Copyright 2004 by Texbard

For disclaimers, see Chapter 1

Chapter 6

They hiked off trail along the creek, which eventually fed into the Pine Canyon trail.  Kennedy debated their campsite choice.  She'd filed a plan with the basin for them to camp at one of the official Pine Canyon campsites.  No one would be checking up on that, most likely, because it would require a ranger to hike in and start doing headcounts at the campsites, which almost never happened.  Still, she nibbled her lower lip, if her family needed to find them, they wouldn't be in the area they were supposed to be, if she did what she wanted to do.

Ah, well.  She smiled.  They'd be hiking back to the basin in the morning to get the truck to drive down to the river area anyway.  Not like anything that arose before then could really be handled anyway.  "We need to cross the creek again, next chance we get."  She used her walking stick to poke a pile of leaves, before stepping through them.  "Seems like there's a dead tree that goes across up here, that we can use.

"Um … how wide a dead tree?"  Carson studied the flowing stream nearby.  It wasn't a raging river, but she had no desire to get back into the cold water, especially fully-clothed with a heavy pack on her back.  "Can we walk across?"

"Might have to scoot across on our bellies."  Kennedy grinned and waited.

"With forty pounds on my back!?  I don't think so."  Carson caught up to her, tugging at her pack from behind.  "Honey, I am not a monkey."

"Coulda fooled me."  Kennedy made monkey noises, and received a swat to her behind for it.  "Heh."  She stopped and turned.  "I was just kidding.  I think there's a bridge we can use to cross, actually."

"That wasn't funny."  Carson pouted, slapping her on the arm for good measure.

All mirth disappeared, and Kennedy looked down at the red mark on her arm.  "Sorry."  She turned and hiked on in silence, her playful mood shattered.

Carson watched her, and sighed.  She looked at her watch and heard her stomach growl.  "Honey."  She caught up again.  "I'm sorry too.  I don't know where that came from."  She rubbed the arm she'd slapped.  "I think I'm tired and hungry, mostly.  And PMSing a bit."

"Oh."  Kennedy winced.  "Means I probably am too."  Their cycles had quickly synced since living together, which made for three weeks of bliss per month, and one of hell at times.  At least, she reflected, they weren't on different schedules, making for perhaps two weeks of hell a month.   "Least it's usually better when I realize that's what's going on."

"Me too."  Carson took her hand, twining their fingers.  "Sorry I hit you."

"Didn't hurt nearly as much as your words did," Kennedy squeezed her hand to remove the sting of her own words.  "Just wasn't expecting that, considering how well we've been getting along."

"We almost always get along."  Carson looked up at the strong profile, smiling when Kennedy looked at her, her expression softening to one of complete adoration.

"We do, don't we?"  She tilted her head, studying a slightly sunburned face.  "You know, I actually expected us to fight a lot more than we do, all things considered."

"Why?"  Carson laughed lightly.  "Couldn't possibly be because we're both two stubborn, independent, strong-willed women who've both been on our own for a long time, could it?"

Kennedy burst out laughing.  "Luckily we both know how to talk things out and listen to reason."  She squeezed Carson's hand again.  "That's probably our saving grace at times."

"That and a large dose of the good kind of hormones."  Carson flashed a sexy smile.  Make-up sex, she'd discovered, had its merits, although she'd rather not have to go through the circumstances that led up to it.

"Oh, definitely.  You remember our first fight?"  She glanced over at the sheepish face next to her, her own expression matching it.  "That damned seatbelt argument after that guy stalked us at the fair?"  Carson nodded in silence, and Kennedy continued.  "I wanted to make love with you so badly that night."

"Yeah, I did too, but I’m glad our first time wasn't the result of a fight."  She felt Kennedy move closer, pecking her on the head, before they continued on in silence.

The afternoon had been gorgeous, and the shadows were starting to lengthen between the trees.  It was already growing cooler, and they stopped once to pull on flannel shirts over their t-shirts.   There was indeed a bridge, and soon Kennedy led them well off-trail, through the trees and around the backside of a ridge.  They weren't too far from the area where they had eaten lunch, and were now entering a tiny box canyon with high rock bluffs and many more tall trees.  An eagle glided from one bluff, soaring up and across to the other side, taking Carson's breath away.

After an hour or so, they neared the end of the canyon, and Carson could distinctly hear the falls again, although they were nowhere to be seen.  "Have we gone in a circle?"  She looked around, trying to locate the source of the water.  She could smell damp rock, and rich well-watered soil, along with the heavy scent of pine and cedar.

"Not exactly, come're."  Kennedy all but ran, the pack making running more of a chore than she cared for, but her pace picked up, and she impatiently forced herself to slow enough for Carson to keep up.  She led them between a crack in the bluff, into a cave of sorts, narrow and flat and cool.  "Look."

She led Carson toward the back and around a corner where daylight streamed in, through the backside of the falls, which were pouring down beyond an opening at the back of the cave.  "Oh, cool!"  Carson inched toward the opening, a ledge that jutted out about a hundred feet over the pool below, but was hidden and several feet back from the waterfall.  "No wild animals in here, I take it?"

"Never has been that I know of," Kennedy turned in a circle looking around.  It's a pretty simple little place -- no alcoves or shelves or anything an animal could use to hide from enemies.  The walls are smooth, and it's not real warm, especially in winter."  She kicked at the cave floor -- and good soft dirt.  "We can pitch the tent in here, or if you're up for it, just toss our sleeping bags and thermarests down here without the tent."  Her eyes glinted, hinting at what she hoped Carson would answer.

"Let's be adventurous."  Carson dropped her pack against the wall.  "Hey, is that a fire ring over there?"

"Yeah."  Kennedy dug out her bedding, arranging it on the ground and waiting for Carson, so they could zip the bags together.  "Another little guilty secret.  There's no foliage in here to catch fire, and no way a ranger could spot smoke.  And with both ends open, the smoke doesn't build up either, so yes, sweetheart, we can build a campfire tonight in here, if you'd like."

"Oooo.  I'd like, very much."  The ring was between their sleeping bags and the front of the cave.  They could see the waterfall from where they would sleep, and she decided it was just about the coolest camping spot she'd ever had.  "Wish we had stuff to make s'mores."

"Heheh."  Kennedy retrieved a bag from a side pocket of her pack.  "As you wish.  One small box of graham crackers, two Hershey bars, and a baggie of marshmallows, coming up, my dear."

"But how …"

"We can build fires down in the area where we'll be tomorrow night, so I brought these for then.  We can get more at the store before we drive down there tomorrow."  She finished zipping their bags together.  "I'll go hunt us some firewood, if you'll dig out our dinner stuff."

"Works for me."  Carson gave her a little pat on the hip as she stood and passed by, then turned to their bags, locating her flashlight first.  "Here," she handed it to Kennedy.  "I'll find yours while I'm digging for the cooking pot."

"Thanks." Kennedy ruffled her head and left her alone to begin dinner preparation.  She found the pan, their spork, the tin cups and the packet of vegetarian spaghetti that was that night's offering.  "Wine would've been nice," she reflected, and dug out her flask of tequila instead, as well as packets of hot chocolate to go with the s'mores.  There wasn't much to prep until the fire was built, so she stood, wandering idly around the cave, finding herself near the falls. 

She sat down cross-legged, watching the water drop past her, the remaining sun sparkling off the spray.  It was utterly peaceful, and she sighed, closing her eyes.  There was a lot to think about, and judging from the direction of conversations they'd had, a big talk was fast approaching.  She acknowledged she was no longer overwhelmed at the prospect of living with a lover.  It had been nice, waking up together, sharing breakfast, and coming together again in the evening to discuss their day.  Kennedy worked some long hours at times, leaving Carson to settle into life in Austin at her own pace.

The house had never been cleaner, the laundry was kept up with, and she usually began preparing dinner as soon as Kennedy called to tell her she was on the way home.  They typically finished up dinner prep together, and then went out on the back porch swing, to share a glass of wine or hot chocolate, while they talked and watched the sun set over the lake.  A few times they went for an evening horseback ride, and about once a week they took dinner out on the sailboat and shared it on the lake.  Most evenings they watched TV, rented movies, read, played board games, or simply went to bed early.  She smiled at that.  No matter what time they went to bed, they usually found time for lovemaking, sometimes in the morning, but most often at night when they could take their time.

Her eyes wandered over to the sleeping bags and a little shiver of anticipation chased down her spine.  "Lord," she spoke aloud to the waterfall. "Not like we didn't just go at it three hours ago."

No, she sighed a little bit.  Living with Kennedy had been more fantastic than she could possibly have imagined, and Kennedy had gone out of her way to make it a pleasant experience for her.  She'd start searching for a job after the holidays, and then they'd settle into a more normal routine.  Her forehead wrinkled into a frown.  And there, she acknowledged, was maybe the last remaining core of her fear.  She'd seen her parents live a life that would have bored her to tears, and that was something she didn't want.

"Drat."  She tossed a pebble into the water.  She wanted the home, and the nice life, and the love most of all, and maybe even kids.  The thought of sharing life with another person was very appealing.  She just didn't want that life to become boring and predictable.  She snorted.  "As if."  Nothing about their relationship had been boring thus far.  "Hell, maybe we need a little dose of boring from time to time, come to think of it."

There was no question that she was in love with Kennedy.  "Just …"  She pursed her lips inward.  "Do I want to spend the rest of my life with her?"

Something niggled at the back of her mind and she turned the question around.  "Do I want to spend the rest of my life without her?"  It hit her with startling clarity.  The thought of life without Kennedy was physically painful, a cold lonely knot that settled in her gut before she shook it off.

"Absolutely not."  She smiled, a happy little giddy rush of energy coursing through her body.  It was so easy, really, if she thought about it the other way around.  But did one broach the word "forever" after being with someone for two months?  That part, she wasn't sure of, and decided that it wasn't something she had to figure out all in one night.

She loved Kennedy, and she wanted to make a life with her.  That was enough for now.

"And speaking of …." She stood and stretched.  "Let's see if she needs some help with wood-gathering."


Dusk settled through the woods as Kennedy made her way back to the cave with a stack of logs in her arms.  She had a camping hatchet, and had hacked up a few larger chunks of wood, and made a sizeable pile just outside the cave door, adding to it with each trip back until she was satisfied she had enough to keep a fire burning all night, if they wanted one.  Along with the larger logs she had found some kindling, and a bit of dry undergrowth to use as tinder.

As she drew closer to the cave, she looked up, spying the first star of the evening, shining brightly through the tops of the pine trees, which were blackened in silhouette against the dark blue sky.  She stopped and closed her eyes.  "Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight.  I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight."  She opened her eyes and blinked, as the star twinkled at her, almost like a wink.  "I am sure I imagined that."  Shaking her head at herself, she continued on.  It had been a long time since she wished on a star, or kissed a necklace clasp, or tossed a penny into a fountain.  Her birthday was coming up in a few days.  Maybe when she blew out the candles on her cake .…

"Just stop it," she chastised herself aloud.  "Carson loves you.  That's good enough for now."   Her heart hurt.  "Damn it."  She stopped again and stood there, just breathing, clutching the wood against her body, feeling a tangle of emotions washing around inside.  "Never wanted anything until I met her."


"Alright," she continued the argument with herself.  So she had wanted so many things -- a successful career, and a nice house, and the respect of her peers.  She'd gained all that and then some.  Hell, she'd even made a few good friends along the way.  It had been empty, and it had taken a while to admit to herself she wanted love -- wanted a lover, a life partner no less, and a family, and all the things her parents had, and Parker had.  She'd shoved all those dreams deep down inside, certain she wasn't meant to have them.  All that had surfaced in a whirlwind of emotion, the night Carson literally came dancing into her arms.  Having Carson in her life made her want things she'd never dared dream of.

Carson held her heart in her hands, and had the ability to make those dreams come true, or shatter them with a single word.  And that, she admitted, was what she was afraid of -- to gather every bit of her courage and be shot down.  She wasn't quite ready to face that possibility, just yet.

Things were really good between them. Other than the night at Armadillo Flats, and their encounters with Pete, the trip to Alpine had been amazing, and the camping trip was almost what she could imagine a honeymoon being like, except she intended to have a nice comfy bed on her honeymoon.  "Well," she spoke to a pair of squirrels.  "This is a beautiful night, isn't it?  Guess I'd best get back to the girl and commence with a little spooning by the fire, eh?"

Her boots crunched faintly in the undergrowth, and she frowned, hearing the snap of a twig back in the woods, and a shuffling that was amiss and out of sync with her own footsteps.  She turned and looked back into the shadows, seeing nothing.  She shivered in reflex, and kept walking, picking up her pace.  Finally she arrived at the cave and dropped the last armload onto the woodpile.  A loud crunching noise sounded behind her, and she spun around.

On the edge of the trees was a huge black bear, close enough that she could see a small white patch of fur at its chest.  She squinted.  "It can't be."  She stood still, watching.  It appeared to be the very same bear from the night before, yet logic told her that was nearly impossible.  He was every bit as big, though, and built exactly the same.  He paused near the trees studying her docilely, before he ambled into a thick grove and out of her vision.

Very carefully, she sat down on a low boulder just outside the cave entrance, waiting to see if he would appear again.  She wanted to call for Carson, but was afraid she'd scare him away.  His footsteps faded away, and she'd about decided he had headed out toward the canyon entrance, when another animal appeared, stepping out from the other side of the grove.

Well.  Her heart stopped for a moment.  Logic had nothing to do with this particular situation.  It was the white buck -- her spiritual guardian.  Her mind spun, and she wondered if the old buck had the ability to shape-shift.  Sure he does, she reasoned.  Could that have been the bear from the night before?  Nah.  Impossible.  Wasn't it?  Her scalp prickled at the prospect.

Had he shown up the night before to protect them, taking the form of a bear?  And why was he back?  Her sight turned inward, thinking about all her insecurities and her desires concerning Carson.  "What are you trying to tell me?" she whispered.

"Hey, I thought you might like your fleece shirt, so I …. Oh."  Carson's jaw dropped, as she stepped outside the cave, and she carefully climbed in behind Kennedy on the boulder, bracketing her with her legs and resting her chin over her shoulder.  "Wow," her voice was barely audible in Kennedy's ear.

"You can see him?"  Kennedy hissed, turning her head just the slightest bit.

"Of course I can," she whispered back.  "He's stunning, isn't he?"

"Shhhh."  Her heart beat double time, for a different reason, as the buck drew closer.  He was stately, his rack of antlers like great bare tree branches.  Wise dark liquid eyes bore into them, as he glided silently into the clearing, a mere ten yards from them, the pale moonlight spilling down, shimmering off his hide in silvery patterns.

She felt Carson's arms tighten around her waist, and she covered her hands with her own.  They were breathing in rhythm, she realized, and Carson's heart beat against her back in time with her own heartbeat.  The legs against her thighs pressed inward, and warm breath trickled past her neck, into her flannel shirt collar, warming her all over.  She couldn't tell where Carson began and she ended, so close was the body wrapped around her, and the emotions that flowed thickly between them.  It brought tears to her eyes, and she blinked, hearing Carson sniffle a little bit in her ear.

The buck stood there for what seemed a lifetime, before he turned, fading ghost-like into the trees and disappearing from sight.  They sat in complete silence for a while longer, both of them processing what they felt.

"You really saw him?"  Kennedy still did not turn, her eyes closed, still feeling the current between them and the warm body blanketed around her.

"Why do you keep asking that?"  Carson nuzzled her neck, drawing in her scent and feeling her skin tingle in reaction.  She was having a hard time concentrating on anything but warm skin and a body that felt vibrantly alive in her arms.  She wanted to crawl inside all that energy, and wondered, vaguely, if that were possible.

"Because …." She slowly turned to the side, draping one leg over Carson's.  "It isn't supposed to happen that way.  I … he's my spiritual guardian.  It's a very private thing.  I've never heard of anyone …"

"Whoa."  Carson drew in a breath.  "That …. THAT was the buck you told me about?  It just didn't occur to me that …."  She blinked.  "Really?"

"Yeah.  Really."  She turned fully, sitting in the space between Carson's legs, her own long legs draped over Carson's in an upraised fashion, wrapped loosely around Carson's waist.  "I've never heard of two people seeing a spiritual guardian at the same time.  I'll have to ask Pa about it when we get home -- find out if it means anything."

"Did … did you feel ….?"  Carson stopped, gathering her thoughts.  "That was pretty intense for me.  Was it …?"

"For me too."  Large hands covered smaller ones, chaffing them and drawing them up, before she pressed her lips against each of them in turn.  "I could feel you, all mixed up inside me, if that makes sense.  Mixed up in a good way, I mean."

"Yeah, that's what I felt too."  Carson smiled almost shyly, blonde lashes blinking in the low light.  She could still feel it, something drawing them together and binding them so tightly that nothing could ever rend it.  Every fear she had dissipated, and their eyes locked in an understanding they couldn't yet voice.

Kennedy drew her close, hugging her tightly and rocking back and forth.  "I'm never letting go of you," she whispered.

"Good, 'cause I'm never letting go of you, either."  Carson felt the sharp intake of breath and kissed a warm cheek.

It felt so good, Kennedy wanted to cry.  It wasn't exactly a proposal, but it was so close -- a promise that when the time came, she no longer needed to fear the answer.  They remained locked together until the moon rose, then grabbed an armload of wood each and moved back inside for the warmth of the fire, and the greater warmth of each other.


"What is it about the sound of water that's so relaxing?"  Carson casually flipped her marshmallow, toasting it to a pale golden brown, before squishing it against her Hershey bar and covering it with graham crackers.  She took a bite and closed her eyes, relishing the sweet treat.  "Mmmmmm.  Thanks for bringing these.  Camping isn't complete without s'mores by the fire."

"You're welcome."  Kennedy nibbled at her own dessert, secretly admitting that Carson was having an effect on her Spartan eating habits.  She smiled, wondering if she'd be eating cheeseburgers and fries before all was said and done.  "Gives me an excuse to be bad."

"You …" Carson nudged her shoulder.  " … have no problem being bad without my help, thank you very much."

"Me?"  Kennedy pointed a finger at her own chest, her eyes sparkling innocently.  "I'm a good girl."  She finished off her s'more, brushing the crumbs from her hands.  "You've corrupted me, utterly and completely."

Carson snuggled up even closer, finding her lips and savoring them, along with the faint hint of chocolate and marshmallow that lingered there.  "Glad to be of service, ma'am."  Speaking of corrupting, I believe you were going to tell me about your first time, sometime.

"Oh."  It took her off guard, and she sat back, raising her knees and wrapping her arms around them in thought.  "Alright.  If you'll tell me about Mr. Icky afterward."

"Um.  Sure."  Carson mimicked her pose, briefly eyeing the untouched tequila flask, and wondering if some fortification might be in order.  Maybe.  She turned her full attention on her lover.  "So … you said you wanted to at least have some feelings for the person, right?"

"Yeah."  Blue eyes looked down, studying her fingernails with great interest.  "I made it through that last summer before college untouched, so to speak."  She smiled.  "Pa and Mama and I packed up my footlocker and headed up to Santa Fe, where they got me settled into the dorm.  Then we went out to dinner and after that they headed out to spend some time in Chaco Canyon.

Chaco had come up in conversation often enough that Carson decided they needed to visit there together, someday .  It was where she'd developed a keen interest in all things Native American.  Her eyes roamed over Kennedy and she chuckled internally.  There was one Native American artifact that stood out above all the others.  "And you began to explore Santa Fe?"

"Yeah.  I met my roommate, Holly, a girl from Albuquerque who was an art major.  We hit it off, after she saw a few of Pa's pieces.  He'd given me a couple of small matted paintings to hang on the wall above my bed.  It was so strange, being in a place so open an different from how I'd grown up."  She paused, taking a healthy swig from her water bottle.

"So she was your first?"  Carson accepted the water as it was handed across, wetting her own dry lips.

"No, she was straight, but not narrow."  Kennedy smiled.  "Took a while before I came out to her, but she was pretty key in setting me on the path to enlightenment.  She was the one who found out there was a gay and lesbian student group on campus, and took me walking by the coffee shop where they were meeting one evening.  Shoved me through the door and left me there."

"That's cool.  I wish I'd been clued in enough when I was in college.  UT had so much to offer."  She fiddled with her charm bracelet, the one Kennedy had given her in Dallas.  She wore it nearly all the time, stopping at odd moments to eye the little key that fit the heart charm Kennedy wore on a chain inside her shirt.

"Yeah, she was real cool.  So.  I started going to the meetings and they had a few socials.  Some of the girls told me about some parties they had once a month in town.  They moved around from place to place.  They weren't just students.  Quite a few locals went to them too -- the age range was pretty broad.  It was nice, though.  I got to know several older couples that way -- saw what it was like to be in a long-term relationship with another woman. Some of them had been together twenty-five years or more."

Carson looked up, their eyes locking for a long moment.  "I've not known any couples like that."  She smiled warmly.  "But it's nice to know there are couples like that out there.  Kind of encouraging, huh?"

Kennedy swallowed, her smile matching her lover's.  "Very encouraging."  She reached out, tracing Carson's knee with her finger while she spoke.  "Anyway, these weren't like Dallas or Houston parties -- a lot of earthy spiritual types live in Santa Fe, so we had poetry readings and sometimes sat around while one girl played the guitar and we sang.  Sometimes a few of us would go out back and smoke a little weed.  I met this woman at one of the parties near the end of my first semester -- Andrea -- Andie.  She was twenty-four, had long honey-blonde hair and big brown eyes.  A few inches shorter than me.  She was a school teacher -- taught high school art.  Seems like I'm always mixed up with blondes and artists."  She grinned.

"Ooo.   An older woman."  Carson laughed lightly.  "And.  So?"

"So … that's about it."  Kennedy teased her.

"Um.  Okay."  Carson looked down, unsure if it would be prying to ask for more details.

"Kidding."  Kennedy tickled her knee before she resumed stroking it.  "We started hanging out -- went on a lot of hikes, went skiing a couple of times, and shared several bottles of wine over a few weeks.  We were a little slow on the uptake, but eventually admitted we were attracted to each other.  My spring break coincided with hers, so we took off for a condo at one of the nearby ski resorts.  Didn't get much skiing done, but by the end of the week, she'd taught me some very nice things."

"Were you in love with her?"  Carson grabbed her hand, twining their fingers.

"No.  Puppy love, maybe.  She was more a lesbian mentor than anything.  We parted as very good friends at the end of that year, and still saw each other off and on until I graduated and left Santa Fe.  I lost track of her after I moved to Houston, but last I heard, she was permanently partnered."  She pursed her lips.  "I felt bad for her.  She couldn't be out because of her job.  Made it tough for her to have a partner, much less have children with one.  She wanted kids.  I hope she got to have them."

"Do … do you want kids?"  It popped out before Carson  could stop herself, and her heart leaped into her throat as she looked up.

"Yeah.  I guess I do."  It was scary, treading on ground that might be a deal-breaker, and she could hear a rushing in her ears as she continued.  "It's what I grew up with -- knuckleheads or no, I love my brothers, and I love Parker's kids.  Family is pretty important to me, especially considering how much I screwed up growing up.  No matter how bad I was, or what I did, my family was always there for me.  And I like kids."

"You're great with Parker's kids."  Carson squeezed her hand.  "How many of them do you want?"

"I think two, at least."  She rubbed the back of Carson's hand with her thumb.  "Do you want kids?"

"I do.  It's just …"  She took a deep breath.  "I don't want to give birth to them.  It's not so much a fear of pain or pregnancy.  Well, it's partly that.  But I wasn't supposed to be born.  My mother had a lot of problems, and my father was a preemie.  I don't have the best genes for childbirth."  Her eyes peered timidly up.  "How do you feel about that?  About bearing children?"

"Never got that far in the plans," she shifted, until her hands covered both of Carson's knees, her own legs crossed in front of her.  "You … you don't have to get pregnant.  And neither do I.  Sometimes, I think there are an awful lot of kids out there who need a home, ya know?  Kinda figured maybe there was a kid or two out there I could love every bit a much as if I gave birth to them."

"I have no doubt of that."  Carson covered her hands, lifting them and kissing the palm of each one in turn.  "I did a lot of babysitting in my teens.  There were a couple kids I could easily have loved like my own."

Blue eyes met gray, another hurdle jumped.  Kennedy felt her heart slow down to a somewhat normal rate, and she looked around, spotting a smooth spot against the cave wall behind Carson, but still near the fire.  She scooted around, leaning against it and stretching out her legs, as she pulled Carson against her.  "So.  Mr. Icky?"

"Mr. Icky."  Carson sighed heavily.  "Have I mentioned you're the only good relationship choice I've ever made?"

"You've hinted at it a few times, yes."  Carson had been with three men before they had met, and no women.  Two of the men, Kennedy got the impression she'd only slept with once.   "So was Mr. Icky a long-term thing?"

"Longest term I ever had -- about five months."  She suddenly felt very small.  Ray had been married twice.  We met at a wedding.  He was only five years older than me -- just had been around the block a few times.  Anyway, I was warned about him, but he was a hunk and I was at a point where I needed a boost to my self-esteem, and I couldn't believe he was interested in me.  He had done some body building competitions in his early twenties, and he still had most of that.  He was nice to look at, at any rate."

"Ah, your very own boy toy."  Kennedy ruffled her head.

"Yeah, kinda."  She managed a small smile.  "Unfortunately that was about all he had going for him, but it took a while to figure that out.   He was cheap -- I thought it was romantic at first, him wanting to cook dinner all the time, but when I realized we had only been out to dinner once, on our first date, it got kind of old.  Especially since I was almost always dessert.  We didn't go do things together.  We'd cook dinner and then we'd go to bed.  It was the first time I'd been in what I considered to be an adult relationship.  The whole sleeping over thing and all."

Kennedy listened intently, and quickly calculated how many times they'd been on real dates.  She breathed an internal sigh of relief when she determined they'd been out on a date at least once a week since they'd met.  Not to mention a week in Mexico together.  "So that's kind of icky, but I’m taking it there's more to it than that."

"Yeah.  I found out both of his ex-wives had been strippers when he met them, and that he had always dated strippers.  That was intimidating enough.  I mean come on."  She gestured down at herself.  "I try to take care of myself, but this squatty body is not exactly what I'd picture in an exotic dance club, you know?"

"Oh, darlin'"  Kennedy flashed a sexy smile.  "You're the hottest body on earth, in my book."

"Thanks."  Carson swallowed. "Coulda used some of that ego-boosting back then.  He apparently was trying to clean up his image, and chose me because he thought I was wholesome.  He was always judging what I wore and would get mad if I wore anything out in public he thought was too provocative -- we didn't go out other than to go to the store or something, and then, it was fine -- if I was with him, he was all into me being dressed in short shorts and skirts, but if I was leaving to go home or out somewhere without him, he wanted me covered from neck to feet."

"Typical jerk who wants a trophy on his arm but gets pissed at the trophy if someone else looks."  Kennedy picked up one of the sticks from the nearby kindling pile, doodling in the cave floor dirt while she listened.

"Yeah, I guess.  No matter what he thought he wanted me to be -- some girl next door type -- in the bedroom, he never let me forget about those strippers, or that I wasn't as sexy or hot as they were.  I felt so inadequate.  He wanted me to be all wild in bed, but he was the first guy I'd ever slept with more than once.  He …" she sighed, lowering her head.  "He wouldn't -- take care of me when he was done.  He'd get angry if I hadn't when he had, and he'd roll over and go to sleep.  So, I finally started faking it to make him happy."

"Bastard."  Kennedy felt the rage rise up, and the stick snapped in her hand.  "Where does he live?"

"Dallas."  Carson patted her leg.  "Down, honey.  There's a little bit more.  He … was…"  She stopped, burying her face in her hands.  "Why is this so hard?"

"Sweetheart, you don't have to tell me, if you don't want to."  Kennedy pulled her even closer, kissing the top of her head.

"No.  I think you need to understand this part of my past, because it's really all I had before you."  She grabbed the flask, uncapping it and taking a swallow, feeling the amber liquid burn its way to her stomach.  "He kept pushing me to do things I wasn't comfortable with, but I wouldn't give in.  The last night I stayed with him, there was this small framed naked picture of one of his exes.  He'd set it up in a cubbyhole in the headboard.  Anyway, I didn't notice it until after we'd …  I realized he'd been looking at her the entire time.  He made some comment about me not being a real woman and maybe I should see what one looked like.  I didn't see him anymore after that, but I felt really bad about myself for a long time -- I figured maybe there really was something wrong with me."

"No one should treat you that way.  No one."  Kennedy's face grew dark with rage and she flung the remains of the stick into the fire.  "If I ever meet him, I just might go Lorena Bobbit on his ass.  If I don't kill him first."

"Kennedy?"  She shook her fuming lover a little.  "Honey, he's in the past.  No sense in killing him, okay?"

"But he deserves to be dead."  She beat the cave floor with a fist and turned, taking Carson in both arms and hugging her with all her might.  "There's nothing wrong with you.  My lord, far from it."

"You've gone a long way in building my self-esteem in that regard."  Carson hugged her back, nuzzling her face against her neck.  "You make me feel beautiful."

"You ARE beautiful."  She kissed her head again, continuing to hold her close.  "When I walked in that conference room that day we met, I was smitten from the get-go.  I saw you with your cousin at lunch that day.  Thought he was your boyfriend, and I was so disappointed."

"I didn't know that."  Carson smiled.  "Good thing you were behind me to catch me at The Round-Up when my Cotton-eyed Joe line decided to play crack the whip instead."

"You fell in my arms, and I had to think real hard about setting you back on your feet."  Her eyes twinkled silvery in the firelight and then grew serious.  "Somehow, I think we would've met, one way or the other."

"I think so too."  Carson studied her face at close range, taking in the high cheek bones, the rich dark skin, and eyes that shone back at her, full of love.  She thought about Ray and it seemed like another lifetime.  She let go, releasing that last little thread of doubt -- the little voice that told her she would never have a successful relationship, that she wasn't good enough, that she couldn't satisfy.

And just believed.

Those eyes crinkled and warmed, falling on her and making her smile, right before Kennedy ducked her head, seeking her out, nibbling her lips and deepening the kiss, as they slowly undressed each other.  The warmth of the fire and the cool cave air mixed with incendiary touches, heating Carson's skin and sending pleasant chills skittering across it at the same time.

And then the cave spun, as she was scooped up and carried the short distance to their sleeping bags.  She let go again, feeling Kennedy's touch, and hearing her voice, those eyes meeting her gaze and holding it, wordlessly conveying a desire that set her body on fire, and took her breath away.  Kennedy was fully with her, loving her, whispering in her ear and slowly stroking every inch of her skin, not letting up, their bodies joining in a dance of a different sort.  Carson reached out, eagerly returning touch for touch, as they crashed over the edge, the nearby waterfall echoing the sensations.

They lay together wordlessly for a long while, Carson tracing circles on her lover's stomach, while Kennedy rubbed her back in kind.  The fire crackled warmly, pushing back a light cold breeze that trickled in from the front of the cave.  Carson snuggled up, pecking a bare shoulder several times, before resting her head against it, enjoying the sound of the rushing water, and the sensation of Kennedy's arms wrapped around her, their legs still tangled together.  "Seeing that buck this afternoon was pretty awesome."

"That's the third time I've seen him." Her fingers played along Carson's spine, searching idly for knots to massage, and finding only completely relaxed muscles.  She smiled, and kissed her forehead.  "Saw him that first time, when I went on my vision quest.  Saw him again when we hiked Enchanted Rock."

"What?"  Carson sat partway up.  "You told me about the vision quest then, but failed to mention that second sighting, Miz Nocona."

"It surprised me.  I never expected to see him there.  I needed time to process it some.''  She smiled sheepishly.  "He showed up when I was trying to figure out how to ask you to move to Austin.  And then you up and asked if it would be okay if you moved there.  It … it was like he was trying to tell me something, maybe about you.  A spiritual guide is just that -- a guide to help you figure out the right path."

"So what does it mean if we saw him together?"  Carson kissed the upper curve of a breast, feeling Kennedy's silent chuckle as Carson followed it with a light warm breath over her skin in a sensuous tickle.

"Do that again and I'm not going to be able to form a coherent thought."  She shifted, rolling to her side and running her hand up and down Carson's hip.  "That's why I want to talk to Pa -- see if he knows if that has ever happened before.  Most of us, we don't talk much about our vision quests.  Pa and the rest of my family, they don't even know about the buck, and I don't know what their guides are either.  It's a very personal thing."

"I think I'd like to go on a vision quest sometime."  Carson scooted closer, returning the gentle touches as they talked.  "Do you have to be Native American to do that?"

"Dunno, but you could always do it anyway.  It's pretty tough, though -- no food for a few days, and the smoking part might be difficult for you."  She smiled, cupping Carson's face.  "I could go on one with you.  It wouldn't be quite the same, but we could just be quiet and meditate together.  Maybe we could find something to substitute for smoking -- maybe a sweat lodge or something."

"Ooo.  Get all sweaty with you?  I am so there."  Carson moved closer still, as the touches grew more insistent and they came together again.  A pair of warm lips worked their way slowly down her body, pausing for a long while at her belly and naval ring, before moving lower.  She thought fuzzily that something was vaguely familiar, a sense of d้jเ vu -- the cave, the fire, and the waterfall, and the long lean body hovered over her on the bedroll.  Then she quit thinking altogether, her body rising up and meeting Kennedy, joining her on a very different kind of quest.

Much later, Kennedy lay awake with Carson soundly asleep in her arms, snuggled down inside the sleeping bags.  The fire was still burning, though it was mostly red hot coals, and the falls sang a lullaby to her, the babbling water covering her in a blanket of peace.  Carson stirred in her arms and she stroked the pale head, soothing her until she was still again.  "This sweetheart …" she whispered quietly, hoping the words might sink in through her lover's dreams.  "… this can be that one good relationship you've been looking for, if you'll let it be.  If you'll have me, I promise I'll never let you forget just how much you're loved."

Outside the cave, way over the mountains, the clouds rolled in, and off in the distance she heard the crack of thunder.  She frowned.  It wasn't supposed to rain.  Ah, well, she reasoned.  There were a lot worse things than spending a rainy day together in the cave.  She closed her eyes, a smile twitching at her lips, as she slowly drifted off, the falls and Carson's breathing drawing her into pleasant dreams.


Kenney stirred, gradually waking up and blinking into the darkness.  It felt like early morning, but she had no real way of knowing for certain, without checking her watch, which was tucked safely into a pouch in her pack across the cave.  She breathed in deeply, taking in the scent of damp rock, wet foliage, and Carson's skin, along with the cottony smell of the sleeping bags.  She remembered the earlier thunder, and wondered if it was raining.  The roaring sound of the falls precluded hearing any rain that might be falling.

The air was chilly against an exposed shoulder, and she looked around, realizing the fire had burned down completely.  It was almost eerily dark, her eyes only making out the shape of Carson's body, the bedding around them, and a bit of the wall next to them.  One hand crept out and she located her flashlight, and slowly slipped out of the bag, careful not to disturb Carson.  She walked a bit toward the fire ring and switched on the light, holding it low to the ground so as not to illuminate the entire chamber and wake up her lover.

Kneeling down next to the stone ring, she made a fresh stack of logs, tucking in some of the smaller sticks and pushing a good amount of the tinder beneath all of it, before she located a match and set the fire ablaze.  She watched it build and grow, the flames licking at the dry tinder and quickly devouring it, while the sticks slowly caught fire as well, and finally some of the logs began to burn. 

Soon the cave walls were bathed in warm light, shadows dancing all along the top near the ceiling.  She could see Carson now, her blonde head poking out of the covers, resting on a curled up arm.  She could just make out the slightest rise and fall of the bedding with her breathing, and she took a long moment to simply drink in the sight, finding a great comfort in it.  It seemed so familiar, although she knew they'd never camped together before, much less slept in a cave.  It felt almost homey, and she tucked that away to ponder later.   Satisfied the fire would keep burning for a while, she made her way toward the front of the cave.

As she approached it, she did indeed hear the patter of a hard steady rain, and drew in the rich scent of wet soil and bruised leaves.  She flipped off the flashlight and stood in the entry, her eyes slowly adjusting to the low light.  There were several trees nearby, but up above them, she caught the occasional flash of lightening, and heard the rumble of faint thunder somewhere over the mountaintops beyond the trees.  It felt primal, standing there in the darkness, naked, watching the rain fall, and without much thought, she set down her flashlight and stepped out into the deluge, shivering as it poured over her skin.

It felt good and it was a bit insane, and there was no real explanation for why she did it.  She threw her head back, her hair falling against her shoulder blades before it was quickly plastered to her skin.  She wasn't sure how much time passed, but realized she was cold and should really think about going back inside.  Her next thought was that she had no towel.  "Well, that was one of my stupider moments."  She padded back into the cave, shaking herself, feeling the water pooling off her skin and dripping onto the cave floor.  She felt invigorated, and her skin was already warming back to its normal temperature.

Their packs were on the far side of the fire, and she unzipped her own, locating a sweatshirt she could use to dry off.  As she stood, she heard Carson stir across the fire, along with an unintelligible murmur.  The murmuring turned into an audible yawn, and she smiled, imagining Carson stretching.  "Hey," she whispered, just loud enough to be heard if her lover were awake.

"I must be dreaming," Carson's voice was husky with sleep.

"Why do you say that?" Kennedy chuckled, rubbing the sweatshirt down her arms and across her body.

"Because there's a gorgeous, wet naked woman standing in the firelight.  She looks like you, but last time I checked, you were dry and in this sleeping bag with me."  She rolled over, propping her head on her hand and enjoying the show.

"I got up to build the fire back up."  She bent over, drying her legs.

"And this explains why you're all wet, how, exactly?"  She blinked sleepily, another yawn making her jaw pop.

"It's raining."  She finished drying off and laid the sweatshirt out near the fire to dry.  "I went out and stood in it."

"Why?"  Carson lifted the edge of the bag as Kennedy approached, her form silhouetted from behind in warm gold and red light.  Gray eyes drifted appreciatively over her, the affection evident on her face.

"Because I could." She crawled into the bedding, snuggling up and pulling Carson close.  "Mmmmm.  You're warm."

"And you're nuts."  She kissed her briefly on the lips.  "But I like you that way.  What time is it, anyway?"

"Forgot to check, but it doesn't matter.  It's raining and we're not going anywhere for a while, so you get to sleep in this morning." She nuzzled the blonde head, sighing in utter contentment as Carson's warmth and scent completely enveloped her.

"Have I mentioned I love you?"  Carson located a shoulder, nipping it lightly before she kissed the spot, then wrapped herself around the long body, effectively trapping her lover.  "How's the claustrophobia?"

"Feels wonderful."  Kennedy closed her eyes, as she drifted between wakefulness and sleep.

Carson tucked her head against Kennedy's chest, her heart under her ear.  Long arms held her securely, one hand against her back and another cradling her hip.  She was pretty much sprawled on top of her lover, something she rarely did while awake, but a position they often ended up in once they fell asleep.  The closeness felt so good it brought tears to her eyes, and she sniffled, one tear tracking down her nose and landing on Kennedy's skin.

She'd read of being immersed in someone, and had sometimes wondered what that felt like.  Now she understood.  All her senses took in the moment -- Kennedy's breathing filled her ears, her warmth mingled with her own, and in the low firelight she could just make out the curve of a shoulder.  Her fresh rain-cleansed skin smelled sweet, and Carson poked out just the tip of her tongue, tasting the hint of salt on that skin, before she pecked the spot and closed her eyes.  She briefly wondered if it were possible to burst from happiness.  She sniffled again, and felt long arms pull her in even tighter, pulling her up until her head was tucked under Kennedy's chin.

"You wanna tell me why you're crying?"  Kennedy's voice surprised her and she jumped just a little.

"Because I'm so happy?"  Carson felt a pair of lips brush across the top of her head.

"And you say I'm nuts."  Kennedy's chest shook with a silent chuckle.  "Sweet dreams, love."  She kissed her head again and turned just a little, settling them both deeply into the bedding as they drifted away on the music of a crackling fire and roaring water.


"This has got to be the most decadent breakfast I've ever had."  Carson accepted a bit of oatmeal, hand-fed at close range from their spork.

"More decadent than when we went to Fredericksburg?"  Kennedy nibbled a suddenly-pink earlobe.

"Yeah, only because that was indoors in a bed, naked with you.  This is outdoors in a cave, naked with you."  She took another bite, enjoying the apple-cinnamon flavor as it washed over her tongue.

"Ah.  I see."  Kennedy took a bite of her own, finishing off the double portion of instant grain, before she set it aside for Carson's chocolate and coffee mix.  She'd decided to try it herself, and took a tentative sip.  "Whoa.  That's pretty good."  She gulped down two more healthy swallows, before Carson took it from her.

"Careful there, stud.  You're hyper enough without too much caffeine in your veins.  Don't want to have to tie you down to keep you from flying off."  She sipped at the mixture, closing her eyes in utter enjoyment.

"Tie me down?"  Kennedy growled in her ear.  "That has possibilities."

"You're incorrigible."  Carson patted a bare stomach.  They were sitting up by the fire, propped against the wall, wrapped up together in their joined sleeping bags.  A light mist was falling outside, but the sun was already promising to peek through the clouds, and they'd decided to go forward with plans to drive down to the border and hike along the river for the next two days.

"Insatiable, when it comes to you," Kennedy corrected her, a sexy smile gracing her lips.

Carson kissed her soundly, pulling back only a few inches, her smile warm as their eyes locked in a long silent gaze. 

Kennedy could feel the breath lingering in the air between them, the softness where their skin brushed together, and the shared body heat they generated beneath the thick down covering.  She slowly pulled Carson into a long hug, rocking them back and forth as the blanket gradually slipped down, pooling around them.  "Guess we should get dressed and get moving, huh?"  She made no move to pull apart, however, feeling Carson's long blissful sigh against her neck.

"Or we could sit here like this for four or five days."  Carson tightened her grip, the contrast of warmth between them and the cold at her back causing interesting chills to run down her spine.  "But yeah, we probably should get going if we plan to do any hiking today."

"Alright."  Kennedy released her, taking her hands and holding them for a moment.  "This is kind of a magical place, isn't it?"  She looked around them, taking in the sun that was indeed creeping past the falls and illuminating the cave floor in pale light.

"I think …" Carson squeezed her hands and looked down, drawing in a breath.  She looked up, putting the force of her emotion into her expression.  "I think we brought the magic here."  She leaned in for another brief kiss.  "And I think we take that with us, wherever we go."

Kennedy blinked, absorbing her words.  Something had changed in the cave yet again, bringing them closer still.  The buck flashed through her mind, and the almost electric current that had flowed between them since they first made camp.  Words whispered in the darkness, in the warmth of an embrace washed over her memory, warming her from the inside out.  "We are quite a team, aren't we?"

"The best."  Carson rose, pulling her up with her, stretching and feeling her spine pop in the process.

They dressed and packed up their belongings, and carefully doused the remains of their breakfast fire, before they made their way back to the cave entrance.  The lingered there, looking back into its depths, hearing the faint sound of the falls as it echoed back toward them.  "We should come back here every year."  Kennedy bent down, picking up a bit of smooth quartzy-looking rock and pocketing it.  She found another and handed it off to her lover.

"It's a date, then.  Same time, every year."  Carson pocketed the rock and reached out, twining their fingers as they hiked out of the canyon for the long trek back to the 4Runner.


Steam rose all around them, along with a strong tangy mineral scent that wafted up and away on a light breeze.  Carson ducked under the water and stood, rivulets running down her body.  "You are evil."  She shook her head and reached up, swiping the water from her eyes.  "You could've told me that 'Hot Springs' really meant hot springs, before I dunked myself in that ice water yesterday."

"Would've spoiled the surprise."  Kennedy handed her a towel as she emerged from the natural warm baths on the southeastern edge of the park.  "Besides, you seemed to rather enjoy that there cold bath, if I recall."  She exaggerated her Texas drawl, winking at her lover as they both moved to the 4Runner to remove their swimsuits and re-don hiking clothes.

"I did," Carson admitted.  "But this is absolutely heavenly.  We need to come back here tomorrow evening after we finish our hike."

"Absolutely."  Kennedy crawled into the truck and quickly slipped into shorts and a t-shirt, tying her flannel shirt around her waist for easy access.  She ran her fingers through damp locks, and left them down to dry for a while.

They'd enjoyed a bumpy ride over unfinished roads, and the truck was covered in dust.  It had even seeped inside the vehicle, coating the dashboard in a fine layer, and she made a mental note to have it detailed when they got back to Austin.  "We have a couple of choices here."  She unfolded a map on the back seat, waiting for Carson to join her.

The blonde crawled into the truck, still clad in yet another tiny bikini.  Kennedy's eyes roamed over her in appreciation, her hand coming to rest on a smooth thigh.  "So, what are our choices?"  Carson peered down at the map.

"We can make camp near here and hike in toward Mariscal Canyon, or we can drive down closer to Solis Landing and start hiking back to camp up near here.  Either way means making a round trip back to the truck at some point, either this afternoon or tomorrow, depending on where we camp."  She idly stroked Carson's knee, smiling as her lover leaned closer.

"How about park here, near La Clocha and hike in with our packs?  If we're tired, we can make camp at Solis Landing.  If not, we can hike back and make camp at La Clocha."  She traced the trail along the Rio Grande River, pointing out the two spots in question.

"Works for me."  Kennedy folded up the map.  "You know, if we commit to hiking in and hiking back, we can make camp first and break out the fanny packs, and hike without so much weight on our backs.  We'll make better time and be a heck of a lot more comfortable."

"Ooo.  Now there's a plan."  Carson scrambled out of the bikini, digging around in the back of the truck for her clothing.

"Good thing I got the limo tint on these windows."  Blue eyes twinkled with mischief.  "I'd hate to have to bail you out of the county jail for public nudity."

Carson rolled her eyes and turned.  "Honey, half the people in those springs were nude."

"Yeah, but your body is a lethal weapon."  Kennedy slid closer.  "One look, and people would be dropping all over the place.  Running into trees.  Banging into boulders.  Falling off cliffs.  Place would be a mess."

"If you're trying to flatter me, it's working."  Carson sidled up, grabbing her around the neck and pulling her close for a lingering kiss.  She felt Kennedy's hands slide up her bare back and closed her eyes as long fingers gently massaged all up and down her spine.  "Mmmm.  That feels divine."

"You feel divine."  Kennedy stole one more kiss, then handed Carson her shorts and t-shirt.  "Get dressed, before I get undressed."  With a gentle swat to her bare behind, she exited the truck and moved around back to make sure their packs were ready.

They drove into the La Clocha campground and found a secluded spot to pitch their tent, effectively staking out the area for themselves.  Kennedy stowed the main packs in the back of the 4Runner, and they buckled on the detachable fanny packs, making sure they had the essentials needed for a long day hike.  "Let's make sure we take a few extra things, just in case."

"In case what?"  Carson dug around in her pack, making sure she had sunscreen and extra trail bars.

"In case something happens and we take longer to get back than expected.  It's a long hike in and back.  Wanna make sure we have the water purifier, enough trail bars to make a meal, and that flint and striker thing you bought at that Scarborough Faire festival up in Dallas.  Might come in handy if we did need to build a fire for anything."  She checked her pack, finding all the mentioned items.

"Well, heck.  If we end up stuck for too long, this might come in handy." Carson pulled out the tequila flask and tucked it into her pack.  "Maybe we can cram a sleeping bag in here," she teased her lover, receiving a scowl in return.  "Honey, I'm just kidding."  She patted Kennedy's cheek.  "I'm glad you think of stuff like that.  Makes me feel safe knowing you're looking out for us."

Blue eyes brightened, and Kennedy smiled, reaching out and twitching Carson's pack into place.  "You ready?"

"You bet."  She held out a hand, looking up as Kennedy's hand slid into it, and they took off down the trail together. 

The path meandered in and out of wooded areas, taking them along the bank of the Rio Grande River.  The water was high due to all the recent rain, and as they came out into an open sunny area, a raft passed by below on the water, carrying four people.  It bore the logo of a local rafting tour company, and they stopped to watch as it floated past on the swift current.

"That looks like fun."  Carson stood near the edge, observing the party until they were out of sight.  "Can we try that sometime?"

"It is, and we can."  Kennedy pulled her back a prudent distance.  "Careful.  Bank can crumble underneath you in some places.  I'd hate to have to go fishing you out."

"You've been rafting down there?"  Carson dug out her ball cap, in deference to the now cloudless sky.

"Not down there.  Been rafting up in Colorado, though."  She frowned, squinting into the trees behind them.  "But we could try it here sometime, if you'd like."

"What's wrong?"  Carson followed her gaze.

"Nothing."  She turned back toward the trail ahead of them.  "Thought I saw something, but I think it was just a jackrabbit."

"Oh."  They twined hands and moved on, following the trail until they reached the end of the wooded area.  The landscape opened up before them, a mass of red and brown and pale rock rising up in peaks on the Mexico side of the river, and dropping down into the river valley, before it rose up again at a gradual slope on the U.S. side.  Off in the distance they could see Talley Mountain to the north, and Mariscal Mountain to the southwest.

"Wow.  Gorgeous."  Carson studied the high peaks across the river, and felt suddenly very small.  "Bet it would be easy to get lost up in there."

"Or easy to hide."  Kennedy turned in a slow circle, taking in the sunny topography.  "Pretty wild country out here, that's for sure."

They hiked on in silence, simply enjoying the amazing vista all around them.  Between studying the countryside, Kennedy stole surreptitious glances at her lover.  November had been a long month, in some ways.  They'd slowly adjusted to living together in Austin.  In other ways, time had flown.  So much had changed so quickly, it was easy to forget everything that had happened to them in October.

Now, looking at Carson's face, she seemed completely relaxed, the dark circles and tiny lines that had formed around her eyes in the days following her kidnapping gone.  For a while, she'd carried so much tension in her neck and shoulders, that she almost appeared to be in pain when she moved.  Kennedy had spent long hours massaging knots out of muscles strung tight as piano wire.  A month of catching up on sleep, eating healthy meals, and having no real responsibilities had also gone a long way in erasing more stress than any one person should have to endure.

Kennedy had come to love the life they were beginning to make together.  It was amazing how easy it had been to welcome Carson into what had been a very solitary life, for the most part.  She saw Pete every few days, but their conversations were pretty sparse.  She thought about her younger brother, wondering if he had gotten moved out of the apartment in Austin.  She regretted having to draw a hard line with him, but acknowledged that sending a strong message would hopefully knock some sense into him, before it was too late.

"What do you suppose Pete is up to right now?"  Carson squeezed her hand as they walked.

"Read my mind."  She squeezed back.  "Knowing him, he's found some frat brother to take him in.  Doubt he moved into their house, though.  They charge way too much to live there."  She kicked at a rock in the path, and then another, aiming and hitting larger rocks with them.  "I'll be curious as to what Parker's lab buddy finds in that bag of pot, though."

"I never got the attraction to drugs."  Carson tread cautiously onto a touchy subject.

"They make you feel good," Kennedy replied.  "Getting high.  Going mellow.  Nicotine.  Alcohol.  All of it, in small doses, gives you a rush.  Problem is, you're poisoning yourself at the same time, and it starts taking more and more of it to get the same effect.  I still wonder how many brain cells I destroyed before I finally came to my senses.  Pot stays with you -- settles into your fatty tissues and hangs around for a while."

"You don't have much fatty tissue."  Carson gave her a playful pinch on the waistline.

"Hey!"  Kennedy caught the naughty hand and held it.  "Yeah, but it settles in the fatty tissues of your brain.  I'm just glad I never got hooked on acid.  That stuff is bad news.  Can sneak up on you and give you a bad trip months after you've used it.  All drugs, really, even legal ones -- I'm pretty cautious about using them unless I'm really in bad shape."

"I noticed a couple of ibuprofen can knock you out," Carson teased.  "Not to mention what just one beer or glass of wine does."

"Look who's talking, Miss dance on the bar after one drink."  Kennedy watched gray eyes spark in indignation.

"Only time I got tipsy was in Mexico, and I did not dance on any bars," Carson huffed.  "Did I?"

Her expression was so cute that Kennedy burst out laughing.  "No, sweetheart.  The only place you did any truly dirty dancing was alone with me in our cabin on the boat.  But you and I are both pretty light weight when it comes to anything much stronger than caffeine.  Even caffeine makes me shake."

"So I noticed.  You were bouncing down the trail this morning after drinking that mocha coffee."  Kennedy's hand dropped down to her behind, slipping into her shorts pocket.

"I was not bouncing because of coffee."  She stroked a firm butt cheek before removing her hand.  "I was in a really good mood."

"I see."  Carson blushed, remembering the night in the cave.  "Last night was really nice.  It felt … primal.  I think that's a good word for it."

"I felt really close to you."  Kennedy draped an arm across her shoulders.  "Still do.  I think we need to try to have a weekend away together every month, if we can.  Even if we just drive out to the bed and breakfast in Fredericksburg.  Or maybe even if we just hole up at home and don't do anything but have a relaxing time with no chores other than taking care of the animals."

"I can go for that."  Carson smiled up at her.  "Maybe we can spend some time out on the lake on the sailboat, just lazing around."

"That would work too."  A breeze lifted dark loose hair, and she reached up, tucking it behind her ears.  Up ahead she spotted another raft, and steered them closer to the riverbank to watch.

It drifted closer, but there was no laughter or shouting, like the raft from earlier.  This one was old and patched, and loaded with over a dozen people, all packed into it.  The occupants were silent, and as they came close enough to take shape, appeared frightened.  Furtive eyes peeked up at the two women standing high above them, and two oarsmen re-doubled their efforts, pulling with the water to pass them as quickly as possible.

"Illegals."  Kennedy finally commented after they'd passed.  "I'm surprised they're passing along the park border, though.  Bet they missed some drop-off point further up river, and now they have to get past the park before they can bail out."

"Really?"  Carson's eyes grew wide.  "You mean they just float along and get away with it?"

"Right now they're on the river, sweetheart.  They're not doing anything wrong until they cross over to this side and get out."  She gestured out toward the vastness of Mexico before them.  "Miles and miles of nothing.  And even when you finally reach something, it's a poor meager existence.  The river is the borderline between wealth and poverty, in their eyes."

"Should we turn them in?"  Carson knew many of Kennedy's clients were undocumented workers, a subject they hadn't discussed very much.

"We could, but it wouldn't do much good.  By the time we hike back to civilization, they'll be long gone.  Would probably be tough to find them."  She turned toward her lover, drawing her over to a rock beneath a rise that provided some shade.  "I kind of hate to turn them in.  They take jobs no one else will take.  What I try to do, is work with them when I find them.  Help them get green cards, and apply for citizenship -- help them get whatever benefits are available to them.  Most of them are sending their meager wages back home to Mexico, supporting probably ten other family members they left behind."

"I can't imagine living like that."  Carson dug out a trail bar, unwrapping it and breaking it in half to share.  "I remember seeing those huts in the Mexican countryside.   Couldn't figure out what those people were living on.  Seeing the kids there brought tears to my eyes.  They had no life, and did not appear to have much of a future either."

"They don't."  Kennedy munched on the trail bar, looking down river as the raft turned into a tiny dot, before it disappeared around a bend and out of sight.  She drew one leg up, wrapping her arms around her leg and resting her chin on her knee.  "Hot today, isn't it?"

"Too hot for November, that's for certain."  November the 28th, she made a mental note to wake her partner up with a nice birthday gift the next morning.  "How long do you think it'll take us to drive back out of the park tomorrow, after we finish hiking?"

"Not long.  Why?" A tanned face turned toward her, a tiny smile playing at full lips.

"Birthday girls should not ask so many questions," Carson leaned over and kissed her.  She smiled against Kennedy's mouth, as the kiss became heated and they spent a long moment indulging in each other.

"I've got all I could ever want or need right here with me."  Kennedy looked down, tracing the worn lines on the rock with her fingertip.

"Well then," Carson's voice caught, thick with emotion.  "Maybe you'll get exactly that tomorrow, birthday girl."  Their eyes met and lingered, so close to saying things that wouldn't wait much longer.   "Uh-oh."  Carson suddenly stood, moving toward the river.

"More of 'em."  Kennedy watched another full raft draw near, almost a carbon copy of the one that had passed them earlier.  "Wonder if they're all part of the same group?"

"Bet they are."   Carson shaded her eyes with her hand, watching as they passed below them, the river lightly tossing the raft from side to side.  She turned, and jumped, as a loud cracking explosive noise rang out behind her.  Before she could turn back, Kennedy landed on top of her, knocking her to the ground and covering her up.  "What was that?"

"Gunshot."  Kennedy's voice was strained, her breath in short puffs against the back of Carson's neck.

"They're shooting at us?"  Her voice squeaked, partly from fear, and partly from bearing Kennedy's weight.

"Yeah."  The long body slowly slid off her, Kennedy still lying flat on the ground next to her.

"You're certain that was gunshot?"  Carson stayed on her belly, turning her head to see if she could still see the raft.

"Yep."  The strain in Kennedy's voice became pronounced.  "Carson.  They got me."

She felt it then.  A warm sticky wetness soaking through the back of her t-shirt, where Kennedy had laid only a few moments before. "They … they shot you?  Oh my god,  Kennedy."  She started to sit up, only to be pushed back down.

Kennedy cried out softly from the pain of the effort.  Fire lanced through her left shoulder and into her arm, shooting darts across her chest and back as well.  "Need to crawl away from the bank, I think.  Come on."

"But … you're bleeding."  Carson could see the growing red stain now, as she rose up a bit, peering at her lover's back.  "Kennedy, we need to get you to a hospital.  We can't just …"

"Shhhh."  Kennedy reached out with her right hand, cupping Carson's face.  "We will, but first we need to get away from this bank and see what kind of damage they did.  Help me get back to the rock, please?  I think the raft is far away enough now, that we can stand.  Just get me to shade and we'll take a look."

"Alright."  Carson stood, her legs shaking, as she helped Kennedy up.  As they got to their feet, another shot rang out, and Kennedy screamed, crumpling to the ground and holding her leg, as blood ran down it between her fingers.  "Kennedy!"  Carson dropped with her, her mind spinning as she looked around.  "What the hell?"

Kennedy sobbed in pain, slowly lifting her hand to see blood running down her leg from a wound to her upper thigh.  It pooled on the ground beneath her, staining the pale yellow rock dark crimson.  "Didn't come from the river."  She grimaced, forcing back the edges of  a black-out.  "Came from the other direction."  She glanced back toward the uneven terrain that rose up from the river valley on the U.S. side.  "Someone up there is shooting at us."


Continued in Chapter 7

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