you're so much like my beloved Sarah... Thank you..." she kissed the girl's cheek and saw the blue eyes pooling. "No, tears, Dear...I've found my family... you have no idea how much it means to me... being here with all of you. Almost all... of my family..." she looked away.

"He'll be here soon, too, Lily," Buck said, rising and moving over to the upset woman's side Tanner had worked his way well into her heart. "You know how stubborn that boy is... he's just too onry to die." He gave her shoulders a good squeeze and bent and kissed her cheek. "Marry me?"

"Not a chance, Stud," She choked, squeezing his hand. "But I'm not beneath living in sin for awhile."

Buck laughed hard, joining the others around the long table. He gave her a solid hug and took the seat next to her. J.D. brought his plate over and his ice tea.

"Ah, there's me jewel!" Seamus exclaimed, as his precious great-granddaughter ran into the room. She stopped long enough to kiss her Uncle Ryan, before settling onto his lap.

"Look Poppy! Look what I did... it's for Vin... ya think he'll like it?"

"It's grand, Poppet!" He eyed the colorful picture. "Mountains?" He noted of the triangular shapes rising, they had white snow on the top. The sky was blue and there were horses and a lot of green grass, dotted with colorful flowers.

"Yeah, he told me about where his favorite place is... when that bad man hurted me." She paused, her tiny face darkening. "He talks real nice, I like how his voice sounds. He... he... talked that night and my belly pain went away. So I thought I could draw a picture of it. We can put it by his bed in the hospital. That way, he can see it and it might make him smile. Right?"

"Right!" Seamus agreed, showing the prized work, "Didn't me jewel do a grand job?"

"That's awesome, Grace," J.D. agreed.

"It's beautiful, Sweetheart." Caitlin smiled.

"You did a great job, Buttons," Ryan prided.

"I think she inherited my talent!" Lily exclaimed, eyeing the fine lines and colors. "No, I mean it," She edited of the chuckles. "I know art... it's my world. That child has talent. I can work with her..."

"I'd like that," Caitlin smiled, a little in awe. Lily Gavin's talent was known around the world. Her paintings and sculptures graced many art galleries. For her to assess Grace in such adament terms, was a real compliment. She exchanged a secret smile with Ryan and Ezra. Little did the old woman know the surprise that was in store for her in a few days.

"Do you think Vin will like it?" Grace asked, wiggling off her grandfather's lap and going to Buck.

"He'll love it, Half-pint!" He tapped the top of her head, "Now how about you showing old Buck how good you can eat?"

"Can I take it to him?" She asked her mother, peeking around Buck Wilmington.

"We'll see, Honey. I don't know what the hospital rules are for little children."

"Blast the hospital rules!" She pursed her face up in anger, stomping her small foot.

"Now I wonder where she picked up that charming expression?" Ryan glared as his grandfather, who beamed in pride.

"How is he?" Caitlin asked Ezra, who was eating the delicious soup. She had been surprised when the catering company arrived several days prior. They had been providing food ever since, courtesy of the southerner.

"He's been taken of the venilator. He's taking oxygen, measured and through a mask. If all goes well, that will be removed tonight and he'll be upgraded to a nasal cannula."

"That's great!" Ryan exuded.

"Yes, he was extremely relieved when it was taken out." He smiled, thinking on the younger man's face. "Chris provided ice chips and I doubt if the finest champagne would have tasted sweeter."

"How is Chris?"

"Pissed off," J.D. thought aloud. "He don't say much, but just the looks he gives Vin have steam on them. I never realized how Vin could say so much without opening his mouth."

"He does have many colorful expressions," Standish thought on the vivid images that crossed the Texan's face. "Especially when Chris scolds him."

"That's the best medicine he'll get," Lily defended her beloved grandson.

The talk was light and lively, punctuated with laughter. It was the warm, loving and teasing tones that often surround a close family. That's what they'd become, bound by blood , sweat and tears. For Vin Tanner, being embraced by this varied assortment of relatives, brothers and friends, it would be the healing force he needed.

"Bob!" Vin croaked painfully, upon awakening. The five days of that tube in his throat left the inside torn up, raw and painful. The doctor warned him not to speak. He'd progressed from ice chips, spooned faithfully by Chris Larabee, to a 'clear' tray, also slowly spooned to him by his best friend. The apple juice and broth went down easily. Then he'd drifted to sleep, glad for the air coming through the nasal cannula. Being freed from the tube was the greatest feeling. He could endure the pain that ravished his battered boy. He could tolerate the throbbing in his injured limbs. He could even manage the helpless feeling, having no use of either arm. But that tube had put the fear of God in him. Not being able to breathe... she shuddered and pushed that away. Now in front of his half-mast eyes, on the tray in front of him, sat a large yellow square pillow. It's eyes and 'squared' pants were all too familiar. It was no secret he and J.D. were huge fans of the cartoon, 'Spongebob Square pants'. Now a huge plush figure was inches away. He drew a painful breath, coughed several times and watched for the arm to shoot out. He expelled dutilfully into the tissue and let Chris wipe his mouth. He kept his eyes on the face, until the green eyes scowled.

"You're delirous, Tanner!" Larabee denied claim on the bright yellow gift.

Vin frowned and used what little strength he could muster, to move his head painfully to the other direction. He blinked, wheezing heavily through both congested lungs and tried to focus on the hand gripping the cup offered. He took a sip of water and nodded, then saw the ring. A dark blue stone... a college ring. He took his heavy eyes upwards, seeing a smile hovering under a dark mustache. "...cklin..."

"Sorry, Slick, I'd love to have thought of it," the charmer denied, giving Vin's mouth a swipe. "Let that be a lesson to you. Never deny the power of this smile again," he teased of Vin's drooling.

Vin kept gasping, not caring if the spit ran out. His lungs were so full of muck, it came in a constant stream. He eyed the smiling man and felt his heavy chest constrict even further. How was it Buck was always there? He saw the glint and squared off his chin, waiting.

"You look like shit, Tanner," Buck answered the silent call and waited.

"...f..f...f...f...uck... yer... s...s...sorry ass... t'Hell... B...B...Buc...k...."

"Now I have missed my traditional greeting," the rogue thumped his chest and winked, seeing the head offered. He responded, wincing slightly as the usual immaculate Tanner locks were dull, dirty and matted.

"...quit... foolin'... with... hair..." Vin rasped with a weary smile, which turned into a messy cough. "aw, hell..." he tried to turn away, but Chris's tissue found him. After two minor glares, he turned back to Buck. "Who?" he asked of the gift.

"Grace," the mustached man replied, watching the large blue eyes widened. "She took it right off her bed. The kid bought it for her and she's been cartin' around all week. She wanted you to have it."

"Aw, hell," Vin whispered, swallowing hard thinking of his young friend. "...somethin' special..."

"She sure is," Chris agreed, "Saved my ass out there. As a matter of fact, she's quite a shot," He winked to Buck across the bed. "I'm thinking of replacing you on the team. She'd eat a lot less, too. Just think of the money I can save."

"She's a whole lot prettier too!" Buck winked back.

"...jackasses..." Vin managed with a harsh cough. This time his smile faded and he nearly passed out. He felt both sets of hands helping him. Someone lifted and supported, the other held a basin under his mouth. A lot of phlegm and water came out and the effort left him crying in pain. His broken ribs couldn't take this much agony. As much as it was good the secretions were being expelled, it took all the strength from him. The dizziness finally passed and he peeled his eyes open.

"You okay?" Chris asked and saw the head nod. His eyes went to the clock, approaching seven p.m. He'd been there for twelve hours and his own healing body needed food and sleep. As if sensing the hour, a slim body appeared in the doorway. "Change of shift." He stood, stretched and yawned. "My ass is numb."

"...else... new..." Vin sassed weakly, turning to Buck. "...home... sleep... gun..."

"I don't he'll gimme a hard time, Vin," Buck traslated the clues. "I won't need a gun to keep him in bed. He's wiped out. You get some shuteye, Son, I'll see you tomorrow." He gave the cotton gown a hitch, it constantely slid down the tracker's shoulder. "Hello, Darlin'," He moved around the bed and gave the pretty doctor a hug.

"Hi Buck!" She smiled, making her way to where Chris stood.

"You're on spit rag detail, Doc," he teased, tapping the tissues, before turning to the unamused face in the bed. "Don't give her any shit, Vin!" He smiled at the cranky glare, the saw the word f forming, "I wouldn't... there's a lady here." He took the hand that shot up, giving a good, solid tug. "I'll see you at sunup, Cowboy." He vowed, knowing the other would sleep easier with that thought. He was at the door when the voice went airborne.

"Chris..." Vin whispered, wincing at the razors that slashed his tender throat. "I'm grateful..." he sent out, with an emotive stare.

"I know you are," Chris sent back, "I'm counting on that generosity. I figure it's good for mucking out my stalls for a year or so," he grinned, watching the letter f fighing to become airborne. "Vin..." He warned wagging his index finger. Then he saw the sharpshooter's middle finger tapping the bedsheet beyond where Gabrielle could see. He laughed and felt Buck's hand on his back, as the other laughed as well.

He didn't recall falling asleep. He began to stir as the warm cloth was working over his face. When his head was lifted and the linen gently took the sweat and grime from his neck, he opened an eye. She was so beautiful, it took his breath away. The dusty complexion and perfect features, set off by those large magnificent nearly aqua eyes. He shuddered as her hand traced a path down his cheek.

"...stealin' m'air... sweet... lady..." he warned of her powerful effect.

"Thank you, kind Knight!" She smiled, kissing him deeply, before resting her face next to his. "I've missed you." She sat on the edge of the bed, entwining her fingers through his. She saw a single tear snake a crooked path down his cheek. She wiped it away with a finger, then caressed that strong jaw. She ran her fingers over his lips and he kissed them, gently suckling on one. She watched his head turn, thinking he wanted water, reached for it.

"..up... radio..." he vented, coughing soundly and waiting for her to take the spit away. It didn't embarass him. Not because she was a trained professional, and had seen every part of him. But because she cared for him and he for her. When you care about someone, you let them help you. It makes your path to healing a lot shorter. He closed his eyes as the words spilled from the radio. It was an old song, but the words were timeless.

"You're just too good to be true.
Can't take my eyes off of you.
You'd be like heaven to touch.
I wanna hold you so much.
At long last love has arrived and I thank God I'm alive.
You're just to good to be true...
Can't take my eyes off of you."

"...heart's full up... ya put... them... there..." he gasped of the beautiful words.

"Funny thing," she smiled, touched by the beautiful words and his emotional eyes. "I was just thinking that myself." She kissed him again, deeper this time and felt him groan. The room filled again, colored by the classic tune.

"Pardon the way that I stare.
There's nothing else to compare.
The sight of you leaves me weak.
There are no words left to speak.
But if you feel like I feel.
Please let me know that it's real.
You're just too good to be true.
Can't take my eyes off of you."

She broke away, wincing as he began to cough hard. After she cleaned him up, she saw him flushing. Thinking it was because he was helpless, tied down by two injured arms and a broken body, she caressed his face. The eyes left her weak. "I could drown in the those eyes of yours... don't, Vin. I want to take care of you."

"Huh..." Vin blinked, then realized what she tought. "...no... not that... them lips and teeth... of yers... dangerous... s'hot in here.."

She laughed then, charmed by the soft drawl and generous heart. Hearing the chorus kick in, she cupped his face, kissing his forehead and closed eyelids.

"I love you baby, and if it's quite alright," she paused to kiss his cheek, "I need you baby, to warm a lonely night, trust in me when I say..." The words were lost when she kissed him, devouring his heart. She rested then, breathless from the heat in the room and the body next to her. She left her head nestled under his chin, wary of his injured limb. She felt his breath on her cheek, when he finally spoke.

"Yer jes' t'good t'be true..." Vin managed, suppressing a cough, as the song continued. "...ye'd be like heaven t'touch... need t'hold ya... s'much... thank God I'm... alive..." He whispered, the medication and expelled energy sending him to dreamland. He felt the feathery touch of her hands caress his and the gentle kiss. Then her lips nuzzled his next, as her sweet voice cradled him.

"You're just too good to be true, can't take my eyes off of you." She finished, then lifted her head. He was sleeping, this special man. "Fairytales can come true," she whispered, taking the damp hair from his forehead. "I found you, Knight, and I won't let you go..."

Part Twenty-Two

Seven a.m., ICU

Josiah grimaced in the bathroom, when a slow parade of curses floated through the air. He turned off the hot water and dried his hands, then began to smile. It wasn't just the colorful usage, as only Vin Tanner could muster, it was that the heated words were accented by a series of sneezes. In a cruel twist of fate, the ailing man, with no use of either arm, had acquired a cold.

"Sometimes I wonder about your sense of humor," the preacher eyed the tiled ceiling in the bathroom and shook his head.

"...some fuckin' hospital... lyin' helpless... get jumped by a pack o'onry germs... dammit!" Vin sneezed again, sending another mess down his chin. "Hell, take yer time, 'siah, might as well wait until I'm drowned in snots."

"Sorry, Brother, duty called."

"Don't hurry on my account," Vin snapped, before his shoulders jumped and a powerful sneeze sent a previous hidden gas pocket out to freedom.

"Nice horn, Vin, you wanna test your lights too?"

"Shut the fuck up, Larabee and quit laughin'..." Vin's eyes were tearing from the sneezing and he could only see a dark blur in the doorway, with a shock of blond hair. "...ya got a twisted sense o' humor..." He wiggled irately as both his friends applied wet towels to take away the mess on his face. "...get yer hands away from me... don't know where they been..."

"Ungrateful jackass..." Larabee persisted, dropping the cloth in the trash, before cleaning the cannula and replacing it. "I could be sleeping now, you know. I'm still recovering..." he baited, watching the hot eyes flashing.

"Ain't nothin' wrong with m'teeth," Vin growled, "Ya wag that hand again, Larabee, I'll put ya in a pinkie fuckin' splint!"

"Nice, Vin," Chris wrinkled his nose. He turned to Josiah, who was sipping coffee in the bedside chair. "Josiah, shouldn't the fuckin' come before the pinkie? How would you diagram that in a sentence?"

"I do believe that's grammatically incorrect," the older man noted, watching Vin's eyes twitch. Before he could react, Chris's hand moved, catching the phlegm cloud.

"That's my sharpshooter!' the blond teased. "You finished?" He kept his hand in place.

"How the fuck should I know?" the irritated patient huffed, "Open a winda... it's like a fuckin' inferno in here..."

"That's cause you're working up a lather with all that cursing." The leader frowned, nodding for Josiah to get a cold cloth from the bathroom. "They don't have windows in here, Vin." He took the cloth and wiped the scarlett face. "Settle down, you have a busy morning ahead."

"...time is it?" Vin wheezed.

"Ten minutes after seven," Chris knew the darting blue eyes were fearful. "You'll be fine. It'll be over before you know it."

"...got a cast... don't need no damn operation..." Vin persisted.

"Vin," Josiah caught the troubled blue eyes. "That surgeon was very thorough when he explained your break. The wrist bones need to be realigned. They'll put pins in there to hold them in place until they heal."

"...that part I remember..." the Texan huffed, taking his gaze to the other side of the bed. "Ya sure he's dead?"

"They're all dead." Chris replied, inwardly recoiling at the brief look of horror in the Texan's eyes. Vin had been reliving his nightmare daily.

"...thought he's tryin' t'help... lifted m'hand up..." he noted of the broken wrist.

"Don't Vin, it's all over now..." Chris pressed, seeing the anxiety rising. "Bates had a dozen holes in him."

"...ain't good enough..."

"Mister Tanner?"

Chris and Josiah both looked up when a nurse came in the room. Chris continued to look at the door, but laid a hand on the worried man's shoulder.

"Hi, I'm Julie. I'm gonna give you something to help you relax. " She injected the sedative. "Your operation is at eight a.m. Escort is on their way to take you up. You won't feel a thing." She reassured, seeing the tension on his face.

"Thanks," Chris said.

"Do you have any questions?"

"...anesthesia don't agree with me... jes' so's ya know... have a bucket ready..." Vin managed, shutting his eyes.

"One of you will be here with him?" She asked, seeing the blond nod. "Good, he'll be confused and disoriented for awhile.

"Oh, we're used to that, Ma'am," Josiah smiled, as Chris jumped in.

"He was born disoriented."

"Shut the hell up... both... o'ya..." Vin wheezed, as his body started to relax.

He was vaguely aware of Chris talking to him, before he felt a tug on his shoulder. Then the bed moved and he faded away.

Josiah waited until Vin was in the elevator, before turning back to the room. Chris was at the winodw, his features hostile. He knew where the blond's head was and he felt the same rage. Vin had suffered cruelly and his tormentors had quick deaths.

"Come on, Boss, let's get some breakfast," he suggested.

The coffee shop was down the street and busy on a workday. They sat in a booth in the back. Josiah ordered the #2 special, French Toast, sausage and bacon. Chris got a Western Omelet, no potatoes. The brooding leader was on his second cup of coffee, when the preacher updated him.

"They're taking his chest tube out this afternoon."

"What?" Chris drew his head up. "I don't know about that... I've been there, it hurts like hell. Jesus, what else can they do to him?"

"Chris, they didn't do this..."

"Does he know?"

"Yeah, they told last night, right after his breathing exercises. Once they pull it out, he'll go to a regular room. He should be settled in there by dinner." He paused as the waitress put down two large glasses of orange juice. "Are you okay?"

"I don't know, Josiah." He raked a hand through his hair and sighed. "I met some tough customers in my day." He paused, his keen green eyes studying the hospital down the street. "...and then there's Vin Tanner."

"But?" the elder man prompted.

"But this is an awful lot to bear, even for a Tanner." Chris commented, taking a gulp of juice. "I'll tell you what, he's holding up great. You wouldn't want to be arount me with two busted up arms... Jesus.."

Josiah laughed and shook his gray head. "That would be one day after I took my vacation."

"He's got a helluva long road ahead..."

"He won't travelin' alone, Chris. He'll get tired of us kicking his ass."

"...scrawny ass..." Chris corrected with a sad smile. "...and what about the wounds that scalpels and stitches can't fix?"

"He'll get counseling." He paused, as the waitress set their plates down. "Thanks," he nodded. "Extra napkins?"

"Sure," she replied, also providing maple syrup and ketchup. "Coffee?"

"We're good," Josiah replied.

"More over, Chris, he'll have you. When he's ready, you're the voice he'll hear clearest. You might wear out your boots..." he teased of a potential 'ass-kicking'. "That boy can get stubborn..."

"I think Brie will help... she's good for him." Chris decided of the strong woman who had to return to New Orleans. "By Friday when she gets back, I'll be ready to shoot him!"

"Not to worry," Sanchez winked, "Buck's got a plan..."

"Why does that scare me?" Chris's brow drew together.and he slathered butter on his toasted bagel. "What kind of plan?"

"I'm not at liberty to disclose the details..." Josiah managed with a straight face..

"Why, does he have incriminating pictures of you?"

"You might not be old enough to hear them..." Sanchez teased of the plan and heard Chris groan.

For a brief moment, he wondered if he was dead. No, death doesn't hurt like this. His head had an axe in the back of it and his chest hurt. The congestive lungs were doing a wicked dance, keeping in step with his rocky stomach. He tried to hold on... but that only produced worse gagging. He'd been sick before, but this feeling went far beyond nauseous.

"Yuh cut that out, chil'!"

Unable to open his eyes, he parted his lips to protest and the bile spewed.

"That's bettah, don't make any sense holdin' that mess inside... come on, now, I know yuh ain't done..."

Again he tried to peel even one eye open and instead, his mouth went to work. The vomiting produced intense pain in his healing chest and ribs. So much so, tears ran down his face and he fought to breathe.

"Cut that out, now!"

Someone held his neck and head up, cleaning him off and instructing him to breathe. Weakly, he got his eyes half open and a saw a blurry dark brown face.

"...Nate..."

"Hmmphh!" The voice sassed. "I been called a lot of things in my day, chil', but old Maisie ain't never been mistook for no man. Open then pretty blue eyes now... come on..."

Vin blinked and licked his dry lips, watching the fuzzy face come clearer. A nurse... with dark skin and silver-streaked dark hair. Kind eyes... deep eyes... a mother's eyes. He relaxed at her touch, letting himself breathe.

"That's better..."

"...dead..." Vin croaked, hoping for relief.

"Not hardly," the thirty-five year veteran tossed back, picking up a spoon of ice. "Yuh too pretty tah die..." she smiled at the ailing young man. "Here, I got some ice... easy now... I gotcha..."

"...thanks..." Vin whispered, sagging against the ample bosom. It took his fuzzy brain a moment to realize where his head was. "...sorry Ma'am..." he flushed, coughed, sneezed and gagged.

"Lord, chil' yuh're a mess..." She frowned, catching the flying excess. "and don't be Ma'amin' me! It ain't like we're strangers, Son... yuh ain't got nuthin' t'hide." She saw him flush again and smiled, wiping his face with a cool cloth. "Yuh sure do blush pretty..."

He cast a blurry eye on the pins extending from the cast on his wrist. Then he took his eyes to the spot where his right arm should be. It was bound tightly to his chest. Frustration set in and he scowled.

"Aw, hell... trussed up like a fu... damn turkey..."

"Yuh ain't plump enough tah be a fit turkey," she teased, easing another spoonful of ice into his mouth."That scrawny white behind of yuhrs needs fattenin' up... " She saw the smile and the weak laugh followed. The blue eyes met her dark ones over a sad smile.

"...ain't... hardly... scrawny..." Vin coughed. "...need glas...ses..."

"I need glasses!" She moved the basin near his mouth and waited. "A blind man couldda seen I ain't nuthin' called Nate!" She felt him tense up and ran ahand around him ,holding him up. "Get rid of it, Vin Honey, Old Maisie's on the job... Come on..." she coached as more vomit came up. She waited past the dry heaves, the rinsing and cries of pain that produced tears. She cleaned him up and wiped a cold cloth over his face.

"...sorry..." Vin managed, shivering. "...s'cold..."

"I told yuh, yuh ain't got enough fat on them bones... hold on..." she headed for the blankets, then noticed his gown was soiled. Clucking her tongue, she grabbed a new one and a basin. After filling it with warm soapy water, she peeled the old gown off. Two blue eyes bolted half open and a defiant chin jutted out. She felt him trying to pull away. "Yuh ain't goin' a place, chil', yuh best jes' settle down. I raised five boys and cleaned up thousands more in this here ward over the years. Yuh ain't got nuthin Old Maisie hasn't seen before. Now quit fussin' and let me do ma job." Once the clean gown was secured, she pulled the blanket up and held his head up again, giving him more ice.

"...thanks... Ma'am... no... no... ain't right..." He slurred, trying to correct himself. "Ma...mie...?"

"Mammy!" She began to laugh, shaking her head. "Landsakes, chil' yuh're givin' ma belly a workout tonight. Maisie," She corrected and saw him blush. "No call fuhr that, yuh ain't got nuthin' ta be ashamed of." She paused, tugging the blanket up. "Well, almost nuthin'..."

"Aw, hell..." Vin whispered, feeling his face flush again and hearing her laugh. The cold cloth followed, wiping his parched skin. The ice tasted like liquid gold and he began to relax. Her deep voice, kind hands and gentle touch were the right medicine.

Chris was dozing in the chair, when the phone rang. He sat up, glanced at the empty bed and frowned. By the time the third ring went through his pounding head like a buzzsaw, he was not happy.

"Hello!"

"Chris?"

"Brie?" Chris winced, rubbing his temples, "Sorry, I dozed off and the phone startled me. He's not back yet."

"I know, I spoke with the surgeon," the doctor said, clearly not happy with being in New Orleans. "He should be up soon..."

"He got sick, didn't he?"

"...that and his blood pressure dropped. They're going to pull his chest tube later..."

"I'm not leaving." He answered the worry in her voice.

"Thanks," she sighed, knowing with Chris Larabee by his side, she'd be able to concentrate on her own patients. "How is he, Chris?"

"Onry," he grinned, "cursing up a storm, in between sneezes. I"m surprised you didn't hear him down there. He always gets cranky when he's sick. We're used to it..."

"I have to go," She waved to the nurse frantically waving at her. "I'll call later. Give him my love..."

"Will do Doc, but I think you're probably a better kisser!" He teased.

"Chris?"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks."

"Hey, that's sounds like the kind that comes with a hug."

"Count on it," she smiled, "I'll talk to you, later."

Chris was in the bathroom, taking some Advil, when the door opened. He swallowed the pill, rinsed his face with icy water and toweled off. He ducked back into the room, just as the orderlies got Vin back onto his bed. The Texan looked awful. He was a ghastly cross between green and gray. His eyes were half-mast and he was wheezing heavily, making strange moan-like souinds. Pins stuck out of the area where the bones were realligned. The other arm was still tightly bound to his chest. At least his urine was yellow again, now that the bruised kidneys were healing. He nodded to the orderly and waited for the duty nurse to complete hooking up his IV's and oxygen.

"We gave him something for his stomach, it should settle down soon."

"Thanks," Chris nodded to the nurse.

"Call me if you need anything." She noted, peering down at the green patient. "How you doing, Mister Tanner."

"...peachy..." Vin hissed, sneezed and snarled. "...leave me be!" He wiggled, trying to pry his face from what he knew wasn't a nurse. He began to gag then, but had nothing left to produce. The painful cries dissolved into a salty parade on his face. He let his eyes slid shut and surrendered, working to breathe took all his energy.

Chris ignored the muffled curses and continued his job. Finally, Vin slumped in his arms and he laid him back. The bed was raised up, so the now sleeping patient was sitting up. He took a seat, picked up a can of soda and turned the television on. A half-hour later, he was involved in an old episode of The Streets of San Francisco, when a sneeze landed on his hand.

"...seen enough..." Vin snapped at the face looking at him.

"Not yet," Chris stood, washed his hands and then cleaned up the patient, who tried to fight. "Don't fuck around Vin, I got a headache." He finished, then got three spoons of ice into the parched man.

"...that bad..." Vin whispered of the concerned face hovering above.

"You look like dirty snow on astroturf," he decided of the graying -green color. He saw the eyes drift too the can of cola. Vin's favorite beverage. "No way... if you behave, later on I can give you broth."

"Ain't I the lucky one," Vin settled back, lifting his tongue for more ice. Nothing happened. "Dammit t'hell, Chris!"

"What?" The blond feigned innocence.

"Where's m'fuckin' ice?"

"You didn't ask pretty," he smirked, watching steam coming from the tracker's ears.

"Ya jes' wait 'til I get one o'these arms freed up... I'll show ya pretty!" He sassed, resting his head. The short conversation took his breath away and he panted heavily, gulping air. A cold spoon nudged his lips, but he didn't part them. "...changed m'mind..." he said haughtily, tilting his nose in the air. He waited through the snorted smirk, until a full fledged Larabee laugh was born. He smiled then, seeing the worry leave the face finally. Then he stuck his tongue out and waited. But the blond sat down.

"...could be I changed my mind..." Chris deadpanned, wincing at the long stream of colorful words.

Finally, Vin fell asleep. Several times the body thrashed and the head tossed on the pillow. The brows furrowed and the eyes darted frantically under pale lids. Chris stood and waited, then rested a hand on the side of the damp neck. His strong fingers curled around the tense flesh and he lowered his face.

"I got your back, Cowboy." He waited and the breathing slowed, the tension disappeared and the features went slack again. Satisfied, he sat down and picked up his book. He looked up again, when Nathan entered, handing him a brown bag. He knew before he opened it, what was inside.

"Remind me to give you an on-the-spot award," the blond teased of the monetary rewards given for outstanding work. He popped the lid on the won ton soup and inhaled the aroma. "You're worth your weight in gold, my man."

"Thanks," Nathan moved to the bed, resting a hand on Vin's brow. "He's warm."

"Nice shade of green, too." Chris slurped, devouring the tasty won-ton on the spoon. He popped the top on a 20 oz bottle of ice tea and pulled out a napkin.

"His fever's up... it's almost a hundred and one. They give him anything?"

"Tylenol and something for his stomach. He stopped pukin' finally. I told the nurse to order him some broth. They're takin' his tube out later."

Nathan nodded, studied Vin's face and examined the surgical sight, before leaving to speak with the nurse. When he returned, the soup was done and the ice tea was nearly drained. Chris looked rough and had to heal himself.

"You've been here all day, Chris," he eyed the approaching hour of 2 p.m. "Go get some sleep." Although the head didn't move, the tight green eyes slid to the chest tube. "I won't let them take it out, until you get back. Go on..." He watched the blond stand and stretch, gaze at the sleeping body and then extend a hand.

"Thanks, Nathan. If he gets worse..."

"I know ... I know..." He shook his head. "Go!"

Hot. It was too hot. He must have put too many covers on. He tried and tried, but he couldn't find his hands. Have to get the blankets off. He furrowed his brows and bit his lip, but only got pain in return. He mumbled and tossed his head, panting and gasping for air. Then he panicked.

"Chris!"

"Easy now!" Nathan rested his hand against the fever-slicked face and waited for the eyes to focus. "Welcome back," he slid a healthy spoonful of ice into the parted lips and heard the moan of pleasure. Three more followed, before he used a cold cloth to wipe the hot face. "You almost look like a caucasian again, " he noted of the returning color.

"Thanks, Nathan..." Vin panted. "More..."

"Sure," he coached, getting more ice into the ill man. "If you keep this down, we'll try some water. They got your broth at the nurses station."

"....'kay..." Vin mumbled, chomping on his ice. "Don't feel s'good..."

"You have a fever... how's your stomach?"

"...Titanicked...." he said of the sinking feeling. He heard the laugh and managed to smile. He might not have a lot of money in the bank, but he was rich in friends. "...others go home?"

"J.D. and Ezra were needed. Mike Ryan's group is short a couple men." He noted of their brother team in Denver. THe phone rang and he picked it up.

"Hello?"

"Nathan? It's Brie, how's Vin?"

"He's right here, hold on." He held the phone to the wet ear. "It's Gabrielle."

"Hey..." Vin whispered, closed his eyes and captured her voice.

"How you doing, Babe?"

"...was feelin' poorly... 'til I heard yer voice... like angel's singing... I miss ya... Brielle..."

"I miss you too, Sugar. I'll be back there by Friday night. You'll be sick of seeing me by Monday morning."

"...never happen... miss yer touch... need... t'feel.."

"I know, Cowboy, me too!" she whispered, still tasting his kisses. "I love you."

"...love ya... too..." Vin managed, before dissolving into a sneezing/coughing duel.

"Nathan?" Brie waited, until the medic came on. "How is he?"

"Surgery went good. The set him with pins. His fever's up a bit, but sometimes that happens after surgery. He's stomach finally settled down. Chris just left, he was exhausted," Jackson updated, juggling the phone against his head, while cleaning up the squirming Texan. "Vin, if you don't settle down , I'm gonna harness your ungrateful butt."

She laughed, on the other end, at Vin's colorful reply. "You tell him that was naughty and I'll have to punish him." She smiled, "I have to go, I'll call tonight."

"Okay," Nate hung the phone up. "She heard you cussin', she's gonna punish your sorry ass."

"Yeah?" Vin perked up. "Damn, how long 'til Friday?"

The hours passed, the broth went down easy and was followed up by custard and juice. He felt stronger and slept easy. A stong string of sneezes and coughing brought his eyes open. Through the blurry, wet eyes, he saw a mustache, that matched the booming voice.

"You're all wet, Vin!" Buck announced, cleaning up the messy face. "You must have made kindergarten hell for your teachers. Quit moving around!" He finished, "Ouch!" he yelped, shaking his hand. "You bit me!"

"Hah... I wasn't hardly tryin'... consider yerself warned..." Vin wheezed, eyeing the dark room.

"He's in the bathroom." The rogue answered the silent question.

"He okay, Buck?"

He smiled at then, a warm, genuine Wilmington special. Despite his own malady, Vin was worried about Chris.

"He's a little worn, but tolerable."

"You make me sound like a damn recliner chair!" Chris grunted, stalking the room. He stopped at the bedrail, giving a good long stare. "You look human again."

"Good thing one of us does," Vin countered, not missing the pale face and pain-rimmed eyes. "Chris, if yer feelin' poorly... ya didn't hafta..."

"..and miss that fresh mouth of yours?" Chris winked, "I'm okay. Here," he held out a cold soda and watched the drooling start. "You promise to be good boy and keep your uncivil tongue under control?"

"Quit fuckin' around and gimme my damn soda!"

"He's alright!" Buck grinned, "I'll tell the nurse."

"Okay," Chris held the soda out and waited. "Not too fast..." He pulled it back and smiled at he belch. "eight point six, a new record," he teased of the earthquake potential. "You ready?"

"Yeah, it's fast right?"

"Hurts like hell, but it's real quick. Just take a good breath and he'll pull it out," Chris relayed of removal of the chest tube. He heard the door open and snaked his hand on the side of Vin's neck. He gave a good tug and held that worried gaze, until the fear left the blue eyes. "I'll be right outside."

Vin watched the lean body until it left and then stared at the door. He couldn't even make a fist, so he felt the mummy effect returning. His breathing picked up and the doctor turned from the tray he was preparing.

"Mister Tanner, I'm Doctor Weissman, do you remember me?"

"Yeah, ya plucked m' other tube last night."

"That's right," He lifted the gown and removed the surgical tape holding the chest tube in place. Luckily, this young man had no chest hair. He lifted a piece of occlusive gauze and eyed the nervous young man. "I want you to take a deep breath. Then I'll pull the tube out very quickly. There are special sutures around the opening. I'll pull them, like closing a purse. Then I'll cover it with a clean dressing. Ready?"

"...g'head..." Vin nodded, then took a deep breath. "God!" He clenched as pain exploded in his side. "Jesus Christ!"

"It's done," the doctor secured the bandage. "Your vital signs are up and we'll be moving you now to a new room, out of ICU. Of course, we won't know for some time about your arm."

"It's fine," Vin hissed, as the fire continued in his side. "They put pins in there and ..."

"No, I'm sorry, not your wrist, your broken scapula. You lost a lot of blood and they had to clamp the subclavian artery..." he paused seeing the clouds of confusion swirling. "To save your life, they had to cut off circulation in your right arm. We won't know... there's a possibility that you might not regain full use..."

"Aw, shit!" Vin's eyes went wide, he studied every crack in the ceiling.

"I'm sorry, Mister Tanner, I thought you knew." The face remained void of emotion, except for the eyes, which were housing molten fear. "Your friends are outside, I'll get them."

"This is 'tween us, Doc, understand?" Vin warned. Chris looked like hell and he didn't want any extra guilt on the recovering man's frame.

"Very well," the doctor left.

"Vin?" Chris made his way to the bed, wincing at the tight line where lips should be He wiped the wet face, recalling all too well his own chest tube removal a few years back. "I've been there, Cowboy, you take all the time you need. Thirsty?" he offered the soda, but the wet head shook in denial.

The doctor's words felt like shards of glass being rammed into his tender skull. He dozed off, but the aftershocks rippled through his healing body. No use... a crippled sharpshooter. No job. A desk jockey. Chained to an eternal stack of papers and filing.

"...no fuckin' way..."

"What?" Chris asked, sitting forward. Vin had been silent for nearly a half hour "You say something?"

"No," Vin whispered.

"You want something to drink, Slick?" Buck offered, exchaning a worried glance with Chris. There was something unsettling about the fine features on the Texan's face.

"Somethin' wrong with yer brains that ya can't remember m'name!" Vin snarled, eyes flashing. "This ain't a fuckin' train station!" He shouted, feeling the walls closing in. That excitement brought coughing, gagging and a mouthful of vomit. His face was hot and his eyes stinging. He struggled and fought the helping hands. Was that pity in their eyes? Did the doctors tell them something he didn't know? Was he destined to be a cripple? The fever worked on his frazzled brain and he exploded, as the walls came closer.

"Get out!" He screamed. "Get the fuck out! Leave me alone!"

"Stop it!" Chris gripped the wet face on both sides, watching the lava-filled eyes burn into his own, before they rolled back in his head. "He's out."

"What the hell was that?" Buck wondered of the explosion.

"He's had a rough day, Buck, he's entitled to blow up. Go on, I'm staying. Make sure the nurse is updated .I'll use the extra bed."

"Okay, you need anything?" Buck paused, worried about both men.

"No," Chris wiped Vin's hot face and then called out, "But bring coffee and shit in the morning, okay?"

"I'm real good with 'and shit'..." Buck winked, easing out of the room.

"Don't hide from me, Vin," Chris whispered of the troubled sleep he saw forming. He knew something transpired between the time they left the room and the return. Having the tube pulled was a hellish experience, but not enough to cause this. Whatever his troubled friend was hiding, he'd find out. That was one fight Vin Tanner would lose.

The face loomed above his own, the dark eyes wide and glistening with malice. His own eyes took in the blade, watching it make arc's in the air. It was hot... too hot... sweat rolled down his face and into his eyes. Pain... everywhere... every inch of his tortured flesh throbbed. He tried to escape, but found he couldn't move at all. The knife came lower, aiming for his heart. The voodun's evil laughter scorched his ears.

"NOOOOO!"

"Shit!" Chris left the bed in a hurry, not bothering to shake the cobwebs from his skull. He blinked and adjusted his eyes to the darkness, then switched on the low light above the patient's head. "Jesus," he exclaimed, seeing the sharpshooter's wide-eyed frantic stare. He waved a hand over them and go no reply. The shallow breath came in pants and the lower lip trembled.

"Hey, wake up... come on Vin, it's a dream..." he tried, gently tapping the sweaty face. "You're burning up..." He pushed the call button, alerting the nurses. Then the panting increased and the blues flared in fear.

"Nooooo! Chris, where the hell are ya! Bates' is... he's... ahhhhhh!" Vin blinked and flinched at the palm that slapped his face. He didn't move, letting his eyes adjust to the room. Two nurses came in, and through a fog he heard Chris updating them. He shut his eyes, as the dream faded away and his living nightmare returned. The ghastly image of his arm poised with a gun, then unable to shoot came up. He bit his lip, allowing the nurses to tend to him. He felt the damp sheet peeled away and a pair of cold clothes trying to squelch the fevered flesh. He was gently turned and his back was bathed. He heard the hands snapping the damp sheets from one half of the bed. His head lolled as he was turned again, carefully, and the other half was stripped. Finally, bathed and feeling cooler, he was resting on clean sheets. He smelled the delicate scent of flowers and citrus. Opening his eyes a crack, he saw a pale cocoa face through blurry eyes. He heart picked up... how could this be?

"Brielle?..." he choked, chest heaving.

"No, it's Simone, Mister Tanner," the pretty nurse soothed, wiping the tangled locks from his brow. "But I'm sure sorry." She consoled, familiar with the lovely woman he was seeking. "Doctor Marquette is one lucky lady. Would you like some water?" She waited and the head nodded once. She allowed the bed to rise a bit, then placed the straw on his lip. "Not to fast... good... good..." she coached, seeing the water leaving the cup. "Hold on," She placed two Tylenols on his tongue. "That will help with your fever and let you get some rest. Okay?" Again the head nodded and she saw the eyes close.

"Thanks," Chris sighed, raking a hand throught his damp hair. Finally they were alone. He approached the bed. "Vin, if you..." He frowned, when the dark, wet, curly head turned away from him, to face the empty side of the room. "Fine."

Vin flinched at the tone of the voice, but didn't move. He heard the sound of the tense body hitting the other bed. He felt the wrestling match begin again. His anger rose at the two immobile arms. He didn't want pity; he didn't want to see looks of sympathy in their eyes. Hell, this emotional rollar coaster left him dizzy. He didn't know what he wanted. He drifted off to sleep, a dark, dreamless place. His coughing picked up, sending waves of pain through his chest. Combined with the messy sneezing, he again had to rely on others to tend to him. He cursed weakly, tossing his wet head and the helping hands descended.

Chris tossed the tissues away and wiped Vin's face. He ignored the curses and rage simmering in the half-mast blue eyes. He was too tired to care. He got little slee