Copyright 2004 by Texbard

For disclaimers, see Chapter 1

Chapter 3

In a miracle of orchestration, the entire Nocona clan gathered around the large oak dining table, with Joseph at one end and Parker the other.  The other five adults and three children were scattered evenly along both sides, and platters and bowls heaped high with food covered the tabletop.  The smells sifting through the air made noses twitch in anticipation, and more than one stomach growled as the family settled in their seats, with the best linen napkins in their laps and a large glass of iced tea at each spot.

After a few moments of fidgeting, each face eventually turned toward Joseph, who waited patiently for his brood to quiet down.  It was dusk out, and the rain was still falling, a steady light soaking of the desert, bringing promise of an explosion of late fall color over the next few days, as thirsty foliage drank in the welcome moisture.  The thunder had dissipated, and the weather forecast predicted sun and much warmer temperatures by Friday afternoon.

Joseph cleared his throat and smiled at his family.  "Here we are again," he paused, and took a sip of tea.  "This year we welcome a new member to our gathering.  Carson, we're honored to have you at our table.  It's been many years since any of my children brought someone home for the holidays.  You must be very special to my daughter, and therefore, you're special to me."  He turned to his daughter's companion, who blushed to her roots and smiled shyly. 

"Thank you," she almost whispered.  "I'm honored to be here."  She reached out and squeezed his hand briefly, having drawn the chair immediately to his left.  She felt a light caress to her thigh under the table, before Kennedy rested her hand on it, leaving it there.

"We have a tradition in our home for the Thanksgiving holiday.  We don't say a prayer, for to us, prayer is a private matter, between a person and whatever being they worship.  Instead, we go around the table, and each of us names at least one thing they're thankful for.  So …" He looked toward his wife.  "Aileen, my love, I shall start us out, and then you go, and we'll give our guest the courtesy of going last."

Carson breathed an inaudible sigh of relief, and glanced over at Kennedy, who smiled and winked at her.

"I'm thankful to have all my children and grandchildren back this year, safe and healthy, and thankful for another year of prosperity here at Big Star Lodge, and most thankful for another year walking this earth with my lovely wife."  He picked up Aileen's hand and brushed a kiss across the back of it.

"You flatterer."  Aileen's eyes sparkled, and Carson finally saw the one characteristic Kennedy had inherited from her mother.  The blue was the exact same shade, and the sparkle, she realized, was the exact same expression she had often seen gazing back at her.   It spoke volumes of love, and she understood a bit more of the depth of Kennedy's love, seeing it in the eyes of someone who had been in love for so many years.  "I'm thankful we have a full house in December and through the holidays," she chuckled.  "It means the Christmas tree will have lots of surprises under it this year?"

She turned expectantly to Katie, who smiled and looked down the table at Nathan, who was seated next to his grandmother. "What are you thankful for, sweetie?"

Nathan rolled his eyes upward in thought, kicking his chair legs as his face grew sober.  "I'm thankful to have my two front teeth back."  He grinned, showing off said teeth, and everyone broke into laughter.

"My turn!"  Ryan bellowed out proudly next to his brother.  "I'm thankful for the Dallas Cowboys and the Texas Longhorns."  This resulted in more mirth, as the adults enjoyed a child's simple view of the good things in life.

"Good, sweetie."  Katie kissed him on the head.  She took a breath and clasped Parker's hand.  "Shall we, honey?"

"I think so.  Katie and I are thankful for the same thing, so we're going together."  He caught his father's eye and broke into a wide grin.  "Mama, Pa, by this time next year, you'll have another grandchild at the table."

"Oh my stars, you scamp!"  Aileen flew out of her seat, giving both her daughter-in-law and her son hugs, before she returned to her chair.  She looked around at the table, then at her husband.  "Seems to me everyone else was keeping this secret from us, judging by your lack of surprise."

"True."  Parker nibbled his lower lip.  "But not for very long.  We just found out this past week, and only told Shea and Carson yesterday."

"Congratulations, son."  Joseph nodded, his face beaming.  "And to you Katie.  My quiver overflows with the blessing of grandchildren."

"We're pretty excited about it."  She smiled back at him.  "This will be the last one, so we're looking forward to having our family complete."

"Ah, but look around us."  Joseph waxed wise.  "Our family is growing, and two of my children have yet to start families.  Who knows what we'll bring to this table in the years to come?  I may have to add a leaf to it.  Pete?"  He studied his rather quiet youngest son, who was busy arranging and re-arranging his silverware.

"I'm thankful to have my mid-terms out of the way," Pete mumbled, not looking up from his plate.  Joseph frowned, but let it pass, his eyes moving on to Erin.

"I'm thankful for my best friend Jessica," she warbled.  "And for Auntie Shea spending time with me this weekend."  She glanced adoringly at her aunt, who ruffled her head in response.

"And I'm glad to spend time with you too."  Kennedy's smile disappeared, replaced by a rather serious introspective expression, as she searched for words.  Finally, she took Carson's hand, chafing it as she looked deeply into her eyes.  "I'm thankful, this day and every day, for the miracle of Carson in my life.  Thank you, sweetheart, for your love, and for helping me remember that life is to be lived to the fullest, every minute we're given."  She bent forward, lightly pecking her stunned lover on the lips.

"I … I …"  The gray eyes welled up and spilled over, and everything became a blur.  "I can't."  She buried herself into Kennedy, sniffling as she tried to re-gain her composure.  "I'm just thankful to have you," she gasped out, grateful as someone found a tissue and pressed it into her hand.

"Well," Aileen attempted to draw some attention away from the couple.  Kennedy was gently stroking Carson's face, wiping the tears away, and as she watched, she leaned over and whispered in the blonde's ear.  The words seemed to have their intended effect, as Carson finally sat up and sheepishly glanced across the table.  "Who's ready for turkey with all the trimmings?"  Aileen hefted up a large platter.  "Shea, love, at one end of this plate is your tofurkey."

"Bleeckkkk."  Ryan wrinkled up his nose in disgust.  "Auntie Shea, you may have good taste in girls, but your taste in food sucks."  At that, the entire table burst out in yet another round of merriment, as plates were passed back and forth, and each person received more than they could possibly finish, loaded down their plates.

And so, the Nocona Thanksgiving meal began with a few happy tears, much laughter, a heap of love, and the hope of new life, a rather auspicious beginning to the holiday season.


Friday dawned sunny and clear, and an afternoon game of tackle football was in full swing in the large open area next to the barn.  On one team was Kennedy, Erin, and Ryan, and on the other, Parker, Carson, and Nathan.  It was a modified game, in deference to the children, especially since Nathan could not yet actually catch or throw the football, although if someone handed it off to him, he made a valiant effort at running with it.  Basically, whichever team scored three touchdowns first won, one point per touchdown, no extra point kicks or field goals involved.  There were very few rules, many of them made up as they went along.

It was tied up at two to two, and all six players were covered in a liberal layer of mud, leftover from the previous day's storms.  It made running a slow prospect, and tackling an ugly experience on several levels.  Kennedy and Ryan had scored a touchdown each, and Parker had scored the two for his team.

Kennedy crouched behind Erin, who hiked the ball back to her.  She pivoted, backing up and looking for Ryan, who was supposed to run by and take the ball from her, after which she would follow after him to block any would-be tacklers.  As she backed up, her shoe caught in the mud and came off, and she cursed, hopping on one foot, still trying to find Ryan.  As Ryan approached her, he slid down and took her out, tangling with her one stable foot, and she flipped over, landing flat on her back and releasing the football, which bounced once before Carson swooped by and scooped it up.

"Hey!"  Kennedy rolled and jumped up, running with one socked foot and one shoed foot as fast as she could, closing in on her lover, who was doing her best to sprint, given the two-inch thick globs of mud that coated the bottoms of both shoes.  Carson looked back and realized Kennedy was going to tackle her.  She held her breath and grinned, as Nathan came running across the field in his bare feet.

"Here.  Nathan, over here!"  Kennedy's arms closed around her waist, and as she fell, she handed the ball to Nathan, who whooped with all his might and took off.  He had two advantages -- he was light enough that he didn't sink into the goo as badly as the others, and both Ryan and Erin were too far down field to catch up with him, although they both screamed in outrage and put forth their best effort.

It wasn't enough, and his short legs were a blur as he neared the bales of hay that marked his goal.

Carson hit the mud, bracing her fall with her hands, but not enough to avoid getting a face full of mud, as Kennedy landed on top of her.  Both women looked up, as Nathan crossed the goal line and spiked the ball, doing a dance that would have earned him a celebration penalty in the NFL.  "Yeah.  I'm the man!"  He did a little rooster-like strut and both women burst out laughing.  Parker ran to the end of the field and picked up his youngest son, swinging him around with pride.

Carson rolled over with Kennedy still sprawled on top of her.  "Is that you under there?"  Kennedy ran one finger down Carson's nose, collecting a scoop of mud and wiggling it in her face.  "Man, you've got to be the dirtiest one out here."

"Oh yeah?"  Carson grabbed up a handful of reddish-black goop and smeared it onto the top of Kennedy's head, then grabbed her face with both hands and applied the rest to her cheeks.  "Not any more."  She smiled in satisfaction, which lasted all of two seconds before the wickedest grin she'd ever seen graced her lover's lips.  "Oh, no."  She tried to scramble away but found herself pinned under two strong thighs, as Kennedy sat on her and spread handfuls of the thick mud everywhere she could reach.

"Heheheh."  Kennedy reached for more mud and Carson took a chance, flipping her off.  The taller woman tried to gain her footing, but slipped and found Carson wrapped around her legs, as she effectively dragged her backward through the almost liquid mud puddle.  She grimaced as her shirt came untucked and she felt cold wet mud make its way inside her shirt, coating her stomach and sports bra.  "Oh, you are going to pay for that."

"Gotta catch me first … ooopmh."  Carson's face was one inch from the thick mess, with one of Kennedy's arms wrapped firmly around her body, while the other one pushed her closer and closer, and she took a deep breath, right before she got her second mud mask of the afternoon.  "You!"  She stood, wiping her eyes, and spied her nemesis only a foot away.  "Aaagghhhhhhh!" 

She body slammed her lover, and they both rolled over and over, getting more and more covered with mud, grass, and leaves, until they both resembled bog beasties, more so than humans.  An all out mud wrestling match ensued, both women dropping great handfuls of mud down each other's shirts and into the waistbands of their sweatpants.  They were both laughing hysterically, and ended up in a tangled mess in the middle of the puddle, Kennedy sprawled on top of Carson, pinning her with both hands and knees.

"You surrender?" she released one hand long enough to gather another scoop of mud.

"Oh, like that's a threat at this point."  Carson slapped the mud out of her hand and it landed with a thwacking sound next to them.  "But yeah, I surrender, so we can go shower."

"What do I win?"  Kennedy's face was completely covered, only the whites of her eyes and her very blue irises giving a clue as to her identity.  She felt two fingers, swiping the mud from her lips, and realizing her lover's intent, returned the favor, right before a muddy hand threaded through her equally-muddy hair, and their lips met for a timeless moment.  The kiss lasted until suddenly both women were hit with a strong spray of very cold water.

"Yikes!"  Carson released her lover, looking over toward the edge of the field, where Aileen stood, holding a hose that was aimed at them with deadly accuracy.

"Get up, the both of you."  She watched as two sheepish smiles appeared, the white teeth in sharp contrast to their blackened faces.  "I know this is cold, but neither of you are going anywhere near the house until I've hosed you down, so stand still and it will be over with faster."

"Yes, ma'am." Two voices spoke in unison, as they held hands and braced themselves against the icy blast of water.  It moved slowly and thoroughly from their heads to their feet, stopping in any spots that were especially muddy.  They both turned on command while she got their backsides, and they were visibly shivering by the time she finished.

"Done." The water stopped and they turned, as she tossed two towels at them.  They were old towels, reserved for just such activities, and they both gratefully wrapped up in them against the chill.  "Take your shoes and socks off when you reach the porch, and don't touch anything on your way upstairs.  Leave your clothes in the trash bag I've put in the bathroom up there.  Bring them down to wash when you've done showering."

"Yes, ma'am."  They watched her stalk off methodically toward the house, before Carson looked warily over at Kennedy.

"She mad?"  She snuggled against Kennedy's side, trying to borrow some warmth.

"Nah."  Kennedy draped an arm around her shivering lover, and guided her toward the back porch.  "We had many a weekend that ended with a good hosing when I was growing up.  She's used to it.  She just wanted to make sure we don't track any mud inside."

"Oh.  Never played much football growing up.  Kind of hard with only three of us."  Carson stepped carefully through the still-muddy back yard, and stopped as they reached the bottom step, and removed their basically-ruined tennis shoes.

Parker sat on the top step, sipping at a fresh cold beer and chuckling as they both started up the steps.  Katie had already taken all three children inside and down to a large shower that occupied one corner of the basement, rather than trying to get small muddy hands all the way up to the third floor.  "Man, oh man, what I wouldn't give to be a single college guy again."  He looked up at his sister and her companion, his eyes twinkling with merriment.

"Why?"  Kennedy stooped down, rolling up her sweats pants legs, so as to be extra careful not to get mud on the carpet inside.

"Because it would have been so much fun to go back to school next week and tell the guys I watched two chicks mud wrestle, make out, and then have a wet t-shirt contest."  He ducked as Kennedy tried to swat him with her wet towel.  "Wouldn't have had to tell them it was my sister.  Ouch!"  Carson caught him on the arm with her towel, and she and Kennedy exchanged a glance, before they both tackled him, getting the remains of mud and water all over him in the process, as his beer went flying and spilled down his shirt.  They both grabbed up muddy shoe and socks, smearing those down both his front and backside.

"Mama!"  Kennedy poked her head inside the back door.   "You need to come hose down Parker."

"Hey!"  Parker stood, looking down at the mess they'd made of him, and realized Kennedy was right.  "Watch your back, Shea.  You too, shorty," he growled at both of them, right before both women scampered inside the house and closed the back door.

Forty-five minutes later, Carson sat at the snack bar in the kitchen, clad in a clean warm sweat suit, her hair damp and gelled back.  After showering together, Kennedy had fallen asleep while Carson rubbed her back.  Not sleepy at all, she had left her to her nap and wandered downstairs to see what was going on.  Now she was munching on freshly baked oatmeal butterscotch chip cookies, alternating bites with sips of ice cold milk.  "Sorry for the trouble."  She meekly apologized to Aileen, who was busy putting away sandwich fixings from feeding the children.

"No need to apologize, Carson."  She placed a loaf of home-made bread in the bread box, and closed it, before she removed her apron and took a seat across from her daughter's … lover … she acknowledged.  It was strange after so many years, to think of her middle child as part of a couple.  She picked up a cookie, sniffing the warm sweet scent before she took a bite.  "Been a long time since I watched my daughter play like that."

"What about other holidays?"  Carson picked up a second cookie, deciding counting fat grams was pointless over Thanksgiving.  "These are sinful, you know."  She grinned at Aileen.

"Thank you.  Oh, they always play a game of football, but she's not been hosed down since she was in college, I don't believe.  She played, but her heart was never really in it.  She did it for Parker's kids, more than anything."  Blue eyes studied Carson, who looked all of sixteen years old at the moment.  "Five years ago, my daughter gave up on life, or at least the fun side of it.  I assume she's told you about Angela?"

"Yes."  Carson blinked, her eyes stinging in sympathy as she remembered the bitter tears Kennedy had shed the night she'd shared her story.  "She never got over that, did she?"

"Maybe she has."  Aileen watched Carson closely, as her statement sunk in.  "She's not had an easy time of it since high school.  About the time she made peace with her father and forgave him for her Comanche heritage, she told us she was gay."  High pale cheekbones reddened in shame.  "I didn't take it too well, and I know I let her down for a long time.  I …" she sighed.  "I thought it meant her giving up having a real life, or at least the life I wanted for her.  I was ignorant, Carson, and I did everything I could to try to convince her it was just a phase.  I wanted her to marry, and have a husband and children, and a house, all the things that to me constituted happiness.  And I was so afraid for her."

"Why?"  Carson chose not to comment, allowing her lover's mother to speak freely to her for the first time since they'd met.

"I was afraid she might be discriminated against, or maybe even physically harmed by bigoted people.  I didn't want her on a path that would make her life harder than it had to be.  I didn't understand how she could be gay.  I felt like I had done something to make her that way.  Boys were always buzzing around her, from the time she was thirteen, but she was never interested.  I saw it, but didn't want to see it.  She's such a beautiful girl."

"Yes, she is."  Gray eyes warmed and Carson's voice softened as she spoke. 

Aileen could clearly see the love in Carson's eyes, and said a quick silent prayer of gratitude for it.  "I finally went down to the university library and read up on homosexuality, and had my eyes opened.  I realized that I had to give up my notions of what is normal and what is not, and that Shea is exactly who she was meant to be.  It wasn't a choice, and there was nothing I could do to make her be straight.  So I sent her off to school in Santa Fe, and prayed for her every night."

"And y'all made your peace then?"  Carson poured herself another glass of milk.

"It was a gradual process, but yes, for the most part, I let her go.  I had to.  She had been so unhappy for most of high school, but in college and law school, and those first few years in Houston, she blossomed, or so we thought.  We didn't know she was still drinking and taking drugs until Angela died."  She looked down, clasping her hands in her lap.  "She told us all about her life and how she'd been living.  I think Angela was the first thing that had made her happy in a very long time, and that was snatched from her before it ever had a chance to grow.  The light went out in her after that night."

"I know," Carson commented quietly.

"Oh, she gave up the drinking and the drugs, and she began to build her career and her own law firm.   We were so proud of her for that.  She has that nice house out there on the lake, and the land, and the horses, and she takes care of Pete.  On the surface, she has everything."  She paused, taking another bite of cookie.

"But she wasn't happy."  Carson's own eyes reflected sadness at the lonely life she knew Kennedy had been living before they met.  "Neither was I."  She blinked and swiped away a tear.  "I know what loneliness is, Mrs … Aileen.  I don't have a family.  I'm sure she's told you that."

"Yes, child, Parker did, and you have a family now.  I hope you know that."  Aileen reached across, clasping Carson's hand.  "You're both much too young to be as alone as you were.  Here, my daughter, about to be thirty-three next week, and she might as well have been sixty, the way she's been living.  It broke my heart, because the one thing I knew she was missing was love.  I think she's found that now."

"She has."  Carson blinked again, looking down to hide her tears.  "Hey."  She looked up, her thoughts derailed.  "Did you say she is going to be thirty-three next week?"

"Why yes.  Didn't you know?"  Aileen pushed another cookie across to Carson.

"No.  "Actually, we've been together only a few months.  I don't think we ever talked about birthdays.  Guess we should.  Mine is December 8th, so it's coming up too.  What is the exact date of hers?"

"November 29th, next Wednesday."  Aileen smiled.  "Will y'all still be here then?"

"I think so.  I think we'll be getting back from backpacking on Tuesday, and were planning to stay through until Friday."  Carson nibbled her lower lip.  "Where's a nice dinner place around here?"

"The Gage Hotel, down in Marathon."  Aileen laughed.  "It's about the only place, actually, but it is nice, good food, good wine, and you can get a candlelit table if you want it.  Nice rooms, too."  She watched Carson blush again.

"Hmmm."  Carson found her own smile.   "I'll have to make some plans between now and then.  Oh, gosh.  I need to get her a gift."

"I think you already have."  Aileen patted her hand.  "Carson, I didn't finish what I wanted to say to you.  I made peace with my daughter's sexual orientation several years ago.  All I've wanted for her since then is for her to be happy.  When she looks at you, I see joy in her eyes I haven't seen in years.  She adores you."

Carson blushed and looked down.  "I adore her too," she spoke softly.

"Oh, I know you do, honey.  And I think she's finally found that happiness I wanted so badly for her."  She tilted her head, waiting for eye contact, smiling gently when she got it.  "I know two months is a short time, but have you two discussed the future?"

"In vague terms, yes."  Carson's forehead wrinkled in serious thought.  "This is all kind of new to me, and she's been very patient.  I've never had a girlfriend and never lived with anyone before, at least not as a couple.  If you're asking if we've made a long-term commitment, no, we haven't, not in so many words."  She looked up, balling her hand into a fist and holding it against he chest.  "But I know what I feel inside.  I love your daughter, with all my heart.  That much I can tell you and be sure of."

"I have no doubt, Carson.  It's written all over your face."  She stood, leaning over , bracing her weight on the counter.  "I want to ask of you one thing."

Carson tilted her head in question.  "I'll do my best.  What is it?"

"Take care of yourself."  She cupped Carson's face briefly and patted her cheek before she stepped back.  "She needs you."

"I'll go you one better."  Carson smiled.  "I'll take care of her, too, because I need her every bit as much."  Their eyes met for a long quiet moment.  "In fact, I think I'll go see if she's still asleep."

"Alright.  She needs to be up in time for dinner, and that will be in another few hours."  Aileen watched thoughtfully, as Carson disappeared up the stairs.

Carson walked quietly down the hallway, listening intently as she opened the door to Kennedy's room.  She heard a few soft whimpers and watched as her lover's hands twitched and her body jerked a few times.  She mumbled a few incoherent words in a frightened tone, and Carson was at her side in an instant, reaching out to smooth a frown from Kennedy's high forehead.  "Shhhhhh."  She carefully lay down next to her, stretching out on her side and stroking the dark head.  "Damn.  Been a good week since you've had any bad dreams."  She bent close, whispering quietly.  "It's alright, honey.  Everything's going to be alright."

Blue eyes fluttered open in confusion, and Kennedy looked up, gradually becoming aware of her surroundings.  "Oh."  She closed them again in relief, her heart still pounding against her chest.  She took Carson's hand and slipped it inside the terry robe she still wore, placing it against her chest.

"Oh, honey."  Carson leaned across, taking Kennedy into her arms.  "Feels like it's going to beat right through your skin."

"I know," Kennedy rasped out, her voice thick with sleep.  "I had that dream again, where you were kidnapped, and I couldn't get there in time, and you …"

"I died?"  Carson kissed her on the cheek.  "I assure you I'm very much alive, thanks to you."

"Carson, don't you ever die on me, promise?"  She burrowed into the warm embrace, feeling Carson wrapped around her like a comforting security blanket.

"Funny, I just promised your mother I'd take care of both of us."  She stroked the dark head, feeling Kennedy grow still.

"You what?"  Her dream forgotten, she pulled away, just enough to see Carson's face.

"I just had a mother-daughter chat, kind of, only it was me and your mother."  She smiled at the alarm in Kennedy's eyes.  "Relax.  I think I passed."  She swatted Kennedy's butt.  "And you failed to tell me your birthday is Wednesday."

"You didn't ask."  Kennedy smiled, lifting Carson's sweatshirt and nibbling at her stomach, memories of her lover covered in mud and water spurring her on.

"I know, but now we're here and I didn't get to make any plans for it before we left Austin.  Oh …"  Warm lips tugged at her navel ring, sending a jolt of pleasure directly to her groin and nipples.

"Plans are way over-rated."  The sweatshirt came off, followed by the sweatpants.  "Spontaneous is pretty good sometimes, don't you think?"

"I … oh …"  Warm lips moved up, and Kennedy circled her breast with light kisses and flicks of her tongue.  "Yeah.  Spontaneous is good."

"Heh."  Kennedy removed her own robe, and went to work in earnest.


"So."  Carson bounced a little as she sat on the end of the bed, her denim-clad legs crossed.  "This place we're going tonight, it's one of your old hang-outs?  'Cause I really want to see all the places you used to go when you lived here."

"Hmmm.  Yeah, sort of, keeping in mind I wasn't old enough to drink when I actually lived here.  This was more of an early adulthood hang-out when I was home from school, although after I turned eighteen, I could usually get in.  'Course we did our share of hanging outside places like this one, begging people to buy us beer."  Kennedy turned, tucking a long-sleeved powder blue button-down into her faded slightly-ripped jeans -- ripped at the knees, with frayed bottoms.  The edge of a white ribbed tank top peeked out above three un-buttoned buttons, and she wore her nickel-plated black cowboy boots and a matching black-tooled-leather belt, which she cinched up with its plain silver buckle.

"Have you changed much since back then?"  Carson swung her legs over the edge of the mattress and reached down, tugging on her own black cowboy boots.

"Well, maybe a few tiny lines, and I weigh a little more."  Kennedy considered, looking in the mirror as she raked her fingers back through her hair to order it.  "The hair's the biggest change."

"How so?"  Carson stood, smoothing down the front of a soft black suede shirt that was tucked neatly into the waistband of her jeans.  The shirt had fringe on the sleeves and along the yoke, along with a few silver studs.  She also tugged a woven black belt through her belt loops and smiled as Kennedy moved in to buckle it up.

"My hair was long and straight, down to my waist, until I started interviewing for jobs my last year of law school."  She gave Carson's hip a pat.  "I'm usually unbuckling those for you."  She winked and smiled, before she turned back to the dresser, grabbing up her wallet and tucking it into her back pocket, snapping a shiny wallet chain to a belt loop, to ward off pick pockets.  "You got a chain too, or do you want me to carry your ID and cash for you?"

"It was down to your waist?  Wow."  Carson tried to picture it.  "Um, I think I packed my chain."  She rummaged around in her overnight bag.  "Yeah.  Here it is."  She quickly snapped it onto her wallet and they were ready to go.

"Harley or 4Runner?"  They made their way down the stairs and outside, pulling on their leather jackets against a slight chill, as they stopped on the porch.

"Are you nuts?  Harley of course."  Carson took her hand and impatiently dragged her back to the barn.

"Alright, but it'll be cold."  It was a clear crisp night, with a hint of winter in the air, though it was almost a month away.

"Nah."  Carson practically skipped along, swinging their arms.  "You'll be cold.  I'll be behind you.  You're my wind block."

"Oh, fine.  Glad I'm good for something."  Kennedy rolled her eyes, but smiled.  They reached the barn and donned their helmets, along with the chaps, and soon they were off, racing down the narrow highway under a star-lit sky.  The moon was rising, splashing a pale glow across the land, accentuating the many dips and hills that led up to the taller mountains in the distance, and lending a ghostly quality to the vast landscape.

In no time, the town was behind them, and they veered off the main highway onto an even narrower road with no marker.  It zigzagged several times, and Carson held on, feeling Kennedy's body leaning into the turns, balancing the bike.  She wished there were a way to mute the engine's noise, so she could hear the sounds of the night creatures she knew they were missing, especially the coyotes they had heard the first night they were there.

Almost too soon, a cluster of red, white, and blue lights appeared up ahead, and gradually a long low building took shape, along with a parking lot full of cars, trucks, bikes, and even a few big rigs, off at the far edge of the property.  As they drew closer, several neon beer signs grew clear, hanging from inside the windows.  Up on a pole was another sign with the words "Armadillo Flats" in red scrolled lights, along with a whimsical lighted gray armadillo wearing a cowboy hat and holding a tall mug of beer.

Kennedy swung into the parking lot and pulled into a row of motorcycles.  As she cut the engine, raucous honky-tonk music poured from the open doorway, along with the sound of shattering glass, followed by a long string of colorful profanity.  A large man stumbled through the front door, aided by a forceful shove from an even larger man, apparently a bouncer.  "Get on out of here, ya drunk bastard!"

"Ah'm shottaly tober … shottaly shober … ahhhhhh!"  The first man waved an exasperated hand, and teetered on the bottom step, then extended his leg in an exaggerated fashion and weaved toward the cars.  He spotted the two women and paused, re-adjusting his direction, and with great effort, moved toward them, only losing his balance twice in the process.

"Trouble," Kennedy mumbled under her breath, placing herself between Carson and the man.  Six feet away she could smell the whiskey on his breath, and could see his unfocused brown eyes, along with a very red nose and a heavy dark five o'clock shadow.

"Ladies." He attempted to tilt his hat and dropped it.  "Dang it!"  He bent over, trying several times before he managed to pick it up again, slapping it back on his head in a lop-sided manner.  "Can I offer y'all a drink?"  He hiccupped, and produced a leather-covered flask from his jacket pocket.  "Shack Zaniels … errr.  Zhack Daniels?"  He took a healthy swig of the whiskey and held it out toward them.

"No, thank you."  Kennedy edged around, trying to head toward the front door.  They had just removed their chaps, rolling them up and locking them in a saddlebag.  The helmets were also clipped to a locked chain and left sitting on the seat of the bike.

"Say."  He squinted.  "Y'all are new 'round here, aren't ya?"

"No.  From here.  If you'll excuse us, we're going on inside."  She started to turn and felt a powerful grip on her arm.

"Aw, now.  Come on out and party in mah truck fer a while."  He started to pull her toward him and pursed his lips, re-doubling his efforts when she barely budged.

"Sir, you'd best let go of me now."  She grabbed his hand, trying to un-pry his fingers from her biceps.

"Let go of her."  Carson stepped up next to her lover, the smoke practically curling from her ears.  She wrinkled her nose at his stench, and balled her hands into fists at her side, prepared to defend if necessary.

"Wahll, aren't you a cute li'l thing."  He let go of Kennedy, reaching toward Carson, only to find his hand grabbed and squeezed until his knuckles all cracked.  "Hey!  That hurts."

"Yeah."  Icy blue eyes were in his face.  "You are going to turn around and leave us alone, or I'm going to hurt you a whole lot worse."  She started to bend his wrist back for emphasis, and ducked, just as his free fist swung at her.  She released his hand and spun around, nailing him in the groin with a metal-plated boot toe.

"Arrhhhggg!  You bitch!"  He grabbed himself and dropped to his knees.  "You're gonna pay for that."  Suddenly, his world began to spin, and his face turned pasty white.

"Let's get inside.  This is gonna get really ugly."  She grabbed Carson's hand and ran for the door, entering the bar just as the sounds of retching reached their ears.

The bouncer had been watching the entire exchange from the doorway, and he grinned broadly at them, one gold front tooth glinting in the low lighting.  "Been wanting to do that to that bastard for years."  He nodded graciously to the two women.  "Ladies, welcome to Armadillo Flats.  Mosey on up to the bar and tell old Bill back there your first drink's on Tiny.  I'll take care of him if he tries to come back in here."

"Um … thanks, Tiny."  Even from her 5 feet 11 inches, Kennedy had to crane her neck to look up at the man, who was easily three times her size in girth as well.  "Carson."  She placed a hand in the small of Carson's back, steering her through the crowd to the plain bar, pulling up two padded vinyl and chrome bar stools and checking them carefully for grime or beer before they sat down.  She ordered up a longneck Mexican beer for Carson and a bottle of root beer for herself.

She smiled as the drinks were delivered.  The root beer came in a dark brown bottle, and looked enough like a regular beer to keep ignorant cowboys from giving her grief about not having a 'real' drink, and insisting on buying her one.  She took a sip, her eyes scanning the entire room, taking in the local color she'd all but forgotten since her years in Austin.  "Been a long time since I've been in here."

"Yeah?"  Carson sat back on her stool, leaning against the bar and propping one elbow up on it.  "See anyone you know?"

"A few, yes."  She casually draped one arm across the bar behind Carson, not quite touching her shoulders.  "Place hasn't changed much, although I don't remember Tiny.  Bill, I do, vaguely.  I think he was a few years behind me in school."

"So what did you used to do here?"  Carson cringed at an off-note from some yodeling singer blaring from the jukebox.

"Drink beer, score pot, cruise chicks, and raise hell."  Kennedy's face was smug.

"Cr … cruise chicks?"  Carson looked around the bar, which fairly oozed with testosterone.

"Not like I had Gaby & Mo's to work with here."  She gestured toward two girls who were dancing together.  "Funny thing, two girls can dance together and no one thinks much of it, 'cause we've been doing it since like second grade.  But if two guys were to dance together in here, they'd be run out of town on a rail."

"But how did you figure out which girls were interested?"  Carson's brows knit in confusion, as she studied the various women in the place.

"Little things."  Kennedy leaned closer.  "Eye contact, partly.  Body language -- how close they'd get when I'd talk to them, stuff like that.  Sometimes if I was fairly certain of the interest, I'd ask them to dance.  Nothing too slow or romantic, or anything like that, but usually, the signals sent off dancing would be enough to seal the deal."

"What deal?"  They had had a discussion about the past before, and she knew Kennedy had not done a lot of sleeping around.

"Sometimes I could get them to go out back to my truck and make out for a while."  She looked down for a moment, until she felt a gentle touch to her thigh.

"It's alright, honey.  You had to learn somewhere, right?"  She resisted the urge to give Kennedy a quick kiss.

"Yeah, I guess so."  She managed a small smile.  "It was easier once I got to Santa Fe, but this place, especially the summer after my senior year of high school, I could sneak in.  Not like they checked ID much.  But that summer, I'd come out to my parents and I was so curious, trying to figure it all out."

"Bet you broke some hearts."  Carson leaned back slightly, until Kennedy's arm across the bar was touching her back.

"Yeah.  Didn't mean to.  I was like a wild thing.  I wanted so badly to know what it was like to be with a girl, but I was so afraid.  I did a lot of making out before I ever got brave enough to go any further."  She glanced around, noting pairs of mostly male eyes admiring them, along with a few pairs of female ones.  "A few of the older women I hooked up with couldn't figure out why I wouldn't go all the way with them, because for them, it was no big deal."

"But it was to you?"  Carson almost whispered.  This was something they hadn't discussed, and she prodded carefully.

"I didn't want to lose my virginity in my pick-up truck to a one-night stand."  Kennedy spoke softly.  "I was realistic enough to think that I might not be able to hold out for true love, but I at least wanted to have some sort of relationship or feelings for the person I had my first time with. So when I finally did …."

"Shhhhh."  Carson covered her lips with her fingers.  "Not here, please.  I would like to hear about it, but not here, in this place."

"Alright.  It'll keep 'til later."  She brushed a kiss across the fingers.  "Lord," her eyes warmed as they wandered over Carson.  "I have got to remember to be cautious in here, and that is going to be so hard to do, because you look beautiful, and that shirt is so nice and soft, and the lights look really nice in your hair."

"Thank you.  You look pretty hot yourself."  Carson sat closer still, smiling as Kennedy finally placed her arm snugly around her shoulders.  "We can dance, though, can't we?  I mean at least some of the faster songs."

"Absolutely."  Blue eyes narrowed as a young man started to approach Carson, and her hand unconsciously dropped possessively around Carson's shoulder.  Her face remained stony, and she watched him visibly swallow, before he thought better and moved on.  "Mine," she growled, a bare whisper that even Carson couldn't make out.

Carson tapped one foot against the crossbar on her stool, in time to the music, and drained her beer bottle to half-full.  She considered ordering a tequila shot and decided to wait a while.  She was about to ask her partner to dance, when a tall thin man approached them, his skin much too pale for someone who lived in the west Texas sun.  His light brown hair fell haphazardly across his forehead, and his face bore a somewhat haughty expression.  "Shea Nocona."  He bellied up to the bar, getting way too far inside Kennedy's personal space, to Carson's eye.

"Hello, Rick."  She didn't smile, and Carson could feel a slight tension in the arm at her back.  Kennedy sat up straighter, her jaw muscles also tensing, as she turned slightly, but not fully, toward the man.  "Long time."

"Too long."  He gave Carson the once-over and dismissed her, turning his attention completely toward Kennedy.  "You home for the holidays?"

"We're home for the holidays, and a little backpacking.  Then back to Austin."  She set her empty root beer bottle down accepting a fresh one that magically appeared from Bill behind the bar.  "Thanks," she nodded at him, smiling briefly.

"You need a little recreational addition for your backpacking trip?"  He spoke low, leaning ever closer into her space, hovering almost in her ear.  "I've got quite a selection out in my truck."

"No, thanks."  Kennedy scooted away from him slightly, almost, but not quite, pressing against Carson in the process.  "I'm not into that anymore."

"Not even a few little hits?"  He moved around, taking a sudden interest in Carson.  "Your friend going with you?  Maybe she'd like something?"

"No."  Kennedy swung further toward Carson, placing one boot on the sidepiece that supported the legs on Carson's barstool.  "She wouldn't."

"Maybe she can speak for herself."  His humor was gone.  "I've got some primo weed out back, little lady.  Some Ex.  Even a little coke.  What do you say?"

"No, thank you."  Carson also sat up taller, feeling Kennedy's arm curl tightly against her shoulders.

"Man, you are so not like your brother."  He almost sneered at them, his eyes roaming up and down Kennedy's long form.  "I'd heard you'd become a dyke, and a totally uptight do-gooder.  Guess I heard right."

"What …"  Kennedy stood so swiftly her barstool almost toppled over.  "… do you mean by that?"

"Dyke?"  He laughed cruelly.  "Maybe you and your little friend can go outside and give me a show, 'cause I know you know what it means."

"No."  She brushed off the insult.  "What do you mean about my brother?"

"He's been in here every night since he got home.  This is the first night I haven't seen him, come to think of it."  He looked around quickly, as if to confirm his statement.  "Too bad.  He's been my biggest customer this week.  Guess he's doing alright for himself back in Austin, huh?"

The rage rose up so fast there was no stopping it, and before she had time to think, she'd slammed him against the wall, one arm twisted behind his back between his body and the wall, one forearm across his throat, and one threatening knee in his groin.  "Stay away from my brother."  She pressed harder, watching his face turn red as his Adam's apple was constricted.  He coughed, unable to speak, and started to struggle.  "Don't move, unless you want to get to know this knee even better."  He stopped fighting her and made a choking noise.  "You sell so much as another gram of anything to Pete, and I will come find you, and you'll wish I'd killed you by the time I'm done.  Understand?"

She cautiously released him, as he nodded affirmatively.  She was bigger than him, and packed with a lot more muscle.  He shook his arm, and grasped his neck, trying to make the choking sensation go away.  "Careful there, Shea.  You might start to squeak when you walk."

She rolled her eyes.  "You sold him something last night?"  He hesitated and she moved toward him.  "Yes, or no.  Just tell me, because I'll find out anyway when I get home."

"Yeah."  He nodded, looking over her shoulder to where Carson stood, her eyes wide with apprehension.  "Bag of pot."

"Just pot?"  Her eyes narrowed, snapping with anger.

"Yeah, just pot."  He straightened his shirt collar in a dignified manner.  "Are we finished?"

"For now."  She turned her back on him and strode back to the bar, feeling her insides shake.  "Bastard," she muttered, picking up her root beer and gulping down most of the cold frothy liquid, watching her hand tremble slightly as she set it back down.  She felt eyes on her to her right, and turned.  "Oh, good lord.  I should've known where there is Frick, Frack wouldn't be too far behind."

"Shea."  A much-more attractive man tilted his head at her, a smug smile on his face.  A sandy-colored moustache twitched in amusement, and his ruddy complexion was much more in keeping with the desert sun and wind.

"Not funny, Tom."  She leaned back against the bar.  "You two haven't changed at all in the fifteen years since I left this place.  Isn't it about time you earned an honest wage, instead of selling crap to innocent kids?  I'm half a mind to turn you both into the sheriff."

"I wouldn't, if I were you."  The smile disappeared, and his face grew icy cold.  "Word of warning, Shea.   We'll leave your baby brother alone, but you go on back to your rich-bitch world in Austin, and stay out of our business.  You'd be just like us, if you hadn't left, and you know it."  He stalked away from them, gabbing Rick by the elbow before they made a speedy exit outside.

Kennedy's sat down, resting her forearms on her legs as her head hung down.  She played with the fringe in the rips at her knees, until two hands appeared in her line of sight, resting gently on her thighs.  One hand came up, cupping her face and tilting it up.  "You wouldn't be like them."

"That's the thing," she closed her eyes in pain.  "I would."

"Did you sell drugs back then?"  The dark head shook negatively.  "Ever?"  Another shake.  "Then you weren't like them then, and you wouldn't be like them now if you'd stayed here."

"You can't know that."  Kennedy swallowed and opened her eyes, finding serious gray ones less than a foot away.

"I can too."  She clasped one hand over her heart.  "I know, in here.  Come on."  She enfolded a warm hand with one of her own.  "Let's get out of here."

"Where do you want to go?"  Kennedy allowed herself to be led across the floor and out the door, edging through the growing crowd.  She took a deep breath of the cold fresh air, glad to be out of the smoke and the noise.

"Anywhere."  Carson fished in her lover's jacket pocket, finding the bike keys.

"I'm sorry I took you here."  Kennedy shoved her hands in her pockets, dragging her feet in a dejected manner as they walked toward the bike.

"I'm not."  Carson tucked a hand in her elbow.  "Now you know who was selling drugs to Pete.  What are you going to do about it?"

"Have a talk with Pete, first.  Then with Parker."  She shook her head in frustration, feeling a growing internal warmth she suspected was residual anger and adrenalin.  "We'll most likely turn them in.  I don't think I can just let this go, even if they did used to be my friends."

"Whatever you decide, I'm here to support you."  They reached the bike and re-donned their chaps, and took off.  The cold air felt good after the heat and chaos of the bar, and Kennedy flipped her visor up, enjoying the wind full in her face.  As they neared the main highway, she blinked, trying to clear a sudden blurring of the stars overhead and the lines in the road.

She shook it off and turned onto the highway, revving the engine and laughing giddily, as a feeling of euphoria slowly came over her.  The blurriness returned, and the bike wove, crossing the line before she managed to right it.  She felt Carson's arms almost squeeze the life out of her, and she laughed harder, feeling prickling heat all over her skin.

"Kennedy, stop the bike, please!" Carson yelled in her ear, and she automatically obeyed, slowing and pulling to a stop.  She braced one leg, swinging the other over the saddle as Carson jumped off first.   She tried a couple times before she got the kickstand locked in place, and let go of the bike.

"Oh, my lord." She laughed again, watching the moon blur and dance a little in her vision.  The warmth grew, flooding her system, and she unzipped her jacket, ripping it off and tossing it across the bike saddle, along with her helmet.

"Honey, what's going on?"  Carson took off her helmet and warily approached her, having watched the little display from a safe distance away.

"Those bastards."  Kennedy draped one arm across Carson's shoulders in a sloppy manner, pulling her close as she brushed a kiss across the pale head.

"You're sweating."  Carson dabbed damp beads from her lover's upper lip, then swiped a hand across her forehead.  "And you have a fever.  Honey, are you sick?"

"Noooooo."  Kennedy giggled and hugged her again.  "Those bastards must've put Ex in my root beer."  She felt dizzy, and leaned on Carson for support.  "How do you feel about pushing the bike home?"

Carson looked down the lonely stretch of road, spotting a solitary light way off in the distance.  Her heart was beating wildly with fear, and she took deep breaths to calm herself.  She had no experience with ecstasy or any other drugs, and fervently hoped whatever it did wasn't too serious. "You may feel hot, but you're gonna catch cold if you don't put this back on."  She grabbed up Kennedy's jacket and helped her put it back on.   "How far is home?" 

"Too far."  Kennedy tried to gather her wits.  "Let's push it over behind some trees off the road out of sight, and we can come back for it in the morning."

"Alright."  Carson guided her back to the Harley, and realized Kennedy was in no shape to try to hold it up.  "You get the kickstand up, and then get out of my way, okay?"

"Okayyyy."  Kennedy hugged her again and complied.  "Oooo."  She ran a finger along Carson's soft faded jeans at the back of her leg, between the chaps straps.  "Your jeans -- they're glowing a little bit."

"Whatever you say, honey, now move."  She braced herself, her arm muscles bulging, along with her thighs, as she pushed the heavy bike across the field a ways and into a grove of trees.  "Kickstand help, please."  Her arms were starting to shake, as Kennedy came bounding to her side like an eager puppy, quickly helping her get the bike parked.

"Okay, stud."  Carson placed a hand on each of Kennedy's shoulders, forcing her to concentrate and listen.  "Before you're too far gone, what does ecstasy do to you, and how do I take care of you until it wears off?"

"Oh."  Kennedy laughed.  "Makes me kind of silly."

"No kidding," Carson deadpanned, raking her fingers back through sweaty locks.  "And obviously makes your body temperature go up.  What else?"

"Lights look amazing."  She looked up at the moon.  "And makes me get all kind of huggy and stuff."

"Okay.  What do I need to do for you?"  She wrapped a supportive arm around Kennedy's waist, guiding her back to the road and the long walk home.  She wanted to berate herself for not keeping a better eye on their drinks during Kennedy's confrontation with Rick, but there was no time for it now.  She could kick herself later.  "Come on, honey.  Tell me exactly what to do to get you through this."

"Need one of the lollipops in Mama's candy jar, soon as we get home."  She stumbled a little and grabbed Carson with both arms, steadying herself.

"Lollipops?  Why?  Does it make stuff taste better too?"  She could feel the heat radiating off her lover.  "Honey, walk slowly, okay.  I don't know what this is doing to you inside, but I'm guessing we don't need to do anything to raise your blood pressure."

"Yes.  But  I need lollipops, because in a little while, I'll probably start grinding my teeth."  As if they had a mind of their own, her teeth did grind together, her jaw clenching as the drug began to take full effect.  "Oh, god."  She laughed lightly.  "I feel so good and so bad all at the same time."

"If I told you to stay here and not go anywhere, can I trust you not to move?"  Carson stopped, facing her and bracketing her hips with her hands.  "I could go get Parker to come pick you up."

"Noooo."  Kennedy pulled her into a hug, enjoying the contact greatly.  "Not Parker.  I'd never be able to explain this to him."

"I could explain for you."  Kennedy's hands were wandering up and down her back, before they wandered lower, over her butt.  "Not here, okay?  No high blood pressure, remember?"

"But you feel so goooood." Kennedy pouted, but let go, as they began to walk again.  "I think it's only three more miles.  We can make it."

"Okay, let's see how far we get."  Carson steered them to the other side of the road, so they'd be walking against any oncoming cars.  A hand slid down her back and into her back pocket, as Kennedy giggled again.  She sighed.  It was going to be a very long three miles.


"These boots weren't made for walking," Carson muttered, almost humming the tune as she spoke.  Her feet were killing her, and she wondered if she'd be in any shape for hiking the next day, then realized it was a moot question, since Kennedy most likely wasn't going to be up for it either.  She estimated they were still a mile from Big Star Lodge, and she had no idea what time it was.  Her watch did not have fluorescent dials or numbers, and she whipped out her cell phone, pressing a button on it to check the time, a habit she'd gotten into since Kennedy had bought it for her.  "Damn."  She clicked the phone shut and shoved it back in her pocket.  "I keep forgetting there's no freaking cell reception out here.  I wish we were back in Austin.  Much more vacation is gonna kill me."

"Ooo.  Pretty."  Kennedy spied a car coming toward them way off in the distance, the headlights putting on a special show that only she could see.  She leaned more heavily on Carson, and nuzzled her hair.  "God, you smell really good."  She laughed, then frowned as Carson gently attempted to push some of her weight off.  "Don't you love me?"

"Of course I love you, honey."  She gave Kennedy a quick kiss on the cheek.  "Just getting a little tired is all."

"I feel grreeaaattt."  Kennedy let go of her, weaving into the road as the car drew closer.

Carson grabbed her arm and pulled her back to safety.  She sighed in utter relief, as the vehicle morphed into Pete's truck.  She started to wave, as he pulled over and put the truck in park, shut off the country music blaring from the radio, then hopped out.  "What the hell?"

"Long story.  Just take us back to the house, please."  Carson nudged her lover toward the back of the extended-cab truck, opening the door and helping her inside.  Kennedy giggled, and curled up on the back seat, drawing her legs up under her.

"Oh my god."  Pete came closer and peered in after her.  "She's drunk.  Saint Shea the mighty has finally fallen.  Guess she'll have less room to talk after this."  He laughed for a split second, before Carson grabbed the collar of his jacket, jerking him closer until she could see his eyes.

"She's not drunk."  She shook his jacket, crumpling a handful of leather in her fist.

"She is too."  He tried to pull away and struggled, as Carson gave him another forceful tug, then let go, shoving him back against the truck.  "What the hell is wrong with you?"  He eyed her warily, then thought better of it and opened the passenger door for her.

"You have no idea."  She gritted her teeth and resisted the urge to slap him.  "You have no fucking idea, so just get in and take us home, and then go get stoned or drunk, or whatever the hell you want to do."

"Okaaaay."  He held up both hands in supplication.  He couldn't recall ever hearing Carson use the f-word, and he closed the door after her.  He got back in the truck and made a u-turn toward the house.  The clock on the dash showed it was a little past midnight, and Carson remained silent next to him. Other than the occasional glance toward the back seat, she looked straight ahead, warring with her own anger for the short drive.

From the back seat, Kennedy pressed her nose against the window, then rolled it down and stuck her head out, tilting it back and watching the colorful stars go by overhead.  "Weeeeeee!"

"If she's not drunk, then …"

"Save it!"  Carson snapped, and held up a hand.  "Just don't go there right now."

"I don't feel so good."  Kennedy wailed, her head snapping back inside the cab, just as they turned into the driveway.

"Hold on, honey."  They rolled to a stop, and Carson jumped out, tugging the back door open,  as Kennedy stumbled out, landing on her knees and doubling over, wrapping both arms around her stomach.  She couldn't decide if she was going to throw up or pass out, and she looked up in despair.

"I feel dizzy."  Her voice trembled, and her entire body was shaking.

Pete shook his head at the display.  "Carson, welcome to the Shea I grew up with."  My earliest memories are of Mama and Pa dragging her upstairs drunk, stoned, or both.  She put them through hell, and me too in the process."

She managed to get Kennedy to crawl out of the way of the truck, then turned, leaning back in the window.  "If you hold her in such disdain, why are you following in her footsteps?"  She looked up for a moment, gathering her thoughts.  "Go on or come in, your choice.  I've got to take care of her, and I don't have time to explain what happened tonight, but trust me when I tell you it isn't what it looks like."

"Whatever."  Pete waited for her to step away, then backed up a bit and turned around, gunning the engine as he headed back for the highway, making a turn in the direction of Armadillo Flats.

The house was dark inside, and Carson managed to get Kennedy up to the third floor with a minimum of noise.  She said a silent prayer of thanks that the master bedroom was on the opposite end of the hall from Kennedy's room, and a second thanks for the small nightlights that were plugged in at intervals all along the lower part of the hallway wall.  She got Kennedy undressed and into a t-shirt, and helped her into bed.

"I c … c … can't…stop shaking."  Kennedy's jaw clenched and she ground her teeth a few times, her eyes wide with fear.  She looked up at Carson and her expression broke the younger woman's heart.  Kennedy was terrified and completely confused, that much was obvious.  "I'm so thirsty."  She reached out, clutching at Carson's arm.

"I'm going to go get you some water, and some sprite, and crackers, and those lollipops you wanted.  I'll be right back, I promise."  She smoothed sweaty bangs out of frightened blue eyes, and tried to keep from crying herself, watching a few tears squeeze out and trickle down Kennedy's cheeks.

"Don't leave me."  Her grip was feeble around Carson's wrist, and she could feel the tremors as Kennedy continued to shake.

"Honey."  Carson leaned over, kissing her on the forehead.  "I have to go long enough to get some things to make you feel better, but I promise you I won't be gone long."  I hope, she added silently.  She wasn't completely familiar with the kitchen downstairs, and realized she had no idea where crackers or the candy jar were.  She got up, forcing herself to turn her back on the sniffles she heard coming from the bed.

As she entered the hallway, she debated for only a moment, before she hesitantly knocked on Parker's bedroom door.  She waited, listening, and almost re-thought her actions, when a dazed Katie opened the door a crack.  "Carson?"  She blinked.  "Sugar, what's wrong?"

"Can I talk to Parker for a minute?"  She heard muffled noise from inside the darkened room, and Parker's head appeared above Katie's.  "I'm sorry to bother you, but I need some help."

"What's wrong?"  Parker tugged a t-shirt over his head.  "Where's Shea?"

"She's sick, sort of."  Carson bit her lower lip.  "I need to get some things for her, but I don't know where they are, and I don't want to leave her for too long."

"Sick?" Parker stepped into the hallway.  "Wow.  She never gets sick.  What do you need?"

"Water, crackers, sprite, a thermometer, and …" she released a puff of air.  "… handful of lollipops from the candy jar.  She said she wanted them."

"Lollipops?"  Parker glanced from Katie back to Carson.  "Carson, is she …?"  He searched her eyes.  "Ex?"

"Yeah, I think so.  Long story."  Carson looked down, wrapping her arms around herself.  "Someone drugged her root beer.  I … I should've been watching out for us better.  It just never occurred to me …"

"Damn."  Parker's face clouded with anger.  "Okay.  I know what to do.  Go on back in there.   Katie, sweetheart, can you go get the thermometer from the bathroom, and a basin of water and a rag?  I'll go downstairs and get the other stuff.  Carson, go into her top desk drawer, and I think you'll find her old sports mouth guard.  It'll be better than lollipops, plus it won't hurt her to fall asleep with it in.  I'll be back up as fast as I can, and you need to tell me exactly what happened tonight."

"Can … can I wait and let her tell you?"  Carson looked like she was about to cry, and Katie edged around Parker, draping an arm over her shoulders.

"Of course it can wait, sugar."  She glared at Parker and nodded toward the stairs.  He took the hint and went down to the kitchen.  "Go on in there, hon.  She needs you.  I'll be there just as quick as I can."

"Thanks."  Carson shuffled back into the room, finding Kennedy curled up in a ball in the middle of the bed, on top of the covers.  She was still sniffling, and shaking, and Carson turned on a small desk lamp, then grabbed a handful of tissue, as she yanked the top desk drawer open, finding the mouthpiece right where Parker said it would be.

"Honey, hang on, just a few more minutes."  She sat down on the bed, scooting over until she was next to her lover.  She wiped the tears off Kennedy's face, and urged her under the covers, tucking the sheet and blanket over her up to her waist.  Her t-shirt was already damp with sweat, and she moaned, grabbing at her stomach with one hand.

"Hurts."  Her teeth ground together and Carson winced at the sound.

"Here."  She brushed a finger over Kennedy's lips.  "Open up for me, please?"  Kennedy was too confused to protest, and she complied, and Carson slipped the mouthpiece in.  "Bite down, it'll make you feel better."

Kennedy closed her mouth around the piece, then crept closer, resting her cheek against Carson's leg.  She rubbed the denim with one shaking hand, her eyes rolling upward to confirm that it was indeed Carson she was curled up with.  "Mmmph."

"Shhhhh."  Carson stroked her head.  "Don't try to talk."  She looked up, as Katie entered the room and placed a basin on the desktop, then approached with a wet rag and the thermometer.  "I'm afraid she'll bite it in two if we try to put that in her mouth."

"Not going to take it orally."  Katie stopped at the foot of the bed and studied the thermometer in the low light, and looked up as she heard Carson make a bit of a strangled noise, her eyes wide and questioning.

"Ummmm …" she tried to articulate her thoughts.  "I think she would kill me tomorrow if she were to find out we …"

"Oh.  Oh, no, hon.  We aren't going to go there.  Trust me.  I wouldn't want to face her tomorrow either if we did.  We can use her armpit."  Katie handed over a damp cool rag and Carson placed it across Kennedy's forehead.  "Shea, sugar, I need to pull your shirt up just a little bit."  She drew the covers back and got the t-shirt over one arm, and put the thermometer in place, then pulled the covers back up.

Parker came in while they were waiting, and placed a pitcher of water, a bottle of sprite, a cup, a straw, and a box of saltines on the nightstand.  "Damn."  His eyes wandered over his sister, whose eyes indicated her brain was a million miles away.  "Do you know who did this?"

"Yeah."  Carson looked up, keeping one hand on Kennedy's head.  "Some guys she knew back in high school, I think.  Her system … I'm worried about her, Parker.  She doesn't even drink caffeine, only drinks maybe a glass of wine or a beer or so every few weeks.  Never takes anything stronger than ibuprofen.  She doesn't eat hardly any junk food, even.  Her body isn't used to dealing with stuff like this."

"I'm a mind to kill them, after I find out who they are."  Parker paced back and forth at the foot of the bed.  "One hit of Ex won't kill her, provided they didn't give her too much, and it doesn’t look like they did.  But you're right.  She may feel a little sick before it works its way through her system."

Katie retrieved the thermometer and looked at it.  "Ninety-nine degrees, so same as a hundred in her mouth.  A little high, but nothing to get too worried about.  Get some water and sprite in her, if you can.  Best we can do is let her sleep it off.  And get some sleep yourself, sugar."  She stood, placing the thermometer on the desk.

"We'll talk in the morning, okay?"  Parker watched Carson nod, and followed Katie, turning as they reached the doorway.  "If you need anything, don't hesitate, Carson."

"Thanks."  She managed a small smile.  "Parker, don't tell your folks, just yet.  I have a feeling she's going to feel pretty bad about this in the morning, even though she didn't do it on purpose."

"Okay.  Get some sleep.  She may be flying for a little while yet, judging from her eyes, but she doesn't look like she's going anywhere.  I think if you stay with her, she'll stay put.  Good night."  He closed the door behind him.

"Night."  Carson tugged her boots off, wriggling her sore feet in relief, and quickly shucked the rest of her clothing, trading them for a baseball style shirt.  She crawled up on the bed and over to the nightstand, pouring some cold sprite into the cup and placing the straw in it.  With a bit of fuss, she got Kennedy to sip most of it slowly.

"Thank you," she finally croaked, trying to focus on Carson's face.  Carson started to push the mouthpiece against her lips, and she poked at it with her tongue, holding off for a moment.  "I … scared …" she was still shaking a little bit, though not as much as before.  "Can't think much right now."

"It's okay."  Carson cupped her face.  "I'm not going anywhere.  I'll be right here with you, all night.  I promise.  Nothing bad is going to happen to you.  I won't let it."  She cringed internally at he own words.  She'd already let something bad happen, hadn't she?

"Hold me?"  Kennedy curled around her outstretched legs, resting her head in Carson's lap.

"Always."  Carson urged the mouth guard back between her teeth, then settled back against a stack of propped up pillows.  She stroked Kennedy's head, feeling the tremors against her leg as her body fought the effects of the drug.  Whatever euphoria Kennedy had been feeling seemed to have disappeared when she stuck her head out the window, replaced by fear, tremors, and a slight bit of nausea, though she hadn't actually thrown up.

Carson was a little less worried, since Parker and Katie didn't seem overly concerned, and she figured Parker must have had some personal experience with ecstasy, judging from his reaction.  Mostly, she was angry.  Boiling mad, to be precise.  Angry with Pete and doubly angry with Rick and Tom.  Yeah.  That was their names.  She could picture their smug faces, and she wanted to smash them in with her bare fists.

She was even angrier with herself for turning her back on their drinks.  What if they had put something more dangerous in the drink, like heroin or something?  Or what if they had put something in both their drinks?  They could have died out there on the road.  She found herself shaking in a manner similar to Kennedy, the more she thought about it.  They could have died regardless.  She remembered the bike weaving, and her heart leaping into her throat in the split second before Kennedy had pulled over.

The rage bubbled up, as she realized how carelessly the two men had played with their lives.  She wanted to make them hurt, wanted to torture them, and it wasn't too difficult to imagine just shooting the both of them.  It frightened her how easy it was to picture herself pulling the trigger, and she bit back a bitter taste in her throat.  With a trembling hand, she poured up another cup of sprite and gulped it down herself, closing her eyes as she felt it slide down her throat and hit her stomach.  It was close to 1:00 a.m., and though her body was weary to the bone, her mind wouldn't shut down.

She looked down, focusing on Kennedy, who appeared to be dozing fitfully, her body jerking from time to time.  She was still sweating, and Carson debated getting her a fresh shirt.  Still, Kennedy did seem to be sleeping a little, and she wasn't completely soaked through yet, so she decided to let it go for a while longer.  Gradually, her head lolled back and she fell into troubled sleep herself, her arms wrapped loosely around Kennedy's body.

Around 4:00 a.m., she bolted upright, and looked at the clock, turning her head from side to side as the vertebrae popped painfully.  Her neck and back ached from falling asleep sitting up, and her mouth tasted like fuzz.  She heard Pete stumbling around in the hallway, and realized that was what had woken her.  She heard him drop something and curse, and deduced he was most likely drunk.  She shook her head in disgust and slipped out of bed, digging through Kennedy's bag for a dry t-shirt.

Kennedy was awake, her eyes tracking Carson's movement, and she sat partway up as Carson helped her change shirts.  "Thank you," she whispered, sucking gratefully at the straw as Carson offered her another cup of sprite.  "S … sorry."  She looked down.  "Can't remember everything, but I know I …"

"No worries."  Carson leaned over, silencing her with a quick kiss.  "Go back to sleep.  We can talk in the morning.  I'll be back in a minute, alright?"

"Where?"  Kennedy shifted, rolling onto her side.

"Bathroom."  Carson kissed her again, on the head.  "Be right back."  She slipped outside and went down the hallway, quickly taking care of business, and also brushing her teeth.  "Ugh."  She peered in the mirror at her bloodshot eyes and the dark circles under them.  "At least my teeth don't feel like they're wearing little socks anymore."  She located some mouthwash and used it for good measure, swirling the minty liquid around for a long time before she spit it out.  She looked in the mirror again.  "After this is all over, I may just join her on the tee-totaling side of the fence."

She padded back down the hallway and into the room, turned off the light and slid under the covers next to Kennedy, who immediately snuggled up to her.  "Niffst," she lisped out around the mouth guard.

"Good night to you too, honey."  Carson rubbed the strong back, glad to feel that her shirt was still dry."

"Lumpf yogh."  Her hand curled over Carson's hip.

"I love you, too."  She kissed Kennedy's forehead.  "Sleep now.  Hopefully we'll both feel better next time we wake up."


Continued in Chapter 4

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