Honorable mention goes to Carol, who named that firstname.lastname@example.org
"YeeeHAAAAAAA!" Taylor yelled, taking her helmet off and shaking out her hair. Jack propped the kickstand on her bike before removing her own helmet.
"YeeHa?" Jack inquired.
"Is there any other way to express it? Oh my god, Jack, that is just the most incredible feeling," Taylor babbled.
"I take it I'm forgiven?" Jack quirked up one side of her mouth.
"OH yeah." If riding behind someone was fun, being in control of her own bike was exhilarating.
Taylor winced as she swung her good leg over the bike, accidentally twisting her knee while it was bearing her weight. Damn, forgot about that, she thought as her leg throbbed in protest.
Jack's frown was immediate. "What's wrong?" She asked as she quickly hurried over to Taylor's side.
Taylor leaned against her seat, "It's nothing Jack, I just moved wrong." She grabbed at the handlebars when she felt the nauseating sensation of blood draining out of her face.
Jack studied her intently for a moment, doubt coating her features. "You don't look too good. What'd you hurt?"
Waving a hand dismissively, Taylor replied. "It's just my knee, I forgot about it."
"Hmm...you feeling queasy?"
"A little," Taylor admitted. "Don't know what's wrong with me, it doesn't hurt that bad...Hey!" Taylor exclaimed as Jack leaned over and picked her up, arms braced under Taylor's thighs and back.
"You get any sleep last night?" Jack asked mildly, as she easily walked off the road toward a nearby glen.
"You know, you seem to be making a habit of this," Taylor joked nervously, as she tried to decide where she could safely put her hands.
Jack gave her an unfathomable look as she leaned over and gently settled Taylor on a patch of moss, with her back resting against a large elm tree. "Sleep?"
"Uh...no, not much."
"Hmm... " She reached out a hand and lightly touched Taylor's right leg. "This the one?"
"Yeah," she sucked in her breath reflexively.
Jack's frown deepened as she ran her hands lightly over first the right, then the left knee. "Taylor, this is badly swollen. I don't know how, but it looks like you did some damage. Did you plant your foot on a turn?"
Taylor smiled sheepishly, "Actually, I did it playing football the other night."
"And the boys didn't take you to the doctor?" Jack's voice deepened ominously.
"Are you kidding? When I told them I didn't need to go, they practically tied me to the front of the truck like a prize deer." She smiled as Jack relaxed minutely, "I think they were afraid you'd kill them when you found out."
"Doc prescribe any medication?" Jack asked rocking back to crouch over her heels.
"Yeah," she shrugged, "something for the swelling and a painkiller."
Jack stood up, brushing off her jeans. "You been drinking water?"
"I drank some orange juice," Taylor offered lamely. Yesterday, she thought guiltily. The doctor had mentioned something about fluids, she remembered.
"Hold on a sec," Jack pulled a pocketknife out of her jeans and walked off into the woods.
What's she going to do, build a stretcher? Taylor amused herself with images of Jack carving crutches out of a tree with nothing more than the tiny blade. She didn't have to wait long; Jack returned fairly quickly with two largish white objects in her hands. She held one out, obviously expecting Taylor to take it. "Drink that," she ordered.
Taylor reached out tentatively to take the rather flimsy object. She peered at it suspiciously, until she realized that it was just water in a strange vessel made of some kind of bark.
"Better be quick, those things don't hold together for too long," Jack advised. Taylor gulped it down hurriedly, visions of the strange pale substance dissolving and dumping their load of water onto her chest filling her head. She was surprised to find that her nausea immediately began to fade.
Jack handed her the other cup, "Hold this."
Taylor peered down to see that it was filled with wet, pulpy greenery. "Hope you don't want me to ingest this," she said doubtfully.
Jack laughed as she gestured toward Taylor's jeans with her pocketknife. "You mind turning these into shorts?" She inquired.
Taylor sighed, "Do I have a choice?"
Jack just shook her head as she carefully sliced through the cloth, right above the knee.
"How'd you know the water would help?"
Jack replied absently as she cut a line around Taylor's thigh, then down to the cuff. "No too hard to figure out. Most meds that reduce swelling are diuretics...they pull water out of your body." Jack gently removed the cloth then began cutting it into strips. "So are alcohol and caffeine. You're a coffee freak, and it looked like you'd had a bit to drink the other night. I'm betting your body may be down to its last pint right about now." She picked up one strip and made it into a poultice, wrapping Taylor's knee up in it with the cold green stuff against her leg. "Anyhow," she shrugged, "it couldn't hurt. Doesn't help that you didn't get any sleep." She looked up inquiringly, "I was wondering what you were doing up so early."
"Bad dreams," Taylor explained.
Jack lifted an eyebrow before turning back to her work, wrapping the remaining strips firmly around the knee, tying them off at the back.
"That's a bit cold," Taylor complained.
Jack rolled back to sit down on the ground, wrapping an arm around her knee. "That's the idea. Hopefully it'll reduce the swelling."
"Where'd you learn all this stuff?"
Jack looked away, "I pick up things here and there. Learned quite a bit from an old war vet." She fiddled with her knife before closing the blade, "He taught me a lot of things."
Taylor cocked her head, "Where'd you meet him?"
"Pete introduced us," Jack replied. "You hungry?"
"If I say yes are you going to disappear into the woods again?" Taylor asked lightly.
"Nope. I grabbed a few muffins while you were in the shower." Jack rocked to her feet and strolled over to her bike.
Taylor watched with a feeling of bemusement. She's more useful than a Swiss army knife to have around. She relaxed, enjoying the feel of the early daylight and the rapidly fading dewy smell of the morning. In fact, despite the chilly feel and dull ache of her knee, she was feeling terribly content. She eyed the lanky, denim-clad form ahead of her. Wonder why that is, huh Taylor?
She sighed, there was no doubt that her wayward feelings were spending far more time focussed on her boss. I wish she'd talk to me about the other night. I hate wondering what's going through her head.
"What's the sigh for?" Jack settled down next to her, proffering a muffin. Taylor studied her for a moment, observing the casual look of interest on the dark woman's face as she took a bite out of her muffin.
"I was wishing that you'd let me explain what happened Friday night," Taylor replied honestly, "I've been tying myself up in knots about it." She ripped a piece off of her own treat to pop into her mouth.
Jack's face changed, the old closed look returning to coat her features. Well, it was fun while it lasted, Taylor thought in resignation as Jack carefully set her muffin down and turned a serious face to Taylor.
"Look," Jack began, her hands fisting reflexively as her body visibly tensed. Taylor took advantage of Jack's habitual pause to break in with the apology that had been on the tip of her tongue all morning.
"Please," she reached out to rest a hand on Jack's forearm. "Let me apologize, Jack. I don't normally accost my coworkers in a drunken stupor."
"What are you talking about?" Jack sounded genuinely surprised.
Taylor pulled her hand back to push her bangs out of her eyes. "Friday night? You are the tall dark woman I kissed in the bar that night aren't you?"
"Huh, I guess I am," Jack replied thoughtfully, before looking up. "Don't worry about it Taylor."
You guess? I don't know whether to be insulted or relieved. "This happen to you often?" She made herself ask it in a casual voice.
"No, that was a definite first," Jack replied quietly while the knuckles of her fists tried to force their way through the skin.
"I'm sorry Jack," Taylor felt miserable. "I've obviously made you very uncomfortable with me."
Jack glanced up quickly, "What makes you say that?"
"You're strung tight as a bowstring," Taylor's eyes cut toward Jack's clenched hands.
Jack blew out a breath, "It's not that..." she began plucking at the grass. "It's a bit hard to explain."
"I get the feeling that a lot of your life is like that," Taylor replied cautiously. "I wonder about you, you know."
"I'm not surprised," Jack grimaced. "And that's what I've got to talk to you about." She got up and started pacing back and forth in front of Taylor's feet. "I just don't know how."
"It may be trite, but why don't you start at the beginning?"
"God, I wish it was that easy," Jack replied, not looking up as she focused on the ground in front of her moving feet.
It's not that hard Jack. Just start with, 'you're really sweet babe, but let's just be friends,' Taylor thought in wry resignation.
Finally, Jack stopped pacing and came in for a landing crouched at Taylor's side. When she grasped Taylor's chin, startled grass green eyes jumped up to meet vivid blue that held a touch of sadness.
"Look, I need you to do something for me." Jack spoke quietly, intently.
A little line appeared between Taylor's eyes. "Anything, Jack."
Concentrated emotion leaked out of Jack's voice, "Don't question. Don't wonder. And most of all," Jack's grip on her chin tightened in emphasis, "Don't talk to anyone about what you saw Friday night." Her voice grew harsh, "Did you tell your friend who I am?"
"Yes," Taylor felt breathless.
Jack swore, releasing her chin with a jerky movement. "You've got to make sure she never talks about it...not even to you." Jack's penetrating gaze pinned her in place as a fierce undertone overtook her voice. "You're not going to understand this, but there'll be consequences if she does...if you do."
"Consequences? You're frightening me Jack," Taylor said in a small voice. It was true. Jack's mood swings had puzzled her before, but this was the first time Jack had turned that particular stare on her.
"Good," Jack replied shortly. She looked over and sighed when she saw the look on Taylor's face. "Damn," she said ruefully. She ran a hand through her hair before continuing conversationally, "You know, I intimidate people all the time."
Taylor felt her eyebrows rise. How in the world am I supposed to respond to that?
"This is the first time I've ever felt like the guy who shot Bambi's mom."
"Just call me Jiminy Cricket," Taylor managed to reply.
The corner of Jack's mouth quirked in acknowledgement. "Look, this is important," she went on, her tone far warmer than it had been moments ago, "I need for you to suspend your rational mind when it comes to this, OK? Think X-files, Big Brother, whatever. Assume that there are ears everywhere, and that it can cost you your life if you say the wrong thing at the wrong time. It's better not to talk about it at all. Can you do that? Please?"
Taylor was caught between her heart responding to the quiet desperation in Jack's voice, and her brain that was waiting to hear 'April fools.' "You ever going to tell me what this is about?" she asked quietly.
"You'd better hope I never do."
Taylor studied the expectant look on Jack's face for a long moment before conceding. "I don't know why I believe you, but ...OK Jack. It never happened, I'll never talk about it." She paused for a beat, before letting a bit of teasing humor enter her voice, "If...."
Jack's brow shot up, "If?"
"Yeah....If you tell me what you were doing in that particular bar." Taylor chuckled, "I don't get the impression you often frequent that particular type of venue." She paused for a moment, and feeling a bit foolish, she continued, "it is safe to talk about it here, isn't it?"
"For the most part...just not in the house, ok?"
Taylor's head bobbed. I should have watched more James Bond before taking this project on, she thought with a bubble of humor. "Got it...but why were you there?"
"I, uh..." Jack's face took on a slight red tinge. "Well, I guess I was a bit curious. With Jimmy and all... Well, I thought maybe I could find someone who might be willing to talk to me, tell me what kind of challenges he'll be facing."
"Dressed like THAT?" Taylor giggled.
"Stupid, I know." The self-deprecation in Jack's voice helped Taylor get her amusement under control in short order.
"Not stupid at all Jack," Taylor replied gently. "Jimmy's really lucky to have someone like you in his life."
A dismissive shrug was her only response.
Taylor reached out and grasped Jack's knee, shaking it slightly. "Oh, no. You're not going to blow this off Jack. Most parents feel victimized when they find out that their kids are gay. You're looking at what this means for him...not you. That's wonderful and rare, and I won't hear you demeaning it's worth."
Jack settled down, interest overcoming the embarrassment in her demeanor. "What do you mean, 'victimized'?"
Taylor thought for a moment before responding. "Well," she replied slowly. "Remember, I'm only speaking from my own experiences, and those of my friends, OK?" Jack nodded, encouraging Taylor to continue. "You're not wondering 'what did I do wrong?' You're not embarrassed about what your friends will think, and you're not approaching Jimmy as if he suddenly turned into an alien species just to make you feel confused. Like I said, you're thinking about what it means for him, not you. The world makes a lot of the really horrible reactions...disowning or trying to cure the kid; but there are a lot of decent parents who react poorly because they just can't step outside of themselves and realize that whatever it may mean to them...discovering their sexuality has a much larger impact on the child than on the parent."
Taylor let out a noisy breath and grinned wryly..."Sorry, that was a bit long winded. Did I answer the question at least?"
Jack smiled. "Yeah, I think I understand. Is that how your parents reacted?" The question was slightly tentative.
"Actually," Taylor replied, "we've never talked about it."
"They don't know?" Jack asked in surprise.
"No," Taylor frowned slightly, "they know. We've just never...discussed it. They like to pretend that I'm not gay...direct speech would ruin the illusion."
Jack's hand hesitantly reached out, then returned to her own thigh. "That must hurt."
"Not as much as you would think," Taylor's expression was open and honest. "By the time I really conceptualized it, I was beyond relying on them for that type of support." Taylor decided to change the subject. "Anyhow...I'm sorry I interrupted your uh...search on Friday."
Jack grinned, "Welp, from the sounds of it, I wasn't dressed appropriately anyway."
Taylor's expression turned devilish. "I didn't say that. In fact, I'm willing to bet that if I hadn't interfered, you would have had a lot of women just dying to...educate you."
Jack looked at her quizzically.
"Oh please Jack," Taylor's voice reflected her exasperation. "You have to know that you look like the sexiest bad girl that ever walked a city in that leather."
Taylor watched in fascination as Jack's face turned an alarming shade of red; however, Jack managed to sound composed as she replied. "I never really thought about it in those terms."
"Well, at the risk of completely alienating my boss and breaking a few harassment laws," Taylor replied daringly, "you're one hot woman boss-lady."
"Now..." Taylor hurried on, not waiting for a response from Jack. "We've got another problem to deal with."
Jack's brow furrowed. "What?"
"How in the world am I getting home?"
"So I think I can write my own server software in VB, instead of mIRC." Jeff enthused.
"But if you want people to use it, don't you have to use IRC?" Alec asked quizzically.
"Not as long as I use IRC protocols."
"Wait," Alec held up a hand. Jimmy's younger brother had lost him more than once during this conversation and he'd quickly learned to stop the kid at any reference that he didn't fully understand. "The only thing I know about a protocol is that it's what POP3 is..."
"I see Jeff's found a new victim." Alec found himself fighting his eyes' attempts to bug out when he turned to face the speaker. That...is Jimmy's sister? The question was rhetorical. Jimmy had spoken so much about her that he was sure he'd be able to pick her out of a crowd. He'd almost been jealous of the woman who had such a firm claim on his lover's affections.
By herself, she'd be imposing. But now she was standing just inside the doorway, an obviously injured Taylor in her arms, and together they formed a picture that they eye found irresistible. Jack was all dark, enigmatic shadow while Taylor's golden coloring seemed to collect and intensify the light. Hooded, measuring eyes hovered protectively over laughing open green. The contrast was scary...and perfect.
Alec didn't realize that he hadn't responded until Jack spoke again. "You must be Alec."
He stood up as he replied. "Yes ma'am."
Jack snorted, "Son, my name's Jack, nothing more." She gestured Jeff off of the couch with a jerk of her chin, before setting Taylor down on it.
"Jeff, get me scissors and a towel." Jeff just nodded his head and headed up the stairs.
"John, I need you to go get one of the bikes for me. We left it about two thirds of the way up the trail behind the west field."
"Sure thing Jack," John replied as he scrambled out of one of the recliners. "I'll get Jake to give me a lift."
Jack looked at Taylor, "Doc give you a brace?"
"Yeah...it's on the dresser."
"Go get it, would you Jimmy?" Jack asked without taking her eyes off of her task of settling Taylor, "Grab her medication, and see if you can find a pair of sweats or something while you're at it."
"Where can I find them Taylor?" Jimmy asked as he lifted himself off the floor.
Taylor looked up and grinned at Jimmy. "Medicine is in the bathroom, top drawer for the sweats. Thanks Jimmy." He nodded and went down the hallway.
Taylor glanced over at the nervously shifting Alec and realized that the kid felt a bit awkward. He probably wanted to make a good first impression, and Jack had barked at the first thing that came out of his mouth. She reached out to draw Jack's attention away from propping her leg with pillows. When Jack looked up, Taylor met her eyes pleadingly and gestured minutely toward Alec.
Jack's mouth quirked slightly in wry acknowledgement. "Alec? You think you could help me shift her up a bit? She'd be more comfortable sitting up, and I don't want to jar this knee any further."
"Sure thing, Jack," the young man replied enthusiastically. Taylor let them do it, although she was perfectly capable of scooting up on her own. I'm beginning to feel like a stuffed animal.
Settling back on her haunches when they were done, Jack looked up at the blond youngster, gesturing toward a nearby chair. "Have a seat kid." Once he'd complied, she asked him, "You fly out here from Alaska?"
"No...I'm doing an internship in Minnesota. Wasn't too bad of a flight." He looked up as Jeff came down the stairs, sounding like a herd of baby elephants on the bare wood.
Jack took the scissors from him, and began cutting the makeshift bandage off of Taylor's leg. "Thanks, Jeff."
Taylor could see the relief in her eyes when Jeff picked up his technical discussion from where he left off, recapturing Alec's attention. "See, if I get a copy of rfc1459.txt..."
Well, Taylor thought, she tried.
"I do NOT need to see another doctor," Taylor protested. She was met with nine pairs of disbelieving eyes, seven of which looked stubbornly determined.
"Oh all right," she conceded ungraciously, "call the poor man and drag him out here on a Sunday afternoon for no reason."
John smiled, "I knew she'd see reason."
"You McDermott's should feel ashamed of yourselves, ganging up on a poor helpless woman like this."
"We learned dirty tactics from the best," Jimmy replied. "But now that you've chosen to see reason with such charming grace, we're going to bring you the best picnic lunch you've ever had," he sprang to his feet. "C'mon guys, let's go raid the galley."
"No one's raiding my kitchen without supervision!" Anna protested as she followed high-spirited pack through the door.
Taylor looked inquisitively at Jack, "A picnic in the living room?"
Jack shook her head, "Nah...we'll go out back." She looked over at the young man who had stayed behind, looking like he wasn't quite certain what he should do with himself. "Come on out with us Alec, Anna and the boys certainly don't need any more help." She bent over in preparation to pick Taylor up again.
Taylor stopped her with a protest and a resisting hand on the point of her shoulder. "Oh no you don't Ms. McDermott, I've had quite enough of being moved around like a piece of furniture."
"Taylor..." Jack growled warningly.
"Nope. Not this time, and don't try that intimidating growl on me. I'm walking upright like a normal biped." She looked over at Alec. "You'll lend me a shoulder, won't you Alec?"
"Uh..." he looked at Jack uncertainly.
"Don't let that bully frighten you."
"Taylor!" Jack couldn't quite fight the smile that was struggling to get through her stern expression. "You're ruining my best weapon for keeping that horde of mischief makers in line you know. If they're not intimidated, they're trouble."
"My heart bleeds," Taylor replied. She looked up pleadingly. "C'mon Jack, with you and Alec for crutches I'm sure to be safe from harm...and it's humiliating being carried around like a baby."
Jack just sighed and offered her an arm up. "Get on over here Alec, let's get her out there before she does any more damage to my reputation."
Once they'd gotten Taylor settled, Alec looked around the screened in gazebo in appreciation. "This is really nice." The smallish building boasted a picnic table large enough to seat all of King Arthur's knights...with room to spare. It overlooked a small pond that nestled between the border of the cleared back lawn and the woods.
Jack grinned. "Thanks. The boys and I put it up about nine years ago." She settled down where she could keep an eagle eye on Taylor and gestured Alec toward a seat. There was an awkward silence for a moment as they eyed each other uncertainly. Finally, Jack sighed and ran a hand through her hair.
"Look Alec, I'm not real sure where I'm supposed to begin."
"It's OK," he replied quietly. "I'm sure you haven't had too many boyfriends to deal with. It must be awkward for you."
Jack smiled wryly, "Or girlfriends either, to be honest. The boys have brought girls they're dating by for dinner and such, but none of them were quite as serious as you two seem to be." She looked over Alec's shoulder for a moment before continuing. "You seem like a nice kid, Alec. I don't want you thinking that I don't approve just because I'm no good at chit chat."
Alec grinned, "Frankly, I didn't expect you would be."
Jack raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
"I had the impression that you were very...uh...focussed."
Taylor stifled a giggle. "Very discretely put."
Jack snorted. "What you mean is that I'm a dominating pain in the ass."
Alec shook his head, fervently. "No ma...uh, Jack. Jimmy speaks well of you. Really well. In fact, I kind of expected you to be eight feet tall."
"And breathing fire no doubt," Jack grinned.
"Well, I was hoping for a little smoke at least."
Taylor couldn't help herself, she burst out laughing. "You'll fit in just fine around here Alec."
The young man smiled bashfully at her, looking a little relieved.
Taking both of them off the hook, Taylor grasped the reins of the conversation. "Jimmy said that you're majoring in Biology, Alec...are you planning on grad school?"
Taylor couldn't help the warm feeling that welled up inside her when Jack sent her a grateful look as Alec replied. Down girl, she sternly reminded herself. Boss plus het plus big scary secret equals real bad idea. Remember?
"So what's the deal with Taylor and your sister?"
Jimmy laughed delightedly as he and Alec walked through the moonlit field, enjoying their first real quiet moment since Alec had arrived. "That's the question that seems to be running rampant around the house...any time that Jack's not around that is."
"You think they're..." Alec's voice trailed off suggestively.
Shaking his head firmly, Jimmy replied with confidence. "Nope. I don't. I do think, however, that my sister has finally found her first honest friend in years."
"She seems...softer around Taylor."
"More relaxed, more talkative, she laughs more and even puts up with some teasing. Yeah, I know." Jimmy replied.
"Taylor's gay." Alec stated, as if he was making an argument.
"And that means that something's up? Nah. I grant you...she's obviously had her head turned. But I doubt my sister even knows how to have a relationship, at least the kind you have with a girl like Taylor. Besides, who knows if she's interested in women?"
"You don't know?"
"Never, ever seen her express interest in man, woman or beast," Jimmy replied.
"Why doesn't she have any friends?" Alec asked as they sat on the pile of rock that bordered the field.
"Jack? Dunno, really." Jimmy replied noncommittally.
"Hey," Alec punched him lightly in the shoulder. "Don't lie to me buddy."
Jimmy smiled. "Can't really hide much from you, can I?"
"You got it."
"Well, us, in part. My brothers and I, I mean."
Alec took a moment to track the conversation. "You guys kept her from having friends?"
"I think she tried so hard to always be here for us, she didn't give herself the time."
"Huh," Alec grunted thoughtfully. "And the rest?"
"What do you mean?"
"You said 'in part,'" Alec replied. "That usually implies that there are other pieces to the story."
"The rest..." Jimmy trailed off. "The rest I can't talk about."
"I understand," Alec was obviously trying to hide his hurt.
Jimmy wrapped an arm around him for a quick hug. "It's not that I don't trust you lover. It's just not my information to share."
Alec forgave him with a smile. "So...do you think I passed muster?"
"The more important question is whether you think you can stand dating someone with a crazy family like mine."
"Oh, they might scare off the faint of heart. But I'm tougher than the common man. Besides," Alec pulled him in for a kiss, "I'm rather fond of the McDermott traits."
Jack woke up on her feet, standing next to the bed, blood pounding through her body. She strained her ears, easily filtering out the familiar sounds that normally surrounded the house at night, trying to find what had woken her up in a full alert. There...that's it. A muffled thump, inside the house. She reached under the mattress for the sheathed blade she kept there, before carefully pacing to her door. She paused, listening with her inner instinct for danger, as well as with her ears. Several heartbeats later, she was convinced that there was nothing in the hallway beyond, and slowly eased open the well-oiled door. She padded forward a couple of steps before stopping again, listening through the murky darkness, trying to track the sound.
Jack relaxed when she heard it again. It was just Taylor. She must be sleeping restless tonight, Jack thought as she turned to head back to her room. She stopped when she heard the dampened sound of a moan, "No..."
Bad dream, she thought as she faced Taylor's bedroom. Staring at the blank face of the door, she tried to decide what to do. She was curiously hesitant to invade the young woman's privacy. Maybe she'll pull herself out of it, she thought as creaks of the house and the sound of her own breathing filled the dark, close space.
She had the door open and was at Taylor's bedside before her young assistant had finished articulating her next cry. Taylor's face was nearly invisible beneath tousled golden strands that lay in chaotic disarray about her head. One arm had escaped the confines of the covers, and lay protectively before her eyes, the hand clenched tightly into a fist.
"Taylor," Jack spoke in a quiet voice, reluctant to scare the woman further by shaking her awake.
"No!" Taylor began fighting her blankets, her body writhing in panic, arms flailing ineffectually in the air.
Jack hesitantly reached out to lightly clasp a shoulder, ignoring the hand that impacted with her cheekbone as Taylor wildly threw her arms about. "Wake up Taylor, it's just a dream. It's not real."
Taylor's thrashing calmed under her touch. "That's it. Wake up Taylor, it's a dream," Jack coaxed, brushing hair back from the young woman's face.
Lost green eyes slowly fluttered open, eventually finding Jack in the darkness. "Hey," she said in a thin voice.
Jack looked down with a slight quirk to her lips, "Hey yourself. You OK?"
Taylor braced her hands against the mattress and pushed herself up, smoothing her hair back before replying. "Yeah," she looked up with a false grin, "it was just a dream. No permanent damage, right?"
"Do you...uh...want to talk about it?" Jack asked uncertainly.
Taylor blew out a shuddering breath. "If you don't mind...no," she wrapped her arms around blanket-covered knees.
"Oh...OK," Jack lifted herself from her half-crouch, standing awkwardly beside the bed. "Well...goodnight." She turned and started for the door.
Jack turned, "Yeah?"
"Um...could you..." Taylor looked away, "Never mind."
The boys never wanted to admit that they didn't want to be alone either, Jack remembered. "You want me to stay for a little while?" She asked quietly.
Taylor looked up, "Sounds ridiculous, huh?"
Jack walked back over to the bed, "Scoot over."
Taylor sidled closer to the wall, leaving plenty of room on the bed for Jack to settle her long form down on top of the covers, leaning back against the wall.
"You really don't have to stay..." Taylor trailed off.
"Bad nightmare'll take it out of you," Jack replied in a matter of fact tone. "You've been having a lot of them lately?"
"Yeah...it's kind of weird and scary. You ever have them?"
Jack shook her head. "Not since I was a little kid. The boys had a lot after their father died though."
A real grin edged Taylor's lips. "So you're experienced at this, huh? I'm sorry I woke you up."
"It's OK," Jack reassured her. "I got used to keeping my ears open when the kids were small."
Taylor snuggled down in her covers, looking out the window at the dark shapes the trees made against the star field. "Tell me something about you, Jack."
"What do you want to know?" Jack asked doubtfully.
"I don't know, I just need something to distract me. Anything."
"Not much to tell really," Jack replied.
"Now that," Taylor poked her arm in emphasis, "is a shameless lie. You're one of the most interesting people I've ever met." Jack could feel her eyebrows rise in response to the comment. "Tell me about when you stopped having nightmares."
Jack could feel a flush heat her skin. Glad it's too dark to see color in here. "It's a strange story," she warned.
"Oh good," Jack didn't even need to look over to know that Taylor was smiling, it was in her voice. "Should be interesting then."
Oh hell...what could it hurt? "Well, I was about nine or ten. I was having some pretty bad dreams just about every night."
"What were they about?" Jack saw Taylor's brows draw together out of the corner of her eye.
Damn, don't want to go there. Just give her worse nightmares. "Just...stuff. Typical for a kid that age I guess." She turned her head slightly, watching the intrigue flash across Taylor's face.
"Anyway, one night I had this dream," she reached down and plucked at the covers next to her thigh. "It was about this woman who taught me how to stop having the nightmares."
"Your dreams taught you how to stop having nightmares?"
Jack laughed softly, "I told you it was odd."
"What did she look like?"
"Well...I don't remember too much. Just amazing red-gold hair."
"Did she have a name?"
"No," Jack sighed. But she was the most compassionate woman I'd ever met. I spent years wishing that she were real.
"So what was the secret to keeping the monsters away?" Taylor asked curiously.
Jack looked down at her directly, a wry look on her face. "This'll make you laugh."
"Hey...if it worked I might try it. It's in your own best interests to share the secret with me."
"Bo's a kind of..."
"A staff," Taylor waved her hand impatiently. "I know. You're telling me that your dream taught you how to use a weapon? And it worked?"
"Yeah. She told me to go to sleep running through the routines in my mind every night," Jack shrugged. "It worked," she confirmed.
"What form were you studying?"
Jack smiled, "I wasn't. I think I just made them up out of whole cloth. I've never seen a style that was remotely similar."
Taylor laughed, "Well, at least you have useful dreams."
"Yeah...I never dreamed again...not even about her."
"Hmm...a bittersweet ending," Taylor replied distractedly as she snuggled down further into the covers. "Thanks Jack, it's a nice story. I think I'm OK now, if you want to go to bed."
Jack looked down, barely able to see more than the crown of the golden head. "I'll wait a bit. Close your eyes."
" 'K," Taylor replied, letting her eyes slide closed.
Where the hell am I? Jack wondered, looking around at...nothing. Just fog. She looked down, digging with the toe of her work boot into the fog under her feet. Huh. There was something wrong with this place. It didn't smell right. It was too quiet. And I have no idea how I got here. She felt her body react to the unease seeping through her, her pulse raised, her hearing sharpened, and her nostrils flared. Muscles shifted minutely; ready to respond quickly when she called on them.
"You know, for all your brilliance, you are one dense woman."
Jack jumped, rotating in the air to drop down facing the owner of the voice. She felt herself freeze in surprise...it was like looking into a mirror. Well, it would be if I was into leather. She looked down then, discovering that her jeans had transformed themselves into her black leathers. Leather corsets, she conceded, while reviewing the list of hallucinatory drugs she could possibly have ingested.
"It's a dream Jack," a dark eyebrow arched mockingly. "You have heard of them?"
I've always wondered how that looked. "I don't have them."
Her twin sighed. Not a twin...Jack thought, seeing tracings of scars that rivaled her own in numbers, but mapped different pathways along her body, doppelganger maybe.
"No...you don't usually, that's been a bit of a problem," the woman conceded.
Jack relaxed slightly, and drawled, "Sorry for the inconvenience." Never show fear, old Vic's voice ran through her mind. She couldn't remember a time when she'd needed the advice more. No one has gotten that close without me noticing in years.
Surprisingly, the woman grinned. "Tell you the truth, I wouldn't want them either. Your nightmares have a lot of material to work with. But," the woman leaned back against a tree that hadn't existed a moment ago, "you made it damn hard for us to get to you. We've been trying to get you to listen for years."
I liked it better when I didn't dream. "Now that you're here, you got something useful to say? Or did you just stop by to chew the fat?"
The prickly challenge didn't seem to concern the tall woman, in fact she looked amused. "Both, actually." Crossing her arms, she continued. "You could use someone to talk to that knows what you're going through, but I do have a bit of advice."
"If you think a little talking is going to make it all go away, then you have no idea what I'm going through," Jack said with derision. Not even my own delusions get to bark at me with psycobabble.
The blue eyes facing her sharpened as the woman pushed off from the magic tree. "Listen up kid," the low voice growled. "You're not the first woman to sacrifice her soul to save her family," her stance shifted imperceptibly, but suddenly the pommel of the sword at her back was far more prominent. "You've done well, don't start pitying yourself now."
She began pacing toward Jack intently. "I know it all Jack. How responsibility and love can corrupt. How seductive the darkness can be." A hand came up and clasped Jack's shoulder, "How your soul can scream in shame when you feel the most alive."
Startled blue eyes gazed back as the woman spoke. Jack wanted to deny that the words any meaning. But she couldn't...she felt as if the woman was looking right through her, seeing all that she was. And worse, the warrior didn't detect a cause for repugnance, but for compassion. The urge to run filled her, pushing her to get away. But the hand at her shoulder anchored her, kept her in place, facing those knowing eyes. She firmed her resolve and found the strength to gaze back at them directly.
Approval gazed back at her, as the warrior backed off. "Now, that I've got your attention, I need to give you a heads up."
Jack's eyebrow rose reflexively.
"You need to broaden the bandwidth slightly kid." The warrior crossed her arms, "Your focus has served you will in the past, but right now you're filtering out far too much."
"I'm sure that if you keep talking, this will eventually make sense."
Her double's mouth quirked in an expression that was startlingly familiar. "Sorry Jack. It's necessary to be cryptic. Just...try to pay more attention to the people around you."
Jack awoke hours later when the sun was just beginning to peek out against the horizon. Ouch, she winced as she raised her head. She'd fallen asleep slumped against the wall, in a half-upright position with her chin resting against her chest. Didn't mean to stay this long, she thought ruefully as she raised her right hand to massage the back of her neck. Looking down, she discovered that Taylor had captured her upper arm between both hands, her forehead pressing against the point of Jack's left shoulder. Oh yeah, that's why. Should have just tried to get myself untangled.
Jack sighed, looking down at the peacefully slumbering face. You know...I don't understand you. She never quite knew what to expect from the young woman. One minute she'd be confidently facing Jack down, the next she was quietly asking for support after a nightmare. She was a sharply capable professional, a childlike playmate, and a compassionate...friend.
Jack turned the word over in her mind. It had an odd flavor. She'd never been tempted to allow herself the luxury. I've already got more than my share of people to worry about...too many weaknesses. Somehow, with gentle persistence, Taylor had worked her way into Jack's life with such ease that Jack hadn't really noticed it happening.
It's a real bad idea Jack. Even in her head, the protest sounded half-hearted. Again, she was facing the realization that Taylor seemed to have become an exception to the rules she had laid down for herself, and spent her adult life following. She was caught between the urge to shake the woman and demand to know why she was doing this, and sitting back to enjoy the subtle changes Taylor was bringing into her life. It was unsettling to feel panicked and content at the same moment, and Jack didn't quite know what to do about that. Just live with it, Jack; it's over when she goes home. She stared at the blade she had left on the bedside table, trying to convince herself that it was a comforting thought.
Jack looked over at Taylor with a thoughtful expression on her face. "You know...this would be easier if you just came and gave the spiel yourself."
Taylor sat back and studied Jack with a feeling that combined amusement and exasperation. Since Jack's vacation was officially over, several things had changed. They'd started spending the daytime hours in Jack's office at the project; Jack now spent most of her time working with Taylor. After a couple of incredibly frustrating days, the blonde had come to a surprising realization. She looks calm, Taylor thought as she eyed the lazy posture, but she's scared to death of getting up in front of all those people.
"I'd be happy to...but they want to see you in action Stretch, not me." Taylor couldn't resist putting a teasing note into her voice. It was a good feeling, actually, to realize that Jack could have such a...well, such a mundane fear.
"Yeah," Jack reached her hands behind her head, stretching her back, "you're right. So...let's go over the damn introduction again." The discouragement in Jack's tone evaporated Taylor's amusement. She rethought the situation quickly.
"What if I gave the presentation, but you were there for Q&A? And of course," she teased, "to charm them over dinner."
Jack raised an eyebrow; "I'm not that charming." Sighing, she continued "Much as I'd like to take you up on it, I really should do this myself."
For some reason, Taylor suddenly felt the urge to argue. "Not really, it's the information that's important, right? You'll be there to talk to them through the whole evening. Only a fool would think you were incompetent after meeting you." She went on with enthusiasm, "Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think it'll work. Frankly," she looked up with a grin, "at this point, I'm beginning to think that having you get up and talk is the worst thing we could do."
The dark woman wryly returned the grin. "Yeah, I'm no great shakes with speeches."
"Yeah, I know. You're shy and retiring." Taylor teased.
Jack's eyes took on a devilish glint, "Actually, the best part is that it'll really chew Pete's hide when he realizes what we're up to."
"This is a good thing?" Taylor cocked her head curiously.
"Yep." Jack swung her legs off of the desk, "And since we've settled the biggest problem for the day..." The phone shrilly interrupted her, "Aw hell."
"Um...Taylor? You got a minute?" Taylor reluctantly pulled her attention away from the words on the screen, looking up to see Jake diffidently poised in the office doorway.
"Sure Jake, grab a chair," gesturing towards Jack's vacant seat, she firmly closed the cover on the laptop. "I'm surprised to see you up here."
"Well, Julian called down to the house first, so I knew that Jack would be gone." Julian had broken down in Rutland. Jack had run up to help him figure out what was wrong with his new car.
Taylor cocked her head slightly as she absorbed the implications as well as his unusually hesitant tone. "So, what is it you don't want Jack around for?" She smiled inwardly as he got up and paced. I wonder if they realize how much they're like her.
"I guess I just want some advice on how to tell Jack something," he sighed.
"Hmmm," Taylor replied, "seems like one of your brothers or Anna would be a better bet. I've only been around for a few weeks. But," she crossed her legs, "you're in this far, you might as well keep going."
His pacing got more rapid, "Well, honestly, I think I need to talk to someone who's outside the equation. Our family is so bizarre and dysfunctional...I think everyone is too close to really...."
"Give an honest opinion?" Taylor offered.
"Yeah," he sighed.
"I don't think I agree with your characterization of your family," she said gently. "From what I've seen, you have a wonderful thing going here."
Jake snorted, "You mean you don't see it yet? How much she controls every aspect of our lives?" Anger and frustration laced his tone.
Taylor thought back to the night Jimmy came out. The conclusions that she'd jumped to niggling at the suspicious part of her brain. No, I've seen too much to believe that now. She just couldn't believe that Jack practiced that flavor of domination over her brothers. She cares, intensely and deeply. She may make errors, but she isn't capable of treating them like...slaves, or maybe cattle.
"I see that she cares...and I see that she expects a lot of you, but I don't really see that she's on some sort of power trip."
"No, it's not a power trip. She's just making sure that she gets us all through college as fast as possible so we'll be out of her hair," he spat bitterly.
"You really think that, don't you." It was more of a statement than a question. Little pieces of Jake began to click together in her mind.
"I know it," he replied with conviction. "She as much as said so."
"She said that? To you?"
"No," he sighed. "To Anna. I overheard them talking once."
"You understood her correctly?"
He collapsed into the chair, and began to talk in a more subdued tone. "Yeah, after Pop died. I was just a kid, and she'd been gone on one of her mysterious little disappearances for a long time. It was the middle of the night, and I'd just gotten back to my room when I heard the truck pull in, so I sneaked downstairs...thinking I'd jump out and scare her...a little fun. I was real happy she was home," self-mocking and disillusionment laced his tone. He went on, so lost in his memories that Taylor doubted he even remembered that she was there.
"Anna was patching up a cut on her face, and she was bawling like a baby.
He was delighted with himself, being the first to welcome his sister. The others would be so jealous. Jack was really neat, though kind of gruff. She could do all sorts of great stuff, and she wasn't nearly as weird and gross as most girls were. She was teaching him how to ride before she left, and she'd promised that if he got good grades this year, they could ride over and camp out for a night, just the two of them. He snuck closer and closer to the downstairs bathroom, holding his breath so he wouldn't make any noise. He could hear a funny sound...and he heard Anna's voice. She was OK, but she wasn't nearly as much fun as Jack.
As he got closer, he realized that the funny sound was Jack crying. That was scary, Jack never cried. Feeling like his world was shifting, he tiptoed up to the partially open door, trying to peek through the crack by the hinge.
Anna was wiping at Jack's forehead with a washcloth, cleaning out a hurt in much the same way that she did for Jake and his brothers when they got into accidents. Jack was sitting on the toilet, tears streaming down her face, looking smaller than Jake had ever seen her.
"Why is it so hard? It was terrible." Anna's uncharacteristic silence puzzled him. She always had something to say to Jake when he was crying. Usually something that pointed out how he'd made his own problems. But, she was usually right too... Why wasn't she helping Jack? He thought with frustration. Doesn't she know that Jack needed help too?
"If it wasn't for Jeb...I'd just toss it all, y'know that?" Jack looked up fiercely. "Pack up and leave. Run so far that old bastard Pete would never find me, could never make me do it again."
She doesn't love us? She wants to leave us? Jake could feel his whole world fall down around him, leaving him feeling lost and bewildered.
"That's what I'm going to do too...soon as they get through college. That's all I promised him, that's all I'm gonna do...
Jake shook himself and looked at Taylor, almost as if he was surprised to find her there. She could feel the tears welling up in her eyes. "That must have been hard for you to hear, especially so soon after losing your father."
"I guess," he replied noncommittally, "but in some ways, I'm grateful. I would've just kept on being a sucker like the rest of the boys, believing her whole act."
Taylor gazed off over his shoulder for a moment before replying. "Can I ask you something?"
"What?" He replied, suspicion lightly tingeing his voice.
"Why do you think she reacted so strongly when you said you were going to work for Pete?"
"Dunno...she's always had a chip on her shoulder about him. Doesn't even have the grace to be grateful for how much he's helped her out."
Taylor directed an unflinching gaze at him that made him sit up straighter. "I'm asking you to think now, not just react with your resentment. If you can't do that, we're not going to get anywhere, no matter what topic you want to talk about."
"Sorry," he mumbled.
"Jack's a relatively smart person, right?"
"Yeah," he replied.
"So she probably wouldn't freak out about you finding a good job after graduation, unless there was another reason, right? Working with your hypothesis that she's just waiting until she's free of you boys to cut loose, wouldn't it be easier for her if you were able to support yourself right out of school?"
Unable to refute the logic, Jake replied grudgingly. "I guess..."
"So, use your head for a minute. Take that reaction, and put it together with your memory from childhood. She had just gotten back from doing something for Pete, right? Something that made your normally stoic sister break down?"
"How do you think a sixteen year old managed to support a household of eight at the age of sixteen?"
"Well, Pete helped her out. We all know that."
"In exchange for what?"
He stopped, as he finally saw past the years of anger and frustration to see the ramifications. "What do you mean?"
"I don't know," she replied. "But it seems to me that it's worth asking. What is it about working for Pete, and the idea of you working for Pete that's got her so scared?"
"Huh," he grunted thoughtfully.
"One other thing I think is worth pointing out is that you've got to remember how young she was then...it would be easy for any kid that age with that many responsibilities to be feeling trapped." She paused before continuing softly. "Cut her a little slack."
Sensing that it was time to change the subject, she didn't wait for him to respond. "None of this, however, is getting us to what you wanted help with."
He looked up, "Actually, it is...I wanted you to help me to figure out how to tell her I wasn't in school last year...I was working for Pete."
"Oh lord Jake, you've got problems."
"I don't understand, why do I have to build roads again? I mean if I don't need them to get somewhere."
Jeff scratched his head; "It generates trade for your city. More trade means more scientific advances, more tax money and more luxuries for your people."
"How do they do that?" Jeff looked at her in consternation, trying to formulate an answer.
"Hey! They attacked me! I thought we had a treaty!" Taylor sounded outraged.
"Not everyone obeys treaties."
"What do I do?" Taylor asked.
"Well, that's up to you."
"Can I crush them?"
Jeff grinned. "Yep. Your standing army's large enough."
"Cool." Taylor bent toward the computer with bloodthirsty intent.
"Yeah?" She replied absently as she activated her military units scattered in various cities.
"After the presentation, you're probably not coming back, huh?" He sounded wistful.
She looked up from her game and gave him her attention. "Probably not, Jeff. I've got a job in New York that I have to get back to."
"I was kind of wondering...well, would you mind if I e-mailed you? Every now and then? I promise not to send any of those 'send this on or receive bad luck for life' things."
"As long as you also promise to keep me up to date on all of the escapades that happen around here." She replied. "You know, you could always come down and visit me if you want. You'd be welcome to crash at my place if you ever want to do the tourist thing in the city."
Jeff grimaced, "Jack won't let me go down there by myself until I'm eighteen."
Taylor looked surprised. "How old are you Jeff?"
"Sixteen," he grinned. "You didn't know?"
"You look a lot older."
"We're all like that. Jake was able to buy beer when he was my age, didn't even get carded. I've been the tallest kid in my class for as long as I can remember."
"I thought you were going to the community college."
"I am. Uh, I've been taking classes up there since I was twelve. This was the first year I've gone full time though," he replied dismissively.
Taylor felt her eyes widen. Sensing that Jeff would be embarrassed if she made too much of the revelation, she suppressed her immediate reply. "Well, I bet you could talk Jack into it if you told her I'd be showing you around."
His eyes lit. "I bet I could! You wouldn't mind?"
She grinned, "Not at all. I'm going to miss this crazy household when I leave. You can remind me what it's like every now and then."
He looked speculatively at her, "Bet you're going to miss my sister the most."
She groaned. "You too?"
"Some of the others think of it? Can't really blame us, what with Jimmy putting it in our heads and the way you look at her."
Taylor buried her head in her hands; "I must be making a complete fool out of myself."
"Nah, it's cute."
She felt her blush deepen. "God."
"What's cute?" An amused voice asked from behind her.
Taylor turned around, wondering if her blush was as obvious as she thought. "Um..."
Jeff piped up with a response, "She is."
Jack raised a brow at him. "You hitting on my assistant youngster?"
"No ma'am, I'm being helpful. I was offering to be her escort for the Interception party." Jeff replied with an innocent look. "I'm just practicing my flirting. Jimmy said it was an important skill."
"I'm sure she can find a date on her own Jeff." Jack rebuked mildly before turning to Taylor, who was doubled over with laughter by now. "I was going to ask if you wanted to ride up to the back property with me..."
"Just in time to save me from the McDermott charm." Taylor replied in gasps as she accepted Jack's hand up.
"Help me get her out to the truck, would you Jeff?"
"Damn brace," Taylor muttered as she hobbled along.
"Be a lot easier if you used the crutches." Jack replied sternly.
"Oh no...those things are hell on my armpits and elbows. Why are we going back up, anyway?"
Jack's smile was enigmatic as she tucked Taylor onto the seat and offered her a seatbelt. "It's a secret," she said before closing the door.
A challenging glint entered Taylor's eyes as Jack climbed in behind the steering wheel, "I'm a master at wriggling secrets out of people."
"You're not good enough to get it out of me before we get there."
Jack laughed. "I could just tell you the same thing I used to tell the boys when they pestered me."
"Keep it up and you won't get the surprise." Jack looked triumphant as dismay coated Taylor's face.
"Wanna bet?" Jack threw her own words back at her.
"Alright, alright! I yield!" Typically, Taylor's brain dove off after another subject. "I just found out how old Jeff is..."
Jack looked surprised, "You didn't know?"
"That was his response, too." Taylor chuckled. "He doesn't look sixteen, he doesn't really act sixteen...and he's going to college?"
"He's a bit bright." Jack commented unnecessarily.
"I'd guess. Must be hard for him, though. I doubt there are many kids his age at school."
"It's not that bad. He still goes to games and dances at the high school. Matter of fact, he's on the cross-country team and in a few clubs. We're going to have to find something else for next year, though. He's not being challenged by anything but the technical courses even at the CC. I've been talking to Middlebury College about some distance learning courses he might be able to take."
"Jack?" Taylor asked tentatively.
"Yeah?" Blue eyes looked over inquisitively.
"Did you get to go to college?"
Jack shook her head. "Dropped out of high school after Jeb died. Wouldn't have gone, regardless. My grades were abysmal."
"That why it's so important to you that the boys go? Because you didn't get to?"
"It's important to me because it was important to Jeb...he made me promise that I'd make sure they graduated."
"Why?" Taylor asked curiously.
"I think he didn't want them to end up like him... Lots of kids and lots of bills and very few skills to sell on the market. He felt pretty trapped."
Sounds like you my friend, Taylor thought, but she wasn't quite courageous enough to say it out loud.
"Oh my god, she's adorable." Taylor peeked over the stall door at the foal curled tightly up next to her dam. "When was she born?"
"About two hours ago," Mark replied softly. "Beautiful, isn't she?"
"Yeah," Taylor turned to Jack. "How come you didn't tell me you had a pregnant horse up here?"
Jack looked at her enigmatically, "You didn't ask. Besides, you've seen her more than once. You couldn't tell?"
Taylor chuckled. "I'm from the deep urban jungle, remember? How'm I supposed to know a pregnant horse from a fat one?" She looked back into the stall, "What are you going to name her?"
Jack looked speculative, "Welp, with that red-gold coloring there's only one name I can think of that would be appropriate."
Taylor looked back warningly. "Not a single crack about my hair, Country."
"But it would be perfect," Jack replied earnestly. "See...if you look at it from this direction, it looks red, but then the next moment it looks gold. Just like someone else I know. Besides, she's already gotten herself into trouble, and she's only two hours old."
Taylor looked confused.
"She managed to latch on to Amigo's tail a little while ago, seemed to think it was food. Good thing he's a placid old guy." Jack's look turned speculative. "In fact, with that appetite...." She trailed off teasingly.
"You are NOT going to name that foal after me Jack McDermott. You hear me?" Taylor replied in desperation.
Jack smiled secretively as she guided Taylor away from the stall. "She looks real strong, Mark. You did a great job."
"Thanks Boss. You gonna be in the cabin or the house tonight?"
Jack frowned, "Um. I'm not sure yet. I'll need to drop Taylor down to the house regardless, so call there first if you need me."
Taylor looked up as they hobbled toward the truck. "Why would you stay in the cabin?"
"I usually do when one of the mares drops, just to be nearby if there's a problem. However, the birthing is the truly critical time. I was going to start staying up there tonight...but Amber went and dropped early without any help from yours truly, so I'm probably off the hook." Jack grinned.
Taylor cocked her head inquisitively. "Is it that uncomfortable a place?"
Jack shook her head. "No, not at all. It's just inconvenient to stay up there when the boys are around." She looked down curiously. "You want to see it?"
"Sure!" Taylor nodded enthusiastically.
The cabin surprised her. Somehow, I imagined something a lot more...rustic, Taylor mused as she waited for Jack to reappear from the kitchen. Granted, the post and beam architecture held an agrarian flavor, but the interior was light, airy and sophisticated. Natural wood shone with a warm glow, contrasting mildly against white walls and spartan, comfortable furnishings.
She pored over the titles in the bookcases. Another surprise. It would be easier to say what ISN'T here than to say what is. Medical, legal, psychological, chemistry and physics texts accompanied literature, philosophy and what seemed to be the entire production run of military tech manuals. Yep, what's missing is light reading, she thought as she turned back to find a seat. Ooooh...wait, is that what I think it is? In bemusement, she picked up a book from a small table near a comfortable looking chair. She looked at the spine of the book, By The Sword, was spelled out next to the author's name, Mercedes Lackey. Taylor grinned to herself, wonder if she...
"Haven't got too much up here," Jack said as she maneuvered a tray through the doorway. "Hope apples and cheese are acceptable."
Taylor lifted the book with a grin, "One of my favorite authors."
Jack looked a little embarrassed. "Uh, yeah, I know. Thought I'd see why you looked like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar that day."
"So, what do you think?" Taylor asked with interest.
"Um...I think I'm addicted." Jack admitted. "They're a little on the optimistic side, but that's the sixth of her books that I've picked up."
"Sixth?" Taylor cocked her head. "Jack, when in the world have you had time to read six books without me even noticing?"
"Well, I read some in the morning when I'm done with chores, before you're awake... You're not exactly an early riser, ma'am." Taylor stuck her tongue out at that, "And I spent some time flying last week. Nothing to do but read."
Last week....oh. Yeah, last week.
Taylor's knee throbbed in appreciation as she settled down into the chair. "You gonna share that food, Stretch?" She asked while making a show of stretching her hand out towards the tray.
Jack chuckled and put the food down on the coffee table before settling on a couch.
"So," Taylor grabbed an apple and covered it with a slice of cheese, "shall I recommend a few more authors for you? Looks like you'll be done with Mercedes within a couple of weeks."
"Uh, yeah." Jack sounded surprised at her own answer. "I think I'd like that."
"Mmmmm," Taylor happily bit into her snack. "Our housekeeper used to give Elizabeth and me apples and cheese during the summers. They always remind me of sunshine and swimming, y'know? " She settled back into her chair. "So...do you have a date for the shindig down in the city?"
Jack raised a brow. "Didn't know I needed one."
"Well, I guess you don't. Not really, since you're there to work, not party."
"Good." Jack sat back, "Pete's lucky that he talked me into a damn dress without acquiring any broken bones." She quirked an eyebrow at Taylor. "You going to be glad to get back home?"
Taylor thought for a moment before answering. "Yes and no, I guess. I miss Deb and my friends...as well as my apartment. I'm certainly not looking forward to going back to Karen Benedict." She looked out the window, "and I've...really enjoyed being here. You and your brothers have done a lot to make me feel at home." She looked back at Jack and hooked her good leg over a chair arm. "However, I'm really looking forward to quiet mornings without your work crew hammering on the roof."
"We haven't hammered on your roof for weeks." Jack protested mildly.
Taylor grinned, "I'd be a lot more enthusiastic about going home if I had succeeded in convincing Anna to come with me."
"Thank god you didn't!" Jack replied in mock horror. "Have you ever eaten Julian's cooking?"
Taylor's demeanor became more somber. "I'm going to feel a bit at loose ends without all the craziness around here."
"Welp...if you ever feel like your life is a little too sane, you can feel free to run back up here for a little country air."
"I'll hold you to that." Taylor threatened.
"You've seen the documentation, we've had our eye on them for a years now, let's move on it." Bryant's voice was filled with frustration.
"You've made your report, Bryant." Aaron allowed a note of censure to enter his voice. "I'll take it under advisement."
"Enough!" Aaron roared. "What have you got? You've got a new kid on the scene who we MIGHT be able to bust for a minor tax fraud charge! Your view is getting too narrow kid. We don't want the McDermott boy...we want who's running him."
The young cop had the grace to look chagrinned.
"What happens when we pull the kid in, son?" Aaron allowed a gruff, fatherly tone to enter his voice. In some ways, the investigators working for him dreaded this mood more than bellowing. It meant they had been criminally stupid and were about to have the basics pointed out to them as if they were rookies.
"Drechter knows we're watching him."
"We lose our information sources."
"Right. Now, get out."
Aaron sat back thoughtfully after Bryant left. What Bryant, the rest of his force, hell, even the feds didn't realize, was that he'd had more than enough info in his possession to take down the McDermott kid's sister for years now. Unlike the young hothead, Jack McDermott was a major player. Through her, Aaron could certainly take down Drechter.
He sighed, rubbing his forehead to ease the ache forming behind his eyes. Jack McDermott didn't know it, but he owed her a fantastic debt. A wry expression formed his bulky features. She probably didn't even remember the young kid she'd talked to on the train, so many years ago. But Aaron remembered. He'd been bringing his young son back from seeing yet another specialist, filled with the disappointment of once again discovering that there was very little hope for Ethan's damaged spine. But more painfully, he was beginning to face the desperation of watching his cheerful young son turn into a bitter, sullen child. It was tearing Aaron apart bit by bit.
Jack McDermott had changed that, somehow. Aaron had come back to the private compartment on the train to hear Ethan talking to someone. He'd lingered back in the passageway, observing the young boy through the half opened door. Ethan was pouring his heart out to an adolescent with a hard, streetwise look about her. Aaron carefully assessed her, from ragged jeans to the fading marks on her throat. He ran into kids like this a dozen times a day on his beat, had pulled them in for everything from shop lifting to murder. This one he would have immediately characterized as a bad egg, he had realized with a touch of shame, as Ethan explained how much he wanted to play football with the neighborhood boys.
The young punk eyed his son speculatively. "You know any of the kids?"
"Yeah...Danny comes by and talks to me sometimes. His Dad works with mine."
"So, he's a friend of yours, right? And he gets along alright with the others?"
"I guess so," Ethan morosely answered.
"Listen...you any good with your head? Book stuff, like?" The punk's voice held a gruff kindness.
"Yeah, I'm a real wonder at school," Ethan replied bitterly. "Cripple's not good for much but studying."
The punk shot Ethan a sharp look. "Look kid. You've been dealt a bad hand, but you sit around bitching about it and you're gonna lose the friends you got. You want that?"
"No," the boy replied sullenly. "But it's not like they're gonna want to hang out and study with me."
"That's not what I'm saying. Look, I've never seen a bunch of kids get together to play a pickup game without a bunch of arguments starting...right? Who gets the ball when, that kind of thing. What you gotta do is bone up on all the rules, I mean all of them...then go make yourself a referee. Get your buddy Danny to sell them on the idea when you think you're ready."
Ethan looked hopeful. "You think it would work?"
"Hell, I don't know. Worth a try I guess." The punk looked thoughtful. "I'd say it depends on what kind of guys they are, y'know?"
"Yeah," Ethan retreated into a thoughtful meditation.
Aaron decided it was time to enter the compartment.
The punk stood up immediately when she saw him.
"Dad!" Ethan called out. "This is Jack...she tripped on my thermos 'cause I dropped it and it rolled out into the hall and she brought it in for me," he explained in one rushed breath. "Jack, this is my Dad."
Aaron held his hand out to the street kid. "Aaron," he clarified. "Thanks for helping him out."
"Didn't really," the kid muttered, "I'd better go. See ya Ethan," she offered over he shoulder before slouching out.
After long thought, Aaron had hunted the girl down. It hadn't taken as much talking as he thought to convince the girl to spend part of her trip in the compartment with them. In truth, she'd seemed eager to get away from her mother. Nice piece of work, that one, Aaron thought in disgust. While Jack chatted gruffly with his son, Aaron tried as hard as he could to turn himself into a piece of furniture, knowing that the kid felt uncomfortable around a strange adult. Somehow, in those few days, Jack had clumsily and perhaps unknowingly, given Ethan the tools he needed to face his life with courage. A few harsh realities hadn't hurt, Aaron reflected, remembering Jack's description of her daily life.
It was a few years before he'd run across Jack McDermott again. She'd come under surveillance simply because of her associations with Pete Drechter, who was being investigated rigorously. Drechter had pulled some fancy moves with the state of Vermont to get the kid declared an emancipated youth and bribed practically every official in the state to have her named the guardian of six boys. The department hadn't known what to make of it, and had shuffled it off to Aaron to check out. When the name came up, Aaron couldn't have been more surprised, and he'd thanked every higher power he could think of for inspiring the captain to throw this tidbit on his desk.
A few months of digging had brought him to a critical point in his career. He'd never forget spending a solid night sitting up at his desk, searching his soul for an answer. He had pieced it all together...or thought he had at any rate. Drechter had bought her, pure and simple.
Not for money, no...or not directly for money. Drechter bought her for the price of her cousin's lives, and it tore Aaron's heart out. He couldn't help but associate those boys with his own, couldn't help thinking that she was the best thing that could have happened to them.
But he also knew what her price had been. He'd watched from a rooftop as she'd emptied her stomach in a dirty alley after her first hit, wishing he could descend from his hiding spot to comfort the confused child. She's Drechter's chief assassin, oh she wasn't, not then, but that's what she became. Drechter had been no fool. He knew talent when he'd seen it and had raised it to his hand.
Why didn't I take her then? Then, she was just a kid, she didn't have that much against her yet. I could have gotten her immunity. He reached into a desk drawer for the Tylenol. In retrospect, it would have been the best thing to do...at least for her. But...he didn't. He'd reported to the captain that Drechter was just using his might to support the family of an ex-employee. Nothing to worry about, the kids were in safe hands and had no connection to Drechter's darker life, just his version of public service combined with loyalty to a long time employee. He'd pointed to Drechter's aunt living with the children, pointing out that she probably had liked the children, and convinced him to intervene on their behalf.
Popular romance about Mob family loyalty had worked in his favor, and surprisingly, the McDermott's had remained something of a myth in several jurisdictions. They all knew that Drechter had a soft spot in his heart, or whatever that son of a bitch has pumping helium in his veins, for both his horses and his favorite aunt. This seemed to be a natural way to care for both, now that his personal stableman had died.
Nevertheless, Aaron hadn't imagined then that she would remain above scrutiny for so long. But she was smart, and she was good. He'd followed her career with a sort of horrified fascination for years. Aaron wouldn't give a plugged nickel for his life if he tried to tail her to a hit now. Oh, he knew all the signs that meant she was being sent out, but he doubted that anyone else did. That plane of hers...that was the only real signal. But, with small craft, if you weren't relying on instruments to travel, you didn't even have to file a flight plan. That, and the fact that she made a point of filing flights when she wasn't going out for more than a shopping trip ensured that all the number-crunchers looking for correlations missed that little tip-off.
Like I said, she's smart.
But the young McDermott...now he was going to be a problem. The kid was a hothead, and careless.
Wait, the kid might be careless, but Drechter never is. Why would he let this youngster get caught so soon after being hired? Ice filled his veins. He needs more control, the kid's a tool against Jack. He wants him caught...and Jack in the position of bargaining with Pete to get him off.
Aaron sat back and analyzed his hypothesis from all angles. It felt right. In only a few years, all of her cousins would be self sufficient. Pete wouldn't have anything except her own past to hold her loyalty. And I'm not sure self-protection would be enough to keep her on the job.
He stood up and headed down to see the captain. Time for a few days of personal leave.
"We hope you will agree that Interception shows amazing potential to help many children improve their lives." Taylor concluded. "Now," she changed tones briskly, "I believe that the orchestra is warming up in the next room. Mr. Drechter, Ms. McDermott and I will be available throughout the evening to answer any questions you may have. Otherwise, please enjoy yourselves."
Jack smiled fondly as Taylor stepped down from the podium. We definitely made the right choice. Half the board has a crush on her, the other half wants to adopt her, and they all think she's the sharpest young woman they've met in a long time, she thought as she examined the faces of the audience. I think she's going to be a hit tonight, Jack thought in amusement as she watched Blake Jr. corner Taylor to ask about NARHA certification before she turned to ask Dave Vester to repeat his question.
"I said, have you been training horses for many years Ms. McDermott?" Jack had decided that she liked the old fart. He was one of the few people here who spoke English for the purpose of communication instead of circumlocution.
"Around a dozen or so, my Uncle taught me when I moved to Vermont."
"And will you be taking responsibility for the training of the project's animal's?"
"Yes and no. I'm handling the initial work, and I'll be overseeing the training program once the project starts to crank up, but we're bringing in three experienced staff members who have worked with therapy animals in the past." Jack continued to answer questions, all the while keeping Taylor in the edge of her vision.
"Whew!" Taylor said as she plopped herself down next to Jack on the balcony. "Thank god that's over!"
Jack cast a sardonic eye over the blonde. "You certainly don't look any worse for wear. Made me damn proud up there, you know."
Taylor's grin turned teasing. "What, didn't know that I was good for anything but causing trouble? You look fantastic, by the way. Where in the world did you get that dress?"
"This old thing?" Jack inserted trilling disaffection into her voice, gesturing toward the draped red silk in disdain. "Oh honey, I just dug it out of the back of the closet." She felt well rewarded by Taylor's delighted laughter.
"Well, it's a good thing you don't dig around in there too often," Taylor replied after she got control over her chuckles. "You'd spend most of your time beating men off with that club you named yourself after."
"A compliment?" Jack inquired.
"A compliment, well mixed with a healthy dose of envy."
Jack felt the corner of her mouth lift. "Oh, I don't think you've got much to worry about. I notice that you had quite the entourage tonight. Blake Jr. seems especially taken with you." She had had quite the stream of the younger men present around her for a good portion of the evening. Well, she's a beautiful woman, Jack reflected. Even if she weren't, that exuberant personality would draw folks to her.
Taylor made a face. "Can you imagine that dandy's reaction if I told him I found his cousin Melinda far more enticing?"
Jack chuckled, surprised somehow with Taylor's candor. "Hmm, don't know. Though I hear lesbians are all the rage these days, you might find yourself even more popular."
"Do you believe that he actually insists on being called Jr.? There must be some severe childhood trauma involved in making a decision like that."
"Affectation of the wealthy. Got to remind everyone constantly who his Daddy is."
"Lord save me from the rich and famous."
"Pot calling the kettle black?" Jack asked, with more than a bit of curiosity.
"My family may belong to this set, but I never will." Taylor replied tartly.
"Poor little rich girl?" Jack was relieved when Taylor replied matter-of-factly, without offense.
"No, I'm quite grateful for the advantages I got. My problem is with the attitudes...and in some ways, I can't separate my parents' disinterest in us from their interest in society. Kids from every class have suffered from being ignored by their folks, but I'm never going to escape from associating my experiences with the lifestyle that they lead. Weird, huh?"
"Nah, makes sense to me." It did, too, Jack reflected, not a little impressed with the way that Taylor was able to look at herself objectively. She had often wished she could make the boys see themselves from the outside like that. That thought sparked another, "Hey, what did you say to Jake?"
Taylor started, looking almost guilty. "What do you mean?"
"Welp, he hasn't been nearly as much of a pain in my rear for the last week or so. Jer even commented on it, said that must have been quite a talk you two had. He sounded pretty impressed."
"Um...not much, just helped him look at things from a different perspective is all." Taylor sounded nervous. Well, Jack thought, maybe she's worried that I'll think she was interfering.
Trying to show that she appreciated Taylor's efforts, Jack continued. "More than I've ever been able to accomplish."
An earnest look crossed Taylor's face. "He's dealing with a lot inside, you know."
Jack picked up her bourbon and swirled the amber liquid thoughtfully. She felt the frustration welling as she thought about it. It was funny, but with Taylor around, she'd almost forgotten the feeling of being so alone with so many problems. The emptiness deepened as she realized how much more alone she would be feeling from now on. "Yeah, I know. Unfortunately, it's hard to help someone who hates you."
"He doesn't hate you." Taylor replied with surprise. "He resents you, and I think he's under a lot of misconceptions about you that you should make a point of clearing up some time. But can't you see how much he wants to be like you?"
Jack was startled. "What?"
"I've told you this before Jack. They've all got a bad case of hero worship, but he's the worst of the lot. He'd do anything to be like you..." Taylor grinned, "but better. That way he can match his role model and show her up at the same time."
Jack felt her head begin to throb. "Sounds complicated."
"People are, and who's calling the kettle black now oh tall dark and brooding?"
"I'm not that complicated," Jack protested.
Taylor just shot a disbelieving look in her direction. "So," Jack was relieved when the blonde woman changed the subject, "did Pete dress you down for not getting up there yourself?"
"Nope," Jack grinned broadly. "He yanked me aside and let me know he thought you did an incredible job. ' Course, he was gnawing on that cigar of his the whole time. Pete hates being circumvented, even when it's the right decision."
"And you just love that."
"Yep," Jack sat back, well content with the world.
She looked over when she realized that Taylor had been staring at her thoughtfully for quite a while. "What?"
Taylor shook her head. "I just can't figure out what to make of you two. Sometimes it seems like he's the archenemy. Others, it seems like you two are just old friends playing this elaborate game."
Jack settled back with a sigh, crossing her legs on the table in front of her, searching for an answer that was honest but didn't reveal more than she could. "There's some truth to both impressions." She replied slowly, " He's a powerful force in my life, but.... Well, I guess we just got used to each other."
"Nice gams." Taylor's eyes focussed pointedly on a bare expanse of thigh.
Jack cursed and brought her legs off the table while Taylor chuckled heartlessly.
"Thanks for dropping me off," Taylor leaned awkwardly into the passenger side window.
Jack smiled. "Couldn't exactly have you taking a cab at two in the morning, could I?"
The blond woman sighed, "I guess not."
Jack paused, as if unsure what to say. "Well, thanks for all your help. I don't know what I would've done if I'd had to do this alone."
"It's my job, right?" Taylor grinned, "Besides, it was more fun than anything I've ever done. I loved being up there."
"The boys are going to miss you," Jack replied.
They both paused again, not willing to say goodbye, but lacking a reason not to.
"Well, I guess I'd better be going," Jack finally said, putting the car in gear.
Wait!!!! Not yet! Grasping her courage in both hands, Taylor prepared to ask the question she'd been working up to all night. "Um...Jack?"
"Yes?" Jack's hands pulled back from the controls.
"You were, uh...in the city before."
"Yeah," Jack replied guardedly.
"That happen often? You coming down here I mean." Taylor winced at the halting phrasing.
"It might," she replied vaguely.
"Well, if it does, happen again I mean, you could call me. We could have dinner or something?" Oh god. And Mad says I have a silver tongue. If she could hear me right now, she'd be rolling on the floor.
She felt better, though, when Jack's face softened. "I'd like that."
"Good." Taylor went on with more assurance. "Call me if you need a friend, too," she grinned.
"I'll make sure not to call too early," Jack teased.
Taylor made a face before saying goodbye, feeling far more optimistic than she had just moments ago. Nevertheless, she stood on the sidewalk and watched wistfully as the car drove away.
Jack knew she was barely visible from the third floor window of the old warehouse. When the hell is this asshole going to show? She thought irritably, as she once again memorized the location of every shadow and dark patch that the parking lot below her held.
Ritualistically, she rechecked the rifle. Never take anything for granted. Vick's voice came out of her memories. Check, recheck, and check again. I remember Vick. She impatiently told the voice.
As often happened, when her mind had no task to fill it, she wrestled with problems that she'd been ignoring before the presentation. Pete, the boys and that damnfool idea of his. She stifled the urge to pace, forcing her body into unnatural stillness.
She hadn't been the only one waiting with bated breath for the boys to grow up. Pete had planned for that day as well. The McDermott clan: the ultimate weapon.
"It's perfect Jack. The seven of you work together like a well-oiled machine. I've seen it...and you know it. With those six working with you... six solid, reliable men who'll obey your orders without question...you'll be a force to be reckoned with."
"I already am Pete." Jack tapped into the darkest part of her...the part he'd nourished himself.
He'd been uncomfortable, she remembered with dark amusement, but he hadn't given up the idea of having her replace one of his proctors, with her brothers encompassed into her district. What am I going to do? Her mind returned to the question that had been plaguing her. Pete wasn't setting her up, at least not in the way she had suspected. No, he wants it all. She snorted. The old man actually thought she'd be enthusiastic about the idea. He had no idea how close she'd been to ending it all, right there. As he spoke, visions of how easy it would be filled her. His self satisfied voice had faded away, while her mind was calculating the number of steps between them, reviewing the feel of the muscles stretching as she heaved him out of his chair, the familiar motion of unholstering the Glock in one smooth pull...ending with the bittersweet compression, as the weapon kicked in enthusiastic response.
I just wasn't ready to die yet, she thought candidly, surveying the alley below her one more time. Funny, there was a time when that was all I wanted. What changed?
No answer was forthcoming, but another thought intruded. There was something more. Something that had been bothering her ever since she'd buttonholed the old bastard.
With a patience that had been painfully developed over long years, she worked through every detail of the conversation. He was too confident, she realized. He's got something, some hidden card to make sure this happens. Jack swore softly under her breath. Damnit, why didn't I see it sooner? He has to know I wouldn't voluntarily manage this stinking business, and he sure as hell knows I'd put a bullet in my own head before I'd let him suck in the boys.
Jack mentally beat herself with a club while she sighted the rifle on the form that emerged from the dingy brick building standing next to the warehouse. You didn't notice, because you were too busy enjoying a little mental vacation with a shiny new friend. This is what comes of relaxing your grip Blackjack. Once again, Vick's voice floated through her brain. Vigilance Jack. Vigilance, paranoia, and making damned sure you're twice as good as anyone who's got a reason to dislike you. Those are the only things that will keep you alive. Forget about the way other people live. You're at war...and the war never stops. Doesn't matter if you're tired, sick at heart, or if you think you've done enough. While you're whining and taking a break, they're using the time to find a way to beat you. It's never enough, because you don't know what's coming next.
Her old mentor had delivered that lecture at least once every three months for a couple of years. The first time had been in the first year, when Jack had wanted to spend her birthday partying instead of stomping around in the mud and muck. Once again, you're proved right Vick.
Well, I'm not distracted now. Jack thought with cold clarity as she smoothly pulled the trigger. The muffled whine of the rifle wasn't heard by another living soul. She quickly packed up and jogged out of the building, disappearing into the night.
"So, how does it feel to be in civilization again?" Deb asked. They were strolling in a mall that was close enough to both their companies for them to meet for lunch. Until Taylor had gone to Vermont, they'd made a habit of getting together for a good lunchtime gossip at least a couple times a week.
"Well," Taylor looked down at the souvlaki in her hands. "The food's not as good here."
"Don't tell me that tall dark and puzzling cooks?"
Taylor laughed, "I called her something similar just a few days ago. But no, they have a housekeeper, Anna. She's marvelous."
Deb chuckled. "I should have known that there would be good food involved when you lost your heart."
"Who says I have?" Taylor challenged.
"I do," Deb poked herself in the chest for emphasis. "Don't bother to deny it. Now, let's get straight to the important stuff. Is she seeing anyone?"
"I don't think so. We didn't exactly talk about stuff like that." Taylor conceded.
Deb rolled her eyes. "Honey, please give me a break. You were there for a month. Anyone show up at the table who wasn't part of the family? Did she disappear on date nights? Spend hours talking on the phone or checking her email?"
Taylor laughed at the image of Jack anxiously checking her email every ten minutes. "No, you're right. She's quite alone...I think she has been all her life. But Deb, she's not gay."
"What was she doing...uh, there, then?" Deb never did understand why Taylor had asked her not to talk about the experience. For that matter, neither did Taylor. But Deb had agreed...for now. It was the best Taylor could get.
Taylor grinned, "Research. But, she'd said that when I...uh...well...she said it was definitely a first."
"Research? " Deb spluttered, spitting out her soda. "Do I even want to know?"
Patting Deb encouragingly on the back, Taylor replied. "She wanted to find someone to tell her about gay life...her brother, y'know?"
"Holy shit, why didn't you just volunteer for the job? I can think of some practical lessons that would be...enjoyable." Deb leered.
Taylor made her last pat a little more forceful. "Get your mind out of the gutter Deb, please?"
"I can't imagine that outfit was a mistake." Deb replied.
"I mean, that she looked like someone who wanted access to the whole menu and was planning on enjoying every last bite."
"Yeah," Taylor replied with a smile, "she sure looked good. I'll give you that."
"Mhmm," Deb replied with feeling. "I think you misunderstood her. I mean, why else be there, looking like that? Geez, I feel like I'm in grade school having one of those secret conversations."
"I know what you mean," Taylor laughed. "I feel like I'm caught in an episode of the X-files."
"I can't believe you were there for a month and didn't even find out if she's available." Deb sounded disgusted. "I'm going to have to send you back to Mad for more schooling."
Taylor shuddered. "Oh gawd, please don't," she replied with mock horror. "Last time she whacked me with a ruler."
"She did, huh?" Deb looked speculative, "Maybe you should send me for some schooling."
Taylor smacked her friend on the shoulder, laughing. "Don't try that on me. I remember when Laura Patterson offered you a rather interesting experience in college. You blushed to the roots and you were speechless for three days. I don't think I've ever seen someone run so fast in my life."
"So, you going to call her?" Deb asked.
"Asked her to call me."
"For god's sake girl, since when did you go passive?"
Taylor blushed. Deb was right, she was behaving a little out of character. "I guess..." Taylor groped to explain her instinctive feeling that pushing would be the wrong move. "I'm afraid of what might happen. She's not even used to having friends around, you know? I don't want to be the asshole who finally gets her to open up then makes a move on her."
"Hmm...I guess that makes sense, in a confused way."
"Yeah," Taylor sighed. "But in the mean time I have to keep busy, or I'd be tempted to sit next to the phone all night."
Deb looked at her in astonishment. "It's worse than I thought."
"Guess it is."
"Well, we can certainly keep you busy!"
"Actually, my mother's trying to help with that too. I received a summons last night, Sunday dinner."
"Another session of parading well-bred studs?"
"Emphasis on well-bred. Yep." Taylor sighed.
"You could just fawn all over the guy and scare both him and your mother to death," Deb suggested mischievously.
"Unless she decided to strike while the iron was hot and get me married off pronto. I'm sure she has priests standing by on-call just in case I show a moment of weakness. You know, there are times that I desperately miss Barb. She handled Mom so well."
"Yeah, I think your mother just gave it up while she was around. Got tired of being made to feel as humiliated as she deserved, I figure."
Taylor checked her watch and chucked the uneaten souvlaki in a nearby trash can. "We'd better start heading back. I know my boss will certainly notice if I take an extra five minutes."
Midmorning light fought its way through the grimy windows, dragging an unwilling Jack into wakefulness. An eye slitted open to stare at the cracked plaster walls of the tiny apartment that she kept in the city.
Crap. Reaching an arm out for a basin underneath the bed, she counted mentally. Three...two...one...On cue, her guts revolted. Bile violently expelled itself from her stomach. Her head pounded and her abdomen ached from the internal pressure.
Gasping for air in the wake of her abdominal convulsions, she blindly stumbled into the closet-sized shower stall and leaned against the wall as the frigid water poured over her. Too bad it doesn't clean under the skin.
God, I hate this. The cold water had done all it could to reduce the pounding in her head. Unscrewing the taps, she walked out onto the bare linoleum floor and stared at the image reflected back by the medicine cabinet.
With a skill painfully developed through the years, she focussed her thoughts elsewhere. Run now, or wait until I get home? Running in the city was...different. The environment might as well have been Mars, for all its similarity to home. Now. Guilt can wait.
Within minutes she had changed into black shorts and running bra, and headed down the narrow stairway to the brutally industrial neighborhood.
The very alien feel of the city formed a sort of armor around her. Here, she wasn't Jack. The reality of how hard and uncaring the world could be was out in the open, not hidden behind small town civility and mannerisms. Here, I'm just one predator out of many, she reflected as she passed by a grizzled man wearing a face that showed years of hard use conducting a secretive transaction with a young boy who barely looked old enough to shave. Shifting eyes slid past her rapidly.
Not a cop, not a competitor. She saw the old man's brain calculate before his gaze moved instinctively to another quadrant. Wonder what Taylor's doing tonight? She jerked herself up mentally, startled at the thought. Where'd that come from?
Distractions. Survival. The boys. Don't fuck up. She pounded pavement with a will, trying to absorb herself completely in the patterns formed by breathing and her stride. Still, the blonde floated in her mind. Taylor playing football with the boys, climbing a wall without stopping to wonder why, offering a shoulder to lean on, teasing her about finding some fun her life. Taylor looking hopeful while stammering out a request.
We could have dinner or something?
As if from another life, an old, faded voice entered her mind. Hard to come by a true soul. Ye find one, ye keep 'im around. Rare thing, an honest friend.
Hell, Jack thought as she guided her legs toward home.