Kieran exited the airport's main entrance, as always, aware of the human following close behind.
He looked up at the star-sprinkled sky, a wave of excitement flowing over him. The prophecy was about to come true; he was finally going to be joined with the chosen one, the one who would become his mate for all eternity.
"Garbhan," he called out softly to his human shadow.
Kieran smiled at the old man's eagerness. Garbhan had been with him since his early teens. Now in his sixties, the Scotsman still lived to serve him, would in fact die to protect him. It was rewarding to have one as loyal as the human by his side.
"Go to the hotel, see if everything is as I requested. I'm afraid that after twelve hours trapped on that airplane, I am feeling somewhat peckish," he finished ruefully.
"And the prophecy, Master?" Garbhan tilted his gray head slightly, blue eyes regarding him serenely.
"We shall meet tonight; it is all I know. I will recognize him somehow, Garbhan, never fear. My loneliness is about to come to an end. Soon -- very soon -- I will have him with me. Now go! I shall travel the streets of this town in search of some nourishment... and the chosen one."
Kieran waited until his servant hailed a cab before venturing through Denver's unfamiliar streets. After spending the last centuries a virtual prisoner in his castle in the Scottish Highlands, it felt invigorating to finally be able to move at will, without fear of recognition.
He strolled easily through the busy streets, soon leaving the traffic and the faceless crowds behind. Looking around, he spotted several warehouses, most of them looking as if they hadn't been used in a long while. It was perfect for his needs; hunger was beginning to claw desperately at him, he couldn't afford to wait any longer. The worst of human kind usually dwelt in places such as these; he was bound to find someone to quench his thirst.
It was time to feed.
Gravel crunched loudly under Chris's boots as he paced beside the surveillance van with an annoyed frown.
"Where the hell are they? We can't afford to screw this one up, there's too much at stake. If all goes down as planned, we'll be able to arrest Blidge and his supplier in one bust."
"Calm down, Chris. The supplier and his men are already inside the warehouse; Ezra should be here any minute now with him. You know Blidge is notorious for always being late for his meetings." Buck reminded him.
Chris exhaled slowly, trying to bring his anxiety under control. "I know, Buck. I just don't want anythin' to go wrong. Ezra is wired, right?"
"Yep," JD nodded. "I wired him myself before he left to meet with Blidge. We'll be able to hear them as soon as they're within reach."
Josiah opened the van's side door, headphones firmly placed on his head. "They're here. Ezra is giving Blidge hell for making them late," he stated with an amused grin. "They're walking inside the warehouse now."
"Finally! JD, start recordin' and put it on loudspeaker, I want to hear. The moment we have enough to have them convicted, we break up their party. I don't like the idea of Ezra bein' in there with no backup," he admitted softly. "When we go in, make sure to keep him covered."
Maybe once he had Ezra back with them, he would be able to shake the feeling there was something terribly wrong.
Ezra left the Jaguar parked in front of the warehouse, walking over to the rundown building with Blidge by his side, resisting the urge to berate the man anew. They were over thirty minutes late to meet with Blidge's gun supplier. Chris would undoubtedly be fuming by now, wondering where the hell they had been.
It wasn't his fault. Blidge was a narcissist at heart, taking hours to find the perfect garment to show off at his meetings. If the case wasn't about to come to a conclusion, Ezra might have been forced to strangle the man out of sheer frustration.
He was surprised to notice the lights in the warehouse were off, his sixth sense warning him to be careful. He tried the switch but nothing happened; they remained enclosed in darkness.
"Max?" Blidge called from beside him. "Where the hell are you?"
Ezra shook his head ruefully; it was too much to hope that for once a bust would go down as predicted. Something always had to occur and usually not for the best.
"Mr. Blidge, I have some flashlights in my vehicle, I believe it would be prudent to fetch them and try to find out what has happened to our business associates."
He heard the other man sigh. "Guess you're right, Ethan. You go get the flashlights; I'll wait here. No sense in both of us going."
Ezra ran back to the Jag, opening the trunk to retrieve the flashlights. "I seriously hope you are able to hear me, Mr. Larabee," he said softly, knowing the wire he was carrying would be able to pick up his words. "I believe there's something wrong. The lights in the warehouse don't seem to work, and while that could have been an electrical problem, I find it highly suspicious Blidge's supplier failed to answer his call. I might need some assistance."
He went back to join his employer, only to find Blidge was not where he had left him. "Now what?" he muttered. "Mr. Blidge? Mr. Blidge, where are you?"
Using one of the flashlights to illuminate his way, he began to search for the missing men, taking his time to look around, not wanting to be caught unawares should any miscreant be responsible for the disappearances. Even with the powerful light to guide him, it was hard to see where he was going and he gasped as his foot suddenly caught on something lying on the ground, nearly causing him to fall.
"Oh, Lord," he whispered, as he regained his balance and aimed the light down.
The something lying on the ground was a body. Blidge's, to be exact. The man's eyes were practically bulging out of their sockets, the fear he had felt at the moment of his death clear to see. His throat had been torn open, nearly ripping his head from his shoulders, the blood slowly pouring onto the dusty floor.
"Gentlemen, I believe you should join me," he said as he reached for his gun. "Blidge is dead. And..." he trailed off as the beam of light from his electrical torch focused on the three bodies lying near the back wall of the warehouse. "...so is Max Dudley and his two bodyguards. Same M.O. as Blidge; someone ripped their throats open."
He climbed up a flight of stairs, now looking for a murderer. As he was moving into a corridor, someone collided with him, a hand hitting him painfully on the arm and forcing him to drop his gun. Trying to control his frantic heartbeat, he aimed the light at the stranger before him, taking in the calm visage regarding him curiously.
The man before him was tall, at least as tall as Josiah, but slender, although his whole bearing exuded power. Dark, sable eyes shined with amusement from within a handsome face framed by long, wavy brown hair.
"Who are you?" Ezra blurted, paralyzed by the stranger's intense gaze.
"Your destiny, Ezra," the man replied gently, a soft accent flowing in his tone. "It is you I have been waiting for, looking for." He leaned closer, his lips brushing over Ezra's ear. "Yes, oh, yes. The Towne's blood is strong in you. You are the chosen one."
"How do you know my name? Chosen one? What--?" Before Ezra could stumble through his questions, the man wrapped his arms around his waist, pulling Ezra firmly to him.
"It is time to wake the power within you, mo gradh (My love)," the stranger told him.
He captured Ezra's lips, forcing them open and kissing him thoroughly. Ezra fought him fiercely, gasping as he suddenly felt something liquid within his mouth and trickling down his throat. He recognized the coppery taste of blood, somehow knowing it was not his own, but coming from the man holding him captive.
A wave of intense pain washed over his whole being and he screamed into the mouth ravaging his, no longer fighting, no longer having the strength required to do so. Pain gave way to extreme weakness and he welcomed it, surrendering to it and allowing it to take him into sweet oblivion.
"Blidge is dead. And... so is Max Dudley and his two bodyguards. Same M.O. as Blidge; someone ripped their throats open." Ezra's voice reached them loud and clear -- if somewhat shaky -- through the surveillance equipment.
"I've heard enough," Chris growled. "JD, keep the tape rollin'. The rest of you, let's go."
He ran for the warehouse, knowing his men were right behind him, flashlights and weapons ready for action. They burst into the building, easily hearing voices coming from the first floor. When Ezra's muffled scream reached his ears, Chris didn't hesitate one second; he rushed up the stairs, freezing in shock at the scene before him.
A man was holding an unconscious Ezra up in his arms, the Southerner's head tipped back, left arm swinging lifelessly at his side.
"ATF, freeze!" Buck shouted from beside him, anger and fear clear in his voice.
The man hissed, cradling Ezra to his chest, his eyes suddenly glowing bright yellow, sharp fangs shining by the light of their flashlights.
"No way," Vin whispered incredulously. "No fuckin' way..."
Swallowing his own disbelief at what he was seeing, Chris forced himself to keep in control of the situation. "Put him down. Slowly."
The creature before them obeyed, laying Ezra gently on the ground before straightening up to his full height and growling at them, "You will not be able to stop me, humans. He will be mine."
"I don't think so, you mad bastard. Back up against the wall. Now!" Chris snapped, when the thing before him didn't move.
"Remember my name, human; Kieran. We will see each other again." The words were barely out of his mouth and Kieran was already running towards a large window, flying through it in a cacophony of broken glass.
Chris ran after him, seeing him land in an impossible crouch on the ground below before disappearing into the shadows. Knowing there was no point trying to follow whatever the hell that creature was, he turned to the man lying on the cold floor.
He watched with barely hidden concern as Nathan examined the undercover agent, shaking his head in confusion. "I don't see anythin' wrong, can't imagine what that... man must've done to him. You better call an ambulance, Chris."
Chris nodded, already on the phone with 911. There would be time later to determine what exactly had happened. All that mattered now was making sure Ezra would be all right.
Two hours later the six men were loitering in a hospital room, waiting for Ezra to wake up, having already heard the tape containing their friend's conversation with Kieran.
They also had the coroner's preliminary report on the four bodies found in the warehouse. While Blidge and Dudley had died from having their throats slit open, Dudley's bodyguards had been completely drained of blood, which only confirmed what they had seen that night.
"You know, we're goin' to have to talk about this," Nathan began. "I mean, I know make-up and special effects have come a long way, and the stuff we see in movies... it looks real, but... That guy, Kieran, it didn't look fake."
Buck shook his head slowly. "I don't think it was, either. Those fangs of his looked mighty real. I've seen kids wear them at Mardi Gras and costume parties, but I've always been able to tell they were fake. Usually they're plastic or some other material that doesn't even resemble enamel."
Chris leaned his head tiredly against the wall and closed his eyes. "So what are we sayin'? That we saw a vampire tonight?"
Vin cleared his throat awkwardly. "Basically, yeah."
A groan from the bed prevented any further words as the six men converged on the bed, surrounding their friend. Ezra sighed softly, eyes fluttering open and looking up at them.
"Hey, Ez," Vin whispered. "How ya doin'?"
"I'm fine," Ezra replied, sitting up against the headboard and accepting the glass of water Josiah held for him. "What happened?" He asked, after taking a few careful sips.
"Don't you remember?" Chris asked him.
Ezra frowned in concentration, confusion slowly being replaced by sheer disbelief. "That man..." he whispered.
Josiah nodded. "Kieran, or so he said his name was. What did he do, Ezra? When we reached you, you were unconscious."
Ezra paled, swallowing audibly. "Um... He forced me to drink his blood."
Chris forced himself to remain calm, the implications of what Ezra was saying almost too much for him to handle. "How?"
To his surprise, Ezra flushed slightly. "He kissed me. I couldn't break free from his hold; he was too strong. He felt almost..." he trailed off, pensive.
"Almost?" Buck prompted.
Nathan touched Ezra's arm gently. "Ya know you'll have to take a HIV test, don't you? Better safe than sorry, Ez."
Ezra nodded, his face grim, but apparently calm. It was always hard to tell what he was feeling at the best of times, let alone after a night like the one they'd had, Chris mused wearily.
"Ezra, what does the name Towne mean?" JD asked. "That Kieran guy said the Towne's blood was strong in you."
Ezra sighed softly. "Towne was my father's name, Richard Towne. He killed himself before I was even born, short weeks before he was to wed Mother. He... claimed he was possessed by the devil, that he could foresee occurrences before they took place. When I was in college I tried to discover exactly what had happened to him. Maybe there was some history of mental illness in the family, and if that was the case, I should know."
"And?" Vin asked.
"There was nothing I could find, no explanation as to why he chose to take his own life. Except that all of the relatives on my father's side of the family were thought to be eccentric, to say the least. I did some research on his family tree and discovered his ancestors were originally from Salem, Massachusetts," he stated with a grimace. "Not only that, but two of the women thought to be witches during the 17th century trials were his ancestors. Rebecca Nurse and Mary Easty were sisters and their maiden name was Towne."
"So you're sayin' you come from a family of witches?" Buck quipped.
Ezra chuckled weakly. "Or so it seems, yes. Perhaps this man, Kieran, is obsessed by that unfortunate aspect of our history and is somehow convinced I possess some hidden powers. He did say he wanted to wake the power within me, before he gave me his blood."
Chris rubbed a hand tiredly over his face. "There'll be time to speculate about the whole thing tomorrow. Nathan, find the doctor, see what can be done about gettin' Ezra out of here now. About the HIV test..."
"I know a clinic where it can be done, no questions asked. We can go there tomorrow mornin'," Nathan replied. "I know the owner, we can trust him."
Chris nodded, then turned to the man on the bed. "That okay with you, Ez?"
"Perfectly, Mr. Larabee."
"In that case, you better get dressed. You're goin' to the ranch with me. And no protests!" he added when Ezra seemed about to object.
Thirty minutes later Chris was saying his goodbyes to the others, Ezra already snuggled up on the Ram's passenger seat. Chris felt like he had been awake forever, his whole body feeling twice its size and weight. All he wanted at that moment was to go home, climb into bed and sleep at least until noon the next day.
Unfortunately, nothing in life ever went the way he wanted it to. It was past two in the morning and they would have to be back at the office at nine.
Ezra walked into the bedroom with an easy stride. He looked around, nodding slightly as he noticed the heavy curtains were pulled shut, preventing any light from breaking through.
By Lucifer, but he was angry! Fury burned deep within him, making him want to lash out at something, someone. It was the kind of rage that made you want to kill savagely, over and over again, until the fire inside vanished and you were left hollow as so many times before.
He dismissed the man standing by the door, watching him so worriedly, and laid down on the bed, without even bothering to take off his garments. There would be time for it later, when the sun set on the horizon and he was free to roam the streets anew.
For now, he needed to rest.
He took a deep breath, forcing himself to let go of the anger and soon he felt his body relax, allowing him to fall into a deep sleep...
And then there was nothing.
Ezra sat on the bed, startled by his strange dream. He glanced at his surroundings, relieved when he found himself back in Chris's guest room, between the sheets in the familiar bed, the curtains pulled back to reveal the dawning day.
He closed his eyes with a weary sigh, his head resting on his bent knees. It hadn't been a dream, not really. He couldn't understand exactly what he had seen and felt, but he knew it was tied to the man in the warehouse, Kieran. The room with the heavy curtains had been unfamiliar; he had never seen the old man hovering at the door before, and the furious rage... It hadn't been his own.
Maybe there was some truth behind the superstition regarding the Towne's blood. And if that was the case, he was in some serious trouble.
Chris walked into his office, seeing his men were already sitting around the conference table.
"'Mornin', boys," he greeted as he sat between Ezra and Vin. "I just came from AD Travis's office. He isn't exactly happy with last night's events, but he understands there was nothin' we could've done. There's an APB out on this Kieran guy; all we can do now is wait and see what happens."
"And the HIV test?" Nathan asked softly.
"I told Travis you and Ezra needed to take an hour off this mornin', didn't go into any details. What he doesn't know won't hurt him."
From beside him, he heard Ezra sigh. "I will take the test if it makes you gentlemen feel better, but I am certain it will be a waste of time. There is nothing wrong with me."
"How can you say that, Ez?" Buck interrupted with a frown. "That bastard was a madman. There's no way of knowin' what was goin' through his head or why he forced ya to drink his blood."
"Yes, well. I believe there is something about last night and Kieran in particular that you forgot to mention, isn't there?" Ezra asked calmly.
"Um... Well, I don't know 'bout anyone else, but I think we got a little spooked last night," Vin began awkwardly. "I kinda think we overreacted to what we saw."
"Yeah," Buck jumped in. "We even talked about it while we were waitin' for you to wake up. But... it couldn't be. He couldn't be, ya know?"
Ezra chuckled humorlessly. "Gentlemen, that is probably the worst, and most confusing, explanation I have ever heard in my life. However, you are both wrong. You didn't overreact, and he is."
Chris exhaled slowly. "Ezra, are you sayin' what I think you're sayin'? That Kieran really is a vampire? That's... unreal! We have been workin' practically non-stop on this case for over three months, it was dark in that warehouse, the guy had a convincing mask. That's it."
Ezra shook his head.
"No?" JD guessed grimly.
"No." Ezra confirmed. "Whatever he did last night, it... linked us together. This morning, just before the sun was up... I could see what he was seeing and I definitely experienced what he was feeling. I am not certain why he seems obsessed with my person, or what he meant by the chosen one, but the fact you managed to ruin his plans... He was furious, beyond reason."
Chris groaned. "It's too early in the mornin' for this," he bemoaned. "Okay, humor me anyway. Go with Nathan and take the test. I'll think of somethin' in the meantime."
Ezra nodded. "Very well. Mr. Jackson, shall we go?"
Nathan rose from his chair. "Yeah, Ez, let's head out. See ya in a while."
"What are we goin' to do if Ezra is right and this guy really is a vampire?" Vin asked once the two men had left.
"Find some wooden stakes," Chris replied from clenched teeth.
There was no way in hell he was going to let anyone harm Ezra, or snatch him away from their midst, human or not human. Kieran had picked the wrong man to mess with.
Ezra knocked briefly on Chris's door before he let himself in the office. The blond was sitting behind his desk, browsing through some papers, but he looked up the moment Ezra walked in.
"Did you take the test?" He asked immediately.
Ezra nodded. "Yes. Mr. Sanchez said you wanted to see me?"
"Yeah. Look, Ezra, bottom line here is we don't know if this guy really is a vampire or a loon, and to be honest, it doesn't matter either way to me. What does matter is he's after you and he obviously won't go away just because we managed to stop him on the first try. The only thing we can do is keep an eye on you, at least for the moment. So... we're goin' to drive by your house after work and pick some of your clothes. You're stayin' at my ranch for a while, and I intend to have two of the others there at all times to help with this guy."
"Are you serious?" Ezra asked in an incredulous tone. "You expect me to accept your decision, just like that, without even having been consulted first? I refuse to be a prisoner in your ranch merely because there's a madman out there who is out to get me. I know you, Mr. Larabee; I won't even be able to sneeze without having one of you breathing down my neck!"
Chris rose from his chair, walking over to him. "You don't have that much of a choice, Ezra. It's either that, or havin' us tailin' you twenty-four hours a day. It would be easier on us knowin' where you were, but if you want to do it the hard way..." he shrugged slightly.
"I don't believe you!" Ezra snapped. "You know how much I despise having you hovering constantly. I have been on my own since I was a child, I don't need any keepers!"
"Damn it, but you're a stubborn bastard!" Chris gritted out. "We're only doin' this because we don't want anythin' to happen to you! Why can't you see that?"
"I can take care of myself, Mr. Larabee," Ezra hissed in his face. "Why the hell can't you ever back off?"
"Because... because..." Chris began, frustration clear in his expression. "Damn you, Ezra!" he finally huffed hoarsely.
Before Ezra could even blink, Chris was crushing him in a warm embrace, molding their bodies together, tilting his head to the side and covering Ezra's lips with his own. The kiss was soft and gentle and it lasted only for a brief moment. When the blond broke the kiss, all Ezra could do was stare at the flushed man before him.
"Wha --?" he began breathlessly.
"I'm sorry, Ezra. I shouldn't have done that." Chris sighed tiredly. "It's just that sometimes you drive me crazy. It's all I can do to keep my hands off you."
"Then don't." Ezra retorted, not sure who was more surprised hearing the words slip from his lips, Chris or himself.
Chris gave him a wicked grin and then suddenly they were kissing desperately, lips moist and insistent as they fought for dominance. Ezra chose to surrender to the other man's claiming, parting his lips slightly and allowing Chris's tongue to steal inside and explore, shuddering as he was skillfully swept off of his feet by a mere, if intense, kiss.
"Damn," Chris whispered when they came up for air.
Ezra frowned as he tried to catalogue every mixed up emotion currently taking hold of him. "What was that?"
Chris shook his head fondly. "You mean you didn't see it comin'? Vin says sometimes it feels like there's electricity cracklin' around us."
Ezra closed his eyes, chin resting on his chest as he slumped slightly. "Yes," he confessed softly. "I thought it might come to this. Eventually. Now is not the best of times."
"Ezra, look at me." When he failed to do so, Chris cupped his cheek gently, forcing him to look up. "I am fallin' in love with you, Ez. It's been a long, hard fight with myself to get to where I am now, able to recognize it, willin' to chance it. But I understand you might not be ready yet and might never be. How about I give you some time to think it over? Let's get rid of this Kieran creep first and then we'll sit down and talk. Okay?"
Ezra found himself smiling. "I must agree your idea does have some merit."
Chris threw him a mock glare. "Can't you just say yes or no?"
"No." Ezra replied, his smile getting impossibly wider, until he was chuckling at Chris's disgusted expression.
Suddenly life wasn't so bad, even with all the trouble looming ahead.
When Chris parked in front of the townhouse it was already dark. Ezra waited until Buck's truck had parked behind them before turning to the man in the driver's seat.
"You do realize I am doing this under protest, don't you? I would rather remain in my own abode."
Chris nodded. "I know. But the ranch is easier to secure and we won't be steppin' on each other's toes every time we turn around. Hurry up and bring what you need. Let Buck have a look around first."
Ezra rolled his eyes. "Yes, Mother."
He left the black Ram behind, Buck joining him by the front door. He allowed the mustached man to check the apartment, then walked over to his bedroom to pack a small bag.
"Mr. Wilmington, would you be so kind as to bring me my toiletries from the bathroom? It would save us some time."
Buck grinned. "Sure thing, hoss. Be right back."
Ezra was zipping his bag when he heard a muffled groan followed by a loud thud, coming from somewhere inside the apartment. He rushed out of the bedroom, searching for his friend's location.
"Mr. Wilmington? Buck, are you all right?"
"He is fine." A male voice spoke from the living room.
Kieran was standing by the balcony window, hands in his pockets, regarding Ezra with the same calm expression from the previous night.
"How did you get in here?" Ezra asked, eyes narrowing, his mind already trying to come up with several ways in which to subdue the creature before him. "What have you done with my friend?"
Kieran gave him a crooked smile. "He is all right, I simply knocked him unconscious and locked him in the bathroom. He really should have looked on the balcony when he was searching for intruders; it might have saved him a headache. As for how I got in here, I wish I could say I flew to your window, but the truth is I have been here for some time, waiting for you. I picked the lock."
"And the alarm?"
The vampire's smile grew. "While there are a considerable number of old wives tales about my race -- such as the ability to fly -- which, unfortunately, are not true, we do have the power to read human minds. I know everything about you, Ezra. You hold no secrets from me; I know your every dream, your every fear. I know you, gradhach (Beloved)."
Refusing to acknowledge even to himself why he was suddenly able to understand Gaelic, Ezra decided to ask the question rolling around in his mind since the night before. "Why me?"
Kieran nodded, as if satisfied with his query. "I was born in the Scottish Highlands over two thousand years ago, Ezra. And while I enjoy the life of darkness given to me, the ability to do as I please without any of the guilt or regret you humans face, there is one thing I miss terribly from my human days; companionship, someone to stand by my side."
A frown creased Ezra's brow. "I fail to understand what that's got to do with me."
"You are the chosen one. There is a prophecy amongst my kind about you, Ezra. You are the descendant of witches' blood I have been searching for so long. Our blood will link us together for all eternity. You have the Towne's power within you. The blood I gave you yesterday is bringing it forth; even now I can feel it growing, reaching out to me. As the power grows, so will your bond with me. Once I have tasted your blood, once I have turned you into one of us, the bond will be complete. We will have no barriers between us, we will feel the same, see the same; we will be one. Night will be ours. And in time you will learn to love me."
Ezra shook his head slowly, beginning to understand the level of madness harbored within the vampire. "You're insane," he whispered. "I would never love you. You want to turn me against my will, to snatch me away from a life I enjoy, from the people I love. I would only learn to despise you, to hate you. I don't want this."
Kieran smiled gently. "You will. Think about it, Ezra; to live forever, to witness the rise and fall of entire civilizations, to travel throughout the world, having several lifetimes to accomplish every single thing you ever hoped to..."
"Having to kill to survive, never again feeling the sun's warmth, having to hide from the world or face death, having to live forever surrounded by darkness..." Ezra retorted. "I. Don't. Want. It!"
Kieran took a step closer. "You are afraid; the unknown can be a frightening experience. But fear not, mo gradh (My love). I will guide you through it, you will have all the time in the world to adjust to the new changes in your life."
"I don't think so," Ezra growled, reaching for his gun and firing several shots into the vampire's chest.
Chris looked impatiently at his watch yet again. "Where the hell are they?"
Vin grinned. "Take it easy, Cowboy. Ya know Ez; he's probably choosin' his best 'garments' to take to your abode."
Against his will, Chris chuckled. "Shut up, Tanner. It'll be bad enough havin' to put up with you and Buck until tomorrow mornin' without havin' to listen to your wisecracks."
Vin gave him a mock glare. "Hey, watch it with the insults. I left my jeep back at the office and agreed to ride shotgun with Bucklin; I deserve some slack. Either the man can't drive worth a shit or he needs glasses, bad. I don't know how JD puts up with it."
Chris's reply was forestalled by the sound of gunshots. "Ezra!"
They rushed up the stairs, bursting through the door, guns ready. "Ez? Buck?" Vin called out.
"Here," called Ezra from the living room.
Kieran was lying on the floor, several bullet holes visible on his dark shirt. Ezra was still aiming his gun at the unmoving figure, apparently unwilling to move any closer.
"Ez, you okay?" Chris asked softly.
"Fine. Buck's locked in the bathroom. Kieran told me he merely knocked him unconscious, but I'm not certain he was telling the truth."
"I'll check,"Vin offered.
"Is he dead?" Chris gestured towards Kieran.
"I'm not sure. I emptied my gun, but according to the legends, bullets can't kill vampires."
"I hope he's not dead; I want to put a couple more bullets in him myself," Buck groused as he walked in the room supported by Vin.
"Mr. Wilmington, are you all right?" Ezra asked, his attention finally moving away from the vampire.
The mustached man gave them a half-smile, half-grimace. "Yeah. Hell of a headache, though. Damn bastard knows exactly where to hit."
"It's a gift." A voice Chris recognized as Kieran's replied smugly.
He turned to see the vampire standing once again, shirt open to reveal a smooth chest... with no bullet holes. Chris aimed his weapon at the vampire, seeing Vin and Buck do the same from beside him. Kieran, however, didn't pay them any mind, dark eyes focusing on Ezra.
He tsked. "You ruined my favorite shirt, mo gradh (My love). A mere waste of time, as you can see." His hard gaze moved to Buck. "Still want to put a couple more bullets in me, Agent Wilmington? You are welcome to try, although it won't do you any good."
"Do it anyway," Ezra gritted out.
Kieran laughed, obviously delighted. "Such passion, such fire! You will definitely make a worthy mate. Now, I am afraid is it time we left. Perhaps you should say goodbye to your friends?"
"You're not goin' anywhere except jail," Chris told him. "I don't care who or what you are, but you killed four men last--"
"Scum," Kieran interjected softly. "They sold weapons regardless of who they were selling them to or for what purpose. They deserved what they got."
"Maybe," Chris admitted. "But it's not your decision to make."
Kieran shook his head with an annoyed expression. "You humans and your morals. You believe me to be a monster, and yet there are worse monsters amongst yourselves. You should thank me for ridding the world of such immoral souls." He sighed. "I was hoping to accomplish this the easy way, but I can see you are only going to fight me." He glanced at Ezra. "You are coming with me, mo laise (My flame)."
"The hell he is!" Chris exclaimed, but when he tried to step between Ezra and the vampire, his legs seemed stuck to the floor. "What the--? I can't move!"
"I can't either!" Vin growled angrily.
"Join the party," Buck muttered hoarsely.
Kieran smirked, fangs gleaming dangerously. "You are paralyzed, gentlemen. If not for Ezra, I would show you no mercy; you have cost me enough time as it is. But since he is quite fond of you, I shall let you live." He approached the Southerner. "It is time. You shall feel but the slightest of discomforts as my fangs sink into your flesh, then the pleasure will be such as you have never experienced before."
Chris watched helplessly as the vampire wrapped a gentle arm around an equally paralyzed Ezra, lips brushing delicately over an ear, kissing silken skin, seducing his unwilling victim even as he prepared to steal Ezra's last breath. Chris snarled as Kieran opened the first buttons on Ezra's shirt then leaned down, lips parting as the sharp fangs...
Suddenly Kieran screeched, eyes glowing as he pushed Ezra violently away. Unable to keep his balance, Ezra collided against the others, all four men sprawling painfully on the floor. Chris shook his head to clear the dizziness. When he looked up Kieran was gone, the balcony windows wide open.
They were alone.
"What the hell happened?" Buck asked as he sat slowly.
About to reply he had no idea, Chris looked at Ezra's neck and found himself chuckling, an edge of hysteria to it. Ezra was wearing a small cross around his neck, obviously the reason why Kieran had fled. Vampires were supposed to be repelled by crosses.
"Didn't know ya were given to religion," Vin commented, having also seen it.
Ezra turned on his back with a tired sigh, looking up at the ceiling. "I'm not," he whispered. "It was Mr. Sanchez's birthday gift this year. I..." he shrugged slightly. "It was not the symbol, but the meaning behind it. I will have to thank him again for it; it just saved my life."
Chris jumped to his feet. "Come on, let's get out of here. Buck, leave your truck here, we're all sharin' a ride in the Ram. No way are we goin' to go in separate vehicles."
"Wise decision," Ezra agreed. "The rules have changed; you are now targets as well. I believe it would be prudent to call our associates and warn them, perhaps they should stay together for extra protection."
Chris looked down at him. "How do you know this?"
Ezra sighed sadly. "I just know."
"That link thing ya have goin' with Kieran?" Vin guessed, a sympathetic expression settling over his features.
Ezra nodded. "Yes. This isn't merely about me any longer; he will stop at nothing until you are all out of the way. I believe he has just realized that it will be much easier to get to me if you are not around. And it is my punishment for having the cross."
Chris helped him to stand. "He hasn't won yet, Ezra. He may have an edge, but he's just one, there's seven of us. We'll beat him. Trust me."
Ezra's gaze bore into his, assessing. Seemingly satisfied with what he saw, he graced Chris with a rueful smile. "You know, Mr. Larabee, if anyone could beat the devil at his own game, it would definitely be you."
Chris smiled back. "So, you're willin' to take a chance on me?" He asked, knowing he was no longer speaking about Kieran.
Ezra was already walking to the front door. "Well, as you know, I abhor gambling," he stated mischievously as he turned. "But for you... Yes, I believe I can make an exception." He finished, giving Chris his trademark two-fingered salute and leaving the others to carry his bag and follow behind.
Chris shook his head fondly. He may just have bitten off more than he could chew; Ezra Standish was one hell of a handful. Somehow, though, he couldn't make himself regret it. Comfortable and secure and predictable were all right for other people; he wanted someone to challenge him, to make him feel alive. And Ezra was the one to do it.
Chris exchanged a concerned glance with Vin and Buck as they watched Ezra sitting quietly on the window ledge, looking up at the star-filled sky.
He had recognized their banter as they were leaving Ezra's apartment for what it really was -- relief. Relief they were all alive and unharmed, relief Ezra was still with them, relief they were still together, still a team. They were all seasoned agents, used to danger and having their lives on the line, but Kieran was far more deadly than anything they had ever faced on the job before.
The banter had, unfortunately, died down on the way to the ranch. Ezra had hardly said a word since arriving, his dinner left nearly untouched on his plate.
"Ya were alone with him for an awfully long time," Vin commented suddenly.
Ezra didn't move from his perch, but he did reply. "I was curious, I needed to know why. Why all this, why me?"
"And?" Buck prompted.
"I'm quite certain his advanced age has left him somewhat unbalanced. Supposedly he's over two thousand years old and he's looking for a life partner."
"You?" Chris managed to control his jealousy. "Why?"
"Kieran told me there is a prophecy amongst vampires where I am alledgely mentioned. This link between us... at the moment it is one-sided. I am the only one capable of seeing and feeling what he is experiencing. So far, it is not constant. I catch glimpses of locations, emotions, then abruptly it's over. But once he has turned me into a vampire he would also be able to see and feel as I do. There would be no barriers, no secrets between us."
Buck shuddered visibly. "Dang it," he whispered. "With someone you love and trust, it might be somethin' worth explorin'. But bein' forced to bond with a vampire and have to endure it for eternity..."
Ezra smiled bitterly. "Fear not, Mr. Wilmington. Kieran has forgotten one of humankind's most endearing qualities -- stubbornness. I am not ready to call it quits just yet. I--" His next words were cut off by a startled gasp.
Chris frowned as Ezra drew his legs up, wrapping his arms around his knees, and closing his eyes as he paled considerably. "Ezra?" he called out softly.
"I'm all right, Chris," Ezra replied in a strained voice. "He's... feeding. I would venture to say he is being particularly brutal for my benefit. A sort of payback for having escaped him a second time."
"Bastard!" Vin spat with feeling.
Ezra chuckled bitterly. "I couldn't agree more, Mr. Tanner."
Buck jumped to his feet. "We need to do somethin'; stop him, call the cops--"
"And say what? That I somehow bonded with a vampire and know he is feeding on someone at this precise moment? That I have no idea where to find him, but that he is out there somewhere?" Ezra whispered brokenly. "I want nothing more than to find Kieran, kill him, destroy him for what he is doing... But there is nothing we can do." He relaxed slightly. "It's over." He took a shuddering breath. "Quite amazing, this bond, really, and it does seem to be mutating somehow. The victim was a beautiful African-American teenager. She... wanted to be a lawyer, perhaps wed her boyfriend and raise a family, have a dog. She begged him not to..." he trailed off, shaking his head and letting it fall against his knees.
"You got all that from the link?" Buck asked in a hushed tone, horror shining from within his eyes.
"Unfortunately." Ezra replied, his voice muffled. "He read her mind as he was draining her and I picked it up. That's what I meant when I said the bond was mutating. It's not mere images and emotions any longer; somehow I am privy to some of the knowledge he possesses. He has a servant, a human servant, Garbhan. All he remembers from his past is being an orphan; he was raised by an uncaring man who owned a tavern and made him work from sunup to sundown. He was turned in his early thirties by a female vampire, but she soon got bored and vanished... It goes on and on and on."
Chris couldn't find a thing to say. He understood that Ezra had probably given them the short version of what he had seen, of what he was seeing. Nothing he could say, no matter how heartfelt, would help Ezra in any way. Words had no meaning at the moment, instead they would have to act.
"Maybe we can use that against him," he ventured.
Vin looked at him. "How?"
"Maybe Ezra can find out where Kieran is hidin'. We could go there durin' the day and stake the bastard."
"We don't even know if that stake through the heart thing is true!" Buck rebuked.
Ezra sighed. "It is. And as we have witnessed tonight, crosses, and also holy water, hurt them. Not garlic, though," he said with a slight smile.
"Thank God," Chris breathed, trying to bring some of the banter back. "I was dreadin' havin' to spread garlic throughout the ranch to keep him away."
Ezra shot him a grateful look. "If that were the case, I believe I would join our colleagues at Mr. Jackson's abode."
"And I'd join ya!" Vin agreed. "Hate the smell o' garlic."
"In any case," Ezra began, serious again. "I have no idea, at least so far, where Kieran is residing. I do know his slumbering is much like ours. He would probably regain consciousness if we were to barge in. Besides, Garbhan would be there to protect him."
"Still, let's not throw the idea away just yet, we might need to use it." Buck stated, a yawn muffling the last words. "Man, I'm tired! I think I'll hit the hay."
Chris looked down at his watch. "It is gettin' late. Vin and I will take the first watch. Ezra, you should try to get some sleep as well. It's been less than twenty-four hours since you've left the hospital."
Ezra nodded. "I am fatigued. Very well, I shall take my leave now. Goodnight, gentlemen."
Chris waited until Ezra and Buck disappeared into the guest room before turning to Vin. "I want you and Josiah to do somethin' for me first thing tomorrow mornin'. If Kieran is comin' after all of us, I want us prepared. I want each and every one of us to wear a cross, and carry a small vial of holy water. And if you can get anythin' resemblin' a wooden stake..."
Vin nodded, his expression determined. "Leave it up ta me, Cowboy. That bastard isn't takin' Ezra away from us; no way, no how."
The fire was completely out of control. Thick, black smoke was beginning to fill the whole room, everything around him was rapidly engulfed in flames. The heat was almost unbearable; he tried to take a couple of deep breaths -- hoping to find some relief -- but what little air he inhaled only seemed to scorch his lungs.
He jumped out of bed, falling to the floor, the smoke leaving him blind, disoriented, unable to find his way out of this burning inferno. He tried moving to the door, drowsiness forcing him to crawl at an agonizingly slow pace.
He wasn't going to make it; he could feel the clothes melting to his skin from the intense heat, the fumes were lulling him into a deep sleep he couldn't seem to fight.
He was going to die.
He surrendered to the unavoidable, cheek resting against the hard floor, wishing for its usual coldness, but finding only the same heat which now seemed to be consuming him whole.
His eyes drifted closed; he was so tired, so very tired...
Suddenly someone shook him roughly. "Ezra! Ezra, wake up, damn it! Ezra, it's only a dream!"
He opened his eyes, taking in large gulps of air, seeing Chris kneeling on the mattress, hands gripping his forearms tightly. Vin and Buck were on either side of his bed, their faces mirroring Chris's frantic worry.
"You back with us, hoss?" Buck asked gently.
Ezra sat up against the headboard. "What happened?" He rasped.
"You were havin' a nightmare; kept shoutin' somethin' about a fire," Vin replied, a concerned frown still marring his face.
"The fire!" Ezra exclaimed, everything coming back to him. He had to do something before it was too late. "Where the hell is my cell phone?" He knelt on the bed, snatching his phone from the nightstand.
He tried the first number, letting it ring until it was picked up by the voice mail. He tried the second, then the third, all with the same results. When the home number also brought no answer, he jumped from the bed, beginning to don his clothes.
Chris walked over to him. "What are you doin', Ezra?"
"It wasn't a mere nightmare, Chris, it was real. Or it will be if we don't act now."
"What are ya talkin' about?" Vin asked, confusion clear in his tone.
"I wish I could explain better," Ezra began, never looking up from what he was doing. "But I believe I just had a premonition. Our friends are in grave danger, we have to drive to Nathan's house at once." When his explanation was met by silence, he finally glanced at the others, seeing similar disbelief on the three men's faces. "I understand your reaction, I do. But please... humor me? I need to be certain, I won't be able to rest until then."
He saw Chris share a questioning look with the other two, who shrugged as a way of answer.
"Okay," Chris finally agreed. "But after this is over, I want a full explanation, Ezra."
"Deal. Now, please, hurry up." He begged, somehow knowing they were running out of time.
He paced by the door while the others got dressed, trying Nathan's home number again, then his cell phone, followed by Josiah's and JD's. Nothing. None of them were answering.
As soon as Chris was out of his room, Ezra held out his hand. "Let me drive."
Chris startled. "What?"
"Let me drive."
Chris sighed tiredly, but gave him the keys, all four men rushing to the Ram. Minutes later they were speeding through the deserted roads, headlights breaking through the suffocating darkness enclosing them.
The second they reached the town's outskirts they picked up a tail, a police car.
"Ezra, slow down. The cops--" Chris began.
"No time," Ezra interjected, stepping on the gas pedal.
"Ezra!" Chris snapped.
"No time!" he gritted out.
"Oh, God," he heard Buck whisper minutes later.
He knew what the ladies' man had seen; he had caught it as well. A wide column of black smoke rising menacingly towards the sky, coming from the direction of Nathan's neighborhood.
Ignoring the sirens chasing after them, Ezra increased their speed even further, heart beating frantically in his chest as he tried not to think about what could be happening to their friends.
Finally, he pulled the vehicle to a halt with a screech of tires, jumping out of the Ram, and pushing into the crowd gathering around the burning building. He elbowed his way past the curious mob until he saw the ambulances... and the three men currently being seen to by the paramedics.
"Ezra!" JD exclaimed as he saw him. "What are you doing here? Can you believe this shit?"
He was unable to say a word. His feet took him closer to the others of their own volition, knowing Vin, Chris and Buck were following right behind, an overwhelming sense of gratitude washing over him. Towards whom exactly he wasn't certain, all he knew was the others were safe and sound, and that was more than enough reason to be grateful.
"You gentlemen all right?" He managed, after clearing his throat a few times.
"Yes, thank the good Lord." Josiah replied.
"What happened?" Buck asked.
"Not sure," Nathan answered sadly, looking up as a shower of glass and debris fell from the front of the building. "Woke up to my cell phone ringing just in time to catch the fire at its earliest. Barely had enough time to get JD and Josiah before the whole house was engulfed by the flames."
Ezra closed his eyes, taking a deep breath and finally allowing himself to fully relax since experiencing his dream. He now knew his father hadn't really been insane. There was no denying the truth in Kieran's words; the Towne's blood carried with it amazing power... and a heavy responsibility.
"Son, are you okay?"
He smiled at Josiah. "At the moment I am feeling particularly pleased with myself, Mr. Sanchez."
Nathan frowned. "Thanks! My home is burnin' to the ground, I lost everythin' I owned and you're happy? You're one of a kind, Ezra."
"Cut the sarcasm, Nathan; Ezra saved your lives. Least you could do was show a little gratitude!" Chris snapped.
"Chris, he didn't know," Ezra chided softly, warmed by the other man's speedy defense of him.
"Saved our lives?" JD echoed. "How?"
"He was the one who called," Vin explained. "He knew this was goin' ta happen, he had a premonition."
Now that he knew the others were out of harm's way, Ezra took his time explaining, detailing his dream. "For all intents and purposes, it was me in that fire, but the moment I woke up and Vin mentioned it, I somehow knew it was related with you gentlemen. So I called your cell phone." He shrugged, self-derogatory. "I was--"
A sudden presence intruded on his awareness and he knew Kieran was close. He glanced around, seeing the vampire watching them from afar, anger clear in his whole bearing. Ezra closed his eyes, feeling the weight of the world upon his shoulders as further knowledge came to him.
"Ezra, you okay?" Chris asked, warm, comforting hands squeezing his shoulders gently.
He exhaled slowly. "Kieran was here. I'm afraid I must apologize, Mr. Jackson. It seems Kieran was the one to cause the fire which destroyed your home."
He felt a soft touch to his hand, surprised when he opened his eyes and saw that it was Nathan. "S'okay," the other man told him. "It's not your fault, Ez. I'll just have to start over; I've done it before, I'll do it again. And this time I'll have help."
Ezra nodded, appreciating the words and the sentiment behind them. He turned his head to look at the man hovering at his back. "Think the seven of us will fit into your residence?"
"We'll manage." Chris looked around. "Kieran?"
"Vanished. Which reminds me, whatever happened to the policemen chasing after us?"
"Showed them my badge and told them to scram. You guys clear to leave?" Chris asked.
"Yeah. We inhaled a little smoke, but nothing that a few gallons of milk won't cure," JD grinned.
"In that case, jump into Josiah's Chevy and follow us. I'll call AD Travis in the mornin'; no way is anyone goin' to work tomorrow, not after the last few days we've had."
"Does that mean I get to sleep late?" Ezra deadpanned.
"Not if you want me to feed you any breakfast," Chris retorted with a slight smile.
They made it back to the Ram and took to the roads, Chris behind the wheel this time. Little by little the adrenaline drained from his system, leaving Ezra exhausted. He didn't realize he had fallen asleep until he felt the passenger door open and Chris was waking him up with a gentle brush of knuckles against his cheek.
"We're home, Ez."
He nodded, staggering inside and making a beeline for the guest room. He threw himself on the bed and two minutes later was back in Morpheus's arms.
When Ezra woke up it was past one in the afternoon; he had slept for over eight hours straight. He stretched lazily, feeling truly rested for the first time since Kieran had stormed into their lives.
He took a quick shower, donned some of his more casual clothes, and decided to join the others, who undoubtedly would have been up for hours.
He found them in the living room playing poker; Buck's wide grin, together with the annoyance visible in the others, let him know who was winning. Not all of the men were sitting at the game, though.
"Gentlemen," he drawled as a way of greeting. "Where are Mr. Tanner and Mr. Sanchez?"
"I asked them to run an errand for me. They should be back soon," Chris replied, then grinned. "There's a plate with your name on it waitin' in the oven."
Ezra returned the grin. "Thank you, that was most kind of you. I shall leave you to your game, then."
"Hey." He turned at the soft call, the warmth and worry lurking in Chris's eyes stirring something hidden deep within him. "You okay?" The blond whispered.
"I'm fine, Chris." Ezra saw Buck glancing from Chris to him, then back again. "Something on your mind, Mr. Wilmington?"
"Actually, yeah. Somethin' goin' on between you two we should know 'bout, pard?" The mustached man asked with a mischievous smile.
Ezra exchanged a brief look with Chris before returning his attention to Buck. "As a matter of fact... yes."
"Well, good! 'Bout time you two got your acts together!" Buck exclaimed, then turned to the other men. "Who bet on this month?"
JD chuckled. "Vin, the lucky bastard. Wonder what he'll do with all that money?"
"You've been takin' bets on what month we'd get together?" Chris asked, incredulous.
Nathan chortled. "Yeah. Been goin' on for about a year now. We were startin' to think you'd never catch the clue bus."
Ezra was curious. "How much currency are we speaking of?"
"The pot's at the office, but I'd venture something like a thousand bucks," JD told them.
"What?!" Chris and Ezra spoke in unison.
Buck laughed. "Ya see, pards, some of the other teams wanted in on the action and--"
"Other teams?" Ezra interrupted, a hand covering his face. "Oh, dear."
Nathan shook his head, lips curling up slightly. "It's okay, Ez. It's only a few of our closest friends."
"Oh, that makes me feel so much better!" He gritted out sarcastically. "I believe I shall retire to the kitchen before I lose my appetite altogether. Excuse me, gentlemen."
He disappeared into the kitchen, removing the plate from the oven, thankful it was still warm enough to eat. He sat down, picking at the food, knowing the others would think he was overreacting, but not really caring. He had always been an intensely private person; the thought of his teammates and ATF colleagues talking about his love life, making bets, wondering when he was finally going to admit his feelings towards Chris, of all people...
Which, if he was honest, was one of the reasons he would fight Kieran to his last breath before he surrendered. He didn't want to be turned into a vampire, to have to spend eternity with someone he was learning to hate, and he certainly didn't want to leave Chris and the only family he had ever known in his whole life. But the link...
The link was what truly scared him. To know Kieran would be aware of his every emotion, of his every move. That nothing would be held sacred, private... Even with someone he loved as he did Chris, it would have been difficult to accept such a bond, but with Kieran...
The idea was unbearable.
Kieran was smooth talking, handsome, and Ezra knew he could be charming if he so wished. But underneath all that, he could feel the violence barely leashed, the power he kept from Ezra for fear of driving him further away. Kieran loved being a vampire, he lived the myth to its fullest, he embraced the legends wholeheartedly.
But the ruthlessness and the amorality were real, were Kieran's own, long before he had ever been made a vampire -- they had been born with him.
Ezra could still visualize every detail from Kieran's victim the night before. The link meant he would see through Kieran's eyes, almost as if he had been the one murdering that girl and not Kieran. And it had been murder. Sharp manicured nails had ripped into the frightened girl's garments, slashing soft skin, playing with her as she pleaded brokenly for her life, dozens of cuts bleeding from her naked body.
It had been almost a relief when Kieran finally tore into the girl's throat, ending her suffering.
A sudden wave of dizziness washed over him and he closed his eyes in hopes of driving it away. When he opened them again, he was no longer in Chris's kitchen, but back in the room he had first visited after the link with Kieran had been established.
Kieran's steps took him to the table in the middle of the room, his focus on the sheet of paper resting on the mahogany top. He watched as Kieran's hands held the paper high, allowing him to read the words scribbled there; I have your two friends in my power. Meet me and they shall live. Hotel Monaco, Majestic Suite.
Vin and Josiah.
For the first time since the link had been forced upon him, Ezra reached out willingly to Kieran's mind, hoping to discover if the message was real or a mere trap. It didn't take him long to realize it was true -- his two friends had indeed been captured -- and just how shrewd Kieran actually was.
He had ordered his servant, Garbhan, to hire some humans to keep an eye on Chris's ranch and to snatch the first of the seven who ventured outside. Kieran was not to be told of their location, only if they had been successful, so Ezra wouldn't have any way in which to rescue them.
Simple, but effective.
Ezra sighed; so much for fighting to the last breath. He had no doubts Kieran would have Vin and Josiah killed if he failed to meet him at the hotel. And he couldn't allow that to happen.
Escaping from the ranch had been child's play. Chris usually left his keys in his room whenever at home; stealing them and jumping out the window had been nothing for Ezra. The fact that the seven men had only brought two vehicles to the ranch, and that Vin and Josiah had taken one on their errand, was an added bonus. There would be no way for the others to try and follow him, at least not immediately.
Now, standing before the Majestic Suite, Ezra took a deep breath, strengthening himself for the battle to come. However, before he could even knock, the door opened wide, Kieran bowing slightly as he gestured for Ezra to enter.
"Please, come in, gradhach (Beloved). I have been expecting you."
"I take it, the fact vampires are supposed to sleep like the dead during the day is also an old wives tale?" Ezra drawled sarcastically as he made his way inside the room.
Kieran chuckled as he closed the door. "Yes. Our sleep is much like yours. For me in particular, and considering how old I am, a few hours a day are more than sufficient."
"How did you know I would read your message? The link is hardly constant or complete."
The vampire shrugged slightly. "I may not have bonded with you yet, but I am able to feel when you are with me through the link. I receive this... tingly sensation down my spine as a sort of warning, I guess, would be the best way to describe it."
"Where are my friends?" Ezra asked abruptly.
Kieran shook his head fondly. "I am certain the first thing you attempted after reading my note was to search my mind for their location. You must know I have absolutely no idea."
"How do I know they are still alive?"
Kieran walked over to the phone and dialed a number. "Garbhan? Please put one of the gentlemen you hold captive on the phone." He held the receiver up to Ezra. "Listen for yourself."
Ezra approached him warily, taking the receiver from him. "Hello?"
"Ezra?! Oh, shit, no..." It was Vin and he sounded defeated.
"Mr. Tanner, I trust you and Mr. Sanchez are well?" Ezra asked, grateful his voice didn't betray the desolation he was feeling.
"Yeah, we're okay. 'M sorry, Ez, we were careless, never thought that bastard would try somethin' durin' the day..."
"It's quite all right, Vin. I don't think any of us were expecting it to come to this. Listen, I..." He swallowed painfully around the lump in his throat. "Vin, do something for me?"
"What?" Vin whispered back.
"Keep an eye on Chris for me? He's going to need someone to be there for him. And... take care, all of you."
He made to end the call, Vin's desperate shouts the last thing he heard, "Ezra? Ezra, no! No, God damnit! Son of a bitch! Ezra! Ezra!"
He could feel Kieran standing right behind him. "Do I have your promise you will let them go, unharmed?"
"Yes. I have no interest in them whatsoever, Ezra; all I ever wanted was you."
Ezra nodded. "Very well, then." He turned to the vampire. "I'm yours."
Kieran smiled, moving closer until they were mere inches apart. Ezra remained frozen as the vampire unbuttoned his shirt slowly, exposing his shoulder. Powerful, yet gentle arms pulled him into a cold, loveless embrace; a hand tangled in his hair, tipping his head to expose the neck, Kieran's lips caressing his skin.
He closed his eyes, resisting the urge to fight, knowing it would only mean Vin and Josiah's deaths. He felt the painful sting of fangs, a deep sense of shame warring with the unwilling pleasure the vampire's kiss wrought from him. His body reacted to the fire burning within him, leaving him aching and hard as Kieran slowly drank from him, stealing his life essence as well as his soul.
He felt Kieran pressing a wrist to his lips, knew what it was being asked of him, and for a moment thought about refusing, about simply letting go. Surely it was too late; he would die from the blood loss.
"I still have your friends, Ezra," Kieran purred in his ear. "Drink from my blood, or they will die."
He forced his lips to open, swallowing the precious liquid as it filled his mouth, feeling his whole body hum as Kieran's blood replaced what had been lost.
And as darkness approached, he heard the final words that sealed his fate, "Sinn bheil araon, am feasd (We are one, forever)."
He was going to kill them, all three of them. Vin and Josiah for disappearing and for placing themselves in danger; Ezra for leaving the ranch, stealing his truck and, as usual, deciding to take on the world by himself.
Chris looked out the window of his office, seeing the late afternoon sky slowly turning into a darker shade of blue. When he had heard the sound of the Ram driving away back at the ranch, and realized Ezra had taken off, it hadn't been hard to figure out the Southerner must have had a valid reason for leaving.
Calling Vin and Josiah's cell phones had provided him with that reason; both men were missing.
Since he didn't believe in coincidences, it was obvious whoever had snatched Vin and Josiah had contacted Ezra somehow, possibly with blackmail in mind.
Time was running out. Without any available vehicles, it had taken them nearly two hours to return to Denver, and Chris had been forced to call the office and ask for transportation. All ATF teams not assigned to any cases at the moment were out looking for the three men. Known contacts, informants, leads, nothing had supplied them with any useful information.
He turned to see Nathan standing by the doorway, a somewhat dazed expression on his face.
"What is it, Nathan?"
"The security guard downstairs just called; Vin and Josiah are on their way up. They seemed all right to him."
Nathan had barely finished speaking and the two men were rushing into the office, the rest of the team right behind them.
"Where the hell have you two been?" Buck blurted out.
"Kieran's servant and a few hired goons grabbed us when we were leaving the church with the holy water you wanted," Josiah replied, looking at Chris. "We didn't even see them coming. They knocked us unconscious and threw us in the back of a van."
"How did you escape?" JD asked with a frown.
"We didn't. They let us go, took us back to the church and left us there." Vin replied, his face grim. "Kieran has Ezra, Chris. That's why he took us, so Ezra would meet with 'im. I spoke with Ezra on the phone a few hours ago, I guess he wanted to know we were okay. He... He told us to take care, told me to watch over you. Sounded like he was sayin' goodbye, pard." He finished, sorrow lurking in his blue eyes.
Chris closed his eyes at the pain in his heart. He had just admitted his feelings for Ezra; he wasn't ready to lose the other man, not when they had their whole lives ahead of them, a future to share. He took a shuddering breath, pushing the desperation away in order to be able to think.
"Didn't you hear anythin' we can use while they had you? Where Kieran's stayin', what they're plannin' to do?"
Josiah shook his head sadly. "Nothing, brother. We didn't even manage to see where we were being held. The van didn't have any windows and all we could see was that the building was large enough for the van to be hidden inside with us. But Kieran wasn't there, that I know for certain."
Chris turned back to the window, ignoring the worried men behind him, his gaze once again lost on the darkening sky. It had been hours since Ezra had gone to Kieran, precious minutes in which anything could have happened.
He couldn't stand the thought he might never again lay his eyes upon Ezra, never again witness the fire and humor shining from within those startling green eyes, never again hear the soft, sarcastic drawl he had become so addicted to. He wouldn't be able to bear it.
The park was virtually deserted, the late time scaring most people away. The wide trees looked ghastly in the midnight hour, the full moon bathing the gardens with its light, giving everything an eerie glow.
"I don't want to do this," Ezra whispered to Kieran as they followed the lonely figure rushing through the path amongst the trees.
"We must, Ezra." Kieran replied. "You must feed or you will die. Let me show you how to do it."
Ezra watched as Kieran suddenly moved ahead of the man they had been stalking, blocking his way. The intended victim startled, taking a step back.
"Whoa! What's with you, man? You scared the shit outta me!"
Kieran bowed slightly. "I do apologize, that was not my intention."
"What do you want then?" The man asked, his tone suspicious.
"This!" Kieran growled, grabbing the man by the scruff of the neck and pulling him closer. His fangs sank into his prey's neck viciously, his eyes never leaving Ezra's. He tore himself away, lips stained with blood, holding the unconscious man up in his arms. "Your turn, mo gradh (My love). Taste him and quench your hunger. Do it!"
Ezra backed away, shaking his head slowly as he looked at the dying man in Kieran's arms. "No, no, no..." he whispered, over and over again. "I won't do it!"
"You have no choice!" Kieran snapped. "There's no turning back now, Ezra! You can't fight it!" His voice softened, "Hear his heartbeat, Ezra, hear it slowing down. Smell the sweet scent of his blood, calling for you..."
Hunger coiled in his gut, making him dizzy, helpless to fight the bloodlust burning inside. He felt his fangs lengthening, felt himself swaying closer to their quarry.
"Help me..." A mere breath from the man's lips.
Ezra looked into his eyes, seeing the terror, the pleading, lurking within the hazel depths. "No... I will not do this!" He shouted as he ran away, making use of the unearthly speed given him as a vampire to escape from his Maker.
"You can't run from your hunger, Ezra! You can't run from me! There is no place you can hide! I will not let you go!" He heard Kieran shouting back. "I will perish without you, you hear me? Perish!"
Ezra kept running for as long as his body allowed it, leaving the park behind, street after street, neighborhood after neighborhood, until he had no idea where he was.
He knew he shouldn't follow his heart's desire, but he was too weak to fight it. He had to see Chris one last time before he surrendered to Kieran. Just one last time.
Chris opened the door to his home, feeling every year of his life weighing down on him. He gestured for the others to enter, then secured the locks in place.
"Chris!" He heard Vin shout from the living room, his voice sounding somewhat strangled.
He rushed into the room, his breath catching in his throat as he saw Ezra standing by the window, regarding them with a warm smile.
"Ezra!" He made to approach the younger man, but Ezra raised a hand to stop him.
"Don't, Chris," Ezra whispered, his voice sad.
Chris frowned. "Why not?"
"Better safe than sorry," Ezra told him with a slight shrug.
"I don't get it." Buck stated, his confusion clear.
Ezra sighed softly. "I'm afraid I have made a deal with the devil, Mr. Wilmington. It will undoubtedly be safer for you gentlemen if you don't get too close to me at this moment."
"You mean... y-you're a vampire, too?" JD stammered, horror coloring his voice.
Ezra gave a nearly imperceptible nod. "Yes. I have come to say goodbye."
"Where's Kieran?" Nathan asked.
"On his way here, which is the reason why I best be going. I ran away from him, he is far from happy."
"I can't let you leave, Ez." Chris stated, suddenly knowing what he had to do.
"Ah, Chris," Ezra whispered brokenly. "You have no choice. If you try to keep me here, Kieran will kill you all."
"Why did ya run away from him?" Vin asked.
"He was trying to teach me..." Ezra cleared his throat awkwardly. "...how to hunt. I couldn't do it."
"Ezra, please... stay for a while?" Chris pleaded.
He approached the skittish man slowly, soothingly, relieved when Ezra flinched but didn't back away. He reached for the Southerner's hand, leading him gently to the couch. They sat side by side, Chris's eyes roaming over the face he knew so well, taking in the pallor and the tightly pressed lips.
"It hurts? The hunger?" He guessed.
Ezra tilted his head, as if considering the question. "Yes," He finally acknowledged. "It claws at you until you are certain you will go insane if you don't put a stop to it."
Thunder rumbled from afar, warning of a storm brewing, and Chris watched absently as Buck lit the logs in the fireplace, bringing some warmth to the chilly night.
"You could stay, Ez," Vin said abruptly. "Ya know, fifty percent of what we do is at night; meetings, busts... You could still be a part of the team. Somehow." He finished lamely.
"Yeah," JD jumped in earnestly. "And maybe we could find some place where we could get you some blood, like we see in the movies, you know? Like in a blood bank, hospital... It's still good, right?"
Ezra smiled ruefully. "I have no idea, JD. Kieran refuses to consider any other option besides killing humans. I doubt he even knows if it is possible to survive in that manner; at least nothing comes through the link." He looked at Vin. "As for you, and as much as I appreciate it, you know there is no way your idea would work. While there are many contacts made during the night, there are as many which take place during the day. Going undercover is out of the question for I would have to be available at any given time." He shook his head. "I'm sorry. Besides, Kieran would never allow me to remain." He looked out the window as it began to pour outside. "I should leave; he's not far away, as it is."
Chris rose at the same time Ezra did, his last hope dangling from his fingers. He had found it in Ezra's room after the other man had left the ranch and decided to keep it, a reminder of everything they could still lose... and gain -- Ezra's little cross.
Ezra gasped, taking a step back. "Chris," he whimpered softly.
"I'm not goin' to hurt you, Ezra, but I'm also not lettin' you leave. There's got to be a way we can be together. We can try JD's idea of supplyin' you blood, you can spend the days here, you'll be safe enough since there's no one else around for miles. We've got to try!" He gritted out forcefully.
"You are playing with fire, Chris," Ezra chided softly, sorrow lurking in his eyes. "You have no idea just how strong Kieran actually is. He can kill by the power of thought alone; you really believe you can fight him and win? Don't you see?" He pleaded. "I will be all right as long as I know the six of you are safe somewhere. If he kills you... There will be nothing left." He whispered the last words.
Josiah shook his head sadly. "You can't spend the rest of eternity with someone like Kieran, brother. You don't belong in his world."
Lighting lit up the sky, thunder boomed from above them, cutting off whatever words Ezra was about to say. Chris watched him swallowing hard, eyes focused on something behind him. He turned, seeing Kieran in full vampire face, standing by the doorway.
"You are wrong, human," Kieran's voice rang loudly over the storm raging furiously outside. "Ezra does belong in my world now; he is a killer like me. Or will be, once he accepts his true nature."
"How did you get in here?" Nathan snarled.
"Contrary to popular belief, I require no invitation. Those locks were far from a challenge." He snorted disdainfully at the cross in Chris's hand. "Touching them hurts us, human, not looking at them. You should have remained acquiescent; I would have allowed Ezra to say his goodbyes and left without harming any of you. But you humans..." He shook his head. "I have thought many times of killing you, only stopping myself because doing so would alienate Ezra even further. But now... Maybe it is time you were taught a lesson."
Before Chris could react to the obvious threat, he was punched brutally, feeling himself flying backwards, body impacting with the wall beside the fireplace. The cross fell from his numb fingers, skidding on the wooden floor and disappearing under the couch.
"Chris! No!" Ezra shouted, trying to move between them.
Kieran grabbed Ezra by the forearms, eyes glowing furiously. "I will deal with you later," he promised, pushing him away. "Why are you trying to steal Ezra away from me, human?" He demanded of Chris. "Why are you denying him the future only I can give him? I can offer him the world, if he so wishes. What can you give him? A few miserly years filled with bigotry, diseases, aging... death?"
"He's not like you," Chris spat. "He's not a killer!"
"Ah, but he is," Kieran purred. "He's merely in denial, as you say these days. It's in his blood, he can not escape it."
"It might be in his blood, but it's not in his heart," Vin chimed in, his last words coming out hoarse as Kieran grabbed him by the throat and lifted him from the ground. "You... won't... win!" He croaked.
"Are you certain, human?" Kieran held out his free hand to Ezra. "Come to me, gradhach (Beloved). I believe it is time for you to feed."
Chris watched with horrified fascination as Ezra shook his head desperately, denial pouring out of him even as his feet seemed to take him closer to the vampire and his captive. His heart lurched as Ezra's lips parted in anticipation, fangs clearly visible as he made to take Vin from Kieran's hold.
"No!" Chris shouted, not even aware he had moved until he saw the small piece of burning wood in his hand plunging into the vampire's body.
It took but a second for the fire to spread over Kieran's clothing and skin. The vampire shrieked, hands trying unsuccessfully to put out the flames swallowing him whole, body swerving as he bumped hazardously into the furniture.
Ezra suddenly dropped to his hands and knees, crying out in pain. Both Chris and Vin rushed to him, holding him tightly as he writhed and whimpered continuously, anguish written across his face as tears leaked from eyes squeezed shut.
"What the hell is wrong with him?" Chris shouted over the storm thundering over the ranch.
"It's the bond; he's feeling Kieran's death," Vin replied, securing his hold on the convulsing man.
Kieran's next scream shook the house, shattering the windows and bringing the storm inside. Fierce wind swept over the room, heavy rain and dust following close behind. The lights flickered out, leaving the fireplace as the last barrier against total darkness.
The vampire finally collapsed on the floor, mist flowing from his body as it was slowly consumed by the flames. The strange haze flew through the room, hovering above them before seeming to concentrate on the three huddled men by the fireplace. Chris saw it fly straight into Vin's body, then Ezra's, and finally his own, moaning at the intense pain it caused in his whole being.
He closed his eyes, riding out the pain. When he opened them again the mist had vanished, Kieran was nothing but a pile of ashes on the floor, and Ezra was unconscious within his and Vin's embrace.
"Dang it," Buck whispered as he collapsed to the floor. "What the hell was that?"
"Great special effects, huh?" JD quipped weakly.
The lights came back on at that moment, and the six men glanced grimly at the destruction around them. There were glass shards everywhere, furniture overturned or scorched; the wind still howling furiously had scattered sheets of paper throughout the room; paintings were hanging on precariously, several knickknacks broken into a thousand pieces... And amongst the chaos they sat close together, the sole survivors of an impossible reality.
Chris saw Nathan move closer to Ezra, then hesitate. "What?" He asked.
Nathan grimaced. "I was goin' to check his pulse, but... vampires aren't supposed to have one, right?"
Vin shook his head as he looked at the man still in their arms. "Don't know the answer ta that one, but I can tell you this; Ez does have a pulse, I can see the vein in his neck throbbin'."
Nathan touched Ezra's neck, surprise lighting up his face. "He does! A bit too fast, but strong."
Josiah crawled cautiously over to the couch, hand feeling under it until he found the small cross. He approached Ezra, gently holding his hand up and placing the chain and pendant there.
Nothing happened; Ezra didn't revive with an unnatural shriek, there was no burning flesh, no marks left on the smooth skin.
"What does that mean?" JD asked softly.
"I don't think he's a vampire any longer," Josiah replied, with a growing smile. "Some legends say that until the newborn vampire has fed for the first time and loses his humanity, if the Master is killed, the process can be undone." He shrugged. "Or maybe it was the Towne's blood, or Kieran did something wrong when he turned Ezra. I don't think we'll ever know for sure. Either way, I think we have our brother back."
The six men shared a smile; they had beat the odds. They were still a team, they were still seven.
The first thing Ezra realized as he slowly regained consciousness was he no longer felt the excruciating pain of before, the terrifying feeling he was burning to death. The second thing he realized was he was starving -- for real food, not blood -- and that he was still within Chris and Vin's arms.
Finally, he realized he was receiving a nearly overwhelming sense of worry and relief that he was certain didn't come from him, but from the two men holding him gently. Which meant the link still existed, only with a different twist.
He had felt what could only be called Kieran's essence plunge into him right before surrendering to unconsciousness. Obviously, that essence had also affected Chris and Vin, bonding them together. Kieran's farewell gift, no doubt, a last attempt to get his revenge. Sharing the link with Chris was one thing, but adding Vin to the mix... To say their lives would be an adventure from that moment on was an understatement.
"Why am I annoyed?" Vin asked suddenly, confusion coloring his words.
"I thought I was annoyed!" Chris exclaimed from Ezra's other side.
Ezra sighed. "Neither of you are annoyed, I am," he rasped, sitting up weakly against Chris's chest.
"Ezra! You okay?"
He smiled softly as he looked up at Chris's anxious face. "I'm fine, Chris. I believe I could eat a horse, though."
JD tilted his head hesitantly. "So... does that mean you're no longer grrrr?" he asked, baring his teeth.
Ezra chuckled quietly, hiding his face in Chris's neck. "No," he managed after a while. "I am no longer grrr, as you so adequately put it, Mr. Dunne." He inhaled slowly, Chris's scent invading his senses. "However, the bond still exists, only now with the two of you," he stated, looking at both Chris and Vin. "The annoyance you felt was my own."
"Shit," Vin whispered. "That thing that went through us..."
Ezra nodded. "Kieran. I believe this is his ultimate try at vengeance. Having the three of us share the bond -- no matter how different it currently is -- will still be trying, to say the least."
"Different?" Chris echoed.
"Well, as far as I can tell, we are unable to see through each other's eyes as I could with Kieran, and the knowledge is random, not complete as it was with him. I know certain things about you I didn't know before, but not everything."
Vin tilted his head, pensive, a slow smile ghosting over his face. "Damn, Ez, I can't believe ya got so drunk when you were sixteen you--"
"Ah!" Ezra interjected, a finger raised in admonishment. "Mr. Tanner, are you familiar with the meaning of the word retribution?" Vin clamped his mouth shut and Ezra smirked. "Thought so."
"Wait a minute, wait a minute!" Buck grinned. "Don't stop now, Junior! That sounded like great blackmail material!"
"Which is exactly why Mr. Tanner here will remain quiet. Unless, of course, he wishes the rest of you to know exactly what it was he did behind the church building every Sunday with a certain young lady when he was fifteen," Ezra drawled, enjoying the way the Texan flushed. "Do we understand each other, Mr. Tanner?"
Vin nodded eagerly. "Oh, perfectly," he breathed.
"Ya know, jokin' aside, this bond could be really helpful on the job. If one of us gets in trouble, the other two will know immediately." Chris stated.
"Hmm..." Ezra agreed. "But it will have its downside as well."
"Oh?" Chris asked.
Ezra linked their fingers together, looking up at him and allowing the overwhelming love he felt for the blond man to travel through the bond. "If... when we do decide to act on this... thing between us... Vin will be able to feel everything as we do." He explained, cursing the flush stealing over his face, regardless of the fact it seemed to be shared by Chris and Vin.
"Maybe we could try to see if there's any way to control it, ya know, block the others unless we need to have the bond active? And see how far it works too." Vin suggested.
Ezra nodded, then yawned gently. "Umm..."
"Tired?" Chris asked softly, fingers combing through his hair tenderly.
He closed his eyes, leaning more firmly against Chris. "Exhausted," he admitted.
"Okay. Let's rest for a few hours, we can clean this place and figure out what to do in the mornin'. We've accomplished the main thing; Kieran is dead and you're back with us." Chris looked down at Ezra, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Want to eat somethin' before goin' to bed?"
"No. In the morning will suffice. I don't think I could master the will to chew." Ezra admitted ruefully.
He allowed Chris to guide him into the main room, to gently remove his clothes and snuggle him into the bedding. He didn't say a word when he felt Chris join him, wrapping warm arms around him, knowing that after everything that had happened Chris needed to be close. He, himself, longed for the proximity he had thought lost forever.
Secure within Chris's embrace, he allowed himself to relax, the fatigue rapidly taking hold of him and taking him into blessed slumber.
Two months later
Ezra woke to the sound of pouring rain. He looked at the man sleeping so peacefully beneath him, watching Chris's chest rise and fall with every even breath. A wave of awesome tenderness surged within him, and he brushed his lips over the smooth skin, smiling as Chris sighed his name before settling back into a deeper sleep.
Careful not to wake his lover, Ezra rose from the bed, not bothering to cover his nudity.
On the wall opposite to their bed was a window that stretched the full width of the room, a small balcony beyond it. He pushed the French doors open, allowing the cool night air to touch his body, while his eyes roamed over the magnificent view. For as far as he could see, Paris was laid out, glowing in night lights and glistening with soft rain. Breathtaking.
He really should find a way to express his gratitude to Vin. The Texan had given them the money from the bet he had won, a wide grin on his face as he quipped it was for their honeymoon.
Chris, however, had taken the joke seriously, booking them on a flight to Paris, a weekend in a luxury hotel, complete with a tour of the city and a night at the Moulin Rouge.
It was only now, away from the office and their daily routine, that Ezra realized how much he had needed this break. The last months had gone by in a blur of activity, with case after case occupying most of their time, barely allowing them any breathing room.
And if he was honest with himself, it felt wonderful to be away from the others for a few days, especially Vin. Although the three of them had managed to build mental barriers to control the bond, the constant effort it took was exhausting, for him more so than the other two.
Then there were the premonitions. Kieran had been right; the Towne's blood was indeed powerful and whatever it was the vampire had awakened within Ezra had refused to die with Kieran. Twice, his premonitions had saved the team from rushing into unexpected danger while on a bust.
He understood the usefulness of both the bond and the premonitions, and although trying at times, he didn't really regret possessing such power, not when it meant keeping the others and himself alive. But it still made him want to strangle Kieran occasionally for springing them on him.
At least they had caught Garbhan trying to leave the country and Vin and Josiah had identified their captors after hours of looking at mug shots.
Now that the team had been given some time off, now that there was no pressing cases waiting for them, he and Chris could finally focus on each other and their relationship, which they hadn't been able to do before. They had talked, made plans, went out together as much as their job allowed...
But they had yet to make love.
Between the link, the premonitions, the row of cases, and all the hassle constantly battering at them, they had decided to wait until their trip, knowing it was something that shouldn't be rushed.
Last night, after a full day of sightseeing and playing tourist, they had finally taken that final step. It had been well worth the wait.
Ezra suddenly heard soft breathing behind him. He smiled as gentle arms circled his waist, teeth nibbling at his earlobe. He leaned back against Chris with a contented sigh, folding his arms over the ones embracing him so lovingly.
He chuckled as his lover's hardening cock rubbed against his ass. "Again?" He asked in mock horror.
"I've had a bad case of blue balls for the last two months, Ezra, I need to make up for lost time. You bet, again!" Chris deadpanned, and Ezra could hear the amusement in his voice.
He let Chris take his hand and together they walked back inside. He noticed Chris had lit several of the candles they had bought that afternoon, strategically placing them throughout the room. They stopped before the bed, facing each other, the candlelight bathing their naked bodies as their eyes locked.
Without any words being said, they reached out for the other, exploring each other's faces, fingers brushing softly over eyelashes, cheekbones, parted lips. Moving closer, they meld their frames together, lips feeding from each other lazily, refusing to rush their lovemaking.
Chris pulled him down to the bed, aligning their glistening bodies together, both of them groaning as their erections came into full contact. They began to rock against one another, Chris taking hold of his hands and pinning them over his head. Their pace quickened, Ezra arching against the weight holding him down, both of their moans filling the air around them.
Ezra felt Chris reach his climax, teeth sinking into his shoulder, seed spurting between them. He humped against Chris one final time, then he was coming as well, whimpering his lover's name over and over again.
He opened his eyes, looking up at Chris who was still trembling from his orgasm. The blond strands caught in the moonlight suddenly coming in from the balcony, giving Chris an almost ethereal quality, and Ezra smiled at the sight.
He had touched Kieran's darkness, had nearly been consumed by it. But now it was time to surrender to the light, to follow it home. And he would never let go.