A Path of Roses And Thorns
A fanfic by Brother Grimace
(Author's Note: This fic was written as part of a challenge from the PPMB - that I write a fic in which Daria's Aunt Amy gets happily married, and that Daria is asked to be her maid of honor. Taking liberties with the AU of another writer (as I've done before), this fic takes place during the course of Daria's sophomore year at Raft (a la the 'Falling Into College' series). As requested (in a manner of speaking), this four-part fanfic miniseries takes place after the events of 'Silver Lining'. For purposes of continuity, the school year at Tennyson begins about one week earlier than at Raft, during mid-August.
Blame the bug guy – it was his challenge on PPMB!)
Saturday, September 8, 2001 – about 11:45 a.m.
With all of the effort and chaos over the past year that bringing Amy Barksdale to the wedding chapel had entailed, one thought kept circling through Paula Trainor's mind: Anyone who keeps this wedding from happening will simply have to die.
"Stop thinking like that, Colonel Trainor. You're scaring the civilians."
"The Posse Comitatus Act does not have a provision for weddings, smarty. They screw this up and I'll turn them into vapor."
Amy Barksdale shook her head, and smiled. "Okay - what's the deal with the camera crew again?"
"They're filming all aspects of the wedding, dummy - your wedding, remember? Follow along; your boy-toy's folks are connected and loaded, your people are connected - did you really think that no one would bring a camera along?"
"You are enjoying this a little too much, Zoomie Smurf. You know that, don't you?"
"In all fairness to the greatness that is me, I did find you a husband. You made it a difficult process, castrating the braver souls with that acid glare of yours and scaring away the rest on personality alone... You in a bridal gown was something I was resigned to seeing only on Halloween."
Amy looked up from the vanity table, and Quinn Morgendorffer slapped her hand as she reached up to bush an errant strand of hair from her eyes. "No, Aunt Amy - we do that," she said, motioning Tiffany Blum-Deckler forward with a styling comb. "While she's working with your hair, we might as well do a touch-up of your lip gloss and the eye shadow - just a TOUCH, Stacy! GOD, do you WANT her to look like one of the raccoons from 'Doctor Dolittle on her WEDDING DAY? How would YOU like it if someone did your makeup like you're going to star in an 'abused woman' movie on Lifetime?"
At the sound of Amy's voice, the tall, beautiful African-American woman nibbling at a thin chocolate slice turned to face the four former members of the Lawndale High School Fashion Club. "Ladies - what did I say before about 'professional demeanor'?
The four younger women quickly - and quietly - made a few final brush-strokes to Amy's appearance, and beat a hasty retreat as Paula Trainor rose from her chair, soothing out her Air Force dress uniform as she picked up a small box and walked over to Amy. "Time to do the 'maid of honor' stuff..."
"Did you get someone to watch the car and the luggage?"
"Seven of my fourth-years - I'd hate for anyone to get close," Paula smiled. "As I was saying, here's the 'something old... blah, blah, blah...' part. First, for something old. Your mother came through for you. She really did."
Paula opened the box, and Amy's eyes widened in surprised disbelief. "She asked me to give this to you; somehow, she thought that there might be some sort of unnatural emotional outburst if she gave you these in person."
"The pearls," Amy said, her voice suddenly choked with emotion. "I thought she'd give them to Daria, now that she's actually got someone worthwhile - and when her problems started, I thought that she'd have to sell them..." She ran her fingers over the long, thin, perfect strand of pearls. "These are - they've been in the Barksdale family for seven generations - eight, if you count my nieces... They get passed down on the day of someone's wedding - Helen and Rita both knew they weren't going to get them, and the way Quinn and Erin carry themselves..."
"Unless you want those unholy priestesses of Revlon back in here to fix your makeup - thus delaying your receipt of your shiny new ball and chain by a good twenty minutes or so - I'd advise you not to cry," Paula said, unable to keep the mirth from her voice. "Twenty or some years from now, when your kid is in her gown, about to jump the broom, I'll just have to tell her how Mom - despite her years of being stoic as a redwood facing a wildfire - cried tears of emotion before she got married."
"Are you trying to be bitchy on my wedding day, Paula?"
"Not a bit, Amy, " Paula said, fastening the strand of pearls around her friend's neck. "Just making sure that you go in with eyes wide open and your brain still running. It's your day, friend of mine - it's all about your being happy. Just don't lose who you are when you attach the 'Mrs.' to the front of your name." She stood up, and looked at the reflection of her best friend in the mirror. "That... is perfect. I'd say you have the 'something old' part covered. Now, for the rest..."
Amy watched as Paula went back and picked up the small box. "For the 'something new,' well... This is from all of us in the coven. Everyone chipped in."
"You're worse than me, Paula. You know they hate it when they - oh, my..."
Her eyes fell upon the handkerchief, brilliantly golden in the midday sunlight that poured through a window into the room. "It's made of Muga silk," Paula told her, taking the large silken cloth and placing it in Amy's hands. "Angela came up with the idea, Sammi did the legwork to have it made, and Sharon picked it up last month, when her detail went over to India on Lady Sommerville-Howes' trip. Very nice."
"For 'something borrowed', well... your niece has a very twisted sense of humor."
Amy let a big smile cross her face as she saw Paula hold up her niece Daria's old, round glasses. "Perfect," she said, taking her own glasses off and placing Daria's on. "It's almost scary how alike the two of us are, sometimes..."
"At least you can see - that's what's important. Now, for something blue..." Paula hesitated for a moment, then pulled something from her pocket and pressed it into her friend's hand. "Do not lose that."
A moment of silence reigned as Amy opened her hand to see a small silver ring set with a large sapphire, glittering... "Paula..."
"Hey, don't you start," Paula told her. "It's either this or the ribbon from my DSM - and that's only mostly blue."
"Excuse me, like, Miss Colonel Military Lady, or whatever..."
Amy sighed, and Paula let a long breath out. "Oh, I'd love to PT her until her thighs drain buttermilk," she said, turning to face Sandi Griffin, who had pushed her head through the door. "Yes?"
"They said that they're about to get started, so they, like, need you to stand out there next to the priest."
"I'm on my way, Miss Griffin."
Paula moved towards the door, Sandi giving her a wide berth, when a sudden, insistent beeping came from inside her uniform. "Damn..."
"I thought that you weren't going to have that today."
"I left my standard one at home," Paula said, her voice becoming hollow as she looked at the number: 202-456-1414. "This is the emergency beeper... hell." She turned to Sandi. "Go out there, find her niece Daria, and ask her to come in here. Do it now."
"You're skipping out on my wedding-?"
"Probably," Paula replied, her own stomach falling as she saw the look on her best friend's face, and she held up her pager. "That's the number for the White House switchboard. I have to use a phone... where's my cell..."
As Paula found her cell phone and began to talk, the door to the waiting room opened and Daria entered, followed by every single Barksdale woman on the premises. "Amy, if you're thinking for a moment that you're backing out of this wedding, after everything that everyone's done, and all of the preparations, the people coming in from all over –"
"Helen, you're probably hoping that she is getting cold feet, so you can hold it over her head that you're the only one that's had anything even remotely close to a normal wedding," Rita Barksdale snorted, making Helen Morgendorffer turn a bright red color. "Scared that Amy's not only going to get a stable man, but a rich one, too? Not much to turn your nose up at now, right?"
"Don't you DARE act like I'm ashamed of my Jake!" Helen almost screeched, stepping forward, and Quinn stepped between them. "Quinn-"
"Mom, you're supposed to take it easy, remember?"
"Quinn, you need to remember that you're still a child, and –"
"Don't you talk to my baby like that – I don't care if you are her grandmother!" Helen hissed, and Daria Morgendorffer rolled her eyes at the overly dramatic manner in which Tess Barksdale grasped at her chest. "You-
"You all need to lower your voices – and then, all of you except for Daria need to leave," a calm, yet deadly voice from off to the side spoke, breaking through the rising familial tension. "Amy's getting married and no, she doesn't have cold feet-"
"I'm surprised that you want to be here anyway – I thought you'd be the last one to get involved with weddings, especially my sister's-"
"Perhaps you'd like to explain to the person on the other end of this line why I'm talking to you instead of him," Paula said, locking her eyes with Helen. "Nice guy – comes from Texas and has two girls like you do, works in a round room, has the job that you always dream about... Please leave. Now."
The room emptied in a blink, and Daria stood in a wide space as Paula turned back to her phone. "I have to learn how to do that with annoying people," she said, noticing the glasses Amy wore and smiling. "Love your choice of eyewear."
"I'm glad you thought of it," Amy told her. "Nice trick she does to empty a room, isn't it?"
"From what I've heard, Daria, you've got similar skills already," Paula said, following her gaze and smirking... a smirk that disappeared as she remembered the phone in her hand. "Daria, I need to ask a big favor of you – with your permission, of course, Amy."
Amy nodded. "Daria – I have to leave. I need you to stand in for me as maid of honor for your Aunt Amy – can you do that for me?"
Daria looked from Paula to Amy and back again. "Okay," she said simply. "What do I have to do?"
"That's a good question. Mainly, you just have to make sure that she actually gets up to the altar once she goes out that door," Paula said, almost laughing as memories flooded back through her. "It shouldn't be that hard – after all, I've already done all of the hard work in getting her here..."
One year earlier...
The Executive Dining Area in the Tennyson University Student Center was an impressive eatery in its own right, and a dining experience fashionable enough to not only draw notables from the Washington, D.C. area on a regular basis, but also gain a high ranking in the Zagat Survey.
So damned fancy that it's actually priced out of the budgets of most of the students...thank God dining privileges come with tenure, Paula thought, nibbling at her Cobb salad as she studied the handsome gentleman seated at an angle from her. Eating here otherwise would be out of the question, I'm not a big fan of the ROTC mess, and I hate having to go out for lunch every day... besides, being here today has a special purpose – if this idiot doesn't screw it up.
"How long have you been working on Senator Johnassen's staff?"
"Just over six years. I came aboard to help with his last re-election campaign – his chief of staff left to have her twins – and he kept me on as his press secretary." Jerome Dots took a sip of coffee, and continued on. "You wouldn't think that a good ol' boy like him would have the PR nightmares that he does, but then again, who can really control their kids like they'd want to?"
"As far as I'm concerned, the best thing about children is that they go home with their parents at the end of the day."
"Now, how's that attitude going to land a husband for a pretty lady like you?"
"If I wanted a husband, I'd have had one by now," Paula bluntly informed the dark-haired man, making his eyes widen as he unknowingly drew back a bit. "And why haven't you gotten back on the horse yourself?"
"Which one? Oh... when I find the right one, I'll know. Until then, I'll just sample at the local fauna." Jerome cast an appreciative glance at the long, shapely legs of the woman before him, and showed no sign of shame as he looked back up to see her large, chocolate eyes studying him carefully. "Sorry. Force of habit..."
"Well... at least it means you're not gay, and I know the divorce didn't turn you into walking wreckage... do you want to tell me ahead of time if you've got any fatal flaws...?"
"Yes. I'm letting you set me up on a date instead of going all out after you. A lieutenant colonel... do you like shorter guys...?"
"What did I say a few moments ago-?"
Paula glanced past Jerome as Amy walked into the Executive Dining Area, and a smile brushed across her face as she saw the look directed at her before Amy continued on her way. "Would you excuse me for a second?"
As Paula rose from her chair, smoothing out her Air Force uniform, she heard a distinct, recognizable snort of disdain from the next table. "What is it this time, Cheryl?"
She looked down to see Professor Cheryl Newlin, barely-restrained dislike in her tone. "What's bothering you today?"
"Oh, nothing – it's just so sad to see you looking for a man for the dainty princess over there," Cheryl said lightly, swirling angel hair pasta around her fork. "It's so sad to see a woman like that – so intelligent, so worldly, and so very, very alone..." She took a taste of the pasta, and brushed her butter-blonde hair back as she turned her Midwestern-perfect face to look up at Paula. " But then again, I'm sure that she has her tenure to keep her warm."
"You're a stain, Cheryl."
She started away, but stopped as Cheryl continued on. "I hear my Nikki's done well in your Basic Military History course."
"She didn't have a choice." An image of a young woman flashed through Paula's head; she was tall, youthful and slender, with Cheryl's hair, eyes - and attitude – and Paula suddenly had a bad aftertaste in her mouth. "You won't be able to get her through those courses, and neither will your brother, the gentleman from Arizona. Why the hell is she in ROTC, anyway? I'd think a Senator would want to keep his niece out of uniform!"
"For the life of me, I don't know," Cheryl replied breezily. "I mean, when she first mentioned it, I pointed you out and said, 'My God, Nicole, look at her! Do you want to be like that? Anyway, the 'faculty and families' luncheon's next week; you might want to herd the Princess Amy off somewhere, so she won't feel left out again-"
Cheryl suddenly found herself almost nose-to-nose with Paula, and tried to shrink back from eyes that were now twin dark suns. "I can deal with your cracks about me. Continually trying to hurt my friend is why you're on my list. Disrespect the uniform again, and I will punish you."
Paula drew herself to her full height, and surveyed the now-quiet dining area... and the people who were trying not to look anywhere in Paula's direction. "Learn... to behave yourself, Professor Newlin."
Leaving a visibly shaken Cheryl in her wake, Paula continued across the room.
Standing in line, Amy selected a small dish of strawberry Jell-O, and her small, delicate hand had almost closed on the edge of a salad bowl when she felt a very familiar gaze on her back. "If you've got that guy over there for me, I swear I'll find a way to pay you back."
"Look. Just talk to him."
Amy didn't even bother to look up. "Well, we've given up all of our subtle ways for Lent, haven't we? By the way, what's with the public thrashing of the Cheryl?"
"Sometimes, the housebreaking doesn't take, and you have to put them back on the paper. As for Jerome – that's the boy's name, by the way – well, Barksdale, we're way past the point where subtle hints and accidental meetings will do any good," Paula said, managing to keep a sense of levity in her tone as she towered above her petite colleague. "You need to act as if you have a social life, because people keep bugging me about 'why doesn't your hot little friend with the glasses go out with anyone?' or 'Why doesn't she just break the honor code and bed one of the students?' People will understand..."
Amy stopped and looked at Paula, who shrugged. "Yes, the general consensus is that you're a beautiful woman. Beats me – I've seen you scare away starving dogs..."
"I was covered in mud and twigs, and I had one of those hand-sized air-horns, Paula-"
"Yes, but you rose up on the balls of your feet and screeched, too. The air-horn only made them run faster. Are you going to eat that pork roast? About time you put a little more meat on those bones – a man wants a little something to hold onto!"
A grimace on her face as her hand pulled away from the plate, Amy selected a chef's salad. 'What would you know about that?"
Paula smiled, and Amy suppressed an urge to throw the piece of pork roast right at it. "Well, Amy - that's what I've heard!"
"Should you even be saying things like this, especially since you're wearing that uniform?"
"As long as I keep my private life just that, don't act like a fool in public and don't disrespect the uniform, nobody gets to say anything," Paula told her. 'Don't ask, don't tell' is probably the only thing the Boss had done publicly that's worth anything. It's not perfect, but I'm not a crusader, I'm a soldier."
"You're Air Force."
"Yes, but since I don't fly planes, I had to learn how to shoot things in order to get respect."
"Shoot things?' Paula, you used to command a silo full of nuclear missiles." Amy placed a small bag of carrot sticks on her tray, then turned slightly and headed towards the cashier. 'You know the irony factor behind that all but breaks the scale."
"Yeah, yeah. Pay for your rabbit munchables, already."
"You know, my niece has a friend like you..."
"Incredibly beautiful, unspeakably intelligent, and can still fit into the clothes she wore when she was nineteen?"
"Well, as much as I'd like to say 'No, she's just a bitch', she's a supreme yenta. Well, was – Daria found a very nice boy all on her own."
"All that tells me is that your niece's friend has few skills and no resolve. 'Can't be done'? A phrase not listed in the military lexicon."
Amy started away when Paula cleared her throat. "What is it now...?"
"Oh, Amy...? You forgot your daily serving of the Elixir of Life, my tiny comrade-in-arms..."
"Not going to work today, Trainor..."
Paula went over to her friend, put her hands on Amy's shoulders, and guided her back to the soda dispenser. "Just go ahead and get it, and then we'll go sit, have lunch, and you can alienate yet another potential suitor!"
Amy stared daggers as Paula reached past her to get a large Styrofoam cup, filled it half-full with shaved ice and filled it to the brim with Barq's root beer. "There. Your filthy brew is bubbling and ready. Let us proceed!"
Amy sighed. "Okay. I'll eat with him."
A half-hour later, Amy adjusted the shoulder strap of her handbag, then continued along the walkway past the large, open area in front of the Bealer Auditorium, tuning out the sounds of students engaged in various activities under the unseasonably pleasant afternoon sky.
A trio of co-eds swooshed past on roller blades, followed by a boy on his trail bike, and Amy had to move quickly to avoid him. "Sorry!" the boy called out, looking back – and immediately flipped over a depression in the ground.
It never occurred to Amy that she was drawing many interested stares, or that the way her skirt moved around her legs was the cause of a multi-student pileup in the ongoing game of Frisbee that she'd just passed.
Finding a spot at a picnic table shaded by a small grove of trees, Amy pulled the bag of carrot sticks from her handbag. I should have at least eaten while I was ignoring that Dots guy... this isn't going to cut it...
A giggle caught her attention, and Amy saw a couple sitting down beside a tree on the other side of the grove. The young man kept putting his hand down, against the girls' slightly extended abdomen, and Amy realized that he was-
"Hey! I felt her kick!"
Amy tried to turn her attention away from the young couple, but every time the girl giggled, or one of them laughed, she glanced over at them, and felt a cold throbbing in her chest each time she looked at the soft, rounded swelling beneath the sweater the girl wore...
I'll never know what that feels like. People can describe it, and tell you the most minute details, but I'll never know what it's like to be pregnant. I'll never know what it's like to have some little person look up at me from their crib, wrap their tiny fingers around one of mine and smile their tiny little baby smile up at me, and know that that's a part of me...I'll never know what it's like for someone to call me 'Mommy'.
I went further than my sisters could ever have dreamed – and they're going to have more than I could ever imagine. Through Erin, Quinn and Daria, they're going to live forever.
When I'm gone – that's it. No more Amy Barksdale. My ideas might live on, my words, my views, my vision... but I'll be just as dead to the world as this table.
Where did my life go...?
The sound of chittering near the table made Amy look around, and she looked down to see a plump gray squirrel besides the tree, standing on its hindquarters as it held its paws out for a treat. "Okay, you talked me into it," she sighed, tossing the squirrel a carrot stick and watching as he began to nibble with gusto. "The irony here is that you're a better lunch date than that guy..."
The squirrel just looked her as he kept nibbling.
"Yup...same conversational skills, too."
Several persons in the area jumped as the theme to Red Dwarf blared from Amy's general direction, and she shrugged at their disapproving glares as she flipped her cell phone open. "Dr. Barksdale...Oh, yes, Cassie. I'd just stopped for lunch and a walk... What do you mean, 'It didn't come in today?' Cassie, did you call the FedEx people and ask them...they said what? It was what? SOMEONE MISPLACED IT? You mean someone STOLE MY-"
Amy looked around; even the squirrels were staring at her. "What?"
The world returned to its business as Amy focused back on her phone. "Cassie, you put any appointments I've got this afternoon off until tomorrow – I'm heading out to National Airport, and if somebody at that desk doesn't come across with... oh. A new one? Dan got a new car in today... yeah. I'll go and check that out first...
Rising from the table, Amy set out a pair of carrot sticks for the squirrel. "At least you'll have a good lunch," she said, laying out more from her bag as she saw a second squirrel peering around the tree at the first squirrel's bounty. "And a date, too. Don't go chasing her tail afterwards, either. Not until the fourth date. Those are the rules."
"So, got rid of the 'General Lee' and traded up, I see."
"Hey, hey, Doc Amy! Come to check up on our latest bad boy?"
Daniel St. John pulled himself out from underneath the car he was working on, a big smile covering his face as he recognized the shoes. "What do you think? Latest class project and charity fundraiser – a 1980 Trans-Am, one of the actual cars used by Burt Reynolds in the classic 'good-ol' boys' flick 'Smokey And The Bandit!"
The auburn-haired woman raised an eyebrow as Daniel stood up and brushed himself off, standing a good head taller than Amy. "So, what's the word?" he asked, his words holding a slight Southern accent. "I'm surprised we got something like her this year – remember fall semester, two years back – who the hell wants a 'Brady Bunch' station wagon? Still can't believe we sold her for that much..."
"Tell me about it," Amy replied, reaching up and pulling pieces of hay out of Daniel's dirty-blond hair, kept cut slightly longer than average. "Geez, Dan, hay? Where did this thing come from?"
"Some fool down in southern Georgia with too much money and not enough sense kept buying all sorts of movie cars, but didn't take care of 'em – just stuck 'em in his barns on his land down there. Died this summer, the family had to sell off a lot of stuff to keep afloat, and some folks I know down thataways let me know about the tax auction. Got her for next to nothing. She's a keeper, you think?"
Amy walked slowly around the more-than-slightly battered vehicle. "It's seen better days, Dan."
"Well, haven't we all, darlin'," Daniel laughed, clicking his tongue as he wiped a thick patch of spider webs away from the front grille. "I've got some real good kids in this year – brains in each one of 'em, but they've all got that feel for cars. Even the real smart ones spent a lot of time under a hood out under a tree or in a junkyard somewhere – got this six-foot-plus girl-puppy with blonde hair in this semester, freshman, looks like she should be on the hood of the car once we fix it up? Be damned if she can't take a carburetor apart and rebuild the damned thing blindfolded!"
A small, slightly exasperated sigh filled the garage area of the Auto Technologies Annex. "Is this the reason why you called me over, Dan?"
"Well, no. I wanted to make sure that you bring that tiny little red thing in so I can give it a once-over..." Amy glared at him; nobody got to make fun of her pride and joy, a sporty little red Triumph Spitfire.
"I also have this collection of some Kleenex-thin NASCAR t-shirts I picked up just for you – figured that when me and my puppies get her up, running, all pristine and proud, you'd like to come out and do the first test drive. Of course, you'd need something appropriate to wear..." A huge, charming smile reappeared across his grime-streaked, handsome face, making him appear years younger than his true age – which, Amy remembered with a touch of chagrin, was six years younger than her own. "If you want, I can get you a hat just like the one Burt wore, and some heels ...if you're a good girl, I'll let you ride shotgun when I really put the hammer down."
"I should never have told you I watched that movie!"
"Oh, that's not the thing, Doc Amy – probably shouldn't have told me you know the movie by heart."
"Not by heart...well, I watched it a few times..."
"When it came out, me and my friends cut classes every day for a week and snuck into the show to see it over and over..." Daniel was lost in thought for a moment. "Missed my final in freshman math... my folks thought they'd throw me out of high school when the truant officer hauled us in..."
"Ma'am, I am not a 'hillbilly'. I am a son of the South, and I am proud to be so."
"Don't remind me."
As Amy continued to orbit the car, Daniel brushed himself off a bit and fell in step with her. "Uh, Amy..."
She immediately noticed how the 'doc' dropped out of his vocabulary, and the pleasant twang faded slightly beneath a more direct tone. "I hear a catastrophe coming on..."
"You know I think the world of you – even though you're Yankee royalty-"
"My family is from Virginia-"
"No, we're not!"
"All I know is that I've never seen old photos or read up on any Barksdales wearing the Gray and taking orders from Jeff Davis," he said, clearing enjoying the banter. "My family's been in South Carolina since the 1700's, and we believe in keeping track of our history. That's something for another time, however."
"I'll have to tell Sherman that we won't be using the 'Wayback Machine' today. He'll be crushed."
Daniel gave Amy a look that made her suddenly feel like she was thirteen, and rediscovering boys all over again. "You've always been a good person -"
"Well, no one ever said that you weren't highly observant."
"God, you're smarter than any five members of my family put together-"
"If you did that in real life, that'd be a movie I'd watch."
"-And you're probably the most wonderful woman I've ever laid eyes on, and I've laid eyes on quite a few, counting my time traveling in the service-"
"Bet that's not the only thing you've laid on them."
"Will you stop that?" Daniel snapped, bringing Amy to a full stop. "You always do that – people give you compliments, but if they're about you as a person, you brush them off or say something to queer the moment. You don't need to do that; it's something a teen- it's not something a woman like you needs to do."
Amy turned slowly to face him. "Daniel-"
"Oh, getting formal – even though we've known one another for almost eight years. Yeah, and that's a good sign of things to come..."
"I don't want to hurt you-"
"Why is it that every time a woman starts off with those words, the day ends with folks needing to get a truckload of sawdust, with shovels, rakes and some squeegees to clean up the mess? Damn, woman, I just want to go out with you – and not just to the track to air out the latest burner my kids here fixed up."
"No – you want more. If it was just about sex, it wouldn't be so bad, but you want more from me."
"Well, what the hell's wrong with that? What's wrong with my caring about you more than the other folks around here? God, I look at you almost every day and I see someone that deserves to have some good things in her life! Why won't you let me treat you special?'
"Uh, I got your 'special treatment' – down in Pensacola, remember?"
"I remember wanting to make it a real thing, not just somebody crawling off her bed and into my sleeping bag to work off an all-night bender." Daniel reached out and lifted her chin, bringing them into eye contact as he caressed her cheek. "I seem to remember that there's no problem between us in that department, either. We managed to get along as a pair quite well that entire weekend, didn't we? We're already friends, and there's never been any reason why we can't make this into more..."
"Yes, there is." Amy gently took his hand from her face. "That side-trip from Miami to pick up those cars with you was a mistake. Letting that damned accent of yours get to me after a few drinks and a hundred-degree night was a mistake. Being involved with one Southern man was a mistake." She stepped away from him, and Daniel knew her well enough to notice the slight flush in her cheeks.
So. She does remember- and not to this South Carolina boy's detriment, not at all...
He brushed a long, wayward lock of hair back from his forehead, keeping the smile off his face as he noticed Amy look away. She always did like my hair long this way... what, you don't think I've noticed what you like and don't all these years? "I've heard it before, Amy – 'I'm not going to make the same mistake twice."
"No, Daniel – I have made the same mistake twice. The thing is, mistakes aren't errors unless you refuse to correct them. Getting involved with another Southerner is an error I refuse to make. You are my friend – just a friend - and it's going to stay that way."
Daniel leaned on the side of the car. "You're going to wash your hands of generations of fine South Carolina gentlemen because of your dealings with the good Doctor Anton Davidson... no-account Louisiana trash, the way I always figured it – probably one of those strutting peacocks from New Orleans. No – I never did ask, because I figured you'd come down from your ivory tower one day and just open up to me about him."
"Getting advice on how to deal with jerks, from somebody from who lives in the same neighborhood?"
"That's the problem, Amy, and you know it. It wasn't that he was a Southern man, it's that he wasn't a good man." He fixed Amy with a direct stare that she couldn't turn away from. You also know that I will never walk away from you. You say the word, and I will follow you off the edge of this Earth."
Amy took a deep breath, counting to ten before she could trust herself to speak. "Well," she finally uttered, managing to break eye contact as she stepped further from Daniel. "That's a theory we're not going to test, out in the real world."
As Amy turned to walk away, Daniel was temped to call out 'Your loss', but held his silence as he watched her leave.
Not her loss, he thought to himself, slowly tapping his forehead on the car's rooftop. Our loss.
"Damn stupid, stubborn, prideful woman," he said, lifting his head up as he grasped a heavy, oil-stained towel from its resting place on the hood, and flung it halfway across the area. "DAMN!"
About two hours later, Amy looked up from a book as Paula entered her office, and started going through her refrigerator without asking. "You know, this is part of the reason why I didn't take you up on your offer to share an office." Well, one more reason - with the ATA building right across the way...
"Oh, I thought it was because the Sociology department is here in this perfectly-placed location near the center of campus, where you can reach anywhere quickly, and because us warmongers are laagered over in the MTA." Paula replied, tossing her uniform jacket onto the coat tree before lounging in a worn, comfortable Queen Anne chair next to a window and sipping from a carton of low fat milk. "Speaking of which, I heard you went across the parking lot, and did a little slumming down on the Speed Channel. What rusted-out metal did they drag back to the ATA this semester?"
"You really don't like Dan, do you?"
"The Baron of Bondo? I don't really give him much thought at all," Paula huffed. "Okay, I have. He's a gearhead."
"He's got a Master's degree in chemistry, and his doctorate is in mechanical engineering."
"So, he's the one that keeps the moonshine still and the 'General Lee' running, when he's not reading the comic books to the others while the kid on the porch backs him up on banjo."
"He's a full professor here at Tennyson, Paula. He designs cars as well as fixing them – and he's an expert in the field. If he wanted, he could make millions building specialty cars for movies, and overage adolescents with big wallets."
"Yeah? I'll call Lucas." Paula mimicked making a phone call. "Hello, George? It's Paula. Those new landspeeders you were thinking about for the next movie? Got the guy for you..."
"He's my friend, you're my friend. He's a redneck car-freak from South Carolina; you're an elitist Rhode Island snob playing mother hen for Uncle Sam. I have strange friends."
"I'll take that as the compliment you meant it to be," Paula yawned, stretching in the chair as she noticed the bullhorn sitting atop one of the metal file cabinets lining the wall next to the door. "What's that for?"
"Cassie left it here; it's from that marching competition they had out on the quad last week."
"It's not a 'marching' competition, it's called 'step," Paula laughed, tossing the empty milk carton into a wastebasket. "Stop being so white."
"This from you – the girl from Rhode Island?"
"Oooh – she bites back. So, what's the latest big project around here – or, what are you supposed to be doing while you eat chocolate and splurge off the wealthy mothers and fathers who send their children to us for an education?"
"They didn't send them to me," Amy said, sitting up in her chair. "That's your cross to bear. As for me - if you must know - I'm sifting through some last-minute additions for our primary project: a multi-generational study of families and the effects of higher education in relation to initial financial base and social settings, as well as geographical placements of the families in question. Right now, however, I'm reading over something one of your warmonger friends wrote. 'Culling The Herd - The Psychological and Socio-Political Effects, Moral Considerations and Legal Ramifications of Median- and Long-Term Human Engineering Within Closed and Isolated Social Constructs.' Doctoral thesis in psychology by a guy named Armalin. The jacket says that he's a Marine."
"Yeah, the name sounds familiar..." Paula mused. "Oh, forget the book. If it were up to me, I'd have you forget all of these books... at least for a weekend... a three- or four-day weekend, if you can. Amy, you work in Washington, D.C.!"
"What are you talking about?"
"Jerome. You. Lunch. If someone had pulled the shades and given me a glass of cold water, I would've thought I was on hand for a re-enactment of the Titanic going down!"
"When he wasn't checking out your legs, he was undressing me with his eyes. I don't need to even think about going out with some guy who's just trolling... I knew I shouldn't have gone over with you to that table..."
"Well, if you'd actually talked to him, let him inside that head of yours a little bit, and let him see the person that I get to see, his eyes wouldn't have been wandering! He'd have been engaged in conversation with one of the most interesting persons I've ever met, and the only thought going through his head would have been 'Real date. I have to take her out on a real date. My God, what an incredible woman this is – thank you, God, for letting me be smart enough to listen to Paula and go meet her friend over an innocent, stress-free lunch. I've got to see her again!"
"I hate being set up with guys."
"Amy, I love you like a sister, but you're a pain in the butt! There are unbelievable men walking all over the city and more flock here every day – this city is Hollywood for smart people!"
Paula brushed her hair back. "There are handsome men out there by the truckload, and there's probably more starlet material running errands and making copies for Congress than you'd find at any L.A. audition! They're intelligent, motivated, they're quite capable of making sure that they show you a good time... Why the hell do you think some of the people here got into public office – the chance to help out their fellow citizens? No! It's to get some measure of power and use it to munch away at the field of hotties wandering the D.C. swamplands!"
Amy shrunk back into her chair, invoking a snarl from Paula. "Oh, no you don't – don't you even start with that 'I'm just a plain-looking woman' bit – you don't think I recognize that slouch? Uh, no – I've seen how men look at you. As far as they're concerned, you're very fair game... and there's plenty of little boys on this campus who'd kill to help you get your groove back, Stella!"
"Why are you so worried about me finding a guy...?"
Paula's face softened. "Because you are, bunkie," she said, leaning forward. "You're the little sister I never got the chance to have, and it hurts me to see you in pain. Don't you think I see how you look sometimes when couples walk by; that look you get each and every time you see two of the little kiddies run past hand-in-hand, eyes for each other and no one else in the world...?"
She got up and went over to Amy's desk, sitting down on the top and picking up the book Amy was reading. "I know that look... they've got their lives in front of them, all sorts of doors open and waiting for them to walk through, and you're wondering if some of those doors are already closed for you."
Paula looked at the small, framed photo sitting on a shelf just behind Amy's desk, and walked over to pick it up. The photo was of a young couple; a red-haired young man, and a young woman who looked eerily like Amy...
"You probably don't even know it, but you've been in a low-level funk since just before the school year began... isn't that when your sister had her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary?"
The puppy-dog look of sadness that tinged Amy's features brought a lump into her friend's throat. "I don't get it, Paula," Amy said, her voice small. "I know that there's nothing wrong with me – but sometimes, it seems as if there's something that's just not right enough."
Paula reached over and squeezed Amy's hand. "God. The fact that we actually think things like that about ourselves... Look. I've been your friend for sixteen years. We've been through all sorts of crap since grad school – you practically sat my second year for me, what, with me getting to spend that year of 'Reagan; The Sequel;' going 'I'm the QB!' –
"The football' – I was the officer who got to travel in the motorcade and all over with the briefcase handcuffed to my wrist, remember? If it weren't for you busting your butt covering for me and getting notes, it would have taken me much longer to finish up. We're both veterans of the cotillion dance floor, even though one of us had forgotten that opera gloves are not for slapping our senior high-school prom date across the face."
Amy blushed deeply. "I should have kept my mouth shut." That's the second time today I've said that...or something close...damn, they do know me.
"Yes, but you just don't. Still, you're more than okay, Barksdale. You've never considered me 'your friend who's...' – I've always been 'Paula' to you. I'm your friend. I don't say it enough, but you can't know how much that's always meant to me."
Paula sat up. "Besides, you've never complained about me dating your friends."
The tiny brunette snapped around. "They're NOT my friends – they're women who think I'm gay because I don't have a guy constantly slobbering all over me-"
"Or just can't understand your good taste in not letting that redneck take you across the Manson-Nixon Line and fill you up with redneck babies while you're learning how to make grits, fried corn, 'johnny cake' and squirrel 'n dumplings for a grand Thanksgiving dinner for his sister who's also his mother," Paula growled.
Amy let it pass; she suddenly wasn't paying attention, and her mind wandered off to about the previous Saturday afternoon at her apartment.... If you knew, Paula, you'd snap like a dry branch...
It was just after five, she'd finished reviewing interview tapes of Fabian Nogura and two of his three daughters, and her stomach was growling because she hadn't bothered to eat since the night before – she was stupid like that, getting so wrapped up in her work... the doorbell rang, and even before she could get any words of protest out at Daniel's showing up unannounced – hell, just showing up on her doorstep! – The smell rising from the box of carryout had thoroughly distracted her. Brazilian barbeque beef, and before she knew better, she was lying back on her couch, dragon-head slippers kicked carelessly to one side as Daniel massaged her feet... oh, God, where did you learn to do that, you know that it makes every sensible thought just slide right out of my head, but I never think straight when it comes to you anyway-
He was there, right there, with those brown eyes that go soft when he looks at me, and oh, God, I could feel so safe just falling into them, but I'm not going to let that happen, nobody's getting that close in ever again, I refuse to allow anyone else the chance to make me cry – touch me there again, I love the way you run both of your hands over my ankle like that-
Daniel was smart enough to not say anything; he just followed her lead. Afterwards, they just lay quietly in Amy's bed as sunlight faded out of the windows, and he slowly stroked her hair, letting her mold against him, feeling her relax as she fell asleep in his arms...such a wonderful feeling, having him holding me like that...
"Next time, do I have to go through Space Command to get a message to you, Amy? Just what the hell were you thinking about just now?"
"Huh? Oh, sorry, where was I – oh, yeah! Anyway, those women hit on me, I tell them I'm straight and then YOU come along and play 'Air Jordan', the rebound queen!"
"Being fair, I've only done that once."
"Four years ago, the party to celebrate my getting tenure, the literary agent who hit on me in order to get me to sign with her publisher?"
"Oh, I'd forgotten about Sheridan..." A warm smile crossed Paula's face, and she tried to wipe the expression away as she saw how Amy looked at her. "Sorry. Amy, you know that you're okay! Forget this crap they've tried to pour down women's throats about how we have to do this and do that in order to have a fulfilling life! You've done exactly what you wanted to do ever since I've known you!"
"Is that why we're friends?"
"Hey, when you're living your life the way you want in a world that says you have to do things 'their way', having a friend that knows how you feel is a pretty damn good thing to have," Paula replied. "You will find someone, Amy. You do know that, don't you?"
Amy took off her glasses as she rose from her chair. "I'm going to wash these," she said, gesturing towards the door of the small washroom. "Be right back."
As the door closed, Paula stood up and took a deep breath, then released it as she looked around her friend's office. Damn, she thought as she heard the sound of water running in the sink, she's probably in there crying because she doesn't want me to know just how lonely and scared she really is – as if I don't, already. Damn. An incredible woman... she's got brains, actually makes money, and doesn't tolerate fools...and even though she's not all 'burlap-sack' about it, she doesn't let people see just how attractive she really is...granted, she doesn't hide herself, but it's almost genetic, how she just doesn't let herself open up fully to view – she's like a peacock that never unfurls it's tail...
She's too proud, Paula continued, walking about the office. She wants someone in her life, but she's not going to compromise or advertise. She thinks it'll lessen her – and I agree. Besides, it'll have to be one hell of a man to tame this shrew, anyway!
Hmmn. Get Amy a guy... no... get Amy a husband. Hmmn. This will require thought. Hmmn...I need something to help with the thought process. Now, where does the small, fierce one keep her stash of tasty little love-substitutes...?
The restroom door opened, and Paula could see that Amy had washed her face. "Oh, Amy..."
Amy stopped short as Paula's head turned back down to the desk drawer she was going through. "If you're trying to pilfer my truffes du jour, you're out of luck."
"Come on, Amy – cough 'em up."
"Can't. The shipment got snaked at the airport."
Paula's head snapped up. "WHAT?"
"I went out to the FedEx depot out at National Airport for my Sprungli overnight package-"
"Ummmn... Wednesday truffes..." Paula let her mind wander...
"...But when I got there, they said that it was missing from the shipment, and someone must have taken it after they unloaded the plane but before it was checked off by the inspectors!"
"Someone must pay."
"Yeah. In the meanwhile, no Sprungli truffes du jour." Amy went over to her desk. "And no, I wasn't in the bathroom crying. Just needed to wash my face - I could smell the oil -" Her eyes went wide, and she cringed as Paula's head shot up like a hound catching a scent. "Paula, don't-"
"Oh, please don't tell me that you were down at 'Dan's Shade Tree Autobody' getting a lube job!"
"What is it with you and those rednecks? Damnit. Amy, that other bastard really hurt you, and now you're letting another one get you all hot and bothered – didn't that Florida trip get the message across?"
Amy let the shame she momentarily felt bubble over into anger. "You're not my mother."
"No – if I was your mother, I'd cut your allowance, take your car, cut your credit card in half and ground you so thoroughly that if a cat walked past your house, you'd think God smote you with lightning! Dan St. John's been chasing after you since you first set foot on this campus – you know what he's like!"
He treats me like a lady, lets me be a woman when the urge hits and if I said yes, he'd treat me like an Empress. I've read up on him, and the only reason I haven't asked him and his family to get involved in the study – No. Not with a man that makes me feel that out of control, even if being like that around Daniel makes me feel-
No man will ever hurt me like that again.
"Why the hell aren't you more concerned with your own romantic relationships?"
"Two reasons! One – I don't need to worry about finding someone; I'll just put on a nice gown, hit a few Washington parties and I'll find some woman that I actually have an interest in beyond the horizontal! It's not that difficult, because I don't mind admitting to myself that nobody's perfect and you have to take the good with the bad in a person! You don't want to see that or admit it about any guy you remotely like, so you put yourself in a position that lets you dump the guy or run away if EVERYTHING isn't perfect or he makes even a single mistake!"
"What the hell does that mean?"
"The only reason that you and Anton aren't married and making babies right now is because you just have to have your own way! There's no reason why you couldn't have compromised! There's no reason why you couldn't have gone down there with him - at the very least, you could have taken a sabbatical and worked on the revisions of your book and the new one you're writing now! It wasn't like he wanted you to just sit around and have his dinner waiting on the table when he gets home from classes! GROW UP!"
"THAT'S the second reason I wish you'd hurry up and find someone! People talk, Amy! The only reason they don't say we've hooked up is because they KNOW I could do a hell of a lot better than you in the dating pool!"
"You absolute bitch."
"With papers to prove it." Paula held up her hands, started to pace, and then retrieved her jacket as she headed for the door. "I'm going to get out of here. I need to check some stuff at my office, anyway."
Amy didn't look in her direction. "Yeah."
Paula opened the door; she slipped her jacket on, but stopped as she was almost through the entrance. "I know somebody who can probably get some truffes in for you. I'll make a call when I get over to the MTA."
Amy's voice sounded almost as tired as Paula's. "You'll need to wait a week. I can get them by then, Thanks, anyway."
"I think I can still swing Wednesday's batch. I'll be back about six-thirty for dinner. We'll hit that place over in Georgetown."
"Paula Trainor? Well, well, a call from one of the shining stars in my Air Force! What the hell can I do for you?"
Paula sighed as she pressed the receiver back to her ear; she'd been expecting the verbal outburst and held the phone away as soon as she said 'hello'. "Hello, General Kiieran. I need a favor from you."
Sitting at his desk at Ramstien Air Force Base in Germany, Lieutenant General Sean Kiieran set a glass of single-malt Scotch down and laughed. "Always liked that about you, Trainor. Not one for small talk, and yet you still managed to get past Captain in my Air Force. Damn, you're good!"
"First, when's the next Reserve or Guard T.I.S. flight leaving Ramstien?"
Sean's brows furrowed; it was an unofficial (and winked-upon) custom among flag-level officers in Europe to send and receive items to and from family members and friends via a quick (and very cheap, next to the freight companies) method. On occasion, fighter planes would be sent back to the United States from Europe or brought over by Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve pilots who were getting flying time in, in order to keep their flight certifications up to date. Of course, since they were going anyway, people naturally took the opportunity to send packages along...
"Tomorrow night. I've got damn near a hundred pilots here – the Illinois 182nd Fighter Group, as well as some boys from the New Hampshire Air National Guard – oh, yeah, got some guys from your neck of the woods here, too. They're Guard - with the 358th Tactical, out of Maryland... came over in Fifteen-Echoes. 'Strike-Eagles'. Somebody's planning on playing in the mud, and those Air Guard boys got some extra flight time in by flying them over. You need a delivery?"
"Well, that depends on you, sir. How mad is your wife at you this week?"
Fifty-three year old eyes darted immediately over to a trio of silver-and-beige bags sitting atop a wall shelf, next to a photograph of a young man standing before a Vietnam-era F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber. "Trainor, I've got a sixteen-year-old daughter who looks like she's thirty, likes chasing pilots, and Lainie's pissed at me because I won't pull each pilot on the base in and tell them that I'll cut their balls off with their own wings if they go near Sarah. I got her six pounds."
"You mean 'yesterday', don't you? Women get crazy over the Wednesday batches those people make! I can't give you any-"
"Sir, I need two pounds."
"Damn it, Trainor, did you hear me? It's for my wife, my daughter AND I try to keep two pounds on hand just in case one of my people gets stupid in one of the local cathouses, so they won't make a big stink with the law over here!"
"I'll get you and your family on the guest list at Buckingham Palace this coming New Year's Eve."
"It's almost seven-thirty here," Sean said without hesitation. "They're under the twelve-hour rule, so these kids have probably started in at the Officer's Club. I'd better go and grab one before they really get wound up..."
"General – I could use this yesterday."
"Understood, Colonel... and you're welcome. Call me sometimes when you don't need a favor."
Paula laughed, and settled in to talk to her former mentor. "Actually, I'll just make sure that you and your wife have a good time at the party. I'll fly over a day or so before, so I can attend..."
"So, who's the 'designated driver' tonight, boys?"
A loud roll of laughter filled the souvenir-covered walls of the Officer's Club, and the sea of pilots parted to reveal two pilots seated at a table in the middle of the room. "Well, we've got two of them tonight, gentlemen, both from the proud state of Maryland!" a tow-haired major said, lifting two cans of Pepsi and two glasses of ice from the bar and over to them. "Gentlemen – we have here tonight a proud team! We have 'Bolt' – who graciously accepted this proud posting, after defending his unit's honor against the pride of the Royal Air Force!"
The major put a soda can down in front of the annoyed, muscular African-American officer, who growled at him. "A shame that he doesn't handle a deck of cards with the same skill he handles his bird. We also have 'Gumball', who flew wingman for his friend, and thereby must also share in his shame! A frosty beverage for you as well!"
Lt. Colonel Maurice Wyatt stared daggers at the pilot with his jade-green eyes, and ran a finger through his scarlet hair as the pilot retreated back to the bar and hoisted a drink in his direction. "To 'Gumball' and 'Bolt!"
The assembled crowd lifted glasses in salute, and Major Lyle Wallister popped the top of his Pepsi as he turned back to his friend. "I'm sorry, Reese. Once again, the mouth overloads the brain -"
"So I had to back you up. Damned soccer punks with gold wings," Reese growled. "You'd think with all the time they spend drinking, cussing and kicking French ass, none of them would have the time to play well. Oh, man. We got hosed."
"Yeah, we did," Lyle laughed. "By the way – again – thanks for the heads-up on that girl."
"Just have to show the locals how they hung that name on you, don't you...Well, the next time I point out that she's wearing Prada boots instead of standard issue with her fatigues, you'll listen right away," Reese growled, chewing on a few chunks of crushed ice. "Don't know who she was, but I knew talking to her couldn't be good for either of us... Lyle, she was wearing a Gucci watch."
"You know, if wasn't for the fact that we've been like brothers since the Academy, hearing you say stuff like that would make me wonder about you. 'Don't ask, don't tell, and all that."
"Dawn was a shoe freak. God knows how many ways I had to hear about what fashion is and isn't from her – you don't think I know what woman want in clothes and accessories?" Reese took a sip of his soda. "You know, while you were talking to Miss Thing, I was looking over a copy of 'Vogue' that someone had left lying around in the hangar. 'Fall Fashion Issue'. I could just hear her rattling on about this handbag, and that heel height, and why that model allowed herself to be photographed in that light, with that shade of lipstick and blush..." He allowed himself to get lost in the moment, and Lyle nodded solemnly.
"Yeah. She was a class act – even if your mother liked her."
Lyle looked down to see the unit patch placed on the left breast of his flight jacket – a flaring total solar eclipse (moon over sun) with two elongated incisors protruding near the bottom of the moon, a drop of blood dangling from each fang. He glanced over to see the same patch on Reese's jacket, and held up his glass. "Daywalkers."
Reese clicked his glass against Lyle's. "Daywalkers."
The noise level suddenly dropped in the club, and Lyle nodded in the direction of the door. "Oh, jeez, look what just slimed through the door..."
Three MP's, dressed in meticulously cleaned and pressed uniforms, appeared through the suddenly cowed group. "The boys from Room 101," Reese said, using the same hushed tone Lyle had earlier. "Oh, this won't be pretty... wonder who's done what... they're not here for you, because all you did was talk to the girl for about six seconds..."
The MP's passed by the two without even a glance, and Lyle allowed himself to breathe. "Guess we dodged the bullet on that one."
Reese watched as the MP's exchanged words with the bartender and nodded in their direction – and the two men looked directly at him. "Eh... not so much."
Lyle's head drooped as the three walking walls came over and flanked him. "Pardon me, Lieutenant Colonel. I was just speaking to the bartender. You two aren't drinking tonight, is that right, sir?"
"That's right, Master Sergeant," Reese said, deciding that the emotionless MP's didn't need an excuse to bust someone down. "How can we help you?"
One of the other MP's spoke up. "You're both pilots, right?"
"That's right." Lyle caught the signal from Reese to play it cool.
"Lieutenant Colonel, Major – on your feet. You're coming with us."
"At ease, gentlemen. You're not in trouble. Don't bother sitting – you won't be here that long."
Reese and Lyle relaxed, and Sean pushed a securely wrapped shoebox-sized package across the desk towards them. "You're out of here ASAP. Once you touch down Stateside, I need you to run that over to Tennyson University, just outside of D.C. Deliver it to Colonel Paula Trainor – she's in the ROTC program there."
The two pilots spoke as one. "Yes, sir."
"Oh, and boys – I appreciate this. I appreciate this a lot."
He handed both men a box the size of a VHS tape, with the word 'Sprungli' written in small, elegant letters across the front. "On your way."
Saluting, Reese and Lyle turned and headed out the door. "So that's it – 'Bobo' duty? I thought we were so screwed...!"
"I hate it when you call it that," Reese said, shaking his head. "I knew somebody would probably ask us to carry something back..."
"What's with the little date-stamp on the side?" Lyle said, looking at the box. "It says 'Wednesday' – is that important?"
"Who knows – maybe the Swiss look at their candy the way they look at watch-making," Reese shrugged. "Well, it doesn't matter, anyway. You know who's getting these – the lab rats."
"Yeah, I know," Lyle smiled, tapping his box against Reese's. "I'd have been happier if he'd given us a bottle of that forty-year-old Scotch. Come on – let's get going for home."
"So, I'm in this mansion – looks like a set for a show like 'Dynasty', but more expensive, and I've got the great-grandmother, the grandmother, the mother and the daughter, who's finishing her grad work in international finance at Bromwell this year," Andrea Nogura laughed, taking a sip of wine as she speared a thick zucchini wedge out of her twice-baked vegetarian lasagna. "You should see how they walk into the room – oldest to youngest, in a straight line, all in step, and then they all turn and sit at the exact same time! All wearing the same style of dress, all with the same exact hairstyle, makeup, and the same type of friendship ring... Ladies, we're talking 'Stepford Wives!"
"Tell us about 'the speech', Sammi Rudolph laughed, nudging the slightly plump Japanese woman's arm. "Do that impression of the great-grandmother again – Sharon, you're gonna die over this one!"
Andrea drew herself up straight and stiff in her chair. "What you must understand, Miss Nogura, is that to be a Carlyle woman is not just being born into the position, but to understand what that entails; it is to uphold a tradition, a frame of mind, a way of life that has been passed down through the women of our line since before the birth of our nation. And so, the line of Carlyle endures today - the legacy of a great woman who had a vision, and a testament to the power of education – the lamp with which every Carlyle woman avails herself of, and in doing so, brings Majel Carlyle's vision to pass.'
She rose and took a slight bow as the other two women at the table whooped and applauded. "I felt like I was in a Oscar Wilde play. The funny thing is, though, that the daughter doesn't want to 'be a Carlyle woman'. She made me swear not to say anything, but after she gets her Master's in June – she's going into the FBI. Personally, I plan to stay well out of upstate New York during that month, because Miranda Carlyle is going to flip her eighty-five-year-old lid. Spry old woman, too..."
Sammi, a stunningly beautiful twenty-something with masses of dusty-blonde hair tied back in a thick, heavy braid, laughed through a glass of Samuel Adams as she saw Amy and Paula come through the door of the 'Green Meadow' restaurant. "Oh, hey! Paula – Paula! Amy! Over here!"
"Paula, I'm really not ready for a 'girls' night out..."
"What a coincidence – most girls out tonight aren't ready for you. Grab a chair."
"Hey, Paula, where's the uniform?" Andrea asked as Paula drooped into the seat across from Sammi. "Decided to go in street clothes tonight?"
"Cream pie stain – got in the way of an idiot frat rat and his stunt. They're paying for a new uniform... it happened out on the quad, just after the cadets were leaving a lecture at the MTA. Amazing how the presence of so many silent figures in uniforms calms down silly pledge stunts..."
"Well, even though you took your pound of flesh, it still looks like someone's had their melon harshed," Sharon Pingree chirped, her proper British accent clashing with her words. "Come, do sit down, Amy - one of your partners in crime has been amusing us with tales of researching your latest project!"
Amy's glare could have boiled an atmosphere away, and Andrea – a good seven inches taller and thirty pounds heavier than Amy – shrunk down into her seat. "Really. Associate Professor Nogura – I thought we'd spoken before about divulging privileged research information from an ongoing project."
Paula reached out for Sammi's beer, and got her hand slapped. "Ow. You can't kill her, Amy – she's the only married woman here. We need her for balance, and mother-in-law stories."
"Yeah, come on, red; it was a funny story!" Sammi laughed. "You need to lighten up-"
"She needs to get her pillow fluffed," Sharon said bluntly, taking a huge bite of her soy burger and chewing with slow, smirking satisfaction at the way Amy's lips tightened. "You know what they say – 'All work and no play means Amy needs a new toy - or a new boy'. If you're interested, I can talk to Harris. You remember him, Paula – from the embassy, he just took over the Ambassador's wife's security detail?"
"The short one with the librarian glasses and the hawk eyes? You're not working with him anymore - they took you off the Ambassador's detail?"
"Not officially; they want me working the formal events and embassy parties in an evening gown, because no one expects the leggy platinum-blonde in the $4,000 dress to be of any use to our grand representative of Her Majesty's government... unless, of course, our dear Lord Sommerville-Howes needs a suitable companion for the night while the lady of the manor's away..." The bitterness flowed from Sharon like water, and the others nodded as she smoothed her close-cropped hair back and drank deeply from her wineglass. "It's the same for any attractive girl at the Embassy; he'll try to bed us, but we can't be primary security for the Ambassador - we're not tough or intimidating enough, right? Anyway, Harris is single, stable, looking... and he drives an Aston Martin like James Bond himself - the Sean Connery version. I know you like that in a man."
"Yeah, she likes that," Paula shrugged, turning slightly as Amy looked at her with narrowed eyes – you told them? "Boys and their toys."
"Along those lines, the boy she's got out in the garage works for me," Sammi grunted. "God, Daniel's fine. You've gotta be doing him, Amy - and if you're not, can I have him?"
"Don't you have a boy friend already, Sammi?"
Sammi shot a pointed look in Paula's direction. "It's six-eighteen. I usually don't have a boyfriend until ten. What do you care about our local stock of 'Southern Comfort' – switching back over to driving stick?"
Paula laughed softly, but her eyes flared as if Sammi touched a nerve. "Well, Sammi, I've already told you before that we're not going out again unless you spend some money and learn how to dress in public. My God... showing up at the White House Correspondent's Dinner in something off-the-rack from J.C. Penney, as though your looks and that hair alone will get you through the door... What's wrong with you?"
Andrea, Amy and Sharon all turned as one towards Sammi, whose large, wet brown eyes seemed to become even larger. "In public'. She meant 'going out in public.' We went as friends, okay?"
The three women smiled at her. "Oh, come on, it's not a big thing! It wasn't 'a date'! The Vice-President was going to be there – I've wanted to meet him for ages!"
The nod of agreement from Paula as she quickly backpedaled fooled no one. "Yeah. She just kept bugging me and bugging me until I got tired of hearing her whine, so I said okay, and we spent some time with the Vice-President and the missus. Nothing else happened."
Amy smirked. "Oh. Okay. Of course."
Sammi whacked Paula's hand away from her beer again. "Look - all of you guys are connected and everything – you forget that when Miss 'I own a bridal shop-"
"A huge bridal shop," Amy interjected.
"A huge bridal shop that the D.C. elite and the bluebloods swarm around like flies," Andrea added, sipping her glass of water.
"But still has the worst personal taste in clothing ever," Sharon quipped, eyeing the worn jeans, wrinkled blouse, maroon blazer and sneakers she wore.
"-But doesn't get to go to all of the big-name shindigs and rub elbows with all of those folks. because she has to actually WORK for a living and can't afford thousand-dollar-plate dinners' gets a chance to go to the big dance, she's going no matter how she gets there! I just really wanted to go to that dinner! It wasn't a date!"
Sharon casually glanced at her nails. "Samantha, I seem to recall someone mentioning that you cleared three million last year."
The younger woman's voice stuck in her throat. "Well, yes – but I have a huge overhead-"
"So all the guys keep mentioning," Angela snickered, missing the searing glance Paula launched her way.
"At least they don't mention me and my chest on the radio, smarty girl. I've got overhead, and ancillary costs that eat away all the profits!"
Amy joined in. "Didn't someone figure up once that 'Link-Card Girl' here made somewhere along ten or fifteen times as much as the rest as us combined – even adding in what Paula makes with her 'outside consulting work'?"
Paula whipped around from suddenly raised eyebrows and questioning expressions to see a cherub-faced Amy. "Small as a parrot, and runs her mouth just as much."
Sharon let a small smile cross her face. "Well, that explains that BMW roadster you've been hiding over in Falls Church, Paula..." She saw the look of surprise that Amy and Sammi shared before turning to Paula with questioning glances. "Oops... I think I've said too much."
Andrea took a glance down at her chest, and then turned to fix Sammi with a catlike smile as she spoke up. "I remember that she wore heels. I mean, Sammi did."
Sammi blushed a deep red and Paula suddenly discovered something interesting on the window as Amy burst into gales of laughter.
"Caught with your hand in the cookie jar, Sammi – so to speak?" She almost fell over as she tilted her head in Paula's direction. "And you – lie, lie, lie, lie, lie."
The way Paula examined the window instead of looking at the others spoke volumes. "I did not."
Sharon looked up from her meal. "Our dear Samantha wore heels that night-?"
"Yes – really nice ones. Two-inch heel."
The Englishwoman rolled her gaze directly onto Sammi. "Strawberry-red ones – sliver-thin silver trim?"
"Sounds like them-"
Sharon chewed slowly on a steamed broccoli floret. "I'd wondered who borrowed them..."
"It wasn't me!"
Amy joined back in on the fun. "Last month I was over at Paula's, helping her bring in some stuff after we picked up some new clothes for this term, and as I was hanging up some dresses, I fell over a shoe like that. It stuck in my head because Paula NEVER wears heels like that – and besides, they weren't her size."
"Samantha. Go over to Paula's home. You apparently know the way. Get my shoes, and bring... them... back."
Despite the snickers from the others, Paula reached over for Sammi's glass of beer as the younger woman gave her a scathing glare. "You enjoyed that, didn't you?"
"I love the way your nose makes that little twitching when you get mad..." She smiled as she took a drink, and began to play 'footsie' with Sammi under the table as she set the glass back.
A young man came over to the table with a tray of drinks and two glasses of water. "Good evening, ladies; how are your meals tonight?"
As Sharon watched the waiter replacing her wineglass with intrigued eyes, Amy leaned in close to Paula, her voice a whisper. "She's a better pick than me?"
"One - she's rich. She's really rich. Two – you're straight and even if you weren't, you're not my type... too insane. Three - I can get behind back rubs. Foot rubs... no way. Four - when she takes that stupid braid down, do you realize just how much hair she has...?"
Amy came in closer. "What happened to 'don't ask, don't tell?"
"It's called 'having common sense', Amy – enough not to go throwing things up in public view where they can't be ignored. I don't flaunt myself, and I don't disrespect the uniform."
"You two went out to the biggest dinner of the year!"
"In a very nice gown, and we didn't make a scene. Trust me, Amy – no one wants me out of the service. If they showed me the door, they'd have no way to control me. Everybody has to give a little, and not embarrass each other."
"I don't believe you sometimes. She's fifteen years younger than you!"
"Oh, give it a rest – after all, I'm a very attractive thirty-nine, and if I were a man, you'd be jealous as hell."
Amy shook her head. "And you were going to mention your little car when...?"
"After you found a guy. I didn't want you thinking I'd gotten it to hit on you. Stop worrying about my sex life, and start worrying about your own tiny self. In the meantime, get some chocolate in you before you kill someone."
"She doesn't have any chocolate?"
Amy and Paula looked up at the sound of Sharon's outburst. "You don't have any of that Swiss chocolate you get?"
"Someone swiped it after the plane landed."
"Someone needs to leave their nosy-ears at work."
Angela's face lit up. "That's what you were screaming on the phone about this afternoon?"
Amy's eyes rolled. "You make it sound like everyone heard about it."
Sammi's laugh was like a bark as she sipped her fresh glass of beer, and Angela shook her head. "The student station mentioned it on the air, late this afternoon. God, I hate those little pri- I mean, those little punks on the radio over there. I still get snickers when I pass people in the halls because of that 'Best Faculty Body Parts' phone-in vote they started the year with..."
Amy tried not to snicker and Sammi openly laughed as Angela, quite unaware she did so, folded her arms over her unusually (for an Asian woman) full bosom. "Every time I go outside the offices, I have to wear a lab coat – can't wear turtlenecks or anything snug, because then, these idiots just stare- Paula!"
Paula was staring directly at Andrea's chest, a twinkle in her eyes as she looked up. "Oh, sorry... what were you saying, Sharon?"
A dinner roll hit the wall next to Paula's head, and Amy turned to see the waiter still standing there quietly, his face drained of color. "Freshman at Tennyson?"
"No, ma'am. Sophomore."
"Get out of the labs and walk around this town some more. Don't be so white."
"Why don't you give us a moment, okay...Tony?"
"Uhhh... yes, ma'am."
The waiter darted away, and Sammi laughed. "Amy, don't ever change."
"Look, he needs to be exposed to what's beyond the lab and the TV screen. Maybe then, he won't end up in the 'Clueless as Ann Coulter about D.C.' Club."
Sharon snapped her fingers, and the gunshot-loud sound brought Tony back in a flash. "I think they're ready to order – and if they're not, bring a double chocolate fudge sundae out here, right now." She fixed her eyes on Amy. "The future of the free world may not depend on it – but knowing you, Barksdale, I'm not taking chances."
"The worst thing about being a fighter pilot – no toilets," Lyle said, raising his voice so he could be heard over the sound of the shower. "I hate that..."
"Yeah – they conveniently left that out of 'Iron Eagle' and 'Top Gun!"
Reese sat on the bench in front of his locker, toweling off his hair. "Get your gold wings... get the glory, the honor, and the women. Oh, yes – there's no place to go in your jet if you have to do 'number two."
"What time is it?"
"Almost nine o'clock, local time," Reese told him, checking his watch. "No – nine-thirty. Got to love supersonic flight and a good tailwind. Speaking of 'wind', were you planning on calling in, so you could be on the air tomorrow?"
"I don't think so," Lyle told him, turning off the shower and pulling a towel off a rack. "As far as they're concerned, I'm still in Germany frolicking with the frauleins. Let that evil little heifer Timmes do an extra day or two in the main anchor chair – with any luck, there'll be a natural disaster somewhere, she'll get the story, get promoted to one of the networks and I'll never have to see that damned red hair and overstuffed blouse again. Well, not in person. "
"You truly dislike her."
"I know that 'if it bleeds, it leads' is a crutch for reporters who don't have the stones to get up off their butts and find real news." Lyle popped his locker door open, and pulled out a shirt. "I also know that if I went and turned my resignation in tomorrow, I'd still be a hundred times more reporter that this little newswhore who got to the main anchor desk barely a year out of college because she's a 'former Miss America' with a 36 C-cup. Jesus... you should see the blooper reels the guys at the station have of her. She still blows the cues the floor director gives her for which camera's hot."
He looked at his uniform shirt. "Class A's', or civilian clothes?"
"Well, since you'll be coming with me to drop off that package – 'Major' – I think the former would be appropriate. You can go trolling for trollops later... after you drop me off at my place."
"Can't Mrs. Tarigama come and pick you up?"
"She has to stay with the lab rats. If you're so eager to get back into the Georgetown bars and play with the little girls, why haven't you helped yourself to Timmes?"
"Don't like her as a person, and because she keeps asking about you. She saw you when you came in last month for that interview, and she's been drooling ever since. She turns twenty-four on the first of November, and she's only dating casually... basically, she's waiting for the chance to see you hanging around the station with me so she can pounce..."
"Well, since they didn't hire me, I'm looking at a spot that 'just opened up' with the Washington bureau of GSN... they need a couple of meteorologists, and 'somebody' mentioned my name."
Lyle let his head fall against the locker. "Your mom's been busy."
"And sneaky – Dad didn't get a chance to warn me." Reese stood up, and straightened his tie. "Doesn't matter, though – it's a good job, and it'll keep me here in the D.C. area-"
"So your mother can keep tabs on you without actually hovering overhead."
"We just can't live in the same city." He fastened his uniform jacket. "Hurry up."
"Look, the concept is sound, Keith, but I don't think that your execution will stand up to scrutiny – and you will be scrutinized, come December."
"I see where you're going with this idea, but if you are certain this will be your production team's major project, then you and the others need to go back, look all of your material over and come up with an original take. I'll give you a hint, though: think small. Find a very specific point of view, one that most people wouldn't think of because they're too busy trying to put together something that'll win awards and look good when they go looking for a job. Think of the work. Think of the subject. Do justice to your idea, it'll show through in the work, and then, you won't have to worry about looking for a job. They'll come looking for you."
Cheryl and the bulky young man with her stopped at the large front doors of the Global Communications Annex, and smiled as he held the door open for her. "You need to go back and read your first-year Intro to R-T book – the Bowman book. Read his essay on thinking small and breaking imitation, and talk it over with the others. I'll see you in class on Monday."
She buttoned her jacket, and started to walk across the nearly empty parking lot when a black Mercedes-Benz 300SL turned into the lot. Curious, she stopped as she saw the two men – Air Force officers, by the uniforms – looking at the building, then driving towards her.
"Hello', Cheryl said, flashing a genuinely happy smile as the Benz pulled up next to her. "How can I help you?"
"Sorry to bother you, but can you tell us where the Military Technologies Annex is?" Reese asked.
"Yes – on the other side of the campus," Cheryl said, her smile becoming wider as she saw the way Reese started when he realized that he was staring. "Oh, don't feel bad. One of the campus myths about Tennyson is that the architect contracted to design the campus was an absinthe drinker - and that he went through a bottle working on the plans. Everyone gets lost driving through, the first few times they come through here."
Cheryl suddenly noticed two pairs of gold wings. "I can see how not knowing your way around can be frustrating, being masters of the air and all that. What do you fly?"
Reese glanced at Lyle, who nodded slightly. "Eagles, ma'am. The F-15 – until the F-22's start flying, the best plane on Earth."
"Oh." Cheryl realized that she was leaning very close to Reese – not that he was complaining, mind you – and pulled back a bit. "Oh. I'm Cheryl – Cheryl Newlin. I'm with the Radio-Television department here – " She glanced over at the other man - and her smile drooped slightly as recognition blossomed in her eyes.
"Oh, don't mind me, Cheryl. I've got time to watch the butterfly dance..."
Reese saw the sharp look they shared, and waved his hand in front of Cheryl. "I'm Maurice Wyatt – everyone calls me 'Reese."
The diversion worked. "How'd you get stuck with that label?"
"Family tragedy. It was a peace offering from my parents to my grandparents. Didn't work."
"Pity. 'Reese' isn't bad, though."
"Cheryl – you mind pointing us to the ROTC section? We've got a package to drop off..."
Cheryl rolled her eyes at Lyle, and then turned back to Reese. "Well, who are you looking for? My daughter's an Air Force ROTC cadet; I know a lot of those people."
"Hmmn... her name's Trainor... Dr. Paula Trainor."
Cheryl's lip upturned slightly. "I actually know her... and if I'm right, you won't find her at the MTA. Follow me. I'll show you where she is."
She gave Reese a look lasting a touch longer than needed and turned towards her car, knowing that Reese was still watching her. "Huh. The night might not be a total loss after all."
As Cheryl's car started out of the parking lot, Reese turned to Lyle. "Talk."
"Nothing to say. She's a great instructor, amazing in the control room - and lousy as a team player. She's won awards, people knew that she's good at what she does and would work for her – they just don't want to work with her twice. I'd send her kids to train, but that's it."
"And you let people know how you felt."
"Both sides of the coin. She's also a great cook."
"You're a man-whore."
"Nah. I just wouldn't marry her." Lyle laughed at the expression on Reese's face. "That's a joke."
"Oh, look – billions of people are dead, I've destroyed another civilization, and yet I'm so cool, I can strut across the sands with a blazing phallic symbol hanging out of my mouth," Amy drawled, sipping a wine cooler as she and Paula watched Independence Day on the TV/DVD/VCR combo in her office. "I'm still a science geek with glasses, and if this weren't a movie, I still wouldn't be getting any."
"You enjoy this way too much, Amy," Paula said, finishing her cooler and sitting the bottle back in the carrier. "Thank God I didn't let you put any 'Monty Python' in. You'd be unreachable."
Amy snickered as she turned her attention back to the screen. "Didn't I promise you fireworks?"
"Well, Mr. Smith, I'd be happy if you'd have promised to never do any cheesy summer blockbusters ever again, but you'd be lying about that, too!" Amy said in a childlike voice. "Could you at least promise to never do a film adaptation of anything ever again – because when you do that, you suck!"
"I'm going to the little girls' room," Paula said, and rose from the chair. "I'll give Sammi a call when I come out; she'll drive."
"Is that why you're calling her?"
"Actually, tonight, yes. Stop being nosy. Get your own sex life, so we can compare notes - and stay away from the forty-weight!"
Amy drained the last of her cooler, and flipped through the scene selections until she got to the first air battle with the aliens; she was snuggling into her oversized stadium blanket when a knock at the door brought her to her feet. "Don't people have places they can go after office hours...?"
Any happiness in her voice winked out of existence as she opened the door and saw Cheryl.
"Oh. Great. Can I help you?"
"Well, hello to you, too," the blonde purred. "I thought that you'd probably still be here. Is our local Chooser of the Slain in there with you?"
"She's busy right now..."
"Oh, in the little girl's room? That's okay – we'll wait..."
"Who's we –" Amy looked up to see a mass of flaming scarlet hair atop an Air Force uniform. "This is a change for you, Newlin – going back to the old profession? At least you're getting officers instead of enlisted – what's the going rate-"
"Excuse me, miss – but that's just rude," Reese said, pushing past Cheryl to tower over Amy. "This lady was kind enough to show us over here to deliver a package, and I think that the least you could do is be polite to her."
Amy gave Reese a quick once-over, and actually chuckled as she dismissed him as worthwhile. "Hmn. Okay. Look, 'Maverick'? If I'd wanted you to have an opinion, I'd have gone to the toilet and gotten one for you."
Reese laughed lightly, and as a big smile started to come over his face, Lyle jumped in quickly. "Reese. We have somewhere to be – you have somewhere to be – and we don't need for you to get wound up and rolling. Remember the staring contest. Let's just drop off the package and get lost."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Amy said, blithely dismissing them with a wave of her hand as she turned her back to them. "There's the desk. Drop your package there and the tramp off at the next street corner."
A strong hand clamped down on Reese's elbow, keeping him from advancing further into the room. "Oh, you arrogant little pint-size snotty elitist bitch..." he muttered, pseudo-chuckling under his breath as he turned away.
Sound exploded through the room as Amy whirled around. "WHAT THE HELL DID YOU JUST SAY?!"
'Oh, I'm sorry, miss – miss –" He turned to Cheryl, who was smiling broadly, and gestured back towards Amy.
"Barksdale. Amy Barksdale," Cheryl told him. "Dr. Barksdale, Professor Barksdale, Amy Barksdale, Ph.D..."
"Barksdale." Reese said the name as if it were poison. "I'm sorry, Dr. Barksdale..."
His eyes flashed over an object placed atop the file cabinet next to him. "I'm sorry. What I meant to say was-"
Lyle's eyes became saucers and Cheryl looked at Reese with supreme admiration as he scooped up the bullhorn from the top of the file cabinet, flicked it on, brought it up to his mouth in one movement and snarled in an insanely amplified voice-
"GET BENT, YOU ARROGANT LITTLE PINT-SIZE SNOTTY ELITIST BITCH!"
Amy was beyond stunned as Reese set the bullhorn down, walked over and leaned in close to her. "One more thing. A suggestion. Broadcast power. Not as clumsy or as dangerous as electrical cables, and you can say good-bye to 'D' batteries forever. I'd think a girl like you could use that tip."
Reese and Lyle immediately came to attention as they saw Paula standing in the door of the restroom, arms folded and expression set on 'immolate'. "Well, well, well. Let me guess, Lieutenant Colonel. You're a public relations specialist."
Cheryl backed slowly against the door as Paula walked a slow, deliberate circle around Reese as Amy seethed inwardly, heading towards overload. "I've actually heard of men and women committing career suicide, Colonel – Wyatt? I have. It's just that, well, I've never been a first-party witness to the act before. Oh, and Cheryl. Good evening. I suppose that you've got a good reason for leading this officer – and supposed gentleman – to his fate..."
"They're dropping off a package," Cheryl stuttered. "By the Communications Building – they got lost – looking for you – that's the package-" She pointed at the package that lay next to Lyle's foot.
"Oh, Major – would that happen by any chance to be from General Kiieran?"
"Yes, ma'am!" Lyle snapped off.
"So, you two boys just flew that in from Germany. Eagle drivers. Are you boys 'Daywalkers', or 'Arcwind?"
"358th out of Langley, ma'am – the 356th flies out of Hanscomb!"
"Air National Guard." Paula stopped directly in front of Reese, and let her words hang in the air. "How long were you in the air tonight, Colonel?"
"Four hours, seventeen minutes, ma'am!"
"When was the last time you hopped the pond both ways?"
"June, ma'am. Spent my active time ferrying jets into England."
"What's your day job, pilot?"
Reese hesitated. "Just left my last job, ma'am. Flew 'hurricane hunters' for NOAA."
Paula looked at Reese for a long moment, and glanced down at his hand, then over at Lyle. "At ease, men. Nice rings. What year?"
"Class of '84," the two pilots said in unison.
Cheryl looked bewildered. "What about their rings...Year of what?"
Paula gave her a silencing look, and Amy answered. "Graduation. They're wearing class rings from the Air Force Academy."
Cheryl's eyebrows raised a touch higher. "Really?"
Paula lifted her own hand to reveal a similar ring. "Which of you placed higher?"
Lyle gave Reese a dirty look. "Go on, say it."
"Fifth in my class, ma'am. Majored in meteorology, minored in Japanese - I'd have ranked higher."
"Get sick or got injured?"
"Sick, ma'am, during finals in my third year. Screwed up the extra credit questions in my astrophysics final, got a 'C' on my linear algebra final, and the four people in front of me were real eggheads."
"Somebody carries a grudge."
"No, ma'am," he said, a coolness in his tone. "Tied for first in flight school. They all sit in the back of the plane."
Paula kept the smile from her face. "Tied."
"Yes, ma'am. With him."
She looked over to see the look of satisfaction sitting on Lyle's face. "May I have my package?"
Lyle scooped the package off the floor, and handed it to Paula, who studied it before coming eye-to-eye with Reese. "You're catching a break tonight, Lieutenant Colonel Wyatt, but just remember this – I know you exist now, and I do not possess a high opinion of you. For the remainder of your career, I would recommend that your actions cause me to reconsider this opinion."
She stepped back. "Dismissed."
The two pilots disappeared through the door, Cheryl right behind. "Before you say one word," she spoke, cutting Amy off, "open this."
Totally bewildered, Amy took the package to her desk and unwrapped it; opening the box, she found-
"Oh, my gosh..."
A familiar scent wafted into her nostrils, and Amy looked at a tray of familiar chocolate treats. "Truffes du jour," she said, her voice a whisper.
"They're part of the Wednesday batch," Paula said, smiling as Amy looked up at her with a stunned look. "Yeah, I called in a favor, but that's what you do for friends – even the crazy ones."
"It was either this, sedating you, putting you down or sticking you in a garage with Bo Duke for an hour. Getting the chocolates was the one with the lowest chance of future repercussions."
"Yes, thank you, Mrs. Tarigama. I'll talk to you later."
Reese put his cell phone away and turned back to Cheryl, who was waiting for him by her car. "Where's Lyle?"
"Someone at the station must've heard he was back in town – he got a call and had to go. I told him that you could tag along with me," she said, slipping inside and starting the engine. "He made a couple of smart-aleck comments and said he'd call you tomorrow."
Reese opened the passenger-side door and got in. "So, you're a fighter pilot. A real, honest-to-God, flying-with-your-hair-on-fire fighter jock." Cheryl actually giggled. "I know that it sounds silly, but, well, I've never met a fighter pilot before. Besides Lyle, and he doesn't count."
"You probably haven't seen one act that stupid up-close, then."
"This is a college campus. I've seen many people act that stupid up-close." She gave him the once-over. "You're kind of tall for a pilot, aren't you?"
"Six-two. Just at the cut-off point. Lyle always makes jokes about me wearing the plane, and I always remind him to put the booster seat in the jet before he tries to fly."
There was a moment of awkward silence. "So, how do you know Lyle?"
"Actually, the question is 'Why don't I know you?"
"I don't get it."
If you don't screw it up, you will, Cheryl thought quite loudly. "Lyle told you that he grew up in D.C., right?"
"Ever tell you about old girlfriends from high school?"
Reese looked at her. "You dated Lyle?"
"From sophomore year of high school until the summer of our freshman year in college. We broke up just before classes started - it was a mutual thing - and we didn't see each other again until '97, when he started doing the news at the NBC affiliate here in D.C."
"He'd just gone into the Air National Guard then, like me..."
"We didn't date – I was raising my daughter, and my husband had just passed..." She shook her head. "I'm sorry... I've no idea why I'm just babbling on and on..."
"Don't apologize. I like the way you babble."
"Well... thank you."
More uncomfortable silence followed. "Hey, thanks again for the ride. I mean, you barely know me."
"I know Lyle, and he wouldn't have left if you were any kind of trouble. That's why I've got no problem giving you a ride."
"Still, thank you."
"It's not a problem," she said. "If you're not doing anything now, I know a nice little coffeehouse on the other side of the campus. The 'open mike' poetry readings are usually bad, but they're famous for some of the best blends in this part of the country..."
"I actually like bad poetry - I tinker around a bit on the guitar, occasionally try to write a lyric or two, get attacked by wildcats when I play..."
"Yeah - the guys from the 245th Airlift Wing - they're Guard, too, and we share the same airfield Some people can't take a joke..."
Cheryl shook her head. "Well, hop in."
Paula watched the peaceful look that went across Amy's face as she savored a truffe du jour, and smiled as she popped another into her mouth. .
"You can hunt the delivery boy from hell down and kill him some other time. In the meanwhile, I'll give Sammi a call. You don't need to sleep here all night – again," the taller woman emphasized. "And leave a couple of those out for me..."
Paula's words blurred off into the background as Amy felt the remainder of the perfect confection dissolve upon her tongue, and a delicate, serene smile rose as she went to the window.
People are jerks, I was just disrespected in my own office by 'Zoomie Smurf', and there's a fat little squirrel that has a better love life than I do. None of that matters right now... I have my chocolate.
For now, it'll do just fine...
The sound of a souped-up motor drew Amy's attention from her chocolates.
She turned to glance out the window, and saw a sporty little car speed down the length of the street in front of her building, taking the corner on two wheels and burn out of sight. Amy had a sudden flash of memory, of squealing in terror and girlish delight as she sat in that car... Daniel always was a cool hand at the wheel...
Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are the property of MTV.
'Paula Trainor' – copyright StarBear Entertainment 1988
'Tennyson University' - copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2005.
All other characters and original plot copyright StarBear Entertainment 2005