As she drove along the road to the outskirts of the city, Ranelle reviewed the last few days in her mind. They had been home for four days now, and nothing peculiar had happened, thank God.
She started acting as if the story had been dropped and although she had not cut off contact with Dean, their interaction would only be viewed as that of friends. Her inquires into what had happened almost a year ago stopped and for all intents and purposes, it appeared that the story had been dropped.
When she had told her Uncle he was confused but trusted his niece and went along with it until Ranelle could clarify her decision and fill him in on what had happened in San Diego and Portland.
Amark had been outraged and concerned for her well being, and surprisingly enough, Dean's as well. After reassuring him that everyone was fine, Ranelle informed him of their tentative plan. Simply, they were going to wait and see if they could uncover any more information through casual contacts of Dean's and the reporters. Namely, who originally got the information about the survivors of the Middle East.
It wasn't going too well. Everyone who was anyone didn't know anything about where the original information had come from, and the newspapers that had first printed the information were fiercely guarding their sources.
She was getting fed up and rather perturbed, seeing as how this story had endangered her life twice in the course of two weeks.
On the bright side, Carmen and Anthony arrived in Dallas two days ago and were giving Dean something to focus on besides their little investigation that didn't seem to be going anywhere. The mother and son were staying with the officer and keeping Dean from getting too twitchy from being cooped up.
At least that's what she hoped.
Ranelle hadn't heard anything from the officer since the duo had first arrived in Texas. But she optimistically kept to the idea that no news was good news.
As she pulled up and parked in front of the large house, Ranelle was surprised to see Scott's car and one other she didn't recognize sitting in the driveway. The young woman exited into the warm sun and slammed the door.
On her approach to the house, Ranelle was met by Carmen who had just emerged from the front door. "Hello dear, how are you doing?"
"Good Carmen, and yourself?"
"Oh, I'm fine, thank-you. Come on, everyone else is over this way."
The blonde woman followed her escort around to the side of the house where a tall ladder was leading up to the roof. A few feet to the right of the outside wall, under the shade of a large tree, a small picnic table sat where Scott was sprawled out. He looked quite comfortable and smiled upon seeing her.
"Ranelle, it's good to see you again. Join me." He gestured to the bench beside him and Ranelle gladly sat.
"What's going on?"
"Oh, they're fixing the roof."
"The roof. It was leaking and Dean and Anthony went up and took a look. Anhtony declared that it needed to be re-shingled. So that's what they're doing."
"Oh, and you're what? Supervising?"
He grinned. "Yep."
Ranelle nodded. "Nice job."
"I thought so."
They looked up when a voice interrupted. "No, he's just lazy and would do anything to get out of hard labour. He was always like that." A baseball cap covered head popped into view from above them.
Scott narrowed his eyes at Dean and glowered. "Did we ask for your input?! Get back to work!" He pointed up at the roof and continued to scowl.
Dean just laughed and shook her head. Moving her gaze to take in only Ranelle she smiled. "See, he's cut out for the job. Natural born slave driver." With that, the woman chucked a crumpled piece of paper at Scott from the roof, then disappeared from the edge.
The paper caught him full in the chest and he spluttered, indignantly. "Hey! You jus... I'm..."
"Quit whining." The voice floated down to them from above and Scott stopped rambling.
Sounds often associated with people at work commenced above them and Ranelle made idle chit chat with Carmen and Scott until those sounds ceased.
Anthony clambered down the ladder first and collapsed on the ground, his mother handing him a glass of lemonade. He was followed by a woman Ranelle didn't know but inferred that she owned the unfamiliar car in the driveway. Upon quick study, Ranelle noted the woman was a tiny bit taller than herself with a compact, slightly muscled form and she came to the conclusion that it could be none other than Dean's sister, Rachel.
Her observations were proven correct when Dean came down and conducted a quick introduction. They sat in the shade for awhile, simply relaxing and letting the first time roofers take a break from their work. As they talked Ranelle decided that she liked Dean's sister, although she figured she would the first time Dean spoke of her. The woman was a lot like Dean herself was, in mannerisms. She was quiet but friendly, you just had to engage the woman in a conversation she was knowledgeable about and Rachel, like her sister, could become quite loquacious.
During a lull in the conversation, Ranelle broached a subject with Dean that she felt the tall officer would be interested in. "I passed my last class. The professor apparently loved my final project."
At first, Dean experienced a moment of total bewilderment until it clicked and she remembered their first conversation and how furiously the young blonde had been working at her laptop in the club, Rainstep. Dean looked over and raised her eyebrow. "Was there ever any doubt?"
Ranelle shrugged, "Well, no not really I was just kinda...." She trailed off, not sure where she was going with that train of thought.
"You were unsure and didn't have much confidence in your abilities even though you know how good you are. I told you that you had a good project."
And she had. After helping Ranelle with her little coding problem, Dean had taken a quick look at the entire thing with a brief explanation about the course and requirements of the final project. The officer had said it was good, in fact, Ranelle had gotten the distinct impression that Dean had even been impressed.
"Didn't you believe me?" The soft voice brought her back from her memories. She looked up into vivid blue eyes and very promptly discovered that her brain had suddenly decided to take a vacation. She completely lost the thread of the conversation and didn't hear a word of what Dean was saying. Very aware that she was sitting and staring like a brainless idiot.
Dean's forehead creased as she realized that she had lost her audience. Ranelle seemed to have zoned out. "Ranelle? Hey..." Dean waved her had in front of the blonde's eyes and when that had no effect she reached up and shook the woman's shoulder.
Ranelle snapped out of it and focused on the officer. "You alright?"
"Huh, oh, yeah I'm fine, great. What were you saying?"
"I was asking if you thought I'd lie to you about something like that?"
"Uh...." Ranelle was lost again. She had missed something, she knew she was missing something important here. Her brain had returned but seemed to have misplaced the events of the last few minutes. "Like what?"
Dean's eyebrows raised and she lowered her head, looking at Ranelle through shaggy black bangs. "Your computer program. Are you sure that you're okay?"
The blonde woman shook her head and smiled. "Yeah, sorry. I'm good. So anyway...."
They continued their conversation while Rachel continued her very interested observation of the two. She smiled a private little smile, leaping for joy on the inside.
The entire group had migrated inside pleading hunger, although the majority of the people present found it hard to believe that the tall Naval officer had anything to eat in her house.
Rachel, Scott, Anthony, and Dean were all sitting in the living room, Carmen having insisted that she would make something edible and that everyone else would simply get in the way. Ranelle decided to duck into the kitchen for a glass of water and a peak at her friend's fridge and cupboards.
She was pleasantly surprised to see a variety of food stuffs in stock and bestowed upon Carmen her very best questioning look. The older woman smiled, "The first thing I did when we got here was make Dean stop at the grocery store. I've know the woman for a long time and knew that she would hardly have enough for herself to survive on, never mind me and Anthony."
Ranelle nodded, "Smart woman." She turned on her way out of the kitchen with her water and stopped short. "Whoa." Carmen turned to see what had caught the young woman's attention.
"Ah, yes. Dean's had Anthony doing that constantly since we got here. They sat at the table for hours on end the first day, hardly moving at all. I'm not all together sure why."
The kitchen table was overflowing with papers. There were tons of them spread over the entire surface and falling onto the floor. Some were crumpled up in balls and laying on the floor around the overflowing garbage can. Upon closer inspection, Ranelle saw that they were drawings of a man's face. They all appeared to be the same person, but with different minute attributes.
The most common features were shaggy dark hair, a slightly crocked nose, dark eyes, and a scar bisecting his left eyebrow. He appeared to be in his mid to late twenties and from Asian decent. He wasn't a cruel looking man and there wasn't anything uncommon or peculiar about him at all. Ranelle was perplexed, wondering what was so important about this particular fellow. She would have to ask Dean.
Deciding to leave the issue alone until a more opportune time, Ranelle left the kitchen and joined the others in the living room. There was a lively conversation going on about several practical jokes that had been pulled during Dean's association with all of them. She settled back and listened intently.
They soon ate a meal of soup, sandwiches, and vegetables. It was very good and everyone passed on their compliments to the chef. Carmen accepted gracefully. Everyone continued their pleasant chitchat and Ranelle soon found herself fulfilling one of the reasons for her visit-- besides wanting to make sure that this motley crew of people hadn't killed each other.
"Dean," Ranelle waited until she had the older woman's attention, "my friends are taking me out as a celebration, I guess, for finishing my last class. Stacey very specifically said to invite you. I was going to anyway.... so I'm, ah, well, I'm asking if you'd like to go?" She seemed slightly hesitant, and for the life of her Dean couldn't figure out why. "I mean you don't have to if you don't want....."
"It's just that I'd lik...." Ranelle came to a halt. "Really? You'll go?"
Dean shrugged. "I don't see why not."
The young blonde grinned and nodded. "Awesome." The officer smiled, glad that she could make her friend happy.
"I hate to be the party pooper, but I really have to go." Everyone looked over as Rachel stood and stretched. Dean stood as well and walked over to her little sister. "It was great seeing you, Decano."
The larger woman smiled. "You too, Rach." Dean wrapped her sister up in a hug and lifted her up off the ground. Taking this opportunity since she was up by her sister's ear, Rachel whispered, "I like your new friend, I think she's good for you Dean. Hang onto her, okay?"
Rachel smiled as she was placed back on the ground. "Great, I'll see you all when I see you." With that, Rachel took her leave.
Eventually, Scott had to depart as well and Dean and Anthony took to the roof again, saying they were almost finished so why stop now. Ranelle decided to hang around and talk to Dean about all these drawings as soon as she got the chance. She was sure that that was going to be an interesting conversation.
The two Italians soon found their way inside again, with Anthony muttering and shaking his hand out. "What happened?"
"He hammered his thumb." Dean glanced at her friend then to Ranelle. "Three times." Anthony just pushed by and headed toward the bathroom, stilling shaking out his aching hand. The young reporter snickered and shook her head, sitting down at the kitchen table.
"What are all these?" She decided to be blunt and not dance around the issue, having realized that was the best way to get answers from the officer. Dean took a seat across from her and started sifting through the papers, looking for a particular one.
"When we were in the house in Portland and I was getting you out... the roof started to collapse and I had tripped. So I was kneeling on the ground just hoping that nothing would hit me..." she paused and continued to shuffle through papers, something of a nervous habit that Ranelle had noticed. Dean tended to fidget when she was unable to pace. "Anyway, while I was waiting for things to stop falling I had this... flashback I guess. Nothing like what happened in the car in San Diego... I just saw a man. Nothing about the people who were attacking us ever stood out so I figured this guy was important." Finally, Dean pulled a piece of paper out from all the others and handed it across to Ranelle. "This is him."
Ranelle took it and studied it, comparing it to the others. As she had noticed before, they were all different in some way and she wasn't going to question Dean's declaration that this man, out of all the others, was the one whom she remembered. "Ok... so what do we do with it now?"
The officer shrugged, "I'm not sure. I guess we should try and find out who he is... if he's in the Navy or anything like that."
They sat for several quiet minutes, with just the sounds of the house settling and the ticking of a wall clock that Ranelle just now noticed made any sound at all. "Well, we could fax a copy to Shelly... see if she can find any matches at her end. And we could run it anonymously in my uncle's magazine... asking if anyone recognized him. And I have a friend who'd run it in the newspaper for us."
Dean looked up from her intense study of the table, "What are the chances that that would come up with anything?"
"Mhh... they aren't very high.. I mean this man might not even be a US citizen, never mind the fact that he may have not ever been in Dallas, but it's worth trying... it'd make me feel like we're doing something."
"Might cause some problems for us, though. Someone could recognize him and come to the conclusion that we haven't let this drop. But... I'm willing to take that risk. You?"
The blonde woman looked up and grinned, "Are you kidding... this has almost got me killed several times... I wanna see these bastards caught. I'll deal with it."
Dean released a held breath. For a moment there, it had sounded like Ranelle would refuse, that she deemed the risk too high. So they had a plan now... more than what they had been operating with for the last few days. Granted, it was very tentative and may not result in anything besides drawing attention to themselves, but then again, it may help them crack this whole thing wide open.
When Anthony came back from licking his wounds they informed both him and Carmen of what they were going to do. The mother and son agreed wholeheartedly and convinced both Dean and Ranelle not to feel bad about also putting them at risk. The rest of the late afternoon was spent in comfortable silence, with light easy conversation breaking in. Ranelle took this opportunity to address something that had been running around in her brain since meeting the tall Naval officer. "We thought you were a guy, you know."
The sudden statement startled Dean from her thoughts and she turned abruptly on the couch to face Ranelle. "What?" They were in the living room, Carmen was in the kitchen fixing some supper and Anthony had left to retrieve some coffee.
"My uncle and I, when he first got the information on you and was telling me about the people involved. We thought you were a guy. They didn't tell Uncle Amark much about anyone, especially you, how were we supposed to know?"
Dean smiled. "Mhh... yeah. That's happened a lot. I guess I know why you looked absolutely flabbergasted when I walked into that club and told you who I was."
"Yeah. I was kinda shocked. So, why did your parents name you Dean? Is it after a relative or what?"
The taller woman shifted and smiled, "You know, I asked them that once. They said all the good names were taken."
"Uh-huh. They didn't want us to have common names that they seem to think are over used. With the exception of David we all have less common names."
"Come to think of it... I don't think I've ever known a Dean... or a Rachel... or a Slyvester. Guess they were onto something."
"Yeah, well your name isn't horribly common either so your parents must have had the same idea."
"Yeah, I guess you're right. I never really noticed before."
"Hmm... poor old Sly... he got teased more about his name than I did."
Anthony came strutting back into the room at that moment and set down three cups of coffee that he had somehow managed to carry into the room all at once. He settled his frame into one of the chairs and pushed back his shaggy dark brown hair. "Ah... discussing the origin of Dean's name, are we?" He smiled and took a sip of his beverage. "I think that anyone who gets to know Dean well enough eventually asks that question. As for Slyvester... who can blame them for teasing him? Wouldn't you have? I mean, come on... Slyvester and Tweety... that's what always comes to my mind when I think about your brother. And that cat sure wasn't very smart.. always got outsmarted by that little bird." He shrugged and continued with his coffee.
Dinner time soon came and they sat down to a delicious Italian meal. Soon after, Dean and Anthony were doing the dishes while Carmen relaxed. Ranelle slipped off to Dean's office, with the officers permission, to make a few phone calls.
The phone rang three times before it was answered by a rough voice. "Hello."
"Hey, Chuck, it's Ranelle Maloch calling."
"Ranelle, how have you been. I haven't heard from you in ages. How's your uncle?"
"I'm good, thanks for asking. Uncle Amark is the same as usual. Actually, I'm not calling just to say hi. I was wondering if you could do me a favor."
"Anything for you my dear, you know that. Shoot."
"Ok... a friend of mine is trying to find a man and we have this sketch of him. I was wondering if you could run the picture in the paper for a few days.. asking if anyone recognizes him. And if they do could they please contact the paper. We kinda need to stay anonymous so I really don't want you running my name or phone number in the paper, or that of my friend's. You think you could do that, and maybe take any calls about the picture?"
"Sure, sure. That wouldn't be a problem at all. Mind telling me what this is all about, though?"
"Uh.." Ranelle hesitated, "I think it would be best if I didn't say anything."
Chuck's normally gruff manner gentled as he asked, "Ya'll haven't got yourself in any kind of trouble with this stranger, here, have 'ya?"
"No Chuck.... it's nothing like what you're thinking. Thank-you, though, for being concerned."
"Well, if you're sure.... just remember me if 'ya need anything else."
"Great, Chuck, thanks a lot. I'll fax the picture over to you tomorrow, okay?"
"That's fine, Ranelle. And you take care of yourself, 'ya hear?"
The blonde woman smiled, "You too Chuck. Talk to you soon, bye." Ranelle hung up and sat back for a moment, soaking up the concern that had be shown towards her. She contacted every friend she had in the newspaper business and soon had their promise to run the picture as soon as they got it. They would ask if anyone recognized the man and if so to please contact the newspaper office. Ranelle would then be contacted and she and Dean would decide if it was legitimate and how to proceed.
Now all she had to do was make some copies, hand them out to her contacts, and wait. Dean would fax a copy to Shelly first thing in the morning with brief instructions on what she wanted done and to try and keep it quiet. They didn't want any unnecessary attention. She drifted back to the living room for a pleasant evening of chatting with friends.
The next few days passed swiftly and without incident. The pictures ran in the paper and nothing happened. But they both tried to be patient and wait, not getting their hopes up too high but still trying not to be overly pessimistic. Now it was fast approaching the evening of Ranelle's celebratory dinner and Dean was getting anxious.
It wasn't that she didn't want to go. That had never been an issue. She considered Ranelle a good friend and wanted to participate in celebrating her success. From what she could tell, the young blonde would have been done school quite awhile ago if certain obstacles hadn't gotten in her way. It was just the simple matter that Dean hated large groups of people. Especially large groups of people where she hadn't even met everyone before.
So the tall officer was pacing edgily out of her room, down the hall to the front door, and back into her room. She didn't know where they were going, Ranelle was going to swing by at 5 o'clock to pick her up and it was almost 4:30. And she didn't know what to wear. It wasn't even like she had a lot of selection in the first place, seeing as her closet was pretty much bare. But Dean didn't think that her regular jeans, t-shirt, and boots would be acceptable.
Carmen and Anthony were trying, they really were, but they just couldn't seem to calm Dean down at all. Carmen had peeked into the officer's closet in hopes to make a suggestion on her attire but she was absolutely astounded at the lack of clothing.
Mercifully, the doorbell rang. Seeing as Dean was at that end of the hallway in her pacing she simply opened the door and turned on her heel, continuing to pace. Anthony scurried over and pushed the heavy door back some more to reveal an amused Ranelle. Anthony sighed in relief. "Come in, come in. Maybe you can do something that will get her to stop walking around. I swear she's gonna put a rut in the floor."
Ranelle stepped through the portal and waved at Carmen, smiling when Dean came walking out of her room once again. The tall woman looked up and stopped in her tracks. "Oh, hi."
"Hi. Are you having some problems?"
Dean winced. "Eeyeah... something like that. You're early."
"Yup... come on." She marched determinedly off towards Dean's room with everyone following behind like obedient little puppy dogs. The three Italians settled on the large bed while Ranelle went to the closet and threw the doors open. She stared for several minutes and then turned.
"Very hard to believe?" Carmen put in her two cents worth and Ranelle just nodded.
The closet contained two pairs of jeans, another pair of pants that weren't jeans, four t-shirts, two button up shirts, two sleeveless shirts, and a pair of running shoes. It was the very bare minimum and doing the quick math in her head, Ranelle decided that it was just enough to last a week before you'd need to do laundry. Glancing to one side, she noticed two large suit bags and a pair of what could be considered dress shoes sitting underneath them.
"So is this a casual place or a dressy place or what?" Dean's voice broke through Ranelle's concentration.
"Um... well, Stacey wasn't very specific. She said it was somewhere in between being casual and really, really, dressy."
"You mean you don't know where we're going?"
"Nope. She just gave me an address and pointed me in the right direction in the clothing department." Ranelle turned and opened her light jacket, displaying a deep green dress that seemed to bring out her eyes.
Dean examined the dress with military efficiency, going so far as to stand, take off Ranelle's jacket and have the younger woman rotate very slowly. After that, the officer collapsed back on the bed with a groan. "I'm doomed." Ranelle's dress was simple but beautiful and eloquent at the same time. In other words, way out of her league. It wasn't too dressy or complex it was just right. Although, maybe it was the person in the dress that made it look so good. The officer considered that and decided that yes, it was the person wearing the dress that added to its beauty.
After a moments thought, Dean snatched up the phone and dialed a number from memory. "What are you doing?" Ranelle asked. Dean held up her finger as the phone was answered. She read off the address that Ranelle had and asked the person on the other end if they knew what was there. Dean thanked the counterpart to her brief conversation and hung up.
Upon everyone's questioning look the officer simply shook her head, collapsed again and repeated, "I'm doomed."
"Who was that?"
"What did he say?"
Dean opened one blue eyeball and rolled it toward Ranelle. "Majestätisch."
Everyone stilled for a moment and thought about that. It was a German restaurant, privately owned that had opened in Dallas a few years ago. It had been doing quite well for itself after a slightly rocky start where it looked as though the business may go belly up. Now it was know as a great place to get incredible authentic German cuisine and also as a fancy, expensive place with a stellar reputation.
Turning back to the closet, Ranelle reached in and slid the suit bags from the side into the middle of the closet. "What's in these?"
A dark head turned and that eye opened again, glancing at what Ranelle was referring to. "Uniforms." It was stated quite simply and Dean went back to sprawling on the bed. The silence pounded down on her ears and she rolled her head back once again and opened one blue eye.
Ranelle was standing at the closet with a large grin very slowly spreading across her face. Green eyes glanced over at Dean with a wicked glint that the officer had learned to associate with mischief, among other things.
"Oh no, nononononono!" Her other eye popped open and the tall woman practically levitated off the bed, "I'm not gonna.... there's no way... I can't..." Dean's spluttering wound down when she caught a glimpse of Ranelle's determined look and finally stopped all together. She raised her arms helplessly and shrugged, "Oh brother... all right..." She heaved a sigh and Ranelle grinned in triumph. Sha didn't even have to say one word.
Everyone vacated the room as the officer walked dejectedly to the closet and pulled out one of the suit bags. The door closed and everyone waited somewhat anxiously from the woman to emerge in her service uniform. Finally, the door opened and Dean emerged wearing the men's blue service uniform. It was a simple uniform, with the white shirt underneath the jacket and a black tie. The jacket was double-breasted with golden buttons. There were golden stripes circling the sleeves of each arm- three of them with a star on top. Dean had a hat tucked under her left arm. It was white and displayed the officer's crest on the front- a bird sitting atop what appeared to be a shield with an anchor on either side. The visor was black and sported two lines of what appeared to be leaves coming from either side. They, too, were gold in color.
The uniform fit well and Dean seemed almost.. dashing in it. The tall officer shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny and raised an eyebrow. "Well, do I pass muster?" Three heads bobbed in unison. "Good. So can we get this show on the road?"
"Oh, yeah. Right. Come on then." Ranelle turned and started back down the hallway to the front door. Dean shook her head and smiled. The blonde paused next to Anthony as the officer continued on ahead and whispered, "Lemme guess, size issues?"
"Huh?" Anthony looked up and then over at Dean, realizing that Ranelle was referring to her being in the men's uniform. "Oh, yeah." He nodded.
They reached the door and Dean paused, pushing open the small closet that housed any and all outerwear. She pulled out a light colored trench coat and pulled it on. Nights were getting cooler with December fast approaching and although Dean didn't think for a moment that she'd get cold, the coat was more for appearances. How many people walked around outside in uniforms without some kind of jacket? None... not that she could ever remember seeing.
Properly equipped for their night out, Ranelle led the way out through the heavy wooden doors only ten minutes later than she originally wanted to leave. It was going to be an interesting evening.
Pulling up to the restaurant, Ranelle was surprised to see three valets sanding outside the building. The duo got out of the car with Ranelle tossing her keys to the young man that came forward. She headed to the entrance and stopped short when she realized that her large looming shadow was no longer looming.
Ranelle turned to see Dean standing at the bottom of the three steps up to the restaurant, a hesitant look on her face. The blonde walked down and stood on the second step, putting her in line with Dean's neck instead of her torso. She looked up at the blue eyes that were so close and asked, "What's the matter? You look like you're ready to turn and run away."
"I'm ah.... I don't have a good track record in places like this."
"Places like what?"
"Like this," she gestured vaguely at the building, "fancy places that usually attract the snobby types. And I'm not fond of large crowds."
"Dean," Ranelle raised her hand to the officer's cheek, "if you're going to be horribly uncomfortable all night long you don't have to go. I'll take you back home if that's what you want."
Dean shook her head no. "No, this night is for you and finishing school... I wanna celebrate with you. I'll manage, I'm just sorta..." Dean trailed off and started fidgeting with her uniform.
Ranelle interpreted it as a nervous habit that the officer seemed to have, her replacement for pacing. When she couldn't pace she fidgeted with whatever she could get her large hands on. She paused for a moment and her brow scrunched, taking a moment to look at Dean from head to toe.
The uniform fit well but upon closer inspection she could see that if was a little baggy in spots. Around Dean's waist and a lot looser on her shoulders than Ranelle thought the officer would like her clothes. And it clicked. "Hey," Ranlle moved her hand to Dean's chin and tugged up, forcing blue eyes to come up and look at her, "You look fine, great actually. Everyhting fits just fine and anyone who thinks otherwise is scrutinizing you far too much, okay?"
The officer glanced down and shifted her shoulders. Everything felt different, loose and baggy. She hadn't worn this uniform in almost a year and a half and after all the weight and muscle she lost in the hospital, Dean felt very self-conscious. But if Ranelle thought she looked good, well, then she must. "Yeah?"
"Yeah, and don't worry about anyone else, 'kay? They don't matter a teeny tiny bit. Okay?" The dark head nodded in agreement. "Good. Come on."
They started up the steps, side by side this time, Ranelle's hand wrapped around Dean's muscled forearm. When they came to the door Ranelle spoke to the woman standing there. "We're meeting with people. Under the name Stacey O'Malley." The woman had been studying them and once Ranelle stated that they had reservations she glanced down at the papers on her little wooden stand.
"Yes, of course. Please, follow me."
Ranelle smiled up at Dean as they started following the woman, trying to reassure her that everything would work out just fine.
Brock looked toward the door for what seemed to him to be the hundredth time that night. He then looked over at Stacey and sighed, "Where is she?"
"Where are they."
"Yes, where are they."
"I don't know where 'they' are."
Stacey looked at Brock, annoyed. "No, you said she... but it's they."
"Huh? I was asking where Ranelle is."
"Yes I know, but you said where is she. Ranelle is not coming alone so it's where are they."
"Stacey! Would you stop that, you're confusing me!"
"Brock, honey," he glanced over at Joanna, "I think Stacey is referring to both Ranelle and Dean.. they are coming together."
Joanna smiled. "So she was just correcting your speech from 'she' to 'they'. Got it?"
"Ohhh... yeah, I got it." Brock gave Stacey the evil eye. "You coulda just said so you know, instead of being all vague."
Stacey grinned, "Yes, but it's much more fun to confuse the hell out of you."
Brock made a sound somewhere between a snort and a cough then sat back to continue the wait. "Well, I hope THEY get here soon, I'm starving." Stacey refused to comment on that and just resumed her conversation with Amark, who refused to be called anything but that.
"Hey, there they are!" Amanda's exclamation brought all the eyes toward the entrance.
Stacey and Brock smiled, seeing their friend walking beside the tall woman who was fast becoming a new and important friend.
Amanda and Amark raised their respective eyebrows upon seeing this person that they had heard so much about for the first time.
Joanna just gaped at the strange contrast. Tall and short, dark and light... even their outfits fit the comparison. Ranelle's shimmering green dress against Dean's dark service uniform with the unique ambiance of the Majestätisch as a backdrop. It was quite an amazing site.
The fashionably late duo arrived at the table and for moments on end no one spoke or moved. Everyone just sat staring at the standing duo, taking everything in until an exclamation broke the silence. "Navy Guy!"
Dean smiled at that as Stacey stood and came around the table. She was surprised, however, when the curly haired woman wrapped her arms around Dean in a hug. After a brief moment of shock the officer returned the affection gladly.
When the hug reached its end, Ranelle gently took hold of the officer's arm and guided the tall woman to one side of the table whose occupants stood upon seeing their approach. "Dean, this is my uncle Amark." The man stepped forward and held out his hand which Dean grasped and shook.
"Pleased to meet you, sir. Ranelle has spoken very fondly of you on occasion."
"And you Dean. But please, don't call me sir. Amark will do just fine." He leaned in as if sharing a secret. "Anything else makes me feel old."
Dean nodded, "Yes si... ummm, Amark." He smiled and slapped Dean on the shoulder before meandering back to his seat.
"And this," Ranelle broke into the conversation again, "is my cousin, Amanda." The young woman stepped up and ran her eyes over Dean in frank appraisal. The officer stood easily under the scrutiny, quite used to it after 16 years in the Navy. Finally, Amanda too stuck out her arm for a handshake.
"It's good to finally meet you, Dean. Ranelle's spoken of you a lot."
The dark haired woman just nodded and smiled, not having much of anything to say at the moment. Amanda sat back down and Ranelle once again guided Dean to another section of the table. "You remember Brock and we all know you know Stacey. This," they finally reached the end of the table and stopped, "is Brock's girlfriend Joanna."
The nurse stood and they once again went through the ritualistic greeting. Joanna smiled, "I'd say that it's great to meet you and I've heard a lot about you, but I haven't. So I wont lie and I'll just say it's great to meet you."
Dean smiled and chuckled low in her throat, "Likewise."
They were finally all able to sit and spent the customary few minutes reading menus in silence, while trying to decide what to eat. Ranelle scrunched her eyes up as she read the menu, or tried to. It was one of those menus that you never really understood what you were reading, even with the little captions under the names of the dishes. It didn't help at all that most of the names were written in German themselves. She hated places like this, always finding that she just had to take a chance and hope for the best. Usually she was very disappointed. Although...
Ranelle nudged the sturdy shoulder at her right and waited until blue eyes came around and latched onto hers. "Yes?"
"You ever been to Germany?"
Dean glanced around and saw that a few of their dinner companions were taking an interest in their conversation. "Yes, I have. Spent 3 months there, in fact."
The blonde nodded her head seriously. "Do you speak German?"
"Yes." A dark head tilted. "Why?"
Ranelle grinned. "Great, my stomach is in need of your services." She closed her menu and set it back on the table.
"It is. I'm afraid that if you don't give me some idea of what all this stuff is before I order, that I'll simply starve."
"Well, we can't have that." Ranelle shook her head adamantly.
The ordering of food didn't progress until Dean had answered all of her table mates questions on the different food selections and what would most likely yield the best results. The food came and everyone was quite pleased in the end.
Throughout dinner polite conversation was maintained, with the better acquainted people striking up involved conversations with each other. For the most part Dean was more than happy to just sit back and let it all wash over her, contributing the occasional comment or two. The reticent officer was dragged into a few conversations that turned into lively debates on many different subjects.
Ranelle excused herself to go to the ladies room and was not surprised when Amanda stood and followed her. "Hey Ranelle, you remember that day in the parking lot when you said someone tried to mug you?"
"Yes." Her tone was resigned to telling her cousin exactly what had happened, or at least what they thought happened. She had hoped that her cousin would have forgotten about that so she wouldn't have to suffer through 20 questions.
"It wasn't what you said it was, was it?"
Ranelle blinked a few times, sorting out the 'wases' and processing what she was being asked. "No, not really."
Amanda nodded. "I didn't think so. Soon as I saw Dean I remembered what you told me about what happened. Someone would have to be totally cookoo to try and mug someone walking with her." She paused and tilted her head. "So what really happened?"
Ranelle shrugged, "Basically what I told you only with a different motive. We were attacked in the parking lot, whoever it was pulled a switchblade. Dean beat 'em up and they went running into the night. I think she broke his wrist. We sorta ruled out robbery right off the bat.... Dean figured someone was trying to scare me away from something I was getting close to. Or maybe someone who didn't want to take the chance of me getting close."
Amanda was nodding and then she stopped. "Wait wait wait... waitjustaminute! You were working on the Navy thing.... Ranelle you aren't in trouble with this story, are you?! I mean..."
Ranelle could tell that her cousin was getting frantic and decided to put the other woman at ease. "Amanda, just listen to me, okay? We, Dean and I, think that someone doesn't want us to print what really happened over there. Dean discovered some disturbing information in San Diego and we had a little trouble in Portland but we're both fine and we aren't dropping this, all right? So don't try and talk me out of this story. We have a pretty good idea of what we're doing so just chill out."
Amanda reached up and rubbed her face, analyzing what she had been told. "Alright, but if anything else happens I wanna be told, you hear me? I don't like the way this feels, haven't since the parking lot thing. Deal?"
"Good. Now lets get back out there before they send a search party."
The duo walked through the heavy wooden door to a mostly dark house, just the hall light giving the illumination. It was obvious that Anthony and Carmen had turned in for the night. Ranelle was pleased with how the supper had gone, feeling she had adequately celebrated the completion of her schooling. She was ecstatic that Dean had actually emerged from the shell that she seemed to have around anyone except Ranelle herself and good friends like Anthony and Scott.
They moved over into the family room, Dean taking off her jacket and loosening the tie. The officer was surprised at how at ease she came to feel wearing the uniform again and how comfortable she had been in the restaurant. It had been a very good night and she was glad that she had gone. "Hey, Ranelle?"
"Why did you suddenly show up early today when you came to pick me up?"
"Oh, actually, I was with Scott before I came here and he suggested that I get over here early because you would probably be having a near panic attack." She shrugged. "So I went home, changed, and came out early."
"Oh... why were you with Scott?"
"Uh... for a job interview, actually."
Wide blue eyes turned to look into green. "You're kidding!"
Ranelle smiled. "No... that day you were fixing the roof I showed him some of my stuff. I had my laptop and he sorta planted the seed about working for him first so I took him up on the offer."
"And I guess he was impressed. He set up an 'official' interview date which was today."
"I'll say again, and?"
"Well......" Ranelle looked up and grinned into the tanned face, "he hired me."
Dean grinned and impulsively wrapped her arms around her friend. They ended up falling over onto the couch with Ranelle sprawled across the tall officer. "That's great! I'm glad you got the job... what exactly did her hire you for?"
"Oh, the R&D team."
The dark head popped up, "He hired you for research and design... our research and design team?"
"You make it sound like a bad thing."
"No, no, believe me it isn't. It's just the he must have been really impressed cause you usually have to work with the company for a few years before you get into R&D." She paused in thought and smiled again. "But I think it's perfect for you." Dean looked up at the green eyes hovering just above her face and smiled. "I'd love to see what you used to woo Scott with sometime."
"I'm sure that can be arranged."
They continued to lay there in comfortable, tangled silence until a soft voice broke the quiet. "Dean, can you tell me what happened... that night?"
Dean sighed and closed her eyes. She didn't need any more elaboration than that, she knew exactly what Ranelle was referring to. She knew this was going to happen, that it was inevitable. Eventually she was going to have to tell Ranelle exactly what happened in the Middle East. She had resigned herself to that and thought she was at terms with it. But she was scared. Scared because talking about it would bring it all back to the forefront of her mind. Dean knew that keeping it all bottled up inside wasn't going to help, that the pressure would just keep building until one day it burst and she really didn't want that to happen. But she didn't want to even think about the events that had taken place 10 months prior. Although, there's probably no better person in the world to talk to.
The silence lengthened until Ranelle thought Dean was simply going to say no. Then, the muscular body under hers moved and she found herself sitting shoulder to shoulder with the tall woman. "Okay."
Ranelle sat and waited for Dean to start, ready to support her friend at a moment's notice.
It's just another day in a long line of days that all seemed to blend into one another so as to be indistinguishable. There is nothing out of the ordinary about this day which is exactly why you will always remember it.
It dawns bright and early, becoming hot and humid in a hurry. The soldiers go about their chores and then fall back into their routines that developed over the three weeks in the middle of nowhere. You, too, do your usual tasks but despite nothing being amiss you feel that something is not quite right. You can't explain it, but as you were climbing out of your bed you got this feeling, nothing concrete that you were able to put your finger on, just a sense of foreboding. Deciding there was nothing you could do about it, you shrugged it off and went on your merry way.
You walk around the compound, ensuring that your men get their jobs done before falling to the usual tasks used to kill time. Often, men not on patrol or lookout would sit around and play cards, or crowd around the very small, black and white TV with horrible reception. A few of the more private people take to reading. But something is a little different this morning, the restlessness that had shown up in the last little while seemed to be heightened, as if they too could sense what you did in the morning. If you were honest with yourself, you would admit that this restless feeling had shown up long ago, not just recently.
They had been stationed there for three weeks now but it seems to you that the majority of men came down with cabin fever just inside a week. You started feeling it too, just a few days ago, and it makes you edgy and irritable. You don't like it.
You always fill your morning with a workout of some sort, finding that it exhilarates and just makes you feel better. So you start out, running down the steel steps all the way to the third sub-level. There, you drop and pump out an incredible number of push ups and sit-ups, then you start running back up to the top level. When you finish you go outside and walk to cool off, do some stretches and then head back inside.
Socializing with the soldiers is something that you don't do very often, except for maybe a select few who you consider friends. But you had been with these men for a few years now, been through thick and thin with them and you know them well, often getting talked into a card game or two. Today they try but you refuse, heading back down to the sub-levels to check on the support personnel and their work.
Lt. Anthony Bronce, a good friend and comrade, sees you on your way down and trots over. You smile warmly at him as he accompanies you down the elevator. Once it arrives you both disembark and head to the room that amounts to the operations room for the base.
You check in with the support personnel and they report that everything is fine and running smoothly. Just as you turn to go the lights flicker. Once. Twice. They go out and you, Lt. Bronce, and 11 support personnel and left standing in the pitch black dark. Not for long, though, as the emergency lights flash on.
Glancing around you demand what has happened. No one knows, everything was working just fine. You know that something is wrong, looking around at all the faces with their eerie red glow you can see that they know it too.
You are currently three levels below ground and have no way of knowing what is happening up top. You run over to the intercom and key the mic, asking for someone to respond. You release the button. Static. You repeat your request... nothing.
Then, a rough voice comes on, "Commander, we're under attack.... don't know who.... surrounded.... breached the base and we're fighting.... help..." The message cuts out, and you stand there for a few seconds, deciding.
Whoever is attacking can't make it down to the computers. If the lights are out that means the elevators won't work either. There are two stair cases. You turn to your friend Bronce, "Go to the weapons locker and bring back everything you can." He nods and goes to carry out your orders. You turn to the support personnel. "Start erasing the hard drives of these computers... we aren't going to be able to fight these guys off and they can't have what's on those." You gesture to the large main computers and the support personnel scramble to do as told.
Bronce runs back into the room carrying shotguns, hand guns, submachine guns and everything else under the sun. You start grabbing weapons, two .45's that you attach to your thighs, a shotgun swung over your shoulder, and machine guns slung across your chest. You gather together extra clips and bullets and turn to Bronce. "As soon as those drives are erased blow them up," you hand him some C-4, "stay here and protect these guys. I'm going to try and hold them off at the stair cases. Understand?"
Bronce straightens and salutes, "Yes ma'am."
You nod and leave the room, heading toward the south stair case. Once there you close the heavy steel doors and wrap lengths of chain around the handles and padlock them. You also jam a long metal bar through the handles and hope with everything you're worth that they don't decide to just blow the doors clean off the hinges.
Turning, you start back to the other stair case. You know that you don't have much time, that the enemy will start pouring down as soon as your men above become unable to hold them off any longer. You know that they are coming, from what you heard over the intercom everyone was already in bad shape.
You reach the stair case and start running up. Eventualy you get onto the first sub-level and wait where they will have to come down from the main floor. You get out two grenades and listen. Soon, the sound of running feet comes to your ears. You wait patiently until you know that anyone coming down will be hard pressed to turn around and avoid the blast radius. You turn to face the stairs and hurl the grenade into the stairwell. You jump back and hide behind a protruding wall.
The scramble of frantic feet is heard but it is for naught. The grenade explodes and with it goes a few of your foes. You whip the second grenade in too, just to be sure. You stand and head further down the hall, knowing that when more come they will clear this floor before advancing. Especially now that some of their men have been blown up.
Once again you wait patiently, hidden in a little niche that can't be seen from the stairs. When they come, it is in a large group and you get the first glimpse of your enemy. They are natives to this land, with dark skin and hair. Their faces are covered with bandanas, though, so you can't really identify them. You stand and let go with a hail of bullets from you submachine gun. They fall and yet more come.
You continue down the floors doing much the same thing, trying to eliminate as many of the enemy as possible.
And yet they keep coming.
Soon you are halfway down the stairwell to the last floor where Bronce and the support personnel await. You left a large number of dead above you but it seems as if for every one you kill another two come down the stairs to join the survivors. They are traveling in a rather large group now, so you must be making a dent in their forces if they are starting to rely on strength in numbers. You make a decision and kneel down where you are. After a few seconds of fiddling you retreat to the bottom and hide far away from the bottom of the stairs.
You wait, oh so patiently.
And they come, just as you expected. The beginning of the large group reaches the bottom and you press the button, detonating the last C-4 that you set on the stairs. A huge fireball travels up and down the stairwell, consuming all those in it's path and mercilessly continuing its journey of death, past bodies scrambling out of the way and swearing in a foreign language.
Again, it is for naught as every living thing on the stairs dies.
You rise, glad that it worked and sure that it has granted you a temporary reprieve. You run. You run as fast as you are able back to the support personnel and Bronce. You enter and are glad to see that the computers have been destroyed. You tell them all that time is of the essence and that everyone has to get out as fast as possible. So you lead them. To the southern staircase that you locked up. The other would be far too hard to travel after the abuse it suffered. And you are sure that the support personnel don't have a stomach for the dead bodies.
Your group arrives and you are overjoyed that no one has come through. You open the doors and send half the support personnel up with Bronce.... he wouldn't be able to protect more and even half is a stretch. You remain behind to protect the others from anyone who may come down the other stairs.
Something sets your senses off, and before you can react a canister comes bouncing down the steps in front of you and releases its contents. You turn your back and get as far away as you can as do the support personnel. It burns... you have no idea what it is.... it has no smell or color but it burns. Right through your clothes and it feels like it penetrates your skin. It is agony. Like thousands of nails penetrating your skin at once and then staying there to grind into bone and muscle. It stings your eyes and makes your nose and throat burn with the effort that breathing has become.
Soon after it came it dissipates, absorbed by the air and becoming harmless. But the damage has been done and your back and legs feel as if they are on fire. The majority of the support personnel seem to have escaped far enough down the hall but a few are feeling the effects just as you are. Grimly, you stand and push the agony into a corner of your mind, ignoring it. You decide you can't wait for Bronce... it's getting too dangerous.
You head up the stairs with the support personnel, a few of the more competent ones armed with guns. As you progress up you don't see anyone, living that is. Soon you are starting up the stairs to the main level. You send 6 support personnel up who happen to be escorting one of the injured men. You go with them just to make sure it is safe.
They all reach the top without incident and you get the idea of the damage done. The main floor is deserted, the air filled with smoke and a gas that you can't identify but you know must not be anything good. You tell them to cover their mouths and they do. You pull the bandana that you wear tied around your neck up over your nose and mouth and continue to gaze around.
Dead bodies are scattered all over, a lot of them your men and some of them that of the enemy. There are emptied shell casings all over the floor, along with abandoned guns. Furniture is tipped over, the cards are scattered all over the floor and through the thick clawing smoke and gas, you see the smashed remains of the TV with bad reception.
The support personnel are out now and heading into the forest toward the designated rendezvous point for crisis situations such as this. As you turn to head back down the stairs your warning bells go off with a vengeance. You turn back around, just in time to be nailed in the face with a fist. You tumble back down the steel stairs.
Ranelle sat on the couch in silence, listening as the impressive house made customary sounds that all houses make. The tall form beside her was rigid after Dean had come to a stumbling halt. Ranelle knew how hard that was for the officer, she had been fidgeting the entire time, shifting in her seat and Ranelle could tell that Dean really, really wanted to get up and start pacing. But she hadn't and Ranelle was somewhat glad, finding it hard to follow a narrative while the person telling it keeps turning away from you. Ranelle desperately wanted to hear more but she could tell that Dean was spent.
Slowly, the blonde head turned to take in her friend. Silent tears were running down the officer's cheeks, her eyes closed in remembrance. After hesitating for only a moment, Ranelle reached out and laid her hand on the strong arm beside her. Dean collapsed. The officer gathered Ranelle up in her long arms and just held on, seeking comfort that had been too long in coming and finally releasing the pain that she wouldn't, couldn't, display. Finally, after long last, it was coming to the surface and Dean could start to heal.
They sat there, just holding one another for long minutes seeking and giving comfort. Eventually, Dean pulled back and sat back on the couch, wiping her eyes with shaking hands. She sniffed a few times and Ranelle simply waited, giving the officer the time to collect her composure.
"Ranelle, do you remember when you asked me if I had any regrets?" The blond's mind worked furiously and finally lit upon a conversation they had had the morning after Ranelle had stayed overnight. She nodded. "I told you I didn't, but I did. I mean, I don't have them anymore, but out there when I thought I was dying I was convinced I was a fool for doing what I did. And for a long time in the hospital, too, I regretted it. I think I was feeling sorry for myself."
Ranelle didn't know what to say so she just grabbed the large tan hand beside her and held on. "It's really late... you can stay here if you want."
Raanelle looked at her watch to see it was almost 2 am, "That would be great Dean, thanks."
"You can stay in the same place as last time.. you remember where it is? I should..."
"No, Dean, everything is fine I'm sure. I remember where it is. You just go to bed and go to sleep... you don't look so hot." And she didn't, her eyes were puffy from crying and the large hands were still trembling slightly. "Okay?" The dark head nodded. "Good. I'll see you in the morning. Good night."
They traipsed off to their separate rooms and both fell into an exhausted sleep.
To be continued....
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