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River In Heaven

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It’s The Little Things

 

 

Dakota, Ashlyn and Ali had been back in D.C for a few days when Dakota was woken from a sound sleep in the middle of the night by the sound of retching. Not simple gagging, but gut-ripping, I-just-want-to-pass-out retching. Her first instinct was to reach for Ash’s side of the bed. It was empty. Dakota rolled out of the warm waterbed and crossed the dark room to the sliver of light peeking from under the bathroom door.

“Babe?”

“You need the room?” Came Ash’s weak, slightly echoed voice.

Dakota didn’t have to imagine where her lover’s head was. “No, no, are you okay?”

“Well, I’ve been better, DK. Go on back to bed. No point in both of us being tired.”

“Hell with that. You want me to hold your hair or rub your back or something?”

“No, I’m getting up now anyway...”

Dakota waited by the door as she listened to running water and the sound of teeth being brushed. When the bathroom door opened, Ashlyn emerged looking more bedraggled, pale and ill than Dakota had ever seen her.

Which, since she had never seen her girlfriend sick, wasn’t saying much.

 

“Damn...Come on back to bed, Ash. How long were you in there?”

“No idea. Long enough to chuck a good portion of my insides out.” Ash wrapped one arm around Dakota’s waist, rested her head on her shoulder and slowly padded back to bed.

“Lay on your side and I’ll rub your back.”

She actually felt a little better on her side, and the feel of Dakota’s firm but gentle pressure on her back helped as well.

“Just your stomach?”

“No, everything is sore and I’m tired.”

“Not surprising...” Dakota said softly behind her. “Throwing up is hard on the body. Do you want some of that sports drink with the electrolytes?”

“No, just you...”

“I’m here for you. Do you need me to do anything?”

“Maybe another blanket?” She felt DK get up and a minute later more weight settled over her, and she was glad to gradually get a little warmer. She could feel herself drifting into sleep again. “Gotta tell Mark I’m sick...”

“I’ll take care of it. Sleep now.” She felt Dakota kiss the back of her head and she sighed as she gave in to sleep.

 

Once she knew Ash was truly asleep, Dakota eased out of the bed as best she could. She’d been hotter than hell under that extra blanket, but Ash had been cold, so the extra blanket stayed. Dakota suspected that Ash had come down with the flu. She, herself, hadn’t been sick in weeks, so she knew it wasn’t something she’d passed on to the normally healthy blonde. She shut the bedroom curtains and left the room but left the door open a crack in case Ashlyn called out. Dakota found her phone in the living room and sent Ali a text.

Morning, Kriegs. I know you aren’t up yet, but I wanted to let you know that Ash is pretty sick. She’s not going to make it today. Text me when you can,

D

 

Dakota hit the power button on the coffee maker Ashlyn had prepped before they had gone to bed. She knew there would be no more sleep for her, so she settled in with her laptop and started on a rough outline.

At sunrise, Ali returned her text.

 

DK,

Sorry to hear Ash is sick. Do we know why? Do you guys need anything?

 

Dakota went into the bathroom and checked the cabinet before answering.

 

Like, everything. Does she not get sick or what?

 

Rarely. Flu?

 

I think so. That’s how she presents, anyway.

 

I’ll run by the pharm before the ‘plex and stop on my way in.

 

Thanks, Ali. You’re a gem.

 

I know! Lol *hugs*

 

Dakota set her phone down on the dining room table and went to check on her girlfriend. She had flipped onto her left side and was curled up pretty tight. Dakota didn’t go any closer to the bed for fear of waking Ashlyn up. She was a pretty light sleeper and she needed her rest now more than ever. So Dakota eased back out of the room, and back to her coffee and work.

She was outlining features of an alien world when she heard a soft tap at the door, and still in bare feet, she padded across the apartment to open it. She figured it was Ali. No one else would know one of them was up at that hour.

“Hey, come on in. Do you have time for coffee?”

“Sounds like caffeinated heaven.” Ali replied quietly.

“I’ll grab the good stuff, why don’t we have it on the balcony?”

 

After handing Ali a steaming mug, Dakota slid the patio door shut so they wouldn’t disturb Ashlyn.

“So I probably got more than she’ll need, but it’s better to have too much in a situation like this I suppose.” Ali passed the bag to her friend and watched her unpack pink anti-nausea medicine, organic ginger tablets, ginger ale, electrolyte sports drinks and a bottle of pain relievers.

“Thank you, she has nearly nothing in the bathroom cabinet.”

Ali shrugged a little. “She rarely gets sick, despite how often she goes out.”

Dakota took a mouthful of her coffee before giving voice to something that had been on her mind. “This might sound a little corny, but I really want to make this a home for her. She once told me it was just a place to lay her head. Been there, done that. I want her to look forward to coming home, you know? So, I was wondering...you know her better than I do…”

Ali took a sip of coffee before nodding. “You want to know what will make her happy.”

“Yeah. Little things, big things. I want to know as much as I can. I know she loves the beach, the ocean, sunsets, surfing, reading and coffee.”

“And you.” Ali smiled.

Dakota chuckled. “Yes, and me. I’ve only doubted that once, and she set me straight pretty quick.”

Ali nodded, remembering a time not too far past in Florida. “Well, it’s little things that speak to Ash. She talks about you with pride. The socks you’re making for her, when you cook and throw your little dinner parties for us...even when you do her laundry for her. I’d say you’re already on the right track, DK.”

“You’re a good friend to us both.” Dakota said.

“I do what I can for the people I care about.” Ali put a hand on DK’s shoulder and gave it a little squeeze before they both turned their attention to the neighborhood coming awake in the sun.

When the defender’s cup was empty, they went inside. Ali gave her friend a warm hug and went off to the sports complex to let her coach and team know their number one goalkeeper would be out for a few days.

 

 

to be continued!!

Chapter Text

Dakota had to spend a few minutes finding Ash’s linens. None of them were together, but eventually she found a clean washcloth. She ran the cold water in the kitchen, soaked the cloth and wrung it out. Then she found the pain reliever, grabbed a sports drink and went back to their bedroom.

Ash was laying on her back, chest rising and falling with the pattern only a hot, sick person has. Dakota set the bottles on the night-stand and flipped the extra blanket back, laid the cloth gently across Ash’s forehead and settled on the rail of the waterbed. She studied the sculpted jawline, the long, straight nose and laid the back of her hand lightly along Ashlyn’s cheek.

“Mmrrph…” Ash mumbled in her fever.

“Ssshh, it’s okay.”

“DK?”

“Yeah, I’m here, Sweetie.”

“Thirsty…”

“Okay, let me sit you up a little and I’ll give you a little something to drink. Put your arms around my neck…”

Ashlyn was too weak to really be of much help lifting her own weight, but Dakota got her upright enough to drink safely. “How’s your stomach?”

“Quieter.”

“That’s good. Just sip… This is a little ironic. Not too long ago you were doing this for me.”

“I remember.” Ash gave her girlfriend a tired half-smile.

“Okay, sip a little more and then we’ll get you comfortable again, okay?” Dakota waited until Ash was done, then reached behind her and re-arranged her pillows. She helped her get comfortable and smoothed the sheet over her once again. “I’m going to cool this cloth down a bit more. I’ll be right back.”

When she came back into the dimly-lit room, she saw Ash watching the door.

“What time is it?”

Dakota glanced at the clock on Ash’s side of the bed. “Just past 7. Ali brought some things by on her way into training. She’ll let Mark and the others know you’re out for a little while.” She settled on the rail again and laid the cooled cloth on Ash’s forehead once again. “You get some more sleep, okay?”

“‘Kay…”

 

 

****

 

 

Dakota’s day was spent circulating between her work, her knitting and tending to Ashlyn. She finally started keeping a damp cloth in the freezer, and she was relieved that Ash’s fever never progressed very far. Occasionally one of their friends would text for an update, and Ali dropped by on her way home.

“You look tired, Kriegs.”

“Long day, lots of running, lots of weights. How is she?” Ali slipped out of her shoes, crossed the room and dropped onto the sofa. 

“A little better. She’s kept down the pink stuff, water and the sports drinks you brought. I’ve managed to keep her fever under control, I don’t think it ever got really bad. I started keeping a damp cloth in the freezer and then putting that on her forehead once it was almost frozen. I think it helped keep her temperature down. You want some lemonade?”

“Sounds good. Have you been out at all today?”

“Out on the balcony, yeah. You really think I’d leave her like this?”

“No, I know you wouldn’t. You okay for groceries? If you need to get out, I can stay with her.”

“We never really did get to the grocery store…” Dakota handed Ali her glass.

“So go shopping. I can take care of her until you get back. Has it occurred to you that since you got sick in Florida, the two of you haven’t been apart unless she has a work obligation?” Ali smiled. “It’s cute, but you’ve gone from a lot of your own time to not much. I’m just worried it’ll be too much change all at once. So balance it out a bit and go out. I’ll text if anything happens.”

 

 

Dakota looked toward the bedroom, silently debating. Her place was here with Ash, but she wouldn’t find a better second than Ali. “She will need juice and yoghurt when she feels like eating again…do you want me to pick you up anything?”

“You know what kind of milk I like, right?”

Dakota nodded before draining her glass. 

“Just milk and a loaf of whole-grain bread I think.”

“Okay. Text me if you think of anything else. There’s chicken in the fridge, fruit on the counter, I think there’s still some spinach and eggs if you’d rather go that way. Help yourself to whatever you want.” Dakota sent a text for a taxi, then reached down to hug Ali. “She’ll need to be checked in about ten minutes or so.”

“No worries. Let me know when you’re almost home and I’ll come down and give you a hand bringing the groceries back up.”

“I will. Thanks.” Dakota made sure she had her wallet and keys, and left the apartment.

 

 

At the grocery store, she picked up the things she knew Ash would need to help her recover from the flu, as well as some ice cream. She made sure to load up on fruit and vegetables, picked up a variety of chicken cuts, flat bread, and Ali’s whole-grain bread and milk. Passing the ‘home’ aisle, she got an idea, and made an abrupt turn into the baking section. In the checkout line, she texted for a taxi pick-up and texted Ali. Her shopping trip hadn’t lasted long, but she was glad when the cab pulled up to the building and Ali stepped outside. The taxi driver unloaded the trunk, placing her bags on the curb. She thanked him, paid and turned to find Ali had picked up almost all the bags already.

“You and Ash both seem to think I can’t carry groceries...” Dakota said with a grin.

“Hey, I left a couple of bags and the mystery box there.” Ali chin-gestured toward the box Dakota was tucking under her arm.

Dakota just shook her head and they both went back to the apartment.

They put the groceries away together as Ali talked about the team’s practise and how she had felt knowing that her favorite goal-keeper wasn’t there. Once the last bag was empty, Ali let out a sigh. “It’s been a long day. I’m going to go home, shower and hit my pillow early.” She bent and put her shoes on. “I told Mark that Ash is going to be out for a few days, so tell her not to worry, okay?”

“Thanks.”

“No problem. If I’m not too tired tomorrow evening, I’ll come by again and you can go out again without having to worry about Ash.”
“You don’t have to...”

“I meant what I said, DK. You can’t go from all kinds of time to yourself, to none. Go find a yarn store, have coffee...whatever.”

Dakota gave Ali a quick hug before stepping away and retrieving her bag of milk and bread. “You’re a good friend.”

Ali winked. “When I get sick, we know who I’m calling.”

“Absolutely!”

“I’ll text you at lunch break tomorrow.”

“Sleep well, Ali.”

The defender flashed a quick smile before she turned to leave. “Oh, I will!”

Dakota chuckled and watched her friend step carefully down the stairs. Then she shut the apartment door, locked it and went to check on her girlfriend.

 

 

to be continued!

Chapter Text

 

 

Ashlyn was sleeping soundly when Dakota checked on her. A light touch to her forehead and cheeks reassured DK that Ashlyn had avoided a dangerous fever. A simple flu bug, as far as the flu went. She slipped quietly back out of the room and shut the door almost all the way. In the kitchen, she unpacked the mystery box Ali had made reference to, put the various components together and set the kettle on to boil. She took the little recipe book that had come in the box, as well as her laptop into the living room and settled on the sofa. By the time the kettle had reached a rolling boil, Dakota had decided on a recipe. By the time her tea was done steeping, she had all the ingredients in the bucket, the machine programmed, and all that remained to be done was to hit a single button. Which she did with a smile on her face.

 

She logged into her email and was pleased to find an email from Tammye.

 

Dakota,

How are those edits on the anthology coming? Don’t want to rush quality, but I have two publishers interested.

Also, waiting on Writer’s Weekly to return my call regarding that interview.

Just thought you might like to know.

T

 

Dakota opened a reply and began to type.

 

Tammye,

Waiting on the files to be returned from an editor. I don’t expect she’ll need many changes. If that holds true, we may be ready to publish as soon as you land us a good one. When WW gets in touch...on camera? Print? 

On a personal note, Ash has the flu, but Ali and I are taking good care of her. No fever. I think she’s on the downside of it. I’ll keep you informed.

Tell Chris we send hugs.

D

 

Dakota hit send, closed her email and brought up the file that held the world-building notes she had been working on. She stopped after an hour or so, stood up and stretched and went into the kitchen to check on her surprise. She was able to stop the machine a few seconds before it beeped, buttered two bread pans and took the dough out of the bread machine. She separated the dough into two, shaped each lump and tucked the ends under. Once each pan had a log-shaped lump of dough in it, she put the oven on its lowest setting. Once she deemed the oven warm enough, she turned it off and put both loaf pans in the center of the rack.

She tiptoed back into the bedroom to change into flannels and one of Ash’s old UNC t-shirts. Ash was fever-free but slept as solidly as if she had run miles. Dakota padded out and shut the door once more. While the bread rose, she worked on her world notes for the speculative fiction novel Abby had started calling ‘Magic In The Stars’. Once the dough tripled in size, Dakota turned the oven on to the correct temperature, set the alarm on her cellphone and let the smell of baking bread waft through the apartment. She kept an eye on the stopwatch app on her phone and stopped the alarm seconds before it was set to go off. She took the pans from the oven, set them aside to cool and turned the oven off.

Only then did she turn the laptop off and curl up beside her girlfriend.

 

Dakota was unbothered by dreams that night, and when she woke the next day, she was surprised to find Ash’s side of the bed empty. At first, she was alarmed, but when she heard low voices in the other room, she relaxed. She stretched and rolled out of bed and went to splash water on her face. After brushing her teeth and making herself somewhat more presentable, she went to find Ash.

Ashlyn was sitting on the sofa facing the bedroom, with her legs curled under her. She started to get up, but Dakota smiled and shook her head. “You don’t have to get up, love.”  Then she leaned down and wrapped her in a hug. 

“Can I get one too?” Ali spoke up.

Dakota chuckled and turned to her friend as well. “Think you people were never hugged…”

“Not our fault you give such great hugs.”

“So was I hallucinating or did we get bread fairies overnight?” Ash asked.

“Yeah, bread fairies are great…” Dakota started to reply as she started to go into the kitchen when she suddenly stopped, turned and stared at Ali. “Wait a minute...you’re here...what time is it?”

Confused, Ali looked at her watch. “A little after seven, why?”

Dakota covered her face with one hand. “Jesus, I’ve been asleep all day!”

“It’s okay, DK…” Ash started to say.

“No, it really isn’t! I was supposed to be taking care of you today, and I’ve been sleeping!”

Ash stood and reached for Dakota’s hands, taking them in her own. “DK, it’s okay, I promise. You took care of me all day yesterday, and the night before. Ali told me she had to almost push you out the door to get groceries. It’s all right to take a day for yourself.” Dakota shook her head but Ash cut her off. “Yes, it is. Besides, I don’t think those bread fairies could have made that bread themselves. I’d love a slice…”

Ali jumped up and dashed into the kitchen excitedly squealing about homemade bread and fresh coffee.

Dakota and Ash watched their friend bolt past them. “She really is just a big kid, isn’t she?” Dakota asked.

Ash laughed out loud. “Oh you have no idea!”

 

Once they were settled in the living room, there was no conversation as the three of them devoured their snack. 

“Damn that was good, DK, what made you buy a bread machine?” Ash commented appreciatively.

Dakota shrugged. “I thought you might like it.”

“I love it, thank you.” Ashlyn leaned over and kissed her cheek.

Laughing, Ali did the same on the other side of Dakota.

“You two…” Dakota said, but Ali could see she was pleased with their reactions.

“Well, I should leave you lovebirds. I have laundry to do and Kyle is supposed to be calling me in an hour.”

“I have something for you.” Dakota began as she went into the kitchen. She returned a minute later with the last loaf of bread in a clear bag. “I made this for you. Both loaves were made with quinoa and oat flour, so your superstar diet is safe.” She said with a twinkle in her eye.

Ali smiled warmly and hugged her again before taking the loaf. “Aww, thanks, DK. That’s really sweet of you!”

“I enjoyed making it.”

With more hugs traded, Ali left them and Dakota curled into Ash’s arms on the sofa.

 

“How are you feeling now?” Dakota asked.

“Better. I’m not as tired and my stomach is a lot better. I think it was a short-lived stomach bug.”

“That’s good to hear.”

“Thank you for taking care of me.” Ash said with a slight squeeze.

“Well, you did save my life…” Dakota chuckled. After a few moments though, she let her fingers trace Ash’s ink on her left arm. “I like doing that for you.”

“Taking care of me?” 

Dakota nodded. “Baking for you, taking care of you when you need someone, everything.”

“I’m the luckiest person in the country right now, you know that?” Ash whispered in her ear.

“Nope. Pretty sure you’re wrong there, Harris.” DK replied. “I’m certain I’m the luckiest, because I have you.”

Ashlyn burst out laughing once more. “Okay, how about we take our lucky selves back to the waterbed? Ali lent me a book and I hear you have a world to build.”

“I’ll get the laptop if you’ll get the water.”

“It’s a deal.” Ash kissed the top of Dakota’s head.

 

****

 

It took Ashlyn the better part of a week to feel up to jogging again, and when she emerged from her post-run shower, she declared her intention to train with the team that day.

“Don’t push yourself too hard, please?” Dakota pleaded as she set Ash’s breakfast down on the table. 

“Thanks, babe. I won’t. Mark is pretty cautious anyway, and the trainers are too. I’ll be okay.”

“You want milk for your oatmeal? More fruit?”

Ash shook her head and smiled. “I’m good. You don’t have to put the three pounds back on that I lost you know.”

Dakota shot her a half-smile and filled Ash’s travel cup.


“So what are you going to do today while I get back to work?”

“I’m meeting the interviewer from Writers Weekly today at the bookstore, then I have a conference call with your mother and a publisher this afternoon.”

“No way!? Are they going to bid on it?” Ash tried to ask while swallowing half of a strawberry.

“Not sure yet. Your mom says she has a good feeling about this one. She’s already told me to brace for a promotion tour.”

Ash’s spoon stopped halfway to her mouth and she blinked. “A tour? Has she forgotten how much you hate that kind of attention?”

“I reminded her. She said the up-side would be increased sales.” Dakota shrugged and grimaced. “She seems to think that if they buy the rights this afternoon, the sale might translate into endorsement deals.”

“Wow. My girlfriend is gonna be a superstar!” Ash crowed.

Dakota chuckled and poured more coffee for herself. “We’ll see.”

“Text me when the conference call is over and let me know how it went.” Ash said as she finished off her breakfast. “I can’t wait to tell Ali! Oh, there’s a game Wednesday evening. Did you want to come watch?”

“Sounds like fun!”

“I’ll tell Mark to set aside a ticket for you.” Ash rose and put her dishes in the sink before retrieving her shoes.

“I can’t wait to watch my number one ‘keeper in the net! Live and everything!” Dakota gushed as Ashlyn slung her bag over her shoulder.

Ash just shook her head. “Nerd.”

“Mushball.” Dakota stood on her tiptoes and kissed her girlfriend softly. “I made the team cupcakes.”

“I wondered why we had a stack of good-smelling containers on the counter…” Ash smiled. “I better get going. Traffic will be bad soon.” She inclined her head and kissed Dakota’s lips. “Mmm, you taste like coffee.”

DK chuckled. “Take it easy today. Love you…”

 

“Love you more.” Ash leaned down for one more kiss and tweaked Dakota’s ass before she left.

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

“So would you say that your life so far has been good for your writing career, Miss Undomiel?”

Dakota had already asked the interviewer to call her by her first name, but he was stubborn. She had agreed to be interviewed by Writer’s Weekly, but only if she could choose the interviewer and the place. So when the magazine had agreed, she had immediately thought of Nathan Rogers, from her now-infamous news conference.

“Well, Nathan, it’s certainly given me a lot to write about and draw from! I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s been good, but there’s lots of fodder there to fuel my writing. One of the most crippling pieces of advice to a writer just starting out, is write what you know. What if that emerging writer is a teenager, or an adult who has led a sheltered life? The advice isn’t very fair. So I’m fortunate that I have some dramatic stuff in my life to draw on.”

“What advice would you give to counter that?”

Dakota considered her answer as she looked around the cafe nestled into one corner of the bookstore. “I think a better piece of advice, to any writer, is to write what you want to read. If you’re writing articles, then write about the topics that interest you. Someone else is bound to share that interest. If it’s fiction, then write the story you want to read, even if there’s nothing else like it on the shelves. But always, always be true to yourself, and your story. Never write to those that tell you it must be a certain way. Listen to your muse and your gut.”

“But what if a writer isn’t sure they have a muse?”



Dakota wondered if Nathan was asking these questions for his readers or for himself. “That’s a good question. I might be completely off base here, but I think that the act of showing up and writing creates the right environment, the right mind-set. Show your intention, be willing to do the work and the muse will show. Even if all you write in a day is four paragraphs, get into the habit of writing, and the words will come. After that, it’s all a matter of learning your craft.”

She saw Nathan’s eyes lift to look behind her and when he gave the slightest of nods, knew he had been given a signal.

“That’s all the time we have for today, but I want to thank you for sharing a part of your day with us, Miss Undomiel.”

“Thank you, Nathan.” Dakota gave him her best winning smile and a few seconds later, the piece producer informed them the camera was off.

 

She hadn’t expected to be on camera, but when Nathan explained the magazine was building a video library on their website, she agreed. All in all, she thought it had gone well.

As a tech unclipped and removed Dakota’s microphone, she turned to Nathan. “You asked some very good questions. Do you write?”

His neck flushed red as his microphone was removed as well. “A little...I’m not sure how good it is...”

Dakota reached into her wallet and removed one of her business cards. “My email is on there. If you’d like, feel free to send me what you think is your best piece and I’ll give you a second opinion.”

“Really?” Nathan’s eyes widened.

Dakota chuckled. “Yeah, really.”

“Wow! Thank you so much!” Nathan shook her hand and Dakota turned to thank the techs, the piece producer and the cameraman for their contributions.

Than she stepped up to the counter to order coffee. “Six coffees, please. All black, they can fix them as they like.”

The teenager behind the counter nodded and began to pour. “I’ve seen you somewhere before...hey! You’re Ashlyn Harris’ girlfriend, right?”

Dakota chuckled. “That’s me.”

The teen finished pouring, capped all the cups and as Dakota paid, asked, “Can I get a picture of us together? My friends won’t believe me...”

“Absolutely!”

The girl came around the counter and asked one of her co-workers to take the shot, which turned into three, and when Dakota suggested they take a selfie together, the teenager actually squealed. “Holy crap, this might be my best day all month! Thank you so much!”

Dakota laughed, agreed to a hug and left a tip.

Then she crossed over to Nathan and his crew, and delivered their coffee before taking her own and leaving the bookstore.

 

****



Dakota had just let herself into the apartment when her phone rang. A quick check of the caller I.D made her brow furrow in confusion.

“Hey, Sweetie! What’s up?”

“I got a few minutes and thought I’d call my girl. How did the interview go?”

“Good! He asked some interesting questions, and they filmed it for their website.”

“Cool. How’s it feel being a celebrity?”

“I’d hardly call myself that...”

“I would. Once you’re spotted buying coffee and you’re spread all over Instagram and Twitter...you’re a celeb, babe.”

“Instagram?”

“Gotta go, water break is over. Let me know how the bidding goes. Love you!” The call was disconnected abruptly and Dakota stood in the middle of their living room in a bewildered fog.

Finally, Dakota blinked, shook her head and decided she had time for a swim before the conference call. In the bedroom, she changed into her one piece, threw on a t-shirt and shorts and made sure she had her phone before locking the apartment behind her. Ashlyn’s words sunk in just before she opened the door to the pool room.

 

Dakota checked Instagram first and was stunned to find she suddenly had a thousand new followers. Twitter was equally surprising. It didn’t take long to find the post from the teenage barista she had taken a selfie with earlier in the day.

 

Selling coffee rocks when you find @Ashlyn_Harris gf in your line-up! She even agreed to a selfie & a hug! Thank you @DakotaUndomiel you’re a gem!

 

Dakota stood in the chlorine-scented hallway and blinked. She hadn’t expected this kind of reaction when she had agreed to the photos. Dakota straightened, gave herself a mental shake and turned the screen on the phone off. Then she pushed through the door to the pool, focusing already on the swim.

 

to be continued!



Chapter Text

“Well Miss Undomiel, Mrs. Harris, in light of recent events, we believe this could be a profitable venture for all of us. If you’re both in agreement, I’d say we have a deal. Welcome to the Craysop Publishing family.” Dakota barely heard the rest of the call. Her shock earlier in the day had been nothing compared to how she felt now. She stumbled over her thanks, heard Tammye do the same and vaguely heard the publisher’s representative leave the conference call.

“Dakota?”

“What? Sorry, Tammye...”

Her manager and publicist chuckled. “Yeah, that’s quite the deal.  Your growing popularity helped get us a better figure than I’d hoped for. Most especially after this morning’s Twitter explosion. Publishers like knowing their authors already have a following. It makes selling your book easier for them.”

Dakota didn’t know what to say.

“You didn’t hear much after we agreed on a figure, did you?” Tammye teased lightly.

“No, my brain just kind of stopped in shock after that.”

“I’ll send you a hard copy, and I figure we’ll be signing the contract in the next few days.” Tammye said with an amused tone. “Basically, you’ve agreed to sell them the rights for your anthology, as well as Magic In The Stars and its sequel, a promotional tour preceding the release of each book and appearances at one writer’s conference per year for the next five years. All for a very handsome and almost unheard of sum for an up and coming writer, not to mention a $20,000 bonus against the first book’s future royalties.”

Dakota choked on the water she was sipping.

“You okay?”

“Holy shit...”

Tammye chuckled. “Yeah, it’s  quite a remarkable deal. Your book has to sell more than 10,000 copies for you to make any royalties though, so that promo tour I know you already hate the idea of is going to be super important.”

Dakota groaned.

“Yeah, I know. Okay, gotta run and do manager-stuff now and you have to get to work! I’ll call you later!” Tammye chirped and disconnected the call.

But Dakota couldn’t work. She wandered the small apartment in a daze until she remembered that she had promised to let her girlfriend know how it went. She put the kettle on, dropped a tea-bag into her mug and texted Ash.

Holy fuck, Ash. I don’t even remember all of the details, but I think we broke my brain. They bought the rights to three books for $50,000. They agreed to a $20,000 bonus, too!

 

The kettle boiled until the whistle jarred Dakota from her shock. She took her tea out to the balcony, sat in one of the chairs and watched a soccer game in the park across the street. She had no idea how long she sat there, she didn’t remember drinking her tea and yet the cup was empty. It wasn’t until she heard the apartment door close that she was jostled into focus.

The park across the street was empty.

“DK?”

“I’m out here.”

“Congratulations, babe!” Ashlyn was all smiles and dimples. Her exuberance was infectious and Dakota couldn’t help but grin. “Everyone on the team was excited for you...they all send congratulations!”

Dakota laughed. “Honey, I don’t even know 99% of your team!”

Ash made a dismissive face. “Pssh. Doesn’t matter. You’ll know them Wednesday. Has it sunk in yet?”

“No, in fact, I’m sure I’ve forgotten some of the details. I have no idea where the afternoon has gone…”

Ashlyn pulled her phone from her pants pocket and poked the screen a couple of times, and while they waited for the call to connect, Dakota noticed Ashlyn was not wearing what she had left in that morning.

“You showered at the ‘Plex?”

“I did.” Anything further she was going to say was cut off by her mother’s voice.

“Hi, honey, what’s up?”

“Not much, Mom, but I think you broke my girlfriend’s brain with that awesome deal. She can’t remember all the details to share with me. I know you will though.”

 

 

Tammye’s laugh came through bright over the small speaker. “I’m not surprised, it was a hell of a good deal! I’ll be sending all the fine points over via snail mail, but here’s what we agreed to. They bought the print and electronic rights to three books; the anthology, Magic In The Stars and it’s sequel for five years for a whopping fifty thousand dollars. They have agreed to an advance of twenty thousand dollars against future royalties of the anthology. They’ll send that to me, I take my fifteen percent off the top, then deposit the rest into Dakota’s bank account. Obviously I’ll need your banking information for that, Dakota. They’ll send me the first third of the fifty thousand once they have editors approval of the galleys for the anthology, the second third once the galleys for Magic are approved, and the final third once it’s released.”

Ash was taking notes, knowing Dakota would likely not remember all the figures later on.

“Dakota, the edits for the anthology are done, right?”

“Yep, ready to send to their editors tonight.”

“Wonderful! But may I make a suggestion before you do that? Name the thing!”

They all laughed but Dakota knew Tammye was right, she needed to settle on a name.

“Also, you agreed to promotional tours before each book’s release and to appearances at one writer’s conference per year for the next five years. I know that part isn’t your kind of thing, but I’m sure we can find ways to ratchet back your stress when the time comes. Just think of all that as another book sold, because your royalty deal is pretty handsome as well.”

“Bloody hell…” Ash whispered.

Dakota could only nod, still trying to absorb the good news.

“I know a lot of their enthusiasm relates to how popular you both are right now, but I know your writing, Dakota. You’re going to sell a lot of books once the reading public is exposed to you. Trust me.”

Ash put her pen down and reached for her girlfriend’s hand.

“I have another call coming in, have to let you girls go. Talk later!”

 

Ashlyn took Dakota’s other hand and watched her gaze settle on the balcony door, but she could tell she wasn’t really seeing anything. “DK? Talk to me, babe. This is great news, but you don’t look happy. Tell me what’s going on.”

Dakota tugged Ash over to the sofa, where she settled in the corner. “Neither you nor I had a lot of money in our households growing up. Even after I struck out on my own, I lived hand to mouth. And you know about the circumstances leading up to my friends trying to help me out…”

“And putting you in prison.”

“Yeah, and that. You wrote all those figures down that your mom was throwing around, right?”

Ashlyn reached into her pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “Right here.”

“Even after Tammye takes her agreed-upon fifteen percent of both the advance and the first third of that fifty thousand, do you realize how much money I stand to make in a month?”

“Quite a bit.”

“A little over thirty one thousand dollars.”

Ashlyn looked at Dakota and could only blink.

“In a month, Ash. One month. Feel free to check my math, because heaven knows it’s not my best skill set.” Dakota brought up her calculator app on her phone and passed it to Ashlyn. “While you do that, I’m going to the bathroom.”

 

Dakota closed the bathroom door behind herself, lifted the toilet seat and promptly threw up the contents of her stomach. Which, considering her day, wasn’t much. She stretched out an arm along the edge of the bowl and rested her forehead on her arm while she tried to calm her racing heart.

A few dry heaves later, she felt her hair being lifted and she rolled her head to one side to see Ash sitting on the side of the tub and holding her long hair.

“Betcha Abby and Pinoe don’t have this problem.” Dakota said with a groan.

“Chucking their guts? Oh sure, they’ve done it a few times. Only difference was that they weren’t going to lose their hair down the toilet.” Ash said with a half-grin.

“I kind of wish I could shove you into the tub right now.”

Ashlyn chuckled. “I’m sure you will on some other occasion.” Then she grew serious. “So I don’t need to ask what you ate all day.”

“I ate breakfast…”

“Yeah. But did you eat anything the rest of the day?”

Dakota focused on a freckle on her hand and thought. “Tea. Coffee. Water.”

“Yeah, that’s great, DK, but those things aren’t considered food. You think once your nerves settle, you might want to go out to dinner?”

“Maybe after I lay down for a few minutes.”

“Come on, I’ll lay down with you. Let me help you up…”

“Will you be my big spoon?”

“Always, sweetheart. Always.”

 

to be continued!

Chapter Text

 

Ash was good to her word and took DK out for dinner. They went to a quiet restaurant that offered steak, privacy and beer. Once their orders were placed, and their drinks in front of them, the wait-staff seemed to melt away. 

Dakota reached out and took Ashlyn’s hand across the table. “Remember the conversation we had once about how much I knew about you, and you were griping because you knew so little about me?”

“I was not griping! That was an observation!” Ash protested with a smile.

Dakota chuckled. “Sure, whatever you say. Anyway, that ‘observation’ has never really left me, and I want to explain why that deal today affected me the way it did.”

Ashlyn waited, knowing her girlfriend wanted to choose her words carefully.

“When I was growing up, we never had a spare dollar for anything. It was all rigidly budgeted. Or so I was told. I got used to rarely getting anything new, going to bed sometimes hungry, and you know, it affected school. Hell, it affected everything. I couldn’t wait to grow up and make my mark on the world. I was going to be famous, rich and be a household name. I just didn’t know what I’d be doing exactly. Someone gave me a piece of advice once, to always live authentically, and when i first heard it, I struggled to understand what they had meant by that. When I finally figured it out, it hit me like a semi-truck.

I came out to my family the next day.

To say it did not go well would be an understatement.”

 

“My mother back-handed me and told me to stop telling lies for attention. My father called me a variety of things, none of them complimentary. He told me I could pack my things and leave, that no daughter of his was going to be a bull-dyke and eat his food.”

Ashlyn scoffed. “Please, you are the furthest thing from a bull-dyke…”

“I know that now. Then, I didn’t even know what the term meant.”

Dakota stopped as the waiter brought her a fresh whiskey and refilled Ash’s coffee. Once he had left, Ash asked, “So what did you do?”

“I did as I’d been told, because that’s what I had done all my life. I packed my clothes in a suitcase, hauled it down the front stairs and found my father waiting by the front door. He demanded my house key back and told me that as far as he and my mother were concerned, I was dead.”

“Holy shit, DK.”

Dakota nodded, picked up her glass with her free hand and downed her drink in one smooth movement.

“Did they ever reconcile with you?”

“I haven’t spoken to them, or seen them since that day fifteen years ago. I’ve been on my own since then, Ash. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t have to work for every dollar. Even after I started selling my articles, it was still pretty tight sometimes. No one goes into writing to get rich. I knew that even then. So today was just...surreal. It was almost too much to handle, too much to process, you know? And I’m still not sure that I’ve absorbed it even now, because it still seems like I’m a little kid, dreaming of making it big.”

 

“And you’re going to do that, DK, you already are. Your social media exploded today and it helped you get a better deal!”

“What if they think I’m a fraud?”

“They must have read something to know what they were bidding on, right?” Ash leaned forward and took Dakota’s other hand. “They’ve already read your work, they knew what they were bidding on. Anyone that has read your work knows it’s special. And those that haven’t yet will find that out very soon. Abby hasn’t shut up about you on Twitter. The last time I looked, she was in micro-conversation with a guy about your characters! Pinoe and Ali want to start putting snippets of your work out on Twitter...Trust in your writing, DK, trust in your muse and your stories. Have faith that what your friends see in you really is there.”

They were interrupted by the arrival of their dinner, and Ash reluctantly let go Dakota’s hands. Once the plates were down, Ash ordered another whiskey and soda for Dakota and lime water for herself.

They concentrated on eating, knowing further conversation could wait. 

 

****

 

They didn’t pick up their conversation until they were getting ready for bed that night. As Ash was putting her hair up, Dakota remembered something she’d wanted to ask earlier in the day.

“So what made you decide to shower at the Plex instead of here?”

“Well, you know how I like to stay after open practises and games? Meet the fans, autographs and all that?”

Dakota nodded as she stripped her shirt off.

“There was a little boy that was yelling my name over and over, he couldn’t have been more than three. Did you know that ash sounds like ass when a toddler is screaming it? Anyway, when I finally got to him, he was all worked up and almost crying. His mother was trying to get him to calm down, but he held his arms out for me to take him. His mom said it was okay with her, so I took him and bounced him a little and danced a little and he threw up all over my shirt.”

“Oh no...”

“After I had already showered and changed.”

Dakota started to laugh, but clapping her hand over her mouth didn’t help. She just laughed all the more.

Ash shot a mock-hurt look at her, but she couldn’t suppress her smile. “Strawberry ice cream does not go well on a black t-shirt, DK. Trust me.”

“Did you pre-treat the stain...if you had told me...” Dakota began to leave the room, but Ashlyn reached for her hands. 

“It’s okay, Maria, the lady that washes all the team stuff, said she would take care of it. You can’t argue with a Mexican woman when she’s riled up, so I let her win. I’m sure you’ll meet her Wednesday too.”

DK stepped into Ash’s space and wrapped her arms around her.

Ash enveloped Dakota in her embrace, content to breathe in the smell of her shampoo. “She used to tell me not to rush, that I would find a nice girl when the angels decided I was ready. Now she always tells me that she was right. She says I look happier.”

“Are you?”

Ashlyn pulled back a little so she could gaze into Dakota’s blue eyes. “You shouldn’t even need to ask that, sweetheart. Of course I am! You are everything my heart knew I needed to be whole.”

Dakota reached up and kissed her before snuggling into the crook of her neck. “That was pretty deep, Harris. You make me happier than I could have ever dreamed of being. Sometimes I still think it’s all a dream.”

“Nope. I’m real.” Ash lowered her head and kissed the top of Dakota’s chestnut hair. “But speaking of dreaming, you ready for bed?”

“Just have to brush my teeth.”

 

When they had gotten into bed and Ash was once again wrapped around her girlfriend, she spoke quietly. “I’m really sorry your parents treated you that way, DK. You didn’t deserve that. No kid should be treated that way, gay or straight. Parents are supposed to love their children unconditionally and without reservation. They’re supposed to encourage and support them, protect them while teaching them about how to be good people. Not slap them around and throw them to the wolves that live on the streets. No wonder you always question whether you’re good enough, you grew up without love.”

“You love me.” Dakota’s voice broke. 

“I think I’ve loved you from the moment we met. I always will.” Ash placed a gentle kiss on the back of Dakota’s head and held her a little tighter while she cried in her arms.

 

to be continued!

 

Chapter Text

The next morning, Ash was awake a minute before her alarm went off. She shut it off so that Dakota could sleep in, suspecting there were bound to be late nights while she worked on her book. While she loaded the coffee maker, she thought back to what DK had said about her parents reactions to her coming out. Assholes...unloving assholes that trashed Dakota’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Ashlyn shook her head angrily. Closed-minded bigots like that shouldn’t have been allowed to reproduce, she thought as she leaned against the balcony door and watched the sun rise. No wonder Dakota had thought she was unworthy of being loved. With an entry like that into adulthood, her walls were understandable. Ash decided to skip her run, and decided instead to use the hour making things Dakota could snack on during the day. She knew that being picked up by the publisher, and the amount they had signed her for, would be the inspiration DK needed to start working seriously on her book.

Ash made tuna salad with onions, celery and green peas in it, the way she knew her girl loved it. She made a big tossed salad with almost everything she could find in the fridge, including ham. Ash followed that by making a big pitcher of iced tea. Only then did she take her mug of coffee outside to the balcony.

 

She watched her neighborhood gradually wake up as some of her early-rising neighbors left for work. Across the street in the park, a light fog curled around the trees and shrubbery. The grey mist gave the wide open space an eerie look, but the weather forecast promised it would be burned off before too long. Ash sighed and went inside, closing the door silently after her. After finding a scrap sheet of paper, she sat at the table and wrote,

DK,

I didn’t run this morning. I decided instead to make sure you had some good stuff to eat during the day. (You can see me giving you the look, right?)

So I made a couple of different salads and a pitcher of iced tea. I expect to come home to no salad at all. It’s the least I can do to support you while you’re hunched over a keyboard earning your living.

I’ll text during lunch break.

Love you bunches!

Ash

Then she filled her travel cup, made sure she had her phone, keys and iPod and left the apartment.

 

****

 

The team knew what they had to work on, now it was just a matter of translating that knowledge into action. The problem for Ashlyn was that these girls all knew how she played her net. They knew her strengths and weaknesses. The team had been split in two, and her usual defenders were no longer in front of her net. Girls that normally would play forward were suddenly given defensive positions. They were out of their elements, and Ash knew she couldn’t rely on defense. If her back line stumbled, it was up to her.

Half an hour later, it was clear that today was not a good day for many of them. Ashlyn included.

By the time practise was over, she was angry and frustrated. While Mark gave them all what was meant to be an inspiring speech, she sat in front of her locker and glowered at the floor. She changed out of her cleats and into her runners without  ever looking up. She was just as upset with herself as she was the rest of them. None of them were playing up to par, and they had barely won their playoff spot. They couldn’t afford another day like that. When Mark finally called lunch, she left the locker room and went to her car, without making eye contact with anyone. She found the music that normally drew her out of her funk, turned it up load and texted Dakota.

Hey DK, you busy?

 

She watched a couple of the girls cross the parking lot and pile into one of the cars before driving away.

 

Never too busy to talk to you. How did your morning go?

 

Crappy. I’m out in the car.

 

When her phone rang, she knew who it was without checking caller I.D and turned down the music.

“Hey.”

“You sound upset and you’re playing your ‘I’m mad’ song. What happened?”

Ash shrugged even though she knew DK wouldn’t see it. “I don’t know. It’s like we’re all playing with stone cleats on. I missed balls I could normally have caught in my sleep.”

“Everyone has off days, babe. Even you.”

“The whole team?”

“I’m not surprised. You all play together, train together, work out together...you all affect one another. Think about it, once one of the team scores, the others are more pumped up and another goal is likely to be attempted in a few minutes. I’ve seen it happen, albeit over the internet, but I’ve seen it happen. I know it’s possible. You have gym time this afternoon?”

“Film.”

“Okay, then after film, get together whoever was your back line and work on whatever was weakest this morning. I’ll save dinner for you. You can tell me about it while we soak in a hot bubble bath, I’ll give you a massage afterwords and go to bed early. How does that sound?”

Ash let out a deep sigh. “Sounds like a bit of heaven. Did you eat yet?”

“Eggs and toast for breakfast, with coffee of course. That wonderful tuna salad that you made on home-made bread for lunch, with a couple of wedges of cheese and an apple.”

Ashlyn smiled. “Good. I’m going to go in for my own lunch now. I’ll text before I leave the ‘Plex, okay?”

“You feel better?”

“I always feel better after talking to you, love.”

“Charmer.”

“Nerd.”

Dakota’s laugh filled the car. “Your nerd! Go eat, superstar. I’ll see you later.”

“Love you.”

“Love you more.”

Ash smiled as she shut the car off and got out. Yeah, she felt better.

 

As she went into the dining room, she went to find the girls that had served as her defenders earlier and told them she wanted to train more after they all reviewed film.

They all agreed.

Once she was sitting down eating, Ali came and sat beside her. “You’re a little intimidating when you’re upset, Harris.”

“So are you, Kriegs.”

“Think that might be why no one else is sitting by us?” The brunette cracked.

Ash grunted and cast her gaze around the room while she took a bite of her sub.

“Did you call home?”

Ash turned her head slowly and pinned her friend with steely hazel eyes. “What makes you think that?”

“The way you’re holding your shoulders. You were tense when you left the locker room. Now you’re carrying your frustration differently.” Ali reached over and snagged Ash’s pickle off her plate.

Ash watched her chew and shook her head. “Am I that transparent?”

“No, but she’s good for you.”

“I hear you’re going back out to the pitch after film review. Want an extra? I might be able to help.”

“Always.”


****

 

Dakota set the stereo to play her ‘writing’ playlist, made a cup of tea and booted up her laptop. While she waited, she cast an eye around the apartment. She had, on one hand, been grateful to sleep in. On the other hand, she had scrambled to get the laundry in the washer, sweep, wash the floors and do the dishes Ash had left behind. DK never quite knew who might come through the door at the end of the day. She might be alone, or she might bring Ali. One friday, she had brought Pinoe home with her as a surprise, which was remarkable since she and Sera lived in a different city entirely. So Dakota tried to keep the apartment spotless, just in case Ash brought a friend in. Finally, her cleaning was done. All that remained was to make brownies and put the wash into the dryer.

And name the anthology.

She opened the appropriate file, took the cursor to the top of the page and typed,

Two Miles Through Hell: A Collection of Short Stories

 

Ten minutes later, the short stories were all sent off to the publishing house editor and Dakota had sent an email off to Tammye and the Craysop Publishing rep to let them know. Then she remembered something Ashlyn had said the night before.

Pinoe and Ali want to start putting snippets of your work out on Twitter...

As she transferred the damp clothes into the dryer, she considered the potential impact of writing flash fiction so that she, and their friends, might have something to post on social media without violating the terms of her contract with Craysop. She set the dryer controls, hit the proper button and pulled her cellphone from her pocket. A few pokes of the screen, and she heard a ringing tone.

“Hi, Dakota. What’s up?”

“Hi Tammye, I wanted to run something past you. Apparently Pinoe and Ali have been looking for bits of my stories to post on social media, but they figured there might be an issue with the new contract. So I was considering writing some flash fiction, that can be released out into the wild.”

“That’s a great idea! I can use it to build hype before you even leave the apartment! Can you spin it to run similar to some of those short stories?”

“I’m sure I can write it with a few of those characters.”

“Even better! I wonder how much a billboard costs?”

“A what?”

“Gotta run, DK! Talk later!”

“Um...okay.” Dakota said to the dial tone. As she pushed the disconnect icon on her screen, it occurred to her that Tammye had never shortened her name, as her friends did. “Hmm. Odd.”

As she began to gather ingredients for brownies, she chuckled. she picked up her phone again and texted Ashlyn.

Your mother is a crazy whirling dirvish, you know that?

Oh? what did she do now?

I told her I was going to write flash fiction and she cut me off to price billboards. I think she’s going to plaster it all over the city!

I think she’s going to plaster YOU all over the city.

Dear Lord...what have I gotten myself into?

LOL. Ash texted back.

 

Dakota shook her head and concentrated on the brownies.

 

to be continued!


Chapter Text

“Moonlight streaked through the cinderblock cell and sliced between the bars, escaping into the gloom of Cellblock D. Erin’s soul ached to follow it.”

Dakota Undomiel~Two Miles Through Hell

 

Dakota peered at the photo for a long minute, trying to read the words on the billboard Pinoe had taken the picture of. Suddenly, she knew exactly what she was looking at.

“Holy shit…” She stared at it for a minute longer before forwarding it to Tammye, along with a caption. “I didn’t think you were serious about the billboards, but those letters are pretty tall!”

 

It was Tuesday, the day before the open practise, and game, that Dakota had promised to attend. She was four dozen cookies into a marathon baking session she hadn’t told Ashlyn about yet. She wanted to surprise her girlfriend, and her team, with a variety of oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies the next day. She expected Ash home from the gym soon, and while she always looked forward to her lover’s return, today Dakota had a new little surprise.

Not long after the fifth dozen came out of the oven, she heard Ash’s key in the door.

“DK? I’m home!”

“In the kitchen, Ash.” she could hear Ash sniffing the air as she followed the smell of freshly baked cookies. “Did Mrs. Keebler open up shop in here? Wow! What’s all this?

“For the team tomorrow. Celebratory cookies!”

Ash laughed and wrapped her arms around Dakota’s waist and pressed a kiss to the side of her neck. “And what if we don’t win?”

“Then they’re comfort cookies. And there is nothing more comforting than cookies. Except you of course.” Dakota turned in the strong embrace and kissed her girl slowly. “How was your day?”

“Interesting. Ali, Crystal and I were interviewed today in a coffee house. There was a picture taken...it was pretty cool. How about yours?” Ash smiled and wiped at a smudge of flour on Dakota’s forehead.

“A little surreal, with a side-order of interesting. There’s a surprise for you in the living room.”

Ashlyn turned so her arm was around Dakota’s waist, but she didn’t let go, so the two of them went to the living room together. On the wall that both sofas end-butted into, hung a large, framed portrait of Ashlyn and Joe Biden shaking hands.

“Oh wow, babe, that’s awesome!” Ashlyn’s face lit up. “Thank you for getting this done...I hoped someone had taken a picture, but then I forgot I wanted a print.”

“There’s another surprise in the bedroom.” Dakota smiled and guided her down the hall. On the wall opposite the bed, in a glass case, hung Ashlyn’s World Cup Champion medal.

“You did that, for me?” Ash sounded a little stunned.

“Of course, why wouldn’t I? I love you, I’m proud of you and you put a lot of work into making the national team. It represents a lot of your sweat, blood and tears, and it deserves a better place than your sock drawer.”

“You found it...” Ash blushed a little.

“Of course I did. Where else was I going to put the socks I made you?”

“No way, babe! Can I wear them now?” Ash was like a gerbil on crack, bouncing from one surprise to another.

Dakota laughed, “Of course you can! When it gets cold later on, I’ll make you winter socks.”

“Cool!” Ash wrapped her arms around her girlfriend, kissed her soundly and lifted her just slightly off the floor so that she could spin her.

They laughed and spun until Ash gave in to gravity and flopped them both on the waterbed.

 

 

Dakota was happy to lie on the warm bed, cradled by her lover’s arms, listening to the sound of her strong heartbeat. She could smell her shampoo, with just a hint of perfume. She sighed heavily and closed her eyes.

“You okay?”

Dakota nodded and smiled. “Mhmm, I’m good. A little tired, but good.”

“I’m not surprised. You’ve been baking and cleaning like a madwoman. Is this normal or nerves?”

She sighed again. “Avoidance tactics I guess, and wanting to make the apartment less a place to sleep, and more of a home.”

“Ah. I see.”

“Have you seen Pinoe’s latest Tweet?”

“Umm, no, it came in while I was driving, and then I got distracted by this gorgeous brunette who bakes…”

DK chuckled. “My charmer. Take a look.”

Ashlyn dug her phone out of her front pocket and with some difficulty, managed to navigate one-thumbed to Megan’s Twitter account, where she had posted the picture of the billboard. It took her less than a minute to realize what she was looking at.

“Holy shit…”

Dakota laughed. “Yeah, those were my exact words too. I can’t believe how fast she got that rented and up.” She was interrupted by her own phone chiming with an incoming text. She dug it out of her back pocket and found a message there.

Check your bank account

T

“You have a funny look on your face, what’s up?”

“Your mother wants me to check my bank account…” Anything else she might have said was smothered by a sharp gasp.

“DK...what’s wrong?”

Dakota couldn’t speak. She held up her phone to show her girlfriend.

“Yeah, Mom made a deposit in your account of...holy fuck, thirty thousand dollars?”

Another text came in, which Ash read out loud.

The publisher is quite happy with us! Keep being awesome!

T

Dakota had no words to adequately describe the emotions flooding through her, so she stayed where she was and cried happy, silent tears into Ash’s shirt.

Ash held tight and rubbed her back, telling her how proud she was and how much she loved her. They stayed that way for quite a while. Finally Ashlyn spoke up. “Are you okay?”

Dakota nodded. “Better. Thank you for letting me cry all over you. It seems to be my thing.”

Ash chuckled. “No worries. I don’t mind. I know you want to be there for the practise and the game tomorrow, but I also know you don’t want to be there all day, so I made arrangements to have someone come pick you up and drive you to the ‘Plex.”

“Thank you, that was sweet of you. Maybe we can go for drinks afterward and celebrate.”

“What would we be celebrating?”

“Your win, of course.”

“What if we don’t win?”

“Then we celebrate our love.”

Ash twisted a little so she could kiss the top of Dakota’s head. “Now who’s the charmer?”


To be continued!

Chapter Text

 

 

“This looks good!” She commented as Dakota set her plate down. She wasted no time in cutting into the french toast and wasn’t surprised to find it stuffed with bananas. “Holy...is this home-made bread too?”

Dakota smiled. “I made it yesterday. I’m glad you like it.”

“French toast stuffed with bananas, with bacon and strawberries on the side...what did I do to deserve this?”

“Loved me.” Dakota said simply.

Ashlyn reached over and plucked Dakota’s free hand from the table and kissed her knuckles. “You’re a real romantic, you know that? I’m lucky to have you in my life.”

“I know.” Dakota winked, and they both laughed. “Seriously, Ash, I’m the lucky one. I had no idea how much my life would change for the better when your mother said she would introduce me to you. I think I’ve loved you ever since you first smiled at me.”

“Before I met you, I thought love at first sight was a load of crap.” Ash said quietly. “But now I see that it’s real, because I’ve loved you at least that long.”

Dakota smiled through the tears that threatened to spill over. “It must have been fate that we met then.”

Ashlyn kissed her knuckles again. “I suppose it was. You’d better eat. Wouldn’t want the romantic side of you to waste away due to malnourishment.” She let go of Dakota’s hand and they both smiled before tucking into their food.

 

After breakfast had been finished and the table cleared, Ash got her things together while she mumbled about which shoes to wear. Dakota went to the bedroom and came back with Ash’s favorite Doc Martins. “Here, the last game day you wore these, you won.”

“I doubt it was the boots, babe, but I’ll wear them for you. Thanks.” Ash smiled and bent to put them on. “So, your ride will be here somewhere around lunch time. You might want to have your lunch a little earlier than usual. After practise, we can go out for a bite, then we’ll head back to the ‘Plex for the game.”

“Sounds good!”

Ash straightened, made sure she had everything and kissed Dakota’s cheek. “Have a good morning. I’ll see you later, okay?”

“Sounds good.” Dakota reached up and returned the kiss. “Later, lover.”

Ash flashed her a happy grin and left.

 

****

 

Dakota tried to work on the opening chapter of Magic in The Stars, but none of the words sounded right. No matter how she approached the opening, it stumbled over it’s own words and sounded clunky. She sighed, deleted what she’d written and started over with a slightly different angle. She wrote for a little while before reading what she’d written, and regretted it when she did. She decided it too, was crap and deleted it all.

She went back over her notes she’d written on the world and it’s people, envisioning herself as one of them, living among them, breathing their air and fighting their fights. She read over the character sketches, reacquainting herself with the people she’d created to live on the planet. She made tea and stretched her body out, printed the character profiles and plot notes, and sat down to write the opening again.

 

As the small ship plummeted toward the green plain, its pilot said a prayer to her gods, certain there was no survival in her future. The ship rolled, once, then twice, then slammed and skidded into the planet’s surface. The helmet’s neck support saved Lura’s Steele spine from snapping like a terran twig, but there was nothing to protect the helmet from ricocheting off the inside of the ship. By the time the scout ship’s momentum slowed, blood coated the inside of the mask…

 

“Damnit! That’s not it either!” Dakota shot out of the chair and paced to the balcony door. She knew she was closer, but it still didn’t have the right feeling. She stood at the door, watching the neighborhood until her frustration passed. She sighed and went back to her laptop.

She worked on various development notes, character motivations and sketched ship ideas until she realized she needed to eat before her ride arrived. After a quick salad, she gathered what she needed for Ali’s surprise, the notes she’d printed and her sunglasses. As she started to look for her wallet, she heard a knock at the door. Not knowing who to expect, she was stunned to see Pinoe in the doorway.

“Megan!” Dakota laughed as her friend enveloped her in a bone-crushing hug. “Does Ash know you’re in town?”

“Surprise! I’m your ride!” Megan smiled widely and laughed at Dakota’s expression.

“I don’t whether to hug her for keeping this a surprise...come in while I make sure I have everything.”

Pinoe chuckled and entered the apartment, spotting the framed picture of Ashlyn and the vice-president right away. “Nice. I’m guessing its presence is your influence?”

“I thought a special occasion like that needed a memento.” Dakota nodded as she picked up her backpack. “I’m all set. Can you give me a hand with something in the kitchen real quick?”

Pinoe followed DK into the kitchen and took in the stacks of tubs. “Jesus...what is all this?”

“Oatmeal cookies, chocolate chip cookies and a few brownies.”

“A few? Let me take a bunch down to the car. This is going to take more than one trip. The Spirit have no idea how lucky they are...” Megan muttered as she picked up a stack of tubs.

 

****

 

Once they had left the drive-thru of the coffee shop, Pinoe asked how the book was going.

Dakota groaned a little and Megan glanced across the car to peer quizzically at her friend. “I got really freaked out when we agreed to the contract because until Ash, no one had ever expressed that intense an interest in me, you know?”

Megan nodded as she negotiated a turn.

Dakota continued as she pulled one of her feet up to her lap. “Then when Tammye offered to represent me, I wondered what the catch was.  But with Ash there, supporting me and having my back, I thought maybe it would be okay. I trusted Tammye to find a good home for my book, and then I was trusting her to negotiate a good deal and she did. The publisher seemed to want it as much as we did, and I was floored by the money they were attaching to trusting me. I’ve never had anyone put that much trust in me. It hit me, right then, that someone believed in me, in my writing, in my ability to move people with my words. It stunned me at first, and it’s crippled me for days, Megan. It’s all I can see now, most especially since the first part of the advance has been deposited into my account. It’s like another reminder that now I have to come through for someone else.”

 

“So don’t think about the money, or the contract, or Tammye or the billboards.”

“There’s more than one?”

Megan rolled her eyes and Dakota was glad they were at a stoplight. “My point is, don’t think about any of that. You know how the media was playing clips of the team getting off the bus and we all had our headphones on? We all listen to whatever music either pumps us up, or chills us. We don’t think about the fans, or the sponsors, or the people counting on us to win. We focus on the game. We focus on the part of it that gets our blood moving, the part that we love the best. We focus on playing the best we can. You need to do that. Build your playlist so that you can’t think about all the parts that freak you out. Build your playlist so that you can write about loneliness so sharp readers can’t help but have their hearts broken. Layer it so that you can describe the moonlight without thinking about royalties or publicity tours or the next book, so that all you see and hear are your characters until you taste their tears, feel their heartache and their anger. You do that, Dakota, and you’ll never have to worry about writer’s block ever again.

 

“Have you worked on it today? The book that Abby’s raving about? She says you let her name it...Magic In The Stars?”

“More than just name. She’s given me some interesting ideas for it, and for some of the characters too. I got a bit done this morning, but it was like giving a chicken a pedicure. I printed out some stuff to look over later. I didn’t know who was picking me up, so…”

“So you thought you’d have all kinds of time to work.” Megan laughed.

“Something like that.” Dakota chuckled.

“Care to share with me later?”

“I’d love a second set of eyes, that would be great.”

“Have you shown it to Ash yet?”

“Not this stuff, no. I wanted to wait until I had a couple of chapters written.”

“You know she told me you read part of one of your short stories to her on the plane. She said it was like watching a movie with her eyes shut. She really enjoyed it.”

Dakota could only smile. She looked out the window, afraid that if she tried to speak, her voice would betray her emotions.

 

Across the rental car, Megan knew. she hadn’t known Dakota as long as she had Ashlyn, but she already knew the couple were a solid match for each other. Ash was a calmer person since Dakota had come into her life, and even more so since DK had moved to DC. Oh Ash still had a ridiculous, wacky sense of humor, that was part of what made her such a special person. But now she seemed to have layers she hadn’t felt safe showing before, and Megan knew that Dakota was responsible.

Pinoe and Ash didn’t see each other as often as they had when the national team was pursuing the Women’s World Cup, but they still called each other, texted, emailed and Skyped. Ash was proud of her girlfriend, and talked about her all the time. How romantic she was, how she did little things to make the blonde goalkeeper happy, and her baking.

Megan glanced into her rear-view mirror at the stacks of tubs on the back seat. Damn, but this woman could bake. No wonder Ash was running more.

 

Seeing they were getting close, Dakota texted Ash.

Can you meet us by the doors? We had a time getting all these tubs into the car...

A reply came back quickly. Already there.

Making the final turn now. See you in a minute.

 

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

Ash helped unload the baked goods onto the curb and she and Dakota waited while Megan parked the car.

“It was a nice surprise, getting Pinoe to pick me up. Thank you.”

Ashlyn grinned. “I thought you’d like that.”

“I think she’s a little jealous of the treats the Spirit is getting though.” DK replied. “Any idea how long she’s in town for?”

“A couple of days. She’s taking over Ali’s couch. I tried to tell her she could bunk with us, but she said a couple ought to have the chance to scream if they wanted to.” Ash chuckled.

“Hmm, it has been a few days since I made you scream...”

Megan came up to them just as Ashlyn began to redden. “Alright, lovebirds, let me grab a stack of awesomeness and we’ll follow you, Ash.”

The three of them divided the baking between them and Ashlyn led the way into the building and to the Spirit locker room.

 

****

 

“And this is Crystal...” Ash had already introduced most of the team, leaving Crystal and one other until last.

Dakota smiled and stuck her hand out. “I’ve heard a lot about you. Ash talks about the hijinks the two of you get into often.”

“She’s a bad influence on me, I swear!” Crystal laughed and shook Dakota’s hand.

“This is Joanna.” Ash continued the introductions.

“I love your hair!” Dakota enthused as she shook the soccer players hand.

“Ash is too formal, call me Jo. My hair is nothing. Have you seen my girlfriend’s?”

“I have! I think it is so cool to be able to pull off a bleach blonde mohawk!”

“I know!” Jo responded with a quick smile. “Ash talks about you all the time...she said you made all of us cookies?”

“60 cookies and brownies, Jo! This woman doesn’t know how to bake for a few!” Ash called out  from where she and Ali were opening tubs and filling the locker room with the heady scent of chocolate.

By the time all the containers were opened and everyone, including the trainers and support staff, was nibbling on something, Dakota had met everyone. Ali crossed the room and hugged Dakota. “Finally, I get my turn!” She laughed.

“That was a nice touch with Jo.” Ali whispered in her ear. “Did your research, didn’t you?”

Dakota smiled sheepishly as Ali let her go. “Sure did.”

“You know, Ash told me before you and I met, that you were shy. I haven’t seen that person.” Ali smiled.

DK shrugged. “If I had my way, I would be a house-bound shut-in doing my grocery shopping over the internet. But I doubt that Ash and her mother would let me get away with that.”

“Neither would your friends!” Ali reached out grasped Dakota’s arm as she laughed.

 

Dakota glanced across the room and saw Megan in a discussion with Jo about hair, and Ash learning a dance move from Crystal. They all hung out, chatting and joking around until Mark raised his voice to be heard.

“Ladies! Time to get to work, if you aren’t all stuffed full of chocolate and oatmeal…”

“That’s our cue to take our seats, DK. Come on.” Pinoe led the way out of the locker room as various people called out their thanks for the cookies.

 

****

 

Their seats had been reserved for them in the family section. They were not the first ones there, but they still had a little privacy yet. Once they’d gotten settled, Megan asked Dakota if she had brought the print-outs of her work-in-progress. DK nodded and took the sheets from her backpack. As her friend read them over, Dakota took out her knitting needles and began to cast on the yarn. By the time she’d gone around the needles four times, she realized the bleach-blonde wasn’t really reading at all. “How do you keep the needles from falling out?” Megan asked.

“Tension. I’m a tight knitter.” 

Pinoe watched her for a few minutes longer, intrigued by the yarn’s color changes and how much progress was being made in such a short time.

“Excuse me,” A voice to Megan’s left interrupted. “Can I ask what you’re making?”

Dakota looked over to see a woman peeking around Pinoe. “It’s going to be a sock for a friend of mine.” Dakota answered as the Spirit players took the field.

“Ali?” Megan asked.

Dakota nodded.

“Wait...you’re making socks for Ali Krieger?” The other woman all but shrieked.

DK chuckled. “Yes, I am.”

“No way…”

Megan nodded this time and addressed the newcomer. “This is Ashlyn Harris’ girlfriend, Dakota Undomiel.”

The other woman turned to her and her eyes got wide. “I’m sitting here with Dakota Undomiel and Megan Rapinoe? Where’s my phone?” When she started patting down her pockets, Dakota began to chuckle. “Aha!” She held up her phone. “Would you both be willing to take a picture with me?”

They both agreed and multiple photos were taken before the woman went back to her seat four rows up. They could hear her trying to be quiet on her phone as she called someone and told them who she had just met, but clearly that level of excitement was hard to contain.

 

As they watched Ali and Ash warm up, Dakota continued to knit and Megan sat with the papers still in her hands. Pinoe’s eyes flicked from the field, to her friend’s fingers, to her eyes, and back again. “Do you realize that you haven’t looked at your needles once in the last few minutes?”

Dakota laughed softly. “Yes.”

“How do you know you haven’t made a mistake?”

“It’s a simple stitch and I can tell when something doesn’t feel right.”

Megan shook her head and read the papers again before taking out a pen and making some notes on the back of one of the sheets. She folded them in half and put them in Dakota’s backpack. As she lowered her sunglasses, she asked, “If you get a chance to write more micro-fiction, I’d love to put it up on Twitter for you.”

“You would?” Dakota stopped knitting and looked at her.

“Yeah, I think you’re on to something with that pilot character of yours.”

“Wouldn’t be just because she has bleached hair, would it?” DK teased with a smile as she put on her own sunglasses.

“Nah. But I do think her ship is pretty cool. Well, the one you sketched, not the one you crashed...” Pinoe shoved Dakota’s leg with her own. “But in all seriousness, when you’re done with Ali’s socks, would you make a pair for Sera and a pair for me? Just name your price…”

“I’m not going to let you pay me for socks.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re a friend.” Dakota watched as Ali ran across the field and received a pass from one of her team-mates.

“Okay then, you tell me what two pairs of socks costs in materials, let’s say in that kind of yarn, and I’ll figure in a fair wage. I’ll pay you and if it really bothers you to take money, you can donate it to charity.”

“I feel like there’s a catch here somewhere.”

“Of course there is.” Megan grinned. “It has to be a LGBT charity of my choosing.”

Dakota put her needles carefully into her lap and stuck her hand out. “Deal.”

****

 

It was much later that evening, after the sun had gone down and the game was tied 0-0 under the lights that Ali got possession of the ball. She streaked across the pitch, trailing opposing players behind her like a comet’s tail, always angling closer to the visiting team’s net. Mid-stride, she kicked the ball neatly into the far left corner, far beyond their goalkeeper’s gloves. The crowd, and the Spirit team, went wild as the final whistle blew. Megan and Dakota shot to their feet and applauded and cheered their friend’s last minute goal right along with the hundreds of other fans sitting with them. Dakota beamed proudly down at her girlfriend, who was running from the net to wrap her arms around Ali. The Spirit celebrated amongst themselves briefly, then went over as one unit to shake hands with their opponents. Eventually, a few of the Spirit players crossed the field to sign autographs for their fans, a good many of whom were kids. Ash’s eyes searched for Dakota, and when she found her, she smiled widely. Dakota gave her a wink and Pinoe shot her a thumbs up.

“Way to go, Kriegs!” Megan called out to Ali.

Ali looked up into the stands and called back, “Thanks, Pinoe!”

Fans whipped their heads around in disbelief and the whispers started. “Is that Megan Rapinoe from the national team?”

“Oh my god, I have to get her autograph!”

Dakota chuckled as a mini-stampede started in their direction. She patiently gathered up their things and retreated to a corner where she took her camera out of her bag and started taking shots of Ash, Ali and Megan.

It was not lost on her that Ashlyn kept track of where she was.

 

As the last fans left, PInoe and Dakota made their way down to the field. DK wrapped an arm around her girlfriend and kissed her. “You got another clean sheet! I’m proud of you!”

“I scored the winning goal, and I can’t even get a hug?” Ali mock-pouted.

Dakota laughed, handed Ash her backpack and hugged her cinnamon-eyed friend. “You were a sight, streaking across that field, no one could keep up with you! I’m proud of you! In fact, I freaked out one of the women in the stands earlier when she found out I knew you.”

As they all laughed, Ash suggested they go out for dinner once she and Ali had showered.

“That’s a good idea. I’ll ride with Ali and you two lovebirds can talk dirty.”

“Megan!” Ali chided with a grin.

Pinoe just laughed. “DK and I will wait for you two outside.”

“Be out as soon as Princess here gets ready. You know how her mascara has to be just perfect.” Ash smiled as Ali shoved her playfully.

Pinoe and Dakota split off and walked toward the parking lot while Ali and Ash headed to the locker room.

None of them noticed the figure following along behind them, trying to stay hidden in the shadows.

 

To be continued!

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Ash waited until Ali had pulled out of the lot ahead of her before she put the Jeep in drive. Once they had left the ‘Plex property and were on the long stretch of road, Ash reached out and laced Dakota’s fingers with her own. “Did you have a good day?”

“I did, it was nice to meet your team. Watching you win wasn’t too bad, either.” Dakota laughed.

Ash smiled. “Yeah, it was nice to get another clean sheet. Thank goodness Ali got that goal when she did. The team could use the points.” She flipped on her turn indicator and followed Ali’s BMW. She noticed a set of headlights behind her do the same.

“It was nice to hang out with Pinoe for a while. Are we going to see her tomorrow or does she have plans?”

“I think she’s coming over to the apartment to hang out with us for a while.”

“Good!” Dakota watched Ash drive. “You’re tired, aren’t you?”

Ash nodded as she braked behind Ali at a red light. “Yeah, I might have put a bit more zip into the practice and game since a certain writer was watching.” She flashed DK a smile. “You always seem to know when I’m tired, how do you do that?”

“I’m a writer, I study people.” Dakota’s thumb caressed the back of Ash’s hand. “Besides, I have a special interest in your health. Gotta make sure you don’t wear yourself out.”

“Oh yeah?” Ash shot her a smile as the light turned green.

“Sure. If you get tired, it’s my job to make sure you sleep. If you can’t sleep, I’ll have to come up with ways to help you sleep. A few come to mind right off, but at least one involves some physical exertion first.” Dakota grinned and cocked an eyebrow at her girlfriend.

“Well, I’m not tired but some physical activity of the personal sort might help me sleep.” Ash smiled and let her dimples show, knowing Dakota couldn’t resist them.

“Oh! Speaking of physical stuff, I’m knitting a pair of socks for Ali, but when they come up in conversation, they’re for you, okay?”

Ash laughed out loud. “How in the hell does that count as physical stuff?”

“Because she’s going to wear them on her body.”

“You crack me up, DK.” Ash chuckled and shook her head.

“I know. It’s part of my charm.” Dakota dropped a wink and turned her head again to watch the neighborhood go by.

Ash glanced in the rear view mirror and watched the dark car behind continue to follow them. As she made the turn into the parking lot, the car carried on down the road and Ash gave herself a mental shake for being paranoid.

 

They had come to the same restaurant they’d brought Dakota to her second night in DC, which made her glad. She liked it here and was looking forward to trying one of their pasta dishes in a smoky sauce. She was hoping to reproduce the sauce at home. Ash jogged around the front of the Jeep and helped Dakota out. After the game, she’d showered and changed into her black skinny jeans and a red sleeveless t-shirt. The ink on her left arm stood out dramatically against the red cloth, and made an even bigger statement than usual. Dakota couldn’t help but smile at the sight of her girlfriend. Yup, there was definitely going to be some form of physical exertion in the apartment that night.

 

 

As they waited to be seated in the back, Megan turned to Dakota. “I remember you said once that you and Ash listened to different music. I know what she listens to from all those hours we spent on buses and planes. What do you listen to?”

“When I’m working, or just because?”

“Just because.”

“Depends on what mood I’m in. I’ve been known to listen to Lady GaGa, Cher, Evanescence, Sarah McLachlan, and The Indigo Girls. When I’m cleaning, I play the same Shakira song over and over again.” DK shrugged at Ali’s wide eyes. “It’s got lots of energy. Sometimes I’ll play Squirrel Nut Zippers, Pink, sometimes Nickelback.”

“This way please, ladies.” The maitre d’ said quietly.

Once they had been seated,Megan asked what Dakota had been writing to.

“Ah, that depends on the type of chapter I’m writing, whether it’s emotional, if it has action or if a chapter has romantic overtones.”

“You mean to tell me that advice I gave you earlier, you already knew about?” Pinoe asked with a look.

Dakota chuckled.

Megan sighed dramatically, pretending to be miffed. “Whatever...check out Deer Creek Canyon though, it’s got some good songs on there you might be able to write to.”

DK scrolled through her phone until she found what she was looking for, then she passed her short-haired friend the phone. Megan rolled her eyes and shook her head. “I can’t believe you. You already have the album on your phone! What about Hozier? You know about him?”

“Sure. Ella Massar got me hooked on him.”

“Incorrigible…”

As they ordered, none of them noticed the couple sitting two tables over, far more interested in the table where the soccer stars sat, than the menus in front of them.

 

****

 

“This is a bullshit job...They’re just making small talk.” the woman said as she pushed a bit of hair behind her ear. “If things don’t pick up soon, I’m going to lose my friggin’ mind.”

“Be patient. Order some food.” Her partner smiled. “You can at least try and look like you’re enjoying yourself, you know. You’ll fit in better that way.” He reached out and rested his hand on hers.

“Get your hand off me or I’ll break every one of your fingers, dear.” She smiled as she bit the words off. 

He removed his hand just as the waiter approached their table. He ordered for both of them and the waiter left. “Well, bullshit or not, we’re only supposed to watch and report back. You may as well at least enjoy a fine meal on the boss.”

 

****

 

As Ali and Ash discussed tattoos, all three of the soccer players phones chimed at the same time, and all three looked at each other in confusion. Then they all looked at their phones.

“Oh! Jill mass-texted all of us…” Ali said.

“There’s a friendly against Canada in Toronto next week. We’ve all been cleared to go.” Ash said as she looked up at Dakota.

“That’s great!” Dakota replied as her phone chimed with an incoming text.

“Jill texted you too?”

Dakota looked down and shook her head. “No, it’s your mom.” She read the whole message before continuing. “Apparently there’s a writer’s conference in Toronto next week. She wants to know if I’m free. The publisher wants to have a pre-launch party for the anthology, build hype and all that.”

“That’s awesome, babe! We’ll at least be in the same city!”

“That’s true!” DK nodded as she texted Tammye back.

 

Sounds good! Ash and the national team will be playing a friendly in Toronto at the same time.

 

It works out well then. Brace yourself, the pub is making noises about wanting you to be on a panel for new writers.

 

I’m not qualified to be on a panel!!!!

 

It’ll be more like five of you sitting around a living room discussing things you wish you’d known when you started. You can do that.

 

“Dakota? You okay? You don’t look good.” Ash reached out and touched her arm.

“Yeah...just found out I’m going to be on an informal panel at that conference.”

“You can do it.” Ashlyn took her hand. “If you want, I’ll go with you as much as I can.”

“Me too! I’ve never been to one of those things before.” Ali spoke up.

“Abby and I will go too.” Pinoe added.

Dakota smiled at them, relieved that she would have her friends there, for some of the time at least.

 

****

 

“Text the boss and let her know that her person of interest is going away next week.” The female observer said as she lifted her water glass to her lips.

“How do you know that?” Her companion asked, a little surprised.

“I read lips, dumbass. Why do you think the boss put me on this detail?” The woman snipped back. “Don’t question me, just let the boss know.”

 

to be continued!

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

After dinner, the girls all headed back to Ash & Dakota’s apartment. As Dakota made coffee, the conversation in the living room centred around soccer, naturally. 

“I enjoy doing the victory tour,” Ash was saying. “But I really wish we were higher in the league standings. Fourth just isn’t enough for me, you know?”

Ali nodded. She understood all too well how Ashlyn wanted the Spirit to be the number one team.

In the kitchen, Dakota wondered if her girlfriend’s frustration with her home team was related to her worry over not making the Olympic roster.

“Sometimes it’s nice to come home and just be...normal though. Listen, the Spirit’s stats are nothing to be ashamed of! Ties are better than losses.” Megan added.

Ash chuckled and shoved Pinoe’s shoulder a little. “Sure, say that while you’re in the number one team in the league!”

Ali shook her head at the two of them and went into the kitchen. “Do you need a hand in here, DK?”

“Remind me how Megan takes her coffee?”

Ali told her and watched as the coffees were fixed according to everyone’s preferences. “You need to talk to her.” She said quietly.

“I know.” Dakota nodded as she put the milk and cream away in the fridge. “I wonder sometimes if she has a plan for life after soccer.”

Ali shook her head. “I’ve known her a long time, and even I’m not sure of that answer.”

Dakota sighed and the two of them took the mugs out to the living room.

 

As they settled into their seats, Dakota beside Ash and Ali on the other sofa with Megan, Ali changed the topic. “So what will you do at the writer’s conference, Dakota?”

“Well, Tammye says the publisher wants me on some kind of informal panel. She said to think of it like a group of us sitting around talking about what we wish we’d known when we started. Which is all well and good, but I always feel like I’ve just started.”

Ash reached out and patted DK’s thigh. “I think you’ll be awesome. Don’t think about the crowd. If I can’t be there, just focus on one of the other writers. Maybe it’ll be a smaller gathering.”

“Have you had a chance to look at the notes I made?” PInoe asked.

“Not yet, but I’m going to. I’m toying with the idea of working a little bit later.”

“I was thinking about your comment earlier about the pilot.” Megan said. “I wouldn’t mind too much if your Lura Steele character was a short-haired blonde.”

Dakota smiled. “Thanks, Pinoe. Can I give her your hairstyle too? I’ve always thought it was pretty cool.”

“Absolutely!” Megan smiled widely. “I can totally handle having a cool pilot doppleganger. Have you decided how injured she’ll be yet?”

“Not totally.”

“Why not have her on death’s door, and nursed back to health by her future love interest.” Ash waggled her eyebrows and they all laughed, but it gave Dakota a kernel of an idea.

“Lachlan...” Dakota said.

“Reece.” Ali replied.

“As a last name.” Megan joined in.

“Dr. Lachlan Reece has a nice ring.” Ash said, nodding.

Dakota smiled widely. “You all just named one of the main characters!”

Ashlyn turned to Pinoe. “I’d say this earns us a mention in the dedication page, wouldn’t you?”

Megan nodded as she tried to keep a straight face. “Oh, absolutely...”

Ash turned back to Dakota and winked. “Just kidding, babe.”

 

 

****

 

The girls had hung out for a couple of hours before Ali and Megan left. Ash had curled up on the sofa with a book while Dakota worked at the table. She opened the correct file and started laying out a physical framework for the pilot. A little while later, she opened up a new document and began to type a scene that had been playing out in her mind.

 

As the patient tried to roll her head, she moaned as the attempted movement pained her.

“Don’t move.” The doctor cautioned. “You’re safe now. Don’t move your head until I can examine you.”

The patient stopped moving and opened her eyes. “Where...where am I? Who are you?”

The doctor put a hand out. “First things first. Be still and let me ask you a few questions and we’ll see if we can assess your injuries. Does your neck hurt?”

“No.”

“Vision blurred?”

“No.”

“What hurts?”

“My ribs, my cheekbone.” It was difficult for the patient to speak, but her voice grew stronger.

“Not surprising. You got tossed around in your ship when it crashed. I’m going to flash a light in your eyes and take it away quickly to see how your eyes respond.” The doctor warned. When her patient’s eyes reacted favorably, she nodded. “All right. I’m going to take the head restraints off now, but don’t make any sudden moves. Promise me you’ll lie still and I’ll answer any questions you have.”

“Promise.”

In a matter of moments the restraints were removed and the doctor came back into the patient’s line of sight as she pulled a stool over to the bedside. “First, allow me to introduce myself. I am Dr. Lachlan Reece. Do you remember who you are?”

“Pilot Lura Steele, First Wave.”

Dr. Reece began to make notes on a handheld pad. “First Wave?”

“First Wave...of scouts.” The pilot supplied. “How are you not familiar with that?”

“I’m sorry, it is a new term for me.” The doctor continued to make notes. “Where are you from?”

“Serranian Province. Limos.”

“Where?” The doctor’s forehead creased.

Lura sighed. “Where am I?”

“You are in the main medical center of Isiri, our capital city. Is this place unfamiliar to you?”

“Yes.”

“Do you remember your citizen number?”

“My what?”

“Perhaps the Registry can fill in the blanks.” Dr. Reece typed on her pad as Lura laid still and watched.

 

The first thing Lura had noticed about the other woman was that she was very attractive, and that her eyes were an emerald green. She had very dark hair that flashed chestnut highlights under the light, and she impatiently flicked strands of it back over her shoulder. It never stayed, falling forward frequently. She had very long fingers that typed in jerky movements, in what would have been described as hunt-and-peck back on Lura’s home world...

 

“Babe? Are you coming to bed?” Ash’s voice pulled Dakota from the medical center, and her pilot’s study of the doctor.

“Wha...? Oh, yeah...What time is it?” Dakota asked as she stretched. Her shoulders made a popping sound.

“After two.” Ashlyn stepped behind her and began to massage her shoulders. “If you want to stay up and work, that’s okay.”

Dakota yawned. “No, I’m beat. Let’s go.” Then she stood up.

Ash kissed her tenderly. “I’ll lock up while you save your work. ”

“I didn’t realize I was so tired.” DK commented as she saved and closed out the file.

“Good thing you’ve got me, then!”

“I’m lucky to have you.” Dakota said as she smiled and shuffled down the hall to their bedroom.

 

to be continued!

 

Chapter Text

 

Toronto, Monday

The taxi ride from the airport had been eye-opening, to say the least. As bad as the traffic was in DC, it was equally bad and yet cranked differently, here. It was louder too. People shouted more and seemed angry. It was as if most of the city was on the streets in a bad mood.

“Is it always like this here?” Dakota asked the taxi driver.

“Yeah, pretty much.” he replied. He was a short red-headed man with darting eyes and quick reflexes. Not a very good driver, but he was quick. “Where are you lot from?” He asked.

“D.C.” Ali replied. “We’re here to play soccer.”

“Oh yeah!?” he half-turned in his seat to look back at them, not slowing the cab at all. “My daughter wants to play soccer when she gets a little older. She’s only 6 now.”

“That’s the perfect age to start. You should definitely encourage her to play if you can. It’s a great sport.”

“Better than the piano my mother-in-law wants her to play.” He muttered as he cut off a long, dark limousine. Of course, the limo driver leaned on the horn.

“Soccer will teach her sportsmanship and give her a way to burn off energy.” Ali dug out one of her business cards as the driver pulled up in front of their hotel. “Listen, if you decide to get her into soccer and you need any help, there’s my card. Just let me know. Not sure what I might be able to do for you from D.C, but it wouldn't hurt.” She passed it over the seat with the money for the fare.

The driver glanced at the card before spinning as far as he could still in his seat belt. “You’re Ali Krieger? Holy shit! My kid never shuts up about you!” His gaze fell on Ashlyn then, who had sat silent and mysterious in her dark hat, black clothes and sunglasses. “You’re the goalie! Harris, right?”

All three women in the back seat chuckled as Ash nodded and smiled. “Yeah, I’m the goalkeeper.”

“Would you two mind autographing the card? ‘Lyssa’s gonna squeal...”

Ali took a new card out of her wallet, passed Ash a pen and then signed after the blonde. She passed that up to the driver. “Call if you need any kind of help getting your daughter into soccer.”

“Yeah, yeah, I will, thanks!”

Dakota put her sunglasses on, popped the door open and they all climbed out as the cabbie got their luggage out of the trunk.

“Thanks again.” He shook Ali’s and Ashlyn’s hands, turned away and jumped back in the car.

Dakota shook her head, smiled and picked up her suitcase.

 

They made their way into the lobby and Ash immediately spotted the national team’s head coach sitting in a chair.

“Jill!” She smiled as she took her sunglasses off and hung them from the neckline of her shirt.

Dakota was introduced and handshakes exchanged.

“Ali, you and Ash will be rooming together while we’re in Toronto.” Jill turned to Dakota then. “I’m sorry, I know you were probably looking forward to rooming with Ashlyn, but we have someone different in mind for you. But I think you might like her...”

The girls all exchanged confused looks as she turned and waved someone over from behind a pillar.

Dakota was relieved to see Tammye strolling across the hotel lobby.

“I had to keep the team together, I hope you understand. But I was able to get you a room on the same floor.” Jill said with a light touch to Dakota’s arm.

“That’s better than having to be in another hotel on the other side of the city.” The writer smiled before turning to watch Ash hug her mother. 

“I have credentials that will get you both into all our practises and the family seats at the games. I wasn’t sure how to serve everyone’s best interests until Tammye contacted me.” Jill still looked a little embarrassed as she handed the passes over.

“It’s fine, really.” DK reassured her.

“Ali, here are key cards for you and Ashlyn to your room, and our schedule for the week. There is a team dinner-meeting in conference room number one at six tonight, just down the hall past the check-in desk.”

 

Tammye hugged Ali and DK before turning and making small talk with Jill. Ash leaned in toward her girlfriend and spoke quietly. “I had no idea, I’m sorry...”

“It’s okay. We’re in the same hotel, it could be worse.” Dakota replied as she leaned her forehead on her girlfriend’s collarbone. “At least we can hang out when we aren’t busy with other things.”

“True, but I’m still going to miss wrapping myself around you at night.” Ash whispered.

“I know...”

“Come on, lovebirds, let’s find our rooms and get unpacked. I’ve got our keycards.” Tammye tapped Dakota’s lower back and moved toward the bank of elevators. In the elevator, Ali wrapped a hand around one of Ash’s biceps, looked at the floor and began to mumble in German. Dakota remembered Ash telling her that Ali wasn’t afraid of much, but elevators made her extremely nervous. She made a mental note to use the stairs if they weren’t too far up.

Thankfully, they stopped on the third floor and Ali bolted out first, breathing heavy. “I’m taking...the stairs...next time.”

“You and me both.” Dakota laid a hand on the defender’s shoulder and she and Ash waited by her side until she had collected herself a little. 

In a couple of minutes, Ali reached up and patted her hand. “Thanks, DK. I didn’t even think about warning you I was going to hang on to Ash like that. She’s just kind of always been my rock in those damn things...”

“Hey, it’s okay. I get it. We all have something that freaks us out.”

Ali shot her a tense smile and moved off down the hall looking for their rooms. “Tammye, what room are you two in?”

“315.”

“We’re in 309, Ash.” Ali said. “Here we are.”

Dakota turned and ghosted Ash’s cheek with her lips. “Come find me later when you get settled. Love you.” 

“Love you more.” Ash responded quietly before following Ali into their room.

Dakota sighed and followed Tammye down the hall.

 

It was a very nice room with two single beds, a desk, two bed-side tables with lamps and a large television. Dakota crossed to the window and pulled back the dark drapes. She was looking down on a green park bordered by large trees, with a siazable greenhouse in the middle of it all. She thought that might be somewhere nice to sit with Ash as Tammye joined her at the window. 

“Nice view. You want the window-side bed?”

“Thanks.”

“I’m glad life has settled down for you.” Tammye lifted her suitcase to the bed nearest the door. “How’s the writing going?”

“Good! I’ve got a few chapters in on the sci-fi/spec novel. The girls helped brainstorm one of the characters last week.” 

“Have you named it yet?”

Dakota laughed. “No, but I named the planet and a couple of the land masses!”

Tammye laughed along with her. “Gotta start somewhere I suppose. Other than the conference was there anything you were hoping to see while we’re here?”

“As many soccer games as I can fit in, the museum, a couple of yarn shops for sock yarn and Jamaican food. What about you?”

“I heard about a couple of speciality bookstores that I’d like to visit, and the museum seemed to have promise. Other than that, I’m not sure.”

“The conference starts the day after tomorrow, right?” Dakota asked.

Tammye nodded and passed a piece of paper across the room. “This is the schedule. The publisher has you booked on the ‘If I Could Start Over’ panel on Friday. They assure me it’s a small gathering with a limited audience.”

Dakota looked over the conference schedule and said, “If Ali can battle her fear of elevators, I can do this.”

“That’s the spirit!” Tammye smiled as she took her toiletry kit in to the bathroom.

 

 

Dakota set the schedule on her bed and started to unpack but she was interrupted by a knock at the door.

“Can you get that?” Her manager called out with an echo. “It’s probably my daughter missing you anyway.”

When DK opened the door, it was a middle-aged man with an odd hunch to his back, wearing a hotel jacket. “Sorry to disturb, Ma’am, but this was just dropped off for you at the front desk.” He held out a lumpy envelope.

“I wasn’t expecting anything...did they leave a name?”

“Not that I know of Ma’am. I was just asked to bring it up to your room.”

Dakota turned to ask Tammye if she knew anything about the envelope, but she hadn’t come back yet. When Dakota returned her attention to the door, the man was gone.

“Was I right?” Tammye asked as she came back.

“Not this time.” Dakota shut the door. “It was a hotel employee delivering an envelope. Said someone had left it at the front desk for me. Do you know anything about it?”

“Afraid not. Open it up.”

Dakota saw no name on the envelope other than her own, so she ripped one end off and shook the contents out onto the desk. A flash-drive fell out, along with a small piece of paper. DK unfolded the paper and smoothed it out on the desk so they could both read it. The note was written in green ink, which was odd, and two lines long.

This is the proof you need. Use it wisely, use it well.

 

“What the hell...?”

 

To be continued!!

 

Chapter Text

 

Dakota snatched the phone up and dialed the front desk quickly. A woman’s voice answered immediately. “Front desk, how may I help you?”

“This is room 315. A hotel employee just brought an envelope up to my room, he said it was dropped off there for me. I was wondering if you know who delivered it?”

“I’m sorry Ma’am, there was nothing delivered here for you.”

“That can’t be right. Your employee just told me he was instructed to bring it up here to me.”

“I’m sorry Miss Undomiel, I mean no disrespect, but I’ve been here for the past three hours, I haven’t stepped away. There’s been nothing dropped off here for you.”

Dakota rubbed at her eyebrow with her thumb. “That’s concerning for all kinds of reasons. Not only did someone manage to deliver something to my room unnoticed, but they’re also impersonating one of your co-workers.”

“I’ll alert my shift manager right away, Miss Undomiel. Thank you for letting me know. May I ask what was delivered to your room?”

“An envelope containing a flash drive. I haven’t looked at it yet.”

“Do you have concerns with the potential contents, Ma’am?”

“No, I don’t think so…”

“If you’d like to look at it without jeopardizing your own computer, we do have a small internet cafe here on the main floor with excellent cyber-security.”

“That’s a good idea, thank you.”

“If you need anything else at all, please don’t hesitate to call, Miss Undomiel.”

“Thanks very much.”

Dakota hung up and turned around and to find Tammye, Ali and Ash all watching her. “That was just weird…”

Ash cocked an eyebrow at her, an obvious but unspoken, ‘well?’

“The woman at the front desk has been there three hours and swears no one has delivered anything for me. Apparently they have a small bank of computers with what she called excellent cyber-security. I think I might plug it in down there before I put it in my laptop.”

Ali picked up the note and read it. “Anything else odd been happening lately?”

“Nope.” Dakota shook her head. “Anyway, did the two of you get settled in?”

 

“We’re unpacked. We thought we might walk around a bit, see what’s around. You up for a stroll?”

“Sure!”

“You girls go on ahead. I have a couple of calls to make. I have to call Dakota’s diva candy order in, don’t you know.” Tammye teased.

Dakota laughed as she headed to the bathroom. “Peanut M&M’s!”

The minute the door was closed, Ash stepped closer to her mother and said quietly. “Mom, I might be paranoid, but I think we may have been followed last week when we left the ‘Plex. Keep your eyes open for anything…off, okay?”

“You too, Sweetie.” Tammye said. “Be careful. We’re in a strange city. There’s all kinds of unknowns here.”

They heard the toilet flush and Ash nodded before stepping to the window.

Dakota came into the main room and made sure she had her wallet, key card and phone. “All set!” She picked up the flash drive as an afterthought. “I’d like to stop off and see what’s on this.”

“See you girls later.” Tammye called out as she made eye-contact with her daughter.

Ash nodded and Ali and Dakota waved.

Ali opened the door into the hall, and looked up and down the hall before stepping out.

“The stairs were left, Kriegs.” Ash said before slipping her hand into Dakota’s.

“Thanks. I get so turned around inside some of these places…” Three flights of stairs later she tugged on a door that read ‘lobby’. They approached the desk three abreast and the young woman behind the mahogany behemoth stood up.

“Miss Undomiel? Is everything …?”

“It’s fine.” Dakota held a hand up. “I decided that it might be best to look at the flashdrive down here.”

“Of course!” The young woman nearly radiated relief. “The internet room is just down that hall…” She pointed off to the left.

“Thank you.” Dakota flashed her a smile and the three of them followed her directions.



The room was unoccupied. As Dakota slid the flash drive into a computer and sat down, Ash turned to face the door, prepared to stop anyone else from entering if she had to. She had a twisting feeling in her gut that said this was too creepy to ignore. Her first thought was Wendy, but she was still serving time in Florida as far as any of them knew.

“Hey, you look tense...you okay?” Ali said quietly beside her.

“No.” Ash responded without turning her head. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this, Ali. I can’t help but wonder if Wendy is behind it somehow.”

“We’ll keep an eye out, Ash. We’ll keep her safe.” Ali leaned into the goalkeeper’s shoulder.

“That’s just it...I can’t. Not all the time.” Ash glanced behind them. Dakota was pecking away on the keyboard. Ash turned back to her friend. “Tell me I’m being paranoid and suspicious.”

“Guys...check this out…”

Ali and Ash turned as one and went to peer over Dakota’s shoulder. On the computer screen were multiple images of small, blurry blobs in the skies over fields, stones with carved runes beside figures with large heads, snapshots of witness statements, ancient carvings of astronauts in temple walls centuries old, what looked like an alien fossil, and even what was supposed to be an alien body with a ruler next to it.

“What the hell is this?” Ash asked, confused and unsettled.

“Proof.” Ali said while her eyes took in as many of the images as she could.

“Of aliens?” Ash was incredulous. “This is weird shit…” She muttered as she stalked back toward the door.

Dakota turned and studied her girlfriend’s back. She got up and went to Ashlyn’s side and put a hand on her lower back. “Hey…It’s okay.”

The blonde shook her head and grimaced, but wouldn’t look at Dakota.

“I know you’re a little freaked out, and a little afraid, but you don’t have to worry now. It’s just a bunch of pictures that someone thinks is proof.”

“I’m not afraid of those.” Ash jerked her thumb in the direction of the computer.

“No, but you are afraid of vague and unknown gifts that might precede danger, and I understand that, better than anyone. I’m not in any danger. You can’t worry about me. You have a game to get ready for, and win.”

“I’m not likely to see any net time anyway.”

Dakota angled herself until she was standing in front of her girlfriend, and took her face in her hands. “Ashlyn Michelle Harris, listen to me. I love you more than anything else on this earth, but I am more stubborn than you. I am standing here in front of you, safe and whole, do you understand me? I. Am. Safe. So pull yourself out of this fear and come out on the town with Ali and I, and have fun.”

Ash gave her girlfriend a slow, goofy grin. “Is that a polite way of telling me to pull my head out of my ass?”

Dakota burst out laughing and rested her head against Ashlyn’s chest. “Depends. Would that work?”

Ali crossed to her friends, shaking her head. “Only a writer would make ‘pull your head out of your ass’ sound romantic.”

 

 

to be continued!



Chapter Text

 

Dakota pulled the flash drive out of the hotel’s computer, pocketed it and linked arms with Ashlyn. “So, where are we going first?”

“Apparently this is a pretty good part of the city...there’s some stores nearby.” Ali offered.

“Walking tour it is then!” Ash exclaimed.

As they passed the front desk, Dakota smiled at the young woman behind it. “I think she was worried I was angry with her for a little while there.” She said quietly.

“She seems relieved you aren’t.” Agreed Ali.

 

They left the hotel and went right. They strolled along the busy sidewalk, looking in the windows of some shops and going into others that peaked their interest. The street was crowded with traffic and while most people went around the trio, a few shot them irritated looks.

“I thought same-gender relationships were accepted in Canada?” Ash muttered.

“From what I understand they are. Maybe we’re just too touristy for them?” Ali replied.

“There’s a sidewalk cafe...anyone thirsty?” Dakota asked.

The two soccer stars nodded and all three of them diverted onto the patio. A tall blonde stood on the far side and began to wave wildly.

“I think Pinoe wants us to notice her.” Ali deadpanned.

“Gee, I’m not sure I see her...” Ash chuckled as they made their way over to Megan’s table.

“Hey you guys, pull over some chairs and join us! Dakota, this is Hope Solo. Hope, this is Dakota, Ash’s girlfriend and the writer I was telling you about.” Megan made introductions and Dakota stuck her hand out. Hope smiled briefly, shook her hand and gestured to a chair beside her. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“I’ve heard a lot about you as well.”

Hope cut her eyes to Pinoe, then returned her attention back to the writer. “You’d think they all have something more important to do than talk about us, right?”

Dakota chuckled. “Indeed. I have to say, I really like your website. Very nice, very professional.”

“You’ve looked at my website?”

“Sure, I follow your blog so I’m there fairly often checking for updates. How do you find working with the company that made it for you?”

Hope blinked before she replied. “They’re pretty good, but all I really do is give them my updates I’ve written out, send them new photos and they upload all that. But they’re pretty receptive when I want something changed. You really follow my blog?”

“Sure! Ever since the World Cup. Your name caught my ear and I started looking into the goal keeper everyone was talking about.”

Ash and Ali exchanged glances, knowing that Hope was as talked about for her previously unstable ways as she was her skills in the net.

 

 

A server left menus for all of them and went to serve other tables. Dakota glanced at it briefly before closing it.

“Not hungry, DK?” Ash asked.

“No, but a dark beer sounds good.”

 

Once all of their orders had been placed, Ali glanced around the table at her friends.   “Hey, Pinoe, you know the book DK is working on...the one about the alien world that your doppleganger crashes on?”

“Yeah?”

“Ever wondered if there really are aliens?”

Megan ran a hand through her bleached hair as she answered. “I like to think so, but I hope that they aren’t little green or grey people. I like to think they’re not too freaky looking, intelligent and wise and peaceful.”

“But if there’s aliens, then how do we settle religion and science, and balance them out together?” Dakota asked.

 

 

“You believe in heaven, Dakota?” Hope asked.

“I’m not sure I’d call it heaven, exactly, but I like to believe that there is a place that our souls will go when our bodies fail us.”

“Hmm. What does your heaven look like?”

Ash watched her girlfriend drink her beer, deep in thought. “I like to think it’s whatever we need at the time of our passing. Whether that’s a large, sunlit field with a river running through it, or a library full of information, or ...” Dakota cast her hand toward their table. “Or a cafe filled with our friends.”

“What if you’re lying to yourself and there’s, just...nothing?”

“Then I will be very disappointed. What do you believe, Hope?”

The dark haired goalkeeper looked down into her cup and made a face of frustration and disgust. “I want to believe that I’ll end up somewhere peaceful, but even if your heaven does exist, I’ll likely never get to go there.”

Dakota reached out and put her hand lightly on Hope’s, ignoring the wide eyes of their table-mates. “What if I have it wrong though? What if heaven is merely a way-station for our souls to re-group before we are assigned another body? Then the journey isn’t about being good or not, is it?”

Hope looked up into Dakota’s eyes. “Reincarnation, Undomiel?”

Dakota hadn’t been addressed by her last name since prison, but she felt Hope didn’t mean anything by it, so she smiled and cocked an eyebrow. “Why not?”

 

“I don’t deserve another chance. I’ve hurt too many people.” Hope could see some of the others squirming. They didn’t often see this side of her. But Dakota peered at her intensely interested in what she had to say.

“I don’t believe that.” Dakota shook her head.

“You calling me a liar?” Hope narrowed her eyes.

“No, I’m saying you’re judging yourself too harshly.” Dakota leaned back in her chair, completely unintimidated. “I’m guessing you know I’ve been in prison, and if you tell me you don’t, I will call you a liar. Anyway, my point is that I’ve seen bad people. Eaten beside them, lived with them, showered next to them, tried not to get shanked by them...you aren’t one of them, Hope. You are deeply bothered by your life choices, you are as brooding as any tortured poet, you have set an extremely high bar for yourself and with every setback, you tell yourself yet again that you deserved it. But I’m telling you that you don’t.”

Hope looked down at her coffee, now cold, and back up at her table-mates. She opened her mouth and Dakota continued.

 

“You were given a raw deal early on, and you weren’t given the tools to deal with that or taught how to make the kind of decisions to bring you happiness.”

Hope cocked an eyebrow.

“Please, your question was in your eyes.” Dakota waved a dismissive hand at Hope’s unasked question. “I’m no wiser than anyone else, but I’ve had some help figuring this stuff out.” She held a hand out toward Ali, and the other toward Ash. “These two have pulled me back from some pretty dark shit.”

Hope sat silent for a couple of minutes, studying Dakota, who gazed back unflinchingly. Finally, Hope smiled and clapped a hand on the writer’s shoulder. “You’re alright, Undomiel.”

“Thanks.”

“But listen, not a word of this conversation leaves the table. I have a rep to protect, you know.” Hope squinted her blue eyes at Dakota.

“On one condition.”

Ali, Megan and Ash’s eyes all lifted in shock. Very few people spoke back to the worlds best female goal-keeper. Hope leaned back and crossed her arms, waiting.

“You call me DK. None of my friends address me by just my last name.”

“What if I don’t?” Hope shot back quickly.

“Then you’ll be the only friend I let get away with it, but I get to address you by yours.”

Hope let her tough demeanour drop, she smiled warmly and stuck her hand out. “Deal.”

A collective sigh was heard go ‘round the table and Hope looked at the others. “What? Did you think I was gonna rip her head off?”

The other soccer players began to mumble.

“Please...she’s an ex-con. She could probably kill me with a straw!”

Before anyone could respond, Dakota started to laugh, a deep belly laugh that had the others laughing soon after.

When they all caught their breath, Hope nodded. “Yeah, I like you, Undomiel.”

 

 

They decided as a group to walk back to the hotel. Hope had asked Dakota about her novel, and as they chatted, they spear-headed the little group as they got to the last intersection before the hotel. Ash smiled to see the two of them getting along so well, and elbowed Ali lightly. The blonde motioned with her chin. “I was a little worried, but they seem to have hit it off.”

“DK may say she’s not good with people, but she has a way of making people feel like they’re the center of the universe when she meets them.” Ali agreed with a smile.

Pinoe turned as they all waited for the light and leaned toward them conspiratorially. “She puts me in mind of that one person at a party that remembers everyone’s kid’s names, everyone’s birthdays, you know?”

Ash smiled widely. “Yeah, she’s...”

 

Suddenly their pleasant afternoon outing was shattered by a single shout from Hope.

 

GUN!”

 

 

to be continued

 

Chapter Text

“GUN!”

 

They all turned toward Hope, who had shouted out the warning. Out of the corner of her eye, Dakota saw a hand sticking out a rear window of a car.

There was no time to think about the kind of car it was.

No time to really look at the person holding the gun.

But she could see where it was pointed, and that was enough to spur her into action. 

A glance back to ensure Ashlyn wasn’t in the line of fire.

Another quick glance at the car.

A loud bang.

Dakota pushed Hope to the concrete, felt a shove at her side.

The car’s tires shrieked as the driver gunned it out of the neighborhood.

 

 

“Everyone okay?” Pinoe asked as she helped Ali and Ashlyn up.

Hope rose slowly, trying to catch her breath.

Ali peered at Pinoe. “Are you okay? Oh my god...”

 

to be continued

 

Chapter Text

 

“Oh my God…”

Pinoe looked down hurriedly. “I think I’m okay, Kriegs…”

“Dakota?” Ash looked toward her girlfriend, where Hope was bending down. “DK!” Ashlyn ran the few steps to Hope’s side. “Is she…?”

Hope couldn’t look at Ash, she knew the anguish she would see in the other ‘keeper’s face. She focused instead on the woman on the ground. “She’s bleeding, call an ambulance.”

“Pinoe’s doing that now.” Ali said beside them, she put one hand on Ashlyn’s shoulder. “She’s tough, Ash…”

Hope checked Dakota’s clothes. “I don’t think it went high. Dakota, I’m going to put pressure on it.” Hope said, even though she was sure that the writer was unconscious. “It’s going to hurt, I’m sorry, but I have to. Ash, you still carry bandanas? I need one now.”

Ashlyn nodded and pulled a folded red one from her back pocket and handed it to Hope.

“I’m going to put this on the gunshot and put a little bit of pressure on it to slow the blood flow. It’s going to hurt a little, don’t rip my head off.” Hope said to Ash, who took one of Dakota’s hands.

When Hope put pressure on the leaking wound, Dakota gasped and her eyes opened. “What the fuck…?” she gasped. “Oh, Jesus…”

Megan kneeled by her friends. “The ambulance is on their way, and the police. I’m going to call Jill to come outside before the police won’t let us talk to anyone.” She rose and dialed their coach’s cell number.

Ali nodded without taking her eyes off Dakota. She could hear Ashlyn’s breath coming hard and fast, and she knew the blonde was headed for hyperventilation. “Ash, it’s okay, she’ll be okay, you have to calm down...you aren’t going to be any good for her if you pass out.” Ali rubbed her back in circles until Ash’s breathing was less ragged.

“Sorry…” Hope was saying.

“Solo, you keep pushing on it like that...I will kill you with that straw…” Dakota rasped as her fingers clawed at the pavement.

“I know it hurts and I’m really sorry, but I have to do this.”

There was a flash and Hope looked up to see someone in the crowd lowering their phone. “Are you fucking kidding me right now? This woman just took a bullet for me and you took her picture while she’s laying here bleeding on the street?!” She snarled. “Where in Christ is the ambulance?!”

“Ash…” DK breathed.

“I’m right here.” Ashlyn shifted so she was in Dakota’s line of sight. “We’re all right here.”

“There was a gun…”

“I know. Don’t try to talk right now, okay?” Ashlyn’s eyes filled with tears and she tried to smile. “You were so brave, and I’m really proud of you.”

“Love you…”

“I love you too, Sweetie.”

“Ali…”

“I’m here, DK.” Ali took Dakota’s hand that was moving weakly on the concrete.

“Don’t let...Ash...self-destruct…” Dakota was breathing more shallowly with every word.

“Dakota, you’re going to be okay. You have to fight this!” Ash sobbed. “Please…”

“Hope, there’s so much blood...is this normal?” Ali whispered.

“I don’t know...this is way beyond my basic first aid. Where the fuck is that ambulance?”

A hand grasped her shoulder. “It’s coming.” Hope looked up and saw Jill at her side and Megan beside her with her eyes full of tears.

“Ash...my chest...hurts…” Dakota struggled to speak. “Hurts…”

“Shit, her heart condition!” Ali’s eyes widened as she realized how complicated things were.

“Ash...promise me...you’ll live.”

“No! I can’t live without you, Dakota, please don’t leave me, please, baby…”

“Ali...watch over…”

“I will, Dakota, I promise.” Ali’s mascara ran with her tears as she tried to hold herself together.

Dakota’s eyes searched for Ash as everyone looked on, unable to help. “Ash? Where are you? I can’t see you...everything is getting...dark...and cold...I’m so scared…” Her hand clutched at Ash’s, and then went limp.

“Dakota? Ashlyn let go of her hand to clutch at her girlfriend’s face. “No...please sweetheart, please don’t die on me...Noooooooo!” Strong hands pulled her away and she turned into Ali’s arms and wept.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Let us work on your friend here, Ma’am.” Ash couldn’t see the paramedic as he kneeled at Dakota’s side, her face was buried in her hands, and then she was being held against Ali. Jill stepped close and wrapped her arms around them both, and Pinoe followed suit.

Hope backed away from Dakota, giving the medics room to work, and was surprised to feel Jill’s hand on her back.

“It was supposed to be me...” Hope said as she turned. “She took that bullet for me.”

“I know.” Jill watched her as she moved her hand to Hope’s shoulder. 

Hope turned her head to look at the woman on the pavement who had saved her life and her shoulders started to sag. “She barely knew me, and she took that bullet for me...” Her resolve crumbled, and she turned toward her team-mates as the first of her tears escaped. They all held on to each other, weeping as two strangers tried to save the life of a friend.

 

“Ma’am?” One of the medics placed a hand on Ali’s arm. “We’re going to take her to the hospital now. Toronto General, if you’d like to follow us there.”

Jill spoke up as the knot of soccer players broke apart. “I rented a van, I’ll drive. Hope, I need you to program the GPS for me. I don’t know how to work it.”

A police officer none of them had seen arrive stepped forward. “We’ll need statements.”

Ashlyn turned to him with red eyes and her jaw set. “We’ll be with my girlfriend at the hospital. You can get your statements there.” She watched as Dakota was loaded onto a gurney. “She has a heart condition...MVP.”

One of the paramedics nodded as the other belted Dakota down. They positioned the gurney, guided it into the back of the ambulance and one jumped into the back as the other closed the doors.

Hope wrapped one arm around Ashlyn, and on the other side, Ali did the same. With Jill and Pino close behind, they pushed their way through the crowd and headed for the van just before the police tape blocked off the area.

 

****

 

Ashlyn approached the E.R nurses desk at a near-run, flushed and nearly panicking. “My girlfriend was brought in by ambulance, she’d been shot, her name is Dakota Undomiel.”

The nurse typed quickly and her eyes flicked across the screen. “She’s being worked on now but I don’t have any other information right now, I’m sorry.” She shook her head slightly. “Can you fill out some forms for her that might help us treat her?”

“Um...yeah...”

The nurse, whose name tag claimed she was Amy, smiled slightly as she passed a clipboard and a pen over. “I know it can be hard, but we have some terrific doctors here and they’re doing everything they can to save your girlfriend. Just bring it back when you’re done, all right?”

“She doesn’t have any family, I’m all she’s got. We don’t even live here. We have an apartment together back in D.C” Ash rubbed at the back of her neck as she explained.

“That’s okay. Just put yourself down as her domestic partner then.” Amy nodded.

Ash nodded and went to sit with the others. “They want me to fill out paperwork for Dakota…”

Pinoe nodded. “Makes sense, they know nothing about her.”

Ash blinked a couple of times. “Just never figured I’d have to do this.”

“Can you put yourself down as her girlfriend, Ashlyn?” Jill asked.

“The nurse said I should put myself down as Dakota’s domestic partner when I told her DK didn’t have any family.”

They all knew Canada had more relaxed views toward gays and lesbians and for many years had recognized same gender couples in medical emergencies, so the nurse’s advice didn’t seem odd.

 

After a few minutes, Ash stopped writing and whispered, “Holy shit…”

Hope had been pacing back and forth in front of the row of chairs, and happened to be right in front of the blonde. “What?”

“Dakota’s birthday is in a month.” Ash looked up with a lost expression. “I was going to throw a party for her…”

Hope squatted in front of her, and put one hand on her knee. “Listen to me, Harris, Dakota seems like a fighter, and even with that heart problem, she’s got a good heart. When you started talking about her all the time, I looked her up. She survived some nasty shit in that prison, so she can’t be a sensitive diva. She seems like a hell of a fighter. You have to hang on to that.”

Ash said nothing. Hazel eyes locked on to blue and found strength there. Finally she nodded. “Thanks.”

Hope inclined her head, patted Ash’s knee and straightened up.

“Ash, did you want me to text your mom? She doesn’t know yet.”

“Thanks, Ali, I want to get through this paperwork…”

Jill took out her phone, typed for a minute and listened as their phones all chimed. “I sent a message to the team  letting them know that our meeting is cancelled. Further explanation will be provided later. Dinner is already laid out in the conference room.” The members of the team with her all nodded.

 

Finally, Ashlyn finished the paperwork and approached the desk again as a middle aged man with a large nail through his hand walked away. Ash’s eyes widened as she watched him approach an empty chair.

“All done with those?”

“Umm, yeah.” She held the clipboard out to Amy. “I’m not sure if she’s allergic to any medications. It’s never really come up, you know?”

Amy smiled. “Sure. Have a seat here while I get this typed in.” She gestured to the chair in front of the desk that the man with the nail had so recently vacated. 

Glancing at the form, she typed quickly, entering Dakota’s important information. “You’ve written here that she has MVP?”

“Yeah, she was diagnosed with it not too long ago, back home. But the doc told her to change her lifestyle and pay attention to how her chest felt. She’d been doing so well, but when she got shot…” Ash struggled to finish.

“She said her chest hurt.” Ali finished for her as she stepped up behind her friend and put a hand on Ashlyn’s shoulder.

Amy nodded and resumed her typing as Ash fought to get herself under control. Finally, she looked up again at the blonde. “And we’re putting you down as Miss Undomiel’s domestic partner, correct?”

Ash nodded.

Amy typed a few more things before looking up and smiling gently. “Okay, Miss Harris. All I can tell you is try to be patient. We’ll let you know when the doctors can let you back there. If you need to stretch your legs, the cafeteria is through those doors.” She pointed through a set of swinging doors to her right. “Just follow the purple line on the floor.”

“Thanks.” Ali replied, knowing Ash would have difficulty. “Come on, let’s go wait for your mom outside.” She patted the strong shoulder under her hand.

 

Pinoe watched the man with the large nail in his hand settle gingerly into a seat across from her. “That’s quite the nail.” She observed.

“Yeah.” He grunted in reply. “I had to use the damn power nailer. My wife’s gonna kill me when she gets here. Had to leave work. I can’t fill out any of the forms…”

“My wife would kill me if I’d done that to myself too.” Megan nodded. 

“You married?” The man grimaced as he tried to find a comfortable place to rest his hand.

“Not yet, but we’re going to be. Recently engaged.” 

“That’s cool. Just take a piece of advice from someone who’s been married awhile...when she tells you to use a contractor, listen to her.”

Just then the power doors opened and a distraught, pregnant woman rushed in. “Larry, oh my god, are you okay?”

“Well, hun, I can’t exactly play the banjo right now.”

His wife rolled her eyes at him and went to the desk to see about his paperwork.

“I’m telling you, get someone else to do the work.” Larry advised.

Megan nodded.

 

****

 

Four hours later, Hope, Ali, Megan, Jill, Tammye and Ash were still waiting for news when the ‘Restricted Personnel’ doors slid open and a female doctor dressed in purple scrubs came into the waiting room. “Ashlyn Harris?”

Ash shot out of her seat like her cargo-pants were on fire. “Yes?”

The doctor came over. “I’m Dr. Shaw, Dakota’s doctor.”

“How is she?” Ash asked as Ali stood up beside her.

“I understand she’s your domestic partner?”

“She is.”

“Well, she’s also extremely lucky. The paramedics told us one of you saved her life?”

“Hope…” Ash indicated the other goalkeeper. “She knew what to do.”

“Congratulations, Miss Solo, you saved your friend’s life.”

“You know who I am?”

The doctor nodded. “You’re all very big news in this city, and this hospital, right now. At any rate, Dakota has just been moved into recovery from surgery. She was shot in the left lumbar region, right about here.” The doctor rested her fingers just under her own ribcage. “The bullet broke one of the lower ribs and nicked the large intestine. It was of utmost importance that we got all that cleaned up.”

“That took four hours?” Hope asked what they were all thinking.

 

 

The doctor looked at Hope for a few seconds before she reached out and settled her hand on Ash’s bicep. “Miss Undomiel had a massive heart attack while we were operating on her.”

“Heart attack?”

Dr. Shaw nodded. “Likely brought on by the stress caused by her injuries and the MVP. You need to know that her heart stopped twice and we fought to get her back. When the human body goes through that kind of trauma, there’s no telling what the consequences will be.”

Ash would have staggered if not for Hope and Ali’s support on either side of her.

“Will she be okay, eventually?” Pino asked.

The doctor  looked uncertain as she answered. “Right now, I’m going to cautiously say that we expect her to make a full recovery, but I can’t be more certain until she regains consciousness and we can do some tests to see how badly her brain was affected by the heart attack and blood loss.” The doctor turned her attention back to Ashlyn then. “You can go in and see her, but I’m afraid there’s only room for two.”

“We’ll wait for you here, sweetie, you and Ali go see her.” Tammye said. The others nodded and Ali and Ash followed the doctor down a maze of doors.

 

Dakota lay in a dimly lit room, laced with wires and tubes, covered by a sheet that rose and fell as she breathed. A monitor recorded her heartbeat, beeping into the silence, another wire traced from the machine to a clamp on her finger, and an I.V  bag hung by her head with a slim tube that leaked into her arm.

“We’re keeping a close eye on her heart, obviously, and she’s on intravenous meds to combat infection, as well as keep her heart rate steady. We’ll keep her here for a few hours and if she stays steady, we’ll move her up to a room tomorrow. We’re thinking a private room might be best, considering the circumstances.”

Ashlyn nodded. “Spare no expense, Doc. She’s had such a shitty life, she deserves the best. Will she wake up soon?”

“That’s up to her.” The doctor shrugged and put her hand in her pocket. “The body is an incredible thing. Some gunshot victims recover much more quickly than we expect, some take much longer. It all depends on her now. You can stay for a few minutes. I’ll check in on her tomorrow morning.” Dr. Shaw put her hand on Ashlyn’s shoulder and smiled once before leaving the room.

 

Ash stepped around the bed and took Dakota’s hand that didn’t have the I.V line in it. “You gave us quite a scare, DK.” She smoothed the dark hair back from her forehead and saw a bruise there. “Even got a good knock on the head looks like.”

“Probably from when she hit the pavement.” Ali said as she settled her hand on Dakota’s shoulder. “You saved Hope, Dakota, you’re a hero. But you just concentrate on getting better, okay? We’ll come and see you tomorrow, you just rest tonight.”

Ash leaned forward and kissed the bruise and whispered, “You keep fighting, Dakota. You’re my fighter, you hear me?”

They stayed for a few more minutes, holding Dakota’s hands, letting her know by touch that she wasn’t alone, until Ali spoke up.

“We should go tell the others, Ash. I know you don’t want to leave her, but we’ll be back tomorrow.

Ashlyn scrubbed at the tears on her cheeks and nodded. “You’re right.” then she looked down at her girlfriend, laying pale and broken in the narrow bed. “Love you, DK. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She kissed Dakota’s cheek gently and let Ali lead her from the room.

“Miss Harris?” A voice called out. 

Ash turned and saw a nurse coming down the hall with a large bag in her hands. “These are Miss Undomiel’s belongings and clothes...”

“Right, thank you.” Ash reached out and took the bag with a shaky hand, then she and Ali went back to the waiting room.

 

To be continued

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Back in the waiting room, Ash sank into a chair, clutching the bag while the others waited for her to gather her thoughts. After a minute, she sighed. “So, she’s hooked up to a couple of machines, still out from the surgery. I feel so helpless...”

“I’ll take everyone back to the hotel.” Jill spoke up. “We can eat, gather the team together.”

“I’d like to tell them, if that’s okay with you.” Ash addressed the coach.

Jill nodded. “Of course.” She bent her head over her phone and sent out another mass text to the team telling them all they were on their way and there would be an update once they got back.

Ash stood and headed for the doors with her friends close behind her.

 

When they got back to the hotel, the entire team was waiting for them in the conference room, including the trainers and support staff. Ash made her way to the front, and with every team-mate she passed, someone reached out and patted her back, or touched her arm, or made contact of some kind. At the door, Jill  put her hand on Tammye’s shoulder and guided her into the room as well. “You’re one of us anyway.” She said quietly.

Tammye smiled gratefully and slid into an unoccupied seat at the back of the room.

Once everyone had settled, Jill stood at the front of the room and cleared her throat. “Ashlyn?”

 

 

Ash stood up, and Jill took her seat. “So apparently this is all over the news and social media, but since I have no idea what they’re saying, I’ll tell you what happened. Ali, Hope, Pinoe, Dakota and I had coffee at a little cafe down the road and we were on our way back here. We had stopped for a light and a car pulled up and someone started shooting. Dakota...” Ash’s voice cracked and she had to stop.

Hope stood up and went to stand beside her. “Dakota and I were in front of everyone else, just talking...she pushed me out of the way when we spotted the gun and took that bullet for me. She saved my life.” Hope took a deep breath before continuing. “While the doctors were working on her at the hospital, she apparently had a heart attack brought on by the stress of the shot and a heart condition she already had. She...um..” She glanced at Ash, who had her hands shoved deep in her pockets and tears streaming silently down her face while she looked at the floor. Her shoulders shook with silent sobs.

“Do you want me to tell it all?” Hope asked quietly. Ash nodded as Hope reached out and put a hand lightly on her shoulder and left it there as the dark haired goalkeeper continued the narrative. 

“The doctor said that they lost her, twice, but they saved her life. They don’t know what kind of a recovery she’s going to make yet...” Hope’s voice and resolve faded, and Ali stood then and faced the rest of the team.

“I know you hadn’t all had a chance to meet Dakota, but I know she was immensely proud of us all here. She talked about this team a lot, and not just Ash.”

A few chuckles rippled through the team.

“She’s made friends here, and they’ll tell those of you that don’t know her, that Dakota has a gift of making everyone feel as though she’s been your friend forever. She claims she’s an introvert, but I believe she likes people. She’s got a big heart, and despite the crappy hand she was dealt earlier in life, she looks for the best in everyone. She needs love right now, and good energy, and prayers and all the support we can give her.”

Hope cleared her throat. “Jill, would it be okay if you put Alyssa in for our practise? I’d like to be with Ash and the others.”

Jill looked around the room until she caught Naeher’s eye. “What do you think?”

Alyssa nodded. “Anything to help, absolutely.”

Jill inclined her head. “Thank you. Has everyone but us eaten?”

Murmurs and nods went around the room. 

“All right then. I want everyone who wasn’t involved this afternoon ready to board the bus tomorrow morning at eight thirty in front of the hotel. We’re going out to the field to practise and run drills. I know that we’re all in shock right now, and we aren’t on home turf, but we have an opportunity to show Canada again what we’re made of. Ashlyn, would you lead the huddle?”

Ash’s eyes widened, she’d never been asked to lead the huddle before. Usually it was Abby. All of her team gathered round her, and she set her hand on top of theirs.

“Dakota, on three.” Her mind flashed back to a moment before DK’s now-famous news conference.

“One, two, three...” Abby counted out, and the walls rang with one word, one name, lifted by twenty eight voices.

“Dakota!”

 

to be continued

Chapter Text

“Ash, Ali, Hope, Pinoe, could you stay a moment, please?” Jill said. “Everyone else has the night off. Eleven o’clock curfew. Please be careful. We’ve all just been reminded how quickly life can change.”

Normally the team would be making happy noise after being told they had the evening off, but under the circumstances, no one felt like celebrating. Most of them filed out of the large room, talking quietly amongst themselves.

“Ladies, you heard me say earlier that I expect everyone not involved this afternoon on the bus tomorrow...All of you have tomorrow off. We haven’t seen the police yet, they’ll be wanting our statements and I’m guessing you’ll all want to go to the hospital?”

Everyone nodded.

“If any of you need to talk to someone, I’m here. If you want to talk to a professional, I can arrange that and the league will cover the cost.” Jill stopped for a moment to take a breath and consider her words. “Ashlyn, Dakota really is a part of our family, and I hate that she’s in the hospital. When she wakes up, tell her we’re all pulling for her. Keep in touch, all right?”

Ash nodded.

Jill made eye contact with each of them and left the conference room.

 

****

 

A middle aged newscaster glanced at the camera before he turned to a man standing beside him. “Isaac, I understand there’s an unusual piece of news in the sports world today?”

“That’s right, Brent.” The younger man said. “The U.S women’s national soccer team is in town for a friendly game with our Canadian team as part of the USWNT’s victory tour. But today, their team has been rocked by a devastating piece of news. As you may be aware, one of their goalkeepers, Ashlyn Harris, has been romantically linked to the newest literary sensation, Dakota Undomiel. While Miss Undomiel was out this afternoon with a few members of the USWNT, she was the victim of a seemingly random drive-by shooting. Witnesses say she saved the life of Hope Solo, the team’s predominant goalkeeper, by pushing her out of the way and taking the bullet herself! A viewer sent in this photo, taken by cellphone at the scene. We can clearly see Solo attempting to administer first aid to the writer while kneeling in a pool of blood.” The screen changed to show the photo while the sports caster continued. “An ambulance was called, apparently by none other than Megan Rapinoe herself, also one of the more noticeable members of the team. A source at the hospital has told us in confidence that Miss Undomiel suffered severe injuries as well as a heart attack and, in fact, coded twice on the operating table. The team has issued the following statement,

‘All of us involved with the USWNT are heartbroken that an extended member of our family has been brutally gunned down. We ask for everyone’s prayers during this emotional and trying time.’

We’re following this story closely, and wish all of the members of the USWNT our good wishes.”

 

Tammye shut the television off and looked around the room. Ali and Ash were laying on one bed while Hope and Pinoe sat on the other. They had all gravitated to Ali’s room, whether out of a need to support Ashlyn or be united in their shock Tammye couldn’t tell. But it didn’t matter.

“I still can’t believe that shit took the picture! What the hell was he thinking? She needed help, not media time...” Hope’s rant faded when she caught sight of Pinoe’s ashen and drawn face. “Pinoe, you okay?”

Megan nodded a little. “I will, be. I’ve never seen anything like that before, and for it to be a friend...”

Hope nodded. “I haven’t known Dakota as long as you all have, but I can tell she’s special.”

“You said you’d looked up the prison she served time in?” Ash asked.

“Yeah, it’s pretty nasty. I mean, I know it’s not supposed to be the Hilton, but the infestation reports, inmate deaths, PTSD numbers, suicide numbers...there’s no way she could survive all of that without being strong.” Hope shook her head. “I was just kidding with that straw comment I made, but I think she’s probably the toughest person I know.”

“She did tell us she had to fight in there, remember?” Ali reminded Ash.

Ashlyn sat up and leaned against the headboard and brought her knees up. “I can barely remember how I managed before, and now my girlfriend is laying in a hospital in a country not even our own, fighting for her life and I have no idea how to help her.”

“Be strong. Don’t count her out.” Megan said quietly. “I know if it were me laying there, I would find it easier to believe I’d make a recovery if everyone around me did. So we have to believe that in time, she’ll be as good as she was before. Not just act like it, but believe it.”

They all nodded in agreement.

 

****

 

The next morning, the four soccer players piled out of a taxi in the drop-off lane of the hospital. Tammye had stayed at the hotel to work on a statement for the media. Ashlyn found the information desk just inside the doors and gave them Dakota’s name.

“I’m sorry, Miss, visiting hours don’t start for another hour.”

Ash pulled out her wallet and showed the man behind the desk her I.D. “I’m sure they’ll make an exception.”

His eyes widened when he remembered the news from the previous day, and he realized who the four women were standing in front of him. “Yes, I expect they will, my apologies.” His fingers clattered the keys on the computer in front of him and he found the information without difficulty. “She’s in room three twenty.”

“Thank you.” Ash put her wallet away and they all headed to the elevator. “Shit...Ali, did you see stairs nearby?”

“No, it’s okay, Ash. Hopefully it’ll be a quick ride. I’ll just shut my eyes and count in German again.” Ali set her jaw firmly and punched the call button.

It was a quick and uninterrupted trip up to the third floor and Ali was the first out. She approached the nurses station with a smile. “Good morning, I understand it’s not visiting hours yet, but would there be a problem if we slipped into Dakota Undomiel’s room and were very quiet?”

The nurse on duty already looked tired and severe, but when she spotted Ashlyn and the others, her expression softened. “We’ve been instructed by her doctor to bend the visiting rules a little as long as it doesn’t impact her recovery, but can I give you all a little advice?”

Ali nodded on behalf of the group.

“Miss Undomiel may feel her mortality after this. She’s going to have a bit of a rough road ahead of her I’m afraid. Being shot, combined with the cardiac trauma she’s sustained, often affects patients emotionally. Many suffer from depression. She’ll need lots of support to come back from this. You can’t go in there looking like she’s done for, do you understand?”

They all nodded and the nurse came around her desk to stand in front of Ash. “You, Miss Harris, more than any of your friends here, need to convince your girlfriend that she will make a full recovery. The best way to do that is to believe it yourself. Now, her room is down that way, fifth door on your left.” The nurse pointed the way and they all mumbled their thanks as she smiled at them on their way past.



The little group let Ashlyn lead the way and she was the first through the doorway. She circled the bed as she had the night before, going to Dakota’s left and holding her hand without the tubes and wires. She was vaguely aware of the others taking up positions around the bed.

“DK? I’m here, babe, just like I said.” Ash stroked the backs of her fingers along Dakota’s cheek and watched her girlfriend’s eyes flicker. “Dakota, time to wake up and show me those stunning blue eyes. Solo thinks her eyes are the best shade of blue...” Ash looked at Hope and gave her a cocky grin to show her she wasn’t serious and Hope gave her a smile in return and shook her head. “But you need to help me out here. You need to open your eyes so I can prove her wrong.”

Dakota’s eyelids flickered open and closed again, then slowly opened, and stayed open as she looked to the left.

“Ash...” Her voice was rough.

“I’m here. We all are.”

Dakota’s eyes looked to the others at the end of the bed.

“Do you remember what happened?”

“Yeah.” She swallowed and grimaced.

“Pinoe, would you hand me that cup of water there, please?” Ash requested. Once she had the cup, she maneuvered the straw so Dakota didn’t need to raise her head. “Little sips.”

“Still taking care of me, Harris.” Dakota rasped and smiled briefly.

“Always and forever, babe.”



Ali stepped forward to the other side of the bed and she reached out to rest a hand lightly on her friend’s arm. “How are you feeling, DK?”

“Like I’ve been shot.” The author quipped. “Gotta say though, hell of a way to expand my experiences to write about.” She quirked an eyebrow and Ali chuckled. Dakota’s gaze flicked to Hope. “You okay?”

“Me? Sure, yeah, never better.” Hope waved the question away.

“You’re a shitty liar, Solo.”

“Don’t tell anyone, I’ll deny it.”

Dakota started to chuckle, but gasped at the pain lancing through her abdomen. “Shit...that hurts.”

“Not surprising, Miss Undomiel, you were shot.” A voice at the door said.

“DK, this is your doctor, Dr. Shaw.” Ash explained.

“How are you doing this morning?”



“As I told my friend here,” DK gestured toward Ali, “Like I’ve been shot. My throat burns, my side hurts and my chest feels like Ash’s Jeep is parked on it.”

Dr. Shaw nodded and her blonde curls bounced. She took a couple of steps closer to the bed and Ali moved to the end. The doctor stopped at the bedside and put her hands in the pockets of her lab coat. “Your side hurts because that’s where the bullet went in, more or less. It broke one of your ribs and tore the hell out of the musculature there before nicking a part of your large intestine. We had to perform emergency surgery to fix that. During that surgery we had to intubate you, and you had that in for a few hours, which is why your throat burns. That feeling will go away gradually. Water, or ice chips, will help with that. Also,” Dr. Shaw took a deep breath and looked up at Ashlyn before continuing. “While we were fixing the tear in your intestine, you suffered a myocardial infarction.”

“Which is what in English?” Dakota asked.

“A heart attack.” The doctor translated. “One is a pretty serious medical event on it’s own, but you had two. I suspect that your pre-existing heart condition made things worse.” Dr. Shaw took her left hand out of her pocket and rested it on Dakota’s shoulder. “I’m not in the business of lying to my patients, and I believe in full disclosure. Your heart stopped...twice. That’s why your chest feels heavy and likely hurts. We had to fight pretty hard to get you back.”



“Stopped?” DK repeated. “Stopped, like...I died?”

The doctor nodded.

Dakota swallowed and looked over at Ashlyn, who had teared up. “It’s okay, babe, obviously they won the fight.”

“We’ll want to run some tests later on this morning to see if anything’s been affected. Do you have any questions?”

“What happens now?” Dakota asked hoarsely.

“Well, as I’ve said, we’ll run tests and continue to monitor you every couple of hours. There’s no reason you can’t make a full recovery. It’s going to take time though.”

“How much?”

“How much time?” Dr. Shaw seemed surprised by the question. “However long it takes your body. Everyone is different. You won’t be discharged this week though, I can tell you that much.”

“I don’t have time for this!” Dakota croaked. “I have a writer’s conference, a book that needs writing…”

Hope reached out and grasped Dakota’s foot firmly through the blanket. “Undomiel, do you really think the damned conference is more important than your health? You saved my life and I’m not going to let you waste yours. The last time I checked, hospitals let patients use laptops, right Doc?”

“There’s the grumpy Hope Solo we know.” Megan muttered with a nudge to her blue-eyed teammate.

Dr. Shaw was smiling at Hope as she nodded. “Indeed we do.” She turned her attention to her patient. “One step at a time, Miss Undomiel.”

“Can I at least have my phone?” DK scowled.

“Of course. If you need anything, except early discharge, just push the call button here,” Dr. Shaw held up a wire with a red box attached to it. “And a nurse will come as soon as they’re able.”

“Is there any way to get a few more chairs?” Ali asked. “I think we’ll be here quite a bit.”

“Certainly, I’ll see if I can get a couple of orderlies to bring more up.” Dr. Shaw replied. “If there’s nothing else, I’ll check back in later.”

“Thanks, Doc.” Ashlyn said.

“Any time.”

 

Dakota breathed as deeply as her side, and chest, would allow. “Really, Solo? Giving me shit?” But she allowed the ghost of a smile to show.

Hope stepped into the space the doctor had so recently vacated beside the bed. “Yeah. What are you going to do about it?” She crossed her arms and tried to glare at DK.

“You going to let her talk to me like that, Ash?” DK looked up and allowed more of a smile to spread.

“Yup. She had a point, DK. Your recovery comes before a conference.” Ash lifted Dakota’s hand and kissed the back of her knuckles tenderly. “You are more important to me than anything else in this world. You died, Dakota Katherine Undomiel. I won’t lose you again, do you hear me? Your body will heal and it’ll get stronger and when the doctor gives the go ahead, we’ll go home.”

“And in the meantime?” Dakota rasped.

“In the meantime, we hang out and keep you from being bored!” Ali chimed in.

“Dakota Katherine, eh?” Hope poked the writer’s hip. “I see why you want your friends to call you DK.”

“Yeah, yeah...tease me while I’m down…”

Hope looked up at Ashlyn. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but can I have a couple of minutes with Dakota?”

Ash nodded. “Sure. We’ll go stake out the cafeteria. We’ll be back in five, DK. You want me to ask the nurses when you can have coffee?”

Dakota groaned. “I would suck on a coffee bean right now if I could!”

Megan made a face as she turned toward the door. “I like coffee too, but sucking on a bean? Urk.”

Ash leaned over and kissed her girlfriend lightly. “I’ll be back.”

“I’ll be here.”

 

To be continued!






Chapter Text

Hope waited until the others had all left before she pulled over the one chair in the room. “So, I know I come across as fierce and intimidating…”

“Pfft.”

“But you pretty much ignored all that from the outset, didn’t you?”

“I don’t see any of that. I see the broody side, yeah. I see the impossibly high expectations you have of yourself, your determination and your unhappiness. I see the person that wants someone she can trust to tell her how things really are, someone who will take her shit and yet sit with her when she’s pissed off at the world.” Dakota coughed then. “Hand me that cup will you, my throat feels like sandpaper.”

When Dakota had drank deeply and set the cup down, Hope took a deep breath. “No one in my life would have taken that bullet for me. Why did you?”

“Because you don’t deserve to die. Why did you try so hard to save my life?”

“Because it was the right thing to do.”

“There you go, you are a good person, Hope, I don’t understand why you don’t believe it yourself.”

“Because for years, I’ve heard the exact opposite, and after you hear the same thing over and over, it becomes your truth.”

“And yet you use that to drive to be better.”

Hope nodded.

“It’s good to have determination and drive, but sooner or later, you have to let someone past your walls. You have to let someone in and trust that they’ll sit with you on your shitty days, allow them to call bullshit when you try and bluff your way past hurt and trust they really do have your best interests at heart.”

“I don’t have anyone like that.”

“Yeah, you do.” Dakota’s voice was getting rough again, so she moved her hand so the side of it was touching the front of the goalkeeper’s knee. One of Hope’s eyebrows arched. “Who better to let do all that than the person who saved your life?”

“You want to be that someone, Undomiel?”

“We all need someone, Solo.” Dakota smiled tiredly.  

 

A light knock at the door interrupted them and they saw Ali standing in the doorway. “You two done plotting world domination?”

“For now. We still have details to work out.” Dakota winked at Hope, who shook her head and grinned.

“Your throat sounds rough, DK.” Ali came fully into the room. “You need to go easy on it.”

Ashlyn followed her in shaking her head. “Sorry, babe, the nurse said no coffee yet. They want you to have water only for the next day or so.”

“Shit.”

Ashlyn made a face as she refilled Dakota’s cup. “I know, it sucks.”

“I’m already tired of laying flat on my back.”

“Was she this grumpy when she had the flu, Ash?” Megan asked as she joined the others.

“Nah, she slept through most of that. Here, DK, take the bed control.  Angle it up a little bit until you’re comfortable.”

They all watched as the head of the hospital bed crept higher and higher until Dakota was at a better angle and let go of the button. A knock came at the door again and two men walked in carrying stacking chairs.

“Sorry we couldn’t find anything more comfortable, ladies, but at least the seats are sort of padded.”

“Thank you so much, we really appreciate this!” Ali enthused.

The men set the armless, black chairs around the room and left as Ali and Megan sank into chairs with relief. Hope got up and let Ashlyn have the chair closest to the bed as she took another black chair for herself.

“Oh, while we were downstairs, my mother texted.” Ash said as she swung the tray closer to Dakota. “She wants me to tell you she’ll pop by this afternoon. She, and the hotel, have been hounded for a statement, although how they found out where we were staying is beyond me.”

“Probably that idiot that took the picture followed us back to the hotel.” Hope muttered.

“Pinoe, did you call Sera?” Dakota’s voice sounded rough, even to her own ears.

“As soon as I got back to the room. She had a gig last night, so she hadn’t heard anything before I called. But she was pretty relieved.”

“I’ll bet.” Ali made a face. “My brother must have sent fifteen texts before I got back to our room. He was beside himself.”

“Sorry, ladies, but I need coffee and a stretch. I’ll be right back.” Hope stood up and rolled her head.

“Down three floors and then follow the yellow line to the caf. The hazelnut is pretty amazing.” Ash offered, then shot an apologetic look to her girlfriend. “Sorry, DK.”

Dakota sighed.

 

She rolled her head to the left and noticed for the first time that the window had a room. “Ash, can you open the curtains for me?”

“I’ve got it.” Pinoe jumped to her feet and pulled the drapery aside. “Can you see much from there, DK?” She asked as she turned toward the bed.

“Blue sky.” Dakota croaked. “What’s it look like on the street?”

“Like a busy city.” Megan made a face and sat down again.

DK closed her eyes as a sunbeam shone through the window.

“I’ll bet that feels good.” Ash commented.

Dakota nodded. She was happy to let the sun warm her face. She was keenly aware of how close she had come to never seeing it again, and she thought back to all the wasted time in her life. She felt a tear slide down her face but kept her eyes shut.

“Dakota?”

She opened her eyes and felt Ash slide her hand under her own. The hazel eyes she loved were full of concern.

“I’m okay.”

Ashlyn said nothing in rebuttal but stroked the tear away with the back of her finger.

“I...” She took as deep a breath as her side would allow. “Feel like I’ve wasted all the time I was given, until I met you.”

“Don’t think of it as a waste,” Ash’s knuckles stroked DK’s cheek as she spoke. “Think of it more as character building.”

Dakota leaned her cheek into Ashlyn’s touch and closed her eyes again. “Love you…”

“I love you too, DK. Why don’t you try and get some sleep for a little while?”

“‘Kay.” Dakota breathed.

When Ashlyn looked up  Ali and Megan were looking at them with small smiles. “You guys are so cute together.” Ali nearly whispered.

“Ash,” Hope said quietly from the door. “What are you going to do if they keep her for weeks?”

“Stay by her side.” Came the low reply.

Hope exchanged a glance with Pinoe. They both knew, without conversation, that Ash’s chances of getting on the Olympic team suffered if she stayed in Canada for weeks. Neither of them wanted to be the one to point out the obvious.

 

A gentle knock on the door made them all turn. A tall, brunette woman stood there, eyes flitting around the room. “Hi there, I’m Detective Tanik. I’ve come for your statements regarding the shooting yesterday?”

Ash gave her a grim sort-of smile. “Dakota’s asleep right now…”

“Not any more.” The writer opened her eyes and cleared her throat.

Ashlyn passed her the cup of water and watched as she tossed the straw back onto the tray. Dakota drank the entire cup and set it back down, then turned her attention to the woman that had woken her up. She had the build that was neither willowly nor curvy, but somewhere in between. Her sandy hair was loose and wavy and fell to her shoulders. She wore a black blouse with the first two buttons undone  tucked into grey dress pants, and black short boots. Her eyes settled on nothing very long, but she took in the whole room and it’s occupants, missing nothing. She approached the bed with a sympathetic look.

“I’m sorry if I woke you.”

Dakota waved a hand dismissively, as best she could. “It’s all right. I’m sure I’ll be sick of laying down soon enough.”

“I was going to ask you if you could tell me what happened when you were shot, but your throat sounds pretty sore.” Detective Tanik grimaced a little. “They intubate you?”

A flicker of curiosity crossed Dakota’s face. “How did you know that?”

The detective hooked two fingers into the opening of her top and eased it down an inch so Dakota could see the puckered scar there. “I’ve been shot too. My throat hurt for a week.” She re-adjusted her clothing. “Tell you what, I can leave you a statement form and you can write yours out for me, that should save your voice.”

“Thanks.” Dakota shot her a quick smile.

Detective Tanik nodded once and turned to Ali. “Miss Krieger, would you care to give me your statement first?

“Sure, take my seat. I’ll lean on the window-sill.”

 

An hour later, the Detective had written out everyone’s statements but Dakota’s. “I’ll leave the papers for you and collect your statement tomorrow.”

“Appreciate it.”

They watched the Detective rise from the chair and turn to leave. “Oh, here’s a few of my cards in case any of you remember something…” The investigator peered intently at Dakota. “Or want to talk.”

DK gave her an almost imperceptible nod.

“Detective, I have a question.” Megan began. “If it was a random shooting, and none of us can remember what the car looked like, how are you going to find the shooter?”

Tanik tucked her notebook away. “There are on-scene witnesses that gave a pretty solid description of the shooter. He bears a distinct resemblance to a shooter-for-hire. We’re looking into it.”

“Wait, what?” Hope held out a hand. “Are you telling us that Dakota was shot by…”

“An assassin, Miss Solo, yes. If the shooter is indeed who we believe it is, then Miss Undomiel was targeted.” Tanik turned toward Dakota. “Obviously, I’ll keep you informed. Do you have any idea who might want to do you harm?”

“Wendy.” Ali, Megan, and Ash all said at once.

“She’s doing time in Florida…” Dakota protested. “There’s a big difference between trying to break us up and trying to kill me.”

Tanik watched the others in the room all exchange glances. “I’ll look into it and get back to you.”

 

The only sound in the room was incessant beeping of the heart monitor.

 

To be continued!

Chapter Text

Dakota blinked a few times, trying to decide how she felt about this latest wrinkle in her life when a nurse came into the room.

“Good morning Miss Undomiel. I just need to take your vitals and record them...Miss Harris, could you and your friends give us a minute please? There’s an atrium at the end of the hall…”

“Sure, yeah. We’ll be right back, babe.” Ash flashed a bright smile at her girlfriend and leaned in to kiss her cheek.

Pinoe and the others could hear the nurse ask Dakota about her color as they left the room. 

“Just got some alarming news from the police…”

 

 

Once they all got to the atrium, Hope stood by the window looking out while Ali, Ash and Pinoe stood nearby looking at each other. “Guys, if she was targeted, there’s only one person who could have wanted to do this.” Ash said.

“But if Wendy is in prison, how could she set something like this up?” Ali asked.

“Better question is why?” Hope asked as she turned and sat on the low windowsill. “I didn’t know Dakota when all that other shit went down, but from what I read and you guys have told me, it’s a big leap between shaming her to get control back and a murder attempt.”

“Why wait until she’s in Canada?” Pinoe asked. “And how would Wendy know she was even here?”

“A good guess? There’s no way her phone is bugged again…” Ash turned to Ali. “I’d like to go down there and ask that bitch myself what kind of game she’s playing.” Her hands clenched into fists. “I just want her the fuck out of our lives. I thought the nightmare was finally over and we could just get on with building a future.”

When Ash started pacing and clenching and unclenching her fists, Ali knew what was coming next. She stood in front of the blonde goalkeeper and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Ashlyn, listen to me. You can’t hit something, you make your living with your hands. You can’t help Dakota by breaking your hands, or going off half-cocked. You have to keep it together. You need to be strong for your girlfriend now.”

Ash nodded, knowing that Ali was right. She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths and tried to remember what Dakota had taught her about meditating and finding her silent place deep inside.

Ali watched her friend’s face smooth and settle, and she knew the danger of her hitting a wall was past. “Here’s my thinking, we talk if she wants to talk. Keep her mind occupied if that’s what she wants and play the rest by ear. We need to stay calm. Pinoe, did you bring your backgammon board to the hotel with you?’

“Yeah, why?”

“DK plays, but Ash doesn’t, so I’m guessing it’s been awhile since Dakota has played. Maybe you could bring it tomorrow, or later this evening?”

Megan nodded. “Good idea. I’ll bring it by this evening. I’m going to have to train tomorrow, but I’ll come by afterwards.”

Just then the nurse popped in. “All done, thanks, Ladies.”

 

When they got back to the room, Dakota looked drawn and haggard. Her gaze followed them all as they came back into the room, and she noticed Hope wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“Solo.”

Hope finally looked up.

“Still gonna be your someone, regardless.”

“Doesn’t matter now.” Hope mumbled.

“Bullshit.” Dakota rasped. “I have a straw. Don’t make me show you how I can kick your ass with it.”

The room was silent as the others tried to figure out what was going on.

“Yeah?”

“C’mere.” Dakota cocked an eyebrow.

Hope stepped to the bedside and crossed her arms..

Dakota picked up the straw and flicked it at the goalkeeper’s chest. They all watched it bounce off and hit the floor. “There. Consider your ass kicked by a straw until I recover.”

Hope raised one dark eyebrow. “Really?” Her voice was laced with amusement.

“Yup. I’ve called bullshit on you, and kicked your ass. I’m your someone, like it or not.”

Hope let a slow smile spread across her features and she watched the writer make a fist and hold it up. “You’re more stubborn than Harris gives you credit for.” She said as she returned the fist-bump.

“Hey, DK, I was wondering if maybe you’d like to have a couple of games of backgammon later?” Pinoe asked. 

“We have to go back to the hotel for a little while,” Ali jumped in, “and you need to rest.”

Dakota smiled as she tried to surreptitiously poke Hope in the side. “Couple of games sounds good.”

“Hey!” Hope spluttered as she jumped.

“What?”

“You poked me!”

“Wasn’t me. Maybe you need to get your reflexes checked, Solo.”

“You’re the only one here within reach, Undomiel.”

“Not me, I’m too tired to lift a finger.”

“And on that note, we’re leaving.” Ali reached out and grabbed a handful of Hope’s shirt and tugged. “Ash, do you want anything from the hotel?”

“Steak, my UNC hoodie, Dakota’s laptop and phone, a cheeseburger and that small brown blanket I travel with?” Ash looked up hopefully.

Pinoe chuckled as she rose from the chair. “If we bring you a steak, it may meet with an unfortunate accident.” She patted her stomach and grinned. “Get some sleep, DK. I plan on kicking your ass in backgammon later today.”

Dakota lifted her hand, and the three women all waved back.

Ashlyn waited until they’d all left before she leaned forward and kissed DK’s cheek. “I’m going to close the drapes and the door, shut the lights off, and you can nap.”

“Counter-proposal.”

“You’ve been watching too much Big Bang Theory…” Ash rolled her eyes. “I’m listening.”

“Lights off, door closed and drapes shut except for an inch, and you pull that recliner chair up here beside me and sleep too.”

“Deal.” Ash smiled and jumped up to darken the room.

 

“I miss being able to spoon.” Dakota groused as Ash pulled the sheet and blanket up for her.

Ashlyn watched the head of the bed lower slowly. “I know, I do too. Soon, though.”

“Not soon enough…”

Ashy rested one hand on Dakota’s thigh and with the other smoothed her hair back against the stark white pillow.  “Here, I’ve got something that will help you fall asleep.” She leaned in slowly and captured Dakota’s lips gently with her own. Dakota pursued the blonde’s soft lips with her own, never getting as much as she wanted, until Ashlyn straightened up. “Easy, there, Tiger. I’ll be right here beside you.”

Dakota watched Ash move the chair to the window-side of the bed and get comfortable. “There. Now I’m not going to be in the nurse’s way.”

“Thank you for staying with me.”

Ashlyn took her hand and entwined their fingers before settling her arm along the side of the bed. “Nowhere else I’d rather be.”

 

Twenty minutes later, Ash’s soft voice whispered through the gloom. “You can’t dwell on it, DK. You need to shut your mind off.”

“I can’t.”

“You taught me how to meditate, remember? Try focusing and clearing your mind like you taught me.”

“How did you even know I was awake?”

“I know how you breathe when you’re sleeping.”

Dakota took as deep a breath as her side and chest would allow and tried to let all of the noisy thoughts slip away…

Twenty minutes after that, her breathing deepened and Ashlyn smiled slightly in the dimness.

 

****

 

When Dakota woke some time later, she could hear Ash still sleeping in the chair. They still held hands, but she loosened her fingers and slipped her hand from Ashlyn’s. The blonde would be stiff when she woke. DK cautiously stretched her feet out, then her legs. She reached her right arm out and immediately noticed she was free of the heart monitor and I.V line. That was worth smiling about. One step closer to recovery and going home. As she lay there smiling to herself, she realized she needed to find the bathroom. For a moment, she pondered waking Ashlyn up and asking her for help, but she suspected that a nurse would be called. No, it was better if she could do this on her own. Dakota noticed with some relief that the safety rail was down. That would make it both easier and harder to take care of her own needs.

She just had to get up first.

Dakota lifted the bed controls and squinted to study the icons in the dimness. When she found the button that lowered the bed, she pushed it. Thankfully, the bed lowered soundlessly. She glanced over at Ash, who was still sleeping soundlessly, chin tucked into her chest. Dakota tucked her left arm along her injured side as gently as she could, trying to help support her broken rib but not touch the gunshot wound. She rolled gently onto her right side with only a minimal flare of pain. She stayed like that for a minute before slowly rising on her right elbow. It wasn’t easy, or pain-free, but there was no way Dakota wanted to ask for help just to go to the bathroom. With a combination of gripping the lowered safety bar and pushing gingerly up on her right hand, after lowering her feet to the floor, eventually Dakota was able to bring herself to a sitting position. It was bloody difficult, but she had done it, on her own. As she did her best to stand, she thought about how she had taken such a simple act for granted only two days before. She shuffled her way slowly toward the bathroom, gritting her teeth and reminding herself that she had survived worse than this.

 

A few minutes later, the room door opened and Tammye stepped inside and stopped, so her eyes could adjust to the darkness. She moved to the window and eased the drapery back, just enough to allow her to see more easily. The first thing she saw was her daughter sleeping in the reclining chair. The second thing she spotted was the empty hospital bed.

She went over to the chair and put her hand on her daughter’s knee. “Ash, wake up.”

No response.

Tammye shook her daughter’s shoulder. “Ashlyn, where’s Dakota?”

Ash jolted upright. “She’s right here...” Ash turned to right and saw the empty bed. “Mom? Where’s DK?”

“I thought you knew.” Tammye responded as she went to the window and flicked the curtain open all the way.

“The last thing I knew, she was laying there sleeping, holding my hand!” Ash struggled against stiffness to stand properly and made it to the end of the bed just as the bathroom door opened. 

Dakota stood there, one hand on the doorjamb and the other tucked into her side. “Oh good, you’re up.” She looked at Ash and gave her a sheepish grin. “Can you help me with this damn hospital gown? I can’t do it up...”

 

Ash and Tammye spun to face her.

“Dakota Katherine Undomiel, I love you...” Ash shook her head and crossed the room to stand in front of DK. “but seriously, are you trying to give me an ulcer? Why the hell didn’t you wake me up?”

“Because I knew you would call a nurse and they’d give me a bedpan.”

“Seriously?”

Dakota nodded. “As a heart attack.”

A wave of anguish flitted across Ashlyn’s face before she got it under control.

“Too soon?” Dakota asked.

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

 

Once Dakota was back in bed and the head of it raised so she was comfortable, Ash smoothed the blankets and gave her a look. “You scared the hell outta me, DK.”

“Sorry, babe, I just had to go and you looked so peaceful.”

Tammye settled in one of the chairs and studied Dakota. “How are you feeling? And don’t even think about watering it down because my daughter’s here.”

Dakota shot her a rueful grin. “My chest is still sore, but not as much as it was. It doesn’t feel like there’s a Jeep on it anymore. My side smarts, but hell, I got shot.” She shrugged with her right side. “I’m more tired than anything else, but I can’t sleep like I’m used to doing.”

“Dare I ask?”

“She’s the little spoon.” Ash said with a flush of color. 

“Ah.” Her mother replied. “I can see how finding a different position is going to be problematic. Well, I’m glad you’re still with us.” She smiled warmly and reached out to pat Dakota’s leg. “I’m guessing Ashlyn told you I was being pressed for an official statement?”

“She did.”

“It’s not much, but I need your approval before I release it.” Tammye took a single folded piece of paper from her purse and gave it to DK.

As Dakota unfolded the sheet, she had a fleeting thought that it was a strange moment when one had to approve news about themselves. She’d come a long way from that filthy, frightened teenager hiding from the world behind a dumpster.

 

Friends of Dakota Undomiel are pleased to report that Dakota is expected to make a full recovery under medical care. We were all shocked when Dakota became the victim of a random crime...

 

“There’s something you should know before we issue any statement.” Dakota passed the sheet to Ash, who flicked her eyes over it quickly.

“There was a detective in here earlier today for our statements, and as she was leaving, Pinoe asked how they were going to find the car if none of us remembered seeing it.” Ash said as she passed the piece of paper to her mother. “Apparently a witness described the shooter and they think it was some kind of assassin for hire.”

Tammye’s gaze flicked from her daughter to Dakota. “I want to ask if you’re serious...”

Ashlyn turned to Dakota and held up one finger in warning. “Don’t say it.” Then she turned back to her mother. “Yeah, we were pretty stunned by that little tidbit.”

“Who would do such a thing?”

“My first guess was Wendy.”

“But, Ash, why would she do that?” Dakota asked. “The stalking was about power and control. Murder is way beyond that.”

Ashlyn shrugged, rose from her chair and took the statement from her mother. “Can I borrow your pen?” Then she pulled the tray over and began to write. After a minute, she handed the paper to Dakota. “What do you think about that?”

 

Ashlyn Harris is pleased to announce the continuing recovery of her best friend and domestic partner, Dakota Undomiel, after she was brutally gunned down in Toronto. Her condition is improving, her sense of humor is intact and it is everyone’s expectation that those behind the attempted murder will be brought to justice.

 

“Ash...Are you sure about this?”

“Why not? It’s the truth.”

“Okay, then. This is the official statement, Tammye.” Dakota handed the sheet over to her manager, who read it quickly and smiled.

“I’ll send it out as soon as I get back to the hotel. I notified the publisher that you won’t be at the conference. Of course, they had already heard the news, but they asked me to pass on their best wishes. They’d like to hear from us when you’re able to go home.”

“As soon as Ali can make back, I’ll have my laptop and phone, so I can get back to work.”

“Don’t you think you’re jumping the gun a bit?”

“Really, Mom?” Ash said with wide eyes.

Dakota tried to smother her grin as Tammye apologized.

“I can’t lie here and do crosswords or read ridiculous magazines while Ash is off training. I have an obligation, I might as well use the time in bed to my advantage.”

Ashlyn rubbed the back of her neck and looked at the floor.

Dakota knew the tell for what it was. “Oh, no you don’t. You have to keep training, Ash. You can not skip a whole week or however long I’m in here. You have to make that Olympic roster! You have to think about your future!”

“I’m not sure what comes after soccer, DK, but I know that it’s not more important than you.” Ash took her girlfriend’s hand in her own and her hazel eyes met blue. “Whoever did this nearly took you from me, permanently.”

Dakota took Ash’s other hand and squeezed gently. “Sweetheart, you’ve won a World Cup, but I know you want to be on the Olympic team. I want you to be on that Olympic team. The only way to do that is to train harder, play harder and convince whoever decides the roster that you deserve to be there. I don’t want you to roll over some morning when we’re eighty and tell me you wish you’d fought harder for the Olympics.” 

Ash felt tears spring to her eyes, and she looked down before the surge of emotions could overwhelm her.

“I mean it, Ashlyn.” Dakota said as she squeezed again. She waited until the blonde looked up. “I want you to come home some day soon and tell me we have to pack for Rio.”

Ash smiled through the tears. “You do, huh?”

“Damn straight, Harris.” Dakota grinned. “I plan on tanning this scar.”

 

“On that note, girls, I’m heading back to the hotel. You said Ali was coming back later?”

Ash released DK’s hands and nodded. “She’s bringing Dakota’s laptop and phone, hopefully some food for me and Pinoe is supposed to be bringing the backgammon board.”

“Did you want me to add anything to that list?”

“My toiletry kit is in the bathroom back at the hotel, can you make sure Ali gets it? I’d love it if I could brush my hair and teeth again and feel human.” Dakota asked.

Tammye nodded. “Ashlyn, would you walk with me to the elevators? Dakota, I’ll come by and see you tomorrow all right? Just text if you think of anything you’d like me to bring.”

“Thanks, Tammye.” Dakota smiled.

“Be right back.” Ash patted DK’s leg as she passed

 

Once they were out of ear-shot of the room, The older woman stopped and turned to face her daughter. “She’s right Ashlyn. You can’t stop training.”

“Mom, I almost lost her...”

“Yes, you did. Almost being the important word.” Tammye interrupted. “They got her back, she’s recovering and even has her sense of humor, however grim. If she were at death’s door or in a coma, I would understand your reluctance to leave her side. But she isn’t, and if you want a future where the two of you are still sleeping together at eighty, you need to keep your eye on the bigger picture as well as the one right in front of you. I know she’ll support you in whatever you decide, but you might only get one chance at this. Don’t let fear take it from you.”

Ash sighed and looked at her feet.

“Will I see you back at the hotel tonight?”

“Yeah, I think I’ll go back with Ali and Pinoe after visiting hours are over here. I want to talk to Jill.”

“Good. Come find me, okay? Maybe we’ll cheat a little and get room service.”

Ash smiled. “Sounds good. Thanks, Mom.”

Tammye moved in close and hugged her only daughter. “Anytime.”

Ash watched her mother got on the elevator before she turned and leaned on the wall. She took a deep breath and blew it out slowly before she reached for her phone. Her pocket was empty.

Damn. Guess I’ll have to text Jill in front of DK. Oh well.’ she thought.

As she strolled soundlessly back into the room, she watched her girlfriend grin and put Ash’s phone down on the tray. “Caught ya!” she laughed.

“Guilty as charged.” Dakota smiled. “I was just tweeting someone...I’m a little tired of living in a bubble already.”

“Tweeting someone sounds pretty mysterious.” Ash grinned as she crossed the room.

“You remember me telling you about that author I’ve been following...Frijole Jones?”

“Right...”

“Just tweeting back and forth about plots and stuff.”

“Ah. So...I’m going to text Jill and let her know I want in on practises this week. The game isn’t till Friday. I’ll talk to her back at the hotel, but this way she’ll know where my head is at.”

“Good thinking.” Dakota smiled as she handed Ash her phone.

 

 

to be continued!

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Seriously? That’s the third game you’ve won, Pinoe!”

“You didn’t think I’d be as competitive at backgammon as I am in soccer?” Megan held her hand over her heart. “And here I thought you knew me! I’m hurt!”

DK chuckled just a little and shook her head. “That’ll teach me to play nice, I guess. How did practise go today?”

“I thought it went well. Lot more cameras in the stands. I think your shooting has drummed up even more interest in us. I overheard Jill saying something to one of the trainers about how you’ve done your part to grow interest, now they should do theirs. I have no idea what that meant, and I wasn’t about to ask.” Pinoe held her hands up in a classic surrender pose. “I hear Ash is coming back to train the rest of the week?”

“Yeah, I told her I didn’t want her to miss out on the opportunity to prove herself for the Olympic roster. I think her mom may have said something to her as well.” Dakota passed Megan the backgammon die. “I just don’t want her to have regrets later on down the road, you know?”

Pinoe nodded. “I hear you. Honestly, we were wondering how to tell her the same thing. Every minute in net for her from now until the games will be pivotal. Has she mentioned what she might want to do after retirement?”

“I’m not sure she’s thinking that far just yet. I’ve been wondering that myself though. Take Abby, we don’t even know if she wants to go to Rio yet, although why she wouldn’t is beyond me, but we all know what she’s thinking of doing if she calls it quits formally. Honestly, I think if Ash allows herself to think about retirement she feels like there’s no net under her or at her back, because soccer has been her everything.”



Megan nodded as she folded the case. “It’s been a little surprising how many of the national team is retiring after the victory tour is over. There’s this unspoken...thing...out there that in soccer, after thirty five, you’re washed up.”

“What do you think you’ll do, after the Olympics?”

“I’m thinking about going through for my coaching papers. We already have the camps, and I enjoy that, so I’m sort of leaning that way. I wonder if Ash has considered being a ‘keeper coach? She’s good with kids, she’s smart...she could get her diplomas no problem.”

“There’s diplomas?”

“Sure, there’s all kinds of courses and certification you have to get to coach, and specialized for goalkeepers, but I think she could do it no sweat.”

“Hmm, I’ll have to look into that while she’s got her eye on the Olympics.”

“She has time yet, but it gives you something to suggest when it comes up anyway.”

Dakota nodded. “Think she’s enjoying that burger she went for?”

Pinoe head whipped around. “I said nothing!”

Dakota laughed as she held her side gingerly. “You don’t have to! I know what she’s eaten while she’s been in here with me, and I’m starving, so I know she must be too. Surely you aren’t going to insult my intelligence and tell me they didn’t go for burgers.”

“Well, I doubt Ali got one…Hey, did you see everything that Ali packed in that bag for you?”

“Changing the subject, are you? All right, I’ll play along. No, I didn’t pull it all apart yet.”

“I think she packed those socks you said you were working on for Ash, but I have to say, I think they’re more Ali’s shades than Harris’.”

“That’s good, because they are for Ali.”

“Oh.”

Dakota smiled at Pinoe. “Watch this,” and took out her phone.

 

After your burger, you’d better bring me back at least a coffee, Harris!

What makes you think I’m grabbing a burger? Attached was a shot of Ash standing in front of a window, hands palms up at her sides with a goofy look on her face.

Dakota chuckled and sent back,

Maybe the reflection of neon over your left shoulder that says ‘burgers’

When she showed Megan, the blonde began to laugh and asked for the phone.

Your woman’s got you busted!

Pinoe

 

****

 

Ash did indeed bring Dakota a coffee, which was pretty close to heaven as far as she was concerned.

As she was making orgasmic-like noises over her cup, Ali laughed. “What are you going to do if the nurse walks in and tells you that it’s not allowed?”

“Drink it really quick and ask when I can eat solid food.” DK grinned impishly. She listened to the others talk about training and practise and watched Ashlyn as she talked excitedly about getting back into the gym. Her smile was infectious and in that moment, Dakota couldn’t wait to be cleared to go home.

 

Just as Pinoe threw away Dakota’s empty cup, the doctor came in. Ali smiled widely and winked at the writer, and DK grinned back, knowing she’d come close to being caught.

“So, how are you feeling now?” Dr. Shaw asked as she glanced at Dakota’s chart.

“More human, when can I eat real food?”

The doctor laughed and shook her head. “I’d like you to start slow, your large intestine was just sewn up, remember.”

“Doc, you said it was a nick, it’s not like I lost a length of it. I’m starving!”

“I can imagine.” Dr. Shaw rested the edge of the chart-board on her hip. “Tell you what, dinners are being distributed soon, I can see if one of the nurses can arrange for something to be brought in. But don’t be expecting a steak. It’s going to be something light.”

“And by light, you mean...?”

“Toast, maybe some beef broth, maybe jello.”

Dakota groaned. “What do I have to do to get real food, you know, like a burger or salad or anything besides toast and broth?”

“Once you’ve gone at least twice without pain.”

“Gone?” Dakota’s brow scrunched in confusion. “What do you mean...oh.”

Dr. Shaw nodded. “Light food will take it easy on your intestine, we’ll see how you feel after that. I hear you’ve already been up.”

“Ashlyn Michelle Harris!” Dakota head spun and she glared at her girlfriend. “You ratted me out!”

Ash merely shrugged unapologetically.

The doctor chuckled. “How did you feel while you were up?”

“It was hard, but satisfying. Nothing I couldn’t handle.”

“No dizzy spells?”

“Nope. I took it slow, shuffled so I didn’t have to lift my left foot.”

“Good! While we’re waiting to see how your large intestine does, walk a few times every few hours. But listen to your body, if you’re tired, rest. If you feel any twinges, black spots or feel faint, stop and call for a nurse. Any questions?”

“Well, only to ask when you think I might get out of here?”

“Might be a week, might be two. It’s all dependant on your body.”

Dakota took a breath and released it slowly. “Fair enough I guess.”

Dr. Shaw smiled. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.

 

“There you go, DK, now you have a goal. All you have to do is...” Ash laughed

“Yeah, yeah...”

Ali and Megan chuckled. “Well, I guess we should let you get to writing or knitting or whatever.” Ali said.

“Thanks for bringing me something to do. Magazines aren’t my thing.”

“No problem.” Ali moved in for a hug, followed by Pinoe. “We’ll come see you tomorrow. Ash, we’ll wait for you at the elevator.”

Ashlyn stepped close and took one of Dakota’s hands. “I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too, but funnel it into your workout and training, and then come see me when Jill is done with you.”

Ash leaned in for a warm and slow kiss. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” They reluctantly let  go of each other and Ash left to rejoin the others.

Dakota looked around the room, silent for now, and exhaled as she pulled the tray over where her laptop waited. “Time to get back to work.”

 

****



“Pilot Lura Steele?”

“Yes?”

“I am Inspector Covington, from the Protectorate’s Office. Are you up to having a conversation?”

“I suppose.”

“The minute she gets tired, you are to leave.” The doctor demanded.

The Inspector ignored her and pulled the stool over and sat at the pilot’s bedside. “The medical report has offered more questions than answers, so I’m sure you can appreciate we’re curious about a few things.”

“Yes.” Lura responded slowly. “What does the Protectorate office do?”

“We...protect...of course.” His soft voice was hesitant, as if he’d never had to answer such a question before.

“Who?”

“The people on this planet of course.”

“You say that like I should know, but I don’t.”

“You aren’t from this planet, are you?” He picked at his black uniform.

“No. I’m from Serranian Province, Limos.”

“And where is that exactly?”

“Astrometrics is not my skill set. I’m a pilot.”

“A pilot for whom?”

Lura studied him for many breaths before she answered. “Why do I feel you’re interrogating me?”

“Why don’t you tell me about Limos?”

“Why won’t you answer my question?”

“Because I am in the business of asking questions, not answering them.”

“I can tell you my name, and rank.”

“I already know that, I want to know about Limos.”

“And I want to know that you won’t use the information against me or my people.”

 

Dr. Reece listened from behind a curtain and smiled. Lura was giving as good, if not better, than she got. The doctor had never heard Inspector Covington so ill at ease. Lachlan listened with some enjoyment, because she despised the man and all he stood for, and because she wanted to know more about her mysterious patient.

 

“Why would I do that?” Covington asked.

“Because for all I know, you’ve been sent to pump me for information...”

“Pump...you? I’m not familiar with that term.”

“In an interrogation, you demand answers, you get them by any means, correct?”

“That is correct, yes.”

“Then you’re pumping your detainee for information.”

“You are not my detainee, Pilot.”

“Maybe not formally, but I can’t just leave, can I?”

“No, but if you give me the answers I seek, this unpleasant conversation will be over sooner.”

“You make it sound as if I have a choice.”

“My mistake.”

 

Dr. Reece took that as her cue to intervene before her patient was hauled off in shock-restraints…

 

Dakota yawned and realized how bone-tired she was. She saved her work, closed the laptop and pushed the tray toward the end of the bed. Then she pulled the blanket up and closed her eyes, thinking she’d just nap for a little while.

In no time at all, she was deeply asleep.

So deeply asleep that she didn’t hear the door open and someone slip in.

Someone who shut the overhead lights off and slinked, soundlessly to the bed.

Someone who took the extra pillow from the chair and covered Dakota’s face with it, then leaned on it.

Without air, Dakota woke up and started thrashing. In her injured state, she couldn’t get the pillow off her face or reach whoever was trying to smother her.

In desperation she groped for the call button while she kicked repeatedly at the tray, trying to make as much noise as possible…

 

to be continued...

 

Chapter Text

 

“So when I heard a commotion, I thought maybe the patient had fallen out of bed, so I went in the room.”

“Did you get any kind of look at them?” Detective Tanik asked as she leaned on the nurses station.

“They were wearing black. They had a hood on...small build, like a woman.”

“Did you say anything to them?”

“Sure I did! I asked them what the hell they were doing to my patient! She turned away from me, pulled her hood higher and ran out of the room. Pushed me over to get through the door too.”

“Did you see her face?”

“No, I’m sorry, I hit the floor and then when I got up, my first concern was for Miss Undomiel.”

“I can understand that. I think that’s all the questions I have right now. If I think of any more, I’ll be in touch. Thank you, Nurse Jarrett.” Detective Tanik smiled and closed her notebook as she went down the hall to Dakota’s room.

 

As she walked into the room, she saw Ashlyn sitting by the bed, looking upset. “Detective Tanik, do we know who attacked Dakota?” She asked as she stood.

“I’m afraid not. I’ve asked for security footage, but there’s none in this room, so I don’t expect video to help much in this instance. Unfortunately, the list of what we don’t know is longer than what we do know right now. I’m looking for answers, but in all honesty, answers take time to find. I would suggest security however. I can give you the name of a security company that’s proven to be trustworthy if you’d like.”

“I’d appreciate that, thank you.”

“I have a question.” Dakota  spoke up. “Besides the obvious who was it...How did they know what room I was in?”

Detective Tanik glanced at the door before stepping closer to the bed. “I suspect one of the staff on this floor was bribed to release that information, or we’re dealing with someone who gained access to the hospital’s computer system. We’re looking into both scenarios, but it’s more likely the information came from hospital staff. There may not have even been any malicious intent on their part. It’s infinitely easier to pose as a flower delivery person or family member from out of town than it is to hack into a computer system. Either way, while the investigation is ongoing, I would suggest security personnel at the door. Inside or outside is up to you, Miss Undomiel.”

“You know what? I just wanted to live a quiet life...” Dakota sighed.

The detective wrote on the back of one of her cards and handed it to Ashlyn. “Call them in the morning, tell them you got the number from me. They’ll take care of you.”

Ash’s phone chimed softly and she checked the caller I.D. “I have to take this, I’ll be right back.”

Once Ash was out of the room, Detective Tanik studied Dakota. “Once we do catch whoever attacked you, we’ll be charging them with attempted murder.”

DK nodded tiredly. 

“How are you doing?”

Dakota shrugged. “I’m tired of all this crap, I’m tired in general and I just want to go home.”

“Did the attack injure you?”

“Nothing that I’ll admit to Ash or the doctor.”

Detective Tanik smiled a little. “You and I are equally stubborn. I like that.”

 

“Okay, that was my mother.” Ashlyn said as she came back into the room. “I’m going to stay here the remainder of the night. When I have to go to the team meeting in the morning, she’ll come and stay until we can arrange for security.”

“I’d like to make another suggestion.” The detective addressed Ash. “If it’s possible, try and limit the medical staff allowed access to this room to a consistent few. That way, you have a better idea of who is supposed to be in here and who isn’t.”

“It would be better if they’d just discharge me and I could hole up in the hotel until it was time to go home.” DK said.

Detective Tanik nodded as she turned her attention to Dakota. “That’s true. When you do get in touch with the security company, you want to have a meeting with them, preferably here. Call me, let me know when the meeting is and I’ll come and sit in, if it’s all right with you. Having been the target of an assassin before, I can lend some insight.”

“Thank you. We really appreciate all you’re doing.” Ashlyn replied.

“No problem.” The detective smiled. “I’m going to leave the two of you alone. I’ll check back during daylight hours.

Once they had the room to themselves again, Ash sat in the big chair next to the bed, looked at Dakota and sighed. “You okay?”

“I am, I just want to get the hell out of here.”

“I know.” Ash nodded and took Dakota’s hand in her own. “Think you can try and sleep?”

“We’ll see.”

“I’ll get the lights.”

“Leave the bathroom on?”

“Sure.” Ashlyn got up and turned the bathroom light on before crossing to the main light switch. On her way back across the room, she shut the bathroom door half way, so there was still a little light to see by. She leaned over Dakota and kissed her tenderly before she settled in the big chair again. “Try and rest, DK. We’ll sort the rest out after the sun comes up.”

“Okay.” Dakota sighed and closed her eyes. Her last thought before slipping into sleep was that would do whatever she had to get out of the hospital.

 

To be continued!

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

When Dakota woke up, it was not Ash who sat in the chair beside the bed, but Tammye. She looked up when DK began to shift in the bed. “Good morning.”

“Mmff.”

Tammye shook her head a little and grinned. “Just like Ashlyn in the morning.”

Dakota grunted and maneuvered into a sitting position slowly.

“Do you want some help getting up?”

“Please.”

Tammye went around the bed and held her hands out. “Grab on and pull slowly.”

Eventually, DK was standing.

“Do you want help getting to the bathroom?”

“I can shuffle. If I’m not back in a week, come rescue me.” Dakota flashed her a quick smile.

Tammye laughed. 

 

Just as Tammye was starting to get concerned, Dakota emerged from the bathroom. She had changed into pyjama pants and one of Ash’s UNC t-shirts. “It’s amazing how a change of clothes and brushing one’s hair and teeth can make such a difference. I can’t wait to have a piping hot shower again.” She said as she shuffled her way back across the room.

“I can imagine.”

Dakota aimed for one of the black chairs closest to the bed and with her right hand on the side of the bed, lowered herself into the chair.

“Did you want this chair?”

“No, I think it might take some serious effort to get out of, but thanks. Did Ash go to her meeting?”

Tammye nodded as she relocated to sit next to Dakota. “She expects to be back before dinner time. She plans on smuggling you in real food.”

DK smiled. “That’s good.”

Dr. Shaw came into the room sporting a chipper smile. “Good morning! Glad you’re up!”

“Just the doctor I wanted to see.” 

 

 

“Should I be worried?”

“No, but I am. I’m sure you’ve heard by now that I was attacked last night.”

“I did, and I’m sorry.” the doctor answered soberly.

“Thank you. I need to get out of here.” Dakota responded. “I know what you said yesterday, and I can respect the need for observation, but the longer I’m here, the longer I’m a sitting duck. You said there was a condition, and I’ve met that condition. At least once, anyway.”

Dr. Shaw sat on the end of the bed and nodded. “I see. And how was the discomfort?”

“None. Even the gunshot wound isn’t as sore as it was. More of a dull throb now. There’s been a detective here, she took one of the nurses statements in the wee hours of this morning...”

Dr. Shaw nodded.

“She wants us to ask if we can limit the medical personnel that can come into the room.”

Dr. Shaw nodded slowly. “I think we can do that, but I’d like you to consider something. I’d like you to stay for another day, just so we can be sure that your increased movement doesn’t adversely affect either your wound or the large intestine repair. If you had no discomfort in the bathroom, you’re safe to eat something more substantial than broth and toast.”

“That’s good to hear because I think I’m starving. Coffee is okay too?”

“I think that’s a moot point since I’m fairly certain you’ve already had some, am I right?” Dr. Shaw’s eyes twinkled.

Dakota chuckled. “Busted.”

“We’re hoping to have a meeting this afternoon to discuss a security detail for Dakota.” Tammye added. 

“The team has their game on Friday...”

Doctor Shaw nodded and smiled. “If all goes as it has, I’m sure we can clear you for discharge so you can make the game. And I think getting a security detail is a good idea. Unless you need me before then, I’ll check in with you this evening, okay?”

Dakota nodded and the doctor patted her on the shoulder as she passed and left the room. DK reached for her phone and texted her girlfriend.

Doc has cleared me for real food and coffee, says I’ll likely be able to make the game Friday! Can you bring a burger and coffee when you come?

Awesome news! I’ll bring you a cow and a plantation if it will make you happy. *grin* 

 

“So I thought I’d sit here and read quietly and let you work.” Tammye grinned. “After we nip downstairs and get some coffee.”

Dakota smiled. “I’d love to stretch my legs.”

“Well, you are supposed to exercise and I’m not supposed to let you out of my sight except for the bathroom, so it all works out well.”

They hadn’t gotten much farther than the nurses station when the nurse that had given Ash her pep talk earlier in the week stood up from behind the desk. “Miss Undomiel, may I ask where you’re going looking so happy?”

“I’ve been cleared for coffee!” Dakota beamed.

The nurse laughed. “Yes you have, but I suggest you go with a cane.” She went back behind the station and came back with a metal adjustable model. She handed it to Dakota and counselled her to use it on her right side. She bent and adjusted the height and then advised her to put her weight on the cane instead of her left foot. “I know it seems awkward at first, but you’ll get the hang of it.”

DK couldn’t help but smile.

“Such a difference from how you were brought to our floor…” The nurse smiled back. “Go on now and get your coffee. You deserve it.”

“Can I just ask...how many nurses run this floor on a day like today?”

“There are eight of us.”

“You all deserve medals.” Dakota said and gave the nurse a one-armed hug.

 

On the way down in the elevator, the nurse’s words played over in DK’s mind. She knew she had come a long way since the shooting, and she knew she still had a way to go before she’d be able to swim again. She didn’t dare tell anyone that her broken rib still hurt, she wanted out, but she had met the doctor’s condition. She knew that she’d be safest back at the hotel, and eventually home. When she ordered in the cafeteria, it was for ten large coffees, not two, with cream and sugar in a bag.

Tammye only smiled as she accepted the two trays of cups.

Dakota didn’t say much on the way back up to the third floor, and when they delivered the coffee to the nurses, she accepted their thanks with a smile. Once back in her room, she sank onto the bed with a sigh.

“Tired?” Tammye flipped her bedding over her. “You got pretty quiet after you got the cane.”

“I haven’t forgotten how I got here, or the fact that I died twice not long ago. I try to ignore it when the others are around, especially Ash, but in the quieter moments, I remember and I’m still dealing with that.” 

Tammye nodded as she settled back into the chair she’d previously occupied. “And the nurse reminded you.”

Dakota nodded as she settled herself into the bed and pulled the tray over to her. 

“That was a nice thing you did.” Tammye commented as she picked up her book.

“The coffee? They deserve it.” Dakota’s phone chimed with an incoming message.

 

Dakota, I was in touch with Blackton Security on your behalf. Miss Harris had already called, but I wanted to fill them in a little on your situation. They can be available to meet with you both at 4 this afternoon. I can attend if you’d like as well.

Det. Tanik

 

Detective, 4 sounds good. Could you manage to meet with me a little earlier? I have some questions about the aftermath of our shared experience.

D.K.U

 

I’ll see you around three.

Det. Tanik

 

 

They spent most of the day quietly, Tammye reading and Dakota working on her novel. They went down to the cafeteria for lunch, and took their time making their way back to the room. Dakota settled back in bed and got back to Lura and Lachlan’s story, until she nodded off mid-sentence. When she opened her eyes again, it was just past two-thirty. She finished the dangling sentence and re-read what she’d written.

 

****

 

“All right, I think you’re ready to sit up. Put your arms around my neck and hold on. I’ll straighten up and once you’re upright, we’ll see how you feel. Ready?”

“To put my arms around you? For a while now.”

Lachlan blushed. She’d been flirted with before, but the blonde pilot made it feel new. 

Once Lura was sitting upright, she kept her arms around the doctor’s neck for a minute.

“How do you feel so far?”

“My heart is racing but I’m certain it has more to do with a certain doctor’s proximity than any medical issue.” Lura’s eyes studied the emerald green ones so close to her own, and she smiled when a flush darkened Dr. Reece’s already dark-hued skin. The pilot winked and released the doctor’s neck.

“Do you always flirt with your care provider?”

“Only when the person caring for me is a gorgeous woman.”

Dr. Reece dropped her gaze to Lura’s lips, flushed darker and took a step back. “Incorrigible.”

“I think you mean irresistible.”

Lachlan sighed, but Lura was sure she saw a smile playing along the corners of her lips.

“How’s your head?”

“Fine.”

“Your ribs?”

“Uncomfortable, nothing more.”

Dr. Reece pecked away at the keyboard, making notes in Lura’s file. “Do you think you’re up for a walk?”

“Sure.”

“I would insist that you allow me to help you.”

Lura barely contained a happy grin. She knew she had to go slow with her flirting. Her reputation back in her home province pegged her as a player, and she had a feeling that Lachlan Reece needed to be handled with a little more finesse than most.

 

****

 

A rap on the door frame made them both look up and Dakota smiled to see the detective. DK introduced the two other women to one another, and Tammye excused herself.

“I’m going to go and run some errands. I’ll be back later, Dakota.” She smiled and left the room.

“Detective, thanks for coming.”

“It’s no problem, but it’s going to get clumsy using my title all the time. Please, call me Eve. You said you wanted to talk about our shared experience?”

Dakota glanced at the doorway before replying. “I don’t talk about any of this with the others, I don’t want to worry them, but sometimes I can’t quite get over the fact that I...”

“Died?”

“Yeah. But it’s always there, in the back of my mind, you know? And if I dwell on it...” Dakota couldn’t finish her sentence.

Detective Tanik took a seat at the bedside and crossed her arms as she leaned back. “A little over a year ago, I was targeted by an assassin who saw me as a threat. When he shot me, I never saw it coming. I died on a dirty sidewalk, half in and half out of a puddle. A bystander did CPR until the EMS got there, and they took over. When I regained consciousness, I was pretty angry. Not that I’d been shot, but that they hadn’t let me stay dead. I waffled between crying jags and horrible bouts of temper. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be depressed over my mortality or what. It took a long time before I recovered mentally.”

“This might sound stupid, but do you remember anything from after you were shot?”

“Do you?” Eve turned the question around.

 

 

“I think I do, but I was having a conversation with Hope about heaven and reincarnation just before I was shot. So I’m not sure if what I saw was real, or ...”

“Tell me what you saw.”

“I was in a coffee shop, at a table all alone, but it felt like I was waiting. There were people around me, all in white, but none of them seemed to notice I was there.”

“Did you have a cup?”

“Coffee, in a white mug.”

“Were you clothed?”

“Yeah, and I think I was surprised by it for some reason. I was in a white button down shirt, white pants and my feet were bare.”

Eve nodded. “Do you think it was real?”

“It felt like it.”

“Then it was real.” Eve spread her hands, palms up. “No one can convince me that there is no afterlife, because if they haven’t died, like you and I did, and come back, they have no real experience to form their opinion. Do you know what you were waiting for?”

“No idea.”

“Are you having nightmares?”

Dakota nodded. “I don’t think anyone’s noticed yet, but it’s only a matter of time before Ashlyn does. She’s noticed that I’m quieter.”

“Talk to her about it. Tell her how you’re feeling and absolutely tell the people you care about how you feel about them. We don’t always get second chances. Don’t be surprised if your gunshot scar bothers you after it’s healed. My shrink says mine does from some kind of left-over, unresolved psychological weight.”

“You see a shrink?”

Eve nodded. “I had to. I thought I was going crazy inside my own thoughts. It was part of my return to work requirements, but I keep going because it helps. There’s no shame in it if you need one, Dakota. and if you ever need to talk to someone who really has been where you are, you can talk to me. You still have my card I gave you?”

DK nodded.

“I’ll write my personal cell number on it. If you need me, call. I might not get back to you right away, but I will get back to you.” Eve took the card and a pen from Dakota and wrote out the number just as someone rapped on the door.

“Hey, I’m not interrupting, am I?”

“Ash!”  

 

 

“I brought you real food!” Ash laughed as she passed Dakota the bag. 

“You go ahead and eat, don’t waste good food.” Eve said with a smile. “Ashlyn and I will chat while we wait.”

“So who are we meeting with?” Ash asked the detective.

“While my colleagues were trying to find my shooter, my husband hired security for me, Blackton Security. They were always professional and they put up with my cop-attitude with a ton of patience. I got to be pretty good friends with one of the founding partners, Rand Langston. I’m familiar with what they can do, so I called him this morning, he and one of his security experts are meeting with us soon. He’ll take your concerns, and Dakota’s, into account, as well as my recommendations. They really are the best at what they do.”

Ash nodded as she glanced at her girlfriend. “Well, at least we know she won’t try and ditch them.”

Dakota nodded as she chewed the last bite and swallowed. “Not like I go many places...”

Ash chuckled. “So speaks my home-body author!”

DK stuck her tongue out. “Maybe you could help your author up so she could go wash after that nearly awesome dinner?”

Ashlyn jumped up and carefully helped Dakota to her feet, and over to the bathroom.

As the door closed, Eve smiled and commented, “You two are cute together, anyone ever tell you that?”

“All the time.” Ash smiled.

 

Another rap on the door interrupted anything else she might have said.

“Hi, there, I’m...”

“Rand!” Detective Tanik jumped up with a smile. “You’re here!”

 

To be continued!!

 

Chapter Text

 

Eve introduced Rand to Ashlyn as the bathroom door opened, and then to Dakota, and in turn, Rand introduced them to his associate, who stood behind him.

“This is Nyssa Quinn, my right hand.”

“Dakota, do you mind if we rearrange your room a little?” Eve asked as she gestured to a small round table in the corner. “Maybe pull that small table over here?”

“Be my guest.” DK smiled. She watched as Rand and Ash lifted and carried the table toward the end of the bed, and Eve and Nyssa repositioned chairs.

 

Nyssa could have been a model. She was tall and curvy, with seemingly perfect skin and bone structure, grey-blue eyes and wavy chestnut hair. Dakota felt inadequate just watching her. Rand was easily six feet tall and sported a red goatee and a shaved head. He was wide in the shoulders, with big arms to match. He could have been physically intimidating if he wasn’t so quick to smile.

Ashlyn held her arm out for Dakota to lean on as she lowered herself into a chair, and only then did the others sit.

“So, Miss Undomiel, Eve tells me you need personal security. She’s told me about what brought you here,” Rand rumbled in a deep voice as he gestured to the room. “And she mentioned someone attacked you here last night?”

Dakota nodded. “That’s right. Someone tried to smother me in my sleep. The only thing that saved me was a nurse going by at the same time who heard me kicking the bottom of the tray. I’ve spoken to my doctor and we’ve compromised on one more day of observation before she discharges me.”

“Rand, right now, we’re following up on a few leads, but nothing looks positive enough to allow us to make an arrest before Dakota gets out of here.” Eve added. “I thought that a personal security detail might be wise, considering that Dakota and Ashlyn are high profile people.”

Rand nodded and glanced toward Nyssa, who was making notes. “How much protection are we thinking of?”

“A personal detail while she’s here in hospital, a detail outside their hotel room, and at least one bodyguard while they’re out.” Eve answered again.

“Miss Harris, what are your thoughts?” Rand asked.

 

“I would like Dakota protected at any cost. I can’t be with her all the time and I can’t worry about her when I’m in net. So until the person who wants to harm my girlfriend is caught, I’m willing to pay whatever it takes to ensure she’s safe. Once the game is over on Friday, there may or may not be parties before the team all head back home...”

“So you’ll want the security detail to accompany you back to D.C and probably provide residential security as well.”

“We should consider a driver as well, in case another attempt is made while they’re on the road.” Nyssa added.

“I also have a variety of public events that my publisher is asking me to attend. Readings, signings and promotional events for my book.”

“You’re still going to do those while you recover?” Ash asked as she took one of Dakota’s hands.

“As much as I can, yes. I’ll be damned if I’m going to hide until whoever did this is caught. Your job is soccer, Ash. My books are mine, and I still have a job to do.”

“Do you go out much, Miss Undomiel?” Nyssa asked.

“No, I’m a homebody really. I hate being on display, but it’s part of the contract with the publisher. They’ve invested a lot of money in me and I’m sure they’d like to capitalize on my face being in the news right now. Ashlyn and I like to go out for dinner occasionally, and I’m sure I’ll be going out to her games. I can’t wait to go to Friday’s game...” Dakota smiled at Ash before glancing at Rand. “I’m not sure how you decide on which of your people gets an assignment, and I mean no offence by this, but I’m more comfortable around women.”

Rand smiled easily. “I can understand that. I would like to point out that men of a certain physical stature, such as myself, can be more psychologically intimidating out in public. Perhaps both a male and a female guard at higher-capacity events?”

“Might be a good idea, babe. Sends a ‘don’t-screw-with-me’ message.” Ash said quietly.

DK nodded slowly as she looked to Eve for her opinion. 

“I agree.”

“All right.”

 

 

“Good. Now, describe your residence for me, someone mentioned it’s an apartment?”

Ashlyn nodded. “Nothing large, but it’s got a balcony. There’s a big park across the road.”

“Secured building?” Nyssa asked.

“No.”

Nyssa frowned slightly as she turned to Rand. “Four guard detail at the residence?”

“Have you ever had anyone approach your residence and behave in a suspicious manner?” Rand asked Ash.

“No. Not many people know where we live.”

Rand nodded and turned to Nyssa again. “I think we’ll be fine to start with a guard posted outside the apartment door, one for daytime, one for night while the other two keep the same schedule, one of the other two can drive. I think entrances should be covered by cc cameras though, in case they’re approached at some point in the future. Is this acceptable to you Miss Undomiel and Miss Harris?”

Ashlyn and Dakota looked at each other for a few moments before nodding.

“We can always adjust the detail as the situation evolves. We tend to do much of our work in the background. A little like an iceberg; you see a bit of it but not the bulk. I’m thinking perhaps one guard outside the door here.” Rand nodded to the hospital room entrance. “Miss Harris, what are your plans for today?”

“I’m staying until later this evening, before heading back to the hotel. I have a team meeting early tomorrow morning, training, practise and a media spot in the afternoon.”

“And you, Miss Undomiel?”

“I can’t do much until I get released, but I’ve been trying to walk more, usually the halls and down to the cafeteria. I stay in here and work most of the time until the nurse comes in to poke and prod at me.”

“I expect we’ll need to go over your itinerary each morning?” Nyssa said as she looked up at Dakota.

“I guess so. My schedule is pretty fluid, but my manager warns me it’ll get busier.”

“My mother.” Ash explained. “You’ll meet her later.”

Rand nodded. “All right. I’d like to see if I can meet with your doctor about having you discharged earlier in the day, scope out the best exit to use, that sort of thing. I’ll check back in with you after that. Nyssa, I think I’d like Morse on the door tonight.”

“I’d like to be in tomorrow.”

Rand and Nyssa looked at one another for a long minute before the big man cocked his head ever so slightly. “Are you sure about this? You know our policy about pulling guards out half way through an assignment.”

Quinn rolled her eyes. “I helped write the policy, Rand. Yes, I’m sure.”

Dakota glanced from one to the other before flicking her gaze to Detective Tanik, who merely shrugged.

Suddenly, Rand slapped his palms on his thighs and said, “All right, I think we’re done for now unless anyone has any questions?”

No one spoke.

“Miss Undomiel, I’ll bring Miranda Morse in tonight and introduce the two of you, and then Miss Quinn here will relieve her.”

Dakota smiled and reached out to shake both their hands. “Thank you. It’s going to be a little weird having bodyguards, but I’ll try and behave myself.”

Nyssa smiled a genuine smile that creased the corners of her eyes and laughed. “Good to know. I’ll see you later.”

As they all got up, Eve put a hand on Dakota’s shoulder. “I’ll walk them out and come see you before I leave, okay?”

DK smiled and nodded. Once they were alone, she sighed heavily.

 

 

“Tired, DK?” Ash reached out and rubbed one of Dakota’s arms.

“Yeah, a little. Hey, do you think the nurses would let me shower tonight if I had your help?”

“Once Detective Tanik comes back, I can go and ask. Do you want to lay down for a little while?”

“I think so. Can you help me up?”

Ash stood. “Sure. Where do you want me?”

“On my right side. I can put strain on that side easier.”

Ashlyn stood on Dakota’s uninjured side and offered her arm. Once she was up, they moved slowly to the bedside and Ash helped her in. As she pulled the blankets up, a thought came to the blonde. “You know what? Our waterbed at home may be too much for you. I just thought about that...you have to roll to get out of it.”

Dakota sighed. “Shit. I really like that bed. Maybe we’ll figure something out by then.”

Detective Tanik came back into the room. “So, how are you feeling about the meeting?”

Ash turned. “I feel better knowing Dakota will be safe. Can you stay a couple of minutes longer, Detective? I have to go down and clear something with the nurses.”

“Sure, but only if you call me Eve.” Tanik smiled.

“Thanks, Eve.” Ash grinned before turning to her girlfriend. “I’ll be right back, babe.” She kissed Dakota’s cheek tenderly and left to find the head nurse.

 

 

“That was a bit of an odd moment with Quinn.” DK said to Eve.

“Yeah, a little. I get the feeling there’s more going on there than we know about, but I trust Rand. You’ll be safer with he and his people than you will be on your own. I’ll bet you’re looking forward to getting out of here.”

“I’d leave now if I thought I could.”

“I know. Once Ash comes back, I have a couple of leads I’m going to look into. I’d like to come see you before you leave to fly back to D.C, when is your flight back?”

“Sunday afternoon, I think.”

Eve nodded. “Text my personal cell and let me know what time is good for you. Hopefully I’ll have an update by then.”

Dakota yawned as she nodded.

Eve smiled sympathetically. “Go ahead and close your eyes. I’ll wait for Ashlyn out in the hallway.”

Dakota was asleep before Eve had finished pulling the drapes closed.

 

 

To be continued!!

 

Chapter Text

 

It was discharge day, and Dakota hadn’t slept more than a couple of hours. She had gotten some work done, thought a great deal about the future, and had met Miranda Morse. The bodyguard seemed nice enough, although it was hard to tell from their few conversations. She was just a little taller than the writer, with an oval face, expressive eyes the color of milk chocolate and collar length sandy blonde hair. She could have had facial tattoos for all Dakota cared. She was more interested in what the woman was like under her skin. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, Dakota decided she needed a stroll. She opened the door to her room and watched Miranda’s surprised expression rise to the surface before it was smothered.


“I need to stretch my legs, are you up for a little walk?”
“Yes, Ma’am.”
“I thought I asked you to stop doing that.” Dakota smiled.
“Habit, Miss Undomiel.”
“I told you to call me by my first name, didn’t I?”
“Yes, Ma’am, you did.”
“Now you’re just messing with me.”
“Yes, Ma’am.”
Dakota stopped and tried to give her bodyguard a glare, but Miranda just settled her face into an unreadable expression and gazed back at her calmly. DK finally chuckled and resumed shuffling down the hall.

 

She hadn’t realized she was heading for the solarium until she found herself at the window there. Of course, all she saw was her own reflection staring back at her, and if she shifted her gaze, Miranda’s reflection at the door. Being accompanied by someone trained in hand to hand combat was somewhat surreal if Dakota allowed herself to think about it. On the other hand, so was the idea that someone wanted her dead. Like Ashlyn, she suspected Wendy was behind it. But she was still confused by what could have escalated the other woman’s hatred to wanting her dead.

The beating...

Dakota focus shifted back to the beating she’d taken part in. The one that had riddled her with guilt and had convinced her she was unworthy of Ashlyn’s love. It was the only thing Wendy still held over her. Dakota knew she had to make amends, but the first step was to reach out to the inmate she had helped injure, and finding her wouldn’t be easy. It may not help anyone figure out who was behind either attempt on her life, but it would help her feel better. She turned away from the dark window and sighed, out of frustration and impatience at being cooped up in the hospital.


“Five am cannot come soon enough, Miranda.”
“Yes, Ma’am.”
Dakota rolled her eyes as they walked back to the room.

 

****

 

Just before five in the morning, Ashlyn approached the closed door and eyed the bodyguard standing there critically.


“Miranda Morse, I assume?”
“Yes Ma’am.”
“Don’t you want to know who I am?”
“I know who you are, Ma’am. You are Miss Undomiel’s domestic partner.”
“Well...okay then.” At a loss for words, Ashlyn nodded once and pushed the door open.

Dakota sat in one of the armless chairs with the adjustable tray in front of her, working on her laptop. As the door opened, she glanced up and smiled.
“Hey!”
“Hey yourself.” Ash crossed the room and and kissed her lightly. “Have you been working all night?”
“No, but I got a lot of work done. I didn’t sleep much. Too excited.”
“I brought what you asked me for.” Ash held up a duffle bag. “I just wish Jill would have re-organized room assignments, you know?”
Dakota pushed the tray away from her and watched her girlfriend step to her side. As she set her hand on Ash’s offered arm and stood, she said, “At least I’ll be with your mother and the guard detail.”
“That’s true. Do you want some help getting dressed?”
“Please.”

 

Once Dakota was dressed, Ashlyn settled her in a chair as she packed Dakota’s few things into the duffel. A knock on the door and Dr. Shaw came into the room.
“I’m not surprised to find you ready to go.” She smiled as she took in Dakota’s black t-shirt and khaki cargo pants. “Remember, if you feel any sharp pain in the vicinity of your scar, get it looked at. Any chest pain?”
“Just a dull ache when I walk too much.”
The doctor nodded. “That’s to be expected. Rest is very important. Even if you only lay down with the lights out, rest is crucial to healing properly. Obviously, you won’t be swimming or working out for weeks yet. You’ve been an interesting and impatient patient, Dakota.” Dr. Shaw smiled and shook the writer’s hand. “Just stop off at the nurses desk to sign your discharge papers and pick up your instruction packet. There’s also a note from myself that should clear your medications through customs. If they give you a hard time, have them call me.”
“I can’t thank you enough for saving Dakota’s life, Doc.” Ashlyn stepped forward and stuck her own hand out.
“I’m glad we won the fight. Be good to each other.” Dr. Shaw smiled at them both and left the room.
Ash turned her brightest smile on Dakota. “Let’s get out of here!”

 

Once the discharge papers had been signed and a copy put in the packet with the rest of the paperwork, Dakota said goodbye to the few nurses not already on rounds. The head nurse for the floor insisted Dakota had to follow hospital rules and be wheeled out, and DK had no choice but to accept the ride as they waited for the elevator.
Miranda activated her cell phone and sent a brief message while Ashlyn side-eyed her.
“Letting the mother ship know we’re taking off?”
“Yes, Ma’am.”
Ashlyn chuckled.

When they got to the front door, there was a black car looking mysterious and somber. As they drew closer, Nyssa Quinn stepped from the driver’s seat and went around the car to open the back door.

Ashlyn helped her girlfriend from the wheelchair, the head nurse wished her good luck and went back inside. As  Dakota made her way carefully toward the open door, Nyssa smiled slightly.


“Congratulations on your discharge, Miss Undomiel.”
“Thanks, it’s a big relief, believe me.”
Nyssa shut the door once they were settled, and she and Miranda got in the front.

 

The drive to the hotel was a mostly silent affair, Dakota was more than content to sit cradled into Ashlyn’s side. But as they pulled into the driveway at the back of the building, Nyssa spoke up. “Miranda and I will get out first, ensure the surrounding area is safe, then open both your doors. Please allow us to get your doors. If there is any threat, this car is bulletproof, you would be far safer inside it than outside.”

“We’ve already learned I’m certainly not bulletproof…” Dakota replied as Ash shook her head. “Gotta laugh about it, babe. We’ve already cried.”

But they waited as the car was brought to a stop and the two women in front got out and studied their surroundings carefully before opening the back doors. Ashlyn helped DK out of the car before shouldering the duffel bag.

The elevator was silent but for the chimes announcing their climb through the levels. Nyssa got out of the lift first, scanned the halls for threats and nodded once to the other three.

“Mom’s probably still sleeping, but I know Ali has gone for her run. Come and rest in our room.”

Dakota nodded and Ashlyn told the two bodyguards what room number they were in.

 

After Ash fed the doorlock the keycard, Miranda went in first to ensure the room was clear of threats. She came back out within a minute. “Room’s clear.”
All four of them went into the room, and the door latched behind them. Ashlyn put the duffel on the end of her bed and helped Dakota settle into a chair.
“Miss Undomiel, before we leave you to rest, may I ask what your plans for the day are?” Nyssa asked.
“I had wanted to attend the game this afternoon…”
“DK, I don’t mean to cut you off, but…” Ash interrupted with an apologetic look. “Jill and the team asked me to bring you by the stadium early so they could all say hi. I think maybe she’s hoping you’ll inspire the gals to a win.”
“Ah. Well, I don’t know how inspiring I can be, but what’s Jill’s idea of early?”
“Somewhere between one and one thirty.”
Dakota looked up at Nyssa. “How long do you think it’ll take us to get from here to the stadium?”
“Depending on traffic...thirty minutes to an hour.”
“All right, so let’s leave here at noon.”
Nyssa nodded, her mind already racing ahead. “Miss Harris, will you be travelling with us?”
“Yes.”
“Anyone else?”
“No, our friends will already be there.”
“Would you like the car stocked with any particular beverages, Miss Undomiel?”
“Two coffees, black, please.”
“Very well. I’ll be stationed outside the door here. Miranda will bring the car around to the rear door for noon. Will you be going out later this morning?”
“No, I plan on sleeping as much as I can until hunger wakes me.”

“A wise choice.” Nyssa inclined her head. “We’ll leave you alone. Have a good rest.”

The door snicked shut behind the two bodyguards and finally, Ashlyn and Dakota were left alone.

 

Dakota reached out for Ash’s hand. “I’ve missed you.”

“Baby, I don’t even know where to start...I was so afraid that you had…”

“Died? I did. But I’m here now. Can’t keep me down.” she grinned.

Ashlyn got down on her knees in front of Dakota, happy to gaze into her eyes and see the love there. “I really want to hug you right now, but I’m afraid I’ll hurt you.”

“You know what I’d really like right now?”

“What’s that?” Ash asked.

“To lay down on my side, with you tucked in behind me. I missed my big spoon.” DK smiled.

“I missed my little spoon.” Ash whispered. “You want some help?”

“You just want to undress me…” Dakota smiled.

“Well, yeah…” Ash grinned, cocky and self-assured.

“You’d better text your Mom and Ali. Let them know we’re here and napping  ‘till starvation wakes us.”

“Yeah, we don’t my mother catching us naked…”

“I’m pretty sure we can’t afford the therapy we’d have to get her.” DK chuckled.

 

Once the warning text had been sent, Ashlyn helped her girlfriend out of her clothes. Dakota was soon wrapped in the safety of Ashlyn’s strong arms, under soft sheets and blankets, tucked under her chin and for a few hours at least, without a care in the world.

She was fast asleep in her lover’s arms, right where she’d wanted to be all week.

 

 To be continued!!


Chapter Text

 

Dakota slept for hours, cocooned in Ashlyn’s embrace, without dreaming or fearing for her life. It was her stomach that finally woke her, gurgling and growling as if she hadn’t eaten in days. The days she’d been unable to eat solid food had left her body low on nutrients, and her growling stomach was objecting to it now. Her eyes opened slowly, and for a few moments, she was confused by the unfamiliar room. She could feel Ash breathing behind her, and she remembered the past week with sharp clarity. Here, wrapped in her lover’s arms, she could finally admit to herself how close she’d come to really losing it all. She felt the warm tears slide down her cheeks as she remembered telling Ash to keep living, asking Ali to look out for her, and Dakota realized she wasn’t ready to walk away from her life. Maybe that’s what had drawn her back from the cafe she’d found herself in. She believed without a doubt that the cafe had been her soul’s way-station, and she made a mental note to talk to Hope about it. She had been given another chance. Another chance to love, another chance to change her world, and the enormity of that settled on her and made her gasp through her tears. She lay there and sobbed quietly until she’d cried herself out and her tears dried up. It was only then that she realized Ash had been softly stroking her arm. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“It’s okay. You had to get it out. You couldn’t carry it around inside you and pretend it wasn’t weighing on you for much longer. The best place to unload that kind of pain is in the arms of someone who loves you.” Ash replied quietly.

Dakota sighed. “I adore you, you know.”

“I know.” Ash kissed the back of her head. “You show me every day. I don’t know what I’d do, who I’d be, without you.”

They lay there silently for a little while longer before Dakota’s stomach rumbled yet again. 

Ash chuckled and held out her left arm. “What time is it?”

Dakota peered at the large watch strapped to Ash’s left wrist. “Good thing you wore this one, I’d never be able to see the digital one...ten thirty. We slept a little over four hours. Let’s get up and get something to eat before we have to get dressed.” 

 

Ash sat up and stretched. “Do you want help getting up?”

Dakota rose onto her right elbow, then to a sitting position. “I think I got this part, but did you bring any of my clothes over?”

“Do you want comfortable, or do you want to get dressed now?” Ashlyn climbed out of bed and crossed to the chest of drawers.

“Just comfortable for now I think.” DK ran her fingers through her hair, scrubbing at her scalp with her fingertips. “I’m glad the nurses let me shower last night, those birdie-baths weren’t quite cutting it.”

“I’m glad they let me help.” Ash came back to the bed with a soft red button down shirt, underwear and a pair of shorts. “Will these do?”

“Awesome, thanks. I thought I’d left that shirt in Florida?”

Ashlyn grinned mischievously. “I really like it on you. I couldn’t let you donate it when you moved.” 

 

By the time DK had gotten dressed and risen, Ash had finished dressing and found the room service menu. “Do you want breakfast?”

“I could eat like a Hobbit, I’m so hungry.”

Ash laughed. “Still my nerd.”

DK smiled as she crossed the room to the desk where Ashlyn sat studying their food choices. She kissed her temple lightly before crossing to the bathroom door and looking back at her girlfriend. “Always.”

****

 Dakota scooped up the last of her eggs as she pondered what to wear to the game. “So, casual today?”

“Go comfortable. We’re leaving early, plus assume ninety minutes for the game, and likely autographs afterwards. Might want to bring a jacket in case you get chilly. Is your side going to be okay sitting for that long?”

DK looked over at her in surprise.

“Didn’t think I knew it was still bothering you?” Ash reached out and took DK’s hand in her own. “I know your face when you’re trying to hide pain from me. I understand why, but you don’t have to hide it anymore. You’re out now. If you get too sore, or tired, or whatever, let me know, please?”

Dakota nodded, not trusting her voice. Ashlyn never failed to surprise her.

“Good.” Ash kissed the inside of her wrist and laid their hands back on the table.

****

 “Do I look alright?” DK held her hands out, palms up. She had put on a stretchy pair of black jeans, tucked in her black button down shirt and over that, a red and black brocade vest.

“Are you comfortable?”

Dakota nodded.

“Then that’s all that matters, sweetheart.” Ash said as she kissed her.

“I don’t want anyone thinking your girlfriend is a slob.”

“Pfft. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue. What shoes do you want?”

“My black runners.”

Ash nodded and retrieved them from the closet.

“Did you bring all my clothes over here?” DK chuckled.

“Ali asked Jill to switch rooms, but she said no dice. So, privately, Ali suggested that we bring some of your clothes over here and maybe you and she could switch rooms after room check.” Ashlyn explained as she slid the shoes onto Dakota’s feet and tied them.

“That was nice of her.”

“I thought so too.” Ash straightened up and stepped to DK’s side, and held out her arm. “I’ve got your credentials, sunglasses and wallet over by the door. Ready?”

Dakota nodded, took Ash’s arm and got up slowly. “Your mom is meeting us there?”

“Yup.”

They made their way across the room, picked up their credentials and wallets and opened the door.

Nyssa was there, standing watch. “Miss Undomiel, Miss Harris. Are we ready to go?”

“We are!” Dakota grinned like a child on Christmas morning.

 ****

 “We’re going into the locker room first, Nyssa, then the reserved seats after that.” Ashlyn told the woman in the front passenger seat.

“No problem, Miss Harris.”

“Do both of you have a rule about using first names?”

“Actually, Ma’am, we do. Rule number three, never use first names of those you are protecting.”

“Technically, you’re protecting Dakota, not me.”

“That’s not entirely true, Ma’am. You are just as much under our protection when you are with her.”

“Do I dare ask what rule number one is?”

“Never lose sight of your client in a public place.” Both bodyguards said together.

“Ah. Makes sense.” Ash muttered as the car pulled to a stop in the underground parking garage of the stadium. “Stay in the car until you open the doors, right?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

The bodyguards got out, Miranda murmured something into the hidden mic at her collar and she and Nyssa opened the back doors. They had obviously studied the layout of the stadium, because they needed no direction to the locker room. Surprisingly, Rand Langston himself stood guard by the locker room door.

“Miss Undomiel, Miss Harris, it’s good to see you.” he smiled.

“Good to see you too, Rand.” DK smiled back as the big man opened the door.

 

The door had barely shut behind them, with Nyssa following them in and standing to one side of the door, when Pinoe noticed them. “You made it!”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world!” Dakota replied with a huge smile.

Megan introduced the members of the team that hadn’t yet met the writer, and Dakota shook the hand of every one she met. As Hope crossed the locker room with an odd look on her face, DK vaguely heard Jill call Ashlyn over for a word.

Hope stood in front of Dakota, glanced down at her cleats and back up into Dakota’s eyes. “Really glad you could come, Undomiel.” She said in a bit of a strangled voice.

“Me too, Solo.” Dakota held her arms out and Hope didn’t hesitate to step into the offered hug. “When all the craziness is over, I want to talk to you about a certain way-station I was in.” Dakota whispered into Hope’s ear.

The goal-keeper’s eyes were wide when she stepped back and Dakota nodded.

 

“Excuse me, I need to interrupt the love-fest!” Ali said loudly.

The chatter died down as everyone noticed the right-back was standing on a bench and waiting for quiet. “Dakota, I speak for the whole team when I say that we’re glad you’re back.” Ali gazed down at her friend with a warm smile. “You’ve made a big difference in my life, and I know there’s a few others here who feel the same...” She turned and winked at Ashlyn across the room. “As a team, we wanted to give you something special. Jill...”

The head coach stepped out from behind Ashlyn and toward DK with a large shadow box in her hands.

“Dakota, no matter who wears the jerseys or takes the pitch, you will always be an honorary member of this team.” Jill said with already wet eyes. “Any of the girls here will tell you that what I’m about to say to you, I would say to any of them...You ever scare me like that again, I’ll make you run laps.” She laughed and held out the large framed case. “This is from all of us...Hope, would you help me hold this up since I’m fairly sure Dakota isn’t allowed to hold any weight yet.”

Hope and Jill held up the case and beamed as Dakota realized what was in it.

“Holy crap, you guys...” It was a blue-toned, official away-game U.S soccer jersey, presented with the back facing out, Undomiel in white letters, resting above twin zeroes.

“There was a bit of debate over what number we could assign you, but this is your number. No player will ever get that number.” Jill told her with a proud smile.

“Wow...” DK was almost at a loss for words as she realized there were a lot of autographs on the jersey. “Did you all sign it too?” She looked around the room at all the nodding and smiling faces.

“Even the training staff!” Someone called out, and Dakota smiled and shook her head in surprise.

As Jill and Hope set the shadow-box down, Abby stepped forward. “There’s something else too, DK.” She held a large frame, and she turned it so Dakota could see.

It was a photo of all their forearms in a circle, with fists clenched above a background of green grass, and mid-way between their elbows and their wrists on the top of each arm was an inked DK in black.

“Holy crap...” Dakota said again. “When did you all have time to take this?”

“Now you know why Pinoe and I didn’t come back to the hospital.” Ali laughed as she got down from the bench. “There was no way we could have kept this secret!”

“DK! DK! DK!” The chant went around the room, and soon the entire team was chanting, clapping and stomping, including Jill and the trainers.

Dakota gazed around the room, marvelling at how this group of people had managed to make her feel so welcome and valued. She caught Nyssa watching the scene with a smile as Ashlyn whispered something in her ear, but her attention was re-directed by Jill calling for quiet.

“All right, ladies, settle down! Time to put our game faces on and let Dakota find her seat.” Jill looked over at DK. “You have your credentials?”

Dakota held them up with her left hand.

“Good.” 

Abby reached out and patted her shoulder. “I’ll see you out there, DK.” Then she passed the framed photo to Nyssa and turned back to her team-mates. “Huddle up, gals!”

 

“Miss Undomiel, we need to step out of the room now.” Nyssa had her hand on Dakota’s elbow.

DK continued to smile, and she nodded as she realized it was time for the team to get to work. She followed Nyssa out into the corridor and watched her hand the gifts to Miranda.

“Rand and I will take Miss Undomiel to her seat. Could you please take these to the car and lock them in the trunk? We’ll meet up in the reserved section of the stands.”

Miranda nodded and Nyssa leaned over and whispered something into Rand’s ear. Then she put her hand on Dakota’s shoulder and nodded her head to the left. “This way, please.”

When Dakota saw the sign for V.I.P seating, she was sure they would turn, but they made their way slowly down another hallway, the bodyguards matching their pace with her slow one.

As the American national anthem began to play, Nyssa held a finger to the earpiece in her left ear and stopped as they drew abreast of an unmarked door. “We’ll have to wait here.” She waited until both anthems had been played before opening the door.

A male voice, likely the stadium announcer’s, Dakota suspected, rang out loud and clear.

“The Canadian national soccer team, and the people of Canada would like to welcome back the U.S Women’s National Team...”

Dakota heard the gathered crowd cheer loudly, and she missed part of the announcer’s next words, catching only the last half.

“...by special request, U.S goalkeeper, number eighteen, Ashlyn Harris!”

Even over the deafening cheers, Dakota was stunned to hear her girlfriend’s soft voice come over the speakers. 

“Thank you for showing us such wonderful hospitality, and for allowing me to take a minute of your time.”

Dakota could see Ashlyn now, standing in the nearly the middle of the turf in her uniform with a microphone in her hand, slowly turning to make eye contact with as many in the stands as she could.

 

“As many of you know, my girlfriend Dakota Undomiel, was shot earlier this week. It’s been wonderful to see all your messages of support and love, and I wanted to thank you all for that, personally.” Ashlyn then turned toward the door where DK and her bodyguards had stopped. “Dakota, could you come out here, please?”

“What...?” DK turned to look at Nyssa who was beaming.

She gestured toward the open door, “You heard her, Miss Undomiel.” Nyssa went through first and waited for Dakota, and Rand fell in beside them as the crowd applauded. 

It took seemingly forever to reach Ashlyn. Dakota glanced up and caught a glimpse of herself on the large screen hanging above the stadium, making her way across the turf with her cane and Rand on her right, and Nyssa on her left. Finally she had reached the blonde goalkeeper whose smile lit up the pitch.

Dakota smiled back at her before she glanced around them, wondering what she was doing out there.

Nyssa handed something to Ash that DK couldn’t quite see, Ash glanced down and nodded once before handing the female bodyguard the microphone. To Dakota’s amazement, she got down on one knee and took her left hand.

 

 

Nyssa held the microphone close enough so that the entire stadium could hear.

 Ashlyn’s hazel eyes met Dakota’s confused blue ones. “I’ve never been so afraid of losing someone in my entire life, but nothing has meant as much to me as you do. I am a better person because I have you in my life. Would you do me the honor of marrying me and spending the rest of our years by my side?” She opened a small box with her other hand, and a diamond engagement ring winked in the sunlight. Dakota smiled as she looked down at Ash through happy tears.

She knew she was crying in front of thousands of people, larger than life on that gigantic screen hanging above them, and she was very conscious of the microphone in front of her. But in that moment she couldn’t care what she looked like. She beamed down at her girlfriend, nodded and said “Yes.”

 The stadium went wild.

 

To be continued!

 

 

Chapter Text

  Ashlyn stood up and took the mic back from the bodyguard. She shut it off and handed it to the tech that had come jogging out. The people in the stands were still cheering and clapping, and it only got wilder when Ash kissed Dakota’s cheek. 

“You okay?” Ash murmured.

“Blown away.” Dakota replied.

“Give them a wave.” Ash said as she winked at her.

So Dakota waved, as did Ashlyn, and the noise in the stadium grew to a roar like DK had never heard before. She sought out the team’s bench and saw every one of them on their feet applauding too, Abby and Pinoe were wolf-whistling, and they were all smiles.

“C’mon, I’ll walk you back over.” Ash offered her arm, and the bodyguards matched their pace as they scanned the area surrounding the pitch for potential threats. Dakota glanced up at the massive screen above them and admitted to herself that they made for an interesting little group. As they approached the bench, the team all lined up with their hands out, waiting for Dakota to high five them. It felt goofy and surreal, and Dakota loved it. She made her way down the line until she reached Jill.

The coach high-fived her and then hugged her gently. “I’m very glad you didn’t die on that street corner.” She said quietly before taking a step back.

“Yeah, me too.” Dakota responded.

Jill gestured back down the line. “You’d better take your seat so we can get underway.”

Dakota was confused as she looked back down the line, then back at Jill, who laughed. “You didn’t think we were going to make you sit up there, did you?” She asked as she jerked her thumb to the stands above and behind them. 

“Undomiel, let’s go.” Hope was suddenly at her side, grinning just as widely as Ash.

Dakota just smiled as she shook her head a little and followed the goalkeepers to the seat that had, apparently, been reserved for her.

 

Nyssa and Rand took up positions behind her chair, and Miranda stepped forward from where she had been waiting and held the chair still as the writer lowered herself into it. Ashlyn sat to her left, Hope to her right. 

Dakota glanced at Ash. “I can’t believe you did that. This feels like a dream.”

Ashlyn just beamed as they watched the Canadian coach and captain approach them.

As they drew closer, Hope stood and offered her arm to help Dakota up, and Ash stood as well. Jill and Christie Rampone came over to join in the discussion as well.

“Miss Undomiel, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” The Canadian captain said as she stuck out her hand.

“It’s an honor to meet you.” Dakota replied. “You’re a legend.”

Christine gave her an embarrassed grin as she gestured toward the dark-haired man beside her. “This is our coach, John Herdman.”

“Miss Undomiel, I speak for the entire team when I say how glad we are that you’ve recovered from your injuries enough to watch our little match today.” His English accent was a bit of a surprise for DK, but his smile was genuine.

“Thank you very much.”

“We wanted to give you a little something so that your memories of our country were not all bad ones.” Christine spoke as she held up a jersey, with the back facing Dakota.

DK laughed to see her name on the back, right above a pair of zeros. “You didn’t by chance, plan this did you?”

“Absolutely!” Jill laughed.

“Thank you so much, I’ll treasure it!” Dakota smiled and accepted a hug from Sinclair and a handshake from Herdman, and watched as they in turn shook hands with Jill and Christie.

DK accepted her cane back from Hope and lowered herself into the chair, and spread her newest jersey out on her lap. She studied the autographs and shook her head again in disbelief.

“You keep this up, DK, and we’ll have to move just to have room for our memorabilia.” Ash said beside her with a chuckle.

****

 It was a long, but injury-free match. Dakota was pleased that Ashlyn and her team-mates were ahead 5-0. As the final minutes counted down, DK patted her girlfriend’s knee and said, “You go celebrate with the girls when this is over, I’m going to go back to the hotel.”

“Are you sure? Is your side bothering you?” Ash turned toward her with a concerned look.

“This is your time, Ash...”

“Bullshit...” Hope sang quietly from the chair beside her.

Dakota looked between the goalkeepers, as if she were watching a tennis match.

Ash tried to smother a grin while Hope simply cocked an eyebrow at her. “What? If you can call bullshit on me, I can do the same.” 

Dakota sighed. “I’m so outnumbered. Fine... Yeah, I’m sore, and tired. I just need to rest for a little while.”

Hope watched Naeher dive for a ball and smother it. “She’s getting better at that. It’s good that Jill let her play the whole match. You are coming out for drinks later, right?”

Dakota nodded as she watched the final minute tick away. “You bet.”

The ref blew the whistle, the match was over and the team took the field.

Once the entire team was on the pitch, Dakota slowly stood up and turned toward Nyssa. “I am more than ready to go and lay down.”

“Yes Ma’am.” Nyssa replied. “Your room, or Miss Harris’?” She allowed a grin to show, ever so briefly, before she fell into step beside her.

“Mine.” Dakota shot a glance at the female bodyguard before looking back out over the field.  “Thank you for your part in that proposal.”

“Don’t tell anyone, but I’m a romantic at heart.”

“Your secret is safe with me.” Dakota laughed.

 

They were in the car with Miranda behind the wheel when Nyssa spoke again. “Miss Undomiel, I know I have no right to ask, but could I request a favor?”

“Sure...” Dakota replied.

“Could you introduce me to Ali Krieger?”

Miranda chuckled as she navigated a turn.

“Shut up.” Nyssa mumbled to her partner.

Dakota looked from one to the other, wondering what she was missing. “Not a problem. I’m sure she’ll be out with us for drinks tonight.”

Nyssa murmured something under her breath and Miranda broke out into full laughter.

“If you weren’t driving, I’d punch you right now.” Nyssa groused.

Miranda only laughed harder.

Dakota studied the senior bodyguard closely and noticed her ears were a bit pink. “Ah...I see. You’ll be glad to know she doesn’t live too far away from Ashlyn and I, in D.C, so you’ll likely be seeing her fairly often.”

Nyssa’s face flamed red.

 

To be continued!

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Finally back in her room, Dakota stood just inside the door and closed her eyes. The noise from the street was muffled by the drawn drapes, the hallway on the other side of the door was silent and it was the first time that day she’d been alone. Not counting bathroom trips. Her shadow box and framed photo had been brought up and leaned against one of the walls, and she fished a hanger from the closet to hang the Canadian jersey. She pried her shoes off with her feet, something she knew Ali would frown at, hung her vest on the back of the chair and booted her laptop. While it chimed and hummed through it’s start up, she went into the bathroom to change into a t-shirt and sleep pants.

 

When she came out of the bathroom, she loaded her email. She wasn’t surprised to see her inbox had exploded, she had practically ignored her email for two days. Nothing needed attention in the next few hours, so she closed the laptop and turned toward the bed just as her cellphone announced the arrival of a text message.

 

Went shopping with Jill. Might see you for drinks later. If not, I’ll tiptoe when I get back to the room.

T

 

Dakota smiled and muted the phone, turned the bedside lamp off and gingerly lowered herself down to the bed’s surface. The mattress felt like a cloud, wrapping her in soft warmth, and she sighed as she flipped the blankets over herself. As good as the bed felt, she still missed Ashlyn pressed up against her back.

She was asleep in no time.

 

When she woke, it was to the sound of her stomach growling again. She scrubbed at the sleep in her eyes and blinked as she re-acquainted herself with the room in the diminished light. Despite her injuries and the ever-present ache in her chest, she was fairly comfortable, but she wanted a shower and food. Dakota lay still for a few minutes more thinking back over her day. To call it surreal wasn’t even close. When she had paced the hospital halls waiting to be discharged, she never expected her day to include gifts from Jill and the team. Despite how much she knew Ashlyn loved her, she never saw the marriage proposal coming. She smiled to herself when she remembered how Ash had gotten down on one knee and asked her to spend the rest of their years with her. She smiled even wider as she thought about planning their wedding and who they might invite.

Her musings were interrupted by both her stomach and her phone vibrating on the night stand.

The phone reported one missed text, from an hour and a half prior.

 

Hey, sexy! The girls and I are still celebrating in the locker room for now. I think we’re all meeting at a bar later, but I’ll come find you before that. Where are you? How’re you feeling?

Love you

 

Dakota hit the reply button and typed.

Hey,

In my room, just woke up from a nap. About to have a shower and food of some sort. Wish you were here with me. Tell the girls I’m proud of them.

 

By the time Dakota had risen from the bed and turned on the lamp, Ash had sent a reply.

 

Shower with you?! I’m on my way, wait for me! See you in a few!

 

Dakota laughed and retrieved her cane from where it leaned against the wall and made her way to the door. When she opened it, she was not surprised to find Nyssa standing in the hallway.

“Miss Undomiel.” Nyssa turned and smothered a smile as she glanced down at Dakota’s owl-covered sleep pants.

“Miss Quinn.” DK cocked an eyebrow at her senior bodyguard and grinned. “Could you come in for a minute?” She held the door open for her and followed her in.

“Did you enjoy your nap, Miss Undomiel?”

“Are you ever going to call me by my first name?”

“Rule number three...”

“To hell with that, what if I make a formal request to Rand?”

“I am the lead guard on your case.”

“So I’ll make a formal, written request to you then.” Dakota watched the other woman roll her eyes. “What if we compromise and you and Miranda use my first name while we aren’t out in public. Is that acceptable?”

Nyssa hesitated.

“There is a certain brunette defender I could bribe you with...” Dakota smiled.

“Deal.” Nyssa relented and stuck her hand out.

Dakota laughed as she shook her bodyguard’s hand. “I was going to introduce you anyway.” She settled on the edge of the bed and gestured to the chair at the desk. “Have a seat. I wanted to let you know that Ash is on her way back from the stadium. I’m going to order room service, did you want anything?”

“No, thank you.”

 

 

“I’m a coffee person myself. What about you? Coffee or tea in the morning?” She asked as she picked up the room service menu.

“Coffee in the morning, tea at night.” Nyssa said.

“I found a nice herbal blend at home, a mix of orange blossom, chai and dandelion root for vitamins. Will you be coming out with us tonight, or Miranda?”

“Both of us, since I assume it will be a public venue.” Nyssa crossed one of her feet to rest on the opposite knee. 

“More than likely.” Dakota agreed as she picked up the phone. “Hi there, this is room...yes, of course you know...” She chuckled. “I’d like to order room service please. Could I get a pot of coffee, four cups, an order of nachos, an order of twice-baked potatoes, and two Portobello burgers with guacamole on one? Just charge it to the room, please. Thanks very much!”

Nyssa raised her eyebrows as Dakota hung up. “Feeding a small army, Dakota?”

“You haven’t seen how Ash and I can pack it away!” DK laughed. 

“And the four cups?”

“It won’t kill you to have coffee with me, will it?” 

“I suppose not.”

“So I think you should know that Ali is very much a princess. She puts mascara on to go and get milk. She’s very girly. She has a good heart, she cares very deeply, but right now, soccer is her world. She’s very attached to her brother. She almost died when she was in her early twenties, did you know that?”

Nyssa shook her head. “I don’t follow professional women’s soccer.”

“You might want to start.” Dakota smiled. “I love Ali like a sister. She’s been a very good friend to me, and while I obviously can’t predict what she might think of you...I suspect she might enjoy your company.”

Nyssa flushed and looked at the floor.

“Can I ask you a question?”

Nyssa looked up and nodded.

“What made you want to be a bodyguard?”

 

“Rand.” The other woman replied simply. “He and I went to school together. We were studying to become police officers. Sometime during our last year, he got the idea to start his own security company and he talked me into joining him. We’ve gotten bigger than I ever dreamed, we have ten employees in the field and two in the office. Rand presents as the visible head of the company, because many still don’t believe a woman can do this job. But in cases like yours, where a woman is seen as less intrusive, I usually take the lead. May I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“What is your life like on quiet days?”

“You mean when I’m not being proposed to and having a fuss made over me by the U.S national women’s soccer team?” Dakota asked with a grin. “Honestly, I really am a homebody, like I said before. I write, which is a fairly solitary occupation. I knit, I bake. I’m at a point in my book where I’ll have to go out and do some research, and as I said, the publisher expects me to put on a public face as soon as I’m healed. Have you looked into my background?”

“Of course. I don’t put my life on the line without doing some research of my own.”

“Then you know all about my prison time, and that whole debacle with Wendy.”

“I do.”

A knock at the door interrupted anything else she might have said, and Nyssa got up to answer it.

 

 

“Ah, Miss Harris. Good to see you again.”

“Thank you, Nyssa.” Ash stepped through the door being held open for her. “I think the cart behind me laden with food is coming here as well.” Her eyes found her girlfriend waiting across the room and she smiled brightly as she crossed the threshold. “There you are! How are you feeling?”

“Much better. I ordered enough for both of us, and enough coffee for four. I’m not sure where Miranda is though.” Dakota answered as Ash kissed her cheek.

“She’s napping.” Nyssa replied as she supervised the food being set up on one of the dressers. “She’s asked me to wake her in a little while.”

Dakota signed the bill, tipped the busboy and watched as Nyssa escorted him to the door.

Ash took two cups to the coffee urn the kitchen had sent up, and while she poured, she asked, “Nyssa, how do you take your coffee?”

“Cream and sugar please. I don’t suppose there’s any point in telling you that you don’t have to do that?”

“Nope!”

“I thought not.” The bodyguard smiled.

 

The three of them made small talk and Nyssa finally relented to their repeated assertions to have some nachos and twice baked potato skins. When all the food was gone, she checked her watch and stood. “I should go and wake Miranda.”

“Take her a cup of coffee, that’s why I asked for four cups, after all.” Dakota said with a cheeky grin.

“Thank you, she’ll appreciate it, I’m sure. Just text me when you’re ready to leave.” Nyssa saw herself out and as the door clicked shut, Dakota rose stiffly, stood in front of Ashlyn and manoeuvred her legs between Ash’s knees. “I haven’t thanked you properly for that wonderful marriage proposal in front of thousands of people...” She let her cane fall to the floor as she cupped Ashlyn’s face in both hands and bent to kiss her passionately.

“Mmmn. Did you miss me?” Ash asked as she wrapped her arms around Dakota.

“Sure did. In more ways than one.”

Ash pulled back so she could look into Dakota’s eyes. One glance showed her that her fiancee had more on her mind than kissing. She chuckled. “I don’t think your rib can handle a whole lot of physical activity right now, babe.”

“Why don’t we put my rib to the test? You can undress me and help me get all wet...” Dakota’s voice deepened with want. “And hot...”

Ashlyn wasted no time in pulling Dakota’s t-shirt off quickly, but gently. “Where’s my mother?”

“Out shopping with Jill.”

“Good. They’ll be hours then.” Ash said as she peppered Dakota’s torso with light kisses. “But you’d better warn Nyssa not to let Mom in for a while.”

DK hummed in agreement, shot off a quick text and tossed the phone on the bed just as Ash took a hard nipple between her lips.

“OhbloodyhellAsh!” Dakota gasped.

“Hmm? something wrong, babe? You seem a little jumpy...” Ash looked up and grinned before running her tongue over the other nipple.

 

 

Out in the hall, Nyssa heard Dakota groan deeply and decided now would be a very good time to take Miranda her coffee.

 

To be continued!

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“Chug, Chug, chug!” The chant was picked up by many at the long table, and some slammed their hands on that table, making the glasses and bottles on it dance.

Finally Hope drained the last of the glass and slammed it down, breathing heavily. She eyed Dakota, and grinned self-assuredly. “Three.”

“Pfft.” DK picked up the heavy twelve ounce beer glass and exhaled before lifting it to her lips and draining it smoothly. She set it lightly on the table, and lined it up smartly with the others she’d emptied. “Three.”

“Beer is lightweight shit,” Hope said across the table. “Shots. Tequila. And I’ll raise you fifty.”

Dakota grinned and turned to look at Ash playing pool across the room with one of the trainers. “You’re on.”

Nyssa stepped forward and whispered in Dakota’s ear. “Miss Undomiel, is that wise?”

Dakota, still smiling, nodded at her off-duty bodyguard. “It is.” She said aloud. “Because I’m going to take Miss Solo’s money tomorrow and donate it to charity while she suffers through a hangover.”

 

 

The goal keeper and the writer hadn’t started out trying to drink each other under the table at the hotel bar, but one of the forwards had made a comment that Hope knew how to hold her alcohol, and a bet was made by one of the defenders. The pot was already quite large, with many of the team betting for their number one ‘keeper. Hope herself had already bet Dakota that she would still be standing at the end of the night. Their personal bet had grown by a hundred with each glass.

 

Pinoe pushed the beer glasses to one side and set a tray of shots in the middle of the table. “You’d better win, DK, I’ve got a hundred riding on you.” She turned to head slightly toward the woman she played with in Seattle. “Sorry, Hope, you understand though, right?”

“Sure, yeah, we’re good, Pinoe.” She glared at DK. “Let’s do this, Undomiel.”

Dakota laughed. “So fierce, Solo…” But she picked up a shot glass and waited for Hope to do the same.

As one, they threw the tequila down their throats. Hope grimaced and shuddered while Dakota closed her eyes and grew very still.

“You alright there, DK?” Ash asked quietly in her left ear.

“Savoring the taste.” The writer replied as she opened her eyes and met Hope’s gaze steadily. Then she slowly smiled and winked at the brunette ‘keeper.

“Girl’s got game!” Sydney crowed. “Put me down for fifty for Dakota to win!”

Dakota turned her head to her left, found Ash’s cheek still beside her own, and kissed the smooth skin there. “I didn’t take any pain pills. I’m good.” She assured her girlfriend quietly.

Ash smiled back at her before she leaned close to her ear. “And you’ll tell me when you’re done, right?”

“Absolutely, babe.”

“Then win that money and show her who’s the better drinker.” Ashlyn whispered in DK’s ear as she hoisted her phone and took a picture of the table filled with empty glasses.

 

Dakota looked around the table. Some of the team were well on their way to drunk, while others watched with glasses of soda in their hands. At the far end of the table, Ali sat turned toward Nyssa, deep in conversation about something. Judging by the look on both women’s faces, they were having a good time. DK held a finger up to Hope in a “one sec” gesture and called out to Ali. “Kriegs!”

Ali’s head turned quickly and found Dakota, who slid her a shot glass down the table. The right-back caught it easily, threw it back and slid it back along the table, all in one smooth movement.

DK caught Nyssa’s eye, but the bodyguard shook her head.

Dakota lifted a shot glass in the air to salute her and swallowed it quickly. Once again, she sat completely still and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she smiled at Hope. “You’re one behind, Solo.”

Hope smiled ominously, and gave her opponent the same steely glare she gave those that had faced her during penalty kicks.

“Is that supposed to work on me?” Dakota laughed. “I’ve seen you naked, Solo, you don’t intimidate me.”

Ashlyn suddenly burst into a coughing fit until Syd patted her on the back a few times. The blonde turned to her fiancee as she wiped beer from her chin. “Is this something we need to talk about?”

“Hope was in an issue of Body, remember? Standing there with a hose in her hand, nude and bathed in golden sunlight…” Dakota said with a quirk of her eyebrow..

Hope just smiled in mild embarrassment and took her shot of tequila, coughing and turning red-faced afterwards. “How the hell are you not affected by this shit?” She slurred.

Ashlyn chuckled and leaned into DK’s ear. “I hope you don’t throw up when you get drunk, because that’s not going to help your broken rib.”

Dakota was about to say something when Hope caught her eye. She flicked her gaze to DK’s right, over her shoulder, and smiled warmly. 

The writer turned carefully, curious, but mindful of her rib. She had to smile too when she saw Ali and Nyssa slow dancing in a dark corner of the dance floor. She patted Ash’s hip and gestured with her chin.

“They look good together, don’t they?” Hope said quietly.

“When are you going to get back out there, Solo? Jerramy wasn’t worth keeping your heart locked away.” Kelley asked beside her.

Hope shook her head as she watched Dakota drain another shot glass. “I can’t give my heart away again, Kels, it already belongs to someone else.” She didn’t explain, but plucked another shot from the tray and threw it back. Then she picked up another shot, lifted the glass in Dakota’s direction and said, “May we all find our someone.” She tilted it into her mouth, shuddered a little, hiccuped and slowly leaned into Syd’s lap.

“She’s done.” Sydney chuckled. “Ash, can you help me get her upstairs to our room?”

Dakota chuckled. “I’ll come up too. I can at least hold the door open.” She leaned on her cane to rise to a standing position, reached for a shot glass and finished it in one movement. “Pinoe, you can supervise the correct distribution of money, yeah?”

“You bet, DK.” Megan shot her a thumbs up.

 

Ash bent down and wrapped Hope’s left arm around her neck, and stood upright. Syd straightened and wrapped an arm around Hope’s waist.

Dakota turned to her bodyguard. “We’re done, Miranda. We’re taking Miss Solo up to her room to pour her into bed.”

“Can I assume you won then, Miss Undomiel?”

Dakota smiled a bit and nodded as she led the way to the elevator. “I think it’s safe to say that. How much did you win?”

“I would never bet on the outcome of a drinking competition!” Miranda objected as she pushed the call button.

They all rode up in the elevator in silence, broken only by Hope’s occasional incoherent, drunken mumbling. Just before the door opened on the third floor, Miranda said quietly, “Two hundred.”

Dakota only chuckled as she took the keycard from Sydney and went to open the room.

 

“The far bed, Dakota.” Syd said. “If you can turn the covers down, we’ll aim her.” Ash and Syd got Hope onto the bed and took her short boots off. DK flipped the blankets over her drunken friend and made sure she had a glass of water on the nightstand. Just as she was about to leave, she felt a hand close around her wrist. “Undomiel…”

“Yeah, Hope?”

“I’m glad you found Harris and all, but I wish I’d found you first.”

Dakota glanced up at Ashlyn, stunned. By the time she looked back to the bed, Hope was snoring softly.

“Umm... we’re...going to go…” Dakota looked up at Syd but gestured to the door.

“Thanks for helping me get her back up here, all of you.”

“No problem, Syd.” Ash answered for them as Miranda led the way out of the room. “Text me in the morning and let us know how she is.”

As the door closed behind them, DK looked at it for a moment, then turned as she shook her head.

“Well, I’m glad I found you first.” Ashlyn said.

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

 

Saturday morning came with a blast of sunlight that found it’s mark on Dakota’s right eyelid. She snorted and rolled over and snuggled in under Ash’s chin. It occurred to her not-quite-awake brain then that she had rolled over. Something she hadn’t been able to do for days and the doctor had warned her not to rush. Her eyes opened and she lay there breathing in Ash’s distinctive scent. She was excited for this new development, but at the same time, a little afraid that she might have done damage. She didn’t feel any worse for wear, however. They had taped her ribs pretty well so a spontaneous  movement wouldn’t injure her further. She wasn’t ready to get up just yet, so she closed her eyes and tried to go back to sleep. But her wandering mind betrayed her by going back over the events of the previous night. It had been fun to watch the faces of some of the girls as they realized that she could, and did, drink Hope under the table, so to speak. Hope...

Her mind replayed Hope’s confession. She was sure it had been the tequila talking, but for her to have said it at all implied that Hope had buried feelings more than simple friendship. Dakota sighed when she considered how complicated things had suddenly become. She kissed Ash’s breastbone, braced her broken rib with her right hand and slowly rolled onto her back. She took a minute, pleased that she hadn’t felt anything pop or move strangely, then rolled onto her right side and slowly angled herself into a sitting position. She reached for her cane, stood up and with one last glance at a still-sleeping Ashlyn, went to take a shower.

 

She kept her wound angled away from the spray as much as she could, and was relieved to feel very little pull when she lifted her hands to wash her hair. She sighed as the nearly-hot water coursed over her scalp. She wondered how Ash felt about Hope’s revelation. They hadn’t spent any time talking when they had gotten back to their room, just quietly gotten ready for bed and fallen asleep in their typical spoon-pattern. Surely Ash wouldn’t feel threatened by the drunken ramblings of the brunette...

Nothing like this had ever come up before, but Dakota was sure she’d given Ashlyn no reason to doubt her feelings. It truly had been just the day before she’d told Ash she’d marry her.

 

Dakota stepped carefully from the shower, wrapped the hotel terry-cloth robe around her wet body and opened the door, intent on having a difficult conversation with her girlfriend and setting her mind at ease.

Except the bed was empty.

As was the hallway, except for her bodyguard, of course.

“Miranda, do you know where Ashlyn went?”

“I’m afraid not, Miss Undomiel. Do you happen to know where Nyssa is?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t.”

Dakota pulled back into the room and texted Ash.

 

Hey, you snuck out before I got my good morning kiss? Where are you?

 

Twenty minutes later, there was still no answer.

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

  Ashlyn punched a button on the console in front of her and ran harder as the treadmill hummed faster. Her feet hammered the belt, the music in her ears pounded, her heart thudded in her chest, but no matter how hard or fast she ran, she couldn’t shut out her thoughts.

Fucking Hope Solo had the hots for Dakota.

Her girlfriend. Her fiancee.

Hope hadn’t even known Dakota three weeks ago, and if what Eve had said was true, DK hadn’t even saved Hope’s life, it’s not like Hope owed her anything.

Okay, so yeah, the two of them hit it off. Dakota had an uncanny ability to connect with just about everyone, yeah she was attractive and smart and witty, but why did Hope have to be attracted to her?

This made everything so much more complicated...

Ash stabbed the button again and ran harder.

 

****

Up in her room, Dakota leaned against the window frame and looked out at the city below, not really seeing any of it. She was disturbed by Ash’s sudden disappearance from the bed. While it was true that there had been times she had woken up alone after going to bed with the blonde, none of those times felt quite like this. Dakota knew that there were fans who thought themselves in love with her girlfriend, she’d seen dozens of such proclamations on the internet, but those had all been at some sort of distance. This was so much more complicated...

She didn’t want to give up her budding friendship with Hope, but she didn’t want things to be weird between them either.

DK shook her head and stepped away from the window, picked up the phone and called down to order an urn of coffee. 

 

****

 

After getting dressed in stretchy black yoga pants and a white button-down shirt, Dakota opened the door to ask Miranda if she wanted a cup of coffee when she heard raised voices a few doors down. She turned her head to see Ashlyn and Hope having a confrontation in front of Ali’s room. She ducked back in, grabbed the keycard and stepped out into the hallway once more, coffee now forgotten.

Ali stepped out into the hallway just as Dakota reached the two goalkeepers. “What’s going on out here?”

“I was trying to apologize...” Hope began, half-turning to explain.

Ash took a step toward the other goal-keeper, pulled her right arm back and sucker-punched Hope in the jaw.

“Fuck, Harris!”

“Ash!”

Ali caught a staggering Hope while Dakota snagged Ashlyn’s fist before she could hit the other woman again.
“What, are you three now, Ash? Get the hell in here, all of you!” Ali spat.

 

Dakota’s eyes widened when she realized who was already in Ali’s hotel room. She watched Nyssa gather up her shoes and wallet as quickly as she could and bolt out the door. “What the hell are you doing, Ali? You spent the night with my bodyguard?”

“What am I doing?” Ali spluttered as she turned to face her friend. “What the hell are you doing, Dakota? You got shot and died, like, a week ago, make this miraculous come-back that makes one of mine look easy, and you decide to have a drinking contest with fucking Hope Solo!? Did you not stop to think of the consequences on your body?” She was nearly yelling now as she turned toward Hope and Ashlyn. “And you two not only let her, but encouraged it!”  She ran her fingers through her hair and gentled her voice a little. “I get how you feel about her, Hope, and I get that you were drunk when you said what you did, but if you want your friendship to continue, you’re going to have to find a way to make peace with your feelings for her.” Ali turned fully to Ashlyn then and stepped into her personal space as whiskey-brown eyes met dark hazel ones. “I have known you for a long time, I’ve seen you at your worst, and your best. We’ve helped each other through recoveries, setbacks, depression and all the other shit life has thrown at us. We have been through hell and back and there’s something I never told you.” Ali stopped and took a breath before continuing. “I had the biggest crush on you for a long time...sometimes it was all I could think about. Over time, I figured out we were better as friends. I’d still walk miles for you, but I don’t get all hot and bothered anymore when you walk around half-dressed.” Ali reached out and put a light hand on Ashlyn’s shoulder. “So pull your head out of your ass, Harris, before you lose a friend in Hope because she has a crush on your girlfriend.”

Ali turned and gazed at all three of them silently for a few moments. “You all need to work this out before you leave this room, because if you don’t, you never will. I’m going for breakfast, use the room as long as you want, but don’t leave this unresolved.”

 

None of them moved for a minute, until Hope reached up and lightly touched her jaw. “Jesus, Harris...”

“Be glad I didn’t put my weight behind it.” Ash stepped closer and reached out, disappointed in herself when Hope flinched. “Relax, I’m not going to hit you again. I just want to take a look.”

Dakota went to the door and stuck her head out to find both her bodyguards just outside in an animated discussion. “Could I interrupt your arguing long enough to ask one of you for an ice pack?” She didn’t wait for a reply as she went back into the room muttering about everyone behaving like children. She looked at Hope sitting morosely on one bed, and Ash sitting on the other. “You know, it wasn’t that long ago that I had no one in my life who cared for me. I didn’t have to worry about my girlfriend trying to break a friend’s jaw. So things are more than a little surreal right now.” 

A knock on the door interrupted her and she went to answer it.

“The ice pack you requested, Miss Undomiel.” Nyssa mumbled, clearly embarrassed.

“Thank you.”

Dakota went back in, handed the pack to Hope and leaned against a dresser while she looked from one goalkeeper to the other. She shook her head and sighed. “Hope, I don’t want our friendship to get weird. I like your prickly, tougher-than-anyone-else persona that you expect everyone to buy into. But I already know you well enough to know that’s not all there is to you. If you hadn’t gotten drunk last night, I wonder if you would have ever told me how you feel. But it’s out there now. Thing is, I want to spend the rest of my life with you, Ashlyn, and I thought you knew that, so I’m not sure I understand why you’re angry with Hope.”

“I’m not, not anymore.” The blonde mumbled. “I’ve never felt about anyone the way I do about you, DK, and I guess a part of me was threatened by someone else’s attraction to you.” Ashlyn got off the bed and went to stand in front of the other with her hand out. “I apologize for being an asshole, Solo.”

Hope took the peace offering for what it was and shook her hand. “That was a lucky punch, Harris. You won’t get the chance for another one, but I’m sorry I made shit weird.”

Ash shrugged. “It is what it is. I don’t want it to be weird though. I want to be able to invite you over for one of Dakota’s dinners when you’re in D.C, you know?”

Hope nodded. “I’ve heard a lot about her dinners and baking from Pinoe.

Ash scoffed. “DK’s dinners are a thousand times better than anyone can describe them.”

Dakota smiled at the banter and went to the door. “I’ve got something to do, but I hope you take Ali’s advice.” She smiled at them both and left the room.

 

“We’re done here, Nyssa.” She said as her bodyguard fell into step beside her. “Any idea where Ali is?”

“Hotel restaurant.”

“Good. I’m starving.” Dakota waited until the elevator doors had shut them in before she side-eyed the other woman. “I know it’s none of my business, but did you really spend the night with Ali Krieger?”

Nyssa set her jaw before she answered. “Yes, Ma’am, I did.”

“Good!” Dakota smiled and stared straight ahead.

 

When the elevator door opened, Dakota headed for the hotel restaurant. She spotted Ali easily and didn’t hesitate to take a seat across the table from her.

“Have a seat, DK.” The defender quipped sarcastically.

“Still upset with me, then?”

A waiter appeared at her elbow and she ordered coffee and an omelette.

“Yes.” Ali replied simply once the waiter had left.

“I’m sorry, I overstepped when I asked about Nyssa spending the night in your room, that was a low blow.” Dakota apologized quietly. “I introduced the two of you hoping you would hit it off. I’m glad you did. You both deserve to be happy.”

Ali simply sat and studied her friend for a long minute, waiting while coffee was brought and placed on the table. “I wanted to tell you that who I slept with was none of your goddamned business, but I realized I was more upset about the drinking contest.”

“You were right, I should have known better.”

Ali took a drink of her own coffee and waited.

Dakota took a drink of hers.

“That’s it? No excuses?” Ali finally asked.

“No, but in my own defence, it all felt so normal, I never thought about the reasons it was a bad idea.”

“You did it to feel normal?”

Dakota shrugged. “Very little in my life feels normal right now, Ali. I have a bodyguard with me every time I leave the room, my girlfriend proposed to me in front of thousands of people, millions if you count those that watched on t.v, and the person who tried to kill me is still on the loose.”

Ali pondered that while she turned her cup gently in front of her. “Can I ask you a question?”

Dakota nodded.

“What did you tell Hope while you were still in the hospital? Something about being her someone, regardless?”

“You’re wondering if I inadvertently led her on.” DK realized. “I told her that we all needed to let someone in past our walls, someone we can trust to call bullshit on our crappy days and have our best interests at heart. I told her I’d be her someone. When the detective told us I’d been targeted, I told Hope I’d still be her someone, regardless.”

“Ah.” Ali said as their breakfasts were placed in front of them. “And does this theoretical someone need to be the person we’re romantically involved with?”

“No, not always. But a wise right-back told me once that we all need someone. Today, she became my someone.”

Ali smiled self-consciously as she picked up her cutlery. “Always have been, DK.”

They ate in silence for a few minutes before Ali thought of something. “Did Hope and Ash work things out?”

“Sounded like it.” Dakota nodded. “When I left, Ash was all but inviting Solo to our next dinner party. Apparently, you really know how to make people...how did you put it...pull their heads out of their asses. One question though?”

The brunette raised an eyebrow.

“Did you really have a crush on Ash?”

Ali smiled into her eggs.

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

Saturday afternoon turned out be an odd one. While Ali, Pinoe, Ash and Hope all went off to a local television station to do a promotional piece, Dakota thought she might get some work done on the book. But no sooner had she opened her laptop than Tammye breezed into the room. “There’s my favorite author!”

“Hey there.” Dakota looked up from squinting at her screen. “I wondered where you’d gotten to.”

Tammye smiled conspiratorially as she put her purse on the bed she had claimed at the beginning of the week. “I found somewhere else to sleep.”

“Is this somewhere else going to make Ash’s head spin?” Dakota asked.

Tammye chuckled. “No, I found a way to keep Jill happy, as well as you and Ashlyn.” She sat on the edge of the bed closest to the desk and lowered her voice. “I rented a room in another part of the hotel, for a friend.” She made air quotes and chuckled.

Dakota smiled. “Sneaky.”

“Ever heard of Paragraphs Bookstore?”

“No.”

“Not surprised, I keep forgetting it hasn’t been that long since you moved to D.C. Anyway,” Tammye kicked her shoes off as she spoke. “They contacted me via email and wanted to know if we could set up an appointment with them at your earliest convenience. They’d like to discuss a commercial spot!”

Dakota blinked at her manager. “A commercial? With me?”

“Yeah!” Tammye got up to answer a knock at the door. “I think that’s pretty cool!” she said as she turned the handle and opened the door. “Hi, Jill! C’mon in!”

The USNWT head coach stepped across the threshold and smiled. “Thank you Tammye. Dakota.” Jill nodded at the writer. “The team has asked me to come on their behalf. The girls wanted to know if you would come to the team dinner tonight, as our guest.”

DK rose from her seat. “I’d be honored, thank you. Is this normal?”

Jill chuckled. “Nothing about our time in this city has been normal, Dakota. Some of the girls are heading to their respective homes tomorrow and I think they all feel as though you inspired them.”

“Pfft. I didn’t do anything.”

“Well, anyway, both of you are invited. Dinner is in the conference room, at six. I’ll see you then.” Jill gave them a quick smile and saw herself out.

“I think I’ll take a nice long, hot soak in the tub.” Tammye said with a stretch.

“Don’t let Jill see you leaving.” DK grinned.

“I’ll be a ninja. Come get you at 5:30?”

“Sure thing.”

Tammye gathered up her purse and shoes and went back to her “friend’s room”, leaving Dakota to work.

 

DK opened her laptop once more and squinted at the screen, mentally reminding herself to get her eyes tested once they got home. She finally had to enlarge the text on the screen to see her email. Out of thirty or so new emails that waited for her, one caught her eye and she opened it.

 

Miss Undomiel,

As I understand it, a ship capable of exploring other planets would be a single occupancy ship, computer controlled of course. Small, able to withstand the stresses of alien-world gravitational pull, perhaps even landings. It might not be intended to travel great distances, perhaps only hops of a few days. But it would have to be extraordinarily tough.

I would be greatly interested in discussing your ships further, at your convenience of course.

Please find my number below. Call when you are stateside once again. I look forward to meeting you face to face.

Sincerely,

Frijole Jones

 

Dakota smiled. She was looking forward to meeting the man she had corresponded with so many times already. He was an accomplished author of science-fiction stories, and seemed to be quite knowledgeable. She nodded to herself as she tried to re-read his counsel on scout ships. She sighed in frustration over her failing eyesight and tried to immerse herself in Lura’s world.

****

 They strolled along a pathway, under twin suns, Lura’s arm looped through Lachan’s. The doctor had insisted, and Lura was happy to spend time with the mysterious woman, so she happily complied.

“So I know that you’re a pilot, tell me a little about that.” Lachlan prompted

“I’ve been a pilot all my adult life. I knew when I was young that it was what I wanted to do. I applied to Pilot’s Academy as soon as I could. I flunked the admittance tests first time around…”

“I’m sorry...flunked?”

“Failed.”

“Oh, I am sorry.”

“I was angry and upset for a few days. My Sire talked some sense into me and I went back and wrote the tests again.”

“You succeeded that time?”

Lura nodded as they followed the path around a squat, wide tree with grey-orange bark. “I did. I graduated with honors and went on to become a member of the first wave of pilots in interplanetary space exploration.”

“Ah, that is what you meant by First Wave, when we first spoke.” Lachlan nodded in understanding.

“Yes.” Lura responded simply before she fell silent.

“By its very nature, the word first implies it will be followed by a second. Was there a second wave?”

Lura stumbled slightly and Lachlan steered her to a nearby bench, she could see her patient was upset.

“Lura? If you wish to return…”

“No, no, I’m all right. I just need a moment…” She rubbed her eyes and took a deep breath. “My squadron was sent out to explore the planets nearest to our own, but of those closest to us, none were sufficient to colonize. Each time we came home, it was with bad news. Finally, The Council sent us to a planet four days away in hyper-space. We assumed an inter-planetary orbit while we ran scans of the surface. When those came back with positive results for habitation, we ran simulations. They all indicated that colonization would be viable. We were thrilled to finally have good news to report.”

 

Lachlan noticed the posture of the pilot and surmised her return home had not been a happy event. The doctor sat beside Lura on the bench and waited for her to continue. “We were within sight of our home planet...we could see the continents...when we were attacked by a force so much bigger… Their ships were so big, and so fast, they must have outnumbered us ten to one...we were only a small exploratory squadron.” She shook her head and her voice dropped. “They started picking us off, one by one, finally we realized what they were doing, I screamed at the others to assume the Zeta Pattern, but as good as we were, it only delayed their deaths… One of the biggest ships was firing at the scout on my right wing, she exploded in an immense fireball that sent my ship spinning...I couldn’t get my thrusters to respond, nothing was working, I was just floating. The invaders must have thought I was dead, because they ignored me after that, but I saw…” Lura’s voice trailed off in a strangled sob.

Lachlan took her hand. “What did you see, Lura?”

“The biggest ship, it was longer than any ship I’ve ever seen, it shot a red beam at my homeworld, I saw it cut through, right through the planet, I saw it come out the other side...I watched my homeworld come apart at the seams and explode into a million little pieces! Don’t you see, Lachlan? I saw all of my people, my family, everything I’ve ever known explode and die right in front of me…” Lura’s shoulders shook as she wept with the memory of the massacre, and Lachlan could only hold her hand and be an anchor in the morass of the other woman’s pain.

 

When Lura regained control of her emotions, she wiped her face on her sleeve and took a shaky breath. “The shock wave threw my ship, I tumbled end over end until I passed out. The forces of that kind of movement can be hell on pilots. When I regained consciousness, my ship was being sucked through some kind of rippling curtain of energy. When I came out the other side, the stars looked different. There was a planet, but one I hadn’t seen before. I tried communication, but it was unresponsive, navigation was the same...the only thing that had remained operational was life support. All I could do was float, captive, strapped in while my ship drifted closer and closer to a planet that I knew might very well kill me. And it damn near did. When I woke up, you were bent over me.”

****

Dakota sat back in her chair with tears streaming down her face. Even though these characters were her creations, she had no idea where that scene had come from. She could feel Lura’s pain as keenly as if it were her own. She pushed to a standing position, ignoring the ever-present ache in her chest, and went to the window that over-looked the park.

“Does she not realize how easy a target she is right now?”

“We aren’t supposed to take her out, just watch and report.” The woman said without taking her eyes away from the binoculars. “If I had gotten the termination orders, she would not be standing at the window. I would not have missed.”

Her companion glanced at her and he shook his head. “You’re one cold hearted bitch, you know that?”

“Bloody right I am.”

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

Dakota turned from the window when she heard a heavy knock at the door. Rand stood at the threshold, talking quietly with Nyssa.

“Ah, Miss Undomiel, I was wondering if you had a few minutes so that we could go over departure plans?”

“Certainly, come in.” DK moved to the side and Rand entered, followed by Nyssa. “Have a seat, although I’m afraid the seating options are limited.”

“We’re fine standing, thank you. I didn’t mean to disturb your work,” Rand said as he spotted the laptop. “But I didn’t want to leave this meeting until tomorrow. As I understand it, some of the team are leaving tomorrow?”

“That’s right. Ashlyn, Ali and I have a Sunday afternoon flight out.” DK’s gaze settled on Nyssa.

Rand was consulting his notebook as he replied, “We’ll have a four-person team with you on that flight, Nyssa, Miranda and two other agents that you’ve not met yet, as well as myself. As you know, Miss Quinn is lead agent. She and Miranda will continue to accompany you, while the other two agents will be primarily in the background. They’ll keep an eye on your social media for any threats, the residential security and so on. We’ll arrange for you and Miss Harris to meet them, of course, but after that, you shouldn’t see them unless the situation demands it, or unless Nyssa or Miranda need to change their own schedule. Once Miss Harris and yourself are settled in, Miss Quinn and I will want to meet with you again to go over your schedule. Once security is arranged and running smoothly, I’ll be heading back to Toronto.”

Dakota nodded as she made her way over to the desk and sat slowly in the only chair in the room. “I can tell you now that there will likely be a series of medical appointments, cardio rehab, I need to get my eyes checked, one of the bookstores in DC is requesting my presence in a commercial...I suspect that as long as my body holds up, I’ll be a little busier once we’re back home.”

“Which will change the level of our security.” Nyssa spoke up. “Rand, we may well need another agent.”

“Once we are able to have the initial domestic security meeting, we’ll have a better idea.” Rand nodded. “If it becomes necessary to increase the team, I’ll keep you informed Miss Undomiel. Do you have any concerns or questions?”

“No. I’ve been quite impressed so far.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Unless you need me, I’ll see you tomorrow at the airport then.” Rand turned to leave but smiled as Dakota reached for her cane. “You don’t need to see us out, really. I’m sure your side is irritated by movement. Enjoy the rest of your day, Miss Undomiel, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Rand.” DK smiled as they left, pleased she hadn’t had to get up. She was bone weary and as much as she wanted coffee, she knew her body needed rest now more than ever.

She opened the desk drawer, removed her wallet and took out the card Eve had given her. After entering the detective’s personal number, she sent a text.

Eve,

I’ve been invited to a team dinner at five thirty tonight. I plan on an early night. Do you have time to visit this evening?

Dakota

 

Then she squinted at the laptop again and began to write.

 

****

 

Lachlan drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “It must be horrible to have witnessed such an atrocity. I understand your nightmares now.”

“Nightmares?”

“Yes, during your time in the clinic, you’ve had nightmares. Logically speaking, I cannot say I’m surprised.”

Lura nodded slowly as she looked at the park around them. “So what happens to me now?”

“Well, one of my kinfolk retains a seat on our governmental board. If you would be willing to speak to him, it would negate any further questioning from The Protectorate, and Inspector Covington. I could speak to him, if you like.”

“What kind of person is he, your kinsman?”

“As long as I can remember, he has said that knowledge speaks while wisdom listens. He is patient and kind-hearted. He abhors Inspector Covington.” Lachlan turned her head to look at Lura. “I think he may be able to help you. You will need quarters soon, you are nearly healed enough to be released from the clinic, Icarus can assist you with that. I will speak to him tonight.”

Lura smiled a little. “On our world, there is an ancient tale of a man named Icarus who was given a pair of wings made of wood, wax and feathers by his father. The father warned his son not to fly too close to the sun, but as all sons believe at some point in their lives, Icarus thought his father was fear-mongering. He was ecstatic with his new-found freedom and forgot his father’s warning.”

“What happened to him?” Lachlan asked.

“He flew too close to the sun where the wax on his wings melted. The feathers all came loose and Icarus plunged an enormous distance into the sea, and was killed. The tale is supposed to teach us that while brilliant inventions may serve us and improve our lives, we need to always remember that they come with risk and the need for caution.”

“Fascinating. I must relay this to my kinsman when I speak to him. I wonder why my uncle named him as he did?” Lachlan mused. “At any rate, we should return to the clinic. I do not want you to over-exert yourself and set back your recovery.”

 

Lura nodded and rose stiffly from the bench. Slowly, they made their way back, both of them consumed by thoughts of home and family.

 

****

 

Lura finally met Icarus the next day. Lachlan introduced them in her office.

“Icarus Reece, Pilot Lura Steele.”

“Pilot Steele, I have heard much about you.” Icarus put his fingertips together and bowed slightly He was tall, and reed-thin. His skin had the same darker tone that Lachlan had, but his eyes were not as intensely green. “It is an honor to meet the woman so many are talking about.”

“Thank you.”

Lachlan spoke up then. “Lura, you are cleared for discharge now. I was really only waiting until I knew arrangements had been made. Icarus?”

“As I understand it, you are not from our world. Lachlan tells me that you have had quite an adventure, one that I and the rest of the governmental board would be interested in hearing. I come to you today with an offer, a proposal I suppose.” Icarus sat in one of Lachlan’s visitor’s chairs and gestured for Lura to do the same. “Our board has made arrangements to supply you with lodging, food and anything else you may need...”

“In exchange for?” The blonde pilot asked with a wary tilt in her voice.

“Your knowledge. You have seen more of the universe than any of us. We would be greatly interested in hearing about your experiences, your home, your universe, your stars...anything and everything you are willing to share with us.”

“Pardon my rudeness, but why?”

Icarus smiled patiently. “We do not have an exploration program as your world did. In fact, we know far less about the heavens than you do. Our people could learn much about their own world by learning about yours. I suspect that our pilots could learn a great deal as well. Will you consider my offer?”

“Forgive me if I seem suspicious, but the last time someone asked me for information on my home...”

“I heard Inspector Covington had paid you a visit. The man is an ass, I’m sorry it was he that came to you. We are not all like that.”

“So what if I decline your proposal? Or what if I accept and when I have passed on all the knowledge I can, then what do I do?”

“I am quite certain that you will find most of our people welcoming and curious. I would hope that you will find a place with us. I know of at least one person who is willing to be your...guide, if you would like a place among us.” His gaze cut across the desk and Lachlan dropped her eyes and her skin darkened even more. “I expect  you will not find it difficult to make a place for yourself here in Isiri. Would you like to see your lodgings now?”

Lura’s eyes widened and her gaze flicked to Lachlan, who smiled gently. “Would you like me to accompany you?”

“I don’t want to take you away from your work here, but...”

“You and I have established a rapport. You know you can trust me, and this is all very new and unfamiliar. I have nothing here more important than that.”

Lura was more pleased than she had a right to be. She rose from the chair with a grateful smile. “Thank you.”

 

Dakota closed her eyes and exhaled. Squinting at the screen was giving her a headache. She hated to stop working once she was in a groove but the growing pain behind her eyes was competing with the pain in her chest and side. She let her chin sink to her chest and felt the vertebrae in her neck re-settle and pop.

Strong hands settled on her shoulders and began to massage the stiff and tired muscles.

“Those hands had better belong to my fiancee.” DK smiled. She recognized her girlfriend’s touch.

“You look like you’re exhausted and in pain. You shouldn’t push yourself.” Ashlyn said from behind her.

“I was on a roll. Lura is at an interesting cusp...”

“And as much as I look forward to hearing you read me her story, I don’t want you to stretch yourself thin. Come and lay down with me and we’ll rest until we have to get up for dinner.” Ash wrapped her strong arms around Dakota and kissed the back of her head.

“Sounds like a good idea.” Dakota sighed. She let Ashlyn help her up and over to the bed.

“Here, let me take your pants off before you sit down.”

DK chuckled. “Trying to get my pants off, eh, Harris?”

Ash smiled as she made short work of Dakota’s clothes and helped her lie down. “Always. Let me just tell Nyssa not to let anyone in and I’ll be behind you in a jiffy.”

It didn’t take the blonde long to speak to the bodyguard outside the door, shut the drapes, strip down to her underwear and slide in behind her girlfriend.

 

DK settled her head on Ashlyn’s bicep and sighed. “You’re right, I overdid it today. I guess I’m still trying to learn my body’s new limitations.”

“You just have to remember that you need more rest than you used to, but it won’t last forever. You’ll get stronger in time. In the meantime, I’ll be right behind you.”

“I love you.” Dakota sighed. “What would I do without you?”

“You’ll never have to find out. I’ll always be here for you, for the rest of our lives.”

“Don’t care what I saw when I died, this is heaven, right here…” Dakota mumbled as she fell asleep.

“Glad you think so, love.” Ash whispered as she pressed her lips to the top of her lover’s head. Then she closed her eyes too and fell asleep.

 

To be continued!




Chapter Text

Ash woke first, and blinked in the gloom. She had to stop and think back to where they were for a moment, and when she remembered, she lifted her left wrist and peered at her watch. She was relieved to find it wasn’t quite four in the afternoon, there was still time for Dakota to sleep. Ash looked down at the top of her girlfriend’s head and considered all that they had been through, everything they were still struggling through and the simple reassurance that they were stronger and engaged. She felt a wave of gratitude rush through her veins and gently held her girlfriend a little tighter. Her mind drifted back to her proposal and she smiled to herself. When she was younger, she had always wanted to be married, but she could never have imagined her life as it had turned out. She had never even allowed herself to dream of planning a wedding, much less her own. But now she could. Now she would have to decide what memories she wanted her wedding day to hold.

“Penny for your thoughts.” DK said quietly from her curled up position under Ash’s chin.

“I thought you were still asleep.”

“Nope.” Dakota rolled slowly onto her back and Ash found she missed the skin-to-skin contact already as the brunette stretched out her legs. 

“What were you so deep in thought about?”

“Our wedding.”

“Oh? Do tell.” DK rolled back so she could gaze into Ash’s eyes, and her fingers traced the ink on her arm.

“I want to be able to bury my toes in the sand as I say I do.”

“That would be nice. Something small and intimate...casual, on the beach...maybe just before sunset?”

Ash smiled warmly and closed her eyes as she focused on her girlfriend’s touch. “The aisle lined with candles in lanterns, you in white with a bouquet of red roses in your hand, our friends and family in a semi-circle around us...Do you think you’d want to write your vows?”

“Oh, absolutely. How else could I declare my undying love for you?”

“You already do that now, babe.” Ashlyn opened her eyes and Dakota could see them shining clear and bright with love. “You show me how much you love me every day.”

Dakota wanted to say so much, but the onslaught of emotion choked her. She felt her eyes fill with tears as she smiled with happiness. She kissed Ashlyn tenderly and hoped the blonde could feel how much she loved her.

 

After a few minutes, of silence, the writer cleared her throat. “I was thinking of having the reception on the beach too. Maybe some long tables, candles, a couple of strategically placed bonfires, a light, catered dinner? Who would you get to stand up for you?”

“Do you want to do the traditional thing though, DK? I mean, we can, but we’ll have to get creative ‘cause...” Ash let her voice trail off. She didn’t want to remind her lover that she had no one to give her away.

“I know.” Dakota nearly whispered. She thought out loud as she traced patterns in the freckles on Ashlyn’s chest. “What if we blend traditional, and our own elements? We don’t need ushers, we should encourage people to sit wherever they want, never mind one side or the other. It’s not like I have any family that’s going to show up.”

“I’m sorry, babe.”

“It’s not your fault. They made the choice to disown me.”

“Their loss. They’re missing out on knowing an incredible person.”

Dakota sighed. “Someone will have to stand up for each of us though. We’ll still need witnesses for the marriage license. I’m thinking of asking Ali to stand up for me.” What she did not give voice to was the reality that Ash had a larger pool of friends to draw from. She didn’t have to, really. Whenever she thought about that aspect of wedding planning, she was keenly aware of how small her circle of close friends was. She sighed. “I guess you know that your Mom and I were invited to the team dinner later.”

“Yeah. You’re the guest of honor.”

“Informal, right?”

Ash nodded as she yawned and stretched. “Time to get up and get moving.”

 

****

 

True to her word, Tammye picked up Dakota at 5:30. The little group made quite an entrance into the dining room, Nyssa entered first, followed by Ash who had DK on one arm and Tammye on her other arm, followed by Miranda. Ali was facing the door and waved them over to the three empty seats beside her. Long tables had been set up around the perimeter of the room with enough space to walk between them. The room was filled with the entire team, administrative staff, coaches, trainers and medical staff. 

 

Dakota had worn her black loafers, black slacks, a loose black top and a long cobalt blue cardigan since she felt chilled easily as she recovered. Ash had followed in the same vein with her black skinny jeans, black Doc Martins, a black t-shirt covered with her black blazer. Her dark clothes really set off the lightness of her hair, making it look nearly bleach-blonde. Tammye was dressed similarly in black from head to toe.

“Ash, you look sharp tonight!” Ali grinned. “What’s the occasion?”

“You’d have to ask my hot fiancee,” Ash held out Dakota’s chair. “I thought I’d follow her example.”

“I just dressed to match my trend-setting accessory here.” DK indicated her cane with a grin as Ali rolled her eyes. “Seriously, I just picked comfortable clothes. I have no idea why Ash and Tammye chose to wear what they did.”

“Dakota, you’d better keep close tabs on that sweater next time I come see you.” Pinoe spoke from across the table with a lift of her eyebrow. “Unless you can make me one just like it, of course.”

DK smiled back. “You never know what you might get for your birthday next year, assuming you’re good…”

“Even when she’s misbehaving, she can still convince you she’s being good!” Abby quipped beside her.

They were all laughing when Jill stood from her spot at the head of the table and began to tap her water glass with her spoon. “Ladies, can I have your attention please?”

 

The room quieted as everyone turned to listen.

“Thank you.” Jill put her glass and spoon down and slid her hands into her pants pockets  “There’s not a lot of this victory tour left and at the end of it, we’ll be losing quite a few of you. So while we’re still all together, I wanted to tell you all how honored I am to have been given the opportunity to work with all of you. There’s been a lot of chatter in the media and on the ‘net about how many of you never got to play a minute of the World Cup. What most of the world doesn’t know is how hard each and every one of you had to work to get here. When I chose the members of this team, I didn’t pick slackers. I didn’t pick people based on their names or their celebrity status. I hand-picked each of you for your drive, your heart, and your dedication to each other. Many of you were new to us when we started this journey, but we had faith that you would find your places on the team. The veterans among you led the way with patience and by example. You have proven to the world that I chose well. You have won the World Cup, the hearts of millions of people and my unwavering respect. You have overcome adversity, you have put your lives on hold, you have reached deeper and come farther than many expected you to. Some of you are going on to greater challenges, some are going home to raise families, some of you still have the rest of your lives ahead, but I want each of you to know how immensely proud I am of all of you.”

The room erupted into applause and when it died down, Abby called out, “Three cheers for the best coach ever! Hip hip hooray!” Three cheers rang out, echoed by every soccer player and the support staff in the room until Jill had blushed dark red.

 

She held her hand up and when the noise finally settled down, she spoke again. “Thank you. I have known for many years that the best teams are more than just the players that take the pitch. The best teams have many layers and often it is those that support us from the sidelines that allow us to achieve what we do. Over the course of the past week, it was made apparent that our honorary member, and tonight’s guest of honor, also inspires us to reach deeper. She has taught us how to fight...for love and for life itself. Dakota, would you say a few words?” Jill sat down with a smile as calls rang out around the room.

“Speech! Speech!”

 

DK shook her head as she leaned on her cane and stood. She looked around the room and smiled as the noise died down. “I know that many of you are hung-over, so I’ll keep this as short as possible.”

A few chuckles and a groans reached her ears. 

“A year ago, I would never have guessed that I’d be here today. It’s pretty common knowledge where I was a year ago, and let me tell you, where I slept last night was far more comfortable!”

“Any idea where that was, Harris?” Jill called out and laughed as a blush colored Ash’s neck.

“Twelve months ago, I would never have guessed that I would be trying to drink the mighty Hope Solo under the table, or winning her money, thank you for that by the way, Solo. The kids down at the LGBT Youth Center appreciated your generous donation.” Dakota lifted her glass and saluted Hope, who shook her head and smiled at her friend.

Dakota continued. “I don’t come from a close-knit family, but I have found acceptance here among all of you. I have made new friends.” She raised her glass towards Hope again before reaching down for Ashlyn’s hand. “I have died, and been brought back to a life filled with promise and love, and I’m so glad I was given a second chance.” She smiled down at her girlfriend for a few heartbeats before looking around the room and seeing more than a few damp eyes looking back at her. “I have learned from all of you that nothing is impossible when we put our hearts into it. You have shown me love and unity and welcomed an ex-con that was quite certain a year ago that she was unworthy of love. You are my extended family, and I can never thank you enough for everything you’ve brought to my life.” Dakota raised her water glass once more. “So here’s to all of you, my family...may you all have long lives filled with love, laughter and happiness! Salut!”

“Salut!” Rang out through the room as they all toasted and drank.

When Dakota sat down, Ali leaned close and whispered, “I thought you said you were no good with people?”

“I’m not.”

“Do you realize you moved most of them to tears? If you had written something ahead of time, I’m sure there wouldn’t have been a dry eye in the room.” 

DK gave her friend a small smile as the tips of her ears turned pink.

 

White-jacketed staff began to serve dinner and refresh water glasses and Dakota sat back in her chair and let her gaze go around the room. Beside her, Ali shot a wink at Nyssa standing beside the door and she watched her bodyguard give the brunette the ghost of a smile. She watched Kelley say something quietly to Hope, who blushed just a little. She watched as Pinoe and Abby laughed together and finally she turned her gaze to her fiancee who was watching her with her eyes full of love and concern.

“You all right, sweetheart?”

“Almost perfect.” She replied as she reached for Ashlyn’s hand. Together, they sat silently with their clasped hands in Dakota’s lap as the writer filed it all away as an irreplaceable memory.

 

To be continued!

 

 

Chapter Text

After dinner, Ashlyn excused herself from the table, saying she wanted to talk to Jill for a minute. Dakota pulled her phone from her pocket and sent Hope a text.

Do you have a little while to spare this evening? I’d like to talk to you about what I saw after I was shot. 

She watched the blue-eyed ‘keeper jump a little as her phone vibrated silently. She nodded without lifting her eyes from her phone as she typed a reply.

Well, maybe at a table in the hotel bar, better seating there, unless it’ll provoke Harris into punching me again?

Don’t worry, I’ll protect you. DK lifted her gaze and looked across the room at Hope and gave her a small grin.

Hope stuck the tip of her tongue out at her and Dakota chuckled.

 

Ali side-eyed her friend. “She thinks she’s so fierce. If people really knew that she wasn’t.”

DK didn’t need to ask who she meant. She knew Ali had seen Hope’s immature moment. “Ali, I wanted to ask a favor while we have a quiet moment.” She carefully turned in her chair so she was facing the defender. “You’re my closest friend, and I was wondering if you would stand up with me when I marry Ashlyn.”

Ali’s eyes filled rapidly with happy tears. She reached out and took one of Dakota’s hands and smiled that thousand watt smile she was so well known for. “I’d love to! I’m honored that you asked me, DK. I know Ash just proposed, but have the two of you talked about a date yet?”

“Not as such, but she’d like to get married on the beach and bury her toes in the sand as she says I do. So I guess we’ll have to work around hurricane season, and I don’t want to rush it. I only plan on doing this once, so I want it to be memorable.”

Ali nodded.

 

“So, did I tell you the guard detail is coming back to D.C with us?” Dakota mentioned as her friend released her hand and she pivoted in her chair. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ali smile.

“No, I don’t believe that had been mentioned.”

“I thought you might find it interesting. Why worry about a long distance relationship if you don’t have to, right? I mean..if the two of you were going to have a relationship...umm...you know what, it’s none of my business...” Dakota verbally stumbled until Ali chuckled.

“Relax, DK, you’re going to hurt something. Nyssa and I clicked from the beginning.” She lowered her voice so no one could overhear. “We didn’t plan on spending the night together, it just...happened, but it felt right. We’re keeping things quiet while she’s lead on your guard detail, but I really like her. I’m glad you introduced us.”

“I am too.”

Just then Ashlyn returned and set a glass down in front of Dakota. “Is that what I think it is?”

The blonde smiled. “It is. I didn’t think one would hurt.”

DK inhaled the scent of the whiskey before she took a sip. “Speaking of hurting,” she said quietly. “I’m going to meet up with Hope in the hotel bar this evening. She and I need to talk before she goes back home. Do I need to worry about any residual jealousy?”

Ash had the grace to flush slightly as she recalled her poor behaviour earlier that day. “No. I trust you.”

“You’re welcome to join us.”

“I think I’ll use the time to hit the hotel gym, but thanks, babe.”

 

****

“Nyssa, why don’t you sit down this time? There’s no point in standing when there’s tables available.” Dakota said as they strolled into the hotel bar a few hours later.

“Wonderful idea, Miss Undomiel. Thank you.”

Dakota sat down slowly across from Hope. “Ashlyn sends her regards and apologies.”

Hope smiled as if she didn’t quite believe the writer.

“She feels badly about her behaviour, Hope, really.” DK was interrupted by a young woman at her elbow. “Coffee for myself, one for my bodyguard over there,” Dakota indicated where Nyssa was sitting. “And another of whatever my friend here is drinking.”

“What’s it like, having a bodyguard?” Hope asked when they were alone once more.

“Odd, but reassuring at the same time. They’re professional, I never feel smothered, but I haven’t done a lot in the last couple of days either. Once we get back, things look like they’ll be busier. Apparently a bookstore in D.C wants me for a commercial, and I think Tammye is going to angle a signing there as well.”

“And doctor’s appointments?”

“Not looking forward to those...” Dakota waited while their cups were set down. She watched as Nyssa’s coffee was delivered before she returned her attention to her companion. “So, you remember the conversation we had before I was shot?”

“Yeah.”

“I wanted to talk to you before we all left...to tell you...I saw something, Hope, when I was shot.” DK took a sip of her coffee while she tried not to ramble. “I was in a cafe, and there were other people around, but they didn’t seem to notice me. They were all wearing white. I felt like I was waiting for something, or someone. I was wearing white too, a button down shirt and pants but I was barefoot. I still haven’t figured out why. Even the mug on the table in front of me was white. I don’t know if it was my idea of heaven, or why I was there, or why I came back. But I’ve wanted to tell you about it ever since I woke up in the hospital.”

Hope sat quietly while Dakota relayed her experience, and when her phone buzzed with an incoming call from Jerramy, she hit the cancel button without hesitation. She looked up to find the writer studying her with a puzzled expression on her face.

 

“I know why you came back. You have an incredible life ahead of you with Ashlyn. Every time she’s with you, we can see you’re surrounded by love, her love for you. Some of us are envious...of the kind of love the two of you have.”

Dakota looked down and knew the ‘keeper wasn’t talking about any of her team-mates, and Hope’s drunken confession flashed back through her mind. Was it her the other woman wanted then, or the kind of love that she and Ashlyn shared?

The writer drank more coffee and took the plunge into assumption. “You aren’t trapped, you know.”

“But I am. By vows, by expectations, by lies, by promises and betrayals.”

“You’re a pretty tough cookie, I imagine you could withstand leaving him. I’d hazard a guess that whatever drew you to him has chilled.”

Hope took a deep breath. “When I married Jerramy, I thought he was everything I wanted in life, in the future. But, over the last three years, I’ve changed my mind a bit.”

“You found out you weren’t as straight as you thought.” Dakota quietly gave voice to the one big thing she could see weighing Hope down.

Hope shook her head slowly. “And at the same time as I was forced to accept that, I realized that he’s toxic for me. So what do I do now, DK?”

Dakota could see her friend was on the verge of tears. “What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“Sure you do. If there were no obstacles, what do you want to do? Nothing standing in your way?”

“I want to keep playing for Seattle, I want to move out and get my own place, but I’m thirty four years old, what if I’m too old to start over?”

“Bullshit. Ali’s parents were older than you when they got divorced. There is no age cap on pursuing your dreams, Solo. If you want to leave Jerramy, then do it. If you think he can be reasoned with, then talk to him. If that’s not possible, then wait until he goes away and move out then. The Reign season is over, so you don’t have games to complicate things.”

 

The server refilled their cups, as well as Nyssa’s two tables away, as Dakota chatted about a backgammon match she’d watched in the hospital. When they were left alone again, Hope looked down at the table. “He’s not going to let me go, he’ll hunt all over Seattle for me when I leave him.”

“So leave Seattle. Where’s the last place he’d look for you?”

“Washington. He thinks I hate Ash.” Hope chuckled. “I don’t, of course.”

“Then come to D.C.”

 

“It’s not that simple, Dakota.” Hope whispered, looking defeated.

“It can be. When is he expecting you home?”

“My original plan was to go and spend time with my brother after I left here.”

“Do you trust your brother?”

“Absolutely.”

“You can call Marcus, explain that you’re leaving Jerramy. If you want to, that is. If you want help to change your life, I can help.”

Hope gazed across the table at Dakota for a long minute. “Why?” she asked, finally.

“Because that’s what friends do. But the final decision is yours.”

“Did you know we married the day after he was arrested for hitting me?” Hope asked. “I don’t know what I was thinking then, but I know I’d be crazy to stay with him another day.”

Dakota sat and studied the woman across the table from her. For the first time, she could see pain in those vivid blue eyes. Pain, and fear of the immense step she wanted to take. “Do you want help leaving Jerramy?” Dakota nearly whispered.

“Yes.”

“Do you trust me?”

“Yes.”

“All right then.” DK took her phone out and sent a text to two others. “We’re going to need a little bit of back-up, and there’s only three people I trust to keep your secret.”

A friend is in need. Conference in my room. Private 911

 

The server approached with the coffee pot, but Dakota settled the bill for the three of them instead. She and Hope drained their cups and stood as Nyssa approached their table.

“What now?” Hope asked.

“Now we go back to my room and play backgammon!”

Hope shot her a confused look but said nothing until the three of them were in the elevator. “What the hell was in that coffee?”

DK chuckled as she pushed the button for the third floor. “Nothing, I promise. Nyssa, if we needed some rapid legal action, I don’t suppose you would know who I might call?”

“Yes, Ma’am, I do.”

“Of the marital law variety?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Good. We’ll need a name and number once we get into the room.”

Hope stood at the back of the elevator and looked between them as if she were watching a tennis game.

“The server may have been attentive for the sake of her tip, but she was trying very hard to read your lips, Solo. Either that or she wanted to kiss you.” Dakota continued. “I assumed she was lip reading. In order to give her nothing to sell to the tabloids, or Jerramy, all she heard was conversation about a board game.”

“I was beginning to think you’d lost your mind.”

“Well played, Miss Undomiel.”

“Thank you, Miss Quinn.” Dakota grinned as the elevator slowed at the their floor.

 

Nothing more was said until she and Hope were in her room and Nyssa had shut the door behind them. Ali and Ash were already there and turned to Dakota in confusion.

She held up a hand to forestall questions. “What we discuss in this room cannot leave this room.” Then she turned to Hope. “Still trust me?”

“Absolutely.”

“Ash, Ali...Hope needs our help.”

“What do you need?” Ashlyn asked as she stepped forward.

“We’re going to help Hope leave Jerramy.”

 

Chapter Text

 

“We can we do to help?” Ali and Ash said at the exact same moment.

“Hope is coming back to D.C with us. She’ll board the plane as herself and get off as someone else so Jerramy won’t have a trail. She’ll need a secured apartment...” Dakota went to the door and opened it. “Nyssa...”

Once her bodyguard was inside, Dakota shut the door behind her. “I know that what I’m about to ask of you isn’t your usual gig...”

“I’d be glad to help.” Nyssa interrupted.

Hope and Dakota both raised eyebrows.

“I had a cousin who was in a similar situation. No one really believed there was much urgency to get her out, including herself.” Nyssa explained. “We had all kind of pulled back because he was so volatile and every time we reached out to her, he’d make her pay for it somehow. So we didn’t go around as much. I had to go away to California for an assignment, I’d been there maybe a week when I got the call that he’d shot her before turning the gun on himself...Ever since, I’ve wondered if just one of us tried to help, if things might have turned out differently. So I’m all in, whatever you need.”

Dakota noticed Ali’s eyes fill with tears and could well imagine the conversation she and Nyssa would be having later.

 

“Jerramy seems to have bought into the myth that you and Hope are rivals, Ash, so the last place he’s going to come looking for her is anywhere near you.”

“He’d look with your family first, Hope.” Ashlyn said. “I would. Have a seat, you’re making me nervous.”

Ali spoke up from leaning against the wall near the window. “Are you looking to disappear, Hope?”

“I’ll have to, at least until I have to take the ‘net. His temper is...as flammable as mine.”

“Interesting choice of words.” Dakota mused. “Nyssa, could you get that name and number for us once you’re off the clock?”

“Absolutely.”

“There was an empty apartment on our floor when we left to fly here.” Ash spoke up again. “Let me call the building manager...” She pulled her phone from her pocket and went into the bathroom to make the call, leaving the door to the small room open a crack.

 

“So if you come off the plane looking like someone else, you’ll need a wig. Not blonde. The whole world knows what you look like as a blonde.” Ali was making notes on her phone as fast as she could type.

“Your banking,” Dakota asked. “Please tell me you have separate accounts.”

“We do. We just kept our own after we got married.”

“Good. That’ll make it easier.”

“If I can interject?” Nyssa spoke up as she tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear. “You’ll want to get certain things out of your home, I’m guessing. That would be easier if he were away, correct?”

Hope nodded.

“So what kinds of things might he travel for?”

“He’s been talking about looking for new sponsorships.” 

“So if we can draw him out of town under the guise of a tempting sponsorship, we could buy ourselves some time.”

“That’s brilliant!” Ali pushed off the wall and rushed to give Nyssa a quick peck on the cheek.

Hope’s eyes bugged out a little and Dakota turned her back on Nyssa, who had wrapped her hands around Ali’s waist in reflex. “I didn’t see anything, did you, Solo?”

“Nope, didn’t see a thing, Undomiel.” Hope made a show of studying her watch.

 

 

Ali flushed red and took a step away from Nyssa just as Ashlyn came back out of the bathroom. “Okay, we’ve rented the empty apartment, two doors down from our own. Hope, you can sleep on our couch until we can get your place furnished.”

“That will be easier to ensure Mr. Stevens does not have access to the floor.” Nyssa nodded as she thought out loud.

“Wait a minute,” Hope rose from the chair. “You mean to tell me that I have an apartment, just like that, Harris?”

Ash nodded. “Just like that.”

Hope turned back to Nyssa. “I don’t expect a bodyguard...”

“And either will he, Miss Solo.”

DK had a small smile. “So if we can figure out what kind of sham we can get him out of town with, then we can arrange for a truck and get your belongings from Seattle to D.C.”

Hope was looking at each of them in stunned disbelief. “How can you...just...”

Dakota came to stand in front of her and put her left hand on Hope’s shoulder. “Each of us here has a responsibility to help a fellow human being out of a soul-crushing set of circumstances. As your friend, why wouldn’t we do what we could to help? It’s not that remarkable.”

“Most people would mumble platitudes, pat me on the back and walk away, Dakota. God knows, you all have enough to worry about. Why are you going to all these lengths?”

Ashlyn stepped up and put one arm around Hope’s shoulders, and quietly said, “What kind of person walks away and calls themselves a friend?”

 

to be continued! 

 

Chapter Text

Last time

Ashlyn stepped up and put one arm around Hope’s shoulders and quietly said, “What kind of person walks away and calls themselves a friend?”

 

And now, the continuation...

“I haven’t always been as good to you...” Hope began.

Ash patted her on the back. “Water under the bridge, Solo. It’s all forgotten.”

“Hope, my suggestion is that you return the call you didn’t take earlier.” Dakota said. “You want to be act as normal as possible so he won’t suspect anything. If he talks about when you’re coming home, be vague. Talk about the game, talk about Toronto, what it’s like in the hotel...”

“Tell him what a bitch I was to you.” Ash offered.

“But above all else, make sure you don’t get drawn into details or commitments.” Dakota finished.

Hope nodded. “Okay. I’m going to head back to my room. Hopefully Syd is still out and I can lay down.”

“You can do this.” DK said. “We’ll help you, but you have to believe you can do this.”

“Thanks.” Hope’s voice came out a little choked with emotion, but they could all see the gratitude in her eyes before she left with Nyssa.

“I’m going to head back too. There’s some things I need to work on for my website. Call me if you need me.” Ali hugged Ash and then Dakota, and stopped just before the door. “Oh, DK, when is Nyssa off the clock?”

“I’m not entirely sure of their schedule, you’d have to ask her.” Dakota replied as she tried to smother her smile.

Ali shot her a wink and left them alone.

 

Ashlyn stretched her back out. “I think I’m going to take a long hot shower. You need me to get you anything before I jump in?”

“No, I think I’m good.” Dakota crossed the room and stepped into her girlfriend’s space. She reached up and ran the back of her knuckled down Ash’s cheek. “I’m so glad we have each other.”

“Me too, babe.” Ash bent her head and brushed her lips across the shorter woman’s cheek before capturing her lips. She let her left hand snake up her lover’s back as she whispered, “Once you’re all healed...”

“I’m sorry...”

“For what?” Ash pulled back in confusion and studied Dakota’s face.

“It’s going to be weeks until I’m cleared to do anything physical.”

“Oh, Dakota...” Ashlyn wrapped the other woman in her arms and rested her cheek against the curve of her head. “I don’t care about that. I would rather have you healed and whole and be able to move without pain. I can wait until you feel better whether it’s six weeks, twelve or twenty. We have the rest of our lives together and I intend to show you how much I love you every chance I get.”

They stood that way, wrapped in their love for each other, for a long time. Until Ash felt Dakota’s body began to sag in her arms. “Why don’t you lay down for a bit while I’m in the shower? I’m sure your email has backed up by now.” 

“Good idea.” DK nodded. Ash helped her to the bed, got her settled with the laptop and made sure she was comfortable before leaving her to shower.

 

****

 

Ash had been right, her email had grown considerably while she’d been busy with other things. She sighed and discarded the spam and mail she had no interest in reading. An introductory email from Paragraphs Bookstore caught her eye and she read it through carefully. Then she opened a browser window and went to their website. She scrolled to the bottom, more interested in learning about their company than their catalogue. She was pleasantly reading about their work for literacy when a text came in from Eve.

Dakota,

I’m not going to be able to meet with you tonight. Working a lead on your case. But I’ll call as soon as I have something to report. Hopefully I can come down to D.C soon to report case closed.

Stay in touch,

Eve

 

DK hummed thoughtfully, wondering what the Detective could have found while she typed a reply.

Eve,

Be careful.

Dakota

 

She sighed and had to admit to herself that she was a little relieved she didn’t have to be sociable for the rest of the night. She decided to leave the Paragraphs website until later and returned to Artemia.

 

****

 

It was a pleasant walk from the clinic to the small home Icarus said they had procured for Lura. Along the way, Lachlan pointed out her home, reflecting on how it would be good for her to have a friend close by as she learned the intricacies of their culture. The street was lined with more of the squat trees they had sat near in the park, and even the homes seemed low to the ground. As Lura made a mental note to ask about this, Icarus stopped in front of one in particular. “This is yours.”

The pilot cast her eyes over the sandy-ochre shade of the walls, the dark slate roof and the shrubbery that lined the path to the door. It was quite the contrast from the tall, bright, glass building she had grown up in.

“Let’s go up to the door.” Lachlan smiled as she took Lura’s elbow. 

The knee-high plants that lined the path were in full leaf, and although she thought them scrubby little desert plants, Lura kept her thoughts to herself. The doorway was small and shielded on three sides, but Icarus stepped up to a screen and spoke clearly.

“Icarus Reece, member of the governmental board. Computer, program home for ownership, recipient, Lura Steele.”

There was a hum for a few moments before a computerized, but female sounding voice spoke from a small speaker below the screen. “Lura Steele, step forward for facial scan.”

Lura stepped forward, standing in two rough silhouettes of footprints in generally the same place Icarus had stood.

“The computer will scan your facial construction and file it away for security purposes.” Icarus said quietly. “When you return home, you need only to stand where you are now and state your name. The computer will recognize you and allow admittance.”

 

As if on command, the computer spoke. “Lura Steele, do you wish to program a security code?”

“DKU171268Alpha”

“Security code complete. Welcome, Lura Steele.” The computer said, and the door slid into the wall with a hydraulic hiss.

Icarus gestured for Lura to precede them and she stepped across the threshold.

 

****

 

Dakota stopped and closed her eyes against the pounding in her skull. She rested her head gently against the headboard and tried to breathe through the pain. From where the pain had settled, she knew it was her eyes, but she didn’t want to stop writing.

“It won’t be that long before we’re home you know. No one will fault you for not writing until you can get that checked.”

DK’s eyes flew open to see Ash leaning against the door frame of the bathroom. She regretted the action instantly and groaned.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” The blonde shook her head as she went into her bag for something to relieve the pain. “Why do you bother trying to keep this kind of thing from me? It’s not like I’m going to stick you back in the hospital, DK.”

“I’m just so used to keeping my discomfort to myself...it’s ingrained now.”

Ash’s mouth was set in a firm line as she drew the drapes closed. “I get that on some level, but you don’t have to. I want to know when you’re hurting. Here, take these.” Ashlyn handed her two pills and a glass of water. “Obviously writing is out until you can get glasses. I’m guessing watching t.v won’t do you any good either. What do you want to do the rest of the night?”

“Well...Would you read to me?”

“Me?” 

“Sure. I like to read over what I’ve already written, and I love the sound of your voice. I could share Lura and Lachlan with you that way without straining my eyes.”

Ash chuckled. “Okay. Did you want to get something to snack on before we start?”

“Hmm, something chocolatey...”

Ashlyn chuckled as she picked up the room service menu. “They have just the thing here...Did you want to change into something more comfortable while I call down?”

“Trying to get rid of me, Harris?” DK smiled as she reached for her cane.

Ash came to help her to her feet. “Only temporarily so that I can surprise you.”

“Oh well, in that case.” Dakota smiled and kissed her lover tenderly before collecting her sleep-wear and going into the bathroom.

 ****

 The next day, tensions were high as Dakota, Ali, Ash and Hope boarded the plane. DK didn’t expect Jerramy to show up, but she was still glad they were accompanied by a security detail. Once they’d been seated, Nyssa leaned across the aisle and touched Dakota’s arm.

“I’ve explained the new development to the rest of the team, including Rand.” Nyssa explained quietly. “I’ve offered to pay for any increased personnel costs, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He said it was the least we could do to help out.”

DK smiled. “That was very nice of you both.”

“We’ve added one to our detail, specifically for Miss Solo. There will be no need for her to endanger herself.”

“I’ll make sure she understands that.”

 

“Excuse me, Miss Undomiel?” One of the flight staff approached them. “I just wanted to make sure that you’ve been approved to fly. We wouldn’t want anything to happen mid-air.”

Ash bent down and pull a manilla envelope out of Dakota’s bag at her feet and passed it to the flight attendant with a smile. “She’s been cleared by her doctor.”

The attendant read it over and passed it back to Ash with a wink. “That’s great, thank you. If you need me for anything at all, just push the button on the armrest.”

Dakota looked from the woman standing in the aisle to her girlfriend sitting beside her, and then back to the attendant’s retreating body.

“Well, that was ballsy!” Ali said from beside Nyssa across the aisle.

DK just shook her head.

“It wasn’t right, DK! Everyone knows that you two are engaged!”

“Unless they’ve been living under a rock.” Dakota agreed with her friend. “Or they ignore that fact and buy into Ash’s reputation.”

“What reputation would that be?” Ashlyn asked as she shifted in her seat.

“Please, like you don’t know half the internet thinks you’re a stud whose got game and could pick up any woman you want!” Ali blurted as she leaned forward to see past Nyssa. 

“I have the woman I want.” Ash said as she took Dakota’s hand in her own and kissed her knuckles.

 

 

About halfway through the flight, Ash fell asleep with her head on the window. Dakota eased her fingers from their embrace and stood awkwardly. As she seemingly adjusted her cane in the aisle, she spoke softly to Nyssa.

“I’m going to go and talk with Hope for a bit. Which one is her guard?”

“The blonde woman behind her in the black jacket. Last time I looked, she had white earbuds in. Her name is Nadja Muse. Proper introductions will be made once we de-plane and she knows Miss Solo will be changing her appearance.”

Dakota’s eyebrows raised slightly and she flicked her attention from the woman seated behind Hope back to Nyssa. “You’re kidding me, right?”

Nyssa smiled as she turned pages in a magazine. “No, Ma’am.”

“Jesus.” DK said before she moved off down the plane.

Ali turned her head to look at her companion. “The Nadja Muse?”

“One and the same.”

“What the hell is a retired supermodel doing as a bodyguard? And for Hope Solo of all people?” Ali whispered.

“Very few people remember a retired German supermodel. She came to us a few years ago. We trained her as hard as we train anyone else.” Nyssa said as she tucked the magazine away. “She’s incredibly good at her job and not too hard to look at, too.” Nyssa smiled sweetly, verbally tweaking the woman beside her.

Ali poked the bodyguard’s leg. “Never mind looking at the hot blonde supermodel.”

Nyssa turned a charming smile on Ali for a moment before returning her attention to the others on the plane. “I only have eyes for one woman who can speak German.”

So wie es sein sollte.” Ali said quietly.

Nyssa turned her head and looked at her with one eyebrow raised, waiting.

“As it should be.” Ali translated.

 

 

When Dakota drew even with the brunette goalkeeper, Hope looked up and smiled. “Sit here, I can move over.”

Once they had re-settled, DK leaned on the armrest between them. “Nyssa says you’ve been given your own bodyguard.”

Hope’s head spun toward her friend. “Are you kidding me?” She nearly hissed.

Dakota twitched an eyebrow. “Jerramy does have a hot temper, you said so yourself. It’s better to keep you safe.”

“I can’t pay for that, Undomiel!”

“You aren’t.”

“And neither can you!”

“Oh, I could, but I’m not.”

“Do I want to know who is?”

“No. But I can tell you who your bodyguard is so you don’t punch someone out because you think they’re stalking you.”

Hope sighed. “Okay.”

“The blonde behind the seat I’m sitting in, black jacket, white earbuds. Her name is Nadja. Proper introductions will be made once we get to the airport. Are you ready to become someone else?”

Hope sighed again. “I guess so.”

“She’s been informed you’ll be coming back different.” Dakota patted her friend’s knee before she got up to rejoin Ashlyn. “It’ll be okay. You’ll have Nadja nearby and we’ll meet up by the luggage claim all right?”

Hope nodded and DK rose from the borrowed seat. She watched Hope collect a small bag from the overhead compartment and move off to the washroom before letting her gaze fall to the blonde who was pretending to be reading. “You’re going to have your hands full with that one.” Dakota whispered.

Nadja gave her the ghost of a smile before returning her attention to the book she still held in front of her.

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

Ashlyn woke up as the plane entered its approach to the airport. She stretched, yawned and turned to find Dakota gazing thoughtfully up the length of the plane. “Penny for your thoughts?”

“Just lost in memory. How was your nap?”

“Meh. I can’t wait to get back into our own bed though, let me tell you. You think you’ll be okay rolling out of it?”

“I expect it’ll be tricky, but we’ll figure it out.” Dakota turned her attention fully to her girlfriend. “What made you offer our couch to the woman you decked only hours before?”

“Did you not want me to?” Ash sounded confused.

“Punch her? No. Offering her the couch was a nice gesture though. I thought you’d be jealous far longer than you seem to be. Or do you have something up your sleeve besides your ink?”

A smile flitted across Ash’s face briefly. “I trust you, and if I get jealous every time alcohol convinces someone they have a crush on you, then how can I expect you not to get upset when someone like that flight attendant flirts with me?”

“That’s a valid point.” Dakota was interrupted by a voice over the plane’s speakers asking everyone to return their trays to an upright position and buckle in for their descent. “I’m so glad we’re going home.” She said when the advisory finished.

 

Dakota stood in the aisle as Ash took their carry-ons down from the overhead compartment. Since there was nothing she could do to help, she scanned the crowd for Hope. She felt a bit worried that she couldn’t spot her right away and just as the worry began to blossom into fear for her friend, Nyssa spoke softly in her ear. “You aren’t supposed to be able to recognize her. Relax, I see her and Nadja is right there.”

DK dropped her gaze to her feet before looking up at Nyssa, who smiled slightly before turning to the overhead compartment. “Look for Nadja first.”

Dakota looked back down the length of the plane and while she could easily spot the ex-model, she saw no one nearby that even resembled Hope. She frowned in frustration and turned to Nyssa. But the bodyguard shook her head ever so slightly and lowered her voice. “Don’t worry, she’s safe. Stop looking, you’ll draw attention.”

Dakota exhaled heavily, disgruntled and disappointed in herself, but she knew Nyssa was right.

 

****

 

Once they had all cleared customs and security, they made their way to the baggage claim to pick up their bags and Dakota’s shadow boxes. Ashlyn held her left hand as the little group progressed slowly through the airport.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather ride in one of those carts? You don’t need to walk all the way...”

“Ash, sweetie, I’m fine for now, I promise.”

“DK, what’s with Nyssa?” Ali said somberly.

Dakota glanced to her right and saw the sad look on her friend’s face. “What do you mean? She was fine on the plane.”

“Yeah, and now she’s all agitated and distant. Did I do something wrong?”

The writer studied her lead bodyguard as they walked. Her jaw was set and there was a furrow between her eyes as she scanned the crowd around them. Her right hand rested in her slacks pocket, but Dakota couldn’t tell if that was so her hand was closer to the gun concealed in her waistband, or if she was trying not to look stressed out and on edge. “How does Miranda look?”

Ali turned and cast a glance behind them. “Twitchy. Tense.”

Nyssa stopped abruptly in front of a public women’s washroom and turned to face them. “In here. Now.”

“But...I don’t...”

“Now, Miss Undomiel. Please.” Nyssa had a clipped edge to her voice that Dakota hadn’t heard before.

She did as she was asked and watched Nyssa check the stalls as Ali and Ash came in behind them. Miranda stayed outside.

Just as Dakota was about to ask what brought them into a washroom, Nyssa  stepped quickly to the door and locked it. “Drop your bags there,” She pointed behind the door. “You all need to move to the back of the room. As far back as you can, please.”

 

They did as they were told and Ash held the last stall door open for Dakota. “Inside.” She motioned with her head.

DK shuffled in as best she could, followed by Ali. Ash stood as close as she could without knocking either of them to the floor, while Nyssa stepped into the next stall and kneeled in its entranceway with her gun in her hand.

They waited, none of them daring to so much as whisper. Long minutes passed with no hint that anything was awry outside the door to the rest of the airport.

Just as Dakota opened her mouth to ask a question, something heavy slammed against the door, and all three of them jumped.

They could hear grunts and the sound of a struggle outside, the slapping of feet as someone came running, and shouted commands, and then...nothing.

Finally, Nyssa got to her feet and Dakota could hear the door being unlocked.

 

“Nyssa, this is the head of airport security, Josef Refschneider.”

“Is everyone all right?”

“We are. Thank you for getting here so quickly.”

Ash eased out of the stall, followed by Ali and DK.

The man in the doorway raised one greying eyebrow to see three women come out of one stall. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sight like that before.” Then he turned to Miranda. “Are you sure you don’t want that gash on your forehead looked at?”

“No, I’m fine, but thank you.”

Nyssa handed her co-worker a folded white handkerchief. "For the blood."

Ali stepped forward. “Miranda, let me help you clean that up a little.” And she reached to guide the other woman over to a sink.

“We have the assailant in custody and we’ll turn her over to the police...”

“I’d really just like to go home. Do we have to go through police again?” Dakota asked, trying very hard to not whine.

“We had some trouble in Toronto.” Nyssa explained to the head of security.

His eyes widened. “That’s why you look familiar! You’ve been all over the news...You were the one who got shot!”

“Yeah...that’s me.” Dakota sighed.

“What can we do to help you out?” Refschneider asked.

“Maybe a couple of carts so we can get our luggage without making her walk any further?” Ash spoke up.

“Absolutely. I can have some brought around, how many do you need?”

“We have two more in our company but they’re travelling under cover.”

“I’ll drive you to baggage pick up myself, my cart is just right outside the door...” He explained as he plucked his radio from his belt.

There was a flurry of activity after that as they all piled into modified golf-carts and were whisked off to pick up their luggage.

 

 

Refschneider put their bags into another cart as Ashlyn pointed them out. “Miss Quinn, what about the rest of our party?” Dakota asked as the bodyguard slid her cellphone into an inside pocket of her jacket.

“I’ve just gotten off with Nadja, actually. She and our other client are safe and in their car waiting outside for us. We’re all going to meet up at your residence.”

“I need a drink.”

“I’ll join you.” Ali sighed beside her.

“Soon, ladies. Very soon.”



Once they had parted company with Refschneider and they had pulled away from the airport, Dakota spoke up. “So what the hell happened back there?”

Miranda turned her head so she could explain while Nyssa drove. “Miss Quinn spotted a woman behaving suspiciously as we all got off the plane. When it became clear she was following us, I let Nyssa know there was some degree of imminent danger. She had you take refuge in the washroom until we could ensure your safety. There was only one way in, so I stood outside and asked her to lock the door.”

“I didn’t even see the two of you speak.”

Miranda reached up and pulled a tiny earpiece out of her ear. “They’re called earwigs. Disgusting name but a valuable piece of tech.”

“That’s why you were acting distant?” Ali asked.

Dakota could see Nyssa glance back in the rear-view mirror for a moment. “I apologize for making you worry, Miss Krieger, but there was no time to explain.”

“I think you can drop the formality, Nyssa. Everyone here knows we’re intimate. We’re all adults.”

From behind the driver’s seat, Dakota could see Nyssa’s neck redden, but no one said a word until they pulled up in front of the apartment building.

 

“Wait here please.” Miranda said as the two bodyguards got out.  

Nyssa stayed outside the SUV while Miranda walked into the building.  

“Way to embarrass the poor woman, Kriegs.” Ash said with a smirk.

“Oh please, she’s thick-skinned, she’ll get over it.” Ali retorted. “Besides, she practically pushed you over in her hurry to get out of my hotel room with her shoes in her hand. We all knew she wasn’t playing chess!”

Dakota sat silent as Ali and Ash looked at her expectantly. “What? I said nothing!”

“I know, that’s what’s got me worried!” Ali said with a grin.

Just then the driver’s door opened and Nyssa stuck her head in. “Could I borrow keys so we can do a sweep of the apartment before we let you ladies in?”

Ash got hers out first and handed them over.

“Thanks.” Nyssa said with a quick smile.

“I hope the preliminary stuff doesn’t take long.” Dakota said with a sigh as she laid her head back against the head-rest and closed her eyes.

“Tired, DK?” Ash asked.

“I want a whiskey and our nice warm waterbed with your arms wrapped around me.”

“I’ll join you.” Ali said from beside her.

Dakota opened her right eye and side-eyed her brunette friend while Ash chuckled.

It took her a minute, but Ali finally understood the potential sub-text of what she’d said. “No! No! Let me re-phrase that…”

Both DK and Ash smiled while Ali dropped her reddening face into her hands. “I can’t believe I just said that…”

The occupants of the car fell into silence as they waited for the apartment to be searched and cleared.



Finally, Nyssa got the message she’d been waiting for and opened Dakota’s door. “All clear, ladies. I’ll have someone bring your luggage up.” She helped each of them out of the car, but held on to Ali’s hand just a little longer as she leaned close and spoke quietly. “I can drive you home in a little while if you’d like.”

Ali looked up and blinked slowly. “I was going to have a drink…”

“Exactly why you’ll need someone to take you home.” Nyssa looked down at the woman with the whiskey-hued eyes and got lost in the amber and gold flecks there. “Please.” She said softly.

“I think I’d like that.” Ali whispered.

Dakota smiled at the sweet moment in front of her, truly happy for her friend. Then she turned and went through the door Ash was holding open for her, only to stop and look up the stairs.

“Babe?”

“I haven’t gone up stairs since I was shot.”

She felt Nyssa and Ali come into the building behind her. “This may take a while.”

“No it won’t.”

“What are you talking about? I’m certainly not going to...eeek! Ash, put me down before I hurt you!”

“Dakota, do you have any idea how much weight I lift in the gym?” Ash wasn’t even breathing hard as she carried her girlfriend up the stairs to the next floor. “Believe me when I tell you that you don’t even come close.”

At the top, she set Dakota gently on her feet and Ali gave her back the cane. “That was fun!”

DK rolled her eyes and smiled as she gave Ash a kiss on the cheek. “So noble.”

“Betcha the internet fan-girls don’t know about that!” Ash said with a happy grin as she dropped a wink.

Nyssa looked off to the side for a moment and nodded. “May I suggest we go in now? Your friend will be here shortly.”

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

Ashlyn and Nyssa took the luggage into the bedroom while Ali poured the drinks and made coffee for the guard detail. Everyone insisted that Dakota sit down and rest, so she did. She was far more tired than what she would ever admit to.

“Here you go.” Ali handed DK her glass before sitting on the sofa opposite the writer. “Glad to be home?”

“Hell, yes. What are you planning tomorrow?

“Not sure.” Ali shrugged. “I guess I’ll play things by ear.  I’d like to take Nyssa out for a meal, show her the sights.”

“I’m fairly sure we aren’t going anywhere tomorrow, the guard detail can probably handle things without her for a while.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Nyssa came into the room, confused.

“I was trying to get you a date.” Dakota said with a small smile.

“A date?”

“Yes. You know, the social activity where you go out with an attractive woman, have something to eat, then go back to her place. As far as I know, Ash and I are staying in tomorrow, so I’m sure the guard detail can do without you tomorrow.”

“Miss Undomiel, I can’t possibly...”

“Yes, you can.” Dakota interrupted and turned to her girlfriend. “Were you planning on going anywhere?”

“Nope.” Ash shook her head as she studied her drink. “Gonna stay in bed, read all day, take care of you and order in pizza. There’s no reason the others can’t handle it, Nyssa.”

The bodyguard looked from one woman to the other. “Well...all right then. Let me go inform the others I’m taking a day off tomorrow.”

“That was easier than I thought.” Dakota looked pleased, but not nearly as pleased as Ali did.

“Thanks, guys!”

DK saluted her with her glass. “You both deserve it.”

Anything further she might have said was cut short by a brief knock on the door as Nyssa came back in. “Ladies, I know you’re trying to unwind, but there’s someone here who needs to speak to you.”

 

She opened the door wider and a hunched over old woman hobbled in.

Dakota struggled a little but stood up as she attempted to give Nyssa the evil eye for letting a stranger in. “I’m afraid we’ve not met...what can we do for you?”

The old woman had long, matted grey hair that hung lank and lifeless as she stood twisted to one side and staring at the floor through dark glasses. Her hands were shoved in the pockets of a ratty beige coat that had been buttoned crookedly.

“Ma’am?” Dakota asked as she took a step closer to their odd visitor. “What was it you wanted to speak to us about?”

The old woman didn’t answer right away. She didn’t move until everyone in the room had turned to look at her. 

She suddenly stood straighter and gained at least four inches as she unbuttoned the coat and let it fall to the floor. Then she slipped the glasses from her face and dropped those on top of her coat. She shuffled a half-step and turned away from the others and stunned everyone by pulling her grey hair away from her head.

“What the hell...” Ash said as she rose from the sofa.

“Is that any way to welcome a guest, Harris?” Hope said with a wink as the grey hair came away in her hand.

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

“I still can’t believe the difference, I would never have known it was her.” Ash said as she shook her head.

“Damn good job.” Agreed Dakota. She unbuckled her belt, undid her pants and they slid to the floor. Ash picked them up, emptied the pockets and put the pants in the laundry hamper. The button up shirt followed.

“It must be hard on her, leaving Jerramy the way she is. Takes a lot of bravery doing that.” Ashlyn commented quietly. “Which pyjamas do you want?”

“The baseball jersey ones, please. More comfortable.”

“I was serious you know, about taking care of you.” Ash said as she closed the drawer. “And before you even think about telling me that I don’t have to, stop. Here, put your hand on my shoulder for balance.” Ash kneeled and held out the pyjamas so Dakota could get into her sleep-wear more easily. “It’s not about have to or not. I want to help you recover, I don’t want you to try and struggle into your clothes. I’m still not sure how you’re going to get into and out of the waterbed.”

“I can do it. Between learning how to move more carefully and keeping my rib wrapped up, I’ll manage.”

“If you need help, ask. There’s no glory in playing tough.”

“Yes, Dr. Harris.” Dakota grinned. “I’m going to make sure Hope is comfortable. I’ll be right back.”

“Okay.” Ash pecked her on the cheek.  “If she needs anything, holler for me. You aren’t supposed to be lifting, remember.”

DK nodded and opened their bedroom door.

 

She found the dark-haired goal keeper standing in front of the picture of Ashlyn shaking hands with Joe Biden. “It seems like a long time ago that we won that thing, not just a few months.”

“A lot has happened since then.” Dakota nodded.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you...” Hope began as she sat on the sofa that had been covered in a sheet and blankets.

DK sat on the sofa opposite and waited.

“Do you feel different?”

“Since I died and came back, or physically?”

“How can you say that so off-handedly?” Hope sounded, just a bit baffled.

Dakota shrugged her right shoulder. “To answer your first question, that’s complicated. I feel tired more easily now, the burning in my side has eased a lot but I always have this heaviness in my heart, and I’m not sure if it’s a psychological thing, or the heart muscle trying to recover. I’ll have to ask the doctor when I see him day after tomorrow.”

Hope had crooked her elbow on the arm of the sofa and leaned on it, her body finally displaying signs of fatigue.

 

“As to your second question, it’s not that I’m being flippant about it, but it’s a fact. Things are different. I feel different, I have to do things differently now, I have a lot of restrictions...and part of the way that I cope with everything is to remind myself sometimes that I did die and come back. I’ve never been one to cry into my whiskey, Hope, and I’m not going to start now. Things could be a lot worse. Whether the shooter was aiming for me or not, you saved my life on that curb. The doctors fought to bring me back after my heart attack, not once but twice. It just wasn’t my time, Hope. Part of my mental stability comes from accepting how things are. Honestly, I’m having a harder time with what I can not do than the fact that I died.”

“Do you think that cafe you saw was heaven?”

“No...the more I think about it, the more I believe that it was a stop-over. Kind of a place to decide if I wanted to go forward or come back.”

Hope sat, nodding slightly. 

“I think I would have been disappointed to die and find nothing, you know? I already knew I wouldn’t have anyone waiting for me, I mean, just to find...purgatory or something would have been a let-down.”

“I’ve always played soccer, even when I was a kid and not between the pipes, I still played. I have no idea what I’m going to do when I can’t play professionally anymore. What did you want to do when you were a kid?”

 

“Survive. Grow up. Move out.”

Hope sat and blinked while DK took a breath and explained.

“My parents were distant at best. I lived a very solitary childhood, dreaming of the day I could grow up and move away. The best thing I had to look forward to was the rare occasions when they went out and I had the house to myself. There was no extra money to go wander the mall, or go to a movie where I could live someone else’s life for a couple of hours. As much as I loved libraries, I never thought I’d be a writer. But I don’t remember wanting much besides moving out.”

They were silent for a minute while Hope digested Dakota’s answer. It made her sad, but she respected the writer for surviving so much more than she had realized. It wasn’t until DK stood up that their guest noticed Ashlyn leaning against the wall, waiting.

“How the hell did you survive it all?” Hope blurted out. “The lonely childhood, being on your own, prison...how did you get through all of that and still stay sane?”

“Faith.”

“You don’t strike me as a religious person.” Hope countered.

“I’m not, in the classical sense.” Dakota turned her head and gazed at Ashlyn for a moment before turning her attention back to the woman on the couch. “I would never classify myself as religious, but I do believe very strongly in certain things. I always believed that no matter what I faced, I would come out the other side stronger for it. I was convinced that I was the only one I could count on. I’m glad that’s not true any more. But my convictions and belief in what I knew to be true at the time kept me from giving in to the darkness that chipped away at me. You need to have faith that you’ll get through this. You have to believe that you’re doing what’s right for you. Don’t live for Jerramy. Live for you.” DK blinked slowly. “Do you need anything else before I go to bed?”

“No, I think I’m good. Thanks again, both of you, for helping me out.”

Ash pushed off the wall. “I’ll leave the light on over the stove so you can see your way to the bathroom. Help yourself to food and coffee in the morning. The pot is set so all you have to do is push the power button.”

Hope sat thinking with her arms wrapped around her knees for a long time after they went to bed.

 

Dakota sat on the edge of the water bed and sighed, not sure at all how to lay down gracefully without pain. Finally, she just flopped down on her right side.

“How did that feel?” Ash asked behind her.

“Not as bad as I thought it would.”

“Getting up will be the bitch.”

“It might.” Dakota agreed as she wriggled back and into Ashlyn’s embrace. “Have I mentioned how glad I am to be home?”

“Once or twice.” Ash chuckled. “But I am too. I’ll have to call Mom tomorrow and let her know we’re home safe and sound.”

“I already texted her to tell her earlier.”

“I thought you were supposed to be resting your eyes?”

Dakota sighed again. “It was a quick text. I can’t stop living, sweetheart.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to nag.” Ash stretched her right arm under DK’s head. “I just don’t want to see you hurting any more than you already are.”

DK turned her head so that she could kiss the inside of Ash’s arm. “I know, and I love you for it.”

“Love you too babe.” Ash’s voice was heavy with sleep. “Night.”

“Night.”

 

****

 

The next morning brought the smell of bacon, but Dakota was on her left side, tucked under Ash’s chin again and wrapped comfortably in the bedding. She could feel the warmth radiating off her girlfriend, but she was confused by the smell of bacon in the air. Then she remembered their house guest. She was happy to lay close to Ash, with her strong arm wrapped around her. Dakota was amused by how often they lay so close. Until she met Ashlyn, she hadn’t been comfortable being this close to anyone, lover or not. She sighed and smiled.

“That tickles.”

“I didn’t mean to wake you, sorry.”

“You didn’t. I’ve been awake for a little while. Smells like Hope found her way around the kitchen.”

“Good. I didn’t want her to feel weird while she’s staying with us.”

“You seem to know how to leave a relationship on the sly.” Ash observed.

“I’ve had to learn the hard way in the past. Relax, you have nothing to worry about.” Dakota reached up and traced the words on Ash’s shoulder. “You’re stuck with me for the rest of your life.”

“I’m very relieved to hear you say that, because that’s how long I want to love you.” Ashlyn gently kissed her way from Dakota’s hairline to her lips.

“So romantic and charming.” DK smiled against Ash’s lips.

“You haven’t seen anything yet. Wait till we can go out on the town all dressed up with the paparazzi taking pictures of our every breath.”

“Will I finally get to see you in a suit? Every time you’ve worn one in the past, the fan-girls all lose their minds.”

“Absolutely. I can’t wait to show you off on my arm.”

“I’m going to stake my claim on you and they can all just get over it.” Dakota smiled.

Can’t wait. How do you feel about breakfast?”

Dakota’s stomach grumbled in response and they both laughed.

 

“Oh, good, you guys are up. I made breakfast, are you hungry?” Hope shot them a quick smile as she got two mugs down from the cupboard.

“Yeah, I could eat.” Ash reached for the coffee pot.

“I’ve got it, you go sit down.” Hope slapped the blonde’s hand away. “Go help your girlfriend.”

Ash offered DK her arm to help her to the table, and into a chair, before sitting at her left. “You don’t have to do it alone, I can help, you know.”

“I know.” Hope set their coffee in front of each of them. “DK, I know what Ash likes for her first meal from numerous team breakfasts, but what’s your preference?”

“Everything Ash likes, except for grits. Those are just an insult to breakfast.”

Hope made a sound of agreement as she turned away. They could hear her pulling pans from the oven and plates from the cupboard.

“Do you want some help? I feel like an ass just sitting here…”

“Relax while you can, Harris.” Hope brought their plates in and set them on the place mats in front of them while she went back into the kitchen for her plate. She had made pancakes, bacon, sausage and eggs for them, with toast on the side.

Dakota glanced up and studied the dark circles under the brunette’s eyes and wasn’t surprised to see them. Planning to leave a spouse wasn’t easy, most especially if that spouse had a bad temper. “This is wonderful, Hope, thank you.”

Hope gave her a half-smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Least I could do for the two of you.”

“I just wish we had something better than a sofa for you to sleep on.”

“I don’t sleep much anyway.” Hope said as she speared some eggs.

“Last night, or generally?” Dakota asked.

Hope chewed slowly as she gazed at DK, but even after she’d swallowed, she didn’t answer the question.

Dakota didn’t push it, and conversation died out as they ate.

 

After breakfast, Ash cleared the table and refilled their cups. Dakota got her feet under her, thinking she’d take her cup out to the balcony. But as she tried to push up from the table, she felt pain flare through her left side and she uncharacteristically grunted in response. She settled back in the chair and closed her eyes as she breathed through the pain. When it had faded to discomfort, she opened her eyes again to find Ash kneeling in front of her.

“You shouldn’t try to get up without the cane. Do you want some help?”

“Painkillers maybe?” Hope asked.

 DK shook her head at them both and concentrated on her breathing. After a minute, she looked up from the place mat she’d been focused on. “I’m okay now.”

“You’re pretty fucking stubborn, Undomiel.”

“I have to be.”

Ash rose and went to retrieve the cane. 

Hope picked up Dakota’s coffee. “Where do you want it?”

“The balcony, please. Ash, I’m pretty tired of that thing.”

“I know, but you need it. I can help you up if it’s easier for you.”

Dakota sighed, took the cane, and rose slowly from the chair.

Just as she reached the door going to the balcony, her cell rang back in the bedroom. Ash sprinted down the hall to retrieve it. 

 

DK stopped and looked at the track for the sliding glass door with dismay, very conscious of the fact that she was going to have to lift her left leg over the door tracks. When she raised her eyes, she found Hope watching her.

“You can do this. You’ve been getting in and out of the SUV’s. This is smaller than that.” Hope set their cups on the small table outside and came to stand in front of the writer. She put both her arms out in front of her, palms up. “These are your safety railing. Put your weight on my arms instead of your trunk muscles.”

Dakota took a breath and grasped Hope’s forearms, leaning on the goal keeper as she stepped over the door track, and outside.  She hung on to Hope’s arms and they made their way over to a chair. Glad to be rid of the cane, she lowered herself down slowly and when she let go, Hope smiled. 

“See? You did it!”

“I am not going to be a convalescent in my own home, Solo. I have every intention of coming back from this better and stronger.”

“I know you will.” Hope took a chair nearby and handed DK her mug. “Speaking of, how in the hell did you do those stairs?”

“I carried her.” Ash came out onto the balcony with a smile and Hope passed her mug to her. “Looks like we’ll have to do that again this afternoon too. That was the doctor, DK. They’ve had a cancellation come up and they have an opening this afternoon at two. While we’re out, we’ll pop in to the optometrist and get you glasses. Hope, you’re welcome to come along, or stay here if you’d rather.”

“Not sure what I want to do yet, but thanks, Ash.”

Anything Ashlyn might have said was interrupted by her cell ringing. “It’s Nikki. I’m going to take this inside.”

They sat in silence, watching the neighborhood for a few minutes before DK turned to study Hope. “So, you want to talk about it?”

“About what?”

“Whatever was weighing on you so heavily last night that you barely got any sleep.”

 

Hope was silent for so long, Dakota began to think she’d pushed too far. 

“When I married Jerramy, I thought I was in love with him. I thought I was finally turning my life around and growing, you know? But no matter what I do, it seems to blow up in my face. Last night...I couldn’t help but think that I’m still that same screw up that got herself benched for shooting her mouth off. What if I’m just going to screw this up too, Undomiel? I can’t trust my own decisions...What do you think I should do?”

DK took a mouthful of coffee before she answered. “You aren’t a screw up, Hope. Yes, there’s a string of bad choices in your life, but every day that you get up, you have the chance to change that. What I think you should do isn’t relevant. It’s not my life. You’re the only one that knows where you want to be in ten years, or five, or next month.”

“If it were you in this position, what would you do?”

“Lay low. But I’m an introvert. It’s in my nature to retreat into myself and my safe space.” DK shrugged her right shoulder. She could see Hope watching her, waiting for some sort of guidance. “If I were in your position, I would think hard about how I want my life to be, and weigh all my future decisions against that goal. But my way doesn’t work for everyone. Ash has a different approach to life than I do. You have to do what feels right for you, Hope. Some people like to make lists, pros and cons for every major decision. Some plunge through life, following their heart and gut feelings. If you don’t think the way you’ve done things so far has worked out for you, then change how you approach life.” DK sighed. “When I was in prison, once I got over feeling sorry for myself and the circumstances I was in, I got mad. I had quite the temper back then. I was fighting a lot, and the guards took advantage of that to set up brawls and bet on the outcome. Eventually, my temper stopped lining their pockets and they threw me in solitary. For a few months, I was in there more than my own cell. Another inmate offered to teach me how to meditate, and it made all the difference. I was able to take that step back and see where my life was going so off-track. Meditation didn’t bring Ash into my life, but it sure helps when life gets weird and chaotic and messy.”

Hope made a thoughtful sound in the back of her throat and turned to face the park across the road.

Dakota said no more, finishing her coffee and turning her face to the sun.

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

“I could carry you up, you know.”

“Thank you, love, but I want to do this.” Dakota replied.

“If you get winded, stop. There’s no rush. The apartment isn’t going anywhere.”

“You think Hope is okay?”

“Hope is just fine.” A voice above them said.

DK looked up and felt Ash put a steadying hand on the small of her back. She saw Hope standing on the landing with her arms crossed.

“Undomiel, why aren’t you letting your girlfriend help? You know what, never mind, Harris, you know how to do the fireman’s chair lift?”

Before DK had any chance at protesting, Ash had picked her up in a bridal carry and took her the rest of the way up.

Once her feet were back under her, Dakota shook her head. “I could have gone the rest of the way.”

“I know, and tomorrow, you’ll go a couple of steps higher. You have to take it slow, babe.” Ash kissed her cheek.

“Before you go in, could I show you something?” Hope asked as she motioned down the hall.

Dakota and Ash followed until they reached the apartment they’d rented for her. Standing outside the open door, Nadja gave them a nod. Hope led the way into the apartment and her bodyguard closed the door after them.

“I know it’s not much, but we managed to get a bed, a sofa and a table and chairs at least.” Hope said.

DK looked around with interest. “Nice. It’s set up pretty much like ours.”

“I didn’t get a lot. I think I’ll be here until the next Reign season at least. I did get beer. You guys want one?”

Dakota smiled, recognizing an attempt at normality. “Sure, that’d be great.” She settled at one end of the sofa, finding it quite comfortable.

“You wouldn’t think that trying to furnish an apartment would be that hard, but apparently same-day delivery is acceptable when the customer has cash. Go figure.” Hope handed them each a beer and brought a kitchen chair over.

They thanked her as she asked about the doctor appointment.

 

“It went okay, I guess. Lots of talk about what I can’t do. Can’t lift more than the coffee pot. Rest when I’m tired. Use the cane to get up, but I can start getting around the apartment without it some times. Walk short distances at first...all the same things that the doc in Toronto said, really.”

“Then we went to get glasses.” Ash supplied with a small grin. “I knew she was stubborn, but seriously Hope, who hates getting their vision tested?”

“I would shove you off this sofa on to the floor if I wasn’t recovering, Harris.” Dakota grumped as the other two tried not to laugh.

“I noticed you got a pair of glasses.” Hope observed.

In answer, DK pulled a pair from the neckline of her shirt where she’d hung them and slipped them on.

They were black wire frames, in a shape complementary to her face, and they looked sharp, Hope thought.

“Makes you look scholarly, Undomiel! They look good.”

“Thanks. I only need them for reading, or maybe watching television. At any rate, I’ll be able to get back to work now.”

“Hey, Ash, could you give me a hand in the bedroom later on?”

Dakota nearly spit her beer across the room, so sudden was the onslaught of laughter. One glance at Ash’s raised eyebrow clued Hope into what she’d said, and her face flared red. Soon all three of them were laughing.

“Oh my god, Solo...” Dakota was holding her side but still chuckling. Finally the laughter died away and they were able to catch their breath. “What size bed did you get?”

“Queen. I like having lots of room.”

DK offered up a couple of extra sets of sheets and they made small talk for awhile. As Dakota got closer to the end of the bottle, she turned to her fiance. “Didn’t you promise me pizza tonight?”

“I did.” Ashlyn nodded.

“Hope, why don’t you join us for dinner? Ash and I always get at least three different kinds, there’ll be lots.”

“Sounds good. I’ll bring the beer.”

“Awesome. On that note, I’m going to head back. I have an email inbox to diffuse.”

“Diffuse?” Hope looked confused.

“Before it explodes like a bomb.” Dakota clarified as she stood carefully. “I’ll let you have Ash. I know you need her in the bedroom.” She winked at her grinning girlfriend as she went to the door.

“If you weren’t recovering, I’d throw a cushion at you, Undomiel!”

“You’d have to borrow one of mine, Solo!” DK called out just before the door shut behind her.

****

Dakota chuckled as Miranda fell into step beside her. “Well, Miss Morse, are you ready for a long night of doing nothing?”

“You bet, Miss Undomiel. Staying in for the rest of the day?”

“As far as I know. Ash promised me pizza, Hope is bringing the beer and I plan on getting some work done before all that happens. Any idea when Nyssa is expected back?”

“No, Ma’am.”

“Good! It’ll do she and Ali both good to spend quiet time with each other.” DK smiled and noticed Miranda was doing the same.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

 

With the door closed behind her, Dakota could close her eyes and almost imagine that nothing had changed. That she did not have a personal bodyguard on the other side of the door, that she hadn’t been shot and that one of their friends wasn’t going through a major life upheaval. She sighed and opened her eyes. Wishing wouldn’t make it so. She went into the bedroom and changed, albeit with some difficulty, but she did it on her own. She was very glad to leave the cane in the bedroom, but she settled her new glasses on her head and went to put the kettle on with only a slight limp. By the time Ashlyn came home, DK was happily mass-deleting spam from her email with piratical glee.

“Hey, you’re back!”

“I am.” Ash bent to kiss her cheek tenderly. “Glad to be able to see the screen again?”

“Sure. I missed the junk emails more than I can express.” Dakota said with a roll of her newly-enhanced eyes. “I boiled the kettle not long ago if you want tea or something.” A recent email from a familiar name caught her eye. “Hello...what have we here?”

 

Ms. Undomiel,

 I hope this correspondence finds you well and recovering. I still cannot wrap my head around what happened to you in Toronto. I can only imagine how frightening it must have been. I hear through my sources that you have a security detail. Good thinking. My flight from London lands in Washington D.C. on Friday and I will be in town for three days before heading to New York to meet with my literary agent. I would love to get together for lunch and talk about your new book. I am fascinated with some of the scientific concepts you have incorporated and would like to offer my help if you need to tweak any of them. I am staying at the Marriott in Georgetown. I hear there are many fine places to eat there. Please let me know.

Looking forward to meeting you face to face.

 Sincerely,

Christian "Frijole" Jones

Dakota smiled widely and hit reply.

Christian,

My recovery is going well, thank you. I would love to chat with you over lunch, I have some questions regarding the practicality of a propulsion system I am contemplating for a scout ship, and I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Would Saturday be acceptable to you? Your hotel is home to a wonderful restaurant, The Court Lounge. Just let me know what time you’d like to meet. I’ll be the one with the cane, although I’m sure by now you’ve seen my photo once or twice.

Sincerely,

Dakota

In almost record time, a reply pinged into her inbox.

Dakota,

 First, please call me Chris. Only my colleagues call me Christian when they aren't calling me Dr. Jones (or Indiana, which I don't quite get the joke). Saturday would be wonderful. Let's say 1:00. I have seen your photo splashed across the papers, and I have done my due diligence as well. I am not sure you will know me when you see me. Friends tell me I look like English footballer Adam Lallana, although a bit taller. I will also be wearing what Americans would call "hipster" glasses, even though I hardly know what that means, they just framed my face nicely. I digress. I am looking forward to our meeting.

Yours,

Chris

DK grinned and made a note on the pad beside her to pick up a DVD of the Raiders of The Lost Ark and lunch on Saturday at one. Then she hit reply and typed,

Chris,

One pm sounds good. I look forward to meeting you. Hopefully by then I will have a better understanding of what an ion drive is and will have figured out how to blend metallic-ceramic materials to sheath hulls.

Yours in space,

Dakota


As she was about to leave her email, another popped into her inbox, this one from Tammye.

Dakota,

A review of Two Miles Through Hell crossed through my inbox this afternoon. Thought I’d send it on to you.

T

The review was brief, but positive.

“Two Miles Through Hell is a refreshing change on the literary scene. Short stories are all the rage right now, feeding a reading public with goldfish-short attention spans. But while the sea of short fiction grows, too often it all tastes the same. So much of it is fluff without substance, but ‘Two Miles’ is different. This is no happy-ever-after tale, but one of dark places in the soul, of utter loneliness and heartbreak. But it is also the story of a champion who rises above the cinder blocks and steel that surround her. In this collection of short stories, we are charged and imprisoned, we are drawn into a soul-sucking dark place and struggle to retain our identity in a sea of aggression. So why should you bother to spend your money on this collection of short stories? Because the writing is sharp, new and will wrestle emotions from you that no other anthology currently available will. Buy this. Read this. You will not regret it.”

“Wow…” Dakota sat back in her chair with a slightly stunned smile.

“I’ve called for pizza…” Ash said as she came from the kitchen and spotted the look on DK’s face. “Babe?”

“Come read this. It’s a review of my anthology that your mom just sent me.”

Ash was silent as she read, but as she came to the end, the smile on her face grew. “That’s awesome! Is that the first one?”

“The first one I know about.”

“Then tonight, we celebrate!”

 

To be continued

Chapter Text

“I don’t care if she has an entire fucking platoon of Navy SEALS surrounding her! You stay on her ass until the other team gets there, do you hear me? Do not engage. You are to observe and record only. The other team will take of that, understand?” The raving woman did not wait for an answer, but slammed the receiver into the cradle and turned to her large window and stared out at the skyline of Vancouver. Her desire for revenge burned through her hot and rabid. She had waited, bided her time and helped nature along and now there were only two left. Two people left to deliver her justice to. Two left to look into her eyes as she took their lives as they had stolen hers. No matter that one had already died and been saved. Dakota Undomiel would look into her eyes as she died for the last time, and she would finally learn once and for all that choices had consequences.

 

****

Dakota shut the door after bidding Hope good night and shuffled to the bedroom to change into her pyjamas.

“Do you need help changing?” Ashlyn asked as she entered the room.

DK shook her head. “No, but I do need a hand standing up, I’m going to hit the bathroom before I go to bed.”

Ash smiled warmly as she helped her stand. “I’ll shut the lights out and lock up while you’re in there.”



Once they were in bed and snuggled like a pair of spoons in the drawer, Dakota spoke quietly into the darkness. “So, now that it’s just the two of us, do you want to tell me about the phone call you got earlier today, or did Nikki deliver such a stunning piece of news that you’ve been distracted all evening?”

At first, there was only a sigh behind her, but finally, Ash sighed. “I’m sorry, babe.”

“For being distracted, or lying about who called?”

“I didn’t want to lie about the caller, but I didn’t want to explain just then...I just...let me turn a light on.” Ash shifted and the room was bathed in light again as she turned the bedside lamp back on. Dakota shifted so that she could lay on her back. Ashlyn sat cross-legged in the covers, took DK’s hands in her own and took a deep breath. “I made a poor choice, and I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have fibbed about the caller. What I’m going to tell you has to stay between us for now, okay?”

“You have a mysterious love child in Bolivia?” DK teased. But when Ashlyn looked down at the sheets, the writer knew this was something serious.

“That phone call was from Tom Sermanni, in Orlando.” Ashlyn looked up and she peered intently into Dakota’s blue eyes. “There’s a brand new club there, and they’re looking for a proven ‘keeper.”

“Orlando?” Dakota whispered.

“I told him I wanted to think about it, talk to you a bit…”

“Is that what you want?”

“I would have an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a club, help them establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with...I could really make a difference, babe.”

Dakota smiled. “You already make a difference, Ash, but if you want to go back to Florida, then let’s go.”

“Just like that?” Ashlyn blinked.

“Why not? You’re my home, no matter where we live. If you want to think about it some more, then do that, but I’m not going to hold you back. Where you go, I go.”

Ashlyn smiled and kissed DK’s palms. “I’m pretty lucky to have such an understanding fiancee.”

“Yeah, you are.” Dakota let a slow smile creep across her face.

 

Much later, when Ash’s breathing had deepened, DK rolled out of the waterbed as best she could, snagged a warm pair of socks and her girlfriend’s UNC hoodie and shut the bedroom door behind her. Soon enough, the water had boiled in the kettle and Dakota had settled on the sofa with a cup of tea. She meant every word of what she had told Ashlyn, but in her mind, Florida had come to represent a tumultuous time in her life. Wendy and her manipulations had chased Dakota from the sunshine state, and Wendy was still there. Serving time, but still there. Germantown hadn’t even begun to feel like home yet and they were already discussing moving. Dakota couldn’t help but think about Ali...was she considering a move too? Had Orlando even called her? And what about Hope? If they went south, would she stay in Germantown alone until it was time for her to rejoin her team? So many questions she wanted answers to...but if she asked Ash, would she think Dakota wanted to stay out of concern for their friends? There were so many questions that she wanted answers to, but the situation would have to be handled delicately. The last thing Dakota wanted was for Ashlyn to doubt her dedication or sincerity. By the time her mug was empty and cold, she was still no closer to knowing how she felt about the possibility of moving.

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

When Ash woke up, she was alone in bed. She wasn’t concerned, she knew Dakota had been eager to get back to work on the book. She rolled out of bed and padded to the bathroom, noting the bedroom door was shut, usually a sign that her lover had worked while she had slept. Once her hair was up in a ponytail and she’d brushed her teeth, she dressed for her run and headed to the kitchen.

Dakota was sitting at the table, working on her laptop when she saw Ashlyn coming down the short hallway. “Your half cup is already waiting for you on the counter.”

Ash smiled as she went to kiss her girlfriend and watched as she lifted her glasses from her nose and set them atop her head. “You know me so well. Thank you for pouring my coffee.” She bent to kiss DK, still smiling.

“Good morning. Do you want something light before you go...Yoghurt maybe? Dakota asked before she stole another kiss.

“No, I’ll eat when I get back.” Ash glanced at the screen and turned to retrieve her mug. “Looks like you got some work done...been up long?”

“A little while. I had a hard time getting to sleep, and I couldn’t stay asleep. Eventually, I gave up and came out here.”

Ashlyn pulled a chair closer and sat facing DK. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean...”

Dakota reached out and set one finger against her lips. “Shhh, it’s okay. I meant what I said last night. You follow your heart and I’ll follow you. It’s no different for military wives. They follow their spouses from base to base. I would go with you even if we weren’t going to get married, and I can’t wait to be married to you.” She leaned forward slightly to replace her finger with her lips.

They stayed like that for a little while until Ash pulled back with a little grin. “Want to join me on the balcony? I think I’ll have a whole cup this morning.”

“Watch the sunrise with my fiancee? Absolutely!”

“I’ll top up the mugs, you go ahead.” Ash held out her hand to help Dakota up. “You want help getting out there?”

“I should be okay.”

Ash watched to make sure Dakota had no trouble getting out to the balcony before she filled their mugs and joined her outside.

 

They watched the sun come up over the city in silence, holding hands and sipping from their cups, enjoying the time to themselves before they allowed the day to encroach on their peace. There would be time enough for the rest of the world to ask for one more autograph, time enough to research scientific advances in ceramic hull plating...this time first thing in the morning though was theirs. Long after her cup was empty, Ash finally sighed. “Well, guess I’d better get my stuff together and fight the traffic.”

“Figured you weren’t running this morning.” Dakota smiled.

“My girlfriend was more important.” Ash stood and stretched before taking DK’s outstretched hand and helping her up. “I’ll grab something to eat at the ‘Plex, any idea what you want for dinner?”

“There’s a pasta place that delivers. I hear they have killer ravioli.”

Ashlyn gathered up her things as she asked if Dakota would be staying home.

“Fairly sure I am. I have some research to do before I meet with Christian so I don’t sound like a total doofus, and I want to look into that bookstore a little more before I agree to do a commercial with them.”

As Ash slid her wallet into her back pocket, she stepped close. “If you have an opportunity for a nap later, you should take it.”

Dakota smiled up at her, and Ash could see the weariness in her eyes.

“Seriously, Dakota. Make sure you rest, and eat, okay? Don’t jump so far back into work that you forget to take care of yourself.”

“Okay.”

Ashlyn gazed into the blue eyes that she loved more than any others. “I want to be able to go swimming in the ocean with you, and that won’t happen if your body can’t heal. I love you.”

“I love you too.” Dakota tilted her head and Ash captured her lips in a gentle kiss. After a while, Ash sighed. “I guess I’d better get going. Traffic is only going to get worse.”

“Play safe today.” DK patted the blonde’s hip before she walked her to the door.

 

“Good morning, Ms. Harris.” Miranda spoke up from her post beside the door.

“Morning, Miranda. See you later, babe.”

DK smiled at her girlfriend before turning to her bodyguard. “I have coffee on, come on in and sit down.”

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

There were voices on the stairway, conversational and light, and DK recognized Nyssa’s lower tones as well as Ali’s voice. “Sounds like we may have company.”

Soon enough, she spotted Nyssa climbing the stairs. “Good morning, Nyssa! You’re just in time for coffee. Is Ali coming up as well?”

The bodyguard twitched her dark blazer straight as she answered. “No, Ma’am, she’s travelling with Ms. Harris, but she’s asked me to let you know she would see you later. Coffee sounds good.”

 

DK poured coffee for all three of them and they made themselves comfortable in the living room.

“Dakota, there is something that we need to talk about.” Nyssa began. “As you know, we’ve been monitoring your mail. You received a suspicious looking envelope yesterday, and in the interest of your safety, we opened it. I’m sorry if that upsets you, but as it turns out, we were justified.” She reached into an inside pocket, withdrew a clear baggie and passed it to the writer. Dakota’s breath caught as she studied words written in heavy, dark script on parchment-hued paper inside the plastic.

 

You took my youth. I did nothing to you. Know that I am coming for you.

 

“What the hell?” Dakota felt a chill shoot through her veins.

“We surmise that the author of the note is quite possibly male, but nothing is absolute. We have to assume that whoever wrote this knows you’re home now, or at the very least knew roughly when you’d be back. We’ve increased security around the building. I wanted to let you know personally that we’re going to be stopping any delivery people before they get to your door, and continuing to monitor your mail. I have to ask that if you receive any suspicious or threatening email, to let me know.” The bodyguard drank from her cup as she studied her client’s reaction.

“Yes...of course...” Dakota stared at the letter.

“Miss Undomiel?” Nyssa spoke again. “I think it might be a good idea of you stay off the balcony for the time being. I understand you like to take your coffee there, but every time you go outside, you’re at risk. Even simply standing in front of the balcony door...”

“Nyssa, what am I supposed to do, hide in my bathroom because it’s the only room without a window?” DK struggled to rise from the sofa. “I have cardiac therapy and rehab appointments, I can’t stay hidden away here all the time! I have to meet with a colleague on Saturday...I have places to be!”

“I understand that Miss Undomiel...”

“I thought we agreed that you could use my first name?” She snapped. She sighed heavily then. “I’m sorry, Nyssa, I didn’t mean to take my frustration out on you. But as much as I have a solitary career, I cannot stay indoors all the time, it’s just not going to work. I need to feel the sun, I can’t work at night and ignore Ash.”

“That’s not what Nyssa is suggesting, Ma’am.” Miranda interjected. “There are ways we can minimize your risk...Pull the car almost right up to the door so that you’re exposed as little as possible, staying away from the balcony, allow someone else to go out for you when it’s possible…”

Dakota turned and gazed at the other woman for a moment. “Are you suggesting that I let someone else go out for an ice cream run for me, not do my own shopping, and basically only go out when there’s no other choice?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“And I’m not allowed to open my own mail?”

“No, Ma’am.”

“And on top of all that, I’m under doctor’s orders not to lift anything heavier than the kettle, sleep every time I feel tired, I can’t swim for weeks yet, still can’t have sex and now I can’t go outside! What kind of life is that?” Dakota barked.

“You aren’t going to like my answer.” Nyssa replied quietly.

DK stood holding her now-empty cup and waited.

After a moment, the answer came, firm and final. “A safe one.”

 

Dakota’s face was expressionless as she turned away from her bodyguards. “I need some time, please.”

Nyssa and Miranda put their cups down and rose together. “Thank you for the coffee, Ma’am. One of us will be just outside the door if you need us.”

DK didn’t answer as they let themselves out.

As they closed the door behind themselves, they saw Hope approach from down the hall. She flashed them a small, tight smile as she drew closer, and as she reached for the doorknob, Miranda shook her head. “I don’t think now is a good time.”

From inside the apartment, they heard a roar full of frustration, anger and anguish just as something smashed against the door so close to their heads. All three jumped, startled by the abrupt crash.

“What the hell…?” Hope twisted the knob and pushed the door open. Pieces of broken crockery littered the carpet where they’d fallen and Dakota stood panting in the middle of the room. “Jesus, DK…” The goalkeeper stepped over pieces of mug and shut the door behind her. “You’re supposed to wash them, not smash ‘em when you’re done.”

DK lowered her head and sighed.

“Okay, so it was a lame attempt at humor.” Hope conceded as she crossed the room and stopped in front of her friend. “What’s going on, Undomiel? Sit down and talk to me.”

“I’ll never be able to live a normal life until this stalker is caught, Solo, and that could take weeks...I can’t go weeks without seeing the sun and looking over my shoulder...I can’t.”

Hope reached out and guided  her to the sofa and lowered her down to a seat beside her. “Start at the beginning, what brought on the death of a mug?”

By lunchtime, Dakota had told her about everything; the threatening letter, the new steps her bodyguards wanted her to take, her increasing restrictions and fears that the person who wanted her dead would never be caught...almost everything except the offer from Orlando.

 

When Ash and Ali came into the apartment a few hours later with their arms full of groceries and dinner, they found Hope sitting reading in the living room.

“Hey, Solo, what’s up? Where’s DK?”

Hope set her book aside.“She’s asleep I think. She came down with a headache earlier and I convinced her to lay down for a bit.”

Ashlyn put a bag on the counter. “Are her glasses bothering her eyes? The doc said that might happen…”

“Kriegs, Harris, sit down. We need to talk.”

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

When Hope finished telling them what had happened, they both sat back, stunned. 

After a minute, Ali spoke up. “Maybe you should take her away travelling, Ash. Go on a road trip or something. Normally, I’d suggest sending her to family, but…”

“We’re her family, Ali, you know that.”

“She can stay with me for awhile. I know it’s going to be hard on the two of you, but at least this creep wouldn’t know where she is.”

Ashlyn shook her head sadly. “I don’t think she’d go for it. Remember Florida?”

“Mmmnn, yeah...good point.”

“What happened in Florida?” Hope asked.

Ash sighed and went to check on DK as Ali answered. “You know they met in Florida, right? And you know all about Wendy and how she terrorized Dakota?”

Hope nodded.

“Not long before Wendy was arrested, she had broken into DK’s apartment back in Florida. She completely trashed the place. Broke her patio door, cut the sheets and mattress up, smashed the bathroom sink...even wrote on the living room wall in shit. What she wrote sent Dakota into a mental breakdown of sorts for two days. Ash called me and I flew down, we kept watch over her...she was catatonic and stopped breathing a couple of times. I don’t know how, but one day Ash walked her out of that room and convinced her to have some soup. Later that night, DK finally confessed the one thing that Wendy was holding over her. She had convinced Dakota and some other inmates to administer prison justice to a woman she said had killed her own child. They didn’t question her word, they did as she told them to and nearly beat the woman to death. Some time later, they found out she never even had a child. Wendy had used them to get revenge on the poor woman for something else.”

Hope shut her eyes slowly as she let out the breath she’d been holding.

“Once she’d confessed this to us, Dakota assumed Ash wouldn’t want her. She convinced herself Ash was better off without her, her career would be safer without her. She was going to leave her to protect her.”

“Harris is concerned Dakota might try to draw the danger away from her friends.” Hope concluded.

“It’s in her nature to put her friends first.” Ali agreed.

 

As Ali explained to Hope what had happened in Florida, Ashlyn slowly opened the bedroom door. Dakota was curled up into herself with her back to the door and breathing slowly as if she were meditating. The blonde padded across the room and lowered herself carefully to the waterbed, folding her left arm under her own head and curling around the other woman. After a minute, DK’s breathing changed, and Ash knew her meditation was done. “Don’t you dare think about leaving me, even for a short time, to protect me from this nut-job. I would rather be in danger with you than be apart and worried sick about you. I told you in Florida that I can’t live without you now, so if you’re thinking of drawing this psycho away to keep all of us safe, think again, Dakota. I want to marry you, not bury you.”

A sob wrenched its way from deep within the writer and she shook in Ashlyn’s arms. She drew in a deep breath and held it, wrestling for control over her rampaging emotions.

“Let it out, DK, let it all go, I’ve got you.”

Dakota deflated with a groan and her chest heaved to fill her lungs with more air. “I couldn’t live with myself if he got you by mistake…”

“He won’t.” Ash whispered as she stroked her girlfriend’s side. “He’s not going to get anyone. You’ve got a good team of people out there who are going to keep you safe. Whoever this person is, I won’t let them take you from me. We’re going to get married, on the beach, at sunset, and that bastard will be in jail studying the pattern of concrete blocks and iron bars.”

Dakota wept silently in Ash’s arms until all the tears were gone and she had cried herself out. They laid together silently, listening to the sounds of the oven being opened, and quiet voices murmuring in the kitchen. 

“Ali and I picked up dinner on the way, want to come have some?”

As if on cue, Dakota’s stomach growled.

 

 

“I’m going to make coffee, are you going to eat with us?”

“I don’t know…”

“Am I not good enough to eat with anymore, Solo?” A raspy voice said from the hallway.

They turned to see Dakota coming into the kitchen on Ash’s arm. 

“You look better.” Hope observed.

“Thanks. I feel a little more human. What are we having?”

“Baked ravioli and garlic bread.” Ali answered as she handed the writer place-mats. “Sit. Hope and I have got this. I heard she knows her way around your kitchen.”

Once Ash had settled DK in a chair at the table, she went to get cups but Ali snapped her behind with the dishtowel. “I said we’ve got this. Dakota’s dinner parties may have to change a little in the future, so sit while you can.”

DK and Ashlyn shared a look, each reflecting on just how much their lives would change if the blonde accepted Orlando’s offer, never mind their dinner parties.

“So you and Ash did the grocery shopping? Thank you…” Dakota laid out the place mats as she spoke.

Ali made a dismissive gesture. “No problem. I heard the doctor won’t let you do it right now, so I thought I’d help out. Have you two been able to think about the wedding? You have to book a venue up to a year in advance, you know.”

“Well, there is a certain spot on a beach in Florida…” DK replied.

“A beach?” Hope asked.

“Our spot?” Ash smiled as she took Dakota’s hand.

Dakota nodded silently, too choked up in that moment to try and vocalize an answer.

“I think that’s a great idea. I can get Mom to try and find out who owns that stretch of beach, put I think it’s public property, so we might be okay.”

 

“Are the two of you going ring-shopping together?” Ali asked as she passed Hope a bread knife.

“I thought we might.” Ash responded with a nod.

“We’ve done a little talking about things. We’ve decided we’d like to say I do just before sunset, have the aisle marked out by candle lanterns, have a reception dinner right there, some long tables, a catered dinner, maybe a couple of bonfires...”

“Sounds very romantic.” Hope smiled a little as she set the plates and cutlery out.

“Red and white theme, very casual.” Ash added.

“How casual?”

“I’m going to wriggle my toes in the sand kind of casual.” Ashlyn smiled. “I’ve always wanted to turn tradition on its head. I think a white suit and no shoes is my kind of unconventional.”

“Actually, that suits you both.” Ali nodded as she began to plate dinner.

Hope spoke up as she set a plate of warm slices of garlic bread on the table. “I have an acquaintance that takes very good photos. She’s even shot a few LGBT weddings and all her photos are pretty classy. I could call her if you’d like, maybe give her your number?”

“Thanks, Solo. We’d appreciate that.”

 

 

“I’ve never had to plan a wedding before.” Dakota murmured.

Ali spoke up as she set their plates in front of them. “Well, the venue has to be decided on and booked first. Especially if it’s somewhere that might be in demand. You’ve started that. Have you discussed whether you want engagement parties?”

“You mean, like a bachelor party?”

“Harris, have you even thought of who you’ll ask to stand up for you?”

Ash stood and strolled into the kitchen, where she slid her hands into her pockets and leaned against the counter. “Well, Solo, I was wondering if you’d like to stand up with Whitney for me. Make sure I stay on the straight and narrow and all that.”

Hope stopped in the middle of the kitchen and blinked. “Really?”

“Yeah..why not?”

“I’d be honored, thank you.” Hope smiled and blinked a few more times. “I’m going to wash up for dinner...” She jerked her thumb in the direction of the bathroom and left the room.

“I think you made her cry.” Ali whispered.

“Oh...I didn’t mean to...” Ash sighed and followed Hope.

“You know, Megan enjoys weddings...as a friend of yours, I’m sure she’d be honored to stand up with us.”

“That’s a good idea, thanks, Ali.”

The two goal keepers returned to the table and finally they all sat down to eat.

 

As Dakota finished her meal, she turned toward Ali. “Who hosts the bachelorette party?”

Ali wiped her lips before answering. “Traditionally, members of the wedding party. But as bridal parties have gotten smaller, probably due to cost, close friends have been known to throw the parties too. It’s something we can talk about later. Have you thought about registering?”

Dakota looked to Ash with wide eyes. “Ummmm?”

“We haven’t really talked about that yet.” Ash chuckled at the look on her girlfriend’s face.

“There’s a lot left you need to decide.” Hope interjected. “Have you thought about who you want to officiate?”

Ashlyn and Dakota could only look at each other and blink. “Umm...” They said together.

 

To be continued!

Chapter Text

Later that night, once they were alone again, Ash turned to Dakota and said, “I was going to lay down in bed and read. Did you want to grab your laptop and lay with me?”

“Sounds good. Let me just get the dishes into the dishwasher…”

“Or we could do that together.” Ashlyn said as she picked up the stacked plates.

Dakota smiled and shook her head but she was grateful she had her girlfriend’s help. She let Ashlyn do the bending and load the dishwasher while she wiped down the table and countertops.

“So, did you really throw a mug at the door?”

DK sighed. “I’m afraid so. I’m not proud of it, but…”

“Hey, I understand. I remember you had quite the temper before. It’s bound to show up again when you’re stressed.” Ash shut the door of the dishwasher and hit the controls to start it. “Do you want my help changing for bed?”

“Not yet, I think I’m going to grab a long, hot shower first.”

“Okay. I’ll lock up and meet you in there.” Ash kissed Dakota on the cheek and smiled. She prepped the coffee maker for the next day while she listened to the sounds of her girlfriend getting ready for her shower. After the water had been on for a minute, Ashlyn went to the apartment door and stuck her head out to find Nyssa looking back at her. “Are you on night watch tonight?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

Ash stuck her foot in the doorway to keep from being locked out. “I wanted to apologize for Dakota’s outburst earlier…”

Nyssa held up a hand to forestall any further explanation. “It’s alright, I understand that there’s been a lot of changes to Miss Undomiel’s life lately, it’s bound to catch up with her sooner or later.”

 

“Did you drive Ali home?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

Ashlyn looked down the hall towards Hope’s apartment where Nadja stood guard. “You think whoever wrote that note will make good on their threat?”

“If someone is brazen enough to shoot Miss Undomiel in broad daylight in a busy city with a lot of potential witnesses, I have to believe they won’t stop because they failed.”

Ash nodded and sighed. “We’ll be up reading for a while yet, do you need anything?”

“No Ma’am, but thank you. Miranda will be bringing Nadja and I coffee in a little while. We should be fine.”

“All right. I’ll check in with you before we retire. You have the apartment key, right?”

“Yes, Miss Harris.”

“You’re never going to call me by my given name are you?”

“Not in public, Ma’am.”

Ash rolled her eyes and went back into the apartment, locking the door behind her. She could hear the shower still running and briefly pondered joining Dakota. But she also knew that her lover was struggling with the restrictions put on her and sometimes holding her too close only smothered her more. So she changed for bed, retrieved Dakota’s laptop for her and laid down to read.

 

When DK came into the room, hair wrapped in a towel, she found black flannel pyjamas laid across the end of the bed. “Are these for me?”

Ash  lifted her glasses and set them on top her head. “Yep. I saw them and thought you might like them.”

“That was sweet, thank you. I’ve never seen a pair in black flannel before.”

“Neither had I. You’re walking a little better.”

“I’ve been walking without the cane a little more, trying to build up my core muscles again slowly.” Dakota sighed as she wrapped herself in the warm sleepwear. “Thank you for bringing the laptop in.”

“My pleasure, future Mrs. Harris.” Ash smiled.

Dakota stopped suddenly just as Ashlyn lifted the covers for her to get into bed.

“DK? what’s wrong?”

“I really like the sound of that...Mrs. Harris…” She smiled warmly down at her girlfriend. “Yep, I like that.” Then she got into bed.

****

As airport security watched, an average looking red haired woman wearing warm-looking clothing walked across the terminal, intent on getting into a cab. She did not stop to pick up luggage or meet anyone who might be waiting for her. Those she stalked past took one look at the expression on her face and moved aside to let her pass. No one wanted a confrontation with an angry-looking redhead. She found an empty cab and slid into the back seat. “Germantown. I’ll give you directions when we get close. And there’s an extra fifty if you forget I was ever in your cab.”

The driver flicked his gaze to study her briefly in his rearview mirror before turning his attention to traffic. “I don’t see nothin’. I’m just drivin’ around the city…”

****

Dakota opened the file that held the beginning of Lura’s new life and read over what she’d written as Ash wiggled closer. She imagined a world that had seasons parallel to Earth and pondered how she might make them different, and her thoughts turned to the desert. Suddenly, she had her answer and she began to type.

 

She stepped on an open weave mat just inside the door and felt a small vibration in her feet. Lura glanced down, a little alarmed but Lachlan assured her that there was a small vacuum unit below the mat designed to remove the dirt from her shoes. She was in a short hallway, one side of which was a long door.

“A closet for outerwear.” Lachlan gestured. “Important in sand storm season.”

“There’s a sand storm season?”

Lachlan put her arm through Lura’s and guided her forward, trailing Icarus in their wake. Lights came on and grew in brightness as they came fully into what seemed to be the main room of the house. “This is the sitting room. If you have a preference for colors or textures, they can easily be changed. For example, the small table here…”

“Is there a way to make the top look like wood?”

“There is. You need only address the computer, tell it to change the surface of the small table in front of you, and specify the texture you’d like recreated.”

“Like, wood?”

“Yes, although you do need to be specific about what type of wood you prefer.”

“Bamboo.”

“Very well, you start the command by addressing the computer, as Icarus did outside.”

“Computer...change the surface of the small table in the sitting room to resemble bamboo wood.” In an instant, the small table transformed from a plain white piece of furniture to one that looked as though it had been crafted from wood back on Lura’s home world. “That’s amazing...”

Lachlan smiled widely, pleased by the pilot’s reaction. “Your home is computer controlled. It can do much more than that. You can adjust almost anything simply by telling the computer your preferences. Water temperature, light levels, tinting the windows...and if you aren’t sure about anything, you only need to ask the computer. If you want something changed that is not possible, for example, the placement of the walls, the computer will tell you the command cannot be completed, and why.”

 

“You mentioned sand storms?”

“There are some things you’ll need to know about our world, perhaps we should sit down?” Icarus suggested.

Once they had all settled on the L-shaped sofa, Icarus explained. “One of the challenges our world offers is a season of sand storms. The season is often unpredictable and can last from four weeks to sixteen. During this time, the storms can strike without warning. Generally our weather is quite pleasant, which is why we built our capital city here. Many of us walk quite frequently. When the sand whips in however, it is vastly unpleasant to walk, and many lose their way. You may have noticed the exterior corners are rounded. Over the years, we have learned to construct our homes this way. Before, the sand storms would wear at the corners and weaken the buildings. Our engineers found that rounding our corners greatly reduced the erosion and recommended all buildings be built in this fashion. We are fortunate that the sand storms come from the north, this allows us to maximize  the southern exposure. You can see the southern side of the house is predominantly glass. This helps us capture the passive heat.”

“Heating the home with solar power...” Lura finished.

“Indeed.”

Lura took a deep breath. “This is all fascinating...”

“Oh, there is much more.” Lachlan smiled.

“I have to wonder what this will cost me.” The pilot pressed on. “I hardly believe your people will just welcome me with open arms and allow me to live here out of the collective goodness of their hearts. You mentioned before that you wish me to share my knowledge...I’m not sure that what I know would be of any use to you.”

Icarus smiled warmly. “I have every confidence you would be of great value to the Paragon Exploration Project.”

 

“Babe, I hate to interrupt when you’re working, but what are we going to do about an officiant? Neither one of us go to church. Do you want to see about getting a justice of the peace to marry us? Would you prefer someone more pagan?”

“Well…” Dakota took her glasses off. “We’ve never really discussed how you feel about organized religion, but I’m guessing it’s not a big deal for you. I know I want our day to be special, I want everyone to feel the importance of it, the emotion, the enormity of it, you know? I think I want someone who might feel the magic of it...I’m not sure that a Justice of the Peace will. Does that make sense?”

“It answers my question perfectly.” Ash smiled up at her.

“But what do you want? This isn’t all about me. Who do you want to declare us married?”

“I think I want someone who will honour what makes you and I unique. I want someone with a sense of wonder, someone who is sure there is a divine being with a plan, even if I’m not sure yet that’s what I believe. I want someone who believes in love at first sight, and soulmates and the power of love. Is that cheesy?”

Dakota gazed at her fiancee through damp eyes. “No, sweetheart, that’s romantic.” She caressed Ash’s cheek with the backs of her knuckles ever so lightly until Ashlyn turned her head and kissed her fingertips, then the palm of her hand. When her lips brushed the inside of Dakota’s wrist with the ghost of a kiss, DK moaned softly. “Ash...you keep doing that and the laptop’s gonna have to go on the floor.”

“So let me put it down and prove to you that I can still blow your mind.” The blonde whispered as she dropped feather-light kisses up the inside of Dakota’s arm, knowing just how sensitive her girlfriend’s skin was. “Let me show you how much I miss making love to you, one inch at a time.”

Ashlyn sat up and gently put the laptop on the floor before straddling her lover. “I’ve missed being able to look at you like this, with your hair spread out like a halo on your pillow.” She started unbuttoning the pyjamas so recently put on. “I’ve missed being able to run my fingers over your skin, knowing every ticklish bit, every freckle, every rib…” She opened the pyjama top and ran her hands flat over Dakota’s belly, carefully avoiding the gunshot wound that was now little more than a healing scar.

“I’ve missed feeling your hands on me…” DK’s eyes were changing, becoming more grey-blue as Ash danced her fingertips lower. “It’s been so long…”

It wasn’t long before work was forgotten and Ashlyn was whispering Dakota’s name as the writer came undone in the best of ways under her girlfriend’s touch.

 

Many hours later, Ash stretched and yawned. She was still slightly out of breath from trying not to scream Dakota’s name. “You sure you’re okay? We didn’t do that too soon?”

“If I had waited much longer, Ash, the day was going to come when I was going to throw you on this bed and have my way with you regardless of what any doctor told me.”

Ashlyn rolled over and kissed DK soundly. “I think we both know how that would have gone, Miss Undomiel.”

“You would have only let me go so far before you flipped us both and taken over.” Dakota smiled.

Ash returned the smile before rolling out of bed and putting her tank top and sleep pants back on. “I’m going to check in with Nyssa and make sure everything’s okay. Be right back.” Ash passed the laptop to it’s owner and left the room.

Dakota struggled a little with her pyjama bottoms, but in short order, she was soon cocooned in flannel again and burrowed in the blankets with her computer on her lap.

****

“What is the Paragon Exploration Project?” Lura asked.

“It is a massive undertaking that will enable our people to leave this planet and explore the heavens around us. We have pursued technology to that end for many years, but we were losing hope. Until you crashed on our planet.” Icarus said. “With your experiences guiding us, perhaps your fresh set of eyes combined with a new way of thinking will finally enable us to venture out and be the space explorers we have always longed to be. Will you help us, Lura Steele?”

“I’m not sure what I can do, but I’m willing to help. Where do I start?”

Icarus gestured to the computer. “May I?”

Lura nodded and watched as he removed a small item from his pocket similar to a flash drive back on her world, rose and plugged it into a slot in the wall.

“You may have noticed there are three of these portals here. I have plugged in a collection of files which describe all of our research, ideas, designs, successes and failures to date. Computer, access file drive 1A and display on wall directly in front of me.”

A diagram of a small space ship immediately appeared on the wall, bordered by a series of notes, bulleted and brief. “We’ll leave you to study the files. Anything you need, you ask the computer for, as I did. As long as you start the command with the ‘computer’ identifier, you’ll be fine. There are clothes in your bedroom. If the fabric or colour is wrong, I can teach you how to reprogram the computer for your preferences another time. I will leave you now. I am sure you must find all this overwhelming.”

“Just a little.” The pilot smiled.

“I will see you tomorrow then, Lura.”

“Thank you, Icarus.”

Icarus put his fingertips together again and gave the pilot a small bow before he and Lachlan left, closing the door behind them.

****

As Ashlyn bid Nyssa good night and shut the door behind her, Miranda emerged from the apartment the security team had rented as their base of operations, followed by a more junior member of the team. Nyssa watched them traverse the short length of hallway, and knew immediately that something had happened.

“Miss Quinn, I’ve brought Adam to take over your post because there’s something you need to see, and you aren’t going to like it.”

Nyssa relinquished her spot by the door with a nod to the young man they had so recently graduated from training. She didn’t like the situation already. “If anything happens, you holler, you hear me? Don’t worry about the neighbors. I’m not losing another client, no matter what.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

As soon as they were in the apartment and safe from prying eyes and ears at the doors, Miranda strode to the table and opened a laptop to a pre-loaded page. Nyssa scanned the page once before finally realizing why she’d been called away from her post.

 

Wanted: Dead. Dakota Undomiel. By any means untraceable. Proof will be required. Upon proof and confirmation of death payment will be 1 million dollars. If interested, place ad in classifieds with the words ‘The goal of all life is death’ and a contact number.

 

Nyssa read it all again, committing it to memory. “Shit…”

 

To be continued...

Chapter Text

Previously;

Wanted: Dead. Dakota Undomiel. By any means untraceable. Proof will be required. Upon proof and confirmation of death, payment will be 1 million dollars.

If interested, place ad in classifieds with the words ‘The goal of all life is death’ and a contact number.

 

Nyssa read it all again, committing it to memory. “Shit…”

 

And now, the continuation;

 

“Wake up our techs, find out where this came from. Find out how to get it taken off the web, and find out who’s putting up the money. I want to have answers by the time we have to break the news to Dakota and Ashlyn.”

“Yes Ma’am.”

Nyssa moved through the apartment until she got to the room she and Miranda shared. She had left her wallet laying on her bed and spared at glance at Miranda’s bed. As usual, it was unmade and messy. They had roomed together before, so Nyssa wasn’t surprised. She shook her head as she picked up her wallet and flipped through it until she found a card and dialed the number on it without hesitation. Once the call had been picked up, she spoke quickly and without small talk. “I’ve got a problem I need your help with…”

 

****

“Pull over here.” The redhead directed, still blocks from her destination. She leaned over and handed the cabbie a handful of bills and when he had taken them, she handed him a fifty. “Remember, you never saw me.”

He nodded silently, but his passenger was already climbing out of the car. Once the taxi had pulled away, she turned and began to walk back the way the car had came. At the first trash can she found, she pulled the shoulder-length red hair from her head and stuffed it in. She took a pair of glasses from the trench-coat pocket and slipped them on.  Two blocks later, a blonde pulled the trench-coat off and stuffed it in another trash can. When she crossed paths with a couple of college kids stumbling home from a party, they drunkenly hailed the woman with short black hair as if she were an old friend. When she drew close to the building that Dakota called home, she was pleased to see the neighborhood was heavily treed. She found a hiding spot in the bushes in the park across from Dakota and Ashlyn’s balcony and settled in to watch. Tugging a black knit cap from a pocket, she pulled it on over her hair. Then she pulled a compact set of binoculars from inside her black bomber jacket and studied her surroundings. She found the observation team effortlessly. They were sloppily parked half a block away and she briefly pondered sneaking up on them. But even as she let the temptation slip away, she saw four men emerge from the building. One stayed on the side visible from her hiding spot, the other three went around the building.

Once she was sure no one was looking in her direction, she pulled a cell phone from an inside pocket and sent a text.

 

Have arrived.

In a moment, a reply flashed across her screen.

The bounty has been raised to $1 million. Kill her & it is yours. Remember, I require proof.

A chilling smile crossed her features as she typed. I’d like to have some fun first.

The reply came back. You’re an assassin, do what you want, as long as my goal is met and it cannot be traced back, I don’t care what you do.

 

She watched for patterns in the security patrols and gradually eased her way to the far side of the building. As the two men there exchanged conversation and shared a cigarette, the assassin crept closer and closer to the building. When a gust of wind picked up the dust and trash and tossed it toward the two men, they turned their backs in an effort to keep the grit out of their eyes. It was then she bolted for the dumpster off to the side. By the time they turned around, she had scaled the side of the building and was halfway to the roof. If she could have been sure they wouldn’t hear her, she might have chuckled at how easy it had all been so far. She pulled herself over the lip and landed on the roof without a sound. It was darker up here, above the street lights. Grateful for extremely good night vision, she knew the darkness would work in her favor. She scouted out the roof as best she could in the dark and was pleased to find a securely anchored tower on the same side of the building as the target apartment. From the same pocket she had kept her cap in, she pulled a military-issue, lightweight grappling hook and line. Had she brought her pack, she would have had better gear. But bringing a pack increased the chances of someone remembering her, so she had stuffed her pockets as much as she could. Now she was down to her wits and training.

 

Anyone else might have hesitated to loop rope around waist and legs and lower themselves over the side of a building, but not her. She was a slow and patient spider, creeping hand over gloved hand, counting windows and balconies until she came to the correct one. She didn’t make a sound as her feet hit the concrete and she scuttled into the darkest corner of Ashlyn and Dakota’s little morning getaway. She tied her rope off so potential movement in the wind would not attract attention on the ground and waited. There was no flurry of activity to indicate she’d been spotted, so she eased herself over to the balcony door and carefully tried the latch. To her great relief, it was unlocked.

 

Slowly, inch by inch, she slid the big glass door back until she had enough room to slip inside. There wasn’t a sound inside the apartment as she stood waiting for her eyes to adjust in the gloom. Before she took a step further, she took her cellphone out and activated the camera’s night-vision filter that would allow her to have her fun. The carpeting muffled her footsteps all the way to the foot of the bed where Dakota and her girlfriend slept.

 

****

 

When Ashlyn and Dakota woke up the next morning, the sun was streaming in the bedroom window. The goal keeper had woken sometime in the middle of the night and silenced the alarm, deciding that it was a good idea to take the day off. So they had woken later than usual. Dakota went into the kitchen to start the coffee as Ash got dressed. Somewhere between putting on cargo pants and a t-shirt emblazoned with a shark, she turned on her cellphone. The first message of the day spurred her into the kitchen at a faster-than-usual pace.

“DK? Have you poked your head out the door yet?”

“No, I thought we’d have coffee first.”

Ashlyn showed her girlfriend the message and said. “I don’t think we’re going to have coffee alone this morning.”

 

Please advise when you’re both up. Need to speak ASAP. URGENT !

Nyssa

 

Ashlyn went to the apartment door and unlocked it before leaning out into the hallway. She was a little surprised to find Nyssa on one side and Miranda on the other. “Morning. Coffee will be done perking in a minute, come on in.”

Neither of them said anything, but accepted her offer and entered the apartment with grim expressions after Nyssa picked up a laptop case that had been behind her feet.

“Pour two more, babe.” Ash said as she went into the kitchen to help. 

Dakota remembered how her bodyguards preferred their coffee and altered them accordingly and Ashlyn took their cups out to the living room. Once they all had mugs in hand, DK waved them to the sofas. “With expressions like that, this can’t be good. I take bad news better sitting down.”

“You’ll need your reading glasses for this, Miss Undomiel.”

After they had settled into their seats. Nyssa turned to Dakota. “It’s our opinion that you may be in more danger than we had first thought.” She opened the laptop and set it on one end of the coffee table so the other women could clearly see the screen. “This was posted to the dark web sometime during the night.” She could tell by their expressions that they could see the posted bounty.

 

Wanted: Dead. Dakota Undomiel. By any means untraceable. Proof will be required. Upon proof and confirmation of death, payment will be 1 million dollars. If interested, place ad in classifieds with the words ‘The goal of all life is death’ and a contact number.

 

“Unfortunately, that’s not all. I think you may have to consider relocating for awhile.” Nyssa brought up another screen. “We intercepted this from your email in the wee hours, Miss Undomiel.”

It took a moment for Dakota to understand what they were looking at, but when she did, she felt nauseous.

 

It was a photo of Ashlyn wrapped around her, both of them fast asleep, with a time and date stamp in the lower left corner showing the photo had been taken only hours before.

“Dakota...” Ash’s voice came out strangled. “That’s us. Someone was in our apartment...our bedroom...They were watching us sleep!”

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

Dakota reached for Ashlyn’s hand and was dismayed to find it cold. Not sure if the bounty had done this to her girlfriend, or the fact that someone had broken into their home, the result was still the same. “Ash, it’ll be okay...”

The blonde turned to look at her with stunned disbelief. “How can you say that? I could have understood yesterday, but not now! Dakota, someone has not only put a price on you but this? This is just toying with us...”

“Ash, I know that...” DK began.

“How can you be so fucking calm?” Ashlyn shot off the couch and paced toward the balcony before turning abruptly away. “How can you sit there and be so calm knowing some crank was in our home a short time ago? In our bedroom! We have no idea how they got in, no idea what they want...”

“Yes we do. They want to see me dead, and apparently terrified before that happens.”

“Can you please not be so matter-of-fact like that?” The blonde snapped.

“I’m sorry, but that’s the truth.” Dakota said quietly before sipping from her mug.

“I think you need to consider moving, even if only for a little while.” Nyssa spoke up.

Dakota wanted to stand up and shout to the heavens that she would not be scared away, but there was more to consider than just her own feelings. She watched Ashlyn pace back in forth in front of the kitchen and down the hall, and she knew deep inside that there was very little she could do to make her feel better. “Sweetheart? What do you want to do?”

“I want to make all this go away! I want to keep you safe! I want to get rid of this damned bounty, I want to find out why someone would go to such lengths to kill the woman I love more than life! I want to wake up and find this has all been a whiskey-induced nightmare...”

Miranda looked across the room at the drapes closed against the sun, hating this part of her job.

 

“I want to keep you safe too.” DK said softly. “I’m very aware that you are in just as much danger as I am...”

“Don’t!” Ash stopped and turned abruptly toward her. “Don’t you dare!”

Miranda and Nyssa looked at one another in confusion.

“I told you before that I’m not going to let you leave just to keep me safe!”

Dakota sighed. “Then what do you want me to do, Ashlyn?”

“Hide, damn it! That’s what people do when they’re in danger!” Ash yelled.

The bodyguards stood up to give the couple some privacy, but Dakota stood up too. “I’m not most people, remember?” She snapped. She crossed the room slowly, her voice rising with every step. “I’ve never had the chance when things got rough! I had to stay and fight! So that’s what I do, Ashlyn, I fight! I push back, and shove and hang on with everything I’ve got, and I fight, because it’s all I’ve ever known how to survive!”

Neither of them noticed the door closing quietly behind the bodyguards as the two women stood in each other’s space.

“I don’t know how to hide away from the world because it’s easy and safe! My whole life has been about scrabbling for what I needed. Every scrap of attention from my parents, for every bit of food on the streets, every little bit of normalcy, and then I found you...and I didn’t have to fight anymore because you’ve made everything so easy.” Dakota’s voice gentled finally. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to keep you safe. And if that means fighting for our future, a safe one where we don’t need to look over our shoulders, then that’s what I’ll do.”

“So come away with me.” Ashlyn stepped close and wrapped her long fingers around her girlfriend’s upper arms. “We’ll hide until this wack-job nut is caught.”

“That’s only going to work for so long, and you know it.” Dakota shook her head. “You have media commitments, and so do I. We both have public aspects of our work lives. And unless you’re planning on hiding away in a cave for the rest of our lives, sooner or later, I’m going to be a target.”

“So, if you aren’t willing to go into hiding, and I’m not willing to let you skulk away to keep me safe, what do we do?”

“You come and sit down with me on the couch, we have some coffee and enjoy some quiet time together since we seem to have driven the bodyguards away.” Dakota smiled and tilted her head back toward the living room.

Ash sighed and joined her girlfriend on the sofa.

 

They had been sitting curled up together for a little while when Ashlyn dropped a kiss on the top of Dakota’s head. “So I guess we just had our first fight, hmm?”

“I suppose so. But there’s always making up to look forward to.” Dakota chuckled.

“DK, I really want to move south now.”

“You know it’s a no-brainer that the bounty-hunters will still find me, right? Where you go, I go, and Orlando will be crowing once they sign you.”

“I know.”

“Then call Tom and say yes.”



To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

While Ash was on the phone finalizing her transfer to the Orlando Pride, DK checked her email. One stood out, and giving it a quick read-through, she had to chuckle.

 

Good day Ms. Undomiel,

 

The more I thought about our conversation and from what I know about you through my digging, I realized something might be happening. Correct me if I am wrong, but are you doing insane amounts of research on your scientific theories in order to make sure that you don't say anything wrong in our conversation? I beg of you to not do that. I want our lunch to be more casual, more conversational, like two old friends catching up (I can consider you a friend, I hope). I have found the worst thing you can do is overthink things, especially when dealing with any kind of science (but I guess it is also true in life, see I am not just some robotic scientist!). Sometimes the most complex of problems can be solved using the most simple of formulas. So if you have 100 books cracked up, shut them all and put them on the shelf. I will help you through any questions you have and we can work together on this. Above all else, I am a fan of your writing and I hope I don't "fanboy" out when I meet you.

 

All the best,

C

 

She glanced over to the stack of books piled in the corner. She remembered handing one of the bodyguards a list of titles that would assist in her research, and she recalled the perplexed look she’d gotten in return. “Are these even English?” The bodyguard had asked.

Dakota smiled even as she texted Nyssa a reminder about her meeting with Christian. She knew the senior security agent would want to look into his background, even though she doubted they would find anything especially threatening there. 

 

 

After Ashlyn disconnected her call, she poured them both more coffee and rejoined DK in the living room. “You know, I don’t recall ever hearing you talk about writing on the beach.”

“Because I didn’t. I couldn’t afford a place closer to the beach.”

“We’re in a position to think about that now. Is that something you might want?”

Dakota sipped from her mug before answering. “I know that it hasn’t been that long since we moved me up here, but I think I’m ready for a change. I think I’d like to sit on our own little beach and watch you surf while I write.”

“It might make it harder for the wack-jobs to sneak up on us…” Ash wrapped her arm around Dakota’s shoulders.

“That’s true.”

“Do you think your doctor might take you back?”

“He’s pretty easy-going, but I can call and find out tomorrow.” A thought crossed DK’s mind then. “Ash...we have to tell Ali and Hope before anyone spills the news. Hope is barely settled…”

“Maybe she’ll come south with us.”

Dakota twisted her body so she could gaze up at her girlfriend incredulously. “Not long ago, you punched her because you were upset she thought she had feelings for me, and now you’re suggesting she move with us?”

Ashlyn shrugged. “It’s like you said, she’s barely settled, and she’ll be safer with us nearby than alone. And I realized that I had no reason to be upset...wait, what do you mean ‘she thought’ she had feelings for you?”

“I don’t think it was me she wanted, but the kind of relationship you and I have.”

“We are pretty enviable.” The goalkeeper said cockily.

Dakota could only chuckle.

 

****

 

It wasn’t until that afternoon that they had a chance to break the news to their friends.

“So, in light of everything, Orlando seemed to be the right choice.” Ash explained.

“It’ll be a great move for you!” Ali enthused as she crossed her legs on the seat in front of her.

“Hope, we were wondering if you want to come down south with us while you start divorce proceedings.” Dakota said.

“I was thinking about renting a house big enough for all of us over the next few months.” Ash interjected. “That way, you can both get some sun and time off away from everything. It would make the transition into this big change a little easier too, I think.”

Dakota had to smile. Of course Ashlyn had thought about that. “It’s the perfect solution.”

Hope shrugged. “Sure. I’m in. But only if you let me pay some of the rent while I’m there. I’m leaving Jerramy, not a charity case, Harris.”

Ash held up a hand. “Never said you were, Hope.” Then she turned to her best friend. “Al?”

“I’m in too.” She smiled wistfully, already thinking about how different the pitch was going to feel playing home games with someone else in net.

 

DK had been gathering ingredients slowly but surely for a few minutes when Ali appeared at her elbow. “What’re you doing?”

“Going to make bread. I was thinking about maybe pasta and garlic bread, if you and Hope would like to stay and eat with us.”

“I’ll go find out if she has dinner plans, but I’d love to. I’ve been missing your meat sauce.” Ali flashed her a quick smile and left the room to consult with Hope.

Dakota gathered all the ingredients for bread together at one end of the counter and began to gather what she needed for the sauce at the other end. She just about had everything when Ali came back into the kitchen. “Where do you keep your bread maker? I’ll get it out for you.”

“Bottom cabinet, lower left.” Dakota replied as she bent to pull the largest frying pan from another cupboard. 

“Do you want some help?”

“I’d like that, thanks.” DK poured some olive oil in the pan. “Did you want to fry the sausage meat or prep the bread maker?”

“I’ll brown the meat.”

As they worked, Dakota glanced over. “I’m glad you’re coming down with us, 

“I am too. I think it’ll be kind of fun to share a house. I have to say though, I’m relieved you didn’t try and talk Ash out of it in order to protect the rest of us.”

“The thought did occur to me, but Ash and I fought about it earlier. We’ve agreed to balance each other out. She won’t let me run, and I won’t let her hide me away in a cave somewhere.” DK finished putting the last of the ingredients in the bread maker, set the correct cycle and shut the lid. Then she turned to the refrigerator and pulled out a large bowl that held a pound of ground beef and a pound of ground turkey and put the bowl on the counter next to the stove. “Feel like browning those too?”

“Sure.” Ali nodded. “For all the times I’ve eaten your pasta, I didn’t realize there were three different meats in the sauce.” Then she turned toward her friend. “Wait, you guys actually fought?”

 

The writer nodded. “Yeah. Our first.” Then she smiled slightly. “Would I be wrong in guessing that part of your agreement to come south has to do with my senior bodyguard?”

Ali blushed and Dakota knew she had been right.

 

Later that evening, Hope and Ashlyn put the leaf in the table as Ali and Dakota put the finishing touches on dinner. A quick knock on the door was followed by Nyssa’s head poking in. “Did someone say dinner?”

Ali smiled and shook her head. “At least Ash has company at the table that can eat as much as she does and never gain an ounce.” 

The two goalkeepers set the table while Dakota and Ali set out salad and plated the pasta. Just before they were ready to sit down, Ash padded up behind DK in socked feet and wrapped her arms around her girlfriend. “Hey” She said softly. “I think I found a place already.”

Dakota turned in Ashlyn’s arms so she could gaze into her hazel eyes. “That was pretty quick.”

“It’s in Palm Harbor, four bedroom, office, big side yard with the beach out beyond that, two car garage. Want to hop down there and see it after you meet with your friend?”

“Sounds like it could be fun.” Dakota kissed the end of Ashlyn’s nose as the blonde’s stomach growled. “But let’s eat before you fade away to nothing.”

 

They had all been eating for a few minutes when DK swallowed her mouthful of pasta and cleared her throat. “So, Nyssa, Miranda, I wanted to let you know that there’s a big change coming. Ashlyn has accepted an offer to play for Orlando, so we’ll be moving.”

Nyssa stopped chewing and she glanced quickly at Ali.

“Hope and I are going down there with them for a little while.” The brunette explained to Nyssa, who immediately looked relieved.

DK smiled as she she drank her water. She had expected that reaction from her bodyguard. “Anyone have any plans for next week?”

They all shook their heads.

“Ash may have found a rental house in Palm Harbor. I have to meet with Dr. Jones the day after tomorrow but I thought a little hop down might be a good idea.”

“I think it’s a wise choice, Miss Undomiel.” Nyssa nodded.

“Look,” DK fixed her with a fierce glare. “I understand rule number three, but in our home, at our table, I’m quite sure you can call me by my first name!”

“Yes Ma’am.” Nyssa grinned mischievously before adding, “Dakota, this may well be the best meat sauce I’ve ever tasted.”

“Ali made it. I’m sure if you sweet-talk her she’ll make it again for you.” DK winked.

Ali blushed. “It’s your recipe, dork.”

“Which I will happily share with you, if only to keep Nyssa from pouting.”

Laughter rippled around the table.

When dinner had been cleared away, they stayed at the table, having coffee and talking.

Nyssa opened her notebook. “So far, we’ve found only one slightly suspicious item in Dr. Jones’ past. He was arrested in 2002 in Gainesville, Florida and charged with assault... charges dropped, no explanation given. I don’t believe that it’s a serious enough issue to pose any threat. His credentials  are those of an engineer, but he teaches first year English at Oxford. Dakota, did you know he’s spent quite a bit of time in Florida?”

“Of course. I do my homework...as much as I can anyway. I’m sure you have access to information that I don’t. Our lunch date is set for one in the afternoon. I’d like to make it as low-key as I can without being exposed. I don’t want to create a stir, but I don’t want to be a target either.”

Nyssa nodded as she made notes. “We’ll have some of our people there in plain clothes arrive at various times before your own arrival.”

“You know,” Hope spoke up. “Just because he’s been charged with assault, doesn’t make him violent.”

Dakota thought back to the dark-haired ‘keeper’s own legal troubles and nodded.

“All I’m saying is don’t judge him on his past until you know his story.” Hope shrugged.

 

 

Ash was at one end of the table with her laptop, showing Hope and Ali the house she was considering renting. “If the description and pictures are accurate, I think we’ll have lots of room. There’s a swimming pool, a stone-paved veranda that’s curtained and screened, a big modern kitchen, high ceilings, blue shutters and trim on a white exterior and a guest house I thought you might want to set up as your observation room, Nyssa.”

Hope pointed to the screen. “And that’s all they want to rent per month? Seems low for all that, considering the neighborhood and geography.”

“I’ve been in touch with the owners, it seems they’re friends of my cousin. They don’t live in that part of the state anymore. It’s even furnished. If we want to stay there while we decide if we like it enough to rent, we can.”

Ali sat beside Nyssa and murmured, “I know you’ll be working nearly all the time, but I’m glad we’ll be together for a few more months at least.”

“I have a very good reason to not work all the time now.” Nyssa replied just as quietly. “I have already taken steps to ensure that I can focus as much on you as my job.”

“Really?” Ali nearly whispered.

Nyssa nodded. “It’s a surprise that I should be able to share tomorrow.” Then she leaned a little against the brunette. “Dinner was very good, by the way. I enjoyed it.”

“I’m glad. When are you off the clock tonight?”

Nyssa looked at her watch. “I have a couple more details that I want to get from Dakota, and then I can call myself done for the day, why?”

Ali stretched a little to be closer to Nyssa’s ear so that she could whisper, “Because I’d really like my girlfriend to spend the night.”

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

The sun rose Saturday morning with a slow-building burst of color that crested and bloomed into a glorious explosion of pinks and corals. Dakota would have appreciated the many hues over the park...if she had seen it. But she was bent over a book on the sofa with her back to the balcony, notepad and pen at her side. She was desperately trying to understand how thrusters worked so that when she discussed theoretical propulsion systems with Christian, she might at least understand the basics. Frustrated, she flopped back on the sofa. She didn’t want to have to go to school to understand reaction mass, escape velocity, or conservation of momentum. It was all too much for her already-stressed, sleep deprived mind to handle. She needed to find some other way for Lura to provide energy for her ship. Something based loosely on science her readers might believe, but something that hadn’t been over-used in dozens of other science fiction tales. Dakota sighed and decided it was time for another cup of coffee.

 

A pissed off Dakota hadn’t been pretty in the past. But, being pissed off usually allowed her to tackle her fear head on, and this time would be no different. She stalked to the drapes and whipped one open, standing in the doorway as the sky took on its first real blue shades of the day.

“Dakota, what the hell?” Ash sleepily mumbled behind her. “I thought Nyssa said...”

“I know what she said, but the more I listen to the advice that tells me to hide away, the more afraid I am. Fear cripples creativity. So fuck it, I am going to stand here and watch the sky light up and...” DK’s stubbornness faded with her voice.

“Babe?”

“Light...” Dakota turned slowly and faced a very confused Ashlyn. “That’s the answer! A drive that uses some form of light that isn’t solar, to provide the energy!” She kissed Ash soundly before sitting back down and scribbling notes on a yellow pad.

Ash stood there blinking as she tried to understand what had just happened. “Um...okay.”

“Human beings are supposed to produce a minimal electrical charge, right?”

“Um...sure?” It was too early for Ash to try and follow the conversation, but she was trying nonetheless.

“If a pilot’s body can produce enough of a charge to power a light, which in turn can be used to power some sort of engine, there would be no need for rocket fuel or solar sails!”

“Uh huh...whatever you say.” Ash flipped the curtain shut over the balcony door, turned, and went back to bed.

When she got back out of bed two hours later, DK was still on the sofa with her laptop open to a page on light refractions...but the writer had finally fallen asleep.

Ash put the laptop on the floor, the book on the coffee table, covered her girlfriend with the blanket from the back of the sofa and went out into the hall to chat with Nyssa.

 ****

“Dr. Jones, I presume?” Dakota asked as she approached a cloth-covered table later that day. She recognized the aerospace engineer turned professor easily from his description and Nyssa’s investigative file. “It’s so good to finally meet you! I’ve been looking forward to this meeting.” She smiled and took the tall man’s hand that he had thrust out.

“Let me express what a privilege it is to meet you, Ms. Undomiel. I am a big fan of yours.” Christian circled the table and held a chair out for her.

“Please, call me Dakota.” She ordered coffee to start from a waiter who appeared at her elbow. “I brought you a small gift that I hope will both amuse and educate you.” DK presented Christian with a DVD of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. “This is the Dr. Indiana Jones to which your colleagues compare you to. In my opinion, it’s an honorable and fine comparison. You should be pleased.”

“Well, Harrison Ford is a rather handsome man, if that’s the comparison, I’m quite pleased,” he laughed. “You have to excuse me, I am trying to keep my composure here. It’s not often you meet an author who your first years’ have read and had to write essays about her writing.”

“Wait, your first year students have to write essays about my writing?”

“Of course, when I was trying to teach how personal narrative can elevate writing. You know, write what you know? I came across some of your essays. I was hooked. I became a fan immediately. You would be surprised how many of my students were shocked to learn that what you were writing about was actually true. Either way, spending four weeks dissecting your essays was fun for me and my students. They were very jealous when I told them I was meeting you. Oh my, I sound like a fanboy.”

 

Dakota laughed. “That’s sweet of you. I am surprised though, I wrote those never really expecting anyone to read them, even when they were published in small market media. But I’m very glad they made an impact. I always believed that writing what one knows is valuable. Essays can be a good way to build a portfolio and develop one’s voice.” She flashed a smile at Christian. “And you can tell your students I said so.”

“I cannot help but feel like I am being watched very closely. Your security detail, I gather?”

“Yes, an unfortunate aspect to my infamy, I suppose. I suspect they’ll be a regular part of my life now.” She glanced down at the notebook under her hand and played with one corner. “I do miss being able to get up and go whenever I feel like it. Any other time, I might have just dashed off to the library or the bookstore to start my research. Now my movements must be planned, scrutinized and re-worked to minimize exposure.” DK looked up from the table to study her lunch-mate. “But I wanted to meet with you not to gripe, but to mine your wisdom for a solution to my propulsion problem.”

 “Remember what I said, Ms. Undomiel, sometimes the solutions to the hardest scientific problems are the most simple things. I am flattered by your attention to detail and your willingness to do research to make the science correct. Sometimes I feel that people sacrifice the science to make the story, or sacrifice the story to make the science completely correct. I appreciate you are trying to achieve that perfect balance. It’s going to make your story wonderful to read.”

Dakota crossed one ankle over her lap. “I think an author should always assume that their readers are smart enough to know when they’re being lied to. It has been said that the novelist can do anything they want so long as they can make the reader believe it, but it should be done in a smart way that doesn’t insult the reader.”

“You would be surprised at how much I have read where the author is talking down to the reader, making themselves seem smarter than the reader. Then there is the opposite, it’s so simplistic, it feels as if their intelligence is being insulted.”

“Both of which make me throw a book across the room.” Dakota chuckled.

 

“Propulsion can actually be broken down quite simply. Let’s think about a car of today. In order for a car’s engine to run, it needs three things: It needs a power source, like a battery, it needs fuel, and it needs spark or ignition of the fuel. If you have all of those things, any kind of propulsion is possible.”

“Do you think that an engine can be powered by non-solar light?”

“I take it you have been doing some research, you have been fiddling with that notebook for a while. I suppose anything is possible. What did you have in mind?”

“I’m fascinated by the concept of using residual human current, and I think if we could find a way to use it to power batteries, or even the engine itself somehow, it would eliminate the need for solar sails or fuel at all.”

 Christian shrugged. “There are differing theories on how much electrical current a human can produce. I believe the maximum is 100 millivolts, but I could be wrong. Compare that to the battery in your car, which is a full 12 volts and even higher when the alternator is engaged. Could there be a way to harness and save even the smallest amount of human energy? Absolutely! One thing that you could consider is another biologic that gives off current. An eel, for instance, can produce 600 volts. With something like that, you have ultimately solved your power problem.”

“An eel? Really? Hmm. Without having a tank of frustrated eels on-board a space-faring ship, what other biologic would be plausible?”

“To be honest, the only biologics that produce electricity are your sea-faring creatures. I can see where the eel tank could be an issue, though. The other option is to find a way that would integrate the power of the human heart or the human brain as a source. At that point, especially with brain involvement, who is to say that the ship would not truly be integrated with the pilot?”

 

Dakota sat back in her chair, slightly stunned at the implications. “I hadn’t thought about that! A ship whose power originates with the pilot’s own electrical current and is controlled by a brain-computer interface would be...monumentally ground-breaking!” She blinked a few times, then flipped open her notebook to a clean page and began to jot notes to herself as she mumbled. “Electrodes could act as the interface…inside a skullcap with the helmet placed over that...wire harness down the back connecting the pilot to the ship...pilots would have to be trained...biofeedback...”

Christian watched, amused, as the woman across the table from him rode out the wave of inspiration.

Finally, she set her pen down. “It probably wouldn’t shock you to find out I’ve looked into the menu here. Did you know they rotate their culinary choices as season dictates?””

Christian motioned to the waiter and the young man brought them menus. “When I come to the States, I always try to find a really good cheeseburger. Maybe that is a bit unrefined, but you can barely find one that is edible in London,” he chuckled.

Dakota ordered the tilapia and whiskey without so much as glancing at the list of lunch choices. When the waiter had gone off to place their orders, shesat back in her chair and studied the man across from her. “What made you leave a field that you are so clearly brilliant in?”

 

“I got out of engineering and aerospace because it was not my love anymore. I’ve always loved to write, and I love to teach. Engineering is a very competitive field, almost cutthroat. The last straw for me was when I had an issue with one of my more unscrupulous colleagues. Research that I had spent nearly three years doing for Boeing went missing. If you can imagine three years of your work just vanishing into the ether, you could understand my anger and frustration. I had worked on a design for a jet engine that ran on a quarter of the fuel that a normal engine ran on. Think of a hybrid car but on a much larger scale. I had nothing to show them when the time came. Six months later, one of my colleagues was in front of the Boeing board, presenting my ideas, right down to the formulas and designs. I could do nothing about it. I couldn’t prove that it was my ideas. It was that very day that I decided that I’m relatively young, I have done what I had to do and now I am going to spend my days doing what I want to do.”

Dakota shook her head. “Plagiarism is abhorrent and the laziest form of theft I can think of. I’m sorry that happened to you. You have a very sharp mind. From what I understand, you were a brilliant mind in aerospace.”

 

“I should like to meet your fiance someday.”

“She’d be glad to meet you as well and have a face to put to your name.” DK said as the waiter brought her whiskey and Christian’s water.

“Yes, I can imagine she would like to know who the mysterious Brit you have been corresponding with is. Obviously you are in the limelight, maybe not for the greatest of reasons, but does it get, I don’t know, strange having both of you balancing the spotlight? Do you ever just want it all to go away?”

“All the attention and scrutiny we’re under does make us appreciate the time we do get to spend together just being us. She is far more used to being in the public eye than I am, so she’s very conscious of the potential impact of everything she does, from her fashion choices to what she eats. I’m still learning how to be comfortable as the topic of posts on Twitter and Instagram, rather than the poster of such things.” She said as she emptied half of her glass.

 

“Wait until the fan fics start,” he said with a chuckle.

Dakota rolled her eyes. “Oh heavens. I’m not sure they would be in my favor. I’ve already gotten messages via social media from some of Ashlyn’s fans telling me I don’t belong with her. Some of what they write makes me shake my head. But I will admit to a small amount of pride that she chose me. I wonder what I did to deserve my success, and Ashlyn herself, at all.”

“From my vantage point, it looks like hard work, belief, and an unbreakable spirit. You earned your spot, don’t let anyone tell you differently.”

“Thank you.” DK smiled. “That’s kind of you to say.” She motioned to the waiter and pointed surreptitiously to her glass. “So my security head tells me you have family in Florida?”

“Why yes, I do. My mother still lives in Miami, still in the same home I lived in as a child. My sister goes to the University of Central Florida in Orlando. I try to visit as often as I can. I plan to spend a month there over the holidays.”

“So would it be safe to say that we’ll have the opportunity to consult and work together again, assuming my security team clears you?”

“I don’t see that as a problem at all,” he said, with a little uneasiness in his voice at the words she used.

Dakota smiled as the waiter placed another whiskey in front of her and left. “I’m pleased to hear that. Is there anything I should know about before my security head reports back to me?”

Christian sighed heavily and looked off into the distance, a look of shame overtaking him. “There might be something in my background that pops up. Nothing ever came of it, but it will probably still be there. I trust your security team is going to dig pretty deeply on anyone who enters your life, so I assume everything in my life is up for grabs.”

DK smiled even wider. “Well, it’s not like I have no skeletons in my closet, so I’m not worried.”

“Are you sure? You might not like what you find out, especially given the current situation.”

“Christian, relax. I already know.” She gestured off-handedly. “I used to reside behind iron bars, one of my friends has an equally interesting past with authorities...do I strike you as a person worried about such things? There are questions I ask just to see what answer I’ll be given, and how the answer is delivered.”

“I guess I’ve just never wanted to re-visit that chapter in my life. It was a very ugly time for me. Very few people know about it. I think people would always assume the worst if it were really made public domain.”

“As they have with Hope. We all have things in our past we are not proud of. What matters is what we do with the rest of our time.”

“Hope?”

“Hope Solo is one of the most misunderstood female soccer players in the U.S right now. I have been fortunate enough to get to know a side of her that many others may never see. Many have judged her harshly for actions in her past.”

“I have read about her and seen some of the interviews. When you are in the public eye like she is, your life is not confined to your own country. Unfortunately, the press is never kind to her and that is a shame. When I have seen her on the television or even in some pictures, I see a very conflicted person. Someone who is trying so hard to smile and be a hard-ass, but inside is probably wanting to just cry her eyes out. I am glad she has someone to talk to.”

“It’s funny, when I was introduced to her, I saw right through her walls, as much as I understood her need for them. Did you know she saved my life?”

“The version we got in the UK papers was clipped and not very detailed. I knew she had, but only because someone else told me about it. I read the real story in the Toronto Sun.”

 

Dakota drained her glass without effort before folding her hands on the table in front of her. “In the moment, we thought the bullet was intended for her. But Hope kept me alive on that curb until the ambulance got there. I was convinced that death waited for me. I even made Ali promise to make sure Ashlyn didn’t give up. I did die, two heart attacks in surgery...but as much as the doctor told me they fought to bring me back, she also told me that Hope saved my life. Without her, I would not be here today. So when you stand in front of your students again, tell them what I’ve told you, and tell them not to waste time.”

Christian sat there with his mouth agape, really unsure what to say and took a giant gulp of his water. “If I ever get to meet Hope, I want to give her a hug. For someone so young, you have more perspective than my colleagues who are 30-40 years your senior.” Whenever Christian felt unsure of what to say, he went right into work mode, being a nerd his defense mechanism. “Think about this, think about how hard your body fought to keep you alive. How your heart and brain were able to be restarted on that operating table. Granted, there was something that had to restart you, but your heart had to have your brain tell it to keep going. Ponder for a second the amount of power your brain has to have to restart your heart from nothing, now think about that power as it relates to a ship being integrated to its pilot.”

DK nodded. “I see your point, and I see our lunch approaching!”

 

Christian’s eyes grew wide at the sight of three quarters of a pound of beef smothered in cheese slowly making it’s way towards him.

Dakota chuckled. “Not as large over there?”

“I personally don’t even think it’s real beef anymore.” he replied with a grin.

“Ugh. I don’t think I could ever be a vegetarian, or even just switch to soy. I would miss my cheeseburgers too much.”

“Without attempting to offend multiple religions, I feel that cows are good for nice shoes, baseball gloves, and food.”

As their lunches were placed on the table in front of them, DK nodded in agreement and changed the topic again. “There is a type of dry-electrode arrangement mounted in a skullcap that virtual reality environment designers have utilized, I wonder if that might serve the same purpose for a brain to machine interface?”

“The concept is sound and frankly, I think your idea is brilliant, but instead of the electrode putting the images in front of you that it wants you to react to, could it be done in reverse? Then you are controlling what is going on in that environment.”

“There have been medical studies done on humans over the course of many years that have proven the brain’s impulses can control a prosthetic limb, so there is a basis for plausibility.” She laid her napkin over her lap and asked the server for another whiskey as Christian eyed the removal of Dakota’s empty glass. “I think it’s completely believable to have a pilot control a ship with a brain to machine interface, it’s already been hinted at in popular culture, albeit many years ago. But let’s enjoy our lunches before they get cold, and then we’ll get back to business, shall we?”

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

Once their meals had been finished and their plates cleared away, Dakota leaned back in her chair. “So how much do you follow the U.S Women’s National Team from over there? Have you seen the video of Ash’s proposal?” She smiled.

“I did see the video of that. It was really nice, but I have to say, the look on your face was perplexing and funny. A mixture of thrill, overwhelming joy, and abject terror,” he laughed. “I am positive you weren’t expecting that judging from your reaction. I showed the video to my class on YouTube. Lots of ‘awww’ and some sniffling. In the U.K., obviously the Premier League is the biggest draw, but I have always had a fondness for women’s soccer. It obviously doesn’t hurt that the U.S. Women’s team isn’t hard to look at, that’s for sure.”

DK chuckled. “That’s certainly true.” As they chatted, a tall, dark haired woman dressed in dark pants and a blazer approached their table and smiled thinly. “Miss Undomiel, you will come with me please.”

Dakota looked up into amber-hued eyes that made her blood run cold. “No, thank you. I’m fine right here.”

The woman continued to smile as she opened her jacket just enough for the butt of a pistol to show, and she leaned forward to murmur quietly. “I’m quite sure you wouldn’t want anything to happen to your charming companion here, would you? Come along, make it look like we’re having a good time and he won’t get hurt.”

“I think she said no, and ma’am you don’t frighten me,” Christian said sternly through gritted teeth, not phased by the sight of the gun, and put his hand on DK’s wrist. He began nervously tapping “S-O-S” in morse code on the table with his free hand, but it seemingly went unheard.

 

Dakota’s gaze flicked up hurriedly to Nyssa, standing behind Christian, and across the room. DK sat ramrod straight, staring hard at her bodyguard, hoping the other woman could read the alarm in her demeanour.

“Give your bodyguard even one signal and we will murder everyone you hold dear.” The stranger whispered.

“Will you excuse me, Dr. Jones?” Dakota said with a sinking feeling. As she rose and took a step away from the table, the threatening woman walked close to her right side. “So what is this, a kidnapping? Going to hold me for ransom?”

“Out the door, please, and don’t try any heroics. I can shoot you faster than you could fight me off.”

“Not a kidnapping then. You planning on murdering me?” Dakota didn’t lower her voice, she wanted others to hear their conversation in case Nyssa wasn’t right behind them.

Christian began gesticulating wildly, getting the security detail’s attention and rose from the table before he was pushed back down into his seat by a couple sets of hands.

 

“You’re smarter than that, Miss Undomiel, you know there’s a bounty on your head. You’re worth far more to me dead than alive.” The stranger replied as they reached the door. “Toward the black BMW in the north corner of the lot, please.”

With every step closer to the car, Dakota’s heart sank a little more. Nyssa hadn’t seen, hadn’t understood the look and now she was going to be driven away to her death. “You have to know that I’ll put up a fight, and you may overpower me in the end, but I’ll make sure I break as many of your bones as I can before I die.” Dakota shuffled a little slower as she spoke, trying to buy her security team time to figure out what was going on.

Her abductor scoffed, but before she was able to say anything, a strong voice rang out behind them. “Stop right there! Take your gun out of the holster and toss it to the ground!”

 

Dakota saw the woman startle and she used her momentary distraction to shove her sideways, then scurry as best she could behind the front end of the black car. Adam, the junior member of her security team, was moving quickly toward the stranger, his gun out and at the ready. The stranger was rising from the ground, her hand already going inside her coat to pull her gun. As her line of sight landed on Adam, she started to say something, “You! You’re...”

A single shot rang out and she fell.

“You alright, Miss Undomiel?” Adam called out as Nyssa came running up.

Dakota slumped with relief. “Yeah...” She watched a pool of blood spread under the dark-haired woman’s body, horrified how close she had come yet again to dying. “Who was she?”

 

Nyssa turned to Adam and held out a bandana. “You’ll need to surrender your gun, for the police, I suspect they’ll be here soon. Go get a blanket from our car and cover the body. I’m sure this is being recorded by now.”

Adam placed his gun in the bandana without comment and went to retrieve the blanket while Nyssa bent to feel for a pulse. “I thought so.” Then she reached inside the jacket to pull a wallet out. “Her I.D says she’s Elise Ryan from British Columbia.” Dropping the woman’s wallet onto her chest, beside the cloth-covered gun, Nyssa straightened as Adam approached with the blanket. “It was a clean shot, Adam, but you know there will be an investigation. I expect you to co-operate with the authorities, and of course you’ll be on paid administrative leave until you’re cleared.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Adam said as he covered the body with the blanket.

They could hear sirens drawing closer as Nyssa approached the shell-shocked writer. “Are you alright?”

DK nodded, staring at the blanket-covered lump on the concrete. “Yeah...”

“Miss Undomiel...Dakota...” Nyssa reached out and laid a hand on DK’s arm. “Do you need to sit down?”

Dakota blinked, suddenly aware that her bodyguard had used her first name. “What? No...I’m okay. I feel badly for leaving Christian alone like that...”

“He tried to give chase. Two of our detail had to keep him restrained in the restaurant. He wasn’t happy about that at all. He keeps asking if you’re okay.” Nyssa replied.

 

As police cars arrived, she walked the short distance to meet the first officers on the scene. Dakota could faintly hear the explanation she was providing and even as she saw her bodyguard hand over her identification and concealed carry permit, the writer turned her attention back to the body of the woman who had intended to kill her. The woman who had threatened to kill everyone special to her.

“Dakota?”

DK turned toward the familiar voice and was surprised to find Eve Tanik a short distance away. “Eve? What are you doing here?”

“Are you alright?”

“Everyone keeps asking me that...” DK started to shake.

“Maybe because you don’t look so good.” Eve reached out and laid a hand along Dakota’s arm. “Where’s your coat?”

“Inside...she...” DK pointed to the body. “She didn’t exactly let me grab it when she insisted I leave with her.”

“Okay, come with me. I’m going to put you in the mobile support unit, we’ll get you a cup of something warm and get your jacket for you.” Eve put her arm around the writer and guided her to the modified van.

“Christian...he’s still inside...someone should tell him...”

“I’ll tell him.” Eve looked up as a door in the support van opened and someone stuck their head out. “Victim is going into a mild case of shock I think. Can you settle her with a cup of cocoa? I’m going to retrieve her coat.” A female officer nodded and helped DK into the van and into a seat.

“Dakota, I’ll be right back.” Eve reassured her.

 

****

 

On her way back to the support van, Eve fished Dakota’s phone from her jacket pocket and scrolled through her contacts until she found ‘Ash’. Once she hit the dial icon, it was only three steps until Ashlyn answered.

“Hey there, Babe! How’s your lunch going?”

“Miss Harris, it’s Detective Tanik.”

“Detective...how...?”

“I’ll explain later. I need you to come down to the Marriott in Georgetown. Dakota is fine, but she’s starting to slip into a mild case of shock.”

“Shock? What the hell happened?”

“Someone tried to abduct your girlfriend.”

“You’re sure she’s okay?”

“As sure as I can be.”

“Tell her I’m on my way.”

 

Eve climbed into the van and draped Dakota’s coat over her shoulders. “Ashlyn is on her way. She’s going to take you home. Can you tell me what happened?”

“We were having lunch and talking...she just...showed up...smiled kinda creepy at me and demanded I go with her. When I refused, she implied that she would hurt Christian, and said if I tipped Nyssa off, they would murder everyone I hold dear.”

“Who is ‘they’?” Eve asked as she took notes.

“I don’t know.” Dakota trembled even as a cup of hot chocolate was pressed into her hand. “As were walking toward the door, I asked if she was kidnapping me, in a normal tone, hoping others around us would hear. She told me I was worth more dead to her than alive. She talked about the bounty like I knew all about it.”

“Do you?”

DK sipped at the warm cup before nodding. “Yeah. Nyssa and Miranda showed us the page on the deep web. Someone broke into the apartment the other night, took a photo of us sleeping and emailed it to me.”

“Sounds like things are escalating.” Eve observed.

Dakota looked up then. “We’re leaving DC. Ash got an offer from a new club in Orlando, and we’re taking it. I know the bounty hunters will follow us wherever we go, but it’s the boost her career needs.”

A knock on the door interrupted.

“You finish that, okay?” Eve pointed to the cup in DK’s hands. I’ll be right back.” She looked at the female officer sitting quiet at the back of the van. “Stay with her.”

 

The officer nodded. “Yes, Ma’am.”

When Eve climbed out of the van, a blast of cold air slammed into her. “Damnit, it’s getting cold already.”

“Tell me about it. I think I’m glad we’re going to Florida tomorrow.” Nyssa said as she blew into her hands. “Did she tell you what happened?”

Eve nodded. “You didn’t tell either of them I was coming.”

Nyssa made a face. “Things got busy…”

“We need to tell them...all of it. Everything we’ve found, the angles we’re investigating, your offer to me…”

Nyssa sighed. “I know. Just, not right now. Ashlyn is going to be pissed off at me enough that this went as far as it did.”

“Here she comes now.” Eve said as the blonde was stopped by officers protecting the crime scene. Finally, they let her through and she drove the Jeep slowly to where the others waited.

 

When she got out, she slammed the door. “What the hell happened?”

Nyssa stepped forward. “A woman approached their table and insisted that Dakota go with her. Apparently she threatened to hurt everyone Miss Undomiel cares about if she didn’t cooperate. So she complied. When they got out here, one of the security detail who was already out here distracted her. Dakota shoved her off her feet and got out of the way. Adam shot the would-be abductor.” Nyssa pointed to the lump not far away.

“She’s dead?” Ash asked shortly.

“Quite.”

“Good. Now, where’s Dakota?”

“She’s waiting for you in the mobile support van. An officer is with her.” Eve nodded to the van nearby.

Ash turned toward the van before suddenly spinning back toward Nyssa. “One question...where were you?”

“A few feet behind them. Watching for an opportunity that would not have endangered innocent bystanders.”

 

Behind them? And what if she had shot Dakota in the restaurant, or as soon as they got out to the parking lot?” Ashlyn yelled. “What if this psychobitch had gunned down DK halfway across the lot? But your junior guy takes her down just like that? I trusted you to keep her safe, Nyssa!”

Dakota heard her girlfriend yelling and struggled upright. She fought briefly with the door but eventually wrestled it open. “Ash!” She very nearly fell out of the van, but couldn’t care less as she felt strong arms circle her as she tucked her head against Ashlyn’s collarbone.

“I’ve got you, babe, you’re okay now.”

Dakota wanted to give in to the onslaught of emotions, but she knew the restaurant windows were full of cameras. Especially now that a certain distinctive blonde goalkeeper had shown up.

 

Christian was struggling to get out of the restaurant, almost fighting off some of the security force to see if his new friend was safe. Cell phones were snapping his picture repeatedly, further agitating him. It was easy to hear him yelling “piss off” over the commotion as his British football hooligan side was emerging. He was stopped by a police officer and was trying to explain himself, but it seemed that the officer was not paying attention, despite Dr. Jones being nearly a foot taller than him.

DK raised her head and peered out from her sanctuary. As soon as she realised what the ruckus was she half-turned to Eve. “Can you get them to let Christian through, please?”

In answer, the detective put two fingers to her mouth and let loose with a sharp whistle. Once the officer looked her way, she pointed and then waved back toward her. The message was received and Christian was allowed through.

 

“Wanker,” he said as he passed the tiny policeman. “Ms. Undomiel, are you alright? I tried to follow you out of the restaurant, but I was held down in my seat.” He put his hand on her shoulder and the concern in his voice was palpable, and he looked like he was fighting back tears of frustration at not being able to do more.

“Other than my tilapia trying to swim back up, I’m fine. Thank you for trying, I’m sure they wanted to keep you from harm’s way as well.” Dakota tried to reassure the professor.

“This might have ruined cheeseburgers for me.”

DK gave him a small smile. “We’ll have to have cheeseburgers on another occasion when they can’t be ruined, and I thought I asked you to call me Dakota? Ashlyn, this is Christian. Chris, Ashlyn Harris.”

Christian, becoming more serious, engulfed Ash and Dakota in a tight hug that surprised them both. “I’m so sorry this happened, Ms. Harris. I cannot imagine what you must be thinking or feeling right now.”

Ashlyn’s eyebrows skyrocketed in surprise. “Umm...thank you for trying to follow DK. It’s good to finally meet you. She talks about you a lot.” Ash patted the Brit on the back and smiled as he pulled back a little. “Yeah, you do look like that Adam guy.”

“Lallana? Yes, I get that alot, but I still don’t see it. I apologize for the hug, us half Brits are known to be a little cold, but it’s not everyday that someone you are having lunch with is led away forcefully. I’m a little shaken. My southern American side must have taken over for a second. I’m just happy she is alright. She looks like she is in good hands.”

“I’m sorry you had to be a part of that, Christian.” Dakota apologised.

“Not a word, Dakota. You have nothing to be sorry for.”

 

“She threatened to hurt you. I’m fairly sure when you agreed to meet for lunch, you weren’t planning on this sort of afternoon.”

“I was serious when I said she didn’t frighten me, gun or not. Protecting you was priority one.”

“Funny you should say that...I just wanted everyone else to be safe. The further we got into the parking lot, the more I thought my time had finally come. At least everyone else was safe.”

“You’re going to be here for a long time if I or your fiance has anything to say about it. You have a good support system. I’ll put my own money up for it if you need your security detail tightened up a little.”

“Oh, there’ll be tightening…” Ash muttered.

Eve smiled at Christian then. “Would you mind giving the police a statement, sir? They have some questions.”

“Call one of them over, I have plenty to say to them! Oi, you, wanker! Come here! Here’s my statement. Tilapia, cheeseburger, whiskey, water, propulsion, biofeedback, integrated cranial computer, woman, gun, woman dead in street, pointless questions about why I am here, you’re incredibly short. Piss off. Statement over!”

“How was that?” Christian asked Eve.

“That was very...enthusiastic.” She deadpanned.

“I try,” Christian replied dryly. “Who ordered those security agents to hold me in my seat? I was clearly NOT the threat.”

“That was Adam.” Nyssa replied. “He jumped on the comm before I had a chance.”

“He shot her while she was saying something…” DK mumbled. “I couldn’t hear it all.”

“Where is he?” Ashlyn asked. “I want bitch-slap someone…” Then she looked down at Dakota. “You’re shaking.”

“I need a drink.”

“Are you sure about that?” Christian said with a raised eyebrow.

“Very sure. That hotel doesn’t have nearly enough whiskey to keep up with me.”

 

To be continued!


Chapter Text

Christian looked over to the front door of the restaurant where the waiter was waving the check around. “Are you bloody joking? Charge it to my room! What the actual fuck is wrong with you people?” He breathed out heavily. “I’m sorry, I don’t usually talk like this. There are just a million things I just don’t understand about what happened.”

“For the sake of everyone’s privacy, let’s just step behind the van here, okay?” Eve held out an arm as a guiding gesture and they all stepped behind the van so none of the gathering reporters at the police tape could get a clear photo. Nyssa and Eve turned their backs to them, allowing the three of them some small measure of privacy while keeping an eye on the parking lot. Dakota took the opportunity and whispered in Ash’s ear.

The blonde didn’t hesitate, but nodded and turned to face the feisty professor. “Dr. Jones, we’re leaving for Florida tomorrow, but we’d be honored if you’d like to finish your visit at our home.” Then she smiled in amusement. “There is a furnished, unoccupied apartment on the same floor as ours, you’re welcome to stay there for more privacy if you like.”

“There are a lot of unrented apartments on our floor…” Dakota said quietly.

Ashlyn looked down at her girlfriend. “Oh, I never said those were unrented.”

“You rented…?”

“The three closest to ours as they came available.” Ash nodded.

 

“Thank you for the offer,” Christian shook his head slightly. “But I don’t want to impose. I am not sure if staying here is going to be the best thing for me as I am sure it will be crawling with reporters before too long, I was just going to go to another hotel outside of the city. If you are sure you and Dakota don’t object, I will take you up on your offer and make other arrangements for tomorrow and beyond. I’ll just need to check out of here and make some phone calls. Definitely in no mood to meet with my literary manager tomorrow.” Christian pulled his phone from his pocket. He dreaded what was going to be on the screen. 27 missed calls, 70 texts. He called the one number that would be the most important: his assistant, Jen.

“Jen? It’s me. Are you crying? I’m fine dear, really. What have you heard? Word travels fast, I guess. Wait, what? What do you mean? Why? Ugh. Just give them access to whatever they need. Do me a favor and cancel my meeting with David tomorrow. Thank you, you’re the best. I’ll call later. Don’t worry about me, I’m fine. Goodbye.”

 

“Excuse me?” Christian pinned Nyssa with a glare and a very agitated tone. “Why did a member of your team request my detailed financials? I understand why you did the background check, but why on earth do you need to know about my net worth? That is private!”

“I apologize, Dr. Jones, but I’m sure my team was only being thorough. You have my assurances that we’ll treat your information with discretion.”

“Thorough? Thorough was the first time they were requested!” Dr. Jones hissed through gritted teeth.

“I’m sure that whoever requested that information felt they were looking after Miss Undomiel’s safety. There are so many unknowns these days after all.” Eve reached out a hand.

Dakota spoke slowly. “Christian, you have my word that no one else will know whatever my security detail found. Isn’t that right, Miss Quinn?”

“Absolutely, Miss Undomiel. Dr. Jones, you have my most sincere apologies.”

****

“Ms. Harris, can I talk to you for a minute?” Chris touched Ash’s elbow as they were about to walk around the end of the mobile support van.

“Of course.” Ashlyn turned to DK and smiled. “Would you wait for us in the car? We’ll be just a minute, okay?”

Dakota swayed a little on her feet, until Nyssa clasped her elbow. “Sure…”

Eve reached out and took DK’s other arm. “Come on, Dakota, you look like you need to sit down. Let’s wait for Miss Harris in the car, okay?”

Ash watched a small flicker of fatigue cross her girlfriend’s features as she nodded and allowed herself to be guided to the SUV.

 

Christian waited until the vehicle’s doors were closed before he turned to face the blonde goalkeeper. “I’m concerned about Dakota. During our lunch, she had at least three double whiskeys that I can remember and I am afraid she is going down a self-destructive path to deal with everything that is happening around her. I’ve seen this type of behavior. Hell, I’ve done it and it never has a positive ending. She is a brilliant writer. I don’t want anything to happen to her. Please, you are a strong woman, you can tell her when enough is enough. At this rate, she won’t be around to enjoy your marriage for very long.”

Ash frowned and sighed. “I thought she was past it…”

“Think about everything that has gone on in the last few weeks. Would you not be looking for a way to cope? I am actually surprised she is well enough to even think about a new book, much less think of something so involved.”

“That’s Dakota though...intense, no matter what she’s doing.” Ashlyn sighed again. “I know she runs to extremes, I knew when we started dating, but...wait, what do you mean ‘well enough’?” She rubbed the back of her neck in frustration.

“She is intense, I will give you that. But how many books on propulsion and aerodynamics did she get before she and I met so she would have something to say? It’s beyond that now, I’m afraid. She is obsessing, hyperfocused. And she looks exhausted from fighting some internal battle that we are not privy to.”

“Hyperfocused? You think so?”

 

Christian put his hands in his pockets and pressed on. “Does she go to bed at a normal hour? Or do you find her drooling on her notepad most nights? Have you checked where you keep your liquor to see if there is any left? She’s going to crash and it’s not going to be pretty when she does. I’m saying this as a friend and colleague.”
Ashlyn looked at her feet for a minute, deep in thought before meeting his gaze again. “Yeah, she’s worked and slept erratic hours since we met, but I thought it was the night terrors and stuff. I don’t keep track of the bottles in the house, she’s an adult and she seems to still be in control. Even when she drank Hope under the table in Toronto.”

Chris took Ash’s hands and looked as deep into her eyes as he could. “I think she has resigned herself to the thought that she is going to have a much shorter life than the rest of us. I think she believes she needs to accomplish everything she wants in life in a very short amount of time. She is scared of leaving things unfinished. It’s going to be on you to slow her down, make her believe that she has all the time in the world and she needs to enjoy her life.”

Ash’s eyes had filled with tears. “But...she keeps telling me everything is going to work out. How am I supposed to convince her she has time when there is a bounty on her head and we can’t keep her safe during a simple lunch date?”

“I know you’re going to Florida tomorrow, and it is at least a twelve hour trip, so you’re going to have some time. You need to make sure you have some privacy and you need to talk to her. I suspect she has more on her mind than she is letting on. She loves you, and I can see you love her. You need to show her that you can be strong for her. She is like Icarus, except you can provide her somewhere soft to land when her wings catch fire.”

 

Ashlyn nodded. “I can do that. There’s no way we’re driving though. I know Nyssa and Eve would both object. They’ll insist we fly. It’s faster and there’ll be less risk. You seem to have some experience with this. I know you don’t really know me as well as you know Dakota, but I don’t suppose you’d like to come to Florida, would you?” Ash gave Chris a hopeful look.

“Well, I do have family down there. I could go surprise my little sister before I head back to finish term. I would love to, but…”

“But?”

“I am not sitting anywhere near the two of you. She will know I said something and I truly think you two really need this time alone together. I feel I would be a distraction for her to not deal with things. She would shift into work mode.Those are my terms.” He said, giving Ash a reassuring smile.

Ashlyn smiled back. “Deal.”

“I’m starving, had lunchus interruptus this afternoon. Why don’t you let me make dinner for you as a thank you for your hospitality?”

“You don’t have to …”

“I don’t have to do anything, I want to. Any food allergies I should be aware of?”

“DK doesn’t do lobster, she thinks they’re sea roaches. Other than that, nothing comes to mind.”

“That’s fine, I don’t cook large insects anyway. What about your friends and the security people? I would feel awkward not making enough for everyone.”

“When we all eat together, we seem to gravitate toward steak and/or pasta. We all tend to eat like we’re still playing, even in the off season. The security detail all work out. I think DK is going slightly crazy not being able to swim.”

“I run, well, limp, 3-4 miles a day, so I understand. I think I know what I can make, but you have to give me some room in the kitchen while the scientist is working. No interference!”

Ashlyn laughed and patted him on the shoulder. “You have my word. Why don’t you go check out? I’ll wait for you in the car. I’ll ask Eve to accompany you.”

“Thank you, Ms. Harris, I won’t be long, I promise. I didn’t pack too heavily.”

“That’s fine, no rush.”


Ashlyn opened the passenger door in the front. “Eve would you take Dr. Jones to his room and stay with him while he checks out? He’ll be coming back to the apartment. We’re going to put him up in one of the unoccupied apartments on our floor. Later on, I’d love to hear how you knew we needed you.”

Eve nodded. “Will we all ride together?”

“Sure, there’s room.” Ash nodded and got into the back to wait while Det. Tanik got out. The interior of the vehicle was quiet as Dakota snuggled into Ashlyn’s side and rested her head on the blonde’s shoulder. She sighed and within minutes had slipped into sleep.

“I know you aren’t happy with the way I did my job today...” Nyssa began.

“Later, Miss Quinn. I have a lot of questions, and I don’t think I’m ready to hear the answers right  now. But I do know I want a meeting with everyone back at the apartment. I want everyone on the same page, with the same information. Apparently we’re all being fed by Dr. Jones tonight, security staff included.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

 

To be continued!

Chapter Text

The drive back to the apartment building was a quiet one, the only sounds breaking the tense silence were Dakota’s occasional moans as she relieved some horror in her dream. As they pulled into the drive, Ashlyn gave Dakota a gentle shake. “DK...we’re home, time to wake up.”

“Hmm? Oh...yeah, I’m awake.”

They all waited inside the vehicle while Nyssa made sure they would have an unencumbered path upstairs. Finally she and Eve opened the back doors. “It’s all clear, folks.”

Ashlyn slid out of the back seat before helping Dakota out. She wrapped her inked arm around the writer’s shoulders and tucked her close. Nyssa went up the stairs ahead of them, alert for any threat, while Christian and Eve brought up the rear.

As they got to the top of the stairs, Ash turned to the professor. “Just let me get Dakota settled and I’ll show you where you’ll be staying.”

"Thank you again. I'm not going anywhere."

As they all filed into the apartment, Ash looked down at her girlfriend, but spoke to Christian. “She’s almost asleep on her feet. She needs to lay down for a bit. I’ll just be a minute, make yourself comfortable.”  

He studied the framed jerseys, awards, trophies and memorabilia from Ash's soccer travels. He was quite impressed with her accolades, but more impressed by the fact that despite all of her fame, she seemed as normal as any other woman he had met. Almost more normal, if there was such a thing. He also smiled and thought to himself that he was going to get DK on this wall of fame somehow, even if he had to hold her hand the entire time.

 

Ashlyn closed the bedroom door with her foot before steering her exhausted girlfriend over to the bed. “Sit down a minute, DK, let me take your shoes off.”

Dakota did as she had been asked and mumbled, “Really tired...”

“I know, babe. You rest for a while before dinner, okay? Here...lay down.” Ash took the folded blanket from the bottom of the bed and covered her with it before kissing her on the temple. “Sleep well, sweetheart.” As she smoothed the dark hair back from her lover’s brow, she could see little signs of stress that she had somehow missed before. A scattering of grey at Dakota’s temple and a few lines at the corner of her eye gave witness to the strain that she had been staggering under. Ashlyn shook her head sadly, disappointed in herself for missing what the British professor in her living room had picked up on.

****

“This will do nicely. Thank you for letting me stay here,” Chris said as they entered the apartment Ashlyn was letting him use. “I need to go to the grocery,” He said after unpacking his laptop and tablet and putting his bag in the bedroom. “I have big kitchen plans for this evening.”

“Of course, we can have an agent escort you.” Miranda smiled.

“You’re joking, right?” he spluttered. “I think I am more than capable of going to the grocery by myself. I just need a car. Please tell me you are joking.”

“Dr. Jones…”

I’m not the one being targeted. No one gives a rip about some professor from London! Taking someone away from here weakens the shield you should have around Dakota.”

“Christian…” Ashlyn put her hand on his shoulder. “If anything happened to you, DK might never forgive me. This afternoon was too close a call. Please, please let someone go with you. I would go myself, but I’m concerned about Dakota. I don’t want to leave her alone for too long right now.”

“Fine. Fine. Fine!” he conceded to Ash. “Just as long as it’s not that bloke who kept me restrained at the restaurant. He’ll be lucky if I don’t spit in his food.”

Ashlyn suppressed a chuckle.

 ****

 When he returned with his arms filled with multiple bags, Ashlyn, who had been standing in the hallway chatting with Miranda, raised an eyebrow. Christian just smiled and walked into his temporary home and locked the door behind him. She could hear the clattering of pans and his tablet playing heavy metal music. She shook her head slightly and turned to Miranda. “I’d like everyone in the security detail, except those watching the cameras obviously, in this apartment within ten minutes please.” She didn’t wait for an answer, but turned and went back into the apartment shutting the door firmly behind her. She went to the kitchen and hit the button on the coffeemaker before heading down the hall to the bedroom. Ash left the door open, allowing the room to be lit by the light from the rest of the apartment. Dakota was laying on her left side, back toward the door. Ash laid down on the gently undulating bed beside her girlfriend and tucked in close behind her. She rubbed DK’s side through the blanket.

“Babe, I know you need your sleep, but there’s going to be a meeting soon, and I thought you would want to be there.”

Dakota made an incoherent sound.

“Yeah, I know you do, and I’ll make sure we go to bed early tonight, okay? You want to get up now. The coffee is perking.”

Dakota stretched carefully and yawned. “I’m up.”

“Feel better?”

DK shot the blonde a curious look over her shoulder. “Yeah...why?”

“You were pretty out of it by the time we got home.”

“I’m still really tired.” Dakota sat up. “But at least my side doesn’t hurt anymore when I do that.”

“That’s great!”

“I’m going to wash my face, see if I can’t wake my brain up a little. Meet you in the kitchen?”

Ash sat up with a smile and rolled off the bed. “You bet.”

****

In just under the allotted ten minutes, everyone except Ali and Christian were assembled in Ashlyn’s and Dakota’s apartment. Even Hope, invited to stay and sitting beside DK on one of the sofas as they sipped at their coffee. There were security team members sitting on the floor and standing at the edges of the room, wondering why they were all there.

Eve, on a sofa across from Dakota, was fairly certain she knew why.

“I’ve asked you all here, so that we can all get on the same page.” Ash said, with a slightly raised voice. “To some degree I understand that this afternoon’s incident was unforeseen, but how did it get as far as it did?”

Nyssa explained, “The woman that approached Miss Undomiel somehow slipped under our radar and I thought it prudent that we minimize the potential for public danger and exposure…”

“I don’t give a rat’s ass about public exposure right now!” Ashlyn blurted out. “I expected your team to keep my girlfriend safe, not allow some nutjob with a gun to walk her to a car all the way across a parking lot! And while we’re on the topic, Adam, why did you order Christian restrained in his seat while you were apparently out in the parking lot?”

“I felt it was the best decision to keep Dr. Jones safe.”

“I’m sorry, the last time I checked, Miss Quinn gave the orders, not a security agent still wet behind the ears!” Ash’s voice was getting louder the more angry she got.

Hope watched Adam get red-faced, but not from embarrassment. He looked angry.

“I made a split second decision!” He spat as he crossed the room to where she stood.

“Based on what? Your extensive experience?” Ash snarled. “You put the woman I love in more danger than she was already in!” She closed the distance between them and she stood toe-to-toe with the man, a vein throbbing in her temple. “I don’t trust you and I sure as hell don’t want you anywhere near Dakota or our home! If it was up to me, your ass would have been fired already!”

“And everyone says I’m intimidating?” Hope murmured to Dakota.

Eve stood up and went to stand between Adam and Ashlyn. “Miss Harris, perhaps we should just take a few breaths…”

Ash flicked a glance at Eve, then at Dakota, sitting wide-eyed across the room before turning away and taking three steps across the room.

 

“Miss Quinn, was there something you wanted to say?” Eve suggested as she turned toward Nyssa.

“Adam, you ordered Dr. Jones restrained without authority or eyes on the scene. You could have detained the abductor after disarming her, but instead, you chose to kill her…”

“I did what I thought was right!” Adam yelled.

“You were trained better than that!” Nyssa raised her voice as well. “Miss Harris is entirely correct. Miss Undomiel was in greater danger than she should have been. We failed her. Turn in your credentials, and pack. You’re going home, and you’re doing it unemployed.”

“You can’t fire me!” He hollered as his face turned a dusky red.

“I just did!” Nyssa fired back loudly before she got her temper and voice under control. “Now get out.”

They all watched as Adam left, with one of Nyssa’s men close behind him. When the door had shut behind them, Nyssa turned to Ashlyn. “Miss Harris, I am profoundly sorry. I offer my resignation as the lead agent, but Eve is available and willing to take my place.”

Ash paced slowly to where Detective Tanik stood. “Is this true?”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Eve nodded. “But I’d like to keep Nyssa on, if you have no objection.”

“None at all.” Ash walked over and stood in front of Nyssa. “I’m not accepting your resignation, Miss Quinn. Adam’s behaviour isn’t your fault.”

“Excuse me,” Dakota stood up. “As the body being guarded, do I not get a say?”

“Of course.” Eve and Nyssa said together as Ashlyn verbally stumbled over her apologies for not considering what Dakota wanted.

“I’m glad you’re here, Eve. Nyssa, I don’t accept your resignation either. This afternoon was … stressful, but I hope you’ll stay on. Detective, how did you know we needed you?” Dakota asked.

“Miss Quinn called me.”

“We have a couple of issues, Adam’s behaviour demonstrated that, and I wanted someone who could lead the team that you trusted while I dealt with the issues that have been compromising your safety.” Nyssa said.

****

Christian was a scientist in the kitchen, measuring everything carefully and tasting everything after he added an ingredient. After nearly two hours of prep, cooking and cleanup, his filet mignon mushroom gorgonzola linguini alfredo was complete. He also prepared a caesar salad for everyone and had chosen bottles of wine for the table, although he knew he wouldn’t be drinking it and neither would the security team. For them, he got an assortment of sodas and waters. He could hear a little of the conversation in the apartment, which made him a little apprehensive about knocking on the door. He knocked and was met by the steely gaze of security personnel. “Um, sorry to interrupt, I have dinner prepared, but I am sorely lacking in dishes to serve them on and I think I used every single pot and pan in the apartment. Got any ideas to solve this conundrum?”

Ashlyn turned and surveyed the crowd in her apartment, and as she opened her mouth, Nyssa spoke up. “My staff can eat in our apartment, that should free up room for all of you…” She was interrupted by another knock at the door just before it swung open and Ali popped inside. “The hallway out there smells amazing!”

Dakota indicated Chris and said. “That’s our culinary Maestro. Ali, this is Dr. Christian Jones. Christian...this is Ali Krieger.”

“Wonderful to meet you, Ms. Krieger, and I hope it tastes as good to you as it smells.”

Ali flashed him a bright smile and reached out to shake his hand. “I’m sure it’ll taste wonderful!”

Nyssa cleared her throat and asked her staff to clear the room. “Those of you on shift will return to your duties. You’ll be able to eat at your next designated break time. Now is not the time to relax vigilance. Once Detective Tanik is brought up to speed on our operations, you’ll be answering to her until further notice. That’s all.”

“I’ve made more than plenty, so don’t worry, there will be enough to go around,” Christian offered.

Dakota listened to the security staff mumble as they filed out, then she turned to Eve and Nyssa. “You’ll both be eating with us, right? We have lots of room.”

“Of course, I’ll need some help bringing things over from the other apartment.” Ash interjected. “Hope, you’ve dealt with the table-leaf before, could you get that?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll start setting up in here.” Ali offered.

 

Dakota held a hand up to forestall everyone for just a minute. “Before everyone takes off...Hope, I don’t think you’ve been properly introduced to my friend. This is Dr. Christian Jones, formerly an aerospace engineer, but now professor and invaluable brilliant mind. Chris, this is Hope Solo.”

Christian looked at Hope and immediately noticed her eyes. He started feeling nervous around her, without even knowing her. He knew of her, but seeing her picture and her in person were entirely different things.He hadn’t felt awkward around anyone in quite some time. He extended his hand for her to shake and opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He shook her hand and she looked like she was waiting to hear something from him that would never come out. He was embarrassed and wanted to run.  

“Hi.” Hope said softly, a little afraid she might spook the man.

“Hello,” he said, almost in a choked whisper.

“I’m pretty sure she doesn’t bite, Chris.” DK stage-whispered. “Then again, I’m not sure. The captions under those nude shots never did say…”

Hope rolled her blue eyes. “Undomiel…”

“Um, right. Yes,” Christian felt like he was twelve and trying to talk to a grammar school crush. He shot DK a ‘help me’ look.  

Dakota tried to smother a mischievous grin as she patted the red-faced Brit on the back. “It’s okay, really. Hope puts her shoes on just like the rest of us.”

Eve spoke up. “Well, let’s get going before the good doctor’s head explodes.” She, Chris, Nyssa and Ash started toward the door, but at the last minute, Nyssa mumbled that she had forgotten something and would be right behind them. She turned abruptly back inside the apartment and followed Ali into the kitchen. Dakota smiled to herself and helped Hope with the table so that Ali and Nyssa might have a minute alone.

****

Once everyone was seated, Dakota noticed there was a bottle of water in front of her plate. She was sure she had placed a wine glass there earlier. She glanced up and met Christian’s steady gaze. Everyone else was focused on their meal so DK followed suit. Various murmurs expressing how good the meal was were heard around the table.

“Christian, this is likely the best meal I’ve ever had outside a restaurant!” Ashlyn said appreciatively.

“Thank you very much. I try just as hard in the kitchen as I used to in the lab. Everything must be perfect,” he said with a laugh.

“It is perfect.” Dakota agreed with a nod before she stood and went into the kitchen to retrieve a wineglass. When she came back to the table, she poured herself wine, sat back down and tucked into her meal once more. Once or twice, she stopped long enough to drink from her glass. No one spoke much, they were all too busy enjoying the rich meal and crisp salad. Nearly finished, Ash rose from her seat, and headed for the kitchen. As she passed behind Dakota’s chair, her long arm reached out and plucked DK’s wineglass from the table, and she continued on into the kitchen with hardly a break in her stride.

Dakota’s attention raised from her plate. She saw Hope looking across the table at her as she chewed, and one long dark eyebrow raised. DK looked toward the kitchen, then down for a few seconds before she plucked her napkin from her lap and set it beside her plate. She rose stiffly and followed her girlfriend.

“And here is where the battle begins,” Christian mumbled to himself.

Hope heard, and her gaze flicked between the British professor and the kitchen door.


“Ash? What are you doing?”

The blonde had her back to the kitchen door as she leaned over the sink, hands spread on the countertop. “I was just…”

“I should have been more specific. Let me try again...why did you take my glass? The wine is out there if you wanted to refill it.”

“I don’t.” Ashlyn sighed.

“I’m a little confused, love. If you aren’t refilling it, why take it from the table?”

Ashlyn took a deep breath and turned to face Dakota. “Because I don’t want you to drink any more today.”

DK straightened and her voice dropped to an indignant whisper. “Excuse me?”

Christian tried to ignore the crescendoing conversation from the kitchen and felt a pang of guilt for telling Ash.

“I may have agreed to marry you, but I did not agree to have my wine rationed. What the hell is going on here?” Dakota hissed.

“We need to talk, but not now.” Ash reached for one of Dakota’s hands, but it was snatched out of her grasp.

“Bloody right we do!”

“DK, please understand…” Ashlyn tried to explain.

Dakota left her lover standing there and headed down the hall to the washroom.

Hope could hear the cadence of their voices, and it wasn’t difficult to conclude the couple was having a disagreement. She watched Ash resume her seat with a look similar to the last time the USWNT had lost a game. Disappointment and heartbreak.

 

Dakota returned to the table only minutes later, Ali’s gaze on her. The defender didn’t miss her friend’s red-rimmed eyes or the way she took her hand away when Ashlyn tried to touch her. Surreptitiously, Ali nudged Hope’s foot, next to hers. When the keeper glanced at her, Ali flicked her gaze across the table, then back, then raised an eyebrow in a silent, ‘what the hell?’

In answer, Hope glanced at Ali’s wineglass, then across the table.

As realization dawned, the defender slumped a little. She shook her head a little, knowing her friends were both so stubborn that they were in for a very bumpy ride.

****

After dinner, Dakota smiled at her British friend. “Chris, that was beyond wonderful. Thank you so much for all your hard work. If you all will excuse me, I seem to be coming down with a headache. I’ll see you all in the morning.”

Ashlyn exhaled and closed her eyes slowly. She knew what this was, and it was no headache.

This was avoidance.

 

To be continued!




Chapter Text

Not long after Dakota had left the table, Nyssa thanked Christian as well and said she had to ensure Adam had left. Eve also expressed her thanks for the meal and followed Nyssa.

Christian offered to help clean up, but Ash assured him that he didn’t need to do that, he had made the meal after all. He bade them all good night and left.

Hope and Ali stayed at the table as the smile dropped from Ash’s face.

“What’s going on, Harris?”

Ash looked up into Hope’s knowing eyes and sighed. “Dakota doesn’t have a headache, she’s trying to avoid me, and a discussion we need to have. Back at the hotel, Chris told me that DK had quite a bit to drink during lunch, and he pointed out some things I hadn’t noticed.”

After the blonde had been silent for nearly a minute, Hope prodded her again. “Like?”

“Like how she worked herself into exhaustion, keeps weird hours, and something about how Dakota thinks that she has to work harder to get things done before she passes, how she believes she won’t live as long as the rest of us, how she’s on a self destructive path that is taking a toll on her. He said he’s been down this path...She was exhausted today. She fell asleep on the way back from the hotel, she was almost sleep walking when I put her to bed...I finally saw the signs, Hope...I saw the grey hairs at her temple that weren’t there last week, the worry lines...and I just can’t let her drink herself to death. You guys know the addiction issues in my family’s past, I haven’t made any secret of it, but I never saw the signs in Dakota. How did I not see the signs?” Tears ran unchecked down Ashlyn’s face as Ali scooted around the table and took her friend’s hands in her own.

“Ash, honey, you can’t see everything.”

“I should have seen this, Ali. I should have been the first one to spot the signs, not him!”

 

“So you took her wine glass from her quietly and I’m guessing she didn’t take it well.” Hope said.

“How much did you hear?”

“Nothing but the tone, really. But Dr. Fanboy knew you were in for a fight.”

Ali shot the brunette keeper a look as if to say, ‘really?’

Hope shrugged. “What do you need us to do?”

Ash sighed in frustration. “She isn’t going to quietly sit there and accept it when I tell her why I took her wine glass.”

“No matter what kind of shit she gives you, you have to explain, Harris. You have to make her understand that she can’t keep going like this. She knows I saw what was going on, do you want me to talk to her?”

“No...maybe. I don’t want to spring an intervention on her.”

“But that’s what she needs right now.” Ali’s voice was gentle. “Maybe not in the classic sense of the word, but that’s what we’re trying to do. Intervene before her working and drinking catches up with her.”

“You know we fought after that picture was emailed to her. I wanted to leave right then, but she refuses to hide away. She says hiding is stifling her creativity, it’s not her way. She’s stubborn. I’d rather her creativity be smothered and have her alive than this roller coaster of self-destruction.”

“I know...” Ali replied. “But this doesn’t all have to be on you. She has people who care about her. People who count on her. She...”

Hope got up from the table and went down the hall to the bedroom.

 

She pushed open the bedroom door, padded across the carpeting and sat on the edge of the bed frame. “Can’t sit on this damn thing…” she mumbled before flopping onto the waterbed.

“You know my reputation for saying what’s on my mind. You said that we all needed someone who could call bullshit and not be afraid of the consequences. I’ve called bullshit on you before, and I’m not quite doing that this time, but I am going to let you in on some hard truths, so listen up. You can’t be mad at Harris for taking away your wine glass. She did it out of concern for you. Out of love.” Hope put her hands behind her head and stared up at the dim ceiling. “You’re showing signs of stress, Undomiel. You can’t hide it and keep it from us any longer. We see the grey hairs that you weren’t sporting last week. We see the new worry lines, we see the exhaustion, and you might be able to hide the drinking from Ash, but you can’t fool me. Been there, done that. I see your hands shaking more, I see how fast the drinks go down, and I’ve witnessed first hand how much you can drink, remember?”

There was no answer from the other side of the bed.

“I know you’re awake. I spent enough hours in the hospital watching over you to know what your sleep breathing is like. So don’t talk to me, just listen. I’ve searched my whole life for the kind of love that you and Ash have. It’s special, you know. Not everyone finds their soulmate or whatever, but if such a thing does exist, I’d bet you and Ash have been together before.”

The keeper thought she heard a scoff from the other side of the bed.

 

“I’m serious, Undomiel. I’ve seen how she looks at you. That woman out there would crawl over a mile of broken glass for you. She’s sitting out there right now, beating herself up because she didn’t catch the signs of your self-destruction in time. She’s mad at herself because Christian apparently saw stuff before she did. And what are you doing? You’re lying here, being an asshole and avoiding her because she took your glass.”

Hope stopped, anticipating some sort of response to her goading. After a minute of silence though, it was clear Dakota had no intention of saying anything.

“Still not going to talk to me, eh? Fine. Think about something though. If you continue down this self-destructive path, consider all of the things you’re going to fuck up. You’ll drink and work yourself into the hospital. You’ll likely trash your liver, so you’ll end up on a transplant list. Some poor slob will die and you’ll get their liver. A perfectly good organ that someone else needs. Someone who probably knows enough not to drink themselves stupid. And you’ll make Harris watch you waste away to a shell of yourself. That’s not what you do to the woman you love. You agreed, in front of millions of people I might add, one of which was me, to grow old with her. That’s not going to happen unless you change the way you’ve been coasting through your days. Bottom line is this, quit drinking until you can get a grip on things. Stop working long-ass weird hours. Stop making a target of yourself. Start thinking of the future and what it’s going to take to make sure you grow old together with that cocky blonde out there.” Hope rolled off the waterbed and went to the door, but stopped before she stepped through it. “Don’t even think of telling me I don’t know what I’m talking about. Too much alcohol and poor choices nearly cost me my job, remember?” Without waiting for an answer, she left her friend to think.

 

Hope strode up to the table, tapped Ali on the shoulder and said, ‘Tag. Your turn.”

Ali didn’t question it, simply stood and retraced Hope’s steps down the hall.

She knocked gently on the open door. “DK? I’d like to come in and talk to you.” She wasn’t denied, so she strolled in and looked around. “You and Ash obviously don’t do a lot of sitting in this room. I’m just going to lie down…” The waterbed moved gently as she lowered herself down. “Oh my god, I have to get one of these...this is heavenly.” She sighed in pleasure before rolling over onto her side and staring at Dakota’s back for a minute. “I can’t say that I understand what you’re going through, but I want you to know that I’m here for you. Nyssa told me what happened this afternoon, she feels terrible, you know. I think she took it personally. Afterwards, all I could think about was, what if that woman had killed you? I knew from the minute we met that I liked you. Ash is like a sister to me, and I never worried about you hurting her, because I knew you wouldn’t. But see, that’s the thing...you are hurting her. Every time you refuse to stay out of the crosshairs, you hurt her. She’s sitting out there, berating herself for missing the little signs that you needed help you were too stubborn to ask for. She’s out there, crushed that you’re in here, rather than talking to her. You don’t have to deal with this all by yourself. She wouldn’t abandon you in Florida when Wendy pulled her crap, and she’s not about to walk away from you now. But you have to let her help you, you have to trust in her love for you. You have to trust in her desire to build a future with you. She loves you enough to propose in front of millions of people, and enough to stop you from drinking yourself into the hospital. Or worse.”

 


Ali reached out and laid her hand lightly on Dakota’s back. “If you give up on yourself now, it will be so much worse than trying to leave to protect her like you did in Florida. If you keep going like this, at best, you’ll get the book out, but at what cost? You’ll pull away from Ash, and all of us. Your body will start shutting down and aging faster than it’s meant to. So you’ll have a book, it’ll probably be a bestseller, but you’ll be too sick to enjoy it. Worst case? Your heart will give up one day, and Hope won’t be there to keep you alive. You will have let the stress of all of this kill you, and it will shatter my best friend’s heart into a million pieces. I won’t be able to hold her together, and she’ll follow you down a self-destructive path. That’ll kill her grandmother, you know that. Her brother will slip into addiction again, and her mother…” Ali sighed deeply before continuing in a whisper. “I don’t want to go to your funeral, DK. I like hanging out with you. You make me laugh, you make me think. I discovered I like cooking with you. It’s going to be hard enough to do all of that now that Ash has signed with Orlando, but I can’t do any of it if you’ve self-destructed. Let Nyssa and Eve look out for you. Don’t make yourself a bigger target. If you’re having a hard time hiding, talk to one of us. I’m here, talk to me. Talk to Ash. Talk to Hope. Hell, call Abby or Pinoe if you think they can distract you! But don’t shut us out. Don’t let the dark thoughts take over. If you have night terrors, and I know you do, don’t sit up with a bottle until you fall asleep. I’ll be staying with you for as long as I can after tomorrow, and I’m a really good listener. I may not be able to relate entirely, but I can listen and hold you when you need a shoulder. You promised her the future, Dakota. Don’t rip that away because you don’t know how to reach out for help. I know your family turned their backs on you, so let us be your family. I already have a brother, but I’ve never had a sister. I’m pretty sure that if my sister was going through something like this, I wouldn’t turn my back on her. Be my sister, if only in spirit, and let me shoulder this with you. Share the load, and it gets lighter. Just think about it, okay?”

Dakota sniffed once and nodded silently. Ali patted her on the back gently and struggled out of the waterbed.

 

With the heavy silence that settled over the bedroom, a weight consumed Dakota. She wanted to be angry with her friends, but she knew if their positions had been reversed, she would have done the same for them. She reflected on Ali’s words, and she knew her friend was right. If her heart gave out, Ash would self-destruct. And that would ripple throughout her family. Hope’s tough words echoed in Dakota’s mind. It was no surprise that someone else had noticed the grey hair that had shocked her in the mirror not that long ago. What was it Hope had said? Christian had noticed before Ash? They must have talked… Dakota felt a flash of annoyance with her British friend, but only the briefest of flares. She sighed heavily as her gaze settled on a spot on the far wall. For the first time in her adult life, she began to wonder if she was in trouble…

 

The bedroom door moved again and Ash came into the room, but went straight to the bathroom. When she was done, she came to bed.

“On the off chance you really do have a headache, I’ll leave the light off. But I know those signs at least. I’m guessing though that you’re still angry with me. I know you probably aren’t ready to talk, but I want you to hear me out, please?”

DK lay there, silent and waiting.

 

“I’m upset with myself for not seeing signs that you were struggling with stress. I’m angry I didn’t notice how much you were drinking, and I know I should have talked to you first, but the day got away from us, and...” Ash sighed heavily and rested one hand on the writer’s side. “I don’t know if you just got so caught up in it all or if you’re aware of what you’re doing. I want to marry you, and grow old together and live until we’re a hundred years old. I want kids, grand-kids, great-grand-kids even. But we can’t have that if you keep drinking like you have been, keep working too much and sleeping too little. We can beat this bounty, but you have to decide to fight whatever demons you’re letting kill you now. I’ll be beside you every step of the way. I’ll hold you after a nightmare, I’ll make you all the tea you can drink, I’ll play endless games of cards with you when you can’t sleep, but please, baby, please let me help you get healthy. Please stay with me. I’d be lost without you, you have to know that. If I lost you...” Ash couldn’t speak anymore, her emotions choked the words and all that came out was a strangled sound.

 

It was all too much for Dakota. She struggled to roll over, but she finally succeeded. She   watched tears roll down her lover’s face and she knew without a doubt that she wanted to live with this woman forever. No book was worth losing the life she had been blessed with. “Ash...please don’t cry. I’m sorry I was an asshole to you, can you forgive me? I hate that I hurt you...I never meant to, I love you more than anything, anyone else in this life. I’m sorry I let it all carry me away. I guess I don’t handle stress as well as I thought I did.” Dakota stroked the lines of Ashlyn’s face gently as she pleaded for forgiveness.

“Sweetheart, I don’t know too many that could handle that kind of stress well, but you have all of us in your corner, you know that, right?”

DK nodded and the dam holding in all of her fear, frustration, and worry finally crumbled. “I know...” she tried to say. “Ash...” Her guilt and shame made her voice catch and she felt hot tears slide along her skin. It was all she could do to just breathe through the sobs. She wept in Ashlyn’s arms until there were no more tears left, and when she could finally catch her breath, she whispered, “I’m so, so sorry. I don’t want to die...”

Ash held her tighter and stroked her back and side. “Shhh, it’s alright now. I won’t let you. It’s okay...”

They laid that way until the alarm woke them just after sunrise.

While Dakota was in the shower, Ash poured the coffee for them and got out some of the things she would need for breakfast. Then she sent out a text to Christian, Hope and Ali, who had stayed at Hope’s apartment overnight.

‘Breakfast in an hour. Stuffed french toast, bacon, coffee. Be here or go hungry on the plane!

Ash’

When DK stepped from the shower, she felt better. Less sleep-addled. She towel-dried her hair and followed the smell of coffee into the kitchen where Ash was standing holding her mug out. Dakota took the mug from her and set it on the counter. Then she took both her hands in her own and looked deep into the hazel eyes she loved. “I’m sorry I gave you a hard time. I love you for sticking by me, but I don’t think this is over yet, and I don’t think it’s going to be easy.”

“Our lives haven’t been easy so far, why start now?” Ash smiled. “No matter what comes, we’ll face it together, okay?”

Dakota nodded and melted into Ashlyn’s arms.

 

They snuggled together on the sofa, enjoying their coffee and time alone before their day got busy. When her cup was almost empty, Ash spoke quietly. “I thought I’d make breakfast this morning for everyone before our day got crazy. The security team can fend for themselves.”

“Do you want some help?”

“Naw, I can handle it. Do you know what you want to take to Florida? Are you taking any knitting?”

“I do have a couple of orders I should start.”

“You do?” Ash looked down at DK in surprise.

The writer nodded, wrapped up in Ashlyn’s embrace. “Pinoe ordered socks for herself and Sera. Honestly, things seem a little less crazy when I’m knitting.”

“Sounds like something you might want to make time for more often then.”

“Maybe I’ll do that while you cook.”

“I think that’s a good idea.” Ash kissed the top of Dakota’s head, and they rose from the sofa together.

 

Ali and Hope had already arrived and were just coming out of the kitchen with coffee in their hands when the security guard in the hall opened the door for Christian. The relief at seeing Dakota was palpable.  He went to her and took  both her hands in his, thinking perhaps that way she couldn’t slap him when he confessed.

"I know the last thing you want is a lecture before you have had a chance to finish your first coffee, but unfortunately, if I don't say this, I fear I will be doing you a disservice. Please listen to me, Dakota. You are a brilliant writer. Not a brilliant young writer, a brilliant writer. Period. Jimi Hendrix, John Belushi, Janis Joplin, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Do you know what all of them have in common? People loved them very much, and they all died far too young and before they themselves realized their greatness. I cannot sit by and watch this happen to you.”

“Christian...” Dakota interrupted.

“Do you want to know why Ash did what she did? Because I told her to.” Chris continued as if Dakota hadn’t spoken. “You can be mad at me all you want and if you want me to leave and go back to London, I will certainly do that. What I will not do, however, is say that I am sorry for what I did. On top of being a brilliant writer and usually being the smartest person in the room, you are not a half bad actress, hiding all of this from the woman you love. Unfortunately for you, I am hyper observant and have been in the same position you are. You want to know the difference between you and I, though? No one spoke up when it was happening to me. I had to hit bottom before anyone even noticed what was going on. Maybe at some point, I will tell you the whole story, but that's for another time.”

“Chris...” DK tried again. But Christian was just getting wound up.

 

“You have the largest group of supporters I have ever seen and your support system is here to be exactly that, your support. You might not agree with their methods or tactics, but it is done from a place of love that you rarely see from anyone anymore. For fucks sake, Dakota, you had the entire U.S. Women's National Soccer team rallying around you and a woman propose to you in front of the world! To do this to yourself, to allow yourself to walk this selfish, destructive path is spitting in the face to all of those people who held your hand, who prayed for you, who love you and that includes me.As I see it, you have a choice. You can continue to destroy yourself if you want, but you will do it without any more of the knowledge I have given you for your book. I will walk away from the project and inevitably, I will walk away from you. I refuse to watch you die early. I hope, no, I know, you will make the right choice. I love you, Dakota, you are like family to me. So please, make the right choice and choose to get healthy again.”

Dakota looked down for a few moments before removing her hands from his grasp. When she looked back up, her eyes were damp as she wrapped her arms around him. “I never had a brother, and even if I had, I’m pretty sure he couldn’t have been half the man you are. Thank you, Chris.”

 

To be continued!

Chapter Text

The flight had, thankfully, been uneventful. Vehicles had already been procured and were waiting for them at the airport. Eve had stepped into Nyssa’s role as lead security agent, despite a smattering of grumbles from the security team. She had set them straight though.

“Security, listen up!” Nyssa had announced from the front of the cabin while they were in the air. “I understand we aren’t at our full compliment right now, so spread the word to any of your co-workers not present, because I’m only going to say this once! Detective Tanik is more than qualified to take over as head of security. I have known her for some time now and I asked her to join us. She is not an interloper as I have heard mumbled from some among you. You answer to her, all of you, and anyone who has a problem with that should speak up soon so you can make arrangements to return home.  I will not have dissension on the team, because we each need to trust one another. If you cannot trust in my leadership than I can’t rely on you to have my back. And by extension, I can’t trust you to protect Dakota and her friends. If you have a valid concern, I’m all ears. But you either stop complaining or you go home. That’s all.” And with that, Nyssa resumed her seat beside Ali.

 

“I like your take-no-shit outlook.”

“I’m far more flexible outside the job. The team can’t function smoothly if there is the slightest bit of mistrust. And when we can’t function properly, people die.”

Ali glanced around to be sure no one was looking before she took Nyssa’s hand briefly. “You’d better not die. I’ve grown kind of attached to you.”

“Kind of?” Nyssa smiled as she focused on Ali, then leaned in to whisper in her ear. “I’ll prove to you tonight how attached to you I am.”

The defender blushed red.

****

Dakota’s legs didn’t usually twitch, but halfway through the flight, her right leg started to bounce up and down. It didn’t stop until Ash reached out with her left hand and rested it atop DK’s knee. “You okay?”

Dakota nodded as she shifted in her seat trying to find a comfortable position. “Sure. How much longer until we land?”

“About an hour I think.”

“And everything’s all set up with the house?”

“We’ll have to do some grocery shopping, but other than that, yeah. Should be a fairly seamless transition.”

The writer nodded again and picked up her knitting. Out of the corner of her eye, Ashlyn watched her girlfriend’s fingers maneuver the yarn over the slim metal double-pointed needles. She still didn’t understand how the stitches didn’t all fall off. She shook her head a little and returned her attention to the book she’d been reading. But only a few minutes later, she was distracted again by Dakota’s abrupt rising from her seat. When she saw her settle into a seat across from Detective Tanik, Ash went back to her book.

 

“Eve, can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure, what’s on your mind?”

“How do we know we’ll be able to prevent someone getting into the house, like they did at the apartment?”

“We’ll have patrols around the perimeter of the grounds, twenty four-seven. It’ll be easier to control the flow of people into a house, rather than an apartment building.”

“And everyone’s armed, right?”

Eve’s head canted slightly as she studied the woman that, until recently, hadn’t concerned herself with the details of her protection. “You’ll be safer in Florida. We know now what we’re up against…”

“Do we know yet who put the bounty out?” Dakota asked as she repositioned her right foot.

“Not yet. We’re still looking into the source code on the original ad, but it’s been re-routed all over the place.”

“And you checked to be sure Wendy isn’t involved?” DK asked as her leg began to bounce.

“I talked to her myself. I wanted to be sure she was still behind bars. Either she’s a very good actress, or she really didn’t know about the bounty.”

“I’ll bet she said something about wishing it had been out there while she was still free.” Dakota stood up and rubbed at her stomach. “Excuse me, breakfast isn’t sitting so well.” And she made her way to the small lavatory at the rear of the plane.

****

Hope rose from her seat and approached the flight attendant. “Hi. You wouldn’t happen to have a couple of ginger ales on your cart, would you?”

“Of course!” The woman retrieved the requested soda and gave the famous goalkeeper an energetic smile.

Hope thanked her and turned away before rolling her eyes at how chipper the other woman was. Then she approached Christian’s seat. She put the can gently on the tray beside his laptop before settling into a seat across from him.

Christian’s fingers froze on his keyboard as his gaze slid to the can, then up and over the laptop to settle on the woman who frightened him just a little.

“So, you used to play soccer, I’m told.”

Christian blinked slowly and closed his laptop as he answered with a nod. "I did, in what seems like another life. I played left wing for the University of Central Florida for a couple of seasons. I got hurt before my junior season and really couldn't recover enough to play anymore."

“That’s rough, sorry to hear it.” Hope angled her body in the seat and made small talk with the professor with the interesting accent.

****

Dakota reappeared beside her seat just as Ash was getting up to check on her. Once her knitting had been tucked away again, Dakota sat down and leaned her head back and closed her eyes.

Ash took her hand. “You alright?”

“No. My stomach is upset. I don’t normally get motion-sick, I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Well, you haven’t done this much. Maybe your body is figuring out it doesn’t like flying.” Ash raised her armrest, and then Dakota’s. “Lean on me until we have to put our seat-belts back on. Try and rest, we should be there soon.”

Dakota tried her best to get comfortable in her seat, but no matter how much wider the seat was, no matter how much more foot room there was, she couldn’t find the right position. She sighed heavily and tried to meditate.

 

Ten minutes later, she knew it was a lost cause. With another sigh, she straightened up in her seat. “I can’t. My mind won’t quiet, my stomach is upset and I can’t decide if I want to snap pencils or …”

“Babe…”

“I need to get out of here…”

“DK…”

“I need to get out.” She stood and stepped into the aisle.

“Dakota,” Ashlyn stood, worried her girlfriend might decide to try and open the door. “Sweetheart, you know we’re thousands of feet in the air, right?”

Dakota stopped in the aisle, turned slowly and regarded her fiancee with an incredulous look. “Ash, I might be sick, but I haven’t lost my marbles completely. I just had to get out of the seat, not the plane!”

Christian’s head snapped up from his conversation with Hope, whose own head whipped around in alarm.

DK held up a hand. “Everyone, relax. I’m not getting off the plane before anyone else.”

Ali stood up in the aisle and held a hand out to the concerned flight attendant. “She’s okay, I promise.” Then she turned to her friend and whispered. “You are okay, right? You didn’t mean that to sound like it did, right?”

Dakota shook her head. “I’m fine. Well...sort of...I need to stretch my legs, that’s all. Or vomit…” She muttered as she turned toward the rear of the plane.

Ashlyn and Ali followed DK hesitantly as far as the seats where Hope and Christian were. Neither were sure what to make of the writer’s strange behaviour.

“I don’t know what to do to help her. I’ve never seen her like this.” Ash said as she rubbed the back of her neck.  

****

As soon as the plane had landed, taxied and stopped, Dakota was out of her seat and trying to pace the small aisle. It seemed to take forever before she could escape the metal tube with wings, and she was grateful for the walk through the terminal to the first class lounge. Eve had told them all they would wait there with the security team while she and Nyssa went to bring the rental vehicles to a nearby door. Ash had held Dakota’s hand all the way through the terminal, until they reached the lounge. When DK finally stopped pacing the room and settled in one of the leather chairs, Ash settled on the arm beside her and rubbed her back with one hand.

“You feeling any better?”

“A little, what you’re doing feels really good. You must be my remedy. My legs are twitchy as hell though.”

“When Ali and I go for groceries, do you want something for your stomach?”

Dakota nodded, leaned against the blonde and sighed. “It’s like having a shot of adrenaline, but only in my legs. It’s tiring.” She said quietly.

“I know.” Ashlyn continued to rub her back. “I’ll get some bananas too, for the potassium. Maybe you need to take some vitamins.”

DK chuckled. “I’ve never tried those gummy ones you endorse. Are they any good?”

Ash smiled, even though she knew her girlfriend couldn’t see her from her position. “Of course. Take ‘em every day. I wouldn’t do my bit for the company otherwise.”

****

When they pulled up in front of the house, Dakota was struck by how chipper it looked in its white paint with blue trim and dark wood front doors.

“The majority of the property is out back.” Ash said as they all looked out the windows.

The house sat close to the road, with a small but neatly trimmed front yard. The large garage was painted in the same white and blue as the house. Once all the vehicles had been parked, the security team, minus two bodyguards who stayed with Dakota and Ash, got out and spread out over the property, ensuring no one lay in wait. Finally, it was deemed safe and Dakota was able to get a good look at the house and property.

 

She and Ashlyn wandered through the house together, hand in hand. There was a great room, a study, an office, a dining room, a large, brightly lit kitchen, four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a stone-paved veranda that had a high wooden ceiling, fans, and sheer draperies pulled back to let the sun in. The fitted stones underfoot led to a swimming pool that looked nearly regulation size, lined with cool blue tiles and covered by a curving glass roof that arched away from the veranda.

“Ohh, Ash...”

Ashlyn chuckled. “Yeah, I thought you’d like that.”

“Let’s go back to the kitchen.” DK pulled on her hand as if she were five years old and just discovering Disneyworld.

Like the rest of the house, the kitchen had white walls, a high ceiling dotted with recessed lights, warm wooden cabinets and was dominated by a large, curving marble island. Dakota ran her fingers over its smooth surface and closed her eyes. She inhaled deeply. “Can’t you just smell the bread I’ll make?”

Her fiancee wrapped her arms around her, just as she opened her eyes. “I sure can, babe. We’re going to make some pretty great meals in here.”

Dakota smiled gently. “I think I love it so far.”

“Let’s go see the master bedroom. It has a waterbed.”

“Tease.”

Ashlyn chuckled.

 

Along the way, they found Hope, Ali and Christian roaming through the house as well. They all seemed as taken with the building and grounds as Dakota was.

“Everyone found their rooms?” Ashlyn asked.

“Hope and I talked on the way over here. We decided to share for now. That way Christian can have his own.” Ali said. “There’s lots of room, so I don’t think anyone will be crowded.”

“The guest house has three bedrooms too, albeit, smaller ones, so Eve and Nyssa will be able to have their own rooms over there.” Ash replied.

“You didn’t mention the work-out room behind the garage, Harris.”

“I didn’t know there was one.”

Hope nodded. “It’s a fair size and well-equipped, too.”

“I’m looking forward to using the pool.” Dakota said.

“We were just on our way to find the office and the master bedroom.” Ash grinned and waggled her eyebrows.

Hope walked away with her hands over her ears. “I did not need to know that...”

Ash laughed out loud while Dakota blushed and went off to find the office.

 

When she found the room, it was love at first sight. It had a wooden floor that glowed with care, two large windows that looked out onto the swimming pool and the yard beyond. A long black leather sofa flanked by a high-backed leather chair and a leather recliner on the other end invited DK to come and rest for just a minute, and she couldn’t resist. She stretched out on the sofa, put her hands behind her head and gazed around the room. It had a high ceiling like every other room in the house, and the necessary ceiling fan, but her eye was caught by the large wooden desk. It was large, dark wood with multiple cubbyholes and deep drawers with hammered copper pulls. Dakota could easily picture herself working there, shaping Lura’s world and many others. She sighed and closed her eyes until she heard Ashlyn’s voice.

“Did I mention the master bedroom has a perfectly good waterbed? You don’t need to nap there, sweetheart.” She held out a hand. “Come on, let’s go check it out.”

 

The floor of the master bedroom was covered wall-to-wall with ivory carpet, set off by the dark wooden furniture.

“Stickley!” Dakota exclaimed.

“Pardon?”

“The furniture, it’s Stickley.”

“Umm...okay.” Ash was still confused.

“The Stickley brothers were furniture designers and manufacturers back in the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds. Their style is synonymous with Craftsman and Prairie style furniture. It was built to last back then and reproductions are highly valuable and sought after.”

“And clearly something you know a thing or two about.” Ashlyn smiled.

“It’s a passion of mine.” DK confessed.

“Then I’m glad it’s here.”

“But I thought you said the room had a waterbed? Stickley reproductions aren’t usually waterbeds.”

Ash stretched out on the large bed, with her feet hanging over the side, and her right arm out in invitation. “Come lay down with me and see for yourself.”

DK sank gratefully into the warm surface with a happy little moan. “Ohhh, yeah...”

 

****

A black Lincoln barely slowed as it passed the house that Dakota would call home for the foreseeable future. The woman behind the wheel took as long a look as she dared, knowing the man standing by the front door couldn’t see through her tinted windows. She noted the house number and kept driving without attracting attention. At the end of the street, she turned the corner and drove for another block.  Eventually, she slowed the car and pulled to a stop at the curb. Then she took her cellphone in hand and dialed a number. The call connected quickly and she heard a female voice answer. The driver wasted no time in delivering her news.

“They’re here. 1268 Mullenhurst Drive.” She hung up abruptly, put the car in gear and drove away.

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

As the day progressed, Dakota tried to make sure everyone was settled, but at times, the effort of trying to be ‘present’ in the moment was tiring. She had to smile though when they discovered that the room Ali and Hope had decided to share had two waterbeds. Thankfully the bedding hadn’t been difficult to find. She ensured everyone had bedding, including the guest house. As she handed Nyssa a stack of towels she thought to ask about the sleeping arrangements for the rest of the team.

“We’ve set them up in a nearby hotel, and they have schedules allowing us to provide you with round-the-clock surveillance.” 

Dakota nodded and started to turn away.

“Miss Undomiel?”

“Hmm?” 

“If I can overstep my boundaries a bit...you don’t look good, Ma’am.”

“The strain of everything is just getting to me, I think. I’ll be alright.” Dakota smiled and made her way back to the main house. She re-entered by the small door that led into the kitchen but had to lean on the island for a minute as a wave of exhaustion and nausea overtook her. She bit her tongue and tried to breathe through her mouth in order to keep the bile from rising, a trick she’d learned in prison. She was relieved when her stomach gradually began to settle, there was no way she’d find the bathroom fast enough. As soon as she felt confident that her body wouldn’t rebel, she opened the fridge and was relieved to find bottles of water already chilling. She was sipping on one when Ashlyn and Ali found her. 

 

“There you are!” The blonde smiled widely. “Ali and I are going out for groceries, did you want anything specific?”

Dakota smiled a little sadly. “If I were going, I’d find a shop that sells herbal tea. My stomach needs ginger, and I miss chai...and ginger ale. I’ll settle for ginger ale though.”

“You look a little pale, DK.” Ali noted.

“I think the strain of everything is just…” Dakota searched for the right words. “Piling up. I was just thinking about changing into something else and maybe laying down.”

“I unpacked for us. I put your book on the nightstand.” Ashlyn came around the island and took her free hand. “Babe, you’re shaking, are you sure you aren’t coming down with something?”

DK shook her head. “No, I refuse to get sick when there is a beach outside our door. I’ll be okay. I’d go grocery shopping with you if I thought the team would let me.”

“I’d rather you stay here and stay safe.” Ashlyn wrapped her arms around her girlfriend and held her for a minute.

“I know.” Dakota nodded against Ash’s chest. “I’ll lay down for a little while and read while you forage for enough food to feed our crowd. Maybe I’ll feel like cooking tomorrow.”

“All right.” Ash rubbed her back. “Hope is in the workout room and Christian said something about assignments for his students. If you’re feeling up to it later, maybe you and I can take a walk on the beach?”

“That sounds nice.” 

Ashlyn pulled back just enough to gaze down into Dakota’s eyes without letting go. “Please don’t go out by yourself.”

“I won’t, I promise.”

Ash gazed into her blue eyes for a minute more, then smiled and kissed her fiancee’s cheek before leaving.

She and Ali had nearly made it to the SUV when Christian popped around a corner.

“Ashlyn, Ali, could I have a word or two?”

 

The women stopped and turned. “What’s up?” Ash asked as she slipped her sunglasses on.

“I happened to be walking by the kitchen and I promise you that I wasn’t eavesdropping but I think I might have some insight into what’s ailing Dakota.” He stopped and shot a glance over his shoulder to the house.

Ali took her sunglasses off. “Spill the beans, Dr. Chris.”

Encouraged, Christian took a step closer and lowered his voice. “Dakota isn’t coming down with anything. In fact, her body is ridding itself of something.”

Ashlyn took a step closer and took her sunglasses back off.

“You said that Dakota was a steady drinker when you met her, correct?”

Ash nodded. “Yeah. I think even then she used it to help her sleep.”

“It’s my suspicion that she’s become a little more than a steady drinker, and the amount has increased over time. When was her last drink that you know of?”

The blonde answered quickly. “Last night, at dinner, with all of you around my table.”

Realization dawned in Ali’s face and she grabbed her friend’s arm. “Ash...she’s going through withdrawals.”

Christian nodded. “That would be my guess and it certainly fits the timeline. She’s ill because her body is in overdrive attempting to purge the toxins it has built up over years of drinking. If she’s been drinking as long and as much as I believe she has, we’re all in for a hard road.”

 

Neither of the women questioned his collective inclusion. Ali sighed. “I wasn’t able to help Kyle through that part of his recovery. What are we in for?”

 

Chris ran a hand through his short hair. “We’ve already seen the nausea and tremors, she’ll be cold more often as her body temperature fluctuates. We’ve all seen her looking stretched thin, like too much butter over not enough bread. While I do not doubt that the stress is affecting her, those grey hairs are not all there because of the whiskey after all, she needs to rest more often. Her restless legs on the plane are a sign of both agitation and restless leg syndrome. She’ll need vitamins, a ton of water, and more exercise as her stomach can handle it. If everyone can manage it, we shouldn't drink around her. There’s something else we could try.” He was a little hesitant to reveal such personal details to two women he didn't know well, but this was more for his friends' benefit than his own need to hide his past. "There’s a concoction that I drank when I was in her shoes. It tastes awful, but it will help her liver cleanse itself more quickly.”

 

Ash took out her phone and found the grocery list app. “What do we need?”

“Lime juice, apple cider vinegar, honey, turmeric, rosemary and cayenne. Her herbal tea would help as well.”

Ashlyn sighed heavily. “She said she was going to lay down while we’re out…”

Christian patted Ash’s arm reassuringly. “I’ll stay close. Don’t worry.”

 

****

Right about the time that Ashlyn was picking up bananas, Dakota was bent over the pristine white toilet. She thought she might be done when there was nothing left but stomach acid, but she was wrong. She laid her forehead on the cool porcelain and didn’t even jump when someone handed her a cool, damp cloth.

“Here.”

She groaned her thanks and wiped her face before leaning back against the tub.

“You look like hammered shit, Dakota.”

“Gee, thanks, Chris. Just so happens I feel like shit too. Good thing your students can’t see me now.”

 

“I think we both know what it is you are going through.” He leaned against the wall and crossed his ankles as he studied her.

She sighed and brought her knees to her chest as she nodded. “When I was doing time, one of the prisoners detoxed behind bars. It looked pretty bad.”

 

“Trying to project a calm, unaffected and healthy front will not make it so, Dakota. Recovery cannot be faked, rushed or cheated. It will take as long as it takes for your body to recover, and it will be hell but I promise you that you will survive.”

Dakota rested her forehead against her knees and moaned softly. “You must think I’m an idiot for letting myself go this much.”

“Not at all. Our lives are a series of decisions, some good, some not so. We have been trained to soldier on, put one foot in front of the other and after awhile, we don't see what we are becoming, we ignore it and just push and push until we start to crack and eventually break. You didn’t have any reason to look at what you’ve become until you let someone you truly love into your life. That doesn’t make you an idiot, it makes you human. Now you WILL be an idiot if you poison your body with alcohol again, but we won’t abandon you.”

 

DK rotated her head slowly until she could see Christian. “Is this one of those brotherly speeches meant to support and inspire?”

“Something like that. Is it working?”

She waggled a hand.

“I’ll help you as long as I can. You will curse my name by the time it’s all over, and you will probably even hate me, but I promise you, I’ll help.”

“I’m not an addict.” DK moaned.

"Never crossed my mind to say that.”

“Good, ‘cause I’m not.” 

“Did you want to go lie down?” 

“Maybe for a little while, yeah.”

Christian crossed the room and stood in front of Dakota and held his hands out. “I’ll brace, you pull on me.”

 **** 

When the SUV pulled into the garage, no one got out until the overhead door closed behind them. This alone spurred Chris into opening the small door that joins the house to the garage. He stood there, growing increasingly curious until the driver’s door opened and Miranda stepped out, followed by the two soccer sensations.

“All I’m saying is maybe she was just a fan who just wanted a picture.” Ashlyn said.

“And maybe she was someone who wanted to do you harm.” Miranda replied as she lifted bags from the back.

Christian arched an eyebrow and went to help unload silently.

“We’re going to have to come up with some sort of plan for this sort of thing, Miranda. The fact that I play for Orlando is huge news, simply because the folks down here see me as one of their own. And fans are going to want pictures.”

“I don’t doubt that in the least, Miss Harris, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to let them put their arms around you.”

“What am I supposed to say? ‘Hi, sure I’ll let you take a selfie with me, but you can’t touch me, because my girlfriend’s bodyguard thinks you might be a whack-job?”

“Well, there’s a lot to be said for the truth.” Miranda nodded.

Chris looked from Ash to Ali. The brunette shook her head slightly. The professor took the hint and did not ask.

 

“How’s Dakota?” Ashlyn asked as they brought the last of the bags in. 

“Her stomach was upset earlier, but she went to lie down afterward. The last time I looked in on her, she was sleeping hard .”

“We got as much food as the car would hold.” Ali said as she lifted a bag of fruit to the counter. “Ash tells me there’s a barbecue out back, so we thought we’d have a cook-out tonight. I’m looking for a couple of helpers for prep work. Know anyone who might be interested?”

“Dr. Chris and I will give you a hand, won’t we?” Hope spoke up from the doorway.

“We will?”

Hope pinned him with the glare she usually reserved for opposing teams and he caved like a house of cards.

“Yeah, of course we will!” He said with forced cheerfulness, still confused as to why he was terrified of this woman.

“Forwards...” She muttered with a small smile.

Just before Ashlyn left the room she heard Christian mutter as well. “When did I become Dr. Chris?”

 

When Ash padded into the master bedroom, she was pleased to see DK fast asleep and her mind drifted back to when Dakota had been so sick. She changed into cargo shorts and her shark t-shirt before leaving the room as silently as she’d come in. Back in the kitchen, Ali and Hope were chatting about books as they prepared fruit for a platter while Christian washed potatoes silently. Ash stepped outside and went to take a look at the barbecue.

 ****

When Dakota woke up, she felt both better and worse. Her stomach was better, but her skin felt disgusting. She decided a shower was definitely in order. When she got out, she put her hair up in a ponytail and dressed in shorts and one of Ashlyn’s old UNC t-shirts. Then she went in search of the rest of her house-mates. She found everyone on the veranda. Ash was at the grill, looking happier than she had been in quite awhile. Ali and Nyssa were discussing a steak house Ali had spotted earlier in the day and Hope was reading The Fountainhead.

 

Christian was on his phone at the far end of the veranda, having a rather animated conversation with whomever it was on the other end.

 

“Dr. Fredericks, I realize that we have exams coming up. Yes, I realize how important they are at Oxford. That is not lost on me. My students have just turned in their final compositions and I am in the process of grading each one of those…. Obviously, my situation here has turned rather unique and I hope you would understand that.... I will be back to finish out the term in a couple of days and my students are already further along than most of the first years. I told you when you hired me that my schedule was going to be a little different than most of your professors… What I do on my personal time is none of your concern…. Fine, I will give my resignation effective at the end of term when I return…. Oh no, sir, I will be giving it to the chancellor and then you shall have the task of explaining why I am leaving…. Yes, I’m serious as a heart attack…. I have a friend, no a family member, who needs my help and I am not going to abandon her in her time of need to satisfy the expectations of a pompous know-it-all wanker such as yourself…. I’m hanging up now. Good day to you.” 

 

He stabbed at his phone with his middle finger, exhaled heavily, gathered up his tablet, headphones, and a beach chair and walked to the ocean to process what had just transpired, ignoring the wide-eyed looks he felt on the back of his head. He walked straight ahead and past the security guards who didn’t even have time to protest. 

Eve turned to the body-guard nearest her, a young red-haired woman, and pointed at the professor’s back. “What are you waiting for? Follow him, but don’t crowd him. Go!”

Ash and Dakota shared a look of stunned disbelief before the blonde had to return her attention to the flames, lest the meat catch fire. DK turned toward the beach, and was about to go after Christian but Hope reached out and stopped her.

“Let me.” She didn’t wait for a reply, choosing the typical Solo head-on approach, and sauntered after the professor.

 

She dropped down into the sand and simply watched the waves roll in, waiting to see if he might want to talk or just drown the world out with music.

 

He side-eyed Hope for just a second, acknowledging her presence, his irrational fear of her suppressed temporarily in favor of seething anger at the head of the department. He continued reading his students’ compositions and letting Lamb of God fill his ears with the therapy he needed. He wasn’t ready to confront what just happened yet, but knew at some point he would need to with his new friends. He did appreciate knowing that the icy blue eyes of the goalkeeper weren’t judgmental, but instead concerned and somewhat curious.

Hope watched the surf and reflected on what kind of bravery it took for someone to up-end their life like that. She smiled just a little when she realized that she admired that kind of sacrifice. Family was important to her, and if the man from an ocean away was willing to do that for someone that Hope was protective of...maybe he wasn’t so bad after all. She glanced over at Christian and gave a near-silent grunt as she decided she might sort of, like him.

Maybe.

 

“Ash,” Dakota stood facing the beach, but with a hand on the small of Ashlyn’s back. “Did he just do what I think he did?”

“Yeah, babe, he did.”

 

After a wonderful dinner of burgers and fruit kabobs, Ash brought Dakota’s dark blue cardigan outside and draped it around her girlfriend’s shoulders.

“You packed it!” she exclaimed as soon as she saw the material.

“Of course. It’s your favorite sweater. I thought you might want it every now and then. The beach can get chilly in the evenings.” Ash leaned down and kissed DK’s cheek. “I thought I might give Whit a call, if you don’t need me…”

“I’m going to sit on the beach. Tell her I said hello?”

“Sure. Did you want me to bring your laptop down?”

“No, but if you’d move a chair down there for me…”

“Consider it done.” Ash shot her a dimple-filled smile and carried a chair down to the beach, followed by Miranda and Hope, carrying her own chair. Ash gave DK another kiss and left to make her phone call.

 

Hope set her chair between Dakota’s and the one Christian had sat in earlier. It was not long before he, and his headphones, reclaimed his seat.

As Dakota leaned her head back and closed her eyes, Hope asked. “How’s your stomach?”

“Better since the nap, thankfully.”

They had been sitting quietly for a little while when Dakota spoke again. “Thank you, by the way.”

“For what?”

“Saying what you did back in the apartment. You were right. I guess I wasn’t ready to think about my body having limitations.” She opened her eyes and turned her head to meet Hope’s gaze. As always, Dakota felt that Hope could see right through her, knew every wrong she’d done and every sin she’d committed.

The goalkeeper finally nodded. “After all the shit you’ve been through, it’s easy to assume our body can take all kinds of abuse, but it can’t. Do you still have nightmares?”

Dakota looked out at the beginning of sunset. “Every night.” Then she sighed. “I figured out in prison that drinking helped me sleep. Of course then, we were making rot-gut. God alone knows what it did to us. But it helped me sleep, and that was all I cared about. Then when I got out, I couldn’t sleep right. I’d close my eyes, but the nightmares... Then I’d go days without sleep, writing like a maniac. I eventually sold a short story and bought a case of beer. That was my first night of sound sleep after I’d gained my freedom. Then one night I hit the bar to celebrate an article I’d sold. I tried whiskey, and that was the end of beer for me. I’ve had a taste for the stuff ever since. In time, it became habit to have a glass while I was writing. When the words wouldn’t come, I drank a little more. I don’t think I was addicted, but it had definitely become a habit. When I started going out with Ash, I didn’t always drink…”

“You made a habit out of poisoning your body, Undomiel. Now you’re paying for it.” Hope said matter-of-factly.

“So it would seem.” Dakota sighed.

 

They fell into silence again until DK side-eyed her friend.

“What?”

“This is the part where, if I were talking with anyone else, I’d ask permission to ask a personal question…”

“But since this is me, just ask.”

“Do you think Jerramy was right for you at any point?”

Hope sighed as the sky changed from salmon to blazing orange. “We were two falling stars.”

“Ah, that explains your tattoo we’ve never discussed.”

“He was right for the old me. But I’ve changed a lot...grown, I think, and I realized that I fall back into old habits with him. And there’s no real love there. He was safe…”

“Bullshit. He was always dangerous.”

“Okay, he was a safe decision, I guess. But little things started standing out and over time, I understood I was changing and he wasn’t. Then I came to understand what love really looks like.”

Dakota turned and looked at Hope, waiting.

“It looks quiet, and safe, really safe. It looks romantic, even when it isn’t. It looks like someone flying across the country to take care of you when you’re sick. It looks like homemade bread, and dinner parties, and making sure your sweetheart has their favorite sweater.” Hope reached out and plucked at Dakota’s sleeve before continuing in a quiet voice. “Jerramy would never move me across the country to keep me safe, and he sure as hell wouldn’t stick by me while I detoxed. So I’ve learned what I want, from you and Ash.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to be able to stay in bed in the morning, and have someone else make the coffee, and bring it to me and tell me it’s okay to stay in and read all day if I want to. I want to know that I’ll be trusted, even if I’m out partying most of the night. I want to be able to share my fears about what I’ll be able to do after retirement without feeling judged. I want to finish a tour and look forward to going home, not dread it.”

“You’ll have that. It may take some time, but you’ll find that person.”

“My person doesn’t exist, Undomiel, but thank you for trying to make me feel better.”

Dakota simply reached out a hand, laid it on Hope’s shoulder and left it there.

 

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

When she got too chilled to be comfortable, Dakota excused herself and went inside. She wandered into the office and sat in the large leather chair behind the desk, still a little in awe that she now had the choice to work either in leather-wrapped comfort, or on a warm beach in her backyard. Ashlyn had brought DK’s laptop in and set it on the desk, but DK wasn’t in the right mindset to work yet. What she really wanted was distracting her. In an attempt to keep her mind off it. She tried updating various apps on the laptop, but that didn’t work. Checking her email revealed nothing interesting enough to keep her attention.

All she could think of was that it was about that time in the evening when she would normally be settling in with a glass and her notes.

She had to move, had to get away from the mental image, so she yanked open the office door to find the as-yet-unseen workout room. She startled the woman standing on the other side, who stammered an apology.

“It’s my fault, I didn’t mean to surprise you like that.” Dakota said. “I’m going to see the workout room. What’s your name?”

“Kelly Birmingham, Ma’am.”

“I assume Eve has assigned you as my babysitter for tonight?”

“I wouldn’t put it like that, Ma’am, but...”

“I’ll take that as a yes then.” Dakota started walking, knowing the young woman would follow. “Still not sure why I need watching while I’m inside.”

“I don’t know, Ma’am. I only follow the directions I’m given.”

“Another one who lives by rule number three...” DK muttered.

 

The work out room was larger than she expected, but she was pleased to see the treadmill, weights, kickboxing bag, two sets of gloves, speed bag and rowing machine. She knew the rowing machine was still not an option, so she stepped onto the treadmill.

An hour later, she finally powered it down and leaned on the wall while she caught her breath. When she could breathe normally, she decided a swim was in order. The house was silent as she made her way to her room. “I’m going to get changed, Kelly, and then hit the pool.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

 

DK was a little surprised to find Ashlyn wasn’t in the bedroom, and changed into her black one piece quickly, grabbing sweats and throwing those on over it. She inhaled deeply to clear her mind, but she could almost smell the sipping whiskey that she wanted so badly. She gave herself a frustrated shake and grabbed her runners on the way out of the bedroom. Poolside, she stripped off the sweats and dabbled her toe in the water. She was pleased to find it bath-warm. She padded to the end and dove in as cleanly as her out-of-practise form would allow. She kicked while still underwater and opened her eyes, looking for the wall. Dakota came up for a breath when she felt her lungs burning. She blinked the water out of her eyes and saw Kelly standing nearby, watching the yard perimeter. Not sensing any threat, Dakota positioned herself on the end wall, clutching the lip of the tiles with only her fingertips. She bent her knees and touched the balls of both feet to the wall. Then she took three deep breaths and shot backwards off into the pool.

Kick, reach, kick, reach, breathe.

Kick, reach, kick, reach, breathe.

Touch the wall, flip.

Do it all again. And again.

 

Dakota stopped and looped her arm over the side as she struggled to catch her breath. The yard was well-lit, kissed by the growing darkness at the edges of the property and the beach beyond. Kelly had walked a few feet away, seemingly moving to gain a better perspective on the darkest parts of the yard.

Suddenly the pool was too restrictive, too warm and too liquid. Dakota wanted out. She wanted to run.

Knowing it was a bad thing to do for her still-healing rib, she lifted herself out of the pool and towelled off.

“I’m going back to the workout room, Kelly.” She called out as she pulled on her sweats and runners. She didn’t wait for acknowledgment, the minute the last shoelace was tied over slightly damp feet, she was off, moving quickly. Back to the treadmill, only not for walking this time.

She ran.

She started off at a light jog, then punched the button to increase the incline. A little while later, she punched the speed button and picked up the pace. A few minutes after that, she punched the button again.

Dakota could have sworn she heard the musical jangle of ice being dropped into a heavy glass tumbler, and she closed her eyes and tried to focus on the pounding of her feet.

It did her no good. She could still smell whiskey, as if she were sweating the very thing she wanted the most.

Her eyes opened and she ran faster, as if Jack Daniels himself were on her heels.

She could see her glass...feel the heavy bottle in her hand…

She stabbed at the speed button until she could step off without killing herself, and finally stopped it entirely. She didn’t even tell Kelly where they were going, but headed back to the pool so quickly, the poor woman had to nearly run to keep up.

 

Dakota stripped off the sweatshirt as she walked. The pants were a bit more problematic, but they were shed too by the time she reached the pool. She kicked off her shoes without untying them and dove into the water. She surfaced, took a deep breath and swam.

Kick, reach, kick, reach, breathe, stretch the arm, kick, reach until she touched the wall.

“Miss Undomiel?” She heard Kelly call out to her. “Are you alright? Do you need me to get something for you?”

“Yeah...the biggest bottle of Jack Daniels this state has.” Dakota twisted and swam again, not looking back to see the bodyguard’s confused face.

Her mind went back to the day Ali, Ash and Megan had timed her swim and proclaimed her almost as fast as the record holders.

She swam harder, faster, touched the wall, flipped and strained to swim just a little bit faster.

Her lungs were burning with the strain they were no longer used to.

Her legs were tiring, but still she swam.

Kick, reach, kick, breathe.

Reach farther, kick faster, flip.

Breathe.

 

She hit the far wall and pulled up for only a minute to allow her legs to rest. Her arms were shaking as she clung to the wall, but she ignored them.

She could feel the neck of the bottle in her fingers, the weight of the glass and the way her hand curved around its contours....

Dakota shot off the wall with a roar of frustration and need.

She pulled and clawed at the water, trying to swim just a little bit faster than the memory of a familiar burn at the back of her throat. She could taste it on her tongue…

Kick, reach, kick, breathe

She lifted her face from the water and breathed, not seeing her surroundings, focusing only on the feel of her body slicing through the water, on the feel of the resistance the water offered, on the feel of the burning in her legs.

Kick, reach, kick, breathe, kick, touch the wall, flip, kick, reach, kick, breathe…

She had to stop as a cramp stabbed through her foot.

“Miss Undomiel? Are you okay?”

“No...” She slapped the tiles, lifted her feet to the wall and pushed off again with a shout.

 

Reach, kick, reach, kick, breathe.

Touch the other wall.

“I need a drink. A big, fucking drink, hold the glass.”

Kick off the wall. Kick, kick, reach, breathe.

She swam harder, tasting whiskey on the back of her tongue.

“You need to concentrate on your breathing and quit thinking about the drink,” Chris offered in a stern tone.

“No, I need a fucking drink!”

“You need to quit being a baby. You are just on the first day! Do you actually think this is going to be easy?”

“I sure as hell didn’t think Jack himself would be chasing me like this!” Dakota slapped the water. “I can’t get it out of my mind, how am I supposed to concentrate on my breathing?”

Hope stood there silent, not wanting to get in the middle of this argument.

 

“That’s weakness talking. Everyone and I mean EVERYONE has something chasing them in their mind. Unfortunately, you let it catch you for way too long. Everything we do has a cost, this is your bill coming due.”

Dakota glanced up at Chris, not sure if she wanted to pull him in or swim.

She swam.

Kick, reach, kick, reach, breathe...over and over again until the damnable foot cramp stopped her and she clung to the wall like a demented spider, seething, gasping for air.

“At the risk of sounding Star Wars nerd, use your anger, it will fuel you.”

She had to chuckle, but there was no mirth in it. “If you knew how long I’ve been swimming, how long I ran on that stupid treadmill before I came back here...Fuck!” Dakota pushed off and dove underwater, swimming as long as she could until her lungs screamed for air. When she surfaced, she was right below Hope. Those blue eyes bored into her and Dakota gave her head a shake and pushed off the wall again.

Halfway down the length of the pool, she stopped. Exhausted. “How the hell am I supposed to do this if I can’t get through the first day without losing my fucking mind?”

“With friends. With faith. With the fucking determination that you CAN do it and won’t allow yourself to get beaten by this. Do you see anyone leaving you to deal with this on your own?”

“But I’m the one being chased by the goddamn bottle, aren’t I?” She bellowed. “I’ve been swimming through the shakes, and foot cramps, and how the fuck am I supposed to do this? I don’t know how to cope! I don’t know how to be healthy and deal with shit properly! Apparently I only know how to hurt!”

Christian had a chill run down his spine and he spoke in a low, almost hurt tone. “Do you honestly think you are the only person who has ever had to do this in their life? Do you really think you are the only person who has ever had demons chasing them? You either need to do better research on your collaboration partners or you need to remember who you are talking to. Why do you think I know so much about this shit, Ms. Undomiel?” He gathered up his things, wiped his eyes and walked into the house without looking back at anyone.



“Fuck…” Dakota sighed. She swam to the end and hauled her body out of the water, and sat there for a moment, debating with herself.

Hope shook her head and walked past her. “You’d better still be there when I get back, Undomiel.”

The brunette walked on silent feet through the house and knocked on Christian’s closed door. “Chris...it’s Hope. Can I come in?”

“Even if I said no, knowing what I know, you are going to come in anyways,” he said in a muffled voice.

Hope let out a breath and leaned her head against the still-closed door. “Yeah, but I’m trying not to be the big bad scary bitch right now.”

“It’s unlocked,” Chris said with a sigh, sitting up and leaning against the headboard.

Hope turned the knob and pushed the door open. She stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. “I know she came off as pretty unfeeling out there...but that’s not her talking, not really. I know she owes you the apology, but I’m sorry she made you feel like this.”

“It’s funny, actually. That was me 10 years ago,” Chris said, bringing his unscarred leg closer to him. “I was in that pool, I was swimming for my life, but I couldn’t stay afloat.”

Hope leaned against the door, crossed one ankle over the other and waited silently.

 

“I told you that I got hurt playing soccer, and that the injury kept me from coming back to soccer. Well, that was only half the story. Yes, I went through the injury and the surgeries to put my leg back together, but there was always this pain that I couldn’t escape. Constant pain. Only part of it was physical, though. During the time I was at UCF, I was dating this woman. Beautiful, girl next door type. I wasn’t even really looking for anything like that, but she kept coming to my games and I kept scoring goals at an unreal pace. I felt like I was in a zone. Whispers were coming in about me leaving school to play overseas in Germany or Spain. I tried to keep them at bay because I wanted to get my degree for my father. The whispers got louder, the pressure got bigger, but I was handling it. One night I got a phone call from a representative from Real Madrid. They wanted to sign me. It was a fairly large amount of money. I said no. When I did that, I started to find out what kind of person she really was. She didn’t talk to me for a week. She came to my next game, and I continued scoring, but she was cold, unfeeling. Then she started mentioning things about me being a waste of talent, verbal stuff. Nothing really horrible. Real called again a month later, and I told them no again, but I left it open that if they still wanted me when I graduated, I would sign. She flipped out. Starting slapping me, hitting me with her fists, kicking me. I left and got into my car. She followed me and got in and just started hitting me over and over again. I pushed her out of the car. One of the campus police saw it and arrested me for suspicion of assault. I went to jail for a night and she showed up the next morning and said she wouldn’t press charges and she hugged me and loved me and told me how sorry she was and how it would never happen again. I believed it. It was just once and really, how could a man be abused by a woman, right? I just didn’t know any better, I had never been in love before.

 

By the next game, the story had already made the rounds. The other team was taking cheap shots at me all game, calling me ‘woman beater’ and all sorts of shit. I didn’t let it bother me. I went up for a header and got undercut by one of their players. Snap. My leg in two places. The crowd actually cheered when I went down. Two weeks after surgery, I went over to her apartment and there she was in bed with one of my teammates. I lost it and started hitting him in the ribs with my crutch, over and over again. I left and went to a bar and starting drinking. Hard. If you mix booze and painkillers, it’s not a great combination. I was arrested in the bar for assault and battery. Now the charges were dropped again, but everything I knew, everything I had worked for, my whole life came crashing down around me. I started drinking and taking pills. And drinking. And taking more pills. I didn’t even know what day it was half the time. I stopped going to class, I dropped out of life. For three straight weeks, I didn’t leave my dorm room. I stayed constantly high and drunk. I swallowed pills like they were candy. I had hit bottom. I lost my scholarship. I got kicked out of school. I had to basically beg to be let back in. Soccer was not an option anymore and the only way I could go back was to go to rehab and detox off pills and alcohol. It was the darkest part of my life. I never spoke to that woman again and really haven’t been able to get close to another woman since then, so I just poured myself into my bachelors, then my masters and then my doctorates. I just isolated myself. It was easier that way. So, yes, I know exactly what she is going through. No one was there to prevent my fall.”     

One of Hope’s eyebrows crept up to her hairline.

 

“Wow, so I just seriously overshared my life.”

“I’m honored you told me. Undomiel doesn’t even know about most of that you know. She did what research she could, and of course, the security team did theirs. But all that showed up was the charges, the date, where you were charged and that all charges were dropped. Nothing more.”

“Hope, no one knows. No one even knows I am a writer. Well, they do as Frijole Jones because Frijole Jones didn’t beat his teammate with a crutch. Christian Jones did.”

“Dakota knows you write under a pseudonym. She suspects it had something to do with the charges. She told me that in passing, then dropped the topic because she didn’t want anyone to overhear.” Hope crossed the room and kneeled at Chris’ feet. “Not everyone is as shallow as that woman was. Not every woman with a bad temper is a bitch. Some of us understand.” She put a hand on one of his feet. “I understand.”

“Thanks, Hope. You know, you’re not so terrifying. But I promise I won’t tell anyone.”

She stood and crossed her arms as she tried to glare at him. “I have a rep to protect, you know.”

“I’ve designed nuclear powered turbine engines that could melt down at any second and kill everyone in a 100 mile radius if something went wrong. You frighten me more than that ever did. So your rep is safe with me.”

Hope actually laughed out loud. “Good! I should get back to her. Want to come with? Maybe we can scare her into a sober state-of-mind?”

 

“I have a better idea,” Christian said, changing into a Penn State t-shirt. “I’m going to make us all a drink.”

Hope’s eyebrow raised again. “Oh?”

“She needs one, right? I think we all could use one, I know I could.”

“Why do I get the feeling it isn’t going to be what has been chasing her all evening?”

Christian just smiled and walked past Hope into the kitchen. “Trust me, I had two doctorates by age 30, I think I got this.”

“I’ll go get her. She’s bound to be a prune by now.”

“We might want to stay outside for this.” Christian called from the kitchen, cabinets opening and closing and glasses clinking.

“That sounds ominous.”

Christian just mock laughed like a mad scientist.

“Do you need a hand?”

“No, but thank you, go make sure our friend hasn’t given herself a stroke.”

Hope chuckled and went back out to the pool.

 

“Undomiel. Get your ass out of the pool, dry off and throw those sweats back on. Dr. Chris is making us all something to drink.” Hope spotted Ash reaching for the patio door, with Ali close on her heels.

Ash gave DK a quick kiss, noting that she looked exhausted. She turned to ask Hope what she’d missed, but she spotted the small shake of the other ‘keepers head.

“You and Kriegs are just in time. Chris is making us all something to drink. Let me go see what’s keeping him.”

Christian appeared in the doorway with a serving tray with five glasses of clear-ish liquid. “Good, I am glad Ali and Ash joined us for this drink.” He said, handing out glasses to each one of his companions.

“Thanks.” Dakota said hesitantly. “It smells...umm...interesting?”

“I think it best to not linger over the smell. Best thing is to just down it in one shot if you can.” Chris raised his glass. “To getting rid of all things toxic in our lives.”

Ali looked a little afraid. Ash looked as if she expected a kraken to jump out of the glass and DK looked a little green already. Hope eyed her glass suspiciously.

But they all toasted and threw their glasses back.

 

“Oh fuck, that’s still as awful as I remember,” Chris choked out and shook his head.

Ali and Ash coughed and spluttered. Hope made a face and tightened her jaw.

Dakota made noises that sounded like a hippo giving birth, looked at the ground and clenched her eyes shut.

After a couple of minutes, Ali stopped coughing long enough to splutter, “Chris, I thought you liked us!?”

Ash finally stopped choking, thanks to Ali patting her on the back. “Dude...what in the holy Christ was that?!”

“I do like you,” Christian pleaded. “Well, maybe not Hope as much.” He chuckled a little.

Hope squawked and coughed. “Hey!”

“That was a liver cleanse drink that I have had to partake in before. I figured if Dakota had to suffer, she shouldn’t suffer alone, despite her vitriol from earlier. Fair warning, though, you will probably be up half the night peeing. Side effect.”

Ash, Ali and Hope all muttered about already being up half the night from all the water they drank. Dakota had opened her eyes and sat silent. She wanted to rail against the nasty shit she’d been conned into drinking. She wanted to puke. But she knew she had hurt Christian earlier. In the end, she got up and kneeled in front of him. she put one hand on his knee and said, “I’d like to puke whatever that was back up into your lap, but because I feel bad about earlier. I won’t. I can’t promise I’ll be a mature adult all the time. I can’t promise I’ll be easy to live with. Hell, I can’t even thank you for that shitinaglass. But thank you for sticking by me.”

 

Chris took Dakota’s chin in his hand. “This is going to suck out loud for you, but I promised I would be here to help you through it. What you are doing by exercising, however maniacally it seems to be, is only going to help you in this journey. I do not envy how sore you are going to be in the morning, but you are doing a good thing. Don’t quit on yourself. Oh, and that shitinaglass is going to be a regular part of your diet.”

“It will?”

“Every morning before your morning coffee. BEFORE, not after.”

Dakota whimpered a little. “That’s just cruel.”

Hope chuckled. “Well, if exercise going to help, I can help keep you from overdoing it. We’ll work out together.”

“Hope, I leave for London in two days, if I teach you how to make it, will you make sure she drinks it?”

“Of course.”

“I don’t suppose I’ll get a reprieve if it comes back up?” Dakota asked as she reclaimed her seat.

“No. It’s best to hold it down. It tastes worse coming back the other direction.”

“There’s no way it could taste worse.” She muttered as she slumped in her seat.

“Chris, what is it?” Ali asked.

“A tablespoon of fresh lime juice, a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, a teaspoon of raw honey, and an eighth of a teaspoon of turmeric, cayenne and rosemary mixed with mineral water,” he rattled off, using his fingers to remember the exact recipe.

“Wait...you’re leaving?” Dakota asked.

 

“Yes, I am. I still have to finish out my term at Oxford, so I have about a week of classes and a final exam to administer but as you heard earlier, this is going to be my last term there. In ten days time, I will officially be unemployed.”

“What will you do then?” Ashlyn asked, really only asking what everyone was thinking.

“I’ll figure it out. Teaching at Oxford carries a bit of cache with it, so maybe I will find a job here in the U.S.. Maybe I’ll take some time off to just travel. I didn’t really think it through when I resigned, but I’ll be alright.”

“You threw it all away...for me. Why?”

“For family, you do what you have to do. What you feel is right. You’re family.” He pulled Dakota in close and whispered in her ear “As you will probably find out from your security detail, I’m quite wealthy, my salary was literally going into savings.”

DK’s eyes bugged out a little, and she pulled back to study him, trying to gauge if he was serious, or teasing. She hugged him, hard. “Thank you. Maybe not for trying to poison me with shitinaglass, but thank you.”

“Nothing to thank me for, little sister,” he said as he rubbed her back.

Dakota smiled and hugged him back as Ali and Ash tried not to look misty eyed and Hope surreptitiously palmed at her cheekbones. “There’s still two days to get through though.”

“Then I feel like I should make them count,” Chris said with a smile. “Who knows what will happen after I leave Oxford for good.”

Dakota sat back in her chair, emotionally and physically drained.

“Dakota, if I might make a suggestion, you should go in and take a very hot shower and try to get some sleep. You should feel good, you got through the first day. Always the toughest. I, for one, am proud of you.”

“Sleep sounds good. I’m not sure if I should dread or look forward to tomorrow.” DK stood and stretched a little. “Night, all.”

“I’ll be in shortly, babe.” Ash stood and flipped the towel around Dakota’s neck and kissed her.

Dakota smiled and shuffled into the house.

“I think I will retire as well,” Christian said, picking up the empty glasses and recoiling at the enduring stink. “It’s been an interesting day to say the least. Goodnight ladies.”

“Night, Dr. Chris!” They all said at once, as if they’d rehearsed it.

“We’ve got to work on that name.” He muttered to himself as he walked in.

 

To be continued



Chapter Text

As Christian was rinsing the glasses, a black car cruised to a stop just up the road. None of the security detail saw it or heard it because there were no sound or lights to alert them. The driver had shut the engine off and let momentum carry her.

****

Dakota had the recommended hot shower, hot enough to leave her skin red when she stepped out. She stepped into clean pajama pants and a t-shirt Ash had laid out for her and as she turned the bed down, Ash came into the room with a steaming cup.

“If that’s more shitinaglass, I’ll pass.”

“No,” She chuckled. “I made you some chai and orange blossom tea. Here, you get into bed and sip on it while I do my thing in the bathroom.”

In the slightly heated bed under covers with her favorite tea in hand, Dakota could finally relax. She was content for the first time in days. She let out a long breath and stretched out her legs. She could feel them already objecting to the workout she had subjected them to earlier.

Ash left the bathroom and turned off the overhead light. The bedside lamp cast a soft glow more fitting to the conversation she wanted to have. She got under the covers and scooted close to DK. “I heard you had a hell of a day. Sorry I wasn’t there for you. Pride head office called as soon as I hung up from Whit.”

“It’s okay.”

“I don’t want you to think I’m not there for you when you need me.”

“Ash, you have to work. I understand that. That is why we’re here.”

The blonde snuggled as close as she could without jostling the mug. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

 

Dakota took a drink of tea before she answered, trying to gather her thoughts. “I told Christian today that I wasn’t an addict. I was sure I wasn’t. But now...I’m not so sure. I could taste it on the back of my tongue, and I could have sworn I heard ice when it falls into a glass, you know the sound it makes?”

Ash nodded.

“I wanted it so badly, and I tried to pour that into running, and then swimming, but none of it was enough.” Dakota sighed.

“I heard you and Chris got a little...loud.”

“I yelled at him. He was quiet. I hurt him. Hope went after him. I guess they talked.”

“They’ve been getting closer little by little. I’m glad. She needs to have a male friend that is a good person at heart.” Ash stroked Dakota’s side. “Obviously Chris doesn’t hold whatever you said against you.”

“I still can’t believe he quit.” DK took another drink from her mug. “Is it selfish of me to hope he settles in the States?”

“Sounded to me like the faculty’s priorities didn’t mesh with his own anyway. Maybe this was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Maybe this will end up being a good thing for him.”

“I hope so.” Dakota drained the mug and set it on her night-stand. “Thank you. I needed that.”

“You ready to sleep now?”

“I think so.”

Ashlyn reached up and kissed DK’s cheek. “You got through the first day. That’s a hell of a thing, babe. I’m proud of you.”

Dakota sighed and wiggled further down the bed as Ash shut the lamp off. “Really not looking forward to that shitinaglass tomorrow.”

 

She drifted off easily enough into sleep. She snuggled into Ash as comfortably as she had back in Germantown. But sometime in the darkest hours of night, they came for her again.

 

She was in the greenhouse sweeping the floor, still trying to find her way in the prison hierarchy, still afraid every night. She didn’t hear the door open, her mind was on the music she missed. And in her mind was the only music she heard, unless one of the prisoners sang softly to themselves at night. So distracted, she was unaware of the others. Until one of them stepped on a floorboard that creaked beneath her feet.

 

Alarmed, Dakota turned, too late. Hands snatched the broom from her while other hands gripped her tightly. There were five of them, two had a reputation for being cruel and taking whatever they wanted, whether that was someone’s lunch or …

“You’ve avoided me long enough, Inmate. I haven’t been able to properly introduce myself and welcome you to SpringBow.”

“I know who you are.” Dakota said while trying to escape the grip of those who had wrenched her arms behind her back.

“Rowan Wright.” The other inmate gave a small, sarcastic bow. “Nothing happens in this place without my knowing about it, and if I decide you’re worth it, I can make your time in here much easier. At a price of course.”

“That’s not how I hear it.” Dakota retorted.

“Pfft. Slander.” Wright scoffed as she stepped closer and reached out to cup one of Dakota’s breasts. “I’ve been watching you for a few days, and I gotta say, I like what I see. You’re still soft...I like that.”

Dakota fought her captors, but their grip was too tight.

“Stop fighting, you’ll have a better time that way.”

“I doubt that.”

“Oh, I guarantee it. I promise you I’ll make it worth your while to just stand still.”

Dakota kicked the other woman in the knee in response.

“Fuck!” Wright lashed out with a kick of her own that crumpled Dakota to the rough floorboards.

“Hold her down!” Wright took the broom and broke it over a nearby bench. “I’ll show her not to screw with me.”

When someone ripped Dakota’s pants off, she figured out pretty quickly what Wright’s intentions were.

“No! Leave me alone...get off me...no….NO!”

 

Ashlyn was woken by the first scream, and she reached out to stroke Dakota’s shoulder, trying to wake her girlfriend gently. “It’s okay…”

Dakota thrashed all the more, scrambling to get away, still deep in the grips of her memory. When she fell out of bed, Ash was surprised she didn’t wake herself up, but she lay there, fighting and screaming and nothing Ashlyn was doing was making any difference. Out of desperation, Ash did the only other thing she could think of and grabbed her water glass.

Dakota shook the water out of her face and spluttered. “What the fuck?!”

“DK...I’m sorry…”
A knock on the door interrupted her apology and she got up to reassure whoever was on the other side that she wasn’t killing her fiance.

“Is she okay?” Ali asked as soon as the door was open.

“Sorry, she was having a nightmare…” Ash gestured toward the floor where the writer still sat, water dripping off her nose.

Ali strode into the room, spotted her friend on the floor and went to her. “Dakota, you’re soaked…”

“It was the only way I could wake her.” Ashlyn explained.

“Can you get her another t-shirt or something?” Ali asked without turning around. “Dakota, you need to get into something dry.” She watched Dakota for some sign that the nightmare was over. “DK, did you hear me?”

Dakota finally nodded, shivering.

“Okay, we’re going to get you into a dry shirt. Don’t punch me or anything okay?” Ali took the dry shirt Ash held out.

Dakota nodded again and let Ali take the wet shirt off and replace it with a dry one.

 

“Do you want to go back to bed?” Ash asked.

Dakota shook her head as she took the blonde’s outstretched hand. “No...I can’t…” and she rushed out of the room.

Ash helped Ali off the floor.

“We can’t leave her like this, Ash. I’ll go sit with her, I was still awake anyway. You try and get some sleep.”

“We’ll stay with her together. I don’t want her to think I don’t care.”

As they left the room together, Ali put her hand on the blonde’s back. “She knows you do. Even if you did try and drown her.”

“Let’s hope she doesn’t remember that part later.”

 

They found her in the great room, sitting on the sofa, knees pulled up to her chest, staring at a cold fireplace with wide eyes.

Ash went to the hearth and started making a fire while Ali took the blanket from the back of the sofa and draped it around Dakota. Then she sat beside her and wrapped an arm around the writer.

“You want to talk about your nightmare?” She rubbed her friend’s back as she felt her shake beneath the blanket.

Dakota shook her head. “Can’t.”

“Okay. You’re safe now. Whatever it was, isn’t here.” Ali said soothingly.

Ash turned as the tinder in the fireplace caught and flamed. “It’s like before, Al.”

Ali let go a long breath and nodded. “And we’ll stay close, just like we did before.”  

****

The woman eased out of the car and pushed her door shut soundlessly. She had watched the security detail enough to know that she had three minutes to get to the beach without being seen. With her limp, it would be challenging.

****

In the moments before sunrise, when the sky is that in-between shade of not-night and not-dawn, Christian woke up, unsure at first of his surroundings. As he stretched and felt the sheets along his body he remembered he was in Florida. He had come here as a guest of Ashlyn and Dakota after DK had survived an attempted kidnapping. So much had happened in two days, that he might not believe it had he not been there through it all. An attempted kidnapping, an overhaul of Dakota’s security team, initiated by the former head herself. An eye-opening intervention that might have gone so badly astray if not for the love and dedication of Dakota’s friends. Friends that seemed to have become family to the writer he himself had grown so close to, they were now family themselves. He remembered Dakota yelling at him from the pool as she questioned whether she could ‘do’ the detox they were putting her through. He remembered saying angry words in order to spur her into determination, and he remembered his long talk with Hope.

The woman who had terrified him days ago had somehow become a friend, and now confidant. The woman he had overheard tell DK that she wanted the kind of love Dakota and Ashlyn shared. The woman he had so much in common with.

He remembered his conversation with Dr. Fredricks. His resignation from Oxford.

Ashlyn had asked him the night before what he would do after the term was over.

He still didn’t know.

 

Chris sighed and flipped the covers back, padded to the bathroom on bare feet and got dressed in a pair of track pants and a white t-shirt.Then he went into the kitchen.

The room was a bit too well lit for his taste for first thing in the morning, but his eyes gradually adjusted as he made a pot of coffee. He made a big pan of french toast and bacon and left that in the oven. He pulled out the ingredients to make Dakota’s liver cleanse and mixed it while trying not to retch. He placed it in the refrigerator and poured himself a glass of milk and sipped on it before going back to his room for a book he had tossed into his suitcase before crossing the ocean. The Science of the Emotions by Bhagavan Das. On the way back to the kitchen, he went into the office for a piece of paper and a pen. He wrote a note to Hope first.

‘Sometimes, staying in bed reading is exactly the right thing to do.’

Then he wrote another note.

‘Breakfast is in the oven.’

Then a third.

‘BEFORE coffee. Love you sis.’

Then he tore the sheets of paper between the notes. He made his way to Hope’s room and eased the door open, mindful of the fact that she could be a light sleeper. Thankful for the thick carpeting muffling his steps, he left the book, note and a cup of coffee at her bedside and eased out of the room. On his way back to the kitchen, he passed the great room, and three figures on the sofa caught his eye.

Ali sat curled up with her chin on her chest, Dakota sat beside her, also dozing but leaning into Ashlyn who had also drifted off to sleep.

Obviously something had happened, but he was unwilling to wake any of them, so he continued on into the kitchen to leave his note on the counter and the one for Dakota leaning against her glass in the fridge. He tied his runners on, adjusted his knee brace and stepped out the door, startling the bodyguard on the other side.

“I’m going for a run down the beach, hope you can keep up with my power limp.”

 

As Chris set off down the beach, the bodyguard followed at a respectful distance. They had all been told how the professor felt about his privacy, and that they were to respect his wishes unless his life was in danger. It was really too dark to be aware of one’s surroundings properly, never mind adequately ensure someone’s safety, but the young man had seen Adam fired for taking matters into his own hands. There was no way he was losing this job.

Almost too late, he noticed that the other man had stopped. The guard stopped beside a clump of palm trees and leaned against one. When a hand clamped over his mouth, and another around his throat, there was no chance to react. He was pulled down without a sound, face first. There was a weight on his back, as if someone were sitting on him. He drew in a breath to yell for help, but all he got was a lungful of sand.

There was pressure on his temple, a pop like a bag full of air being burst and then all the fight bled out of him onto the sand.

 

Chris continued on, unaware that he was now being followed by someone very different. Blissfully deaf to the crunching tread behind him, thanks to the pulsing beat of Skrillex in his headphones, he was oblivious to the danger until he turned suddenly and was met by the scarred, manically grinning face of a woman he did not recognize.

He pulled the headphones off, confused by the stranger standing in his personal space.

“Oh yes...you’ll do nicely.” she said as she sprayed something in his face. As he coughed and spluttered, he could feel his legs crumpling under him. Mere heartbeats later, he lay unconscious on the sand.

****

Hope was dreaming about being in a cafe, all in white, bathed in the scent of coffee, but even in sleep, her brain acknowledged that she was in the cafe Dakota had told her about after being shot. She woke, confused by the lingering scent of coffee and turned her head to see a steaming mug on the nightstand. She pushed herself into a sitting position and spotted the note.

‘Sometimes, staying in bed reading is exactly the right thing to do.’

“What the hell?”

It wasn’t Dakota’s handwriting, and the writer was the only one she had told about...Christian had been there...but he had been wearing headphones…

Hope sighed and wondered how much he had heard. She looked at the book, curious now, and at the mug again. She decided there was no harm in it, and she was pleased he had braved his fear of her enough to do such a little thing. She took a sip of coffee and flipped the covers back, intending to thank him.

****

Dakota jerked awake when her subconscious took her back to the greenhouse.

She blinked the sleep from her eyes, aware of Ali and Ash on either side of her. She sat up slowly, trying not to wake either of them, and made her way to the bathroom. On the way back, she spotted Chris’ bedroom door standing open at the same time she smelled coffee. She followed the scent into the kitchen and spotted her cell phone on the counter where she had left it the previous day. She was reaching for the cupboard to retrieve a mug when she spotted the waiting message icon on her screen. She thumbed through the controls and nearly dropped the phone when the message opened.

There was a photo of Christian, unconscious, bound and gagged with a gun at his temple. Under the photo,

‘Alert anyone, even your girlfriend and he dies. Come to the clump of palms on the beach northwest of the garage, alone.’

Coffee forgotten, Dakota let the phone clatter to the counter and slipped out the door, barefoot.

 

When she got to the palms, at first, she could only see Chris, still bound, but starting to stir. She bent and took his chin, trying to see if he’d been hurt.

“He’s just knocked out.” A vaguely familiar voice said behind her. “Stand up...slowly.”

She did as she’d been told, and turned.

The face was familiar, under the scars, and Dakota sighed in shame. “Rena Kirkpatrick.”

“Glad to see you remember me...considering it was you that ruined my life.” The woman Dakota had served time with stood in front of her with a Sig Sauer pistol pointed at Christian.

“Something that I’ve been ashamed of every day since. Rena...did you do this?”

“Of course I did, you idiot!” Rena barked out in a half-laugh. “I was tired of dicking around, waiting for the others to make you pay for what you’d done to me. It’s about time that you paid for …”

“Rena,” DK interrupted her. “Others? You put the bounty on my head?”

“Of course I did! I’ve been getting even with all of you for a long time.”

“Wendy convinced us…”

“Bullshit! You stomped on my hands just as much as the others! You broke as much of me as the others did! Didn’t you care what you were doing?” Her voice rose sharply, carrying out over the sand.

****

At the same time as Dakota was turning to face her tormentor, Hope came into the kitchen and spotted the message DK had been sent. She scrolled through the contacts list quickly until she found a name, stabbed at the screen and sent one quick message, and slipped quietly down to the beach in the dark.

 

“Of course I did!” She could hear Dakota’s voice, and she used it to cover any sound of her approach.

 

“I thought you understood! We were manipulated, I thought you knew that!”

“You broke nearly every fucking bone in my hands, Undomiel! How was I supposed to forgive you for that? You and the others took any chance of a normal life for me after prison! You beat me until I fucking near died! Wendy knew who she sent to do her dirty work!” Rena was raving now, getting closer and closer to Dakota and Chris. “You already had a reputation in SpringBow, she just fed off of it! She said all the right things to make you all do what she wanted! You took my fucking life away from me, do you understand that?”

Dakota held her hands out and tried to maneuver herself in front of Chris. “Let him go, Rena. It’s me you’re angry with, not him.”

“Oh no, Undomiel, it’s not that easy. I want you to suffer…”

“Goddamn it, Kirkpatrick! I’ve been suffering ever since SpringBow! That place took something from all of us...Don’t make him suffer too.”

Christian had fully regained consciousness now, but Dakota had her back to him. “That place made us into monsters, Rena, don’t you see that?”

“The only monster I see is you, Inmate!”

 

Dakota flinched at that one word that always cut deep, and missed the arch of the gun muzzle that connected with her temple, sending her toppling to the sand beside Christian.

 

Hope scrambled closer, glad the sun wasn’t up just yet.

 

“I’ve had my revenge on all the others.” Rena panted in her madness. “I’ve killed them all. They all paid for their part...they all begged me for mercy…” She stomped on Dakota’s elbow. “But I showed them as much mercy as you all showed me.” Then she stomped on her knee, smiling at the crunch, and the howl of pain. “You stole my life, for nothing…” Rena stomped on the Dakota’s knee again. “NOTHING!”

 

Hope was nearly close enough.

 

Dakota writhed on the sand as Rena came closer, finally jamming the muzzle of the gun between Christian’s eyes.

“Say goodbye to your friend, Undomiel…”

 

Hope ran, glad for all the hours spent training, she ran toward the woman with the gun and dove toward her midsection.The collision knocked the wind out of the other woman, and she hit the beach with a bone-jarring thud.

 

“Hope? You okay?” Dakota asked.

“Yeah…” Hope pushed herself off the stranger and stood up. She turned to see Dakota standing with the gun in her hand, pointing it at the woman laying in the sand. “DK...what the hell are you doing?”

“Check on Chris, please.” Dakota’s voice was calm, almost cold, and for the first time in days, there was no tremble in her hand. She stepped closer to Rena, staying out of reach of her legs.

Hope untied Christian, but stayed beside him, her hand on one of his legs as they stared at Dakota, horrified.

 

“I have lived in shame every day of what we did to you, Rena.” Dakota said. “I know no apology can ever excuse what we did...prison made us into monsters...but you took it so much further than it had to go...you took out the bounty, you kidnapped my friend and you were going to kill him in front of me.” Her voice became chipped and hard. “Tell me why I shouldn’t finish what we did to you in SpringBow? Tell me why I shouldn’t put you out of my misery and kill you right now?”

“Kill me and be done with it, Inmate!” Rena spat. “Or don’t you have the stones? Were all those stories I heard from the medical wing bullshit?”

Dakota growled and took a step closer. “Fuck you! Do you have any idea what it was like in general population while you were safe under observation in the medical wing?!” Dakota was shouting now. “Did you know about the rats? Did you know about the gangs that really controlled the place? Did you know inmates were raped, for power, for prestige, so a select few could maintain their place in the prison hierarchy, while you were kept safe across the prison? Do you know how many times I prayed to die in there?!”

KILL ME, you piece of shit!!” Rena screamed at her, spit flying. “Kill me and put me out of my goddamned misery!”

“Undomiel…” Hope said from behind her. “Don’t…”

Rena laughed manically from the sand. “I killed all the others...I saved you and Wendy for last...but she’s dead too and if you don’t kill me, I’ll come for you again. I will kill everyone you love. I’ll kill them all…”

 

Chris stood up from behind Dakota.

“Dakota Katherine, don’t,” he said as calm as he could muster.

Dakota twitched at the use of her middle name.  She didn’t know Christian even knew it.

“If you do this, you throw everything away that you have with Ashlyn.” He continued. “You piss on your love for her because you wanted to commit this selfish act. You’re not that person anymore.”

He walked up behind her and put his hand on her shoulder and the other hand on the barrel of the gun.

“Listen to me, you have a lifetime of love to spend with Ash. You have a family, you have a career. You have a life. Don’t do this and have to spend it talking to your wife on a prison phone. Don’t be controlled by this monster like you were with Wendy. You are stronger than that. You’ve died three times and come back from it. Don’t kill this person and effectively, kill Ash. That is what happens if you pull the trigger.”

“Move your hand, Christian.”

“No. I won’t let you piss away your life. I won’t watch you fall. Let go of the gun.”

“I’ll kill her, you know.” Rena said.

“Don’t listen to her, Dakota. Those are the desperate words of a woman who knows her time is over. Her game is over. You’re free now.”

The maniac on the sand laughed. “I’ll kill the hot little blonde bitch slowly. Maybe even have a bit of fun first and take her like...”

 

Dakota dropped the gun and leaped onto Rena, hitting her over and over, pounding her with white-hot fury pulsing through her veins. The frustration, the fear, the need for a drink burning bright as ever, the need to be rid of the nightmares…

Chris pointed the gun in the air and fired two shots, to snap Dakota from her rage and to get the attention of the security detail. He then held the gun on Rena’s bloody, swollen face.

“You twitch, you die,” he said calmly.

“How the hell is that fair?” Dakota croaked as she staggered backward, where Hope caught her. “I can’t kill her but you can?”

“I have no intention of killing anyone,” he said looking up at the security detail sprinting towards them, followed by Ashlyn and Ali. “But if you continued, you would have still done it with your fists and the same consequence applies. Can’t let that happen to my newest family member.”

Dakota chuckled without mirth as Eve and Nyssa reached them. “Yeah, okay. I really don’t want to go back to prison anyway.”

“You don’t strike me as a toilet-wine drinker anyway.” Chris replied with a smirk.

“Heh. If you only knew about the rotgut that we used to drink in SpringBow.” Dakota’s knee could no longer hold her weight, and she crumpled to the sand.

 

Eve flipped Rena over in the sand and clapped cuffs on her before hauling her to her feet.

“I could use a hand up…” DK said quietly.

Chris turned the gun handle first and handed it to Nyssa and then reached down and pulled the writer to her feet with one good tug. Dakota groaned as her muscles were paying her back for her lack of restraint in the pool.

“Thanks.” Dakota wrapped Christian in a hug that she hoped conveyed everything her brain wanted to say but she couldn’t force out.

“This should make for some interesting breakfast table conversation. I cannot wait to hear Ash chew your ass for leaving the house alone!” Christian said, squeezing his friend tightly.

“Oh, I’m not about to wait that long.” A voice said behind them.

“Crap…” Dakota breathed.

 

Chris chuckled to himself and released Dakota to her fiance and stood back, waiting for the fireworks to start before realizing something. “What about the young man following me? Did you find him?”

Nyssa nodded sadly. “We did. I’ll have to call his family as soon as I can. Dead, I’m afraid.” Ali stood beside her, one hand on her back, shaking slightly with the remnants of adrenaline still coursing through her system.

“Another death on your conscience, Inmate! Maybe you should be the one serving time for murder, maybe I should be free…” Rena laughed.

Dakota lunged for the woman, intent on beating the smile off her face.

Eve jerked Rena toward the road to await the arrival of the police before Dakota could land herself in jail.

“Maybe you should fuck right off, you fucking tosser! I hope you meet the business end of a broom handle in the dead of night. I hope you get mounted by a rabid coyote. Go fuck yourself. Rot in fucking prison you sadistic wanker!”

Hope was the only one even remotely surprised by Christian’s outburst.

 

Ash rushed forward and wrapped her arms around her girlfriend. “I’ll be mad at you later. I’m just glad you’re alright.”

Dakota held onto Ash for a minute. “I’m okay. Chris was the one knocked out. If Hope hadn’t showed up...how did you know anyway?” She turned to the brunette.

“Your phone was on the counter. I saw the message. I had gone looking for someone who brought me coffee in bed.”

“Do we have time for breakfast before the police will want statements?” Ali asked.

“There is a drink in the refrigerator with Dakota’s name on it.” Chris said.

“Oh gods…” DK dropped her head. “I had forgotten about that. Come to think of it, prison booze tasted better than shitinaglass.”

“Do I want to know?” Nyssa asked Ali.

“I’ll catch you up later.” Ali gave her girlfriend a squeeze.

“Let’s go get this over with.” Dakota turned toward the house.

 

To be continued!

 

Chapter Text

They all trooped into the house, minus Nyssa, who went out to wait for the police with Eve. Ali got mugs out for everyone while Hope went into the fridge and removed Dakota’s glass and note. She grinned and held them both up for DK to see. “This first, then coffee.” The blue-eyed goalkeeper reminded her.

“And here just a few minutes ago, I was thinking you were such a good friend.” Dakota stuck her tongue out and took the glass. She went to the sink and looked out the window for a minute, watching the three women waiting near the end of the drive, studying the one she had helped twist through cruelty.

 

Ali came to stand on her left side, and Ash on her right. Her fiance laid her hand lightly on Dakota’s. “It’s over now.”

“Not for her.” Dakota inclined her head toward Rena. “And not for me, not really. I owe her for the part I played. I’ll owe for that decision forever.”

“Don’t you think you paid enough?” Ali asked gently.

“No...I always had the choice to tell Wendy to go fuck herself back then. I could have been brave and stood up to her, but I didn’t. I’ve been blaming her for a long time. I’ve been a coward, and today, someone died, and Chris nearly did as well. Now Rena will serve time for murdering that young man out there, and for kidnapping Chris, and if what she said can be believed, the others who were involved. That’s on her...but to a degree, that’s on me as well.” Dakota said quietly.

As the first police car pulled into the driveway, DK raised the glass and downed the contents in one shot, clenching her jaw to keep the noxious mix down. Ali and Ash both watched her eyes squeeze shut and a shudder rip through her body.

****

At long last, with breakfast eaten, their statements given to the police and the young man’s body removed from the beach, they all sat around the table, cups in hand, silent until Christian struggled to his feet and raised his mug. “Here’s to strangers who become friends,” He raised his mug toward Hope. “And friends who become family.” A tip of the mug to Dakota. “And to the enormous love and humanity you have all shown me. Thank you for one of the most interesting weeks I’ve had in a very long time. May the rest of our lives be boring in comparison.”

“Here, here.” Was murmured around the table.

 

Dakota rose from the table first and limped outside. The sun danced on the water under a clear blue sky, and she knew she should have been happy. In many aspects, it was over. If what Rena had said was true, there would be no need to look over her shoulder any longer.

She sensed movement on her left and turned her head to see Ashlyn standing beside her.

“Now what, Ash? What am I supposed to do now?” Dakota asked quietly as she wrapped an arm around her girlfriend’s waist.

“Love me, and your family in there.” Ash motioned with her head toward the house. “Write your book. Get a tan. Get married. You can do whatever you want now, sweetheart. Except drink, I wouldn’t recommend that.”

Dakota sighed deeply.

“You said she stomped you...you okay?”

“It hurts like a sonofabitch, but I’ll heal.”

“You know what I want to do right now?” Ash turned to her with a wide smile.

“What?” Dakota couldn’t help but smile back.

“Surf!” Ashlyn leaned forward and kissed Dakota fiercely before releasing her, and turning back to the house, shouting through the open door, “Who wants to go surfing?”

****

Dakota had been laying on the towel, face down, for some time  when a voice above her spoke. “You should turn soon.”

She rolled over and smiled up at Chris. “Really taking this brother thing seriously, aren’t you?”

“Bloody right.” He held out her sunglasses.

“Pull up a towel, there’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”

"I'm all ears. What's on your mind? Unless it's about the liver cleanse drink. The answer is yes, you still have to drink it everyday after I go back to England."

 

Dakota rolled her eyes at him as she got comfortable on her back. She was hoping for a knock-out tan. “I know traditionally, the father gave the bride away at her wedding. Our wedding is going to be anything but traditional, and I won’t be given away like property, but I was wondering if you would consider escorting me from one chapter of my life to the next.”

Chris was dumbfounded and his mouth was agape.

"Are you sure? I mean, I always figured it would be one of Ash's friends or Hope or someone like that. I wasn't even sure I was going to be invited to the wedding and now you're asking me to walk you down the aisle. Wow."

He choked back a couple of tears. "Damn salt air is playing hell with my eyes," he said with a smile, knowing Dakota could see through his facade. "If you don't mind looking like a dwarf standing next to me, I would be honored."

DK side-eyed him and smiled. “I’ll be the happiest dwarf there.”

 

"One more thing, what is the color scheme?"

“We’ve decided on red and white. Ash has said she wants to wear a white suit with the cuffs of her pants rolled up, barefoot so she can wriggle her toes in the sand as she says her vows. I know no one but the bride is supposed to wear white on that day, but to hell with tradition. I’d love to see the wedding party all in white with red accents.”

"Hmm... Don't be surprised at all if you see red streaks in my hair in your honor."

“That’s a good idea, maybe I’ll get my tips done red too!” She laughed. “I’m not sure what I’ll wear that day. I want it to be something comfortable, something casual, and white.”

“I’m sure you will look wonderful in anything you choose,” Chris said, barely looking up from his tablet. “Not to ruin the mood here, but, um. You know I have to leave for London early tomorrow. Are you sure you’ll make it without me?” He grinned, knowing he was teasing Dakota.

She looked over at him, as serious as a heart attack. “Honestly, I don’t know how, but I suppose I’ll have to.”

“You wake up. You breathe one breath at a time. You put one foot in front of the other. You lean on people when you need to and be strong when the moment calls for it. If you get knocked down seven times, you get up eight.”

 

“You know...for a time, I really considered killing her. You know what stopped me though?”

“My hand on the barrel would have made me an accessory?” he said in his normal sarcastic way, but knowing she was serious.

“Any lawyer worth their salt would have squashed the charge.” She scoffed. “What you said, about how I had a life, and love and a career. I wanted all those things when I was a kid...and for the first time in my life, I can honestly say this is the most free I’ve ever felt. I’m not completely free, I take ownership of what I did to Rena, but this is the most free I’ve ever been. So in many ways, you saved my life, as certainly as Hope did on that curb.”

“If there is one thing I have learned in this life, our decisions follow us, but we choose whether it DEFINES us. What happened in the past is not who you are. You’ve grown and although that choice was made, when you lowered the gun, you made sure you came up with your OWN definition of who you want to be.”

“They say that our Karma, well, all but the lowest form of it anyway, is always influenced by our choices...our free will. That resonates with me, so, what you told me made sense. But damn, she was egging me on, wasn’t she?”

“She was definitely pushing the right buttons, but no matter what, I wouldn’t have let you kill her, I would have done it first before I let you. That is the honest truth.”

“Be damned if I’m coming to visit my writing partner in prison. Speaking of...I was thinking about Lura’s new home. The Muse is speaking to me again.”

“That’s progress. Maybe my liver cleanse is working faster than we thought.” He scrunched his face up while looking at his tablet. “And the news of my resignation has already made it to my students, apparently they are planning a protest. That should actually be calm compared to the last week I have spent here.”

 

Dakota laughed. “Hell, yes!” She stopped for a second to listen to Ash’s laughter ring out over the water as Ali took a header into a wave.

“That right there...that is what you would have sacrificed if you pulled the trigger.”

She nodded, glad she hadn’t killed Rena. “I want to be selfish and hope you decide to settle in Florida, you know.”

“I really don’t know what I am going to do. I have family here in Florida, both biological and otherwise. I suppose I could just buy a beach house and lay in the sun all day, but what fun would that be? There are other factors I have to consider as well.”

Dakota chuckled. “I’m not sure she’s ready to leave Seattle just yet.”

“A little quick on the trigger, aren’t we?” he said with an arched eyebrow. “She still terrifies me, you know. I don’t see her out here, though. Maybe she actually is reading in bed all day. I suppose I’ll have to pay for eavesdropping on your conversation with her at some point, but maybe I can avoid it until I leave for London.”
“Sometimes getting out of bed terrifies me, but I still do it. She’s worth the risk...if you decide to chase it. But you need to go into anything, even friendship with her, with your eyes open. She is volatile, passionate about her causes,and her family. She has a quick temper and she’s sarcastic as hell. But she has a good heart, and that outshines all of the prickly parts.”

“I go into everything with my eyes open. I always try to see the best parts of people. I just have a very hard time letting anyone in and I have always kept women at an arm’s length since college. I cannot believe I told her what happened to me at UCF, it just all sort of tumbled out. 195 IQ and I cannot control what comes out of my mouth most of the time.”

She chuckled. “So don’t date. Hang out. Go to bookstores or libraries. Go for coffee. Hell, show up at her games and practises. Play it cool. She isn’t the ‘chase me’ type anyway. But if you two decide to just be friends, that’s good too.”

“I guess we will have to see if my absence from her will make both our hearts grow fonder. God, I can’t believe I just said that. I’m such a wanker. I think your stunning blonde is beckoning you from the ocean. Go enjoy your first taste of true freedom with her.”

Dakota looked out to where Ash and Ali had paddled in, and she had to smile. She passed Chris her sunglasses as she stood and said. “I think a swim would feel pretty good.” Then she stepped toward the surf, diving in when the water got deep enough.

“You’ve earned it. Tenfold,” Chris said to no one in particular and went back to his tablet to attempt to quell an Oxford Literature Department uprising.

 ****

After much debate about dinner, in the end, they all decided to order pizza. Those that had spent the day on the beach were tired, and no one really felt like cooking.  They all sat around the table eating, carrying on separate conversations, when DK leaned toward Ashlyn and asked, “So, do you think we could pull off planning our wedding in just under a year?”

Ash chewed and swallowed. “You thinking November?”

“Well, the NWSL season would be over, less chances of a hurricane ruining our day and increased chances of our friends and family being able to make it.”

All conversation at the table stopped.

“I um, changed my mind a little though.”

“About?”

“I asked Chris to walk with me down the aisle.”

No one was surprised.

“Speaking of...what time do you need to be at the airport tomorrow, Christian?”Ash asked.

“My flight leaves at six twenty AM.”

“So, we’ll need to have you there...an hour before?” Eve asked.

Christian sighed heavily. “Two hours for international flights, so I would need to be there around four.. I was planning on calling a car service so I wouldn’t inconvenience anyone or cut into much-needed rest.”

Hope scoffed. “Did you just meet these people, or what? You really think they’ll let you do that? Do you think I would let you go without saying goodbye properly?”

“I never like to be an imposition on anyone. It was hard enough accepting the invite to come here. Everyone has done more than enough and been more than hospitable. I just figured we would do all of the ‘see you next time’s’ tonight.”

“So I’ll set my alarm for two thirty.” Dakota said. “We may need a couple of cars.”

“I’m going too.” Ash added. “When we get back, I’ll whip up something to eat.”

Eve nodded and started making notes in the small notebook she always kept in her back pocket. “So we’ll need Miranda, Nyssa and myself…”



Nyssa cleared her throat. “I have a bit of news that I thought now would be a good time to share.”

Everyone looked her way and waited.
“I’ll be tendering my resignation from Blackstone Security in a couple of weeks. I’ve been offered a position as head of security for the Washington Spirit.”

Ali put her slice down and turned to face her. “Really? I didn’t even know they were looking for a head!”

Nyssa nodded. “I was rooting around their website one night and saw the call for resumes. I sent them mine thinking it would be a nice change. I didn’t ask how you felt about it because I wanted to surprise you...but if I’d be cramping your style…” Nyssa’s explanation trailed off into uncertainty.

Ali scooted closer, reached out, took Nyssa’s chin and turned her face toward her. “You want to know how I feel about it?” She crashed her lips into the bodyguard’s and kissed her hard enough to erase all doubt.

“I think it’s safe to say the only cramping done there, will be their lips.” Dakota observed before taking another bite.

Other than a few chuckles, no one ruined the moment.

When they finally needed breath, Ali pulled back. “Does that tell you how I feel?”

Nyssa nodded, mutely.

 

Dakota finished her slice, her second really, and leaned back in her chair, eyeing the Detective across the table. “So, Eve, what are you losing by being down here with us in the land of fun and sun?”

Eve shook her head and gave a half-shrug. “Nothing. I think I’ve gained a bit of a tan though.”

“No family back in Toronto to miss you?” Ash asked.

“Nope. I’ve always given everything to the job.”

“Want to make your tan better?” DK asked.

“How?”

“Well, apparently there’ll be an opening in my security detail in a couple of weeks…Come be the head of security. Even though Rena will be behind bars for a good long time, and if she’s to be believed, we won’t have to worry about Wendy, but there’ll always be those who need reminding that we enjoy our privacy.”

“You know I can’t do it myself…”

“So handpick your team.”

Eve looked down the table at Miranda, busy reaching for her third piece, then over to Nyssa.

The co-founder of Blackstone Security smiled and nodded.

“Miss Morse, do you have anything keeping you in Toronto?” Eve asked.

Miranda froze like a deer in headlights. “Me? No. My family is all out in Manitoba.”

“I think you show a lot of potential. Want to come and be my right hand and keep these two safe?”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

“I’d be honored, Ma’am.”

“Good. We’ll work out details later.” Eve rose from the table. “I have a couple of phone calls to make, and then paperwork to make my move official. I’ll have the vehicles ready no later than quarter past three for anyone who wants to go to the airport.” She had been making her way around the table as she had spoke, but stopped beside Dakota’s chair. “Thank you, Ma’am.”

Dakota looked up and shook her head. “There is one thing, Eve. In private, and at home, you use my given name, clear?”

“Crystal.” Eve smiled.  But as she left the room, they all heard her add, “Ma’am.”

****

It wasn’t too many hours later when Ali approached Christian in the great room. “Thought I’d say goodbye now. I won’t be going to the airport tomorrow morning, and I’m not sure I’ll be here when you come back this way. I have some promotional obligations to fulfill.”

“I understand, you have endorsement contracts. We are all going to have a few things to figure out in the coming days and weeks, I suppose.”

Ali smiled. “I want to be able to go on vacation with Nyssa before the Spirit season starts, too.” Ali reached out to take Christian’s hand. “You have been a godsend for Dakota, and by extension, Ash. I’ve very glad I can count you as a friend.”

"I just do what I can, Ali. I have been in that same darkness before, maybe not with all of the other outside factors Dakota had, but I couldn't let someone else fall." He stared down at her hand quizzically and pulled her in for a hug, which caught her off-guard due to her assumptions about most Brits being a little emotionally detached. "I'm glad you consider me a friend, as I do with all of you. You and Nyssa take care of each other, okay?"

 

After the goodbye with Ali, Christian walked outside and looked over the ocean, attempting to take stock of the last week of his life. It had finally hit him, he had no job to return to. He shook his head and had to laugh a little bit at his impulsiveness. He didn't regret what he did, though. It was the right thing to do and he would always put family first. He thought of the new friends he had made and if he was honest with himself, he also thought that strange. He didn't have many friends in the UK, he had spent most of his adult life studying or designing some complicated engine. He never really had time for friends. He could only assume this week was his wake up call that life is happening and he had missed enough of it living in his scholastic bubble. The house was quiet when he walked back in, no doubt everyone had retired to their respective bedrooms for the evening as most would be waking up very early to go to the airport with him. He went to his room and laid down on the bed, trying to get what little sleep would be available to him. Every time he closed his eyes, though, he could see that crazed face of the woman who drugged him and how he did nothing except yell obscenities at her while she was being led away. If this is what he was seeing after the events of the day, he could only imagine the nightmares his friend saw on a nightly basis. He finally and restlessly fell asleep as the clocked rolled over to midnight.

 

No matter which position Dakota chose, she couldn't get comfortable. The knee that Rena had stomped just wouldn't stop throbbing. After eventually curling into Ash, ear close to the goalkeepers heart,  Dakota finally drifted off. But her rest was short-lived. No sooner did her conscious mind shut off than her subconscious served up a rerun of the beating she and the others had dealt Rena. Barely asleep, Dakota jerked awake again. She eased out of bed without waking an obviously exhausted Ashlyn, slipped on thick socks and Ash's hoodie over her pyjamas, and went to the veranda to listen to the surf.

 

Christian tossed and turned as the smell of the fumes that knocked him out kept flashing through his restless dreams. He sat straight up in bed, covered in sweat. He decided sleep would be an elusive creature and with only about 90 minutes until he was supposed to leave, he decided it was a pointless venture to continue to try. He scooped up his tablet and threw on a t-shirt and walked out to the veranda to look over more of his students' compositions while listening to the waves, hoping it would calm his mind.

When he slowly opened the door, he saw the back of a familiar head staring out to the ocean.

"For some reason, I thought I might find you out here," he said quietly.

Dakota turned her head and watched Christian take a seat beside her. "I thought you'd be fast asleep. You had a tiring day."

 

"I can't get any of it out of my head. From Oxford to what happened today, it's all swimming in there. You want to know what the worst part of being me is? When something like today happens or really anything in my life, the way I’m wired, I think about it over and over again both logically AND analytically. Drives me mad."

"I can only imagine. I suppose we'll both have some changes to make." Dakota reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Are you all right, though? Really?"

"No, no, I'm not. For the first time in a long time, I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't feel like I have complete control and I hate it. I also feel weakened in a way because I didn't do anything when Rena snuck up on me. I didn't defend myself or anything. I guess I’m just overwhelmed."

"It stands to reason. But think about it, you were attacked without warning, you don't have the training to know how to react, so why would you expect to know how to defend yourself?" DK asked sadly. "The only reason I know how to street fight is because of the fights the guards set up in prison. No one expected you to know how to fight off a mad-woman. But maybe there's a way to work through what you're feeling...whenever, wherever you decide to settle after you've wrapped things up at Oxford...maybe some self-defence classes will help?"

 

"That's a possibility. Luckily I kept a pretty minimalist office at Oxford, won't take much to move out of it. Then I guess I wait to see where the wind blows me. I'll keep my home in London, but maybe I will settle here in the states, maybe I'll continue in Europe. My literary agent practically begs me to move to New York, but I don't think I would like it there. I don't know. It's a lot to process and I am not sure I can right now."

“Whatever you decide to do, you have family here you can take shelter with when the winds blow too hard.”

 

Dakota listened to the waves hiss in over the sand. “I think I’m going to develop a loose schedule of working out with Hope until she returns to Seattle, and working on Artemia. I have some ideas for it that I think could be expanded on. Maybe there’s a series there. Tammye emailed me earlier today, reminding me that when things settled down I still had a career to work on. Although she didn’t exactly word it that way. She did send along anthology sales statistics for the last week though.”

Chris turned his head and studied her in the light spilling out from the patio door.

“Apparently Two Miles Through Hell has crept up from fifth to second best seller. I have to admit, I’m surprised by that. Pleased...but surprised.”

Anything further she might have said was interrupted by another light being turned on inside and Ashlyn stepping over the threshold to join them in the darkness. “Is this a private party for the cool kids only?”

Dakota held her hand out. “Hey, sweetheart. You were sleeping pretty hard when I tiptoed out. I thought you’d be sleeping for a while yet.”

“Nah. Didn’t want to miss Christian’s send-off. I guess my brain woke up early. Who wants coffee?” Ash kissed DK softly before taking a step back.

“Coffeeeeeee.” Dakota moaned. “There isn’t enough in this state for me today.”

“Isn’t there a beverage you should drink beforehand, though?” Chris teased without looking up from his tablet, knowing the look he would get for suggesting it.

Dakota groaned again, but for a different reason.

“Ashlyn, I’ll join you in the kitchen so I can show you how to prepare this delicious beverage for your fiance.” Chris said, moving to avoid the sisterly punch that Dakota threw at him.

“Brat.” She said.

As Chris and Ash made the drink they had all come to think of as shitinaglass, DK shook her head slightly. She couldn’t be too mad at him, all too soon he would be boarding a plane.

****

They made quite a sight trooping through the airport, and all too soon, they were gathered in the waiting area beside the gate.

Christian had checked in with the airline employee behind the computer terminal and ensured everything was on schedule before setting his bag down. As his eyes lifted from the floor, the first person his gaze settled on was Hope.

“Well,” her blue eyes were steady. “I’d tell you to keep in touch, but I haven’t given you my email. So…” she passed him a slip of paper. “Email and cell number. If you ever want to call.”

Chris went immediately into awkward teenager mode, unable to properly respond.

“If you ever need anyone to talk to, you know.” Hope was floundering conversationally.

 

Dakota sat in one of the plastic chairs and watched the awkward exchange with a bit of amusement. As much as she wanted to play Cupid, she knew she couldn’t. Each of them had things to deal with before either of them was ready to open their hearts that much.

 

Christian finally nodded. “Thank you, I’ll send you an email during my layover in New York or later when I get home, so you’ll have mine.” He then hesitantly hugged her tight, hoping she wouldn’t break his arm off at the shoulder for doing such a thing.

Hope was shocked that anyone she’d known less than a month would take such liberties, but she knew she already had a soft spot for him. She wrapped her arms around him and returned the hug. Tightly, in case he got the idea she was going soft. “Stay out of trouble. Let someone know when you’ve arrived home, okay?”

 

Chris nodded and turned to face the others. “Well, I guess this is it for now. You all look exhausted, so I’m not going to make you wait around any longer. I would like to say that it has been fun, but I am not sure that would be the proper description.” He let out a small laugh.

He hugged Ashlyn goodbye and whispered in her ear, “Take care of our girl”, which brought a nod from the keeper.

“I will, but you know what a handful she is.”

He shook the hands of the security personnel as they were still on duty and then turned to the seated Dakota.

 

She rose from her seat and he looked down and shook his head.

“You know, my other sister is not nearly as much trouble as you are, but I don’t think I would have it any other way, Ms. Undomiel.”

Dakota chuckled.  

“I have something for you, but you aren’t allowed to open it until you are back in the car, okay?”

 

He handed her an envelope and hugged her close. “I hope I see you soon. Remember, you aren’t what you did in your past. You’re better than that.”

Dakota closed her eyes, trying to control the floodgates that threatened. “No matter what happens across that ocean, we’ll be here for you. Even if I do think you’re trying to poison me with shitinaglass. Stay in touch, please? I don’t want to have to send Eve to find you when it’s time for the wedding.”

He pulled away and nodded with a couple of tears in his eyes which made him chuckle. He turned and walked towards the gate with a smile on his face.

 

Ash wrapped one arm around Dakota. Hope stood with her hands in her back pockets, confused why she already felt sad when the professor wasn’t even on the plane yet. He was so different from Jerramy...She scoffed and turned away, confused and crestfallen.

Dakota watched Christian’s back until he disappeared from sight, and only then turned away. Hope stood a few feet away looking out the large window at the plane that would carry Chris home. Dakota went to stand on one side of the brunette and Ash on the other. No one seemed willing to move until Christian’s plane taxied toward the runway, and eventually took off. They watched the spot in the sky where the plane had disappeared for a minute more until Ashlyn cleared her throat. “So, who’s up for breakfast?”

 

Back in the SUV, Dakota opened the envelope Chris had given her. His tight script was challenging to read, but legible. It was the addition to the envelope that made DK gasp.

“Bloody hell…”

 

Dakota,

Understand my responsibility to walk you down the aisle is not something I take lightly. I am honored that you are allowing me the privilege of doing so.

In return, I ask only one thing. Allow me the honor of making sure yours and Ash’s day is as special as it can be.

Enclosed you will find a check that should cover all of the wedding expenses. Whatever you do not use is my wedding gift to the both of you. Take care and I will see you soon.

Sincerely,

Dr. Christian Jones

 

“Babe?” Ash put a hand on DK’s arm. “What’s wrong?”

Dakota passed her fiancee the note and waited until she had read it, then explained the rest. “He’s included a check for seventy five thousand...”

“No way…” Ash chuckled, thinking Dakota was joking.

But a glance at the check proved that DK hadn’t made it up. Ash passed it to Hope, who studied it silently before returning it.

“Well, he is full of surprises,” Hope said.

“He is, at that.” Dakota agreed quietly.

“You okay there, Undomiel?” Hope asked after a minute.

“Yeah, it just feels...like when you’ve finished a book that you’ve been absorbed in, and then it’s just...over. And you’re left with that ‘now what?’ feeling. You know?”

Hope nodded. “Yeah, I know.”

“Now we write our next chapters.” Ash said. “All of us.”

 

Fini