Those Who Love

By Juli

January 2001


Who wills, Can.

Who tries, Does.

Who loves, Lives.

                    Anne McCaffrey


Unlike space, in Hell, everybody can hear you scream. Of course, being Hell, no one really cared about the pain that made you cry out, but they heard you just fine.

Reed Horton threw back his head and howled. When he'd become a soldier for the Dark Side, the former Legacy member had left behind his old notions of honor and self-sacrifice. If his cries were loud enough, he reasoned, perhaps his Master would be appeased and not prolong his torment.

But then again, maybe not.

In truth, despite the pain being inflicted on him, not all of Horton's screams were due to the torture. He'd lost none of his arrogance in his second death and being thwarted - again - by Derek Rayne and company was the ultimate frustration for him.

He'd had him. Horton had been sure that Derek had perished when he shot him, not to mention the dive the Precept had taken from the ocean cliffs. How Rayne had managed to survive was a mystery. The Light side didn't make a habit of resurrecting their servants the way the Dark Side did. This had been a sticking point with Reed, back when he'd worked with the Legacy. In fact, the possibility of virtual immortality had been the final lure that had caused him to change his allegiance.

Not that he was enjoying his existence at the moment, strung up as he was on his Master's spinning wheel of agony. The Dark side's avatar had currently taken the form of a young boy, the innocence of its seemingly child-like face belied by the red eyes gleaming with maliciousness.

As if sensing his regard, Horton's Master finally spoke to him. "We gifted you with a return to the living world. Your only task was to bring about the downfall of Derek Rayne and his House... yet you failed. We are not pleased. Now the torment that was to be his has been given to you."

"But Master...."

Whatever Horton had planned to say was cut off by a vicious turn of the wheel. Then, seemingly bored by his minion's cries, the demon stopped the torture contraption's movement with an idle flick of his wrist.

"Master, my mission wasn't a complete failure," Horton panted out, desperate to placate the creature that held such power over him.

"Explain."

Reed gulped, flinching under the scarlet gaze. "My time at the San Francisco House wasn't wasted," he quickly said. "I know our adversary better now, better than I'd ever imagined."

Red eyes blazed with malevolent interest. "You have discovered Rayne's weakness." The flat statement was not a question.

For the first time, Horton smiled.

"Derek Rayne's vulnerability is not a 'what,' Master," he primly corrected. "Rather, it's a who."

And thinking of the identity of the particular "who" in question, Horton's smile turned to a laugh.

***********************

<Bark>

<Bark>

<Bark>

Exhausted, Nick Boyle burrowed his way deeper into the soft cocoon of blankets covering his bed, determined to ignore the incessant noise. It had been a grueling set of days, physically as well as emotionally, and he was loathe to disturb his well-deserved period of shut-eye.

The last week had been as rough as any he'd ever had. Things had been bad enough when Alex had begun questioning Derek's past actions in the old Horton case, but then the Legacy's internal watchdogs had been brought in to the investigation. Nick hadn't liked the man they believed to be Franklin Cross from the very beginning and it had actually been a relief to find out the asshole had been a Dark side infiltrator. Of course, "relief" didn't begin to come close to describing what he'd felt when he realized that Derek wasn't dead after all.

Damn.

Thinking of the jubilation he'd felt when the Precept revealed that his death had been an elaborate ruse only served to remind Nick of the harrowing pain he'd endured before Derek had let him in on the secret. If the young man had thought it hard a couple of years ago when his lover, Julia, had died, it was nothing compared to the sucking wound in his chest when he thought that Derek might be gone too....

<Bark>

<Bark>

<Bark>

Without opening his eyes, the ex-SEAL groaned and rolled over, blindly dragging his pillow up until it was over his head. The fluffy cushion effectively muffled the dog's baying but nothing successfully stifled the hopeless joy in his heart.

Derek's being alive didn't change things and it was high time, Nick felt, that his heart understood that. Not to mention certain other body parts that had the embarrassing habit of quivering when the Precept walked into view.

A knock on his door interrupted the ex-SEAL's unhappy reverie.

"What?!?" He asked, the tone of voice indicating that there better be a damn good reason for disturbing him.

"Nick, did you know there's dog outside?" Alex's voice sounded unusually hesitant and Nick instantly regretted his harsh response. Alex hadn't been handling the Dark side's recent deception well, blaming herself for being duped into unwittingly helping the Legacy's adversaries execute their plan. She was kicking herself hard enough, Nick figured, without him dumping on her too.

"Yeah, I heard it," he answered, talking as he reluctantly forced his tired body out of bed and stumbled across to the door. "Kinda hard not to. But what's the big deal? Sounds like a normal enough pooch - I doubt it's a hell hound or anything."

At his final words, the ex-SEAL opened the door, revealing the tall, curly-haired researcher leaning against the door frame. She smiled at him crookedly, noting the sleep-mussed hair.

"Normal, huh?" She said, reaching out to smooth his bangs back into place. "I think you'd better come take a look."

Nick yawned, rubbing his face with his hands, deliberately messing his hair up again as he did. "C'mon, 'Lex. Don't tell me you got me up just to look at some mutt? Can't you just keep an eye on it with the security cameras?"

"That's just it, Nick," Alex explained, serious as she got to the meat of the problem. "The dog's not showing up on any of the surveillance equipment"

***********************

Derek Rayne stifled a glower as he watched Alex come down the stairs, a rumpled but thoroughly awake Nick in tow. He'd been Alex's teacher even before becoming her Precept and as her long-time mentor, he was well aware that the dusky-skinned young woman would take his irritation too much to heart. His former student was fragile at the moment, through little fault of her own, so he kept a tight reign on his feelings.

Funny how he could forgive Alex for doubting his own integrity or even for nearly betraying the entire Legacy, but he became as cranky as a bear with her for interrupting Nick's nap.

Speaking of feelings that had to be tightly reigned in, Derek forced his eyes away from their focus on his chief of security. He'd known Nick Boyle since the young man's childhood and was now the ex-SEAL's boss. To say his feelings regarding Nick were inappropriate would be an understatement, to say the least.

"Alex says we got a camera-shy pooch?" Nick said, flopping himself into a chair, fingers tapping away at the computer keys before he was fully settled. Even as he'd asked his question, he'd been pulling up views from the ever-present security cameras. All showed the same calm, decidedly dog-free landscape surrounding the castle.

"I didn't think it was necessary to disturb you," Derek explained, the gently chiding tone in his voice meant for Alex. "But, yes, the animal isn't appearing in any of the security monitors."

"Huh," Nick grunted, having confirmed the Precept's statement with a quick check of his own. "The feed's working okay too..."

<Bark>

<Bark>

<Bark>

All three Legacy members unconsciously struck the same listening pose, heads cocked to the side as they trained their ears to the dog's baying. Finally, Nick shrugged his shoulders somewhat sheepishly and offered a suggestion.

"Looks like I'll just have to do this the old fashioned way and go out to take a gander at our mystery pooch."

"I'm not so sure that's such a good idea," Derek temporized, his gift of Sight giving him vague warnings that this innocent-seeming visitation posed some sort of special danger for the ex- SEAL.

"Fer cryin' out loud, Derek, it's just a dog!"

The Precept's lips tightened. "'Just a dog,'?" He questioned, nodding at the monitor. "Tell that to your security system."

Nick told himself it was entirely too soon after Derek's resurrection to consider killing his boss, no matter how frustratingly stubborn the older man got.

"It's not like we can call the local dog catcher." Grimacing, the ex-SEAL sighed in frustration. "If it'll make you feel better, you can bring the holy water and I'll carry gun."

"Um... guys?" Alex said from her position by the window. "I hate to interrupt a good argument, but I think the decision's just been taken out of our hands."

"What do you mean?"

Alex met the Precept's worried gaze. "'Cause Rachel and Kat just pulled up. They're back from taking Kristin to the airport."

Characteristically, Nick reacted first. The ex-SEAL swore softly under his breath and grabbed a gun from the cabinet before heading towards the door. Derek and Alex were only a step behind the young man, the Precept taking a minute to snatch a vial of holy water.

If they were overreacting, there would be time enough later to laugh at themselves. Although their canine visitor seemed normal enough when seen with human eyes, in was incongruous that the surveillance equipment didn't pick up its presence. All of the San Francisco House's members, however, were experienced enough to know that evil can come contained in the most benign of packages.

Their caution, after all, was why they were experienced Legacy members instead of dead ones.

Nick barreled out of the castle into the carefully groomed yard, pelting full-speed out into the driveway to intercept Dr. Corrigan's car. He had been perfectly happy to take a personal risk to confront the strange dog, but the safety of Kat and her mother was quite another matter.

"What the he ?" Rachel muttered, pulling on the sedan's steering wheel sharply in order to avoid hitting the ex-SEAL. She curtailed her cursing when she realized one of Nick's hands had a gun in it, hard to miss when the young man was waving both arms at her.

Realizing that her friend was warning them to stay in the car, the psychiatrist quickly reached over and grabbed her daughter by the back of the shirt, drawing the young girl away from the car door.

"Aw, Mom!" Kat protested, "I just wanted to play with the puppy."

Puppy?

Rachel peered out the window. Sure enough, there was a dog of indiscriminate breed racing around the yard, a ball of some sort in the soggy grasp of its mouth. As if sensing her attention, it dropped its toy and started barking, a endearing tilt of its head inviting them to come out and play.

Rachel looked from the playful dog to her gun-toting friend, wondering once again just what she'd gotten herself into when joining the Legacy.

***********************

Nick sighed in relief when Rachel kept Kat from leaving the car. He could hear the dog barking on the other side of the vehicle. It sounded friendly enough, but still...

Gingerly, using the crawl-like motion universal to soldiers on a scouting mission, the ex-SEAL inched his way around the motionless sedan. He hadn't actually seen their mystery mutt yet, the pooch having been out of sight when he'd looked out of his bedroom window when Alex first came and got him, but from the sounds of the barking, it was probably a medium-sized dog. That wouldn't be too bad, all things considered, even though a small, inner voice kept reminding him that pit bulls were pretty much considered medium-sized dogs too.

Using every bit of caution hammered into him during his navy years, Nick finally rounded the corner of the car and got his first good look at the animal that had them all worked up. It was a true mutt, the type of dog that had so many different breeds in its genetic background that the most you could say about it was that was a "Heinz 57." Bright brown eyes peered at the young man from underneath a shock of tan and white fur, ears pricked up as the it assessed the newcomer. Whining in anticipation, the animal picked up it's ball and trotted over to the security chief.

Derek watched in trepidation as the dog approached Nick. To his normal vision, the scene looked harmless enough, yet the Precept remained inordinately concerned. Then his Gift kicked in and, to his inner Sight, it suddenly seemed as though Death were trotting towards the young man. The "real world" image of the dog flickered in and out, interchanging with that of a rotting canine corpse, it's worm-eaten flesh jiggling obscenely as it approached the ex-SEAL. "Nick, look out!"

Nick's attention had been riveted to the approaching dog and he wasn't immediately aware of the Precept's warning.

<Wham>

The next thing the ex-SEAL knew, he was flat on the ground, Derek hunched over him and trying to fend off the dog's... attack?

Nick wrinkled his nose as a few of the animal's licks got through the Precept's guarding hands, the dog wriggling in its anxiousness to greet the downed man. "Um... boss, I think you can stand down now," the ex-SEAL said, feeling a bit silly to have the older man needlessly protecting him. "The pooch's got a mild case of doggy breath, but that never killed anybody."

Derek looked from the happy dog to his embarrassed-looking security chief, the corpse vision of just moments earlier completely gone. Looking at the amused expressions on the other Legacy members' faces, the Precept rose from his crouch slowly, silently backing off to allow the dog to greet Nick unencumbered.

Front paws planted firmly on the young man's chest, the determined animal licked the ex- SEAL's chin, causing a sound to come from Nick that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle. For his part, Nick enthusiastically thumped the mutt's side in a return greeting. He'd forgotten what it was like to be on the receiving end of a doggy hello.

"Hey, Nick, you never told us you had a dog."

The security chief looked over at where Kat crouched near him, her mother's hand on her shoulder curbing the pre-teen's excitement.

"I don't have a dog," he answered, "leastways, not since I was your age."

Rachel laughed, gesturing at the dog with free hand. "Don't have a dog, huh? Looks like somebody forgot to tell him."

The dog launched itself from Nick's chest, darting over to grab its neglected ball. Dropping its toy into Nick's lap, the animal sat back and yipped an invitation. The ex-SEAL picked the ball up, idly noting that it was a well-worn baseball before tossing it further into the yard for his new friend to chase. Nick absently got up and dusted off his posterior, his eyes tracking the dog as it happily chased its toy,

"He does seem to like you," Alex commented, watching the enthusiastic animal retrieve the ball and begin to head back towards them.

"Let's not forget," Derek's voice was grim with warning, "that, although it seems friendly enough now, that this... creature... is still an anomaly."

Nick heard their voices as though they were at a great distance, the majority of his focus trained on the dog approaching him. Rachel and Alex's teasing comments about the animal belonging to him, not to mention the mutt's appearance, had started him thinking and the young man wasn't at all sure he liked the direction that his thoughts were taking.

"Come here, fella," He crooned as the dog presented him with the ball, squatting to catch the stray before it could bound off again. Scratching at the mutt's ears, the ex-SEAL's fingers made their way around its neck until the found the animal's collar. "Let's see what your name is, boy." Finding the identification tag was only another moment's work and soon Nick had the information he was seeking.

Much to his dismay.

The others watched as the blood drained from the young man's face.

"Nick, what's the matter?" Rachel had been glad to see Nick's enjoyment of his interaction with the dog, the young man had too little joy in his life as far as she was concerned, and was worried to see the delight drain from her young friend's face.

The ex-SEAL lost his balance and abruptly sat on the ground, lifting a stunned face to address the others. "This *is* my dog."

Alex frowned. She'd known Nick for years and knew there had to be more to it than that. "And the problem is..."

"The problem is," he explained. "Slugger died over ten years ago. I should know, I shot him myself."

***********************

"You shot your own dog?" Kat's voice was shocked, her expression begging her hero to tell her that she was mistaken.

Nick ignored the girl's question. "My mom bought him for me," he said, eyes out of focus as he remembered, hands automatically continuing to stroke the now-identified dog. "After Jimmy took off. She said I needed... something." The ex-SEAL laughed humorlessly. "My dad hated that dog. Said Slugger wasn't worth the grass he pissed on." As if sensing his dismay, Slugger pushed his head under Nick's hand, demanding the young man's focus and Nick responded by burying his face into the animal's fur.

After a moment or two, Nick abruptly sat up and reached for the soggy ball, tossing it up and catching it in his hand before throwing it across the yard for his canine visitor to chase.

"Slugger didn't care for Pop much either, but he was a smart dog too. Didn't give the old man a reason for getting rid of him, almost like he knew he was on borrowed time." Nick sighed, turning from watching the dog to face his colleagues, who had been silently listening to his story unfold. "One day, though, the Major got real sauced up and started slapping me around. I don't even remember why." The ex-SEAL snorted in disgust. "Like he needed a reason. But this time, Slugger was full grown and I guess you could say he took exception to my dad hitting me..."

"He attacked your father?" Derek asked softly. Having worked with Jonathon Boyle, he could well imagine what the volatile man's reaction had been.

"Yeah, damn near took a chunk out of his ass too." As he remembered the sight of his larger- than-life father being chased by a mutt, Nick's smile was as genuine as it was wicked. It was one of the few, if not only, times in his life that he'd seen his old man get his comeuppance.

He sobered, though, when he remembered how his parent had responded. "Pop didn't like that much. Said an animal that turned on its own couldn't be trusted and had to be put down."

"So you shot him?" Kat asked in a whisper, silent tears tracking down her cheeks.

"I had to, Kat. It was either I shoot him or my dad would." Nick looked at the girl. As much as his natural instincts were to protect her, he knew that he couldn't sugarcoat his explanation. Not if he didn't want her to hate him for what he'd done all those years ago. "You see, I knew that if I were the one to do it, I'd be sure to do it right the first time and Slugger wouldn't feel any pain. I couldn't trust my dad to do it cleanly. It would have been just like him to make it drag on while Slugger suffered, just to teach me a lesson."

By this time, the dog in question bounded up, having successfully retrieved the ball. He dropped it at Nick's feet, his tail wagging a thousand miles an hour. Nick crouched beside him, wrapping one arm around the excited animal, nose wrinkling as his four-footed friend licked his chin. Looking soberly up at Kat, he admitted, "It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do."

"And you're sure this is the same dog?" Derek asked, ignoring Rachel's glare at this apparent lack of sensitivity.

In reality, though, the Precept's question served a dual purpose. He was their leader, he couldn't just ignore the supernatural implications of Slugger's visit. More to the point, though, he knew Nick and had the feeling that the young man would appreciate a chance to pull back a bit on the painful memories and get down to business.

Derek was right. Nick threw him a grateful glance before answering his question. "Yeah, there's no doubt. He looks the same as he did just before...." The young man's voice falter a bit, but he quickly continued. "Sounds the same too. Hell, he even smells the same."

The ex-SEAL's confirmation was unneeded, however, at least for the Precept. Even before Nick spoke, Derek's Sight had provided his own answer. The scene in front of him melted away, showing the older man the same dog, but in a different setting. In his vision, the animal was being instructed to stay by a sturdy boy, the tears evident on the child's face as he stepped away from the animal. The shotgun was unsteady when the youngster took aim, the weapon seeming too big for the boy to handle. Just before the fatal shot rang out, Derek noticed that the dog was still wagging its tail at its young master...

"Derek, you okay?" Alex's soft question and a touch on his shoulder brought the Precept back to the present.

Nodding tersely at the young woman, Derek swallowed the bile that had filled his throat. To think that he'd worked for years with Jonathon Boyle, had even admired the man, when all the time his colleague was capable of such cruelty to his own child. It made the Precept almost physically ill.

"Nick, do you think you can get the dog... Slugger... to accompany you to the lab? Since you've confirmed that it's the same animal, I think it would be prudent to run some tests and see how this is possible."

"I dunno, boss, but I'll give it a try." Nick stood and carefully got a hold of his canine visitor's collar before encouraging the animal to follow him. "C'mon, boy. Let's go inside."

Slugger, however, had a different idea. The dog got up obediently enough at Nick's coaxing, but a quick swerve to one side broke the ex-SEAL's hold on his collar. The compact tan and white body danced across the castle's yard, Slugger stopping only when he was outside the reach of any of the humans. With one last friendly yip and wag of his tail, the dog turned and ran.

Well before the animal had reached the other side of the lawn, his form started to shimmer, becoming more insubstantial with every canine bounce. Soon, Slugger had disappeared all together, without even a ripple in the grass to show that he'd ever been there.

Nick bent down and picked up Slugger's discarded baseball, looking with shocked eyes from the soggy evidence in his hand to the spot on lawn where the animal had disappeared. "What the hell just happened?"

***********************

A couple of hours later, the team was no closer to an answer.

Derek Rayne walked through the control room's door, pausing as he often did when entering. His hesitation wasn't due to admiration of the technology that kept the heart of their House safe from non-authorized access, but rather a sense of awe that this place, these people, were his responsibility.

The Precept made himself check Alex first and was reassured that the young woman was deeply engrossed in her work, no self-doubt evident in her face. Her gift of Sight wasn't quite as strong as his, but her Talent often guided the researcher to the right materials instinctively.

His duty to monitor Alex's well-being fulfilled, Derek turned his attention to the other figure in the room -- the one his eyes seemed to be mercilessly drawn to, no matter the time or situation.

Nick was hunched over his computer, the ex-SEAL growling softly under his breath when his screen didn't show him the results he'd hoped for. His every muscle seemed to be clenched with tension and Derek's fingers itched to massage the tautness out of the younger man. Knowing that such a gesture would not be appropriate, however, he contented himself with a platonic hand on Nick's shoulder. Even so, he still enjoyed the sensation of feeling Nick's muscles move under the soft fabric of his worn cotton shirt. With effort, he stopped himself from stroking the young man like a large cat, but nothing could prevent his imagination from wondering if he could make Nick purr or not.

"I take it there have been no new leads?" Derek asked, thankful that his voice didn't break, given the steamy direction his thoughts had taken.

Nick shook his head, blowing the air out of his lungs in an explosive sigh. "Oh, there have been animal ghost sightings before, but nothing tracks exactly like Slugger's visitation. Most of the reports have been about animal ghosties warning their families of danger, that kind of thing."

Alex had broken off her own work to join the conversation. "And Slugger hardly seemed to be trying to warn Nick of sort of danger. If anything, it was like he wanted to play."

Derek thought of telling them of his own Vision of the dog, but decided against it. After all, he'd really only Seen a doggy corpse and they were fully aware by now that the dog was well and truly dead. Mentioning it at this point would only add to Nick's emotional stress. "If you're not making any progress, perhaps it is time for a break. Then we can come back with a fresh perspective."

Nick and Alex looked at each other in amazement. "Is this a new, kinder and gentler version of Derek Rayne?" Alex finally asked. Not that he usually had to encourage his team members to investigate, but Derek was typically more of the nose-to-the-grindstone type.

The Precept had the grace too look a bit sheepish. "Don't get too used to it," he explained with a grin, "this is all Rachel's doing. Now that Kat's nearly a teen and rebelling against parental authority and coddling, Rachel's turning her maternal tendencies towards her colleagues."

"Like that's anything new?" Nick snorted under his breath. Still, the young man did lean back in his chair and stretched, wincing when his bones audibly cracked. "I guess I could stand to eat something."

Alex chuckled. "Like *that's* anything new," she teased. Nick's voracious appetite was an established fact at the San Francisco House.

The trio left the control room and headed towards the kitchen. Slugger's visit had occurred in the early afternoon and now it was well into the evening. The Legacy members were passing a sitting area when Alex suddenly stopped.

"I didn't know we had a guest," she said softly, darting a confused glance in Derek's direction.

"What visitor?" The Precept asked.

"Him," Alex answered, using her chin to point towards a chair by the fireplace. Sure enough, the dim light showed a shadowy figure seated in a plush easy chair.

Derek frowned, instantly on the alert. The House didn't have any guests that he was aware of. At least, there hadn't been moments earlier when he'd entered the control room.

Before anyone could speak, the visitor seemed to become aware of them, lifting his face to show the features of an old man, complete with bushy mustache. His hands were stretched out before him, balanced on a well-worn cane.

"There you are I've been waiting for you," the stranger said, looking at the Legacy members.

Derek and Alex looked at each other and, seeing that the other didn't recognize their unannounced guest, looked over at Nick.

"Grandpa?" The ex-SEAL whispered.

All three of the team members jumped at the loud clack that occurred when the elderly man thumped his cane onto the floor. "What, have you got so big for your britches that you can't give your old Gramps a hug?"

Nick moved towards the stranger as if in a daze, but Derek quickly moved to intervene. Like the dog earlier, this old man seemed harmless enough, but he wasn't about to take any chances. A quick arm across the younger man's chest easily held Nick in place, almost as though the contact with the Precept broke some sort of trance.

The figure saw that Nick was willing to be held back and settled down further into his seat. Gently, almost as if he were speaking to himself, he said, "So is that the way it's gonna be? Did that no good son of a bitch my daughter married beat all the wonder out of you, child?"

Nick shook his head, his mouth moving but no sound coming out.

The visitor smiled. "Just remember this advice, Nicky. There are three things you should never turn your nose up at: an ice cold beer after mowing the grass, an American-made car, or the embrace of a good woman."

Nick's grandfather, if that was who he truly was, paused for emphasis. "And the Lady's embrace, child of my child, is the best embrace of all."

And then he was gone.

***********************

Rachel would have never thought she'd feel this way, but the psychiatrist found herself wishing Nick was angry. Instead, in the time after his grandfather's spectral visit, the ex-SEAL was agitated, confused, and stressed, but, surprisingly, not furious.

"Nick, I've never heard you mention your grandfather before," she asked, hoping to get the young man to open up. A warning glance to Derek and Alex warned them off interrupting her approach to the issue.

The ex-SEAL stopped his frantic pacing, leaning against the counter and facing away from the group. "My Grandpa Gaven," he explained. "He died when I was in kindergarten. Lung cancer."

"I'm sorry," the psychiatrist said automatically.

Nick snorted and turned around. "Yeah, me too. He was the only person who ever defended me to my father."

Derek winced at the younger man's unintentional accusation, wondering himself for the upteenth time since learning of Jonathon Boyle's abuse of his son why he himself had never noticed anything.

Nick didn't notice the Precept's flinch. "You don't think that was really him, do you?" He asked, the question directed to no one in particular.

Even more than the agitated pacing, the uncharacteristically fragile tone of voice the ex-SEAL used worried his friends.

"No, I don't think so," Derek said, assuming a confidence that he hoped would reassure the younger man. "It would appear that something has targeted you, Nick. Rather than the actual spirits of Slugger and your grandfather, I think it's likely that facsimiles of these trusted figures from your life were used in order to gain your confidence."

Nick silently nodded, Derek's words apparently reassuring him. Then, with a ghost of usual humor, a small smile tugged at his lips. "So, you implying that dogs got souls? I'd like to be there when you run that idea by Philip."

Alex slapped him lightly on the shoulder, glad to see her friend rallying. "C'mon, Sport. It's back to the drawing board and more research for us."

Rachel trailed the others on their way back to the control room, thinking again about how Nick's temper, though it got him in trouble from time to time, also fed the young man energy. Derek's reassurance notwithstanding, somehow she had the feeling that she'd feel a whole lot better about this situation if Nick got mad about it.

***********************

Even dedicated members of the Legacy needed to rest sometime and the wee hours of morning found the team reluctantly in their beds. Their research had proven fruitful too fruitful. References to entities known as "the Lady" were numerous in the literature and paranormal databases. Too many, in fact, to narrow down which particular Lady Nick's unearthly visitor had been referring to. Their studies revealed supernatural creatures with that title running the gamut from the holy Virgin Mother to several decidedly unholy demons. An interesting bipolar grouping to be sure, but hardly useful for their present concern.

The entire group was frustrated and Rachel, worried about the whole team's stamina, finally prevailed on Derek to call a break for the night. The recent Horton ordeal was too fresh on their minds and there hadn't had much time to recover before this latest mystery had landed in their laps.

The psychiatrist was especially worried about Nick. As she had noticed earlier although Nick was visibly upset about the two ghostly visitors, the ex-SEAL wasn't acting with the anger she'd expected. Knowing the young man as she did, she would fully anticipate that when an unknown adversary made it personal as had been done when... something... assumed Nick's grandfather's form, that the volatile young man would lash out. Time after time, she'd seen Nick do something like that, but Rachel had the sneaking suspicion that his current restraint had little to do with a new-found maturity. No, his odd reaction seemed to smack of vulnerability and that was troubling.

Rachel had thought to bring Derek's attention to the ex-SEAL's unusual fragility, but she had seen by the worried look in the Precept's eyes, that he was every bit aware as she was.

It was with a troubled heart that Rachel bid the others goodnight and made her way to bed. Sleep was hard to attain, but once having finally entered into a somnolent state, Rachel was loathe to leave it. Slowly, her mostly asleep mind realized that she was hearing the sing-song chant of a young child. That woke the psychiatrist thoroughly, jolting her upright in her bed. A quick check, however, showed that Kat was still sleeping in the bed next to her's.

The psychiatrist quickly rose and grabbed her robe, opening the bedroom door with care so as not to wake her daughter. Sure enough, they had another visitor.

As Rachel exited her bedroom, she saw she wasn't the only person to have been awakened. Derek was already in the hallway and a sleep-rumpled Alex was peering out from her bedroom door. Nick, though, was not yet in sight.

This visitor was indeed a child. Years younger than Kat, this girl had long, blonde hair tied back into pigtails. Her ready smile showed a missing front tooth and Rachel couldn't help but give her a tentative smile back.

The girl giggled and resumed her chant, turning so that she was facing Nick's bedroom door. "Nick and the Lady, sitting in a tree," she sang with enthusiasm,"K-i-s-s-i-n-g..."

The ex-SEAL's door slowly opened and from the young man's haggard appearance, Nick hadn't been sleeping at all.

At seeing the last member of her audience appear, the girl cocked her head to the side and started the song from the beginning. "Nick and the Lady sitting in a tree. K-i-s-s-i-n-g. First comes love, then comes marriage....." She stopped to cover her mouth for another giggle. "I guess the baby carriage part ain't right, huh?"

"Bethie." Nick didn't seemed surprised to see the girl. Instead, he just seemed very tired.

The blonde child almost danced with excitement. "You'll like the Lady, Nick. She's real nice!" The spectral girl giggled. "She likes you, that's for sure." Then, with another wide grin, Bethie disappeared with as little fanfare as Nick's grandfather had earlier.

Nick looked at his teammates blankly. "Bethie Nelson," he said without preamble. "Got hit by a car when we were in the first grade."

Then, with shrug, he turned around and went back into his bedroom, closing his door firmly behind him.

***********************

He knew, of course, that he couldn't simply shut his door on his problems and have any hope that they'd go away. Or, for that matter, that his friends would let him get by with it. Still, Nick thought as he closed the door behind him, it was worth a try.

Already tired from the recent trauma of believing, however temporarily, that Derek had died, the ghostly visitations were taking a toll on the young man. Nick gave his bed a disgusted look, deciding it was entirely too empty to be of any comfort. Instead, the ex-SEAL curled up in a chair, pensively staring at nothing in particular.

It was obvious that something out there wanted him.

The ex-SEAL knew he should be pissed about being the target of this unknown "Lady's" attentions and, to a certain extent, he was. There was a small part of him, though, that thought it was something of a relief to be wanted for a change... even if it was an unknown entity doing the courting rather than the person he really longed after.

A soft knock at his door interrupted his reverie. Nick glanced at the clock and grinned in spite of his melancholy. They'd left him alone for nearly ten minutes, longer than he thought he would be allowed to retreat. If there had been anyone else in the room to bet with, Nick's money would have been on Rachel as the one to risk bearding him in his den. He would have won too, because, sure enough, it was the psychiatrist who popped her head into his bedroom.

"Nick," she asked in a voice shaded with uncertainty, "Can I come in?"

"Sure, Rach," Nick answered, uncurling his body so that he was sprawled across the chair rather than huddled in it.

Since the young man often worked out in his room, either with weights or with a punching bag, the carpeting was utilitarian rather than plush. As a result, Rachel's hesitant steps were discernable as she walked over to where Nick was sitting.

"You okay?" Rachel asked, lightly placing one hand on his shoulder as if afraid he would shrug it off.

Nick did shrug in response, but not hard enough to dislodge the woman's hand. It felt good to have someone touch him, even if it was Rachel and not Derek.

To cover the sudden emotion that comparison caused, Nick made light of the situation. "I feel like I'm in a Bruce Willis movie."

Rachel's frown showed she wasn't quite following his train of thought. "Bruce Willis?"

"You know," Nick explained, dropping his voice down to a hoarse whisper. "'I see dead people.'" He grinned at his own joke.

The psychiatrist wasn't tempted to smile in return. She knew Nick well enough to know that the young man smiled more with his eyes than his mouth. The distinct lack of twinkle in his eye was a dead giveaway that this attempt at humor was only masking a deeper turmoil. "No, really. How are you?"

Nick let the grin fade from his lips as he realized he wasn't going to be able to snow Rachel. "I'm okay. Not too crazy about the spirit walk goin' on here, but I'm holdin' up."

The psychiatrist shook her head and grabbed Nick's chin, turning his face from one side and then the other, getting a good look at him. "First Horton and now this. How long's it been since you had any decent sleep?"

Another shrug. "I got an hour here, an hour there. I'm good."

Rachel dropped her fingers from his chin with a sigh. "Why did I have a feeling you were going to say that?" She asked, then held up her hand when Nick tried to answer. "No, I don't want to hear it. Tell you what, why don't you let me give you something tonight? Whatever's going on, we'll all attack the problem better with a good rest behind us."

The psychiatrist brought a bottle out of her pocket, but it was Nick's turn to wave her off.

"Nah-uh. No way, Rachel. You are not giving me any sleeping pills."

"Now, Nick, it's nothing to be ashamed of," Rachel tried to placate the ex-SEAL, but he was having none of it.

"Cut the crap, Rach. What's after the pills -- whiskey? Do you think I'm like my father, that I need some chemical to deal with the shit working with the Legacy throws at you?" By this time, Nick was out of the chair and glaring at his friend, fists clenched by his side.

Rachel, however, wasn't cowed. She knew Nick would never strike out at her, no matter how angry he got. Besides, it helped that they were nearly the same size, making it impossible for him to loom over her.

"I'm not suggesting anything like that. Your father was an alcoholic. I know what that's like, remember? All I'm recommending for you is a sleep aide for one night, given under the guidance of a professional. Namely, me."

At Rachel's reference to her own alcoholism, Nick deflated a bit, the cooling of his anger letting him see the genuine concern in his friend's eyes. He eyed the pill bottle in her hand warily. "Just for one night, huh?"

"Yup."

"All right," Nick conceded, holding his hand out reluctantly for the pill. Rachel shook one out of the bottle into his hand and the young man swallowed it dry, grimacing a bit at the taste. "There, you happy."

"It's not about my being happy," the psychiatrist scolded. "It's about you getting some rest before you keel over."

"Whatever you say, Mom," Nick teased, trying to lightened the mood. "You gonna tuck me in too?"

Rachel didn't rise to the bait. "If you want me to," she said in an even tone of voice.

Nick blushed and turned towards the bed. "Nah, that's okay," he said, quickly backing off before Rachel took him up on it. The older woman was his friend, but he didn't think he could live it down.

"Okay, kiddo," she said, heading for the door, watching as Nick climbed into bed. "Have it your way."

"Besides," she couldn't help but add before turning out the light. "I don't think I'm the one you want to tuck you in anyway."

***********************

Technically, since he was the owner of the castle, Derek had the right to enter any room he chose. Still, the Precept felt like an intruder as he made his stealthy way into Nick's bedroom.

It had been his idea to medicate the young man in order to help him sleep. Merely days earlier, Nick had been an active and energetic participant in foiling Reed Horton. The young man's body had seemed to thrum with barely contained enthusiasm at duping the Dark side's minion, not to mention the wicked gleam their planning brought to the ex-SEAL's eye. Despite the dangerous nature of the work, Nick seemed to be having the time of his life as the two of them worked side by side to bring order back to their House.

Now, however, Derek wasn't so sure. Had the brightness in Nick's eyes been enthusiasm for the task at hand, or merely the last spark of a man about to burn himself out?

In either case, the Precept had been concerned at the effect the ghostly visitations were having on Nick. The vitality from that earlier mission was gone, replaced by the near-apathy that Nick exhibited at the sight of the last specter, the girl, Bethie. An opportunity to recharge his batteries, Derek reasoned, could only do Nick a world of good.

The Precept had successfully stifled the urge to check on Nick earlier in the morning, but as the sun climbed a bit higher in the sky, he could no longer resist. He excused himself from the team's continuing research and crept with quiet feet into Nick's bedroom.

The ex-SEAL was sleeping on his stomach, the soft sound of his regular breaths reassuring the older man. Sometime during the wee hours of the morning, he must have kicked his covers off, because the blankets were hitched around his legs, easily revealing that Nick was sleeping in his boxer shorts. A t-shirt completed the young American's bedtime ensemble, but it was bunched up, leaving a hand span of skin exposed on Nick's back. Derek wanted to caress the bared flesh and even went so far as to reach his hand out. Sanity asserted itself at the last moment and the Precept instead gently worked the blankets up until they were closer to chest level.

"Sleep well," he whispered and turned to go.

Little did the House leader realize that his clandestine trip wasn't quite the secret he'd hoped for. An unseen observer watched him carefully back out of the room, grinning to herself as her boss oh-so-carefully closed the door behind him. Here she and Rachel had begun to think they were going to have to draw the boys a diagram, but it looked at least one of them was finally getting the idea all on his own.

"Everything okay?" Alex asked in a cheerful whisper, her unexpected voice causing Derek to jump several inches.

The Precept gathered his dignity and turned to face his colleague. "He's sleeping just fine. No sign that he's been disturbed by any visitors."

"The ghostly kind, you mean?" Alex couldn't help but tease.

Derek blushed. "No." He said shortly, "Now. Shall we get back to work?"

The young woman laughed to herself as she followed the tall man down the hall, but was careful to keep her mirth quiet. It felt good to laugh, what with all the tension they'd been living with, even if silently.

But, somehow, she didn't think Derek would find her amusement at catching him at all funny.

***********************

Nick ended up sleeping until 9:00 am, very late indeed for someone trained to the Navy SEALS' standards. The young man did seem a bit more energetic as he joined the others in the library. Or, at least, agitated rather than apathetic.

"Why'd you let me sleep so late?" Nick couldn't decide who was most responsible, so distributed his scowl amongst all three of his teammates.

"You needed it," Derek answered mildly.

Deprived of a sparing partner, Nick crossed his arms over his chest and gruffly asked for an update to the research. "Find anything yet?"

Alex shook her head, wordlessly sliding a plate of pastries in Nick's direction. Since Dominic, who served both as the group's butler and cook, was busy driving Kat to school, the team had been left to their own devices for breakfast. Alex had been prepared with food at hand, knowing that Nick usually was grumpy when his stomach was empty. When he was safely occupied downing his first donut, she explained their progress. Or, rather, their lack of any.

"We've plowed through several dozen references to a supernatural "Lady," but nothing concrete yet. We've got another couple of dozen to wade through."

"Did you have any more visitations?" Derek asked.

Nick didn't understand Alex's bark of laughter, which his fellow researcher quickly stifled with a yelp. He looked at the young woman oddly; it seemed for all the world as though Alex was rubbing her ankle, like someone had kicked her.

Shaking off his confusion, he turned to answer Derek. "Nope."

The Precept responded with another question. "What about dreams... nightmares?"

"Not so as I'd remember," Nick said, with a glare at Rachel. Apparently he'd assigned the psychiatrist the blame for the hated sleeping pill, conveniently forgetting that he'd agreed to take it.

"Oh, I doubt it," Derek said, "A multiple haunting like what Nick's experienced should be indicative of a larger issue. We'll have more ghostly visitors before this is over, mark my words."

"He's right," Rachel spoke for the first time that morning.

"You think so?" Alex said.

"I *know* so," Rachel said, pointing to a spot beyond the group. "Look behind you."

All eyes in the room snapped towards the doorway that Nick had just entered through. There was another young man there now and they all knew immediately that it was another haunting. This spirit was that of a Hispanic man, dirty hair hanging in his eyes and scrubby uniform hanging off his too-thin body. Once it was noticed, the figure made a beeline for Nick, stopping just shy of the ex-SEAL.

"Gratias, Senor," the spirit greeted Nick in Spanish.

Living in California, Nick was familiar with some of the language, but not nearly enough to say he was fluent. Still, as the specter continued to speak to him, Nick realized that, although it continued to speak in Spanish, he could understand it perfectly. "You sent me to the Lady," His visitor said. "Her embrace is cold, but as all-encompassing as the night."

"I don't understand," Nick said. Although he understood the dead soldier's words perfectly, their meaning was unclear to him.

The man smiled. "You will."

Then, like Slugger, Grandfather Gavin, and Bethie, he abruptly winked out of existence.


Continued in Part 2

 

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