Waking up in a strange room in a strange bed is always an interesting experience as your mind rises from its resting state and slowly registers that the body it commands is not in its usual habitat.
The different sounds and smells of this new place slowly penetrate your brain and it scrambles to remember exactly where you are and why you're there. This process only takes a second or two and then your head clears and you remember.
However, when you wake up in a strange place with the added surprise of finding someone else in bed with you, your brain goes on red alert and you jerk awake, delaying or often stopping this natural waking process all together.
This was the situation that Dean found herself in now. She had woken to find herself wrapped around Ranelle like an octopus and after surveying her position decided that there was no way she could extract herself without waking the young blonde. She also noted, with some relief, that their current state of entanglement was not entirely her doing. Ranelle had her own limbs as twisted up as she herself did. Ranelle's left hand was grasping the front of Dean's shirt over her stomach.
So, after confirming that her internal clock had not failed and that it was indeed somewhere around 5 in the morning, Dean decided to stay where she was until the blonde awoke. She vaguely remembered a comment coming from the young woman, or had in been Stacey, about Ranelle not being a morning person. She knew she wouldn't fall back asleep so the officer decided to wait it out.
Ranelle woke slowly some time later to find herself comfortably inclosed in a nice warm cocoon. Her mind slowly woke and green, sleepy eyes opened to be met by blue. Ranelle's brow scrunched up as she took stock of her position. She was surrounded, literally, by Dean. Her long arms were tangled up around Ranelle's body with the left trapped under the blond's back. Ranelle had her head half on Dean's broad shoulder with her left leg wound between Dean's shins. She noticed the grip she had on Dean's poor shirt and pursed her lips before looking back up, sheepishly.
They were a tangled mass of comfortable, living, and slightly embarrassed humanity.
Dean cocked her head and answered in her low, accented voice. "Good morning."
"You.." Ranelle paused to clear her throat, "are wayyyy too cheery. How long have you been up?"
"Hmm. Since 5... so, about 4 hours."
Ranelle groaned and closed her eyes. "That's disgusting. Why are you still here?"
"Didn't want to wake you up. Speaking of which, my arm's cramping up..."
"Oh, sorry." Ranelle released the officer's shirt and untangled her arms, sitting up followed by a smiling Dean.
The officer rolled her neck around followed by her shoulders. Ranelle winced at the audible cracking of bones. "Ugh, that sounds horrible."
"Yeah." Dean slid out of bed and walked around the room for a moment with Ranelle watching.
"How're your legs?"
"Pretty good. I'm gonna take a shower, 'kay?"
"Sure, I'll be here."
"I'm sure you will be." Dean looked back over her shoulder and smiled.
After emerging from the bathroom and her turn with the shower, Ranelle found Dean sitting at the table in the main room, seemingly waiting for her. She settled herself in the chair across from the older woman and waited. "I've been thinking and I want to use you as a sounding board. Hear my theory out loud and see what you think of it." Dean glanced up at the blonde woman.
"Ok, here it goes. You remember when I said that I thought they never wanted us to come back." Dean saw the other woman nod and continued. "Well, whatever the reason for that was it didn't happen on the ME mission or anytime soon before that. I think whatever we saw or did that we weren't supposed to, happened before the Special Ops unit was even created. I had worked with quite a few of the others before and it could have been any of six different missions that I remember. But three of those were totally on the level and nothing stands out about them, so I've basically narrowed it down to three."
"We need to find out which mission, what happened that would make them want us dead, and warn whoever else might be in danger."
"How do you propose we do that, Great Naval Officer? We're pretty much in the dark here, Dean."
Dean raised on eyebrow at the nickname then nodded. She stood up and started pacing. "Yeah. We should speak to Bronce... see what he thinks about the whole situation. Not to mention that he figured prominently in all three missions under suspicion." The officer continued to pace, thinking.
Ranelle spoke up, "It might help if we could find whoever originally got the information about the number of survivors. They may have heard other interesting tidbits."
"How are we gonna do that, Great Insightful Reporter?" Dean returned the tease with ease.
Ranelle pursed her lips in thought and smiled. "I have my ways." The smile transformed into a grin.
"Right. Well you can do that later. We should leave... I'm not comfortable here. We'll go see Bronce. You up to it?"
She nodded. "Sure. I'll start packing."
Airplanes are such a great invention. They can take you anywhere you want to go in a matter of hours, depending on how far it is you want to travel.
They did have their drawbacks, though. Even in first class.
Both women were glad to be off the plane, the flight to Portland having been unpleasant to say the least. A shaky plane and an obnoxious, drunk aisle mate having given Ranelle a headache. She couldn't understand why they allowed people to drink on planes. Although, this fellow had already been plastered before boarding.
It had really bothered Dean, she could tell. The woman had sat in stoic silence through the entire flight staring at the seat in front of her. Her fists had been clenched and Ranelle was convinced she was just barley restraining herself from decking the rude man.
But they were now rid of that headache and had arrived safely in Oregon.
Before leaving San Diego Dean had done some quick checking simply for her own piece of mind, ensuring herself that Lt. Bronce was still living under the same address as in the past. He was indeed.
They progressed through the airport and caught a cab, arriving at the Lt.'s home in short order.
"Thanks a lot," Ranelle smiled as she paid the cabbie.
The duo turned to be greeted by a medium sized, yellow, squatting house. There was a thin layer of snow covering the ground, the winter being very mild this year. They walked up to the house and rung the bell. "So what happens if no one's home?"
Dean glanced around and shrugged, "We wait. Besides," nodding toward the driveway, "the car's here."
Any answer was delayed by the opening of the door. Standing in the portal was a dark skinned, older woman with coifed hair and gentle brown eyes. She glanced at Ranelle first then at Dean. Her perusal of the taller woman lasted longer as she squinted her eyes and stared openly. After several long, silent seconds of thinking she exclaimed, "L'cOh il mio Decano del Dio! È buono da vederli." She stepped outside the house and onto the porch, wrapping her arms around the officer.
"It is good to see you too, amico." The older lady smiled up to Dean and then looked between them briefly.
"Come, come inside and you will introduce me to your new amico."
She led them inside to the kitchen, offered them coffee and food and then promptly bellowed for her son. From what she knew of different languages Ranelle figured that Lt. Bronce and his mother, as was mentioned during introductions, were Italian. Mrs. Bronce's accented English was also similar to Dean's.
The man who came trotting into the kitchen paused and a huge grin transformed his face immediately upon seeing just who it was sitting at his kitchen table. Dean stood and they shared a hearty, emotional hug. When they pulled away it was obvious that Bronce was choked up and that Dean had no idea what to say.
They stood staring at one another for several moments and then simply smiled, sharing their mutual joy at seeing the other alive and well. The two officers glanced around the room and Bronce's eyes landed on Ranelle. "Well, who do we have here?"
"Ah, um, this is a friend of mine, Ranelle Maloch."
Bronce walked up to the blonde woman and held out his hand. She grasped it and returned the handshake. "It is a pleasure to meet you If you're associated with Dean then you must be an incredible person."
Ranelle smiled and blushed slightly. "Thank-you, Lt. Bronce."
"Please, call me Anthony."
The foursome sat around the table with the two officers catching up and Ranelle getting to know these people who seemed to have had a large influence in Dean's life. After the chatting wound down, Dean extended an invitation to Anthony to go for a walk. Sensing that Dean wanted to discuss something important, he accepted.
Ranelle was left alone with Mrs. Bronce. "So, Mrs. Bronce.."
"Please call me Carmen, dear." Ranelle nodded, smiled, and struck up a hearty conversation.
"Which way?" Blue eyes glanced down at the man beside her.
"Left, so the wind's at our backs."
Dean nodded and started walking, deciding where she wanted to start. 'This has got to be one of the craziest stories in the world. I'm not sure that I even believe it.' The tall officer shook her head and decided to jump right in at the beginning of the entire mess.
"Anthony, I've got something rather important to tell you. It's kind of hard to believe, too."
"Come on Dean... out with it."
"Ranelle was given the assignment of reporting what happened on the ME mission. Soon after that she was attacked in the parking lot of the magazine officer where she works. What I was told and what was printed in the papers about the mission conflict. Especially about who survived. I came to the conclusion that someone never wanted us to come back because of something that a lot of us saw on another mission. I checked, and there are three missions before the Special Ops team was formed that eight people went on who were also in the Middle East with us. You and I went on all three and we are the only ones who survived." Dean stopped speaking and waited for some kind of response.
Anthony's forehead creased, he looked more than skeptical. "You do realize that would mean there are people involved who are pretty high up in the Navy, right?"
"Have you spoken to Cooper?"
Dean's eyes narrowed, "He wasn't in San Diego."
"You think he's involved?"
"God I hope not, but until I know more I'm not crossing him off the list."
"Um, one thing doesn't make much sense. If the Navy wants what happened over there covered up because it was manufactured by them, why would they let Ranelle report on it?"
"It isn't necessarily the Navy that wants it covered up, just someone or a small group of people in the Navy. They probably want to cover up something they have their hands in that they really shouldn't."
"Something that we stumbled upon?"
"You do realize how unreal this whole thing is, don't you? We're talking about some kind of conspiracy in the United States Navy." Anthony shook his dark head. "Things like this aren't supposed to happen."
They continued walking in silence for a few blocks. "So what do you think? You going to help me. If I'm right it isn't safe for you, me or Ranelle."
Anthony rubbed his forehead, squinted his eyes and stopped walking. He turned and looked at his friend and former commanding officer. "You really believe this?" Dean nodded. "Okay, I'm not saying that I'm buying everything you've said just yet but whatever you need, I'm here."
"Good. I'm going to need..." Dean stopped talking and cocked her head.
"You smell that? Smoke."
The two officers turned and looked back the way they had come. Rising up into the sky was a large plume of black smoke. They didn't even bother to look at one another, just took off running back toward the squatting yellow house.
They skidded to a halt outside the flame engulfed building. It looked as if the fire had started at the top of the house and was working its way down. Dean spotted an onlooker nearby and went over to the man. "Did you see two women come out of there?" He shook his head no.
Dean ran up to the front of the house with Anthony right behind. She kicked in the door and pulled her shirt up over her mouth and nose. With a quick glance at Anthony, Dean ran into the house and headed for the kitchen, her friend right behind.
When Dean reached the kitchen she frantically scanned the floor and immediately moved toward the leg she could just barely see through the smoke. She kneeled down next to Ranelle to see that the reporter was unconscious but otherwise unscathed.
Dean's eyes were stinging from the smoke and were starting to water, making it almost impossible to see. It was getting unbearably hot and she could here the ominous creaking of the ceiling above her. It was getting ready to collapse.
Throwing Ranelle over her shoulder, Dean turned to see that Anthony had found his mother and was on his way out of the kitchen as well. As soon as she entered the hallway, Dean heard a loud cracking and jumped forward, avoiding the large beam that came crashing down from above.
The officer tripped and found herself on the hot floor with the flames approaching ever faster. Just as she was about to stand up, Dean got the strangest feeling of danger and simply went with her instincts. She covered Ranelle up with her own body and wrapped her long arms around her head as the ceiling continued to rain debris on her.
Dean closed her eyes and tensed up, hoping that nothing heavy would decided to land on her. She opened her stinging eyes to mere slits to check on Ranelle and saw that the young woman was still out cold. The smoke was starting to get to her, making it hard to breath. She could feel sweat running down her back and the side of her face from the unbearable heat.
As she crouched there, in a burning house, Dean experienced a moment of pure terror and a bloody field flashed through her mind, filled with laughing men and one face in particular. One laughing, glee filled face. The officer flinched as something landed on her back and rolled off, bringing her out of the memory.
Dean tried to relax for a moment but that is almost impossible to do when you're in a house which happens to be on fire and the possibility of death is looming over your head.
Waiting a few more seconds, the feeling of danger subsided along with the one of absolute terror and Dean stood slowly, picking Ranelle up and cradling her like a child. She figured this was safer in case anything else decided to fall from above.
Cautiously picking her way through the flames and mindful of her cargo, Dean was relieved to see the door directly in front of her. She could just barely make out Anthony's from standing on the lawn outside, staring anxiously into the house.
They were going to make it. They were going to be all right.
Anthony emerged with his mother in his arms and looked back, horrified to see the ceiling collapse with Dean nowhere in sight.
The fire department had still not arrived and Anthony would have run back into the house except his mother came around at that moment. The young man kneeled on the ground not caring about the layer of snow, saying nonsense phrases in their native language. He kept his eyes glued to the house, willing the tall officer to emerge.
'Come on Dean, you can't let a little fire stop you now!'
Assured that his mother would be fine and at her insistence, Anthony stood and ventured closer to the house. He peered into the wall of smoke, hoping to see a large moving form and almost convincing himself he could see one.
He was just about to turn and go back to his mother when a large body came leaping out of the smoke and landed on the brown grass and snow. Antony hurried over and took Ranelle from Dean, who was on all fours, hacking and coughing.
"Come on, we have to get away from the house."
Slwoly, the large body stood and moved over to where Carmen was sitting. Dean collapsed next to her and laid back on the snow, wheezing. The cold snow felt good on her overheated skin,
Anthony placed Ranelle gently on the ground and then leaned over Dean. "You okay?"
The dark head rolled toward the voice. Dean opened her eyes and looked at the man above her. "Just peachy." Her voice was raspy and Anthony winced at the painful looking bloodshot eyes. "You?"
He nodded. "We're good."
"Wonderful." She looked over at Ranelle and let a small smile come to her lips as Ranelle groaned and opened her eyes. The first thing she did after that was cough.
They all smelled of smoke, were covered liberally with soot, and drenched in sweat. But they were alive and that made all the difference in the world.
Eight sets of eyes framed by soot covered faces looked toward the road as a large fire truck came careening around the corner and stopped in front of the house.
Anthony glared at the truck, "Where the hell were they when we needed them!?"
Dean simply closed her eyes and shook her head.
Ranelle groaned, coughed, and rubbed her aching head.
Carmen seemed to have found the humor in the situation and started laughing.
The remainder of the day was going to be very interesting, indeed.
The ambulance came, diagnosed them all with smoke inhalation, Ranelle's and Dean's more severe, and then carted them off to the hospital.
That's where they were now.
What a stupid thing to be taken to the hospital for.
Oh, they all understood how serious smoke inhalation could be, but still....
Hosoitalized for smoke inhalation???
"Uh-uh, no way, no how! I'm not spending the night here! Not gonna happen!" Dean was livid, it was as simple as that.
The doctors wanted to keep Ranelle and Dean overnight for observation. Anthony and Carmen were allowed to leave but they weren't.
Ranelle understood. As did Carmen and Anthony.
The doctors, however, did not. All they saw was a difficult patient who was currently wasting their time and acting absolutely irrationally, some might even say childish.
"Please, ma'am, we have to treat you..."
"Oh, you can treat me all right, but there is no way I'm staying here." Dean was standing outside a hospital room with a doctor, two nurses, Ranelle and Anthony. This last statement was followed by a round of coughing.
The doctor glared, "But you both have to stay here."
"Why? Am I going to drop dead if I let you treat me with oxygen and then walk out the door? Hmm?"
"Well, probably not, it's simply a cautionary..."
"There you go. So get those tanks of 02 so we can get this over with and I can leave."
The doctor made a hurrmph sound and turned on his heel. The nurses started shooing the three of them out of the hallway and into the room where Carmen was waiting patiently. As soon as the tall officer entered all the different smells combined, along with the sight of the beds and machinery, caused her to experience a moment of panic.
Dean stopped and closed her eyes, taking deep breaths, surprised when she could do so without coughing, and focusing on the fact that she was not lying in a hospital bed and could leave at any moment.
"Dean?" The soft hesitant voice penetrated her mind and helped to comfort her. "Are you all right?" Ranelle moved closer and laid her blackened hand lightly on top of the officers. She was rewarded with a slight squeeze and almost imperceptible head nod.
Anthony stepped up next to Ranelle and gave his friend a worried look. His speech was stopped by the entrance of the annoying doctor and his entourage of nurses. All three medical personnel gave the dark haired woman funny glances.
The doctor approached Dean and none too gently put his hand on her arm. Dean's entire body jerked as her eyes popped open. The doctor soon found his arm locked in an iron grip. Ranelle stepped closer, concerned about her friend. She took in the clenched jaw and almost rigid body and decided to tread lightly.
"Come on, Dean. Let go of the doctor. He's just trying to help you." She carefully reached up and placed her hand on Dean's arm. Slowly, the arm relaxed and the officer's eyes closed. Dean released the doctor and leaned against the wall. She slid down until she was sitting on the ground with her head resting on her upraised knees.
The shaken doctor decided to let Ranelle handle this strange and difficult woman. He left the room rather perturbed.
With some assistance from one of the nurses, Ranelle got Dean to use the oxygen while she sat on the floor like a statue. Anthony and Carmen both looked very concerned for their friend. The young blonde decided to sit on the floor with Dean and try to be of some comfort to the troubled woman.
Two hours later they were all still in exactly the same place. Anthony on one bed, Carmen on the other. Dean and Ranelle on the floor. Except they had all fallen asleep. All of them except for Dean.
As soon as she had seen the hospital the anxiety had kicked in followed by a feeling of dread. Those feelings had only increased as they progressed through the hallways, all the sights and sounds of a hospital bringing back memories of her very long stay. They were memories she would rather not have.
Becuase of them she had almost lost control. If Ranelle hadn't been there she may have every well thrown the 'good' doctor across the room. That wouldn't have been very good. People seemed to frown upon causing bodily harm to doctors. Or police, firefighters, paramedics... the list goes on.
She felt better now. Sure, the anxiety was still there but it was considerably less and under control. She was used to being in the hospital now and had resigned herself to remaining until the others were ready to go. Even overnight if Ranelle had to stay but there was no way she, herself, would lay down in a bed and sleep.
The dark head cocked as she picked up the sound of footsteps. These were different form the regular hospital footsteps. They were heavier, more determined. Whoever the owner of these footsteps was they were at the hospital for a reason.
Two sets of footsteps.
Two sets of footsteps definitely headed here.
Dean lifted her left shoulder to wake Ranelle. It proved to be more difficult than that, though, and Dean resorted to tickling the woman's side.
That did it.
The young woman jerked awake and promptly glared at Dean. The officer smiled sheepishly, "There's someone, two someone's actually, coming. I thought you might want to be awake and not drooling on my shoulder when they come in here."
Ranelle blinked for a moment, then, "I don't drool!" Dean smiled, shrugged, and stood, offering the reporter a hand up.
Two men in suits threw the door open and entered the room. The resulting bang caused Anthony and Carmen to awaken. The foursome gathered in the middle of the room and looked expectantly at the men in suits.
"Are you the people involved in the fire at 2543 69 St. that occurred earlier today?" They nodded. "We have reason to believe that the fire was a result of arson and are currently investigating the fire as such. Do any of you have anything to say?"
They were all caught flatfooted, the trauma of the fire still in the forefront of their minds that the concept of how the fire had started still seemed absurd.
Why would anyone want to set Anthony and Carmen Bronce's house on fire? It hadn't been either of the Bronce's, for if it had been about insurance money they wouldn't have risked the lives of Carmen and Ranelle.
So the foursome stood there staring at the men in suits like they were nuts to even suggest the possibility.
Anyone passing the room who happened to glance in would have been hard pressed not to bust a gut laughing. The silent tableau was a sight to see. The four of them, still covered in soot, their eyes the only feature you could really make out, staring at these men in pressed suits in uncomprehending disorientation. All of them standing rigidly in a previously pristinely white hospital room that now sported black smudges from their bodies.
It was more than funny, it was down right hilarious looking.
"What? You wanna run that by us again?"
"We asked if any of you had anything to say about the fire that destroyed your house before the investigation starts up?"
Anthony sighed and rubbed his face, managing to smudge the soot even more. "Is it really necessary that we discuss this now? As you said, mine and my mother's house is gone along with all our belongings. We all could have died in there today and your only concern is who started the damn fire!" His voice had gotten steadily louder as he spoke, the reality of what could have happened crashing down on him. "It wasn't any of us. We don't have a reason to do something like that and even if we did, do you think I would have started the fire and risked my mother's life. Or that either of them started it and would risk their own lives by staying in the house?? If you would take a moment and think about that you would see the logic."
The men in suits glanced at each other and turned to Dean. "What about you?"
Dean looked up, "Huh, what about me? I was with Anthony, and I'm not in the business of starting fires that have the potential to hurt my friends." Dean pushed the sleeves up on her previously light blue shirt and rubbed her hands together.
Ranelle then looked at herself for the first time and sighed. 'There goes another set of perfectly good clothes.' She looked at her hands and imagined what her hair and face were like. Yuck. At least everyone else looked as bad as she imagined she herself did.
"We'd like to see ID for all of you."
"Why?" Four voices asked in tandem.
"Wait a minute, just wait. Who are you guys? Police or something else? I want to see your ID first."
The men pulled out badges, identifying them as Portland detectives. "Satisfied?"
Dean nodded and went to pull out her wallet. She remembered that it was in her jacket and moved over to the garment that had been thrown onto the foot of one of the beds. She pulled out her small wallet and threw it to the taller of the two men who had been doing the talking.
They studied all of the identification for several moments and then looked up. "You're both pretty far from home. May we ask what you both were doing in Oregon?"
Dean and Ranelle glanced at each other. "Business."
"Is there a reason we should tell you what we were doing? Are we under suspicion for committing a crime?" The officer was getting mad.
"Ms..." he glanced down at the wallet in his hand, "Ransom, a crime has been committed and you were involved. We like to cover all the basics, one of which being why you are here."
Dean was about to answer, but Ranelle laid her hand on the officer's arm and stepped forward. She very calmly started yo speak. "If you must know, Dean and I started out in San Diego, it was business related for both of us and after concluding that business we decided it would be prudent to speak to Mr. Bronce since he is involved in our business. He also happens to be a very good friend of Dean's, so instead of giving him a call we came to see him. OK?"
"May we ask where you went in San Diego?"
"San Diego Naval Base."
The detectives raised skeptical eyebrows and glanced at one another. "And what were you doing there?"
"Classified. Our business there was classified as it involves an on going investigation." Dean stepped forward and joined Ranelle. "Are we done now?"
"You're involved with the Navy, are you?" Dean inclined her head. "How can we be sure of that?"
"Oh for Christ's sake..." Ranelle turned violently from the detectives and started marching around the room, her patients snapped. Dean sighed and reached up, pulling down the collar of her shirt. She removed her dog tags and threw them at the detective. He spent a few moments examining them and then tossed them back.
"Thank-you for your time, we'll be in touch."
As soon as the detectives left the doctor entered the room. "Ah, just the man I wanted to see. Can we go?"
"Well I,.. I mean.. you probably shouldn't..."
"Listen Doc, we're tired, dirty, fed-up, and just wanna leave. It isn't going to kill us if we walk out the door, right?"
"Well, no but..."
"Great!" Dean turned and looked at her three friends. She simply raised a questioning eyebrow.
Three voices responded in unison, "Let's go!"
Ah, to be clean.
They were showered, dressed in fresh clothes, and lounging in a motel room.
"So," Anthony broke the lazy silence, "you guys heading home?"
"Yep." The officer looked around the room for a moment before speaking again. "You guys should come down, soon as you get anything here squared away here. I'd like to spend some more time with you both and what with the fire, you don't really have anywhere to go."
Anthony and Carmen exchanged glances and nodded their acceptance. Dean smiled.
To be continued...