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Some Things Are Harder Than Others

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After being snatched up so unceremoniously from the Mansion by the military, after the end of the war, they'd been thrown right back into the various prisons from which they'd been recruited.

Hopefully it wouldn't be forever, even for very long, though they'd been given no idea how long it WOULD be for. To tell the truth, no one had told them much of anything, SAID much of anything, other than the varied snide remarks they'd gotten along the way. They'd received more than a few bruises as well, though they were no more surprised by those than by the nasty comments; hell, they'd experienced enough of both by now, just tried to roll with the punches, physical or verbal, protect themselves and each other as best they could.

They didn't trust the military for doing right by them, (well, how COULD they, considering), nor the prison system (ditto), though they'd honored their side of the bargain that had been made so long ago. They'd used their skills, their talents, to fight for the cause, to aid in the victory. They'd paid a price, too, in blood and pain and more scars than they entered the battle with, certainly.

Oh, there were a few little things that perhaps could maybe count against them in some overly-critical people's eyes, but, in the long run, not enough to account for this incarceration, surely. At least, not enough that the authorities KNEW about - knew about and had solid evidence to support. Those bank accounts in Switzerland were well protected by multi-layers of legalise and rigamarole, or so Actor had assured them all. And their personal stashes at the Mansion were well concealed; hopefully no one would stumble across those anytime soon, and hopefully they'd manage to retrieve those before anyone did. There were some very nice pieces tucked away in those cubbyholes!

No, they wouldn't be counting on the military, or the system, for their deliverance. But there were those they DID trust to make sure their stay behind prison walls would be as short as possible - Craig Garrison, the Warden, and Meghada O'Donnell, the Dragon, in particular.

No, there were no givens, no absolutes, and if anyone knew just how wrong things could go at a moment's notice, it was them. Still, they knew their trust in those two was not misplaced, and if it did go wrong, vengeance would rain down like fire from the heavens. To say the least. Which was comforting in the abstract, perhaps, but frankly, each of them really preferred a less dramatic resolution, one that let them walk freely away from those cells, safe and sound, to get on with their lives.

While, after a terse initial interview with the warden at each of their respective prisons, they had basically been left alone in their cells in solitary confinement except for the delivery of meals - no mistreatment or harassment, really, no personal contact of any kind - it had still been a tense time, there was no doubt.

They'd had no doubt Garrison and Meghada and her family were working on getting them out as quickly as possible, but not knowing the details or the time table, the waiting, the close quarters with no glimpse of the sky, that had weighed on each of them to differing degrees. And the worrying about the others - yes, that had never left them, the worrying, the wondering if their friends, their brothers, were okay. While each of them could, if they really thought about it, pinpoint a time when the others had become that, though perhaps a different time, a different event for each, it was now simply a fact - they were family. Occasionally squabbling, sometimes dysfunctional, but family.

And so they rode out the time, as best they could. It was a pity they didn't know the duration, otherwise they could have followed the example of those who'd occupied those cells before, the faint imprints on the walls showing the penciled count-down of days - whether to release from solitary confinement, or release from the prison itself - either by walking away or, for some, by being carried out feet first when their last appeal had been denied, their last stay had run out. They didn't, though, and made the best of it, marking down the time, each in their own way.

 

Perhaps Goniff had come through it best, having decided right up front to continue talking to Meghada as if she were sitting right along side him, keeping him calm, keeping him centered and in control.

And that made sense. After all, if he closed his eyes, relaxed and let his mind drift, he could see her, hear her, nearly as well as he could when they were at the Cottage together. That reality, if you wanted to term it such, changed his cell from being a stark and confining and threatening place to being something somewhat more warm and cozy, comforting even, and if the physical conditions refuted that (along with the uninspiring meals delivered by a silent guard at far apart points of the day), he firmly refused to play along with that notion. No, as long as the guards stayed their distance, this was just giving him and his 'Gaida some private time for conversation and planning and remembering and dreaming. He just wasn't going to let the circumstances bother him overmuch.

At least, not for himself, though between those conversations, he worried plenty about the others, how they were doing, whether they had the same relatively secure setup that he'd been dropped into.

And Garrison. He worried about Garrison, whether he was getting himself into real trouble trying to help from the outside. He wouldn't have been surprised in the least; the officer did have a knack for doing that, but Goniff did hope Meghada would try and keep things under control. Of course, with Meghada spending so much time sitting on that hard cot next to HIM, he figured that left Craig plenty of unsupervised time to annoy the wrong person. Pity he couldn't have BOTH of them with him; he would have felt better than way, for himself AND for them.

In fact, he'd have included Garrison in those conversations that gave him such comfort, would have liked that enormously, but wasn't totally sure the cell wasn't bugged or at least monitored, so he didn't do that for fear of saying something that might bring a backlash against the officer. He was even careful to set that 'trigger' Meghada had taught him, the alarm that woke him from bad dreams. For now, it wasn't the bad dreams he needed to be awakened from, though, but the lovely ones, ones he didn't dare indulge in for fear of muttering the wrong name, the wrong words, in this unsafe place.

And, he'd made sure whatever he and his Dragon 'discussed' was innocent enough (or at least obscure enough) not to bring trouble afterwards.

So those discussions sometimes were about food - OFTEN about food, which would have come as no surprise to anyone who knew the pickpocket, but drew complaints from the guards about how listening made them hungry as hell.

Breyer actually asked to be reassigned from watching that particular prisoner, telling the warden, "You KNOW the doc says I've gotta lose a few pounds! I'm trying to stick to my diet and he's screwing it up bad! I leave here, I look at my nice, healthy diet plate, then get up and go looking for whatever he was talking about that he said was so good! And some of that stuff I never even heard of before, but all of a sudden I've got a craving out of this world!" After listening to some of what Breyer had had to listen to, the warden nodded sympathetically and agreed to the change, agreeing listening to all that that would only have made things harder. Well, the warden was trying to drop a few pounds himself.

Sometimes the conversation was about some fairly innocent mischief (nothing too damning on anyone's part), and more often than not, just a "remember that story you [or other various persons] told, the one about . . ."

Sometimes it was "remember that song". In particular, after he woke up grinning to beat the band one morning with what he'd just realized, he explained earnestly. "Remember that song you wrote for your little sister, w'en she was going to be making that trip to South America? Was thinking, it didn't rightly suit the bloke she'd said she would be singing it to, not like any of you intended it to really any'ow, but I figured out who it WOULD suit, would suit a right treat even! Remind me to mention that, w'en I get back 'ome! Can just see the expression now!"

And he thought about singing it to himself, that 'I Need A Hero', but figured that might annoy the guards enough as to cause them coming in and making him stop. And even if it didn't, well, maybe it wasn't such a good idea, those lyrics being a bit out there to begin with.

So he contented himself with humming the melody for a bit, singing the words in his head. That was almost as good as doing it outloud, he decided. And once again, he pictured Craig's face when Goniff let him in on the connection Goniff had made, maybe even sung the song right to him.

And the watcher puzzled as the pickpocket laughed, threw his head back and kept laughing for the longest time, eventually trailing off to delighted chuckles.

Well, without having heard that song Meghada had written at Coura's request, with Coura and Ciena's help - without knowing Craig Garrison as Goniff knew him, that WOULD mean nothing.

Still, as for Goniff, he knew, and yes, he was still 'holding out for a hero', and would til the end of time and maybe beyond. Luckily, there had been one waiting, just for him, and unless it all went straight to hell in a handbasket, Goniff knew that hero would be waiting when he walked out of there.

Odd, puzzling, bewildering as hell sometimes, those conversations between the slender Cockney pickpocket and the thin air, enough those in charge of watching and reporting sometimes just shook their heads and filled in "nothing unusual" rather than detailing just how odd it sometimes got. But still, there was nothing anyone could get a burr up their arse about so much, Goniff made sure of that.

Well, there had been that one guard, Drake, who HAD kicked up a fuss, when the prisoner started debating with himself whether 'Mother Nature' really was a fiery-tempered Irish redhead, or whether it had been someone he called 'Sweet Mother Erdu' just pretending to be 'Mother Nature, "thinking I'd take that better, not knowing no better back then."

The man had meant well in his urgent report to the warden, really was concerned, but to no avail. His words fell on deaf ears, and he was never again assigned to that particular duty for that particular prisoner. A shame, in a way, since he did find the man, his conversations interesting in an odd sort of way. Metaphysically thought-provoking almost, if not in the usual manner.

The prison warden, for some odd reason, refused to hear any suggestions that the prison psychologist might be brought into the picture, "for the prisoner's own good".

No, his orders from the military had been quite specific. No more contact than necessary, strict isolation, but good care, EXTREMELY good care(!), since the military would be reclaiming the man at some future date. That there were even watchers, that was from orders from a different branch of the military, and only called for any unusual activity to be notated and reported. Between the two sets of instructions, the Warden felt this one prisoner was taking up far too much of his deliberations, and decided to not indulge in any creative thinking, or to allow any in his guards.

Well, that stern warning that had accompanied the pickpocket's arrival had made more than an impression on the man just trying to make it through another two years til retirement. No, THAT man was of the firm impression that NO action was better than ACTION, as long as the little Cockney was kept safe and sound, away from any harm or those who might endanger him, even just annoy him. He had the uncomfortable feeling that any harm that came to the man while in his custody, he would pay a far higher price than he could even imagine.

 

Chief had done far better than he'd thought to, better than his teammates had feared he would. General population was dangerous as hell; solitary confinement had dangers of its own, mental rather than physical usually.

He heard that door slam shut behind him, felt the walls closing in, felt his breath start to freeze. He'd told the guys he could handle this, but all of a sudden, he wasn't sure. He'd been there, what, three minutes? How long, how long would be it? How long could he hold it together?

Then his lungs relaxed and he could breathe again as he remembered all Ian and his brothers had so patiently taught him. And when he'd remembered, he'd flushed with shame at losing sight of that knowledge, that wisdom in the thought of being in an enclosed cell for who knows how long. He was here, but as he had learned, that didn't mean he was trapped.

In the coming days, he'd use all he'd learned from the O'Donnell brothers, would spend a great deal of time wandering that 'guys only' bridge, adjacent to the crystal one the females of Clan O'Donnell prized so much for their walking of the Moon Paths.

There, on that narrow sapphire and metal structure overlooking a roiling void, looking out at the calm fields and meadows beyond, he'd had all the sky and open air that the tiny prison cell denied him, as well as the companionship of those who also visited the bridge, and there were more of those than usual.

Well, Ian and Patrick had thought he might choose that form of escape, and put the word out, and in addition to their own travels, there were others from the Clan - some already known to him, some not, at least not before now - who made a point to tread that path and keep him company, offer support. And if his jailers wondered at the calm, even serene look on his dark face when they'd glance in on him, they would never know the reason.

And each day, the warden would note "nothing to report, no unusual activity."

 

Casino glowered a lot, enough the watching guards were more than relieved at their orders NOT to interact. He glowered at the ceiling, at the walls, at the slot where his food tray was pushed in.

Well, what could you expect? He didn't like the solitude that solitary confinement provided - well, duh, what ELSE was new?? Solitude gave him too much time to think, and he wasn't all that big a fan of thinking in general. Well, other than about broads, and even THAT wore thin after awhile.

And thinking, even when he tried to avoid it, led to worrying, about the situation, about what awaited him, all of them. Worrying about Garrison, stuck behind in England, fighting with the brass, getting his tail kicked every which way from Sunday, more than likely. About his teammates - well, maybe not so much Beautiful - he usually could look out for himself. But worrying especially about Chief and Goniff.

Well, maybe mostly Chief. He figured Goniff would have other means of getting by, maybe even getting a little 'help' from that made-up 'Mother Nature' that he'd go on and on about every now and again, as crazy as that was! (And that really uncomfortable feeling he got sometimes, that that 'Mother Nature' maybe had a lot in common with Meghada's 'Sweet Mother Erdu'? Naw, he sure as hell didn't want to go there!)

No, Casino didn't think the little Limey was nuts, not really, just had an overactive, maybe over-wishful imagination, but somehow, knowing that 'Mother' (WHICHEVER!) was likely watching over the fool, did help alleviate the worry in that direction, at least a little. No, he didn't want to think about whether that made any sense or not, thank you very much! (What did I tell you about Casino and thinking??)

Still, he DID think about it, even found himself wondering if that 'Mother', whichever she was, would maybe look in on the Indian too, being how close the kid had gotten to the O'Donnells and all. He kinda hoped so, even said so out loud, before he caught himself up, wanted to kick himself for such crazy thoughts.

{"Yeah, Casino. Way to go! Hoping some imaginary broad, dreamed up by that damned fool little Limey, is gonna reach out and help the kid, who likely wouldn't know her if he saw her. Which, since she don't exist, he never has! Right??! Sheesh, gonna be as crazy as Goniff, I keep thinking shit like that!"}.

But still, the thought was there, and he found himself hoping against hope that the 'imaginary broad', whatever the hell she was calling herself these days, was helping both of his team mates, keeping them safe and out of trouble. But if HE found himself seeing a redheaded female over in the corner, wearing lots of ribbons and shit like that, preaching all kinds of weird shit at him, he was gonna start banging his head against the wall til he made her go away!

 

Actor? Well, that sophisticated con man settled back in his isolation cell with aloof dignity and composure. He missed his pipe, yes, and his books, but his mind was sufficiently well-furnished that he was able to make up for the absence of the latter anyway.

He initially spent the time revisiting the Romance poets, weighing their merits and downfalls at great lengths, quoting long passages from memory to argue his point, whatever that might be, since he had no books to read from.

His jailors, at least those so inclined, found that enjoyable and educational, since he carried on those discussions aloud, though at least one disagreed heartily with the con man's opinon about Keats and came close to ignoring the rules about interacting, just to try and convince the con man he was flat out wrong. (He didn't, of course, his training coming to his defense, but the experience led him to pursue a Master's Degree in the subject, and later, formulating his thesis on the subject, simply because it kept gnawing at him!)

When that began to pall, the Romance poets, and not having the heart or the will to start on recalling the plots of his favorite gothic novels, something he'd only shared with his brothers-in-arms, - and after he found himself pacing the small cell, fretting over the safety and wellbeing of his teammates - he switched to trying to recite the many puns and limericks and jokes and strange stories he and the team had shared over the long months.

Now his jailors were shocked, appalled, (at least so they claimed), though more than a few were amused as hell at the less than dignified material being issued now with as much seriousness as the previous offerings. Oddly enough, it was in those things, the foolishness that he and the others had joined in, that he found the most comfort, where he found the courage, the solace, to hold fast against the ever-tightening walls.

Still, at the end of each day, or at least when he'd THOUGHT it was the end of the day, time having less meaning in there than usual, he found himself thinking of that Sweet Mother Erdu that Meghada and her family praised. Thinking of her, and finding himself offering up a fervent, heart-felt, "look after them, please. Not for my sake, since I am nothing to you and accept that, having earned nothing more, but for their own sake, and for Meghada. Please?"

The warden at his prison had eventually gathered the guards assigned to watching brief and wearily explained, "I want plain reports, men - not book reports, not literary criticisms, not philosophical briefs, not a pamphlet of jokes and puns and other such things. Just plain, simple reports."

 

The abrupt summons had increased the tension considerably, since no explanation was given by the guard who collected each man from his cell. Each of them had breathed a huge sigh of relief when they were brought to the warden's office, saw the figures waiting for them, and then were released into the custody of those who'd been sent to retrieve them - Sergeant Major Rawlins and Coura O'Donnell coming for Actor and Casino, Major Kevin Richards and Ciena O'Donnell collecting Goniff and Chief, the two deemed more vulnerable in many ways and perhaps needing a more authoritative champion if things got tense.

 

Goniff had been grinning all over himself after his whispered discussion with the two sisters when they'd all joined up again, when he told the guys they had some nice surprises waiting for them back at the Cottage. If he assumed the smiles he'd received in return had been from that, as much as from the overwhelming relief of being out of prison once again, not having armed guards looking down the barrel of a gun at them, no one was so unkind as to scoff.

To tell the truth, there were a few qualms among his team mates, having more than a little experience with Goniff and his 'nice surprises', his 'brilliant ideas', but seeing how the pickpocket was looking forward to getting back and unloading some of those 'surprises', no one really wanted to burst his bubble. After all, the man truly MEANT well, no matter how on, or off, target he truly was. Besides, they had other things on their mind.

Actor, for example, after having been reassured by Major Richards that they were all, in essence, free men, with a pardon even, far more than the parole that was initially part of the bargain, was wondering what Garrison had in mind about that retrieval company they'd discussed, how soon they would get started, and whether he would be expected to make his own base of operations in Brandonshire. Somehow that just didn't seem quite 'him'. He was really not a small village sort of person, now was he? Surely Garrison would understand that, would be agreeable to a compromise.

Maybe he could stay in London, meet up with the team when they had a job laid on; he had the resources to do that, certainly, without relying Garrison for funds. Well, with those accounts in Switzerland, they ALL did, really, though he would have even without that account in his name resulting from their joint operations. His previous enterprises had been highly-profitable, for the most part, and while he had used his money as needed, never stinted himself when it wasn't necessary, still, he'd found there was always another mark out there waiting to replenish the font. Yes, he had money enough, whatever he decided.

For Chief, the hesitation was more regarding Casino than for himself. For himself, he didn't want to walk away from the Cottage, from all it offered in the way of oh-so-rare respect and easy, comfortable acceptance he was given there and by Meghada's family. A common heritage, at least in part, drew him, almost as much as the newer connection that had developed. And he couldn't see himself settling down away from the guys anyway; they were family now. But that might not be his choice, not if THEY decided to settle down elsewhere.

Actor could elect to be elsewhere easy enough, Chief knew, though Goniff was Brandonshire-bound unless something really wild happened. The pickpocket had made no secret of that, had been trying to break the news to his mum, his aunt, for some time now.

Garrison? Though the place seemed maybe way different from where the officer would have probably thought he'd end up, way back when, sure as hell different than where any of THEM would have figured him ending up, still it seemed he was serious about that being where he'd hang his hat, now and forever, as long as Goniff and Meghada were there.

Casino? Now that was the question mark, and one that worried Chief more than a little. Casino had family he could head back to once things settled down, something the rest really didn't, even Garrison - at least Garrison didn't have family he WANTED to go back to, not with his sister being here in England. Maybe that was what the safecracker really wanted, though, to go back home. Maybe he didn't WANT to stay with them, not permanent-like. Chief felt a cold chill run through him at the thought of Casino bailing on them like that. Still, he could maybe see that happening.

Yeah, there were a lot of 'ifs' there, a lot of strings pulling at the safecracker - Casino's family, his liking for a large variety of females to lavish his attention on (or maybe enjoy the attentions OF), his periodic need for a bare knuckles brawl, and a few other things.

And that lingering discomfort the safecracker obviously felt about the domestic side of things at the Cottage, that could really throw a monkey wrench into the whole notion, even with that retrieval business the Warden was talking about.

Chief had pretty well kept his mouth shut, not pushed, but time was running short and he knew Casino would need every minute he could to pull his head out of his ass and open his eyes. And not just about staying in England, or working with that business Garrison had in mind. There was the Warden being with Goniff and Meghada - well, really, the Warden being with Goniff, that was really the big thing, probably.

But then, Casino had had a hard time coming to grips with Goniff being with Meghada in the beginning; hell, for a long time after even.

The whole Garrison/Goniff thing, when the safecracker finally opened his eyes, figured that out - that really seemed to stick in his craw, though, although Chief had the feeling it probably wasn't for the reasons Casino was telling himself.

No, Chief had gotten a good look at some of that eclectic library of Casino's - not the ones the safecracker bought just to shock his team mates or annoy Goniff, like that shit with Bambi and 'her barnyard friends', but stuff he kept and kept going back to when he figured no one would notice - enough to know that them being two guys wasn't the overriding issue.

One of those fancy psychology experts that used to preach to Garrison and the other team leaders would probably call it some fancy name - avoidance, transference, dissociative something-or-other. Chief figured it was more a flat out refusal to look in the mirror and face reality, but if that was what Casino really wanted to do, pretend what was really wasn't, that was pretty much his choice. A disappointing choice, sure, but Chief had pretty much given up on having things work out the way he wanted.

Well, not a hell of a lot had in his life, though the team, the brothers he'd found, the family who had claimed him as one of theirs, that came closer than he'd ever dreamed possible. That Casino would wise up, give Chief pretty much everything else he wanted, that was probably too much to ask.

Still, unless Casino loosened up, didn't jerk like a startled mule every damned time he was reminded in some way that Garrison and Goniff were together like that, it could really screw things up.

Chief didn't want that, and not just for himself. To his mind, this was the best thing they all had going for them, the best chance of actually having a real life, and that made it worth making the effort, worth risking pissing Casino off well and good.

{"Sweet Mother Erdu, if you're listening to me like you do Meghada and her bunch, think maybe you could give me a hand? Stubborn as a brick wall, that's Casino, you know that. Don't know I'm up for the job, not like you'd be."}

Casino was looking at that glass he'd been handed, obviously questioning the origins by the way he sniffed at it so cautiously. Satisfied no one was trying to poison him by giving him apple juice or some shit like that instead of whiskey, he took a careful sip and nodded. Yeah, whiskey, and fairly good stuff even!

"We get back, you gonna stop being a dick about Goniff and the Warden?" Chief asked without any buildup.

Well, he wasn't a hell of a lot more subtle than Meghada; if there was something that needed saying, and admittedly it took a lot to get him to that point, then he flat out said it.

Casino choked on the drink he was downing. They were seated next to each other, Goniff being up at the front and busy discussing something with the sisters, Ciena and Coura, lump of motion-sickness herbs tucked firmly into his cheek as he nodded enthusiastically at something the younger sister was saying.

{"Glad they brought those along, though it figures Meghada would remember about how he is on airplanes. Bet she's got a meal all planned out and ready for him too. Have to say, as weird as all that is, the two of them, it sure does make for some good eating!"}

Actor was having some intense conversation with Major Richards further back, about all that had transpired in order to obtain their release, while Rawlins was trying to take a catnap. Seems the non-com wasn't all that thrilled with flying and was trying to ignore the whole uncomfortable experience. No, he didn't get sick, he just didn't LIKE it!

"Hey, it's their business, I guess. Besides, ain't said a word, have I?" he protested. He frowned, uncomfortable with the idea of discussing the matter, now or ever. He started discussing, that meant he had to start thinking about it. He started thinking about that, maybe that meant he started thinking about other things he'd decided he was better off not thinking about. And he started thinking about those things, well - he just wasn't going to!

"Sometimes NOT saying something is pretty much the SAME as saying something, Pappy," Chief said with an impatient shake of the head. That just got him a look of sheer determined non-comprehension from the safecracker. When Casino decided not to think, there wasn't anyone any better at the job!

Casino chugged the rest of his drink and declared, "think the Sergeant Major has the right idea. Gonna take a nap. Maybe YOU need to get a drink, maybe take a nap and stop spouting nonsense, Indian."

Chief shook his head in sheer frustration. {"Hope you have better luck than I just did, Erdu. Stubborn, just flat out stubborn!"}

 

Maybe it was downing that last drink so fast that did it. Well, probably not. But still, having that woman appear out of nowhere, one who looked a hell of a lot like the O'Donnell women, but also like what Goniff said Mother Nature looked like, had described one time early on, that was really freaky.

And what was more freaky? That thing she kept doing, waving that fan and bringing up images against the wall of the plane, images of the Warden, of Goniff - sometimes of the whole team, even the Dragon, but mostly just the two, talking, laughing, arguing, all kinds of things, all kinds of situations. A few were way more private than he was comfortable seeing.

He couldn't even see the rest of the plane, the others he knew had to still be there - there was this dense fog that separated him from everyone else. No, he was stuck, just him and that fancy-dressed broad with all the freakin' ribbons, and the picture show she kept putting up on that wall.

Casino watched each scene as it played out, each time shaking his head. "Nah, I just don't get it," he protested. "Not the two of them. Hell, even Goniff and Meghada don't make all that much sense! But the Warden? Him and Beautiful, yeah, maybe; but him and the Limey? Yeah, I know what it looks like, but I just don't see it! It just don't make sense!"

The older woman, dressed in what Casino considered 'that outlandish get-up with all the ribbons', sighed with frustration. She'd met stubborn before, but this man really did form the base by which that description should for all times thereafter be measured.

"Perhaps this, then," she said, switching to a different tactic. {"Perhaps knowing those faces, the individuals - perhaps that is obscuring the reality. Perhaps a very significant shift, something in which he is not so vested? It is worth a try, certainly."}

And instead of two men, there were two creatures, perhaps dogs, perhaps wolves. One larger, one a little smaller, yet obviously running happily together as companions.

He didn't mind the switch, was a little relieved even, though he figured the woman had put up the wrong reel or something. Anyhow, this was entertaining and a lot less uncomfortable, so he didn't say anything to point out her mistake.

Casino watched, then had to laugh as the smaller animal kept running into trouble, tripping over his own feet, tumbling. The larger would pause, watching with amusement as his companion would get up, shake his fur into place and prance forward, ready to start again. There would be some nuzzling, maybe, one long nose against another, then a push from one or the other, and they'd be off again.

He watched as the larger would get involved in watching something, maybe an insect nest if up close or the movement of a herd of some deer on the horizon; would seem to lose sight of where he was, what else was going on, only to be nudged impatiently and brought back to reality by the small one with the bright eyes. And then, off they were again, on their merry way.

Casino could have watched for hours; maybe he did, since time didn't seem to have any meaning anymore. Yeah, the more he watched, the fonder he became of that pair, making their way side by side through a stream of adventures, large and small.

Still, there wasn't anything too dangerous, nothing to worry over; it was all pretty easy going, if a little odd. Oh, there was the tumble into the river by the small one, necessitating a rescue by a reproving companion. And that snake, threatening the larger one, had found itself meeting furious teeth from one it hadn't really considered a danger. But, all in all, nothing to get the heart beating too hard.

No one was more shocked than him when the attack came, out of nowhere it seemed. Creatures that overwhelmed the two, giving no quarter, giving them no avenue of escape.

He tried to turn his head away when the fight got bloody and then more than bloody, when he realized the inevitable ending, but he wasn't allowed that small comfort.

The smaller one was down now, the others tearing at his limp body. The larger fought to get to his side, managed to get within only a foot away, but at great cost. The gaping wound in his throat, the blood gushing in torrents were but the last of the damage. He collapsed, still struggling to move forward but not making much headway. Then he stopped, panted, and his head fell to the ground.

The attackers were gone now.

Casino would have sworn both were dead, the larger dog, the smaller one, until he heard that faint pleading whimper, saw that tiny scrambling movement from the small one. Then, the response, the painful movement of the large head, the creeping forward those last few inches of that torn body, the agonized readjustment til that long nose rested against one furry ear, giving one last comforting lick, and then sank, motionless, this time for good. The smaller dog buried his nose in the other's fur, keening in grief for just a moment, and once again went limp. This time Casino knew there would be no other movement, that it was truly over.

There was silence, then Casino cleared his throat awkwardly.

"That's them? That's how it is for them? All of it? All of what you showed me?"

Somehow, the connection was made between all she'd shown him before, and now this final scene; he finally opened his eyes and saw the truth. Felt the truth, deep inside.

"Yes, Casino. That's how it is for them," she answered, patiently waiting.

If this didn't work, she really didn't know what else might, and a great deal depended on his understanding, his willing acceptance. She couldn't force his acceptance, it wasn't her way; but so very, very much depended on him!

Casino swallowed harshly. He was now free to move closer, actually enter the scene, and he did, the coppery smell of blood all too familiar. He leaned down, gently touched, stroked each furred head nestled so closely together. So close in life. So close in death.

Before, he'd been shown comradeship, teasing, physical affection, intimacy that he'd found uncomfortable, if only because they weren't anonymous bodies - he KNEW the men, after all. None of that had really hit as hard as this. Maybe it was easier to recognize what lay beneath the surface when he wasn't so hung up ON that surface, on who she was showing him rather than on the WHAT she had showed him.

He swallowed deeply, turned to say, to ask - he wasn't sure what.

 

Then the plane hit a rough spot and he was jolted awake. Blinking, momentarily disoriented, taking in his surroundings, he glanced over at the man seated next to him.

Chief was leaning back, staring into nothing, thinking about what lay ahead. If Casino didn't get with the program, things could get a little iffy. With some luck, maybe not bad, so much, just not as good as they could be.

There was an awkward clearing of the throat from his seat mate that caught Chief's attention, made him turn his head in response.

"Uh, Indian? Figured you should know - I decided to stop being a dick. About them, ya know?"

Chief allowed just a hint of a relieved smile to barely twitch at the corner of his mouth. {"Thank you, Sweet Mother Erdu!"}

"Well, that's a good start, Pappy. You ever want a list of other things you might want to consider stop being a dick about too, just let me know. Me and the guys, I figure we'll manage to come up with a few. We start asking around, probably come up with enough to keep you busy working on for a long time."

"Yeah, well, I'll let you know. Wouldn't hold my breath if I was you, though, kid. My folks always said I was kinda stubborn," but there was a rather sheepish smile on his own roughly-handsome face as he said it.

"Yeah, well, they were right, but maybe you're growing up some, Pappy. Not a bad thing, you know."

 

When they got back to the Cottage, Casino knew he was going to have to let them know, both of them. Oh, he might never talk about this dream, if that's what that whole thing was, but they needed to know, right up front, that he was gonna stop being a dick about them being together. He'd tried not showing he was a little uncomfortable, once he'd gotten wise, but that wasn't good enough, not anymore. Now he needed to step up. Show them that he was fine, more than fine, with the two of them {"well, I guess it's the three of them, but that's not such a big deal, somehow. Maybe the Indian's right; maybe I AM growing up some."}

He took a swig from his new drink, considered the matter, then shrugged.

{"Nah, probably not so much. But maybe enough, at least for now."}