I can't believe I just did that. I had about four or five pages all written, and then got an email and instead of deleting the email, I closed the document and it hadn't been saved. I'm SO bummed. Sigh. Now, I don't feel like even trying again. I'm a bit tired; only two people seem to even care about anything I'm writing, so why bother? True, feedback is not a requirement, but without it, I get discouraged, and losing stories, or parts of stories, tears me down, as well. God willing (but I'm NOT holding my breath), the computer wonk will be able to come over and find it for me...if not...well, we'll see how it goes. Unfortunately, my musae seldom tell me what they're doing as they do it. I usually have to read my own writing in order to see what I wrote. Weird, huh? Anyway, on to the wars, right? The wonk came over...it's gone. Forever. I sure hope I can recreate it, since I don't really know what I'd written....sigh.

I have to put a dedication on this one, for Amelia, with whom I chat and who is good at nudging (pronounced 'nooj-ing', a Yiddish term, similar to nagging, but in a nice way), and Nans, who threw a couple of ideas at me, requiring a rewrite and some additions. She makes a good muse. If I ever find the person who lambasted her on a story and made her afraid to write another, I'll (at the minimum) sit on them and tickle them until they soil themselves. That's at a minimum. Both ladies are fun to chat with, and we often meet online for that purpose. Also, thanks to Allison, for keeping me straight about British jurisprudence. I'm a Yankee (and proud of it) and although it's been 30+ years since I studied law/criminal justice, it hasn't changed all that much, here at least.

Finally (and I know you're glad to see that), I must thank the creators of the characters I use for their genius, the actors who brought them to life for their hard work, and the owners of the intellectual property I borrow for having the kindness and good graces to not sue me over the unauthorized use of their property. This is for entertainment, never for profit.

Gentle Touch


It was tradition. Not that he ever held to it, particularly, but in this instance, everyone had insisted. That was why he was sitting here, his lady at his house, instead of in his arms. He was miserable without her beside him, and he could hardly believe how much he'd come to depend on her presence in his life. Well, after tomorrow, they'd be together, hopefully, for the rest of their lives.

"Relax, Ed. Everything's going just fine." Alec Freeman was having a hard time not laughing at his guest.

"Easy for you to say. You're not the one...."

"Not the one stuck away from hearth and home? I suppose not, but it's supposed to be bad luck to sleep with the bride before the wedding."

Straker gave his friend a hard look. "We've been sleeping together for..."

"Don't tell me. It would ruin my childlike belief that you are the reincarnation of Sir Gawaine, the pure, the noble, the..."

"Idiot," Ed laughed. Alec grinned cheekily as he took a sip from his tumbler of whiskey.

"Seriously, though. I envy you, you know."

Ed looked at him in surprise. "Whatever for?"

Alec's smile turned melancholy. Despite his joy at his friend's good fortune, he found himself wishing for similar good luck. "All these years, I've felt sorry for you because you were willing to be alone, to 'soldier on'. I admit I took my pleasure where I found it, tomcatting about without regard to much of anything. I look back on my life now, and see that it's as empty as yours has been. I realized I've been fooling myself, telling myself that I didn't want or need more. Now I'm watching you, at long last, finding someone you can honestly share your life with, and I wish I could do the same." He took a gulp of his drink and stood up to refill his glass.

Ed looked at him in confusion. "And here, all these years, I've envied you." Alec turned to look at him, shocked.


"You heard me." Straker stood and walked over to the bar and leaned against the polished wood beside his friend. "I envied you your ease with people. I don't think there are many people you've met that you haven't made a friend of."

Alec grinned. "Oh, I can think of a few."

"Yes, and look at those few. I'm surprised I'm not in their number, to tell you the truth."

Alec looked surprised for a moment, covering by taking a sip of his fresh drink. "Why would you be?"

Ed smiled and shook his head. "Well, I'm not exactly the friendly 'hail, fellow, well met' sort, now am I?"

Alec laughed. "No. Not hardly. But you never have been. You've always been the steady, serious chap with his nose to the grindstone, making the world safe for humanity."

"Right. Not your sort at all."

Alec smiled. "Oh, I don't know. I've heard us described as opposites of the same coin. You've said it yourself. You're the brains, I'm the heart. Or at least the sense of humour."

Ed shook his head, chuckling softly. "We are a pair, aren't we?"

"Couple of jokers. Nah, I might be a joker, but you're an ace."

Ed's smile was melancholy. "Don't go getting all sappy and maudlin on me, now, Alec. I don't think I could stand it."

Alec shook his head and took a drink. "You're a lucky man, Ed Straker. May the blessings of ten thousand angels protect you and your lady, from now until forever." He raised his glass and took a final swallow. "Now, you may be able to stay up the night worrying about what may or may not happen, but this old warhorse needs his beauty sleep." With that, Alec plunked his glass on the bar and shuffled off to bed, leaving Ed to his own devices. He knew the way to Alec's guest room.

He looked down into his cup of coffee and for just a moment considered trying some of Alec's brandy in it. Then he shook his head and dumped the last of the cooling coffee and rinsed out his cup and his friend's glass before heading to bed, himself.

It wasn't a large group. Just a few of the available belowground personnel, most notably members of the night shift, who were staying over for the festivities. It was being catered by Ed's favorite restaurant, although their own cafeteria was providing the cake. It was a Saturday, so the studio itself was closed to normal traffic.

Rachel Post set up a video camera on a tripod at the back of the room and focused it so that it would provide a good overview of the proceedings without needing to be constantly monitored. She also carried a hand-held video camera and her big 35mm still camera. Once she had everything set to her liking, she walked around the conference room, judging angles and lighting.

Eddie and Lily Duk, with her son Alexander, sat on the groom's side. Not that anyone realized their relationship to Straker; at least, not most people. Across from them, on the bride's side, Keith Ford would be sitting once his part in the ceremony was finished. Claudia Dickens and her daughter Margaret, and Keith's ward Tom Fielding, were already in place. Just behind them were two of Keith's new crewmembers, Donald Blake, and Mickey Shaughnessy. Just behind the Duks sat the Ashtons and MacAvoys, consisting of two of Alec Freeman's three children and their stepfather, along with his daughter's husband and young daughter. They'd been surprised by the invitation, but had been more than willing to come, as it would give them more time to spend with their father.

Tony Ashton had, much to his surprise, found Alec Freeman to be a friendly and personable man who hadn't wanted to cause trouble between him and his stepchildren, feeling that he'd raised them, so that made them more Ashton's than Freeman's. Ashton, however, didn't feel that way. Once he'd met Alec, in the course of Alec's returning to Australia after a thirty-year absence to donate bone marrow to try and cure their daughter's leukemia, he'd determined to tell their daughter the truth about her parentage. And once she'd found out about him, she had very much wanted to meet him.

Just a few days earlier, they'd had a lovely and very touching reunion, so when Mr. Straker had invited them to his wedding, they couldn't very well refuse. The strangers around them had all been very friendly, introducing themselves and welcoming them. It eased a great deal of the stress of being so far from home and amidst so many strangers.

"Hold still so I can get the bleeding tie straight, will you?"

"Alec, it's fine. You'd think that you were the one getting married, as nervous as you are."

Alec stepped back, finally satisfied with his friend's appearance. "Worse. It's my best mate tying the knot." He grinned, and then slapped himself on the forehead. "Which reminds me, before I forget, here." He handed Ed an envelope.

Straker frowned. "What is it?"

"Well, open it and see."

With a doubtful expression on his face, he opened the envelope to find a brochure and a reservation slip. He looked at the reservation first and realized that it was for that evening. Then he looked at the brochure. "You're sending us to Scotland in the middle of winter?!"

Alec chuckled. "Well, Lily and Eddie wanted to send you to the Riviera, but I told them that you'd never have a moment's peace, there, between the crowds and the paparazzi. Then Eddie suggested we send you to somewhere cold and barren, and Lily smacked him one."

Ed looked again at the brochure. "Looks like Eddie got his way, though." He shivered, just thinking about it. "Scotland in January. You must be mad."

"Nah. Think about it. No tourists, no media. A nice, snug little cottage with a blazing fire, meals delivered when you want them, privacy, warmth, nasty weather to keep you inside, and should the weather clear, the moors to wander on for a bit. Then back indoors where it's snug and warm."

Ed's frown slowly turned into a smile. "Private, you said?"

"No tourists, no media. Back of beyond, this time of year. Besides, Lily went up to check it all out before making the arrangements. She fell in love with the place. Of course, that was back in the fall, but still, it'll be just the two of you, for the most part. I've a helicopter coming by to take you up there after the reception."

Straker shook his head, smiling in bemusement. "Well, it does sound cozy." He grinned up at his friend, "But it's not like we need the solitude to get to know one another."

"No, but it'll be nice to get used to the permanence of it, don't you think?"

"Yes. Yes, it will. Thank you. Pass it on to the kids, will you? In case in all the excitement I should forget?"

"Absolutely, Mate."

They'd decided against a religious ceremony. The man from the Registry stood on the small raised dais, smiling and waiting. The audience became silent as Straker and Freeman entered from one side and came to a halt, looking towards the doors at the back of the room. Both men looked striking in their traditional black tuxedos, even though morning coats would have been more appropriate for the time of day.

At precisely eleven, the doors opened and Virginia Lake entered, leading the way, with Louise Lewis escorted on the arm of Keith Ford. The music was taped, but perfectly timed. Louis Graham was in charge of light and sound, and he always took pride in his work. Virginia stepped up on the dais and to the side opposite Ed and Alec. Keith handed Louise off to Straker, who smiled his thanks, after which Keith made his way to his seat, where he took Claudia's hand in his and settled himself beside her.

The minister looked out into the audience and smiled. He liked small gatherings. It usually indicated that only those closest were in attendance. "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to join together in matrimony, these two...."

Everything was going off just as planned, until the question, "Should anyone have any just cause why these two should not be joined, speak now, or forever hold your peace." There was a moment of silence, and then, just as he took a breath to continue the ceremony, there was a disruption.

From the back of the room, a woman rose and approached. "I've cause. I have all the cause in the world."

Alec groaned. How the devil had she gotten in through the gate? He was going to deal very harshly indeed with security. He shifted, moving towards the edge of the dais, while Ed moved to a protective position between his bride and the woman.

"Don't be an idiot, Mrs. Rutland," Alec began, but stopped when he saw the pistol in her hand. He moved to the side, away from Straker and Lewis, shaking his head and trying to distract her.

"I'm not an idiot, Mr. Freeman. Not that you'd understand that. She looked up at Louise, trying to make eye contact. "You don't want to marry him. He'll tear your heart out and step on it. I should know. He'll destroy you, you know. Just like he did me."

While she talked, Alec signaled for help. Eddie Duk, Keith Ford, and Claudia Dickens nodded and prepared to try and take the distraught woman down.

"That's nonsense, and you know it, Mrs. Rutland," Alec stormed, trying to distract her and give their people a chance to stop her. The gun came up, wavering in her grip as she pointed it towards her ex-husband.

"You don't know. You don't understand!" She had tears running down her face, and Alec abruptly realized that her face was bruised as the tears washed the concealing makeup away.

"Mary," he began, only to have her shakily raise the gun, aiming it at Straker.

"NO!" She shrieked, looking at her ex-husband just as the gun went off.

Alec looked down in surprise as the bright red blood blossomed on his white shirt. His mouth dropped open as he looked up at her, wondering how on earth she'd managed to miss from a mere dozen feet, then he dropped like an enormous old oak, felled by a blast of lightning.

As Alec fell, several things happened, seemingly at once. Straker lunged towards his friend, crying out his name in horror, while the startled Mary again pulled the trigger and three bullets simultaneously found her body. She crumpled to the floor with a scream, the gun blown out of her grasp. Louise followed her groom, to fall to her knees beside Alec and immediately check for a pulse. Finding it, somewhat thready and uneven, she wrestled to turn him onto his back. Ed helped her, his teeth clenched in horror and fury.

"Alec, don't you dare quit on me, do you hear me?" Straker demanded.

Alec groaned as they put him on his back, but as soon as he was, Louise snatched the handkerchief from his breast pocket and pressed it to the hole through which the blood seemed to be pouring far too rapidly.

"I've got him. See to everyone else, Ed, please?" Louise spoke through clenched teeth as she wondered desperately if anyone had called for help, yet.

"Rescue squad's on the way," Keith Ford called out as he put his cell phone back in his pocket. He'd already holstered his pistol, and marveled at how he'd come armed to a wedding. He glanced across the sprawled body of Mary Rutland at Claudia, who was just now putting her own pistol back in the kidney holster where she carried it. Eddie Duk had already holstered his weapon and was now applying his necktie as a tourniquet to Mary's arm, above the shattered wrist that had held the gun that had now been kicked aside by Claudia.

While Lily Duk gathered Tom Fielding and Margaret Dickens to her along with her own son, keeping them distracted, Tony and Joey Ashton came to help with the injured Mary. Keith had been slightly behind Mary when she started shooting, and his bullet had gone into her back, just above her waist, shattering her spine. Eddie, who had learned his marksmanship from the same policeman who had taught him self-defense, had tried to shoot the gun from her hand. Unfortunately, her hand had been shaking, and his bullet had struck her wrist, nearly taking her hand off. Claudia's bullet had lodged high in the shoulder of Mary's gun hand. Now, they were trying their best to keep her from bleeding to death.

Straker, realizing that Mary had been subdued, knelt beside his bride and best friend. "Alec? Hang on. Help is on the way."

"Lord, it hurts," Alec gasped.

"Stay with us, Alec," Louise added, looking up as Virginia Lake knelt beside her.

"Medics are on station. I can take over here while you take care of yourself, Louise." She gently pushed Louise away from her position, replacing the pressure on the wound immediately.

Straker frowned and looked at Louise, and finally realized that there was a streak of blood on her dress as well, just at waist level, from front to back. "Louise?"

She shook her head. "It's just a graze. I'm fine."

"Ed? Ed, promise me," Alec whispered through the pain.

"Anything I can, Alec, you know that." He took his friend's hand in his, holding it tightly, willing him to hold on until the medics arrived to rush him to hospital.

"Finish the ceremony. You've got to. You have to start the New Year out right, Ed. Promise me you'll finish the ceremony, now." He fumbled his free hand into his pocket, pulling out the ring case. "Now, Ed. Right now.

"Alec, it can wait until you're all right."

"NO! Don't you see? If you stop now, she's won. She's broken your heart enough for one lifetime." He looked up at the nervous man from the Registry Office. "Her claim was unfounded. There is no reason for them not to be married. His ex-wife just refuses to accept any blame for her part in the past. You can't let her win. Do you understand me?" He was gasping, barely able to breathe, let alone speak.

Ed looked at Louise, who had tears running down her face for her husband's friend. Her eyes met his, and he could see her fear for the injured man. Compressing his lips into a thin line, he looked at the man from the Registry. "Well?"

The man was badly shaken, but he'd come to perform a wedding. This would certainly be the most unusual one he'd ever presided over. He looked at the badly injured best man and his own jaw firmed in determination. "As soon as the rescue squad arrives, we'll continue."

At that moment, the doors burst open and two teams of emergency medical technicians hurried in, the first pair bypassing the bleeding assailant and quickly setting their equipment down beside the still badly bleeding Alec. As they began to work, Ed stood and offered his hands to help Louise to her feet. His mouth remained in a thin, furious line, and he very deliberately turned away as the Registry man continued where he'd left off in the ceremony.

"...I now pronounce you husband and wife." There were no smiles, only grim expressions from everyone in the room.

"Bravo, Ed," Alec gasped as they loaded him on the gurney and he finally gave up his struggle to remain conscious.

Ed quickly kissed his bride, and then turned towards the ambulance people. "She's going with you." They started to protest, until they saw the widening stain of blood on her side. She smiled at her husband and squeezed his hand, trying to reassure him. Then, she allowed the ambulance attendant to help her from the room.

The only people in the room not affiliated with SHADO were the Ashtons, Rachel Post, and the man from the Registry. They were quickly shunted into the cafeteria, just down the hall. There, the oblivious caterers were prepared for them, and were quite surprised when none of the actual wedding party, save the maid of honour, showed up.

For a party, it was a total bust.

The police arrived just as the first ambulance was pulling away. They were shown the way in and they began asking questions immediately. The various accounts of what had happened were remarkably similar, which they found odd. Then they discovered Rachel and her cameras. They were allowed to watch the tape, which quickly answered most of their questions. Most, but not all.

"So, Mr. Duk, may I ask why you were carrying a gun at a wedding?"

"I'm Mr. Straker's bodyguard. I'm almost always armed when out in public."

"This isn't exactly public, now, is it?"

"Mr. Straker didn't spend the night on the lot. I picked him and Mr. Freeman up and brought them here."

"I see." He scribbled down something in his notebook, frowning. Shaking his head, he looked up from his note taking. "That will be all, for now, Mr. Duk."

"Ms Dickens, why were you carrying a firearm?"

"I'm a security guard for the studio. I'll be working, later, and I don't leave my gun here when I go home. I do have all the proper permits."

"Yes, thank you."

"Mr. Ford, why on earth were you carrying a gun at the wedding of your employer?"

"It was a fluke. I generally don't go armed, but I had to pick up some computer graphics software off the lot, earlier. One of our couriers was attacked and robbed once, costing the studio a great deal of money, so now when anything to do with our special effects has to go off the lot, the courier goes armed." He wasn't about to tell them he'd been over to the Astrophysical Commission dropping off SHADO's latest reports.

"I see. Do you often do business on weekends?"

Ford shrugged with an aplomb he wasn't really feeling. "Not often, but the technician has a great deal to get done and the time limit is running out. He was in an accident, recently, and has been working out of his home. If you'd like his number?"

"No, that won't be necessary. But why were you still carrying the gun?"

"I'm afraid I was a bit late getting back and didn't have time to drop it off at security."

"Yes, thank you, Mr. Ford."

Their reports taken, the police officers released the participants. As soon as they had gone, Straker turned to his people. "I want to know how the devil she got on the lot. Ford, I want you to handle the internal investigation. I want answers, and I want them now." He was as cold and angry as Ford had ever seen him.

"Yes, sir. Right away." He turned to Claudia. "Would you mind taking over at the guard shack and send Davis in with the tapes, please?"

Claudia glanced at the children, frowning.

"I'll take care of the kids, if you like?" Lily offered shyly. "I'm sure they're hungry. We can go to the cafeteria until you're finished?"

"Bless you, luv." Claudia smiled at her in relief. She turned to her daughter and Tom. "You don't mind, do you, dears?"

"No, ma'am," Tom replied, glancing to Keith for approval.

"Thank you, Ms Duk," Keith said with a smile.

"I'll drive you and the Ashtons to the hospital, sir," Eddie spoke softly from just behind his father.

Straker turned haunted eyes on his son. "God, I hope he makes it." He took a deep breath and held it for several moments and then let it out in a rush and nodded. "Let's go."

The ambulance raced towards Mayland Hospital, sirens blaring. Louise kept a close eye on Alec's condition and didn't like what she saw. "Do you carry plasma?"

"Yes, why?"

She looked at the attendant, who was frowning at her. "I'm Doctor Louise Lewis, and I want you to hook up two units of plasma to him, now."


"I'll take full responsibility. He's bleeding out, internally. Look at the way his belly's distending. From the difficulty he's having breathing, I suspect he's got a hole in his diaphragm as well as the probable damage to his spleen and kidney."

The paramedic nodded and retrieved two units of plasma and put in an additional IV to administer them. Louise nodded and checked the monitors, frowning at how low Alec's blood pressure was. "Can you push those IVs, please?" The paramedic began doing so.

Just then, the heart monitor fluttered and flat lined.

Louise reacted, pushing the paramedic out of the way and took over. "Get that IV pushed, now!" She began CPR while the paramedic forced the plasma into his draining veins. "I need to intubate him."

The paramedic hung another bag of plasma, replacing the empty one, "Just a moment and I'll get that."

"We don't have a moment, he's bleeding out! Come on, Alec. Don't do this to us. You can't possibly quit, now. Not now. Hang on, Alec, hang on, blast you!" The paramedic got the breathing tube inserted and started forcing air into the pinched and collapsing lungs. The force of the air inflating the lungs put pressure on the diaphragm and caused the wound to spurt anew as the internal bleeding was forced to find an exit. Louise noticed that the blood was thin and watery, more plasma, now than blood, and she wondered if his brain was getting enough oxygen.

The moment they arrived at the emergency entrance, Louise began shouting for an operating theatre to be prepared. As the emergency room personnel arrived, she explained the problem. Alec was bleeding to death, and if they didn't stop the holes very soon and replace the blood already lost, he was going to die. She refused to allow to anyone attend to her own injury until she was satisfied that they were doing what was necessary to save his life.

Once she knew that they had his heart beating and as stable as they could get him as they strived to repair the damage the bullet had done, she finally sagged in reaction and allowed them to examine her.

Straker strode into Mayland like he owned the place. Upon recognizing him, the duty nurse lifted a phone and called for assistance. By the time the grim-visaged Straker reached her counter, an elderly and bespectacled doctor was approaching.

"Mr. Straker, if you'll come with me, I'll fill you in on what we have, so far."

"Freeman. Is he....?"

"In the operating theatre. It would seem that the lady, Dr. Lewis? Correctly diagnosed his injuries and acted accordingly. He'd never have made it this far if she hadn't."

"And Dr. Lewis's injury?"

"Oh, relatively minor. She's getting stitched, now. I must say she certainly has taken a page out of your own book. Refused to allow anyone near her until she was certain Mr. Freeman was being cared for." He looked curiously at the four people who made up Straker's companions and wondered who they might be and why they were here.

"When may I see her?"

"Well, we'll be admitting her, of course, at which time you'll be allowed to...." He was interrupted by two voices arguing as they approached.

"You are not admitting me for observation. I know perfectly well what's wrong and I don't require an overnight stay, here. How's Mr. Freeman?" Louise, still in the blood-soaked dress she'd been married in, stormed into the lounge. "Ed? Have they said anything about Alec?"

Straker immediately stood and stepped over to his bride. She was looking anxiously into his face, searching for news. "He's in surgery. We don't know any more than that." Seeing her begin to wilt, he opened his arms and gently pulled her against his chest, careful not to do anything that might exacerbate the pain from her own injury. "How are you, though?"

She shook her head. "I'm fine. Just some stitches." She waved off her own injury.

"How many stitches?" He could feel the faint tremors of stress or exhaustion or it may have simply been reaction that pulsed through her body as he held her. He didn't want to add to her stress, but he did want to know.

"I just put fifty-eight stitches in her side and she needs to be admitted."

Straker turned to the irate young doctor who had come in with his wife. "Oh? Is there some particular reason she needs to be admitted? Blood loss, perhaps, or probability of infection?"

"Well, no, but it's policy...."

"Your policy be damned." He turned away and led his bride to a chair and guided her down, pulling another chair close as he sat beside her. He held her hands, watching her closely. There were things about Alec she wasn't saying, and he wondered, but now was not the time. He looked up at the rest of the group, the annoyed young doctor, the obsequious older doctor, his son, and Alec's family. The three Ashtons looked lost and afraid. "I'd like frequent updates on Alec Freeman's condition, please." He caught Eddie's eye and was pleased when his son gently herded the Ashtons to seats.

The older doctor motioned the younger man to leave, which he did, reluctantly. "I'll see what I can do about Mr. Freeman's condition and get back to you."

"Let me gown up and observe."


Louise took a deep breath and stood up. "You heard me. I'll just observe and make reports, all right?"


Straker stood beside his wife. "Is there a problem?"

"Well, yes. She's injured, herself and should be resting."

"I can rest just fine after I know he's been taken care of." She looked just as determined as the imposing man beside her and her gaze was just as implacable.

He knew when to give in. "Very well."

Louise glanced at the rest of the group. "I won't be making frequent reports, but any time there's something to tell you, I'll come and let you know." She looked up at her new husband and sighed. He tried to smile, but it was weak, at best, but his eyes told her what she needed from him.

"We'll be waiting, love." He gave her a brief kiss and their hands lingered as she turned to walk away. He felt his eyes filling as he watched her. The bloodstain on her dress sickened him. This wasn't supposed to happen. Not on your wedding day. Finally, with a sigh, he slumped back down in a chair and tilted his head back, his hands to his face, fingers digging into his eyes.

He felt movement beside him and brought his hands down and looked up to find Tony Ashton standing uncertainly beside him. "Yes, Mr. Ashton?"

"He's tough. He'll hang on, given half a chance." He glanced over at his children and nodded. "They're like him, that way. Stubborn as a sheep at a river crossing, they are. Must be a family trait. Once they decide something, won't nothin' stop 'em. Not anything at all. You'll see. He's your mate, and he'll hang on for you. You know he will." He jerked his head in another nod and returned to sit with his children.

"Dad?" Eddie asked softly, sitting beside his father.


"I'm going to go and see about donating some blood, all right?"

Straker's smile was strained. "Good idea. I'll go with you."

"I wish I could help, but that bleeding hepatitis A prohibits me ever donating blood again," Joey Ashton's face was tight with dismay.

"It don't stop me," Tony Ashton said firmly. "You stay here with April, in case Mrs. Straker pops back in, and if she does, tell her we've gone to give blood, will you, lad?"

"Yes, sir. I'll do that." Joey smiled in relief and took his sister's hand in his.

"I think I know the way," Straker smiled and led them out of the waiting lounge and headed towards services.

They were sitting and drinking fruit juice and munching on snacks after donating. Straker had nearly been deferred, but his iron level was just barely high enough to allow him to donate, for which he was most grateful. He looked up when the door opened and he stood as he recognized the people there.

"Report, Mr. Ford?"

Keith sighed and came to attention. "She came in with the caterers, sir. The gate guards didn't check everyone's ID and simply waved them through. I've initiated new procedures for anyone coming onto the lot who isn't studio personnel. Every person in every vehicle will have their identification checked, and should groups be coming, they'll have to provide us with a list of names for the guards to bump against." He shook his head, sadly. He wanted to say that it was all just an unfortunate mistake, but it had gotten their people hurt, and since he'd checked in the waiting lounge first, he had been informed of just how seriously Freeman was injured, it only made it worse.

"Thank you, Keith." Straker shook his head and frowned at the rest of the group who had come with Ford. "What's with the crowd?"

"Here to give blood, sir," Ford explained. "Seemed like a good idea."

Straker sighed and looked at the silent crowd waiting for his reaction. "Thank you all."

With that, the people started to line up to donate. The technicians were overwhelmed by the sheer number of volunteers. Then to discover that they were all there on behalf of a man still in surgery, they were wondering just who the man was to have so many friends.

Straker spoke to several of those who had come to donate blood, thanking those he knew personally, and smiling his gratitude to the rest. With Eddie at his shoulder and Tony Ashton at his side, they made their way through the crowd and back to the elevator that would take them up to the surgery floor and the interminable wait for news.

"You do understand, don't you, Dr. Lewis?"

She sighed, exhausted. "Yes. I understand. Honestly, though, what are his chances?"

"Well, he made it in, for one, thanks to you, and he's survived the surgery itself. We're still replacing the blood he lost, of course." He shook his head in wonder. "I've never known anyone to survive that great a blood loss, but they all died on the table. Your friend's tough, a real fighter. Somewhat surprising, given his age, but one never knows, does one?"

Louise almost smiled. She knew that one reason was simply that when Straker gave an order, Alec Freeman would march on hell itself to fulfill it for him. "No. I suppose not. How long do you plan on keeping him under?"

"Well, you were right about the perforated diaphragm. We could allow him to waken, but he'd be in nearly uncontrollable pain. With him sedated and on the ventilator, he'll have a chance to heal a bit before we let him wake up; so that when he does waken, he'll be able to bear the pain he'll still be in. Mostly, it depends on how quickly he heals."

"You didn't answer my question. I understand why. I need to know how long?"

The surgeon sighed. "I was hoping we'd have a week, if at all possible. Hopefully, by then, he'll be at least able to breathe on his own without worrying too terribly much about doing further damage and without excessive pain."

Louise nodded. "I must agree. Much as I'd like him to wake up and talk to us, I certainly wouldn't want him to wake up screaming in pain." She closed her eyes and gently tried to stretch her back out, but couldn't because of the stitches in her side.

"Well, let me go and break the news. How soon before they can at least see him? Oh, and we'll want someone with him at all times. Keeping watch, you know."

"Well, he'll be in the Critical Care Unit, in fact, he should be there now. Let's go and tell the family, and I'll allow them to see him, two at a time?"

"Let them all in at once, this first time?"

The surgeon smiled at her. "As long as the group isn't too large."

"Six of us, I think. But since I've been watching him like a hawk for four hours, I think I can skip the room visit."

"Five at once is a bit crowded...how about three and two?"

"That will be fine. Thank you."

"You're quite welcome. You know, you could have quite a future in diagnostics, if you wanted to."

She shuddered. "Thank you, no. I actually like what I do. Although, of late, I seem to be spending quite a bit of time in emergency rooms and the like." She took a deep, shaky breath and straightened her shoulders. "Well, let me go and tell them. Then we'll be up to see him." The surgeon nodded, not envying her in the least her tasking.

"He's made it through the surgery." Her weary announcement was received with sighs of relief. Straker nodded and asked the question she hadn't wanted to answer.

"What's the prognosis?"

"They had to remove his spleen and left kidney. The bullet shattered on impact and one bit punctured his diaphragm. He very nearly didn't make it through the surgery." She didn't mention that he was flat lining when he was brought in. It wasn't important, as he was breathing, now. "I'll take you all up to see him in a few minutes. He's going to be in the Critical Care Unit for at least a week."

"Why so long?" April Ashton asked timidly.

"Because of the damage to his diaphragm, it was decided to put him in an intentional coma for the next week, or so. He's on a ventilator, which is breathing for him. He might be able to breathe on his own, but he'd be in so much pain that it was felt that it would be better for him if we put him on life-support for a while, to give him a chance to heal a bit before allowing him to wake up."

"A week?" Straker frowned.

She looked at him and nodded. "He'd have to have such strong pain medication that he'd most likely become addicted. This way, he's just sleeping through the worst of it."

His expression was grim, but he nodded. Smiling in relief that he'd not given her a third degree on Alec, she led them to the elevator and up to the Critical Care Unit. "Ed, why don't we let the Ashtons go in, first?"

He knew she wanted to talk to him, so he nodded. "Good idea." Louise smiled at him in gratitude and turned to Alec's family.

"He's going to look bad. He's on a ventilator, which is breathing for him, and they're still replacing the blood he lost, but he's stable, at least. He's in an induced coma, so I don't know if he'll be able to hear you or not, but it couldn't hurt for you to talk to him." She opened the door for them and led them to his bed. She grimaced at the three gasps at his appearance, but then Joey stepped forward and took his father's free hand, the other having IV lines running into it.

"Hey, Dad. We're here...."

Louise sighed and slipped out the door, closing it behind her.

"How bad is he, really?"

She raised bleak eyes to him. "He very nearly bled out. We pushed three units of plasma into him in the ambulance, and he was flat lined when we brought him in." She looked at him, bleak-eyed.

"And?" Eddie asked softly.

She took a deep breath, "And, I don't know if or how long his brain may not have had enough oxygen. We did get his heart beating before we rushed him into surgery, but his heart quit twice on the table." She shivered and Ed wrapped his arms around her and held her close. "I don't know, Ed. I just don't know."

"He's a tough old warhorse," Straker murmured, recognizing Alec's term for himself from the previous night. He closed his eyes and rested his cheek against the top of her head.

When the door opened and the Ashtons came out, Ed released her, kissing her forehead, and left her, to go in and take a look at his friend. Ed shivered. Alec looked just as bad as he'd expected him to. He was pale, with a worrisome grayish cast to his skin. He seemed sunken, somehow, wizened, and a great deal older than his sixty-two years. Straker gently stroked Alec's face, pushing the hair back from his forehead. He was cool to the touch, and that worried him, as well.

"Don't quit on me. I still need you, you old warhorse. Besides, you've never left a job undone in your life. I can't see you doing so, now." He gripped his friend's shoulder, "Stick around, my friend. I can't do this without you."

Eddie just watched and dabbed at his eyes. He'd been in SHADO long enough to have heard most of the tales of the cold, hard commander, but he'd had the privilege to see the gentle, human side of the man. He was again amazed how the man could have so much love to give and still maintain his distance from everyone else. He wished, yet again, that he'd been allowed to know his father while he was growing up. But that hadn't happened; so he decided to be as close to him as possible, now. He softly moved up behind his father and gently reached an arm across his shoulders.

After a few minutes, he gently tugged at him. "C'mon, Dad. You've got a helicopter to catch."

His father stiffened beneath his arm. "I'm staying here."

Eddie winced, but took the hint and withdrew. "And do what? They're keeping him unconscious for a week. What are you going to do? Sit here and brood? We'll see to it he's never left alone. There's nothing you, personally, can do for him, for now."

He turned to glare at his son. Straightening, he wrapped 'The Commander' around him like armor. "I'm staying."

Eddie bit his lower lip, then his expression hardened and he glared at his father. "Oh?" His expression exactly mirrored the commander's. "What a lovely way to start a marriage. You're going to sit and watch him sleep for a week, while your new wife, who happens to have been injured as well in case you've forgotten, sits by and watches you both? How considerate of you."

Straker looked stunned. He'd forgotten. His imperious expression faltered and Eddie, seeing his opening, pressed on.

"She needs you, too. Alec's going to be unconscious. She isn't. You've got five nights and days together with your bride. Just the two of you. She's injured and she needs you, Dad. And believe it or not, you need her, too. I promise to call you with daily updates." Seeing his father's scowl, he quickly amended it. "Twice a day. I'll call you every morning and evening. And if anything changes, I can have you back here in two hours."

Straker was torn. He wanted to stay with his friend, but he needed to be with his wife, as well. He remembered, abruptly, Mary's accusation. 'He'll take your heart and crush it'. He took a deep breath and let it out, decision made. "You're right." He looked at his son and sighed. "You're right. We need to get our things, though. I didn't even know until this morning that you had anything planned for us."

Eddie grinned; glad he hadn't been forced to play his trump card - that Alec would want them to go. "That's all right. We took care of that for you. Your suitcases are in the helicopter. I can even have them pick you up here, if you'd prefer? That way, you can stay here a bit longer?"

"All right. Why don't you go and attend to that, and I'll stay with Alec." Eddie turned towards the door. "Oh, and ask Louise to join me, please?"

Eddie turned around and snapped to attention, saluting. "Yes, sir!" Then he grinned and hurried out.

Ed shook his head and turned back to his friend. "He didn't have to say it, Alec. You're right. Louise and I need this bit of time together. You just make sure to hang on. I want to see your ugly mug when we get back, and hear you flirting with the nurses, understand?"


He turned to his bride, recognizing her pain and distress. He held his arm out and her troubled expression cleared and she came into his arms. He held her gently; still unsure as to how her own injury was affecting her. "He's tough. Besides, he'll stick around just to tease us about all this, later."

"God, I hope so," was her fervent reply.

He hadn't realized how long they'd been at the hospital until they arrived on the rooftop helipad and he realized it was dark. He glanced at his watch to discover that it was just after nine. He shook his head. Ten hours, well, just under that, he'd been married for nearly ten hours, and had yet to smile at his bride. Circumstances simply didn't warrant it.

The trip north was silent. They held hands the entire way, though, and after a few minutes, Louise had leaned her head on his shoulder. He'd glanced at her and saw that her eyes were closed. He smiled and kissed the top of her head, slipping his arm around her shoulders to hold her close.

When they arrived, the elderly couple that ran the place came out to greet them. It was overcast, but the seemingly perpetual winter rains had stopped at least long enough for them to get safely into their cottage. He shook hands with the proprietor and his wife, forcing himself to smile at them. Then, while their pilot carried their bags, followed the man to the cottage. At the doorway, after the two men had entered, Ed lifted his barely cognizant bride and carried her over the threshold, receiving a smile of approval from their elderly host.

"Everything's set for you for tonight, I think. There's supplies in the kitchen, should you wish to cook, and the phone has a direct line to the house if you want anything. When you want breakfast, just give us a call, all right?"

"Yes, thank you." Straker smiled at the old man, who smiled back.

"Good night, then." And with that, their host left, following after the pilot. Moments later, the roar of the helicopter's engine came to life and it soon lifted off and faded into the distance.

Ed carried their bags into the bedroom. He heard a noise and found that the bathroom had an enormous hot tub, filled and waiting for them. He turned to find that Louise hadn't followed him. Frowning in concern, he went in search of her.

He found her still standing in the foyer. "Louise?" She lifted blank eyes to his face. Worried, now, he approached her. "Louise? Sweetheart?" He placed his hands on her shoulders and ducked a bit to look into her face. When he finally recognized that she was in shock, he took her in his arms and just held her. "It's all right, love. It's going to be all right." He tenderly ran his hands up and down her back, and when she began to tremble, held her more tightly.

"Come on, let's get you out of that dress, shall we?" He decided that the hot tub would be a good thing, after all. If only he had some way of protecting her stitches. Then he remembered the paper sack that Eddie had handed him as they climbed into the helicopter. He pulled it from his coat pocket and opened it, smiling when he saw the contents.

"Help me?" Louise said softly, turning for him to unzip her dress for her.

"Of course," he replied, nuzzling the nape of her neck as he unzipped the dress. Then he helped her remove it, noticing how she seemed unable, or unwilling to lift her right arm, very much. When he knelt for her to step out of the dress, he got to see the bandage, and winced. It was a good twelve inches long and he suspected that the actual gash was probably close to ten inches. Fifty-eight stitches, he recalled the doctor saying. He finished stripping her and led her into the bathroom. She was still obviously in shock and he sighed. Retrieving the sack, he took out the contents. Using the anti-bacterial wipes, he cleaned the area around the bandage, removing the last traces of blood and iodine. Then he gently applied the huge water barrier plaster, being careful to smooth the edges to make sure it didn't leak.

"Come on." He led her to the hot tub and handed her in. She sank into the warm, bubbling water and sighed as she relaxed against the side. Stripping quickly, he joined her, pulling her against him and holding her close.

They didn't notice the passage of time as they allowed the soothing water to warm and comfort them. When Louise began to tremble in reaction to everything that had happened that day, her husband held her and spoke softly, reassuring her.

"It's all right, love. It's going to be all right. Shhhh." He kissed her temple and just held her.

Finally, after some interminable time, she cried. Clinging tightly to him, she sobbed out her fear, pain, and horror until she eventually came back to herself.

She pulled away from him, swiping at her eyes to dash the tears away. "I'm sorry."

"You've nothing to be sorry for, my love. In fact, you've managed very well, considering."

"I fell apart."

He couldn't help the dry chuckle. "But not until afterwards. You functioned at optimum, despite being injured, yourself. I'm very proud of you, not to mention how grateful I am that you kept Alec alive. I know that he'd have died if not for you." He hugged her again.

She sighed, relaxing into his embrace. "I'm afraid that I'm not going to be much fun, here." She pulled away from him, frowning. "By the way, where are we?"

He realized that no one had bothered to tell her. "It would seem that Alec, Eddie, and Lily arranged for us to have a five-day honeymoon." He watched her eyes widen in surprise. "In Scotland. In winter."



"We're in Scotland?"

He grinned. "Yes."

"For five days?"

"And nights. Of course, there won't be any wild ringing in of the New Year, but still...."

She slung her left arm around his neck, her right arm going around his body, and hugged him tightly. "A honeymoon in Scotland! That is so romantic!"

He wasn't quite sure she'd agree once she realized the weather situation, but for the moment, he didn't care. She'd obviously recovered enough to take an interest in her surroundings again. He wasn't sure if it was the warm, foaming water, or just being held, but she'd definitely recovered from her state of shock/reaction, and he was grateful.

"Come on, we've turned to prunes in here." He stood up and stepped out of the tub, then helped her out. He turned the machine off and found the control to drain it. Turning to his bride, he accepted the towel she handed him and wrapped it about his hips, then took her towel from her and knelt at her feet, drying her from toes up, finishing with a second towel for her hair. He smiled into her shining eyes and lightly kissed her, then took her hand and led her into the bedroom.

He hadn't taken the time to look around, earlier, but did so, now. There was an enormous old canopy bed, complete with heavy velvet curtains in a midnight blue. The room was paneled in oak, with a fireplace, which he noticed needed to have another log added to the fire. He'd attend to that, later. There was a bench at the foot of the bed, where their suitcases lay. He opened them both and was pleased when Louise joined him.

"Who packed the bags?"

"Eddie, I think. Although he did say 'we took care of all that', so there's no telling for sure." He rummaged through his suitcase until he found his pajamas. They were a pale blue silk, which he didn't recognize, and he frowned but put them on, anyway.

"Oh, my," Louise choked and when her husband looked at her in concern, she was holding out a note. Frowning, he took it from her and gasped at recognizing Alec's inelegant scrawl. Looking at her worriedly, he opened it and began to read.

Just a little something I thought you could use on your wedding night. The color made me think of you, solid gold. May you have a long and happy life together, and don't let him get away with brooding too much, will you? You've reminded him how to laugh and love, and he's a better man for it, as I'm sure he knows. Take care and may every happiness be yours. Alec.

Ed looked up from the note to see his bride smoothing a hand down the nightgown she'd just put on. His breath caught upon seeing it on her. It wasn't what he'd have expected from Alec. Alec's tastes ran more towards slinky and revealing. This was nothing like that. It was a simple gown, although he suspected some subtle support was included. It was the color of ten karat gold, sleeveless, as most nightgowns were, with wide shoulder straps and a plain, scoop neck. It was snug through the bodice, loosening slightly down to the waist and then flared, hanging in elegant folds to the floor. It could almost be worn as a ball gown, he thought.

"It's silk, Ed." Their eyes met, both pair shining with the tears neither wanted to shed at the thought of the man lying in a coma so far away. He stepped towards her and lightly ran his hand down her uninjured side, feeling the soft, beautiful fabric.

"So it is," he murmured. "It's beautiful, just like you." He slid his arms around her and kissed her, tenderly, gently, and with every ounce of love he felt for her. Placing Alec's note in his suitcase, he led his bride to their bed and helped her climb in and slide beneath the covers. Tucking her in, he then went through the rest of the cottage, checking it out. There was a bottle of champagne in a cooler, which he ignored, but there were also trays of finger-food, little things suitable for nibbling on, even in bed. He looked further and found a thermal carafe of hot-spiced cider, and another of hot cocoa. He opted for the cider, taking two trays of snacks, after putting the rest in the refrigerator, the carafe of cider and two cups, carried them back into the bedroom. Setting his burden on the bedside table, he then added two nice, big, logs to the fire, stirring it up a bit and watching to see that they caught, then he turned to his watching bride and slid into bed beside her.

"Here." He held out a chocolate dipped strawberry to her, smiling when she took a bite. He fed her, one morsel at a time, pleased when she giggled at him about it.

"I'm not really helpless, you know?"

"Indulge me, please?"

She sighed in pleasure, shifting so she could use his shoulder as a pillow. "Whenever possible," she agreed, accepting another tasty morsel from his fingers. Surprisingly, they ate quite a bit in this manner, one bite at a time, savoring the luscious tidbits, but more luxuriating in one another. When the trays were empty, as well as the carafe, they snuggled down to sleep, leaving the lamp on the bed table on.

The day had been physically and emotionally exhausting. When he finally awoke in the morning, it seemed to be twilight, but with a glance at his watch, he knew it was simply the typical winter weather in Scotland. Listening, he could hear the heavy patter of rain as it struck the cottage. It was a soothing sound, lulling him back to sleep. After all, there was no real reason he had to be awake.

It was after noon before anyone stirred again. Louise snuffled against Ed's shoulder, releasing a small sound of pain and distress as she awoke.

"Louise? Are you all right, love?"

"Oy. I stiffened up during the night and now I ache all over, I'm afraid." His hand began to gently rub up and down her spine, soothing the ache with just the warm, caring touch. "Oh, yes. That's nice."

His huff of silent laughter pleased her. "How about this?" He brought his other hand into play, cupping her breast and gently kneading.

"Mmmmm, that's nice, too. But I'm afraid I'm not really up to very much."

"You don't have to be." He shifted so that he could kiss her. "I'm happy just being with you, you know. Just knowing that you love me is more than enough." She smiled, grateful for his understanding. She ran her hands over him, sliding a hand under his pajama top to feel his skin. She could feel his reaction and sighed, allowing her hands to wander.

The sound of a cell phone shattered the mood. They both froze for a moment, which was broken with the second trill of the phone. Silently, Straker eased out of bed to snatch the offending instrument up.


"Sorry I'm so late calling, but I thought you might have wanted to sleep in." Eddie's diffident voice came. "Alec did well through the night. The doctor is quite pleased. The drainage tube is running clear, no signs of infection or anything. Temperature is normal, and he's resting easily. Those are the doctor's words, by the way. To me, he just looks unconscious."

Straker breathed a sigh of relief. "That's good, though. Thank you. Keep me apprised."

"Yes, sir. Uh, how's Louise?"

"Stiff and sore, but that's to be expected." He smiled at his bride as she dragged herself out of bed and into the bathroom. "I'll talk to you this evening."

"Yes, sir. I'll try to call between six and eight, if that's all right with you?"

"That will be fine. Split the difference and make it seven."

"Yes, sir. Lily and Alexander send their love. Oh, and I've got people lining up to stay with Alec. Oh, and Keith Ford and Rachel Post are working on the video from yesterday, piecing together something suitable for the news. It hasn't leaked, but it's bound to, once Rutland finds his wife."

Straker's expression turned implacable. "How is she?"

"Almost as bad off as Alec. They still aren't sure she's going to make it. Might be a mercy if she didn't."


Eddie sighed. "My shot nearly took her gun hand off. Claudia's did the least damage, breaking her shoulder, and Keith's shot shattered her spine. If she lives, she'll never walk again. They still aren't sure if she'll lose her hand."

Straker closed his eyes and swallowed, hard, snapping his eyes open when he felt Louise's arms gently encircle his body. He glanced back at her and whatever pity he might have spared for his ex-wife vanished. "Well, it's her own fault, isn't it? Let me know what happens, will you? And if anyone figures out where we are, give us a warning."

"Will do. You two take care and I'll talk to you in a few hours."

"Sooner, if necessary."

"Yes, sir." And with that final acknowledgment, he disconnected.

"What's the word?"

"Alec's doing as well as can be expected. Ford and that Post woman are editing the video for release to the media," he sighed at that but knew it had to be done. At least it wasn't pictures of ufoes.

She sighed with him. "Good." She hugged him, pressing her cheek between his shoulders. He turned in her embrace and hugged her back.

"I do love you."

"I know. I love you, too." They just stood that way for a while and finally, reluctantly, separated.

"I need coffee."

Louise laughed, and then grimaced as the movement annoyed her injured side. "Ow. Ouch. Owowow. Okay, no making me laugh, all right?"

He smiled, a mix of concern and amusement on his face. "I'll do my very best, but I can't guarantee anything." He kissed her again, lingeringly, but eventually pulled away with a sigh. "Let's get dressed and then I'll call the main house."

As she pulled on her trousers, Louise sighed. "I'm glad she hit me along the bottom rib. An inch or two lower, and I wouldn't be able to wear a skirt or a pair of pants." She smiled ruefully at her husband, her gaze turning appreciative as she watched him dress. Alec, or Eddie, or whoever had packed for them, had chosen for comfort and protection from the weather. He was wearing a lined jogging suit in silver and dark blue, which looked very good on him, bringing out the color of his eyes.

He looked at her as he pulled on a black turtleneck, before slipping on the lightweight jacket. It wasn't cold indoors, but he planned on taking a walk to get the lay of the land as soon as he requested coffee. He looked at his wife and smiled. She was wearing a jogging suit nearly identical to his, but with the colors reversed. "I haven't looked terribly closely, but I haven't recognized a single article of clothing, yet."

Louise smiled. "Well, I do recognize some of my under things, but most of it is definitely new." She admired him in his new jogging suit. "You're looking very good, Mr. Straker."

"As are you, Doctor...." He frowned. "I'm afraid it never occurred to me, are you going to remain Doctor Lewis?"

She looked surprised. "Do you want me to?"

He frowned, concerned and just a bit confused, looking down. "No." he raised only his eyes to hers. "But it's your choice."

"I'd love to be Doctor Straker. Or just Mrs. Straker, to tell you the truth."

His smile showed his pleasure at her words. "I love you, Mrs. Straker." He reached for her and gently hugged her, ever mindful of her injury.

"I love you, Mr. Straker."

After coffee and a breakfast of toast and jam, with fresh fruit, they decided to take a walk around, checking the area. It was heavily overcast, promising more rain, and perhaps even snow. The moors were stark, but beautiful in their own way and they wandered the sheep tracks hand in hand, sauntering in companionable silence over the barren hills of heather. Coming to the top of a rise, they stood, looking about them.

"Desolate, isn't it?"

She took a deep breath, smelling the wet heather. "Yes, but it's beautiful, as well." There was a mewling sound from somewhere nearby, and Ed exchanged a frown with his wife.

"What on earth is that, do you suppose?"

"Sounds like a baby, almost." They stepped apart several yards and each traced where the sound seemed to be coming from and lifted an arm to point, then they began walking in the direction indicated. The sounds continued, distraught, frightened. Finally, they met up and began scouring the area with their eyes, searching.

"There." Straker took three quick steps and crouched down. She came over to him and leaned on his shoulder, looking past him to what he'd found.

"What is it?"

"I'm not sure. Fox cubs, perhaps? Kittens?" He looked around, seeking the parents. Reaching gingerly into the hole, he noticed how cold the creatures were and realized that the parents had been gone a while. With a sigh, he eased one of the little animals up to get a better look at it. "It looks rather like a lynx, with its short tail and stripes, doesn't it? But I don't think they have them, here. At least, not native."

Louise reached down to lift the mewling, squirming creature from his hands as he reached down to pick up the other two. "I think you may be right, though. Or perhaps they're just part Manx? Hard to tell until we see a grown one." She looked over her captive and sighed. "Oh, Ed, they're skin and bones. I wonder what happened to their mother? They're eyes are open, but they can't be old enough to be on their own."

Ed straightened up, the other two kittens in his hands. "I know, but there's no sign of the mother, and they're all cold and, like you said, starved. Let's take them back with us, shall we?"

She looked at him in surprise for just a moment, and then smiled broadly. "Lovely. A lot of brides return from their honeymoon pregnant, I'm going to go home with not one, but three babies!"

For just a moment, Ed didn't understand, then he got it, and began to smile. "Yes, but these 'babies' never grow up, do they?"

"Well, not to the point of moving out on their own." She held the little kitten up to her face, "I suppose we're going to need to find a vet for them. See if they're old enough to eat on their own and get them some food, too."

"It's Sunday, Louise. And it's New Year's Eve."

"We'll ask our hosts. I'm sure they'll know what to do. We certainly can't leave them to die, now, can we?"

He sighed. "No, of course not." He thought back a couple of months to something he'd said on their visit to Australia. "I thought we weren't going to have pets?"

"We'll find them homes."

Ed watched her with the kitten she was holding, and then looked down at the pair he held. He lifted them to look into their eyes and sighed. Somehow, he thought they might have already found their home. Shaking his head, he tucked a kitten in each coat pocket and caught up to his wife, who had tucked her kitten inside her coat to warm it.

Their hosts were surprised by the three kittens, but fortunately, they knew whom to call and to their surprise, the vet made a cottage-call for them. They were informed that the vet would be a while, as she had a cow with mastitis to take care of, first, but she'd be there as soon as she could.

When the knock came at the door, Ed was on his cell phone with Eddie, who had nothing new to report, except that he had more than enough volunteers to sit with Alec. The weather had turned nasty and had gone from heavy rain to sleet and now was trying to snow. Louise patted her husband on the shoulder and went to answer the door.

"Oh, good heavens. Come in. Ed, it's snowing!" Louise smiled at the vet. It was hard to tell gender, but she assumed that the only person who would be out here in such a storm would be the vet. "Would you like some coffee?"

"Och, aye. I'd love a bit, thank ye." The woman shook off the snow in the doorway and removed her overcoat. "Noo, whar's the wee beasties?"

"We've got them in a box by the fire." She led the way and as the vet knelt by the cardboard box of kittens, Louise headed for the kitchen and the coffeepot. "What would you like in your coffee?"

"Och, a wee bit of cream, if ye have it, duck. Where did ye say ye found the puir bairns?"

"Out on the moor, just over that high spot about a mile north of here," Ed Straker informed her as he came in. "I'm Ed Straker, thank you for coming on such short notice, but we weren't sure what to do for them."

"Och, aye. They're queer little beasties, aren't they? I've not seen their like here aboot. But there's things on the moors that no one's seen." She smiled as she examined each kitten. "Weel, ye were right aboot them. Orphans, they are, fer sartain. I've soom KMR they'll be needin'; the instructions are oon th' lable. Ye jus' mix it w' warm water, is a'. I think they're old enow t' not be needin' a bottle, but i' may take ye a bit ta teach 'em t' drink from a saucer. I'll have th' market send ye soom kitten food. Fortunately, they're big enow ta not need ta be voided."

Ed frowned. "Voided?"

Louise chuckled. "Yes, love. Very young animals like puppies and kittens need to have their abdomens rubbed to make them void. You know. void?"

He scowled, but the way his wife was smirking, he suddenly got it. "OH!"

The vet laughed. "Aye. Ye ken. I reckon they be aboot five weeks old, noo. Wi' a bit o' care, they'll do fine." She pulled some vials and syringes from her bag. "Ye'll be wantin' them ta have their baby shots, won't ye?"

"Yes, of course," Ed replied and upon seeing the size of the injections, wondered if the kittens would survive being punctured and injected with such a large amount. He glanced at his wife, who smiled at him, her smile turning into a grin as he turned away so he wouldn't have to see the shots given. Thankfully, no comments were made by either woman. Instead, he went into the bedroom to bring back his wallet.

Upon his return, the injections had been completed, and the vet was writing down instructions for the care and feeding of the kittens. "Na then, for tonight, jus' gi' 'em a bit of the KMR mixed wi' water. Let them drink their fill. If they have trouble drinkin' from a saucer, try dippin' th' corner of a napkin i' the stoof and offer it ta them. Ye'll be amazed how quick they'll learn. I'll ha' the grocer send ye soom kibble i' th' mornin'. If ye ha' any trouble, jus' ha' old Doonald gi' me a call."

"Thank you. What do we owe you?"

The vet smiled at them, "Five pounds an' yer promise to gi' 'em a good home, or that they go to one."

Straker knew very well that the shots had to be several times that, so he pulled a hundred from his wallet and handed it to her. "It's the smallest I have," he lied glibly, "Consider it a reward for coming out on a holiday."

The vet, used to dealing with tight-fisted and barely surviving farmers, was shocked. She received most of her payments in barter, meat for the freezer, the occasional fleece for spinning, or even a tanned hide, but this much cash, at once, was something she hadn't seen in years. "Och," she whispered, looking up at the gentleman. "I don't know wha' ta' say, sair."

"Happy New Year, will do."

"Och, aye. Thank ye, sair." She grinned broadly and stuffed the bill into her pocket. It was starting out a Happy New Year, indeed. With this much cash in hand, she would definitely be starting the New Year off right. She smiled at the couple, "Bless ye both. Happy and long life ta ye."

"Thank you," Louise smiled as Ed helped the vet on with her coat and got the door for her.

"If ye need anytin' at a', jus gi' me a ring."

"We shall. Thank you," Louise promised.

Once she was gone, Ed looked over at his bride, who was reading the instructions on the can of KMR. "So, let's get them fed, shall we?"

"All right." They followed the directions, and were amused as the kittens tried to climb into the saucer to drink. They were hungry enough that they took no time to learn to lap up the formula from the saucer, although the biggest one forced its way into the middle and plopped itself down in the liquid, which allowed the other two kittens the opportunity to use it as a foster mother and suck the formula from its fur. Once they finished eating, the kittens started looking around. Realizing what they were doing, Louise snatched them up and hurried them outside, where they began digging in the snow and making their deposits.

"I think we need a box for that," Ed growled.

Louise grinned up at him. "Sounds like a good idea to me." They smiled and carried the kittens back indoors to their box, where they almost immediately settled down to sleep. They watched them for a while and then headed for their own bed, to sleep their way into the New Year. When the year changed, both of them were asleep, deeply, soundly.

There was no way to avoid it. They were going to have to provide a statement for the media. Virginia Lake was dismayed that she'd been stuck with the tasking, but was grateful that Ford and the Post woman were available to delegate it to.

"I don't want to show C...Mr. Freeman getting shot. There's enough blood and violence around that that's not necessary. And I certainly don't want any of our faces showing us shooting her down, if you don't mind." Ford was slouching in a chair in Editing, with Rachel Post perched on a chair beside him.

"Of course not...how about the entrance of the bride, Mr. Straker on the dais, smiling, then that woman waving the gun about? I think I got her with the hand-held camera. Let's look at that, first, shall we?"

"All right."

They worked for several hours, until Keith was satisfied that they'd edited the tape down to the bare minimum. It showed Mary Rutland creating a scene, the way she waved her pistol around as she ranted, and the gun going off and Alec falling. From there, they cut to the grim-faced ending of the wedding ceremony, careful not to show any blood. Keith wanted to include Alec's plea that Straker not let Mary win by postponing the wedding, but decided that it was too personal for public consumption. While Rachel finished putting the tape together and making copies for the media, Keith did the announcement copy.

Finally, they were both satisfied. Keith leaned back in his chair and stretched. "Oy. I'm beat."

"You're still in shock, reacting to yesterday, is all."

Keith smiled weakly, unable to explain that the only truly shocking thing about the day before had been his actually shooting at (and hitting!) another human being. He'd not slept very much since. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw it all again. Colonel Freeman falling, Dr. Lewis bleeding, and his own rage as he pointed his gun and very deliberately pulled the trigger and the blood spraying out as his bullet hit the mark - albeit a good four inches lower than he'd intended. He'd wanted to kill her; wanted his bullet to pierce her black heart. Instead, he'd pulled the trigger too soon, before he'd gotten his arm raised fully.

"If we're through, here, let's get this lot to Miss Ealand, shall we? She'll see to it that the press and television get copies."

"That Ms Lake won't be holding a press conference?"

Keith shook his head. "Not our style."

Rachel shook her head, as well. "I'll handle it, then. After all, I did hire on as a publicity person." She smiled reassuringly at him. "First, let's go see Miss Ealand, though, shall we?"

"All right, but then I'm heading over to the hospital to sit with Mr. Freeman for a while."

Rachel frowned. "I thought they'd put him in a coma?"

"That's right."

"Then why are you going to sit with him?"

Keith looked confused for a moment. "Because it's what we're doing."


"Me, Eddie and Lily Duk, Shaughnessy, Blake, Ms Lake, Miss Ealand and a couple dozen others are all taking turns watching over him."

"Why?" She didn't understand.

"Because Mr. Freeman's a good man, admired and respected."

"And obviously well liked. Let me see that news release, please?"

Keith moved out of her way so she could see it on the computer. The tip of her tongue appeared, barely peeking out from between her lips, right in the center. Nodding and closing her mouth, she began typing. When she was finished, she moved out of the way for Keith to see. Uncertain, he began reading.

*31 December, 1995. The head of Harlington-Straker Studios was married yesterday. The event was marred by the appearance of Mr. Straker's ex-wife (Mrs. Mary Rutland) who, it is believed, attempted to shoot Mr. Straker. (see video for details) Her first bullet missed Mr. Straker, striking his best man, long-time friend and business associate, Alec Freeman. Mr. Freeman's injuries are severe and he's in critical but stable condition at a local hospital. Mrs. Rutland's second shot grazed the bride's (Dr. Louise Lewis) side, resulting in a gash requiring numerous stitches. Studio security personnel fired on Mrs. Rutland, causing grievous injury. Her condition is serious, but stable. At Mr. Freeman's urging, the wedding concluded.*

Mr. and Mrs. Straker are currently unavailable for comment. Friends and colleagues are standing watch at Mr. Freeman's bedside until he is no longer in danger.

"Nice. With the tape, do you think we've got enough?" Keith asked.

"No. But we can simply tell them 'no comment' from that point on, don't you think?"

Keith smiled and nodded to her. "Sounds good."

"D'you think Ms. Lake will want to actually read the statement, or just send it?"

"Send it, undoubtedly. Why?"

Rachel frowned. "It should have a press conference. If you'd like, I'll do it? Earn my keep, and all that."

"Let me call Ginny and ask."

He lifted the phone and punched in a number. "Ginny, it's Keith Ford. We've got the statement done, if you'd care to come up and take a look at it?" He listened for a moment and smiled. "Well, Ms Post thinks it should be given out in a press conference." He pulled the handset away from his head as Lake's voice became painful. "She thinks she should, as our new media person, give the conference." There was a long silence, then Keith smiled. "All right. We'll be here, waiting for you." He hung up the phone and sighed.

"As I'm sure you noticed, she didn't much like the idea of a press conference. Until I mentioned that you'd be the spokesperson, that is." He grinned. "Do you need me for anything more?"

Rachel shook her head. "No. You go along. After I give our speech, what should I do with the tape and statement?"

"Drop it off with Miss Ealand, I guess. She'll know what to do with it."

"All right. Thank you, Mr. Ford. It's been a pleasure working with you."

Ford grinned as he stood up and pulled on his jacket. "Likewise, and it's Keith."

"Keith, then. But only if you call me Rachel."

"All right. Thanks for taking over that lot. I have to admit that I'm still a bit shaky over it all."

"I can imagine. Go on along with you. I'll wait for Ms Lake and then make the call to the media. How long will it take them to get here?"

"Couple of hours, is all. You say 'Straker' and 'married' in the same sentence and they'll break their necks getting here."

"Is there a list of numbers?"

"Miss Ealand can do that for you."

Rachel shook her head. "I can't imagine that she'd be here on a Sunday, and just before a holiday, at that."

"Normally, she wouldn't, but I know I saw her car in the lot, earlier."

"All right, then, I'll ask her to set it up."

"Why don't I do that on my way out? Save a bit of time and bother for you."

Rachel grinned. "Thanks. That would be a help. I'm afraid I'm still getting lost around here."

"Yes, it is a bit of a labyrinth, isn't it?"

"I'll figure it out, eventually."

"I'm sure you will. Ah, Ms. Lake. Have you met Rachel Post? She's our new media person." The two women nodded at one another, having briefly met the day before, prior to the wedding. "Well, I'll leave you two to it. If I'm needed, I'll be at the hospital with Mr. Freeman. I'll stop and have Miss Ealand put out the call for the buzzards."

"Thank you, Keith," Virginia called after him as she began reading the proposed announcement.

As Keith had said, the media showed up in droves at the invitation. She showed them the edited video and read their statement, handed out copies of both, and fended off the questions. Afterwards, drained from the stress, she carried the masters to Miss Ealand's office to give them to her.

When she arrived, the office door was open, but the office itself was empty. The computer was still on, but the screensaver had yet to come on, so she figured that Miss Ealand would be returning shortly. She looked at the wall decor and shook her head at it. She sat in a visitor's chair to wait.

When the phone began to ring, she wondered if she should let it go, but after the third ring, couldn't stand it and stood up, crossed the room, and lifted the receiver. "Harlington-Straker Studios."

"Oh, good, you're there. Look, our bleeding computer connection is wonky. They're working on it, but I don't want our reports to be late, so I'm going to fax them to you, now. Hopefully, the pictures will come through all right. We had another piece of space junk come down last week and they tried it again. You'll see when you get the photos. I'm sending now."


"Sent. If the Commander wants to talk to me about any of what's in the reports, give me a call and I'll fill him in. Thanks, Miss Ealand." With that, the line went dead, leaving Rachel totally confused.

The fax machine began making noises, and then page after page came through. The pictures were color, and for faxes, remarkably clear. She watched in horrified fascination as the pictures came out and stacked themselves. Unbelievable pictures. Horrifying pictures. Amazing pictures. She could imagine what the information could be worth, but why was it coming to a movie studio? Or was it just some movie thing? The pictures certainly looked real. Particularly the one where the man in the red and silver space suit was shot and the green fluid could be seen spurting from the holes.

Then the written report started coming out and she skimmed over it as it stacked itself. Her breath caught and she could feel an unreasoning panic settling in her stomach. She shouldn't be here. She should get away. Run. Run far, and fast, and hope they didn't find her.

She almost ran, but managed to stop herself. She returned to her seat and forced herself to calm down. There was nothing she could do about her racing heart, but she did what she could to wait quietly.

When Miss Ealand returned to her office, she was surprised to have a visitor. "Ah, Ms Post, isn't it?"

"Yes. I've the originals from the press conference. I expect you'll have your hands full with calls, come Tuesday, but I'm afraid it can't be helped."

"Oh, that's nothing new. Shall I refer any questions to you?"

"Lord, no! Ms Lake said that anything not covered in the press release can be referred to her."

"Good. I'll take care of everything, then." She noticed Rachel's uncertainty. "Is there anything else?"

"Well, your phone rang, and some man said he was sending in his report via fax. Something about bad computer connections. I guess that's what's coming in, over there." She did her best to seem blase' about it and thought she might have succeeded, until she saw Miss Ealand's face when she looked at the fax.

"Did you look at it?"

"No," Rachel lied and gave her best inquisitive look. "Is it something I need to concern myself with?"

"No. Not at all." Miss Ealand smiled, seething inside. She'd tell Colonel Lake about it, and the fact that Ms Post had been alone in her office, and she'd have to take the hit on that one. It was Sunday, and a holiday the next day, and the only other people on the lot were SHADO personnel...except for this one. She'd been careless, she knew, but she'd thought a quick trip to the lady's room would go unnoticed. She sighed as she sorted out the fax. It didn't look as though anyone had touched it, but that didn't preclude watching it come in. Damn. And Straker had just brought the woman in for the publicity department. She wondered if it was going to go on hold until the commander returned? She could just kill Foster. Bloody fool couldn't tell her voice from the Australian woman's? Bloody hell.

She'd seen Miss Ealand glance at the fax. The contents hadn't fazed her in the least, so it wasn't strange, to her. She knew she was in trouble, and in a strange country, with no friends, no one to help her. Straker and his lady were out of town, and Freeman was in hospital. Maybe Eddie Duk would still be at the hospital! She'd been provided with a studio car when she'd arrived, so she stopped at the guard shack to ask directions to Mayland Hospital. She drove carefully, praying all the way that Eddie would be there.

She asked directions to Alec's room and smiled her gratitude at the receptionist. Entering the CCU, she softly asked for Alec's room, and if Mr. Duk had been in.

"He's staying the nights with Mr. Freeman. Mr. Ford's in with him now. Mr. Freeman's very popular, isn't he?"

She smiled and nodded. "Yes, he is."

Ford looked up when she entered, surprised to see her. He jumped to his feet and offered her a chair.

"No, I was hoping to find Eddie Duk, but he's not expected back until tonight."

"Is something wrong?"

She gnawed at the inside of her cheek, debating. But she'd worked with this man for several hours and had liked him. She decided to take a chance and tell him. "I was waiting for Miss Ealand to come back. The office was open, so I was just sitting, when the phone rang. I shouldn't have, but I couldn't bear it, so I answered it. A man thought I was Miss Ealand, and said he was going to fax his report in." She looked at him with frightened eyes. "There were pictures. Lots of pictures."

Keith's heart plummeted. Oh, no. What had she seen, and could she be convinced that it had something to do with a movie? "Pictures?"

She nodded. "Flying saucers. And strange aircraft shooting at them. And men in red and silver space suits that squirted green when they were shot. The pictures were very clear."

Of course they would be. Keith sighed. "I see." Unfortunately, he did see. The only question now would be what to do about it? Straker himself had invited the woman to come and work for the studio. He doubted if that invitation had included joining SHADO. "Did you tell anyone else?"

Rachel shook her head. "And I lied to Miss Ealand. She asked me if I'd read the fax, and I told her no, but I was standing right there when it started coming in and I looked. I didn't touch anything, but I saw. And I know it wasn't anything to do with making movies."

Keith hid his dismay well. He was definitely going to have to report it, though. The sooner, the better. The fact that she'd turned herself in might work in her favor, but with the commander gone and Colonel Freeman unconscious, it would fall to Colonel Lake to handle.

"I've just one request, if I may?"

Keith snapped from his worried consideration of the problem and focused on her. "What's that?"

"When they kill me? Ask them to make it as quick and painless as they can? And I'd really appreciate it if I didn't see it coming?" Her breathing was shallow from fear, but she put up her bravest front.

Keith shook his head. "It won't come to that."

She smiled at him and shook her head. "I don't see how it couldn't."

"It won't. After all, we aren't barbarians, you know." He couldn't exactly tell her that they had perfectly safe and non-lethal means of taking care of the problem. "Why didn't you take the report and run to the television stations with it?"

She looked at him in surprise. "It's got to be covered under the official secrets act, isn't it?"

"Well, yes, but that hasn't stopped others from selling secrets, now has it?"

She shook her head. "I'm not out looking for a fortune. Besides, I can make money any time I like with the pictures I have of Mr. Straker smiling." She frowned, consideringly, "Is Mr. Straker the 'commander' the man on the phone mentioned?" If they were going to have to kill her anyway, she figured she might as well understand why.

"Yes." He saw no reason to not answer her questions. She'd forget it all, soon, so there was no real danger in answering her. Still, it wouldn't do to leave her alone. "I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to stay here while I make a call."

She nodded. "I shan't run. I'll just sit and watch Mr. Freeman sleep. Is he part of the unit?"


"The military unit that's fighting the...them?"

"Yes. He's second in command, after Mr. Straker."

She nodded. Taking a deep, steadying breath, she sat in the chair Keith had originally offered her. "I'll wait here while you make your calls."

Keith nodded and squeezed her shoulder. "It won't be anything like you think. We don't kill humans," he softly informed her before leaving the room to use the pay phone by the lifts.

She watched Alec. The ventilator filling and deflating his lungs as he slept. He had a worried look on his face, as though he knew what was going on and was bothered by it. She looked up when the door opened and a very young woman came in. The girl smiled at her.

"How's he doing?"

Rachel shrugged, wondering who the girl was, and finally recognizing her as an actress just starting adult roles. "He's doing as well as can be expected, is what they say." She was surprised when the girl approached the unconscious man and gazed down at him for a moment before leaning down and kissing him on the forehead.

She saw the older woman's surprise and smiled as she straightened up. "Bet you're thinking he's a cradle robber, right?"


The girl shook her head. "He isn't. Despite what the tabloids said. I was in the corridor at the studio, crying my eyes out because my boyfriend had just dumped me. He invited me out to dinner." She shook her head and wiped tears from her eyes. "He's the type of fellow every girl wants, you know. He took me to a nice restaurant and just listened to me. When he's with you, I swear an all-girl marching band could come by, stark naked, and he'd never notice. After dinner, I asked to go home with him, and he took me. He's got a nice flat, but he didn't do anything but sit and let me cry on his shoulder and tell me that the reason Ralph broke up with me was because I was a 'good' girl. Then he told me that I had my entire life ahead of me to throw it away on a simpering pustule like him. He made me laugh, and then he hugged me and put me to bed on his sofa. I went right to sleep and in the morning, he made me breakfast, took me to my place, and then back to the studio." She smiled and held out her left hand. "I wanted to show him that he was right. Miguel asked me to marry him last night."

Rachel frowned in confusion. "Miguel?"

The girl sighed. "Yes. Alec introduced us a few months ago. He's absolutely wonderful. He's a lighting tech, from Portugal. He's absolutely perfect, and Alec recognized it and introduced us." She looked back at the unconscious man and her smile dimmed. "I just wish...." She looked up at the older woman and asked her, "Since my own dad's dead, do you think he'd walk me down the aisle?"

Rachel smiled, finally understanding. "I'm sure he'd love to, dear. Why don't you come back after they let him wake up? They were saying about a week."

"Oh, I'll come back every day, if that's all right? I've kind of gotten into the habit of telling him about my day, at least when he's in town, that is." The girl smiled at her, turned back to again kiss Alec, this time on the cheek, and then she left, leaving Rachel to ponder the unconscious man before her.

She was still sorting through the information when another woman entered; this one was older, in her thirties, and experienced. Rachel recognized her, as well, and watched quietly as the woman looked at Alec.

"How's he doing?"

"As well as can be expected."

The woman nodded, lightly stroking the side of Alec's face with long, manicured nails. "Tell him that Dorothy was by, and when he's feeling better, to come and see me." She smiled, and then pretended to look contrite, "Oh, I didn't think, are you his current 'lady'?" She batted her eyes and Rachel almost laughed at her.

"No. I'm just waiting for Mr. Ford."

Dorothy looked surprised. "I thought he was diddling that gate guard?" Her face had an expression of pretended interest, but her voice was sneering.

Rachel decided she didn't like this woman. "What exactly is your interest in Alec, anyway?"

She waved a hand dismissively. "He's convenient, darling. You remember 'those' girls back in school? The ones the boys all liked because they were easy? That's Alec. He's a dear, sweet man, who is very, very good at pleasing a woman. But he's not someone you'd ever take home to meet the parents, he's just....convenient." She smiled brightly at her and turned to run her hand up the inside of Alec's leg. "When he's feeling better, tell him to come see me." With a predatory smile, she patted Alec on the hip and left.

Rachel shuddered. Salt-water croc, she thought.

A moment later, another woman entered, young, early twenties, she guessed, and like the first, had only kind things to say about what a sweet and kind man Alec Freeman was. She wondered at the thought that he could possibly have made such different impressions on women, until she recalled Dorothy's description, and she realized that he was that rare individual who really could be all things to all women. She wondered why no one had snatched him up, yet.

Keith apologized for waking Eddie up, but when he explained his reasons, Eddie told him to keep her under surveillance and not let her near a phone. Keith flinched and promised to keep an eye on her until Eddie got there. Hanging up the phone, he smiled as he passed the nurse's station and re-entered Alec's room. A young actress he recognized was leaving just as he arrived and he smiled at her. One of Alec's 'harem', he noted, smiling. He sighed in relief when he saw Rachel still sitting where he'd left her.

"Eddie said he'd come in as soon as he can. I'm afraid I woke him." He really was apologetic about having to wake him, but also understood her fear and mistrust of anyone else. At least she was acquainted with Eddie.

"I'm sorry. I wish I'd let that damned phone keep right on ringing." She shook her head in dismay.

"I wish I could tell you that there's nothing to worry about, but I honestly can't. However, I can assure you that we don't kill humans. We do have other means to make you forget about what you saw."

"I've never been able to be hypnotized, Keith."

"It doesn't involve hypnosis. Just try and relax and not panic, all right?"

She smiled bravely up at him. "All right."

"Erm, I'm afraid I must ask you for your cell phone, please?"

"Oh, of course." She dug it from her purse and handed it to him. He opened it, turned it on, and looked at the last several numbers she had called, pleased to discover that they were all studio numbers.

"Thank you."

She frowned, "Whatever for?"

"Well, you haven't made any phone calls since you saw that fax, now, have you?"

"No! Of course not!"

"Right. That's good." He smiled, and for some reason, she took comfort in his manner.

They both turned when the door opened and one of the nurses came in. "I'm sorry to bother you, but what would you like us to do with the flowers? They aren't allowed in the CCU rooms."

Keith frowned. "Flowers?"

"Yes, there have been a number of deliveries, they're all out here on a trolley, if you'd like to look?"

Motioning Rachel to accompany him, they followed the nurse out to find not one, but three double-decked trolleys, filled with flowers, all addressed to Alec Freeman. Rachel's jaw dropped in amazement and realized that the women who'd been to see him were nothing compared to those who'd sent flowers.

Keith blinked and sighed. He looked over the arrangements and shook his head. Choosing a very nice, but relatively small arrangement of roses and carnations, he took off the card and then handed the vase to the duty nurse. "If you're allowed, you can have this one for here?"

"Oh, it's lovely, are you sure he won't mind?"

Keith grinned. "Positive. In fact, if you'd collect all the cards, and if you'd be so kind as to take care of the live plants, the rest can go to the wards, if you'd be so kind?"

The nurse looked over the trolleys and frowned. There were half a dozen live plants, mostly orchids, she noticed. "Well, the plants aren't that large, fortunately. Yes, I think we can accommodate you, but are you absolutely certain he won't mind us sending the rest of them to the wards?"

Keith smiled. "I'm positive. If he were awake, I assure you that he'd send them, himself. He does like live plants, though. Perhaps if we leave the cards on those and just collect them from the flowers?"

"Yes, of course. Thank you, Mr. Ford."

Keith grinned. "Not a problem." He turned back to Rachel, who was looking at some of the tags on the various arrangements. He took her hand and led her back into Alec's room and then asked, "Something wrong?"

Rachel was confused, "Every last one of them is from a woman."

"Yes. Alec's very popular with the ladies."

She nodded, frowning. "One woman came in, Dorothy? She indicated that Alec is...well, promiscuous is such an old fashioned term, but it seems to fit."

Keith sighed and nudged her towards a chair. "Look, not many people realize it, but Alec's a gent. If we were talking Camelot and King Arthur, he'd be Galahad, never able to resist a damsel in distress."

"Yes, I got that impression from that young lady who came in first. But that other woman?"

"Ah, yes. Dorothy. She's a very great deal like Paul Foster...into conquest and keeping count. Alec's never been like that, thankfully."

"I've heard a number of mentions of Foster, I think he was the one who telephoned. Where is he? Is he...involved with all this?"

Keith smiled. "Yes. He's in Sydney, at the moment. I'm afraid he's going to be in a bit of trouble. How he mistook you for Miss Ealand is beyond me."

Rachel shook her head. "I've got an accent you need a chainsaw to cut, and she's got an accent that's all refined and all that. The worst thing was, he never let me get a word in edgewise."

Keith sighed. Fortunately, all calls were recorded, and would hopefully exonerate Rachel. Of course, there was still the problem of her having discovered things she shouldn't have. And she was a bit old to recruit, really. But that wouldn't be his call, thankfully. For himself, he thought she'd be an excellent addition to the staff. She'd kept her head and hadn't tried to pass on the information to the media. Surely that should count for something?

"I wish I had something to say that would ease your mind, but I honestly don't."

Rachel smiled at him. "That's fine, though. I prefer honesty; particularly to platitudes."

Keith smiled back at her.

Eddie stood under his shower, trying to wake up. It wasn't working. He was still exhausted. He decided to head to the studio, first, and see what was going on there. Then, he'd call his father, if he had to. Damn it. They'd only had one night and day together, and here he was, having to drag them back? Maybe Colonel Lake would have some ideas. He turned off the taps and got out. Drying himself quickly, he got dressed and headed out.

Arriving at the studio, he entered the office and took the lift down below. He found Colonel Lake in Control. She looked at him and sighed. Straightening up from where she'd been looking over an operative's shoulder, she passed him and headed for the conference room.

As soon as the door closed behind them, she turned and spoke. "I'm a bit surprised you're here, already, Mr. Duk."

"Keith Ford called me. Rachel went to the hospital hoping to find me and found him, instead. She's in his custody at the moment." He paused, his head tilted down and looking up at her from that position. For some reason, the pose caused a shiver to run down her spine. "She told him that she saw the fax. Have you listened to the tape of the phone call, yet?"

Virginia Lake sighed, closing her eyes and pinching the bridge of her nose. "Yes. The idiot never let her get a word in edgewise. What else has she done?"

Eddie shrugged. "She told Keith, who called me. He's got her under wraps, watching over Alec. He's got her cell phone and won't let her out of his sight. He said that she thinks we're going to have to kill her for what she saw. She seems to be taking it all very well."

"We need to contact the commander."

"Can't it wait at least another day or two?"

"Whatever for? The sooner we take care of this, the better, I say."

"Colonel Lake, they're on their honeymoon. They've been married just over a day and a half. Surely we can keep one middle-aged woman under wraps for a couple of days? Besides, we don't have anyone to administer the proper dosage of the amnesia drug."

Virginia was torn. She liked Rachel, what she'd seen of her, that is, but the risks. What if she decided to go to the press?

"If she'd any intention of calling the media, she'd have done it. Snatched up that fax and run for it. But she didn't. She went looking for someone she knew, to tell about what happened. She'd been working with Keith, so when I wasn't there, she told him and he called me. I don't think she's a risk. She thinks we're going to kill her."

Virginia flinched. Biting her lip, she shook her head. "Damn. Why did this have to happen when I'm in the responsibility seat?"

Eddie sighed. "Got me. Why'd it have to happen at all? What was Foster thinking?"

"He wasn't, obviously. He heard what he expected and assumed all the wrong things. Damn the man. Should I send for him, or wait for the commander to return?"

"I'm headed over to the hospital. Let's see what she has to say, okay? I'll be talking to the commander in the morning. If it's under control, I'd rather not interrupt them, just yet...."

"I'd better go with you. If it comes to it, I have to be the one to make the decisions."

"Yes, Colonel."

After talking to her and hearing the same story as they'd heard from the tape of the phone call, Colonel Lake decided to keep Rachel under guard until the commander's return. Keith offered to ask Claudia to take over the task of watching her, as it would be inappropriate for her to be guarded by a man. With a sigh, she agreed. Keith gave them a grateful smile and called Claudia to take care of Rachel.

Rachel hated feeling like a prisoner, but staying in a stranger's home was better than a cell or a grave.

Knowing she couldn't be left on her own, she offered to help watch Alec. Virginia reluctantly agreed. As long as she wasn't left alone or allowed to contact anyone, it should be all right, she thought. Eddie suggested she could spend the next day with him, and Virginia agreed. He'd also have the onerous task of telling the commander...and for that, she was most grateful.

Straker awoke to a peculiar sound. Frowning, he opened his eyes and listened. There was a soft, scuffling sound, followed by some soft, rhythmic thumping. Curious, he eased away from his bride and looked over the edge of the bed. There, on the rug, were the three kittens they'd rescued the day before, trying to figure out how to jump up onto the bed with them. Scowling, he said to them in his most menacing tone, "You are not sharing our bed with us, and that is final."

"Hmmm? What?" Louise was still quite groggy with sleep.

"The kittens. They want up here, with us. I told them no."

She sat up and looked over his shoulder at the three kittens, now sitting and staring up at them, their enormous green and blue eyes wide and seemingly pleading with them. "I think they're probably just hungry and need to go outside." She eased back down and carefully stretched, favoring her injured side.

"Oh. You're probably right." With a sigh, he pushed back the covers and slid his legs over the side of the bed. The moment his feet hit the floor, he yelped and jumped back up on the bed. "The little monsters attacked my feet!"

"Of course they did, love. They're kittens. If it moves, they pounce."

"Well, they'd better figure out not to pounce on me, or they'll go right back where we found them." The pitiful mewing of one of the kittens made him sigh and try again. This time, the kittens allowed his feet to land safely on the floor, scrambling back a bit as he found and put on his slippers. With his feet now protected from surprise attack, he made his way into the small kitchen area and prepared a bowl of the KMR for the kittens' breakfast. Setting it down amidst the crying, begging little animals, he couldn't help but smile as they attacked their food. He left them to it as he returned to the bedroom to find Louise already half-dressed.

"They're eating, at the moment."

"Good. I'll go watch them while you get dressed." She kissed him and then left the room. He watched her as she walked away and wished she wasn't injured. She was his wife, now, but they could hardly indulge themselves, with her injury. Frustrated, he began to dress. By the time he re-entered the kitchen, the kittens were ready to be placed outside. They were already waiting for the door to open for them when he reached it. The three kittens dashed out, only to screech to a stop at the edge of the stoop. The world as far as the eye could see was white. The largest kitten hissed and backed towards the open door and turned to return to the warmth inside.

"Oh, no you don't," Ed told him as he closed the door in the kitten's face. It looked up at him and hissed its displeasure. "You're just going to have to wait until we get you a litter box. Go on, go with the others out into the snow." The kitten glared up at him a bit longer and then with a disgusted sound, followed its siblings into the cold, damp, white world, quickly dug a hole, made its deposit and returned, still glaring up at the human. Ed couldn't help but grin at the annoyed expression on the kitten's face. The other two had made their deposits, but were playing out in the snow, pouncing on each other and rolling around in the fluffy cold snow crystals. Shaking his head, he stepped out into the mess and scooped up the two players, which hissed at him in anger at having their play interrupted, and then he opened the door. The largest one scooted inside immediately and headed for their warm box by the fire, where Louise was just adding some more wood.

"That big one, there, is a hearth-cat. He wanted nothing to do with the snow. These two, however," he continued, as he put the two smaller kittens in the box with their larger sibling, "wanted to play in the snow."

Louise laughed as she placed a bowl of water on the hearth for the kittens. The smallest one clambered out of the box to sniff at it, wrinkled up its nose and climbed back into the box with its siblings. "I guess they're still a bit young to drink water, hmmm?" The three kittens settled down to grooming each other, their purrs providing a gentle, almost subsonic hum.

"What do we have in the kitchen? I realize that our hosts intended to provide all our meals, but it's a good two feet deep out there and I'd hate to have to make anyone go out in it if I don't have to."

They went into the small kitchen and started exploring. The cupboards were well stocked with staples, flour, spices, canned goods and, most importantly, coffee. There was meat in the freezer, as well as milk, eggs, butter, cheese and fresh vegetables in the refrigerator.

"Omelet?" Louise asked, looking up at him.

"Sounds lovely. Shall I do the honors, or would you like to?"

Louise straightened with a slight grimace. "If you don't mind, I'd love if you did it, please? I'm going to go see if they have a hot water bottle in the bathroom."

Instantly worried, Ed frowned. "Your side?"

"Yes. It's aching, which isn't all that surprising, is it?"

He sighed as he turned back to the makings for their breakfast. "No, I just wish...."

She turned back to him, smiling. "If wishes were horses, we'd all starve to death trying to keep them fed."

Her husband looked at her in shock, then burst into laughter. She loved it when he laughed. "Go on, then. Find the hot water bottle and why don't you go on back to bed? I'll bring in a tray."

"Ooh, how decadent. Breakfast in bed with my husband." She turned and would have put some seduction into her walk, but it hurt to even try.

Ed watched her and felt a tightness grip his heart, realizing how close he'd come to losing her. Then he was angry with himself for feeling frustrated. Now that he couldn't have her, he wanted her more than ever, but never at the expense of hurting her. He'd have to be patient. But it was their honeymoon, damnit!" Sighing, he turned back to preparing them breakfast. Perhaps some coffee would help.

Carrying a tray with their breakfast, he entered the bedroom to find Louise lying atop the made bed. He frowned, realizing that she'd straightened up. With a sigh, he set the tray across her lap. She smiled up at him. He noticed the hot water bottle peeking out from beneath her sweater and sighed. "Does it help?"

"Yes. I need to change the dressing, too."

"How can I help?"

"Well, let's worry about it after breakfast, which looks marvelous, by the way." She smiled up at him and he grinned as he stretched out beside her and they shared their meal.

After they ate, Louise led him into the bathroom, where they changed the dressing on her wound and then decided that a nice, relaxing stint in the hot tub would not be amiss. With a water-barrier plaster in place, they settled into the warm, swirling water.

Rachel Post was a model prisoner...guest. She didn't cause any problems and, in fact, offered to help out in any way she could. Tom and Maggie liked her, as she had interesting stories to tell about growing up in Australia, and her accent fascinated both children. Just after ten, Monday morning, Eddie Duk arrived to escort her to the hospital, where they'd spend most of the day sitting with Alec.

"Did you sleep well, Ms Post?"

"Yes, considering. What did Mr. Straker say?"

"I haven't told him, yet."

"Whyever not? Shouldn't he have been notified immediately?" She frowned in confusion.

Eddie cast a glance at her. "When I tell him, he'll be back like a shot. In fact, I'll send the helicopter to get them before I make the call. He's only had one day with his new wife and he doesn't take time off for much of anything. I'd like to see them have at least another couple of days together. You don't really mind, do you?"

"No, I suppose not." But she frowned, wondering.

They spent the day watching Alec sleep. Except for when the doctors came by, or the orderly came in to take care of his personal needs, they stayed with him.

Eddie wasn't used to silence. He divided his time between Alec, Rachel, and a book he'd brought. She sat quietly, passively. When he couldn't stand it any more, he spoke. "You're taking all this rather well."

She looked over at him, almost smiling. "Do you think so? I'm scared out of my wits, to tell you the truth." She gestured at the unconscious man, "He's certainly very popular, isn't he?"

Eddie grinned. "Yes. He's just about everyone's favorite. But then, he has a lot of power without the responsibility. The commander gets the hard jobs, leaving the nice ones to him."

She nodded, understanding. "Your dad's a very strong personality. I can see why people are afraid of him."

He cocked his head to one side, smiling softly. "He's not cruel, and he's hardly cold, but he puts up a pretty good front. From what I've seen, Alec is exactly what he shows the world. He's a people-person, whereas Dad's more the scientist."

"Your dad was lucky to find Louise."

"Not as lucky as we were to find him." At her confused expression, he explained his and his twin sister's history, how their grandfather had brought their pregnant mother over from Viet Nam, thinking his son wouldn't be coming back, and then, when he did, how he sent them to the other side of the country to keep them apart. How his father hadn't any idea they existed until less than a year previous.

"Serendipitous. For all of you, sounds like."

"What about you? Have you any family?"

She smiled sadly. "None that'll talk to me or care."

"Why not?"

"My brothers inherited the station. They fought our dad's will and won."

"What happened?" He was genuinely curious.

"I'm the youngest, and my brothers are both several years older than I am. When I was fifteen, Dad had his first stroke; left him with a limp, but he was still able to get himself around and run the station. I finished school and headed for college. I was in my last year when he had his second stroke, which put him in a wheelchair, and less than a year later, he'd another that left him bedridden. I was twenty-four, and spent the next twenty years taking care of both him and the station. My brothers did as little work as possible, but lived there, not helping. When Dad finally died, they sued for the station and won. I found myself with nothing. Thankfully, I'd done a bit of editing for friends, and one of them got me the job with the paper. I was there just over ten years, when your dad invited me here." She shivered. "I thought, at the time, that it was a great idea. Get away from there. Although my brothers have ruined the station and they're probably going to lose it. I think I hate that most of all. Dad gave everything to that place. His granddad settled that land, and now it's going to someone else. Dad's probably spinning over it."

"I'm sorry." He wasn't sure what else to say to her, when the door opened, and Joey Ashton stepped in, his sister right behind him.

"How's he doin' today, Eddie?" He smiled at Rachel, as well.

Eddie shrugged. "Still out, of course. How are you doing?"

Joey nodded, grinning. "Good. We're doin' good. Need to get home, soon, though. Fall lambing's underway and we need to get back."

Eddie frowned, glancing between Rachel and Tony.... "Uh, I have a question, Rachel?"


"Do you know the Ashtons? Are they from anywhere around where you're from?"

Rachel exchanged a grin with Joey and April. "I grew up near Wagga Wagga."

"Well, not too far apart, I suppose," April smiled. "Our place is just south of Mildura, in Victoria."

"So, that's close?"

"In Outback terms, yes," Joey laughed, "It's between five and six hundred kilometers."

Eddie tried to guestimate it into miles, squinting in his struggle with the math. "So, that's what, two-hundred-fifty, three hundred miles?"

The Australians all shrugged. "We only know the kilometers, I'm afraid, and the roads would probably make it a bit further. Flying, now, that's probably the fastest way to go. Especially crossing the Murray." Joey cocked his head in question. "Why?"

Eddie just shook his head. "Nothing, I guess. Rachel's brothers are about to lose the family place. Forget I said anything." Three hundred miles apart was too far to even consider.

Joey looked at Rachel with interest. "Oh? How big's your station?"

"Not very big, I'm afraid, it's only about a hundred square kilometers, is all."

"Oh? How's your water?"

"Good. Good grass, good water, grapes, as well as the sheep and cattle; but the boys, well, they're their own best customers for the wine, I'm afraid."

"You've got vineyards?" April asked with interest.

"Yes." She frowned at them. "Why?"

"Post? Mind if we check up on your place?"

Rachel looked sad. "It's not my place. It's my brothers'." She shook her head. "Long, sordid story."

"Da was talking about investing in something besides sheep. Good vineyard property might be what he'd like."

The three Aussies looked at one another, speculatively. "Promise not to change the name?"

April smiled. "I don't think that would be a problem."

Rachel nodded, feeling oddly relieved. She knew the Ashtons were related to Alec, somehow, and even though she didn't really know them, they still were better than some nameless corporation taking over. She scrounged in her purse and found a card, on which she wrote down the name of the bank that held the note on the property. She handed it to Joey, who smiled and put it in his wallet.

"Da and I've got to get back to the station, Eddie. Will you watch out for April until Dad wakes up?"

"Of course." Eddie stood up and extended his hand, which Joey shook, smiling.

"Thanks, mate. April, you behave yourself, now."

"Joey, I am an adult, you know."

"Yeah, but you're still my kid sister. D'you want me to drop you off at the hotel?"

Eddie frowned. "Hotel? Why don't you stay at Alec's? I'm sure he won't mind."

"I wouldn't want to impose."

Eddie shook his head. "What imposition? He's not using it at the moment, and his car is just sitting at the studio. Here," he turned to the bedside table and retrieved Alec's keys from the drawer. Fortunately, Alec had a splitable keying, one half had his personal keys to his flat and car, and the other half had his 'work' keys. He detached the personal keys and handed them to April. "I'll have someone take his car home. That way, you won't be stuck there all the time."

"Oh, but I don't know...."

"It'll be fine. I'll clear it with Mr. Straker, if you like?"

April bit her lip. Staying at her father's home was inviting. She was certain she could learn a great deal about him, just from how his place was decorated. And the idea of having a car to use, well, that was too inviting to ignore. "All right. Thanks."

"If you want to stay, now, I'll run you by the hotel later to get your stuff, and then drop you off at Alec's?"

"I'm headed back to the hotel, now. I can check you out and bring your gear by here, April, if you'd rather?" Joey offered.

April smiled. "That'd be great Joey. That way, I'll be able to say good-bye to Da, as well."

Settled, a relieved Joey took his leave, while Eddie got another visitor's chair for himself, as April sat beside Rachel and they began talking about 'home'.

The day passed quietly enough. When the next person arrived to watch over Alec, Eddie escorted both ladies out. Driving first to Alec's flat, he checked out his refrigerator, and was pleased to note that nothing had had time to spoil, as yet. Of course, he'd only been gone three days.

"If you need anything, here's my cell number. Just call and I'll take care of it for you, all right, April?"

"Yes, thanks, Eddie." She was looking around the flat. It was spacious, much to her surprise, with heavy, antique furniture in a dark wood. She noticed the extensive bar and frowned, slightly. Then she saw the photo album, tucked away in the bookshelf and timidly pulled it out. Seeing the yellowed pictures of her brothers as babies, she smiled and looked up at Eddie. "He does care, doesn't he?"

"Very much," Eddie agreed. "Make yourself at home and if you need anything at all, even just someone to talk to, give me a call?"

"I shall, thank you, for everything."

Eddie grinned and with Rachel, left her to learn what she could about her father from his home. Eddie had made a call, earlier, making sure someone had come over to make certain there was nothing compromising in the apartment, but Alec was a professional, and there had been nothing to worry about.

"That was very nice of you, to let her stay there."

Eddie shrugged. "I don't see any reason to cause the expense of making her stay in a hotel. The trip itself was expensive enough for them. This way she's got some privacy, and with Alec's car she can take herself around wherever and whenever she wants to."

"What did your dad say to that?"

Eddie grinned. "I haven't told him, yet." He glanced at his watch, "Which reminds me, it's time to call him. This morning, he said they were snowed in. He said that they'd picked something up for me, but not what. He was laughing about it, though. I just hope it wasn't some 'moor monster'."

Rachel chuckled. "Well, I still think you should tell him about me. No offense, but the waiting is rather wearing."

Eddie gave her a serious look. "The longer I wait, the more trouble I'll be in, but at the same time, the better I think it will be for you. You haven't tried to escape or call anyone. You're taking all this remarkably well, actually."

She shrugged. "Don't see as I have much choice, really. Although, I do wish I could see that imbecile's face when he realizes I wasn't who he thought I was." She shook her head. "Your Miss Ealand has a much higher-pitched voice than I do, and our accents! How could anyone mistake my accent for hers?"

Eddie shook his head in agreement. "You've got me." He glanced over at her. "I'm sorry."

She smiled. "Hardly your fault, Eddie, me lad."

"I know." He was silent as they drove to Mrs. Dickens' house.

"I'll see you tomorrow."

She smiled. "I'll be here."

Once she'd gone into the house and he'd gotten the subtle signal from Mrs. Dickens that all was well, he started the car back up and drove away. Once he was on the open road, he punched in the speed dial for his father.

"Hey, Dad. No real change on Alec, but I suppose that's probably a good thing?"

"I suppose. Anything else going on I need to be aware of?"

Eddie flinched and was glad his father couldn't see him. "Well, Tony and Joey Ashton had to return home. Something about 'fall lambing season'. I, uh, let April stay at Alec's place. I had it checked before she got there. I also let her have use of Alec's car."

There was a moment of silence as his father considered the situation. "He'd like that, I think. Is his 'harem' still coming by?"

"A few. Still getting lots of flowers, though. I sent the flowers to the maternity ward, and the stuffed animals to the children's ward."

"Good. He'll like that." Straker sighed. "I'm tempted to come back early...."

"Dad, you've been there what, two days? Only three more to go."

"I doubt a helicopter could get in here, anyway. It's been snowing like mad since the night before last."

"Sounds cozy."

Straker sighed and Eddie could have kicked himself as he realized that with Louise injured, they probably weren't having much of a honeymoon. "I suppose. Well, I'll talk to you in the morning. One good thing, Louise is teaching me how to give her a proper massage."

Eddie sighed in relief as he recognized the touch of humor in his father's voice. "Hey, that sounds like it's a good thing."

"Oh, it is." He stopped before he said anything more, but Eddie could fill in the blanks.

"I'll call you in the morning, Dad. You and Louise take care, now."

"We will. Call me if you need to."

"I will." He disconnected, sighing in relief that his father hadn't asked anything he had to lie about. True, he'd omitted things, but he was really hoping that it would turn out for the best.

He drove home in a contemplative mood, wondering how to get it to work out for Rachel.

He was dreaming of making love with his wife. He sighed heavily as he awoke, only to realize that Louise was touching him. "Louise?" he asked tentatively. Not that he was going to complain about it, but he was surprised at the way she was touching him, arousing him.

"Shhh. I want... hell, I need you." He started so shift, to push her back, but she resisted and pushed him back down, instead. "Please, let me do this my way?"

"Your way?"

"Just relax and let me handle this, hmmm?" There was amusement in her voice, as well as a myriad of other things. Desire, need, lust....

"Uhhh... Oh!" He gasped as she did something wonderful. He had to fight the desire to take control, understanding that he would probably hurt her, if he did, but it was difficult for him. With the slightest encouragement, he slid out of his pajamas, and he gratefully helped her out of her nightgown, although the silk slid sensuously over his skin. When she straddled him, he gasped and forced himself to remain still. This was her call. For the first time in his life, he was in the submissive position, and as his hands, seemingly of their own volition, began to touch her in return, he realized that being the submissive in this instance wasn't bad at all. It freed his hands, for one thing, As she moved against him, he leaned up and kissed her, wrapping his arms around her and holding her. To his surprise and delight, he discovered that allowing his wife control gave him a great deal more freedom, something he found very much to his liking.

Finally, as they collapsed together in satiated exhaustion, he shifted to his side and gathered her close. "That, my love, was fantastic," he murmured softly.

She snuggled against him. "You've never done it like that, before?"


"So, what do you think?" She knew him well. He would be called, by some, a control freak. The 'commander' personality; alpha male, bending to no one.

"I think that I like it. I liked it a lot."

"Good, because when I wake up, I want some more." She sighed heavily and drifted off to sleep, leaving him in shock. More? He grinned. This might not be such a bad trip, after all.

The phone woke them a few hours later, as Eddie checked in. There was no change with Alec, and the aliens had tried to use another piece of falling space junk to cover their entry, which was again thwarted by ground troops. He concluded his conversation and then called Colonel Lake, suggesting that she begin formulating a proposal to get funding to remove the space garbage, again. Perhaps pushing it out of orbit and towards the sun? She readily agreed, but he noticed something in her manner, and questioned her on it.

"Has something else happened that I should be made aware of?"

Inside, she swore mightily at Foster, cursing him to the fifteenth generation, but the commander had asked a direct question and although she wished that Eddie had been the one, she knew she had to tell him.

"There was a slight breech of security, Sunday evening, sir."

Sunday? "And here it is Tuesday morning, and I'm just now finding out about it?" He was about to slide out of bed and begin pacing, when Louise's hand on his chest stopped him. When he turned his angry glare on her, and saw the expression on her face, he deflated, somewhat. "What happened?" he asked calmly.

"Keith Ford and Rachel Post worked on the announcement to the media, editing the tape and working up the wording and then Ms Post held a press conference."


"Afterwards, she went to Miss Ealand's office to drop off the originals of the tape and the edited version, along with the printout of the actual announcement. Miss Ealand had stepped away from the office for a few minutes."

Straker frowned. "She didn't have anything compromising on her desk, did she?"

"No, sir! But while Ms Post was waiting, the phone rang. She finally answered it."

"So, what happened?"

Colonel Lake sighed. "Colonel Foster, sir. He apparently didn't realize that Miss Ealand hadn't been the one to answer the phone, and told her that he was faxing in his report, as the computers weren't communicating properly, he never gave her a chance to get a word in edgewise."

"Fax?" He paled with dread. What had that woman done with the fax?

"She saw it come in, sir. There were pictures. Very good pictures. She returned to her chair and waited for Miss Ealand, then she gave her the tapes and press release, told her she'd answered the phone and that 'some man had called and was faxing in his report'. The fax was still printing and Miss Ealand saw what it was and asked if she'd looked at it. Ms Post said she hadn't, and was it anything she need concern herself with? Miss Ealand said no, and Ms Post left."

Oh, good God. "What did Ms Post do after that?"

"She went directly to the hospital, looking for Mr. Duk, found Keith Ford, and told him what she'd seen."

He frowned. "What?"

"Keith called Mr. Duk, who called me, then Keith collected her cell phone, and she's been kept incommunicado ever since, with one of our people with her at all times. She hasn't tried to run, or sell the information, or anything. Although, she did ask Keith that when we kill her, to please make it as quick and painless as possible, and if she didn't see it coming, she'd really appreciate it."

Straker frowned. "Wait, you mean that she didn't try and sell the information?"

"No, sir. She didn't even touch the fax, sir."

Louise, who had leaned close to hear what was going on, frowned at him. "Ask Lily to email me her psych exam, please? I'll take a look at it and we'll make an informed decision as soon as we get back. And email us her G6. What's she been doing since Sunday?"

"She's been staying with Claudia Dickens, at night, and Mr. Duk or Mr. Ford has been with her during the days. Mostly Mr. Duk. They've been watching Colonel Freeman sleep."

Bloody hell. "Where is she, now?"

"I believe Mr. Duk has taken her back to hospital to watch over the colonel, sir."

"All right. Keep on top of this, Colonel. Although, since she's not taken proof, I can't see as she can do us any harm, really."

"That's what we thought, as well, sir."

"I still should have been informed immediately, Colonel."

"Under the circumstance, sir, we decided to allow you and your bride a little time before dumping the cares of the world back on your shoulders, sir." Her tone of voice was pointedly making the same argument that Eddie had when he'd suggested coming home, early.

"Yes, well this time, we may have gotten lucky, but I don't expect our luck to hold."

"It never does, sir. However, Ms Post has been a very cooperative prisoner. She's convinced herself that we've no choice but to kill her over what she saw. I considered giving her the amnesia treatment, but decided that, perhaps, you might wish to recruit her. She's certainly taken the information better than anyone I've ever seen. She's indicated no desire to share the information with anyone, except Mr. Ford and Mr. Duk. She has asked a few questions, however."

"Oh? What sort of questions?" Louise asked.

"She guessed that Mr. Straker was 'the commander' that Foster referred to. She had no idea who he was, by the way. He never properly identified himself."

"I've another question, Colonel. Why on earth didn't he notice that Ms Post's accent and vocal mannerisms are nothing like Miss Ealand's?"

"I wish I knew, sir."

"All right. If there is any change, I want to be notified immediately."

"Yes, sir. What shall I do about Colonel Foster?"

His expression turned grim. "What's the most remote, single-manned outpost we have?"

"There are a few. Tierra Del Fuego, is one, and there are a couple of spots in Antarctica and Siberia, as well as a couple of tiny islands in the Pacific, why?"

"I think it may be time for Mr. Foster to earn his keep where he can't do any further damage. Get me a report for when I get back, would you, Colonel?"

"Yes, sir." His calling Foster 'mister' hadn't gone unnoticed, and she was grateful that he was taking it all as well as he was.

"Let me know if I need to return early, or if I need to make a decision before Thursday, all right?"

"Yes, sir. I'll be sure to call you if there's any change in the status quo."

"See to it that you do. I'll talk to Mr. Duk when he calls, later. No need to forewarn him."

"Understood, Commander." She was grateful when Straker disconnected, and sighed in relief. It had gone much better than she'd anticipated. She felt sorry for Eddie Duk. The commander was angry, but hopefully, he'd focus most of that anger where it belonged, on Colonel... mister Foster's head.

"Let it go, Ed. They were right. There's no need to go back immediately. It would be different if Rachel had tried to sell the story."

"Our security was compromised. Foster should be shot."

"Perhaps. I agree that his negligence was criminal. Rachel's actions, however, were not. She was frightened. She could have said nothing to anyone, harboring that secret and her fear until her blood pressure caused a stroke. Instead, she went looking for someone she thought she could trust, told him everything, and threw herself on our mercy. I think she sounds like the perfect person to handle our media relationships. She has intelligence, discretion, and an honesty that's very refreshing."

"Honesty?" He frowned at her. "Yes, I suppose so. She certainly didn't react like any other reporter type I've ever heard of."

"She never has. That was why you agreed to speak to her in Sydney, it was why you invited her to cover the wedding, and why you asked her to come and work for the studio.

"And we already have her G6 and psych exam on file?"

"Of course. I look at anyone who comes to work at the studio, as well as the other." She smiled and took his cell phone away from him. "Now, as I recall, I mentioned that I wanted something when we woke up, again?"

He looked up at her in surprise, and as she touched him, he grinned. "Yes, I believe you did, at that." She put the cell phone on the bedside table as he reached for her.

When Eddie called to report on Alec that evening, he was given the dressing down he deserved. Straker annoyed could be the coldest, hardest, and most caustic individual Eddie had ever heard of. "So, what have you to say for yourself, Mr. Duk?"

"It's your honeymoon, sir. If Colonel Freeman had been up to it and been in charge, he'd have done the same, I believe, sir. We are capable of containing the problem, commander."

And to that, Straker had no answer. He sighed. "You're right. You did exactly the same thing Alec would have done." His voice softened. "How is he doing, really?"

"He's unconscious and on a respirator. That's all I know."

"All right. How's Ms Post handling it all?"

Eddie chuckled. "Well, she's made some interesting observations about Alec."

"Oh? What kinds of observations?"

"I believe Keith calls them 'Alec's Harem'. He's had over a hundred gifts sent, and two or three dozen different ladies have stopped by to see him. Oddly enough, most of the visitors are little more than kids. He seems almost like a Dutch Uncle to them. She's asked them about him, and almost invariably, they tell her that he's helped them through a rough time, breaking up with a boyfriend, giving them a shoulder to cry on, and the like."

He hadn't known, but it certainly sounded like Alec. "And the rest?"

"Telling her to tell him to come see them when he's up to it."

That sounded even more like his friend, and he grinned. "Yes, that definitely sounds like Alec."

"Rachel called him 'all things to all women'. Apparently, he's got a talent for giving people what they need, when they need it."

His breath caught. That was an excellent description of Alec Freeman. "Yes. Yes, he has."

"He's a good man, a good friend," Eddie softly added.

"The best friend anyone could ever have," his father agreed.

"We'll take good care of him, Dad."

"Thank you, son. And Eddie?"

"Yes, sir?"

"Take care of Ms Post, too, will you?"

"She's good people. She tells Tom Fielding and Claudia's daughter, Maggie stories about Australia, and helps them with their chores, and their Christmas break homework. Claudia's got nothing but praise for her. So do I."

"Louise has been going over her psych exams and G6. She's a bit old for a recruit, but I think you might be right. She's got talents we can use."

"She has talents and abilities we need, too, Dad."

"Yes. She does. If it stays quiet, we'll stay until Thursday afternoon. But if anything, and I mean anything, comes up, you send a helicopter for us before you call to give me the update, do you understand, mister?"

"Sir, yes, sir!"


"I'd rather be a smart ass than a dumb donkey," Eddie countered, chuckling.

Straker gave a bark of laughter. "Yes, I suppose I would, too. How're Lily and that grandson of mine doing, by the way?"

"They're fine. Alexander misses you, though. So do we, but you needed this time away."

He looked at his wife, who was looking at him with a somewhat predatory look in her eyes, and his pulse quickened. This honeymoon was turning out far better than he'd ever imagined. Giving up a little control could give one the most wonderful things. "I'll talk to you tomorrow, then."

"Good night, Dad."

He disconnected his cell phone and let it drop to the table as he stood and followed his wife to bed.

Wednesday afternoon found Rachel and Eddie again taking their turn at watching Alec Freeman sleep.

Rachel was staring at him, frowning.

"What is it?" Eddie asked.

"Well, don't they move him, at all?"

"He's on a respirator."

"So? I know the orderly's supposed to bathe him and take care of his needs, but he never seems to be in any other position than this one. Do they at least have him on a sheepskin?"


She looked at him and, seeing his confusion, explained. "Yeah, you put a sheepskin under a bloke so they don't develop bed sores."

"Bed sores?" Eddie had never known anyone in the hospital for more than a day or two. This was a whole new experience for him.

"Yeah. Look, give me a hand, would you? I want to turn him on his side for a minute and check his back, all right?"

"Okay. What do you want me to do?"

"Well, we lift up his left leg, like this," she gently grasped Alec's left knee and brought it up so that his foot was flat on the mattress. "Then, we move his right arm, like this, careful to keep the IV lines free." She repositioned his right arm. "Then, we put his left hand on his belly, grasp him by the shoulder and knee, and gently pull him onto his side. Like this." She suited actions to words, and Alec rolled easily to his right side. "Now, pull the covers back, and tell me what you see?"

Eddie pulled the lightweight covers down to Alec's hips, and opened the Johnny Coat to look at his back. "Uh, what am I looking for?"

"Red marks. Usually over the shoulder blades and on the buttocks, where the hipbones are. If it's red, or even pinker than the rest of him, feel the spots, and tell me if they're warm?" She actually could have done it more easily, herself, but she didn't want to annoy or alarm Eddie, and she didn't know but that Alec might resent her seeing his bare backside.

"Red marks? Yeah. Four of them, right where you said they'd be. And they're a little warmer than the rest of his back." He looked at her. "So, now what do we do?"

"Can you hold him like this for a few minutes? I'll see if they've got any Sween's."


"Sween Cream, it's a salve for this sort of thing. I'll see about a sheepskin, while I'm about it." She started for the door, and then hesitated. "Uh, maybe I'd better stay here, and you could ask, instead?" She didn't want to do anything that could be misconstrued as attempting to escape.

"Oh, yeah. All right. Have you got him?"

"Yeah. I've got him." Eddie grinned at her as she replaced her hands on Alec's shoulder and knee, keeping him in place. He hurried out of the room to see about the things she'd asked for. It certainly wouldn't do for the commander to come back and find out that Alec hadn't been properly cared for.

When she'd moved away, his gown slid down, nearly exposing him. As she reached to pull it back into place, she noticed a livid bruise in the crease of his hip. She stared at it, puzzled. She glanced at his bandages, seeing the mottled bruising she expected from his injuries, but this wasn't part of that. What the devil? She drew the gown away far enough to get a good look at his hip and scowled. If she didn't know better, she'd swear that was a handprint, well, finger marks, pressing into the hip joint. She couldn't think of any reason for that to be. Who'd do a thing like that? Scowling, she pulled the gown back into place, covering him properly.

Eddie returned with a white plastic jar. "They had that Sween stuff. They're trying to find a fleece." He held the jar out to her. She smiled at him and accepted it.

"Thanks. D'you want me to do it, or do you?"

"Hey, you're the one who knows what she's talking about. How about I hold him, and you do it?"

She grinned at him. "All right." She held Alec in place until Eddie came around and took over that task, then she circled around the bed and frowned at the size of the red marks. She gently applied the cream to the affected areas and massaged it in. "If I didn't know better, I'd say he'd not been moved at all since he's been here. I mean, he's a largish man, but certainly not big or heavy enough to warrant bedsores of this magnitude, already."

Eddie frowned and shook his head. "I don't know what to tell you."

"No worries. This stuff'll work wonders, and a good sheepskin will do even more." She finished applying the cream and then they eased him back down. She gently pushed his hair out of his eyes and patted his cheek. "It'll be all right, laddie, we'll take good care of you." She leaned down to whisper, "Or that mate of yours will make everyone wish they had." Eddie chuckled.

"You've got that right. I do not want to be at the end of that glare of his if we don't make sure he's properly taken care of."

"Well, taking care of me dad all those years taught me what to look for and recognize it when I see it." She frowned and bit her lower lip. "Look, I don't mean to cause anyone any trouble, but I noticed a bruise that I don't think he should have."

Eddie was instantly alert. "Oh? What do you mean?"

"Well, his side, back and belly are all bruised, like you'd expect between the bullet and the surgery, but there's a bruise in the crease of his hip. I noticed it when his gown slipped a bit while you were after the Sween's."

Eddie lifted the light covers from Alec, folding them back over his legs, and then he carefully drew up the gown and looked for himself. He matched his own fingers to the bruises and scowled. "Looks like someone deliberately did this."

"Yeah. It'd have to be. There's no way for that to be an accident, you know. I haven't seen anyone touch him there, at least, not hard enough to leave a mark."

Eddie nodded, and out of curiosity, checked Alec's other hip. "This side, too." His lips compressed in a thin line that anyone in SHADO would have recognized immediately. "I wonder who would, or could have done this, and more importantly, why?"

"I've no idea. He's unconscious, so he'd not react, but even so, it's got to have hurt, and when he does finally wake up, he's going to be hurting more than he should be."

"Yes, you're right. We'll just have to watch a bit more closely."

"All right."

It took some time, but eventually, a nurse brought in a pad made of 'hospital fleece', a manmade version of sheepskin. Rachel scowled, but permitted the pad be placed under Alec. When the nurse left, she shook her head. "The real thing is better than the manmade one, but I guess they don't like the amount of care required for a real sheepskin."

"Care required?"

She looked up at him and grinned. "Yeah. You have to wash it in cold water, and hang it to drip dry in a cool, dark place, then you have to take a wire brush to the leather side, and finish it up with a good leather dressing on the back, and a good brushing of the fleece, itself. But there's nothing better to lie on if you've got to be on your back for any length of time."

"Maybe we should see about getting one for him?"

"A good Merino skin, or a Barbados Blackbelly would do very well. The Merino is softer, but the Blackbelly is sturdier."

"I'll take your word for it. Maybe we'll go take a look and see if we can find one when we're relieved here?"

"Sure. I know what to look for." She grinned at him.

"I'll trust your judgment, since I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Well, here, they're probably mostly Suffolks or Hampshires, but we should be able to find something suitable."

Eddie shook his head. Merino? Blackbelly? Suffolk was a county, as was Hampshire. What in the world was she talking about? He shook his head and decided to wait and see.

There was a knock at the door, and Louise Straker, being closest, answered it. She smiled at the young man with a box. "Yes?"

"The vet sent me wi' this fer ye. It's the supplies fa the wee kittens ye found."

"Oh, thank you, just set it right there. What do we owe you?"

"Eleven pound, eighteen, ma'am."

She took a twenty-pound note from her purse and handed it to him. "Keep the rest for yourself. How bad are the roads?"

"Oh, nay bad a'tall, fer the pony and trap, ma'am." The young man stepped back out the door and pointed to a sturdy pony hitched to a cart which had sled-like runners attached to the wheels. "I's a loovely day fa t' make deliveries. A wee bit slower than by car, but 'tis a braugh fine day, missus."

She looked out at the clear blue sky and the pony waiting patiently for the young man. "So it is. Thank you so much for the supplies."

"I'm jus sorry I couldna get her sooner. The storm ha' everything shut doon. We ha' ta string a rope ta the barn, so's we didn't get lost in the blow."

"I can imagine. I nearly got lost last night standing on the stoop, waiting for the kittens to finish outside."

The young man laughed with her and tugged at his cap politely as he made his way back through the deep snow to his pony. "There'll be snow plows through by this afternoon, ma'am."

"Thank you. We'll be leaving tomorrow, if the weather stays clear."

"Och, aye. That it should." The boy looked to the sky. "That it should. Take care, missus, and thank ye for the treat."

"Just share it a bit with your pony!"

The boy turned back to look at her after he'd climbed aboard his vehicle. "Och, aye. That I'll do, missus. Take care, noo."

"You, too." She watched him as he turned the pony and snapped the lines across the animal's rump, causing the pony to break into a fast trot.

Going back inside, shivering a bit from the cold, she began to unpack the box.

"So, the kitten supplies have finally arrived?" Ed was right behind her, reaching his arms around her to 'help' go through the box's contents.

"Yes. Here, you can set up the litter pan." She handed him the plastic tray and pointed to the heavy bag of clay litter.

He wrinkled his nose. "Why do I get the cat pan duty?"

"Because that bag is heavy and I don't want to strain anything trying to lift it."

"Oh." He dutifully picked up the pan and the bag of litter and carried it into the bathroom. Placing the pan next to the toilet, where it was out of the way, he then poured the litter into it, filling it about half way. He then shook the pan, leveling it out.

Curious, the kittens tracked down the sound and stood watching him. As soon as he'd finished and straightened up, putting the leftover bag under the sink, the middle-sized kitten came over to sniff this new addition. Tentatively, he climbed into the pan, still sniffing around, and then started digging. The other two kittens perked right up and began watching with avid interest. Finally satisfied with his 'hole' the kitten turned around and squatted. Ed grinned, thinking that it had been very easy to housebreak these little creatures. Leaving them to their new box, he returned to the kitchen, where Louise was just finishing up cooking their breakfast.

"The weather is clear. What would you like to do today?"

With a smile, he accepted the cup of coffee she handed him and took a sip. "How deep is the snow?"

"Two feet, maybe, on the flats. Deeper in the drifts, of course."

"Then I suggest we just curl up by the fire and do as little as possible."

She smiled at him. "Good. That will give me a chance to go over Rachel Post's G6 and psych evaluation."

He pouted up at her. "Why is it all right for you to work, but not for me to work?"

She grinned mischievously. "Your 'job', dear heart, is to distract me as much as possible. Do you think you can handle that?"

He grinned as he placed one hand over one of hers. "Actually, that sounds like it could be fun." They ate their breakfast and then, instead of curling up on the couch before the fire, they headed back to bed, where Louise attempted to do some work, and her husband amused himself by distracting her in every way he could think of, and quite successfully, too.

Eddie's report that evening included Rachel's observations on Alec's care and their countermeasures. He scowled heavily upon hearing about the nascent bedsores, and even more over the unexplained bruising. He told them to take care of Alec as best they could, and if they could find and remedy the cause, to do so.

Keith Ford picked Rachel up early Thursday morning. She politely looked away as he kissed Claudia in greeting, promising to be back later to take care of the children when her shift started. As they got in the car to go to the hospital, he explained. "I was on last night, and it was pretty quiet. Eddie said he'd some errands to run and would meet us at the hospital in a couple of hours."

"That's fine. Thank you, Keith."

"Hey, it's going to be all right. The commander's been informed, and they're trying to work it out for you."

She frowned, confused. "Work it out? What's to work out?"

Like any military organization, the scuttlebutt had flown fast and furious. "Word is that they think they'd like to recruit you."

She shook her head. "Aren't I a bit old for it?"

He grinned at her. "You're about the same age as the commander, and younger than Colonel Freeman. Not to mention smarter than Foster. No one can figure out why he couldn't tell your voice from Miss Ealand's."

"Yes, I can't understand it. I've a huge accent, and she hasn't. I just don't understand it, at all."

"Well, the commander's due back this evening, so it can wait for his decision. I really think everything will be all right for you."

"Thank you, Keith. I've got to admit that I've liked the people I've met and dealt with, here. I'm just sorry I'm causing you so much trouble."

"Well, it's not your fault, now, is it?"

She smiled ruefully. "If I'd minded my own business and let the phone ring, none of this would have been necessary."

"Yeah, maybe. But if Foster had followed protocol, he'd have made sure of who he speaking to. Trust me, you're in not trouble at all, compared to him."

She winced. She couldn't imagine being in any worse trouble than she already was. Yet everyone involved seemed to be trying to reassure her that nothing horrid would happen to her. And between Keith and Eddie, she desperately wanted to believe it.

Keith insisted on carrying the sheepskin she and Eddie had found and purchased the day before. It was thick and soft, with a deep pile. Touching it, Eddie had understood how it would cushion an unmoving body. Keith had simply smiled at her, recognizing what it was for.

They were a bit earlier than usual, and relieved one of Keith's nightshift crew. "Hey, Mickey. How's he doing?"

Mickey Shaughnessy grinned as he stood up and stretched. "Sleeping like a baby, of course. No change."

"I suppose that's good. See you tonight, Mickey."

"G'night Keith....or, I suppose it should be g'morning, eh?"

Keith smiled and shrugged. "Well, it's night somewhere in the world, isn't it?"

"Heh, that it is, mate. See you on shift tonight." He smiled at Rachel. "Take care, Miss Post."

"I will, thank you."

They'd been sitting quietly for only a short time when the orderly came in to take care of Alec. As usual, he chased the watchers out. They were standing in the hall, when Rachel suddenly stiffened. "Of course," she muttered, turning to the door and opening it. What she saw infuriated her.

"HOY!! What the devil d'you thing you're doing?!" The orderly looked up at her in surprise.

"You're not supposed to be in here," he began.

Rachel stormed in, Keith following behind her, wondering what was going on. "What is it, Rachel?"

"He's gaffed him!"

Keith looked confused, while the orderly looked angry. "Look, get out of here, you've no business being in here when I'm...."

"When you're hurting him? Oh, I just bet you'd want to be left alone." Seeing that Keith didn't understand, she moved closer to the orderly and the unconscious Alec. "Look at his hand, he's gaffed him, hooked his fingers under his ribs. He's hurting him!"

Keith looked and suddenly understood. He scowled, following her and looking where she indicated. It was pretty obvious that the orderly had hooked his fingers under the colonel's ribs on the right side. He couldn't imagine that could be anything but painful. "Get away from him, you."

The orderly, a big man, sneered and laughed. But he also removed his hand from the helpless form before him. "What if I don't? You going to stop me?"

Another voice from the doorway replied. "I'm sure that with three of us, we can handle you quite well." Eddie Duk scowled at the tableau. "What's going on, Keith?"

He gestured towards the orderly. "He chased us out, as usual, to take care of Mr. Freeman. Then Rachel got this funny look on her face and came back in. I followed her, of course, and she started yelling at the orderly."

"He gaffed him." Rachel tried to explain.


"It's a hook y'use to help move a carcass. Y'hook it under the ribs t'get some leverage to haul it t'where y'need it."

Eddie frowned. "Hook?"

"He had his hand hooked under Mr. Freeman's ribs, sir," Keith explained, and then Eddie understood. "Like a marlinspike? Gaff as in hook, as in the marlinspike you use to hook a fish by the gills to haul it aboard a boat?"

Rachel frowned, trying to relate her knowledge to his. "Yeah, I think so."

The orderly tried to bluster his way out of trouble. "She's crazy," he began, only to back up before the glare Eddie threw his way. Eddie flicked Alec's gown aside to look. There was a livid red mark on his right side, just below his ribs. He raised his eyes without moving his head. "Keith? Get security."

"On it, sir."

"It's not what you're thinking," the orderly began.

"Isn't it? What about the bruises in his hip joints, hmmm?" He stalked after the larger man, who was starting to nervously back away from the intense young man before him. "Let's see, Rachel?"


"Do you think you could do to him what he did to Alec?"

"I'd like to try."

Eddie grinned at the orderly, who had backed into the wall. "Let's see, first of all, you stick your fingers under the ribs and lift, right?" His right hand flashed forward, driving up under the orderly's ribs, lifting him from the floor. He had to stay close to his prey, or he'd be unable to handle him. The orderly's breath was driven from his lungs as his diaphragm was compressed and he began to bring his hands up to defend himself. Rachel, however, had come closer and drove her hand into the crease of the man's hip. With his diaphragm compressed, he couldn't seem to get any air, and now, with the added pain from his hip, he started to struggle, but without any control. Eddie moved closer and drove his left hand into the orderly's right hip, matching Rachel's actions. The man's struggles became frantic, and when Rachel backed away, Eddie let him go and followed her. They both kept between the man and Alec.

The orderly collapsed to the floor, as his legs refused to hold him. Eddie moved closer and pulled the man's shirt up, to compare the bruising he'd left to that on Alec's body. Lips compressed in fury, he turned away. Keith was just returning with the head nurse and one of their security people.

"Get the doctor," Eddie ordered the nurse.

She took one look at the mark on Alec's body and gasped, her hand going to her mouth. She stared at the orderly, panting on the floor, nodded, and turned and fled to call the doctor.

"This is John Marks, from the studio. Have you met Mr. Duk, John?"

"No, sir, but I've seen him about. You're the commander's bodyguard, aren't you?"

"Yes." He took a deep breath. "Take this piece of shit and lock it up somewhere."

"Yes, sir." He helped the orderly to his feet and removed him.

"Where's that doctor?" Eddie growled, reminding Keith very much of the commander in that moment.

"Right here, Mr. Duk. What seems to be the problem, here?" She looked at her unconscious patient and started at the livid new bruise on his abdomen. "What happened here?" She frowned as she examined him, noting as well the other two now fading bruises on his hips.

"We noticed the bruises on his hips yesterday. We didn't think they looked normal, but with no other evidence, we let it go. Rachel caught the orderly giving him that last bruise." Eddie stood straight as a board, his expression grim.

"I'm going to take him off the ventilator."

"All right." Eddie looked at the worried Rachel and Keith, and sighed. "Keith, send the helicopter north, would you?"

"Yes, sir."

"Oh, and Keith?"


"Have them land here, please?"

"Yes, sir." With that, Keith left the room to go outside to use his cell phone. Rachel hovered with Eddie as they watched the doctor take care of her patient.

"I'm going to take him off the IV, as well. I need him conscious to find out how he's doing." She looked up at the pair watching her. "I'm going to send him through an MRI."

"How much damage could he have done to him?" Rachel asked, rather timidly.

"Well, depending on how far under the ribs he got, he could have bruised the diaphragm."

"He was breathing all right when we caught that fella. I just wondered why he was hurting him? I mean, he's unconscious. There's no reason to hurt him."

"I'm sure we'll find out from him, one way or another," Eddie softly reassured her. "We want to stay with him through everything you do."

"Yes, of course," the doctor agreed. She finished removing the IV from the back of Alec's right hand. "I can understand you not wanting anyone else near him, so if you'd help me transfer him to the trolley when I get it, that would be wonderful."

"I know how to do that," Rachel admitted.

"Good, you can tell me what to do, then," Eddie agreed.

"It's not hard, really. Let me go get the trolley, then." The doctor left them with the silent Alec.

"I wonder how long it will take for him to wake up," Eddie murmured. Then he glanced over at Rachel and saw that she was trembling. "Hey, you did good, Rachel. You figured out who was hurting him and stopped him."

"I know." She was fighting back tears. "Me brothers wanted to put our dad in a nursing home, and I went to look at them. Some of the things that happen in those places are really awful."

Eddie nodded. "I know. What happened?"

Her chin came up. "I took care of our dad on my own. I had to fight them tooth and nail, but I won. There was no way I was going to leave my dad in the hands of people like that."

Eddie smiled at her. "Good for you. That's why you took care of him for twenty years? Because no one else would take care of him properly?"

She shrugged. "I don't know if they would or not. I wasn't willing to take the chance."

Eddie nodded. "Is that why you've taken such an interest in Alec's care?" He noticed the faint blush that tinted her cheeks.

"Habit, mostly, I think. I mean me dad's been gone for just over ten years." She shrugged. "That, maybe, and all the ladies who've sent him things, especially the girls who think of him as a Dutch Uncle."

Eddie nodded again. "His reputation isn't quite the reality, is it?"

She grinned. "Oh, he's got plenty of bed warmers. Dorothy has been by a couple of times."

"She's a shark."

"I was thinking along the lines of a salty, meself." Seeing his frown of confusion, she explained. "Salt-water crocodile. Very nasty critters."

"Oh." The doctor chose that moment to return with a gurney, and they helped her transfer Alec to it. The doctor was puzzled when Rachel insisted and spread an entire sheepskin across it, first.

"He's started getting bedsores. Besides, that thing is cold."

"Bedsores?" They finished transferring Alec to the gurney, and the doctor turned him slightly to check the reported bedsores. Her lips tightened. Looking up at the cold expressions of Mr. Freeman's friends, she sighed. "My apologies. I don't understand what's happened."

"Your orderly's been abusing him."

"I realize that. I'm just not sure why."

"We'll find out. At least we know who, now."

"I'm sorry."

"Doesn't help Mr. Freeman, though, does it?" Rachel didn't know why she was so angry, but she was.

"No. I suppose it doesn't." With that, the doctor began pushing the gurney down the hall to imaging.

While Rachel and Keith stood watch, Eddie went outside to make a call. When the phone was answered, he took a deep breath and began.

"Dad? Helicopter's on its way."

"Already? What's happened?"

"Rachel caught the orderly hurting Alec."

"Hurting him? How?" For just a moment, there was a roaring in his ears and his vision blurred around the edges, then his son's voice, and his wife's hand on his shoulder, brought him back to full concentration.

"He'd hooked his hand under Alec's ribs, on the right side. They're giving him an MRI, now. They took him off the respirator and the IV. The doctor doesn't think it's too bad, but doesn't want to take any chances."

"The orderly?"

"Under wraps. Uh, I'm afraid I took liberties."


"Yeah, after Rachel explained what the guy had done, I did to him what he'd done to Alec, and Rachel and I duplicated the injuries."

"How'd he react?"

"Well, he had trouble breathing, for one. For another, he couldn't stand up after we pressed into his hip joints."

"Did anyone see you?"



"The chopper should be there in about half an hour. I arranged for them to bring you straight to the hospital. Rachel is with Keith Ford at the moment, and they're both with Alec. I'll go and join them as soon as we're through."

"Good. I'll see you when we get there. How did Rachel handle herself?"

"I think she enjoyed giving that orderly tit for tat. Security's taken the jerk to a holding cell. I guess it'll be yours and Louise's decisions on what to do next."

Ed glanced at his bride and nodded, suddenly wishing for an instant that Jackson were still available to them. "Yes. We'll just have to see what he has to say for himself. Thanks, son." A myriad of situations were covered in the simple words, and Eddie understood.

"You're welcome, Dad. See you when you get here."

He simmered the entire trip from Scotland to London, wondering who and why someone would hurt Alec. Some friend of Mary's, perhaps? Rutland, maybe? Neither Eddie nor Keith Ford would know him on sight, so who might it be? His wife's hand on his arm barely kept him contained, but even her voice of reason wasn't going to help whoever it was who had harmed his helpless friend. The helicopter was too noisy to try and converse, but he knew what she'd be telling him, he just wasn't willing to listen.

By the time the helicopter was on approach to the helipad on the roof of the hospital, Alec was relocated in a private room, lying comfortably on the sheepskin Rachel insisted be used. Keith Ford had gratefully escaped to catch some sleep before picking Tom and Maggie up from school.

Straker strode into the hospital room like a man on a mission, Louise right behind him.

Eddie turned abruptly when the door opened to admit the Strakers. He stood and drew Rachel up as well, facing them. Ed nodded curtly to them and approached the unconscious form in the bed. "Report, Mr. Duk?"

"Bruised, nothing more. As you can see, he's been taken off both the respirator and the drugs to keep him comatose. The doctor said it will take a few hours for him to wake up."

Straker nodded, his eyes still focused on his friend. "His assailant?"

"Confined. I understand there's a connecting tunnel from here to ..." he glanced at Rachel, then continued. "He's in a cell there."

"Very well." He turned to look at Rachel. "Ms Post. You've been unfortunately involved in this for a while, now. What are your thoughts?"

"I'd like to nail the bugger's privates to something and set him afire."

Louise snickered and her husband blinked in surprise. "That wasn't quite what I was referring to, but I have to agree with you."

"I'm sorry." She shook her head and sighed. "I'm just pissed off that that sorry excuse for a human being should be hurting Mr. Freeman, or anyone for that matter."

"I've suggested the CCU statistics be explored to see if this is just a random attack or something more sinister." Eddie's expression was as cold and emotionless as his father's normally was.

"Good idea. I want to go and meet this person. Eddie, why don't you and I go talk to him, while the ladies stay here?"

"Ed," Louise began, only to be skewered by the commander's sapphire-laser glare. She sighed and shook her head. "I need to be there, as well. To administer the truth serum?"

"I'm not planning to use drugs on him, Louise."

"What, you're going to beat it out of him?"

"The thought had crossed my mind."

She gazed at him for a moment and then nodded. "Let me take a look at Alec, first, though? Why don't you and Eddie go out and exchange information. Rachel, if you'd stay to help me?"

"Me?" she asked in surprise.

"You've dealt with similar circumstances, I believe." Her gaze was hard, but steady. Rachel was still frowning, but nodded. Louise turned her gaze on the two men, who took the hint and left them with their patient.

As soon as they'd left the room, Louise began her examination. "Why didn't you grab the fax and run with it to the media?"

Rachel gave her an annoyed glare. "One, it wasn't mine, two, it looked like something covered by the official secrets act, three, I didn't think I'd be believed, four, it looked like a boat-load of trouble, five...."

"It wasn't yours?"

"You've seen how I work. I don't shove flash-cameras in people's faces or shout at them. I ask politely and wait for an answer."

Louise scowled down at the livid new bruise on Alec's abdomen before casting an amused grin at Rachel, and then turning back to Alec and gently peeling back the dressing over his wounds. "Yes. I remember. That was what made Ed agree to speak with you, and why he invited you to come cover the wedding and work for the studio." She recovered the wounds, satisfied.

"So, how well can you keep a secret?"

"Better than most, I think. Don't know what to tell you, though. I can't exactly prove it to you."

"Actually, you already have."


Louise smiled and opened her briefcase, taking out a file. "We did a thorough background check on you before offering you the job, here. You passed with flying colors, I might add. Tell me your opinions of what you saw?"

"Are you sure this is the right place to be asking that?"

Louise grinned and nodded. "Good answer. Help me turn him. You mentioned bedsores?"

"Yeah. Not too bad, yet, but a fair start. That's why I got him the fleece. I was a bit surprised to find a Merino skin, here, but it does make the best fleece."

Louise ran her hand over the fleece and nodded. "Yes, it's very nice. Good protection and cushioning. Now, let's see these.... Oh, my." She looked closely at the marks on his shoulder blades, her expression grim. "You're right, there's no excuse for this. I'm going to start a full investigation of this facility, and if that bloated windbag of a general thinks otherwise, I'll blow him so far out of the water that he's going to need a parachute."

Rachel smiled appreciatively at her invective. "Who's the general?"

"Someone who's about to wish he'd done his job better. When I'm through with him, he's going to be broken back to private!"

"Meanwhile, what about him?"

Louise looked up at her. "Go out and go with Ed. Tell them I'm going to be busy with Alec." She sighed. "Starting with a bath. I doubt he's had one since he came out of surgery."

"Lovely. I wasn't sure, but I guessed as much. Kind of makes you wonder what that orderly was doing, besides hurting him."

Louise looked at her solemnly. "I don't think he was trying to hurt him. I think he was trying to kill him. Tell Ed. Tell him that if his methods don't work for getting that man to talk, then I'm going to see what I can't think up. Go on. Oh, and tell them that I said you passed."


"Ed will know. Go on. Before I let my anger take over and I go down and do the interrogation myself."

"You sure you don't want any help, here?"

Louise finally smiled. "No, thank you. I can handle an unconscious Alec Freeman."

Rachel returned the smile. "Right. On my way."

Louise smiled at the retreating woman, then turned back to her patient. "Oh, Alec, what are we going to do with you? You need a keeper at least as much as Ed does, sweetheart. What do you think about Rachel, hmmmm? I realize she's a bit old for you, but she's got her head on straight, and she does seem to like you. Well, let's get you cleaned up, shall we?

Straker took Rachel's news well, almost smiling. "Well, let's go see what we can learn from the orderly. Did you bother with getting his name, Eddie?"

"Sorry, it didn't occur to me."

"Curtis. At least, that's the name on the pin on his shirt."

Both men looked at her in surprise. She frowned in confusion. "They've got their names on little plastic tags on their shirts."

Eddie blushed. "I'm afraid I didn't even notice. Sorry, Commander."

Straker shook his head, amused. "It's all right, you were somewhat distracted, I suppose."

"I was so mad I could have killed him, Dad."

"So could I, son. So could I."

They took the elevator down to the basement, then went through the sliding wall that separated Mayland Hospital from SHADO. Straker led the way, striding purposefully and knowledgably down the hallway. "Obviously, when Jackson left, he took the entire medical staff with him. I hadn't realized the loss, really, until now. We've no one at Mayland who actually works for us. Oh, and welcome to SHADO, Ms Post."

"Thank you, Commander," she replied softly. She didn't bother looking around, as the corridor was bare and there wasn't anything to see. After several minutes, they came to a cross-corridor and Straker turned left down it. At the end of this corridor was a largish room with several doors set in the sterile white walls. Before one of the doors was a guard, while another snapped to his feet and attention from the table where he'd been sitting, reading a report.

"At ease, gentlemen. Has he said anything?"

"No, sir. Keeps asking for a lawyer is all, Commander."

Straker nodded. "Marks, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir."

"Did he give you any trouble?"

"No, sir. He seemed to be a bit wobbly on his legs, but I've no idea why."

Straker nodded. "If we need you, we'll call."

"Yes, sir." He motioned for the other guard to open the cell door to let the commander in with his entourage. The man did so silently, with no expression on his face. They both knew that the man in the cell had been caught in the act of hurting Colonel Freeman and they didn't know of anyone within SHADO who wouldn't like to take a crack at the bastard.

Sprawled on the cot, Curtis wasn't all that impressive. Straker stood stiffly before him, barely controlling his fury. "Stand up, you."

The man sneered at him. "Where's my lawyer?"

"You don't get one."

"That's against the law."

"This is a military installation. Civilian laws don't apply, here."

That got a reaction, and Curtis swung to his feet. "The hell they don't!"

"What was your intent?"


"Why were you deliberately trying to harm Colonel Freeman?"

"Colonel? That old fart?"

Straker's eyes narrowed and Eddie winced in almost-sympathy. "What was your intent, Mister?"

"Just trying to weed out a little deadwood, is all."

Straker's jaw spasmed in rage. He couldn't look at the man any longer, and he turned away. Until the man foolishly spoke again.

"Besides, old letch like him, someone needs to protect all those girls from guys like him."

He'd begun to walk away, he really had. He'd no intention of laying a finger on Curtis, but for him to call Alec a predator of young women was more than he could bear. He shifted back on his left heel, spun around, and his left hand landed in a full-force backhand slap across Curtis's face, followed by his right fist to his jaw, another left to the temple, and as the man began to sag, both hands, fisted together atop his head, as his left leg came up, driving the man's face into his knee. As Curtis collapsed, he drew back his right foot to smash his face in, when something stopped him. As his vision cleared from the red haze of rage, he realized that Eddie and Rachel each had him by an arm and were pulling him away from the fallen man.

"Enough, Dad. He's out."

"He's not worth soiling your hands, or feet, for that matter, on," Rachel added, lifting his right hand to look at the split knuckles. "I hope you didn't break anything."

"Hmmm? What?" Straker looked down at his bleeding and swelling hand. "Oh, bloody hell."

"Let's get you back over to that lovely wife of yours. I think x-rays are in order, don't you?"

"Not now, Ms Post."

"She's right, Commander. I doubt that Louise will be at all pleased if we don't get you right back over there."

"It can wait." He nudged Curtis with the toe of his boot and was pleased to see the man's head loll and blood flowing freely from his broken nose. If he'd bothered to look closer, he'd have noticed he'd also broken the man's jaw. Hardly compensation for the harm done his friend, but it did ease his ire. He turned to Rachel, who had taken his loss of control with aplomb. "Ms Post, you saw something you were never intended to see."

"Yes, sir. I know that, and I'm truly sorry."

"Despite that breech of our security, you've shown no tendencies to use that information in any way, save to report it to someone you trusted. Someone you also felt must be involved. You chose wisely, and well. Our research into your background shows that you've talents we can definitely use, here, both above and below ground. If you're willing, I'd like you to work for us, both at the studio, and in SHADO."

She pursed her lips, wondering what the alternative could be, other than her death. "What's SHADO?"

"Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defense Organisation."

She blinked. "Pretty fancy name."

Straker fought the smile that wanted to form. "Yes, well, I didn't name it. Although, ADO does have something to recommend it."

"Yeah, but it's much ado about something. Those pictures, they really were aliens, from another planet?"


"Which planet?"

"We don't know."

She nodded. "How long have we been at war?"

The 'we' wasn't lost on either man. "I've been involved since 1970, when a number of nations under the auspices of the UN realized the threat and formed SHADO."

She nodded. "Are we winning?"

Straker sighed. "I wish I knew. We're strictly defensive, I'm afraid. We simply don't have the technology to allow us the speeds they have, nor the resources that would allow us to follow them. Though we did try, once. Unfortunately, our cameras didn't work properly and the photos were worthless."

"Like that Hubble Telescope?"

"Yes, but there was no way to go and fix it."

She nodded. "Why are we fighting them? Why do they come here, and what do they want?"

"They come to kill us. They take human organs and transplant them into themselves. We've proof of it, by the way."

She frowned, "How do they go about it?"

"They land, find some humans, butcher them and take whatever organs they want. Mostly hearts, lungs, kidneys, and livers."

"They just leave the bodies behind?"

"Sometimes they abduct a human and transport them back to wherever the hell they're from. We've managed to recover, successfully, a few of them. In fact, at the moment, we're in the process of recovering approximately four hundred people who'd been taken and were being kept in stasis at an installation off the coast of California."

"That's how we ended up working here," Eddie added. "One of our friends lost his brother to them. We got to talking, and the commander checked it out."

"Was your friend's brother found?"

Eddie grinned. "Yeah. They're back together, and as soon as he's fully recovered, he's coming to work with us, too. After they get back from the big family reunion. It's a good thing, for once. We've got a whole bunch of missing people who are going to get to go home. Too bad they'll never remember what happened to them while they were gone, but they're at least going home."

"Won't remember?"

Straker smiled at her. "That's right. We don't kill humans unless we have to. We have drugs that cause amnesia. You were never in any danger of being killed."

She smiled in relief. "So, if I don't want to work for you, you simply give me something to make me forget?"

"Yes. Is that what you want?"

She pursed her lips, thinking. What did she want? She'd originally agreed to come to England to work for this man simply as a means to escape her current life. "I don't want to go back to Australia. If you think I can do some good, here, I'd be happy to oblige."

"You understand that anything and everything we show you is classified and that you can't discuss it with anyone, particularly away from the installation?"

"Yes, of course. I understand. You seem rather confident of my discretion."

Straker smiled. "Our investigations are quite thorough."

"Yes, I suppose they'd have to be, wouldn't they? All right, when do I start?"

Straker smiled. "You started when you went to Captain Ford with your discovery. And you proved your worth by finding our Mr. Curtis, there." They all turned to the unconscious man on the floor. "I suppose we'll have to get him medical attention."

"He's breathing just fine. He can wait until we see to your hand and how Colonel Freeman's doing, Commander." Eddie smiled thinly and opened the door, escorting them out. At the questioning look on the guards' faces, the commander shrugged.

"When Dr. Lewis...Straker is finished upstairs, she'll see to him."

The two guards, who noticed the bleeding knuckles and swelling hand the commander was sporting hid their smiles and simply chorused, "Yes, sir."

Louise took one look at his fist and remarked, "I certainly hope the other fellow looks worse."

"He does. I'm pretty sure I broke his nose."

"I think you broke his jaw, too," Rachel added with a satisfied grin. "I still think you were too easy on him."

Louise looked shocked. "Oh? Why?"

"He as much as admitted he was removing what he thinks of as dead wood. Called the Colonel old.... Bleeding sheep-dipped dingo."

"Oh?" Louise's expression matched the commander's with her lips thinning to a narrow line of displeasure. "I almost wish we had Dr. Jackson around, still. Although I really do wish we had some doctors of our own working here, as well."

"We used to. I guess they all left with Jackson. I'll call Henderson and ask him about them."

"Good idea." She lifted her husband's swelling hand and shook her head. "I don't think you actually broke anything, but you have split a couple of knuckles. There's a reason boxers wear those gloves, you know."

"Yes, but they don't generally cause quite as much damage." He hissed as she cleaned the minor wounds.

"Well, you're not going to be using that for a few days." She grinned up at him as she applied an anti-bacterial/analgesic cream and placed plasters over them.

"Not a problem. How's Alec?"

"I think he's thinking about waking up. In fact, why don't you tell him to wake up and let's see what happens?"

"All right."

"Alec, I need you to wake up, now."

The only response was a soft groan and a slight shifting of the body under the light covers.

"Alec? Come on, wake up, now."

No response.

"Colonel Freeman!"

"Wha? Agggh, Ouch. Oh, Damnit, Ed. Oh, that hurts." The dark blue eyes were open and looking around in confusion. His voice was badly slurred, as well.

"What's the last thing you remember?" Louise asked him.

Alec frowned at her, seemingly not recognizing her. "Lass thin I 'member?" He closed his eyes, scowling. "I was... I was straight'ing Ed's tie. He wa get'n married." He smiled at them, proud of himself for remembering, but then he frowned again. "Wait, you were... got married in uniform... a tux?" He shook his head in confusion. "No. Not Mary...." His eyes opened and he focused on Louise. This time, there was recognition in his eyes. "Louise. You were marrying Louise, here." He turned his eyes to glare at Straker. "You did marry her, didn't you?" As he continued speaking, his speech improved, but it was very slow and deliberate.

Ed beamed at him, pleased that he'd remembered. "Yes. We got married." He held up his left hand to show off the platinum band, while Louise held up her own left hand with the smaller twin to her husband's ring.

"Good. About bloody time. Oh, hell. Tell me that Mary Rutland didn't shoot me?"

"Actually, I'm afraid she did. She was aiming for me." Ed glanced at his bride. "In fact, she fired twice, and missed me both times."

"Well, she got me with one. Where'd the other one go?"

Louise winced. "Grazed my side, I'm afraid."

"Bloody hell. What happened then?"

"Three of our people shot back at her, only they didn't miss."

Alec sighed. "She's dead, then?"


Alec scowled. "Why not?"

"Because two of us were only shooting to stop her, and Keith's gun fired a little early."

Alec stared blankly at Eddie and his brow furrowed, trying to remember who he was. He closed his eyes, struggling with his memories. "Ed's son?" he said softly. "Not.... Eddie....Duk?"

"That's right, Alec. I'm Eddie Duk."

"Why din't you kill the bitch?" Alec asked plaintively.

"Uh, I didn't realize that was preferable."

Louise sighed in relief. He wasn't clear, yet, and his speech remained less than optimum, but considering how long his brain might have been without sufficient oxygen, she was well pleased with his cognitive abilities at this point. Most importantly, he remembered what had happened. She and her husband exchanged pleased smiles.

"Actually, Alec, Keith Ford came the closest to killing her," Eddie explained. Alec frowned as he recalled who Keith was, and then his eyes widened in surprise.

"Keith 'what do I need to know how to shoot a gun for, I'm just a little cog in the machinery' Ford?"

"That would be the one," Eddie agreed. "His bullet did a lot of damage."

Alec looked tired and confused. Louise was about to chase them off to let him rest, when he spoke.

"What was he doing with a gun at your wedding, Ed?"

Twenty-four hours later, Alec Freeman was beginning to fret his confinement. Unfortunately, he needed assistance for even something as simple as a trip to the WC, much to his dismay. He knew perfectly well that he wasn't strong enough to be sent home and that he'd be needing at least some assistance for several more weeks.

The knowledge didn't help his feeling of cabin fever, any.

Each time he awoke, he was better able to remember and remain conscious a bit longer. It was late afternoon when he awoke to find Rachel Post sitting with him. It was nice to always have someone with him when he awoke. He glanced around the room, noting the dozen or so plants that people had sent him. He sighed, wishing he were stronger.

"Good evening," Rachel said softly. "Would you like something to drink?"

"A whiskey wouldn't hurt my feelings a'tall, but I suppose that's not permitted." He smiled slightly at his own wit.

"I'm afraid not. No beer, either. Water and apple juice are all I've got. Which would you prefer?"

He grimaced in distaste. "Water, thanks." He sipped at the straw and the cold liquid felt very good going down. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. Your daughter was by, earlier, but you didn't wake, I'm afraid."

He sighed. "I'm sorry I missed her. What about Joey?"

"He and their stepfather had to get back for the fall lambing. They left a few days ago. April's staying at your place, though. Hope that's all right?"

He smiled, his eyes drifting closed. "That's fine." He rested for a few minutes, long enough for Rachel to think he'd gone back to sleep.

"How bad was I hurt?"

"They had to remove your spleen and one kidney. I guess the bullet fragmented when it entered. Your other kidney's functioning just fine, though. You shouldn't have any trouble."

His breath caught. Kidney? He'd lost a kidney? But... but that would mean.... "Oh, God." His eyes screwed tightly shut. He couldn't...he'd never... "Damn it, why didn't they just let me die, then?"

Rachel was shocked by the agonized plaintiveness in his voice. "Whyever for? You're going to be fine! Lots of people function perfectly well with only one kidney!"

His eyes opened and she could see the despair in his eyes. "But they don't fly."

She blinked in confusion. "Come again?"

"They don't fly. Planes. Jets, rockets, props...they don't fly."

To her dismayed surprise, his eyes filled with tears and he turned away, trying to hide his agony. It took her a moment to understand, an eternity for him to fall into the black hole of despair until she comprehended. "Maybe it won't come to that?" she asked softly, but without any real hope.

His laugh was brittle and not at all amused. "If you just pass a kidney stone, they ground you. Your distance vision any worse than 20/70, without correction, and you can't fly. Ulcers will lose you your license. Those are minor to actually losing a kidney!" His breath caught in a sob and he hadn't the strength to push her away as she pulled him into her arms, trying to comfort him.

"Maybe there will be a way. And if there isn't, at least you're still here. Have you any idea how very many people have been by? Who've asked after you? The number of flowers and plants and stuffed animals people have sent you?" She could feel his head shake in negation.

"The ladies?" He choked on his laugh, "It's hardly the same thing. You don't know what it's like, flying. It's...It's ... Oh, God!" He sobbed broken-heartedly against her.

She didn't understand, but she held him, rocking him and trying to give him some tiny bit of comfort. When he dropped into an exhausted sleep, she continued to hold him for a while, until her back complained and she eased him back down. She looked at him and could see that even asleep, he was not resting, his expression showing his continued pain. Gnawing on her lower lip, she slid off the bed and bent down for her purse. From it, she took a small case, and from the case, a card. Regarding him, she nodded to herself and lifted the phone, pushing the buttons to make a call.

"I think there's a problem," she said softly.

*"What sort of problem?"* Louise's voice replied.

"He asked me how badly he was hurt and when I told him, he.... Well, he cried."

*"What? Why?"*

"He said he couldn't fly any more. Because of the kidney. I guess they'll take away his pilot's license. He's very upset, he's asleep, now, but he's still very upset."

*"I'll talk to the commander. Maybe there's something we can do."*

"I hope so. He.... He said that he'd rather they'd let him die. Is flying really that important to him?"

*"I know he loves to fly. Any and every chance he gets. Not nearly enough, I believe, at least to hear Ed talk about it, but then, Ed's known him for a long time. I'll see if there's anything we can do."*

"All right, then. He's sleeping, now, at least. Drank a bit of water. I don't know if they'll wake him when dinner comes, but I think I'll be off, by then." They exchanged a few quiet pleasantries, and then ended the call. Rachel stared at Alec's sleeping form and shook her head, sadly.

"I wish I could help, laddie, but it's far beyond my abilities to fix this one, boyo."

"He's taking the loss of his kidney very badly," Louise told her husband. Ed scowled, and then his face lost all expression, as he turned as pale as his hair.

"Oh, dear God," he said softly. "He's lost his license. Damn that woman!" His face then flushed with anger as he began to pace. "Do you understand what this will do to him? The most important thing in his life is flying! This... this isn't fair." He stopped at glared at his wife, who nodded calmly in agreement. It took the wind out of his sails, knowing that she didn't understand what it really meant for Alec. His voice was softer as he continued. "He's an old fashioned sort of man, who grew up with the last of the barnstormers. He fell in love with flying, and it was a necessity for them. They were days, weeks from civilization. The distances were prohibitive for visiting, or even medical help. He first flew solo at twelve, did you know that? His father'd been injured in an accident, and he flew him, unconscious, to town, during thunderstorms. He tested and got his pilot's license at fourteen, with a special dispensation. There is nothing that gives him more pleasure than to head up into the clouds, unless it's buzzing the control tower inverted." He smiled at the number of times they'd done some fool thing like that, the younger American pilot following after his older (in years, but never in spirit), wiser (supposedly), Aussie pal. Yet he'd never had that drive, that joy, that aliveness that his friend had. It had never been his life. It had never been his guiding light. Alec's ex-wife had said he was 'mad about aeroplanes', and that had been the absolute truth. If Alec had been an aircraft designer, he'd have found some way to create a jet that could do summersaults with ease.... "This could kill him far more easily than Mary's bullet." There was pain glistening in his eyes as he turned to his wife, seeking comfort for himself even as he wished it for his friend.

"I've been checking the rules," Louise began, moving into his arms and wrapping hers around his slender frame, holding him tightly. "There may be a way around it."

His breath caught and his arms tightened. "There might?" He didn't want to hope, but it's an ingrained part of the human psyche to grasp at hope even when there logically ought not be any.

"Umm hmm. His loss of the kidney was not due to misuse or abuse or disease. He was not in an accident, nor was he careless. He is in otherwise perfect health, or he will be as soon as he heals. I thought we'd find an aviation certified doctor to examine him after he's healed and see if we can't get him that special dispensation. It's not as though he's a commercial pilot. Besides, he's a damned good flyboy."

Her archaic description of his friend made him chuckle involuntarily. "So there's a possibility? His age won't be a factor?"

"Ah, now that's something else again. Is there any real age limit?"

"For commercial pilots, yes. Not for private or military - although the military generally forces you into retirement sooner or later."

She laid her cheek against his shoulder. "Except in wartime. And we are at war. I'll talk to Henderson. He's still stinging from my tongue-lashing this morning. I understand that Dr. Shroeder is happy to be able to return to Mayland."

"Good. How soon can we safely take Alec out of hospital?"

"He's at least got to be strong enough to get himself out of bed and to the bathroom, and back again. Even then, he'll require someone stay with him and help him. It's going to be a few months before he's going to be up to much of anything. It'll give us time to set up his recertification."

"Good. I've got an idea...." He was interrupted by claws sinking into his thigh. He yelped and released his wife from his embrace. "Damn it! Get off of me!" He reached down and grasped the kitten that was climbing his leg like a tree by the scruff of its neck and brought it up to eye-level. He glared into eyes as blue as his own. The slightly striped face was glaring back at him. "You can be replaced, you know." The kitten growled at him. He turned a pitiful look to his wife for help.

"Poor baby. Is he hurting you?" Louise crooned to the kitten as she took him from her husband and cuddled him close. The purring could be heard from several feet away. Ed rolled his eyes and shook his head.

"You, they adore, me they use for a ladder. It isn't fair."

Louise giggled and looked down into the smug face of the kitten. "You're right, it isn't." She kissed the kitten on his head and set him on the floor where the other two were patiently awaiting their turns for attention. She scooped up the other two kittens and handed the largest one to her husband. "Here, make a friend."

He accepted the kitten and shook his head. "Hearth cat and I are already friends." He cuddled the kitten anyway and was rewarded with a loud, rumbling purr. "He reminds me a bit of Alec. Just happy to be around you."

Louise looked over at them and smiled. "Maybe we should give him to Alec?"

Ed looked at her in surprise and then gazed into the aquamarine blue orbs of the kitten. "Would you like that, hearth cat? I can just see the two of you, sitting before the fire, a snifter of brandy in his hand...." He looked at his wife. "No, I can't. He's not cut out for the ground, Louise." His mouth turned into an annoyed slit. "He can't have his wings clipped. He'll die."

"Remember the eagle at the zoo?"

He stared at her. "Yes. But he'd hate captivity. His heart's always been soaring, even when he's been earthbound. He's able to stay on the ground because he knew he could always escape into the air whenever he wanted to. He chose to stay on the ground. For me. For SHADO. For Earth."

She recognized his anguish for his friend and nodded. "Then we have to force the issue with the medical board. He at least deserves our best shot at keeping him aloft."

He absently hugged the kitten and put him down. Then he wrapped his arms around his wife and kissed her, hard. "Thank you. I think that between us, we'll manage something for him."

She returned the embrace, nodding. "We will. For now, though, we've got our work cut out for us. He's already depressed from his injuries. It hadn't occurred to me that there would be anything more than his having to recover. Instead, he's depressed, thinking that the one thing he loves more than any other in life is lost to him. While we're working on getting him back in the sky, we need to keep his head above water."

Ed shook his head. "That won't be easy. He's probably already convinced himself that he's grounded for life, I'm sure."

"Then we need to find something else to occupy him with. Any suggestions?"

Her husband drew away and smiled. "As a matter of fact...."

He didn't know why he bothered to wake up, except that his bladder was screaming at him for relief. He sighed and opened his eyes. His babysitter was Lily Duk, with her son, Alexander. The boy was sleeping peacefully in a chair, while his mother read quietly. She glanced up and smiled at him when she saw he was awake.

"How are you feeling?"

"Fine," he lied.

"Can I get you anything?"

A pistol would be nice, he thought, but didn't say it out loud. "Need the loo," he said, instead.

"All right, do you need any help?"

"Just getting up and moving, is all," he mumbled. He hated this. He really did. This helplessness wasn't him. So what if he couldn't ever fly again? He was still alive. Still needed. He couldn't even sit up without her assistance. Someone, anyone, please, just put him out of his misery.

The girl was surprisingly strong for such a small young woman. She easily pulled him to a sitting position and then helped him to his feet. He was too numb emotionally to give a damn about the lousy hospital gown. Besides, even debilitated and weakened, he'd never been ashamed of his body...at least, not until now. Now that he'd lost just enough to never again.... He bit the inside of his cheek to break the thoughts that automatically came to him. Like that eagle at the zoo. On display because it was too crippled to ever be allowed its freedom again. He had a hard time suppressing the tears.

She knew he was hurting more than from his injuries. She felt the minute shudders as he forced himself not to cry. Rachel had warned her that he was depressed and would need their help to get through this. Knowing how much the older man enjoyed her son, she'd brought him with her, just in case. Understanding what depression could do, she was determined to help him. She assisted him from the bed to the restroom, bracing herself to keep him upright. He leaned heavily on her and she was just barely strong enough to support him the mere eight feet from his bed to the restroom. Once he was safely in the cubicle, she left him to his privacy. She had a hard time when she realized he was crying. But she wouldn't force herself on him. He deserved to be allowed to grieve in private. Like Rachel, she didn't understand the importance of a pilot's license, but that wasn't her concern. He was hurting, and not from his injuries. When he was ready, she would be waiting: to listen, to offer comfort, or whatever else she could do to help him.

Finally, she heard the toilet flush and the sink running water. She was a little surprised when he managed to make it through the door under his own power and without assistance. But she was there for him to lean on and to help him lift his legs back into the bed.

"Thanks," he muttered, his voice gruff.

She smiled as she tucked the covers around him. She leaned over and kissed his cheek. "You're welcome." She sat on the edge of his bed and tilted her head to one side. "Want to talk about it?"

He sighed heavily and refused to meet her eyes. "What's to tell?"

She reached out and covered his hand where it was fisting in the blanket. "What's got you so upset."

He closed his eyes tightly and shook his head. "You wouldn't understand."

"Maybe not, but I'd like to try." This man had come halfway around the world for her father. He'd taken a foolish side-trip to find them and ask them if they'd like to meet their father. Then he'd grinned in pleasure as he shared in their joy to discover their family. He'd been welcomed as an honorary uncle, as their father's best friend, and although he might not realize it, they all loved him as such. "Please?"

He sighed again and softly began to explain. "I knew that the day would come when I'd be too old to fly. I've taken pretty good care of myself to make it last as long as possible." He glanced at her concerned expression and a flash of amusement twitched the corner of his mouth before he continued. "Drinking aside, that is. There are certain requirements you need to maintain your pilot's certification and license. An annual physical and doctor's certificate stating your fitness is one of them. If you've an ulcer, say, or a heart condition, they pull your license. If you pass a kidney stone, you're grounded immediately until an aviation board certified doctor clears you. Hell, a damned cold can ground you if you're a commercial pilot!"

She listened intently. Not just to his words, but his tone of voice and the emotions behind them. "Because you lost a kidney, they'll take away your license to fly?" she asked softly.

He finally met her eyes and she could see the anguish in them. "Yeah."

She bit her lower lip and shook her head, tears forming in her large, expressive eyes. "Isn't there anything that could be done? Some way that they'd allow you to keep flying? You're not a commercial pilot, surely there must be some way around it?"

"If a pilot has a transplant, because of the anti-rejection drugs, he's banned for life. You don't know what it means to me. I've been flying most of my life. All of my adult life. For me, it's as natural as breathing. There's nothing like the freedom up there. The thrill of watching the earth turn beneath you, miles away. It's just... Even when I didn't have time to go up, I knew that I could, any time I wanted. Just me and a plane. I've got a couple of planes of my own, you know."

"I didn't. What are they?" She smiled at him, encouraging him to talk. She remembered when Eddie'd been hurt, how she'd listened to him for hours as he spoke of his fears and wishes; and then she'd helped him. She didn't know if she'd be able to help Alec, but she wanted to. Even if it was just to listen to him talk about his passion. That was it, really. Passion. Here was a passionate man. He was passionate about almost everything, from his work, to women, to flying. She could understand passion. She focused on his expression and body language as he spoke, the way his eyes lit up as he described his planes and what tricks he could make them do.

"...I've even got the plans and parts to build a Heath Parasol LNA-40. Although the engine I have for it is just a bit bigger than originally specified. I like just a bit more speed...." He trailed off and looked away. "No point, now, is there? Even if I had the time to build it, I'd never be allowed to fly it." His breath shuddered in. "Sorry. Not your worry."

"Of course it is." She shifted so she was sitting beside him and put her arm around his trembling shoulders.

He choked out a laugh. "Funny thing. Most of them are older than I am, and can still fly, but I can't. Damn. I'm sorry." He swiped at the tears streaming down his cheeks.

She wrapped her arms around him. "You have more than just a 'couple' of planes, Alec. What are they again?"

He sniffed and accepted the tissue she handed him. "From oldest to newest, or alphabetically?"

"In any order you like. And where are they? Dad's never mentioned them."

He chuckled. "I doubt he knows about 'em. Got the first one, a S.E.5a when I first came to Britain."

"I know you're Australian, but someone said you were retired from the RAF. How'd that happen?"

"Ah, well, I started out in the RAAF, sure enough, but after Susan dumped me, I managed to transfer to the RAF, they offered me more opportunities to fly. It was still easy back then. And, since Australia was still a remnant of the crown colonies, it wasn't at all difficult to get changed over. I'm still an Aussie, but I'm permanently a resident here, now."

"That makes sense. Is Dad a permanent resident?"

"Yes. But, like me, he's maintained his citizenship. He votes in the national elections, for example."

"So, the S.E.5a. What is it?"

He smiled again and settled against her, closing his eyes to reminisce. "She's a 1917 bird, built by the Royal Aircraft Factory. She's got a 200hp Hispano-Suiza engine and a top speed of about a hundred and twenty. She can climb to over 20,000 feet and she's easy to fly. Dives like a dream and has some of the best visibility for that era."

"Anything like a Sopwith Camel?"

"Same era, not quite as maneuverable, but somewhat stouter. And she will fly inverted at full speed."


"Upside down." He sighed and shifted onto his side, pillowing his head against her hip. She gently urged his head onto her lap and held him as she would her son.

"What else do you have?"

"SPAD VII. French, 1917, 150 HP, Hispano-Suiza engine, top speed 130 or so. Ceiling's about 21,000 feet."

"Go on," she encouraged, realizing he was falling asleep.

"Got a Morane Saulnier A-1. Another French plane, but she's only got one wing, instead of two, like the others from 1917. She's got an original Gnome Rotary engine, 160 HP, a bit temperamental, but fun to do loops in. I think the records for loops may still be held by one of the A-1s."

"So, you have three planes from WWI?"


"Have you got anything newer?"

"Yeah. A 1929 Davis D1W and a 1932 DeHaviland Puss Moth."

"Puss Moth?"

"She's as sweet as a pussssssssy." His breathing evened out and he slept.

"Sounds like a lot of fun," Lily whispered as she gently stroked his head. She shifted and stole his pillow for behind her back, keeping him cradled against her and acting as his pillow. A short time later, she, too, fell asleep.

"Mama?" Alexander frowned. The hospital bed was too high for him to climb onto. He frowned up at his mother, whom he could see sitting next to uncle Alec. "Mama? Unca Alec?"

"Alexander?" Lily frowned, wondering why, and who....oh. There was no way she could move without waking him, so she looked down at her son, who was scowling up at her.


She smiled at him. "Shhh. Don't wake uncle Alec, okay?"

"Too late," the early-morning gravel voice grumbled. He shifted away from her, wincing. "Sorry."

She hugged him gently and eased off the bed, giving him back his pillow. He looked down at the little boy and smiled at him. "Good morning, Alexander."

The toddler looked up at him, a serious expression on his face. "Sick, unca Alec?"

"Yes, I suppose you could call it that."

Alexander nodded and reached up for his mother to lift him to see Alec better. She gently lifted him up to see and he wriggled out of her grasp and leaned over to kiss Alec's cheek. "Feel better now?"

He couldn't help but feel better when the boy so obviously cared for him. "Yes, thank you, Alexander." For the first time since he'd regained consciousness, he smiled. Alexander grinned and gently put his arms around Alec's neck to give him a hug, snuggling down beside him.

Alec closed his eyes and swallowed hard. He didn't hear the door open, nor the soft scrape of shoe-leather on the floor as Ed and Louise entered. Seeing him smiling with the little boy snuggled close, they couldn't help but smile as well. Lily motioned them out.

"He woke up once and I helped him get to the bathroom. Good news, he made it back out without any help. Bad news, he was crying." She shook her head and glanced at her father. "Did you know he's got antique airplanes?"

Ed blinked and then frowned. "Antiques? What kind?"

She closed her eyes and tilted her head back slightly as she tried to remember. "Something... S.E.5a...something. SPAD, some French name - A1, whatever it was. Uh... Davis? And something called a Puss."

Ed blinked. "He's got five pre-WWII aircraft?"

"Six, but the other one was a kit of some kind. He says there's no need to build it, now, since he'll never be able to fly it. He's pretty despondent over losing his license. He was almost waxing poetic about how some simple things like an ulcer can ground you for life."

"At least he's talking," Louise murmured. "That's good." She looked at her husband, the question in her eyes.

"I've assigned Ford to find every single loophole in the regulations. The man's one of the most thorough people we have for that sort of thing. Until we've got a leg to stand on, I don't want to risk getting his hopes up."

"Good idea." She turned back to Lily. "Thanks for staying the night with him."

"Hey, any time. Uncle Alec's one of Alexander's favorite people."

Ed smiled as he hugged his daughter. "So I've noticed. Go on home, sweetheart, and we'll talk later."

"Okay, Dad. You guys take care of each other, okay?"

"Roger, Wilco." They all three re-entered the room, where Lily took a reluctant Alexander away from Alec, who smiled at the lad.

Once Lily and Alexander had left, any semblance to anything even remotely resembling a smile disappeared. "Well, what tortures have you in store for me today?"

"None. Can you sit up without help?" Louise was taking a seemingly uncaring attitude towards him, for the moment, knowing it was most likely to anger him and make him fight.

"Hell, yes." He struggled, and was obviously in pain, but Louise's hand on Ed's arm kept him from helping. He scowled at his wife, who glared right back at him, and he backed down.

He was panting, taking shallow breaths, but he was sitting up on his own. He glared triumphantly at the grinning Louise.

"Good. Now, see if you can make it to your feet."

He was still panting, but he struggled some more and was rewarded for his efforts with a hug, much to his surprise.

"Looking good. Now, as soon as you can get out of bed and make it to and from the bathroom without help, I'll let you out of here."

There was a gleam in his eye as he shuffled slowly towards the bathroom. He had to keep his right hand in contact with either furniture or a wall to maintain his balance, but he made it. He wasn't long in the bathroom before they heard the toilet flush and the water running. Then the door opened and he made his trembling way back to the bed and into it. He was drenched in sweat and shaking badly, but he'd done it. "All right. Get me out of here."

Considering that a mere 60 hours earlier he was still comatose, he was doing extremely well. She nodded. "All right. Now, you're still going to need help. You don't have the strength to stand over even a microwave to cook. So, where will you go?"

He frowned. He was considering his answer when the door opened and April Ashton entered. She saw her father awake and smiled broadly. Ed and Louise backed away to allow them some time together. They slipped out into the hall, leaving father and daughter alone.

"I was annoyed with you for being so harsh with him about sitting and standing up, but then I realized you were daring him. He's never been able to ignore a good dare."

"I was counting on that. Well, that and his hatred of being stuck in the hospital."

"Is April capable of taking care of him?"

She shook her head. "No. He'd drive her crazy. He needs someone with patience and who understands about depression and can either bully or cajole him into getting better."

"Where can we find someone like that?" He was frowning. He knew how upset Alec was about losing his flying privileges, but where could they find someone capable of taking care of him? They had to be strong enough to lift him, gentle enough to handle him when depressed, able to cook and get him to eat....

"I thought maybe Rachel Post."

He frowned for a moment, then smiled. "Yenta at work?" She just shrugged and grinned back at him.

"Why not? He certainly pushed us together hard enough." He smiled at her and took her into his arms.

"Probably one of, if not the best thing he's ever done for me." He kissed her as her arms encircled him, one on his shoulder blade, and the other running fingers through his hair.

He was smiling at her, but she sensed a falseness to the smile. Her father may have been happy to see her, but there was something very wrong, as well. "How are you doin', Dad?"

"Better, April." They hadn't had much time together, and were still mostly just strangers to each other. He wasn't sure what to even say to her. "So, how're things going for you?"

"Good, Dad. I'm, ummm, staying at your place. I hope you don't mind."

He was on safe ground, here. "Not at all. You're welcome to anything I have. Hope I didn't leave the place too much of a mess for you." He had no idea whether he had or not.

"It's fine, Dad. How are you doing, though? Really, I mean?"

He sighed. "Been better. But I'm a tough old warhorse. How's about yourself? Are you doing all right?"

She smiled at him. "Better every day. I can now walk up an entire flight of stairs and not run out of breath."

He chuckled. "Soon, I suppose, you'll take up jogging in the park."

"Well, maybe not jogging, but nice long walks, anyway." She could see his discomfort and sense his depression. With her bottom lip between her teeth, she gingerly sat beside him on the bed and reached for his hand. "Look, Dad, if you don't want me here...."

He quickly shook his head. "No! It's not that. I'm just a bit glum, is all."

She looked at him. "All right, what's wrong?"

He sighed and shook his head. She was as stubborn as...well, as he, himself was. "Can't fly any more." He was gratified when she paled in understanding.

"Oh, Dad, that's awful. Isn't there some way 'round it?"

He sighed. "Not that I know of. Of course, I've never had to worry about it, before."

"Well, then, there's still hope. Let me see what I can learn. I'll email Mark and ask him, all right? He'd know who and what to ask. Maybe we can find a way?"

He nodded. "All right. I'll just lie here and die of boredom in the meantime."

She chuckled and shook her head. "Somehow, I doubt that will be a problem." She smiled at him. She, of all people, understood the depression that went hand in fist with being ill or injured. If there was anything she could do to help him, she would. She leaned down and kissed him. "I love you, Dad."

He smiled at her. There were tears in his eyes, but he managed to smile. For the first time since the realization that his flying days might be over, there was the understanding that there were people who loved him and cared for and about him. It would have to be enough. He hoped it would be. "I love you, April-lass." She eased carefully into his embrace and then back.

"Good. I'll see you later, then. I've got some shopping to do. I'm afraid I've eaten all your groceries."

"Not to worry, love. You just do whatever you like."

"I'd like to take you out for a nice dinner, somewhere. But until you're feeling a whole lot better, I'll just have to satisfy myself with more visits."

"I'd like that just fine."

She kissed his cheek again and stood. "I'll be back later, then." With a smile, she left him. The moment she was out the door, however, she allowed the tears to come.

"What is it, April?" Ed asked softly.

"He's so down. He's absolutely despondent over not being able to fly any more."

"There may be something we can do about that. We've got someone working on it, researching the regs. We absolutely will not give up until we've exhausted every avenue, you have my solemn word on it."

April smiled. "Thanks, Mr. Straker. I know that if Mark couldn't fly, he'd die. I can't imagine dad being any different."

Ed smiled thinly. "I suspect he's worse. I know that when we take trips, he usually finagles his way into the cockpit for at least part of the journey." He frowned. "Unfortunately, he hasn't had the opportunity to get behind the yoke in quite some time. He wasn't in either physical or emotional condition to fly either to or from Sydney, and when he went to LA after me, those were commercial flights." And he never had much time off. He wondered where he housed his planes? He'd probably not had any time at all for them, except maybe to dust them off once in a while. Yet he never complained about wanting or needing time off. He'd have to do something about that. Maybe, if he handled it right and was very lucky, he could even get him to take him up in one of those antiques of his. In the meantime....

"We're trying to get him out of here, but he's in no shape to take care of himself and, no offense, you're not in good enough shape to take care of him."

She frowned. "He won't take well to a hired nurse, will he?"

"No, we do have someone in mind. She's got experience, although she's not a nurse, but we think she'd be up to handling him." Louise was watching her reaction and was pleased when she nodded.

"Does he know her?"

"Not well, but yes." She grinned. "You've met her. Rachel Post."

"Oh, yeah. April nodded. "She's nice. I thought she was a reporter, though?"

"She's our new media chief," Ed explained. "She took care of her father after he had a massive stroke."

"That's rough. Is there anything I can do to help?"

Ed looked to his wife, remembering that she was, after all, a psychiatrist. She smiled and nodded. "Yes. Get him to talk. Listen to him, and let him know that there are a lot of people who care about him. He's depressed, and I'd rather not have to resort to drugs if I possibly can."

April grinned and nodded. "I can do that much. Maybe even do a little 'back home' cooking?"

"What about your husband and daughter?" Ed didn't want to make her stay, even though it could be good for his friend.

"Bob's got it down good, from me being sick for so long. He's got a huge family and they're all great. I'll give them another call and let them know I'll be staying on a bit longer."

"Don't you overdo, either, young lady," Louise admonished. The young woman looked at her and grinned.

"Not all that much younger than you are, am I?"

"A few years." Louise smiled. "Don't overextend yourself is all I'm saying, or I'll pack you back to Sydney so fast you won't have time to realize how you got there."

"I'll be good. Promise."

"See that you are," Straker added, speaking firmly.

"I'd best be going. I've about eaten everything he had on hand and need to restock. I'll be back later, if that's all right?"

Louise got out a business card. "Call me, first, will you? With any luck, we'll have him out of here, by then."

"Don't you want him in his own place, then?"

"Not necessarily. He's less likely to hibernate if he's somewhere else. And if he's staying with Rachel, he'll feel constrained to at least talk to her."

"Never give him a minute's peace to stay in his black hole?"

"Something like that." Louise smiled. "Go on, now and get your shopping done."

"All right." She turned to leave, took a few steps and then turned back. "Thanks." Seeing their puzzlement, she explained. "Thanks for taking care of him; for caring enough to do what's best for him whether he likes it or not."

"It's something that friends do for each other," Ed answered for them.

"I know. Thanks." With a smile, she turned and was gone.

Louise took a deep breath. "Now to beard the lion in his den."

"I'm here for backup, love."

"I'm glad. Let's go, then."

He opened and held the door for her, then followed her in.

Alec looked up. "I made it from the bed to the bleeding loo, so when do I get out of here?"

"As soon as we make a few arrangements."

"Arrangements? What sort of arrangements?"

"For one, you need someone to help you until you're stronger. You won't be in any condition to take care of yourself for several more weeks, and April's not strong enough to do it."

Alec grimaced in reluctant agreement. "So, where are you sending me? Some 'rest home'?"

"Never," Ed declared firmly. He was rewarded with a grateful look from Alec.

"That's what I need to work on," Louise explained. "So, if you eat all your breakfast when it comes, and I do mean all of it," she'd seen his expression of distaste, "then relax and take a nap for a few hours, and by the time you wake up, we'll hopefully have everything set up?"

It wasn't as though he had any choice in the matter, after all. However, it looked as though he was going to actually have a bit of time alone. If the both of them were going to go....

"I'll see you later, Louise. I'm going to stay with Alec for a while." Make sure he eats, I won't ask him about his airplanes as that would be sure to depress him further. Louise nodded and gave him a quick kiss, then she turned to Alec.

"Be good, or I'll let him beat up on you," she whispered to him, kissed his cheek, and left before Alec could react.

"You lucky bugger," Alec told his friend.

"You don't have to tell me, Alec. I'm quite well aware of just how lucky I am." He smiled. "So, when are they supposed to feed you?"

Rachel was a bit surprised by the request, but immediately agreed. Her flat wasn't very large, but she did have a guest room. Louise was right, she did have experience with a depressed invalid, although Alec was at least somewhat mobile.

"What do I need to do to help him? I know he's depressed, but I don't quite understand why."

"According to Ed, Alec's been flying since he was a child. He loves it and if he had the option, would probably spend most of his time in the air." She shook her head. "Ed's a bit upset. It seems that Alec's got some antique aircraft and Ed was never even aware of it." She smiled and said a bit conspiratorially, "I think he might be a little jealous. I guess some of them are quite special."

Rachel frowned, trying to understand, "He loves to fly, collects antique aircraft, but he's in a job where he never gets a chance to feed his passion? That's got to be rough."

Louise had to agree. "I think that knowing that he could take off any time he wanted and go soaring over the countryside was enough. But without his certification and license, he can't do it. Well, he could, but he's too honest to do it illegally."

That, Rachel understood. "Maybe I can ask him about it. Get him talking?"

"Talking is very good. Most of all, I don't want him left alone to brood for any length of time."

"Got it. I guess I need to get home and make sure it's presentable and get the guest room made up."

"Do you need any help?"

"Nah, that's all right. I haven't been there long enough to accumulate much, yet. How long before you want to bring him by, or do you want me to pick him up?"

Louise signed unobtrusively in relief. "I think Ed's planning on gathering some clothes for him and helping him get squared away. Alec told Lily about his planes, last night. Ed looked awfully interested when he heard about them. It must be the pilot mentality, although I think Ed's more interested in the specifications than he is the aesthetics."

"All right. I'll need to stock up on some things for him. How's his appetite?"



"No alcohol. But if he'll eat it, anything is acceptable, but I'd like him to stick to lighter fare for a while."

"Right. I'll start off with a nice stewed chicken, then. I'll see how he does on it and we'll work on it from there."

"Thank you. I'm afraid you've been kind of thrown to the wolves, here."

Rachel shrugged. "It's not really all that bad. I did apologize to Miss Ealand this morning, though. She was very gracious about it. I don't think there will be any trouble."

Louise smiled. "Not for you, no. However, once Ed's satisfied with how Alec's healing, his attention will definitely be turning towards Colonel Foster."

"You don't like him, do you." She tilted her head to one side, regarding the younger woman.

"I was standing in Control with Ed, one day. Keith Ford was coming with coffee for the other technicians, and Foster deliberately bumped him so he tripped and fell and got scalding coffee splattered on him, then blamed Keith for it. Unfortunately, Keith had gotten into the habit of accepting the blame for just about everything."

Rachel frowned. "That hardly seems fair. Keith's a nice fella. Why'd he say he did it?"

"He didn't. He blamed Keith. I called him on it. I'm definitely not one of Foster's favorite people."

"I have to admit that I wasn't very impressed with his ability to recognize a voice on the telephone."

Louise laughed. "Very definitely. Fortunately, that's not your concern. Right now, my major concern is Alec."

"I'll take good care of him." She blushed slightly, looking uncomfortable. "Uh, mightn't one or more of what Keith calls his 'harem' be a better choice?"

"Who'd you suggest? Dorothy?"

"Hell, no!"

Louise grinned. "Besides, we need someone he can actually talk to. His harem, as they say, are mostly girls he's listened to and helped. It's his turn, now. He's the one who needs to talk. I wish I knew what to tell you about how to help him, but it's a delicate situation. For now, listening to him and just being there to try and distract him is a good start."

Rachel nodded her understanding. "I can listen, and I can try and keep him talking. Maybe I'll stop by the book sellers and see about picking up a book or two on old planes?"

"Not a bad idea, that. He needs to be kept fairly quiet for the next week or two as he heals. God willing, by the time he's getting his mobility back, we'll have good news for him."

"Good news?"

"Special dispensation to continue flying."

"That would be super!"

Louise sighed. "There's a lot of research going on. If there's any kind of loophole, we're going to find it and make sure he can fly our SST through it."

"Good." She took her purse from her desk. "Well, I'm going to go and prepare for my guest. I suppose I need to be prepared for a lot of visitors?"

"Well, we're not going to give out your number or address. Probably the only visitors will be his daughter or Ed, for the most part. If there are others, we'll make arrangements, all right?"

"No worries. Just keep that salty away, is all I ask."

"Salty?" Louise didn't get the appellation.

"Salt-water croc. Dorothy."

"Oh, yes. She's not one of my favorite people, but she's a decent enough actress. Poor Alec is simply a play toy as far as she's concerned. He deserves a hell of a lot better than that."

"Introduce her to that Foster fella?"

Louise looked at her for a moment in surprise, then she thought about it and grinned. "Lovely idea. They're made for each other." She stood up. "Come on. I'll walk you down to your car."


He was grateful that the seats in Ed's car reclined a bit. If he'd had to sit up with his seatbelt on, he'd have been in a much bigger world of hurt than he'd have been able to bear. As it was, he ached and wasn't sure of his ability to get to where they were going. He realized that he was probably AMA on his discharge from the hospital, but they'd seemed very happy to see the back of him. He wasn't quite sure why, but the feeling was mutual. Ed was quiet on the journey, for which Alec was grateful. It wasn't that he didn't appreciate everything being done for him, he did, but it didn't make up for the despair of losing his flying privileges. He sighed to himself. Might as well see about selling off his toys. His breath caught at the thought of losing his precious planes. He'd been 'collecting' ever since he'd gotten his first paying job. He still had that first plane he'd bought. At the time, he was excited because it let him get his multiple engine rating. He'd used it back home until he'd gone into the Air Force. "The first plane I ever bought, I got for a song. It was a Beaufighter, built right at home. She got me my multiple engine rating when I was seventeen."

Ed frowned, trying to remember his history. "Isn't that a Bristol?"

"Yeah. Built in Sydney during the war. She'd been crashed, so I basically got the carcass for almost nothing. Paid more to haul it off than I did for the papers. The engines were both in good shape, and I learned to weld on her. Took my uncle and me about six months to get her air-worthy."

"Do you still have her?"

"Yeah. She's in the hangar with the others. She has range, she does. 1,500 miles. Dives like a dream. Sweet to fly. It's like she was grateful to me for saving her."

Ed understood. Some planes, the good ones, seemed to have a life and personality all their own. "I'd like to see her, some time."

"Need to decide what to do with them, now. It was different, thinking that one of these days I'd actually have time to do something useful with them. Maybe enter air races. She's got a pretty good top-end speed. She specs at 328, but I've had her faster than that."

"Don't do anything with them, just yet. There are... avenues being investigated." He glanced over at his passenger, but Alec's eyes were closed, his face a careful mask, trying (unsuccessfully) to hide his pain. "Why didn't you ever tell me about your planes?" He tried to keep any kind of censure from his voice, and winced at the slight whine he detected.

"Never came up. It's not like there's been a lot of time in the past twenty-five years to do much with them."

"You had them before SHADO?" He couldn't keep the amazement from his voice. His best friend had been holding out on him, and he'd never even suspected.

Alec shrugged. "Most of them. In our travels I've occasionally found something. Like the plans for the Parasol. Took a look at 'em and started getting all the parts together. Had the various wooden bits made and it's all sitting in a corner, waiting for the time and inclination to put them together. 'Course, I got a somewhat more powerful engine to go in her, but that shouldn't matter, much."

"Unless it causes it to shake apart at higher speeds."

Alec grinned for just a moment, then looked crestfallen. "Yeah, well it doesn't look like I'll have the chance to find out, now, will it."

Ed scowled. He'd gone and put his foot back in it. Salvage time. "So, how many planes do you have, in total?"

Alec smiled. "Let's just say that my hangar had to be bought, not leased. I couldn't have afforded to hire one to house them all, but I did manage to purchase one."

"How big is this hangar?"

"Ohhhh, big enough to play American Football in, I suppose."

One hundred and fifty feet by three hundred feet? That was enough room to put a whole lot of planes. Cautiously, he ventured, "I hope you'll show them to me, when you're feeling better."

"Sure. Why not?" There was no life in the voice, and Ed's concern deepened. Fortunately, they were arriving at the apartment building where Rachel lived.

"Well, here we are." He winced at the false joviality in his voice. He watched as Alec looked and showed nothing at all.

Ed had to help Alec to his feet and really should have had a wheelchair for him. He was trembling with exhaustion by the time they got the hundred feet to the elevator. Ed pretended not to notice, but kept a very close eye on his friend, subtly offering and providing assistance and support, which Alec accepted without saying a word. Ed knocked on the appropriate door and when it opened almost immediately, handed Rachel Alec's bag to take care of while he maneuvered the exhausted man inside.

"Your room is this way, Alec. I hope you find it comfortable."

"Dear lady, a pile of rocks would be more comfortable than that damned hospital torture device." Even exhausted and in pain, the man could flirt. Ed would never cease to be amazed. He eased Alec down on the bed and into a reclining position, lifting his legs up and removing his shoes for him. When he looked up to see if Alec wanted anything, he realized that his friend had already dropped into an exhausted slumber. He looked over in surprise when Rachel spread a colorful quilt over the somnambulant form.

"I'll just let him sleep and regain a bit of strength. Any other instructions, Commander?"

Straker looked down at his friend and brushed the hair out of his face. "Just take care of him."

"To the best of my ability, sir."

"Thank you." With a wan smile, he left her to her charge.

He woke to a smell. A lovely, warm reminder of his childhood. Frowning in confusion, he looked around. His side was throbbing and it took him a while to remember where he was. The room was about as homey as a hotel, but then she hadn't been here very long, yet. Probably still unpacking. With a sigh, he turned carefully onto his right side and worked himself to where he could slide from the bed, the quilt sliding to the floor. He managed to trap a corner before it slithered out of his reach. He looked at it and smiled. It was made out of old silk ties. He even recognized some of the patterns. From the size and shapes, the ties had to have all originally been painted prior to 1960. He gently, and with great reverence, folded it and placed it on the bed. Shuffling slowly and holding on to anything suitable, he gingerly made his way out the door. He could hear some sounds of habitation and followed his ears, as well as that lovely smell.

He barely glanced about as he shuffled down the short hallway and into the lounge. From there, the kitchen could be seen, the open plan making for a pleasant place to entertain, should the resident be so inclined. He carefully made it to the buffet that separated the lounge area from the actual kitchen.

Rachel gave the pot a final stir and turned. Seeing Alec's pale and weathered features startled her. She quickly placed the spoon on its rest and, wiping her hands on her apron, hurried around to help him to a chair. "You should have called out and I'd have come and helped you."

Alec shook his head. "Said if I wanted out, I had to be able to make it from bed to the dunny and back. I figure that if I want to stay out, I've got to get around on my own as much as possible."

Rachel tilted her head to one side, an 'almost' smirk on her face. "Oh, I can see the wisdom of that. You're barely able to stand, and have to hang on to things to get about, and the ten meters or so from your bed to here has you exhausted and dripping from the exertion." She shook her head. "Sit down before you fall down, laddie-buck. Which would you prefer first, tucker or a cuppa?" She pointed.

He looked around and found an armed stool tucked under the bar. He dragged it out and eased onto it. "Coffee, if you don't mind."

"Sorry. According to my instructions," she picked up a thin sheaf of paper and ran her finger down until she found what she was looking for, "Here it is. 'Beverages: no coffee, wine, beer, or other spirits of any kind. Tea is permitted in moderation, as is cocoa (if you think you can get him to drink it, I want proof of it). Acceptable beverages include water, milk, juices (providing they haven't gone through a fermentation process), non-caffenated soft drinks, and herbal teas (good luck with that).' So," she looked up at him. "What would you like to drink? I have some cranberry juice, tea, water, and milk."

He grimaced. None of it sounded at all appetizing. Shaking his head with a sigh, he finally responded. "It all sounds bloody awful. I suppose it doesn't really matter, does it?"

"Cranberry juice, it is, then." Seeing his puzzled frown, she smiled gently. "It's good for the kidneys."

"Oh. That's fine, then." She turned to the cupboard and got a tumbler, then to the refrigerator where she brought out the bottle of juice, poured it, replaced the bottle, turned and set the glass before him. It was a lovely color, had it been, say a glass of wine. He lifted it and took a tentative sip. It wasn't bad, really. It had a bit of a bite that he decided was pleasant. He half-drained the glass before setting it down and watching her as she served up a couple of bowls of the wonderful smelling stuff on the stove.

"What else is on that list of yours?" He looked with interest at the bowl she set before him. "What is this?"


"With fresh peas?"

"Yes. Ham, onions, garlic, split peas, and fresh - well, frozen, anyway."

"I haven't had this since I was a kid."

"Hope you like it, then." She pulled up a stool on the opposite side of the buffet and dug into her own bowl of food.

He took a tentative sip of the soup and sighed. It was at least as good as he'd remembered. "It's good. Thanks."

"You're welcome." She ate a bit more and then turned and picked up the papers she'd read the list of beverages from. "Here. You might as well read it. I'm not a doctor, or even a nurse, so when I'm given medical instructions, I tend to follow them to the letter."

He looked at the document. Across the top in bold, black, oversized letters was "THE CARE AND FEEDING OF ALEC FREEMAN." He groaned. "Lovely. Absolutely wonderful." He glanced down the list. The worst part was what he wasn't allowed, not that he particularly cared for overly greasy fried foods, but no alcohol, no caffeine, no tobacco? Damn. He looked over the rest of the list and found nothing really all that hard to live with, except, perhaps the number of hours of sleep he was supposed to get. "I can't sleep fourteen hours a night."

"That's fourteen hours in twenty-four, laddie. After you eat, it's back to bed for you." She couldn't miss the stubborn set of his jaw. After all, he'd only been up a few minutes. "I didn't say you had to sleep. I can put my portable television in there for you and you can watch it, or I've got some tapes, if you can find anything you'd like to see. I don't have a lot of books, here. This place just isn't big enough, so I've got them in storage, but if you tell me what you'd like to read, I'll see about getting it for you."

He sighed and looked down into his bowl and realized that he really wasn't very hungry. He forced himself to swallow a few more spoonfuls, but then gave up and pushed the bowl away. "That's all right. I guess I can sleep a bit more. The soup is wonderful, by the way." Without looking at her, he used just his right arm to help lever himself to his feet and then, again using his right hand on anything sturdy enough to support him, made his way back to his bed.

Rachel watched him with concern, understanding that he was depressed and really should have still been in hospital. With a sigh, she pushed her own, unfinished bowl of soup away. Looking at the two still mostly full bowls, she mumbled, "I need a dog." She sat, frowning for a few minutes, debating with herself. Finally, still undecided, she stood and cleaned up the kitchen and washed the dishes. The rest of the soup went into a container and into the refrigerator. She wondered how she was going to entice him to eat, then she sighed and went to check on her guest.

Despite his complaint, he was asleep. His expression of pain wasn't changed by his state of consciousness, so she knew it wasn't physical pain, although the sheen of perspiration combined with his flushed face indicated his physical condition as well. He was atop the covers, the quilt neatly folded and laid atop the dresser. She smiled softly, remembering her mother making it from a pile of old ties she'd found somewhere. She remembered making up stories about the pictures on them. She shook her head. She silently left the room, gently closing the door behind her. She went into her own room and sat in her rocking chair to read one of the books she'd picked up earlier.

It wasn't her usual reading choice, but she considered it research. Forever Flying gave her a hint of insight into what made a pilot like Alec. Had his life not been curtailed by his dedication and their secret war (and she shook her head at that 'they'), it could very well have written about Alec, himself. After a while, she put that one down and picked up the other book she'd gotten. The Wrong Stuff was another anecdotally written book, which she found to be just as fascinating. Both books offered an insight into the 'pilot personality'. She'd never flown in a small plane, and she suddenly realized that she had missed something very important in her education. She picked up the phone and made a call.

"Have you ever flown in the type of plane he has?"

*"No. Nothing that old. Although I do remember going up in a modern stunt plane on a dare, once."* He didn't have to explain from whom the dare came.

"Do you know how I can get a ride in one?"

*"I'll see what I can do. When did you want to go up?"*

"Soon. He's sleeping again. Just the trip from the bedroom to the kitchen exhausted him. He ate a bit, but not nearly enough. I'm going to try some home-style tucker. He seemed to like the soup, but he's in pain; and I don't mean from his injuries."

*"I know. If you can think of anything to help him, let me know."*

"You know I will, sir. Look, I picked up a couple of books on flying. I think I'm getting a bit of insight, which is why I want to go up in one of those planes. If I can understand what he sees in it, I can at least listen with intelligence."

*"I'll see what I can do. I'll talk to you later. We'll probably be by in the morning. It's getting rather late. Do you think he'll wake again tonight?"*

"Probably. I'm waiting for the nightmares, if you must know. I'm going to get some rest now, while I can, in case it turns into a long night. Let me know when and where, and I'll find someone to sit with him."

*"You won't have to. I'll take care of everything."*

"All right. Thanks. And good night."

*"Yes, good night."*

Straker sat back in his chair and tapped the fingers of his right hand on the handset of the phone, thinking.

"Penny for them," his wife spoke from the doorway.

He looked up and smiled at her. "Rachel wants to go up in a bi-plane."

"To try and figure out what Alec sees in it?" She smiled and came in, circling around his desk and leaning over him for a kiss.

"Yes." His hands slid around her body and he sat forward to lean into her. "I've got a few more reports to get through and I'll be ready to go home."

"They won't wait until tomorrow?"

"No. I'm afraid not." He gestured to the file spread across his desk. "This one needs to be addressed. It's already been a week and nothing's been done, yet."


His lips thinned in annoyance. "Yes. Any suggestions?"

"Several, but I don't think they're quite appropriate."

"Oh? Why not?" He let her go and leaned back in his chair.

"I'm still a little annoyed with how he treated Ford. He's got a nasty streak and he's unwilling to accept responsibility for his actions."

Ed nodded. "Recommendations?" Seeing her expression, he added, "Properly within the parameters of his transgressions."

She leaned her hips against the edge of his desk and folded her arms, looking down and thinking for a few moments. Ed watched her, recognizing that she was trying very hard to be fair and not let her own personal feelings interfere. He found it admirable that she could manage to separate herself from situations, not realizing how well he, himself, did the same thing.

Lips pursed, she looked up at him. "If this were a terrestrial war and someone had breached security like that, they'd be thrown in jail and possibly shot. This isn't a terrestrial war, though. His actions were negligent, rather than intentional. Unfortunately, he's got a history of such behavior. I don't know quite what to suggest. Demotion, perhaps? Reassignment, for certain. But who can we send to take over Sydney? If you say 'Alec', I'll have to hurt you."

He was quick to react to that. "No, not Alec. I need him too much, here." He heard himself and smiled a bit ruefully. "I need him here because he's got his head on straight and any time I get too far off the mark, he can bring me back."

"Good. We've got that much settled. Meanwhile, I think his transgression at least merits a demotion and being pulled from any kind of command situation. At the same time, if we assign him anywhere he's known, which is just about everywhere, we'll unduly embarrass him."

"I don't give a damn about his embarrassment. What about SHADO's embarrassment had Rachel been an 'ordinary' reporter, hmmm?" He scowled, pondering the dilemma. "I know we jokingly suggested shipping him to Antarctica or Tierra del Fuego, but those might not be such bad ideas."

"He'd go mad. He's not capable of being alone for long periods of time. I'd suggest giving him the demotion and sending him to fly interceptors on Moon Base."

"That could be harder for him than he'll be willing to accept."

She lifted her head and met his eyes straight on. "Then retire him."

He sighed. He'd always hoped that Foster could grow into command. Instead, he'd gotten worse at it over the years. She was right. If he couldn't handle the demotion and earn his way back up, then it was time to pack it in. They'd already expended more resources and man-hours on him than they would have anyone else. He nodded, a bit pensively. "Yes. You're right." He leaned forward, brushing against her as he picked up his pen and quickly scribbled some notes and signed off on it. "There. Done. Let me put this lot away and we can go home."

Rachel awoke abruptly, holding her breath and listening tensely. Whatever had awakened her didn't repeat itself, but she slid out of bed anyway, slipped on her robe and padded barefoot to her guest room, pausing to turn on the hall light. She eased the door open and looked in on her guest. As she'd suspected, he was sleeping restlessly. She entered the room and approached the bed.

"Alec?" She heard his breath catch as he awoke. "Are you all right? Can I get you anything?"

"I'm all right. Sorry I woke you."

"It's all right." She came closer and sat on the edge of his bed. "Want to talk about it?"

He sighed and looked away from her. "What's to talk about? You wouldn't understand."

She stretched out her hand to cover his right hand where it lay atop the covers. "I'd like to understand. Won't you at least try?"

He closed his eyes, but his hand turned under hers and he grasped her fingers in his. "First plane I ever saw was a Jenny. She belonged to a yank who was going about giving folks rides and doing stunts." He smiled as he reminisced. "I was eight, and spent my birthday money on rides. A shilling a ride, and I had five shillings. The last time, he made me wait until the end of the day, and he let me fly her. I was wobbly as a new lamb, but I learned quick. He told me that anyone who would spend every penny he had on aeroplane rides needed to learn to fly, himself. Back then, they didn't have ground schools or formal training, you simply gave it a try with someone who, hopefully, knew what they were doing. First time we did a loop-de-loop, I puked like a drunk. He just laughed at me and let me try it. I know he had his hand on the stick, too, but he made me feel like I could really do it."

"What was his name?"

"Rawlings. Funny name for a yank, now that I think of it, but he taught me what it was to fly."

"What happened after that?"

He sighed. "The war. My uncle was a coast watcher, and when he came home, he brought this little aeroplane with him. By that time, the government was well involved with it and I had to fill out forms and pay fees and take and pass tests. I did well at them, because I was interested. I should have had as much care about my regular schooling, but you know how it is on a station, your chores come first."

"I remember. That and the radio lessons. How I hated those."

"Yeah. We did that, too. Good thing, though. I learned how to read and then did a lot of my own education. Anyway, one day, Uncle Jock was over to help with the shearing. He'd gone out with the crew to bring them in and while they were gone, my dad slipped and fell into the hog pen. You know how nasty those buggers can be. He was pretty well savaged by the time my mum and me got them beaten back and him dragged out of the pen. He was unconscious and hurt too bad for us to help him, and the nearest town was a good hundred miles away. There was no way he could survive the trip. That's when I suggested the plane. Mum looked at me good and hard, then she nodded and helped me get him to the plane and into the front seat." He shook his head and chuckled softly. "Dad was a bigger man than I am, and I'm still not sure how a twelve-year-old boy and a tiny fifty-five year old woman managed it, but we did. She got on the radio as I was doing the pre-flight checks and topping up the tank. When she came back, she told me that there was a new hospital up north at Broken Hill and closer than Mildura. Unfortunately, I'd never flown north, before. Luckily, Jock's plane had a radio and I could keep in contact with people to guide me based on what I could see on the ground."

"You didn't have a compass?"

"Sure, but 'north' is a largish direction. Turns out they meant northeast, but we were lucky and within an hour and a half of his being hurt, we were landing in Broken Hill where there was an ambulance waiting for us to take dad to hospital. I'd been to the clinic in Mildura when I was younger, but this was a pretty big town for a station-lad. At first, they weren't going to let me fly home, but I didn't plan on going anywhere without my dad. They had to keep him for a few days and I was too scared to try and find anywhere to stay, so I stayed with the plane. The nurses made sure I got fed, and when dad woke up and found out what I'd done, he told me to get Jock's plane back to him on the double. I told him we'd go when he was ready, and he wouldn't be ready until the doctors said so."

"So, you were just as stubborn then as you are now?"

Alec chuckled. "Worse, actually. There I was, twelve years old, and I'd just saved my dad's life. I was pretty full of myself, I'll admit." He sighed. "I suppose I still am, eh?"

"No. You know what you know and you don't flaunt it, but I guess you'll stand your ground when you need to."

"Even when I don't need to. The authorities, of course, were pretty upset with me, but they didn't dare do anything, since my dad would've died if I hadn't done what I did. My mum and uncle Jock were pretty pleased with me, as well."

"I can well imagine. Did you get too full of yourself afterwards?"

Alec laughed with genuine amusement and squeezed her hand. "Lord, no. With my dad laid up, I had so many chores that I was up an hour before dawn and didn't fall into my bed until nearly midnight. I was never so glad to see my dad back on his feet. I wondered how in the world he managed it, on a regular basis. My brothers were already grown and gone off on their own. Didn't occur to me that the chores I did were what was giving him the respite."

She smiled. "I know what you mean. I was an adult when I had to take over and it was hard. I can just imagine how hard it was for you as a lad. How long was your dad laid up?"

"Six bloody long weeks. I was never so glad to go back to 'just' my chores. I was even glad to go back to my studies."

"Tell me about your plane?"

He suspected she didn't really have a clue, but she sounded at least interested, and he didn't feel any falseness. "Which one?"

"How about your first? That's always the most special, isn't it?"

The almost pun-like quality of her question wasn't lost on him. Gallantly, he didn't respond with amusement. Just because it was a double-entendre didn't mean she meant it as one.

"For my birthday, we went to Sydney. Partly so I could take my tests for school, the rest as a treat for me when I turned sixteen. After my exams, I begged to go out to the aerodrome. While we were there, I went wandering around and found this old pile of what used to be a twin-engine plane. It had been there since the war, it looked like. Poking around the pile of junk, I about jumped out of my skin when an old man came up. He'd lost a leg and was using a crutch. He gave me a hard look and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was just looking around. Then I asked him what had happened to the plane. He looked at it, then at me, like I wasn't too bright, and told me it had crashed. I asked why no one had fixed it? It looked to be all there, just needed some work, was all. He looked me over real hard, and asked me how I'd go about doing that?"

"What did you say?"

Alec grinned. "I told him that I knew how to do metalwork. The basic structure looked sound, just the broken props, the damaged skin, and the landing gear. He nodded at me and said, 'Twenty-five pounds and you haul her out of here.' I couldn't believe it. I had a hundred pounds for my birthday. I think my parents thought I might buy a motorbike or something, but the second he said that, I had my wallet out and was handing him the money. Then I ran to get my folks. I swear my dad was almost apoplectic. The bleeding thing has a wingspan of forty feet, and she's thirty-two feet long and a good thirteen feet tall. Luckily, the old man helped me get the wings off her, and we hired a trailer and had it hauled back to the station." He shook his head. "Cost me every penny of my birthday money to get it home, and then I had to work extra-hard to get the money to fix her. Luckily, Uncle Jock helped me out, some. He'd taught me how to rebuild an engine, so that was what I did, first. The engines themselves were in good shape. Just took a bit of cleaning and rewiring to get them to crank over."

"How did you know what to do, though?"

Alec grinned again. "That old man had the service manual for it. Complete specs. I basically just had to follow the instructions."

Rachel laughed. "That's wonderful. So, did it fly?"

"Yeah. She flies." His voice dropped and she could have kicked herself. She tightened her fingers around his and leaned towards him.

"Don't. Please, don't. I'm sorry." He looked at her with pain-filled eyes and then shook his head.

"It's hardly your fault." He shook his head. "Knowing I can't fly again, well, it makes me regret working so hard all the time. Not taking any time off to go out and soar." He sighed heavily and squeezed her hand, gently. "No one to blame but myself, I suppose."

"I'd think that SHADO might have a great deal more to do with it."

Alec's breath caught and his eyes widened in horror. "SHADO?" he asked softly, wondering how in the world she'd learned about that.

He was glad when they got home. It had been a very long day. They hung up their coats and headed for bed, neither of them interested in bothering with food. He was the first one in their room and flipped on the light.

There, in the middle of their bed, in a pile, were the three kittens. Shaking his head in amused annoyance, He strode across the room and gathered the three sleeping fur balls into his arms to remove them from the bed.

"I told you before. You are not allowed on my bed." He placed them unceremoniously on the floor, where they blinked up at him for just a moment, then all three made a dash and scrambled up the bedspread, back to the middle of the bed, where they glared at him and began to settle back down. Obviously, they were saying that they had staked their claim and this was now their sleeping space. With an exasperated sigh, he picked them all up again and strode to the door, set them down, and started to close them out.

He didn't make it. Before he could get it even partially closed, all three had made it back inside and were again scrambling and clawing their way up to his bed. Louise snickered. Ed glared, first at the kittens, then at his laughing wife, and then back to the kittens.

"No, means no. You are not, I repeat, not sleeping in my bed. You have your own bed in the kitchen. Now, scoot!" He again went to gather up the now wide-awake and squirming kittens. They'd figured out what he had planned and as he reached for them, they scattered. Hearth-cat dove for the floor, disappearing under the bed, the littlest one tried to hide behind the pillows, and the middle-sized one stood its ground and hissed at him. He grabbed the hissing kitten by the scruff of the neck and went after the smallest one. Finally grabbing the second one, he went to the bedroom door to again try to lock them out.

"Louise? I'll toss them out if you'll slam the door in their faces."

Giggling openly, she replied. "Yes, dear." He threw her a glare, but the humor in the situation struck him and he grinned. Poised at the door in a crouch, he waited until she had the door nearly closed before gently tossing the two kittens out. He barely got his hands clear before the door slammed shut. He looked up at her with a grin.

"And one to go." He got down on his hands and knees to look under the bed. The glowing orbs of the kitten mocked him, staying just out of his reach. With an annoyed growl, he slithered under the bed with the kitten. Just as he went to grab him, the kitten skittered away and out from under the bed. With a disgusted sound, he began to wriggle his way out from under the bed. Just as he was about to get back up, he spotted his quarry slipping back under the bed from the other side. He groaned and started to creep back under the bed, when the kitten suddenly disappeared. Puzzled, he came back out and rose to his knees. Looking across the bed, he saw his wife with the kitten purring contentedly in her arms.

"Put him out."

She looked at him with a mischievous grin. "Yes, dear." This time, he worked the door while she gently put the kitten outside with a gentle admonishment, "Now, you go play with your sibs and I'll make sure you get some nice tinned food in the morning." She backed away from the opening, and he slammed the door.

She straightened up with a wince, and he was instantly solicitous of her. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, I'm fine. You should be flattered, you know."

"Oh? Why?"

"Because they chose our bed for their own. They want to share space with us. It looks promising for their domestication."

He gave her a puzzled look. "Domestication? They're cats."

She looked at him blankly. "Yesss, they are. Lynx, I think."

Ed frowned. "Lynx? Isn't that a wildcat?"

"Yes, similar to what you call a bobcat in the states."

"I didn't think they had them in Britain."

"Not naturally, no. But someone could have gotten one for a pet and when it became too difficult to handle dumped it. They can crossbreed with domestic cats, although the kittens are usually sterile."

He stared at her, sinking down to sit on the bed. He shook his head. "Those kittens are wildcats?"

"Yes. I thought you knew?"

"How would I know? I've never had a pet. You could show me any kitten and I'd have no idea if it was wild or not."

"Well, most cats are never truly domesticated. They tend to retain their desire to hunt, for example. Which reminds me, if we don't want to have to replace the drapes or furniture, we need to get them some toys of their own. Soon."

"They're just barely six weeks old, and they can climb the bed," he muttered, musingly. "How big do they get?"

"Twenty to thirty pounds."

"Thirty pounds?"

"Yes. I looked them up on the net, earlier. I'm pretty sure they're lynxes. In prehistoric times, they were in Britain and Ireland, but were supposedly killed off centuries ago."

"Thirty pounds."

She frowned at him. He seemed dazed. "Ed? We can turn them over to a zoo, if you want?"

He blinked and looked at her. "No. We'll either find them good homes or keep them. They aren't going to live in a cage somewhere."

She was surprised by his vehemence. "All right. But we have to be careful. Remember, they're wild animals, and they may not respond in the way you expect them to. And we'll have to get permits for them."

He pressed his fingers into his eye sockets, grumbling softly to himself. "I suppose that we'll also have them destroying everything they can get their claws into?"

"Probably, unless we have them declawed."

He peered up at her, confused. "Declawed?"

"Think of it as having your fingers amputated at the first knuckle. No more nails to worry about, but it's a very painful and unpleasant experience."

"The alternative is to have a wild animal attacking and shredding my feet every chance they get?"

She winced. "Probably."

"Can they be trained?"

She blinked. "I suppose. As much as any cat can be. But they're going to get quite large and will need very special care."

He nodded, considering. "For now, I think we're fairly safe. At least I hope we are." He grinned as she chuckled. "In the meantime, I'd very much like to get some sleep, my lady."

"Sounds like a great plan, although...."


Her expression turned coy. "Are you sure you just want to sleep?"

His smile gave her the answer she wanted.

They awoke early and were pleased to discover the kittens sleeping in their box. To prevent a repeat of the night before, they closed the bedroom door. Checking that their food and water dishes were both full, Louise fixed the kitten's morning ration of KMR while Ed cleaned the litter box.

"Remind me again why I want to keep them?" Her only response was to laugh at him.

After their own breakfast, they pet the kittens for a while, until they were purring up a storm, and then they left them, hoping that they wouldn't destroy the house while they were gone.

Entering Control, Straker was pleased to see the night-crew focused on their monitors. He stood watching them quietly for several minutes. Satisfied, he spoke.

"Shaughnessy and Blake, I've decided to send you back to Sydney."

The two men startled and turned to face him, concern in their expressions.

"Sir?" Ford asked on behalf of his crew. He'd found both men to be excellent workers, dedicated and observant.

"You heard me."

"Sir?" Blake asked. As the senior of the two men, he felt it his responsibility. "Colonel Foster won't like that."

Straker's lips thinned into that oh-so-familiar grimace. "Mr. Foster will be returning here. You two are going back to run the place, if that's quite all right with you?" His voice showed his annoyance, but whether it was at Blake's temerity or something else was unknowable.

"Run...?" Shaughnessy started to speak, then snapped his mouth closed, fearful of changing the commander's mind.

"Yes. Captain Ford's report indicates that you're both qualified and that you're more than willing to do what's necessary to get the job done. Is there a problem?"

"No, sir," Blake answered for them both, again.

"Good. How soon can you be ready to leave?"

"Tomorrow afternoon, sir."

Straker paused, his eyebrows rising. "That soon? Excellent. Keith, make flight arrangements, would you? And I'd like Foster not to meet up with them if at all possible?"

"Not a problem, sir. They can 'cross paths' in midair, if you like?"

"Excellent. Thank you, Ford."

"You're welcome, Commander." The entire night-crew watched the commander stride purposefully to his office and the door close behind him.

"Mr. Foster?" Mickey asked.

"I don't think I want to know, unless there's a specific need?" Don Blake replied, looking pointedly at Ford.

"Hmmm? Oh. Well, it seems there was a little...indiscretion committed by our Colonel Foster."

"Yeah, but mister?" Mickey shook his head, eyes wide. "I'm glad I don't know. I don't want to know any more than absolutely necessary, if you don't mind?"

Keith grinned. "Not in the least." He looked up as the first of the dayshift entered. Glancing at the clock, he smiled. "All right, you lads. Off with you. Spend the day packing up for your return to Oz. I won't expect you tonight."

Don shrugged. "No worries, mate. I'll be finished in a couple of hours."

Mickey grinned. "Won't take me that long. I'm still living out of boxes."

Keith shook his head. "You were expecting this?"

"No," Don replied. "Just haven't found private digs, yet."

"Well, no need to, now." The two Australians grinned at him before turning to brief their replacements on the night's activities, or lack thereof.

A few hours later, Keith knocked at the commander's door. "Enter."

"I've made the travel arrangements, sir."

Straker looked up from the report he was reading. "Thank you. Any problems?"

"No, sir. It coincides nicely with the regular weekly exchanges."

"Excellent. Send word to Foster, would you?"

"Yes, sir." Straker returned to his report, tacitly dismissing him. He hesitated just a moment before clearing his throat.

"What is it, Ford?"

"Well, sir, I was wondering, do you want him to know this is a permanent return, or whether there's any trouble, sir?"

Straker leaned back in his chair and regarded the captain. "I don't think that's necessary. Tell him his assignment has ended and he's to return on the next scheduled flight. That should give him enough time."

Ford nodded. "Yes, sir. I'll send the message immediately." He wasn't about to point out that it was the middle of the night, there; and that Foster wouldn't have much time to pack his things. Then again, Foster was probably living out of a suitcase, still, hoping that he'd be returning sooner or later. He turned to leave.

"Oh, and Ford?"

He turned back. "Sir?"

"Excellent work." His faint smile flashed for a brief moment before turning back to his never-ending reports.

"Thank you, sir." With a smile on his face and a spring in his step, he left the office to finish up his taskings before going to meet Claudia and the kids in the cafeteria.

Finally! He grinned smugly. He knew that he'd get back to where the action was sooner or later. This was perhaps just a bit sooner than he expected, but he was well pleased with it. Walking out into the Control room, he watched the losers he'd been stuck with. He'd whipped them into shape, almost. There were some surly ones left, but they'd be the problem of whoever got stuck with the idiots. He wished them luck. He was still of the opinion that the entire contingent needed to be replaced. The replacements for the losers who'd gotten their memories wiped were, in his opinion, no better than those they replaced.

"I'll be gone the rest of the day. Page me if there's any trouble." He wouldn't announce his leaving. They weren't worth his time. There was a chorus of 'yes, sir's and breathing a sigh of relief, he left. He needed to pack!

Keith Ford was the most popular shift leader SHADO had. When Blake and Shaughnessy came in to work that night for their final shift, there was a decorated cake wishing them bon voyage and good luck in their new positions. The two Australians were floored by the fanfare of good wishes and congratulations. Unfortunately, SID's announcement of incoming ufoes sent them scattering to their stations to track and report.

When Straker came in the next morning, the remains of the party were still very much in evidence. Catching Ford's eye, he simply nodded his acceptance and wordlessly entered his office, much to everyone's relief. The report of the ufoe attack was sitting in the middle of his desk, just the way he liked it. He quickly read through it and signed off his approval. Despite the obvious festivities, they'd not shirked their duties. He took it as a good omen for sending Shaughnessy and Blake back to Sydney.

She explained how she'd come to know about SHADO. When she mentioned the name of the culprit, he groaned. "What's he doing, eating stupid pills? You'd think he'd know better, by now." He growled in annoyance.

"I'm sorry," Rachel said, contritely.

He squeezed her hand. "It's hardly your fault he's an idiot. And I understand about not wanting to leave the phone ringing. I can't bear it, myself." He smiled at her. The adrenaline surge he'd had at her first mention of SHADO had gone and left him feeling exhausted. He settled a little deeper into his pillow and sighed. "I think I'll try and sleep, now." Reluctantly, he released her hand.

"Would you like me to stay until you do?"

His eyes widened in surprise. "Yes, I think I would, thank you."

She smiled. "No worries." She gently began to rub his chest with the hand he'd released. He stiffened just slightly and frowned.

"Ummm, you might not want to do that. In case you weren't aware, rubbing a man's chest can be somewhat arousing. Not that I'm in any condition, but still."

She snatched her hand away like she'd been burned, her eyes wide and startled. "I-I'm sorry."

"Not a problem," he rejoined, softly amused. He shifted to his side. "Actually, it was very pleasant." He smiled again when her hand reached out and began stroking his left arm from shoulder to elbow. Focusing on that, he was soon ready to doze off, when she softly began to sing, as she might to a child.

"Sleep, my child, and peace attend thee, all through the night. Guardian angels, God will send thee, all through the night...." She sang in a clear, fine alto. By the time she finished the lullaby, he was sound asleep, a smile on his face. She rubbed her hand once more up his arm to his shoulder, which she gently squeezed as she stood, then leaned down to kiss his cheek. "Sweet dreams, laddie." With that, she returned to her own room and some rather unusual dreams, for her.

When he awoke, he just wallowed for a bit. He was warm, comfortable, and it was nice and quiet. He just lay there, basking in comfort, until his nose informed him that there was fresh coffee nearby. Opening his eyes, he was confused for just a moment, until his brain finished waking up and reminding him where he was. He couldn't help but smile as the memories came clear. She'd sung him a lullaby. He was torn between amusement and tenderness at the thought. His bladder, however, drove all other thoughts away with its insistence on being taken care of. With a sigh, he eased from his side to his stomach, and then eased his legs from the bed to the floor. He was looking forward to being able to bend without pain, and to be able to, once again, sit up without either assistance or finagling. He was, however, pleased to note that he didn't have to hold on to anything in order to move about.

He wanted a shower, but knew he needed something to protect his injuries. Coffee, first. He still wasn't up to anything more strenuous than shuffling, but it felt good to not feel like a complete invalid. He eased onto the stool at the buffet and looked longingly at the coffee pot. Rachel saw his expression and sighed. It was very hard to follow the doctor's orders when he had that 'poor, pitiful, waif' look down so well.

"How about some hot cocoa?"

He looked at her, grimacing. "I don't...."

"It's very special hot cocoa. Come on, I'll show you how to do it." She smiled at him and he couldn't help but smile back.

"All right. I'll try it." He watched as she placed a small saucepan on the stove and filled it about 1/3 full of milk. Then she added powdered cocoa and, over a low flame, began to stir it vigorously, until it had blended with the milk. She then added some sugar, and topped it off with a couple of cups of coffee.... He began to grin.

"I think I just might like this cocoa of yours."

"I thought you might." She smiled as she poured him a mug. "It may need a bit more sugar, but I'll let you decide that."

He sniffed the fragrant brew and smiled. Taking a sip, he closed his eyes and sighed deeply. "Ambrosia. Absolute ambrosia," he praised. He heard a click and opened his eyes just in time to be blinded by the flash of her camera. He grunted in annoyance and set the mug down. "What's that for?"

"My instructions said that I needed proof that you drank cocoa. I'm just getting it." She snapped another picture of his mug, the saucepan obviously filled with cocoa, and him, reaching for the mug. He shook his head, but was smiling in amusement.

"Not to worry, I'll sign an affidavit if I must to guarantee I drank your hot cocoa. To tell you the truth, it's the best I've ever had." He lifted his mug and smiled, holding it out in toast as she snapped a final picture.

"Now, if you'd like, you have choices for breakfast. Pancakes, omelet, anything special you'd like?"

"I'm not much of a breakfast eater," Alec began.

"Steak and eggs?"

Ah, well. That's a bit different, now. He froze in place and his eyes lit up. "Sounds lovely," he murmured, smiling.

She grinned. Typical man. Give him plenty of protein and he'd be happy. "How do you want your steak?" She opened the refrigerator and pulled out a pair of Porterhouse steaks, each of them just over an inch in thickness.

Alec's eyes widened at the two slabs of beef. He'd forgotten what station cooking was like. "Only about half of one of those, I'm afraid." This early in the day, there was no way he'd be able to move after eating that much. He'd be willing to bet that the smaller of the two weighed in at over a kilo.

She smiled at him and put the larger one back in the refrigerator. "We'll just split this, then. All right?"


"You didn't say how you wanted it?"

"Just past rare but not quite medium, if you can. I can't handle the blood so much any more."

She just nodded. "I'll see what I can do. Do you like it well seared on the outside?'

"Yes, please." He watched her as she put a cast-iron skillet on the stove and put the flame on high. While it was heating, she took a second pan and placed it on another burner, at a lower temperature. She tossed a bit of butter in the second pan and swiftly minced up some onion, which she put in the melting butter and gave a quick stir.

"I figured an omelet? Onions, mushrooms and cheese?"

"Sounds lovely." He could see what she was doing. Fixing up savory things to tempt him with, and knowing he'd grown up on a station. Well, that made it pretty obvious what kind of tucker he'd grown up with. And hadn't had in more years than he cared to remember. The smells certainly were enticing, that was for certain-sure. And his 'hot cocoa' certainly hit the spot, as well.

She managed to cook the steak exactly to his order, and when she pulled a cast iron pot from the oven, his eyes widened. "Damper?" His mouth began to water in anticipation.

She grinned at him as she turned the bread out onto the cutting board. "It's not a meal without damper, then, is it?"

He found himself delighted with his meal. Afterwards, when he tried to help her clean up, however, he was sent away, albeit gently. "I've got it, laddie. Not to worry."

He thought to be annoyed, but changed his mind. "All right, then." He sat and watched her work, until his side reminded him that he was still far from healed. With a grimace, he eased to his feet. Sighing and shaking his head, he grinned. "I'd best go lie back down." He filled his mug one final time with his 'hot cocoa' and shuffled back to his room. By the time she was finished cleaning up he was asleep.

When he next awoke, he was dismayed to discover that it was mid-afternoon. The flat was silent and he wondered if she'd gone out, and then wondered that it should matter to him. Easing out of bed, he made his slow, careful way to the bathroom. When he was finished, he went out into the lounge to find his hostess curled up on the sofa, reading a book and wearing headphones attached to a portable CD player. When he moved into her view, she jumped in surprise, and then smiled and turned off the CD player and removed the headphones.

"Have a good rest?"

"I assume so. It was certainly long enough." He couldn't keep the plaintive quality out of his voice.

She glanced at the clock on her VCR and nodded. "You must have needed it, though, or you wouldn't have slept so long." She grinned and swung her legs off the sofa. "I need to change your dressing. Would you prefer to do it here, or in the bathroom?"

"Bathroom, I should think. Easier there, isn't it?"

She shrugged. "Easy isn't as important as your comfort, laddie. It's up to you."

He shook his head. "Bathroom is fine." He turned and shuffled back the way he'd come, with her right behind him. She had him sit on the commode and helped him get his pajama top off. She carefully peeled the adhesive tape off. Fortunately, it was the kind that wasn't supposed to adhere so tightly, and it came away with a minimum of fuss. Pulling the bandage away, it stuck for a moment on the stitches and dried ooze from the incision and injuries, but it was only for a moment and she managed to remove it without causing him any pain. She frowned, wondering if the hospital had bothered to clean the wounds, but simply went about doing it herself. She had a special antibacterial cleanser she used to clean the area and remove the dried seepage. She knew what to look for and was pleased with what she saw, the ugly black stitches against his smooth, pale skin was a jarring contrast, but there was no sign of infection. Applying the antibiotic ointment, she then reapplied fresh bandages and taped them into place.

"All done, laddie. Want a hand up?" She smiled at him.

He looked up at her, her hands outstretched to him. Accepting the assistance, he let her pull him to his feet. "So, how's it look?"

"Very well, actually. The edges are sealed, now, and the stitches are clean. No redness, no puffiness, and no new leakage." She invited him to lean on her as they left the bathroom. "So, what would you like to eat?"

He sighed. He really wasn't hungry, although breakfast had been a while ago. "Actually, I think I'll just go back to bed." Sleep. Yes, sleep was good. Then he could dream. Dream about soaring through the clouds, the wind whipping his hair and the sheer joy of being up in the sky.

"How about something to drink, at least?" He wasn't drinking nearly enough, and she worried that it would cause problems with his remaining kidney.

"Maybe later."

"Now? You have to have fluids. Please?" She touched his arm, stopping him in his escape.

He looked down into her concerned countenance and sighed. "If I must."

She smiled and nodded. "You must," she agreed. "How about a pitcher of water kept by your bed? Then, you can have a glass or two whenever you wake up?" Her expression somehow conveyed her unspoken 'so I don't have to sit on you and force it down your gullet.'

"That's fine."

She was already beginning to hate that word.

Two Days Later

"I want to know the minute Foster arrives." He started to turn for his office when the silence and stiffness of the nightshift crew alerted him to trouble. "Is something wrong?"

Keith Ford looked up at him. "There's been an accident."

Straker scowled, "Accident? What sort of accident?"

"Colonel Foster, sir. He's been in an auto accident." At Straker's narrowing of lips, he continued. "On the M25 out of Heathrow, sir. There was a pileup in the fog. He's in hospital, sir. They had to airlift him from the scene. Just got the call a few minutes ago."

Straker spun on his heel. "Call my wife and tell her to meet me at the car. Tell her what happened."

"Yes, sir." Keith watched the commander stride purposefully from the room and then quickly made the call. When he was through, he sighed and looked at his crew. The two new replacements for Blake and Shaughnessy were watching him, eyes wide. He smiled and wondered if he'd ever been that young. "Don't worry, lads. He's not angry." Yet, he added to himself.

Louise actually managed to beat him to the car and was already seat-belted in as he opened his door and entered. "I've spoken to the hospital. He's in critical condition. Seems he wasn't wearing his seat belt, and his car doesn't have an airbag."

"No, these things don't have airbags, but they have perfectly good seatbelts." He scowled. "Although, I suppose we did upgrade this one to the shoulder-style harness at some point."

"I wonder if they could be installed? Or perhaps it's simply time to upgrade our cars?" It wasn't that she didn't like his two-seater, but the gull-wing doors made it a little hard to park, sometimes.

Ed shrugged. "I hadn't thought about it. They're in good condition and are still running well, so I hadn't considered it."

She smiled. "I can understand that. They're nice and heavy, as well as being fairly aerodynamic. With the restraints properly fastened, I think I'd rather be in this huge old boat than almost any of the newer vehicles out there. There's something to be said for the heavy steel they used to use."

"I like it. It's comfortable and familiar, after fifteen years. I suppose if it ever starts having mechanical problems I'll think about replacing it, but it's something of an old friend, now."

"Of course it is." She turned on the radio. At his questioning glance, she explained. "I'm wondering if there are any announcements on the accident." He nodded his approval as she turned back to scanning through the stations.

"You might try the police scanner. The blue button."

She glanced at him and then pressed the small blue button on the dash, by the radio. Immediately, the police calls began. Finally, they heard the report on the accident. Two dead, four critical. They glanced at one another in concern. Apparently it was caused by a combination of fog, speed, and one drunk driver on the wrong side of the road. Grimfaced, they made their way to the hospital where they'd been told he'd been taken.

Arriving at the hospital, they parked and made their way to the emergency room. The receptionist greeted them pleasantly. It was remarkably quiet. Apparently, the ER wasn't terribly busy at the moment. "How may I help you?"

"Paul Foster. I understand he was airlifted here from the pileup on the M25?"

Still smiling pleasantly, she turned to her computer monitor. "Foster, Foster....let's see. Ah, yes, here he is." Her smile dimmed as she read the file. "Oh, dear." She looked up at them, "It seems he wasn't wearing his seat belt."

"Yes, we know. What is his condition, please?"

"Serious, I'm afraid. He went through his windscreen and fractured his skull. He is breathing on his own, but they've got him in the critical care unit, watching closely for any swelling of the brain, you know. Are you family?"

"I'm his employer. He has no family. Besides the head, are there any other injuries?"

"Let me see.... Yes, he sustained a fractured leg, bruising to the chest and some cracked ribs. Abrasions and contusions to the face, hands, arms, and chest." She smiled again. "Considering the severity of the accident and the fact he wasn't wearing his seat belt, he's doing very well."

"Could we speak with his doctor, please?" Louise asked politely.

"Of course. Let me page him for you. If you'll have a seat over there, he'll be with you as soon as possible."

"Why the devil didn't he have his seat belt on?" Ed softly raged as he paced and they waited.

"We'll have to ask the police, love." The endearment stopped him and he relaxed, giving her a faint smile in thanks for the reminder.

"Yes." He settled down beside her and reached for her hand with his. Taking a deep breath and letting it out in a sigh, he relaxed in the chair. To give himself something else to focus on while they waited for the doctor, he turned to her. "Alec's still in a pretty black mood. He's sleeping most of the time," he informed her worriedly.

She nodded. "I know. He's despondent. I can't say as I blame him. He's injured and has to be taken care of, which I'm sure is not setting well with him; add to that the loss of his flying privileges, and of course he's depressed."

"Ford is supposed to be researching the possibilities on a special dispensation."

"He has. I was just starting to look at the report when he called. In fact," she rummaged in her briefcase and pulled out a file. "We can fight it, and I think we can win. Providing he can pass their most stringent physical."

"How long before he'll be healthy enough to do that?"

She grimaced. "Couple of months, probably. But I'd like to show this to him. Maybe with a bit of hope, he'll come out of the depression and start working towards getting his license back."

"Well, you're the shrink. I'll leave it up to you how to handle it."

"We should visit him after we leave here. He's been out of the hospital for nearly three days, now, and we haven't stopped by even once."

"No, but I've talked to Rachel several times a day."

Louise giggled. "So have I." They grinned at each other. "Alec's usually asleep, but she has been able to get him to eat and drink. And he's actually drinking hot cocoa with his breakfast."

Ed snorted, trying not to guffaw. "I can't exactly see that. I want proof."

"She says she has pictures. There's something else there, but I'm satisfied with what's going on."

Ed looked at his watch. "I hope the fog lifts, soon."


"She's got an appointment at one of the smaller airports with a pilot." Seeing her confusion, he continued, explaining. "She wants to go up in a bi-plane and try to see what has him so enthralled. Her reservation is for ten-thirty."

Louise glanced at her own watch and frowned. "Well, she's still got more than an hour. Who's assigned to watch over Alec while she's gone?"

Ed grinned. "April. I realized that he'd probably feel pretty rotten about having to have a babysitter, so we asked April to come and visit and sit with him while she's out 'running her errands'."

She beamed at him and leaned over to kiss him. "Brilliant, my love. I couldn't approve more. But next time? Don't leave me out of the information loop, hmmmm?" Her voice was pleasant, but her grip on his hand had tightened, and since it was the one that only days earlier had been injured striking a certain orderly, the point was well made.

"Sorry. I'm not used to having to share my decisions with anyone."

"Well, just think of me as your friendly, neighborhood doctor and that it all is important to me."

"Yes, dear." His voice was contrite, but there was a glimmer of mischief in his eyes.

"Oh, you." She laughed and he joined her, softly.

A few minutes later, they looked up as a doctor entered the lounge.

"Are you here for Paul Foster?"

They both stood. "Yes, we are."

She answered the door and smiled at her visitor. "He's taking a shower. I told him I had shopping and errands to run, and he started off rather surly, wondering who 'they were sending to babysit him'. When I told him, he brightened right up. Thanks for coming and staying with him."

She grinned. "He's my dad; of course I'm happy to stay with him. How's he doing, really?"

"He's pretty down I'm afraid. He sleeps most of the time. During the day it's all right, but he has nightmares most nights. It's like they come out to torment him after dark."

"Well, maybe he'll want to stay up to visit with me. I still hardly know him, but I'd like to, very much."

Rachel gave her a quick hug. "Well, you'll get along just fine with him, I'm sure."

April blushed, "I found a photo album, it's about Mark and Joey. I'm in there, too, even though he thought I wasn't his. He loves us, Rachel. I can't understand why mum would hurt him like that."

"I don't know, dear, but he certainly deserves a bit of caring back, don't you think?"

"Oh, absolutely." They were interrupted by the sound of the bathroom door opening and they turned to see a still-damp Alec emerge, wearing just sweatpants and the plastic barrier bandage over his wounds. Seeing his daughter, his expression lifted and he smiled.

"April, it's good to see you. Give me a minute to finish getting dressed, will you?"

"Of course, Dad. Take your time. I'm not going anywhere."

Rachel looked at her watch. "But I am. You need any help, laddie?"

"No. I'll manage."

"Don't forget to pull the water barrier off," she admonished him.

"Yes, dear."

Rachel shook her head, blushing.

"You almost sound like you're married," April tittered.

"I'm much too old for him, I'm afraid." But there was just a hint of wistfulness in her voice. "There's leftovers in the reefer, and the instructions for his care are on the buffet. If you need anything, call Eddie Duk, his number's by the phone, and I should be back in the middle of the afternoon, traffic allowing."

"Go on, then. Take care and drive safely."

"Thanks, lass. Watch out for your dad. He's pretty down, still."

"I shall."

Rachel closed the door behind her, worried about her charge, and excited about her appointment.

"What about brain damage?"

"Hard to tell until he wakes up. He's really doing remarkably well, considering."

"Was there anything from the police on why he didn't have his seat belt on?"

"Yes, actually. His was the first vehicle on the scene after the initial collision. He'd stopped back a bit from the accident and put on his flashers to warn the drivers behind them, he'd turned off his car and was getting ready to exit when someone going too fast slammed into him, knocking his car into the two initially involved vehicles."

Straker looked grim. "That explains a lot. Have you any idea how long it may be before he wakes up?"

"Could be hours, still. What if I have you called as soon as he does? There really isn't anything you can do for him until he starts showing signs of consciousness."

Ed glanced at his wife, who nodded. "If you think he needs someone here, I can stay, Ed."

His mouth thinned. "No. Thank you, love, but that won't be necessary." He turned to the doctor. "You'll be sure to call the minute he shows any sign of regaining consciousness?"

"Absolutely, sir."

"All right, then. After he's out of danger, we'd like to have him transferred to Mayland. Our studio has a contract with them. Will there be any problem with that?"

"Not at all. We'll get the paperwork together and as soon as he's stable enough, we'll arrange the transfer."

Straker smiled and stood, extending his hand. "Thank you, doctor."

The weather cleared as she approached the little aerodrome where she had her appointment. She parked beside the hangar and looked at the dark green and white plane sitting on the tarmac nearby. It had two wings and a single engine. She shivered, but was grinning as she made her way to the door that led, presumably, to the office.

Once inside, she looked around quickly and smiled at the young man behind the counter. He looked up at her and stood. "You Ms Post?"

"Yes." She cocked her head at him; he certainly didn't seem old enough to be the pilot. Her curiosity was answered when the boy nodded.

"My dad's out in the hangar. Did you see the green machine out front?"

"Yes. Is that what we're going up in?"

"Yeah, it's a Stearman. Dad's working on a Jenny, out in the hangar. Overhauling the motor."

"They're American planes?"

The boy grinned. "Yeah. Dad likes 'em. The American planes, that is."

She smiled at the boy. "I've a friend who has some antique aircraft, too. He's just out of hospital, so I couldn't ask him to take me up. He really loves to fly."

"I know how he feels. The Jenny me dad's workin' on, he's gonna let me fly her, as soon as she's fixed. I can hardly wait. What kind of plane does your friend have?"

She'd memorized the list. "There's a Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a, a SPAD VII, a Morane Saulnier A-1, a Davis D1W, a DeHavilland DH.80A Puss Moth, a Bristol Beaufighter, and a kit for a Heath Parasol LNA-40." She smiled and opened her eyes at the end of her recitation, to see the boy frowning at her. "What's wrong?"

"You know the crazy old miser what owns the big hangar?"

"I beg your pardon?"

The boy sighed explosively in disgust. "Old miser. No one ever sees him. He owns the big hangar up at the top of the runway. They say the hangar's full of great planes, but no one ever flies them or even comes by to change the oil or clean 'em. They'd be of more use in a museum than gathering dust down there."

She was taken aback by the young man's vehemence. "I know my friend's work keeps him too busy, but he does come and work on them, occasionally. He'd love to go up in one every day, I can assure you. Now that he's been injured, he can't fly for a while, at all."

"Toby, enough. Y'don't know what yer talkin' about." The older man who'd entered the office was wiping his hands off on a grease rag. "Y'll be Miz Post?"

"Yes." She smiled at him.

He nodded to her. "Toby, get her a suit and then get back to your studies, boy."

The teenager jumped to and looked her over rather intimately, she thought. Then he turned to a cupboard and pulled out a pair of white coveralls and handed them to her. "These should fit you, miss." He glanced quickly at his father, who was bent over the desk, checking his schoolwork. With a grimace, he turned back to Rachel. "You can put them on over your clothes, it's to keep them clean and help you stay warmish when you go up."

"Helmet and goggles, Toby."

The boy jumped. "Yes, Dad." He looked at Rachel and asked, "What size hat, please?"


"Right." He returned to the cupboard and looked through the contents again. "Here you go. And goggles." He set a helmet on the counter and a pair of goggles.

She'd finished pulling on the coveralls and was zipping them up. She smiled at the boy. "Thank you, Toby." She picked up the helmet, gave it a once-over, and tucked it under her arm, along with the goggles. "I'm ready any time you are, Mr. Carlton."

The older man looked up at her and nodded his approval. "Fine, then. Let's go." He came around the counter and went out, holding the door for her. He left her standing and began his pre-flight check. "I've already gone over her once, but I always do it again before actually climbing in." He wiggled the flaps and the rudder, checked the tyres and struts. Finally satisfied, he turned to her.

"Fellow said you'd never flown in a small plane?"

"That's right."

"You know Freeman?"

"Alec? Yes. Not well, I'll admit, but I know him."

The man nodded. "Good man. Don't let Toby throw you off him. The boy hasn't learned yet what responsibility means." He gestured towards his plane. "Helped me get this one, he did. And the Jenny." He shook his head as he helped her clamber into the front seat. "Said they were too good to sit around gathering dust and rotting." He raised his chin in a belligerent gesture. "He said he'd like them but that he hasn't the time for his own, now. There've been those who've tried to force him to sell. That's why he had to buy the hangar. Part owner of the field, as well." He nodded again. "He's a good man, miss."

Rachel smiled. "Yes, he is."

"I heard tell that he was shot at that friend of his's wedding?"

Rachel sighed. "I'm afraid so."

The man nodded again. "Tell him that if he needs someone to go before the board with him, that Rich is his man."

She smiled at him at that. "I'll be sure to tell him, and his other friends who are tracking down what we need in order to give him back his wings."

"Old buzzard like him, he can stay on the ground as long as he has to, but he's not happy there." He reached in and fastened her 'x-harness'. "Don't want you falling out, now." He smiled thinly at her and clambered into his own seat. "We're a bit more modern than when this old girl was built. There's a radio transmitter in the helmet, just plug that cord into the spot by the altimeter." He fastened his own harness and signaled to his son, who had come out to watch. The boy nodded and grabbed the chock-block ropes and as soon as the plane fired up and his dad nodded to him, he pulled them away from the tyres. In a moment, they were taxiing to the runway. As they came around the corner, he spoke to Rachel through the two-way radio.

"That's his hangar, there on the left. I've a key to it. He lets me check on them for him, keep out any vandals, rodents, and the like. We need a couple of good mousers, though. When we get back, if you're interested, I'll take you inside. Just don't tell Toby I've a key, or he'll be forever pestering me for it."

Rachel laughed and nodded. "I think I'd like that, Mr. Carlton." She noticed two pedals down by her feet, when one went up, the other went down, and vice versa. She assumed that Carlton was causing it. She noticed that when the right one went down, they turned right, and left when the left one went down. The steering wheel thing also moved, again due to the pilot, she assumed. When they reached the top of the runway, they held still, the motor revving up. When she could hardly stand the noise any longer, they began to move. Faster and faster down the runway, soon reaching automotive speeds. The wind whipped at her over the open cowling, partly, she figured, the 'wind' was simply the backwash from the propeller. Abruptly, the slightly bouncy feeling of the runway smoothed out and a moment later, she realized that they were airborne.

From her seat, she could look over the side of the plane to see the ground rapidly moving away from them. Smiling in excitement, she looked around and felt a thrill. The wind in her face, the roar and vibration from the engine. She suddenly understood the old saying about flying by the seat of your pants. She could feel what the plane was doing, how it felt, it's joy in the freedom of the sky. She laughed like a pilot.

There was a moment where her stomach lurched in rebellion. They were doing a three-sixty over the Irish Sea. She was looking at the 'down' wingtip and saw it describing a perfect circle on the water below. That was when her stomach insisted on reminding her that they weren't on the ground. She closed her eyes for a moment to combat the nausea. Opening her eyes, she was careful not to focus on the wingtip again. She closed her eyes again and just felt. She found that she was able to tell what direction they were turning by the way the plane felt around her. You certainly couldn't get that from a commercial jet!

"Mr. Carlton?"

"Yes, miss?"

"Can you show me a 'loop-de-loop'?"

She screamed. Not so much in fear, but in the sheer exhilaration of it. When they were again flying straight and level, she asked, "Can we do that again, please?" She didn't scream, the second time, but her joyful laughter could have been heard on the ground, had they been over any. Carlton, realizing that this woman wasn't afraid, did several barrel rolls in succession, much to her delight.

"What about inverted? Can we fly inverted?" They were on their return approach to the airfield, by that time, and Carlton, shaking his head, did as she asked. They buzzed the tower a mere five hundred feet above the ground, then they flipped back over and he brought the plane in for a landing.

She needed help getting out of the plane. Her body was exhausted and trembling, but her heart and spirit was still soaring up in the clouds. With shining eyes, she thanked Mr. Carlton profusely. She was grinning like a kid in a candy store as she took off the coveralls and returned them, the helmet and the goggles to Toby, who was grinning at her. It was obvious that she'd caught the 'bug'.

"Gi' me a ride over and back, and I'll show you something, then." She unlocked the car's doors and got behind the wheel. She was still shaking from excitement. She followed his directions to take the perimeter road around to Alec's hangar. It was huge; larger than any of the soundstages at the studio. She parked by the small door at the end. Carlton got out and inserted a key in the lock. Opening the door, he flipped a switch to one side, turning on rows of overhead lights. She followed him in and stopped, her jaw dropping in amazement.

There weren't six planes in the hangar. There were more. Many more.

April tucked her father into bed. He'd stayed up as long as he could, talking and getting to know each other better. Finally, however, his weakened body gave out and he had to lie back down. She gave him one of the pain pills he had a prescription for. She was surprised to discover that the container was still sealed. Now, as he settled into a drug-induced stupor, she wondered what would become of him? She shook her head in anguish for him. Oh, he spoke of the studio, and films, and other things, but none of them lit up his eyes like the planes did. She wished she could do something for him, to help him, somehow. She finally went into the lounge and simply cried.

The call came shortly after noon. Ed and Louise returned to the hospital to check on Foster. When they arrived, the same doctor from that morning met them, a serious, concerned look on his face. Louise recognized it and asked, "What's wrong?"

"He's got total amnesia. Doesn't remember his name, nothing."

"Not even how to read or write?" Louise asked.

"Well, we haven't run all the tests, yet, but it certainly doesn't look good."

Ed looked pensively at his wife. "I'd still like to see him. Maybe I'll be able to jar his memory a bit?"

His face was battered and bruised and his head had been shaved to clean and stitch the gash across the top of it from the windscreen breaking. He looked like he'd been through a war.


The cloudy blue eyes opened and stared up at him. "Yes?"

So, the doctor was wrong. He did remember something. "Do you remember what happened?"

"Did my plane crash?"

Straker's breath caught. "What's the last thing you remember?"

"There was some odd sort of plane, two of them, but they were different.... Do I know you?"

Straker made a quick decision. "Yes. You work for me. You're one of our directors."

Foster frowned, trying hard to remember. "Director? What do I direct?"


"But I'm a test-pilot."

"You were, until you crashed and since then, you've been afraid to fly." He spoke soothingly to the younger man, who frowned in confusion.

"I don't remember."

"That's all right. You were in a car crash. I hope it isn't going to make you afraid to drive, now!" He turned to his wife and the doctor. "He seems to be doing quite well, to me, doctor. A bit of memory lapse, but he knows who he is. Will it be safe to transfer him, do you think?"

The doctor looked up from the chart. "Yes, of course. In fact, he should probably be able to go home in a day or two, barring any complications."

Straker beamed. "Excellent. I'll take care of everything, Paul. It's good to have you back." He shoved his hand towards the man in the bed, who took it with just a hint of reluctance.

"Thank you, sir...might I ask your name?"

"Straker. Ed Straker. Of Harlington-Straker Studios."

Foster nodded. "Where have I been? And how long was I gone?"

"You were in Sydney, scouting for film sites. You were gone for just a few months, is all. Look. I'm going to let you get some rest, here, and I'll get you over to Mayland ASAP. Don't you worry about a thing. I'll take care of everything." He smiled his best 'film-producer' smile and turned to leave, guiding his wife before him.

Once the transfer had been accomplished and they were back in his car, Louise spoke. "You're going to wipe out fifteen years of his memory?"

"Why not? He started it. I see no reason not to finish it. It solves several problems. I don't have to demote him. He doesn't have to suffer any embarrassment over his error, and I rather suspect that it will give pause to a couple of similarly minded people."

"Like Henderson?"

"Among others. It's quite serendipitous, don't you think?"

She did think about it, and smiled. "Yes, actually. It is. I'll have Schroeder take care of the dosage. He's been at it a lot longer than I have. Do you want false memories inserted, while we're at it?"

He cast a quick glance at her. "False memories?"

"Yes. It's something we can do, now. Take a perfectly ordinary memory and tweak it just a bit. I think he'd be an excellent candidate for it. Has he actually directed any films?"

Ed chuckled. "Surprisingly, yes. He somehow managed to direct some of our most popular 'cult' favorites. They're some of the most awful films of all time, but the fans love them."

"I'll need to see them. Let me call Lily and ask her to pull them for me."

Rachel was in awe. She wandered reverently through the planes. They weren't labeled, and Carlton didn't offer her any commentary, but she looked through them all. Most were single-engine planes. Most were single winged. All but one had props. She paused by the single jet and stared at it. It had two engines. After she'd looked at them all, she turned to Carlton. "Alec owns all of these?"

"Yes." He looked around at the collection. "And they're all air-worthy, miss. Every last one of them."

She turned back to look at the planes again. "It's like a museum."

"Better. These girls can all still do what they were meant to do. Museum pieces can't."

She nodded. She understood, now. His passion; his love of flying, of flying these types of planes. Although most of them had enclosed cockpits, she was certain they were capable of the kinds of flying she'd been introduced to, today. It would be a tragedy indeed, if Alec were never allowed to play with his toys again. Nodding in determination, she turned to Carlton. "Thank you, Mr. Carlton. If I'd like to take another flight, might I?"

Carlton smiled broadly at her, his broken teeth showing. "Any time, miss." With that, he looked again at the collection of planes and shook his head with a sigh. Then he turned off the lights and locked up. She gave him a ride back to his own, smaller hangar.

When Rachel returned to her flat, loaded down with groceries, she welcomed April's assistance.

"So, how were your errands?"

"Wonderful. I understand so much better, now." She grinned at the younger woman, who had no idea where she'd gone or what she'd done or seen.

"Good. Ummm, I got a phone call last night. From Joey."

"Yes? How is he?"

"He's fine. He, uh, checked out your family's place?"

"And?" She paused in the sorting of her purchases to listen to what she had to say.

April chewed her lip. "Well, you were right. The bank's about to foreclose on them. I hope you don't mind, but my dad made an offer to the bank, to buy the note. They, uh, accepted."

Rachel closed her eyes and sighed a bit sadly. "I can't say as I'm surprised." She shook her head. "What a shame they'll lose everything. Wonder what they'll do with themselves? Of course, I'm grateful, since it means that the bloodlines my family's worked for so long won't be sold off and destroyed. Will your folks combine the mobs, or keep them separate?"

April shook her head. "I have no idea what Dad intends to do with it. He didn't mention it."

Rachel suddenly realized what she was saying. "Alec? Alec's bought my family's station? Whyever for? He doesn't even like sheep, does he?"

"Oh, I like them well enough. For supper on occasion. And that skin is wonderful to sleep on. Other than that? Can't abide the buggers." He was leaning in the doorway, a serious expression on his face. Uncertain, as well.


"Because I've more money than I know what to do with, and you were upset that your bloody brothers had run the place into the ground. They've thirty days to come up with the money or move out. They've been given to understand that the stock stays, as it's listed on the note to the bank. As are the contents of the houses and barns." He watched her, he couldn't have said why, exactly, he'd done it, but when April had told him about the call she'd gotten from her brother the night before, he'd acted first and was only now asking questions.

Rachel frowned. "Have you always been wealthy?"

He chuckled dryly. "Hardly, but I've been careful with my money. Made some good investments, sold at the right time." He shrugged. "How d'you think I can afford to collect antique aeroplanes?"

"I thought you'd been doing it since you were a kid?"

"Well, yeah, but I've got to admit that the best thing Susan did for me was send me that letter. I never had to pay alimony, or child support." He glanced over at his daughter and shrugged apologetically. "Sorry, love, but that's the truth of it."

"No worries, Dad. I never knew, until Da told me."

"I would have, you know. But your mother didn't want anything from me."

April grinned. "I know. She's a bit...well, let's just say I'm glad I'm not like her."

Alec grinned back at her. "Although, you're here and your husband and baby are back home. I'm not sure I quite approve of that."

April's smile turned just a bit melancholy. "If you hadn't come to Sydney, it would have been permanent, Dad. Bob doesn't begrudge me the time here. He's just glad I'll be coming back. And as soon as I know you're going to be all right, I'll be heading home. But I don't know that, yet." She looked at him and he could see that she was worried about him.

"I'll be fine."

April nodded. "I hope so. In the meantime, I'll be sticking around. You don't mind, do you?"

His smile was genuine. "Not in the least, love."

"But why in heaven's name would you buy a station you've no real interest in?"

Alec shrugged. "You may want to go home again, one day. I spoke to Joey, he's willing to take it on, once April and Bob are back with Tony."

Rachel shook her head. "I can't let you do this, Alec."

He frowned. "Why not?"

"D'you think I don't know how much it's worth?" She shook her head. "It's more than I can ever repay you, Alec. I'd sooner they lose it to a corporation that'll sell off the stock and build houses than let you waste your money on it." She was nearly crying in frustration.

"Rachel, have you any idea how much they owed?"

She stopped and glared at him. "No."

"Fifteen thousand Australian Dollars."

She froze. "What?"

"Fifteen thousand." He grinned. "Consider it a loan." She began to cry and Alec looked concerned. He glanced at April, who was grinning and shaking her head.

"Joey'll look after it for you. The taxes aren't that bad because you've had it in your family forever, nearly. Dad had...."

"You can pay me back as you like." He gave his daughter a glare, and she grinned even more widely.

"It's all right, Rachel." April closed in on her and gave her a hug. She whispered in her ear, careful that her father didn't hear her. "Dad's the one deserves the hug, you know. Not that he'd believe it. Call me after he goes to sleep and we'll talk."

Rachel hugged her hard. "I will," she whispered back. Then she let her go and stepped back. She looked at Alec and noticed his own melancholy. To recover herself, she turned back to her groceries. "I was thinking that we'd order something in, if you'd like? It's a bit late to actually cook anything." She glanced at April. "You'll stay, won't you?"

"I'd love to, thanks."

"What would you ladies like? I'm fairly familiar with most of the delivery places."

"Fish and chips?" April suggested. Alec winced slightly, but Rachel came to his rescue.

"A bit too much grease for your dad, I'm afraid. How about Chinese, or maybe Indian?"

"I know a lovely little dim sum place that delivers," Alec volunteered.

"Good. I'll let you two order, then. I'd like some chow mein, please. Along with anything else you'd care for." She continued unpacking and stowing her groceries, while April and Alec went into the other room, discussing what to order. She paused and watched them for a moment, a bit wistfully, though her expression turned to concern as she watched Alec. She knew the signs, and he had several. Biting her lip, she determined to call the Strakers as soon as Alec was safely asleep. Although, he did look happier, but that might have been because he'd made a decision. She daren't take the chance.

As she was putting things in the cupboard, she noticed his pain pills. He hadn't needed any, previously, so she opened it and counted them. Only one was missing, but to play it safe, she slipped the bottle into her pocket. No need to make it any easier. When everything was put away to her satisfaction, she leaned on the buffet counter and watched father and daughter. He was slightly more animated with April, she noted. And he seemed content with her company.

She didn't buy it for a second.

"So, we can win?"

"If he can pass the physical. His mental state is the most important, now. Did you still want to go over there tonight?"

Her husband looked at his watch and shook his head. "It's getting rather late and as you so often point out, we haven't eaten, yet. But we can call."

Alec was reaching for the phone to place their order when the device rang. They all jumped, and Alec realized that he hadn't heard it ring a single time since he'd been here. Of course, he was mostly sleeping, so that didn't necessarily mean anything. He looked over to Rachel for permission and at her nod, lifted the handset.


"Alec! Good to finally hear your voice. You've been asleep every other time I've called."

Alec grinned. "Nice to hear from you, too, Ed." So, they'd called when he'd been sleeping. That was good to know, he relaxed just a bit. "What's the news?"

"Foster's had an accident."

Bloody hell. "How bad?"

"Broken leg, some cracked ribs, cuts, bruises," he paused, "And a head injury. He's lost his memory."

That was just great. "What's being done?"

"Dr. Schroeder's back with us. He and Louise will be taking care of him. It will be nice to have him back at the studio."

With the unsecured line, the meaning was clear. Foster was no longer a part of SHADO. "I see. What's his prognosis?"

"Not as good as yours. Look, we have something we want to show you, but Louise is giving me the 'it's getting late and you haven't eaten yet' glare. Are you going to be up for a while?"

Alec grinned. "Come now. We were just ordering in some Chinese. Will that satisfy your good wife?" He could hear their voices murmuring in the background and was pleased when Ed came back on.

"That'll be fine. We'll be there in about an hour."

"That should be perfect. We'll see you then." Alec hung up the phone and shook his head. He looked at Rachel. "Something's up. They're going to join us for dinner. Hope you don't mind?"

Rachel smiled and shook her head. "Not at all. Cutlery or chopsticks?"

"Cutlery for me, thanks. I never have learned how to work chopsticks."

"Chopsticks for me and Ed. I imagine that Louise can use them but best to have both."


Alec picked the phone back up and dialed the restaurant from memory. He placed the order, but then had to ask Rachel where to have it delivered. To his surprise, his own flat was only a few blocks away. Hanging up, he leaned back with a wince. He knew his body was healing, simply because he wasn't constantly exhausted. He was still weak, but he was pleased with how long he'd managed to stay awake that day. And April. April was a gem. He glanced over at Rachel, who was still upset, he noticed. He couldn't understand why his buying the note on her family's station should be such a big deal. Considering how little it had cost him, in reality. Maybe that was it? Just the idea of his spending any money on her? Well, why not? It was true that the only things he'd spent money on had been his planes, over the years. Dinner two or three times a week with a nice lady. Various and sundry awards things, which the studio paid for. Hell, the 'studio' even paid for his housing. Until very recently, he hadn't had any family to deal with. His older brothers had been more than happy to see the back of him when he'd gone into the RAAF. And his parents. He didn't want to think about them, just now. April's hand on his arm brought him back from his black thoughts and he smiled at her as he turned his full attention to his daughter. He didn't notice that Rachel had been watching him from the kitchen or that she'd recognized his dark mood.

A knock took Rachel to the door. Opening it, she found the deliveryman and the Strakers. Ed was just putting his wallet back in his pocket after paying for their dinner. She bit her lip to keep from saying anything. Louise smiled at her and gratefully handed over the box containing the food.

"I think you ordered enough for Cox's Army," Louise grinned.

"Well, Alec did the ordering. Good Lord, this is heavy." She frowned at Louise who was trying to cover her discomfort. "You didn't pull anything, did you?"

"No. Just a little twinge, is all."

"Louise, you should have said something," Ed admonished. He wasn't yet used to being married, and would never become accustomed to her being injured. He frowned.

"I'm fine. I'm nearly healed and can hardly wait for the stitches to be removed." She leaned towards Rachel. "Itches like mad." Rachel nodded, smiling.

"Come on in, then. Everyone's in the lounge."

"Everyone?" Ed asked cautiously.

"April's still here." She paused, looking concerned. "Is that a problem?"

"No. No problem. How's he doing, really?" Ed smiled.

Rachel looked worried and turned to Louise. "I'm afraid that he's going to do something."

"Like what?" Ed asked, frowning.

Rachel didn't turn her focus from Louise. "Something permanent."

Louise's breath caught. Suicide? Alec? Not on her watch! Not if there was anything she could possibly do to stop it.

"Is there any ready means, here?"

Rachel shrugged. "I've his pain pills in my pocket, but the knives in the kitchen are available."

"I think he's more the pills or gun route," Louise mused. "I'll talk to him."

Ed scowled. "And then I'll talk to him."

With that settled, a slightly relieved Rachel led them to the lounge, where she set the box on the dining table and called over to the pair on the sofa. "Come and eat."

Dinner was quiet. It was fairly obvious that Alec was tired. As April and Rachel cleaned up after their repast, Louise took a good look at Alec. "I'd like to check you out, if you don't mind."

Alec looked at her, mellow after his dinner. "I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours," he said mockingly. Ed stiffened, but Louise just smiled and placed her hand on his arm.

"Not a problem. Although I'm not sure my husband will approve."

"He doesn't," Ed growled, but at the two innocent looks his wife and friend turned his way, he shook his head and sighed. "Fine. But I get to watch."

"I never suspected you had any voyeuristic tendencies, Ed."

"I don't. But she is my wife."

"I shan't forget, Ed. You know me better than that."

"I hope I do." He thought about Rachel's concerns. "In fact, while the two of you look at one another's stitches, how about I tell you about what Keith found out for us?"

"Sure." He straightened up and examined with interest the line of stitches on Louise's side. "Looks uncomfortable."

"It is, but it's not serious, really. Almost healed, actually." Alec nodded and began to unbutton his own shirt. He accepted assistance in getting it off without complaint, noted by both Strakers. Louise gently peeled back the bandage to take a look. She finished pulling it off and was looking closely at the damage. "You know, I could pull these stitches for you right now. I know it's not been a full two weeks, but it's looking very good. No swelling, no leakage, and the edges have sealed nicely. If I pull them, you shouldn't need the bandages and will be able to bathe normally. What do you think?"

"I think that would be fine. How come I tire so fast and have so much trouble getting around, then? If it's healed so much, I mean?"

"Well, you're still healing inside." She gently palpated his abdomen, side and back, seeking for anything out of the ordinary. "Seems to me that you're doing very well, to tell you the truth. You'll probably still feel rather weak for at least another week or three. Remember, it's only been ten days since you were hurt, after all. You're healing very rapidly, I'm happy to say."

"Which brings us to my information. As soon as you can run the obstacle course, we can get your license recertified."

"Ed, I lost a kidney. They'll never let me fly again."

"Not necessarily." At Alec's surprised expression, he grinned and showed him the information that Keith Ford had been able to find for them. "Look. According to this, we can petition for your reinstatement. If you were a commercial pilot, it might be different, but since you aren't...."

Alec looked through the documents. It reminded him of a lawyer's brief he'd once read, citing similar cases and their outcomes. He read about half of the first page, and then leafed through the rest of the file, each page filled with one instance after another where pilots had been allowed to fly with one disability or another. There was even one from the US where a pilot had lost a kidney....

Hands shaking and his breathing ragged, he reverently closed the folder and looked up at Ed, standing before him. "I'll be able to fly again?"

"As soon as you're healthy and able to pass the physical. I don't think we'll have much of a fight." He glanced at his wife, who was smiling. "Particularly if Henderson does as he promised and backs us on this."

"What about my age?"

"What about it?" Louise asked. "I know men half your age who aren't nearly as healthy as you are. Especially if you take this opportunity to finish losing the tobacco habit."

"And the caffeine and alcohol habits as well, I suppose?" There was just a touch of bitterness in his voice.

"Alec, the caffeine ban is only temporary. The last thing you want to do is overly stress your kidney. In another couple of weeks, we'll run some tests to see how you're doing. By then, you should be able to get around somewhat better. At that time, you should be able to start drinking coffee again." Seeing his guilty glance towards Rachel, Louise narrowed her eyes. She didn't say anything, though. "In fact, the hot cocoa isn't really a good idea." Seeing his minute flinch, she smiled. Gotcha. "Lots of water, cranberry juice, no citrus, though, it can irritate. If you're careful now, you'll still be healthy and flying in another twenty years." Seeing his face light up, she knew that had been the right thing to say. "In the meanwhile, just take it easy for a bit. Relax; sleep when and as much as you want. Go for drives in the country, as a passenger," she added quickly, seeing him about to respond. "Rachel'd probably appreciate doing a bit of sight-seeing." She raised her voice to get the older woman's attention. "Wouldn't you, Rachel?"

"Wouldn't I what?"

"Like to do a bit of sight-seeing around the area?"

"Love to. Who's driving?"

"You are," Alec replied, trying to sound surly, but failing.

"Could I come, too?" April asked excitedly. "Station girl like me, I've never been out of the country before."

"Of course," Ed replied before Alec could. He grinned at his friend. "I'm sure Alec knows all the sites to visit. Don't you, Alec?"

Alec shook his head and sighed. "No, but I'm willing to wager I shall by the time we're through with them."

Louise smiled. "Good. Rest up the rest of this week and then, if you feel up to it, you can start your gallivanting on Monday."

Alec gave a martyred sigh. "Oh, the things I find myself doing."

"You'll love every moment of it, you old fraud," Ed chuckled. "Escorting two lovely ladies, one on each arm? You'll be the envy of every man who sees you."

Alec grinned at that. "True enough." He tried to stifle a yawn, but was unable to.

"Bedtime, Alec," Louise said, authoritatively.

"Yes, mother."

"I'll 'mother' you, you daft child, you." She helped her husband pull the reluctant Alec up. "Go on. Bed. Now."

Alec went, albeit reluctantly.

Ed, watching his friend shuffling slowly to his room remarked quietly, "He's afraid he'll miss something."

"He doesn't want to be alone," Louise countered, leaning into her husband and sliding an arm around his waist.

Ed's arm slid across his wife's shoulder as he nodded in agreement. "Unfortunately, you're right." They watched Rachel watching Alec and smiled at one another. A few minutes later, the older woman went into Alec's room to tuck him in. April grinned at the couple. "D'you think Dad knows how she feels about him?"

"No," Ed replied with a sigh. "More fool he."

"He's still too wrapped up in his own worries to notice anyone else, I'm afraid," Louise explained.

"I'm wondering if she's even aware of how she feels," April noted.

"What do you mean?" Ed hadn't had much chance to talk to Alec's family, but despite being raised by Ashton, he could see a very great deal of Alec in them.

"She thinks she's just 'taking care of him', still. She doesn't realize she's started to care for him."

Louise nodded. "What happened earlier? Rachel's worried about his mental state."

"Joey called last night and told me about her family's station, how it was about to be foreclosed on. I told Dad this morning, and he bought the note. Fifteen thousand dollars." Remembering that Ed was an American, she added, "Australian dollars, that is."

Ed frowned. "I don't understand? Why would that make her think he'd want to kill himself?"

April gasped and one hand went to her mouth to cover. "He-he put it in her name, the land, that is. She doesn't know that, though." She frowned and shook her head. "But he seems so happy, contented...why would she think he'd want to do that?"

Louise nodded. It made perfect sense to her. "In a lot of cases, someone who commits suicide seems relieved and even happy, the relief and happiness, or contentment, comes from having made the decision to end it all."

"'A permanent solution for a temporary problem,'" Ed quoted grimly.

"Yes." Louise smiled at her worried husband. "However, we've brought him something else to think about. He's going to get his flying privileges back. That should go a long way towards giving him a reason to stick around and keep going, don't you think?"

"You're the shrink. Do you think that's enough?"

"Well, that and people around him who want him around. We need to keep closer watch on him. Maybe let him have visitors, and such."

"I'm not sure I'd want so many people to know where he is. Or to know he's staying with Rachel. She's got a right to her privacy." He thought of the havoc some of Alec's 'harem' could wreak. Like Dorothy. He frowned, looking towards the bedroom. "I wonder what's taking her so long?"

Louise cocked her head towards the bedroom and smiled. "She's singing a lullaby to him." Her husband's jaw dropped and he stood to go and check it out for himself. Louise and April looked at each other and smiled.

He watched her from the doorway. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, her right hand gently stroking his arm from shoulder to elbow, and her left hand holding his. She had a nice voice, Ed decided.

"...Take time to grow my ray of hope, in the garden of Dromore. Take heed, young eaglet, 'til thy wings are feathered fit to soar. A little rest and then the world is full of work to do. Sing hushaby loo la loo lo lan, sing hushaby loo la lo. Sing hushaby loo la loo lo lan, sing hushaby loo la lo." She eased to her feet, squeezed Alec's shoulder, gently, placed his lax hand beneath the covers and kissed his cheek. "Sweet dreams, laddie." She turned to leave and startled upon seeing Ed standing there, watching her. She smiled nervously and he backed away, allowing her to exit the room. She closed the door behind them, leaving it slightly ajar.

Before she could escape into the lounge, he stopped her. "Thank you."

"For what?" She looked up at him, confused.

"For caring about him."

She smiled. "He's really quite easy to take care of. Takes a bit of chivying to get him to eat and drink enough, but he's not bad."

"I wasn't talking about taking care of him. I was saying caring about him." He noticed that she stiffened at his words, her expression becoming almost fearful.

"I'm a bit old for him, don't you think?"

"Not at all. It's past time for him to grow up. I think you'd be perfect for him. But your taking care of him doesn't include that. If it happens in its own time, I'll dance at your wedding. If not," he shrugged. "Well, then he's a bigger fool than I took him for." He smiled at her and followed her back to the lounge.

As they entered, April stood. "It's getting a bit late for me. I hope you don't mind, but I need to get home to bed, myself." She smiled and gave Rachel a hug, whispering "Take good care of him, please?" Then she smiled at the Strakers and headed for the door.

"Let me walk you to the car," Ed offered.

April paused, a bit surprised, but then smiled and nodded. "All right. Thanks."

"You're most welcome."

When they'd gone, Louise turned to Rachel. "You're falling in love with him, aren't you?"

Rachel blushed. "I don't really know. I've, um, never...well, I never had time for a beau when I was younger, and now, well, having met some of his 'harem', well, I'd never be able to compete with that."

"No. I shouldn't think so." Louise was somewhat surprised by the older woman's admission, but thinking of her history, shouldn't have been, she decided. Struggling through college and then returning to care for an invalid father for twenty years? Where would she have met anyone? "Do you think he's worth pursuing?"

Rachel blushed again. "I wouldn't know how to even begin. No, I'll be happy with him as a friend. That's enough for me, I should think. Don't you?"

"Well, let's just wait and see. Tell me about how he's been sleeping?"

When Ed returned, the ladies were deep in discussion on Alec's mental state. Louise was rightfully worried about how he was acting, but hoped that their news about his license would be enough to bring him around.

There was still no certainty before they left, but Alec's reaction to the file showing that it could be done was a glimmer of hope for them all. Rachel would simply have to continue keeping close watch on Alec.

She was almost used to it, waking up in the middle of the night and listening for him. She arose and made her way through the darkened apartment to his room. Sitting beside him on the edge of the bed, she began by stroking his arm, the way she did when singing him to sleep.

"Alec? Come on, laddie, wake up, now. It's all right, you're safe, laddie. Shhh, that's my laddie-buck. There you are." She smiled as he gasped and opened his eyes.


"It's all right, laddie. Want to tell me about it?"

"I was dreaming that I'd gone through all the hoops and they still denied me my license. If they do, it'll kill me, you know."

"I know. But we're going to win."

"You sound sure."

She smiled. "I am, oddly enough."

He gingerly stretched, pleased when several vertebrae in his back popped. "I wish I were as certain."

She continued to rub his shoulder. "I'm as certain as I can be. Mr. Straker's calling in favors for this, you know."

Alec nodded, wondering if it would be enough. "Stay with me, please?" There was desperation in his tone. He was afraid and didn't want to be left alone.

"Alec, I don't think...."

"I'm not asking for sex." He chuckled without any humor. "I'm in no condition for it even if I were interested, at the moment. It's just that...well, you keep the darkness at bay."

She frowned in concern, wondering if he needed a nightlight. "Darkness?"

"Yeah. It's inside me, trying to take over, and I...." He took a deep breath and continued, "And you're the only thing that seems to be able to keep it at bay."

She gnawed on her lower lip, debating with herself. Finally, realizing that at her age, it didn't much matter, she nodded. "All right. What do you want me to do?"

"Hold me? Talk to me?"

She couldn't help but smile. He wasn't looking for a lover, but a mother, just now. She'd nursed her father through many a bout of depression. She could handle this. She stood for a moment to draw back the covers, as he shifted over to make room for her, and she slid into the bed beside him. She settled onto her left side and opened her arms for him. With a sigh, he slid his right arm beneath her waist and settled himself against her, his head on her outstretched arm. He was a big man, bigger than her father had been, but the feeling was much the same. She'd come to regard her father as a child, in his later years, and Alec was like that, now. At least for the moment.

"Would you like me to tell you what I did today?"

"All right." He wanted to listen to her talk. Her voice could keep the demons at bay as he fought the black depression that was nearly drowning him.

"I met a mate of yours today, bloke named Rich Carlton?"

"Where'd you manage to run into him?" He opened his eyes for only a moment in surprise before closing them again and just listening and feeling her warm body holding him.

"At the airfield."

"What were you doing there?" He frowned in confusion.

"Mr. Straker made arrangements for me to take a ride in his bi-plane."


"I wanted to understand what you feel about them. I think I understand better, now."

"Oh? Which plane did you go up in?"

"The Stearman?"

"The Kaydett's a nice plane." He smiled, thinking about it. "What about the Jenny?"

"He's rebuilding the motor."

"Yeah, I was afraid of that. At least it's repairable. So," his voice became tentative, "How'd you like your flight?"

She shivered at the memory. "It was wonderful!"

He shifted so he could watch her face as she spoke. Even in the darkness, he could sense her excitement, and his heart fluttered, like a baby bird beginning to fledge out. "Tell me about it?" His heart beat faster in anticipation.

"Well, I put on the coveralls, helmet and goggles, and he helped me into the front seat, is that normal? The pilot in the back seat?"

"Yes. Don't know why, but that's how it's designed, although you can also pilot from the front seat in a lot of the older planes."

"Well, he buckled me in good and tight, checked that I had the helmet on right and the goggles, then he started her up and off we went. He pointed out your hangar as we taxied by it, then we paused at the top of the runway and he revved up the engine and we started rolling. It was a bit like riding a motorcycle, really, the wind and all, but then it got all smooth and I looked down and realized we were in the air."

Her voice carried him with her in her excitement. His eyes were closed and he imagined it all. He nodded, encouraging her to continue.

"It was the most exciting thing I've ever done. We flew west, out over the Irish Sea, and except for one little moment, it was wonderful."

"You got airsick?"

"I suppose so. We were turning around and I had a bad moment."

Alec chuckled. "Looked at the wingtip, did you?"

She laughed with him. "Yes. Not a good thing, eh?"

"You get used to it, or you don't watch the wingtip, is all."

"Well, on our way back, I asked him to do a loop-de-loop."

His heart stilled for a moment. "And did he do one for you?"

"Yes. I'm afraid I screamed like a kid on a roller-coaster, and I'm sure he thought I was terrified, but when I asked him to do it again, he did, laughing right along with me. Then he did spiral loops?"

"Barrel rolls."

"Barrel rolls." Her voice became husky as she described her impressions of her flight. "It was absolutely dinky-di! The way the motor felt, kind of in my lower back, I could tell that the plane liked it as much as I did, she was screaming." She shuddered against him and his eyes flew open in shock as he recognized her reaction. His breath caught and his heart leaped in his chest. His arms tightened about her as he held her until she stopped shaking.

"My lass," he whispered, holding her tightly until her shudders finally stopped. "You're my lass, for sure."

She was trembling in his embrace, panting in reaction to the aftershocks of her memory of that flight. She shook her head. "What do you mean?" Her own heart was thudding rapidly, mostly from her body's reaction to relating her memories, but speeding up at his words.

"My lass. I've been waiting for you most of my life."

She shook her head. "I don't want to join your 'harem', Alec."

"Sod-'em. You're the only one I care about."

"Alec, you hardly know me. Don't mistake my taking care of you for...."

"You understand, you little beauty. You understand!"

Her breath caught as she got what he meant. "The flying? It's like that for you?"

"Yes," he whispered. "Exactly like that. Every time." He wasn't going to explain about how he'd stuff tissue into his pants whenever he went up in one of his planes, how every time he did aerobatics he'd cream his breeches. "It's better than anything I know." And she had just now orgasmed simply from recalling her flight. "My lass." He hugged her tightly, and then pressed a gentle kiss to her lips.

She didn't understand, at first, but as his lips met hers, she realized what he was saying. That what she felt was the same as what he felt when he flew. She didn't do any of the actual flying, but the idea of not being allowed to go up again tore at her. Then she realized that he was kissing her, and that she was responding in kind. Her heart fluttered with an excitement almost equal to flying. She was disappointed when he pulled away.

"Sorry. I'm sorry," he was shaking his head and pulling further away from her, but she could feel him tremble. Making up her mind, she followed him and wrapped her arms around him, pulling them together again.

"I'm not. If that's how it is for you, then we've got to get you your wings back." She held him tightly and she could feel his tears soaking into her nightshirt. Her mouth tightened in determination. She understood, now. And her heart, already half in love with him, blossomed and swelled with joy. "My laddie." She pulled back just enough to allow her to kiss him. She hadn't had much experience, but she poured her heart into it, and felt him respond to her.

Sighing as their kiss ended, Alec smiled sleepily and snuggled close to her. "My lass," he agreed.

Comfortable in each other's arms, they dozed off, as exhausted as though they'd made love; which, in a way, they had.

It was full daylight when she awoke. She was momentarily shocked to find herself cradled spoon-like, close to Alec, but then she remembered the night before and wondered if those same feelings would still hold in the light of day. She shivered in anticipation of another flight and wondered how soon she could go up again. Feeling his warm breath on her neck, she felt her heart lurch and decided that she wanted to wait until he could take her up. It only seemed fair, after all. It was because of him that she'd become enamored of flying. Remembering all the planes he had, she wanted to try them all, and wondered if she were too old to learn to fly, herself?

In his dreams, he was flying, but for the first time in memory, he wasn't alone. He had someone with him, close to his heart and cradled against his body. They were soaring and for the first time in his life, he was with a woman who truly understood. He awoke laughing, to discover the woman in his dreams spooned against him and his arms wrapped about her. He kissed the back of her neck.

"My lass."

"Good morning, laddie. You seem to be in fine fettle this morning. What would you like for brekkie?"

He stopped himself from responding with 'you', but just barely. "I think I could handle just about anything, this morning." He reluctantly released her and watched as she shifted away from him, sat up and got out of bed. She turned back to smile at him.

"Well, I'll get it started, then, and afterwards, let's see about somewhere easy to go for a little day trip, shall we?"

He groaned in mock agony. "Sight-seeing. Oh, joy." But secretly, he was pleased with the idea. Now that he knew that she understood as no one had ever understood before, he could hardly wait to get to know her better. He already knew she was a warm and caring woman, and she certainly seemed to care for and about him, but he wanted to know more. And hoped that as she got to know him, she'd feel the same way about him.

"How about a studio tour? I'm sure April would be thrilled with that."

And it would give him an opportunity to see how things were going, there. He grinned. "Fine. While you're fixing breakfast, I'll get a shower and dressed, then while you're doing likewise, I'll clean up the kitchen and call April."

"Great idea, laddie." With a final smile, she turned and left the room, never noticing the way his eyes longingly followed her.

April was thrilled with their outing. Even though Alec needed to use a cane to help him get around, he seemed a great deal more animated than he had the day before. She watched the way he kept finding excuses to touch Rachel and grinned. Something had obviously happened between them. He was showing no signs whatsoever of the gloom and depression she'd noticed the day before. And when members of his 'harem' stopped them to welcome him back, he only had eyes for Rachel.

There was only one small blot on the day, and she'd nearly roared with laughter at it....

"Alec, darling! It's so nice to see you up and about, again. You naughty boy, you haven't called me." She smiled thinly at Rachel and sniffed her disdain.

"Dorothy," Alec replied disinterestedly. "I don't believe you've met my daughter? April, this is Dorothy, she's one of the actresses here. Soaps, isn't it, Dorothy?"

The woman's smile became acidic. "Yes, well, until you find me something better, darling." She ran her excessively long manicured and scarlet-enameled nails up his right arm, teasingly. And was disappointed and annoyed when he didn't react.

"Isn't that your agent's job?" April asked. "I didn't think Dad was an agent?"

Alec smiled at his daughter, ignoring Dorothy completely in favor of his companions. He had Rachel's right hand in his left, while his right hand held his cane. "I'm not. I try to leave the casting up to the casting directors. I'm more a producer, these days. In fact, I've probably got a ton of scripts to look at, if you'd care to help?"

April smiled broadly; pleased with the way he was treating the overly zealous woman. She'd remember to try that with some of the blokes back home, who thought they were figjam. "I'd love to, Dad." Then she turned to Rachel. "I want to see what you do, as well, Rachel. This is all so exciting." She knew she was putting it on a bit too thick when her father frowned at her, but Rachel, who had been completely ignored by Dorothy after the dismissive sniff, smiled.

"Maybe later, I'll show you what I do. Not that I've been doing it very long, here, but I'm sure my desk is also covered with messages and such." Now, if she could only find her office....

"In the meantime, let's go see how deep the pile is on my desk, shall we?" Alec turned away and led his ladies towards his office, totally ignoring the now livid Dorothy, who glared at their backs as they walked away from her.

He hadn't been joking about the scripts piled up for his perusal. He took one look at the stack in his inbox and sighed. "Well, it looks like I've something to keep me busy from now until doomsday."

April lifted the topmost script from the pile and opened it. She read the first scene and began to laugh.

"What?" Alec asked.

"This looks like fun. They want to do a live-action Snoopy vs. the Red Baron."

"You're kidding?" Alec and Rachel chorused, then started and looked at each other, blushing.

"Too bad I don't have a Camel," Alec muttered, and then grinned. "But I know someone who does."

"You could do the stunt flying for it!" Rachel suggested, excitedly.

He shook his head. "Not looking like a beagle, I wouldn't, but still...." Then he sighed. "No. I don't think so. Von Richthoffen was a real person and died in that war."

"I recently saw something on television that says he was killed by an Aussie machine gunner on the ground, rather than the Canadian flyer who got the credit," April mused. "I suppose it's too far-fetched to ask anyone to go and watch something as false as this, though." She shook her head and set the script back in the pile.

"Not there, love. That one gets to start the reject pile."

April looked at him in surprise. "You're not even going to look at it?"

"No. Your opinion is as good, if not better than my own, I should think. I don't go to films for fun, just the premiers of our own films and the occasional awards ceremony, if I must. And believe me, Ed's very good at delegating that particular chore." He was smiling, however.

Rachel, April had noticed, only had eyes for her dad, and so was surprised when she spoke. "Alec, I'd like to do a story for release about you and your planes."

He startled and frowned at her. "Whatever for?"

"Because for one, it can get public opinion behind you for recovering your license. For another, it will give us something to counter any bad press from Rutland. Make her out the drongo she is. Nearly killed you, she did. Not to mention Louise. There's no reason to let her go and try to show herself as the wronged party, now is there?"

"But what've my planes to do with public opinion?"

Rachel bit her lip. She'd been keeping up on the goings-on, but he had no idea of what had been happening. "Mr. Rutland gave a statement that said his 'poor wife' had never recovered from Ed's 'abuse' of her during their marriage. There have been a few nasty bits in the paper, trying to make her out the wronged party. Of course, the fact that she's still in critical care helps her case."

"How is she doing, by the way?" It was coming up on two weeks (just two weeks!) since this all began, and he still had no idea what had actually happened.

"Well, her hand's ruined, although they managed to save it. She'll never walk again and she lost her spleen, part of her intestines, and has damage to both of her kidneys. She's been awake, but they still aren't sure if she's going to make it. She's not able to understand that her own actions resulted in her injuries. When she's awake, she's screaming at you and Straker. Blaming the two of you for her state."

"That's ridiculous!" April growled. "It's all her doing. Dad being hurt, and Mrs. Straker. No one invited her, she snuck in and nearly killed them!"

"But she totally missed the one she actually wanted to hurt. That's the worst, I should think. I want to get out some of our own side, before he can sway public opinion to the 'poor woman'." Rachel's jaw was tight, just thinking about it. "It's not right that she should be found to be the wronged party when she's only gotten her own comeuppance, after all. And, if we do a nice little piece about your concerns about getting back your license, along with maybe a few pictures of your planes, I think we can tap into the public's dislike of the unfairness of it all."

Alec sighed. Leave it to Rutland to manage to make Ed out the bad man, again. Compressing his lips together, he nodded. "All right. If it'll help, you can do it."

Rachel smiled and gave him a quick hug. "Good lad. Now, let's take a look at some of these, shall we?" She lifted the next script from the pile and opened it, moving away to sit in one of his visitor's chairs. Alec eased down into his desk chair, glad to be off his feet and wishing he could lie down for a bit, but decided that if he wanted to get back in the air, the more he started doing now, the sooner he'd be back to flying.

After an hour of glancing through script after terrible script, Alec leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes hard. "I've had enough. Let's get out of here."

"All right, laddie. Home for lunch, or d'you want to eat out?"

Alec shrugged. "We're here. We might as well make use of the lunchroom."

"All right. April? Is that all right with you?"

April smiled and nodded. "That's fine with me." She put the script she'd been reading back on the pile.

"You like that one?" Alec asked, having noticed that she was reading it like a book.

"Yeah. It's another war one, but it's based on the memoirs of a pilot. I'd like to find the book it's based on, actually."

"Oh?" Alec lifted the script and glanced at it. Rachel took it from him and put it in her purse. He looked at her in surprise.

"Read it at home, laddie."

He smiled. "Yes, lass."

April grinned.

When Louise called to check, later that afternoon after they'd dropped April off at her dad's flat and returned to hers, Rachel passed on the good news. "We talked last night. I told him about my flight, and he's decided to fight to get back into the air."

"That's wonderful. I heard you had been at the studio with April, earlier. What on earth happened with Dorothy? She was acting like an absolute witch the rest of the day. The director threatened to kill off her character and she stormed off the set."

Rachel was embarrassed. "Oh, dear. I'm sorry. Alec didn't, um, react to her quite the way she wanted or expected him to. I got to experience first-hand what that young girl said about him. When he's with you, he's oblivious to any other woman. With both April and I with him, he hardly spared Dorothy a glance, I'm afraid."

Louise chuckled. "Ah, then I expect she'll get over it, soon. Although, if she calls his flat and April answers...."

"Oh, dear."

"Don't worry about it. April will simply tell her that Alec's not there."

"I'm glad neither of us has to work with her."

Louise laughed. "She'd never survive downstairs. I saw the memo you sent Ed. He thinks it's a wonderful idea. He hasn't gone to see Mrs. Rutland. Particularly after the press release from Mr. Rutland. He'd have forgiven her, but for those terrible lies."

"I suspected as much. I want to let the public see the real victim, here. Alec wasn't her target, yet she nearly killed him. He still tires very easily, and I think we overdid it today. Just because you took the stitches out early doesn't mean he's ready for much. We got home and he simply lay down and has been sleeping ever since."

"Well, you take good care of him. Do you want me to come and take a look at him?"

"I don't think he'd appreciate it, but maybe he needs to have an appointment with a regular doctor?"

"He's got an appointment day after tomorrow with Dr. Schroeder, if that's soon enough?"

"Oh? What time? I'll keep him down tomorrow and let him recharge his batteries."

"Ten a.m. Is that too early?"

"Are you joking?" She laughed. "He wakes up before daylight, usually."

"You seem very upbeat. Has something happened to change your mind about his mental state?"

Rachel blushed, even though Louise couldn't see her. "I told him about my flight. It would seem that I do understand how he feels. He's decided he's going to fight for his wings. I guess my job is to remind him."

Louise grinned and nodded to herself. She looked up to see her husband in the doorway, listening in, as she was using the speakerphone. His eyebrows were elevated in curiosity. "Yes. Yours as well as everyone else's. Don't let him overdo anything, though, all right?"

"I shan't. If anything changes, I'll call you straight away."

"That's fine, then. Well, Ed's just walked in, so I'll let you go so I can take him out for dinner." She stifled her laugh as Ed stuck his tongue out at her.

"All right. I'll talk to you tomorrow, then. Take care."

"We will, you, too." After she disconnected the call, she smiled up at her husband. "I think he's in love."

Ed grinned. "Oh?"

She shrugged. "Not sure what happened, but apparently they 'talked' and came to some kind of an understanding." She grinned up at her husband. "You need to have a 'father-son' talk with him about her, you know."

Ed blinked in surprise. "He's older than I am, my love. I'm sure he knows all about it. Just ask his harem."

She shook her head as she stood up and moved across the room and put her arms around him. "And I need to have that same talk with Rachel."

He shook his head. "Whyever for?"

"Because, if you think about it, she's never had an opportunity to gain any experience with men."

That froze him, and then he remembered her embarrassed confession to him. "Oh. Right." He sighed. "So, when do you think we need to have these 'talks' with them?"

"Sooner, rather than later, I should think. Although, if he knows about her, he might be more willing than usual to wait until she's ready."

"Or even wait until they're married?"

She hugged him, hard. "Do you think he'd marry her?"

"If he has a single functioning brain cell left, he will." He hugged her back. "Now, I'm hungry and I want to check on Foster before we go home."

"Yes, sir, commander, sir."


"Why, thank you." She batted her eyes at him as she turned to gather up her coat and purse, wiggling her behind at him. "So happy you noticed."

Shaking his head, he laughed with her, slipped his arm around her and led her out.

She had to wake him for dinner. She'd figured he'd be too exhausted to eat much, and wasn't surprised when he barely managed a single bowl of soup with a side of damper. But when he returned to bed, he wanted her with him. Heart pounding, she slipped into bed beside him, cuddling up together. She decided that she could very well get used to this.

"I was eight," he murmured, not quite ready to sleep, yet. "We'd gone to this fair. There was a yank, there, with a Jenny. He was selling rides in it for a shilling each. My brothers are all a great deal older than I am, and dared me to go up. I was terrified, but couldn't let them call me yellow, so I stood in queue, waiting for my turn. When it came, he didn't even see me, at first. I was a bit small for my age. When he saw me, he wasn't going to take me up, at first, but hearing my brothers' catcalls, he gave them a glare and told me to come along. He strapped me in good and tight. Had to tie a knot in the lapbelt to make it fit me, and pulled the shoulder harness as small as it could go. Then he tied a knot in the elastic so the goggles would fit me, took my shilling, and climbed into the back. He muttered something about 'more guts than brains', and then fired up the engine. I was never so frightened in my life as when I realized we were up in the air, high above the earth. Then, the vibration of the engine got to me, and like you, I realized that she was talking to me. He figured he'd give my brothers something to dare up to, and inverted. I hung in my harness, scared out of my wits, puking my guts out, and then realized that I wasn't falling, and that I could look 'up' at the ground. I started laughing like a kookaburra. He did a few barrel rolls and landed. I swear my grin split my face at the end of that ride, and he was grinning, as well, as he let me out. I thanked him and shook his hand, much to his surprise. Then I went back to my brothers, who weren't laughing at me any more, and got back in the queue to get another ride."

"Did any of your brothers go up?" She could feel him as his chuckle vibrated through her with an almost electric tingle.

"Nope. Not a one of them had the nerve. Best day of my life. After that, they never again called me yellow. They didn't dare."

She smiled, pleased that he'd shared this with her. "How many brothers do you have?"

"Four. I was something of an accident. My mum was forty-three when I was born. I was quite a surprise for them. Mum had gone through the change, or so they thought."

"How much older than you are they?"

"My closest brother is twelve years older than I am. The oldest one is twenty."

"Oh, dear. I guess you were something of a shock, then."

His voice turned melancholy. "Moreso, perhaps because she'd lost several babies in between. I don't think they thought I'd make it, either, but I did. Although I understand that I very nearly didn't."

"I'm glad you did, laddie."

He grinned and held her closer. "So am I, lass."

"So you stood in queue for a second ride?"

He chuckled again and nuzzled his face into her hair. "Yeah. He looked surprised to see me and looked around for my brothers, but they'd gone. He asked me why I was back, wasn't one ride enough and surely I'd rather have some candy floss or something else to spend my hard-won money on? I told him I'd rather have another ride, please, so he took me up again. Each time I came back down, I got back in the queue to go again. I was down to my last shilling and wanting my fifth and final ride. When he saw me again, he asked me if my family was rich, or something, and I told him that it was my birthday money to spend as I wanted, and that I wanted one last ride to remember best. He kind of stared at me funny for a bit, and then looked at the queue behind me. There were only a few people left wanting rides, and he told me to wait. He did the other people, first, and then took me up that one, last time, and he told me that any boy who was willing to spend every penny he had on aeroplane rides, needed to learn to fly for himself. He told me to take the stick and pull back on it. I'm sure he had his own hand on the stick in back, but he made me feel like I was flying. I did my very first loop-de-loop then. My stomach felt odd, but I was too excited to get sick, I think. I was flying."

She knew exactly how he felt and her body shuddered the same way as when she thought of her own first experience with aerobatics. His hand ran up and down her spine as she trembled against him. His arms then tightened around her, holding her close until she stopped shaking.

"Does that ever go away? That feeling that makes you shake like that?"

"Not if you're very lucky. It's never changed for me, lass." For a brief moment, he wondered if he'd ever be able to bring her to that same shuddering state with his hands and body? No matter. Once he had his wings back, he'd give her that heady state of being as often as he could. Knowing that she felt the same way about it as he did made his heart swell in his chest with love, and he could hardly wait until he was well enough to pass the physical. He held her close and tenderly kissed her. His body was still in no condition to do more than that, and he realized that it would probably quite some time before it would. He didn't mind, though. He'd finally found his heart, and all he needed now was to heal so that he could show her everything he knew. "D'you think you might like to learn to fly, lass?"

"Only if you teach me, laddie."

He hugged her tight again. "Gladly, lass." He kissed her soundly and then held her, sighing in contentment.

"I love you, laddie," she whispered when she thought he was asleep.

His breath caught in his throat and his heart nearly exploded. "My lass," he said possessively as his arms tightened around her.

There were good days, and bad days over the next several weeks. Not equally divided. He was healthy enough that Rachel had to return to work, but April would come to stay with him and they'd take occasional day trips for a few hours to help prevent cabin fever, to which Alec was quite prone. At first, for a day or two after an outing, Alec would be too tired and weak to do much more than laze about until his energy rebuilt. Those were the times when the darkness would increase and try and drag him irretrievably down.

During one of those times, while Alec slept through his depression, April was sitting quietly reading when Rachel came home.

"How's he been today, April?"

She looked up from her book and sighed. "Not good. We must have overdone yesterday. I've had to wake him both for brekkie and lunch. He's hardly touched a bite, either, and just stares into nothing."

Rachel winced. "I keep hoping he'll come around." She sighed. "I wish I knew what to do to help him."

"I know what you mean." She held up her book. "I found the book that script was based on. It's the memoir of a fella who was a barnstormer and then flew in the Second World War. It could have been dad, from the way he talks about it. He even talks about a kid he met at some fair, somewhere, who kept getting back in the queue to go up again." She laughed, "He even dedicated it to the lad. No name, just 'the kid." She didn't notice Rachel's surprise.

"Could I read it when you're finished? Maybe it might be something your dad would like, as well."

April nodded. "Sure. You can have it. It's a fun read. I think I'll probably finish it tonight. I can bring it with me tomorrow, if you like?"

Rachel smiled. "I'd like that, thanks." She stretched, leaning far back, with her hands on her hips. It had been a long day. Fortunately, it was Friday and she didn't have to get up early the next morning. "D'you still want to try for the zoo, tomorrow?"

April winced. "Only if Dad is still willing. It's so discouraging, we go somewhere and he's all right, even jolly, but then he falls back into the black moods for a day or two afterwards. It scares me, sometimes."

Rachel sighed and nodded. "I know what you mean. But remember, he very nearly died, and it's only been a few weeks. He'll get stronger."

April smiled, "Not soon enough for him."

Rachel giggled, "Nor me, truth to tell. Care to stay to dinner?"

"Thanks, but I think I've had enough of Mr. Gloom and Doom for one day." She shook her head. "He doesn't see that he's getting better."

"No, he wouldn't. He doesn't understand that he nearly died. He thinks that because he looks healed on the outside, he should be healed inside, as well. We just need to help him, is all. I think the Strakers will be coming over tomorrow, as well. Maybe Dr. Straker will have some ideas."

"I sure hope so."

The next day, Alec had recovered from his outing from two days earlier and was his usual warm and charming self. He was totally unaware that the people who cared about him weren't fooled in the least. Since Saturday was a lovely spring-like day with only a few clouds in the sky, Louise suggested that instead of an exhausting trip to the zoo, they simply go into the country for a nice picnic. It was obvious to everyone that even that mild bit of stress quickly exhausted the still healing Alec. To everyone's surprise, Ed stretched and yawned after they'd eaten and insisted that he was going to relax in the warm spring sunshine and take a nap.

Louise immediately saw through his ruse and, with a smile, stretched out beside him, resting her head against his shoulder. "What a lovely idea." Soon, everyone was dozing in the unseasonably warm sunshine. Alec, not feeling constrained to have to 'keep up' with the healthy members of the group, relaxed and slept heavily.

When Louise awoke, she stretched, careful to ease away from her husband so as not to wake him. Looking around, she smiled to find Rachel and Alec cuddled together, asleep.

"Looks serious," Ed spoke softly as he sat up beside her, his gaze following her own.

"It does. Do you approve?"

"Hell, yes. It's about time."

Louise nodded. "I think he's been searching for her for a long time." She glanced to the man beside her and stretched her hand out towards him; his hand stretched back to her and they linked their fingers together and shared a smile.

"I hope his search, like mine, is over."

"So do I, love, so do I."

For the first time, Alec didn't fall into his usual black depression following an outing. The fact he'd had a two hour nap in the midst of it obviously had a great deal to do with it, so for the next week and a half, they kept his outings as unstressful and unexhausting as they could. Their consideration and caution worked.

In a month, Alec was strong enough to return to duty. Rachel's interview and biography on him quickly turned public opinion firmly and unequivocally away from Mary Rutland, who was finally healing. She and her husband were ordered into psychiatric counseling for their problem dealing with their obvious lack of anger management. Mr. Rutland was prohibited from coming within one hundred meters of the Strakers, or anyone affiliated with the studio. To avoid any possible conflict, and to be nearer to his wife at Brockhill, he moved to Brimingham. Mary Rutland entered a plea of guilty on the charges of unlawful possession and use of a handgun in the commission of a crime, and to attempted murder, assault, and several other offenses. To her and her husband's dismay, she received no leniency, despite her own injuries. The three people who had shot her all had valid permits for their pistols, whereas she did not. They were fortunate that Mr. Rutland wasn't charged.

Alec's first day back at work brought a little surprise. He'd parted from Rachel at the front lobby and he was nearly to his office when he was accosted. "Alec?" He turned to find a becrutched Paul Foster grinning at him.

"Paul! Good to see you, man. How's the leg?"

"Healing, thankfully. How about yourself? I heard you nearly bought the farm?"

Alec grinned. "Can't knock down a tough old codger like me. You should know that by now."

"Well, since only the good die young, I guess we're both pretty bad, eh?"

Alec laughed, a bit nervously, remembering that Foster was no longer a part of SHADO.

"Say, have you seen the new head of media relations? She's some looker, eh? Bet I can get her in the sack by Friday."

Alec nearly stopped breathing. He'd figured out about Rachel, and had promised himself to not push her into anything until she was ready for it. Fortunately, he could protect her from the amorous Foster without compromising her virtue. He leaned close to Paul, smiling grimly. "You get within twenty meters of my lass and I'll castrate you with a grapefruit spoon."

Paul gasped at the deadly tone and backed away too quickly, nearly coming a crupper if Alec hadn't reached out a hand to steady him. "Easy there, Paul. You wouldn't want to fall and break anything else, now, would you?"

Staring, wide-eyed, at the older man, Paul shook his head. "Uh, no. Certainly not!" He wisely took the hint and turned to go. "I've got a new film I'm directing." He laughed a bit nervously. "Another of those campy science fiction things. Another alien invasion bit. We're starting rehearsal, today. I'll, uh, catch you later, all right? Let's do lunch, soon!"

"I'd like that, Paul. See you later." He watched as the younger man made his way down the corridor, almost regretting that Straker had decided to retire him from SHADO. Except for his personal interest in Rachel, he was happy to see that Foster hadn't really changed all that much, although he'd heard a rumor to the effect that the man was now terrified of flying, of all things. With a remorseful sigh, he entered his office and set to work.

Foster was in fine fettle, despite the crutches. In fact, he'd noticed it was easier to get the ladies with them. They felt sorry for him and were almost queuing up to minister to his every desire, much to his continued amusement. There was something else, though. Something he felt he needed to test.

"Good morning Miss Ealand. Isn't it just the loveliest day?" At her smile, he continued. "So, is the great man in?"

Miss Ealand glanced at the unobtrusive light above the door into Straker's office. Seeing it was green, she pushed the button. "Why don't you go and see for yourself?"

"Thank you, lovely lady." With a gallant wave, he entered the office.

Straker looked up as the door opened and smiled when he saw who his visitor was. "Paul! Good to see you." He stood and circled around his desk to shake hands and guide Foster towards a chair, but the younger man opted to stand. "So, have you met your cast, yet?" Ed leaned back against his desk, folding his arms across his chest.

Paul looked Straker over, a glint in his eyes. "First meeting's in an hour. I'm looking forward to getting back to work."

"Good. That's good." He waited, wondering what Foster was here for. His eyes widened slightly when Foster deliberately invaded his space.

"I was wondering," Paul murmured huskily, "I know we were friends before, but I was wondering, just how good of 'friends' we really are, hmmm?" He was practically purring as he encroached on Straker's space, nearly touching him.

Ed froze in shock. Then bristled in indignation. "Foster, I advise you to back off, now," he snarled without raising his voice.

"Oh, I know you're married, now, but that was rather sudden, I understand. I was putting it all together and just thought that..."

Neither man had noticed the door opening silently behind them, but the irate whirlwind that blew Foster flat on his ass and knocked the air out of his lungs also took all the wind out of his sails. She bent down over him, her mouth drawn into a tight, angry line. "If you ever try anything like that again, I'll let my husband handle it."

Foster stared up in shock as his diaphragm tried desperately to pull air into his lungs. Straker, who'd been in shock at Foster's advance, suddenly burst into laughter. Shaking his head, he stepped over the sprawled form on the floor and put his arms around his wife.

"Bless you, my love. I'm afraid I wasn't quite sure what to do."

"You might have kicked him in the balls, for starters."

"What, and ruin all his little starlets' dreams of making it big?" He didn't realize his pun, even after his wife's laughter turned into guffaws. He silenced her with a kiss. "Paul, I suggest you go to work on your film and stop thinking so hard." The look he turned on the scarlet-with-embarrassment Foster was like a splash of ice water on a hot day.

He struggled to his feet, fully aware that neither of the Strakers was going to offer him the tiniest bit of help. He thought about saying something, and wisely changed his mind. Obviously, he'd been mistaken. More's the pity. He hobbled out of the office, glad that the door had closed behind Mrs. Straker and that Miss Ealand hadn't seen his mortification. For just a moment, he considered chatting up the secretary, thinking that maybe third time's a charm, and then remembered the American term 'three strikes and you're out', and decided to wait for more a more auspicious opportunity. With a weak smile, he made his way out of the office and out to the soundstage where his meeting was to be held.

Later that afternoon, when Rachel met up with Alec belowground in Straker's office, she came in as Alec was howling with laugher and Ed was blushing crimson, while Louise grinned smugly.

"What did I just walk in on?"

"Foster made a pass at Ed, this morning!" Alec roared with laughter. She hadn't seen him this happy since April had left, the week before.

"You're joking? I thought he was the one all the starlets chased?"

"Apparently, we weren't aware that his interests moved in other directions, as well," Ed growled. He hardly looked mollified when Louise patted his shoulder.

"Well, he knows better, now, love."

"How he ever came up with the idea that I'd...." He trailed off into an inarticulate snarl.

"You know, I still haven't met him."

"And with any luck, you won't," Alec stopped laughing at that thought.

Rachel shrugged. "I've an appointment with him tomorrow about the publicity for the new film he's directing." She didn't notice how quickly Alec's demeanor sobered, or the worried expression on his face. "I've read the synopsis, and I'm not terribly impressed, but from his history, he turns out some wonderfully popular films."

"Yes. He's a regular Roger Corman, in that respect," Alec agreed.

Ed frowned. "Who?"

"American bloke from the fifties and sixties. Very campy stuff. Popular with the fans, just like Foster's becoming," Alec explained, still scowling over the fact that Rachel had a meeting lined up with the man.

Louise noticed his upset and smiled to herself. Alec was well and truly hooked. She glanced at Rachel and realized that the woman had no idea. She sighed and remembered her husband's admonishment to let nature take its course between the pair.

"How soon did Dr. Schroeder say you could take your physical, Alec?"

Alec turned his attention from Rachel and sighed. "Maybe another month, he said. Unless I suddenly lose another stone and can start doing pull-ups."

Ed winced. He was considerably lighter than Alec, and had noticed that was one of the first abilities he'd lost as he aged. "Pull-ups, Alec?"

"Yeah. The actual physical is done with a heart monitor and a stationary bicycle, but he wants me stronger than the requirements state, and able to prove it." He sighed again. "I can only manage three, so far, before my poor old shoulders give out."

"What about pushups, Alec?" Louise countered. "They're using similar muscle groups but are a bit easier on the shoulders."

"No problems with the pushups, sit-ups, or the squat-thrusts. Just the pull-ups, is all."

"How far are you walking per day, now?"

"Couple of miles."

"Eight clicks," Rachel countered.

They looked at Alec, who shrugged. "I don't keep count?"

"I'll talk to Schroeder and see if we can't get you tested sooner."

"Don't. I'd rather wait a bit longer and make sure I'll pass. If he wants me stronger than a man half my age, then I want to be stronger than a man a third my age."

There was nothing to say to that, so Ed changed the subject. "Alec, I've got some specs I'd like you to look at."

"Oh? For what?"

"A new plane I'm working on. Ground-based. You know how the Harrier can land vertically?"


"I want to make one able to take off vertically, as well."

The women ceased to exist for the two men as they put their heads together over the concept. Shaking her head, Louise motioned for Rachel to come with her as the men settled in for a long session of brainstorming.

"Are you still staying with him?" Louise asked as they headed up the stairs.

"Just the other night, after April left. He was pretty despondent, I'm afraid. He's not normally particularly weepy, is he?"

"No. He's not. It's odd, he's usually the fire to Ed's ice, the light to his darkness. This whole thing's been tough on him." She glanced at the older woman she had come to care for as a friend. "How's he handling being back on his own?"

Rachel grinned. "He insists on driving me. It's like he's afraid I might disappear on him."

"He is. He's really worried about your meeting with Foster."


"Well, Foster will go after anyone, it would seem. He did, after all, make a pass at Ed, earlier today."

"Why would he be interested in me?"

Louise looked at her friend and shook her head. "He's into conquest. Unlike Alec, he's a love-'em-and-leave-'em type. I've heard he keeps score."

Rachel shook her head with a melancholy smile. "And Alec's 'harem'?"

"Ah, with a few notable exceptions, they're all still friends with him. Foster hasn't learned that, yet."

"Oh." She thought about it and suddenly smiled. "I've got an idea. I'll let you know if it works." If it did, it would put paid to a couple of problems, she hoped. Louise didn't ask her about her idea, for which she was grateful.

Alec walked Rachel to her door and wished that he could take her home with him. He ached when she was away from him, and the nights were the worst. He wasn't sleeping well, imagining all sorts of terrible things, from failing to pass his physical to Foster notching his bedpost with Rachel.

She knew he was upset. She'd learned to read him over the preceding weeks. She'd found herself missing him at night, his arms holding her close as they slept. She wondered why he'd never made a move on her, but was afraid to ask. She opened her door and turned to find him hovering. "Would you like to come in?"

"More than anything, but if I do, I'm afraid I won't want to leave."

She smiled. "All right. Come on, laddie. I've missed you, too." Relieved, he followed her. As they lay quietly in one another's arms, he told her another story of his planes. He so desperately wanted to take her flying. He decided that if he got his wings back, he was going to take her up in whichever of his planes she wanted, and when they were in the air, he was going to ask her to marry him. He wanted her so badly that he ached constantly. He was content when he was with her, though. And it was enough, for now.

"Good morning, Mr. Foster. Have you met Dorothy?" She sat back and watched the two predators flirt and test the waters. She was smiling when they left together, without ever having to actually deal with Foster's desires for the publicity for his new movie. She was leaning back in her chair with a smug expression on her face when Alec breezed in.

He was surprised to find her alone. He looked around the empty office and frowned. "I thought you had an appointment with Paul Foster?"

"I did. He came, I introduced him to your friend Dorothy, and it was like I'd become invisible. They left half an hour ago. We never did get around to discussing his film." Her grin was more of a smirk.

"You beauty!" He laughed and pulled her up. "For that, you deserve a reward. Let me take you for lunch?"

"Of course, laddie." She smiled as he hugged her, her arms holding him just as tightly as he held her.

"My lass," he murmured possessively.

"Yours, laddie."

Between work and Alec, Rachel hadn't had much time to herself. Straightening up the flat, she came across the book April had passed on to her. Remembering her curiosity, she opened it and, intending just to get an idea of what it was about, started to read. The dedication page gave her pause.

*'To the little Australian boy who spent all his birthday money buying rides in my plane. His shillings filled my gas tank and reminded me why I was there and why I loved to fly. I hope he grew up and into a pair of wings of his own. I never saw him again, as Europe was already at war, and the US joined after the attack on Pearl Harbor that December, and Australia became more active in 1942. When I was shot down over Japanese territory and was captured, the memory of that kid is what kept me from giving up. I never knew his name, but he's the reason I survived and you're reading this, now. Thanks, kid.'*

Rachel shivered. Shaking with trepidation, she started reading. About how the man had ridden in his own first airplane right after the end of the first world war, and how he'd wound up with his Jenny, barnstorming for gas and food through the depression, winding up in Australia when America entered 'his' war.

'I was tired. I'd been giving people fifteen-minute rides in my Jenny for a shilling for the past week. It was the last day of the fair and, as usual, there was a long line of people wanting to ride. At a shilling a go, I was doing well for myself. I not only made enough to keep me and my plane fed, but to stay in a decent hotel. It was Saturday afternoon, and I was bored. The line seemed to go on forever. I was looking at the next guy in line, and the man looked down between us. I followed his gaze and found this little boy. He looked to be about five or six, but he talked older. I guess he could have been seven, or maybe even eight. Polite little kid. Kept calling me 'sir'. I tried to tell him he was too little, but he looked back to where these four big young men were standing, laughing and catcalling. I asked him who they were and he told me they were his brothers. Hell, they looked old enough to be his father. I heard the word 'yellow' several times and got mad. I had to tie a couple of knots in the lap belt, but at least the shoulder harness could tighten enough for him. I took him up and did a few barrel rolls, just to put paid to those big bullies about the kid's courage. After we landed, he handed me his shilling and thanked me. I smiled at him and watched him head over to his brothers. I wondered if any of them would have the guts to go up. They didn't.'

Alec. He was talking about Alec! Shaking her head in wonder, she continued.

'Imagine my surprise when, a couple of hours later, there was that same kid. I asked him if he wouldn't prefer spending his money on cotton candy, but he said he'd rather have another ride. So, we went up. This kid had been there since nearly dawn, when the fair opened. And every time he'd get off, he'd get back in line for another ride. By the end of the day, the line finally dwindled down to just a few last hearty souls when that same kid showed up again. I asked him if his family was rich, or something, and he said he'd gotten five shillings for his birthday and wanted one last ride to remember it by. Man, that was tight. I told him to wait and hurried through the last few customers. It was getting pretty late, by then, but I got him strapped in and took him up. I remember telling him that any kid willing to spend his last cent on airplane rides needed to learn how to fly for himself. I told him to put his hand on the stick and pull back, slowly. I let go, but was ready to take over at any second. He pulled us up just right, like he knew what he was doing. I kept us steady with my feet on the pedals and we did a perfect loop. He started yelling and we did it a couple more times. Finally, it was nearly dark, and we had to get back down on the ground. I lifted him out of the front cockpit and he solemnly presented me with his last shilling. I didn't want to take it, but when I saw the look on his face and the way the setting sun reflected the joy in his eyes, I took it and thanked him. He thanked me back, and then ran off to his waiting family, who'd seemed to have forgotten him until it got so dark. As they walked away, he turned back and waved to me, and even in the dark, I could see his smile. He reminded me of why I'd wanted to fly in the first place.'

There were tears running down her face as she put the book down. Opening to the back flyleaf, she read about the author. Ross Rawlings. Her breath caught as she realized that when the book had been published, he was still alive, elderly, but alive. She wondered what Alec would do if, somehow, they were to meet again? With her lower lip between her teeth, she headed for the phone to ask the Strakers what they thought.

She got Louise when she called their home. She explained why she was calling and listened to the long silence as the psychiatrist thought about it. Finally, she heard her sigh.

"I wish I could be sure. What was his name again?"

"Ross Rawlings."

"Let me find out what I can. It'd be nice if he's still around and still flying, but the odds are pretty slim. He's what, ninety, now?"


"Still.... Well, we'll just have to wait and see. I suppose you'll be reading it through, tonight?"

"Well, as far as I'm able, yes."

Louise chuckled. "Sounds like a page-turner. I'd like to read it when you're finished, and Ed probably will, as well."

"I'll give it to you as soon as I finish." They chatted a bit longer and then disconnected, with nothing settled.

She read through the night, unable to put the book down. There was only one further reference to Alec, mentioned during his time in the Japanese POW camp. She barely had time for a shower and to get dressed before Alec arrived to take her to work. He noticed how tired she was, and asked her if there was anything wrong.

"No, laddie. Just got involved in a good book, is all."

"Ah." He let it drop. The only reading he was still doing was catching up on all the scripts that had accumulated during his convalescence.

"You look tired, Rachel. Is everything all right?"

Obviously, she must look at least as tired as she felt. "It's fine, Commander. I finished that book I told Louise about." She handed him the hardback, which he took with interest.

"Yes, she mentioned something about it, last night. Are you sure he's actually talking about Alec?"

Rachel nodded. "He was barnstorming in Australia. He took up a little boy whose much older brothers had dared him to go up, calling him yellow. It's almost exactly how Alec remembers it."

Ed shook his head. "And here I thought I knew him." He lifted just his eyes to hers. "I suppose he didn't think it was important, like it wasn't important to tell me he'd been married and had children, or that he's been collecting antique planes since they were simply 'used'."

She defended her man. "Or like you didn't mention your lady in Viet Nam?"

His lips narrowed for a moment, and then he smiled and shook his head. "Touche. Good point."

She shrugged. "It didn't occur to him that it would ever be important; just as you never thought Phu would be. It was all in the past, carefully filed away, never to be spoken of again."

Ed nodded. "True." He glanced up and noticed Alec approaching. "I'll be sure to give it to Louise."

"Thanks." She turned to Alec and smiled in welcome. "Hello, laddie."

Alec's smile seemed relieved. "Hello, lass." He glanced up at a smirking Straker. "Thought we might just try getting out of here on time, for a change." He focused on the commander, "All's quiet, for the moment."

"Good to hear. Go on, the both of you. I'll see you in the morning, barring any major emergencies."

"Right, then. Thanks, Ed. Rachel?"

"Ready when you are, laddie." She took his offered arm and the pair headed out. Ed grinned, thinking how their nicknames for one another were usually used on children, rather than late-middle-aged people. It bespoke their attitudes, perfectly, that somehow, they'd retained a child-like outlook. He envied them that.

Louise read the book and then insisted her husband read it as well. Afterwards, they discussed the possibilities and decided to wait until Alec had regained his wings before pursuing anything. Of course, that didn't preclude an investigation tracking Rawlings down, nor probing for information. When they discovered that Alec had given the go-ahead for the script, they decided that as a pilot himself, Alec should be the one to direct it. He'd gladly jumped at the chance and they began the process of putting together a team and hiring the actors. Alec gladly left that part to the experts, focusing more on belowground until it was time to actually start filming.

It was another month before Schroeder felt Alec was healthy enough to challenge the physical and the board to regain his pilot's license. He was healthier than he'd been in years, had lost weight and gained in strength and mobility, although his arthritis hadn't eased up any. It shouldn't be enough to stop him, however.

He was as nervous as a kid going for his driver's license for the first time. He couldn't remember ever being this worried about a simple physical. The board's medical officer was, not surprisingly, extremely stringent in his examination. The blood work alone left him aching and wondering if he was going to live. The physical continued and when they ran the stress test, it seemed to go on forever. Finally, the doctor scowled and moved him to a different machine, with much the same results. Taking a cuff blood pressure reading, he finally shook his head and told him to get dressed. Alec watched with trepidation as the doctor walked away shaking his head. His heart plummeted and he was absolutely certain he had no chance to ever fly again. As the doctor made notations in his file, he looked up at Alec.

"You know, I've been running these tests for twenty years, and I have to tell you, that I've never had anyone do as well as you have." He shook his head, marveling. "If they don't give you your license back, I'd sue them." He smiled and stuck out his hand. Alec, jaw slack and speechless, accepted it.

"Thanks. So, what do I do, now?"

"Well, normally, it takes a few weeks to dot all the 'i's and cross all the 't's, but in this case... come along. Let's see if we can't push this through now, shall we?"

Alec was trembling with excitement. The sooner, the better, he thought. He was suffering withdrawals from flight, despite the fact he'd not been up in one of his planes in over a year. It was all he could do not to push the doctor down the hallway.

Louise stared at the kittens, which stared right back at her. They'd proven to be intelligent creatures, but the veterinarian she'd found in London had informed her that they were Iberian Lynx, and highly endangered. Ed wasn't going to like it, but somehow, they needed to teach the kittens to hunt for themselves so that they could be returned to the wild, or else give them over to a zoo to be bred. She sighed as she stroked Hearth Cat's stomach. He wasn't going to like either being forced to hunt or kept in any kind of a cage. Too bad they were wild creatures, although, all three of them just seemed like relatively ordinary cats, to her. Hearth Cat wrapped all four legs around her arm, and began 'cleaning' her hand. Ed would really miss this one, his favorite of the three.

"What's got you so down, love?" Ed was dressed and ready for work, his turtleneck smoothly covering his lean body as he quickly brushed his hair.

"The vet said they're endangered. Iberian Lynx. We need to either teach them to hunt so they can be returned to the wild, or turn them over to a zoo so they can breed more of them."

He froze. Scowling, he took a look at the kittens. "But they don't deserve to be either put in danger out in the wild, nor locked up in a cage to be turned into breeding machines."

"There's one other possibility."


"They could be cross-breeds, but we'd have to take them to the zoo to find out, and if they aren't, they'll be confiscated."

"But if they are?"

"We bring them home."

His mouth formed a tight line of disapproval. "Make the call."

He stepped outside and stopped, taking in an enormous, deep, shaking breath. He'd insisted on coming alone, and now wished he hadn't. The board had been less than amenable, even after their own doctor challenged them. He shook his head. Too old, indeed. He'd showed them too old. He grinned and sauntered to the car park to get his car, whistling softly as he went.

"Well?" Rachel was waiting for him when he got back to the studio. He frowned at her.

"Well, what?"

She sighed in exasperation. "What did they say?"

He sighed and sadly shook his head. "The board thought I was too old."


He shrugged, not looking at her.

"Alec, stop teasing her. I just got a call from Henderson, by the way." Ed and Louise Straker had come up behind him. Ed was smiling, softly, while Louise was watching him with a look that reminded him of Jackson, and he shivered.

"All right, fine. Steal all my fun." He reached into his inside jacket pocket and took out a piece of paper, declaring him fit for duty and that his flying privileges had been restored. "Of course, I have to have a physical every six months, but as long as I stay healthy, I'll keep my wings." He grinned broadly and grunted slightly when Rachel threw herself into his arms.

"Since you're now fully fit for duty, Colonel, I've an assignment for you." There was no ignoring 'the commander' when he used that tone of voice.

"Yes, sir?"

Ed glared, narrow-eyed at his friend and supposed subordinate. "Your instructions are to go out to that hangar of yours and take something flying. Do you get me, mister?"

Alec tipped his head back and roared with laughter. "Sir, yes, SIR!" He hugged Rachel and then released her to turn to his friends. "Why don't the two of you play hooky and go with us? I've got something I think you might like to play with...It's a Gloster Meteor...little twin-engined fighter jet....How about it, hmmm?"

Ed sighed and shook his head. "Sounds wonderful, but I'm not checked out on it. Maybe one of these days, you can show them off to me."

"Come on, Ed. At least come and look. I've got a couple that can carry all of us." He turned wheedling and glanced at Louise, who had begun to smile. "Please? I want to celebrate, and I can't think of anything I'd like more than to do it in the air."

He shook his head to decline, but was countermanded by his wife's voice. "I'd love to see your airplanes. We can take two cars, because I'm pretty sure I won't want to be freezing my tail off up in the wild blue yonder as long as you and Rachel will."

Ed didn't dare countermand his wife, particularly when he really did want to see Alec's planes, so he called his secretary and told her not to call him for anything less than an emergency, and followed Alec's car to the airfield.

When the hangar doors were opened and the lights turned on, Alec looked like a child in school hoping his science project meets with the teacher's approval, watching nervously as his guests entered and gawked at the contents.

"What are they all?" Louise asked, amazed at the sheer number of planes.

"Well, they're all different. I suppose I can give you a tour?"

Ed, standing behind his friend, shook his head minutely at his wife, who caught the hint and shook her head. "No need. I'm afraid it wouldn't mean very much to me. Besides, you need to decide which one you're going to give us a ride in. Preferably something enclosed?"

Alec grinned. "The Messenger is probably our best bet. You can co-pilot for me, Ed, and the ladies can sit in the back." He frowned a moment. "Unless one of you would like to co-pilot?"

"No," Rachel immediately replied. "He knows at least something about what to do, so you two fly, and we'll sit in the back and look out the windows."

Ed grinned his thanks and helped Alec maneuver the plane outside. While the ladies stood by, watching, he hung at Alec's shoulder, avidly 'helping' him preflight the plane, putting gas in the tank and checking to make sure everything was as it should be.

Finally, everything was ready. The ladies were in the rear seats, watching (Rachel avidly and Louise anxiously) as their men powered the plane up and Alec notified the tower for permission to take off, explaining that he was just going up for a 'tour' with some friends, and didn't have an actual flight plan, but that they'd be back within an hour or so. Receiving permission, they taxied to the head of the runway, where Alec glanced back to the ladies and grinned. Turning to Ed, his grin broadened.

"You ready, Commander?"

Ed's bright eyes and broad, excited grin, coupled with his nod was all he was waiting for. Powering up, he released the brakes, built up speed as they raced down the runway, and shortly were up and looking down over the countryside.

Louise held her breath and had her eyes tightly closed. She'd never been in anything smaller than a 727 commuter jet, which was a far cry indeed from this tiny, single-engine propeller driven plane. When it smoothed out and she could feel the pressure against her back as they climbed, she tentatively opened her eyes to find Rachel looking at her in concern. When the older woman's hand grasped hers, she grabbed hold like a drowning man clutching a lifeline. It was almost too loud to carry on a conversation.

"Are you all right?"

"I'm fine."

"You don't look fine."

"I'm fine. Just scared to death, is all."

Rachel laughed and shook her head. "It's all right. Listen to that engine purr, will you? Look out at the countryside, isn't it glorious?"

"Uhh, that's all right. I'd rather not see just how far away the ground is."

Rachel looked worried and leaned closer. "Why didn't you say you were afraid to fly?"

"I'm not, usually. But this is so, so little!"

"Relax." She gestured to the two men in the cockpit. "Look at them. They know what they're doing. Do they look worried?"

Louise made herself look, just in time to see Alec grin at her husband and lean back, away from the controls. Her heart thumped once, extra-hard, and then started pounding rapidly as she saw her husband's delighted expression as he was allowed to take over flying the plane. She closed her eyes and swallowed hard. "No, they look like two little boys at the carnival."

The plane bobbled a moment as Ed got the feel of the controls, but then smoothed out again. They made a gradual turn so they could fly over the studio, Alec shouting back to them to look. It took all her courage, but Louise looked, and her mouth fell open as she saw the beauty of the countryside below them, the greens of fields, the browns and grays, and the way the sun glinted off the windows of buildings. Her grip released Rachel's hand and she leaned closer to the window to see better.

"It's beautiful."

Ed's heart pounded with excitement. He'd never flown anything like this, before. Sure, the controls were about the same, but still. This was real flying. The genuine article. And this lovely little lady took only the lightest touch to control.

"How fast can she go?"

"Just a bit over a hundred," Alec replied, using the headphones they both wore to communicate with each other and the tower. "Not the fastest, but she's got class."

Ed nodded and glanced to his left, grinning. "She's a sweet little thing."

Alec nodded excitedly. "She is, that." Then he pointed off to Ed's right and he aimed the plane in that direction. Alec called back to their ladies to look down. They were over the studio, now, heading towards London. After they were over the outskirts, Alec made circles in the air to indicate they needed to turn around. After all, they didn't need to encroach on anyone's airspace they didn't belong in. Ed guided the plane in a wide, sweeping turn back towards the airfield.

He glanced over at Alec, who had an unusually pensive expression on his face. "What is it, Alec?" He caught the nervous look his friend darted his way, before he glanced behind him at their passengers. He smiled as he heard Alec roughly clear his throat before speaking.

"Um, after we're done here, I thought I'd take Rachel up in one of the bi-planes. She, uh, well, she said she really liked them."

"Good idea." He kept most of he attention on his flying, but could feel his friend practically squirming in the other seat.

"I, uh, I thought I'd ask her, to, you know. Marry me, while we were up. D'you think that'd be all right?"

Ed managed to hide his smile behind his hand. Louise had speculated on Alec's 'intentions', but there'd been no clue as to this. "That depends."


Ed wanted to laugh at the anxious tone in Alec's voice. "Whether you love her or not."

Alec sagged in his seat and stared at him, slack-jawed. "Love her? God in heaven, Ed, she understands. Do you know what that means? She understands!"

Ed sobered at that admission and looked at his friend, the plane, the blue sky around them, and nodded. That was something very special, indeed. "Then I think you'd be an idiot not to ask her." And to himself, thought that she'd be an even bigger fool to say no.

He saw Alec's relief at his advice and smiled again. He guided the plane into the proper flight path to return to the airfield, and regretfully returned control to his friend, who knew the plane far better than he when it came to touching her back on the ground.

Once they were safely back next to the hangar, Ed released his harness and grinned back towards the ladies, and suddenly realized that his wife was definitely not feeling well. He scrambled from his seat back to her. "Louise? Love? What's wrong?"

Rachel released first her own seatbelt, and then Louise's. "I'm afraid she got a little airsick. She's fine, though." Then she leaned close and whispered, "She'd never been in a small plane, before. Scared the living daylights right out of her."

Alec, too concerned with his own, personal worries to realize all was not skittles and beer, came back and helped the ladies out the door. Seeing the greenish tinge on Louise's face, he looked contrite. "I'm sorry, you should have said something, Louise."

"Alec, I did it to myself. Rachel warned me not to look at the wingtip when we circled around to come back, so what did I do? I looked at the wingtip. I'll be fine as soon as everything stops moving." She smiled and patted his hand. Rachel came and slipped an arm around her shoulders.

"You lads go ahead and put the bird back in her nest, laddie. I'll take care of this."

Alec stood uncertainly for a moment, and then sighed and nodded. Maybe next time.

"Rachel," Ed called to her before Alec could do more than look glum, "Alec said he wanted you to pick out which plane you want to go up in, next. There's still three or so hours of daylight, left."

Rachel's face lit up and she turned hopeful eyes to Alec. "Any of them, laddie?" she asked softly.

With a look of gratitude to his friend, he turned to grin at her. "Whichever one you'd like."

"Which was the one that set the record for loops?"

His grin nearly split his face. "The Morane Saulnier A-1"

"I want to go up in that one, then."

Ed shook his head. She must have it bad. Loops? Pass the sick-kit and get out of the way. He noticed that his wife had recovered quickly, now that they were safely back on the ground, so he helped Alec push the Messenger back into its place. "Look, let's get the A-1 out of here, and I'll drain the fuel from this one while you head up, all right?"

"You sure?" Alec frowned. Sure, it would save him time he'd dearly like, but it didn't seem quite fair.

"Go on. You've got a lady waiting. And Alec?"


"Don't give up, no matter what happens, all right? Remember, she just might be as afraid as you are." He patted his friend on the shoulder and helped him wrestle the elderly French plane out of the hangar. Then he helped fuel the bird and watched anxiously as Alec ran through his pre-flight checks. He gave him a subtle 'thumbs-up' when he helped Rachel into the front seat, and then stood in front of the plane.


"Contact!" With both hands on one blade of the propeller, Ed gave a mighty pull and jumped back. The engine sparked and then choked and sputtered a moment and finally caught fully, the propeller spinning madly and happily. Ed moved over and slipped an arm around his wife as they watched the antique plane taxi to the top of the runway, rev up and then hurtle down the tarmac and lift off into the air.

"Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, love. It never occurred to me that flying in a small plane should frighten me, but then, the noise, the vibration, the seeming speed all got to me and I panicked." She leaned her head on his shoulder, sighing. "I'm glad that no one but Rachel noticed. I'd have hated to spoil your fun."

He kissed her forehead. "Thank you, love. You don't have to do it again."

"Actually, once I got over myself, it was fun...until I did the stupid 'don't look at the wingtip' thing. I should re-read that study that explains why we do that...concentrate so hard on what not to do, but we always do it."

They watched as the plane rose higher and higher, and then turned back on itself in a graceful loop. Then it repeated the action, one perfect loop after another, until it was practically overhead, again. The plane was less than a thousand feet off the ground, and the sound of Rachel's joyous scream was audible, followed by Alec's baritone roar. Louise shook her head.

"If I didn't know better, I'd think they were making love up there."

Ed grinned. "Maybe they are." Seeing her disbelieving expression, he explained. "I rather hope they stay close enough to...ah, there." Rachel was shrieking. He looked up and smiled. "I think that's a 'yes'."

Louise frowned in confusion. "Yes?"

Ed nodded. "He said he wanted to ask her to marry him up there. Today. I think that was a definite yes." He looked down at his beloved, "Don't you?"

She grinned. "I certainly hope so!"

Ed hugged her and then turned towards the hangar. "Give me a hand? I promised to de-fuel the Messenger."

"I'd love to. Shall we wait for them to come back?"

He looked up to see the little plane doing rapid barrel rolls over the trees. "No. They'll let us know in the morning, I should think."

Yes. She'd said yes! He took the plane into a series of barrel rolls, laughing joyously. Yes. She'd said yes! He could hear her giddy laughter through the headphones and he chortled with glee, coming out of his barrel-roll inverted. They came about and he buzzed the tower, laughing like a madman as he spotted the Strakers gawking up at them as they were getting ready to leave. He waggled his wings in a salute to them, and then flipped back over.

Ed saw the signal and chuckled. "She definitely said yes."

"How can you tell?"

"He just said so."

Louise frowned, looking up at the plane, now buzzing up and into another loop. "He did?"

"Yes. The waggle."

"Waggle?" she asked uncertainly.

"Yes. He waggled his wings. It means she said yes."

"You're sure?"

Drawing away from her, he stood almost at attention. "Trust me, you only waggle your wings when you're happy, never if someone's just broken your heart."

She stared at him and saw the mischievous gleam in his eyes. "Ooookay. I'll take your word for it, love. Now, let's go see about the kittens, shall we?"

His ebullient mood dissipated immediately and he sighed. "All right. If we must."

"Good morning, Miss Ealand. Isn't it just the most beautiful day you've ever seen?" Alec was grinning and there was a spring in his step that had been missing for a very long time. Miss Ealand looked out the window and back to him, her skepticism obvious.

"It's pouring down rain, with unseasonable cold, sleet and possibly snow later, and it's March, Mr. Freeman. Are you sure you're feeling quite yourself this morning?"

"Dear lady, I can't remember ever feeling better in my life." He withdrew his hand from where it had been hidden behind his back and presented her with a perfect scarlet rose. "You have just the loveliest day, now, won't you?" He took her hand into which he'd gently pressed the rose and brought it to his lips to kiss. Then, with a jaunty wave, he disappeared into Straker's office to take the elevator down below, leaving a totally confused secretary behind.

"All heaven drew nigh to hear her sing, When from her lips her soul took wing; The oaks forgot their pondering, The pines their reverie," he began as soon as he'd lifted up the lid to the cigarette box Ed still kept on his desk, although it was empty, now.

"Voice print identification positive. Freeman, Alec E."

He flipped the box closed as he spun about and sat against the edge of the desk as the room began its eighty-foot journey down. He simply couldn't stop grinning.

Softly whistling a merry tune as he entered Control, he noticed Keith Ford sitting at his console, tilted back and the palms of his hands pressing with great force into his eyes. He paused behind the night crew chief and placed a hand on his shoulder.

"Something wrong, Keith?"

Keith no longer startled when someone touched him. He tilted his head further back to see Alec. "Long night. They were onesie-twosieing us all night long. Wouldn't have been so bad if they'd been regular about it, but no, twenty minutes, then forty-five, then ten, then fifteen, then thirty-seven. No rhyme or reason, just one at a time."

"Oh? Where from?"

"That was the worst of it, never the same quadrant twice. At least we got them all." He grinned. "The one that did make it through to the ground found Sydney waiting for them before they could find a good hidey-hole." He grinned tiredly, but snapped to attention as the speakers crackled and the voice of SID announced another ufoe on approach. Alec stepped back and watched as interceptors were launched and the invader destroyed.

When the morning shift arrived, Alec watched the weary nightshift crew brief them on the current goings on. They were lucky that no new attack came, allowing the changeover of personnel to smoothly transition. He watched as Ford watched the new shift for a few minutes before gathering up his shift's paperwork to make his report.

"Keith, how are things going between you and Mrs. Dickens?"

Keith grinned. "Great, thanks. Which reminds me, I've a 142869-A to file."

Alec grinned. "Oh? She said 'yes', then? Congratulations, man. I wish you every happiness."

Keith looked knowingly up at the older man and shifted back and cocked his head at him, giving him a critical look. "You're sounding rather chipper for a bloke who's been in a black mood since New Year's." It was the closest anyone ever came to actually mentioning what had happened at Straker's wedding, at least within hearing of Colonel Freeman.

"Chipper? Can't understand why, except that maybe they gave me back my wings, yesterday." He was grinning like a fool.

Keith's surprise showed. "Good for you! Congratulations, yourself, Colonel." Then he looked at the older man a bit critically. "What else happened, if I may ask?"

"Else? What else need happen?" He simply couldn't stop grinning.

Keith shook his head. "I don't know, but you're acting as happy as I've been feel.... Wait, you and Ms Post?" Seeing Alec's grin broaden impossibly further, he laughed in glee. "Congratulations yourself, sir! That's wonderful! Have you set the date, yet?"

Alec laughed right along with the younger man. "No. I need to fill out a 142869-A, first."

"I've got extras, hold on." Keith rummaged in his desk and came up with the forms. "Here you go. Just fill in the blanks and sign it and send it on through channels, which in our cases is Dr. Straker."

"Thanks. How's it going with the boy, Tom?"

Keith grinned. "Great. Got the papers giving me custody of him, last week. After Claudia and I tie the knot, we're going to try to adopt him."

"That's great, Keith. You're a lucky man."

"I am, at that." He looked at the stack of papers on his desk and sighed. "Meanwhile, I've got these reports to get done. Thankfully, marriage seems to suit the commander, as he's no longer staying round the clock, and even comes in at a civilized hour."

Alec chuckled. "If she's ever given you a massage, you'd understand his reluctance to get very far from her."

Keith giggled, nervously, looking past Freeman's shoulder to the commander, who'd just come in and had heard the last remark. Arms folded across his chest and with a narrow glare, he leaned in the doorway to listen.

"He deserves it, though, Keith," Alec continued, oblivious to the newest members of his audience, as Louise was now visible beside her husband, arms wrapped around him and her chin resting on his shoulder as he slouched in the doorway and she stretched a bit to see.

"She's given him back something he never realized he'd been missing. He's a happy man, and I'm glad for him. Now, thanks to some remarkable circumstances, I've got a chance of my own, like that. And so have you! Don't mess it up, Keith."

"I'll do my best, Colonel." He noticed that Straker's grim expression had gone, to be replaced by a pleased smile. He let his breath out in a silent sigh of relief.

"Well, I'll let you get to your reports. Wouldn't want the commander to have to come looking now, would we?"

"Too late, Colonel. He's already here." Straker grinned in amusement as Alec jumped and then turned to glare at him.

"Bloody hell, Ed. Don't do that."

Straker chuckled. "Couldn't help it. So, is that a form 142869-A I see?"

"Oh, yes, sir." Ford grinned in embarrassment as he passed his filled out form to the commander. Ed looked surprised for a moment.

"Congratulations, Keith," Louise said, taking the form from her husband. "Lend me a pen, someone." Keith, whose office space they were in, passed her a pen from his desk. Louise signed in the recommended box, with a quick note of approval and then handed it to her husband, who looked at her blankly until she waved the pen in his face. "Signature, Commander? Here, in the box labeled 'approved'. Ed smiled at her and signed where indicated without bothering to read it. He handed the pen back to Keith.

"Congratulations, Keith. I hope you have a long and happy life together with your lady."

"Thank you, sir." Keith grinned, blushing.

Ed turned to his second in command. "As for you, are you going to fill that form out, or wait for an act of God?"

Alec grinned. "Pass me that pen, Keith and I'll fill out the bloody form one-four-two-eight-six-nine-dash-alpha, right here and now."

"Yes, sir!" Keith handed him the pen. Grinning, still, Alec bent over the form and scribbled in the blanks and then signed it with a flourish, after which, he passed form and pen to Dr. Straker, who glanced at it, and shook her head.

"Alec, you're writing looks worse than mine!" Grinning, she signed off on it and handed form and pen to her husband, who frowned down at the document.

"What if I disapprove this?" Ed was looking down and no one saw the smirk on his face. There was a sudden cessation of all sound and movement. Ed raised his eyes to his friend and suddenly looked concerned. "Alec?" Alarmed, now, he reached out to grasp his friend's arm. "Alec? I was joking!"

*'Disapproved.' ' You don't deserve to be happy. You didn't really think it was possible, did you? You? You're worthless.' 'Don't like sheep, don't like your own country.' 'You'd rather be flying aeroplanes.' The myriad voices flooded his consciousness, from his parents, his brothers, his Air Force commanding officers, his ex-wife, and most of all, himself. He'd never been quite what anyone had wanted him to be. Not even himself. Finally, he'd found someone who understood, who could love him and deep down inside him, he didn't believe it was possible for him to ever be permitted happiness; at least not anything lasting.*

He looked decidedly gray, and Louise scowled at her husband as she took Alec by the shoulder and gently shook him. He blinked and focused on her face and all she could see was the blackness he'd fought so long opening up behind his eyes.

*'You can't be allowed this.' 'You aren't worthy of happiness for more than an instant.' 'Worthless. Worthless. Worthless.' He wasn't going to be allowed.... *

"Ed, your sense of humor is, as I've always heard tell, abysmal." She shook Alec a bit harder. "He was joking." Without turning her attention from the stricken colonel, she snarled, "Sign the damned thing, Ed."

"Alec," Ed hurriedly interjected, "I was kidding. Of course I'll sign the bloody thing. You don't think after all we've been through the last few months that I'd ever seriously consider otherwise, do you?"

Alec watched, wide-eyed as the commander scribbled his signature, nearly tearing the paper in the process, when it was thrust forward for him to see the 'approved by' box with the signature in it, he slowly blinked and finally began to breathe again. "You can be a cruel, heartless bastard," he whispered harshly. *'Approved.'* He began to breathe more normally, again. He shuddered. So close. He closed his eyes and took deep breaths to recover his equilibrium. "Sorry, Ed. You shocked me."

"I'm sorry. It was a joke," Ed offered lamely, looking stricken.

Alec took another deep breath and shook his head. He was still trembling. He calmly looked at his oldest friend, who was now obviously as upset as he, himself was. "I'd have quit, if you'd meant it, Ed. I'd have taken the amnesia treatment in a heartbeat."

"You don't have to, Alec. I'm sorry. I should have known better than to do that. Please forgive me."

Clutching the signed form, as though afraid it might be snatched away from him, Alec nodded. Looking again at the form, he began to smile. "She said 'yes'." He shivered and the smile turned into a grin. "She said *'yes'*." And his commander had given his approval. "And you do have a lousy sense of humor, or at least horrible timing."

"I'm truly happy for you, Alec. Please believe me." He motioned his friend to follow he and his wife as they left Ford to his reports and made their way to Ed's office. Once safely ensconced in that private area, he offered coffee and motioned for Louise and Alec to sit down.

Alec nodded and took a deep breath and let it out in a gusty sigh, letting it go. He tried a tentative smile. "We thought we'd wait until late August to get married. Combine a trip back home to check on things with a church wedding, there. Then, we'd like to go to Reno for our honeymoon." He grinned. "For the air races. Maybe see about taking the Beaufighter."

Ed frowned. "Can she make it that far?"

Alec shrugged. "Have to work it so we don't run out of fuel, is all. Don't know if it's doable, really. Maybe get additional fuel tanks."

Ed, still feeling guilty, frowned thoughtfully. "How big is it, and what's its range?"

"She's nearly sixty feet wide, and just over forty-one feet long. She won't fit in a cargo plane with her wings attached." He sighed.

Ed frowned. "How'd you get her here?"

"Shipped her as my PCS allowance." He grinned. "I could get her to Reno, I'm sure, but not back to Australia." He shook his head, his earlier distress apparently gone. "No matter. Fly from here in stages to LA, then a commercial flight to Sydney, stay a week or so, and then fly back to LA, up to Reno and then home."

Ed frowned further. "It'll take you a week to fly from here to LA, then a second week in Australia; another week or two in Reno, followed by yet another week to get back here?" He'd never survive a month or more with him gone. It had been bad enough when Alec had been injured. He'd at least been available to talk, but a month without his friend's calming influence? SHADO might not survive.

Alec sighed. "Yeah. I was afraid of that. Ah, well. It was a nice thought, though."

Louise looked at her husband, one eyebrow raised in question. Ed scowled. "What if you fly from here to Sydney and then to LA via commercial flights, and I arrange to have your plane ready and waiting for you when you get back to LA, you go to Reno as planned, and then fly her back here?" He thought he could manage three weeks off.

"How would you get her there?"

Ed shrugged. "Either find someone to fly her over," he could see that idea didn't set at all well with Alec, "Or take her wings off, crate her, and send her in a C-5."

Alec winced at the notion, but then nodded. "Yeah, that would work. Rather expensive, though. I'm not as flush as I used to be, what with various and sundry things."

Louise could tell he was about to put the kibosh on the entire idea. "Consider it a wedding gift from Ed and me." She caught Ed's beaming smile and nod.

"Excellent idea. Besides, you need to get into practice for that film you're doing."

Alec chuckled. "I would love to practice, more, but it's not vital, although, maybe I should hire out my plane and pilot services for the film. He did, after all, fly a Beaufighter."

Louise decided to put out feelers. "I understand the man who wrote the book lives in Reno, now. At least, near there. Place called Yerington?"

"Oh? April said she'd gotten the man's book. I think she let Rachel read it."

"We read it, as well. It's an excellent tale. I can see why the scriptwriter wanted to make it into a film. Perhaps we could hire the man to act as advisor on it?" Ed caught his wife's nod of encouragement. Perhaps the two men would meet and discover their shared history.

Alec grinned, "Then you could pass off the shipping of the Beaufighter as a business expense."

Ed chuckled. "That could very well work to our advantage." He felt like kicking himself as he noticed how Alec was still clutching his approved form 142869-A. He realized that he'd had no idea that his normally brash friend could be so insecure, but then remembered that he'd never seen the man in love, before. And that made him feel even worse. Trying to think of a way to make it up to him, he suggested, "While you're in Sydney, you could turn it into a business trip, just as the trip to Reno could be."

Alec frowned. "How?" he asked cautiously, clutching his form a bit more tightly.


Alec thought about it and shook his head. "I suppose. By the time we go, Blake and Shaughnessy'll have been in place for six months...yeah. That would be about right." He nodded. "Might work, at that. You'll read it in Ford's report, but during the night only one ufoe got to the surface and was nailed by Sydney ground forces."

"Excellent." Accepting the change in subject, they discussed SHADO business, while Louise slipped away, unnoticed.

"I understand that best wishes are in order, Rachel."

She looked up from the Hollywood Reporter and grinned. "Word's out already?"

"Caught Alec with a form 142869-A." She shook her head a bit ruefully. "Ed put his foot in his mouth and nearly bit it off at the hip."

Rachel's smile vanished and she looked worried. "Oh?"

"Asked Alec what he'd do if Ed said 'no'. It was definitely not pretty." Louise regarded Rachel in her role as SHADO Psychiatrist. "Nothing in his file indicates him being the least insecure, but the look on his face when Ed jokingly asked him what if he disapproved...." She shook her head. "He said he'd gladly have drunk the amnesia drug, rather than give you up."

Rachel's worry increased. "But if he did that, he'd forget me, too," she whispered in dismay.

"Don't worry, Ed realized his mistake almost immediately and signed it. Alec's been clutching it ever since, I think. I'm sure he'll put it in a nice, secure place, after making enough copies to drown in. I left them talking business." She noticed Rachel relax a bit. "He was talking about late August for your wedding?"

She grinned. "He wants to go to Reno, Nevada for the air races. I've got to admit that it sounds wonderful. He's never been, but said he's always wanted to go."

"We're going to send his Beaufighter to LA for you. The wings will have to be removed and the whole thing crated, but Ed thought it could be a good idea. And, it'll be a good way to make it a means of introduction."


"Ross Rawlings lives near Reno."

Rachel's mouth opened in shock. "You're joking."

Louise smiled and shook her head. "Place called Yerington. It's about an hour's drive from Reno. We thought Alec should talk to him and see if he'd like to be our advisor on the film."

"He's got no idea that he's the man who took him up. Oh, Louise, that would be so wonderful!" She shivered in anticipation. She then looked thoughtful. "You know, we could use that for publicity. Particularly if we surprise them both with the information." She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. After a moment, she smiled. "Let us ask him and if he agrees to advise, we can do an interview between him and Alec. As long as Alec doesn't read the book, we should be all right. Get them both to reminiscing.... I like it."

Louise shook her head. "You're definitely in the right job, Rache. You've certainly got a talent for it."

Rachel grinned. "You're not half as impressed as I am. I seem to be able to get along very well with the media."

"You also have a knack for presenting the facts in a simple, straightforward way that leaves them little room for embellishment or misinformation." Louise thought of the way the biography on Alec had turned public opinion around from 'poor, pitiful, crippled perpetrator' to the victim and his need and desire to continue living as he always had.

"Thanks. I just tell them the truth, is all." She blushed, slightly. "Within reason, of course."

Louise giggled. "Of course." She thought for a moment and finally asked, "So, are the two of you consolidating your living arrangements, now?"

Rachel flushed. "We discussed it, but although we may find a bigger place, somewhere, we're going to wait." Her cheeks turned very pink in embarrassment. "He, uh, said it was only proper."

Louise nodded. Her opinion of Alec Freeman had just gone up several points. On the one hand, she found it very romantic, but on the other, somewhat frightening. She decided she'd need to talk to him as a psychiatrist... and a friend.

"Well, best of everything to you both. I've got to see if I can get through the list of personnel. I decided to move the annual psych evals to where I'm doing them all year round, instead of trying to squeeze everyone into just one month. I've got to meet the folks rotating in from MoonBase. I'll see you later."

"All right. Thanks." The women smiled at one another and then Louise left.

As soon as the door closed behind Louise, Rachel looked down at her left hand, which was adorned with a simple solitaire diamond in twenty-four karat gold. She shivered and hugged herself, remembering the previous evening.

Several weeks passed as everything progressed in a normal fashion, sometimes good, sometimes bad. Keith Ford's wedding was well attended by studio personnel, mostly from belowground. When Claudia tossed the bouquet, it seemed to fly right towards Rachel's head and when she tried to duck and put up a hand to deflect it, it snagged on her fingers and she caught it, much to the Strakers', and Alec's, delight.

The aliens seemed to come in waves. Days of heavy action followed by weeks of quiet. If the quiet was meant to make them complacent, it didn't work. The quiet times were spent upgrading systems and on training. Paul Foster's film was finally shot and sent to editing, where the special effects people enhanced it to the point of near perfection. It opened to heavy panning from the critics, and loud acclamation by the fans. Another Harlington-Straker moneymaker, much to the annoyance of the funding people, who didn't know what to do with a military organization that made, rather than lost, money.

Midsummer came with the announcement that the Fords were expecting. There was a great deal of teasing, asking where they found the time, what with Keith working nights and Claudia working days, until it was pointed out that they shared the same days off. At which time the teasing turned to chuckles of amusement and comments on how they obviously spent their weekends.

Keith, blushing scarlet, couldn't stop grinning. "We also do the shopping and major housecleaning on our days off, I'll have you know." But their time together was a precious thing, carefully guarded and protected by their children. Claudia's daughter Maggie couldn't be happier with the news of the baby, just as she was thrilled when the court approved the adoption of Tom. As for Tom, he'd found a happy family to belong to, and was pleased that he'd been the catalyst that had brought them all together.

Not everything was wonderful, however. One morning, Ford stayed over to give his reports to the commander, but instead of simply handing them in, he hesitated.

"What is it, Captain?"

"It's one of my crew, sir. I'd like to transfer them."

Straker looked surprised. "Oh? Why?"

Ford squirmed a bit. "They're causing a morale problem, sir."

"Oh?" He leaned back in his chair, frowning. Lacing his fingers across his stomach, he said, "What's going on? Who is it?"

Ford blushed slightly and looked at the wall over Straker's head, a sure sign of his agitation. "Ms. Sanders, sir. She's apparently made friends with someone on the evening shift. They meet after his shift and before hers. She's, uh, told him about Mr. Duk's relationship to you, sir, and they've apparently concluded that his position is not due to merrit, rather favoritism."

Straker's brow furrowed in annoyance. "What do you want to do?"

"Well, sir, I realize that she and Eddie have been dating, but I'd really like to transfer her back to Sydney. She simply isn't happy here, sir. Perhaps returning to her old position will help."

Straker nodded. He was careful not to show any emotion, but inside, he was fuming. He'd no idea anything like this was going on. "Do as you see fit, Captain."

"Thank you, sir." He turned and started to leave, then hesitated and turned back. "Sir?"

"What now?"

He shuffled his feet for a moment, gathering his thoughts, "Would it be all right if I took responsibility for her transfer, sir? I wouldn't want it to be thought that you were behind it, sir."

Straker almost smiled. "Thank you, Keith. That would be fine."

Keith smiled. The commander didn't often call him by his first name, so when he did, he knew he'd pleased the commander. "Yes, sir. I'll cut the paperwork now and serve it to her tonight, if that's all right?"

"That will be fine, Captain."

Keith turned to leave, only to be brought up short.

"Oh, and Ford? Next time, don't take so long to say anything."

"I won't, sir."

Straker stared at the closed door for several minutes, wondering why Eddie hadn't said anything. Lifting up his phone, he called his wife.


"Hello, Lily. Is Louise in?"

"Sure, Commander, just a moment."

"Wait, I've a question for you, first."

"Yes, sir?"

"Has Eddie mentioned any trouble between him and Becky Sanders?"

There was a moment of silence, during which he could hear her sharp intake of breath. "Well, I know they had a fight, recently."

"How recently?"

"Last week."

"I see. Thank you. Patch me through to Louise, would you?"

"Yes, sir." She did as instructed and then sat there, shaking her head and wondering how much trouble her brother was in.

"Hello, love," Louise smiled as she spoke to her husband.

"Were you aware that Eddie'd fought with Sanders?"

Hearing the edge in his voice, she winced. "No. I imagine that was a private matter between them. Why?"

"She's been disrupting Ford's crew. I gave him permission to handle it as he sees fit."

Louise thought about it for several moments. "That was probably the best thing you could do. I'll see what I can find out and let you know."

His voice softened when he replied. "Thank you, love."

"Don't worry, it will be all right." After a few pleasantries and making plans for lunch, they disconnected. Louise sat for several minutes, her lips pursed in thought. Finally, she went looking, and it didn't take her long to piece it all together.

"This man, Percival, seems to be our troublemaker. He's a Cambridge man, father's an MP, and I'm not sure why he was recruited. Oh, he's got some useful skills as a technician, but nothing remarkable. He dislikes having to, and I quote, 'kowtow to pompous Yankees and low class dolts.'" She wrinkled up her nose in distaste. "Very old-school-tie, sort."

Ed sighed. "I suppose the fact I've a PhD from MIT doesn't count?"

"I imagine that's what he calls pompous." She shook her head. "Becky, somehow, made his acquaintance, and told him about Eddie; so he, naturally, assumed that Eddie's position was assured by his relationship rather than merit."

Ed sighed. "And should anything happen to Percival, he'll scream retribution, no doubt." He shook his head. "He was assigned here as part of a deal with the AC. I wish I could say I could do something, but my hands are tied." He shrugged.

"Nothing is the best thing you can do. Becky's been spreading his vitriol on the night shift, and Keith's obviously had enough. I suspect that when she's given her marching orders, Becky will run to Eddie, expecting him to help her. You'll have to remain steadfast if he does try to keep her here."

Ed smiled grimly. "No problem. SHADO comes first. I think... I hope Eddie understands that."

She hugged him. "I'm sure he does. Remember, he's got brains, not just the fortune of being your son."

Ed chuckled and nodded, taking her into his arms. "For which I'm grateful."

"What do you mean, you're sending me back? We'll just see about that!" Becky Sanders spun on her heel and stomped from Control, every eye turned to watch her tantrum, and Ford's calm reaction.


"Yes, David?"

"Will she be back?"

Keith turned to the concerned expressions on the rest of his crew. "No. I'm sending her back to the motor pool in Sydney."

"Can you do that, sir?" another man asked curiously.

"Yes, as a matter of fact, I can."

There were hesitant nods as the rest of the crew wondered if she'd use her position as Eddie's girlfriend to try and influence the commander.

"But Eddie, I don't want to go back to Sydney!" There was a decided whine in her voice.

"What do you expect me to do about it?" He was almost relieved, in a way. "I'm sorry, but I have no control over who goes where and when. You need to talk to Ford, since he's your supervisor."

"But your dad can make him stop. Ask him to countermand Ford's orders!"

Eddie scowled. "I'd never do that. Keith's a friend and a captain. I've far too much respect for him to even try to do anything like that."

"I don't want to go back. You'd better fix it, or else."

Eddie was taken aback. "Or else what? You'll tell people I got my job due to nepotism? Too late, you've already spread that rumor. That I've got a cush job because of it? You've already spread that one, too." He shook his head. "You're not worth my time, Becky. I thought that there could be something, but I guess there isn't. I don't flaunt my family like your 'friend' does. I'm not rich and I don't come from a fancy family. I'm a half-Vietnamese/half-American who was fortunate enough to find his father and discover that he loves me. As for being his aide and bodyguard. I was given that job out of his need, not mine. If you think that the commander gives anyone anything simply because of who they're related to, you'd better think again."

Becky frowned and shook her head in disbelief. "If you think I'm going to believe that...."

Eddie took a deep, calming breath. "I don't care what you believe; but I'll ask him, just to see what he says." He spun on his heel and made his way to his father's office, half hopeful, half dreading the confrontation to come.

"I'm sorry, it's Ford's call. He's got the authority and I'll back him up." Straker ached for his son, but he couldn't allow it, even if it broke Eddie's heart. He was surprised by his son's rueful grin.

"Thank you, sir. I'll go and tell her."

"Come by the house later. I'd like to talk about it."

Eddie nodded. "Yes, sir." Then he smiled again, this time with warmth. Then he winked and left.

Three days later, at the Commander's Call, Straker stood before the headquarters staff, there was just a skeleton crew manning Control, for the moment, while they went through the quarterly awards, hail and farewell, and other normal business. As he waited for the crowd to settle down, he was glancing through his briefing notes while Alec prepared to call the meeting to order.

His only warning was a flash of movement and then he was violently pushed to the floor while above him, two men fought. As Alec helped him to his feet, he realized that Eddie had subdued a somewhat larger man, and was waiting for security to put handcuffs on the man. Eddie glanced at his father and noticed him favoring his wrist from where he'd extended a hand to break his fall.

"Are you all right, sir?"

"Fine, I'm fine." He was gingerly rubbing his wrist, however. Seeing Eddie and Alec focusing their concerned gazes on his hands, he ceased. "Just a sprain, I'm sure. Who was that?"

"Sorry, sir," Eddie mumbled. "I'm not sure. I think he works the evening shift."

"Percival, Commander. Lord Percival's younger son."

Straker's lips narrowed. "What the devil got into him, do you suppose?" There was no time to discuss it, though, as the audience made their concern known. "We'll figure it out later. Let's get this going. Alec?"

"Right away, Commander." He moved to the podium as Straker resumed his seat, once Eddie had righted his chair.

"Attention!" The colonel bellowed into the microphone, causing everyone to jump to their feet and snap to. They remained standing as Ed rose from his seat, this time vertically and under his own impetus. He approached the podium and stood behind it. His expression was grimly annoyed as he gazed out over the audience.

"You may be seated." The first slide appeared on the screen behind him, showing the agenda for the meeting. They quickly went through the awards, the hail and farewell, and then moved on to the other concerns. When he got to the briefings on their funding and upgrades, there were some pleased murmurs from the audience. When it came time for questions and answers, there was a long silence as various and sundry members tried to get their friends to ask the question they all wanted the answer to. Finally, someone stood up and cleared their throat.

"Chandar," Alec murmured, quietly informing Straker of the identity of the brave soul

"Yes, Mr. Chandar?"

"Uh, I was wondering... well, we were wondering what happened, earlier? Why did Mr. Percival do that?"

Straker, who had nearly forgotten the incident, except for the continued pain in his wrist, scowled. "I don't know, but I'm sure security will find out." Chandar sat down, knowing no more than when he'd stood to ask his question. Straker looked around at the confused expressions on everyone's faces. "I do know one thing, however. Mr. Duk performed his duties in an exemplary manner." He smiled a bit grimly, "Despite spraining my wrist." There were titters of nervous amusement from the audience.

Straker pondered for a moment and then, decision made, began to speak. "I've heard that there are some rumors floating about, that Mr. Duk was given his position due to something other than merit." He looked at his stoic son, standing at parade rest behind Alec. "Be assured that is not the case. Mr. Duk is well suited for his duties, having been trained in self-defense and also holding a sharpshooter rating with a pistol. I'm not sure why Mr. Percival decided to put it to the test, but rest assured, we will find the answers." He looked around the room again. "Any other questions?" Seeing none, he nodded and turned away. Alec stood and returned to the podium.

"Attention!" Everyone sprang to attention as the commander strode out, Eddie at his shoulder like a shadow. As soon as they had gone, Alec announced, "Dismissed!" Normally, he'd have scurried after the commander, but this time, he watched the people as they discussed what Percival had done and speculated on why. His eyes narrowed as he spotted Keith Ford, carefully not meeting anyone's eyes as he sidled his way towards the exit. Using the exit from the stage, he was at the side door when Keith emerged.

Keith nearly fainted as Alec's arm reached around his shoulders. "Why don't you tell me all about it, Keith?"


The look of a cornered rabbit was back on Ford's face. Something he hadn't seen in months. "What did you say to Percival?"

Keith flushed crimson. "Uh, say, sir?"

"Yes, what did you say to Percival that made him do something as foolish as assaulting the commander in front of God and everybody?" He gently shook the slighter man. "Come on, out with it, before Ed finds out."

Keith sighed. "I didn't put him up to anything. I simply came upon his ranting to some of the others that Eddie got his 'cush job' based on being related to the commander, rather than due to merit. I simply told him that if he believed that, he should put it to the test. I never imagined he'd actually do anything on stage and in front of everyone like that. He must be a real idiot if he thought he would get away with it."

Alec grinned. "I like it. The engineer, hoist in his own petard. Very good, Keith. Let's go tell the commander before he goes totally ballistic, shall we?"

Keith sighed. "Yes, sir." Alec patted him on the back and then led the way to Straker's office, where they found the commander snarling into the phone.

"I don't care what you have to do, I want to know why the devil he decided to come at me in public like that!" Spotting Alec and Keith, he waved them in. Keith tried desperately to fade into the wall, only to find himself propelled to directly before the irate Straker. "Get me some answers, soon!" He slammed the phone down in its cradle and turned his glare on the two men. "Well?"

Alec nudged Keith, gently. "I-I'm sorry, sir. I think it was my fault."

Straker froze. "What?"

Ford squirmed. "I overheard him blaming Eddie for Sanders being transferred back to Sydney and told him that it was my doing, not yours, sir. He got a bit loud and said that Mr. Duk was...well, it wasn't very nice, sir. So I said that if he thought Eddie had gotten his job as your aide due to anything other than merit, that he should put it to the test, rather than spread rumors about it." His eyes finally came up off the floor and earnestly searched the irate sapphire lasers that Straker looked on the world with and hurried on. "I swear I never imagined he'd actually do anything!"

Straker watched as months of bolstering the shy, dedicated Ford's feelings of self-worth dissolved in a moment of certainty that he was to blame for someone else's actions. It gave him pause.

"Did you order him to attack me?"

"No, sir!" Ford's shock was obviously genuine, as was his concern. His shoulders hunched slightly, as though expecting a blow, and he was practically wringing his hands.

"Did you force him up onto the stage after me?"

"Certainly not!" His shoulders squared and his chin came up. He'd never do anything like that.

Straker nodded and caught Alec's almost grin. "Then why do you think it's your fault that he did?"

"Because... because I challenged him, I suppose."

Straker shrugged. "You merely suggested he put up or shut up. He was spreading a totally false rumor and you challenged him on it. His decision was his own, not yours. Did any of the others there say anything?"

Ford blushed, "Well, one of them laughed at him and said we'd all see who was telling lies."

"There you have it, then," Alec joined in. "He very foolishly decided to try and prove his theory, with the results noted."

"But if I hadn't said anything," Keith began, only to have Straker cut him off.

"You'd have fed the rumors. You denied it, so he had to either prove it true, or be branded a fool. Well done, Captain."

Keith, who'd expected a dressing down, at the very least, looked totally confused. "Thank you, sir," he stammered out.

Straker smiled thinly, hoping Keith would soon come around to the realization that he hadn't done anything to be censured for. "Now, let's see if my dear wife has gotten any answers from Mr. Percival, shall we?"

Alec paled. "Uh, please tell me that wasn't who you were talking to when we came in?"

Straker scowled. "Yes, it was. Why?"

Alec and Keith exchanged a knowing look. "Hope you like sleeping by yourself."


Keith shrugged. "Claudia and I haven't actually had a fight, yet, but if I had spoken to her like you just spoke to Dr. Straker, I'd be groveling the next time I saw her." Alec nodded.

"I think you put your foot in it, Ed."

"Don't be redicul...." The door flew open and a very irate Louise Straker entered.

"Next time, run your own interrogation," she was practically spitting in fury. Straker stepped back as she approached him. "He's been spreading those rumors about Eddie and someone suggested he prove it. The idiot did. In front of most of headquarters, I might add. And why didn't you tell me you'd hurt your wrist, hmmm?" She reached him and snatched his injured hand towards her and away from his other hand, which was still trying to rub the pain away. It hurt, and he yelped.

She immediately reacted, letting go, and shaking her head. "Sorry. I'm sorry. I'm angry, but there's no need to take it out on you." She reached again for his injured hand, more gently, this time.

Alec gently grasped Keith by the shoulder and the two of them quietly left the Strakers alone. As he flipped the lock on the door and closed it, he whispered. "Discretion is not only the better part of valor, but the occasional act of abject cowardice is sometimes called for."

Keith nodded his agreement as they left the couple to battle out their differences.

"You might have told me you'd been hurt." She was examining his wrist as gently as she could.

Ed hissed in pain and tried to pull his hand away. "It's just a sprain, you're making it worse!"

She growled and glared at him, but her touch became even more gentle. "Come with me, I want x-rays."

"After you tell me what you learned from Percival."

She shook her head at his stubborn insistence. "He somehow got the impression that Eddie had an easy job guarding you, that it was simply a means for his father to give him something to do that looked important but was merely for show. He was challenged, although he didn't say by whom. He decided to put it to the test and got knocked down. His nose isn't broken, although it did bleed a bit. He's very apologetic and is throwing himself on your mercy. I suggest sending him to the Farallons and let him stew down there for a couple of months."

"Is that duty being looked on by everyone as a punishment detail?"

She looked up at him without tilting her head. "Yes."


"Now, come with me. X-rays, ice, and if you're good, and if I think it will help, a massage."

Ed, who'd been about to protest, exhaled and then spoke very softly. "Yes, dear."

"I'll 'yes, dear' you. Move it, mister." She was smiling, however.

He smiled back at her and reached for the door with his injured hand. She beat him to it, and snickered.


"They locked it on their way out."

He had the good grace to blush. "He would."

She grinned at him. "Very discreet, are our Alec, and Keith."

He smiled back at her. "Yes, they are, at that."

Fortunately, it was a minor sprain, to which she applied an ice pack for half an hour before wrapping it. He was so fine-boned that there was little swelling, much to his relief. With long sleeves covering it, he'd be able to resume normal duties immediately... after he apologized to his wife for yelling at her on the phone, earlier. Making up was nice, but he was honest when he told her that he couldn't guarantee it wouldn't happen again. Fortunately, she forgave him anyway.

Returning to his office, he went through the reports from the day before. With a sigh, he shook his head as he read the report on Percival. However, rather than send him to the Farallons, as suggested, he reassigned him to day shift, in Keith Ford's former slot. If he'd wanted the commander's attention, he'd gotten it. Only in this case, the intimidation would be, perhaps, just a bit more deliberate.

He couldn't help wondering how some of these people had gotten into SHADO to begin with, although he knew the answer. Not even SHADO was immune to political machinations. With a sigh, he shook his head and turned his mind to more important matters.

Jonathan Marcus Winston Percival was not a happy man. Oh, he'd finally made it to day shift, but he realized how much better he'd had it when on the evening shift. For one thing, the commander wasn't constantly standing right behind him, watching his every move. Oh, certainly everyone told him that he'd simply been assigned the spot where Straker always stood when the ufoes were coming, but even when they weren't, he'd shift in his chair and realize that Straker was right behind him. The man moved more quietly than a cat! And was just as deadly. He'd certainly made a mistake about the bodyguard. Eddie Duk had obviously been well trained. Now, he was wondering if that bitch Becky hadn't been having one over on him. Although, word was she was being sent back to Sydney to her old job as a mechanic. Served her right for trying to (and succeeding, unfortunately) get him into trouble. He knew perfectly well that his assignment to this most highly classified organization was solely due to his father's influence. Well, he'd learned his lesson. Come in, do your job, don't discuss it with anyone and, most important, don't try to make friends. Be an automaton, just like the commander.

He hated his life.

"Are you deliberately intimidating Percival, dear?" Louise asked him over coffee.

"What makes you think I'd do that?" Ed practiced his most innocent look on his wife, but could see immediately that she wasn't having any. "Perhaps a bit. Why?"

She shook her head. "Oh, just watching him jump every time he turns around and finds you right behind him. I've gone over his profile and I think he's being wasted where he is. Did you know he's ABD in engineering?"

That gave him a moment's pause. "Oh?"

"Hmmmm. I thought you might want to bring him in on your project."

"Why would I want to do that?" Engineering doctorate? Could be useful, at that, he thought to himself.

"Because he's got some very interesting theories on the physics of flight. Talk to him. It could well be worth your while." She smiled as she poured more coffee into his cup.

He smiled back as he added cream and sugar to his coffee. "I just might do that. Thanks."

"You're welcome, love."

Ed suddenly flinched as something patted his elbow. Looking down, Hearth Cat sat beside him, looking up at him with soulful blue eyes. As he watched, the cat again stood on his hind legs and patted his arm, this time, halfway to his shoulder. At six months old, the 'kittens' were enormous, easily twice the size as the average house cat. By providing them plenty of toys (as well as each other), they'd managed to keep their furniture and drapes relatively unscathed. Of them all, Hearth Cat was still his favorite. The other two were far more adventurous and prone to get into trouble. Smiling, he broke off a piece of bacon and passed it to the kitten, who immediately accepted it and contentedly crunched it down. Sensing that food was in the offing, the other two kittens appeared, meowing for their share.

"If you don't stop feeding him from the table, I'll laugh when you come in some day to find them licking your plate clean before you can sit down." She was smiling in amusement as she watched her husband. For a man who'd never had a pet, he was certainly well trained by their three kittens. She was secretly pleased to have learned that their rescuees were only half lynx. The vet said they probably would be sterile, but that it was best to alter them anyway. Ed had reluctantly agreed, and now that the kittens were growing up, she suspected that he was glad they were.

"All right, fine. But he's so polite about it that he's hard to resist, you know."

"Yes, but that doesn't help when the other two get upset over his preferential treatment." She'd been thinking for a while that they really needed only one cat, but what to do with the other two? They were friendly enough, but much preferred to be left alone to their own devices and amusements. In fact, Hearth Cat was the only one who seemed to really enjoy being a pet, the other two were shy creatures that would rather hide than cuddle. Unfortunately, the only thing she could see them being useful for would be as barn cats. Perhaps she'd start asking around for a good home for them.

Ed looked down at the two kittens that were sitting at his feet, their faces lifted up and their eyes boring into his, demanding to be fed. He sighed and gave them each a bit of bacon. He couldn't safely hand them food, as they insisted on pouncing on it and 'hunting' it. He simply dropped the treats in front of them and watched them attack, with growls and snarling. Hearth Cat simply watched his siblings and then turned his crystal blue eyes to Ed's, as though to comment on his sib's lack of manners. He was rewarded with a scratch behind his ears.

"I think that we have too many cats," Ed tentatively offered.

"I think you may be right," Louise agreed, smiling. "Obviously we need to keep Hearth Cat, but I think I'll send out feelers for a home for the other two. With luck, they can go together."

Ed nodded his agreement. Hearth Cat was constantly underfoot, always wanting attention and petting. The other two were far more interested in playing with each other and trying to hunt. "Just as long as they go to a good home."

"Oh, you can be assured of that." Louise smiled. Her husband was actually quite fond of all three animals, but his favorite was best suited to them as he didn't require a great deal of supervision and was quite content to sleep most of the day away, waiting for them to return. Besides, Ed had already formed a strong bond with the kitten, much to her amusement. She wondered if the Fords would like a cat?

Joey Ashton met with the man from the bank. He handed him the letter from his dad, indicating his power of attorney in the matter of the foreclosure on the Post Station. The banker was friendly, as that sort is always friendly when money walked into their domain.

"Ah, Mr. Freeman, it's good to meet you. I understand that you're here on behalf of your father?"

Joey blinked at being called Freeman, but then realized that the letter had mentioned him as his dad's son. He smiled as he shook the banker's hand. "Yes. He lives in England, so he asked me to take a look at the place and manage it if need be. I understand that the former owners have vacated?"

The banker cleared his throat nervously. "Well, I'm afraid that they haven't, yet."

"But the property was properly foreclosed on more than a month ago, wasn't it?"

"Well, yes, but...."

"Then why are they still there?"

"You see...."

"My father will not be pleased, particularly if there is any vandalism." He made sure the banker understood that he, personally, would be held responsible for any damages.

"I assure you, Mr. Freeman, that everything is fully insured...."

"My father isn't concerned with whether it's insured or not. He's concerned with the possible damage. When can we go see the place, and do we need to take the local police with us to evict them? You do have proof of service on the notice to vacate?" He'd been very careful to do all his homework to be sure he didn't mess this up. It was his first opportunity to show his dad he had what it took, and he didn't want to fail.

"Of course. I've all the documentation right here." The banker pulled a thick file from his desk and showed him all the documentation.

"So, what now, then?" Joey was just unsure enough to give the banker perhaps just a bit more control than he needed to, but he was far out of his own bailiwick and experience and welcomed any help he could get.

The banker sighed. The Ashtons, upon hearing that the station was to be placed in their sister's name, had insisted that she'd simply give it back to them. With the arrival of young Mr. Freeman, however, he suspected that there was a great deal more to this than he was aware of. "I'm curious, Mr. Freeman. Your father placed the station in Ms Post's name?"

Joey smiled. "Yes. He plans on giving it to her as a wedding gift."

The banker blinked. "Wedding gift? Is she getting married, then?"

"Yes. Come August. They're planning on coming here and checking the place out for themselves before the wedding." He didn't bother to tell the banker that the wedding was planned for the local church. He'd be going by to speak to the priest later, after seeing about the station.

The banker nodded and reached for the phone. "Let me call the police station. I did inform them that this might happen." He smiled at Joey, who politely smiled back.

Twenty minutes later, Joey brought up the rear in a three-vehicle caravan as it traveled from Wagga Wagga to the Post Station. He watched the route closely after they left the paved road, taking note of landmarks so he'd be able to find his way back to town and return again to the station. He was impressed that when they came to the station lands to discover the private road had been graveled and slurried, although it looked in need of resurfacing, it was still better than rutted dirt. It was obvious that the station had been prosperous in the not too-distant past. There was obviously plenty of water available, considering the amount of green pasture they passed. When they reached the vineyards, he was thoroughly impressed. The vines had obviously been dressed and were well cared for. Arriving at the main compound, he was pleased to note the well-cared-for barns and houses. There appeared to be the main house, dating to the early 1800s as well as three other houses, a barn, stables, and what looked like a mustering shed, where shearing and branding could take place. The place was clean and quiet. He frowned, wondering if perhaps the place wasn't deserted, even though the work crew had been asked to stay on. Depending on their attitude, he'd planned on asking the Post brothers to stay on to manage.

They parked in front of the main house and got out. He slowly joined the others, looking around. Approaching the banker and the constable, he asked, "Where's the winery?"

"Couple of kliks that way," the banker pointed. Joey squinted into the distance and could just make out some largish buildings in the distance, closer to the hills and perhaps built into the side of one of them.

"Looks pretty deserted."

"Charlie, would you do the honors?" the banker asked the constable.

"Sure, Mr. Thompson." He climbed the steps to the front door and knocked. When there was no answer, he glanced back, got the nod from the banker, and tried the door. It was unlocked and he simply opened it and walked in, followed by Joey and Mr. Thompson.

"Good Lord," Joey muttered, looking around. It looked like someone had thrown quite a tantrum. There was broken glass and crockery everywhere. He wrinkled up his nose at the stench. "What on earth?" he asked.

The constable had crossed the foyer to the front parlor and looked in. With an expression of disgust on his face, he stepped carefully through the debris and shook the loudly snoring man he found on the settee. "Come on, you, wakey-wakey, now."

The stuporous man snorted awake and blearily glared up at the officer. "Wha'?"

"Come on, you've got to vacate the premises, Mr. Post."

"Sod off," the man grumbled and turned his back on the policeman.

"Come along, Mr. Post. You've outstayed your welcome, here. The new owner's here to take possession. You've been served several times, as I well know, having been the one to serve you. Where's your brother?" He grabbed the man by the shoulder and hauled him up. Post was a little barrel-chested bantam, who didn't take kindly to being disturbed. Foolishly, he took a swing at the officer, who easily dodged the blow. With a sigh of put-upon patience, he caught the flailing fist and brought the man into a 'come-along' hold. "Don't make me have to use the cuffs, now, Mr. Post."

"Sod you! This is my place, get out!"

"It's not your place, Mr. Post. The bank foreclosed on you, remember? The new owner's sent his son to take over, now. Please stop behaving like a bloody fool and come along, will you?"

"He put it in Rachel's name! She's me sister, and she'd never throw us out! We're family!"

Joey glanced over from where he was looking at the damages. It looked like they'd had a booze party that had gotten out of hand. "You threw her off, didn't you?" he asked softly. The still drunken Post glared at him.

"Who the devil are you?"

He paused before answering for just a moment, then said "Jason Freeman. My dad's sent me to see to the property for them."

"But he put it in Rachel's name!"

"As a wedding gift to her." Joey smothered his grin as he saw the older man gape at him. He guessed Post to be close to his dad's age, but he was a lot softer than his dad was.

Post gaped at him, and then guffawed. "Wedding gift? Who'd be fool enough to marry her?"

Joey's grin vanished as he felt a trickle of anger run up his spine. "Officer? Seeing all the damage around here, I'd like to press vandalism charges against these people."

Charlie sighed and nodded. "Yes, sir." He shifted his grip on Post and got out his handcuffs. "Sorry, Dodger, but you heard the man. You shouldn't have had that last keg, I reckon. You did rather trash this place." He fastened the cuffs. "I'm arresting you for trespassing and vandalism, Mr. Post. It'll be easier on you if you tell me where your brother is."

"F* you."

The officer shook his head sadly and pushed the unbalanced and still drunk Dodger Post into a seat on the settee he'd been sleeping on. "Right, then." He looked around and then worked his way through the mess into the next room. From there, he worked his way up the stairs and finally found the other Post brother sprawled on a bed, where he'd obviously been sick. Nose wrinkled in distaste, he woke the second man and cuffed him, explaining why he was being arrested. Once he'd gotten Jack Post down to sit with his brother, he explained their rights to them. Neither man was really quite sober enough to understand.

"I'll haul them in and let them sleep it off in gaol, Mr. Freeman, then I'll read them their rights again. You will be pressing charges?"

"Yes. I think I'd better. I'll check with my dad and let you know what he's got to say about it."

"Yes, sir." He looked at Thompson for anything further, but the banker just shook his head at him. "Very well, I'll haul them off, now."

"Let me help you get them out to your car, officer," Joey offered. Charlie smiled at him in gratitude.

"Thanks, Mr. Freeman." The two of them hauled the Post brothers to their feet and guided them outside, where they were placed in the back of the officer's Land Rover.

"Do I need to sign anything?"

"No, sir. At least not just yet. I saw enough for myself to file the charges, at least for the trespass and vandalism; although if you could come by and make a formal complaint, it would help the prosecutor, I'm sure, sir."

"All right, I'll be sure to stop by. Thank you, officer Kelley."

"You're quite welcome, sir. Mr. Thompson, I'll see you back in town."

"Thank you, Charlie." They watched as the Land Rover made its way back down the gravel road, and as it pulled to the side to allow a smaller vehicle to pass.

"Do you know who that is coming in?" Joey asked as the dusty red sedan pulled up and a tall blond woman stepped out, glaring at them.

"Who are you and what are you doing here?" she demanded, glaring at them.

"Now, now, then, young lady," Thompson began, only to jump back as the woman spat at his feet.

"I'll 'young lady you! What's going on, here?"

Joey looked at her, narrow-eyed. She was tall, but still considerably shorter than his own six-foot-three height. "I'm here to take possession of the station. And you are?"

She paused, her scowl turning into a confused frown. "Take possession?"

Thompson hurriedly stepped in. "Yes, Mr. Freeman's father bought the note from the bank several months ago. The Posts were notified and given the opportunity to redeem the property, but made no effort to do so. Mr. Freeman's been very generous in allowing them to remain on the station since foreclosure. Unfortunately, the boys appear to have had one last blow-out and damaged some of the contents of the house, and since they haven't vacated as ordered, they've been taken in."

The woman looked at Joey, her frown still in place. She shook her head in disgust and sighed. "I'm Roxanne. I've been running the station for them for the past six months. We've just finished harvesting the grapes and the vintner is pressing them and setting them up for fermentation." She looked the new owner over and rather liked what she saw. "I suppose you'll be bringing in your own crews?"

He could see that she was steeling herself for dismissal. He smiled faintly. "Actually, my dad was hoping to transition with the crews intact. Of course, anyone who doesn't want to stay on is perfectly free to go, but those who want to stick around are more than welcome to do so until we see how it all fits together." His smile widened a bit as he saw the hope in her eyes.

"I've been off the past three days, first time off I've had since we started harvesting the grapes. I'm usually just a jillaroo, but have been doubling up where needed."

"You've been acting manager, then?"

"Pretty much." She frowned again, looking at the house. "Where's Lucy?"


Thompson cleared his throat. "Lucy Kula, she's the housekeeper."

Joey stared at him for a moment, wondering why he seemed so unconcerned.

"Lucy is an abbo, she probably just went off somewhere," Thompson explained.

Roxanne grunted. "She's less abbo than you are, Mr. Thompson," she growled.

Joey didn't bother to listen further. He ran up the steps to the verandah and in through the front door. Housekeeper. Housekeeper....kitchen. He ran through the lower floor, searching. There, behind the kitchen, was a low door that could lead to a cellar or a scullery, or quarters for a cook. He knocked at the door.

"Get away! I've got a gun!"

"Ms Kula?"

There was silence. He knocked again, more softly, this time. "Ms Kula? My name is Freeman, I've come to take possession of the station for my father, who's bought it."

"Where's the Posts?"

"Arrested. Are you all right, Ms Kula?"

There was the sound of heavy furniture being moved, and then the door opened just far enough for the young woman inside to peer out. He stood back from the door to let her get a good look at him. Seeing he was alone, she opened the door the rest of the way and ducked through the low opening. He glanced past her into the darkened room beyond and realized that there were no windows in the room. He frowned.

She ducked her head upon seeing his frown. "'M sorry, Mr. Freeman. I thought you was them tryin' to get me, again."

He could see bruising on her face, and she was favoring one side, as though she'd been hurt. "What did they do to you?"

Her eyes glanced quickly into his and then away. "I'm all right." She tried to straighten up, but failed, miserably.

"Easy, there. What happened? Did they...." He trailed off as he realized the reason she'd barricaded herself in her room. His expression turned grim. "Tell me what happened," he demanded gently, reaching out a hand to lead her to the kitchen table and a chair. He could see her wince as she eased into the chair and his grim expression hardened.

"I'm all right, really." She looked anxiously into his obviously angry face. "They tried... but I got away!" She looked earnestly into his face but saw no comfort there. "I'm fine, really!"

He'd heard that before and he was no more believing of it now than he had when his father had said it. However, it did soften his expression and he smiled. "Pull the other one, it's got bells on. I think you need a doctor to check you out." He saw the fear in her eyes. "You could have cracked a rib; besides, your statement to the police is important." She snorted in disbelief and he grinned. "I mean it. They've already been arrested for vandalism on the house. They've hurt you as well, could get them some actual prison time for attempted rape." His expression hardened again. "Of course, it's up to you, finally. Whether you want to let them get away with hurting you and terrorizing you, that is."

She stared at him for a long time, taking in his fair skin and blue eyes and dark auburn hair. He wasn't the handsomest of men, but he was good looking. And he seemed to actually care about her welfare. "All right." For the most part, the country was liberal when it came to the Aborigines' rights, but sometimes, the old ways died hard, particularly on long-held family stations. Her parents had worked here, and her grandparents. Her brother was a jackaroo out with the cattle and if he'd been there the night before, the Posts might have been found dead, instead of just dead drunk. Her breath caught when he smiled at her, dazzled by his approval.

"Good on you, Ms Kula. Let's get you to the doctor then, shall we?" He offered her a hand up, which she found she needed, and he slipped an arm around her shoulders to help support and guide her. They found Thompson and Roxanne out on the verandah, apparently arguing. They became silent when they came out, their expressions polar opposites. Thompson looked annoyed, while Roxanne looked concerned.

"Miss Roxanne, would you be so kind as to help us find a good doctor? Ms Kula seems to have some damage."

Roxanne nodded and reached for Lucy. "We'll go to Doctor Prendergrast's. He's fairly close." She smiled reassuringly at Lucy, who smiled and nodded.

"Does he have an x-ray machine?"

Roxanne looked at him in surprise. "Yes, of course."

"I'd like a full set of her ribs, and maybe her shoulder." He smiled at Lucy. "I realize you're probably more injured than you want to let on, but it's hardly your fault, and I want to be certain you're all right."

"Yes, sir."

He blushed at being called 'sir', but smiled at her. "May I ride with you? I'd like to meet the doctor, if I may?"

Roxanne looked surprised. "No worries, there's plenty of room in my car for all of us."

"But there's more room in my Rover, so why don't we take that? Besides, I remember routes better if I drive them myself."

Roxanne nodded. "All right, boss." She was a bit tentative on the 'boss' appellation, but at his grin, smiled back at him and turned to help Lucy to the Land Rover. Joey turned to Thompson.

"After we're through at the doctor's, we'll be by the police station to file the complaints. When you get back, you might want to let them know that, would you?"

"Of course, Mr. Freeman." Thompson had become just a bit more obsequious than he had been before. There was something about this man he decided he didn't want to get on the wrong side of. If he liked Abbos, well then, so did he. He knew how to cover himself when needed. And it looked like he needed to, now. If only the Post boys hadn't trashed the place in their drunken stupidity. Until he knew the situation better, he was going to kowtow to the apparent power player, young Mr. Freeman.

Joey smiled at the banker, "Aren't there some papers I need to sign to take possession?"

"Oh, yes, of course!" Thompson scuttled to his car and brought out a file. He indicated the places Joey needed to sign, and waited impatiently for him to read every single word.

"What's this one? Accept the condition of buildings and contents 'as-is'? I think I'll not be signing this one. You did say that you had insured the contents of the house and outbuildings, did you not?"

"Uh, yes, of course, but...."

"Good. Have the insurance adjustor come out tomorrow or the next day, would you? When it's all been settled, then I'll sign off on this." His smile was cold as he handed the documents back to Thompson. "As soon as everything's been accounted for, I'll sign them all, if that's okay with you?" He used his most reasonable tone of voice, knowing that were he to sign anything before being certain all was in order could cost his father dearly.

"Of course, Mr. Freeman." The man was obviously more knowledgeable than he'd at first thought. He'd best be prepared to make good on everything on the listing of assets, or be faced with legal action. He was suddenly very glad that he'd gotten insurance on the property. They shook hands and Joey watched him as he put the file in his case and then climbed into his car and drove off.

Joey watched until the banker was out of sight before turning back to the ladies. "Is there anyone else around here?"

Roxanne shook her head. "The jackaroos are out mustering in for the fall culling and sell-off. The lads working the vineyard are at the winery up the road, there." She pointed in the same direction that Thompson had indicated. He nodded.

"Right, then, let's get Ms Kula checked out, then, shall we?" He climbed behind the wheel while Roxanne got in the passenger side, leaving the back seat to Lucy. "Are you quite comfortable, Ms Kula?"

"I'm fine, Mr. Freeman."

The name tickled his ears. "Call me Joey, everyone does."

"Sir?" Lucy asked in surprise, as Roxanne frowned at him.

"Joey. It's a nickname my dad's mates tagged me with when I was a baby. It's stuck and I'm more likely to answer to it than anything else." Particularly Freeman, he mused to himself, as he considered that technically, he was a Freeman and not an Ashton.

"Yes, sir. I mean Joey." Lucy had never been invited to call anyone by their first name, before, well, except for Miss Rachel, who had run the station when she was growing up.

Roxanne looked at him oddly. He glanced at her as he started the car. "Yes, miss Roxanne?"

"You can drop the 'miss'."

"All right. Roxanne, then."



She stared at him, noting the amused tilt to his lips and the way his eyes crinkled up at the corners in amusement. "Your dad pack you about in a pouch or something?"

He chuckled. "So I've been told. He was in the Air Force. Seems he'd pack me about in a rucksack, so his C.O. took to calling him 'mama roo' and me, Joey. It's stuck."

"I see." It was obvious that she didn't, but he didn't seem to mind.

"I've been Joey all my life, despite my given name being Jason. Starting school was rough, when they called out Jason Ashton and I didn't answer."

Roxanne scowled. "I thought your name was Freeman?"

"Technically, I suppose it is. My step-father raised us." His amusement vanished. "My mum divorced my dad when he was in Viet Nam and married my da. Wrote one of the coldest 'dear John' letters it's ever been my misfortune to read." His mouth clamped closed in lipless disapproval. Roxanne wisely decided not to probe any further.

Joey glanced in his rear view mirror and noticed that Lucy was shivering. He immediately braked to a stop in the middle of the road and took the car out of gear and set the parking break before turning around. "Are you sure you're all right?" He frowned, realizing she was probably in shock, and got out and pulled a blanket from the back of the vehicle. Opening the door beside the shivering young woman, he gently draped the thick, warm woolen blanket around her. "Here, easy, now. No need to get yourself in a state." He held her for a few moments, adjusting the blanket around her, until she stopped shivering. "How far to the doctor's, Roxanne?"

"Forty-five minutes or so." She watched worriedly. "Is she all right?"

"Just the shock, I think. Lucy, if you start feeling ill or anything, make sure you speak up, all right?"

"Yes, sir." She snuggled into the warm wool and lay down on the bench seat. Joey gingerly fastened her seat belt, hoping they didn't have to stop abruptly, as it was hardly safe.

"All right, then. I'll take it as easy as I can and you try and relax, all right?"

She managed a slight smile. "All right."

"Good girl." He gently patted her shoulder and returned to the driver's seat. Taking off the brake and letting out the clutch, he eased into first gear and headed down the road again. A few minutes later, he glanced back to see Lucy had fallen asleep.

"I hope she's just tired, and it's not due to injury," he commented. Roxanne looked back and silently agreed.

As he'd expected, Lucy had several cracked ribs, and an obvious boot-shaped bruise. Doctor Prendergrast insisted on taking photographs of her injuries, much to Joey's approval; there was nothing like confirming evidence. The good doctor was able to 'date' the bruises on her body to between ten and twenty-four hours old. She had handprints on her arm where it had been grabbed and she'd struggled, wrenching both her elbow and shoulder, as well.

"In the old days, I'd tape her ribs, but that tends to invite pneumonia. Instead, I'll give you some pills for the pain, just remember to take only one of them, and you'll have to wait at least eight hours between them, understand?"

"Yes, doctor." Lucy hated being treated like a child. She'd had two years of college, after all. Admittedly it was a culinary school, but still. She had to bite her tongue when the doctor handed the pain medication to Joey, instead of her. As though he was the one who should decide if she needed it or not. As usual when dealing with the old-timers, she felt like she was less than human. She sometimes wished she'd never come back; but Rachel had paid for her education and she'd returned to the station, even though her mentor had been sent away by then. She'd been fending off the unwanted advances of Rachel's brothers ever since. This wasn't the first time she'd been hurt, but it was going to be the last. Joey seemed to feel it was important to file charges against them. She'd be more than willing, Rachel's brothers or not. It might be different if Rachel were here, but she wasn't.

As soon as they were back in the Land Rover, Joey insisted on helping her into the high vehicle, gently boosting her up. She'd have taken umbrage, except that he didn't act condescendingly to her, and besides, he took her totally by surprise when he pressed the bottle of pain pills into her hand as he helped her get comfortably nestled in the blanket and strapped in. Seeing her surprise, he smiled and winked at her. She shyly smiled back.

"So, how do we get to the police station from here?" Joey asked as he started up the car.

"Go back to where we turned onto this road and go north." Roxanne had noticed him giving Lucy the bottle of pills and she nodded in approval. This fellow might just be worth working for. He didn't talk down to them, for one thing. He was friendly, for another, and telling them to call him Joey...well, that went far beyond either woman's experience with station owners, not that either of them had a lot of knowledge of station owners.

The police questioned Lucy extensively, but with Joey backing her up, they added the assault and attempted rape charges to the Post brothers' list of crimes. Charlie Kelley took one glance at the boot-print shaped bruise on Lucy's side and quickly matched it to Jack's boots. After that, the rest of the officers were more than willing to keep the two men in custody.

He refused to sleep in the main house. He also refused to let Lucy stay in that hole of a room she had. He helped her gather her personal belongings and he asked Roxanne what other quarters were available.

"The master stays in the main house."

"I'm not the master. My dad's the owner. I'm just here to take a look at it and try and keep it going until he comes and decides what to do with it. Besides, I want the place to remain intact, no cleaning, until the insurance people have a look at it, and I can get a contractor out here to look all the buildings over and declare them sound, or not."

"You and your dad do a lot of this sort of thing?"

He grinned. "Hardly. But we both grew up on stations. My da's station is in Vic, I'm working out of there, basically. Dad's in England, but will be here come August." He grinned. "Just in time for spring lambing, I should think."

"That's funny?"

"Dad isn't fond of sheep, except for dinner, I think, although he does sleep on a fleece."

Roxanne frowned, while Lucy nodded in understanding. "Bad back?" Lucy asked.

"Recovering from an injury." Seeing their curiosity, he shrugged. "He was shot."

"Shot?" Roxanne's jaw gaped open in shock.

"Yeah. It's a long story." His eyes darkened and lines of anxiety formed on his face. "I was there and never saw it coming. Bleeding shiela was aiming for someone else. Nearly killed my dad." Seeing their curious concern, he shook his head and forced a smile. "He's all right, now. Even got his flying license back." Deciding to leave the ladies the larger manager's house, he took up residence in the jackaroo's quarters. Since there was no one on station at the moment, he had the entire building to himself. To the ladies' surprise, he even insisted on cooking for them all that night.

The meal was simple, but good, and both women raved over his skills. He shook his head, knowing that either of them were probably capable of doing far better, but he also realized that in their experience, men didn't usually cook, so he took the complements as intended.

After dinner, Roxanne insisted on cleaning up. Lucy took a pain pill and headed for bed. Joey called out good night and made his way to the bunkhouse and a nice, quiet night of sleep.

The insurance adjustors came out the next afternoon. Joey had a copy of the bank's listing of assets, so there was no hope of missing anything. He was extremely conscientious, asking where things were that were on the list but not in evidence. Checking with Roxanne, he got an accounting of the stock. Had the brother's simply mustered them in sooner, they could have saved the station by selling off the surplus stock. Instead, it looked like his dad might show something for his investment this year.

Finally satisfied with the insurance people, he agreed to await their report and disposition prior to signing for the property. The following day, Roxanne introduced him to the winery people, who had a sort of share-cropper deal with the Posts. Since he had no understanding of the matter, he simply said he'd let his father handle the transition when he came in August. The vintner agreed nervously, somewhat fearful of losing his investment. Joey tried to reassure him that his father was a fair man, and would no doubt have need of their expertise. They agreed; it was better to stay on in hopes of continuing where they were after their investment of time and manpower, than to take their loss and try and find another place.

That night, Joey called his father.

"Dad, they damaged a bunch of glassware and crockery, but the buildings are in good shape, it looks like, although it's rather a sty, at the moment. Now that the insurance people are finished, we'll start cleaning it all up."

"How bad was it?"

"Just sloppy drunks, is all. Nothing of real value broken, it seems, although we'll have to repaper and repaint the main house, for certain. The rest of the place appears to be in good shape, and the muster should just about meet what you paid for the place."

"That good? How'd that happen?"

Joey grinned. "The fools didn't sell off the culls last year, and a bunch of them calved or lambed this year. If they'd mustered them in back in the spring, they'd have been able to pay off the note. Instead, you'll be making a pretty good profit, if the prices hold."

"Even if they don't. Can you take care of all that?"

"Yeah. No worries. When will you be coming?"

"End of August. Hopefully, the last week or two. How do you like the place?"

"It's a good 'un, Dad. Good grass, good water, hills for the vineyard, and an Italian vintner to run the winery. He's a little nervous, he had some weird kind of deal with them, they provided the land, and water, he provided the plants, workers, and know-how and they'd go shares on the profits."

"Sounds like a reasonable deal. What were the percentages?"

"Station got sixty percent and the winemaker forty."

Alec frowned to himself. "Can you see about drawing up a contract splitting profits fifty-fifty? After expenses?"

"Sure. Is that what you want?"

"Well, I don't want to lose a winemaker, and I suspect he's barely going to make ends meet with the current deal. He's got all the risk, after all. Why not let them earn a decent living? How many people does he have?"

"Fifteen, I think."

"That's a lot, but I don't suppose there's any surplus. Make him the offer and see what he says."

"I will. The muster's due in tomorrow or the next day. I'll go through the stock and cull them out. How large a herd and flock do you want to maintain?"

"How much can the land support?"

"More than there are now. There's no sign of overgrazing, from what I've seen. I'd like to hire a plane to fly over and take a closer look, or maybe take out for a week or so after the culling to double check, but from what I've seen, it's good land."

"Hire a plane and take a look before culling. How're the folks taking to the changeover?"

"Well, there were only two on-station when I got here, the housekeeper was assaulted by the Posts the night before I arrived; she's got some cracked ribs and a wrenched elbow and shoulder. She's going to be fine, though. The other one's been managing for them, she seems okay; a bit wary, of course, but she knows stock."

"Fine. If they want to stay on, let them. Did you press charges for the girl and the damages?"

Joey grinned at the order of importance. "Yeah. Had already gotten them for vandalism, added the assault and attempted rape after we found Lucy. She said that Rachel paid for her education?"

"I'll ask her. How's she doing?"

"She's sore, and the doctor treated her like an imbecile child, giving me the pain pills, like the girl couldn't decide for herself." He shook his head. "They're pretty backwards around here, it seems."

"There are pockets like that everywhere, son." Oh, how he relished being able to say that! "You just do your best and I'll see you in a couple of months."

"Yes, sir. I'll keep in touch and let you know how everything's going."

"Thanks. You take care, now."

"You do as well, Dad." Joey smiled as he hung the phone up. Son. His father had called him son!

They'd consolidated their belongings into a house in July, preparatory for their wedding in August, although Alec still kept his flat, for the time being. They made time at least twice a week for flights in one or another of his antique planes, and he began teaching her how to fly. The first time he let her land, they bounced horribly but not dangerously. Afterwards, he reluctantly informed her that she'd have to have professionally taught ground school, and probably at least some instruction by a certified flight instructor, but that they could continue most of her 'lessons' as they had time. She readily agreed and found a local flight school, where she signed up for evening classes. It generally meant less time together, but it was something they both wanted.

The week before the Beaufighter was sent to Los Angeles was spent with a worried Alec hovering over the plane and its wings being removed, watching anxiously as it was carefully dismantled and crated before shipment. At least it kept him from panicking over his impending marriage.

They were excited, even though they had to fly commercial. They held hands tightly the entire trip. Rachel had taken the news of her brothers' arrest and conviction with relative aplomb. Upon discovering that they'd expected her to just give them the station, she laughed. Finding that Alec had made the purchase and placed the property in her name had shocked her, however. She was anxiously looking forward to seeing her home, after her twelve-year absence.

Lucy was waiting for them when they cleared customs. The young woman screamed out "Miss Rachel!" at the top of her lungs upon seeing them, and with a squeal of joy, Rachel had rushed to the young woman, thrilled with seeing her again.

Joey was there, as well. Grinning. Alec drew him into a bear hug and they laughed together at the two women. Anyone seeing them would have noticed the striking resemblance between father and son, although Joey was a bit better looking than his father. Alec noticed his son had put on a bit of weight and glanced at the young woman his fiancee' was so busy hugging.

"Something you want to tell me, son?"

Joey glanced from Lucy to his father and blushed. "I think I'm in love?"

Alec laughed. "She's a good cook, I take it?"

"Oh, yeah. She's aces." He bit his lower lip and looked down, "Does it bother you?"


"That's she's Abbo?"

"Why would that bother me?" Alec asked reasonably. "If she's the girl for you, that's all that matters to me, son."

Joey smiled in relief. "I've, uh, officially changed my name to Freeman. I thought you should know."

Alec's smile, and his breathing, froze for several long seconds. Then he blinked several times, very rapidly and his smile turned soft. "You didn't have to do that, lad."

Joey turned to his father. "I know, but I realized when I came here and Mr. Thompson called me Mr. Freeman, that that's who I am, really. Jason Freeman. Oh, I'll always answer to Joey, and I'll always love Da, but you're my father, and I just thought that it would only be right, you see."

Alec did, indeed, see, and swiped at his eyes to remove the tears that were forming. "Thank you, son." He hugged Joey again, hard, hanging on to him just a bit longer than absolutely necessary, long enough to feel the relieved sigh his son breathed. Letting him go, and with a misty-eyed grin, he clapped him hard on the back, "So, introduce me to this girl of yours, will you?"

Rachel noticed his teary state and frowned in concern, but his beaming smile indicated it wasn't a bad thing, so she smiled reassuringly at him. Lucy was very shy at meeting Joey's dad, until he hugged her and whispered into her ear and called her 'daughter'. Joey'd been courting her, but she'd been reluctant, thinking his family wouldn't approve. Alec immediately removed all worry in that respect. They went out to lunch in Sydney before making the short aerial hop to Wagga Wagga and then the drive to the station.

The house had been cleaned and the damage repaired and broken items replaced. Rachel entered her home with wide-eyed wonder. It was much as she'd remembered it, although the original wallpaper in several rooms had been replaced, but it was as bright and comfortable as she'd dreamed of it. Taking Alec by the hand, she showed him around. Joey and Lucy quietly slipped away, leaving them to their explorations.

Alec was impressed and shook his head yet again at how her brothers had nearly lost it forever, and even happier to be able to give it to his bride.

The following week was spent clearing up legal matters, finalizing the contract with the vintner and his family/crew. Everyone was pleased with the deal Alec had proposed, and when he suggested they build them a house by the winery, Mr. Ciccarelli practically fell over himself in gratitude. Alec shrugged, explaining that it only made sense, rather than making them live in the very crowded travel trailers they owned. Joey, who had his father's way with making friends of nearly everyone he met, heartily approved and announced that he'd get started on the project as soon as his dad was safely married, much to everyone's amusement.

Business completed, Alec and his bride looked around and found themselves a little, old airplane. It was in excellent shape, but basically only suitable for flying around in, not for long trips, and certainly not for the aerobatics they both loved. Joey debated telling them, but decided to wait to give them the gift he and his brother and sister had gotten for them. Seeing their pleasure with their little six-seater Beechcraft, he knew for a certainty that they'd love what Mark had found.

Two days before the wedding, and everything going smoothly. Alec couldn't help but wonder what would go wrong.

Ed and Louise had finally completed their own travel plans. Alec's plane was ready to fly when he got to Los Angeles from Sydney. They would be flying to Australia in the morning, themselves, for the wedding. Alec and Rachel had gone on ahead two weeks earlier. Louise was finishing up her packing and came into the lounge to ask her husband a question. She opened her mouth to speak, and stopped, smiling, instead. There on the sofa, sprawled her exhausted husband, curled on his side and with Hearth Cat cradled in his arms, purring. With her lower lip caught between her teeth, she silently went and got her new digital camera, and took several pictures, her favorite being one where the cat's eyes were half-open and he looked right at the camera. Finally, she knelt down beside them and gently removed the cat.

"Thank you for keeping him warm, but it's my turn, now." The cat accepted his removal with grace. He enjoyed being an only cat. The others had found homes, one going to the Duks, the other, more feral, out to Alec's hangar, to live. No vermin dared attempt to enter the building, not even a spider. Rich Carlton was happy to help make sure the cat had everything it needed, plenty of food and water, as well as a special door that allowed it access to the fields around the hangar. It was always happy to see its people, however, and had made the hangar home.

"Ed, love?"


"D'you think you can wake up long enough to come to bed?"

"Hmmmm, lovely idea." His eyes opened and he smiled lazily at his wife. "Can't hardly believe he's really going to go through with it."

"I know. He's been very patient, you know."

"I know. It's been hard for him, waiting."

"I hope it's worth it."

"You worried?"

She shrugged. "A little, I suppose. I'm a bit concerned for Rachel, but not too seriously. I think it'll be all right."

"Alec's a gentle man."

"Thankfully, yes. I wonder if they found themselves a plane for the station, yet?"

Ed chuckled. "Probably. I wouldn't put it past them."

"Come along, husband. Time for bed. Let's go. We have to get up early for the flight."

He sighed. "Yes, we do." He sat up and eased to his feet. Hand and hand, they turned off the lights and went to bed.

Alec was waiting for them when they cleared customs. To make the trip 'business', he drove them to the satrapy, where Ed went over the ORI Alec had run the previous week. Satisfied, he approved the report, passing the crew on all levels. He was pleased that the decision to place two people in charge had worked. He'd go over the results at leisure back at headquarters and consider the option for other bases.

They returned to the airport and Alec flew them out to the station, nonstop. Louise was thrilled with the house and quickly disappeared with Rachel and Lucy to delve into the nooks and crannies, leaving the men to their own devices.

"So, are you ready, Alec?"

"No." He glanced at his friend. "I'm terrified more this time, than I was the first time."

Ed gave him a puzzled look. "Why?"

Alec sighed and blushed. "What if I hurt her?"

"What makes you think you will?"

Alec blushed furiously, "I've, uh, never ... I mean, not with a ... you know." His voice turned shy and plaintive at the end. Ed took a slow, deep breath, wondering what to say. He didn't know what to advise. Then it came to him.

"Ask Louise." He smiled brightly at his friend, who scowled for a moment, and then grinned.

"Good idea. Thanks." He looked ruefully in the direction the women had gone and the sound of feminine giggles emanating from deep within the house. "If I can ever get a moment with her, that is."

"I'll make sure she has time."

"So, what I was wondering, is..." He was blushing furiously with embarrassment. Here he was, with all his experience, and he didn't know what to do.

"You're afraid you'll hurt her?"

He sighed in relief. "Yes."

She leaned back in her chair, regarding him seriously. "Why do you think you'd do that?"

"She's never...I mean..." He was crimson with embarrassment.

She leaned forward and touched his hand. "Have you ever hurt a woman when making love to her?"

He paled, his expression aghast. "Certainly not!"

She nodded. "So what makes you think you might, now?"

"I've never...not with a...."

She sat back, jaw agape. With all his worldly-wise experience, he'd never been with a virgin. "Not ever?"

"No." He couldn't meet her eyes.

"Have you ever been with a woman who's been abused?"

He frowned at her, not understanding.

"A woman who's been raped, or beaten by a boyfriend?"

He nodded, a bit reluctantly. "Once or twice."

"Did you hurt them?"


"Then don't worry about it. Just take your time. I've heard from several ladies who sing your praises to the sky and are bitterly disappointed that you're off the market. You love her." She shrugged and smiled reassuringly at him. "Take your time to show her."

He regarded her uncertainly for a time. Then, softly, he spoke. "She orgasms in flight... doing aerobatics."

Louise blinked. "Oh?"

He smiled ruefully. "So do I. How can I possibly compete with that?"

Louise took a deep breath. This was a first for her. But there was more, as Alec continued.

"She orgasms when she remembers it and talks about it. She doesn't know it, though."

Louise smiled, reaching a solution. She leaned towards him. "Then the 'sweet nothings' you whisper to her should describe your flights together. The soaring, the loops, the whatever. Trust me, you'll have no problems."

His breath caught in surprise. He grinned and nodded. "Yeah, all right. That might work." He leaned back in his chair, relieved. Maybe he could compete, by incorporating flying with sex. "Thanks. I'll try it."

"That and just take your time." He was grinning at her, and she couldn't help but smile back at him. This was undoubtedly the most unusual 'session' she'd ever had with a patient. She just hoped it worked!

"I'm afraid I'll disappoint him." She'd thought to talk to Louise, but she was another woman, even if she was a psychiatrist. Better, she thought, to talk to his best friend, another man, who might understand such things.

Ed was terribly embarrassed, not sure what to say. "You could never disappoint him, Rachel. He adores you."

She smiled. "And I adore him, but...well, he's had all those women, and I certainly don't have anything to offer him that they haven't a great deal more of."

He touched her cheek, bringing her face up to look into his eyes. "You're offering him the one thing no one else has ever offered him, your innocence. He's as afraid as you are, that he'll hurt or disappoint you." He debated with himself for a moment. "You know that feeling you get when you do aerobatics?"

She nodded.

"He gets the same feeling, you know."

She smiled and nodded again. "He told me that."

"Then don't worry."

She bit her lip and frowned, "But what do I do? How do I ... well, how do I touch him?"



"Gently. A man's...genitals are very sensitive." He shrugged. "Ask him to show you what he likes."

She smiled, relieved. "I can do that." She gave him a quick hug and was gone.

Ed took a deep breath and shook his head. For the first time in his life, he had voyeuristic thoughts.

Because Alec's first wife had divorced him, and not the other way around, he'd been granted an annulment and they were married in the church. It was an extremely small gathering, with only Alec's children, the crew from the station, and the Strakers in attendance. Alec kept glancing over his shoulder, half-expecting his ex-wife to pull a Mary Rutland on them, but it was a peaceful ceremony. At the reception at the station, the newlyweds were dragged out to the road they were using for an airstrip and shown the fully restored Curtiss JN-4D his children had unearthed for them. Alec's eyes lit up with joy.

"Laddie?" Rachel only knew it was an antique bi-plane, still not able to identify them all.

His voice came out a harsh whisper. "It's a Jenny." His eyes filled with tears as he looked at her. "She's just like the one I first rode in, lass." He drew a trembling hand reverently over the fabric of the wing. "She's even the same color, blue and yellow, just like that first plane I ever saw."

"Oh, laddie." She beamed at his children. "You're all aces. You've no idea what this means."

"Take her up, Dad." Mark urged gently.

Alec grinned madly and handed his bride into the front seat, billowing white dress and all, then, tuxedoed, he clambered in the rear and hit the switch. Mark did the honors of spinning the propeller and they all listened as the engine caught and whirred to life. They watched them as they took off and Alec got the feel of her. With great care, he guided the plane into a perfect loop, followed by a set of barrel rolls, the laughter of the occupants easily reaching the happily watching group below.

Ed shook his head. "Where'd you find that, Mark?"

Mark shrugged. "Found it stored in a barn in Perth. Seems the owner left her at the start of the war when he joined up, I guess. Fellow that had it just thought it was a piece of junk. It didn't take a lot to restore, mostly some new canvas, rebuild the motor, and redoing the paint." He grinned. "She's fun to fly, though."

Louise blinked. "Do you know the name of the original owner?"

Mark shrugged. "When I ran the numbers on her, they said it used to belong to an American, fellow named Rawlings. Why?"

The Strakers just stared at him. "Small world." Mark frowned as the couple began to laugh, wondering what on earth they were talking about.

"Should we tell him?" Louise asked softly as they drew away from the others.

"I don't think so. Too bad she's too big to fit into a C-5. Could you imagine what Rawlings would say to see her again?"

"That's too freaky for me, love."

"Me, too."

They returned to watching the happy couple doing aerobatics above them.

Unfortunately, they had a plane to catch. Ed had arranged for a helicopter to take the newlyweds from the station to the airport and they had to rush to change into traveling clothes as soon as they returned from their aerial antics. The couple had no idea that those on the ground were able to hear their vocalizations, but only the Strakers understood the meaning of it and exchanged knowing, and slightly embarrassed, looks.

As they saw the couple safely off, Louise leaned against her husband and softly murmured, "They're more than perfect for each other, don't you think?"

Ed smiled and his arm tightened around her shoulders. "I have to agree. I hope they get some sleep on the plane, they'll be landing three hours ago in LA and it's at least two hours to Reno, after he checks out his plane, so figure in about twenty hours, they'll finally get to their hotel."

"Where are they booked?"

Ed smiled. "They have a chalet at Stead Field."

"A chalet?"

"Yes. Right on the flight line for the races. Rachel sent an invitation to Mr. Rawlings, to watch the races and discuss the film. Alec has no idea." He grunted slightly as his wife hugged him, hard.

"Sneaky devil."

"But you love me anyway, right?"

"Of course."

It was sixteen hours from Sydney to Los Angeles. Alec, veteran that he was, slept most of the trip, grateful for first class. Rachel dozed beside him part of the time, and read much of the rest of the flight, as well as going over her information on Rawlings and nervously thinking of their first night 'together'. Ed's reassurances that Alec was just as afraid as she was didn't help, much, but she was at least reassured by the knowledge. She watched him sleeping for a while, his head resting on her shoulder and envied him his ability to seemingly sleep any time, anywhere, and for any length of time. When he was awake, they held hands and talked about the rest of their trip.

"Ed's booked us into a chalet at the air races. Did he tell you about it?" Alec asked over dinner.

"Yes, I invited Ross to come and join us for the gold race? He's agreed. I think he did just to see the race."

"Of course," Alec grinned. "I can't imagine any pilot who wouldn't. I found out that we can park the plane right outside the chalet, so that will be good, as well."

"How long will it take us to get to Reno from LA?"

"Depending on the winds, two or three hours. I don't plan on making top speed. Two-fifty to two-seventy-five is a nice cruising speed. So figure about three hours flight time. It's about six hundred miles more or less from LAX to Stead Field. We'll be flying at about fifteen thousand feet, if that's all right with you?"

"Laddie, we could be skipping waves, if you want and it would be all right with me." She grinned at him.

He squeezed her hand and leaned over to kiss her. "I love you, Mrs. Freeman."

"I love you, Mr. Freeman."

Even traveling first class, it was a long, exhausting flight. It was odd, landing three hours before they took off from Sydney, but that was expected. Once through customs, Alec contacted the hangar where his plane was housed and the owner came to pick them up.

"That's a nice little plane you have there, Mr. Freeman."

"She is that," Alec agreed. Despite plenty of sleep on the plane, he was stiff and weary; but that all vanished when he spotted his baby. They got out of the car and he looked critically at his plane. He checked it over very carefully and finally nodded. "She's looking good."

"Yes, sir. She arrived crated and we got her put back together in a couple of days. We've checked all the connections, wiring, hydraulics, and she tests out a-ok."

"Well, I need to file our flight plan and then I'd like to get her serviced and pre-flighted as soon as we can. It's been a long trip and we still have two or three more hours to go before we can relax."

"You're heading to Reno, right?"


"Okay, that's what we were told. Your flight plan was filed yesterday afternoon, on instructions from a Mr. Straker?"

"That's right."

"Then all we need to do is top up her tanks, do your pre-flight and wait in line for take off."

Alec grinned. "Great. The sooner, the better." They stowed their suitcases in the plane and Rachel helped him pre-flight. Within two hours of their arrival, they were in the air and heading north-north-west.

The trip was without incident, although a crowd gathered when they landed at Stead Field. The air races were due to start in three days, which would give them time to settle in and see the sights before the actual event.

"Mr. Freeman?"

"Yes?" He didn't turn to look as he helped his bride from the plane.

"I'm Joe Michaels. I've got your car ready for you, as well as your chalet. I've been instructed to give you a tour...." He trailed off when Alec turned to look at him.

"We've just flown in from LA, after a sixteen hour flight from Sydney. At the moment, I think all we'd really like is some decent food, and some sleep, if that's all right with you?"

"Certainly, sir. My card is by the phone in your chalet, so just give me a call when you're ready."

Alec smiled back at the sincere young man. When he reached for their bags, however, Michaels was there first.

"This way, Mr. and Mrs. Freeman." His smile was undimmed by their exhaustion and almost surliness. He held the door to the limousine for them and whisked them the whole hundred and fifty yards to their chalet. "You do know that the field is closed to general aviation from Thursday through Sunday, right?"

"Yes, that won't be a problem. We aren't planning on leaving until Tuesday." That would give them three days to see the sights before the races started.

"Will you be putting your plane on display, sir? We weren't informed that you had a British bomber."

Both Alec and Rachel stiffened. "She's a fighter. Bristol Beaufighter, T.F.X. And she's Australian."

Michaels was properly chagrined. "Sorry, sir. I saw the target and just assumed." He would make sure to look more closely at the plane when he went back by.

Alec sighed. "That's all right, back then, the RAAF and RAF planes were pretty similarly marked. You'd have to know the tail number designators to be sure."

"Or be Australian," Rachel added, smiling tiredly.

Michaels realized that they must be suffering from jet lag, at the very least. He opened the door for them and then got their luggage. "A Mr. Straker made all the arrangements, the caterer just delivered your dinner and everything is ready for you." He led them into the chalet, which was more of a townhouse, with a wide balcony that overlooked the airfield.

"Thank you." Alec was too tired to care at the moment, but would remember later to thank Ed for setting this all up for him. He tipped Michaels, accepted the keys to their quarters and the rental car. Michaels smiled and left them.

"I'm almost too tired to even eat, laddie."

"I know, lass, but if we don't, we'll not sleep well. Let's see what they have for us, shall we?" He wandered into the kitchen and found their food set out on the counter. Lifting the covers, he chuckled. "I think Ed took a lesson from his own honeymoon."

"Oh? Why?" She had pulled her coat off and dropped it on the sofa. She followed him into the kitchen and he held a plate out to her. She chuckled. "Oh, lovely, no thinking involved," and selected rumaki to try first. "Mmmm, very nice."

Alec chuckled and carried their plates into the lounge. "Come on, lass. I'm rather looking forward to sitting on something that doesn't move and is big enough to be comfortable, for a change." She giggled and followed him, sitting close beside him.

"You've got to try this. I don't know what it is, but it's very good." She fed him some rumaki.

"Yes, that is good. Chicken liver, I think."

"Hmmm, most of these are meat." She grinned. "Somebody did their homework."

Alec chuckled and fed her a cracker slathered with pate' and caviar. "Yes, they did."

They took turns feeding each other until their hunger was assuaged. He put the leftovers in the refrigerator and stood gazing at his bride. The sun was just starting to go down, and he was exhausted. Too exhausted to even begin to think about the 'wedding night'.

"Lass, how about a shower and bed?"

Her heart skipped a beat, until she noticed the lines of stress and exhaustion on his face and the way his shoulders sagged. "That sounds wonderful, laddie. Why don't you go first?" He smiled and nodded at her and carried their luggage into the massive master bedroom. She stayed in the living room until she heard the water stop and then nervously gathered her things and headed in to take her own shower. When she returned, she found Alec sound asleep. Sighing in relief, she slipped into the bed, settled in beside him and closed her eyes.

It took her a bit to fall asleep, being in that hideous state of being too tired, but eventually she slept.

He dreamed of flying. Flying and aerobatics. And Rachel. And their shared passion; both for flying and each other. In his dreams, he was able to bring her to that same heady point that flying inverted or doing loops and barrel rolls did. When he awoke, he found her in his arms, spooned up in front of him, and he smiled. His arms were wrapped around her, holding her close. She shifted and he moved back, away from her, not wanting his body's reaction to her close proximity to frighten her when she awoke. He lightly kissed the back of her neck and she made a pleased sound as she awoke and stretched, leaning back against him.

"Good morning, laddie."

"Good morning, lass." Although there was darkness outside their windows, the hour had to be after midnight. She turned onto her back and smiled at him, a bit nervously.

"Teach me, laddie," she said softly. His breath caught at her meaning and he leaned over her and kissed her, gently. He lay on his side and let his left hand gently cup her face as he kissed her again, then his hand trailed down her arm and brought her hand to his lips.

"My lass." He placed her hand on his cheek and closed his eyes, savoring the touch. She smiled and ran her hand through his hair while his hand ran back up her arm and then down her side to her hip, and then back up to cup her breast. They were still firm and full, despite sagging a bit with age, and he bent down to kiss her breasts through her nightgown. Her breath caught at the sensation and she shivered.

She'd read enough historical romances to have expectations. She lay quietly, her eyes closed, waiting for him. But for a maddeningly long time, all he did was touch her; fondling her breasts, stroking her body, but not ever finishing. When at last his fingers found their way between her legs, she was anxiously ready and immediately parted her knees for him.

"Not like that, lass, not this first time," he murmured.

"What?" she asked in confusion.

"Come here, Lie on your side, lass." He rose up and helped her position herself. He was more than ready, but he was trying to be careful, not wanting to hurt or frighten her. He got her on her left side with her left leg extended slightly, and then he lay on it, careful to position it in the hollow of his waist. "Is that all right, lass? Not too uncomfortable?"

"No, laddie." She was confused. She'd thought, well, more expected, him to lie on her to take her, but this was not like anything she'd ever read in one of her romance novels. He had removed her nightgown before placing her where he wanted her, discarding his own pajamas at the same time. It felt odd, the way he'd placed a towel beneath them, but accepted everything he did, knowing his far greater experience.

He softly explained as he allowed his hand to again roam over her body, teasing and hopefully inflaming her passions. "This way, lass, you can sort of see what's going on." He cupped her cheek and kissed her again.

Curious, she looked down between them and realized that she could, indeed, see what he was doing, and observe as his arousal grew. With her lower lip between her teeth, she reached between them and gently stroked him. He gasped and twitched at her touch and she took her hand away. "I'm sorry, was that wrong?"

"No, lass, not wrong." She'd been gentle, but even as he'd watched her move, it hadn't registered what she was going to do. "Just surprised me a bit."

"Teach me to please you, laddie?"

"Oh, lass." He pulled her close and hugged her. "Lass, you please me just by looking at me that way you do."

"But I want to do more." She daringly slid her fingers over him again, lightly, almost tickling, and he shivered.

"We will, but this, now, is for you, lass." He took a deep breath and let it out in a soft sigh. "I'm afraid I might hurt you, so I want to do it like this, slow and easy."

"Laddie, you would never hurt me."

He marveled at her trust of him. "Trust me, lass?"

"With everything, laddie."

He returned to his gentle, slow ministrations, ignoring his own desires and needs, for the moment, wanting to prepare her. Finally, he eased her right knee over his hip and shifted closer to her. She was watching, curious, anxious, and desirous.

"I'm just putting the tip up against you, feel it?"

"Yes." There was still space between them, so she could see. From her perspective, she couldn't help but wonder how he was going to fit, but she trusted him.

He shifted and brought a small tube from under his pillow. "This is to ease the friction." He applied a bit to his fingers and let her feel the slippery stuff, before applying it to himself. "I'm going to just push the head in, now." He slowly pushed against her and she felt a moment of slight discomfort as he barely penetrated her. "Sorry, the foreskin tends to stick a bit. It'll be easier now." She was holding on to him, her left arm under his shoulder, her right hand on his ribs, just above the scars.

"It's all right, laddie." Her breath was coming in short, excited pants, and her body seemed to be adjusting, and she was almost trembling in anticipation.

He lightly kissed her again and they remained like that for several minutes, until she calmed, then he started touching her again. Her breath caught as he trapped that most sensitive of spots between his thumb and forefinger, gently manipulating it until her breathing became ragged.

"I'm going to push in a bit farther, now." He watched her face as he eased in, her eyes were closed and she was obviously concentrating on what she was feeling. He prayed he got this right. He felt resistance and stopped, pulling back a bit and then rocking forward again, and again; his hand moved from between them and lightly grasped her hip to give him the leverage he needed, again, he withdrew and pushed forward, feeling the resistance break as she made a soft sound in her throat and her body began to move against him as her own desire became stronger and she pulled him towards her.

"Easy, lass," he murmured, fighting his own urge to move hard and fast, knowing that this needed to be slow and easy. He again reached between them to manipulate that spot and finally felt her respond as he had hoped she would. As she began to tighten in his arms, he shifted his hand back to her hip and began thrusting, gently, rhythmically, against her. When he knew she was close, and he was nearly with her, he held her tightly and whispered, "Come fly with me, lass. Fly with me!"

With a cry, she shuddered in his embrace as he continued his movements, satisfied he'd taken her to that place of glory and working to catch up with her. She was still shuddering, her breath coming in ragged gasps when he eased away from her and freed her trapped leg. Gathering her close, he held her. "My lass. Sweet lass."

"Oh, laddie, it was like flying," she gasped out when she could finally think enough to put words together. She shivered at the vibration from his chuckle.

"I know, lass. I know. It's like flying, but without a plane."

"Oh, laddie, you knew all along, didn't you?"

"I knew it for me, lass, but I wasn't sure I could do it for you." He kissed her firmly. "It's not always like this, lass."

"Oh, laddie." She clung to him as the post-coital exhaustion struck. "We can fly any time we want to, even when the weather is too awful to get to the planes...."

He held her tight as she drifted into sleep; marveling at her and feeling his love for her expand impossibly greater. "My lass, always and forever," he whispered as he kissed her forehead before nestling her close and pressing his cheek against her head as he dozed.

When she awoke, it was daylight. She was held tightly in her husband's arms and smiled as she felt him shift slightly in his sleep, pushing his hips against her as his erection sought her. She slipped a hand down to lightly caress him, letting her curiosity lead her. She found his foreskin and gently pushed at it, baring the sensitive head. She was held too closely to look, but her fingers told her that he was quite ready for another flight.

"Rachel?" he mumbled sleepily, feeling her hand on him.

"Let's go flying, laddie."

He hadn't been sure, but her suggestion sent his heart soaring, and he laughed. "Only with you, lass. Always and forever."

"Always and forever, laddie."

This time, she took a far more active part as they explored and learned each other's preferences.

It was late afternoon by the time they finally moved from the bed. She'd learned the reason for the towel, and watched in amusement as Alec peeled it from the bed. When he asked her to shower with him, she'd readily agreed, which almost led them back to bed, but both of their stomachs were reminding them that they'd not really eaten anything but hors d'oeuvres in well over twenty-four hours.

"So do you want to go out, or what?" Alec watched her. There was a pronounced sway to her walk, he noticed, and couldn't help smiling.

"Well, there's just the leftovers, here. Why not call Mr. Michaels and let him drive us around, see the sights and maybe make a suggestion?"

"Lovely idea."

Joe was surprised when they insisted he eat with them. He was simply a driver who'd been hired to show them around. He knew they were movie people, since the reservation had come from Harlington-Straker Studios in England. They certainly didn't act like any of the movie people he'd met, before. When they asked him for a recommendation on where to eat, he suggested the buffet at Harrah's. He expected to wait in the car for them, but Alec told him to park it and join them. He was a little nervous, but agreed. The prime rib was, as always, superb. Joe tried to blend into the scenery, for the most part, particularly when he realized that they were newlyweds. He was amused at the way they acted, like kids, almost. Holding hands almost constantly.

Finally, their stomachs full and contented, Alec sighed and looked at his bride. "So, what's on the agenda, lass? We've got to meet with that writer, chap, right?"

"Not until Sunday. He's coming for the races. The rest of the time is our own, for the most part." She grinned at him.

"So, besides gambling, what's to do around here?" Alec looked at Joe for a suggestion.

"There's the museum in Sparks. The Harrah's car collection?"

"That might be good for a couple of hours. What else?"

Joe started listing the local entertainments, realizing that for the most part, it was just gambling. Alec chuckled and shook his head.

"Don't worry, Joe." He almost leered at his wife, "We can always entertain ourselves."

"We could always go flying, laddie," Rachel practically purred, a mischievous gleam in her eyes.

"Not after tomorrow, though, lass. The airport will be restricted." Alec pretended to misunderstand, although his eyes told her otherwise.

The private innuendo went completely over Joe's head. After dinner, he drove them around and suggested they go to a show, but the couple preferred returning to their quarters. Joe was given a large tip and he thanked them profusely. As he drove away, he thought what a nice couple they were, for older people.

By Sunday, they'd bonded so strongly that they had begun to communicate without words. They were out on the balcony, watching the planes, when there was a knock at the door. Alec started to get up, but Rachel beat him to it. "I'll get it, laddie." He just smiled and watched her go answer the door.

"Mr. Rawlings?" she asked softly of the man at the door. He was only as tall as she was, but he'd probably shrunk with age.

"Call me Ross, Miss Post."

"Ross, then, but only if you call me Rachel, and it's Freeman, now." She backed away from the door to let him enter.

"Oh? Congrats." He looked around the chalet, impressed. "Fancy place." His accent placed his origins in Northern New York.

She giggled and leaned close to tell him, "The studio is paying for it." He smiled and nodded, following her out to the balcony, where Alec stood waiting for them.

"Ross, this is my husband, Alec. He's going to be directing the film, besides producing it."

"Producer and director, eh?" Ross shook Alec's hand firmly.

Alec shrugged a bit diffidently. "Not my idea, the directing, but it struck my boss as a logical idea." He motioned Ross to a chair.

"Oh? Why is that?"

Alec chuckled and pointed down on the tarmac. "That Beaufighter down there is mine."

Ross stood and looked avidly at the twin-engined plane. "She's beautiful. She's Australian, I see. Like your wife."

"And me. I'm afraid I've mostly lost my accent. Been living with the pommies for the past thirty or so years."

"Where'd you get her?"

"Sydney, when I was sixteen. She'd crashed and just been hauled off the field. Got her in 1949. Cost me more to have her hauled home than it did for the plane and specs. My uncle helped me rebuild her."

"1949...that was a hell of a long time ago."

"I've got a few more besides her, but she was my first. Got my instrument and multi-engine ratings in her. She's a good girl."

"Not the fastest, but good range and sturdy."

"That she is. Rachel said you'd flown them?"

"Yes. Got shot down over one of those nameless little islands and interred there. Two years as a Japanese POW."

"That's rough. My mate, Ed, was shot down over Viet Nam, spent a year or so as a guest of the Cong."

Ross nodded. "After I was repatriated, I married the camp commander's daughter." He grinned at Alec's surprise. "She kept sneaking extra food to us, as much as she could, but the soldiers weren't any better off than we were, really. We've been married fifty years, now."

"Congratulations," Rachel said. "We were wondering, would you be interested in coming and acting as advisor on the film?"


"Yes. We'll be filming in Australia and New Zealand, for the most part. Like I said, I got tagged to direct because I fly, but you lived it, and I'd really like it if you'd come and help keep us honest."

"I haven't been back to Australia since the war."

Alec looked surprised. "You were in Australia?"

"Yeah. I shipped my plane there and barnstormed all over the country back from '37 through '41. After Pearl, I headed for Perth, shoved my plane in a barn and contacted the US Embassy. Got inducted right then and there and shipped to California for training, then back to fly. Got shot down in '43."

Alec was frowning and looking at his wife, who was looking decidedly uncomfortable. "Barnstorming?" he asked softly.

"Yeah. It's all in my book." Ross looked surprised. "I thought that was why you were making the movie, because you read the book?"

Alec shook his head. "I haven't read it. My daughter started reading the script and couldn't put it down. I know she went out and got the book, but I only read the script." His gaze remained on his wife, who wouldn't look at him. "What did I miss, lass?"

Her eyes met his and she blushed. "Ross, tell him the dedication in your book." She kept her eyes on her husband's.

Ross frowned and looked from one to the other, then shrugged. "Sure. It was fall in Sydney in 1941, May or there-abouts." He didn't see Alec's eyes widen and shift from his wife to him, nor his brows furrow down and his eyes narrow as his full focus turned to the American. "I was giving rides in my Jenny for a shilling and had been doing it for the entire week. Kept the plane and my belly filled, and I was even putting cash away for leaner times. There was this little kid, polite little cuss. He wanted to take a ride because his older brothers pushed him into it."

"Four of them, old enough to be my father," Alec whispered, gaping at him.

His breath caught in his throat as his eyes widened and he stared at him. "What?"

"My brothers. Twelve to twenty years older than me. Dared me."

"Spent every cent he had getting ride, after ride."

"Til the end of the day, when I'd only one shilling left, and he made me wait until all the others had gone, then we went up one, last time."

"I said that any kid who was willing to spend his last penny on airplane rides needed to learn to fly for himself."

"And he told me to take the stick, and to pull back, slow and steady, and we did a loop...."

"Like he knew what he was doing. I was ready to grab the stick, but the kid did it perfectly...."

There was an earth-shattering silence as the two men stared at each other. Finally, Ross whispered, "You did grow up to fly, then."

Alec smiled. "Yes. My uncle came back from coast-watching with a little plane. When I was twelve, I flew my injured father to the hospital, unconscious. He lived."

Ross smiled and nodded. "I always hoped that kid got to fly."

"Come with us to film."

"I'd be honored."

"You knew."


"You knew. Rachel told me she told you. You knew. You set me up, you bloodyminded Yankee sneak!"

"Oh, with Rawlings? Yes, I suppose we did."


"Well, Rachel, Louise and I."

Alec shook his head. "You bleeding...."

"You're welcome."

Alec tried to glare, but failed miserably, grinning instead. "He's going to do it. But then, you probably knew that. Setting it up like you did."

"Actually, I didn't. But I hoped. So, when does filming start?"

"Next month. Want to be late spring, before it gets too hot."

Ed nodded. "That'll be fine. How's the cast?"

"Good lot. No one too famous, and the star is actually interested in learning to fly."

"Good, that's good, then. Might I make a suggestion?"

"What's that?"

"Put that part about you as a kid in it?"

Alec frowned. "Why?"

"It's human interest...and then put a bit with the two of you at the end... Maybe flying?"


Ed looked embarrassed. "You know that wedding gift your kids got you?"


"Remember how you said it looked just like the one you first flew in?"

"Yeah?" He drew the word out.

Ed finally looked him in the eyes. "That's because it is the same plane."

"Bloody hell," Alec whispered, face slack with shock.


He shook his head, trying to wrap his mind around it all. "Bloody hell."

"You said that."

"Damn. Bloody hell."


Alec shook his head, "No one will believe it."

Ed shrugged, smiling. "The most wonderful thing about coincidence is that it happens so very often."

"Bloody hell." He scowled at his friend. "Does Rachel know about the Jenny?"

Ed shook his head. "No. When you two took her up? I asked Mark about it. He had the papers showing it had belonged to Rawlings. We were afraid to tell you at the time. You might have missed your flight."

"Bloody hell."

"You might ask him if he'd like to take her up, for old time's sake?"

Alec shook his head, sadly. "He can't fly any more. Vision and heart. But maybe I can return the favor from fifty-five years ago."

"I'm sure he'd be delighted." They smiled at each other.

They'd wrapped the day before and the cast and crew had been invited to the station for a party, Ross and his wife included. When Alec broached the subject of flying with Mrs. Rawlings, she'd smiled and nodded her approval. "He would like that very much, Alec-san. I think he is not so old to fly, but the medical board, they failed his last physical, because a younger man died at the controls the week before and crashed, killing all aboard."

"Thank you, Miko-san. I'll ask him to help me pre-flight as well."

The elderly woman looked at him narrow-eyed. "What are you not saying, Alec-san?"

Alec blushed slightly as he grinned. Leaning close to whisper to her, he explained, "It's the same plane he had back then. My kids got it for us as a wedding gift; they had no idea what it was, or what it meant."

Miko Rawlings brought a hand up to cover her mouth as she gaped at him. "He will be so pleased."

"I hope so." Bowing to her, he straightened up. "Hey, Ross! Come give me a hand, will you? I've got something to show you."

Alec used the radio, "She's all yours." His hands and feet hovered over the controls, 'just in case', as they started to climb, flipping over into a perfect loop. Ross Rawlings' shout of glee could be heard by those on the ground, as the cameraman caught it on film. He'd wondered why, when they'd wrapped, he'd been instructed to bring a camera and plenty of film. None of them could get over the myriad coincidences that had culminated in the reunion of the man and the now grown boy from so long ago.

Rachel watched with the others and heard her husband's joyous laughter. She smiled, understanding exactly what he was feeling and shivered.


"Did you see the old man they've got to fly the new bird?"

"Yeah. What are they thinking, anyway? Jojo will have his guts for garters in seconds."

Half a dozen young pilots stood about, watching the new jet fighter being unveiled. "It isn't very big, is it," one of the more vocal lads murmured. He jostled the man next to him. "I bet even our own little Amelia Earhart could outfly that old fossil. What are they thinking?"

Ed Straker stood quietly by, listening to them chatter. Percival, frowning in consternation, leaned close to whisper. "Are they daft?"

Ed looked at the earnest young man. His wife had been correct in pointing out the kid's ABD in Engineering. After today, he'd be allowed to publish. True, the impetus behind this new design had been SHADO's commander, but without Percival's engineering insights, it might not have happened. He smiled. "Just immature, Percy. I'm rather looking forward to seeing them try and keep up and lock on to Alec."

Percival giggled nervously. He could hardly believe his good fortune. The commander had gone from terrorizing him to mentor over the past two years. This was the culmination of their work. The RAF lads here were getting the honor of trying to take on their new little beauty. They'd taken a bit of the Harrier technology and tweaked it to their own purposes. He couldn't wait to see their reaction to some of the stunts this plane could do.

His attention was brought back to the task at hand as their new little fighter took off...straight up, much to the consternation of the RAF lads.

Straker turned to the wing commander. "As you can see, she's capable of extremely short take offs."

"Good Lord," the Air Marshal murmured.

Ed smiled. "Wait until you see what she can do in the air. We use the directional ports like ordinary planes use flaps and rudders. Totally new technology." He didn't mention that they'd used a great deal of their interceptor technology for terrestrial use, here. This new weapons system combined the best of their interceptor technology with the innovations they'd gained through SkyDivers.

"Yes, well I still think you should have tapped a younger pilot. That man's in his sixties!"

Ed's smile thinned. "Yes, but he brings certain skills to piloting our new toy that are required."

The Air Marshall snorted in disbelief. "You can't convince me that age and experience can replace the reaction time and daring of my lads."

"I just hope 'your lads' can keep up." He turned away from the angry flush of the Air Marshal and watched as Alec hovered, waiting for his opponents.

He was humming to himself, a jaunty little tune his wife had sung in the shower that morning. When the three different fighters had formed up and were ready, he smiled wolfishly and thumbed his radio on. "Right, then, lads. Are you ready to play 'follow my leader'?"

"Roger that."

"Good luck. Try not to splatter yourselves on the tarmac, hmmm?" With that admonishment, he hit the thrusters and blew past the three circling jets, literally leaving them in his dust. As he played fox to their hounds, he began to sing, not realizing that his radio was still broadcasting. "In the merry month of June, from me home I started, left the girls of Tuam, really broken-hearted; saluted father, dear, kissed me darling mother, drank a pint of beer, me grief and tears to smother; then off to reap the corn, leave where I was born, cut a stout blackthorn to banish ghosts and goblins; a brand new pair of brogues rattling o're the bogs and frightening all the dogs on the rocky road to Dublin, one, two, three, four, five, hunt the hare and turn her down the rocky road and all the way to Dublin, whack follol de rah!"

He stopped singing abruptly when he heard Ed's voice over the radio. "Alec, don't tease them so much. Remember, you're on audio down here."

"Sorry, Commander. I'll try to keep my amusements to myself." Humming, now, he started up into a loop, but his turning diameter could not be matched by the chase planes, and he flew through their formation, inverted.

Jojo Collins saw his opponent's face, grinning at him through the cockpit. Furious that someone as old as that should possibly out-fly him, he broke formation and determined to engage the 'old man'. Alec, spotting the change in tactics from his instruments just grinned more broadly. "Ah, a live one." He turned back to engage, humming a new tune.

"What the devil is that your man is humming?" the Air Marshal growled.

"I believe it's 'Snoopy vs. the Red Baron', Air Marshal." He gave the livid RAF man his mildest look as that worthy spluttered his fury and turned to his men, who'd stopped commenting on the age of the pilot of the new plane as their respect grew at his abilities, or at least the abilities of his plane.

"Don't we have anyone better than that?" he snarled, pointing up at the unequal dogfight going on above them.

"Just that chap here on the exchange programme, sir."

"Well, get him up there!"

"Yes, sir."

He'd already pulled double-duty. He'd flown three training sorties in the past forty-eight hours and had dropped, exhausted, into his bunk a mere four hours earlier. Now, he'd been roused and ordered into the air yet again after some stupid experimental plane. To his surprise, the locals were all very encouraging; a far cry from their attitude when he'd outflown their best man. He glanced at his co-pilot, frowning. "What've I missed?"

She gestured up. "New plane. The pilot's in his sixties and is absolutely showing them all up. The boss is seriously pissed."

He chuckled, having been on the receiving end of that ire, himself, just the day before. "So, now he thinks the chap from down-under will succeed where others have failed?"

She shrugged, finishing her part of the pre-flight check. "I think at this point, he's praying that you'll at least be able to hold your own. That plane is fantastic."

"But they want me to fly this old relic against it?" He gestured to the F-111.

"Worse, they've given you me for a co-pilot."

"Tara, you're the best bloody pilot they've got. If they're too stupid to realize it, then that's their loss."

"Thanks, Mark. Meanwhile, we'd better get up there and see about pulling their bacon from the flames."

They climbed into their bird and cleared with the tower for take-off. Climbing in a spiral, they took a look around, finally spotting their quarry, harrying its three opponents, firing one deadly burst after another of laser-targeting gear.

"Ouch, he's really tearing them apart."

"Yeah, and there's three of them and only one of him. Look at that!" 'That' was a loop...or, rather, a somersault.


"Yeah. They expect us to take on that?"

He shrugged. "We'll just have to do our best." He checked his gages and took a deep breath, rather looking forward to the challenge. "Ready?"

"As I'll ever be."

"Then here we go."

He almost managed to blindside their foe, who hadn't expected a fourth adversary, he'd just barely locked his targeting on the stranger when it pulled another one of those somersaults. There was no way they could follow, so he instead pulled up into a loop.

"Ah, fresh meat," came an almost sultry voice over the radio. The distortion made it a bit difficult to make out the man's accent. "So, who might you be, lad?"

"Major Mark Ashton, Royal Australian Air Force, on temporary assignment here. And who might you be?" he asked politely, unlike the other three, who had laughed at the pilot's age.

"Mark Ashton?" Even through the distortion of the radio, the shock was apparent.

"Yes. Do I know you?"

The bellowing laugh of his opponent was his only answer for a moment. "See if you can keep up with me, son."

Mark frowned, glancing at his co-pilot who just widened her eyes at him and shrugged. "Yes, sir." He formed up on the smaller plane and they played 'follow my leader' across the sky, leaving the other three to lick their wounds and land. It was hard to keep up. The smaller jet was not only more mobile, but faster, as well.

After twenty minutes of easy play, his opponent spoke again. "Not bad, son. How're your dogfighting skills?"

"Better than average. My dad and I spent a week or so last summer playing with his Jenny. Why?"

"Bit slow, a Jenny, don't you think?"

"Maybe, but she's a good little plane. I'm hoping to hook up with him while I'm here, maybe finally get to see the rest of his collection. Maybe get to fly with him."

"How long have you been here?"

"Three weeks. I haven't even had time to call and let him know I'm here, yet."

"Ah, well, I'm sure he'll be more than happy to let you come and play with his toys. P'raps you and your old dad and step-mother and you're dad's mate can all go up and dogfight with planes that really make you know what it means to fly."

Mark's plane bobbled for just an instant, then he laughed. "Perhaps we can, Dad." Then he whooped and flipped over, flying up above his opponent. The stared at each other from a mere fifteen feet away. "Catch me if you can, Dad." With that, he flipped over and peeled away, the smaller plane hot after him.

On the ground, Ed Straker covered his surprise well and watched the ensuing action even more closely. He knew that Alec's last holiday 'back home' had included time with his eldest son. He'd taken him up in the Jenny and introduced him to the aerobatics and dogfighting techniques that those antique planes of his were capable of. Now, he watched as those same maneuvers were played out between five and ten thousand feet above and at speeds approaching mach. The rest of the pilots were gathered around, watching. When the three who had tried taking on the 'old man' in the 'new plane' joined them, he noticed some rather pointed joshing from the others.

"Hey, Jojo, he's going to show you up again."

"Not bloody likely. That new plane's something else. I swear she could fly backwards." His admiration of the plane was grudging, and he still had no respect for the pilot, Ed noticed.

"That plane is only as good as her pilot."

"Oh, please. That old man? Pull the other one, mister." Jojo pulled a packet of cigarettes from his flight suit and lit up.

"Tell you what, Jojo, what say we put him in that F-111 up there and you go against him, one-on-one?"

Jojo choked on his smoke and burst into almost hysterical laughter. "If he can even fly one! Hell, I'll take him on, Harrier to Harrier."

"That would hardly be fair to you, though. You'll need all the advantages you can get," Ed mocked.

"Look!" One of the others called their attention to what was going on above them. The two planes looked like they were dancing, belly-to-belly, they spiraled across the sky.

"Like eagles mating," Percival murmured in awe. Ed looked at him in surprise, as always when the man demonstrated an artistic bent. He watched for a few seconds, until the two planes split off from one another.

"Yes, it is, rather, isn't it."

"Who's that pilot?" the Air Marshal asked his aide.

"Major Ashton, RAAF, sir. You spoke to him the other day, sir."

He nodded, sighing. He'd been annoyed that the young man had so badly shown up his own best pilots, but now, he was grateful. He seemed to be at least holding his own. He turned to the designers of the plane. "How much of that," he gestured to the two planes above them, "Is due to the machine?"

"As you may have noticed, Air Marshal, our little bird is capable of doing somersaults. However, most of it is really the skills of her pilot. His idea of 'fun' is to take up a WWI plane and dogfight with it."

"Aren't they too fragile for that?"

"He keeps them in fighting trim. And he's been flying for more than fifty years." He couldn't resist the snide comment.

The Air Marshal scowled, glancing aloft again as the smaller, more agile and faster plane did a barrel roll around his larger opponent, causing his men on the ground to groan in dismay. "How old is he? I thought he was sixty?"

"Sixty-five as of his last birthday. If you're curious, he had his semi-annual physical back on his birthday. He's still confounding the medics."

"Semi-annual? Because of his age?"

"No. Because he lost a kidney when my ex-wife tried to kill me." His mouth formed a grimace of annoyance as he remembered. "She missed and hit him." He raised his eyes to the Air Marshal, who was his own age. "He passed his physical with flying colors. He always does. He's in better shape than most of your pilots here, I'd be willing to wager. Your boy, Jojo, there, would like to take him on, one-on-one in equivalent planes. I don't think he'd look very good trying." He smiled thinly, daring him. The Air Marshal looked up again as the smaller plane finally stopped playing and got the F-111 in his sights.

"Sorry, son, but it's time to go home."

"No worries, Dad. It's been an education." He peeled away and headed in for a landing, waggling his wings in salute.

Alec did a few barrel rolls. He'd convinced them to make the controls just like a normal plane, explaining that it would be easier for a pilot to work the new technology if the particulars were familiar. He radioed the tower, requesting a fly-by. He was denied and told to land. He sighed and began to comply. Then, with a mischievous grin, he 'came in for his landing'....


"He must be mad!" the Air Marshal cried out, gaping at the fast-moving little jet coming straight for them.

Shaking his head, Ed spoke into the radio. "Alec?"

By way of response, the plane seemed to slam on the brakes as it flipped back upright and came to a near-standstill and then settled vertically right in front of them.


"Just checking."

"No worries, mate."

"None at all, buddy."

Every single pilot on the base wanted to volunteer to learn to fly their little Peregrine. When Alec stepped from the cockpit and stood grinning like a kid at Christmas at them all, Ed just shook his head and patted him on the shoulder. "Nice commentary, Colonel," he said softly.

"Thank you, Commander." He was almost laughing. "Did you see who they sent up after me? Had to get in the pro from down-under, they did."

"Yes, I saw that. He had an advantage, though. He knows how to dogfight."

Alec's grin widened almost impossibly. "Yeah, he does. Learned them well, I'd say. Not bragging, mind you."

"Alec, it isn't bragging when it's the simple truth."

"Well, Mr. Straker. I must admit that I'm impressed with your new toy. How many of my men would you like to train on her?"

Alec's grin was tight. "Just two."

"Two?" The Air Marshal was disappointed. He was wondering if he could convince the Air Ministry to buy some of these little jets.

"Yeah. Alec pointed. "Those two."

The Air Marshall choked. "But Ashton's only here on an exchange program, and his co-pilot is a woman!"

Ed stiffened at that comment. "I have to agree, sir. They were the only ones to even come close to keeping up with us." He nodded, giving Alec a questioning look. This wasn't just showing off their new weapons system. This was an active recruitment for SHADO. And Alec knew it.

Alec's gaze was steady on his friend. At the unspoken question, he sighed, shrugged infinitesimally, and smiled slightly. While the Air Marshal blustered, he shifted closer to Ed and Percival and explained. "They're also the only two to take it all seriously and didn't act all snotty about it."

Ed nodded and glanced at Percival, who was nodding as well.

"Attitude is everything, sir?"

"Exactly, Percy. Now, mind you, I'd rather not recruit my own son, but under the circumstances, he's the very best one here. Maybe we should have tried the Yanks at Mildenhall?"

"Maybe. Let's see how these two work out first, though, shall we?"

"Of course, Commander."

"Did you invite him for dinner?"

"He'll call as soon as they give him more than time to sleep. He did well, lass. He'd be perfect for the Peregrine program. I just wish...."

"That he wasn't your son? That it wasn't for SHADO? Laddie, the one truly good thing about his being the best qualified is that you'll be able to have him near."

Alec grinned and hugged her. "True, lass. And if he's in SHADO, maybe the boss will let us have time off together to go and play."

Rachel grinned. "So, laddie, when is your next time off? I've not seen our cat in nearly a month." She was referring to Hangar Cat, the half-lynx that preferred to pretend she was wild, rather than be a house-cat like her two male siblings.

"This weekend, barring anything coming in. In the meanwhile, we could do a little house-flying...." His voice dropped down to a seductive purr.

"Lovely idea, laddie."

"I'm serious, Tara. That was my dad."

They were in the O-club. They'd gotten a lot of congratulations, along with some envy and a few sneers from those who disdained anyone that wasn't old guard. Jojo (the most sneering of all) laughed. "Liar. I checked. His name is Freeman, not Ashton."

Mark grinned. "Alec Freeman, Colonel (ret). Yes, I know. Transferred from RAAF to RAF in 1965, after Susan Freeman wrote him a dear john and remarried Antony Ashton. I've a brother and sister, and if you really care about it, I can get you the proof. Dad donated bone marrow to my sister three years ago to cure her leukemia."

"I say you're a liar."

Mark shrugged. Jojo wasn't worth his time. "Suit yourself, then." He looked up as the door opened. He stood up, grinning broadly. "Dad! Over here."

Alec Freeman and his wife crossed the room and Jojo received a shock when the 'old man' gathered his taller son into a bear hug. "Mark, thanks for the invite."

"I'm just glad you could come. They still have me stuck on-site. I guess they're afraid I'll scarper or something." He turned to Rachel and bent down to give her a hug, as well. "Great to see you, Rachel. You keeping him in line?"

"As if I needed to? So, when are you going to come and play with us?" She smiled as she sat in the chair Mark held for her, taking her husband's hand as he sat beside her.

"As soon as they'll let me." Mark sighed. "Dad let me try the Peregrine, this afternoon. She's a ripper."

"She is, that. Have you considered the offer?"

"Still thinking about it." He frowned at his father. "Dad's a bit unforthcoming on information, though."

"Need to know, son."

"He's really your son?" Jojo asked plaintively. Alec glanced up at him.

"Yes. Why?" He looked aggrievedly at his son, wondering what was going on.

"Damn." He glared at Mark. "Nothing like having an 'in', is there, Ashton?"

Alec stiffened. "Hold on, there. When he came up after us, I had no idea who he was. He hadn't even had a chance to call and let me know he was here." He stood and glared down at the surly young Squadron Leader. "If you think he's getting something he hasn't earned, think again. Better yet, go look at your scores against him in your training sorties, why don't you?"

Jojo huffed and stormed out of the lounge, seeing he had no one on his side.

"Surly lad, that," Rachel murmured, catching her husband's hand and pulling him down beside her. She took a deep breath and smiled brightly around at the remaining pilots. "Now, then. I'm Rachel Freeman, and you all are?"

Introductions were quickly made as well as excuses and soon there were only four people left at the table. Rachel looked at Flight Lieutenant Tara Walsh. "So, what did you think of our little Peregrine?"

"Oh, she's wonderful! I can hardly wait to go up in her again. How you managed those seats, the cushioning so that the g-forces don't throw you about is amazing."

The Freemans both nodded and soon they were all avidly discussing flying in general and the new jet specifically. When Rachel invited them both to join them on the weekend (providing they could get a pass) to go flying, Tara's eyes lit up.

"What kind of plane do you have?" That innocent question sent them off into the realm of WWI fighters and dogfighting and stunt flying and aerobatics in general. Rachel smiled knowingly at the young Flying Lieutenant. Recognizing a kindred spirit, she turned her attention to Mark, wondering if he'd picked up on it. By the end of the evening, they had tentatively made plans to get together and introduce her to the joys of 'real' flying.

"Tara's a winner, lass," Alec murmured to her late that night after their own personal flight.

"I noticed. She got that same look in her eye as I do when the subject comes up. D'you think she'll do for SHADO?"

"She's bright, talented, and eager. Plus, she can be trained."

"Like Mark."

"Like Mark."

"What's the commander think?"

Alec chuckled dryly, snuggling her impossibly closer. "He's already apologizing for dragging him in. Boy hasn't said 'yes' and he's already planning on putting him in charge of the ground-based aerial defenses."

"I'm glad, laddie. You'll get to see a lot more of him. And if he and Tara make a go of it...."

"I'll have even more grandkids than I do now."

"You've only the three."

"So far."

She smiled. "So far."

"More than I ever thought possible, thirty years ago, lass; or even three, truth to tell."

"More than I ever dreamed of, laddie."

"My lass," he murmured possessively.

"Yours, laddie. Always and forever."

"Always and forever," he agreed, closing his eyes and dreaming of his bride and flying.

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