~ Number Two ~
by planetsolin

Disclaimers: This story is a figment of my own imagination and a companion piece to Finding Your Heart. The two main characters may seem familiar but that is where the coincidence ends.

Sex/Violence: If the thought of two women being together bothers you this is not the story for you.

Others: Comments are welcome. planetsolin@hotmail.com


Captain Elliot Bellows slowly made her way around the dark compound checking with the soldiers in each position. She disregarded her fatigue aware that her own state merely mirrored the feelings of every one of the soldiers in her Unit.

They had arrived at this small outpost almost three weeks earlier and since that morning they had been in contact with the enemy almost every day and night. It had initially been called a rescue mission; set to help the Afghan Unit that was already stationed at this remote outpost, but it had turned out to be much more. She had been told they would only be there a few days but that time had been extended several times, so that now she no longer believed her Commanders when they said that she and her Unit were about to be relieved.

She came up to the position where her radio man was stationed and settled in beside him. One glance at his young face and she knew that like everyone else in the Unit he was feeling the exhaustion of the mission. Though they tried to snatch some sleep between attacks it was never enough to erase the fatigue from their dirty bodies.

"How are you doing?" She asked the young soldier.

"Okay Captain," he replied quietly.

"Is there anything new to report?" She nodded towards the headset that he closely guarded.

"Nothing," Corporal Anton Middells responded knowing that his Commander was referring to any orders that might come down from the High Command.

"Keep me posted," the Captain sighed quietly and the young soldier nodded his head in the darkness. "Did you write home today?"

"Yes, Captain," the Corporal nodded again.

"Did you get any mail in the last drop?"

"Yes," Anton couldn't help the smile that came to his lips at the thought of the letter that was now safely tucked in the breast pocket of his uniform under his body armour. "My girlfriend wrote. She was telling me about the wedding preparations that she was making."

Elliot knew from previous conversations with the young soldier that he was supposed to get married the week after they returned stateside from their tour of duty. She knew from the past talks that his girlfriend was busy handling all the details of the wedding and that all the young soldier had to do was show up to the church on time. She knew that she would do everything in her power to make sure that the twenty-one year old soldier got there.

"Well, remember when the shooting starts keep your head down."

"Yes, Captain," the soldier nodded his head in agreement and the two fell silent.

Elliot settled more comfortably in her spot on the line, beneath an overhang with a gun position overhead. She rested her automatic weapon between her legs and then leaned her head back against the wall closing her eyes, hoping to snatch a few minutes sleep. But like usual sleep was hard to come by.

She huddled deeper into her uniform aware of the chill of the night. Even though in most circumstances it would be brutally warm it was cold compared to the baking heat of the midday and the dried sweat of her body now only made her body shiver. She sighed remembering why she was out here rather than the warm comfort of her cot back at the base.

Her tour was supposed to have been spent in the comfort and safety of Khandalahar but the unexpected loss of one of her Unit's Lieutenants and the Armies inability to get an immediate replacement had necessitated that she leave her desk job and head out into the field. She had only been put in charge of this particular mission because the Lieutenant in charge had been on leave when the Commanding Colonel had ordered the Unit on this relief mission.

"You women want on the front lines well here is your chance," the Lieutenant Colonel had barked at her before sending her out into the field.

She sighed and opened her eyes just as Company Staff Sergeant Bill Wolchek scuttled up in front of her. The small, wiry non-com was chewing on an unlit cigar like the old veteran that he was. He was a solid character and one whom she had come to rely upon and trust over the last few weeks. She didn't know what she would have done without his steady presence. He was a good man and on his fifth tour in country.

"Everyone is in place and just waiting for the Taliban to attack," he reported having done his own inspection of the compound and their gun positions.

"Good," she nodded her head.

"The boys on the west compound wall by the rocket hole are a little jittery tonight Corporal Lewis says he has a bad feeling."

"He always has a bad feeling," the Captain remarked knowing to which soldier the Sergeant was referring. In the past three weeks she had come to know the soldiers under her command on an intimate basis. "But if they attack I will go and help shore up the west wall."

The Sergeant nodded, knowing that his Commander would do as she said. He had learned over the last few weeks that she was a woman of her word and that she was as fearless and brave as any soldier he had ever fought with. Initially he had been reserved when he had learned that they would be getting a female commanding officer but the woman had proved better than most of her male counterparts.

"Where do you want me?" He asked.

"I want you and A Squad in the middle, ready to shore up any position that needs it." The Captain instructed and the man nodded.

The Sergeant knew that she could have held herself in reserve instead of leaving that job to him but he had quickly learned that she was willing to lead by example and that more than anything she liked to be in the thick of the action.

"What time have you got?"

"00:30 hours," the wiry Sergeant responded glancing at his watch.

"Okay if they are true to form then we have a half hour before they begin their probing," Elliot said glancing at the luminous dial on her watch. "Do another walk around and make sure no one is sleeping, I don't want to get caught by surprise if the party starts early tonight."

"Yes, Captain," the man nodded before moving off again.

His presence was almost immediately replaced by the female Interpreter who slid into a position next to her against the wall. The woman had replaced her usual soft hat with a helmet, and the sunglasses that usually covered her eyes were now safely tucked into a pocket.

Amira Nur had been born in Afghanistan to a poor family of farmers. In their short acquaintance Elliot had learned that she had deeply resented the Taliban's rule and the moment the United States had invaded she had signed up as an Interpreter, not only for the pay, which she sent to her family, but also to fight the Taliban in the only way she knew how. Elliot knew that if they were given the time she could become friends with this brave native woman.

"So how is it that you are a woman and a Captain of a fighting unit?" Amira asked quietly, her soft accented voice breaking into the Captain's thoughts. She knew enough from her interaction with the United States Military that women were still prevented from serving in fighting Units.

"I was a part of a pilot project," Captain Bellows replied honestly realizing that her secret could be shared. "They wanted to see if women would be strong enough and capable of serving in fighting units. There were forty one of us to begin the project but only three of us graduated the program and were put into fighting units. I was number two."

"Are the others here in the Army like you?" Amira wanted to know.

"No, one of the others went to the Marines and the third woman I'm not sure what happened to her. Our project was initially very secret but in the last few years knowledge of it has gotten out."

"You enjoy this?" The Afghan woman waved at their desolate surroundings and Elliot had to think for a moment.

"I don't think anyone enjoys being at war," the Captain responded.

"But you could have been sitting behind a desk," the native woman said. Elliot opened her mouth to speak but at that instant the Taliban chose to initiate their nightly attack.

"Stay under cover," she instructed as the first rocket blasted into the side of one wall. She was instantly on her feet, her weapon in hand, running towards the point of attack. Amira had no intention of moving. She was only so brave.

Elliot raced to the point of impact dodging a burst of weapons fire. She noticed several soldiers cowering behind the wall, and immediately headed in their direction. They had been under fire before but were just now reacting to the intense barrage of combat. It happened often to soldiers who were suffering from battle fatigue.

"Come on, return fire or they will overrun us," she barked above the cadence of fire as she slipped into the line in between them. She took a deep breath and then to press her point she raised her weapon and stood up on the wall and let go a burst of fire before dropping back down into position.

The soldiers looked at her and she could see them each take a deep breath before following her example. With loud yells they stood up and released a burst of gunfire in the direction of where the fire was coming from. Elliot knew that this was just the beginning of a long night.

Ryan Sloane used her volunteer pass to park her Jeep in the parking lot of the Brooks Army Medical Hospital at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio Texas. She had been a volunteer at the hospital since her brother had been killed in Iraq in 2004. Now six years later she was thinking it was time to retire. She never tired of the work; she was just tired of seeing all the injuries of the young men and women who came to the hospital with injuries that they had suffered in Iraq or Afghanistan.

As a volunteer or Ward Listener, she would visit the various soldiers, spending time with them when their families couldn't be with them. The doctors and nurses had all told her it was an invaluable service yet it had also taken an emotional toll; one that she could no longer ignore.

She took the sunglasses off her face and brushed her short blond hair behind her ears a smile automatically coming to her lips. She was not unattractive with a heart shaped face and expressive green eyes. She thought of the many marriage proposals she had received over the years and the few hearts that she had broken. She had met many young soldiers over the years and many had touched her life but no one had yet touched her heart in the way that she hoped someday someone would.

She sighed and then exited her vehicle using the parking garage entrance she made her way through the labyrinth of hospital corridors to the Burn Unit stopping at the nurse's station when she arrived at the Ward.

"Good afternoon Mary," she greeted the head nurse on duty behind the desk.

"Good afternoon Ryan," the older woman returned the greeting with a smile. She enjoyed the small woman's presence almost as much as the wounded soldiers looked forward to her visits. "I thought we might see you this morning."

"I had some business to attend too," the blond woman said.

Ryan had made a fortune on the web, designing a site that had been then purchased for an outrageous amount of money by one of the big internet providers. She never had to work again but she continued to dabble on the web helping others who called on her expertise. In the meantime she spent as many as eight hours a day volunteering at the hospital talking to wounded soldiers and their families. She considered this as her real job.

"Anything I should know about?" Ryan asked. She considered the nurses her best source of information on how any of the patients currently in treatment were doing, that way she was prepared when she went to see them.

"Corporal Lanny Watson got some bad news today," Lieutenant Mary Stildun explained. "His grandfather passed away two days ago."

"They were close," the young volunteer commented remembering the many conversations she had had with the young soldier. "How is he taking it?"

"Not very well," the nurse sighed. "You might want to stop in and see him first your visits always cheer him up."

"There is not much cheering up I can do in a situation like this," Ryan sighed. "Is there any other news?"

"Private David Leeds received a letter from his fiancée today, he didn't seem too happy after reading it," Mary said.

The young blond woman was silent as she contemplated this news. Private Leeds had been waiting for almost two weeks to hear from his fiancée after her visit. Ryan did not take this as a good sign.

"I'll see if I can get him to tell me what's wrong," she sighed again and then mentally prepared herself for the visits.

She left the nurse's station and walked down the hallway towards the room where Corporal Watson was situated. The young soldier had been at Brooks for six months and was at the stage in his recovery where he was ready to move out of the hospital to a halfway house, a place where he could stay outside the hospital while he finished recovering from his injuries. The young man had suffered burns to twenty five per cent of his body and lost one leg in an IED blast in Afghanistan.

He was ready to move on or at least he had been. Ryan knew from past experience that sometimes bad news from home often resulted in the setbacks to recovery. She paused outside his room and squared her shoulders bracing herself for what was to come.

"Good afternoon," she said cheerfully but not too brightly as she stepped into the room. Her green eyes immediately focused on the young man who was sitting in a chair next to a window. His head was bent and when he looked up she could see the tears on his face.

For the next hour Ryan sat with the soldier listening as he talked about his beloved grandfather, a man he had not seen since he had been deployed on his tour of duty fourteen months earlier. Though members of his family had been there to visit him, his grandfather had been too ill to make the journey from Kansas to see his eldest grandson. Now all the boy had left was treasured memories of a man that he had grown up idolizing.

The blond volunteer only left the young man when she was certain that he was going to be okay. It never ceased to amaze her how resilient the young soldiers were who she visited.

From there she walked back down the hallway to another room greeting the young warriors who she passed along the way. She was such a fixture on the ward that most of the patients and their families knew who she was. More than once she stopped to chat for a few minutes with the patients answering a quick question or just making a cheerful comment. All the time she appeared as if she was speaking to someone normal and without the horrible disfiguring scars that most of the soldiers in the Unit suffered.

Ryan stepped into a semi private room her eyes searching for Private Leeds, but he was nowhere to be found.

"I think he is in the common room," the soldier occupying the other bed commented aware immediately for whom she was searching. Ryan nodded but instead of hurrying away she stopped to talk to the soldier who was still wrapped in bandages. She knew that this soldier would be in the hospital for many more months.

When she finally found Private David Leeds it was immediately clear to her that he had received bad news. The young soldier was sitting by himself in a chair in front of a television set. There was a talk program showing but it didn't look like the boy was paying any attention. She slipped into a chair next to him and gently placed a hand on his arm.

"How you doing David?" she asked.

"Not good," he was honest. "Shannon sent me a letter breaking our engagement."

Ryan was not surprised. She had met the fiancée during one of her visits and had immediately gotten a bad feeling as she watched the interaction between the couple. David had once been a handsome young man but caught in a Humvee that was hit by a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) he was no longer the picture perfect boy he had been in High School. He had suffered severe burns to his hands and face and though she never shied away from any appearances she knew there were others that could not handle disfigurements. Shannon appeared to be someone who was more concerned by appearances than by what was beneath the skin.

"Did she say why?" Ryan was gentle with her questioning.

"She was honest," the soldier shrugged despondently. "She said that she couldn't handle my new appearance." There was a brief pause. "I should have realized something was wrong when she took so long to come visit me and then when she did she couldn't look me in the face."

"I am so sorry David," the volunteer was genuinely sympathetic. She had seen this situation happen more than once.

"I thought she was different," he lamented. "I mean we have been together since high school."

"Then maybe it wasn't your injury," Ryan said delicately. "Maybe it was just the relationship. Maybe it had just run its course."

"What do you mean?" David wanted to know. He looked up at her for the first time and the volunteer looked him squarely in the eye.

"Sometimes relationships just end, for no reason other than that the two people involved drift apart," she tried to put a positive spin on the situation. She didn't want him to leave feeling that his disfigurements were the reason for the end of the engagement regardless if it was the prime cause.

"You remember how you told me that it would be weeks before she would write you while you were in the field and remember how long it took for her to come visit you," Ryan always tried to make the situation appear brighter than it was. "I think she was just in love with the idea of being in love and got engaged because she thought it was the thing to do. If I remember right you told me that she wasn't interested in setting a wedding date."

The young soldier nodded. The more and more that Ryan talked the more he began to think that maybe it wasn't his injuries that had ended his engagement and that Shannon wasn't worth his time.

"You have grown up and changed," the volunteer said. "I am sure your new maturity could be seen in your letters."

"Do you think it could be?"

"Yes," Ryan nodded, though she was not entirely convinced that what she was saying was true. Her words were working and she could see that the young man was not as depressed as he had been when she had first seen him.

They talked some more on other subjects and he brighten considerably when he told her that his parents were coming that weekend from Montana to visit him. When she finally left the young soldier he was in a better mood.

"I don't know how you do it," Mary commented when Ryan prepared to leave the Ward after her visit.

"What do you mean?"

"You know as well as I do that the girl dumped him because he wasn't the same handsome boy that she went out with before his injuries," the nurse was bluntly honest.

"Yes, but we can't let him think that," Ryan shook her head and then shrugged. "For all you know they would have broken up even if he had come home safe and sound. I am just thankful that there are more loving and caring people out there than the ones like Shannon."

"Thank goodness for that."

"I'll see you tomorrow or are you off?"

"I am off for the next four days," Mary reminded. "I have a cousins wedding to go to in Houston."

"That's right," Ryan nodded remembering that the older woman had told her about the upcoming nuptials on an earlier visit. "Have a good time and remember not to drink too much."

"Right," the nurse laughed and the blond volunteer joined in. Both knew that after long days on the ward a good binge was sometimes needed.

Ryan thought about her day later that evening when she was sitting out on her patio. The evening was warm and she had gone for a swim in her pool before settling on the lounge chair with a warm glass of red wine and her ever present laptop. She took a sip of the red liquid and felt the warmth slide down her throat.

She had probably lied to the young Private that afternoon but her lie had made the boy feel better and that was a huge part of her job as a Listener. Their injuries were such that they had many trials to go through and it was her job to try to make that process as easy as she could. If listening to them and trying to make them feel better about themselves was part of that then she was willing to do that.

She took a deep breath and leaned her head back waiting for her friends to come on line after their days at work. Chatting on the internet and designing new programs, though solitary events were the best way she knew how to decompress after a day at the hospital. She thought again about quitting knowing that it was taking an emotional toll on her but just as she was about to contemplate that thought her computer pinged and she knew that her friends, Jenny and Brittany were on line.

Elliot wiped the sweat from her face leaving a streak of dirt across her cheek. It had been a long night and the battle had been fiercer and lasted longer than any that they had thus far experienced. It seemed the Taliban were stepping up their attacks in the hopes of inflicting as much damage as possible before the onset of winter. She glanced up at the sky as the first streaks of sunshine began to light up the dawn.

She glanced at the soldiers on the compound wall beside her. The excitement and adrenalin of battle was now beginning to give way to the exhaustion that always followed a fire fight. The soldiers, dirty from days of not bathing, waited tensely for the word to stand down.

"Relax," she said to the men in her immediate surroundings. "Grab something to eat and drink and then take turns getting some sleep."

The men nodded relieved to be able to take a bit of a break though they knew to be on guard in case the Taliban decided to do a daylight attack. Normally they would have to do a sweep of the area outside the compound but today it seemed the Captain had other things in mind for them.

Elliot stepped away from the wall glancing at the ground and the spent shell casings that littered the space around her. She moved towards the center of the compound where Sergeant Bill Wolchek stood with A Squad.

"What is the report?"

"Two minor gunshot wounds," the Sergeant replied having done a complete circle of the compound.

"Good," the Captain sighed relieved that they had gotten through the night with only minor injuries. Not all battles ended this well. "Take A Squad and police the area. I don't think you are going to find anything but just make sure the bastards are gone."

"You don't want us to do a patrol?" The Sergeant asked aware that was the routine.

"Not today," Elliot shook her head glancing around the compound and seeing the weary movements of the troopers. "Let the men rest today."

"Yes Captain," the man said and then barked instructions to the squad of men behind him. In minutes they were on their way outside the compound. Elliot was watching them depart when an excited Corporal Anton Middells came scurrying up to her.

"Captain its Headquarters on the line." He held out the handset for her to take.

"Captain Bellows here," she barked into the phone and then listened quietly as the speaker on the other end talked. She nodded her head once before handing the phone back to the Corporal.

"Thanks," she said and then turned away to go in search of the wounded soldiers.

The phone call had been good news. They were to be extracted and replaced by another Unit but she was not willing to share the news just yet. She had received the same phone call once before and then had the order rescinded. She was not about to get the Unit's hopes up only to be dashed.

A check with the medic and a short visit with the two wounded soldiers comforted her. She was never happy to see anyone injured but was pleased that these two injuries were so minor that a few bandages would patch them up. In spite of that she knew that both soldiers would be getting purple hearts.

Next she walked around the perimeter of the compound in order to assess the damage that the attack had caused. She surveyed the pock marks and blasted parts of the wall. It was surprising how well the old compound was standing up against the constant assaults. She walked back towards the small overhang where Corporal Middells was set up, dragging out a bottle of warm water from one of her trouser pockets and draining the liquid down her throat in one gulp.

By the time she made it back to where Corporal Middells was set up under a roof Sergeant Wolchek was back with his Squad. He quickly relayed what they found, which was nothing but shell casings, and then she advised him of the call that she had received earlier.

"You think it's real?" The Sergeant was sceptical.

"I hope," Elliot said bleakly and then smiled. "I could use a shower."

"We all stink, Captain," Wolchek snorted and Elliot laughed out loud for the first time in days. The Sergeant couldn't help thinking how beautiful the Captain's joy sounded. It was rare that they had any time for merriment but sometimes it helped relieve the stress they felt.

"Yes, I suppose we do," she agreed and the smile faded. "Pass the word. Let the men know we are going back to base today."

The Sergeant nodded and did as he was instructed bringing the good news to the soldiers of their Unit. Elliot only hoped that it wouldn't be a disappointment and three hours later her hopes were rewarded as the sound of choppers suddenly filled the area.

The Captain issued orders and sent a welcoming squad to usher the new Unit into the compound. The Lieutenant in charge was not impressed with his new assignment but Elliot didn't care about his feelings. Briefly she gave him a rundown of the situation and what to expect.

"I don't know why they have us here," Lieutenant Darien Drake muttered in complaint. "There isn't anything of worth out here anymore."

Elliot would have liked to agree with the man but she knew as senior officer that she had to keep her own feelings in check even if what the man said was true. There was nothing out here anymore; the people had left a long time ago and the farmer's fields were overrun with weeds. The place was barren and smelt of death.

"Because there are plenty of Taliban in the area," the Captain answered her counterpart. "You will encounter them at every turn and face their nightly attacks."

"Have you done any patrolling?" The Lieutenant wanted to know.

In the beginning they had gone out on patrol everyday but Elliot had quickly realized that the enemy were waiting for them to advance out of the village, hiding in the tall vegetation that surrounded the landscape in ambush. She had lost several good soldiers on those patrols. She told the Lieutenant as much.

"Well, maybe they just needed a fitter Unit out here," the junior officer commented and Elliot had to bite her tongue from giving a sharp response.

Her Unit was one of the tightest and fittest in the Command and she was proud of them but many of her counterparts in the Army derided them because she was in charge. There were few in the Upper echelons who believed that a woman could be a good Commander of a good Unit. She knew that the Taliban were a fierce enemy and that this Lieutenant would soon learn that his Unit was no better than any of the others that had manned this outpost.

Captain Bellows and her Unit had to wait until the Choppers returned just before 1200 hours with supplies before they were able to leave the compound and board the helicopters. She wished the Lieutenant and his men good luck and then followed her men, making sure everyone was aboard before she stepped into the bird.

An hour later they were flying through the air leaving the place of misery that had been their home for the last three weeks. Elliot sat near the door of the chopper and as all the men in the helicopter she prayed that there were no enemy waiting in the fields below with a rocket launcher.

She thought about her present tour of duty. She had decided before volunteering that it would be her last. She had spent too many years at war and knew that it was time for her to take a desk job back in the States. That way she could get Billy to come live with her. That way she might even be able to have some sort of life.

She paused in her thoughts to glance at the men in her Unit that were in the helicopter with her. Most of them were slumped in their seats to weary to sit up straight. Some were even sleeping. A smile came to her lips but it faded almost as quickly as it came.

Most of these troopers had family at home anxiously waiting their return. She really had nobody other than Billy. So often she had thought it would be nice to have a home and relationship to come home to but the military, in spite of all its talk was still quite archaic in their attitude towards gay and lesbian soldiers. She knew that she had to be careful in her position and so had denied herself the chance of having a relationship with another woman.

She sighed. She was twenty-nine years old and had eleven years' service in the military. She had at least another nine years before she qualified for a decent pension. She knew that she could quit and do something else but all she knew was the military. She shook her head dispersing her thoughts. She knew that if she ever wanted Billy to live with her that she would have to stay in the army. With that conclusion she closed her eyes and tried to take a short nap.

In spite of her new thoughts of resigning Ryan kept going back to Brooks Medical Center every day, spending her hours visiting with the wounded warriors and their families. Many soldiers in spite of their injuries had high hopes for the future and some even talked of re-joining their Units.

But there were others who were more realistic and those were the soldiers with the worst injuries. These were the men and women who knew that their lives were forever changed and that they would be haunted by their wounds until the day they died and sadly death was always nearby in the small forty bed Ward.

There were some soldiers who suffered such severe injuries that they were unable to survive longer than a few days. The ones that hurt the most though were the soldiers who survived the initial infections and setbacks only to die months after suffering their injuries. This was when Ryan used her skills to comfort the staff, the nurses and doctors, who had battled hard to help those soldiers survive. There was more than once that she had found a staff member alone in a hidden corner of the ward crying and she was aware of the toll that the War was taking on those who weren't in combat.

Ryan was lucky, she had several good sincere friends whom she could turn when the emotional toll became almost too much but she knew that her work had taken a toll on her own personal life. In 2004 she had had a steady girlfriend and had thought she was in a secure loving relationship but three years later her partner had given her an ultimatum. Quit going to the hospital or their relationship was over.

She paused now as she stared up at the clocks on the ward walls that showed the time it was in Iraq and Afghanistan. She hadn't been able then to give up her visits here and so her girlfriend had moved on and in a way so had she.

Ryan had moved out of the condo they had shared leaving it as a parting gift to her former girlfriend while she found her current residence. Though she had loved her former partner she realized in the end that they were not really suited for each other.


She heard her name called and turned to see a soldier slowly shuffling down the hall towards her. Automatically she forgot about her life and a smile came to her lips as she caught sight of Sergeant Alex Dubrick.

"Sergeant, how are you doing today?" She asked her green eyes staring directly into the man's badly scarred face.

"Better now that I see you," the man said. He was a flirt and tried to charm all the female staff members. In spite of that the man was fiercely devoted to his wife, a woman who staunchly stood at his side regardless of his horrible wounds.

"Okay what do you want?" Ryan asked instantly knowing the man was up to something. Sergeant Dubrick smiled fugitively.

"My wife is coming this afternoon and she is bringing my single brother-in-law."

Inwardly the small blond woman groaned. Almost all the wounded soldiers knew that she was single and if they weren't trying to charm her they were trying to introduce her to single members of their own family.

"Alex I told you I wasn't interested," she chided him lightly not wanting to hurt his feelings. She knew that they were only trying to be helpful. She had not told anyone that she was gay and preferred to keep that secret to herself even though she knew it would make no difference to any of the staff.

"Come on, he's good looking and he has a good job," the Sergeant cajoled. "You shouldn't have to work here all the time you should be home with a family."

"I like my life," she said and then reminded the man. "Besides if I was home with a family I wouldn't have been here and therefore I wouldn't have gotten to know you and your wife."

The soldier had to admit that she was right but he didn't give up continuing to cajole her into meeting his relative. In the end she did meet the brother-in-law. The man was good looking and was charming but he did nothing for her and so declined his invitation to dinner when it was issued.

"I am here to help you soldiers," she reminded the Sergeant later after his relatives had left and he had complained about her not accepting the dinner invitation. "I'm not here to look for a life partner."

The Sergeant grumbled some more but eventually changed the subject. "The doctor says I should be getting out of here in the next week or so. Louise has rented a condo not too far from here so I can continue with the outpatient therapy."

"That's good to hear," Ryan was genuinely happy to hear the news even though she knew she would miss the Sergeant's optimistic approach to life. She also knew that he still had years of physical therapy ahead of him and was probably sentenced to a life with constant pain. At least most of the surgeries were over though she knew that he still would face some reconstructive procedures before it all ended.

She was just leaving the hospital when her cellphone rang. She saw that by the display that it was her ex-girlfriend Gerri. In spite of their breakup they had remained amicable and of late Ryan found herself talking more and more to her old partner. Most of the time it was to hear the other woman complain about her new partner.

"What's up?" She asked answering the call.

"I just called to see how you are doing," the other woman replied.

"I'm fine," Ryan answered cautiously. "What do you want?"

"I was just curious to see if you wanted to go for dinner tonight?"

"What about Lorraine?" The small blond woman asked.

"We broke up," Gerri admitted flatly.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Ryan was sincere.

"Yeah well she wasn't you," the other woman said and there was silence following her admission. "I miss you Ryan."

Though there had been one time when Ryan would have been elated by such news she now felt no emotion. There had been a time just after the break up that she had longed for a call from her ex-girlfriend to say she had made a mistake but not now. She waited a long moment before answering.

"I still volunteer at the hospital," she said hoping that would be enough to put the other woman off. She knew that Gerri hated being alone. The other woman had gotten into her last relationship only weeks after they had broken up. "I'm not giving it up."

"I know," Gerri sighed. "I guess I was just hoping that you might want to try us again."

"No Gerri, we both have moved on," Ryan was blunt. "I have changed. I don't want the life that you do."

Gerri had always liked to party and she had thought that Ryan's wealth was a reason for them to lead an active social life. Initially the small blond had gone along with her girlfriend and accepted the busy lifestyle. But now living on her own she realized that she was more into a quiet social setting; a nice evening of dinner and conversation with friends rather than partying and dancing till all hours of the night.

The phone call ended shortly after that and Ryan was glad that she had long gotten over the other woman. She had never really been happy, not as happy as she had thought she was. Though her parents had seen it they had been supportive. She knew that they would be relieved to know that she was no longer interested in her old girlfriend.

Captain Elliot Bellows strolled purposefully across the compound towards the Command hut, her boots kicking up the fine dust of the ground. It was hot, she had already drunk three bottles of water, and it wasn't even mid-afternoon yet. She wondered what the Colonel had in mind.

She sighed. She was as tired as she was hot. Her senses were clogged with dust and her mind was as slowed as her gait by the heat. They had just returned from a three week mission to an outpost and she hated to think that they might have to go out again before they had been properly rested.

In fact she had only finished writing out her reports and had retired to her quarters when a young Corporal had come with a request that she was to report to the Command Hut. She was angry but she suppressed her emotion, hell she hadn't even had a chance to shower yet.

"Bellows, it's about time you got here," Lt. Colonel Barker Jamieson barked as she entered the slightly cooler Quonset Hut. There were fans running everywhere in an attempt to cool the air around them. Unfortunately it was doing little good.

"I came as soon as I received your message," the Captain replied in a civil voice.

"You are still moving awfully slow," the man said gruffly and Elliot was about to retort but held her tongue.

"What's up?" She asked instead and the Colonel pointed to a map on a table in the middle of the room. She followed him to the shelf.

"We just received word that a group of Taliban are massing in the village of Belahar. We need to get a reaction squad in there as soon as possible."

"Sir, might I remind you that my squad just returned from a three week mission to Khalanar," Captain Bellows tried not to sound argumentative but she was concerned about the soldiers in her troop. They had not had a proper sleep in three weeks and the heat of the summer had left them totally exhausted. "Isn't there another Unit you can send out?"

"Everyone else is tied up besides your troops can sleep when they get back," the Lt. Colonel snorted. "I want your troops out there now."

Elliot would have liked to argue the point some more but she knew with one look at the older man that she had no chance of making the man see reason. He was a Lt. Colonel looking to get his full bird before he left the country for a desk job back in the States. He had a chance to look like a gun-ho soldier and he was going to make the troops do as he wanted.

Staff Sergeant Wolchek was just as angry as she was when she relayed information of the new mission to him a little later. The man swore, not at her, but at the Commander, a man who had not seen any action during his tour.

"Is he crazy?" the Sergeant wanted to know.

"He wants his bird and we are the ones going to get it for him," Captain Bellows sighed knowing that as much as she didn't like the idea she still had to obey the order. "Get the troop ready. Hopefully it will be a quick in and out. We will do a sweep of the village, talk to the Chiefs and then get the hell back here."

The Staff Sergeant nodded knowing that the Captain would keep the mission short and if possible keep them away from any contact with the enemy. Unfortunately it was his duty to get the troops ready and that meant rousting most of them from their cots. There was a lot of grumbling and swearing but the soldiers dutifully got their gear together and got out to the Humvee's and Bradley's.

Captain Elliot Bellows stood out in the sunshine, fully decked out in fifty pounds of gear, with her weapon slung over her shoulder, her long raven coloured hair tucked under her helmet, and watched as the soldiers in her squad gathered for the mission. Intense blue eyes stared from behind dark sunglasses at the men of her troop as they packed the trucks with water and snacks just in case the mission took longer than a quick run. Sweat drained from every pour in her body and soaked her uniform.

"We're ready to go," Sergeant Wolchek barked and Elliot nodded bending her tall frame and jumping into the command vehicle with the Sergeant, their female interpreter Amira and the young Corporal Middells who acted as a radio operator.

They travelled through the gates of the compound and out into the countryside of Helmand Province. They followed what qualified as a road towards their destination passing civilians who were walking alongside the road and others working in the field. It looked relatively peaceful but all knew from past experience that it was all a façade. The country was dangerous, every dry, barren unforgiving inch of it.

The convoy raced down the road towards the villages at the bottom of the mountains. It was the middle of the day and the heat was almost unbearable. Elliot grabbed a bottle of water that she had stowed in one of the pockets of her trousers and downed the warm liquid in a few huge gulps. Almost as soon as the water entered her body it sweat out. She was damp in every part of her slender lanky frame, so that she was not only hot but also uncomfortable.

She ran her tongue over her lips, tasting the dust as well as the salt of her body. Already her throat was dry and her head pounded from the heat. She had a headache from almost the time that she had landed in country almost four months earlier. Not for the first time did she wonder why she was doing this.

It was an hour before the vehicle slowed as they entered the Afghan village of Belahar. It was quiet but there were people about so Elliot was not initially worried. If there were Taliban in the village, normally the people were nowhere around. But there were children and women walking around. They pulled to a stop in front of the building that housed the village Chieftain.

Elliot stepped out of the vehicle and glanced around her sharp blue eyes taking everything from behind her shades. She motioned for the troopers that emerged from the other vehicles to spread out and be on the lookout. She waited until the interpreter got out of the vehicle and followed her to where a group of men were sitting outside a building.

"Hello," they greeted the men in the local Pashto language. "How are you today?"

They chatted for a few minutes exchanging pleasantries before they got down to business. Elliot asked the questions and the interpreter relayed her requests to the men in charge of the village. Their answers were all the same, quiet and assuring that everything was okay and that there were no Taliban in the area.

The Captain glanced around and noticed that the crowd of onlookers who had initially gathered out of curiosity had all but disappeared. The women and children were gone and the men who were sitting in the shade of the building were beginning to look nervous.

Before she could issue a warning there was a burst of gunfire. Automatically the troopers spread out and took cover behind their vehicles. It was an ambush and Elliot grabbed the interpreter and threw her undercover of the vehicle. Without waiting for a command the soldiers returned fire.

"To the right, over by that compound wall," the Captain shouted over the noise directing the fire towards where the bullets were coming from.

"Get under cover," Sergeant Wolchek grabbed the Captain and pushed her undercover aware of her pendant to remain in the open during a firefight.

Elliot bent over the hood of the vehicle and returned fire, pressing her finger against the trigger and releasing a burst of fire from her own automatic weapon. She felt the beat of her heart quicken as the sweat continued to pour from her body.

"Man down, medic!" someone from a short ways away shouted and Elliot turned for a moment to look and in that instant a bullet whizzed by her head.

"Fuck," she swore and ducked aware that it took only one instant before a person was dead. She took a moment to regain her courage and then stood up again returning fire, aware that the village elders had disappeared into the building or some other hiding place.

The battle seemed to last for ever yet it was over within an hour. The Captain signalled for the others to stop firing and then there was total silence. She glanced about and then because it was in her nature she went down the line to each of her team to ensure that they were okay. When all was said and done there were three minor gunshot injuries that the medic was able to patch up.

"Let's do a sweep," she motioned with her hand and immediately the soldiers spread out again walking slowly in the direction of the compound wall from where they had taken fire.

She led the way and after they did a thorough search there was only a bunch of shell casings to be found. The enemy had disappeared in the village in the same way they had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.

"Let's go home," Captain Bellows decided, exhausted. "Let's take the East route out."

They climbed back into their vehicles and with Captain Bellows vehicle in the lead they headed back towards their compound. They had gotten no more than a mile out of the village when there was a huge explosion.

Elliot saw a flash and heard a loud noise and the next thing she knew she was hurtled out of the door of the Humvee. She felt a searing pain and remembered the stench of burning flesh. There was a ringing in her ears and the piercing screams and then because mother-nature was compassionate there was nothing else before she fell unconscious.


Ryan was still thinking about her old partner's phone call the several days later when she entered the hospital. She glanced down the ward and smiled. It seemed the same as usual though she knew never to expect the same thing.

"Did any one new come in?" She asked the same question every time she came in.

"Yes," Mary nodded glancing at a file in front of her. "A Captain Elliot Bellows burned in an IED blast in Afghanistan a few days ago. She arrived last night from Germany and has been in surgery all morning."

"How badly is the Captain injured?" Ryan asked and then waited for the grime details. It was important to know the essentials if she was to deal with the soldier.

"Second and third degree burns over 40 per cent of her body, lost both legs below the knee, fractures to both arms, broken nose and jaw and head injuries," Mary quoted what she had been told. They always received the most severely injured soldiers in their ward. "She was the lucky one."

"There were others?" the small volunteer wanted to know.

"Three others in the vehicle, none of which survived beyond Germany," the nurse sighed. "Unfortunately one was so badly burned and disfigured that they will need dental records to identify him."

Ryan nodded thinking about what she had been told. She had dealt with soldiers who had worse injuries so she was not worried about being able to deal with this soldier. It did surprise her that the Captain was a female for they didn't receive many burned female soldiers into the Unit.

"What about her family?"

"Her next of kin is a grandmother who lives in Florida. The woman immediately gave the doctors permission to operate."

Ryan nodded again knowing that it was important to get the burn off the patient as soon as possible and to start the grafting to stave off infection, the major cause of death in burn patients. She wondered how strong the grandmother was.

"Will she be coming here?" She wondered out loud. In most cases the family tried to be at the bedside of their kin as quickly as they were allowed.

"Unfortunately no," the older nurse said, a hint of regret in her voice. "She said that she wouldn't be able to come to Texas, something about her health preventing her from travelling."

Ryan didn't like that bit of news. She knew an important part of a soldier's recovery was the attention of their family. From past history she knew that a soldier's rehabilitation was closely linked to the care and understanding of their families. She had dealt with similar situations and found that recovery was always hampered by kin's absence.

"When can I see her?" Was the next question and the nurse was thoughtful for a moment. There wasn't much the volunteer could do for their patient at this point but it was important to get the therapy started immediately.

"What can you do?" Mary wanted to know.

"I can talk to her," Ryan replied.

"She's unconscious thankfully."

"They can still hear me," Ryan persisted.

"We'll see what the doctor says," the nurse was non-committal.

"It can't do any harm," Major George Karens, the attending surgeon said when he was approached. He was a firm believer that the patient could absorb their atmosphere even though they were unconscious. "Just make sure you garb up. I don't want you bringing any infections into the room."

Half an hour later she was outfitted in scrubs, booties, mask and a long gown. She didn't mind for she knew the medical staff needed to be cautious. The fact that they were allowing her into the room itself meant that they had confidence that she would do nothing to hamper the soldier's recovery. The medical staff knew that she was there for the patient and for no other reason.

Ryan paused after entering intensive care room, allowing herself to get acclimatized to the humid 90 degree heat in the room. She glanced around the space noticing that the heat lamps were on and that a ventilator was hooked up to the woman who was wrapped in bandages from the head to the stumps of her legs. There was an intravenous line hooked up to an unwrapped hand. She squared her shoulders and moved to the side of the bed, her voice was soft and low when she spoke.

"Hi. My name is Ryan Sloane and you are now in the Burn Unit at the Brooks Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. You were in a blast and you have been injured. The doctors and nurses here are very good and they are going to take good care of you."

She paused and listened to the hiss of the ventilator for a moment. She knew it would be a long road to recovery for this soldier. There would be dozens of surgeries, many hours of physical therapy as well as the whole process of learning to walk again on new legs that would have to be fashioned for her. That was if she survived.

Briefly as if something stirred the soldier's eyes opened and Ryan found herself staring into the brightest blue eyes that she had ever seen. She felt the air seep out of her lungs and her heart dropped to her feet. In that instance she decided that she would continue working as a volunteer, devoting herself to this patient to see her to the end of her recovery.

She was tired of the constant drain on her emotions but for that second that those eyes were open, she felt something that she had never felt in her life and she was determined that she would do whatever she could to help this soldier survive and thrive.

"I'll be back," she whispered only loud enough for the soldier to hear. "I'll be back and together we are going to get you through this. Sleep now."

With that she retreated from the room changing into her volunteer outfit before returning to the waiting lounge of the Unit where she was greeted by families that she had met on other occasions. She spent only a few minutes chatting with them before deciding to leave.

"You are leaving so soon?" Mary commented glancing at her watch when the younger woman checked in to the nurse's station before departure.

"I am going to cut back on my schedule," Ryan admitted much to the surprise of the older woman not willing to admit the truth. For some reason she had been shaken by her encounter with Captain Bellows.


"It's become too much," the blond volunteered. "I'm becoming emotionally exhausted," thinking at this moment that it was all to true.

"You don't have to take on this case," Mary referred to the soldier that the volunteer had just seen. She didn't want to see this young woman leave. She had been a valuable member of their team in dealing with the soldiers and their families in their recovery. The volunteers were specially trained to deal with many situations that the nurses and doctors didn't have the time to deal with.

"There are other soldiers you can help with, some with less serious wounds. Perhaps you just need to transfer to a different Unit."

"No," Ryan was determined. "I will see this patient through but then I think it's time for me to retire."

Six years. She thought later as she was sitting out on a chaise on the patio of her back yard looking out at the manicured lawn and pool. Six years of dealing with family and friends of the patients, soldiers who were so badly injured that they would never look the same again. She had volunteered the moment she had heard about the program soon after learning of her sibling's death in Iraq.

Corporal Trace Sloane had only been twenty two years old when he too had been caught in an IED blast in Iraq. He had been badly burned and after a brief stay in Germany had been transferred to Brook. Initially he had been stabilized and had rallied but then as often happens he went into shock and an infection set in. Within two weeks he had died.

Ryan had remembered the kindness of the volunteer who had been there for her family and she had decided that day that she would honour her brother's life by acting as a volunteer herself. She had all the money that she would need in life but she knew that money couldn't buy happiness or the most important things in life. At that moment the phone rang and for the next hour she talked business with a friend about computers and web designs.

The next morning as promised she was back at the hospital but she didn't immediately go to the Captains room instead she went to the waiting lounge where Sergeant Alex Dubrick was sitting with his wife chatting. They spoke for a while and Ryan sensed a hint of fear in the optimistic soldier and correctly guessed that he was worrying about his departure from the Ward.

While they were in the burn unit they were amongst others like themselves and therefore not an abnormality but once he stepped out of the Ward that would change. They all knew what to expect, the medical staff had warned them that their condition would draw extra stares from some people and comments that might be hurtful. Hopefully that wouldn't be the case but they all had to be prepared to face the regular world.

"Do you think it will be alright?" Alex asked not masking his fear once his wife had excused herself for a moment. "I'm not worried for myself but for Lorraine. She can be pretty sensitive."

"She will take her lead from you," Ryan counselled. "If you let it roll off your back then she will not make a big deal of it. I think you are being worried for nothing. People will stare, because it's in our nature to look at something different, but it's going to be how you react to it."

"I remember as a kid we used to make fun of an old man down the street because he looked different."

"Kids can be cruel but once again it's how you react."

Ryan could say no more as Lorraine chose that moment to return. She left them not long afterwards hopeful that she had helped alleviate some of the man's fears but afraid that she had been no help at all. She had seen many soldiers go through the Ward in the six years she had volunteered and most had managed to leave and lead healthy productive lives but there were others; others who suffered greatly because of their new condition.

Those soldiers would descend into depression and drugs; most of the time that happened when the wounded soldiers didn't have the strong support of their families. She thought of Captain Bellows and how the soldier had no one here to offer her support. It made her more determined than ever to be there for the female officer.

Her thoughts were once again dismissed when she went to visit Private David Leeds. He was still thoughtful and sad over his break up but he brightened considerably when their conversation turned to the impending visit of his parents. She left him knowing that the young Private would get over his trauma of the broken engagement and she hoped that he would meet a girl more worthy of him.

After leaving the Private she changed into scrubs, surgical mask and gown before entering the room. She paused for a moment to scan the scene but everything was the same as it had been the day before, she stepped next to the bed and looked at the unconscious soldier.

"Hi, it's Ryan Sloane again. I'm back and will be coming back every day until you are able to walk out of here." She paused as if waiting for some response but all she heard was the pump of the ventilator. "I didn't know what kind of books you might like so I didn't bring any books but I thought that I would tell you some stories about myself and what it was like growing up with my family."

For the next week that is exactly what Ryan did every day for two hours a day. She would sit next to the unconscious soldier and tell the patient about growing up in a military family. Her father a retired Air Force Colonel had moved them all around the world until they had finally settled in San Antonio. By the end of the week the small blond volunteer had pretty much told her captive audience her entire life story.

"I wish I knew more about her," Ryan lamented to the nurses one afternoon as she was getting ready to go home. Normally she was able to glean a wealth of information from the family of the soldier but this was not the case with her current patient.

"Have you talked to military affairs? They might know something or someone who can help you," Mary suggested. It was normal for the Military Assistance group to get the patients military file in order to best help them transition back into civilian life. It was rare that a soldier who was badly wounded would return to active duty.

Ryan took the older woman's suggestion and on the way home that afternoon she stopped by the office of Military Assistance. She knew a Sergeant working there and hoped that he would be able to help. She was not above flirting to get the information she wanted.

"I could lose my job for this," the man said even while he retrieved a file from a cabinet behind the desk in his office. He had just filed the jacket containing the soldier's information.

"Come one Marcus, the army would never get rid of you, you are too good at your job," Ryan smiled and the black man laughed.

"What do you want to know?" Marcus asked opening the jacket and retrieving a photo which he passed across the desk to the blond woman.

"She is quite beautiful," Ryan commented not completely surprised by the beauty of the female Captain.

"If she is in the Burn Unit you better hope that she has personality," the man remarked and his companion had to agree. Often that was all that was left once the soldiers left the Burn Unit for they no longer could get by on their looks.

"Tell me about her?" The volunteer wanted to know more hoping to uncover something that she could use in her daily visits.

"Let's see," the man said thoughtfully scanning the woman's file. "She joined the army at nineteen just before 9/11, after spending the year after graduation from high school kicking around at various jobs. This was her seventh tour of duty. She spent four tours in Iraq and this was her third in Afghanistan."

"How did she get to be a Captain?" Ryan was curious about all aspects of the woman soldier.

"Let's see, she was a Private when she first went to Afghanistan for her first tour, was a Sergeant by the time entered her first tour in Iraq."

"That's quite a jump," the blond volunteer commented and the man nodded.

"It seems she was accepted into a special military program to see if women would be capable of being on the front lines in the infantry. It says here that forty one women joined the program and only three graduated. She was Number Two. Became an NCO and went to Iraq in charge of a squad.

"Then on her third tour of Iraq there was a fire fight and she ended up saving the life of a visiting Colonel. She apparently took charge of the situation when the Captain was killed and so impressed the Colonel with her actions that he gave her a battle field promotion." Marcus paused and glanced up at his companion. "After returning to the USA she went to Officers Candidate School and graduated before returning to Iraq for a fourth tour. She followed that with two tours in Afghanistan."

The man paused and his brown eyes narrowed as a slow whistle left his lips.

"What is it?" Ryan wanted to know.

"She is a bit of a hero," man said. "For her actions in saving the Colonel she received a Silver Star. She has also been awarded a Bronze Star with Valour and two purple hearts. There are numerous other citations for valour and leadership."

The blond woman was silent for a moment as she digested this information wishing for the first time that she had known this remarkable woman before she had come to the hospital here.

"Is there anything about her family and friends?"

"Not much," Marcus shook his head. "It says she has a twin brother whom is listed as her beneficiary and a Grandmother that live just outside of Tampa Florida."

"What about parents? Is there anything about any parents or friends?"

"Sorry, it's basically her military record and that's it," the man said closing the file. He looked at the younger woman. "Does it help you any?"

"It tells me she is incredibly brave."

"Or has a death wish," Marcus commented quietly. In his career he had run across heroic soldiers, and some of them hadn't really cared whether they lived or died.

Ryan looked at the man. She didn't want to believe that this brave soldier had a death wish though it would account for the many citations for valour. It was obvious to her though that the wounded soldier had seen a lot in her short life. She guessed the soldier was just shy of her thirtieth birthday. They were the same age.

"Thanks Marcus I appreciate your help." She stood up to leave.

"Anytime girl," the man nodded always willing to help the volunteers who helped out with the patients. It took a strong character too visit those badly scarred soldiers every day and hear their sad stories. It took a lot of personality to help.

Ryan thought about the female soldier later that night as she laid in the large King size bed that dominated her bedroom. She wondered about the courage it took to act when under fire. She had often wondered if her own brother had displayed the same bravery during his six months of tour before his own demise. His buddies had nothing but good things to say about him later but still she wondered.

Elliot woke slowly her brain registering only one thing; pain. Every part of her body hurt, and it was everything from a ringing pain in her head to a throbbing pain that engulfed her entire body. Tears moistened her eyes and she wanted to scream it hurt so badly but all that came out of her throat was a gurgling sound.

Frantically her eyes scanned her surroundings trying to determine where she was. The last thing she remembered was climbing into the Humvee with the Sergeant, the Interpreter and her radio operator. They were heading back to their base. There was a huge flash, an explosion and screaming and then nothing. Now she was someplace where she didn't recognize.

"You are in hospital, the Brooks Army Medical Center in San Antonio Texas," a soft voice said and panic stricken eyes searched for the speaker. "Your vehicle hit an IED and you were hurt in the explosion."

Ryan could see the fear and panic in the bright blue eyes as well as the pain. She wanted to reach out and wipe the tears away but she dared not, instead her reached out and gently touched the tips of the woman's bandaged fingers with her own gloved digits.

Elliot had so many questions to ask but she was so overwhelmed by pain that she could not clearly formulate any thoughts in her head. Even the small touch on the tips of her fingertips wanted to make her scream. Tears streamed from her eyes unabated.

The small volunteer wished there was something she could say to comfort the woman but suddenly she was at a loss for words. Her normal speech somehow did not apply to this woman and she didn't know why. Tears formed in her own green eyes as she could only imagine the pain that this soldier was experiencing.

She swallowed the lump that caught in her throat and took a deep breath. She had to be strong or she would be of no good for this patient. Her voice was soft and low as when she spoke again.

"My name is Ryan Sloane and you are in the Burn Unit of the Hospital. You were badly injured but the doctors and nurses here are very good and will take care of you."

Elliot heard the word burn and closed her eyes, though she was unable to stem the flow of tears. She had seen enough in her deployments to know what it meant to be in an explosion caused by an IED. She knew what it meant to be in the Burn Unit. She turned her eyes to the gowned figure wanting answers to questions that she could not ask. Mercifully mother-nature intervened again and she fainted from the pain.

The small exchange left Ryan exhausted and she wondered why it was so much more difficult this time around. But she knew, she had allowed herself to become emotionally involved with the patient, something she had been told not to do. It had happened so fast that she had not been able to prevent it. She sighed and then slowly made her departure.

"You okay?" Mary asked when she saw the small blond volunteer.

"Yeah," Ryan lied running a hand through her short blond hair. "The patient woke up."

"Oh, is she all right?"

"No," the volunteer shook her head. "She was in a lot of pain."

"That's to be expected you know that dear," Mary said not certain what was the problem. The small volunteer had been with other patients before when they had awoken and she had seen their pain. She wasn't sure why there was a difference with this soldier.

"Yeah, I know," the small blond nodded her head and flashed a small smile. "I told you I have been at this too long. I am starting to become emotionally involved."

Mary was silent as she looked at the other woman. She knew it was a serious matter when a nurse, doctor or volunteer lost their objectivity. They could not be effective if they allowed their emotions to interfere with their work.

"Maybe you better go home and take a few days off," the older woman said in a motherly fashion. "I think you do need a bit of a break."

Ryan agreed. She needed to get her equilibrium back and nothing would do that more than going to visit her parents. She drove to the outskirts of the city to the place where her parents had retired. It was a quaint house in the suburbs with the white picket fence and the large back yard with a pool and a lot of space for their small Yorkshire terrier.

Her mother greeted her warmly, embracing her tightly as if they hadn't seen each other for months rather than two weeks. Her father was more reserved but he too gave her a hug and Ryan was glad because everything seemed always to get better when her father was there. They retreated to the patio for it was a beautiful summer evening.

"Tell us what's new dear?" Alison Sloane asked her daughter after she had served them each a glass of iced tea

"I have another idea for a new web site," Ryan said deciding to begin the conversation with something mundane.

"That's nice dear," her mother commented. She didn't really understand much about computers or web sites but in spite of that she was supportive of her daughter. "What is it about?"

"It's just an app that connects people," Ryan was intentionally vague for she knew her mother was apt to tell her friends and the idea that she was working on was still in the development stage. She changed the subject. "What have you been up too?"

"Your father's unit is planning a reunion on a cruise out of Miami," Alison said and her daughter turned to the man who sat quietly listening to the exchange.

"Are you going?" the younger woman asked, knowing her parents aversion to traveling after the many years of moving around the country and the world with the military.

"Haven't decided," Palmer Sloane shrugged.

"You have to go," Ryan insisted.

"Your father says it will depend on who else is going," the older woman said glancing at her husband.

They discussed the reunion some more before the older woman excused herself to go start dinner. Ryan offered to help but her mother didn't like to share her kitchen with anyone so she was left to entertain her father who normally didn't have a lot to say. He was a man of a few words.

"So dear, how is your work at the hospital going?" Palmer asked changing the subject.

"It's difficult," the smaller woman sighed. "There is this new patient in from Afghanistan. She is a Captain and she was badly burned in an IED blast."

"What makes it more difficult that the other soldiers you have tended to?" the man wondered out loud.

"I don't know," Ryan shrugged honestly. "For some reason this woman makes me think of Trace."

There was silence as the two family members thought for a moment of the young man who had once been such a vibrant part of their small circle. They still thought of the dead soldier daily though it was without the emotion that had accompanied their thoughts in the early days following his death.

"Does she look like Trace?" Palmer asked swallowing the lump in his throat. He still deeply missed his only son.

"No," the woman shook her head. "That's the thing she is nothing like Trace, not in looks or anything. I mean there have been other soldiers that I have tended were more like Trace but for some reason this woman has gotten me all emotional."

"Maybe it's time to step back a little," the man counselled. "You have been at it for the last six years. That's a long time."

"Yeah, I thought about that," Ryan agreed but knew that she wouldn't step away yet. When she spoke again it was on another subject and from then on through the rest of the evening there was no more talk of war or death or her duties at the hospital.

In spite of her wariness the next day Ryan was back at the hospital.

"It's not been a good day for your patient," Mary said the next day when she turned up.

"Has she gotten an infection?" Ryan felt her heart go into her mouth.

"Yes and she is in a lot of pain," the nurse explained. "The doctor has her on morphine and penicillin but it's not enough. They are doing everything that they can."

The blond volunteer was silent. Her visits had been so far peaceful but she knew that as of today they would get more stressful. It was always hard to see a patient in pain and even worse to know that the patient's life was hanging in the balance. Though she was not a religious woman she said a silent prayer for the female soldier. It was often that burn patients got an infection and a lot of them had died because of that.

"Can I see her?" was the obvious question.

"As long as you garb up," Mary replied.

"I just wish I knew more about her," the small blond said with a sigh. The fact that family was not here made her job more difficult.

"Maybe I shouldn't do this," the nurse said indecisively, glancing down the hall to see if anyone else was in earshot. When she spoke again it was in a voice not louder than a whisper. "I know you are supposed to go through the various channels to get this but I have her grandmother's phone number on file, perhaps you can give her a call and find out more about our Captain."

Ryan was silent as she contemplated the nurse's offer. There was no reason for her not to get the phone number it was protocol to go through various military channels to get the necessary information she needed in doing her job. She glanced down the hallways to see if they were alone.

"I don't want to get you into trouble," she said finally.

"It wouldn't get me into any serious trouble," Mary assured as she handed the volunteer a small sheet of paper with a name and a number on it.


Ryan waited until after she left the hospital before placing the call. She had gone in to see the young Captain and was happy to know that the soldier was unconscious from the medicine that doctor had given her. She had stayed only a little while before going on to visit several of the other soldiers in the Ward.

She dialled the number and waited for the phone on the other end to ring. It rang for what seemed like a long time before it was finally picked up and answered by an older woman with a rather gruff sounding voice. Its abruptness caught Ryan off guard for an instant and she was speechless.

"Who is there?" The woman on the other end repeated her question and the small blond volunteer cleared her throat before speaking.

"Hello, you don't know me but I am a volunteer at Brooke Medical Centre in San Antonio. I am a currently working with your granddaughter Captain Elliot Bellows."

"Elly, has something happened with Elly?" The older woman wanted to know immediately. "Has she died?"

"No, no she is alive," Ryan suddenly realized how ominous her phone call must be. "She has developed an infection which isn't unusual in burn patients but the doctors are treating her."

"Good," the other woman sighed and then there was silence for a moment. "Why are you calling do you need permission to operate or something?"

"No, the doctors do that," the blonde said and then explained. "I am a volunteer, someone who goes in and spends time with a soldier when the family can't be there."

"Good," the older woman said. "I was a little worried that Elly would be all alone out there."

"Yes, well I go see your granddaughter every day," Ryan continued. "I am calling because I would like to learn more about her. Usually there is some family here to give that kind of information and there really isn't anything in her military file that can tell me anything about her."

"So you want to know about Elly?"

"Yes," the blond volunteer plunged ahead. "What type of woman was she? What does she like to do in her spare time? What was she like growing up?"

"Elly was always a take charge type, was ever since she was a girl," the older woman responded to the questions. "She got her first job when she was barely fourteen, working in a Dairy Queen, worked there all through high school."

"Was she a good student?"

"Yes she was smart and a good athlete too."

"What sports did she play?"

"She was always playing baseball and basketball."

"Why did she choose to enter the military?" It was one of the most important questions that Ryan ever asked. It usually spoke volumes to the character of the person to whom she was referring.

"Don't know," the grandmother was honest. "When she graduated she had several scholarship offers to play basketball out of state but she didn't seem interested in going to college. I think making money was more important to her than wasting more time with schooling."

The woman's answer struck Ryan as odd. If the Captain had been so interested in making money the last thing she would have done was turn down a chance to go to college and earn a degree that she could use to get a job that would certainly pay more than the military.

"What else can you tell me about the Captain?" Ryan wanted to know. "Is she close to her brother?"

"Billy?" The other woman said. "Yes, they are inseparable. In fact he was supposed to go live with her when her tour ended. She was going to take a stateside job and they were going to live together."

"What about her parents? Are they deceased?"

"Heavens no," the older woman snorted. "Lord only knows where the pair of them are."

The small blond volunteer asked a few more questions and they talked about general things for a while longer before Ryan finally rang off. She hung up the phone thinking that not everything made sense of what the older woman said to her. She had wanted to ask more but thought that she might be prying especially when she suggested that writing to her granddaughter might be a good idea and the older woman had seemed hesitant. She was left feeling glad that she had the close relationship with her parents that she did have.

The next few days were spent in anxious worry as the Captain continued to fight the infection that had invaded her body. The doctors and nurses were optimistic but Ryan understood the true situation. The soldier's body was already so weak that it was having a hard time fighting the infection in spite of the medicine that that doctors were giving her. The young volunteer waited patiently in hopes that the Captain would make it through this set back.

In the meantime she continued visiting the other soldiers, joking with them and listening to them as they told her about their days. Often they had stories to tell of their youth or their days on duty. She would also visit with their families and answer any questions they had about the soldier's recovery. Soldiers came and went and she continued to do her work.

One morning she came to the hospital and got the news that she had been hoping for. The Captain was stronger than the infection and she was winning the battle. Ryan wanted to cheer out loud when the nurse gave her the news but she remained silent.

"She's going to make it," she said not aware that she had spoken out loud. Mary looked at her thoughtfully.

"Don't get your hopes up," the nurse wanted the volunteer to be realistic. "This was only one setback there could be many more for this soldier before she recovers."

"I know," Ryan gave the other woman a brief smile. "I just have this feeling that Captain Bellows is a strong woman and that she won't give up easily."

Ryan had to believe her own words but she knew there were several major hurdles yet to overcome. Though the female Captain had been going through surgeries already she was not fully conscious. There would be a time Ryan knew when the Captain would ask about the others in the Humvee with her at the time of the explosion. There would be a time when the soldier would ask about family. These were all firsts that Ryan determined that she would be there to answer.

It wasn't many days later when Ryan entered the Captain's room and noticed the absence of the hiss of the ventilator. She took it as a good sign and when she neared the bed she saw that the female officer was awake. The young blond volunteer smiled warmly but moderated her cheeriness aware that in spite of the absence of the ventilator the Captain wouldn't be able to speak because her jaw was wired shut.

"Hi, it's Ryan Sloane again, I'm back and I'm going to keep on coming back until you are well enough to walk out of here," the blond volunteer chose her words carefully. "I know that you probably have a lot of questions about what is going on here and I am going to try and answer them as best I can."

Elliot looked at the young woman who was garbed in hospital scrubs, surgical mask and gloves. She could see little of the woman other than the expressive green eyes that peered at her from above the face mask. There was a strange kind of comfort in those eyes and she felt less alone and afraid.

There were a lot of questions that she had and she tried to speak but nothing came out of her mouth except a high pitched groan of pain. She momentarily closed her eyes as she fought through the pain and grogginess of her brain.

"You can't talk because your jaw is wired shut," Ryan calmly explained. "It was broken in the explosion."

Explosion, the word rolled over in Elliot's brain. Vaguely she remembered the flash and the heard the bang before everything became strangely quiet except for the screaming that filled her ears. She realized now that it had been her that had done the screaming. She looked up at her companion pleading for answers of unspoken questions.

"You probably would like to know how badly you are injured," Ryan spoke again keeping her voice level and calm. These were usually questions that were answered by the family but as the Captain had no family there it fell upon her. "You were burned over 40 per cent of your body. Most of the burns are second degree which is why you feel pain but you have also suffered some third degree burns which is why the room is so hot because you are missing skin on your body and it needs to be warm to maintain your body core temperature."

Ryan paused for a moment to ensure that her patient was retaining the information that she was giving her. She knew the doctors and nurses would have already told the patient much of this but probably in medical terms that the Captain didn't understand.

"You will also be feeling pain because you lost both your legs below the knee," the blond volunteer said. "They were amputated in the explosion."

Elliot listened as the other woman spoke. The doctors had said something similar but she hadn't been able to understand. Though her head was still foggy with pain and medication she began to understand now how traumatic her injuries really were. She felt the bandages that were wrapped around her head. She wanted to know how badly her head and face was burned. She looked at the other woman trying to communicate her fears and somehow the blond woman understood.

"You suffered some head trauma but no burns to your head or face," Ryan explained hoping to relieve some of the soldier's fears. They always worried about their looks she had come to understand that through her interactions with others. All of them feared that they would look like monsters. She could see a look of relief flash across the blue eyes before they closed again.

There were other injuries to the female Captain but Ryan didn't think they were necessary to mention. Those were injuries that would heal without leaving marks upon the other woman's body. She took a deep breath and when she spoke again it was in response to the questioning look in the Captain's eyes. There was always another question that the soldiers asked. It was almost more important than the one about their injuries.

"I know you want to know what happened to the other soldiers in the vehicle," Ryan said cautiously choosing her words carefully. "They passed away."

Elliot's head slumped to one side of the pillow as her eyes closed. She had wanted to know that Sergeant Wolchek was okay and that Corporal Middells would be making his wedding at the end of his tour. She thought of the brave Afghani woman Amira and tears streamed from her eyes as she realized now that all of them were dead and somehow she had been the only one to survive. She couldn't immediately accept it and was glad when the nurse arrived at that moment to give her more medication. Thankfully it knocked her out.

Ryan left the room in a sombre mood. She undressed and wandered to the nurse's station. Mercifully Mary was there and she revealed what she had done. It was never a good moment when the soldiers learned of their injuries or of the fates of their compatriots. But they were moments that had to be faced both for the staff and for the soldiers. The sooner they learned the sooner they could deal with the situation.

"It had to be done," the nurse counselled aware that the small volunteer was one of the best at breaking the news. Ryan was so good in fact that most of the doctors and other hospital staff left her to do the dirty work of telling the soldiers if the family wasn't there to help out. It seemed that the soldiers took the news better than if it came from hospital staff.

"Yes, it had to be done," Ryan agreed before leaving the hospital.

That evening she something she rarely did. She uncorked a bottle of wine and consumed the entire contents. She didn't know why she felt so depressed. She had broken the news to other soldiers without the emotion that she was now feeling. The Captain's reaction had gotten to her and she was glad that she didn't have to be at the hospital the next day.

But the next day, hangover and all she woke early and went to the hospital as usual.


Three months later.

"Is there anyone new in the Ward this morning?" Ryan asked one morning when she arrived at the hospital. In spite of her intent to cut back on her volunteer work she still showed up every day to do her rounds amongst the patients.

"Yes, a poor boy came in from Germany last night," Mary replied eyeing the smaller woman. "He was caught in a roadside bomb in Iraq. He has 3rd degree burns over 90 per cent of his body. The doctors don't know how he has survived this long."

"Does he have family?"

"Yes, they arrived last night from Detroit and are currently in the waiting room, while their son is in surgery."

Ryan nodded, getting other basic information from the nurse before wandering down the hallway to the waiting room. She immediately recognized the couple and went directly to them introducing herself before briefly explaining who and what she was. Then because she knew they would want to know she sat down and explained to them what their son would be going through and what they should expect. They had been briefed by the doctors but they had questions that the doctors hadn't had time to answer.

Ryan sat with them for a long time answering their questions and just spending quiet time with them until the doctor returned to the room to advise them of their son's condition. She helped them garb up in gowns and masks before guiding them into the soldier's room. Thankfully there wasn't much to see as the young soldier was heavily sedated and bandaged from head to toe. After a while the young volunteer left the family alone with their son.

Ryan took a moment to decompress before returning to her duties. She visited several other patient soldiers before heading down the hallway to the room she always reserved for last. This was where she was now spending most of her time at the hospital.

"Hi Captain Bellows, how are you today?" She said with a smile as she entered the room.

"Fine, and please don't call me Captain Bellows anymore, my given name is Elliot," the woman in the bed responded and Ryan stopped dead in her tracks.

"You got the wire out of your jaw," she replied in surprise.

"Yeah, the doctors came in and took it out after you left yesterday," Elliot said speaking for the first time. She worked her jaw quietly in reflex.

"That's great," Ryan was overjoyed.

After several setbacks and with multiple surgeries still ahead the Captain seemed to slowly be healing. The blond volunteer saw evidence of it every day that she visited, though she knew that there could still be serious complications ahead.

"How are you feeling? Are you in great pain?"

"The nurse just gave me a shot of morphine," the soldier replied and then lifted her left hand slightly, eliciting a grimace of pain before she continued. "My hand is sore from this intravenous needle I wish it could come out."

"You know why it has to be in you," Ryan said knowing that the other woman already knew the answer. She saw it as a positive thing that the woman was complaining about something so minor. "How is the pain?"

"Manageable," Elliot said quietly. She was still in great pain but it was so constant that she was beginning to get used to it. She knew from what the doctor's said that she would probably experience some sort of pain for the rest of her life. At times it seemed like a bleak future ahead.

She moved her head in an attempt to dispel those thoughts. She felt a sense of depression hanging over her but she didn't want to fall into its depths. She looked forward each day to the young volunteer's visits and didn't want to spoil the occasions with her mood. She swallowed the lump in her throat.

"I got a letter the other day can you read it to me?" She asked and saw the surprise and joy in the green eyes of the female volunteer.

"Certainly, where is it?"

"It is on the tray."

Ryan immediately found the letter and slit it open. She had hoped that the grandmother would write but she had lost all hope when nothing had come in the ensuing weeks. She was delighted that the older woman had sent a note. She was more surprised when she read the note.

"Dear Elly, how are you? Grandma and I are fine. Are you still sick? Grandma said that you were hurt in the army. I hope you are better. Will you come see us? Grandma said that you would. When we live together can we get a dog? I would like a dog I think I would name it Teddy because he would be my friend. Grandma says that it is supper time so I must go now. Bye. I love you Billy."

There was silence after Ryan finished reading and quietly she looked at the injured soldier but there was no expression on the woman's face. She had so many questions for the Captain but she didn't need to ask for it seemed the female soldier was ready to talk.

"Billy is my twin brother. He is handicapped and has the mental age of twelve years old. He was supposed to come live with me after I returned from my tour of duty. He has always wanted a dog."

"Well maybe when you get out of here and you do move in together you can get him a dog," Ryan said with a smile.

"Yeah," Elliot sighed, feeling like she would never get out of bed or be out of the Ward. She closed her eyes for a moment as another wave of pain went through her body. She knew that she would be going into surgery again the next morning and from past experience she knew the next day would be filled with extra pain. She turned blue eyes on her companion who was still dressed in the hospital scrubs, with mask and booties. Not for the first time did she wonder what the woman looked like without the mask.

"You were late today," she commented to change the subject.

"There was a new patient admitted last night," Ryan said and then went on to explain. "I was with his family while he was in surgery."

"You come here every day don't you get tired of visiting us?" Elliot was blunt and the small volunteer decided to be honest.

"It's hard some days," she admitted. "This morning was difficult in dealing with the family but there are other days where it makes up for such things."

"Like when?" The Captain wanted to know.

"Like when I came into this room and you spoke," Ryan smiled again. "Now if I can only get you to smile it would make my day."

"There is nothing to smile about," Elliot said distantly thinking of the others who did not survive. Thoughts of Sergeant Wolchek, Corporal Middells and Amira Nur were still close at hand. She thought less about her own injuries even though the pain was a constant reminder.

The blond woman was silent for a moment as she contemplated what to say next. She knew that many soldiers survived because of their positive attitude. She sensed a hint of depression in the Captain and she wanted to do something to erase that mood.

"I think there is," Ryan said and then waved the letter. "You got a very nice letter from your brother. That is something positive."

Elliot knew the other woman was right and allowed a brief grin to flash across her lips.

"See I knew you could smile," the young volunteer said and Elliot had to agree. "So, now that you are able to talk I am eager to know all about your life."

The Captain was silent as she pondered what the small woman said. She usually was very private about her life but this woman with her expressive green eyes and warm voice made her want to share everything. She looked up at the ceiling wondering where to start.

"What do you want to know?"

"Why did you join the army? Your grandmother said that you had several scholarship offers to colleges."

"You talked to my grandmother?" Elliot was surprised by this news.

"Yes," Ryan bit her lower lip thoughtfully wondering if she had made a mistake in mentioning that fact. "In the earlier days when you were first admitted I phoned to find out about you. She wasn't very helpful."

"No I expect she wasn't," the soldier sighed.

"You don't have a great relationship with your grandmother?"

"In spite of living with her since we were babies we are not close," Elliot admitted and then said something that she had never said to anyone before. "I always felt as if we were a burden to her."

Ryan was silent as she considered what the other woman said. It made sense now why the older woman had not seemed eager to come out to Texas or why she had never written to her granddaughter.

"Is that why you joined the army?"

"It was part of the reason," the soldier agreed. "I had these scholarship offers out of state but that would have meant leaving and not having any money to send my grandmother to care for Billy. My grandmother has never worked and relied on social assistance to live. Needless to say there was not much money in the household."

Again Ryan understood why the Captain had gotten a job when she was old enough to work. Though her own family were never rich they always had enough money for some extras and Christmas was always special.

"So you joined the army," Ryan prompted.

"Yeah, I thought I would serve for a few years and then have Billy come live with me. I served overseas because of the extra pay. I was going to take a desk job and have Billy come live with me after this tour. I guess those plans are all for naught."

"I wouldn't change those plans just yet," the small blond volunteer said. "There is no reason why you can't have your brother come live with you once you get out of here."

"There is no way I will be able to go back to the army," Elliot disagreed, "and that's all I know right now."

"I like to think positive," Ryan said. "I like to think that when one door closes another opens. Besides the army of today is different, there are soldiers out there now serving in the field that have missing limbs."

It was true, Elliot had heard of several soldiers who had returned to active duty after losing one of their limbs. But she had lost two of her legs and had a head injury, something which they did not yet know of what the long term effects would be.

"Are you always this positive?" She asked.

The blond volunteer was silent for a moment before she responded. She had had to learn to be positive especially in the days following her brother's death but generally she was a half full rather than a half empty type of person. She explained that to her companion.

"Generally I try to look to the positive," she said. "There have been times when I wondered what positive could come from something but I have also learned to be patient and I will get the answer."

"What positive thing came from your brother's death?" the Captain wanted to know.

Meeting you, were the first thoughts that came to Ryan's brain but she dared not say that.

"I have learned to be a better person," she said instead. "I have met allot of young soldiers who I have helped and that has been a reward for me."

Elliot was silent. At this moment she couldn't understand what the other woman could feel rewarded by visiting ill and disfigured soldiers but she didn't understand a lot of things right now in her condition.

"Tell me about yourself," the Captain urged feeling a wave of pain aware that the best way for her to ignore it was listening to the soothing tones of the volunteer's voice.

Ryan pondered the question for a minute. She had already told the soldier all about herself but the patient had been unconscious so she doubted if she had actually heard anything she really said.

"I grew up as a military brat," the small woman said. "My father was in the Air Force, a pilot so we moved all around the country and overseas. He finally retired here in San Antonio after his last deployment. He was originally from Texas and my mother is from Florida. They met when he was in Pensacola doing his flight training."

"Where were you born?"

"I was born in Germany and my brother was born here in the United States a year later," Ryan continued her biography. "My brother was the athlete and I was the science nerd but in spite of that we were close when growing up. I think it was because we were each other's best friends because we moved around so much, he had an easier time making friends than I did."

"I find that hard to believe," Elliot said surprised by this news.

"I have become more social since he died," the volunteer confessed. "You can't do this job without being more social."

That made sense the Captain reasoned and was about to ask another question when the smaller woman beat her to it.

"Tell me about your family," Ryan knew she was taking a chance by asking the question but felt it was important to get the soldier to talk about herself.

"Not much more to say," Elliot would have shrugged but it hurt to move her shoulders. "My parents were hippies who lived in a commune. They were into drugs and the counter culture revolution. They weren't prepared to be parents so a year after we were born they gave up custody of me and my brother to my grandmother."

"Do you know where they are now?" The blond volunteer asked quietly.

"Yeah, my mother lives in California and is married to a doctor and my dad lives in Oregon. That's as much as I know about them."

"Tell me about your brother?" Ryan said aware that the soldier was beginning to sound a little sombre.

"Billy is great," Elliot brightened considerably at the thought of her sibling. "He's a big kid and we are close as can be not living together. He is always positive and has wanted a dog as long as I remember."

"Your grandmother didn't want a pet?"

"She thought it would be too much trouble and expensive to have a pet," the Captain admitted and Ryan saw that the patient was starting to get tired.

She could have spent hours talking to the woman getting to know her but she knew that she had to moderate her time for the woman was still in the middle of recovery. She prepared to leave.

"You're going?" Elliot asked feeling as if the light in the room was going out.

"You are scheduled for surgery tomorrow, you need your rest," Ryan said gently reaching out to touch the other woman's fingertips. She was grateful that they Captains hands had not been burned.

Elliot understood but she also knew that there would be long hours of pain ahead of her. She didn't want the other woman to go just yet.

"Please stay, just a little longer," she begged even as she struggled to keep her eyes open.

"Okay, I'll stay until you fall asleep," Ryan assured the woman. "What else do you want to know about me?"

"How come you don't have to work, do they pay you to be a volunteer?"

"No, they don't pay us volunteers," the woman laughed and it was such a pure and delightful sound that Elliot wanted to hear more of it. "I already told you that I was a science nerd, well I was fortunate enough to design a computer program that an internet provider bought for a ton load of money. I don't have to work ever again so I can afford to volunteer for a living."

"So you stopped designing?"

"No, I still spend my evenings designing. I have a new app that I am currently working on which I think I will be able to sell for a boatload of money when it finally is finished." Ryan wasn't boasting. She was proud of her ability to think and dream of creative ideas that she could apply in computer applications.

She turned to her companion and saw that her eyes were closed and she could hear the gentle snore as it was coming out of her mouth. She was glad because she knew that the Captain was asleep and without the constant pain that she experienced.

Ryan stayed for a while longer just looking at the other woman. The bandages were off her nose and with the wire out of her jaw she could see more of the woman's face. She was beautiful and the volunteer was glad that the fire that burned many other parts of her body had not touched the woman's head or face. Not that it made a difference to her; there was just something about the woman that drew her.

Ryan barely got home when her cell phone rang. She looked at the number and sighed wondering what her old girlfriend wanted now. When Gerri was involved with someone she never heard from the woman but when her old lover was single she always got a call.


"Hi Ryan, where have you been, I've been calling all day?" The other woman complained.

"I was at the hospital," the volunteer sighed. "I leave my cell phone at home as I can't use it at the hospital."

"Oh," Gerri said. "I ran into your mom today at one of the shops. She said that you were thinking of giving up your volunteer work."

Oh mom, Ryan sighed, why did you have to tell her that?

"It was just a thought," she tried to explain. "You know how my mother misinterprets things."

"No," Gerri said. She had always gotten along with the Sloane family. For years she had tried to get the other woman to quit her volunteer work. She hated to think that now after they were broke up that the small blond woman would finally leave the hospital.

"Well it was just a thought," Ryan said and then changed the subject. "What do you want?"

"You remember Connie Baxter?"

"Yes," the blond woman said vaguely picturing a dark haired woman.

"Well, I ran into her the other day and she remarked that she is throwing a birthday bash for her partner Lindsay. She invited the both of us."

"Why would she do that?" Ryan asked puzzled.

"She didn't know that we had broken up," Gerri said cautiously.

"Didn't you tell her?" The small blond woman was becoming annoyed.

"Yes, I did," Gerri informed her ex-girlfriend. "But I told her we were still friends so she insisted that we come."

"I don't have time," was Ryan's first response.

"What are you going to be doing?" the other woman wanted to know.

"I don't know but I will be busy," the small volunteer said.

"Why are you trying to avoid your friends?" Gerri asked pointedly.

"I'm not avoiding anyone," Ryan lied.

"Bullshit," the other woman didn't believe her. "I've talked to Jenny and Brittany and both of them have said they haven't seen you in months."

"I've been busy," the blond woman repeated hoping the other woman would get the hint even though it was true what Gerri had been saying. It had been months since she had seen any of her friends.

"Too busy to see your best friends," Gerri said pointedly. "Remember you got them in the breakup but they aren't very happy with you. Both of them want to know what is going on with you."

"I have been busy," Ryan said again. "I have been working on a new computer design."

The other woman was silent for a moment as she remembered how consumed her ex-partner became when working on her computer. She had been annoyed by the time her ex-lover had spent on the computer but had reasoned that the results had given them a good lifestyle.

"You still need to see your friends," Gerri said. "That said the three of us are coming to pick you up on Friday night and we are all going to Connie's to help Lindsay celebrate her birthday."

Ryan was inclined to protest the decision but she only sighed, deciding that perhaps her old partner was right. She had been avoiding everyone lately including her close friends. Exhausted from long days at the hospital all she had longed for was the peace and silence of her own place. Now she realized maybe she was cutting herself off. Besides it would give her something to talk to Captain Bellows about.

"Okay I will go," she finally agreed and on the other end of the line the woman gave a silent whoop. Gerri was determined to win back her old lover and this was the start of it.

After agreeing what time they would pick her up Ryan hung up the phone not sure even then she was doing the right thing. She knew that there was no reason for her to feel guilty about going out and having fun when those soldiers lay in hospital in pain. She knew she couldn't live her life on how they were feeling.

The next day she was confronted with the news that their newest patient, the young soldier admitted the day before had passed away during the night with his family at his side. She saw the toll the young man's brief stay had on the hospital staff. The doctor's and the nurses never liked to lose a patient regardless of how hopeless the situation seemed. As she had done on several other occasions she consoled the staff. It was late in the morning when she finally got to the Captain's room.

Elliot had been in surgery early that morning and she had slowly roused from her unconscious state. She had been hopeful that the small volunteer would be there when she woke but was disappointed to find the room empty. She sighed, realizing she was becoming dependent on the other woman. She had never been dependent on anyone in her life.

It was a few hours later when Ryan finally showed up and Elliot felt a measure of relief. The small volunteer had in the last few months become the one constant and comfort in her painful life. She didn't know what she would do if the other woman stopped coming in to visit.

Ryan was as cheerful and positive as she always was in spite of the tragedy that had happened. Already she was pushing that soldier from her mind and concentrating on the patient at hand. It was a necessity if she wanted to continue in her volunteer work.

"How are you feeling?" The blond woman asked of her companion that morning.

"Miserable," Elliot was honest.

"The nurse told me that the surgery went well," Ryan commented noticing the fresh bandages on the other woman's limbs. There was a light white sheet covering the Captain's body shielding the rest of her burnt torso.

"The doctor says that you are beginning to heal nicely and that the grafts to your burnt skin are taking nicely."

Elliot only nodded. She had not seen her scarred body, not having the courage yet to acknowledge the damage that had been done to her figure. She had always been lucky to have flawless skin and great muscle tone, now all that was gone.

"Before long they will have you up and fitted for prosthesis for your legs," Ryan continued cheerfully.

The Captain said nothing aware that she still had a long road ahead before she could even think of getting new legs. She still had several surgeries to go on the stumps of her legs and she had overheard the doctor mention that they weren't healing as quickly as he would like. She said none of this though determined to be as positive as her small companion.

"I will be in late on Saturday," the volunteer was saying and Elliot paid more attention to the woman. "I am going with some friends to a birthday party on Friday evening. I didn't initially want to attend but I haven't spent any time with my friends in a while and I thought it would be a good time."

Elliot listened the volunteer continue to talk about her friends. She was silent as she considered her own social sphere. She had made several close friends during her life but her time on various tours had been the cause for most of those friends to drift away. As well she had not been able to sustain any relationships because most of the women she dated were not interested in spending a year waiting for her to return from duty overseas. Besides she had to be careful because the military was still enforcing the "don't ask don't tell" policy and most of the women she had become involved with wanted to be in the open with the relationship.

"Am I talking too much?" Ryan said after a moment. She had noticed the far-away look that came to the patient's blue eyes.

"No," Elliot moved her head slightly. She couldn't tell the other woman that she was envious of her friends and of her ability to go out and party when she wanted too.

Later that night after Ryan had left the hospital the Captain considered her own life as she waited for the medicine to knock her out. She was almost thirty years old and she had really no life outside the military. She had no close friends and no family that cared enough to come see her. Elliot felt the faint stages of depression begin to settle over her senses.

She had worked so hard towards the one goal of earning enough money so that she could afford to have Billy come live with her that she had denied herself other parts of her life. Now she no longer had a career with the army and she wondered who would be interested enough to get involved with a woman who was as badly scarred and injured as she was. She doubted she would find anyone.

She lay there in pain. She had often wondered what the small volunteer did when she was away from the hospital. Ryan had mentioned that she spent a lot of time on the computer designing new programs but she knew there had to be more to the smaller woman's life. Now she knew it was filled with friends and parties.

Fortunately sleep overcame her before she could become too depressed. She knew that in order to heal faster she had to remain positive but some days she found it hard to be optimistic. It was easier to wallow in despair.

Ryan dressed up in an elegant pantsuit that Friday night. As the week had gone on she had begun to look forward to the evening with more enthusiasm. When she actually took time to think about it she realized that she had missed her friends. She was glad that they held no grudges for they understood how obsessed she became when she was working on a computer design.

That evening she greeted her friends with enthusiasm hugging them. Though she had been careful to limit the physical interaction between her ex-partner she even gave Gerri a hug.

"Why are you in such a good mood?" Gerri wanted to know. Ryan was in the back seat next to her.

Ryan paused for a moment before answering, wondering herself why she was in such a happy frame of mind. Perhaps it was the good news from the doctor she had talked to before leaving the hospital that afternoon. The man had been positive and very optimistic about the Captain's steady healing progress.

She knew that with the type of injuries that Elliot had sustained she could be in hospital for up to a year with several more years of outpatient therapy to follow. Now she could be optimistic and believe that the Captain could leave the hospital earlier. In her mind she was already making plans for that day.

Ryan checked her thoughts. She was growing closer to the Captain every day and she thought the feeling's she was experiencing was mutual but it was hard to say. She knew that often patients had false feelings for their caregivers and she hated to think that this could be the case. Either way she knew that she shouldn't take anything for granted.

"Ryan!" Gerri said rousting her friend from her thoughts.

"Sorry what did you say?" The small blond realized that she had gone off on her thoughts.

"I asked why you were in such a good mood," the other woman was suspicious.

"It was a good day at the hospital," Ryan shrugged indifferently. It was true it had been a good day.

When Gerri spoke again it was on a different subject and Ryan was determined to have a good time that evening. In the end she was glad that she had decided to go out. Jenny and Brittany were as funny as always and she found herself laughing more than she had in a long time.

The birthday party was a happy celebration and as Ryan looked from Connie to Lindsay she could see the love between the two women. She hoped that someday she would be able to find the same happiness.

There were almost twenty women at the party and Ryan was surprised by how many of them that she knew through various other social events. If there was one annoying aspect of the evening was that Gerri was loath to leave her side. On more than one occasion someone assumed that they were a couple much to her dismay. On those occasions she was quick to clear up their misconceptions.

In spite of that she had a good time and more than a little too much to drink. By the time they dropped her off at her house she was no longer walking in a straight line. Gerri followed her to the door waiting there as she opened the lock.

"You really need a security system," the other woman said. Gerri had more than enough to drink herself.

"They can steal what they want, everything that I need is up here," Ryan tapped her finger to her head.

There was silence for a moment and then unexpectedly Gerri leaned in and kissed her on the mouth. Ryan was so stunned that she immediately responded to the seduction, returning the kiss but then as suddenly her senses returned and she pushed the other woman away.

"No, Gerri, it's not going to happen," she was definite.

"Why not?" The other woman wanted to know, "we were good together."

"Yes, we were good but it wasn't great," Ryan reminded her companion. "Remember you wanted out because there were too many things about me that you couldn't handle. I haven't changed."

"Maybe I have," Gerri protested.

"No you haven't Gerri," the small blond volunteer shook her head. "You still can't be alone."

Gerri felt a few choice words come to her lips but the last thing she wanted to do was fight with her ex-lover. If she had any hopes of them getting back together she had to show the other woman that she had changed. Without another word she turned and retreated back to the car where the other women were patiently waiting.

Ryan stared after the woman. In the past her words would have provoked a fight from the other woman but this evening Gerri had remained silent and walked away. Perhaps the other woman had changed but regardless it was too late. She was interested in someone else.

The next morning she woke late and nursing a slight hangover she went to the hospital. She visited with several of the other patients before she finally made her way to the Captain's room. She paused at the door and looked in for a moment thinking that the other woman was asleep. She was about to leave when a voice called out to her.

"Are you coming in to see me or not?" Elliot asked feeling a rush of emotion fill her heart. She had been waiting to see the small woman, and waiting to hear about the party.

"Sorry, I got a bit of a headache today," Ryan said entering the room and stepping up beside the bed where the other woman could see her better.

"You over did it last night didn't you?" The Captain said.

"Just a little bit," the small volunteer agreed with a sigh. "How are you feeling today?"

"Pretty good considering where I am," Elliot replied dryly. "Tell me about the party."

"No much to say," the blond woman shrugged thinking about the end of the evening and not wanting to talk about that. "It was a good party and there was lots of food, music and alcohol."

"You didn't happen to sneak some in here did you?"

"What alcohol? Food?"

"Any of it," Elliot said and her comment drew a sweet laugh from her companion. Ryan knew that her patient was feeling better is she was making such remarks.

"Tell you what," the small volunteer said playfully. "The day you get out of here I will take you out to a great dinner and then get you drunker that you have ever been."

"Is that a promise?"

"That's a promise," Ryan confirmed.

"I am going to hold you too it," Elliot said seriously.

"You won't have to," the volunteer said just as seriously and there was a moment of silence as blue and green eyes met and held. Something passed between the two women and instantly they both knew that they were connected; connected by something beyond this moment in time.

"What did the doctor say to you this morning?" Ryan spoke breaking the silence between them.

"Nothing much, except that they are still concerned about the burns to my limbs. They aren't healing as fast as he would like to see them. So it seems that I will be in here longer than expected."

They talked some more about her injuries before the nurse came in to administer a shot of pain medication. Ryan knew that the soldier was in pain and admired how the other woman seemed to fight through it. She didn't know how she would react if their roles were reversed.

It wasn't long afterwards that Elliot slipped off to sleep and still feeling the effects of the previous evening Ryan left the room and was making her way out of the hospital when she was stopped by the nurse on duty.

"You spend a lot of time with Captain Bellows," Mary mentioned casually.

"She has no family here," Ryan answered carefully not sure what the other woman was meaning. "I feel sorry for her."

"It's easy to do," the nurse agreed and then continued in a rush. "I know it's none of my business but I don't want to see you get hurt."

"What are you trying to say Mary?" the small volunteer was blunt. She was not the type of person to beat around the bush about anything.

The nurse was silent for a moment as she formulated her next words. She didn't want to see the young volunteer get hurt. She had seen hospital romances spring up before and often they had ended badly for when the patient was better they ultimately wanted to move on from the memories the hospital brought.

"Captain Bellows is a soldier and the military has a policy..."

"I know Mary," Ryan interrupted. "I may not be in the army but I understand where it stands on certain romances. I am just trying to be a friend to the Captain."

Mary was silent again as she looked at the younger woman. She wondered if the girl was lying to her or lying to herself. It was obvious to almost everyone on staff that there was more going on than just friendship.

"I just don't want you getting hurt," Mary spoke again.

"I'll be careful," the volunteer replied already knowing that it was too late. She had always guarded her heart against caring too much for the patients that she tended to and she knew about the false feelings that occurred.

Ryan thought about the conversation later that evening when she was sitting on her patio working on her computer. Try as she might she could not concentrate on the video screen. With a sigh she gave up and reached for a glass of wine that she had brought outside with her.

She knew about false feelings; she had counselled several heart sick young soldiers on it over the duration of her tenure at the hospital. Several had even written to her after their release to say that they were glad that she had talked to them. She instinctively knew that Captain Bellows was starting to have feelings for her and she couldn't help wonder if they were false feelings.

She sighed again wishing they could have met on different circumstances. She knew that the Captain would have lifelong medical issues. She was not afraid of that; she could handle a partner who wasn't prefect, but then she didn't want to be a long term caregiver. She wanted a partner who would be strong enough to handle their medical issues. She thought about Captain Bellows. What she had learned about the woman told her that she was someone who would not need a caregiver.

Ryan took a sip of her drink and pondered the future. She was strong and determined and knew that she would need a partner who was of the same mental and physical fortitude. What she had seen so far from the Captain was that she was as strong and determined as well. In her mind they would make a perfect pair.

Her cellphone rang at that moment and Ryan was happy to see that it was her mother.

"I called to invite you to dinner tomorrow night," Alison said when her daughter asked what prompted the call.

"What's so special about tomorrow night?" Ryan wanted to know.

"Nothing," the older woman replied. "Can't I invite my daughter to dinner without a reason?"

"Usually you have something up your sleeve," her daughter responded sceptically.

"Nonsense," Alison disagreed. "Come by at five so we can have a chat before dinner."

"Okay," Ryan agreed before ringing off.

She suspected her mother was up to something but the next morning she forgot all about dinner when she arrived at the hospital to find that the previous evening they had admitted another injured soldier.

Private Kevin Lang had been caught in an IED blast with two other soldiers, both of whom had died on the scene in Afghanistan. His parents were from Green Bay Wisconsin and weren't expected in the city until the next day.

Ryan listened as the nurse detailed his injuries. He had lost both legs and one hand with burns over 50 per cent of his body. He had also suffered severe head injuries and was blinded in one eye. The young volunteer knew that it would be a lot for the family to deal with.

She garbed up before going into the humid room. She saw that the young soldier was wrapped in bandages from head to the stumps of his legs. Even his face was bandaged. She bent over the man and stared into his one uncovered eye. She could see his fear.

"Hi, my name is Ryan Sloane and I am a volunteer here at Brooks Army Medical center in San Antonio Texas. The doctors and nurses here are going to take really good care of you."

She went on to explain what the doctors and the nurses would be doing and as she talked she began to see some of the fear disappear. She waited until he had fallen asleep before she made her departure.

Elliot tried to be patient when she waited for the young volunteer to show up to her room unfortunately she wasn't a very patient person. She moved her head and winced in pain, every part of her body still hurt including her head and she had tried to stay as still as possible to avoid aggravating her injuries. The doctor had said that her broken arms were healed and she could move her fingers without too much pain. She noticed that Ryan was later than usual that afternoon.

"A new patient came in last night," Ryan explained her absence. "The family isn't here yet so I went in and chatted with him for a while."

Elliot felt a moment of jealousy and then silently chided herself. She didn't have any right to be jealous of the other soldiers who Ryan spent time with. She knew that she was lucky the young woman spent as much time with her as she did.

"I can't stay long I promised my mom that I would come for dinner tonight." Ryan said much to the disappointment of the other woman. Elliot had waited all day for the other woman to show up and now she had to deal with the fact that the other woman would not be there long.

"You are unusually quiet is everything okay?" Ryan asked. She had talked for a while even as the other woman had remained quiet.

"Yeah, I'm just in pain," Elliot responded not wanting to admit the truth.

"Do you want me to call the nurse to give you some pain medication?"

"No," the soldier replied. "I can wait until my medication time."

"Well, then I should be on my way, I will see you tomorrow."

"Yeah, I will see you tomorrow," Elliot felt dismal, aware of the long evening and night ahead. She waited impatiently for the medication that would help her sleep, glad to be unconscious and without the constant pain that accompanied her.

Ryan was deep in thought when she arrived at her parents place in the suburbs, so deep in thought that she didn't immediately recognize the strange car that was parked in the driveway. She was feeling bad for having such a short visit with Elliot that afternoon and hoped that the other woman wouldn't hold it against her. If she could she would spend all her time in the Captains room.

It wasn't until she was in the house after greeting her parents that she realized that there was a strange woman sitting in the living room. Alison introduced the two young women before grabbing her husband's arm and leading him into the kitchen with her.

Elaine Hope was a pleasant young woman with long brown hair and sparkling green eyes. She had a ready and lovely smile and a nice build but Ryan couldn't help comparing her to the soldier lying in hospital. It seemed that lately she was comparing everyone she met to the Captain.

"How did you and mother meet?" Ryan asked over dinner. In spite of her lack of interest in the woman she was intent on making the evening as pleasant as possible for everyone involved. It wasn't the other woman's fault that her mother meddled in her life.

"We take the same aerobics class at the gym," Elaine replied.

"You go to the gym?" Ryan directed the question at her mother, stunned by the news.

"Yes, I have been going for the last six months," Alison replied.

"You never thought to tell me this," the volunteer was a little perturbed by her parent.

"I didn't think it was important," the older woman shrugged and then continued. "Anyway, Elaine and I got to talking one day after class and she mentioned that she had just broken up with her girlfriend. I thought of you and thought the two of you could meet."

You would, Ryan sighed to herself. She appreciated the fact that her parents were supportive of her lifestyle but there were times when she wished that her mother was a little less helpful.

"Do you go to the gym?"

"No," the volunteer shook her head. Ryan had never been a gym rat; in fact she was not fond of any type of exercise with the exception of swimming.

"You must be one of the lucky ones who don't have to work out," Elaine commented with a smile. "I have one dessert and I have to spend an extra hour in the gym working it off."

"Ryan has never been much for physical activity, she prefers to sit all night on her computer," Alison remarked dryly.

"A computer that gives me a good living," Ryan reminded her mother and there was a moment of tense silence.

"Your mother mentioned that you volunteer at a hospital," Elaine said breaking the uncomfortable silence.

"Yes, I am a Ward Listener at Brooks Army Medical Center. I work with the patients and family on the Burn Unit," the young woman volunteer warmed to the subject. She never tired talking about her work at the hospital.

"I don't know how you do it," the other young woman said. "I couldn't be around those poor soldiers all day."

"It's just something I do," Ryan shrugged.

It was nine o'clock before Elaine decided it was time to leave. At the insistence of her mother Ryan walked the young woman to her car.

"I had a great time," Elaine said as she opened her car door. "I wish my parents were as supportive of me as yours are."

"My parents can be a little too supportive sometimes," Ryan admitted with a smile.

"I guess," the other woman nodded and there was silence for a brief moment. "Listen I have this party to attend next weekend. I was wondering if you would be interested in accompanying me."

"Listen Elaine, you are a really nice woman and it was a pleasure to meet you but I am otherwise involved."

"Oh, your mother didn't mention that you were with someone," Elaine seemed slightly embarrassed.

"She doesn't know exactly and I prefer that she doesn't know for a while," Ryan admitted.

"Don't you think she would approve?" The brown haired woman was surprised by her companion's admission. Alison always seemed so supportive.

Ryan was quiet as she contemplated her response. She knew that her mother wouldn't disapprove of Elliot but she had the distinct impression that her mother would not approve of the situation.

"No, I don't think she would approve," she finally responded.

"Don't sell your mom short, she is very proud of you and constantly boasts about you," Elaine explained sincerely remorseful that her companion wasn't interested in furthering their acquaintance.

"I know she is but this situation is a little different," Ryan said.

She thought about their conversation for a moment after waving goodbye to the other woman. She remained outside for a minute thinking about her parents. Her dad, a military man, would welcome anyone into their home but her mom, as loving and supportive as she was, also was conscious of their image. She didn't think that Elliot in her condition would meet the older woman's criteria for who she should date.

"Mom, do we have to have a talk," Ryan said when she returned to the house.

"About what dear," Alison didn't immediately understand. "Wasn't Elaine a nice girl? Did she invite you out?"

"Yes, and yes but mom I said no."

"Why on earth would you turn her down? You seemed to get along fine with her," Alison was surprised by her daughter's response.

"She is very nice but I am not interested," Ryan said firmly. "Besides I don't need your help in getting dates. I can find women fine all on my own."

"Then why are you still single?" the older woman wanted to know.

"Because I want to be single," the young blond replied. "I have a full life and am not looking for anyone right now. Maybe in the future..."

"You need to forget about the future and concentrate on now," Alison said, "because if you don't the here and now will be gone and the future will be here and you will still be alone."

Ryan thought about her conversation with her mother later that night as she laid in her King size bed. Was she going to end up alone? Was she fooling herself by being attracted to someone who was wounded? She didn't think so, she was that confident in her emerging feelings for the Captain.

The next morning she was up early and in the hospital just as the Lang family arrived to see their son. After talking to the doctors Ryan spent time with them listening to their worries and assuring them that their son was getting the best care the military could offer. When they were ready and prepared she took them in to see their son, remaining with them and answering their questions as they took in what was left of their only boy. She left them only when they were comfortable being alone.

She stopped to visit a few other patients and was surprised to find that Sgt. Alex Dubrick back on the ward.

"What are you doing back here?" She asked surprised.

"Got a bit of an infection in one of my burn areas," Alex replied with a sigh. "I was pushing recovery to hard. I was out and thought I could ride a bicycle so I climbed aboard and promptly fell and scraped my burnt leg. I thought it was nothing but it turned into something."

"Sgt. you know you have to take it slowly," she admonished the man lightly.

"Yeah my wife read me the riot act," the soldier sighed and then brightened. "Did you miss me?"

"Nope," she responded with a smile of her own before wandering away.

Finally she got to Elliot's room and as always she paused in the doorway for a moment to take in the sight. The intravenous line was still there as was the humid air of the room. She walked in realizing that the Captain was awake.

"Good morning," She said breezily. "How are you today?"

"Not good," Elliot was honest. "The doctors said that I have gotten an infection in the stumps of my legs. They think they might have to amputate more of my legs."

Ryan knew it was a possibility, she had heard the doctors talk about how the burns were healing. She hated to think that the young soldier would lose more of her legs but if it would save her life she was all for the medical procedure.

"How do you feel about that?" She asked wondering what her companion was thinking. She could see the hint of fever in the blue eyes which were dull and hazy.

"I guess it will be okay, I told him that I wanted to keep my knees if possible," Elliot sighed, feeling tired from the infection.

"I am sure they will do their best," Ryan said and there was silence.

"How was your evening last night?" the Captain wanted to know.

"As I had suspected it was a setup," the blond volunteer replied. "My mother introduced me to a woman from her aerobics class."

"Was she nice?" Elliot wanted to know in spite of the dismal feeling that she had.

"Elaine was very pleasant but not someone I am going to see again."

"Why not?" The Captain instantly felt her spirits rise.

"I don't know," Ryan said and then took a deep breath. "I wasn't interested in her."

"You can't spend all your time here at the hospital."

"No, but I want too," the small blond said and Elliot immediately felt better in spite of her unhealthy situation.

"I'm glad," the Captain said and then closed her eyes.

The soldier fell asleep then, a sleep induced by the medication she had been given. Instead of leaving Ryan remained and she suddenly understood that this was where she should be. She knew that her friends and probably her parents wouldn't understand but something drew her to the Captain. Something she understood that would last a lifetime if nurtured and cared for.


Ryan had just come from visiting the Lang family when she ran into Doctor Karens. Private Kevin Lang had just survived the first scare in his recovery; an infection. His parents, ever at his side, were unaware how serious the scare was which made Ryan privately glad though she knew it was harder to console family when a serious incident occurred.

"Are you on the way to see Captain Bellows?" the Major asked of the young volunteer.

"Yes," Ryan nodded. She had made her rounds including visiting Private Leeds who was finally heading home. She felt a moment of panic. "Is everything alright?"

"Yeah, she will probably be drowsy," George said as he looked at the chart in his hand. "We had to take her into surgery this morning the infection was doing a number on her stumps."

"How much of her legs did you take?"

"We took the legs just above the knees," the doctor replied. "We got most of the worst of the burn and the infection."

"Good," Ryan nodded knowing the doctors had done what they had to too save the Captains life. "How is everything else?"

"Other than that she is recovering fine," George Karens answered. "Your visits are really helping. I can't say how she would be doing without you especially with no family around."

Ryan understood what the doctor was saying. It was important to have family assist in the recovery and that assistance came in the form of visits and encouragement. It was not unusual for a soldier to call out to their mother or father when the pain they were suffering became too much. More often than not a comforting word from a family member would calm the patient.

"I try to do what I can," she said finally and the man nodded.

"Keep it up."

Ryan thought of the doctor's words when she went to visit Elliot. She was lucky that the Captain was so strong though there had been moments when she had caught the other woman crying from the pain she was feeling. She was tentative when she entered the room that afternoon.

"Hey," she greeted the Captain gently reaching down to touch the unwrapped hand of the soldier with a gloved hand. "How are you doing?"

"Good," Elliot lied still groggy from the surgery that she had just gone through. "How much of my legs did they take?"

"Just above your knees," Ryan said aware of how important that was to the soldier to keep her knees.

The Captain sighed and closed her eyes, fighting the pain and fatigue that was engulfing her brain. She didn't want to sleep yet she was unable to prevent the slumber that finally took hold of her.

Ryan didn't leave instead she remained by the bed gently holding the other woman's hand with one of her own while stroking it comfortingly with the other. She stayed there for several hours before the soldier finally woke again.

"You're still here," Elliot commented quietly enjoying the feeling of the stroking hand.

"I thought you might like to have someone here when you finally woke again."

"I appreciate that you stayed."

"How are you feeling?" Ryan asked even though she suspected that she knew.

"Miserable," Elliot was honest as she fought through a wave of pain.

"Do you need some medication?"

"No, I will wait until it's time," the Captain sighed not wanting to rely on drugs even though she knew that they would help. She had a rough future ahead of her and didn't want to have an addiction to painkillers as a part of her recovery. "You don't have a date tonight?"

"Only with you," Ryan replied automatically.

It was surprising how that light comment made the Captain feel. With the absence of any family she was lucky that other woman volunteer had taken her under her wing.

"Is there anything I can do for you?"

"You can change places," Elliot said drily and Ryan couldn't prevent the smile that came to her lips. As miserable as the other woman felt she was always able to respond with humour.

"That's not what I mean but if I could take some of the pain from you I would," the small blond said honestly. "Tell me more about yourself."

Elliot was silent a moment as she struggled through the fog that clogged her brain to think about something she could tell the other woman. She thought about the fun that her brother and she used to get into and the trouble that would usually result. She told Ryan about how angry her grandmother would get at them.

"Would you like to write them?" Ryan suggested. "You haven't answered your brother's letter yet."

"Maybe," the Captain agreed and the volunteer went to collect a pen and some paper, ready to write down what her companion had to say.

"Who do you want to write to?" She asked.

"Billy," Elliot said knowing that she really had nothing to say to her grandmother. "How are you? I am still sick and in hospital and will be for a while so I probably won't be able to come see you for Christmas. I like the idea of getting a dog but that will depend on what kind of place we get once we can finally live together. There are many places that will not allow us to have pets.

"Are you still going to school? I am still in the army but I have lost both my legs so I don't know if they will let me stay. I am not alone here in the hospital there are others with injuries worse than mine. The doctors and nurses are very good here and I have met a very nice lady who comes to visit me every day.

"Well that is about all for now. I hope you are doing well and not giving grandmother any grief. I hope we will be able to be together sooner than later. Take care and know that I always love you. Elliot."

"I will make sure that it gets in the mail," Ryan promised as she folded the letter. "Is there anything that I can do for you before I leave?"

"You could bring some pizza in for me," Elliot said. "And maybe bring in a cold beer."

"I'll see what I can do," the volunteer agreed with a smile. "You take care and I will see you tomorrow."

As she had promised, she found an envelope and promptly mailed the letter on the way home. Normally she didn't mind coming home to a quiet house but of lately she was seeing it as an empty place. She was always comfortable with being alone yet of late she had been wondering what it would be like to have someone around again, someone to cook for and to plan social occasions with. Lately when those thoughts came to mind she thought of the Captain and wondered how she would be like to live with.

In the same thought she realized that the Elliot didn't just come alone. She came with a load of baggage unlike anyone that she had ever been involved with before. Gerri had been relatively easy to live with even though she had been demanding she had come with few problems. The Captain was as different as anyone she had ever been interested in and she knew that she had to consider the pros and cons of the situation before it moved to far ahead.

But Ryan knew that even as she thought of that she knew it was already too late. She would be willing to take the other woman with whatever baggage she brought into the relationship including war wounds and a mentally handicapped brother. She knew that the two were a package deal and she had to accept that. Strangely she had no reservations about the situation. She did know though that her parents would question her sanity and thus is why she wanted to keep her emerging emotions under wraps for as long as possible.

"How are you today?" Ryan greeted the patient the moment she arrived at the hospital. Instead of going to visit the other soldiers she had headed straight for the Captains room.

"Better," Elliot said still feeling the effects of the medication she had been given that morning. "You are here early?"

"I realized that I have always been leaving you for last when I should have been putting you first," the small volunteer said honestly. "I realized that even after all these visits I know only a little about you."

"What do you want you know?" the Captain asked more clearly than she felt.

"Well first I guess I would like to know if you like to read?"


"What do you read?" Ryan wanted to know.

"Non-fiction mostly, autobiographies, real life dramas, I'm not really into the popular fiction."


"I don't know," Elliot had never really thought about it. "I just have been more interested in people telling their own true stories. What about you?"

"I read a lot of popular fiction," Ryan replied. "What about movies?"

"I like pretty much anything," the Captain said. "In the military especially while on tour you don't get to see a lot of movies and when you do get to see one you don't have a choice on what you want to see." There was a slight pause. "I think I can tell what kind of movies you enjoy."

"You think so," the small blond cocked an eyebrow in amusement. "Tell me what kind of movies you think I like."

"I think you enjoy the romantic comedies."

"Yes," Ryan didn't deny the truth, "but I also enjoy just about any other type of movie as well."

"Then we have something in common," Elliot said. Was it enough? She wanted to ask but remained quiet.

"What did you do in your spare time?" the volunteer asked.

"Not a lot," the Captain replied. "On tour we didn't have a lot of down time and when we did I spent it working out. I was really into physical fitness, now I don't know what I will do without my legs."

"The same thing you did with your legs, maybe more," Ryan said. "In fact I have seen wounded soldiers do better after they were injured than they did before they were wounded. Are you afraid you won't be the same?"

"I won't be," Elliot answered.

The small volunteer wanted to dismiss the claim but she knew it wasn't that simple. The soldier had to believe that they could overcome their new disabilities and only once they had that belief did their emotions and outlook change. Before Ryan could make a comment a hospital aide appeared with a snack of vanilla pudding which she prepared to feed to the Captain.

"I'll do that," the small volunteer offered and the aide nodded before leaving the room.

Because her arms were still bandaged and swollen from the burn Elliot could not feed herself yet and she felt embarrassed at having to rely on someone else to eat. Until recently because her jaw had been wired shut she had been fed through a straw but now with her jaw healed she was able to eat soft foods.

There was silence as Ryan fed her companion. She knew that she would do anything to help the Captain yet she also knew what kind of emotional toll it was taking on the other woman to have no control over the simple basic task as eating. She could sense the soldier withdraw.

"Thank you," Elliot said when the bowl of pudding was finished.

"Would you like something to drink?"

"Yes, thank you," the soldier agreed and Ryan collected a bottle of water with a straw from a nearby table and held it so the other woman could drink.

"It won't always be this way," the small volunteer said as she set the water bottle back on the tray. "You feel helpless now but that emotion will pass as you get better. Remember not long ago you couldn't even open your mouth to ask for anything and now you are talking. As soon as your arms heal better you will be able to feed yourself."

Elliot knew what the woman was saying was true but she was the impatient type wanting to push to heal faster than she was capable of. She knew that getting better would take time it would be a slow process.

"I realize that," she said finally. "I am just used to helping others rather that have them help me."

"Just don't get to use to it," Ryan cautioned. "Because once physical therapy starts you will want someone to help you and then you will have to do it all yourself."

"When will that start?"

"Soon," the small volunteer offered. "The doctors like you to get to a certain point in your recovery before they push you to therapy. I would say another couple of weeks and then they will be in here moving your limbs and you will be wishing you were someplace else."

Elliot supposed what the other woman said was true though there were moments when she didn't think the pain that she experienced could get any worse. She had suffered several previous wounds and knew that the initial pain would pass. She had the idea now that there was more to come.

"I'm sorry I didn't mean to scare you," Ryan apologized. It was as if she could see what the soldier was thinking by the look in her blue eyes.

"You didn't scare me," the Captain denied. "If anything what you say just allows me to prepare myself for what is to come."

"Whatever it is I will be here," the small volunteer promised and Elliot was comforted.

It surprised the Captain how much the other woman's presence comforted her. From the very beginning her inner panic had been calmed by the blond volunteer's soft voice and gentle manner. It was a strange notion for her as she had never relied on anyone else in moments of terror.

"Can I see your face?" She asked unexpectedly and Ryan was startled by the question yet also warmed. Until now her face had always been covered by the mask that she wore. She debated only for an instant before she reached up and slipped it off her face.

Elliot stared at the woman memorized by the gentle beauty of the warm heart shaped face. She could see faint wisps of blond hair frame its curves and the ever sparkling green eyes. Also as soon as it was down the mask was back in place.

There was silence as Ryan felt a little embarrassed. She had had the same request from other soldiers in the hospital but none of them had meant the same. But then none of the soldiers had meant as much to her as the Captain did.

It was only a few weeks later when the doctors decided that Elliot had progressed enough to start physical therapy. Though the burns were still being treated the physicians decided that it was necessary to start getting her stiffening limbs moving again.

As promised Ryan was there from the beginning and though Elliot had mentally prepared for the pain it was more than she had thought and there were times when she was close to passing out. Through the whole time the small volunteer was there voicing encouragement and comfort, staying with the Captain for a long time after the therapists had gone. Elliot was embarrassed by the tears that came so easily.

"There is nothing to be ashamed about," Ryan said as if reading the other woman's mind. "I would be worried if you didn't cry or react."

"You did warn me," the Captain murmured exhausted by the activity that she had been put through. It was amazing how tiring the simple arm and leg exercises were and how stiff her limbs were.

"Sorry," the volunteer apologized again even though she didn't know why. "It will get better I promise."

"I know," the other woman nodded before slowly falling asleep.

Ryan stayed with the other woman for a long while after the Captain had fallen asleep. She had felt the other woman's pain almost as if it were her own, and tears had smarted in her own green eyes just as they had streamed from the Captain's eyes. She had felt sympathy for the woman like she had never felt for the other soldiers she had tended.

She waited for several more days before she broke her news. She had a computer conference that she needed to attend in San Francisco and would be gone a week. It was not something she was looking forward to attending yet knew that if she wanted to stay current in the industry that she had to attend.

Elliot could barely hide her panic when the small volunteer casually mentioned that she would be gone for the next week. She looked forward each day to the other woman's visits and felt stronger for the encouragement that the smaller woman's gave her. She had a sick feeling in her stomach. It was a feeling she didn't like.

"It's a seven day conference," Ryan explained not aware of the other woman's feelings. "It's something I attend every year and it lets me see what is new in the computer industry."

The Captain knew little about computers but she understood about staying up to date with the latest products and systems. She knew this was important to the small visitor and so tried to be as cheerful as she could be under the circumstances.

Ryan left for San Francisco several days later and tried to focus on the upcoming conference but her mind was constantly thinking about the Captain. Elliot had been unusually lethargic the last couple of days and this worried the small volunteer. The doctors told her everything was fine and she put down the other woman's attitude to the weariness of the physical therapy that she had started. She shook her head and cleared her thoughts determined to concentrate on the business at hand aware that she needed to absorb as much new information as she could to stay current in the computer world.

Meanwhile back at the hospital Elliot was not doing well as another serious infection developed in the burns on her body. The doctors immediately upped her medication but it didn't seem to help and all worried the Captain would fall to this illness. The medical staff battled hard but nothing seemed to help.

Ryan had a fabulous time at the conference running into old friends and making new acquaintances. She even managed to get someone interested in the new app that she was developing and she flew home from San Francisco bubbling over with new information and various possibilities.

Instead of going directly to the hospital as she wanted to, she decided instead to head out to visit her parents reasoning that it would be around dinner hour at the hospital. She knew that after a long day of physical therapy Elliot would be tired and sleepy. She thought it would be better to wait until the next morning.

"How was your conference?" Her mother questioned the moment they were alone together. They had not seen much of their daughter in the last while and were beginning to wonder after the reason. Normally Ryan made it a practice to come to dinner at least once during the week but it had been several weeks since she had been over.

"It was great, I got to meet a lot of my old colleagues there," Ryan explained not going into details about the new technology that she had discovered during the week realizing that her parents wouldn't understand anyway. "What's new with the pair of you?"

"Nothing," Alison shrugged. "Your father and I are going on that reunion cruise next month."

"Good," Ryan was happy for the decision. She worried that her parents weren't getting out enough.

"So nothing new is going on with you?" Palmer questioned his daughter when her mother had left the room to check on dinner.

"What should be new?"

"Well, your mother and I have been wondering if there is someone new in your life."

"Why?" Ryan wasn't entirely startled by the question though it did make her wonder coming from her father.

"Well, we haven't seen you in quite some time," Palmer said and then winked. "The last time you stayed away you were going out with someone new."

"There is no one new in my life," she insisted and was glad when her mother called them to the dinner table then.

Ryan was careful to keep the conversation on inconsequential matters and was successful until dessert time when her father spoke.

"How is that Captain doing?" Palmer inquired more interested in his daughters work than his wife.

"Captain who?" Alison was suddenly interested.

"A Captain Bellows," Ryan shrugged casually and tried to appear only vaguely interested. "She is a patient at the hospital. She was burned and the doctors amputated both her legs just above the knees just a few days before I left for the conference. But she is doing good."

"That's nice dear," Alison said and then changed the subject which caused Ryan to breathe with relief.

Ryan thought about that later that evening when she sat alone sipping on a glass of wine and working on her computer. She knew that she was being a coward by not saying anything to her parents about Elliot yet she also didn't want to get ahead of herself as well. She didn't know how the other woman felt. She knew that Elliot looked forward to her visits but then so did most of the soldiers in the hospital. Not for the first time did she have some doubts about the other woman.

It would be easy for Elliot to feel something for her but whether it was appreciation or genuine affection that was developing between them she didn't know and she was not about to probe the other woman about the matter. Now was not the time to talk about affection or interest in developing a relationship. There would be time for that when the Captain was well. Until then she had to be patient and contain her own growing feelings towards the other woman.

The next morning she was her usual cheerful self as she entered the hospital. She was happy to be back and even happier to be able to see the Captain again after a week of being away. She knew something was wrong the moment she stepped up to the nurse's desk.

"What's wrong?" She asked her happy façade suddenly turning fearful.

"Captain Bellows has developed a severe infection," Mary the nurse replied. "The doctors have been doing everything but it doesn't look good."

"Can I see her?"

"Of course," Mary knew that it couldn't hurt for the young visitor to see the patient. In fact if anything it might do them all some good.

Ryan rushed through garbing up and only paused once she reached the doorway of the Captain's room. She hesitated her heart aching. When she had left a week ago everything had been good but now the other woman was really sick. She knew that infections could work that fast, she had experienced it on several occasions but she had naively believed that the Captain was beyond that stage. She knew that she had been unrealistic.

She stepped into the room and went immediately towards the bed. She reached with her gloved hand the unwrapped hand of the Captain and gently held it leaning in close to her ear not knowing whether she would understand because the other woman was unconscious.

"I'm here, I'm back and I promise I won't leave your side again, no matter what happens I will be here." She gently squeezed the other woman's hand and watched as one of her tears dropped onto the white bed sheets.

A year later...............

Ryan entered the hospital and walked past the vacant nurse's station calling a greeting to a soldier who was sitting in the nearby waiting room. She paused to chat with the young soldier inquiring about his health and his family. There was no longer a reason to rush to the ward, those days were long past. After chatting for a while she continued on her way stopping to speak with another patient who was being helped down the hallway by a nurse. She smiled but it did not reach her green eyes as they once had.

She continued on her way and finally reached the room that she had so often visited in the past. She looked at the empty bed and her heart ached thinking about what had been. She could not look into the room without thinking about the Captain.

"Hey, why the unhappy face?" The familiar voice broke into her thoughts and this time the smile did reach to her eyes as she looked at the dark haired woman who was slowly making her way down the hallway on a pair of crutches, her artificial legs inching forward at a snail's pace.

"No reason," Ryan said and then held out her hand. "Do you need help Captain?"

"I need a lot of things but unfortunately the doctors all say I have to do this on my own if I want to get out of here." Elliot said with a crooked smile and moved passed the smaller woman and through the door making for the sanctuary of her bed.

Ryan was silent as she watched the other woman make her way across the room thinking of how close the Captain had come to dying a year ago. The infection that she had contracted had bought her close to death but for some reason the tall woman had survived. It had been a miraculous survival surprising even the doctors by her will to live.

After that everything had almost seemed easy but she knew that it hadn't been. As the days went by Elliot had slowly regained her health and the burns had healed and the physical therapy had been going well.

"The doctors had some good news today," Elliot said as she settled on the bed lifting her legs onto the frame.

"What was that?" Ryan wanted to know as she settled into a nearby chair.

"He said as soon as I can find a place nearby to live I can leave here," the Captain said a smile on her face. "How does that sound?"

"That's great," the small volunteer said biting her lower lip thoughtfully. "Have you any idea where you'd like to live?"

"No, the nurses have been telling me there is a place near here that is for family and recovering patients. I was going to ask Military Assistance about it."

"Well, I have a suggestion," Ryan said with one breath. "Why don't you move in with me?"

Her suggestion was greeted with complete silence as the other woman looked at her with blue eyes.

"I couldn't do that to you," Elliot said even though the initial idea excited her.

"Why not?" Ryan wanted to know. "I have lots of room."

"I still have a lot of physical therapy."

"I know and I can bring you here every day when I come here to volunteer." The blond woman said and bit her lower lip thoughtfully. "I have a big house and I am the only one living there. I also have a swimming pool so you can keep up your therapy even there."

"I will have to think about it," Elliot said even though she knew that she had pretty much decided to accept the other woman's offer. She knew that it would be weeks and maybe months before she would be able to get into the apartments nearby besides she liked the small volunteer and thought it would be good to continue their friendship and she badly wanted to get out of the hospital.

In spite of her decision she waited a few days before telling the small woman of her decision. She didn't want to be a burden to the blonde woman and thought that she might be one if they moved in together.

"Have you thought about my offer?" It was Ryan who precipitated the conversation.

"I don't want to be a burden," Elliot revealed her thoughts.

"You wouldn't be," the small volunteer said. "You will need help with some things and who better than me to help you."

"I don't want it to ruin our friendship," the tall Captain said at last.

"It won't," Ryan promised. "Really I have a big house and it would be nice to have someone else live there with me."

"Okay," Elliot finally agreed though she still had some reservations. She had feelings for the small volunteer and she didn't want those to interfere in their friendship. "I have to pay you something for staying there."


"Because it wouldn't be fair otherwise," the Captain said.

"Listen I have more money than I need and would just like the company," Ryan said.

"I won't move in with you unless I can contribute to living there," Elliot was firm in her resolution.

The small volunteer was silent as she contemplated what had been said. She could understand that the other woman was too proud to take something for free. She looked at the raven haired woman.

"What do you suggest?"

"I was thinking about twelve hundred a month," the Captain had figured it out in her head what it would cost for her to get a decent apartment in the city.

"That's far too much."

"It's what I would pay normally," Elliot disputed the claim.

"I won't take more than a thousand," this time it was Ryan who was firm. She did not want the other woman to be short of cash and thought that the number she quoted was more than enough. Besides she had no intention of keeping the money deciding then that she would put it in a bank account for the other woman.

There was a long silence as the tall woman contemplated what had been said. She wanted to have a place to stay, a home rather than a sterile apartment. She wouldn't throw it away for a mere two hundred dollars.

"Okay," she agreed and as if to seal the deal the two women shook hands.

News of her pending departure spread quickly through the Ward as did the information that she would be going to stay with Ryan. She became the envy of the Ward's other patients and suffered through the joking remarks the other patients made. But it was a serious situation and Major Karens approached Ryan.

"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" He questioned the volunteer when he saw her the next time.

"Why is there something I should know?" The blonde woman asked.

"She's not just some lost puppy that just needs love," the doctor was blunt. "She still has a lot of health problems and then there is the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). She has been displaying signs of it."

"I know it's not going to be easy," Ryan confirmed. "But I think I can help her."

"Well you've done a good job here in the hospital so I don't see any reason why it won't work out but if there are problems don't hesitate to mention it to someone, and if she gets physical don't just accept it."

"I won't," she promised.

It was a week later when Elliot was officially given the release from the hospital though her rehabilitation was to continue on an out-patient basis. They collected her things from the storage area and piled the duffle bag into her car that she had parked in front of the hospital where Elliot stood waiting.

The doctors and nurses all came to say goodbye as it was always a good occasion when one of their patients left the hospital under their own steam. Though she could walk, slowly, on her new legs they still wheeled her out on a wheelchair. Ryan drove them home and parked by the garage.

Elliot had been nervous the entire drive, as memories of her last trip were still imbedded in her mind. She slowly got out of the car relying heavily on her crutches to balance herself even as her blue eyes scanned her surroundings. The place looked pleasant enough.

"Come on I will show you around," Ryan said grabbing the duffle bag from the back of the car and stepping up to the taller woman. She knew that she had to walk slower than usual so that the other woman could keep up. She led them through the gate of the fenced in yard to the backyard where she pointed out the large swimming pool. Elliot noticed that the lawn was immaculately cut and the trees were trimmed.

They entered the ranch style house from the back door by the patio. It led directly into the dining and kitchen area. To the right and down a few steppes was a family room. They continued down the hallway on which each side was two bedrooms. At the very front of the house were the living room and another room that Ryan used as her office.

"I thought you might like this room," Ryan said pushing open a door of one of the bedrooms that she had made up that morning.

Elliot stepped into the room and then glanced around. It was a large room with mahogany furniture and a queen size bed. There was an adjoining fully equipped bathroom. Ryan tossed the duffle bag on the bed as the tall Captain sat down on the edge.

"My room is across the hall," the volunteer informed her companion. "The bathroom is a shared one but as you are the only other person here it is yours to do what you want. Is there anything I can get you?"

"No I think everything is good," Elliot replied suddenly overwhelmed by the situation. She had been in the hospital for so long she was nervous now that she was no longer there surrounded by medical staff. She had wondered how she would make it on her own without the support of the staff.

"I am kind of tired," the Captain admitted shyly.

"No problem, make yourself at home, what's mine is yours," Ryan said as she headed to the door. She paused and pointed to a little bell on the bed table by the bed. "I got you a bell so if you need anything just ring."

"Thank you."

Elliot lay down leaving her artificial limbs in place nervous in case she had to quickly move from the bed. She glanced at the closed door and felt shut away, alone and it was a feeling that she didn't like. She searched for her medicine and popped several pills into her mouth and lay back in an attempt to sleep. She was tired but her mind was going a hundred miles per minute. Finally the medicine kicked in and she fell asleep.

Ryan kept busy that afternoon working on her computer on the new app design and even managed to pop out of the house for a short while to do some grocery shopping. She peeked into the other woman's room when she came home and saw that the other woman was still sleeping. She waited until it was six pm before knocking on the woman's bedroom door.

"Yes," Elliot had woken only moments earlier and had been lying in a haze wondering momentarily where she was before realization finally dawned on her. Ryan slowly opened the door.

"I thought you might be hungry," the small volunteer said. "I have dinner ready in the kitchen."

"Okay thanks," Elliot nodded and slowly moved off the bed grabbing her crutches for stability. She made her way slowly out of the room and down the hallway to the kitchen where the other woman was waiting.

"I promised you dinner when you got out," Ryan said and she motioned the tall woman to take a chair at the end of the table. "Unfortunately this isn't a great spread but I remembered that you once said that you were craving pizza and beer. I didn't know what your favourites were so I got two of both."

"Thanks," the Captain looked at the pizzas and the bottles of beer that were on the table. "These are some of my favourites."

"Well let's dig in," Ryan said.

Elliot grabbed a piece of pizza and cracked open a bottle of beer. She savoured the taste of both for she had had neither for almost two years. It was amazing how good the little ordinary things tasted. She was on her second piece of pizza before she realized the other woman was looking at her with an amused grin.

"What?" She swallowed the food that was in her mouth.

"I don't think I have seen anyone eat pizza with such joy," Ryan commented with a grin.

"I love pizza," the tall woman said quietly. "I haven't had pizza since my last deployment."

"Well than I am glad I got it for your first meal out of hospital," the small volunteer said taking a bit of her own piece of pizza. "What else have you been missing?"

"The freedom to go where I want when I want," the Captain replied and Ryan instantly understood how limited the woman felt with her injuries. The small woman knew that the soldier was unable to do anything on her own because of her head injury.

"Well I am here now so anything that you want to do we can do," the blonde woman said.

"It's not the same," Elliot continued in a quiet voice.

"I know," the other woman agreed solemnly. "But until the doctor's figure out why you are still suffering from a concussion I'm as good as you are going to get."

"I'm not complaining," the Captain said. "You just asked me what I missed."

Ryan was silent. She didn't understand the other woman's position. She didn't know what it would be like to lose the freedom that she took for granted.

"Is there something that you would like to do?" She inquired after a long moment of silent reflection.

"Not right now," the Captain shrugged.

"Well, I want you to make yourself at home here, think of this as your home," Ryan said. "And if there is something you want to do or somewhere you want to go, just say and I will be happy to oblige."

"I don't want you to feel obligated to look after me," Elliot spoke softly, as she picked at a piece of meat on the slice of pizza she held.

"I don't," the small volunteer shook her head. "I would be honoured to help you."

Elliot understood than what made this woman a volunteer. Ryan was happy to give of herself and the Captain knew that she had to swallow her pride and live with the limitations that her injuries had on her. She took another bite of her food realizing that if she had to rely on someone she was glad she could rely on this small woman.

"There is one thing I'd like to do," she remarked after swallowing another bite of food.

"What's that?" Ryan was immediately interested.

"Most of my things are with my grandmother in Florida. All I have here is my military issue clothing," Elliot answered. "I wouldn't mind going shopping for some new clothes. I think I have lost some weight and most of my old clothes probably wouldn't fit anyway."

It was normal for a patient in the hospital to lose weight and this was not an unusual request. Ryan brightened considerably. She loved to shop and told her companion as much.

"What kind of clothes do you like to wear?"

"Nothing fancy, sportswear mostly, loose fitting jeans," the taller woman answered.

"I know the perfect place, it's a little out of the way in the suburbs but it is a great place and will probably have everything you want," Ryan couldn't hide her excitement. "We can go tomorrow afternoon after you are finished your therapy."

"I need to stop at the bank first," Elliot commented and the other woman nodded her head.

"Certainly, is there anything else you want to get?"

"No," the Captain paused and then brought up a subject that they had not yet discussed. "I can't live here for free, that wouldn't be fair."

"You are already paying me a thousand dollars a month what more do you want?" Ryan said.

"I have to be able to help out," the soldier said.

"Do you like to cook?"

"Yes, but I haven't done that in a while," Elliot admitted.

"That's okay because I hate cooking," Ryan was honest.

The Captain was silent as she contemplated the proposal. It still didn't seem fair but looking at her companion she realized it would be about as much as she would be able to get from the other woman, besides cooking would give her something to do.

"Okay," she finally agreed and the smaller woman smiled and held out her hand. They shook on the deal.

"Good," Ryan was happy. She hated cooking and had been worried that it would be one sticky point in having the other woman living with her. "We probably need to go grocery shopping then. I don't have much other than a few snacks and frozen foods in the freezer. You might want to look to see what we need."

Elliot shook her head and grinned for the first time that evening.

"I thought you might be a health nut," she said. "You certainly have the body for it."

"Nope," the blonde woman laughed. "I am a food junkie; the worse it is the better I enjoy it. Why I don't gain pounds is because I have a high metabolism and I spend a lot of time swimming."

The rest of the meal was spent in amicable conversation of general subjects as they finished one of the pizzas and several of the beers. Both women were more than a little tipsy by the time they were done eating.

"This was great thank you," Elliot said. "You really don't know what you miss until you can't have it."

"Well, from now on you can have anything you want," Ryan said.

"I don't want to prevent you from doing whatever you have to do," the Captain remarked. "What do you usually do after dinner?"

"After eating I usually sit on my computer for a few hours, working on designs and programs," the volunteer was honest.

"Then I am keeping you from your work," Elliot said but the other woman shook her head.

"You are keeping me company," Ryan disagreed taking another sip from a beer. "Usually I work on my computer because I have nothing else to do without being bored. It's nice to have some company."

"I will remind you of that when you get tired of me hanging around," the dark haired woman remarked with a grin.

That won't happen, the small volunteer thought to herself but she only shook her head and took another sip of her beer. She looked at the bottle and then at her companion a lopsided grin on her face.

"I think I just might be a little drunk."

"I think we both are," Elliot agreed and together they laughed.

It was a pleasant evening, one that neither woman had experienced in a long time. When they finally finished the meal they packed up the rest of the pizza and put the leftovers in the fridge.

"You weren't lying when you said you didn't have anything to eat in the house," the taller woman commented after glancing in the fridge.

"While you will find that though I have many faults, not one of them is lying," Ryan told the other woman.

"I will remember that," Elliot said and then looked inside the fridge again. "What do you usually have for breakfast?"

"A cup of coffee and a glass of juice," the smaller woman was honest. She peered past the other woman. "This isn't exactly the hospital fare."

"I hope not," the dark haired woman laughed shutting the fridge door. "I think it's time for me to go to bed."

"Right, it is getting late," Ryan agreed. "I think I am going to go on line for a while though. If you need anything just yell."

Once again Elliot is nervous about sleeping alone in the darkness so after washing and preparing for bed she went to the door and opened it allowing the hallway light to filter into the room. She made her way to the bed table where her medication was sitting and popped several pills into her mouth before going about the task of taking off her leg prosthetics.

She flipped off the lights and then lay back in bed pulling the bed sheets over her body. She closed her eyes and let out a huge breath patiently waiting for sleep to come but her mind was going a hundred miles per minute. Too late she realized that she had too much to drink but it was more than the alcohol that was keeping her awake.

She hated the moments before sleep when her tired mind dwelled on the things that she would rather forget. She unconsciously shook her head as if to shake the images from her head but as always they were there, reminding her of what she had gone through and how she was the only one who had survived.

Tears misted in her eyes as she thought again about Corporal Middells, Amira Nur and Sergeant Wolchek and how their lives had been snuffed out. She wondered again if there was anything she could have done differently to prevent their demise. Maybe if they had taken a different route back to the Base. Maybe she should have been more insistent that they not go out on the mission to begin with. These were all questions that kept running through her brain.

She sighed and struggled to roll onto her side. It was a simple yet difficult move now without legs giving up after a while and resigning herself to sleeping on her back. She felt frustrated yet knew that it was something that she would have to get used too. There were things now that she was prevented from doing because of her injuries.

She thought back to earlier in the evening and her confession to Ryan. It was true she had always been the person whom people relied upon and here now she was the one who would have to rely on someone else. She wanted to curse her fate but knew that she was the lucky one. Finally the medication kicked in and she dozed off.

Ryan worked for a few hours on her computer fixing a certain part of the design that she had been having trouble with. It was late when she finally resolved the issue and decided that it was time for bed. She packed up her stuff and switched off the lights as she made her way to her bedroom noticing immediately that her guest had left the door to her room open.

She paused for a moment before peeking inside to see that her guest was sound asleep. She stared at the peaceful face for a moment before slowly exiting the room and making her way to her own room. She left her own door open not only out of habit but also in case her companion needed anything.

She woke the next morning to the wonderful smell of freshly brewed coffee. Normally she did not put on the coffee until she got out of bed and she wondered momentarily whether she had accidently set the timer. As she was mulling this thought over she remembered that she was no longer on her own and that more than likely her guest was up. She hastily climbed out of bed, donning a housecoat before wandering into the kitchen. A glance at the guest bedroom confirmed that the other woman was awake.

"Good morning," she said brightly as she walked into the kitchen only to find it empty. She poured herself a cup of coffee before going in search of the other woman. It took a moment for her to trace her guest outside to the patio. "Good morning."

"Good morning," Elliot replied as she straightened in her chair. She had not slept much the previous night in spite of the medicine she had taken. "I hope it was all right that I fixed the coffee."

"Certainly, it was a pleasant smell to wake up to," Ryan smiled. "How did you sleep?"

"Good," the dark haired woman lied not wanting to bother her companion with her complaints.

"The bed was okay? It has hardly ever been used and I've never slept in it so I don't know how it sleeps."

"It was fine," the Captained responded for the bed had been comfortable.

They sat in silence enjoying the cool early morning as they sipped their coffee. It could have been an awkward time but somehow both women were able to relax and were comfortable with their companionship.

"Well, I should get dressed or we will be late for the hospital," Ryan finally said standing up and moving to the kitchen.

Less than an hour later they were on their way to Brooks Medical Center. Ryan accompanied Elliot to the therapy center before continuing on to the Burn Unit where Mary was waiting to find out how the night had gone.

"It was okay why?" The small volunteer wanted to know.

"Well, you might as well know, Captain Bellows has a habit of waking up with nightmares and then not being able to go back to sleep," the nurse revealed the truth.

"She was up early but I didn't hear any screaming," Ryan said wishing that she had been told this earlier. Even though nothing unusual had happened she would have liked to have been prepared. She changed the subject. "Did anyone new come in?"

Mary noticed the abrupt change of subject but said nothing. Instead she went onto detail the injuries of a new patient that had been admitted earlier that morning. It was another young Private who had been caught in an IED blast while on foot patrol in Afghanistan.

Ryan was happy to now that the family had accompanied the young soldier from Germany where he had initially been treated. She visited with them for a few minutes to see if they had any questions. After that she went around the Ward visiting the other soldiers in residence. Before she knew it was lunch time and time to pick up the Captain.

"How did it go this morning?" she asked when she saw the other woman. She could see the exhaustion on the taller woman's face. Though Elliot had been going to therapy for almost a year she was still working on her burnt joints to loosen the motion and movement of her limbs.

"It was a tough morning," Elliot confided. She had a regular routine and every day the therapists were giving her more and more exercises and weights. Afterwards she went for a swim in the pool as she learned to operate in the water without her prosthetics.

"Hopefully it will get better," Ryan sympathized. "Are you ready for lunch?"

"I'm famished," the dark haired captain confessed.

"Good, so am I, where would you like to eat here in the hospital or would you like to go out to a restaurant or café?"

"Café please," Elliot said. She was tired of being in and around the hospital and wanted to get out as soon as she was finished her therapy. She mentioned as much to her companion.

"Your wish is my command," the small volunteer said and they slowly made their way out to the parking lot where the car was parked. They finally decided to eat at a café that was close to the shopping mall and bank where Elliot could do her banking business.

After eating they immediately went around to the various shops, though Ryan was careful to make sure that they didn't have to walk to far for though Elliot could move on her prosthetics she still tired easily and had difficulty balancing without the use of her ever present crutches.

Fortunately they were lucky and the shops that they visited had helpful sales persons though it was still a slow process as the Captain had difficulty trying on the various outfits that they selected. Ryan was moved to offer her assistance but decided that she would wait for the taller woman to invite her help before offering it. Finally they were done and the small blonde woman could tell that her companion was beyond exhausted.

"We can put off the grocery shopping until tomorrow," Ryan offered when they finally made their way back to the car.

"What are we going to eat tonight?" Elliot said. She was tired and longed for a nap but she knew that the smaller woman had nothing in the kitchen to eat.

"How about we order in tonight again and go shopping tomorrow after therapy?" The blonde woman suggested. "Do you like Chinese food?"

"Love it," the Captain agreed in no mood to argue about any of the arrangements. She was just happy to be heading home and to bed.

"Good," Ryan was happy that it was decided.

They headed directly home and because it was still too early for dinner, Elliot decided to take a nap. She popped some of her pills and lay down on the bed leaving her prosthetics on because it took so long to take them off and put them back on.

Meanwhile Ryan retreated to the study to work on her computer design. Before she realized it dinner hour had come and gone. She glanced at the clock and noticed that it was already eight in the evening. She immediately rang up a local restaurant and ordered food before going in search of her houseguest.

Elliot was still asleep and so Ryan waited until the food arrived and was set out before she went to wake the tall woman. She slipped into the darkened room and moved to the bed reaching out to gently shake the woman's shoulder.

The Captain woke with a start and would have bolted up in bed had she been able to. Her blue eyes searched the darkness until they found the small blonde woman standing next to the bed. She swallowed hard.

"Sorry for waking you but dinner is ready and I thought you might be hungry," Ryan said quietly aware that she had startled the other woman.

"Yes," Elliot nodded wiping a hand across her face as she regained her senses.

"Do you need any help?" the small volunteer asked and her companion shook her head.

"I'll be there in a minute."

"Okay," the blonde woman agreed and though she would have loved to help the other woman out of bed she knew that the Captain needed to learn these things on her own.

She walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table to wait her companion. It was a few moments before the Captain appeared, moving slowly and leaning heavily on her crutches.

"Did we do too much today?" Ryan inquired as she watched the other woman settle into a chair at the end of the table.

"I haven't been sleeping well so I am probably over tired," Elliot replied. "I'm sorry I am not very good company."

"You are not here to be company you are here to continue your recovery," the small volunteer reassured the other woman. "Now eat I am sure that you are hungry."

The Captain was starved and the aroma of the food was enticing. They ate in compatible silence, occasionally breaking the stillness with some comment or remark. When they were done both women's hunger was satisfied.

"Is there something you want to do?" Ryan asked when the meal was done. "There is the television and I have a bunch of movies that you can watch."

"No, I have a bit of a headache," Elliot admitted and her companion was immediately concerned.

"Do you want some pills or do you need some of your medication?"

"Neither," the Captain shook her head. She knew she could take some pills but she didn't want to get addicted. It was something she had to worry about with her pain.

"Is there anything I can do?"

"No I will just have to battle through it," Elliot sighed and looked at her companion and saw the concern on her face. "You should just go do what you usually do, don't worry about me."

"I do worry about you," Ryan spoke without thinking and then blushed at her admission. There was a moment of silence.

"You shouldn't," the dark haired woman said.

"Maybe I shouldn't," the smaller woman conceded but shrugged and took a chance. "But I think you need someone to worry about you, someone that cares about what is happening with you."

Elliot remained silent as she continued to look at the other woman. She knew instinctively that her hostess was interested in her and she had mutual feelings but in her condition, because of her physical and mental limitations she didn't think she deserved anyone to care. It seemed instinctively that her companion could read what she was thinking.

"You've been alone to long," Ryan dared to continue. "You have taken care of others for so long and ignored yourself well it's time you allowed someone to take care of you."

"I'm not a charity case," the Captain said with an edge to her voice.

"No you aren't," the small volunteer agreed. "If you were I wouldn't have invited you into my home. I don't see you as a charity case I see you as someone who needs an oasis in a wild sea of uncertainty."

There was a long pause as the two women continued to look at each other.

"I started volunteering because I saw the help that the Volunteer was too us when my brother Trace was in hospital. In the six years that I have been a Ward Listener I have come across a lot of different soldiers in different circumstances. Most have families that are there in support of them and I know they are going to be okay but there are others that I see that don't want the support or the help, they just want to wallow in their own self- pity."

"Where do you see me?" Elliot dared to ask, swallowing the lump in her throat.

"I see you as someone who has cared for others all your life, first your brother and your grandmother and then the soldiers under your command. I don't think you have ever had anyone care for you," Ryan was honest. "You don't have anyone to support you and I want you to succeed, to get better, and get back to yourself."

"What if I don't, ever get back to myself?" The Captain wanted to know.

"You will," the blonde woman was confident. "Remember I have seen you through the worst. I saw your strength and the pain you endured in those early days. I think I can tell what kind of character you are. You're stronger than you think and I know you must be frustrated by your inability to be perfect right now but I think if you stop being so hard on yourself and allow someone in to help than I think everything is going to be okay."

Elliot was silent aware that what the other woman had said was right. For as long as she could remember she had to rely on herself to take care of her brother and herself. She knew her grandmother loved them in her own way but she wasn't cut out to look after children. The army was just another place for her to be by herself and maybe an excuse for not getting involved in any long term intimate relationships.

"How did you get so smart?" She asked.

"I'm not smart," Ryan disagreed. "God has given me good sense and a decent brain and with a few exceptions I have been lucky in a lot of aspects of my life."

The Captain was quiet again. "I don't think luck has anything to do with you. I think you make your own good luck." She sighed. "I think I better go to bed."

"Okay," the blonde volunteer nodded. "Remember if you need anything, including too talk, don't hesitate to call me. I'm not doing anything that important that I can't stop to spend some time with you."

"Okay I will remember that," Elliot agreed.

It wasn't much later when she was finally in bed. She didn't feel completely whole missing her lower legs. She didn't feel particularly pretty with the burn scars on her arms and body. She wanted to wallow in self-pity but knew that she couldn't, the smaller woman was right, it wasn't in her character, and she was stronger than that, even though it was hard.

She swallowed her medication and lay down closing her eyes and waiting for sleep to arrive but her exhaustion was such that sleep didn't come. Once again memories were too strong. She lay there fighting the feelings that threatened to overwhelm her.

Ryan worked for an hour at her computer but she didn't go online. Her thoughts were on their earlier conversation. She wondered if she had said to much or maybe not enough. She didn't want the taller woman to shut down. She knew that the Captain was seeing a psychologist at the hospital and didn't want to say or do anything that would hamper that therapy. For the first time she wondered about her judgement in bringing the other woman into her home.

She switched off the lamps in the office and then headed for bed pausing as she reached the guestroom. There was no light on but she could tell that her guest was still awake.

"Is everything okay?" she asked unable to hide her worry.

"I'm having trouble sleeping," the dark haired woman admitted from the darkness.

"Is there anything I can do?"

"Would you lay down with me until I go to sleep?" It took a lot of the Captain to ask.

"Certainly," Ryan immediately strolled into the room and carefully lay down on the bed next to the other woman. For a long time there was silence but the small computer whiz knew that her companion was still awake.

"What are you thinking about?"

"I keep thinking about the accident," Elliot spoke into the darkness and her companion knew to remain silent. "I keep wondering if I could have done something different to make the outcome different. Maybe if we had taken a different route back to the Base or maybe I should have argued more against going out on the mission."

"You couldn't disobey an order," the smaller woman reminded softly.

"No, I keep telling myself I had no choice but I still think there should have been something I could have done," The captain sighed. "We lost three good people on that mission, a mission we shouldn't have gone on. We had just come back from spending three weeks of hell at an outpost, the soldiers were exhausted. I hadn't even had a chance to have a shower when the Colonel wanted us back out there. Intelligence said there were Taliban in the village and we had to go find out if it was true.

"I wasn't even supposed to be out in the field. This tour I was supposed to spend in the safety of the Green Zone pushing paper but then one Lieutenant and Captain gets killed and the others are on leave so because I have the experience I get sent out. Nothing serious I am told, only a couple of days in the field relieving a platoon at an outpost.

"The outpost was in the middle of Taliban area and I don't know why we were there to begin with. For more than three weeks we sat in that baking sun in the day time and at night it was the heat of battle. They fired at us every night of those three weeks, can you imagine not sleeping for three weeks."

It was a rhetorical question and Ryan remained silent knowing that her friend needed to talk.

"Corporal Anton Middells was just twenty one years old and supposed to get married when his tour ended. He was a good kid who had joined the army right out of high school. He loved to laugh and he was always so happy.

"Staff Sergeant Bill Wolchek, he had two little girls. He was so proud of them, that he carried their picture everywhere. He was upset that he couldn't talk to them when we were out in the field, he missed them that much. He was on his last tour before he was going to retire.

"But I think the one that bothers me most is Amira Nur the interpreter. She was a native Afghani who wanted to be a teacher. She hated the Taliban and wanted to make a difference so that her younger sisters wouldn't have to deal with the crap that she had had to put up with growing up. She was smart and only wanted to make her country better. It's for people like her that I was in the country."

There was a long silence again and this time Ryan realized that her companion had finally fallen asleep. This was the first time that the tall woman had opened up about her experiences that led to her injuries but the small volunteer knew there was more inside the other woman that needed to come out.

She lay then for a long time listening to the other woman breathe, hearing each deep breath. It was just fate that her companion had survived while the others had died and she knew that the other woman would probably never get over her feelings of survivors guilt. She thought back to what the doctor had said at the hospital. The woman had PTSD and she hoped that she would be able to deal with it.

After a long while Ryan rose from the bed careful not to wake her companion. She stared through the darkness at the woman's face. There was a softness to the usually sharp features and she wanted to just reach out and sooth the tension out of the face but she dared not touch her in case she awaken.

With a sigh she slowly eased out of the room leaving the doors to both bedrooms open as she got ready for bed. She was tired but sleep would not immediately come as she pondered the words that the other woman had spoken before she had fallen asleep. It was much later before she fell asleep.

In spite of the late night the women were both up early and ready to leave for the hospital. As would become routine the women walked together into the hospital and then parted ways with Elliot heading to the Physical Therapy department while Ryan made her way to the Burn Unit.

The small volunteer made her rounds visiting with the various patients whom she had gotten to know in the past few months. She stopped to visit with a couple of parents who were there supporting their sons and answered any lingering questions they had. Finally she found her way down to the psychology department where she asked to speak with a free counsellor.

She knew that as part of her therapy Elliot was speaking regularly with a counsellor but she had questions of her own. She was fortunate enough to be able to speak with a Major Carol Bryce. She explained her situation.

"What questions do you have?" The Major wanted to know.

"I realize that the Captain will be suffering from PTSD and survivors guilt, is there something that I can do?" Ryan asked.

"What have you been doing so far?"

"Nothing but listen," the small volunteer admitted. "But I'm afraid that she won't always have me to talk to or want to talk."

"Have you a pet?" The Major inquired.


"Then maybe you should think about getting a dog or a cat, some kind of pet that they can sympathize with or care for, sometimes that helps. Otherwise the only other thing that you can do is what you have been doing and that is listening, I think you know that already."

"Yes, I suppose," Ryan sighed. "I just hoped that maybe there was something else."

"There is no magic cure, it is a long process. You have to be patient and understanding and if you can't its best that you divorce yourself from the situation," Major Bryce paused. "You are a Ward Listener how do you decompress?"

"I usually work on my computer and chat online with my friends, I am careful not to take my work home with me," Ryan replied.

"And yet you have invited your work into your home," the Major said. "Do you think that a wise decision?"

"Maybe not," the small volunteer agreed. "But have you done something because inside you feel that this is something you have to do. I have seen so much in the years that I have been a volunteer and there have been times that I have cried at the loss of a soldier but there was something different about the Captain from the first moment I saw her. Something about her made a very personal connection to me."

"You lost a brother didn't you?" Unbeknownst to the small volunteer the Major as well as most of the staff in the hospital was well aware of her and her circumstances. Her work was not unnoticed and neither was the reason for it.

"Yes, Trace in 2004," Ryan nodded her head. "He died here in the burn unit and that was the reason why I became a volunteer."

"You have been at it for seven or eight years now, maybe it's time to step back a little, take a deep breath and refresh yourself," the Major suggested.

"I had thought about it once," the small volunteer admitted.

"But you got sucked back in."


"Don't burn yourself out, otherwise you won't be a help to anyone including yourself," Major Bryce said.

Ryan left the psychologist without any clearer answers but with a better understanding of herself. She made her way through the hospital to the cafeteria where Elliot would be waiting for her. The Captain refused to return to the Burn Unit and the small volunteer understood the reason.

As would become their routine they grabbed a snack at the hospital before returning home, on this occasion though they stopped at a supermarket to pick up some groceries at a nearby shopping mall. Once they returned to the house they unpacked the groceries before Elliot retired to her room for an afternoon nap. In the meantime Ryan took the opportunity to head out to the shopping mall again. This time she went directly to a pet store where she picked up a tiny kitten and the necessary supplies.

She had never had a pet before and wasn't certain she was a pet person but there was something about the tiny creature that immediately caught her heart. She brought the kitten into the house and set up a water bowl and a dish of food all the while the tiny creature followed her around the kitchen his little meows filling the room.

It was this sound that rousted Elliot from her slumber. It took a moment for her to regain her senses and acknowledge where she was. She lay on the bed for a moment listening to the tiny squeak that was coming from the back of the house. It was her curiosity that got her out of bed and brought her into the kitchen.

"What have you got here?" She inquired as she saw Ryan kneeling on the floor and playing with a tiny kitten.

"I got us a pet," the small volunteer replied picking up the small animal and lifting it so that the other woman could see it.

"Why?" The tall woman was curious.

"I have always wanted a pet and I thought now was the perfect time," Ryan responded. "Now that I am cutting back on my time at the hospital I will be home more for it."

Elliot said nothing. She looked at the cute creature and was immediately drawn to it. She reached out and touched the tiny head and received a meow for her efforts. It was a fluffy white kitten with large brown eyes.

"What are you going to name it?" The Captain asked.

"I hadn't figured out a name yet," the small blonde was honest. "What do you think we should call it?"

"I don't know I have never had a pet, what did you call your other pets?" Elliot wondered.

"This dear little thing is my first pet," Ryan admitted with a blush. "We were always moving so often in the military that my parents didn't think that it fair to have a pet. My last girlfriend wanted us to get a cat but she wasn't always around and with me being at the hospital all the time I didn't think it would be fair to have a pet."

"So what are you going to call it?"

"I don't know," the blonde woman sighed. "It reminds me of a little flower. What if we call him Flowers?"

"Sounds good," the taller woman agreed. "Is it trained?"

"Cats pretty much train themselves," Ryan said with a smile as she snuggled with the tiny ball of fur. "But I have the cat litter by the patio door and have already showed it to him."

"Well, kitten aside I think I should get started on dinner, what are you hungry for?" Elliot asked changing the subject. She was serious about completing the deal that they had worked out.

"Whatever you make I will be happy to eat," Ryan was honest. "I'm not a picky eater."

"Okay then I will fix something up while you keep the newest member of the household busy."

After a while of playing with the kitten Ryan began to wonder why she had never gotten a pet before. Her old girlfriend Gerri had always wanted them to get a pet but she had deferred saying there was no place in their busy life for an animal. Her life was no less busy but it seemed the right time to get a pet.

Elliot loved to cook. At least she had liked to. It had been awhile since she had been in a kitchen. Even though she could maneuver on her prosthetics she still needed her crutches to keep her balance, yet somehow she managed to make her way around the kitchen. She found the necessary pots and pans and fried up some pork chops while cooking up some vegetables. It was a basic meal but it was home cooked and Ryan managed to put down the kitten long enough to enjoy it.

"This tastes great," the small blonde computer genius complimented the food.

"It's only a simple meal," Elliot reminded. "It's been a while since I had been able to cook so for the first while the food will be rather simple."

"Well, you cooked so I guess that means I do the cleaning," Ryan commented rising from the chair and getting to work in cleaning up the kitchen by stacking the dishes in the dishwasher.

"What do you feel like doing tonight?" the small volunteer asked once she was finished tidying up.

"Maybe I will watch some television," the tall woman said as she stood up from the table. "That is if it's all right."

"Of course, this is your home so do whatever you want," Ryan encouraged her friend. "In the meantime I hope you won't mind if I retire to my office too work on my computer."

"No go ahead, you don't have to keep me company," Elliot said before making her way into the family room where the television was located.

She sat down on the couch and picked up the remote flicking the television on and flipping through the various channels in an attempt to find something interesting to watch. Finally she settled on the History channel and a show about a pawn shop. She put the remote down and leaned back in her seat and as she did she felt the tiny kitten jump up on her lap and settle in.

"Oh, you have found yourself a perch have you," she spoke to the little pet as she stroked its fur. The kitten meowed as if responding to her comment and touch.

This is where Ryan found them later when she finished her work and prepared to go to bed. She wandered into the family room to find her houseguest asleep on the couch and the little kitten curled up on the tall woman's lap. A smile automatically came to her lips at the scene. She picked up the remote and flicked off the television before gently shaking the other woman's shoulder.

Elliot woke slowly, not aware that she had fallen asleep watching television. She didn't move quickly aware that she had a small ball of fur sleeping on her lap. She looked up at her hostess.

"He seems to have found a comfortable place to nap," she commented softly and the smaller woman smiled again.

"I hope you don't mind," Ryan was concerned that the other woman wouldn't be receptive to the small creature.

"No," Elliot shrugged. In just a few hours she had become fond of the little kitten and was glad that her hostess had decided to get the small pet.

The little kitten chose that moment to wake up stretching out its short legs and opening its mouth wide in a yawn. Ryan reached down and picked up the little animal and buried her face in its belly fur for a minute laughing with delight.

"I think it's bedtime for everyone," she announced and watched as the Captain slowly struggled to her feet. She grabbed the crutches to balance herself as she made her way down the hallway to her room. Ryan followed after her switching off all the lights with the exception of the hallway. She knew that the taller woman liked to have some light on.

"Good night," Ryan called as the other woman disappeared into her room.

"Good night," Elliot replied before heading to the bathroom.

Ryan settled the kitten on her bed while she washed up and prepared for bed. When she came back into the room the kitten was snuggled up on the pillow. She smiled before climbing into bed.

Sometime in the night the kitten got curious and wandered about the house finally ending up in Elliot's room. She was just big enough to jump onto the stool that was next to the bed and then onto the bed where she settled onto the taller woman's chest. So began a routine that continued as she grew. Flowers would go to bed with Ryan but in the morning she would be curled up next to Elliot.


The women fell into a routine. The mornings would be spent at the hospital and the afternoon while Elliot napped, Ryan would spend valuable hours on the computer designing another game that had come to her. After waking the Captain would cook dinner after which the two women would either settle in front of the television and while Elliot would watch some program Ryan would work on her laptop.

One evening they were just about to settle into their evening routine when the front door bell rang. Ryan was in the middle of stacking the dirty dishes in the dishwasher so she asked if Elliot would answer the door. Slowly the tall woman made her way to the front of the house the small kitten following closely behind.

"Well it's about time..." Alison Sloane was in the middle of the sentence when she saw the tall unfamiliar woman answered the door and not her daughter. For a moment she seemed confused. "Does a Ryan Sloane live here?"

"Yes," the Captain nodded. "She's just stacking the dishes."

"Oh," the older woman was momentarily caught off guard. "I'm Alison Sloane and this is Palmer my husband. We are Ryan's parents."

"Sorry, excuse my manners, please come in," Elliot slowly moved out of the way allowing the others to step into the house.

"And who might you be?" Palmer inquired asking the question that his wife was still trying to figure out.

"Captain Elliot Bellows," the tall woman said as she stepped back.

"Are you a friend of Ryan's?" Alison wanted to know and thankfully Elliot was saved from answering by the timely arrival of her hostess.

"Mom, dad what are you doing here?" the smaller woman was genuinely surprised to see her parents. She hadn't seen them in a while but usually they called before stopping by. She had wanted to apprise them of the situation before they actually visited.

"We hadn't heard from you in a long time so we came to see if you are all right," Alison replied.

"You could have picked up the phone," Ryan answered aware of the awkward situation.

"The same goes for you," the older woman said pointedly when they were finally alone in the kitchen having left the other two in the living room while they went to fetch some coffee. "What's going on here? Who is this Captain Bellows, your new girlfriend?"

"No," the younger woman was quick to dispel the rumour. "She was a patient in the hospital who needed a place to stay when she got out. I offered her a place while she continued outpatient therapy."

"Than what is with the cat?"

"Flowers?" Ryan was momentarily confused.

"Is that what you call it?" Alison was amused. "I seem to remember a time when you would have nothing to do with animals. What made you change?"

"I saw it and thought it was cute," the smaller woman shrugged not willing to reveal the truth. She didn't want to defend her decision to her parent.

Alison was not so naïve that she believed everything that her daughter was saying. She looked at the younger woman critically knowing that her daughter wasn't exactly telling the truth.

"I hope you know what you have gotten into," Alison said as she picked up the tray with the coffee cups and pot.

Meanwhile in the living room Elliot sat somewhat uncomfortably in a chair while Palmer Sloane eased his frame onto the sofa. The man knew enough about his daughter to know why she had invited this woman into her home to heal. He understood perhaps better than his wife.

"How long have you been in the service?" He asked the woman sensing her ill at ease.

"Since 2001," the Captain replied. "Ryan mentioned that you were in the Air Force."

"Yes, I saw action all the way from the Vietnam War to the first Gulf War," the man announced proudly. "Did she mention that her brother Trace was killed in Iraq?"

"Yes, he was caught in an IED blast," Elliot nodded remembering the little that her companion had said.

"Yes, in 2004," the man agreed.

"I spent that year in Baghdad," the Captain confirmed. "It was very rough over there."

"Most action is," Palmer agreed. "I am glad that you made it."

"Thank you."

Their exchange was interrupted then by the return of the other two women. Ryan poured out several cups of coffee and there was an awkward silence. The kitten settled near Elliot's feet and the tall woman automatically bent and picked up the animal and sat it down on her lap. It was an action that did not go unnoticed by the older woman.

"You like animals?" Alison asked of the house guest.

"Yes," Elliot replied quietly her hands automatically stroking the kitten's fur. The purring sound could be heard across the room.

"We have a little terrier," the older woman announced and looked at her daughter. "Ryan always complained that she didn't have time for a pet."

"I know," Ryan realized that she wouldn't be able to explain her way out of this unless she told the truth. "It wasn't until now that I had the time to look after an animal. I am cutting back my hours of volunteering and spending more time at home. I only go into the hospital now in the mornings when Elliot has physical therapy."

"What brought about this change?" Alison was curious. She suspected it had something to do with this stranger but she was too polite to say anything in public.

"I decided it was time," Ryan said. "Remember when we went to see that counsellor after Trace's death. He said that each of us would heal in our own way at our own time. Well I think I am pretty much healed. Don't get me wrong I still miss Trace everyday but I don't need to go in to help the other soldiers to prove that anymore."

"That's good to hear dear," Palmer spoke up. "I was beginning to worry that you might burn yourself out."

"I think she has just transferred her attention from the soldiers to that woman," Alison said later to her husband as they drove home. It had been an awkward evening as no one had been entirely comfortable in each other's presence.

"I think dear that there is more going one between Captain Bellows and our daughter than we know," Palmer seemed undisturbed by the idea that his child might be hooking up with the soldier.

"She said that they were just friends," the older woman argued, not entirely pleased with the idea. She had long ago accepted her daughter's sexuality but still she hoped for someone more stable for her child than a soldier.

"Perhaps now they are," the man shrugged as he guided the car through traffic. "But don't be surprised if something happens and they become a couple."

"I hope not for her sake," Alison said without thinking.

"Why because she is injured?" Palmer was startled by his wife's attitude. "That could have been our son there."

"Yes, yes I know and it's not only about her injuries but it's also about her being in the military," the woman defended herself.

"What's wrong with that, it seems to me that you did just fine?"

"Yes but it was hard following you around the country," Alison admitted. "It wasn't easy waiting at home while you were off at War. I didn't want that for our daughter, especially after what happened to Trace."

Palmer understood where his wife was coming from. He knew how hard it had been for his wife all those years he was in the Air Force. The constant travel and moving and the continuing worry that he might get killed. He knew that every flight that he took was dangerous and that many of his colleagues had not lived to old age.

"Ryan is strong," he said instead. "I think she is more capable than you might give her credit for."

"I hope so dear, I really do hope so." Alison agreed.

Back at the house there was still an awkward silence as Ryan put away the dishes and tidied up the kitchen. Elliot slowly followed the other woman into the room the kitten following her every step.

"You didn't tell your parents I was living here," Elliot said quietly not sure how to gauge the situation.

"No," Ryan was honest. "I was going to wait. I wasn't sure how they would take it."


"I thought it might bring back memories of my brother," the small blonde admitted. "As you know he was injured in an IED blast just like you and he was in the burn Unit at Brooks where he died."

"I don't think they liked me," the Captain announced softly and her companion smiled.

"It's not that they don't like you, I think they just worry about me," Ryan was blunt. "I think my mother believes I might be doing this for the wrong reason."

"What reason are you doing it?" Elliot asked, her nerves trembling as she waited for the answer.

The smaller woman looked at her for a long moment, green eyes gazing pensively at the other woman as she formulated her response. She knew that she could have lied but she felt it was time to be honest.

"You might want to sit down," she said and the taller woman not knowing what to expect did as requested.

"That first day I came into the hospital after you were admitted it was a normal day and I thought it would be like every other day but then when I went in to see you, you opened your eyes and I felt this instant connection like I have never felt about anyone before," she paused to swallow the lump that gathered in her throat. The other woman remained deathly silent but Ryan knew there was no stopping now.

"I promised myself that I would help see you through your ordeal at the hospital. I wanted you to get better and in the process we became friends but for me it was more than friendship." She paused again her green eyes searching the stoic features of the other woman to find any sort of emotion. "I am just going to say it and I don't know how you feel but I am interested in more than friendship from you."

There was silence as the tall woman contemplated how to respond. She felt the nervous excitement in her belly and for a moment she thought that she was going to throw up.

"How can you be interested in me?" Elliot finally asked. "I don't have any feet and my body is nothing but scarred tissue."

"I don't see that," Ryan shook her head as she sat down by the table and took one of the other woman's hands in hers. "I see a strong capable woman, who has quite frankly the most beautiful blue eyes I have ever seen."

The captain was silent for a moment. For so long she had thought that part of her life was over and now to have hope, especially with a woman that she liked, was almost overwhelming.

"I am a liability to you," she was honest. "The doctors don't know whether this concussion I sustained will ever go away. I can't drive and I need medicine and therapy to go to sleep at nights. What about this appeals to you?"

"I know it isn't going to be easy," Ryan was honest. "I knew that from the start but I want to try."

"But you are perfect," Elliot spoke without thinking and the smaller woman laughed.

"I am far from perfect," the blonde volunteer smiled. "But when I am around you I try to be my best." There was another pause. "Is there a chance for us? I mean if not I still want to be your friend that is something I never want to end, our friendship."

There was another long silence.

"Do you need to think about it?"

"No," Elliot shook her head. "I have feelings for you that are more than friendship, I just don't know if I am ready yet to explore them."

"I can wait," Ryan promised. "I can wait until you are ready. I don't want to push you into anything you aren't ready for."

"Okay," the Captain agreed the excitement in her belly spreading a warmth through her body. There had been days in the hospital when she had dreamed of this day yet she had never thought it possible. She had always thought that the small volunteer had been her friend out of kindness and now to learn it was more than kindness was exciting and frightening.

"Do you need anything?" Ryan asked when she came to the other woman's room that night after Elliot had gone to bed. She knew that her companion was at a disadvantage when her prosthetics were off.

"I could use a good night kiss," Elliot said hesitantly, mustering all her courage and the smaller woman immediately obeyed the request.

Ryan entered the room and stepped up beside the bed pausing a moment before bending and touching her lips to the other woman's forehead. It was a gentle and tender action and one that the Captain appreciated.

"Good night."

"Good night Ryan."

In spite of their confessions their routines remained the same except now Ryan was not so hesitant to offer her help and Elliot was more than willing to be assisted. She still did not want to be a burden to her hostess but something about the talk they had shared had chased away the awkwardness of their relationship of living together. A new sense of peace and contentment settled over the women.

Then came the phone call.

As was her habit Elliot tried to converse on the phone with her brother on a weekly basis often catching him at home alone when their grandmother was off playing bingo or out with her friends. However this night it was grandmother who answered the phone and chewed the young soldier's ear off. She hung up the phone feeling quite depressed and though she was not about to say anything to her companion Ryan immediately sensed that something was up.

"Grandmother doesn't understand why Billy can't come live with me," Elliot confessed several days later after much prodding by the other woman. "She doesn't understand I am not living on my own."

"So why can't he come live here with us?" Ryan blurted out the obvious.

"I can't ask that of you," the Captain was horrified. She didn't want the other woman to think she was taking advantage of her.

"Why not?" The small volunteer wanted to know. "I have understood from the very beginning that you came as a package deal. In fact I was going to suggest it earlier but I wasn't certain you were ready to have him around."

"I love Billy he's a great kid," the tall woman said and then corrected herself. "He's not really a kid, he's the same age as me but mentally he is about twelve."

"Then I am sure I will love him too."

"No I can't do this to you," the Captain shook her head, "maybe if I was in an apartment by myself."

"Then you would do what exactly?" Ryan wanted to know. "Be sensible. I have plenty of room here and I am sure that between the two of us we can look after him."

"Are you really willing to do this for me?"

"I love you Elliot," the blonde woman said the words that she felt. "I am certain of what I am doing. Now just leave the details to me. Call your grandmother and tell her we will be in Florida in two weeks to pick up your brother."

The tall woman was silent. She had never had anyone want to do anything for her. It had always been her brother and her against the world and now here was someone who was willing to open their life and their home to them both. Again she was overwhelmed and the feelings that she had grew though she was not ready yet to say them out loud.

Two weeks later they were on a plane to Tampa Bay. They rented a car and drove the distance to the small town on the coast where Elliot's grandmother lived with her brother. Ryan wasn't surprised to see that the older woman lived in a house trailer.

"Well Elly it's about time you got here?" Ginger Bellows greeted her granddaughter and friend.

"Elly," a young man bounded past his grandmother and raced down the steps to envelop the tall woman in a huge embrace.

"Billy," Elliot returned the hug and Ryan had to quickly grab the crutches before they fell to the ground. "How have you been?"

"Great," the young man responded. "Grandmother says I am going to live with you."

"Yes we have come to take out west to Texas," the Captain explained. She had almost said home but had caught herself in time. "Say hello to my friend Ryan."

"Hi Ryan," the boy greeted her just as enthusiastically as he had done his sister, swallowing her in an embrace as well. "She's small."

The computer geek laughed. "You are just tall."

"Well, come in you all," Ginger invited opening the door to her home.

It was a cozy place with threadbare furniture and small trinkets scattered around the living space. They settled around the kitchen table while Ginger went about pouring them each a glass of iced tea.

"I see they got you new legs, how are they working?" The older woman commented as she joined them at the table.

"Good," Elliot replied. She had never had a close relationship with her grandmother in spite of the fact that the older woman had raised both her and her brother.

"Are you still learning to walk on them?" Ginger asked motioning to the crutches that her granddaughter held.

"No, I use these for balance," the Captain explained quietly. "My brain was damaged in the explosion and I need these to keep me balanced."

"I hope the military is paying you good," the older woman remarked before drawing out a cigarette and lighting it. "Is your little friend a soldier too?"

"No I work on computers," Ryan spoke for the first time keeping her explanation vague and not wanting to get to personal. She felt slightly uncomfortable in the older woman's presence probably for the almost impersonal way she was treating her grandchildren.

"There she was smart," Ginger said between puffs of her smoke. She motioned to her granddaughter. "You should have gone to college and got yourself a job in computers and you wouldn't be all busted up like you are."

"The military is an honourable choice," Ryan felt the need to defend her companion.

"It probably doesn't pay as much as computers I bet," the older woman sniffed glancing at the watch on her wrist. "How long are you staying?"

"We were going to leave tomorrow," Elliot said even though they had planned for a longer visit.

"Well, I ain't got any guest rooms and the nearest motel is a ways from here, I reckon you girls can share the sofa in the living room. It folds out into a double bed."

"That's fine grandmother, we will figure something out," the Captain agreed.

"Well if you don't all mind I got bingo tonight and it's a five hundred dollar pot, I don't want to miss that," Ginger said stubbing out her smoke in an ashtray and rising to her feet. "Make yourself at home. I'll be back before ten."

With that they were left alone and Ryan felt a sense of anger rising up inside her. She could not understand the older woman's behaviour. She waited only long enough for the woman to be gone before exploding.

"She had to go to bingo?" She couldn't believe the callous way the grandmother had treated Elliot. "How many years has it been since she's seen you?" She couldn't understand the strange dynamics of the family.

"Over two years," Billy supplied the answer innocently.

"Two years!"

"You have to understand she never wanted to raise us," Elliot admitted quietly. "We were thrust upon her as babies and she wasn't able to work. We aren't like your family Ryan." Then to defuse the situation she turned to her brother. "How have you been Billy?"

"Good now that you're here," the boy answered.

"Are you all packed and ready to go?" The tall woman asked her brother who nodded his head.

"Are we going to drive all the way to Texas?" He wanted to know.

"No we will drive to Tampa and then take a plane," Elliot explained and the boy's eyes grew large and round.

"I'm going to get to fly in an airplane?" The idea made the young man delighted.

"Yes," his sister smiled happy to see her brother so excited.

"I gotta go tell my friends," Billy exclaimed jumping to his feet and before either woman could stop the young man he was racing out of the house.

"Is it all right for him to be on his own?" Ryan enquired not sure about the situation. Though William looked like an adult she knew from her conversations with Elliot that he had a mental capacity of a twelve year old boy.

"Yeah," the dark haired woman nodded her head. "He has a lot of friends in the neighbourhood." She glanced around the small room and noticed that it felt stuffy. "Would you like to sit outside on the steps?"

"Sure," the smaller woman agreed. The place had an odd stale cigarette smell that was unappealing and she welcomed the chance to sit outside in the waning sunshine.

The two women stood up and slowly made their way to the front door and stepped out onto the porch. They settled onto the steps where they could see Billy standing across the street chatting with an older couple. It wasn't long before a small crowd began to gather near the house trailer.

"Billy says he's leaving," the couple from across the street wandered over after the boy hurried off to another trailer to say goodbye to more of his friends.

"Yes sir," Elliot addressed the man who spoke. "I'm taking him to live with me in Texas."

"We will miss him around here," the older woman commented and Ryan could tell that the couple were sincere.

"I am sure he will miss you all," the Captain said and then swallowed the lump in her throat. "I want to thank you for looking out for him all these years."

"It was our pleasure," the woman spoke again. "He is a good friendly boy."

"He says that you were injured in Afghanistan," the man said and Elliot nodded her head slowly.

"I lost both my legs," she confirmed and the man held out his hand for her to shake.

"Thank you for your service," the appreciation was sincere and it was quickly followed by others who came up and made the same comments and acts of graciousness.

Ryan was impression by the people that she met and wondered for the first time if it was a good idea taking the young man from the only place he had ever known as home. She made the comment later as they were preparing the sofa for bed.

Elliot was silent for a long moment as she contemplated her response. They had pulled the bed out of the couch and placed sheets on the mattress that they had found in the cupboard. Billy had produced two pillows from some place and they took a blanket from him as well. She sat down on the bed before answering, glad to have her back to the smaller woman.

"We don't have much choice," Elliot confessed. She had never wanted to admit these things to anyone but trusted her friend. "Grandmother has been waiting a long time for this day. She doesn't want to look after him anymore."

Ryan was shocked by the quiet confession. She could not understand the older woman and said as much. Elliot lay down and lifted her legs onto the bed, having shed her prosthetics. They had already gone through their evening bathroom routines.

"Grandmother really didn't want to look after us. She had a good job when we came into her life and because of Billy's disability she had to quit her work and look after him. She never really forgave us for that."

"But it wasn't your fault," the smaller woman lamented the injustice of the situation. "What about your parents?" She had been curious about the tall woman's parents for a long time and had only summoned the courage now to ask about them. It seemed the appropriate time.

"My parents were very young when I was born, they weren't prepared to be parents and they especially weren't prepared to have a disabled child. They were more interested in partying and living their own lives. They didn't even bother getting married so they dumped us on grandmother and went their separate ways."

Ryan was horrified by the story. She couldn't imagine any circumstances whereby she would give up any children she might bear. She wondered what kind of people they were to do that to their family.

"Do you know where your parents are?" She asked instead.

"Yeah," Elliot wasn't entirely comfortable talking about her life, very few people knew the truth but she also knew that she would have to be honest if she were to have a relationship with this woman.

"When was the last time you saw them?"

"It's been a couple of years," the tall woman admitted. "My dad would come every few years for a visit. I last saw my mom about five years ago. I was in California and stopped in to see her."

"Why didn't they take you in when they settled down?"

"They had new families and we were a mistake from the past."

It was hard for Elliot to confess the truth. Neither of their parents had wanted them. She would not tell her friend that as a teenager she had once begged them to take them in to their homes but both parents had made excuses and refused.

Ryan was angry for her friend. She could not believe how callously Elliot and her brother had been treated. It made her realize why the Captain had doubts that anyone would want her when she was scarred and injured. Nobody had wanted her when she was whole. She reached over and took the tall woman's hand and squeezed it between her own.

"They don't know what they are missing," she said instead and lifted the hand to her mouth to lay a kiss upon the palm. "You both have a home now where you are welcome and wanted, with me."

Elliot closed her eyes and wondered how long the other woman would put up with them. From what she had gathered Ryan had led a rather quiet life and with Billy around that would no longer be the case. That was why she was afraid to care too much for the other woman, scared that ultimately they would be rejected just as they had been rejected by their parents.

Neither woman spoke again yet it was difficult for them to find sleep. Both were therefore pleased when the dawns light cracked the morning sky. They were out of bed early and making breakfast when the older woman came ambling into the kitchen in her dressing gown. Ginger sat down at the table and lit up a smoke. She had come in late the previous evening.

"Good morning grandmother, did you have any luck at bingo?" Elliot enquired politely.

"Nope, didn't win a damn thing," the older woman muttered. "But Meg from two trailers down won fifty bucks. It was a good night for her." The woman paused and looked at the two younger women. "When are you leaving?"

"As soon as Billy is awake," the Captain spoke for them. She knew that Ryan was uncomfortable here and did not want to extend the stay any longer than they had to.

"You'll still be sending me money won't you," Ginger wanted to know and for the first time Ryan saw Elliot shift uncomfortably in her seat. She felt a measure of anger grow towards this older woman and would have spoken out but she knew that her companion could handle the situation.

"I won't be able to now that Billy will be living with me," the taller woman chose her words carefully aware that they would make the older woman angry. "I don't know how much longer the army will be paying me and in my condition I can't get a job."

"They will be giving you a settlement though won't they?"

"I don't know grandmother," Elliot lied. "I might have to go on disability."

"Well isn't that rich," Ginger snorted without amusement. "You were always so proud and uppity about us being on welfare and now look at you, that's what you will be living on for the rest of your life."

Ryan was about to speak, to say that she would never let the other woman stoop so low as to rely on welfare but she felt a gentle hand on her arm and she looked at the taller woman and saw the quiet request to say nothing. The smaller woman bit back her words and instead rose from the table and left the house trailer no longer able to tolerate the toxic atmosphere. She knew now why Elliot had left as soon as she could and why she so badly wanted Billy with her.

It was still several hours later before they had Billy packed up and ready to go. The young man gave his distracted grandmother a hug. Elliot didn't bother embracing her grandparent and Ryan was only too glad to be on their way. They had to spend a night in Tampa before they could get a flight out to San Antonio. Two days later they were home.

"Wow, this is where you live?" Billy was awe struck by the house when they led him around the property.

"This is where we will all live," Ryan was the one to speak. They had brought in his two suitcases of clothes and the few other personal things that he had brought with him. "And this room here is all yours. It is right next to your sisters."

"Wow," the young man was in shock. He had only ever lived in a trailer court and didn't know that places such as this existed. He looked at his sister who was slowly bringing up the rear of the procession. "Can we get a dog?"

"Maybe...." Ryan was about to say but was interrupted by Elliot.

"No I think we will wait awhile before we talk about getting a dog," the Captain said. "In the meantime we have a kitten named Flowers."

"Really where is it?" The young man wanted to know his blue eyes searching the room as if it would magically turn up.

"It's at my parents place," Ryan said. "We didn't know how long we would be gone so we left it there. I will pick it up tomorrow. In the meantime just make yourself at home. I have a television if you like to watch and I have all the latest games if you play on the computer."

The young man looked confused.

"Grandmother couldn't afford such things," Elliot explained for her benefit.

"Well then I will just have to show him how to use the Gameboy and such," the small woman said. "But right now I will leave you two alone to settle in. I have my emails to check."

Elliot was a little relieved to be left alone with her brother. They hadn't had any quality time alone together and it was still a little early for dinner.

"Do you think you will like living here?" She asked her sibling.

"Ryan is nice," Billy stated the obvious.

"Yes she is," Elliot agreed. "And she is very kind to let us live with her so we have to behave and treat everything nicely. You have to respect her feelings about things and you can't ask her for anything. If you want something you ask me okay?"

"Okay," the boy nodded his head as he looked at the big bed comparing it to the cramped cot that he had being sleeping on since he was a child. "I think I am going to like it here."

"I hope so, because I do," the tall woman admitted as much to her sibling.

The next morning all three of them were up early and together they went to the hospital. While they dropped Elliot off to do her physical therapy, Ryan and Billy continued on to her parents place to pick up Flowers the kitten.

"Who is this young man?" Alison enquired when they showed up on her door.

"This is Billy, Elliot's brother," Ryan announced. "He has come to live with Elliot and me."

"Really?" the older woman was surprised. She began to wonder if she knew anything about her daughter anymore.

"A dog!" Billy almost shouted as he spotted the Sloane's little terrier having forgotten completely about the kitten they were there to pick up. "May I pet him?"

"His name is Mercy," Alison replied. "And yes he likes attention."

"I wish I could have a dog," the boy said wistfully as he dropped to the floor and started petting the animal. The two women looked at each other and Ryan could see the questioning look in her mother's eyes.

"He's mentally disabled," Ryan said quietly.

"Oh I see," the older woman understood now what had her puzzled about the young man's behaviour. "Have you got time for coffee?"

"Yeah, we don't have to pick Elliot up until noon," the younger woman said.

"So what are you babysitting now?" Alison wanted to know.

"Of course not, we are just hanging out today because I needed to pick up Flowers and I didn't want to leave Billy home alone," Ryan explained.

"I am beginning to worry about you," the older woman was honest. She had always been open-minded when it came to her only daughter but now she was starting to worry. "I hope this woman isn't taking advantage of you."

"She's not," the younger blonde shook her head as she accepted the cup of coffee. She glanced down the hallway where Billy was still playing with the dog.

"How much is she paying you to stay with you?"

"Mom, I don't need the money," Ryan reminded her parent.

"I don't care if you don't need the money," Alison was blunt. "It's a matter of principle."

"Elliot has wanted to talk about money but I have been putting her off," the younger woman said not wanting to tell her parent the truth. Her mother didn't need to know the details of their situation.


"Her situation is so uncertain, I know she is still getting her military pay but what happens when that stops. In her condition she can't do anything. She can barely look after herself."

"And you want to be in that type of situation?"

"It's not that I want to be it that I am," Ryan tried to explain. "Mom I know you probably won't understand but I like Elliot as more than a friend. I have for a very long time and it doesn't matter to me that she isn't well. It's just what it is."

"I hope you know what you are doing," Alison said. "And believe it or not I do understand that you like this woman, I just don't know if it is a good situation for you to be in. I wonder if it isn't a bigger situation than you can handle."

Ryan thought about what her mother said later as they made their way back to the hospital. She was stronger than her mother gave her credit for and she could handle the situation, but she knew her mother was only worried about it.

Elliot was still in therapy when they arrived so Ryan thought she would take her companion to the Burn Unit where she had first met his sister.

"This is where your sister was a patient," she explained to the young man who remained silent as they walked through the ward. They came upon one of the nurses. "Mary this is Captain Bellows brother William?"

"Hello William," the nurse shook the young man's hand and looked at Ryan.

"When can we expect you back?" the nurse wanted to know.

"Tomorrow," Ryan answered. "I didn't want to leave Billy alone on his first day in the city."

"Is this where Elly was?" Billy asked when they were alone again walking through the Ward.

"Yes," Ryan answered.

"Was she hurt bad?" The young man wanted to know.

"Yes she was," the woman nodded and seeing the concerned expression on his face she hastened to assure him. "But she is better now. Come on let's go find your sister, I think she will probably be waiting for us in the cafeteria."

Sure enough Elliot was there waiting and after a moment of discussion they decided to have lunch there. Afterwards they all bundled back into the car and drove home where Elliot retired to her room for a nap while Ryan led the young man into the family room off the kitchen where she proceeded to show him how to play Xbox and the other games that she had.

They spent the whole afternoon playing and Ryan saw that she had opened a whole new world to the boy.

"You've played before," she accused Billy after they had finished a game for which he had beaten her.

"My friend Angus has this game," the young man grinned mischievously. "I asked grandma for the game but she said she didn't have any money for one."

"Well, you are welcome to play whenever you want," Ryan assured the young man.

They were still playing when Elliot woke later that afternoon. She lay in bed for a long moment and listened to the chatter and laughter and it was curiosity that prompted her out of bed and down the hallway to the family room. She watched for a long while marvelling at how well the pair was getting along. After a moment she turned and retreated to the kitchen to start preparing dinner. The pair was still playing when she finally called them to eat.

"Is it all right if I play the game again?" Billy asked Ryan once he had finished eating.

"Yes of course, and you don't have to ask, you can just go play," the small volunteer smiled and both women watched as the man jumped to his feet and hurried into the family room.

"I think you may have created a monster," Elliot commented after a moment of watching him play the game.

"He has to do something," Ryan replied. "Is he okay to stay here on his own?"

"Yes," Elliot nodded. "I will make him promise not to leave the house and he will stay inside. I will make him some sandwiches for a snack and a pop and he will be okay. He is pretty resourceful. Grandmother would leave him home alone all the time."

"But he had others looking out for him, neighbours and friends," the small volunteer wasn't so sure about leaving the young man on his own.

"He'll have to learn to be on his own," the Captain said quietly. "Neither of us will be able to look out for him all the time."

"Shouldn't he be going to school or something for the disabled?"

"He was in school," the other woman confirmed. "It cost a small fortune and that was how he learned to be on his own. They teach them to look after themselves. He is more capable than he seems."

Ryan didn't continue the argument aware that as his sister she would know best. Though Billy was mentally disabled he was more capable than she realized and she would learn that over time but right now she had to believe what her friend said.

After cleaning away the dishes Ryan went to work on her computer while Elliot made her way to the family room to join her brother. That was where their hostess found them several hours later, laughing and enjoying themselves as they competed against each other in a game on Xbox.

Ryan paused in the doorway and listened as the pair teased each other and joked. It was an unfamiliar sight and yet it was comforting to the small woman. The house that she had lived in for the last five years suddenly felt alive and like a home. She smiled to herself.

"Are you guys going to play that game all night or are you going to go to bed sometime?" She interrupted as she came into the room and dropped into a chair by the television.

The pair of siblings stopped what they were doing and looked at her before looking at each other for a moment. Flowers was curled up on the taller woman's lap.

"I guess we better go to bed," Elliot said slowly and Billy sighed.

"Can't we play a little bit longer?" He wanted to know.

"Nope, there is plenty of time to play tomorrow and the next day," the tall woman said putting down her game controller and reaching over to ruffle her brother's dark hair. "Come on the boss says that it's bed time."

"Is Ryan the boss?" Billy asked innocently.

"Yep," Elliot nodded and cast the smaller woman a smile. "Anyway, we have to get up early tomorrow."


"Because Ryan and I have to go to the hospital again," the Captain explained.

"Do I have to go with?" the young man wanted to know.

"Nope, but you have to promise me that you will stay in the house or in the yard, okay. I need you to keep Flowers the kitten company. We will be back by lunchtime."

"Okay, can I play this game while you are gone?"

"You can play the game, watch television or do whatever you want with the exception of going swimming," Elliot laid down the rules. "The only time you can go swimming is when either Ryan or I am around okay?"

"Okay," the man agreed and the tall woman leaned over and gave him a hug. Ryan felt envious of the young man.

"All right lets go to bed," the Captain said struggling to her feet.


"Yeah, buddy?"

"Can I see your legs?" It was a simple question and yet had a powerful meaning. There was a moment of silence as the tall woman sat back down and leaned forward slowly lifting up her pants legs so that the young man could see her prosthetics.

"Can I touch them?"

"Sure," the Captain nodded and the man reached over and ran his hand over the smooth metal surface.

"Does it hurt?" Billy wanted to know and Ryan was envious again for the man was asking all the questions that she wanted to ask.

"Not anymore," Elliot lied for there were days when her stumps ached. But she didn't want anyone to know that. She couldn't know that Ryan knew that she was lying.

"I'm glad that you're okay," the young man said and the Captain reached over and ruffled his dark hair again.

"I am to, now come on its bed time."

Ryan followed the pair more slowly taking time to ensure the house was completely locked up and that all the lights were off with the exception of the hallway before heading to her own room. She paused as usual at Elliot's room and peeked inside.

"Ryan?" She heard her name called as she was about to leave.


"Can you come in here for a minute?"

"What do you need?" The small blonde was instantly ready to help the other woman.

"I need to talk," Elliot said and Ryan immediately felt good.

"Do you mind if I lie down on the bed beside you?"


"What do you want to talk about?" Ryan asked and there was a long silence.

"I have been thinking that Billy can't live here for free, it just isn't fair to you."

"But I don't need any more of your money," Ryan is insistent.

"That's not the point," the Captain says quietly. "The way that Billy eats..."

"Elliot we are not going through this again," the small volunteer sat up in bed shaking her head. "We agreed earlier that you would pay a thousand dollars a month and that is the most I am going to let you pay. You may have money now that you are still in the military but what happens when they finally discharge you do you have any idea of what you are going to do then? You will need all the money that you have until you get established."

Elliot was silent as she contemplated what the other woman said. It was true she had money now while still in the military and she had no idea what she would do when she was discharged. The whole thought of it all was enough to make her depressed. But she did not show the other woman those feelings. She was determined to remain positive as hard as that was.

"I will figure something out," the dark haired woman said quietly and Ryan felt bad aware that she had caused the other woman to feel bad.

"I'm sorry," she apologized and flopped back on the bed clasping her hands together on her stomach. "I know you will figure something out I didn't mean to suggest otherwise." She sighed and turned her head to look at the other woman. "It's just that you are still healing and working to get better and I just don't want you to worry about money."

The Captain was quiet. She appreciated the smaller woman's concern but the last thing she wanted to do was to be a sponge. She was too proud to depend on anyone especially as she had been earning her own keep since she was fourteen years old. She said as much to the other woman hoping she would understand.

"I have always earned my own keep and spending money for Billy and me," the tall woman wanted to explain. "My grandmother never had much and she didn't give us anything so it's always been up to me to provide the extras."

"I do understand," Ryan said and there was a moment of silence. "But I am also the type of person to likes to help out when I see someone is struggling with something. Will you let me help you if you need it, maybe not now but in the future?"

"Can we discuss that then?" Elliot wanted to know.

"Yes," the small volunteer agreed and sat up and got out of bed. She moved to the door before the other woman's voice halted her.

"Ryan, I do appreciate what you are attempting to do, I really do, and maybe I am too proud."

"No, it's good to be proud but you also have to learn to let people help you, especially people that really care about you."

With that Ryan was gone turning and leaving the room without even saying goodnight.


Captain Ellis Marsten looked at the tall woman who was seated in the chair across from her. It had been a few weeks since she had last seen Captain Elliot Bellows and a lot had happened in that time. She wondered how that other Officer was handling the situation.

"It's been a while since I last saw you, what's happening in your life?" Capt. Marsten began the interview.

"You knew that I left the hospital and moved in with Ward Volunteer Ryan Sloane," Elliot responded.

"How is that working out?" The psychologist wanted to know.

"Okay, I guess," the soldier replied with a slight shrug of her shoulders.

"You want to tell me about it?" Capt. Marsten encouraged the stoic woman to talk. She knew that it was a chore for the other woman to speak about her personal life.

"We were friends while I was in hospital but now it seems a little awkward."

"Why is that?"

"Our situation is different," Elliot responded.

"How is it different?" The doctor asked.

"I feel like a charity case," the officer admitted and the Capt. Marsten looked at the dark haired woman.

"Does Miss Sloane make you feel less of a person?"


"Then tell me why you feel like a charity case?" The psychologist wanted to know.

Elliot was silent as she tried to figure out how to explain the situation. It was nothing that Ryan did to make her feel that way it was just the situation and she said as much to the doctor. There was silence as Captain Marsten looked at her companion.

"You realize that I could name a dozen soldiers who would love to be in your situation," the doctor said finally. "To often there is no support for them, no place for them to go home to. Do you realize how fortunate you are?"

"No, I guess I don't," Elliot was honest.

"Are you afraid that Miss Sloane might want something more from you?" The doctor guessed astutely.

"She does want something more," the raven haired woman admitted quietly.

"How do you feel about that?"

"I don't understand it," Elliot said. "She is nice and beautiful and has money she could have anyone that she wants."

"And you don't understand why she wants you?" The psychologist guessed correctly again.

"Yeah," the taller woman sighed and rubbed her hand wearily across her eyes. "I'm beat up, physically scarred, missing two legs and mentally damaged."

"For some people it's not about the physical beauty," the doctor said. "Have you thought to talk to her about it? Have you asked her why she is interested in you?"


"Do you ever talk to her about how you're feeling?"


"Then I think you should," Captain Marsten said. "You would be surprised what you might learn."

Elliot thought about what the psychologist said that afternoon as she sat in the passenger seat of the car as they drove home after the morning at the hospital. She looked sideways at her companion. Ryan was beautiful with her heart shaped face and slender neck. She could not forget the green eyes that could flash with amusement or soften with sympathy. The woman had been at her side from the beginning and she wanted to know why. She didn't know that she had spoken out loud until her companion chanced a sideways glance in her direction.

"You want to know the truth?" Ryan asked and the other woman nodded her head.

"Yes," Elliot nodded her head and swallowed the lump that gathered in her throat. She was almost afraid to know the truth yet she needed to know.

"I don't know how to describe it but when you first came to the hospital you were so injured and I went in to see you and for just a moment you opened your eyes and I could see the pain and terror in them and something deep inside me was touched," the small volunteer spoke softly. "From that moment I decided that I would be by your side until you were healed."

"So you felt sorry for me?"

"No, never," Ryan disagreed. "I felt sympathy for you and then as I got to see more of you as you began to heal, I saw your strength and character and I got to know you as a person and I knew that I wanted to know more about and of you.

"You are a proud woman and I like that. You don't want people to feel pity for you and I don't. I like that you are independent, maybe a little too much, but I feel like I can trust you not to hurt me."

"Doesn't it matter to you that I have so much baggage?"

"If you are talking about Billy, I have only just gotten to know him and already I know that I like him. He has the same good heart as you do."

"Doesn't it bother you about my injuries?"

"I once had a very beautiful girlfriend," Ryan admitted something she hadn't told anyone. "But she was more interested in my money and what it could get her than she was interested in me. I like that I don't have to worry about that with you."

"If there is one thing that I don't like about you is that you are too independent and a little too serious. I know you have been through a lot but you have to learn to smile a little more."

Elliot was silent as she contemplated what was said. She remembered what Captain Marsten had said and she knew that she to learn to relax a little and accept some of what was coming her way as being deserved.

"I am proud of you Elliot," Ryan said honestly. "I am proud to be associated with you as your friend and I would like to explore a more intimate relationship with you but only if you want that and only when you are ready."

"I think I am ready," the Captain said quietly. She had been keeping the young volunteer at arm length because she was afraid but now she knew that she had to get over her fears.

"Really, are you sure?" The blonde woman felt a thread of excitement run through her. She didn't want to push the other woman into anything.

"Yes, I'm sure," Elliot nodded and her companion smiled.

"Okay then I once promised you a good meal so I want to take you out to dinner," Ryan said.

"I don't feel entirely comfortable leaving Billy alone in the evening," the raven haired woman admitted.

"No problem I will ask my parents if they will come over and look after him," the small blonde had the answer.

"I don't want to bother them."

"Nonsense I think that they will say yes," the volunteer was confident.

As soon as they reached home they were greeted by the young man who had spent the morning playing video games and watching television. After lunch while Elliot went to nap Ryan went to her office and called her parents. As suspected her mother and father were only too ready to do some babysitting.

"He can look after himself but we just don't like leaving him alone in the evening," Ryan explained to her mother.

"No problem, we will bring the puppy with us," Alison agreed knowing from the past experience that the young man would be happy to see the dog.

So it was arranged that that Saturday evening Alison and Palmer Sloane would come over to look after Billy while the two younger women went out for dinner. Elliot was nervous and dressed carefully that evening not certain where her companion was intending on taking her. Ryan in the meanwhile was excited hoping that this would be the evening that would start the change of their relationship.

Alison and Palmer arrived earlier than expected and the adults chatted for a while before the girls went off to get ready for the night.

"Is there anything special that Billy likes to eat?" Alison asked Elliot when they were in the kitchen alone. "I want to know what we can order for dinner."

"Billy eats just about anything expect sushi," the Captain replied. "But you don't have to order out we have lots in the refrigerator that you can prepare if you like."

"Are you kidding me?" Alison was surprised and to see for herself she opened the refrigerator door to see that the appliance was fully stocked with fresh food. She knew that her daughter was a lousy cook and ordered out most of the time. She said as much to the taller woman.

"We made a deal that I would do the cooking," the soldier said with some embarrassment. "I'm not fond of eating takeout food. I guess I have eaten too much cafeteria food in my life time I prefer cooking my own meals."

"I am glad," the older woman was genuinely pleased for too long she had worried about the way her daughter ate. There was a brief silence before the older woman spoke her mind.

"I want to thank you for what you are doing for Ryan."

"I don't know what I am doing," Elliot was a little confused.

"You are changing Ryan for the good," Alison said. "We were afraid for so long because she was committed to volunteering at the hospital that she wasn't having any type of social life. She would spend all her time at the hospital and then come home and spend time on her computer."

"But she was doing good work at the hospital?" The taller woman was still confused.

"Yes, but it was her life and it wasn't an entirely healthy obsession," the older woman said. "She was doing a good thing but she was spending too much time there. You are helping her to be balanced again."

Elliot hadn't thought about it but she did as they were in the car driving to a restaurant of which Ryan had chosen. She mentioned the conversation she had shared with the other woman's mother. Ryan was thoughtful for a moment as she tried the best way to explain.

"After my brother died I threw myself into visiting the hospital," the smaller woman explained. "It was my way of coping with his death, or should I say it was my way of avoiding having to deal with his death. If I was busy I wouldn't have to think about what his passing meant. I could ignore it. I guess my dealings with you I am finally coming to accept his passing."

Elliot didn't fully understand what the woman was saying but she said nothing intent on enjoying the evening out.

Ryan chose a popular restaurant in the downtown area. It was a small establishment with low lighting and intimate setting. The booths were set up to give the illusion that one was alone with their companion. They ordered red wine and then instructed the waiter that they wanted the house menu.

"Is this were you take all your dates?" Elliot enquired nervously as she took a sip of her alcohol.

"No," Ryan smiled. "I only heard of this place from friends of mine."

They spoke of general things then while the waiter delivered the first course which was freshly baked bread and olive oil. That was followed by the appetizer of asparagus wrapped in bacon strips. The salad was a combination of a lettuce wedge and fried red tomatoes. The pasta dish was a simple dough pocket with potato inside. This was all followed by the main course of a combination of meat of fish, filet mignon and game bird. Dessert was a bowl of ice cream gelato with cookies.

"Are you full?" Ryan asked her companion when they had finished the dessert.

"I don't think I could eat another thing," Elliot was honest. She didn't think she had ever felt as full as she did now. "Everything was delicious."

"Yes it was, I am glad that I listened to my friends," the smaller woman said. "Do you think you would be up for a movie?"

"That depends what you had in mind?" the Captain said.

"I thought I would let you chose," Ryan smiled. "I know it's been a long time since you have been out."

Elliot appreciated the thought and after a little debate they settled on seeing Argo a newly released film. Neither was interested in having popcorn and so they just purchased soda pop before they settled into their seats at the theater.

The movie turned out to be interesting and both women enjoyed the film. Afterwards they wandered around the mall where the theater was located. It was a nice evening and either woman wanted it to end but as all things do it had to come to an end.

"Did you girls have a good time?" Alison enquired when they returned home.

"Yes, it was great," Ryan allowed the other woman to answer. Elliot looked at the older woman. "How was Billy?"

"A total gem," the older woman replied. "We took him to Macdonald's for supper and the rest of the evening he played with Mercy. I'm afraid both of them were completely tuckered out. I don't know what his bedtime is but I sent him there at ten o'clock."

"That's good," the raven haired woman nodded in agreement. "If you don't send him to bed he will stay up all night. Thank you."

"You are welcome, he was no problem, anytime you girls want to go out again just call we would be happy to look after him again."

"Well, I think I better head to bed, goodnight," Elliot said before leaving the other two women alone in the kitchen.

"Everything was okay mom?" Ryan asked not sure her mother would have been honest in front of the other woman.

"Everything was fine," Alison agreed. "As I said it was a pleasure, Billy was very polite and happy to play with Mercy. How was your evening?"

"It was good," the younger woman smiled. "It was nice to get out on a date again and if you and Dad don't mind we will call on you again. Speaking of Dad where is he?"

"He was tuckered out so I sent him to bed in the spare room I hope you don't mind," the older woman said.

"Of course not you are always welcome here, does that mean you will be spending the night?"

"I don't think I will be able to get him up after all this time," Alison smiled and then sobered for a moment. "It was almost like being with a young Trace again."

Ryan was quiet aware how much the admission was coming from her mother. She knew that her parents still missed her brother allot and she was glad that for at least an evening they could relive some of those moments together.

"I'm sorry if it was hard on you," the younger woman said.

"No, it wasn't hard," Alison disagreed. "It was good; Billy is a nice young man with proper manners and a good heart."

"His sister is the same way," Ryan said. "Elliot had a good heart and I love her."

"You seem very sure of that."

"I am," Ryan nodded her head. "I thought I was in love with Gerri but the feelings that I had for her are nothing compared to the way I feel about Elliot. There is just no comparison between the two and I feel so blessed that I found her."

"Have you told her that?"

"It's too soon to admit it to her," the younger woman said softly unaware that her voice had carried in the quiet house so that Elliot with her door open could hear everything that the two women were saying.

"Well, I am tired so I think it's time to go to bed," Alison leaned forward and hugged her daughter. "Have a good night dear."

Ryan waited until her mother had retired to the spare room before going around the house to shut off the lights and ensure the doors were locked. It had been a good night and she didn't want it to end but she was tired. It was while she was walking by Elliot's room that she heard her name being called.


"Yeah do you need something?" The smaller woman paused in the doorway and looked into the dark room.

"I can't sleep."

"Have you taken your medication?"


"Do you want me to lie down with you until you go to sleep?" Ryan asked.

"If you don't mind," Elliot said.

"Okay just let me get ready for bed."

It was a few minutes later when Ryan returned in her night clothes and lay down on the bed. Elliot motioned for her to climb under the covers which she did. The smaller woman reached for the other woman's hand and clasped it with her own and that is how they fell asleep. It was sometime in the night when Billy woke and went in search of his sister.

"I woke up and was scared that you weren't here," the young man admitted to his sister when he woke her up.

"I'm here buddy, why don't you get your blanket and lie down on the floor by the bed, then you don't have to be scared anymore," Elliot said and the man nodded disappearing for a moment before returning with a blanket. He lay down on the floor and pulled up the blanket over him. In minutes he was asleep once again and Elliot was left awake.

She glanced to the right and saw that Ryan was still asleep and curled up on her side facing her. She wanted to reach out and stroke the other woman's face and caress the skin but she didn't want to wake her companion so instead with her left hand she reached out and grabbed her pill bottle. After swallowing a few pills she laid back and waited for sleep to consume her again.

Palmer and Alison were up early and together they made breakfast. When it was ready the older man went in search of his daughter and the others. It was only a moment later when he softly called his wife to join him.

"What is it?" Alison was curious. She found her husband standing by the open door of Elliot's room.

"I look in here and I am thinking this is our family now," Palmer said and the older woman followed his gaze.

It was a peaceful scene with the three young people still all sound asleep. Elliot was lying on her back and Ryan was curled up on her side her arm draped over the raven haired woman. On the floor at the side of the bed was Billy, curled up in a ball with Mercy the dog draped across the blanket at his feet. Flowers the cat was curled up on the pillow above the two women's head.

"You think so," Alison said swallowing the lump that caught in her throat. She remembered what her daughter had said the previous evening and supposed her husband was right.

"Yes," the older man agreed taking hold of his wife's arm and guiding her back to the kitchen. "I think we should let them sleep."

It was Ryan who was the first to wake and she luxuriated in warmth that radiated off her companion's body. She glanced at the classical profile and was happy again that the explosion that had burned most of Elliot's lower body had left her hands and face unscarred. She did not stop herself from reaching out and gently stroking the side of the other woman's face.

Elliot moved slightly her mind becoming conscious with the feathery touches on the side of her face. It felt nice to be caressed and touched after such a long time of denying herself any type of human contact.

"Good morning," Ryan greeted her companion when she saw the other woman's eyes lids flutter open. She retracted her hand.

"Good morning," Elliot responded a lump in her throat. She felt slightly conscious of other woman's presence. She wanted Ryan to be there yet she was also afraid.

"Did you have a good sleep?" The small volunteer asked quietly as she stretched her limbs out cracking a few joints into place in the process.

"Billy woke me up, he was scared so I told him to lay down on the floor and sleep," the raven haired soldier admitted and Ryan raised herself on her elbow and craned her neck to catch a glimpse of the young man. "He gets scared some times."

"Well, this place is still new to him," the smaller woman reasoned. "Maybe we shouldn't have left him alone last night."

"No he is generally okay," Elliot shook her head. "I think he is like the rest of us in that sometimes we just get scared."

"Do you get scared?" Ryan asked bluntly her green eyes staring at the other woman's profile.

"All the time," the raven haired Captain admitted honestly and the small volunteer knew that her companion was a brave woman.

"Were you scared when you were on tour?"

"If anyone said they weren't afraid then either they were lying or they were crazy," the Captain said.

"I think you are very brave," the computer whiz said. "You have spent so many years at war."

"Some might consider that I was stupid," Elliot replied with a big breathe.

"I think that you are very patriotic," Ryan countered. "Most soldiers only serve one or two tours and then get out if they survive. You did seven tours. I admire that."

"It's nothing to admire," the Captain shook her head. "It's a volunteer army and you serve when you are called up. Besides I spent most of my time in the military overseas for one purpose, the danger pay. I got more money for serving on the front lines. It was money that was supposed to help me get Billy to come live with me. Set us up for the future."

"What happened to the money?"

"My grandmother wanted a share for taking care of Billy," Elliot was honest. "The rest is in a saving account. I was hoping to buy us a house when I eventually got settled. I never accounted for getting hurt."

Ryan wanted to say that her future was secure but she knew that the other woman wasn't ready to accept that just yet. She wisely changed the subject when she spoke again.

"Well, I don't know about you but I am starved and if I can smell right I think that breakfast has been made," the small volunteer said and then scrambled out of bed.

Elliot was glad that the other woman had not pressed the subject. She knew that she had to open herself more to her companion, she could trust Ryan, but she had to take it slowly. There were still so many variables in their relationship.

"Wake up Billy, breakfast time," Ryan summoned the young man as she stepped over him and to the door. Half an hour later they were all gathered in the kitchen munching on the breakfast that Alison had prepared.

"This is great mom," the small volunteer complimented her parent as she snacked on a piece of crisp bacon.

"I think you should thank your roommate Elliot," the older woman said plainly. "I hear that it's because of her that you now have a kitchen that is actually stocked with food."

Ryan blushed and then smiled impishly. "You always wondered if I was smart well now you know that I am at least smart enough to get a roommate that can and likes to cook."

"At least we have that to be thankful for that," Alison said and there was more banter before the group was finished eating their meal. After breakfast the older couple took their leave and Billy was sad to see that Mercy was gone. It gave Ryan an idea but she wasn't certain that she should do anything until she talked to her companion.

It was a warm day and so after a little while Ryan and Billy changed into their swim suits and went for a dip in the pool. Fortunately Billy knew how to swim and so Elliot sat in a chair next to the pool with the kitten on her lap and watched as the other two frolicked in the water.

"Why don't you join us?" Billy cajoled his sister. Ryan knew that the other woman swam as part of her physical therapy.

"Not today," Elliot shook her head. She could not tell the man that she was very conscious of the scars on her body. She had not yet reached the point where she felt comfortable showing them off not even to Ryan who she could trust not to say or do anything stupid.

Ryan looked at the other woman and instinctively knew the reason why she did not join them. In spite of the heat Elliot was dressed in a loose pair of jeans and a white long sleeved shirt. She knew it would take a while before the other woman was no longer shy around them. She hoped that it was a situation that would not take too long to overcome.

After an hour the two got tired of swimming and lay out in chairs beside the Captain to dry off. They chatted amicably and laughed about silly things and Ryan felt unusually happy. She looked at her companions and listened as they interacted and she could tell by the exchange how much the raven haired woman loved her brother. After a while Elliot excused herself to go inside to prepare them lunch and while she did that the two others showered and changed out of their swimsuits.

"Is there anything you would like to do this afternoon?" Ryan asked as they were snacking on sandwiches and drinks. It was a simple meal but satisfying.

"Can we go for a drive?" Billy asked. Both women knew that he hadn't been used to travelling much in a car and so enjoyed the activity.

"How about we go to the Alamo?" Ryan suggested and both agreed.

A half hour later they were on their way. It was the weekend so the tourist attraction was busier than usual. They picked up a brochure and toured the place while Ryan read out lout to them the information contained in the pamphlet.

"The Mission San Antonio de Valero known as the Alamo was established in 1718 as the cities first mission. It was also supposed to serve as a way station between East Texas and Mexico. Do you know what happened here in 1836?" She directed the question to the young man. She knew from Elliot that Billy had gone to a school and had the education and learning of a sixth grader.

"Yep," the young man nodded remembering what he had learned in his classes. "There was a battle where Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett died."

"I don't think Daniel Boone was here but Davy Crockett was and he did die along with other American heroes such as William Travis and Jim Bowie and 200 hundred others," Ryan corrected the young man and then glanced again at the pamphlet. "It says here that they held out for thirteen days again over a thousand Mexican troops of General Santa Ana."

They walked around the place looking at the old mission that had been made even more famous by the movies. They wandered by the few vendors that were there and then continued back to their car. After some discussion they decided to go out for dinner and they selected a popular family restaurant that was near the tourist attraction. Billy ordered a hamburger and French fries while the two women ordered soup and salads.

"It was a good day," Ryan commented when they finally reached home.

"It was great," Billy responded. "Can we do it again tomorrow?"

"Afraid not Buddy," this time it was Elliot who answered. "I have to go back to the hospital tomorrow morning again."

"How long do you have to keep going to the hospital for?" The man wanted to know.

"I don't know Billy," the captain was honest. "For at least few more months, are you going to be okay being by yourself?"

"Yeah," Billy nodded his head. "I can always play Xbox."

"Tell you what," the raven haired woman said as they entered the house. "Instead of sitting in front of the television all morning how about you read a book and then tell me about it when I come home."

"Do I have to?" the man complained as any youngster might.

"I think it might be a good idea," Elliot said. "Ryan might have some books that you could read."

The Captain had been in the smaller woman's office and she had seen the many shelves of books that the other woman had in her collection. She didn't have any books that Billy could read but she hoped the Ryan had.

"I think I do," Ryan agreed and then headed to the office. "I will be right back."

Within moments she had returned to the family room where the others had taken seats. She held out a pair of books to the young man who took them and looked at them with interest.

"Have you ever heard of the Hardy Boys books?" She asked and the young man shook his head. "Well read them and tell me what you think. They were my brother Trace's books and he got them from my dad."

"Are you sure?" Elliot was immediately worried that her brother might damage the tomes.

"Yes," Ryan nodded her head. The books had belonged to her brother and she had gotten them from her parents at her sibling's passing. She had wanted to save them for the day that she might had her own child but she knew that today was the day to get them out.

"It was a good day today," she repeated later when she was sitting on the end of Elliot's bed. She had had fun that day and it had felt like they were a family.

"Yes," Elliot replied. "Thank you."

"No need to thank me, you were the reason for the good time," the small volunteer said. "Billy reminds me of a young Trace so exuberant and willing to have fun."

"Isn't it hard for you?" The Captain wanted to know.

"No," Ryan shook her head. "It's nice." She paused and then brought up a subject that she knew that would be sensitive to the other woman. "I was thinking I would like to get Billy a dog."

"You can't do that," the other woman shook her head.

"Why not? You see how much he loves dogs and it would keep him company while we are at the hospital," the blonde woman protested.

"But they are so much work?" Elliot reasoned. She loved the idea of getting her brother a dog but she wanted to be realistic with this woman.

"Then we make sure that Billy looks after him," Ryan countered. "It will give him some responsibility to feed and clean up after it."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes," the computer whiz nodded.

"I feel like we are taking advantage of you, taking over your place."

"That's a good thing," Ryan replied with a smile. "Before you came it was a house but now that you are both here it feels more like a home. It feels like I remember our house when I was growing up and I like that feeling."

"Thank you," Elliot said and then confessed. "Living with my grandmother, she took care of our needs but it was never a home, not like you have described."

"Well then I am glad that I am giving you a home," the small blonde said quietly.

The next morning before they left for the hospital they made their announcement to Billy who had just woken up.

"Do you promise to read those books?" Elliot asked and the young man nodded his head as he shoved another spoonful of cereal into his mouth. "Good and if you behave we can go out after we get back from the hospital and go to the pet shop and see about getting a dog."

"Really," the young man wondered his blue eyes growing large and round, "my own puppy?"

"Yes," Elliot nodded, "but you have to promise to look after it. That means making sure it is fed and watered and that you clean up its poop in the yard. Later you will be responsible for walking it. Do you think you can handle that?"

The young man nodded his head up and down his breakfast forgotten.

"What do you say to Ryan?"

"Thank you Ryan," Billy shouted jumping out of his chair and enveloped the smaller woman in a tight embrace.

"You can thank your sister," Ryan motioned to the Captain. "She is the one that agreed to get you a puppy."

"Thank you Elly," he raced around the counter and embraced his sister.

"Okay you keep yourself busy and don't get into trouble and we will be back for lunch."

"Okay Elly."


Ryan walked her companion to the physical therapy ward and then made her way to the Burn Unit. It seemed like it had been a long time since she had last been there but it had only been the weekend. For the first time in years she felt like she had a life outside the hospital.

"Did anyone new come in this morning Mary?" She inquired of the nurse as she stepped up to the nurse's station.

"Thank goodness no," the woman replied and looked at the small volunteer. There was something about the younger woman that looked different. There was a glow to her face and it wasn't the slight tan that coloured her skin. "How was your weekend?"

"It was great," Ryan was enthusiastic and couldn't help the smile that came unbidden to her face. Because the 'don't ask don't tell' policy had been repealed she now felt comfortable discussing her sexuality. She went on to tell the other woman about her weekend including the part about her date with the Captain.

"So are things getting serious with the two of you?" The nurse wanted to know.

"It's been serious for me from the beginning," the small volunteer confided with a rueful smile. "The Captain is still a little cautious I don't think she is entirely convinced that I am really interested in her."

"Why is that?"

"She is still deeply concerned about her appearance," Ryan admitted. "I haven't been able to convince her yet that her appearance means nothing it me."

"Well if anyone can convince her you can," Mary announced with a smile.

"I wish I had your confidence," the blonde woman said and then carried on into the Ward.

Elliot suffered through her physical exercises and then stopped by the psychologist office to set up her next appointment. As she was about to leave Captain Marsten finished with her client and stepped out of her office. Because she had some free time she motioned the other woman to come in.

"Tell me how you are doing?" Captain Marsten said once they had sat down.

"Good," Elliot replied and then hesitantly went on to tell the other woman about her weekend.

"It sounds like you had a nice time," the psychologist said.

"I did," Captain Bellows agreed.

"Did you tell her that?"

"No," Elliot shook her head. "I am still a little scared."

"Elliot, don't be afraid to take a chance," Captain Marsten said. "By the sound of it she is worth taking a chance for. She is making accommodations in her life for you I think you can be safe that she is sincere."

"I'm afraid that once she sees my injuries she might have second thoughts."

"Then maybe it's time to show her and see what she says," Captain Marsten encouraged.

Elliot thought allot about what the psychologist said as she rendezvoused with Ryan later in the morning. They headed home and found an excited Billy waiting their return. The young man could barely contain himself hopping from one foot to the other impatiently as he waited for them to prepare lunch.

"Can we go yet?" He asked once they were finished and both women laughed at the obvious excitement of the man.

"Yes, we can go now," Ryan answered and he raced them to the car buckling himself in the back seat before the women had even left the house.

The Pet Shop at the mall was busy but they soon had the attention of an attendant who could help them. Billy handled numerous puppies in an attempt to decide which one to pick and finally it was left up to Elliot to decide.

"We have to get a small dog," she advised her brother, "how about this little terrier?" She motioned to one lonely looking puppy who her brother had not yet handled but which had caught her eye. The shop attendant retrieved the puppy and immediately Ryan sensed a connection between the dog and the man.

"Yes," he nodded and looked at the two women. "Can I have this one?"

"Are you sure?" Elliot asked and the man nodded his head again.

"I am going to name him after my friend Teddy," Billy stated.

That was how Teddy the little terrier became the newest member of the family. After picking out the necessary items such as food, water bowl and bed the trio were finally ready to leave. They got a dog carrier but Billy insisted on holding the puppy the entire trip home.

"Remember you have to feed and water it and make sure you train him," Elliot instructed her brother as she handed him a book which she had also picked up at the pet shop. It was a manual on how to handle and train a puppy. "I want you to read this and remember that you will be responsible for any messes that it makes. I don't want Ryan or myself to have to pick up after him or clean up his messes."

Billy listened intently to his sister and accepted the book which he took immediately with the puppy into the family room. Ryan watched the interaction between the siblings and heard the instructions but she naturally assumed that until the puppy would be trained she would be responsible for cleaning up its accidents. Strangely she didn't seem to mind that thought.

Ryan hadn't been on her computer for several days so that afternoon after they had returned from the mall she retreated to her office while Billy was in the family room with the puppy and Elliot retired to her room for a nap. She scanned through her emails and then tried to concentrate on some work but her mind kept coming back to her life and the changes that had occurred.

In the past she would have been annoyed by the fact that she had had no time to be on the computer but strangely she was not irritated. She remembered all the times that Gerri and she had argued over the time that she had spent on the computer and how insistent she had been that she needed to work. But now it seemed that her work had taken a back seat to her life and she didn't seem to mind.

A smile came to her lips as she considered how sterile and void of living her life had once been and how alive it now seemed. She had to thank Elliot and Billy for that. A sad thought came to mind as she thought of the other woman. She knew that Elliot had feelings for her but wasn't ready to commit to a relationship just yet. It was strange because she knew that in spite of the other woman's hesitation they were already in a relationship as odd as it was.

The yelping of the dog interrupted her thoughts and another smile came to her lips. She shut down her computer and went in search of the man and the dog. They were wrestling in the family room and puppy had become too excited and accidently peed on the rug. Billy looked at her with an expression of fear as he explained what happened.

"Don't worry accidents happen," she said as she retrieved some paper towel from the kitchen and attempted to clean up the mess. She knew this wouldn't be the first or the last accident that would happen and knew that she would have to have the rugs cleaned in the next few weeks.

"You got the puppy to excited," she explained as she pet the little dog. "You have to play nicely with him until he learns to control himself."

"Okay," Billy said happy that Ryan wasn't angry with him.

Thus began a new routine in the household. Billy read the instruction book and then attempted to train the little dog but most of it was left up to Elliot and Ryan though neither woman seemed to mind. It was a few weeks and several more accidents before the puppy finally learned to bark and go to the patio doors to be let outside before peeing.

"You have been really good about this," Elliot said one day when they were sitting out in the afternoon watching Billy and the puppy playing in the back yard. Ryan glanced up from her laptop and looked at her companion.

"What do you mean?"

"We have turned your life upside down," the Captain said quietly. "I can't believe that you are okay with all this."

"I am," Ryan said. "I realized not long ago that until the two of you came into my life I was living but not enjoying life."

"And you are enjoying the chaos that your life is now?" Elliot was serious.

"I know you have a hard time believing this but yes," the small volunteer said. She paused and then took a deep breath before continuing. "I am really happy you and Billy are here with me."

There was silence as Elliot contemplated what the other woman said. She was still plagued by self-doubts on many occasions and not even the other woman's assurances were enough to dispel some of her trepidations. She looked at her blonde companion and saw the honesty in her face and knew that Ryan meant every word she said. She opened her mouth so say something but at that moment the front doorbell rang.

"I'll get that," Ryan said and hopped to her feet placing the laptop on the chair before disappearing into the house. She was wondering what the other woman was about to say when she answered the door to find two of her friends standing there.

"Jenny, Brittany, what are you doing here?" She exclaimed pleased to see her friends. It had been months since she had last seen them. She embraced them both before ushering them into the house.

"Well, we haven't seen you in a while and decided it was time to pay you a visit and see if you were still alive," Brittany said as she followed her partner into the house.

"We know how sometimes you get caught up in your work so weren't worried too much but decided to see anyway," Jenny said as they moved along the hallway towards the kitchen and family room.

"I am glad you did, I have been busy," Ryan laughed. "Excuse the mess, the place isn't as tidy as it used to be."

"I see you have a cat," Brittany said as she bent to retrieve the kitten that was moving between their feet. "I wonder what Gerri would think now."

"She would be surprised," their blonde hostess agreed and at that moment the patio door opened and the dog and a young man came racing into the house. The women automatically moved as the pair raced down the hallway and out of sight into one of the bedrooms.

Jenny and Brittany looked at each other and then at the door again as a tall woman with crutches entered the house. They looked at each other again and then at their hostess for an explanation.

"Jenny, Brittany, I would like you to meet Elliot Bellows and that young man who just went flying by was her brother Billy." Ryan introduced the women and knew that they were curious as to the situation. "Jenny and Brittany are old friends of mine."

The women shook hands and then Elliot looked at her friend.

"I was going to start making dinner," she said and saw Ryan look at her friends.

"Will you guys stay for dinner?"

"Try and stop us," Brittany said and Ryan laughed and looked at Elliot.

"Do you mind?"

"Of course not," the Captain said curious about her hostesses friends. "What would you like for dinner?"

"Surprise us," Ryan suggested and the other woman nodded. "Come on lets go into the family room and chat."

"Maybe your friend would like some help with dinner," Jenny suggested not certain of the situation.

"No, I like the kitchen to myself," Elliot replied.

"I have tried to help on several occasions," Ryan explained with a wink at the taller raven haired woman. "But she always ends up kicking me out of the kitchen."

"The way you cook I'm not surprised," Brittany laughed.

The three women retreated to the family room to chat and catch up on events in their lives while Elliot prepared them a dinner of pasta and sauce. Billy joined them for the meal and there was pleasant if not too personal conversation over the meal. Jenny and Brittany saw the easy interaction between the other two women and the considerate way Ryan was with the young man who in spite of his size and age was obviously mentally disabled. Only once the meal was over and the others had retired did the three friends finally have a chance to talk privately. They retreated to the patio outside. It was a warm and pleasant evening.

"Okay, what's the scoop with you and this woman?" Brittany had been about ready to burst with her questions and being a lawyer she had many.

"We are just friends." Ryan said diplomatically.

"Bullshit," the other woman shook her head. "What we saw in there was more than just friendship."

"Well we are working on it," the smaller woman said and then explained the situation to her two friends. They listened quietly as their hostess began at the beginning and concluded with the introduction of Teddy the puppy.

"You seem like you have something good going on," Jenny said when the other woman had fallen silent. "I must say it is a total surprise when I remember you from before."

"Yeah well things were different than before," Ryan said. "I have a full life now, something I didn't have before. I didn't think I could feel as deeply as I do for Elliot."

"What about what you had with Gerri?" Brittany wanted to know.

"That was nothing compared to my feelings now," the small volunteer sighed taking a sip of her tea. "I didn't realize anyone could feel this much love."

"You were kind of lost after Trace died," Jenny agreed.

"Yes and my relationship with Gerri did nothing to help me," Ryan was honest. "I was running away from life and my friendship with Elliot and now Billy is bringing me back to living."

"You look happy," Brittany commented.

"In spite of the uncertainty I am happy," the other woman nodded.

It was the truth and the other women could see it. It was an hour later when they finally took their departure. Ryan stepped into the office to work on her computer and a little while later Elliot appeared in the doorway.

"Am I bothering you?" She asked hesitantly.

"Nope, you never bother me," Ryan responded with a smile. "What can I do for you?"

"Nothing, I just wanted to talk," the raven haired woman said as she settled into a chair across from the desk. "Your friends seem like very nice people."

"They are," the smaller woman agreed.

"I hope Billy and my presence here didn't cause too much trouble for you."

"No," Ryan shook her head and then decided to be honest. "They were curious of course about the situation but were understanding when I explained things."

"I guess our presence here is a little awkward under the circumstances."

"Not for me," the small volunteer shook her head. "I don't care what other people think besides I am happy." She paused and looked at the tall woman. "What's on your mind?"

"You have given me so much and asked so little from me," Elliot said taking a deep breath. "I'd like to give you something back."

Ryan was silent not sure what the other woman wanted. The Captain stood up and leaving the computer she followed the other woman down the hallway to her room. When they were inside Elliot closed the door, something she never did, and stepped around to the side of the bed. The blonde woman rubbed her hands against the sides of her jeans to wipe away the sweat not sure what to expect.

Elliot put down her crutches swallowing the lump in her throat. She slowly reached up and started to undo the buttons on her shirt. Ryan stood quietly suddenly understanding what was happening.

The shirt came off and the Captain stood nervously in front of the other woman her blue eyes staring intently at Ryan as if searching for some reaction. The small volunteer did not flinch, her face remaining emotionless as she stared at the scars and burnt skin of the other woman's chest and stomach.

"May I touch you?" Ryan asked and the taller woman nodded her head silently.

The small blonde reached out and traced her fingers over the scarred and leathery skin it felt odd to the touch but she was not repulsed only fascinated. It was not the same as touching another body but she didn't care.

"You are beautiful and I want to make love to you," she said quietly and tears sprung to blue eyes.

"I'm not sure I have any feeling down there," Elliot replied in soft tones.

"Can you feel me touch you now?" Ryan asked and the taller woman nodded her head. "Then I wouldn't be worried."

The Captain said nothing and remained standing there and Ryan took that as consent. No words were needed as the moments seemed to take care of themself. With the smaller woman's help the taller woman got rid of her jeans before sitting down on the bed. Ryan watched quietly as the other woman slowly took off her prosthetics before lying down on the bed and nervously waiting.

Ryan slowly undressed taking her time to reveal her body but soon enough she was naked and lying next to the other woman. After tentative kisses they traded touches, as both women took time to explore the others body. Finally the smaller woman took the initiative.

They made love then with Ryan being the aggressor. She possessed the other woman's body uncaring about the scars and disfigurements. She was gentle with her touch but she made love as if there was nothing wrong with the other woman. She laid kisses on the puckered skin and stroked the scarred flesh. She possessed her as she would anyone else and when she was done the woman was panting and sweating and filled with love.

Elliot returned the favour. She moved awkwardly over the smaller body but lovingly stroked and caressed the woman's body bringing her to a fever of want and desire. The tender touches turned demanding and before Ryan knew it she was being possessed and climaxed.

Much later they lay in each other's arms, and Ryan sensed that instead of being relaxed Elliot was still worried about something. She continued to stroke her hand across the other woman's flesh in an attempt to ease the tension that remained.

"Are you okay?" the small volunteer asked.

"Yeah," Elliot nodded but Ryan sensed she wasn't being entirely honest.

"Tell me what's going on in that beautiful head of yours," she said quietly.

"I am wondering if you feel sorry for me," the Captain admitted the truth.

"No," Ryan's hand stilled. "I would never sleep with someone just because I felt sympathy for them. You survived and others didn't, you have to come to terms with that. I don't feel sorry for you, I feel love."

Elliot was silent as tears smarted in her eyes. Ryan saw them and gently reached up and wiped them from her face. She leaned forward and kissed the other woman on the cheek.

"Do you want me to leave?" She asked wondering if the other woman wanted to be alone.

"No," the Captain shook her head and then confessed. "I feel safer when you are here."

"Okay," Ryan and slowly drew the bed sheets over their cooling bodies.

There was a long silence as the two women lay together, their hands touching and stroking each other's bodies. They exchanged kisses and Ryan draped her leg over the other woman's stumps.

"What are you thinking about?" Ryan wanted to know.

"I worry about what will happen to us when you get tired of having us around," Elliot was honest.

"And I worry about what I will do if you get tired of me," the smaller woman countered. "I have the same fears as you."

"But you don't have the same handicaps," the raven haired woman disagreed.

"You are right," Ryan said. "I don't have the same courage, bravery or determination that you have, but I have an optimistic view that maybe I can learn from you."

Elliot was silent she had never thoughts of herself as any of those things. While on duty she had only thoughts of herself as doing her job and since her injuries she had only struggled to survive.

"I think I lost a lot of my courage when I received my injuries," she admitted out loud.

"I don't think you lost anything," the other woman countered, "in fact I think you have gained strength of mind and of body. Remember when you were so sick a little over a year ago, you fought through the pain and infections when you could have just given up. I have seen men of stronger physiques but weaker minds give up on injuries that were less than yours and they died. You never gave up."

"Only because you were there encouraging me," Elliot said quietly. "I don't know what I would have done without your encouragement."

"You would still have survived because you have a warrior spirit and that is something not many people have. You may feel physically down right now but it's not always going to be this way. In a few months or a year from now you are going to be laughing at yourself and wondering why you were so worried."

"If I do it's only going to be because of you," the raven haired woman replied. "I draw strength from you."

"Good, then keep drawing on me, let me continue to help you, let's do this as a team."


Silence fell over the two women and it wasn't long before Ryan loud the simple sounds of relaxed breathing coming from the other woman. She closed her eyes and swallowed the lump in her throat hoping that she had said all the right things for she was feeling like she was fighting for her future happiness. She knew what the doctors had warned and she was prepared and she was glad that the other woman had finally opened up a little and let her in. She was determined to be there to help and encourage if it was needed. She closed her eyes and was soon asleep.

"Elly are you awake?" Billy's voice carried through the closed door followed by a yelp from the dog.

Elliot opened her eyes and glanced at her situation. A soft smile coming to her lips as memories of the previous evening invaded her senses. Ryan was wrapped around her like a second skin, her leg draped over her stumps, and her arm lying across her scarred stomach.

"Elly?" The man's voice cut through her thoughts.

"Yes come in," she called out to the young man after checking that their naked bodies were covered.

"Elly it's past breakfast time," Billy complained as he entered the room and saw the two women lying together in bed. He thought nothing unusual.

"Ryan and I had a late night last night, we overslept," she explained as Ryan began to move. "Make yourself some cereal and milk and we will be up shortly."

"Okay," the young man nodded and moved to the door. "I let Teddy out and he peed outside."

"Good," she said and the man left them alone shutting the door again behind him.

"Good morning," Ryan mumbled sleepily as she rubbed her hand against her face.

"Good morning," Elliot replied leaning over and placing a gentle kiss on the other woman's brow. "Thank you."

"For what?" The other woman was curious.

"For everything last night," the Captain said, "for listening to me and helping me overcome my fears. Last night was the first time I haven't taken medicine to sleep since I was first injured."

"You slept through the whole night?" Ryan raised herself on her elbow and looked at her companion who nodded her head. "That's great, see, you are getting better and you were worried."

"I am still worried," the taller woman confided, "but I think with you at my side I can overcome a lot of my fears."

"Talking about it helps," the smaller woman said and her companion nodded and smiled for one of the first times.

"I think we better get up, or we will be late for the hospital."

Ryan leaned over and kissed her new lover before jumping out of bed. She grabbed her clothes before peeking out the door to make sure that Billy was not around and then raced across the hallway to her room. Elliot was more slowly in getting up; it took time for her to put on her prosthetics.

They were late by the time they finally reached the hospital and went their separate ways. Instead of going directly to the Physical therapy department Elliot made her way to the psychology department and asked to speak to a therapist. Captain Marsten was free and able to see the younger woman.

"How can I help you today?" The therapist asked once they were seated. Elliot spoke freely for perhaps the first time since their sessions had begun. She explained what had happened.

"How does that make you feel?" Captain Marsten wanted to know.

"Hopeful," the soldier said. "For the first time in a long time, even before I sustained my injuries I feel hope and as if my life has some purpose. I think I actually have a chance for a real life."

"How do you feel about your companion?"

"I have a lot of emotions for her," Elliot admitted.

"Have you told her you love her?"

"No," the raven haired woman shook her head. "I don't have that much courage yet."

"Well I think you are headed in the right direction and it's great that you didn't take any medication to sleep. That is a huge step," Captain Marsten said. "But don't get too excited because there are bound to be some setbacks, those are to be expected, and how you handle them will be the key as to how you are recovering."

Elliot thought about those words later in the day. She felt better emotionally then she had in a very long time and she credited her small blonde lover for that, but she also took the doctors words of caution to heart. She was moving forward in her recovery and she didn't want that to stop.

"What would you like to do this afternoon?" Ryan asked when they met again at noon.

"I didn't get to do my swimming therapy this morning," she did not tell the other woman why, "I thought maybe we could go swimming in your pool."

"Certainly," the smaller woman agreed knowing how important a step that was. Elliot had not shown her brother her injuries.

"Are you going swimming too?" Billy asked his sister when he heard their plans.

"Yes," the woman nodded and her brother yelped with joy.

"Can Teddy go swimming too?"

"I think Teddy should watch," this time it was Ryan who spoke and the man looked at her with a downcast expression.

An hour later they were out by the pool and Elliot ever conscious of her body slowly removed the shirt that she had over her bathing costume. Billy watched fascinated as she set about removing her prosthetics in anticipation of jumping into the water. She was sitting on the edge of the pool and her brother was sitting directly beside her. He unconsciously reached out and touched her scarred skin.

"Does it hurt?" He asked quietly as he fingered her disfigured skin.

"Not anymore," Elliot assured him.

"You look funny without feet," the man commented and Ryan held her breathe waiting for the response.

"Yeah well it feels funny without feet," his sister replied and smiled at her brother as she moved her stumps in the water. "At least now I don't have to worry about stinky feet, like you."

"I don't have stinky feet," the man protested.

"Oh yes you do," Elliot answered and pushed him so that he plopped into the water.

Ryan watched as the other woman then slid into the water and she let out the breath she had been holding and slipping off her own shirt she dove into the pool. For the rest of the afternoon they spent frolicking in the pool splashing each other and playing water tag. Finally they were all tired and pulled themselves out of the pool.

While Ryan and Billy lay out under the sun to dry off, Elliot immediately covered herself up not because she feared someone would see her but to protect her skin from the bright sunlight. She slid her prosthetics on and then grabbing her crutches struggled to her feet.

"I don't know about you but I am starved how about I start dinner early?" She suggested as she headed to the house.

"Sounds good, we will be in soon," Ryan said.

Elliot made her way into the house and was on her way to her room when she heard the doorbell ring. She didn't know who would be calling but guessed it might be Ryan's friends who had mentioned they were going to stop in again. Without bothering to change she went to answer the summons.

"Hello." She said seeing the blond haired woman standing at the door waiting impatiently.

Gerri looked the tall woman up and down seeing the false legs and the scarred skin of her thighs and chest where the bathing suit did not cover. She could not prevent the look of distaste that crossed her face as she thought that this was the woman that Ryan would choose over her.

"Is Ryan Sloane here?" She asked with a hint of impatience.

"She's out back by the pool," Elliot had not missed the look of distaste on the other woman's face and unconsciously pulled the ends of her shirt closed even while she leaned on her crutches.

"I'll find her," Gerri said and then thoughtlessly pushed her way passed the other woman and marched down the hallway to the kitchen and then out the door onto the patio.

Teddy yelped and raced to the patio doors and Ryan casually looked over in that direction thinking that maybe Elliot wanted something. She was surprised to see Gerri come striding across the lawn.

"What are you doing here?" She asked feeling annoyed that their day had been interrupted.

"I came to find out what the hell was going on?" Gerri said in a demanding voice her hazel eyes scanning the young man that was looking at her for a moment before dismissing him.

"What do you mean?" Ryan wanted to know as she sat up looking at her ex-lover.

"What's going on have you lost your mind?" the other blond wanted to know. "I spoke to Jenny and Brittany this morning. For years I wanted you to quit going to that damn hospital and spend less time on your computer and here I find out that not only are you doing that but you have a damn cat and dog and are living with half a woman and her idiot brother."

"Enough!" The small volunteer shouted jumping to her feet unable to contain her anger. "What right have you to come here and say anything to me?"

"Because I still love you," Gerri announced and there was a stunned silence. She continued before the object of her affection could speak. "I came because I want to stop you from making a huge mistake."

"What mistake would that be?" Ryan wanted to know.

"Giving up on us."

"No Gerri, you were the one that gave up on us, I needed time and you didn't give it to me, instead you left and got involved with someone else."

"That was a mistake," Gerri said quietly biting down on her lower lip. "I wanted you to come after me but you never did so I didn't think you cared."

"I did, but not anymore," Ryan knew that she had to be blunt or the other woman wouldn't get the hint. "I wanted you to call and come back but you didn't and so I moved on and now it's time for you to move on. God, how many years has it been."

"It doesn't matter," the other woman said. "Have you never wondered why I always stayed in touch with you?"

"No," the small volunteer was honest. "None of it matters anyways. I am in love with someone else."

"With that woman?" Gerri almost spat. "God Ryan I thought you had some taste."

"And at one time I thought you had some class but it is apparent to me that you have none," Ryan started to get angry again. "Elliot is more woman than you could ever be and I don't appreciate you suggesting otherwise."

"Come on Ryan she is just using you and you are gullible enough to fall for whatever line that she has sprouted."

"Your full of bullshit and I would appreciate if you left and never bothered to contact me again," the small computer whiz said and to emphasis her words she pointed to the gate at the end of the yard.

Gerri looked at the other woman and knew that she was serious. Any hope she had of them getting back together was gone. She knew that she had approached this wrong but she had been hurt and angry. She knew now it had been the wrong tactic even though in the past she had been able to bully the other woman into getting what she wanted. She knew that Ryan did not like confrontation.



Gerri opened her mouth to speak but then shut it knowing that it was too late. She looked down at the man who was looking at her with wide blue eyes and at the dog that was now yelping in anger as well. She shook her head and then headed for the gate.

Ryan closed her eyes and let out a deep breath to calm her senses. Hastily she glanced in the direction of the house and saw that Elliot had witnessed the exchange. She gathered up her things intent on talking to the other woman.

"Ryan?" It was Billy's voice that held her back.

"Yeah Buddy?"

"Who was that?"

"An old friend," she replied.

"Will she be coming back?"

"No," Ryan was certain that she would not hear from the other woman again.

"I'm glad because she wasn't very nice."

"No she wasn't," the small blond woman said and then smiled at her companion. "Make sure you dry off before you come into the house."

"Yes, Ryan." He replied but she was already halfway to the house.

Ryan didn't find Elliot in the kitchen and immediately she knew that the other woman had gone to hide in her room. Things had been going so well she hoped that Gerri's bad taste would not leave any bad influence on her new lover. She found the other woman had changed out of her bathing suit and was now dressed in jeans and a long sleeved shirt. There was a long moment of silence as blue and green orbs met and held.

"She's a very beautiful woman," Elliot commented quietly as she continued to button her shirt.

"Unfortunately it doesn't extend to her core," Ryan said leaning casually against the door jam, her arms across her chest.

"What she said is true," the taller woman said and then sat down on the edge of the bed. "I am only half a woman."

"No you aren't, don't listen to people like her," the small volunteer said. "She is filled with anger and hate."

"But she is a friend of yours, what must your other friends think?"

"If they think like her they are no friends of mine," Ryan shook her head and moved across the room to sit down next to the other woman.

"She is still in love with you."

"That's too bad because I am in love with you," the small blonde picked up one of her companions hands and held it between her own. "I will admit there was a time when I did have feelings for her but they are nothing compared to the way I feel about you."

She paused hoping her words would sink in. She reached up and brushed some of the dark hair away from the other woman's face knowing that Gerri's careless words had cut deeply.

"I know they have warned you that you are going to run into people who are going to be cruel, people who don't know you the way I do. They may say awful things and you can't let them get to you. You have to think about what the people that care about you think."

Elliot knew it was true but the happy mood that she had been feeling was gone replaced by a feeling of almost shame. She closed her eyes in an attempt to stem the tears that threatened to fall. The doctor had said that she would have some setbacks and she thought of how quickly that had come after the happiness she had felt.

"Please don't cry Elliot," Ryan reached over and hugged the other woman. "I love you. Don't let hateful people like Gerri ruin what we have."

"I won't," the taller woman said and swallowed the emotion that was in her throat.

"Okay, let me change and I will help you dinner," the smaller woman said as she released her companion and stood up.

"I don't feel like cooking," Elliot shrugged.

"Okay then how about we go out?" Ryan suggested and then insisted seeing the other woman's reluctance. "Go get Billy and get him dressed and we will go out for dinner."

Ryan waited only until the other woman had gone before heading straight to her office. She sat down before the computer and then picked up the phone and dialled a number waiting impatiently for it to be answered. It was Brittany who was the unfortunate receiver of the call.

"What did you tell Gerri?" She wanted to know.

"Nothing much," the other woman tried to defend herself aware that her friend was angry.

"Did you know that she came over here?"

"Oh God she didn't," the other woman was appalled.

"What did you tell her?" Ryan demanded to know.

"The truth," Brittany said. "We told her that you were involved with someone whom you met at the hospital and that her brother was living with you and that you had a dog and cat."

"What else did you say?"

"Nothing I swear," the other woman pleaded innocence. "She has been calling and telling us how she wanted to get back with you and we told her that you were with someone else. She asked allot of questions about Elliot and we told her the truth but we didn't say anything bad. The truth is Ryan we both really enjoyed ourselves and thought that Elliot and her brother were great. You all seemed like a family. Gosh we are your friends we would never say anything bad about you."

Ryan was only slightly appeased by her friend's response. She was still angry at her ex-lover and partly blamed her friends though she knew that they had not really been responsible for the other woman's behaviour.

"Really Ryan, Jenny and I were just discussing about inviting you all over for dinner some evening," Brittany said into the silence.

"Okay but give it awhile, I need to get over this," she said before ringing off.

She put the receiver back into its cradle and took a deep breath before standing up and heading to her room. She took a shower and then dressed and found that the others were already waiting and ready.

It was a solemn evening and not even Billy's insistent chatter could get the women's mind off what had happened that afternoon. They stopped for ice cream on the way home and when they finally got there again everyone went their own way. Billy went to the family room to play with Teddy while Elliot went to her room and Ryan retreated to her office to work on the computer.

In spite of how hard she tried she was unable to concentrate on anytime other than the events of the afternoon. After a fruitless half hour she wandered down the hallway but she found the door to Elliot's room was closed. She paused for a minute and was tempted to knock but decided that the other woman probably wanted to be alone. She continued down the hall to the family room where Billy was sitting and watching television, the puppy sitting on his lap.

"What you watching?" She inquired and the man shrugged his shoulders. She dropped onto the sofa next to him. "What are you thinking about?"

"That mean woman this afternoon," Billy admitted with a heavy sigh. "She said some really mean things about Elly. It isn't fair her getting injured wasn't her fault."

"No it wasn't," Ryan agreed solemnly. "She said some mean things about you how do you feel about that?"

"I'm used to people calling me stupid," the man shrugged. "But there is no reason to say bad stuff about Elly. She is a hero, I have seen her medals."

"Yes she is a hero," the woman nodded. "So is everyone who serves our country and it isn't fair that someone like Gerri would say stuff like that about someone like Elliot."

"Why would someone like that woman be mean to us?"

"I don't know," Ryan was honest. She could have made some excuse for her ex-partner but she decided not to. Gerri didn't deserve to be defended. Her actions and her words spoke for themselves and Ryan wondered how she had ever cared about the woman at all. Then she realized that she had changed. The change had happened so gradual that she had not even noticed it, but Gerri had and that was why she had left the first time.

"I hope you don't think all my friends are like that," she said and the man shook his head.

"No, the ones the other night were kind of funny, I liked them." Billy said. "Are we going to see them again?"

"Yes but not for a while," Ryan said and then stood up. "I think it's time to let Teddy out for a pee and then go to bed."

"Okay Ryan," the man said and then did as he was told. She waited until he was in bed before she approached the bedroom where Elliot had locked herself away. She knocked on the door and there was a long pause before she was told to enter. The room was dark so that she had a hard time seeing the other woman's face.

"Are you okay Elliot?" She was worried about her companion.

"I'm fine," Elliot replied simply.

"Do you want me to sleep with you?"

"No, I took some medication," was the blunt response.

"Okay, have a good night." Ryan said and then turned to go but was stopped by the other woman's next words.

"How could you have ever been with a woman like that?" Elliot asked. She had wanted to say love but she just couldn't get the words out of her mouth.

"I don't know," the smaller woman was honest. "I was a different person before Trace died and I went to volunteer in the hospital. I didn't care about another person's suffering but that is not the person I am today. That isn't the kind of person I want to have around either." She paused and when the other woman didn't speak she said goodnight and left the room.

Elliot wanted to call her back but she didn't. She knew what the doctor's had told her, she would face cruel people yet she had never expected it to come from someone so close to her, someone who had been so close to the woman that she loved. It was hard for her to accept that the two blondes had once been together and she wondered if in some moment of anger if Ryan wouldn't turn on her too.

Her heart trembled at the thought and she took a deep breath to steady her shaken nerves. She did love Ryan, at least the Ryan she had come to know, the small woman who had cajoled her through the worst of her injuries and whose every visit had cheered her up.

Tears came unabated then though not a sound was emitted from her lips. She had learned to suffer in silence and she did that now, crying for the bruises that her tender ego had suffered. The pain was almost worse than the injuries that she had endured.

Elliot did not sleep that night in spite of the medication that she had taken and she was up early and had breakfast ready by the time the others had woken. Billy wandered into the kitchen and let the puppy out to pee but even he wasn't in his usual cheerful mood.

"What's up Buddy?" Elliot asked.

"I don't like when you and Ryan aren't talking," he said bluntly. "Are you angry with her?"

"No, I am just feeling a little sad today."

"Because of that mean woman?" He wanted to know.

"Yes," Elliot nodded.

"I didn't understand everything that she said but it was mean."

"Yes it was," the woman agreed.

"Ryan promised that we won't see her again," Billy said and then looked at the door where the puppy was sitting and waiting to be let into the house before looking at his sister again. "I think you are beautiful."

"And you aren't dumb," Elliot replied and the man nodded before going to fetch the dog.

The two women were quiet as they made their way to the hospital. They had been amicable around Billy but as soon as they were alone they fell silent again. Once more Elliot headed to the psychologists office instead of physical therapy. She had to wait most of the morning before she was able to see Captain Marsten.

"I warned you there would be some cruel people," the Captain advised when she had heard what had happened the previous day. "You will have to learn to ignore it." There was a slight pause. "What did your hostess say, did she apologize?"

"No," Elliot shook her head. "She was angry, I don't blame her for it, but it worries me that she was once involved with someone like that. I worry that maybe I amn't seeing the entire person."

"Did she try to explain?"

"She said that she was a different person than, then she is now," the soldier replied.

"And you don't believe her?"

"I want too but I am scared too," Elliot confessed.

Captain Marsten was silent for a moment as she contemplated what to say. She knew from past conversations that Elliot had never been involved in a serious long term relationship and was probably nervous about that. Coupled with her injuries the other woman no doubt lacked the self confidence that most women her age displayed. She said as much to her client.

"This is all new for you," Captain Marsten said. "Dealing with your injuries and then trying to come to terms with a new relationship. Maybe you should put the personal relationship on hold and just deal with your injuries otherwise it might be too hard for you."

Elliot thought hard about what the doctor had said. In her mind she resolved that what the psychologist suggested was probably the best yet the instant she saw Ryan waiting for her in the cafeteria she knew that she couldn't let the other woman go. Ryan had become her anchor in the turmoil that was her life. She couldn't let go of that otherwise she didn't think she would survive.

"We need to talk," she said as soon as they were seated in the car.

"Yes," Ryan nodded afraid of what was going to come. She knew from talking to the physical therapists that Elliot had missed her appointments with them and that she had been spending a great deal of time with the psychologists.

"Do you want to go someplace or wait until we get home?"

"Can we go to a park someplace, I don't want Billy around?" Elliot said and Ryan nodded.

They drove to a downtown park by the river and then walked to a bench where they could watch people walk by. They sat down and silently watched the scene for a while. It was Ryan who spoke first.

"Is this where you tell me that it's not going to work out and that you and Billy are going to move out?" She initiated the conversation.

"Do you want us to go?"

"No," Ryan shook her head and then continued intuitively. "But your doctor has probably said that this is probably not the time to start a new relationship."

"She did say that," Elliot confirmed. "But she doesn't realize that we have been in some sort of relationship since the day that we met over a year ago."

"What do you want me to say?" the small volunteer asked. "Do you want me to apologize for being with Gerri? I can't because at the time I was younger and more selfish. I didn't know about death and suffering. I am older now and I understand about all that."

"If she hadn't left would you still be together?" Elliot wanted to know.

"No," Ryan was quite definite. "When I was with her I was young and I have grown up a lot since then."

"Are you sure what you feel for me isn't pity?"

"No," once more Ryan was certain. "I have felt pity for a lot of the soldiers I have looked after but not you. I never thought to ask anyone else into my home. It was my sanctuary, my place of business. That morning that you arrived in the hospital I went to volunteer as I had every day for the last six years not expecting anything but to spend eight hours with the injured soldiers in the Unit. But I looked at you and my world changed forever."

There was another long silence and Ryan had the feeling that she was fighting for her future happiness. She sighed and looked at her companion.

"I don't care what anyone says now or in the future," she said quietly. "I think you are the most beautiful woman I have ever met."

"I'm sorry," Elliot finally spoke. "I should have never doubted your sincerity or your generosity. Everything about this is new to me. I have never been in a long term relationship, life in the military wasn't conducive to it, and especially with all the years I spent overseas. Please forgive me if I have insecurities."

"Please don't apologize," Ryan shook her head. "I have the same insecurities. I often wonder why you would want to be with me. I am nothing special and certainly not as brave as you."

"Bravery has nothing to do with it," the taller woman countered. "It's a matter of survival. You do what you have to do to survive."

"I know that you may not be at that point yet but I do love you Elliot, and they are feelings that I have never experienced before not even with Gerri."

Elliot nodded but remained silent.

"Where do we go from here?" Ryan asked.

"Can we go home?" The Captain asked. "I'm kind of tired I didn't get any sleep last night."

"Yes, we can," the smaller woman felt hope spring inside her chest. "If you felt like I am pressuring you at any time please just tell me. I will do anything not to lose you."

Elliot merely nodded her head not trusting herself to speak.


Life took on a routine from that day. They continued to go to the hospital in the morning and returned to join Billy for lunch at the house. After eating Elliot would retire for a nap while Ryan worked on her computer often taking her laptop out to the patio to watch Billy as he went swimming. As time went by Elliot slowly began to join them forgoing her nap as she got stronger and stronger.

Jenny and Brittany called to stay in touch and finally Ryan relented and invited them over for dinner again. It was another pleasant evening and Jenny in particular was immediately taken with Billy who in his innocent way responded naturally. Elliot was a little reserved as Ryan expected her to be but towards the end of the evening even she had loosened up.

"Brittany told me what happened with Gerri," Jenny said to Ryan as they were preparing to leave. "I truly am sorry, if we had known that she was going to come over here and make a scene we wouldn't have said anything to her."

"It's all right it's not your fault," Ryan was ready to forgive her friends. It wasn't in her nature to hold a grudge. "I just don't ever want to see her again."

"That's no problem," Jenny replied. "We told her to stay away from us as well."

The small blond could have argued the point but instead she said nothing.

"Listen Connie and Lindsay are having a party on Saturday and they invited us and wanted to know if we would bring you. Do you think Elliot and you would be up to it?" Brittany asked.

"Let me think about it, I will call you later and let you know." She hugged her friends and then waved as they left. She retreated to the family room where the others were sitting each with a pet on their laps. She dropped into a vacant chair.

"What are you watching?" She wanted to know.

"Harry Potter," Billy answered.

"Elliot what do you think about going to a party this weekend? A couple of old friends are having a party and we are invited." Ryan knew that the best way was to approach the suggestion was head on. "Brittany and Jenny are going to be there."

"What do we do with Billy?" The Captain's first concern was her brother.

"I will call my parents," Ryan said and then looked at the young man. "Would you mind staying the night with my parents?"

"Can I take Teddy?"

"I think my parents would be okay with that," the smaller woman agreed as she then looked at the raven haired woman. "What do you say?"

Elliot wanted to say no but she knew that she couldn't. She knew that eventually she would have to meet all of Ryan's friends and guessed that the sooner the better. Though she was nervous she nodded her head.

"Good, I will go call my parents now," she said and hopped out of her chair and returned to the office to call her folks. As she thought they readily agreed to look after the young man and even suggested bringing Teddy. She then called Brittany and told them that they would be happy to attend the party.

"It's all settled," Ryan said as she returned to the family room. "Mother invited us to lunch on Saturday morning. I told her we would be there."

That night Elliot lay awake wondering if she had done the right thing by agreeing to go to the party. She was nervous wondering if the women would be like Gerri or if they were more like Jenny and Brittany, who she was turning out to like a lot. She glanced at her companion who was sound asleep beside her and knew that she was doing this for the other woman.

The weekend came quickly and Saturday morning they packed an overnight bag for Billy and collected a few toys for Teddy before they headed over to the Sloane family home. Palmer and Alison were waiting for the kids by the time they finally arrived.

Lunch was a cheerful affair where Palmer kept Billy chattering about Teddy and their adventures while Alison conversed with the girls catching up on the events of the last while. When the meal was over they said goodbye and the two women returned to their house.

Jenny and Brittany arrived before the two women were ready and they waited patiently playing with Flowers as they finished getting ready. It wasn't a formal party but the two women dressed in casual evening wear with Elliot donning a blouse and dress pants while Ryan put on a little green dress.

"You are not using your crutches anymore," Brittany commented when Elliot appeared first. She had left her crutches and was leaning heavily on a cane instead.

"I still use them, but I am relying more and more on a cane now," the taller woman replied.

"She has agreed to lean on me if she needs help," Ryan said coming up behind the other woman and putting her arms around the slender waist.

The four women then left for the party which was in another area of the city. The place was a brightly lit townhouse and there seemed to be people everywhere and Elliot was a little overwhelmed at first but her nerves settled with the comfort of Ryan's secure arm around her waist.

Ryan seemed to know everyone there and after a while Elliot lost track of whom she was being introduced to. It was a while into the party when the smaller woman was finally pulled away from the Captain's side.

"Are you sure?" Ryan asked her companion who nodded before she left with her hostess to go see one of the upper rooms.

"You are Ryan's new girlfriend," a woman came up to Elliot and introduced herself. "My name is Shayla Greene."

"Elliot Bellows," the Captain shook the other woman's hand.

"It's nice to meet you Elliot," Shayla said. "I heard you were in the military." It was more of a statement and a question.

"Yes, but I think I will be retired."

"Jenny said that you were injured in Afghanistan," the smaller woman said and Elliot nodded starting to feel uncomfortable. She didn't like talking about her injuries so she said nothing. "Sorry if I appear forward but I appreciate you service. My cousin is in the Marines and has been deployed to Afghanistan."

"I hope he stays safe," Elliot commented and the other woman nodded her head.

"I was worried about Ryan after her brother Trace died but I couldn't do anything because she was with Gerri at the time and I wasn't welcome in their home."

"Why?" The Captain was unable to curb her curiosity. She wanted to know as much as she could about her lover.

"Gerri hates me because I am to honest," Shayla remarked with a smile. "I think I told her off a few times and that was when she banned me from their circle. I was relieved when I heard that Ryan and her had broken up I always thought that Ryan could do much better than Gerri. I always thought she was just with Ryan because of her money and Ryan was always so generous with her money. Did you know that when Gerri and Ryan broke up she left the townhouse and the car to Gerri? Heck she even bought her parents their retirement home."

Elliot didn't say anything. She did not know enough about Gerri and Ryan's relationship to know why they were together. She had an opinion but it was only formed by her brief acquaintance of the other woman. She listened quietly as the other woman continued to speak not bothering to interrupt. She was somewhat relieved when Ryan appeared again.

"Has Shayla been talking your ear off?" The smaller woman asked as she gently wrapped an arm around the taller woman's waist.

"No, she has just been keeping me company," Elliot said and the other woman smiled.

"I just been telling her how much I disliked your old girlfriend," Shayla admitted honestly.

"Oh Shay, you have been boring her," Ryan lamented and tightened her hold on her companion. She knew that Gerri wasn't a popular topic for her lover. "It's time to forget about the past and deal with the future."

Elliot was glad that when Ryan spoke again that it was on a different subject and before too long Shayla wandered off leaving the two women alone for a moment.

"Just how rich are you?" Elliot asked quietly so that they wouldn't be overheard.

"Why what did Shayla say?" the blonde woman wanted to know.

"Not much but enough," the Captain said vaguely. "She said that you left your last house to Gerri along with a car and that you bought your parents their house."

"It's true," Ryan did not deny the truth. "I told you that I didn't have to work again if I didn't want to."

"Yeah but that can mean anything," Elliot said.

"Let's put it this way, I can support myself, you and Billy quite comfortably off the interest that I make every year from the principle of my fortune." Ryan paused and looked at her companion. "Does it make a difference?"

"Yes," the raven haired woman said and before Ryan had a chance to question her about it they were joined by Jenny and Brittany. It wasn't until much later when they were getting ready for bed when Ryan had the next opportunity to approach the other woman about her response.

"Why does it make such a difference about what kind of money I have?" The blonde volunteer asked as she snuggled under the bed sheets.

"I don't want people to think that I am with you because of your money."

"Believe me no one will think that."

"How can they not when I have nothing to bring to this relationship?" The tall woman inquired.

"You bring a lot to the relationship," Ryan disagreed. "You bring the other half to my life."

"That is little consolation," Elliot said.

"Oh Elliot, you are one stubborn woman," the smaller volunteer sighed with frustration.

"I just don't want to be taking advantage of you," the raven haired woman said quietly.

"You aren't and you aren't the type of person to take advantage of me either," Ryan sighed again. "For the hundredth time I wouldn't have invited you into my home if you had been."

"What if you are wrong about me? You were wrong about Gerri?"

"You and Gerri are two very different people. God please just forget about Gerri I want to," the blonde woman said.

"Sorry," Elliot said and then tried to explain. "I want to be a productive member of this relationship."

"And you will be," Ryan agreed. "But you have to give yourself some time, heal yourself and then when you are ready you will once again be a productive person. Already you are walking better without your crutches." There was silence as something occurred to the smaller woman.

"I don't think this is about money is it, what is really going on Elliot?"

There was a long silence as Elliot contemplated what she should tell her companion. She closed her eyes and then spoke.

"I was talking to the doctors yesterday," the raven haired Captain said. "My physical therapy is almost done and then they are going to suggest to the military board that I be retired due to medical issues. They don't know if my concussion will ever go away. I will be totally useless if my concussion stays with me."

Ryan understood then what was bothering the other woman. The life that she had known was about to be taken away and she was going to be left with nothing. She felt a measure of anger at the military but knew that her emotion would do nothing to help the other woman.

"You will get disability surely," she said instead trying to remain positive.

"It won't be enough to support Billy and myself," Elliot was honest.

"You know I will help you," Ryan said.

"I don't want to be dependent on you," the other woman answered quietly. "I want to be independent."

"Then we will figure something out," the smaller woman said. "We will figure this out together." There was a pause. "Will you let us figure this out together?"

Elliot nodded even though she wasn't certain about the future she let the subject drop.

That night they made love again and with her tender ministrations Ryan tried to let the other woman know how much she cared and how nothing else mattered. Elliot responded and it was much later in the night before they fell exhausted next to each other. There was a long silence neither quite ready to sleep.

"Tell me about how you got your medals?" Ryan finally initiated the conversation. She was laid draped over the other woman, her hand gently stroking the scarred flesh of her lover's torso.

"What do you want to know?" Elliot asked her throat constricting. She had never talked to anyone about how the actions that had resulted in her being awarded the various medals she held.

"How did you get your Silver Star?" The smaller woman wanted to know.

There was a long silence as Elliot contemplated what to say. She knew it was important in her recovery to discuss her years of service and she knew that she could trust Ryan to be supportive.

"I was a Sergeant and we were in Iraq," she began her story. "Our Unit was escorting a visiting Colonel, the son of some high ranking political official. He was in the lead vehicle with the Captain and Lieutenant and we were driving through this town when the convoy was ambushed. Instead of charging through the fire like we had been trained, the Corporal who was driving panicked and turned down a side street into a dead end. The insurgents immediately started firing on the vehicle and killed the driver and Captain. The Colonel and Lieutenant were both wounded.

"Someone had to get them out so I took my Humvee and drove into the alley right up behind them and got the Colonel and Lieutenant into vehicle and got out of there. The Colonel was appreciative of my actions in saving his life because if they had been left there much longer they both would have been killed."

"That was incredibly brave," Ryan breathed not certain she would have had the same kind of guts to perform an act like that. "What about you're Bronze Star?"

There was silence again as Elliot pondered what to say. She did not like speaking of her actions for she didn't want to appear boastful. But once again the words of her psychologist came to her and she knew that she needed to talk to someone about what she had done.

"We were in Afghanistan," she said taking a deep breath, "on a supposedly routine foot patrol through a friendly village, when we were ambushed and the two men on point were cut down. They were lying in the open and someone had to get them so I ran out and dragged them out of the open and into cover. It was nothing really. Anybody would have done the same thing. I was just the first one to react."

Ryan could only guess at the courage that it took for the other woman to fulfill those actions in saving those men's lives. She had never considered herself a coward but hearing Elliot speak so casually of her actions she knew that she did not have the same forfeiture as her lover.

"Is this when you received your Purple Hearts?" She asked quietly.

"Yes," the Captain agreed and offered no more so that silence fell over the two lovers.

Elliot was hoping that her companion would let the subject drop and Ryan sensing that it was a difficult topic of discussion did not query her companion any further. In truth she knew what bravery it took for the other woman to perform her feats.

For her part Elliot did not think of herself as being gallant in any means believing what she had said that she had only been the first to react. She knew from her years of service that many acts of bravery from many other soldiers had been unrewarded and so she felt humble for having received recognition for her trained responses. Briefly she thought of Sergeant Wolchek and the many times that he had saved her from a stray bullet and how she had been unable to repay that debt by keeping him alive.

"I'm sorry," Ryan said hugging her companion. "I didn't mean to bring up bad memories."

"You didn't," the Captain disputed the claim and then sighed knowing that talking about her experiences would help heal her mental wounds. "I'm glad you asked."

There was silence and before long Elliot heard the soft rhythmic breathing of her lover telling her that Ryan was asleep. She closed her eyes and lay for a long while before she too found peace in slumber.

The next morning nothing was said about the previous evening as they went to the Sloane residence to pick up Billy and Teddy. It was while Palmer was entertaining the siblings that Ryan cornered her mother in the kitchen. For the first time in a long time she asked her mother for advice on a matter that she had discussed with Elliot previously.

"What do I do to convince her?"

"I don't know dear," Alison was at a loss as to what she should advise her daughter. She was happy that the other woman was not interested in her child's wealth but she saw it as a problem.

"What can I tell her?"

"I don't know dear," the older woman repeated aware that this was not a problem with the other women who had been involved in her daughter's life. She suddenly had an idea. "Do you think if I talked to her it might help?"

"What can you say that I haven't already tried?"

"Give me a shot and we'll see what I can do," Alison said. "You take your father and Billy out to the backyard with Teddy and Mercy and let me work my mother magic."

Ryan doubted that her mother could say anything to Elliot that she hadn't already tried but she was willing to give it a shot. As asked she invited her father and Billy outside for a walk while Alison settled on a chair next to Elliot. The Captain didn't know what was up but she suspected something immediately.

"It is nice to be proud but there comes a time when it becomes stupid," Alison was blunt. They were alone. "I love my daughter to death and I know that she had strong feelings for you, so I have only one thing to say. If you love her let her help you and if you don't I think it's time to move on."

Elliot opened her mouth to speak but the older woman held up her hand to silence her. Alison wasn't done saying her peace.

"I know that you have not had the best upbringing and that you are used to doing things for yourself but I also know two things; you have given Ryan her life back and you are probably the love of her life. Now don't disappoint her by being too proud to accept things from her. She has a good heart, to good sometimes but I don't think it's misplaced with you."

"I am sure if she were a man we wouldn't be having this conversation as you would simply let her help you, don't think of it as any different. She has the resources and the desire to help so don't be foolish and let that opportunity go."

"I don't know how I can help her?"

"You already have," the older woman said. "After our son died, Ryan didn't grieve as we did, she simply threw herself into working at the hospital and then going home and working on the computer. She was living but had no life. Simply put you have helped her get her life back."

Elliot was quiet as she contemplated the other woman's words. She had never been spoken to as bluntly as the older woman had and she appreciated her forthrightness. She knew than what she had to do.

"Ryan," the Captain spoke for the first time when they were home and getting ready for bed. "I don't think I have been fair to you. All this time you have done nothing but help me and I worry that there is nothing that I can do for you but I think your mother made me see that in my own way, not with money but with other things I can help you. I want to make this relationship work and if that means swallowing a little of my pride than that is something I have to do. Will you help me?"

Ryan didn't know what her mother said to the other woman but whatever it was it had the effect that she had been long looking for. Elliot was a proud woman used to surviving on her own and here she was willing to let her help. It was a big step for the raven haired soldier.

"You know I will do whatever I can to help you," the smaller woman agreed.

"Ryan," Elliot paused for effect. "I love you."

"I know you do," the blonde woman smiled and then leaned over and hugged her companion. "I know that you love me, I have always known."

Both women knew that life would not always be simple for them but if they relied upon each other they could be happy and with the love they shared they would be able to conquer the obstacles that they would face in the future.


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