Copyright 2004 by Texbard

For disclaimers, see Chapter 1

Chapter 4

It was not quite dawn, when Kennedy's eyes fluttered open.  She squinted at the clock and groaned silently.  Her body felt vaguely like it used to after a hard day of rodeo bull-riding -- the days the bull won, that is.  A headache was edging its way past her temples, though it wasn't the pounding throbbing sensation she'd feared she might wake with.  Her mouth felt like cotton, her tongue swollen, and her eyes felt like sandpaper.

Gradually, she realized she was sprawled across Carson, her lover's arms wrapped loosely around her, with her hands resting flat against her back.  Very slowly, she untangled herself, quickly tucking a pillow in Carson's arms.  Carson immediately snuggled up with the pillow, hugging it tightly and making Kennedy smile.  The smile rapidly disappeared as bits and pieces of the night began coming back to her.

"I never wanted you to see that side of me," she whispered, reaching out and pushing blonde bangs aside, smoothing a slight frown with her fingertips.  All she'd wanted to do was take her girlfriend out for a drink at an old hang-out, and Carson had wanted so badly to see it, trying so hard to understand everything about her.  "Maybe you understood a little more than you bargained for, huh?"

Slowly, she sat up, tugging at the constricting t-shirt.  She'd gotten used to sleeping naked the past few months, and the stretchy material draped over her body felt strange -- a little too much, especially when it would creep and bunch around her throat, or the sleeves would scrunch up under her arms.  It was such a peaceful, comforting thing, to fall asleep and wake up wrapped around Carson, and to feel her skin against her own.

The tall pitcher of water called to her like a siren, and she got up, and stumbled around the bed to the nightstand.  She peered into it and with no further thought, picked it up and gulped down half the contents, drinking directly from the pitcher.  Immediately she could feel the headache starting to ease, and wondered if it was from dehydration as much as from the aftermath of the Ex.


She'd done it quite a bit in the past, although pot had been her drug of choice.  She'd tried cocaine a few times, but feared getting hooked.  During law school, a guy at a party had tricked her into shooting heroine once, telling her it was coke.  As further enticement, he'd opened up a fresh unused syringe, ensuring she wouldn't be sharing someone else's needle.  Before she had only snorted coke, and had agreed, mostly out of curiosity as to how shooting it would be different.  She'd known what it was, the minute it hit her system, a very different sensation than coke, and it terrified her, even as it sent peace rushing through her veins.  A few days later she'd tracked him down and beaten him almost senseless.  After that night, she swore off all recreational drugs except pot.

It had taken losing Angela to make her walk away from drugs completely.  Now she felt dirty and violated.  After years of clean living, in one night someone had polluted her system with the vile chemicals, against her will.  A part of her wanted to run and run, until she was certain she'd sweated it all out, but running was a very bad idea at present, given how her head felt, and her feet, after the long walk home.

She looked at Carson, the guilt rushing over her and hitting her in the gut.  Carson knew about the drinking and the pot.  Those could be attributed to typical college kid stupidity.  Now Carson knew she'd done ex too.  How could she ever tell her about the cocaine or heroin, and if she did, would Carson see her differently?  Lose respect for her?  Think of her as some reformed druggie?  It's what she was, after all, wasn't it?

She felt sick, and had to stay very still for a moment, lest the water she'd consumed come back up.  Once the nausea subsided, something akin to panic rose up, and she bolted from the room, rushing down the hall to the bathroom, where she stripped off her clothing and stepped into a hot shower -- as hot as she could stand, scrubbing her skin until it was red, and trying to steam the drugs out of her pores.  She stood under the water for a long time, feeling it pour over her head and beat against her face, streaming over her body.  She tried to imagine the drugs washing down the drain with it.

Finally she turned off the water and dried off, wrapping up in a clean robe.  It smelled like spring rain from her mother's fabric softener, the scent a little too strong after the sensory overload from the night before.  Still, the soft terry was comforting, and she hugged herself as she stood in front of the mirror, finally clearing a spot in the steamed-covered glass, to reveal her very tired face and eyes that needed a lot more sleep.

She wasn't sleepy, and she stood there for a very long time, trying to decide what to do.  There was Pete to deal with, a Harley to retrieve, and two drug-dealers she'd just as soon kill as look at.  She knew what she had to do about them.  She just wasn't sure when or how to go about it, whether to turn them in right away, or wait until after the backpacking trip.

Oh, god.  She sat down on the toilet lid and buried her face in her hands.  They were supposed to leave for the park in a few hours, and she could barely propel her own body forward at present, much less carry forty pounds on her back.  She knew she'd been in the bathroom a long time, judging by the morning light that filtered in through the shade over the one small window.  She should get up and go somewhere else, but couldn't bring herself to move.  A soft knock at the door made her look up, and she cocked her head, listening. 


She sighed.  She recognized the voice, and besides there was only one person in the house who called her by that name.  One person who saw her for who she was now, not who she'd been back then.  In Carson's eyes she was a lover, a best friend, a successful lawyer -- hell, a hero, although she didn't believe the last one.  There was no 'Shea' in Carson's world.  No redneck, hell-raising, pot-smoking loser.  At least until last night.  Her eyes stung and she squeezed them shut, as a few tears escaped.

"Come in," she rasped, watching the knob turn.

Carson stepped carefully into the small room, blinking at the few wisps of steam that still lingered in the air.  It felt like a sauna, it was so warm.  "Honey?"  She moved closer, until she could see Kennedy's shining eyes.  "How're you feeling?"

"I …I …"  She reached out, knowing Carson would catch her.  Somehow they ended up on the floor on the rug, curled up next to the side of the tub.  Carson held her, feeling her shake with silent sobs.

"Shhhhhhhh."  Carson stroked her wet head, rocking her a little bit.   "Let it all out."

"S …. So …. Sorry," she gasped out.

"For what?"  Carson kissed her head, still holding on tightly.

"That you had to see what you saw last night."  She hiccupped, her face hidden against Carson's t-shirt.

"Me too."  Carson's voice was low and even.  "Because I went to a really ugly place."

Her heart sunk, and she drew a deep breath.  "I never wanted to disappoint you, especially like that," she whispered.

"What are you talking about?"  Carson cupped her face, her thumb brushing across a wet cheek as she tilted the blue eyes up, searching them.  "You didn't do anything wrong."

"But  you said …"  Kennedy clutched at her shirt, hiding her face again.

"No.  You didn't send me to the ugly place."  She gently un-pried Kennedy's fist, curling her own hand around it.  "Those guys who drugged you did, because I wanted to kill them.  I think I still do."

"You aren't disappointed with me?"  Kennedy peeked up at her hopefully.

"Never." She pecked Kennedy's lips, then her nose, then her forehead.

"Carson, I haven't told you everything about my past."  Her voice was timid, almost like a child's.

"I sure hope not," Carson scooted up a little, re-settling her lover against her.  "We've only been together for about three months.  I'd hate to think I've learned everything there is to know about you already."

"I did some really bad things -- things I haven't told you about yet."  She rested her head on Carson's shoulder, closing her eyes as she felt fingers raking through her hair.

"Short of revealing you were a teenage serial killer, there's almost nothing you could tell me that would change the way I feel about you," she spoke into Kennedy's ear, feeling her breathing against her.  "I love who you are now.  I love who you were, because that person became who you are now.  Everything happens as it's supposed to. I really believe that.  Whatever horrible things you think you did, I can't help but think that maybe someday you're going to use those experiences to help someone else.  Like Pete, maybe.  Or Heidi."

"Heidi?"  Kennedy sat up a bit, glad for the brief emotional diversion.

"Honey, she's got a drinking problem.  We both know that.  And she's way too fond of that Valium prescription she has on permanent file at the drug store."  She let the dark sleek locks sift slowly through her fingers, watching the low light shine off them.  "Maybe we should send her and Pete to rehab together somewhere."

"Pete."  Kennedy sighed.  "I think I'm going to have to draw a hard line with him."

"Whatever you decide, I'll back you up.  I hope you know that.  For what it's worth, I think you're right."  Time enough later to decide how much to tell Kennedy about the ride home the night before, and Pete's attitude toward his sister.  Carson felt a light kiss to the side of her neck.

"Your opinion is worth everything."  Kennedy looked down at her feet, which were pruney and still ached.  "About backpacking …"

"Tomorrow."  Carson's voice was decisive, and Kennedy was glad of it.  "Right now, why don't you go crawl back under the covers, while I go get us a tray of breakfast and bring it back up?  You think you could eat a little something?"

"I probably need to try."  Kennedy reluctantly let go, wiping her robe sleeve across her face and scrubbing her eyes.  "Sorry for losing it like that."

"No.  Don't be sorry."  Carson cradled her face with both hands.  "The only thing I'm sorry about is the damned fools who did this to you."  She looked down for a moment, gathering her thoughts.  Kennedy needed her to be strong.  Her own guilt over the situation would have to be pushed aside for a little while longer.  "Let's get you back in bed, and get some food in your stomach."


Kennedy shoved the door open, and stormed into Pete's bedroom.  She'd slept a few more hours, kept down her breakfast, consumed a large amount of orange juice, and was feeling much better than she'd expected to, at least physically.  She marched over to his jacket and yanked it off the back of the desk chair, rummaging through the pockets, waking him with curses muttered under her breath.

"Hey!"  He sat up, throwing the covers back.  Carson was leaning in the doorway, and almost averted her eyes, before she realized he had on long flannel pajama bottoms.  "Shea!"  He leaped to his feet, swaying for a moment as blood rushed to his head from the sudden movement.  "What the hell do you think you're doing?  This is my room and my stuff."

As he advanced toward her, she located the bag of pot and held it up.  "By the time I get back to Austin, be moved out."  She crossed her arms, her stance wide.

"What!?"  He stopped in dumbfounded shock.  "I saw you last night.  You were in worse shape than I was when I got home, you damned hypocrite.  At least I never killed anyone while I was drunk.  Mama and Pa never had to come haul me out of county jail either.  You have no right …"

Carson attacked him so fast, he had no time to react, and they both landed on the floor with her on top of him, her fists pounding his chest.  "You shut up!  Your friends almost got us killed last night."  She shook with rage and drew back a fist, aiming for his face, when a gentle hand closed firmly over it, and she was lifted bodily off him, and dumped on the bed.  "Kennedy!  He …"

"I know."  She placed herself between her brother and her fuming lover.  "Pete."  She sighed.  "The things I did in the past will always be with me.  No one is more ashamed of that than I am, but I can't go back and change any of it.  All I can do is move forward and try not to repeat those mistakes.  I know I hurt you and a lot of other people back then, and I'm sorry.  But I'm not going to sit passively by and watch you make the same mistakes, and use me as an excuse for it."

"All I'm doing is drinking and smoking a little pot."  He sat up, his posture rigid and his face hard and angry.  "I'm not hurting anyone, and now you're kicking me out.  Who are you to do that?"

She sat down on the bed, aware of Carson at her back.  "You may think you're not hurting anyone, but the fact is, because of what you're doing, Carson and I could have died last night."  She watched his face twitch a little, but he remained silent.  "I ran into Rick and Tom at Armadillo Flats.  They told me they've been dealing to you, and I threatened them with the sheriff.  One of them, I think Tom, slipped some ex into my drink when we weren't looking.  I almost wrecked the bike on the way home."

"Maybe you should've stayed out of my business."  He stood up, retrieving a t-shirt from his bag.  "If you wouldn't have gone nosing around asking about me, then nothing would've happened."

"It wasn't like that," Carson interrupted.  "They tried to sell us drugs and they mentioned selling to you in the process.  Maybe you should pick your friends more carefully."

"Maybe you should stay out of family matters that are none of your concern."  He turned his back on them and pulled the t-shirt over his head, then bent over to pick up a pair of socks from the floor.  "If you weren't here, y'all wouldn't have been in that bar, now would you?"  He heard a rustle, and turned back around, just as Carson fled from the room.

"Carson!"  Kennedy stood, torn between going after her lover and finishing the conversation.  She headed for the door and stopped.  "I meant what I said.  Be gone from the garage apartment by the time I get home next weekend.  Don't bother trying to pick up the horses or the cats.  I already called the stables and the kennel, and told them you no longer have rights to do so.  Don't try to go in the house, either.  Valerie and Serena are meeting a locksmith today to change the locks and re-code the alarm system.  They'll be keeping an eye on the house and the boats until I get home.  Vandalize anything, and I'll call the police myself."

His face flushed dark red, and he clenched his fists at his side, resisting the urge to go at her full force.  "How am I supposed to get by this semester?"

"That's your problem, but you might start by saving your drug and beer money for groceries and rent."  She took another step before he spoke again.

"What am I supposed to tell Mama and Pa about all of this?" He whined.

"I don't much care what you tell them."  She paused for a moment.  "And you ever talk to Carson that way again, and it will be me tackling you instead of her.  I'm sorry it's come to this, really I am.  But I can't let you keep living with me and supporting you, if you're going to hurt me and especially if you're going to hurt the people I love."

She slammed the door and took off down the hallway for the stairs, taking them down as fast as she could.  She stopped when she reached the first floor, looking around and spotting only her father in the kitchen.  "Where's Carson?"

"She ran out the back door to the barn."  He placed a pitcher of iced mint tea on the counter.  "What happened?   She was crying and we didn't see you coming after her.  Did you two have a fight?"

"No.  She and Pete had a fight."  She reached for the back door but Joseph stopped her.  "Pa, I have to go talk to her.  Her feelings are really hurt."

"Your mother already went after her."  He took her hand a led her to the snack bar.

"But I have to …"

"No, you don't."  He gave her a gentle push.  "Your mother is a wise woman.  Sit, and tell me what's going on.  I could hear you and your brother yelling all the way down here, although I couldn't make out the words.  I'm glad our guests are down in the park for the day."

"Sorry."  She raked her fingers back through her hair, and accepted a glass of  tea, wondering suspiciously if they weren't being tag-teamed.  "It was a really bad night last night, Pa.  I'm not sure if I'm doing the right thing, and I promised I'd talk to you if I needed help with Pete."

"Then talk to me, Shea."  He took a seat across from her.  "I don't like to see y'all fighting and never did.  I've heard Pete coming in late every night since he's been home, or early, to be accurate.  I'm no fool.  I know you children.  Know what all you were up to in high school.  I'm not blind, either.  He's going to his old haunts and seeing his old friends.  You used to do the same thing for many years, whenever you came home.  We've known your brother drinks a lot for quite some time, and assumed you knew that as well.  What's changed?"

Her shoulders slumped, and she looked into her glass, swirling it and listening to the ice cubes clink against the sides, before she looked up.  "I just threw him out of the garage apartment in Austin."

"Go on."  He leaned on the counter on his forearms.  "I'm all ears."


The barn was warm and quiet, save for the occasional nickering of the horses, and the low constant clucking of the chickens.  The faint sounds drifted up into the loft, and Carson scooted back further in the corner, sinking into the hay and curling up in a ball.  Rage had given way to exhaustion and sadness, and the nagging guilt that she should have been watching Kennedy's back in the bar.  She sniffled, and found a tissue in her jeans pocket.

Then there were Pete's words to Kennedy about Angela.  She knew they were spoken in anger, but damned if they hadn't cut to the bone.  She could only imagine how Kennedy had felt, if it hurt her that badly.  She wanted to slug him as hard as she could.  She'd watched Kennedy make slow but steady progress in getting rid of her guilt over Angela's death, and was afraid Pete's verbal tirade would set her back.

And there were Pete's words to Carson.  Maybe she was nosing in where she didn't belong.  She was probably wrong to have jumped him like she did.  Maybe she shouldn't even have been there, and let Kennedy handle the situation one on one.  She'd merely asked if she wanted support, and Kennedy had seemed to want her with her.  What if she really hadn't?  Pete probably felt ganged up on.  If she hadn't been there, maybe he wouldn't have said the things he did to Kennedy.

She sniffled again and blew her nose, and wished she were back in Austin.  A rustling noise caught her attention and she turned, as Aileen's head appeared at the top of the ladder leading up to the loft.  "Mind if I join you?"  She walked gingerly across the loft floor and plopped down next to Carson in the soft pile of hay.

"No."  Carson sat up, drawing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around her legs.  "Sorry for my little scene in there."

"No need to apologize, child.  My daughter can be rather difficult to deal with at times."

"That's not …"

"So can my son," Aileen cut her off.  "They don't really know each other.  Shea was twelve when he was born, and Parker fourteen.  He barely remembers living in the same house with Parker.  He was only six when Shea left for Santa Fe.  It was almost like having two separate families, and Pete is an only child, as far as his outlook.  He had us to himself for most of his growing up years."

"I never really thought about it like that."  Carson suddenly realized that she didn't often see Kennedy and Pete have any truly meaningful conversation, unless discussing the grocery list or exercising the horses counted.  "I'm an only child myself. I don't have much experience in sibling rivalry."

"What I have is a youngest child who thinks he's an only, and a middle one who was the baby until she was twelve.  Not a nice combination at times."  Aileen smiled in a bemused manner.  "I could hear them yelling from the pantry while ago.  I almost came up there, but when I reached the second floor, I heard them scrapping overhead, rolling around on the floor, and decided I'd just let them duke it out."

"Um …" Carson rubbed the side of her neck and ducked her head.  "That was Pete and me."

"Really?"  Aileen appraised her daughter's companion with a new eye.  Carson wasn't tall, but seemed solid enough.   "Who won?"

"Nobody, in this situation."  Carson covered her face and scrubbed her eyes, then rested her chin in her hands.  "He said some things to Kennedy I just couldn't tolerate, and I jumped him.  It was pretty stupid."

So her self-sufficient daughter had found a protector.   Interesting.  "You don't strike me as the violent type.  Must've deserved it, whatever he said."

"He …" She stopped, unsure of exactly what Kennedy planned to tell her parents about Pete.  She knew she planned to tell them about her drink being drugged, but she hesitated, wondering if Kennedy would want to tell her mother herself. "I …"  Gray eyes peered into Aileen's confused ones, searching for a way out.

"Carson.  I'm going back in the house when I'm through talking to you, and I plan to sit my children down and knock their heads together, unless you give me a good reason not to."  She patted Carson's arm.  "What happened?"

"Some bad things happened last night," Carson picked up a straw and twirled it in her fingers. Watching it disturb the dust motes dancing in the light from the loft window.  "We went to Armadillo Flats."

"A place that should be torched, far as I'm concerned," Aileen growled, in a tone that was very familiar.  "Go on."

"We ran into some guys Kennedy knew in high school.  They tried to sell us some drugs."  Carson pursed her lips inward, trying to figure out what to say next.

"You know all about that, I know."  Aileen looked up at the ceiling for a moment.  "My daughter gave us fits for most of her teens.  We've talked about that.  Pete was just a toddler when we first started having real trouble with her.  There were so many nights I know he heard us yelling at her, and her yelling back.  I always wondered if that did any lasting damage to him."

"Guess I never thought about that either," Carson offered, hoping Aileen would talk for a while.

"We picked her up from the sheriff's office on several occasions."  Aileen's voice grew soft.  "We'd get a phone call, usually in the middle of the night.  He'd picked her up drunk, or just out wandering late at night when we thought she was in her room asleep.  Joseph would go after her and bring her home, and I'd light into her when they got here.  They never arrested her, technically.  She was an honor student and Joseph is well-respected around town.  But she deserved to be, and I always tried to make her understand just how serious her behavior was.  I didn't understand at the time why she was acting out the way she did -- didn't understand what a hard time she had been given at school all those years for looking different.  She hit puberty about the time Pete was conceived, and I think maybe, looking back, I wasn't there for her after that, like I should have been, and neither was her father.  Her father and I were so busy, running the lodge, and him creating and selling his artwork.  We had five mouths to feed and it wasn't a real easy time for us, back then."

"I don't think she holds any hard feelings now," Carson touched Aileen's shoulder.  "She speaks quite fondly of both of you."

"That's good to hear."  Maybe they'd done alright, after all.  "So Shea was offered drugs last night.  She turned them down.  That's a no-brainer.  What happened after that?  Knowing her, she didn't even drink anything alcoholic, am I right?"

"Yeah.  It's just that she and the other guy, Rick was his name, he kept pushing, even after she turned him down.  He said some things, and kind of hit me up too, and she lost it."  She closed her eyes, remembering Kennedy shoving Rick against the wall, the other patrons quickly giving them space.  The bouncer had let it go, too.  Had made no move to break them up.  She opened her eyes again, focusing.  "There was another guy there, Tom.  I didn't even know he and Rick were there together.  While Kennedy and Rick were arguing, we think Tom slipped some ecstasy into her drink."

"What?!"  Aileen's eyes snapped in anger.  "We should call the sheriff.  Those guys should be arrested."

"It's kind of complicated," Carson took a deep breath.  They had discussed it.  How to tell the sheriff what had happened, without getting Pete arrested in the process.  "Anyway, we didn't know about the ecstasy until it started taking effect on the way home.  We were on the bike and had to pull over because she couldn't drive it properly.  Kept weaving, and her vision kept blurring."

"So they could have killed you and my baby?  Is that what you're telling me?"  Aileen stood, brushing straw off her legs with an agitated motion.

"Yeah," Carson's voice was small.  "And I feel like it's all my fault.  I should've kept an eye on our drinks.  Maybe if I'd done a better job of that, she wouldn't have spent all night sick, and maybe Pete and I wouldn't have fought.  I feel like I've made a horrible mess of things.  I know better.  It's one of the rules anymore.  Never turn your back on your drink in a bar."  She sniffled, and covered her face again, wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand.

"Oh, honey."  Aileen sat back down, tentatively rubbing Carson's back.  "None of it is your fault."

"If she had died last night, because of me not watching her back, I don't think I could ever forgive myself.  Those guys …"  Carson began to cry in earnest, and felt Aileen draw her into a hug.

"This is a small town, Carson.  No one thinks about things like that here."  She continued to rub Carson's back.  Parker had told her about Carson's history, and she wondered if the girl had had any mothering in a very long time.  "I can promise you my daughter would have warned you if she'd thought it was a concern.  That bar may be rowdy, and much as I hate it, for the most part, it's just a bunch of drunk locals who have nothing better to do on the weekend.  They aren't people any of us would normally ever have reason to fear."

"But those guys …"

"Stop it, now.  Don't go blaming yourself, child.  You told me you didn't know Rick and Tom were together, correct?"  She felt Carson still for a second, and nod affirmatively.  "Then how could you have known you needed to keep an eye on him?"

"I … I didn't.  It's just that in Austin, or Dallas, I would never have let that happen."  Her body heaved with a final sob, and she took a deep breath, before she looked up, digging for the tissue in her pocket again.  "Sorry.  I must look a mess.  I wanted to kill them, last night.  I can't bear the thought of losing her."

"Believe me.  I want to kill them too, right now.  They put my baby's life in danger, and yours too.  And knowing my daughter, she feels the same way about them putting you at risk as well."  She tilted Carson's chin up.  "Now, tell me what this has to do with Pete."

"I …"  Gray eyes filled with panic.  "I can't.  Not without …"

"Because they're his dealers."  Kennedy climbed the rest of the way up the ladder to join them.  "When I threatened them and told them to leave him alone, they retaliated with the ex.  They were trying to send me a message to back off."  She crawled up next to her mother, scooting around where she could see Carson's face too, as she spoke.  She'd heard her crying when she entered the barn, and had waited as long as she could stand before climbing up that ladder.  Her face was blotchy and her eyes red, but otherwise, she looked like she was past crying, at least for the moment.

Aileen shook her head.  "I didn't know he was doing drugs, too.  The drinking, I've known about since he was in high school.  What … what's he doing?"

"Only pot, far as I know."  She decided not to mention the bag Parker was going to have tested.  "Where's Parker?"  Her thoughts did a u-turn.

"He took Katie and the children horseback riding."  She peered out the window.  "Headed down toward the park.  So … that's why telling the sheriff about Rick and Tom is complicated?"

"Yeah, because it could get Pete arrested in the process."  Kennedy leaned back against the wall and drew her legs up, sitting with them open, her arms resting loosely on her knees.  "I thought I might wait until he gets back to Austin, but I think I have to turn those guys in, eventually, Mama.  If we'd died on the road last night, they'd be facing manslaughter charges, at the very least.  I think they need to understand that."

"And I think you're right, but how are you going to protect your brother?" she questioned gently.

"I'm not."  She regarded her mother warily.  "Mama, I just kicked him out of the garage apartment.  Told him to be out by the time I get home. I talked to Pa right before I came out here, and he agrees with me.  Said if Pete can't make it in school financially this semester, he can move back here, but he'll have to get a job if he does, and stay clean as well."

"I see."  Aileen's eyes were thoughtful.  "There's no other way?"

"No.  I don't think so."  Kennedy nibbled her lower lip.  "I told him a few days ago if he brought drugs home, he couldn't live under my roof anymore.  It puts my law license in peril if he were to get caught there, plus after what he said to Carson today, I might've kicked him out anyway."

"What did he say?"  Aileen tilted her head, looking back and forth from her daughter to Carson.

"Kennedy, it's alright.  I don't …"  Carson pulled away from Aileen, and sat up, crossing her legs.

"It's not alright."  Kennedy's features scrunched up in anger.  "You're a part of my life now.  I won't let him make you feel like an outsider."  She turned toward her mother.  "He told Carson to stay out of our family business, and tried to blame her for what happened.  I can't let him treat her like that."

"And you shouldn't.  Anyone my children choose to share their lives with is family, as far as I'm concerned," Aileen agreed with her, missing the look of utter panic that flashed over Kennedy's face, before she got it under control.  "I guess I need to go have a talk with him.  Maybe I can talk some sense into him, although it never worked with you or Parker.  Seems like my children are all bound and determined to learn things the hard way."  She watched Kennedy flinch slightly, and regretted her words.  "Shea, I am so proud of you -- of who you've become.  Don't misunderstand me.  I'm just frustrated with Pete, and frustrated with myself that I didn't know what he was up to.  I was hoping to get by without having to go down this road a third time.  There may not be enough henna left in the store to hide the gray hairs by the time this one is settled.  Now, I think you two need to talk, am I right, Carson?"

"Yeah." Carson looked down, feeling Kennedy's questioning gaze almost as a physical thing.

"Then I'll be on my way."  She kissed her daughter's head, and impulsively, turned and kissed Carson's as well.  "I think my daughters need to quit beating themselves up."  She scooted away and down the ladder, hearing the crunch of Kennedy's knees as she crawled across the hay, closing the space between her and Carson.

"You okay?"  Her arms settled around her lover, who immediately snuggled up, wrapping her own arms around Kennedy's middle.

"I think so."  She rubbed Kennedy's stomach, slipping her hand beneath the oversized sweatshirt she was wearing, seeking warm skin.  "I keep feeling like I should've kept an eye on our drinks last night.  Every time I think about that bike, and how I thought we might tip over."  She shivered.

"Carson, do you blame me for getting high last night?"  She stretched out a little bit, enjoying the belly-rub.

"No!  Of course not.  You didn't take ex on purpose."  They'd had this discussion already, and her breathing huffed a little in exasperation.

"Well, I don't blame you for what Tom did, either.  I'd probably be more upset if you hadn't been distracted by me fighting with Rick.  That had to be pretty scary for you."  She brushed her hand over Carson's head.  "I blame Tom.  I didn't even see him there, and if I had, I never in a million years would've thought he was capable of that.  I'm angry that what he did could've killed you.  Could've killed both of us."

"I'm sorry I took off from Pete's room like that.  I kept thinking about everything, and wondering if maybe I was in your way up there."  She continued with the gentle touches, looking down at their outstretched legs, which had somehow gotten tangled together.

"I wanted you there.  I can't think of many times I wouldn't want you by my side.  I …" she stopped, thinking about her mother's words.  Did it frighten Carson, to basically be referred to as her spouse?  She switched gears, hoping to deflect any of that fear.  "Carson, about what Mama said, about family …"

"You know, she made me feel really good talking to me and all."  Carson rested her head on Kennedy's shoulder.  "I love talking with you.  I 'most always do, but it's been a long time since I was able to talk with my mother.  It was kind of nice to have that perspective on things.  I loved my parents.  No one can ever replace them, but I love being a part of your family too.  I … I wish, that as long as you and I are together, that it would be okay if I do talk with her like that from time to time."  She looked up, searching Kennedy's face.

Kennedy's eyes shone a bright vivid blue back at her, and she squeezed Carson more tightly, pressing their bodies close together.  "More than okay."  She took Carson's hand, holding it up and placing her own against it, noting their relative sizes.  Her hand was quite a bit bigger and her wrists more thick and corded.  Carson's were by no means delicate, though.  They were strong and capable, even if they were smaller.  She brought Carson's hand to her lips and kissed the back of it, before closing her own over it and drawing it between their bodies against her chest.  "No more beating ourselves up over this, okay?"

Carson nodded, ducking her head and brushing her lips over their entwined fingers.  "I'll try not to, if you'll try not to."

"Deal."  Kennedy smiled, wrapping her legs around Carson, holding her in a playful vise.  She traced her face with her fingertips, and kissed her closed eyelids.  "Mama said something else, about spending lives together and all.  I know we've not been together for a real long time, but I just want you to know that the part of my life I've spent with you has been the best part."  She hugged Carson, and felt her shaking, and looked down to see fresh tears spilling down her cheeks.  "Hey, what's wrong?"

"Nothing," Carson opened her eyes, the gray irises shining vividly against her pale features and the golden hay.  "Can … can I tell you something, and not scare you away?"  She cupped Kennedy's face, trailing her hand back through the dark hair and feeling her head nod.  "You've come to mean everything to me.  I just wanted you to know that."  She drew in a shuddering breath.  "I love you," she whispered into Kennedy's mouth, as their lips met.

They spent several moments that way, exchanging kisses and gentle touches, until at last Kennedy drew back, and pulled Carson against her once more, kissing her forehead.  "What do you say we go on our backpacking trip in the morning, and try to forget all the mess with Pete for a little while?  Just you and me and a tent under the stars, and no worries until we get back."

"Does the tent have a mesh roof we can open up, and see the stars from our sleeping bag?"  She nuzzled the sweatshirt, rubbing her face against the soft fabric and drawing in the scent of their dryer sheets, along with Kennedy's own distinct musky sweetness.

"You bet."  She kissed Carson again, running one hand down her side and behind her denim-clad leg, pulling her even closer.

"You're on then."  They hugged each other tightly, just enjoying the warmth and the silence for a while.  Carson almost drifted off, her body relaxing completely, and she forced herself to open her eyes.  "Hey you."  She touched the end of Kennedy's nose.  "Why don't we go finish packing up our backpacks, and eat an early dinner, and get turned in early tonight?"

"So we can get some sleep before the trip?" her voice teased, along with her hands.

"Eventually."  Carson flashed her a sexy grin, and laughed lightly.  Kennedy growled in her ear, a purring, tickly sound, and she laughed harder, as they reluctantly parted and made their way down the ladder and back into the house.


Kennedy sat on the top step of the back porch, surrounded by dogs.  Talia and Cody were vying for their master's affections, competing with the home pack, none of which she had grown up with, but all of which knew her as the human with doggie treats in her pockets.  "Hey now."  She tilted her face up, receiving sloppy kisses to both sides of her jaw line.  The dachshund and the terrier were both trying to scramble into her lap, pawing each other in the process.  "There's enough for all of you.  Back off."

She dug in her down vest pocket, retrieving a handful of small dog biscuits.  She got rid of two of them by tossing treats in opposite directions, well away from the porch steps.  Talia and her litter-mate, Sheba, ended up in an affectionate wrestling match, with plenty of nips and tail-wagging, along with happy doggie yips and barks that rang out across the back lot, breaking through a rare foggy morning.

"Y'all need to be good now, while we're gone, and mind Mama and Pa."  She ruffled Cody's head and snuck him a treat without making him work for it.  He planted a wet swipe across her nose and she made a face.  "Blecckkhh."  Encouraged by the noise, he did it again, and suddenly all the big dogs descended, snuffing her pockets for the hidden biscuits, finally forcing her onto her back on the porch, as she tried to shove them off.  "Hey!  No squishing me now.  Not fun."

"That's not what you said last night."  Carson stepped from inside the kitchen doorway, where she'd been watching, and smiling as her lover's more child-like side come out to play.

"Augggh."  Kennedy finally managed to sit up.  "You, darlin', can squish me any time you want."  She winked.  "Especially if you do what you did last nimphhhhh …"

"Hush." Carson bent over her from behind, covering her mouth and kissing the top of her head.  "Your folks might hear."

"You started it."  Kennedy reached up and grabbed her, pulling her over and dumping her on her back on the porch, before she straddled her on her hands and knees.  "Besides, nothing they haven't done before, I'd wager."  Her eyes twinkled, and she leaned in, stealing a kiss.  "Hey!"  She raised up on her knees, turning around and glaring at Rosie, the Rottie-Mastiff.  "She poked me in the butt."

"Aww.  I don't blame her.  It's such a cute butt."  Carson reached up, grabbing handfuls of said body part.  From there she ran her hands down the back of Kennedy's legs and then back up again, massaging her behind and watching her eyes flutter closed.

"Mmmm."  Kennedy descended again, kissing her more thoroughly than before, almost forgetting they were on the back porch in broad daylight.  "Don't rub the lamp unless you want the genie to come out and play."

"Is the genie ready to go back-packing?"  Carson's hands were still wandering, quite with a mind of their own.

"Much more of that and the genie is going to ditch backpacking and take you back upstairs for the rest of the week."  Kennedy captured her hands, stilling them and kissing each one in turn, before she released them.

"Nope."  Carson sat up, pushing her lover along with her.  "I've been looking forward to this for too long."  She watched full lips purse into an all-out pout.  "Not that a week in bed with you doesn't sound delicious."  She kissed her again for emphasis.  "How about three nights sharing a sleeping bag?  And maybe a night or two at that spa down there near the park when we're done?"

"Ooooo.  That sounds like Heaven."  Kennedy stood, tugging Carson to her feet.  "Unfortunately, this time of year we probably should've booked a room early if we wanted to do that."

"Oh, well."  Carson's eyes were thoughtful.  "Maybe they'll have a cancellation."

"We can always check when we come back off the trail."  She ambled to the end of the porch, hefting up a full backpack.  "Let me get these out to the 4Runner, and we'll be on our way."

"I can carry mine."  Carson picked up the pack next to it.  "Might as well get used to it if I'm going to be carrying it for four days."

The back door opened and Parker stepped out.  "Y'all taking off?"  They'd said their goodbyes to the children the night before, as well as Katie, who was upstairs getting them ready for the drive back to Odessa.  "Looks like it'll be a nice day after this fog burns off."  He sipped from a steaming mug of coffee.  "Been some strange weather this weekend."

"You know what they say.  Don't like the weather in Texas, just wait a few minutes and it'll change.  Be back in a second.  Don't go anywhere."  She made her way down the steps and across the yard to the carport, where she stowed her pack in the truck, and took Carson's, who was right behind her.  She closed the hatch and draped an arm across Carson's shoulders, guiding her back to join Parker.

"Katie coming down to say goodbye again?"  Carson shoved her hands in her pockets.

"Probably not.  The kids always get fussy when they realize we're leaving this place.  They love it here, plus it means they have to go back to school tomorrow, and that means some homework tonight when we get back."  Parker leaned against the side of the house, crossing his boots at the ankles.  "She's trying to gather up all their toys and clothes, and make sure they're all dressed and fed before we hit the road."

"Pete?"  Kennedy looked down, kicking at a knot in the wood with the toe of her hiking boot.

"Still asleep."  Parker studied his sister's posture, a  picture of dejection.  "Shea, you did the right thing.  Everyone agrees on that, except Pete.  But you can't expect him to be happy about it.  He's probably going to be angry at you for a long time to come."

"If not forever."  She finally looked up, meeting eyes that matched her own.  "I just hate this, and I really hate having to go to the sheriff at the end of the week."

"I can come back up and go with you, if you'd like," Parker offered.

"No.  You aren't a witness.  Carson will be with me, and Pa may go with us as well, to see what he can do about getting them to lay off Pete."  She snorted.  "Not that he'll have the good grace to be appreciative."

"Go on, and enjoy your trip down in the park.  Pete'll be back in Austin by the time you get back, and maybe y'all can have a few days' peace here before you go back yourself."  He looked up, past them, watching the Sunday morning sun warring with the fog.  The dogs were still nosing around, occasionally snuffing Kennedy's now-empty pockets, and out in the corral the two mustangs were frolicking, kicking up their heels like young colts in the crisp morning air.  "You got enough layers in those bags?  Gonna get cold, nights up there."

"Aren't going to need layers at night."  Kennedy smirked.  "We're zipping our bags together."

"Oh." Parker's cheeks colored a little. "Guess that'll be even better."

"Hell of a lot better."  Kennedy chuckled, feeling Carson's questioning eyes on her.  She leaned over and whispered in Carson's ear, and watched it turn bright pink.  "… best way to stay warm," she finished, a little louder.

"Didn't realize that," Carson raked her fingers back through her hair and looked down, smiling just a little bit, despite her embarrassment.  It was different than what she'd grown up with.  Being an only child had offered a great deal of privacy and a certain air of properness in a lot of her dealings with her parents.  She'd watched Kennedy's family, especially Kennedy, Parker, and Katie, and was amazed at the total lack of privacy, lack of boundaries, and the banter among them, some of it frankly ribald in nature.  It was warm and funny, and at times she felt like an outsider, until one of them would draw her in, and before she knew it, she found herself right in the thick of things with the rest of them. 

It was comfortable most of the time, and she'd quickly come to love Kennedy's family, and the big warm circle of love she felt there.  At the same time, she was overwhelmed at times, and was looking forward to some time alone with her lover.  She was unused to being under one roof with that many people, and definitely not used to things as simple as waiting in line for the bathroom, or learning that he who did early morning dishes duty was relieved of all further chores for the day. 

Joseph had clued her in on that one, and they'd shared dish duty a few mornings, conspiring to go prop their feet up while the others got the more mundane jobs of cleaning guest rooms and bathrooms, preparing breakfast and picnic baskets for guests, or doing the piles of laundry the lodge created.  She marveled at how much work it was, and wondered how Joseph and Aileen managed when it was just the two of them.  It gave her a new understanding and appreciation of just how hard the couple had worked for most of their lives, both to stay together, and to make a living for their family in such a beautiful place.

It showed in how Kennedy conducted her own affairs -- the carefully chosen lakefront acreage she lived on, the dogtrot house with its special little comforts like jets in the tubs, the boats, the inviting rustic furniture, and the eye-appealing artwork.  Her kitchen was full of healthful food and her beds bore soft warm linens. Looking around, Kennedy had re-created in Austin much of what she had grown up with, with the added bonus of the lake to play on and enjoy in the evenings as they sat on the back porch -- a porch much like the one they were standing on at present.

There was easy affection between her and her family, save for Pete's current problems, and Joseph and Aileen were obviously still very much in love with each other.  Despite her troubled teens, Carson deduced it was that example of love and support that had won out, and she knew it was Joseph's direct support of Kennedy that had pulled her through those dark days after Angela died.  He was an intelligent man and bore a sensitivity that allowed him to easily see inside people's hearts and minds.  She'd spent a little time wandering through the lodge and his studio, looking at his paintings and the beauty he'd transferred from his mind's eye to canvas.

She saw so much of him and his treatment of Aileen in Kennedy, down to the solicitous unconditional love Kennedy showered on Carson every day.  She was living out the example set by her father, and Carson had come to realize that her lover was every bit as capable of that same lifetime love and commitment her parents shared.  Her eyes grew wide as it hit her that Kennedy most likely was looking for exactly that kind of relationship, and wanted it with her.  Moreover, along with her mother's fiery passion, she'd inherited her father's steadfast patience.  Kennedy was waiting.  She knew it.  Waiting for a sign that Carson wanted the same things she did.  If Carson wanted all of what she saw before her, it was hers.  All she had to do was make up her mind, and make it clear to Kennedy that her commitment was just as strong.

Well.  That was something to think about on the hiking trail, now wasn't it?

"Carson?  Carson."  Kennedy shook her a little, and she looked around sheepishly, realizing she'd missed an entire conversation between Parker and her lover.

"Oh.  Sorry." She blinked, rubbing her eyes.  "I zoned out there for a minute.  Probably need some caffeine for the road.  Give me a minute."  She patted Kennedy's shoulder and ducked inside the house, appearing again with a travel mug full of Aileen's fresh-brewed coffee, along with a Tupperware container of warm just-baked orange-iced sweet rolls Aileen had pushed into her hands.  The older woman followed her out the door, stopping in the doorway to take in the morning.

"You two have fun, and be careful."  She studied her daughter, whose gaze was all over her shorter blonde companion, her eyes warming and softening as Carson approached her at the end of the porch and held up a bite of sweet roll.  Kennedy nipped it up with a playful snap of her teeth, laughing as Carson bumped hips with her  and said something Aileen couldn't understand.  "Don't mind me, I'm only your mother," she spoke up, smiling as her daughter looked up with a brilliant smile of her own gracing her lips.

"Oh.  Mama."  Kennedy's smile remained, and she blushed, briefly lowering her eyes.  She looked back up in a completely unguarded moment, knowing her emotions were written all over her face.  "Sorry.  I got distracted by this evil woman tempting me with bad sugary food."

"Oh, like I had to force you to eat it."  Carson held up another bite and Kennedy took it as well.  "Uh-huh.  Hey!"  Kennedy nipped her fingers in the process, raising one saucy eyebrow as she chewed the bite of roll.  "You're the evil one, not me."

"I'd have to agree with you on that one, Carson."  Aileen joined the circle.

"Me too."  Parker grinned.  "Sorry, sis.  She made that killer guacamole the other night.  Gotta stay on her good side."

"Fine." Kennedy crossed her arms in mock-hurt.  "Maybe I'll lose your butt on the trail."

"No you won't."  Carson nudged her, standing on tiptoe and whispering something that made Kennedy blush from her roots to her open flannel shirt collar.

"Uncle."  She covered her face, feeling the heat.  "Guess we should get going.  Um …" She looked up to knowing grins on her mother's and brother's faces.  "What?!"

"Nothing, nothing at all."  Parker rolled his eyes and whistled a little under his breath.  "Have fun, Shea.  Seriously."  He smiled at her.  "Time enough to worry about everything else when you get back."

"True."  She turned and pecked her mother on the cheek.  "Bye Mama.  When Pa surfaces from his paint-induced haze in the studio, tell him I'm filing my plan with the Visitor Center at Panther Junction, in the event y'all need to find us for any reason."

"Bye, Aileen.  See y'all on Wednesday"  Carson hugged her and Parker in turn.  "Give Katie my love.  Y'all have a safe drive home."

"Alright.  Get going, you two."  Aileen shooed them off the porch.  "Stick to the trails."

"Mamaaaa …"

"I mean it Kennedy Shea.  There's been cats spotted down there recently, even out in the daytime."  She shook a finger at them for emphasis.  "Trails.  Are we clear?"

"Clear," Kennedy mumbled.

"See y'all at Christmas."  Parker waved with his free hand, cradling his mug with the other.

"Cats?"  Carson took her hand as they walked to the truck.

"Mountain Lions."  She keyed the lock and held Carson's door open, giving her a hand up into the passenger seat.

The door closed and Carson found her seatbelt.  Mountain Lions.  Seems there would be lots of things to think about on the trail.


True to Parker's prediction, it was a gorgeous cloudless day, once the fog burned off.  "Is the sky really that blue?  Does that color really exist naturally?"  Carson looked up at the most beautiful shade of vivid blue she'd ever seen.  She thought about that for a moment, and turned, stepping across the path and forcing Kennedy to stop in her tracks.  Carson pulled her lover's sunglasses up and peered into her eyes for a long moment.  Almost the most vivid.

"What?"  Kennedy's eyes widened in confusion, and she tilted her head to one side.

The shades dropped back into place.  "Guess it does exist naturally."  Carson grinned and turned again, as they continued to follow the Oak Canyon trail from the main basin area of Big Bend.  "Where are we headed, again?"

Kennedy chuckled, and hunched her shoulders, shifting the weight of her backpack just a little.  "I figured since you've never been here, we'd do some of the main attractions first -- hike up Emory Peak this morning, and then head on down to one of the campsites on the South Rim trail to camp tonight.  Then hike back out tomorrow and take Panther Pass past Casa Grande, hike up there and then through the Pine Canyon Trail and camp for the night there tomorrow night.  Then hike back to the truck and drive down to either Santa Elena Canyon or Mariscal Canyon and hike along the river for the last couple of days."

"Cool!"  Carson was finding the pack easier to tote than she'd expected.  It had been a few years since she'd been backpacking, but the packs really were designed to distribute the weight well, and the straps could be adjusted so the weight was mostly on her hips, rather than her shoulders and back.  The area they were in was wooded with both evergreen and deciduous trees, and the recent rain had coaxed forth lots of brightly-colored flowers.  It was an oasis in the middle of the desert.  The leaves were turning, and in the occasional open areas on the trail, they could look out for miles over a visual feast of color.

"There's an awesome view at the top of both Emory and Casa Grande, and a few surprises along the way too."  Kennedy stepped a little closer to her partner.  Most of the time they could walk side by side, though in a few spots they were forced to go single file.  She usually let Carson lead, mostly so she could watch her partner's muscular calves in action.  They had matching walking sticks they'd picked up in the gift shop at the basin, each one carved with desert and western etchings, and the tops of the handles wrapped in soft suede leather, along with braided rawhide wrist straps.

"What kinds of surprises?"  Carson sucked from her water bottle.  One of the first rules of desert hiking, or any hiking for that matter, was to drink early and often.  If you were thirsty, you were already dehydrated, and the arid climate didn't allow for mistakes with water.  In addition to carrying two gallons of water each, they had a tiny filtration system with them, for use with the creeks along the way.

"Just some nice things to see, and some nice views."  A chipmunk skittered across the path almost under her feet, and she did a little dance to avoid tripping over it.  "Damn."  She kicked at an acorn the rodent dropped, and it ran back out, picking up the lost booty.  It stood on its haunches and scolded her, chittering away for a bit.  "Hey!"  She shooed at it, watching it scamper to a safer distance.  "You're the one that nearly tripped me.  Be glad I didn't stomp on your little hide.  Or your dinner."  It scolded her again, before dropping to all-fours and disappearing into the undergrowth.

Carson was laughing so hard she had to stop walking for a moment.  "Oh my god."  Her sides hurt from laughing against the restraining pack straps.  "That was too funny.  Do you think it understood you?"

"Nah.  It's just a furry rodent, Carson."  She looked back over her shoulder anyway, to see if the critter was following them.

"I don't know," she smiled.  "After seeing that commercial for auto insurance, I got to thinking about all the times squirrels have run in front of my car or in front of me while I’m jogging.  Makes me wonder if there isn't some underground animal conspiracy against humans.  That Town Lake trail back in Austin is downright dangerous some days."

"Yeah, but more from horny male ducks in mating season than from squirrels, 'least in my personal experience."  Kennedy felt her dignity slide back into place.  "That, or bat guano if you're standing in the wrong place during nightly migration."

"Ewww."  Carson wrinkled her nose.

"Speaking of."  Kennedy knelt down on the trail. "Take a look at this."

"Kennedy, I wanted to observe nature out here, but a pile of poop wasn't what I had in mind."  She wrinkled her nose again, and leaned cautiously over Kennedy's shoulder.

"No.  Look.  See those bits of fur there?"  She picked up a stick and poked at it.

"Yeah.  So?"  Carson backed away, uncertain what was in store.

"This is cat scat -- mountain lion was right here on the trail, in the last day or so, most likely last night."  She stood, tossing the stick into the brush.  "Pretty close to the basin.  Little too close for my tastes.  We need to be extra careful with our food and toiletries tonight, not just for bears, but for cats too.  I have a feeling they're starting to get used to seeing humans around.  Not a good thing.  They don't need to start thinking of campsites as good places to find food."

"How do you know it's not bear poop?"  Carson stepped well-around the little pile.

"Too small an offering, and there weren't any berries mixed in."  She laughed lightly at the face her lover made.  "Need to be careful of them too, although I'd rather have a bear in camp than a mountain lion.  Guess Mama was right about sticking to the trails.  Not too much danger in broad daylight, at any rate."

They walked on in silence, choosing to listen to the sounds of nature all around them as they hiked.  The birds were out in full force, with several Mockingbirds singing their hearts out in praise of the bright sunny day.  Small unidentified creatures made tiny rustling noises in the growth just off the path, and Carson spotted more than a few lizards and squirrels.

At last they reached the base of Emory Peak, and began the long steep climb to the summit.  Halfway up they stopped for a break, and took off the backpacks, leaning them against a tree just off the trail.  A broad flat rock invited, and they sat on the edge, drinking water and looking out over a colorful expanse of green and yellow leaves.  "It's just gorgeous here."  Carson dug a protein bar out of her pocket, unwrapping it and breaking in half.  "Want some?"

"Yeah, thanks."  Kennedy munched on the bar, scooting closer until their legs were touching.  They were both in shorts, having shucked their jeans at the base when they realized how warm the afternoon promised to be.  They were still wearing flannel shirts over their t-shirts, but soon the sun would force those off as well, to be shoved in their packs or tied around their waists.  "Ooo.  A full-leg shave."  She traced the bare skin just above Carson's knee.

"Yeah, I figured I might not get to shave again for three days, so I should do a thorough job."  She smiled, feeling goose bumps follow her lover's fingertips.

"Your legs are hairless, sweetheart.  I swear you really are as smooth as a baby's bottom."  She let her hand still, resting on Carson's leg.

"Nah, it's just blonde and fine and you can't see it real well."  She finished off her bar and carefully folded up the wrapper, sticking it in her pocket.  The bars were a lot tastier than most healthy bars.  Kennedy had turned her on to them, explaining her own trial and error process in finding something palatable that wasn't loaded with fat and sugar.  Living with a vegetarian had proven to be an interesting challenge.  Most days she was perfectly happy and willing to eat the same foods Kennedy did, and was surprised at how much variety there was to be had without meat.

Still, there were times when she simply needed a good old cheeseburger or a steak.  Kennedy was fine with that, and if they cooked it at home, she cooked something for herself that was comparable, like a veggie burger.  If they went out, she could always get a loaded baked potato, minus the bacon bits, of course.  Like so many other aspects of their limited experience together, they were learning to compromise in ways that made both of them happy.

She studied the long lean body next to her, enjoying the dappled sunlight playing against dark reddish-brown skin.  Kennedy was muscular, and long, built a lot like a swimmer or a distance runner, although she packed a little more muscle.  If she were shorter she might have easily passed for a gymnast.  She had almost no fat on her, though, and Carson worried about what would happen if Kennedy were ever sick for more than a day or so.  Her reserves were slim to none.  She reached out, running her own hand down Kennedy's arm, and then her thigh, squeezing her knee when she reached it.

Kennedy captured her hand, raising it and kissing it.  "You ready to head for the top?  The view is worth the climb."

Carson's eyes roamed lazily from Kennedy's hiking boots to the top of her head.  "There are a few views worth the climb around here."  She smiled and leaned over, kissing her charmed lover on the lips.

"Or, we could just go pitch camp now."  She stood, offering Carson a hand up.

"Nope.  You said this is a must-do in Big Bend, so let's go conquer it, honey.  Plenty of time for sleeping bag Olympics after the sun goes down."  She hopped off the rock and back onto the trail, feeling Kennedy's hands on her shoulders as they went to their packs and put them back on.

"Count on it, " Kennedy purred into her ear, as they started on up the trail.  It was steep and narrow, and covered in loose soil and gravel in many spots.  Most hikers on the trail allowed a prudent amount of distance between groups, in case of any sliding falls, but occasionally younger boy scout types would go barreling past them, yelling enough to send any small animals running for the nearest shelter.  "Have to put up with that this close to the basin.  Once we get out on the South Rim, and especially in Pine Canyon tomorrow, we'll lose a lot of the riff-raff."

"Good."  Carson used both hands on her walking stick to heft herself up and over a smallish ledge in the middle of the path.  "I like my wildlife to be furry and on four legs."

"I'm sure you'll get to see something larger than a squirrel, before this trip is over.  I can't think of a time yet when I've been up here, that I didn't see deer, coyote, and the occasional fox.  Javelina and jackrabbit, too.  Bears, more rarely. Cats almost never."  She followed Carson up, taking the ledge with ease in two steps of her long legs.

"Javelina?"  Carson stopped and turned halfway around.  "I'm having an 'Old Yeller' moment here.  Do I need to be on the lookout for trees to climb, just in case?"

"Nah.  I wouldn't go out of my way to provoke them, but as long as you keep a respectful distance, they aren't quite the piranhas they were made out to be in the movie."  She stepped in next to Carson, sharing the narrow path, their shoulders almost touching.  "Main thing I'd be worried about are those cats.  If you see one of them, don't run, no matter how much instinct tells you to.  You want to stay still and see if they will go away on their own, and if not, walk away slowly and don't turn your back on them."

"Hmmm.  Hope I don't see one of those."  Carson looked around, trying to spot any creatures in the trees around them.  She drew in a deep breath, the scent of the place reminding her very much of some of the spots they'd hiked just west of Austin.  The foliage was, in fact, quite similar, especially in the more open areas where there was abundant mesquite and various types of cactus.  Less familiar was the occasional agave plant, and she secretly wondered if she could snip some and try to figure out how to make tequila with it.

As they neared the summit, speech grew scarce in favor of breathing.  Both women lost their footing a few times, though neither one actually fell down.  The walking sticks and having each other to lean on made a big difference.  Finally, they reached the top and Kennedy located a lookout area with a clear view for miles.

"Oh my gosh."  Carson surveyed the horizon.  "Is that Mexico?"  She pointed to an area past a sliver she assumed was the Rio Grande River.

"Yeah."  Kennedy pointed in the same direction.  "See that brownish haze way off in the distance?"

"Yeah.  Reminds me of Dallas on ozone-action alert days."  She shaded her eyes with her hand.  "What is that, dust?  We're too far away from a city for it to be …"

"No, you were right the first time.  It's pollution from factories built just a little ways over the border."  Kennedy found a spot to dump their packs, helping Carson out of hers.  "A gift from NAFTA.  Greedy Americans taking advantage of the more lax Mexican environmental laws."

"That's terrible."  Carson shrugged her shoulders up and down, then whimpered as Kennedy took the hint and started massaging them.  "What about the park?  Does it hurt things here?"

"Absolutely."  Kennedy dug into a vicious knot at the base of her lover's neck, slowly working the tight muscle loose.  "It effects the plants and animals alike, even can effect the weather.  Man, you're tight.  Your pack too heavy?"

"Not really.  Guess I'm just not used to all of this after being a lazy bum for the past month. Come on, let's sit for a while before we go back down."  She found a section of rock jutting out where they could stretch out some.  Kennedy sat back against a smooth section of rock wall and Carson scooted between her legs, leaning back and sighing in contentment as long arms wrapped around her.  "Can we camp here?"  She closed her eyes, enjoying the contact and the sunlight.

"No.  I signed us up for one of the spots on the south rim, but you'll be glad of it in the morning." She nuzzled Carson's hair, before resting her chin on her head.  "The sunrise view over there is killer."

"Oooo.  Can I take coffee?"  She felt a little shiver as Kennedy took a few tentative nibbles at the side of her neck.

"Absolutely, and thank god for those coffee bags you found at the store.  I was trying to figure out where to fit a camping coffee pot in my pack.  Those bags saved weight and space."  She continued to nibble at her lover's skin, just enjoying snuggling out under the trees.  No one else was around, giving them the privacy to be a couple with no curious eyes.

"You would've carried a coffee pot up here just for me?"  Carson had found a box of coffee bags at the grocery store, used just like tea bags.  Combined with a packet of instant hot chocolate, she had mocha java to look forward too along with their instant packets of oatmeal for breakfast.  Backpacking food tended to come in pouches and envelopes that could be mixed with water to create meals.

"You bet.  I thought about trying to carry a bottle of red wine up here, since it doesn't need to be chilled, but decided it might be too much weight in the pack."  She switched sides, feeling Carson relax more against her.  She reached up, checking the wicked knot in her neck, smiling when she felt it was almost completely gone.

"Confession time."  Carson's eyes were still closed.  ''I snuck a little flask of tequila into my pack.  I knew it was one of the few hard liquors you like, plus we only need a shot or two, so lots less space and weight."

"Aren't you clever?"  She pulled Carson's t-shirt aside at the neck, continuing her exploration, slowly kissing her way along a mostly-exposed shoulder.

"Do you know how much I want to get naked with you right now?"  Carson mumbled, turning her head and finding Kennedy's lips, sampling them for a long while.  They pulled back and Carson settled in her arms again, Kennedy's cheek pressed against the side of her head.  "Do you realize we've made love almost every day since I moved to Austin?"

The question came out of the blue, and Kennedy thought about her answer for a few moments.  "Is that a bad thing?"  She finally responded, hoping fervently it wasn't.

"No.  Just … different, for me at any rate.  I guess I was just wondering … oh, I don't know what I'm wondering.  It's all still pretty new to me.  But you knew that."  She smiled, squeezing Kennedy's arms against her in reassurance.  "It's a good kind of new and different.  Just …"

"You're wondering if it's normal?"  Kennedy hazarded a guess.

"Mmm.  Kind of, I suppose."  She turned a little bit in her lover's arms, doing a little nibbling of her own.

"Well, ooo, that's nice."  Kennedy closed her eyes for a bit.  "Okay, where was I?  Um … I think lots of couples, especially in a new relationship, they tend to be pretty physical.  You and I, we built up to sex pretty slowly, and I think maybe things kind of exploded for us, once we reached that point.  There isn't really any 'normal,' I don't think.  Just whatever a couple is comfortable with.  Does it make you uncomfortable to be doing it as often as we do?"

"No."  Carson kissed along her jaw line.  "I just hoped you didn't think I was some kind of nympho or something. Seems like there are times when I can't keep my hands off of you.  I probably initiate it at least as often as you do."

"Heh."  Kennedy's eyes opened, twinkling at her in amusement.  "If you are a nympho, please don't go changing for me."  She tweaked Carson's nose.  "Seriously, I've thought no such thing.  It's been real nice, getting to know you on that level.  I think after the holidays, and especially after you get settled into a job, we might slow down a little bit."  She shrugged slightly.  "I dunno.  I guess maybe some couples make love every day even after it isn't new anymore -- maybe it's a lifetime thing for some of them."

"I think I'd like that."  Carson snuggled up against her.  "I like lying in your arms afterward, and falling asleep -- so peaceful.  Or waking up and starting the day feeling so very loved by you.  Like I said, it's a nice new and different."

"Well, the point is, whatever is right for us is right for us, sweetheart.  As long as you feel good about how we're doing things right now, that's what matters."  She kissed Carson again, running her hand up and down her bare lower leg, feeling Carson respond to her.  "I think I could get naked with you right now, too, but not a good place.  I'd hate to shock any unsuspecting boy scouts."

"Do you ever think about doing anything really wild?"  Carson ran her fingertip along Kennedy's forearm.  "I know on our trip to Mexico, we came pretty close to having a top deck experience."

"Mmm.  Yeah, but I think I'd had a few too many fruity drinks with cute little umbrellas and plastic animals on the rim.  Not really my style, and I was really glad later we took it to our cabin.  In a sleeping bag in a tent is about as outdoors as I'd like to go at this point, unless we're alone on our own boat back home.  Al fresco sex sounds fun in theory, but dirt, rocks, spiders, and ants tend to make the reality of it a whole lot less appealing."

"But do you think you'll ever get bored and want to try something different?"  Carson frowned, not quite sure she wanted to know the answer.

"I'll never get bored with you."  Kennedy cupped her cheek, tilting her face up.  "As for trying something different, I love what we do together, because it comes from a place of our love and respect for each other.  I don't need wild and kinky, sweetheart.  Do I have some fantasies I haven't shared yet?  Oh, you bet.  And in time, I will, and maybe we'll try them, and maybe we won't."  She kissed her passionately, her expression very serious as they surfaced for air.  "But don't go worrying you're going to wake up one morning in shackles with me wielding a crop.  I promise you that is not in my fantasies."

"Oh.  I wasn't worried about that, per se. I think … I think I feel like you do."  Carson searched her eyes.  "I meant it.  I like that idea of the couples who stay in love and continue to express that on the physical level.  I …"  She swallowed.  "I like the idea of waking up in your arms every morning."  It was all she could bring herself to say at the moment, but it was enough, as she saw the tiny light dawning in Kennedy's eyes.

"I like that idea too." She hugged Carson tightly.  "Very much."  She closed her eyes, her mind spinning.  Was Carson saying what she thought she was saying?  She squeezed her closer, holding on as if for dear life.   They needed to have a more decisive talk on the subject.  Sometime soon, after she got her courage up.


Continued in Chapter 5

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