For complete disclaimers see part 1.

Note: This is a request from my beta- if errors are found, please do not send them to us. Accidents do happen, from both writer and editor, and they will not be fixed online. Thank you.

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Control

by

Kim Pritekel & Alexa Hoffman

Part 12

I dug through my drawers, trying to find an elusive pair of cargo shorts. One thing I hated about the coming of winter was that all my summer clothes got buried as I pulled out more and more sweaters and long-sleeved shirts. I hadn't had this particular pair of shorts, one of my favorites, all summer. It was a special day, taking Parker and Keller on a special trip, and I knew I'd need plenty of pockets to carry any and everything the kid didn't want to hold onto once we got there.

It was to be a last hurrah before she started school, and Keller started her flight training. After discussing it, the janitor and I decided it would be best to put her schooling off until she got her driver's license. Passing the test with flying colors in July, she was good to go, and was driving dad's truck, which he'd also left to her.

"Hey, you guys ready?" I called out of my open bedroom door. I could hear them giggling and roughhousing in the hall just beyond the door.

"Where we going?" Parker yelled, running into the room just as I yanked my shorts over my hips, and grabbing onto a leg.

"You'll see, kiddo." I ruffled her hair, which had gotten so long. It was healthy and golden, running down her back. She was also growing like a damn weed! I swear, I'd go to sleep at night, and by morning she'd grown another two inches. Never really being around kids for extended periods of time, let alone nearly a year, it was truly amazing to see how much the kid had changed. No longer so timid, unless around strangers or most men, she was outgoing, and talked just about nonstop with Keller and I. She was still not nearly as talkative as most kids her age, but I was thrilled every time I heard her sweet voice.

Yeah, the kid was doing just fine.

"Are you not going to tell us?" Keller asked, standing in the bedroom doorway, arms crossed over her tank top-covered chest. I shook my head.

"Nope. It's a surprise." I gave her a shit-eating grin. "Now come on!" I clapped my hands. "Let's get this show on the road."

I was nearly bouncing as we all got loaded into the truck. I had Keller drive, as I often do when it's all of us, to help give her more experience, and so I could be here if she had any problems.

I sent her to the hangar where my baby was all ready to go. Two sets of blue eyes opened wide at the sight of the plane, and I thought Keller was going to bounce out of her skin with excitement.

"You ready?" I asked, opening the side door to the plane. She nodded, and quickly turned to help Parker, who looked scared out of her mind. The poor little thing was chewing on her finger, totally unsure about this.

"It's okay," Keller murmured to her, helping her inside. Without a word, Keller sat next to her sister in the back of the small plane, belting them both in. Getting settled in the front, I looked back at them.

"All ready?" I asked, and at Keller's nod, I got the plane started and radioed the tower. Taxiing to the place where we'd be taking off, I called back, "Hold on to your hats!" and began the drive down the runway.

Parker began to cry as we lifted off, Keller doing her best to quiet the kid. After a few moments, once we were up in the sky, the crying had come down to mere sniffles. Keller pointed out different things to the little blonde, getting her attention on something other than the fact that we were fifteen thousand feet in the air.

"I don't think she's going to take to the sky quite like you, Keller," I called out over my shoulder. I heard her snort behind me. The flight to Hershey, Pennsylvania, was a quiet, uneventful one. The only noise, other than the sound of the engines, and occasional crackle from the radio, was Keller softly talking with Parker, and the kid asking timid questions. Landing at a small airport just outside of the town of the chocolate makers, we were met with the car I'd rented already, and were on our way.

"Where are we?" Keller asked, sitting in the front seat, looking around as we drove the streets of Hershey.

"Hershey, Pennsylvania," I said absently, never even taking my eyes from the road. As the sign for Hersheypark came into view, Keller sat a little straighter in her chair, noting the bright colors, and the unmistakable smell of the rich chocolate itself. "I'm taking you two to the wonderful Hersheypark. There is chocolate here, rides, and most importantly, cotton candy." Keller looked at me, brow raised.

"What is that?"

"You've not had cotton candy?" She shook her head. "Oh, dear girl. This must change, and quickly." I paid our admission into the busy amusement park, and led the girls over to a cotton candy vendor. Yeah, so it was like ten o'clock in the morning, but you only live once.

"Hi there." The vendor smiled as he continued to spin the candy around a white paper cone.

"Hi." I smiled back. "What kinds do you have?" I leaned over the vat, seeing the pink cotton bundle get bigger and bigger.

"Well, here I've got bubble gum, over there in them bags we've got blueberry, cherry and then that rainbow one." He nodded over his shoulder toward the bagged candy already hanging from a wire rack. I turned to my companions.

"Bubble gum!" Parker exclaimed, holding on to Keller's hand with a death grip. She hadn't been around quite so many strangers in awhile. I could see Keller's eyes darting this way and that as people walked by.

"Have one for you in just a sec, little one," the man said with a smile. Parker just looked up at him with big eyes.

"Keller?" I nodded toward the assortment.

"Nothing for me." Keller waved me off, eyes still looking over the growing crowds of people. With a sigh, I walked over to her, making her look at me.

"Keller, I brought you guys here today to have a good time. You're fine and safe, and so is Parker. Please just enjoy it, okay?" I tried my best to make my voice as understanding as possible. It was so hard sometimes to think in Keller terms. Hard to understand what made her do the things she did and think the way she did. It was an exercise in patience. The janitor glared down at me for a moment, the muscles in her jaw working, then nodded.

"Blueberry." Her voice was very quiet, almost defeated, and I took it as a victory for me. Giving her the biggest smile I owned, I squeezed her arm.

"A blueberry and the rainbow one, too, please."

###

Keller and I took turns watching Parker as she made her way through the Crazy Climber, me usually ending up holding her shoes. She climbed and romped around the kiddie ride with dozens of other screaming children, all climbing and bouncing, and just in general, having a hell of a time.

We ate more junk, including hotdogs, hamburgers, funnel cakes, more cotton candy and caramel apples. I think I must have gained ten pounds in that one day.

As we made our way through the park, Parker happily munching on her ice cream that Keller had bought for her, I saw the Storm Runner, Hersheypark's new roller coaster, open for a matter of months. Glancing at Keller, I knew the ride was for her. If she liked to fly as much as she appeared to, she'd love a roller coaster.

I turned to her and grinned, one of those great, shit-eating ones.

"What?" she asked, her suspicions already raised. I nodded toward the ride, and her eyes followed. She watched as the brightly painted cars flew by, then raced around the track, going up unbelievably steep inclines, only to speed down huge dips, then corkscrew and fly upside down, and race past us again, blowing our hair from our faces. Keller began to shake her head, unsure of this craziness.

"You like to fly, right?" I said, trying to get her to see that it was so similar.

"Yeah, but . . ."

"But nothing. Then fly, girl!" I gently shoved her toward the line for the roller coaster. She took a step, but faltered, still unsure. "Okay. I know you'll love it, so why don't you go stand in line, and watch the thing. If you still don't know if you want to do it by time you get to the front, get out of line." My evil streak hit again. "You know, if you're that much of a chicken and all." My eyes were twinkling as she turned to look at me. Hers were drawn to narrow slits.

"Fine." She shoved the last of her newest cone of cotton candy into my hands, and stomped off toward the ride. I chuckled, knowing she'd thank me for it later. I took Parker's hand, snagging some of the candy from Keller's cone, and got us a good place to sit under a tree, on a bench. We both watched as the tall girl with dark hair stood in the line, hands shoved into her pockets, eyes constantly looking around. Keller watched the goings on of those around her, she scrutinized passersby, and even turned to grace us once in a while with her protective watch. When she did that, I'd simply nod at her and smile. Parker didn't pay a lick of attention. She was too busy playing with the giant, stuffed Hershey bar Keller had won her at a game booth.

As I watched her, and heard Parker sitting next to me, murmuring things to her new toy, I was amazed. Looking at these two now, never in a million years would have I have been able to picture this, this time last year. They were both healthy, fully filled out from the near emaciated stated in which I got them. Parker was talking now, nearly like a normal six and a half year old. Keller looked great, her skin and hair looked healthy and beautiful. Her eyes were still shadowed, and I ventured a guess to say they'd always be. There was no way a kid could endure what she had and not be permanently scarred, like those that littered various places on her body. Just like Parker.

I'd been thinking about talking to Keller about both she and Parker going to see a counselor. I figured it would be best to get them both to actually deal with their lot in early life sooner rather than later. I wanted Parker to have as normal a life as she possibly could. And I wanted Keller to open up, not be so afraid of letting others in. I wanted her to know that she could trust, and that not everyone was Al Mitchum.

Al Mitchum. Bastard. Back in June, he'd been scheduled to start his trial. The day before, June 5, he decided to plead. Keller had wanted to go, and I knew she'd never be able to ask if I'd go with her, though the small, pleading looks she sent my way, which she didn't think I'd seen, told me all I needed to know. Parker's teacher from last year had babysat her, and Keller and I had gone off to the court house.

The smallish, wood-covered court room had been near empty. The judge, clerk, court reporter, two lawyers, Al, a reporter for the Warwick Tribune, and the two of us. Al had come into the room in shackles, which I'd loved. He looked basically the same as he had that day in September, though he was actually clean and clean shaven. He wore prison orange, the light from above glinting off the balding spot on top of his head. He was still as fat and disgusting.

Keller had trembled next to me, and I wasn't sure why - fear of the man who'd dogged her every move since she'd been a young child? Or was it all the rage and hatred boiling through her? I'd never know.

The judge did her thing, explaining about the pleading process. Al's lawyer, a court-appointed defender, stood and opened his mouth to speak, when Al suddenly stood, too. The lawyer looked at his client, confused.

"Yeah, I'm pleadin' guilty, judge," Al said, his voice deep and a little lispy from his few missing front teeth.

"Uh, I need to speak to my client, your honor-"

"Mr. Haynes, if you can't get a hold of your client and keep control of the situation, perhaps we need to find Mr. Mitchum an attorney who can."

"Yes, your honor." The lawyer turned to Al, eyes on fire. They began to quietly argue, murmured words of anger that didn't reach our ears. I turned to look at Keller, see how she was holding up. Her eyes were blue masks, her face expressionless. She looked much like she did in the early days last fall. I hated to see this girl return. If only there was something I could do, but I knew she had to handle this the best and only way she knew how - anger.

"Fuck you. You're fired," Al erupted, jaw muscle clenched. His lawyer looked absolutely dumbfounded, mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water.

"Mr. Mitchum!" The judge pounded her gavel. "I will not have you acting like this in my courtroom. Either you control your temper or I will have you in contempt of court. Do you understand me?"

"Sure judge, whatever." Al smirked. "I'm guilty. Fine, whatever. I did it, hurray. First time I'll get three squares a day and a basketball court, right?" He laughed at his own joke as everyone else in the courtroom looked on in astonishment.

"Mr. Mitchum." The judge removed her glasses and sat forward in her chair. "Do you understand what pleading guilty will entail?"

"Sure. Yeah. I got it. I go to jail and get to sleep late. I got it, judge."

The woman behind the bench sighed, then went into a monotone drone of what pleading guilty means, no fair trial, no being judged by a panel of twelve of his peers, so on and so on.

"Bastard," I muttered, hating the man even more than I ever had before. An obnoxious buffoon. Keller said nothing beside me, nor did she move. Her arms were crossed over her chest, her face held tight.

The court was asked to rise, and the bailiff came to escort Al away. He stopped the uniformed man and turned to Keller.

"I'll see you in hell," he said, eyes boring into those of his eldest child. I also looked to Keller, wondering if I'd have to go bail her out of jail for patricide, not that it wouldn't be warranted.

"At least I won't be Satan's bitch," she said, her voice low and calm, though I could see the storm brewing. Al glared at her as he was led away, then suddenly turned on his guard and tried to lunge over the wooden patrician that separated the court proceedings from the audience.

"You ungrateful little bitch!" he yelled, clawing against his captors, which now consisted of two more officers. He tried to get past them, but they held him fast, leading him away, his hollered obscenities the only thing giving his presence away.

My heart pounded in my chest, echoing throughout my body and head. Taking several deep, unsteady breaths, I began to calm down. Looking at the janitor, I saw she was far from calm.

"Come on, Keller." I stood, gently touching her shoulder to get her attention. She flinched away and stood. Nothing was said as we left the courthouse.

As I sat on the bench in the amusement park, I smiled slightly. Keller and Parker had gone through things that the average person could never live through, and yet they still stood strong and together. I was damn proud of those two.

I was even prouder as I saw Keller step across the threshold that would take her onto the roller coaster.

###

I grinned, listening as Keller prattled on and on about how the roller coaster went upside down, then did a "sideways twirly thing," and how it did feel like flying, and when could we do it again?

Parker crashed on the flight home, stuffed Hershey bar wrapped in her arms. I grinned over at Keller, who had joined me up front when the kid had fallen asleep.

"I think Hershey has usurped blue bear." The janitor turned and looked at her sister, then nodded agreement. She looked pretty tuckered herself. It had been a very long day, but I'd gotten some fantastic shots of the sisters. I think both had gotten used to the shutterbug in me. Hell, in a different world, I could easily see Keller in front of the camera. She was beautiful enough, and naturally so. Pissed me off.

We were both quiet the rest of the flight, both caught up in our own thoughts, I imagine. It was getting dark, and as the sun set, seemingly only miles before us, it was truly a glorious sight. I glanced over at Keller to see if she saw it, too. Her head was leaned back against the headrest, her eyes just a narrow slit, watching the golden wonder before us.

"Almost looks like we're about to fly into the gates of Heaven, doesn't it?" I asked, my voice nearly a whisper.

"Do you believe in Heaven?" was whispered back. I sighed, not sure how to answer that question.

"I just don't know, Keller. I suppose Heaven is what we make it to be. A place where people like dad go. You know?" I glanced at her. She nodded and closed her eyes.

###

The day dawned bright, and there was an air of excitement and fear coursing through the cab of the truck. Parker had been dropped off at school for her first day of first grade, and we were headed to the hangar.

"Her name is Ruby Stanley. She's known dad forever," I explained, checking out the back window for my blind spot, then switched lanes. "She's a great gal. But do be warned," I grinned over at Keller who eyed me back, "she's . . . interesting."

"Great."

I saw the long Cadillac as I pulled up and smiled. How on earth would this play out with the very reserved Keller and the not so much Ruby? The giggle escaped before I could catch it.

We got out of the truck and headed inside. The front office was bursting with laughter as we entered. Keller immediately tried to escape back out the door, and would have had I not caught the collar of her shirt.

Standing before us, in the midst of Reggie, Peggy and Jerome, was a halo of curly red hair with a bright, neon green engineers' cap sitting atop the mess. That hair had been the same color of carrot-top red since I'd known Ruby, which had been my whole life. She was three years younger than dad, but she looked great, and her energy was immense. On her well rounded body, she wore a neon green flight suit, zipped up just far enough to reveal a hint of a tongue of the hot orange shirt she wore beneath.

"Monk!" she shrieked, hurrying over to me and grabbing me in a massive, suffocating-in-huge-boobs kind of hug.

"Hey, Ru," I managed, though it was incredibly muffled. Finally being allowed up for air, she grinned up at me, her dark red lipstick a slash in her face, bright hazel eyes sparkling up at me. I grinned at the familiar patches of rouge that littered her non-existent cheekbones, pink splotches of color.

"How are ya, kid? God, you look great! You must be killin' them ladies!"

"Oh, uh . . ." I glanced over at Keller, who looked like she'd just swallowed a bug. I don't think she even heard Ruby's comment, so lost was she in trying to figure out what evil I was unleashing upon her. Clearing my throat, I turned and reached for her. "Ruby, this is Keller Mitchum. Keller, this is the best pilot you will ever have the pleasure of meeting - Ruby Stanley."

"Hi, honey." Ruby bypassed the traditional handshake of meeting a new person and wrapped Keller up in a body-crushing hug. Keller's eyes bulged and I gave her an apologetic look. Once released, Keller took a step back, eyes still huge and confused. "Ah hell, not one of them standoffish teenagers." Ruby smiled up at her new student. "Not for long!" She smacked Keller playfully on the arm. "Come on, honey. We have a lot of work to do." Figuring the janitor would follow, Ruby turned on her heel and marched out of the room.

All eyes went to Keller, who was still looking after the woman who'd just totally turned her world upside down. Finally blue eyes met mine.

"What the hell was that?" she asked.

"Your flight instructor." I grinned. Jerome snickered. Keller's eyes narrowed, her lips pursing.

"My what?"

"Have fun." I copied Ruby's action, smacking Keller's arm, and headed toward my office with a smile on my face.

###

I volunteered my Cessna for Ruby's teachings, figuring it would be good for Keller to get really familiar with a plane that would be around for a while. I absolutely trusted Ruby, and knew that she wouldn't steer Keller wrong. In fact, Ruby was one of the best instinctive pilots I knew, yet she still very much played by the book. She was a very smart lady, and would teach Keller everything she knew from her fifty years of flying.

Ruby had met her future husband, Ross Stanley, while she'd been working at her father's candy shop during the mid-1950s. He had been a pilot with the Air Force, and once she'd found that out, Ruby had been smitten. So, Mrs. Ross Stanley she'd become. He'd refused to teach her how to fly, so she'd found those who would. Ruby was a fast learner, and eventually even the military started using her services.

Upset by what he saw to be his wife's betrayal, Ross left her and their four kids, and Ruby had to start flying full time to keep her family afloat. After putting the two girls and one of the boys through college, Ruby had become certified to instructor, and had been doing that ever since. Dad had mentioned Ruby in his will, and I knew she'd be the best for Keller, too.

I just hoped Keller didn't kill her first.

###

The leaves were beginning to change, and within the next few weeks, would start to fall. That was what I loved most about the East - all the amazing trees and the colors that they brought every year.

I sighed, a bitter/sweet sigh. It had been a good day, Keller's birthday, and a small party with those she trusted most - Parker, Ruby, Jerome and myself. She was nineteen, and no longer the skinny, terrified kid who'd been in her place a year ago. Today was sweet because she and Parker seemed happy, well as happy as Keller can seem, and the business was going smoothly. The bitter was that I knew it was a matter of time before it all ended, and because dad wasn't here to share in the happiness.

I sat on the wraparound porch, chair leaning back, foot up on the rail, watching out over the front yard as two squirrels fought over some bread Parker had thrown earlier to get their attention.

"Miss him, don't you?"

I looked up, startled to see Keller coming up the walk. She'd dropped off Parker's friend, who had come to join in the party, at home. I nodded with a smile.

"You read my mind," I said, sipping from a mug of coffee.

"Nope. Just your face." She rested her booted foot on the top step of the porch. I nodded toward the chair next to mine. She sat down, resting her hands along the arms, and stared out into the yard. "You okay?"

I sighed. "Yeah. I guess. It's just hard. I keep thinking that this time last year, he was here." We were both quiet for a while, watching the two squirrels chase each other around the front yard. I snickered. "If only life were that easy."

"No lie," she agreed. "Thank you for the party today. It was fun." She glanced over at me, then back out to the rodents who were scurrying up a tree.

"You're welcome. Happy birthday." I patted her knee. "Nineteen now, huh?"

"Yep."

"Soon it will be twenty, and there will be no stopping you." I smiled over at her, and she gave me a crooked grin, shaking her head at me.

"Crazy person."

"Yeah." Again, silence filled the late afternoon, the squirrels gone from sight. "Keller?"

"Hmm?"

"How do you deal with it?" I felt blue eyes on me, so I turned to look at her, my face pained. I felt lost.

"You just have to. There isn't any choice. With me it was easy; my mom died to me a long time ago, so I had already grieved when she actually died physically. And Al, well, I wished death on him every day of my life."

"Will you be sad if he doesn't get the death penalty?" My voice was low, not sure how Keller would react or respond.

"No." She looked at me, her eyes hard. "Because then he'll get to spend the rest of his life getting butt fucked by guys just like him. Justice comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, Garrison."

"I suppose you're right in that." I finished off my coffee and stood to get more. "Want some?"

"Nah. But a coke?" She looked up at me hopefully. I smiled.

"You got it."

When I returned with our drinks, I head the squirt sound as Keller popped the top of her soda can, and I blew across the surface of the hot brew. I had also grabbed a sweatshirt, the late evening giving way to a slightly chilled night. I asked a question I had been wanting to know for a long time, but had never found the courage to voice.

"How did you know about dad that day? At his house." I couldn't look at her, instead deciding to study a single leaf hanging on for dear life to a branch, the ruthless evening breeze tugging at it. Finally it gave up and flew across the yard to join several of its neighbors against the base of another tree.

"Saw his truck in the carport." She sipped from the drink. "The house was dark, way too dark for that time of day, and everything was just way too still. Just felt wrong." I looked over at her, wanting to see how she felt about what she was saying. Her brow was creased, as if she were bothered by this conversation.

"So you stopped me?" I pressed. She nodded, then looked over at me. As the sun began to set, it caught her eyes and made them glow. It reminded me of that first day I had seen her at the hangar, the way the sun made the blue electric.

"You shouldn't have to see that." We stared at each other for a moment, Keller sending me a secret message of not wanting me to have to witness what she has. She may not have said it, but I knew she had been trying to protect me, looking out for me.

"So complex," I whispered, then smiled. "Thank you, Keller. That was very thoughtful of you." She shrugged, turning back to the yard. We sipped our drinks as the sun went down.

###

Keller was gone, another lesson with Ruby on a Saturday afternoon. I was bored, and went out searching for Parker. She was nowhere to be found on the bottom floor, so I headed up. Not in the room she shared with her big sister, so I checked in mine. Nothing.

"What the hell?"

I moved on down the hall and saw the third bedroom door was ajar. Gently pushing it open, I saw the kid laying on her stomach on the made bed, crayons surrounding her and her best friend, Roy, chin on paws, watching her color.

"What are you doing, honey?" I stepped further into the room, sitting on the edge of the bed.

"Lookey." Parker held up her drawing. It was a huge yellow-orange sun in the upper right hand corner and two stick figures laying on the green grass, looking up at a bunch of swirls in the sky.

"Oh, pretty." I smiled at her, then turned my attention back to the work of art. "Who are they?" I pointed to the figures.

"You and Keller."

"What are we doing?"

"Crying for your mommies in Heaven." She tapped the sky with a small finger.

"Aww, that's sweet, honey." I gave her a one-armed hug, and she leaned against me. "Why are you in here?" I indicated the room around us. Parker suddenly looked frightened.

"I'm sorry." She shrank away from me.

"Oh, no, honey, you're not in trouble. I was just wondering." I gave her my most reassuring smile I could. She relaxed, slightly, then shrugged.

"Don't know." She wouldn't look me in the eye. I ruffled her long, blonde curls.

"Well, if you need anything, you find me, 'kay?" She nodded and looked up at me, bright blue eyes hopeful. I leaned down and gave her a kiss on the forehead. Parker grinned huge, then turned back to her coloring.

Wandering downstairs, I decided to pull out some of mom's old recipe cards and see what I could whip up. The yellow ceramic file was on the counter, next to the toaster against the backsplash. The face of the round-faced cook on the front was worn, much of the paint chipped off her rosy features from years of use. The cards inside weren't in much better shape- some yellowed from time, the edges brittle.

With gentle fingers, I flipped through the beloved recipes that once belonged to mom. I remember as a child she would try and get me interested in helping her in the kitchen. She'd pull a stool up to the counter and say, "Now you sit there and watch, little monkey." She would smile at me and kiss me on the cheek. I'd sit dutifully, elbows resting on my knees as my feet clung to the top peg of the stool, and chin resting in hands. She'd explain every single step, every single ingredient, and what it did to 'spice up your creation.'

I decided I wanted to bake, thinking that the girls would enjoy some cookies or maybe brownies. Depending on what I had in the house, I might even be so bold as to make a cake.

Beginning to dig through the cabinets, I felt a small tug on the hem of my shirt. Looking down, blue eyes looked up at me with question.

"Hey, kiddo. Finish coloring?" Parker nodded, looking at the five-pound bag of flour I held in my hands. "I'm going to bake. Want to help?" Flashed with one of the kid's huge, white smiles, I grinned in return. Setting the flour on the counter, I picked Parker up and set her down next to it. "Today, we are going to bake something yummy."

"What?" the kid asked, fingering the white and blue bag of the white stuff.

"Well, I'm not sure." Looking through the lazy Susan, I saw a half bottle of vanilla, baking powder, a bag of chocolate chips and a can of cocoa. Rummaging through the recipes again, I saw one for double chocolate cake. "How about this one? Double chocolate cake." I raised my brows for emphasis, and again, that grin filled with small, even white teeth.

Just like my mother before me, I began to explain what I was doing to Parker, having her help by "gently tapping to crack" the egg shells, then us both watching as the liquid inside poured out into the bowl, careful to not get any shell in with it. The kid watched as I dumped the chocolate chips in, then rested her hand upon mine as I used the hand-held mixer to put it all together. Using a rubber spatula, I got most of the excess off the beaters, then handed one to Parker, me keeping the other. She watched as I ran a finger up the inside of one of the metal rungs, gathering the gooey brown batter onto my finger. She followed suit, then stuck her finger in her mouth, eyes opening wide at the burst of sweetness.

Grinning at her newly discovered delight, I handed over my beater and poured the batter into the pan, stuck it in the oven, and began to clean things up.

Parker sat contentedly on the counter next to the sink, gently beating her heels into the cabinet below, drying the dishes as I washed them.

"Is Keller gonna have a baby?" she asked, startling me to the point of nearly dropping a glass I was washing. I looked at the kid, brows drawn.

"What?"

"Robby said that when a boy puts his thing in a girl's thing that they make a baby." She set the fork aside that she had been drying, as if this were any ordinary conversation for a six-and-a-half-year-old to have.

"Oh. Well, uh, no, honey, Keller isn't going to have a baby."

"But Al put his thing with her thing." She looked so adorable when she was confused, even though I was utterly disturbed.

"Yes, honey, I know." I turned back to my sink of dishes and hot, soapy water. I took a deep breath. "But that hasn't happened for a long time, and Keller would already have her baby if she was going to have one."

"Oh." She was quiet for a moment, grabbing a couple of spatulas from the rinse water to dry. "Is Al dead?"

"Nope. He's in prison," I said, relieved beyond measure to be off of Keller's rapes.

"What that?"

"It's a big place where people go when they've done bad things," I explained, pulling the plug after washing the final glass. I began to sop up the water around the sink with the dishrag.

"Is Al bad? Is he going to hell? Robby said bad people go to hell."

"Robby talks a lot," I muttered. "Al did very, very bad things to you and Keller and your mom, honey." I turned to look at her. "I think Al had bad things happen to him, and that made him bad. I don't know if he'll go to hell or not. That's not for me to decide."

"Is mommy in hell?"

"No, honey. Your mommy is not in hell." I smiled at her and grabbed her under the arms, lifting her from her perch. "But you know what?" She shook her head. "You were a great little helper today." I tapped her nose with my finger and she grinned. Giving her a kiss on the forehead, I set her down and watched her run off to play.

Parker's play wasn't near as violent as it once was, but I still thought it may be a good idea for both sisters to get into some counseling.

I later told Keller what Parker had asked, making the girl go pale for a moment.

"Do you think maybe you should talk to her? Tell her what is and what isn't appropriate? I'm not so sure after living with that monster that she has the right idea." Keller ran a hand through her hair and nodded, wrapping her fingers along the back of her neck.

"I'll talk to her," she said.

"Okay. Whenever, I respect your judgment," I agreed. She looked at me, eyes squinting just a bit for a moment, a look of surprise on her face, then turned and left the room.

###

I head the heavy footfalls before I looked up to see Ruby standing in the doorway of my office. Her face was hard, eyes serious with painted-on brows drawn.

"What's wrong with that kid?"

"I'm doing fine today, Ruby, thanks for asking. And yourself?" I sat back in my chair, amused.

"Yeah, well, I'm doing shitty." She sat down hard in the chair across from the desk.

"What's wrong?" I tossed the pencil I'd been using aside and gave the older woman my complete attention. Today she had on a neon purple jumpsuit with matching large hoop earrings.

"That girl is stubborn."

"You don't say." I smirked, enjoying the understatement of Ruby's words. "What did she do? Is she being difficult? Won't listen? Won't pay attention?"

"No! She's smart as a damn whip, does everything I tell her to the letter and is a quick study."

"Then what the hell is the problem?" Utterly baffled now, I sat forward in my chair.

"She won't let me hug her! You know what a touchy-feely person I am. Hell, even your dad let me hug 'im, and he was about as stubborn as it gets." She waggled her finger for emphasis.

"So she doesn't like to be touched. So what?"

"How else am I going to be a mother to that girl?"

I burst out laughing, the sound echoing throughout the small office. This, of course, only managed to tick Ruby off more. "I'm sorry." I got myself under control, a few little giggles escaping once in a while. "You're not her mother. You're her teacher and she's your student. What more do you want?"

"That kid needs somebody, damnit, and I intend to be that." She stood, ready to stomp out of the room.

"Ruby?" She stopped, looking at me over her shoulder. "Be careful with her," I advised, my voice quiet and calm. "Keller seems incredibly tough, which she is. Very strong, but there's more to her than that. A vulnerability." Ruby smiled, her sweet, maternal smile.

"I know." A sound at the door caused us both to turn to see Gabe lingering near the frame.

"Oh! Who is this delectable bit of man?" Ruby stepped aside to let Gabe in. His dark good looks caught many a woman's eye. I chuckled at the display the old woman was making, and the way it made Gabe blush.

"This is my friend Gabe, Gabe, my older friend, and Keller's flight instructor, Ruby."

"Very nice to meet you." Ruby smiled, extending a hand with bright red nails for Gabe to shake. He turned on the charm and took it.

"Likewise."

I rolled my eyes. Ruby giggled like a little girl and left us. My friend shook his head and plopped down in the chair the redhead had just vacated.

"What brings you here?" I asked, sitting back in my chair and running a hand through my hair.

"What, I have to have a reason to come and see my pal?" He asked, raising a dark brow. I nodded.

"Yup. Yes, you do."

"Gee golly. Don't I feel loved."

I rolled my eyes. "You are such a drama queen." I chuckled.

"Hey, I ain't queen nothin'!"

"Ohh, and articulate, too. The ladies and the queers all must love you."

"Garrison-" Our attention was pulled to the door by the sound of Keller's voice. She looked into the office, noticed Gabe, and took a step back out into the hall.

"Yeah, Keller? Come on in." I waved her in, but she stayed where she was, eyeing my friend. "You remember Gabe, right?" She nodded, but said nothing to him.

"We're going up," she said quickly, then hurried away, Gabe nearly breaking his neck to follow her progress back into the hub where Ruby waited. He whistled through his teeth, grinning back at me.

"Dayum!"

"Don't go there, Gabe," I warned. He twisted in his seat again, trying to get one last glimpse of her. "You don't want to go there."

"Why not?" He looked at me curiously. Keller was out of sight, so I had his full attention once again.

"Because she's not interested," I said simply.

"What, is she one of your girls?" He smirked.

"No, not even close. She's just not interested. Take my word for it." An evil little grin spread across my face. "Or you can just ask Reggie."

"Why? What does he have to do with it? He ask her out or something?" He grabbed a handful of the Jelly Belly's I had in a dish on the desk. I slapped at his hand, grabbing my own handful.

"Nope. Not exactly." Popping two cherry-flavored jelly beans in, I chewed thoughtfully. "On second thought, maybe you should try." I don't think he liked the gleam in my eye as he stopped chewing.

"Why? What would she do?"

"Hey Reg," I called out, seeing the blonde mechanic bustling around in the hub. He turned toward me.

"What?" he called back.

"Should Gabe here ask out Keller?" I grinned seeing the shiver go up and down Reggie's body. He shook his head vigorously. "See?" I popped more of the candy into my mouth.

"Oh, now I'm intrigued." Gabe sat forward in his chair. "Do tell."

I rolled my eyes. "Look, bud, you never listen to me, but listen to me this time, okay? Leave it alone. Keller is not interested in you, nor is it likely she ever will be. Got it?"

"Yeah." He popped some Jelly Belly's into his mouth. "Sure." He grinned, dimples winking at me.

###

The sky was dark gray, snow forecasted before the night was out.

"Come on, guys!" I called, making sure the porch light was on, and the bowl of candy was sitting on the porch. Hearing the stairs squeak, I looked up and immediately had to cover my mouth.

Before me stood Keller and a three-foot-plus-tall pilot. Parker wore the goggles of a pilot, and Keller's leather bomber, which hung on her like a dress. A white scarf had been tied Red Baron style around her neck. Her baggy tan pants were tucked into knee-high boots.

The kid grinned at me as her face was nearly swallowed by the too-big goggles.

"Hey, it's the Red Baron!" I laughed, clapping my approval. I reached for her as she neared the bottom step. The little blonde leaped into my arms, and I flew her around the foyer. "You ready, kiddo?"

"Yeah!" Once set down, Parker ran to the table near the door, almost tripping over her boots, and grabbed her plastic, orange pumpkin for candy gathering. She stomped around toward the door, looking back over her shoulder impatiently as Keller and I donned coats and gloves. Once she saw we were ready, and Tut and Roy were securely on their leashes, we all headed out.

The streets were getting darker and darker, ghost, ghouls and goblins roamed, pillow cases, paper and plastic bags in hand. They yelled to each other and giggled, running around, a bit of freedom for a time, their parents waiting patiently for them to return with their loot.

"Where do you want to start?" I asked, looking down both sides of the street, all the houses' porch lights burning bright, inviting young trick-or-treaters over for a snack.

"Why don't we go to the end of the block and work our way back?" Keller offered, glancing over at me before eyeing a wobbly penguin across the street.

"Sounds good." Each of us grabbed one of Parker's hands, and headed to the last house on the block. The air was cold, but the level of Parker's excitement made it bearable. Hell, in truth, I was just as excited as she was. I loved to see Parker be the kid she was.

Keller and I had to encourage the kid to speak to the people who opened their doors. She was shy and unsure, often leaning back into Keller's legs for physical and emotional support. The janitor would lean down and softly tell the little pilot to say trick-or-treat. Big blue eyes would look up into the adoring ones of the house owner, and finally she'd mumble it, usually around the finger nervously tucked just inside her lip.

The kid was allowed to eat a few pieces of candy on the way, after it was thoroughly checked by one of us, of course.

After two long, cold hours, Parker had her fill, and her chattering teeth told us that it was time to go home and drink hot apple cider in front of the fire.

Many squeals of delight, and dozens of candy wrappers later, Parker lay asleep in my lap, head resting against my chest. My hand continued to absently run through her hair, my chin resting against the top of her head.

"I think she enjoyed herself." Keller glanced over at my whispered words and nodded, looking into the flames, hands wrapped around her mug of hot chocolate. "When is the last time either of you went to a dentist?" I asked, brushing more hair away from the angelic face of my lap mate.

"It's been years," Keller said, eyes never straying from the fire. "Parker should go."

"You, too."

"I'm fine." She finally glanced at me. "Let me know how much it will cost."

"Stop it. I'll take care of it." I gently kissed the top of the kid's forehead.

We were silent for some time. I even glanced over at her to see if she'd fallen asleep. Nope, just staring into the flames.

"Are you okay?" I asked, rubbing my cheek against the softness of Parker's hair. Keller nodded, then glanced over at me. The irritation from earlier was gone, replaced with deep thought and concentration, resulting in a small crease between her eyes.

"Garrison, I've been thinking about something."

"Okay. What is it?"

"Maybe getting my own place for me and Parker."

"Oh." I felt my heart skip a beat, and my stomach acid start to go into overdrive, making me want to lose that last handful of candy corn I'd eaten earlier. I could feel Keller's eyes on me, as if she were studying my reaction. "Well, uh, you know you're not a captive here, Keller." I met her gaze, trying to hide the pain in my own. "You're free to go at any time."

"Do you want us to go?" Her voice was small, almost as though she were afraid of the answer. I shook my head.

"No," I said simply. She nodded, turning back to the flames.

Continued...

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