EPILOGUE

The large industrial building was empty and peaceful. Two rows of steel-and-concrete structural columns were spaced evenly along the length of the facility's main room, supporting a high ceiling crossed with girders. A double row of large older-style windows with several blown out panes were covered with clear plastic sheeting, allowing light to pour in from the south. Additional windows, now partially boarded up, graced the remaining walls, suggesting the facility had been a pleasant place to work at one time. The lack of trash and debris suggested someone had taken the time to preserve and protect this empty echoing room.

Blackened walls and a faint smell of soot bore silent witness to a substantial fire sometime in the room's past.

"Mr. Stoker?"

Mike turned, recognizing the older man at once, and held out his hand. "Mr. McConnikee."

"Thank you for agreeing to meet me here," Henry said, shaking hands with the taller man. "You're probably wondering why and why here."

"The location is a bit different," Mike acknowledged, "but I imagine you wanted to talk to me about Patty, sir."

"Yes, yes, I did," he said, looking down at his hands. "Patty's very special to all of Clan McConnikee and – ."

"She's special to me, too, sir," Mike replied quickly, then winced. Don't interrupt the man, Stoker, let him have his say. Great first impression, just great.

"My daughter's quite taken with you as well, young man," Henry replied, a bit of a smile crossing his face when Mike blushed. "That's why we're having this conversation." Stoker smiled then, the flash of humor putting him at ease.

"Yes, sir."

"There's a bit of McConnikee family history I'd like to share with you," Henry said, motioning for the other man to follow. He stopped before a particular column on the south side of the room, running one hand reverently down the face, the soot transferring to his fingertips unnoticed. "When Patty was about three years old, she and her mother stopped in here to use the phone. It was a textile mill at the time and the owner, seeing Patty's fascination with the looms and such, offered to give them a tour. They were right about here," he said, hands sketching a location next to the column, "when a fire broke out at the far end of the room." He gestured to the far corner where extensive fire and smoke damage was still visible.

Mike turned, visualizing the room full of people and machines, gauging the distance, calculating the time it would take for a fire to block the centrally-located exits, estimating how quickly a woman with a small child could move. His eyes were grim with a firefighter's knowledge when he turned back to Patty's father.

"They were able to stay close to the floor, Morgana somehow keeping Patty moving in the right direction and shielding her from falling debris as best she could. As they were nearing that door there, a warping machine collapsed." He took a breath and continued in the same matter-of-fact tone. "A large rack holding scores of bobbins of thread caught Morgana across the back, pinning her down. She'd been hunched over Patty at the time so Patty ended up trapped beneath her. Morgana was able to push herself up enough to keep from smothering Patty but not enough to let her get free." He stopped, staring at a spot on the floor perhaps fifteen feet from the exit. Moving like that, the doctors had said, had caused more damage to Morgana's back.

"How bad?" Mike asked finally, mouth as dry as sandpaper. He knew Patty's mother had died some time ago but not the circumstances.

"They were lucky. We, uh, the fire department arrived and found them quickly. Patty had some smoke inhalation issues but only relatively minor burns since she'd been under her mother. Morgana, on the other hand, had second and third degree burns on her legs and back. And spinal trauma." He sighed deeply. "Permanently paralyzed from the waist down, nerve damage from the burns. It was a long, slow recovery, but my súile-glasa [green eyes] came back and we had some good years as a family afterwards."

"I'm glad of that, sir," Mike said softly.

"I, uh, know you have a fairly large extended family, Michael; they come together when there is a crisis, right?" Stoker nodded. "Well, our family does the same. From the moment my wife was injured in this fire until she passed on in her sleep of a pulmonary embolism ten years ago, the whole McConnikee Clan was very involved in our day-to-day lives. They still are, to a great extent. As a result, Patty's uncles and cousins, in particular, are rather, uhm, protective of her."

"I can understand that, sir," Mike broke in, thinking about how he would feel in a similar situation. He had a sudden need to wrap his arms around Patty, to shield her from every possible danger. "Thank you for sharing this. It makes Patty all the more precious to me." He looked around the room, again seeing the fire advance unchecked for impossibly long minutes, again watching the determined journey of a mother and her child, again witnessing the pain of being trapped and the terror of trapping a loved one. "She must have been an extraordinary woman, your wife," Mike said slowly.

"She was," Henry agreed softly. "Patty is much like her." The silence lengthened, then was broken by Henry's faint cough.

"Now, Mr. Stoker," McConnikee's voice was suddenly hard, almost menacing, "before things go any further between you and my daughter, I want you to keep in mind the following." Stoker had turned back to him, straightening unconsciously but meeting the other man's eyes unflinchingly. "If you and Patty continue to date each other, you'll probably be under a lot of scrutiny from folks named McConnikee. If you step out of line with her, someone named McConnikee is likely to be right there to correct your misjudgment. And, if you hurt her, I can guarantee Clan McConnikee will be paying you a visit you won't soon forget." Patty's father glared at him, eyes narrowing slightly, and waited.

Mike considered Henry's words carefully, giving them due weight, then nodded. "I can live with that, sir," he said then added, "but I don't want to continue to date Patty."

"You don't?" Henry asked, surprise opening his eyes wide. Patty is gonna kill me, if I've scared this one away. Never seen her more besotted with someone. Although I thought he'd be tougher than this….

"No, sir. I want to marry her." He held up a hand to forestall Henry's response. "I know it's too soon, I'm not planning to rush things, and I know it may not work out, but … I'm in this for the long haul." He paused. "And knowing how Clan McConnikee views Patty makes me a lot more … comfortable pursuing this relationship, with all its risks."

"Really?" asked Henry, then chuckled. "You know, that's not the usual response to the Revenge of the Clan McConnikee speech, son." Oh-ho, this is interesting.

Mike chuckled again despite himself. "I thought it sounded pretty polished. I take it you've had to give it a few times before?"

"Tommy and I both have had a lot of practice at it," Henry replied with a smile, remembering a few eager young men who'd gotten a wonder-twin-powers-activate double-dose of The Speech. "But, why would it make you more likely to …."

"I have four nieces, sir, two sets of twins born within two days of each other. There were some complications, but the whole Stoker contingent responded to the challenge of taking care of our girls, big and little," he explained. "At the station, we look out for each other on the job because that's the only way we can do our jobs. But when one of the guys is injured or someone's family is in need, we also step up and … take care of our own. It's as natural as breathing. Now I know how Clan McConnikee responds to a crisis," he said, touching the support column lightly, "and where Patty herself rates within that kinship."

"I don't quite – ."

"If the next call of the day is my last call," Mike said simply, "I know someone – Stoker, McConnikee, fireman – will always be there for my lady green eyes. She won't," he stopped and took a few deep breaths, eyes on his soot-smudged fingers, surprised how hard it was to say, flat-out. "When I'm gone, sir, she won't have to cry alone."