This is a sequel to Human Touch. The little write mousies made a couple of comments/suggestions (yes, you, Amelia), and I decided to go with it. 'Ford's Month' is continuing, as I didn't finish this in August; he's definitely involved, poor man....
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She turned from the file she'd been reading and smiled a welcome. "Yes, Keith?"
Keith Ford smiled shyly at her and came the rest of the way into the office. He limped just a bit, but as he became used to the special arch support and inserts in his left shoe, it was becoming less and less noticeable. "I've those files you wanted, ma'am."
"Thank you," She took the files and began looking through them, nodding a time or two and frowning once. "How's the new footwear working out for you, Captain?"
"Quite well, thank you. It's amazing. I haven't stumbled in almost a week, now." For years he'd been called clumsy and inattentive, and it turned out to not be him, well, it was, but not his fault. He just had a minor medical condition that tended to worsen when he was under stress or overly tired - two conditions that were all too frequently the norm. After a quarter of a century, she'd taken one look at him and known what the problem was. Now that he was being treated for it, he was a much happier man. Not to mention less 'clumsy'.
She grinned at him. "That's wonderful. How about the therapy for the hand and arm?"
He shrugged. "I'm doing the exercises, and I sleep with the brace, but it's a pain, sometimes. At least it isn't carpal tunnel, is all I can say." He had a special gyroscopic ball he used. He'd start the gyro spinning and would grip the device in his weak left hand and rotate it counter clockwise in order to exercise and strengthen the tendons, ligaments, and muscles in his hand, wrist, and lower arm. He still couldn't get over the fact that something he'd supposedly come through unscathed when he was a child should be causing him so much trouble all these years later. But it was. Post Polio Syndrome, and it was wonderful knowing it had a name, and that there were things that could be done to help him. Best of all, people had stopped calling him a klutz, or stupid, or other even less kind things.
"Well, you can't expect either miracles or for it all to right itself overnight, now, can you."
"No, ma'am. Did you have anything to go back?" He was due to report for duty in half an hour and he hated to be late.
She smiled at him, a bit distracted. "Hmmm, oh. No. Nothing to go back, but if you should happen to see Colonel Freeman, would you ask him to stop by to see me?"
"Certainly, Doctor. I'll see you later." He turned and left, leaving her going over the files and already forgetting he had been there.
Whatever she was reading in the files disturbed her. She was scowling when Colonel Alec Freeman came breezing in. He stopped upon seeing her expression. Sighing, he gently tapped on the door. She looked up and smiled.
"Hallo, Alec. I've been reading over your report. It's got me a bit worried."
Alec winced, then nodded. "I was afraid of that. But at the same time, I knew I needed to let you know." He came the rest of the way in and sat down in the visitor's chair opposite her, crossing his legs and folding his arms across his chest in an unconsciously defensive posture.
"Has anyone else noticed?"
Alec shrugged. "I don't think so. But then, he knows everyone here. It's only above, that he seems to have a problem. When dealing with more than two or three strangers at a time. Even then, since they don't know him, they probably don't even notice."
She nodded, and then looked at him. "What about when he's at the AC?"
Alec sighed. "Well, he's always uncomfortable there, but nothing new. Henderson watches him like a hawk, however." He smiled a bit grimly, "But then, he always has. He hasn't, thankfully, been making any of the noises he used to. It's a bit disconcerting, and the rest of the members are watching *him* and wondering what's wrong."
"Oh, joy," she sighed. "Tell me, is it a constant, or just sometimes?"
Alec frowned. "He doesn't like strangers behind him. At all. I've been able to cover for him by standing at his shoulder, like you do, but that seems to intimidate the visitors." He grinned at that.
She looked at him and shook her head, smiling, as well. "Gee, I wonder why? Maybe what he needs is someone a bit less... mmmm, powerful, perhaps? Someone he knows and can trust?"
Alec frowned again. "Don't know who that might be."
Alec looked at her in surprise, then became thoughtful. After a few moments, he nodded. "Bright lad. Knows how to defend himself, and others. He might work very well. You don't think anyone will comment on the resemblance?"
She shook her head. "Not unless he bleaches his hair blond, I should think."
Alec shook his head, chuckling. "Not bloody likely," he said.
Edward Li Duk was quite a handsome young man, an Amerasian who looked more American than Asian with his narrow Anglo features and only slightly slanted eyes. He only stood about five foot nine inches in height, and he was very slender and looked quite harmless. He was not, however. He hadn't grown up with martial arts, but after being robbed and beaten one night when he was barely twenty, he'd taken himself to find someone who could and would teach him to defend himself. The mentor he'd found had been a cop and he hadn't practiced any single discipline, so his 'style' confused martial artists and gave him a tremendous edge. His combination of Aikido, Judo, Tae Kwon Do, Sabot, and street fighting made him a formidable opponent. But he didn't look nearly that tough. When he received the summons to the Psychiatrist's office, he was a bit surprised, as it wasn't his turn to provide clerical support, but he simply shrugged and headed below to see what was wanted.
To his surprise, Colonel Freeman was waiting for him. He saw the concern on both Alec and Louise's faces and immediately tensed. "What's wrong? Is it the commander?"
Alec cast a quick grin at the doctor. "Told you he was bright." She smiled back.
"Well, yes and no. It's nothing really serious, but we want to reassign you."
Eddie's heart started pounding. "Reassign me? Where to?" It wasn't that he wasn't willing, because he was, but he'd only been here a few months and he was still getting used to his new life. Besides, he didn't want to go anywhere. He wanted to stay here, to be near his father, whom he was only just now getting to know, having been raised by his mother. It had been such a relief to discover his father hadn't known about him and his twin sister, but to be reassigned, now?
"It's a very important post," Dr. Lewis explained.
"Hasn't my work been satisfactory?"
The doctor and colonel exchanged a quick glance and smiled. "More than satisfactory," Alec replied. "That's why we've chosen you for this new and vital position."
Eddie frowned. "What is it? Where is it?"
"Well, it moves about a bit, I'm afraid," Dr. Lewis began.
The doctor and colonel exchanged another glance and she shook her head. "I've never been good at this, Alec." She turned to Eddie. "You're new assignment is to act as aide-de-camp and bodyguard for Commander Straker."
Eddie's jaw dropped. "B-bodyguard?"
Alec's grin widened. "Yes. Seems I'm a bit too dour to be doing it. I seem to frighten some of the movie people who come to see him." His tone of voice held shock and horror at the very idea, but his eyes twinkled in amusement.
"Dour? You?" Dr. Lewis exclaimed. "Surely not!" She looked at Eddie. "Well?"
Eddie frowned. "How come he needs a bodyguard now, when he didn't before?"
With a glance at Louise, Alec explained. "You remember he got mugged?"
Eddie nodded. "Sure. You told me about that, and I told you about how I was, too, and used to have panic attacks about it. Except that now I'm fine. Why?"
"Well," Louise began, "The commander isn't as young as he once was, and it's a bit late in the day for him to be learning new self-defense techniques. And he's having a bit of a problem dealing with strangers."
Eddie nodded. "Sure, I went through that. But why aren't you or the colonel doing it?"
"Alec's right about one thing, he's too intimidating. He stands behind the commander and just looms over everybody. You're not as tall, nor as intimidating, plus you have advantages in actually being trained to protect yourself and others. Of course, if you don't want the job...." Louise trailed off, waiting for his reaction.
Not want it? Not want to spend his days tagging around with his father? "I'll take it. But what does he say?"
"He'll say he doesn't need a baby-sitter, and we'll tell him that he does need someone to watch his back who isn't going to frighten people away," Alec said.
Eddie thought for all of nine seconds and nodded. "If it's all right with him, it's more than fine with me." He grinned.
"Excellent. Let's get out of here so the good doctor can break the news to him, shall we?" Alec was beaming and the two men left the office. Louise sighed, knowing that the hard part had yet to begin.
"No. I don't need or want a bodyguard." Commander Straker was up and pacing.
"Let's go for a walk, Commander." Louise stood and walked past him and out the door. Scowling, he followed her out, through the corridors, and up to the studio, eighty feet above. Once outside, she led him to one of the sound stages, where a film crew was working. She led him in and stood to one side to watch the filming.
He didn't realize when he shifted so his back was to a wall.
"Hey, you! There by the wall! Move it. You're casting a shadow." The shouting came from the lighting director, who happened to notice his shadow. Straker, embarrassed, moved. The way the stage was set, there was nowhere he could safely and unobtrusively place something solid at his back. He began to perspire and fidget. He frowned at Louise, who watched the filming with amusement. When the scene was finished, she turned to him.
"Now, stand here, in front of me," she said softly. She placed herself just behind him and to one side and then they watched the next scene as it filmed. He didn't fidget once. After the second scene was complete, she touched his arm and then led him back outdoors.
His lips were compressed in a grim line. "All right, I get the point." He sighed and looked out across the studio lot. "You're the shrink. Isn't this ever going to get better? I don't even realize when I'm doing it, you know."
She nodded. "Yes, I do know. It's mostly subconscious, trying to protect yourself. That's why I want someone you can trust at your back."
He grimaced and then nodded. "Who did you have in mind? Not Alec, I take it?"
"No, Alec has more than enough worries of his own to take care of. I've taken the liberty of reassigning someone to follow you around. Besides, it will look perfectly natural when you have to do the real movie stuff."
He sighed. "Fine. Who's the lucky sot?"
He looked at her in surprise. "Eddie?" He frowned. "Eddie Duk?"
"Yes. He's perfectly suited to the task. He's got some great martial arts skills. He's a crack shot with a pistol. He's not huge and intimidating. And he's already said yes."
Eddie. His son. Straker's lips twisted into the faintest of smiles. "I like it." He nodded and repeated himself. "I like it." He turned to his psychiatrist/lover and reached out and took her hand. "And I have the perfect baptism of fire for him."
"Oh? What might that be?"
"Remember John Bracken and his man Peters?"
How could she forget? Peters had put the commander into a panic attack the last time they'd met. She scowled. "Unfortunately. What about them?"
"I've a meeting with them tomorrow in London, after which I'll be giving them a tour. Mr. Bracken actually called me himself to apologize for bringing Peters along, but that he really didn't have anyone else who was quite as capable. If Eddie can handle him, he's got the job."
Louise smiled at him and squeezed his hand. "Excellent. I'll let you tell him over dinner tonight. We invited them over last week, if you recall."
"Oh, yes. Our biweekly bonding sessions. How's my grandson, by the way?"
"He's a real doll, of course. He'll be in the office this afternoon while his mother is working on the filing. I can't believe the state of those files. We've been working on them for three months and are just now making any decent headway."
"Those are the hard-copies, right?"
"Yes. There are handwritten notes in them that were never transcribed into the electronic database. Lily is doing an outstanding job of that, now that she's here. And, of course, little Alexander is an absolute joy to have around."
Straker chuckled. "Wait until he decides he wants to get into everything."
She leaned against him and smiled. "I don't think he will. Remember, he grew up in their shop. He's just such a sweet little tyke."
Straker beamed. "Did I ever tell you 'thank you' for getting me drunk that night?"
"No. But I don't expect it. I hurt you, but I had that hunch...."
"Well, make sure you tell me whenever you get one of those 'hunches', as you were right. I am thoroughly enjoying the results of this particular one." Hand-in-hand, they walked back to the main building and entered his aboveground office to return to their duties.
Arriving back down below, they exited the office/elevator and parted to go their separate ways for the time being.
Straker stalked through control on his way back to his 'real' office. He'd barely had time to enter when Colonel Freeman came in behind him, watching him diffidently. Straker glared at him, but the annoyance didn't reach his eyes, much to Alec's relief. "So, she told you, did she?"
"Yes. Yes, she told me, and then gave me an excellent demonstration why. Whose idea was it to use Eddie?"
Alec grinned. "Whose do you think? I just knew that I was frightening off the bleeding movie people, standing behind you and glowering at them."
Straker chuckled. "Glower? You? Hardly, Alec. You're too much of a teddy bear."
Alec laughed softly. "Well, tell that to those two blokes from ILM. I think they thought I was going to hurt them, or something."
"Well, you can look quite fierce, my friend." He looked through some files on his desk and found the one he wanted. "And I thank you for that. I'm afraid I didn't even recognize the problem."
"No, you wouldn't. Neither did anyone else."
Straker looked up and gave him a pointed stare, "You did."
"Yes, well, I've known you practically forever, and am, perhaps, a bit more in tune, as it were."
Straker straightened up and pointed at his second in command. "You care, Alec. You're my friend, and you care. That makes you indispensable to me, and you know it."
Alec blushed in pleasure at the admission. "Yes, well, Louise knows it, too. At least, that's what she keeps telling me."
Ed grinned at his friend and clapped him on the shoulder. "Well, it must be true, then, Alec." The two old friends smiled at each other and Alec turned to leave.
"I've still got a stack of reports from California to go through. I'll see you later, unless something comes up."
Straker looked up, interested. "Anything important to pass on, yet?"
"Well, of the four hundred humans we found in suspended animation, we've successfully managed to revive twenty, so far." Seeing Straker's frown, he hurried on. "We have to be careful, as they're quite delicate when first removed from the liquid breathing medium. Oh, and Foster's asking to be relieved."
"Oh? Why?" Straker's eyes narrowed in annoyance.
"Seems he's having a bit of trouble with claustrophobia, sir." Alec smirked.
"A 'bit of trouble'? There's no such thing as a claustrophobe having only a 'bit' of trouble."
"I think it's wearing on him, sir. Of course, it may just be that none of the women aboard SkyDiver 2 have any interest in him. And he has been down there a couple of months. Perhaps we can give him a twenty-four hour pass?"
Straker frowned. "I'll think about it. Give me a report and we'll see. How's the rest of the crew down there doing?"
"So far, so good. We've got some new technology to try and figure out, and we're still working on the rescuees. Oh, and Pho Nugyn is scheduled for revival some time today or tomorrow. I don't know if you want to inform his brother, or not."
Straker pursed his lips, then shook his head. "Not unless and until we have some good news for him." He frowned. "Why is he only now being revived?"
Alec practically squirmed. "Well, that was Louise's idea. She wanted to be sure we were capable of reviving them. She didn't want to have to tell Tan that his brother had been found, but that we killed him trying to revive him."
Straker nodded. "Good decision. Thank you, Alec. Let me know if anything of interest comes up?"
"Absolutely, Commander." With a grin and a wave, Alec left the office.
Straker sat down and shook his head, glancing over at the bar. Not a drop. Not one, single, solitary drop while on duty in three months. The world must be coming to an end, he thought, then smiled and went back to reading his file.
Knowing he had company coming that evening, the commander did one final walk through control, checking everything. Leaning on and looking over Captain Ford's shoulder, he squeezed gently and said "Keep me informed," then straightened up and with one last glance around, walked out.
Keith smiled to himself as he realized that having the commander watching over his shoulder no longer terrified him. It was a good feeling. He glanced around control and nodded to himself. As the senior man here, he was nominally in charge, although Colonel Lake was on call. Of course, in case of trouble, he'd call the commander first, then the colonel. Protocol be damned. Seeing that everyone was focused on their equipment, he turned back to his own radar monitor and continued scanning.
Whistling softly, the commander exited control and went down to the medical section to see if Louise was ready to go, yet. He found her in her office, smiling over a file. "Something interesting?"
She looked up. "Yes, actually. Just got in a report from recovery. Pho Nugyn is conscious and asking what happened. I've sent for Tan."
Straker smiled. It was a very different atmosphere in medical since Dr. Jackson had been replaced. They didn't exactly flaunt their relationship, but anyone who bothered to observe would have noticed just how much the commander and the new shrink, Dr. Lewis, carpooled. It certainly didn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out. No one mentioned it, however. At least not where anyone might overhear and pass the information along. Maybe they didn't care or, far more likely, figured that it wasn't any of their business. The few who actively knew, however, seemed pleased and wished the couple well.
"Good. That's good." He suddenly frowned. "Does that mean you're going to have to stay?"
She smiled up at him. "No. It just means that Tan has been recalled and should be here tomorrow or the day after. He wasn't given a reason. I thought you might like to tell him, yourself." Even after so many years, there was still very little good news. Usually, they had to put to rest families' hopes for the recovery of their loved ones. It was a pleasant duty to reunite lost family members. And since Straker insisted on personally giving the bad news, it seemed only fair that he should be allowed the rare opportunity to pass on good news.
He smiled, "Thank you. I'd like that very much. Any reports from Carlin on how he's doing?" he asked as an addendum.
"He's fast, smart, and determined. Peter says he reminds him of when he just started out. They're getting along famously."
"Excellent." He leaned in the doorway and just looked at her for a few moments. "So, are you ready to go home?" She looked up at him and smiled.
"With you? Any time." She closed the file and stood, glancing at her watch. "Oh, good. We've time to stop off at the grocery store on our way."
"Stop off? Groceries?" He frowned, confused.
"I found this recipe, and I want to stop off and get a few ingredients."
"Ingredients? What are you experimenting with, pray tell?"
"Nothing major. Just a new recipe, is all."
He held her coat for her and tilted his head to one side. "Recipe for what? Disaster?"
She looked at him in mock outrage and playfully slapped his arm. "You'd better hope not, Commander, since if it doesn't come out right, I'll also be the one pumping your stomach!"
He pretended to look horrified. "Heaven forbid!"
Hand-in-hand and laughing, they made their way out of the building and to his car.
He'd never been much of a cook, himself, but he did enjoy good food. Probably never learned to do much more than open packages and cans and follow heating instructions because in the military, officers generally aren't expected to cook. Thankfully, Louise not only could cook, but enjoyed doing so. Part of that stemmed from her desire to put a little meat on the bones of the commander. Never mind the fact that he was also her lover. That wasn't a part of the equation, or so she claimed, should anyone have asked. Besides, she simply enjoyed cooking, at least for company. She liked take-away and restaurants just as much as he did, but with his family coming, that called for something a bit more. Like homemade.
They stopped at Sainsburys on the way home, and he watched her in amusement as she shopped. She had a list of ingredients and shopped precisely to the list. He, on the other hand, would see something and simply add it to the cart, much to her annoyance. Whenever she'd glare, however, he'd simply give her his most innocent look and grin mischievously at her. She finally just shook her head at him and let it go. The fact that he even showed an interest was actually an improvement, since she'd been forced to adjust his diet to keep him healthy. Anemia wasn't something to fool with, but it was, at least, treatable. And, looking at the things he chose to add to the cart, he did seem to be learning. She smiled to herself as he added several kilo-sized canisters of raisins to the cart. They were high in iron, and she'd noticed that he liked to snack on them at work. Good source of other nutrients, as well. Come to think of it, raisins seemed to be the snack of choice at SHADO, these days. She wondered if he'd noticed that he seemed to be setting the snacking trend? Probably not. She got another item on her list, as he added yet another impulse purchase. As they paused at the butcher counter, she heard him sigh as she picked up a package of liver. She knew he wasn't fond of it, but it was another excellent source of the iron he so desperately needed to combat his anemia. She glanced at him and smiled. In the months since the diagnosis, between his improved diet and supplements, his color had improved, not to mention his energy levels.
Getting the final item on her list, she headed for the checkout line. He cheerfully tagged along, his eyes scanning incessantly. She was careful to make certain he went in front of her, so he didn't get trapped with a stranger behind him. He didn't notice, at least not consciously. He took out his chequebook and returned the smile of the clerk as he filled out the amount of purchase.
Louise couldn't help but notice as the checker tried flirting with Ed. As usual, he was totally oblivious to it. She shook her head and took his arm, allowing the box-boy to handle their purchases on the way to the car.
When the groceries had been loaded in the trunk, Ed held her door for her and then circled around to slide behind the wheel. Once they were on the main road, Louise reached over and stroked his thigh. His hand came down and clasped hers.
Once at his house, it took both of them to unload the car and carry their purchases in. Kicking the door closed behind them, Ed followed Louise to the kitchen and, after setting the bags of groceries on the counter, they began to put the contents away.
"Why don't you make a pot of coffee while I put this lot away, Ed?" Louise asked after nearly colliding with him for the third time in as many minutes.
He paused to look at her, a mischievous glint in his eyes. "Are you trying to say I'm in your way and to go find something useful to do, instead?"
She grinned. "That works."
Ed laughed and shook his head. "All right." He got out of her way and headed to the other side of the kitchen to make the coffee.
As soon as the groceries were put away, with one bag filled with the items to go to the studio with them the next day, Louise began putting together their meal. She followed the recipe exactly, gnawing on her lower lip as she concentrated. It was really quite a simple dish, but since it was the first time she had ever prepared it, she daren't vary from the instructions. She boiled some boneless chicken breasts and penne and when they were done, drained it and put it in a large casserole dish, chopping the chicken into a medium dice. She opened up a can each of condensed cream of mushroom and cream of chicken soup and, using some of the water she'd drained from the chicken and pasta, mixed it in a bowl, adding a cup of mayonnaise and a huge heaping tablespoon full of curry powder. She poured it over the chicken and pasta, then added a one kilo bag of frozen mixed broccoli and cauliflower, mixing it all together. Finally, she grated some sharp cheddar cheese over it and popped it in the oven to heat through.
Ed frowned as he came back into the kitchen to get some more coffee. Sniffing, he looked at her curiously. "Is that curry I smell?"
She grinned. "Yes. You like curry, as I recall."
He returned the smile. "Yes. Yes, I do. Is this that new recipe you were talking about?"
She nodded. "Got it from an online friend in the States. She got it from one of the men her husband works with."
He seemed surprised, then thought about it and shrugged. "Well, I hope it tastes at least as good as it smells."
"So do I."
Lily and Eddie Duk arrived with Lily's son, Alexander, promptly at eight. Ed opened the door as soon as they rang the doorbell and smiled with pleasure upon seeing them. Little Alexander immediately reached for him saying, "hughughug gampa. HUG!"
Lily giggled and handed the toddler over, then watched happily as her son was kissed and hugged by his grandfather. Neither of them seemed able to get enough of the other. It hadn't helped that Ed Straker hadn't even been aware of his twin son and daughter until just a few months earlier, and they were all trying to make up for lost time. Lily divided her workdays between doing clerical work for Dr. Lewis and helping in the studio's film vault. She especially enjoyed working with the film, but loved being able to take her son with her to work in the medical offices.
Ed set the giggling Alexander down and turned to his children. Glancing to see if Louise was listening, he whispered, "Louise is trying a new recipe, so be prepared."
"I heard that, Straker," Louise said from directly behind him. He pretended to jump in surprise.
"Oh, hello, love. I didn't see you there."
She shook her head at him and playfully slapped his arm. "Sure, you didn't." She crouched down to scoop up Alexander, "And how is my favorite boy today?"
Ed pouted, "I thought *I* was your favorite," he said forlornly.
Louise shook her head and smirked. "Listen to him," she muttered to the giggling child. "No, Ed. Alexander is my favorite *boy*. You're my favorite *man*. There's a tremendous difference."
"I should hope so," Ed said, with a smirk of his own.
Louise looked at Lily, who wasn't even trying to hide her smile. "Men. What are we going to do with them?"
"Feed them, I hope?" Eddie replied with a grin of his own.
Shaking her head, Louise handed Alexander over to his uncle and headed into the kitchen. "Five minutes," she announced.
Dinner was a lively affair, focusing mostly on the younger people's work in the film vault. They'd owned a small video store prior to coming to work for Harlington-Straker, and they'd been having a grand time going through all the films, as they got to watch them to make sure they were in good condition before filing them away. They spoke of films that Ed had never even been aware of, and in some cases was quite surprised that his studio had made.
The casserole went over well. Even little Alexander, who was at the terrible-twos and notoriously hard to please, liked it. After dinner, Lily insisted on helping with the cleanup, while Ed and Eddie headed into the living room to discuss plans for the next day, when Eddie began his new job of protecting his father.
"Do you think there's going to be any trouble, Dad?" Eddie asked. At the studio, it was always 'Mr. Straker', or 'Commander', depending on where they were. But here, the family tie was not only permitted, but eagerly looked forward to and encouraged.
"Hopefully not, but Mr. Bracken's assistant, Peters, tends to," he paused and then called out to Louise, "What did you call what Peters was doing?"
"Big-dog," Louise called back.
Ed looked at his son, wondering if he understood the term.
Eddie nodded. Oh, yes. "So, I just need to intimidate him before he can try and encroach on your space, then?"
Ed smiled and nodded. "Something like that. You're shorter than he is, however. For that matter, so am I. He's about six foot one, and John Bracken is probably six foot two. Height-wise, that puts us at a disadvantage, but we're on our home turf, as it were, and we hold all the cards. We have what they want and need. We can walk away without any losses, but if they walk away, they stand to lose a great deal."
Eddie nodded, frowning. "What exactly is it they want?"
"For us to provide them crews and equipment for location shooting. It's a good deal for them, as it means they don't have to bring over tons of equipment and people to shoot here. It's good for our people, as well. It will provide more work and therefore more money. It's a reciprocal agreement. Should we need to film in the western hemisphere, they'd provide the same service for us. Of course, it costs a bit more to film there than it does here, but still; not having to haul all that equipment around cuts costs, not to mention concerns about damage."
Eddie nodded. "What do you want me to do?"
Lily and Louise entered just in time to hear that. "You're right handed, aren't you?"
"Ed, stand up." Ed did so, smiling faintly as she pulled Eddie to his feet and positioned him just behind his right shoulder.
Straker frowned. "But you always stand behind my left shoulder."
"I'm left handed, dear," Louise explained. Ed looked surprised, but then nodded. It made sense. Keeping your gun-hand free and unencumbered. "So, Eddie, stand right here. Keep in step when he walks, like birds in formation. He follows his eyes, so when he turns his head, be prepared to turn with him."
"I do?" Ed asked, nonplussed.
"Yes, you do. Most people do. You also look around, checking everything out around you, but there's a definite difference when you plan on a change of direction. It shouldn't take you too long to pick up on it, Eddie."
Eddie grinned. "Okay, this is the easy part. What about in meetings?"
"Ah, you stand right behind him, again to the right, so your hand is free to grab your gun or anyone attempting to come too close. Remember, you're strictly for defense." Louise watched critically as the two men paced around the living room and nodded as Ed sat and Eddie took up his position. "Hands at your sides or in front. You don't want to be deliberately intimidating, but you do want to appear alert." Eddie brought his hands from behind his back, where they'd been folded at parade rest. "Good," Louise said, nodding.
She turned her attention to Straker. "How's he feel behind you, Ed?"
With a bemused smile, he glanced over his shoulder and shook his head. "Like he's not even there," he replied.
"Good. That's how it should be. You may be subconsciously aware of him, but you don't really want to focus on his presence."
"How do you know so much about this, Louise?" Lily asked, smiling proudly at her brother.
Louise shrugged. "I've dealt with such things before." She watched, narrow-eyed as Straker stood back up and moved around the room again. He'd moved abruptly, without forewarning, and she was pleased to note that Eddie hadn't missed a tick.
Lily shook her head. "Do you think anyone will notice the family resemblance?"
The two men stopped and gazed at one another. Except for the coloring and a slight Asian cast to Eddie's eyes, the two men looked remarkably similar.
"Possibly. I doubt if most people will see beyond the coloring, however. As for if and when someone does, just look at them blankly, then at each other, yes, like that." She couldn't help giggling at the puzzled expressions on both men's faces. Lily joined her in laughter, and then the two men smiled identical smiles, as well.
"Bracken might notice. I seriously doubt if Peters will," Straker announced. "So, Eddie, are you ready for this?"
Eddie shrugged diffidently. "Probably not, but I'll pick it up soon enough, I hope."
Ed nodded, then frowned and looked his son in the eye. "You don't have to take this job if you don't want to. You do know that, don't you?" The uncharacteristic doubt in his voice brought Louise's frowning attention to him.
Eddie noticed it as well. "Dad, I've suddenly got the chance to spend all day, practically every day with you. Why on earth would I *not* want to do this?" Seeing the relief on his father's face, he stepped close and put his arms around the older man. "I'm honored that anyone even considered me for this, Dad," he murmured into his father's ear as he hugged him.
Ed's eyes closed as he absorbed the warmth and love his son offered, his arms encircling the somewhat sturdier body as he returned the hug. They stayed that way for several moments until Lily softly spoke.
"Hey, can I have some of that, too?" The two men parted and with matching smiles, welcomed her into a three-way embrace. Louise watched, pleased.
Ed pulled back from his children with a slight frown. "Louise?" he asked.
He held out an arm for her, looking hurt when she shook her head. "Not now, Ed. You and I can do our hugging later. They have to leave soon, so you just go right on ahead." She ignored his disappointment and turned away.
Shaking his head, he turned back to his children and hugged them both, hard, then released them and stepped away. "It's getting late, and Alexander is already sound asleep," he said softly.
"Yeah, and it's going to be an early morning, too. What time do you want me there?"
"Our meeting's at ten, so if you can be in by eight-thirty, that gives us plenty of time to make the drive in."
Eddie nodded. "I'll be there at eight, just to make sure." He grinned. "See you in the morning, Dad."
Ed smiled. "Good night, Eddie." He turned to his daughter and kissed her cheek. "Good night, Lily. Would you like me to carry Alexander out to the car for you?"
Her automatic response was to say it was no problem, but Louise had talked to her about her father's need to connect to people, particularly those he loved. "That would be great, Dad," she said, and watched in pleasure as he lifted his grandson and proudly carried him out to their car and put him in his car seat.
He watched them as they got in the car and waved as they backed into the road and then drove down the street. Not until they were out of sight, did he turn back to go indoors again.
He found Louise in his bedroom, turning down the covers. "Why wouldn't you join us?" he asked. She seldom did, he'd noticed, and wondered. Didn't she like his children? He was almost afraid to find out.
She turned to him and smiled, then stepped into his arms for a kiss. "Because the kind of hugging I want from you is inappropriate to your children." He pulled away, frowning at her, and then she twisted her body against his, causing him to gasp at what she was talking about.
"Uh, oh. Right. I understand, now." His arms wrapped around her and he buried his face in her hair, inhaling deeply. She returned his embrace wholeheartedly, and they both noticed his body's reaction.
"So, Commander, you want to fool around a little?
"Hmmmm. Sounds good to me. Just remember, I have to be up early in the morning."
"Not a problem, love." She reluctantly pulled away from him and tugged his hand, heading for the bed. Hands fumbling with one another's clothing, they were soon between the sheets, the lights turned out and hands, lips, and tongues explored each other, bringing pleasure and eventual release.
As usual, Straker awoke before the alarm. He lay quietly for several minutes, relishing the feel of Louise's soft, warm body beside him. Eyes still closed, he ran one hand over her skin, smiling as she shifted closer to him with a wordless murmur of pleasure. Shifting slightly, he kissed her awake, his hand still stroking her, bringing her to arousal. She kissed him back and her own hands began touching and arousing, not that it took much at this moment. Their lovemaking was leisurely and warmly satisfying.
Afterwards, as they continued to touch, he asked softly, "Why won't you come and live with me full time?"
She shushed him with soft fingers over his lips, shaking her head. "Because you require time alone. We see each other frequently through the day, and I know that must get on your nerves."
He shook his head, kissing her fingertips still on his lips. "Only when you demonstrate so very graphically how poorly I've recovered," he said softly. "I love waking up in your arms. I love going to sleep with you. I even enjoy your kitchen experiments, despite my teasing. You do know that I'm teasing, don't you?" A touch of concern entered his voice at the thought that perhaps she didn't know.
"Yes. I know, but I don't know how you'd handle having me around and underfoot all the time. This way, you can say 'not tonight' and I'll go to my own apartment." She could feel his tension. He hated her apartment. It was small, dark, and claustrophobic, even for her. He turned his head away from her, tension rising still further.
"I don't want you to be so far away," he said very softly, as though the admission showed how desperate and weak he truly was.
She sighed. "What exactly do you want, Ed?"
"I..." he shook his head. "I want to not be alone. I want to wake up with you every morning, and go to sleep with you every night. I...." He stopped, frowning. She waited patiently for him to continue.
She jumped when he suddenly began laughing.
"What? What is it? What's so funny?" she asked worriedly.
"I just realized. I'm asking you to marry me, Louise."
Her breath caught as she waited.
"Did you hear me?" he asked, laughter dying and wondering if she were going to decline.
"Why? Why what?"
"Why are you asking me to marry you?" She waited with bated breath as he frowned at her, trying to understand.
"I just told you why," he began, and then stopped, worry lines etching into his face. Hadn't he? What exactly had he said? That he didn't want her so far away from him. That he didn't want to be alone. That he wanted to wake up with her every morning and go to sleep with her every night. But he hadn't said...
"I guess that maybe I didn't, did I?" He cupped her face in his hands and kissed her gently. "What I'm trying to say, and obviously doing a very poor job of it, is that I love you, that I don't want to live without you, and will you marry me?"
Her expression cleared and she smiled. "Oh. In that case, I suppose I'd have to say that I love you, as well, and that I'd love to marry you. Are you sure that's what you really want, though? What about SHADO? Henderson, Alec? What will they say?"
"Well, Henderson can go jump in the North Atlantic, for all I care. Alec will probably say 'it's about bloody time', and as for SHADO, most of headquarters is, if not aware, probably suspicious. I haven't heard any complaints, though. In fact, the entire atmosphere is more... cheerful and hopeful since you joined us." He smiled, "Besides, you don't terrify everyone, like Jackson did."
She nodded. She hadn't been certain, but had her suspicions, because as she'd met people in a business capacity, they all approached with what came across as a great deal of trepidation. Or at least they had until the thing with Ford. Odd, that. The only one she could honestly think who might be upset was Colonel Foster, who was far away, for now. She smiled and kissed him.
"So? Shall we get married?" he asked. They'd only met a few months before, and under traumatic (at least for him) circumstances. She'd worked hard with him to break the conditioning Jackson had foisted on him for a quarter of a century. Was his 'love' a transfer/reaction to the breaking of that conditioning, or was it real? She'd found her own flat just to give him space to rediscover himself, but was he emotionally healthy and stable enough? Did she love him? Well, yes. It was hard not to love this beautiful, dedicated man. Did she mind that his work came first? Not at all, much to her surprise, until she realized that hers came first for her, as well. Would this be good for him? For her? For them?
She looked him in the eyes and kissed him. "As much as I'd like that, I think it's too soon." She felt him about to protest and shook her head. "I'm serious, Ed. As much as I love you, as your doctor... hell. I'm in no position to judge. There's a very good reason why they don't allow doctors and their patients to get involved with one another on a personal level."
He looked away. "You tried very hard to avoid that, as I recall." His eyes came back to hers. "If not marriage, at least move back in here with me. Please."
She closed her eyes. How could she possibly refuse? He didn't use please all that much. He was the commander; he gave orders, not made requests. The slightly pleading tone only made it that much more powerful a plea. Could she deny him? For that matter, did she want to deny him this? Or anything? Examining herself and her own motives and feelings, she felt him watching her; she could tell he was holding his breath, fearful of what her answer might be. What should she tell him? What did she *want* to tell him? What did she, herself, want?
She brought her attention back to him and saw the concern and... yes, fear. "I do love you, Ed," she said very softly.
She shook her head and smiled. "No 'buts'. I do love you, but I also have to consider what is best for you."
"You are. You're what's best for me. You brought me feeling and hope after so very long believing that I was unworthy of love or hope. I don't want to give that up. I won't give it up. I won't give you up." His tone had gotten stronger and firmer and he now glared at her, almost daring her to shatter his world once more.
She suddenly realized that he was right. If she left him now, all the good she'd done would be negated, made worthless and moot. She'd shown him light and color again, reminded him of touch and feeling and love. If she denied him now, she'd do irreparable damage to him. "I'll move back in this weekend. I think we still need more time for any bigger decisions."
He accepted this small victory with great relief. If he needed to demonstrate just how much he cared for her, then he would. All he needed was a chance. He'd make it work, show her his love, and win her. God, please....
The alarm went off.
Alec was waiting in his aboveground office when he arrived. He took one look at him and asked what was wrong.
"Ed, I've known you for far too many years to recognize when 'nothing' is something... and from the looks of it, it's a pretty big something. You and Louise didn't have a fight, did you?"
Straker stilled completely. "No. We didn't have a fight," he said softly.
"But you might as well have. What's wrong? Come on, you know you're going to tell me sooner or later, so let's save a bit of time and worry and tell me now, will you?"
He wouldn't meet his friend's eyes. "I asked Louise to marry me."
Alec's face lit up. "That's marvelous!"
"She said it's too soon." He moved to stare at the mural behind his desk.
"Oh?" Alec frowned. "Did you remember to tell her you love her?"
"Yes, yes. I told her."
"Before or after you asked her to marry you?"
"Ah. That's it, then. She's just giving you time to change your mind."
"And how would you know?"
Alec grinned and gently laid a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Because, back when I was young and actually interested in getting hitched," Straker turned surprised eyes on him. "That was the mistake I made. She turned me down flat. I don't know why it is, but women are more interested in hearing 'I love you' than they are in a demonstration." He shrugged. "So, what happened?"
Ed gazed back into the swirling colors of the mural. "She at least agreed to move back in with me."
She'd spent the first two months she was in England at his house, before finding her own flat. He'd protested her moving out then, and in the succeeding months, his feelings hadn't changed. Alec nodded. "That's good, then. Try saying the words first thing in the morning, hmmm? Of course, you'll have to convince yourself before you've any chance of convincing her."
Ed frowned at him. "What do you mean?"
Alec's smile was sad. "I know you, Ed. You're terrified of losing her, but just as terrified of loving her. You had a disastrous marriage and it's left some bad scars. Just remember one very important thing."
"She's a part of SHADO. You don't have to keep any secrets from her. You're free to discuss anything, how you feel, what's going on, your problems and concerns, who's falling down on the job, who's working beyond capacity. Speaking of which, have you noticed Ford, lately?"
"You mean how he no longer cringes every time I stand behind him? Yes. I've noticed."
"He's not limping as much, either. The first week with those things in his shoe really made him gimp about, but he's doing very well. And, he's coming in early for his shift and is really taking charge on the evening shift. Everyone's noticing."
Straker nodded, grateful for the change in subject. "What are you thinking?"
"Well, what would you think of putting him in charge of the late shift?"
"Midnight to 0800? You don't think that would be looked on as a downgrade? Most people work very hard to get *off* that shift."
"He frequently stays over anyway, Commander. He's either helping someone, or doing reports, and I don't mean his own. He's always been dedicated, Ed. I think he'd do well."
Straker nodded. "Perhaps you're right." He glanced at his watch. "Well, Eddie's due any minute, now. We'll discuss this further when I return from meeting with Bracken." Alec nodded and turned to leave, "Oh, and Alec,"
He turned back, a look of inquiry on his features. "Thank you for the advice. I'll try to remember it."
Alec grinned and nodded. "Just talk to her, Ed. Tell her what's got you worried, what you're thinking. She's not just your shrink, you know. She honestly cares for you. A great deal, I might add."
"I hope you're right, Alec. I hope you're right."
"You'll see," Alec said softly and opened the door to leave; just in time to startle Eddie Duk, who'd been about to knock. Alec looked hard at the young man. Whereas Straker was wearing white, which set off his silver-blond hair, Eddie was wearing a dark charcoal suit, which equally set off his own, darker coloring.
Alec narrowed his eyes at the young man. "See to it you take very good care of him."
"Yes, sir! Colonel, sir!" It would have been impressive, but he didn't snap to attention or salute. Alec just shook his head, patted the younger man on the back, cast one final glance at Ed, shrugged, and left.
He looked at his son, smiling at the cut of his suit, how it matched his own, except in color. He nodded. "You ready?"
"Yes, sir." Eddie replied softly, all pretense and levity gone.
"Then let's go. You drive." He tossed his keys to his son and passed through the door before Eddie could do more than catch them.
The meeting took place in a small conference room at the hotel where Bracken was staying.
Eddie, who had quickly fallen into step with the commander as they moved from the car park to the hotel, knocked lightly on the door, and then stepped back to cover his boss.
Peters opened the door, his false smile painted on. "Mr. Straker," he began, then noticed Eddie's expressionless form and hesitated just a moment as his smile faltered. Then he forced himself back into his phony welcoming persona and stepped back. "So glad you could make it. Mr. Bracken will be just a moment."
Straker entered, Eddie right at his shoulder. Both visitors' eyes flickered around the room, observing and judging. Straker basically ignored Peters, until that man reached out to touch him.
Eddie didn't seem to move, but Peters' hand never made it to Straker's shoulder. His wrist was seized before contact could be made. Straker looked at the two hands a mere four inches from him and frowned. With his head still tilted down, he raised his eyes to Peters' and his gaze could have frozen mercury. He just looked at him, and Peters swallowed hard under that cold blue gaze and tried to withdraw his hand, only to discover that he couldn't. His eyes, starting to show a bit of annoyance, glanced over at Eddie, and he scowled.
"Can I have my hand back, now?"
"Depends," Eddie replied softly.
"On?" Peters was still trying to pull away.
"On what you intend to do with it if I give it back to you." Eddie didn't even look at his boss, keeping his attention on his opponent.
Another voice interrupted. "Peters? What are you doing?" John Bracken walked in, a bland expression on his face, but it couldn't hide the annoyance in his eyes. He could easily see what had happened. Peters had tried touching his guest, and the guest's - companion? Bodyguard, more likely, had stopped him. He sighed. "My apologies, Mr. Straker. Peters, I won't be needing you any more."
Peters pulled harder at his restrained hand, and Eddie, at a minute signal from Straker, let go. Peters, off balance now, windmilled backwards trying to remain upright and crashed into Bracken, who simply pushed him away, back onto his feet.
Peters opened his mouth to say something, but the glare from Bracken cowed him and he simply stalked from the room, pretending he had some dignity left.
Bracken watched him go and shook his head. Turning back to his guests, he smiled uncomfortably. "My apologies, gentlemen. As you can see, he hasn't improved." He gestured towards the small conference table, inviting them to join him. "I took the liberty of ordering in coffee." He noticed that Straker moved around the table to sit, placing his back to the wall in the classic 'gunfighter's seat', with the young man standing directly behind him, slightly to one side. Definitely a bodyguard, and from his demeanor, a very good one. He hoped his nephew had bruises from his encounter.
He sat, wondering how much damage control he would need to do to make up for his assistant's boorish behavior.
Eddie took his place behind the commander and stood unmoving throughout the meeting. He turned down the offer of coffee and played statue. Only his eyes moved. They noted a draft and sought the source, finding Peters just out of sight. At least, he thought it was Peters. Why was the man eavesdropping? It was just a business meeting, wasn't it?" He listened with half an ear and understood that it was just movie business. He almost smiled. 'Just' movie business. Six months ago, had anyone predicted what he'd be doing now, he'd have laughed at them and called them nuts. His attention snapped back to the person (Peters?) just through the door. It bothered him. He shifted, trying to see who it was for certain.
The meeting was going well, despite his welcome. He knew he held all the cards, and he wanted to do the best for his studio. The coffee was excellent, and Bracken was easy to talk to. When Eddie shifted, he turned his head. "What?"
"Someone's eavesdropping, sir," Eddie said very softly. He gestured with his chin towards where the person stood, just out of sight.
Bracken sighed. "My apologies again, gentlemen." He turned towards the opening. "Peters, unless you'd like to find yourself stranded in London with no money, no job, and no way home, I suggest you either come in like a gentleman, or scuttle back under your rock."
They waited, and there was the sound of a door closing.
"More comfortable beneath the rocks, is he?" Straker asked softly.
"Excuse me. I need to explain the facts of life to him again." Bracken rose and left the room.
Straker shook his head and poured himself another cup of coffee. "Eddie? Want some?"
"Sit down. I think we're safe enough here. I wonder what's wrong with Peters." He shook his head. "Man's an idiot."
"He may be trying to get some kind of dirt on Mr. Bracken. Either something to blackmail him with, or sell to the competition."
"Hmmm. Could be. But I have to tell you, if it were me, and you were behaving like that, you wouldn't be anywhere near anything, if you get my drift."
"Yes, sir," Eddie agreed. They sat in companionable silence, drinking their coffee. When he finished his, Eddie stood back up and replaced the chair, returning to his previous position behind his father's right shoulder.
Moments later, Bracken returned, shaking his head. "Nephew or not, I'm not going to put up with him any more." He smiled ruefully at his guests, noting the second used cup. He glanced in surprise at Straker's bodyguard, and frowned. "Speaking of nepotism, your young statue, there. Relative of yours?"
The man was nothing, if not observant. "My son, actually," Straker admitted, watching Bracken closely.
The older man nodded. "There's an excellent resemblance," he pointed out.
"Most people don't get past the difference in coloring."
Bracken grinned. "I 'see' with a camera's eye, or so I've been told."
Straker cocked his head. "You used to direct?" he asked in surprise.
Bracken nodded. "That's how I started out. Then I slowly built up my own studio. I still miss it, sometimes."
Eddie finally spoke, "If it's your studio, why can't you do what you want? Directing, I mean."
Both men looked at him, Bracken in surprise and Straker in amusement.
"Ah, I don't know." Bracken grinned. "Maybe I should. There's this spy thriller I just read. I think it would make a wonderful film." He grinned boyishly at Straker. "I don't suppose you'd like to try your hand at acting, Ed?"
Straker chuckled. "No, thank you. You're not the first one to suggest it, however. Now, Eddie, here, maybe he'd be interested. He's certainly young enough."
Bracken looked at the young man, who was struggling to keep a straight face. "Maybe. What do you think, young man?"
He waited for a nod from Straker before he spoke. "I think it's a silly idea. I'm hardly the type, unless you're doing one of those cheap oriental films?"
Bracken laughed. "I'm impressed, Ed. Your boy there's got some smarts."
Straker smiled. "I try to surround myself with intelligent people, John. It's good business."
Bracken sighed. "I wish Peters was half as smart." There was a brief, uncomfortable silence, and then Straker stood.
"I think we've discussed about as much as we can, here. I've a company car downstairs, if you'd care to join me, we can go out to the studio and I'll give you the tour."
Bracken stood up, nodding. "Let me tell Peters what to do while I'm gone, and we can go."
"Bring him along," Straker said, surprising himself almost as much as Bracken. Eddie was the only one not surprised. 'Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer' was the first thought to cross his mind at his father's offer.
Bracken frowned. "Are you sure? I can leave him here."
"No, no. Bring him along. He may notice something you don't or have a question you don't think of."
Bracken smiled his gratitude. "Let me go at least put a leash and muzzle on him."
While Bracken left the room to get his nephew, Eddie grinned. "I'll keep a close eye on him, sir."
"Thank you. I expect you to."
The 'company car' was, of course, a limousine. Eddie held the door for the two executives, and then circled around to the driver's side, leaving Peters to get into the front seat on his own. Bracken exchanged a knowing grin with Ed. It was quite obvious that Eddie was totally unimpressed by the other young man. The two executives spoke of inconsequential things during the hour-long drive. Bracken watched with knowing eyes as they approached and entered the studio lot.
"You've got some pretty impressive security, here."
"Yes," Straker chuckled. "A holdover from my days in the military, I'm afraid."
"Ah, yes. Paranoia can be a good thing, though, don't you think?" Bracken smiled knowingly at the younger man.
"Well, we rarely have any problems, if that's what you mean," Straker agreed.
Bracken laughed. "I wish my studio's security was this good. The guard, she signaled someone inside, didn't she?"
Straker's smile thinned. Bracken was altogether too observant. "I'm sure she did," he agreed.
Bracken noticed the security video cameras scattered throughout the studio lot. He was impressed, but wondered if it wasn't a bit of overkill.
Eddie hadn't said a word to Peters, despite the other man trying to chat him up about the studio and the kinds of films they made. Parking in front of the main headquarters, he again ignored Bracken's nephew in favor of catering to the two executives. Peters, knowing what to expect, got out of the car and, to everyone's surprise, opened the rear door to let his uncle out.
Straker gave Eddie a warning look, then a quick, gentle touch on the arm, to which he received eye contact and a subtle little nod. Eddie would be keeping a *very* close eye on their guests.
Bracken stretched and looked around. The parking lot was clean and the car park was nearly full. He followed his host, watching in amusement as Straker's son, the bodyguard, subtly placed himself between his boss and their guests, particularly Peters. He wondered if the boy even noticed? Glancing at him, he was a bit disappointed that he didn't seem to. He sighed, wondering what he was going to do with him.
Peters looked around avidly. The studio itself wasn't all that large, but they had some lovely permanent sets, and he could see a row of what were probably sound stages. He followed the others into the main building and through. He didn't even notice that the driver/bodyguard hovered close.
"We've an excellent cafeteria, here. Some of the other local businesses even come over for lunch," Straker pointed out as they passed the studio restaurant. Bracken nodded, impressed with the size and decor of the eatery.
"Food's always important, I've discovered. It's not just armies that march on their stomachs," he said, smiling.
"Oh, yes, there's nothing like..." Straker was interrupted by a loud row coming from the cafeteria. With an apologetic glance at his guests, he headed in to see what was going on.
"I *said* that I wanted fresh-squeezed orange juice!"
Straker frowned. The actor causing the scene wasn't one he was fond of at any time, but he did seem to attract an audience to his films. To his surprise, however, Captain Ford was confronting the angry man.
"You know, I've worked here for a very long time, and they've always made the orange juice fresh. If you like, I'd be more than happy to take you round back and show you," Ford was being inordinately polite, but the actor wasn't having any of it.
The pompous man sneered, "Oh, please, you honestly expect that we'll find even twenty orange peels in the trash? You may have worked here for a while, but you're an idiot if you think they serve real orange juice." The actor then made his second mistake. He pushed Ford, spun on his heel, and crashed into Straker.
His reaction was automatic. His hands came up and pushed back, forcing the off-balance actor back into Ford, who had seen what was about to happen and was ready. He caught the flailing actor and deflected him off into a table, which overturned, dumping the actor and what had probably been his lunch on the floor.
"My apologies, sir," Ford murmured to Straker as he turned to try and help the sputtering actor to his feet. The man brushed Ford aside and came up belligerently for Straker.
"You bloody fool!" the man shouted, obviously not realizing with whom he was dealing. Straker's eyebrows lowered as his lips narrowed in annoyance. When the angry actor swung on him, however, Eddie was there, catching the man's fist, turning him, and flipping him onto his back, knocking the wind out of him.
"Very nice," Bracken praised. Eddie didn't even look at him, sweeping his eyes around, looking for any further threat. He glanced at Ford, who grinned at him.
"Very nice, indeed, Mr. Duk," Ford murmured and extended his hand. "Keith Ford. We haven't actually met."
Eddie, deciding that it was safe enough, smiled fleetingly and shook Ford's hand. "It's Eddie," he replied.
"Keith, then." Ford turned his attention to the commander. "I'm sorry, sir, I was trying to..."
"Yes, I heard, and saw." Straker glanced at his watch and frowned. "Oughtn't you be home by now?"
"Uh, yes, sir, but there was an incident just as I was getting ready to take off, so I stayed over until it was over. I just finished my report and had stopped off for a bite before heading out." He looked down at the still gasping actor who was struggling to try and relearn how to breathe again and shook his head. "The 'gentleman' was not satisfied with the service, I'm afraid."
"Yes, yes." Straker glared down at the actor, who was now struggling to sit up, a grimace of pain on his face. "Mr. Ford, please be kind enough to escort the 'gentleman' from the premises and let security know that he's no longer welcome here?"
Ford nodded, "Certainly, sir." He turned back to offer to help the man back to his feet, only to be ignored.
Standing, again, the actor glared at Straker. Pulling himself up to his full and unintimidating height, he snarled, "Have you any idea with whom you are dealing?"
Straker looked vaguely amused. "Yes. I know exactly who you are, too bad you have no idea who I am." He looked at Ford, "Keith?"
"Right away, sir." Ford didn't touch the actor, simply stood beside him and gestured, herding the man away, blustering and complaining the entire time.
Bracken shook his head. "Some people," he grumbled in amusement.
Straker grinned tightly. "Yes, I'm afraid he's in for something of a shock should he try and come back." He looked at his son, who was again at his shoulder, alert and calm. He smiled at him and received an infinitesimal nod in reply. Staff were already scurrying around cleaning up the mess. He turned to his guests.
"My apologies, gentlemen, shall we continue?"
Peters was impressed. Eddie was quite capable, he noticed. The smaller man was fast and showed no emotion; just like a movie version of a bodyguard, only he was obviously real. He was careful to keep his distance from Straker. He didn't want to suddenly find himself sailing through the air like that actor had.
Bracken couldn't decide whether to be impressed or simply amused. He did notice when Peters shifted around to place him closer to Straker and his son, which finally tilted him into definite amusement. He caught Straker's eye and knew that he'd noticed, and smiled. Straker smiled back and he could see his counterpart's own amusement.
They made their way through the rest of the main building, passing offices and various and sundry personnel going about their business, most of them looking quite serious. Passing out the rear of the building and into the actual studio area, Bracken took a deep breath and looked around. The permanent sets included a medieval village, a castle, and a European city, complete with thoroughfares. It was so cleverly designed that, depending on the camera angle, you could make it appear to be up to fifteen different locations.
"I'm impressed. Even the fountain has four different 'sides'."
"Yes," Straker agreed. "Louis Graham helped design the permanent structures. The man's an absolute genius when it comes to sets."
Bracken nodded. "Yes, it's obvious. From this corner, I can see Berlin, over there," he pointed, "Paris, there, and London, here. Yet it's all the same set. Brilliant. Change the lighting, add trees or cars or horse-drawn vehicles, and it could be anywhere in Europe any time from the beginning of the industrial revolution on. Very nice." He slowly turned in place, examining the set and marveling at the brilliance of its design.
"Thank you. I'll be sure to pass your praise on to Louis." Straker smiled. Graham was probably around somewhere, but since there'd been an incident earlier (one that had apparently lasted all night, since Ford worked the evening shift), it was possible that he was still below, or off home, getting some rest.
Peters frowned. "May I ask a question?"
"Certainly," Straker replied, focusing on the younger man.
"Do you have examples of all the different angles and variations you can use here?"
Bracken looked at his nephew in surprise. It was an excellent question.
Straker smiled. "Of course. I'll give you a copy before you leave." He didn't bother to even glance at Eddie who, as soon as they began moving, was on his cell phone ordering the portfolio for the 'town square' to be ready for them at the end of the tour.
The back lot included some lovely countryside, including a replica of an old mansion. Depending on how it was lit, and whether or not they added anything, the house could be anything from Renaissance to Victorian. Obviously, Harlington-Straker Studios knew how to cut costs by having built multi-use sets.
Even the 'wilderness' area, consisting of a small woods, could be made to look like an enormous forest, with the right lighting and camera angles. They stood beneath a tree to talk.
"I have to admit that I really like what you've done, here, Ed," Bracken said, smiling.
"Thank you. Most of it is due to some very good people I have working for me, of course," Straker replied, passing on the credit where it was due.
"Yes, we couldn't get very far at all without good people to do most of the work." Bracken agreed.
Peters was looking up into the trees. Eddie glanced up to see what the other man was looking at with such fascination. He blinked in surprise. Shaking his head, he softly spoke. "Sir, I think someone's forgotten something."
Keith Ford quietly escorted the continually blustering actor to his car. He'd been up for more than twenty-four hours, now, and he was starting to have a bit of trouble keeping focused on his tasks. He planned to simply watch the actor drive off the lot and then tell Security not to allow him back in, when the man suddenly came back out of his car, wielding a tire iron. He barely had time to get his right arm up to protect his head when the metal bar came whistling down, smashing him to the ground, his forearm and elbow shattered and bleeding.
At least he'd managed to save his skull....
He was instantly in shock, the agony of his smashed arm combined with his exhaustion making him slow to react. He saw the tire iron coming at him again, and his twenty-five year old training took over. Miraculously, his right foot hooked behind his attacker's ankle, while his left leg drew towards his chest and then lashed out at his assailant's knee. There was a loud 'crunch', and the man dropped his weapon and shrieked, crumpling to the ground almost on top of Ford.
One of the gate guards was there moments later, the security cameras having alerted them to the problem. After kicking the tire iron away from the actor, she ignored him to tend to the injured Ford.
"Lie still, Mr. Ford," she said, trying to get him to stop writhing in his pain. She could see the blood seeping through his jacket and grasped his injured arm just below his armpit to apply pressure to the brachial artery to slow the bleeding. With a whimper, he leaned towards the guard, blindly seeking comfort.
With a sympathetic grimace, she sat on the ground beside him and pulled him towards her, offering comfort as she continued applying pressure to slow the bleeding. "It will be all right, Mr. Ford. I just need to get to my radio, all right?" She released him for a few moments, long enough to pull her handie-talkie from its holster and thumb the button. "George, We're going to need medical help, here. The guy with the tire iron really nailed Keith Ford. His arm's shattered and bleeding. And I think Mr. Ford may have managed to smash his attacker's knee, as well. We'll need the police, too. Meanwhile, I'm applying pressure to slow the bleeding. Make the calls, would you, please?" She listened to the affirmative response and then set the communications device beside her, returning that arm to around Ford's shoulders.
He couldn't imagine anything hurting this badly. Well, maybe a solid kick to the groin, but other than that, it was hard to imagine anything hurting this much. Even more than the time he'd been shot. He'd broken bones before, but never this severely. All he was really aware of was the pain. As shock set in, he slowly became aware of a warm presence holding him and pressure above the injury to his arm. Then he finally heard the voice. It was a woman, and softly reassuring. Then there were others around, and he recognized Dr. Lewis's voice and he opened his eyes to see what was going on.
"Easy, Keith. I need to get your coat off." She was careful to simply slit the stitching at the seam of his jacket, peeling it back so she could get a good look at his arm. She winced at the sight. He'd obviously caught the tire iron just below the elbow, shattering both the radius and ulna, which had pierced the skin in a compound fracture, but the blow had been at such an angle and with such force that the humerus had also splintered. Miraculously, the brachial artery hadn't been damaged, but there was quite a bit of bleeding, despite that. She instructed the guard to maintain the pressure as she began to carefully immobilize the injury, preparatory to transporting him to the hospital.
His breath hitched in a strangled sob of agony, the pain-tears streaming down his face unnoticed. Seeing he was cognizant again, she smiled at him. "Well, you certainly are accident prone," she said lightly.
Keith choked and began laughing. "Didn't I tell you that?"
"Yes, but that had a valid medical cause. What happened?"
"Oh, he threw a fit in the cafeteria and Mr. Straker asked me to escort him from the lot. I'm afraid I wasn't at my best and wasn't paying close attention, thinking he was getting into his car. Instead, he just reached in and came back with that tire iron. Nearly brained me!" With that realization, he began to shake.
"Well, you certainly defended yourself admirably. Smashed his knee."
Ford looked surprised. "I did?" He turned his head and finally noticed the other man on the ground, writhing in pain, but unable to bend in order to grasp his injured knee. "How did I do that?"
"It was lovely," the guard shook her head in admiration. "He was about to hit you with his tire iron again, when you hooked his ankle with your right foot and drew up and lashed out with your left foot, catching him just at the knee. He dropped his weapon and fell down. Brilliant work, sir."
Ford scowled. He honestly couldn't remember much after his arm was smashed, but that could easily be due to the shock of his injury. The sound of sirens reached them and the guard rose to go back to her post and allow her partner to escort them in. Both the police and two ambulances arrived at the same time. While the paramedics took care of the two combatants, the police spoke to the guards, who played back the tape showing exactly what had happened. When they had finished, they approached and asked Keith his version of the goings-on.
Under Dr. Lewis's care, Keith had been given a local anesthetic prior to immobilizing his arm, with a stronger sedative about to be given prior to transport. When the constable asked him what had happened, he was coherent enough to explain how and why he'd been escorting his attacker from the studio lot. Satisfied, one of the policemen placed the actor under arrest and rode in the ambulance with him, while his partner finished up at the scene.
Just before Keith was loaded in the second ambulance, Dr. Lewis asked, "By the way, Keith, did you get here terribly early, or are you still here from yesterday?"
Keith blushed. "Still here," he admitted, then hurried on, "But it's my day off, so I don't have to come back today!"
Louise looked at her watch, it was after noon, and his shift, were it a workday for him, would have started in less than four hours. "When did you sleep, last, Keith?"
"Uh, before coming in, yesterday," he admitted, not meeting her eyes.
She shook her head. "Well, I'm sure there was a good reason, but next time, *if* there's a next time, please call security to do the escort duty, hmmm?" She smiled at him and patted his good arm when he looked up in surprise, having expected a scolding, at the very least.
He smiled back and nodded his agreement. "Yes, Doctor. I'll try to remember that for future reference."
She patted his arm again and stood up. "Do you want someone to go with you?" she asked.
"Oh, that's not necessary. I'll be fine, once they set the bones and slap a cast on."
Obviously, he didn't understand how serious this particular break might be, but she just nodded. "All right, then. I'll have someone check on you and give you a lift if you need one." She watched in concern as he was loaded in the ambulance and taken away. She looked around and sighed. At least this particular accident was truly that, and not due to some medical condition, unless she thought he had just been too tired to function. She headed over to the guard shack and asked to see the video. She nodded in satisfaction. He simply hadn't expected to be attacked - not particularly surprising, actually. She thanked the guards and requested their report be sent to Mr. Straker, directly. They nodded their concurrence and returned to watching the security cameras and checking people in and out.
Straker and Bracken looked to where their younger companions were staring. For a moment, Straker's surprise shown on his face, then he fought his smile under control and looked around. "That hasn't been there very long. Certainly not since last night, as it was too damp."
Eddie grinned. "Do you want me to go up and get it, sir?"
Straker looked around, wondering where the owner might have gotten to. "I'd like to know who it belongs to." The others joined him in his search, letting their eyes seek for whomever it might belong to.
Straker stiffened and Eddie immediately followed his gaze to a dirty and ragged white tennis shoe up in the same tree where they'd spotted the unauthorized item. He quickly approached to get a better look. Getting a good look, he looked at his father and grinned. "Come down from there, please."
Straker came over to stand next to his son and scowled up at the boy in the tree. "Are you aware that you're trespassing?" he asked sternly.
The boy, who couldn't have been more than ten, looked down for a moment, then back at his kite. "Please, can't I get my kite, first?"
Bracken had followed them over and was looking at the boy, as well. "He's already up there, so you might as well let him get it."
Straker frowned. "And if he falls, his parents will sue and then what?" He looked back up at the boy. "Get down. Now."
Peters joined the others and looked up. "Does he even have any parents?" he asked skeptically. When the others looked at him, he shrugged. "Well, shouldn't he be in school? And if he's got parents, can you imagine them letting him go out looking like that?"
The two older men regarded him for a few moments, then looked back at the boy. Eddie, meanwhile, had climbed the tree beside the boy and worked his way past to retrieve the ragged kite caught further up in the branches. He was careful to avoid any more damage to the child's toy. The boy watched him and when he saw how careful he was with it, he scooted back down and dropped to the ground. From above, Eddie carefully lowered the kite to Peters, who had picked up the boy's spool of string and wound it up as soon as Eddie had cut it from the caught kite. As soon as he had the tattered toy, he turned to hand it to its owner.
The boy, small for his age, looked up at him and accepted the return of his kite. Looking at Straker, he gnawed his lower lip. No one even glanced towards Eddie as he dropped from the tree and joined them.
Deciding that Straker was the most important of the adults, the boy straightened up and looked the silver-haired man in the eyes. "I'm sorry, mister. It's just that you've got this nice field, here, and I didn't figure anyone would care if I just flew my kite for a bit, is all. I'll go, now, and I won't come back if you don't want me to."
For such a ragamuffin, the boy was quite erudite. Straker had to fight back a smile. "Oughtn't you be in school?"
The boy's ingratiating smile dimmed. "I don't go to school any more. Not since my mum..." He stopped and took a deep breath. He turned and pointed across the meadow to the twelve-foot razor wire topped chain link fence. "We live over in the warehouses, now."
"Who's 'we'?" Straker asked, his voice going gentle.
"My sister and I. She works at the lunchroom over on the main thoroughfare." He glanced at the other three men, who were all focused on him. No one really seemed angry, and the boy's tension eased just a bit.
Straker regarded the boy. His clothing was ragged, but clean, as was he, for the most part. His clothes were ill-fitting and it was obvious from his thinness that regular meals were unlikely. "Why don't you go to school?"
The boy blushed and looked down at himself. Looking up from beneath his lowered brows, he asked, "Like this? I'd rather not, sir."
Of course not. No child wanted his poverty quite so obviously displayed before his peers. Straker nodded. Still, the boy certainly seemed intelligent enough, not to mention spoke in a far more adult manner than most of the children he'd come across. "What's your name?"
"Thomas Fielding, sir."
The name meant nothing to him. "How old are you, Thomas?"
"Almost ten, sir."
Bracken was impressed. He couldn't remember ever meeting a more polite child, at least not one that was so naturally polite, without the strength of an adult standing over them and forcing their good behavior. He gave the child a long, appraising look, frowning. The boy was small for his age, though not terribly. His sandy blond hair had been neatly combed, recently. He was terribly thin, however. "You know, Ed. I'm kind of in the mood to check out your cafeteria. Why don't we all head over there and you can continue your interrogation over lunch?"
The two studio heads exchanged a meaningful look and Straker nodded. "Good idea, John." He looked down at the child. "Would you care to join us, Thomas?"
"Just Tom, sir," the boy replied. He was torn. The prospect of a meal was tempting, but the 'interrogation' most certainly was not. He not only didn't want his sister to get into any trouble, he was afraid that if the authorities knew about him, they'd come and take him away.
The four adults could see the struggle the boy was having. To everyone's surprise, it was Peters who convinced the boy. "They're going to get the answers to their questions one way or another, Tom, so you might as well get a good meal out of it at the same time."
Tom grinned up at the tall young man and nodded. "All right."
Straker looked at Peters in surprise and then smiled. "Very well, then. Shall we?" He turned and headed back across the field towards the studio buildings, his companions following along behind, with Eddie bringing up the rear, watching for trouble.
None of the adults could quite hide their smiles as Tom did his best to smooth his unruly hair into some semblance of respectability. Peters finally grabbed the boy's hand and held it for a moment, distracting him. Then he carefully ran his fingers through the lad's hair, finger-combing into a somewhat neater mass of curls. Smiling, he let the boy's hand go and received a tentative smile in return. Eddie moved to the front and held the door for the rest of them, getting a wink from his father as he passed. He grinned in reply and followed.
The cafeteria was still busy, but most of the lunch crowd had already been and gone. The staff, recognizing Straker, scurried around to prepare for him and his guests. One of the waitresses escorted them into a private dining room, seated them and handed out menus. Tom's eyes were enormous as he looked around. Straker didn't even bother to look at the menu. Eddie frowned and leaned close, "Shall I call Dr. Lewis?" he said softly. His father glared at him for just a moment before sighing in capitulation and opening his menu. Obviously, part of his new bodyguard's instructions had included baby-sitting after all.
Looking at the menu, however, piqued his appetite and he considered his choices. "The food here is quite good, considering." He looked down at Tom. "Choose whatever you like, Thomas."
The boy gnawed on his lower lip as he looked at the menu. When the waitress came to take their orders, Straker began with a request for a Caesar Salad and grilled sea bass with broccoli au gratin. Bracken opted for a steak, baked potato and grilled vegetables. Peters requested fish and chips, and Eddie ordered a Chef's salad and steamed rice. Tom still had trouble deciding.
"What would you like, Mr. Fielding?" Straker asked, as though talking to an important adult.
"I...I don't know. I've never...." His lip was going to start bleeding soon, from the mauling his teeth were giving it.
To everyone's surprise, it was Peters, once again, who came to the boy's rescue. "Well, what's your favorite food?"
The boy smiled. "Shepherd's pie," he replied instantly, naming the dish he most hoped for at home, as it was heavy and filling. Peters frowned, having no idea what in the world that was. Straker grinned.
"Jen, do you have anything that might suit Mr. Fielding, here?"
The waitress smiled. "Well, we don't have shepherd's pie, I'm afraid, but we do have a lovely fillet dinner that's got most of the ingredients with it. Would that do, Mr. Fielding?" she asked the boy, smiling at him.
Tom wasn't sure they weren't teasing, but they certainly weren't being mean when they called him 'mister', and it sort of made him feel important, even though he knew he wasn't.
"Yes, please," he replied, still uncertain about the wisdom of coming here with them, but the prospect of a real meal was not something he could pass up. Jen smiled and marked it down on her pad, then collected the menus and left. There was already a carafe of coffee at the table, and she'd brought a glass of milk for Tom without being told. As the men fixed their coffee, Tom took a tentative sip of his milk and had to fight the urge to gulp it down.
The four men exchanged knowing glances and Eddie quietly rose from his place and went in search of a pitcher of milk for the boy. Having brushed against him as he climbed past him up the tree, he knew the child was little more than skin and bones. It was very possible his growth was being stunted by the lack of a proper diet. When he returned, Bracken and Straker were chatting about the studio, while Peters and Tom simply sat back and listened. Eddie set the pitcher of ice-cold milk before the boy and grinned at him and winked, as he sat back down.
Tom stared at the pitcher of milk. There had to be close to two liters in it, and it was obviously meant for him. He carefully sat forward and gingerly lifted the pitcher and refilled his glass, grateful that no one seemed to be watching him. Setting the pitcher back down, he lifted his glass and sipped slowly at the lovely fluid, closing his eyes in his enjoyment.
The adults were all watching the boy, but they knew how to be subtle about it, casting the occasional glance his way while continuing their own conversations. During a lull in the conversation, Jen returned with their food. The silence continued as they began eating. Tom watched the others to figure out which fork to use, but found himself amazed at the shear quantity of food before him. Even as hungry as he was, there was no way he would be able to finish it all; but he was certainly going to try.
"You obviously have some excellent chefs, here, Ed. I'm impressed."
Straker smiled thinly. "Well, we've discovered that good food makes for happy workers, particularly when some of the crews are required to work through the night. The cafeteria is the only thing that's open 24/7." He very nearly mentioned that it was also open on holidays.
Peters frowned. "You mean that you don't even stop production on weekends?"
Straker's smile was genuine. "There are always people at work here, Mr. Peters. Crew building sets, others working on special effects. I'm proud to say that we can do a few things even better than ILM, although they seem to have a corner on the market. We've been doing it longer, however, and I'd put my team's efforts up against them any time." He caught Eddie's smothered grin. Of course Harlington-Straker had some of the very best special effects, say, outer space shots, or explosions in outer space - but then, they were actual photographs, not really 'special effects'.
Bracken nodded. "I've seen some of your work in that area and have to agree. It's most impressive."
"I like your flying saucers," Tom piped up. There was a microsecond long flash of something across Straker's face, quickly gone with nobody noticing except for Eddie, whose eyes widened just a tad and Tom, who frowned.
"Flying saucers?" Bracken asked, amused.
The boy, looking at Straker nodded slowly. "Green, they were. Green and silver. And they shot green lightning bolts out of them."
Bracken's eyebrows went up as he turned to Straker. "I don't remember that film, and I thought I'd been briefed on everything you've done."
Straker smiled. "It was an experiment, I'm afraid. Not very successful."
"Yeah," Tom nodded. "They blew up." He took another sip of his milk. "We were out west when we saw 'em." His expression grew sad. "That's the last time we were all together."
"When was this?" Straker asked, fairly certain of when it was. After all, the boy wouldn't know of his involvement if he hadn't been on-scene. The last time that had occurred in Britain, had been over a year earlier. They'd actually been filming on the west coast of Wales and he'd been there when the ufoes had attacked. He seemed to recall that there were a few civilians who had been injured, but he didn't recall any killed or abducted.
"Couple years ago. In summer, it was."
"What happened to your family? You said that was the last time you were all together?" Peters was, surprisingly, quite solicitous of the boy.
Tom squirmed, fearful. Looking at their faces, he took a deep breath and bit his lower lip. Deciding, he let the breath out and took another. "We watched it out over the ocean, Mum and dad and Amie and me." He smiled at Straker. "We'd been watching you making your movie and you were down on the beach, with binoculars, watching, while your cameraman filmed it."
Straker nodded. He remembered quite clearly. He'd thought they'd given their amnesia treatment to everyone who'd been in the area. Obviously they'd missed someone. "What happened to your parents, Thomas?"
The boy looked sad and looked down at his still more than half-filled plate. In a soft, melancholy voice, he told them. "We were on our way home and a lorry ran us off the coast road. Mum and dad drowned. Amie and me, I, got out the back door and swam to shore. They said it was a miracle we survived." He turned his head away, fighting back his tears, thinking that the men would think him weak if he cried.
There was a long silence as the four adults exchanged concerned looks. "How old is your sister, Tommy?" Straker asked very softly.
"Sixteen. She lies and says she's eighteen, but she's not, really. If they knew, they'd put us in a home." He looked up fearfully. "You won't tell, will you? I promise I'll not come into the field again. Just don't tell, please?" He started to breathe hard, nearly hyperventilating.
Eddie patted him on the shoulder. Giving his father a meaningful look, he said, "No one here is going to tell on you, Tom."
The boy examined Eddie's face, then looked searchingly at the others. Satisfied, he nodded. "That's all right, then." He looked down at his plate and sighed. "This was wonderful, but I'm full."
Straker smiled. For a child, Tom was pretty good at changing the subject. He signaled the waitress. "I'll have them box it up for you to take home." He frowned. "Do you have a refrigerator where you're staying?"
Tom snorted his laughter. "Hardly." He shook his head at the very idea.
The four men again exchanged knowing looks. Peters seemed quite upset over the boy's plight. As they finished their meal and prepared to conclude their business, Eddie watched the other young man, wondering what was causing his distress. As they headed for the conference room, Eddie hung back with Peters, while Tom stayed with Straker and Bracken.
"What is it?" Eddie asked softly.
Peters looked at him. "When I was about his age, my father deserted us, left my mom with four of us, all under twelve. My older sister and I had to take care of the younger two while my mom worked two jobs just to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table." He gestured towards Tom. "He's even worse off than we were. It brings back bad memories."
Eddie nodded. He understood having a single mother, although they hadn't had to struggle quite that much. Still.... "Tell me something?"
Peters looked at him, "I suppose."
"Why did you reach for Mr. Straker when we arrived?"
Peters blushed. "There was a thread on his lapel, I was going to remove it. I had just barely touched it when you grabbed me."
"You should have said something, first. He doesn't like strangers in his personal space, and he's almost phobic about people touching him." He wasn't about to explain further.
Peters shook his head. "Sorry. Mr. Bracken keeps telling me that I'm too impetuous and too physical." He sighed and looked ahead to the two older men. "I guess I should be apologizing to your boss, though, huh?"
Eddie grinned. "Yeah. And remember to let people know *why* you're encroaching on their personal space."
Peters nodded. "He's got a larger than normal 'personal space' hasn't he? Your boss?"
Eddie cocked his head to one side, looking at the two executives and realized that Bracken, although speaking confidentially to his counterpart, was considerably further away from Straker. He smiled. "Yeah. If he was an actor, they'd probably call it 'presence'."
Peters chuckled. "He'd make a formidable leading man, if he were." He shook his head. "Mr. Bracken's the same way, but not quite as powerful. You notice he's outside Mr. Straker's personal space minimum, and he's a quarter of a step behind him?"
Eddie had noticed, but was surprised that Peters had. "Yeah. I noticed." He looked appraisingly at the other man. "What exactly do you do for Mr. Bracken?"
Peters' expression changed to one of dismay. "Gofer, mostly. I keep his appointment calendar and make sure he gets any and all background information he might need for negotiations. You're more than just a bodyguard, aren't you?"
Eddie grinned. "Well, that depends. Out like this, I'm his driver and bodyguard. At the studio, when he's not out and about, I split my time between the clinic and the film vault."
Peters looked at him. "And after work?"
He was surprised. Peters *had* noticed. "After work, he's my father." He smiled. "How about you and Mr. Bracken?"
Peters looked away. "I don't see him outside of work."
"Why not? I thought he was your uncle?"
"He is. Great uncle, actually, but I don't think he likes me." He looked away.
Eddie frowned, thinking. He was putting together the parts of a puzzle he had no idea if he had all the pieces to. As they entered the conference room and he took up his post behind his father's right shoulder, he continued to work on a hypothesis.
Tom sat with Peters, who was grinning and talking to the boy about making movies. The boy was fascinated by Peters' knowledge of the specifics of the moviemaking process and as Eddie listened with half an ear to them, he suddenly realized something. During a lull in the negotiations, he asked, unintentionally loudly enough to be heard by everyone, "Why aren't you directing films?" The other three men looked up at him in confusion, then the two older ones followed his gaze to Peters, who was looking at Eddie in surprise.
"You were explaining camera angles and lighting to Tom. I could almost see what you were talking about. For the first time, ever, I understood what it meant. I've always loved film, but never understood the idea of lighting and camera angles. You just explained it to Tom and I finally 'saw' what was meant. Why on earth aren't you directing?"
Bracken scowled, not liking to be surprised. Straker caught what Eddie was talking about and asked, "If you'd like, I'm sure we can set up a film test for you to do for us. It wouldn't take much," he offered. Peters looked at him, an avid look on his face. Then he glanced at his uncle and his face fell.
"That's all right. Thank you for the offer, though." He never met his uncle's eyes.
"No, wait," Bracken countered. He looked at Straker, who watched him blandly. "Why not?" he asked.
Straker smiled, faintly. "Why not, indeed?" He turned to Eddie. "Mr. Duk, would you call Miss Ealand and see if you can find something?"
"On it, sir." Eddie, deciding it was safe enough, left the conference room.
Peters could barely contain his excitement. He'd worked for his uncle for five years and had never been more than an errand boy; he'd given up hope of ever being allowed to try his hand at what he really wanted, which was to work behind the camera, not behind the scenes.
Peters and Tom continued to chatter softly while the two older men concluded their negotiations.
"You drive a hard bargain, Straker."
Ed grinned as they shook hands. "Simply doing my job, Bracken." He looked up as Eddie returned. "Well, Mr. Duk?"
"There's a PSA that Mr. Foster was supposed to have done. It's due in three weeks and nothing's been done since he left for his location shoot. I thought that might suffice?"
"What sort of PSA?"
Eddie grinned, glancing quickly at Tom, "It's a stay in school spot." He looked pointedly at Tom, then looked up at his father with a knowing look. Straker smiled thinly and nodded.
"All right. Did you bring the script?" Eddie nodded and handed it to him. Straker glanced through it quickly and nodded. He showed it to Bracken who frowned.
"It calls for several children," he pointed out.
"Yes, but this is a test, not the actual spot," Straker countered and then handed the script to Peters. Looking at Tom, he asked, "How would you like to be an actor for today?"
"Me?" the boy asked in shock.
Straker shrugged. "Why not? You're available, aren't you?"
"Well, yes, but...."
"Good, then it's settled." He looked at his son. "Where?"
Straker thought about it and shook his head. "No, too bright. Don't we have an interior set somewhere?"
Eddie frowned thoughtfully. "Well, we do have the school we could use. There aren't any kids here at the moment, so it's empty."
"Good. Arrange for it, will you? Can they set up in an hour?"
"I'm sure they can, sir. I'll go get it set up for you." With that, Eddie headed out to get things ready.
"You can get a stage set in an hour?" Bracken asked in surprise.
Straker smiled. "Yes."
Bracken shook his head. "Amazing. I swear it takes my people at least a full day to do that."
"My people understand the importance of being able to get things done quickly." He stood and, hands on hips, leaned back in a stretch. "Think you can be ready in an hour, Mr. Peters?"
"Yes, Mr. Straker. We'll be ready." The look on Peters' face was exactly the same excited expression as on Tom's face.
Peters spent the hour talking with Tom, explaining what he wanted him to do, how he wanted him to look. He used the script for the PSA as a foundation on which to build, rather than using it directly. It was supposed to be a 'stay in school' spot, but Peters, working with Tom and asking for and including his input turned it quickly into a 'don't run away from home' spot. Upon seeing the classroom, he asked if he could change the lighting. Surprised, but curious, Straker pointed him to the lighting crew and told him to have at it.
Straker and the skeptical Bracken stood back and watched. Peters changed the lighting and set the cameras where he wanted them. He explained to the crew that he wanted it dark and dismal. They nodded and the set darkened to very gloomy with oblique lighting directed where Tom would be. Motioning for Tom to join him on the impromptu set, he sat him on a bench and whispered to him for a few minutes. Tom nodded uncertainly, and when Peters moved to behind the camera and took a look, making minute adjustments, looked around and tried to hide his sudden stage fright. Finally, it was quiet, and Peters softly said, "Camera," waited a few moments and added, looking directly at the boy, "Action."
It was totally unrehearsed, but all Tom did was talk about how scary it was, living on the streets, how every adult could mean you harm and how being on his own meant that he didn't eat well, and was always cold and afraid. Peters deliberately made a loud noise, slamming the door as a small spotlight abruptly shown on Tom's face. Everyone jumped, but Tom suddenly looked terrified and looked directly into the camera as he'd been instructed. "CUT!"
There was dead silence, except for the sounds of harsh breathing. Tom was shaking slightly. He'd expected the sound, but he hadn't really been acting. Where he and his sister were staying, such a noise would have sent them scurrying for cover and his reaction had been dead honest.
Taking a deep breath, Straker looked at Bracken. "If you don't give him a different job, I will."
Bracken was staring at his nephew in consternation. "Why didn't I know you could direct?"
Peters simply blinked at him. "You never asked."
Bracken shook his head. "I think I need to have a talk with your mother. Did you study film in college?"
"Only for two semesters, then mom got sick and I had to leave school and work."
That had been five years earlier. He'd taken the boy on because she'd begged him to give him a job, and had indicated that he was basically a not-too-bright young man with no ambition or drive. "I think I can find him something, Ed. An apprenticeship, at the very least. I'd also like a copy of that test."
Straker smiled and nodded. "I'll see to it." He then thanked the cameramen and crew for their quick work on such short notice.
Returning to the conference room, Straker made a quick phone call. Turning to Bracken, he grinned. "I'd say that this has been a most profitable meeting."
Bracken shook his head and laughed. "More so for me than you, Ed. I got what I came for, and a new director in the bargain. Thank you."
Peters simply watched in amazement. Director? Him? He started smiling and simply couldn't seem to stop.
Eddie grinned, too, and slipped out for a few minutes and then returned with a chocolate milk shake for Tom, who accepted it with a big grin.
Unfortunately, it was now time for the lawyers to get into their business, but once it had been put into motion, they prepared to part, for the time being. As they got ready to leave, Peters chewed his lip for a moment and then approached Straker, careful to stay outside his personal space.
"Something, Mr. Peters?" Straker asked, somewhat mellowed by the day-long association.
"Yes, sir, uh, I was wondering what you were going to do with the kid?"
Straker glanced over at the chair on which Tom had fallen asleep and smiled a bit wistfully. "What did you have in mind?"
"I don't know. He needs help, but probably not the kind the authorities tend to think. He's a nice kid, is all. I was just wondering what you were going to do with him."
"Pay him for his work, of course. To start with." He saw the surprise on both of his visitors' faces. He shrugged. "If I'm going to offer that PSA, I need to have paid the participants." He looked at Peters, again. "Standard Equity wages all right with you?"
Peters' jaw dropped. "Uh, yeah, of course it is!" Straker smiled and nodded.
"I'll have the cheque drawn up for you when you return to finalize the deal. Gentlemen? I'm afraid I do have some other things I still need to do, today. Mr. Duk will take you back to your hotel. It's been a most enlightening and interesting day." He shook hands with both of his visitors and sighed in relief when they finally left. He turned to watch Tom sleep. He debated what to do with him, and finally shook his head. Peters was right, the boy needed a safe place to live and decent food, not to mention clothing. Smirking, he made his decision and picked up the phone. "Alec, I have a little project for you...."
Alec stared down at the sleeping ragamuffin and shook his head. "Are you out of your mind, Ed?" he asked softly enough not to waken the boy.
"Wait until you see that PSA we shot, Alec. The boy may be untrained, but he's certainly intelligent enough. Besides, I've seen enough requests from above ground asking for more children. There aren't that many, after all, and they're always looking for new faces. So why not?"
Alec shook his head, "But why me?" he asked plaintively.
"Who would you suggest?" Straker folded his arms and leaned his hips against the conference table, looking at his friend with an almost-smirk on his face.
Sighing, Alec replied. "Anyone other than me, but I suppose that would be asking too much. By the way, did you hear the latest on Ford, yet?"
Straker's expression changed and he frowned. "What now? I saw him earlier today, at the cafeteria. I asked him to escort that rather nasty actor from the premises."
Alec nodded. "Well, when you get back to your desk, you'll no doubt find the report."
"So, what happened?"
Alec shrugged. "According to the security tapes, they got safely out to the man's car, but instead of behaving himself and getting in his car and leaving, he came back out and took a tire-iron to Ford. Nearly brained him, but Keith managed to get an arm up in time to save his skull. Shattered his arm, though, all three bones, lucky the elbow itself wasn't mashed. He's in surgery now, getting it put back together."
Straker scowled, concerned. "Damn. Will he be all right?"
Alec shook his head. "They think so, but it's too soon to tell. Louise said that he thought it would just require setting and a cast, and she didn't bother to tell him any different, figuring he was already in shock and didn't need any added stress. Oh, and she was annoyed to find out he'd been on-site for at least twenty hours. I checked and it was more like twenty-six. He came in early again, yesterday."
Straker shook his head. "I should have called security, instead of asking him to escort that idiot out. What happened to his assailant?"
Straker looked surprised. "What? Did one of the guards shoot him?"
Alec smiled. "Ford did it. The fool raised up his weapon to hit him again, and he just reacted, hooked the man's ankle and took his bum leg and planted it with great force on his knee. The man was leaning forward, swinging at his head, and the angles were perfect for shattering his knee. The guards were quite impressed, as were the police, when they saw the tape. Oh, and a copy was made and sent to the police for the prosecutor. I doubt there will be any trouble from this."
Straker nodded. "That's good. Now, about young Mr. Fielding, here...." Alec sighed and they brainstormed. By the time the boy awoke, his future had suddenly changed. Straker introduced the boy to Alec and then left them, to go and find out how Ford was doing.
He entered Louise's office, pleased to find her alone, for the moment. She looked up at his entrance and smiled at him. "Hey," she said softly.
"Hey," he replied, closing the door behind him and crossing over to her. She rose and came around her desk, meeting him halfway.
They kissed lightly and then she nudged him towards a chair and asked, "Did you remember to eat lunch?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, Caesar Salad, Sea Bass, and broccoli au gratin. Will that suffice?" His tone was just a bit sharp and at the look she gave him, he added, "Did you tell Eddie to baby-sit?"
She shook her head. "No, but he knows about your anemia and that you're supposed to eat regularly. If he said or did anything, it was on his own, not from any instructions from me."
Ed wilted a bit at that. "Oh." He sighed and shook his head ruefully. "I guess I have no choice but to eat regularly and properly, between you and Alec, and now Eddie. I suppose Lily, as well?"
Louise smiled. "I've no idea, but I wouldn't put it past them. They care, remember?"
He relaxed and almost smiled. "Yes, I suppose they do," his voice was wondering and he shook his head. "I'm not used to it, is all."
She hugged him and nodded. "I know. Nice, though, isn't it?"
He grinned, at that. "Yes, it is, rather." He moved away from her and sat in the visitor's chair. She moved back behind her desk and sat. "So, tell me about Ford?"
She shook her head. "When I realized how long he'd been up, I thought for a moment that he'd lost it, but looking at the tape, he simply wasn't expecting to be attacked. Could have happened to anybody, and probably would have. He's lucky, though. They're pretty sure he'll heal, though it's going to take some time and therapy."
"Damn. Which arm?"
She winced. "His right. The good news is that he's left-handed, the bad news is that his right hand and arm were his strong side. He's still in surgery, or at least he was half an hour ago. They're pinning the bones in his arm. The tire iron caught him just wrong and broke all three bones, the good news there, is that the elbow itself wasn't damaged, but the muscles, tendons, and ligaments were. I won't know how badly until I get the report."
Straker winced. "Sounds bad. How long do you think he'll require off?"
She shrugged. "Depends on how the surgery goes. With a bit of luck, we could have him back on duty in as little as a month, although he'd still be in a cast. If he's very lucky, or stubborn, or heals remarkably quickly, he could even be back in a couple of weeks. It all depends on how the surgery goes. Why?"
"I was just wondering. He's going to be needing some help at home, won't he?"
Louise smiled. "Yes, for at least a couple of weeks. Possibly longer. Why? What did you have in mind?"
"Well, I was wondering if he'd be up to baby-sitting for a couple of new employees of the studio."
"Baby-sitting? How young are these 'couple of new employees'?"
"Nine and sixteen. Their parents were killed in a car accident a year-and-a-half or so ago. The girl's lied about her age to get a job and they've been living in the warehouses on the other side of the woods. Wait until you see the PSA the boy just did. I don't think we'll have to do any editing at all, just a fade at the end."
She watched him as he talked. He usually wasn't very interested in the studio's business, but obviously, there was something about this boy... nine? Oh. She wondered if he was blond, like Johnny had been?
"So, now you're saving and collecting strays?"
His expression turned a bit grim. "They saw a ufoe attack just before the accident that killed their parents. Somehow, because the parents were killed, I assume, they got missed and never got the amnesia treatment. Fortunately, the boy thinks it was just movie magic. I want to know what the girl thinks she saw, and then we'll go from there."
She frowned in concern. "Oh, dear. What if they realize it wasn't a movie?"
"We'll deal with it." His expression was hard. Their options in such an instance were few and not very pleasant.
"God willing, then, they'll continue to believe it was just a movie."
"Yes, God willing," he agreed.
"So, about my upcoming move?" Louise smoothly changed the subject.
Ed smiled at her. "Yes?"
"Well, my apartment is furnished, so all I have to do is pack up my clothes and books."
Ed frowned. "What about all the rest of your things? Didn't they get shipped from Quebec?"
"I had everything put in storage, except for some books and personal items."
He fought down his sudden fear and looked steadily at her. "You're planning on leaving, aren't you." He said it as a statement, not a question, already raising the protective walls that had crumbled around his heart where she was concerned, leaving him vulnerable.
She knew what he was thinking. "I thought about it."
"And have you decided?" He asked coldly, standing and folding his arms across his chest.
"I doubt that."
"Oh?" He wasn't looking at her. He was desperately trying to distance himself from her.
She wasn't having any of it. She stood up and approached him. He had his back to her, so he still trusted her physically, but his entire body language screamed his fear and pain at the thought of yet another emotional loss. She stepped close enough to feel the heat from his body, without touching him. "I've already sent for everything to be delivered to your house, Ed."
He turned quickly, his arms dropping to his sides. "What?" he asked incredulously.
She smiled. "You heard me. I've sent for my things. I told you I was moving in with you." She stepped closer and cautiously put her arms around him, his arms came up to hold her in return. "I'm not leaving you, Ed. I told you I would stay, and I will, I am." She hugged him more tightly and rested her head against his chest. "I do love you, Ed. I'm just afraid, okay?"
"So am I," he whispered back, burying his face in her hair and hugging her tightly back. "I do love you, you know," he added, remembering Alec's admonition to say it, and frequently.
"I know, and I love you. We just need to take things slowly, is all."
"Yes. We do have time for that, don't we?"
"All the time in the world, Ed, all the time in the world."
They clung to one another for several long, silent minutes, only parting when her phone rang. Reluctantly, and with matching dismayed sighs, they parted and Louise picked up the phone.
"Lewis." She listened and a smile spread across her face and she gave Ed a 'thumb's up' and mouthed 'Ford'. He stepped closer and she turned the phone so he could hear as well, as the surgeon gave his report. His relieved sigh as he moved away, having heard enough, made her grin. "Excellent. Thank you, Doctor. I'll pass on the information to all the interested parties. How soon will he be up for visitors?" She listened some more and nodded. "I'll make sure someone is there when he wakes up. Thank you again, and I'm looking forward to your full report." There were a few more pleasantries and then she hung up.
"Well, as you heard, he's going to be fine. The ligaments and tendons are in good shape, considering, and the muscles and bones will heal. Figure eight to twelve weeks and he'll be back to almost normal."
"Good. So, do you think he'd be able to baby sit our two new employees?"
"I'm sure he could, but he won't be."
"Why not?" Ed frowned, wondering why Ford wouldn't be the perfect guardian for the two Fielding children.
"Ed, he's a bachelor. The girl's sixteen, you said. It would be considered inappropriate to make him their guardian. Now, if he had a wife or girlfriend, it would make a difference, but single, it's just not a good idea."
Lips compressed in annoyance, he nodded. Of course. Even though he couldn't think of anyone less likely in the possible scenario, it was better to be safe. "Who would you suggest, then?"
"Well, Lily, perhaps, or maybe someone aboveground? Why not hire someone?"
He considered it and slowly nodded. "Although, with their having seen a ufoe attack, I'd rather it be someone of ours." At her puzzled look, he explained the background on the Fielding children. Pursing her lips, Louise nodded.
"I can see your point. Too bad we don't have anyone with a family. I wonder if Lily and Eddie would be willing to take them on?"
Ed shook his head. "They're still acclimating to their new lives here. I'd rather someone else."
She knew the real reason, he was afraid of getting too close to the boy, Tom. It was one thing to have met him and help him, another to personally begin to care. She wondered how much the lad looked like Ed's lost son, and wondered as well whether the child could help him heal from those ancient scars? She'd have to see what she could learn about the two children.
"What are you doing about it right now?" she asked.
"I've got Alec working on it. He's going to pick up the sister at work and bring her back here. Perhaps he's got some idea of who is able to look after them."
"Perhaps one of the guards? There was a woman on the gate this afternoon. Perhaps she'd be able and willing?"
Ed nodded, "Good idea. I'll suggest it to Alec." He lifted her phone and made the call. He was nodding and smiling as he hung up. "He was ahead of us, he'd already contacted Mrs. Dickens." Seeing the question on her face, he added, "She's the gate guard. She's a widow with a daughter."
"Sounds perfect. How old is the daughter?"
Ed shrugged, "Early teens I think."
Louise nodded. "Might work out quite well, then."
Ed was smiling. "Well, I'm going to check things out in control and then, if nothing requires my presence, we can go home."
Louise glanced at her desk clock and gasped. "You mean, actually leave on time? Horrors!" Ed shook his head and laughed. With a wave of his hand, he was out the door to check on the important things.
They stopped for dinner on their way home, choosing a quiet little family owned cafe. Over coffee, Louise asked, "So, how did Eddie do on his first day?"
Straker grinned. "Fine. I suppose if I must have a baby-sitter, he's a good choice."
"Good." She smiled and they finished their coffee and headed home.
There was a call as they reached the house and Ed quickly answered it. "Straker." His expression turned from concern to bleak in moments as his lips thinned almost to invisibility. "Yes, I see. No, go ahead and handle it. I'll look into it tomorrow, myself. Alec? How's he handling it?" There was a long silence and his eyes closed as he clenched his jaw, fighting down the emotions he obviously felt but still tried to hide. "Well, do the best you can with him and we'll try again tomorrow. If anything comes up, call me." He disconnected his cell and gazed bleakly at Louise. "The boy's sister has run off with her boyfriend, leaving him behind. She actually left two or three days ago, but he just thought she was with her boyfriend. She's done it before, but always came back. Not this time. She's even quit her job."
Louise closed her eyes for a moment and took several deep breaths to help her maintain her temper. "Bitch," she grumbled, eliciting a raised eyebrow from Ed. "Sorry, but that ticks me off." She sighed and took another deep breath and shook her head. "Sorry. Come on, it's starting to rain again and I'm cold."
He smiled and unlocked the door. "Thank you," he said softly as they took off their coats.
She looked at him in surprise. "You're welcome, but for what?"
"For saying what I was feeling. For caring, I suppose. You do know that I love you, right?"
She smiled, the tension flowing away. "I know, and I love you, as well." She turned towards the kitchen, "So, do you want some more coffee?"
"Not tonight, thank you, I think I'd rather just try for a good night's sleep." She smiled and took his arm and together, they headed for bed.
She should have expected it. But it caught her by surprise. He'd awakened her before with his nightmares, but never one as bad as this. She awoke with a start at his cry of anguish. He wasn't thrashing, as he usually did with his memories, but his harsh breathing indicated the severity of the dream. She sat up and gathered him against her, speaking softly and not really trying to waken him, merely to ease him into a less distressing mental state.
"Johnny," he gasped in horror, still sleeping. She held him tight and closed her eyes in empathetic anguish.
"Ed, tell me. Tell me about it," she softly urged, holding him and gently stroking her hands up and down his back, comforting him. She got him to a state that wasn't quite awake but still wasn't true sleep, either. She'd learned to use her voice and touch with him to ease him from his nightmares and help him learn to accept the things that had happened to cause them. There were so many, though.
"Oh, God. No, not Johnny, please, not Johnny." His anguished whisper broke her heart.
"Tell me what happened?"
In halting, broken whispers, he related that final day with his son, his nearly hypnotized state maintained by her gentle touch and voice as she manipulated him through his memories of that time. She frowned at his total and false acceptance of all blame in his son's death. She knew he was aware as he spoke, no longer in any sense unconscious, but it was a form of therapy that seemed to work for him, to be able to pretend to be sleeping.
"But where was Mary? Why didn't she stop him from running into the road?"
"She sent you away, probably in order to tell him that you just left and didn't care, but why didn't she stop him from running into the road?"
He shook his head, "No, it was my fault...."
"How could it be? You didn't drag him into the road, there was no way you could have stopped him, is there?"
He went very still as he tried to wrap his mind around the concept. "But...."
"Why didn't his mother stop him from running into the street? She *sent* you away, didn't she? It wasn't your idea, right?"
"But I was late taking him back."
"So? By thirty minutes? Big deal. That's no excuse for her actions. She threatened your visitation rights, didn't she? So you had no choice but to go. If anyone's to blame for the accident, it was her, not you."
He shook his head, "But...."
"Who was in control of the situation, you, or Mary?"
He'd never thought of it in that light, before. Not his fault? "But I didn't get the medicine to him in time." He'd blamed himself for so long that he couldn't give up the guilt.
"You did the best you could. If she'd either let you stay a few more minutes, or if she'd done the proper parental thing and stopped him from running into the street, there would have been no need for you to send for the medicine."
He lay frozen for more than a minute, until, finally, the realization took root and he began to shake. "Oh, God. Oh, God, no. Nonononononono!" He began to sob with all the grief he'd kept tightly leashed for so many years, the agony of losing his son, his Johnny, "Nooooooooo!"
She held him. She cradled him against her, holding tight as the grief flooded out. She let him go when he pulled away and began hitting the pillows, landing blow after furious blow, sobbing hysterically.
She remembered asking Colonel Freeman about how he'd been at his son's death and that, according to Alec, Straker had 'soldiered on', never showing anything, not even when he was denied attendance at the funeral. For the first time, he was allowing his rage and grief egress, and it was going to be a while before he could possibly regain control. She slipped out of bed and went into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. Then she returned to the bedroom and, as he exhausted himself and the rage eased, she slid into the bed beside him and again took him into her arms, where he sobbed for the longest time as he at last allowed all his pain and emotions to express themselves.
Finally, just as the sky to the east was lightening with the coming dawn, he dropped into an exhausted slumber, clinging tightly to her, his face buried against her breast. She lay quietly, cradling him against her, one arm across his back and the other hand gently stroking through his hair. Occasionally, his breathing would hitch for a moment, but then he'd settle down again. She didn't sleep, but hoped that he would for a few hours.
She knew better, however, as less than an hour later, he stirred. With a groan, he pulled away from her and covered his face with his hands. "I'm sorry," he whispered brokenly.
"You've nothing to apologize for, love." She rolled towards him and put her arm across his middle, laying her cheek on his shoulder. "I still love you, you know." She rubbed her hand across his abdomen, half expecting him to react, but not displeased when he didn't.
"I feel like hell," he muttered and then giggled, just a tiny note of hysteria in the laughter.
"Not surprising, love." She shifted away from him and lay on her side, facing him. "Come here and let me hold you?"
His breath caught and he nearly sobbed, but then he looked her in the eyes and nodded, moving back into her arms. Loving arms that held him and protected him from the pain of the outside world; that soothed the physical as well as the psychological pain. He snuggled against her and sighed, listening to the steady, relaxed beat of her heart. They lay quietly for a time and then he shifted, rubbing his cheek against her breast, softly nuzzling against her.
She continued to hold him until he stilled and slept again. She sighed softly and again hoped that he'd stay sleeping for a while. After just a few minutes, however, he stirred again. He grunted as he stretched within her embrace.
"Back hurt, love?"
"Stretch out and I'll rub your back." And with any luck, put him to sleep.
"Of course not. I know that. Now, face down, and let me work those knots out, hmmm?"
He sat up just long enough to remove his pajama top and then he stretched out, face down, on the bed, taking deep, slow breaths to try and relax. He sighed as she straddled his hips, practically sitting on his buttocks, and her hands began their magical touch, just stroking gently from his shoulders down to his waist.
She was pleased when he didn't stiffen when she straddled him. She started by lightly rubbing his back and as he relaxed, she began kneading harder, working the muscles into total relaxation. As she soothed with her hands, she started talking softly, telling him how much she loved him, and how proud she was of him and how he'd weathered such horrible storms all by himself, never allowing anyone to help him, but that now she was here to help; he wasn't alone any more and he could say anything; that his emotions didn't need to be locked away and hidden. She felt as he drifted from emotional exhaustion through relaxation to sleep. The steady drone of her voice was as soothing as the gentle touch of her hands. When she was certain he was asleep, she slid carefully off and eased from the room, leaving him to rest and closing the door behind her.
She sat in the kitchen drinking coffee. She was as exhausted as he was, even though he'd been the one on the emotional roller coaster. She stretched, wishing once again that she had someone to rub her neck and back. When it was finally daylight, she called in and informed Colonel Lake that Straker would be in when he got there and not to hold their breath waiting for him. Then she called Alec to let him in on the night's occurrences.
"Freeman," the groggy voice answered the phone on the second ring.
"Alec, it's Louise."
"What's wrong?" His voice cleared, indicating his snapping into full-consciousness.
"Ed had a bad night. He's just now gone back to sleep. I'm going to try and keep him down for a few hours. With any luck, you won't be seeing him until this afternoon. How's the boy?"
"He's sleeping." There was a pause and a disgusted sound, "You taking lessons from Ed on what time you call?"
She smiled, "Sorry, but it's important. Is anyone going to be there when Ford wakes up?"
"Yeah, me and the kid, I guess; although, he'd probably feel better if Ed were the one there when he wakes up. They said they were going to keep him sedated until this morning, so there's time, yet. When I checked last night, they said they didn't expect him to wake up until after nine. Wish I could have done the same," he added as an admonishment.
"Just be grateful I didn't call you earlier, Alec. We've been up since just after midnight, if you must know. In fact, I think I'll put the coffee in the thermal carafe and slip back into bed, myself."
"Too much information, Doctor Lewis," Alec said with a chuckle. "I'll see to Ford, then. At least I've plenty of time to get the boy ready to go. We got him some decent clothes last night, before we found out about his sister. Poor kid cried himself to sleep."
"Well, let him sleep as late as you can. I'll meet with him later this afternoon and see what he needs."
"What he needs is his family."
"Or at least to be cared for."
Alec was silent for a moment, then: "Oh, dear Lord. He dreamed about Johnny, didn't he?"
"Yes. It was rough, but he let out a lot of the rage and grief. He's far from healed or recovered, but it's a start."
"You take care of him, you understand me?"
"Yes, sir, Colonel, sir." There was no mockery in her voice.
"Sorry. I remember how it was then, and I can't imagine it was any easier now."
"Probably not, but I think he finally realized that it wasn't all his fault."
"I've tried to tell him that for years. What did you do?"
"Asked him why Mary didn't stop Johnny from running out into the street, and why she didn't just let him stay for an extra five minutes?"
"And he listened?"
"He was ready."
Alec sighed. "I'm glad. You go on back to sleep, then, and I'll see you later."
"Thanks, Alec. You take care of the boy... by the way, does he remind you at all of Johnny?"
"Only that he's about the same age and size. Johnny had straight hair and blue eyes, like Ed's. Tom has brown eyes and darker blond curly hair. I think it's turning brown."
"But just the age was enough, that and the boy has no one. All right. I'll talk to you later."
"Good. See you then." Alec hung up. He shook his head and sighed; then he grinned, wondering what Louise was thinking about the boy. Looking at the clock, he growled and got up. No sense trying to get any more sleep now.
When he awoke, it was broad daylight. He turned to look at the clock and frowned. He knew better than to complain, however. He knew how much sleep they'd lost because of his nightmare. Oddly enough, for the first time in memory, he didn't waken feeling sad upon facing the new day. Shaking his head slightly, he looked at the warm, loving woman sleeping beside him. Her expression was calm and relaxed, so his problems from the night hadn't seriously disturbed her. He sighed in the relief that even with all his emotional land mines and baggage, she didn't frighten away. He tenderly pushed the hair off her face and eased close to kiss her. She stirred at his touch and he withdrew to watch her sleep. When her eyes opened, her first sight was of him, lying there, propped up on his elbow, head on his hand, watching her.
"Good morning," he replied.
She stretched, smiling. "Been awake long?"
"Just a few minutes. I assume, based on the alarm not being set and you still here, that you called us in?"
"Yes." She sat up to look at the clock on the bedside table behind him. Not nearly as late as she'd hoped, but he looked calm and rested, so she wouldn't harp on it. "Hmmm, Ford should be waking up any time, now. What say we go rescue Alec and let him get on with his day?"
"How's the Fielding boy?"
"Understandably frightened and upset, as you can well imagine. Luckily, Alec had taken him shopping before they found out. I'd like to meet him, see what he really remembers about the ufoe they saw."
Ed nodded. "Of course." He looked away. "Thank you."
She smiled and shifted closer so she could hug him. "You're welcome."
He hugged her back and they kissed. As they separated and prepared to get up for the day, he softly added, "I do love you, you know."
She looked over her shoulder at him and smiled gently. "I know, and I love you, as well." His eyes met hers and he nodded.
Alec and Tom were sitting in Ford's room, patiently waiting for him to regain consciousness. The boy was subdued, wondering what was going to happen to him, now. At least his sister had kept him from an orphanage, but with her gone, he knew he couldn't make it on the streets on his own. He might have been just a child, but he knew that he'd never last without someone to protect him. And he knew the price such 'protection' would entail, and he'd rather the orphanage, not that it would be much better when it came to predators, but he'd probably survive, at least. He looked shyly up at the man he'd stayed the night with. He seemed nice enough. Didn't know much about boys, though. But he was kind at least. He looked over at the unconscious man in the hospital bed. His right arm was suspended in an odd-looking contraption that Mr. Freeman had explained was called 'traction'.
When the door opened, Tom jumped and turned to look. It was the blond man from the day before, with a lady with him. He wondered if she was his wife or sister or something.
"How's he doing?" Straker asked softly, looking at the still unconscious Ford.
"Doctor came in earlier and said he was doing well, and that he should be waking up, soon. That was an hour ago. I'd like to know what 'soon' means to doctors." Alec's smile was strained. Looking at Keith Ford, Louise could understand. She moved to the foot of the bed and picked up the chart and began to read it.
"He's doing very well. No complications, so far, and the surgery seems to have been fully successful, but we won't know for certain until he's had a chance to heal and we see how much use he has of his arm." She shrugged at the men and then turned her attention to the small boy sitting quietly by the door.
She smiled at him. "Hallo, my name is Louise, and you must be Tom Fielding?"
"Yes, ma'am." The boy had enormous brown eyes, which except for color, reminded her of Ed's.
She pulled a chair close to him and sat down. "I was sorry to hear about your family, Tom."
The boy's eyes filled and overflowed as he fought manfully to keep from sobbing aloud. With a commiserating glance at the men, she went to her knees before the boy and drew him into a hug.
It seemed like forever since the last time someone had hugged him. He clung tightly to the woman and the sobs came, shaking the too-thin body. She didn't hush him, simply held him and let him cry. She looked up to the concerned expressions of Ed and Alec and shook her head slightly in reassurance. Nodding, Ed turned back to check Ford.
"Mr. Ford, how are you feeling?" Straker asked softly upon seeing the man's eyes open.
"Sir?" Ford croaked out, then coughed and gasped at the sudden pain in his arm. Looking up at the traction device, he paled even more than he already was. Alec hurried from the room to fetch the doctor.
"Take it easy. Alec's gone for the doctor. Would you like some water?"
"Yes, please, sir." He gratefully accepted the straw Straker placed between his lips and he quickly sucked at the cool liquid. Satisfied, he sighed and released the straw. Straker set it on the bedside table and was about to speak when the door opened and the doctor came in, followed by Alec Freeman.
The doctor looked at the visitors and immediately shooed them out. Ford watched them go, surprised and pleased that they should have bothered with him.
"What do you think, Doctor Lewis?" Straker asked formally as they waited for the doctor to finish with Ford.
"I think I'll go back in and twist his tail." She smiled and whispered something into Tom's ear, which made him smile shyly and nod, then she released his hand and re-entered the hospital room.
"I told you, no visitors!" the doctor snarled.
"I'm not exactly a visitor," Louise said softly, catching Ford's eye and winking. He grinned with relief.
"Oh?" The doctor turned from his examination and Louise got a good look at Ford's arm and the sutures that closed the damage. She frowned and moved closer, lightly touching one of the stitches.
"Nice job," she commented as she handed the other doctor her credentials. He looked at them and paled. She was from the studio, so that meant that this patient was a VIP. Someone to be treated with the utmost care, not only for his recovery, but his comfort. He wondered who this man was, and considering the two important looking men who'd been visiting - oh, dear.
"Uh, thank you, Doctor Lewis. Would you like to read his chart?"
She smiled sweetly as she accepted her credentials back. "No, thanks. I already have. I'm just here to check on Mr. Ford and make sure he's being treated properly." She turned away from the doctor, placing herself between him and Ford.
"So, Mr. Ford, how are you feeling?"
"A bit groggy, still, Doctor," Keith replied, catching on to her game. She smiled at him.
"That's not at all surprising. Any nausea, upset stomach, or the like?"
"No, ma'am." He was smiling as she gently examined his arm. He was curious about why it was in traction, but relaxed, knowing that she'd see to it that he was well and properly cared for.
"Ahem," the other doctor grumbled. Louise turned to look at him.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead, Dr. Wilson." She stepped back, grinning and winking at Ford. He couldn't help but smile back at her, despite the pain and discomfort.
Dr. Wilson returned to his examination, being decidedly more cautious and gentle than before. Satisfied, he re-bandaged Ford's arm and made notes on the chart. "It's looking very good, Mr. Ford."
"When can I go home?"
Wilson stopped writing, looking surprised. "A week, perhaps two. As soon as the sutures heal, we'll be able to cast and then you'll be able to manage, I should think."
"What about a soft cast?" Louise asked.
"Well, the bones have been pinned, the traction is just to keep it immobile until he woke up, right? So why not put him in a soft cast and send him home with instructions for his helper on how to care for the sutures and reapply the soft cast?"
"See to it, would you, please?" Louise smiled sweetly at the other doctor, who numbly nodded and turned to leave.
Ford stared after the other doctor and shook his head. "What a mouse," he said in wonder.
Louise giggled. "Yes, well, when you've both Straker and Freeman visiting you, it tends to intimidate the help."
Keith sighed. "Thank you, but I don't have anyone at home to help me." He smiled at her, grateful for her attempt at getting him out of there.
"That won't be a problem, Mr. Ford," Straker said as he entered. "We'll see to it that you have everything you need." His mouth pressed into a thin line and then he took a breath to continue. "My apologies, Keith. I'm afraid I should have just called security to remove him."
"But, sir, I *am* 'security', as it were. I was remiss in my attention. I should have paid closer attention."
"I've seen the tape, Keith, and you handled yourself just fine," Alec insisted. The others nodded their agreement.
"Personally, I'm most impressed with the damage you did to your attacker," Louise said.
Ford blushed. "I'm really not sure what I did. I remember seeing him and lifted my arm to protect my head, then there was just the pain. I honestly don't remember anything after that." He looked embarrassed. "What *did* I do, anyway?"
"He lifted his tire iron to hit you again. You looked up, swung your legs around, hooked his ankle with your right foot and smashed his knee with your left. Beautiful maneuver, I must say," Alec grinned and shook his head. "You reacted, and quite properly. I doubt anyone would have expected it from that pompous oaf. Even the guards at the gate were impressed."
Straker smiled. "Obviously, I'm going to have to see this tape. It sounds quite impressive." He tilted his head as he looked at Dr. Lewis. "I'm sure he'll rest much more and better somewhere other than here, any suggestions?"
"Well, I was thinking that if Mr. Ford is amenable, we might be able to solve two problems with one solution." She was looking at Tom Fielding as she spoke. She looked up at the others, her meaning quite clear.
Alec blinked in surprise, but upon thinking about it, nodded. "Why not? Keith needs some help, and Tom, here, needs a place to stay and someone to watch out for him. It might work out very well, actually." He'd have to call Mrs. Dickens, again, changing plans once more, but that shouldn't be a problem. Working for SHADO, she should be used to such inconveniences. Thinking just a bit more, he thought he should, perhaps, introduce Mrs. Dickens to Ford... they did, after all, have a great deal in common, or at least complementary traits. Both were alone, for one. Yes, he'd ask her to help out for a few days until Tom and Ford settled in together. No one noticed the smile he was unable to suppress.
"What do you think, Tom?" Louise asked the boy.
Tom looked shyly at the injured man in the bed, who looked at him with nearly the same shy expression. "I suppose it would be all right, if Mr. Ford doesn't mind?"
Ford, somewhat surprised by the boy, smiled and nodded. "I'm willing to give it a go, if you are?"
They kept their visit brief, well aware of Ford's need for rest. Louise agreed that he needed to spend at least a few more days in the hospital, after which she'd decide on his further care. Alec was relieved, and called Mrs. Dickens to let her know that he'd be bringing young Mr. Fielding over, later that day. She indicated that she was looking forward to his arrival.
Louise took over with Tom when they got back to the studio. The small office she had above ground was suitable for her needs in finding out just what the boy knew about ufoes, and they split up upon arrival, with Straker and Freeman heading downstairs.
Tom looked around the office curiously. "New paint?" he asked, sniffing.
"I'm afraid so," Louise agreed. "I couldn't bear the colour they used to be," she wrinkled her nose. "I'm afraid that yellow simply is not one of my favorite colors."
Tom smiled. "I like blue, best."
"I like blue, too." She regarded him for a few minutes, until he started to fidget. "Tom, tell me about that last day you spent with your family, please?"
The boy stilled and looked at his toes. "We'd been on holiday. Mum, Dad, Amie, and me. We'd been in Wales, on the seashore, down near Portmeirion ?"
"I know where that is," Louise said in a soft, encouraging tone.
Tom nodded. "We were up on the cliffs, above the strand? Mr. Straker was down there, along with a bunch of other people, making their movie."
She nodded, "How do you know it was Mr. Straker?" she asked, though she thought she knew the answer.
Tom snorted, nearly laughing, and looked at her incredulously. "You're joking, aren't you? Him in that white suit, with that silver hair? Who else could it have been?"
"How well did you actually see him?"
The boy shrugged. "Well enough. He was smoking a cigar, and watching the flying saucer and the funny-looking jet out over the water. It was just like a war movie."
"How big were the aircraft?"
He shrugged. "Hard to say. I don't know how far out they were, but pretty big, maybe helicopter size?"
She frowned for a moment, knowing that both the ufoes and Skys were considerably larger than a helicopter. "How close were they?"
He shrugged. "Don't know. Out to sea a ways. Dad said they were radio controlled, and that they could be as small as our car, or as big as real, but he didn't think they were that large." His smile was melancholy, "It sure made a nice, big explosion, though."
"Yes, I'm sure it did. Then what happened?"
Tom told her about his dozing in the back seat of the family sedan, as they were going home, and his terror and disorientation as they were struck by the out-of-control lorry that sent them over the cliff, how his sister had gotten him out and their screams and cries for their parents, who didn't get out.
She wound up holding him in her lap, trying to comfort him as he sobbed out his questions on why his sister had left him. Louise had no answers, only a gentle, warm embrace and a promise that he'd be taken care of.
Mrs. Dickens arrived at three, after her shift on the gate. She was still in uniform, and Tom looked at her with trepidation.
"You taking me away to the orphanage?" he asked calmly.
The woman smiled at him. "No. I've been asked to look after you for a while, until we find out about your sister or other family. D'you have grandparents?"
Tom shook his head. First Mr. Straker, then Mr. Freeman, then Dr. Lewis, and now this lady had all asked him similar questions, and all were disappointed in his replies. "There was just Mum, Dad, Amie, and me. No grandparents, no aunts or uncles, no cousins. Just us."
Mrs. Dickens exchanged a commiserating glance with Dr. Lewis and then smiled at the boy. "Well, then, we'll have to come up with some other means of taking care of you, won't we?"
Tom frowned, confused. "Aren't you just going to send me to the orphanage?"
"Do you *want* to go to the orphanage?" Louise asked.
He started, turning pale. "N-no!" He was shaking.
"Then we won't send you to one. We'll just have to find some other way to take care of you, won't we?"
Tom gazed at the two women, frowning. "Why do you care? I'm nobody. You don't owe me nothing."
"You're right. We don't," Louise agreed. "Except your Equity Wages for that PSA you did, yesterday." She pulled a cheque from her desk and held it out to him. Uncertainly, he stood and came over. When he saw the amount of the cheque, his eyes widened and his mouth dropped open.
"This... this is a *lot* of money!"
"Yes, I suppose it is," Louise agreed, "But it's standard wage for the work you did. We'll see about getting you a SAG card, and perhaps some more work, if you'd like?"
Tom frowned. "Me? An actor?"
"Why not? This is, after all, a movie studio." She watched him as he considered the idea. "What would I have to do?"
"Well, to start with, we need to get your status settled. I'm rather hoping you'll get on well with Mr. Ford and be able to help him as his arm heals. After that, we'll see what we can do for a more permanent situation. Meanwhile, you'll be well cared for, clean clothes, a safe place to sleep, plenty of good food." Louise glanced around conspiratorially and whispered to the boy, "Mr. Ford is notorious for forgetting to eat, perhaps you could change that for us?"
Tom smiled, "I could try."
"Good. In the meantime, Mrs. Dickens, here, is going to take you home with her. She's got a daughter who's just a bit older than you are, and I hope you'll get along."
Tom looked at Mrs. Dickens, she had a kind face, he decided, and he smiled shyly at her. "How do you do, Mrs. Dickens," he said very politely, holding out his hand.
Claudia Dickens couldn't help but smile at the formality from the lad. "Very well, thank you, luv. I hope you'll like my little house; it's just a mile or so from here. She also had a secret passageway that connected her home to the studio, in case of emergency. Even her daughter had no idea of its existence. Even most of SHADO had no idea of its existence, as it connected to Straker's escape hatch, hidden by the kinetic mural in his office.
Louise smiled as the boy seemed to accept Mrs. Dickens as temporary guardian. She watched as they chattered together on their way out. One crisis down. How many more to go?
Miss Ealand looked curiously at the official looking letter addressed to Alec Freeman, noting the Australian postmark. Shrugging, she slit it open and read it. She blinked, and read it again. Totally confused, she attempted to call him, but his mobile wasn't on at the moment. Sighing, she then tried calling the commander and, failing that, called Dr. Lewis.
"I know. It doesn't make any sense. It's not in his file, that's for certain. I wonder if it isn't a mistake."
"Well, he's down below, so I'll come and get it and then track him down." She shook her head. She *knew* better than to think that the solving of one problem didn't predicate the opening of a new one. Just once, however, she'd like to get through a week, or even a day, without multiple crises. Shaking her head, she went from her aboveground office to Straker's, pausing to accept the letter and envelope from Miss Ealand. Reading it, she shrugged. "All I can do is ask. Wonder if the commander has any knowledge?"
"No idea, but whichever one you find first, let me know, would you? I thought I knew the colonel, and this certainly doesn't sound like him."
"I shall." She headed into Straker's office to take the lift down below.
She found them with their heads together over the latest reports, discussing trends and probabilities. Neither spared her more than a glance when she came in. She smiled pleasantly to Colonel Lake and the others who were in the meeting. She sat quietly, watching Freeman and wondering. When the discussion ended, everyone left, except for Straker and Freeman. She watched curiously as she handed the letter to Alec, not really surprised when he paled as he read it.
He gave her a curious look as he accepted the letter from her. Glancing at the postmark on the envelope, he felt a thrill of trepidation. Who would be writing to him from back home, after all these years? He quickly read through the missive and started feeling sick. He sank heavily into the chair he'd eschewed throughout the meeting, suddenly unable to remain standing. He could feel his eyes glaze over and his chest tightened, making it hard to breathe. There was a roaring in his ears and finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he was able to feel hands on his shoulders and a voice calling his name.
Taking a gasping breath into oxygen-starved lungs, he began to shake. He didn't feel anything as the letter was snatched from his lax fingers and read by his friend and superior.
"What the hell is this?" Straker thundered, relieved even as Alec began to breathe again. He snatched the offending piece of paper from him and read it for himself. His rage turned instantly into confusion. He raised his eyes to Louise, silently asking for an explanation. She shook her head and shrugged, indicating that she had none.
"Alec?" he said it softly, this time. Freeman raised his head and looked at him, but not as though he could actually see him. "Alec? What is this about?"
He took a deep breath, feeling the sweet oxygen-laden air fill his lungs. If it weren't so painful, he might have laughed. "Seems that little April was mine, after all."
Straker and Lewis exchanged a concerned look. "Alec," Louise said softly, "What is this all about? You have a child?"
He smiled, "Three, actually. Two boys and a girl." He shook his head, chuckling. "At least, I think they are."
"Who were the mothers?" Straker asked. Considering how long he and Alec had been friends and colleagues, he'd never had any inkling that he had a family anywhere.
"I was married when I went to 'Nam, Ed. It was before we met. I'd been out country for about four months when she wrote me the letter." Absently, he pulled out his wallet and opened it, carefully removing a delicate piece of onionskin. Without looking at it, he gently opened it and handed it to his friend.
Louise looked curious, so Ed read it aloud.
I'm sorry, but I've met someone. He's not mad about anything, as you are about your aeroplanes and flying. He's steady and he's got a decent spread and runs a few thousand sheep. I know I should have told you before you left, but I wasn't sure. Now I am. We're going to have a baby, and I didn't want you coming back to a surprise. I've filed for divorce, and as soon as it's final, we're going to get married. I really am sorry, but you know it's for the best. You're never home, even when you are. Your head's always up in the clouds, flying some stupid aeroplane. I'd just as soon you don't come back at all. The lads are young enough that he can be their da and they'll never remember you at all.
Straker frowned and looked again at the new letter. "Seems she was mistaken."
Alec's dry chuckle showed no amusement. "Guess so."
"Why didn't I know about this, Alec?"
"Ed, by the time all this started, it was ancient history. Look at the date on that note, it was Christmas, 1964. At the start of my first tour. By the time I met you, it was old news. Not exactly the sort of thing you tend to share with your new mates, you know."
Ed sighed and shook his head. "It should have been in your personnel file, though, at least about the two sons, you know."
"Sorry. I must have forgotten." There was a sad smirk on his face that told the lie. If it had been truly unimportant, he'd not have kept that letter in his wallet all these years. Ed gently refolded the aged letter and handed it back to his friend, squeezing his shoulder with his other hand.
"So, what are you going to do?"
"Do? Why should I do anything?"
"You'd just let her die without finding out if you can save her?"
"Who am I? They've never even heard of me, and it's been thirty years, Doctor Lewis."
"How old are your sons?"
"Thirty-six and thirty-three, why?"
Louise cast a glance at Ed, who was watching them in confusion.
"I bet you know their birthdays, too."
"8 September, and 23 February."
"And the girl?" Ed asked, realizing where Louise was going with this.
"10 April, 1965." Alec's eyes were closed and he was pinching the bridge of his nose to try and combat the headache that was developing.
"What do your boys do for a living?"
"Mark's a pilot in the RAAF, Joey's in Canada, traveling the rodeo circuit."
"Is that why you've been trying to get off in July for the past couple of years, to go and see him?"
"I wouldn't have said anything to him," Alec's tone was defensive.
"Of course you wouldn't. Your oldest son, has he been here at all?"
"He was at the NATO war-games four years ago."
"So you've seen him?"
Alec couldn't help the proud grin. "Yeah. I saw him. Even got to talk to him for a bit."
"He remembers his real father, doesn't he?" Louise asked softly.
Alec sighed. "Yeah, but he doesn't know his name or how to find him."
"So, your wife was seeing someone behind your back and thought your last child was his, not yours?" Straker was still trying to come to grips with this shocking new information on a man he'd called friend for nearly thirty years.
"We can do the preliminary tests here, Alec, and fax them the results. For that matter, your DNA profile is already on record. I can just send it immediately."
"Why?" Alec seemed genuinely puzzled.
"Why?" Ed asked, aghast. "She's your daughter, man!"
Alec shrugged. "Not according to my ex. Let her or her husband do it."
Louise understood, but decided to pressure him. "You'd let her die because your ex-wife is a bitch?"
That word coming from her mouth startled both men. "What?" Alec gaped at her.
"You're going to let that poor girl die without even seeing if you're a match? Let her die because your ex-wife is a self-centered little bitch who hurt you so badly that you've never tried for another serious relationship in your entire life?"
Ed shifted back to watch. He could understand Alec's ambivalence. The 'dear John' letter had been one of the coldest he'd ever seen. Now, thirty years later, the daughter he'd been told was another man's was shown to have a different paternity than what anyone had thought.
Alec shrugged, refusing to look at either of them.
"Alec?" She was gentle and careful to keep her tone neutral.
"Go ahead and send the information they need, I guess."
"All right. And if you are a match?"
He frowned and shook his head. "I suppose I've no choice but to go, have I?" He finally looked up and both Ed and Louise could see the agony he still felt at the betrayal and destruction of his youth by his ex-wife.
Ed's mouth formed that thin, annoyed line he was so prone to. "You don't have to, but it might be interesting to see your ex try and explain why this stranger is there to save her daughter's life."
Louise choked, trying to cover the involuntary snicker that insisted on escaping. "I might pay to see that, myself."
Alec's stern expression softened and he almost smiled, although the melancholy was still apparent. "I suppose that might be interesting. Although, what are the odds that I'm a match, when neither her mother or brothers are?"
"We won't know until they do the comparison, Alec."
He took a deep breath and let it out, slowly, nodding. "Do it, please, Doctor."
"It'll be faxed as soon as I can get the records pulled." Louise stood up to leave. "I hope you *are* a match, Alec."
This time, the smile was real, "You know, so do I?" He stood up to follow her out.
"Just a moment, Colonel. You and I have some things to discuss... like why none of this information was in your file?"
Alec looked at Ed in surprise. "You're joking."
"Of course I am. Now, let's discuss all about anything else that's *not* in your file, shall we?"
Alec closed his eyes and sighed. "Yes, Commander."
The enemy became remarkably quiet over the next three weeks. It didn't happen often, but it always raised the anxiety level of everyone in SHADO. This was no exception. It almost seemed as though the worldly cares rushed in to fill the void left by the quietude of the aliens.
Keith Ford was released after a week and a half, as soon as his stitches were removed, and his arm placed in a soft cast, which could be removed for bathing. To everyone's surprise, Keith and young Tom Fielding got along wonderfully. They quickly became like brothers caring for one another, and Keith could be found out in the meadow, flying kites with Tom, and taught him how to build and fly radio-controlled planes. When Keith returned to work, Tom would spend the night at Mrs. Dickens', who would bring him on the lot with her when she began her shift, where Keith would meet them and take over.
Dr. Lewis pulled the DNA data on Alec Freeman and faxed it to the doctor in Sydney. A week later, there was a phone call.
"Doctor Lewis," she identified herself.
"This is Doctor MacAvoy, in Sydney."
She took a quick, deep breath as her heart began to pound. "So, then. Is it a match?"
"Yes, thank God. How soon can Mr. Freeman be here?" His voice quavered, indicating his anxiety.
"He hasn't actually agreed to go, yet, Doctor. How urgent is it?"
"Well, she's getting almost daily transfusions. Her only hope is a bone marrow transplant, and her father is the only possible donor."
"Doctor MacAvoy, if you'd read the 'dear John' letter his ex-wife sent him, telling him that she had filed for divorce and that she was pregnant by another man only three months after going overseas, do you think you'd give a rat's rectum about the child you've never seen, never met, and who has no idea you exist?"
There was a long silence. "I was under the impression that he deserted his family."
There was a heavy sigh. "I don't know any of the particulars, I'm afraid. I suspect you may well be right, but my sole concern at the moment is trying to save the life of this young woman."
"I'll talk to him. It's all I can offer."
"How'd you get him to agree to the DNA testing so quickly?"
She smiled, "We already had it on file. He's been accused a time or two of having fathered someone's child. So we keep it on file. He has no other children." That told him more than he expected. Accused but proven innocent.
"Please ask him."
She frowned. Something didn't seem quite right. "You sound more like a relative than just her doctor." She heard his breath catch, even over halfway around the world.
"She's, uh, my daughter-in-law." The admission was nearly inaudible.
She sighed. "I'll see what I can do. If so, where can we contact you?" She wrote down his address and phone number; then, without giving him a single glimmer of hope, she disconnected. She sat back in her chair and considered how to broach the subject. She tapped the end of her pencil on her desktop while she gnawed on her lower lip. With a decisive nod of her head, she threw the pencil on the desk and stood.
"I won't ask you to order him, Commander. But it's not the girl's fault he wasn't permitted contact. Will letting her die change anything except to prove his ex-wife's claim that he is an unfeeling beast?"
"Louise, I can't order him to...." He was interrupted by the door opening and the entrance of the man under discussion.
"You said you needed me?" He settled into a chair in front of Straker's desk.
"Always, Alec. But this time, someone else needs you a lot more than we do, at the moment."
He looked warily from one to the other of them. "So, I'm a match, am I?"
Alec took a deep breath and blew his cheeks out with it as he exhaled. "How bad is it?"
"Leukemia. Only chance is a bone-marrow transplant. You're the only match. Joey would have been, but he's had hepatitis A. Mark isn't a close enough match. That leaves you."
"How long will it take?"
"Flight to Sydney, overnight to prep, then they'll sedate you so they can insert this big, honking needle to suck some bone marrow out through your hip, A few hours in recovery and a few days to make sure you're healing, followed by a week or three of recuperation."
"How soon will they know if it works?"
"They'll have a fair idea within a month."
Ed silently watched his friend, knowing that this was a decision Alec had to make on his own, ultimately.
"All right. When do I leave?"
"We'll take a ShadAire jet and be there tomorrow," Ed said, reaching for a phone.
"You don't think I'd let you go through this on your own, do you?"
"But who's going to mind the store?"
"Colonel Lake." Straker turned away as someone answered the phone on the other end of his call. "Straker. I need transport for three to Sydney, tonight. Yes. Myself, Dr. Lewis, and Colonel Freeman." He listened, nodding. "Right. See you then." He hung up and turned to face the others. "All set. We're scheduled to arrive in Sydney at ten hundred, local time."
"Ed, you don't have to...."
Straker stopped him with a glare. "If you think I'm going to trust your health and safety to a bunch of people I don't know, you can just think again."
"I have to agree with the Commander, Alec. Besides which, you're still going to be pretty uncomfortable when we bring you home."
Alec shook his head, trying to hide the grateful smile that insisted on gracing his craggy features. "Very well, Commander. As you will."
"Better get packed, Alec. We'll pick you up in a few hours."
"Loose clothing, Alec. Jogging suits, sweats, things like that."
He sighed. He actually felt pretty good about their concern, but it wouldn't do to let them know it outright.
Straker frowned. "What are you doing here, Eddie?"
"My job, sir."
"My job. I'm your bodyguard/aide-de-camp, remember?"
"I hardly think that you'll be needed, son."
"On the contrary, Ed. He's going to be very necessary. I'm going to be taking care of Alec after the surgery, so you need Eddie to keep you company and to watch your back. I just hope that the media doesn't get wind of your arrival."
Straker's lips thinned to a straight line. "Lord, I hope not," he muttered.
It was amazing how a single word could sometimes defuse a situation. The soft voice of his son calling to him, wondering if he was wanted or not. Gritting his teeth for a moment, he turned to his companions. "Let's go, then." Without waiting for anyone's reaction, he grabbed his bag and headed out. Exchanging knowing smiles, the other three followed quickly after him.
The customs officials smiled and welcomed Alec home, but scowled and frowned over the two Americans and the Canadian... particularly Eddie's passport.
"What brings you to Australia, Mr. Duk?"
"I'm Mr. Straker's assistant."
The custom's agent looked closely at him, scowling. Alec, who had been flirting with the other agent, frowned and looked over at his companions, who seemed to be having trouble. Glancing back at the woman who had checked him through, he asked softly, "What's wrong with him?"
She looked over to where the other three were being held up and shook her head. "He doesn't like Yanks. Especially not those of colour."
"I'd like to speak to a supervisor, please." Straker wasn't one to accept discourtesy at any time, particularly not bureaucratic discourtesy.
The custom's agent stiffened and called for security, instead. Alec groaned and pulled out his cell phone and placed a call.
Two hours later, everything was straightened out. The custom's agent was relieved of his post and was facing a reprimand for his treatment of such important guests to their country, and the security personnel were standing at attention after having their offer to carry the luggage and get them a taxi ignored.
They marched out the door to the passenger loading area, only to be inundated by more than a dozen photographers, who blinded them with their camera flashes.
Eddie, who had already put on his sunglasses, pushed forward, shoving people out of their way. Alec, caught just as flat-footed as Straker, brought up the rear, keeping Louise and Ed between him and Eddie and fending off the mob. There was a limousine waiting for them, and Eddie actually knocked down several people in order to get the door open. Ed pushed Louise in first, then practically dove in after her. Eddie slammed the door behind them and sprinted to the rear of the vehicle to help Alec with the luggage. Then, while Alec got into the rear of the limo from the driver's side, Eddie climbed in the front passenger side. The reporters continued to shout out questions, which were ignored, and their driver nearly knocked several of them down, pulling out from the curb.
Louise tried not to wince, as Ed's grip on her hand seemed determined to crush the appendage. Safely away, he took a deep breath and let it out slowly, his grip easing. "What the hell happened back there?"
"Someone, I suspect our custom's agent, called the media," Eddie growled from the front seat. He was twisted in his seat, looking back in concern at his father. "Are you all right, sir?"
"Just a bit shaken." Seemingly realizing how tight he still held Louise's hand, he grit his teeth and let go, his hands fisting in his lap. She smiled at him and tried to be surreptitious in her massaging of her aching hand.
"That's putting in mildly, Ed," she chuckled.
"Sorry," his voice was soft. "Did I hurt you?" He forced his fingers to unclench and gently lifted her hand and began to massage it.
She tensed at his touch, but quickly relaxed. "It's fine," she murmured, sighing in pleasure as he manipulated the aching joints.
"Hmmmm." He carefully stretched her fingers, rubbing each knuckle, channeling his stress into relieving hers.
"Do you do feet, too?" she asked, sighing in pleasure.
Ed grinned. "I've been known to, on rare occasions."
"Good. Maybe I can talk you into doing that for me, on less than rare occasions?"
Ed chuckled, his near panic almost forgotten. "Any time." He glanced up and caught both Alec and Eddie grinning at him. "In fact, why don't I give you a nice back-rub, later?"
She was silent for several moments, her breath stilled. "Promise?" she asked plaintively.
Alec chuckled, while Eddie's grin widened.
Straker blushed slightly and turned his focus, and thus his companions', to their route. "Where will we be staying, Lieutenant?"
"We've a nice little bed and breakfast just down the coast outside of Sydney proper, Commander. It's about twenty minutes from the hospital, sir."
"Good. That's good." Following his lead, they all started watching out the windows to track their route.
"We can come in any time you want us, Dr. MacAvoy." She listened, nodding. "He's nervous about this, doesn't really wish to see or speak to the ex-wife. I want to stay with him throughout the entire procedure, of course." She smiled at his quick and easy agreement to her request. "We'll have someone staying with him at all times," she added, her smile turning smug at the quick accession to the demand. "Fine. We'll be there this evening, then, right after dinner. Understood, NBM after six, of course. I'll remind him. We'll see you then, Doctor. Yes, of course. You're quite welcome. Oh, one more thing? Don't let the media catch wind of our presence, hmmmm? Right, there's no need of that, is there. Yes, well, we'd like to keep our involvement as anonymous as possible. Yes, thank you. Yes, we'll see you this evening. Goodbye."
She sighed and leaned back in the chair, her eyes closed.
"Everything all right?"
She rolled her head and opened her eyes to look at him. He was fresh from the shower, his hair still damp, but not dripping, and he wore nothing but a towel. Her heart lurched into a quicker pace as a speculative smile stole across her face.
"Just peachy. We need to eat by four and be finished before six. Nothing by mouth after that. No, he can't continue drinking, but I think he knew that, because despite all he had on the plane, he neither brought any with him, nor has he sent out for any more."
Ed nodded, frowning slightly. "It's how he deals with stress."
"I know. For now, however, he needs to focus on what's coming. Eddie said he sprawled on the sofa as soon as they got in their room and dropped off."
"Sleeping, or passed out?"
She smiled, hearing the slight disapproval as well as the concern in his voice. "Sleep. He isn't drunk. At this stage, it takes a great deal to get him actually drunk. He's not safe to drive, at the moment, but he's not drunk, either."
"You're very forgiving of that with him. Jackson was always threatening him with detox and AA."
"I'm not Jackson, as I've told you any number of times. Of course, I can now understand his drinking. He was just trying to deaden the pain."
Ed regarded her for a moment, wondering at her kindness and acceptance of people's frailties, particularly his own. Then he smiled and drifted over to sit opposite her, on the sofa. "So, we need to be out of here in about three hours to get him well fed before dropping him off at the hospital."
"For tonight, I'd like to leave Eddie with him, keep him company, watch over him. Then I'll take over tomorrow through the surgery and recovery. If that meets with your approval?"
He smirked. "I suspect that even if it doesn't, it won't matter in the least."
She chuckled. "You know me so well." She looked at him, sitting there in nothing but a towel, and her demeanor changed. With a leer, she asked, "So, we have at least two hours before we have to worry about getting ready to go out, is there anything you'd like to do to while away the time?"
He saw her expression and watched as her hands rose to begin unbuttoning her blouse. Smiling, he stood up to help her.
Claudia Dickens, with her daughter Margaret and young Tom Fielding, paused in the doorway to the cafeteria. They immediately spotted Keith Ford sitting by himself in a corner booth, his back to them. They quickly joined him, sliding into the booth with him. He smiled as he looked up from his menu.
"Good morning," the three newcomers chorused back to him. While they picked up their menus and turned to the breakfast selections, Keith continued making his selection from the dinner menu. When the waitress came by, they ordered and while the adults drank their tea, the children sipped at their juice and whispered to each other, leaving the grown ups to each other.
"I've the next two nights off." Keith began.
"Really? I've got tomorrow and the next day off." She smiled. Over the past few weeks, helping take care of Tom, the two of them had gotten quite friendly. She rather liked this shy, retiring man. He didn't seem to think much of himself, unlike some men, and he was as good with her Margaret as he was with Tom. She'd checked up on him with others she knew, discovering what she could. For some reason, it seemed that the commander used him as his whipping boy, yet Keith didn't seem too terribly upset by it.
"There's a fun fair this weekend. I was thinking of taking Tom and wondered if you and Margaret would like to come, as well?" He didn't look her in the eye and he nervously fiddled with his cup.
He was so shy and endearing with his little self-deprecating mannerisms that she couldn't help but smile at him. "We'd love to."
His eyes lit up and he nodded. "Tomorrow, do you think?"
He fidgeted, wanting the time together, yet fearful of seeming too forward. "I thought I might take us all to lunch, and then the fun fair? Having dinner there, perhaps?"
Most of the day. His voice told her he was afraid that was too long, but she nodded. "All right. We'd love to go with you." She smiled reassuringly at him and he flushed with pleasure.
"We'll pick you up tomorrow, then. What time would be good for you?" He was smiling, pleased with her response.
"Well, why don't you and Tom come over about ten? We tend to sleep rather late on Saturdays, or is that too early for you?"
"No. It's not too early. I plan on sleeping while the kids are in school, and then after I pick them up this afternoon, I'll catch an extra sleep tonight and be up Saturday." Seeing her concern, he reached out to touch her hand, withdrawing quickly at his forwardness. "I'm used to it, really. I tend to do that anyway. Sleep most of my weekend away. It's just, well, I thought it would be nice to go somewhere with the kids and do something fun."
She read between the lines and smiled. He was asking her for a date, and using the children as his excuse. She was flattered. There weren't many men she'd met who'd considered her daughter as part of the equation. "Very well, come by about ten and we'll fix brunch, that way, we'll have plenty of room, later, for all that terrible fun fair food."
Tom and Margaret, who had listened quietly through the entire conversation, grinned conspiratorially at one another. Tom had already found himself liking his new situation and although he still missed his parents, and his sister in particular, he was feeling very much at home with both of these adults, and Meg and he were already great chums. Maybe, if they worked it right, they could become a family.
Their meals came, and discussion ended as they tucked in.
After dropping the children off at school, Keith headed for his flat and bed. His arm tended to ache, but he could ignore it while on duty, being focused on his work. Trying to sleep, however, his arm would remind him rather strongly of its injury. He tried to avoid taking the pain pills, but always ended up giving in, in order to sleep. This morning was no exception. Two of the pain pills, a glass of water, and he was soon out.
When his alarm clock went off, he awoke. He'd have liked to sleep longer, but his responsibilities always got him up, no matter how poorly he might have slept. Fortunately, this was a good day, and he was actually looking forward to the next day and his time to be spent with Claudia and her daughter. He quickly showered and shaved, struggling a bit with his cast, as usual. When he picked up the kids, they'd redo it for him. Claudia wouldn't get off for several more hours, and he wondered how to entertain the kids until she did. Looking out the window and seeing the cold and rainy day, he frowned, then smiled. He knew just the thing. Pulling his coat on, with his arm in its sling under the coat and the right sleeve tucked into the pocket to keep it from flapping, he went out to his car.
He was a few minutes early and parked with the other parents waiting for their children. He didn't feel at all strange about being the only man there. When the children dashed for the cars, he grinned as 'his' boy and girl came racing for him, quickly jerking open the doors and scrambling in, Tom in the front, and Margaret in the rear. They never seemed to fight about who got the front seat. They'd worked it out between them, if her mum was driving, she'd get the front, and if Keith were driving, Tom did. Neither adult was aware of the deal.
"It's cold out there, Keith," Tom said, shivering. His raincoat was warm enough, but not great protection against prolonged exposure.
Margaret spoke up her agreement, and added, "What are we going to do until my mum gets off?"
"Well, I thought that since the weather is so awful, we might go and rent some films and fix your mum dinner, tonight. How does that sound?"
Margaret looked at him doubtfully. "You can cook?" She looked at his slender frame and tried to imagine what kinds of things he could possibly cook.
Keith grinned. "I'm no gourmet, but I can manage. I was thinking a nice stew. Lamb, turnips, potatoes, onions, celery, and carrots?"
"Will you make rolls?" Tom asked.
"Yes. And maybe a cobbler for desert?"
"Sounds lovely," Margaret said, trying to cover her doubt with a false smile.
"Good, then let's stop at the market and the Video Rental and then go to your place, shall we?"
When they got to the market, Keith had Tom reapply his soft cast, as it was starting to hurt. Then he allowed the children to push the cart and help him pick out the supplies needed for their stew. Finding some lovely beef chuck, he substituted that for the lamb.
"Margaret, does your mother have a lot of seasonings?"
"Yes. An entire shelf of them."
"Good." They skipped the spices and herbs, except for the fresh parsley he wanted. He looked down at their basket, thinking. Meat, vegetables, flour, fruit, butter... everything except for seasonings, and he'd depend on whatever she had, for that. Nodding, he headed for the check out.
From the market, they made one last stop at the video rental, where he allowed the children to pick out several films, with only the admonition against anything too gruesome or sexually explicit. He trusted their taste and didn't bother to check the titles. He never noticed the conspiratorial glances they kept exchanging.
It had been a long and difficult shift. That idiot actor who had attacked Keith the month before had tried three times to get on the lot. The last time, he'd rammed his car through the gate, losing control and smashing into the guard shack. She'd twisted her knee and ankle getting out of the way, and her partner had nearly been killed by the maniac when he tried to stop him. When their assailant got out of his car, she realized he was either drunk, or high, and as much as she didn't want to, she ended up shooting him in order to stop his rampage.
Thankfully, she hadn't killed him, but he most likely wouldn't be allowed out of gaol again any time soon. Once he got out of the hospital, at any rate. Oddly enough, her shot had shattered his elbow. She'd been aiming for his torso, but he'd tried to dodge and she'd gotten his arm. Thinking about Ford, she grimly thought of how apropos it was.
She was half an hour late getting off, after making her report to the local police and filling out all her own forms. She was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. She could only think of getting home, have a hot shower and lie down. She'd let Margaret phone in whatever she wanted via delivery, even though she didn't normally approve of it.
When she came in the door, she was greeted with the wonderful scent of stew. She frowned, as she didn't allow her daughter to use the stove unsupervised. She hung up her coat and placed her pistol in its lock-box and then headed for the kitchen to see what was going on, and what smelled so good.
Keith was laughing with the children as he supervised as Tom kneaded the dough for the rolls he planned on putting in the oven as soon as Claudia got home. He'd put them both to work, helping him. Margaret had sliced the beef into small cubes and he'd applied salt, pepper and other spices to some flour and mixed it, then supervised as Tom had dredged the meat in the flour mixture and Margaret had put the heavy pot on the stove with a bit of oil in it to heat. He'd done the stirring of the meat as it browned and instructed Margaret in the cleaning and slicing of the vegetables, while giving Tom instructions on how to make the rolls.
They were laughing when Keith turned around and spotted Claudia in the doorway, looking frazzled and confused. His grin turned quickly serious.
"Are you all right?" He moved to her, his good hand reaching out to touch her cheek.
She took a deep, relieved breath. "I'm fine, just tired." She looked at the kitchen, the heavy pot simmering on the stove, the boy frozen with his hands covered in dough, and her daughter, wiping down the sink. She managed a weak smile. "Let me get a shower and changed, and then we'll talk."
"It's all right, Maggie. Just a rough day. We can talk about it later." She turned away, satisfied that everything was all right, and grateful that dinner had been taken care of.
Keith motioned the children to stay in the kitchen and followed her. He didn't think they had noticed the blood, but he wanted more answers now. "Claudia?"
She hesitated for a second, glancing back at him, and he hurried to join her and follow her to her room, where she peeled off her uniform jacket.
"Are you all right?" He couldn't help but notice the limp.
"Fine. Just wrenched my knee and ankle, is all."
"Not your blood, then, I trust?"
She looked down at her hands and scowled at the realization she'd not gotten it out from under her nails. "No. Most of it is that idiot's." She looked up at him and shook her head. "That fool who attacked you got out on bail and came back. We sent him packing twice, then he tried to go through the gate. He hit the shack, which was when I managed to move wrong and almost didn't get out of the way in time. David; well, David wasn't so lucky. He's in hospital, but they say he'll be fine. I." She gulped a sudden breath and began to tremble. "I've never shot at anyone, before."
Keith stepped close and put his good arm around her, pulling her against his chest. "You just did what you had to."
She giggled, a touch of hysteria in her voice. "Well, he's going to survive, but I did sort of give him tit for tat for you."
"What do you mean?"
"I was aiming for his chest and he moved as I fired. I shattered his elbow. That's what most of the blood was, I had to stop him from bleeding to death. They said it would be a miracle if he didn't lose his arm."
"Oh, Claudia." He hugged her as her giggles turned to sobs. Her arms went around him, under his injured arm and she leaned into his embrace. She felt his cheek press against the top of her head and then he moved and his lips brushed against her temple. "How's David?"
"Banged up. They're keeping him overnight for observation."
"What about you? Did you go to the hospital and get checked out?"
"You're limping. That is not 'fine'."
"All right, Commander," a teasing note crept into his voice and she looked up at him in surprise. "Go and take your shower, after dinner, we'll see how you're feeling and if it's too bad, we'll take you in and get you checked out. Maybe we should cancel tomorrow. Even if you are all right, you're going to be stiff and sore."
"I'll be fine, Keith. Besides, the kids would be devastated to lose their treat."
"Only if you're up to it. No arguments!" He hugged her again and let her go. "Get your shower, then, while I go see to dinner."
He smiled at her and then turned and left. She stared after him for several moments, wondering at how good it had felt to have him there. Finally, she shook her head to clear it and continued to strip off her clothes and head to the bathroom for her shower.
Keith was assaulted by two worried expressions when he returned to the kitchen. "She's all right, just wrenched her knee and ankle a bit. Someone drove their car into the guard shack."
There were two matching sighs of relief. Then Margaret said very softly, "Well, that tears tomorrow, then, doesn't it."
"She said it wouldn't. I suggest we finish fixing dinner and if you'll help me with the dishes afterwards, we'll get her set up on the davenport and that leg elevated, put an icepack on it, and see how she's feeling come morning. I told her that if she got worse, I'd take her to hospital to get checked out." They exchanged a look and nodded their agreement. While Keith helped Tom form the rolls, Margaret set the table.
Twenty minutes later, Claudia came out, bundled up in her favorite flannel nightgown and thick, warm, fleece robe and a pair of furry slippers. The rolls were just ready to come out of the oven and they all sat down to eat.
Claudia took one bite of the stew and sighed. "Oh, this is perfect." It was thick, rich, and flavorful; the perfect dish after the miserable day she'd had. They ate quietly, and afterwards, the children sprang to clean up. She watched them, amazed. Margaret had never been one to volunteer and had, in fact, always complained whenever asked to help out. She'd done her chores, but never willingly or without nagging. She looked at Keith, who cocked his head at her, curiously, obviously wondering what she was thinking. She looked pointedly at the children and then back at him, smiling and shaking her head in wonder. Keith looked at the pair carrying their leftovers and dishes into the kitchen and frowned.
Looking askance at her, she leaned forward, wincing, and whispered, "I'm not sure what you did to her to make her suddenly so helpful, but thank you."
Keith smiled. "I think it's more Tom's influence than mine. That boy jumps to any time he thinks something needs to be done. He's a helpful lad."
She looked at Keith, smiling, realizing that he, too, was a 'helpful lad'. "I've a question for you."
"Scuttlebutt is that you're the commander's whipping boy."
He flushed slightly and looked away. "I suppose I am, somewhat."
"Why do you allow him to use you like that?"
"Oh, I don't mind. At least, not most of the time. It only really bothers me when I deserve it. It's just his way of venting, you see. He has to take his frustrations out somehow, and I'm convenient." Seeing her frown he hurried on. "It's not like he really means anything by it. I've messed up a few times, very badly, but I finally realized that it's mostly not personal. Yes, I'm a bit wary of him, and I suppose he does frighten me, but lately, in particular, I've realized that it's the stress. That if I was as bad as he acts like I am, I'd not be where I am. I'd certainly not have been put in charge of night shift, that's for certain-sure."
She regarded him for a few moments, noting the slight smile and relaxed posture. He was comfortable with his role and not in the least upset by it. "You haven't always felt this way though, have you?"
"Oh, no. For years I thought he was out to get me, but a few months ago, I found out the truth." He smiled and hoped she didn't press for more information, as it wouldn't be forthcoming. Dr. Lewis had explained several things to him, including Dr. Jackson's 'experiment'. With the disappearance of the terrifying little doctor and his replacement with the much more open and personable Dr. Lewis, the entire atmosphere from command on down had eased. Despite their ongoing war, morale was higher than ever before.
Claudia realized with his thoughtful gaze into nothingness, that further questions would be at best ignored, and at worst, place a wedge between them. She decided that her curiosity wasn't worth that.
Before she had a chance to speak, the children returned and urged them up and into the lounge to watch videos. Keith offered his good hand to help her up and she winced as she unbent.
Seeing her pain, he eased her into the lounge and got her settled on the davenport. Margaret fixed two icepacks, one for her knee, the other for her ankle, and Keith sat at the far end of the davenport with her legs in his lap, elevating them. As soon as they were comfortable, the two children smirked at each other and plugged in their first movie choice.
Keith, despite working at a movie studio, didn't often see films. Claudia tended to wait until they came out on the telly, so neither of them had seen the children's first choice.
The Princess Bride soon had them both enthralled; the combination of action and romance was irresistibly captivating. At the end of the first film, the children popped a second film in, turned it on, and slipped down the hall and to their beds. They whispered that they hoped they'd take the hint and went to bed giggling.
Sleepless in Seattle made Claudia cry. When Keith heard her sniffle, he turned his head to look at her and, biting his lower lip, eased out from under her legs and moved to the floor, sitting beside her.
"Sorry. Just remembering Maggie's father."
"What happened?" His good hand caught one of hers and held it, his thumb gently stroking the backs of her fingers.
"He died in one of the attacks on MoonBase. He was on his second tour and he was an interceptor pilot. He zigged when he should have zagged." She smiled through her tears. "Claudia doesn't even remember him."
She shook her head. "Just one of the consequences of war, Keith. It's been ten years, but movies like this, well, it reminds me. I understand him perfectly, how he's withdrawn, and all."
Keith nodded and brought her hand to his face and rubbed his cheek across the back of her hand, and then kissed it. "I'm still sorry it happened to you."
She looked at him in wonder. His eyes were closed and he was holding her hand to his cheek. She glanced around to check on the children and realized that they were gone. Frowning, she shifted, sitting up.
"What is it? Is something wrong?" Keith picked up on her agitation and stood up.
She compressed her lips together and looked up at him. "I think we've been set up, Keith."
He scowled, "What do you mean?"
"I mean, Margaret and Tom have gone to bed, leaving us alone with a romantic film. What do you think?"
He looked around the room and a slow flush crept up his face. "Oh." His embarrassment was obvious. "I'm sorry. I suppose I should get Tom and head home."
"There's another guest room, or if you prefer, the davenport, although I suggest the bed."
Keith frowned. "I don't know that that's such a good idea."
"By the time the film is finished, it will be far too late for you to go home. Come here and sit beside me, please?"
Uncertain, Keith sat beside her and when she leaned against him, slid his arm around her, holding her close. When her head came to rest on his shoulder, he sighed softly and tipped his head so his cheek rested atop her head. In a comfortable silence, they refocused their attention on the television and the rest of the movie.
Afterwards, they sleepily rose and turned off the VCR and TV, locked up, and went to bed. Claudia stopped him before he entered the guest room and, smiling, stepped close to him, pulled his head down to hers, and kissed him good night. Then she turned away and entered her own room, leaving him staring after her in amazed wonderment.
He desperately wanted a drink. Unfortunately, he couldn't. He wondered what had possessed him to agree to this. At least they allowed him the dignity of pajamas. Had they insisted on one of those hideously embarrassing and skimpy hospital gowns, he'd have bolted for sure. As it was, he almost wished they'd just leave him alone and stop fussing over him. He wasn't used to it, especially not from Ed.
They'd had a lovely dinner. No one had any idea who they were, or why they were there. It was peaceful and they'd eaten well. Thankfully, no one had ordered lamb. They'd had lovely beefsteaks, huge slabs of meat, roasted perfectly, with all the trimmings. It had been lovely. Now, however, he felt somewhat like the condemned man. He'd had his hearty meal, and now he was going to die.
Dr. MacAvoy was annoying in his gratitude. Fine, he was doing a 'good thing'. Stop harping on it and let's get it over with, shall we? He caught Ed's eye and the man's smirk nearly sent him over the edge. Straker was enjoying this. Bloody wonderful. Then Dr. Lewis touched Ed's arm and his expression turned serious again.
"I think it's time for Alec to try and get some sleep, don't you, Doctor MacAvoy?"
MacAvoy looked at his watch and winced. "Oh, yes. You're right. Would you care for anything to help you sleep, Mr. Freeman?"
"A fifth of good whiskey would be nice," Alec growled. At the shock on the doctor's face, he sighed and waved him off. "Just leave me alone. As Ed can tell you, I can sleep almost anywhere, and at any time."
"The sleep of the just," Straker agreed, exchanging a knowing grin with his friend. They both knew that the truth was that old soldiers like themselves had long since learned how to snatch any and all sleep whenever they could, seemingly stockpiling rest for the times when they'd have to go for days with none.
MacAvoy looked confused, but in his frazzled state over his daughter-in-law's one chance of survival, he made no comment. "Well, then, I'll just leave you, then. If you need *anything*, just press the call button, all right?"
"Yes, Doctor." Alec positively rolled his eyes while the man futzed around a bit longer, straightening his covers and trying to think of one more thing to say. Finally, when everyone was simply watching him, he flushed and with an embarrassed little smile, left.
"Good God, I thought he was going to propose to me!"
"He's grateful, Alec. That's all it is," Louise soothed. "He's been told terrible lies about you, yet you came to save the girl. I still think you should at least meet her."
Alec shook his head. "No. She's got a husband and kid to worry about. She doesn't need any more complications on top of her disease."
"You're a generous man, Alec Freeman," Straker announced. "However, our hovering isn't going to get you any sleep, so we'll be going. Eddie, you'll stay with him, in case he needs anything?"
"Yes, sir." He grinned cheekily at Alec. "I thought we might play some cards or something."
"Don't stay up too late," Louise admonished. "He really does need his rest." She opened her purse and pulled out a package. "I've got a better idea. Here." She handed the package to Eddie, who frowned and opened it, taking out a book. He looked at the title and began to laugh.
"What is it?"
"How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Actual papers turned in by students." He looked at Alec, "I think I'm supposed to read it to you, sir."
Ed was having a hard time maintaining a straight face. "Sounds like just the thing for a pre-operation night, if you ask me."
Eddie had opened the book and, with an enormous grin on his face, began to read: 'How I spent my summer vacation. I sat at home a lot and went to summer school to take that stupid history class again...."
A few minutes later, with everyone laughing almost hysterically, Ed and Louise left, confident that the book would keep Alec distracted from the coming surgery, and that Eddie would take very good care of him.
In the car going back to their temporary residence, Ed became serious. "What are the chances for problems?"
"For Alec? Relatively few. Any time you pierce the skin, there's an opportunity for infection, of course. There's a very slight chance of the anesthesia causing problems, but his history doesn't indicate anything to really worry about. Mostly, he's going to be very tender and his hip will ache for a few weeks."
"How soon before he's up and around?"
"One or two days, but bending is going to cause him the most difficulty, well, that and sitting."
"Lovely. He is definitely not going to enjoy this, is he?"
"He's not doing it for pleasure, only to save someone's life."
Properly chastised, Ed's chin sank down on his chest and he nodded. "Sorry. You're right. I know that in his place, I would do the same thing. It's not about him, at this point, it's about saving that girl."
"It's about being human, and remembering that we need to stick together, despite differences. It's about humanity, and caring for and about our fellow humans. It's part of why we do what we do, but we're so focused on our war that we tend to lose sight of that, sometimes." She put her hand on his thigh and unconsciously rubbed it. "Despite his fear, Alec's doing the right thing, and he knows it." She smiled and leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder as her fingers sought and lightly grasped his own, "And you know it, as well."
"Yes." He rested his cheek on the crown of her head. He took in a deep breath and let it out in a gentle sigh. "I hope it works, is all."
"So do we all." She settled more firmly against him and he slid his arm around her shoulders, relaxing against him, she smiled as the fingers of his free hand sought hers.
Once in their room, they were quiet as they got ready for bed. Remembering his promise, Ed smiled. "Don't bother with the pajamas, Doctor. I seem to recall that I promised you something."
She froze for just a moment as she tried to remember, and then her eyes widened as a delighted grin split her features. "Oooh, bless you!" Dropping the pajama bottoms she'd been just about to put on, she went to the bed and pulled back the covers and stretched out across the surface. Ed smiled at her eagerness.
"I'm not a professional, like you, but I'll do my best."
"I'm not worried and I can coach you if you need it." She smiled as she felt the bed dip down under his weight and then the warmth of him as he straddled her hips, following her example. When his warm hands pressed against the small of her back and then rubbed up to her neck, she moaned in pleasure. He shifted a bit and repeated the action, then rubbed down, his fingers splaying out to widen his touch. After she lost count of the number of times he'd stroked her back, he began at her neck, kneading the muscles of her neck and into her shoulders. He was obviously untrained, but just the fact he was trying soothed her. He worked the muscles over her entire back, mimicking what he'd felt her do to him as best as he could.
Unfortunately, his position had a certain effect on him, as well. He tried shifting more onto his knees, but it didn't help. He tried moving back, so he was straddling her thighs instead, which only made it worse. After a few minutes, he gave up trying to ignore it, and stretched out above her, so that he was lying atop her. He felt her take a sharp breath and started to lift himself away, but her voice stopped him.
"Don't you *even* think of leaving me like this." She twisted beneath him, somehow managing to turn onto her back, despite his weight on her. He was blushing, to her amusement as she realized that the flush involved his entire torso. Her arms wrapped around his shoulders, holding him to her, while her legs splayed to the side and then wrapped around him, holding him securely.
"You know what I'd really like right now?" she whispered.
"I, uh, think I'm getting a pretty fair idea."
"But first, you have too many clothes on."
She released him and he was up and out of his pajamas in record time. He quickly returned and she again enveloped him in her embrace. "Now then," he murmured in her ear as he nibbled delicately at the lobe, "Where were we?"
Eddie was playing solitaire while Alec slept. He'd snatched a few minutes here and there, but the short naps had been sufficient and he was now wide awake. Alec, on the other hand, was sleeping peacefully. Eddie was glad, actually. He'd read about half of the book Louise had brought and even though it was hysterically funny, he didn't feel like reading any more. Instead, he sat quietly to himself. Several times, a nurse had come in to check on them. She had offered him coffee, the last time, and when she brought it, they'd chatted for a while before she went back to her rounds.
She came in again, and he looked up at her. "Is something wrong?"
She shook her head. "No. Not really. April's brothers are here, though. They want to see him." She gestured towards the sleeping Alec. "I told them he was sleeping but they just want to look at him." She smiled at him and shrugged. "Get a look at the bloke who's going to save their sister's life, I figure."
Eddie frowned. "If he wakes up, I'll ask him, otherwise, I guess they're out of luck."
"Not even a quick look-see?"
She looked sad, but then she nodded and went back out to inform the two men of his decision. Eddie thought about it for a moment, and then went after her.
He found them in the surgery lounge. Their sister was currently undergoing irradiation to destroy all her bone marrow, to kill the cancer, so that as soon as Alec's marrow was available, they could insert it and pray that it took root and began creating new red blood cells. If not, she would die. He saw the two men. They were big, like Alec, though the older man was more slender and the second more husky than their father.
They saw him and stood up. The nurse turned and saw him and smiled. "Did he wake?"
"Sorry, no. He's sleeping like a rock, I'm afraid." He could certainly see Alec in his sons. "I'm Eddie Duk," he introduced himself. "I'm sort of Mr. Freeman's watchdog, at the moment."
The younger of the two men frowned. "What's he need a guard for?" He shifted closer, moving his weight onto his toes and flexing his knees in a deliberate move calculated to intimidate him. Eddie smiled and his own weight shifted, but imperceptibly.
"He's Mr. Straker's right-hand-man. Mr. Straker doesn't want him upset."
The older one scowled. "We just want a look at him. Surely that won't hurt?"
Eddie shrugged, beginning to feel that this had not been one of his better ideas. "I've my orders. I think he told the doctor that he didn't want to see anyone, just come in, have the procedure, and then home as soon as possible."
The older man sighed and slumped. "It's true, then. What mum said." There was bitter disappointment in his voice.
"Probably not," was Eddie's cryptic reply. The older one looked at him, his eyes piercing.
"I remember him."
Eddie knew this had been a bad idea. "Do you?"
"Yes." The man smiled, almost involuntarily. "I remember him taking me up in his fighter plane and flying upside down." He looked at Eddie. "I'm Mark Ashton. This is my brother, Joey." He stepped closer and extended his hand.
"Nice to meet you." He shook hands with both men, although Joey seemed rather reluctant.
"You know him well?" Joey asked.
"Just for the past few months."
"What's he like?"
"He's a good man. I like him."
Mark nodded. "Are you sure we can't just grab a look at him?"
"Not while he's sleeping. I'll let him know as soon as he wakes up that you'd like to see him, though." He looked around, wondering, then asked, "Aren't your parents here?"
Both men looked uncomfortable. "Mum refused to come," Mark replied bitterly. "Da said he'd be here in the morning, but he's not here, yet."
Eddie just nodded, sorry he'd brought it up. "Uh, well, I'd best get back to my post. I wouldn't care to have him wake up and me not be there. I promise to let him know you want to see him." The two men nodded and he hurried back to where he belonged. He was glad to see that Alec was still heavily asleep, and sighed in relief as he sagged back down in his chair. He wished morning would come and this all be over with.
He wasn't quite sure why he came; but after thirty years of loving and caring for 'his' children, it was impossible to turn off the feelings. He entered the hospital diffidently. It was different, today. Today, there was nothing he could do to help his lass. His. What a crock. When the test had been done to try and find a match and he learned the truth, he'd been devastated. He had railed against the truth for days, shouting at his wife and calling her everything but white in his agonized fury. She seemed even angrier than he was, though, saying that if it hadn't been for him, she'd have a nice, easy life with her ex-husband. He'd taken particular pleasure in reminding her that she'd seduced him, not the other way round.
They hadn't spoken, since.
He stopped at the desk and asked for his room number. Thanking the nurse, he took the elevator up and slowly walked down the hall until he found the room. Taking a deep breath to bolster his courage, he opened the door and entered.
Alec looked up in surprise as the stranger entered. The doctor had been by a few minutes earlier and chased Eddie out and given him the first of the injections prior to surgery. He felt a moment of unreasoning fear as he looked the stranger over. He was only an inch or so taller than Eddie, but easily made two of that young man in girth. His massive barrel chest denoted long years of hard work, and his weathered face showed his constant exposure to the elements.
The man's demeanor, however, eased Alec's mind. He was twisting his cap nervously. He stared back at the man and realized who he had to be. His chin came up and he waited for the man to say something.
"I know I got no cause to bother you, Mr. Freeman. I just wanted to thank you."
Alec gazed at the man for a moment and then relaxed. "You're welcome."
"I know you didn't have to come, that she's nothing to you, but she's everything to me. I, I don't suppose I'll be anything to them after this, but I did my best by them."
Alec watched as the man his ex had dumped him for swiped at the tears that had begun to trickle down his face. Thirty years of hurt and bitterness flowed away with the man's tears. "Were you kind to the boys?"
The man, who was younger than he but looked much older, looked at him in surprise. "I loved them like they were my own."
Alec nodded. It was the best he could have hoped for. "Joey was always sickly, as a baby. He constantly wanted to be held or carried."
He looked at Alec in surprise. Susan had said that Alec was never home, that when he was, his mind was always back with his aeroplanes, never on his wife or sons. "What?"
Alec smiled. "I used to carry him about in one of those baby rucksacks? That's how he got the nickname Joey, he was always in my pouch." He shook his head and chuckled dryly. "He'd squall something awful, but put him in that pouch and sling him on and he'd quiet right down."
He felt sick, inside. He'd never known. He'd never carried the boy at all, and his mother had punished him frequently when he'd tried to cling, until he'd given up the habit. Now, he lived half a world away, doing dangerous things and never came home at all. "I didn't know that."
"No, I don't suppose you would have." He nodded, making a decision. "Tell her I'm a cousin, or something. Or some anonymous lucky break. She'll always be your daughter. You're the only dad she's ever known. Let's leave it like that, shall we?"
"What about the boys? Mark remembers you, and I think that maybe Joey does, as well; he just doesn't know he remembers."
"Well, they did ask to see me. I haven't agreed, yet." He looked down for a moment, considering. "I did meet Mark a few years back, when he was in Britain for war games. We talked a bit. He remembers me, but I didn't tell him who I was. Didn't see the need, at the time."
"I'm going to tell April the truth. She deserves it. If it's all right with you, we can leave it at that."
Alec shook his head. "Don't. She's got enough on her plate, what with a husband, a baby and this lousy disease. Leave it. Just be there for her, will you?"
"She's my little girl, I'll always love her."
The two men smiled sadly at one another, understandingly. With a nod, Ashton left the room, quietly closing the door behind him. Turning to go and find his sons, he came face-to-face with a woman who startled him with the fury on her face.
"Whoever you are, if you've upset him, they'll never find your body," she hissed.
He blinked. "I'm Anthony Ashton. I just wanted to thank Mr. Freeman for coming and trying to save my girl, April, is all." He stood frozen in place as she opened the door to the hospital room and looked in. Alec looked up and smiled at her. Seeing he didn't seem in the least upset, she returned the smile and closed the door again and turned on the intruder.
"He seems all right. How did you get in? No one was supposed to be able to get to him." She looked up and down the corridor, searching for Eddie or Dr. MacAvoy, and she stiffened when she saw the doctor come around the corner, arguing with Eddie.
Eddie flinched and looked up to see Dr. Lewis with a stranger, just outside Alec's room. He paled, realizing what it probably meant. With a glare at MacAvoy, he hurried to her. "Sorry, Doctor Lewis. I got chased off the floor by him." He jerked his thumb back at MacAvoy, who was approaching with some trepidation.
She turned on the other doctor. "I told you our conditions. You agreed. You've violated the agreement. I'm taking him out of here, right now. There are reporters downstairs on the lookout for Mr. Straker, and that, too, was against our agreement. Give me one good reason to remain here one minute longer?"
The stranger gasped. "Please, she'll die!" he cried softly.
She spared a glare for him. "Our security has been compromised. The deal is null and void."
The door behind her opened and Alec looked out. "What's wrong?"
"Breach of contract. Security breach. Reporters downstairs; Eddie chased off the floor, strangers visiting you. What more do you need?"
Alec scowled and looked at the ashen Tony Ashton. "Deal with them as you will. I'm still going through with it." He looked at MacAvoy. "I trust you aren't the doctor doing the procedure?"
"Uh, no. Doctor Campbell will be doing it."
"Good. Get lost. I don't want to see you again." Alec glared at the doctor, smiled at Tony Ashton, and patted Louise on the shoulder. "I suppose I'll have you watchdogging me from this moment on?"
"Damned straight." Louise continued to glare at MacAvoy, who was starting to sidle towards the exit. "Eddie, your father's down in the limo. Thankfully, the windows are dark and they can't see inside. Go down, tell him what happened, in detail, and then get him out of here. Have our local people send me two dependable people to handle security."
Eddie winced. She could certainly be tough when the occasion warranted it. He just wished it hadn't been his screw up that had caused her ire. "Yes, Doctor Lewis. What if he wants to come in?"
"Tell him not until it's secure." She continued to cow the other doctor with her glare. Eddie gratefully escaped to go and fill his father in on the current goings-on. Something told him he'd be back very soon, with a very irate SHADO Commander in tow. He hoped he survived the backlash.
"Well?" Straker snapped the moment the car door closed behind Eddie.
"MacAvoy let slip about your being here. He chased me out of Alec's room to start the procedures prior to surgery. I went down the hall, and when MacAvoy returned, I argued with him about how I needed to be with Mr. Freeman. We came around the corner and Dr. Lewis was outside Alec's door with a stranger. I suspect he was the new husband. Dr. Lewis threatened to haul Alec out of there on the instant, accused MacAvoy of breach of contract, breach of security - which I'll take full responsibility for - and of calling the hyenas out there. Mr. Freeman then poked his head out of the room and told her that he was still going to go through with it. Dr. Lewis then said she'd stay with Alec and that MacAvoy had better steer clear of her. Then she sent me out here to request two for security and to get you out of here until the media loses interest." He glanced out the window and was dismayed to see that the reporters were now hovering around them.
Eddie's stomach dropped somewhere in the region of his shoes. He'd never heard the commander's grim and annoyed voice, before. "What would you like me to do, sir?"
"Open the door. I'll talk to the hyenas, as you put it."
"Open the door, Mr. Duk."
The driver had pointedly ignored the goings on, waiting for instructions. "Driver, get some security people here, would you?" Straker barked. He quickly reached for his cell phone and made the call.
"Now, then, Mr. Duk. The door?"
"Yes, sir." Eddie opened the door and stepped out. The reporters craned their necks trying to see in. There was a collective sigh when Straker stepped out. The flock of vultures surged forward and began calling out questions. Straker clenched his teeth for just a moment and then relaxed as Eddie took up his position behind his right shoulder. It was amazing how comforting and safe the knowledge of his presence was.
"I'm just here to visit a friend. Beyond that, I have no comment," he announced softly, forcing the reporters to quiet down and repeat their questions. He glared at them and waited. Eventually, they realized that they were getting nothing, and quieted.
"Thank you. As I was saying, I'm simply here to visit a friend. That's all I have to say. No, I'm not here on business. No, I'm not planning on making a film, here. No, I'm not thinking of moving the studio here. No, I'm not ill. No, I'm not here to see a doctor about anything. No, I'm not donating some huge sum of money to the hospital for tax purposes. Now, if you'll excuse me, my friend is due in surgery very soon, and I promised to see them before that happens." He stepped forward, with Eddie at his back and, miraculously, the crowd parted for them. Several reporters opened their mouths to ask a question as he passed, but he made eye contact with each one and they backed down.
Eddie was quite impressed.
Once they were inside and in the elevator, Straker glared at his son. "If that ever happens again...."
He shook his head. "It's not your fault, son. I just get a bit annoyed when people fail to keep their agreements."
"You aren't in trouble, Eddie."
"I should be. I blew it, Dad. I should never have let that doctor chase me out of the room."
"You're still new at this. You've learned from this mistake. Next time, if there is a next time, you'll know better. And, in similar circumstances, you'll decide whether to stand your ground or not, based on what you now know." He grinned. "Considering everything, you're doing fine. You didn't leave the floor, but you did leave sight of the door. Don't do that again."
"I won't." Eddie relaxed and released a contented breath that his father wasn't angry with him, but then he wondered if it was because he was his son? He promised himself to make sure not to take advantage of that.
"What are you doing here?" Louise was still in a vile mood.
"Checking up on my friend. How are you doing, Alec?"
"Hmmmm?" Alec rolled his head so he could see his friend. "Hey, Ed! I'm flying! I don't have a plane, but I'm flying. Weightless is what I am." He laughed in delight. Straker looked at Louise, his head cocked to the side and with an amused grin tugging at his lips.
Louise shook her head. "The meds have made him rather loopy, I'm afraid."
"So I see. How soon?"
"Any minute, now. He'll never feel a thing until he comes back out of it and then he's going to be very unhappy."
"They take this enormous needle, stick it in his ass and into his hip, and then they suck out some marrow. The whole procedure will probably take a couple of hours."
"So, what your saying is that he's going to have an enormous pain in the ass, instead of being one?" He managed to keep a straight face, but his amusement was still quite obvious.
"Yes." She shook her head at his amusement at his friend's soon-to-be pain and discomfort. "Imagine someone sticking a basting needle in your butt and into a bone and sucking stuff out?" That had both men flinching. "So, when he complains of being in pain, you'd better not let me catch you laughing at him or teasing him about it."
"Yes, ma'am," Eddie replied, planning on making himself scarce, if need-be.
"You're taking all the fun out of this, Doctor Lewis," Ed pretended to whine.
"This isn't a game, Ed. He's giving one more thing to a daughter he was never permitted to know, and all he'll have to remember it by is the pain and the knowledge that he's done the most and best he could."
"I know." He put his arms around her. "I'm very proud of him. I guess Eddie and I should get out of here and let you and the rest of the team do your part." He pulled away from her with a quick kiss to her cheek. "Mr. Duk, where should we go, now?"
"Well, I can introduce you to his sons, if you like? I'm sure they'd like to know anything you could tell them about him."
"Lead the way. Alec, behave yourself."
"Yes, sir! Commander, sir!" Alec's mocking reply was slurred by the affect of the drugs he'd been given. It was amazing he was still conscious.
Eddie led his father down the hall to the surgery waiting room, where the Ashtons were already ensconced. Straker nodded politely to the three men and sat down in a corner where he could see everyone as well as the door. Eddie smiled at the two younger men and took up his place next to his father.
"You're Mr. Freeman's friend, aren't you?"
Straker looked up into the face of a man about Louise's age. "Yes, I am. Ed Straker."
"Mark Ashton." He flushed a bit and shook his head. "I suppose it would actually be Freeman, seeing as how Da never adopted us."
Straker simply looked at him with no expression on his face.
"Uh, I was wondering if you'd tell us about him?"
Straker's eyes flickered past Mark to see the other two men watching him; the younger one was watching them closely, while the older one simply stared at the floor. "What did you want to know?"
"What's he like?"
Straker heard the need in the man's voice and pondered for a few moments. "He's honest. He only says what he means and doesn't beat around the bush. He's good with people but doesn't let his personal feelings interfere with his job." He shrugged and smiled. "What you see is what there is. The man has no deceit in him."
Mark smiled. "Thank you."
"You've met him, by the way."
That froze the younger man mid-turn. "What? When?" He turned back and sat across from Straker, placed his elbows on his knees and leaned forward.
"War games a few years ago. He spoke to you."
Mark frowned, trying to remember. "He did?" He sat back in his seat and crossed his legs, lacing his fingers across his stomach in a very familiar manner, to Straker, as he thought.
Mark's eyes snapped open. "Ex-Colonel, living in England?"
Mark's mouth worked a few moments as he tried to find the right words. "Why the devil didn't he tell me?"
Straker shrugged. "He didn't see the need to upset you."
Straker glanced over at Alec's younger son, who was listening avidly and with a wistful expression on his face. "He's been trying to take time off for the past several summers to go to Canada, but hasn't been able to go. If he'd told me that he wanted to get a look at his son, I'd have moved heaven and earth to let him. Instead, he's allowed work to keep him from it."
"He wanted to go to Calgary?" Joey asked tentatively.
His father looked up. "I'm sure he did." He looked at his younger son, thinking. "I remember that your mother was rather rough with you right after we took up together. You kept climbing on me, and she wouldn't allow it. He said," he paused to swallow, took a deep breath and then continued, "He said he used to pack you about in a rucksack, like a little joey, so that's what they called you."
Joey smiled, faintly remembering that time. "I never could figure out how they got Joey out of Jason."
"Me, either. He got this kind of far-away look in his eyes when he recalled it. I never knew him, just your mum. She said he was never home and that when he was, all he wanted was to be back up in some aeroplane."
"I remember when he took me up in his fighter. He could have gotten into real trouble, I'm sure, but he did it anyway." Mark flushed and grinned. "I remember we went upside down, and I puked on him."
Straker tried to stifle his snort of laughter and failed. Mark returned his grin.
"I think that's when I fell in love with flying."
Straker shook his head. "He still loves to fly. If it weren't for the fact that he's here and not going to be up to it, he'd have been allowed to fly the jet here and back."
"What kind of jet do you have?"
Mark blinked. "You have your own Concorde?"
Straker smiled. "Yes."
"You must have an awful lot of money, then."
Straker shrugged. "Time is money. It pays for itself by getting us from point a to point b and back, quickly."
Mark shook his head. "I've never even flown in one. I wonder how they handle?"
"You'll have to ask Alec that. I don't usually ride in the cockpit, these days."
"You're a pilot?" Mark looked at him again, more closely, surprised.
"Retired from the USAF."
Mark shook his head. "But you don't like to fly?"
Straker smiled tightly. "I didn't say I don't like to fly, I simply said that I don't, very often. Alec's never lost that wonder and amazement that happens when you first learn to fly."
Mark nodded and grinned. "Oh, yeah. It's great."
"You need to talk to Alec. Compare notes, I think."
Mark's face fell. "I'd like that, but I don't think he wants to see us."
Straker shook his head. It was just like Alec to not want to cause trouble for his sons, despite his own desires. "I'll talk to him."
Mark shook his head. "Don't force him."
Straker leaned back and looked at both of Alec's sons. "He's afraid." As both men's attention focused on him, he continued, speaking softly. "He doesn't want to intrude. He has no idea that you'd like to know him." He noticed Ashton shrinking into himself. "He doesn't want to cause trouble. He'll put his own feelings aside in order to avoid problems. He doesn't think you remember as much as you obviously do, Mark, but I'll be sure to tell him you want to at least meet him." He smiled thinly. "I'll tell him you remember throwing up on him on an unauthorized flight in a military jet." He could imagine Alec's reaction to that particular memory, and looked forward to it.
Two men entered the room spotted Straker and nodded to him. Straker spared them a glance and then looked at Eddie to tell him to handle it and was pleased when his son rose without a word and guided the two men out.
When he returned, Eddie simply nodded to his father and resumed his seat.
"He's in surgery, now. They figure it'll take about an hour to harvest the marrow, and Doctor Lewis is with him."
They all became silent, having run out of things to say to each other.
She sat on a stool beside his bed and gently stroked his hair back from his forehead. It had gotten a bit long, and she could imagine Ed teasing Alec about it, under normal circumstances. Of course, under normal circumstances, Alec would have gotten it cut by now.
He lay on his right side, still heavily unconscious, in recovery. Louise, who had been with him throughout the procedure, chewed her lower lip, knowing just how much he was going to be hurting when he woke up. She'd forgotten about his arthritis and was now concerned with how bad it was going to be. She considered, for just a moment, injecting the affected joint with cortisone, but held off. Maybe it wouldn't be that bad.
She'd sent a nurse out to tell Straker that it was over and that the doctors were immediately injecting the harvested bone marrow into April. With any luck, they'd know before Alec was released in two days whether or not it was going to work. She quietly prayed that it would be successful.
He was drifting, warm and comfortable, like he was wrapped in cotton wool. He recognized the feeling as that of the aftermath of sedation. It wasn't unpleasant, particularly since he felt someone running their fingers through his hair.
His breathing changed, indicating he was beginning to regain consciousness. She continued to run her fingers through his hair, hoping to ease him into consciousness and bypassing his realization of the pain until he was fully aware.
He sighed and his eyes eased open lazily. She smiled down at him. "Welcome back."
"Hmmm. That feels good," he murmured.
"It's meant to. How are you feeling?"
"Still a bit woozy. What's the verdict?"
"Well, pretty soon, now, you're going to start feeling the ache in your hip and gluteus."
"I can feel it now. It doesn't seem too bad, just like the bleeding tetanus shot, is all."
She smiled. "Hopefully, it won't get any worse than that." She moved her hand to his left shoulder and gently stroked up and down his arm. He frowned up at her.
"Not that it isn't pleasant, but why are you doing that?"
"Distracting you. Is it working?" She grinned at him.
"Quite well, actually, but why are you distracting me?"
"So you don't focus on the discomfort of your hip."
"Hmmmm. Nice, but don't let Ed know."
"Don't let Ed know what?" Straker, with Eddie behind him, stood in the doorway looking fondly at his oldest friend.
"That your lady is distracting me."
Straker looked askance at Louise, who merely smiled and continued to stroke Alec's arm. "Any word on April, yet?"
Straker shook his head. "They've got her in ICU, keeping a very close eye on her. No one is allowed in without a clean suit, not even family."
"Yes, I can imagine. Right now a simple cold would kill her. How is the family taking it?"
"Sitting on tenterhooks, I'm afraid. There's nothing more to be done. If this doesn't work...."
"Then it's got to work, doesn't it," Alec rumbled.
Louise looked down at him. His eyes were closed and there was a beatific expression on his face; partly, she presumed, from still being under the influence of the various drugs, and partly from the comforting touch on his arm. She lifted her eyes to Straker, who was smiling slightly.
"Your boys would like to officially meet you, Alec."
Alec stiffened and Louise shot daggers at Straker, who merely gave her a mild look in exchange.
"I'd love to hear your version of taking Mark up in your fighter and how you flew upside down and he threw up on you."
Alec's eyes flew open in shock. "He was two when that happened!"
Ed grinned. "Well, he remembers it. Says it's what made him love flying, though I can't imagine how losing one's lunch could do that. Perhaps it was something else." Seeing Alec grin, he turned to his son. "Eddie, go get them," he softly instructed. Grinning, Eddie opened the door and beckoned. Mark and Joey entered
Alec shook his head. "He remembers that. Man, I had some explaining to do about that flight suit. He puked all over me, the canopy, the stick, everything. Took me four hours to clean the cockpit afterwards." He grinned at the memory.
His sons, not yet able to see him, nevertheless heard his words. Mark grinned and jostled his brother, who looked wistful.
"I never got a chance to take Joey up. He was always sick, it seemed. But a lot of times, I'd pack him in his rucksack and take him with me, if I wasn't scheduled to fly. He was a popular little fellow. My colonel's the one who nicknamed him 'Joey'. Called me 'mama roo'." There was a great deal of fondness in his voice as he chattered on. His friends realized it was mostly the drugs that had loosened his tongue, but since forbidden subjects weren't likely to come up, no one said anything.
"What about their mother?"
"She hated my flying. Never did approve. Couldn't understand my love of flying. Didn't matter if it was a Curtis-Wright or an F-4, or ShadAire, for that matter. I doubt I'll ever outgrow the thrill of it." His eyes drifted closed. "My oldest boy, Mark, he's a pilot in the RAAF. Did you know that? And little Joey," he chuckled, "He likes lumps with his flight time, it seems. Rides bulls in rodeos, of all things. They're good lads."
The brothers looked at each other through tear-blurred eyes. He hadn't forgotten them, and he did care. In concert, both men took deep breaths and approached the nearly sleeping Alec. They stood and stared at him, easily seeing the family resemblance. His eyes opened and he looked up at them.
"See, Ed? See how well they've grown up? Wouldn't have been so good if I'd stayed. Susan was right about that. I volunteered for Viet Nam, you know. I didn't have to go. But it was a chance to fly more, and I leaped at the chance. I should have seen it coming, but I was blinded by my own desires. Ashton's done well by them all. Remind me to thank him, would you?"
"I'll remind you, Alec," Ed softly replied. He was watching Alec's sons and was pleased when their expressions softened and they looked at one another again.
Mark stepped closer to the nearly sleeping Alec and bend down and kissed his cheek. "Thanks, Dad."
"Hmmmm? For what, Mark?"
"For not forgetting us and for still caring about us." Mark backed away and Joey approached and also kissed his father's cheek.
"We still love you, Dad." He reached out and took Alec's hand and squeezed it as well.
"Little Joey-roo," Alec mumbled and with his next deep breath was asleep.
The brothers retreated, smiling at each other. Pausing by Straker on their way out, Mark acted as spokesman. "Thank you, Mr. Straker."
"You're welcome. I hope your sister will be all right."
"I think she'll be just fine. D'you suppose he'd like to meet her one of these days?"
"I'm sure he would."
Mark nodded and with his brother close behind him, left.
There was a long moment of silence eventually broken when Straker took a deep breath and exhaled forcefully. "Well, when can he be moved to a room?"
"I'll get an orderly. With any luck, he'll stay sleeping until after we get him settled.
"I don't suppose he'll remember any of what just happened."
Louise shrugged. "Hard to say. I'd not bet either way."
It was odd, waking up in the strange bed in a strange room, but Keith quickly remembered the preceding night and grinned. She'd kissed him! Cheerful, remembering that they were going to the fun fair that afternoon, he swung out of bed and immediately winced as his arm protested. Moving more cautiously, he dressed in the clothes he'd worn the day before and after he made the bed, moved, barefoot, out of the room and to the kitchen, where he rummaged quietly until he found the coffee and then prepared a pot. It was quiet and he resisted the temptation to look in on Claudia. He smiled, remembering her kissing him good night. He got cups and saucers out as the coffeemaker started gurgling as it finished brewing.
"Oh, bless you," Claudia groaned from the doorway. She smiled blearily at him as he turned, cups and saucers in hand. He grinned at her, particularly when he spotted her gigantic pink bunny slippers. They clashed hideously with her purple flannel nightgown and bright orange robe.
"Good morning." He set the cups and saucers down on the table and then brought the coffeepot over and filled them.
"Creamer and sugar are in the cupboard just left of the stove."
He put the pot back on the heating element and returned with the powdered creamer and sugar bowl. He held her chair out for her and she sank into it with a groan.
"Is something wrong?" he asked, worriedly.
"I'm afraid I didn't sleep very well."
"I'm sorry." He wondered if his presence had bothered her.
She looked at him, easily reading his concern. She wondered how to tell him that yes, his presence had led to much of her unrest, but not the way he was thinking. She smiled at him and reached across to touch his hand. He turned his hand so he could grasp her fingers.
"It wasn't you, exactly. It's just been so long. I mean, I married my husband right out of school. I've never really dated, before." She looked at him and saw his shy smile and her heart melted.
"Are we dating?"
She looked at him for a long time. He met her eyes without flinching. "I think so. I am, at any rate. What about you?"
He blinked and his gaze became unfocused as he thought about it. "I hadn't thought about it, but I suppose I am. I know I like being with you, and I really do like Margaret, and it's been rather pleasant, having Tom around. I never had a little brother, before, let alone a child. He lets me play with him. I haven't flown a kite since I was younger than he is, and I don't have anyone to fly my planes with. Margaret's good with them, you know."
"She told me that you'd allowed her to fly one of your planes. She loved it and has asked for one of her own, come Christmas."
Keith grinned. "I could build her one, if you like?"
She smiled. "She'd love that. Perhaps you could build one together?"
His eyes moved from their joined hands to her face, not quite certain he was hearing correctly. Seeing her expression, his heart leapt within him and he smiled. "I'd love to. Maybe all four of us could build some together, some time?"
She smiled. They were on the same page. She felt a slight thrill of something that she finally recognized as arousal. "I think that sounds like the perfect family project."
Keith's smile was all the response she needed.
After they finished their first cups of coffee, Keith stood. "I'm going to run home and get a shower and change. If it's all right with you, I'll bring back some clean clothes for Tom."
"Of course." She glanced at the clock. "It's early, yet. Maggie seldom rouses for at least a couple more hours. If Tom wakes, I'll get him started with helping me put some breakfast together."
Keith smiled. "I'll hurry." He paused for a moment and, blushing, bent down and quickly gave her a light kiss good-bye. Then he was gone, leaving her with a startled expression, which eased into a warm smile.
He made it to his flat and back in record time. He had showered, shaved and dressed quickly, then he went into Tom's room and selected some clean clothes for him, not forgetting that they'd be going out, later. Debating for just a moment, he packed an extra set and then added a complete change of clothing for himself, just in case they ended up spending the night again at the Dickens's.
He was back in less than an hour.
Claudia had been sitting in the lounge, keeping an eye out for his car and had the door open as he reached the front step. She grinned at him and insisted on taking the small duffle bag from him. Once inside, they headed back to the kitchen and returned to drinking coffee.
She'd thought about greeting him with a kiss, but had chickened out at the last moment. She noticed his arm was bothering him. "Need your cast adjusted?"
"Bless you. Yes, please." She let him remove the device, and then she took it and gently and carefully replaced it so that it didn't put any unneeded pressure on his biceps and fit his wrist and hand properly. Then she snugged it into place with the Velcro fasteners.
Keith grinned up at her. "Lovely. Thank you." He eased his arm back into its sling and sighed in relief. Claudia poured him another cup of coffee and doctored it to his taste for him, and then sat back down opposite him to drink her own cup.
They sat in companionable silence for the most part. For Keith, he was afraid to speak, for fear of rejection. Despite their conversation about dating, he was unsure of his reception. For Claudia, she was content to just sit quietly with him.
When the children came shuffling out, Claudia got up and fixed them all breakfast. As she'd promised, it was ten o'clock. Margaret and Tom watched the adults closely, wondering if their little ploy of the night before had worked. They were disappointed, however, not seeing any change in the demeanor of the adults. They exchanged a glance and were determined to keep trying.
After they'd eaten, Keith gave Tom the clean clothes he'd brought for him and the two children went to shower and dress for their outing. By eleven, they were ready to go.
Keith looked closely at Claudia, making sure her wrenched knee and ankle weren't going to cause any problems, and then suggested they take her Morris Minor, as it was somewhat larger than his car, not bothering to mention that with his arm impaired, she was also a safer driver. Within a very short time, they were on their way.
They stopped to drop off the video rentals, and Keith requested they stop by the chemist's, as he needed to pick up something. He went in alone, while the others waited for him, and he returned in a very few minutes, stuffing his purchase in the pocket of his leather coat.
They were off. It was still early at the fun fair when they arrived, and they found a nice, close parking space. They all climbed out and the children were jittering in excitement at the treat. Just before they headed for the entrance, Keith stopped them.
"Claudia, I know you said your knee and ankle were all right, but I'd like to wrap them, before we get too far." Seeing her about to protest, he hurried on. "It's just for protection." Her mouth closed with a sigh and she nodded.
"Oh, all right." Keith smiled at her and knelt at her feet as she rolled up her pant leg. He winced at the sight of her knee. It was slightly swollen, and badly bruised. He looked up at her from beneath lowered brows and she wouldn't meet his eyes. Nodding decisively, he quickly and expertly wrapped the knee and fastened it with the three metal frogs. He pulled her pant leg down, and unlaced her boot. He noticed how tightly she'd tied her hiking boot on and frowned at her. This time, s he met his gaze and then her eyes flickered to the two children and back to him. He understood. This was a treat she didn't want to spoil for them. He nodded almost imperceptibly and quickly and efficiently wrapped the ankle. It wasn't swollen, but it was definitely bruised. He pulled her sock back on her foot, and then slipped her boot back on, loosening the fastenings over the instep, he tied it snugly enough to provide support, yet not so tight as to cut off circulation.
Rising to his feet, he smiled. "There. All set. Shall we?" His companions smiled and nodded. They turned and made their way to the entrance.
Once inside, the children immediately wanted to go on the rides. Naturally, their first choice was the roller coaster. Keith reluctantly agreed. He wasn't particularly fond of roller coasters, as they always reminded him of astronaut training, but for the children....
For a roller coaster, he supposed, it was quite good, but the corkscrew portion, where they inverted, had thrown him heavily into his harness, and his injured arm was screaming at him, and he had to fight not to scream himself. When they disembarked, Claudia noticed that he was pale and sweating.
"Are you all right, Keith?" she asked in concern.
"I'm fine." Seeing her skeptical expression, and the worried looks on the kids' faces, he added, "That probably wasn't the best ride for my arm, is all. I'm all right, though." He refused to allow his pain to put a damper on their day, just as Claudia was trying to hide hers. However, the next ride, the adults sent the children on by themselves, while they watched from the safety of the ground.
"They love this. Thank you, Keith." They sat on a bench beside the exit to the ride.
"You're quite welcome. How are your knee and ankle holding up?"
"Fine, so far. But it's early, yet. I can tell that it's going to get worse."
"Here. Give me your foot. While we wait, you might as well elevate it." She laughed and lifter her leg into his lap. He unconsciously began to rub her calf as they watched the ride the children were on. "Oh, Lord, that's making me ill just watching it." The ride was called a dragonboat. It looked like a Viking ship, and it swung back and forth, building momentum, until it went completely over, using the 'pail of water' principle of centrifugal force.
Claudia laughed. "I'd think you'd like that sort of thing, Keith."
He shuddered. "No, thank you very much. I like my feet firmly planted on the ground, if you don't mind."
She looked at him in surprise. "Don't you like the rides at fun fairs?"
"Well, I do like the Ferris Wheel and the carousel, but that's really about all. Fun houses are good, too, and the house of mirrors, but the more daring ones, I'm not particularly fond of." He looked away from her, turning just a bit pink, "I tend to get sick on them," he admitted.
She looked at him, first with surprise, turning to admiration. The poor man probably hated these things, but he brought them simply because he thought that they'd enjoy it. Her estimation of him went up a few more points. "Well, it's quite a treat, and I thank you." She shifted so she was closer to him and he looked at her in surprise.
"You're most welcome." He grinned. "Perhaps after this one, we should head over to the games?"
She grinned mischievously at him. "I'll win you a prize at the shooting gallery," she promised. He laughed. "Good. I can barely qualify each month. I'm just not very good with firearms." The ride ended, finally, and the children returned, laughing and breathless. The adults stood to meet them and they continued wandering through the fair. As they walked past the first few gaming booths, the barkers tried to cajole them into playing.
Coming to the shooting gallery, the proprietor called out to Keith, "Come, now, sir! Win your lady a prize! Shoot out the center of the target and win a prize."
The group paused. Keith looked at the man and held up his arm in its sling. "Sorry, mate. I'm hors d'combat."
"Let the lad have a try, then!" The man was smiling. Claudia looked at Keith, who was smiling at her. With a grin, she stepped up.
"I'll give it a go." She slapped down her money and picked up an air rifle. The man loaded it with BBs and handed it back to her.
"There you go, missy. You have to shoot the star out. Remove every scrap of paper with red on it, and you win a prize."
Claudia nodded and took careful aim. She fired a single shot, then looked to see where it had landed. It was just outside of the star, low and to the left. She nodded, adjusted her aim, and fired again. The pellet had landed where she wanted it to, so she continued, firing until the gun was empty. The man went to fetch the target, and was displeased to see that she'd completely removed every scrap of red. He tried to smooth it from the rear, hoping for just the tiniest bit, but there was none left.
"You're in luck, missy. You get your choice." He waved at the huge number of stuffed animals taking up most of his booth and smiled. "The lamb, please." The man frowned. He looked at the soft toy and then shrugged. He'd had it for several years, actually. It was probably the most expensive item in the booth, but people tended to go for the bigger, and more cheaply made toys. Sadly, he handed over the toy. Claudia smiled and presented it to Keith, who laughed.
"Mum, could I have a try?" Margaret asked.
The booth operator smiled hopefully.
"I don't see why not." She looked at Tom, who had watched her in awe as she'd shot. "How about you, Tom?"
"I've never even held a gun, before."
"That's okay, Tom. I'll teach you," Margaret replied before her mother could comment. Keith put down the fee, and stood quietly by as Margaret showed Tom how to hold the air rifle and aim it, and how to decide how the gun pulled. Then she cheered him on as he attempted to take out the red star on his target. He failed, of course, but he had fun trying. Then Margaret took up a rifle and, like her mother had, fired one test shot to decide how well the gun was sighted. Hers was fairly close to accurate, so she began firing in earnest and, like her mother, she managed to take out the entire star. Disappointed to have to pay out two out of three, the operator offered her her choice of his stock.
"I'd like the lion, please." The man took down the lion and handed it over. As her mother had done with the lamb, she presented it to Tom, who grinned in thanks.
Pleased with their success, they continued down the midway. A few booths further on, there was a baseball toss. Keith paused to watch and after a few moments, stepped up. "I'll give it a go," he said softly, handing over his money and passing his lamb to Claudia to hold. Tossing the ball in his hand to get the feel of it, he then gripped it, took aim and threw. The milk bottles flew in every direction, much to the booth operator's surprise and dismay. Keith pointed to a brightly colored unicorn, which was handed over. With a smile, he presented it to Margaret.
"For you, dear maiden," he said gallantly. Margaret giggled in embarrassment as she glanced at her mother for permission. At her nod, she accepted it.
"Thank you, kind sir." She gave a passable curtsey, which looked a bit odd since she was wearing trousers. Keith grinned at her and turned back to the booth.
"I'll have another go, if you please." Reluctantly, the operator took his money and handed over another ball. Again tossing the ball to get its heft and balance, he gripped it, took careful aim, and let fly again, and again blasted the bottles away. This time, he asked for a large and improbably colored stuffed parrot, which he offered to Claudia, who grinned broadly as she accepted it.
"Why the parrot?" she asked, as they walked on.
"I just thought it would go well with your slippers, robe, and nightgown." He blushed a bit, thinking perhaps he was being a bit too forward, discussing her nightwear, but she laughed.
"Well, it *is* the same colors, isn't it?"
"That's what I was thinking." He joined her in laughter.
The two children exchanged a look and grinned. It looked like their plan might be working, after all.
They picked up some spun sugar and soft drinks, and then headed back to the rides. Keith suggested they ride the Ferris Wheel, and received a quick agreement. They were stuck for a few minutes at the very top of the ride, and they looked out across the countryside from their vantage point and pointed out the things they knew from this new and unusual viewing spot. Afterwards, they sent the children on another of the more daring rides, while they sat and rested. When they returned, Tom nudged Margaret and gestured to the adults Keith's left arm was around Claudia's shoulders, and her head rested on his shoulder. They exchanged satisfied grins and rejoined them.
By six in the evening, they were all tired and ready to leave, just as the crowds began to swell. They returned to The Dickens's house, stopping off at a small restaurant on the way, for dinner.
Once inside, the children collapsed on the sofa in the lounge, and sighed in contentment. They'd had a wonderful time and were now exhausted. Keith and Claudia went into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee for themselves, leaving the children with the TV.
"Would you like to spend the night again, Keith? I know you've got to be at least as tired as I am."
"It's a lovely idea, Claudia, but I think that maybe I should get us home." He didn't sound very enthusiastic about the idea.
She reached across the table and touched his hand. "Stay."
He looked into her eyes and saw what he thought might be desire. "I'd better not."
"Why not?" Her disappointment was obvious.
He smiled, coloring a bit. "Because, as I told you, I don't mind Straker yelling at me, unless I've done something to deserve it. We need to fill out a Form 142869-b."
She frowned, not recognizing the number. "What's that?"
"Statement of intent when two operatives decide to court."
Such an archaic term, but it made her smile. "I'd no idea we were so medieval about such things. I'm sure that there are any number of people 'fooling around' at any time, but you want to fill out a form of intent?"
He looked at her very seriously. "Yes. Because if there isn't a 142869-b on file, you cannot be granted a Section 202, permission to marry."
Her breath caught and she nearly choked on what had begun as a snigger. Her eyes widened and she gaped at him. "Are you serious?"
He paled, thinking she wasn't interested in him that way. "I. Well, I thought. Maybe you need to tell me?"
She continued to stare at him in shock. Marriage? She had thought of them becoming lovers, but marriage? There was a little thrill of something that set her heart to pounding and her breath to a faster pace as well. She saw him begin to withdraw, the fear and embarrassment plain on his face. "I don't think I'd thought that far ahead, to be honest, Keith. My husband died when Maggie was only four, and she's thirteen, now. I haven't been with any man since he was killed, although I have dated. I admit that I find you very attractive and sweet; plus, you're the only man I've met who paid appropriate attention to Maggie. I know that Tom's not yours, but he's such a sweet lad." She shook her head, realizing what she was saying. They could become a family. A real one. Certainly their work shifts would remain the same; each of them sleeping while the other one worked, but they could have the evenings together, and perhaps their schedules would remain so that they could share their weekends like this.
She took a deep breath, decision made. They did need more time to get to know one another, and it would be worth waiting for. She nodded. "Form 142869-b it is." Seeing the relief on his face made her smile. Such little things pleased him.
Unnoticed by the two adults, the two children eavesdropping exchanged ear-splitting grins and a hug.
"He's dreaming," Straker said softly, nudging Louise. She glanced over at Alec and smiled.
"Yes, he is. About his babies."
Ed's eyebrows rose. "What makes you think that?"
"Easy, the way he's got his pillow cuddled close, and his arm reaching beyond it. He's dreaming of when he was home, with his sons snuggled close to him while he slept."
Ed looked and nodded. "I see what you mean." He grinned at her and the arm that lay across her shoulders tugged her a bit more tightly against his side as they kept watch for their friend to awaken.
He remembered it as a dream, but he did remember. He'd asked if his 'dream' had been real, or just that, a dream, and was reassured that it was indeed, real. His sons cared for him, his daughter looked like she would survive, and he was a contented man.
Late that next night, Alec awoke to find Eddie dozing in his chair by the bed. Tentatively, he eased from the bed and slid his feet into slippers and, wisely taking up the cane that Louise had provided him with, over his protests, snuck out of his room to go for a walk. It was late, and the nurse's station had only one nurse doing paperwork. He had overheard people talking, so he knew where to go. Up two floors, to the ICU. All the rooms up there had one nurse for every two patients. He smiled at the one at the desk.
"I just wanted to get a look at April Ashton-MacAvoy, if I might? I don't need to go in, just look at her, please?" He used his most charming smile, and the nurse smiled back and nodded.
"I'll show you. You must be the donor?"
"Yes, I am. I just wondered what she looked like."
The nurse looked him over. "You probably aren't supposed to be up and about, yet, are you?"
"I was up and about earlier, but this, well, it's personal, if you get my meaning?"
She returned his smile again. "Oh, yes. If you go straight back to your room, I promise not to tell on you."
She was beautiful. She had dark auburn hair just starting to grow back after all the chemo and radiation therapy. Her skin was fine and pale, with the translucence of the ill, but there was just a hint of color in her cheeks, and even as thin and wasted as she was from her disease, she was possibly one of the most beautiful women he'd ever seen in his life. He placed his hand, fingers splayed, against the protective glass that separated them. His expression softened to one of joy, mixed with melancholy. He brought his fingers to his lips and kissed them, then lay them again against the glass for a moment, before turning away.
He paused by the nurse's station. "Thank you."
She looked up from her monitors and smiled. "You're quite welcome."
He exited the ICU and came face-to-face with Eddie, who was watching him, arms folded across his chest, and a wheelchair at hand. Seeing the younger man's implacable expression, Alec sighed and eased down into the wheelchair.
"Don't worry, I won't tell on you."
"I thought I left you sleeping."
"You tried, but I knew where you were going and took the stairs and beat you there. You trying to get me in trouble?"
"No, of course not, it's just...."
"Just that you were embarrassed about wanting to see her?" Eddie chuckled. "Dr. Lewis told me to expect you to want to go see her, and Dad said you would most likely try and sneak out to do it." He shrugged. "After the thing with MacAvoy, you should know better than to think I'll slip up again."
Alec winced. "Sorry about that. I didn't think, I'm afraid."
"It's all right. This time. Just don't try it again, or I'll have to kick you in the ass, on the sore side."
Alec chuckled. "You and your father are a great deal alike, you know that?"
Eddie paused for just a moment. "Why, thank you. I think that's probably the nicest thing you've ever said to me."
Alec's chuckle grew into a laugh, "Ow! Oh, ow. It really does hurt to laugh."
Eddie joined him in laughter.
Two days later, Alec met his sons and their stepfather for lunch. He was pleased that they parted friends. The only dark moment was when Ashton announced that Susan had left him. He didn't seem too upset by it, however. Joey immediately agreed to come home and help him with the station. Mark had to return to duty, now that his sister was on the mend. She'd still be many weeks in hospital, as she would have no immune system whatsoever for quite some time to come, but the bone marrow had begun producing red blood cells almost immediately and so far, though it was too soon to be more than slightly optimistic, appeared to be on the mend.
While Alec met with his sons, Ed and Louise did a bit of sightseeing. They walked along beaches, hand-in-hand, simply enjoying one another's company. After a while, they returned to their room and entertained themselves for several hours, confident in their safety.
Eddie did a bit of sightseeing on his own and wished he'd someone to join him. He was careful to stay away from their quarters until late, not wanting to disturb his father and his lady. Seeing them growing closer made him feel good. Dr. Lewis was good for his dad. She helped balance duty and personal needs. He'd seen for himself how good she was for the commander. He just hoped that one of these days, he'd find someone like her for himself.
He stood on the quay, looking out over Sydney Harbour late that afternoon when his pager went off. Still smiling, he pulled it from his pocket, figuring it was his dad wanting him 'home for dinner'. When he spotted the red indicator, he stopped smiling and quickly turned and made his way to the car he'd rented and drove with alacrity back to the Bed and Breakfast.
Alec had been resting in his room when the alert sounded. He quickly arose, wincing as his hip protested the abrupt movement. Ignoring it, he checked his pager and grabbed his clothes and threw them into his suitcase, unconcerned with neatness or wrinkles. Sliding on his shoes, he took one last look around his room for anything he might have missed and headed out the door.
Ed and Louise were dozing when their pagers went off. Ed reacted immediately and was up and halfway dressed before she'd managed to get out of the bed. She reached for her pager first and winced at the message. She started to scramble into her clothes as Ed began throwing their clothes in their suitcases. He was in the bathroom packing their personal items by the time she'd gotten her shoes on, amazed at the speed with which he moved. She stopped him before he left the room, however, and held him still long enough to smooth his hair down and check him for any sign of their recent activities. Dabbing away a bit of lipstick from his jaw, she smiled fleetingly and nodded. He didn't respond except to jerk open the door, grab up their suitcases, and exit.
"Where's Eddie?" Straker snapped to Alec, who was just coming out of Eddie's room with his suitcase, his limp rather noticeable.
"Out sightseeing, as I recall."
"Well, he'd better hurry it up." Louise grabbed Eddie's suitcase, but had to let Alec take his own, despite his obvious discomfort. They arrived down in the lobby just as Eddie rushed in from outside, panting. Seeing them ready to go, he snatched Alec's suitcase from him and turned around.
Within thirty minutes of the alert, they were on their way to the local SHADO Satrapy.
"What do you have?" Straker was in full 'commander' mode. His expression was grim and the tension in the control room quintupled at his entrance.
"Six ufoes, sir. Trajectory terminus would put them off the coast of central California. It looks like they're trying to recover their base, sir."
"Scrambled, sir. They're still a bit out, but we think that...."
"*Think*? What do you mean, you *think*?" He leaned over the man's shoulder and took a look for himself, quickly reading the information. "Get me MoonBase," he snarled.
"Gay, what do you have?"
"Six bogeys, bearing 422 green, at SOL decimal five. They seem very cautious, sir."
"Have you launched interceptors?"
"Not yet, sir. No use wasting fuel if they stay out of reach."
"Good. Keep me posted."
"Of course, Commander."
Straker stepped back and glared at the tech who had said that interceptors had been scrambled. "Next time, Mister, try to be a bit more accurate in your reporting." He turned to look around at the others in the control room. "Who's in charge, here?"
"That would be me, Commander." He turned. The man was positively obese. Straker's eyes narrowed, trying to place the man. "Who are you?"
Straker, lips compressed in annoyance, looked the man over. He looked like he'd slept in his clothes, and from the grease stain on his jacket, rather suspected that he had. "What made you think that interceptors had been launched already?"
"Uh, well, six incoming, sir?"
"No one announced launch from MoonBase, am I correct?"
"Uh, no, sir, I mean, yes, sir. No one announced launch." The man was sweating profusely, and his coworkers were very careful not to look at him, for fear of attracting the commander's attention.
Straker glared. Franklin was spared his justified wrath, however, when the voice of SID announced that the six ufoes were again on the move. Straker turned from the hapless crew chief and focused on the nearest readouts.
"Launch Interceptors," Gay announced.
Straker silently cursed to himself as he once again damned the penny-pinching fools who had insisted on going with single missile capability on the interceptors. The best they could hope for was a fifty-percent kill ratio, which would leave three of the enemy free to get to earth. "What's the projected terminus?"
"Still central coastal California, sir."
He wondered what had taken them so long? It had been more than four months since they'd taken over the alien base off the Farallon Islands. SkyDiver 2 was still there, cataloguing and salvaging everything they could. No time to speculate on that now. He leaned over the operative's shoulder and pressed the radio control. "How many SkyDivers do we have available?"
"Skys 2 and 3 are the closest, sir. Sky 1 is off of Tierra del Fuego, and is the next closest."
Straker frowned. "Ford? Is that you?"
"Shouldn't you still be on medical leave?"
"No, sir. I've been back almost a week, now, sir."
"What about the boy?"
"Mrs. Dickens is watching him while I'm at work, and then I watch out for her daughter between the time they get out of school and she gets home, sir."
Straker caught Alec's grin and shook his head. He was going to have to start calling the man 'yenta'. "Sounds like you have things under control, Captain."
"We try, sir. I've notified Skydivers, 2 and 3 are prepared for launch, Sky 1 is underway north and will provide support."
"Very good, Mr. Ford."
SID's voice again intruded. "Confirm. Two ufoes destroyed, one damaged. Four continuing on trajectory towards earth."
"Launch Skys 2 and 3," Ford's voice commanded.
"Sky 2, launched."
"Sky 3, launched."
"Sky 1, standing by."
There were several minutes of silence as they waited for news. Alec grimaced and shifted, trying to favor his injured hip. Louise noticed and moved over to him, giving him a good look. "Mr. Franklin, where is your office?"
"Through there, miss."
"That's *doctor*, to you," Straker snarled, refocusing his attention on the slovenly man.
"Sorry, sir. It's right through here, Doctor." He gratefully made his escape on the pretext of showing her the way to his office. The room was as slovenly as its owner, and Louise made a sour face as she looked around. Spotting the sofa, she sighed in relief. It was the best thing in the room. Good quality leather, and eight feet long. Pulling Alec along with her, she let him go and with one sweep of her arms, cleared the debris from the sofa.
"Alec, I know you want to be in the thick of things, but you're still convalescing and I want you to stretch out for a bit. Here, I'm sure you haven't had a pain pill in far too long." She held out his prescription and his protest died premature. He reluctantly accepted the pill and swallowed it dry.
"Thirty minutes. That's all. You relax until the pill has time to start working, and then you can come back in, all right?"
"And if it does as usual and knocks me out? I suppose you'll just leave me lie here until it wears off?"
She blushed slightly at being caught out. "I promise I'll wake you, all right? Just half an hour?"
"Fine." He stretched out on his right side and folded his arms across his chest, his head resting against the arm of the sofa. She smiled at him and patted his shoulder.
"Thirty minutes, I promise."
Straker turned to her when she returned, a concerned look on his face. She smiled and shook her head to indicate that everything was all right. He nodded and turned back to the displays and the ongoing attack and defense.
Sky 3 announced the successful destruction of one of the ufoes, while Sky 2 found itself under attack by the two whole craft. The one damaged in space was ignored, for the moment, as the two Skys battled the two healthy ufoes.
Straker listened closely, and then leaned over the operative again and pressed the 'talk' button. "Where's the damaged ufoe?"
"Sky 1 is on approach and has locked on, sir," Ford's calm voice announced. "Kill confirmed, sir."
Skys 2 and 3 continued their dogfight with the two remaining ufoes, when Sky 1 joined the fray. Seeing that they were now outnumbered, the two surviving ufoes turned to head back to space, not realizing that they left themselves open for further attack. All three Skys fired, and both remaining ufoes were destroyed.
There were cheers in the Sydney control room, but Straker was frowning. He caught Eddie and Louise's eyes and they could both see his anger. Louise glanced at her watch and noticed that twenty-five minutes had passed since she'd dragged Alec off to rest. She crossed over to the office and entered.
He lay there, breathing heavily, sound asleep. She sat beside him and rubbed his arm and shoulder to wake him. He stirred slightly and his eyes slowly opened. "So, how long have I been out?"
"No idea, but the thirty minutes will be up in about two more."
He grinned and shifted, preparatory to sitting up. She stood and held out her hands to offer him some help. He frowned, but then accepted the assistance, as his hip twinged to remind him that he was still injured.
"So, did we get them?"
"Yes, the last two went down just before I came to get you. Sorry you missed all the excitement."
"If you were sorry, you'd have let me stay."
"Well, I am sorry you missed it, but not sorry that I'm insisting you take proper care of yourself."
He grinned. "I know, someone's got to do it, and you've volunteered for the position."
Louise laughed and slapped him lightly on the back. "Good point. Come on, I think the commander is about to do some house cleaning."
"Oh, joy. Not that I'm surprised, mind you. Franklin isn't exactly command material."
"He's not at all pleased. I understand that his being here instead of headquarters would make anyone nervous, but that is ridiculous."
"Take it from someone who knows, he's drunk."
Louise winced. "Ouch." She looked up at Alec and was pleased to see him alert and relaxed, and not seeming to desire a drink, himself. He glanced down at her and grinned.
"One thing about not piloting the plane home, is that I can drink like a fish and it won't matter."
She stared at him, caught his wink and shook her head. "Sometimes, Colonel...."
Straker called a meeting with the crew chief and head of the Sydney Satrapy. He was livid. The people showed no discipline, no concern for either their duties or their appearance. He ordered them on full alert until further notice, and that an ORI and UCI would begin at once. Franklin blanched at the announcement. An Operations Readiness Inspection was about the worst thing any commander wanted to occur unannounced and unplanned for, but to include a Unit Compliance Inspection as well, was the crack of doom, and he realized it. He'd be lucky if he survived, let alone ever remembered anything. Discussing it with Alec, Straker accepted his advice and sent for Foster. One thing the man was good at was minor commands. He'd no doubt come in here and do some major housecleaning, starting with the appearance of the place. It would be perfect for him. His own command, as it were, and he'd be grateful, just to be out of SkyDiver 2. It should work out well. In the meantime, until Foster could get here, they'd have to run the place themselves.
The Sydney crew was not looking forward to the next week with the commander in residence, but they'd be reminded of their purpose for being there, and the requirements of a military organization.
Dr. Lewis set up psych evals on the entire contingent in order to weed out any who were unsuitable for continued employment. Everyone knew that she'd replaced Dr. Jackson, and they were automatically terrified of her, wondering what kind of monster could possibly replace the horrifying and seemingly omnipotent man.
For once, she didn't disabuse the rumors.
"Well?" Straker had set up in Franklin's office, once it had been properly cleaned and checked for surveillance equipment. He had not been at all surprised to discover that there were several 'bugs' in the station. He'd sent for security from headquarters to secure the place. Eddie had been busy going through the video files, while Alec had been going through the reports, searching for anomalies.
Alec shook his head and shifted to stand on his good leg, favoring the still-healing hip. He leaned against the wall opposite the door. "Books match for the most part. There are a few discrepancies, all under Franklin's signature. There are a couple of other iffy things, tardiness that's been covered up and the like, possible drug use. The night shift often has to stay over into days, particularly on the weekends." He handed his report to Straker, who glanced through the documentation with a grim expression on his face.
"ORI and UCI?"
"Failed miserably; although, again, the night shift did better than days, as did the evening shift."
"I see." He looked across to where Louise was sitting on the sofa. "Doctor?"
"Well, no surprise that Franklin flunked his psych eval. I found evidence of drug use on a number of the day shift, all cronies of Franklin. He seems to be their contact for their drugs."
Straker's expression, already annoyed, hardened further. "How prevalent is it?"
"Six on dayshift, two on nights, but theirs seems to be different. They appear to have been taking stimulants to stay alert when day shift operatives failed to show up on time." She looked up from her report. "I'd counsel them and put them on days, keeping a close eye on them. Those two I don't expect continued problems from. They were just trying to keep everything going."
"And the six on days? Is Franklin in that number?"
"No, sir. However, he is their supplier."
"How about the rest of them?"
"Evening shift passed, but need at least some remedial training. Night shift seems to be the best of them, I'm afraid, despite the two taking amphetamines to keep going when they had to work extra shifts. They show the most dedication, with the evening shift a close second. Day shift failed miserably, except for one. You might have noticed him?"
"The one whose shoulder I was looking over? The one the others ignored completely? Yes, I noticed. What's his story?"
"Sent on rotation from headquarters six weeks ago."
Straker nodded. "Has he sent any reports back?"
"Get rid of him."
They went over every single member of the Sydney contingent. Alec arranged for replacements from headquarters, while Louise arranged for those who were to be mustered out to be sent back, under guard, to England, where they would be interrogated and given their memory wipes. Eddie acted as gofer and interface between the locals and command and showed a talent for organization that reminded his father of his regular secretary. Obviously, owning and running his own business had given him innumerable useful skills.
Paul Foster arrived on station all smiles. It didn't matter that he was still basically on a punishment detail; he was no longer confined to the sardine can that was SkyDiver 2. That and the fact that Straker had called for him, personally, had raised his spirits inordinately. As soon as he realized why he was needed in Sydney, his smile vanished and he read with horror the goings on. His expression grim, he was introduced to the crew that was left, six night and six evening crewmembers. Twelve more had been sent out from headquarters to fill the remaining slots, and no more than half a shift would be covered by the personnel already on station. Paul could easily see the reasoning behind it. The entire place was on probation. His job was to bring them back into compliance. Here was a chance for him to redeem himself, and he intended to do just that, and if they compared him to Captain Bligh, it didn't much matter, just as long as they toed the line and got the job done. Of course, if he did well in cleaning up the mess here, he just might find himself back in Straker's good graces. Only problem he could see was Dr. Jackson's replacement, the bitch. He came into the control room, head up, looking about him critically. The first person to see him glanced up and nodded.
"Yes. Are you an idiot, or simply don't you care about military protocol?"
The dark young man raised an imperious eyebrow. "My apologies, Colonel, but we've been instructed to maintain our posts no matter the provocation, per Commander Straker's orders."
Foster's lips thinned in anger. "Well, once he's gone, that will change."
The dark young man spun away from Foster and focused on his terminal. "Bearing 145 blue. Interceptors have launched. Tracking."
Taken aback, Foster scowled.
"What's happening, Mr. Duk?" Straker's voice directly behind him made Foster jump, not having heard him approach.
"One ufoe, sir, Interceptors have just reported a kill."
"Very good." Straker turned his head to look at Foster. "Welcome, Colonel. Let me show you around, then we can discuss your plans."
"Of course, Commander." Foster stabbed a look of loathing at Mr. Duk and turned to follow his superior into the office that would soon be his.
"Oy, Eddie. I think you pissed him off," Donald Blake whispered to the younger man sitting at the station next to his.
Eddie grinned and shrugged. "I'm not worried. I'm just training, and when it comes right down to it, following the commander's orders supersedes anything anyone else wants."
"Yeah, you lucky devil," Mick Shaughnessey grumbled. "The old man's taking you back home with him. Not like us, poor sods."
"Hey, I'm an American. London's hardly 'home' for me."
"Yeah, well, I'd be happy to relocate. Especially after the crap that's been going on here." Don sounded a bit bitter.
"You aren't in trouble, you know." Eddie tried to sound reassuring, but from the way the other two men were shaking their heads, he knew they didn't believe him. He knew that these were the two who'd been so loyal that they'd taken 'go pills' to keep functioning when their dayshift replacements had failed to come in. The commander had put Eddie on watch with them not just to learn the ropes, but to observe them and determine their loyalty and continued use to the organization. This was his third shift with them, and his reports had been as clinical as he could make them. He had to struggle to keep his personal like of both men from his written reports. Dr. Lewis, however, had debriefed him after each shift, and he was sure was passing his admiration of both men on to the commander.
Convincing the pair that this wasn't a punishment, however, was another thing.
Foster looked around the office in dismay. It was shabby and small. Almost as small as his quarters in SkyDiver 2 had been. Obviously there was no way to alleviate it, but at least he was back in real air, not recycled stuff. Straker pointed to the hard, wooden visitor's chair. He sat, practically at attention. Straker circled to behind the desk and sat down.
"So, how's the recovery mission off the Farallons going?"
"Slowly, sir. We're using the old-fashioned hard-hat suits, because the divers can stay down longer with them, but the decompression time is also longer. Each team is only allowed to dive two out of three days, and even with ten teams, it's wearing on them."
Straker nodded. He'd already read all the reports. "Any problems?"
Foster shrugged. "None to speak of, sir. It's a bit tedious, is all. The men could use a break, I think."
"I'll take it under advisement." He didn't bother to mention that SkyDiver 4 had taken the place of 2, and that the entire contingent of 2 was currently on a week's shore leave in San Francisco.
"I've read the report on this place, sir," Foster offered carefully.
"Have you? Good. Comments?"
"Well, sir, personally, I rather think a complete clean sweep of personnel is in order."
"Do you? Why is that?"
"Well, sir, you know what they say about a single bad apple spoiling the entire shipment."
"The correct quote is 'one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel'. It goes back to the days of general stores, before the days of refrigeration; when apples were stored and shipped in barrels." He saw he'd lost his audience and stopped, his lips thinning. "I disagree. Two of the nightshift men are on duty, now. What did you think of them?"
"Well, the youngest one, the one who spoke to me, doesn't strike me as much of a keeper, sir."
Straker moved his head in his 'oh? Do tell' position. "Really? What struck you about him?"
"He hasn't much respect for authority, sir."
Straker blinked and thought, 'pot, allow me to introduce you to kettle'. "What gave you that idea?"
"Well, sir, he obviously knew who I was, even called me by name, but didn't stand or salute, sir."
"They are under my direct orders to focus on their tracking stations and ignore anything else, colonel. Would you have had them disobey that order to flatter your ego?"
Foster realized, too late, that he'd stepped in it again. His jaw clenched in anger, and he took a deep breath to control himself. "No, sir."
"Good. Other than that, then. What didn't you like about them?"
He thought about it and finally shrugged. "Nothing I can really put my finger on, sir. Just a feeling."
Straker nodded. He used gut instinct himself; and if Alec were to express the exact same sentiment as Foster just had, he'd have been quick to act, based on that feeling. However, this was not Alec, but Foster, and Foster had yet to prove himself. Good Lord, fifteen years, and he still didn't quite trust the man. What had he been thinking? "Well, we only kept those who showed themselves to have the proper dedication. The rest of the station has been sent off to headquarters for debriefing and memory wipes."
"I see." Of course he did. He was being left with the best of a bad lot. Could be worse, he supposed. At least this satrapy was near civilization. He'd do his best to whip the men into shape. The sooner, the better. Straker had better get used to the idea of hearing from him on a regular basis. He wasn't going to let himself be forgotten in this backwater place. With a bit of luck, he'd be back in London within six months.
Straker nodded. "Well, I'll leave you to become acquainted with your new command. There are twelve new people I had brought in to replace those who couldn't cut it. I'll be in Sydney for a few more days and will check back to see how you're doing." He stood and came around the desk. Foster stood to meet him and followed him out into the control room. The dark young man was standing, now, watching over one of the other men's shoulder. He scowled.
"Learning the ropes, Mr. Duk?" Straker asked.
Eddie glanced over his shoulder. "Yes, sir. I think there's something wrong with the equipment, sir."
Straker stiffened. "Oh?"
"Yes, sir. Mick is picking up an anomaly, sir. I don't quite know what to make of it, sir." He stepped back, making room for both Straker and Foster to move in and look over Shaugnessey's shoulders.
"Here, sir. See it?" Mickey pointed to an amorphous blip on his screen.
"Is anyone else picking this up?" Straker called out to the rest of the crew. There was a chorus of 'no, sir's. He frowned. "I don't like it. Scramble a plane to go and check it out, Mr. Shaughnessey."
"Aye-aye, sir." He toggled his communicator and sent a jet fighter to check out whatever it was he was picking up.
Eddie returned to his station and sat down. He tracked the scrambled jet and there were sighs of relief when the pilot reported in that it was simply a flock of black cockatoos circling.
"What are they upset about?" Eddie asked the pilot.
There was a minute of silence before the pilot replied. "Looks like there's something in the trees." He gave the coordinates, and Eddie sent a mobile out to investigate, without further instruction.
Foster frowned. "You're scrambling a mobile to find out why a flock of birds are flying?" he asked, aghast.
Eddie didn't even look at him. "Yes, sir. Mick's the only one who picked them up, sir, and the pilot was unable to discern what was riling them up. We've been watching them for half an hour, plus the fifteen minutes prior to your coming out, sir. Normally, birds don't stay agitated for that long a time. I deemed it prudent to err on the side of caution, sir."
Mick nodded. "I'd do the same, sir."
"As would I, sir," Blake added his support.
Foster's frown turned into a scowl and he took a breath to berate the three men, but Straker beat him to the punch.
"Good call, gentlemen. I'll stay until we find out what it is. You've got my curiosity piqued, now. Tell me, Mr. Shaughnessey, why is it that only your scope was able to pick up the flock?"
"My angulation is a bit lower than the others, sir. I've actually got the most surface range, but it's a lower angle, only about twenty-five degrees, sir."
Straker nodded. "Well, let's see what's got the birds so upset and go from there, shall we?"
Foster fumed silently as they waited. He critically watched every move any of the crew made, looking for things to pounce on. He only felt frustration upon finding none. An hour later, the mobile finally checked in.
"It's space debris, sir. Looks like a bit of an old satellite."
"How big is it, and is it terrestrial, or alien?" Straker demanded.
"Well, sir, it still has some lettering on it. Looks like part of an old booster rocket, sir. There's still an A and part of the S on it. It's a recent fall, sir. Still warm to the touch."
"There was a report just prior to the ufoe incident, sir, indicating space debris re-entry. Trajectory termination was supposed to be over the South Pacific." Don Blake reported.
"But it's on land, and a good hundred miles from the nearest water," Mick added.
"Check the area and be careful. Any signs of anything out of the ordinary, call for help."
"Are the birds still agitated?" Don asked.
"Yes. There's a huge flock of the blighters about five clicks from here, and they're high. Higher than I've ever seen cockatoos fly, anyway."
"That's where they'll be, then," Don insisted. "It's in their nesting area, and it's got them riled."
"Follow it up," Straker commanded. "Get them some air support, Mr. Blake."
They waited tensely as the mobile trundled in the direction of the agitated birds and three fighter jets scrambled from the nearest base. When the mobile got to the grove of eucalyptus trees, they were fired upon, but the greenish energy bolt missed them.
"We are under attack!"
They waited helplessly and anxiously as the radio silence returned, until finally, "We have positive tracking. One ufoe attempting liftoff. Opening fire."
There was another tense three minutes of silence, and finally, "Direct hit! Confirmed. Direct hit! It's going down."
"Mobile?" Eddie radioed.
It was a different voice that finally replied. "We've got some heavy damage, control. I. I've got two badly injured and one dead. I. I'm not doing very well, either. We're going to need help, sir. And fairly soon, I'm afraid. Our mobile is damaged and not functioning, sir."
"Send a medevac for them."
"Yes, sir." Blake called for a medevac team, giving them the coordinates for the damaged mobile, while Eddie continued to keep the mobile operator online and talking.
"How bad are you hurt?"
"I think I broke my collarbone, sir."
"What's your name?"
"Sanders, sir. Becky Sanders."
"You hold on, Becky. Are you bleeding?"
"Just my nose, sir."
"What about the others?"
"Davis was bleeding from his leg, where a bolt hit us and tore some equipment loose. I've gotten a tourniquet on it. Jacobs is unconscious. He really smashed his head on the top when the bolt hit us, sir. He was half outside, and I think he may have broken his back, sir."
"Hang on, Becky. Help's on its way."
"Thank you, sir."
There was a minute of silence, while Eddie tried to think of something else to say, when Sanders spoke again. "I hear a helicopter."
"That should be your relief, Becky. Hang in there."
"I'm not a 'sir'. Just Eddie will do."
"You're a Yank."
"Yes. Sort of."
"What's 'sort of' mean?"
"My mother was Vietnamese, but I was born in the states, and my father is an American."
"Good on you. My dad was white, too. Or at least that's what my mum said." She fell silent again until a new, and masculine, voice came on.
"Medevac one is on scene. We have two critical and one serious. We're going to go to work now and give you a call when we're airborne again to update you."
"Control clear." Eddie sat back and wiped the perspiration from his brow. It had been his first incident, and he was drained.
"Good call, gentlemen. Mr. Shaughnessy, excellent job."
"Thank you, Commander."
"Good work, men." He turned to Straker. "How do you think they got past MoonBase and SID, sir?"
Straker turned to the crew. "Any ideas, gentlemen?"
Blake timidly raised a hand. "Mr. Blake?"
"Sir, I think they used the single ufoe incoming to mask a second which came in under the guise of the falling space junk, sir."
"Very good, Mr. Blake." He turned to Foster. "Does that make sense to you, Colonel?"
Foster nodded. "Perfect sense." His estimation of the crew went up a few notches. Not much, but then, they had started below cellar level, so they could only go either up, or dead.
The afternoon shift crew came in and, upon seeing the commander, snapped to attention and saluted.
"At ease. This is Colonel Foster, your new CO. I'll let him brief you, prior to shift change." He turned back to the dayshift crew. "Good work, gentlemen. Well done." He patted Eddie on the shoulder, smiled at the others, and turned to leave.
Foster and the next shift crowded into the miniscule conference room to be briefed. Once the door was closed, Mickey and Don turned to Eddie. "Thanks," Mickey said.
"For what?" Eddie replied in confusion.
"For making me fess up to that anomaly on my scope."
"Hey, you would have said something."
Mickey shook his head. "I'm not so sure."
"I'm with Mick, Eddie. With the way things have been going and how mad the commander's been about everything here, I'm kind of surprised any of us survived."
"Well, Dr. Lewis cleared you."
"Not exactly. We're on probation because of the 'go pills'. But there wasn't anything else to be done. We were always the last to get relieved, and some days, we'd be pulling doubles, and seventeen hours at work and an hour's drive home and another one back just didn't leave enough time to get enough sleep, not and eat, too."
"Yeah," Don agreed. "And the number of times we'd get called in on our so-called days off. I couldn't have managed without the 'go pills'."
"Well, that's over, now. You're pulling eight-hour shifts, with thirty minute breaks for lunch. By the way, how *is* the food, here?"
"Tucker's bleedin' awful, mate," one of the other crew laughed. "Me wife sends tucker from home. I wouldn't feed the slop here to the dingoes."
Eddie nodded. "I'll be sure to mention that."
"Good luck. I don't think the colonel took any kind of a shine to you, mate."
Eddie grinned. "He's not the one I'll be talking to."
"Hey, Eddie, how come you've got such an in with the commander?" another man asked.
"I'm his aide-de-camp, not to mention his bodyguard."
"You're lucky, Eddie-me-lad. You got a sheila back home waiting for you?"
"No. My sister and her son, is all."
"What about your folks?"
"Well, my father's still around, but my mother died a long time ago."
"That's rough, mate."
Eddie shrugged. "It's not so bad. I get along well with my dad."
"Bet he doesn't know what you do, right? I think that's the hardest thing, Not being able to tell them what you do."
"Well, he knows where I work. I think he's pleased with me, for the most part."
The two men nodded. "That's the best you can hope for, I think. That your folks are satisfied with what you've grown up to be," Don agreed. Eddie just grinned in response.
Alec had left earlier in the day, returning to the hotel they'd transferred to in order to be closer to the satrapy. He still tired easily, much to his annoyed dismay, but Louise assured him that he was doing just fine and in another week or two, he'd be back to normal. In the meantime, he simply wasn't up to long hours on his feet, and needed a lot more sleep than he was used to. The pain from the surgery was easing, but he was still taking two pills a day for the pain and discomfort, along with the two-weeks of antibiotics he'd been given. He'd take one pill about mid-morning, and the second just before bed at night. Unfortunately, they knocked him right out for at least a couple of hours.
That had been why he'd returned to the hotel. It was just a short taxi ride away from the satrapy; he'd have considered it walking distance, had his hip not been bothering him. He'd gotten to his room and taken his pills, then undressed and stretched out in his bed for his nap. If it weren't for the residual groggy feeling when he awoke, he might have been happy to continue the naps.
He slept for a couple of hours and then awoke. For once, he felt alert, which pleased him. He stretched languorously and got up, heading to the bathroom to relieve himself and take a shower. The steaming hot water felt great on his lower back, which also tended to ache. Eventually, though, he turned off the taps and grabbed a towel, quickly drying himself. From force of habit, he wrapped the towel around his hips and exited the bathroom, intending to dress and return to work. He'd only take one step from the doorway when he spotted her. He froze in shock. For just a moment, he felt a tiny thrill of fear and his eyes glanced around the room to make sure there were no other intruders. Obviously, the woman sprawled on his bed was unarmed. There was nowhere for her to hide anything, as all her assets were displayed. It took another half-second to recognize her, and his expression, which had been going for shock, turned instead to anger.
"What the devil do you think you're doing?" he practically snarled, grasping his towel a bit more tightly.
"What does it look like I'm doing?" She ran her hand over her breast and down her body, splaying her legs further apart in what she thought was an enticing manner. To his surprise, he felt only revulsion.
"Looks to me like you're making a fool of yourself," he muttered darkly, crossing to the dresser to get some underwear. He pulled his skivvies on, careful not to reveal himself to the naked woman on his bed. Once safely covered, he removed his damp towel and threw it across her, successfully covering her.
"Auggghhhh!" she squealed, grabbing the cold, damp fabric and flinging it across the bed. She stood up and faced him. The momentary distraction had done what he'd needed, and he was fastening his trousers by the time she reached him, right arm back to slap him. He easily caught her swinging arm and deflected it, causing her to lose her balance and turn, falling face-first across the bed.
"Oh, pipe down and put your clothes back on."
"Alec," she'd realized her mistake and began to cajole.
"Susan, it's been far too long, and much to my surprise, I'm totally over you. Now, we can do this one of two ways. You can put your clothes on and leave quietly, or I can call the hotel security and have them come and arrest you for whatever it is they call it when a woman sexually assaults a man."
She giggled. "You wouldn't." She took a good look at him. He'd aged quite well, she observed, far better than Ashton had. She tried her most seductive smile on him. "Alec," she purred, drawing his name out like a caress.
He was happy to note that she had no control over him whatsoever. He'd been with much nicer women over the years than she could ever hope to be, and most of them he could still consider friends, despite the fact they hadn't stayed together. "Susan, you're nothing to me, just get dressed and get out."
She went from seductive to mean. "What if I call the papers, hmmm?"
"Wonder who they'll believe? You, or the ex-husband who came half-way around the world to donate bone marrow to the daughter he'd been told wasn't his, hmmm?"
She paled. "You wouldn't."
He just looked at her, then picked up a v-necked undershirt and pulled it on. "Try me. Why'd you leave Ashton?"
She tried changing tack. "I've really missed you, Alec." The purr was back in her voice.
Alec shook his head and laughed. "Not going to work. You're just hoping I'm either stupid or a fool and will take you back. Sorry. It's not going to work. Now, shall I call for security?"
Just then, the door opened and Eddie Duk came in. "Hey, Alec!" He saw the naked woman sitting on the bed and the half-dressed Freeman and froze. "Uh, am I interrupting something? Should I come back later?"
Alec shook his head. "No. This is just my ex-wife, Susan. She thought she'd try and get me to take her back."
Eddie frowned, then nodded. He politely turned his eyes away from the woman. "Not succeeding, I take it?"
"Not a bit."
"Good. The boss will be happy to hear it, as will all those lovely young women you left behind." He grinned up at the older man, who sniggered.
"Yes, well, there certainly are some lovely ladies at home, aren't there?" He frowned. "What are you doing here?"
"Foster's shown up and there was a small incident at the office. Couple of injuries, I'm afraid. A car accident."
Mobiles? Alec thought, frowning. "How many, and how bad are the injuries?"
"One dead, two critical, one serious. Mr. Straker asked me to pick you up and meet them at the hospital."
"I'll be ready to go in two minutes, but what do we do with that?" He gestured to his ex-wife, who had covered herself with the despised damp towel in her embarrassment at Eddie's presence.
Eddie looked at her. "You finish dressing and head down to the car. I'll clean up here and meet you there."
"Wait! I'll go quietly." She wrapped Alec's towel around her and stood up, reaching for her clothes. Alec ignored her and finished dressing. Eddie kept an eye on the woman, making sure she didn't try anything against Alec.
Alec slid his feet into his loafers and grabbed a light windbreaker. "See you down at the car, lad."
"Yes, sir." Eddie reached for the phone as Alec left. "Hello, this is room 1521, I'd like to have security come up, please. Some woman has broken into the room and seems determined to seduce me." He listened, smiling as Susan tried to get into her clothes more quickly. "Yes, thank you." He hung up.
"Take your time, ma'am. They'll be here long before you can finish getting dressed."
In less than three minutes, there was a heavy knock at the door. Eddie, who had never moved very far from the opening, reached over and turned the knob, letting in the two security men who came right in, then stopped, staring at the woman still struggling to get her pantyhose on.
"He's lying!" Susan screamed. One of the guards scowled at her, while the other turned to Eddie.
"Eddie Duk. I'm the assistant to Mr. Freeman and Mr. Straker. I don't know how she got in here, but believe me, she's definitely not wanted." He was cool, calm and professional. He also had a card key.
The woman did not. Despite her loud protests, she was taken away to await the police, who would then charge her with a minimum of breaking and entering and lewd and lascivious conduct since, when the two security men had come in she was more undressed than dressed. Eddie thanked them and promised to stop by and fill out any paperwork needed upon his return, but that just now, he needed to get to the hospital, where three of his company's employees had been taken after an accident.
Susan cursed like a sailor denied shore leave.
Alec watched Eddie, waiting for him to say something about Susan's rather unorthodox appearance, but the young man was silent on the subject. Instead he passed on the information he had from the earlier ufoe incident.
"One dead, two critical and one serious. How bad is bad?"
"Possible broken back/severed spinal cord. One lost a lot of blood, and the third probably has a broken collarbone and maybe nose."
"And the ufoe?"
They pulled into the hospital and Eddie let him out near the emergency room door prior to parking. Alec waited for him, instead of going in and finding Straker. Together, the two men entered the building and found their way to the ER waiting room, where Straker sat in a corner, facing out into the room, head tilted back against the wall and eyes closed. His tense posture was indicative of the fact that he wasn't relaxed, let alone sleeping.
"Any word, yet, Ed?" Alec asked softly, easing down into the chair beside his friend.
Straker's eyes opened and his expression softened. "Not yet. Louise bullied her way into the ER, but no word on any of them, so far. Jacobs has a broken back, and was unconscious when they brought him in. Sanders has a broken collarbone and nose, but she managed to get a tourniquet on Davis in time to keep him from bleeding out."
Alec sighed. "At least they're still alive."
"Dobson, the driver, was killed. Took a direct hit. Nearly took his head off, I understand. Sanders did very well, under the circumstances."
"She kept her head and did what she could," Eddie agreed. He'd sat down across from the two older men, with his back to the door.
"That's all anyone can ask," Alec concurred.
They sat quietly for a while, then Alec asked, "Eddie mentioned that Foster's arrived?"
Straker's smile was cold. "Yes. He's of the opinion that everyone here should be replaced, without bothering to see for himself. Unfortunately, that sort of attitude tends to be self-fulfilling prophecy."
"Shaughnessy and Blake don't deserve that, sir," Eddie said softly, but vehemently. "Of everyone on station, those are the two I'd want to back me up if trouble came."
Alec's eyebrows went up in surprise. "Really? Why? Weren't they the ones on amphetamines?"
Eddie nodded, reluctantly, it seemed. "Yeah, but they were always the ones called in on their days off to cover shifts, they were the ones who always pulled double shifts, and occasionally triple shifts. How else could they have managed? I'm not saying they were right, but they were certainly a lot less wrong than everyone else here."
Straker listened closely. He'd never seen Eddie so riled up, before. "What would you do with them, then?"
"Send them to MoonBase, or to a SkyDiver. Or even to headquarters. They're good at what they do. They'd probably work well with anyone who's any good at their job."
"I'll take it under advisement."
Eddie grinned. "Thanks. By the way, have you tried the food there? Most of the guys bring their lunch or dinner from home, because the food is so bad."
Alec chuckled dryly. "I noticed the coffee's pretty vile, too. Not to mention that the swill they call 'tea' bears only a slight colour in common with the real thing."
"Yes, Louise mentioned that the kitchen there would have the health inspectors on our backs, were they to ever see it. It's going to be cleaned up and new kitchen staff brought in." He smiled. "Anything else, Mr. Duk?"
Eddie grinned. "No, sir."
"Good." He smiled back at his son, then his gaze turned towards the door and he stood. "Well?"
Dr. Lewis stood there, still in surgical scrubs. "Jacobs is in surgery, but his spine wasn't severed. Davis is stable and is out of surgery. He's still being transfused to replace the blood he lost, and Sanders has had her clavicle and nose set and has been moved to a room. You can debrief her at any time." She smiled wearily. She was a psychiatrist, not a surgeon, and having run from room to room to keep tabs on the three operatives had exhausted her.
Straker approached her and put his arms around her, drawing her close. He could feel her faint tremors of exhaustion and stress and simply held her silently, waiting for her to relax.
He felt so good, holding her like this. She felt safe and loved in his embrace. She was grateful for his presence and his support. She could sense Alec and Eddie nearby, providing the added security of their concern, as well. Finally, she sighed and pulled back, feeling a momentary pang as Ed released her. She smiled up at his concern. "Long day."
He smiled back at her and nodded. "I know."
"Well, Sanders is in room 603, so you can go and see her if you like. She's coherent, insisted on nothing more than a local before setting the bones. She agreed that as soon as she was debriefed, she'd take something for the pain, so I'd appreciate it if you hurried it up. She doesn't need any more stress at the moment."
"What are you going to be doing?" Straker inquired.
She sighed. "Back to watch the surgery and check on Davis in recovery, then see to it that everyone transfers easily. Jacobs and Davis will be sharing a room just across from Sanders, at least, that's what they said."
"Where shall we meet you?"
"Upstairs, I suppose. I think there's a waiting room up there, or a chapel. Either one will work for me. For that matter, Sanders' room would work."
"All right. We'll see you in a bit, then." He kissed her lightly, hugging her again.
She smiled up at him and nodded. "As soon as he's out of surgery, I'll come and find you." With one last hug, she went back through the swinging door to return to the operating theatre.
Her shoulder ached abominably. She was starting to wish she hadn't been so strong about insisting on being debriefed before taking anything for the pain. The local had quickly worn off, and now she could barely focus through the pain. When her door opened, she couldn't even muster the strength to open her eyes to see who was there. She heard a soft voice speaking, but it was too low and too far away for her to make out, but she heard the door open and close again, then silence.
It could have been minutes, or days, but the door finally opened again. The next thing she was aware of was the prick of a needle in her arm, and then almost immediately, the pain eased and she could open her eyes. Her eyes went past the nurse who was smiling at her and patting her arm before she turned to leave, to the three men standing quietly at the foot of her bed. Even though she'd never actually seen him, the silver-haired man had to be Straker. He certainly was as striking as they said. She swallowed hard.
"Sanders." He looked her over, critically. Her neck was in a soft collar and her right arm was strapped to her chest. She had two glorious black eyes and her face was badly swollen from her broken nose. She'd been fortunate not to have broken her jaw, as well. He smiled, hoping it was reassuring, rather than intimidating. She smiled faintly back, even that tiny movement of her face causing more pain. Straker's stiff posture eased just a bit, which helped her to relax, as well. Her gaze flickered over the commander's companions. The older man had to be Colonel Freeman. He had a kindly aura, she decided. The other man was quite a bit younger. She frowned, looking from him to the commander and back again. She unconsciously sucked her upper lip between her teeth in consternation, wondering if what she saw was real or imagined.
The three men realized she'd noticed the resemblance between father and son, and that she was afraid to say anything. Eddie grinned at her. "Hi, Becky. I'm Eddie." He approached and lightly brushed his fingers over hers, where they lay atop the covers. She returned his grin as best she could and nodded, wincing at the pain it caused.
"Hey, don't do that. Take it easy," he admonished.
"Sorry. Believe me, I'm sorry. Haven't yet figured out what I can't do." Her eyes had closed with the pain, and finally reopened to gaze at the three men again. Her gaze kept alternating between Straker and Eddie.
"Is something wrong, Ms Sanders?" Straker finally asked.
Her eyes snapped to focus on him. "No, sir." She'd heard about what had happened and was as afraid of him as everyone else was, though she knew she had no reason. She was good at her job, not that the mobiles here got much of a workout. Besides, she was the best bloody mechanic they had.
"Can you tell us what happened, Ms Sanders?" Alec asked, shifting and moving his cane to his other hand. Eddie took note and dragged over a chair for him to sit in. Alec glowered, but only got Eddie's cheeky grin in reply. Shaking his head and trying to hide his amusement, Alec sat.
Her eyes closed to better visualize her memories. "We were working our way through a grove of gum trees. We'd just cleared the outer ring, when we were fired on by a ufoe. The ground dipped down just there, and they missed us. Dobson was driving and tried to get out of the line of fire. Jacobs opened the hatch and was taking aim with the cannon. Davis was working the radio."
"Normally mobiles have a crew of three. Why were you there?" Straker asked softly.
"I'm the mechanic. I'd been fine-tuning the steering. The mobiles tend to get sloppy when they sit, for some reason." She started to shrug, and quickly changed her mind as her body reminded her of its injuries.
"All right, then what happened?"
"We took a direct hit. It came through the windscreen and," she swallowed hard, "and it killed Dobson, who fell against the steering controls, which made the mobile lurch rather badly. The shattered windscreen cut through Davis's leg. Jacobs was smashed around as we finally came to a stop, half in and half out of the hatch. My first action was to get the mobile steady and stopped, then to tie a tourniquet on Davis, then I checked Jacobs, and decided he'd have a better chance if I didn't do anything."
"How'd you manage to do the tourniquet with a broken collarbone?" Eddie asked, his expression one of interest.
"Davis was still conscious, at that point, and he helped me. It wasn't until after I got it tightened that he passed out. It took me almost a minute to get us safely stopped, and he was bleeding heavily."
"Well, you saved his life, Sanders," Straker commended.
Her eyes lit up. "He's going to be all right, sir?"
"It would appear so. He's out of surgery and is being transfused, at the moment."
"Oh, I'm glad. Anyway, after I did what I could, I used the radio to report. That was all."
Straker nodded. "Good work, Sanders." He regarded her solemnly for a moment, noticing how she kept alternating her gaze between him and Eddie. He sighed and glanced at Alec, who grinned at him.
"Is there something else you'd care to mention, perhaps not related to the earlier incident?"
Eddie looked at him for a moment in surprise, then turned back to Sanders, tilting his head to one side in question.
She sucked her upper lip back between her teeth again, her gaze alternating between father and son. "Um, are the two of you related?" she asked timidly.
"Congratulations, Ms Sanders. You're possibly the first member of SHADO to have noticed. Yes, Mr. Duk is my son."
Her eyes widened as she looked from the stern commander to the grinning Eddie, who shrugged. "Oh. Um, I'll not say anything, sir."
Straker's expression eased. "Thank you. It's not really a secret, but I'd prefer it not become common knowledge. Eddie's my aide, and acts as my driver and bodyguard, when necessary."
She almost smiled, "Yes, sir." She somehow sensed that Eddie had earned his job, and not gotten it simply because he was the boss's son. As the injection took further affect, she began to have trouble keeping her eyes open.
"Is there anyone we need to contact for you, Ms Sanders?" Alec asked as he stood.
"Check on Toby?"
"Toby?" Eddie asked softly.
"Me cat. He's gonna wonder why his tinned dindin isn't on time." She was more asleep than awake by this time.
"I'll make sure he's taken care of, Ms Sanders," Eddie promised, looking up at his father for confirmation. Straker nodded his agreement.
"You rest, Ms Sanders. Everything will be taken care of."
"Hmmmmm," and she was asleep.
The three men exchanged a look and left her to rest.
They stood silently in the hallway for a few moments. "Transfer her to headquarters."
"Why?" Eddie asked, worried.
Straker looked at Alec, who had come to a similar conclusion, having watched as Eddie had stroked the girl's hand throughout their visit. "One, she's intelligent. Two, she's quick-thinking. Three, she knows about us, and four, I think you're right about Foster finding only fault with the staff, here. Transfer Blake and Shaughnessey, as well. Put them all on Ford's night shift."
"But she's a mechanic," Eddie protested.
Straker looked at him, no trace of his father whatsoever; strictly the commander. "Cross-training is considered a good thing, Mr. Duk."
Eddie took the hint. "Yes, sir."
Ed caught Alec's look of amusement and almost smiled. "Meanwhile, we need to wait for Louise."
"I'm here. Jacobs is looking good, but we won't know until the swelling goes down. Davis is being moved across the hall in a few more minutes, but he'll be out at least until morning. I suggest we all go back to the hotel for some rest, and maybe stop somewhere for something to eat."
"We'll get room service," Straker announced.
"That's good, too." Her smile showed her exhaustion and Ed slipped an arm around her as they headed for the elevator to leave.
Alec made the call to get someone to take care of Sanders' cat as Eddie drove them back to the hotel.
She awoke with his head pillowed between her breasts and her arms holding him to her. She smiled and shifted slightly, easing up a bit, and watched him sleep. One hand held him against her, while the other gently ran her fingers through his hair and lightly massaged his scalp. After a while, his breathing deepened to a sigh, and he stirred.
He lifted his head and looked at her, sleepily. Seeing her smile, he smiled back and then nuzzled against her breast, while his hand gently ran up and down her side.
"Yes, it is, rather, isn't it," he agreed. Taking a deep breath, he moved up beside her and leaned over to kiss her.
"Mmmmm. Yes, definitely a good morning," he murmured softly and then started pressing light kisses down her jaw to her throat and down to her shoulder.
"Oooh, someone's in a good mood this morning."
He shifted back and grinned at her. "I'm always in a good mood when I wake up with you beside me."
His smile turned serious. "It isn't flattery. It's God's honest truth."
She gazed at his serious countenance and grew serious, as well. She waited for whatever he was going to say.
He looked deeply into her eyes for a few moments, and then looked away. "It's true. When you sleep with me, I always wake up feeling good. I don't seem to have the usual nightmares, at least, not that I remember. I feel safe, and warm, and loved." He met her eyes again. He wasn't good at talking about his feelings, but he trusted her to understand even what he couldn't say in words.
"I do love you, you know."
"I know. I love you, too."
She shook her head. "No buts."
He nodded, accepting her reassurance. "I want. No, I need more." His gaze was serious and just a bit uncertain. "I know that you said it was too soon, but I need the, the certainty. The commitment, as it were."
She smiled her understanding. "You want the contract, signed and witnessed."
"I want you for my wife. I know my track record isn't great, but you already know all my secrets, so that shouldn't be a problem."
She placed her fingers over his lips to silence him. There was a flash of terror in his eyes and she smiled. "You don't have to convince me, Ed. I love you. Yes. I'll marry you."
His eyes searched hers for confirmation and upon seeing her smile, he kissed the fingers pressed to his lips. She took her fingers away and he reached for her, kissing her soundly. The relief at her easy acquiescence acted as a stimulant and his hands began to stroke and arouse.
She reciprocated with lips and hands, teasing and arousing. Their lovemaking was intense and it left her shaking. They lay intwined and Ed held her close. Her continuing tremors worried him.
"Did I hurt you?" he whispered, aghast.
She gasped and held him tightly. "No. I'm fine. It... that was just the most intense experience of my life." He'd made love with every part of him. Even now, his toes were stroking her ankles where their legs tangled together, and his hands were still stroking, keeping her in a seemingly perpetual state of orgasm. She kissed him firmly to reassure him. He held her close, relishing the feeling of contentment she gave him until they drifted into sleep.
Some time later, the phone rang. Straker groped for the annoying noisemaker, lifted the handset and grumbled, "Straker."
There was a long moment of silence, and then a dry chuckle. "Sorry to interrupt your 'sleep', but it's after nine, and Eddie and I are wondering if you're going to sleep away the day or join us for breakfast."
It was after nine? Straker's eyes snapped open and confirmed the time by looking at his watch. "Give us half an hour."
"Call when you're ready to go and we'll meet you." Alec didn't bother to try and hide his amusement. Straker growled inarticulately and hung up on his friend's laughter.
"Just after nine. The children want their brekkie."
Louise chuckled and stretched beside him, kissing him softly. "Okay." She smiled at him and threw the covers back. It took a moment to untangle themselves from one another, much to their amusement, as well as arousal, but they looked at each other and sighed, knowing that their desire would have to wait.
They shared the shower, lingering over bathing one another. They reluctantly finished their ablutions and dressed. He paused over his luggage, removing a small box and opened it, gazing at the contents. Smiling, he removed the object and turned to her. "This was my grandmother's. I know it's old-fashioned, and if you'd prefer something more modern, we can go shopping. He reached for her left hand and slid the ring on her finger. She gasped as she looked at the antique dinner ring. It wasn't a 'proper' engagement ring, but it was possibly the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. It was a diamond, forming the top of a pyramid, with a square of tiny baguette cut sapphires surrounding it, followed by a row of tiny cut diamonds, then a second row of sapphires and finally a second row of diamonds.
"It's magnificent." She beamed at him and threw her arms around his neck, kissing him soundly. "And since it was your grandmother's, it's even more special."
He breathed a gentle sigh of relief and returned her embrace, kissing her again. Then he withdrew, reluctantly. "As much as I'd rather take you back to bed, we'd better get the children fed."
Louise laughed. "Since when is Alec your child?"
"He always has been. He may be older than I am, but he's always been a child at heart." He lifted the phone and dialed Alec's room. "On our way," he announced and hung up. Offering his arm, he escorted his fiancee from the room.
They took the stairs, knowing that Alec would take the elevator and meet them down in the dining room. There was a woman who stood up as they entered the lobby.
"Mr. Straker?" she asked softly. He stiffened and turned to glare at her.
"Sorry to disturb you, but I'm from the Daily Mail, and I was hoping I might ask you a few questions." She held a camera by her side, but made no move to lift it to take a picture. Straker was somewhat nonplussed by her demeanor. He glanced at Louise, who just smiled slightly and shrugged, leaving it up to him.
"I suppose. We're just going for breakfast, if you'd care to join us?"
The woman smiled her gratitude. "Yes, thank you." She followed them and was surprised when the object of her interest held her chair for her and then his companion's, before seating himself in the corner. Magically, a carafe of coffee and five cups appeared. The staff had quickly learned that Straker's companions invariably drank a great deal of coffee, and the addition of an extra person didn't faze them. Louise poured.
"What did you want to ask, Ms...?"
"Sorry, Post. Rachel Post. I realize that you're probably sick of us dogging your every move, but I was hoping that I might ask a few questions."
"All right. Ask away." Her manner was disarming and knowing that Alec and Eddie would soon arrive in case of trouble eased any concerns he might have had.
Rachel looked down at a small notebook she took from her purse, her camera lay on the table, ignored. "I've done my research, Mr. Straker. I know that the 'friend' you were visiting in hospital was your second, Alec Freeman, who was allowing doctors to harvest some of his bone marrow in order to try and save a young woman, April Ashton." She looked up at him. "I know that April's mother was once married to Mr. Freeman. Is April his daughter?"
Since she already knew, there was no point in denying it. "Yes."
She smiled her thanks and then looked back at her notes, making a mark. Pursing her lips, she formulated her next question. "I have to tell you that Mrs. Ashton has been making accusations against Mr. Freeman, saying he lured her to his hotel room and sexually assaulted her." She saw Straker scowl and hurried on. "I checked, and the hotel had her arrested for breaking into Mr. Freeman's room, and your... bodyguard? A, Mr. Duk? was the one who had her arrested. Knowing of Mr. Freeman's reputation with the ladies, I can't quite give any credence to her claim."
"You'd have to ask Mr. Freeman or Mr. Duk about that incident, as I wasn't present." He frowned. "I'd rather not make any conjectures as to Mrs. Ashton's motives."
Rachel smiled. "Well, she was rather...erm, insistent, I'm afraid. However, I rather believe that since she's now left her current husband and is sniffing around her ex...well, let's just say I suspect she's just hoping for crumbs to fall from his table."
Louise glanced at Ed and smiled, hiding it behind her coffee cup. She didn't think she'd ever heard anyone called a bitch with such tact before. Ed's faint smile told her that he probably felt the same. He looked up as Alec and Eddie joined them. Alec was leaning heavily on his cane, and Straker's smile immediately inverted to a frown.
Straker's eyebrows rose and he turned his focus to Eddie. "Mr. Duk?"
"It was a minor thing. He got trampled in the elevator."
Straker's eyes narrowed and his mouth thinned. "Oh?"
His interrogation stopped when a large and very loud American entered the room, hollering for service. He rudely plopped down at the table next to them, calling for coffee. Alec rolled his eyes and Eddie stood and placed himself between the tables, his back to his people, facing the rude man.
Rachel sighed. "Bloody hell," she muttered, glancing at the man, who was being rather pointedly ignored.
"Where the f* is the f** waitress?!" he bellowed. "How does a man get any service around here?"
Eddie turned back to the table, grinning. He lifted their carafe of coffee and a cup and turned back to the annoying man. "Here, you can have some of ours." He set the carafe and the cup before him and stepped back to watch.
Ed, Alec, and Louise gaped at him in shock. Rachel, who had been the only one in position to see what was going on, had a hand pressed to her mouth to stifle her giggles. The rude man didn't even bother to thank Eddie, but simply snatched up the carafe and started to pour. Unfortunately, the lid of the pot wasn't screwed on tight and as it was tipped, the lid fell off and the coffee poured out, overfilling the cup and flooding the table and the man's lap. He bellowed again, this time in shock and anger. He erupted to his feet and turned to Eddie. "You stupid, f** little gook!!"
Ed and Alec rose to back up Eddie, who was smiling and shaking his head. The serving staff was approaching, uncertain how to deal with the large, irate man. "You don't know how to pour coffee from a carafe?" Eddie taunted softly.
Alec rolled his eyes and looked at Ed, who was scowling, watching his son and the antagonistic man, who easily made two and more of the younger man.
"I'll show you...." The man swung, but his fist whistled through the air where Eddie's head had been. Off balance, Eddie simply guided the man's hand further around, so that he stumbled and then he let go and gently pushed the man's shoulder, causing him to crash to the floor. He quickly moved away from his people, luring the raging man away from them. The man lumbered to his feet and charged, head down, arms reaching to grab him. Again, Eddie moved out of the way, like a fine matador playing with a charging bull. This time, however, he stuck his foot out for the man to trip over. Fortunately, the angry man had his hands out before him when he again hit the floor.
Alec growled and moved forward, only to be stopped by Ed's hand on his arm. He turned and frowned at him, but Ed only smiled slightly and shook his head. "Wait."
Eddie was again standing quietly, waiting to see if the obnoxious man was going to be smart, or stupid. He shook his head as the man chose stupid. With a roar, the man charged him again, and again Eddie sidestepped, only this time, the man had enough control and sense to follow him. As his assailant dove to tackle him, Eddie put his hands out and managed to leapfrog over the man, twisting and flipping in the air, and then landing on his feet facing his assailant as his attacker again plowed into the carpet. At that point, six uniformed police officers swarmed in and subdued the enraged man. Eddie watched, breathing only slightly faster than usual. His hair was practically un-mussed from his exertions.
"Are you all right, sir?" One of the officers asked, once they'd wrestled the man into submission.
"I'm fine. I'm afraid he was just looking for a fight. He knocked Mr. Freeman down in the elevator, then came in here yelling for service. I offered him our coffee and he spilled it all over the place and decided it must have been my fault." Eddie looked as innocent as an infant and his companions were all nodding in agreement.
"That man was very rude, swearing and he called Mr. Duk an obscene name." The waitress who had served Ed earlier timidly offered her observation.
The officer scowled at the still ranting American. He shook his head and snorted in disgust. "Bleeding Yanks," he muttered.
"He's not a Yankee," Straker corrected. "He may be a US citizen, but he is definitely *not* a Yankee."
The officer's eyebrows raised, then lowered in a scowl. "What's that, sir?"
Ed smiled thinly. "*I* am a Yankee. From New England. *He* is definitely *not* from New England."
Obviously, the officer was confused. Alec patted his friend on the shoulder. "'Yankee', is a term that refers only to people from the northeast part of the States. Specifically, a few of the original northern colonies." He shrugged, grinning. "You call someone from the South a Yankee, and they'll declare war on you."
"F** foreigners!" The now restrained American was still struggling. "Stinking m** gook!"
The officer stiffened and turned to the ranting man. "That will be quite enough out of you." He motioned to his companions to take the man out. He turned back to the victims. "Sorry, sir. I'll need to take your statements, if you please."
"Our pleasure," Ed said mildly. He looked over to the waitress, "Could we get some more coffee, please?"
The young woman smiled and nodded, turning to hurry off to bring another cup and coffee. Ed and Alec returned to their seats, while Eddie took up his post behind his father. The officer frowned and looked up at the youngest member of the group.
"Eddie Duk. I'm Mr. Straker's bodyguard and aide. If you don't mind, I'll stand, for now."
The policeman nodded his understanding. "Of course, Mr. Duk. Now, you said that a Mr. Freeman was knocked down earlier by the man?"
"That would be me," Alec sighed. "We were getting on the elevator and I'm afraid I'm not very quick, these days." He lifted his cane in explanation. "He was in a hurry and pushed me, and I stumbled."
Eddie softly interrupted. "He knocked you down from behind and then told you to watch where you were going." He looked at the officer, "We took a different elevator...one that actually got us down faster." He smiled gently.
"I see. You're an Australian, aren't you, Mr. Freeman?"
"Yes. Originally. I currently live and work in England."
"Yes, sir. Would you care to press assault charges against that man?"
Alec looked surprised. He glanced at Ed for assistance. Ed shrugged. "I'll be returning to London in a few more days, and I don't plan on coming back any time soon."
"I think that a signed statement should do, sir. We've enough evidence based on what we saw when we came in and the wait staff's statements."
"In that case, if it will help your case, by all means."
The officer smiled. "Thank you, Mr. Freeman." He made some notes in his book, then he looked up at Eddie. "Mr. Duck?"
"Yes, thank you." He corrected the name in his notebook. "Now then, Mr. Duk. What happened here?"
Eddie shrugged. "He was being loud and obnoxious. Shouting for service. I simply offered to share our coffee with him to shut him up. I set the carafe on his table and said to help himself. He growled and started to pour. The lid came off and the coffee went all over. He got angry and jumped up. He swung on me, and I deflected his blow. I then moved to draw him away from Mr. Straker and Mr. Freeman. He lunged at me in two separate attacks. I dodged him, and then you arrived."
The policeman smiled. "Yes, we saw your final maneuver. Very nice, Mr. Duk." He made several notes, and then looked up and around the table. "Anything else?"
Straker looked at his companions. "I don't believe so. Mr. Duk was simply acting within the purviews of his employment."
The officer looked up and smiled. "I can see why you employ him, Mr. Straker, isn't it?"
"Yes. The ladies are Dr. Louise Lewis, from Quebec, Canada, and Ms Rachel Post, from The Daily Mail."
The policeman nodded. "Have either of you ladies anything to add?"
Louise shook her head, and Rachel said, "Only that that man came in spoiling for a fight, and Mr. Duk obliged, more or less."
The policeman smiled. "Yes. I imagine it was somewhat unsatisfactory for the gentleman, however."
Eddie shrugged. "I wasn't trying to oblige him. Just keep him from annoying or harming my employer. He had this entire room to choose from, and he chose to sit next to the only occupied table. He wanted a fight. He wasn't going to get one from anyone but me."
The officer stood, smiling. "Yes. And an excellent job you did, I must say." He glanced at the tipped over coffee carafe. "Too bad the top fell off." He smiled and nodded to them, then turned and made his way out, just as the waitress returned with two more carafes of coffee and another cup.
"Here you are, Mr. Straker. Will you be wanting breakfast, as well?"
Ed started to decline, only to have Louise answer before he had a chance. "Yes, please." She smiled at Ed's dismay, and shook her head. 'It's after ten, Ed. You've yet to take your meds, and you very much need to eat."
He sighed and then glared at Alec as he chuckled. "Would you join us, Ms Post?"
Alec looked at her, wondering who she was, and why she was there. He noticed the very expensive camera on the table. She smiled up at him.
"I'm a reporter, Mr. Freeman."
Alec looked at Ed in shock. "Oh?"
Ed shrugged. "She was polite. No flashes in the face, no demands, just a well-mannered request; so I said 'yes'."
"Ah." He smiled at the woman. She certainly didn't look much like a reporter, to him. For one thing, she was probably close to fifty, and she wasn't nearly rude enough. "What sorts of questions?"
She smiled. "Checking on your reason for coming home after so long. You've not been back since Viet Nam, have you, Mr. Freeman?"
Alec's smile turned sour. "I'd no reason to come back, until now."
She blushed, "Sorry. I suppose not. Your ex-wife came into our offices trying to sell a story. I checked it out and found she's most likely lying, considering that Mr. Duk had her arrested."
"She showed up in my room while I was in the shower. She undressed and sprawled on my bed, attempting to, I suppose, seduce me. It didn't work." Alec glared at her, but she simply nodded.
"As I thought." She looked up at him. "I'm actually more interested in your daughter. I understand that the bone marrow transplant is taking?"
She made another note in her book. "Thank you." She pursed her lips, trying to decide what to ask next. Finally, she shook her head and looked up. "Anything else you wouldn't mind having the public know about?"
Straker gawked at her. "Excuse me?"
She smiled and shrugged. "Obviously, I'm not much of a reporter, am I? I'm actually an editor, but everyone knows how reclusive you are, and how much you hate reporters. I just thought I'd give it a go. May I take a photo?" She made no move to pick up her camera.
Louise smiled and squeezed Ed's hand under the table. Once he turned his attention to her, she made a fist and pressed the ring he'd given her a short time earlier into his palm. His eyebrows went up in surprise, and then as he saw the question in her eyes, he smiled. "How would you like an exclusive, Ms Post?"
She looked at him in surprise. "Of course."
"Louise and I are getting married when we return to London."
"What!?" Alec boomed in shock. He saw Ed as the couple brought their joined hands from beneath the table. He recognized the ring on her hand and grinned broadly. "About bloody time, you lucky devil. Congratulations." He stood up and pounded Ed on the back. Eddie just grinned and watched. Alec sat back down next to Louise and leaned close to kiss her cheek. "Best of everything to you, Louise. And good luck. You'll need it with this one." He was laughing, delighted at his friends' decision.
"Congratulations to you both," Rachel added, smiling. "May I?" She indicated the camera.
"Of course," Ed agreed magnanimously, sitting back and putting his arm around Louise's shoulder and smiling up at the camera. Eddie and Alec moved out of the way and Rachel picked up the camera and backed up, aimed, focused, and shot the picture. As the film automatically advanced, she moved back to her chair as the waitress returned with menus and to take their orders.
"This is a celebration," Alec declared. "For me, I need that good old Aussie classic, steak and eggs." He grinned up at the waitress, who smiled shyly back.
"Sounds good to me, " Louise agreed, and in another moment, the others agreed, as well. Only Rachel, however, wanted her steak blood-rare. The others all requested medium rare. When the waitress had left with their orders, Rachel again pursed her lips, thinking.
"Would you like me to sit on the story until you leave?"
"What?" Ed asked, shocked that any newspaperperson would ever make such an offer.
She shrugged. "Well, you don't like the press, and if I were to post the story before you leave, you'd never have any peace, and even after you leave, the press would be waiting for you when you land back at Heathrow. But if I sit on the story until you've gone back, I'd still have my exclusive, and you'd still have a bit of peace."
Straker and Freeman sat back in their seats and stared blankly at each other. "You should give lessons in how to get reluctant celebrities to consent to an interview," Ed finally muttered, shaking his head. "That would be very kind of you, but why make the offer, when you don't have to?"
She grinned and patted her camera. "I've got more than an exclusive. I've got the only known photo of you smiling, Mr. Straker."
Ed and Alec exchanged an amused glance, and then both men burst into laughter. "Done!" Ed agreed. "And, as an added bonus, you may cover the wedding when it happens. Another exclusive. How does that strike you?"
"As more than generous, Mr. Straker." She was shaking her head in shock. She'd decided to try to get a statement from him, but had never thought that simple courtesy could do so much.
"Good. It's settled, then. Of course, we don't yet have the date set, but that ought not to be a problem. If you'll give me your card, we'll be sure to call you."
She immediately reached for her purse and rummaged for a business card. As soon as she found one, she passed it across the table, where Louise picked it up and put it in her own purse. She smiled at the older woman. "I'll add you to the very small guest list."
"You've no idea what this means."
"Of course we do, " Alec replied. "Consider it proof that the golden rule actually works, on occasion."
The woman beamed at him. "I suppose it does. Thank you."
"You're welcome," Ed replied. He glanced at his companions. "How soon are we going to be heading home?"
"Day after tomorrow," Alec declared. "We've a bit more business to take care of, and then we'll be on our way."
Straker nodded. "Yes. In the meantime, Ms Post, if you'd like, I think my fiancee and I would be very happy to pose for a few more photos for you."
Rachel beamed. "That would be wonderful. Thank you."
Their food arrived and they all tucked in.
Rachel teased Alec as Ed and Louise willingly posed for pictures, and she finally got him to pose for a few, as well, to go with her story on his return to save the daughter he hadn't known was his. To keep her superiors off her back, she intended to post that story within the next day or so, and then would save the rest of her information until after they had returned to London. She shot her entire roll of film, and had at least half a dozen beautiful shots of a smiling and happy Ed Straker. With his reclusive nature and reputation, she could make a small fortune based on them.
"Thank you again. I'll post the story a week from Sunday, in the entertainment supplement, if that's all right with you?"
"That will be fine, Ms Post. I still think that you should give lessons to reporters on how to approach someone for an interview."
She laughed. "No, thanks. I much prefer correcting their grammar and sentence structure. Again, congratulations, I hope you have a long and happy marriage."
"Thank you." At a signal from his father, Eddie escorted Ms Post from the hotel. He handed her into her car and smiled and waved as she drove away before he turned back and returned to meet the others and drive them back to meet with Foster.
"So, what on earth possessed you to give her an interview, *and* tell her your plans to get married?" Alec asked, still in shock.
Ed smiled. "She caught me at a good moment. Louise had just said 'yes', finally." He leaned over and kissed her, holding her hand. "Besides. She was polite, without being pushy, she didn't flash her camera in my face, she actually *asked* to take my picture. I can't remember that ever happening, before. Can you?"
Alec chuckled. "No, I suppose not. I haven't really had the chance to say it, but I'm truly happy for you, Ed, and you, Doctor."
"Will you mind standing up for me, Alec?"
"I'd be honored, Ed. You should know that."
Ed grinned. "Just checking."
"I'm not planning on a big to-do, you know," Louise announced.
"Just a small ceremony, with friends and family?"
Louise shook her head. "Your family, perhaps. Mine doesn't exist, any more."
She smiled. "That's all right. I'll adopt yours." They smiled and kissed again.
"You know, Eddie, if they keep that up, I think I'm going to be ill."
Eddie chuckled. "Don't worry, they'll figure out that it's real and calm down, eventually, I hope."
Ed sighed and pressed his cheek against the crown of Louise's head where she rested against his shoulder. "Told you they were children."
Foster was fuming. He was surrounded by idiots. He had the dayshift on the carpet when Straker arrived. He didn't notice the door opening behind him as he berated the crew for imagined misdeeds. He'd decided that he needed to show them who was boss, without waiting until the commander was gone.
They listened for a few moments and Straker shook his head. "Colonel, perhaps I've made a mistake."
Foster jumped and spun around. "Commander!"
Straker looked at the six crewmembers seated at the conference table. "Dismissed." He didn't have to repeat himself. They all rose to their feet and moved with alacrity to the door and out, glancing at Foster as they passed, heads down and submissive.
"Colonel, these people need to be led, not browbeaten. I sent for you because I thought you capable of doing the job. If I wanted to destroy them, I'd have sent them with the others back to headquarters for memory wipes. Half of the people here are new, Colonel. They don't deserve your petty-tyrantry. If you don't think you can handle this situation any better than I've just seen, tell me now, and I'll bring in someone else."
Foster bristled. "They've no discipline, sir."
"They've already been beaten, Foster, don't grind them underfoot, too. Give them a chance to demonstrate their abilities. They're only human, remember. Just like you are."
Foster's face looked like he smelled something unpleasant. "Yes, sir."
"I'll be holding another surprise ORI one of these days. Only this time, it will be on your watch. I suggest you find a way to encourage your people, not crush them. If they can't do the job is one thing. But not doing it because of fear of reprisals is another."
Straker looked him over, noting that Foster made no eye contact, and nodded. "Very well, then, Colonel. Carry on."
"Yes, sir." He didn't salute, because Straker never required it, but he marched smartly from the room.
"Do you honestly think he's going to pull this place together?" Alec asked.
Straker sighed. "I hope so. But I agree with Eddie. He's looking for scapegoats already. I'll give him three months and send an inspection team."
"You think that's enough time?"
"It is, if he's any kind of leader. If not, then I think it's time to assign him somewhere safe."
"Is there a tracking station in Antarctica?" Eddie asked. He was well aware that Foster had taken an instant dislike of him.
Straker smiled. "Perhaps."
Alec grinned. "In the meantime, you're going to let him do what he can, here, right?"
"Right." He glanced over at Louise. "Maybe you need to run an evaluation on Foster."
She nodded. "I think he's just trying to rush things." She smiled up at him.
"He doesn't like you."
"Doesn't like Eddie, either," Alec added. At Straker's raised eyebrows, he shrugged. "He's obvious about it. Doesn't like Dr. Lewis, because she called him on tripping Ford. He came in and immediately snarled at Eddie."
Eddie frowned. "How did you know that?"
"Your two mates out there. Blake and Shaughnessy. When I spoke to them on the phone this morning, they told me all about it."
Straker's expression turned grim. "Perhaps he needs to retire."
"Ed, he's younger than either of us."
Ed smiled at his oldest friend. "There's age, and wisdom. If he can't figure it out, we don't need him. You'd think that after fifteen years, he'd have a clue."
Alec chuckled. "Well, there's always Antarctica."
Ed shook his head and slapped his friend on the shoulder. "Come on, let's go finish terrorizing the troops."
They stood over shoulders and watched the crew as they worked. Oddly enough, the group didn't seem to mind having the commander hovering. Satisfied, they left to return to their hotel.
"Dad, I thought I'd go see how the three at the hospital are doing."
"Good idea. I'd like to go with you, Eddie," Louise said. She looked at Ed and glanced to Alec and back, indicating she wanted him to keep his second in command occupied.
"All right. Just drop us off at the hotel, would you?"
"Ed, I don't need a baby-sitter."
"Who said you did?"
"You don't need to make sure I rest. My hip's reminding me just fine on its own, thanks."
"I don't need to terrorize people in hospital, Alec."
Alec looked back at Ed, trying to determine if he was serious, or not. Finally, he sighed and nodded. "All right." Then he grinned. "I'll beat you at cribbage."
"In your dreams!" Both men laughed, easing the mood.
Eddie dropped them off at the hotel, escorting them in, much to the two older men's amusement. Obviously, the young man took his assignment very seriously. Then, while Ed and Alec relaxed over a game of cards, Eddie returned to the car, to find Louise had moved to the front seat.
"I'll let you entertain Ms Sanders, while I check on Davis and Jacobs."
"All right." Eddie was glad his coloring was such that it was hard to tell when he blushed, but he rather suspected that she'd noticed his interest in the beautiful Aboriginal young woman. Of course, with her engagement to his father, maybe she wouldn't mind his getting to know the girl better.
They made a brief stop at Sanders' apartment to check on her cat. Upon opening the door, they were greeted by an enormous male tortoiseshell, which took one look at the strangers and meowed piteously, trying to look past them into the hall, searching for his mistress.
"Hey, Toby," Eddie said, crouching down and extending his fingers for the enormous feline to sniff. The cat sat and looked sadly up at him. Louise smiled at the animal and found his food and water dish on the kitchen floor. The food had not been touched, but the water was low. She cleaned out the tinned food, placing it in a plastic bag and tying it closed. She found the trash receptacle and took the half-filled bag from it, intending to dispose of it on their way out. Obviously, Toby was upset, since he hadn't eaten a single bite of his tinned food.
"Yes, Eddie?" She exited the kitchen and placed the trash by the front door.
She saw the fabric cat carrier in the living room closet he'd opened, and frowned. "I hardly think it appropriate."
"Look at him. I bet he didn't even touch his food, am I right?"
She looked at the cat. He was now ignoring them and staring miserably at the door, his nose pressed to the tiny space at the bottom. She shook her head and then sighed. "Fine, I'll pretend it's my purse, but if we get caught, I'll tell them it was your idea."
Eddie grinned and pulled the carrier out. "Hey, Toby, want to go see your mom?" The cat didn't even look at him, simply replied with a faint squeak of a meow. Shaking his head, Eddie scooped him into his carrier and zipped him in. He slid his shoulder through the strap and stood, almost staggering under the weight of the enormous animal. "Man, he's heavy."
Louise chuckled. "About thirty pounds, I'd guess. Not overweight, either. Just big."
"Yeah. Shall we go?"
"Yes. I'll get the garbage while you figure out how to try and hide him once were at the hospital."
"You got it."
He scoped out the room before letting her in to check on the two injured men. She read their charts, nodding in satisfaction. Jacobs was awake and coherent, and Davis was already feeling considerably better. She chatted with them, and ran a few non-intrusive tests to check their condition. She was thrilled that Jacobs had already recovered to the point of a slight babinsky reaction. She told him so, and his relief was obvious.
"Good on you, mate!" Davis crowed. "Yer gonna be fine, see? Just like I told you."
"Yeah, I guess I am. Thanks, Doc." Both men were grinning happily, despite their injuries.
"Yes, you both are. Don't try to rush getting out of here, gentlemen. Take your time healing. There's no sense in rushing it now, only to have problems later, understood?"
"Yes, Doctor," the men chorused.
Eddie left her to her patients and slipped into the room across the hall. There was a nurse just finishing up, who smiled coolly at him and left. He smiled at Becky and held a finger to his lips. She frowned in confusion as he crossed the room and set something on the floor, he was out of her view for nearly a minute, and she could hear a zipper being opened, then he was standing, with Toby in his arms. The cat looked frightened, but then spotted her and twisted in the man's grip and fought his way free, landing on the bed beside her.
Toby let out a soft wail and shoved his head under her hand, patting her arm with a front paw, trying to get her to pet him. Once he'd succeeded in getting her hand on him, he walked under it, helping her to pet him, then he flopped down and rolled onto his back, obviously begging for a tummy rub.
"Oh, Toby!" She wiggled her fingers into his thick, soft fur, and the cat started purring happily. She looked askance at Eddie.
"He hadn't eaten, and he just lay at the door, sniffing at the bottom, looking for you. I thought that he might feel better if he saw you."
"Oh, thank you." She turned her attention to her cat. "Sweet lad, did you miss me?" she crooned as the huge animal wrapped his legs around her arm and held her to his body. She smiled and wiggled her fingers in his fur some more.
Louise smiled and made some notes on their charts, leaving notes for the doctors indicating her appreciation of their work. Once she was finished, she crossed the hall to Sanders' room. She checked for hospital staff before entering and was careful to lean against the door, to give them a few seconds to hide the cat, should anyone come. She grinned as she saw Toby clinging to his owner's arm and just watched as Eddie softly spoke to the young woman.
Becky smiled up at Eddie. "Thanks for smuggling him in, but why did you?"
"He didn't eat his canned food and he so obviously wanted you that I thought you might be missing him just as much as he missed you." Eddie shrugged and glanced down at the purring monster. "Obviously, I was right."
"Now that he's seen you're all right, I think we need to sneak him back out of here, before we get in trouble." Louise kept her back to the door until Eddie replaced the now contented Toby back in the carrier, leaving it on the foot of the bed so the animal could see his mistress. Once the cat was secure, Louise left her post by the door and looked the younger woman over.
"How are you feeling, today, Becky?"
"Well, rather like I was in a fight with a pack of bullies, and lost."
"Close enough," Louise grinned and gently examined the girl's face. They'd removed the packing in her nose sometime earlier, and the swelling in her face had gone down considerably. The bruising wasn't too noticeable against her dusky coloring and she smiled. "How's the shoulder doing?" She didn't want to mess with it, since she wasn't really supposed to be there.
"Aches like mad, but it doesn't seem too bad, unless I try and move." She shrugged with her good shoulder, without wincing. "How long do you think they'll keep me here?"
"Well, if you had someone other than just Toby to help you out, I'd say in a day or two, but under the circumstances, probably a week."
"Damn. My family's out in the bush, this time of year. There's no way to reach them until they call me, I'm afraid." She sighed. "Nothing for it, I guess." She smiled resignedly.
The door opened and Paul Foster entered. He frowned upon seeing who was there before him. "Dr. Lewis."
"Ah, Mr. Foster; come to check up on the injured?" Louise smiled pleasantly at him, despite his formidable scowl.
In public, he couldn't very well complain about the lack of military protocol. When he recognized the young man from the day before, his expression turned to one of confusion. "Mr. Duk? What are you doing here?"
Louise answered for him. "He's Mr. Straker's aide, and he doubles as driver and bodyguard when necessary. We left Mr. Straker and Mr. Freeman at the hotel."
"Oh? Who's guarding them, then, if he's here, with you?"
"They're guarding each other, sir," Eddie said softly, shifting subtly so that he was between Foster and Louise.
"They're playing cribbage, I believe," Louise informed him. "And there are two guards, one at the door to the suite, the other down in the lobby."
Foster looked surprised and blurted, "You actually got them to agree to that?" He looked closely at Eddie, scarcely believing that either the commander or Colonel Freeman would allow himself to be guarded. His opinion of the pair before him wet up just a tad, having felt that the commander needed someone dedicated to watching his back for years.
"It took a bit of doing, but Eddie doesn't annoy him, hovering around behind him," Louise admitted.
"I'm impressed," Foster admitted begrudgingly. "Why were you manning a station, yesterday?"
"Cross-training. That, and I was curious. Mr. Straker said he thought it was a good idea. I've been covering some of the lunch breaks, mostly. When I'm there, that is. The rest of the time, I'm covering Mr. Straker and Mr. Freeman, or driving them." He shrugged. "Whatever's needed."
"You're an American."
"Yes. From San Francisco."
Realization dawned. "You're the one who reported the facility off the Farallons!"
"Yes, sir." Eddie grinned, knowing from the scuttlebutt that Freeman had hated the assignment. "A friend of mine was the real force behind that. His brother was taken." He glanced at Louise, "I understand you recovered him, and he was successfully revived. That was how we got recruited."
Foster nodded his understanding. As much as he'd hated the detail, there had been a great deal to salvage from the alien installation. He turned his attention to Dr. Lewis. "So, how are they doing?" His abrupt change of subject didn't faze her.
"Well, Ms Sanders is doing very well, although it's going to be at least a couple of weeks before she'll be able to take care of herself. Davis should be able to go home in less than a week, also contingent on someone being around to help him, and Jacobs has feeling coming back in his lower extremities. He's going to take the longest to heal. You don't want to rush any of them, though, as in the long run, it will do more harm than good. Ms Sanders will probably be on light duty for eight to twelve weeks, and will need some rehab to rebuild her strength, before she can go back to her regular job."
Foster scowled. "Why so long?"
"She's a mechanic. Eight to twelve weeks for the bone to knit, followed by six to fourteen weeks of rehab to rebuild her strength and mobility." She shrugged. "It can't be helped, I'm afraid."
Foster grunted his annoyance. Three people out for three to six months; he wondered if he could get them a transfer, somewhere. He'd have to talk to Straker. Beg him if need be. At least get rid of the injured and the two remaining drug users. It was only fair, after all. "Thank you, Doctor. I can see I'll have my work cut out for me, cleaning up the mess."
Louise smiled a bit tightly. "Good luck, Mr. Foster." She didn't add that he was going to need it. She rather felt that the people working under him would be needing her sympathy more.
Foster nodded, smiled at Sanders, and turned to leave. He'd need to get busy to have all his ducks in a row by the time Straker was ready to return to England. He meant to see to it that the five undesirables went with him. Let him deal with them.
Once Foster was gone, Becky made a face. "I don't think he likes us."
Louise grinned at her. "You're in good company, then. He took an instant dislike to Eddie, too. And since I was the reason he got sent to the Farallons, I'm rather certain I'm not high on his list of people he likes, either."
"He doesn't know, does he?" Becky was looking at Eddie, who smiled at her.
"About you being related to Mr. Straker."
"No. Like most people, he doesn't look beyond the color, I'm afraid." Louise smiled at Eddie. "Alec, of course, took one look at him and knew. But Foster's not close to Ed."
Toby chose that moment to meow. Eddie bent down to look at the animal and shook his head. "I think we'd better get him back home, Doc. He's starting to look annoyed."
"All right. Ms Sanders, you take it easy and don't let anyone bully you into trying to do too much, too soon. Wait until the pain goes away, all right?"
"Yes, Doctor Lewis. Thank you."
"You're quite welcome. Come on, Eddie, Let's head back."
"Yes, ma'am." He smiled at Becky and touched her good hand in farewell, and she returned his smile.
Louise smiled, as well. There just might be something possible there.
When they got back to the hotel, it was to find Ed and Alec arguing over whether to play another round of cribbage, or to do something else. Their entrance was welcomed. Alec stood up and grinned.
"Perfect timing. I'm of a mind to take a nap. I'll see you all later." And with that, he was gone. Eddie smiled at his father and headed for the door, as well. "I'll go take Toby home. He was very happy to see his owner, so I'll see you later." With that, he, too, was gone.
"Do you sometimes get the feeling they're in cahoots?" Ed asked in amusement.
Louise chuckled and sat beside him. "Couple of romantics, that's what they are." She kissed him lightly.
He grinned. "You know, Alec's suggestion sounds pretty good to me."
His smile turned seductive and his voice lowered to a purr, "Wouldn't you like to come and take a nap with me?"
Her smile widened and she happily nodded. "Oh, my. Yes, I think a nap would be very nice."
Eddie returned Toby to his home and opened a fresh can of food for him. The big tomcat purred and snaked around his legs, chattering away at him. He set the dish with the moist food on the placemat on the floor, and the big cat pounced on it, growling as he ate. Eddie grinned and watched the beast devour his food. In less than five minutes, the cat had cleaned his dish, licking the last bit of scent from the plastic bowl. Toby looked up at him and purred, then an enormous belch issued forth and the cat's eyes widened in embarrassment. Eddie smiled, but managed to hold back his laughter. He looked around a bit and found the bag of kibble in a cupboard. He refilled the bowl with the dry food and Toby sniffed at it, hooked one piece with his paw and pulled it out, slapping it across the floor, where he chased after it and pounced on it. Eddie grinned and thought about how cats always seemed to like to play with their food.
"Toby, I'll be back tomorrow, buddy. You keep guard here, okay?" The big tom, apparently understanding him, came running back and sat at his feet, looking up at him. Eddie shook his head and knelt down beside the animal. His fingers reached out and he rubbed the purring cat's head. "You be good and I'll see you tomorrow." With that, he stood and left the apartment to its resident and, locking up behind him, returned to the hotel.
Left to his own devices, Eddie went to his room and sprawled on the bed to watch some television. It was interesting to see other than US or British programming.
It was late afternoon when Ed awoke, Louise's warm body close beside him. He looked on her in wonder, still somewhat amazed that she should be there with him. Seemingly of its own volition, his hand reached out to gently touch her breast. He smiled as she stretched, pressing into his hand, making a soft sound of pleasure. He shifted and gently kissed her breast, suckling as her arms wrapped around him to hold him close.
"I could get used to waking up like this, you know," she murmured softly as she ran her fingers through his hair. He ceased his actions and stretched up beside her, kissing her lightly.
"I love you, you know."
"Show me," she softly growled, pulling him towards her.
With a smile and a kiss, he complied with her request.
They'd spent a lazy day, and by early evening, were all wide-awake and in the mood to be up and about. After dinner, Ed leaned back and looked at his companions. "Well, shall we go check up on Foster?"
"D'you honestly think he's still there?" Alec asked.
Ed grinned. "Let's go and see, shall we?"
Alec returned the grin. "Remind me to stay on your good side, will you?"
"I have a good side?"
Louise leaned over to give him a kiss. "As a matter of fact, I can think of several good things about you." Her tone was seductive, and Eddie and Alec exchanged an embarrassed and amused glance.
"Or," Alec began, teasingly, "The two of you can go back to... whatever you spent the day doing."
Straker straightened up, the steel reappearing in his spine as he turned his gaze on his second in command. His face got the imperious look that could cow the most belligerent subordinate and Alec's smirk quickly vanished.
"I'll drive," Alec said quietly, rising to his feet and turning to start walking to the door.
Eddie blinked in surprise, this having been his first experience of seeing his father turn into The Commander. He rose and waited for his father to rise and head for the car, intending to bring up the rear.
Louise touched Ed's arm lightly and whispered, "He was only teasing." Straker turned the same tight-lipped gaze on her, his expression totally stoic, without even a hint of softness, even in his eyes. She sighed and stood. "Fine. Push everyone away." She looked at him, just as expressionless as he was. "It's not going to make me love you any less, though." She smiled and turned to follow Alec.
Straker's facade cracked, and he blinked as a grin slowly spread across his stern features. With a sigh, he stood up and began to follow the others. He glanced at his son, who was watching him, perplexed. "The disadvantage of letting anyone get close to you, is that they know best how to hurt you, as well."
"Mr. Freeman would kill himself before intentionally hurting you, and Louise loves you." He looked at the floor for a moment and then lifted his head just slightly, looking at his father from beneath lowered brows. "And so do I. He was just teasing, you know."
Straker's posture eased just a tiny micron. "I know."
"But even your best friend isn't allowed liberties?"
"More than anyone else." Straker's gaze was steady on his son.
Eddie nodded. "Must be hell, never to be able to totally relax or trust someone. How are you and Louise going to manage with that attitude, Commander?"
Straker's breath gusted out in surprise, followed by a sharp intake of air. He frowned, looking concerned. "I - I don't know."
"It's something you need to think about." Eddie motioned for his father to go first, and they walked in silence out to the car.
The silence continued all the way to the satrapy.
They had just missed Foster, who had finally left around 2130, much to the evening crew's relief. Straker read quickly through the dayshift's reports, pleased to note that Foster appeared to have eased up on them, at least a bit. He looked up when the door opened, to see Freeman standing uncertainly in the opening.
"I wanted to apologize for earlier. I'd no right to suggest...."
Ed leaned back in the chair with a sigh. "You have every right. I can't think of anyone who'd have a better right than you, Alec. I'm just not used to being embarrassed, particularly not in such matters." He shook his head. "I'm afraid I'm the one who needs to apologize."
"No, you don't. I overstepped my bounds and we both know it."
Straker looked up at his friend of nearly thirty years and shook his head in amazement that even after everything they'd been through, Alec still felt the barrier that rank had placed between them. "Alec." He gestured to the walls about them, "In here, I outrank you. Only in here. Out there," he again gestured to indicate the 'real' world outside the confines of SHADO, "You're at the very least, my equal, if not my superior, in some ways. You're better with people than I'll ever be. You've a knack for defusing volatile situations. Frankly, it would have been impossible to do as much as we have if I hadn't had you to delegate to, to depend on, and to frequently act as a buffer between what I wanted and what others have needed. I may be the brains behind this outfit, but you're the heart. Both are very much needed, my friend. And I depend on you not to let me forget it."
"I embarrassed you...."
Ed grinned. "Well, yes. You did. I'm not used to being in the position I currently am, as you well know. You certainly have a knack for reminding me. At least you don't do it quite so publicly as some people would."
Alec grinned. "Actually, I wasn't trying to embarrass you. I was trying to suggest that there are better things to do than double-check Foster's supervisory skills. He's capable enough, providing he doesn't let his ego get in the way."
Ed smiled back. "I know. But it's also important that I know what's going on. Obviously, I've not been doing my job properly to have allowed this place to get in the state it was in when we arrived. I want to send out a team to do simultaneous UCIs on every installation we have. I don't want the word to have a chance to spread before we get there."
"We have installations in Madagascar, South Africa, Vladevostok and some God-forsaken place somewhere in the middle of Russia, Tibet, Fiji, the Caribbean, up on Baffin Island, down in Peru, Sweden, Greenland, and Alaska."
"Don't forget Tierra del Fuego."
Straker grinned. "And up on the northern ice cap."
Alec grinned back. "Who do you want to make up the team, and how many to each satrapy?"
"Fifteen satrapies, and each team should have at least three members, that makes forty-five people." Straker winced. "That's a lot of people."
"Well, I think we should be able to make due with only two for some of the more remote outposts, since much of the tracking is basically unmanned. I think that Baffin Island, for example, is only six people. And our crew in Antarctica consists of only a dozen people, in total. Now, places like Fiji, the Caribbean, Tibet, Vladevostok, Greenland, Alaska, Madagascar, and Peru all have larger contingents, so, three each for those, and two for the others, would make, what, thirty-eight?"
Straker nodded. "Yes. That would work. So, who do we send?"
Alec frowned. There were too many places for Straker or himself to handle. He thought for a moment and then grinned. "Two phases. First, hit the eight big ones; send in full inspection teams of five each. We'd want someone familiar with the way things ought to be run. I'd suggest we send Ford to head up one. Maybe those two from here to head up another two? They're dedicated enough."
Straker smiled and nodded. "Good idea. Perhaps Louise could suggest others to include on the details?"
"I'll get her." Alec grinned. Their momentary estrangement was over and they were back on an even keel. Concentrating on the new tasking, Alec went in search of Louise, and Eddie should be there, as well. The boy had a certain knack for organization that would be useful.
The four of them were still going over plans and putting teams together when Paul Foster arrived at 0600. He was shocked to find them spread out in 'his' office, but was glad to see that whatever they were discussing didn't involve him.
"Ah, Colonel." Straker looked at his watch and shook his head. It seemed like old times, working long hours on the particulars of a project. He looked around at his companions and grinned. "We'll be out of your office shortly."
"Take your time, Commander," Foster said diffidently. "I'm going to go and see if they've learned how to make a decent pot of coffee, yet."
Louise looked up. "If they haven't, have someone take the coffeemaker apart and clean it properly. I think I can pretty much guarantee that will fix most of the problems with it."
Foster smiled thinly. "I'll do that." He nodded to Freeman and Straker, ignoring Eddie; he turned and left the room.
"Congratulations, Eddie-me-lad," Alec said with a grin, "You're permanently on Foster's shit list."
Eddie returned the grin. "I'm in good company, then. I don't think he's all that fond of anyone in this room, to tell you the truth."
"No. He isn't," Straker agreed with a sigh, sitting back in his chair and tossing his pen onto the paper-strewn desk. "But that's not always a bad thing." He grinned at his son. "He still hasn't quite learned that respect must be earned."
"I respect the office, but I reserve my right to my own opinions on the person filling the office."
"Sounds like someone who doesn't much care for certain politicians," Ed said softly.
"Yes, well, fortunately, they don't have much affect on us."
"Except for funding," Alec muttered.
"We're doing all right. No one who knows what's going on wants us to go away. Of course, we're the major 'black op' being funded on a worldwide basis."
"Penny-pinching fools, I still say," Alec grumbled.
"That's beside the point. Do we have enough here to go forward with?"
"I think so. We'll want to wait a week or so before transferring Sanders; give her arm a chance to heal a bit."
"I'll get started on Toby's quarantine," Eddie offered.
"We can bypass that, since there is no rabies here, either," Straker replied.
"You mean, smuggle a thirty-pound cat through customs?"
Straker frowned. "Thirty pounds? What is it, a Lynx?"
"Rag doll, from what I could tell," Louise informed him. "He's a great, big, cuddly thing."
"We're *not* getting a cat."
"I wasn't suggesting one. I was simply making an observation. Besides, I've no desire to clean up after an animal, particularly not one with fur that will shed and get all over everything." She smiled. "The occasional blond hair on my dark suits is acceptable, however," she added teasingly.
Ed's eyes widened in surprise and as Alec guffawed and Eddie snickered; he blushed slightly, then shook his head and grinned. "Just as I don't mind the occasional dark brown hair on my light colored suits," he countered. Alec and Eddie's laughter increased.
Foster reentered the office, frowning and wondering what was so funny. Straker, smiling, rose. "Well, Colonel, I think we're through, here, so we'll be getting out of your way." He showed no emotion, so Foster had no indication whether Straker was being facetious, or not.
As Alec gathered up their papers and neatly stacked them, he handed Straker several forms. The commander looked down at them and nodded.
"You'll be pleased to discover that we'll be taking a few more of the locals off your hands, Colonel."
"Oh?" Foster was surprised and wondered if he'd be lucky enough to lose any of the ones he wanted to.
"Yes, we'll be transferring Davis, Jacobs, and Sanders, as soon as they're able to travel."
Good. Less deadwood.
"And Blake and Shaughnessy will be going with us tomorrow." He'd called them the previous evening to inform them. Fortunately, neither man had a family to worry about, and would be able to get things squared away in regards to their personal possessions. Fortunately, SHADO, like the military in most places, could and occasionally did a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move on a moment's notice.
Foster was ecstatic. He desperately wanted to jump up and down, cheering, but restrained himself to a smug grin. "Thank, you, Commander. I'll feel much more optimistic with them gone."
Straker nodded, his expression showing nothing. "Yes, I'm sure." He looked at his companions, who were all studiously curbing their expressions to bland insensitivity. "Well, I think we're finished, here. I'd appreciate it if you made the PCSes as easy as possible, Colonel. Getting their homes packed up and shipped. Shaughnessy and Blake will be staying in quarters for a while, until we can get them situated, and it would be nice if they didn't have to wait months for their personal effects to arrive."
"Certainly, Commander. I'll see to it personally."
Alec's eyebrow went up slightly. 'I'm just sure you will, mate,' he thought to himself. Exchanging a glance with Louise and Eddie, he could see that they were thinking the same thing.
"Thank you, Paul." Straker smiled. "Very well, Colonel. We'll be leaving tomorrow morning, so if I don't see you before then, good luck." Straker offered his hand.
Foster eagerly shook hands with the commander. "Thank you, sir. You won't be disappointed, I promise you."
"I hope not, Colonel." He smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "I expect to hear regular reports, Foster."
"Oh, you will, Commander. You most definitely will." His smile was totally insincere, but Straker reserved comment. With a quick glance over his companions, he nodded once and the four of them, plans in hand, exited. Straker couldn't help but take a final look over the shoulders of the crew on duty in the control room and, satisfied, he led the way out.
Once out in the car, Eddie grumbled. "Thanks for not leaving me there."
Ed grinned. "Never. So, we have the rest of today to waste. Any ideas? You're a local, Alec, what would you suggest?"
"Well, if it's all right with you, I think I'd like to just take a nice drive around and look at the sights, or something. Make like a tourist."
"What about you, Eddie?"
"I think I'd like to take a drive out into the country, myself."
"Whatever the rest of you decide. I just want to relax."
Alec grinned. "I seem to remember this little spa, outside of town. Mud-baths, masseuses, hot springs...."
"Sounds delightful," Louise murmured. Ed looked at her closely and nodded.
"See if you can get us in, would you?"
Eddie had never had a full-body massage in his life, but he decided he liked it. Oddly enough, both Freeman and Straker compared it to Louise's wonderful hands, and found the spa somewhat lacking. Still, it was a pleasant diversion, and soothing and relaxing enough to be a good expenditure of their time.
After they returned to the hotel, Eddie said he was going to go and visit with Becky Sanders for a while, and let the three injured know about being transferred to headquarters. Straker frowned slightly, but noting the smirks from Louise and Alec, grudgingly gave permission.
After his son had gone, Straker turned to Alec and Louise. "Care to tell me what's going on?"
"He thinks Ms Sanders is cute," Alec replied, grinning.
"He's attracted to the girl. Has been since he spoke to her on the radio, in case you hadn't noticed."
"I hadn't." Straker frowned, considering the idea. His son was thirty years old. Admittedly, he hadn't been around to be involved in his upbringing, but he was a grown man, so he really shouldn't be too upset. He decided to leave it alone and just let nature take its course. Nodding, he looked at his fiancee, who was watching him. He glanced at Alec, who was also smirking.
"I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens, won't we?"
"Yes, we will," Louise agreed and gave him a hug.
With a reward like that, Ed's subconscious thought (without ever letting his conscious mind know) it was easier to agree to certain things.
"So, what do you want to do with the rest of the afternoon?"
Alec looked at his watch. As much as he'd like to, he'd promised himself not to see April again. She didn't need him and her step-father was a good man whom he'd decided didn't need the grief of his trying to bull his way in. The girl had enough trouble without his suddenly appearing to complicate things. "What time's our flight out in the morning?"
"Well, I'm debating whether to eat now and get some sleep, or to wait until later and then eat and sleep after, or sleep now, and eat when I wake up."
"Sounds to me like you're getting lazy in your old age," Straker grinned.
"Yes, well, those pills I'm still taking really put me out. I'm trying to figure when to take them, before or after I eat."
"With food or milk, Alec. Not that I've ever seen you actually drink milk."
"It's lovely in eggnog or wassail," Alec replied with a smirk. "Other than that, I don't much care for the stuff, well, in coffee, I suppose."
Ed chuckled. "I'm afraid I'm the same way. Cream in my coffee."
"And your pancakes, and in cream gravy, I should think." Louise was grinning, too. "For myself, I'm in a mood for a nice film. Care to join me? There's a movie theatre just down the street."
The two men exchanged an amused glance. "Movie studio tours, and now films. Are they art films, or the popular ones?" Straker asked.
"Popular. We've our choice of sappy romance or impossible action. I'll let you decide." With that, she led the way out.
They really should have known better. As they walked out the doors, several reporters appeared, cameras flashing and voices shouting questions. Straker looked grim, wishing that Eddie hadn't taken the car. Then he felt Louise drift slightly behind him, still on his left, while Alec moved slightly in front of him, a bit to the right. He felt the immediate relief of the knowledge that they'd protect him, but then something inside snapped, and he gently pushed Alec out of his way.
Straker angry was always something to behold. Turning his ire on the press was just as spectacular as his justified anger upon discovering how badly run the local satrapy was. He came to a stop, inches away from the reporters, who stuck their microphones in his face. He glared, making eye contact with each and every reporter. They collectively held their breaths.
Then the questions they'd shouted registered. They'd all been asking about Alec and his ex-wife. He almost groaned aloud as he realized that the story must have been published. Fortunately, he'd enough experience in not showing anything that his realization didn't show. "I'm sorry, but we've no comment."
"But Mr. Straker, don't you think it odd that your second tried to seduce his ex-wife?"
Maybe it hadn't been published, yet. He almost smirked. "I think you failed to do your research. The woman was arrested for breaking into Mr. Freeman's room and attempting to seduce him. There's a police report, as I recall. Now, if you'll excuse us, we've an appointment."
"You mean to say that his ex-wife went after *him*?" One young female reporter scoffed. Straker stiffened and turned his most intimidating glare on the girl. Her breath caught and there was a flash of fear on her face as she took a step back.
"Mr. Freeman is quiet well-to-do. If you'd done your homework, you'd have discovered she's left her current husband, and I suspect that she thought she might still have a chance with her first husband. Had it worked, I'm sure she'd have been very happy, spending his money. However, Mr. Freeman was not taken in by her and when she refused to leave on her own, requested my aide to handle the problem, which he did, and which resulted in the arrest of Mrs. Ashton."
"Freeman's got quite a rep with the ladies, you honestly expect anyone to believe him?"
Alec was fuming. It was as though he wasn't even there. He bristled, only to be halted by Dr. Lewis's hand on his arm. He glared down at her and she shook her head. Taking a deep breath, he nodded and shifted his weight onto his uninjured leg.
Straker smiled. "I'm the first to admit that Alec's quite a draw for the ladies. So much so, that I can't see him bothering with someone as old as his ex-wife. I mean, if you had your choice of a twenty-five year old starlet and a fifty-five year old ex-wife, which would you choose?" As expected, the male reporters all laughed, while the females fumed. "Now, I suggest you go and read it in the Daily Mail, as we gave them an interview yesterday." He smiled politely and began to push his way through the crowd of reporters, Alec and Louise at his shoulders.
"Wait a minute. You gave an exclusive to the Daily Mail? I thought you hated the press?" The voice was male, and very loud.
Straker stopped again. He nodded. "Generally, that's very true. However, the lady was very polite. She neither shouted, demanded, nor did she shove a microphone or camera in my face. She very nicely requested permission to ask a few questions. I agreed. She'd done her homework by checking out Mrs. Ashton's claims and had discovered she'd been arrested. We had quite a pleasant conversation, actually. Perhaps you could get together with her and ask her how she did it." His smile, this time, was genuine. "Now, as I said, we've an appointment." The crowd of reporters had nothing to say in response to his statement, and simply stood and watched them leave. Once around the corner and out of sight of the reporters, Alec started to laugh, softly. "That was lovely, Ed. I don't think you've ever done better."
Ed grinned at his friend. "You know, maybe we should hire Ms. Post for our publicity department."
Louise perked up at that. "Well, you can ask her when she comes over for the wedding," she suggested, slipping her hand into his.
He squeezed her hand and smiled softly at her. "I think we should ask her before we leave. That way, if she says yes, she can simply make one flight over." He glanced to his right to see Alec's grin. "Think you'll have time to handle that before we leave, Alec?"
"I'm sure it won't take much time to make her the offer. Give her some time to think about it and decide, hmmm?"
"Good idea. I'll leave it in your hands." They'd come to the theatre complex. "Now, what shall we see?"
It never ceased to amaze her that neither of the men had any idea about what went on in the movie business, despite a daily interaction with it. They discussed the films available, and finally opted for a comedy. Of course, this early in the afternoon, the theatre contained only some children, but they were all down front, whereas they sat in the back row.
It was hard to imagine a more improbable plot, a pig adopted by sheepdogs and growing up thinking it was a dog, but it was well done, and the animatronics and computer generated scenes were outstanding. As they left the theatre after the movie, Alec commented, "Too bad there were so many sheep."
Ed glanced sidelong at him, "I don't know, the sheep seemed better actors than a lot I've seen." Alec burst into laughter.
"There is that, I'll grant you." Louise simply shook her head at them, smiling.
When they returned to the hotel, Louise got Ms Post's card from her purse. He grinned and made the call.
"Did your story come out in today's paper?"
"Yes, this afternoon. It went on the street at about four, why?"
"Because at two-thirty, the press caught us and were asking questions. Ed did a number on them and told them to read your paper." Alec couldn't help the chuckle he ended on.
"Oy. That's going to be popular." There was a definite touch of humor in her voice. "I've everything ready for Sunday's supplemental. You're leaving tomorrow, right?"
"Yeah, early. Look the reason I'm calling is that we think you might be a good addition to our publicity department."
"What?" Her voice ended in a squeak of shock.
"Studio publicity. Well, more a personal interface between us and the media. Sort of they come to you, you talk to us, and then go back with the information they need." He waited for her to respond, and when she didn't, he tried again, "It's not a particularly difficult job; it's just that Ed was rather taken with your attitude, asking instead of demanding, and all that." The silence from her end continued. "Ms Post?"
"I - I heard you, Mr. Freeman, it's just something of a shock, you know. Are you serious?"
"Yes, of course. Look, I don't expect an answer immediately. Think about it, and when we call with your invitation, you can let us know your decision, then. How's that sound?"
"It sounds fine, thanks. I'll have to think about it. It would require moving to England, no doubt."
"Yes, I'm afraid it would. I don't know if your husband is in a position to just uproot and move, or what your children might think, but...."
"I'm not married, Mr. Freeman, and I don't have any children."
Alec couldn't help his automatic reaction. True, she was probably Ed's age, but she was still a good-looking woman, with a fine figure and a very nice voice. He wasn't aware when his voice shifted to a slightly lower tone, "Well, then, you've only yourself to worry about, then. Perhaps we can entice you to come and work with us."
She couldn't help herself, "Perhaps. I'll certainly think about it."
"Please do. When they set the date, I'll give you a call, shall I?"
"Yes. Thank you."
"Well, then, I'll let you go. Please give the idea some serious thought. We'll draw up a possible contract and send it to you, if you'd like?"
"Let me think about it, first. No need making an offer until I think about it, first. If you've a number where you can be reached, I can call you."
"Only if you reverse the charges."
She shook her head, wondering about the stories she'd heard about these people. Based on her personal experience, she'd found Straker and Freeman very nice. "All right, I'll do that."
"Fine, the number is 44-208...."
"Got it, thanks. Whom shall I ask for?"
"Well, Miss Ealand usually answers that particular line. You can ask for Ed or me. She'll get the message to us and we'll call you back.
"All right. When I've had time to think about it, I'll give you a call, then."
"That's great. I'll look forward to hearing from you, then. Meanwhile, we need to get ourselves some tucker and sleep before we leave. It was a pleasure meeting you, Ms Post."
"Believe me, Mr. Freeman, the pleasure was all mine."
"Goodbye." They hung up simultaneously, both thinking how awkward they'd felt, not having anything else to say, but still not wanting to hang up.
Alec grinned down at the phone and, whistling softly to himself, headed downstairs to meet the others in the dining room for dinner.
Their flight back to England was, thankfully, uneventful. Despite his threats to the contrary, Alec kept his imbibing to a minimum. Despite the pressurized cabin, his hip was giving him a little trouble, but it was still healing well. Oddly enough, to his way of thinking, the more moving he did, the less it seemed to bother him. Of course, how much that was based on fact as opposed to feeling was debatable.
Foster made arrangements for someone to take care of Sanders' cat while she was laid up, as well as having her belongings packed up and shipped to London, as well as Davis and Jacobs. Shaughnessy and Blake were relieved of duty pending their own PCS, as they arranged, with the assistance of the Travel Office, for their move to England.
After several day's discussion, Ed and Louise set the date. They decided that they'd start their new year out with a wedding. Louise called Rachel Post to tell her the date, and was pleased to be informed that the lady had decided to take them up on their offer to come and work in their publicity department. Louise couldn't help herself when she asked if the proximity to Alec had anything to do with her decision. When Rachel giggled, Louise smiled in smug satisfaction. It would still be up to them to decide if they would be more than friends, but the seeds had been sewn, as had the beginnings of a possible relationship between Eddie and Becky. If the fripping aliens would just go away and stay away, it could be very interesting to see what would happen. Ford's form 142869-b had been waiting on her desk when they returned. She barely read it and signed off before sending it on to Straker, with a note that he'd better sign it, or else. He'd simply smiled at the implied 'threat' and signed.
Unfortunately, with the holidays coming up and, more importantly their wedding, the aliens decided to come back in force. Blake and Shaughnessy were welcome additions to Ford's crew, fitting in easily. They knew their jobs and did them in an exemplary fashion, much to Ford's relief. He'd heard the scuttlebutt about them, but he gave them glowing marks on their appraisals, demonstrating his own capability at supervising.
Alec's hip healed and he was soon back in the thick of things, pulling a stint on MoonBase for a month while Gay Ellis took some needed time off. Foster, despite making like a tyrant, couldn't seem to get the Sydney Satrapy back on track. When the UCI team arrived and interviewed everyone on station, they recommended Foster be replaced with someone a bit more sympathetic to the people.
Straker, who was not at all pleased that Sydney had failed the second UCI, took it under advisement. The surprise ORI/UCI that was conducted at every installation in SHADO showed, overall, good results. They found things that needed changing/improvement, but after the Sydney experience, everything else seemed minor.
When the Daily Mail posted the story that Straker was getting married, reporters inundated the studio's phones with requests for interviews and statements. Other than admitting that the report was true, Straker maintained his reputation of being reclusive. There was much speculation on when (or even *if*) there would actually be a wedding.
Then the Globe interviewed Mary Rutland, whose scathing description of her ex-husband and her feelings of 'pity' for the poor woman who was going to be stuck with him, made Ed rethink their plans.
"Do you really think I'd let anyone change how I feel about you?" Louise had her arms around him, holding him tightly. He'd just read the article and was terribly upset. "She's not worth my time, Ed. I firmly believe that, had you been allowed to stay five measly more minutes, or if she'd cared enough to protect your son, or even if she'd ever bothered to listen to you at any time, I might think differently about her, but she's still unwilling to take any responsibility for anything. All she wants is to keep hurting you. Our best defense is to ignore her and go ahead and be happy." She lifted his face so he had to look her in the eyes. "Now, what do you say to the two of us going out for dinner, tonight, and having ourselves a good time, hmmm?"
Ed smiled. He was aware how she used her hands to soothe his tension and stress. Those warm, talented hands that had eased his pain and brought healing and love into his bleak existence. He caught them, now, where they held his cheeks and turned his face to kiss her wrist. "Excellent idea. How soon is the wedding, again?" He was teasing. He was perfectly aware that it would be the next weekend. It was going to be held on the studio lot.
"Goof," she called him, tilting his face up as she leaned down to kiss him. She let go of his face and one arm went around his shoulders as the other ran fingers through his hair. His arms went around her waist and he pulled her down into his lap.
"Mr. Straker," the intercom erupted with the sound of Miss Ealand's voice. Reluctantly, Louise stood back up, smoothing her blouse back into place from where it had somehow gotten mussed as they kissed.
"Yes, Miss Ealand?" He shrugged apologetically to his fiancee.
"Is Mr. Freeman about? He's got some visitors."
"Oh?" He looked at Louise, who shrugged and flipped on the video for the outer office. She recognized Rachel Post. She turned to Ed and nodded. "I'll send for him."
He flipped the intercom off and lifted one of the phones on his desk, punching in the number. "Alec, I need you here, now. Don't use the office lift."
"On my way." Alec grinned at Keith Ford, who'd stayed over a bit to discuss some personnel matters. "Well, I'd best be going. You're doing a great job, Keith. Don't think it's going unnoticed."
Keith grinned. "I know." He glanced at his watch. "Well, I'd better get going before the kids wonder what's keeping me."
"How's all that working out for you, Keith?"
"Well, I see the medics in another week to see if I can lose the sling, and the arm's still aching a bit, but I'm hoping I can start therapy. Although, having to do literally everything with just the one hand that was weaker has sure strengthened it a lot."
Alec chuckled and shook his head as they walked through control and down the corridor to the office-lift. "That's not what I mean, and you know it. How're things going with you and Ms Dickens? And the kids?"
Keith beamed happily. "That's going great. The kids are wonderful, and Claudia and I, well, we're going to take things slow. I think the kids have been plotting, though."
"Yeah. You'd think a thirteen-year-old girl and a nine-year-old boy wouldn't be into mushy romantic films like The Runaway Bride, or Sleepless in Seattle, would you?"
Alec chuckled. "No, I don't suppose I would. Why, is that what they've been asking to see?"
"Yes. Friday night is our film-rental night. I let the kids pick out what they'd like, then they pick out these films, and go to bed before we settle down to watch them."
"I'd say you've got a pair of conniving matchmakers on your hands." He gave Keith a critical look. "Is that such a bad thing?"
Keith blushed. "Not as long as we can keep Tom as a part of the family, it isn't."
"I'll mention it to the commander and we'll see what we can do about that, all right?"
"Thanks, Colonel. That would be great."
The doors to the primary lift opened and the two men entered. "So, are you headed for home, now?"
"Uh, yes, well, not exactly. I'm meeting Claudia, Mrs. Dickens, in the cafeteria, then I'll be taking the kids to school."
Alec chuckled as the lift came to a halt on the ground floor. "Well, take care, and I'll see you later, then."
"You, too, sir."
Ed and Louise exited the office and smiled at the visitors. "Alec should be here in a few minutes," Straker announced, smiling.
"I hope you don't mind, but they insisted," Rachel explained, a bit nervously. Straker smiled and nodded to the people with her.
"I'm sure Alec won't mind."
The outer office door opened a moment later as Alec Freeman breezed in. "What's up, Ed?" He saw the visitors and froze, his breath halting mid-breath.
"I told her. Mr. Freeman. I told you that she deserved to know."
Alec didn't hear. His entire focus was on the young woman in the group. His gaze devoured her, taking in everything from her fair and delicate features and wispy short hair, to the fact that she was looking considerably more robust than the one time he'd seen her before. "April," he whispered in recognition.
She smiled at him, shyly. "Dad." She bit her lower lip and cocked her head to the side. "I wanted to meet you. I hope you don't mind?"
"No. I don't mind a'tall." He smiled. "What about your husband and child?"
"They're at the hotel. Bob doesn't understand why I wanted to come. But then, Mum's been calling you everything but white." She glanced at her step-father, "But Da said she was wrong, and since she left him, I believe him a lot more than her. After all, he was the one there when I finally woke up." She smiled at Alec again. "Thank you. After hearing what Mum said about you, and then Da, I didn't know who to believe. Luckily, Joey brought me Ms Post's article and it seemed pretty honest, and it backed up what Da said." She gazed avidly into his face. "Will you tell me why you never came to see me, before? And why, if it was as bad as Da thinks it was, why you saved me?"
Alec looked away, into the past, and he sighed, softly, and took out his wallet. "I never knew why I kept this, but I'm glad I did." He took out his wallet and, without ever taking his gaze from his daughter, pulled the onionskin letter from its hidden place therein. He offered it to her, trying desperately to keep from showing any emotion, but those who knew him well, recognized his near panic over what April's reaction might be.
She looked searchingly into his face as she unfolded the letter, then she looked down and quickly read the message. Her mouth tightened and bent down in a frown. She looked at her father sadly and shook her head. "I'm sorry."
Alec's smile was weak, but genuine. "It was hardly any fault of yours."
"Or yours. Mark and Joey told me what they remembered, and Da backed them up, saying that it certainly hadn't been him. Particularly the flying." She smiled, although a bit uncertainly.
Alec smiled. "I suppose not."
"Still. You didn't have to come. After reading that, I'm surprised that you did."
Alec flushed slightly and glanced at his friends. "Well, I was as well, at least at first." He looked at his younger son, who stood quietly watching him, a smile on his face. "But I'm glad I did. You're doing well, then?"
April beamed at him. "Oh, yes. The doctors were amazed with how fast I've been recovering. I've actually been home for more than a month, now, and they didn't say a thing when I suggested wanting to come here."
Alec nodded. "I'm glad you did, although I did tell your da not to tell you." He glanced at Ashton, who shrugged and smiled with no apology. "I didn't think you needed any more trouble than you already had."
"He told me that." She tilted her head to the side again, regarding her father. "My I have a hug?"
Alec was surprised, but mutely nodded, awkwardly holding his arms out in welcome. With an enormous smile, April practically threw herself into his embrace, holding him tightly. Alec's embrace was gentle and tentative, causing April to mumble, "I'm not going to break, you know." His arms tightened around her and he buried his face in the soft, short curls on the crown of her head. Unnoticed, a single tear leaked from one eye and trickled down his cheek.
He'd be ever grateful to Ashton for raising his children to be the fine and upstanding adults they'd become, but it was nice, as well, to be accepted by the children he'd not been permitted to know.
Watching father and daughter embrace, the rest of the group smiled at one another in shared joy for Alec and his family.
At a nod from Straker, Rachel Post pulled her camera from her bag and took several pictures of Alec's greeting to his daughter, including one that showed Ashton and Joey beaming at them. She hoped it would put paid any further reports from the ex-Mrs. Freeman, and soon-to-be ex-Mrs. Ashton. She smiled in satisfaction and nodded to Straker, pleased that he'd agreed to allow the Ashtons to come and surprise his friend.
Somehow, no one was surprised by Alec's reaction to meeting his daughter.
Louise put her arm around her fiancee and he looked down at her, grinning in pleasure as he put his arm around her shoulders and she leaned her head against his shoulder, sharing in Alec's joy. Their turn would be coming soon, but they couldn't have waited for this moment and sharing in Alec's joy. Susan Ashton may have driven her children away, but they now knew that their two fathers both loved them. And what more could anyone ask than to be loved?
The thirty-year breach had been closed, and the healing was well underway as father and daughter clung to one another as those who cared the most about them stood by and observed.
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