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Part 3: Homecoming

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Chapter 14

"Do you need to hold my hand?" Rafe asked cautiously.

"You know, I wasn't even thinking about it. After everything we've gone through at the ranch, it didn't even occur to me to be afraid of the take off." Dodger said with a smile, then added, "But holding your hand sounds nice."

Rafe smiled as he offered his hand.

Dodger accepted and held it gently as the plane lifted into the air.

Once the plane leveled out, Rafe said, "Since neither of us have any commitments for the time being, I was wondering how you would feel about us taking a little drive tomorrow."

"A drive to where?" Dodger asked cautiously.

"A little town in Eastern Ohio." Rafe said evasively.

"And what will we be doing in this little town in Eastern Ohio." Dodger asked playfully, recognizing the game for what it was.

"We'll be visiting a friend of yours." Rafe said with a smile.

"A friend? ...Of mine?" Dodger asked curiously.

"Yes. Well, him and his grandparents." Rafe said with a huge grin.

"Little Joe?" Dodger asked with excitement.

"Yes. While I was making my travel arrangements, I checked in with my office to see if they had followed up on his condition. They happened to have contact information, so I called to see how he and his family were doing. In the course of conversation, we were invited to dinner at their house tomorrow night." Rafe said with a grin.

"So what you're saying is that we're going to be having dinner with a family that almost died of food poisoning? Is that really such a smart idea?" Dodger asked, only half-seriously.

Rafe gave a full, honest laugh, then said, "You know, that didn't even occur to me. I just know that they seem like a really good and decent family and I think it would be nice to spend an evening with them."

Dodger looked at Rafe suspiciously, feeling that he had some ulterior motive.

"Would you care for a drink?" The stewardess asked courteously as she offered drinks on a tray.

"Yes. Thank you." Rafe said happily.

Dodger nodded and took a glass for himself.

Just as he was about to take a sip of the drink, a shrill cry rose up and filled the first class cabin.

Dodger quickly set his glass down, then clamped his hands over his ears to try to protect his super sensitive hearing.

"She's teething." The woman behind them said, not apologetically, but as if the explanation absolved her from any responsibility for the behavior of her child.

"Dodger." Rafe said firmly, to gain his attention.

After another shriek from the toddler, Dodger turned his attention to Rafe.

"Don't enthrall the baby." Rafe said firmly.

"I wasn't going to." Dodger said defensively.

"You don't have control of it yet and you've already proven that you can do it without thinking." Rafe said seriously, then added, "It seems that you have more of a natural talent for it than I ever did."

Dodger winced at an escalating scream.

Once it subsided, Dodger asked, "Really?"

Rafe nodded, then said, "You took away the pain and fear associated with Jimmy's memories of the deaths of his parents and of the rape. I doubt that I'd be able to..."

A long sustained wailing cry interrupted Rafe.

Dodger clamped his hands tightly over his ears, then glanced behind them with irritation.

In an instant, the first class cabin became blessedly silent.

"I warned you not to." Rafe said seriously.

"I know. And I didn't mean to." Dodger said quietly, then shyly added, "But isn't this nice?"

"How nice will it be if that child grows up to be mute because of what you just did?" Rafe asked seriously.

"Oh. I guess that would be bad." Dodger said timidly, then quietly asked, "Is there a way to undo it?"

Rafe thought for a moment, then carefully said, "Probably. If you can remember exactly what you were thinking when you enthralled the baby, you might be able to enthrall her again and give the opposite suggestion."

Dodger thought for a moment, then seemed to be confident that he remembered.

"Are you ready to try?" Rafe asked gently.

Dodger glanced behind them, then quietly asked, "Can I do it right before we land?"

Rafe considered for a moment and had a conflicted look on his face.

Dodger waited expectantly.

Finally, Rafe hesitantly said, "I suppose there's no harm in waiting for a little bit."

Dodger smiled, then rested back into his seat, enjoying the peace and quiet.

* * * * *

"Did you remember to call Mrs. Lewellyn to let her know that we were coming home?" Dodger asked suddenly.

Rafe looked at him with surprise, then reluctantly admitted, "No. I didn't think about it."

"I guess we'll just have to see what she left in the house. If there isn't anything to eat, we can go grocery shopping for ourselves." Dodger said frankly.

"If our flight arrives on schedule, then we should have plenty of time to stop somewhere for breakfast and still make it home before sunrise." Rafe said thoughtfully. "I'm sure by the time we get home, we'll both be ready for a well-deserved rest and we already have plans for dinner."

"We get to sleep in our own bed." Dodger said happily.

"That will be nice, won't it?" Rafe said gently.

"And we won't have to worry about being quiet." Dodger said with excitement.

"Just keep in mind that I'll need to get at least some sleep." Rafe said with a grin.

"I'll try to remember." Dodger said playfully.

* * * * *

"I was thinking that, since the cold and flu season has passed, there isn't any reason that I couldn't take some additional time off from my practice." Rafe said in a seemingly casual tone.

Dodger looked at him with surprise, then quietly asked, "Were you thinking about taking a vacation?"

"No. I think I've had my fill of travel for the time being." Rafe said with a smile, then added, "Actually, I was thinking that my husband and I haven't really had a chance to spend much time together since we got married."

"And since I already received my diploma, I don't have to be doing any studying." Dodger said with a grin.

"That's right. Neither of us will have anything demanding our attention." Rafe said peacefully.

Dodger melted at the loving look in Rafe's eyes and couldn't imagine anything that he would rather be doing.

* * * * *

When the announcement was made that the plane was about to land, Rafe looked at Dodger expectantly.

"Do I have to?" Dodger whined half-heartedly.

"I'm afraid so. Sometimes it's not easy to do the right thing." Rafe said regretfully.

Dodger took in a slow, cleansing breath and tried to clear his mind so he could focus on the task at hand.

Rafe watched him carefully, prepared to offer any suggestions or encouragement that might be needed.

Finally, Dodger turned in his seat to look into the row behind him. A fleeting glow seemed to pass over him, one of those things that would be easy to dismiss as being a trick of the lights.

The baby immediately let out a blood-curdling scream.

Dodger winced at the sound, then covered his ears as he looked behind them again.

Rafe reached out a hand toward Dodger, but it was already too late. Dodger gave another brief glow before sitting and looking forward.

Before Rafe could ask Dodger what he had done, he heard the woman behind him trying to soothe the baby with gentle whispers.

"What did you do?" Rafe asked cautiously.

"I think I undid what I did before." Dodger said quietly, but the guilty look in his eyes gave him away.

"No, I mean, what did you do to the mother?" Rafe asked as he held Dodger's guilty gaze.

After a moment of hesitation, Dodger quietly said, "I might have reminded her that she's responsible for the way her child acts..."

Rafe waited expectantly, having a feeling that there was more.

"...and I might have also suggested that if her kid kept crying that way, everyone in the airport might form a lynch mob." Dodger finished guiltily.

Rafe opened his mouth, obviously about to say something, but then seemed to think better of it. He glanced over his shoulder into the row behind them where the woman was gently bouncing the whimpering baby, then gave an unconcerned shrug.

Dodger smiled at the reaction as he noticed that the plane seemed to be making it's final approach for landing.

* * * * *

Even in the early morning, the harsh lighting in the airport was difficult to endure. But finally, Rafe and Dodger had located all their luggage and were on their way to the long-term parking.

Once they were out of the airport, Dodger quietly said, "I hope Jimmy's okay."

"Since they don't have phone service at the ranch, we won't be able to call and talk with him, but I've already made arrangements with Justus so that we can stay in touch." Rafe said frankly.

"Good. Even though I'm glad that we're home, I'm really going to miss the ranch." Dodger said as he looked out the window into the darkness.

"I think I will, too." Rafe said honestly.

Dodger absently nodded that he had heard.

"You know, this is one of those things that happens when you have a long life." Rafe said conversationally.

Dodger looked up curiously, then asked, "What's that?"

"People come and go." Rafe said without expression as he kept the majority of his attention on his driving.

"So, you don't get the chance to have any relationships that last?" Dodger asked hesitantly.

"Sure you do. But you don't always know which relationships will work out that way." Rafe said frankly, then added, "What I'm trying to say is that sometimes in our lives, we'll meet some very nice people and become attached to them, but then circumstances change and we end up having to part company."

"So you don't think we'll continue to be friends with the people at the ranch?" Dodger asked cautiously.

"They'll always be our friends. But they won't be a part of our daily lives. It's impossible to predict what tomorrow will bring. There's a chance that we'll never see them again. And I suppose that there's just as good a chance that a situation will arise that will bring us back together. It's impossible to predict, but we have to accept what happens."

Dodger slowly nodded, then quietly said, "I think that what you're talking about isn't a Shadesider thing, it's just life."

After a long silence, Rafe finally responded, "I've never been a Brightsider. It's hard for me to imagine how they perceive things."

Dodger thought about Rafe's words, then quietly said, "I think, from what little bit I've seen, that Brightsiders and Shadesiders both experience just about the same things, except that the Shadesiders are around long enough to pay attention to it. They kind of have a better view of the big picture, while Brightsiders focus more on their individual piece of the world."

"That sounds reasonable." Rafe said with a nod.

Dodger smiled at him, then said, "I like that we can talk about things like this. I mean, you're over 600 years old and you're a doctor, but when we sit down and talk together like this, I don't feel stupid."

"Well, unless we start talking about microbiology or infection vectors, I can't see any reason that you should feel stupid. I've learned about some things that you haven't, but I'm sure that there are plenty of things that you're more knowledgeable about." Rafe said frankly.

"For example..." Dodger said with a challenging grin.

"Alright. You grew up on a farm. In all my years, I've never really done anything like that. When I was a child, I lived a lot closer to the land than I do now..."

"How do you mean?" Dodger asked curiously.

"When I was young, the person I bought my food from was most likely the person who grew it. Now, when I open a can of green beans, I don't know the person who grew them or even what part of the world they come from." Rafe said honestly.

"So you've never grown anything?" Dodger asked curiously.

"No. Not unless you count bacterial cultures." Rafe said absently.

"So you are a farmer, it's just on a much smaller scale." Dodger said with a grin.

Rafe broke into a smile at the words, then said, "That's me, farmer Rafe."

Dodger chuckled as he looked at his husband adoringly.

* * * * *

"What are you doing?" Dodger asked curiously as Rafe pulled onto a side road.

"Didn't you see that sign? I thought we'd stop at that truck stop for Breakfast." Rafe said seriously.

"Um. Okay. I guess." Dodger said uncertainly.

"You don't have to worry, Dodger. Even though they may not always be comfortable for us, truck stops are usually safe places for a Shadesider to stop." Rafe said frankly.

"Why is that?" Dodger asked curiously.

"Mainly, because they're open twenty-four hours. That causes them to attract a larger than average Darksider and Shadesider clientele." Rafe said honestly as they pulled into the parking lot.

"There might be Darksiders here?" Dodger asked with surprise.

"Possibly. But it's kind of an unwritten law that places like this are neutral ground. If we leave them alone, they'll leave us alone." Rafe said as he stopped the car.

"What if they don't?" Dodger asked cautiously.

"I think that if that happened, the person who broke the peace would probably either be exiled or would forfeit their life." Rafe said as he turned to look Dodger in the eyes.

"You'd kill him?" Dodger asked with surprise.

"No. That would be more of a Darksider solution. The Shadeside community would most likely take a person who knowingly and willingly instigated a confrontation in a neutral place and ask him to leave their community. I mean, no one could reasonably be expected to trust in the discretion of someone who broke such a basic law." Rafe said carefully.

"I guess not." Dodger said thoughtfully.

"Come on. It's not anything you have to worry about. It just means that this is a place where we can stop and have a good meal." Rafe said cheerfully, then opened his door.

"What do we do if there's a Darksider in there?" Dodger asked as he got out of the car.

"Just stay out of his way." Rafe said frankly, then stopped and turned to look at Dodger as he continued, "As long as you don't put him in a position where he has to acknowledge you, then he probably won't. It's really just that simple."

Dodger nodded that he understood, then followed as Rafe led the way into the truck stop.

* * * * *

As they walked into the truck stop's dining room, Dodger was surprised to find that the lighting was perfectly comfortable.

Although he could detect a lingering cigarette smoke smell in the air, it wasn't anything like what he had experienced at the airport.

After taking his seat, he noticed that one or two of the people at the other tables were smoking, but still, the smell of the cigarette smoke wasn't overpowering him. The ventilation seemed such that it drew the cigarette smoke away from the dining room.

"They have a thing here, the Country Breakfast. It has everything that you like." Rafe said as he looked at his menu.

It took a moment, but Dodger was finally able to direct his attention to the task at hand.

As he looked over the menu, he found the breakfast that Rafe was talking about and agreed that it did seem to have everything that he enjoyed.

"Mornin' guys. Would you all want some coffee?" The middle-aged waitress asked casually.

"Yes." Rafe said immediately, then turned to Dodger and said, "I don't usually like coffee, but theirs is really good."

Dodger looked up at the waitress and nodded that he would like some.

"Do you all know what you're wantin yet?" The waitress asked slowly.

"I want the country breakfast." Rafe said simply.

"Make that two." Dodger quickly added as he closed his menu.

"Straight up?" The waitress asked curiously.

"Yes." Rafe answered for both of them.

The waitress scribbled something on her pad, then called out toward the kitchen, "Adam & Eve on a log, short stack and back, twice!"

"Two times!" A man's voice responded loudly from the kitchen.

Dodger looked at Rafe with puzzlement.

Rafe smiled and waited for Dodger's question.

"What's Straight up?" Dodger asked cautiously.

"She was asking if we wanted our meals made the way that they're described in the menu. If we wanted anything prepared a particular way or something substituted, I would've said 'no'." Rafe said simply.

Dodger slowly nodded, then leaned forward and quietly asked, "Did you understand her when she called out our order?"

Rafe chuckled, then admitted, "Not a word of it."

Dodger smiled at the answer, then looked up as the waitress approached with two cups of coffee.

* * * * *

"Rafe." Dodger said hesitantly.

"What is it?" Rafe asked as he looked up from his meal.

"I think there's a Darksider here. He's looking at me." Dodger said cautiously.

"Ignore him." Rafe said simply, then took another sip of his coffee.

"I don't think I can." Dodger said as he looked down at his plate.

Rafe realized how anxious Dodger was and casually turned to look over his shoulder, to see if the man watching them was any threat.

Dodger watched Rafe, then waited expectantly.

"He's not a Darksider, he's a Shadesider." Rafe said as he turned his attention back to his meal.

"He is? Then why's he giving me dirty looks?" Dodger asked curiously.

"I'm sure those are directed at me. That guy's name is Collin. We've had our differences." Rafe said honestly.

"Do you think he's going to cause trouble?" Dodger asked cautiously.

"No. In fact, I think he'd probably go out of his way to avoid having anything to do with me." Rafe said frankly.

Dodger nodded, then glanced past Rafe to see what the man was doing.

"Don't worry about him, Dodger. Just enjoy your meal." Rafe said gently.

Dodger turned his attention back to his breakfast, then quietly said, "I think this is the first time I've seen anyone who knew you who wasn't your friend."

"Collin is my friend, in a way. I have a great deal of respect for him and I even trust him. I just don't happen to agree with some of the things that he believes." Rafe said casually.

Dodger started eating again as he considered Rafe's words.

"How do you like your food?" Rafe asked with a gentle smile.

"It's great. Thanks for suggesting it." Dodger said with a loving look into Rafe's eyes.

* * * * *

They arrived at the house just before sunrise.

As they drove up the driveway, Dodger thought that he had never seen such a beautiful sight.

"I really missed this place." Dodger said warmly.

"Dorothy was right." Rafe said with a smile as he hit the button to automatically open the garage door.

"Who? What?" Dodger asked with confusion.

"You know, in The Wizard of Oz?" Rafe asked as he parked the car.

Dodger puzzled over the statement for a moment, then broke into a smile as he said, "Okay. I got it."

"I knew you would." Rafe said happily, then asked, "Would you rather do the laundry before we go to bed, or leave it for later?"

"Well..." Dodger began with a predatory grin, "...I think that if we started the laundry right now, that we would have time to do 'other things' while we waited for it to be finished."

"Are you thinking of noisy things that we couldn't do while we were at the ranch?" Rafe asked with a restrained smile.

"Loud things. Messy things... maybe even things somewhere other than the bedroom." Dodger said with a hungry look in his eyes.

"In the bathtub!" Rafe said quickly.

"Yes! After having to be so careful about every drop of water we used, it would be so wonderful if we could take a bath together." Dodger said happily.

"Let's get the car unpacked so we can get to it." Rafe said enthusiastically.

* * * * *

Dodger awoke with a smile on his face. While the laundry did eventually get done, most of their morning was spent having sloppy, loud, silly fun.

As Dodger opened his eyes, he found Rafe watching him with a tender smile.

"I love you." Rafe whispered.

"I love you, too." Dodger replied.

"As much as I don't want to say this, we need to get up, so we can get ready to leave." Rafe said frankly.

"But it isn't even dark yet." Dodger said as he glanced at the glow of light around the heavy drapes on the window.

"We need to leave early, if we're going to arrive at a decent hour." Rafe said frankly.

"You're going to drive in the daylight?" Dodger asked with concern.

"Yes. But we'll be driving East, so the sun will be behind us. As long as we wear our gloves, hats and sunglasses, we should be able to travel without too much trouble." Rafe said gently.

"Okay." Dodger reluctantly agreed, then broke into a smile as he said, "It'll be nice to see for myself that Little Joe is feeling better."

"Yes. And I think it will also be good for you to spend some time around Brightsiders." Rafe said frankly.

"I bet I've spent more time around them than you have the past sixteen years." Dodger said with a smile.

Rafe chuckled, then said, "I suppose that's true, but you were one of them at the time. Now that things have changed, you might need to alter a few of your habits."

"Like what?" Dodger asked with interest.

"Just little things like shaking hands, avoiding bright light, garlic... you know, the basic stuff. If you learn how to navigate around those little obstacles, then you'll be able to relax and enjoy their company." Rafe said seriously.

"Well, I guess that I've got the perfect teacher for this lesson because I lived with you for months and didn't have a clue." Dodger said with a chuckle.

"You knew something wasn't quite right, you just hadn't figured out what, yet." Rafe said with a smile.

"Yeah, as if anyone could have figured it out." Dodger said with a laugh, then leaned forward to pull Rafe into a firm hug.

Rafe put his arms around Dodger, then quietly said, "You know, we don't have to get ready to leave right this minute."

Dodger nuzzled Rafe's neck, then whispered, "What did you have in mind?"

"Nothing at all." Rafe said frankly, much to Dodger's surprise.

After a moment, Rafe quietly continued, "Why don't you decide... Anything you want."

Dodger moved away from Rafe's neck and gave him a long firm kiss before saying, "After this morning, I didn't know if you'd be in the mood again so soon."

"You inspire me."

* * * * *

Their preparation for leaving took a little bit longer than anticipated, mostly due to Dodger's insistence that they dress more casually, so Little Joe and his family wouldn't get the impression that they were 'stuck up'.

Once they were suitably attired, Rafe started the long drive toward the East.

"I told them that you're allergic to garlic." Rafe said into the silence.

Dodger looked at him curiously for a moment, then said, "Yeah. That's smart."

"I just wanted to let you know in advance in case they ask you about it." Rafe said honestly.

Dodger nodded that he had heard.

"Is something bothering you?" Rafe asked curiously.

Dodger smiled, then said, "No. It's just... the farther East we go, the more it's looking like where I grew up."

"That makes sense. We're entering the foothills of the Appalachian mountain range." Rafe said casually.

Dodger nodded as he looked out the car window at the scenery passing them by.

"You know, if Little Joe or his grandparents have a pet, it's going to react badly to us." Rafe said as he glanced at Dodger out of the corner of his eye.

"Yeah. Chet told me about horses usually acting that way. But why are they afraid of us?" Dodger asked curiously.

"It seems to be instinctive. I suppose it's possible that a long time ago, those animals that were afraid of us ran away, and those that weren't, were eaten. If that kept on for several generations, the innate fear of us would be a part of their genetic heritage." Rafe said speculatively.

"Oh. I thought that maybe it was some kind of extra sensory thing that they could detect about us and it frightened them." Dodger said thoughtfully.

"It could very well be. There's so much about us that isn't quantifiable or just isn't known, that I suppose any theory would be just as valid as any other." Rafe said honestly.

"You're doing it again." Dodger said with a grin at his husband.

"What's that?" Rafe asked curiously.

"You're making me feel as smart as you are." Dodger said adoringly.

"That's because you are."

* * * * *

As they entered town, Dodger watched curiously as Rafe expertly navigated the winding streets that seemed to hairpin and double back as often as not.

"How do you know where you're going?" Dodger finally asked.

"They gave me directions." Rafe said simply, then pulled onto a steep road that seemed to be little better than a sheer cliff.

Dodger held his breath until the road became more level, then quietly asked, "How is it that you can follow someone else's directions, but you can't find your parked car when it's just a block away?"

Rafe grinned at the question, then answered, "It's just the way I am, Dodger. I'm usually pretty good about remembering detailed information. Something like this, something new, doesn't really present much of a challenge for me. But when I try to remember the same thing, day after day, I sometimes forget which day I'm remembering. It all just blends together."

After a moment to consider, Dodger quietly said, "I guess that sorta makes sense."

"Ask me about it again in about five hundred years and we'll see if it's something that comes with being long lived, or if it's just me." Rafe said with a slight smile.

Dodger chuckled, then responded, "Yeah. I'll do that."

"We're here." Rafe said as he slowed the car to pull into the driveway of a modest home, set back from the street with in large yard.

Dodger looked around in the early evening light and decided that he liked the look of the place.

It certainly wasn't anywhere as nice as Rafe's home. But, by the same token, it wasn't a dilapidated shack, like where he grew up. It looked like the kind of place that Dodger thought of when he imagined where a 'normal' person would live.

* * * * *

As Dodger and Rafe approached the front door, it flew open and a familiar figure

dashed toward them.

"I couldn't believe it when Grandpa said you were coming! It's wonderful that you're here." Little Joe said with a beaming smile. Before Rafe or Dodger could react, Little Joe pulled them both into a joyful hug.

"You'll have to forgive my grandson. He's had ants in his pants since he heard you two were coming." An elderly man said as he slowly stepped off the single step from the front porch.

Little Joe seemed to realize what he was doing and quickly stepped back as he said, "I'm sorry. I'm just really glad that you're here."

"We're happy to be here." Rafe said warmly as Dodger nodded his agreement.

"Well, since Little Joe seems to have forgotten his manners, please allow me to make introductions. I'm John Luyster and this is my wife Hester." The elderly man said as he offered his hand.

Due to the early evening chill, it didn't seem out of place for Rafe and Dodger to be wearing gloves as they each firmly shook John's hand and nodded their greetings to his wife.

"Behind me is our daughter, Olivia. And, of course, you've met our grandson, Little Joe." John finished with an adoring smile at his grandson.

"I'm Dr. Raphael Killian. I'd be pleased if you would call me Rafe, and my companion's name is Desmond Tribodeaux." Rafe said somewhat formally.

"Please, call me Dodger." Dodger said timidly.

"When Little Joe told us about you, I got the sense that you were a father and son travelling together, but now I can see that you're far too young to be Dodger's father and he doesn't look like you." Olivia said curiously.

"We're not father and son, but we 'are' related... by marriage." Rafe said pleasantly.

It took every bit of self control at his disposal for Dodger not to react with amusement to the comment.

Before anyone could dig deeper into their relationship, Hester said, "We should get in out of this chill. Everyone, please come in and we'll have dinner ready in just a few minutes."

* * * * *

"You have a beautiful home." Rafe said as he looked around the neat little house.

There was an abundance of knickknacks on display throughout the living room, but not to the point were they looked like clutter.

"Thank you. Hester and I bought this place the year after we got married and have been happy here ever since." John said as he gestured for Rafe and Dodger to have a seat on the couch, then asked, "Can I get you something to drink before dinner?"

"No, thank you." Rafe said for both of them.

John accepted the answer, then took a seat in a well-worn recliner.

"When I got out of the hospital, mom decided that we should come back here to help Grandma and Grandpa." Little Joe said, seemingly out of nowhere.

"Family is important. I'm glad that your grandparents were able to depend on you when they needed you." Rafe said with a warm smile at Little Joe.

"Well, I wasn't really that much help. Mom was running around taking care of all three of us. But it was better for us to be here because otherwise me and Mom and Dad would have all been worried about how Grandma and Grandpa were getting along." Little Joe said frankly.

"We've been so blessed by having them here." John said with a smile at his grandson.

"So, where do you live when you're not here, Little Joe?" Dodger asked curiously.

"Santa Clarita, California. My dad has a job there." Little Joe said simply, then quickly added, "He really wanted to come here with us, but he had to work."

"I'm sure that was a very difficult decision for him." Rafe said as he looked at Little Joe seriously.

"Yeah. He took a week off from work when I was in the hospital. Even though there wasn't much he could do but just sit there... well, just having him there really helped." Little Joe finished timidly.

Before anyone could respond, Hester called through the doorway, "Dinner's on the table!"

* * * * *

Dodger flashed an amused glance as they took their seats.

Rafe involuntarily smiled in return.

"Before we start eating, I'd like to propose a toast." John said from the head of the table.

Everyone around the table turned their full attention to him.

"To Dr. Killian. If not for you, my wife and I and our grandson would likely not be here to enjoy this meal. Thank you." John said as he raised his glass in toast.

Everyone took a sip of their drinks, but before they could put their glasses down, Little Joe stood and said, "I'd also like to drink to Dodger. Rafe saved my life, and I'm really thankful for that, but Dodger helped me through the scariest thing that's ever happened to me."

"Here, here." John said from the front of the table, then everyone took another drink.

"We'd better start eating or we're all going to be filled up on drinks." Hester said before anyone could propose another toast.

A few chuckles went around the table as everyone tucked in.

* * * * *

"Dr. Killian." Olivia said, breaking the silence that had fallen over the table as everyone ate.

"Please, call me Rafe." Rafe responded gently.

"Rafe, my husband and I have been having a bit of a dispute with Little Joe about something and I'd like to get your thoughts on the matter, if you wouldn't mind." Olivia said carefully.

Little Joe flashed an aggravated look at his mother, but didn't say anything.

"Of course, I'll do whatever I can." Rafe said as he devoted his full attention to her.

"Little Joe was able to finish high school early. He graduated a few months ago. We sent him to spend time with his grandparents hoping that they could convince him of the importance of a college education." Olivia said seriously.

"You don't want to go to college?" Rafe asked Little Joe curiously.

After a moment of squirming, Little Joe reluctantly said, "I wouldn't mind going to college. I mean, I was able to finish a semester early, so I should be smart enough. I guess I just don't want to go to college just to go. I want to know what I'm going for."

"So you'd like to take some time to determine where your interests lie before you commit yourself to a field of study?" Rafe asked carefully, to confirm.

"Yeah." Little Joe said with surprise at the accurate summary of his feelings. "I know I can take the basic classes for a year or two before I have to choose a major, but how am I going to know what I want to do if all I've ever done is study?"

"Dodger is in a similar situation. He just recently graduated high school... a year early." Rafe said with a proud smile at Dodger, then continued, "We've talked about him going to college, but then I was called away to New Mexico and we haven't discussed it since. I suppose that I'll be available if and when he wants to discuss it. I'll give him the benefit of my insights and then he'll make the decision that's best for him."

Little Joe considered Rafe's words for a moment, then turned to his mother and said, "Mom, when I was on the plane, I nearly died. If I had, one of the things that I would have regretted was us being mad at each other over something that's really not that important. I'm going to go to college, just maybe not right away. I'd like to get a job and get a feeling for what I'm good at. Once I've figured that out, then I can go to college or a trade school or whatever it takes."

"It might also be a good experience for Little Joe to see what limitations he has with only a high school education." Rafe said seriously.

Olivia reluctantly nodded her agreement.

John turned to his daughter and quietly said, "I know you only want what's best for the boy, but he's come to the age where it's his decision to make. Now, if he starts lazing around the house, being useless, you'll have our full support in kicking his little keister until he gets some sense. But as long as he's working toward something and trying to figure things out, I think we should allow him the freedom to make his own decisions."

"Thanks, Dad. I just don't want for him to have any regrets later because we didn't push him to achieve more." Olivia said quietly.

"Do you regret that we didn't push you more?" John asked his daughter as he looked her in the eyes.

"I didn't mean that!" Olivia sputtered.

"I know you didn't. But, do you regret that we didn't encourage you to go to college?" John asked his daughter curiously.

Olivia glanced at Little Joe as her look became tender and she said, "No. I don't regret anything."

* * * * *

"Will you have time to stay for a cup of coffee after dinner?" John asked as he stood from his place at the table.

"We should probably be going soon." Rafe said consideringly, then looked at Dodger with question.

"Before you go, there's something I want to show you, Dodger." Little Joe said quickly.

"Why don't you have coffee while I go with Little Joe?" Dodger asked with a smile.

Rafe noticed Little Joe's hopeful expression, then looked at Dodger and nodded.

* * * * *

As Dodger and Little Joe walked onto the porch, Dodger looked around curiously.

"I remember everything." Little Joe said as he stopped to look Dodger in the eyes.

"About what?" Dodger asked cautiously.

"I promise that I haven't told anyone about you, and I never will. But I know what I saw. I remember every bit of it. You're an angel." Little Joe said seriously.

Dodger didn't know how to react and briefly wished that Rafe were there with him to handle the situation.

Finally, Dodger came to a decision, then looked around.

"I didn't know how much you'd remember." Dodger said absently as he started walking toward the driveway.

"You really are an angel, aren't you?" Little Joe asked hopefully as he followed.

Dodger led Little Joe around the side of the garage, then looked to see if they were within view of any of the neighbors.

Once he was reasonably assured that they were out of sight, Dodger consciously allowed himself to start glowing.

Little Joe's eyes went wide as he stared at Dodger.

For the first time, Dodger allowed the glowing sensation to go without restraint, enjoying the warm tingle that washed over him.

His voice seemed to echo slightly as he said, "Enjoy your family and love your life."

"I will." Little Joe whispered as he looked at the glowing halo and the wings spread out, displaying transparent veins of light.

"Only a few special people know about us. Remember your promise." Dodger said as he looked Little Joe in the eyes.

Little Joe slightly nodded as tears of joy started sliding down his cheeks.

Dodger took a step forward and gave Little Joe a firm hug and finished by giving him a kiss on the cheek.

By the time they separated, Dodger's glow had faded and he looked like an average teenager.

"I love you." Little Joe barely whispered.

"I love you, too, Little Joe. Remember that Rafe and I will always be there if you need us. All you have to do is call." Dodger said quietly.

Little Joe seemed to be frozen in thought for a moment, then hesitantly smiled and nodded.

"Rafe and I need to be going, now." Dodger said gently as he put an arm around Little Joe's shoulders.

"I don't want you to go." Little Joe said as he started to slowly walk back toward the front of the house.

"I know. I feel the same way. But no matter how we feel about it, we have to do what we have to do." Dodger said honestly.

"I can really call you?" Little Joe asked cautiously.

"Yes. Whenever you want. In fact, I want to hear all about it when you've decided what you want to do about college or a job." Dodger said as they walked past the front of the garage.

"Yeah. Me too. I mean, was that true what Rafe said about you being the same as me?" Little Joe rambled with renewed energy.

"Yes. I just graduated high school right before we left for New Mexico and I haven't decided what I'm going to do next." Dodger said with a smile.

"Okay. Then I want to know what you decide. And if you can't decide, I want you to call me so, maybe, if you want, we can try to figure it out together." Little Joe said hopefully.

"It's a deal." Dodger said with a grin at Little Joe's enthusiasm as they walked up to the front door.

* * * * *

"Are you about ready to go?" Rafe asked as he set his coffee cup aside and stood.

"Sure. Ready when you are." Dodger said as he and Little Joe walked into the living room.

"Wait a minute!" Little Joe said as he dashed away.

"Thank you for having dinner with us. It means a lot to us that we had a chance to thank you in person." Olivia said quietly.

"We would have helped anyone in that situation, but I'm glad that we ended up helping someone as good and decent as Little Joe. I know that you must be very proud of him." Rafe said warmly.

"Here!" Little Joe called as he ran back into the room carrying a slip of paper.

Dodger accepted the paper with a phone number written on it.

"Let me give you mine..." Dodger said as he patted his pockets to see if he had a pen.

"Take this." Rafe said as he handed a business card to Little Joe.

"The bottom number is our home number." Rafe said with a smile.

"Thanks." Little Joe said happily.

"Thank you, all of you, for inviting us to dinner. We've had a wonderful evening of good food and good company." Rafe said as he started toward the door.

"If you ever find yourself in the area, be sure to stop in and see us." John said as he stood to walk with them.

"I can never tell where my work is going to take me, so I might just do that." Rafe said as he pulled on his coat and gloves.

In a much quieter voice, John said, "And thank you for what you said in there. Olivia needed to hear that... and I think Little Joe did, too."

"Glad to help." Rafe said as he shook John's hand.

John then turned his attention to Dodger and said, "I'm glad my grandson has had the chance to make a new friend. I worry about him being around those California types."

"I hope you don't have anything against West Virginia types." Dodger said with a playful grin.

John chuckled, then said, "No. No. Some of my best friends are West Virginians."

"It was nice meeting all of you." Dodger said as he shook John's hand, then waved at Little Joe before walking to the car to join Rafe.

* * * * *

"It was nice to see Little Joe and his family together. They're how I've always imagined a family should be." Dodger said distantly.

"So your family isn't like that?" Rafe asked in a casual tone.

"No. I mean, I love them... I guess. But I can't say it to them or show them, because they never said it or showed it to me." Dodger said with difficulty.

As Rafe navigated the maddening jumble of winding streets through town, he quietly said, "I don't know if you've thought about this, but if you want to take any steps to resolve things with your family, you're going to need to do it soon."

Dodger didn't respond other than to look at him curiously.

"You don't age. They do. As time passes, it will become increasingly difficult for you to have any contact with them." Rafe said honestly.

Dodger nodded at the statement.

"One of the most poisonous things for a shadesider is regret. Think about how you'll feel five hundred years from now, if you don't make the effort to resolve things with your family while you've still got the chance." Rafe said as he kept his attention on the road.

"But I won't know what to say to them." Dodger said in a small voice.

"I don't know what actual words you'll say, but in your heart, you'll be saying 'goodbye'." Rafe said quietly.

Dodger turned and looked at him suddenly.

"You ran away from home. So I'm assuming that you've never told them about what you're feeling or how you feel about what they did to you. This is your chance to say what needs to be said. How much or how little you say is going to be up to you, but I just think it's important for you to speak your piece and then walk out of there with your head held high." Rafe said frankly.

"Okay. You're probably right. I'll think about it." Dodger said quietly.

"You'd better think quick. We'll be crossing the Ohio River into West Virginia in about twenty minutes." Rafe said frankly.

"We're going NOW?" Dodger asked in panic.

"No time like the present." Rafe said with a slight grin at Dodger.

"But it's too late to visit..." Dodger feebly protested.

"It's not really that late. Besides, I don't anticipate it being a very long visit." Rafe said honestly.

"I don't think I'm ready for this." Dodger said with a note of dread in his voice.

"Do you 'honestly' think it's going to get easier if you put it off?" Rafe asked seriously.

After a moment to consider the question, Dodger reluctantly shook his head.

"Dodger, remember that no matter what horrible things they say or what they try to do, that I loved you yesterday, I love you today, and I will continue to love you forever." Rafe said firmly.

"I don't want to do this." Dodger said quietly.

"I know." Rafe said regretfully, then quietly asked, "But you're going to do it anyway, aren't you?"

"Yeah." Dodger whispered with resignation.

* * * * *

"You're going to need to give me some directions. I got us to West Virginia, but from here on out you're going to have to tell me where to go."

"Yeah. Well, it's not like I've ever driven it either. But if we can find highway eighty-eight, I can get us the rest of the way there." Dodger said apologetically.

"I have an atlas in the glove box. Why don't you get it out and see if you can figure out where we need to go? If not, I'll stop at a filling station and buy a map." Rafe said seriously.

Dodger nodded, then opened the glove compartment.

* * * * *

"Are we close?" Rafe asked as he saw the untamed landscape of West Virginia speeding by outside the car.

"Not far." Dodger said nervously.

"That's what you said a half an hour ago." Rafe said as he glanced at Dodger.

"It's more true now than it was then." Dodger said as he looked out the window.

"I love you." Rafe said gently.

"Me, too." Dodger said absently, then said, "I mean, you. You know what I mean."

"Yes. I do." Rafe said with a gentle smile, then added, "And I know that you mean it."

"Yeah. I do." Dodger said softly, then quickly said, "Here it is, you need to turn right."

Rafe slowed the car and turned down a much smaller road.

"You know, after doing all this, I think you deserve a treat." Rafe said as he carefully drove the winding, unfamiliar road.

"A treat?" Dodger asked and seemed to perk up.

"Yes. What would you like to do when we get home tonight... or tomorrow morning." Rafe asked curiously.

"You mean 'anything'? Like this morning?" Dodger asked with a smile.

"Yes. That's what I mean. Except that now you have time to think about it and make detailed plans. What do you think you would like to do?" Rafe asked with a lecherous grin.

"Slow down." Dodger said simply.

"What?" Rafe asked with surprise.

"You're coming to a hairpin turn, you need to slow down." Dodger said somewhat urgently.

As Rafe let off the gas pedal, he saw what Dodger was talking about.

They drove in silence for the next few minutes as Rafe slowly drove on the narrow and incredibly curvy road.

* * * * *

"There's a dirt road just past that big rock, you'll need to turn in there." Dodger said as he pointed ahead of them.

Rafe slowed to nearly a stop before he spotted what was little more than a goat path that disappeared into the dense trees.

"I don't think this is what they had in mind when they designed this car." Rafe said tensely as he fought to stay on what was, by some definitions, a road.

"You'll need to turn right at the cemetery." Dodger said as he pointed ahead of them.

"What is it with West Virginia? I've never seen a place with so many cemeteries." Rafe said as he carefully turned and found that there wasn't anything that could be considered a road ahead of him.

"Yeah. There's probably more West Virginians horizontal than there are vertical." Dodger said with a grin, then pointed and said, "Drive between those trees over there and the road picks up on the other side."

"You weren't kidding when you said you lived up in the hills." Rafe said as he cautiously drove through the tall grass.

"This is the metro area." Dodger chuckled.

* * * * *

"Keep going." Dodger said as Rafe slowed the car.

"Across the stream?" Rafe asked cautiously.

"Yeah, it's only about an inch deep at this part." Dodger said seriously.

"Please tell me that we're almost to your family's house."

"Not far." Dodger said absently.

Rafe spared him a glance before directing his full attention forward.

* * * * *

"I'm sorry Dodger, but there's no way I'm driving across THAT." Rafe said as he pulled the car to a stop.

"That's fine. The house is just up this hill and around the bend. We can walk from here." Dodger said as he unlatched his seat-belt.

"So, this is where you grew up?" Rafe asked cautiously.

"That's right." Dodger said as he led the way toward the rickety wooden bridge.

"How safe is this?" Rafe asked as he looked ten feet down into a riverbed.

"Safe enough to drive across. Come on." Dodger said as he started across the uneven wood slats.

Rafe followed immediately behind, but had the sense that the boards could give way with every step.

* * * * *

"There it is." Dodger said as they climbed a rather steep path up the hill.

When Rafe saw the shanty on the hillside, he suddenly realized that Dodger hadn't been exaggerating when he described his family's humble home.

Even in the meager moonlight, Rafe could tell that the small house probably hadn't seen a coat of paint in about forty years. The wood was weather worn and looked as though a stiff breeze would cause the entire thing to collapse in on itself.

Before they had even stepped onto the warped and weathered porch, Rafe caught the unmistakable scent of unwashed bodies.

"Oh, man!" Dodger said as he stopped and cringed away.

"Remember, we won't be staying." Rafe said gently.

Dodger took in a deep breath of clean, fresh air to brace himself, then walked up to the door.

* * * * *

After Dodger knocked on the door, he looked at Rafe with concern.

"I'm here with you." Rafe said gently.

Dodger nodded, then turned suddenly when the door opened.

"Hi, Donna." Dodger said quietly, but made no move to enter.

"It's Desi!" Donna called as she turned and walked back into the house.

Rafe looked at Dodger curiously, but could tell that Dodger was still bracing himself for the worst of it.

"Desi? What'ch'a doin here?" A short stout woman asked as she waddled toward the door.

By Rafe's estimation, she was probably as big around as she was tall. She also had a respectable mustache and the beginning of a beard, with several long gray whiskers on her chins.

"Hi Ma. I'd like you to meet Rafe." Dodger said quietly.

The woman glanced at Rafe, then turned her full attention to Dodger and said, "Ya best be on yer guard with Pa. He wont none too pleased when ya up and left like ya did."

"I know. That's why I'm here now." Dodger said honestly, then explained, "I couldn't face him then, but Rafe made me realize that things wouldn't be right until I came here and talked to him."

"Well then, ya'd best come in and git on with it." Dodgers mother said and finished with a sigh.

As she waddled into the house, Dodger followed immediately behind her and Rafe followed a few steps back.

* * * * *

When Rafe walked into the main room of the house, he realized that the entire family appeared to be present.

The stench in the air was nearly unbearable, but he put that out of his mind as he tried to gauge the attitudes of Dodger's siblings.

The range of emotions seemed to run from disinterest to annoyance.

"Fuck, boy. You ain't here 'spectin to move in on us, are ya?" A low, husky voice dripping with disgust asked.

Rafe looked at Dodger's father and was surprised to see that he was a tall, gaunt figure of a man. Somehow, Rafe had pictured Dodger's father to be muscular, or at least overweight.

"No, Pa. We were just in the neighborhood, so I thought I'd stop by to let you know that I'm doing okay." Dodger said simply.

"So you went to tha big city and now yous here ta rub ar noses in it, huh?" Dodger's father sneered.

"No. I just felt bad about leavin tha way I did. It was cowardly. So I came back to set things right, if I can." Dodger said in a firm, steady tone.

"Who's this here, then?" Dodger's father asked as he looked at Rafe.

"A friend. His name is Rafe." Dodger said in a slow, neutral tone.

Dodger's father made a show of looking Rafe up and down, then seemed to come to a decision before saying, "I see."

Rafe looked at Dodger's father uncertainly, and was on guard, ready to defend himself.

"I heard 'bout men like you. Git outta my house and take that little faggot whore with you."

"Pa!" Dodger's mother gasped.

"I don't know who ya was sleepin with, but that's no son of mine." Dodger's father said to his wife.

"You know what? If you say I ain't your son, that's fine! You're no kin of mine either. But I grew up under your roof, so I figured I owed it to you to come back here and let you know how I'm doing. By the way, I'm fine. I'm happy. If that doesn't mean anything to you, that's not my problem." Dodger said on the verge of rage.

"Git out!" Dodger's father said without wavering.

Dodger looked around the room at all the frozen faces and finally said, "It's good to see all of you again. I hope all of you have good and happy lives."

As Dodger turned, Rafe put a hand on his shoulder and walked with him to the door.

* * * * *

"That derned fool don't know what he's talkin 'bout. You're his son. Ain't no doubt 'bout it." Dodger's mother said as she waddled onto the porch.

"Thanks, Ma." Dodger said as he leaned down to give her a hug.

"Now, tha other ten... them I can't be so sure 'bout."

"Ma!" Dodger gasped as he pulled back to look her in the eyes.

"I'm just funnin. I ain't never slept with no man but your Pa." She said with a mischievous grin.

Dodger gave her a slight smile and nodded.

"Don't'cha be worryin 'bout what yer Pa said in there. Ya said ya was happy. That's all I ever wanted fer my little Dodger and it's more than I could expect." She said seriously then looked at Rafe and continued, "Y'all go on, now. And don't look back."

Dodger felt the tears falling down his cheeks and finally managed to say, "Thanks, Ma."

She made a shooing motion, then turned and waddled back into the house.

* * * * *

"Are you alright?" Rafe asked as they slowly walked down the hill.

"Yeah." Dodger said as he held close to Rafe's side, then added, "Thanks for talking me into coming here."

"I suppose it could have gone worse, although I'm hard pressed to imagine how." Rafe said as he returned Dodger's hug.

"All I know is that I feel like I did everything that I needed to do. I can leave here without any regrets." Dodger said frankly.

"That's what all of this was about." Rafe said warmly.

* * * * *

As they approached the car, Rafe stopped at the sight of someone leaning against the driver's side door.

"Duncan?" Dodger asked as he pulled away from Rafe and ran toward the car.

"Desi? Is that you?" Duncan asked as he fumbled to turn on his flashlight.

"Yeah. What are you doing here?" Dodger asked as he ran up to his brother just as the flashlight came on.

"After what Pa said, I just wanted ta come down here an tell ya how sorry I am 'bout... well, pretty much everything." Duncan said quietly.

"You don't have to..." Dodger began to say.

"Yes. I do." Duncan interrupted, then continued, "I'm sorry fer what Pa said. I'm sorry fer tha way tha rest of us treated ya. And, mostly, I'm sorry fer everythin I ever did ta make ya feel bad. I got no excuse fer it. I'm just sorry." Duncan said as he looked Dodger in the eyes.

"It's okay, Duncan. I was never mad at you. But just in case you need to hear it, I forgive you." Dodger said seriously.

Duncan smiled and said, "Thanks, Desi. Ya know, out of all of us, I never figured you'd be tha one who'd make it."

"Make what?" Dodger asked curiously.

"Make it out of here. Git away from all this." Duncan said frankly.

"Duncan." Rafe said to get his attention.

After a moment to turn the flashlight so he could see, Duncan looked at Rafe with question.

"Get in." Rafe said simply.

"What?" Duncan asked in confusion.

"We're leaving. What do you say?" Rafe asked with a smile.

Duncan looked at Rafe in shock, then looked at his brother with question.

Dodger smiled and nodded.

Duncan looked at Rafe uncertainly for a moment, then glanced at Dodger before reaching down and opening the car door.

The End...

...of Part 3

...of Book 1

...but not of the story.

Editor's Notes:

First of all, let me just say that as is always the case with MM's work, I love this story.

It was very nice that Dodger and Rafe were able to go visit Little Joe and his family. I can picture little Joe doing some great things as he gets older, no matter what he decides to do.

It looks as if Dodger's mom really does care about him, even if his so called father doesn't give a hoot.

I was very glad to see that Duncan left with Rafe and Dodger. I am sure there will be a place for him, now that he has taken that giant step to leave that so called family.

Thank you MultiMapper, for another wonderful story. We will be looking forward to reading what comes next.

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher