Picture this: What if there was a researcher/reporter whose current job was the only way she could make ends meet after her own plans for the future went spiraling out of control. And what if she was handed one of, if not the largest story of the year? Dealing with a failed Naval mission that resulted in the deaths of many, many people. What if her main source of information was the leader of the Navy unit involved, who also happened to be blamed by almost every paper and form of media in the United States? What if this story slowly started becoming important to her, or more importantly, what if she found yourself becoming friends with the Navy Commander? What if someone else didn't want her to crack this story? What would they do? What would she do? What would you do? This is Commander Dean Ransom's and reporter Ranelle Maloch's story.


A Soldier's Peace

By S.B. Zarben



Disclaimer: This is an Uber story, and although the main characters resemble two certain ladies, that is where the resemblance ends. The story and characters are mine, and although it takes place in Dallas, all of the locations are fake and created by my imagination. There is a Naval base in San Diego, however I have never been there and the base is my own creation as well. Any resemblance to the base in San Diego, persons in the Navy, or real events that took place is purely coincidental.

Language Disclaimer: Let's see... um, there are some things that may be considered offensive... the characters aren't belting them out as every second word in a sentence, though. Real people do swear so my characters swear. I do try to avoid it but, unfortunately, there is sometimes no better way to have someone express emotion than with 'bad' language.


Emotional Disclaimer: This story could be classified as hurt/comfort in some areas. This story does deal with war and the effects that it can have on a person. There are some scenes of war and death, and if this type of thing bothers you then I suggest you find something else to read. You have been warned.


Violence Disclaimer: Yes, there are guns, knives, perhaps a few bombs. Some fighting scenes and other scenes dealing with war. Nothing too terribly graphic, I guess it depends on your imagination.


Accuracy Disclaimer: I don't claim to know a lot about computers - just how to use 'em - or the workings of the Navy. So, if you spot some big, huge, glaring mistake, that goes against all the rules of computers or such, just chalk it up to Creative License. Yep, just ignore it or something. Or you could pretend that it says what it's supposed to say. ;) Thanks.

Author's Note: For those of you who may be familiar with my first story Revolutionary, you can rest assured that I am definitely going to write a sequel. As a few gracious readers informed me, without a sequel Revolutionary isn't finished. I agree. You'll have to be patient, though, I have a few other ideas I need to get written down first.


SB Zarben



Death has a stench, kind of sour and foul, with the metallic tang of blood and decay mixed in.

There is death all around you. Its cause came raining down from the sky or ambushed you from the trees. Maybe it surprised you and came up from the ground, hidden, until you stepped in just... the right place. Or in this case, the wrong place.

If you're lucky, it comes fast and takes you swiftly. If you aren't, then you are left to lie there, among your friends and die slowly, painfully, listening to your comrades yells and seeing them fall all around you.

You hurt. You don't remember ever hurting this much before, and as the world starts to slowly fade away, you wonder how it's possible to be in this much pain and still be alive. You're stuck on the ground. There's something on top of you, but you don't know what it is. It might be a body, an old friend, or maybe a tree-- that would be preferable. It's hard to see, so you're left with only sound. But that's okay, you wouldn't like what you would have seen anyway.

It seems cruel, to go this way, but you knew what you were getting yourself into when you accepted this position. You wanted to help people, maybe try to make a little bit of a difference. You were a fool, you realize that now.

The battle is slowing now, and you idly wonder if there is anyone left. Anyone who may see you and decide to release you from this agony. The chances of one of your own still being alive are slim. So maybe one of the people who had attacked you in the first place. Perhaps they would start sifting through the garbage and decide to finish you off.

Not out of pity. No. You don't want their pity. Just relief from the nightmare that is your mind. You're stuck with it, and all its half-crazy musings. A captive audience. You just want it to stop.

Then, as the surroundings slowly start to drift back towards their natural silence, and the denizens of the forest start to reemerge, a single, solitary gunshot echoes throughout the carnage.

No one is left in a condition to hear the whirring blades of a helicopter. Surley, it was to have been their rescue.



The dominant sound in the medium sized cafe was the tapping of several keyboards. Patrons were sitting scattered around the different tables, drinking coffee, eating, and carrying out some sort of activity on a computer. The cafe featured many different computers that customers could use, after paying for a certain amount of time. However, not all of the people were occupied with a machine. In fact, seeing as it was one in the afternoon on a Monday, only a few people had the time required to get involved in something on the addictive machines.

If you listened carefully, you would be able to hear strident cursing coming from one of the most private corners of the establishment. The current waitress noticed the woman seated by herself and smiled slightly. She headed over to one of her regular customers to see why she was currently damning every god and divine being known to man, since this particular woman only swore when extremely ticked off.

The waitress stopped next to her customer and friend and waited for the young woman to notice her audience. Slowly, the cursing wound down and finally stopped. Sheepish eyes rose to meet the chocolate brown ones of the waitress. "Hey Stacey, what's up?"

"Ranelle, what on earth has got you sooo ticked off?" The woman at the computer grinned and lowered her head, golden tresses falling over her shoulders.

"Sorry if I was bothering anyone. I'm trying to finish off this stupid program for my computer design class final. It's the only course I have left to complete, you know. I just can't seem to get this stupid line coded right..." Ranelle pointed and Stacey immediately started shaking her head.

"Whoa, girl. Don't try and talk computers with me. I am completely ignorant on the subject. I'd help if I could. Why don't you talk to one of your classmates or something?"

"No, I can't do that. This should be easy for me, I'd feel stupid asking one of them for help. Besides, the professor was very clear about this final project. He said he didn't want anyone talking to anyone else about it. Then he started that mumbling thing, and all I caught were the words 'stealing' 'expulsion' 'failing' and 'idea'. Not necessarily in that order." Ranelle grinned but was privately ecstatic about this class being almost over. Without taking this class Ranelle would never be able to get a job in the computer design or security fields. Which had both always been her passion. It wasn't her fault that she didn't finish it off in Universtiy. Ranelle had been set to be done and ready for employment after five years in University. Then things had gotten sticky with her family, not to mention her hometown. So, she had taken the only option left open to her. She had picked up and moved, as far away as she could and still be sure that surviving wouldn't be an immediate problem. From Everett, Washington to Dallas, Texas. Ranelle had been attending school in Seattle, just south of Everett. And when everything in her life got to the point of Hell in a Handbasket, Ranelle hadn't hesitated to bolt. The young woman had found a relative whom she was on good terms with and was the farthest away from her small town. Unfortuntely, that cut into Ranelle's school plans and she never got a chance to finish two of her classes.

Ranelle had ended up with her Uncle Amark. For the first couple of months she lived with him and her cousin Amanda. Amark gave Ranelle a job at his magazine office as a researcher, seeing as a lot of his employee's were computer illiterate. She had also written a few columns for the magazine, her youthful and optimistic view giving her a unique spin on many different topics. The young woman also had a canny ability for getting facts from certain people that no one else could. Or getting reluctant subjects to actually talk to the reporter and not curse them out.

Ranelle had gotten together enough money to move into a place of her own after one year with her uncle. Now, after four years, she was finishing her schooling, held the same job her uncle had supplied only with slightly better pay, and had moved from a tiny rat infested apartment to a nice one bedroom in a better part of the city. Uncle Amark paid well, not to mention the fact that he hadn't charged her rent while she was living with him. Ranelle had often freelanced her talents to friends she had made during her time in Dallas. They paid well for her to design a site or secure their computer.

Now, finally, her life was starting to look like what it was supposed to forty-eight months ago. If only she could get this stupid line coded properly she was sure she would finish the course with flying colors and obtain her degree in computer science.

"Hey Ranelle! Yoo-who, where did you go off to?"

"Sorry, I was just thinking about things." Ranelle shook her head and turned determined green eyes back to the computer screen.

"Listen, girl. When is this thing due?"

"Why? I thought you couldn't help. Next week, Wednesday."

Stacey started nodding her head and smiled. "Okay, great. I'm going out with a bunch of friends on Friday night. Carly will be there, she's all into computers. I'm sure you'll be able to ask her."

Ranelle narrowed suspicious eyes at her friend. 'Is she trying to set me up? Oh, I think she is! Stacey, Stacey, when will you learn?' "I don't know Stace."

"Come on Ranelle. When was the last time you were out, girlie? It's not heal-thy!" Stacey said the last bit in a singsong voice. "Please," Stacey whined. "I promise you, I'm not setting you up. I swear, cross my heart." Stacey finished by crossing her fingers across her heart and plastering a winning smile on her face.

Ranelle threw her hands up into the air in a gesture of defeat. "Fine, okay, I'll go." Ranelle closed down her computer and ejected the disk, tucking in into her purse. She closed up her laptop, preferring to use it instead of the cafe computers. Ranelle stood, and looked at her curly-headed friend. "I have to go, Stace. I'll see you on Friday if not before. Oh, where are we going."

"Don't worry I'll see you before Friday. Just come here for seven, 'kay?"

Ranelle nodded and moved out of the cafe. She exited through the door and headed back to the magazine office. Upon her arrival, Ranelle hardly had enough time to put her belongings on her desk before she received an urgent message from Uncle Amark. As soon as Ranelle opened the door she was struck with how absolutely excited her uncle was. When he saw her at the door, the slender man stopped his energetic pacing and a huge grin split his face. "Ranelle, come in, come in. Sit."

Ranelle moved further into the office and sat down in one of the large stuffed chairs facing her uncle's oak desk. Amark finally managed to compose himself enough to sit still in his chair and start explaining his happiness to his niece. "Okay, listen to me very carefully. Do you remember, about ten months back, the newspapers and everything exploded with something that happened in the Middle East with our Army and Navy?"

When his niece only gave a hesitant nod Amark jumped into a detailed explanation. "Well, I'll tell you as much as I know. Which is everything that was released into the papers. Ten months ago, tensions in the Middle East flared up again and started getting violent. The US figured it would go in with more of its armed forces to try and hold everything together. Now, about three weeks in was when the real trouble started. There was a special team of Navy soldiers who were stationed at a classified base. Their purpose was also classified. They were the only one's there besides the usual support personnel who need to run any machinery in the base. All I know is that one day the entire base was attacked. With what or by whom, I have no clue, but the building and three acres of land in all directions from it were incinerated. There were about 22 people in the Navy team and another 11 support personnel and such in the base. It was a complete disaster. Reports on exactly what happened are very sketchy, because, well, only 15 people survived out of the 33 there. All of the support personnel got out and only four of the Navy sailors." Amark paused and looked at his niece, "Is any of this ringing a bell? Ranelle?"

Ranelle shook her head, dislodging the thoughts of horror and bloodshed. "Yeah, a little. What happened?"

"Obviously, the support personnel weren't a lot of help. All they could tell you was how they got out. Which was, of course, with the help of the Navy. Most of them passed out, and only three were seriously injured. Of the four officers who got out one is in the hospital in a coma - the doctors don't hold out any hope of him ever waking up. The second guy went home two and a half months after the incident with scars from second and third degree burns to 40% of his body, and the other practically disappeared off the face of the earth..."

"Wait, if he disappeared how do we know he's still alive?"

"There were reports of him being spotted in Denmark and North Carolina. As far as anyone else can tell, he got away relatively unscathed."

Ranelle sat watching her uncle, waiting for him to continue. When it appeared he had stopped, Ranelle prompted the man to speak again. "And....that's only three, what happened to the fourth guy?"

"Ah, yes. The fourth Naval survivor was just released from the hospital two weeks ago. Now..."

"Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. Two weeks?? Only two weeks ago? You mean to tell me this guy was in the hospital for just under ten months!? What happened?"

"Ahem, yes, exactly what happened to this particular fellow, is, well, speculation at best. Not very much was released on him. Just that he was a survivor and further inquiry on his condition and whereabouts was classified. Commander Dean Ransom, United States Navy, was the OIC (Officer In Charge) of the Navy team. And was also responsible for evacuating eight of the eleven support personnel, and all three of the critically injured ones. He also saved Lieutenant Bronce, who was the man released from the hospital after two months. That is all I could get on this guy, without saying that I'm writing an article on the entire event. You, my dear, get that honor!"

Ranelle stared at her uncle for several seconds, just blinking. "Bu...I...why...ho...what do you mean?" Ranelle spluttered. "Why would someone actually want to GIVE reporters information for articles? That's the most absurd thing I've heard. It takes all the fun out of reporting, and it...it...just doesn't make...well, sense! None, zip, zero, nadda, zilch!"

Chuckiling, Amark raised his hand. "Ranelle, girl. Calm down. This whole thing got a lot of publicity, bad publicity. And now the government is looking for someone to go out and tell the real story. They came to me, and now I'm going to you. Officially, you'll work through the Navy's PR department. You'll be given access to all the files on the issue that won't jeopardize national security, and can ask any question you want to the people who planned the campaign. I just can't guarantee you'll get an answer. Also, the Naval survivors were told they could answer all your questions about the event, within reason, of course. The thing is, they don't have to answer. And Ranelle, if there is one thing I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt, it's that people who have seen war and lost their comrades, they don't really like to talk about it. Which is why I want you."


"Let me finish Ranelle. You have a good head on your shoulders and I know I can trust you not to print anything that you may overhear that shouldn't be released. And if anyone has a snowball's chance in hell of getting these people to open up,it's you. Anyone can talk to the big brass who stayed here and monitored everything, but it won't be a story if you can't get the people who lived it to talk to you. Oh, and Ranelle, the last thing you might want to know. Dean Ransom will be your best bet of people to talk to, seeing as the other guy is across the country and Dean makes his home in our very own Dallas. I got the address and put it in a folder with a bunch of other tidbits on your desk. Make me proud, Ranelle."

The young woman nodded and gave a weak smile as she stood and moved to the door. In a state of shock, she moved down the hall to her office. True to his word, a brown folder was sitting in the middle of her cluttered desk. 'I can't believe he just handed me what has to be one of the biggest stories of the year! Is he nuts or something, I can't do this! Yes you can Ranelle, it's just another story. Calm down.'

Ranelle sucked in a breath and set to work reviewing the folder.




The wooden door slammed against the wall with a resounding thud. Ranelle didn't even bother to raise her head to see who had entered her apartment, she was so intent on her computer screen. The sound of the door closing followed by footsteps that eventually stopped at Ranelle's side came next. Finally, a loudly cleared throat was enough to cause the young researcher to raise her head. To see her cousin standing there with a decidedly annoyed look. "What are you doing?"

"Uh, working?" Ranelle replied with a question more than an answer.

"Come on Ranelle, it's Thursday! Duh. Have you been living in front of that screen for the last two days?"

"Thursday? It's Thursday? That's nice Amanda, what happens on....."

"Jeez, you are horrible Ranelle. Come on, close that down, if you stare at the screen any longer you'll go cross-eyed." Amanda reached over her cousin's shoulder and saved her current work and then exited the program. "Get up, it's noon on Thursday and time for our weekly lunch. Come on! Up!" Amanda pulled Ranelle up by her shoulders and dragged her sputtering cousin all the way to the door. Grabbing her coat and shoes, Amanda pushed Ranelle out the door and then headed off to the elevator.

Finally clueing into what was happening, Ranelle found her voice as she was standing in the elevator. "Amanda, why did you do that?! I was working!"

"I know. That's all you've been doing since dad gave you this assignment. So, you're getting out of that apartment with me, it'll give you some time to process whatever you were reading and you can even talk about the assignment with me. I don't care! Anything to get you out of the house."

A comfortable silence fell between the occupants of the elevator for several seconds until Amanda turned to face her cousin. "Ranelle, I know you want to talk about the entire thing. Cause that's ALL you've been doing. So spit it out! I actually want to hear about this." The elevator dinged on the ground floor and the pair exited the cart. They left the complex and started walking to one of their favorite restaurants. It didn't take long for Ranelle to dive headfirst into an explanation of her work.

"Amanda, this is sooo interesting. Even though I've spent the last two days on the phone with crabby Navy people requesting files and then having everyone ask their superiors to make sure that I can actually have access to them. I'm having a heck of a time getting DD-214's for all the..."

"DD what?"

"It's a summary of the sailors career, including training and station assiments, as well as medals and ribbons."


"Anyway, once I got the files it was very educational. The basic objective is classified, so there isn't any written record that I'm allowed to see. Everyone told me that I'd have to talk to one of the officers involved to get an idea of the mission and what went wrong. But I did get a minimal file on Commander Dean Ransom. Now, that, was enlightening. There isn't a whole lot since almost everything he was involved in was classified. However, he was labeled as a genius with IQ tests, scoring well over 200. He graduated high school at 16 and was immediately approached by the Navy and several other organizations."

Amanda thought for a moment, drawing on her limited knowledge of the military and the Navy. "Don't you have to take a test to become an officer? ASVAB or something?"



"And what?"

"Aww.. come on Ranelle, don't be difficult!"

"99, which is like a perfect score."


"Hey, wait a sec, why would a genius want to enlist in the Navy?"

"Oh, right. Where was I.... it seems that in this family joining the Navy right after high school is a tradition, his father did it and so did his two brothers and one sister. So, Dean joined after graduating at the top of his class. He was also taking some University courses at the time and got his degree in computer science after a year in the Navy. It gets sketchy after that, but as far as I can tell Dean Ransom was an excellent officer and shot up through the ranks. He was promoted to Commander almost two years before the Middle East incident in 1998, and served for 16 years including the 10 months after the Middle East thing, too."

By this time, the cousins had arrived at the restaurant and were being seated at their favorite table. After ordering, Amanda started up the conversation again. "So, why haven't you spoken to this guy yet?"

Ranelle sighed and started playing with her silverware. "I'm going to, I have just about everything that I'm gonna get over the phone about this entire thing. Actually, I'm getting the feeling that they were purposely stonewalling me. I wanted to find out as much as I could about Commander Ransom before I spoke to him so I wouldn't be surprised. Plus, the guy got out of the hospital two weeks ago. I didn't want to start pestering him for details about the events that put him there too soon."

Amanda nodded as she stared digging into their newly arrived food. "Cool, so when are you going?"

"I was thinking about going tomorrow morning since I got sucked into going out with Stacey and a bunch of people Friday night. I'd do it then if I could. I'll call first, just to make sure I'm not interrupting anything, he might not even be home for all I know." Amanda nodded and the two finished eating in silence.

"You know," Amanda looked at her cousin, "about that whole 10 months in the hospital thing. That's sorta unbelievable what with modern medicine and all that. So what's the story there? Any idea."

The blonde scrunched her nose up and put down her fork. "Well, I'm not sure but it looks like Ransom was bounced around to a lot of different hospitals and rehab centers. Everything probably just took a long time to heal to the point where therapy could be started. And that probably took a hell of a long time."

Amanda glanced up, "What makes you say that?"

Ranelle shrugged, "Muscle damage."

They fell into a comfortable silence and made idle conversation while finishing their lunch. After paying the bill, the duo left and started walking back to Ranelle's apartment. "How's your final project going?"

"Huh, oh, I kinda forgot about that ever since I got this assignment. I figure that's a good thing, right? Besides, the whole point of going out on Friday is to get some help. It'll be fine." Amanda nodded and looked off into the distance.

"Great, listen, I have to get back to the office or dad is gonna flip. I'll see you later, okay. If not, I'll be with everyone else Friday night. And good luck with the article."

"Thanks. Bye." Ranelle finished walking back to her apartment in silence, already contemplating what she was going to ask Dean Ransom when she got in touch with him.


The next morning Ranelle conducted a search for the piece of paper that her uncle had given her that contained Dean Ransom's address and phone number. In two days of research, Ranelle had managed to make her desk look like a war zone. Papers and files and computer printouts littered the surface, making finding one solitary scrap of paper difficult.

Finally, after an exhaustive search of 10 minutes Ranelle emerged triumphant. Ranelle's cat, Terkers, however, suffered the fallout and retreated under the bed where she would stay for several hours. "Traitor," Ranelle commented in passing, on her way to the phone. "Alright, lets see here." Ranelle picked up the receiver and dialed, waiting patiently for an answer.

After several hundred rings, at least that's what it seemed like to the researcher, an automated answering machine picked up. Sighing her frustration, and hating to leave messages since it seemed so impersonal, Ranelle hung up. 'I'll try again later. This guy is either a heavy sleeper or a very early riser.' Looking at her watch, Ranelle noted that it was only 7:30. 'Oh, man, I hope he isn't a morning person. That always seems to mess things up when I'm trying to write an article.' Being someone who enjoys sleeping, and always tries to catch as much as possible, Ranelle resigned herself to the possibility of many early mornings in the future.

Grabbing her things, the young woman decided to get as much done as possible during the day since she was up and her night would be otherwise occupied with Stacey and company. Taking one last look at Commander Ransom's address and phone number, Ranelle folded the paper and stuck it in her pocket.

The golden haired woman arrived at the cafe, named Hego's, promptly at 8 am. She sat at her usual table and ordered coffee and a croissant. Just as her mind was turning back to the mysterious Naval officer a familiar voice broke in. "My God, I can't believe my eyes. Ranelle Maloch is sitting in front of me before 11 o'clock! I think I'm going to faint."

"Ha ha, Stacey. You should have taken up standup comedy, you would have done amazingly well." The sarcasm that dripped off Ranelle's words was enough to make the waitress think a puddle was going to form on the floor beneath Ranelle.

"Man, somebody got up off the wrong side of the bed. What's eating you?"

Ranelle heaved a sigh and looked at her friend. She had known Stacey since moving to Dallas, having met her through Amanda since they happened to be roommates and had been for a long time. It had been a blind date to start, although neither Stacey or Ranelle knew it. They had hit it off, but only as friends and still maintained a close relationship. Although Stacey had shifted into the role of match maker with Amanda. "Sorry, it's not you. I'm just getting a little fed up with my article. I got the distinct impression that the people on the phone were purposely not being helpful. And now I can't get a hold of Commander Ransom, although I've only tried once. I know it isn't his fault either, I'm just frustrated."

"Well, if you were getting the run around on the phone maybe this Ransom fellow is giving it to you, too."

Ranelle immediately shook her head. "Nu-hu, everything I've read about the Commander makes me think he is an honorable officer, who knows the rules and follows them. Unless following them would mean jeopardizing the lives of innocents. Ransom seems like the type of person who isn't a 'yes man' but knows how and when to keep his opinions to himself. Not to mention which rules he can get away with breaking and when to break them. All the progress and fitness reports I could get my hands on had one thing in common. It was something to the effect of 'Is an independent thinker who tends to disregard orders and rules for the sake of others.'"

Stacey shook her head, causing blonde ringlets to shake wildly, "Honey, in this day and age there ain't nobody left like that. Those selfless, caring types. No way, that's the stuff of fairy tales."

Ranelle grinned, "You can think that, but I'm telling you that's what Dean Ransom is like. It's one of the reasons he was recruited and made the commander of the team. As much as I could suck out about it was that it was a special Navy team that carried out operations everywhere on a regular basis. Not just the sea. They were specially trained, and the main purpose was going in to help out the victims in crisis. Also, they were some of the best and could kick serious ass."

"So you're telling me these people were chosen for their selflessness and willingness to sacrifice for complete strangers?"

"Pretty much. You wouldn't be much good at it if you weren't willing to risk it all."

"I don't know Ranelle, they sound like something else, what's that other group called. You know, they were always the first there and last to leave, and all that jazz."

"The Marine Corps."


"Well, the Marine's are a branch of the Navy, but as far as I know the team was a Navy team. I'll just have to ask Commander Ransom, if I can get in touch with him."

"What about the SEALs? Sounds like them, too."

Ranelle rolled her eyes and sighed. "Stacey, I really don't know. They aren't SEALs, but I don't know what they are. Okay?"

"Right, well, enough talk about work. About tonight. We'll be going to The Rainstep, you know that club about twenty minutes from here?"

"Yeah, I know it."

"Great, just thought I'd tell you. Meet me here at seven and we'll go together in my car. No sense in both of use driving since you live so close to here and I'm already here with a car. Okay?"

"Yeah, sure. Seven. Gotcha."

"Great, oh and bring your laptop if you want Carly's help." Stacey shuffled away before Ranelle could answer, leaving her with her coffee and fresh croissant. The young reporter's mind turned to the issues that Stacey's innocent comments had raised and Ranelle started to think that this just might be getting more interesting.

After a leisurely breakfast Ranelle paid the bill and headed off to the office. When she arrived, Amanda was just walking through the door with a file. "Hey, I got that info you wanted about Ransom." She had requested that Amanda do a simple background check on the Commander at lunch the other day. It seemed her efficient cousin was still on the ball.

"Did you have any problems?"

"Nah, you wanted basic 'civilian' stuff. No problem. But I gotta tell ya, this is boring!"

"That doesn't matter. Thanks." Ranelle took the folder and plopped down into her desk chair.

"Welcome." Amanda parted, leaving Ranelle in peaceful silence. She flipped open the folder, which was basic records about taxes and a very borderline background check. Ranelle started reading. During the time that Dean Ransom had actually spent in Dallas, which was very little, it appeared he had been a model citizen. 'Taxes were paid on property owned, no criminal record of any kind, parents were your regular.....wait a minute.' Ranelle's eyes narrowed as she sat up straighter and took a closer look at the paper in her hands. Releasing a quiet curse, Ranelle leaned forward and entered something into her computer.

It stared back at her in black and white. 'I can't believe I missed this! Dean Ransom, born outside of the United States, immigrated at the age of 9. Father: Malcom Ransom, head and CEO of Ransom Securities.'

"Son of a gun! Malcom Ransom is the owner of the largest computer security/design company in the world. I can't believe it. And he passed the company onto Dean. Well I'll be damned. Now this is really getting interesting."

Looking at the clock and seeing that it was now 11 am, Ranelle decided to try calling Dean Ransom again.

No answer.

Ranelle sat back and stared at the computer again. 'At least I have something new to occupy my interest for awhile.' Ranelle settled back for some in depth reading on Malcom, his company, and family.


Three hours later, Ranelle was pulled from her reading by a knock on her door. "Come in." She looked up to see Brock standing at the door. Brock was currently making his way through University and had been a fellow researcher ever since Ranelle had recommended him to Amark. Ranelle smiled and gestured the young man into the room. He stood at about 5'10" with interesting smiling gray eyes and sandy blonde hair. A splattering of freckles covered the area just under his eyes and across his nose. "You've been in here an awful long time Ranelle. Anyhting I should know about?" Brock said this with a grin and glanced around the room. "Everything seems just like I remember, so what could be so interesting?"

"You'll never guess what I found out about my article!"

"So why don't you just tell me and save us all a lot of time, then."

"Commander Ransom's father is Malcom Ransom." Ranelle waited for the realization to dawn on the young man's face. She didn't have to wait long. Brock's eye widened and his jaw dropped.

"THE Malcom Ransom!?" Ranelle simply nodded, still grinning at his response.

"Holy shit, Ranelle! How come you always get the good assignments?"

Ranelle shrugged, "You can close your mouth now, Brock. You're attracting flies." Brock's jaw closed with the clicking of teeth. "You know something else? Dean is the current CEO."

"Um...bu...I thoug...."

Ranelle started laughing at her friend's stuttering. "Are you trying to say 'How can you know that Ranelle? When Malcolm gave up control and named Dean as his successor everyone stared to think he didn't exist because no one saw him?'"

Brock nodded.

"It's because he was over seas at the time and just officially got back for an undetermined amount of time two weeks ago."

"Oh, wow, that's amazing." Shaking his head, Brock seemed to remember his reason for coming to see Ranelle. "I just though I'd tell you that I'm going to the club tonight. I'll see you there, 'kay?"

Ranelle absently nodded her head, engrossed in her reading again.


Four-thirty rolled around and Ranelle found herself wanting to talk to Commander Ransom even more now. Deciding to try calling on more time, she picked up the phone and dialed. This time, however, when the machine picked up Ranelle left a brief message explaining who she was and her reason for calling.

After hanging up Ranelle gathered her things to leave and paused briefly. 'I hope that was a good idea. Ah, who am I kidding. The guy would never take that seriously.'

Shrugging off her message, Ranelle left the office to prepare for an evening that she was sure would bore her to death.


After arriving home, Ranelle showered, changed, fed Terkers, and grabbed a light snack for herself. She had never been to The Rainstep and didn't have a clue what the food would be like. It was a realistic precaution.

Once she was ready to leave, Ranelle sat down with her laptop to kill some time. She opened it up to her final project and looked at the stubborn line of code with new eyes. Taking a break always helped, and Ranelle hadn't even thought about the program since Monday afternoon.

Still, Ranelle couldn't get the stupid line coded properly. The young researcher fiddled with it for awhile until it was time for her to leave. Ranelle stood, gathered her things and left after locking the door.

It was a short walk to Hego's, and the cool evening air made it even more enjoyable. Ranelle arrived at the front of the cafe just as Stacey was escaping out the front door. "Hey, Ranelle. Glad to see you aren't late."

"Hey, I'm never late, you're just always early!"

"Okayyyy, whatever you say. My car's over here, come on." Stacey led them to her wine colored Chevrolet and the two women piled in. Stacey started the car and eased them into the busy Dallas traffic. After several silent minutes Ranelle's curly-headed friend broke the silence.

"Everyone else should be there already. Did you bring your laptop?"

Ranelle lifted the bag on her lap slightly, "Right here."

"Good." Ranelle gave here friend a sidelong glance and then sighed.

"Are you sure you aren't setting me up?" Stacey's hesitation was all the answer that Ranelle needed. "Man, what is with you and Amanda?! Why do you insist on playing match maker? I'm perfectly happy with my life the way it is right now."

Stacey frowned as someone cut her off, "Don't you like Carly?"

"Carly is fine, she's smart, pretty, and even has an okay personality. But I'm not looking for a girlfriend! Jeez! What don't you understand about that!?"

Ranelle ended her mini-rant in a huff and Stacey prudently kept silent. In a few more minutes they pulled into the almost packed parking lot of The Rainstep. The women exited the car and headed toward the short line at the door.

After a five minute wait they were entering their chosen spot of entertainment. The Rainstep looked like a respectable club to Ranelle. Once you came through the door it was basically one giant square room. There was a bar immediately to the left and a stage for bands on the right. Tables lined the walls, leaving the space in between for dancers. A few couches resided in the back of the room, two of which were currently occupied by different couples.

The atmosphere was relaxing and enjoyable. The music was at just the right level, where you didn't have to yell to be heard, but wouldn't be able to hear a glass breaking on the other side of the room.

Stacey latched onto Ranelle's hand and started leading her over to the middle of the bar and the table directly in front of that section. Ranelle recognized Brock right away, followed by Carly who was seated at the bar with Amanda. Another woman Ranelle didn't recognize was sitting with Brock, and it was clear by the unease in their posture that they didn't know each other. Finally, a tall male figure was conversing with Amanda.

As they approached, Ranelle plopped down next to Brock, who gave Ranelle a relieved smile. Turning her attention to the short -- shorter than her, Ranelle was pleased to note -- woman at the table, her sunny disposition took over. "Hi, I'm Ranelle." Ranelle extended her hand and the woman returned it with a timid clasp.

"Joanna. Hi, it's nice to meet you."

"Same here. Who did you get dragged with?" Ranelle's smile took away any of the insult that the words could have obtained.


"Ah, well this is Brock," Ranelle gestured to her friend, "if you didn't already know."

Brock offered his hand and Joanna returned it with a timid smile as well. The two eventually got involved in a conversation, about what sounded to Ranelle like The Human Torch. Ranelle gave a mental shrug. 'As long as they have some common ground.'

Amanda's voice soon broke into Ranelle's thoughts as she realized Brock and Joanna had moved to the bar and Carly and her cousin, the man from the bar, had migrated to the table. "Ranelle, you remember Carly."

"Of course." Ranelle smiled. "It's good to see you again, Carly."

"Same here Ranelle. This is my cousin, Arnold." The man in question extended his hand and smiled pleasantly at Ranelle. He stood just under six feet, with a dark complexion, and interesting eyes that seemed to change from a dark brown to an almost coal black. He seemed nice enough to Ranelle and wasn't that bad looking.... for a guy.

"I heard you were having programming problems. Want me to take a look?" Carly interjected, causing Ranelle to break off from her assessment of Arnold, a habit of hers that emerged the first time she met someone new.

Ranelle sighed and pulled out her laptop. 'What was that I said about common ground?'

Carly settled in next to Ranelle and she started giving her new consultant the run-down on her program. Carly nodded her head, but Ranelle got the distinct impression that she wasn't really hearing a word that was coming out of her mouth. Finally, Ranelle pointed out the line that was giving her problems and a debate immediately broke out between the two.

Stacey and Amanda watched from the bar as Brock and Joanna warmed up to each other. Carly's cousin had wandered onto the dance floor, in search of more interesting company. The women turned their heads and smiled at one another, followed by a high-five. Next, they turned their eyes to the table in front of the bar.

The matchmakers, however, mistook Ranelle and Carly's bent heads as two people getting along. When they were really pointing at the screen and arguing about the troublesome line of code. The bent heads were only there to try and keep the argument private, even though there wasn't anything private about it.


A tall body eased through the door of the club, the normally erect and proud body slightly hunched because of the cane grasped in the newcomers left hand.

Attentive eyes looked around the room at the different patrons, assessing. Finally, they lit upon the sight of a woman bent over a laptop in an argument with another woman.

The head tilted as the two arguers were studied and analyzed from afar, just like most of the newcomers life had been spent. From a distance. Present in the world but removed from it as well.

Interest piqued, the large body moved easily forward.


Ranelle rubbed her eyes as she listened to yet another of Carly's reasons for trying her explanation, when Ranelle knew that it would never work. In fact, it would probably increase the problem tenfold. "Carly, that won't work! It'll just make the entire thing crash and go bonkers."

"Ranelle, I'm telling you, it'll work!"

"Actually," a low voice broke into the conversation from behind, "she's right. That'll just make the thing crash."

The heads of the seated women whipped around to look up, and up, and still up, into the face of a stranger. Ranelle stared as she took in the cool indigo blue eyes and raven colored hair that was falling just passed the shoulders of the speaker. The tall woman had a half-grin, as she looked back at the arguing duo.

Carly was the first to recover from her dazed shock. "Who the hell are you?"

Ranelle blinked, blinked again, and then stood and faced the woman. She extended a hand which the stranger grasped, reflexively. "Hi, are you sure about that line of code."

"Oh yeah, your solution is really close, just not quite right. I could show you, if you want." The voice was low and deep, with an obvious accent, however the origin of that accent Ranelle couldn't decide. It didn't have the distinct ring of being Irish, English, Australian, Scottish, or any of the other common types she was used to hearing.

"Sure." The tall woman moved around to the chair beside Ranelle that wasn't occupied by Carly. As she maneuvered herself into position, Ranelle noticed a cane in her left hand that was assisting the stranger. After she seated herself, the woman turned the computer slightly more towards her and started explaining what Ranelle needed to do to fix the code.

Stacey would have nudged Amanda and pointed to the tall newcomer asking, "Who's that?" except she had slipped off to the bathroom moments before.

So she turned her attention to the activity at the table and watched with avid, interested, eyes.

"And that's all you had wrong," the stranger finished her explanation and leaned back in her chair. Carly had left in a huff not long after the two had gotten involved in their conversation. "I'm sorry if I interrupted you with, um.....that," she gestured vaguely toward where Carly had been seated.

"Huh? Oh, no, no. Don't worry about it. She was here for more than computer help, which is all I wanted. I'm Ranelle, by the way. I don't usually sit down with strangers but you offered..."

The woman waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. "That's fine. I know. I'm Dean."

Ranelle nodded and then her head stopped moving for an entire five seconds. Then, green eyes whipped around toward blue and widened. Ranelle's mouth dropped slightly and she stared. "Um...a...you don't...I mean....I thought...oh boy. Dean....as in Dean Ransom? Commander Dean Ransom of the United States Navy? That Dean Ransom?"

Dean nodded and smiled. "Yes, I'm all that. I got your message on my machine, and well, here I am."

"I figured. Wait a minute, you're a woman!"

A full smile broke out across her face at this comment. "Yes, I am, indeed."

Realizing what she had said, Ranelle quickly supplied, "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."

"Hey, it's okay. Calm down. I'm sort of used to it by now."

Ranelle nodded. "Yeah, I guess you would be. Listen, it's kinda late, but I'd love to talk to you about, well, everything. But I don't want to do it here. Can we meet tomorrow? You just cleared up any work I needed to finish by fixing that dumb code for me."

"Sure, where and when. Whatever is convenient for you."

Ranelle thought for a moment. "Okay, have you ever heard of a cafe named Hego's?"

"You're kidding, right? I love that place, haven't been for awhile, though. What time?"

"Umm, 8:30?"

"Great, I'll see you tomorrow, then." Dean rose and grabbed her cane again. She walked out of the club, oblivious to the curious and interested stares she was the recipient of.

Stacey descended upon her friend the second Dean left. "Alright, who was that?"

Ranelle turned smiling eyes upon her friend, a huge grin splitting her face. "That, Stace, was fairy tale Commander, Dean Ransom."

Stacey's jaw dropped as her eyes turned to the space the Naval officer had just vacated.


The next morning started off mildly hot and humid even though they were now almost through the month of November. The only real sign of winter's approach was the earlier setting sun. Ranelle was able to drag herself out of bed by 8 am with a surprisingly small amount of groaning and complaining, and by 8:15 she was in her normal good mood as she walked out the door.

The short stroll to Hego's brought Ranelle to the door of the cafe just after 8:30. The researcher entered and did a quick scan of the cafe. When she didn't see Dean, Ranelle moved further into the building and started scanning the tables again. "She's over in the corner there." The familiar voice caused Ranelle to jump and spin around.

"Jesus, Stacey. You scared me. I hate when you sneak up on me!"

"I wasn't sneaking!"

"If I don't hear you then you're sneaking! Now, you said Dean was in the corner?" Stacey nodded and Ranelle nodded her thanks. She moved off toward the table her friend had indicated, and sure enough Dean was seated there.

As Ranelle moved closer to the table Dean stood and pulled out the chair beside her. She took the opportunity to study the officer and noticed that she was dressed very similar to the night before. Worn and comfortable blue jeans, a light colored tight T-shirt that showed off tight muscle in Dean's lanky frame. Brown, worn, work boots adorned her feet, and Ranelle wondered how her feet could possibly not cook in them. A pair of mirrored wrap-around sunglasses sat on the table, and Ranelle noticed a brown leather jacket thrown over her chair. Ranlle smiled and moved over to the offered piece of furniture. Just as she was about to sit, Ranelle stopped and looked up at Dean. The tall woman returned the look with a raised eyebrow and smirk. "What?"

"Man, you're tall! I didn't realize that the other night." Ranelle shook her head and sat, idly noting that her companion reached a height of what must of been at least 6' 5". Dean followed her lead and retook her seat. Just as the women were about to break the silence a perky voice interrupted them.

"So, Ranelle, what can I get for 'ya?" Ranelle looked up at her smiling friend and scowled.

"Do you have to ask Stace? I'm in here almost everyday!"

"Yeah, but that's for lunch or coffee or something. This," the waitress waved her arm in a motion meant to include the cafe and its occupants, "is breakfast time. And I don't recall ever taking your breakfast order. So, what do you want?" Stacey finished with a cheeky smile, as she poised her pencil over her pad of paper.

Ranelle heaved a sigh and peaked at her breakfast companion. Dean was looking down at the table like it held the secrets to life with a colossal grin creasing her face. "Just gimme some coffee and, um, something edible that's warm. Okay?"

"Gotcha!" Stacey bustled away leaving them once again alone.

Dean was the first to speak. "You know, if you aren't a morning person we could have met in the afternoon. That's why I told you to pick. It didn't really matter to me." Blue eyes looked up at Ranelle and she felt herself compelled to explain.

"Well, I never expected you to actually show up at the club when I left that message. I figured that after you listened to it and heard who I was and why I was calling that I would never meet you. Plus, you just got out of the hospital awhile ago and..."

Dean held up her hand. "Whoa, why would you think I wouldn't want to talk to you?"

Ranelle looked up with annoyed eyes. "Seems to me that I've been getting the run around from a lot of people over the phone. This was supposed to be a 'everyone will tell you exactly what you want to know, as long as it doesn't jeopardize national security' assignment. It hasn't exactly been like that, and I guess I just started assuming..."

"Ranelle." The sound of her name spoken in a cold, hard tone, brought her rambling to an immediate stop and her green eyes latched onto blue. "One thing you have to understand right now. I lost a lot of good men over there, friends. And this situation has had nothing but bad publicity ever since it happened. People have been blaming us, and if there is one thing that I won't let happen it's the blame for this being put on those soldiers. They were good men. I'm here to tell you what happened, how it happened, and make sure you get the full story. That's it." Dean's voice was choked with emotion, and Ranelle believed that with this woman's help, she would indeed get the entire story.

Ranelle nodded. "Right. Sorry."

Dean's dark head nodded as well, and the two concentrated on their newly delivered food and coffee as the tension eased. Finally, Ranelle deemed it safe to start talking again and decided that getting right to the point of their meeting would be best. "So, where would you like to start?"

"Uh, oh, yeah, sorry. Well...um...jeez." Dean closed her eyes, sighed, and shook her head. "Okay, what I'm trying to say is that this entire thing is really not that easy to talk about. Like you said, I just got out of the hospital and it seems like this whole thing just...happened. So, if you want....everyhting that happened, it isn't going to be one of those sit down for two hours and spill your guts type of interview." Dean looked over at Ranelle and she felt a pang in her heart seeing a brief flicker of hidden horrors behind those blue eyes. "It'll take awhile for you to get everything that you're going to need. And I'm not gonna be able to sit down and go through days of events at once. I'm also assuming that you want specifics, not just what happened there, but why we were there, why what happened, happened, and what I think might have gone wrong for it to happen." Dean gave Ranelle a questioning look and she nodded. "Okay, well telling you all that information is going to take awhile, too. I hope you can live with that?"

Staring into Dean's eyes, Ranelle almost missed the rest of the officer's explanation and question. Blinking, Ranelle focused on her surroundings again and smiled. "No problem. I'll wait for as long as you need."

Dean nodded her head in something close to relief. "I'm not sure where to start."

Ranelle turned her eyes upon the strong profile and noticed a not quite healed scar that started just above Dean's right eyebrow, curved down toward her temple, and continued back into the tall woman's hairline. "Okay, how about what you were in the hospital for. Since it's the most recent thing that happened."

"Sure." Dean closed her eyes for a moment before her low voice broke the quiet atmosphere at their little table. "As I'm sure you know I was just released about two weeks ago. I spent the first four and a half days at an American embassy hospital in critical and unstable condition. After that they airlifted me to a military hospital in New York, moving me before that would have killed me. Before going to New York, doctors had to fix my collapsed lung and perform surgery. I was bleeding internally, they say that they removed my spleen and something else was ruptured."


The small exclamation was enough for Dean to pause in her story momentarily. Dean looked at Ranelle and smiled. "Sorry, I'm no doctor, and I don't remember much of this. This is just what they told me. Anyway, once I got back to the states they started treating me for chemical burns on my legs and back. That's what this is for." Dean hefted the cane in her left hand so that Ranelle could see it. Seeing that the young woman wanted to speak, Dean paused in her narrative and inclined her head.

"Your cane, well, I noticed that you limp a little. Is it permanent?"

"No, well, the scars are pretty nasty, at least I think they are. Most of them are on the back of my legs. I won't need the cane forever. My physical therapist predicts I'll be rid of it by the end of the month. He did say that I might retain a slight limp, but it would only be visible when I'm really tired, or to someone who knows me well. In addition to all that, seven broken ribs, compound fracture in my right leg, four broken fingers on my left hand, and a hell of a lot of little cuts and lacerations. Bullet through my right shoulder, it still aches sometimes. Pain in the ass. Oh, and a big nasty piece of shrapnel winged the side of my head." Dean's hand unconsciously went up and touched the long scar on her head. "That caused some problems. Swelling in the brain and stuff."

Dean stopped, leaving Ranelle to soak up all the information. She had a small tape recorder in her pocket that had been running since she sat down so she wouldn't have to write anything down. Dean turned toward the woman beside her and graced Ranelle with a half-smile. "That's about it."

Ranelle nodded and was about to ask a question when a beeping broke her concentration. Dean looked at her watch and sighed. Ranelle glance at the clock on the wall and noted with some shock that it was almost 10 am. Dean turned to Ranelle after silencing her watch. "Listen, I have an appointment. Here's my cell number," Dean handed Ranelle a card, "use it if you really have to get in touch with me. I'm usually gone in the morning and don't get back to the house until about 2. When do you want to pick this up?"

Dean started to stand as she spoke, reaching into her back pocket for her wallet. She pulled out some money and threw it on the table, then turned to Ranelle for an answer.


Dean nodded, "Sure. When and where?"

"Uh, could you possibly swing by the magazine office around 6:30, otherwise I'll get caught up in something and forget." Ranelle hastily scrawled an address on one of the napkins and handed it to Dean.

"No problem." With that, Dean turned, grabbed her cane, and left the cafe. Ranelle watched the officer leave and then reached into her pocket to turn off the tape recorder. Adding some of her own money to the pile on the table, Ranelle headed out to the magazine office.


After leaving Hego's, Dean proceeded to her car and started driving to her appointment. After a twenty minute trip, Dean pulled into the parking lot of a large building. Above the doors, written in a dark purple, were the words RANSOM SECURITIES.

This was one of the companies many stores that took up residence throughout the US, Canada, places in Europe, Asia, and Australia. They sold computer systems and almost any electronic part you could imagine, carry out repairs on products, contain models showing the different types of security you could buy along with different web designs one might want to pay for. The large store was split into three sections. One for the computer systems and security and another for the design half of the company. The third section was a large back-room area, where computers were fixed and problems were analyzed.

This store happened to be the 'parent' store, so to speak. It was the largest outlet for Ransom products and services, and if your computer couldn't be fixed here then there's no hope for it.

Dean entered through the front and walked directly to the large desk at the right of the store. The man standing behind it looked up and his face broke into a smile as he saw who was walking toward him. "Dean! It's good to see you. How are you?"

"I'm doing all right Scott. I was wondering how long it was going to take for you to ask me to come over here, then I got your message the other day. So, what's up?"

"Ah, yes. Come here, come here. There was a very disgruntled lady in here two mornings ago raving and ranting about her computer and the," Scott raised his hands and made quotation marks in the air, "'very important, crucial, data.' That was stuck on this 'godforsaken, evil, machine that is the demon spawn of this century.'" Scott lowered his hands and stopped making quotation marks. "Basically she said that if WE didn't fix it by the time she came back tonight she'd tell everyone what horrible customer service we have, and that our products are second rate. Blah, blah, blah." Scott looked up at his employer and saw the slight twinkle in her eye, testament to her amusement. "So, I looked at it, Richard looked at it, even whiz-kid Johnny looked at the damn thing. We don't know what's wrong."

Dean shook her head and sighed. "Tell me, Scott, what I pay you people for if you can't fix a computer?"

Scott looked up at his lifelong friend with wide eyes, as if saying 'how could you forget why you pay us?' "Why, Dean, it's very simple. If you didn't have us you also wouldn't have any customers. Face it, you big, bad, Naval officer - when it comes to customer relations, you suck."

Dean smiled, a real, full smile, and slapped Scott and the back. "I missed you, Scotty."

The clerk's humor vanished, replaced by seriousness. "I missed you too, Dean. I'm glad you made it out of there," his voice started choking up, "and that you're okay."

Dean nodded and then turned to the back room and troublesome computer. Not accustomed to dealing with such strong emotions, Dean thought it best to leave before she broke down completely. Deciding to bury herself in something she could do in her sleep, the officer sat down at the counter in the back and started fixing the complex electronic device.


Knock, knock.

"Dean, hey, are you still alive in there?"


"Come on Dean, open up. It's almost closing time and Mrs. Dogertie is here demanding to know if her computer is fixed." Just as Scott raised his arm to knock again the wooden panel flew open. Scott entered and his jaw dropped.

Not only had Dean fixed Mrs. Dogertie's computer, but the other two computers and a myriad of other devices that had previously been stubborn in wanting to remain in their faulty state. They were all fixed, it seemed. And the room was...clean. The counter's that lined all the walls of the room had previously been covered in different tools, parts, and devices.


Dean had, in less than eight hours, cleared up all the work that had been hanging over all the repairmen's heads for several days. And she had cleaned the disastrous room that Scott often wondered how anyone, including himself, could work in.

His employer was still sitting on a stool at the counter in the middle of the room, staring at the opposite wall. Heaving a sigh, blue eyes finally turned toward Scott, as Dean seemed to notice his presence. Dean stood, grabbed her cane, and moved over to her friend. "Tell Mrs. Dogertie that her computer has returned to the land of the living. I have to go meet up with a reporter. See you later Scott."

Scott quickly turned his blonde, almost white, head to look at Dean. "Wait, I really want to talk to you Dean. I know how you get caught up in things and that if I don't make plans now I won't see you for a week. So, when can we get together?"

The tall woman made a low humming sound in her throat as she thought for a moment. "It's Saturday, right?" Scott nodded. "Okay, um, swing by my place Sunday morning around 10."

"Sure. See you then." Dean nodded and turned to leave the large store. Scott moved to the door and kept his eyes glued to her back until she was out of view. Scott's thoughts ran along the lines of how lucky Dean was to still be alive, and for everyone who knew her to have her back in their lives.


Pulling into the parking lot of the building that housed her uncle's magazine, Ranelle noticed that only a few cars filled the spots. Then she remembered that it was Saturday and most normal people were at home living their lives.

Not Ranelle.

She had a feeling that she was going to need to take every spare moment to keep all the information Dean supplied her with recorded and in order. Ranelle had a feeling that getting this story was going to be difficult. Not because of Dean's unwillingness to give it, not at all. Just that it was a traumatic event and as Dean herself said, the Middle East tragedy would be divulged in short segments.

However, even that knowledge was not what was creating these feelings in the young researcher. Ranelle had noticed a slightly unpleasant gnawing sensation in her stomach ever since the phone calls to the Navy brass. It had been steadily growing the past few days.

Now, a strong feeling of danger accompanied this story and seemed to hang in the air. 'Come on Ranelle, get a grip.' She chastised herself. 'You just have a bad case of an overactive imagination. You can start getting paranoid if something happens'.

Ranelle shook off her disturbing thoughts and proceeded to the secure entrance of the building. She greeted Tony, the security guard, just inside the door, not sensing the malevolent eyes firmly attached to her back.

When she arrived in her office, Ranelle started entering into the computer what Dean had told her. This way, she could tape over their last conversation and not have to go through a bunch of audio tapes while collecting the story.

Emersing herself in her work, Ranelle hardly noticed as the hours started ticking by.


Pulling her SUV into the almost deserted parking lot with darkness almost totally set in, Dean jumped out of the high vehicle and grabbed her cumbersome cane. 'I'll sure as hell be glad when I'm rid of this stupid thing. Thank God the therapist says we can scrap it after this month. Oh, this month ends in a week. Goody!'

Dean grinned at her realization as she headed to the three steps up to the office. As she entered, Dean was greeted by a slightly balding man in a security outfit who was preparing to leave. He gave her a questioning look and just as Dean was about to reply a welcome voice broke in. "Don't worry Tony, she's here for me. Have a nice night."

The security guard grumbled and left the building, trusting Ranelle to lock it up as the young woman often did. Ranelle turned to Dean and smiled. "Hey, just give me a minute." Dean nodded and watched as Ranelle pulled a set of keys out of her bag and checked the three doors in the main lobby. Coming back to Dean, Ranelle nodded and motioned to the exit, signaling that she was ready to leave.

The duo moved outside as Ranelle stopped to lock the door and check it once before she tucked her key back into her pocket. "So," Ranelle started as they moved farther into the parking lot, "where are we going and are we going to take two cars or one?"

"Well, I was think..." Dean's voice was cut off as Ranelle was roughly shoved into the taller woman, causing Dean to hit her back on a parked car. Slightly stunned, Dean looked up in time to see the outline of someone grab Ranelle. The Naval officers mind registered a glint in the person's hand as she stood up.

Ranelle felt something push her and then she felt herself fall into Dean. Before she could process what was happening she felt herself pulled up to a standing position again. Seeing the glint of a weapon, Ranelle started to panic. Just before she could react in any way, the grip on her arm and around her waist was removed and Ranelle found herself headed to the ground again, the slight clatter of a weapon hitting the ground registering in her mind before her head impacted a parked car. Landing, she shook her head to try and get rid of the buzzing sound in her ears and turned in time to see Dean twisting the attacker's arm up behind him. Cursing reached Ranelle's ears as she watched the scene playing out before her.

Dean had just reacted, grabbing the person's arms and causing the attacker to release his hold on Ranelle. Dean grimaced as the attacker swung an elbow back and landed a solid blow on her stomach. Before the assailant could strike again, Dean powered them both around so they were facing the opposite end of the parking lot with a solid line of three cars in front of them.

Feeling her hold slipping, Dean swung her leg around and in front of the person in her grasp to try and trip the attacker. The weapon wielding person was able to compensate, however, by jumping slightly. Now with a better hold on Dean's arm, the attacker managed to reverse their positions so the officer was now in front and slammed her painfully onto the hood of Ranelle's car, stomach first.

Dean heard a low chuckle from above her and growled low in her throat. Grabbing the gloved hand by her face, Dean twisted and heard the cracking of bones. Smiling, Dean flipped around and tried to stand, but found herself shoved back to the hood of her car. On her back, now, Dean was able to see better, but the attacker raised the stakes as a broken bottle from the ground came into view.

Not knowing how the person in black had managed to pick it up, but seeing that it was coming straight for her, Dean raised her long legs and bent them as much as she could. Getting her feet a solid grip on the attacker's waist, Dean pushed out just as the bottle started its descent.

Ranelle had stood and watched closely as the two people moved around the parking lot. Not quite catching their quick movements, Ranelle was unable to determine how Dean had ended up on the hood of her car. Seeing the bottle as the person leaning over Dean raised it, Ranelle looked around for something she could use as a weapon. Just as the young woman spotted a rock, Ranelle saw a body fly past her, heard a painful grunt, and the breaking of glass.

As she turned, Ranelle saw the assailant scurrying into the night after picking themselves up from where he had landed. Her urge to run after the person all but disappeared as Ranelle turned again and saw Dean's distinctive form sitting on the ground. Fearing the worst, Ranelle ran toward the officer and dropped down next to her. Dean's eyes were closed and her breathing was ragged. "Dean, you okay?" Blue eyes slowly opened and tracked to concerned green. A small smile greeted her before Dean spoke.


"Huh. What's wrong, why are you breathing so heavily?"

"I had to...kick that guy away from me. Or...he woulda....probably..killed me." Dean stopped and sucked in a large breath and closed her eyes briefly. "It was killer on my legs."

"Oh." Seeing the confused look, Dean opted to explain.

"They won't be up to a hundred percent for a long while yet. And shoving away a 200 pound person is the last task that they were up to at the moment."

"Buh...I thought..."

"Ranelle, walking on them is one thing. I still have a heck of a time if I need to go up a lot of steps many times a day. There was lots of muscle damage. Anyway, give me a hand up so we can get out of here." Still worried about Dean, but agreeing that getting her up off the ground would be a step in the right direction, Ranelle stood and offered Dean her hand.

Once she was standing, Dean sucked in a pained breath and closed her eyes again. Ranelle looked at her friend, her brows furrowing as she noticed a darker spot on Dean's light shirt. "Shit, Dean. You're bleeding!"

"Huh." Dean looked down and noticed the blood at the top of her left shoulder. Frowing, the Naval officer touched the area and felt nothing. Dean then lifted her arm and twisted to the right, wincing. "Yeah, looks like that idiot cut my back." She raised her eyes to the shorter woman and squinted slightly before replying, "So are you."


"Bleeding." Dean raised a large hand to a small gash above the end of her left eyebrow.

"Oh, well, don't worry about it. I didn't even know it was there. Come on, you need to get that looked at."

Dean shook her head. "No, come on, we'll go to my place and you can bandage it up, and I'll take care of you. But I'm not going to a hospital."

Ranelle sighed, took one look at Dean's face, and realized that she wouldn't win this argument. "Fine, but I'm driving. We'll take my car." Dean shook her head. "Why?"

"Cause I don't wanna get blood in it. Here," Dean handed her keys to Ranelle.

Ranelle nodded, grabbed the jingling item, and walked to the SUV with Dean a step ahead. The taller woman paused momentarily, bent down, and retrieved the switchblade. Flipping it closed, she looked into Ranelle's eyes for a long moment before slipping the item into her pocket. They continued to the car.


Following the directions as they were given to her, Ranelle was surprised to note that Dean indicated they had arrived at their destination after 10 minutes. Albeit, to Ranelle it looked as though they were in the middle of nowhere. Indicating a road that was almost hidden because of overgrowth, Dean mumbled something about turning down the little path and following it until Ranelle saw the house.

About halfway down the driveway, the sky opened up with an unexpected downpour of rain. 'Great, rain.' Were the thoughts of both occupants of the car. As she drove, Ranelle noticed that the driveway got wider and eventually became paved. It was lined with tall, majestic looking trees.

The headlights finally illuminated a large looking structure. The combination of darkness and rain, however, prevented Ranelle from getting a good look at the house. She pulled up as close to the front door as she could, idly noting that it was now 7 o'clock. Looking over at Dean, Ranelle decided that the woman didn't look too good. "Hey, you okay?"

Slowly, Dean's eyes tracked to hers and the dark head gave a slight nod. "Yeah, I'm...um..a...yeah, I'm good."

"Right. Come on, lets get inside." Ranelle exited the car and moved around to the passenger side. She kept a close eye on Dean, finally wrapping an arm around her waist when they reached the four steps up to the door.

After unlocking the wooden portal, Dean paused and flicked the light switch. Nothing happened. Dean groaned. "Great, power's out." Looking around, the tall Naval officer made a decision. "Listen, why don't you go grab my first aid kit. It's in the kitchen," Dean pointed off to their right, "under the sink. I'm gonna grab some different clothes for both of us since they're wet. I'll meet you in the there." Dean pointed to another room off to their left. Ranelle nodded and watched briefly as Dean headed down the hallway in front of them.

The young researcher turned and headed to the kitchen. After stumbling along in the cupboards, Ranelle yanked open a drawer and found a flashlight. She smiled. Flicking it on, Ranelle located the sink and the cupboard underneath it. Grabbing the first aid kit, Ranelle headed back into the living room, where there was a slight glow being emitted.

Entering the room, Ranelle saw Dean sitting on the couch in a pair of sweat pants and a Dallas Stars hockey jersey with some more clothes sitting on her lap. Dean was holding a piece of cloth to the cut to stop the flow of blood and keep her shirt clean.

Candles around the room had been lit, providing plenty of light. Seeing Ranelle enter, Dean looked up and threw some clothes at her. "They'll be big, but they're dry."

Ranelle caught the garments and smiled her thanks. Migrating into a darker part of the house, Ranelle quickly pulled on the shorts that hung well past her knees-- almost down to her ankles, actually-- and a large gray sweater that she had to roll the sleeves up on six times.

Coming back into the living room, Ranelle retrieved the kit and walked over to the couch. "Okay, lay down on your stomach and take your shirt off, please."

Dean nodded and moved into the requested position. Ranelle kneeled down next to the long back and opened the kit. She took a closer look at the cut and saw that it was pretty superficial. Sighing in relief, Ranelle started cleaning and bandaging it. "It isn't that bad, really, more of a flesh wound than anything else." Dean grunted her acknowledgment.

While taping on a piece of gauze, Ranelle let her eyes wander along Dean's back. She took in the scars, the majority of them the chemical burns that Dean had mentioned, concentrated mostly on the left side of her lower and middle back. Ranelle winced in sympathy. Then she noticed a scar on her right shoulder that she figured was the bullet wound Dean had spoken of. She figured there would be a similar scar on the front of Dean's shoulder, too.

As she finished smoothing the tape over Dean's skin, Ranelle moved her hands back, almost dropping the roll of tape in her hands. Catching it just above Dean's back, her hand grazed a patch of twisted, angry looking skin. Dean flinched immediately. "I'm sorry," Ranelle was quick to say after seeing the officer move. "Do they hurt?"

"Not really, not anymore. I just haven't....no one's ever...I mean I don't like.." Dean trailed off helplessly.

"Hey," Ranelle gently put her hand on Dean's shoulder, careful to avoid any scars or the newly dressed wound, "it's okay. You can get up now." Ranelle turned and started putting things back in the first aid kit as Dean sat and pulled on her jersey once again.

Turning back, Ranelle looked at Dean at a loss of what to say. "You a fan?" Ranelle indicated the jersey. Dean nodded. "You?" Ranelle nodded.

"Lemme take care of that." Dean gestured to the cut on Ranelle's forehead. She simply nodded. After cleaning the cut off Dean closed up the kit and they sat staring at each other for several moments. Ranelle finally spoke what had been on her mind since getting into the house.

"I think it would be a good idea if I stayed here tonight. With the rain... and no power, I'd probably get lost if I left myself, and you really shouldn't be driving...with your legs and...everything.." The words came out in a rush, and Ranelle shyly looked up at Dean. Expecting an argument or at least a slight protest, Ranelle was shocked to hear Dean utter a quiet 'sure'.

Looking back down at the floor between them, Ranelle remembered Dean sitting in the parking lot, panting. "How are your legs?"

Dean shrugged. "We'll find out in the morning. But, I really should walk on them a bit. Keep them from getting too stiff."

"Probably." Ranelle stood and offered Dean a hand up. She took it and the two women just stood there for a moment looking at each other. Realizing that they were staring, they both shook their heads at the same time and smiled.

"You hungry? I don't think I have very much, but I imagine we could find something."

"A little."

"Come on, then." Dean led the way into the kitchen with Ranelle following and watching closely to be sure the officer didn't stumble. The young woman grabbed the flashlight as an after thought and then continued across the hall. When she got into the kitchen, Dean was perched on one of the stools that lined the outer side of the counter. "I'm not sure what I have, take a look."

Ranelle walked over to the fridge, turned on the flashlight and opened the door. Looking into the appliance, Ranelle started to speak, "Dean, you have milk, orange juice, ketchup, mustard, butter, three eggs, and some kind of meat."

"Meat? Really?"


"Is it any good?"

"Um," Ranelle took the meat out of the fridge and opened the package, "yeah, and it's ham."

"Cool." Ranelle shook her head and then opened the freezer.

"Let's see, ice cream, frozen corn, lots of frozen OJ, and um...Dean?"

"Hmmm." Ranelle grabbed something out of the fridge, slid it across the counter and then shone the light on it.

"What's that?"

Dean looked down at the package, her brow furrowing. She picked it up and started examining it. "Um, I really don't know."

"Okaayyy. Why don't we," Ranelle moved forward and took the package out of Dean's hands, "just put it back in here." She placed the mystery food into the freezer and closed the door. "That should be safe."

A low chuckle came from across the room and Ranelle smiled, glad to see that Dean was doing all right. "So, you have butter, but do you have anything to butter?"

"I think so, look in that cupboard there." Ranelle opened the indicated cupboard and continued cataloging Dean's food.

"Seven slices of bread, three bagels." Turning, she looked at the Navy officer incredulously, "You actually live off this." Ranelle waved her hands, indicating the things in the kitchen.

"Pretty much. I have some cereal floating around somewhere, too. You could take the meat and make a sandwich, I'll just eat a bagel."

Ranelle nodded and pulled the bread and a bagel out of the cupboard. Going back to the fridge, the butter, meat, mustard and a knife joined the bread. After assembling the sandwich, Ranelle looked up into blue eyes. "Something's missing. You wouldn't happen to have any tomato or lettuce would you?"

Thinking for a second, Dean nodded. "Open the bottom right drawer of the fridge. There should be a clear plastic bag in there."

After she retrieved the bag and got a good look at the contents, Ranelle raised her eyebrows at Dean and waited for an explanation. Shrugging, the officer started speaking, "Maria seems to think that I have bad eating habits.."

Snorting, Ranelle interjected, "That's an understatement."

"Ahem. Anyway, she's always trying to stuff those 'healthy' foods down my throat for as long as I can remember. Go ahead, she dropped it off the other day."

Tearing open the bag of salad, the researcher added several slices of tomato and some leaves of lettuce. Smiling in satisfaction, Ranelle completed the sandwich and then grabbed a plate. Dean grabbed her bagel and motioned for them to go back to the living room where there was light. "Who's Maria?"

"Well, she started off as a friend of my sister, and then we sorta bonded a little one summer. The three of us have all been good friends since, despite the age difference. Besides her and Scott, I don't have that many 'good' friends."


"I've known him since I was a kid. He works at one of our stores as the manager. And a damn good one!" They sat down on the couch, side-by-side and continued the conversation.

"Oh, okay. Do you get along well with your siblings?" Dean's hesitation caused Ranelle to quickly look up and retract the question. "It's okay if you don't want to talk about this. I know I'm prying, but it is sort of what I do. However, it has no bearing on what happened in the Middle East so..."

"No, it's fine. I just realized that I haven't seen any of them since I got back."

"You mean since you got out of the hospital?"

"No, since I got back to the states. Maria came and saw me a few times with my sister, Rachel, but besides that..."

"Oh, Dean. I'm so sorry."

"For what? You're not the one who didn't show up. Anyway, to answer your question, I probably get along the best with Rachel. My older brother, Slyvester and I, we never could spend more than five minutes with each other without getting into an argument. The last time we spoke he said he never wanted to see me again. That was about eight, no nine, years ago. Then there's David," a large smile spread across Dean's face, "he's my younger brother. We always spent as much time as we could with each other as kids. My parents say that he practically worshiped the ground I walked on."

"So, if you got along so well how come he never came and visited."

The smile faded and Dean lowered her head, "I don't know what happened. He just stopped talking to me, quit returning phone calls, eventually I just stopped trying to reach him. That happened a few years ago, too." Dean shrugged, dismissing the situation and her feelings. "So, when I was finally allowed to have visitors I called Rachel and asked her to contact Maria. They were the only people who I knew would come besides Scott. I did try my parents but nothing happened there."

"You're not on good terms with them?"

"I'd....a...I....I'd rather not talk about them."

Puzzled, Ranelle nodded and replied, "Fine, your call." Her voice clearly communicated her confusion.

Ranelle closed her eyes, imagining what that must of been like. To have seen a mission go bad and almost all of your men die. Then to come back to the states critically injured, knowing that when you were finally able to see your family, out of five people related to you by blood only one would show up. 'That must have hurt', Ranelle thought.

"What about you?" The low voice jolted Ranelle out of her thoughts.


"Well, you're gonna hear all this stuff about me, I'd kinda like to know a little bit about you."

Ranelle sniffled, took a bite of her sandwich, and then spoke. "Not much to tell, really. I had a big falling out with my family almost two years ago and moved to Dallas. I'm finishing off school to get a job in the design or security computer field. I have a sister and brother, one younger the other older. They still talk to me, it's my parents that don't." Ranelle shrugged. "My uncle and cousin live here and I'm probably closer to Uncle Amark than I was to either of my parents."

Ranelle looked up at Dean to see that she had a captive audience. And couldn't understand why. "I'm really boring, not much to tell like I said. You, however, are much more interesting."

Dean shook her head. "Nah, I'm not worth talking about."

"Really? Tell me, Dean, where were you born?"

Scrunching her eyebrows together and looking confused, Dean answered, "Um, Florence."

"Florence, Italy?"

Dean nodded. Ranelle smiled. "See, already you're more interesting than me. Italian, cool. What about your accent, it doesn't sound pure Italian."

Dean unscrunched her eyebrows and blinked a few times. "That's because it isn't. My dad is Italian with the tiniest bit of Greek in him. And my mother is pure Russian."

Ranelle sat there staring at Dean for a moment before blowing out a big breath. "You've gotta be kidding!?"

Dean shook her dark head.

"Wow, what a mix!"

A nod.

"See, you are a lot more interesting than me."

A shrug.

"How long can you go without saying anything?!"

A grin.

Ranelle sighed and rolled her eyes dramatically.

"What about you?"

Ranelle looked up, "Me?"

"Yeah, you don't sound like a native Texan." Dean affected the Texas accent which added to her own natural one, created a very strange result. Ranelle covered her mouth and laughed a moment before collecting herself.

"Sorry, you just sounded funny."

"I bet."

"Ahem.. I'm originally from Everette, Washington."

"Why'd ya leave?"

"Well, my parents and I had different ideas about my future. Don't get me wrong, they loved me to death... I can't imagine a more loving couple, but they saw things one way and I saw it the other. Despite how much they loved me they were kinda aloof and we don't talk all that much, like I said before. When I moved we just sorta drifted further apart... it's not really because there is any animosity just as a kid, I never felt like I had anything worthwhile to say to them. I imagine it would be different now, if we got together in the same room." Ranelle shrugged. "They still supported me in what I wanted to do but I could tell they were still disappointed and it just got to me eventually. Plus, some things were happening with me and a few other people which was indirectly causing them a lot of grief..... So I left, figured it'd be best for all of us."

Dean processed this for a moment and asked, "What did they want you to do?"

"Go into the family business.. It's kinda akin to joining the Navy in your family, I guess."

"And that business would be??"

"Oh, horse racing."

The dark haired woman's jaw dropped, "Excuse me?"

Ranelle pursed her lips for a moment before answering, "Uh... I don't mean that the way it sounded. Not gambling or anything... they race horses... Standardbred and thoroughbred. They're really successful at it, I just don't have any interest. I mean, I grew up around it sure, and I have an appreciation for all the work that goes into getting a horse ready to race and actually winning.. but I just...." She paused, not sure what she wanted to say.

"You wouldn't be happy doing that for the rest of your working life."

"Yeah... I wanna love what I do and I do love computers and design."

The officers head nodded. "I know what you mean and you'll be glad ten years down the road that you stood up for what you wanted.. too many people let themselves fall into that trap and end up hating their lives."

"Yeah, that's what I thought."

"So you all still get along?"

"Oh, sure. We may not talk all the time but we send cards and stuff at the holidays and if I showed up on the doorstep they'd invite me in with open arms. I kinda gained another family with Uncle Amark...he's like a second father and I think my parents are glad that he's here for me when they're so far away. Everything worked out real well in the end, I think."

They sat in silence, finishing off their food for several minutes.

The comfortable silence was finally broken with Dean opening up the conversation again. "You know I've been thinking a lot about how you said, you thought people at the base were stonewalling you."

"And?" Ranelle sat up straighter, her interest piqued.

"Well, what kind of stuff did you request."

"Um, files on the operation in the Middle East and any pertaining to it, and your personnel file, along with one's for the other men who survived."

"Did you get it?"

"Which one. Yes and no. I was sent information on the operation but not the real file. I was told that the things in it were still highly sensitive. When I asked about your file, I couldn't even get someone to consider releasing it."

"Wait, you couldn't get anything on me?"


"Not even the year I enlisted, or dates of promotions.....anything?"

"Nope, nothing. I received a few progress reports on you, but none of the operations you were involved in, places you were stationed at, no promotions or any personal information. Just the reports. If I hadn't gotten those I would have started to think that you didn't exist! "

"What about the other men's files?"



Ranelle looked up and nodded. "Yeah, I got 'em."

"That...well that's just weird. Why theirs and not mine?" It was rhetorical, and the researcher wisely kept her mouth shut. "Did you get clearance for the files?"

"Oh, yeah. I spent a hour and a half on the phone getting bumped up to all these different guys. I eventually was told by Admiral something that Admiral someone cleared me. And then I can't get a simple personnel file! That ticked me off."

"Ranelle," Dean turned serious eyes on the researcher, "you should have at least been given my common info. over the phone. I mean, age, date of birth, enlisting date and such." Dean shook her head. "They wouldn't have sent you my entire file, but you should have been told that if you went to the base that you would be given access to it. Somehting isn't right."

The women sat on the couch pondering the possibility that maybe something more was going on with this failed mission. "Someone is hiding something." Dean's voice was low, and it held an intense angry tone. Ranelle sucked in a breath on hearing it, picking up dangerous waves flowing from the officer. "We're going down there to look at all those files." It was a statement, strong and true.


"Definitely, we. They won't give you any crap if I'm there, and if something is going on involving me and the ME mission, I wanna know about it."

Ranelle nodded. "Okay, when?"

Dean cocked her head. "Anytime next week, preferably on Wednesday. Hopefully we could be back by Friday."

"Why Wednesday?"

"Because Monday is always crazy, they never take you seriously on the weekend, and Wednesday is usually only mildly busy. Do you have anything you need to do?"

"Are you kidding?! This is the only thing my uncle wants me to even think about until I get it all figured out. He said and I quote 'Ranelle, this here is very important. It could help you and the magazine a lot. Besides school it's the only thing I want you to even think about.' Uncle Amark won't have a problem with me leaving town." Thinking for a moment, Ranelle scrunched her eyebrows up and then posed a question. "Um, Dean, where exactly do we have to go?"

"It's a base in San Diego, California. Why?"

"Just wondering."

There was a lull in the conversation, the figures sat in the dim light from a few candles scattered around the room. Each buried deep in their own thoughts. The storm still raged on outside, the angry rain thundering against the walls of the large house. Thunder would boom into the night and the window panes shook. "What do I need to do?" Ranelle's voice was so sudden that Dean would have jumped upon hearing it if she hadn't had as tight control over her body and it's reactions as she did.

"Nothing. Just make any arrangements, pack a bag, and meet me at the airport on Wednesday."

"Okay, that's" a yawn broke her speech momentarily, "fine."

"You tired? Come on, it's getting late." Dean stood, a little bit unsteadily and looked at her watch. She noted that it was quickly approaching midnight. Extending a hand, the Naval officer pulled up as it was accepted. "You can sleep up in the loft."


"It's not what it sounds like." The smile was evident in Dean's voice. "This house doesn't really have an upstairs. Just a few staircases that take you to a tiny hallway with one or two doors, maybe one giant room." They stopped in the hallway that Dean had first ventured down when they had arrived. Dean pointed. Ranelle looked and saw a spiral staircase tucked behind the space created by the wall moving outwards for about a foot and then going back into a straight line. "First door on the right. I'd show you but if I made it up the stairs I wouldn't be coming back down."

"No problem."

"The bathroom is down this hallway, second on the right. My room is at the end. 'Kay?"

Ranelle nodded and moved over to the staircase, ascending it to fall exhausted into the soft bed provided.

Dean watched her go, then turned back around and shuffled into the living room. Extinguishing the candles, the officer turned again and proceeded blindly down the hall toward her room. Giving one last glance at the dark space she knew the staircase to be, Dean sighed and entered her room.


Opening her eyes, Ranelle experienced a brief moment of panic from not recognizing where she was. Then, the events of the last few days came to the forefront of her mind and Ranelle smiled upon remembering Dean.

Ranelle's forehead creased as she looked at her watch and noted that it was quarter to six. In the morning. Something had woken her up, that much Ranelle knew, because she never got up this early. At least not willingly.

Sitting up from her comfortable nest and looking out the window she noticed that the rain had stopped. Standing up, Ranelle paused in her trek to the door when she heard it.

A thumping noise... and.... cursing.

Very colorful, inventive cursing.

Fearing the reason that Dean would have for spewing such language so early in the morning, Ranelle went flying out the door, down the stairs, and skidding around the corner of the hallway. As she got nearer the door at the end of the hallway, Dean's voice became even more distinctive.

Not wanting to just barge in, Ranelle spoke, "Dean, you all right?"



"Could you come in here, please, and give me a hand?"

"Sure." Ranelle opened the door and walked into the room. "What happened?" Ranelle took three quick steps and kneeled down at Dean's side. The officer was sitting on the ground, about four steps from her bed and had a very annoyed, angry look on her face.

"What do you think? I fell." It came out harsher than she had intended, and Dean winced at seeing the hurt on Ranelle's face. "I'm sorry. It's not your fault. I just...everything was actually going well. With this." Dean gestured at her legs. "Nothing like this has happened since the first month of therapy in the hospital, and now I'm falling flat on my face."

"I'm sorry, I..."

"Hey, hey! This isn't your fault, don't you dare blame yourself Ranelle. Okay? Ranelle, look at me." The researcher reluctantly raised her eyes to lock onto a pool of deep, familiar, blue ones. "Okay?"


Dean smiled. Ranelle smiled. "Good, now, give me a hand up and we'll see how bad this really is."

Ranelle stood and helped Dean to get her feet underneath herself. She was a bit shaky, the muscles not wanting to support the weight put on them, but they held. Ranelle quickly grabbed the cane from the floor once she was sure Dean wouldn't fall over and placed it into the officer's left hand.

Taking a few tentative steps with Ranelle standing at her right should Dean falter, the duo made steady progress into the hallway. Half-way to the kitchen, Dean felt her legs start to shake a little and weaken. She instinctively moved over to the left and ended up leaning against the wall instead of on the floor. Ranelle had seen it happen and taken a gentle hold of Dean's arm. It wouldn't have done much good, since the young woman was sure that Dean's superior weight would have brought them both to the floor.

As she leaned against the wall, her eyes closed a look of resignation came over her face. Ranelle saw that, too. "Hey Dean, come on. Let's keep going, it isn't that bad. You're muscles are just stiff and strained. It'll be fine." Ranlle sighed as she noticed that her words hadn't seemed to get through. "Dean come on, you can't give up. You've been doing so well I won't let you stop trying now. Come on."

Ranelle pulled on the arm in her grasp and, to her great surprise, Dean straightened. Nodding her head slightly, the officer turned and looked down at Ranelle. She smiled her thanks and inclined her head toward the kitchen in silent communication. Ranelle nodded as well and they continued.

Getting themselves settled, Ranelle once again took up her exploration of the cupboards with light. After finding an appropriate amount of food, they sat. The thing called conversation soon reared its ugly head and broke the stillness of the room. "What do you think that guy in the parking lot wanted?"

Dean looked up from her bagel and took a moment to compose her thoughts. "Well, I don't think he was trying to rob you."


"Because even though he didn't have a whole lot of time uninterrupted, he did have enough to ask for money or try and grab your bag. Muggers get right to the point. He didn't even open his mouth. Besides, if it were you, would you have gone and robbed someone who was walking around with someone who looked like me?"

Ranelle stared at Dean for a moment, processing what had been said. "Uh, I guess not."

"Secondly, his knife was a switchblade."

"Yeah. So."

"Have you actually ever tried to do anything with one of those?"


"Well, that guy had it at your throat, and those are the worst things you could possibly choose to slit someone's throat with. Or even make the threat of doing that. They're only good for two things."

"Which are."

Dean looked up from her food. "Stabbing someone in the gut and cutting your own finger off." Ranelle flinched. Dean shrugged upon seeing her reaction. "Besides, the blade was really dull. I mean really dull. You wouldn't be able to stab that thing into a bale of hay to save your life."

"Oh. So?"

"He was probably trying to scare you away from something."

"Like what?"

Dean shrugged. "Could be anything, but then again what are you suddenly involved in that you weren't before. Besides this."

Ranelle sucked in a breath and exhaled loudly. "But why? Who? How do you know it wasn't random?"

"Again, his knife was too dull to do any really serious harm and would you have attacked if your target was walking with me? As to who, if someone in San Diego is running you in circles to keep something hidden, they had more than enough time to set something like this up."

"Someone in the Navy, you mean?"


"Dean, that's a.... a really scary thought."

"I guess it is, but whoever it is, is as dumb as they come."

"Why?" Ranelle looked warily at Dean, catching that same dangerous tone that had been present just last night.

"For going up against me." Dean looked over at Ranelle and looked into her eyes. Immediately, her growing anger subsided and lessened, still present but not quite as strong. Those eyes seemed to be able to calm and relax her, their depths ringing a familiar cord within Dean's being.

The two women fell silent and gradually moved into the living room, the trip being slightly less difficult for Dean than the one into the kitchen. And they found themselves doing what most new acquaintances, or old friends, often do to pass time. Talking about nothing, and yet, everything.

The women sat for hours discussing trivial things and not so trivial things. The weather, Ranelle's schooling, Dean's company, their plans for going to San Diego, and everything and anything in between.

Consequently, they found themselves relaxing around each other and releasing those little, silly, rather stupid facts and stories about themselves. The types of things that a passing colleague would never have cause to know. The kind of things that make someone a friend.

Eventually, the conversation found its way back to the reason for their initial meeting, as they both knew it would. "Tell me about the unit. Not what you guys were doing over there, but its history and stuff."

Dean shifted her eyes from the window in front of her and looked at Ranelle. Shifting her position so that she was sitting sideways on the couch, Ranelle did the same, and they found themselves facing each other. Dean nodded.

"Okay, well, the unit was formed in '94 by Admiral Jason Cooper. He went out and chose the men for the unit, strictly the best. Not in any particular field, either, everyone he chose had to be really good in at least three different things. It didn't matter, he just wanted to make sure that there was more than one person in the team that had a lot of knowledge about one subject."

Ranelle looked slightly confused, so the officer stopped for a moment and gathered her thoughts. "Think about it this way. If you have one expert with explosives and everyone else is, not totally dumb when it comes to using them, but slow and unsure, and your main objective is to blow something up... what are you gonna do if he's killed? Not a whole hell of a lot. You're SOL."




Dean smiled. "Anyway, after he gathered up his big group of special men the brilliant Admiral Cooper realized that he didn't have anyone to lead his best of the best. So, he went and perused the personnel files and came up with me. Someone like myself who was really good at most everything they did in the Navy and learned quickly would be bounced all over the place and get experience in almost everything. I guess it was a realistic choice. Someone who could lead and the men wouldn't mind following. And someone who could pretty much do the job of any man in the unit. I've had control of the unit for its entire 6 years in operation. We have pretty much been on the constant move since then. Finish off one assignment, come back for maybe a few days rest, then get shipped off again."

"Wow, that sounds really busy. I don't know if I'd be able to live like that." The researcher had a mild look of disbelief on her face.

"You'd only think that if you didn't want to be doing it. We all wanted to live like that, joining the unit was our choice, as was staying in it. I don't regret it."

"Even after this?" Ranelle gestured down at Dean's legs and raised her eyes with a questioning look.

"Nope, not even after this. It's what I live for, Ranelle, and it's the only thing I've ever known. So no, not a single regret. Not for me. I do regret losing my men, and when things went bad out in the field. But that's it."

Ranelle nodded, not quite understanding how anyone could put their lives on the line daily for their job. Risk life and limb constantly for strangers and a country that would probably never acknowledge their bravery, courage, and dedication. She didn't expect that she would ever really understand, not totally, not if she spent the rest of her life trying to. She figured that it might come from a need to help people and a desire to know that you are doing something positive with your existence.

'Ok Ranelle, you can stop thinking right now. You're starting to get just a little bit too deep and it's still way too early for that.'

As the silence fell over them again Ranelle started looking around her and realized that she was sitting in a gorgeous house. They were currently in the living room, which housed a sofa, love seat, two comfy looking armchairs and an oak coffee table in the middle. They were sitting on the sofa which faced the wall on the front of the house. Which was taken up by a huge window that gave you a view of the driveway, lined by the large majestic trees of the night before. The sun shone through the canopy of trees and made interesting patterns on the ground, Ranelle could tell from where she was sitting. There was a large TV and complete entertainment center to their right, looking abandoned and unused. In the back of the large room, a lone door sat, closed at the moment.

Judging by the spaciousness of the kitchen and living room, with their vaulted ceilings and excess floor space, Ranelle decided that this was a rather large house. She figured that it made up for having no second floor by being exceptionally large on the main floor. The blatant disregard of not conserving space just helped to strengthen her assumption.

Dean noticed that her blonde companion had taken to looking around with wide, interested eyes, as most people did when they were new to the house. Still, she couldn't understand why, really, it was just a house. A space enclosed by walls and a roof. Dean hadn't been consumed with the awe that seemed to affect all her very few visitors, and it hadn't even been her house originally. It was now, she supposed, but the officer would never get used to thinking about it that way. It had been willed to her by her grandfather 10 years ago, a man she had hardly known, and she was just now living in it.

Dean had grown up with her father in the Navy, always moving around from place to place. She had never had a real, permanent home, and had decided that she would make the Navy her career since that had been all she knew. The life had appealed to her, getting sent all over the world, granted, to do things that most people wouldn't be able to handle, and not have much enjoyment, but settling had never been on Dean's list of things to do in life. And when she took her vacation time - well, her superior often had to force her to actually leave the base - but when she did, Dean had hardly ever gone to the place her family had told her was 'home'. With them. And once things had started unraveling on that front, it became one less thing to keep her from doing what she wanted. 'Home' became just a word with no real meaning to her. Wherever Dean was became her temporary home.

Getting on a bus and just going. The wanderers life. Living out of motels, traveling and seeing the one place her job had never taken her. Her own country. Being able to wake up one morning in California and deciding to go to Colorado or Oregon or Tenesse, just because she could. There was nothing holding her back, keeping her in one place when her time was her own.

So Dean came to the conclusion that the wonder people felt when looking at the house occurred from a lifetime of living in only one or two different buildings. Having friends with a home different than yours, and spending your childhood placing a lot of importance on the place that held you worldly possessions. Just because you spent a large portion of your life there, and the fact that it did hold everything that you had accumulated in that life so far, these buildings called houses gained more importance to most everyone.

Mentally shrugging, Dean decided that it didn't really matter, even if she could understand. "Go ahead and look around if you want." Dean's voice brought Ranelle out of her visual tour and centered her attention on the woman sitting on the couch. "Go," the officer gestured, "explore, make yourself at home. You'll probably be spending a lot of time here if you want the story. I'd take you but...."

Ranelle smiled, "You sure you don't mind?"


"Thanks!" Ranelle grinned brilliantly at the officer and started tentatively moving out into the main hallway. Dean just shook her head and settled into the couch to wait.

It instantly became obvious to Ranelle that while the house was magnificent, with hardwood floors, rich colored carpets, high ceilings, and furniture that Ranelle swore were antiques, it didn't look very lived in. Sure, from what she had seen of Dean's room, there was an odd photo or two, she figured of Rachel and David, and some clothes scattered around the bedroom-- although not a lot-- everything else seemed... empty.

So far she had come across a large dining room with a huge table that could probably sit 20 or so people, with a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. There was a china cabinet along one end of the room that held delicate looking dishes of all shapes and sizes.

Two spare bedrooms that were well furnished but still bare looking. Ranelle had also noticed that the kitchen didn't looked very used and even the living room where she had left Dean sitting was devoid of any of the mess that people often made just by being there.

Walking down yet another hallway off the main one, Ranelle took in the paintings hanging from the walls of the wide hallway. Besides those and the occasional door, there was nothing else in the corridor. Approaching an open door, Ranelle peeked in and saw a workout room. It was one of the largest rooms in the house, and it was filled with weight machines, a stationary bike, treadmill, free weights, and other various machines.

Ducking out of the room, Ranelle continued down the hallway. She ended up at something resembling a 'T' intersection, with the choice to go right or left. Idly, Ranelle considered the very real possibility of getting lost. There seemed to be a lot of large rooms in the house, each with several doors in them that led to a series of hallways that connected everything together. Already, the researcher had no idea which doors she had gone through and in which room they had resided.

Smiling, Ranelle decided she would worry about getting back to the main part of the house later and promptly turned left where a stream of sunlight was coming from and lighting up the wooden floor, seeming to make it shine.

Ranelle followed the hallway as it turned to the right and gasped as she came upon large windows that were letting in the sun. Outside, there were a large clump of trees that seemed to reach high into the heavens, a large expanse of clear sky visible above them, and Ranelle imagined what it would look like at night. The stars would easily be seen over the treetops while the trees themselves would seem to reach up toward the twinkling objects, begging then to come down from their perch and play.

Shaking off her thoughts, Ranelle resolved to come back here one night and see if the real thing compared to her imagination. "I'll bring Dean with me, she probably doesn't even know it's here."

Nodding, the young woman continued down the hallway and soon found herself standing in a large circular room with absolutely nothing in it.

Except another spiraling, metallic staircase.

"Well, only one way to go... up." Moving towards it, Ranelle started her ascension, hoping that it wouldn't lead her to another boring bedroom, and somehow knowing that it wouldn't. When she reached the landing, Ranelle was immediately faced with another open door. She stepped through and sucked in an astonished breath.

Firstly, the room was huge. No, that didn't cover it... it was a mammoth room. It looked, roughly, to be a rectangle sitting on a circular base. The dimensions could have been anywhere from 35x60 feet to 70x100 feet. But that wasn't all... every single wall was lined with a table that only stopped when room for a cabinet was needed. The center of the room had a large table in it, with nothing on its surface and an extra lamp hanging above it. The walls above the tables were, well, they weren't really walls, but windows.

Ranelle moved over to one of the windows and received her second shock. While the room was a rectangle and built on a cylinder, it was left so there would have been no roof, with the real walls coming up to about Ranelle's waist. Another wall was built around the outside, in the shape of a circle, completely of glass.

The room itself contained computers. Lots of computers, at least five, all along on wall, with the other three taken up with electronics, tools, paper, pens, manuals of some sort, and any other device that any computer tech or geek would love to own. Ranelle had never, outside of computer stores, seen so many computers and parts to computers lying around. She could also tell that Dean actually spent time here. There was the odd glass or plate sitting around on cleared spaces, and the researcher figured that Dean spent a lot of her free time here.

Moving back to the door, Ranelle turned, took one last look, shook her head, and went down the stairs to find her way back to Dean.


Scott had set out that morning and pulled into Dean's driveway just after 10. As he climbed out of his Mercedes and looked around the yard, he decided that it hadn't changed since the last time he had been here, over six years ago, when Dean had actually come back to Texas for her vacation.

He still couldn't get over how different and interesting this house was. It seemed to mix features and details of older buildings with more creative modern ideas, creating a unique building the likes of which he had never seen before. Scott knew that he had not been in all the different rooms and hallway's, and he wondered if Dean had. As far as he knew, his friend hadn't spent a lot of time in the building, actually, outside of that vacation she had taken here, he didn't think Dean had been in it again before now.

Moving up to the door Scott took in the SUV parked haphazardly in front of the door and wondered what that was all about. Shrugging, he moved up to the aged pinewood door and knocked using the heavy brass knocker.

Knowing that Dean would have been up long ago he started wondering what was up when the door wasn't answered. He knocked again and waited. Nothing happened. Just as he was about to use the spare key he had been given long ago so he could keep the house and yard decent looking, the wooden portal opened.

Scott entered the house took one look at Dean and became instantly suspicious. Here it was 10:15 in the morning and his friend was standing before him still dressed in her pajamas. "Uh, hi Dean."

"Hey Scott. Sorry, I forgot you were coming."

"Yeah, okay, but what's up?"

"Huh?" Scott simply raised his eyebrows and meaningfully ran his eyes up and down Dean's long frame. "Oh, I'll tell you about it in a minute, but I gotta sit down." Closing the door and turning back to the living room, Scott followed closely and was just in time to catch Dean's arm and steady her as the taller woman faltered.

"Hey, come on, sit down." Scott's voice reflected his worry and he quickly helped get his friend seated on the couch. Sitting beside her he turned his greeny gray eyes upon Dean. She instantly saw the concern in them. "Now, what's up?"

Sighing, Dean knew she wouldn't get out of this and quickly and efficiently sketched out what had happened. Starting with the message on her machine Friday night, introducing Ranelle and saying that she really wanted to meet the officer, and if it was convenient she would be at the Rainstep that evening. Dean's quick narrative included her and Ranelle's suspicions and feelings and covered the time up until the young golden-haired woman had gone exploring.

"Wow, Dean, that's all sort of scary."

"I guess."

"So you're going to San Diego on Wednesday?"

"Yep." Scott nodded and any further conversation was delayed by the sound of a door opening behind them and a satisfied yelp of victory. The occupants of the couch turned to see Ranelle standing just inside the living room, a large smile covering her face.

"Hey, you have an amazing house here. I was afraid I wouldn't find my way back here." Ranelle started talking as she made her way to the couch and seemed to notice Scott for the first time. "Oh, sorry. I'm Ranelle." She stuck out her hand as Scott stood and grasped it.


"Oh, cool, it's great to meet you." Ranelle smiled as she started assessing him as she always did whenever meeting someone for the first time. He stood about an inch taller than her own five feet and four inches, with incredibly blonde hair that looked almost white. His eyes were an interesting green and gray and his snub nose and boyish good looks caused Ranelle to classify him as 'cute.' Someone who would always look young and just have that baby cute look to them. Ranelle was getting good vibes and decided that she was going to like this friend of Dean's.

"It's great to meet me?" Scott had a slight smirk and there was a teasing tone to his voice.

"Oh, yeah. Dean mentioned that you were a good friend and ever since I wanted to meet you."

He nodded, "I see."

The trio soon found themselves sitting around the living room, Scott and Dean reminiscing about their childhood spent together and Ranelle listened avidly, glad beyond reason that she was getting to hear about Dean's childhood and getting an idea about how Scott saw her.

While Dean had moved around a lot as a child in the eight years that her father had been in the Navy in the states, the time the two kids did have together was well spent and their budding friendship withstood all the moving about. Then, Dean's father retired after 20 years in the service and had managed to make quite a name for himself in that time. Then he started the company with his partner Maurice Stoisfield and the family settled into Austin, Texas for good.

By the time Malcom had retired, Dean had already been in the service for a year. For the last year of High School, Dean had stayed permanently in Dallas where Scott's family had moved, living with them, and actually spending an entire year in one spot. That, in itself, was one of the largest deciding factors behind Dean's decision to make the Navy her career. She went stir crazy, and in that time Dean had the passing thought, more than once, that if she didn't move around she would truly go mad.

On her part, the choice to stay in Dallas for the last year had three reasons. Even then, things between her and her family were getting strained and she did it to get away from them and piss her father off. It worked, on both counts. Dean also used the time to strengthen her friendship with Scott, and that was when their bond evolved into the realm of something that would last their entire lives. Thirdly, and this she had not told anyone, Dean used it as a test. To see if she could live as a civilian. She couldn't. It was as simple as that.

Ranelle soaked up all this information as it was uncovered and gleefully listened to the stories of childhood mischief, dislodging a few tales of her own upon prodding from both Dean and Scott. They weren't quite as outrageous and wild as the lifelong friend's were, but Ranelle and her siblings had managed to get into some sticky situations.

Noon quickly rolled around and Scott announced that he had to get back to the store and finish up a few matters that needed to be taken care of before they opened again for the start of a new week. Seeing as it was lunch time and there was almost no food in the house, Ranelle and Dean decided to go out for lunch.

The trio left the house together and bundled into their respective vehicles after Scott extracted a promise from Dean for her to call him when they got back from San Diego. After the short drive into the more populated area of the city, the inevitable and dreaded question was asked. "Where do you want to eat?"

"Huh." Ranelle looked over at Dean, taking her eyes off the road for a moment. "Oh, I don't care. Why don't we just go to Hego's? We both like it, the service and food is good, and it's close." Dean nodded her acceptance of the destination and Ranelle quickly angled the car in the proper direction.

They arrived at the cafe/diner in short order and carefully climbed out of the high car and headed into the well kept building. The women were immediately met by a perky, smiling waitress. "Well, I was wondering how long it was going to be before the two of you showed up again. Personally, I thought it would be tomorrow at the earliest." Stacey ran her eyes down Dean's incredibly tall form and then looked over at Ranelle. "Oh, girl, what did you do?!"

"Huh?" Ranelle was obviously confused by this question. She quickly remembered, however, when Stacey stepped forward and lightly touched the cut on her forehead. "Oh, it's nothing Stacey. We just had a little problem in the parking lot last night. I'm fine."

"Whatever you say, Ranelle. So, where would you like to sit?" Stacey turned to look at the two of them and suddenly broke out into a full smile, snickering slightly.

"What?" Ranelle's voice was laced with confusion and curiosity, wondering what her friend could be laughing at. Dean, for her part, just looked mildly amused and said nothing. "What??"

"Nothing, it's nothing, Ranelle. I'm sorry."

Ranelle snorted, "No you're not."

Stacey finally lost the rest of her control and burst out laughing at the look on Ranelle's face, which was a curious mix of indignation, annoyance, and affection for her friend. As the waitress wound down and regained control, she looked over at the silent Naval officer to see quizzical blue eyes upon her, and a faint smirk tugging at the corners of her mouth.

It was Stacey's turn to pose the question, "What?"

"Don't you ever not work?" The curly-haired woman attempted to answer, her mouth moving several times, but nothing came out. "You always seem to be around, everywhere," Dean continued, "it's kinda disconcerting." Dean then smiled, nodded toward a table at the back of the restaurant and moved off toward it, leaving behind a sputtering waitress and a grinning Ranelle.

The duo sat and waited for Stacey to regain her composure. She finally did and meandered over to take their order. They ate and maintained light, nonsense conversation, until Stacey joined them on her break. It then became Dean's turn to hear stories of Ranelle's nights out on the town with friends and get to know this woman who was obviously someone important in the golden-haired woman's life.

The waitress decided that she would like this tall Navy woman and considered the possibility of having found a friend in the woman. To Stacey's eyes, it was obvious that in the three days since they had met, Ranelle and the officer had started to become friends. Good friends in the making. She smiled at this, thinking that Ranelle didn't have that many people in her life that she could call that. It basically consisted of herself, Amanda, Brock, and perhaps her uncle. Stacey also decided that perhaps another friend was also what Dean needed, and if that was the case, then she couldn't have found a better choice than Ranelle.

Brought back from her musings after hearing her name, Stacey focused on Ranelle who was looking at her and asking a question. "Seriously, Stace, I wanna know what you were laughing at." The waitress turned brown eyes to blue, having the feeling that Dean had a pretty good idea about what had transpired when they had first entered.

Dean's low voice broke the silence, "You got a mirror around here? Full length, preferably."

Stacey grinned, correct in her assumption that the officer had caught on. "Yeah, come one." All three women stood, Dean shuffling her cane around to her left hand and moving after the waitress.

They arrived in the back room for staff and she mutely pointed toward the requested mirror that ran the entire length of the wall. "Go stand in front of that," Dean said.


"Ranelle, do you wanna know? Go over there." Ranelle moved over and stood, staring dumbly at her reflection.

"Okay, now what?"

She was silenced as Dean came up behind her and stood. Slowly, a smile broke out across her fair features, and soon Ranelle ended up laughing and bent over, holding her stomach. Their reflection was nothing short of comical. Besides the fact that they looked as different as night and day, Dean towered over her by more than a foot and she couldn't help thinking that she looked tiny. Besides her height, Dean's muscularity added to her considerable bulk, cutting a distinctive and intimidating figure.

Stacey had started laughing again, seeing them standing one in front of the other and their reflection. Even Dean was grinning, but not from the image-- no, she was used to people looking at her funny because of her height, used to almost always being the tallest person in a room, used to people on the street giving her a wide berth, thinking that she was a danger, used to bending her head down to see people and speak to them-- Dean was simply smiling because laughter is infectious, and although she wasn't going to break down like the other two, Dean would allow a real, full smile.

When the two friends finally managed to stop laughing it took another few moments for them to stop gasping for breath before either of them could speak. Stacey moved over to Dean and stood right in front of her, craning her neck way up to see her face. "Wow," was all she said.

"Yeah, wow." Ranelle added her two cents and then moved over beside Dean, too. "I guess I never quite realized it until I saw your height compared to mine. Although, I guess I should have clued in when I kept noticing you ducking your head to go through doors. Just how tall are you?"

Dean sniffed, then answered, "Just under 6' 5". Barefoot."

"What about the rest of your family?" Stacey chimed in. "Did everyone end up really tall?"

"Nope. My mother is about Ranelle's size. My dad's just under six foot. All my siblings are shorter than me. David comes the closest, around 6' 1". And....the shortest is Rachel at 5' 6"."

"Man, that's kind of weird. So where does you height come from?" Stacey inquired.

"I haven't a clue."

The trio moved back into the main room and spent another 10 minutes lounging around, which Ranelle took to inform Stacey of her plans to go to San Diego on Wednesday. Stacey amiably agreed to look after her cat and collect mail, just the normal little chores. They left, then, with Ranelle asking Dean to drop her off at the magazine office to pick up her car. Dean agreed, after considerable debate.

"Ranelle," they were sitting in the parking lot, a few feet from where they had been attacked, "I want you to be careful when you're alone, especially at night. Okay?"

"Yeah, I will be. I don't plan on staying at the office late very much until we get this cleared up. And once Wednesday rolls around, I'll be with you." Ranelle finished with a large grin. Dean returned it. "So, are you going to take care of the tickets and stuff?"

"Yep, I have to go out for therapy tomorrow, pick up my glasses, I'll add plane tickets to the list. Don't worry about it, all you have to do is be at the airport."

Ranelle nodded and latched onto the, as of yet, unmentioned aspect of Dean's health. "Glasses?"

"For reading." Dean stated, simply.

"Gotcha." Ranelle sat staring out the car window for a moment, thinking. As she turned, the young woman caught Dean with a mildly introspective look adorning her features. She waited until the look passed, not wanting to interrupt any important thoughts. "Alrighty, then. I guess I'll see you on Wednesday, if not before."

"Yep, I'll give you a call with the flight info tomorrow."

"Sure. And, Dean?" The dark head turned and indigo eyes latched onto hers. "I hope it goes well with the therapist." Dean's face registered shock for a moment before it returned to its regular mild indifference, but Ranelle caught the faint gleam of thanks and appreciation in her eyes, as Dean knew she would.

Nodding once, Ranelle climbed out of the car. As she turned back to look at the officer one last time, Dean inclined her head regally, in lieu of words. Ranelle, at a loss and not quite sure what to make of this interesting figure, smiled, and closed the door.

She stood and watched as the large Nissan reversed and merged with the traffic, returning its owner to her solitude. Shaking her head, the researcher decided that Dean was starting to have an effect on her. And it didn't bother her in the least.

part 2

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