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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Hope from the Ocean: 40

"There it is," Todd said aloud.  

He didn't realize anyone was listening when Aiden said, "You all right, Mate?"

"Yeah, I'm . . .I'm just fine."  He stared across the street at the Rialto Cinemas.  

"It's been a while since ya saw this place, eh?"

"Yep."

"We can turn back.  They can do it themselves, using y'ar map."

"I can do it."  

I do, My Love.  Save him and come home to me.  I'm so proud to be your wife, Todd.

"Then, we should go.  The rest are already there."  Aiden said.

Todd followed Aiden into the theater through a broken window that he believed in his heart was cracked through by his own wife and Sister Rebecca Katherine.  Landing inside, a small group had already formed.  Aiden said, "Let's go quietly into the theater.  The lights are likely off, since no electricity has been used here in years.  Everyone have a flashlight?"

There were agreements all around.  Aiden said, "Good.  Let's go gentle into that good night, men, and bring out Thornhart and bring down The Men of 21 once and for all."

***

"Timothy, I want answers, and I want them now," John said.

"I don't know the question, so how can I answer ya?"

"Where's Manning?"

"What do ya mean?"

"I'm losing my patience.  Starr says he's not at home, he's not anywhere.  I can hear Blair in the background sobbing.  I don't want another death, and certainly not his.  Where is he?"

"Oh Dear, a bit of a mess, ay?"

"A bit."

"He's with the RA21.  Going rogue to save Thornhart.  Blair gave him her blessing."

"Right, as she falls apart and gets her blood pressure through the ceiling."

"Still, this is what he needed to do, John.  Ya can make a difference by protecting him, if he needs it, but those men intend to do just that."

"Why would they bother?"

"Lieutenant, are ya familiar with the term 'legend?'"

***

The nine of them were ducked behind a row of seats, and Todd was sweating.  He could feel it seeping through his clothes, and matting his hair.  Aiden looked at him.  He whispered, "Ya don't look so good, Matey."

"I . . . feel weird."  It was the place.  He could almost hear Blair screaming.  And he could remember, somehow, floating above himself and watching the scene.  John was there, Shaun, Blair hit the wall and slid to the floor.  He was dying.  He was watching himself die.  

"Colin, Rory, go and take those guards.  When it's clear, whistle and we will come down to infiltrate the passages.  Todd's going to lead," Aiden said.  Then turning back to Todd, he said, "Aren't ya?"

Todd wiped his brow on his sleeve.  "Yeah, I am.  I'm fine."  Get it together.  You've done worse.  Remember, the house?  The chamber?  You've got this licked.  Who trumps who?  Leona?  Peter Manning?  He straightened up and said, "When do we go?"

"In a minute, eh?  Hang, on, they're taking them."  Todd heard a scream from one of the guards, and jumped.  Aiden said, "They slit their throats.  The only way without making noise to alert the others.  The scream is a fluke.  Usually, we don't get that."

Todd was shaken.  The idea of just slitting a man's throat without provocation didn't really appeal to him, but then, he'd forgotten who the men of the RA21 were: violent vigilantes, also on the United States terrorist list.  They were no different, in essence, just in motivation and ultimate goal.  The whistle sounded, and the seven of them moved forward toward the catacombs entrance.  

Todd hesitated, for only a moment, before he turned and said, "I'm going to push through as fast as I can, get us to the secret door.  What happens after that?"

"Colin and Rory stay here, assume the role of the guards, and fend off more intruders.  Ya and Aiden lead the way in, we stay behind.  If we run into anyone who threatens us, we'll take care of it, our way."  This was Darren, the kid.  Todd felt sick, but he knew it almost had to be done to get Patrick back safely.  

He took a breath.  "Let's go," and headed in.  Immediately, the smell overcame him; the musty, wettish, soil smell that he dreaded.  The memories were flooding back.  

Aiden, noticing his expression, said, "Todd, are ya all right?  Do ya need time?"

Todd struggled to bring himself to composure and control.

Darren, who was watching carefully, said, "Take this.  If ya won't drink it, then smell it," and handed Todd the bottle.  He took a long swig from it, and inhaled it deeply.  It helped, bringing him out of the haze created by the familiar odor.  

"Thanks, kid," he said handing it back.

"Someday, will ya tell me everything ya went through?  The whole thing?"  Darren asked.

Aiden jumped in, "We can't be thinking of that now, Todd has to focus on getting us there."

Todd turned to the Opie lookalike and said, "Yeah, sure.  I'll tell you everything," and he pushed ahead.  He followed every turn and twist easily.  When faced with a fork, he never hesitated.  He would close his eyes, and imagine being back in Leona's clutches, and it would come to him.  Finally, when they were almost to the halfway point, he stopped.

Aiden said, "Todd, what is it?"

"Can you hear it?"

"Hear what?"  William said.

"Shh," Aiden jumped in, and all went silent.  They could hear faint noises, like men, yelling, off to the side.  In a small side compartment, they saw it blocked off with rubble.  

It was the Feds.  "We have to get them out," Todd said.

"Who cares about those two?  We're short on time," William said.

Todd said, "Please.  We can't.  They're Americans.  They have families, like me."  He wasn't able to live with the idea of two men trapped in the catacombs until they suffocated or died of thirst.

William and Darren started to dig, and after a few minutes, the extra men also joined in.  Todd took a breather.  He knew he wasn't doing as well as he had convinced himself.  Aiden said, "Are ya able to go on?"

Todd didn't answer.

"We've got it!  They're moving shit out of the way on the other side," Darren said.  

Soon, the Feds were freed, and Todd said, "William, can you lead them out?"

"Is that what ya want me to do, Todd?"

He nodded.

"Aiden?"  William said.

"Ya should.  Todd's right.  American agents.  We're better off responsible for their lives than their deaths."  Aiden said.  This prompted William to start to lead the Feds out.  

"That way," Todd pointed, "Is the main room.  That's where they plan to kill him, while they all watch."

The men were silent.  Even Darren, who couldn't hide his fascination with it all, stood motionless.

Todd said, "We go this way," and led them off slightly to the right.

Forging on for the better part of an hour, and realizing he was coming closer, Todd began to falter.  He had to fight, harder, to keep the images of Leona's last day on earth from his mind.  He told himself to remain steadfast, and pictured Blair, in her red sweater and jeans, just hours before, telling him she loved him.  He kept her face in his head, as he promised, and with every step, he brought her voice to his mind by letting himself repeat her words, and as things got harder, her singing.  Finally, he stopped, and his breathing was elevated.  "It's there.  Not ten or fifteen feet ahead around that bend."

Without warning, footsteps came toward them, from the direction of the secret cell, and the moments passed swiftly.  Every event seemed connected to the next as all of the men stood quickly erect, pulling knives from boots, and freezing in wait.  Todd, pulling nothing from his boots or waistband, was at the front and center of the group, and felt exposed and singled-out as the enemy came into view.  Around the bend came the foe, in fatigues, dressed just as the guards were at the opening of the catacombs, and as he walked into their midst, he pulled a gun.  Todd had little time to react, and with his reflexes slowed by his re-experiencing his traumas, he stood, an open target.  Darren charged the assailant, knife in hand, stepping in front of the gun that was aimed directly at Todd.  The shot was piercing inside the tunnel, and Darren went down at the same time that his knife connected, slicing through the shooter's throat.

"Oh, God," Todd said, "not the kid."

Aiden, who had covered his ears after the shot, fell to the ground, wincing in pain and holding his head.  The shot.  It had triggered something . . . meanwhile, chaos ensued.  Todd went to Darren, and looked across to Aiden.

Todd checked for a pulse on Darren.  "He's alive."  Todd took a deep breath.  I'm proud to be your wife, Todd.  You're my celeb.  Come home to me.  

He looked up.  There in front of him was none other than John McBain.

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Hope from the Ocean: 39

It had been at least thirty-five minutes, and Blair had not stopped crying or shaking, and mumbling to herself under her breath.  The nun began to become very anxious.  She pulled Starr and Tina aside into the hallway, and said, "I know it's not the time or place, but I need to call Todd.  I'm starting to worry what will happen to Blair if she doesn't stop this."

"Call him.  It's not time for the storming yet.  We can still catch him."  Starr said.

"Are you sure it's a good idea?"  Tina asked.  "Whatever you do, don't let her know you're calling.  If he can't answer, because he's busy, she'll completely fall apart, and we'll be calling an ambulance."

"I'm not sure we shouldn't be doing that already,"  Starr added.

"Good Lord, yes. I was just thinking the same thing," the nun said, clasping her hands.

"Call Dorian," Tina said.  "She'll know what to do."

"Yes, and while one of you is doing that, I'll call Dad."  Starr added.

***

"So therein lies the plan.  Is everyone clear?"  Aiden asked.  Todd hadn't realized that Aiden, with his headaches and missing past, was clearly the leader of the little band.

There were nods and agreements all around.  Todd and Aiden were assigned to locating the secret door.  There was nothing else added to their assignment; they were to locate Patrick's holding area, and nothing more was said.  

What comes after that?  Maybe they don't want to think about it.  

"Well, we all know what to do.  Now's the waiting game.  Anyone want some whiskey to take the edge off?"  the red-head said.

A few hands went out, and the bottle was passed.  Todd didn't take it; he knew he needed to be one hundred percent.  He noticed that Aiden didn't either.  Finally, someone said, "Ya fools, don't ya think Todd ought to know our names at least?"

"That was something we forgot like last Tuesday's sun," William said.  "Ya know me, William.  This is Darren."

The red-head extended his hand.  "I never thought I'd meet ya.  The scar is just as they said."

"I'm Colin," the oldest man with the salt-and-pepper hair said, also extending a hand.  "Pleased."

"We'll meet up with the others in about twenty minutes.  Then, it's a go."  Aiden said.  "Todd, are ya ready?"

"I suppose.  What else is there?  Gotta get him out, before it's too late."  Todd added.

"Let's just hope it's not already," Colin said, and Todd refused to allow the thoughts of what he believed to be his last few moments in the cell to enter into his mind.

"Just so ya know, we know y'ar history, and y'ar current life.  No one here intends for y'ar wife to be a widow.  Whatever it takes, ya'll be protected.  Ya've given enough of ya life so far to try and defeat these bastards.  Y'ar here to help us, not to die.  We'll die defending ya,"  Darren said.  For a kid, he was outspoken and seasoned.  

Misery does that.

"I'd prefer no one has to do anything like that," Todd said.  "I take pretty good care of myself, but I appreciate your words."  Just then, Todd's phone softly buzzed in his pocket.  Picking it up, he said, "Blair," softly.  

Aiden, seeing him answer it, said, "Mates, let's go into the bar, and give him some privacy, eh?" 

Soon he was alone, and went back to the phone.  "No, Dad, it's me."  Starr sounded worried.

"It's bad?"

"It's very bad.  We're getting Dorian up here.  Mom's not right."

"What's wrong, Starr?"

"She's . . . sort of in shock or something.  Muttering a lot, crying, shaking.  Before she was telling me things, that, she knew I already knew, just sort of, out of it, you know."

"Does she need the hospital?"

"I don't know.  Dorian's on her way up.  She'll know what to do."

"Maybe you need a real doctor, Starr."

"She is a real doctor, Dad.  You always say that.  She's a real doctor, and she loves Mom."

"Can I talk to your mother?"

"If you think it will help.  Sister Rebecca Katherine is nodding.  She thinks it's a good idea."  Starr went to the bed, and handed Blair the phone.

He said, "Hi."

She said, "Hi," but her voice was filled with pain and crackled, like thin ice.

"I can't wait to see you," he found himself saying.

She closed her eyes and squeezed out two lonely tears, one from each.  "Me, too."

"I'm looking forward to just being in your arms," he said.

"I'll be here."

"I just met some of the guys from the RA21.  Cool people.  They think I'm some kind of celeb."

"You're my celeb," she said.  "I want your autograph."

"I'll be glad to give it to you, on your body, with my tongue, when I get home.  Not much longer now.  Trust me, Blair.  I need you to trust me and believe in me."

She closed her eyes again, and swallowed down her tears.  Something inside her rose up like a dawning.  "I do, My Love.  Save him, and get home to me," she said.  Then, raspy and hushed, "I'm so proud to be your wife, Todd."

"I'm lucky to be your one-and-only.  I'll call you in a little bit, okay?"

"Yes.  I love you," she said.

"I love you.  Gotta go."

Blair let the phone gently fall to the pillow, and sat up.  "Well.  No more of this.  I have to be strong for him, and start thinking positive.  He wants me to trust him, I'm going to trust him."  She paused.  "What else have I got?"

All three women looked to Blair with their eyes wide.  Dorian came to the door just in time to see the last few things unfold.  "My God, Blair, are you all right?"

She continued, through tears, "Yes, Dorian.  After all, he's Todd Manning.  If anyone has nine lives, it's him, right?"  Her phone was on the bed, and on the home screen was their gold balloon wedding picture.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Hope from the Ocean: 38

"I'm not going to cry," Blair said, and as she did, water spilled over onto her face.

"I know you're scared, but there's no reason to be.  I'll be back in a few hours."  Todd answered.  His hands were resting on her hips, and hers were dangling behind him, her arms around his neck.  He said, "Nothing will happen to me.  I promise not to play hero.  I will be careful.  Believe me, you will be in the front of my mind."

Blair was in complete despair; he could see it on her face and trickling down her cheeks.  Inside, though he knew he was doing the right thing, he was still concerned for her and the baby.  He brushed all of her tears off her skin, and touched under her chin.  "When I get home, you know what I'll want?"

She shook her head no, mostly because she couldn't speak.

"I'll want to be inside you all night, holding you, loving you.  Can you manage that?"

She laughed slightly.  "You're so different.  All those years ago, you never would have said something like that, never mind out loud."

"All those years ago, I wasn't aware what it would be like without you.  I need you, Blair."

She swallowed, "I am not complaining.  I love to hear it."  She was on the verge of bursting into sobs, but she held fast.

Sister Rebecca Katherine had helped Todd make a much more detailed map, and was hanging back, in the side room off of the foyer, waiting in case she was needed.  She couldn't hear much of what they were saying, but by their actions, she knew Blair would need her when he was gone.

Todd said, "You'll be hearing it a long time.  Keep your phone on.  Mine is fully charged.  I'll call you throughout everything whenever I can."  It was nine o'clock.

She hugged him, and for a moment, all she could see was 1995, the airport hangar door, and him, turning back to her, his long hair shining, as he waved goodbye.  When you have it all . . .

He put his hand into her hair, and said, "Listen.  I'll see you in a little while."  He lifted her chin with his other hand, and kissed her lips gently, but full of deep feeling.  She felt her knees slightly buckle, and she put on a smile, the best she could.  He has to leave with me loving him.  With me supporting him.  I can never let him walk out of a room again without that.

He said, "Talk to you in a few minutes," and he was gone.

She stood for a moment, in the same spot he had left her.  As if in shock, she made whimpering noises, but didn't move.  She held her hand to her mouth, and felt as if she couldn't take another breath.  That was when Sister Rebecca Katherine noiselessly approached her, from behind, and stood.  The nun carefully reached up and put her hands on Blair's shoulders, and the younger woman doubled over as if in pain.  Sobs wracked her, and the nun could do nothing but catch her as she fell, and bring them both to the floor; the older one cradling the younger, and the sobs filling the foyer and reverberating off the ceiling.  "There, there, child, you mustn't.  It's only a few hours.  He will be back soon."

Nothing could console her.

Starr, hearing the noise, came into the foyer and went to her knees, "Mom?  Mom, what's wrong?"

Blair couldn't speak. It was as if she was unable to even formulate a sentence to explain herself.  Sister Rebecca Katherine said, "Y'ar mother did a brave and selfless thing.  She let y'ar father go to do something he needs to do."

Starr's tears were welling up.  "Mom, really, he's going to be all right.  John's there . . ."

"No, no, Starr.  John's not there."  Blair said, and her voice was ragged and choppy, as if a breath had to be taken between each word.  "He's alone.  He's . . . just alone."

"No, he's not.  He's got a band of toughies with him.  He'll come out of it fine.  Righter than rain," the nun said.

Blair's cell phone rang.  Starr scrambled to get it from the side table.  Answering, she said, "Hello?  Hi, Dad.  Yeah, she is.  Okay."  She handed Blair the phone.

After several gasps for air, she said, "Todd?"

"Don't do this, okay?  Please, Babe."

"Todd."  That was all she could say.

"Babe, just tell me right now to get home, and I will.  Whatever you want."

She shook her head no, but continued to cry, unrelentingly.  The nun took the phone.  "Ah, Todd.  She can't talk, can't express herself, but she's shaking her head 'no,' in response to whatever ya just said.  She's having a bit of trouble, but we'll calm her.  Ya do the good work, and we'll see ya shortly.  Call her back in a few, she'll get herself together."

"Sister, keep Blair and the baby safe.  Don't let her work herself up.  I won't be gone long.  I promised her, and I'll keep it."

"All right," the nun said, handing the phone back to Blair.

He said, "Remember, Mrs. Manning, what I expect when I get home."

Tell him.  Don't let him see you're afraid for him.  Tell him.  She took in a large gasp of air and said, "I know.  I'll be here.  You won't know what hit you."

"Is that a promise?"

"Yes.  It is."

"Can I make one?"

"Yes, sure," she managed to say.

"We won't be apart for long.  And hopefully, never again."

"All right," she said, her voice elevating.  "Todd, be careful.  Come home to me and Jewel."

"I will Babe.  I'll call you in a bit, when I get into Rialto.  I love you, Blair."

"I love you, Todd."  She let the phone slide from her hand, and leaned against Sister Rebecca Katherine, looking physically spent.  Her cries were more like breaths, and her sounds were gone.  She was silent, and tears ran down her face without hindrance from her constant wiping them.

Starr said, "Mom?  It's going to be all right.  Too much has happened.  You're stronger now, both of you."

She didn't move or talk.  She just leaned against the nun and let the tears flow like rainwater.

Sister Rebecca Katherine said, "This is fear.  Just fear.  Ya'r afraid, just as ya were about the babe.  He's going to be fine, it's only a few hours before he comes back through that door.  Now let's stop.  Can we get up, now?"

Blair didn't move.

"Ya want to stay on the floor in the foyer?  It's a little cold and awkward for me old bones."

***

After getting off the phone, Todd disembarked the limo, heading toward Rialto.  The car had taken him only to the outskirts of Dublin, and he knew, from the past, that a short walk would bring him to Timothy's flat.  It was dark, and the streets were not highly populated, since it was a Tuesday night.  He had the baseball cap pulled down over his eyes, and was in all black.  Just like McBain.  I'll get Count Dracula later for impersonating me.

He crossed the street, headed to Timothy's flat, when he got a call on his cell.  "Son, the meeting place has changed.  Seems they want us elders out of it.  Ya have to go to a new locale.  Check your text messages for directions.  It should be a few minutes from where ya are now."

"Dad, are you okay?"

"Yes, I'm fine.  Are ya?"

"Yeah.  A little worried about Blair.  But I'm fine, sure.  I'm ready."

"Son.  Remember, please.  Whatever ya can do for Thornhart is more than enough.  Ya don't owe him anything anymore.  Marty has forgiven ya, and more than that, Blair loves ya, and that is the greatest sign of forgiveness anyone can have.  Preserve that, and put it first, Lad.  Love ya, Son."

He ended the call, pushing back the nervous feeling in his throat.  The directions popped up, on his phone, and he swallowed.  He read them, and deleted the message, as he made his way, in the dark, to the cafe across from the Rialto Theater.

***

Starr looked at the nun, and they, without speaking, decided to get Blair up off the floor and into the drawing room.  Starr was concerned; her mother was getting clammy to the touch, and she just wanted to get some hot tea or soup into her.  The two women stood, dragging Blair with them, and after a few minutes of struggle, all three were standing.  Blair appeared as if she were drunk; she stumbled and was almost incoherent.  

They sat her on the couch, and the nun pulled Blair into her arms, and stroked her head.  "Bridgette, it's all right."

The tears continued to fall, and as Starr got up to go into the kitchen to get some hot tea, Blair took her hand.  She stopped and looked at her mother.  "Mom?"

"It's my fault.  When I first married your father, I lied to him.  I lied to him about something so important.  Just to get him to marry me, so I could get the money he didn't even know he had."

"Mom, let me go and get some tea."

"Then, I lost our first baby.  He died, Starr.  And then, after a while, I fell so in love with your father, there could never be anyone else.  I swore nothing would keep us apart, ever again.  Then, your father left me, the day after our wedding, to come here, to this Godforsaken place, and try and help that Marty Saybrooke.  To absolve himself.  And nothing was the same, ever again.  When he came back, at the David Vickers Premier, I knew it was him, the first second I saw him.  I never really doubted it, not in here."  She pointed to her chest, and Starr noticed her hands were violently shaking.  She continued, "But in reality, I never deserved that happy ending, Starr," she said, shattering.  "I let your father be held captive, for years, tormented and tortured, and abused, and I should have known.  There was a little voice in me, all along.  I should have known.  I don't deserve his love.  I don't."  Starr could barely understand the rest of it, so she sat back down and wrapped her arms around her mother, and tried to comfort her.  

The young woman looked at Sister Rebecca Katherine and shook her head in negation, and the nun said, "Come on, Bridgette, Dear Heart.  Let's go upstairs and get you into the tub for a nice bath.  I'll sit with ya.  I won't leave ya alone.  I promise ya." 

Blair slowly got up, and leaning on both women for support, she said, dreamily, "I just want to lie down.  Please.  I just want to sleep.  I can't do this."

They walked her to the stairs, and led her to the master bedroom.  She fumbled with the buttons on her red sweater, and Starr leaned down and helped her get it off.  "Mom, let me do it, okay?"

Blair's hands were shaking so profusely, that the nun quickly ran off to Tina's room, and asked her to go and make herbal tea.  Tina, agreeing, flitted by the door, and made her way downstairs, leaving Jack in charge of Ray for the time being.  Blair, who was seemingly more and more disconnected from everything around her, said, "Starr.  Your father loved me."

"Yes, I know he does, Mom.  He'll be back."

"He loved me from the moment we first touched each other.  Do you know that?"

Starr felt a lump in her throat.  "I know, Mom.  Both of you told me.  And he loves you now, more than ever.  Stop talking for a while, okay?"  She pulled her mother's nightgown over her head.  Blair swung her legs up onto the bed, and covered herself, pulling her legs up as close as she could.  She shivered under the blankets, and Starr began to worry.

When Sister Rebecca Katherine came back, Starr whispered, "She's not acting right."

"Emotional shock.  She wasn't ready for this.  It was nothing she even considered when she got here.  With the hormones, and the stress, she's shutting down a bit.  We need to just watch her, that's all.  With the way things went back in '95, she's in a state of absolute terror right now."

Tina appeared at the door.  "Tea anyone?"

***

In the cafe, Todd searched the crowd, and before he was done, a very young man approached him.  "Are ya Todd?"

"Yeah.  Who are you?"

"William.  Jimmy's grandson."  The kid couldn't have been more than twenty-five.  "Nice to meet ya.  It's an honor."

"Nothing honorable in meeting me," Todd said, smirking.

"Come on," William said, leading Todd to a small room in the back.  Opening the curtain with both hands, he brought Todd into a small area, with a round table.  On it were papers, maps and photographs, one of which was Thornhart's.  Todd reached into his jacket pocket and brought out his map.  He placed it on the table.

All eyes were on him, and in his haste, he hadn't looked around enough.  A red-haired, freckle-faced kid, about nineteen or so; William, who had brought him in; another man, salt-and-pepper haired, and, as he had expected, scarred and dark-haired Aiden.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Hope from the Ocean: 37

"What if Manning is right?"  John said, continuing the heated discussion that had begun with the agents from the FBI.

"He may be.  About the summit, you mean.  But the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, McBain.  You know that.  If something is triggered, area civilians can be hurt or even killed in explosions of this magnitude.  As well, the FBI has to be fully informed,"  the agent said.

"Then I'll go rogue.  There's a guy here, on Irish soil, he'll support it.  We'll go get Thornhart ourselves." 

John began to dig his badge out of his pocket, after laying his gun on the table.  Before he slammed it down, one of the agents said, "McBain, this is about the Saybrooke woman, isn't it?  You're letting your emotional ties show, and they will trip you up.  I am positive you're aware of that."

John froze, thinking a moment. The second agent said, "What if we can't locate him, and with the large flow of our men, we blow the whole thing sky high, and for nothing?  A compromise.  We can try to go in and size up the entrances, see if we can get a small group through.  Then at least we can scope out his whereabouts."

"A diversion?"  John asked, tucking his gun back into his belt.

"That's one way.  What would divert their attention, I am not certain."

"Manning.  I can be him.  I've got long hair, like he did, I can get some makeup on, act like I'm him.  That would divert their attention.  If he's a folk hero of sorts, they'd recognize the scar."

Timothy, who was not saying much, finally spoke.  "That's not a bad idea.  You're about his height, his weight.  With a scar, and some make up, it just may work.  Ya can divert their attention, and the others can get in to try and follow Todd's map.  See if they can even locate what he's suggesting as a secret door."

"Question is, why would Todd be there, and how would he know?"  The first agent asked.

"That's easy," Timothy said.  "Me.  I'll be his guide."

"Too dangerous,"  John shook his head.  "They know you, you've been a target, probably still are.  It's taking too much of a risk.  I'll go it alone.  Just be acting a little psycho, like I'm back reliving it.  Don't think they'll know the difference.  If there are one or two of them, guarding the entrance, I should be able to get the away from there enough for you all to get in."

"What else is there?  Any other options?"  The first agent said.

"Aside from Manning himself, no,"  the second said.

"Now, who's got cosmetology skills?" John asked.

***

Todd had just returned from getting his new cell phone, when he powered it up, and set it down on the table.  Ray came running in the room, followed by his mother.  She looked particularly beautiful, in a red sweater and blue jeans, but her face showed signs of lethargy.  He said, "Hey, Mommy.  What's going on?"

"I'm just chasing your son around the house.  He's amazing, Todd.  He's got a huge amount of energy.  He tired Tina out.  She's the one napping."

Todd laughed, then said, "I'll take over for a while.  I could use the workout.  Been going soft."  She couldn't understand his comment, since his taut and sculpted body had never seemed as perfect as it was the night before.  

She traded places with him.  She took the couch, and he took to chasing.  Scooping the little boy into his arms, he said, "Hey, slow down, Mister."

Blair smiled, and took a magazine from the table.  Opening it, she began to peruse the articles, and slowly, her eyes were having trouble focusing and she became drowsy.  She yawned.  "He sure tired me out, too," she said, and Todd brought Ray with him to sit beside her.  

He said, "Okay, Little Man.  We're going to sit down quietly now with Mommy for a while."  It seemed Ray disagreed, for he fought in an exhausting way to get away from his father and run.  Todd began to get into a playful wrestle with his son, that led to Ray getting tired, cranky and noisy all at once.  

Blair opened her eyes.  "He wants to sleep.  He just gets tired and fights it, and then gets crabby."

"Okay, be right back," Todd said, running the stairs with Ray in his arms to put him down for a nap.

Blair, drifting into sleep, propped her head on her hand and her hair fell, loosely, over her face.

He returned to the room, and stopped, his breath catching in his throat.  She was so beautiful; her hair cascading over her cheek and billowing soft to her chest, her eyes closed and a serenity over her face, and the small roundness of her, where her hand rested on where their child was, made him pause.  

His new phone, next to the couch was blinking.  He picked it up.  "Yeah?"

"Son, it's me.  Have ya got a minute?"

"Sure, what's up Old Man?"  He sat on the arm of the sofa, with his back to his wife and listened.

"Thornhart.  They can't find the secret door.  They set up a ruse to infiltrate.  John McBain posed as you to distract the guards.  It did work, at first."

"What do you mean?  Was anyone hurt?"

"We aren't sure.  It's not clear, because during this, some bombs were activated and there was a small explosion that sealed off part of the catacombs.  The two federal agents were trapped inside.  John was able to get away, but he won't be able to go back until the actual ambush."

"Thornhart's still in there.  With his handler.  He's trapped, probably in that same cell I was in . . . it's damp, cold . . ."

"Yes.  I just wanted ya to know.  McBain made a solid attempt.  Honestly, he would have been better off going rogue at this point.  Too much over-planning, it's a tell-tale sign of the Feds."


"He posed as me to distract them.  That means, they all know who I am?"

"Of course.  You're a folk hero in these parts, Lad."

We call ya Colm Mór.  The Great Scar. 

"Now three men are trapped,"  Todd repeated.

"They are."

"The summit is probably tonight at midnight.  They'll execute Thornhart."  He paused.  "What will John tell Marty?  She's just recovering from her breakdown . . ." his voice trailed off.  "Why don't they go back in tonight, later, when things are quiet?  Try and locate the cell before it's too late?"

"They're counting on doing just that.  But it will be the full-scale ambush.  Lives will be lost.  That is why . . . The RA21 are going in earlier.  They plan to disable to guards and get inside and find Thornhart."

"Rogue.  The underground.  That's the only way."

"And Son, I wanted to ask, if it's not too much, can ya recreate the map for them?  Perhaps they will have a chance if ya do.  Jimmy suggested it, instead of them asking ya to go with them.  They know ya can't."

"I promised Blair.  I promised her I'd be all right, not take any chances.  It was bad enough coming here.  She's having nightmares, I'm having flashbacks.  I feel . . . I don't want Thornhart to die, but I can't do this to her.  She's . . . she's carrying our child, by some miracle, and she can't handle this.  I promised her.  You know what she means to me.  With any chance of us being separated again . . ."

"I understand.  But the map, can ya do that?"

"Yeah, I can.  But if the map didn't work last time, what makes you think it will now?"

"I don't know.  But it's all we have.  They want to go in by ten tonight.  The Feds are planning eleven. It will be dangerous and chaotic, that's for certain.  The RA21 don't want to forsake Thornhart and they don't want to wait for the ambush.  They plan to take lives if they must."

"If things were different, I'd be the first one over there.  You know that.  I can't take the risk, not with a family that has already lost me."

"This I know.  I support ya.  Ya don't have to explain yourself to me."

"I might not have to explain it to you, but I have to explain it to myself, every time I think of Marty finding out Patrick might not be coming home.  I saw what it did to Blair, I don't wish that on anyone. Marty's been suffering from an incomplete life ever since I threw Hell in her way.  Whatever I can do, I'll do.  Where do I meet you to bring the map?"

"At my flat.  By the way, they RA21 are not including me.  They have a rule about these things.  Under fifty only.  They consider us elders valuable commodities and refuse for us to be in the field.  Besides, they have a great number of young men involved.  There are enough."

For a moment, Todd wondered if Aiden would be one of the men.  He said, "All right.  I'll be there.  I'll go to my office now and try and construct the map the best I can.  I'll use more detail this time.  You know, your sister used to hang there as a kid.  I'll get her input.  After all, I'm going on a blindfolded walk with a skinner in my back."

"Anything you do will be appreciated, Son.  I love ya."

Todd never tired of hearing it from his new father or from his woman.  "I do, too.  I mean you."  The call ended and he sat, perched, evaluating what he had just heard and agreed to.

From behind him he felt a hand on his shoulder.  "Todd?"

"Hey, Babe," he said, turning to her, "Did I wake you?"

She didn't answer, but instead said, "You need to go, don't you?  You need to go and save Patrick.  I know it's what you want, and I know what it will do to you if you don't at least try."

"I promised.  I said no risks.  We came here with that understanding."

She smiled, and tears formed in her eyes.  "You chose us, Todd.  I heard you.  You'd put aside what you believe is right for us.  Now, go.  Before I change my mind.  You just had better be back here later to kiss our children and talk to my belly before bed."  She stopped, and brushing the hair off his forehead, she said, "I love you, Todd Manning.  Make us proud."

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
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Friday, December 13, 2013

Hope from the Ocean: 36 (adult)

Later, the mansion was quiet.  With everyone in their quarters and asleep, Todd and Blair were in their room, alone, the balcony curtains open so that the moonlight could come into the lair.  "It's almost like Unforgettable.  When I think of it, I realized how much you thought about what it would be like in that house when you made it," she said.

"I guess.  I wanted a lot of light and glass.  We know why, now, but even I didn't, not really."

"This has to be hard for you," she said, turning on her side facing him.  She ran her fingers over his scar.

"What being back here?  Being in Dublin?"

"Yeah, being involved with this again.  Giving them details about what happened to you, about where you were held.  It has to be bringing things up for you."

He flashed, quickly, on a blade reflecting light, and shook it loose from his mind.  "It's part of me.  It's going to help."

She ran her thumb over his scar in soft brushing movements, and said, "Do you want to tell me about it?"

He did.  He wanted to pour everything out to her, but in the back of his mind, the fear of her losing the baby sat like a monster, blocking his way.  "I . . . met a guy, today.  Aiden."

"I've always liked that name.  Aiden," she repeated.

"I met him in the tavern.  In town, Rialto.  We struck up a conversation.  He recognized me, said I'm called a folk hero around here."

She smiled, "You're a folk hero around home, too.  I know a couple of little boys that hang onto your every word."

He smiled back, and sighed.  "I love those boys."

"I know you do."

"I love their mother."

"I know that, too.  More about Aiden, go ahead."

"He has a scar, on the side of his head.  Gets headaches.  I didn't ask much but seems he has had his own kind of Hell where The Men of 21 are concerned."

She frowned.  "Not more of this."

"I think so, yeah.  He didn't say much because he has no past memories.  He gets sharp pains when he thinks about it, he said."

"That's awful."

"I could relate to him, especially with how I blocked out the stuff about Momma and Peter, and . . . me."

Blair thought her heart would split.  In the dim light and the indigo glow, he looked so young, like he did when she first met him, and she wanted to bring him peace, or for him to find it.  She knew he was close to it; Kildare and Dublin had brought back much of it to him, but that he was on the road to recovering and finding some solace.  Just a little longer.  She said, "Maybe it's all part of moving on, Todd."

"Maybe.  Even if it's not, I'm going to make it that way.  I don't want to be there in that chamber forever."

"I know that.  You're doing well, you know that."

"What about you?"

"Me?  I'm better.  I got a little scared today, but I'm dealing.  She's starting to move a lot more."


He half-smiled.  "She's going to be beautiful, just like you."

"And you."

He moved so that she was on her back, and her belly bump was up in plain view.  He put his head to her stomach and listened, and then kissed it.  "We're lucky, miracle girl," he said, as if into Blair's abdomen.

"You always love your children, but she's going to be so precious to us, Todd."

"Yep.  A jewel, probably an emerald, like your eyes."

"Todd?"  She asked, and her tone meant that she'd decided something.  "We just named her.  Jewel."

His eyes brimmed.  "I like it.  Yeah."

He rested his head back against her stomach, with his ear against where he imagined the baby might be.  Her hands massaged through his hair and onto his shoulders, and he took her touch as a strong suggestion, sitting up, propped on an elbow.  She whispered, "Are you too tired to love me?"

He said, "Never.  Never too tired for you."

She reached her hand out, and he took it, weaving his fingers in between hers, and pinning her hand to the pillow behind her head.  He kissed his way from the inside of her wrist, to her elbow, and up to her chest, where he undid the satin buttons on her Henley fuchsia camisole and released her breasts to him.  He flicked her nipple with his tongue.  Then, he wrapped it with his lips and applied soft sucking, gradually increasing the pressure his mouth created against her, while running his hand down her body and finding his way between her thighs.  Holding himself up with the pinned hand, he worked her body with his fingers and lips.  He watched intently as she squirmed in pleasure and called his name, in want of his body inside hers.  

"Make love with me,"  she said.  "It's so good with you, Todd.  Always."  She reached down with her free hand and ran her fingers along his length, guiding his hardness to her.  

It wasn't until he was deep inside her, and moving more and more rapidly, overtaken by his passion for her, that he got a quick flash in his mind of the glinting knife blade and tried to push it away.  

Having known him for most of his adult life, she recognized the interruption to his desire on his face and in his motions, and said, "Todd?" softly.

He stopped.  Rolling off her and landing on the bed, he immediately went back toward her, with his touch bringing her back to the heights of passion that he'd interrupted moments before.  He put his lips on hers, kissing her mouth so she couldn't really do much else but give in.  She did, and her body responded in waves of pleasure, before she clung to him panting.  After coming down from her finishing, she looked at him, and said, "What happened?"

He didn't answer.

"Something's wrong, and I can't stand to see you like this.  Tell me, Todd.  I saw it happen.  In the middle of our lovemaking.  I'm worried about you."

"It's nothing.  No big deal."  He raked his fingers through his hair.

"It is something.  You just don't stop and pull out of me, and do what you did, unless you can't go on.  Now what is it?"

He gulped.  "I saw . . . something."

She softened her tone.  "I could tell that.  I understand.  Being in Ireland does strange things, even to me.  So much pain.  And this is why I didn't want you to come here.  I was being selfish, but I didn't want this, I didn't want more pain for you."

Scars are the poetry of pain.  

He saw her tracing one of his rectangular scars with her fingers without thinking of it.  He said, "The knife.  The skinner.  It was shining.  Leona had it."

"It's all right, My Love.  It's over.  You're just remembering.  Seeing that stranger, today, Aiden?  Thinking about all of it.  Having to relive it with John and the agents.  It was bound to happen."

He didn't answer, he just moved toward her, and put his head across her chest, as she wrapped her arms around him.  "I though it all was behind me.  Then, it kept coming back.  Today.  In flashes."

"You know, why don't you just let it all come out, and remember it, and not try and push it away?  If it's hard, I will be with you.  If you keep fighting it, it will just keep coming back, won't it?  You probably have the flashes because you're trying so hard to keep them out."

He stayed silent against her, and closed her eyes.  "The day I killed him, I saw you, Blair."

"You did?"

"I did.  You were standing there."

"In your special place?"

"No.  Right there.  I was hallucinating, but you told me to come back to you."

"So, you do listen to me," she said softly, and he lifted his head to look in her eyes.  

"Yeah. I listen to you."

"I'm glad you did," she said.  Then, she waited, "See?  It's going to be okay.  It's gone.  It just wanted out."

"That wasn't the memory.  The one I'm fighting . . . has to do with his brand of fun."

She swallowed.  She didn't want to show her horror to him, and said, "All right.  Next time it flashes, let it happen.  Once you do, maybe it will stop trying so hard to make an appearance."

"I'll try it."

"All right.  Good."  She said, and she began to move her hands in circles on his head, and shoulders.  He felt himself drawn into sleep against her.  Whatever the past had brought him, he felt safe in her arms.

***


Blair was in the nursery, at Unforgettable, changing the new baby.  Ray was in the crib, playing with his toys quietly.  She was humming, "You must have been a beautiful baby" as she pampered the little piece of she and Todd's love, and prepared her for bed.

She heard a noise, but ignored it, counting on it being Mixie, looking for the boys.   When she heard it again, she went to the nursery door, the side rails lifted so Jewel could not roll off.  "Todd?  Jack?"  She called out, and no one responded.

Turning back, she saw her daughter, gone from the changing table, and by the far wall was Leona, holding her new baby girl, and smiling the largest, most evil smile. 

She opened her mouth to scream, but she couldn't.  It was silent and nothing came from her lips.  Her mouth just hung open, like Bitsy, and no sound uttered forth as she watched him, taking his skinner out of his pocket and shining it on the blanket that was wrapped around Jewel . . .

Her gasp and jerking in the sheets woke him, and he immediately turned to her and took her in his arms.  She was making strange noises, as if her throat were closed, and he said, "Shhhh.  Just a nightmare.  It's okay."

"Oh, Todd," she said, breaking down.  "Oh, no."

"You were dreaming."

She cried against him.  "Damn it.  It was so real!"

He knew what she meant; all of his nightmares and dreams felt the same way.  There was rarely a time that he had a dream or nightmare that didn't scream reality in his ears.  He never had a dream that he woke from laughing, or even puzzled.  Clearly, neither did Blair.  He stroked her hair, and let her cringe against him in the dark, crying.  "Shhh, it's all right.  I've got you."

"I'm . . . being silly, it was just a dream.  It's just in my imagination or memory."  

He said, "You're still shaking.  Let me guess the guest star in this one.  A certain individual we were talking about earlier?"  She shook her head in agreement.  He said, "My fault.  I brought him up, brought him back to us."

"No blaming.  We both have had some really hard times.  We need to share them, we need to deal with them together."

"You okay, now?"

"Yeah," she said.  "It was just a dream, I know that now.  Thanks, for being there."

"No problem.  I get to hold you, and that's worth any lost sleep."

She smiled weakly, and took in his smell, snuggling closer to his broad chest.  She said, "For me, too.  I love you so much."

"Me too, Babe."

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Hope from the Ocean: 35

"The horses are fine.  What are you doing down here?"  Blair said.

"We're just straightening up."  Tina said, fluffing a pillow.

"Where's the baby?"

"He's upstairs.  With Jack."  Tina said, abruptly.

"What's going on?  Do you guys know something I don't?  Where's Todd?"

"Ah, yes, ya caught us.  We know something about Todd," Sister Rebecca Katherine said.

"All right, what?"

"He went into Dublin."

"I know he did."

Both women got silent.  "Ya do?"  The nun asked.

Blair nodded, arms crossed over her chest.  "Yeah, I do."

"We thought for sure this was going to be a problem, but if you know, then it's not."  Tina said, stumbling over her words in the midst of the conversation.

"All right, that's enough.  Who are you two covering for?"

***

Todd had left John and the other men, as well as Timothy, in the flat, and went off into Dublin alone. He felt antsy, and the memories of Leona were hitting too close to home.  He entered a tavern, old on the outside, and new on the inside, with a moderate crowd, and an empty place at the bar for him to belly up.  He sat, looking nowhere but in front of himself, ordered a Scotch, and focused on the coolness of the glass in his hand.

People were milling around.  An aging woman in the corner was talking to herself.  Several men were at the bar, most were talking loudly, and some were smoking cigars.  After a few minutes, a thirty-something Irishman took the stool next to his.  He ordered an ale, and looked at his hands for most of the time.  Todd caught his eye at one point, and the stranger said, "Aiden."

Todd put his hand out, "Todd."

They shook hands.  Aiden's grip was strong, and he said, surprisingly, "I know."

Todd raised an eyebrow.  "You know?"

"You're the American.  I recognized ya from the underground newspaper."

"Me?"

"Let's just say you're a hero around here, sort of a legend.  We call ya Colm Mór."

Todd almost spit out his Scotch.  "Huh?"

"The Great Scar.  A couple of years back.  I recognize ya by it.  On y'ar face, there.  Ya were quite a tale to be told."

"There's nothing to tell."

"Ya killed him.  The Skinner.  Craiceann Aon.  We know about him.  Notorious."

Todd squinted.  Either the guy was serious, or he was fishing for information and Todd could be dead if he weren't careful.  "I . . . think I'll be going."

"Wait.  I didn't mean to scare ya off.  I'm not a bad lot, after ya get to know me.  Got battle scars of me own.  I should have told ya up front about me.  I'm with the RA21, and pleased to meet ya.  Proud of what ya done.  How ya tried to bring them down.  I'd be honored if ya finished ya drink with me."

Todd looked into Aiden's face and suddenly got a feeling that he wasn't in danger, mixed with a small amount of familiarity.  The man's face was smooth and young-looking, but Todd placed him in his late thirties.  He also bore a scar.  It was along the side of his head, and made part of his hair unable to grow.  "The RA21?  You're a member?"

"Card carrying."  Both men slightly laughed.  Todd sipped his Scotch.  Aiden downed the rest of his beer, signaling the barkeep for another.  "What made ya come into town?"

"There's a missing man, I've come to help him get rescued.  He . . . well, he saved my life.  I want to repay the favor, you know?"

Todd was surprised by what was said next.  "I heard about this.  Ya must be talking about Thornhart, then.  They're stalling.  Moves have to be made.  If it's the Men of 21, the summit will be the end."

***

Jack went into Sam's room.  "God, Runt, you are such a whiner.  What the heck do you want?  We're all busy downstairs looking for Ray."

"Uh, Jack?  I told you I had to tell you something."

"So go ahead.  What are you waiting for, Christmas?"

"We just had Christmas."

"Okay, so you're waiting for the next one?  We have to find Ray before Mom figures it out.  She'll spaz, and cry and stuff."

"Jack!  Look!"  Sam said, pointing down.  Poking out from under his bed were two little feet.

***

"You, too?"  Todd said, running his finger along the edge of the highball glass.

"Of course.  That is the way they operate, and that is what will happen, eh?"

"I know.  I've been there.  From the looks of things, you have, too."

"Perhaps.  I can't tell ya.  Most of it is a blur, to me; I've lost a lot of my memory.  But, whatever it is, it is.  I suffer from headaches.  The pain is like the bitter cold of Irish winter.  Comes and goes.  Mostly when I am trying to remember or do tasks that require deep memory."

"I dealt with something similar.  For a while.  I had flashbacks, memory was suppressed, PTSD.  I recently uncovered stuff, but it took time.  I can relate."

"How did ya overcome it?"

"A good therapist and the perfect woman."

"Ah, that explains it, eh?"

"Yeah.  You married?"

He shook his head, "No, I'm not.  But ya are, I see your ring.  And something in your face tells me it's more that just that with her."

Todd looked at his glass, which was empty, and slid it toward the barkeep.  He turned back to Aiden.  "She's everything.  The reason I'm alive, basically.  She was all I thought of, the whole time in captivity."

"In captivity.  The way ya say it, it sounds like y'ar a wild beast."

Todd ignored the deeper truth in the statement, and said, "I was treated that way, I guess.  Like an animal.  But that's over now."  

Was it?  Would it ever be?

Aiden, who had just been calmly chatting with him, brought his hand suddenly to the side of his head, and winced in pain.  While the stranger was squeezing his eyes closed, Todd somehow caught the fourth-full bottle of beer as the Irishman dropped it in response to the pain.  The bartender came to their area, and filling Todd's glass, said, "He gets this way, Laddie.  Severe headaches.  Doesn't have a past, Mate."

Todd continued to hold the bottle for Aiden, and watched him finish managing the sharpness in his temple.  Within a few minutes, he opened his eyes again, and his pallor, grayish like an overcast day, began to flesh out.  Todd said, "You're lucky this wasn't a fresh beer.  I could have downed it all by the time you came back to the living," and handed him the bottle.  Aiden smiled.

***

"We're not covering for anybody!  We're just cleaning up a bit."  Tina said, continuing to fluff pillows, turning her back to Blair to avoid her eyes.

"Something is wrong with Todd, isn't it?"  Blair suddenly fell into tears.  "My God, they have him again, don't they?  Don't hide this from me, please?"  She rubbed her belly, and then reached for the arm of the couch to maintain her balance.  

"Goodness, no, Bridgette, no," the nun said, realizing it had gone too far.  "Todd's all right, there's nothing wrong with him, and we're not hiding anything from ya.  Now, take deep breaths."

Blair was shaking.  It was visible to the eye, and her skin looked white and shiny.  She just said, "Please," and attempted to catch her breath.  "Todd."

Tina stepped forward, "No, Blair, it's not Todd, really.  He's all right.  If he didn't smash his phone earlier, we could call him right now and see."

Blair suddenly snapped out of her despair.  "Smashed his phone?"

Sister Rebecca Katherine glared at Tina, folding her arms over her self impatiently.  


"Oops," Tina said.

***

Aiden grinned, sheepishly.  "Ya know, y'ar right."  He swigged the rest of it, and said, "Seamus, I heard what ya said, Old Man.  I have a past, I just don't know a thing about it," and laughed, almost sadly.

Todd, somehow developing a kindred feeling with the man drinking next to him, said, "Oh yeah?  I've been there.  Most of my childhood was blocked out, until recently.  And sometimes," he flashed quickly on his mother, in the closet, in Peter's secret room, "it's best," he downed the rest of the Scotch.

Aiden said, "Well, scars are the poetry from pain.  Seems we both know what that means.  First hand experience, which puts us leagues ahead of these stuff-shirt agents.  They call themselves heroes.  I beg to differ."

His accent was lilting like Sister Rebecca Katherine and Timothy, and Todd realized he was becoming accustomed to hearing that familiar intonation, and somehow it was comforting.  He told himself right then that he'd never admit to liking it, and continue to mock the brogue of his adoptive father and aunt.  "I should get home."

"Ah, the missus.  Important."

"She is."  Todd slid more than enough for all the drinks at the bar, never mind theirs, to the barkeep and said, "And she'll be really upset that I've been gone so long.  Maybe I'll run into you again sometime.  I'd like to see how things pan out for you, and of course, Thornhart."

"I'll be on top of it.  I can be found here often.  It's the place to be.  If ya need to know something, or whatever, ya can find me here.  The RA21 is not quitting until all of the Men of 21 are done."

***

"Why did he smash his phone?  What's going on?  Where's the baby?  I want to see the baby."

"He's with Jack, as we told ya,"  the nun took a chance, but realized it wasn't for long as she took note of Jack, coming down the staircase, carrying Ray, who was punching the teen in the side of the head.  

"Down, Jack, down!"

Blair took Ray in her arms, and said, firmly, "No, Raymond Thomas Manning.  No.  You don't hit your brother."

Ray scrunched up his face and said, "No?  Why, Mommy?"

"Because it's not nice," she said.

While she conversed with her youngest, her eldest boy looked to Sister Rebecca Katherine and Tina and said, "Under Sam's bed.  That's what the little runt wanted to tell us."

"Oh, Dear.  We should have listened to Sam."

"Well, we learned that Ray can climb stairs, and we need a gate for him."  Tina said.

"That's easy," Blair said, "We have one, somewhere.  With the stairs, Todd thought of that already.  Ray can get up the steps, but we're not sure he can get down them without getting hurt."

"You knew he could climb stairs?"  Tina asked.

"I figured.  He's his father's son, aren't you, Little One?"  She lifted him and looked into his smiling face.  

Ray said, "Mommy, down."

"No, not right now, Ray.  Sit here with Mommy and wait for Daddy."

"Daddy?  Daddy!"  he smiled.  "Daddy play."

"Yes, Daddy will play with you, when he gets back."  She looked to the two women, flanking Jack on either side.  "He is coming back, isn't he?"

The helicopter sounded outside.  "I guess you got your answer," Jack said.  "I'm going up to hang out with Puny for a while."

The door opened, and once again, Todd's impeccable timing was noted.  He said, "What's going on?  A convention of the stay-at-home-moms society?"  He went to the couch, and sitting by Blair, greeted her with a warm kiss, and then took his son in his arms.

"We're not stay-at-home moms," Blair clarified, "only when you insist that when in Ireland."  She looked at her husband.  "You look tired.  Everything okay?"

"Yep.  They have a lead.  Hopefully, they'll find Thornhart soon.  I'm a little annoyed at how slow they're going, but soon, I think."

"Good.  The sooner the better.  Maybe then, life can start to be . . . as normal as it can be for us Mannings," Blair said.

The sister and Tina looked at each other with relief.

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