Mortal Hearts:

Part 3

By Juli

December 1998

Continued from Part 2


The team's enthusiasm carried them through the night, the trio researching well in to the next morning. Sloan had neatly solved their telephone service troubles by arranging a satellite hook-up. Before heading back to London, he'd seen to it that they could research the Legacy's archives with Alex's laptop and a fancy bounced- all-over-the-world-and-back-again connection. It was amazing what kind of technological miracles a whole pile full of money could arrange.

Unfortunately, their research into Sidhe folklore and legends wasn't producing many results. To keep a new bout of despair at bay, Derek found himself wandering over the window and staring out at the forest beyond the cottage's yard. Could Nick feel the warm sunshine where he was? Derek fought an urge to go back to the Sidhe ring, telling himself that Nick wasn't really there and that it would be a waste of time. Realizing that he was only making himself more depressed, the Precept turned from the window to find Alex at his side.

She obviously knew what he'd been thinking. "Why *don't* you go back?"

"He won't be there."

"I know," she said, "but you need to get out. Maybe seeing it again will stimulate something. Besides, the fresh air will do you some good." Alex gamely offered Derek a smile, but it was a wan imitation of her usual grin.

"Maybe you're right." Anything was better than sitting here going over the same dusty old fairytales again and again. Maybe some of Nick's restlessness had rubbed off on him. Turning from the window, the Dutchman reached for his coat.

"Maybe I'd better go with you," Rachel looked a bit worried at Derek going off by himself in his current state of mind. Proving again that, for a trained psychiatrist, sometimes Rachel could be a bit dense.

"Thank you, my friend," Derek's attempt at a smile was even lamer than Alex's had been, "but I'd like to be alone right now." The Dutchman put on his coat and headed out of the cottage, waving a goodbye to the two women watching.

As he moved out of sight, Rachel again expressed her concern. "I'm not sure this is such a good idea."

"I am."

Rachel shot a startled glance at the quiet confidence in Alex's answer. "Why?"

"..........I don't know, but call it a hunch. This is what he needs to do."

"*Needs* to do?" The older woman was still confused. That damn fairy ring was what had started this whole mess out. How could it help?

But Rachel had forgotten that the ring was a circle, and, like all continuous loops, its beginning was also its end.

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

Derek was disappointed to discover that, when he reached the Sidhe circle, it was simply a ring of stones. Where was the aura of power that was present the last time? Even when he and Nick had investigated on that doomed morning, there had been a distinct ambiance of something beyond the ken of mortals. But now it was simply a pretty clearing by a stream. The Dutchman cast his senses out, becoming more frantic. If the aura was gone, did that mean the Sidhe were gone? If so, how in the hell would they rescue Nick?

"They're nae here."

Derek jumped at the unexpected voice. Started, he abruptly turned to find a woman standing just outside the ring. She was vaguely familiar and it only took Derek a moment to recognize the woman from the restaurant--the only one of Glasmonadh's citizens who had made any attempt to warn them.

"Anne?"

"Aye." Her eyes filled with tears. "I'm sorry ta trouble ye, Mr. Rayne, in this time o' yer sorrow."

Derek didn't ask how she knew. He figured the whole town was aware that Nick'd been taken. Aware and *relieved,* he bitterly reflected, that one of their own had not been stolen away. Still, this woman *had* warned him to hold fast; it wasn't her fault he hadn't listened. "What do you mean, 'they're not here.'"

"The Shining Ones. Tis daylight. Besides, th' moon's nae right."

Derek's heart stopped. Anne sounded like she knew what she was talking about. The Dutchman closed the few feet separating them and grabbed the Scotswoman. "What do know about the Sidhe? Can you help me find Nick?"

Anne reached her hands up and covered Derek's where they rested on her shoulders. "Nae, I canna help ye......" Derek closed his eyes in pain and dropped his hands down to his sides. He was turning away from her when Anne continued. "Wait, Mr. Rayne! Me mum, she be wishin' to have speech w' ye."

Derek was confused. "Why? I've never even met your mother. You're the only Whittington I know."

Anne gave the Dutchman a tired smile. "Well, tis true ye've not been properly introduced, but ye've met me mum. When ye saw her, she wished ye God speed." Derek's eyes widened as he realized that Anne's mother must have been the old woman who'd tried to shame the townspeople into helping him.

"Me mum's not a Whittington, tha's me married name. Me mum's name be Mary Locke."

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

Anne Whittington led Derek to an even smaller cottage than the one he'd rented for Nick and himself. It was in rather shabby shape, really more of a shack than a cottage. The ramshackle little building was essentially one room--and a tiny room at that. There were no windows and the interior was dark and musty. It was a mess too, with jars of herbs spilling from the shelves and magazines haphazardly piled in every corner. Even the bed was unmade, with an untidy bundle of blankets rolled up in the center of the little cot. Derek hoped his visit wouldn't be a long one.

Mary's daughter had been very closed-mouthed on the trip to her mother's home. It seemed the old woman was doing very poorly. She hadn't taken Bridie's reappearance and death very well and had been ailing ever since. Derek could sympathize--it must have been quite a shock.

Upon reaching the cottage, Anne proceeded Derek inside. "I've brought him, mum." The woman's voice was soft and gentle, but looking around, the Precept couldn't figure out who she was talking to.

Until Anne knelt by the bed and Derek suddenly realized wasn't unmade at all. It was occupied.

At Anne's gesture, Derek's joined her by her mother's side. Time had not been kind to Mary Locke, the long-ago fiance of the ill-fated Willis Bridie--the Sidhe's last victim. She had seemed tiny to Derek before, but the old woman had shriveled up even more in the few days since and seemed to be having difficulty breathing. Mary was very obviously at death's door. Considering her condition, the Dutchman was shocked that her daughter had agreed to leave her at all to come look for him, especially since it was obvious from her facial expression that Anne loved her mother very much.

Derek thought that the old woman was asleep, or even unconscious, but Mary's eyes opened as her daughter gently stroked her forehead and tenderly brushed the wisps of white hair out of her mother's eyes.

"Good girl, Annie. Thank ye kindly." Mary's feeble smile revealed that she didn't have many teeth. "Now, leave us, me girl. Me and this poor man have to talk."

Anne smiled and brushed away a tear that had run down her own cheek. As she rose to go, Derek rose with her. "My friend, Rachel, is a doctor, maybe there is something she can do......." he whispered.

"Nae, Mr. Rayne." Anne's voice was sad and wistful. "Me mum, she would ha' followed *him* but she knew the Shining Ones would be back fer another." Anne gazed fondly down at her mother. "Listen ta her, Mr. Rayne. She's held on jus' ta speak ta ye. Dinnea make her sufferin' for naught."

Anne turned to go, but swung back at her mother's faint whisper. "Annie, me gal, ye've been me light. Ye ken tha', don't ye?"

"Aye, mum. God speed." Anne bent and placed a kiss on her mother's forehead and left the room.

Humbled, Derek knelt by the woman he now knew was dying. "I'm here, Mary."

The old woman turned to Derek. "Yer a bonnie lad. Is yer Nick as bonnie?"

Derek smiled, heartened that Mary'd referred to Nick in the present tense. "Bonnier." He didn't know if that was a word, but if not, it should be.

In spite of her weakness, Mary smiled. "Aye, if *they* took 'im, he would be." The old woman coughed and seemed to catch a sense of urgency. "I had ta tell ye, if ye be strong, ye can wrest him away from those ferlie savages!"

Mary's vehemence made her cough more, the dry hacking wracking her wasted frame. The old woman waved her hand at a nearby table and Derek spied a glass of water. The Precept supported the old woman's head and helped her to drink.

"Aye, yer a good lad." Mary's eyes filled with tears. "Willis, he were a good lad too. A good lad! I told him ta be careful, that *they* would be ridin' soon, but Willis, he were young. The young nae think they be mortal. I knew when he dinnae cum back what'd happened, but no one believed me....." Mary seemed to drift off into her memories. Derek would have liked to have let the old woman have the comfort of her remembrances, but he knew Mary's time on earth would soon be up. He *needed* to find out how to help Nick. After all, wasn't that what Mary had wanted him here for?

"Mary," he gently prompted, "I'm so sorry you lost your love. But you said there might be a way to save mine?"

Focus returned to the old woman's eyes. "Aye. After Willis were taken, I remembered Tam Lin an' how his love, Janet, took him back."

"From the Sidhe?"

"Aye. The Shining Ones, they took Janet's love. But Janet, she were a canny one! She took him right back!"

"How?"

"Tam Lin be taken in the dark o' the moon, just like me Willis and yer Nick. The next month, Janet were ready. She hid on the ferlie's trail and when her enchanted lover rode by, she grabbed him and wrapped the lad in her mantle. He turned into all sorts o' fierce beasts, but Janet held fast......." At this point in her story, the old woman began to weep silently. "That be where I failed. I waited fer the next dark moon and sure enow, the ferlie hunt rode by! Turrible beautiful creatures, they were. I grabbed me Willis, but I couldna hold him. I couldna......." The sobs turned into coughing and Derek once again helped Mary to drink. "See, I was carryin' Anne by then. It dinnae show, but I knew I had a babe on th' way. And the ferlies, they enchant the lads so they fight ye. Willis fought s' hard, I were afeared I'd lose the babe. I had to choose tween the babe an' it's father......."

It was clear what Mary had chosen and that the choice had haunted her for the rest of her life.

"You chose right, Mary! No matter how much you loved Willis, you couldn't have sacrificed the life of an innocent child to save him." Derek couldn't give this woman much, but if the consolation of a stranger could offer her any comfort, then he would gladly give it.

Derek's reassurance seemed to calm Mary, but her emotional story was taking its toll. The old woman was fading rapidly, but was determined to finish. "Ye be a strong lad. Mind an old woman: they'll only gie ye one chance to save 'im! Hold fast. No matter what sort of ferlie beast yer laddie becomes. Tis only the Shining Ones' tricks. Hold...fast..." Mary's breathing became more labored, but somewhere she found the energy to clutch Derek's shirt and pull herself up. "When the ferlies finally change the lad into a bar o' lead, throw him into the water. Ferlie magic canna abide that."

As Derek gently laid Mary back down on the bed. "Dinnea let them keep another lad. Hold fast....." With that final plea, Mary breathed her last. The Dutchman reached over and reverently brushed his hand over her eyes, closing their empty stare.

Hold fast.

By God, the Sidhe would find out just how strong Derek Rayne's grip could be!

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

It felt decidedly macabre, coming away so happy from a woman's deathbed. But Derek knew that, of all people, Mary Locke wouldn't begrudge him his joy.

Derek hurriedly made his way back to the rented cottage and the by-now worried Alex and Rachel. The Precept had been gone much longer than they'd thought his walk would take him. Both women were taken aback to see him stride up the path with such energy and exuding such an attitude of rejoicing. This was not the same dejected man that had left that morning.

"Derek where have you been? We were worried sick--" Rachel's chiding was broken off by a squeal of surprise as the Dutchman picked her up and twirled her around.

Derek set Rachel down and grabbed Alex, dancing her around the room as he started his disjointed explanation. "Songs, Alex! We looked at legends, at fairytales, and at old Legacy journals but we neglected the songs!"

"Derek Rayne you stop this instant and explain!" Rachel was terrified. This behavior was totally unlike the normally-reserved Precept. Had his mind broken under the stress and grief?

Derek let a breathless Alex go and tried to settle down long enough to explain. "'The Ballad of Tam Lin.' Mary Locke just reminded me of it. It's a 13th Century Scottish ballad and It. Describes. How. A. Woman. Saves. Her. Lover. From. The. Sidhe." Derek's enunciation was exaggerated, but now was no time to lapse into his native Dutch, as he was wont to do when excited.

"Mary Locke?" Alex asked, "Is she still alive?"

The question knocked some of the wind out of Derek's sails and he calmed down considerably. "No, not any more."

Rachel let out an exasperated breath. "Okay, Derek, I think you're going to have to start from the beginning."

So he did.

By the time the Dutchman was done with his story of the day's events--and what Mary's tale had prompted him to remember about Tam Lin, the women were as excited as he was. By evening, Alex had found no less than fourteen variations on the ballad through database searches. The difficulty then became sifting through what was based on fact and what could be attributed to poetic license. Undaunted, the trio decided to call it a night and start fresh in the morning.

Even though he hadn't slept much since Nick was taken, Derek found it hard to rest. He had made a decision and knew that his friends would not take it well.

At breakfast, Derek dropped the bombshell. Characteristically, Rachel's protests were the loudest.

"What do you mean, you want us to go back to San Francisco!"

"Rachel, I never thought I'd have to be the one to have to remind you that you have a young daughter to take care of." As Rachel sputtered in indignation, Derek turned to the younger woman. "Alex, I need you to keep an eye on the San Francisco House. Frederick can hold down the fort, but not forever." Seeing that both women were not about to let up with their protests, the Dutchman tried to explain. "I appreciate you wanting to stay. But everything we've found out about Tam Lin and the Sidhe indicates that we won't have a chance to rescue Nick until the dark of the moon. That won't happen for nearly three weeks. There's no sense in all of us staying here."

Alex put a hand on his arm. "I don't like the thought of leaving you alone."

"We want to be here for you, Derek," Rachel added, "Besides, I was thinking of having my sister fly Kat out here anyway."

"Thank you, my friends," The Dutchman was grateful for their support and touched by their offers of putting their own lives on hold in order to help him. "But I'm okay now that I know we'll get Nick back."

"But what about the research--" Rachel's protest might have been first and loudest, but Alex was the more persistent of the two.

"We can keep in touch through the link William set up. Look, I'm fully expecting the two of you to come back when the moon turns. I just need to be able to concentrate on how best to approach this and I'll focus better if I know the two of you are taking care of things back home....."

There was no real argument that Derek's colleagues could offer to that statement and the two women headed back to San Francisco the next day.

Scotland was a land known to be inhabited by ghosts and the town of Glasmonadh gained a new one over the next few weeks. A very much alive, decidedly Dutch, figure haunted the town. He knew his presence was unnerving the locals, but the Precept wasn't about to let them forget what they'd done to Nick.

Derek found himself restless. He simply could not stay cooped up in the cottage doing research. So, the Precept worked out a system with Alex whereby she would do research in San Francisco and forward the pertinent information to Glasmonadh via their satellite link. Derek would download it and take the printouts with him on his daily rambles. He invariably ended up at the Sidhe ring, where he would read the reports out loud to the empty circle. The Dutchman felt closer to his lover there and liked to think that Nick was listening to his voice. It was a fanciful notion and most likely not true, but it eased Derek's loneliness a bit.

The Precept also attended Mary Lock's funeral, profoundly grateful that she had been so determined to show him how to save his love.

One way or another, by sudden leaps and agonizing inches, the time until the next dark moon passed. Soon, the members of the San Francisco House were gathering in Glasmonadh once again. Only, this time the women had brought a welcome addition with them.

"Philip!" Derek greeted the young priest enthusiastically, hugging him around the bulk of a large package the Irishman was carrying. "I didn't expect for you to be here."

Philip had been assigned to a parish in Ireland and, while he had kept in frequent touch with Derek since Nick's disappearance, the Precept had also refused his company during his hellish wait for the moon to reach the appropriate cycle.

"I had ta come, I have somethin' for ya."

Once they reached the cottage, Philip unwrapped his mysterious package carefully. As the brown paper was torn away and the box opened, folded green cloth was revealed. The priest lifted it out of the box carefully.

The item was a green mantle similar to the one most versions of "The Ballad of Tam Lin" described the fair Janet using to rescue her lover. Derek reached over and fingered it gingerly, the wool material scratchy against his finger tips.

"Where did you get this?"

Father Callaghan blushed. "Do you remember th' time I was doin' some research at the London House?"

"Yes, that was before Nick joined the team."

"Right. I remembered when I was there that this was brought in."

"A cloak?" By now, Rachel was also closely examining the garment.

"Aye. You see, this mantle was discovered in the collection o' a Scottish matron. It's dated as bein' over 600 years old."

"That's impossible," Alex stated, "a wool garment like this wouldn't survive that long. Not is this condition." Indeed, the mantle did look to be in perfect shape.

"I wouldn'a know about that. I just thought that, well, if Derek needs a green cloak ta help Nick, that this one would be a good one ta have."

Derek clasped hands with his young colleague. "It was a good thought, Philip, thank you. I'm surprised, though, that Sloan would let you borrow it." William was not as understanding as Derek about Philip's on-again/off-again relationship with the Legacy.

Philip's blush deepened. "Well, I didn'a exactly ask to borrow it, if ya get m' meanin'....."

Derek stared at the priest in shock. "You *stole* this from the London House."

"Aye. You know how stingy Sloan is w' artifacts. I didn't want to take th' chance he'd refuse." Philip seemed singularly unrepentant. "I'll ask fer forgiveness in confession--*after* we get Nick back."

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

Although Philip wasn't the only one quietly determined to do *whatever* it took to get Nick back, Derek received no protests when he announced that he would be proceeding to the Sidhe site alone. They'd all done enough research to know that if Derek were to succeed, he would have to take the fairy hunt by surprise. Alone he had a better of going undetected and accomplishing that task. No one liked it, but the necessity was unmistakable.

Finally, it was the first moonless night in February. It had been one month and an eternity since Nick had disappeared. Derek felt as though he'd aged centuries in the last few weeks. Certainly he had a new gray hair or two. He hoped that his lover found that it made him look more distinguished. But, then again, as long as Nick was safely back, he didn't really care what the young man thought of his new hairstyle. If his lover was safe, the Dutchman would gladly dye his hair or even shave all off if that's what the ex-SEAL wanted.

That afternoon, Philip performed a private mass for them. Partly because Christianity had always been an anathema to the Shining Ones, but mostly to give them strength for the struggle ahead. Especially Derek. Derek prayed for strength, primarily for the strength to rescue Nick but also for the courage to continue on if the worst happened and he failed. If Nick were to be doomed to spend 50 years with the Sidhe, the Precept wanted to be there when he came back. He'd be damned if Nick would be dumped in the forest, old, unknown, and confused as had happened to the unfortunate Willis Bridie.

As the Dutchman prepared for his confrontation with the creatures that had taken his love from him, he felt like a knight girding for war. As Alex helped settle the mantle over his shoulders, every movement seemed to take on the significance of ritual. Smiling, Rachel stepped forward and brushed the hair out of the Dutchman's eyes. Even with the possibility of winning Nick back, Derek had become too distracted to put much care into his appearance and he was a unusually shaggy. The blonde stepped up on tiptoe and kissed the end of Derek's nose. "Bring him home."

"That's the idea." Since Nick wasn't here to do it, the Precept decided that *someone* had to make the smart-ass comments. The Dutchman gave one last fond look at his closest friends and turned to go.

"God speed, Derek." Philip called after him.

The Precept thought it an omen that Philip used the same phrase that Mary Locke had urged him with on the night Nick was taken.

He just wished he could figure out if it was a good or bad one.

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

Derek huddled down in the brush and small trees adjoining the clearing of the fairy ring. Idly, he wondered if Janet's cloak (assuming, of course, that the mantle he was wearing was actually the famous Janet's) was green in order to blend in with forest. Since it was night, it wouldn't really matter, unless the Sidhe's sight was different than humans. That particular notion gave Derek a few worried moments. Could the Shining Ones see in the dark? Was he really as hidden as he thought or was he actually sticking out like a sore thumb? The Precept reminded himself that if the fair Janet could successfully ambush the Sidhe, so could he. Even Mary had been able to surprise them, she had failed because she hadn't been able to hold on to her love. Although very brave, neither woman had the benefit of being taught wood sense from a full trained SEAL. The Dutchman liked to think he had at least a slight a edge over his female predecessors.

Hold fast.

The night was pitch black but Derek was still unsure when he saw the glow start off in the distance. Were his eyes playing tricks on him? But no, it was coming closer. Evidently, the fairy hunt started elsewhere and only ended in the circle. Even in the midst of this critical situation, a portion of Derek's mind was analyzing the circumstance. Legacy training held, right to the very end.

Hold fast.

Derek's throat became dry as the shining creatures drew near. They did literally shine, with an opalescent radiance that seemed to come from within. Before he knew it, the hunt was close enough to distinguish individual forms. Derek frantically searched the ranks for a sight of Nick.

Now that he could see the Sidhe, the Dutchman could finally understand Mary's description of them as having a terrible beauty. The magnificence of their splendor was obvious--the Shining Ones were tall, graceful creatures. Long of limb and pale of skin, their facial features were exquisite, with high cheekbones and jewel-toned eyes. They didn't have wings as fairies are often depicted in popular literature and art, but they did have what looked liked feathers extending from their eyes that drifted back to mingle with their locks of cascading white hair. Like their eyes, the feathers were also in jewel tones. They wore no clothing, making it obvious which were male and which were female.

Derek thought they resembled butterflies that had, on some odd whim, decided to assume a human-like form.

Then he looked more closely into their expressions and realized that there was nothing remotely human about them. Even years later, Derek would not be adequately able to describe it. The members of the Sidhe had two eyes, a nose, and a mouth; all placed properly where they should be. It was the emotion behind their features that made them so alien. Just looking into their face, you could see that they had thoughts that would never cross a human mind.

Beautiful, but terrible indeed.

All of this flashed across the Precept's mind as the line of Sidhe moved passed his hiding spot. The Dutchman swept his gaze across the group searching for his love.......there! Towards the end of the Sidhe was a rider that wasn't luminescent. As the figure drew closer, he could see that it was Nick. The young man must have been bespelled or sedated, because he certainly wasn't aware of his surroundings. Sitting stiffly on his tall, white horse, Nick's head faced straightly forward and the young man's gaze never wavered from the spot between his mount's ears. His features, while still human and unmistakably Nick's, were completely slack.

Hold fast.

Derek braced himself and leapt from his hiding place as Nick drew abreast of him. With a loud thump, both men fell to the ground. Derek didn't notice when the horses surrounding them stopped as their riders turned them back. Soon, the two mortals found themselves encircled by glimmering, alien bodies.

Hold fast.

For an instant, Derek held his Nick in his arms. As the Dutchman's grasp around the young man tightened, Nick seemed to shake off his stupor and become more aware of his surroundings. Then, for a glorious moment, Nick looked at Derek and knew that it was his lover holding him. His immediate smile warmed the Precept's heart.

Hold fast.

The smile had barely spread across Nick's face before the ex-SEAL gasped. Derek had an idea of what was coming and tightened his grip further, wrapping the green mantle securely around the beloved body.

Hold fast.

The young man's frame convulsed, with Nick's head being thrown back against Derek's chest. Within seconds, the American's body melted and then expanded. The next thing he knew, Derek was not holding his young lover's form, but that of a fierce lion.

Hold fast.

Nick-the-lion roared and Derek could hear the anguish in it. The Precept knew that it was the Sidhe forcing this on Nick, just as they'd forced him to go with them in the first place. The beast's claws raked at Derek, ripping through his clothes and leaving deep tears in his skin.

But Derek remembered the pain that tore through his heart when his lover was taken from him and just held on.

Hold fast.

The lion's roar became a shriek as Nick's form melted again. The powerful leonine body imploded in on itself and the young man became a giant snake with great golden eyes. Nick-the-snake's fangs bit deep into Derek's shoulder, scraping against his collarbone and ripping out chunks of flesh.

But the fangs' bite wasn't nearly as deep as the anguish the Dutchman had experienced during this last month without his love and he only clutched the slithering form closer.

Hold fast.

The hissing of the viper changed as the snake's body morphed into fire. Derek felt the flames of Nick-the-fire burn his skin black and it made him retch to smell his own flesh cook.

But for all it's heat, the blaze didn't burn as hot as Derek's love for his mate. The Precept embraced the flame as he would his lover and pulled it even closer.

Hold fast.

Soon the burning of the flame changed into cold so intense that it cracked the Dutchman's skin and froze his lungs.

But as freezing cold as Nick-the-winter had been forced to become, the horrible chill couldn't match the ice that would surround the older man's heart if Nick was taken from him. So, Derek endured.

Hold fast.

Finally, the Precept felt Nick change again, this time into a form that was solid and hot. Looking down, the Dutchman saw that he was holding a heated bar of lead--the change that he'd been waiting for! Metals were deadly to the Sidhe, so this transformation meant that the fairies were losing control of their spells--and of Nick. Quickly, Derek turned to the stream behind him and threw Nick's current form into the water.

A hissing cloud of steam arose. Derek couldn't wait for it to clear, but immediately went to edge of the water and groped through the warm fog, flailing his arms around until he touched a most welcome form. Crying tears of joy, the older man pulled Nick into his arms. The former SEAL was nude except for the cloak, but neither of them seemed to notice.

In wonder, Nick looked down at his own arms and then back at his lover. The young man brought shaking hands up to cup Derek's face, touching him as if in disbelief. "Derek, is that really you?"

"Yes, mijn hartje, yes!" The Dutchman tended to mix his languages when excited. Derek caught Nicks hands and covered the palms with kisses. Then he pulled the dazed American fully into his embrace, cuddling the smaller form close to his chest. Although a little out of it at the moment, his lover seemed all right. Of his own wounds, there wasn't a trace.

Caught for the moment in their own little world, both men were heedless of the fact that they were surrounded by a swarm of enraged Sidhe. The Shining Ones didn't like being defeated, not one little bit.

"Mortalsss!"

Derek tore his attention away from Nick, suddenly aware that they might not be out of danger. The bigger man stood, supporting his swaying lover and holding him firmly pressed to his chest. Come what may, they'd be together.

"Thou art brave, mortal." Even in a group of magnificent creatures, the female speaking stood out from the crowd. Not only did she glow more brilliantly than the others, and have much more elaborate feathers, but she also carried a jewel- encrusted staff. This could only be the Queen of the Shining Ones. "Brave but foolisssh."

Nick moaned and hid his face in Derek's shoulder. The Precept pulled him more firmly into his embrace before answering. "You can't keep him--I passed the test!" The surrounding Sidhe hissed in anger--obviously not used to a cheeky mortal addressing their monarch so. The Queen threw back her head in fury, her jewel eyes flashing in the luminescent glow given off by her own body.

"Aye, thou hassst won thy pretty lover from usss--much good ssshall he do thee!" The Queen raised her staff as if in threat, "I curssse--"

"Ssstop!"

The hissing stopped as the Sidhe became silent in apparent shock. From the back of the group came a male. When he grew closer, the Precept realized that something seemed familiar about him.....

"How dare thee interrupt--"

"My Queen," the newcomer said, "why dossst thou bring mortalsss in our midssst?"

"Thou knowessst!" Apparently, the queen didn't like getting lip from her own people either. "Mortalsss are but beassstsss. Their livesss are ssshort but sssweet. We but sssip the honey."

"Ah," her answer seemed to please the male. "Ssso if thou bringssst mortalsss to the Hollow Hillsss becaussse of their fleeting nature, how can thou be wronged if they ssstay true to themselvesss?"

The queen seemed to consider his answer. "Very well." She turned her attention back to Derek. "Have thy joy of him, We ssshall not interfere." With cool appraisal, the queen eyed the outspoken male up and down. Seeming to like what she saw, the leader of the Sidhe held out her hand to them.

As the shining couple passed him, Derek met the male's gaze briefly. As he did, the Dutchman realized what had struck him as familiar about this particular male: he reminded the Precept of Nick. Maybe the former SEAL had found a kindred spirit in the Hollow Hills--or maybe the young mortal had had a bigger impact on the Sidhe than they realized.

Derek could almost sympathize with them. When Nick had blown into his life, the impact his presence made on the Dutchman was unmistakable.

The remaining Sidhe followed the queen and her new consort. Where they went, Derek didn't know and didn't care. He had only eyes for Nick.

"Danken godheid." He kissed the young man, who responded enthusiastically even though he was obviously very weary. "Let's go home."

Wrapping his love more firmly in the green cloak, Derek supported Nick around the waist with an arm while the young American lifted his own arm to wrap around the bigger man's neck and across his shoulders.

Arm in arm, the two lovers made their slow, exhausted way back to civilization.

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

"There they are!" The Legacy members left behind to wait at the cottage had kept a worried vigil, with at least one person always watching at the window. Alex spotted the two men first and soon all four were running to meet them.

Four, not the three that Derek had left: Alex, Philip, Rachel........ and William.

The head of the Legacy had arrived shortly after Derek departed for his confrontation with the Sidhe. Much to the others' surprise, he had only mildly greeted Philip with "If you would have asked, I would have let you have the damn cloak." The notoriously unflappable Sloan had been as nervous as the rest of them in waiting for Derek's return.

And, upon seeing that Nick was with Derek, the taciturn man had actually smiled.

Alex, Rachel, and Philip did more than smile. They hugged, slapped shoulders, and cried for joy. In looking around at the blessedly human faces around him, Derek thought them more beautiful than the unearthly creatures he'd just encountered.

Surprisingly, it was Sloan that first noticed that Nick was out on his feet. "C'mon, get into the car."

"William, don't be an ass! Nick needs to get to bed."

"No," Sloan contradicted his subordinate, "What Nick needs is to get the hell out of here."

Thinking about the alien immortals that had imprisoned Nick, Derek decided that- -just this once--Sloan might be right. The ex-SEAL probably did need to get as far from this place as possible. "All right." Derek took advantage of Nick's condition and slipped one arm underneath the young man's knees, his relief at having his lover back giving him the strength to cradle Nick in his arms like a child as he carried him to the car.

The Precept smiled as he realized that if Nick ever remembered this part clearly, he'd pin Derek's ears to his head for babying him.

Alex, Rachel, and Philip piled into the car too, making the Dutchman suspect that they'd kept themselves busy getting this ready while waiting for the outcome of Derek's showdown with the immortals .

Nick sighed and allowed himself to be held in Derek's lap as he dozed. "U zitten vertrouwd wel." The Dutchman comforted the young man in his own native language, realizing that it wasn't exact words Nick needed to hear so much as it was the loving tone of voice. He pressed kiss after kiss onto the top of Nick's head. "Verrichten niet vertrek mij weer. Mij min u."

Exhausted, eventually Derek joined Nick in a light slumber, not even minding as Rachel reached around him to try to examine the ex-SEAL. Both men were soon oblivious.

"Derek." An unknown time later, a voice intruded into his rest.

"Wha--"

"Derek!" The damn voice was persistent, so the Dutchman opened one eye. The car had stopped and Alex was hovering outside the car. "Do you think you can lift him without waking him?"

Good question.

Derek looked down at the young man still cuddled against him. Nick looked exhausted and almost.....transparent. Being a mortal in the immortal Hollow Hills had not been easy on him. "I'll try."

With Philip helping from outside the car, the Precept managed to get out and to his feet without waking his lover. Only then did he realize that they weren't in a town per se. Derek had expected Sloan to drive the group to the nearest city large enough to boast a hotel. Instead, he'd driven directly to the airport where a Legacy jet was waiting for them. Trust Sloan to get a naked American past airport security. The Dutchman must have slept longer than he thought. He turned to Sloan for an explanation.

"You forget, I *know* how stubborn you are." Sloan grinned, referring to the short but tumultuous time years ago when the two of them had been lovers. "The Sidhe didn't have a chance, so I just planned ahead." The Legacy head reached out one hand to trace the line of Nick's jaw in a soft caress. "So like his father........." Seeming to shake himself, William slapped Derek on the shoulder, careful not to jostle the Dutchman enough to wake his precious cargo. "Take him home, Derek, where he belongs."

Derek returned the smile and turned without comment to the airplane.

After a few hectic minutes when the San Francisco Legacy team learned how difficult it was to get a sleeping man up a private jet's entry steps without waking him, Derek held Nick in his arms as the plane prepared to take off. He was thankful that the immediate departure kept Rachel in her own seat and prevented her from trying to examine Nick. He knew they were *all* thrilled to have Nick back but the Precept wanted a few more minutes of having his lover to himself.

Derek rubbed his face softly against Nick's soft hair, reflecting on the experience they'd just survived. He found a lot to contemplate. Of course, there was the pain of having to endure Nick's disappearance. With Nick in his arms, the loneliness of the past month seemed like a distant nightmare. But there was still a lesson to be learned from it and the Dutchman resolved to cherish his time with the young man even more.

But some of the issues raised by this ordeal went even deeper than that.

Like many people who believed in God or at least some sort of supreme being, Derek had often wondered why their creator had given them such short lives. There was so much to do in the world and 75-100 years was nowhere near enough, even if you got to live out your natural lifespan. And in Derek's line of work, that was a mighty big "if."

But the Precept had just stared immortality in the face and found it wanting. The Sidhe were beautiful but so.......cold. So alien. If he'd read the interaction between the queen and her new consort right, they abducted humans because they relied on them as a way to experience emotion--to feel alive. Given that, Derek could understand why they'd chosen Nick; the young man was more *alive* than anyone the Dutchman'd ever known.

Derek would always cherish life and sorrow to see it cut short by violence, accident, or disease. In fact, the Precept would do everything he could to see that the lives of those around him were lived to the fullest *and* to the longest range possible. But he no longer regretted the length of his species' lifespans. He knew now that there was a reason humans walked on the earth for a limited amount of time before being gathered into the bosom of their creator. The knowledge of their limited time on earth spurred them on to grow and change--to meet life head- on and wring the most out of every minute.

If living forever meant that you simply *existed* rather than *lived,* he'd choose his mortal heart.

Every time.

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

Epilogue

Lub dub......Lub dub......Lub dub.

Nick Boyle sighed contentedly as the beloved cadence of Derek's heartbeat slowly made its way into his awareness. Resisting awakening, the young man snuggled closer into the warm body holding him and was rewarded by being embraced even more securely. In his previous relationships, Nick had been used to be the physically dominant one (even in his current semi-conscious state, the ex-SEAL refused to call what he'd endured with Richter a "relationship") and it had been hard for him to accept that his lover was bigger than him. That uneasiness had lasted right up until the point that the American had discovered that a taller lover made for an excellent body pillow and mattress. Ever since that revelation, falling asleep on his lover's chest had developed into a favorite pastime and Derek's heartbeat had become Nick's preferred lullaby.

Yet, even as sleep beckoned, the young man knew something wasn't quite right. Winding over and under the sound of his lover's heartbeat was another noise--one not as welcome. More than half asleep, it took a few moments of fuzzy thinking before he could identify the sound. An airplane? He could have swore that Derek said they weren't going back to San Francisco right after the conference.

The ex-SEAL sighed and wriggled a bit--he really *did* want to sleep, but his brain just wasn't cooperating. As he stretched, the fabric covering him slid across his bare skin, raising goose bumps as it went. Wait a minute, bare skin? On an airplane? Nick's eyes popped open.

"Derek?"

A large hand came up to cup the back of his head. "Hey there, sleepyhead."

Nick looked around the cabin of the Legacy jet. It was relatively dark, so the young man surmised that it must be night. In the dim light, he could just make out the forms of people sleeping in other seats. Rachel. Alex. Philip. Oddly enough, the other three were well back in the plane, leaving the area where he was with Derek curiously isolated.

"Derek? What's going on?"

The Precept's hand started stroking Nick's hair. As much as Nick loved the attention, he was a bit too confused to appreciate it and started to struggle into a sitting position. Derek immediately brought his arm around Nick's back to support him, but the older man also effectively kept his lover pinned on his lap. Nick tilted his head back to look into the Dutchman's face. What he saw there immediately froze his movements. When had Derek gotten so haggard looking?

Derek saw the emotions run across Nick's face: bewilderment at waking and not knowing where he was; anger at being held down; and, finally, concern when he saw how care-worn the older man was. Enough. He'd hoped to allow Nick more time to recover before discussing the Sidhe, but saw now that it was more important to relieve the young man's confusion.

"Nick," Derek asked in a gentle voice, "what's the last thing you remember?"

"We were at the conference, right?" At seeing the confirmation on Derek's face, Nick grew more confident and began thinking out loud. "Okay, then we went to that small town, Glasmonadh. But something wasn't right there.......oh my God, the Sidhe!" Memory flooded back.

"Slow down, Nick, it's all right." It was hard to tell who was more upset, the Precept or the ex-SEAL. Derek clasped Nick firmly to him, letting his arms provide the comfort that Nick needed. "You're safe here." Both men waited until tranquility was restored.

"How much do you remember about them?" Neither man needed to elaborate on exactly who Derek meant by "them."

"Not much, just vague impressions. The last thing I clearly remember is the cottage and thinking that you should be back......." The young man broke off as his words caused his lover to shudder. "Derek, what's wrong?"

"I'm sorry, Nick. So sorry!"

"For what?"

"This was my fault. Every bit of it!"

"What are you talking about?" Nick couldn't remember much about his encounter with the Sidhe, but he was sure that the Dutchman wasn't to blame.

For the next several minutes, Derek listed each and every of his perceived mistakes that had led to Nick's acquisition by the Sidhe. Sensing that the older man needed to unburden himself, the ex-SEAL decided to let his lover ramble. Finally, the Precept's words fumbled to a stop.

"Are you done?" At Nick's question, Derek glumly nodded and fell silent. He knew the American was quick to judge--and even quicker to anger. It didn't matter. The Dutchman felt he'd screwed this whole mess up badly. He'd deserve any blistering comment the ex-SEAL made. He only hoped that Nick wouldn't leave him. God knew he deserved it, but he didn't know if he'd ever recover......

Nick felt an odd sense of elation. Derek had done so much for him in the two months they'd been together--always reassuring him, telling him how great he was, and generally bolstering his self-esteem. It was a distinct relief to *finally* be able to do the same for the older man.

"Derek," The Dutchman thought he'd never heard Nick's voice be so gentle. "Hey, look at me." Derek did and found, to his great surprise, that Nick was smiling at him.

"When you heard about the fairy ring at Glasmonadh, did you know that the Sidhe would be hunting?"

"No......"

"When you suggested we split up, did you know either of us would be in danger?"

"No."

"When you were doing your research in the library, did you see it as an opportunity to get rid of me?"

"No!" Derek's denials were becoming more vehement.

"When you were confronted by the village people," At this point Nick grinned, letting Derek know that the pun was intended, "Did you say 'What the hell, stud that I am, I can always get another boyfriend. Let's go to the pub and down a few pints'?"

"Nick." The warning tone in Derek's growl alerted the ex-SEAL that he may have gone too far.

"Cut yourself some slack, Derek! Look, hindsight's 20/20. If you'd known what was gonna happen, you would have done things differently. But you didn't--so you couldn't. As far as I can tell, if you want to spread blame around, start with the fine citizens of Glasmonadh." Nick's voice became more serious as he reached the heart of the matter. "You came for me, Derek. Remember *that.* You saved me, that's what important."

Derek wasn't inclined to forgive himself so easily. "But I never even told you I loved you."

Nick looked at his lover in surprise--where the hell did *that* little tidbit come from? "'Scuse me?"

Derek turned away from Nick's intense gaze. "That last day. I never told you I loved you."

Nick relaxed back into Derek's arms, resting his head on his lover's chest. "Sure you did."

Reminded anew just how close he'd come to losing this young man forever, the Precept rubbed his cheek across the top of Nick's head, reveling in its silky caress. "Trust me, Nick. I re-lived that day over and over again while you were...gone. I didn't say it, love. Not that day. I'm so sorry."

"Yes, you did."

"No, Nick, I didn't." He'd let the young man forgive him for being taken by the Sidhe, but he'd be damned if he'd allow Nick to let this particular sin slide.

"Yes, Derek, you did." Nick sat up in Derek's lap and placed his hand on the Dutchman's chest--right at the heart. "You said it by sleeping in the wet spot after we made love. You said it that morning by making me wear a sweater when we hiked out to the fairy ring. You said it again when you ordered breakfast for me without even needing to ask if I was hungry. And your eyes said it *again* when you told me you knew why the locals were ogling me"

Nick reached up and kissed away the tears that were falling from Derek's eyes. "Don't get me wrong, Rayne, the words are nice. Better than nice! And if you *ever* stop saying them, I'm gonna be pissed. But there's more than one way to say 'I love you.'"

Derek was incapable of speech. When had this brash young man become so much wiser than him?

"I love you," the Dutchman's voice was cracked with emotion.

"Damn straight you do!" With a blissful sigh, Nick settled back down on Derek's chest.

And let his lover's heart sing "I love you" to him all the way back to San Francisco.

~the end~

Author's notes:

1. Scotland Although it's #1 on my list of places I want to visit, I've never been to Scotland. Yeah, I know, you probably figured that out from my pathetic attempts at writing Scottish accents! :^) I did find some resources to help me out, most notably Geddes MacGregor's Scotland: An Intimate Portrait. Still, I'm sure inaccuracies abound. If any native Scots are reading this, please know that any mistakes come from lack of knowledge and not lack of respect.

I made up the town of Glasmonadh. If there's a real Glasmonadh in Scotland, I apologize for any confusion.

Ferlie = Scottish word indicating any sort of wonder or mysterious happening. (Got that from the MacGregor book. Great word, huh? I think it'd make a terrific name for a cat.)

2. Dutch Similarly, I probably wouldn't recognize the spoken Dutch language if Derek came up and whispered sweet nothings in my ear. (Wouldn't I like to try, though! <g>) The translations used in the last part of this story come a translation website called InterTran. If you're interested, the addy is: http://www.tranexp.com/InterTran.cgi.

In case it drove you nuts, here are the phrases I used (hopefully correctly):

Mijn hartje = My heart

Danken godheid = Thank God

U zitten vertrouwd wel = You are safe now

Verrichten niet vertrek mij weer = Do not leave me again

Mij min u = I love you

 

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