Click for full size view of coverThe Chief and the Director

Rina

2001

Disclaimer: Once a Thief is based on the concept by John Woo and owned by Alliance Productions Ltd. 

"Footfalls echo in the memory 
Down the passage which we did not take 
Towards the door we never opened 
Into the rose-garden. My words echo 
Thus, in your mind." 
   
-T. S. Eliot, "Four Quartets"

Banff, Alberta
August, 2006

"Any messages, Patty?"

"Just the one, Chief." Patty Martin, receptionist, radio operator and watch dog of the Banff, Alberta police department pulled a light blue rectangle of paper from the stack beside her phone and handed it over. "Are you going to the barbecue tomorrow? I'm making my potato salad, and I know Claire's bringing that peach pie of hers that you like so well."

"I wouldn't miss it for the world, and you know it. Someone has to keep you ladies in line when you get into Flo Wallace's special lemonade."

Patty laughed at that, her brown eyes vanishing in the web of 'character lines' that had been etched there by almost sixty years on the planet as well as the trials of bringing up a daughter by herself--a daughter who just happened to be the deputy chief of their hometown. Raising a hand to her curly hair, the receptionist patted the auburn strands into place and gave the chief her most winning smile. "Now, Chief, you know we girls never drink enough to cause trouble, just enough to liven up the day."

A husky chuckle answered that comment. "This year, try not to liven it up by leading a conga line to the pond, all right? We were fishing clothing out of there for a week."

"Now how is it my fault that Howard Jenkins took it into his head to go skinny dipping just then? Or that half the town joined in?" The Chief's laughter was muted by the closing of his office door. Patty took a moment to fuss with her hair before returning to her work, idly noting when the light by the Chief's phone line blinked on.

Probably some old friend, she thought, though she couldn't recall the Chief having received any personal calls from out of town since he had come to Banff. As a matter of fact, in the five years since he had taken over the department, she couldn't recall him saying more about the city or the people he knew there than was absolutely necessary. Well, that was fine with Patty in particular and Banff in general. A small town that blossomed into a tourist mecca during skiing season, Banff preferred to keep to itself, and, although he hadn't been born here, the Chief fit in well enough that he might have.

"Patty."

The receptionist looked up, then started to stand. "Chief? What's wrong?"

"It doesn't look like I'll be making it to that picnic after all. Get Stacey for me. I have to go out of town."

"What happened?"

"Someone... There's been a death; I've got to go to Toronto."

As the plane fled the setting sun, racing toward the encroaching darkness, Victor Mansfield rested his head against the cool glass of the window, watching but not really seeing the red-tinted clouds below him. He felt as if the whole situation was unreal, that the past few hours couldn't possibly have happened.

It was denial, plain and simple. He'd gone through much the same thing just after moving to Banff, so he recognized the symptoms. The only difference was that then his disbelief had settled around waking each morning to find his arms empty, and now--now part of him was irretrievably gone.

"Victor, thank you for returning my call."

"Jackie?" It sounded like the former mob boss, but the peppy valley girl intonations were gone, leaving only a smooth veneer of culture in their wake. For a moment, Victor felt as if the floor was sliding out from under him, threatening to send him tumbling back into his former life, the life he had sacrificed so much to escape from.

"Yes, it's been a long time. I hope things are going well for you out west."

"You didn't call to make small talk, Jackie. What's going on? The message said it was vital that I get in touch you. None of you were supposed to contact me again unless--"

"Unless it was a matter of life or death, I know the routine. And it is."

"Some psycho I put away heading out here looking for me?"

"Not you, Victor, and it's already happened."

"What?"

There was a soft sigh, then a bit of muffled conversation between Jackie and someone with a deeper voice. "It's about Li Ann...

Li Ann. Dead. It didn't seem possible that the woman he had once loved, the only one he had kept in any kind of contact with after leaving the Agency, was dead. Murdered.

Victor clenched his hands until his knuckles whitened as a flash of fury shot through him. How dare they not keep her safe?! Jackie had been unwilling or unable to answer his questions over the phone, but Victor had plenty of them, and he knew that Jackie was not the one he was going to direct them to.

"C'mon Vic, what would I do out there? Man, it's hicksville, bet there isn't a decent tailor for miles!"

"Honestly, Victor, do you really think that I can force an agent to leave if they don't want to? You really must overestimate my influence."

"Sir? We'll be landing in ten minutes. I need to take your drink now." After waving off the stewardess by giving her his watery scotch, Vic turned his attention out the window gain. The sunburnt backs of the clouds had been replaced by the diamond-strewn velvet of the Toronto metropolitan area. Faint red lights indicated downtown and its skyscrapers while a sharp delineation of ebony marked the shores of Lake Ontario.

Have to get Patty a shot glass while I'm here. The thought held a hint of hysteria to it, and Vic desperately wished that he had his drink back so that he could finish it. God, Li Ann... How did this happen? Who did it? And who let them? The lights grew closer, mesmerizing in their unwavering brilliance, and Victor stared at them until his vision blurred, not even noticing the slight bump as the jet touched down and rolled toward the gate.

"Plane's in."

"Gee thanks, Josh, I thought that was a big silver goose pulling up to the gate."

"Relax Chaz, we'll have our guest out to the Monastery soon enough, then he'll be off our hands." Joshua Roberts turned away from the wide, plate glass window that overlooked the taxiways and quirked a grin at his partner. "Or is that what's worrying you?"

Charles Kelso's light blue eyes narrowed as he scowled at the older man. Roberts had three inches on him in height and a good twenty pounds, but that hadn't stopped him from tossing the other man on his ass a few times. "Oh, and you aren't just a little concerned about going out there yourself? I don't recall it being one of your main haunts."

"Nah, it's the Monk's, and he can keep it. I do take special dates out there though..."

"Funny," Chaz murmured, looking away from his partner to watch the door to the gangway, "don't remember you taking me there."

"That's because I generally want to drag you back to my place--or your place--or behind the nearest tree, whatever's closest." As he spoke, Josh moved up behind Chaz and leaned in, his breath stirring the younger man's close-cropped blond curls as he spoke.

"Huh. Remind me to play hard to get next time, will you." Kelso sounded serious, but the sparkle in his eyes as he tilted his head just enough to meet Josh's dark gaze told another story entirely.

"How about we get this guy and drop him off, then we can go wherever you want?"

"I could learn to like that idea, as long as I'm driving."

"You?! No way! C'mon Chaz, I can't fit in that tiny thing you call a car, and you know it."

"Penance, Josh. Just like the Monk says, suffering is good for the soul."

"Yeah, well the Monk is a sadistic bastard."

"But he has a nice ass."

"True, very true."

"Speaking of nice--there's Mansfield." Kelso nodded his head toward the man who was just exiting the tunnel.

"You always were a sucker for a good bod, Chaz," Josh chuckled, sizing up their assignment and nodding to himself. The man was in his mid forties, his near-black hair cut short enough that the greying around the temples showed up in stark contrast to the rest of it. Research said that his eyes were green, but they were too shadowed to tell right now. He had a handsome face, cut body, and was wearing jeans, a plain white cotton shirt, and a brown leather jacket. Even without glancing at the photo they had, Roberts knew that Chaz was right; this was their man. "Let's go grab him before he vanishes like that princess from Morovia did."

"And may I remind you whose fault that was?" Kelso asked as they waited for the older man to walk past them.

"Hey!" Josh muttered, "We had just started working together. Was it my fault that we had miscommunications?"

Chaz grinned at that. "Just so long as we don't have any more 'miscommunications' like that," he said quickly before stepping out and placing a hand on their quarry's arm. "Chief Mansfield?" At the other man's tense nod, he continued, "I'm Charles Kelso, this is Joshua Roberts. We're here to take you to..."

"I know where we're going. What I want to know is if you can give me any more information on what happened and what's being done." As he spoke, Victor shook off Chaz's hand and started toward baggage claim. The other two men trailing after him, giving each other exasperated looks.

"... bad as the Monk..." was all Vic caught in the low-grade murmur of the crowd before the other agent spoke up.

"We don't know anything about the case, sir. I believe the Director will fill you in on what is known when we get there."

"Then let's get going." Ignoring the look the younger men exchanged, Victor shouldered his carry on, letting them escort him, more interested in tearing into the Director than listening to any of the small talk the men attempted to make.

Roberts glanced at Kelso who returned the look with a one shouldered shrug. They lengthened their strides to catch up with their charge--all they needed was the Director chewing their asses off because the guy took off on his own. Suddenly, what had seemed like an easy enough assignment at first, namely, keeping tabs on Chief Mansfield, was looking quite a bit more difficult than they had planned.

While Kelso waited with Victor for his remaining piece of luggage, Roberts went for the car. By the time Vic's hanging bag made it through the labyrinth that was baggage handling, claimed it and successfully navigated the security check at the door, the dark-haired agent was waiting at the curb, lounging against the side of a sleek, gunmetal grey sedan.

"The Director must like you," Josh chuckled, popping the trunk and waiting until the other men loaded the luggage into the deep cargo well. "I don't think we've ever been given the Mercedes to use before."

Chaz snorted so quietly that if Victor hadn't seen the curl of the young man's lip, he might have missed the expression completely. "That's because we all know how you drive. Remember what happened to the Jaguar?"

"Now wait a minute, that wasn't my fault! How was I to know..."

Victor dropped onto the rich, pearl grey leather of the contoured back seat, leaning his head against the support and rubbing at the bridge of his nose as the two agents got into the car, still bickering over some case in their past.

Almost reminds me of... Vic slammed off that thought before it could be completed. The coming days were going to be hard enough without consciously dredging up old memories. Memories that he had thought he would never have to exhume and examine again.

Roberts gunned the engine, threading the sedan through the heavy airport traffic. He made holes in the flow where there were none, blatantly ignoring Kelso's growled out curses and warnings as unimportant. After tucking the car between a van and a limo heading onto the exit ramp to the 401, Josh accelerated into traffic, picking up speed even as he wove through the other cars heading toward the city.

The lights of the cars around them washed over the sedan, casting complex designs of light and shadow over the occupants. The traffic was moderate, owing to the late hour, and Vic found himself fighting the darkness and the smooth hum of the engine to stay awake. In order to keep from dozing off, he turned his attention to the quiet conversation the two agents were having.

After listening for a few minutes, it became clear to Victor that his first opinions of the other men had been off kilter. While Kelso looked the pretty boy airhead part, he was plainly the more serious of the two. It was the dark-haired Roberts who was the joker, an attitude that reminded Victor far too much of his ex-partner's for his own comfort.

A chance comment by Chaz revealed the fact that Josh had been a cop once upon a time, and Vic couldn't stop his snort of incredulity. The older agent looked up from the road, grinning as his eyes met Vic's in the rear-view mirror. "Don't believe it? You aren't the only one, but I was. Worked narcotics on the Big Island."

"Hawaii," Chaz broke in for Victor's information.

Josh chuckled at the memories. "Best surfing you can imagine out there, man. It was a total bummer when my cover was blown and I had to take off. Not much surf here."

"He was about an hour away from getting taken out of the game totally when the Director found him," Kelso added. "Don't know quite what happened, but suddenly the cartel was more interested in getting themselves back to the Philippines then blowing his scrawny ass away."

"My ass is not scrawny," Roberts mumbled, shooting his partner a glare. "And shall we discuss how you got recruited, boy wonder?" He looked back at Victor again, ignoring the road, much to Chaz's consternation. "Charles here tried to con the Director. I'm sure you can guess that wasn't a smart idea."

"Hell, I'll admit that it wasn't," the younger man shrugged. "It also got me in the Agency and, eventually, you as a partner, so I'd say it ended up being a pretty good move."

Vic swore he could feel the temperature in the car escalate as the other two men looked at each other, only breaking eye contact when he cleared his throat loudly.

"What about you, man?" Josh asked, not appearing at all ashamed by the fact that a second ago he had looked as if he was ready to eat his partner whole.

"What about me, what?"

"How'd you get involved with the Agency?"

Victor's expression turned stony. "I don't see that it's any of your business."

"Easy now," Chaz counselled, half turning in the seat and laying a hand on Josh's shoulder. "It's a well known fact around the place now that Josh's brains soaked up a little too much sea water when he was younger. He tends to talk before he thinks a lot of the time."

"Sorry, man, didn't mean to offend you," Roberts added laconically.

"None taken," Vic said slowly, settling back into the seat and beginning to rub at the bridge of his nose again. If it weren't for the fact that it was Li Ann's funeral he was here to attend, he'd make these idiots turn the car around and take him back to the airport. This wasn't his home any longer, if it had ever been. The closest it had ever come to feeling that way was the three years... No. There was no way he was going to fall into that trap again. It had taken far too long to stop comparing everything to the time before he had left Toronto; he was not going to lose himself that way again.

The rest of the trip was quiet, the silence weighing heavily around the three men. Victor swallowed his questions when Roberts passed by the exit that led to the aqueduct, taking the 401 farther east, out of the city proper. By the time they drove through a massive set of electronic gates and up a private road that was shielded on both sides by rows of mature oak trees, Vic's brain had begun shutting down. The day had been long to begin with, and with the added stress of Jackie's phone call and the flight, he was exhausted. Whatever information the Director had for him, it could wait for the morning. Odds were that even if she told him exactly who had killed Li Ann and where they were, he wouldn't be able to remember it five minutes later.

The car rounded a bend in the drive, and Vic scrubbed at his gritty eyes, to clear his vision. When that didn't work, he leaned forward, resting his elbows on the front seats, staring in disbelief at the sight before them. "What the hell?" he began, earning a chuckle from Josh.

"I take it you've never been to the Monastery before?" Chaz asked, a bit of amusement showing in his voice.

"No," Vic murmured, his attention still on the massive building in front of them. The outside was lit from every angle by high intensity floods, though the beams didn't seem to pierce the darkened glass of the rows of windows. It looked like something out of a gothic horror novel; broad and squat, made entirely of dark grey granite, with only the wooden doors and the sills around the windows providing any relief from the stark, solemn exterior.

A darker shadow moved behind one of the second floor windows, then disappeared, cut off by the fall of a curtain. "Why do I feel like I'm arriving at Manderley?" Vic murmured to himself.

"Just be glad your name isn't Rebecca," Chaz answered, before telling Josh, "I'll explain later."

Roberts pulled to a stop outside the oaken double doors. Gravel crunched under the three men's feet as they exited the sedan. Chaz collected Vic's bags from the trunk while Josh kept watch, his right hand hovering close to his chest as if he was prepared to make a cross draw if trouble came up.

"C'mon, let's get inside." As they moved, Vic found himself sandwiched between the two agents, and for the first time he wondered if he should have brought his gun along. While the other men didn't appear spooked, they were definitely on edge, carrying themselves with a tension that hadn't been apparent at the airport.

Once they were inside, the door banged shut behind them with a hollow boom. The illumination was dim, as if in keeping with the gothic theme of the exterior, and the furnishings and panelling were dark, creating hidden corners and pools of shadow where rightfully there shouldn't be any.

"The Director's become a Goth?" Vic wondered aloud, scanning the room in search of anything familiar.

"You know the Director," Josh chuckled, though there was something slightly nervous in his tone.

"Does anyone really know the Director?" As Vic spoke, his gaze centred on the hulking stone fireplace and the painting centred over the fieldstone mantle. Even in the dark he recognized it as the Rembrandt he and Mac had recovered from Michael Tang. God, had it really been over ten years ago? The real question, though, was what was it doing here?

"No, that's the whole point of being the Director."

Vic's head snapped around, followed by his body, his expression changing from shock to a split second of happiness, then to pure fury as he focused on the man standing in the hallway--a hallway Victor would have sworn had been empty a second ago.

"Always one to make an entrance, aren't you?" he spat, studying the way the lamp in the hallway haloed Mac with light, giving the impression that he was simply an outline sliced from reality into whatever realm he'd emerged from--the realm that was Victor's personal hell.

Mac stepped into the light then, and Victor found himself unable to stop the comparison between how his ex-lover looked now and how he had appeared the last time they had seen each other. Mac's hair was somewhat longer, falling down onto his forehead rather then combed back as he had always worn it before. His eyes were hidden by mirrored sunglasses, but Vic could see the fact that the younger man had lost weight by the sharpness of his cheekbones under his pale skin.

His body was hidden by the long black duster and the cut of his dark clothing, but even, so Vic could tell that Mac had filled out some in the years since they had seen each other last.

Mac took another step forward, then paused, his hands folded behind his back. "Thank you for coming, Victor," he said quietly.

"It's for Li Ann," Vi replied harshly. "If I had been told that I was going to see you tonight, I would have booked a hotel."

Mac appeared unmoved by the older man's words, though Josh and Chaz both uttered near silent exclamations of shock.

"I'm sure you would have, but then we'd all have been attending a double funeral come morning. As distasteful as it may be, you're staying here. Jackie will get you settled. Chaz, Josh, you're spending the night as well. I'm not taking any chances."

Victor was gearing himself up to go off on his former partner when something about the set of Mac's jaw made him pause. The only other person he had seen use that expression that effectively was the Director, and speaking of her... "Just where is the Director?" he snapped, turning to look at Roberts.

"What are you talking about, man?" Josh asked, sharing a look with Chaz that plainly said they were wondering if Victor was off his rocker. "He just left."

Vic spun back around at that, staring at the now empty hallway where Mac had been--correction--where the Director had been, and felt his world spin off its axis once again.

"I imagine you have quite a few questions, Victor."

Wondering if this place had hidden passageways and secret doors, Vic stared at the newcomer, wondering if it was possible to go insane due to too many shocks in one evening. The woman standing next to the doorway to the left side of the entryway sounded like Jackie Janzyk, but that was where the similarity ended. Yes, she was still blonde. Yes, she was still short and stacked, but while the Jackie of old wore her clothes as low and tight as possible, this incarnation of her was garbed in an haute couture suit. Her formerly teased out hair was pulled back into an elegant chignon, and her makeup was soft and neutral.

"Okay, now I really believe that someone slipped me something earlier today. Mac the Director and Jackie looking like a Junior League socialite. Something is seriously wrong with this picture."

"Go to bed, boys," Jackie sighed, dismissing the two agents with a flick of her fingers--another gesture that reminded Vic of the Director. Hell, if Mac was the Director, just what was the Director now?

"But..." Chaz began, only to be cut off by the repetition of the command, this time in a much sterner voice.

"Go to bed, and try not to shout the place down; there are those of us who want our sleep."

The blond man flushed a bit at that, but his partner only chuckled. "Hey, can I help it if Chaz here tends to get a little vocal?"

"I'll give you vocal..." Kelso growled out, grabbing the older man by the elbow and strong-arming him toward the right hand hallway.

"Hey, man, any way you want it," Josh got out before Chaz dragged him around the corner and out of earshot, leaving a bemused looking Jackie studying Victor as if waiting for a reaction.

"So, Vic, like, how've you been?" she asked, dropping the veneer of culture and falling back into her old 'valley girl' persona as easily as a snake shedding its skin. Come to think of it, Victor considered the analogy very apt considering who he was dealing with.

"Look, Jackie," he spoke slowly and clearly, as if dealing with a small child or a person of questionable intelligence. "I just flew across the country on no notice at all for one reason and one reason only. That did not include making small talk or catching up with any of you, understand? I want to know what you know about Li Ann's death and I want to know now, goddamn it, or I am walking out that door and searching for the answers myself!"

"Geeze, Vic, don't have a cow, okay?" In a flash, the glimpse of the old Jackie was gone, hidden away beneath the professional exterior and demeanour. "I'll tell you what I know, but it's not the full story. For that you'll have to talk to the Director or the Head."

"The Head?" Now Vic sounded incredulous as well as angry. "Come off it, Jackie, I'm not one of the rubes who get pulled in here on cases; I know as well as you do that no one talks to the Head."

"That was the last Head." With that mysterious comment, Jackie picked up Victor's bags and started down the hallway, forcing him to follow along or be left behind. "The new Head does things quite a bit differently."

And just when did this 'new Head' take over?"

"About four years ago, right about when Mac became the Director."

It was Jackie's frank gaze as well as what was implied in her words that caused Vic to come to a halt, staring at his guide. "You're telling me that she..."

She nodded at that, then continued on, taking seemingly random turns, leading Vic deeper into the warren of hallways in the interior of the mansion. "The old Head was killed. Unfortunately his killers took Mr. Dobrinsky out with him so when the Agency elevated the new Head into place, there wasn't anyone to take her place."

"What about Li Ann? I would have thought that she would be perfect for the position."

"A year can make a big difference in many people's lives," Jackie said sagely. "Li Ann had another project at the time and Mac... He was the best person for the spot."

Vic snorted at that idea. "And your place in all this?"

"I'm his muscle," she smiled. "Cross either of us, and you'll think Dobrinsky was Mary Poppins in comparison."

"Somehow I can believe that..." Vic sighed to himself.

"As for Li Ann's murderer, it was revenge. We've got people out tracking down leads; they should come up with something soon."

"How do you know it was revenge?" Vic asked as they stopped in front of a heavily panelled door, which Jackie then pushed open.

"That," she answered, setting his bags down next to the sleek leather sofa that was part of the conversation grouping in the outer room, "you will have to ask the Director tomorrow."

"And if I don't want to ask him?"

"Then you'll never find out what you want to know, will you?" With that, Jackie breezed out of the suite, leaving Vic feeling as if she had been talking about more then just the facts about the case at the last.

It's late.

Everyone is finally settled in their rooms for the night. They may not sleep much, God knows I won't, but at least I know where they are. Well, all except for her and she has the resources to take care of herself far better then I can.

Or so we're led to believe.

All of her resources didn't keep Li Ann safe. Not that she would have ever wanted to lead the life of a protected hothouse flower. She told me as much when I contacted her about the first threat. They came in all the time; it was nothing to be taken too seriously until... Until it was too late.

If I feel like it, I can press a button and check on them all, assure myself that all of my guests, willing and unwilling alike, are well and whole, but I doubt any of them would appreciate that. Joshua and Charles are probably wrapped around each other, Nathan's more than likely reading his e-mail or checking out his web sites. Jackie--I'm sure she's asleep; nothing rattles her much. And Victor. Knowing Chief Mansfield, he's brooding, planning ways to find Li Ann's killer so that he can get out of here as soon as possible.

I don't blame him really. The past is dead; it's better to let it lie. If you don't, it opens you up to too much hurt and we're all past that stage--or we should be. I mean, five years, that's long enough to distance yourself from things that have happened to you, that you've caused to happen.

He looks good. Fuck, who am I kidding? He looks gorgeous as always. Small town life obviously agrees with him, as does the touch of silver in his hair. Other than that small change, physically he's the same; it's just that look of cool disdain in his eyes that's different.

Oh yeah, much better to keep my distance while he's here. Let him mourn in peace, then ship him back out to Banff to get on with his life so I can get on with mine.

There goes the night security on his rounds. He doesn't even notice me out here; he's supposed to be more alert than that. I'll talk to Jackie in the morning. She enjoys dealing with problems like that. Other than that, it's quiet. The night birds have settled down; dawn is only a few hours away. I should sleep. Even the few hours I've been getting lately is better than nothing and I can't afford to let my concentration slip, especially not now.

One more look before I turn in. I have to know, have to be certain that he's all right. He hasn't been sleeping well, which is part of why I haven't either.

Just as I suspected, he's tangled in the sheets, the pillow clutched in his arms looking weary and defenceless. He stirs even as I approach, small whimpers escaping from his lips, tearing at my heart, or what little of one the job has left me with. It's a simple thing to lean in and brush the sweat-dampened hair from his brow, to soothe him with touch and voice, to calm him with promises of love.

Simple, yes, but is it enough? Will he seek my bed later tonight looking down at me through those too solemn green eyes, asking silently for permission to join me? If he does, I won't refuse him. I can't, not now, not ever.

Morning brought with it a continuation of the night's surreal goings on. Jackie knocked on Vic's door to escort him to breakfast at almost the exact moment he was done shaving and dressing, something that confirmed his belief that these rooms were monitored. Big surprise that was. Even last night as he had been getting changed for bed, Vic felt the old sensations creeping in; the constant itch between his shoulder-blades that told him he was under surveillance, the rush of anger at the fact that, once again, his life was not his own.

Ignoring Jackie's greeting and inane pleasantries, Vic followed behind her silently as the section's second in command led him down another series of hallways, this time crossing some invisible dividing line into another area of the mansion. Where before the décor had been stolid and dignified gloom, this are seemed more lived in, more human.

"Coffee?" she asked, pushing open the door to a massive eat-in kitchen. The recessed lighting illuminated the open space brilliantly, reflecting off the array of pots, pans and utensils hung neatly on the walls. Gleaming chrome and tile were softened by the blonde oak cabinets, table and chairs. Victor had to stop himself from doing a classic double take at the incongruity of it all.

The scent of freshly brewed coffee wove a seductive lure around his head, one that Vic noticed had already pulled in the two young agents he had met the night before.

Roberts and Kelso, dressed much more casually then they had been the evening before, lounged at the table with partially eaten meals in front of them, coffee mugs never far from hand. From the looks of it, Josh had been eating a fruit, yogurt, and granola mixture while Chaz made his way through a large stack of pancakes.

Vic smiled wryly, remembering the days when he could eat like that and not worry about his uniform fitting the next day. They were gone now, and he wondered if the two kids appreciated their youth. Probably not; no one ever did until it was gone.

"Mornin', man," Josh smiled, raising his mug in greeting.

"Care for some coffee?" Chaz added, already half out of his seat to pour it out.

"Get Victor settled, boys," Jackie commanded. "I'll be back shortly. There's something I have to take care of first."

Something about the woman's tone of voice sent a chill running down Vic's spine to lodge in the base of his balls, drawing them up tightly to his body. From the look of the other men, they felt the same way, and probably with better reason.

"Yeah, coffee would be fine," he answered, waving off the plate of muffins and breads that was passed his way. "Black. Nothing else for now."

Thanking Chaz when the blond handed him the steaming mug, Vic settled into one of the empty chairs at the table, downing the entire cup and gratefully accepting a second before curiosity got the best of the other men.

"So, man, you've never been here before?" Josh asked, spearing a bite of pancake from Chaz's plate and giving his partner a sweet smile when he complained. "Here as in the Monastery," he continued before forking the wedges into his mouth.

"No." Vic drank half of his coffee, then rose and carried the carafe over to the table, filling his mug, then the other two men's as well. "Things were based out of somewhere else when I was involved."

"The aqueduct, right?" Chaz asked, ignoring Josh as the larger man gave up trying to steal his food and simply commandeered his plate. "Things moved out here just before I was recruited--about three and a half years ago. There was a big turnover in personnel around then too; I don't know if you're going to know many of the people here."

Vic digested that information silently. He wasn't here for a reunion, so what did it matter who was still around that he knew?

Josh waved his fork around, at the same time managing to keep Chaz from stealing his food back. "But you know the Director, right? And Jackie J." The tall agent ate the remainder of his partner's breakfast while thinking. "You've been around longer, Chaz, who else was here when you joined?"

"Joined?" Kelso's eyes rolled upward and he shook his head, expressing his opinion of how one 'joined' the Agency. "Lets see there's Nathan in Records..."

"Nathan Muckle?" Vic was unable to keep the surprise from his voice or his expression. Of course it shouldn't have shocked him; that crackpot was too strange to work anywhere else.

Roberts nodded vigorously. "That's him. One weird dude, that's for sure. Always talking about aliens and shit like that. Keeps asking both of us when some prince is coming back." He stopped and snickered at that.

"Joshua told him that Prince had already made his comeback about five years ago," Chaz sighed by way of explanation, "and that even as retro music, his stuff was out now."

"He didn't get it," Josh added mournfully.

Fascinated against his will by the two agents' banter, Vic took a muffin from the plate near him and absently began eating it between sips of coffee. The easy camaraderie and obvious attraction between them tugged at scars deep within him, ones he had thought long healed over.

"What about Murphy and Camier?"

"Those crazy fucks? You actually know them?" Josh asked, staring at Victor as if he was going to pull out an Uzi and spray the kitchen with bullets on the basis of his knowledge of the two assassins alone.

"Knew them. They still have their weekly poker games?"

Chaz held up a hand to calm his agitated partner. "They do; Josh just gets a little uptight around them. There was a little mix-up about a year ago, and they came after him on what they thought was an assignment. Luckily the Director got to the Big Kahuna here before the psychos did and was able to convince them the whole thing had been a misunderstanding."

"Teach me never to try to pull one over on Double J again," Roberts muttered.

"Jackie," Chaz clarified at Vic's questioning look.

"Not a smart thing to do," the older man commented. "She was unbalanced when I knew her, and it seems that hasn't changed."

"Can't change a tiger's stripes," Josh shrugged. "What about the Director? What was he like..."

The ex-cop's question was drowned out by the slap of running feet, then a small, dark-haired figure pounced on Roberts. "Josh! Chaz! You're here!"

"Danny! My main man!" the older agent laughed, shifting his hold on the boy when he shifted positions, settling him on his lap before ruffling the child's short black hair.

The child squirmed around to get a look at the stranger in the kitchen, and his slightly slanted eyes narrowed in consideration. "My momma has a picture of you at her house."

"And who's your mother?" Victor asked, a queasy feeling roiling in his stomach as he studied the little boy's features, guessing the answer from the set of his high cheekbones and vaguely Oriental look.

"Daniel is Li Ann's son," Chaz explained quietly, when the youth didn't answer Victor's question. "Danny, this is Chief Mansfield; he was a friend of your mother's."

Daniel slid down from Josh's lap and walked around the table to stop in front of Victor. The a flash of light caught the young boy's dark eyes, and Vic realized that they weren't brown, as he had assumed, but a deep green, leading him to the obvious question of who the boy's father was.

"My momma died," he said quietly, staring up at Victor solemnly. "Daddy says I can't see her any more because of that."

Vic's throat tightened at that, and he nodded. "I know that if your momma could have done anything about it, she wouldn't have left you."

"She was always leaving," Daniel continued, switching emotional gears with the mercurial speed of the young. "That's why I live with Daddy."

"And your daddy lives where?"

Daniel looked at him as if he was crazy, and Vic could hear Josh and Chaz shifting in their chairs. "Here of course!"

"Daniel." The quiet word broke Victor out of his confusion, and he could only stare in helpless shock when the boy beamed and raced toward the man standing in the doorway. Mac and Li Ann had a son?

"You want to know about Daniel."

Vic contemplated taking a seat in one of the dark burgundy wing back chairs across from the massive mahogany desk, then decided against it, preferring to stand. "I want to know the truth about Daniel," he answered, looking at Mac, daring him to tell it.

"He's Li Ann's son," the younger man began, choosing his words with meticulous care. The mirrored sunglasses Mac still wore concealed his eyes and Vic longed to slap the frames from his face in order to better read his former partner.

"I know that; I want to hear the rest of it."

Victor watched as Mac leaned his elbows on the desk in front of him, rubbing at the bridge of his nose before continuing. "Daniel is her son. He's four years old, and I've raised him almost since he was born. She thought he would be safer here than where she was." He paused, then continued, straightening up once again, the muscles in his jaw tightening as he clenched his teeth for a split second. "And, no, I am not his biological father as you seem to believe. She never told me who was, and I didn't go looking."

"And if I say I don't believe you?" Vic crossed his arms over his chest, the soft cotton of his shirt rubbing against the bare skin of his arms like a memory of another touch from long ago.

"That's your choice in the matter, but it is the truth--as much of it as I know anyway."

Vic snorted softly at that and turned to study the view from the windows, the view lending a false sense of peace and serenity to the scene. "The Agency seems to make people to twist the truth around whichever way benefits them."

"Believe what you want, Victor," Mac finally answered. "The only thing I ask you is not to take how you feel about me out on Daniel. He doesn't deserve that and neither does Li Ann."

A small cavalcade of cars was moving up the driveway from the gate, and Victor waited until they disappeared from view in front of the house to answer. "I don't feel anything for you, so that shouldn't be a problem at all." The other man's soft sigh of defeat was music to Vic's ears. He glanced over his shoulder, hoping to see a change of expression on Mac's face, but the set of the other man's features remained as cool and distant as ever.

"The Head is here," Mac said, pushing back from his desk and rising from the chair. "You can come with me if you like, or I'll have someone take you back your room."

"Oh, I wouldn't miss this for anything," Vic shot back, suddenly morbidly curious to see the woman who had controlled his life for so many years.

By the time they reached the front of the mansion, the fleet of limos had disgorged their contents and vanished. The small crowd was scattered near the entryway, centred around a single person shielded by the bulk of the dark suited men surrounding her.

On some unheard signal, the men parted and Vic found himself with an unobstructed view of the woman who had saved his life at the cost of his freedom so long ago.

She looked smaller somehow--but perhaps it was simply that the force of her personality had caused her to seem larger in his memories. Otherwise she was much the same as he remembered; her toned and curved figure poured into a clinging designer creation, her auburn hair brushing her shoulders and her deep brown eyes holding no sign of life or emotion.

"Well, well." The husky words grated across Victor's already frayed nerves, but he held his ground. "Here's a sight I never thought I'd see again."

Vic heard Mac exhale sharply but, to his surprise, the younger man held his tongue.

"Welcome back, Victor. I do hope that we'll have time to catch up while we're here. I'm sure you can understand that there are other priorities at the moment."

"I understand," Vic replied coolly. "Though I doubt there will be time for that talk. I intend to be out of here as soon as possible."

The Head's gaze flicked from Vic to Mac then back again. She nodded to herself. "Of course you will. Now, Mac, update me on the situation.

The cemetery was small and private, located at the foot of a small hill and bordered on three sides by trees. A paved road closed the square, and it was up this trail that the hearse, limousine, and accompanying cars rolled, before pulling to a stop opposite the tent that sheltered the gravesite.

The ride from the church had been strained and silent, each of the car's occupants lost in their own thoughts, even little Daniel. The chauffeur turned off the engine, and Vic stepped out of the long, dark car, noting that there were several people who must be in the employee of the Agency scattered around the area, waiting for trouble.

Ingrained politeness made him wait for the Head and Jackie to leave the car. To his discomfort, the auburn-haired woman placed her hand on his arm as they navigated the well-tended grass to the tent. A mound of dirt covered by a length of artificial grass was off to the right of the shaded area, blocking the view in that direction. The sun baked down, the heat unseasonable for this time of the year, but not entirely unknown. There was barely a breath of a breeze to move the canvas above them.

Vic felt the first trickle of sweat roll down his back, but remained still, looking at the coffin, trying to ignore the fact that Mac was standing on his other side and the way that Daniel was clinging to his father.

The service was short but still passed by in a blur for Victor. The soft sounds of Daniel's tears and Mac's quiet reassurances kept distracting him from what the minister was saying. Finally it was over, the platitudes said, the condolences offered; all that remained was to lay a flower on the coffin and that would be goodbye.

A rose was placed in his hand, and Victor glanced down at it, not even noticing the colour until he saw the ones that Mac and Daniel held. White and yellow, to go with the red bloom he held in his hand. Coincidence? Hardly, not with the people he was dealing with. That didn't stop the sight from making him blink furiously before the tears could fall or keep his throat from closing as he held back the desire to vent his grief in a very loud and public manner.

Red roses and white. How many times, starting with that first, ill-fated meeting at Li Ann's apartment, had he seen the two together? And how ironic that the same flowers would be her last tribute.

After the Head had placed her peach coloured rose on the coffin, Daniel his yellow bud and Mac, his white flower, Vic stepped forward to lay his on the burnished metal lid. He barely had time to set the blossom in place when a shout from one of the observers caught his attention. There was a flash of light up the hill, like sunlight striking a mirror, then Vic found himself slammed to the ground next to the Head, Daniel wedged between them.

"Daddy!" the young boy wailed, fighting against their hold to get up and actually sinking his teeth into Vic's hand when he wouldn't release him. The sharp bark of gunfire sounded in the distance, followed quickly by a muffled thud as bullets impacted with the coffin.

Vic heard Mac grunt and forced himself to keep his head down, shielding the child who had given up trying to get free and was now sobbing. For long, tense moments they lay there, then Vic found himself looking at a pair of alligator pumps and a long expanse of tanned legs.

"They're gone," Jackie reported brusquely, helping the Head to her feet, her hands seeming, in Vic's opinion, to linger on the older woman as she brushed her suit clean.

"Up on the hill, single shooter," Mac added, striding up to them and scooping Daniel up from the ground, stroking the boy's back as he clung and hid his face in his father's neck. "They got away, but there are some good tire tracks up there.

Vic stared at the others incredulously. Someone had just tried to kill them; didn't they care? And Daniel... If the little boy wasn't traumatized by this event, Vic would eat his badge. He had opened his mouth to lay into Mac, when he noticed the stiff way the younger man was holding his left arm and the dark, wet appearance of the fabric.

"You've been shot." The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them--something Vic cursed himself for when Mac merely glanced down at the wound and shrugged. "It'll keep, this won't." Whether Mac meant his son's emotional state or the situation at hand, Vic didn't know, but he ranted silently the whole drive back to the mansion, avoiding looking at the younger man or the child curled up asleep in his lap.

Victor--

If you're reading this--well, you know what's happened as well as I do--and you know about Daniel. You probably don't understand why I did what I did in this matter, but trust me; I had my reasons.

I'm not going to rehash how it happened, I believe you remember that as well as I do. I'm not going to tell you why either; I know you're smart enough to figure it out in time--if you ask the right questions. All I ask you to remember is that while you're Daniel's biological father, Mac is the one who raised him, the one he sees as his father--the only one he has right now.

If you want a relationship with your son, you're going to have to learn to get along again.

It's funny, I always seem to be telling the two of you some version of that. I just never would have guessed how things would turn out all those years ago. It was all for the best, believe me.

So the choice is up to you for once. Think about it, but don't take too long; children have a way of growing up when you aren't looking, and the boy will quickly become a man.

You'll do what's right, Victor, I know it. Just remember to talk to Daniel about his mother every once in a while.

Love, Li Ann

Vic rested his head in his hands, closing his eyes to block out the sight of the plain linen stationery before him on the desk. He'd read Li Ann's letter at least a dozen times since returning to his room, but the contents never changed. He'd had no idea why Li Ann's lawyer requested that he be present at the reading of her will, and, from the looks on the faces of those around him, neither did the others.

The video recording had been short and to the point. Li Ann had never been one for excess, and this was true even in her last words. Daniel was to get her entire estate, and Mac was to have full custody of her son--and then came the final, shocking part of the tape, the revelation that he was Daniel's father.

He remembered the time she spoke and wrote of well, too well considering the amount of alcohol he'd consumed that night. By the time his former fiancée suggested they retire for the evening, it seemed the most natural thing in the world that they end up in bed together. Looking back at it, Vic had to admit he felt a bit of a vindictive thrill during the act, gaining a measure of self-respect back as he banished the memories of Mac's body with the different but familiar contours of Li Ann's.

It had just been that one time. The next day she returned to Toronto, leaving Vic with a kiss and the promise to keep in touch, something she had done regularly.

"She just left out one small bit of news..." Victor breathed, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands as he tried to force his tired mind to come to a decision regarding this matter. No matter how he felt about anything else, he had a son, and nothing could take that knowledge away from him. No matter if he never came back east again, part of him would always wonder how Daniel was doing, if he was happy and safe.

There was one more question that Victor had--one he could get an answer to if he so chose. Opening his eyes, Vic looked from the letter before him to the suit handing on the closet door and the now dried blood stains almost invisible against the black wool.

A distant clock sounded out the hour, and Vic slowly straightened up. Eleven o'clock; Mac would still be awake unless he'd given in and taken the pain medication the doctor offered. Somehow he doubted that this version of the younger man would do that though.

Glancing down a final time at the letter and his former lover's graceful signature, Victor closed his eyes and swallowed hard, fighting the knot in his throat that threatened to choke him. "I wish you'd told me, sweetheart," he whispered. Reaching out to touch the heavy paper before rising from his seat, Vic straightened his shoulders, schooled his expression into his hard ass chief-of-police look and headed out the door in search of information.

The hallways were dark and quiet, but he had no illusions that his movements through the huge mansion were unwatched. When Mac pulled open the door to his suite of rooms at his approach, Vic didn't even raise an eyebrow.

The two former lovers eyed each other like attack dogs in a new situation, on edge but not yet hostile, though the threat was there in the air. "Daniel is asleep," Mac stated flatly, barricading the doorway, his arms crossed across his chest.

Vic's gaze dropped to the white bandages around the younger man's upper arm, then moved to his face again, noting the fine lines of fatigue and strain around Mac's eyes. "I guessed as much. That wasn't why I came here."

The singular arched eyebrow tried Victor's patience sorely, but he held his temper, not wanting to show Mac how much he still affected him one way or another. "I want to talk to you about Daniel." Vic could have sworn he saw a fleeting glimpse of sorrow in Mac's dark eyes, then the other man stepped back out of the way, ushering him inside.

Mac waited until Vic was inside before shutting the door behind him. "Have a seat. Care for a drink?" The younger man picked up a snifter of brandy as he crossed back to the dark green leather furniture and the mission-style tables that flanked the chairs and sofa.

Vic was on the verge of declining when he thought better of it. Considering what they might discuss, a drink probably wouldn't hurt. "Yes. Scotch on the--"

"I know," Mac cut in, placing his own drink on one of the end tables before walking over to the bar to pour out the drink. Eyeing the placement of the other man's beverage, Vic took a seat as far away from it as possible in the seating group, nodding his thanks when Mac handed him the heavy crystal glass.

The two men stared at each other in a silence that deepened with each passing second until it was an almost visible barrier between them. Losing his patience with whatever game it was that Mac was playing, Vic downed half his Scotch in a gulp and leaned in. "Well?"

"Well what?" the Director replied, crossing one leg over the other, resting one wrist over his knee.

Damn, it was like the man was intentionally trying to bait him. "Did you know?"

Mac swirled the amber liquid in his snifter, then took a sip before shaking his head. "No. Li Ann never brought up the subject, so I never asked; there was no point."

"She gives you her child to raise, and you never bothered to ask who his father was?" the older man asked incredulously.

"No," Mac replied shortly. "Strange as it may seem to you, I had my own problems at that time, so investigating the parentage of her son wasn't high on my priority list. She knew who he was, and she made sure to keep that information to herself. I can see why, now."

Ignoring the hard look Victor gave him, Mac took another drink, then continued. "When she asked me to raise him..." The infinitesimal pause told Vic that Mac was mentally editing what he was going to say next. "It was the best thing for all of us at the time. I had a new position here; she was moving on and up. Of the two of us, my life was more secure." A pained expression twisted the younger man's face before being erased by the cool demeanour of the Agency employee once more.

"Why didn't she tell me?" Even as he asked the question, Victor knew that the other man wouldn't have any answers for him on that account.

"I don't know." Mac looked down at his glass, and for the first time Victor saw signs of his former partner; the man he had loved so much that losing him had almost killed him. "What are you going to do?"

Now it was Vic's turn to look away. He glanced toward the marble mantle over the cold fireplace and took in the collection of framed photographs there. Pictures that documented the life of a son he hadn't known existed twelve hours ago. "I do know that the Agency twists everyone in and around it, and I don't want that for him."

"Believe what you choose, Victor," Mac sighed, standing and crossing to the fireplace, looking down at the pictures Vic had been studying, and then back at the older man. "Just remember that he's been raised by twisted people thus far in his life, and he seems happy enough."

Vic stood as well, leaving his empty glass on the table beside his chair. He crossed to the door and placed his hand on the knob before looking back over his shoulder. "We both know how fast happiness can vanish, don't we?" Pulling the door open, he left, not knowing if Mac had anything to say in answer to that and not sure he wanted to hear it if he had.

Well. That was entertaining. Damnit, Li Ann, how could you do that to him--to me? Did you really think the truth would never come out? Obviously you were prepared for the eventuality, or you'd never have written that letter.

Now that I know, I can't believe that I didn't see it before. The shape of his eyes, the ivory skin; those are yours, little sister, but the rest... No wonder I have a hard time saying no to him when he looks up at me, tears gleaming but not yet falling. Maybe subconsciously I knew--or maybe not. It's immaterial now.

What matters is what action Victor is going to take. If he tries to take Daniel away from me, he's in for a hell of a fight. I lost him; I'm not losing my son.

Maybe he's right though; the Agency twists everyone and everything around it to some degree. Do I want that for my son? It never bothered Li Ann, and I certainly never thought about it before. He's happy, bright and healthy; that's all that matters, right?

Right?

Cursing quietly, Vic stopped at the intersection of two corridors, trying to pinpoint just where in the mansion he was. After leaving Mac's suite, he'd been too distracted to pay attention to the direction he had turned and, as a result, he was in a part of the building he didn't recognize.

Nothing looked familiar. Vic rubbed at the bridge of his nose in frustration. Hearing his name hissed from the shadows of one of the nearby rooms made him spin in place, every muscle tensed for a confrontation. Peering into the gloom, he groaned to himself, recognizing the speaker as he moved out into the hall.

"I know you'd come back." Try as he might, Vic couldn't detect any changes in Nathan's appearance. The researcher was still pale, thin, and paranoid looking as ever. In one hand he held an inhaler and in the other, a thick sheaf of papers. "Did the Council send you?"

"No, Nathan, I..." Oh, what was the point? If he disagreed, the other man would keep him here half the night trying to pry information out of him. But perhaps...

Raising a finger to his lips, feeling every bit as ridiculous as he had whenever he'd had to play this game before, Vic gestured Nathan closer. "Certain things have to be remedied. The situation is very delicate here. I'm sure you understand."

At Nathan's wide-eyed nod, Vic clapped him on the back, making the lanky researcher jump. "If--if there's anything I can do to help..."

Victor nodded sagely. "I know you're a loyal man, and there is one thing."

Nathan's face lit up like a Christmas tree, and Vic fought to keep from moaning. Who knew what the other man was going to make of this request?

"Show me where my rooms are."

Nathan's watery eyes narrowed, then he nodded, moving to grab Vic's arm before re-thinking the move. "I understand. The molecular reorganization can take a while to recover from; disorientation is a common side effect."

Vic managed a sickly smile and followed Nathan down the hallway, making non-committal replies to the questions he was asked and breathing out a sigh of relief when he had the door shut with Nathan on the other side.

"All right, talk to me."

From his seat at the far end of the long, mahogany table, Vic watched his former partner call the meeting to order. Jackie sat to her Director's right and the Head to his left. Josh and Chaz occupied the other chairs along the sides of the table, both agents looking as if they would rather be anywhere else other than this.

When no one spoke up, Jackie flipped open a palm top computer and pressed several keys. An overhead screen slid noiselessly from the ceiling. Once it was in place, a recessed video feed displayed two magnified photographs on it.

"The bullet on the left is from the first incident; the one on the right was recovered from yesterday's shooting." Her fingers flew over the keyboard and several areas of each casing were highlighted.

"They're a match," Josh murmured.

"Thank you, Mr. Roberts," Jackie said snidely, making him slump down into his chair and shoot an appealing look at his partner.

Vic glanced at the Head, who was taking in everything around her but remaining quiet. Too quiet.

"Same gun, same shooter, different targets," Jackie continued. "First Li Ann, then Victor."

"Wait a--" Vic began, only to fall silent when a new image appeared on the screen.

"Based on the angle of the shot where it entered the coffin and the location of the shell casings we found, it appears that you were the intended target, Chief Mansfield."

The view from the windows of his room was of the wide expanse of lawn behind the mansion, and Vic stared moodily at it, watching as Daniel's nanny tossed a ball back and forth to the little boy. He couldn't hear their laughter, but it was plain that they were both having a good time, a fact that squeezed a fist around his heart for some reason.

A few delicate questions had given him some information about Daniel's baby-sitter, ones he wasn't sure if he should be pleased or angry about. Anna was an Agency employee and a fully trained one at that, but considering her obvious affection for the boy, Vic supposed there still must be something human left in her.

He watched as the ball rolled past Daniel and, as he ran to get it, how the grey-haired woman's eyes scanned the area. Even though the compound was supposed to be secure, she wasn't taking anything for granted. He guessed he should be pleased about that.

"Victor darling, you seem a bit at loose ends. I'm surprised you haven't offered to aid in the investigation."

God, not this, not now.

Vic sighed and turned away from the window to find the Dir--the Head--lounging in the wing backed chair nearest the door. The sense of déjà vu that struck him then was the strongest yet, and for a split second he almost believed that things were as they had been, that any moment the door would open and Mac and Li Ann would walk in, that they would be a team again.

Unfortunately the feeling passed as quickly as it came, and a look of cool resignation filled Victor's eyes. "I did. I was told my assistance wasn't necessary, that things were under control."

One perfectly formed auburn eyebrow swept upward at that. "If that's the case, then why are you still here? The funeral is over; the will has been read; go home."

"I--" The fury that filled Vic's voice drained away and he collapsed into a seat, his head bowed. "I don't know; I wish I did." He straightened his back and lifted his eyes to meet her gaze. "I'm beginning to believe that things would have been better if I hadn't come back at all."

"Really?" The Head made a show of brushing a piece of invisible lint from her form-fitting suit, then examining her manicure. "And why would that be?"

Vic opened his mouth to let loose a tirade against everyone involved in the Agency but was cut off when the Head waved her hand and rose gracefully from her chair. "Never mind, dear. I'm sure the details would just bore me. I do have a little something for you; perhaps it will help you understand your dilemma a bit better."

Leaning over and, Victor was sure, purposefully flashing quite a view of her cleavage, the Head picked up a small package from the arm of the chair and placed it on the table between their chairs. "I doubt you'll have any questions once you've watched them all. If, however, you do, I'm sure you'll know who to take them to."

That said, the auburn-haired woman rose and made her way to the door, using a walk that would make any runway model jealous. Once she was out of the room, Vic leaned over and picked up the small package, recognizing the small disks within the cases as the type that stored video feed. The only question was, did he want to watch what was on them?

"What?"

Chaz shot his partner a glance, then stepped forward, offering his palmtop and its file of digital photos for the Director's inspection. "We traced the car to this woman," he began carefully. "Her name is..."

"Claire Holland," Mac rasped out, fighting to keep his expression blank as he looked down at various shots of the woman he once almost married going into and out of a warehouse address the SUV they had investigated was registered to.

It was too unreal to be a coincidence, but could the Claire he knew have done all this? Maybe not the woman he had thought he loved, Mac was forced to admit to himself, but he hadn't seen her in almost ten years. Time, as he well knew, changed people, and not always for the better.

"You want us to keep her under surveillance?" Josh asked. The older agent had moved up to stand by his partner while Mac had been lost in thought, and the way Kelso was looking at him had Mac thinking they both believed he was losing it.

"Yes, I want her under surveillance," he snapped before taking a deep breath, regaining his control. "I want to know where she is twenty-four hours a day, and do not let her know we're watching. I also want this kept between us for right now. If I hear of a leak, I know who to come looking for, understand?"

"Yessir," the two agents muttered as one before backing out of the office, looking patently relieved to have escaped from the Monk's clutches so easily.

Mac waited until the doorway was empty, then sat heavily at his desk, his face cradled in his hands. "Jesus, Claire, what are you doing? What are you doing--and why now?"

The small plastic cases felt heavy in Vic's hand, seeming to carry the weight of five long, lonely years with them. Did he want to do this? By all rights he shouldn't give a flying fuck what the Head wanted him to see. He'd done his time, paid his pound of flesh--straight from his heart--what did he care?

"I have a life, damnit!" he shouted. A life this shit wasn't a part of. Banff had been a chance to start clean again, to find the person he'd been before the corruption on the force and the Agency's machinations had twisted him. It would have been perfect too if Mac had wanted him more than the adrenaline rush of the job, but obviously that hadn't been the case.

Chin firming as he made his decision, Vic carried the disks over to the garbage, intending to throw them away. The only problem was that his hand refused to open. Glaring at the mutinous body part as if it had a mind of its own, he spat out a round of curses and stormed back to the television, grabbing the decanter of Scotch that had been left there and a glass. He slipped the disks into the slot and threw himself back on the couch, remote and drink at hand.

"Watch where you're pointing that thing!"

The laughing voice coming from the speakers startled Victor, making him jump, then wince as he recognized it as his own. The video came up and he found himself staring at a scene from eight years in the past. The camera must have been somewhere in the dining room, because half of the shot was blocked by the cabinets, but the audio was crystal clear.

"C'mon, don't tell me you're afraid of a little water!"

He couldn't remember the exact occasion, it had been someone's birthday or anniversary or something, and he'd been corralled into hosting a get together--one that lasted until the wee hours of the morning. Amazingly, Mac had offered to stay and help with the cleanup and then...

"Don't you even think about it!"

"Think about what?"

The sound of spraying water grew louder, then was drowned out by a howl of outrage. "I'm gonna get you for that, Ramsey!"

Turning away from the scene, Vic thumbed the remote, but not before he heard his partner's laughed out, "Promises, promises." And that had been the start of it.

"What is the point of this?" Vic muttered steeling himself against the pain that was making long, bloody inroads against his hard won peace of mind. "And why am I doing what she wants?"

His thumb slipped off the fast forward and the screen flickered before resolving into another scene from his life. All that was visible was two sets of sock clad feet, one hanging off the side of an over-stuffed armchair, one on the floor. The rustle of a newspaper was interspersed by the soft murmurs of conversation and, every so often, spans of silence that were followed by sighs of pleasure.

Sunday morning.

It didn't matter which one; that was the routine they'd developed. Grab the paper and curl up together, pointing bits of interesting news out until the closeness got the best of them and they tore back to the bedroom--or simply jumped one another right there.

Another stab at the remote lurched the scene into high speed, and Vic looked away, blinking away tears he refused to shed.

"Oh God, just like that. So good."

"Love you, baby. God..."

The moaned out words and wet slap of flesh was too much for Vic. He switched to the next disk, draining his tumbler and filling it again before the next act of the tragedy of his life started.

A distorted sound burst from the speakers and was followed by an annoyed muttering. "Who now? I don't have time for this!" Vic looked cautiously at the screen and saw Mac cross in front of the hidden camera, stepping around half-filled cartons to get to the door.

The apartment looked like a bomb had gone off in it, the contents of the shelves in disarray; the tables piled high with Cds, knicknacks and Vic's 8-track player. It had to be just before he moved, but also before Mac decided not to go; otherwise, the younger man wouldn't have been there.

"What?" Mac opened the door, then groaned. The reason became apparent when the person on the other side swung the door open wider and swayed inside.

"Love what you've done with the place," the Director purred, running a finger over what was visible of the dining room table and examining her skin for dust. "Post-modern Armageddon, very tasteful."

Curious, and against his better judgement, Vic leaned forward, wondering what this had to do with whatever point the she-devil was trying to make.

"Is this just a general torture session, or is there a purpose to this visit?" Mac sighed, standing behind the sofa, keeping the furniture between himself and the Director.

She laughed at that and picked up a tape, examining the label before tossing it back onto the pile. "I never do anything without a purpose, Malcolm, you should know that after all this time. I was just wondering if you had given this little move of yours and Victor's any serious thought?"

Mac looked incredulous at that. "Yes," he replied sarcastically, "I know more about Banff than I do about Toronto at this point. The decision is made; if you weren't going to let us leave, you should have thought of it a lot sooner. Colour us gone as of next week."

The Director tapped a fingernail against her chin, then pursed her lips. "I know you've looked at the place you're going, but what about the people? What do you think of them?"

"They seemed nice enough. Vic likes the people he's going to be working with, and they respect him. He's going to be a cop again--doing what he wants."

"But have you considered what those 'nice people' are going to think and do when they find out that their new chief of police has a man for a domestic partner--for a lover?"

"That shouldn't matter," Mac argued, but there was a bit of hesitation in his voice and Vic could see the uncertainty in his eyes before he turned away from the camera. "He's the best for the position; they know that."

"Dear boy, it shouldn't matter, but it does. Those same people who will welcome our Victor with open arms will begin finding reasons to snub him the minute your relationship comes to light. He'll quickly change from the hero of that town to the one the mothers warn their children about."

Vic could see the muscles bunching in Mac's shoulders through the fabric of his shirt as he struggled to hold his temper, but the Director continued on mercilessly. "How friendly a town will it be when people cross the street to get away from you when they see you coming? What will you do the first time someone eggs your house or spray paints 'faggot' on your cars? What will happen the first time one of the 'good old boys' picks a fight with either one of you when you're out to dinner?"

"Just... Just get out of here," Mac rasped, leaning heavily on the back of the sofa for support.

"It was just something I wanted you to think over; no need to change your mind about leaving." The Director smiled benignly, then glided out of the apartment, pulling the door shut behind her.

The now-silent video feed continued, but Vic wasn't seeing the television any longer. He was caught up in the memory of what had happened next. How his life had fallen apart when he come home that night to find out that his lover had suddenly decided that he didn't want to move out to the 'back end of nowhere'.

"You bitch..." he growled, bitter bile creeping up his throat because of the churning in his stomach. "Had to stick your nose in where it wasn't wanted. And you listened to her, you goddamn bastard!" If Mac had only talked to him, they could have figured out a way to handle the potential problem together, but no, the asshole had to go off on his martyr kick, turning both their lives to bloody messes.

The thought of that last horrific fight flashed across Vic's mind and he winced at the hateful things they had both said. "Goddamn it, Mac, we were supposed to trust each other..."

The television screen switched to a solid slate blue when Vic hit the power button for the video feed. After setting the remote on the coffee table, he sat staring at the blank screen with unseeing eyes.

"Damn you." Vic wasn't sure if he was cursing the Head, Mac, himself, or all three. What he did know was that he was good goddamn sick of the Agency and everything about it. It was the same reason that had burned him out and moved him to get out in the first place and now to find that the Director had a hand in Mac's reneging on his promise to go with him...

Once again furious at his former lover, Vic was on his feet and out the door before he realized it. He stormed down the hallway, knocking impatiently at the door to the younger man's suite. No one answered, so Vic banged again--slightly harder but not the full out pounding he wanted to indulge in as Daniel was asleep somewhere in there.

Cursing when his knocking went unanswered, Vic tried the knob. To his surprise it was unlocked, and the door swung open when he turned the handle.

The living room was dark and silent, the only illumination coming from the moonlight shining through the tall windows. After taking a second to orient himself, Vic crept toward the door on the left side of the room, sure that it had to lead to Mac's room. The one other time he had been in here, he had glimpsed children's toys through the other door, so it was probably Daniel's.

Telling himself that he was doing this only because he wanted to know the truth, Vic eased open the door, stepped forward, and found himself flat on his back with the barrel of a pistol shoved under his chin and Mac's long body weighing down his torso.

"Jesus, Victor." The other man's voice was filled with tension, and he sat up, clicking the safety on the gun and placing it on a nearby table. "What the fuck are you doing here?"

"I came," Victor grated, suddenly all too aware of the younger man's weight over him and of the fact that all Mac was wearing was a pair of soft, loose pants, "to talk to you. Is it my fault that you don't answer your goddamn door?"

"And is it my fault that you should know better than to go barging in where you aren't wanted?" Mac snarled back.

A slight shift in the other man's weight as well as the memory of what he had seen on the videos gave Victor the ammunition he needed to goad his former lover, and he barked out a harsh laugh. "Doesn't seem like you don't want me here, Ramsey. Not from where I am anyway."

"Don't fuck with me, Victor," Mac said ominously. "Not tonight."

"Why not? You've certainly fucked with me enough over the years. Maybe it's my turn to get some back."

What Vic wanted was to force Mac into a corner so that he could demand an explanation for what had happened between them. What he got was something else entirely.

"You want some back? Go ahead and take it--or maybe I'll just do it instead." Before Vic could respond to the growled out challenge, Mac was on him, kissing him with a passion and ferocity that sent every bit of blood in his body arrowing toward his groin and his now rock hard erection.

"Goddamn it, Mac," the older man gasped once his former partner took a break from trying to swallow his tonsils, "that's not what I meant."

Instantly, the cool, remote, mask slid down over Mac's expression. "Then just what did you mean?" he asked.

"That you... I... Fuck it." Giving up on rational thought, Victor grabbed Mac by the shoulders and pulled him downward to ravage the younger man's mouth just as fully as his had been taken moments before.

God, it had been so long... Mac tasted of mint and brandy and remembered nights spent exploring each other until they were both boneless. The rush of memories drew a moan from deep in Vic's chest, and he tightened his hold on the other man, determined that this time he wasn't going to get away.

Thankfully, Mac didn't seem to be trying to do that at all. On the contrary, he was now plastered flat on top of Vic's body, one of his hands buried in the older man's hair while the other one delved under his shirt to stroke and knead the muscles of his back.

"So long. So fucking long..." The words were a hoarse whisper against his skin, and Vic nodded blindly, arching upward against Mac's body to rub their erections together. The layers of cloth separating their flesh were a frustrating impediment, and Vic prepared to make mention of the fact when Mac suddenly pulled back.

The younger man growled out a curse as he stared down at Victor, the words barely audible over the rasping of their breath. His desire was clearly evident; both in the way his eyes had darkened to mahogany and by the hard length pressing against Vic's hip. But, even as Victor watched, it was as if a switch was flipped inside the other man, banking the fire raging within him.

In a sudden, supple, move, Mac rolled off Vic to sit with his back against the side of the bed. "You need to leave," he said flatly.

Vic slowly pushed himself to a seated position, his eyes never leaving the younger man's shadowed face. An icy chill settled inside him, bringing with it a strengthening of purpose even as it clutched his soul.

"Why?"

Mac flicked a glance in his direction at that, plainly not anticipating an argument on the matter. "Because it's late and neither one of us is thinking rationally. I would have thought that was rather obvious."

"Cut the shit. I'm not the one who was stuffing their tongue down someone else's throat not two minutes ago."

"Oh really?" Mac's expression was one of patent disbelief.

"Don't get wise with me, damnit. I want an explanation, and I want it now. You owe me this and you know it. Why did you stay here?"

The younger man ran his hand through his hair, a gesture that revealed more to Victor about his state of mind than he knew. "I told you. I wasn't up to moving to the west end of nowhere. Not for you or anyone."

Vic fought the old pain and anger that threatened to sweep over him. "Bullshit."

"Fine. Don't believe me, that's your prerogative, Chief Mansfield."

"I don't believe you, Director Ramsey. I know the truth."

Mac scoffed at that. "And just what is that? You seemed happy enough to believe the other five years ago."

"Things change," Vic replied flatly. "People change. I'm sure you of anyone understands that."

"You know why I didn't go?" At Victor's slight nod, Mac continued. "Then obviously you can understand why I made the choice I did. You had a fresh chance; I wasn't going to let you fuck it up."

Victor's whole body went still at that. "You weren't going to let me fuck it up? And just who gave you the right to decide who and what was best for me?"

The younger man sighed. "It was what you wanted. You're a cop, Victor; if you hadn't have gotten out when you did, it would have killed you."

"I wanted you, you asshole," Vic ranted quietly, glaring at Mac. "If the town couldn't handle it, we could have gone somewhere else."

"Again and again."

"Do you know that Banff has a good sized gay community?" Vic offered the question up as a challenge and was perversely pleased at the slight widening of Mac's eyes that told him he hadn't.

"It does and guess what, those people aren't harassed or tormented or shunned. Amazing, isn't it?"

"'Those people' aren't the chief of police."

"Yes, they are."

Mac's expression turned unbelieving. "What? Do you have a nice little rainbow sticker in the window of your cruiser?"

Vic rubbed his forehead, immensely tired of all the games. "No. I also don't date, not that it matters to you."

"Guess the ladies out there are smart." It was a brief flash of the old Mac, and Vic was stunned.

"They ask; I just haven't been interested. Our radio operator is constantly trying to fix me up with her daughter."

"So why don't you just accept?"

"She's my deputy chief, and I've learned not to mix my private and work lives."

"Ahh." Mac was quiet after that, seemingly lost in his own thoughts.

"Besides, I tell them that Margo takes up all my time."

"Margo?"

"My dog," Vic admitted with a small smile. "I couldn't--didn't want to be alone, couldn't sleep. She's been a life saver."

"Who's watching her now?"

"Stacy--my deputy."

Mac was silent again, then he managed a laugh. "Let me guess, you rescued her from the pound."

"Well..."

"What is it with you and wounded doves, Mansfield?"

Vic shrugged. "I can't change what I am."

"Sometimes you can, if you try hard enough."

"What? Like you deciding that you knew what's best for me?"

"It was for the best."

Vic bit back a caustic retort, waiting until he could reply calmly before answering. "That's a matter of opinion. I hated you, you know."

"I know."

"I wanted to make you hurt like I did; I hoped Li Ann went back and told you what happened."

"I know."

"And now..."

"Now?"

"Now I don't know what to think. I don't know what you think; I'm not even sure I know you any more."

"That makes two of us." Mac sighed when Vic simply nodded, then rested a hand on the older man's back, stopping when Victor tensed almost imperceptibly. "Sorry." This was added as he sat up, staring out into the room, his tone betraying nothing of what he was feeling.

"It's not..." Vic began, fighting the conflicting desires threatening to make him scream. "It's just hard to comprehend all this." In an effort to breach the walls that were rapidly reforming between them, Vic reached out and put his hand on Mac's shoulder, feeling the raised scar tissue he had noticed earlier.

"What happened?" the older man asked, unable to keep the concern from his voice. The lines of the scar were smooth, but oddly angled and connected so that they almost felt like...

"Told you I went a little crazy with you gone." Vic could feel the stretch in Mac's shoulder as he leaned over to the bedside table and flipped on the light. The small reading lamp provided enough light to illuminate a small circle around it, and Vic leaned in closer, his eyes narrowing as he stared at the intersecting lines.

"So you carved some letters in your arm?"

Mac actually chuckled at that, and twisted his arm to look at the pale markings on his shoulder. "No, I didn't do that." Seeing Victor waiting patiently for an explanation, Mac pulled a pillow off the bed, shoved it behind him and leaned back against it, noting that the other man hadn't moved his hand from his arm yet.

Shaking himself out of his reverie, Mac tried again. "To say I was taking crazy risks was an understatement. She finally got tired of it and loaned me out to another organization. I think she figured that the assignment would kill me or wake me up."

He stopped and rubbed at his forehead with his free hand, fearful that moving the other one would cause Victor to shift away again. "The first almost happened and that's what gave me a kick in the ass--well, that and the guy I was partnered with. Now he was psycho. Must have been pretty funny to watch, actually. The two of us out there semi-trying not to get killed because the men we--because of things that had happened in our lives. I think it was dumb luck we both survived."

Mac fell silent, and Vic waited quietly until he couldn't take it anymore. "And then?"

The younger man laughed mirthlessly. "And then we found a hotel room and fucked each other blind. Trust me, the psych guys would have had a field day with it--survival reaction, transference, all those lovely little catch phrases came into play."

"Then you let him slice your arm up?" Vic asked in disbelief.

Mac shook his head, glancing down at the scar again. "It wasn't anything I didn't do to him. Somewhere around four in the morning, after our second bottle of vodka, we came to a decision. Since we never were going to have the people we wanted, we were going to forget 'em and remember the ones who did--want us I mean." He took in Vic's shocked expression and chuckled softly. "It was late, we were drunk and still on an adrenaline rush--a bad combination as you well know."

"Things happen," Vic answered quietly, wondering if this evening fell under that category and knowing for him at least, it didn't. "Did you ever see him again?"

"No. His organization was even weirder than the Agency, if you can believe it. Once I had access, I did try to find out what had happened to him, but the whole thing seemed to have disbanded."

Victor felt a lead weight settle in his stomach, but gamely continued. "That's too bad."

"Yeah..." Mac nodded, "I would like to know if he ever got his man--though that's more of a line for the guy he was in love with than him, fit the job description better."

Vic nodded without really understanding what his former partner was talking about. Tearing his eyes away from the angular letters carved in the younger man's shoulder, he let his hand drop back to the floor, very conscious that he had left it there the whole time Mac had been talking. "So you came back here, and then what?"

"That all happened about nine months after--" Here Mac paused, his dark eyes cutting to Vic's face, then away. "Everything. When I came back, Li Ann had some news for me as well as the edict that I had better get my shit together because I was the one who was going to raise my niece or nephew." He looked at Victor's shocked expression and nodded. "That was exactly what I thought at the time."

"Trust Li Ann to know what was best for you," Vic mused, flashing back on the letter she had written him.

"It was. Scared the crap out of me, but it also made me wake up and face some things I hadn't been able to before. She was eight months pregnant when the Head and Dobie were killed and..."

"And you had a new job."

"Exactly--and five weeks after that I had a son."

My son, Victor thought, biting back the bitter words before they slipped off his tongue.

Mac must have caught something in the older man's expression, because the small bit of humour that had stayed in his eyes faded away. "If I had known..." Shaking his head, Mac sighed. "I don't know what I would have done."

"Told me, I hope," Vic said. He started to stand, holding up a hand when Mac moved to protest. "It's late, and a lot has happened tonight. I need--we both need time to think about this, and I don't think you want Daniel coming in to see his daddy like this, right?"

"Right." Mac got to his feet and walked Vic to the door, pausing before opening it fully. "I would have told you."

Vic gazed up at the taller man, then nodded. "I know," he said, before easing through the door and moving down the hall toward his own rooms.

After a nearly sleepless night, Vic was profoundly glad that there was a pot of fresh coffee in the kitchen and that everyone else seemed to be otherwise occupied when he made his way there. Taking a sip of the steaming beverage, he closed his eyes and leaned his head against the back of the wooden chair. Everything he had learned yesterday kept tumbling around in his head, filling his thoughts and derailing them when he should have been working on a way to make the Agency include him in whatever they were planning.

"Ummm, Victor? Are you all right?"

The quiet, hesitant question drew a groan from Vic and he sat up, opening his eyes to see Nathan peering at him nervously. "I'm fine, Nathan, just a little tired is all." Maybe, just maybe the other man would take the hint and leave him alone.

Wrong.

"Oh," Nathan replied, nodding seriously. "I can understand that. With what happened last night and all..." He paused, shifting from one foot to the other, darting quick looks toward Vic, then around the kitchen. "Things will be better. I mean, now that you and your consort have gotten back together..."

The researcher's voice died off at the disbelieving look in Victor's eyes, and he stammered out something unintelligible, blushing an unflattering shade of red. "I--I--you--I'd better get back to work."

Vic nodded, still unable to answer Nathan due to sheer shock and watched as the other man scurried out of the room, heading off to wherever he was working. Consort? Vic asked himself, banging his forehead with the heel of his hand, wondering where Nathan had come up with that one. He froze, frowning, when a more important question crossed his mind. Just how the hell had Nathan known what had happened last night?

Restless, Vic prowled the first level of the mansion, needing some kind of distraction to keep his mind occupied. He'd spent the morning working with Jackie of all people, going over old records to see if there was a pattern in any of the threats that somehow found their way to the Agency. As far as investigative work went, it wasn't much, but Vic kept at it, determined to find some link that would lead them to Li Ann's killer.

According to Jackie, Josh and Chaz were in the field checking on a possible informant, and Mac was closeted with the Head, discussing strategy. Anna had taken Daniel to the science museum to keep the young boy occupied and out of the way, so that left her to 'babysit the cop' as the former mob boss so quaintly put it.

Four hours of looking at old transcripts, letters and e-mails proved to be too much for her, however. With a disgusted snort that was at odds with her appearance, Jackie stood, gathering up the folders and telling Vic he was on his own for the afternoon. So here he was, wandering through the library, peering in the small offices outside the massive, high-ceilinged, room, growing more frustrated by the minute. He was on the verge of going in search of the room Mac and the Head were ensconced in when the sound of a disturbance in the main hall drew his attention.

"I told you that you aren't to leave." The Head's voice was harsh and commanding. A tone, Vic knew, that said she wasn't fooling.

"And I told you I am." Vic made it to the doorway in time to see Mac barrel by the petite woman, storming toward the door.

Spying Victor, the Head rested her fists on her hips, her eyes narrow, her lips a thin gash of red on her face. "This is just what she wants. If you leave, you're walking into her hands."

"Goddamn it," Mac roared, spinning around to glare at her. "My son is in the hospital! I don't care if she's sitting outside with a fucking bazooka; I'm going to him!"

That news galvanized Vic into action. "What are you talking about? What happened to Daniel?"

Faced with two antagonistic men, the Head merely sighed. "It seems that little Daniel and his nanny were in a car accident. He's fine, just a few bumps and bruises. Anna has a concussion so they want to keep her for observation. I was going to send agents to bring Daniel back here and watch over the nanny, but Mac, being the impulsive boy that he is, wants to go get him himself. Have you ever heard of something so foolish?"

Vic looked from the Head's benign expression to Mac's strained, seething one and made his decision. "You need backup, let's go."

Not noticing that the Head's protest died off before they had even made it out the door, the two men rushed for a car and sped toward the hospital, for the moment united by their concern for the young boy.

Knowing that Mac was too upset to drive, Vic slid behind the wheel, ignoring the younger man's protests. Once they were off the back streets and on the highway, he glanced over at Mac, who was brooding and unconsciously rubbing the small bulge his gun made under his jacket. "I have one question for you, and if you don't answer me straight, I'll put you out of this car right now, and you can walk the rest of the way to the hospital."

Mac looked up at that, his forehead creased with a frown. "What?"

"Who the fuck is 'she'?"

The younger man slumped against the seat and the lines of tension around his eyes deepened. Vic waited silently, his own sense of unease growing exponentially at each second that ticked by without an answer.

"Claire." Mac's voice was a broken rasp.

"Claire? As in that munitions dealer you almost married?" Mac grunted out an affirmative and Vic's fingers tightened in the leather-covered steering wheel so hard that they left indentations behind.

"How long have you known?"

"Since yesterday."

"And when were you planning on giving me this tidbit of information?"

"Once she was in custody."

"When were you going after her?"

"Day after tomorrow."

Vic let loose with a round of blistering curses. "Understand this, Ramsey. I'm going in with you, or I'll blow your plan out of the water, understand?"

"Fine." To Vic's ears, Mac sounded tired, defeated. "You're in."

"Damn right."

Feeling vaguely ill at ease, Vic settled himself into one of the comfortable chairs near the fireplace, still unsure as to why he was here at all. After he and Mac had retrieved Daniel from the hospital and returned to the mansion, the boy had refused to let either of them out of his sight, demanding that Victor stay with them. Shaken by the accident, Daniel refused to let Mac out of touching range except for the few moments he moved to Vic's side.

In one of those brief respites, Mac met with Jackie, speaking in hushed tones, finalizing the plans for the mission while Vic attempted to distract Daniel. The bandage on the little boy's forehead and the bruise on his cheek were luckily the worst of his injuries, but even so, Vic felt a rush of hatred for the woman who had attempted to harm his son.

All through dinner, Vic argued back and forth with himself as to what he was going to do about the situation when he went back to Banff. It would have been easier to walk away before, but now he'd been drawn in. He cared about the small child sitting curled up on Mac's lap, his dark head tucked under the other man's chin while he blinked and yawned, fighting sleep. Cared for Daniel, God help him, almost as much as he did for the man holding him.

"Bed time, Danny-boy," Mac said quietly, giving the child a tender smile that made Vic's heart clench.

"Read me a story?" Daniel asked, rubbing at his eyes.

"You've got it."

"Him too," Daniel added, peering over at Victor seriously.

At Mac's slight frown and questioning glance, Vic bit back his original answer. "I don't know if I'd be any good at reading stories."

"You will," Daniel said knowledgeably, "Daddy can teach you. You helped him, now he can help you." The boy looked from one man to the other, his forehead wrinkling when he took in their identical perplexed expressions. "When you came and got me. You kept Daddy safe, now he can help you."

"Oh." Vic's answer was echoed by Mac, who stood, scooping Daniel up in his arms.

"Looks like you've been drafted," the younger man said gruffly, motioning for Vic to follow, then walking toward Daniel's room.

In a short time the boy was changed, had brushed his teeth, washed his face and was curled up in his bed, clutching a large stuffed dog to his chest. "Momma gave me him," he said, his expression falling momentarily. "Because I can't have one yet. Do you have a dog?"

Vic nodded. "Her name is Margo; she's about as tall as you are."

"Can I see her?"

"What'll it be tonight, sir?" Mac cut in before sitting on the bed opposite to Victor, Daniel in between them.

"The cat book," Daniel replied promptly.

"The Cat in the Hat," Mac explained for Vic's information as he plucked a worn copy of the book off the bookshelf. "Want me to go first?"

Daniel nodded and Vic sat, listening, while his former lover read the children's book, giving each of the characters a different voice. When Mac stopped reading and held out the book, he hesitated a moment before accepting it, then launched into the rest of the tale, attempting to bring the characters to life as the other man had.

"You did good," Daniel smiled when Vic had finished, then cuddled deeper into his bed, yawning.

"Time to go to sleep." Mac ruffled the boy's dark hair, then tenderly stroked it into place and leaned in to kiss him. "Want the night light on?"

Daniel nodded, then looked over at Victor expectantly. Guessing what the boy wanted, he offered a wan smile and gave Daniel a quick peck on the cheek then stood.

"G'night, Chief Victor," he murmured. "G'night, Daddy. Love you."

"Love you too, Danny-boy," Vic heard from the doorway. "Always."

"And forever."

Vic waited until Mac let the room, pulling the door mostly shut behind him. "He's a good kid."

"Despite being raised by twisted people?" Mac asked, though the words didn't carry any venom.

"I'm sorry about that crack."

Mac half-smiled. "Don't worry, it's true. Want a drink?"

"I think I need one," Vic admitted, waiting until Mac handed him his tumbler before speaking again. "I'd like the chance to get to know him more."

A fleeting expression of pain crossed the younger man's face, then he turned away to lean against the hearth, his attention fixed on the photographs there. "I suppose that's your right."

His voice sounded dead, and Vic moved to the other end of the fireplace, disquieted by the bleak expression on Mac's face. "I don't mean that I want to take him away from you, just that..." Sighing in frustration at not being able to articulate what he wanted, Vic picked up the nearest picture, one of Daniel sitting on Mac's shoulders in the middle of a pool somewhere.

A soft noise as he moved the frame caught Vic's attention. Curious, he looked back at the mantle, spotting a jumble of gold that had been hidden by the photo. Setting the picture aside, he picked up the tangle, recognition coming like a blow as he stirred the oddly bent strands lying in his palm. He'd never been able to get the knack of putting the 36 strand puzzle ring together, something that had brought Mac no end of amusement when the other man had gifted him with it on their first anniversary.

After several fumbled attempts at getting all the individual parts into place only to have the ring dissolve into a mass of unrecognizable metal, he'd given it to Mac to put back together. That done, Vic placed it on his finger, saying that was the last time Mac was going to have to fix it. When Mac had asked why, Vic responded because I'm never going to take it off again.

Never had ended that evening in the apartment when he'd flung the damning reminder of their failed relationship at the door after Mac walked out. How the hell had the other man ended up with it?

"It's a reminder," Mac said, answering Vic's unspoken question. "That sometimes doing the right thing hurts a hell of a lot."

"Maybe that's because it wasn't the right thing to do," Vic answered, glancing up to meet the taller man's eyes. Heat flared and caught as they continued to look at each other, the distance between them only increasing the strength of the desire that was building.

Mac swallowed, the bump of his Adam's apple bobbing under the lightly stubbled skin of his throat. Vic had a flashback of feasting on that very spot and the way it made Mac writhe. "Do you ever wonder if you can go back and fix things that you fucked up in the past?" he asked, studying Victor seriously.

"I don't know. Maybe. If you know why things went wrong in the first place." The reasons were plain enough: misplaced honour, misunderstood motives, hot tempers stirred by the tension of the move.

"I should have gone."

"I shouldn't have let you convince me you wanted to stay."

"So, what do we do now?" Somehow they had moved closer to each other. Mac ran a finger over the golden bands in Victor's hand, and a frisson ghosted over the older man's nerves.

Vic knew the choice was his. He also knew that he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he walked away now. "This," he said, curving one hand behind Mac's head and pulling him down until their lips met, then gradually deepening the kiss until they were both moaning, clawing at each other with desperate hands, their bodies plastered together.

The ring fell to the brickwork in front of the fireplace but neither man noticed as they broke apart long enough to stare at each other and move of one accord to the bedroom. Before they left the main room, Mac took a deep breath. "Wait a minute."

"Don't walk away, please," Vic begged, his voice so harsh and broken that he hardly recognized it.

"God no!" the other man exclaimed, kissing Vic hard, bruising his lips. "I just need to check on Daniel and make sure he's asleep."

Victor nodded, past the point of words by now, unsure if he'd sob with frustration or burst into laughter at this point. This must be what parents have to go through, he thought wildly, oddly not minding the delay once he understood the cause.

"Fast asleep," was the verdict when Mac returned, before Vic dragged him through the door to the bedroom, waiting until the door was closed and locked before pinning the taller man against the wall.

"You owe me for five years, Ramsey," he growled, rocking his body hard against Mac's, pushing both of them even closer to the edge with each pass of their erections against each other. "Five fucking years, do you understand?"

Mac gave an almost incoherent moan in response and his fingers dug into Vic's back, pressing into the muscle through the soft cotton of his shirt. "Whatever you want."

"That would be you," Vic rasped, tangling his fingers in the other man's silky dark hair and pulling him in for another kiss. This time the feeling was of his own mouth mapped and re-learned by Mac's tongue, the rough velvety glide over his tongue and teeth bringing with it memories of countless other kisses.

"Yes," Mac whispered, tracing a line of kisses along Vic's jaw then back to his ear, nuzzling the lobe before tracing the delicate swirls of cartilage, his breath hot and humid against Vic's ear.

Rational thought deserted Victor then, and he moved his hands down, pulling at the buttons that held Mac's shirt closed, not caring that the move sent several of the discs flying to fall almost soundlessly to the floor. Spreading the material open, Vic dragged his hands back up, carding through Mac's soft, springy chest hair. Catching the tight peaks of his nipples between his fingers, he rolled them between his fingertips, loving the moans this action provoked.

"God, Victor, please." The words were groaned into Vic's ear, then his shirt was gone, sacrificed to the demands of Mac's hands as they tried to bare his upper body.

Good. It was good, but it still wasn't enough. "Need you, Mac. Have always needed you." Vic hissed in a breath when Mac's long fingers closed around his ass, grinding their crotches together so hard that it was a miracle that the fabric didn't burst into flames from the friction.

They moved toward the bed, stumbling over each other's feet in the half remembered dance of tandem movement, then fell to the thick comforter, arms and legs tangling in an attempt to get closer.

"Gotta get these off..." Several thumps followed the frantic kicking off of shoes then two sets of hands grappled for constricting trousers. Breathless moans accompanied the quick shedding of denim, linen and cotton, deepening to hoarse gasps at the first contact of skin against skin.

Vic found himself on his back, and he bit back a howl as Mac kissed, licked and sucked his way southward. He wanted to scream, bellow, whine, anything that would let him give voice to the massive overload his nervous system was undergoing, but he remained quiet, biting his lips to stay silent for fear of waking Daniel.

When Mac reached his cock and swallowed it whole, it was too much. Muffled cries spilled from Vic's lips, and the taste of blood ghosted across his tongue as his teeth broke through the thin skin of his bottom lip. He was on fire, and it was a blaze that threatened to consume him utterly unless he took control right now. Heaving breaths tearing at his chest, Vic pushed up on his elbows, momentarily entranced by the sight of Mac's head moving over his groin.

"Mac..." With urgent hands, Vic tugged at the younger man's shoulders, pulling him up and in for a kiss that tasted of the bitter salt of his precome. Nipping at Mac's lush mouth, Vic rolled him beneath his body, his saliva slick cock sliding urgently over Mac's erection. "Need..."

The absence of lube was glaringly evident at that point, and Victor cursed, the need to drive himself into Mac's body an all-consuming madness.

"What?" Mac's hands were everywhere, roaming the expanse of his back and ass, curving around the inside of his thighs, carding restlessly through his hair, touching, claiming.

"Do you have anything?"

"Fuuuck." The younger man's eyes cleared just enough to allow rational thought and he let go of Vic with one hand to scramble in the drawer of the nightstand. Vic accepted the bottle he was handed, then looked down at it incredulously, on the verge of laughter.

"Baby oil?"

Mac flushed, his lips thinning in the beginning of a defensive expression. "Forgive me. Using lube on Daniel's dry hands in the winter seems a little too twisted, even for me," he retorted. "And God knows I haven't had the need for any otherwise." The last was added in a low mutter.

Vic felt Mac beginning to tense up under him, and he flipped open the cap on the bottle, squirting some of the slippery fluid out into his palm. Feeling secretly pleased that it sounded like Mac had gone without for just as long as he had, he kissed the younger man, reaching down between them to run one finger over the thin skin of his perineum, then over the tight pucker farther back.

"Sorry, it just struck me as funny considering what we're about to use it for is all. Forgive me?" Vic searched Mac's dark eyes, his own deepened to midnight forest.

Mac grabbed the hand that held the baby oil and squirted some out into his own palm. His fingers closed over Vic's cock, stroking the lubricant over his flesh with sure motions. "Fuck me and I'll let you know."

Vic's eyes flew open when a grin slowly appeared on Mac's face, then a matching one blossomed on his lips. "You asked for it, Malcolm..." A bit more pressure and his finger slid inside Mac's body to be followed quickly by a second at Mac's strident demand for more.

By the time Vic felt that Mac was loose enough, both of them were biting back moans, and droplets of sweat splattered the comforter whenever one of them moved. At Mac's growled out "Now," Vic pulled his hand back and steadied his cock. Meeting Mac's eyes once again before pushing in, he felt the slow, hot glide as he pressed inward until they were fully joined.

"Jesus God, Vic," Mac gasped, arching upward, "move, will you!"

Deciding that this was a case of actions speaking louder than words, Vic began to do just that. Canting his hips back, he began to stroke into the younger man's body, closing his eyes and giving in to the rhythm that resurfaced so easily between them.

"Just... there... yessss..." Bracing his weight on one arm, Vic attacked Mac's mouth, devouring the other man's lips, muffling his whispered words. He squeezed his still oily hand between them and closed it around Mac's erection, pumping the solid length in time with his thrusts, his thumb teasing the flared head as he did so. The younger man exploded into action at that, bucking upwards, impaling himself on Vic's shaft even as he thrust his own cock into the older man's hand. Long fingers slid behind Vic's head, pulling him in for a feverish kiss that ended only when the rapid approaches of their orgasms demanded it.

Mac tightened around him and Vic rocked hard into his body, feeling the glide of his cock over Mac's prostate and the corresponding yelp that escaped the other man's lips. Vic recognized that sound and his balls drew up closer to his body in preparation for what was to come. Silken tremors encased his cock, and the world went white, dissolving into the mind shattering bliss of the one thing he thought he would never experience again--making love with Mac Ramsey.

By the time either man was able to move, Mac's seed had grown cool between them and Vic grimaced as he lifted his head from the other man's shoulder and felt the stickiness on his skin.

Mac opened his eyes and smiled before rolling them both to the side so he was the one looking down at Victor. "Stay here tonight?" he asked, his expression growing serious in the face of what he'd requested.

 

Vic was ready to jump at the offer, but one thing concerned him. "What about Daniel?"

Mac sobered, plainly torn between what he wanted and what was best for his son. "I don't..." Sighing, he rolled off Vic and sat up, resting his elbows on his knees, his head bowed. "I would never do anything to hurt him, but I also won't hide this. Unless it's a problem?" The last was asked with such deep-seated uncertainty that Vic felt compelled to take the other man into his arms.

"It's not a problem for me if you're sure it won't be a problem for you," Vic promised, resting his head against Mac's, then kissing him.

"It's not a..." Mac began before shaking his head slowly. "We could be at this all night. How about instead we clean up and get some clothes on. If Daniel comes in--well, it's better to be wearing something."

Vic nodded his agreement, and the two climbed out of bad, unlocking the door then taking turns in the shower. Mac pulled out a spare pair of the loose jersey sleep pants he now favoured and watched Vic pull them on before donning his own.

They had just settled onto the bed, taking a moment to rediscover the best way to curl up together before ending up with Mac flat on his back, Vic's head on his shoulder. "Missed this so much, missed you so much," Mac sighed, twining his fingers with Victor's over his stomach.

"I know, was the same with me, Vic murmured, his eyes closing. He had just drifted off when a quiet scuffling by the door brought him awake again.

"Daddy?" Opening his eyes, Vic found himself looking right at young Daniel Tsei.

"What is it, Daniel?" Vic had to give Mac credit; his voice was amazingly steady.

"I had a nightmare, can I get in bed with you?"

"Of course you can." After a quick squeeze, Mac pulled his hand away from Vic's, holding his arm open for Daniel to settle himself against that shoulder, the stuffed dog squeezed in alongside them.

Dark green eyes studied Victor seriously, then Daniel asked, "Are you scared too?"

Vic swallowed back the choking feeling in his throat. "Sometimes I am, Daniel."

"Everyone is scared sometimes," Mac added. "It helps to have someone to hold."

"Even Aunt Di?" the child asked incredulously.

The two men shared a look, struggling not to chuckle. "Even your Aunt Di. Now go to sleep, Danny-boy, so that we can."

Daniel mumbled his assent and cuddled closer, drifting back to sleep with an ease that made Vic envious--of course, the way he was feeling right now, it didn't seem that sleep was going to be too elusive tonight.

He felt Mac take a deep breath, then the younger man's hand stroked gently over his back. "Get some rest, Victor."

"You remember to do the same, Malcolm."

"Go to sleep, Victor."

"Yes, Malcolm." Vic grinned at Mac's exasperated huff, then kissed the side of his neck, closing his eyes and relaxing for the first time in what felt like forever.

You know that old saying 'don't get mad, get even'?

If that's what Victor has planned for me with this, it'll kill me. It was stupid to give in, but God, what could I do? So much hurt, so much guilt, so much love that it's a wonder either of us survived the years apart.

His way was definitely a lot more mentally healthy. He went on with his life, refusing to let any of us haunt him. Me, I simply locked off the bruised and bleeding parts of my psyche, killing as many of the hurtful emotions as I could and turning the rest of them to Daniel and his care.

Thank God for Li Ann's decision, otherwise I don't want to think about what a monster I would be now. There's a difference between driven and totally amoral, just like there's a difference between the Head and me. It's one I cursed at times, but now I'm grateful for. Maybe, between Daniel and Victor, I can salvage who I was. God, I hope so.

Look at the two of them, sleeping away, unaware that I'm watching them. Vic's on his back, one arm over his head, the other sprawled out across the empty space next to him. Daniel's curled up around my pillow, hugging it so hard that I know I'll be without it when I finally come back to bed. It's a rare night I don't come in here to find it missing. He says it smells like me, and I can't chide him for wanting that comfort. I can't count the times I've pulled out old videos and watched them, wishing for something physical to remember my past life with, not just the flat recordings of the years Vic and I shared.

It was bad enough having one hole in my defences, now there are two gaping areas where I can be compromised. I lost Li Ann; I'm not losing either of them, no matter what. I suppose that answers the question of what I'm going to do. There's no way to balance this life with what the Agency demands.

I have to find a way out, and, if Victor wants me, I will.

"Can't catch me!"

"That's what you think!" Giving a groaning laugh, Vic jogged after Daniel, chasing the boy without getting too close, maintaining the illusion that indeed, he couldn't catch him. While he'd been reluctant at first when asked to watch Daniel this afternoon, Vic finally agreed and found himself enjoying the experience.

Mac was involved in finalizing the plans for the raid on Claire's location, and, while Victor chafed to be included in the discussion, he understood the need for having him supervise Daniel--and he appreciated the chance to get to know the boy better as well. Somewhere over the course of the afternoon, between the cookies and juice and the marathon game of War, he'd changed from being Chief Victor to Uncle Victor, an event that send a queer giddy feeling racing through him.

Maybe there was a chance this all would work out. If Mac could be convinced of that fact and if the Head could be persuaded to let him go. Those were two very big 'ifs', and Vic tried not to worry that he'd be going back to Banff in worse shape emotionally than when he had moved there initially.

Craning his neck to try to spot where Daniel concealed himself, Vic eased around a neatly manicured bush only to stumble when a small, solid weight crashed into the back of his knees. "Got ya!"

"I thought I was supposed to be the one catching you?" he laughed, swooping up the laughing youngster and hanging him over his shoulder. "What happened?"

"Daddy says the best time to spring something is when no one expects it," Daniel grinned, kicking his legs so that his sneaker-clad feet hit Victor in the small of his back. "And it works!"

"It does at that," Vic smiled, though his gaze strayed to the mansion as he wondered exactly what was going on in there. He hadn't seen anyone pass any of the windows in some time and...

"Anna!" Daniel twisted around, trying to squirm out of Victor's grasp. Once he'd been released, the boy tore across the lawn toward his nanny, who was moving carefully but surely toward them. "You're better!"

"Just a little shaky on my feet so don't come bashing into me, sweetie," the tall, grey-haired woman warned, as she bent over to hug her charge. "And now that I'm back, Chief Mansfield is going to lose his job if he doesn't mind."

Daniel looked torn between giving up his new playmate and having his regular care-giver back, but loyalty finally won out. "We can play more later, right?" he asked, looking from one adult to the other, his expression pleading.

"Of course you can, if it's alright with the Chief."

At Daniel's earnest gaze, Vic smiled and squatted down, ruffling the child's dark hair. "Anytime, kiddo. I still need to see if I can catch you, you know."

Daniel giggled at that, and the nanny gave Victor a kind look. "And now you need to come inside and get cleaned up for dinner then have your bath, young man. Your father said he had some things to do but that he'd come and see you when he got back."

The boy groaned in response, and Vic glanced up at the sky, shocked to see how late in the afternoon it was. Where had the day gone? And, where was Mac?

Trailing the other pair into the house, Victor turned down the hallway that led to the other man's office feeling more and more uneasy when it was empty, as was everywhere else he looked.

"Victor." Jackie's voice had him spinning around from his perusal of Mac's desk, cursing her ability to sneak up on him like that. "The Director said he'd be back later tonight. There was something he had to do."

Refusing to be intimidated by her expression, Vic countered her stare with one of his own. "And just where did he go?"

"Recon. There was something he had to check out."

"Bullshit. Why would he do that? That's what agents are for."

She shrugged, then turned on her heel, intending to leave before jerking to a halt, Vic's hand clamped around her arm.

"Where is he, Jackie?"

Her blue eyes didn't show a trace of discomfort though he knew his fingers were digging into her arm. "Out."

"Jackie..." Vic growled. "I don't give a fuck if he's out eating dinner with half of the assassins in the Eastern European block, tell me where he is!"

"Jesus, Victor, calm down." She pulled her arm out of his grasp and rubbed at the reddened patches on the bare skin. "He's gone after Holland. It's a small operation, in and out. Kelso and Roberts are back up."

Vic burst into a round of harsh profanity, wanting more then anything to pound someone or something into oblivion. "Where are they?"

Jackie sighed and shook her head then gave him the address.

"I need a couple of guns and a car. You have five minutes." Without waiting for her agreement, he stormed to his room, stripping out of his sweaty 'play clothes', pulling on jeans, a dark shirt and his leather jacket, determined to put an end to this for once and for all.

"I don't like this at all, man," Josh muttered to Chaz. The two agents were crouched outside the warehouse where Claire Holland was; the same place their Director had walked into ten minutes ago unarmed, but wearing a wire.

"I know what you mean," the younger man sighed, shifting slightly so that his legs didn't fall asleep while they were waiting. "That chick is nuts."

Listening to the ranting being picked up by the Director's microphone, Josh had to agree. She wanted the Monk, and she wanted everyone else who had taken part in her arrest to pay. Apparently, she knew all about the Director's past with Li Ann, and - "Chief Mansfield? No fucking way!"

"Shit, you're telling me that the two of them... Damn, no wonder he came down so hard on us at first."

"Think he was jealous?"

"No clue, but something really weird is going on here."

"Yeah, hope we don't get caught in the cross-fire."

"You'd better hope that nothing happens to him or Double J will be our boss."

Josh's eyes widened into horrified pools at that thought, then a small noise behind them had him reaching for his gun.

"What's the situation?" Vic rasped, brushing aside the questioning looks the two agents shared and squatting down next to them.

"We're waiting for the M--the Director's signal, man. He's been in about fifteen minutes; if we don't hear in half an hour, we go in."

Vic nodded brusquely and re-checked the placement of the guns in his shoulder holsters. "I'm going in with you."

"I don't know if that's a good idea, sir," Chaz began, before slapping his hand to his ear and cringing. "Shit! She found the wire."

"Forget a half an hour. We're going in now." Vic rose to his feet and started around the building, reluctantly giving up the lead when he was forced to admit the younger men knew the layout better than he did. After climbing up a fire escape ladder to a second story window, the three men slipped inside. Roberts broke left, while Kelso went right. Vic looked in both directions, then, with a small prayer, strode toward the open stairwell leading down from the catwalk.

The area below him was free of obstructions, leaving Vic with a clear view of the warehouse floor. Mac was facing him, his left cheek reddened, the eye above it rapidly swelling shut. Claire stood before him, a pistol held loosely in her right hand, her left hand resting on her hip. She said something, then apparently didn't like Mac's answer because the gun flashed out again, striking the same place and splitting open the corner of Mac's mouth.

"Where is he?" Now she was shouting, and the hysterical edge to her voice pushed Vic into action.

"Looking for me, Claire?"

Her smile, as she half turned to look his way, was predatory. "Well, well, well. The game finds me here, saves me from taking the time to track you down, I suppose." Waving her gun in his direction, she motioned Vic down the stairs and over in front of her. "Just one more to go, and then this will be over." Her expression turned tender as she looked at Mac. "Then it'll be just the two of us like it should have been."

"Claire, it's not going to work; give it up before someone gets hurt."

"Oh, no one is going to get hurt," she laughed, running a finger down Mac's uninjured cheek, "he's just going to die is all."

"Hmm," she continued, tilting the barrel of her gun up and down, "heart or head?"

"Hey lady, don't strain your brain choosing!"

Vic glanced up to see Chaz leaning over the safety lines surrounding the catwalk, his gun aimed at Claire.

"Yeah, you're blonde, we know that decisions like that are too hard for you," Josh added across the room.

Claire's complexion turned a mottled red, and, in the second her attention was diverted to the two younger men, Vic grabbed for his guns, tossing the left hand one to Mac, even as he aimed the other weapon at the maniac woman.

"Give it up, Claire," Mac said calmly, staring at her over the unwavering barrel of the pistol. "It's over."

"Oh no," she laughed, tossing back her hair. "There's one more thing left to do." In a swift move, she aimed and started to pull the trigger. The sound of two shots echoed off the walls and her expression changed to one of confusion as she slowly crumpled to the ground, small, smoking holes in her forehead and chest.

"Looks like you two chose for her," Josh observed as he and Chaz clattered down the stairs and looked down at the madwoman's body.

"There wasn't a choice," Victor murmured, slowly holstering his gun, then looking over at Mac, who returned his gaze with a hard stare.

"Call in the cleanup team," the Director said, transferring his gaze to his two agents. "I'll talk to you when you get back." His gaze cut back toward Victor, "All of you." He then walked out, leaving the three men there.

"The man is cold," Josh murmured while Chaz called in the code over his cell. "What's with him?"

Chaz hung up and shrugged, then they both looked over at Victor as if for an answer. Where as before he might have agreed, now he knew better. "It's just the opposite in fact," he murmured.

"And what was with the blond crack?" Vic heard Chaz ask Josh before he headed out to the car he had driven over, leaving two baffled agents in his wake.

"So?"

"So." The words were the first they had spoken since leaving the mansion to walk in the gardens that flanked the eastern side of the building. The narrow gravel paths wound through the neatly laid out flowerbeds and cut through ornamental rows of shrubbery before finally converging on a small pond in the middle of the area. Moonlight shone off the still water, and the night wind was the only other sound audible.

"Let's get it out of the way, Mac," Vic sighed. He'd spent most of the evening waiting for Mac to blow up at him because of what he had done, had been waiting, in fact, to use that as a springboard for his own anger at being left behind, but so far the lecture hadn't appeared. They had eaten with Daniel, read the boy his story and put him to bed together, and all the while Vic's level of tension had risen until now he was fairly vibrating.

"Get what out of the way?" Mac tilted his head to the side to look at Vic, then nodded. "Ahh, you think I'm going to tear into you for coming to the warehouse. I'm not. You were right, and I was wrong. I'm sorry."

Vic stood there, mouth agape, until Mac reached out and used a fingertip to close his jaw. "Damnit," he muttered, "and I was ready to go off on you for leaving me here, too."

"You can still do it if you want."

Vic stooped and picked up a pebble, then tossed it into the lake. "No, no point in it now."

"Sorry if I ruined your rant." Mac scratched at the back of his neck, then folded his arms across his chest, waiting.

"Damnit, Mac, stop backing down like that! It's not--it's not normal!"

"What do you want me to do?" Mac hissed in frustration. "Lay into you for putting yourself in danger? Scream at you for helping to save my life? What do you want from me, Victor?"

"That's easy." Vic grabbed the younger man's arm and swung him around to face him. "You. All of you. With me, away from here."

"I--" Mac stopped and took a deep breath. "Say I get out. What then?"

Now it was Vic's turn to fall silent. "I've heard that Banff is a good place to raise kids," he offered hesitantly.

"And what if it becomes a problem with your job?"

"Then I'll find another one somewhere it won't be."

"All right."

Vic's mouth gaped open again, and this time Mac chuckled at the sight. "You're going to catch flies like that."

"You'll come?" The question was asked in a disbelieving voice. "You and Daniel?"

"I had already decided I needed to get out," Mac answered honestly. "If you think I'm going to turn down the chance to be free of this and to be with you... I may be twisted, Mansfield, but I'm not crazy."

"Do you still eat squid?"

Mac looked at Vic as if he'd gone insane. "Yes."

"Then you are crazy, Ramsey. So shut up and kiss me."

Mac's laughter was muffled as he pressed his lips against Victor's, wincing at the pressure on his injuries but refusing to give up a bit of contact with the other man. Their arms wound around each other and they became a single silhouette in the shadows of the garden.

Even when they finally made their way back inside, neither man noticed the slim figure watching from an upper level window. Letting the curtain fall back into place, the Head smiled to herself then turned away, pleased with the outcome of the day's events.

Banff, Alberta
March, 2007

"Morning, Chief."

Victor returned Patty's greeting with a cheery hello of his own and hung his hat and coat on the pegs near the door to his office. "Anything going on?"

"Well," she chuckled, taking a sip of her coffee before getting up to pour the chief his morning mug, "that fellow who bought the old Master's place was in to introduce himself. Brought us a gift too." She nodded at the large box of donuts on the desk, the box that had been plainly raided by the constables who had been on duty overnight. "Says he's starting a security firm in town--wants to do work for the resorts and the like. Seemed nice enough, handsome too. He must be a widower or divorced or something. I didn't see a wedding ring, but he has the cutest little boy. Maybe I should send Stacey out to meet him..."

Looking slightly perplexed at the chief's thoughtful expression, Patty dug around on her desk, fishing for something. "Oh! He left this for you by way of introduction. Guess he wants to get a good recommendation from the local law."

Nodding absently, Vic ripped the envelope with hands that were trembling slightly. Something heavier than a piece of paper slid inside but was obscured by a folded piece of stationary when he finally got the flap open. Pulling out the note, Vic scanned it, noting the security firm's name and a hand written address below it.

The other item fell into his palm when he tipped the envelope, and Vic took a shaky breath as he held up the reconstructed puzzle ring. To Patty's shock and amusement, he raced for the door, shouting that he was off duty, leaving the receptionist wondering just what was going on now.

Thankful that there hadn't been any snowfall the night before so the roads were clear of ice, Vic gunned his truck, speeding up the road out of town until he pulled up in front of a large Alpine style house. The tall front windows glowed with light from within, and small footprints criss-crossed the snow in the yard.

Not even noticing that he'd left his coat back at the station, Vic climbed out of his truck and started up the walk, his heart hammering wildly in his chest. The door started to open, and he stopped at the foot of the stairs, frozen, as two figures appeared in the entry.

"Uncle Vic! Daddy said we're staying here! Can I see your dog, can I?" The shout was accompanied by the force of a tiny body catapulting off the porch and into his arms, making Vic take a step back to avoid falling back onto the flagstone walkway.

"You bet, Daniel," he said, swallowing hard to keep the threatening tears from overwhelming him as he hugged the boy tightly.

Mac waited until Daniel squirmed back down to go tearing around in the snow before crossing the final distance between them. "I see you got my note."

"Yeah," Vic nodded, feeling suddenly tongue-tied. "Rembrandt Security?"

The younger man grinned a bit, looking over to where Daniel was playing before continuing "Well, it financed this venture so..."

"You sold the Rembrandt?" Vic asked incredulously. "But it was your father's!"

"I have him here," Mac placed his hand on his heart, flushing slightly. "I need you here." He pulled Vic into his arms, staring down at the older man seriously. "I fucked up before, Vic. I'm not going to do it again."

Vic placed one hand on Mac's shoulder, then raised the other into the other man's line of sight, showing him the ring he now wore on his finger. "This isn't coming off again. If we stay, it's together; if we go, it's the same. You and Daniel are what's important in my life, now and always."

"I love you, Chief Mansfield."

"I love you, Director Ramsey."

"That's Mr. Ramsey to you, bub."

Small hands tugged at both their trousers, and Mac bent to include Daniel in the embrace. "Does this mean Uncle Vic is going to stay with us now?"

Mac shot a questioning look at Victor, who just smiled, hugging both his son and his lover close. "That's exactly what it means."

END

  since 02-04-07

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