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Disclaimer: Soldier of Fortune/Special Ops Force and all the characters therein are the property of Rysher, et al; this is a recreational endeavor, no profit is being made and no copyright infringement is intended. I respectfully thank The Powers That Be for allowing me to indirectly dabble for awhile in this amazing little universe they've created.

Rating: R, for violence, language, adult themes . This story deals with 9/11 and its aftermath.

Summary: In the days after September 11, Benny Ray and Margo search for the missing Matt and Nick, who were in the towers when they collapsed.

**This is the sequel to "Through the Fire", and some of it might not make sense if you haven't read the first one.

12 September 2001
1303 Hours
Bienici, Italy

Margo Vincent was in the kitchen, getting dirty. Her dark hair, tied back in a loose ponytail, was dusted with flour, and there were white streaks on her face from where she'd tried to push back unruly strands as they fell into her eyes. The apron that clad her thin, trim form was stained with dark red-not blood, as had so often been the case in her life, but sweet blackberry juice.

In front of her were the makings for the best blackberry pie on the face of the planet. She had discovered some months ago-back in early strawberry season, as it happened to be-that she was very good with pies. She loved the feel of the dough beneath her fingers as she masterfully kneaded it, using the power in her arms to do something reasonably harmless, for once.

"Your blackberry pie will have nothing on mine," said Sister Mary Elizabeth from the next counter top over. "You're kneading too fast and your berries aren't fresh enough."

"You're kneading too slow and your berries are still green," Margo told her archly. "The Margo Vincent pie legacy will live for years."

"The legacy of being the worst," the sister grinned. It was an ongoing battle between the convent's head cook and the young woman who was just a long-term guest, a battle that had resulted in some very tasty dinners. It had all started some time last year, when Sister Elizabeth had claimed that, living the lifestyle Margo did, the other woman was incapable of cooking, and indeed, Margo's first few attempts had crashed and burned-literally. But after a few secretive lessons from some of the other sisters, she became a serious contender, and the war raged on. Good things happened when Margo Vincent went head to head in the kitchen with Sister Mary Elizabeth.

Picking up a waiting rolling pin, Margo started up a confident rhythm that soon left the dough flawlessly flat and perfect. Lifting it up with practiced ease, she expertly dropped it in the pie dish, skillful fingers crimping the edges in a delicate pattern. She was just brushing it with egg white when the Mother Superior entered the kitchen, her black habit and severe demeanor seeming out of place in the provincial feel of the stone and stucco room. "Margo, if you would come with me? There is a man waiting to speak to you."

Surprised, she wiped her hands on a nearby washrag and took off her apron, hanging it on a hook near the door. "Is it John, Mother?" she asked, wondering why her brother was visiting during the middle of the week.

"He is accompanied by your brother," the elder woman acknowledged, but would say no more. With one last confused glance at Sister Mary Elizabeth, Margo followed the Mother Superior out of the room.

In the Mother Superior's sparse, tastefully decorated office, Margo saw first her brother, and ran to give him a huge hug. It had been only a few weeks since they'd last seen each other, since he tried to visit her at least once a month, but it was always good to see him. "John! What are you doing here?" she demanded happily.

"I was the only one who knew of your whereabouts," he said, his frown indicating that he was not at all pleased with the current circumstances. "Mr. Trout was…most persuasive."

"Trout!?" Margo spun around and speared the other man with a fearsome glare."Trout, I told you I wasn't coming back until I felt ready, and I meant it-"

He held up a hand. "Margo, I fully understand that you wish to remain absent from such activities, and I comprehend your reasons, especially since my very stubborn daughter has argued on your behalf every time I open my mouth, but we have a very grave situation that I felt it prudent you should know about."

A situation. She hated that word. Crossing her arms across her flour-dusted chest, she regarded him with suspicion. Glancing at the Mother Superior, her eyes asked the silent question.

"She knows what I'm going to tell you," Trout said.

"While I do not condone the choices you have made with your life, Margo, I cannot deny that you are needed," the Mother said with an air of great deliberation. "I have heard, and I still do not believe."

This from the woman in charge of a convent. Great. "I'm listening."

"There has been a terror attack on the United States," Trout said.

She thought of the embassy bombings in Africa, and inwardly winced. She was tired of the grievances these terrorists had against the U.S., and could hear his argument now. Innocent civilians. You have to go risk life and limb to liberate them. It was her job and what she had been trained for, but she was trying to live a somewhat normal life for a while. Just let me heal a little while longer…don't make me sacrifice myself so soon after learning to live again. "Yeah?"

"Yesterday morning, two hijacked airplanes were flown into the World Trade Center towers in New York. Another hit the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed in Pennsylvania; it was thought to be headed for the White House. Both of the towers have collapsed in New York."

"What?" Margo blinked in shock. This was no embassy bombing. This was close to home, a personal affront. "How-?"

"That's not all, Margo." Trout gazed at her gravely. "Matt and Nick had a meeting in the Trade Center. There was supposed to be a mission against drug traffickers in New Mexico, and they were being briefed by one of Nick's former DEA advisors."

A hundred million images flashed through her mind: Nick, the beloved pain-in-the-ass; Nick, flirting with some girl on the beach; Nick, hitting on her for the trillionth time; Matt, smiling; Matt, covered in camouflage paint; Matt dragging her through a burning building as their escape route collapsed behind them; Matt, kissing her. "Are-are they okay?" she found herself stammering. Collapsed? Skyscrapers didn't just collapse. "They got out, didn't they?" They had to have gotten out. She didn't know if she could live without Matt…

"We don't know," Trout admitted. "Thousands are missing, Margo. The death estimates are in the ten thousands. The fires are still burning, and there's ash all over the city."

"So-so they could be…dead?" It was unthinkable. Matt and Nick were the sort of people who just didn't die. And the World Trade Centers, collapsed? Feeling like she was swimming through concrete, Margo hauled herself back to reality.

"Where's Benny Ray?"

"He was at Hermosa Beach during the…incident. He's waiting for you back in the States." She should have been furious that Trout had the gall to think he could pull her home. Incident? Matt and Nick could be dead… "When you're ready, there's a plane waiting."

"Trout-"

"Every airport in America has been shut down," Trout told her bluntly. "This is a military transport, and they're very anxious to get home. I realize your hesitation," he said, sounding less like her boss and more like a father, "but this isn't about a mission, Margo. This is about the team. They've missed you. I promise you can come back when everyone is safe. I'd just rather you were on American soil right now. Are you coming?"

"Of course," popped out of her mouth before she could think of anything else, surprised at the gesture. Turning to the Mother Superior, she looked for some sign of reprove in the woman's face. "I mean-"

"This is greater than you or I," the Mother said firmly. "Although you have been a welcome presence among the sisters, we knew you could not stay. You are a child of God, but it is clear His hand moves you in ways that cannot be foretold. It is time you continued on with your life." Margo opened her mouth to protest, but was waved off. "No, child. Now go pack your things. I will explain your abrupt departure to the sisters. They will understand," she stated. "Go."

Unable to argue, Margo could only nod her thanks, and back out of the room in stunned silence.

12 September 2001
2346 Hours
Harris Air Force Base, Virginia

If Trout's words had stunned her, the images on the television horrified her. Over and over, Margo forced herself to see the airplanes, sliding seamlessly into the buildings with a pyrotechnic display C.J. himself would have envied had not hundreds of lives been lost in that single instant. Please, don't let Matt or Nick be among those dead… After living in the convent this last year, she had gotten into the habit of praying, but now, her prayers were earnest. Please, God, don't let them die. She wished John were here; he would know what to say, the right scripture to quote, a psalm to steady her mind. The Vatican had expressly told him to stay put, and amid the sudden political chaos, she completely understood. It was probably wise of Trout to bring her home.

Home. She hadn't been home in over a year, and her guts clenched in apprehension. She had fled after being brutally raped on a mission in Colombia, and left both the man she loved and the only place she had ever truly belonged. Now, she was a little afraid of what to expect. Don't let them be dead…

The air was warm as she stepped out of the plane, with the humidity unusually low. Looking around the brightly lit airfield, Margo clutched her suitcase to her, her duffel bag slung uneasily over her shoulder. Where was Benny Ray? Suddenly, her need to see him was a fierce ache deep within her breast. She loved Matt, but Benny Ray was her best friend. They were all her best friends. She needed all of them, even Nick. Now, Nick and Matt could be dead, and she wouldn't even know it. She had to blink quickly to avoid spilling the tears that welled up in her eyes.

Either she had voiced her question without knowing it or Trout was a mind reader, because he gestured to a spot beyond the floodlights. "He's over there." He didn't need to say who.

She half-expected Benny Ray to be leaning on crutches from the leg wound he'd had the last time she'd seen him, but he quickly strode towards her unaided, proving that a year was a long time to be gone. He seemed thinner and stronger somehow, the plain 'U.S. Marine Corps' t-shirt and khaki cargo pants he wore doing little to hide his muscular form. The smile on his face was as pure and sunny as a Georgia afternoon, and Margo couldn't help but sprint the last few meters.

"Benny Ray!" Dropping her bags and throwing herself into his arms, all her breath was squeezed out of her lungs in an instant by his joyous embrace. "Oh, it's so good to see you!"

"Not half as good as it is to see you, Sweet Pea," he replied, kissing her cheek and hugging her tighter. "How are you?"

"Much better," she told him. "And you're feeling better? You look good."

"Why, thanks." He grinned, a down-home 'aw, shucks' expression that made her want to cry. She'd missed him so much. "You're still the most beautiful lady on the earth, darlin'." He reached out and touched her dark reddish-brown locks. "Your hair's grown a bit. Looks good longer."

Margo buried her face in his shoulder to hide her tears, breathing in the clean, simple scent of him. "I'm so glad you're here," she whispered. "I've missed you so badly."

"Are you cryin' on me, darlin'?" he asked softly, but she could see his own eyes glistening with moisture. Caught up in the silence and power of the moment, they just clung together, taking strength from each other's embrace.

Trout had finally caught up with them, looking a bit annoyed and out of breath. Waxing diplomatic, he shook the hand Benny Ray extended. "It's good to see you, Benny Ray."

"I wish it was under different circumstances, sir," the sniper replied, one arm still wrapped protectively around Margo's shoulders. "I checked the phones half an hour ago. Nothin', sir."

"Great. Just great." He massaged the bridge of his nose tiredly. "Two of my best operatives missing and possibly dead, hijacked airplanes flying into critical buildings, and no news. Wonderful."

Benny Ray and Margo traded glances. "Where do we start looking?" she asked, suspecting that, for once, this wasn't going to be a military mission.

"I have the hospitals and morgues on the lookout for anyone with Matt's or Nick's descriptions, but there are thousands of families looking for their loved ones, too. The whole place is a mess."

Margo couldn't suppress a shudder. Morgues. She wasn't ready to even begin to consider the fact that Nick and especially Matt might be in a morgue. "What floor were they on?"

"Ninety-first, north tower. The conference room they were in was right next to an emergency exit. They should have gotten out just fine."

"Then why haven't we heard from 'em, sir?" Benny Ray pointed out, somewhat sharply. Margo could feel him tensing up, and she squeezed his hand in reassurance she didn't entirely believe herself.

"Cell phone service all over the state is probably flooded," she said, trying to stay calm and logical. "And knowing Matt, he's probably trying to help with the rescue effort."

"He would have contacted us," the sniper argued, but at another squeeze of her hand fell silent, his own fingers tight around hers.

After winding through the base and flashing Trout's security clearance at the guards, they reached the parking lot. "Margo, I got some of your things in the car," Benny Ray said, and indeed, in the front seat of the Expedition was her laptop, which she had deliberately not taken to Italy, and a few changes of clothes in a paper bag.

Grinning, she shook her head. "How did you get into my apartment? I told the landlady not to let anyone in until I came back."

"We all have our ways," he replied vaguely.

Trout handed them a small piece of paper with an address and room number written on it. "I've made reservations for both of you at this hotel. It's a suite, so you'll have to argue over who gets the master bed and who gets the couch."

"Couch'd be just fine with me," Margo said, stifling a yawn with her fist. "Where will you be?"

"My superiors scheduled an emergency meeting I was supposed to be hours ago." He looked at his watch. "Unfortunately, I happened to be in Italy at the time."

"You were in Italy just to get me?"

A thin smile creased his features. "I regret to tell you I was not. There was an intelligence conference in Venice that I was attending. You just happened to be in a convenient location."

"I'm touched," she said dryly, but inside, she was. It was good to be back on familiar soil, however grave the situation. She just wished Matt and Nick were here to greet her as well. Where are you?

"You had better be." Trout raised an eyebrow at the pair of them. "I'll call your hotel room in the morning, or if I get any information. Until that time, though, I fully expect you both to get some sleep, and not go off on some crazy, unauthorized mission of your own. With the state of this country right now, if you so much as show your camo paint in public, you'll get shot."

"I understand," Margo said, as Benny Ray murmured assent.

"Good." Without another word, Trout tiredly headed off to his own car, disappearing into the shadows.

Once inside the SUV, Margo reached for the radio, but Benny Ray intercepted her hand. "D'you really wanna hear more?" he asked gently. "I checked right before you landed. There's nothin' new. Everyone's still in shock."

"Maybe they found something."

"And they'd announce it over the radio?" He shook his head. "Darlin', it's killin' me as much as it's killin' you."

"I know."

The rest of the ride to the hotel was silent, and Margo mused that the companionable quiet made it feel like she'd never left. She wanted to ask a million questions-how were Benny Ray's kids, how was the Silver Star holding up, how many girlfriends had dumped Nick since she'd been gone, how were Chance and C.J. and Deke and Rico and Drummer…did Matt miss her…-but she knew there was plenty of time for that later. Now, they just had to bring Nick and Matt home alive. She pictured the whole team sitting downstairs at the Silver Star after the bar had closed and Debbie had long gone home, drinking beer and swapping stories about surviving this horrific attack. It made her heart ache with longing.

At the hotel, she stared at the television showing CNN while Benny Ray got the key, and then mutely followed him upstairs. He claimed the shower first, and she got out her laptop, running her fingers over the keys. Logging on to the internet, she tried to see what she could find, looking for Matt or Nick's cell phone numbers and scanning the survivor lists on several websites.

"Find anythin'?" Benny Ray's voice startled her, jerking her back to reality. He stood in front of her, holding one towel tightly around his waist, while scrubbing his hair dry with another.

"No." Disheartened, she logged off and put the computer away. "Nothing. I checked everywhere. Their cell phones haven't been used, and they aren't on either the survivor lists or among the-the casualties."

"They're still pullin' people out," he said. "There's still hope."

She forced a smile. "I know. Is the shower free?"

He nodded. "'S all yours, darlin', and I left plenty of hot water."

A shower was just what she needed, and she stepped out fifteen minutes later relaxed and ready to sleep. Benny Ray had beaten her to the couch, and rather than wake him up and insist he take the bedroom, she just covered him up with a couple of blankets. "Good night," she whispered, lightly kissing his cheek and taking a moment to inhale the familiar scent of him. She wasn't home yet, but she was with Benny Ray, and that was one step closer to home than she'd been this morning.

13 September 2001
0304 Hours
Sheraton Hotel, Virginia

The phone was ringing, and Margo jerked awake, momentarily disoriented. There was only one phone at the convent, and it was in the Mother Superior's office. Why was there a phone ringing in her own room? Reality flooded back as Benny Ray's voice floated through the bedroom's open door, accompanied by the sudden glare of a lamp bleeding into the darkness. Grabbing for a blanket in lieu of having a bathrobe, Margo draped the sheet around her body and quietly tiptoed into the living room, trying not to interrupt the conversation.
Benny Ray noticed her and urgently waved her over. "It's Nick," he breathed.

"Nick!" Pressing her ear against Benny Ray's so they could both hear their friend, she tried to control the sudden wavering in her voice. "Nick, are you all right? Where are you? Where's Matt?"

"Margo?" Nick sounded exhausted, and, she thought, a little scared. "I tawt you were still in Italy."

"I'm back," she told him.

"For good?"

"For good. Are you all right?"

"Yeah…" His voice trailed off. "A little scraped up and crispy around da edges, and dey said I got smoke inhalation, but I'm alive."

"Where are you?" Benny Ray asked. "Is Matt with you?"

Once again the ex-DEA paused, and Margo got the impression that he was having a hard time putting his thoughts together. "I'm in a hospital. I dunno which one. Can't be too far away from da Trade Centers 'cause everything's black with smoke."

"Nick, it's three in the morning. Can you really see smoke?" Margo's hands were shaking, and Benny Ray wound his fingers around hers in sympathy.

"Three in da morning?" He sounded surprised.

"Yeah…"

"Oh. Maybe it's just dark, den."

"Are you sure you're all right?" Talking to him was like pulling teeth.

"Dey lemme talk on da phone. Dat counts for something…"

"Nick, is Matt with you?" The sniper's fingers tightened around Margo's, crushing them to the phone.

"Naw…"

"Is he all right? Do you know where he is?" Margo took a deep, quavering breath, feeling tendrils of panic beginning to take root within her chest.

"I dunno…" There was the faintest hint of tears in his voice. "He was right behind me on da fire escape…"

"Is he with you now?" Benny Ray pressed.

Nick broke down, his guttural sobbing echoing across the line. "I have no idea…he was right behind me, but he musta gotten lost in da crowd. I dunno where he is. I tried to go back and look for him, but dey wouldn't let me."

Margo's guts clenched, and for a moment, she was positive she was going to be sick. Pressing her forehead against Benny Ray's slick, sweaty cheek, she felt his body quivering as he tried to hold his grief inside. "He got out," she whispered fiercely. "He had to."

"Dey said I should call you guys and let you know I was okay," Nick said hoarsely. "Trout said dat…I just called him. Margo…I'm glad you're back. You're…you're okay, aren't you?"

"I'm fine," she replied, wondering how she ever managed a year without these men. "Thanks, Nick."

There was a brief, muffled discourse, and then Nick admitted, "Da nurse says for me to get off da phone."

"What hospital are you at, amigo?" the sniper insisted.

There was another pause, this one longer, with more mumbling in the background. "Dey say it's NYU Downtown."

"Call us if you get discharged, okay?" Margo told him. "We're coming over there."

"No!" His reaction was immediate and passionate, filled with agony. "Don't! Or-or at least wait until daylight. Da whole place reeks of smoke and-and death. Da streets are a mess. Don't come up here," he pleaded. "Wait a coupla days."

"Nick-"

"Dey're kicking me off da phone," he said abruptly. "Hang in dere, guys." Then the line went dead.

"No!" In an uncharacteristic display of emotion, Benny Ray slammed the phone back into its cradle. "God…" Burying his face in his hands, he sank back onto the couch, shaking with silent tears. Sitting gingerly beside him, Margo bit into her knuckles, staring blindly at the wall. She pulled her blanket more tightly around her shoulders, shivering from something far deeper than cold.

"Do you want a glass of water?" she finally asked, her voice sounding pathetically weak in the sudden vastness of the room. He could only nod, and so she numbly made her way to the little kitchenette, mechanically pouring two glasses and handing him one, easing herself back down on the couch and drawing her knees up to her chin.

He sipped lightly at the water, his eyes red. She couldn't recall the last time she'd seen him cry. "You all right?" he asked softly.

"Matt's alive," she said, feeling conviction in her very soul. "He's not dead."

"Margo-"

"You don't believe it, either," she hissed. "Don't tell me we're giving up without even looking."

"Everyone comes home," he told her, and she thought of a dozen situations when they could have-should have-left the weakest person behind, and hadn't, because of Matt's ideals. Reaching over, he pulled her close, resting his chin on her forehead. "We'll find him, Sweet Pea. And even if he didn't make it, we won't stop lookin' until we have enough to bury."

"I hate the thought of that," she whispered.

"So do I, darlin', so do I."

13 September 2001
0638 Hours
Sheraton Hotel, Virginia

All hope of sleep for that night had been lost, so instead, Margo and Benny Ray spent the remainder of the dark hours alternating between the large road map he'd absconded from the hotel lobby, the telephone and Margo's computer. Huddled beneath her blanket, she tapped at the keyboard, eyes glued to the screen with frightening intensity. "There are new names on the list," she announced after a while.

Benny Ray looked up hopefully. "Anythin'?"

She shook her head, resisting the urge to pound the table in frustration. "Nothing." Glancing sideways at him, she bit her lip. "We've been at this for three hours, and we still don't know squat."

"But at least we ain't lyin' around feelin' sorry for ourselves," he said. He put down his cell. "Nothin' from any of the other hospitals."

"Great." Margo decisively pulled the phone cord out of its jack. "I for one am hungry, and I'm treating you to breakfast."

"Breakfast?" He looked at his watch. "Oh. Six thirty already? Will anythin' even be open?"

"If not, I'll make you something."

"You? Cook?"

She couldn't help but grin. "Don't look so scared. I can cook. Really," she insisted at his dubious expression. "The sisters taught me. I'm actually pretty good."

"I'll believe it when I see you in the kitchen and there ain't a huge cloud of smoke somewhere in there with you," he said.

"You wound me with your rapier wit, Sir Knight," Margo retorted. "Aren't you supposed to be a gentleman?"

"Just fightin' fire with fire, lady mine, ma'am."

"Don't you ever call me ma'am! It makes me sound like some old grandmother." She was about to swat him with part of a rolled-up newspaper when the phone rang, and both she and Benny Ray pounced on it. Relinquishing her hold, she allowed him to answer it, thinking that if it was anyone but Trout, Nick or Matt, she was going to kill them. Let it be Matt, calling to tell us he's okay…

"Hello?" Benny Ray said, then frowned. "Yes, sir, he called us. He said he'd called you first." She relaxed slightly. It had to be Trout. "No, sir, we were just discussin' breakfast. Haven't done anythin' all night." Margo rolled her eyes. There was the lie of the century. It had been an uproductive but sleepless night. She thought she'd gotten maybe an hour of sleep, at the most. Benny Ray handed her the phone. "He wants to talk to you, Sweet Pea."

Great. Grimacing, she took the phone. She didn't really want to talk to anyone right now. "Hello?"

"Good morning, Margo." Trout sounded tired. "I trust you slept well."

"Didn't sleep much at all."

His tone was disapproving. "I told you to get some rest."

"Neither of us could close our eyes after Nick called, so we tried to track down Matt." She marveled that her voice was steady. Just thinking about him out there made her want to scream. Be all right. Please be all right.

"Any luck?"

"None. We've done everything short of going down there ourselves."

"Would you be against doing that?" The way he said it, it seemed as though he was prepared to be rejected. Margo let him know exactly how wrong he was in two short, succinct words- "Hell, no!"- and she could imagine him blinking in surprise. "Well, in that case, do it." The line clicked.

"What's he want us to do?" Benny Ray asked.

"Do you have any pictures of Matt?" Margo started clicking things on her computer. "I know I've got at least one in here somewhere."

"There's one out in the car," he said. "Are we goin' to New York?"

Nodding absently, she started packing her things. "We're going to find Matt."

13 September 2001
1300 Hours
Manhattan, New York

They'd been walking the streets for four hours, and were covered in a thin layer of ash, grime and sweat. The settling dust was so thick that Benny Ray had a bandanna tied around his face, and Margo was holding the collar of her shirt up over her nose as they questioned passers-by. All of humanity seemed to be in New York right now, if not assisting with the rescue effort, then desperately displaying pictures of loved ones, trying to locate them.

"We oughta go see if Nick knows anythin'," Benny Ray finally suggested, and Margo wearily agreed. The sleepless night, combined with jetlag and stress, was taking its toll on both of them. Finding the hospital, they got his room number from the haggard receptionist, and made their way upstairs.

Nick appeared to be asleep when they walked in, but at the sound of their footfalls, he sat up, looking far too nervous to have been sleeping. "Benny Ray! Margo!" His shadowed eyes were wide, his hair sticking out at odd angles. There was a large bruise on his cheek, and a strip of gauze ran around his forehead. "I tol' you guys not to come!"

"Think we'd just leave you?" She gave him a quick hug, knowing something was really wrong when he didn't make any comment about it.

"I tol' you…"

"How are you feelin', compadre?" Benny Ray asked.

The weaselly little man scrubbed at his eyes with the palms of his hands. "I swear Matt was right behind me. He was right behind me. Now dey tell me dey can't find him. He was right behind me."

"We've been looking," said Margo, trying not to sound discouraged, "but we haven't found anything, either."

"He was right behind me…"

"Nick, it's all right," she told him softly. "It's okay. We're going to find him. It wasn't your fault."

"He was right behind me," he protested. "Dere one minute, and den boom! He wasn't."

"We're gonna find him," Benny Ray repeated. "How are you feelin'?"

"Like shit," Nick moaned. "Dis whole thing is like a trip to Disneyland in hell!" He flopped back against his pillow. "Dey're not letting me watch any TV. What's news?" Margo gave him a quick overview of the situation while Benny Ray looked around the room, eyeing Nick's unconscious roommate. When she was done, the ex-DEA was wearing a look of stupefied shock, and Benny Ray couldn't help but notice how her hands, clenched tightly around each other, had white knuckles. "My gawd," Nick finally managed. "Four airplanes? Holy shit, dis is big!"

"Yeah," echoed Margo hollowly, and Benny Ray gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. It was clear she was trying to be brave, but in her weariness, her guard was slipping.

"What are we gonna do?" asked Nick, folding his arms across his chest. "If you guys've been out looking, and dere's really not much else to do… What's Trout say?"

"I tried calling him this afternoon," Margo said. "He's locked in emergency meetings for the next three days."

"It'll be longer than dat, knowing who he works for." Running a hand through his hair, he shook his head in disbelief. "Ho-ly shit. Are we in a mess or what."

16 September 2001
2245 Hours
Manhattan, New York

Margo's fingers twined around the phone cord, and she tapped her foot anxiously as it rang. "Come on, pick up…" Glancing at her watch, she realized that she'd probably be waking her brother up. It was six hours difference to Rome, which would make it… "Shit. Four o'clock in the morning."

"Margie?" John sounded sleepy, but grateful that she'd called, and she inwardly cursed herself for not calling sooner. "Is everything all right?"

"How'd you know it was me?"

"Who else would place a long distance call to me at this hour of the morning?"

"Sorry."

"Don't be. It is always good to talk to you. Are you all right?"

"Yeah…" She paused a moment, trying to remember why she'd called. She was so tired. Perhaps she'd just wandered over to the phone and her fingers had dialed on their own volition. "I just needed to hear your voice," she confessed. "Some of that big-brotherly wisdom. I didn't mean to wake you up; I didn't realize how late it is here."

"Have you found Major Shepherd yet?" he asked gently.

"No." She was not going to cry. She was too tired to cry. "Not yet." She didn't want to tell him that they had pulled the last survivors out three days ago. Now, they were just recovering bodies. She, Benny Ray and Nick had spent the last forty-eight hours looking to see if Matt's corpse had been put in this morgue or that. Death clung to her clothes. She wanted to be sick, but hadn't eaten enough to bring up. Maybe that's why she felt so shaky. Have to remember to grab a granola bar or something.

"I know you care very deeply for him," John was saying, "but, Margie, you must consider that the major-"

"He's not dead," she whispered fiercely. "He can't be. We just haven't looked everywhere yet."

"Margie-"

"John, I know." Margo slowly settled into a nearby chair, feeling almost boneless with fatigue. "I'm just being stubborn, I'm not facing reality, I'm holding out for the impossible-"

"Margie, there's always room for faith-"

"This isn't faith, John, this is about a miracle!" As soon as the words left her lips, she knew they were true. Logically, there was no way Matt could have lived. All the evidence supported that fact. Her head knew it, and her heart ached to even consider it. She loved him, but now he was dead. Nick had made it out, but Matt hadn't been so lucky. He'd just been lost in the crowd, and hadn't been able to reach an exit in time. "He's gone."

John sighed. "Margie, first you vehemently deny that your major is dead, and in the next breath tell me it is so. Which is true? Are you calling me to tell you what already believe?"

"I don't know. He can't be dead, John. I love him." Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes, willing away the tears. Matt… "I just need to know he's alive. Something. Anything. A scrap of clothing, his dog tags, anything."

Her brother was silent for a while. "Margie, trust God to bring him home. You must have faith."

"Faith alone won't bring him back."

"Faith will make the journey that much easier. Believe me, little sister." His tone was playfully chiding, then serious. "For what it is worth, I would like to think that he is alive. He is a very resourceful man."

"I hope you're right, John."

"Have faith, Margie. Now go and sleep; I can hear the fatigue in your voice," he insisted over her protests. "You will do no one any good when you are so tired."

"All right. Thank you."

"You know you can call me any time, Margie. I love you."

"I love you, too, John." He hung up, and she let the phone slip from her fingers, leaning back against the supporting wall. Margo wanted his words to make sense, wanted to feel something beautiful and inspirational, but instead felt only thick-witted from lack of sleep. She knew she should probably head back to the hotel room with Nick and Benny Ray, but couldn't move.

Curling up in the waiting-room chair, she let her leaden eyelids slip shut, and drifted off to a dark, dreamless oblivion, somewhere where Matt was safe and they were all on the other side of this country in a little bar in a half-remodeled hotel. Somewhere where she felt safe. Somewhere not choked with ash and fear.

Ash. Ash floated all around them, the oppressive heat of the fire bearing down on them, angry flames-the ones they themselves had set not half an hour earlier-licked malevolently down at them from the dry rafters. They were curled between fire and the locked door that blocked their escape.

She clung to Matt, knowing that death was near, and terrified that she was going to lose everything-her life, her love, him, here in her arms. "It's time," he whispered to her, and she could barely make out his words over the roar of the blaze. "Close your eyes, Margo."

"No. I'm not going to leave you," she hissed back. "You're not dead. I know you're not."

"We will be soon." He kissed her forehead, and she moved to cover his mouth with hers, pulling his body onto hers and down to the floor. Just touching him was magic. He seemed somewhat taken aback, but he didn't move away. "Margo, what-?"

"Listen to me," she told him, "you're not dead. This is a dream."

His soot- and sweat-streaked face crumpled in sorrow. "Margo, we're in San Pablo, remember?" The tears in his eyes were most definitely not from the acrid smoke. "I don't want you to die, not after everything that has happened on this trip. I feel so bad, Margo. I love you so much."

"We're not going to die," she said. "You're alive. I know you're alive, but I don't know where."

"I'm right here." He was genuinely confused. "Margo-"

"Just listen. Where are you, Matt? I need to know where you are so I can bring you home." She brushed his sweaty hair off his forehead with the tips of her fingers. "Everyone comes home. You're coming home. I need to know where you are. I need you. I love you, Matt."

"Margo, you're not getting this. That door is locked. The hallway collapsed. We can't get out."

"You're not getting this. This is a dream. We were here a year ago. You shot the lock, and we got out. We survived. Now you're missing, and I need to know where you are. You have to help me, Matt, I can't do this without you." She was crying now, the bitterness of his absence burning like acid in her heart.

"I shot the lock?"

"Yes. And we got out." Reaching underneath him, she grasped the pistol and handed it to him. "Here. You saved me, and now I'm going crazy looking for you."

"I don't want you to go crazy." He kissed her forehead again.

She refused to be placated. "Promise me you're alive."

"Margo, do you know what you're asking?"

"Promise me, Matt. John said this was in God's hands. I want my hands on you, so promise me."

"Margo, you can't be sure-"

"Promise me!"

He sighed, resigned. "I promise." Then, with a rueful smile, "You know I wouldn't do that to you, don't you?"

"I know." She kissed him again, and he shot at the lock and they tumbled out into the cool, dry air of the jungle. Tumbled out-

"Margo?" Strong arms caught her as she pitched to the floor, suddenly wide awake. Blinking in confusion, she looked around. Benny Ray gently deposited her back in the chair, a bemused smile on his face. "You still with us, Sweet Pea? I saw you start to nod off, and then you just nodded off right outta your seat."

She glanced from him to Nick, standing a few feet away, still painted with bruises and dotted with scabbed cuts. "Anything?"

"Naw." The ex-DEA shook his head. "If he's in dis hospital, dey're keeping him in a closet or somewhere where we'd hafta get a warrant to go look. We asked about ICU, but dey said no."

"Matt's alive," she said firmly. "He promised."

"Promised, darlin'?" Benny Ray raised an eyebrow. "You know you musta been dreamin'."

"He's alive." Heaving herself to her feet, she made a move as if to start pacing off her anxiety, then stopped, arms dangling limply at her sides. A wave of intense fatigue almost dropped her where she stood. "Want to go back to the hotel?"

"Dat's a great idea. I'm bushed." As if to prove his point, Nick's elastic features were stretched by a cavernous yawn. He and Benny Ray headed for the exit.
Something made her hang back a moment longer, looking around at the other people in the lobby. For the briefest possible second, she could have sworn that Matt was there, somewhere in the room. "I'm right here," he had said, and she believed it. She could feel him. But where in here? she asked silently. Where are you? Give me something, anything…we've tried so hard… "Margo, come on," Nick whined. "It's almost midnight."

Disappointment flooded her senses. It had only been a fervent wish, a dream, her exhausted imagination, her heart overpowering her brain. "All right. I'm coming."

Six steps to the door, and a hand grasped her shoulder. "Wait! Ma'am?" Margo turned around, and found herself face to face with a young, dark-haired man in a lab coat. He was clearly a doctor. "Ma'am, may I see that picture you were showing earlier? One of my colleagues mentioned it to me…"

Taken a bit aback, she automatically fished Matt's photograph out of her pocket. "Have you seen him?" she asked, not really expecting an answer.

"As a matter of fact, I have."

Her heart stopped. "Where? Where is he? Is he alive? Can I see him? Is he okay?"

"Follow me," the doctor instructed, and she took off like a dog on his heels, Nick and Benny Ray a few feet behind her.

They were practically running, but it still took forever. After an eternity, they reached the doors to the ICU, the doors swinging open with agonizing slowness. She was afraid to breathe, terrified that if he really was here, the slightest disruption in this surreal dream would make everything disappear. Please don't let me be dreaming. She surreptitiously pinched her arm almost hard enough to bleed, proving that she was indeed awake.

"In here," the doctor said, holding a finger to his lips and pushing back one of the curtains. Margo pushed past him, hoping beyond all hope that Matt was there…and then he was. She stopped still, just staring in relief and shock, wide eyes darting back and forth from his still form spread out on the hospital bed, the wayward lock of hair lying motionless on his pale forehead, to the beeping machines hooked up to his body.

"Is this the man you're looking for?" the young doctor asked gently, shattering her reverie. "Can you identify him? He's the last John Doe on this ward, for now."

"He's Matt," she whispered, her voice halting and hoarse as she had to forcefully remind herself to suck in oxygen. "Matt Shepherd." Her paralysis broken, she took two shaking steps and seized his cool hand. Looking down at Matt with eyes that threatened to overflow, she asked, "Is he going to be all right? Doctor….?"

"Holland," he said, a sympathetic smile creasing his smooth face. "And he's all right now. Take care of him, Margo." She'd been concentrating on running her hands over Matt's face, and reflexively turned at her name, but Dr. Holland had vanished. In his place, Benny Ray and Nick appeared, slightly out of breath and both fraught with worry.

"Sweet Pea, don't you ever go runnin' off like that-" The sniper stopped short, his abrupt intake of breath signaling his brain immediately changing gears.

"Major? Margo, how the hell'd you find him? How'd you know where to look?"

"The doctor, Dr. Holland," she said, confused. "I showed him Matt's picture, and he brought me up here."

"What doc?" asked Nick.

"You must have just missed him," she told him. "He'll be back later." Reaching for a nearby chair, she pulled it up to the bedside. "Matt," Margo whispered, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. "I found you."

The curtains were thrust back by an agitated older nurse whose large form was practically quivering with anxiety. "This is very irregular!" she was saying, swatting Nick out of the way. Benny Ray was a little quicker, and his evasive maneuver looked far more suave and gentlemanly than his companion's backwards scrabble. "What do you think you're doing, barging in here like this?" She noticed Margo's protective grip on Matt's hand, and blinked. "Are you family, ma'am? Who gave you permission to come in here? Visiting hours are long over."

"I'm not leaving," Margo said in a tone that booked no argument. "And yes, we're family. All of us," she stressed, indicating Benny Ray and Nick.

Looking from one to the other, the nurse finally sighed. "All right. You can stay. But there can be only one person in at a time, and you must be quiet, understood?" She retrieved Matt's patient records and filled them in with the correct name and information, then left, pulling the curtain closed behind her.

"I'm staying," Margo said automatically, drawing a little closer to Matt. "You guys go sleep."

"Nope." Benny Ray shook his head. "Darlin', I ain't the one who fell outta the waiting-room chair talkin' on the phone. I promise I'll call you if he wakes up, okay? I'm not takin' 'no' for an answer here."

"Two hours, then it's my turn."

"Seven."

"Seven? You've got to be out of your mind-"

"Seven."

"Three, then."

"Seven."

"Four."

"Nope, still seven."

"Five." She was getting frustrating.

"Seven."

"Six, Benny Ray, and I mean it. I'm coming back in here in six hours whether you're ready for me or not." She tried to glower convincingly, but it never worked on him.

"Six," he conceded, since he had been aiming at six the whole time, "but if you're back here any sooner, it's another eight, got it?"

"Got it." Margo hauled herself to her feet, relinquishing the chair, planting a gentle kiss on Matt's cheek that was totally at odds with her decidedly unladylike grumbling. "Take care of him, okay?" she said plaintively.

"You know I will, Sweet Pea." He touched her shoulder briefly. After one last, long look at Matt, she reluctantly followed Nick out of the ICU, and Benny Ray eased himself into the chair. "Glad you're back, Major," he said to the unconscious man on the bed, settling back for a long but welcome night of simple guard duty.

17 September 2002
0736 Hours
Manhattan, New York

After kicking Benny Ray out about five in the morning, Margo had dozed fitfully in Matt's bedside chair, finally ending up with her head on her arms near his chest. His very presence was a huge weight off her soul, and she basked in his closeness, feeling about a hundred years younger. Thank you, God, she thought. Remind me never to scoff at the mention of miracles again. I owe you big time for this one.

Beside her, Matt stirred, and one hand came down to rest on her crown. He said something that sounded sort of like her name, and she turned, grinning as she saw his sleepy blue eyes slide open and focus on her. "Hey, beautiful," he said, so hoarse she almost couldn't hear him.

"Hi," she whispered back, throat tight with excitement and emotion. He was awake! "Told you I'd find you."

"Kept my promise."

Eyes bright with tears, she wound her fingers through his, kissing his cheek. "I never doubted it."

"Thought you were still in Europe."

"I'm home. Trout brought me back."

"For good?"

"For as long as you want me."

He grinned back. "For good, then."

14 October 2002
1300 Hours
Manhattan, New York

"Margo, I dunno know how you did it," Nick said for the millionth time that day, "but if you hadn't gone nutso and ran off like dat, we wouldn't've found Matt."

"I told you, Dr. Holland found me," she retorted for just as many times, impatiently waiting outside the bathroom while Matt changed. "He asked about Matt's picture, and said he knew where he was. You guys just weren't fast enough to catch him."

"Dat's what you keep sayin, but I don't believe it. How come you only saw him once?"

"I think you mighta been not all the way awake," Benny Ray told her.

"I was awake." Margo looked over at Matt, an approving smile on her face, though he was just wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. He was healthy and walking with crutches, and they were flying back to Hermosa Beach later that day. "You had to have seen Dr. Holland, right?"

"Young man, clean shaven, dark hair?"

"Yes!"

"Yeah, he was there." Matt frowned. "I remember waking up a couple of times and being really out of it, and hearing him tell me I was going to be okay. I wonder where he went, because I don't remember seeing him after they moved me out of the ICU."

"Well, I'm gonna go ask the ICU people about him," Nick declared. "Because I think you're both nuts." He took off.

"I'll go take these bags down to the car," Benny Ray said, prudently choosing to leave Matt and Margo alone together.

After he was gone, she reached over and adjusted Matt's collar, her fingers lingering against his skin. "You look great." He had gained back the weight he had lost, and the scars from his burns were barely visible.

"I feel great." Wrapping one arm around her shoulders, he kissed her forehead.

"Come on. Let's go. We don't want to miss our plane."

"You'll tell me if you start getting tired, right?"

"Or you'll tell me, Nurse." His words were softened with a grin. "God, I'm so glad you're back. I thought you'd never come home."

"And leave you by yourself?" She snorted, but the derisive noise was at odds with the glistening of her eyes. "Don't count yourself so lucky, Major."

"Oh, I count myself plenty lucky."

Reaching up, she kissed his cheek. "So do I. Believe me, so do I."

****

Everyone and all their bags were safely stowed in Benny Ray's Expedition by the time Nick finally decided to grace the world with his presence. He crawled into the back seat behind Benny Ray, and the sniper started the car and pulled into traffic.

"Well?" Margo asked, somewhat smugly. "I told you he was there."

Nick shook his head nervously, his face the color of Elmer's glue. "You're not gonna believe dis. Are you sure the doc's name was Holland?"

"That's what his ID badge said, and that's what he introduced himself as," she told him. "And the badge had his picture on it."

"Right." He was clearly in a state of shock. "But when I asked 'em about dat doc, dey got all surprised and scared, and den one of da nurses says he was on his way to a medical conference, and he was on Flight 93."

"The one that crashed in Pennsylvania?" Margo wrinkled her nose. "That's not right. I talked to him myself almost a week after the eleventh."

"Yeah, I know, dat's what I said." He shook his head again. "Da nurse got all teary and I decided I'd better leave."

"That's really weird, Nick," said Matt. "Are you sure you got the name right? Maybe there are two Dr. Hollands."

"I dunno," he answered skeptically. "When we get home, you just go ahead and look it up yourself, because last time I checked, dead men don't reappear and treat patients." He suppressed a shudder, and Margo reached over to brush her fingers across the back of Matt's neck, reassuring herself for the millionth time that he was actually there.

14 October 2001
2313 Hours
Hermosa Beach, California

Pale blue light leaked from beneath Margo's closed door, and with a knowing grin, Matt crutched his way down his hotel's hallway, wondering what on earth she could possibly be doing on that computer at this hour of the night. Everyone else had captured rooms for themselves hours ago, all feeling far too fatigued to go back to their own places. Chance and C.J. had flown in from Hawaii, and Rico was snoring softly on the couch downstairs. Matt had been on his way to bed himself.

Knocking lightly on the door, Matt turned the knob, and Margo flinched almost guiltily as he entered, offering him a sheepish smile. "You're supposed to be sleeping," she scolded.

"So are you," he pointed out, and eased himself on the bed beside her. The sheets were turned down, and she was tightly wrapped in her fuzzy bathrobe, so it was obvious that sleep was where she had been headed before this other thing came up. "What are you working on?"

She moved the computer screen over to where he could see it. "I couldn't seem to close my eyes," she confessed. "What Nick said about Dr. Holland was bothering me, so I popped his name into the system to see what it would bring up."

"And?"

"And he's dead. He's been dead. Nick was right; he had been visiting family in Newark, New Jersey, and was going from there to a medical conference in San Francisco." Her green eyes were wide in the darkness of the room. "Matt, there was absolutely no way he could have been at that hospital."

"Did he have a twin?" His question wasn't a joke.

"He was an only child. I know what I saw, Matt." Her hands flew over the keyboard, and a picture of the doctor in question phased into focus. "That's him."

"That is him."

"If it were just me, or just you, it wouldn't bother me as much," she admitted. "I mean, you were injured and incoherent, and I was exhausted and grieving. It would be easy to hallucinate something like this."

"But both of us?"

"That's what makes no sense."

"What about Benny Ray? I know Nick didn't see him."

"They both had their backs turned. We were getting ready to leave."

Matt twined his fingers through hers. "And that still doesn't take into account the dream we had."

"I know." Margo briefly closed her eyes, remembering the acrid smoke and heat as though it had happened this afternoon. "You were there."

"And you wouldn't let me go." He kissed the top of her head. "You brought me home out of faith."

"Out of faith…" Her voice trailed off, a look of disturbed comprehension on her face. She shook her head violently, apparently dismissing the idea out of hand. "I don't believe it. No."

"What?"

"It's just too strange."

"After our doc?"

"That's just it." She opened her mouth as if to say something, but closed it again, rethinking her words. "I had just gotten off the phone with John. He said…he said to just let God bring you home. I was ready to give up." It clearly pained her to say it. "We'd looked everywhere, Matt. Everyone we talked to said you had to be…that you were probably…and I couldn't accept that, but we weren't getting any other answers." She was close to tears, and he slipped one arm around her, cuddling her close. "And I got off the phone, and I must have fallen asleep. I was so scared to think you were gone. Then, I was dreaming, and you were there…I wasn't about to lose you then…and when Benny Ray woke me up, and we were going to go back to the hotel, Dr. Holland was right there." She bit her lip in consternation. "I don't have John's faith in God and I know I probably never will, but it was too much of a coincidence…"

"I know what you mean." It went against everything he'd ever known about logic and reason, and yet, she'd still managed to find him. Reaching across, he picked up the computer and, shutting it off, he deposited it on the nearby nightstand. Now, the only illumination the room had came from the orange of the streetlight outside the curtained windows, glowing darkly in the gloom. Taking her gently in his arms, he eased down beside her, until her head was resting in the crook of his arm. "You need to sleep," he whispered. "It's late."

"Only if you stay." She sounded so small and fragile, but her arms were warm as they slipped around his neck. She pulled the blankets up and over their bodies, and curled up beside him. "I missed you."

"I missed you, too." He kissed her eyelids, and, wrapped in the arms of the woman he loved, fell fast asleep.

****

Some time later, in the wee, early hours of the night, Margo awoke with the feeling they were being watched. Without raising her head, she cast her eyes about the room, finally becoming aware of a vague figure standing near the window, shrouded by the darkness. Irrational fear stabbed through her, and she almost sat bolt upright until the figure raised a hand and she somehow knew it meant no harm.

"I told you he would be all right." The voice was soft, with a gentle smile hidden beneath the world. "You were right to trust me."

"Dr. Holland," she breathed, not believing her eyes at all.

"Take care of him," the spirit told her. "He loves you." He moved forward and she felt something warm and metallic being pressed into her hand. Matt's dog tags. They hadn't been recovered.

"I owe you everything. How can I thank you?" she started to ask, but the shadow had disappeared, and the room was empty. Beside her, Matt stirred, twisting up in the blankets and blinking at her with sleepy eyes.

"You all right?" he asked.

"I'm just fine." She took a breath to steady herself, and settled back into his arms. "But I know John was right."

"Your brother is a wise man." He drifted back to sleep, and only when she was sure he was out did she gingerly slip the chain around his neck.

"He has faith," she whispered. "Like me. And now I have you."

Finis.

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