~ Sergeant of the Heart ~
by C. E. Gray

Disclaimer: This is an Uber story, so the characters are mine, and the plot. If you wanna borrow anything, ask first. J All work is copyrighted once you submit it on the internet, but for argument's sake, this work is Copyrighted © by C. E. Gray, 2001

Violence/Language Disclaimer: Yep, definite violence in here. There's a soldier in here with one heck of a temper if you tick her off. She's not afraid of four-letter words, either.

Sexual Disclaimer: Sure! Oh, I mean, yeah, it's in here. Not real graphic, but you get the idea. This does involve the idea (heck it revolves around the idea) that two women are in love, and express that love when given the chance. If this bothers you, I suggest you click back, and find something else to read - it's a big Xenaverse out there, folks.

Last Disclaimer: I have tried to make sure most of the scenes in this story are close to being reasonably realistic. However, to the thanks of my muse, I have brought my creative license into use a time or two.

Notes of Thanks: I'd like to thank my beta-reader and best friend, Amber, for putting up with me through all of this. Also, everyone who's given me responses about Taken, my first attempt at Uber fan fiction - I only know how I'm doing if I get feedback. Another thank you to all those who helped me with the bugs in this thing - I think we got 'em all!

If you like the way it turned out, thank them. If you don't, blame the author. J

You can feed this bard at: Y02Mustang@AOL.com I guarantee a response.

Now, enough of the formal mumbo-jumbo. On with the show!

"Fool," said my muse to me, "look in thy heart and write."

- Sir Philip Sydney

Part 1

Chapter One

The small blonde woman with tired green eyes sighed. She didn't close for another two hours, but it already felt like she had been in the restaurant all day. Owning RC's Café was hard in and of itself, but being the only waitress to work the tables from lunch 'til closing was worse.

But was it her fault that the waitresses she hired never stayed for more than a week? It was just that the patrons had a habit of feeling up on the women, who would soon after quit. It was either the waitresses or the customers, and RC couldn't lose what business she had.

"Hey, RC," called the cook, Johnny, "up on four!"

Sighing again, Ryanne Cole balanced the tray on her hand, and made her way to table four with the food, praying Johnny had it right. For the past few orders, he had told her the wrong table, and she had been the one to get the customer's wrath.

"Here you are," she said, distributing the food to the three people at the table, feeling relieved when they seemed satisfied. "Is there anything else I can get you?" They shook their heads, so Ryanne left the people to their food, returning to the kitchen to get her next tray.

Moments later, the door to the café opened, and a dozen uniformed men walked in, taking a seat at the long table near the rear of the building. With the café being so close to the Army base, it was not unusual to see the soldiers stop by for a bite to eat while they were on break.

What was unusual, however, was the next person in camouflage who walked in.

She was tall, maybe 6'0'' Ryanne guessed, with jet black hair and piercing blue eyes. Her skin was bronzed and her strength radiated from her body; the woman's authority was apparent as soon as she walked in the door, just by the way she carried herself. The name-tag read K. Jones, and RC wondered what her rank was, unable to tell by the stripes on her shoulder patch.

"May I take your order?" asked Ryanne, scribbling down the immense amount of food that each man requested. "And you?" she asked the woman, who stood by the wall, keeping an eye on the men.

"Banana smoothie," she said, and Ryanne just stared for a moment, unable to move. The woman's voice was lower and richer than any she had ever heard.

A dark eyebrow arched in her direction after a moment's pause. "You might want to write that down," remarked the tall woman, causing Ryanne to blush that she had been caught with her mouth open.

"Right," said Ryanne, as she turned and quickly walked away.

What got into me? she wondered. I've never stared at a customer like that before! Then again, I've never seen anyone as beautiful as her before?

As she squeezed past two customers, she froze when she felt a hand grasp her behind. Glancing to the man whom the offending hand belonged to, he smiled stupidly, and she smirked at him before brushing him off and walking past him.

Bringing the Army men their beverages, she felt several hands grope for her. With an irritable sigh, she mumbled under her breath as she returned to the kitchen.

Sitting down on a stool, she took a sip of her water, and waited for the smoothie to finish blending. She didn't hear the woman approach her.

"Are you all right?" she asked, making the blonde jump. The young woman had seemed disturbed, and she hoped her men hadn't been their usual rowdy selves. The blonde seemed too gentle for the likes of their manners.

Jones had seen the patron who reached for the waitress' butt, and felt a sudden urge to pound him senseless for such a move. She had no idea where that urge to protect the woman came from - she didn't even know her name!

"Yeah, I'm fine," said Ryanne. "Nothing I haven't dealt with before. Here you go," she said, when the woman's drink was ready.

"Thanks. Where's the manager?" she asked.

"You're talking to her," replied RC, warily. "Is something wrong?"

"No, everything's fine," assured the tall female soldier. "Just wondering why the manager would put up with people bothering the waitress."

"Part of the job," sighed RC, but it was obvious she didn't like the negative attention.

"It doesn't have to be," said Jones, walking over to the head of the table. The men eyed her, curiously.

I've never been one to flaunt my status, or risk humiliating my men, in public, but for some reason, I feel compelled to help this woman, thought Jones. I saw the way they were looking at her, and I know they had something to do with her being uncomfortable.

"Attention!" she belted out, and the men scrambled to their feet, wondering what was going on. It wasn't like their sergeant to be so formal in public, much less a busy restaurant.

"Eyeballs," she called, and twelve pairs of eyes watched her every move.

"Click!" reverberated off the walls, as every man sounded off, telling their commanding officer they were paying attention.

"You see that lovely lady over there? She runs this fine establishment, and even waits the tables," Jones said, pointing out Ryanne, who was also watching the scene, along with the rest of her customers. "I don't want to hear of anyone disrespecting her, or bothering her.

"If anyone tries anything, they can do the same thing to me and see what happens," she warned, her power clear as a few people gulped. "And if any of my men are caught being rude, we'll spend an extra hour in the field doing drills for each one. Is that understood?" she demanded.

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am!" replied the men, in perfect sync, snapping to attention when they responded.

"As you were," she said, and they sat back down, quietly.

Jones walked back over to Ryanne, retrieving her drink form the counter where she had set it down, and took a long drink.

"Thank you??" said Ryanne, waiting for a name.

The tall woman mentally kicked herself. "I'm sorry," she said, extending her hand to the small woman. "Kris. Kris Jones."

"I'm Ryanne, but everyone calls me RC," she said. "Thank you, Kris. No one's ever stood up for me like that before."

Kris shrugged. "Not a problem," she said. "They can get a little rowdy when they're on break. We shouldn't be here too much longer," she added.

RC was about to respond, saying that the woman was welcome to stay for as long as she liked, when Johnny cried, "RC, up on nine!" The men's dinner was ready.

"Excuse me," she said, taking the tray, knowing she would have to make at least two trips to order to get all the food to the table.

"We've got an hour," Kris announced, and the men nodded, digging into their food, careful not to so much as glance at the beautiful waitress.

"Don't you want anything?" asked RC, and Kris shook her head.

"I'm okay, thanks," she said.

Another table's order was ready, and RC excused herself again, taking the tray over to the young couple, noticing they shared an order of fries and a sundae.

Off in her own thoughts, she wasn't paying much attention as she walked away, and didn't notice the man until she ran into him.

"Oh, I'm sorry!" she exclaimed, attempting to slide past him, finding it difficult as they were caught between a chair and the edge of a table.

"S'okay," slurred the man, obviously drunk. RC instantly remembered him; he had been in every Friday night for the past three weeks, getting plastered until he couldn't see straight, and then stumbling home.

But he had never caused trouble.

"I'm sorry, Paul, I didn't mean to bump into you," she said, once again trying to back away, but the man stopped her.

Paul reached one hand out to grasp her shoulder, while the other went a little lower. He gripped the flesh hard, and RC cried out, squirming to get loose of his hold, and failing.

Kris made it over to the scene in three long strides. Grabbing the man's shoulder, she shoved him back into the table, and gently pushed Ryanne out of the way.

"I said I didn't want to hear of anyone disrespecting her," said the soldier, towering over the drunken slob, leaning over him so he was bent over backwards on the table, and she pushed him further, pressing her face closer to his, ignoring the pungent smell that made her stomach turn.

"You wanna try the same move on me?" she demanded, and he shook his head.

Jones' lip turned up into a smirk when she noticed the dark stain spreading on the crotch of his pants. "You come back here again, and I'll skin ya, understand?" The man nodded, and Kris picked him up by the collar of his shirt, and literally threw him out the door.

Going to the waitress' side, Kris was aware of the other patrons staring at her. "What?!" she shouted, and everyone suddenly found their meal very interesting, as all eyes went to the plates in front of them.

"Are you okay?" Kris asked, and RC nodded, one hand rubbing her sore shoulder. The blonde knew by the throbbing in her chest, that her breast would no doubt have finger-prints where the man had grabbed her.

"Thanks," said the woman, and Kris sat down beside her, shrugging it off.

The two made small talk for a while, Ryanne asking most of the questions, about Army life, mainly. Over an hour later, Kris felt a tap on her shoulder. She raised an eyebrow at the soldier.

"Ma'am, it's been more than an hour," he pointed out.

Kris sighed; and she had just begun to enjoy the blonde's company and endless chatter?

"All right. Fall in!" she barked, and they formed a straight line in a flash.

"That should cover it," she said, tossing a bill on the counter next to RC. "If you have any more questions, or just want to talk, call me." Writing her number on a napkin, she turned to face her men, and noticed that one was glancing at her.

"Face front! Did I tell you to look away and listen in on my conversations, soldier?" she demanded.

The man's head snapped forward. "Ma'am, no, ma'am!" he shouted.

"Would you like to stay and talk to me after lights out, Jackson?"

"Ma'am, no, ma'am!" he responded, promptly.

"Forward march! Column right!" Kris commanded, as the first man made it out the front door. Each soldier turned to the right at the same point as the first man, in a ninety degree angle. Following the men, Kris marched them back to the base, where they would turn in, and then go on leave for the weekend.

* * * * *

Back at the restaurant, RC cleaned up, told Johnny to go home, and prepared to close for the weekend. Her customers knew that she took every other Saturday off, and was closed every Sunday. Those who didn't could read the sign on the door.

Glancing at the denomination Kris had left on the counter, her jaw dropped. The food didn't cost $100!

Surely it was a mistake, she thought. I'll just give her the change the next time I see her. Hey, it'll give me a reason to call her! she realized, excitedly.

An hour later, all the tables were clean, the chairs were stacked on top of them, and the floor had been vacuumed. She was ready to go home, finally.

Ryanne climbed into her Chevrolet Lumina and drove the fifteen miles to her home, a small apartment, really, just on the outskirts of the bad part of town.

Arriving at her home twenty minutes later, the blonde dropped her bag - which contained her tips and other moneys - on the kitchen counter, and then knocked on her neighbor's door.

An elderly woman answered. "Hi, Louise," greeted Ryanne. "How was she tonight?"

Louise Hillman smiled. "Fine, dear, as always," she replied, brushing her silver bangs away from her gentle face. "She's asleep right now, I thought you might want to get her, so she doesn't wake up," she added, and RC nodded.

"Sure," she said, and walked into the living room, where her daughter was curled up, asleep on the woman's couch. Picking her up, blanket, pillow, stuffed elephant and all, Ryanne carried her out the door, turning only to thank Ms. Hillman again.

"It's okay, sweetheart," she said, as the child stirred. "Momma's got you, it's all right. Do you want to sleep with me tonight?" The little girl rubbed her eyes, nodded, and then put her head back onto her mother's shoulder, tiredly.

"Okay, honey," said Ryanne, placing the girl on one side of her bed, before climbing in next to her. "Sweet dreams, Cassidy."

* * * * *

Once she was out of her fatigues, Kris laid on her bed, staring up at the ceiling in her quarters, thinking.

I've never given my home phone number out after just an hour-long conversation, she thought, so why was I so eager to give it to Ryanne? Such a pretty name? with a face and a body like hers, I'm sure she's got a line of guys just bursting to be with her. I'd like to be first in that line?

God, why do I keep thinking about her? I probably won't see her again for a long time, and I doubt she'll call me, so nothing will ever come of this.

She sighed.


Wishing she'd had more time to speak with the young green-eyed blonde, like forever, Kris Jones closed her eyes, and fell asleep.

Chapter Two

The next morning, after finishing a report on a soldier's habitual disobedience, Kris drove home, relieved to be away from the dozens of sweaty, often ignorant, males that she worked with.

"Home" was an 1800 square-foot house with a four acre backyard, hidden in the winding hills, five miles from the main road. No one but Kris and her horse - just the way she liked it.

Pulling into her driveway at nine o'clock, Kris parked her red Ford F-250 in the garage, and walked into her house, duffel bag in hand. Staying at the base was an option open to her, but she chose to come home on the weekends, and every once in a while, weeknights, too.

Setting her bag down in her room, the woman walked out to her stables, and greeted her horse.

"Morning, girl," she said, and the Palomino mare snorted at her, happy to see her. "How have you been, huh? Did Mickey take good care of my Wind Dancer?" Mickey was her ranch-hand, who took care of her house and her horse while she was away.

Wind Dancer was a five year old Palomino, who used to race, but when Kris bought her, she was put into early retirement. Named after her sire, Wind Stream, and her dam, Star Dancer, the mare inherited all the best qualities from both. She was beautiful, with her golden color and silver mane, fast, like her father, gentle, like her mother, and very intelligent. Kris liked to say the horse got the last trait from her.

Kris rode her frequently, and often gave her timed runs to keep her in shape, occasionally setting up jumps and such, or going on overnight rides back in the hills.

Leading the mare out of the stable to brush her, Kris noticed with a frown that the horse seemed to be favoring her right hind foot. Running her hand down Wind Dancer's leg, the woman noticed that when she got to one particular spot, just above to the horse's fetlock, the animal flinched, and even snorted.

"Did you pull a muscle, girl?" she asked, and retired her mare to the stalls, deciding to keep her from running for a week or so, to allow her time to recover. The horse hadn't pulled a muscle since her racing days, but Kris knew it happened occasionally, over-extension of a tendon or twisting of a joint while frolicking around.

She had just finished grooming her mare, and was about to go back inside for breakfast, when Kris heard the phone ring. Grumbling, she raced out of the stall and ran in the door, just in time to answer the call before her answering machine picked up.

"Hello?" she answered, and was a little surprised to hear the soft voice that responded.

"Hi, is this Kris?" asked the woman, and the soldier's jaw dropped as she immediately recognized the gentle tone.

Okay, so she was a lot surprised.

"Ryanne?" she asked, dumbfounded. She didn't think the woman would actually call!

"Yeah," acknowledged the woman. "I was just wondering if I could bring over your change today."

Kris frowned. "Change?" she asked, puzzled.

"You accidentally left a hundred dollar bill on the counter," she explained, "and I thought I'd bring you back the extra amount."

The tall woman laughed. "That wasn't an accident," she insisted. "I know exactly how much I paid you. And I meant for you to keep the change," she added. Damn, this woman had a really honest heart if she'd willingly give a person back fifty plus dollars.

"Oh, but Kris, I couldn't," protested the blonde, flustered by the generous offer. "I mean, it's too much."

"Nonsense. Just consider it a little donation for what you have to put up with day after day, okay?" Kris said, gently. "You can bring it over if you want, but I'll find some way to get it back to you."

RC sighed. "All right," she said, and Kris could hear the smile in her voice. "Thank you, Kris. Very much," she added, sincerely.

"No problem. That offer to come on over still stands," she hinted, hoping she wasn't being too obvious that she wanted to see the blonde again.

"Well, I -" began the blonde, but was cut short by something that distracted her on the other line. "Hold on just a second," she told Kris.

"What is it, sweetheart?" Ryanne asked whomever she was talking to, and Kris' heart dropped.

Sweetheart? she thought, her throat dry.

"Okay," she sighed, "I'll be there in a minute, Cass. Go back into the living room, honey, and watch TV. Sorry about that," she said, turning her attention back to the woman on the other end of the phone line.

"You there?" she asked, when there was no answer.

"Huh? Oh, yeah, I'm here," replied Kris. She suddenly felt very deflated, upon learning that Ryanne already had someone in her life. And a man, no less. That blew the hell out of her chances.

"I'd love to take you up on your offer, but it would have to be later this afternoon," said RC. "When is best for you?"

"Anytime," responded the soldier, evenly. "Uh, how about three?" she asked, and Ryanne agreed. "See you then." The women said their good-byes, after Kris made sure RC had clear directions to her home, and hung up the phone.

"Well, Jones," said Kris, aloud to herself, "you've done it again. Fallen for a woman that you have about as much chance of getting with as a snowball in Hell has of making it out as anymore than a raindrop. Shit, soldier, why do you give your heart away every time a pretty face looks your way?" she demanded.

"It's eleven o'clock," she said. "I've got a few hours to clean up this pig sty of a house."

Actually, Kris' house was quite clean, and very orderly, what with the woman being in the army and all, but she still felt the need to keep it spotless. Grabbing a can of Pledge and a dust rag, she went to work.

She finished at one o'clock, taking only a ten minute break to eat lunch, and was pleased with her work. Deciding to spend the next hour or so in her garage, working out with her exercise equipment, the soldier put away her cleaning materials, and changed into a pair of sweat pants and a tank top. Tying her long black hair back in a loose ponytail to keep it out of her face, she grabbed a bottle of water and prepared for vigorous physical training

Before she knew it, there was a knock at the door. Glancing down at her watch, she cursed aloud. "Shit," she mumbled, walking to the door. She had lost track of time, and it was already ten past three.

"Hi," she said, opening the door to let her guest in. The blonde was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, perfect for the country home. Kris, despite the casual dress of RC, lost her voice for a moment.

"Uh, come on in, and make yourself at home," said Jones, motioning for RC to sit on the couch if she so desired. "I'm going to go change, and I'll be out in just a minute."

"Is this a bad time?" asked the waitress, and Kris shook her head.

"No, it's my fault," she said, "I was working out and lost track of time. I'll be back in just a second," she added, before jogging down the hallway to her room. She jumped into a pair of blue jeans and a soft blue sleeveless shirt, deciding to go around in her socked feet, never being the type to wear shoes unless she had no other choice.

Ryanne took this time to look around Kris' house, what she could see from the living room couch. She wasn't the type to go snooping around unless the owner was with her, or she had been there more than a few times.

She noticed a nice looking TV, VCR, and various other electronics in an oak entertainment center. A few comfy looking chairs were spread throughout the room, and looking out the window, she caught sight of a beautiful green field. All in all, she felt very relaxed and at ease.

Not to mention the fact the sight that had greeted her when she first walked in had been quite pleasant - seeing the well-built soldier dressed in nothing but sweats and a tank top had been enough to send a tingle down to her fingertips. An old, nearly forgotten feeling to the woman, but familiar and welcomed, nonetheless.

"Okay," sighed Kris, coming back in to sit across from Ryanne in the large recliner. "That's better. Can I get you anything?" she asked, and RC shook her head.

"No, thank you. You have a very lovely house," she said, and Kris grinned.

"Thanks. Would you like a tour?" she offered, and the blonde nodded. Jones showed her guest around her home, and then took her out back to meet Wind Dancer.

"This is my girl, Wind Dancer," she said, proudly, stroking the mare's nose. Ryanne seemed a little afraid, so Kris took her hand, and led it to the horse's strong neck. "It's okay," she said, trying to ignore the feeling that placing her hand over Ryanne's was causing, "she won't hurt you."

"She's big," commented the woman, finally relaxing enough to stroke Wind Dancer's mane on her own.

Kris nodded. "She used to race, but now she's gotten lazy," she said, and laughed when the mare snorted at her in disdain, as if she knew she had been insulted. "Oh, relax. I'm kidding," she said, kissing the horse on the nose.

Ryanne chuckled at the sight, and Kris raised an eyebrow at her, curious as to what she was laughing at. "Big tough soldier is nothing but a softy," she said, and was surprised at her own boldness.

When the woman's expression didn't change, RC was going to apologize, afraid she had offended her, but the tall woman smiled. "You tell any of the guys at the base this and I'll have to kill you," she said, lightly. "Yeah, I can be a hard ass, but only because my job calls for it."

They were heading back inside when the phone rang. Picking up her pace, so Ryanne had to struggle to keep up with her long-legged strides, Kris grabbed the phone quickly.

"Hello?" she answered.

"Is Ryanne there?" asked the voice, and Kris frowned.

"Who is this?" she demanded, immediately suspicious. How did this person know Ryanne was at her house?

"This is Louise Hillman, I'm a friend of Ryanne," explained the woman. "Is this the wrong number? She said I could call if it was an emergency?"

At the word 'emergency', Kris was alert. "Hang on just a moment," she said, and gave Ryanne the phone.

"Someone named Hillman," she told her, and the blood drained from the blonde's face as she took the call.

"Ms. Hillman? Is everything okay?" she asked, anxiously.

"Well, yes and no," responded the elderly baby-sitter.

"What do you mean?" cried Ryanne, fearfully.

"That 'cold' you said she had has become worse. Cassidy seems to have the flu," explained the woman, "and she keeps asking for you. She won't eat anything for me, and she's running a fever. She should be okay for a few hours, if you have anything else you have to do, but I thought you would like to know," added Ms. Hillman.

"Okay, thank you, Louise," replied Ryanne, looking a little more steady on her feet.

"Oh, one more thing, dear," interjected Ms. Hillman.


"Daniel stopped by just after you left," said the old woman.

For a moment, Kris feared Ryanne would pass out, she turned so white. Leading her to the couch, the soldier sat next to the woman, concerned.

"What did you say?" uttered the woman, her voice a bare whisper as her throat was suddenly dry, and she found it hard to speak.

"Daniel came over, and asked to see Cassidy," repeated Louise. "I wouldn't let him, however, and he left when I threatened to call the police. Ryanne, don't worry if you come back and there's a cop car here. I asked them to come out and keep an eye on us," she explained, and Ryanne released the breath she didn't know she'd been holding.

"Thanks, Louise," said RC. "I'll be there in just a little while." The women said their good-byes, and hung up the phone, but Kris didn't get up.

"Is everything okay?" she asked, knowing it wasn't.

RC nodded, and tried to shrug it off. "Yeah, it's fine," she lied.

Yeah, everything's great, she thought. Some psychotic drug addict just walked right through the restraining order I placed on him, and tried to steal my daughter. Everything's peachy fucking keen.

The blonde tried to get up, but Kris held her arm. "No, it's not," she said, quietly, and met Ryanne's eyes. For some reason, the tall woman knew she had to get the woman to open up, then she could help her. Help her with what, she wasn't sure; she only knew she had never felt this way around anyone before.

Whatever 'this way' was.

"Kris, please, it's nothing," said Ryanne, breaking eye contact.

Jones tilted the woman's face towards her to look into her deep green eyes once more. "Tell me," was all she said, gently, before tears filled the emerald eyes, and spilled over as Kris pulled her into her arms.

The blonde cried herself out, and then pulled back a few minutes later, sniffling. "I'm sorry, Kris. I've known you for a day, and already I'm crying on your shoulder," she said, half-smiling. "I'm normally not like this, really."

Kris shrugged, her arm still around the young woman's shoulders. "It's all right," she said. "Now, what's going on?"

Ryanne sighed, and before she knew it, she was telling the strong soldier in front of her everything. She bared her soul more than she had ever done before.

"First, I guess I should tell you that that was my baby-sitter who called," she started. "Ms. Hillman baby-sits for my three-, almost four-year old daughter, Cassidy."

Cassidy? Cass! thought Kris, excitedly. Maybe she doesn't have a boyfriend? yes! Wait, was that other part? Daughter? hm? where's daddy?

"You have a daughter?" asked Jones, and Ryanne nodded, hoping the truth wouldn't make her new friend look down upon her.

"I adopted her from my sister, who died in childbirth. She asked me to take her child if anything ever happened to her, so I did," said RC. "There were complications during the birth, but, luckily, Cassidy wasn't affected. Also, her father, Daniel, has been on drugs all his life, but, somehow, she escaped with no permanent damage from the numerous substances in his system," sighed Ryanne, thanking God, as she did each time she thought about how lucky she was to have a healthy little girl, especially under the circumstances.

"Daniel has been trying to take her from me since he found out Rachel, my sister, left her with me. Ms. Hillman said that he stopped by today, and tried to take her again, even though I put a restraining order against him to keep him from seeing Cass.

"The last time he saw her, when she was only fifteen old, he nearly killed her," said RC, and she still got a little choked up by the memory. "He sat her in the same room as his friends, who were drinking, smoking, cussing, and doing drugs. When I came to pick her up, she was coughing and crying. That was when I filed for a restraining order, for child endangerment," explained Ryanne, and Kris nodded, encouraging her to continue.

"I can't afford to move, or I would, to get Cassidy out of that environment. I don't live far from the tracks, which, as you probably know, is not the best part of town," said RC, and Kris nodded, again. "I just get so scared, because there's times I know Daniel could come up behind me, or sneak into the house, or get some of his drug buddies together, and I'd never know it until it was too late.

"I'd give anything to keep her safe, but even if I sold everything I own, it wouldn't be enough to move out of there. That's why your? donation, meant so much to me," finished Ryanne, smiling.

Kris grinned. "Glad I could help. Listen, if you and Cassidy ever need somewhere to stay, you can come up to the base and crash in my quarters, or you can stay up here. For as long as you need," she added.

Jones, you're being irrational, she told herself. You've known her for less than 24 hours, and you're offering her, and a child you've never met, your home?!

"Oh, Kris, I couldn't!" exclaimed Ryanne, shocked by the woman's generosity. "You've been too kind already, I couldn't ask for you to do anymore."

"You didn't ask," she said, "I offered. Now, the way I see it, you've got two options. You can stay there, worried for you and for Cassidy, or you can stay with me, on the base or here, where I can guarantee you'll be safe. Oh, and option number one doesn't count," she added, smiling - a rare sight when it came to the soldier, that Ryanne found to be very beautiful.

RC returned the smile. "I guess that doesn't leave me very much of a choice, now, does it?" she asked, lightly.

"That was the idea."

"Well, in that case, I'll take you up on that offer. It may have to be later rather than sooner, however, because I have to get home right now and take care of Cassidy. She's got the flu, from what Ms. Hillman tells me, and I need to go to her. I'll call you later, and tell you what's going on," she said, as she stood, and Kris walked her to the door.

"Here," said the soldier, handing the blonde a piece of paper. "If you need to get a hold of me right away, for any reason, page me. And I also put my number at the base on there. I'm there Monday through Friday, usually, but you can always beep me if you can't reach me there," she added, and Ryanne nodded, surprising them both by giving the tall woman a hug, which the soldier returned.

"Thanks, Kris," said the blonde. "I'll find a way to repay you for all of this." One more smile, and the small woman walked out the door, climbing into her car and driving away.

"Jones, do you really want a screaming three-year old running around the base, or the house, much less?" Kris answered her own question. "Only if it means I get to see Ryanne smile again," she said, grinning to herself.

* * * * *

Ryanne was glad Ms. Hillman had warned her about the police cars. As it was, the sight still caused her heart to jump to her throat. She rushed inside the house, and went straight to her daughter, who was lying on the couch, curled up into a ball under her blanket.

"Hi, sweetheart," said Ryanne, kneeling next to the sofa, placing her hand against Cassidy's forehead, relieved to only feel a slight warmth. "Mama's here, baby. What hurts?" The little girl put her hand over her stomach, and then around her throat.

"Do you have a sore throat?" The redhead nodded, and her green eyes looked up at her mother, with the cloud of illness. "Do you want to go home, honey?" Another nod. "Okay. Let me talk to Ms. Hillman for a minute, and I'll take you home."

Rising to her feet, RC sought out the elderly woman, and went to her side. "Thank you, Ms. Hillman," she said, reaching into her pocket. "How much do I owe you?"

The old woman smiled, and shook her head. "You don't owe me a thing, Ryanne. I'm just glad I could help," she said. "It makes me feel needed, something I miss in my old age. Now, you take the little one home, and take care of her. I'll be in touch, darling," she added, and RC hugged the woman, gently.

"Thanks, Louise," she said, and then picked her daughter up into her arms. Ryanne noticed the police cars were gone when she walked the few feet back to her house, and figured they probably had other things to do than stay with an old woman and her charge. The blonde wasn't surprised they had left as soon as she got there.

"Okay, Cass," said Ryanne, lying her daughter down on her bed. Whenever the youngster was sick, she liked being in her mother's bed, not her own, so that was where RC automatically took her. "I'll get you some medicine that will make you feel all better, okay?" The girl nodded, and RC returned with some grape flavored syrup for the girl's throat, that would also coat her stomach.

The blonde waitress smiled as she watched her daughter swallow the purple liquid, and brushed the child's hair away from her face as she gave her a kiss on her cool forehead. She didn't doubt the illness had been brought on by RC's sudden departure - Cassidy did not like it when her mother left, and if she had been feeling a little bad lately, it was easy for her to make it worse and draw her mother's attention.

Ryanne knew what the girl was doing, but played along with it, anyhow. She didn't rush home, however, when the toddler feigned illness, and knew eventually she would have to break the child of the habit.

Cassidy drew her mother out of her musings by spreading the fingers of her right hand apart, and placing them on her small chin, signing, "Mother."

"What is it, sweetheart?" asked Ryanne.

"Daddy came back," the child signed, roughly, and RC sighed.

"Yes, Cassidy, he did. But Daddy didn't hurt you, did he?" The girl shook her head. "Baby, do you want to stay here?" Cassidy's brow furrowed, and she looked confused by the question. "Do you want to keep living here, so close to Daddy?" The girl shook her head, earnestly.

"I know, Cass, me neither," said RC, placing her cheek against her daughter's as the girl yawned, and closed her eyes. "Me neither."

The blonde was nearly asleep, lulled by the rhythmic sound of her daughter's breathing, when a loud knock startled her. Going to the door, she looked out the peephole, and felt her heart stop. Checking that the door was locked, she closed the door to her bedroom, and prepared for the confrontation she was sure was going to occur.

"Open the door, bitch!" snarled the man outside, and, involuntarily, Ryanne flinched. The man still scared her.

"No, Daniel," said RC. "Go away, please. Cassidy's asleep, don't wake her, she doesn't feel well," she added, hoping against hope the man would leave.

"She needs her father," he shouted, kicking at the door so hard the entire house seemed to shake. "Open the goddamn door! I want to see my little girl!" His speech was slurred, and Ryanne knew the man was extremely drunk. Then again, she'd never known him not to be wasted.

"Daniel, you're drunk," she said, attempting to rationalize with the man. "You can't see her, especially when you're plastered. The restraining order says so."

The man roared, and charged at the door, bursting inside the house as the door swung open, complaining, on weak hinges. "Give me my daughter!" he demanded, and Ryanne shook, but refused to back down.

"No," she said, standing up to him. He took a swing at her, and knocked her to the ground, but she got right back up when he headed for the bedroom door. "Stay away from her!" she cried, taking a punch at the man's jaw. The large man was so drunk, the weak hit was enough to send him to the floor. On the way down, he hit his head on the corner of the coffee table, and was knocked unconscious.

Ryanne was shaken, but knew he wouldn't stay out long. She also knew they had to get out of there. Rushing into the bedroom, the blonde gathered her daughter into her arms, loaded her in the back seat of the car, and took off down the road. Pulling over a while later, RC let herself cry, and then joined her daughter in slumber. The sign on the side of the freeway read, "Lincoln Army Base Next Right." Ryanne figured she'd sleep as much as she could, and then gather her courage to take Kris up on her offer. She had no choice.

Chapter Three

Kris adjusted her camouflage cap a little, as the sun moved through the clear sky and looked her in the eye. Her platoon of thirty-five, thirty-two men and three women, was standing obediently at attention. Jones had to admit, she had a good crew.

The soldier was about to bark out a command, when a smug voice interrupted her. "Sergeant," sneered the man, and Jones turned to face him, briefly. Giving him a slight nod of acknowledgment, Kris turned away, and told her company "At ease." She had no doubt Sergeant Jenkins would keep her for a while, since he was known to throw his weight around.

But Kris had a surprise for him, this time.

"Attention!" called the man, and Jones just stared at him. "Soldier, when a superior officer gives you a command, you follow it!"

"As soon as I see one, I'll be sure to do that," smiled Kris. She loved being able to irritate the soldier.

"What do you think you're doing, Jones?" he demanded, angrily. "I outrank you!"

"Not last time I checked," said Jones, and then slapped herself on the forehead. "Oh, that's right! You weren't at the ceremony three weeks ago, were you?" she asked, sweetly.

Jenkins frowned. He didn't like the tone this woman was giving him. "I just happened to be out of town, yes," he affirmed.

Yeah, Jenkins, thought Kris. Out of town without your wife. Does she know about your little "business trip" to the beach? With your secretary? Jones had confirmed the rumor herself by cornering the said secretary, and asking the right questions. The soldier had no doubt Jenkins knew she knew what was going on.

"Well, I got promoted," said Kris, merely stating the facts, although she wanted to rub his face in it.

"Congratulations!" snarled Jenkins, sounding as insincere as was humanly possible. "What are you now, Captain of the Mess Hall?" He chuckled at his own joke, while Jones just smirked.

"No, no," she said, playing along. "I'm not Captain, yet. Try Staff Sergeant." The Sergeant's jaw dropped - that meant she did outrank him! "So, Sergeant, who outranks who?" Leaning forward, she spoke into his ear, "Jenkins, I suggest you walk out of here before you make an ass of yourself in front of my men. We can discuss this later, in private, if you'd like," she added, holding back a grin.

"No, ma'am. Thank you, ma'am," he swallowed, and turned smartly on his heel, leaving the practice field before Staff Sergeant Jones made good on her threat.

When the man was out of sight, Kris called, "Back to work, grunts. Attention!" Drilling them for an hour, Kris was ready to have them go for a run, when a Private came up to her, out of breath from his rush, being on his way to deliver another summons after the current one.

"Sergeant!" he called, and tried to come to attention, but could hardly breathe.

Kris noticed his predicament, and said, immediately, "At ease, Private. Catch your breath."

The man took a moment to regain his posture, and then said, "Ma'am, Captain Bowman requests your presence."

Kris nodded. "Okay, Private," she said. "Tell him I'll be there in an hour or so."

"Now, ma'am," added the soldier, and Kris sighed. Nodding, she turned back to her platoon, told them to get some lunch, and then meet back on the field in half an hour. They scattered to the Mess Hall, and the Private escorted Jones to the Captain's office, before hurrying off to deliver his next message.

"Sir, you wanted to see me immediately?" said Kris, standing just outside the office, saluting her commanding officer until he did the same.

The Captain stood. "Yes, Sergeant, come on in and have a seat," he beckoned, motioning to a chair a few feet in front of his desk. Kris did as she was told, and sat at attention; both feet planted firmly on the ground, her right hand on her right knee, left hand on her left knee, back straight, and eyes looking straight ahead.

Captain Bowman chuckled. "At ease, Jones," he said, and Kris relaxed, placing her hands in her lap. "This is not an official meeting. Sergeant Ronald Jenkins made a complaint to me. He claims you harassed him," said the Captain, and help up his hand to quell any objections from Kris. "I know you're not an officer to cause trouble. Did you hit him?"

"No, sir," replied Kris.

"Tell me what happened."

"I was drilling with my men, sir," began Kris, "and the Sergeant came up behind me, intent on flaunting his status, I'm sure." The Captain nodded; he knew the man's tendencies. "Well, since I was promoted a few weeks ago, I outrank him. However, instead of embarrassing him, sir, I simply suggested that he leave."

"But you didn't touch him?" questioned Captain Bowman.

"No, sir, I didn't touch him," confirmed Kris. "I warned him of being an ass, but I never laid a hand on him."

The Captain nodded, he knew Jenkins had blown it way out of proportion. "Well, the Sergeant wanted me to make a report on it, but I don't see that anything occurred worth reporting, so I'm going to let it drop. And Sergeant?"


"I don't object to your actions, but just to warn you, I don't want to hear of you striking an officer. Around others," he added, through his hand, and Kris smiled as she stood. "One more thing, Jones."

"Sir?" she replied, obediently.

"I know you're not one for training the new recruits, but we're getting in more than we can handle. It's good that we're getting so many, because we need the manpower, but we're short on training officers. Think you can take care of a company of grunts for a while?" he asked, and Kris sighed, dramatically, being on good terms with Captain. Had anyone else done that to a superior officer, they'd have been in for a load of trouble.

"I suppose it won't kill me, sir," she said, and smirked, before turning more serious. "Sir, I feel the need to inform you of something."

"Go ahead," prompted the Captain, kindly.

"I may have company on base sometime this week, and she may bring her young child with her. I don't know how long she will stay," she added. "Permission to allow her and her daughter to remain on base in my quarters?"

"Granted," said the man, and knew whoever it was must have been important to Kris, because the full smile that graced her features was a rare one. "As long as you're sure the child won't be too much of a distraction."

"Thank you, sir." Saluting, Kris left the man's office, and smiled a little as she walked back out to the practice field. If Ryanne did decide to come to the base and stay, she was covered by the Captain.

The obstacle course was empty, and the soldier figured she could use the work out. Dropping her cap on the ground next to the start of the equipment, Kris went through the course, enjoying the rush it gave her.

By the time she was finished, her platoon had reappeared, and she ordered them to fall in.

"Well, this is the last time I'll see you all," she said, walking between the ranks. "After today, you'll be with Sergeant Jenkins. Make me proud," she grinned, which faded when she noticed that one particular soldier kept darting his eyes to something behind her.

"Do you see something interesting, soldier?" she asked, and he meekly turned his head forward. "What are you looking at?"

"Her," said the man, nodding towards someone just off to his left. Frowning slightly, Kris turned to see what he was talking about, and her jaw hit the ground. There, standing just at the edge of the practice field, was Ryanne, holding a young girl in her arms. Both looked extremely worn down, and RC looked like she'd been dragged through fifty miles of broken glass and hot sand, to put it mildly.

"Dismissed," said Kris, offhandedly. The company obediently saluted her, even though she was paying absolutely no attention to them, about-faced, and walked away, giving their commanding officer and whoever the other woman was some privacy.

"Ryanne?" asked the soldier, going to her side. "Hey, what happened to you? Are you okay?"

RC shook her head. "Listen, Kris, I'm really sorry to just show up like this, but I had nowhere else to go," she said, and tears came to her eyes. "Daniel came over last night."

Kris' eyes widened with the news. "Come on," she said, putting an arm around the young woman's shoulders, "we'll go to my quarters and get you something to drink. Then you can tell me all about it, okay?" Ryanne nodded, and shifted the heavy weight of her sleeping daughter in her arms.

"You can put her down on my bed," said Kris, when they entered her barracks. Staying in an officer's room had it's advantages; she got a nice bed, a living room with a TV and VCR, a full kitchen with a few dishes, and a small dining room. Most just got a bed, a couch, and a table with two chairs.

When she was sure Cassidy was comfortable, and still sound asleep, RC came back out into the living room, where Kris was sitting on the arm of the sofa. The soldier motioned for the blonde to have a seat, a request which she gratefully obeyed, and Kris handed her a glass of water.

"Thanks," said the waitress, sipping the liquid, thankful. "Are you sure it's okay that I'm here?"

Kris nodded. "Yep, you're fine," she affirmed. "I've already cleared both you and Cassidy with the Captain. He says as long as Cassidy doesn't make too much noise, and disturb anyone, she's okay."

Ryanne smiled a little. "I don't think you'll have to worry about Cassidy making too much noise," she said.

"Ryanne, I know a lot of parents say their kids don't make a lot of noise, you know, yell and scream, but?" she protested, softly, and Ryanne cut her off.

"No, I mean, Cassidy won't make noise. She's mute," said RC, noting that Kris' reaction was not upset, only startled. Most people were repelled by the idea, but not the soldier.

"Mute?" asked Kris. "Not autistic?"

Ryanne shook her head. "I've had her tested for autism several times, usually once every few months, but she's nearly four, and it would have been detected by now," she added. "It's my belief that the whole ordeal with Daniel, when he had her when she was nine months old, traumatized her or something, and now she won't talk."

"What happened last night?" asked the soldier, putting a gentle hand on the woman's shoulder. Taking a deep breath, Ryanne told Kris everything, from arriving at Ms. Hillman's and picking Cassidy up, to walking onto base that same morning.

"You slept in the car?" asked Kris, for the third time. "My God, Ryanne. I am so sorry. Why didn't you call me last night?"

"It was too late," said Ryanne, quietly. "I didn't want to bother you."

Kris took the woman's small hands into her own, and looked into Ryanne's deep green eyes. "Ryanne, don't ever worry about that, okay? If you're in trouble, or if you need anything, just call me. The answer will always be yes," she added, smiling.

Tired green eyes brightened a little. "Thanks," said Ryanne, giving the soldier a quick hug. "Did we interrupt something out in the field?" she asked, after a moment of silence.

Kris shook her head. "No," she said. "I was just giving my men some last minute instructions. They're going under another Sergeant soon, and I wanted to give them a quick briefing," she explained.

Ryanne yawned, and Kris hid a smile. "Why don't you go lie down with Cassidy?" she offered. "You must be exhausted. Go on," she urged. RC gave in, and walked tiredly to the bedroom, collapsing next to her daughter.

Deciding that her two guests would probably be out for a while, after the events they'd gone through, Kris slipped quietly from her quarters, and walked purposefully across the field.

Jenkins intercepted her. Unintentionally, mind you, but he was in her way, nonetheless.

"Jenkins," she called, and he turned towards her, beginning to approach her.

"Yes?" he asked, realizing too late she now outranked him and he was supposed to come to attention when he spoke to her.

Kris saw her opening, and took it in an instant. The man had been on her tail so often for the littlest detail, especially when she was a rank below him, it was her turn.

"Attention!" she called. The soldier hesitated, and then obeyed, halfheartedly. Kris jumped at the chance to correct him. No one was around, so he didn't have to worry about anyone walking in on his little lesson in obedience.

"What the hell was that, soldier?!" she cried. "When I call you to attention, I want your heels together, feet 45º apart, back straight, chest out, shoulders back, chin forward, thumbs along your trouser seam, and eyes straight ahead! And I want it done right away, is that understood?" Kris was talking to him like she did her recruits, and she was loving every moment of it.

"Yes, ma'am," said Jenkins, looking down, embarrassed.

"Face forward!" she commanded, and he brought his head back up. "I said your eyes should be straight ahead, soldier! You're not looking at the ground, you're not looking at the sky? you're not even looking at me. Unless I call eyeballs, your eyeballs stay looking forward, understand?"

"Yes, ma'am." The Sergeant's face was red with anger and embarrassment at the treatment, but he knew he had to obey.

"Now, let's see if you can follow orders," she said. "Parade rest!" The man stepped to the side with his left foot, and placed his hands behind his back. Kris walked around him, inspecting his position. "Attention!" she called, and he clicked his heels together as he straightened up. "Parade rest!" Jenkins obeyed.

Kris grinned. She knew she'd get him with the next command. "Atten - as you were!" she said, correcting herself in mid-call. As she expected, the man sprung to attention, before kicking himself when he realized what he'd done.

"Don't anticipate my orders," she began. "Are you the commanding officer?"

"No, ma'am," responded the soldier.

"What? I expect you to sound off, soldier!"

"Ma'am, no, ma'am!" repeated Jenkins, louder.

"No, what?" questioned Kris, and Jenkins knew what she wanted.

"No, Staff Sergeant!"

Kris nodded. "Good," she said. "Now, drop and give me twenty, until you can prove you know how to address your superior officers."

"Yes, ma'am," said Jenkins, dropping to the ground and counting, "One, Staff Sergeant? Two, Staff Sergeant?" as he did his pushups. Kris walked around the man's form, correcting him each time he didn't go down far enough.

"Come on, Jenkins!" she cried, kneeling so they were nearly on the same eye level. "My grunts can do better than you. Let's go! And up? down? up? down," she coached, making sure he did each movement smoothly. By the time she was satisfied, he had done thirty-two pushups, but Kris only counted twenty of them.

"20, Staff Sergeant!" Jenkins said, holding himself in the "up" position, until he was told he could stand.

"Recover," said Jones, and Jenkins jumped to his feet. "Very good, Sergeant. You are dismissed." Saluting her, Kris returned the gesture, since Jenkins couldn't lower his arm until she'd done so, and he turned on his heel, storming away.

She figured he might complain to the Captain again, but knew nothing would come of it, besides maybe another talk. It wasn't like she'd humiliated him - no one had seen them. Feeling a little better, having gotten that off her chest, she continued on her way across the compound. Finding the door she wanted, the soldier knocked brusquely.

"Just a second!" came the reply, and in a moment, the door opened, revealing a redheaded woman, who immediately sprang to attention, despite the fact that all she had on was a pair of shorts and a T-shirt.

"Ma'am!" she said, quickly.

Kris laughed. "At ease, Robin," she said, and the woman stepped back, surprised by the use of her first name. "Listen, I need some help."

"What can I do for you?" asked the woman, inviting her Sergeant inside. For the great Staff Sergeant Jones to ask for help, Robin Harold knew it had to be important.

"I have company," explained Kris, "and I need to know what to get for a three-year-old."

Robin raised an eyebrow at her superior officer, and smiled. Just about everyone knew of the woman's lifestyle, so she knew she'd be justified in her assumption. "Kid of a girlfriend, hm?" she guessed, and the slight flush on the woman's cheeks proved the truth of her statement, even if Kris denied it.

"No, just the daughter a friend," she said, and Robin nodded.

"Hm? three, huh?" Kris knew she had been right in going to Robin, who was the mother of four kids, varying in ages. "How about a stuffed animal? Kids love stuffed animals at just about any age, especially girls."

"I'll try it," said the soldier. "Thanks, Robin. Behave with Jenkins, hm?"

"Yes, ma'am," sighed the soldier, rolling her eyes. Kris laughed, and left with a smile on her face. Now, where to get a stuffed animal?

The other customers of the supermarket gave the soldier strange looks as she walked in, still dressed in her dirty fatigues and soiled combat boots. But Kris didn't care what anyone else thought - she was on a mission.

"Excuse me," she said, to a young employee as he passed by, "where're your stuffed animals?"

The boy laughed out loud, until there were tears in his eyes. "You want to know where the toys are?" he asked, and Kris glared at him.

"I don't think I stuttered," she said, raising herself up to her full height, and the boy quickly swallowed his laughter.

"Aisle 4," he said, pointing in the same direction, and Kris smiled.

"Thanks," she said, patting his back a little harshly as she walked past. Turning onto aisle four, the soldier was bombarded with stuffed animals of every kind. She found blue elephants, white elephants, even purple elephants. Not to mention big bunnies, small pink bunnies, bunnies that laughed when you tickled them, and whose ears you could position. Then there were dogs, cats, horses, gorillas, and more toys that the soldier could have imagined.

Good God, thought Kris. I found the stuffed animals, now what the hell am I supposed to do? Well, soldier, you want to impress both girls, don't you? You know what that means? Yep, I think it's time to ask for more help, she decided.

"Excuse me, ma'am," said Kris, to an elderly woman who was wearing the store's apron.

"Can I help you with something?" she replied, kindly.

"Well, I'm here to get a stuffed animal," she explained, "but I walked into an ambush!" The older woman laughed. "I need one for a three-year-old, and her mother."

The employee nodded. "I think I can help you," she said. "I have grandchildren of my own at home, and my granddaughter just loves this." Holding up a small turquoise rabbit with a white belly, about a foot high including its ears, the woman laughed at the small carrot it held in its paws.

"Thanks," said Kris, holding the small toy in her hand. "Now I just need one for her mother."

The old woman stopped to think a moment. "Teddy bears are popular for the young ladies," she said, at last, and picked out a small white bear, with a cute black nose that Kris just knew Ryanne would like.

"Is there anything else?" asked the woman, and Kris shook her head.

"No, thank you very much," she said. "Have a nice day." The woman smiled, and walked away to find another customer to help, while the soldier paid for her purchases. Kris went back to the base, and entered her room quietly, trying not to let the plastic bag rustle anymore than she could help. She didn't want either guest to wake up, and hoped the gifts would be a surprise.

Satisfied that the two were still asleep, by the two different snores that were coming from her bedroom, Kris set the white stuffed bear on the table where it would be clearly visible. Smiling to herself, Jones could just imagine the smile that would grace Ryanne's face when she saw the bear.

She deserves something after all she's been through, Kris thought. It's the least I can do to bring a little happiness into her life. And Cassidy's?

Kris took the rabbit with her, slipping it behind a pillow on the couch. The soldier wanted to surprise the youngster herself, when the time was right.

Kris grabbed a few rags, some polish, a small container of water, and sat down on the sofa. Taking off her boots, the soldier placed her hand inside, and wiped most of the dirt off with one rag, soaked one corner in water, and wiped the rest of the mud away. Adding polish to the dry portion, she rubbed in on in small circles over the leather boots, and then buffed it to a nice polish with the clean cloth.

Cleaning her boots was a ritual Kris did every night, whether she was at the base or not. It was something she had gotten used to, and it often helped calm her down, as she focused solely on the task at hand.

An hour later, when both boots were shining brilliantly, Kris got up to check on her guests. It had been two hours since they had fallen asleep, and the soldier grinned when she noticed both were still snoring away. Cassidy was snuggled closely into her mother's side, and Ryanne had her arm around her daughter, protectively.

Before she could talk herself out of it, Kris crept into the room, and deposited feather-light kisses on the forehead of them both. The tall soldier held her breath, her heart pounding against her chest, when Cassidy stirred in her sleep, but relaxed when the girl did not wake.

Picking up the phone, Kris ordered a pizza, and got only cheese and pepperoni, unlike her usual "garbage" pizza, with everything except anchovies, because the soldier wasn't sure what Cassidy would eat, but seemed to recall that kids usually liked cheese and pepperoni on their pizzas.

Jones, why are you so concerned about them? her mind questioned. She had never acted this way before. Usually it's 'you eat what I've got or go hungry', not 'let me get something you'll like'. Why the change for Ryanne?

Because I fell in love with her the first time I saw her smile, she replied, and, when the soldier went back over her response, she realized it was true. Ryanne's smile had captured her heart, and the tall soldier would do anything for her and Cassidy.

A knock on the door startled her from her thoughts, and Kris realized she had been thinking about Ryanne and her smile for more than twenty minutes! Shaking her head, she opened the door and paid the pizza delivery boy quickly, taking the box inside and setting it on the small table in front of the couch.

No need to sit at the kitchen table, the soldier decided, when they could sit on the floor and she'd have a much better chance of getting close to the blonde.

"Mm," said a voice, "I smell pizza!" Kris glanced up to see Ryanne standing in the doorway, smiling sleepily.

"Good morning," said Kris, sarcastically, and she smiled as Ryanne indignantly put her hands on her hips.

"And just whose idea was it for me to take a nap in the first place?" the blonde demanded, smiling.

"There's a friend for you on the kitchen table," hinted Kris, biting back her smile of expectation. She was not prepared for the blur of blonde she saw, nor for the intense hug that nearly bowled her over. Had she not been sitting down, she'd have been knocked to the ground.

"I take it you like it," laughed the soldier, putting her arms around the blonde as she returned the hug.

"I love it!" she said. "He's so cute, Kris!" Kris' smile was genuine, as was Ryanne's joy. "You didn't have to get me anything," she protested, ever polite.

Kris just grinned, and couldn't resist the urge to brush a lock of Ryanne's hair away from her face. "You deserve it," she said. "Just think of him as a part of me. Take him wherever you go, and we'll never be apart."

The last part slipped out before she could stop it. Crap! "I mean, I'll always be there for you," she covered, quickly.

"Thanks," said Ryanne, softly, petting the bear's fur absentmindedly.

So, all you want is friendship, Kris, thought Ryanne, sadly. Well, I'll take what I can get from the tough soldier in front of me.

"You hungry?" asked Kris, and Ryanne nodded, helping herself to a few pieces of pizza. "God, woman, don't you eat?" asked the soldier, and Ryanne blushed, before staring the tall woman down, defiantly.

"It happens to be a habit of mine, yes," she said, seriously, before bursting out laughing when her serious facade crumbled.

Their laughter, and the smell of food, woke Cassidy up, and she walked into the living room, stuffed elephant in her hand, and dragging her blanket behind her.

"Hi, sweetheart," said Ryanne, opening her arms to the young girl, who instead climbed up in Kris' lap, startling the soldier immensely.

"Hi, Cassidy," she said, calming her racing heart. "I'm Kris." The girl nodded, as if that was obvious. "Hey, I got something for you, little one." The green eyes perked up immediately. "Do you wanna see it?" An anxious nod. Reaching behind her back, Kris withdrew the rabbit, and smiled broadly as the little girl's eyes sparkled with delight.

Kris met the blonde waitress' eyes, and Ryanne gave her a warm smile, and mouthed, "Thank you." The soldier just nodded, and wrapped her arms around the young girl as she introduced rabbit to elephant.

Cassidy ate a few pieces of pizza, earning Ryanne a jib from Kris about never feeding her child, before curling up in the strong soldier's arms, and falling fast asleep, a turquoise rabbit in one hand, and a pink elephant in the other.

Kris smiled as she draped the girl's blanket over her, but made no attempt at letting the child go.

"Do you want me to take her?" asked Ryanne, although she was enjoying the cute sight in front of her. The picture that Kris made with Cassidy asleep in her arms was just too precious.

The soldier shook her head. "No, she's fine," she said, and then admitted something to the blonde. "In case you couldn't tell, it scared me to death when she came over to me. I've never been real good with kids," she confessed, and Ryanne smiled, gently.

"You seem to be doing just fine with her," she said, softly, nodding to her daughter. "Kris, have you ever been around children before?" The tall soldier shook her head. "Then how do you know you're not good with them?"

She shrugged. "I don't know," she said. "I just always feel like they're so small and I'm gonna break them or something."

It was clear the woman was a little uncomfortable by the idea, so Ryanne put a hand on the soldier's arm, lightly. "Once they get past the age of about six months, you don't really have to worry about breaking them. Then you get to worry about them breaking themselves!" she said, and Kris smiled.

"I'm sure my own mother understood that concept very well," said Kris. "She's always said I was falling out of trees and jumping off of anything that was taller than me since before I was old enough to run."

"Do you keep in touch with your mother? I'm sure she's a wonderful lady," said Ryanne, smiling softly.

Kris shook her head. "No," she said. "My mother and I haven't been on speaking terms for quite a long time."

"I'm sorry to hear that," said the blonde, quietly. "Maybe you should try to get back together, on better terms." Kris raised an eyebrow at her. "My own mother died when I was a teenager, and we weren't on the best of terms, and now I regret it. Put whatever it was behind you, and try again," she urged.

The soldier shook her head, standing to take Cassidy to bed. "It's just not that simple, Ryanne," she said. Placing her small bundle gently under the covers, Ryanne watched with a smile as the tall woman tucked her daughter in, snugly, and then kissed her good night.

"How about some TV?" the soldier asked, not wanting to delve into her private life any further. She was not one to talk about herself much, and, as it was, had done more talking in the past 24 hours on behalf of a small blonde, than in the last year of her life.

"What's on?" asked the waitress, taking a seat on the couch while Kris sat in the chair, sensing that the soldier didn't want to talk about her family life anymore. The tall woman tossed her the TV listings, and let the blonde choose. Jones was not surprised when, by the end of the movie, the blonde was sound asleep on the couch. Smiling, she gently covered the woman with a blanket, and then sat there for a moment, just watching Ryanne sleep.

Reaching out a hand, the tall soldier lovingly ran her fingers through the blonde's short hair, and then placed a soft kiss on her forehead. "Sleep well, Ryanne," she whispered, before walking into her own bedroom, and trying to figure out how to climb into bed without bothering her young bed mate.

Chapter Four

Stretching out along the thin edge of the bed that was not taken up by sprawling three-year-old limbs, Kris gently scooted the child over so neither of them would fall off the bed, and then surprised herself by allowing the child to cuddle into her side. Kissing the crown of the girl's head, Kris gave her a whispered good night, and then fell asleep, as if holding a youngster in her arms while she slept was the most natural thing in the world for the tall soldier.

When in fact, she was scared to death. The first one to wake the next morning, Kris cracked an eye open, hoping against hope she hadn't crushed the girl in the course of the night. To her pleasant surprise, Cassidy was still curled up into her side, but now rested her head under Kris' chin, and was holding on to a bunch of the soldier's T-shirt with her little fist.

The girl shifted, and ended up with her head resting on the woman's shoulder, just above her breast, as Cassidy did with her mother. There was a grin on Kris' face when she looked up, and saw Ryanne standing in the doorway, smiling just as warmly.

"That is too cute," she said, her voice low, and snickered when the soldier blushed. "You know, you could have woken me up, and told me to sleep in here with her, so you could have had the couch to yourself. Or, you could've brought her out to the couch, so you could have your bed," said the waitress.

Kris shrugged. "This is fine," she said. "As long as you don't mind." The blonde shook her head; seeing her daughter and the woman she cared for (so soon? she couldn't explain it either) snuggled up in bed together made her heart skip a beat - of course she didn't mind! "Did you sleep well?" asked the soldier, and Ryanne smiled.

"Just fine," she replied. "How about you?"

"Pretty good," was the answer. "I hate to have to get up, but my squad should be arriving in the field soon."

"I thought you said your guys were going under another Sergeant?" asked Ryanne, confused.

"They are," affirmed Kris, gently sliding out from under the small child, who continued to sleep soundly, much to the soldier's relief. "I'm getting new recruits today."

"Would we interfere if we wandered out onto the field to watch?" Ryanne asked, and Kris hid her smile. "Cassidy seems to like the uniforms."

"As long as you don't distract my men, you're welcome to it," said the soldier, as she laced up her boots. "I'll be in the same place I was yesterday, working on drilling and physical exercise, and then we'll take a quick run around the compound, before breaking for lunch around noon or one. After that, it's more drilling and exercise," she explained. "So, if you want to find us, we'll probably be around the obstacle course, okay?"

Ryanne nodded. "Thanks," she said, and gave the soldier a bright smile before she walked out the door.

Kris took a deep breath as she shut the door behind her; if Ryanne's smile was going to get to her like that every morning, she'd have to start drinking more coffee if she wanted to be able to think straight! The woman's smile went right to her heart, and the soldier hoped she wouldn't have trouble concentrating on her men, especially if the blonde and her daughter decided to watch them work.

I'll be damned if I'm going to get caught staring at her instead of drilling the grunts, and then have to explain myself to the Captain, she thought. Focus, Jones, just remember to focus? and not on her!

Striding out onto the field, Kris eyed her new group, wryly. They seemed to be younger than the others, and they were certainly green. All were men, and a few were overweight, while she doubted others weighed 98 pounds fully clothed and soaking wet.

"Fall in!" she cried, as she came to stand in front of the soldiers, who were dressed in fatigues, but messing around with each other. Two men continued to joke around in line, and Kris walked right up to them, noticing with pleasure that she towered over them both.

"Do you boys have trouble following orders?" she asked, and they stared at her. "Attention!" she barked, and Kris found they could at least follow that command. "This is not the academy, boys! Frankly, I'm surprised half of you even made it here.

"First thing's first, boys and girls," she said, knowing full well the entire squad was male. "I am Staff Sergeant Kris Jones, and if I ask you a question or give you a command, you will respond with "Ma'am, yes, ma'am" or "Ma'am, no, ma'am". Is that understood?" she demanded, and raised an eyebrow when only two or three soldiers out of the two dozen replied.

"I said, is that understood?" she repeated, and the whole lot of them said, "Ma'am, yes, ma'am".

"For crying out loud, people. Volume is the key. If the Captain can't hear my squad all the way across the compound, then there's a problem. Now, I'll ask you one more time, and I'm only giving you this chance today, because you're new. Do you understand how you will respond?" she ordered, and an echo of "Ma'am, yes, ma'am" was heard throughout the practice field.

"That's better," she said, and moved to stand in front of them all. "If you see me around the base, you will refer to me as Sergeant Jones, or Sergeant. I don't need all that Staff bull, it's too long of a title," she said. "One more thing? you all remember the training I hope most of you did to prepare for this, right? And how much Hell it was?"

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am!" they shouted, and she chuckled.

"Well, that's gonna look like a walk in the park by the time I'm done with you." Several gulps could be heard, as the soldiers watched their new commander with wide eyes. "Now, I'd like to know your names, but I'm not going to walk around and read everyone's name tag. So, when I say "Call ranks", starting from the far left, my right, you'll say your name. For example, I'd say, "Kris Jones, ma'am!" Understand?" she asked, and the affirmative reply sounded in her ears as she smiled.

"All right, grunts. Call ranks!" she ordered.

"Michael Peters, ma'am!" said the first soldier.

"Robert Thompson, ma'am!" said the second, and the men went down the line, screaming their names at their commanding officer, who looked on, approvingly. When all 25 were finished, Kris walked through the lines, adjusting each man's stance.

"Parker, where's your cover?" she demanded of a soldier, when she noticed he was the only one without his cap on.

"Ma'am, I forgot it, ma'am!" he answered.

"You forgot it," repeated Kris, exasperated. "Well, that's just wonderful, soldier. You know what? You remind me of the old transient that walks around the streets with a sheet of tin foil over his head, because he says if he doesn't wear it, the aliens are gonna come and suck out his brains."

Taking the man's hand, she placed it on top of his head, and said, "We don't want the aliens to come and eat your brains, Parker, so you just keep your hand like that for the rest of the day. You tell me if you start to feel like your brains are leaking, understand?"

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am," said the highly humiliated soldier.

Finally, when all were standing at perfect attention, Parker with his hand obediently on his head, she said, "Now that I've got you all prim and proper, we're gonna take a nice little run in the dirt. See that obstacle course over there? You're going to get to know it upside-down, inside-out, and backwards. You'll be able to do it with your eyes closed," she said, and heard the man named Thompson groan.

"Do you have a problem with that, soldier?" she asked, demanding it right in his ear, and the man shook his head a little.

"Ma'am, no, ma'am!" he replied, and then took a breath as though to say something else, but decided against it.

"Do you have something else to say to me, Thompson?"

"I was just trying to figure out how we were going to do that obstacle course upside-down, ma'am," he responded, and Kris raised an eyebrow at him.

"Funny man, huh?" she asked, and the man nodded.

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am," he replied, causing Kris' eyebrow to go up even further.

"Well, you're an extremely lucky man, Thompson," said Kris. "Because I'm in a good mood today, and I like you. Otherwise, you'd be on the ground counting out pushups until you puke for a remark like that. Understand?"

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am," swallowed the soldier, wisely deciding that his humor was of better use elsewhere, than on his commanding officer who could run him ragged.

"Anyone else have a comment they'd like to make before we start?" she demanded, and got a resounding, "Ma'am, no, ma'am!". "That's what I thought. Okay, grunts, make a straight line behind Peters, here." The men quickly formed the row. "When I say go, one of you will run through the course. No one else goes until I say so, understand? I don't care if you've been standing there for an hour, and you've got sweat pouring off of you, and your nose is itching like crazy. You don't move until I tell you to, is that clear?" she demanded.

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am!" they cried.

"Okay. Now, Peters, go!" she commanded, and the man took off, agilely making it through the tires on the ground and under the logs and wire, but getting stuck at the wall, as most new recruits did. Despite the slight bulge of muscles that were visible through the small man's outfit, Peters was only 5'5'', he was unable to make it over the top, and fell to the ground.

"Come on, Peters, grab the robe and pull yourself up the wall. You can do it, soldier. Don't let that wall beat you!" she insisted, and grinned to herself when the man scrambled over the wall, dropping to the ground on the other side, rolling to his feet.

Once Peters was through, Kris went back to the line to check on her men, telling Peters to take a breather and have a drink of water from his canteen. Walking over to a soldier who seemed to be fidgeting in line, Kris glanced at his name tag.

"Brown, is it?" she asked, and the man nodded.

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am!" he replied.

"Do you have a problem, soldier?"

"There's a deer fly flying around my head, ma'am," he said. "It's trying to bite me," he added.

Kris raised an eyebrow at him. "Then it must be hungry, huh?" she responded. "I told you not to move, and I meant it. You let that fly bite the hell out of you if it feels like it. You've had breakfast, now it's his turn. Don't move, understand?"

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am!" said Brown, sounding loud but dejected.

"All right. Thompson, let's go, you're next!" Kris commanded, and the man took off on the same path as Peters, faring much better.

Ryanne wandered out, Cassidy in her arms, as the soldier was clambering over the wall. He landed well, and rolled to his feet, but had some trouble with the second set of logs, which he had to pull himself across.

"Come on, Thompson," said Kris, not noticing her audience yet. "You made it over the wall, don't let these hunks of firewood stop you! Pull!" she cried. With a burst of energy, the man finished with the logs, and completed the rest of the course with ease.

"Good, good," she said. "Take some water and then go to the back of the line."

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am," responded Thompson, a little out of breath.

"You all seem to be having trouble," said Kris, walking up and down the ranks, pleased when the soldiers all kept their heads forward, even when she was talking right next to them. "How'd you like to see an example of how it's supposed to be done?"

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am!" they all shouted, and Kris grinned.

"All right," she agreed. "Maybe I'll break the base record in the process, hm? Somebody time me."

"I've got it, ma'am," said one soldier, holding up his watch.

"Thanks, soldier," she said. "On my mark. Ready?" Doing a few quick stretches to loosen her muscles, Kris said, "Mark!" and took off through the course. She went through the tires, under the logs and the wire, over the wall, over the logs, climbed up the rope, ran through the swinging punching bags without being hit once, and finished by surprising the hell out of everyone and running up the wall to touch the flag, instead of using the rope, before doing a flip in mid-air and landing on her feet.

Sounds of applause filled her ears, as the soldiers clapped for her. "Time?" she demanded, and the soldier looked at his watch, disbelieving.

"One minute, six seconds, ma'am," he replied, shocked.

"The Captain's record just got beat," she said, smugly. "All right, grunts. Now that you know how to do it, I shouldn't see anyone else getting stuck, right?"

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am!" they replied.

"Good," smiled Kris. "Grant, you're up." The soldier took off, having some trouble but never giving up, and received a pat on the back when he finished. "Next!" called the Sergeant, as Grant went to the back of the line.

The last man in line, Jeff York, if Kris remembered correctly, had a lot of problems with the entire course, but he refused to admit defeat. For the first time that day, Kris didn't say a word to the young man, she let him battle the obstacles on his own. It took him a long time, a good five minutes, but he finished, and earned a smile from his Sergeant.

"Good job, York," she said. "You never stopped trying, that's very good." As she led him to his place in line, the soldier noticed Ryanne and Cassidy for the first time. Sparing the two a quick smile, she turned back to her men. "Okay, boys. That obstacle course took longer than expected, and it's lunch time. We'll do a few minutes of drilling, and then I'll dismiss you for half an hour.

"Attention!" she called, and they all stood rigid. "Parade rest!" All in perfect sync, 25 bodies performed the command, to Kris' approval. "Attention! Right face!" Going on with small commands for ten minutes, Kris called them back to attention, in order to dismiss them for lunch.

When the order was on the tip of her tongue, she felt a hand tug on her pant leg. Glancing down with a raised eyebrow, she held back a smile when she saw Cassidy standing there, looking up at her with bright green eyes.

Doing a quick survey for the Captain, and not spotting him, Kris kneeled down next to the child, and said, "Hey, sweetheart. How would you like to be Junior Sergeant?" The girl nodded, enthusiastically. "All right. Face the men, like this," instructed Kris, and the girl mimicked her stance exactly.

"Now, we have to salute them before they can leave. Dismissed!" she called, and the entire company saluted their Sergeant, and turned to go. "Hold it," she said, "fall in again." Twenty-five men returned to their places. "Salute again," she ordered, and arms were raised to their positions.

Kris nearly fell over laughing when she noticed how the girl was saluting her soldiers - instead of placing the edge of her right index finger against her right eyebrow, as she was supposed to, the girl was completely covering her right eye with her hand, smiling at the men as she did.

The tall soldier thought it was too cute to pass up on an opportunity. "Salute Sergeant!" she called, and the men saluted her. "Salute Junior Sergeant!" The men glanced down at Cassidy, and paid their respects to her. But not correctly.

"No, I said salute Junior Sergeant. That means salute her as she's saluting you!" commanded Kris, and 25 hands covered their eyes. "Very good. Now, you're dismissed for lunch." About-facing, the men walked off the practice field, before bursting into laughter.

Smiling down at the young girl, Kris picked her up into her arms, and gave her a hug. "Oh, Cassidy, you are one of a kind, sweetheart," she said. Placing the girl on her hip, Kris walked over to where Ryanne was standing, looking apologetic.

"I'm sorry she bothered you, Kris," said Ryanne, reaching for her daughter.

Kris just grinned, and shifted the girl's weight a little, but did not hand her over. "Oh, it's all right, she didn't bother me. She helped me find out that the men will follow any order I give them, no matter how silly it makes them look. Isn't that right, Cassidy?" The girl nodded.

"Hey, I've got an idea!" Cassidy watched the soldier intently. "If it's okay with your mother, do you want to go through the obstacle course with me? I could use a partner," she added, and the child looked at her mother, a hopeful grin on her face.

"As long as you're sure she won't get hurt," said Ryanne, and Kris had to hold herself back from kissing the woman's forehead at the love she showed for her daughter.

"She'll be right next to me the whole time," said Kris. "I'll protect her. Come on, Cassidy," she said, offering her hand to the youngster as she set her on the ground. Walking hand-in-hand, soldier and child walked to the course.

Ryanne watched with undisguised pride as Kris picked Cassidy up, and set her down in each of the tires, since the girl's legs were not long enough to step through them on her own. Then, crawling on their bellies, Kris waited patiently, since Cassidy had to crawl three times the distance for every one of Kris' advancements.

The blonde couldn't hear what Kris was saying, but she was pointing to the barbed wire above them, and then sucking on the tip of her finger as though she had injured it. The child's eyes got big, and she nodded.

By the time the two returned, Cassidy was completely covered in dirt, but smiling. A dirt covered Kris whispered something in the girl's ear, and she giggled, nodding at the soldier.

Reaching a dirty hand out to her mother, Cassidy laughed when she smeared dirt all over Ryanne's hand. Kris did the same with Ryanne's opposite hand, smirking at the look on the woman's face. Cassidy wrapped her arms around her mother in a dusty hug, and Kris followed suit, wrapping her arms around the woman and covering her white T-shirt with dust.

When the young girl placed a grimy kiss on her mother's cheek, Kris leaned in to do the same, but caught herself, and pulled back.

That was close, she thought.

"Well, I've still got a few minutes left for lunch. I'm sure you girls are hungry," said the soldier, and laughed when Ryanne slapped her arm, playfully. "We can go back to my quarters and reheat that pizza if you want."

Both Cassidy and Ryanne seemed extremely enticed by that offer, so Kris declared a race back to her quarters. Taking Cassidy in her arms, she took off, Ryanne not far behind her. The small blonde beat the soldier by a few seconds, and laughed her way into the room, collapsing on the couch, a smile on her face.

"I won!" she exclaimed, and Kris walked in behind her, setting Cassidy on the floor.

"Hey, Cassidy," she said, and motioned for the girl to come closer so she could whisper in her ear. "Is your mother ticklish?" she asked, and the girl smiled, nodding.

"You may have won the battle?" said Kris, reaching out for Ryanne's stomach with both hands, tickling her until she fell off the couch.

"Okay, okay," she said, giggling uncontrollably, "I give! You win, you win." Kris laughed, and sat back on her heels to allow the woman to catch her breath. "You don't play fair," she pouted, the smile betraying her.

"I never play fair," said Kris, lowering her voice an octave. Realizing how much that sounded like a playful come-on, the soldier quickly got to her feet, and started fixing lunch for Cassidy.

Was I flirting with her?? she thought, surprised at herself. My God, I haven't flirted in? well, I've never flirted! The one woman I don't want to express my feelings to, I'm flirting with. Soldier, get a hold of yourself!

A small hand on her arm brought her out of her thoughts. "What is it, sweetheart?" asked Kris, the endearment seeming natural, although she had never used the term before in her life. Cassidy held up two fingers.

"You want two pieces of pizza?" The child nodded. "Okay, little one. Take this in to your mother, and yours will be ready when you come back," she said, handing the girl a plate with three pieces of the leftover pizza on it.

Moments later, the girl came rushing back in, looking expectantly at the tall soldier, who laughed. "Here you go," she said, giving the girl her plate, and then following the youngster into the living room, where Ryanne was busy devouring the last piece on her plate.

"You sure don't waste any time, do you?" asked Kris, grinning as the remark earned her a punch in the arm.

"Not when it comes to food," the blonde responded.

"Well, I've got to run," said the soldier, saving her last piece of pizza for later that night. "You guys are welcome to come back out again, if you'd like," she added, as she rushed out the door, kissing Cassidy on the top of her head as she left. She didn't know why she did it; it just seemed right.

As the soldier walked back out to the field, she realized her men were already assembled there. When they saw her approaching, they immediately fell into their ranks, and stood at attention.

"I'm impressed," she commented, raising an eyebrow at their obedience. "Ready for more fun, grunts? Let's get a move on!" she said, cheerfully, as she led them in the next phase of their workouts.

Chapter Five

Ryanne washed her hands, and wished she could change clothes, since hers were now covered in dirt, but decided to wait until she could let Kris know she was going to leave the base. Maybe the woman would watch Cassidy for a while, while she was gone; the tall soldier seemed to get along well with the girl.

Which was something that surprised the blonde. She'd expected the soldier to be hard and strict with children, but she seemed to be very kind and gentle with Cassidy. And the picture soldier and child made was absolutely adorable to the waitress.

Cassidy had startled her by going to the soldier first, rather than her mother, the child never being one for strangers, but maybe Cassidy could tell a gentleness around the woman, and trusted her. The girl sure did like being around Kris, and Ryanne was almost positive the feeling was mutual.

A small hand tugged on her arm. "What, sweetheart?" asked Ryanne, kneeling to be eye-to-eye with her daughter. The girl pointed to the door, and then stood at attention as well as she was able. Ryanne laughed. "Do you want to go watch Kris some more?" Cassidy nodded. "Me, too. Come on," she said, offering the girl her hand, which she took eagerly.

Mother and daughter walked out to the practice field, where Kris was stretching out with her men, preparing them for a run.

"Now, it's gonna be hot as Hell," she warned, "but that's why you should all have canteens with you. I don't think we'll go that far, and if any of you need water, don't slow your pace, but go ahead and take a sip. I don't want anyone passing out on me, okay?"

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am!" was heard, as the soldiers touched their toes and loosened their muscles.

"Good. Let's go," she said. "We'll start out with a slow march, and then I'll pick up the pace. You guys keep up with my cadence, and you'll do fine. Forward, march!" Jones commanded, and led the men at a pace of 120 steps per minute, calling "Left, right, left, right, left, oho hey right," so it almost sounded like she was singing. The beat helped the men stay in step, and she picked up the pace to 180 steps, before breaking into what was more of a slow jog.

"Thompson!" she called.


"You know any Jody calls, soldier?" the tall woman asked.

"Ma'am, a few, ma'am!"

"Well, get out here and keep this gaggle of maggots in step," she ordered, and the man fell out to beside the ranks, making sure he was in step before beginning.

"Left? left? left, right? right? right, left," he called, so everyone was sure to be in step for the cadence. "Left, left, keep it in step."

"Left, left, keep it in step!" repeated the soldiers in rank, as the sounds echoed through the compound.

"Up in the morning with the hot, hot sun," cried Thompson, and the men beside him repeated the call. "Gonna run all day, 'til the runnin' 's done? We're gonna run five miles or more!? Then turn around, and run five more!"

Ryanne watched the squad follow Jones around the compound, trekking about two miles, she guessed, before coming to rest back at the practice field. Only a few of the men seemed out of breath, and even in full dress, Kris didn't look like she'd even broken a sweat.

"That was good," the Sergeant said, allowing her men to walk around for a minute, gradually slowing their heartbeats. "All right, line it up. Fall in!" she called, and 25 men formed their lines in an instant. "Let's see what you guys remember. Call ranks!"

"Michael Peters, ma'am!" said the first soldier, immediately.

"Robert Thompson, ma'am!" said the second.

"Jeffery Winston, ma'am!" continued the third man in line, and Kris grinned as the men obeyed her order, calling out their names. Jones made a mental note to ask her friend, and fellow Staff Sergeant, Neil Winston, if Jeffery was related to him. So far Jeff seemed to be a good man, and if he was anything like Neil, he'd be a great soldier.

When silence fell upon the field again, Kris walked up and down through the lines, assessing their stances. Taking two steps forward, she'd come to a halt, right- or left-face, and then inspect whichever soldier she was standing in front of.

"Head up," she said, noticing that Winston's stance was a little off. "Heels together. Keep your chest out, soldier." She rattled off a list of things he needed to fix on his uniform, shining his boots, sewing a tear in his sleeve, and so on.

The man sighed. "Yes, ma'am," he said, tiredly.

"Do you have a problem, soldier?" she demanded, sensing defiance.

"It just seems that you're being especially hard on me, ma'am," he explained.

Kris raised an eyebrow at him. "Is it my fault that the other two I've inspected so far have been in better form than you, Winston?" she called, asking the question as she leaned into his ear. "If I notice more defects on you, I'm going to get on your ass more than the others, understand?"

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am," he said, and Kris noticed he still sounded exasperated.

"Soldier, are you related to Staff Sergeant Neil Winston?"

"He's my brother, ma'am," he confirmed.

"I suggest you talk to him about how to polish your boots, and how to take a commanding officer's orders," she said, sharply, before turning away from him, and moving on to Ling, the next in line.

Ryanne was amazed that this hard, strict, and often severe soldier was the same woman who had fixed her lunch, and held her daughter in a safe embrace all night long. She seemed like two different people.

The waitress recalled the soldier's words a few days before. Yeah, I can be a hard ass, but only because my job calls for it. RC realized the woman was right.

A few minutes later, when the surprise inspection was completed, Kris stood in front of her company, scanning them with her eyes. They all seemed to be pretty eager to learn, and willing to exercise and follow orders.

"Now, the next time I decide to call a surprise inspection, I expect all of you to be in better form than I saw today," she said. "All that I mentioned should be taken care of. Is that understood?"

"Ma'am, yes, ma'am," they called. Kris worked them hard until dark, giving them various orders to follow. Whenever one of them screwed up, they would all have to drop to the ground and do pushups until she told them to stop.

"This might seem unfair to some of you," she said, as the men were counting out their pushups, Winston having turned left rather than right when she'd called right face. "But it builds teamwork, and you all need to learn to rely on each other, as well as yourselves. Talk to the men around you, let them know when they're doing something wrong, so you can help them fix it. If you don't, we'll be doing this for a long time.

"All right," she said. "Recover." The men jumped to their feet, breathing hard. "It's just about too dark to see out here, and I don't feel like working with you grunts any later, and having to turn the lights on. So, you're all dismissed until 0600 tomorrow." They all saluted her, about-faced, and walked off the field, sore, and unhappy about having to be out on the field again at 6:00 the next morning.

"Hi," grinned the soldier, upon seeing that Cassidy and Ryanne were still there. They'd left earlier, to get something to eat, but returned as soon as they were done. While Kris wasn't used to having an audience, she didn't mind having the blonde around, and sensing her gentle presence with her all day.

Ryanne smiled. "Hi," she replied. Cassidy smiled up at the tall woman, and Kris picked her up into her arms.

"Hey, pip-squeak," she said, and the girl laughed. "Well, did you have fun watching me make the guys work?" Cassidy nodded, and Kris chuckled. "It's a lot of hard work, though. You wanna learn?" The girl agreed, happily, and Kris glanced at Ryanne.

The blonde thought about it for a moment, before deciding that Kris probably wouldn't be as hard on the girl as she was the soldiers, and nodded. "Okay, I guess," she said. "Just go easy on her."

Kris raised an eyebrow at her. "Huh-uh," she said, smiling as she carried the girl in her arms. "My Junior Sergeant and her mother are going to have to be just as disciplined as my men."

Ryanne cracked a grin. "Junior Sergeant and her mother?" she asked.

Kris nodded. "You didn't think I was letting you off that easy, did you?" Ryanne didn't know if she was serious or not, but found out a few minutes later, as they entered the Staff Sergeant's quarters.

"Attention!" she barked. Cassidy immediately stood rigid, and Kris towered over her, correcting her stance. When the girl didn't understand, Kris moved her chin up with her hands, and nudged her heels together with her foot. "That's it," she said, and then turned to Ryanne, who was watching the scene with interest.

"I called you to attention, Cole," she said, and Ryanne flinched; it was the first time Kris had called her anything but "Ryanne". The blonde snapped to attention as she had seen the soldiers do, and Kris seemed pleased.

"Better," she said. "We'll work with a few commands and go slow, since I'm tired, and this is all new for you two." She demonstrated right face, left face, and about face, and then drilled her two students. Cassidy learned quickly, and Kris was pleased with both of them; they both made progress.

"Dismissed," she said, and just waved them off. "You don't have to do anything, just fall out, and relax," she assured, and Cassidy had a huge grin on her face as she gave the startled soldier a big hug.

"You liked that, huh?" The girl nodded. "Good. We can do it whenever you want, okay? But, right now, I'm hungry. You guys already ate, so I'm going to fix myself something, if that's all right." Ryanne smiled, and nodded, as she disentangled her daughter from the limbs of the tall soldier.

"Kris, can I use your phone?" Ryanne asked, and Kris nodded, as she headed towards the kitchen.


The blonde picked up the phone, and dialed seven digits, hoping that her friend would still be awake at 9 o'clock.

"Hello?" answered an alert voice, and Ryanne grinned.

"Hey, Barry," she said.

"RC? Is that you, girlfriend? I haven't heard from you for a month! How've you been?" the man asked, cheerfully. Barry Lincoln was a close friend of Ryanne's, the two having met in a bar, shortly after Cassidy was born. The man was a gentle soul, and loved both blondes like family.

"Yeah, it's me," she confirmed. "Things have been a little hectic. I hate to do this, Barry, but I need a favor."

"Anything, darling," he said, halting his late-night cleaning session to listen more intently. It wasn't often his blonde friend asked for help, so he knew it was serious. "What do you need?"

"I need you to head over to the café for me tomorrow," she said. "I want you to put a sign on the door that says "Closed Until Further Notice". I don't have the time to take care of it right now," she added.

"No problem," said Barry. "What's going on? Are you and Cassidy all right?" He knew the trouble with Daniel, and also knew that Ryanne needed the money she got from her business, so whatever had happened must have been bad.

"Yes, we're fine," she reassured the man. "We're staying with a friend of mine right now, down at the Army base. I don't know how long we can stay, but I have to move - I just can't live there anymore, so close to him." Barry knew who she was talking about. "He tried to take Cassidy the other night, and that's when I came here. I'll probably stop by some time tomorrow to pick up a few things, and maybe we can get together for a little while," she added.

"That'd be great, RC," said Barry. Ryanne noticed that Kris was the only one who called her Ryanne, instead of her nickname, RC. "You've just got to meet George! He's the most wonderful guy," he gushed.

Ryanne chuckled. "George? What ever happened to Pete?" she asked.

Barry sounded astonished. "Pete?" he repeated. "Girlfriend, Pete is old news. He didn't like Merle Haggard," he explained.

"Oh, of course," said the blonde. "They have to like Merle, don't they?"

"Anyone who doesn't like Merle just isn't worth my time," sighed the man. "Well, excluding you, darling. You're the exception," he amended.

Ryanne laughed. "Thanks," she said. "So, does George like Merle?"

"Loves him," said Barry. "Listen, I've got to go. George is meeting me downstairs in an hour. We're gonna watch sappy old movies at my place and neck like a couple of teenagers," he giggled.

The blonde rolled her eyes. "Have fun, Barry. Just don't break his heart, hm?" she asked.

Barry sighed. "I'll try," he said, heavily. "I'll get that sign made up later, if I have time, and put it up tomorrow morning, all right? And do try to stop by tomorrow, with Cassidy - it's been too long since I've seen my Mouse," he said, using his pet name for the child, which he had adopted since she was "quiet as a mouse".

"Okay," said Ryanne. "Thanks, Barry, I really appreciate it. Bye." Barry echoed the same, and Ryanne hung up the phone with a sigh. That was one less thing she had to worry about; she knew Barry would take care of it, he was a man of his word. At least, when it came to her.

"Everything all right?" asked Kris, finishing the slices of pizza she had reheated for dinner.

Ryanne nodded. "Yeah," she said. "I'll probably take Cassidy with me tomorrow. I'm going over to the house, just to collect a few things, and maybe see an old friend of mine."

Kris shrugged. "Okay," the woman said. "You can leave Cassidy with me, if you don't want to have her around there," she offered.

Ryanne smiled. "Thanks, but my friend Barry wants to see her, too. I think we'll be all right," she said. "It'll only be for a little while," she added.

Again, Kris shrugged, but was silent. She didn't like the idea of Ryanne and Cassidy going back around the same environment that had hurt them, but wouldn't try to convince the blonde otherwise - she knew it wouldn't do any good, and didn't want the woman to suspect that she cared more than she thought she should.

Kris insisted that Ryanne sleep in her bed with Cassidy, Ryanne insisted that Kris should sleep in her own bed, and Cassidy just wanted to sleep with the tall soldier. Finally, the soldier gave in, and let Ryanne sleep on the couch, while she and the young girl took the bed.

The soldier tucked Cassidy in, kissed her forehead, and then walked out to the living room. Staring down at the peaceful face of the slumbering blonde, Kris found herself leaning down, and placing a soft kiss on her forehead, as she had done with her daughter. As she turned back to her room, she saw a small figure dart back to bed, and hurriedly cover up, trying to hide her giggles.

Kris sighed as she climbed in beside the youngster. "You saw that, hm?" she asked, and the girl nodded, smiling. "Well, don't tell your mother, all right? I don't think she'd be very happy with me if she knew I did that." The girl nodded, yawned, and curled up into the soldier's side as she fell asleep.

"Goodnight, pip-squeak," sighed Kris, kissing the girl on the forehead again, wrapping her arm securely around the small form.

Yeah, it'd be great if Cassidy told Ryanne I kissed her, wouldn't it? her mind questioned, as an internal monologue began. Oh, yeah, terrific. She'd say, "Kris, Cassidy says you've been staring at me as I slept, and even kissing me. Is that true?" And I'd probably stand there, my jaw open, stuttering like an idiot. "I, uh, well, uh? damn." Yep, that'd go over real well.

How long do you think it would take her to peel out of the base? Five, six seconds? Kris sighed. Crap. I hate not being able to hold her, and look in her eyes without worrying that she'll see the truth. I don't even know why I've fallen so hard, but I know I'll never feel this way again.

So, what am I gonna do? she asked herself. Do I just stay here and hide my feelings, or do I take a chance, and let her know how I feel? What if she feels the same way? What if she doesn't? What if she stays for a long time? What if she goes home in a few days? What if? The soldier's thoughts ceased as she fell into a deep sleep.

Chapter Six

The next morning, Kris was up at 0530 hours, or 5:30, and jumped in the shower. She wrapped a towel around herself when she got out, and changed into her fatigues which were in her bedroom, making sure the young girl in her bed was still sound asleep before letting the towel fall to the floor.

She dressed quickly, and ate a small breakfast, leaving a note for Ryanne, so she would know she was out on the field if she wanted to stop by. Chancing one last kiss on the blonde's forehead, Kris rushed out the door, and met her men on the field.

Ryanne awoke an hour later, at seven, and laid on the couch for a while, before deciding that her dreams were starting to become more and more similar, and more like reality in the past few days. Since she had been on the base, in Kris' quarters, the young woman had been dreaming that the tall soldier kissed her every night, and then held her in her arms as she slept.

Shaking her head, Ryanne decided it was time to wake Cassidy. To her surprise, when the blonde walked into Kris' bedroom to find her daughter, she saw the youngster slipping on Kris' camouflage jacket.

"Cassidy!" she exclaimed, and the girl turned, startled. "Those are Kris' clothes, sweetheart. Did you ask her if you could try them on?" The girl shook her head, guiltily. "Well, then you need to put them back, okay? They're too big for you, anyway," she added. The jacket sleeves hung down to the floor, and the bottom of the jacket was long enough on the child to touch the floor.

The girl reluctantly agreed, handing them to her mother, since she couldn't reach the hanger herself. She had just snagged a sleeve, and pulled until it fell off the hanger and into her hands.

Ryanne replaced the jacket on the hanger in the closet, and then scooped her daughter up into her arms. "Come on, sweetie. Let's get you into the bath, and then I'll take my shower, and then we can go get our things from the house. Maybe we'll even see Barry, do you remember him?" The girl nodded. "Good. Come on."

An hour later, when Ryanne had finished cleaning up the water that had been slopped onto the floor from an exciting splash fight between her and her daughter, the blonde left Kris a quick note, telling her the phone number and address of where she'd be, and about when she'd be back, so the woman wouldn't worry.

Ryanne and Cassidy arrived at their home at 9:30, having stopped for breakfast at McDonald's, and cautiously stepped inside, Ryanne having convinced her daughter to leave her rabbit in the car so she wouldn't lose it. The child didn't go anywhere without the soldier's gift.

When they entered the house, Ryanne was reminded of a tornado. Things were strewn about everywhere, but nothing seemed to be stolen, which was surprising. Cassidy went into her room, to pick out her toys, and Ryanne set out straightening the living room, and choosing pictures she wanted to take with her. She wouldn't take everything, only objects that were important, or had emotional value to her. The rest she would try to sell.

It was almost an hour later when the blonde finished cleaning her home, and had most of her things collected in an old suitcase. She carried the case out to her car, put it in the trunk, and returned to help Cassidy pack her belongings.

Both were startled when they heard a voice bellow, "Bitch! I know you're in here! Come out, and give me my fucking daughter!" Ryanne flinched, and told Cassidy to hide under the bed, while she went out into the living to try and get Daniel to leave.

"She's not here, Daniel," the blonde lied, coming around the corner. She stopped in her tracks when she noticed that the estranged man held a large hunting knife in his hand. "I left her with a friend of mine," she continued, slowly.

"Like Hell you did," he spat. "I know you're lying, because I saw you walk in with her! Now, where is she?" he shouted, sending spittle flying in her direction, which Ryanne resisted the urge to wipe away, knowing it would only anger the man further.

"You can't take her," said the blonde, firmly. "I won't let you hurt her!"

"Get the fuck out of my way," he said, backhanding her roughly across the face. Ryanne fell to the ground, but quickly got back on her feet, blocking the man's path. "Listen, you little bitch," he snarled, waving the knife in front of her, "either you get out of my way, or I chop you and the girl into little pieces. Her first, so you get to watch," he added, gleefully.

Ryanne blanched. "If I move, do you promise not to hurt her?" she bargained.

The man laughed, his foggy eyes showing delight. "Yeah, sure. Whatever," he shrugged, moving towards her, the knife in front of him. "If you don't move, she'll regret it." The blonde hung her head, and stepped out of the way, knowing Daniel wouldn't hesitate to do exactly as he said. She could only pray she was doing the right thing by giving in to him. She hoped she'd be able to save her little girl.

"Where are you?" he demanded, going into Cassidy's room. "Ha!" he cried, looking under the bed, but she wasn't there. "Damn it, where the fuck are you?!" He ripped open the closet door, and found the young girl cowering in the corner. "Come here," he ordered, grabbing her by the hair as he yanked her out.

The girl yelped, and he growled, "Shut up. Not another sound." Wrapping her in his large arm, the man held her with the point of the knife against her neck, and slowly walked out of the house. "Come on, Cassidy," he slurred, "let's go home. You call the cops, and I'll slit her pretty little throat," he warned, as he left. "I mean it."

Ryanne waited until she was sure he was going in the direction of his house, and, picking up the phone, dialed the number for the base with trembling hands.

* * * * *

Kris was jogging around the field with her men, when a Private ran up to her, not even bothering to come to an immediate position of attention.

"Sergeant, there's an emergency phone call for you," he said. "It's been forwarded to your quarters, since that's the closest."

"Thanks, Private," said Kris, her heart pounding. Her only thought was of Ryanne, and Cassidy. She was scared to death, but wouldn't let anyone know it. "Run over to Sergeant Jenkins," she told her men. "If he asks why I sent you, tell him I had to go take care of an emergency." As the soldiers took off in one direction, she ran in the other, running as fast as she could to her quarters.

Picking up the phone, she said, "Hello?" and struggled to get her breath.

A tearful voice came over the line. "Kris," sobbed Ryanne, "we came? and he took her? and I couldn't? and a knife?" she blubbered.

Kris tried to calm her down. "Ryanne, I need you to slow down. Now, what happened?" she asked, her voice even and smooth, despite the fact that her heart was in her throat.

"Daniel has a knife, and he came over, and he took Cassidy!" she blurted, breaking down into tears again.

Kris would have panicked, but it sounded like Ryanne was doing enough for both of them, so she decided the woman needed her strength more than her fear.

"I'll be there in ten minutes," said the soldier, hanging up the phone as she glanced down at the address Ryanne had left. She'd have to race to make it there in the time she'd told Ryanne, but she'd do it. The soldier didn't know how Daniel was acting, and did everything with the speed that Cassidy's life depended on it.

For all she knew, it did.

Kris took a deep breath as she pulled the box out from under her bed, and unlocked it. The soldier didn't think she'd have to use the weapons for a long time, like until the entire National Guard decided to break into her quarters, but she figured the more of an advantage she had over Daniel the better. Strapping one .38 to the outside of her right thigh, Kris added a Glock 9mm to the outside of her left calf, and another .38 in a shoulder holster.

She left the major weaponry in the bottom of the metal box, knowing the problems that occurred with overkill. Slipping on her army camouflage jacket to conceal the weapon, the fully armed soldier left the base in a rush, still wearing her camouflage outfit from the field.

Being friends with the Chief Weapons Officer had its advantages.

When Kris arrived at Ryanne's house, she found the woman near hysterics. "Ryanne," she said, and the woman ran into her arms, but Kris pulled back. "Ryanne, I need you to calm down, okay? If you're emotional, you'll scare Cassidy." The blonde nodded, and took a few deep breaths, trying to calm her nerves and stop the tears.

"Are you going to be okay?" Kris asked, and received a nod. "Okay. Now, where is he?"

"He went into his house," Ryanne said. "One block over, just across the tracks." Kris nodded, and prepared to walk out, when Ryanne called her back. "Kris! Be careful," she said. The soldier gave her a quick smile, and headed down the street.

Jogging to Daniel's house, Kris slowed to a walk, and approached the house silently. Drawing both guns that were visible on her legs, the soldier peeked in the window, but saw nothing. Softly opening the door - all the way, to discourage anyone from hiding behind it, she closed it again, just as softly.

The tall woman had to remind herself to breathe, when she saw Cassidy tied to a chair, in the center of the living room. The girl seemed frightened, but, thankfully, unhurt.

Kris couldn't tell which room was what - they all lacked furniture, and were covered in dirt and ashes and cigarette butts. But, it didn't really matter. She wasn't there to ask where the bathroom was, after all, she was on a mission.

"Daniel!" she cried, wanting to draw the man out, so she would be able to watch him, and wouldn't have to go searching.

"I told the bitch I didn't want any goddamn cops!" came a deep, drunk, male voice from the back - what Kris guessed to be the bedroom.

"I'm not a cop," said Kris. "But you'll wish I was."

"Why?" asked the voice, and it sounded a little nearer, now.

"Because," said Kris, simply. "cops have a code that says lethal force is the last resort. I don't."

"You think I'm afraid of you?" demanded the man, coming into view, and several other men were visible behind him. Kris cursed herself for not thinking that the man could have had others with him, and took a quick glance around her, but found the area surrounding her to be vacant.

Kris looked at the man's eyes - he was very drunk, and probably just as high, and she suspected the others were, too.

Taking into consideration that the man was armed with a good-sized knife, and so were a few of his buddies, along with baseball bats, Kris said, "No," and left it at that. Rather than egg them on when they were all together, Kris wanted to separate them, if at all possible.

Scratch that idea, she thought, holstering her guns, as everyone but Daniel charged at her. The soldier didn't want to just start shooting, and blast them all away, but she wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger if she had to.

Two men held bats, and two had knives - all were high and acting extremely melodramatic, screaming at her as they ran. One swift kick to the throat disarmed one man of his knife, and sent him to the floor, gasping for air, while another came up behind her. A pain spread across her back as a baseball bat crashed across her shoulders, and she spun around, knocking the assailant to the ground as she swept his feet out from under him. Grabbing the bat, she brought it down on his stomach, and swung it around, blocking a blow from the other bat.

The two attacked and parried, until it seemed as if they were fighting with swords instead of bats. After taking a particularly hard hit in the arm, Kris side-kicked the guy with all her might, sending him flying back into the wall. Taking a moment to check on Cassidy, whom Daniel was trying to step through the fray and sneak up behind, Kris staggered to the ground when she felt a blinding hot pain in her left shoulder.

Glancing up, she saw the fourth man standing over her, grinning, blood all over his hands, but no knife.

That can't be good, thought Kris, trying desperately to clear the fog that entered her mind.

"Son of a bitch," she spat, and kicked the man so hard in the groin, his balls found a new home in his throat. "Smile now, fucker." Struggling to her feet, she saw Daniel reach for Cassidy.

"Huh-uh," she said, drawing the gun on her thigh, as well as her calf, concentrating on not letting her left hand shake, which she recognized in the back of her mind she was having a hard time doing.

"Drop the knife," she ordered, but he refused. "Listen," she growled, cocking both weapons, as she fought the dizziness again. "I can either blow your head off," she gestured to with her right hand, which was aimed at his head, "blow your brains out," she motioned to the Glock which was trained between his legs, "or you can drop the knife. Your choice."

The knife hit the floor, and Kris took a few steps towards him. "Now, untie her," she commanded. "Try anything funny, and there won't enough of you to identify." Daniel nodded, and did as he was told, carefully undoing the girl's bonds.

Cassidy immediately ran behind Kris, who glanced down at her, and said, "Go home, Cassidy. Go see your mom." The girl took off, without looking back. The tall soldier turned her attention back to Daniel, only to be met with a strong right hook in the jaw. Stumbling back, Kris regained her balance, and steadied her guns.

"Wrong choice, ass hole," she snarled, and fired a warning shot that zoomed between his knees. "You know where the next one's going," she said, and he nodded.

"If you even think about hurting Cassidy or Ryanne, I won't hesitate to empty my clips into your worthless excuse for a body. And I'll come fully equipped, understand?" Another nod. "Now, if you know what's good for you, you'll tell your buddies what I said. Except that one," she said, pointing to the one who's windpipe she had collapsed. "He won't have to worry about it."

Backing out of the house, Kris waited until she was sure Daniel wasn't going to follow her, before replacing her guns in their holsters. She was glad she hadn't had to use them.

The soldier had a sick feeling there was a knife sticking out of her shoulder, and if she could have removed it without losing anymore blood, she would have, for fear of scaring either Ryanne or Cassidy. But, she couldn't, so she'd have to return, and humbly ask the blonde to take her to the Emergency Room. She had to keep her left arm cradled against her stomach, since she had a hard time keeping it steady, and that had her worried.

As soon as Kris stepped inside, she called to Ryanne, and asked her if Cassidy was all right. The woman replied that they were both fine, and asked Kris to sit down, because she looked a little pale. And the blonde herself looked a little pallid when she saw the knife in the soldier's shoulder.

"Ryanne," said the soldier, weakly, "I, uh, I need you to take me to the hospital. Okay?"

"Sure," said Ryanne, taking the soldier's hand and calling for Cassidy. "Just stay with me, all right?"

Kris swallowed, and leaned heavily on the blonde, as her body acknowledged the trauma and sent a wave of nausea washing over her. "I'll try," she said, and sank into the front seat of the car as Cassidy clambered into the back.

"Keep talking to me, Kris," ordered Ryanne, and Kris shook her head.

"Ryanne, listen to me," she said, evenly. "I've lost a lot of blood because of that knife in my shoulder, and there's a chance of shock. If I do pass out, I want you to keep driving, and ask an ER doctor to help you, okay? Don't worry - I'll be all right," she reassured her, seeing that the woman looked scared.

The blonde nodded, even though she was indeed frightened. Kris noticed the brave facade, and struggled to move her left hand over, taking Ryanne's in her own. The blonde squeezed her hand, softly, and Kris suddenly didn't care that the angle she had her arm aggravated her shoulder - her fingers were intertwined with the smaller ones.

As they pulled around back, Ryanne hurried around to the opposite door, instructing Cassidy to stay by her side, and calling for a passing nurse as she helped Kris from the car. The woman leaned heavily on the small blonde again, but Ryanne held her up, and a nurse came with a stretcher.

"Thank you," said Kris, as she eased herself onto the cot. "I love you," she mouthed, before releasing Ryanne's hand when they wheeled her away, and finally giving in to the darkness.

Ryanne stood, frozen. Had Kris said "I love you"? Shaking her head, the blonde decided it was just wishful thinking, or the immense amount of pain the soldier was in, or both. Taking Cassidy by the hand, she parked the car in the parking lot, before going into the hospital to find out what she could.

Continued in Part 2.

The Athenaeum's Scroll Archive