Part 12

"Now where?" Sheila mumbled as she dug through her purse in search of her elusive chapstick.

"Lauren! Look out!"

Lu's shout sent a shot of adrenaline and fear through Sheila. Her head snapped up and whipped towards the crosswalk. Her eyes fell on her lover just as she surged off the sidewalk and charged towards the frozen form of Lauren who stood in the path of a madly veering blue car. Sheila felt her heart leap into her throat and choke her with terror. She rose from the bench and stumbled forward her eyes pinned on Lu's desperate lunge for Lauren.

"Oh god. Oh god," she prayed as Lu's long lean frame flew into the air and tackled Lauren.

Her lover and Lauren disappeared from view as the blue car veered across the crosswalk and continued down the street to the sounds of horns blaring at the recklessness of the driver. Sheila stared at the spot they had disappeared frozen with shock.

"Please, please, please," she sobbed as she started across the street. She spotted the tumbled forms of Lu and Lauren on the sidewalk and began to run.

She gasped in relief as Lu rolled off of Lauren. She said something to Lauren that Sheila couldn't hear through the pounding of her heart. She watched as Lu flowed to her feet in one graceful motion and began to run down the street in pursuit of the car. She stared after her a moment in shock and then quickly turned her attention back to the crumpled form of Lauren still lying on the sidewalk.

"Lauren? Honey, are you okay?" Sheila asked as she knelt down beside her.

Lauren's head turned and dazed eyes finally focused on her. "Sheila? What… what happened?" Lauren asked in a wavering voice.

"Shh. Don't worry about that right now. Are you hurt?" Sheila asked as she reached out and brushed Lauren's hair back from her puzzled green eyes. Sheila slowly began to inspect Lauren visually from top to bottom trying to ascertain whether or not she was hurt in any way. She took in the torn sleeve of her shirt and the ripped knees of her cream colored slacks.

"I… I don't know," Lauren cried as tears began to trail down her face. She struggled to sit up but Sheila laid a hand on her shoulder and gently pushed her back down.

"Just lie there quietly for a moment, honey," Sheila soothed, gently patting Lauren's shoulder. She glanced around looking for Lu and spotted her talking to a man who was standing next to a red 4x4 pulled over to the curb. She felt relief wash over her at the sight of her lover looking like she was fine. Wonder if he saw what happened? I'll have to ask Lu. Jesus! What the hell is going on? She wondered and shook her head.


"Hmmm?" Sheila murmured pulling her attention away from Lu and back to Lauren. "What is it, honey?"

"Where's Lu? Is she okay?" Lauren asked looking around.

"She's fine," Sheila assured her. "She's over there," she pointed over her shoulder down the street, "talking to someone. I think he may have been a witness."

"Witness?" Lauren asked a puzzled frown crossing her features. "Witness to what?"

Sheila frowned in concern. She studied Lauren again and noticed the large goose egg on the side of her head. Oh damn. We need to get her to the hospital and checked out, she thought as she pulled a smile from somewhere and pasted it on her face.

"Don't worry, honey. Everything's going to be fine," Sheila said in a quiet voice. "Does your head hurt?"

"Yes," Lauren managed to reply through her tears. She brought her fists up and rubbed her eyes just like a three year old would and Sheila felt her heart clench at the sight.

"Don't you worry, honey. Everything is going to be okay," Sheila assured her with a gentle smile. "I mean we have Lu to kick butt if anyone stands in our way, right?"

Lauren gave her a tremulous smile and nodded.

"Okay, then. Why don't you just lie still and we'll wait for Lu to get done and then figure out what we need to do next," Sheila said as she sat down next to Lauren.

"You'll stay with me?" Lauren asked, her eyes pleading.

Sheila's heart clenched at the vulnerability and fear she saw in those vibrant green eyes. "Of course, honey. I'm not going anywhere," she soothed as she took Lauren's cold hand in hers and chafed it between hers.

The sound of sirens echoed in the distance and Sheila sighed in relief. Someone must've called the cops. Hope they thought to send an ambulance too, she thought gazing down at Lauren who had curled up next to her and had her eyes closed. Tears continued to fall but she didn't seem to be too badly hurt. She's probably just in shock and really shaken up. I know I am! She shook her head ruefully and gazed down the street to where Lu was talking to the young man. She had her cell phone out and was holding her hand up to the man to ask him to wait while she talked into the phone. Must've called Pete. Hope he shows up soon. I really don't think Lauren can stand a whole inquisition about this right now. And I think the first order of business is to get her to the hospital and have them take a look at that bump on her head. I bet she has at least a concussion, poor thing. She softly stroked Lauren's hand and Lauren curled up tighter against her.

Two police cars and an ambulance came whipping around the corner and pulled to a stop a couple of car lengths away from where Sheila sat with Lauren. Lu quickly made her way over to the officers and Sheila noticed that she was limping. Her brow furrowed in concern. Hmmm, I think I may just have to convince her that she needs to get looked at too. I have the excuse of Lauren needing to be checked out. So, I can at least get her into the hospital. It shouldn't be too hard to convince her to let the doctors take a look at her. Especially if I tell her it's for my peace of mind. She grinned. She knew how pigheaded her partner could be. She could already hear the argument. Lu telling her she was just fine and it was only a bump.

"Not this time, love. Not by a long shot," Sheila vowed as she watched her partner and one of the uniformed officers walk towards her. One of the other officers called for the paramedics to follow them and they nodded and grabbed their stuff out of the ambulance.

"Hey, honey. How is she?" Lu asked as she came up to her and crouched down beside them.

Sheila grabbed the front of her shirt and pulled her into a fierce embrace.

"Whoa!" Lu whooped in surprise as she caught her balance and held her lover against her. "Hey, I'm okay."

"Don't you ever do that to me again, Lucinda Darkcloud!" Sheila warned in a shaky voice, muffled since she still had her head pressed into Lu's chest.

"Shh. Honey, it's okay," Lu soothed as she rubbed Sheila's back.

Sheila slowly began to relax against Lu and she felt Lu let out a breath of relief. She smiled in spite of herself and raised her head to meet the concerned gray eyes of her lover. "You scared the hell out of me!" Sheila said fervently. "I'm just glad you were here. What the hell is going on, Lu?"

"I'm not sure," Lu said her eyes darkening. She glanced down at Lauren who was now curled in a fetal position wrapped around Sheila's legs. "She okay?" she asked nodding to Lauren.

"I think she may have a concussion," Sheila replied sitting back and once more stroking Lauren's arm in a comforting rhythm. "She's really shook up and I don't think she understands what just happened." She guffawed. "Hell! I don't even know what just happened!"

"I know, baby, I know," Lu sighed. She waved over her shoulder to the officer who had been hanging back and he stepped forward.

Sheila eyed him critically and could've sworn he wasn't even old enough to shave, let alone carry a gun, but she'd give him the benefit of the doubt.

"This is officer Grant," Lu introduced him and he nodded with a smile. "Grant, this is my wife Sheila and our friend Lauren. Sheila was across the street when this happened. I don't know how much she saw, but I would really rather you wait to talk to either of them until after the paramedics have taken a look at Lauren and so forth."

"Yes, ma'am. I understand that," Grant said in a voice deeper than Sheila would have guessed was possible for the tall skinny man with crew cut black hair. "If I could just get a brief statement to give to the detective, I'll let you be."

Lu cocked an eyebrow in question at Sheila and she nodded. "Okay, but I don't think you'll be able to talk to Lauren and I don't want you trying to!" Lu warned in a menacing voice.

Grant's eyes went wide in surprise but he quickly nodded in agreement with Lu's demand. "If you could just step over here, ma'am? This should only take a moment," Grant asked sweeping his arm out to indicate a few paces away.

Sheila nodded and then bent her head to whisper to Lauren. "Lauren, honey? I need to go over there and talk to the police."

Lauren's eyes shot open and she whimpered, clinging to Sheila. "No! Don't leave me!" she cried.

Lu sat down next to Sheila and gently pried Lauren loose from Sheila and carefully pulled her into her lap. "Shh. It's okay, baby. I'll be right here with you. Sheila won't be gone for too long and I'll be here the whole time."

Sheila gaped at Lu in astonishment. That was the last thing she would've expected for her lover to do. This day is just full of surprises.

Lauren huddled down in Lu's lap and finally relaxed enough for Sheila to extricate her hand from hers.

"I'll be right back. Don't you worry," Sheila reassured her as she rose to her feet.

"Oh… okay, Sheila," Lauren said in a tiny voice as she closed her eyes and snuggled down into Lu's arms.

Sheila stood there for a moment just staring at the two of them. If someone had told her about it, she never would've believed it, but she was seeing it with her own two eyes and part of her still couldn't believe it. Here was her tough as nails lover who would never show this level of vulnerability to anyone… well… except her and then only in the privacy of their own home… gently holding Lauren against her and rocking her as she mumbled nonsense soothing words in front of God and everyone. She shook her head in disbelief and turned to follow officer Grant.


Ash sighed as she set the completed piece down and glanced up at the clock. It read 9 p.m. and Lu still hadn't returned her call. She'd fought back the urge to call again numerous times over the past 3 hours, but was beginning to lose the battle. Her eyes dropped to the stiff back of her brother and she sighed again knowing she still owed him one hell of an apology. Dinner had been a quiet affair and she had escaped as soon as she could and retreated back here to the garage to work on her costume like a woman possessed. Graham had come in shortly after and without a word had gone to the workbench and began to work on other pieces of the costume that Thomas had laid out.

Ash stretched and stood. She moved quietly across the garage and gazed over Graham's shoulder and watched him put neat stitches into the piece of leather he was working on. "That looks really good," she stated, impressed by her brother's skill.

"Yaah!" Graham yelped and jumped at the sound of Ash's voice coming from right behind him. His head shot up and the needle he had been working with slipped and stabbed him in the thumb. He brought it up to his mouth with a curse and sucked on it. "Damn, Ash! What are you trying to do?" he swore as he turned his chair to glare at her.

"S… sorry," Ash murmured, backing up a pace and hanging her head forlornly.

Graham stared at her a moment and then sighed. "Sis, damn, stop that!" he ordered as he came forward and bumped her legs with his knees as he gazed up with a smile into her blush reddened face. "You know I hate it when you pout."

Ash gazed down on her baby brother and felt a smile twitch her lips to meet his. "Sorry, Graham. I didn't mean to startle you."

"Well if you would make noise when you move around like a normal person these things wouldn't happen," Graham intoned, shaking his head. "Now, what is it you want?"

"Umm…" Ash looked around the garage aimlessly as she tried to think of some way to phrase her apology. She rocked back on her heels and her brow furrowed in thought.

Graham watched all this with interest and felt almost sorry for his big sister. He knew she wasn't much of a talker, but damn it, he was mad and he was going to force her to apologize to him. He wasn't about to let her off the hook. Not this time, anyway.

"Listen, Graham, I… um…" Ash began and then stumbled to a halt. She looked down into his attentive but expressionless face and felt her knees go weak. Shit, I so screwed this up! Come on, Ash, just spit it out. "I… umm… I'm sorry I acted so crazy earlier… I… I'm just really worried that…" Oh great, sure, just tell him you think something's happened to Lauren because you're little psychic birdie told you so. She mentally rolled her eyes and continued, "Shit, Graham, I'm sorry I acted like a total bitch and you deserve to be pissed." She folded her arms across her chest and idly watched her foot as it played with a piece of leather on the floor.

Graham studied his sister intently, noticing the serious discomfort she was in and wondering what the hell had turned his always in control sister into an emotional scatterbrain. "So…" he said as he sat back in his chair and scratched his goatee in thought, "you're acting like a crazed lunatic because…?"

Ash shifted uncomfortably. "Umm… because I'm worried about Lauren."

Graham's eyebrows rose in surprise. "And why would you be worried about her?" he asked perplexed. "I thought you said she was in Seattle?" Ash shook her head. "She's not in Seattle?" Ash nodded. "Now I'm confused." Graham threw up his hands and leaned forward to pin his sister with a determined stare. "What the hell is going on, Ash?"

Ash's shoulders slumped and she shook her head as her pale blue eyes came up to meet her brother's. "I don't know! And that's the problem!" she moaned as she began to pace back and forth.

Graham's eyes followed his sister's progress and he frowned in thought. "Okay, okay, first things first," he said thoughtfully. "Where is she?"


"Spokane? Why is she in Spokane?" Graham asked turning his chair so he could watch his sister better.

"Looking for me it would seem," Ash sighed as she ran her fingers through her black mane in frustration.

"Why does she think you're in Spokane? Didn't you tell her you were coming out here?" Graham asked surprised that his sister hadn't told Lauren her plans.

"I did. Well, not at first, I didn't tell her when I talked to her, but I did call and leave her a message on her machine," Ash answered wearily. "I just thought she was out with her friends. I had no idea she was going to hare off to Spokane to try and find me!"

"Okay, so she's in Spokane," Graham stated still not sure why that would cause the meltdown that his sister so obviously had had. "So you want to tell me why that concerns you so much? Does she have friends there or what?"

Ash sighed and flopped down in one of the mismatched kitchen chairs that Thomas had all over the garage. "No, Rachel said she was going to call Lu when she got into to town."

"Who's Rachel?"

"Her best friend in Seattle. That's whose number I got from Benson," Ash replied as she leaned her head back and closed her eyes. "She also told me that Lauren had gone to Spokane to find me and boy, was she pissed at me."

"Huh, sounds like you screwed up big time, sis," Graham said shaking his head.

Ash nodded in agreement. "Seems so."

"But if Lauren's with Lu why are you so freaked?" Graham asked in puzzlement. He had met Lu and if anyone could stand toe to toe with trouble, she was it.

Ash opened her eyes and gazed at her brother's confused face. Yeah, why am I so freaked? Lu can take care of just about anything that could possibly happen, she told herself thoughtfully. Then she remembered seeing Lu lying in the hospital and felt her stomach clench. Yeah, but she's not exactly at top form right now is she? A little voice niggled.

"Ash?" Graham asked in concern seeing the glazed look come over his sister's eyes. He rolled across the garage and placed his hand on her knee giving it a gentle squeeze. "Hey, sis, you still in there or what?"

Ash shook herself out of her thoughts and met her brother's concerned gaze. "Sorry about that. I was just thinking," she apologized as she sat up. "The reason I was going to stay in Spokane was because Lu had gotten hurt and I'm just wondering if she'd be up to protecting Lauren if something happened."

Graham's eyebrows rose in surprise. "And what exactly do you think Lauren needs protecting from? Are a bunch of psycho green berets going to jump out of the woodwork and make off with her or what? She's a college student in Seattle, Ash, not some third world country."

Ash bit back the angry retort that instantly came to mind and forced herself to think. Graham's right. What the hell are you so worried about? She admonished herself as she tried to figure out why she was so sure something or someone could be out to hurt Lauren. The wave of terror she had felt hours earlier washed over her once more and she felt her heart pound in answer. Because my past is so damn ugly that it wouldn't be too hard for it to show up and put Lauren in danger, that's why. "Graham, you know my past isn't exactly snow white," Ash said angrily. "How hard do you think it would be for someone to figure out that Lauren meant something to me and go after her?"

Graham sat back nonplussed. "Umm, sis, didn't you say that you just met Lauren like a week ago? How the heck would the ominous them even begin to know about her? And it's not like you've been in the trade for a while and I haven't seen anybody showing up at the Manor trying to manhandle Mom and Pop and everyone knows they're your family. So what gives here?"

"I don't know!" Ash shouted in frustration. She threw up her hands and stalked across the room to stare at the wall, noticing absently that she was eye level with the breasts of some playboy bunny that had been tacked up there. Part of her mind analyzed the woman's body and declared it nice as she mentally slapped herself and felt the anger and frustration well up once more. "I don't know why I think something's happened, but I do. And I haven't been able to get a hold of Lu and she hasn't called me back and that's just making it worse."

"Okay, okay, calm down," Graham soothed. "Why don't you try Lu's again?"

Ash turned and eyed her brother suspiciously. "Really?"

Graham shrugged. "Ash if you feel something is wrong then call. Hopefully it's just your imagination going off the deep end, but if it will make you feel better then call and see what Lu has to say."

"Okay," Ash said as she strode over to the phone with determination.

Graham sat back and watched Ash as she dialed in the numbers and drummed her fingers impatiently on the workbench as she listened to the rings. He saw her shoulders slump and figured she's gotten the answering machine again and was proved correct when Ash left yet another message on the machine and slammed the receiver back into its cradle and glared murderously at it. Time for a diversion, Graham thought as he rolled his chair closer to Ash.

Before Graham could say a word, Thomas banged open the garage door causing both of the siblings to jump and turn to glare at him. Thomas grinned sheepishly. "Oops," he said contritely, hunching his shoulders.

"Hey, Tom, what's up?" Graham said to break the awkward silence that had descended.

"Well, Tiff and I were just kicking around the idea of heading over to the Paw and wanted to know if you guys would like to come along?" Tom asked giving Ash a wary look before turning his attention back to Graham.

I could kiss you, Tom! Graham thought with glee. Perfect distraction material! "That's sounds like a great idea! They got a band tonight?" Graham asked. He glanced at Ash and by the look on her face knew he was going to have to do some quick talking to get her to agree to go. He rolled his chair over to her and gave her a grin when she cocked an inquiring eyebrow at him.

"Naah, they usually only got a band on the weekend," Tom replied with a dismissive wave. "But a bunch of the guys called and wanted to know if we'd come over. They heard you were in town and told me I better get my ass out here and invite you along or I'd be in a world of hurt. Seems you have quite the fan club, my friend."

"Yeah, yeah whatever," Graham laughed. He studied Ash out of the corner of his eye and saw the stubborn withdrawn look and figured he better get Tom out of there if he was going to have any hope of convincing her to come along. "Why don't you and Tiffany head on over there and get us a table and we'll meet you there." He saw Ash about to protest and quickly rolled over her toe. She jumped and grabbed for her foot and threw him a baleful glare.

"Sounds good. We'll see ya there," Tom said with a wave as he left the garage.

"What the hell do you think you're doing, Graham?" Ash asked menacingly as she rubbed her foot.

"Come on, Ash. You're wound so damn tight that you're about to explode," Graham said, spinning his chair to face her and giving her his best smile. "You left a message for Lu and she's obviously not home. Maybe they went out somewhere for the day and you sitting here putting yourself into a frenzy isn't going to make the damn phone ring." Ash opened her mouth to protest but Graham held up a hand to halt her. "Look, sis, you need to decompress. Let's go meet the guys, have a couple of beers, and I bet by the time we get back Lu will have called and told you everything is fine and we can laugh about it, okay?"

Ash glared at her brother's smiling face, but had to admit what he was saying made sense. She really didn't want to go to some crowded, smoke filled college bar but it did beat hanging around here pacing a groove into the floor. Her costume was pretty much done so she couldn't use that as an excuse to stay behind and she did owe Graham and, truth to tell, Thomas for her bad behavior. Damn, I hate it when he's right, she groaned inwardly.

Graham was beginning to get nervous at how quiet she was being. He thought frantically for more points to toss out to convince her when she said, "Okay, Graham. I guess I owe you."

Graham laughed in relief. "Yep, you do. Besides, your costume's about done and I think you owe Tom at least a beer for his help."

Ash shook her head and chuckled. "True. Come on, G-Man, let's go," she teased as she headed for the door.

"Hey! Don't you start with that!" Graham barked following in his sister's wake.

"Start what, G-Man?" Ash asked with a mischievous twinkle in her eye as she pulled the door open and waved him through.

"I'm gonna kill him. Yep, dead. He's a dead man for giving you that as ammo," Graham grumbled as he passed through the door and headed for Ash's truck.

Ash chuckled as she made sure the garage was locked and followed after Graham. Maybe this won't be too bad. And I'm sure Graham's right. I'm just overreacting and by the time we get back, Lu will have called and I'll feel like a total idiot.


Lu collapsed on the couch with a sigh. Damn, but this has been one long ass strange day. She rested her head on the back of the couch and willed her body to relax. They had just gotten home after spending way too much time, as far as she was concerned, at the hospital having Lauren checked out and much to her displeasure, herself as well.

"I can't deny that woman anything," she muttered under her breath as an image of Sheila giving her bambi doe eyes popped into her head.

"What did you say, love?" Sheila asked coming around the end of the couch, a stack of bedding cradled in her arms. She turned and placed them on the side table and then looked back to Lu.

"Hmmm?" Lu asked opening her eyes and smiling up at her. She reached out and snagged Sheila around the waist and pulled.

"Eep!" Sheila squeaked as she fell into Lu's lap. "Guess that means you're feeling better."

"I told you I was fine," Lu grumbled as she ran her hands idly through her lover's hair. "I didn't need a doctor to tell me that."

Sheila eyed her grumpy lover indulgently and gave her a peck on the lips. "Yes, dear. Thank you for letting the doctor look anyway and making me feel better about it."

Lu grinned and kissed Sheila softly. "You're welcome. Anytime," she said softly as she let her hands run up and down Sheila's back.

Sheila leaned against Lu's warm body in contentment. "I got Lauren all settled upstairs. I think she's going to sleep through the night. The doctor's gave her some muscle relaxants and I think they really wiped her out."

"Well that's good," Lu sighed as she rested her head atop her lover's.



"What's going on?" Sheila asked quietly as she fiddled with the silver chain Lu always wore.

"I'm not sure, but I don't think it was just a random thing," Lu stated.

Sheila peeked up at to see the concerned expression on Lu's face and felt a chill run down her spine. "What do you mean?"

Lu glanced down and saw the fear in her lover's eyes and mentally slapped herself. "Hey, don't freak on me, hon. I've just had a lot of time to think about the whole thing and it stinks."

"You think that car was purposely trying to mow Lauren down don't you?" Sheila asked in a quiet sure voice.

Lu nodded. "Yeah, I do. Question is, why?"

Sheila rested her head against Lu's chest and listened to the comforting rhythm of her heart as she mulled the question over in her mind. Why would someone be after Lauren? And then the answer hit her and she sat bolt upright in Lu's lap making her grunt.

"What?" Lu asked.

"Ash," Sheila stated turning to meet Lu's gray eyes.

"Ash? What about her?" Lu asked confused.

"That may be the reason someone tried to hurt Lauren. To get to Ash," Sheila explained in a rush. "You said yourself that Ash had made herself a lot of enemies and one sure way to get to her would be to hurt Lauren. Right?"

"Well yeah, but how would anyone know about Lauren? After all, Ash just met her," Lu argued but she felt the ring of truth in what Sheila was saying and felt her stomach clench at the thought. She and Ash had always shared that fear, that some whack job they had helped put away would get out and go on a vengeance run and attack those they loved. It was one reason Lu was working on getting out of the trade and why Ash had always been so tightlipped about her family.

"True," Sheila admitted but her mind was whirling with possibilities. "So, that means it has to be someone who spotted them together in Seattle."

"I guess, but Sheila, this is pretty farfetched," Lu warned gently.

Sheila stared at her for a moment, opened her mouth as if to say something, and then closed it with a shrug for emphasis.

"Baby, I don't think it was a random thing. I told Pete that and he's going to run the plates and get back to me," Lu assured her crestfallen partner. "You may be right. Maybe one of the slimeballs did spot Ash with Lauren in Seattle and saw the perfect opportunity to get some revenge. I don't know. What I do know is that it's late and I'm beat, so why don't we get up and pull this damn hide-a-bed out and try and get some sleep?"

Sheila nodded and stood. "Why don't you run upstairs and grab us something to sleep in while I make this up?" Sheila asked as she leaned over and grabbed the stack of bedding she had brought down with her earlier.

"Guess you don't think we should just sleep in the buff as usual?" Lu teased and gave Sheila a saucy wink when she glanced at her with a startled look.

"Ummm… considering we only have sheer drapes on the picture window," Sheila stated hooking her thumb over her shoulder to point to the front window, "the answer would be no."

Lu glanced at the window and swore under her breath. "Oh right. That!" she grumbled.

Sheila laughed and shooed her upstairs.

Well, I doubt Lauren would appreciate seeing me sprawled naked across the bed in the morning either. She paused halfway up the stairs and grinned wickedly. Then again, maybe she would, Lu mused with a quiet chuckle as she climbed the rest of the stairs and stopped before the bedroom door. She quietly opened it and peeked in.

Lauren was sprawled across the queen-sized bed with the covers pulled up to her chin. She was snoring softly and Lu grinned. Guess I don't have to worry about waking her. She tiptoed in and quickly went through the dresser, pulling out a t-shirt for herself and one of Sheila's nightgowns. She made her way back to the door and turned to gaze upon Lauren once more.

Well, Ash, my friend, I always knew you had good taste, Lu thought. But damn, you really need to get your head out of your ass before she gives up on you. Lu shook her head in disgust and after quietly closing the door, made her way downstairs to a waiting Sheila and a very welcome bed.

"Here you go, honey," Lu said holding out the nightgown to Sheila.

"Thank you," Sheila said as she straightened from tucking in the last blanket and took the proffered garment. "Lauren still sleeping?"

"Oh yeah," Lu said as she began readying herself for bed. "She was making these cute little snoring noises."

"Cute huh?" Sheila asked raising an eyebrow.

Uh oh. "Ummm… yeah… you know… cute. Like a puppy," Lu quickly explained as she ducked her head and busied herself with pulling off her boots.

"Uh huh, sure," Sheila giggled.

Lu looked up at her sheepishly and shrugged.

"You are such a dog, Lu," Sheila said pointing a finger at her accusingly.

"Who me? Hey, I never even thought of looking at her like that!" Lu defended as she pulled off her pants and tossed them on her recliner. "That would be like eyeballing my kid sister. Blech!"

Sheila laughed and sat down on the bed to keep from falling over. "Oh geez. Now there's an image," Sheila said through her giggles.

"Well, it's true," Lu said as she pulled her t-shirt on and flopped down on the bed next to Sheila. "Besides, Ash would kick my ass if she caught me looking at her girl that way."

"Aaaah, so now the truth surfaces," Sheila said as she quickly stripped out of her own clothes and pulled the nightgown over her head.

"Well, you keep telling me not to go looking for trouble," Lu reminded her with a cheesy grin.

"And now you decide to listen to me?" Sheila teased as she lay down and cuddled up to the lanky, warm body of her lover.

"Better late than never," Lu announced as she reached down and pulled the covers up.

"Mmm, true I suppose," Sheila yawned as she snuggled in closer to Lu.

"I hope Pete has something to tell me tomorrow," Lu managed to get out around a huge yawn as she pulled Sheila closer to her. "This whole thing is just too weird." Sheila looked up at her questioningly and Lu shrugged. "Lauren said she came here spur of the moment. No one knew she was coming. So that means that if this is someone trying to get to Ash through her, they probably followed her here from Seattle."

"Oh, now there's a comforting thought," Sheila moaned.

"Yeah," Lu sighed. "I wish I could track Ash down. Damn! This so sucks."

"Did you check the machine when you went upstairs?" Sheila asked as she softly began to rub Lu's back soothingly.

"No and I'm not going to get up and do it now. I'll look in the morning," Lu grumbled as began to relax under her gentle lover's ministrations.

"Okay, honey. Hopefully Pete will have called and given us some news so that when Ash does finally reappear you'll have something to tell her," Sheila said softly.

"True," Lu murmured sleepily. "Now we just have to figure out how to convince Lauren to stick around without freaking her out completely."

"Oh dear," Sheila sighed. "I don't think that's going to be easy, love. I have a feeling that after all this, all she's going to want to do is go home and forget about it."

"I know," Lu murmured as she finally felt her body begin to relax and sleep begin to call. "Let's worry about it in the morning."

"Okay, love. Good night," Sheila said as she rested her head against Lu's chest.

"Good night," Lu mumbled as she drifted off to sleep.

Sheila stared up at the ceiling as she listened to Lu's breath go even in sleep. She wondered how they could convince Lauren to stay without letting her know why they wanted her to. She had a feeling that if they told her someone was out to get her; she'd just freak and run. Sheila sighed and shook her head in frustration. Maybe I can convince her that I need her to stick around and help me out? She pondered the thought for a moment and though she thought it had merit, she'd didn't think Lauren would fall for something that flimsy. I'll come up with something, Sheila thought as she closed her eyes and let sleep claim her.


The sound of a door slamming ricocheted through Ash's head and she groaned and rolled over, pulling the pillow over her head. Her body slowly began to regain consciousness much to her protest and with it her mind began to work. She sat bolt up right and looked about her in confusion.

"What the hell?" she groaned and then the fact that the light was very bright and hurt a lot registered and she quickly closed her eyes and brought her hands up to her aching head. "Where the hell am I and who the hell ran over me with a truck?"

She flopped back down and tried to force the evil little men with jackhammers to lay off so she could think. "Okay, let me think," she said aloud as she tried to piece together what happened last night. "I'm in Bozeman… right. Came here with Graham to work on my costume. Okay, then what?" Her brow furrowed as she tried to remember. An image of her loving baby brother and his evil cohorts cheering her on as she sat across the table from a Neanderthal in a football jersey started to form in her mind's eye and she realized that somehow she had been hoodwinked into a drinking contest. "Oh shit. What the hell were we drinking? Lighter fluid?" she moaned, she started to shake her head and then decided better of it. "And more importantly, did I win or not?"

She brought her hands up and scrubbed her face trying to force herself more awake. Shit! What time is it? She squinted her eyes open and brought her watch up and tried to focus on the blurry numbers. They finally cooperated and blinked a dull 10:02 at her. "Oh my god!" she yelled and tried to leap to her feet. The world spun and she crashed unceremoniously to the floor tangled up in the blanket and even more pissed. She lay there and tried to get keep her head from exploding off her shoulders and her stomach from rebelling.


Ash groaned and rolled over to see her oh so innocent brother sitting in the doorway with an amused look on his face. "Don't you say a damn word!" she warned, pointing a finger at him. "And why the hell did you let me sleep so late?"

"Well, I tried to wake you awhile ago, but it wasn't going to happen," Graham replied, bringing his hand up to hide his grin as he watched Ash try to untangle herself from the blankets and get up.

"What the hell happened last night?" she asked as she finally got the damn blanket off of her and managed to sit up and lean against the couch. She closed her eyes and fought her stomach back down where it belonged.

"You don't remember?" Graham asked in surprise.

Ash opened her eyes to mere slits and glared at her brother. "I remember getting into a drinking contest with some testosterone poisoned punk, but other than that? No. So quit being a smartass and tell me what the hell happened!" she ordered.

Graham gulped and nodded. "Umm, okay. We met up with Tom, Tiffany and the gang over at the Paw and a bunch of jocks were there and being assholes. Bran's girlfriend Molly was coming back from the bathrooms and one of them grabbed her. You remember that?"

Ash leaned back against the couch with her eyes closed and motioned with her hand for him to continue. It was starting to come back to her now and she was wondering how the hell she had managed to avoid a fight.

"So, anyway Bran and John were going to go over there and bash some heads and you being the voice of reason said you'd take care of it," Graham continued. He shook his head in wonder. "I don't know what you said, but the next thing we know, you're sitting down with them and Molly comes over to tell us that you're going to drink this really big guy under the table. We all just kind of looked at one another and then Frank said he had to see this and we agreed and went over to watch."

"I told them that if any one of them could out drink me, I'd go home with them," Ash muttered calmly.

"You did what?" Graham asked in disbelief.

Ash winced. "Could you keep the volume down, Graham? My head feels like it's going to explode and you're not helping."

"Oh, sorry," Graham apologized. "Did you really say that?"

"Yeah. I didn't feel like getting into a bar brawl and I figured it was the best way to get Molly away from them. And last time I checked, guys thought I was pretty nice to look at so I figured it was a good bet they'd take me up on it," Ash explained with a sigh.

"Shit, sis, you're crazy," Graham stated with a shake of his head.

"I won didn't I?" Ash asked opening one eye to look at her brother and grinned when he nodded affirmative. She closed her eyes once more and took stock of her body. Deciding that it was about as good as it was going to get without a whole lot of aspirin and a nice hot shower, she leaned forward and slowly stood up.

A wave of dizziness washed over her but she quickly fought it down. She opened her eyes and pinned Graham to his chair. "Where's my share of the take?"

"What take?" Graham asked making his eyes wide with presumed innocence.

Ash's eyes narrowed and she slowly walked over to him. Graham sank back in his chair and visibly gulped. "I think you know what I'm talking about. Don't make me hurt you, Graham. I'm not in the mood."

"Uh, okay. No prob," Graham said quickly and fished in his pocket and pulled out a wad of crumpled bills and held them out to her. "Here you go."

"Thank you," Ash replied as she took the bills from him and stuffed them into her jeans. Shit, I slept in my clothes? She groaned inwardly as she realized what she had just done. Well, at least I know Thomas didn't get his jollies by undressing me.

"Welcome," Graham replied as he studied his sister. Her hair was tangled and her eyes were so bloodshot he was surprised she could see at all. She had passed out almost as soon as Tom had led her into the room and pointed out the couch for her to sleep on. Tom had made some half assed comment about undressing her for her comfort and Graham had glared at him until he shut up and quickly left the room. Graham had managed to get her boots off and pulled a blanket up over her and was thankful she was lying on her stomach so in case she got sick she wouldn't choke. He had been amazed that she had even gotten home on her own power and wasn't too surprised that he hadn't been able to wake her before now. "You know, for someone who drank as much as you did last night and walked out of the bar on your own two feet, you look like hell."

Ash cocked an eyebrow at him and a crooked grin graced her lips. "Lots of practice, little brother. You'd be surprised how much info you can get out of someone when they think you're trashed. Not to mention when they're keeping up with you since you're just a woman and they know they can drink more than you," she replied with a wink.

"Ah. Got ya," Graham nodded in understanding.

"Is my truck still at the bar?" Ash asked wearily as she rubbed her pounding temples.

"Nah, I asked Tom to go get it this morning and he did," Graham replied.

"Thanks, bro," Ash said with a grateful smile.

"Hey, no problem. Figured it was a good idea to go get it, so I made it happen," Graham waved off the gratitude with a bashful shrug.

"Did Lu call?" Ash asked, running her hands through her hair and grimacing as the smell of cigarette smoke wafted out.

"Umm, no, I don't think so," Graham said warily. "I asked Tom if he checked his machine and he said he didn't have a machine." Graham flinched waiting for the explosion.

Ash closed her eyes and counted to 10 and then did it again for good measure. "Shit," she sighed. "Guess I better try and reanimate myself and then give her a call then."

Graham stared at her for a moment in shock and then blinked. "Umm, yeah, good idea," he murmured in agreement.

"You need to get out of my way for me to do that, Graham," Ash said tiredly, motioning for him to move out of the doorway.

"Oh! Sorry," Graham said as he wheeled his chair back from the threshold of the door. "Why don't I run out to the truck and grab you some fresh clothes?"

"That would be great. Thanks," Ash said, giving his shoulder a pat as she walked past him and headed for the bathroom.

Graham watched her make her way carefully down the hall and turn into the bathroom puzzled by her reaction. Huh, I figured she'd blow a gasket for sure. Wonder why she didn't? He shrugged and spun his chair around to head out to the truck and warn Tom not to give Ash a hard time about last night if he valued his life.

Ash stepped into the bathroom and closed the door, leaning against it with a sigh of relief. She closed her eyes and just rested there for a moment trying to get her bearings. She knew Graham had expected her to blow and she surprised herself when she didn't. But she was just too hung over and just wanted to get clean and her head to stop pounding, and then she'd worry about where the hell Lu was and what the hell was going on with Lauren.

She opened her eyes with a groan and shoved off from the door. She turned to the sink and peered into the mirror meeting bloodshot blue eyes in a somewhat sleep puffy face. "Gods, I look like hell," she muttered as she turned on the cold water tap and glared at her reflection. She scooped up some of the frigid water and splashed her face. "Ack! That's cold!" she cursed but felt the cobwebs begin to dissipate and relentlessly splashed some more water on her face. She shut off the water and gripped the sink, leaning her head against the mirror; she waited for the room to stop spinning.

"Now I remember why I stopped drinking to excess," she muttered as the room finally came to a halt and she began to remove her rumpled clothing.

She managed to get undressed fully only having to stop once to fight down a wave of dizziness. She leaned into the shower and turned on the water and prayed there would be enough hot water to make her feel human again.


Lu spun in her chair and grabbed for the ringing phone, hoping to catch it before it woke up Sheila.

"Hello?" Lu said, patting herself on the back for catching it halfway through the first ring.

"Hey. It's Pete. Got that info on the car you wanted."

"Okay, shoot," Lu said as she pulled a legal pad in front of her and prepared to take down notes.

"Seems it was stolen. No surprise there," Pete grumbled.

"No shit. Where'd you find it? Any prints or anything?" Lu asked hopefully.

"It was abandoned under an overpass about 3 miles from the scene. And, Lu, I gotta tell you, whoever tried this was a pro. The damn thing was totally wiped clean."

"Wiped clean?" Lu asked in surprise.

"As a whistle," Pete stated with disgust.

"Obviously this wasn't a random incident then," Lu sighed as she quickly jotted down some notes. "You find out who owns the car and when it was swiped?"

"Yeah. Get this, it's a damn preacher's car! He didn't lock the damn thing and said he came out after a prayer meeting to find it gone," Pete announced and Lu could picture him shaking his head in disgust.

"He report it then?"

"Hell no! He thought it might have been one of his, and I quote, 'troubled flock borrowing it' and he didn't want to get them in trouble. So he didn't report it until Friday afternoon," Pete explained in disdain.

"Shit. Gotta love that," Lu commiserated.

Pete grunted in agreement. "What the hell do you think is going on here, Lu?"

"Hell if I know, Pete," Lu said as she rocked back in her chair and tried to think.

"This have any connection with what went down earlier this week?"

"What do you mean?" Lu asked surprised by the question. She hadn't even considered that.

"Well hell. Maybe your little blonde friend wasn't the target, ya know? Maybe it was a vendetta thing for you putting Sully and pals away," Pete offered.

"Gee thanks, Pete. That makes me feel so much better about it," Lu replied sarcastically.

"Well shit, it's possible ain't it?"

"Yeah, I suppose," Lu agreed reluctantly. The idea that someone might have actually been targeting Sheila made her blood run cold. "Damn, I'm getting too old for this shit."

Pete laughed. "Yeah, yeah, sure you are. Listen, don't you go all vigilante on my ass. I already got a couple of patrol cars making regular sweeps by your place when this little idea occurred to me."


"And nothing. They haven't spotted anything suspicious."

"You got rookies doing this or someone that actually can find their ass without a map?" Lu asked.

"Hey! Do you honestly think I'd trust some wet behind the ears punk to look out for ya? Shit, Lu, I thought you knew me better than that," Pete grumbled angrily.

"Sorry, but the idea that some asshole could be out to hurt Sheila makes me crazy," Lu apologized. "And the thought that it could be because of me only makes it worse."

"Yeah, I know. That's why I'm cutting you some slack here," Pete said. "Anyway, we did get some idea of who was in the car."

Lu sat up straight at that announcement. "What? How?"

"Couple of witnesses," Pete answered with a snort. "I don't particularly like going with wit ids as something to go on, but really it's all we got."

"What ya got?" Lu interrupted impatiently as she tapped her pen on the legal pad.

"Well, there were 2 of them in the car. Probably both male by the limited descriptions we got. Damn tinted windows. They should make those things illegal. They make my job that much tougher and…"

"Damn it, Branigan! Give me the 'scripts!" Lu shouted interrupting his diatribe.

"Uh yeah, sorry about that," Pete said gruffly. Lu heard him shuffling through some papers before he continued, "Okay, here we go. The driver appeared to be in his late 30's, clean-shaven, bulky build, dark blonde or brown hair collar length. The passenger appeared younger, most say late 20's, unshaven and slovenly, stringy dark blonde or brown hair and long. No discernable eye color on either. Wait," more paper shuffling came through the phone. "One wit said that the passenger had quote, "crazy eyes. So pale they almost appeared white,' unquote. The officer asked if she was sure and she said that the guy looked right at her and it made her blood run cold at the look in his eyes. Said she'd never forget them. So, I guess we could potentially use her as someone to finger the bastard if we pick someone up. Clothes are anyone's guess and they change anyway so that's really no help."

Lu quickly wrote down the descriptions and stared at them in thought. She put a star by the eye description figuring that was unusual enough that it should stick out and be easily recognized. "Well if the eye thing is accurate that should help. Pretty distinctive." Pete grunted affirmative. "Anybody say they look to be related?" she asked.

"Huh, funny you should ask. Yeah, a couple said they thought they looked a lot alike. Why?"

"Dunno," Lu said with a shrug. "For some reason it just popped into my head."

"Well, I usually trust your gut instincts so I'll go with that," Pete said with a chuckle. "You gonna check your files and see if anything rings true?"

"Yeah," Lu nodded absently as she swiveled her chair and booted up her computer. "I think I'll pass this on to Gray too. She has one hell of a database and has an uncanny memory for faces too."

"Sounds good."

"You get an artist to do any sketches?" Lu asked hopefully.

Pete snorted. "As a matter of fact, since I knew you'd ask, yeah I did. Got Sampson to boil down all the 'scripts and doodle you up a couple of faces. Want me to fax 'em to ya?"

"Sampson's good and yeah, I'd appreciate it," Lu replied as she tapped in her password and brought up her database on past cases. "I'll let you know if I find anything."

"Thanks. I'll do the same," Pete said. "Say hey to the Wolf for me and tell her I still can't believe she's off playing with some damn guitar instead of bringing in bad guys."

Lu laughed. "Will do. I'll even get her to send you a CD so you can see I wasn't just pulling your leg!"

"You do that," Pete chuckled. "Later."

"Later and thanks," Lu said.

"No problem," Pete replied and hung up.

Lu slowly hung up the phone as her mind digested the information that Pete had just given her. Could they be brothers? Or cousins maybe? Hmmm, there're quite a few families that Ash and I messed with that had more than one bad apple in the bunch. Maybe one of them is out to take revenge for a family member. Guess I should check most recent cases and work my way back. Lu nodded in agreement and brought up her search engine. Step one, find all the cases with multiple family member involvement. She typed in her parameters and sat back in her chair to wait for the machine to burp up some information.

She glanced at her watch and saw it was 9:17. Guess I should think about getting Sheila up and about and maybe something for breakfast. Her stomach rumbled in agreement to that last thought and she chuckled. She turned in her chair and her eyes fell on the blinking red 6 on her answering machine. Shit, forgot to check those, she sighed and leaning forward hit the play button. She tilted her chair back and stared blankly at the ceiling in thought as she waited for the answering machine to play her messages.

"Message one, left at five thirty-three Thursday," the mechanical female voice intoned. Lu's eyebrow went up at the time. "Lu, its me. I just found out that Lauren is there. Is everything okay? Call me back as soon as you get this!"

Lu's eyes widened at the sound of Ash's voice and she sat up straight in surprise. "What the hell…?" she asked as the next message began to play.

"Message two, left at five thirty-seven Thursday," the voice said again and Lu willed it to hurry the hell up. Ash's voice once more emanated from the machine sounding frazzled, "Sorry, I don't have my phone with me. Call me back at…" Ash paused and Lu wondered why and then she continued, "Shit! Umm… seems I don't know the number here. Guess I'll call you back and leave the number as soon as I know it!"

"This just gets weirder and weirder," Lu murmured as she waited impatiently for the machine to play the next message, wondering if it was going to be Ash again.

"Message three, left at six ten Thursday," the machine said before Ash's message played. "Lu, shit sorry about all the messages. I'm in Bozeman with Graham at one of his friends. The number here is 406-587-2231. Please give me a call as soon as you get this message. Umm… bye."

Lu stared at the machine. Should I listen to the other messages or call her now? Her hand hovered over the stop button for a moment, but then she decided to go ahead and let them play. She's waited this long, a couple minutes more isn't going to make much difference, she thought, sitting back once more.

"Message four, left at eight sixteen Thursday."

"Yeah, yeah get on with it," Lu grumbled at the machine impatiently.

Ash's voice sounding more defeated than worried came through the machine. "Hey, Lu. Damn, guess you guys are out somewhere. I'm probably being totally nuts, but I'm worried. Could you please call me and let me know everything is okay? If I don't hear from you by tomorrow afternoon, you may just find me on your damn doorstep!"

"Yeah, you do that, my friend. I have a few choice words for you," Lu grumbled angrily, pointing at the machine for emphasis.

"Message five, left at twelve nineteen Friday."

"What? We were home!" Lu shouted at the phone in disbelief. "Don't tell me I slept through the damn phone ringing!"

"Lu? This is Ash," a very slurred voice said, the loud sounds of a busy bar booming in the background. "I don… umm… dunno what is going on but… I think Lauren may be in dang… danger… so keep your head up. Call me back, k? Umm… bye." The sound of a phone being fumbled back into its cradle echoed out of the machine and Lu felt her temper flare.

"Oh yeah, you were so damn concerned you went out and obviously got obliterated!" Lu accused as her anger roiled in her stomach.

"Message six, left at eight eleven Friday."

"Where was I when this was left, huh? Shit, damn machine," she grumbled, crossing her arms across her chest. Then remembered she had stepped out to grab a paper and had shut off the ringer so it wouldn't wake up Sheila or Lauren.

"Miss Darkcloud? This is Harrison Gray. I hope I'm not calling too early, but I was wondering if Ash had gotten a hold of you yet?" Harrison's British flavored baritone came out clipped and sounded concerned to Lu's ears. "I know you said the matter wasn't pressing, but I found the number of where she is staying in Bozeman and thought I'd pass it along just in case." Lu grinned as Harrison dictated the number that his erstwhile daughter had just left for her and she obediently checked it against the number Ash left since she had seemed pretty frazzled and may have misread it. "Please have her call home and let us know everything is all right. Hope you have a good day, Miss Darkcloud. Good-bye."

The machine clicked and then whirred as it began to rewind. Lu rocked her chair back and thought about what she was going to say and particularly what she wanted to do to one Ashlin Gray when she got her hands on her.

"And if you think I'm bad news, wait until Sheila gets a hold of you," Lu said with a shake of her head. She sighed and reached for the phone. She glanced at the paper and punched in the number Ash had given her and listened to the rings with growing irritation.

Lu was about to give up and hit disconnect when the phone was answered on the sixth ring. "Yeah? I mean hello?"

"Is this 406-587-2231?" Lu asked, straining for politeness.

"Uh yeah, I think so. Who you lookin' for?" a young male voice said through what sounded like a jaw cracking yawn.

"Ashlin Gray," Lu replied.


"Ashlin Gray," Lu repeated enunciating carefully. "She's Graham's sister. Ring any bells?"


"Do you live there or what?" Lu barked impatiently.

"Uh… no… hold on."

Before Lu could say another word she heard the phone clunked down and the young man yelling for someone named Tom to pick up the damn phone. Lu rolled her eyes and rocked her chair back and forth impatiently. After what felt like forever she heard someone finally coming back towards the phone.

"Hello?" a male voice said.

"Hi. Listen I'm a friend of Ash's from Spokane. Is she there?" Lu asked through gritted teeth.

"Yeah, she's here but I think she's in the shower. Can I take a message or something?"

"Could you just tell her that Lu Darkcloud is on the phone and I really need to talk to her?" Lu asked, feeling her anger reach new heights.

"Uh, sure. Hold on a sec," the voice said uncertainly and Lu heard the receiver clunked down once more.

"I'm going to so kill you, Gray. I hope your so hung over that your head explodes and what's left of your brains leak out," Lu grumbled under her breath as she listened to the stirrings of the house on the other end of the phone. She heard voices approaching and her ears perked up at what could only be Ash's coming nearer.

"Lu? Is that you? Is Lauren okay?" Ash asked in hoarse voice.

"Yeah, it's me," Lu said coldly. "Lauren is fine. No thanks to you."

"What do you mean? Lu what happened?" Ash asked anxiously.

Lu ignored the question. "Why didn't you fucking tell her you were going to your folks? Do you realize what a shitty position you put Sheila and I in? Do you? Do you even give a shit that Lauren drove all the way here 'cause she was worried about you, just to find out you had taken off? She wasn't very happy and I frankly can't blame her!"

"Lu wait. Listen…"

Lu ran right over the top of Ash, her voice rising in anger, as she continued, "No you listen! I've been trying to get a hold of you for two damn days! What the fuck were you thinking going off without your cell? I should kick your ass for this, Gray!"

"Lu, I'm sorry. Is Lauren still there? Is she all right?" Ash asked quietly.

"Hell yes, she's still here," Lu barked. "After last night, I wasn't about to let her drive home!"

"What? What happened last night?"

Part of her wanted to throw it in Ash's face. How Lauren was almost killed and how she hadn't been here to do a damn thing about it. But the other half of her knew that would send Ash into a serious emotional spiral and she decided she really didn't want to deal with that. Besides, if Lauren hadn't been the target, she wanted Ash to help her figure out who was behind the damn thing before they tried again and maybe got lucky.

"I'll tell you all about it… later," Lu finally said.

"What?" Ash practically shouted into the phone. "Damn it, Lu! What the hell is going on?"

Lu felt eyes on her and looked up to see a very sleep rumpled Lauren standing in the doorway of her office looking at her with wide innocent green eyes. She felt her heart skip a beat at how absolutely vulnerable she looked in her over long t-shirt and sleep tousled hair. She pulled a smile from somewhere and hoped it didn't look like she was grinding her teeth as she waved Lauren in.

"Is that Ash?" Lauren whispered as she slipped into the chair on the other side of Lu's desk and pulled her legs up under her.

Lu nodded and covering the mouthpiece asked, "Do you want to talk to her?"

"Lu? LU! What the hell is going on? Would you fucking talk to me?" Ash yelled.

Lu ignored Ash's ranting as she waited for Lauren's answer.

Lauren hugged herself tightly and thought about it. She did, but she didn't at the same time. So much had happened and she felt so off balance. But she wanted… no needed to hear Ash's voice. Decision made, she met Lu's patient gray eyes and nodded minutely.

Lu nodded and held up a finger to inform Lauren to wait for just a moment. "Ash, shut up," Lu said into the phone, giving Lauren a wink.

"What?" Ash boomed.

"I said, shut the hell up!" Lu ordered. "There's someone here who wants to talk to you, but if you don't cool your damn jets and be nice, I'm going to hang up."

"Who? Lauren?" Ash asked her voice dropping in volume almost instantly and Lu could've sworn she heard a slight tremor in it.

"Yeah, Lauren," Lu replied.

"Please, Lu, let me talk to her. Please," Ash asked softly.

Lu swallowed at the tone and cleared her throat. "Umm, sure. Hold on." She stood and held the phone out to Lauren. "I'll give you some privacy," she said to Lauren and made her way around the desk.

"Thanks, Lu," Lauren said as she took the phone from her. Lu gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder and left the room. Lauren took a deep breath and brought the receiver to her ear. "Hello?"

"Lauren? Baby? Is that you? Are you okay?" Ash asked in a rush.

"Yes, it's me," Lauren said as she felt the tears rise and threaten to choke her. Just the sound of Ash's voice made her feel better, but oh how it hurt at the same time. "I… I'm fine."

"Honey? You crying? What happened?" Ash asked concern coloring her voice.

Lauren swallowed, trying to force the well of emotion back. She rubbed her eyes with her free hand and struggled to think of something to say. "No, I'm not crying," Lauren said. Not yet, at any rate, her mind added helpfully. "Where are you?"

Ash sighed. "I'm in Bozeman with my brother…"

The rest of what Ash said was lost as all the anger and frustration welled up in Lauren. Arriving to find Ash gone, the car almost hitting her and Ash not being here, going to the hospital, and no one being able to track Ash down. Did she even care? Why didn't she just tell me she wasn't going to be here? Then none of this would have happened! I'd be home in my own bed and not hurting all over and just wanting to curl up into a ball and die.

"Lauren? You still there?" Ash asked in concern at Lauren's silence.

"Why didn't you tell me you left here? Do you know how stupid I felt when I showed up and found you gone?" Lauren cried with frustration. "Thankfully you have very nice friends and they took pity on the dumb kid who thought you loved her and took me in. I felt like such an idiot!"

"Lauren, I left a …"

"Shut up!" Lauren snapped angrily. "Did Lu tell you I was almost run over yesterday? Do you even care?"

"What? Lauren, I …"

"They had to take me to the hospital, Ash. Some maniac tried to run me over," Lauren sobbed, tears running unchecked down her cheeks as the fear of that moment crashed over her once again. "And where were you? Huh? Where? If it hadn't been for Lu I'd be roadkill right now! I wouldn't even have been here if it wasn't for you, Ash!!"

"Oh gods, Lauren…"

"I needed you and you weren't here," Lauren wailed. A part of her knew she was being unreasonable, but she couldn't help it. "I need to go."

"Lauren wait! I…"

"I need to go," Lauren cried, trying to block out the image of the car bearing down on her. "I… bye."

She hung up the phone with a hand that was shaking badly. She curled up in the chair and put her head down on her knees and just let the emotions overwhelm her with wracking sobs.


Lauren sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve before turning her head to see a very concerned looking Lu hovering in the doorway.

"You okay?" Lu asked and then shook her head. "No, obviously not. Umm, why don't I go get Sheila, okay?"

Lauren uncurled from the chair and stood. "No, Lu, that's okay," Lauren choked out between sobs.

Lu shifted uncomfortably and then steeled herself and stepped into the office and held open her arms to Lauren. Lauren stared at her for a few moments to make sure the offer was real and Lu smiled gently and nodded. That's all it took. Next thing Lu knew she had a hysterically sobbing Lauren clinging to her. She wrapped her in her arms and began to gently rock her.

"Easy there, kiddo, easy," she murmured as she rubbed Lauren's back. I'm going to kill Ash for this! What the hell did they say to each other? Lu wondered as she tried to soothe Lauren. You have some serious explaining to do, Ash. Not to mention some major amends to this poor girl. Damn! Do you have any idea how much she loves you? And just how damn close you came to losing her? Lu shook her head in frustration at the whole damn fiasco.

Lauren finally started to calm down and with one final sniff, pulled away from Lu and wiped her eyes. "Sorry, Lu."

"Nothing to apologize for," Lu said gently as she reached over and grabbed a handful of tissue and held them out to Lauren.

"Thanks," Lauren said with a tremulous smile as she gratefully took the tissues and blew her nose.

"Why don't we head downstairs and see if Sheila's awake, hmmm? I don't know about you, but I'm starving," Lu suggested.

Lauren smiled knowing that Lu was uncomfortable and was trying to help her by not asking about it. "Okay, Lu. Just let me find some clothes to throw on."

"Okay. I'll meet you downstairs then?" Lu asked stepping back and giving her an unsure look.

"Yes. Go ahead, Lu. I'll be right down," Lauren assured her with a small smile.

"Okay," Lu said with a nod and turned to head down the stairs.

Lauren watched her go and sniffed. She felt completely drained and wanted nothing more than to crawl back into bed and start this day over again.

"No help for it," Lauren sighed as she turned into the bedroom and swung her bag onto the bed and began rummaging through it for something to wear.


Ash stood there, the phone held in a death grip to her ear, dumbstruck by Lauren's vehemence. She heard in the distance the dial tone come on and then the tones that meant the phone was off the hook and finally the annoying voice asking if you'd like to make a call… She just stood there and tried to figure out what had just happened.

She lowered the receiver from her ear and set it precisely into its cradle and without a word to the curious faces peering at her from the couch; she strode out of the room, through the kitchen and out the back door. The cold fall air hit her like a physical blow and she shivered. She inhaled deeply, trying to let the cold air refresh her and put out the fire of guilt and anguish that was burning bright within her.

Lauren hates me, her mind cried and the thought felt like a knife plunging into her heart. She bent at the waist and gasped at the internal pain being inflicted. Oh gods, she hates me and it's all my fault! And she was almost run over? I should've been there. I should've been the one to save her. The self-accusations began to fly and Ash felt the weight growing heavier and heavier within her pounding head and aching heart.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself and do something about it, she ordered herself. She straightened up and realized her hands and feet were completely numb from the cold. She snorted. Good one, Gray. Trying to catch pneumonia so you don't have to deal? Oh, now that's real adult.

She spun on her heel and headed back inside. She entered the kitchen and not seeing Graham, headed into the living room.

"Hey, Ash," Tom said hesitantly.

Ash paused and tried to smile reassuringly. "Hey, Thomas. Thanks for all your help on my costume."

"No problem," Tom said more relaxed with a dismissive wave. "Anytime."

"Have you seen Graham? We really need to head out," Ash said, fighting down the urge to just run through the house yelling Graham's name and then dragging him physically to the truck and tossing him in.

"Yeah, he's in the back room," Tom said with a nod towards the hallway.

"Thanks," Ash said over her shoulder as she hurried down the hall. She reached the threshold of the room and looked in to see Graham tapping happily away at a keyboard in front of a computer. Figures. "Hey, Graham, we really need to get going."

Graham glanced over his shoulder and appraised his sister thoughtfully. He had heard her yelling into the phone earlier and was dying to know what was going on, but by the look of her, he figured his best chance would be on the drive home. No way was she going to drop her walls in front of strangers. But he was family. He might just have a shot. "Sure, sis. Just let me shut this down and I'll be right out," Graham said amiably.

"Okay. I'm going to go warm up the truck. It's cold out there. Just meet me out front," Ash said as she backed out of the room.

"You got it," Graham replied and quickly went through the motions of shutting the system down.

Ash quickly retraced her steps and said a hasty round of good-byes to everyone in the living room before making her escape out to her truck. She climbed into the welcome interior of its cab and slammed the door. She leaned her head on the steering wheel for a moment, trying to gain control of the whirl of emotions running rampant through her. She saw the look on Graham's face and had a feeling she was going to get to play 20 questions with him on the way home about everything and she needed to get her head on straight.

She sighed and sat up. She inserted the key into the ignition and started the truck. She turned the heater on full blast even though it was going to blow cold air for awhile. Not like it could be any colder than it already is outside. She turned on the stereo and put her CD changer on random before sitting back in her seat and closing her eyes.

The soft strains of Vivaldi's Four Seasons flowed out of the speakers bringing a small smile to Ash's lips. She pushed all the emotional turmoil aside and just concentrated on the music. She let it flow over her and help clear her mind, getting lost in the music. Music had always been a balm to her spirit and that at least seemed to still be true.

A soft tap at her window made her jump and her eyes flew open and she glanced out the window to see a grinning Tom. He waved and she nodded and leaned forward to roll down the window with a soft whir.

"Graham's on his way out. I got his bag," Tom said, holding the bag up for her to see.

"Oh, okay," she said with a nod. "Give me a sec and I'll get out and help Graham with his chair."

"Sure thing," Tom agreed and turned to walk around the front of the truck.

Ash hit the button to roll the window back up. Damn. How long did I space for? She wondered and glanced at the display on the stereo to see she was on track 6 which really didn't tell her anything she realized since she had it on random. You are losing your mind, she informed herself as she opened the door and climbed out of the truck, spotting Graham making his way down the drive.

"You ready to go?" Ash asked as she met up with him and the two of them made their way around the front of the truck to the passenger side.

"Yep," Graham said with a grin. "But I'm starving, so I hope you're planning on feeding me before you torture me with your driving skills."

"Ha ha," Ash stated as she pulled the door open and taking the bag from Tom, tossed it in the back.

"Hey, I'm just warning ya. I could go wild with hunger and try and chew your arm off or something," Graham stated matter of factly.

"Uh huh. I see," Ash said mildly. "Well, I suppose I could feed you."

"I would. He gets cranky otherwise," Tom offered with a grin.

"Hey!" Graham said with indignation.

"Well, it's true," Ash agreed with a chuckle.

Tom laughed. "Well, I'm heading back in before I freeze something important off. Drive safe and I'll see you guys later."

"Later, Tom and thanks again for your help," Ash said as she steadied Graham's chair while he boosted himself into the passenger seat.

"I'll give you a call sometime next week about that event in Idaho, okay?" Graham said to Tom as he settled himself in his seat.

"Sounds good. Later," Tom replied with a wave as he headed back towards the house.

"Bye," the siblings said in unison and then looked at each other and grinned.

"Come on, sis. Let's get this show on the road," Graham said.

"You just want food," Ash admonished as she stowed the wheelchair and closed the door. She made her way around the truck and climbed into the driver's seat.

"But of course!" Graham said flamboyantly.

"Well, its going to be fast food because I'm not going to take the time for you to devour an entire restaurant," Ash warned as she backed the truck out of the drive.

"Hey as long as it's hot and there's lots of it, I'm a happy camper," Graham stated.

"That I can do," Ash assured him as she put the truck in gear and headed for Main Street.

"And can we please change the damn CD? You're not going to make me listen to this all the way are you?" Graham whined, flailing his hands in the air.

Ash laughed. "Naah. Go ahead and change it. I had it on random and this is what came up."

"Thank God!" Graham praised as he quickly punched buttons to find something to his liking.

Ash grinned indulgently and sat back in her seat and realized that she actually felt a lot more relaxed. She still had the overwhelming desire to rush off to Spokane and explain everything to Lauren, but it was manageable. She listened to her brother muttering happily to himself as he played with her state of the art stereo and felt a moment of peace descend. She knew it wouldn't last, but was thankful just the same for a moment to catch her breath and ground herself.


Tommy slipped out of the lumpy motel bed and tiptoed across the room to the door. He paused, listening to Roy's snores. If he wakes up, I'm dead, Tommy thought as he slowly turned the doorknob. He'll want to know what I'm up to and I ain't gonna tell him.

The door creaked as he carefully opened it and he whipped his head around to stare at the large lump in the far bed that was his brother. His heart pounded as he watched his brother with wide-eyed fear. Roy snorted and rolled over but then his loud obnoxious snores started up again and Tommy let out the breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding. Guess that fifth of whiskey did really knock him on his ass. Good. Hopefully he'll still be asleep when I get back. The thought of a very awake and pissed off Roy meeting him when he got back, flashed through his mind, but he quickly suppressed it. I gotta do this, Roy. I gotta. He swallowed his fear down and turned back to the door.

He slipped out of the room and shut the door carefully. He leaned against it in relief and wiped his sweating brow. "That sucked," he grumbled as he pushed off from the door and glanced furtively around the parking lot as he fumbled in his shirt pocket for his cigarettes.

He pulled a cigarette out and brought it to his lips with noticeably trembling hands. Oh shit, oh shit. Roy is totally going to notice! This guy better show! Tommy thought desperately as he struggled to light a match. He finally got one to catch and lit his cigarette, inhaling deeply. Relax. Just relax. The guy said he'd be here. So he will be. Tommy reassured himself as he sauntered across the parking lot of the cheap motel towards the phone booth that they had agreed upon as the meeting place. Shit. You're paying the little prick enough! Tommy snorted derisively. Yeah and if he screws me over… his eyes narrowed in predatory glee… I'll hunt him down and take the shit and use him as target practice. A beatific smile slid across his face as he contemplated the many ways to cause the man he was meeting all kinds of hurt.

Heh, maybe I'll hurt him even if he does come through. I could use the practice, Tommy thought as he reached the phone booth and looked up and down the deserted street. He pulled on his cigarette and then tossed it to the ground, grinding it out with his boot. He glanced back at the motel room and felt the nervousness descend again. Come on, come on! Where the hell are you? He wondered as he pulled out his pack of cigarettes again and quickly lit one. If I don't get some kind of fix soon, Roy is gonna know something's up and then I'm going to be dead. Oh yeah, dead. He's gonna know I'm still using, he mused feeling the panic rise.


Tommy jumped at the sound of the voice and whirled around to see the dealer stepping out from behind the phone booth. He was wearing jeans and a leather jacket with his long black hair pulled back in a ponytail. Tommy eyed him warily but felt the need for his fix overwhelming his caution.

"Where the hell ya been?" Tommy demanded, stalking forward and reaching out to grab the man.

"Don't," the man warned in a deadly voice, his hand going to his coat pocket.

Tommy paused. His eyes drifted to the man's pocket and then back up to his face. He swallowed and willed his hands to drop to his sides. "Come on, man! I've been waiting forever! Do you got it or what?" Tommy asked trying to sound demanding but coming out more in a petulant whine.

"Yeah, I got it. Let me see your cash," the dealer demanded, leaning back against the phone booth.

Tommy stuffed his hand into his jeans' pocket and pulled out a wad of crumpled bills. "How much you got and how much will this get me?" Tommy asked holding out the bills.

The dealer's face showed no expression, but his eyes twinkled as he took the wad of bills and began straightening them out. "Well, let's see how much you got here," he said casually as he began to count the bills.

"I think there's close to 300 bucks there," Tommy offered, rocking back and forth as he watched the man count the bills anxiously.

"Hmm," the man murmured as he continued to count. "Looks like about that. What you looking for?"

"I need a fix bad," Tommy stated earnestly. "What ya got? Pot? Blow? Crack? Crank? What?"

"Well, I got some crack and some laced pot," the dealer said slowly as he eyed Tommy. "That what you want?"

"Yeah. That will do," Tommy said eagerly nodding. "Just give me what ya got."

The dealer nodded and bills disappeared into his jacket. He pulled out a brown paper bag from his other pocket and opened it. He glanced inside and palmed something out. "Here you go, man," he said as he held out his hand to Tommy.

Tommy reached out and the man placed the packet in his hand. When Tommy opened his hand to look, the dealer grabbed it hand held it shut. "What ya doing?" he demanded.

"Hey! I want to see if you're cheating me!" Tommy barked as he tried to pull his hand away from the man.

"Fuck. You don't do that on the street, man. I wouldn't cheat someone as dangerous as you, now would I?" the dealer asked quietly.

Tommy eyed him and realized that no way would someone be brave enough to cross him. He was dangerous and everyone knew it. "Yeah, that's right. You wouldn't dare," Tommy said his chest puffing up.

"No way, man," the dealer said letting Tommy go and backing off. "Enjoy."

Tommy clutched the packet to his chest and felt salvation. "Yeah, I will," he replied as he turned on his heel and hurried back towards the motel. He needed to find some place to light up and get the edge off before Roy woke up and wondered where the hell he had disappeared.

He raked the motel looking for some out of the way place he could light up and get his fix. "There has to be someplace," he muttered aloud as his eyes came to rest on the dumpsters pressed up against the back of the building to one side. A dilapidated fence surrounded it and offered some privacy. "Guess that will have to do," he said as he changed course and made his way over to his chosen spot.

He halted before the dumpster and glanced around to make sure no one was near. Assured that no one could see him, he slipped in behind the dumpster and hunched down, resting his back against the grimy side of the dumpster.

He opened his hand and licked his lips in anticipation as he unwrapped the foil with shaking hands. One small off white rock of crack was nestled in a bed of marijuana. He stared at it a moment and felt his mouth begin to water. "Shit, not much here but it ought to do," he muttered as he fished inside his jacket for his pipe and torch.

He studied his stash and tried to decide which to do. "I really should save some for later," he muttered absently as he sifted through the pot with his thumb. He nodded decisively and pinched up some of the pot and stuffed it into the bowl of his pipe. He folded the foil around the rest and stuffed it into his jeans.

He lit the pipe and inhaled the fragrant smoke deep into his lungs. His eyes closed as the drug began to course through him. He coughed but pressed his lips firmly together not wanting to lose any of the intoxicating smoke.


Tommy eyes popped upon and he coughed as the sound of his brother's enraged voice boomed across the parking lot.

"Oh shit!" Tommy coughed as he fumbled the pipe to his mouth and pulled in another hit. He tapped the pipe against the dumpster to empty it and quickly stuffed it into his coat pocket. He stood and peered around the edge of the dumpster to see Roy standing in the doorway of their motel room scanning the parking lot with his hands on his hips. He looks really pissed. Shit, shit, shit! What do I do? What do I do? Tommy's mind whirled as he tried to think of some way to get out from behind the dumpster without Roy spotting him. He coughed behind tight lips as he leaned back against the dumpster as he tried to think. An idea came to him and he grinned as he blew the smoke out and hitched up his pants.

He peeked around the dumpster again and was relieved to see that Roy had disappeared back into the room. He grinned and sauntered out from behind the dumpster and hurried across the parking lot towards the convenience store he had spotted across the street. I'll just go grab some coffee and donuts and tell Roy I went to get some breakfast, he chortled pleased with himself for coming up with the perfect plan. Roy won't even think to ask what I was up to then. A thought struck and he came to an abrupt halt. Shit! I need some cash! He groaned as he began to search his pockets. A relieved grin swept his features when he felt the crumpled bill in his inside coat pocket. He pulled it out and saw that it was a ten, so he had plenty for his plan.

He glanced up and down the street before making his way across. Feeling the drug take the edge off and clear his head. Yeah, Roy won't mess with me then, Tommy thought happily. Next I just have to convince him to let me pop blondie. His stupid plans haven't worked and I bet the boss is getting real impatient. He nodded at the thought and began to whistle a jaunty tune as he pulled open the door to the convenience store and made his way inside.



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