October 2000

Disclaimer: Once a Thief belongs to John Woo and Alliance Atlantis.

Light. Sound. Impact. PAIN!

Vic woke with a jolt, gasping when he felt the pain throughout his body. He felt like he'd been worked over by a team of pros with baseball bats and brass knuckles. He dragged his eyes open and immediately shut them again, moaning, when the light stabbed into his brain.

"Welcome back to the land of the living, Victor." It was the Director, and if he hadn't known better, he would have sworn that there was relief in her voice.

He pried his eyes open the tiniest slit, and the impact of the light was less painful this time. "Wha--" he tried to ask, but his throat was too dry to talk. The Director leaned over and held a straw inserted into a plastic glass to his lips. Vic sucked gratefully and was rewarded with the cool, refreshing taste of water rehydrating his parched tissues.

"The warehouse exploded while you were still inside it. Fortunately you were thrown through a window by the blast, so you weren't fricasseed."

"Mac?" Vic asked desperately, afraid to hear the answer. "Li Ann?"

"Both alive," the Director replied, much to his relief. "Mac came off the best since he was between you and Li Ann, cushioned from both the blast and the landing. He had some nasty cuts, scrapes and bruises and a slight concussion, but that was all. He'll be released in the morning. You are in much the same condition. Li Ann, unfortunately, broke both her legs, so she's going to be laid up for some time to come."

"But they're all right; they're going to be fine?" Vic begged for confirmation.

"All three of you will," the Director reassured him almost kindly. "Get some sleep now, Mr. Mansfield. You've earned it." At the door she paused and glanced back. "If it's any comfort, Michael Tang is really dead this time. I saw the body myself. He won't be causing any more trouble." She left without giving Vic a chance to reply.

Michael's dead. "Michael Tang is dead," Vic repeated aloud, almost savouring the words. Michael Tang, the man who'd been responsible for him being teamed with Mac as well as Li Ann, was gone. He shut his eyes, and the memories started to replay in his mind.

Vic let himself into the apartment he shared with Li Ann, her apartment really, which she'd allowed him to share. He actually preferred his old one, but Li Ann liked the more open design here, so here was where they lived. He noticed the red roses he'd given her lying on the table beside a vase full of white ones and frowned.

He pulled the white roses out of the vase and replaced his in the water, frowning and wondering where the others had come from. Li Ann refused to even look at white roses, and she wouldn't tell him why, though an expression of deep sadness appeared in her eyes the one time he tried to find out.

He saw the second vase, also filled with white roses while his red ones lay beside it, and went over to fix those as well, wondering what the hell was going on. He found out moments later when he came face to face with a stranger holding a dripping bunch of red roses, a match to the white ones he himself held.

Even as they slowly crouched to place the flowers on the floor, Vic found a part of himself noticing the lithe figure and bee-stung mouth of the intruder. As they fought and he found himself pressed against that wiry body time and time again, seeing the tight ass and long legs as the other man rolled to his feet, Vic remembered how much he liked men. But he was going to marry Li Ann, and he wasn't the kind of guy to play around behind her back, not to mention that this guy was, at the very least, a burglar.

Vic shook his head. It had been a memorable first meeting. Almost as memorable as the night he'd helped Mac steal the Rembrandt from Michael. To this day he only had to close his eyes to feel Mac tangled up with him as they'd swung from that chandelier. He could still remember the feverish images of Mac fucking him as they swung in the air that had raced through his brain, making him even more abrupt with the younger man.

And the night they'd faced Michael, Li Ann between them, seemingly the centre point around which the three of them had gravitated. Though each of them had professed his love for her at different times, it had been Mac at his side during the ensuing firefight, Mac he'd trusted to watch his back despite all the harsh words between them up to that point.

He'd never forget the following day either.

The Director had told them they were free for the rest of the day after announcing that their partnership was permanent. Vic walked beside Li Ann, Mac on her other side, and he wondered how he could survive working with this man who wanted his fiancee, whom he wanted, every day.

Li Ann held out her hand, and finally, he and Mac each added one of theirs to the pile, only to be surprised when Li Ann yanked hers away. For a single instant that seemed to draw out, he and Mac had stood, hands pressed together, staring at each other before they'd each pulled their hands back. Vic knew that he'd seen a desire that matched his own in the brown eyes, and it was going to be harder than ever to ignore it.

They'd managed it though. They'd continued to ignore the heat between them for the next year. So many memories, so much time spent together, fighting, watching each other's backs, wanting each other.

Both of them had avowed their love for Li Ann over and over, nearly coming to blows so many times, never admitting, not even to themselves, that they really wanted something, someone else. Then when Li Ann made it clear that she was choosing neither of them, other women. Lots of other women for each of them. Vic still cringed inwardly when he remembered standing at Mac's side in the church as the younger man prepared to marry Claire. Never any men though. In their own peculiar way, they were faithful to each other despite never having acknowledged what lay between them. And somehow, in the end, the women always faded away, leaving the team intact.

Vic indulged himself with the memories of the moments with Mac, promising himself that this weakness would end when he got out of the hospital. Nothing had changed, after all.

He managed to convince himself of that until one day a week later when he, Mac and the Director all happened to visit Li Ann at the same time. Of course, with the Director, was anything ever coincidence?

Mac walked into her room holding a huge bouquet of white roses in a crystal vase and found that Vic had brought, what else, red roses. A strange smile played over his lips as he moved the red ones to the window ledge and placed his on the small table beside the bed. While Li Ann and the Director watched in bemusement, the two men spent the next hour switching the flowers back and forth, neither of them acknowledging their actions by the slightest word or glance after Mac's initial smirk. In fact, they carried on a conversation with the women as if nothing was happening.

Finally Li Ann couldn't stand it anymore. "*What* are you two doing?" she burst out.

Vic, who was currently over by the window putting down the vase of white roses, paused briefly. He glanced innocently back at Li Ann, then at Mac. "Nothing," he shrugged. "Why?"

The Director was sitting in the chair in the corner, so she was able to see the men's expressions when their eyes met. Her gasp was covered by Li Ann's exclamation of exasperation.

"Well, stop whatever it is you're not doing. You're making me dizzy!"

Vic and Mac both regarded her mutinously, so the Director decided it was time intervene. She rose regally from her seat and strode over, knowing Vic would get out of her way. And he did.

She picked up the vase of red roses and set it down beside the white. Then she removed about half of each from the vases and exchanged them, taking a moment to arrange the mixed flowers into two attractive red and white displays.

"There," she announced. "They're much better together."

Both men's eyes shot to her face, then to each other, and again they paused.

"Visiting hours are over, boys. Go find somewhere else to play." They left quietly, neither mentioning that the Director showed no signs of leaving. It would be an insane nurse who tried to force *her* out. They got on the elevator together, darting glances at each other, then looking away.

"Sounds like another team building exercise," Vic observed, staring at the lighted floor indicators with every evidence of fascination.

"So we *have* to stick together," Mac replied, studying the pattern in the carpet.

"Exactly. But I'm *not* going to another strip club with you! I vote we go back to my place and watch the game. I'll make dinner. And one word about my cooking and you can go back upstairs and explain to the Dragonlady why you're not following orders!" He glared at Mac, who raised his hands in surrender.

"Just tell me that you have 9-1-1 on speed dial."

Vic smacked the back of his head.

Mac laughed.

A couple of hours later, Mac had to admit that Vic wasn't such a bad cook after all. Considering that he'd eaten so much that all he could do was loll on the couch like a stuffed pig, he didn't have much choice. He groaned contentedly, then peeled one eye open when Vic kicked his foot.

Seeing the challenging expression on his partner's face, he groaned again. "Okay, okay, you're a good cook. Happy now?" He licked his lips reminiscently. "That duck was fantastic."

Vic smirked. "I *told* you the problem was the lack of ingredients and your poorly equipped kitchen." He shoved Mac's feet out of the way to flop down at the far end of the couch, ignoring the chair in favour of sprawling beside Mac. "I'll admit I still do better when I can follow a recipe," he added.

Mac snorted. "I'll say. The future Mrs. Mansfield better be prepared for you to lay claim to the kitchen."

"Or mister," Vic murmured, not quite under his breath.

Mac's eyes shot open, and he fixed an incredulous stare on the older man. "Since when? I've never seen you with a guy, and all the old flames have been women."

Vic shifted uncomfortably, not willing to admit that his experience with his own sex was extremely limited. It wasn't from lack of interest, but because unlike with women, when it came to men, he was attracted to the dominant type, someone who would take control and let him relax in their keeping. A relationship like that while on the force would have been the end of his career, and since then, well, he certainly didn't want to give the Director another hook into him.

"Since always," he finally replied.

"Really?" Mac responded, sitting up, a speculative look on his face.

Vic eyed him warily. "Yeah, what of it? You don't know everything about me, you know."

"I'm beginning to realise that, Vic." Mac shifted so he was almost leaning over the other man, smiling into his eyes. "But I've wanted to, and I'm beginning to think you do too."

Not giving Vic a chance to respond, Mac covered his lips with his own. The kiss started out gentle and tentative and remained that way for all of a second. Passion, ignored and banked for a year, flared between them.

When they tore puffy lips apart to gasp in much needed air, Vic was flat on his back with Mac stretched out on top of him. Vic stared at his partner - lover? - in shock, a dazed look in the green eyes. He licked his lips nervously, seeing how Mac's eyes immediately focused on his mouth.

"What just happened here?"

Mac's shoulders shook with suppressed mirth. "If you don't know, Victor, it's been *way* too long for you."

Vic glared at him, but the effect was somewhat spoiled by the fact that his hips were still moving, rubbing against Mac, and he was panting for air in tiny, aroused gasps.

"You know what I mean. You and me?" Vic's tone was redolent of disbelief.

Mac shrugged, which produced an interesting sensation in the body pressed tightly beneath his, if Vic's choked whimper was any indication. "It's been there all along," he admitted. "Guess maybe it's time to do something about it."

"*What*?" Vic almost squeaked the word. "Are you nuts? We don't even like each other!" He tried to squirm away but only succeeded in arousing them both more. "I don't want this!"

Mac shifted and wormed a hand between them to stroke Vic's diamond-hard erection. "This says you do, Vic. Time to stop dancing around it and deal with it."

"This is a mistake." Vic tried to be rational, but all he could concentrate on was Mac's hand on him, Mac's weight over him, Mac's mouth on his. He moaned deep in his throat, and his legs spread involuntarily. His hands, which had been braced against Mac's shoulders, now delved under the younger man's shirt, having tugged it free of his pants, so he could touch the warm skin of Mac's back.

"That's it, Vic," Mac encouraged huskily. "Touch me. Let me touch you." Mac kissed him again, first brushing their lips together gently, teasingly, then settling against Vic's mouth as softly as a butterfly. The bare tip of his tongue crept out to lick lightly, tasting himself on Vic. He repeated the action until Vic's lips parted with a despairing groan as he surrendered.

Mac's tongue swept in to claim what Vic yielded, exploring, tangling sensually with Vic's, then withdrawing to entice Vic's to follow. He sucked on Vic's tongue, loving the tiny whimpers that escaped the other man.

Their hands busily explored and stripped each other's body, and when Mac pinched an erect nipple, Vic yipped and nearly arched right off the couch. His legs wrapped around Mac's waist, and he moaned hungrily. Mac smiled, making note of how sensitive Vic's nipples were, and continued to explore the body that had figured in more than a few of his fantasies, slipping free of the grasp of Vic's legs. His sensitive thief's fingers stroked Vic's skin, learning it so he would be able to recognise his partner by touch alone. He found the scars that were a legacy of Vic's job and pressed his lips to each one. And being Mac, he had to comment.

"You need to learn how to duck, Vic."

Vic let out a strangled laugh, glazed eyes focused on the curly head at his hip. "I'll start hiding behind you." He moaned again when Mac bypassed his aching groin and concentrated on a leg instead. He shifted restlessly, his cock hard and leaking precum, and he reached down himself, desperate for any touch.

Mac caught his hand, returning it to its position clenched by Vic's hip. "Nope. Not till I say so," he breathed. A faint whine escaped the older man, and his cock jumped, but he left his hands where Mac placed them. Mac rewarded his patience by licking the ruddy head of his cock, cleaning it, though the liquid he lapped away was immediately replaced.

He returned his attention to Vic's legs and feet, ignoring his partner's whines of protest. He massaged the tense muscles and petted the light dusting of hair that covered them. He stroked Vic's feet, discovering that the ex-cop was extremely ticklish. He laughed softly and left them alone, retracing his path along the second leg.

This time when he reached the hip, he licked the length of Vic's pelvic bone and nuzzled the nest of hair at the base of his erection. Mac tugged gently with his teeth, drawing another moaning gasp from Vic. He explored the sensitive area thoroughly, still not touching his cock. He knelt between Vic's legs and raised them over his shoulders, helping to support Vic with his hands curved around his buttocks, parting them at the same time.

Mac feasted on the older man, tasting him, sucking first one ball then the other into his mouth, then slowly working back. The slight stubble on his chin made Vic yelp when it brushed against the sensitive skin behind his sac, then he wailed Mac's name when a clever tongue flicked lightly against his opening.

He arched up still more, nearly standing on his head as he tried to get closer. No one had ever done that to him before, and the sensation was indescribable. Mac licked him, making him quiver, then pushed the tip of his tongue inside him. Vic felt as if he'd received a jolt of electricity, and his fingers clawed desperately at the couch, trying to find something to hold on to.

One of Mac's hands had moved from its position beneath him and was running over his body again. When it reached his throat, Vic ducked his head and caught the fingers between his lips, sucking them into his mouth. He licked and sucked hungrily, whimpering around the digits as Mac's tongue continued to work its magic on his ass.

When Mac pulled his hand away, Vic whined a protest. He groaned in frustration when Mac's tongue disappeared as well, distressed green eyes opening and focussing hazily upon his lover.

"Don't stop," he pleaded.

Mac chuckled and lightly pressed a fingertip inside him. "Never," he said fervently. "You're mine now, all mine." He rose over Vic, settling between the widespread thighs, and lowered his head to steal another kiss. As his tongue probed inside Vic's mouth, he positioned himself and pushed inside the older man's ass, claiming him utterly. He groaned at the tight, hot grip around him, his entire body tensing as he fought back the overwhelming pleasure. Despite the incredible sensations, he noticed Vic's tension, and he froze.

"How long has it been for you, Vic?" he asked, staring down at the other man's rigid features. When a blush rose to Vic's cheeks, he groaned and pulled back, seeing Vic's wince even as the green eyes flew open and a protest formed, which he halted with another kiss.

"We need lube, babe," he said gutturally. "Got anything?"

Vic bit his lip and shook his head, his legs tightening around Mac's waist. "Don't care, please, Mac." He rubbed against the younger man, pleading.

"Shhh, I'm not going to leave you, Vic, but we need, *you* need, lube, or you'll be too sore for anything more later." He nipped at Vic's lip. "Let go; I have an idea. I'll be right back. Promise." He stood up, then had to pause for a moment to admire the picture Vic made, sprawled wantonly over the couch, his hands touching himself as he waited for Mac to come back. Moving as quickly as he could with the raging erection between his legs, he made a quick trip to the kitchen, then came back to Vic's side.

The green eyes widened when he saw what Mac held, and both men chuckled.

"I figured anyone into cooking like you are *had* to have some olive oil around," Mac grinned. "Nice and slippery. And I even remembered a towel to save your sofa." He tucked the soft terrycloth beneath Vic's ass, then poured a small pool of the oil into his hand. He coated the fingers of his other hand in the slick liquid and stroked it into Vic, loving the other man's gasps and moans of arousal and the uncontrollable movements of his hips. He teased Vic for a very short time before coating his own cock, eager to get inside him again.

Once again, Mac settled between Vic's legs, and Vic opened himself to him. He wrapped his legs around Mac's waist again, quivering with impatience to be filled. Mac positioned himself and pressed forward, feeling the flared head of his cock easily slip past the tight ring of muscle, thanks to the oil. He pushed in, gradually gliding deeper, feeling Vic stretch around him and cling to him like a glove, until finally he couldn't go any deeper. A soft growl of pleasure, of possessiveness, forced its way between his clenched teeth, and Mac arched back, shudders of pleasure racing up and down his spine.

"Look at me," he rasped, and Vic raised heavy lids to reveal pleasure-dazed green eyes. "Keep looking at me," Mac ordered, starting to move. He wanted to see Vic's reactions, and judging by the ripple around him, Vic liked being told what to do. He reached between them, grasping Vic's cock, slowly pumping it in time with his languorous strokes into him.

"God, Mac, *fuck* me!" Vic groaned, twisting beneath him as Mac's gentle, easy motions kept him climbing, not letting him come.

Mac laughed. "I am fucking you, Vic." He pushed in to the root to prove his point.

Vic quivered, moaning. "Not enough, need more, *please*!" Wild green eyes remained fixed on brown, his increasing desperation showing clearly.

Mac stared into Vic's eyes, incredibly aroused by his partner's need, then began to move faster. He stroked into Vic rapidly, feeling himself get closer, seeing himself reflected in Vic's dilated pupils. "Come for me, Vic," he suddenly whispered. "Give it to me, let me see you."

The hot words seemed to go straight to Vic's cock, and he wailed softly as he came.

Mac watched avidly, nearly biting through his lip to hold back his own climax while Vic rippled around him. When Vic slowly relaxed again, Mac let himself go, driving into him, taking his own pleasure while Vic stroked his shoulders and chest, sighing when Mac's climax burst from him.

Vic lay quietly beneath Mac for a little while, holding him, enjoying his weight on him, until his mind began to work again. Inevitably, he started to consider the consequences of getting involved with Mac. Not only was there the Director's reaction to consider and Li Ann's, Mac had figured out far too easily which buttons to push to turn him into a panting slut.

Vic groaned, his body tensing.

He'd allowed Mac to take total control, to tell him what to do, to tell him when to *come*. Aftershocks of pleasure were still coursing through his body, and already he wanted more. If he let this continue, Mac would own him, and he'd know it. Vic shuddered with pleasure at the thought, but it was impossible. They couldn't be partners like that.

"Get off me," Vic said coldly, startling Mac.

The ex-thief raised his head, looking down at Vic in confusion. "What's wrong, Vic?" he asked, wanting nothing more than to hold his lover and doze off.

"This was a mistake. Get *off* me!" He shoved at Mac, succeeding in tipping the other man off him and onto the floor.

Mac stared up at Victor, shock slowly transforming to anger. "Wham, bam, not even thank you Mac?" he asked angrily, masking his hurt. Somehow, he'd thought Vic would be different, would want more than just his body. Apparently not.

"Just get out," Vic growled, not looking at him, knowing that if he did, he'd throw himself at the younger man and beg him never to leave.

"Don't worry," Mac snapped, yanking on his pants and sweater and cramming his feet into his loafers. "I'm leaving. And as far as I'm concerned, this never happened. I prefer not to dwell on mistakes." Not waiting for a reply, he strode to the door and out without a backward glance.

Vic stared after him for a moment before turning away, mindful of the likelihood of surveillance. Surveillance. He ground to a halt, imagining the Director's prurient interest in what had just happened, then groaned. There was nothing he could do about it if she did have his apartment bugged again. He slumped down on the sofa, still naked, able to smell Mac on himself.

It was dark when he moved again. He didn't bother to switch on a light as he moved to the bedroom and sprawled on his back in the middle of the bed. He knew he should shower, but if he couldn't have Mac, he could at least keep his scent till morning. Sleep was a long time coming that night.

After leaving Vic's apartment, Mac had driven around for hours. When his car finally forced him to halt by running out of gas, he had no idea where he was. He looked around blankly, seeing only pitch darkness. He was surrounded by dark fields in the middle of nowhere. Looking around, he spotted a light in the distance, on the other side of a field he just knew was full of cow patties. But it didn't look like he had any other choice since he couldn't see any lights anywhere else.

He sighed, retrieved the gas can from the trunk, and started toward the field. Fortunately for him, he spotted the dirt lane a few feet down and was able to avoid the perils of the field. He reached the house a few minutes later and knocked on the door, waiting patiently as a curtain twitched and a suspicious eye peered at him warily. He must have looked innocuous enough because after a moment, he heard the sound of a deadbolt being released, and the door opened to reveal an attractive woman, who kept one hand behind her back.

"Hi," he greeted with the smile that usually made women melt. "Sorry to bother you so late, but I ran out of gas over there, and I was hoping you might have some or could tell me where the nearest gas station is?"

The blonde still regarded him suspiciously, but she relaxed a fraction. "Kinda far off the beaten track, aren't you?" she asked with a wary glance at his obviously expensive clothes and loafers. They were a stark contrast to her own serviceable jeans and cotton shirt.

Mac shrugged. "I wasn't really paying attention to where I was going. Where am I, by the way?" he asked with an embarrassed grin.

"'Bout halfway between Kingston and Ottawa," she replied, eyeing him strangely.

"Shit! Oh, sorry," he apologised. "It's just, well, I started out in Toronto. It's going to be a long drive home when I finally get some gas and head back." He groaned softly. "So, can you tell me where I can get some?"

The woman finally relaxed fully and smiled. "'Fraid not. We're out on our own here, and the kids are already in bed, so I can't leave them to drive you into town. Besides which, the gas station's closed for the night, and Dennis really wouldn't appreciate being dragged out for anything less than an emergency. You can stay here though, and I could give you a lift in the morning, Mr...?"

"Ramsey. But make it Mac, please." He raised an inquiring eyebrow, waiting for her name.

"Linda Howell," she responded grudgingly. "Mrs. Linda Howell."

"Mrs. Howell, if you're going to try to use a husband to intimidate strangers, you should do it before admitting that you're alone in the house with young children," Mac pointed out gently. The woman's eyes widened and she tensed, stepping away. Having a good idea that she had a gun or knife clutched in the hand still behind her back, Mac hastened to reassure her. "You're perfectly safe. I just thought you should know for the next time someone knocks on your door in the middle of the night."

She sighed and slumped against the wall, putting a kitchen knife on the hall table. "Guess if you were going to do anything, you'd already have done it. It is Mrs. Howell though. My husband Jack died almost two years ago."

"I'm sorry."

She looked at him oddly. "Why do people always say that? You didn't know him." She sighed, knowing she was being inhospitable. "Please, follow me. I'll show you to the spare room." Without waiting for a reply, she turned and started upstairs, expecting him to follow her.

Linda led Mac to a cheery bedroom, flicking on the light to reveal a double bed covered in a handmade quilt and sturdy oak furniture. After telling him where the bathroom was, she turned to go, brushing against him. She was stunned by the flash of heat generated by that brief touch, and she halted, raising shocked blue eyes to his. The next few minutes were a blur of kisses and fondling, two lonely people coming together briefly.

They found themselves naked in bed together, eagerly stroking and kissing, until she reached down and found Mac still limp. Linda pulled away, staring at him in humiliation, then saw the flush staining his cheeks.

"I'm sorry," Mac rasped. "I didn't mean... I wanted... oh shit!" He closed his eyes in frustration. "Guess I really am in love. Too bad it's not reciprocated." He couldn't bring himself to look at her. This had never happened to him before, not with anyone.

Linda nodded, still embarrassed, not to mention frustrated. "It's all right, Mac. Neither of us expected this. Get some sleep, and I'll drive you to the station in the morning. We'll never meet again, and we can just pretend this never happened." She slipped out of the room, leaving a wide-awake Mac to stare at the ceiling and wonder why Vic pushed him away.

Vic sat in the briefing room at the Agency for the first time since the accident. Though Li Ann was still hospitalised, he and Mac had been deemed fit to return to duty, according to the Director. He'd tried to call Mac yesterday to remind him, but there had been no answer. Not the first time he tried, a few hours after Mac left his apartment, nor an hour later, nor an hour after that. Vic had continued to try to reach his partner till almost two in the morning, and there had been no answer. He'd been worried enough to drive over to Mac's apartment, but the car hadn't been in its spot. Clearly, Mac hadn't let what had happened between them keep him home that night.

He ignored Jackie completely, only looking up when the Director came into the room, wearing some skin-tight white leather dress that looked a little like a nurse's uniform. "It appears to be just the two of you today, children," she announced by way of greeting.

"Shouldn't Mac, like, be here?" Jackie asked, tossing her blond mane.

Vic was curious about the answer to that as well.

"Mr. Ramsey got himself stuck when he ran out of gas three quarters of the way between here and Ottawa. He had to wait till morning for a service station to open up, but he'll be back in a couple of hours, and he and I will discuss his range of movement," the Director replied, a faint snap to her words.

"In the meantime, the two of you will help Nathan. He's working on scanning in all the old paper copy records, and it's far too much for one person." She paced to the end of the table then looked back, seeming surprised to see them still there. "Go. Now." She made a shooing motion with her hands.

Vic groaned. The only thing worse than being stuck with Nathan was being stuck with Nathan and Jackie.

Things were even worse than he'd feared. Nathan latched onto him the moment they walked through the door, keeping Vic between him and the blonde ex-mobster. He babbled his usual nonsense about Vic's importance as a prince of the Illuminati, and Vic wondered again what the Illuminati might be; he thought he'd heard that term applied to a type of vampire in a book he'd read once. He was not going to encourage the lunatic by asking though. He sighed deeply.

"She *bongs*," Nathan hissed, drawing Vic's attention back to the present.

"Bongs? Who bongs? What are you talking about, Nathan?" he was goaded into asking.

"*Her*," Nathan hissed, bobbing his head at Jackie. "She bongs, like an old brass bell. She must be some new kind of alien. Not a very good human disguise though," he added, peering around Vic at the muscular blonde.

Vic groaned. "We're supposed to be helping you scan in some old files," he said desperately, mentally vowing vengeance on Li Ann and Mac for leaving him alone with this nut. Being blown up would have been better.

Mac finally reached the Agency around 11:00, and the Director let him know in no uncertain terms that she didn't approve of these little unannounced field trips. Still raw and miserable from the events of the last day, from Vic kicking him out with barely a word after the most amazing sex of his life to his ... his performance problems with Linda, Mac didn't say a word. Eventually his silence penetrated the Director's ire, and she stopped berating him to watch him oddly.

"What, no quip? No convoluted explanations? No protestations of innocence? I'm surprised, Mac. Have I finally succeeded in training you?" Mac regarded her from dull brown eyes. "I want a transfer. To another team at the very least but preferably to another city."

The Director was taken aback, for once taken completely by surprise, but she recovered quickly. "I don't think so. I went to a great deal of trouble to develop this team and its dynamic--"

"There *is* no dynamic!" Mac interrupted. "I'm not in love with Li Ann anymore, and I doubt Vic is either. All you've got left is three people with some messy past entanglements, and I'm tired of it. I want out. I won't work with them any more."

"You'll do what I tell you to do, Mr. Ramsey," the Director snapped automatically even as she regarded him probingly. "I told you once before that I own you. You work for me or you die."

"Then you'd better kill me," Mac replied calmly. "I won't work with them. Transfer me to another city, and I'll be a good little secret agent. Otherwise, I'm done." He sat quietly, apparently indifferent to which option she chose.

Vic was in hell. He was sure of it. He'd spent the entire day with Nathan and Jackie. The researcher kept scurrying to him for protection from Jackie and her bonging. He groaned.

When he got home and tried to call Mac, there was no answer, so he figured that the Director had been really pissed and handed him over to Dobrinsky again. He knew they needed to talk, but he'd wait until he saw Mac at work the next day.

When he entered the briefing room the next morning, Jackie was sitting in Li Ann's usual chair, but there was no sign of Mac. The Director began talking as if there was nothing wrong, and Vic felt like he'd fallen through the looking glass. "Where's Mac?" he demanded abruptly, a sinking feeling in his middle.

"Mr. Ramsey is no longer a member of this team." Vic's jaw dropped, and even Jackie looked shocked. "What?" he bellowed, leaping to his feet, fists clenching. "What have you done to him, you bitch?"

One auburn brow rose toward her hairline. "How charming, Mr. Mansfield. Well, I can see that we're not going to accomplish anything today, so class dismissed, kiddies." She turned to leave, then glanced back at Victor, her expression glacial. "Just remember, you only get one free pass, Victor."

Vic drove to Mac's apartment like a madman, fortunate that no police stopped him. He squealed to a halt in front of the building and ran inside. When he reached the door to Mac's apartment, he twisted the handle, and it opened easily. He stepped inside, every drop of blood seeming to flow from his head. He stared in agony at the bare walls and empty rooms, only the grooves in the carpet showing that anything had ever been there.




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