Copyright: The characters and situations are copyrighted by me (zuke) December, 2003. Please don't use or copy without my permission, except for personal use.

Love/Sex: This story depicts a loving relationship between two women. If this is illegal in your place of residence, or you are underage, please find some other fiction. Or move.

Feedback: I love to hear from readers. Any type of feedback is welcome. Please write to me at zukeb@msn.com

This story is dedicated to everyone who, for whatever reason, can't make it home for the holidays. You may feel alone, but you're in our hearts.

If Only in My Dreams

By zuke

I'll be home for Christmas…

"Any word yet, Sergeant?"

Sergeant Peters looked up from his computer screen, already wincing in anticipation of the searing blue eyes that would bore into him.

"Not yet, Major," he replied, pulling his hat off with his left hand and running the fingers of his right through his buzz cut. He replaced the cap and moved it until it again sat comfortably on his head. "They said it might take awhile."

Major Briana Richardson repressed a sarcastic comment and resumed her pacing. The four other men who had pulled leave watched her make another circuit around the small hut, then went back to their card game.

I swear I'll be home, Jen; I swear I'll be home. She repeated the words silently, a mantra that she was sure would see her all the way home in time for Christmas. But at the moment, things weren't looking too good. She ceased her pacing in front of the little window in the side of the corrugated metal hut. She wiped the grit from the glass and looked out at the mountains in the distance. Somewhere up there, an anti-aircraft gun was shooting at anything that flew within range. Because it was the only safe way out of the valley, and their chopper couldn't ascend high enough fast enough, the enemy gun had to be taken out before they would be cleared for takeoff.

Bri checked her watch again but didn't need to be reminded that time was running out. It would take at least twenty-four hours to get home. Provided they could take off within the hour, she could be on her front doorstep by one a.m. Christmas morning.

She pictured Jen's face as her wife opened the door, probably cursing at whoever would call at such an hour. Her red hair would be mussed up; her green eyes still puffy from sleep and only half open. But those eyes would widen when Jen caught sight of who stood on her front step. Bri and Jen would hug and kiss for ages, and then Bri would feel her wife shiver in the cold and she would gently nudge Jen back into the house.

Once the door was closed and the heat turned up, they would kiss some more. And hug some more. Maybe they would wake up Emma. Or maybe they would wait till morning and watch the little girl climb carefully down the steps. Emma would pause when she heard voices, and it wouldn't take long before she would recognize Bri's soft rumble. The little girl would squeal in delight, running into the room, forgetting all about Santa and presents. She would dive into Bri's arms and cover her Mom-Bri's face with butterfly kisses. Then the family would just sit on the couch, snuggling into each other's arms, just being together. The moment would last forever.

"Major, I think we have something."

Bri moved quickly back to the sergeant's desk and leaned over his shoulder, quickly scanning his computer screen. She could tell by the tense set to his shoulders that he wasn't happy with her position, and she pulled back a bit.

"I'm just waiting for confirmation." Peters pulled up different screens and typed in some quick commands. Once everything checked out, he picked up the radio and signaled for the ground command in the area of the trouble spot.

Bri had a sudden fear that her presence would jinx the situation, so she moved back over to the window and looked once more to the north. The mountains reminded Bri of a child's sand castles — a not very imaginative child's ugly brown sand castles. She knew that Jen would have found them beautiful and majestic, but the longer she was away from Jen, the harder it was to see with her wife's eyes.

There had been too much death in this land, even before the latest war. Too much pain and suffering and anguish. Bri could never imagine seeing it as anything other than hell.

"That's it, Major," Sergeant Peters finally reported. "You're all clear."

Bri had been only half listening to the radio conversation but had heard enough to know that the anti-aircraft guns were destroyed to the north and no others had been reported in their flight path to their first stop: an airbase outside of the war zone.

The other men were whooping and already running toward the helicopter outside. A gust of wind from the open door sent the abandoned cards flying across the room. Bri stopped long enough to return the sergeant's farewell salute, then headed toward the chopper. And home.

You can plan on me…

Briana pulled at the stiff collar of her uniform and wondered how her sister had convinced her to join the party before she changed. She was proud of her uniform, especially the shiny new insignia that showed her rank as first lieutenant, but the uniform wasn't exactly appropriate party attire.

"Hey sailor, new in town?"

"I'm not a sailor." Bri frowned and turned around, looking immediately down about a foot to meet the caramel eyes of the woman who had spoken.

"All the better. My friend gets seasick." The eyes twinkled. "It's the uniform. It drives her wild."

"Your friend?" Bri's eyebrows lowered in confusion.

The woman nodded, causing the beads that had been braided in her hair to clatter together musically.

"She's over there." The woman used her head to point toward a woman across the room.

Bri looked over and then quickly looked away as green eyes glared at her.

"She doesn't look like she's being driven wild," Bri said.

"Really?" The woman turned around to look across the room and was met by an even icier glare from the green eyes. "Oh no, that's her seductive, come-hither look. Believe me, she wants you."

"Wants me dead, maybe," Bri replied. "She looks like she would rather lick a cockroach than be in the same room as me."

"I know." The woman sighed. "She has issues with her facial expressions. I've been working with her on it, but it's like a birth defect. It's tragic really."

Bri pretended to scratch her neck, turning her head and looking out of the corner of her eyes at the redhead.

"Ah. Now that is a seductive, come-hither look."

"What?" The beads clattered as caramel eyes turned quickly to gaze across the room.

The redhead was eyeing a tall blonde woman who had just swaggered into the room. Red's eyes tracked the tight jeans on the swaying hips as they sauntered past. It was too far to see, but Bri was sure that drool was dripping out of Red's mouth.

"No, that's just wrong!" The caramel eyes had stopped twinkling and were now filled with despair.

"I don't know," Bri commented. "I think they make a pretty cute couple." Red had sidled up to the blonde and handed her a beer. The blonde had rested her hand against the wall and was leaning in toward Red. Bri could see a tattoo on Blondie's arm. It was a tiger, and took up all of the area of her upper arm, starting at the elbow and disappearing underneath the sleeve of her crisp, white t-shirt. Red leaned her back against the wall, pushing her fingers into the pockets of her jeans and smiling up at Blondie. Bri knew all about body language, and she knew exactly where things were headed for the couple.

"Damn it, I can't believe she's doing this." Beads sang as the woman shook her head in consternation. "I told her to come meet you, but she's as stubborn as a crotchety mule."

"Maybe I'm not her type," Bri suggested. She struggled to understand what was happening. Obviously the redhead wasn't shy. Bri glanced over and saw that the couple was already kissing, Red's fingers dipping into the waistband of Blondie's jeans. Definitely not shy. Why would her friend try to set her up if she was so obviously not interested?

"You are her type, whether she knows it or not," the woman stated emphatically. "You two are destined to be together. I knew it the minute I saw you."

"Oooookay." Bri strung the word out as she tried to determine whether she was dealing with a lunatic.

"Your sister also happened to mention that you're currently unattached."

"Brenna?" Bri scanned the crowded room, looking for her sister. "I'm gonna kill her."

The small apartment was packed. Brenna had a large circle of friends, and most of them had shown up for the Christmas party. The eating part of the day had already come and gone, and the drinking was going full tilt. People were loud and boisterous. Some were dancing, some were singing off key Christmas carols, and some — in the case of more than just Red and Blondie — were making out. Bri finally spotted her sister bringing in more beers.

"Bren!" She growled, but was stopped by a soft hand. She looked down again into the caramel eyes.

"Your sister just wants what's best for you," the woman said with a wise, calm smile. Bri was reminded of a TV psychic, and was far from convinced. "And I want what's best for Jen."

"Jen?" Bri knew it was Red's name. And she wasn't even a psychic.

"Jennifer Ryan," the woman continued without being asked. "She's twenty-two, currently waiting to hear if she got into law school at Stanford. Berkeley is her second choice. She grew up in the Bay Area, has one older sister and one younger brother, is allergic to cats and strawberries, and — "

"Is about to go home with a blonde woman with a tiger tattooed on her arm," Bri interrupted. Jen and Blondie were already in the doorway.

"I was going to say, 'And has incredibly bad taste in women'." The woman frowned. She turned and put both hands on Bri's forearms, squeezing firmly. "Follow her."

"What?" As much as the sight of Jen made her feel something tingly way deep inside, she wasn't about to follow her when the woman had obviously made a date with someone.

"Follow her," the caramel-eyed woman repeated.

Bri looked at the brown hands that squeezed her arms and felt some kind of energy pass through them. The energy, and everything that the woman was telling her, was crazy and unreal. Crazy and unreal were two things that were not a part of Bri's life.

"Go," the woman commanded, releasing Bri's arms after a final squeeze.

And Bri went, welcoming crazy and unreal like two old friends.

She moved across the room and saw Bren out of the corner of her eye. Her sister was smiling conspiratorially. Bri made a mental note to question her later. Brenna lived at the top of a four-story building, and Bri charged down the first staircase, wondering how far Jen and Blondie had gone.

"No. Stop." The words were playful and accompanied by a giggle, but they froze Bri just as she was turning to head down the last flight of steps. She had never heard Jen speak, but recognized the voice as if she had.

"What's wrong, sweetheart?" Blondie's voice was husky, aged by too many cigarettes and too much whiskey.

"It's too cold out here." The giggle was gone from Jen's voice.

Bri looked down the dim hallway and saw the shadow of two figures in a dark corner. She moved toward them, still not sure whether she should interrupt.

"I thought this is what you wanted," Blondie replied, the beginning of irritation in her voice.

Bri heard the smacking sound of a rough kiss, then a shuffle of fabric that might have been someone pushing someone else away.

"Not this." Jen's voice was firmer now. "Maybe we should just go back upstairs."

"Maybe you should just shut up."

Bri had been trained to react instantly in emergency situations. Unfortunately, she wasn't close enough to stop what happened next. She was moving toward the couple when she heard a slap, an annoyed cry, and then a louder smack. Assuming that Blondie was on the outside, pinning Jen against the wall, Bri reached into the dark alcove and pulled out the first body she made contact with. She lifted it by the shirt collar and was relieved to see short blonde hair on its head.

"Get the hell out of here and never let me see your face again." She flung Blondie as if she weighed less than a bag of dry pasta, barely registering the sound as the woman clattered against the far wall. Bri was concentrating instead on the small redhead who was staggering out of the alcove, her hand covering her left eye.

"She punched me." Jen squawked. "Fucking cunt! Goddamn bitch! Where is she? I'll fucking kick the shit — "

"Whoa there, cowboy," Bri said, holding up her hands to stop Jen's angry progress. She glanced behind her and was happy to see that Blondie had already slunk away down the stairs. "She's long gone."

"Goddamn it." Jen's fight faded in a rush, and she leaned against the wall, then slid down to sit on the floor.

Bri knelt down next to her, putting a hand on Jen's shoulder.

"Let me take a look at your eye," Bri said, gently pulling Jen's left hand away from her face.

"It hurts," Jen croaked, tears beginning to seep out of her right eye to accompany the involuntary tears that leaked out of its wounded left partner.

"You're gonna have some shiner," Bri said. She carefully touched around the eye socket to make sure there weren't any broken bones. Jen winced and jerked her head away, breath hissing through her teeth.

"Sorry," Bri said. She wasn't a trained medic, but she thought Jen's facial bones seemed intact. "Let's get back upstairs and put some ice on it."

"No," Jen said, shaking her head wearily. "I just want to go home."

"I don't think that's a good idea. The sooner you ice it, the better."

"That's OK. I only live a couple of blocks away." Jen stood up on shaky legs. She took a couple of deep breaths, and then managed to stand up straighter.

Bri wasn't convinced that the woman could make it down the stairs, much less a couple of blocks away.

"Just come upstairs for a little while," Bri said, reaching out to take the woman's elbow. "Then I'll be happy to walk you home."

Jen yanked her elbow out of Bri's reach. Her eyes flashed at Bri with the same look of antipathy she'd shown earlier at the party.

"Leave me alone," Jen said sharply. "I just want to go home, have a cup of tea, and go to bed. I don't need military intervention."

"I'm not military intervention!" Bri snapped back. Caramel eyes floated in her mind, wearing that wise, psychic look, but she shrugged at them. Sometimes even psychics got things wrong. "I was just trying to help."

"Yeah, you're a regular knight in shining armor," Jen sneered. "Typical military mindset. You come in here with a little muscle, save the day, and then expect eternal gratitude."

"Not eternal," Bri said sarcastically. "I'll settle for a second or two."

"OK," Jen said with mock sincerity. "Thank you for saving the day." Her phony smile turned back into a scowl. "Now leave me alone."

And Bri did.

Despite the caramel eyes and her sister's smile. Despite the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Despite the little voice in her head that was screaming at her to follow. Despite all of that, she left Jen alone. It was a mistake. But then again, sometimes you just can't hurry love.

Please have snow and mistletoe…

Bri gazed out the window of the family's cabin. You could usually see Lake Tahoe from the kitchen window, but it was night and it was snowing. All she saw were a few immense flakes, illuminated by the meager light thrown from the window, falling heavily but silently to the ground.

She shivered from the draft coming in through the glass and from the remnants of her nightmare. She wished she could see the lake, knowing that its ancient majesty would reassure her somehow. She sighed and moved away from the sight of falling snow, beginning to feel the tightening of claustrophobia, as if something had its arms wrapped around her and was just beginning to squeeze.

Bri moved to the stove, where the teakettle was rumbling toward boiling. She wanted to catch it before it began to whistle. There were people sleeping in the den just off the kitchen, as well as the three bedrooms upstairs. Her sister's annual Christmas party had turned into an annual ski trip. Bren had begged and cajoled and whined until Bri had finally agreed to go along.

It had seemed like a good idea. She hadn't spent any quality time with her sister for two years. During the war, she had dreamt of snow and the lake and the miles of empty forest. Of course, she forgot that she'd have to spend the long weekend with eight other people. Loud, rambunctious, and happy other people. To make matters worse, the snow had begun to fall heavily as the group made their way up the mountain highway. They all made it, a minor Christmas miracle, and spent their first afternoon and evening trading stories and jokes by a roaring fire.

It had been uncomfortable, all those young faces who had never seen suffering and pain and death. Bri had sat silently, fearing that some ghoulish soul would ask for a story about the war. Luckily, no one seemed interested. She was ready to make some excuse and disappear into her little attic room when a late arrival knocked at the door.

Bri had dreamt of something other than the mountains during the two years of battle, something that she had seen right before she shipped out. Green eyes sparkled and gleamed and danced in her memory. It was crazy to become obsessed with a woman who obviously loathed her. But war made you do crazy things sometimes.

When Jen walked into the cabin, Bri had smiled, just for a moment. The green eyes flitted to her and then danced away. There had been something in those eyes. Not anger or irritation this time. It seemed to be a sort of acknowledgement, as if Jen had been waiting for a long flight and had just heard a boarding call.

Then again, maybe I'm reading far more into it, Bri had mused. This seemed to be proven by the way the redhead managed to avoid her for the rest of the evening. Bri and Jen's paths never seemed to cross, despite the way Bren and her friend Yvette — she with the warm caramel eyes — tried to get the two women together and walk at the same time under mistletoe that had been strategically placed around the cabin.

Bri had made an excuse for an early night, only noticing one set of eyes that seemed to care whether she stayed or headed upstairs. The green eyes followed her until she was out of sight.

Only a few hours later, she was in the kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't know anyone was in here." The soft voice interrupted Bri's memories of the day.

"That's OK." Bri turned and smiled at Jen, who rubbed at her face and then ran fingers hurriedly through her mused red hair, making it messier rather than neater. "I couldn't sleep and was making myself something warm to drink."

Right on cue, the teakettle began to whistle and Bri grabbed for it, knocking it into her mug with a loud clang and nearly sending boiling water all over the counter. But she took a firmer hold and grabbed her mug with the other hand, settling everything and pouring the water over the waiting tea bag.

"Could I have?" "Would you like?" The two women spoke at the same time and then grinned. Bri opened the cupboard and snagged another mug.

"We only have mint or English Breakfast," Bri said. She was already grabbing the mint tea when Jen confirmed it was her preference.

Bri busied herself making the tea, adding honey when Jen nodded her agreement, and then sat at the little kitchen table, indicating that Jen should also take a seat. The redhead did, gathering her robe around her and then putting her hands around the mug.

"It's really cold," Jen said, shivering slightly.

"Hmmm." Bri wanted to say something, but had no clue where to start.

"Did you have a nightmare?" The green eyes were soft with understanding.

"Why?" Bri heard curiosity mixed with suspicion in her voice. Maybe her sister and friends were trying to do some kind of psychological intervention on her.

"Your room must be right above me," Jen answered with a shrug. "I heard you cry out."

"Oh. I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to wake anyone up."

"It's OK. I was already awake. I guess my demons decided to visit a little sooner than yours."

Bri wanted to ask what could possibly cause Jen to have nightmares. Bri had seen death on a massive scale. She had led men to their destruction and had barely escaped with her own life. She had given orders that still caused her stomach to tighten. And with her own hands, she had killed...

Brown eyes materialized before her. They shone with pain and fear. And then, like a fire that doesn't catch, the light slowly faded from them.

"You're not alone." The words were so simple, and Bri could see in the sincere green eyes that Jen honestly believed them.

No, Bri thought, getting up from the table and moving back to the window, looking out at the falling snow. It would be nice if life were that effortless. But it just wasn't.

"Looks like it'll snow all weekend," Jen said, moving next to Bri to gaze at the fat, heavy flakes.

"You know," Bri said, "the whole time I was fighting in the desert, I thought about snow. I wanted to see it, feel it again. And now that I'm in it…"

"You remember what a cold, wet, miserable thing it is?" A little grin danced across Jen's face.

"Exactly." Bri grinned back ruefully.

"Sometimes your memory deceives you." A shadow of disappointment moved across Jen's eyes. "Things are never as good as you dream they will be."

"Sometimes," Bri agreed. She gazed at Jen and thought about all the long, dark nights that she'd dreamt about the dancing green eyes. "But not always. Sometimes they're even better than you ever imagined."

Bri smiled when the light returned to Jen's eyes. Then she glanced up and silently indicated the little sprig of mistletoe that was pinned to the windowsill above their heads. The kiss was sweet and warm and tasted of mint and honey and forever.

And presents on the tree…

It had seemed so simple, that snowy night by the shores of Lake Tahoe. Bri had dreamt about Jen for so long, and there she was, kissing her under the mistletoe. But then Christmas was over, and the magic of the season disappeared, apparently taking their relationship with it. They saw each other a few times, but things were awkward, as if a river lay between them and they were both trying to figure out how to get across. Then, Bri was posted to a base in Texas and Jen began to prepare for the bar exam. The time between contact became longer and longer.

In Texas, Bri trained new recruits in the art of hand-to-hand combat. The army, in their infinite wisdom, saw this as a perfect break from the frontlines.

"Did you ever kill anyone, Ma'am?"

The boy's eyes sparkled and his face was smooth, as if he was brand new and had never been used. It was always the youngest ones that asked the question. They saw the training as a more physical version of their video games, and therefore the question was no different than comparing high scores.

"Yeah, I killed the last grunt that asked me that question," Bri replied. She met the boy's innocent brown eyes and held their steady gaze. He blushed at her reply, but she waited until she saw a flicker of understanding before allowing her eyes to move to others in the group.

"This is not a game," she said to those who needed things stated clearly. "When you kill, you do not get bonus points and extra lives. If you find yourself in a situation where you have to fight hand-to-hand, you will be fighting to the death to protect yourself, your fellow soldiers, or innocent civilians. If you remember what I teach you, the outcome of that fight will be that you will walk away relatively unharmed, and your enemy will be dead."

"Do you get a rush when you've killed someone with your bare hands?"

This time the questioner was neither young nor innocent. The blue eyes that stared back at her had seen violence, possibly death. The sneer that accompanied them revealed the bitterness left behind.

"If you enjoy killing, you're a psychopath," Bri replied. She paused for a moment, two pairs of blue eyes combating. "You kill because the situation calls for it. You may enjoy being in the military and doing your job well. No sane person should ever enjoy killing."

The sneering recruit opened his mouth to say something more. Bri knew he would question her. She couldn't allow any more questions. They had already probed too deep.

"All right, that's enough," Bri ordered. "Everyone pair off. We're going to start with the basics."

Bri allowed herself to fall into the class, watching the movement of men and women. It was a dance more than a lesson in killing. When she watched it, she could forget about life fading from innocent brown eyes.

The rest of the afternoon marched along with military precision, just the way Bri liked it. At 1800 hours, she returned home to the apartment she shared on base with another officer and prepared for a night of reading, and sleep if she was exceptionally lucky.

The front door stuck, the old wood warped and swollen from the cold snap that had hit Texas the day before. She pushed against it and it gave way suddenly, causing her to fall, off-balance, into her front room. The shape huddled in the corner caused her to jump and reach for a gun that she wasn't holding.

"Jesus Christ, Fuentes! What the fuck is this?"

"I'm guessing it's a Christmas tree."

Bri turned swiftly toward the speaker, who was certainly not Captain Maria Fuentes. "Jen?"

"The captain let me in and then said something about grabbing some 'shit on a shingle'."

"Chipped beef on toast," Bri explained absent-mindedly. Her brain was focused on figuring out why her friend was standing in her living room. "It's the special every Friday night."

"Sounds yummy," Jen said with a sarcastic smirk.

"What are you doing here?" Bri decided that talking about chipped beef would have to wait for another time.

"Would you believe I'm just passing through?" Jen smiled, her green eyes sparkling, and Bri felt her heart melt all over again.

"No." Bri smiled and gestured toward the couch, which was hidden by the lurking Christmas tree. "Have a seat and try for a more convincing excuse."

Jen laughed and pushed aside a tree branch to reach the couch. Her chuckle echoed a twinkling ornament.

"I really am passing through," Jen said. "My dad is moving to Florida and the family is spending Christmas down there. It was the only time that we could all take the break."

"Jen, this is Texas. I think you got off the plane just a little too early."

"Still, you can't deny it's on the way." Jen smiled and then her expression grew serious. "I needed to talk to you before I…" Her voice trailed away and she looked down at her fidgeting hands. "Well, I just needed to talk to you."

"OK, but talk fast. You're keeping me from my shit on a shingle." Bri meant the comment to be a tease, but saw such a look of dismay on Jen's face, she quickly added, "That was a joke. I'll listen all night if you want."

Jen's frown turned to a little smile, tugging at the corner of her mouth. She still stared at her hands, though, and anxiously rubbed her fingers together.

"I hope I don't keep you all night," Jen said. "I have to catch another plane at ten. Of course, at the speed I'm going I might just miss that flight."

"Don't worry about it." Bri reached out and covered Jen's restless fingers. "Just go at whatever speed you feel comfortable with."

"I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you." The words came out in a fevered rush.

"Whoa. I guess you chose fast." Bri inhaled, tasting Jen's sweet words on her breath.

"I'm sorry." Jen looked horrified, and then she took her own deep breath and her face relaxed. "I didn't mean to start off that way at all. But I guess it's as good a place as any."


"No." Jen interrupted Bri's attempt at a response. "I don't want you to say anything yet. You need to hear the rest of it. And there's a lot more, I'm afraid."

Bri just nodded and settled back against the cushions of the couch.

"I think I fell in love with you the night we first met," Jen began.

"When I saved you from Blondie?"

"No, before that," Jen replied. "When I looked across the room and saw you talking with Yvette."

"You didn't look like you were in love." Bri smiled but still felt stung by the memory of the look Jen had given her that night.

"I'm sorry." Jen took Bri's hand and squeezed it. Her skin was soft against Bri's callused palm. "I saw the uniform and just reacted. It represented everything that I was fighting against. Everything I hated."

"That's what I remember," Bri said, "the look of contempt in your eyes. I find it hard to believe that you fell in love with me."

"But I did," Jen replied simply. "Because I saw something beyond the uniform: a light shining from crystal blue eyes. It gleamed with intelligence and humor and compassion."

"You could tell all of that with a few quick glances?" Bri looked skeptical.

"Of course." Jen ticked off items on her fingers. "Your eyes gleamed when you were scanning the room and taking everything in, they were twinkling with laughter when you were talking to Yvette, and then they glowed with anger when I put my hands down that woman's pants."

"OK, you've proven you'll make a great lawyer."

"Thanks." Jen paused, obviously gathering her thoughts. "So, what I need to know is what happened."

"What happened with what?"

"When I saw you last Christmas, the light was gone. I've been ignoring that all year, hoping that it would come back, and then hoping that it didn't matter — that we could still make it work. But it won't, will it?"

Bri thought about lying, denying the truth that was laid out before her, but she knew that would solve nothing and make their parting all the more bitter.

"No," she finally replied. "It won't."

There was no way to bring the light back. She had taken an innocent life and it was fitting that her own life should be ruined. There would be no absolution.

"Tell me what happened."

It was a simple request, and the story a simple one to relate. But the words froze on Bri's lips. The weight of guilt was a boulder crushing her chest.

"I can't," she managed to gasp.

"I understand."

Like the words Jen had spoken on the shores of Lake Tahoe, the statement was so simple but gave so much. Bri held onto the words until another tendril of guilt lashed against her, and she realized she didn't deserve what the words promised.

"I need to go or I'll miss that flight." Jen stood, causing the tree to jingle again.

"No. Stay." Bri reached out, but Jen had already moved away and was putting on her coat.

"I can't." Jen met Bri's eyes and held them. "Will you do something for me?"

"Of course," Bri promised quickly. She knew that Jen had been a fool to fall in love with her, and she wanted to make up for that.

"I've left you something on the tree. I want you to promise to read the note that's inside and think about it. And I want you to know that whatever happens after that, I love you. I will always love you."

Bri never shifted her gaze from the warm green eyes. "I promise," she whispered.

Jen took two steps forward and kissed Bri gently on the lips. And then she was gone. Bri shivered, more from the absence of Jen than the cold air that had rushed inside the apartment from the open door.

Bri grabbed a throw blanket and wrapped it around her shoulders, her eyes finding and staying on the small box that sat tucked into a space between two branches of the Christmas tree. She stared at it for half an hour before moving toward it and gently plucking it from the tree. If not for the threat of Fuentes returning, she would have sat staring at it the rest of the night.

It was a small wooden box, the size of her fist, with a tiny gold lock and key. Bri shook it gently and heard a faint rustle from inside. She held it for several more minutes before turning the little key and opening the lid.

The note inside was written in Jen's neat handwriting.

I know you feel as if you're lost in a dark wood and can't find your way out. There are evil things between you and the edge of the woods. You'll have to fight with all the strength you have to escape. But you're a soldier. Fighting is what you do.

Write down what has happened, what you're feeling. Write everything. And then take what you've written and lock it inside this box. Once you've done that, throw away the key. Throw it somewhere you will never find it again.

Sound simple? You know it's not. But I'll be here for you. Waiting to see the light again.


Bri read the words a dozen times. And then read them a dozen more. She couldn't remember getting up from the couch and moving to the desk. Couldn't even remember taking out the pad of paper and the pen. She was suddenly just writing. Writing down all of the words, the horror of her actions all the more graphic staring up at her in blue ink on white, lined paper.

She got up once to throw up, her body refusing to keep down the bitter acid of guilt and anger and revulsion. She returned to the desk, sweating and shaking, but forced her hand to continue to move across the page.

It was dawn when she stopped. Fuentes had never returned; Bri knew Jen had arranged that. Bri stretched and looked at the stack of paper. She had no more words. Everything that needed to be said had been said. She carefully folded the pages and crammed them in the little box, then shut the lid and turned the miniature key with a trembling hand.

The key glimmered as she held it in her palm. Bri thought about her instructions before making her decision. It took her a moment to find the phone, resting next to the toaster on the kitchen sink. She dialed the number from memory.

"Hello?" Jen's voice was clear, without the fogginess of sleep.

"You've been up all night too. Haven't you?"

"Of course." Jen's tone was steady, lacking pressure or expectation. It was clear that whatever Bri had to say, Jen would keep her promise.

"I didn't do exactly what you asked me to," Bri explained.


"No." Bri paused, gathering her strength. "I didn't throw away the key."

"Oh." Still Jen waited.

"I have no right to ask this of you, but I will anyway. And it will be your turn to make a decision. And my turn to tell you that no matter what you decide, I'll still love you." She heard a sound on the phone — an intake of breath or a sob, she wasn't sure — and added gently, "I'll always love you."

"What do you need me to decide?" Jen asked just as gently.

"I wrote down…everything. I'd like you to read it, if you can. I'll understand if you can't." Bri wanted to take the words back the moment she'd spoken them, but she knew she couldn't.

"I'm on my way," Jen said.

"It can wait until after the holidays," Bri said hastily. "You must be in Florida by now."

"I never left."

Bri smiled. "You're crazy."

"I know. I've also found that I'm quite fond of shit on a shingle."

Bri chuckled and then grew serious. "Are you sure about this?"

"Yes," Jen replied. "More sure than I've ever been about anything in my life. And when I'm done reading, we're going to lock it up in the box and we'll throw the key away together. Agreed?"

Bri paused, knowing that she would be making a promise that went beyond the simple act of tossing away a tiny gold key. She felt the word pacing in her heart like a caged animal. Slowly, she released it.


Freedom was a bell, ringing clear on a cold morning. It was crisp and white like freshly fallen snow. It blazed like the light of the brightest star.

Freedom was love.

Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light gleams…

"You had to take a job in the middle of friggin' nowhere, didn't you?"

Jen's reply was a warm chuckle.

"You just love to make my life difficult," Bri grumbled.

"Just get home, babe," Jen said. "I've got chestnuts roasting on the open fire and I already hung our stockings with care."

"You're mixing up your Christmas quotes." Bri's voice brightened as she thought about her homecoming. "I'll see you tonight."

"OK. I'll leave the porch light on."

Bri hung up and then began to shut down her computer. Despite her teasing, this would be one of the easiest Christmas journeys home. Just a four-hour drive and she'd be stepping on the porch, Jen opening the door to greet her. Christmas was a special time for them, and Bri had vowed to herself to always be home for the holiday. Lucky postings and three years of relative peace in the world had made that vow a little easier to keep.

"You on your way out, Captain?"

"Yep." Bri smiled at Staff Sergeant McMillan. "And you should be too. You have the key to my apartment, right?"

Bri had been rooming with a shiny green mountain bike for a few weeks. She wished she could see little Kelsey McMillan's face when it was wheeled out Christmas morning.

"I've got it. And the camera batteries are fully charged."

"Good," Bri said. "If you have time, email me some photos."

"Will do." McMillan grew serious. "Listen, I heard that storm that blew through here last night is heading to the Sierras. They're expecting blizzard conditions at the higher elevations."

"I already gave Jen a hard time for taking a job in the mountains. Not to mention deciding to live in a house in the sticks. Every time I go outside, I expect to run into the seven dwarves or hobbits or something. But she likes to create these challenges for me."

"Seriously," McMillan said, "if you want to hang with us tonight and head out first thing…"

"Sergeant, I appreciate the concern, but I'll be fine. I've survived firefights in the middle of dust storms. I've even been bitten by a camel. A little snow isn't going to hurt me."

"OK," McMillan grinned, "you are officially the biggest bad-ass soldier on the planet. All the same…"

"I promise that if things get too hairy, I'll stop somewhere and wait it out, OK?"

"Sounds good." McMillan nodded and then saluted his farewell. "Don't forget to pick up the goodies in the fridge, ma'am."

"Thanks, Sergeant." Bri returned the salute. "Dismissed."

Bri grabbed the Christmas cookies and fudge that the McMillan family had given her, and then locked the office door. She put the food on the back seat of the SUV, then made sure her bags were all stowed securely. As she drove out of the base and headed north on the freeway, she tuned the radio to a news station, waiting for the weather report.

Her cell phone rang halfway to Sacramento. Bri wasn't surprised when she saw "home" on the caller ID.

"Hi there. Have you been a good little girl this year?" she answered.

"I'm always a good little girl," Jen replied.

"Oooh, that's very true. Although maybe tonight you'll be just a little bad."

"Oh my goodness!" Jen chuckled. "Sex on Christmas Eve? What if Santa walks in on us?"

"I'll leave him a note with his milk and cookies. Whatever happens, he's not to come upstairs."

"Good idea." Jen was still laughing, but then her giggles stopped. "Listen, sweetheart, the weather's getting really bad up here."

"Oh, not you too! I just got an earful from McMillan."

"Good," Jen replied. "You need people with common sense to surround you."

"Are you implying that I don't have any of my own?"

"Well, sometimes…"

"Hey!" Bri squawked, "As I pointed out to McMillan, I have managed to get through life this far. I mean–"

"Oh, no," Jen interrupted, "don't start telling me war stories. I'm just saying it might be a good idea if you headed to the Bay Area. How about spending the night with Bren and the boys? You could head up here first thing in the morning."

"No way. Despite my apparent lack of common sense, I am going to be home for Christmas Eve."

"Bri, I'm serious." Bri could hear the worry in her partner's voice. "The wind is really howling and the snow is starting to fall steadily. It's just going to get worse."

"I promised McMillan, and I promise you now." Bri put her hand on her heart, even though Jen wasn't there to witness it. "I'll stop if it gets bad."

"Do you swear?"

"On my mother's grave."

"Your mom isn't dead and that's the oldest joke in the book," Jen replied testily.

"OK, I swear on the fudge that is currently sitting on the back seat."

"Trisha McMillan's fudge? You're bringing home some of Trisha McMillan's fudge?"

"That's right," Bri replied. "And you know I'm serious if I'm swearing on chocolate, especially Trisha's fudge."

"OK, I believe you. Call me and keep me posted on your progress, OK?"

"Will do. Love you."

"I love you too, sweetie. Be careful."

Bri wasn't afraid of the storm, but she hated worrying Jen, so she tried to make the journey as quick as possible while the road conditions were still good. Unfortunately, despite the clear weather in the Sacramento Valley, holiday drivers clogged the highway. The journey to the foothills took twice as long as it should have, but she made sure to check in with Jen regularly.

"I'll be there in about an hour," Bri promised, as the last of the light left the sky and just before her cell phone signal was about to fade. "Unless some idiot tries to get too far without putting on his chains and slides against the hill." She almost said, "slides off the cliff", but she didn't think it was a good idea to bring up that possible scenario, even if it was in reference to someone else.

"OK, sweetheart," Jen said. "I'll bring in some more firewood. It's really coming down now, and the wind is brutal. Go slow."

"I will." Bri's phone beeped, warning her that the signal was lost.

The storm was bad, but not the worst one she'd driven through. That had been a weekend the previous winter, just after they'd moved in. That particular night she was the idiot she usually complained about. She had learned her lesson and now, after nearly a year, she still drove cautiously even though she knew every twist and turn and protruding tree limb like the back of her hand.

She smiled, thinking about her commute, which she'd been undertaking every Friday afternoon for a year. Compared to the average person's mad dash home at 5 o'clock — across town or over the bridge or up the valley — her commute was horrible. But to her, it was a dream come true. To see Jen every weekend instead of every few months, if she was lucky… She hoped it lasted for as long as possible, though she didn't dare to imagine it would work out for more than a few years. She'd already read the reports of the trouble brewing in Northern Africa.

More fucking sand, she thought, her mind wandering to previous battles. Victories and defeats. It was only thanks to Jen that she was able to look at her past so easily. Well, "easy" isn't the right word, she mused. But at least she could look and understand how far she'd come.

She punched a button on the SUV's console, deciding that Christmas Eve was not the time to be swimming in melancholy, and was surrounded with Bing Crosby's crooning. The notes were rich and smooth, like the fudge on the backseat. As she made the last turn onto the mile-long unpaved road that would bring her home, she was thinking of reindeer.

"Holy fuck!"

Bri didn't have time to think about the irony of a deer dashing across the road, just instinctively braked and turned the wheel away from the large blur of brown. She tried to control the skid and then the spin, and did an amazingly good job. Of course, with several inches of snow on the frozen ground, "amazingly good" meant that she skidded gently into the ditch instead of ramming her car into a tree. Either way, she was stuck.

"Damn, damn, fuck and damn." Her curses drowned out Bing's jaunty whistling. She turned off the stereo with an angry flick of her wrist and then peered out the window.

The snow was falling fast and thick, swirling like a million drunken ballerinas. She could barely see across the road, though she could just make out another flash of brown.

"And you can stop hanging around laughing at me, you bastard!" she cried at the deer.

She turned up the heater, trying to figure out her options. She could honk the horn and hope that Jen heard…that plan wilted as she pictured her partner foolishly making her way down the steep road.

Never fall in love with a stubborn woman, she belatedly advised herself.

On the other hand, she had emergency supplies in the car and she could easily last until the snow stopped and the sun came up, then make her way up the hill. The thought of spending Christmas Eve snuggled up under an old blanket on the backseat of her car made her want to spit with anger. Then she thought about Jen and how much it would worry her. The foolish woman would probably drive down just to figure out what had happened. That would be all right if the road wasn't so steep and slick.

"Damn it!" Bri decided to try cursing some more. "I could walk it if I could just see…"

She looked up then, not across the road where she was sure the deer was still chuckling, but up the hill where her house sat atop the rise. A light glowed steadily, warm and yellow.

I'll leave the porch light on. Jen's earlier promise echoed in her head.

"Oh, sweetheart, I love you." Bri climbed into the backseat. She spared a disappointed glance at the McMillan goodies, then reached into the back and pulled out a pair of snow boots and ski pants that she kept for emergencies.

She pulled on the pants, then the boots and her gloves and hat. She zipped and snapped up her parka, then took a deep breath of warm air before opening her door.

She ignored the cold that slapped at her, maneuvering out of the SUV, which had ended up close against the side of the hill and a huge pine tree. Once free, she oriented herself to the porch light, still gleaming through the otherwise whiteout conditions. She headed up the hill, trudging toward the light, trying to keep to the middle of the road and not get mired in the deep furrows of the snow-filled wheel ruts.

It wasn't long before she was questioning her decision to try to walk home. The snow was savagely striking her — as if angry that she dared to walk through its world. The wind was just as angry, though she was at least familiar with that old enemy — how it pushed you back when you wanted to go forward, and then, just when you were used to leaning into its strength, changed directions and threatened to send you toppling to your knees.

The wind blew needles of stinging snow into her eyes, bringing tears that froze in her lashes. She used all of her strength to keep them open and clear. She had to focus on the light; it was her only guide.

It was the longest mile she'd ever walked. She had no idea how long it took — just knew, when her toe hit a stone step, that it was over. Somehow she lifted her foot and climbed the three steps to her porch. Somehow she crossed the porch and reached her door. Then, as she raised her numb hand toward the knob, a blast of warmth hit her. A face — so achingly adored that she gasped — appeared before her, illuminated by a lantern's light.

"Bri? Oh my god, I was so worried."

"Ho, ho, ho." She managed the words, the cavalier smile. Yep, she was a bad-ass soldier all right.


A long time later, the last whisper of cold was gone from her fingers and toes and eyelashes, she had made love to Jen several times, and the details of the walk were filed away to be downplayed or exaggerated as the situation demanded. She was fading off to sleep and cursing the fact that she hadn't shoved the fudge into her pockets.

"I still can't believe you did it," Jen said as she curled protectively against Bri. "Promise me you'll never do something that dangerous again."

Bri knew that she couldn't make the promise and said instead, "I'm just glad you left the porch light on."

"Sweetheart," Jen replied sleepily, "the power went out earlier this afternoon. I didn't even light the lantern until I heard you walking up the steps."

Bri said nothing, merely leaned down and kissed Jen softly on the lips, then pulled her close. She knew she wasn't the first person to see lights on Christmas Eve. Like those who had come before her, love had guided her home.

I'll be home for Christmas…

"It'll be a miracle."

"Hmm?" Bri looked at the man sitting beside her in the airport lounge. His hair was snow white and his face crisscrossed with wrinkles, but his eyes were clear and blue, sparkling and alive and making him look half his age.

"Getting home by Christmas," the man said with a lilting accent that Bri couldn't quite identify. "With the weather the way it is, it will be a miracle if any flights leave tonight. I don't think any of us will be home by Christmas."

"Oh, I'll be home all right." Bri's voice was a low growl. She'd been waiting in the Rome airport for over seven hours. Her flight from the military base in Turkey had been uneventful, but now storms had descended over Europe and her flight home via Amsterdam had been cancelled. She was waiting, with fingers crossed so tight they were starting to ache, for an alternate flight via Paris.

Bri had managed to make it home to Jen five years in a row. Of all the years, this would not be the year she failed.

"Well, what is that expression I have heard you Americans use?" the man smiled, ignoring her rude reply. "From your lips to God's ears?"

Bri's answering smile held an apology. "I need to get home. I'm having a baby."

The man's eyebrows rose and he looked toward Bri's flat abdomen, then quickly looked back up, his cheeks reddened in a blush.

"I mean my…um…partner…" Bri suddenly realized that she'd said more than she intended to. After fighting in what many considered to be holy wars, she'd learned to be wary of religious extremists. But she was so excited about the birth that the reality of it had tripped off her tongue.

"When is she due?"

The man grinned and his eyes twinkled, and Bri felt the tenseness that had seized her shoulders immediately ease.

"New Year's Day," Bri replied. "I just want to get there with enough time to prepare."

"That's understandable. My firstborn came early. I rushed from the factory all the way across town, up the hospital steps, and into the room where my wife was already holding our son. I fainted dead away."

"Oh no," Bri said, her laugh joining the man's rueful chuckle.

"So you see, physically and mentally preparing yourself is certainly an excellent idea."

"Of course, I may just faint anyway," Bri said with a nervous smile.

"Well, yes, I also fainted when I saw both of my baby girls, after quietly sitting for several hours." The man smiled sheepishly. "I was not going to admit to that."

"Now I'm really worried." Bri wanted to be there for Jen and Jen wanted her to be there beside her, but the thought of watching the birth made her feel queasy.

"You will be fine," the man declared. "Just remember that it is the most natural thing in the world and that your wife will forgive you some day for making her do all of the work. Maybe."

Bri paled, thinking that her wife might just get back at her by making her have their next child.

"This is an announcement for passengers booked on Air France Flight 373."

Bri and the man turned to look at the desk. The destination and flight number had been optimistically posted for some time without any sign of airline personnel. Now, a harried ground crew member looked at the passengers huddled around her in the lounge and gripped her microphone nervously.

"I'm afraid this flight has been cancelled." Loud groans and angry curses filled the area. "You may use the courtesy phones to my right or form a single file line and I will attempt to help you book alternate flights."

Bri sighed and picked up her bag. She glanced at the line in front of the desk and decided she'd try her luck at the phones. She took a step and then felt her elbow gripped gently.

"My nephew runs a travel agency in terminal three," the man said. "If anyone can find a way to get you on a flight tonight, he can. Come with me."

Bri nodded, not hesitating to follow the old man, who walked amazingly fast for someone his age. She thought about the possibility that this was a trick. She had nothing on her person to identify her with the military — the US brass had finally figured that sending their soldiers around in uniform or with other insignia got them killed — but he might still have been tipped off. Somehow, though, she knew he was going to help her. Jen had taught her to trust her instincts.

The Rome airport was full of stranded passengers. Every quiet corner was full of sleeping people, their luggage strewn out around them. It reminded Bri of Girl Scout camp. She glanced outside as they passed through a glass-enclosed hallway between two buildings. It was a few hours before dawn. The rain was falling heavily and wind lashed at the trees. She could see people dashing for cars and taxis, holding onto umbrellas that pulled from their grasps like excited puppies straining against a leash.

"It is just there, down that corridor," the man said, indicating a dark hallway that led away from the main concourse. Bri felt a slight twinge of worry, wondering if her instincts were wrong after all, but then she thought of Jen and their baby and strode resolutely after the man.

Walking into the office of the travel agency was like walking into a hen house. The room was full of people shouting, gesticulating, and pleading. The old man glanced through the madness and spotted a younger man, standing against a wall, overseeing his workers. Bri watched as the old man tapped his nose with a forefinger and the younger man tugged on his right ear. She nearly laughed out loud at the clandestine sign language. The nephew nodded toward a door in the back of the room, and they followed him into a smaller, darker office that was blessedly quiet.

"What can I do for you, uncle?" the man asked politely.

"This young lady needs to get home to America," the old man said.

"You need to get somewhere too," Bri interrupted. "Make your arrangements first."

"Ah no, I'm afraid I need to go north." The man shrugged, obviously accepting his fate. "I know I will have no luck this time."

"Every year you leave it so late, uncle," the young man said. "Every year I warn you."

"Yes, yes." The man waved his hand in the air. "Stop lecturing me and help out this young woman."

"Your destination?" The young man smiled, his fingers poised over a computer keyboard.

Within fifteen minutes, Bri had her tickets in hand. To avoid the storms in Europe, as well as the bad weather that the travel agent had heard about in the northeast United States, Bri was forced to go south — first to Lisbon and then on to Sao Paulo. From Brazil, she would fly via Dallas and on to Sacramento, arriving early Christmas morning. She would miss the magic of Christmas Eve, but it was better than sleeping over a heating vent in the Rome airport.

"Your departure time is quite soon, Signora," the nephew said. "It is two gates from your original flight."

"Right. I better get moving." Bri stood, a wide smile on her face, and turned to the old man. "I don't know how to thank you."

"Do me one favor," the man replied, the twinkle returning to his eye. "Don't faint. You miss too much."

"I promise," Bri said. She leant down and kissed the old man on the cheek. He smelled of peppermint and cologne, and she was reminded of her grandfather. Her eyes filled with tears at the sudden warm memory. "Please have your nephew try to get you home."

"Don't worry about me," he said. "I always manage to make it."

Bri left as the younger man began to lecture his uncle once again, his fingers flying across the keyboard. She made her way through the office, where passengers where still begging for flights even more loudly, now accompanied by waving money

The insanity didn't stop there. Her departure gate was full of even more angry people, who demanded to get on her flight. She had no idea how she'd managed to get a reservation, but as a ticketed passenger, she just had to sit and wait until the plane was ready to board. She took the time to find a phone and make a quick call home, explaining the situation to Jen.

"I hate to think of you alone on Christmas Eve," Bri said. She'd apologized for ten minutes straight to a very understanding partner.

"Well, I'm not exactly alone," Jen admitted. "Bren and the boys are here. We were going to surprise you."

"Oh, that's great." Bri sighed. At least one thing had worked out. "Do you think you could convince them to wait to open their presents till I get home?"

"No," Jen replied succinctly.

"OK, you're right." Bri chuckled. "It was worth a shot. Anyway, I'll land in Sacramento around noon and I'll get a rental car and be home as quick as I can."

"Sounds good, sweetheart. And be sure to watch out for deer."

"You are never going to let me forget that, are you?"


"I love you." Bri felt her hand tingle with the need to reach through the phone to caress Jen's cheek.

"Love you too."

Bri hung up as the boarding call was announced. It would be a long trip home.


The sun was shining when Bri arrived in Sao Paulo, though it was nearly six in the evening. She had a six-hour layover and thought about going out and exploring a little, since she'd never been to Brazil. She decided to check in with Jen first.

"Merry Christmas, baby," she said when Jen answered the phone. "Do you have the chestnuts roasting?"

"Not exactly." Jen's voice held a note of tension that sent Bri's pulse racing.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong," Jen said quickly. "I just…"

Jen's voice faded and Bri's blood pressure soared. "Jen? Are you there?"

"Hey, sis." Bren's voice sounded chipper, but didn't soothe her sister. "Just a little unexpected Christmas surprise going on here."

"Bren, what the hell is happening?" Bri lowered her voice, sounding as menacing as possible. It would have intimidated most people. Unfortunately, older sisters weren't most people.

"Now don't panic. It's just that your lovely wife has gone into labor."


"You're panicking, aren't you?"

"No, I'm not panicking." Bri felt sweat trickle down the small of her back and her palms itched. She was panicking, but her sister would be the last to know.

"Don't lie to your sister," Jen said, coming back on the phone. "Now, honey, you may get home in time. The contractions just started. They may be a false alarm."

"Did you call the midwife?" Bri was doing a quick calculation in her head, wondering if eighteen hours was a typical time to be in labor.

"Yes," Jen replied, "and she won't come for a few hours. Bren's done this three times before, she'll know when the midwife should come over."

"I think the midwife should come over now," Bri said, hearing herself barking the order as if she were commanding her men. "That's what she's getting paid for."

"Honey, she's getting paid for knowing way more about this than you or I."

"I just think–"

"Bri." Bren had taken the phone again. "Chill out, for God's sake! Just get your sorry ass back here and get ready to say hello to your baby. And Bri?"

"What?" Bri said irritably.

"Whatever you do, don't faint."

Bri could hear her sister's giggles and then Jen's softer voice. "Please don't worry. Just get home. I love you."

"I love you too."

Bri hung up and took a seat in the departure lounge. She wasn't going to move until her flight was called, and she then planned on being the first person on the plane. It wouldn't get her home any sooner, but it would make her feel better.

The next eighteen hours were the longest of her life.


"Slight change of plans." Bren's voice sounded anxious, but not nearly as anxious as Bri felt.

Bri had checked in as soon as she arrived in Dallas, and discovered that the labor was well underway and the midwife had, thankfully, arrived. Jen sounded tired, but happy to hear that Bri was in the States and only a few hours away.

When Bri had arrived in San Francisco, she'd used her cell phone to call home as she rushed across the concourse to catch her connecting flight. There was no answer. The tension of the past day had turned her stomach into a heaving cauldron, and this new development was pushing her to the edge. If she'd had the time, she would have lost the little that she'd managed to eat. As it was, she just kept moving.

When she arrived at Sacramento, she headed to the rental car counter, phoning home again. This time, her sister answered.

"Bren, what the hell is going on?"

"We're at Mercy Hospital in Sacramento."

"What?" Bri could actually feel the temperature of her blood plummet.

"There were complications," Bren said. "Don't worry, everything is going to be OK. We've been here several hours and Jen is stabilized."

"Stabilized?" Bri was trying to understand her sister's words, but she couldn't quite grasp them.

"Just get here," Bren replied.

"On my way." Bri walked quickly away from the rental car counter and exited the terminal, spotting a line of taxis and heading for the nearest one. She ignored the shouts of a businessman who had already opened the back door.

"Mercy Hospital, as quick as you can." The cab driver heard her frantic voice and saw her pale face, and stepped on the accelerator before the door was fully closed.

Bri would never remember the drive across town. She wasn't sure if she paid the cab driver. She couldn't remember how she got from the lobby to the maternity ward but was pretty sure she hadn't asked for directions. She was just there, being led into a room where Jen lay in bed, smiling and weary, holding their baby daughter. She heard her sister's voice tell her that mother and baby were fine.

For a fleeting moment, Bri remembered her promise to the old man and to her sister.

And then she fainted.

If only in my dreams

"Major Richardson?"

For a moment, Bri thought she was waking in the hospital, feeling embarrassed all over again for fainting. But that had been three years ago. She wasn't in the hospital. Wasn't anywhere near home.

"Major Richardson, I have General Adams on the line for you."

Bri stretched and rubbed her face, not wanting to let go of the fleeing dreams, memories of all the years she'd been heading home for Christmas, in one way or another.

She'd been dreaming, but before that she'd been on her way home. Hadn't she?

She looked around the room at the men playing cards. She remembered the orders to head out, remembered the men abandoning their game, remembered running to the Blackhawk outside.

But no, she realized, that had just been a part of the dream.

She stood up and walked with the sergeant to the desk, picking up the phone. The card players' eyes tracked her progress.

"Major? It's time." The General's voice crackled over the secure line. "Report with your unit to zone Delta Four. You already have your orders."

"Yes, sir."

Bri hung up and turned to the men, squaring her shoulders and giving the order to prepare for departure, her voice clear and confident. Her unit stood and silently grabbed their gear, heading out of the little shed to the waiting helicopter.

A gust of wind from the open door sent the abandoned cards flying across the room. Bri stopped long enough to return the sergeant's farewell salute, then headed toward the chopper.

I'll be home, Bri silently vowed as she marched across the dusty field. I swear I'll make it home.

The end