Well, it's finally here - the very last chapter. I'm sorry it's later than I thought it would be. But then again, it just wouldn't be the same if it wasn't, right? I gave you one last chance to be annoyed with me, for old-time's sake. ;)

Let's see - the only really important thing to note, I suppose, is that Clifford is played (in my head) by the guy who played the guidance counselor Mr. Rosso on Freaks and Geeks. (Which, BTW, is the most brilliant and perfect TV show ever made in the history of TV.) I really love that guy! You can see a picture of him in the thread for this fic at Lost-Forum, if you so desire. (You can also see a scan of Grace's letter to Sawyer, if you were curious about what it said.)

And I'll try to keep this part simple, because there's nothing I can say that I haven't already said a hundred times before - but the whole experience of writing this fic has meant more to me than you guys can ever know. I feel like I've changed a lot in this past year and a half, and so much of that comes from the confidence I've gotten by doing this and by knowing that you actually enjoy and appreciate it. I write in absolute isolation, and no one I know in real life reads this, so your feedback has been of supreme importance in inspiring me and keeping me going. I really can't believe it's coming to an end. And though I'm still hoping to do a third part, I can't absolutely promise anything. But there's a very good possibility it'll happen.

I guess there's nothing more to do than to post the chapter, then, huh? I hope you enjoy the ending. And thank you so much, again, for sticking with me.

Chapter 40


Kate's voice rang out commandingly. She held her weapon high, as did Sawyer. They presented an imposing obstacle. But as if the man hadn't even heard, he continued his steady trek toward them.

"I said stop!" she shouted again, more frantic this time. "Stay where you are!"

Still, there was no visible response. The man glanced up at them, shielding his eyes against the bright sunlight, but kept moving in their direction, apparently unconcerned.

Kate cocked the hammer of the gun back, preparing to fire. She was through with warnings.

Hearing the telltale click, Sawyer became alarmed. "Easy," he cautioned her. "He ain't even armed."

"You don't know that," she said through clenched teeth, not taking her eyes off the figure approaching them.

It was true that he didn't appear to carry any kind of weapon. His hands swung free at his sides, heavily gloved in an odd brightly-striped pattern, with a matching scarf around his neck. His coat was baggy enough to conceal a gun, but he didn't reach for one. It was old and faded, the kind of pea-green shade typical of an Army jacket, but closer to the style worn by protesters than in the actual military. He seemed to be in his mid to late fifties. Though he was balding slightly at the top, his dark blonde hair was long and straggly, and a scruffy beard completed the image. He looked, strangely enough, like a homeless Vietnam War veteran.

Kate kept her finger on the trigger, already exerting a slight pressure.

"Greetings!" the man now called out, raising one arm as if hailing a cab. "Hey, are those guns, or are you just glad to see me?" he shouted, and then chuckled, coming to a slow stop a few feet in front of them, shaking his head. "Boy, I tell ya, that joke just never gets old."

He paused for a second to catch his breath, staring at them closely. They both still maintained their defensive postures, weapons aimed at him, although their expressions registered growing bewilderment.

"Kate Austen, I presume?" the man asked with a goofy smile, looking from one to the other. "And that would make you James Ford, also known as Sawyer. Correct?"

"Who are you?" Kate demanded, masking her fear with cold hostility.

"Oh, I'm sorry," the man said, as if he genuinely meant it. "How rude of me. Name's Clifford Whitaker." He held out his hand to shake. "And I'll be your host for this evening." He laughed at his own lame joke, adding in mock surrender, "Just kidding."

Sawyer turned his head to look at Kate. "This is the guy?" he asked, lowering his gun with a mix of irritation and profound relief. He shook his head, saying under his breath, "Why am I even surprised?"

Kate still held her weapon trained on the man, ignoring his proffered hand. She couldn't seem to relinquish her stance. But he waited with patience, and after a long moment of regarding him warily, she drew her gun back towards her body, letting her breath out. With obvious reluctance, she extended her hand toward his. He grabbed it and pumped it warmly.

Now that it was obvious who this man was, she felt just a bit ridiculous, like they should have known, or at least suspected his identity. The possibility that he could be the person they'd been looking for hadn't even occurred to them, since they both always assumed the worst. Really, though, how could they not, in a situation like this? After all, it was better to assume the worst and be pleasantly surprised than to take their safety for granted. And that would probably never change.

"Why didn't you stop?" Kate asked, her tone still hard-edged. "I almost shot you."

"I knew you wouldn't." Clifford said this with simple faith. His brown eyes emanated a benign, almost childlike aura of goodwill.

Sawyer gave a sarcastic scoff. "You don't know her very well, then."

He still seemed unfazed. "Actually, to tell you the truth, it's not the first time I've had a gun pointed at me. Part of my job is protecting these beautiful creatures you see before you from poachers." He gestured across the river, indicating the herd of caribou. "It's still the Wild West out here, you know. And speaking of the Wild West, I hear through the grapevine that you two desperados might need a place to hide out for awhile."

His manner of delivery reminded Kate of a stand-up comedian. A very bad stand-up comedian. But at least he seemed to have good intentions. "I know it's a lot to ask," she said. "We're complete strangers, and you don't owe us anything..."

"Look, why don't we just cut to the chase, Gallagher," Sawyer interrupted. "Do you have a place we can live, or not? We'll pay you for it. We ain't askin' for charity."

"Well, I'm afraid that just wouldn't work out," Clifford said with regret.

Kate looked down quickly, trying to hide her disappointment.

But he continued. "You see, I try to avoid monetary exchanges whenever possible. Money is the root of all evil." He thought for a second. "Actually, I believe the exact Biblical quote is Love of money is the root of all evil. It's often taken out of context. I should really be more careful handling my sources, though the meaning is essentially the same. But... Well, you kids get the point." He smiled at Sawyer and Kate, and then realized that they did not, in fact, appear to get the point. He clarified. "It would be my pleasure to offer you a place to hang your hats. If you were wearing hats, that is. Which you're not. But the offer stands, all the same." He paused, and then summed up with, "I'd love the company."

"Right," Sawyer said without enthusiasm, looking at Clifford like he was some new and particularly annoying lifeform. He angled his chin in the direction they'd been traveling, and asked, "How much further we have to go?"

"Follow me." Clifford turned and began to walk. Kate and Sawyer glanced at one another, as if to confirm that they were really going through with this, and then took off after him.

"Thank you so much, Mr... Whitaker," Kate said, struggling to remember his last name.

"Oh, call me Clifford. Or Cliff. We don't stand on ceremony up here," he said, turning to look back at her. "As a matter of fact, feel free to refer to me by my wilderness name - Glacier Mountain Bear."

She bit her lip, while Sawyer rolled his eyes in disdain. "I'll stick with Clifford," Kate said.

"Suit yourself," he said genially. "But don't underestimate the importance of the wilderness name. It's all about capturing one's essence, without all the false trappings of societal tradition." Coming to a complete stop, he turned to examine Kate. He lifted his hands as if to frame her face in the air, and then said in a tone of pronouncement, "Raging River Starlight. That's your wilderness name. It just came to me, like a vision."

She smiled, contemplating this for a second. "I like it."

"You really think you need another nickname, Freckles?" Sawyer wondered out loud. What he meant, Kate assumed, was that she didn't need another nickname from someone other than him.

Clifford, however, misinterpreted his jealousy. He turned toward him. "I can give you one too, if you like." He appeared thoughtful. "Something rugged, but... with a vulnerable undertone."

"No thanks," Sawyer said, clearly disturbed. He walked off, leaving them behind.

Kate, suppressing a laugh, waited until he was out of earshot. In a conspiratorial tone, she told Clifford, "Let me know what you come up with." Already, she could foresee plenty of delightful opportunities to mess with Sawyer by threatening to use his "wilderness name."

It soon became apparent, after a little more walking, that Clifford was leading them straight to the small ski-plane, rather than showing them the ground route by which to find his residence.

"Is there room for us?" Kate asked. She looked excited.

"Sure," Clifford said. "It seats four. I used to own a helicopter, but I've since upgraded to this little beauty. Best way to travel!"

Sawyer pulled his equipment off his back. "Great. Just how I wanted to end this trip... with another damn plane ride." He seemed resigned enough not to seriously protest, however. He tucked his gun back into his coat, and Kate did the same.

"Well, look at it this way. We're only a few minutes from our destination, so even if we crash... it won't take long." Clifford passed along this bit of wisdom as he loaded their gear into the plane.

"That supposed to be comforting?" Sawyer asked.

Clifford considered. "I suppose not." He smiled and circled around to the front.

Sawyer stared after him with misgivings, then followed Kate up into the tiny backseat of the plane. Crammed together, they tried to settle themselves, pretending that they were perfectly comfortable. To Kate's mortification, she soon discovered that her lap belt didn't quite reach all the way around her middle. Sawyer helped her loosen it, wisely choosing not to comment. She was proud of him for this restraint. "Thanks," she muttered, her face hot.

Next Sawyer fastened his own belt, while Clifford fiddled with the knobs and dials in the front. Within moments, the engine was droning and the propellers were spinning.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please remain seated until the captain has turned off the Fasten Seatbelt sign!" Clifford called out as the plane began to move, turning around in his seat slightly to see if Kate and Sawyer had appreciated the humor. The answer appeared to be no.

In a smooth, almost floating motion, they felt themselves glide over the snow-packed ground, gaining in speed by the second. When it looked like they were going to crash right into the stony edge of the basin they'd recently climbed over, the small plane miraculously lifted into the air, rising faster than Kate would have thought possible. She felt that familiar weightless sensation in the pit of her stomach, followed by an alarming stab of nausea that passed away almost as soon as it began. She swallowed hard and took a deep breath, noticing that Sawyer was watching her. "I'm fine," she told him, though he hadn't said anything out loud.

The female caribou and their young, once again disturbed as the plane swept across the river and over their heads, fanned out in nervous patterns. "Sorry, gals!" Clifford apologized, waving down at them.

They rose higher and higher, until the river itself was just a narrow, trickling stream. The plane hugged the mountains, dipping in and out of the snow-capped peaks. The view below them of dark green forest and icy blue lakes was staggering. It was like nothing either one of them had seen before. "Look at that," Kate said in awe, trying to speak loud enough to be heard over the engine.

For once, Sawyer couldn't help but agree. He stared out his window, mesmerized. "Pretty damn impressive." He raised his voice, speaking to Clifford in the front. "You own all this?"

"Technically the Canadian government owns most of it," he hollered back. "My own personal property consists of about five hundred acres. But I like to think that it all belongs to me in spirit!" He glanced at them, hastily correcting himself. "And to everybody who loves it, of course."

Sawyer didn't respond directly to this bit of nonsense.

Kate finally tore her gaze away from the view. She leaned forward a little. "Do you think you could teach me to fly this thing?"

"Of course!" Clifford said, thrilled. "There's nothing to it, really. As soon as you get settled in, we'll start lessons."

She leaned back again, satisfied, and then noticed the look Sawyer was giving her. "What?" she said defensively. "For emergencies."

Clifford had been telling the truth about the short distance. It seemed that they hadn't been in the air for more than five minutes when they noticed a distinct change in altitude, as the plane began to drop lower and lower. "Hang on tight... Landing time!" he called back to them.

He flew in ever shortening circles over a cleared patch of snowy ground, though it was nearly impossible for Sawyer or Kate to get a good look at the area below them with the constant change of angle. They approached nearer and nearer to the ground, the mountains rising up above them again, resuming their rightful stature. With a small jolt, the skis of the plane touched down and the aircraft glided along a well-worn icy runway, the speed decreasing as they neared a wooden shed-like structure, obviously the hangar. With expert maneuvering, as easily as if he were parking a car in a garage, Clifford nosed the plane into the shed where it came to a final stop. He cut the engine and the drone faded away into absolute silence.

Glancing back at them as he opened his door to climb out, he announced unnecessarily, "We're here!"

They remained seated alone in the plane for a moment, suddenly apprehensive. Despite the fact that they'd been trying to get to this place for months, everything now seemed to be happening too fast. Was this really what they wanted? What if they were making a mistake? They were both relieved that the journey was coming to an end, but this was all just a little daunting.

Sawyer gave Kate's fingers a slight squeeze, managing to sound casual. "You heard the man. We're here."

They climbed out, and Clifford helped them unload their equipment. Upon emerging from the dark hangar, they finally got a closer look at the property. There wasn't a great deal to see, they soon realized, at least not above ground. Aside from a few outbuildings and barns, the main thing that caught their attention was a row of giant satellite receivers, all pointed zanily in different directions. There were at least twenty of them, Kate estimated. What on earth could he need with so many? There were also what appeared to be panels for collecting solar power, though she hoped this wasn't his only energy source.

Scanning the vicinity, they found that Clifford's actual residence seemed to be exactly what they'd been told it was - an underground bunker. A stone stairway led down below ground level, and a solid metal door was cut directly into the earth. It looked a little bit like a storm shelter, Kate thought, similar to the one they'd had on the farm in Iowa when she was a kid.

What she was really interested in, though, was the rock chimney she could just barely discern peeking up above a hill a few hundred yards off, in a densely forested area. She assumed this was the cabin they'd heard about, but she refrained from mentioning it just yet. Part of her was afraid to see it, afraid to claim it as her own. It would make everything too real.

"So what exactly is it that you do up here?" Sawyer asked as they moved toward the bunker. He was looking at the row of satellites in confusion. "Other than babysit reindeer."

"I'm involved in various research projects at the moment," Clifford explained. "Some authorized, some... not so authorized. Of course, I still have minimal contact with Berkeley. That's where I got my doctorate from."

"You're a doctor?" Kate asked. Sawyer noticed the immediate spark of interest in her eyes, and shot her a dirty look.

"Not that kind," Clifford admitted, affecting humility. "I have a PhD in biochemistry, so I suppose I'm technically a scientist. But I was only in the fifth year of my professorship there when I was...asked to leave," he said, as if he were choosing his words with precision.

"Get fired?" Sawyer asked bluntly.

"In a manner of speaking," he hedged. "Though I was also requested by the authorities never to return to the state of California."

Kate and Sawyer cast each other strange looks. Who the hell was this guy? It sounded like he'd been in nearly as much trouble as they had.

"Well, who needs 'em, right?" Clifford continued, brightening up. "This paradise here is the best place in the world for scientific research. I've got plenty of space, plenty of time, and no one getting in my face asking... difficult questions." He smiled at them.

From one of the nearby outbuildings, a huge dog suddenly came bounding toward them. "There's my girl!" Clifford exclaimed affectionately. The dog leaped in frantic circles around him, rising nearly above his head in its exuberance. "There's my Athena-girl," he repeated in baby talk, hugging her as she jumped against him. "Did you miss me? Did you?"

"Is that a wolf?" Kate asked, recalling her harrowing experience of the previous night.

"Sure is," he said, then noticed her vaguely troubled expression. "Oh, don't worry. She's perfectly tame. I've raised her from a puppy. Her mother was killed by a bear." He lowered the wolf's paws from his chest, patting her on the head. "She's still got a wild side, of course. She comes and goes as she pleases. But she wouldn't hurt a fly."

The wolf now approached the two strangers Clifford had brought home with him, sniffing cautiously at first. Kate held out her hand, and it laid its ears flat against its head and sidled up to her, ignoring Sawyer. She kneeled down in front of it, running her fingers along the light gray fur. There was a wise, powerful glint in the wolf's amber eyes that seemed to look right through her. It was a truly beautiful creature, though still a little imposing up close.

"Alicia said you had a lot of animals," Kate said, stroking the wolf's neck.

"Alicia?" Clifford echoed, as though he wasn't sure he'd heard correctly. "Alicia Morris?"

She nodded.

"I didn't realize you'd met the Morris family," he said with a slowly growing smile. "Wonderful! They're terrific people, aren't they? I tell ya, that little girl is really something."

"She is," Kate agreed, smiling. She looked at Sawyer, as if for confirmation, but he seemed bothered by something. Almost before he spoke, she realized what it was.

"Wait a minute," he said. "They didn't tell you we were on our way up here?"

"Well, no," Clifford said, scratching his head. "I haven't talked to Mark or Alicia in weeks."

"Then... how did you know?" Kate asked. She'd simply assumed, like Sawyer, that the Morris' had alerted Clifford out of well-meaning concern for their safety, despite the fact that Alicia had said they wouldn't. No other possibilities had even occurred to her.

"I thought you knew." Clifford looked at them strangely. "I've been on the lookout for you two for, gosh... over a month now. My good friend Margaret contacted me back in... it must have been November, to tell me you were on your way."

Kate slowly rose to her feet again, her expression sad. Now it made sense. "You mean Meg," she said softly.

Clifford searched his memory, then nodded. "Some people call her that."

"You haven't heard then." She was already giving him a sympathetic look. After a pause, she forced herself to continue. "About what happened."

He stopped to give her his full attention. "What happened?"

Kate looked at Sawyer, silently asking him to take over. Not only because it was his aunt they were discussing, but because she wasn't sure if she could say the words to this man they'd just met.

"Meg's dead," Sawyer said, his voice harsh in his efforts not to convey any emotion. "Died in a car wreck, couple weeks back."

Clifford kept watching him, as if waiting for something else, but when it didn't come, his face registered surprise and confusion. "Huh," he said, as if to himself. He looked from Sawyer to Kate, and then back again, lost in thought. "Weird." Then, shaking himself, he gestured toward the stairway and asked in a polite tone, "Shall we go in?"

Sawyer watched him disappear down toward the door, and then moved nearer to Kate. "I thought he said they were close." He seemed hurt by Clifford's mild reaction to Meg's death, but he masked it with annoyance.

Kate didn't quite understand it either, but she tried to be diplomatic. "Everyone deals with grief in their own way, Sawyer. I'm sure he's hurting on the inside." She headed toward the stairway, and he followed her, sulking a bit. The wolf, Athena, trotted back to the shed she'd come from earlier, sensing that the excitement was over for today.

The heavy outer metal door was pulled back with a squealing of hinges, and they found themselves in another entranceway, this one enclosed and containing a regular wooden door. Kate could almost feel Sawyer dying to make some kind of Alice in Wonderland rabbit-hole reference, but he thankfully held back. Clifford switched keys and opened the second door.

"Welcome to my menagerie," he told them.

They were led down a short hall that opened up into a large, rectangular-shaped room. It was presumably what served for his living room, though it didn't much resemble one. To their left, one entire wall was covered with aquariums, like an exhibit at a zoo. It gave the room a bluish glow. Fish of all different shapes and sizes could be seen at a glance. The opposite wall housed similar aquariums, though these weren't filled with water, and Kate suspected they contained reptiles. She didn't examine these too closely. The sound of the door opening had also alerted Clifford's feline friends to his return, and three or four of them came running from other rooms to purr and meow loudly around their feet.

Sawyer reached down absently to run his hand along the back of a brown tabby. "Hey, Puss." It arched up, rubbing against his leg.

Kate turned around to watch. "You like cats?" she asked, somewhat surprised.

He straightened up quickly. "No," he said with exaggerated contempt, as if wondering where she could have gotten that idea. Kate didn't completely appear to believe him, however.

"Hello. Hello." A friendly squawking came from one corner of the room. They looked over to see a large green and yellow parrot in a tall, ornate cage. It was trying to get their attention, climbing on the bars nearest them. "Hello."

"Hello, yourself," Sawyer said as they moved toward it.

"Piss off," the bird replied, with seeming good humor.

"Hey!" Sawyer said, offended.

"Sonofabitch. Sonofabitch," the bird squawked in a sing-song rhythm. It hung upside down from its perch. "Piss off. Sonofabitch."

Kate laughed out loud, shocked but delighted by the foul-mouthed parrot. "Have you two met before?" she asked Sawyer, unable to help herself.

He narrowed his eyes at her. "Funny."

"Uh, you'll have to excuse Wendy, here," Clifford said apologetically, appearing behind them. "She's had a stressful week." He whistled to the bird. "Isn't that right?"

"Go to hell," Wendy chirped, ruffling her feathers.

Clifford raised his hands in the air and dropped them, looking at Kate and Sawyer in a What are you gonna do? manner. He moved toward a long, dark hallway that opened out from the room. "Yoo-hoo!" he called as he disappeared into it, cupping his hands around his mouth. "I hope you're decent - I've brought dinner guests!"

Kate looked up from the cage, nervous. "Is there someone else here?" she asked, though Sawyer couldn't possibly know more than she did.

"I wouldn't worry," he said in a low voice. "He's probably talkin' to some hamsters."

A loud screech of metal reached their ears from down the hallway. Angry muttering and curses followed, in what sounded like a woman's voice. Suddenly, the parrot began shifting back and forth from one foot to the other, nervously. "Uh-oh. Uh-oh. Uh-oh," it said over and over again, obviously filled with dread. "Sonofabitch. Uh-oh."

Kate glanced at Sawyer, concerned, but before they had a chance to say anything, Clifford pushed a wheelchair into the room. The woman seated in this wheelchair wore a voluminous nightgown and fuzzy slippers. Immediately upon entering, she reached down, removed one of these slippers, and threw it at the bird cage with all her might. "Go to hell!" she shouted.

The parrot gave an alarmed squawk, flapping its wings. "Sonofabitch."

"That's right!" the woman yelled with angry glee, pointing her finger. "That's exactly what you are!" She looked up at Clifford. "I'm tellin' you right now, I'm gonna strangle that damn bird."

Sawyer and Kate both stood frozen, rooted to the floor. Kate's hand covered her mouth, her eyes widened with astonishment. She looked as if she might pass out. Sawyer didn't seem to be recovering any faster than she was. It felt like time was standing still.

Slowly, Kate lowered her hand. In a shaky, disbelieving voice, she finally managed to whisper, "Meg?"

And now the woman turned her attention to them, noticing their presence for the first time, or at least pretending to. "Well," she exclaimed wryly. "Look who finally decided to show up! What did you do, take a detour through China?"

With this undeniable confirmation, Kate's features crumpled with emotion and she moved toward her, sinking down onto the end table just next to the wheelchair and resting her face against Meg's arm, too overcome to manage any kind of response yet.

"Margaret, these two were under the impression that you were no longer among the living," Clifford said in order to explain Kate's reaction. He seemed to be enjoying the dramatic scene that he'd created by not telling them she was alive when he'd had the chance. But even Sawyer was still too shocked to resent this.

"I imagine they did think so," Meg said. "Left me for dead on the side of the road, like a damn armadilla."

Kate finally raised her head up, her face wet. "You told us to," she said, her voice breaking slightly. "You made us leave."

Meg laughed, surprised that she'd been taken seriously. She relented, saying, "I guess I did, didn't I?" With a brusque, no-nonsense movement, she pushed Kate's hair out of her face and back behind her ears. "How you been, girl?"

Kate only shook her head a little, still crying, not knowing how to answer this question.

Giving her a few seconds to regain her composure, Meg turned her attention to Sawyer. He still stood across the room. She held out her hand. "James."

With great effort, he forced himself to move and came toward her, reaching out reluctantly to let her grasp his fingers. The look on his face was difficult to interpret, but he seemed to be involved in a complex struggle with his own emotions. He tried for flippancy, not managing it very well. "Shoulda known you were too stubborn to die that easy."

Meg smiled in agreement. "Ain't that the truth."

With an abrupt motion, he withdrew his hand from hers, suddenly looking frightened. "There a bathroom around here somewhere?" he asked Clifford.

"Just down that hall, and then turn left," he told him, gesturing with his arm.

"Be right back," Sawyer mumbled, disappearing from the room.

Meg turned to look after him knowingly, and then spoke to Kate. "Well, if I didn't know any better, I'd say he needs to have himself a moment." She considered. "Or maybe he just has to piss like a racehorse. One or the other."

Kate laughed a little, wiping her sleeve across her face. She had the dazed look of someone trying to convince herself she wasn't dreaming.

Meg watched her, and then said to Clifford, "You'd better check the spaghetti. I went to too much trouble for it to be ruined now."

Taking the hint, he left the two of them alone, saying "I'm on it!" The cats followed him, probably hoping to be fed.

Drawing in a deep, shuddering breath to compose herself, Kate leaned back a little, still sitting on the low end table. She examined Meg, trying to hold it together. The older woman seemed to have shrunk, somehow. She was only half the size she'd been the last time they'd seen her, and her pasty skin hung in sagging folds from her frame. Even her hair seemed thinner and strangely limp, and beneath her eyes were dark circles of pain and fatigue. Her eyes, though, were exactly the same - snapping vibrantly and with a distinct impatience for everything their gaze fell upon.

Seeing how much she was physically altered, Kate's first impulse was to say that she was sorry, that she would never stop being sorry. Her guilt was overwhelming. But she remembered all too well Meg's last warning to her, and she was afraid to risk her wrath by breaking that promise and uttering weak words of apology. Instead she settled for a more neutral opening. "How did you get here?"

"Cliff flew me up, last week. Couldn't take that hospital anymore. They wanted me to stay longer, but I told 'em to go to hell."

"Go to hell," the parrot repeated, obviously quite familiar with the phrase by now. Meg made a motion to throw her other slipper at the cage, and the bird hunkered down, chirping quietly, "Uh-oh." Slowly, satisfied that she'd made her point, Meg put the slipper back on her foot with an obvious effort.

"Figured you and James'd already be here," she said to Kate, raising back up. "What in God's name took you so long?"

Kate couldn't think of where to begin to answer that question. "A lot's happened since we saw you." She looked down at her lap. "It's a long story."

"Save it for later, then," Meg advised her. "There's not much to do up here." She paused, then asked with a secretive smile. "So... what do you think of Cliff? He's a trip, isn't he?"

"I like him," Kate said, telling the truth. She added, "I'm not so sure about Sawyer. But he doesn't like anybody." Looking at Meg more closely, she asked in a tentative way, "Are you gonna stay here? With Clifford?"

"Why? You want me to?" Meg seemed to expect a negative response to this.

"Yeah," Kate admitted, a little embarrassed. "I do."

Meg sniffed. Unwilling to acknowledge her pleasant surprise, she simply said, "I'll think about it."

Smiling slightly, Kate accepted this as the closest thing to a yes she could hope to hear.

"How's my great-nephew?"

The question came out of nowhere, and at first Kate had no idea what she was talking about. Then it hit her, and she blushed. "Fine," she said, not wanting to drag out this part of the conversation. "I went to another doctor. Everything's fine." She considered asking Meg why she thought it was a boy, but decided to save it for another time. She had enough to process today, without dwelling on that.

There was an awkward silence, and she didn't quite know what to do with herself. So she got up and retrieved Meg's other slipper from the opposite side of the room, where it had bounced off the bird cage. Bringing it back, she crouched down to replace it on the older woman's foot for her.

Meg watched, suspicious but allowing her to proceed. All of a sudden she grabbed Kate's left hand and lifted it toward her face, squinting at it. Too late, Kate realized she was staring at the wedding band. She winced inwardly, wishing she'd remembered to hide it, at least for this initial encounter.

Turning it in the light, Meg examined the ring. "I believe I've seen this before."

Kate replied carefully. "You have."

"Mmm-hmm," Meg said. "Damn right I have." She gave Kate a sharp look, lowering her hand but not letting go of it. "This is a family ring. Are you a member of the family?"

Though there was nothing more tormenting than being skewered at the end of this woman's keen-eyed stare like a lab specimen under a microscope, Kate held her ground and didn't look away. She took a deep breath, steadying herself. "I am now."

Meg kept watching her, apparently trying to come to some kind of decision. Kate waited nervously. "Well," Meg said, finally letting go of her hand. "I hope you manage to wear it longer than she did."

There was no doubt about who this "she" referred to - Sawyer's mother. "I plan to," Kate said, drawing her hand back toward her body. She felt suddenly strong, as if she'd survived a grueling ordeal and come out of it the victor.

Giving her a perceptive smile, Meg seemed to feel that the matter had been settled once and for all. "All right then." She leaned back into the wheelchair with a sigh and then glanced around, noticing that they were still alone. "You think that boy fell in?"

Kate had been wondering the same thing. "I'll go check on him."

"Hello," the parrot said as she stood up to leave the room.

"Piss off!" Meg screamed at it.

Fighting the urge to laugh hysterically, Kate ducked into the hallway, going off in search of Sawyer.

She went down a long, narrow corridor, and then turned, locating the bathroom. He wasn't in it, and she hadn't really expected him to be. She knew that wasn't why he'd left the room. She continued down the hallway, seeking him out. To her surprise, other corridors branched off of this one, and she chose one at random. There were more rooms down here than she would have thought possible. The bunker resembled a hospital or a campus classroom building more than it did someone's home. Continuing her search, she found what appeared to be a fully stocked library, but he wasn't in it.

Choosing another hall, she passed at the end of it a dimly lit room, and then stopped, backtracking to peer into it more closely.

This room was filled with electronic equipment and eerily glowing computer monitors. Seated in a swivel chair in front of what looked like a radar tracking module was Sawyer, staring blankly into space. From the doorway, she could only see him in profile, but this was more than enough to cause her heart to give a lurch of sympathy for him. He seemed so disoriented, as if his entire universe had been thrown off-kilter. He also looked strangely young to her at the moment, almost boyish. Maybe it was just the lighting.

He suddenly glanced to the side, noticing her there.

"Hey," she said softly, leaning against the door frame. "You okay?"

"Got lost," he explained, his voice strained and a bit sheepish, as if he were trying to keep it in his normal joking register. "Place is like a damn maze."

"I noticed." She smiled.

Hesitantly, she walked into the room and approached him, placing her hands on his shoulders. Gaining more confidence, she leaned over and wrapped her arms around his neck from behind, resting her chin against his ear. At first he stayed rigid, staring straight ahead of him. Then, letting his breath out slowly, he relaxed and reached up to stroke her arm, turning his head a little so that his forehead touched her cheek. For a long time, they remained like this, not moving at all.

"She's really alive," Kate whispered, her eyes closed.

It took Sawyer a while to answer. "How 'bout that," he finally said, in a husky tone of wonder.

Kate raised up slightly, pressing her lips to his temple. There was a knot in her throat. She'd never felt as much love for him as she did right now, but it would make him uncomfortable if he guessed that. She would keep it to herself.

Again they were quiet for a moment, and then Sawyer looked around him, as if noticing where he was for the first time. "What the hell is this stuff?"

Laughing quietly, Kate examined it too, smoothing his hair back where she'd rumpled it. "I don't know," she admitted. "Some kind of surveillance equipment, it looks like."

The mystery of exactly what kind of research Clifford was involved in only deepened the more they discovered. But maybe that was for the best. Trying to figure it out would keep them occupied during the remainder of this long winter.

"Dinner's ready!" Meg's voice came from a what sounded like a great, echoing distance. "You two ever eaten food cooked by a cripple before? If not, now's your chance!"

Sawyer closed his eyes in exasperation. She would never change.

"Come on," Kate said, pulling him to his feet. "I think I can find the way back."

Throwing his arm around her shoulders, he allowed her to lead him from the room.

The kitchen was comically large, considering that only one man used it. It appeared to have been built to feed an entire orphanage. The four of them sat at a picnic table in the middle of the room, surrounded by what felt like acres of gleaming stainless steel fixtures illuminated by fluorescent lights.

"So, let me get this straight," Meg said, coiling a strand of spaghetti around her fork. The noodles were overcooked, though she made no apologies for it. "You're legally dead?"

"Yeah," Kate confirmed. She wiped her mouth with a napkin. "They even have my remains. Or what they think are my remains."

Clifford seemed impressed. Even Meg had to give credit where it was due. "Christ almighty. I never woulda thought you could pull it off."

"We didn't, really," she admitted. "It was Paul. He set it all up." She reached for a glass of water, making a face at the strange sulfur taste of it. She made a mental note to herself that they'd have to buy the bottled kind.

"The long-lost brother, right?" Meg asked, skeptical. She shook her head. "Sounds like a soap opera."

"It felt like one," Sawyer said. He seemed to be getting back into his stride, relating to his aunt in the same familiar way he always had. "Kept waitin' for someone to get amnesia, to really seal the deal."

Kate rolled her eyes at him. It hadn't been that bad.

"And then you stayed with these miner people?" Meg asked. She was trying to get the sequence of events correct, as if it were important to her to know exactly what had happened in their lives since she'd last seen them. For both, it was a new experience, to have someone be interested in them in such detail.

"They're a fantastic family, Margaret," Clifford interjected. "I'll have to introduce you to them sometime. At first I was wary when I heard there were earth-rapists setting up shop so close. Oh, that's how I refer to miners," he explained, off their confused looks. "But when I got to know them, I just couldn't help but fall in love. In a... in a completely platonic way, of course." Smiling, he speared a vegetarian meatball. He was the only one eating them.

Kate let a few seconds pass before continuing. "Anyway. We would have been here sooner, but the weather wouldn't cooperate."

Sawyer gave her a pointed look. "Only because someone had the brilliant idea that we had to walk here."

"He's just mad because he had to leave his girlfriend behind," Kate teased, speaking to Meg and Clifford but looking right at Sawyer.

Meg laughed, always in the mood to make fun of her nephew. "I can't say I've got much interest in the parents, but I think I'm gonna like this little girl. Sounds like she has good taste in men."

"There's a conversation I'd love to hear," Sawyer muttered sarcastically. Kate could tell that he was already hoping to be miles away when the eventual meeting between Grace and Meg took place. Personally, she was looking forward to it.

The thought of introductions reminded her of something she'd been curious about earlier. Now seemed as good a time to ask about it as any. "So how did the two of you meet?" she said, referring to Clifford and Meg.

"Now that's an interesting story." Meg pulled her wheelchair out from under the table and retrieved another bottle of wine from the counter. She'd already informed them that she wasn't supposed to have alcohol with her medication, but that they could go to hell if they thought she was going to obey this rule. "You want to tell it?"

"You go ahead," Clifford told her. "I'm sure your version is more entertaining."

"If I can remember it, maybe." She popped the cork in the bottle and poured herself another glass. She poured Sawyer another glass as well, though he hadn't requested one. Kate tried not to feel jealous.

"Let's see..." Meg began, gathering her thoughts. "It was the spring of, what... '70? All those batshit crazy war protesters were right in their heyday, so it must have been '70 or '71. The University of Tennessee students were late bloomers, I guess. Took 'em awhile to even realize there was a war. By the time they started havin' their own protests, the police knew just how to handle it. One night in April, they arrested a whole gaggle of 'em, before they'd even had a chance to really get the damn thing started. Threw 'em in the Knoxville jail." She took a sip of wine. "All the liberals were up in arms about it... said it was a violation of the First Amendment. Or one of the amendments, anyway. So a couple nights later, this goon rolls into town to pay their bail for 'em." She gestured toward Clifford, smiling fondly. "Supposed to be some big political statement, right? Only the problem was, he got the dates mixed up, and by the time he got there, wasn't none of 'em left. They'd already made bail. There was no one in that damn jail except for my husband. And he wasn't there for no war protestin'. He was there for the same reason he always was. Got drunk and knocked somebody's teeth out in a bar."

Smiling at the memory, Clifford nodded in confirmation.

"So what does this guy do?" Meg said. "He pays his bail anyway. Figured he'd come all that way to help someone out, so he was bound and determined to find a way to do it, even if it didn't have nothin' to do with the damn protest. But that's not the strangest part," she went on. "The strangest part is that John... my husband... invites the bastard home with him. You remember your uncle," she said to Sawyer. "He certainly wasn't known for his hospitality. But for some reason, he did it. Maybe he wasn't sober yet. Who knows? All I know is that he ended up staying with us for a month." She pointed her fork at Clifford. "And then he came back to visit every year. Isn't that right?" she asked. "I still can't understand how you two managed to get along. Most unlikely friendship someone could ever dream up."

"He was a good man," Clifford said, obviously sincere. "Once you got past the outer shell, anyway." He turned to Sawyer. "You know, you look a lot like him. I noticed it right off, when I saw you out there. It's the nose, I think. And also the jaw."

"All the Ford men had that jaw," Meg said, pleased by the fact that Clifford had remarked on the resemblance. "That's the Cherokee blood in 'em."

"What Cherokee?" Sawyer looked at her like she was crazy.

As if it were the most well-known fact in the world, she calmly said, "One of your great-great-granddaddies was an Indian chief."

He took in this information, completely dumbfounded. "You never told me that."

"Well," she pointed out. "You never asked."

It was the second time Kate had heard Meg say these words to Sawyer, after handing over to him a priceless nugget of information about his own family, his own obscured past. She wondered how many more of these the woman possessed. Maybe now, against all odds, Sawyer would finally have the chance to ask questions, and to receive the answers he'd always coveted. It seemed such a miraculous opportunity that Kate would have envied him, if she hadn't wanted it for him even more than he wanted it for himself.

"It's probably getting dark," Clifford now said, glancing at his watch. "I suppose I should take you on up to the cabin, if you've really got your heart set on it. But like I said before, you're welcome to a room down here. There's plenty of space."

"Thank you, but..." Kate began.

"They want to be on their own, Cliff," Meg interrupted, saving her the trouble. "They're young." She turned to Kate. "I hope you're not expecting the honeymoon suite, though."

"No," she protested. "Just... anything with a bed, will be fine." Hearing the way this sounded, she stopped, embarrassed. "I mean... because we're tired."

"I know what you meant." Meg said with a sly look. "Don't forget who you're talking to, sugar." Tossing back the last of the wine in her glass, she said in a thoughtful voice, "You know, Cliff, we shoulda knocked boots when we had the chance. It's not like I didn't offer. But you had to be such a damn gentleman."

"Now, Margaret," he said, as if they'd had this conversation before. "You were still mourning John. You know you would have regretted it."

"Well, you waited too long," she said with a sigh. "Now I can't feel anything below the waist, so I guess you missed your chance."

Sawyer pushed his plate away, his face contorted with disgust. "I can't listen to this," he groaned, standing up. "You ready, Freckles?"

Meg cackled with delight at his misery, enjoying it as always.

Kate stood too, but she still looked at Meg, worried. "Is it..." she said, and then forced herself to continue. "Is it permanent?"

"That's what they say," she answered, shrugging. "But they also said I wouldn't live, so what do they know? We'll show 'em. I don't suppose either of you happens to know a good spinal surgeon, by any chance?"

Kate turned to look at Sawyer with vague amusement, a question in her eyes.

"No," he said emphatically, staring back at her, hard. "We don't."

She turned back to Meg, a hint of a smile playing around her lips. In a conspiratorial tone, she whispered, "We'll talk later."

"You all right here by yourself for a bit?" Clifford asked Meg, preparing to lead them out.

"I'll manage."

"Night," Sawyer told her, only making brief eye contact. It was clear that he needed more time to process all of this before he could be truly comfortable with it.

Kate squeezed her hand. "Thank you for dinner." She wanted to say something more profound, but she didn't trust herself at the moment. Meg wouldn't want that, anyway, she assumed.

But maybe she was mistaken. When she and Sawyer had reached the door, Meg stopped them. "Hey." They turned to see what she wanted. She gave them a wry smile, arching her eyebrows.

"Welcome home."

The sun was sinking as Clifford led them out of the bunker and toward an untended path that wound around the satellites and outbuildings and then up into the woods. The tree cover was so thick here that there wasn't even much snow on the ground. After a few minutes of walking, the forest opened up again on one side to reveal a broad sweep of land stretching down to the river. They hadn't even noticed the river from the bunker, but it was still here, cutting right through the center of Clifford's property. It appeared to be broader and a bit deeper than it had been further south, though the water still flowed swiftly. It was comforting to see it again, like a familiar friend they'd been traveling with.

On their right, the cabin rose up into view. It sat perched just at the very edge of the tree line, with the entire dense forest protectively behind it, beginning almost at the back door. The front view looked out over the wide slope of snow-covered plain with the river coiling around the edge. The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful, and this was what immediately caught Kate's attention. She already had the urge to explore the forest, to tramp through it for hours on end, losing herself completely.

Sawyer, on the other hand, seemed to be more concerned with the actual structure itself. It was in an obvious state of disrepair and neglect, the roof buckling and the porch sagging. Here and there, panes of glass were missing from the windows. The cabin was one-story, with probably not more than four or five rooms. He stared at it without much enthusiasm, though he was clearly trying to reserve judgment.

"Well, here we are," Clifford said, leading them up to the front steps. "It's, uh.. it's certainly not the Hilton. It's not even a Motel 6, if you want the truth," he joked. "Nobody's lived in this place for a long time."

"I'm sure it'll be fine," Kate said, determined to love it no matter what.

"If you say so." He didn't sound entirely convinced. "The chimneys are safe at least... nothing wrong there."

"Safe for what?" Sawyer asked. "Hiding bodies?"

"Well, there's a generator in the kitchen," Clifford went on. He seemed unsure of how to respond to sarcasm when it didn't come from Meg. "You should be able to find it with no problem. I'll run a power line up here tomorrow... get you hooked up to the well, too. We'll have to install a new hot water heater." He rested his arm on the post at the bottom of the porch steps, looking at Kate. "I can pick one up this weekend, from Fairbanks. I fly over to Alaska just about every week, so if you kids ever need anything, or if you want to come along, just say the word."

Then they wouldn't be completely cut off from civilization, after all. Kate breathed an inward sigh of relief, mostly for Sawyer's sake. It would mean more to him than it would to her. "I don't even know how to thank you," she told Clifford. How could words begin to convey how much all of this meant to them? He couldn't possibly know that he was giving them a second chance.

"Don't bother with it, then." He patted her on the shoulder in a fatherly manner. "You don't know how nice it'll be for me to have actual human neighbors. I've been on my own up here for too long. Starts to make you crazy after awhile. And seeing Margaret again, it's... well." He stopped, his expression taking on a wistful air, and he smiled to himself. Kate wondered if he'd once been in love with Meg. Maybe he still was.

"Anyway, here's the key. I'll let you explore the place by yourselves," he said, his voice returning to its normal hearty register. "I need to check on the horses." Starting back down the path, he called out in explanation, "I've got a mare who went and got herself into a delicate condition, out of season. We're expecting a new arrival any day now. Oh, but I'm not judging her, mind you. It was a crime of passion!" He waved. "See you tomorrow!"

"Good night!" Kate called after his retreating figure.

And finally they were alone again. She looked at Sawyer, and together they climbed up the steps onto the porch, the wood groaning beneath them. Cautiously, they peered around for a few seconds, examining the exterior and peeking through the dirty windows. Each seemed to be waiting for the other to break the silence. The gurgling rush of the river was the only noise to be heard.

Kate finally took the initiative. "So, this is it. What do you think?"

Sawyer tapped at a loose chunk of mortar near the front door, which promptly fell off and landed at his feet in a cloud of dust. "Needs a lot of work," he said, stating the obvious. "It'll take some time, to make it really livable."

"We've got time." She said these words simply, only realizing as they left her mouth how true they were. Almost unbelievable, and yet still true.

"These boards are damn near rotted through," he went on, staring down at his feet as he tested his weight in different spots. "Whole porch'll have to be replaced." He glanced up at her, and she was surprised to see that there was something resembling anticipation in his attitude. As unlikely as it seemed, could it be possible that he was actually looking forward to such a project? Maybe she'd underestimated him, once again.

She leaned against the front railing, crossing her arms. "Can I watch when you do it?"

"Whatever turns you on, sweetheart," he said, amused. "Afraid I'll probably have to wear a shirt, though."

She responded with a sly grin. "We'll see about that."

He came to stand next to her near the railing, their arms just barely touching. They looked out over the river, which glowed lava-orange in the dying sun.

"Looks deep enough to swim in, down there," Sawyer remarked.

Kate tried to picture what he must be seeing in his mind, so that their visions would correspond. The snow would melt and the spring would bring in fast-scudding clouds against a piercing blue sky. Mud everywhere at first, and then the dry brown grass would turn green, and then an even darker green, and it would grow tall and be spotted with wildflowers. The mountains would be blue in the distance, the only white visible at the very highest peaks. The air would shimmer with warmth and sunlight. In July, the baby would be born. In August it would be a year since they'd met. She said softly, in a tone of wonder, as if her words could encompass all of these images, "That's our front yard."

He shook his head a little, as if he couldn't quite believe it. "Hell of a long way from Tennessee."

"It's a long way from everywhere," she agreed. "Isn't that what we wanted?"

Accepting this as a rhetorical question, Sawyer remained silent.

Kate felt a sudden sense of peace drift over her, unlike anything she'd ever experienced before. It wasn't a pure, blissful peace, but she wouldn't have wanted that anyway. It wouldn't have been real. What she felt was much deeper, and much more powerful. Because there wasn't going to be any happily ever after for the two of them here. The place was far from ideal. Like them, it needed a lot of work and would require a lot of time and patience. It would probably never be perfect. But that was okay, somehow. Because it didn't have to be perfect to be home. And home was all they needed it to be.

They wouldn't stay here forever. She was too realistic to believe that they could manage that. She knew herself too well, and she knew Sawyer too. Their innate restless drives would get the best of them, eventually. They would leave here, and try out someplace else. Then they would leave that place too, and the one after that as well, most likely. But this place... this cabin in this remote and beautiful corner of the world, would still be here, waiting for them. It would always be here, and more importantly, it would always be safe. They could come back to it whenever they wanted. No matter where they went, it would exist as an anchor, ensuring that they didn't float off into terrifying empty space. If they separated, they would know to find each other here. Until obtaining it today, Kate hadn't even realized the absence in her life of that most key, essential thing - a place to come back to. And now this one would belong to both of them, as well as their child, forever.

"Do you really believe what you said last night?" she asked suddenly, not even realizing she was going to speak until the words were out. "That we don't stand a chance?"

Sawyer kept staring out at the river, but his expression darkened and became evasive. "That's not what I said."

Kate waited, not letting him off the hook over a matter of semantics. She understood that he felt hurt and betrayed by the fact that she was bringing up something from their argument yesterday. They rarely did that to one another. It was a sort of unspoken code they lived by, that once a fight was behind them, it could be revisited in private memory, obsessed over for hidden meaning, even referenced obliquely in pointed glances, but not mentioned out loud. To do so was the equivalent of ripping out stitches before a wound had even begun to heal, and she was now violating their tacit agreement to spare each other this pain. But just this once, she couldn't help it. She wanted to hear his answer. It seemed essential that she hear it before they went through that front door.

She repeated her question insistently, turning to look right at him, emphasizing every word. "Do you believe it?"

He finally turned to face her, but instead of replying, he pulled her toward him and began unbuttoning her coat from the bottom up, intently. She looked down at this process, confused. When he had it halfway opened, he parted it at her waist and stared at the slight swelling of her lower belly as if he would find the answer to her question there. Gently, he placed one hand over the growing roundness, fingers outspread. He seemed to be listening to something from a great distance, his expression tortured. Looking up, he met her eyes again. His voice was low and hoarse, the word dragged from him unwillingly. "No."

His sharp blue gaze burned into hers, filled with such an intense, almost challenging, love and protectiveness that she had to shut her eyes against it for a second, afraid that the deluge would overpower her. She leaned into him, grateful, exhausted, feeling the true import of his answer flood over her in warm, enveloping waves. It didn't really change anything, of course. It didn't ensure a future, and it didn't mean they would last. But it meant he believed they could. And that was all she needed to know. If he could believe it, then she could too.

He held her for a long time, leaning back against the porch railing. When she opened her eyes again and peered over his shoulder, the sun was completely gone. Streaks of orange were fast fading into mellow wisps of pink, darkening to purple at the outer edges. The multi-hued clouds were reflected in the river like cotton candy. On the banks, stately and majestic, the spruces and firs formed black silhouettes against the still, molten evening sky. The temperature was dropping by the second as night came on. It was getting too cold to stand out here.

Feeling as if she were coming out of a trance, Kate leaned back and looked up at Sawyer again. Her face was damp with tears, for the second time today.

He smiled at her now, the air between them thankfully cleared of tension. "You ready to check out the inside?"

Reaching into her coat pocket, she pulled out the key Clifford had handed her. With a sense of muted excitement, she passed it to Sawyer, wordlessly asking him to do the honors.

He moved toward the door and unlocked it, pushing it open. It swung inward like a door in a haunted house, creaking.

He poked his head in, and then moved forward a few steps, depositing their backpacks and bedrolls inside near the door. Straightening up, he looked around and gave a low whistle. "Not bad," he drawled to himself, surprised. "Smells like mouse droppings, but it's nice and roomy."

Kate remained leaning against the porch rail, listening to him. "Big screen TV on that wall..." she heard him say, making plans. "Maybe a mini-bar over there in the corner. Needs bookshelves."

She could just barely make out the shape of his dim outline in the fading light - his relaxed stance, his sloped shoulders, head cocked slightly to the side as he considered possibilities for the room. He was hers, she thought fiercely, the belief descending on her with no warning. It probably wasn't safe to think of him that way, but there was no help for it. They'd been through so much together to make it to this point. So much. They'd lived through a lifetime together in less than a year. All those days on the island, and then the second stage in their complicated relationship at the house in Tennessee, followed by this exhausting, death-defying road trip across the country. Their time together had been dangerous, and volatile, and heartbreaking, and still somehow beautiful. And she wanted more of it. Because reaching this place wasn't the end of anything, she now understood. It was just the beginning. For the first time in her life she grasped the real, vital meaning of that time-worn truism. This was just the beginning.

Eventually, Sawyer seemed to notice that she wasn't behind him. He came back to the door. "You comin' in, or not?" When she didn't answer right away, he teased her. "What, you want to make it like old times... go through the window?"

"Aren't you forgetting something?" she asked him, pretending to be serious.

He glanced around the porch, puzzled. "I already took the stuff in."

Seeing that he still wasn't catching on, Kate brushed her hair away from her face in an exaggerated manner, splaying her fingers to highlight the ring. She cleared her throat for extra emphasis.

"Ahh..." he said, tilting his head back in recognition. "I see what you're after. All right, girl, no need to get pushy."

He stepped toward her, and before she could even prepare herself, he'd swung her easily up against him, catching her legs with his right arm and holding her around the waist with his left.

She gave him a dazzling smile. "That's better."

Then, because it was impossible not to with their faces already so close and the warmth pulsing in waves between them, they brought their lips together in a heated series of kisses that left them both gasping.

"You better hope these floor boards ain't too far gone, Freckles," Sawyer said in a mischievous tone, just inches away from her mouth. "We fall through, we'll have to spend the night under the porch like a couple of hound dogs."


Flashing his dimples at her, he waited for her next words. She kissed him again, one hand grazing over his scratchy cheek. He shifted her weight in his arms to allow her easier access. Out of breath, she pulled away, still smiling. "Just shut up and take me inside," she whispered.

Not allowing her to rush him, Sawyer kissed her one more time for good measure. Then he hoisted her higher in his arms and carried her through the entrance of the cabin that would become their new home. Without looking back, he kicked the door shut behind them.