Mortal Hearts

By Juli

December 1998


If there was one thing worse than sleeping in the wet spot, Nick Boyle reflected as he rolled over and left his nest of blankets, it was sleeping in a cold, lonely bed that you hadn't even had a chance to make a wet spot in. Nick paused as he pulled on his sweat pants. Nope, that didn't even make sense to him. It had to be early in the morning (or was that late in the night?) if his musings weren't even comprehensible to himself.

Nick turned his back on his Derek-less bed and padded down the stairs in bare feet, yawning and scruffing his fingers through his hair. Damn the man anyway. You'd think he'd never presented a paper at an anthropology conference before........The mental grumblings continued as the young man made his way to Derek's study. His "considerate" lover had decided to work there instead of the bedroom so he wouldn't disturb Nick's sleep. Of course, Nick hadn't planned on *sleeping* in the bed anyway, which accounted for a good portion of his current grumpy mood, but despite his best intentions, the young man had dozed off waiting for the Precept to join him. Patience wasn't one of Nick's better attributes and he'd had just about enough of Derek's recent one-track academic mind.

Upon entering the study, Nick's scowl softened. His lover was bent over the wildly strewn papers on the desk, pencil between his teeth, muttering softly to himself. The ex-SEAL wondered how many times the Dutch perfectionist had re- written his paper tonight.

It was evidence of his focus on his work that Derek didn't notice Nick enter the room and move behind him until the young man started massaging his neck. Derek groaned as Nick's strong hands began working the knots out of his muscles. What had he ever done to deserve such a talented lover?

"This thing's really spun you for a loop, huh?" The young man finally asked, breaking the companionable silence.

Derek moaned sensuously again before answering, rotating his neck from side to side to encourage Nick to continue. "It's not so much the meeting as who'll be there."

"Is it Giroud? I've heard you talk about him before."

"Yes. He was my mentor at Oxford. I used to admire him a great deal, but he seemed to enjoy knocking down every one of my theories. I always thought that he was inspiring me to better work, to challenge me to prove my own ideas..."

"So, what happened?" Nick prompted as Derek's voice trailed off.

"There was one theory of mine that he rather viciously attacked, about the origins of the Atlantis myth. I was thoroughly chastened. I thought I'd made a terrible mistake and hadn't done my research properly--until my theory appeared in print."

"Let me guess, with Giroud's name on it?"

"Of course."

"That sucks."

Derek smiled bitterly. "I couldn't have said it better myself."

"You want me to beat the crap out of him?"

Derek gave a yelp of laughter at the mental image the ex-SEAL's comment evoked and reached up to grasp Nick's hands. Tugging down, he pulled Nick close until the young man was resting against his back, chin atop Derek's head, arms dangling down and crossed over the Dutchman's chest. "I don't think that'll be necessary, but thank you, love."

Nick kissed the top of Derek's head and moved around to the desk. Derek knew what was coming and swiftly moved to get his papers out harm's way. With a satisfied smirk, Nick hopped up on the now mostly-clear desk. Chairs were for wimps.

"So you think this Giroud is going to attack your research again."

"I'm almost certain of it. We haven't met face to face since I was working on my Masters, even though we've attended a lot of the same conferences. But we've exchanged some rather heated editorials in the academic journals. I'm not exactly sure what to expect."

Nick sighed explosively in disgust. Was this what had been bothering Derek for days now?

"Derek, you ever read the transcripts to the International Anthropology Association Conference in Milan?"

"Of course not. I was there, I didn't need to."

"How about the Archeological Society Symposium in Atlanta or the Cultural Educators Meeting in Tokyo?"

"No and no. Where is this going?" Derek sidled forward until he was positioned in between Nick's legs as the young man perched on the desk. The Dutchman leaned in and delicately lapped the area behind Nick's ear. God, but his young lover was irresistible when he was so serious...

Now that he was warmed up to his subject, Nick refused to be distracted and hopped off the desk in order to pace in front of it. "Well, *I* did. Giroud's tactics are always the same. He sits back and lets the younger colleagues challenge the works and take all the hits. Then he waits until he sees what the general consensus is and pounces. The bastard's so good at it, he always ends up smelling sweet and appearing like he's making a declaration from God..." Nick trailed off as he saw Derek staring at him in disbelief. "What?"

"I thought this academic talk bored you? When did you do all this reading?"

Nick rolled his eyes. "Since you've been barricaded in your office, getting ready for this conference."

It wasn't so much the words that touched Derek as it was Nick's tone of voice. The tone of voice that said: "You dummy! What's important to you is important to me--get used to it!" The older man snagged Nick as he paced by and pulled him in for a fierce hug.

Content in Derek's arms, Nick looked up at the older man. "'Know your enemy.' That's the first thing the SEALS teach. You know your enemy better than he knows himself and you'll spot the weaknesses he didn't even know he had."

Derek reached down and kissed Nick's nose. "And here I thought all along that the first thing they taught you was how to look cute in camouflage clothes."

"Nope. 'Know your enemy' is first and 'looking good in uniform' is second." Nick's eyes crinkled at Derek as he smiled at the Dutchman.

The Precept responded by bringing his hands up underneath Nick's chin. Pressing up at the jaw, he tilted the smaller man's face up before bending in for a kiss and then going on to nuzzle Nick's ear. So close that his breath tickled the ex-SEAL, he whispered, "Let's go upstairs and see how cute you are *out* of uniform."

Anthropology conference battle tactics immediately forgotten, Nick flushed and grabbed Derek's hand. Arm in arm, hips brushing together with every step, the lovers headed up the stairs and back to bed........where they'd belonged all along.

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

Derek winced as he turned in the shower, rinsing off the soapy suds from his back. Not that this particular ache was unwelcome, but it'd been awhile since he'd been on the receiving end of a sexual liaison........

As he finished up in the shower, Derek mused about his relationship with Nick Boyle. Friends for years, they'd been lovers a scant two months. Derek thought he'd known the young man well, having wandered in and out of Nick's life since the ex-SEAL was a child. Much to his surprise, however, Nick was showing him hidden facets of his personality all the time.

The part of Nick that surprised Derek the most--the aspect of Nick's personality that Rachel had warned the Dutchman about while he was still courting the young man--was Nick's lack of confidence. Oh sure, give the ex-SEAL a gun and point him at the enemy and Nick had all the confidence in the world. Too much confidence for his own good, truth be known. But in the arena of interpersonal relationships, Nick had about as much confidence as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. That is to say, none at all.

Luckily, Derek had taken Rachel's warning to heart and reassured his new love at every opportunity. The Precept would never forget the shy smile of pleasure when he'd asked his young lover to accompany him to Scotland, where Derek was soon to make his academic presentation. Had Nick really thought that Derek could bear to leave him behind? Even for just a week? Apparently so, based on his reaction.

As their trip to Scotland neared, Derek had sensed a nervousness in his Security Chief which perplexed him. After all, it was Derek that was going to have to get up in front of a respected group of his peers and present his findings, not Nick. Still, the Dutchman enjoyed the ex-SEAL's strategy planning--all of which was designed to confound a certain Dr. Giroud, Derek's former mentor and current pedagogical arch-nemesis. Nick had thrown himself into the project with as much dedication as if he were planning the invasion of a small country. Come to think of it, Derek decided, that's pretty much how Nick was approaching the problem. It seemed academic politics and battle tactics weren't all that much different, at least as far as the ex-SEAL was concerned.

The last week had passed in a whirl. Derek was torn between finishing his paper, reassuring his lover, and preparing his House for his absence. It was with a sense of relief that he and Nick finally boarded the Legacy jet that would convey them to Europe.

All of which led up to their hotel room in Edinburgh, last night's passionate coupling, and the resulting ache in his posterior.

As his thoughts again returned to night before, Derek paused in toweling himself and smiled tenderly. He and Nick had arrived the afternoon before the conference, Derek too keyed up to want to do any sightseeing. So, they'd simply checked into their hotel and gone to dinner. After they ate, the two lovers had gone directly back to the room, Derek wanting to get to bed early in preparation for the morning.

Nick had distinctly different intentions.

The ex-SEAL was normally the more bashful of the two where sex was concerned, but he'd jumped Derek the second the hotel door was shut. Growling in what the Dutchman hoped was mock ferociousness, the young man claimed that he would mark Derek, so that as the older man stood in front of his audience, he would *know* who he belonged to.

Like there was any doubt.

It had been an unusual turn of events and one that Derek savored--even if it meant he'd be sitting rather carefully for a few days. Trust Nick to find a covert way to stake his territory, one that Derek could intimately feel but was invisible to everyone else. The Precept was actually a little smug. It wasn't every man of his age that could say that he had a younger lover wanting to put his mark on him. Hell, he'd bet that Giroud couldn't make that claim.

Feeling *much* better about his state of affairs, Derek donned a robe, left a towel around his neck to soak up the moisture still streaming from his wet hair, and finally left the bathroom. It was a good thing Nick had already showered and used the facilities. Caught in his mental meandering, Derek had taken longer than usual. Even so, being late was a distinct possibility.

As Derek entered the main part of their hotel room, he found Nick looking into the full-length mirror. Curious, the Precept paused--the sight was an unusual one as Nick was not the type to primp. Catching a glimpse of his lover's reflection in the mirrored glass, Nick turned around somewhat hesitantly.

Derek was too busy at first trying to decipher the expression on Nick's face to pay much attention to what the young man was wearing. But when Nick blushed and ducked his head, the Precept's eyes were automatically drawn from the bowed head down to the rest of his lover's body. Knowing even as he did it that he was probably adding to Nick's obvious embarrassment, Derek still couldn't stop himself from giving a long appreciative whistle.

It wasn't that he hadn't seen Nick dressed up before. He had, many times. It was just that.......well, on those occasions the clothes always seemed to wearing Nick, not the other way around. Generally speaking, Nick and a suit just were not a good match.

Not this time.

The outfit was obviously custom tailored to fit Nick's athletic form and, appropriate to Scotland's cool winter weather, the fabric was a light worsted wool. Instead of a dress shirt/tie combination, the ex-SEAL was wearing a wool mock turtleneck that was dyed to exactly match the odd grayish green hue of the main garment. Derek wondered where he'd seen that unusual color before--until Nick raised his head and looked him in the eye. Then it hit the Dutchman. His love's hazel eyes changed colors depending on his mood and this outfit was the exact shade that Nick's eyes were when he woke up in the morning. Derek ought to know, he'd held a sleeping Nick in his arms many a time, partially for the pleasure of seeing the young man's sleepy smile when he woke up and realized who was holding him.......

Nick broke the silence. "I asked Alex to take me shopping," he sheepishly admitted.

"I'll confess that I like the results," Derek told him as he circled to get the full view, "but what prompted this?"

"I just wanted to fit in......I.....I didn't want you to be ashamed of me......I thought that if I at least *looked* the part........." Nick turned away from Derek.

The quiet admission pulled on Derek's heartstrings even as it clarified Nick's recent behavior. The ex-SEAL was used to being Derek's second--even before being his lover. It must have been disconcerting for him to have to watch from the sidelines while Derek prepared for this conference. It wouldn't have helped that the Dutchman himself was so nervous about it, thanks to the anticipated presence of Giroud. No wonder Nick had thrown himself into planning how Derek could academically trounce his former mentor. To a man of action like Nick, it must have been torture to see his lover preparing to meet Giroud on a battlefield and not be able to help, even if that battlefield was an scholastic one.

Derek had also long suspected that the young man erroneously felt inferior to his Legacy colleagues, at least on an educational level. Rachel and Derek were both doctors, although Derek's PhD was purely academic, and Alex also had an impressive collegiate background. Nick was young enough that he might still be mistaking education for intelligence. Given Nick's troubled background, his insecurity was understandable. The young man was not giving himself enough credit for his own training and natural abilities. The reason behind Nick's nervousness about this trip became crystal clear to Derek--as well as his driving need to physically mark his older lover. Nick must have worried that seeing him side-by-side all of those doctors and professors would somehow reveal this imagined inadequacy to Derek. That in comparison to those lofty scholars, the ex- SEAL would be found lacking. Given his treatment by his father and ex-SEAL commander, could the young man really feel any differently?

Abuse. The "gift" that just kept on giving. Thank you very much, Jonathan Boyle and John Wesley Richter.

Derek shunted his bitterness aside and focused on the current situation. Helping Nick move beyond the abuse would take a long time. The Precept was dedicated to that task, but knew that the best he could do at the moment was put a bandage on the pain. It was triage treatment at best, but at least Derek could be Nick's self- confidence until the ex-SEAL had found his own. True healing would have to go at its own pace.

"Love, I could *never* be ashamed of you!" Derek approached Nick from behind and wrapped his arms around the young man. "You're the better half of me."

Nick partially turned in order to look at Derek's face. "Yeah, but all those guys with letters behind their names--"

"Having a PhD or being a professor doesn't necessarily mean that you know your ass from a hole in the ground, " Derek interrupted his lover. "A degree is something to respect, Nick, but it doesn't mean that someone is a better person than you. It just means that they have different experiences."

"But--"

For once, Derek wasn't inclined to listen to the young man, not if the ex-SEAL was just going to beat up on himself. The Dutchman had vowed when he'd become Nick Boyle's lover that no one would ever be allowed to abuse Nick again. Not even Nick. "With all your work in the Legacy, Nick, you have as much research time as any person here. *And* you've had the added pressure of knowing that people's lives *depend* on your work, not that your findings would merely be written up in an abstract journal that only a handful of scholars will actually read."

Feeling Nick's body relax as his lover accepted his words, Derek continued in a much more gentle tone. "Respect them, Nick. Pursuit of knowledge is an admirable goal, especially if the information is used to educate others. But don't revere them--not at your own expense. Pedestals can be dangerous things."

After another moment of closeness, Nick moved away and Derek let the ex-SEAL slip from his arms. By the time the younger man turned to face the Dutchman, a lopsided grin had replaced the pensive look on his face.

"Your better half, huh?"

"Yes, no doubt about it."

Nick's eyes raked up and down Derek's body. "Well, it looks like *your* half is still damp. Better get crackin' or we're gonna be late." The ex-SEAL snatched the towel from around Derek's neck and snapped the Dutchman's bare legs with it. As Nick laughed and moved to dart around Derek, the bigger man's longer reach allowed him to grab his lover and loosely pin Nick's arms against his side.

"You look so delectable this morning that I've decided that I had just better mark *you* so that *you* don't forget who you belong to!" With that declaration, the Precept pulled the collar of Nick's turtleneck aside and started sucking. The mark would be there, but like Nick's own earlier claim on Derek, no one else would be able to see it.

Unspoken was the knowledge that the brands on their hearts were every bit as invisible, but binding just the same.

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

Damn, if it hadn't worked!

Nick Boyle even didn't try to stifle his grin of triumph as he watched his lover close his presentation to the thunderous applause of the audience. The young man had told Derek that this stiff, Giroud, was a coward, that the old goat always waited until those with true intelligence had discussed a topic before offering his own opinion. At Nick's advice, the Dutchman had singled Giroud out at the *beginning* of the question/answer period following the presentation, before Giroud had a chance to hear his colleague's opinions on Derek's research. And with typical Rayne charm, the Precept had done it in such a way that Giroud couldn't refuse. Watching Derek's nemesis stammer through his incomprehensible commentary, it was obvious to all present that the man hadn't even had the wit to grasp Derek's theory on the rise of satanic cultism among young runaway teens, let alone have the intelligence to refute it. It was a victorious moment for Dr. Derek Rayne, not to mention his academic tactician.

Now that the presentation was finally over, Nick found that he was hungry. Post- stress did that to him. The American grinned as he realized that if Alex were there, she'd also remind him that post-exercise, post-sleep, and post-just-about- anything gave him an appetite. The ex-SEAL glanced up at the raised dias where his lover was seated, but found Derek surrounded by his enthusiastic academic associates. The ex-SEAL knew that Derek deserved this moment in the spotlight. Not only for this most recent research, but for all of the outstanding Legacy work that the Precept did. The public would never know of Derek's more supernatural labors, let alone be able to acknowledge them, so the Dutchman deserved every bit of attention that he was getting for this......and then some. Realizing that the Precept might be awhile, Nick quietly exited the lecture hall and went out to the lobby where a buffet had been set up for the conference's morning break. When he was ready, Derek would know to look for him where the food was available.

Nick was glad that the international nature of the conference caused the organizers to have a buffet that catered to all types of tastes. Well, they didn't have oyster omelets, but not everywhere could be as cosmopolitan as San Francisco. The ex- SEAL was balancing a cup of coffee in one hand and a plate of bakery goods in the other when he realized that his name badge had disappeared. Looking around, he spied it on the floor around the far end of the buffet. Blasted thing must have caught on something when he leaned in to get the last scone. Conceding that his sense of equilibrium could not handle a plate and hot cup while bending to retrieve the plastic badge, Nick quickly positioned both of the food items on a nearby chair before going back for his i.d. In the meantime, the next person in line had accidentally kicked the badge so that it was now under the table. Nick grimaced. He wasn't a clotheshorse, but neither was the young American at all pleased about rummaging around on the floor in his new outfit.

While the young man was stooped down and digging around for the badge, he was out of sight of the rest of the conference attendees. A fact for which Nick was profoundly grateful--while the young man didn't mind *Derek* seeing him on his hands and knees, it wasn't exactly a position in which he wanted the rest of the world to see him. Even as he found the wayward badge, the ex-SEAL's ears perked up at hearing his lover's name. Some of the other attendees, not seeing Nick half-way under the table, were discussing Derek. Eavesdropping wasn't a skill taught by the Navy, but Nick's SEAL training had prepared him to use any opportunity that came his way. The young man settled back in his protected spot and listened, hoping to hear some complement about Derek that he could pass on to the Dutchman.

Unfortunately, Nick forgot that concealed listeners sometimes hear things that they'd be better off not knowing.

"Did you see what Rayne brought with him this time?" The man had a French accent, but Nick didn't recognize the voice.

"No, but I'm assuming that you're not talking about his cult research?" This voice had an Italian lilt to it and belonged to a woman.

"A sailor boy!"

"You're kidding!" The woman sounded more amused than shocked.

"No--and he's even younger than the last one." Nick was sure he couldn't have heard that right. The "last one?" How many lovers had Derek brought to these conferences anyway?

"You know 'Randy Rayne,'" the woman's voice had gone from amused to vicious. "Can't keep them off with a stick--not that the man ever tries!"

In shock, Nick settled back to the floor as the voices moved off. "Sailor boy," "the last one," and "Randy Rayne" kept running through his mind, as though the unidentified speakers' words were a poison running through his veins. He'd thought that he was special to Derek--that what he had with the older man was unique.

Wasn't it?

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

Derek propped himself up on his elbow and watched the young man next to him feign sleep. As the moonlight fell through their hotel room window, it's cold, pale light illuminated the planes on the ex-SEAL's face. Cold and pale. Derek reflected that those words described Nick's demeanor this afternoon as well as they depicted the moon's beams.

At first, Derek thought Nick's mood had soured because the older man had been mobbed after completing his presentation. Certainly the American had been all smiles as Derek was taking his bows. But by the time Derek had broken free of his crowd of admirers and rejoined the ex-SEAL, the young man had been quiet and withdrawn. Derek had apologized profusely for abandoning his lover, but Nick had just shrugged it off.

Thinking that the normally active man might be tired of all of the stodgy academic talk, Derek had then suggested that Nick blow off the rest of the afternoon's program and get some fresh air. Nick had shrugged off that suggestion as well. The Dutchman's pleasure at having the young man at his side diminished as he realized that his lover was present physically, but mentally, the American was a million miles away. Unease turned to worry when the ex-SEAL only picked at his lunch. It was for good reason that Nick's Legacy colleagues teased him about his voracious appetite. An un-hungry Nick usually spelled trouble.

Since neither of them were sleeping, the Precept decided he might as well try to figure out what was troubling the younger man. "What's wrong, love?"

Nick opened one eye and glared at him. "Can't you see I'm sleepin' here?"

"Oh, I see you all right. I've seen you sleep before too and, trust me, you're not even close. Nick, please, we've always been able to talk before....."

Nick bit his lip, looking at the moment much younger than his 25 years. "Derek, you come to these conferences a lot, don't you?"

"Yes. As often as Legacy work permits."

The young man turned to his side as well, so that the two lovers were face-to-face. "Why did you want me to come with you this time?"

"Simple, love. Because I wanted to spend time with you."

"That's all?"

Derek was tempted to make a light-hearted answer, but something in Nick's tone warned the older man that this was an important question. "'That's *all*?' Don't dismiss it so quickly, Nick! I enjoy being with you, as often as I can, any*where* I can. I simply couldn't contemplate being separated from you for a week, not right now."

As Derek spoke, Nick had been intently staring into the Dutchman's eyes. Apparently satisfied at what he saw there, the young man crept forward to close the distance between them and allowed his lover to enfold him into an embrace.

"I'm sorry." With his face pressed against Derek's chest, Nick's voice came out unusually small and muffled.

"What for?" Now! Maybe they'd finally get to the bottom of this mess.

"For listening to those asses in the first place......" Derek became more horrified by the moment as Nick's described the conversation he'd overheard. Great. This was precisely what Nick did *not* need to happen at this stage of their relationship--to made out as a pretty "toy boy."

When Nick's story was complete, Derek simply held him a moment before asking, "If you heard their voices again, would you recognize them?"

"Yeah, I suppose. Why?"

"Because you and I are going to spend the rest of the conference tracking those two gossip-mongers down......."

Nick lifted his head from where it had been resting on Derek's shoulder. "And then what?"

"Then I'm going to beat the crap out of them."

The ex-SEAL's eyes bugged out. This was *Derek* talking?! The Precept took in his lover's surprise calmly.

"What did you think I was going to do to someone who spoke about you that way? Kiss them?"

Slowly, Nick's surprise turned to satisfaction. "Well, when you put it that way......" His mood considerably lighter, Nick leaned up to engage Derek's mouth in a hungry kiss. The Dutchman responded in kind and the kisses soon lead to amorous caresses.

Things were proceeding nicely until Derek started to laugh.

Trying to decide if he wanted to laugh along with his lover or throttle him for interrupting their tryst, Nick finally asked, "What's so funny?"

"I just realized who they were talking about."

"Run that by me again?"

"Our anonymous slanderers. When he said that you were 'younger than the last one.'" I figured out who he was referring to....."

When he realized that his lover wasn't going to continue without prompting, Nick slapped Derek on the shoulder. "Okay, I give. Who?"

"Philip."

"Wha--! Phillip?"

"Don't you remember? Last year the conference was held in Rome. Phillip was doing some upper level training in Vatican City at the time, so he met me at the conference for a day or two. He said the Vatican was getting too stuffy for him and an academic meeting would be 'a breath of fresh air.' As I recall, he didn't even dress as a priest......"

Nick's grin turned into a chuckle as he imagined Phillip's chagrin when he learned that he'd been mistaken for Derek's lover. "I can't wait to tell him."

"Nick, don't you dare--Phillip has enough on his plate right now!"

"Gimme a reason not to," the ex-SEAL challenged, the mischievous sparkle back in his eye.

Which Derek did--no less than three times that night, not only sealing Nick's silence with regard's to Father Callaghan's dignity, but also insuring that the Precept wouldn't be the only one with a tender bottom for the next day or two.

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

In the end, Derek didn't really beat up the two gossips. He did worse--he took away their funding.

The Luna Foundation endowed a lot of sociological and archeology-related research. After Nick identified the two he'd overheard (researchers of middling talents, but whose spheres of study tangentially touched on areas of interest to the Legacy), it was child's play to contact Alex and stop all future funding for the guilty parties. As a private organization, the Luna Foundation didn't *have* to give a reason for refusing all future funding requests, but if these two ever had the gall to ask, they would get an earful from the Precept. Derek knew it was petty, but then, when you got right down to it, so was prejudice.

As the Dutchman watched his American lover finish packing his duffle bag, he noted the paleness of Nick's face and the hint of dark circles under his eyes. Damn. After identifying the two he'd overheard, Nick had done his best to convince Derek that he'd put the hateful words behind him, that he wasn't bothered by how his lover's "esteemed colleagues" had described him. But even without his gift of special sight, Derek was sensitive enough to the young man's moods to know that Nick was still deeply troubled. The Precept was doubly glad that, when he'd called to make arrangements with Alex about the gossipers' funding, he'd made additional arrangements for Nick and himself.

"Well, I think that about does it." Even as he uttered the words, Nick was looking around to make sure that they hadn't forgotten something. "What time does the plane leave?"

Derek looked at his watch. "If it was on schedule, about five minutes ago."

"What?"

"Since we weren't going to be using the plane right away, Sloan recalled it back in London. The Legacy only has so many jets, you know." Derek thought the confusion now in Nick's face was better than the pensive expression he'd been wearing for the past couple of days.

"Why aren't *we* using it? I mean, aren't we going back to San Francisco?"

"Well, yes, eventually.........."

"Oh, great! What happen--did Sloan find an assignment that we just *had* to take on while we were here? The Loch Ness monster show up or something?" After the roller coaster of emotions attending this conference had caused, Nick was prepared for the worst and his mood abruptly went from pensive to pissy.

Derek held up his hands in mock surrender, acknowledging Nick's sudden anger. "It's not that at all. It's just that I thought, as long as we're in the area anyway, we could drive down the coast to Glasmonadh. One of my old classmates at Oxford was telling me about a new discovery there. An archeology professor on holiday stumbled on to something and I thought you might enjoy checking it out."

Upon hearing that the manipulative Sloan wasn't behind this delay, Nick calmed down a bit but remained suspicious. "Is this thing outside?"

"Well, yes....."

"Derek, it's Scotland. It's January. It *rains* in Scotland in January. How much fun would tramping around in the cold be?"

"Ah-hah!" Derek's bemused smile turned into a grin. "Did I mention the cottage that I've rented? A *private* cottage?"

Nick snorted, not at all impressed, and went to check the bathroom for any items that might have missed being packed.

"Did I mention it has a featherbed *and* a fireplace?"

"Featherbed?" Nick popped his head out of the bathroom, suddenly a lot more interested in Derek's proposition.

The Precept's grin turned absolutely lecherous. Nick didn't have many weaknesses, Jonathan Boyle and the Navy had seen to that, but Derek knew them all. His young love was a sucker for a soft bed and the Dutchman was eagerly looking forward to sucking his lover *on* a soft bed....... Wrapped up in his mental imagery, Derek became distracted--a potentially fatal mistake with a fully trained SEAL in the room.

Whomp!

Nick had taken advantage of Derek's momentary lapse and ambushed his lover. The two landed on the hotel bed, with Nick on top and planted firmly on Derek's body. The ex-SEAL used his tactical advantage to pin the Dutchman's arms above his head.

"Did you say something about a featherbed?"

"Oh, I think the caretaker might have said *something* about it. Who knows, if the weather's *too* wet, we might not be able to venture outside the cottage at all." Derek opened his eyes extra wide and batted his eyelashes, giving Nick his best innocent expression. The American wasn't fooled for a minute.

"You sadist! You had this planned all along!" Nick began tickling Derek, proving that the older man wasn't the only one who knew his lover's weaknesses. "I'll teach you to make me think we were gonna have to do Legacy business out in this mucky weather!"

Laughing, Derek twisted and suddenly the ex-SEAL was the one pinned. Both men grinned at each other for a moment, reveling in this rare romp. As Nick's tickling strokes along Derek's side became firmer and more lingering, the bigger man leaned in for a passionate kiss. Soon both bodies were twisting and intertwining on the bed.

The two were so engrossed in one another that they didn't hear the polite knock on the door or even notice when it was opened by a member of the hotel's housekeeping staff. The mature, rather stout, woman who entered was treated to quite an eyeful. Entranced by the sight of the lovers pleasuring one another, she watched for a heartbeat or two before tip-toeing out the door and softly closing it behind her. Digging around in her cart of cleaning supplies, the maid found an extra "Do Not Disturb" sign. She took a moment to fan her flushed face with the cardboard placard before placing it on the knob of the door she had just exited. Smiling from ear to ear and shaking her head fondly, she pushed her cart to the next room down the hall.

And her friends wondered why she kept this job!

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

Somewhere, somehow, Derek was sure the gods were laughing at him.

After their final tryst in the Edinburgh hotel room, he and Nick and taken their rental car and headed off to Glasmonadh. Nick's heart seemed to lighten with every kilometer they put the city behind them, convincing the Precept that he'd been right to plan this outing for them. Everything was fine for an hour or two, both men enjoying each other's company and talking of inconsequential things-- the kind of conversation that seems to cement any relationship. But, as Nick's mood lightened, Derek found himself becoming more and more tense. Considering how he'd been truly intrigued at Dr. Williams' discovery, the Dutchman couldn't understand his own unease--especially since he'd had no visions to cause it. The Dutchman resolutely tried to put his own bad mood behind him, not wanting to spoil his lover's lighter spirits.

Then they arrived in Glasmonadh and Derek's misgivings intensified.

The caretaker of the cottage Derek rented had provided excellent directions, but the Precept knew that they'd first need to stock up on supplies. Given that neither man had any intention of leaving the cottage--not to mention the promised featherbed--they had already decided to get basic foodstuffs that would allow them to minimize their trips into town. But when they pulled into the main part of the little village, Derek was struck by a feeling of menace. For the life of him, he couldn't figure it out.

The Precept glanced over at his American lover, to see if Nick had picked up on anything strange. The younger man had repeatedly tested as negative when it came to psychic abilities, but his military training gave him an astute feel for many potentially dangerous situations. Derek didn't know if he was relieved or worried when Nick showed the same edginess that he himself was feeling.

Shoulders tense, the former SEAL exited the car and turned his head side to side, obviously scanning the little village. It was a quaint town, the cobblestone streets and whitewashed walls hearkening back to another era. The businesses were mostly dark at this time of the early evening, but here or there a cheery light glowed in a window as if to welcome the travelers.

Finally, Nick turned his head to meet the older man's eyes. "This place looks like Connemara," he calmly observed.

Shit. Connemara, Ireland. The place where the San Francisco Legacy team had met Rachel and Kat Corrigan. The place where they'd first confronted the demon that had taken over the body of Shamus Bloom.

The place where Julia Walker had died.

Derek closed his eyes in pain and silently berated himself. Why hadn't he thought of this? Scotland wasn't Ireland, but the small villages in both countries had a lot of visual similarities. When he'd planned this side excursion for the two of them, he was thinking of the time they could spend together alone--of long mornings in bed that lingered into afternoons or cuddling together in front of a blazing fireplace. The last thing he'd wanted to do was remind Nick of his dead lover.

"Derek, it's all right." Nick reached his hand across the roof of their small, European car. His hand, when the Dutchman clasped it, was warm and held his lover's in a strong grip. "Julia's gone. Nothing's going to change that. We can't avoid places like this for the rest of our life--not in our line of work." The former SEAL tightened his grip. "Besides, we're not chasing a demon or looking for a sepulchre. Nothin' like that's going to happen to us here."

Derek shuddered as he found himself thinking that Nick's last assurance sounded a lot like "famous last words."

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

At first, Nick had been utterly determined to not let the specter of Julia's death influence him about Glasmonadh. After reassuring Derek, the young man had led them to the local pub, trying to convince the Precept that quickly zoning in on the nearest drinking establishment was yet another skill taught by the SEALS. When the two men entered, the spirited conversations of the pub's patrons immediately ceased.

"It's a talent," Nick quipped to Derek, alluding to a similar response he'd received in a Connemara pub on that previous ill-fated trip.

The conversations around them had eventually resumed, but both men got the feeling that they were attracting undue interest. Glasmonadh was essentially a tourist town. Surely two more visitors wouldn't be that unusual? Yet the eyes of the locals had been on the two men the whole time, especially Nick. The couple ended up eating quickly and heading out to find their accommodations.

The cottage itself proved to be everything promised. Set a couple of miles or so on the outskirts of Glasmonadh, it was a nicely private little bungalow with a back garden that led off into the surrounding forest. Nick smirked a bit when he saw the picket fence, which almost made the cottage look a bit *too* quaint, but the young man was mollified by the presence of the promised featherbed.

In the afterglow of having taken the featherbed "out for a test drive," as Nick put it, Derek softly stroked Nick's back as the young man cuddled on his chest faded off into sleep. The Precept was exhausted and knew he'd soon join his lover in slumber, but at the moment his mind was turning over a concept. It had occurred to the Dutchman that he and his lover had been unusually......... active since arriving in Scotland. Derek started counting it up in his mind, and was surprised at the number of times they'd made love on this trip--as much as or even more than newlyweds. At the beginning of their relationship, Derek had been worried about keeping up with Nick. After all, he was on the far side of forty and his lover only in his mid-twenties. This trip, however, had proven that worry unfounded--although if the two of them kept it up, they'd have a hard time walking by the time they got back to San Francisco. Derek was smiling as he drifted off to sleep--for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of the young man in his arms.

Despite their teasing about spending all of their time in the featherbed, early the next morning found the lovers drawn to the archeological site. The previous days of physical inactivity during the conference had been especially hard for the normally active Nick and the young man desperately needed to get outside and *move.* As usual, Derek found he couldn't deny the ex-SEAL anything and soon the two were tramping their way to Dr. Williams' discovery.

"What is it we're going to look at anyway?" Nick had been so entranced at the aspect of quality time alone with Derek--not to mention the luxurious distraction provided by the featherbed--that he'd never gotten around to asking what this glorious "find" was.

"A fairy ring," came the Precept's succinct answer. Although no athletic slouch, Derek was finding the hike along the deer trail a bit more difficult than his young lover.

"I don't get it--a piece of jewelry? Why leave that outside? Wouldn't it be better to move the ring to a museum where it'd be safe?"

Derek chuckled at Nick's assumption. "Not that kind of ring, Nick. A fairy ring is a circle of stones that the Sidhe use. Legend has it that they dance round them in the light of the summer moon."

"So all those ancient stone circles like Stonehenge are really fairy rings?"

"No, Druidic circles like Stonehenge are cut stone. The Sidhe prefer naturally occurring rock formations."

Nick looked askance at his lover's matter-of-fact tone. "Don't tell me you believe all this stuff?" The young man reached back to offer Derek a hand up over a fallen log.

"After all we've been through, Nick, how can you tell me you don't?"

Silently, Nick had to concede that the Precept had a point. Still, fairies and Sidhe? What was next, the Lucky Charms leprechaun?

By this time, the two men had reached the clearing described by Derek's old friend, Dr. Gloria Williams. The archaeological site was of interest to Dr. Williams because of her studies that linked physical landmarks to Scottish folk myths and Derek's work with the Legacy made him interested in any phenomenon that might conceivably lead to supernatural activity. Still, such a find was of little interest to the world at large and there was no need to set up any wards or guards to keep onlookers out. In fact, Gloria had reported that the locals were decidedly disinterested in the find and seemed to go out of their way to "brush it under the rug." Both Derek and his old friend found that behavior decidedly odd. In a tourist town such as Glasmonadh, any additional local color they could boast of like a fairy ring would draw added visitors--and their spending money. Like the pub customers' demeanor the night before, this just didn't seem to fit with what he knew of the local character, and Derek decided to keep a wary eye on the natives.

Fairy circle or not, it was a lovely spot. The ring was located about two yards away from a merrily bubbling stream, the soft chuckling of the water providing a pleasant background sound for the two men's explorations. The deer trail the two Legacy members had been following swerved deeper into the forest, but the area around the site was clear of trees. The ring itself was made of white, weathered stones placed in a perfectly round circle.

A pretty place, Nick thought to himself, but hardly worthy of Derek's enthusiasm. "Is this it?"

The Dutchman had entered the circle of stones and was standing perfectly still with his head thrown back. At the sound of Nick's voice, he turned to his lover. "Oh yes, can't you feel it?"

Nick joined him and tried to imitate the older man's technique, to no avail. "Nope, nothing."

Derek started to pace around the ring, occasionally pausing at a stone in order to inspect it. "It's like there's something waiting here. Something ancient and profoundly...... earthy."

"Earthy?"

"Yes, the Sidhe are supposed to be immortal, Nick, or as close to it as makes no difference. Because they never age, they never change. They're much more tied to the earth's natural cycle than we modern humans are."

Nick had been observing his lover bending over checking the rocks. Watching the bigger man's backside clench and relax with each stoop, coupled with the excited flush this discovery had brought to the Dutchman's face, soon lead Nick's thoughts to his own favorite natural cycle.

The ex-SEAL approached his over from behind and wrapped his arm around Derek's waist. With their coats on, any subtle caress would go unfelt, so the young man contented himself with turning his whole body into one big caress. Moving sensuously up and down, the young man rubbed himself against the Dutchman.

"Earthy, huh?" Nick growled. "Earthy is good."

Derek's breath caught as his body twitched in reaction to Nick's undulations and the Precept clutched the smaller man's hands as they were clasped around his waist. As inviting as this offer was, Derek just couldn't get over the feeling that this was the wrong place for such activity. In fact, the Dutchman had the oddest sensation that they were being watched........

"Nick......." Derek turned around to face his lover. "Do you trust me?"

"Huh?" This was not the reaction the young man had been expecting, so his answer was a bit slow. "Um, yeah. You know I do."

"Do you trust me enough to believe me when I tell you that this isn't a safe place?"

Nick glanced around the peaceful circle of stones and wondered what the hell Derek was talking about. But his trust in his Precept caused him to take another look. At first all he noticed was the quiet setting, but then he realized it was too quiet: no birds chirping, no squirrels busy scrounging around for buried nuts, no rustling noises in the underbrush. Even the breeze seemed muffled. Granted, the wildlife would be a bit spooked by their presence, but the sounds of the forest should have returned by now. His amorous mood broken, Nick dropped his hands from around Derek and took a more watchful pose.

"Yeah, I believe you."

Derek looked into Nick's eyes to verify that the young man was now alert to possible danger--and that his lover hadn't taken the rejection personally. The trust there reassured him that Nick was and that he hadn't. The Dutchman was relieved. Legend had it that the Sidhe were not always a benevolent presence to humankind. Now that he was at the site, there was no doubt that there was some sort of power here. It would be best for the two of them to assess it and get safely away.

"Good." Derek dug out a notebook from a jacket pocket. "I'll make a sketch of the site, you stay on guard." Nick gave an abrupt nod and pulled out his ever- present gun. Although the Dutchman had surmised that the ex-SEAL had brought it along, seeing the weapon was still a painful reminder that their idyll was broken.

The honeymoon, so to speak, was over.

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

Both men's nerves were shot by the time they returned to the cottage and they were surprised to find that it was still morning. Late morning, it was true, but morning nonetheless. Their time at the fairy ring had seemed much longer. Derek had made a quick survey of the Sidhe site, but other than his vague sense of foreboding, the Dutchman could discern no sign of supernatural activity. Both Legacy members were too experienced, however, to take such apparent dormancy at face value. Further investigation would have to be undertaken.

"What now, boss?" Nick asked as they entered the bungalow. The lovers had maintained silence on the trip back from the ring, as though afraid of unseen ears listening in on their plans. The former SEAL looked at the fireplace longingly. Scotland rarely got below freezing, even in winter, but the air was chilly enough to make the light rain falling seem icy. Still, there was no sense in laying in a fire until they knew what the next step was.

"I'll call William in London, they have the best collection of information about the Shining Ones." Nick grimaced and turned to hang his coat to dry. He'd come to respect William Sloan, but the man would never be high on his list of favorite people.

"Damn!" The Precept's unusual outburst interrupted Nick's thoughts and the American turned a questioning eye to his lover.

"The phones are out." Derek explained.

"Great, just what we need!"

Derek ran a hand through is already unruly hair, a gesture that usually meant he was exasperated. "Why don't you go start the car, we'll go into town and make a report on the phones." The Dutchman sighed at his own clumsiness and shook one of his feet. The Precept had stumbled into a puddle and gotten his feet wet. "I have to change shoes." He felt a sense of urgency and hated to waste a minute, but the last thing either or them needed at the moment was to catch a chill.

The older man was just finishing lacing up his boots when Nick stormed back into the cottage.

"It gets even better, the car won't start," the ex-SEAL announced.

"Do you have any idea why?"

Nick tossed the car keys onto the desk and started pacing. "It's not to hard to figure out. Kinda hard for a car to run when it's out of gas."

Derek's forehead creased as he frowned. "I didn't realize that we'd left the tank so low."

"*We* didn't!" Cars were one of Nick's passions and he was a little upset that Derek would imply that he would be careless. "Something's fishy here."

Recognizing that he'd given his lover an unintended slight, Derek worked fast to repair the damage. "Nick, there are any number of explanations. The fuel tank could have a leak. Or someone could have syphoned off the gas. Such petty crimes aren't unheard of, even in Scotland. As for the phones, well, this *is* a rather remote area. I imagine that the telephone service is rather unreliable."

Nick allowed himself to be convinced, but still couldn't help but feel that something was out of whack. As he and Derek started the two-mile hike into town, the ex-SEAL couldn't help but shake the idea that the phones being out and the car not working might be some sort of conspiracy. He didn't tell Derek of his feelings, however, sure that the older man would shrug them off as paranoia.

But just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that someone's *not* out to get you.

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

"Och, he's a bonnie lad!"

Derek looked up in startlement at hearing the friendly voice. He'd only been in Glasmonadh for a couple of days, but most of conversations with its natives had fallen a bit short of congenial, a highly unusual occurrence as Scots were normally friendly and polite with visitors.

The woman speaking to him was several years older than himself. Her graying hair was pulled up into a loose knot and her sleeves were rolled up in a business- like manner. Her face was weathered and care-worn, but her eyes were lively all the same.

Derek followed the woman's gaze and wasn't surprised to see that it was Nick that his new friend was referring to. The young man had taken a quick detour to report that the cottage's phones were down and was now making his way back across the village square. Knowing Nick's voracious appetite, Derek had thought it best to come ahead to Glasmonadh's only restaurant and order for them both. As much as he loved the young man, the Dutchman simply wasn't up to eating one of Nick's specialty omelets.

A gentle touch on Derek's arm brought him back from admiring his lover. "Ye care fer him, do ye?" The twinkle in her eye had been replaced by concern.

Was it that obvious? Instead of answering her question, Derek countered with one of his own. "I'm sorry, I don't think we've met......."

"Anne Whittington." Anne offered Derek her hand. "I've been away for a few days, lookin' after me mum. She's nae been well."

"Derek Rayne. My companion is Nick Boyle. We've been renting the old McGready place."

Anne ignored Derek's attempt at polite small talk and went back to her question. "Do ye care fer him?"

The repeated question made Derek nervous. He and Nick had decided to follow the US military's lead on disclosing their relationship: Unless anyone asked, they weren't going to tell. The Dutchman thought that they'd been discrete in public, but maybe their relationship had been the reason for the town's odd welcome. But the Precept would be damned if he'd deny it.

"Yes, I do are about him. Very much."

The two of them watched Nick kick a wayward soccer ball back to a trio of boys playing in the street in front of the restaurant. The children's mother had been chatting with a friend nearby, but quickly gathered her offspring up and shooed them inside as the American approached. Nick stood a moment in disbelief at the flagrant snub before continuing on to join Derek in the restaurant.

"Dinnae judge them, Mr. Rayne. The two o' ye be outsiders. Ye dinna ken what tis happenin' here."

Derek put is hand on Anne's shoulder. This woman who had seemed so strong just minutes before was now trembling. "Let us help."

Anne just shook her head and made her way towards the inn's back room. Just shy of the door she turned back to the Precept. "If ye care fer the lad half as much as I ken ye do........" Anne's gaze turned inward and she continued in a near whisper. "Keep him close, Mr. Rayne. Hold fast and dinnea let go."

And then she was gone.


Continued in Part 2

 

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