Most of the characters in this story are the property of ABC TV and other entities, and I do not have any permission to borrow them. Not that I think ABC will notice; it certainly isn't taking very good care of them. However, no infringement is intended, and this story is not for profit. Almost all other characters are my property, and if you want to mess with them, you have to ask me first. Feedback is most welcome.

This was written in response to a request for small fanfics. This story does contain some real people, and if they don't like it they can thump me.

*****

It was all the same body of water in the end, Ed reflected as he shook salt and sand from his hair, but it sure did seem different from this angle.

He took a firmer grip on his surfboard and peered toward the beach, narrowing his eyes against the sun and the stiff wind. A storm miles offshore was producing some very good waves this afternoon, but he was getting a little tired and he'd promised to meet Tom and Sloan for dinner. It would be nice to show up in something other than a wetsuit. So he let the swelling water carry him in toward the slope of land and trotted up onto firm sand, toting the surfboard easily.

I'm glad I brought my gear, he thought, even for just a few days' stay. This was sure a good idea.

It had been Walter's suggestion, but the older man had not had to try hard to convince the trio to accompany him on his trip to the nation's capital. Apparently Tom and Sloan had already discussed a vacation, and while this was just a long weekend, Ocean City made a good spot to relax.

The sand went from wet and firm to dry and shifting under Ed's feet, and he barely noticed the faint sting of windblown grains against his bare ankles. Now that was a sight to see--Tom's face when he saw the strip here! Ed grinned at the memory. Tacky doesn't begin to describe this place. But it is fun. Sloan and Tom had opted to do touristy things, since it was too chilly for all but the most dedicated of swimmers, but Ed had taken one look at the waves and gone directly for the beach. Suits me just fine. We can all relax here for a bit, and Walter will meet up with us on Sunday. Perfect.

Ed headed for the boardwalk, which was lined with shops selling everything from food to clothes to temporary tattoos. Garish signs flashed to catch the eye, and to the north spun the Ferris wheel that hovered over the small collection of amusement rides. People were everywhere--bodyboarding, building sand castles, running, strolling, flying kites. None of them seemed to know or care that the next generation in hominid evolution was plotting their overthrow, and Ed found it peculiarly refreshing. We all needed this break.

A new sound broke into his reverie--one that, thanks to those years of babysitting in high school, put him on alert. He glanced around. There was no one particularly close to him, except for one little kid--and there was no one near the crying child either.

Ed shot a quick look over his shoulder at the ocean. The kid was too young to be alone this close to the water. Normally he tried to avoid lone rugrats, lest he be taken for a molester or worse, but this was not something he could ignore. Setting down the board, he walked over to the child and crouched down.

"Hi," he said. Closer examination, and the long black hair spilling from the sweatshirt hood, revealed it to be a girl. "Are you okay?"

The child gave him a long, doubtful look, lower lip trembling, and finally shook her head. She had a bucket in one hand and a grinning seal on her sweatshirt, and she looked to be four, maybe five years old to Ed.

"Are you lost?" he asked conversationally, not wanting to spook her.

She considered him again, and eventually nodded.

Ed stood up and glanced around, but he couldn't see a lifeguard nearby--the nearest guard chair was empty. He didn't see any frantic-looking adults, either. He swore softly under his breath. What he really needed was a cop or some other authority, but apparently he'd have to improvise. He dropped down again.

"Can you show me where you came from?" That was a start; maybe the girl had just wandered a little too far.

Another nod. Ed straightened and held out a hand, and after a moment's hesitation the tiny fingers slipped into his. He tucked his board under his other arm and followed the pull of the small figure.

She led him past a wooden jungle gym in the form of a castle, swarming with kids, to a deck chair sitting by itself in the dry sand. A couple of bags sat next to it, one spilling out a bottle of sunscreen, and there was a pink kite and a pair of adult sandals, but no person. Judging from the sandals, Ed decided that the missing person was a mother or reasonable facsimile.

"Mommy's gone," the girl said in a surprisingly firm voice.

Ed looked down. At least she wasn't crying. "What's your name?"

Her eyes were large, dark, and fearless. "Ray."

"Is that short for Rachel?"

She gave him a look that instantly relegated him to the idiot category. "No-o! Ray," she said firmly.

Ed grinned. Maybe she was younger than he'd thought. "I'm Ed."

This was received with a wordless stare, but her hand stayed in his. "I have a friend named Ray," he went on, "but he's a lot older than you. Bigger, too."

She burst out with a giggle. "No!"

He had to chuckle, though he couldn't tell if she was protesting someone else with her name or just didn't believe him. He looked around again, but still saw no sign of anyone looking for a lost kid. I suppose we should stay here, he thought, but it could be a while before somebody turns up. Hmm.

"D'you think you could ride on my shoulders and look for your mom?" he asked.

Ray again gave him that long, considering look before nodding. He dropped his board again and lifted her easily, setting her behind his head with her legs over his shoulders. Her hands immediately dove into his wet hair, and the little bucket banged him on the side of the head.

"Oww," he said, laughing. "Hey, can we leave that here?" He detached it from her distracted grip, letting it fall next to the chair, and wrapped his hands around her sandy ankles. "Okay, do you see your mom?"

"Uh-unh." She bounced a little, settling herself, and he reached up to ease her clutch.

"Okay, let's go up to the boardwalk, then. Maybe we'll spot her." Where are you when I need you, Tom? he thought wryly. If ever I needed somebody who can sense emotions...

He strode off through the sand toward the busy boardwalk. He didn't plan to go far from the deckchair unless he found a cop or a lifeguard, and leaving the bucket there would at least reassure Ray's mother that she hadn't drowned.

Climbing the stairs to the boardwalk, he paused a moment to watch the people streaming past. The variety was astounding, and clothing ranged from swimsuits to jackets and everything in between. The shops held sunglasses, hair wrapping, jewelry, and restaurants, and were backed by motels that had probably been there for decades. On the other side was the unceasing sea, a sharp contrast to the bright bustle of humanity. Ed shivered briefly. Would all this grow dark and silent if the new species had its way?

He scanned the crowds for a couple of minutes, looking for an authority figure, before his eyes caught on familiarity. Tom slipped out of the crowd, looking soberer than most in his usual dark clothing. Ed noticed with interest the softball cap--dark blue, but with an Ocean City logo--that Tom was wearing. He hadn't had it that morning.

The shorter man took in Ed's new friend without a blink. "You called?" he murmured dryly.

Ed gaped at him for a moment. "You heard me?" he finally managed.

Tom shrugged. "'Heard' is not exactly the term," he said. "And I was close by. What's the matter?"

Ed got his scientific speculation under control. "Ray here has lost her mother," he explained. "I was...I was just wishing that you could find her mother, because...I mean, you can sense..." He trailed off into confusion, somewhat embarrassed.

Tom raised one sardonic brow. "In all this?"

Ed's shoulders sagged under more than the weight of the child. "I guess it was a pretty stupid idea."

Tom shook his head, a thoughtful expression stealing over his face, and Ed suspected that he was having one of his "what would Sloan do" moments. "I can try," Tom said finally.

"Where's Sloan?" Ed asked. Usually the two of them were practically inseparable.

"She got tired," Tom replied. "I sent her back to the motel for a nap." He looked down the boardwalk, away from the amusement rides. "I'll go that way," he added, "and meet you back here in fifteen minutes if I don't find the mother."

"Great! Thanks, man," Ed said gratefully. Tom disappeared into the crowd again, and Ed began walking the other way, searching for anyone who looked upset and hoping that Ray was still watching as well.

They'd passed about five or six shops before Ray shrieked. "Mommy! Mommy!" Ed took a firmer grip on her legs as she bounced, and straightened himself, peering into the crowd.

"Ray!" came an answering shout, and a young woman dodged an elderly couple and ran up to them. Ed quickly swung the child down into the woman's reaching arms and grinned at the resulting frantic hugs and incomprehensible--to him--babble.

After a few moments they calmed down a little. The woman looked up at Ed; judging from her expression, Ray had conveyed the fact that Ed had been helping her, not kidnapping her. The woman was a good deal shorter than Ed, which wasn't hard, and was nicely rounded, with gold-shot brown hair and a lively, warm face. A variety of emotions flickered over her face, almost too fast for him to make out--astonishment changed to disbelief and then settled on wry humor. She shifted her daughter to one arm and held out her hand. "Thank you so much," she said.

Ed shook her hand. "Happy to help," he replied, smiling. "You okay?"

"Oh, I'm fine now," she said, laughing a little. "I thought she went one way to hide, but I guess she went the other, and we missed each other." Ray made a demanding noise and wriggled, and her mother let her down, keeping a firm grip on her daughter's hand. "I've been frantic."

"I can imagine." Ed would have stuck his hands in his pockets, but his wetsuit lacked such amenities. "She led me back to your chair and stuff, but..."

The woman sighed. "Yeah, well, we were playing at the castle there, and when I lost track of her the first thing I did was check the water. I guess I kept going from there." She knelt down, took Ray's shoulders, and began scolding her in what sounded to Ed like Japanese.

He shifted from foot to foot, uncomfortable but not quite ready to leave. After a moment the woman rose again. "She's quite a charmer," Ed commented, nodding at Ray. "How old is she?"

"Three and a half." The woman tucked a strand of hair behind one ear and smiled at his surprise. "I don't know where she gets her height."

Ed concealed a glance at her left hand in a blink. No ring, but that wasn't a sure sign these days. "Well--I better go. I'm meeting my friends soon." And he'd have to go find Tom and tell him that he'd found Ray's mom.

The woman nodded. "Thanks again."

Ed gave her half a smile, waved at Ray, and moved off back the way he'd come. I keep meeting interesting women on beaches, he thought ruefully. But somehow nothing comes of it...

*****

He managed to get showered and changed just in time to meet up with the other two, and it wasn't until halfway through dinner that he remembered he had never gone back for his surfboard. He groaned.

"What's the matter?" Sloan asked. He and Tom had already told her about the afternoon's adventures, though Ed had not mentioned Tom "hearing" his wish. Ed figured it was up to Tom to tell her, if he wanted her to know.

"My board. I forgot it. It's probably long gone by now." He shook his head, disgusted with himself. "I must have really needed a vacation if I forgot something like that."

"Maybe the police can help," Sloan said, patting his arm consolingly.

"Maybe," Ed replied, without much hope. His name and number were on the surfboard, but it was a high-quality piece of equipment, and it probably had found a new owner before the sun went down. "No good deed goes unpunished," he muttered.

"What?" asked Tom, and that sent them into a broil of explanations and jokes that lasted for the rest of the meal.

When they got back to the motel, Ed called his home number to check his voice mail, a nightly ritual whenever he was away from home. And was startled to hear a newly familiar voice. A grin spread over his face as he listened.

"Hello, Mr. Tate? I found your surfboard when we got back to our stuff. If you get this message, you can call me at..."