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"Come on, Walker," Trivette wheedled, twisting in short arcs on the barstool.  "Don't you think we could cut down on a lot of wasted time if we used on-line—"

Cordell shook his head, trying hard to ignore C.D. as he grinned.  "How many times do I have to tell you, computers are—"

"Computers?  Again?"  Alex asked, walking up to the bar to join the off-duty Texas Rangers.  She slid onto the seat next to Walker and nodded her thanks as C.D. set a half-full glass of white wine in front of her.

The retired-Ranger-turned-barkeep grinned.  "Yep.  Cordell's draggin' his heels all the way into the 21st century."

"Absolutely, C.D.  Absolutely," Trivette concurred, munching a roasted peanut.

"I'm not dragging anything," Walker argued, suddenly feeling outnumbered.  "I just think that there's nothing wrong with good old-fashioned police work."

"I think the 'old-fashioned' is what they're getting at, Washo."

Walker spun his stool around to frown at his uncle.  "You too, Uncle Ray?"

The old Cherokee man shrugged.  "Even the spirits will be on-line one day, Nephew."  He targeted his dart and let it fly.  It thudded into the center of the board.

"My turn," Mabel said, squeezing one eye shut to take aim.  She tossed the dart and it wobbled to the board, barely embedding itself in the outer most rim.  "Ohhhh," she muttered.

Dwight Yokum started singing about little sisters as Walker and Trivette returned to their ongoing disagreement.  C.D. shook his head and picked up a damp cloth to wipe the bartop down while the two Rangers presented a seemingly endless stream of example and counter-example to make their points.

Alex sighed and gazed up at the ceiling, imploring divine intervention.  Her prayer was answered by a stranger who entered the bar and made her way over to Trivette, who continued on his latest argument, gaze fixed on the bartop.

Walker did not miss the arrival, his latest round of rhetoric fading into silence. She was… exotic, he decided as the neurons finally fired.

Tall and athletic looking, the woman had a deep bayou kind of look, but for the life of him, he couldn't put a finger on her racial or ethnic background.  The tailored teal dress left his imagination rushing furiously to fill in the spaces between the details.

His cheeks flushed and he dipped his head to keep from staring before continuing his appraisal.  Long, thick black hair hung to the woman's hips, swaying supplely as she walked.

He did a quick reconnaissance from the flat sandals up long, well-defined legs, slim hips, muscled abdomen… trim but strong neck…

He blinked and met her almond-shaped eyes.  They were an odd silver-gray that startled him, and he sat up straighter.  He'd expected black eyes.  Her coco-reddish-bronze completion hinted at Native American and something more…

He opened his mouth to ask who she was, but the words stalled in his throat when she tapped Jimmy's shoulder.  He turned, eyes rounding in surprise.

Before he could speak, the woman slid around to stand between his parted knees.  Leaning forward, she molded her lithe body to his, easing Jimmy back against the bar until his butt lifted off the stool.

Her lips pressed firmly against his and Trivette's eyes grew even wider, then drooped with pleasure.  One imitation-Armanti-clad leg rose slowly, his boot heel hooking the rim of the barstool for support.  His hands came up, cupping the woman's shoulder blades, then sliding down her back to palm the curve of her hips, drawing her tighter into him.

C.D.'s mouth dropped open as the towel he pushed in circles across the bar came to a dead stop.  A tingle in his nether-regions let him know he wasn't as old as he thought he was.

An apron handed on his face, obstructing the view, and he snatched it away.

"You're too old to think like that," Mabel scolded, a touch of awe in her voice and her gaze on the pair.

"I am not!" C.D. bellowed.

"That's not what you said last night, ya ol' coot!"

C.D. sputtered and turned, trying to find something to do besides stare.

Alex smiled wistfully and sighed.  Resting a hand on Walker's shoulder, she asked, "Are you taking notes?"

The Ranger blushed.  "Alex," he scolded softly.

"You can never learn too much technique, Washo," Uncle Ray said.  He stepped closer, admiring the pair.  With a grunt he shifted back to stand next to his nephew.  "The spirits have inspired them.  You should be so lucky."

Walker scowled at his obviously occupied partner.  Trivette reveled in the impassioned kiss.

"Keep that up and I'll run both of you in for… something," he half-growled.

Jimmy's leg straightened as his eyes opened.

The woman broke the kiss, then grabbed the front of his suit jacket, pulling him off the bar so he slid back onto his stool with a slack-muscle plop.  With a half-turn she sat down on his lap.

Trivette's grin lit the room even as he blushed and dipped his head, looking at Walker.  "I guess I should make some, ah, introductions."

Alex nodded and smiled, then leaned forward, resting her chin on Walker's arm.  "Please."

C.D. edged down the bar, only to be stopped by Mabel, who sat down on the stool beside Jimmy and his lapful.

He scowled at the older woman and she scowled back, shaking her finger at him.

Trivette gestured to each in turn.  "Walker, Alex, C.D., Mable, Uncle Ray, this is Dominique… my wife."  He smiled innocently and waited for the reaction.

An off-key chorus of five voices responded in unison.  "Wife?"

Dom nodded and sighed, leaning back against Jimmy's shoulder.  "It only lasted six weeks…"  She looked up at him adoringly and fluttered her eyelashes.  "But what a six weeks it was."

C.D.'s mouth fell open a second time.  "Son, you've been holdin' out on us!"

Dom grinned, turning so she could run her fingers lightly over Trivette's trim haircut.  The move gave Walker goose bumps.

"But I have to tell you, Jimmy, I already miss the dreadlocks."

The young Ranger tried to fight the smile off his face, but it was impossible.  The pair erupted into laughter, Trivette giving her a tight, affectionate hug.

"Dreadlocks?" Walker echoed incredulously.

"It's a long story," Trivette assured.

"Well," Alex said brightly.  "We have all night."

A commotion at the door interrupted, drawing their attention.  C.D. rounded the bar and stalked to the entrance.  "What in the name of—"

A young man bounded through the door, his smile announcing his profession. "Mr. C.D. Parker?"

"Yeah," the barkeep said, "that's me."

More perfect teeth appeared.  "Congratulations, sir, you've won a week long free trial!"

C.D.'s eyes narrowed as a large wooden crate edged through the door.  "Trial?  What kind of trial?  How'd I win this trial?"

The man's arm snaked around C.D.'s shoulders, leading him back to the bar.  "Well, sir, you left your business card in the fish bowl at Harrison Feed Barn," the young man said while his two companions unloaded the large, heavy box from its dolly.  "And it got picked!  You've won the free use of a Harrison Mechanized Bucking Brahma for one full week!  Guaranteed to increase your business by twenty-five percent!"

C.D. smiled and his eyebrows peaked in excitement.  "An honest-to-goodness mechanical bucking bull?"

"Yep, just like Gilley's.  He gets all his bulls from us!" the man exclaimed.  "All you have to do is move a few tables, plug it in, and watch your profits climb."

"Well, ain't that something," C.D. crowed.  He slapped the man on the back.  "What are we waitin' for?  Open her up!"

Walker sat down behind his friend.  "C.D., you sure this is a good idea?"

"Good idea?" C.D. repeated incredulously.  "Good idea?  Why, Cordell, you're looking at a hundred percent guaranteed money maker!"  He looked at the man for corroboration.  "Isn't that right?"

"Absolutely!  People love these things!  And they're perfectly safe!"

Walker shook his head and patted C.D.'s shoulder.  "I hope your insurance is up to date."

Sliding off the stool, he walked back to rejoin the others, then looked at Trivette.  "And you stay off that thing."

"Me?" Jimmy asked, looking hurt.  "Do I look stupid to you, Walker?"

"Sometimes," the older man chuckled, missing Dominique's frown.  "So what was this about dreadlocks?"

"I think that story can wait for another night," Trivette said, watching the barkeeper hovering over the men as they pried the wooden crate open.  "Besides, C.D.'s going to want to play with his new toy."  He smiled at Dom.  "So, how about some dinner?"

"I'd love it," she said, standing.

"We'll see you later," Jimmy said, sliding off his seat and taking her hand.

"Bye," Alex said, turning to Walker.  "So, how about some dinner?"

Walker watched his partner leaving, the pair maneuvering around the boxed bull.  "Sure," he agreed.  "C.D.'s got some chili—"

"That wasn't what I had in mind," Alex said, a seductive smile on her face.

"Alex," Cordell chastised, "you don't really want me to leave him alone with that, do you?"

She eyed the plastic-draped bull skeptically.  "I guess not, but you owe me a dinner, Cordell Walker."

The Ranger smiled, his hands coming up in a gesture of surrender.  "Okay, okay.  I'll even let you pick the place."

"And you'll treat?"

"I didn't say that."

She slapped his arm.

"Okay, my treat."

Alex wagged her eyebrows.  "I'll hold you to that," she said, moving over to take a closer look at the bull.

Uncle Ray rested a hand on Walker's shoulder.  "Maybe you can talk to Jimmy."

"About what?"

"Technique."

Walker snorted and shook his head.

His uncle grinned and shrugged.  "Couldn't hurt."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Dom sat across a small, round, checker cloth-draped table from Trivette, enjoying a glass of wine and the company while they waited for the waiter to bring their lasagna.

"So," Jimmy said, his head cocking slightly to the side, "why are you really here?"

She shrugged.  "To be honest, I wanted to see how you were doing."

"Oh?"

"I was out of the country when Markus escaped," she said quietly, watching his face and seeing the chill that passed over the man.  "KARL let me know when he escaped… and when you went missing.  I couldn't do anything where I was—"

"Right in the middle of trouble, I'll bet," Trivette interrupted, trying to put some distance between himself and the still raw memories.

"Always," she said, giving him the distance he wanted.  "When I could take some vacation time I decided to come out."  She paused, then finished, "I just wish I could've been here."

Jimmy shook his head.  "I don't think it would've helped."

"Maybe not, but I would've felt better."

He flashed her a broad smile.  "Still chasing bad guys all over the globe?"

She nodded, then teased.  "But I haven't found any more rookies like you."

"I was good, wasn't I?"

Her eyebrows jumped and she laughed.  "And modest, too."  The expression turned more serious.  "I'm just glad you finally made it to the Rangers.  I know how much you wanted that."

"It took some time, but it was worth the wait and effort."

They paused as their waiter returned with the meal.  Dom sampled hers before asking, "How's the partner working out?  He doesn't seem real… friendly."

"You mean Tonto?"

She grinned.  "Hey, you'll always be my Lone Ranger, so he has to be Tonto."

"He's part Cherokee."

Dom grimaced.  "Oops.  Not real PC of me, was it?"

Trivette chuckled.  "Just don't call him that in earshot."

"I promise.  But, seriously, how is he?"

"Walker's the best," he summed up.  "But enough about him.  I want to know what you're really doing here."

"I told you, I came to see you."

"No secret missions?"

"Not a one."

He relaxed.  "Gonna watch me compete?"

"You have a triathalon?"

Jimmy shook his head as he finished a bite of his vegetarian version of the Italian dish.  "No, there's an annual law enforcement shoot-off that Dallas sponsors."

"And you're on the team?"

"I'll find out tomorrow.  They have a competition for partners and one for solo shooters."

"How's Walker?"

"Like I said, he's the best.  Want to come watch me beat him?"

"Sure," she agreed.  "Can you?"

"I'm going to try."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Dom walked into the DPS gym, looking for Trivette.  After an enjoyable dinner they'd gone dancing and she hadn't made it back to her hotel until close to two in the morning.  At just past seven she doubted she'd find Jimmy as planned.

James Trivette hadn't been much of a morning guy when she'd met him, but maybe the Rangers had changed that.

She heard several thumps and heavy breathing coming from the rear of the near-empty gym, words floating out afterwards.  She set her course, weaving through the weight equipment and several admiring stares.

"Come on, Trivette, what's the matter?  Stay out too late last night?  You're slow.  Sluggish."

Dom stepped around a large cement pillar, finding the two men in a raised boxing ring.  Wearing gi pants, tank-tops, and protective gear, both bounced around each other, looking for an opening.

Walker landed several light blows.  Trivette snuck in one, stating, "You can never stay out too late with a beautiful woman, Walker.  I'm sure Alex wishes you knew that."

Walker popped his partner slightly harder.  "Don't you know the saying, early to bed…"

Jimmy noticed Dom.  "Early to rise," Trivette finished, wagging his eyebrows at her.

Walker took advantage of his partner's lax concentration, landing a quick blow on Trivette's protected jaw.  His head snapped to the side and he staggered back.

"Hey, that was a cheap shot!" Trivette complained.

Dom shook her head and frowned.  She didn't remember Jimmy being so... whiney... but he was right.  It was a cheap shot.

"I could say the same thing," Walker countered.

It took an effort, but Dom remained where she was.  It would feel good to take the Ranger down a peg or two.

Jimmy shook off the blow and moved in on his partner.

He looked good, she noted, having filled out since his narco days.  Three years ago she'd needed a fresh face, and after reading through the files she'd found three possibilities.  But when Jimmy had appeared in the doorway to the captain's office she'd immediately picked him.

James Trivette was bright and quick.  And while he still had something to prove to himself, and apparently his partner, he didn't pull stupid stunts.... She watched Walker land another series of blows while he pulled a Sugar Ray imitation, and hoped she was right about the stunts.

Regardless, he'd been there for her when she'd needed someone – professionally and personally.  Every so often John's absence haunted her and it was good to have someone to talk to.  Jimmy had been an excellent listener.

She could sum it up simply.  Jimmy Trivette was a friend, and in her business, friends were a rare commodity.

The two men continued to spar – Jimmy quick and light on his feet, Walker more grounded and focused.

"Okay, Trivette," Walker goaded.  "I want you to try not to go down so quick this time."

"Me?" Jimmy countered, bouncing.  "I'm not goin' anywhere.  Nope.  Not me. I'm on my toes, Walker, and I'm stayin' there."

Walker feigned a back-fist and stepped in, catching Trivette with a brisk sweep kick that lifted the man off the mat.  He fell, the older Ranger pinning him with a precise scissor move that impressed Dom with its grace and accuracy.

Trivette groaned in frustration and struggled to get free.  Walker tightened his grip, forcing the younger man to tap three times.

Walker let him up.

"Why do you always do that?" Trivette demanded.

"Do what?"

"Tell me not to do something and then do it to me!"

Cordell looked innocent.  "I tell you so you'll stop me."

"Stop you?" Trivette asked loudly.  "I didn't even see you coming!"

Walker smiled.  "Lack of sleep can cause blurry vision."

"Yeah, right."

Dom watched, unsure if the older man was teaching or teasing.  In either case, she wasn't particularly impressed with the method.

"Okay, the lesson's over for today.  Go get cleaned up so we can get out to the range and qualify."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Jimmy grumbled, climbing to his feet.

Walker patted him on the shoulder before climbing out of the ring and heading past Dom to the showers.  "Good morning," he said as he passed.

"Morning," she replied coolly.

Jimmy leaned against the ropes, spat out his mouthpiece and grinned.  "One of these days I'm gonna get the drop on him, then pow!  Right to the moon, you know?"

She nodded.  "He always that friendly in the morning?"

"Walker?" Trivette asked, watching his partner disappear into the showers.  "He's harmless."

"I think you were holding back."

Trivette shrugged.  "Some things you just have to learn the hard way."  He stepped through the ropes and jumped down to the floor.  Pulling his protective gear off, he tossed it in a gym bag, admiring the scenery as he did.

Dressed in faded jeans, long-sleeve plum T-shirt and Reaboks Dom looked like a teenager playing hooky.  Her long hair was pulled back in a single braid.  He paused for a moment, realizing that he didn't actually know how old she was…

"Come on, Trivette!  You're as bad as Alex, and I don't want to be late!"

"I'm coming," he called back.  "Wait here," he instructed.  "I'll be right back."

"What, I can't watch?" she teased.

Trivette grinned.  "I wouldn't mind, but I think Walker might die of embarrassment and I'd hate to do that to Alex."

"Okay," she said, pushing him toward the showers.  "Go scrub."

"Rub-a-dub-dub," he said, nearly skipping off.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Jimmy stopped short, staring at the competition shooting course.  "It's different."

"Of course it's different," Walker said indulgently.  "If they left it the same, everyone would know what to expect."

Trivette gave his partner a withering glare.  "You didn't tell me it'd be different."

"Flexible, Trivette.  You have to be flexible."  Walker patted the man's shoulder.

"I'm a flexible guy, Walker," he argued.  "I am.  But you should've told me."

"Just do your best."

"I always do my best," he argued, then flashed his partner a winning grin.  "And this year I'm going to best you."

"We'll see," Walker said, veering off to the registration table to check them in.

"I think he underestimates you," Dom said, watching the departing Ranger.  Of course Jimmy wasn't doing too much to help that impression.

"Sometimes." Trivette said, then shrugged.  "Most of the time, but he'll learn."

Dom glanced around the grounds, noting the officers milling around.  "How does this work?"

"Well," Trivette said, "this is the final round to determine the teams that'll represent Texas three weeks from now at the National competition.  Walker and I have to go up against a team from the Sheriff's department and one from DPS and beat them to get on the state team."

"And it's a partner thing?"

"Yeah, each partner goes through the course alone and the best combined score becomes the Texas state team."

"And the individual best times?"

"They get an award and into the other half of the national competition."

"How good are you?" she asked, noting the betting already beginning to take place throughout the gathering crowd.

"Good," Jimmy said with a grin.  "But Walker's better."

"Oh?"

"I'm closing in, though."  He gave her a brilliant smile.  "This year I might just beat him."

Dom surveyed the course, a walk down a dirt street lined with an occasional car.  On either side erected flats stood, mimicking storefronts, apartment buildings, and alley entrances.

"Targets pop out at random," Jimmy explained.  "Some you to shoot, others you can't.  You know, bad guys, little kids, old ladies…"

Dom grinned.  "Sometimes you have to watch out for those old ladies."

"I'll bet."

"How many targets?"

"Ten."

"What's a winning time?" she asked.

"Thirty seconds, give or take a couple."

"Okay," Walker said, rejoining the pair.  "We're going last this year."

"Great," Trivette grumbled, then sighed heavily.  "What number are we?"

"Third."

"The last of the last?" Trivette asked, his eyes widening.  "Walker!"

"Remember that talk we just had about flexibility?"  He rested a hand on Trivette's shoulder, guiding him away from the course.

Dom trailed the pair, wondering just how good Walker really was.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Walker and Trivette stood at the start of the course as the announcer said, "Well, folks, this will be the last run of the day.  The time these Rangers have to beat is 57 seconds.  Less than a minute.  It's not going to be easy."

The announcer leaned over so he could see the partners.  "Who's going first, Rangers?"

"I am," Trivette called before Walker could say anything.  He looked at his partner, explaining, "You went first last time."

Walker took a step back.  "Okay."

"First up, Ranger James Trivette…"

Jimmy rolled his neck, shook his shoulders, and flexed his fingers.  "Okay, I'm ready."

"Ready… and…" the announcer said, "…go!"

Jimmy started down the street, his gaze sweeping regularly left, right, left.  The first target snapped out, a man holding a knife on a woman.  The gun was in his hand and firing before he realized he'd reached for it.

Target two, a little girl.

Three, a teen with a gun…

The targets flashed by in a blur as he made his way to the end of the course, the crowd erupting into wild cheers when he reached the end.

"Ranger James Trivette, twenty-seven seconds!  That ties the best time for the day, set by DPS officer Carl Trinity. Congratulations, Ranger!"

There was another pause as the crowd cheered.

"And now, our final competitor, Ranger Cordell Walker."

Dom watched Walker step up to the starting line, relaxed and confident.  He knew he was good.

"Ready… and… go!"

Walker walked briskly down the street, the Colt flashing into his hand, firing at regular intervals as he proceeded surely to the end.  Another round of boisterous cheering erupted from the bleachers.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new course record!  Ranger Cordell Walker, twenty-five seconds!"

The two partners walked back to the start, accompanied by applause.

"The Texas team for this year's national shoot-out competition will be Rangers Cordell Walker and James Trivette with a combined time of fifty-two seconds, a new course record!  The individual time winner is Ranger Cordell Walker with an amazing twenty-five seconds!  Runners up are Ranger James Trivette and Deputy Carl Trinity at twenty-seven.  Congratulations, men, and make Texas proud!"

"How do you do it?" Trivette demanded angrily.

"What?" Walker asked innocently.

"Every time, every single time you beat me.  How?"

Walker gave Alex a hug as walked up to join them.  "Hi," he said.

"Hi," she replied, giving him a kiss.  "Congratulations… to both of you."

"Cordell, that was— that was… inspirational!" C.D. said, bursting out of the milling crowd.  He pumped Walker's hand.

"What about me?" Trivette asked, sounding hurt.

"Jimmy, that was a fine job," C.D. replied.  "Stupendous!  We're gonna win this year, you just wait and see.  We can't lose!"

"Great job," Dom said, giving Jimmy a hug and a kiss.

Trivette grabbed her waist, snugging her in against him.  "Can you beat him?" he whispered playfully in her ear.

"Maybe, the targets pop up in regular patterns," she replied.  "Why?"

Jimmy pulled back far enough to meet her eyes.  "Revenge," he whispered conspiratorially.

She leaned in again.  "Okay, but I'll have to borrow a weapon.  Know anyone with a Beretta?"

"Ask Trinity.  He owes me a favor."

She nodded.  "I might not be able to beat twenty-five."

"It's worth a try, just in case."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

The barbecue and festivities finally over by early evening, the competitors and their families headed home, leaving only a handful of people still milling at the site.  Walker and Alex sat side by side on a colorful blanket, leaning against the trunk of a large tree, their shoulders touching.  C.D. and Uncle Ray sat in the shade at the nearby picnic table, playing checkers.  Trivette and Dom lounged on the large blanket.

Jimmy leaned over and tapped his partner on the sole of his boot.  "Hey, Walker."

"What?" the man asked, his eyes failing to open.

"I have a wager for you."

One eye cracked.  "Oh?"

Jimmy nodded.  "I'll bet you a dinner out that your score today can be beat."

C.D. laughed and shook his head as he turned to look at Trivette.  "Ain't nobody gonna beat that score, Jimmy."

"I say different, big dog."

Walker chuckled.  "And where would this dinner out be?"

"Wherever the winner wants to go," Trivette said, knowing he'd hooked his partner.

Alex grinned.  "Sounds like a good deal to me."

"Okay, partner, you're on."  Walker stood, then pulled Alex to her feet.  "I don't mind beating you again."

C.D., watching his last three pieces get jumped by Uncle Ray, sighed and stood.  "This I have to see."

"Me, too," the old Indian said, following suit.

"Great," Trivette said, climbing to his feet.  Reaching down, he offered his hand to Dom, who accepted.

As a group they walked the short distance back to the course.  C.D. climbed the stairs to the control booth and sat down.  "Jimmy, I think you should've stopped while you were ahead.  Twenty-seven is a damned fine score, son."

"I know," Trivette acknowledged.

Walker patted his partner on the back.  "So, let's see your stuff."

Trivette shook his head.  "Oh no.  Not me, Walker."

Cordell looked confused.  "Not you?"

"Nope."  He grinned.  "Dom."

Walker looked at the woman, surprise clear on his face.

She smiled, stepping over to the starting line.  With a little luck she might just be able to beat him – if she recognized the target pattern soon enough.  Not for the first time she thanked the powers that be for a photographic memory.

"We win if she ties or beats your time, okay?"

Trivette was too confident…  Walker nodded, suddenly wondering just who the woman really was.

C.D. looked skeptical, but set the course, then called down, "It's ready."

"Me, too," Dom said, stepping up to the start line.

"Go!"

Dom walked swiftly down the street.  The Beretta flashed into her hand and she fired on the first target… the second, little girl.  The pattern flashed through her mind and she picked up the pace.

At the end of the course C.D. whooped.  "I don't believe it!  Twenty-three!  I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes!"

Walker shook his head, impressed and curious.

Jimmy jumped, snatching the Stetson off his head and yelling, "Yes!  Yes, yes, yes!"  He grinned at his partner.  "The unbeatable Cordell Walker is beaten!"

"She's good," he told Trivette and shook Dom's hand when she rejoined then. "Very good.  Nice shooting."

She smiled.  "Thank you.  Just lucky."

"So," Jimmy asked her.  "Where do you want to go to dinner tonight?"

She shrugged, casting a sidelong glance at Walker, who looked decidedly uncomfortable.  "You pick."

Trivette considered, then turned to Alex.  "Where do you suggest?"

"Santiago's," the lawyer replied.

"Santiago's!" Walker yelped.  "But—"

"Winner's choice, partner, remember?"

Walker shook his head, but the smile on his lips said he wasn't really upset.  "You set me up," he accused Trivette.

"Damned right I did.  And I enjoyed every minute of it."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Walker maneuvered through the late afternoon traffic, wondering how Trivette's evening out at Santiago's had gone.  The older Ranger had only been to the local five-star restaurant once, at Alex's insistence, after the Bodie kidnapping.  Any restaurant that didn't put prices on the menu made him nervous, and he contemplated the damage to his savings the meal was going to cause.

Like it or not, Trivette had set him up like an expert, and he'd walked right into it… but who was she?

Parking at the back of C.D.'s, Walker entered the still closed establishment through the rear kitchen door.  Saying hello to Mabel, he headed into the bar.

"Hey, this is a cinch," Trivette's voice greeted him.  "I don't see what Walker was so worried about.  Mabel could do this."

Shaking his head, Cordell crossed to the corner where C.D. had set up the mechanical bull.  His partner sat astride the machine as it twirled in slow, easy arcs.

"Hey, Walker, how come you never told me bull riding was this easy?"

"It's not," Walker countered.  "I told you not to do that."

"Ee-haa!" Trivette hammed, grabbing his hat off and waving it over his head. "Hey, Walker, turn it up!"

"I don't think so," he said with a smile.  "Now quit playing so we can get to work."

"Oh, come on, Walker," he petitioned.  "This is just like riding a carousel.  Turn it up… just a little."

"Just a little?" Walker checked.  "You sure?"

"Yeah."  Jimmy grinned down at Cordell.  "Bet I can stay on longer than you can."

"Oh, no.  I'm not taking you up on any more bets.  You double-crossed me, partner."

"Did not."

"Did so."  With a shake of his head, Walker twisted the switch from two to three.  The machine whined, a gear slipping inside and the slow, easy arcs bucked into frantic twists and spins.

"Whoa!" Trivette yelled, his hat sailing across the room.  "Not that high!"

"It's on three," Walker said, trying to push it back to two or one.

C.D. walked in from the store room.  "Jimmy!  What do you think you're doin'!"

"Walker!" the Ranger hollered, holding on with both hands.  "Do something!"

"I'm trying," he said, wrestling the dial.  "It's stuck!"

"Well, unstick it!" Jimmy yelled as he was jerked around again.  His stomach threatened to reject his breakfast.  "Hurry!"

When he couldn't force the switch back to turn back, Walker tried pushing it to four and finally five.  The bull continued at the same frantic pace.

"Walker!"

"Where's the plug?" he asked C.D.

"Behind the bull!"

"Behind the bull?" Cordell repeated, noting the rotation of the machine.  There was no way he could get in behind it while it was on.

"Come on, Walker, I'm in trouble here!" Trivette called, honest fear staining his voice.

"Hang on, Trivette!" Cordell said, trying the controls again.

"I'm gettin' dizzy!"

A barrage of white and yellow lights exploded in front of Trivette's eyes.  He blinked, trying to force them away, but the popping colors refused.  His fingers began to slip, and he felt the motion of the machine launch him from the bull's metal back.

Walker and C.D. watched helplessly as Trivette flew off the bull.  Nearly upside down, his back slammed against the wall and he slid down, landing on his head and neck.

The machine issued one long plaintive whine and came to a crooked stop.  Walker and C.D. charged forward.  Trivette groaned, trying to sit up.

"Don't move," Walker snapped.  "Something might be broken."

"Nothing's broken…" Trivette grumbled in embarrassment.  He waved the two men back.

"I'll call 911," C.D. said, rising.

"No!" Jimmy barked.  "I said, I'm fine.  Just help me up."

Exchanging dubious looks, Walker and C.D. helped the man to his feet.  Trivette reached up, gingerly rubbing the back of his neck and testing the side of his head.

"You're sure you're all right?" Walker asked, guiding his partner to the nearest barstool and pressing him down onto it.

"Yeah," Jimmy say, looking sheepish, "just slammed my neck."

"Sorry," Walker apologized.  "Didn't expect that thing to get stuck."

"It's not your fault," Trivette reassured him.  "Just a mechanical failure."

"You sure you don't want me to call the paramedics?" C.D. asked, reaching out to touch the bump swelling on the side of Jimmy's head.  "You got one heck of a knot buildin'."

"Ouch!"  Trivette pulled back sharply, lights erupting in front of his eyes again.  He slapped his hands down on the bar to keep from falling over.

"I'm sorry, Jimmy," C.D. said, leaning closer.  "But that looks nasty.  You ought to have a doctor take a look."

Trivette's hands came up a second time to fend off the attention.  "Look, I'm okay.  Just rattled the old noggin, okay?  Give me a minute, I'll be fine."

"I don't know, Trivette—"

"Walker, it's nothing.  I've been hit by guys with ten times the punch of that machine.  Trust me."

"Can I get you some water?  Coffee?" C.D. asked.

"I'll take a beer and some aspirin," Trivette said, hoping that would dull the already pounding headache.

"Having the paramedics look your over couldn't hurt," Walker tried again.

Trivette turned, meeting the man's gaze.  "No, Walker.  N.  O.  No.  I'm fine.  Besides, I'm meeting Dom here so we can go to dinner and the theater."

"The the-ater?" C.D. echoed, setting the glass and pills down in front of Trivette.  "Whatcha gonna see?"

"The Rose Tatoo."

C.D.'s forehead wrinkled.  "Never heard of it.  Are they advertisin' it?"

"It's not a movie, C.D.," Jimmy explained with an indulgent grin.  "It's a play."

"Oh," the old man said, his chest puffing slightly.  "I knew that.  I was just testin' you to see how rattled you were."  He turned to get the bar ready for business, then reconsidered.  Stalking over to the mechanical bull, he pulled the plug.  "So much for profit," he grumbled.

Still rubbing the back of his neck, Trivette took a long sip.  His stomach protested, but didn't reject the alcohol and medication.  While Walker watched, he nursed the drink down, determined to prove he was fine.

About half an hour later Dom walked in, smiling.  "Hey, ready to go?"

Jimmy smiled back and slid off the stool.  He managed two drunken steps before he stopped.  The room spun around him, out of control.  His knees threatened to buckle and he groped blindly for some support.

Walker, seeing the glassy expression, lunged for his partner, reaching him in time to grab Trivette around the shoulders as his legs gave way.  They fell, Walker moving to insure he ended up on the bottom.

Dom ran to join him.  "What's wrong?" she demanded.

"I'm not sure," Walker said, maneuvering until he sat, cradling his partner in his lap.  "He took a tumble off the bull, and—"

"Paramedics are on the way," C.D. interrupted.

Dom reached out, touching the drop of clear fluid that ran out of one of Jimmy's ears.  She met Walker's concerned gaze.  "How long ago?"

"Just a few minutes.  He said he was fine."

He saw the anger explode behind her eyes, but she held her tongue.  Looking down, he stared into open, unseeing eyes.  "Trivette," he called softly.  "Trivette, can you hear me?"

The glassy, unblinking stare was his silent reply.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Alex exited the elevator and hurried to join them in the waiting room.  The familiarity of the halls and staff faces unsettled her.  They'd all spent time there.  Walker, C.D., herself, and Jimmy.

She rounded the corner to the comfortable alcove.  "How is he?" she asked, looking at Walker, who stood, gripping the back of the couch in the hospital waiting-room.

"We don't know," Dom said.

Walker knew he should explain, but the words refused to move out of his throat.  He couldn't shake the memories – the paramedics arriving, the ride to the hospital, Trivette being wheeled into the ER treatment room, doctors and nurses immediately hovering over him…

And all the time that same open, vacant stare…

God he hated waiting!

He forced himself to walk over and give Alex a hug.  She led him to the couch and sat.  He followed her lead, resting his head in his hands.

"What time is it?" he wondered aloud, checking his watch.

"Two minutes later than the last time you looked," C.D. said, the concern he felt for both men evident.  "The doctor'll be out just as soon as they know something," he assured.  "See," he added, standing as a middle-aged woman in a pale green lab coat walked in to join them.

Walker and the other climbed to their feet.  The woman smiled, then gestured for them to sit.  They complied.  She eased into one of the chairs.  "I'm Dr. Julia Chatsworth.  I'll be Ranger Trivette's neurologist.  You're all friends of Ranger Trivette?"

Four heads nodded.

"I'm afraid he's in serious condition.  There are some complications—"

Walker felt Alex grab his arm and squeeze.

"Complications?" C.D. interrupted.  "But—"

"I'll explain everything," she said calmly.  "Actually, I'm surprised he wasn't brought in sooner.  It might have helped."

"He said he was fine," Walker explained.

"Well, he's not," the doctor replied bluntly.  "He suffered a severe head trauma.  The impact fractured the skull bone.  A serious, but not fatal injury.  However, the delay in getting him in for treatment meant that there was nothing to stop the internal swelling, and that does have the potential of killing him.  We've done what we can, but there's a chance that permanent damage has already occurred."

Walker watched the neurologist's eyes as she spoke.  She wasn't glossing the situation.  Trivette was in real trouble.

"Can't you tell?" C.D. asked, his voice a gravel-like rasp.

"I'm afraid not.  He's in a coma.  If he comes out of it, then we'll be able to run tests."

Alex squeezed Walker's arm tighter.

"Can we see him?" Cordell asked.

The woman considered the request.  "Does he have family locally?"

"No," Dom said.  "They're in Baltimore."

"In that case, I'll have the four of you added to the admit list," Chatsworth said.  "We'll have someone with him at all times, but one or two of you can sit with him as well."

"Thank you, Doctor," Alex said.

"Oh, we weren't able to tell by the paperwork.  Is Ranger Trivette a religious man?"

"Why?" Alex asked.

The doctor's head dipped slightly.  "If he's Catholic, you might want a priest to come in and administer the last rites."

"Last rites?" C.D. nearly bellowed.  "Lady, you're writin' Jimmy Trivette off way too soon!"

"C.D.," Walker scolded.

The older man looked chastised, but unrepentant.  "I'm sorry."

"It's quite all right," the doctor assured him.  "And, I do understand.  I'm not writing him off, but I won't lie to you.  Ranger Trivette is fighting for his life."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Walker and Alex moved slowly into Trivette's room, side-stepping various pieces of monitoring equipment.  Dr. Chatsworth waited until the initial shock faded from their faces before she smiled encouragingly and left them alone with the injured man.

"Oh, Walker," Alex whispered, staring at Trivette's decidedly grey face.  Bandages wrapped the man's head and a purple bruise seeped down from his temple, spreading across his cheek.

Walker wrapped his arm around Alex's shoulders and pulled her closer.  "I should've called the paramedics when it happened, but I let him talk me out of it."

"You had no way to know it was this bad."

Trivette grimaced slightly, one of the machines bleating softly in reply.

"I shouldn't have taken the chance.  I know head injuries can be tricky."

"He'll make it," she said, a quiver in her voice.

"You hear that, Trivette?" Walker asked softly.  "You're going to make it, partner."

"That's right," Alex added.  She checked her watch.  "I don't want to go, but I have to be in court in less than an hour."

Walker nodded his understanding.  "Go on, I want to sit with him for a while. Do me a favor, though."

"What?"

"Run a check on Dominique Gierard."

"Why?"

"Call it curiosity, but she's more than she's letting on.  With Trivette hurt…  I just don't want any extra complications."

"Okay."  She gave Cordell a tight hug, then slipped out.

Walker moved one of the chairs in the room so he could sit near the bed.  A nurse worked around him, checking monitors and making notes.  Removing his hat, he turned it repetitively through his hands.

He took a deep breath, forcing the panic away.  Not since Markus kidnapped Trivette had he felt the kind of fear that haunted him now.  Regardless of what Alex said, some of the fault was his.

He should've called the paramedics.

He shouldn't have turned the machine up.

Should, shouldn't, should, shouldn't…

Damn!

He settled the hat back on his head.  This wasn't helping a bit.  Standing, he stalked out of the room.  He needed some air.

Dom watched him leave, trying not to judge him guilty, but failing.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

A day later, Walker sat next to Trivette's bed, his hand resting on his partner's arm.  Dom sat across from him, her fingers laced through Jimmy's.  The strained silence between them grated on Walker.  People generally liked him, but this mysterious woman was an obvious exception.

"Where'd you meet Trivette?" he asked, hoping to glean a few clues about her and her relationship with his partner.

Dom looked up, unsure if she wanted to share.  Still, it beat the oppressive silence.  "Working on the Oscar Markus case."

Walker paled.

She reached out, one finger tracing a line down Jimmy's jaw.  "I heard about the escape and what happened.  That's why I stopped by.  I wanted to make sure he was okay."

"Who do you work for?"

Dom's attention returned to Walker, the eerie grey eyes narrowing.  "That's need to know, Ranger.  And you don't."

Leaning forward, Walker rested his forearms on the bed.  "You don't like me much, do you?"

"No," Dom replied honestly, meeting his gaze.  "To be honest… I've killed people for less than this."

The words surprised him, but he had no troubling believing them.  Some shadow behind her eyes told him she was no stranger to death and killing.  He watched her reach out, running the back of her hand along the injured man's jaw.

"You set him up for this."

"How so?" he asked, his jaws tightening.

"You told him to stay off the bull."

"I meant that."

"But it was a challenge.  You know it, I know it, and he knew it.  And he took you up on it.  He was trying to prove something to you."

"He doesn't have to prove anything to me," Walker stated.  "He's my partner.

She weighed the words, then continued.  "He was a damned good cop," she said softly.  "At first I wasn't sure.  I thought he might be too… idealistic.  But he has a sense of right and wrong that guides him."

"He's still a good cop.  A good Ranger, and that sense of right and wrong is why."

She looked back at him, her expression accusatory.  "Then why don't you act like it?"

Walker was genuinely confused.  "I do."

Dom gave a soft snort.  "You treat him like a sidekick."

"Walker?"

He turned in his seat.  Alex stood in the doorway and motioned for him to follow her.  "I'll be right back," he told Dom.  "Will you stay with him?"

She nodded.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Alex glanced over Cordell's shoulder to the room beyond.  "I talked to C.D.," she said.  "He told me you haven't eaten today."

"I'm not hungry," he told her, annoyance in his voice.

"Walker, you're not going to help him if you get sick.  So, come on.  Buy me supper."

"Can I say no?"

"No."

He shook his head.  "I didn't think so."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Dom found Walker standing outside Jimmy's room, his hand on the glass observation window.  The large pane allowed the nurses to monitor the patients visually while giving patients, family, and friends some privacy.  The concern on the man's face was genuine, and deserved.  In the fifty hours since they'd brought Jimmy in there had been no substantial change in his condition.

"If you ever find that feeling, maybe you ought to think about sharing it," she said, nodding at Jimmy.  "With him."

"Trivette knows," Walker said softly.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

She wanted to believe him.  Jimmy deserved that kind of loyalty and affection.  Clearly the man cared.  He hadn't left the hospital since Jimmy was admitted, except to shower and change clothes.  C.D. and Alex kept him fed, dragging him off to the cafeteria with them…

So he did care.  Maybe he just didn't say so in words.

"I'm going to get some coffee," she said.  "Care to join me?"

Walker hesitated a moment, then accepted with a nod.  There was nothing he could do while the nurses were working on Trivette.

They each picked a cup of coffee and a slice of apple pie, and carried them to a small table in the corner.  Windows on both walls allowed them to look down on the garden court where several ambulatory patients walked or sat among well-cared for trees and flowerbeds.

"I take it Trivette was more than just a temporary partner," Walker ventured.

Dom chewed a bit of the pie and took a sip of coffee before she answered.  "It's really none of your business, you know?"

He watched her eyes, and not finding the same anger there as before replied, "I know."

"We worked well together.  He was also there for me when I needed someone.  I care about him.  He's my friend, and I don't have too many of those."

Walker nodded.  "Me, too, despite what you might think."

She sighed.  "I know you care, but I also think you've got a lot to learn about Jimmy Trivette."

"I just want the chance."

"Yeah," she replied softly.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Sixty hours and counting.  Dom sank down, relaxing on the open half of the small sofa in Jimmy's room.  Alex occupied the other half, a legal brief open on her lap.

"Where's Walker?" Alex asked.

"C.D. took him to a café to get something to eat," Dom explained.  "He thought getting him away from here might help improve his appetite.  But that was…"  She checked her watch.  "…about an hour ago.  I crashed and took a nap for an hour."

"The trip's worth a try," Alex said.  "Walker's going to end up admitted if he doesn't get more sleep and food.  I haven't seen him like this since Markus had Jimmy."

They fell silent as C.D. tiptoed in, carrying a large bouquet of flowers.  He set the wild collection of flowers down on a corner cabinet, then turned to face them, raising a finger to his lips.

"What?" Alex asked in a whisper.

"It's Cordell.  He's taking a nap on the couch outside."

The two women nodded their understanding.

"Cordell'll never forgive himself if Jimmy doesn't pull through," he said softly, lowering himself into the chair next to the bed.

"He has a funny way of showing how he feels," Dom said.

"That's just Walker," Alex explained.

"He's lost a lot of people," C.D. defended.  "He's had to build some walls."

"Granted," Dom said.  "But he underestimates Jimmy."

"No— Well…" C.D. trailed off.  "It's kind of a game they play," he explained.

"A game?"

"At first Walker did underestimate Jimmy," Alex explained.  "But he's always respected him.  After a while it got to be a game."

"Yeah, a way of yankin' each other's chains."

Dom shook her head.  "It's beyond me, but I believe you."  It really wasn't for her to say how Jimmy chose to live his life.  Not something she would choose, but it seemed to work.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Seventy-three hours.  Dom sat outside Jimmy's room, waiting for the nurses to finish their chores.  She watched Walker step out of the elevator and make his way down the hall.  His shoulders sagged and he almost shuffled.  Dark circles rimmed blue eyes, and a faint beard stubble added to the shadows that haunted his face.

"I think I misjudged you," she said softly.  "God knows I build walls, too."

"Excuse me?" Walker asked as he reached her.

"Nothing," she assured, "just talking to myself."

Walker nodded.  "Happens to me sometimes, too."  He looked through the glass windows.  "And it's usually his fault."

Dom laughed quietly.  "Yeah, he can have that effect."

Walker smiled for the first time in three days.

A blaring alarm echoing out of Trivette's room cut off Dom's comment and she pushed off the sofa, joining Walker at the window as a doctor and another nurse rushed into the room with a crash cart.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"I don't know," Dom replied, her voice strained.

They watched in stunned horror as the doctor defibrillated Trivette twice.  Dom reached out, resting a hand on the Ranger's shoulder.  Jimmy's body jumped in response to the second electrical charge and Dom felt Walker twitch as well.  As pale as death, Cordell stood, hands pressed hard against the window.

"He'll make it," she said, silently praying to make it so.

The doctor left the nurses working on Trivette and stepped out of the room to join them.

"What's wrong?" Walker demanded.

The physician shook his head.  "I'm not exactly sure.  I'm going to page Dr. Chatsworth.  I think he's come out of the coma."

Dom and Walker exchanged glances.  "You mean he's awake?" she asked.

"No," the doctor replied, "but his ECG went crazy right before he almost arrested, and it's holding in a much more normal pattern.  Hang in there."  The doctor turned and left.

Relief washed over the pair, leaving them both feeling light and giddy.  Dom smiled and giggled.  Walker grinned back.  Without warning, she stepped forward and wrapped the man in a tight hug.  He returned the heartfelt gesture, rocking her side to side.

"Sorry if I've been a pain," she said.

"That's okay.  You care about him, too."

"Yeah…  Just think of me as a cranky in-law."

Walker laughed.  "I'll do that."

"You better call C.D. and Alex."

"Good idea."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Dr. Chatsworth smiled as she stepped out of Trivette's room.  "Good news," she announced.  "He's definitely out of the coma."

"You means he's just sleeping?" Alex asked, glancing over the doctor's shoulder to look into the room.

"Yes."

"When will he wake up?" C.D. asked, still worried.

"I can't say exactly, but he'll gradually regain full consciousness.  And, from all the tests we've run, it seems that the swelling's gone, so all the immediate dangers are past."

Walker took a half-step forward.  "Can we stay with him?"

Chatsworth nodded.  "But don't try to wake him.  Let him do that at his own speed."

The foursome nodded.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Trivette heard voices, drifting in on some mental breeze from a great distance.  They were only whispers, but an occasional word became clear and he knew they were talking about him, but why?  Where was he?

He tried to find the source of the shushed tones, but he was lost…

A flash of panic snaked through him.  Was it Markus?

No, he told himself firmly.  Oscar Markus was dead…  That was months ago…

So where am I?

He concentrated.  The sudden realization that washed over him made him appreciate the light bulb metaphor.  Dom.

Dom was in town…  The competition…  The mechanical bull.

That was it.  The switch stuck, he fell…

Man, he thought.  I guess I hit harder than I thought.

He looked around.  Fog made it impossible to tell where he was.  A dim light in the distance seemed to be where he needed to go, so he moved toward the light, the sounds becoming louder as he did.

Before long he recognized the speakers:  C.D., Alex, Dom, and Walker.  But where were they?

He called out, but they didn't seem to hear him.

Hey!  Hey, I'm here! he tried again.  Come on, guys!  This isn't funny.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

"I think he's waking up," Alex said, stepping closer to the bedside.

The others pressed in around her.

Trivette's eyes opened and he blinked owlishly up at them.  After a minute of silence, Walker waved his hand in front of his partner's face.

"Trivette?"

Jimmy blinked.  "Walker?"

"Yeah?"

"What am I doing here?"

Walker grinned.  "You're not as hardheaded as I thought you were."

Trivette's head rolled slightly to the side.  "That bull."

"Yep," C.D. said, reaching out to pat the man's arm.  "You took a nasty fall, Jimmy, but the doctor says you're going to be fine now."

Alex's beeper sounded and she excused herself, saying, "Don't let them keep you up if you want to sleep."

"I won't," Trivette said, giving her a reassuring smile.

Dom sat down on the edge of his bed.  "How do you feel?"

"I feel okay," Trivette stated.  "A little tired… slight headache… but fine."

"That's good news," Dr. Chatsworth said, walking in to join them.  The three fell back to give her room to examine the Ranger.  It took her several minutes, but she nodded and made positive noises throughout.

"Am I okay?" Trivette asked her.

"I think so," she told him.  "We'll have to run a few tests tomorrow, but it certainly looks positive."  She turned to look at the beaming threesome.  "But I think we better let Ranger Trivette get some more rest."

"I'm not tired," Jimmy said quickly.

"You need the rest," Dr. Chatsworth assured him.

Trivette watched the three leave, waving sadly.

"We'll see you tomorrow," Walker said as Dom pushed him out the door.

"Sleep tight," she called over her shoulder.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Walking into Jimmy's room, Dom was surprised to find the man seated on the edge of his bed, looking angry and scared.

"Jimmy?  What's wrong?" she asked, moving to the bedside.

He looked up at her, his eyes shining.  "It's my legs," he said thickly.

"What?" she demanded, reaching out to squeeze his arm.

"I can't walk right."

"Have you told Dr. Chatsworth?"

He nodded.  "She said it's not unusual… that it's a residual of the pressure on my brain."

"So it'll go away?" she asked, feeling the cold fear squeeze her heart.

He looked away.  "Maybe."

"It will, Jimmy."

"You don't know that!" he snapped.

"No," she admitted, "I don't."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Walker stormed past Dom, too angry to say hello.

She watched him stalk down the hospital hallway to the elevators where he stabbed the button.  When the door didn't open, he turned and disappeared behind the door to the stairs.

She shook her head, then proceeded to Trivette's room.  The Ranger stood in the middle of his room, resting his weight on the walker that helped support him.

"Jimmy?"

"What?!"

She stepped into the room, her hands coming up in a gesture of deference.  "Hey, I'm not the enemy."

Trivette shook his head.  "Yeah, I know…  Sorry."

"What's up?  I just saw Walker—"

"Yeah, well, he refused to accept the truth," he interrupted before she could finish.

"Which is?"

"That's it's over."

"What?" Dom asked, genuinely confused.

"My career."

"You don't know—"

"Yes, I do," he snapped.  "I know.  It's over, okay?"

"No, not okay, mister," she growled, stepping around to the front of the walker.  "Now you listen to me, James Trivette.  Until the doctor tells you, nothing stands in the way of your career except you.  So get your ass in gear and work."

Dom stalked out, leaving a stunned Trivette in her wake.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

The next day Trivette shuffled down the hall, using the walker.  It was easier, he knew, but the fear still dogged each small step, eating away at his confidence.  He'd already lost one career, he didn't want to lose another one…

And for what, a stupid accident?  Not even in the line of duty…

That I could deal with, he thought.  But this?

It's not fair.

"Life is seldom fair, Jimmy."

Trivette glanced over his shoulder.  "I'd appreciate it if you didn't read my mind, Uncle Ray."

"Not your mind," the old Cherokee said.  "Your shoulders."  He stepped up to walk alongside the Ranger.

"My shoulders?"

Uncle Ray nodded.  "Everyone speaks loudest with some part of their body.  With Alex it's her lips.  C.D. uses his chest.  You speak with your shoulders."

"What about Walker?"

"Washo speaks with his hands."

Trivette nodded.  He'd noticed that himself.  "Why isn't it fair?"

A shrug.  "The spirits don't think like we do.  They have their own reasons."

"And we're caught in the middle."

"Something like that."  He reached out, resting a hand lightly on Trivette's shoulder.  "Let the old anger go, Jimmy.  The spirits tell me you have a long life ahead of you, as a Texas Ranger, but you have to let go of the past."

"I'm scared, Uncle Ray," he said softly, his gaze flickering around the hallway to be sure no one had overheard him.

"I know."  He squeezed.  "Let the people who care about you share that fear. It will strip away its power."

"I'll try."

"Good."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

"Walker?" Dom called, walking into the well-kept barn.

The Ranger turned from his present chore, brushing Amigo down for the third time that day.  Sensing a possible escape, the horse snorted and shook his head.

Dom walked over to join the man, reaching out to pat the horse's shoulder.  "Very handsome."

"Thanks," Walker said.  "Is something wrong?  Is Trivette—"

"He's fine," she interrupted.  "But there is something wrong."

Walker paled.  "What?"

Dom shook her head.  "I don't get it.  When they brought him in we couldn't get you out of the hospital, and now that he's awake, we can't get you in."

Walker turned away, satisfying his need to do something by reorganizing the already organized grooming tray.  "He made it clear he didn't need my help."

"You mean he accused you of hurting him, and you wanted to believe it so now you have the prefect excuse to hide out here and wallow in self-pity."

He spun.  "You don't know—"

"Look," she said, "I don't understand your partnership with Jimmy, but it seems to work.  And what I do know is this – he needs you.  Now."

Walker sighed.

"He was scared.  Whatever he said, he didn't mean it, and you know that."

"I know."

"So what are we waiting for?"

Cordell picked up his hat and settled it on his head.  "Nothing."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Alex met them coming off the elevator.  "Come on," she said.  "Hurry."

"Alex, what's wrong?" Walker asked.

"Come on," she urged, grabbing his hand and leading the way down the hall.

Sure that Alex would say if something was actually wrong, Dom mentally crossed her fingers that this was good news.

Bursting into Jimmy's room, they found him pacing.  "Hey!  Where have you been?" he demanded.

Dom and Walker both stopped.  "What?" they both chorused.

Trivette stepped up to his partner.  "Where were you?" he asked.

Cordell studied the tips of his boots for a moment before he said, "I thought you could use the space."

"You thought wrong," Trivette said, reaching out to lightly pinch Walker's arm.  "And I'm sorry."

"It's okay."

"You sure?"

Walker nodded, a genuine grin on his face.  "Yeah, I guess I'm getting used to you."

"Guess I better change tactics," he said, giving Dom a wink.  "Thanks."

Dom smiled and shrugged one shoulder.  "I didn't have anything better to do."

"Now, will somebody tell me what's going on?"

"It's just like Dr. Chatsworth said," C.D. explained from where he'd been enjoying the show from the couch.  "It was just a lingering effect."

"Yep.  After my physical therapy I climbed out of the whirlpool, and pow!  Everything was back to normal."

Dom stepped up and gave the man a tight hug.  "Welcome home, my friend," she whispered in his ear.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

Walker, Trivette, and Uncle Ray walked back to the house where Alex and Dom sat on back porch, giggling.

"Look, Walker, I'm not an invalid!" Trivette grouched.

"I didn't say you were," the Ranger defended.  "Just that I thought you should go a little slower."

"I don't want to go slow.  I want to go fast."

"Going fast got you into this mess in the first place!"

"That was a mechanical failure.  This is a biological issue."

Walker sighed heavily as they reached the porch.  "Alex, tell him," he begged.

She looked from Cordell to Trivette and giggled.  "Tell him what?" she asked, trying to swallow the bubbling mirth.

"Tell him learning to ride takes time."

"Learning to ride takes time, Jimmy," she dutifully said, the giggle breaking out again.

"What?" Trivette asked.

"I said, learning—"

"No, what's so funny?"

She looked at Dom, who steadfastly maintained a neutral expression until she met Alex's gaze, then she giggled and both women broke into wild laughter.

Uncle Ray shook his head.  "It's time to run, nephew."

Walker looked as confused as he felt.  "Run?"

"They have a secret, and women's secrets are trouble."

Trivette's curiosity was immediately piqued.  "Is that it?" he asked.  "Do you two have a secret."

"Secret?" Alex echoed with a hiccup.

Trivette looked at Dom.  "Okay, give."

"Me?" she said with mock surprise.

"Yes, you," Jimmy countered.

Dom glanced at Alex, a grin breaking across her face.  "I, uh…"

"Yes?" Trivette said, tapping his toe.

"I, uh, showed Alex the dreadlocks."

"The drea—"  Jimmy stopped mid-sentence, his eyes widening.  His gaze shifted to Alex, who blushed.  "Oh, boy…"

"What?" Walker asked.  "I'd like to see that."

"No!" both women responded.

"Come on," Alex said, standing.

"Yeah," Dom agreed, "time to beat a strategic retreat."

They disappeared inside, Trivette recovering enough to yell after them, "Dom!"

Walker chuckled and shook his head, easing down onto the now vacant couch.  "That must be some photo."

"You don't know the half of it," Trivette replied, dropping down next to him, remembering the pose – on a bear rug, in front of a burning fire, with a glass of champaign, a red rose, the dreadlocks and… nothing else.

Uncle Ray shook his head, then headed inside to see if they would give him a peek.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

"Giddy-up, horse!  Hey, Walker, how do you put this thing in drive?"

The older Ranger, sitting on the top rail of the fence, laughed and shook his head.  "I think you better just take it easy and practice sitting for now."

Trivette sat despondently on his mount.  "Aw, come on Walker, anyone can sit on a horse.  I wanna ride."

"So you've said," Walker told him.

"Allow me," Dom said, climbing through the fence.

"You're in trouble now," Walker warned his partner.

Trivette looked skeptical.

Dom walked over to join Jimmy and Coco.  "Slip back," she instructed.

Trivette kicked his feet free of the stirrups and edged up and over the back of the saddle seat.

Dom stepped into the stirrup and swung up in front of Trivette.  "Hold onto my waist," she told him.

Jimmy snugged forward and wrapped his arms around her midsection.

"Squeeze with your knees and thighs to help hold you on, okay?"

"Okay," he said.  "Let's go!"

Dom clucked and touched her heels to the horse's sides.  Coco tossed her head and cantered off.

"Eee-haa!" Jimmy hooted.

Dom laughed, guiding the mare in a series of easy figure eights, the slow canter smooth and easy.  Trivette held on, rocking against the saddle.  After several passes, she pulled the mare to a stop and walked her back to the fence.

"Far out!" Trivette enthused.

"Far out?" Walker repeated.

Jimmy shrugged.  "Well, I'm learning to be a country boy."

Dom and Walker both laughed.

"You've got a way to go," the older Ranger said.

"But I'm a quick learner."

Dom stepped down and offered her shoulder so Jimmy had a support as he slid off the mare's back.  She swung the reins over the fence rail, then climbed through, Jimmy following.

"When are we going to go round up some doggies?" he asked Walker when he was through.

"I think we'll leave that to animal control," Walker said, hopping down from the fence.

"I mean cows, Walker."

"You mean steers, Trivette."

"Whatever, they go 'moo.'"

"Later," Dom said, grabbing the Ranger's arm and dragging him back so Walker could open the gate and lead the horse out to a hitching rack.

"Hi," Alex called, stepping out onto the back porch with Uncle Ray.  They headed out to join the threesome.

Walker waved.

"It's barbecue time," Trivette announced.  "Did you get the vegie burgers?"

"The what?" Walker asked.

Trivette gave his partner a withering glare.  "I told you—"

Walker grinned.  "Don't worry, I got it.  But I'm not going to cook it."

"That's okay," Jimmy said, happy again.  "I'll cook it.  You should try it.  It's a lot better for you than beef."

"There's nothing wrong with beef."

"Nothing but the fat… cholesterol…"

Dom shook her head and maneuvered in front of Trivette.

He took a step backwards.  "High blood pressure…"  Another step back.

"You raise my blood pressure," Walker countered.

Several more steps backward.  "Heart attacks… strokes…"  He reached up, wiping sweat off his forehead.  "Man, it's hot!"

Dom stopped, a smile spreading across her face.  Raising her hands, she rested her palms on his shoulders and pushed.

Trivette's eyes widened as his balance disappeared.  He tried to take a step back, but something was in the way.  He fell back, landing with a splash in the water trough.  Coco nodded her head and nickered.

Walker grinned and Dom smiled.  "That help cool you off?" she asked.

Jimmy blinked up at her, incredulous.  "What did I do?" he demanded.

Alex and Uncle Ray joined Walker, enjoying the spectacle.

Dom wagged her eyebrows at the man, then stepped into the water, straddling the man.  She lowered herself into the water, sitting on his thighs.  Leaning forward, she silenced him with a kiss.  Trivette dropped back, disappearing under the water.

Alex slapped Walker's arm.

"What?" he squawked.

"Lessons," Alex said with a grin.  "I want you signed up for lessons."

Uncle Ray chuckled.

The End