Part 2

Monday dawned bright and early, too early, if you asked Ranelle. She managed to drag herself into the office by 9:30 and filled her uncle in on their plans to go to San Diego. As she had suspected, Amark didn't have a problem with it at all. What he did flip out over, though, along with Amanda and Brock, was the healing cut on her head.

Ranelle repeatedly explained what had happened, saying that it was nothing to worry about. She let them believe that it was a simple mugging attempt, thwarted by Dean. She didn't think that the tall officer would mind, it would only increase her good reputation. However, if her cousin met Dean and proved to be as astute as Ranelle knew she was, then she might remember this little story and use the same logic that the officer herself had used. "If it were you, would you have gone and robbed someone who was walking around with someone who looked like me?"

That's what Dean had said and Ranelle had to agree.... only a first class idiot would randomly attack Dean, or anyone with her. So, if Amanda met Dean and caught on.... Ranelle shuddered. Her cousin would go ballistic, totally crazy, probably spend an hour yelling at her for lying and downplaying the situation. And then... then she'd want to know what was really going on. And if she found out.... Ranelle was sure she'd spontaneously combust. Not to mention her uncle. No, the young reporter didn't even want to consider the results of Amark getting clued into the danger of her situation. He had started considering her as a second daughter long ago, and she was more than happy to consider him as a father.

Ranelle herself wasn't sure what was really happening, but after almost two years hearing about different stories, researching for them, and writing a few, she had developed a pretty good 'dangerous news' radar. And it was going off the scale with this story.


Brock, it seemed, had been too engrossed in Joanna to take notice of Dean's short appearance at the club. She was glad, because he was almost incapable of keeping his mouth shut. Especially when his friends were involved.

So Ranelle resigned herself to the reality of being paranoid until this situation passed. Except with Dean. Strangely enough, she felt curiously safe and secure around the officer. It was a strange and different feeling, but nice and familiar at the same time.


After several hours spent at her computer, typing out the information that she had learned about Dean through casual conversation and Scott, two things brought Ranelle out of her intense concentration. The phone and someone knocking at the door.

"Come in," she yelled, simultaneously reaching for the offending instrument that was warbling from the corner of her desk. "Hello?" Ranelle motioned for her cousin to sit down and wait a moment.

"Hey," the voice said.

Ranelle smiled in reflex, "How did everything go?"

"Heh, pretty damn good, considering. I got the tickets," Dean answered.

"Okay, gimme a sec," Ranelle paused and rifled through the mess on her desk looking for a clean piece of paper to write on. "Okay, shoot."

"Right. Flight 324, departing at 9:15 am. You should probably be there by 8:40 at the latest. Okay?"

"Yeah, I got it. Where will you be?"

"What makes you think I'll be there before you?" There was a slight teasing tone in her voice.

Ranelle snorted and rolled her eyes, causing Amanda to start laughing. "Please, if there is one impression I have of you that isn't completely wrong, it's that you are always early. Am I right?"

"Pretty much. Must be a military thing." The accented voice came through the phone line in a deep rumble. There was a pause as both women stopped to consider voicing different statements. Ranelle decided to just bite the bullet, so to speak.

"You sure everything went well at the therapist?"

Ranelle could instantly hear the smile when Dean answered. "I got rid of that stupid stick. What do you think?"

The researcher experienced a moment of pure happiness and relief, the only outward sign of this a large grin and small sigh. "Good, I'm happy for you Dean."

"I know. See you Wednesday?"

"Of course, unless we bump into each other before then."

"I don't think that would be a good idea."

Ranelle felt confusion and, oddly, panic. "Wh... what?!"

"I think bumping into me on the street would be a little bit hazardous to your health. Doncha' think?" The smile and teasing flowed through the receiver and Ranelle almost dropped it as she realized what Dean had meant. A smile soon followed, and her good mood returned.

"Yeah, just a bit. Bye."



Ranelle hung up and shook her head slightly, giving her cousin her full attention. "So, what's up?"

Amanda straightened in her seat and paused for a moment, composing her thoughts. "You're going to San Diego?" Ranelle nodded. "When are you coming back?"

"Dean thinks we should be ready to leave Friday but nothing is definite so far. Why?"

"I was just curious. What about your final project?"

"Oh, I'm going to drop it off tomorrow. I'll call you when I get back if you want, Amanda." Her cousin nodded her assent and pursed her lips for a moment, thinking. Ranelle sighed and finally lost her patients. "Okay, what do you want to say!?"


"I know you want to say something but you're not sure if you should. You have that look. Just spit it out, already!"

"Are you sure that you're going to be safe with this story?" The words came out quickly and ran together, if Ranelle hadn't been waiting to hear them it would have sounded like gibberish.

"What do you mean safe with this story? Or do you mean safe with Dean?"

"Uhhmm... yeah sorta. Are you going to be okay going over there with this person you don't know, is Dean going to be able to keep you safe from the bad guys, most importantly, are you sure that Dean is one of the good guys?" Amanda looked up at her cousin to be met with flashing green eyes that threatened to swallow her whole.

"Amanda, I may not know Dean as well as you think I should, but I know her well enough to be sure that she doesn't have any sinister intentions. As for being protected," here, Ranelle couldn't help grinning- just a little bit, "that really isn't an issue. Trust me."

Amanda simply stood up and left the room, mumbling under her breath.


The errands had taken a lot less time than she had originally thought once the therapy was over and done with. Dean was deliriously happy that she hadn't set herself back any and was now rid or the troublesome cane. Granted, it was a little bit more difficult to get around now, but her body needed to get used to not having that support, and it would with time.

Now, however, the officer found herself limping around the kitchen looking for something to eat. She had been hungry for the last several hours and would have gone out to eat but that was something she didn't like doing. Going to a real restaurant. Diners, cafes, fast food joints, they were fine. But restaurants? They made her shudder. They didn't used to, but then again she hadn't been in one of those classy places for, had it been eight years? Dean wasn't sure why they bothered her, okay, that wasn't true. The last place like that, that she had been in, was full of snobs. Real uppity, arrogant, stuck-up people. It had been a bad experience, with one real mean jerk causing a scene and Dean had been at the center of it. She had no desire to repeat it. Even food courts at malls-- so may people packed into one place. Ugh. It had even been a struggle to haul herself into the Rainstep last Friday, but her desire to get the ME story out had made it slightly easier.

So, with her own terrible shopping habits and limited list of places she would eat at, Dean often found herself not eating anything really substantial, ordering in- which she didn't like either because it seemed like no one could find the house- or sitting in very familiar surroundings and eating the same thing that she often had.

Finally a decision was made and the officer was out the door and piling into the Nissan. She was headed to Hego's. Again. Maybe Ranelle would walk in.


"Hey Navy guy!" The loud exclamation caused the two occupants of a back table to raise their heads. One of them smiled upon seeing the large and familiar bulk standing just inside the door.

Stacey hurried over to Dean and grinned. "Hey Stace."

"Dean-O, what are you doing here? And you got rid of that stick! Awesome."

"Um, eating?"

"Right. I think I just inherited another regular." Stacey was leading Dean away from the door and toward the back of the room.

"Nope. I was always a regular whenever I was in the city. I was just never around a lot."

"Ahh, point taken. Viola! Your seat." Stacey sidestepped away to Dean's right to reveal a smiling blonde who stood immediately.

"Hey, congratulations!"

"Uh, oh, thanks." Dean was momentarily confused and then realized what Ranelle was referring to. "I'm glad to be rid of the stupid thing."

"Come on, join us."

Dean amiably pulled out a chair and settled her frame into it. She turned her eyes to the man at the table and then looked at Ranelle, her brow raised in question.

"Oh, right. Dean this is Brock. Brock, Dean."

They shook hands and exchanged greetings, Brock immediately starting in with questions about the company. Ranelle gave the conversation her full attention as Brock inquired about something that she, herself, had been wondering about.

"How come you've never actually been to the headquarters, I mean, you don't exactly run the company in the traditional way."

"It's really very simple. Not what a lot of people seem to think. When my father passed it down to me I was away. Actually, I had been outside of the states almost solidly for the last three years. I knew he was going to give it me, it was just a matter of when. Anyway, one day we stopped at a base somewhere in the US on our way to start up another mission. Now, if you want to get a message to anyone in our unit you have to leave it at the San Diego base and they'll pass it along and make sure that the message is wherever the person is going to be when they get back to America. I had a bunch of stuff from Scott telling me what had happened and to call him. I did. So, I never had the opportunity to get involved with it. I told Scott who I wanted running everything- it was basically a board of seven people- and they still are, running it, I mean. They've been doing an excellent job so I figure why mess with a good thing. They do have to consult me about making new policies or with anything concerning large amounts of money. Reports get sent to the manager of the parent store here. That's Scott. I trust the people on the board, that's why I chose them. And I trust Scott. There had always been certain policies that my father had used that just didn't make sense to me, I was sure that everything would run better without them. So I did get rid of those and make one new one that I had been dying to incorporate. Things are better for it. And that's all there is to it." Dean finished with a shrug.

"Huh. It's just that simple?"


There was a lull in the conversation as everyone concentrated on their food. It was broken by the only male voice at the table. "Ranelle, did you know that...." Dean listened as Brock started telling Ranelle about his upcoming date with Joanna, that she worked as a nurse, and how he was so happy that Ranelle had introduced them. The blonde simply laughed and said that she hadn't, they were already sitting together and they just needed a push in the right direction.

The officer remembered seeing Brock sitting at the table beside them. He had been engrossed in a conversation with a nice looking young woman. She remembered seeing his face, he had looked utterly content and almost happy sitting there with her. Dean silently wished him the best in that relationship. The dark woman was brought from her thoughts by a hand on her arm. Dean looked up at Ranelle and raised an eyebrow.

"Can you pick me up Wednesday? I really don't like leaving my car at the airport. Last time I did that all the tires were flat and the windshield was cracked."

"Sure. Where do you live."

"Um," Ranelle paused and then scribbled her address on a napkin, smiling as she remembered doing the same for her phone number, "here. It isn't that far. About a ten minute walk from here, that-a-way." Ranelle pointed to Dean's right. The officer nodded, smiled, and tucked the paper into her pocket.

"I'm sure I'll find it. I have to go. I'll pick you up just after 8 am, 'kay?"

"Sure. Bye!"

"Bye." Dean stood and limped her way out the door and into her SUV.


She was running late. It was Wednesday morning, Dean would be there soon and Ranelle was running late. Her alarm hadn't gone off and then when she went to have a shower the researcher realized that there was no water pressure. So, she was late.

A light knock came at the door at exactly 8:05. Ranelle sighed. She jumped over a stack of printouts that were sitting on the floor, veered around Terkers and ended stumbling headfirst into the door. She stood up and pulled it open to be met by a hulking, amused, and snickering figure. "Problems?" Dean asked, innocently.

"Argghh! Don't...even..go there. Come in and have a seat. Make sure you don't trip and break your neck or something, though. Give me 5 minutes."

"Sure." Dean ambled into the apartment, closing the door behind her. She watched as Ranelle scurried into her bedroom and closed the door. The officer took the opportunity to gaze around the apartment while on her way to the couch.

While currently in a state of disarray, with papers, files, and printouts scattered around it was a nice apartment. It was done up in rich, bright colors, with decent well-kept furniture and a respectable amount of personal knickknacks scattered about. It was, Dean admitted, what she had basically expected of the bright, sunny young woman. And almost the opposite of her own house.

Dean settled her long frame onto the couch and looked down at the persistent whining at her feet to be met by greeny, yellow eyes. She smiled at the black and white cat with a pink and black nose. Just a hint of pink on the upper right corner, just enough to not be overly noticeable but adorably cute.

The officer extended her large hand out for inspection and made a deep burring noise in the back of her throat. Ranelle stepped out of her room and instantly smiled at the sight. Here was this six and a half foot tall Navy officer sprawled across her couch waiting for the approval of a creature that would have been lucky to be a tenth of Dean's size. Ranelle could hear the sound she was making and decided that it almost sounded like the purr of a very large cat. And that was what she looked like, too. Black denim jeans, her legs extended across the floor from the low couch and the dark leather jacket stretched across the muscled arm extended toward the feline who was cautiously stretching towards this very large intruder.

Eventually, Terkers decided that she liked this new human and stepped forward, rubbing her head up and against Dean's hand. She smiled and scooped the kitten up. Looking up, Dean smiled upon seeing Ranelle and stood from the couch, the cat firmly held, cradled in the crook of her left arm. Dean grinned.

Ranelle grinned. And chuckled. "She looks so tiny when you hold her."

"Yeah, well, anything looks tiny compared to me. Even you. What's her name?"

"Terkers. I'm surprised, it usually takes her awhile to get used to new people. You must send off good animal vibes.. or, something."

Dean snorted and deposited the cat back on the couch. She stood there for a moment, looking at this new human, then bounded off in search of something to play with. "You ready?"

Ranelle nodded, "Yep. Let's go."

"All this stuff," Dean gestured to the paper covering her desk when they passed, "is it about the mission?"

"Yeah. Most of it is useless, though. Took me three days to wade through it all."

"That was probably the point."

Ranelle's brow puckered and she squinted. "What do you think we'll find?"

"I have no idea. It might not be anything, but something isn't sitting right. Let's go."

The researcher shook her head and followed her friend out the door, stopping once to lock it.


The airport was crowded, but that was a given. There seemed to be a gigantic living wall blocking their path, and Ranelle was hard pressed to see anything besides everyone else's shirts, jackets, or arms. Dean did not seem to have that problem though. Ranelle could tell from where she was that if she was on the other end of the airport and looked across the flowing mass of humanity that Dean's dark head would rise above the rest like a beacon.

"So, where do we go?"

"Huh, you mean you don't know?" Ranelle asked, bewildered.

"Not really. I've only been in this airport once before and that was a long, long time ago."

"Yeah, well, same here. Look for the signs for departures or something like that. I can't see a thing."

There was silence and Ranelle looked up to see the officer slowly moving her head back and forth, scanning the walls and ceilings for signs. Finally, Dean pointed and started off in that direction. She got two steps before stopping short and looking behind her. Ranelle was already a considerable distance behind.

Grinning, the officer moved easily back to her friend. "Problems?"

"Just a little." Ranelle smiled up at Dean.

"Come on." Dean reached down and grabbed the researcher's hand, leading them through the crowd with easy grace. Ranelle was too busy taking in the warmth of Dean's hand and realizing that her much smaller one easily fit in Dean's. These thoughts kept her occupied and she suddenly found herself being pushed into a chair at their gate.

Ranelle looked up, stunned. She had been so occupied that Dean had taken them both through the motions of boarding a plane and she hadn't noticed.

"We're early, but so is the plane. So we're actually right on time. We'll be boarding in about five minutes. Okay?"

The younger woman bobbed her head, "Cool."

When the duo made their way onto the very large aircraft, Ranelle found herself settling into a first class seat. "Um, Dean?"


"How much did these tickets cost?"


"Uh, because I wanna pay you back especially since we're...."

"Ranelle, I wont let you pay me. This was nothing, besides, whenever I fly anywhere on my own-- which isn't very often-- I always go first class."

"You do?"

"Yep, otherwise I don't fit into those coach seats and it's just really uncomfortable and I get off in a terrible mood." Ranelle chuckled. The older woman had painted a very vivid picture of Dean trying to fold her six-and-a-half-feet into one of those tiny seats with even less leg room. She glanced down and noticed that even here, Dean's considerably long legs seemed to be scrunched somewhat uncomfortably and took up all the room offered.

"I see your point. But the tickets..."

"Ranelle, no. You can pay for meals if ya want, but the tickets are strictly on me. 'Kay?"


They fell into a comfortable silence, listening to the rumble of the engines get louder as the plane started moving down the runway. Soon, the stewardess was doing her spiel on safety and whatnot and they were in the air, headed to California.


The flight went by very quickly and was blissfully uneventful and the duo soon found themselves in another crowded terminal and headed to a car rental desk. After a brief wait in a short line and a few moments at the desk, they were being led out to a lot with various cars parked in them.

Their dour escort led them to a medium sized, light purple, decent looking car and immediately flipped the keys over to Dean and scurried back to the air conditioned building. Dean smiled slightly and then scrutinized the car for a moment before tossing the keys to her younger companion. "Why am I driving?"

"Cause even though this is called a medium car it's rather small. Now get in. It's about two hours to the base if we don't get stuck in traffic. Sooner we leave, sooner we get there." Dean then opened the passenger door and folded her frame into the confining space. Ranelle mentally shrugged and climbed in too.

Dean directed her to the highway and as soon as they got on that, they started making a lot more progress. The silence, however, was eventually broken. "Why San Diego?"


"Why is San Diego used as the main base of operations for you guys?"

"Oh, well, that was there both myself and Admiral Cooper were stationed at the time. He is the supervisor so it seemed logical to choose a spot that he was already at so he wouldn't have to move everything. It's not like we spent a lot of time there ourselves. It's mainly just where all the files are kept and the Admiral plans and consults and issues orders from." Dean shrugged. "It doesn't hold as much importance as you may think. But if you want information on us or the missions... this is undoubtedly the place to come to."

Ranelle bobbed her head. "I see." She paused for a moment and Dean could tell she was debating brining up a certain subject or not. Finally, the researcher came to a decision after a lot of muttering under her breath and moving her head in every direction that was physically possible. "So what's your take on this guy who survived and was, as far as we know, relatively unharmed, but has disappeared?"

"What... what are you talking about?" The officer's voice was clearly confused.

Ranelle's brow puckered and she briefly glanced at the woman beside her before returning her eyes to the road. "What do you mean, what am I talking about? Four people survived, you, a coma victim, that Lt. guy, and another fellow."

The dark head started to shake back and forth. "No, only three. Me, Lt. guy, and coma guy. That's it Ranelle."

"No way, my uncle told me four survivors, and he got that from the paper."

"What's his name?"

"My uncle?"

"No, no, the disappearing guy!"

"Oh, um, he didn't say."

"Who didn't say?"

"My uncle didn't say!"

Silence fell over the occupants of the car for a very long moment. Then, "You mean to tell me that the papers and your uncle said there were four survivors?"


"Me, Lt. guy, coma guy, and disappearing guy. Right?"


"But you don't know disappearing guy's name or rank or job, or anything like that?"


"And nobody could tell you?"

"Well, I didn't ask the Navy people because I had so much trouble finding stuff out about you, I didn't think they'd offer information about a guy whose name I didn't even know."

"Arghh! Okay, this guy supposedly lived, because... how do they know he's alive?"

"Oh, he was reported seen in Denmark and North Carolina."

"Right, by who?" Dean's voice had started to sound exasperated and increasingly frustrated since the beginning of the conversation. From the way the tall woman was clenching her fist repeatedly, Ranelle hoped she wouldn't lose control and decide to take it out on the car. She'd probably put a hole through the dashboard. Ranelle herself was intrigued and extremely interested.

"I dunno."

"Okay.. okay. Lemme get this straight. It was printed in the newspaper that this guy was alive but they didn't say his name or your uncle just forgot. But we don't know for sure that he is alive. They figure he's alive because he was allegedly seen in two different places in the last ten months and they obviously didn't find a body for him or anything. Am I good so far?"


"Right, now, I was told that he was dead... which really doesn't make sense. I know for sure that every one of our men who lived were put on that same chopper. Now, I only remember Lt. guy being there and a few other people, very vaguely. But, as far as I can remember, there were only three people moaning and groaning and being attended to by medics-- including me. Then again, I was practically half dead so my recollection might be a bit off. However, everyone got out at the same time and I wasn't coherent enough to be told anything for about four weeks so no one could have made a mistake and told me there were three survivors when there were four. By that time if anyone had been left over there they would have been recovered. And what I was told was that three of our people were recovered and three survived." Dean paused in her statement of what both women were rapidly starting to think were not all the facts.

Sensing that something was a bit off, Ranelle glanced over at Dean. The officer was gripping the handle on the roof so tightly that her knuckles were turning white. The tension was flowing off her rigid body in palpable waves and a very intense, faraway look was on her face. But what scared Ranelle the most and made the researcher pull over at the side of the road was the look of pain on her face and the undeniable rage and fear in her eyes. Dean's pallor had become frighteningly pale.

She quickly undid her seat belt and leaned over toward the officer. Ranelle reached out and put her hand on the fist balled in Dean's lap to find the skin ice cold. "Dean, hey, come on. Dean, look at me! You're scaring me, Dean, what's wrong?" As Ranelle got closer she could her the officers breathing coming in short, raspy pants and her eyes seemed to have glazed over. The researcher's thoughts started racing... 'Oh God, what do I do? I don't know what's happening.'

After trying to get Dean's attention verbally, Ranelle reached over and grabbed the officer's chin, turning her unresisting head so that vacant pools of blue that held no recognition whatsoever, were focused on Ranelle. "Dean look at me, listen to me. Whatever you're thinking about, wherever your mind is, it's over. You aren't there anymore, you're sitting in a car with me in California. Come on Dean, come back to me." Ranelle sat and waited, her voice strained with emotion and her hand still on the officer's face.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the glazed look disappeared, her hands unclenched, and the indigo eyes blinked. Slowly. Once. Twice. Three times. Dean lowered her eyes for a moment and shook her head. When she raised them, Ranelle saw the person she had been getting to know for the last few days.

Dean's color was already returning and Ranelle breathed a silent sigh of relief. "Sorry." Dean's voice was low and raspy. "I... um, that... ah.... that hasn't happened before."

"What Dean? What happened? You scared me half to death."

"I was... remembering, I guess."

"Remembering? Remembering what?"

"Middle East."

"You haven't.... I mean... before now.."

"No, well, I had to rehash a lot of it in the hospital for Cooper, but I always tried to not think about it, or to be detached when I did. I guess talking about this triggered something and I got these... flashbacks." Dean sucked in a breath and released it as a sigh. "Okay, lets go."

Ranelle turned back in her seat and buckled her belt, starting the car and easing into the flow of traffic. They sat in silence, each processing what had happened both before, after, and during Dean's memories. Ranelle kept glancing worriedly at the woman beside her, unnerved by what had happened.

The remainder of the trip was spent in relative silence until Dean leaned forward and turned on the radio, fiddling with the dial for several moments before settling on what sounded like an ethnic station. "This okay?"

"Yeah, what is it. I like." Ranelle had a smile on her face and her overall expression told Dean that she was very much enjoying what she was hearing.

"It's an Italian station."

"Ohh, real Italian music. I've never heard anything like this before. Cool!" The duo sat back and listened, the lively music and foreign lyrics flowing through the enclosed space. Only Dean's very occasional comment about where to turn broke through and that was just fine with both women. For now, at least. But Ranelle was determined to bring up the previous events.

Maybe she'd even be able to help Dean come to terms with what had happened. If only a bit. As far as she knew, the tall officer hadn't spoken about it to anyone except for her superiors and that.... that just wasn't healthy.

They would have to wait and see, but if nothing else besides the story, Ranelle was determined to help Dean work through some of the things that surely caused her nightmares.


The car finally turned onto a long, winding dirt road and both occupants were more than happy at the prospect of getting out of the car when the entrance gate came into view. As far as Dean was concerned, she had been sitting in one place for far, far too long. She could tell that the researcher was getting restless by the way she had been shifting in her seat every few minutes in the last half hour.

Ranelle eased the car up to the gate and rolled her window down to talk to the very small looking man with red-rimmed eyes and, by the sounds of it, a cold.

The guard sniffled and leaned onto the edge of his window to get a better look in the car. He ran almost black eyes over Ranelle and then raised them to the friendly green ones watching him. "Name?"

His nasal voice grated on Dean's sensitive hearing and the officer winced upon hearing it. 'They always had the most annoying people stationed at the gates here.' The passing thought made her smile, slightly, as she remembered several newbies over her career whom she often gave a hard time because it was just fun to watch them sweat. Everyone did it. Spinning outrageous, exaggerated tales about things that could happen and seeing the new recruits reaction. It was like a test. If they couldn't stand up under the other officers joking and take it all in stride, and not let their imaginations run wild about situations that they hadn't been in yet, then they'd make it. If the stories adversely affected them, then they really didn't have any business being in the Navy.

"Ranelle Maloch." Her companion's voice jerked Dean's attention back to the gate and events taking place. The guard turned and consulted a clipboard, flipping to the last sheet and then all the way back to the front. His eyes crinkled and he sniffed again, flipping the sheets over one more time before turning and setting the clipboard on his little window ledge. His eyes raised to the woman in the car and he asked, "How do you spell that?"

The officer groaned and Ranelle turned her head to see Dean slumping down in her seat and leaning her head against the window, obviously she thought that this was going to take some time. Ranelle grinned and turned back to the man, spelling out her full name and waiting patiently.

After several more minutes of relative quite, filled only with three sets of breathing, rustling sheets and constant sniffing, the guard's annoying voice made itself known once again. "I'm sorry but..." The guard trailed off as Dean cursed and added an under her breath 'I don't believe this' and then opened her door and managed to half fall, half climb out of the car.

Ranelle stifled a chuckle as she watched the annoyed woman move quickly around the back of the car and come up next to the window. The hapless guard had been stuttering, trying to tell Dean that she really wasn't supposed to get out of the vehicle. When the officer came up next to the window and bent way down to look through, though, the guard squeaked and promptly shut his mouth. "Hi," Dean's greeting went unanswered, "may I?" She gestured to the clipboard that hung loosely from his hand. He nodded numbly and handed it over. She snatched it up and quickly scanned the sheets.

By the time Dean set the board back down on the ledge the guard had reclaimed his composure and was trying to look like a professional. "Right here." Dean stated with her finger under a name. The man sniffled and lowered his eyes. He stared for a moment before nodding.

"Okay. She's good." He raised his eyes to the blue ones above him and visibly gulped before asking, "Wh... what about you?" Ranelle could tell from her position behind Dean and the expression on the guards face that the officer was grinning at the guard. Not one of those nice, 'hey, how are you' grins. But a full, feral, grin that gave the officer a slightly wild look. The guard had gone absolutely white and she was sure that he was going to pass out.

Dean reached into her back pocket and pulled out a small, black leather wallet. She flipped it open and showed it to the man in the little booth. "You're in the Navy?" His voice squeaked on the last word as wide eyes raised up to look at the woman towering above him. Dean nodded. "Go in, you're both clear." He absently pushed a button as the officer moved back around and arranged herself in the car.

The researcher grinned and waved, saying thanks as she started the car and pulled into the compound. "So, where do I go?"

"Follow this road straight through until you see a big brick building and park there. You can't miss it." Ranelle nodded and continued driving slowly through the compound, all the while watching men and women moving around and training with interested eyes. Finally, Dean pointed out their destination and Ranelle parked the car in an empty spot.

They clambered out and headed off to the two story, older looking building. As soon as they entered, Ranelle noticed that while the outside looked old and run-down, the inside was kept up well, with newer looking furniture and paint on the walls. Dean led her through the main hallway until they reached a set of wooden stairs.

Climbing up them, the researcher found herself in one room with three doors leading off it. One door led to bathrooms, another to offices of some sort and the third was the one Dean stepped through. Ranelle followed to find herself standing it a large room that reminded her of a library.

Directly in front of them were several tables and behind that bookshelves stacked almost to the ceiling. To the right was a large counter with file cabinets behind it and a woman wearing glasses was standing at the counter, working diligently at a computer. And talking on the phone. It didn't sound like business to Ranelle.

Dean smiled and moved quietly over to the counter and stood before the preoccupied woman. "Talking to the boyfriend while on the job again?" Dean had lowered her voice to make it sound slightly menacing and angry. Caught off-guard, the woman on the phone jumped and squawked. She dropped the phone to the desk with a dull clanking sound and quickly raised her head. Just to have a broad grin spread over her features and make her look a lot younger, even younger than Ranelle.

"Oh my God! Dean, I can't believe it!" She ran around the desk and practically launched herself at the Naval officer, who caught her as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Which, Ranelle surmised, it was, seeing as the woman was only about 5'.

The officer wrapped her long arms around the laughing woman and hugged her, her own face happy looking. After a few moments, Dean lowered her to the ground and just stood looking at her. They spent a few moments staring at one another until a small, disembodied voice called the women's attention back to her previous activities.

"Hello? Shelly? What's going on?"

"Oops!" The woman turned back, reached over the counter and picked up the phone. "Jack, you'll never guess who just walked in!" Shelly rushed on, not giving the man a chance to even attempt an answer. "Dean!"

There was a pause over the phone line then, "No shit? Dean? Cool!" Shelly grinned and agreed, saying that she would call him back since she really should be working in the first place. When she turned around, Shelly had a large grin covering her face.

"I can't believe you're here! Jack couldn't either."

"Yeah, how's he doing? Has he gotten around to proposing yet?" Dean finished with a grin.

"Oh, yes. About five months ago. He was so cute and charming and.... sorta bashful." Shelly sighed, a dreamy look descending onto her face. Dean smirked and lowered her head, trying to hide a chuckle. The officer had never seen such a silly look on Shelly's face before.

"I'm glad you're happy. But, I didn't come here just to see how you were doing."

Shelly focused onto her tall friend again and her expression immediately became business like. "Yeah, I figured." She looked passed Dean and seemed to notice Ranelle for the first time. "Oh, who do we have here?"

Startled, Dean turned and then waved Ranelle forward. "Oh, sorry. This is my friend Ranelle. She's also writing the article on the ME thing."

Shelly made a tisking noise as she moved forward and shook hands with Ranelle. "Hi, it's nice to meet you. Don't feel neglected or anything, Dean just has horrible manners. Always has, always will."

"Hey!" They turned to see Dean almost pouting. They laughed. The officer simply rolled her eyes and waited for them to collect themselves. "Okay, now that we all had a laugh at my expense, can we get down to business? Please?"

Shelly heaved a huge sigh and answered, "Of course, of course. What do ya need?"

"Files," Dean stated, "on me, my men, and any and all the ones about the ME mission."

Shelly didn't answer right away and seemed to be considering something. "That's a lot to find."

"Yep. Which is why we're gonna help dig them out."

"Dean, that's not..."

"Shelly, they aren't anything I haven't seen before, Ranelle is cleared to see them and you can trust us not to peek into anything that we shouldn't see. Okay?"

She sighed again and nodded, leading them back behind the desk and into the room with the filing cabinets and shelves upon shelves of paper. It looked like organized chaos. Ranelle was just wondering how organized she would find it to be.

Dean went off on her own, obviously knowing what she was looking for, while Shelly took Ranelle aside for a moment. "Alright, you can look for the mission files. They're really easy to find, but unfortunately, scattered throughout these five cabinets." The woman gestured to a set behind them. "Any files that are purple are what you're looking for. Got it?"


"Good." Shelly stood for a moment, watching as the young woman started attacking the cabinets with gusto. She then turned her hazel eyes upon the tall figure rifling through the files at the back of the room. Her eyes narrowed as she studied her friend with a critical eye.

They had taken a training course together back when she had been a newbie and Dean had been enlisted for a little more than a year. Even now, and especially 15 years ago, women taking those types of courses had been less common than males. They had found themselves very much the minority with only two other females in the two and a half week course.

So they had bonded out of pure survival, using one another to help themselves get through the training because all the men did was laugh and heckle. As soon as she had met the tall and determined woman, Shelly knew that she would need this woman's help more than Dean would be needing hers. She was right. The tall woman had a natural affinity for everything and managed to stand up under all the lewd comments of the men very well.

If it hadn't been for their lack of maturity, Dean would have breezed through with no problem. But pranks, and the men just acting like asses had caused many problems, what with her very short temper. If anything at all, Shelly knew that she had kept Dean from picking up the worst of the men and throwing them across the training ground, which would have gotten her kicked out of the course.

She would admit that when it came time for the final test, a grueling obstacle course that few trainees had ever made it through in less than eight minutes and no officer had passed in less than six minutes and twenty-one seconds, Shelly had been ashamedly excited about watching Dean kick their butts to high heaven.

For the night before, Shelly had seen something in the woman's eyes. Dean had had enough. Enough of their inappropriate behaviour, stupid jokes, and constant heckling. The man in charge of the training hadn't seem inclined to stop it, either. His position obviously being that women had no right training for field work in the Navy and were best left to the desk jobs. And if they wanted to try their hand at the 'men's job' then they best be ready to handle everything that came with it.

So Shelly had settled down to watch with everyone else, as Dean took off from the start. She was the last, and the best time was eight minutes and fifteen seconds, made by a spry young man who had been one of the more vocal trainees.

It had truly been a sight to see. Dean had gone flying through the course, her very tall and muscled frame making it easy for her to jump, swing, climb, and run-- faster, better, and smoother than the rest of them. Everyone had sat with their eyes glued to the lightning quick form so as not to miss a single detail. When she finally crossed the designated finish line, her breathing only a little faster than normal and a very light sheen of sweat covering her face, the supervisor clicked off his stop watch and stared dumbly at the device. He finally found his voice again and managed to say in no more than a whisper, "Five minutes and 4.61 seconds." Then he raised his head and continued to stare at Dean with something approaching awe.

None of those men had ever said a nasty thing to Dean again, all of them respecting her and her abilities, which they had seen first hand. A few of them even ended up in Dean's unit and were more than happy to be under the command of this particular woman.

Now, Shelly stood evaluating her as someone who had spent a lot of time getting to know her and working quite closely with her over the years and she was reminded of the very reason she was now studying her friend.

Gazing at the tall figure, Shelly didn't hear Ranelle come up to stand beside her. "Shelly?" The tentative question brought her out of her musings and she focused on Ranelle with a friendly smile.


"Are... are you okay? I mean, you just had this really, odd look on your face." The woman sighed and looked back at Dean.

"Yeah, I was just," she moved her head from side to side, searching for the right word, "updating my mental catalogue."


Shelly grinned and glanced at Ranelle before turning her gaze back to the officer. Her face became somber as she started to explain. "The last time I saw her, she was still in the hospital in New York. She looked so vulnerable, lying in that bed. I was just replacing that image with this new one. It's much more pleasant. Don't you think?"

Ranelle nodded. "Definitely."

"Yeah." There was a slight pause. "I'm glad she's doing all right. Is she.... doing all right?"

Ranelle suddenly found herself the subject of Shelly's gaze and she paused, giving the question serious thought. "I'm really not sure, to tell you the truth. I've only just met Dean, and I don't know what's normal. What do you think?"

They both turned back to the officer and watched for several long moments before Shelly answered. "She's still kinda pale..."

"Probably because she just ditched her cane. Gonna take some time to get used to not having the support. I can tell her legs are bothering her."

"Yeah. Besides the scar on her head everything looks pretty normal. Althought she's still too skinny looking."

"What?!" Shelly turned to Ranelle, to see disbelieving eyes trained on her.


"You mean to tell me that's not normal?" The researcher's voice was incredulous and Shelly chuckled.

"Well, yeah, kinda. Dean lost a lot of weight in the hospital, not to mention all the muscle she had packed onto that frame. It hasn't come back yet."

Ranelle was shocked speechless. She turned and simply stared at Dean, taking in the bulk under her clothes that attested to muscle. A lot of it. It was probably, Ranelle was sure it was, the most she had ever seen packed onto one person outside of bodybuilders. She found it hard to believe that that wasn't normal for the officer. "You're telling me, that before Dean gets back to 100% she's gonna become more, um... ah..."

"Bulky? Intimidating? Solid?"

Her eyes were wide as she nodded her blonde head. "All of the above."

Shelly started chuckling and that soon turned into an all out laugh at the look on the young woman's face. Dean finally became privy to the action taking place behind her and turned. "Hey, are you two going to stand there all day, or are you going to help me?"

Ranelle shook her head and moved back to her filing cabinets while Shelly collected herself and started searching again.


It had taken almost two full hours but the trio had finally pulled out all the files that Dean had requested. They were sitting stacked on the edges of a table in the back room with a whole bunch more scattered around the table on the floor.

There were a lot of folders. Each file for the 22 men who had been on the mission, plus folders pertaining to the creation of the unit. There were a lot of those, Ranelle had counted at least a dozen. Plus everything that had to do with the Middle East mission, which Dean had commented on there being about fifteen of those.

The researcher had absolutely no idea how they were going to go through all these and be ready to go back to Dallas on Friday. When she had voiced that very thought moments before, Dean had simply said to wait and trust her. She could do that.

"Listen guys. It's 11 right now and it'll probably take you an hour to sort through all this junk and get it separated into manageable piles. So why don't I come back here at 12 and take you to lunch before you dig in and start reading all this junk." Shelly smiled over at Ranelle. "Because if you're anything like Dean, once you start it'll probably take the whole base falling down around you before you'd quit before you're ready. Okay?"

Ranelle brightened at the idea of getting to know this woman better. She smiled and glanced over at Dean who was almost grinning at the prospect of spending time with her friend. "Sure, that'd be great, Shelly. We'll see you in an hour."

Shelly nodded at Ranelle and went to leave before turning back once more. She wrapped her arms around Dean and hugged. "It's good to see you, big guy."

Dean returned the hug wholeheartedly and smiled. "Good to see you, too, shortie."

They let go of each other and Dean turned once her friend was out of sight. "Okay, I don't exactly remember where we put all the different files." They moved over to the table and surveyed the mess. "Can you start over here," Dean gestured to the left side of the table, "and I'll start with the one's on the table. Put it into three piles. Personnel, ME mission, and creation of the unit. Sound good?"

The younger woman nodded. "Sure." The room quickly fell into silence, the only sounds the rustle of paper.


House sitting.

Well, apartment sitting, in this case.

It was something that she hated to do. Although, the owner wouldn't be gone very long so there wasn't a lot to do. It was more like...

Cat sitting.

Yeah, cat sitting.

Stacey eyed the black and white feline that had taken up residence on her lap. She was curled up into a ball on her side, purring away like there was no tomorrow. The waitress/manager couldn't understand why this little fur-ball like her so much. She had never done anything to encourage it's attentions.

Although, Ranelle had asked her to feed the cat and collect the mail, and if Ranelle had asked for the moon and a few stars, Stacey would have tried her damnedest to get them. Watching the apartment was a relatively easy task in comparison.

Actually, she had taken some time off work to actually, well, watch the house. She normally wouldn't, finding that she really enjoyed her job at Hego's as the manager and head waitress all rolled into one. Why take the time off when you could be earning money?

But as Navy Guy had recently pointed out in her, as Stacey was beginning to learn, not too subtle way, she did work a lot. Besides, there always seemed to be something to do at Ranelle' s apartment. Weather it was playing with Terkers or reading one of the many books that were stuffed in every nook and cranny. The woman had a reading addiction.

There always seemed to be something interesting on Ranelle's TV, even though Stacey got all the same channels as her. And there was always something good to eat in her fridge. She didn't know why, but her usual boredom that always came creeping up on her when she wasn't working or doing something with friends seemed to go away while at Ranelle's place.


And everyone was busy tonight. Usually she would do something with her roommate, Ranelle's cousin, but she was on a date tonight. With Arnold, Carly's cousin.

Stacey blinked as a sudden thought came to her. 'Why does everyone in this city have cousin's with them? Not sisters or brothers, but cousins? Weird.'

Anyway, everyone was busy so she found herself with a ball of fur on her lap, the TV control in her hand, and actually having a pretty good time by herself.

Something sneezed.

Stacey looked down to be met with droopy eyes.

Well, almost by herself.

Being a native of Dallas, and having grown up with three sisters and two brothers, Stacey wasn't used to being alone for very long. That's why she had searched out a roommate several years ago when her parents had said that she could no longer live with them if she wasn't going to go to college.

Post-secondary education had never been a goal of Stacey's. She had been working at Hego's since the end of the ninth grade and was quite content to waitress. She also knew that the cafe had a problem with people only staying for a year or so and then quitting. So, Stacey deduced that if she stayed on long enough, she would eventually start moving up the food chain. She had been right. By her eighteenth birthday, Stacey was supervisor and head waitress, wanting to keep that position because she actually enjoyed it.

Four years later she was promoted to manager with a pretty good salary, more than enough to buy gas, food, and pay her half of the rent. That had been almost three years ago and she was quite content with her little niche in the world.

She had found a roommate a week after placing the ad, and she and Amanda had quickly discovered that they were very compatible. They didn't get on each other's nerves and knew when to leave the other one alone. They had a very nice apartment that was merely a five minute walk from Ranelle's and about fifteen from the cafe.

Stacey was brought from her musings by the sound of a whining cat. She looked down and noticed that Terkers had vacated her lap and was now prowling the kitchen for food. She got up and went to quell the persistent animal.


By the time Shelly ambled back into their little corner of the universe they had achieved their goal. All the files were now sorted into three semi-neat piles instead of the disaster everything had been a little less than an hour ago. Dean, however, was ticked. Ranelle wasn't quite sure what had set the woman off, but she was sure it had something to do with the folder she had been scanning for the last few minutes.

The officer's face had steadily gotten colder and colder, the chiseled planes taking on a hard edge, giving the woman a very pissed off look. They had actually finished sorting 10 minutes ago, and Dean had started sifting through the personnel files making three separate piles. One of them was a lot larger than the other two, the second consisted of four folders, and in the last pile sat the files for Dean, Lt. guy, and coma guy. Ranelle realized that these nicknames were going to stick.

As Shelly came to stand at the table and looked at Dean who was so intent on the folder in her hands that she didn't even say hello, she turned and gave Ranelle a questioning look. Ranelle could only shrug. "Ah, Dean?" She started tentatively, knowing the woman was ticked and not wanting to aggravate her.


"Shelly's here."

"Just a sec." Dean squinted at the paper for a moment before pulling the glasses off her face and jamming them back into her jacket pocket where they had come from. She had pulled them out to read the headings on the files and Ranelle was pleased to see that they gave her a refined look. The small, silver, wire framed glasses simply looked good on her.

Dean tossed the folder back onto its pile with three others and sighed. She stood, stretched and then gave the other women her attention. "So, where to for lunch?"

"I was hoping you would have a suggestion." Shelly answered. They looked at Ranelle. She shrugged one shoulder,

"Don't ask me, I've never been to San Diego before. You guys are the experts."

Dean sniffed, thinking. "Is that little grill that was about 10 minutes down the road still there?" Shelly nodded. "Okay, as long as nobody has an objection to a menu that's practically all meat we'll go there. It's really good."

Everyone nodded and with that decided they trooped out of the building to the parking lot. Where they stopped for a moment, a slight dilemma on their hands. The rental car. It was, as cars go, small. "Are we all gonna fit in that thing?" Shelly voiced the exact thoughts that had been on everyone's mind. "I'm surprised you even fit in there, Dean." The officer snorted.

"I don't see why not. Someone can sit in the back seat."

Dean turned to the researcher. "Um, Ranelle? Have you even looked in that back seat? I have my seat all the way back and yours is pretty far too. I don't think there is a back seat."

The blonde blinked a few times before moving over and peering through the window. She wrinkled her nose, sighed, and turned around. "Okay, so what? Unless someone else has a car we either walk or jam ourselves into this thing." She jerked her thumb over her shoulder.

The officer huffed and gazed around them for a moment. Her face split into a reckless grin. "Follow me." She started off with the other women following like curious puppy dogs. When Dean stopped at a vehicle that looked suspiciously like a hummer, Ranelle and Stacey stopped and stared from their place a few feet away. "Um, I didn't think the Navy had hummers."

"We don't."

"Sooo.... it's here why?"

"Beats me."

"She wouldn't?"

"Oh, yes." Shelly grinned. "She would." They watched as Dean came up next to the sailor who was standing beside the car. She pulled out her wallet and flashed her ID. The sailor quickly straightened up and stood at attention. Ranelle chuckled slightly at the look on the young man's face. She couldn't hear what Dean was saying, but judging by the way his eyes got really wide, Ranelle knew that she would have loved to have been standing next to her friend.

"Um," Ranelle paused with a speculative look on her face, "since hummer's aren't a common thing around here, does she know how to drive one?"

Shelly shrugged. "Probably, and if she doesn't, well, it can't be that hard to figure out. It's just a car."


The young man finally moved away and found somewhere else to stand, while Dean hopped up into the drivers seat. The two women approached slowly and she finally turned to them with a grin. "Come on. We've got a ride now."

Ranelle climbed up and sat next to Dean with Shelly securing herself in the back. "Um, Dean," the enlisted woman's voice came from the back, "how long has it been since you've driven one of these?"

Dean cocked her head and then shook it. "I don't remember."

"Okay." Ranelle glanced back at Shelly and decided that she looked slightly worried about the officer's driving skill. She was kept from commenting when Dean started the engine and she was hard pressed to hear herself think, never mind talk.

Ranelle just hoped that there wasn't much difference between driving this monstrosity and a regular car.


Riding in the hummer proved to be an experience. Dean had confidence in herself and proved to be more than capable of driving the huge vehicle. When they pulled into the parking lot and hopped out, Ranelle was momentarily stunned by the silence that fell after Dean turned off the motor.

The researcher rubbed her ears and glanced over at Shelly to see her shaking her head. "I'll never get used to riding in those damn things." She muttered before stomping off to the wooden structure in front of them. Dean, Ranelle noticed, seemed to be unaffected by the noise of the car. She just moseyed into the building behind the researcher with a smile on her face.

As soon as they stepped into the grill and adjusted to the low light, Ranelle was surprised to see lots of people who were obviously in one branch of the service or another roaming around the interior. Regulation haircuts were quite distinctive and just the way the people moved and stood, ramrod straight, screamed military. Her face must have shown what she was thinking, because the tall officer leaned down to be heard over the noise. "I guess we forgot to tell you. This is something of a Navy hangout. Actually, almost anyone in the armed forces stops here if they go through San Diego."

Ranelle just nodded, instead of trying to be heard over the many different people and odd TV's scattered around. They were led to a table near the back of the room and Ranelle was amused to see Dean take a quick stroll around the table, switch one of the chairs, and then settle into the new chair. Shelly just waited until the officer had finished her ritual before sitting. It was a little quieter back here, and conversation was possible.

The shortest woman leaned in and started the ball rolling. "You still do that?" Dean raised an eyebrow. "The walk around thing?"


Ranelle cleared her throat. "Someone mind filling me in?" Her green eyes darted back and forth between the other two women, waiting for an answer.

Dean wagged her head from side to side. "It's just something I got into the habit of doing. I like to see people coming and going, watch what's going on in the room." She shrugged. "It can save your life, under the right circumstances."

"Right." Her voice was slightly disbelieving.

"I'm serious."

Ranelle nodded. "Okay, why did you switch chairs."

"Yeah," Shelly chimed in, glancing at the discarded piece of furniture. "Why'd ya do that?"

The officer grinned and glance at the chair. "It would have collapsed." They just stared at her, blinking. "I'm telling you the truth. One of the legs was cracked. It would have shattered."

"And you, make a habit out of examining everything before you sit in it?" Ranelle's voice was clearly amused and Dean could tell she would start laughing soon. Shelly was doing an admirable job of holding back her grin, but she was losing the battle.

Dean scowled.

That did it. They broke into loud laughter. It sounded suspiciously close to howling to the irked officer. They finally wound down, and Dean realized that people had been laughing around her a lot lately.

She looked at them and sniffed, scowl still firmly in place. "Yeah, laugh it up. You just wait until someone comes along and sits on it. Then we'll see what you do."

Any further conversation was forestalled by a waiter coming over and taking drink orders. Dean immediately ordered a Collosal Burger that had absolutely everything on it. Shelly screwed her face up in distaste. "I can't believe you still eat those things."

Dean glanced up from the plate that had just been put in front of her. "Hey, gimme a break. I just spent the last ten months living off hospital food, with the occasional thing snuck in by Scott." She looked fully at both Shelly and Ranelle and dazzled them with a smile. "I'm entitled." With that, she brought the burger to her mouth and took a huge bite.

The trio had been so engrossed in conversation, mostly about Dean and Shelly's earlier days in the Navy, that they hadn't noticed when someone grabbed the faulty chair and sat in it. They did notice, along with everyone else, when the officer sitting in it went crashing down to the floor, all the while spewing some creative language.

Shelly and Ranelle's eyes widened and they all looked at the spot where the chair had been. It was empty, confirming that it was the one Dean had changed. They glanced at her to see a raised eyebrow and slight smirk. The two women looked at one another and then, in tandem, turned back to Dean and stuck their tongue's out. The officer started laughing and they soon followed.

Ranelle accidentally knocked her fork off the table and stood to get it, still chucking a little. The officer who had sat in the faulty chair bounced to his feet and turned toward the table where three women were sitting laughing at him. 'How dare they!'

As one of them stood he moved over and grabbed her arm, glaring down at her. She looked up at him and he didn't waste any time starting on his tirade while everyone watched warily. "Were you laughing at me girl!?" Ranelle was somewhat stunned by the rapid turn of events and just stared at the hulking man. "Were ya? Answer me!" He squeezed her arm harder and shook her a little.

Just as he was about to start in again, the man found his arm pinned behind his back and he was laying face down on a table. A low, angry voice spoke in his ear. "Didn't anyone ever tell you, that when it comes to bullies, there is always someone bigger, stronger, and tougher than you?" Dean pulled his arm up higher behind his back and the man whimpered a little bit. "No? Well there is, and you just found that person. Leave the lady alone, she wasn't laughing at you. And even if she was, you're supposed to be honorable. Going after women hardly rates honorable."

Dean released the man and backed away. He sprung up from the table and turned, his face set into angry lines. He had his mouth open as if ready to yell and then got a good look at Dean. That gave him a moments pause. But he was, as Ranelle was fast learning, a clod. He started yelling anyway.

"Listen here, woman. I've been in the Navy for eighteen years and you don't have the right to tell me what to do!"

Dean crossed her arms as she stood there and affected a bored look. She tilted her head, just slightly to the left. Ranelle winced, Dean was getting pissed. "You think so?"

He puffed up his chest with pride and announced, "Yes, I'm Lieutenant Commander Shamas and you are a simple civilian."

Shelly visibly flinched at that and then leaned in to speak to Ranelle. "Is this guy the biggest idiot on earth or something? I don't care if she's in uniform or not, but Dean will never look like a 'simple' anything. Never mind a civilian."

Ranelle nodded her agreement. "Definitely."

The man continued, digging his grave deeper and deeper with every word. "Not to mention a woman."

That did it. Dean shot forward and grabbed the front of the man's shirt, swung him around and slammed him against the support beam in the room. She actually lifted him up off the ground so they were at eye level. Ranelle was standing there shocked with her mouth hanging open. He was no lightweight.

Her voice came out laced with venom and her eyes flashed cold fire. "Listen to me you ungrateful idiot, cause I've been serving for sixteen years and met a lot of people just... like... you." She reinforced her last word by pushing the man back onto the support beam harder. "You're the type that end up getting people killed. The first thing you need to learn is when to keep your goddamn mouth shut, and the second," Dean grinned, one of her not so nice ones, "the second is to not make assumptions. I outrank you asshole, and I'm telling you to leave them alone. Got it?"

His eyes were wide and he nodded. Dean held him there, off the ground, for a few more moments before letting go and simply dropping him to the ground. She dusted her hands off and then looked around the room. Everyone was staring at her. Oh well. She turned and looked at Ranelle, "You okay?"

The researcher was still shocked at the display of brute strength and didn't answer until Shelly nudged her with her elbow. She shook her head and focused on Dean. "Yeah, I'm fine. Can we go?"

"Of course." They got three steps toward the door before a voice stopped them.

"Wait a second." The trio turned to see the male officer standing there, looking a little shaky on his feet. "I'd like to know who just picked me up off the ground and reamed me out. Especially since you claim to be of higher rank than me."

Dean snorted and the man looked like he took offense. "You really are an idiot. Why?"


"Why do you wanna know?" He blinked a few times, seemingly at a loss for an answer. Dean shook her head and decided to be nice to the man. "Commander." She stated the word precisely and watched as his face changed. It did. It showed shock and a little bit of fear, knowing she had the power to start a chain reaction that could end his career. "Commander Dean Ransom." She gave him her full title and waited for a further reaction.

She wasn't disappointed. Her name was well know at the San Diego base, and it carried a not so nice reputation. They turned and left him standing there, not even blinking. Hardly breathing.


As they made their way back out to the hummer, Ranelle glanced back at the grill many times, almost falling flat on her face. Only the steady arm on her shoulder prevented the researcher from pitching forward into the dirt parking lot. She glanced over at Shelly and smiled her thanks. The woman simply nodded.

Glancing ahead, she noticed that Dean was already seated in the hummer but had not yet started the large vehicle. Speeding up into a leisurely trot, Ranelle hopped up next to Dean and looked at her.

After a moment of staring into space, Dean glanced over at Ranelle and raised an eyebrow. Shelly had taken up residence in the back and was watching the interaction with interest. "What?"

Ranelle scratched her nose before replying. "What were you reading at the base that you were so ticked about? And what's up with those other piles you made?"

Dean rolled her shoulders around, trying to ease the stiffness that had settled there from spending most of the day sitting in one place or another. "I sorted them out into three piles. The largest being all the soldiers who I know died, followed by about four men who I don't have a clue what happened to them, and lastly, the three people I know survived."

Ranelle tilted her head, waiting for Dean to continue. "And?"

Dean's brow creased and she turned to sit sideways and look directly at the young woman beside her. "And there's stuff in those folders that I didn't know before."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I had to approve all the men in the unit before we became operational which was done mainly by reading their file and talking to some of their previous Commanding Officers." She paused for a moment, thinking. "There was this one guy who I never really wanted in the unit. There wasn't anything on him, it was just a gut feeling. But now, there are a whole bunch of things in his file. Complaints filed against him by other officers, disciplinary orders by former CO's, things that date way, way back." She shook her head and shrugged.

"I don't get it. So someone tampered with his file in the last little while?"

"No," Ranelle turned to look at the woman sitting behind them, "someone tampered with his file two years ago. Because they wanted him in Dean's unit and knew he wouldn't have been chosen with a track record like that." Dean nodded her head, agreeing with the statement.

"So, if you had a bad feeling about him, why did you approve it?"

"The guy was an awesome marksman, something of a sniper. It was something that I felt we should have in the unit, but you have to understand. What we did, it was a very, very high risk job. You had to volunteer to be in the unit and you could back out at any time while in the states. Finiding someone with sniper skills is hard enough in the Navy, it isn't something that is really taught to regular soldiers. And even if I had found someone else, they would have had to agree. So, I brought him on figuring I'd keep a close eye on him and if we were even in a bind for a sniper I could always do it."

"If you know how to sniper then why couldn't you have always done it?"

"Being a sniper requires a lot of waiting and patience. If you need to use one for a mission they will more than likely spend all that time hiding in the bushes waiting for the target." Dean shook her head, "I can't direct my men like that. If it was critical I'd do it, there were a few guys I trusted enough to take command. Snipers are always like an ace-in-the-hole."


Dean smiled, "I'm getting there. Lets say you storm a building and want to catch a certain individual. Catching them is so critical that if it's a last resort, killing them is acceptable. So, something goes wrong and he bolts from the building. The sniper shoots him down and it's all good because he didn't get away. Or if the team is in the building a sniper can pick anyone off who may enter the building unexpectedly."

Ranelle nodded her head. "Ok, I understand. So, this guys file, what did it say? Besides all the complaints and whatnot."

"Deceased." Dean paused a moment. "They all said deceased. Every... single... one. According to the files, three people survived the middle east. That's it." Dean was staring out the front of the hummer again, her eyes narrowed and an almost livid look taking over her features.

The other two women just sat there, letting Dean think things through in her head. After several minutes, she shook her head and asked if they were ready to go back to the base. They agreed.

The drive back was just as uneventful as the one to the grill. Until they came to the gate. The guard with the red rimmed eyes, who had let them out with the hummer with no questions asked, was off duty. The current guard seemed to be in good health and had a very grumpy look on his face. He had almost no neck and his head was shaped almost into a rectangle. It was very amusing.

He looked up at Dean and just stared at her, not moving to open the gate. Dean was not in the mood, however. "Listen buddy, you see this hummer? It came from this base. Which means I had to go in there first so I could drive it out. And if you had any brain at all, you would realize what that means. That we are all permitted to enter the base. Are you following me?"

No response.

A low, throaty growled started and Shelly jumped from the back of the hummer and stood in front of the guard before Dean could lunge through the little window it and strangle the man. "Ok, um," Shelly glanced at his name tag, "Stephens. Listen, my friend here is in a really bad mood. I mean really bad. I've been serving with her for almost 15 years, and in that time, I've only seen her this ticked twice before." Shelly leaned close, almost whispering, and the guard leaned in to hear her better. "The Lieutenant that got in her way was sniveling like a baby when she got done with him. The second time it was on board a ship and the ensign," she lowered her voice even more, "was thrown half way across the deck and was ready to jump overboard right in the middle of the pacific! If you know what's good for you, you'll open the gate. She's a Commander and could have you busted down to a seamen in no time flat."

Shelly didn't even wait for a reply, she simply turned and climbed back into the hummer. The guard opened the gate the second Dean started glaring at him again and was extremely thankful to be free of her blue regard.

Dean was livid. "Damn stupid guards. I'll have to start wearing my stinking khaki's if I ever come up here again." Ranelle just sat and listened to Dean's grumbling voice that was hardly audible over the engine.


The rest of the afternoon was spent in relative silence, with Dean and Ranelle sitting quietly in their little room. Ranelle spent her time soaking up the information about the unit and learning as much about their purpose and operations as possible. She wasn't sure, but Dean just seemed to be sitting there fuming. The officer hadn't picked up a single folder since returning to the base and was staring off into space.

Ranelle figured she was thinking something through in her head and that assumption was validated when she lunged forward and started sifting through papers, obviously looking for something in particular. "What's up?"

Dean looked up for a moment, "Uh? Oh, I think I remember seeing a cross-reference in the sniper's file to another one.... Ah, yes, here it is!" Dean scooped up the file and stood, pausing for a moment to slip on her glasses. She spent a moment looking through the papers and then went off towards the file cabinets.

Ranelle watched curiously as Dean seemingly meandered aimlessly through the room, finally stopping at a cabinet to her liking. After a solid minute of rifling through the contents, she emerged triumphant.

Dean moved back towards the table with a large grin covering her face, her good mood restored. "What ya got?"

"This," she hefted the new file, "is Lieutenant Commander Herga's previous military folder. He is an ex-SEAL and got into a heap of trouble, it seems. Thing is, he was just so damn good that they would rather have him still kicking around than kicking him out with a dishonorable discharge. Idiots."

Ranelle was confused. She shook her head. "He was so good at what?"

Dean looked up and locked glances with Ranelle. They stared at each other for a moment before Dean pursed her lips and shook her head slightly. "In a nutshell? Killing."

"Wa... what do you mean!?"

"He was really good at killing someone and getting away with it. Especially with a sniper. Although he's good with bombs, all guns, hand-to-hand combat... all that kind of stuff."

"An assassin?" It came out as a bear whisper and Dean almost thought she hadn't heard it. Almost.

"Not... exactly. He wasn't exclusively an assassin but it was mostly what he was, is, used for."

"What do you mean is? I thought he was dead."

Dean sniffed and dropped her glance. "Ranelle, I hate to tell you this, but someone out there doesn't want the world to know what really happened. The papers said there were four survivors, the Navy says three, I'm betting if we call your uncle he'll say the fourth guy was Herga. I was thinking about the entire mission and I have a few suspicions, nothing concrete, but there is one thing that I'm absolutely sure of."

The officer paused and Ranelle was sure it was just to torture her some more. "And that is?"

"That, officially, no one was supposed to come out of there alive."

"What! Wh... Dean... that's.... why do you think that?"

The tall officer shrugged, and turned in a tight circle before starting to pace the room. "A lot of things. The manipulation of the files, being told there were three survivors when there were four, your attack, and the entire set up over in the middle east, now that I think about it, was very poor. We didn't have a lot of fire power or protection, faulty intel., late reports from the satellites that were supposed to alert us to movements of the enemy.... it was all just.. bad. Right from the start I had a bad feeling so I had my men be extra vigilant, more patrols, more training, more watchmen." She shook her head and continued pacing. "But it didn't matter. It didn't matter at all. Everything just went crazy...." She trailed off and stopped in the middle of the room, rubbing her face roughly with her hand.

Ranelle could tell that she was remembering something awful, something that she would rather erase from her mind completely. Ranelle was surprised that Dean hadn't yet broken down from post-traumatic stress. It dawned on Ranelle that Dean had managed to lock the memories away before and was always doing something in the hospital. Just recently she had started remembering things and the researcher knew that it was going to get a hell of a lot worse before it got better.

"We have to find him." Dean's voice was decisive and determined. Ranelle looked up at the officer and Dean stared right back. "He had something to do with everything going bad. I know it. I don't remember seeing him when things started going wrong." Dean shook her head and dropped back into her chair. "I have to talk to Cooper, too." Her eyes narrowed. "He better not have had anything to do with this."

Dean stood up and grabbed three folders off the table. "Come on."

Ranelle didn't question Dean's order, she simply snatched her jacket and trotted after the officer. She followed Dean's tall form out of the back room, right by Shelly, and out of the records room. They traveled down a set of hallways and finally came to a stop outside an office.

A large desk was parked to the right of the door and a middle aged man in fatigues was sitting there writing. Dean walked up to the desk and stood there, waiting. The man at the desk didn't even raise his head when he said, "Please have a seat and I'll..."

Dean cut him off impatiently. "Is Cooper in?"

The man glanced up sharply at the interruption and then his eyes went wide. "Oh my." That's all he managed to get out before the perturbed officer spoke again.

"I don't have time for this Jemson. I need to see Cooper, is he here?"

The seated man managed to regain some of his composure and immediately sat up straighter and dropped his pen, giving Dean all his attention. "I'm not sure ma'am. I'll go check for you."

He jumped up from his wooden chair and marched over to the door Ranelle was standing in front of. He disappeared behind the panel for a few moments and then reemerged. "I'm sorry ma'am, but Admiral Cooper is out of town and will be for several more days."

"Do you know where he went?" He shook his head. "Okay." Dean turned to go and Ranelle followed suit, almost running into the solid back when the officer stopped suddenly. She turned her head to the side and said, "It's good to see you again, James."

James smiled, Ranelle could hear it in his voice. "Thank-you. I'm glad that you're all right Dean."

Dean simply nodded and continued on her way out of the room. Ranelle followed and they didn't stop until they found themselves standing in front of their small car. Dean folded herself into the interior and Ranelle jumped behind the wheel. "Where are we going?"

"To a motel. Leave here, turn right, and drive for about ten minutes."

The small car progresses out through the gate and down the road, stopping in front of a modest looking building soon after. Ranelle hopped out and walked around the car, arriving at the other side just as Dean managed to pry herself out.

"What are those?" The researcher gestured at the files in Dean's hand.

"Oh, they're my files, Herga's file, and the main unit file. I figured you might want to look at these and I'm not sure if we'll be going back to the base. Come on."

Ranelle was confused, but she was content to follow Dean and wait until the officer was ready to explain on her own terms. Arriving at the desk, they were greeted by a young teenager who rented a room out to them immediately and gave them brief directions.

The room was on the second floor, and Ranelle was pleased to see that although the outside wasn't the nicest she had ever see, the interior was commendable. It was clean, intact, and didn't smell. There weren't any bugs and the air conditioning was working well.

Ranelle looked up and noticed they were standing outside their room. Dean opened the door and threw her files down on the table that was directly to the right of the door. As the blonde woman moved in, she surveyed the room.

It was roughly a large rectangle, with the door at one end and a balcony at the other. Besides the table, there was a small love seat and TV halfway between the door and balcony, with another door behind it to the right. Glancing in, Ranelle saw a medium sized bed with a dresser, and another door leading to a bathroom.

"Um, Dean?" The dark head peeked around the doorway into the bedroom. She raised an eyebrow. "Did you consider this?" Ranelle gestured to the bed.


Ranelle looked back to see Dean looking back and forth between the bed and her companion, obviously not grasping what Ranelle had noticed. "Never mind, Dean. Ddon't worry about it right now."

She shrugged. "Okay." The officer turned and went back out into the main room, followed quickly by Ranelle. She found her seated at the large, circular table. Ranelle plopped into the chair across from Dean and waited.

"Here. It's my file, I thought you might want to see it." Ranelle took the folder and set in down in front of her. "That's everything since I first enlisted, which is why it's so big. I only ask that you don't tell me what's in there."


Dean looked up and adjusted her position in the chair. "I have never looked at my own file. I never looked at the results for all the different tests that I had to take over the years. I didn't look because I didn't want to know and I still don't."

"Why? You mean things like the IQ tests you had to take and all those other ones that assess your skills and stuff?"


"I don't understand. Most people would be proud, hell, most people would brag. Surley you have some idea what the results were like."

Dean reached up and rubbed the scar at her temple, planting her elbows on the table. "I don't like tests like that cause I don't like categorizing people with results. Standazdized tests can be so off it's scary. I'd rather not know. And yes, I have some idea about the results. I know that something was high enough to kick up a big stink and make a whole bunch of organizations want to recruit me." She shrugged. "But that's all I know. If you have any questions about events or anything that's fine. But I don't wanna know about test results. Okay?"

"Alright, I can live with that."

It only seemed like a few minutes, but when Ranelle raised her head when Dean started to stand she was shocked to see that an hour and a half had gone by. She was unable to refocus on the file in her hand when a muffled groan reached her ears. Glancing up sharply, she caught the quickly concealed pain on the officers face. "Dean? What's wrong?"

"I'm fine."

Ranelle kept her eyes on the woman, not believing her for an instant. When Dean took a step and immediately sucked in a breath and closed her eyes, Ranelle had had enough. The researcher jumped up and moved toward the taller woman.

"Dean come on, this is ridiculous."

"Ranelle I'm..."

"You're still not up to 100 percent and ready to fall over. Let me help you. Please?" Dean simply nodded.

Ranelle didn't waste any time in going over to Dean's left side and helping to support her on her stiffened legs on the short journey to the love seat. As soon as they were standing in front of it, Dean practically collapsed. She spread out as much as possible and seemed to become almost boneless.

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

The dark head raised and she seemed to be struggling with her pride before responding. "Yeah. There's a cream type thing in my bag. Could you get it for me?"


Ranelle walked over to the door and grabbed the black duffel that had been dumped there along with her own small bag. She carried it back to the love seat and started searching the pocket that Dean indicated.

"Ah-ha!" She raised the rectangular bottle in the air in triumph and grinned. "Here you go."

"Thanks." Dean took the cream and then sat there for a few moments with her brow scrunched and a faint scowl on her face. Ranelle stood back a little bit and watched, having a pretty good idea what the problem was and letting Dean make the decision on her own. "Could you... um.." Dean shook the bottle slightly and stared at the floor.

"I'd be glad to give you a hand." She said it quietly, knowing that accepting help was something that Dean didn't do often, or very well. Running her eyes quickly down the long legs on the floor Ranelle noticed another snag. "Um, you might want to put something other than jeans on... it'll make it easier."

Dean sighed. "Yep, you're right." She leaned forward and grabbed the duffel from the floor, pulling out a pair of boxers. Dean glanced up and saw Ranelle just entering the bathroom.

By the time the younger woman emerged Dean had managed to shuck her pants, shoes, socks and was semi-comfortable on the small couch. Ranelle kneeled on the floor to Dean's left and took the bottle.

"So, what does this stuff do?"

Dean scratched her chin and shrugged. "Not sure. I think it's a muscle relaxant and it's supposed to help the burns. All I know is that it works really well."

"Okay, what do I have to do. There aren't any instructions."

"Shake it up, squeeze some onto your hands and then rub them together. Then you just massage it into my legs." The broad shoulders shrugged again. "It's really simple. Focus on the back of my left leg and the outside of my right. That's where it's the worst."

The blonde head bobbed and she started her task, massaging the orange cream into the long limbs. While she worked, Ranelle took the opportunity to survey the scars, comparing them to the ones on her back. The left leg was, undeniably, the site of the worst damage followed by her right leg. Ranelle realized with startlingly clarity that the burns on her back were very mild compared to these.

Granted, they were all third degree and serious in their own way but the twisted and angry skin looked ten times worse than the skin on her back. Dean was lucky, she guessed, for if her back had been this badly damaged she may have had serious complications with moving in general instead of just walking.

The front of the long limbs looked fairly normal, but on the sides and back the scar tissue was painfully obvious. Ranelle briefly wondered if it bothered the officer... having all the marks on her body. She figured that it would bother most people but Dean didn't seem vain at all, and the scars weren't exactly in the most visible places.

As she finished up rubbing in the foul smelling medication Ranelle looked up to see Dean half asleep. She mumbled her gratitude and Ranelle smiled, covering her from the waist down with a blanket. Pausing, Ranelle hesitantly reached forward and brushed a lock of dark hair back from her face.



The intoxicating aroma penetrated her senses and slowly nudged her mind into working order. She ascended from a deep and blissfully uneventful sleep to the smell of delicious, scrumptious, and absolutely heavenly food.

Fast food.

Greasy, unhealthy, high calorie fast food.


Dean's eyes popped open and she sat up from her reclined position on the couch. Glancing around she spotted a paper bag sitting on the table. Beside that was a bent blonde head and it was obvious that Ranelle was engrossed in the files.

After pulling herself up from the couch Dean padded over to the table. Ranelle glanced up and smiled. "Hey."

"Hey." Dean crocked, her voice still rough from sleep.

"I ran to the place across the street. I figured you would be hungry when you woke up. Here." Ranelle handed the bag to the tall woman who snatched it up and plopped down into the chair across from the blonde.

"Thanks." She ripped open the bag and started pulling things out and unwrapping them. "Hey, my favorite! How'd you know?"

Ranelle dropped her files and leaned back, watching the officer consume the burger. "After your comment about hospital food and seeing you eat at lunch time, I took a giant leap and bought the most loaded and unhealthy thing they had. Guess I did well."

The officer nodded her head vigorously, her mouth too full to speak. Ranelle smiled and slid a drink container towards the woman. "Chocolate shake."

"Fmank mouf."


They sat in comfortable silence for several minutes while Dean munched and Ranelle watched bemusedly. After seeing the quantity of food that the officer could consume on many different occasions Ranelle had bought two hamburgers and a large thing of fires.

"How often can you eat hamburgers?"

Blue eyes glanced up and Dean took a moment to swallow before answering. "Believe me, if you had to survive on that crud they give you in hospitals you'd be ready to eat them for several days straight."

"I bet." Ranelle paused for a moment and then started again, hesitantly. "I... um, called my uncle while you were sleeping. And he.... confirmed what you thought... about Herga. That was the fourth name." Ranelle looked up at the other woman. The dark head nodded. "But I've also been wondering, doesn't the Navy control what was released. I mean, if they say this guy's dead how did the papers get the information to say otherwise."

Dean shrugged. "A leak, an informant, eavesdropping, someone just hearing something they weren't supposed to.... I could go on. What we need, is to see whoever got the info. and printed it out. They might have other useful knowledge. All I want to know is why the disaster happened and if we weren't supposed to come back, for what." Dean sighed and shook her head again. "All I want is a reason for all the death."

The officer stood and shuffled into the bathroom, closing the door behind her.

Ranelle briefly considered going after her but decided that she needed time. Time to come to terms with this and sort out her feelings.

Just some time.


Evening rolled around and Ranelle decided that she would turn in. She glanced up at the love seat where Dean had sprawled herself after emerging from the bathroom some time ago. She hadn't moved and didn't seem to be doing much at all. Ranelle herself had been voraciously consuming Dean's personnel file.

The file itself managed to say a lot without really saying much at all. It was intriguing and frustrating at the same time. The knowledge she did acquire was useful and things that the researcher had wanted to know but the things it hinted at being left unsaid were driving her nuts.

"Hey Dean!" Her voice broke the thick silence and the officer lazily rolled her head over to one side and pried open a blue eyeball.


"What else is there to know that isn't in this?" She hefted the thick folder and tilted her head with a smile.

"I dunno... what's in it?" Dean shifted and settled herself in a more comfortable position, at least Ranelle assumed it was comfortable although it looked anything but. Dean had her legs swung over one end of the small love seat and her left arm hanging off the top while her other arm was touching the floor. Her dark head was on the arm rest and it appeared as if she were lying not on her back but not her side, either. The officer settled herself in to listen.

"Well.." Ranelle cleared her throat and spoke, "aside from the variety of test scores you don't wanna know, there's your enlistment date, reviews from a couple C.O'.s, training reports, a few places you were stationed at and those dates, a few other dates that are classified, um... lets see. The dates that you took your leave and the times you were in the hospital for a multitude of different things, a list of when you got your promotions.... very impressive if I do say so myself. And, a list of awards and commendations you received... also impressive. Oh, and some brief summaries of missions you were involved in that were not classified."

There was a long pause and then the sound of a deeply drawn breath. "Not much more to know, really. Nothing worth telling... I guess you'll just have to stick around if you want to find out." Dean looked over and smile at Ranelle.

"I just might do that." Ranelle smiled and stood, stretching out her back after the long day. "I'm gonna hit the hay. What about you?"

For an answer, Dean rolled up off the couch and shook out her arms and legs. She bobbed her head and meandered off to the bathroom, scooping up her bag on the way. When she emerged, Ranelle promptly took over the bathroom.

When she came out it was to find the tall officer leaning up against the door frame to the bedroom and staring quizzically at the bed. Ranelle padded over and she, too, stood looking in. "Um..." the deep rumble that came from behind her stopped and she turned to face indigo eyes.


"How is this gonna work?" Dean gestured to the bed and then the two of them.

"Well, I figured that we can share the bed. I mean, it's not a huge bed but I don't think that either of us will fit on that love seat very well. Actually, I know you don't and after seeing you lay all over it today I'm pretty sure I won't like it much." Ranelle looked up and grinned. "It was quite entertaining to see you contort yourself to fit that thing. Although it made my muscles ache." Ranelle mock shuddered and then walked over to the bed. She glanced back and waved Dean over. "Come on, it's not the end of the world. I'm sure you've managed in worse situations than this before."

Dean walked over and gently lowered her form onto one side of the bed. It tilted and creaked under her weight. It took several minutes but Dean was finally stretched out on the bed with her feet hanging off the end. Ranelle crawled into her side and turned out the bedside lamp.

"Night Dean." lamp.

"Night Dean."


They drifted off to slumber after a short time later and just before sleep claimed her, Dean experienced a sense of what could only be described as.... peace. For the first time in a long time.

To be continued...

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