Strong Language Warning: This story is set in a contemporary military environment, and soldiers don't always talk nice. That is a probably a bit of an understatement :)

Subtext: This story depicts sexual relations between two women who are in love. If that offends you there are plenty of other stories you might want to read. If you are under 18 or it is illegal where you live, please stop and read no further.

Thanks: Special thanks to Ann, Buff, Day, Lois, and Pam for providing valuable feedback through the end of what turned out to be a much longer story than I’d planned J I'd also like to thank Barb, Linda, Lunacy, Nene, Ruth, and Verda for their help. Thanks also to Barb and CPT Skip for bringing me up to date on changes in the military. Thanks also to the Lunatic for creating and maintaining the Beta Readers Directory, and the Experts Directory.

To the Reader: I tried to keep the military jargon to a minimum, and provided a link to a glossary for any terms you might not be familiar with. I have taken some liberties with the structure of the Company, and while I chose an actual post to lend authenticity to the story, all the events and characters portrayed in this story are the work of my overactive imagination :)

© February 14, 2000

Completed October 9, 2000


C Paradee


Chapter 1

"Get that flashlight out of my face, Private!"

Startled, the soldier immediately clicked the flashlight off. Shit. There was no mistaking the crisp, clear tenor of that voice. It was the first sergeant. "I'm Sorry…"

Irritated at the loss of her night vision, First Sergeant Wilson growled, "Turn the flashlight back on, and direct it toward the ground. Then you might be able to see where you're going. I would suggest you double-time over to the Arms Room. At the rate you're moving, the Company will leave without you." The voice was calm and unhurried, but there was no mistaking the serious tone of the message being delivered.

"YES, First SerGEANT." The soldier quickly turned away from the tall woman and began running toward the Armory, still wondering how she could see in the dark without a flashlight.

1SG Karen Wilson covered the ground with feline grace, her movement silent and, seemingly, effortless. At 5'10" her long gait quickly traversed the Company area, vivid blue eyes measuring the progress of soldiers rapidly loading vehicles in the individual sections with practiced ease. Karen was beautiful, with high cheekbones, and a full mouth adding to an appearance that was feminine yet strong. Her long black hair, worn pinned up when in uniform, complimented her golden tan, and longish bangs fell from beneath the helmet on her head. The first sergeant's lean stature gave no indication of a sinewy strength ready to explode into action at the slightest hint of a threat. Her aura was a controlled force, at once sensuous and dangerous, that allowed her presence to be felt, or not.

Snatches of conversation wafted through the air.

"Come on, McKinley, hurry up."

"Okay, already. The damn thing's heavy."

There was a dull thud, and then one of the soldiers began hopping around in the truck. "Shit! Goddamnit! That was my foot, you jerk!"

"Well if you kept it out of way..."

The first sergeant shook her head. Typical alert. Satisfied that Supply and Commo were on schedule to meet the allotted one-hour assembly time, she began walking toward the barracks.

Soldiers that lived off-post and in base housing were arriving in their privately owned vehicles, and headlights flooded the area with halogen radiance. Karen watched them park in the area designated for POV's, exit their cars, and rush down toward the Armory. Everything was going smoothly. Her thoughts turned to the additional goal the Commander had set of beating the line companies to the battalion assembly area. We just might make it.

Walking toward Motor Pool, Karen heard the sounds of vehicles coming to life. The deep rumble of the larger vehicles' diesel engines, overshadowed the quieter sounding four by fours and Hummers. The air was electric with vibration, and Karen could feel the thrumming of the engines through her boots.

Raising her wrist, the senior NCO pressed a small button illuminating the blue indiglo lighting on the face of her watch. Twenty minutes. Not bad. She walked into the open bay and looked around, assessing the readiness status of the section. Karen located Motor Pool's NCOIC, and approached him.

SFC Joshua Herman was the same height as his superior, but he outweighed her by 60 pounds. The burly man's helmet was shoved back on his head exposing a shock of unruly sandy brown hair.

As was her nature, Karen wasted no words. "How close are you?"

Herman looked appreciatively at the first sergeant. The uniform did nothing to hide the natural beauty of the woman standing in front of him. "Another fifteen, twenty minutes. This is turning into a real clusterfuck. I just found out we're still missing the battery in NBC's four by four. I'm gonna kill Branson. The son of a bitch told me all the four by four's were operational. We had to sabotage one of Supply's. I sent him along with the vehicle to help them load since it was our fault their truck wasn't ready." As an afterthought, he added disgustedly, "I swear I'm gonna put some C4 under a few of their asses. Some of them seem to think this is all a big joke."

1SG Wilson's face tightened. Slacking off was one thing she would not tolerate. "Want a little help?" She preferred to let the NCO's handle their sections, but would step in if necessary.

Grinning for the first time that morning, Herman said, "Fire em up, Top." There was no better incentive than a good ass chewing from the first sergeant.

A clear loud voice rang out smoothly over the sound of idling motors. "LISTEN UP. You’ve got 10 minutes and 10 minutes only to get these vehicles on line, or you'll answer to me, and I can assure you that THAT will not be a pleasant experience. NOW MOVE!"

Herman looked around, satisfied. It now looked like a Motor Pool preparing for deployment instead of one preparing for a routine workday. No one wanted to fuck with Top. She was fair, but expected all the troops to perform to the best of their ability, and would not tolerate anything less. He also acknowledged that the first sergeant had the uncanny ability to know just what each soldier was capable of.

"Let me know if you have any other problems." She had no problem lighting fires under soldiers. It was part of her job. Karen didn't ask them to do anything that she wouldn't do herself.

"Will do." Herman watched her long sure stride carry her out of the Motor Pool. He shook his head, grinning. Sometimes I wished I wasn't married. Yep, THAT is one hot woman. Reluctantly turning away, he got back to the task at hand.

The first sergeant walked briskly toward the Armory. It was a square, nondescript red brick building that housed the weapons, ammunition, and protective masks. Firearms mounted on racks, secured in place by a heavy chain, lined the walls of the triple layered steel vault. It was the first stop for every member of the Company during an alert, and the best way to find out who had not reported was to see who had not signed for their weapons.

Hearing familiar footsteps, she moved through the inky darkness to join them. "Captain."

Captain Gary Johnson never heard her approach. He jerked his head to the left, and snapped, "How the hell do you do that?"

Karen smirked, her amusement hidden in the dark. "Do what?"

"Never knew I'd get a goddamn ghost for a first sergeant." Gary was a tall wiry man, overshadowing Karen's own 5'10" stature by a good six inches. A camouflage helmet hid a blonde crew cut, and he sported a short, closely trimmed reddish mustache at odds with his hair color. "How's it going?"

"Not too bad, Sir. Motor Pool was lagging a little, but the other sections are really hustling. "All that practice seems to be paying off."

The Company Commander looked at the tall NCO walking beside him. She was an imposing figure in the Kevlar helmet and full battle dress uniform. Hell, she's imposing without all the extra gear. "Think we'll beat them?"

"It all depends on the off post soldiers, but I think we've got a good shot at it. Looks like we're at about 85% already. I wanna see who hasn't picked up their weapons yet."

Gary grinned easily. "So do I. Great minds think alike. I'll be glad to delegate this part of the job to our new XO." As Headquarters Company Commander, he was responsible for the weapons, and protective gear of all the battalion level officers.

Under previous leadership, Headquarters Company had the dubious distinction of always being the last company to arrive in the Battalion assembly area. It was a standing joke around the battalion that they would be left behind in an actual deployment. In an effort to bury that joke, CPT Johnson and 1SG Wilson had mercilessly drilled the company in preparation for the next alert. Their private goal was to set a new standard for the other companies, and this morning was the acid test.

Entering the Armory, 1SG Wilson walked over to the Armorer, SGT Lloyd and waited for him to sign out weapons to a few stragglers. With her hands on her hips, Karen pinned the delinquent soldiers with her eyes. Raising her voice to drive her point home, she said, "You're just now picking up your weapons? You've got two minutes to report to your sections. NOW MOVE!"

The soldiers wasted no time obeying the order, and all three were in a dead run by the time they cleared the door. Shaking her head, Karen turned back to SGT Lloyd. "How many haven't picked up their weapons yet?"

SGT Lloyd gave new meaning to the word carrot-top. A shock of bright orange hair fell across his forehead when he grabbed the roster. Large, copper freckles dotted his face and arms, highlighted against pale skin slightly darkened by a reddish-toned tan. Running his finger down the rows of names, the Armorer replied, "Three enlisted, and two officers."


"Both Lawrence's, Tilford, CPT Kennerly and LT Jamison."

Karen was not surprised the Lawrence's were late. They had just gotten married, and had been due back by midnight. The newlyweds were good soldiers, and she hoped they did not put her in a position where she had to take action against them for failure to report.

Tilford was another story. The soldier's performance had deteriorated steadily since he had been assigned three months earlier. Tilford seemed to be putting a lot more value on his nightlife than on his military career.

Glancing over at CPT Johnson, Karen raised an eyebrow. The silent message was clear, and he nodded. There was no excuse for an officer to be late. They were supposed to set an example for their enlisted counterparts. Well, he'd be damned if they were going to hold his unit up.

Gary looked at SGT Lloyd. "Lock up the Armory at 0355." That would give the latecomers another ten minutes. He was pushing the envelope though. SGT Lloyd, and the NBC NCO, SGT Dickerson, would have only five minutes to lock up and join the unit before it departed for Battalion at 0400.

"Yes, sir."

The door banged open, and both Lawrence's ran into the room. Simultaneously glaring at them, and suppressing a grin at their disheveled appearance, Karen growled, "It's about time. Now get a move on. You both better be in place by the time I get there. And don't forget to blouse your trousers."

"YES, First SerGEANT!" yelled the two newlyweds simultaneously.

The Lawrences' drew their weapons and protective masks in record time and slammed out of the door, almost bowling over the two late arriving Battalion officers. Gary could not resist throwing a dig at his peers. He sure as hell had gotten enough flak from them about his Company. Approaching them, to prevent his comment from being overheard by the enlisted soldiers, he said in a barely audible voice, "I'm sure the Colonel would not be pleased if we report late because I had to keep the Armory open waiting for some of his officers."

Karen's keen hearing carried the words to her, and she smiled to herself. Glancing at SGT Lloyd, she said, "Lock it up and get on line." Turning toward SGT Dickerson, she added, "You, too." She'd deal with Tilford later.

Gary and Karen left the Armory together. When they reached the convoy, Gary took his place in front while Karen stayed near the rear waiting for Dickerson and Lloyd. Things were looking good. They were right on schedule.

Standing next to his vehicle, Gary waited for Karen to join him. Once she entered the Hummer, he climbed in after her, and ordered the driver, "Move out."

Headlights flared to life, and idling engines were shifted into drive as the long convoy began moving toward the battalion assembly area led by the Commander's Humvee.


Karen walked toward the Orderly Room. It was already after 1500. They hadn't been told to stand down until noon, and she had spent a good part of the afternoon in the Armory. The company hadn't drawn their weapons for over a month, so she gave the order to clean them before turning them in. Amused, she remembered the grumbling that had accompanied that order. Weapons that were well cared for were much less likely to malfunction when you needed them. The complaining didn't bother her. She wasn't in a popularity contest, and besides, one thing she had learned in her twelve years in the military was that there was a real problem when soldiers didn't complain.

The first sergeant entered the bright, sparsely furnished office. Four folding chairs sat against one wall, and the only other piece of furniture was a black metal desk. A cork bulletin board hung on the wall opposite two windows, and was covered with a myriad of Army regulations, memorandums, duty rosters, and the training schedule.

SP4 Kenneth Holloman, the Unit Clerk, watched the first sergeant approach his desk. His responsibilities included answering the phone and processing paperwork generated by the Company. The young man smiled, the white of his teeth in sharp contrast with his ebony face. Gold wire rim glasses had long ago replaced the black plastic military issue frames.

Karen nodded at the young man. He was a hard worker, and great asset to the Orderly Room. It was not at all unusual for him to anticipate both her and the Commander's requests ahead of time, and have whatever they needed ready. "Anything I need to know about?"

"SFC Herman and SSG Kingston called." He handed her two telephone messages.

She quickly scanned the slips. "Call Commo and tell Specialist Tilford I want to see him." Karen walked into her office and closed the door.

Holloman picked up the phone, dialed Commo's number, and waited for Tilford to pick up the phone. "Top wants to see you, and she don't look happy."

"Okay. I'm on my way." Sighing, Tilford looked at his NCOIC. "I gotta go see Top." The soldier knew he was in deep trouble. It was the responsibility of everyone who lived off post to provide their whereabouts to the CQ if they couldn't be reached at the number on the alert roster. His wife had finally found him in one of the lesser-known watering holes in Fayetteville.

Karen laid her helmet down, unhooked her pistol belt, and shrugged the suspenders from her shoulders, putting the combat gear in the corner behind her desk. Pulling out the chair, she eased her body down into it, and stretched her legs out under the desk. She was tired, although her public persona never reflected that. Her shoulders ached, and her feet were complaining. The senior NCO had been on the move constantly from the time the alert was called, walking from section to section monitoring the loading and unloading of the vehicles and the cleaning of weapons. Wiggling her toes in the roomy jump boots, before turning her attention back to the matters at hand, Karen had a brief thought about how good it would feel to take them off when she got home.

Leaning back in the chair, Karen pushed Tilford to the back of her mind. She would be dealing with him soon enough. A sardonic grin covered her face when she thought about the shocked look on CSM Grady's face when Headquarters Company arrived in the battalion assembly area second, right after Charlie Company. Of course she hadn't been able to resist a dig, "What's the matter Smadge? Surprised to see us so soon?"

Overall, the company had performed well. There were a few problem areas she had to address. Motor Pool was one of them. SP4 Tilford was another. He was headed straight for an undesirable discharge if he didn't clean up his act. The question was, what to do about him?

Her musing came to an end when she heard a couple of sharp knocks on her door. "Come In."

A soldier walked in and stood in front of her desk at attention. "Specialist Tilford reporting as ordered."

"Why were you late this morning?" Karen asked bluntly, her blue eyes riveted on the soldier.

"I wasn't home when SSG Sexton phoned, Top. I didn't find out until forty-five minutes after the alert was called."

Karen wasn't in the mood for excuses. "Why didn't you provide the CQ with a telephone number?"

SP4 Tilford had no answer to that. Nothing he said would make any difference now. He had been wrong. Top wasn't going to cut him any slack over this, and the soldier knew it.

He stammered, "I know I should have. I just didn't think..."

Karen interrupted him, her voice steely, "You just didn't think? What if this had been an actual deployment?"

Tilford made a last ditch attempt to salvage himself from the first sergeant's wrath. "I did make the convoy."

Karen rose from her chair and leaned over the desk. She deliberately increased the volume of her voice to drive home her next statement. "Without a weapon or your protective mask? What good would you have been?"

Tilford voiced the only acceptable answer he could think of. "No excuse, First Sergeant."

The tall woman settled back into her chair, and watched the silent soldier standing in front of her. His gaze was directed above her eyes, probably on the wall behind her. Tilford's actions just weren't consistent with his past Army record. What would it take to get through to him?

"At ease." Karen waited for him to comply. "Are you having any personal problems?"

Tilford hesitated momentarily, and then glanced away from the blue eyes looking at him. "No, First Sergeant."

Karen hadn't missed the indecision in his eyes before he broke eye contact. Something was going on, but if he wouldn't talk to anyone about it, her hands were tied. "I think there is. You had a perfect record until you were assigned here. You have a lot of potential, and I hate to see you throw it away. If you change your mind, let me know."

Maybe she could help. It was something to think about. Meeting her eyes, he said solemnly, "I will, First Sergeant."

Karen knew by the softening of his expression, and the sincerity of his words that she had reached him on some level. Now it would be up to him to approach her when he was ready.

When she heard a knock on her door, Karen looked up, irritated. She had told Holloman that she was not to be disturbed.

She barked out, "Who is it?"

CPT Johnson walked in and glanced at the soldier standing in front of her desk. "I can come back later."

"No, Sir. No need. We're finished in here. Tilford, you're dismissed. Report back to Commo."

When the soldier left, the company commander smiled. "Good job this morning, Top. Shocked the hell out of the Old Man." Gary enjoyed talking to Karen behind closed doors, where much of the military protocol could be dispensed with.

Karen smiled. "Yeah. You should've seen Smadge's face. Couldn't believe we beat most of his wonderful line companies."

Gary perched on the corner of Karen's desk, his gray eyes gleaming with anticipation. "It won't be so easy next time."

"I know. They're gonna have a hard time living this one down. They'll be ready. So I guess we'll just have to be a little more ready. " Karen grinned, up to the challenge.

Nodding his head, Gary said, "That's the way I see it, too. So what's your recommendation on Tilford?"

"Article 15," Karen said, without hesitation. It was the Army's form of nonjudicial punishment, and would go into his personnel file. It would be up to Gary to determine exactly what punishment would be meted out, but he usually went along with whatever Karen suggested.

Gary nodded. "I figured that would be your recommendation. Okay, start the paperwork. Maybe it'll wake him up."

Karen's blue eyes met the gray ones of her superior. "What time is the new XO supposed to arrive?"

"She called and said she was delayed in St. Louis. I told her to report directly to the BOQ when she arrived, and I would see her at 0900 tomorrow. I had hoped to have a little more time with her before I leave, but I know I'm leaving her in good hands."

Karen rolled her eyes. She had already voiced her opinion of just what she thought about being stuck with a brand new butter bar while the commander was reassigned for a week to attend a branch training course.

Gary looked at her expression, and chuckled. "It's only for a week."

"Why do I have this feeling it is going to be one hell of a long week?"

"I'll give her a laundry list of things to do while I'm gone. That should keep her out of your hair."

Karen sat back, and crossed her arms when Gary left her office. She wasn't looking forward to baby-sitting a butter bar. Like I don't have enough to do. Knowing there was nothing she could do about it, she began going through the papers in her inbox.

Chapter 2

Whitney Gordon's short, lithe form emerged from the airline terminal, her shoulder length golden blond hair highlighted by the sun's bright rays, giving it a slightly reddish cast. The fair woman glanced around for a cab, her sparkling green eyes squinting in the sunlight. A gentle breeze ruffled her bangs, and an open, friendly expression covered her face. She took off her jacket and laid it on one of her suitcases, revealing a light tan made more distinctive by the white short-sleeved blouse she was wearing. The attractive woman smiled when she saw a taxi pull up, and made her way toward it with a quick purposeful walk, hips gently swaying in tandem with her steps.

Whitney gave her luggage to the driver, then got into the cab. She told him her destination was the Bachelor Officer's Quarters on Ft. Bragg. The cabbie nodded. He and his peers knew where everything was on the Army post. It was where they picked up most of their fares.

Sitting in the cab, Whitney's thoughts turned to the last several months of her life. Everything had finally come full circle. There was a time when she wondered if she would ever be able to take advantage of her partial academic scholarship. If a friend hadn't suggested she sign up for ROTC, she might still be working to save enough money for college. Between the allowance they provided and what she had saved, Whitney had finally been able to attend college, three years behind her peers. She now owed Uncle Sam four years of her life.

"New to the area?" the cabbie asked, curious about the attractive young woman dressed casually in beige slacks and a pull over white cotton top.

Whitney's thoughts returned to the present, and she smiled at the friendly driver. She was outgoing by nature, and answered easily. "Yes. This is my first assignment. What’s Fayetteville like?" She was curious about the small town that bordered Ft. Bragg.

"Typical Army town. It wouldn't survive without Ft. Bragg. The soldiers keep it alive by spending all their money there."

That wasn't quite the answer Whitney was expecting, and she asked, "What about places to eat or things to see?"

"There's a couple of good local restaurants. One is the Fayetteville Diner. The name doesn't do the place justice. It's got the best home cooked meals around, and it's reasonable, too. Another one is the Chimney Sweep, if you like steak. You pick out the steak you want and they cook it. It's expensive, though. Then there are all the usual fast food places. Those are a dime a dozen."

The cabbie glanced in his rear view mirror. She looked so young and innocent. Maybe he’d better warn her about where not to go, too. "Now as for places to see, there's really not much here. You want to stay away from High Street, though. That place is bad news and it's dangerous too. I think it's on the off-limits list for soldiers but that doesn't seem to stop them."

Whitney was familiar with the off-limits list. She had been briefed about it at Ft. Huachuca and knew that places didn't just arbitrarily make the list. "Thanks." Looking out the window, she noticed that the town did seem quite rural, just like back home. One glaring difference was the pawnshops and bars that peppered the area. That was probably what the driver meant when he said it was a typical Army town.

Entering the gate of Ft. Bragg, Whitney began to take much more interest in her surroundings. The streets were heavily traveled with both military and civilian vehicles. Numerous roadside signs indicated routes to various places and units, including Post Headquarters, the PX, commissary, hospital, and a theater. As they traveled further along the thoroughfare, military buildings began appearing with unit designations and crests on the front of the structures. This post was much larger than any other Whitney had been exposed to, and had the feeling of a self-contained small town.

Fifteen minutes later, the taxi pulled up in front of a long two-story, red brick building, a large sign identifying it as the BOQ.

After Whitney signed in, she was given a key to room 115 by the Staff Duty Officer. It would be her permanent quarters during her tenure at Ft. Bragg unless her marital status changed. She walked about halfway down the hall and stopped in front of a door identified in black numbers as 115. Unlocking it, Whitney entered, and set down her two heavy suitcases with a sigh of relief.

Looking around the room, she decided it was kind of nice. Pale yellow curtains offset drab white walls giving the room a cheerful atmosphere. There was an apartment-sized refrigerator, a microwave, a TV, a round table with two chairs, and a small loveseat in addition to the walnut colored dresser that matched the frame of the bed. Whitney smiled when she saw the cable TV guide sitting on the dresser.

She opened the closet door, and was pleased to see the recessed area was spacious. The bathroom, on the other hand, reminded her of a hotel, though it did have a medicine cabinet. Whitney knew right off that she'd have to get one of those little wicker shelves that you could set on the toilet tank. There was no way one little medicine cabinet would hold all her things.

Walking over to the bed, she sat down and bounced. The mattress seemed comfortable. It was a lot better than the soft lumpy one she'd had at Ft. Huachuca. The officer on duty had told her the maid came by at 1000. She couldn't believe she got maid service. If her quarters were any indication, maybe all the stories she had heard about Ft. Bragg being such a hard-core post were exaggerated.

Whitney was wired. She was too curious to even think about staying in her room. She glanced at her watch, and saw it was only 1900. Opening one of her suitcases, Whitney pulled out the welcome packet she had received from Officer Assignments. She opened the folder, and took out the map that had been included.

Laying it on the table, Whitney found her new unit right away. It didn't look too far away, maybe a half mile. If she hurried and took a shower, there would be time to check it out before it got dark. Then she'd know where to go the next day. Twenty minutes later, dressed casually in jeans, running shoes, and a pale blue pullover top, Whitney departed the room after folding up the map and putting it in her pocket. She was looking forward to exploring her new home.


Karen stood up and stretched. It was almost 2000. Time to make one last check of the Company area, and then head home. Tonight was no different than any other, and everyone else had left long before. Maybe she'd treat herself to a steak at the Chimney Sweep. It was something to do.

Karen's thoughts turned toward the Army's policy on fraternization. It forbade personal contact both between officer and enlisted, and between different ranks of enlisted personnel. She understood the reasons for it well enough: It could compromise the ability of a leader to make impartial decisions; but she had finally acknowledged that her quick upward mobility had actually isolated her. Understanding the reasons for the policy didn't help when sitting in the confines of her own living room with nothing to look forward to but the next day at work. It wasn't that she didn't love her job, she did, but sometimes it just didn't seem like enough.

Early on, Karen had made the decision to make the Army a career. It had given her a home when she desperately needed one, and even though she intrinsically disagreed with some of the regulations, Karen had stayed out of a sense of loyalty until it became the only life she knew. The tall woman had no illusions about her looks, and had never lacked dating opportunities, but the relationships had been unfulfilling. Well, she didn't have to worry about that anymore. Now that she was First Sergeant, she had no social life or real friends. It was something she had gotten used to, and only thought about when it was time to go home.

Her ultimate goal was to become the first female Command Sergeant Major of the Army, and she had to be the best of the best to ever hope to attain that goal. It was the only way she could try to effect some direly needed changes in certain archaic policies the Army clung to so fastidiously. On nights like this when Karen longed for company, she just banished the thoughts by thinking of her goal.

After securing the Orderly Room, Karen began making her way towards the barracks. Her senses were in a state of heightened awareness in the dark. Ft. Bragg was not exactly crime free, and while she was fully confident in her ability to take care of herself, she didn't believe in being careless. She encouraged all the soldiers to stay out of unlit areas at night. Muggings were not uncommon, and there had been two women raped in the six months since she'd been assigned. The military police had increased patrols, but the perpetrator had not been found. Karen's thoughts turned dark. I'd love to get my hands on that bastard.

The tall woman blended with the shadows, her long stride covering the ground quickly and with minimal effort. She was totally alert, her eyes continually assessing her surroundings. Karen glanced across the street, narrowing her eyes when she saw a figure walking up the driveway between Supply and Commo.

She stopped abruptly. No one should be over there now. The two buildings were fenced on three sides and couldn't be used for a cut through. Other than her, only the NCOIC's of the respective sections had keys to the buildings. Although it was dark, it was obvious that whoever was exiting the area was not one of her Section Sergeants. The figure was too short and slight.

Karen stepped off the sidewalk and onto the grass, taking the most direct route to the intruder. Eighth Battalion's Supply building had been broken into the previous week, and a lot of equipment had been stolen. I'll be damned if that's going to happen to my Company.


Whitney folded up the map and put it in her pocket. Unfortunately, it wasn't very detailed. It just showed a black square for Headquarters Company, and not the individual buildings. When she had seen the sign on this building identifying it as Supply, Whitney thought the Company Headquarters would be in the same compound, but the only other building in the fenced-in area was Commo.

To make things worse, it had gotten dark much faster than she had anticipated. The main reason was because she'd forgotten to change her watch from Central to Eastern time. Whitney didn't realize her mistake until darkness began to fall, and it didn't help that the distance on the map was inaccurate.

She left the illumination cast by a gaslight in the center of the compound, and walked toward the street. There was a well-lit building across the street that was probably the barracks. Whitney decided to stop there and ask the CQ where the Orderly Room was. She hadn't planned to be out alone after dark on a strange post, and just wanted to find the Company and then head back to her room.

Nearing the street, Whitney noticed a tall dark figure veer away from the barracks and begin moving rapidly toward her. That didn't make sense. Whitney felt a tendril of fear at the speed with which the person was approaching. She quickly looked around. There was no one else on this side of the street. The person was obviously in uniform because Whitney could make out a hat on the head of the soldier. There was little comfort in that thought, though, because the entire demeanor and approach of the soldier oozed hostility.

Whitney instantly decided she would be much safer in the light. She turned onto the sidewalk and began quickly walking toward the streetlight, which was more than 100 feet away. The small woman knew she was probably just being paranoid, but it was better to be safe than sorry. Whitney spared a quick glance over her shoulder, and knew she wasn't going to reach the light before the stranger reached her.

Due to the small stature of her quarry, Karen had pretty much come to the conclusion that it was most probably a teenage dependent. As she closed on the figure, her observational skills added more information - definitely female. The senior NCO couldn't believe the nerve of the little brat. The damn kid was taking off down the sidewalk, walking so fast it was just short of a run. Wait until she hauled her right to her parents' house. It would be the last time this particular teenager would be hanging around her company. It was time to put an end to this game, once and for all. Summoning up her command voice, Karen growled, "Halt!"

Whitney had just decided to run when she heard the command, "Halt." Her mind was still registering surprise when her feet stopped moving, although on a conscious level she was not aware of giving them that order. Overcoming her shock that the voice belonged to a woman, and a little disconcerted that she had felt so compelled to obey it, Whitney whirled around to face her pursuer, wondering how she had gotten so close without making a sound.

Karen was ready when the individual abruptly turned around. Standing tall, with her hands on her hips, she glared at the trespasser. It was now totally dark, and although she could see the small figure in front of her, no detail was visible. "Let me see your ID Card."

Whitney felt very intimidated, but worked hard at not betraying this to the tall soldier addressing her. This woman had scared the bejesus out of her. She took a calming breath to slow her racing heart. There was a dangerous aura surrounding the tall woman, and something more that Whitney couldn't readily identify. She pulled out her ID card and handed it to Karen. Finding her voice, and trying to hide her nervousness, she asked curtly, "Would you mind telling me why you stopped me?"

When Karen turned on a small flashlight to look at the ID, Whitney suddenly realized the woman standing in front of her had a whole bunch of stripes with a small diamond in the middle, and she added, "First Sergeant." God. Talk about rotten luck. My first night on post and I get stopped by a first sergeant.

Karen took the ID Card and shined the light on it. She glanced at the picture before her eyes tracked to the name and rank printed in block letters beneath it, reading Whitney L. Gordon, 2LT. Karen wasn't sure if she should laugh or be angry, and was barely able to stifle a derisive snort. What a way to meet the new XO. Gary would never let her live this down.

Directing her attention to Whitney, Karen nodded her head toward the streetlight. "Would you please step over there, under the light?" Long experience had taught her to check things out thoroughly. She couldn't see the officer's face in the darkness, and wanted to match it with the ID to make sure the card was not stolen.

Karen followed Whitney until they were both under the light. Only years of wearing a military veneer like a second skin kept Karen from betraying the surprise she felt when she looked at Whitney. The picture on the ID card was the usual mug shot photo, and did the XO a huge injustice.

The young woman standing in front of her was beautiful, and had an open, questioning look on her face. Karen was so taken aback that she fell into the comforting role she knew so well, and saluted the Lieutenant. Technically it wasn't required since Whitney wasn't in uniform, but it gave her chance to get her bearing back, and file her impressions away for later analysis.

Whitney was surprised at the gesture--and immediately struck the pose--and returned the salute. She didn't expect the sight that greeted her. The first sergeant was stunning, and she was looking at her with a pair of large incredibly blue eyes. "Was I trespassing?"

Dropping her hand once Whitney returned her salute, Karen kept her face devoid of expression, and said very succinctly, "Welcome aboard, Lieutenant Gordon. I am First Sergeant Wilson, Headquarters Company, First Support Battalion. Eighth Battalion's Supply Room was broken into last week, and a lot of equipment was stolen. I wanted to make sure ours was not the next target, and that is why I stopped you."

Oh Great. This is the first sergeant of the Company I'm assigned to. Nothing like starting off on the wrong foot. Whitney didn't even want to know what the woman was probably thinking about her right now.

The first sergeant had just been trying to protect the company. Whitney realized it probably had seemed suspicious for her to be in the compound after dark. How could the senior NCO have known who she was? Deciding to try and ease some of the tension, and not knowing what she should say to the stoic woman looking at her, Whitney smiled, and said the first thing that came to mind, "Good job, First Sergeant."

Barely able to keep from rolling her eyes, Karen said, "Thank you, Ma'am." How lucky can I get? My very own seal of approval from our new butter bar. Thrusting the sarcastic thoughts aside, Karen said, "It's not a good idea to be out alone after dark, ma'am."

"Yes, I know," Whitney said, looking pointedly at Karen. Her mother's favorite saying ran through her mind. Nothing like the pot calling the kettle black. "Nice meeting you, First Sergeant. See you tomorrow."

Whitney turned, and began walking back toward the BOQ. She was totally embarrassed, and had all lost interest in locating the company Orderly Room. This had been a really stupid idea. Well, the idea might not have been so stupid if she'd taken the time change into account. Her fear had been unfounded this time, but it had made her realize just how dumb she had been. After that scare, Whitney was really uneasy. Disgusted with herself, and knowing how naive she must appear to the first sergeant, she quickened her pace, just wanting to get back to her room.

Watching the small woman walk away, Karen felt a pang of guilt. The new officer didn't know the base, and shouldn't be wandering around alone at night. She could offer her a ride. Nah. She got over here on her own; she can get back on her own. Karen turned and faced the barracks. Shit. She couldn't let her walk all the way back to the BOQ by herself. That was over a mile away. Ignoring the cynical voice in her mind that queried, Why not? she turned toward the departing officer, and called, "Lieutenant Gordon."

Even though Whitney was half block away, Karen's voice carried through the quiet night. She stopped, and turned around to see the first sergeant jogging toward her.

"My car's parked over at the Company. Want a lift to the BOQ?"

Whitney really wanted to accept. She was not looking forward to walking back in the dark. The long day of traveling had caught up with her, and quite frankly, she was tired. However, given her first encounter with the tall enigmatic first sergeant, Whitney didn't want to appear anything but competent. "Thanks, but it's not that far."

"Suit yourself, ma'am." Karen turned away, and began walking toward the barracks. Well, I offered. Can't make her accept. A nagging voice in her mind said, You could've tried a little harder.

"Wait." Whitney decided the hell with appearances. Damn it, she was tired, and here she was kicking a gift horse in the mouth just to show how tough she was. Well, she didn't feel like being tough right now. She just wanted to get back to her room. When Karen rejoined her, a winning smile covered the young woman's face. "I changed my mind. I'd love a ride."

Karen was taken aback by the warm friendly smile. Unconsciously quirking a half-smile in response, the senior NCO put a tight rein on the curiosity raging through her mind. She nodded her head in the general direction of the barracks. "The Company's that way."

After crossing the street, Karen gestured toward the long well lit building. "That's the enlisted barracks. The senior NCO barracks are on the other side of the Orderly Room." Reaching the sidewalk she had so abruptly departed a short time ago, Karen led the way to the company headquarters.

Whitney walked along silently. The first sergeant was definitely a formidable woman. She hadn't missed the black jump wings sewn above the US Army strip on the tall woman's uniform, or the shiny black leather, well rounded toe of the jump boots. The first time Whitney had seen jump boots at Ft Huachuca, she had asked if they were regulation. She'd almost gotten her head bitten off. They were regulation all right, and the soldiers wearing them, wore them with pride. Whitney glanced at Karen. She seems so confident, and sure of herself. I wonder if she ever gets rattled?

Arriving at the Orderly Room, Karen said, "This is the headquarters building." She walked over to the only car in front of the building, pulled out her keys, and pressed a button on the keypad twice to unlock all the doors. After starting the car, Karen waited for Whitney to settle in and buckle up before pulling out of the parking area and into the street.

Well, at least she knew where the company headquarters were now. Settling back in the seat, Whitney watched the scenery out the open window.

Karen surreptitiously studied the young officer. She had been extremely quiet. I wonder if she's even eaten? Breaking the silence, Karen asked, "What time did you get in, ma'am?"

In class, the value of NCO's, and most especially the first sergeant, had been repeatedly stressed. They had been told they were the backbone of the Army, and she had watched the camaraderie between the first sergeant and the Commander in the training company she'd been assigned to. Wanting to improve her relationship with the senior NCO after the earlier fiasco, Whitney replied, "About 1830, and you can dispense with the ma'am when we're alone."

Karen hid the surprise she felt. So she wasn't on a power trip. Interesting. "Have you eaten yet?"

Whitney hadn't even thought about eating. She had been so anxious to explore, she had completely forgotten. Suddenly realizing she was starved, Whitney said, "No. Is there any place on post to eat?"

"The only place still open to get a complete dinner is the Mess Hall over on the hill. It's open until 0100. I can take you over there if you want." The only meal Karen ever ate in the mess hall was lunch. She could only take its loud, boisterous atmosphere once a day. "Burger King and KFC should still be open, too."

Whitney wasn't in the mood for Army food or chicken, and didn't care for Burger King. What she really wanted was a Quarter Pounder, but she didn't want to take advantage of the tall woman, especially since she wasn't sure if the first sergeant was acting out of kindness or a sense of responsibility. Deciding to go for broke, Whitney said, "I saw a McDonald's right outside the gate. If I gave you gas money, would you mind taking me there? Just to the drive through?"

Karen bit off the retort that she wasn't a taxi when she looked over and saw the hopeful friendly look on Whitney's face. Shit. How the hell can I turn her down? Besides, Mickey D's does sound pretty good. Verbalizing her thoughts, she said, "No problem. Sounds good right about now."

"You haven't eaten either?" Whitney asked, surprised. She had just assumed the senior NCO had already eaten.

"Nope. I usually eat when I get home."

Whitney was curious. She hadn't seen a wedding ring on the first sergeant's hand. Matter of fact, she hadn't noticed any jewelry at all, except a watch that was visible on her left wrist as she steered the car. But the way she answered, you'd think she lived off post. The Army provided quarters for all their single members. "Do you live on post?"

Karen quickly glanced over at Whitney before turning her attention back to the road. Personally, she didn't think it was any of her damn business. Technically, since the woman was above her in the chain of command, she had the right to ask. Well, she might have to answer, but she didn't have to like it. "No."

The younger woman didn't miss the message delivered in the clipped answer. Well, I sure didn't make any points with that question. Guess I'll shut up for a while. It's obvious this is not Ms. Social Butterfly.

Karen decided two could play this game. "Lieutenant Gordon." When Whitney looked over, she asked, "What were you doing in the Supply compound?"

Whitney weighed her answer. Her decision to explore had not been a good one. Her excitement had overruled her common sense, and given the time change, she had been caught short. It was important to her that the first sergeant not view her as a dumb second lieutenant. They would be working together and there needed to be a basis of respect. She had already gotten off on the wrong foot, and there was no viable excuse Whitney could think to give that made sense. She decided to be honest, hoping that might earn her a little respect. "I was curious. I wanted to see where I'd be working. Unfortunately, the map in my welcome pack just shows the unit as a black block on Delta Street and it appeared to be much closer than it was. I thought the Orderly Room would be in the compound, too."

The honest answer surprised Karen. She'd expected some wild excuse about checking the security of the company or some such dumb reason. Honesty demanded honesty, and Karen replied, "The only thing those maps are good for is the general lay out of the post. We've got a better one at the company. I'll give you one tomorrow."

Whitney smiled appreciatively. "Thanks."

Karen pulled into McDonald's and drove up to the drive through menu. "What do you want?"

"I want a Quarter Pounder with cheese, a large fry, a chocolate shake and an apple pie."

Karen clamped her lips together biting back a laugh. Yeah right! Her eyes were obviously bigger than her stomach. The woman couldn't be much over 5-foot and a hundred pounds. No way can she eat all that.

Undoing the seat belt, Whitney reached into her pocket, pulled out a twenty-dollar bill and handed it to Karen. "Let me treat. I really appreciate the ride."

"Thanks, but it's really not necessary. I was hungry anyway." She just doesn't act like a second lieutenant. Most of the newly commissioned officers she had met tended to be very egocentric.

Karen's order was identical to Whitney's, except for substituting coffee for the shake. She requested separate checks and after picking up the food, handed the two bags to Whitney before driving back to Ft Bragg.

After showing her ID to the MP at the gate, Karen drove directly to the BOQ. She took her bag of food from Whitney, and said, "See you tomorrow, Lieutenant."

Whitney got out of the car with her bag and shake. On impulse, she leaned back in the passenger door. "Why don't you just eat here?"

Uh Uh. No way. Karen needed some time to herself right now. It had been a rather unusual night. Besides, she would be seeing enough of the young officer starting tomorrow, although that idea was less unpleasant than it had been. "Thanks. But I really need to be getting home."

"Okay." Whitney said, a little disappointed. Shifting the bag to the same hand that was holding the shake, she reached into her pocket and pulled out a couple of dollars. "Thanks for the ride. Here you go."

Karen shook her head. "Forget it. The gas is on me."

"Thanks. See you tomorrow, First Sergeant."


Closing the passenger door, Whitney smiled, and said warmly, "Okay. Goodnight, Top." That simple invitation to use the more familiar title gave her a warm feeling.

Karen was surprised to realize she had an answering smile on her face, and quickly discarded it. "Goodnight, Lieutenant." She took one last look at the puzzling young woman before shifting the car into gear and pulling back into the street.

After watching Karen drive away, Whitney entered the BOQ and went to her room. Carrying the McDonald's bag over to the small table, she set it down and sank into the chair. She took her food out of the bag, and thought, Why do they always only give you two packets of catsup? How is that supposed to be enough for a large order of fries? Whitney was hungry and made short work of the food.

Sipping on the chocolate shake, she decided it was a good thing she didn't eat at McDonald's very often. Talk about major calories! She'd worry about eating healthy tomorrow. Whitney decided to find out where the commissary was the next day, and do some basic grocery shopping. With the refrigerator and the microwave in her room, she would have quite of few options besides the chow hall.

What a night it had been, too. Whitney still couldn't believe how badly she had misjudged the onset of darkness. She felt like kicking herself in the butt for forgetting to reset her watch. Getting stopped by the first sergeant of the Company she was assigned to was just plain bad luck. It was hard to garner respect when your common sense took a hike. She just hoped Top would be discreet. Otherwise, everyone in the Company would probably be laughing at her behind her back.

Whitney's thoughts turned to the first sergeant. She certainly was interesting. It was obvious she was hard-core military, but that didn't take away from the fact that the woman was drop-dead gorgeous. I wouldn't want her for an enemy, though. I wonder if she's ever been married? With her looks, she would've had plenty of opportunities. I wonder what makes her tick? She seems so controlled. Even when she found out who I was, her eyes were the only thing that showed any expression, and I'm not sure what it was. She just came to attention and saluted like it was the most normal thing in the world for me to be wandering around in the dark. It was like she hadn't even been really surprised. I'll be reviewing the Form 2's of all the soldiers in the Company. Maybe hers will have some answers.

Karen drove back to the Company area and parked in front of the barracks. There were the usual loud stereos and TV's blasting, but none were any more disruptive than the others were. Karen didn't interfere with the goings-on in the barracks any more than she had to. This was the enlisted soldiers' home. Other than rules that involved safety, cleanliness, and respect for others, she kept her intervention to a minimum. Entering the barracks, she walked over to the CQ's desk. "How's it going. Peters? Anything I need to know about?"

"Yes, Top," SGT Kevin Peters returned her greeting. "Matter of fact, there is. I just got a call from Post Headquarters. The new XO signed in earlier tonight."

Karen raised an eyebrow, and quirked a half-smile. "Yeah, I know."

Kevin just shook his head. "I'd sure like to know how you find out about everything before anyone gives you the message, Top."

Tongue in cheek, Karen said cryptically, "I'm supposed to. I'm the first sergeant." Didn't hurt to keep them guessing. Besides, once the story got around about how she and the XO met, and she was sure it would because what second lieutenant could possibly keep that one to themselves, she was going to be the butt of a hell of a lot of ribbing. Didn't matter that she was just doing her job.

"I'm leaving. Make sure it stays quiet."

"Right, Top." Peters watched her walk out the door. A lot of guys wondered why she wasn't married, but he thought it was obvious. She was gung-ho military. You did your job and stayed out of trouble, you didn't get hassled. Nothing hard to understand about that. Peters had no desire to cross her, and those that had chosen to do so had paid.

Karen pulled into the driveway of the small ranch-style house, parked the car, and closed the automatic garage door behind her. After retrieving her dinner bag from the front seat, Karen entered the utility room, unbuttoned her BDU jacket and loosened the laces on her boots. Once she freed her feet, her socks soon followed. After tossing the socks and jacket into the laundry basket, she retrieved her bag from the dryer and walked into the kitchen.

Karen looked around the kitchen, and wondered why she had never attempted to make it more appealing. Not that decorating was her forte, but it wouldn't take much to improve the plain looking room.

The walls were ecru, and devoid of any decoration except for a round gold trimmed clock and a small message pad hanging next to the phone. Beige curtains decorated with colorful mushrooms covered the lone window over the sink. A dishwasher was secured beneath the Formica counter top between two sets of drawers. Four black ceramic canisters sat next to the white electric stove. Walnut wood colored cupboards adorned the walls over the sink and beneath the counter tops. A white, butcher-block table sat in the middle of the floor with two chairs tucked up against it.

She shook her head. The whole reason she lived off post was because she couldn't stand being confined on post and living in the barracks, but she ended up spending most of her time there anyway. Karen knew she could be off post every day at 1800 if she wanted to, but for what?

Karen walked across the cool tile floor to the microwave. Taking the food out of the bag and placing it on a plate, she put it in the microwave and reheated it. Mushy fries were a poor substitute for the steak she had originally planned for dinner, but at the time, Mickey D's had sounded good. It would have been too, if she had accepted LT Gordon's invitation and ate while the food was still hot. She had been surprised by the invitation. Matter of fact, the new XO had surprised her a couple of times tonight, and Karen found that somewhat disconcerting. She didn't know quite what to make of her.

Karen ate like many of her career military counterparts, very quickly. Finished, she rinsed the plate, put it in the dishwasher, and wiped off the table. She took one last look around to make sure everything was put away.

Walking into the living room, Karen sank into the deep, overstuffed recliner. She removed the hairpins from her hair and placed them in a small box on the end table next to her chair and shook her head to let her long, ebony colored hair fall free.

Karen was tired. It had been a long day, complicated by an alert, and her unexpected run-in with the new XO. She picked up the remote, switching on the TV. Settling on CNN, she pulled up the footrest of the recliner and looked at the reporter, her thoughts on Whitney. Karen acknowledged to herself that she would've liked a lot better look at the new officer than the streetlight had provided, but from what she had seen, the woman was beautiful in a refreshing kind of way. A lot of heads were going to turn when she walked in tomorrow. Karen began systematically analyzing the impressions of the young woman she had carefully filed away. The XO seemed to be very outgoing, and she was definitely full of surprises. She didn't fit the stereotypical butter bar image in Karen's mind, but she had already exercised extremely poor judgment. She hoped it was not an omen of things to come.

Chapter 3

Whitney awoke before her alarm clock sounded the next morning. She knew that was a real sign of just how keyed up she was. As a rule, the young woman tended to hit the snooze button at least once. Smiling to herself, Whitney remembered setting her alarm clock fifteen minutes fast at Ft. Huachuca so she could hit the snooze alarm and still be on time. She didn't get any more sleep, but it made her feel better. Languishing in bed for a few more minutes, Whitney looked around the room. She had unpacked her suitcases the night before. It would be two weeks before the rest of her meager belongings arrived. In the meantime, she would just have to make do with what she'd brought with her.

After a leisurely shower, Whitney emerged from the bathroom in her underwear and opened the closet door. She decided on her Class A dress uniform to make a good impression on the Commander. Whitney pulled a light green blouse and dark green skirt out of the closet. After putting on nylons, she donned the uniform and slipped her feet into plain black oxfords. She thought about wearing her heels, but they had their place, and traipsing around post wasn't one of them.

Whitney walked over to the table and picked up the map she had left on it the night before. When she had traded a four-year obligation to the military for a college degree, it had made sense. It was a lot better than struggling to save enough money. Now that she was here, she could feel the weight of that decision. All I can do is my best, it's only four years.

Whitney suddenly realized that she was dying for a cup of coffee. Just what I need, some caffeine. Glancing at the map, it looked like the closest chow hall was about a block away. Remembering her mistake last night, Whitney automatically doubled the distance. She wasn't going to get caught short by depending on this map again.

She slipped the matching green jacket on, picked up her hat, and slung her purse over her shoulder before exiting the room, stopping briefly to lock the door. Whitney was walking down the hall when she heard a woman call out. "Hey, wait up." Turning around, she saw two uniformed women approaching with smiles on their faces. The taller one had short chestnut brown hair, and a light smattering of freckles across her nose. She wore the single silver bar of a first lieutenant. Her companion was a couple of inches shorter at 5"5" and had curly, dark brown hair. The single gold bar on her collar readily identified her as a second lieutenant.

"Hi," Whitney answered, meeting their smiles with one of her own.

"Hi," the taller woman responded. "I'm Bonnie, and this is Julie. We heard you move in last night. Wanna go get something to eat?"

"Yeah, that'd be great. I'm Whitney."

"Nice to meetcha," Julie spoke up. "We both got here a few months ago, so we know what it's like to be a newbie. So here's the deal. We usually go to Mom's for breakfast. It's a little place, but the food's great. They've got these omelets that are just divine."

"She's not kidding," Bonnie added, grinning.

"Sounds good."

Bright sunlight greeted them when they stepped outside. The weather was unseasonably warm for early fall, and it was already well into the seventies.

"My car's over there," Bonnie said, pointing to a white Chevy Cavalier. Whitney climbed into the back, while Julie and Bonnie got in the front. Julie played tour guide as Bonnie drove, and explained that they were going out the back gate. After passing several airborne units, Bonnie turned right, and a small guard shack appeared. The MP waved them through, and they arrived at the restaurant a few minutes later.

Mom's was actually an old colonial style house that had been converted into a restaurant. The maroon shutters and trim added just enough contrast to keep the off-white structure from appearing bland. Large flowerpots filled with multicolored flowers sat on either side of the door, and at the top of the steps leading to the entrance.

Whitney noticed the décor was very plain and serviceable. There were booths lining the walls, and tables in the center of the floor surrounding a food bar. She followed the two officers across the hardwood floor to a corner booth. Julie commented, "It's seat yourself, here." Whitney took a seat opposite the two women.

Bonnie suggested the specialty of the house, a Western omelet. Whitney readily agreed, and they all ordered one.

"So, this your first assignment?" Bonnie asked.

"Yeah. I'm kinda nervous about it. I just keep thinking I'll make some dumb mistake and never be able to live it down." Like last night.

"Hey, don't worry about that. Everybody makes mistakes. It's no big deal. How else are you gonna learn?" Julie said. She remembered all too clearly her first year in the service, and the mistakes she had made. "Right Bonnie?"

Bonnie nodded. "Yep."

Whitney was curious about the two officers. "What unit are you assigned to?"

"We work at MILPO. We're personnel types. How about you?"

"HHC, 1st Combat Support Battalion. I'm the XO." Seeing their surprised looks, Whitney asked, "What?"

Bonnie looked at her. "We work in assignments. All the XO slots in that battalion are first lieutenant, infantry slots. How'd you get put there?"

"It was a last minute thing. The unit I was going to at Ft. Leonard Wood was being disbanded, so they diverted me here. I knew it was a first lieutenant slot, but I didn't know it was infantry. Why would they do that?"

Shrugging, Julie said, "Who knows? Probably just a SNAFU. Better you than me, though. I heard that's a pretty hard-core unit."

Whitney formed a mental image of 1SG Karen Wilson. She remembered all too well how intimidated she had been by the tall, confident soldier. Nodding her head, she said, "Yeah. I think you just might be right. I haven't met the CO yet, but I did meet the first sergeant, and she's definitely hard core."

"She?" asked Bonnie. Glancing at Julie, she turned back to Whitney. "The only female first sergeant on Ft. Bragg is Karen Wilson. That who you're talking about?"

Whitney nodded. "Yeah. You know her?"

"We know of her. She's supposed to be tough as nails. Not someone you want to cross. Rumor has it she knows her stuff, though. You could do worse."

So, the tall, aloof woman had a reputation throughout the post. Based on her initial meeting with the first sergeant, Whitney wasn't the least bit surprised.

A short time later, the three women returned to Ft. Bragg. Bonnie dropped Whitney off at her new company, and they made arrangements to meet at 1900. The two officers promised to take her to the commissary, and scare up some food to eat when they returned.

Whitney walked up the cement steps and opened the door to the Orderly Room. She approached the soldier sitting behind the desk, taking care to look at his nametag.

Specialist Holloman jumped up, and stood at attention. The XO immediately said, "At ease," still uncomfortable with the attention her rank received. "I have an appointment with CPT Johnson at 0900. Would you let him know I'm here?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

Hollman picked up the phone, and dialed the Commander. "Sir, LT Gordon is here to see you."

After listening for a moment, he said, "Yes sir," and hung the phone up.

"Ma'am, I'll take you to his office now."

Whitney smiled at the soldier and followed him. Her butterflies were back, full force. After her adventure the night before, no telling what he thought of her. Holloman stopped at a door near the end of the hall. "This is his office, Ma'am."

"Thanks." She took a deep breath, and knocked on the door.

"Come in."

Whitney walked in, came to attention and saluted the senior officer. He returned the salute, and said, "Have a seat."

Gary silently assessed the new XO. She was an attractive, but small woman, and that would probably cause her some problems initially. How serious they were would depend on how she handled them. "LT Gordon, let’s dispense with the formalities when we are behind this door. Unfortunately, your arrival coincided with a course I requested to take, and I have to leave in a half hour. I'll be gone a week. In the meantime, I have prepared a memo outlining what your responsibilities will be. I've also included a few things I would like you to handle while I am gone."

"Do you have any immediate concerns?" Gary hated to rush this meeting, but he had to leave for the airport.

Whitney felt her stomach sink. "No, sir. I was told to report to Officer Assignments after my meeting with you."

Gary stood up. "Good. The first sergeant will help you out with any questions or problems you have while I am gone. I'll introduce you now."

She didn't tell him? He sure acts like he doesn't know we met. Whitney hoped that was the case, as she followed the Commander down the hall. When they passed the doorway next to his, he nodded toward it, and said, "That's your office." He stopped in front of the office closest to the Orderly Room, and knocked twice on the door.

Karen had been expecting the visit. She stood up and called out, "Come in."

Whitney followed Gary into the office. "LT Whitney Gordon, this is 1SG Karen Wilson." Once the two women exchanged greetings, he said, "Top, I have to leave. I told LT Gordon I was leaving her in your capable hands."

Thanks a lot. "Yes sir."

Gary directed his gaze to Whitney. "I'll see you in a week, Lieutenant. Good luck."

Karen studied Whitney for a moment after Gary left. She was definitely good-looking. Her thoughts were interrupted when the young woman addressed her.

"Top. I have to process in today. What time should I report tomorrow?"

"PT formation is at 0600. We form up in the parking lot outside, and then march over to the course. If you'd rather wait until CPT Johnson returns to join the company for PT, we open shop at 0900."

Whitney instinctively knew it was important for appearances that she attend PT her first day. "I'll be here at 0600."

Karen knew the young officer had no idea what she was getting into. Running the PT course on Ft. Bragg was something you had to experience to appreciate. She hoped LT Gordon was up to it. Quite a bit of attention would be focused on her the next morning, and it wouldn't all be friendly.

The senior NCO stood up. "I'll have Holloman run you over to Officer Assignments."

At least I won't get lost trying to find it. Whitney smiled her appreciation, and followed Karen to the Orderly Room.

"Holloman, take the Humvee and run LT Gordon over to Officer Assignments."

"Okay, Top."

Karen was half way back to her office when Whitney's words reached her.

"See you in the morning, Top."

The Lieutenant was just too much. "Yes, Ma'am."

Shortly before 5, Karen snagged her hat out of the inbox and walked out of her office. Looking at Holloman, she said, "I'm going to NCO call. Make sure the CQ knows where I am."

"Okay, Top."

The first sergeant walked out of the building, her BDU cap in place before the sunlight touched her black hair. Karen was looking forward to NCO Call. It was actually nothing but a fancy name for Happy Hour, but it was a welcome change of pace. CSM Grady was simply following an old Army tradition for improving morale and fostering good relations among NCO's within the battalion.

Karen flicked on her right turn signal and steered her Sable into a parking lot that was already over half-full. A large, white sign with brown lettering across the face of the adjoining two-story tawny brick building identified it as the NCO Club. She got out of her car and walked to the entrance. Pulling the heavy brown door open, she began walking down the familiar hallway.

The first sergeant smiled when she heard the distinctive crack of pool balls careening off each other. Karen was an exceptional pool player, but seldom played anymore because she felt it was inappropriate for someone of her rank to be hanging out in the poolroom at the NCO Club. She glanced into the room, and recognized several of the players. Karen knew there was probably a lot of money riding on the games being played. The fact that gambling was in violation of Army policy had never deterred anyone from accepting a challenge.

Grinning at the welcome from the players that recognized her, Karen turned down their offer to join them. "Sorry guys, NCO call." Leaving the disappointed murmuring behind her, she continued down the hall toward the bar.

Karen walked into a dimly lit room, and looked around. CSM Grady was in a corner with some of the other first sergeants and senior NCO's from the battalion. They had already pulled three of the heavy wooden tables together to accommodate the quickly growing group.

Karen walked up to the bar and ordered a beer before heading over to join her rowdy peers. She put her can and glass on the table, and sat down in a vacant chair. She quirked a smile at the group and began pouring her beer into the glass, holding it at a slight angle to decrease the amount of foam. Picking up pieces of the numerous conversations going on, she smiled to herself at the subject. They were arguing about which one of them had jumped in the most dangerous conditions. Figures. It was a constant theme when this particular group of NCO's got together. Who was the best?

Glancing across the table, she met Tyrone's brown eyes, and smiled. "Hey, Ty. How's it going?" Karen like the wiry, dark skinned Battalion Operations NCOIC. Their jobs required them to interact frequently, and over time, they had developed a healthy respect for each other.

"Okay. The question is, how are you doing with CPT Johnson gone? Grapevine has it your new XO arrived. You got a good, one or the typical 90 day wonder?"

Karen thought about her answer. "I don't know yet. She was in-processing all day, and I only met her briefly."

"Come on, Karen. What's your gut feel? You're hardly ever wrong when you size someone up." Tyrone was curious. It was all over Battalion that Headquarters Company had gotten saddled with a female military intelligence second lieutenant slotted against their Infantry first lieutenant position.

Karen knew quite a few ears were turned toward their conversation, and that anything she said would be all over Battalion by the next day. She didn't want the new lieutenant to have to overcome any more adversity than she would already encounter because of the staffing SNAFU.

She was actually reserving judgment herself. Wording her answer carefully, Karen said, "I think she may..."

A stocky man pulled out the chair next to Karen, colliding with her arm as he settled in. He pulled his chair up to the table, crowding her, his shoulder resting against hers.

Managing to keep from spilling her beer, Karen glared at the newcomer. "It's a big table, Donnie. How about giving me some space?"

Donnie Blythford, the first sergeant of Alpha Company, was a ruddy-faced man with salt and pepper hair worn long enough to comb over the bald spot on his crown. Thick eyebrows accented his heavy forehead ridge, making his eyes appear even more deeply set than they actually were.

"Don't get bent. I just wanna talk to you." Donnie had intentionally invaded Karen's personal space. It was an intimidation method he had learned, and it usually worked. He had no use for women in positions of authority. None should ever be promoted into the NCO ranks. Even Congress knew that. Why do you think they wouldn't let them on the front lines?

Karen exercised restraint and scooted her chair over until she could move freely. She couldn't stand the little bastard. Every NCO Call he challenged her in front of the others, and she was getting very tired of this particular game. Turning cold eyes on her peer, she growled, "Well?"

Conversation around the table halted, and the other NCO's turned their attention to the exchange between the two. The animosity between them was well known. Some of the older, more-senior NCO's happened to agree with Donnie's opinion of women in leadership positions, but the majority did not.

"You know you got lucky last alert, doncha?" Donnie had been furious when Headquarters Company had arrived at Battalion before his company. CSM Grady had really been riding him about it, too. They were both Rangers, and Rangers were the best. Women weren't allowed within their ranks, and to be beaten by one was unforgivable.

Karen looked at Donnie, and smirked. "Yeah, I know. We were running ten minutes behind schedule."

Donnie narrowed his eyes and glared at Karen. He spat out, "Very funny."

She shrugged her shoulders, and said, "Hey, it's true." Winking at a handsome muscular man across the table, Karen added, "Besides, Nate's company got there first. He's the one to beat."

Donnie looked over at Nate. "How'd you manage to get there so fast?"

Nathan leaned back in his chair, and crossed his arms. This could be fun. He did not share Donnie's low opinion of women NCO's. He figured if you earned the job, you got it. Plain and simple. "We got lucky. Ain't gonna be so easy next time."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Donnie asked, confused by the cryptic comment.

"This was Karen's first alert. I think we're going to have our work cut out for us if we don't want a mere woman to show us up."

Karen almost spewed her beer across the table. Nathan was deliberately baiting Donnie, and the overly macho Ranger was swallowing it. You could always count on him to liven things up a little.

"Well she might beat you, but she damn sure won't be beating me again." Looking pointedly at Karen, Donnie said, "I don't think women should be allowed in leadership positions any way. It's bad for morale. What real man wants a woman telling him what to do?" He sneered, and looked around the table for support.

The silence was deafening. CSM Frank Grady sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. Donnie was out of line, and Frank knew he should ream him a new asshole, but he wanted to see how Karen was going to handle it.

This was an attitude Karen had fought her whole career, and was one of the reasons she had chosen the career track she had. Karen knew opinion was changing, but the comment still hurt. She'd be damned if she'd let him know it, though. "Well now, you know what. Donnie?" Karen slowly drawled in a bored voice, "it's a good thing most men don't think with their little head."

Guffaws and laughter broke out around the table. "Go, Karen."

"Round one to Headquarters Company."

His face red with fury, Donnie jumped to his feet knocking his chair over, and snarled, "You bitch!"

Karen was on her feet, glaring at Donnie, before his chair hit the floor. She wasn't going to start anything, but she wasn't going to back down either. She could wipe up the floor with this idiot.

"Knock it off," CSM Grady growled, "Donnie, you had that coming. Now both of you, sit down."

Donnie gritted his teeth, and whispered. "It ain't over, bitch."

Before she could respond, Donnie stalked out of the Club. Karen turned her attention back to the table. Sitting down, she said, "I don't think he likes me."

The tension broken, chuckling and comments filled the air.

"Nah. You're kidding, right?"

"What ever gave you that idea?"

"He's just having a bad day."

Wanting to change the focus of the conversation, Karen asked, "Hey, Smadge, when are we going up?" Most of the NCO's in the group were paratroopers, and even though they were in a leg unit, jumping regularly was required to stay qualified.

"Couple of weeks. We're cleared already, I just haven't had a chance to add it to the training schedule."

Karen stayed for another hour before bidding the group farewell. She was a loner by nature, but with the exception of Donnie, and a few others like him, she didn't mind NCO call.

Chapter 4

Whitney got out of the car and smiled at Bonnie. "Thanks for the ride."

"No problem. See ya later," Bonnie replied, intending to go and get a little more sleep in. Her unit's PT formation wasn't until 0700.

Whitney was dressed in the standard warm weather physical training uniform consisting of light gray shorts and T-shirt. She approached the group of like-attired soldiers milling around in the parking lot of the company orderly room.

The lieutenant saw Karen's car, but didn't see the tall first sergeant in the predawn darkness. Whitney was uncomfortable as ranking officer in the company, and she stopped a short distance away from the rest of the soldiers, unsure of exactly what would be expected of her this morning.

She glanced at her watch, ignoring the whistles and catcalls directed her way. It was 0555. She wished Karen would appear, instinctively knowing she should follow the senior NCO's lead. The soldiers began to move into a semblance of a military formation, and the section sergeants were checking to make sure each member of their respective squads was present.

At exactly 0600, the words, "FORM UP," rang out loud and clear over the muted laughter and conversations within the ranks. 1SG Wilson stood centered in front of the Company.

Whitney walked to where Karen was standing, and stood off to the side. She'd never even seen the first sergeant approach the formation. She shook her head, wondering where she had come from. Whitney was surprised to see full bangs, and long black hair flowing down the senior NCO's back, secured at the nape of her neck with a small tie back. She was still the most intimidating woman Whitney could ever remember meeting, but with her hair down, it seemed to soften her appearance somewhat.

From the position of attention, Karen commanded, "AttenSHUN." Once the command had been obeyed, she followed the order with, "Report."

"First Platoon, all present and accounted for," rang out the deep voice of SFC Mendoza, NCOIC of Headquarters Platoon. Once each of the other platoons had reported in, Karen turned to face Whitney and said, "Headquarters Company, all present and accounted for, Ma'am."

Whitney returned the salute, and said, "Take over, first sergeant." The Lieutenant knew she could've taken command of the formation at that point, but felt it would be ill advised. She did not know what the PT route was, and had no intentions of making a fool of herself in front of the entire company.

Karen never batted an eye when Whitney told her to take over. She simply said, "Yes, Ma'am," and turned back to face the formation, though again, she was surprised. Every second lieutenant she had ever met wanted to feel the power of control their rank allowed them at the earliest opportunity. Most didn't know there would be plenty of time for taking charge, and that there would come a time when they would wish that some of the responsibility for their decisions could be delegated. The new lieutenant's maturity and wisdom were clearly at odds with her age. Karen barked out, "Right face," and then proceeded to march the formation over to the PT area.

Whitney fell in at the rear of the formation joining, the last rank of soldiers. She watched Karen giving commands, and paid close attention to the route they were taking. After marching a block and a half, the formation turned off of the road, and stopped at the beginning of a mapped out physical training area.

Karen led the formation through the usual set of exercises, which included pushups, sit-ups and squat thrusts before informing the company that they would be running the two-mile route. That announcement got several cheers. She had chosen the shortest route because of the new XO. The trails they ran had a three-inch loose sand base, and it was much more difficult to run on than the usual pavement most new troops were accustomed to. Karen knew that two miles on the sand would feel like four to the new officer.

After giving the necessary commands, Karen began calling cadence. "One, two, three, four." The senior NCO waited for the soldiers to echo the words before continuing. She knew it was the most effective way to keep the soldiers in step with each other, and it also helped to regulate breathing. She gave the next set of commands with a pause between each set, "Give me your left, give me your left, give me your left, your right, your left."

Once all the soldiers were in step, Karen began singing out a cadence, "I don't know, but I've been told, Headquarters Company is good as gold."

Whitney looked up surprised. Even the routine words of the military cadence could not detract from the beautiful melodic voice of the senior NCO. She smiled to herself and began to enjoy the run.

A short time later, Whitney was dying. She figured they must be about half way through the run. The young officer knew she was in relatively good physical condition, but she had always run on pavement, and running on the loose sand was very difficult. She had to lift her legs higher, and it seemed that with each step, their speed was increasing. Whitney carefully regulated her breathing with the cadence being sung, and tried to ignore her complaining legs.

Karen was enjoying the run, but noticed that the last few ranks were beginning to straggle, and it suddenly occurred to her why. The pace man had gradually increased the speed until they were moving along at a clip that was uncomfortable for some of the soldiers. What the hell? Stephens knows better than that. With a sudden burst of speed, Karen ran to the front of the formation and began leading the run, reducing their speed. Once she had slowed the formation to a comfortable pace, she ran over to SGT Daniels and said, "Take over as pace man." She ran up to the front of the formation with SGT Daniels behind her, and said to SP4 Stephens, "Fall to the rear." Karen turned to Daniels and said, "Keep the pace slow and even. I have some stragglers to round up."

Stephens never said a word. He just wanted to have a little fun with the new XO. The SP4 had hoped the first sergeant wouldn't notice. He should've known she would catch on. Stephens sighed. He knew he would be in for some extra duty, but it had been fun. All the slower soldiers were straggling behind the rest of the formation.

Whitney's legs felt like rubber. Not only did they run on sand here, they ran fast. She focused totally on moving first one leg, then the other, counting a silent cadence in her head. Breath, take a step, breath, take a step, breath, take a step. If it killed her, she would finish this run. No one would be able to say she had fallen out on her first day of PT. Whitney watched several soldiers fall to the rear of the formation, and begin walking. Breath, take a step, breath, take a step.

Karen ran to the rear of the formation and began rounding up the stragglers. Using the threat of remedial PT, she soon had the walking soldiers back in the rear of the formation. A couple of the soldiers who would never be runners, shrugged their shoulders and continued walking. Both had been on remedial PT since being assigned, and were totally exhausted due to the fast pace they'd had to endure.

Karen was angry. She should have realized what Stephens was doing sooner, but running was second nature to her, and she hadn't noticed. Karen couldn't remember ever not loving to run. The first sergeant made her way to the new XO. "You doing okay, Ma'am?"


Whitney wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the question. No, I am not doing okay. My legs have turned to wood, and my side is on fire. No way was she going to let Karen know that, though. She managed to say, "Yes," before falling silent to concentrate on her breathing, and trying to ignore the sharp pain in her side.

Karen knew better, but she could see the fierce determination on the younger woman's face. Damn woman has a lot of guts. It’s no disgrace to fall out. It takes a lot of soldiers a couple of weeks before they can make this run. She almost voiced those thoughts, but thought better of it.

Karen spotted Stephens and quickly ran to his side. "Report to my office after work formation." She then moved back to the side of the formation, and began singing out cadence again.

Once the two-mile course had been completed, Karen gave the order, "Quick time, march," slowing the formation to a walk. When they arrived back in the company area, she called out, "Dismissed."

Whitney's breathing had finally returned to normal, and the pain in her side had eased considerably. She brushed her wet bangs to the side, dreading the thought of the walk back to the BOQ. She slowly turned and began walking toward the street. Whitney had always felt she was in good physical condition, and was not in the least happy with her performance. She was suddenly drawn out of her thoughts by Karen's voice. "Pardon me?"

Karen felt a pang of sympathy for the new officer. She looked exhausted. "Would you like a ride to the BOQ? I've got to go that way."

Whitney wanted to hug the first sergeant. Do I want a ride? Are you crazy? Of course I want a ride! Instead, she said, "If you're sure it's no trouble, I'd appreciate it."

Karen mentally shook her head. Whitney had already moved up a notch in the respect category for sheer grittiness. You don't have to try and be so tough, woman. "It's no trouble."

A car seat had never felt so good to Whitney. "Is that the PT route we run every day?"

Karen didn't want to discourage Whitney, so she hedged a little. "That is the route we run most often."

Whitney had seen signs pointing to a three and four mile course when they had arrived in the PT area. "We run the longer routes too, don't we?"

Karen glanced at Whitney and took in the resigned, but determined look on her face. She didn't need to hedge with this woman. The young officer was proving she could roll with the punches, and Karen realized suddenly that she liked that about her. "Yes, we do. We run four miles every Friday, and three miles on Wednesday. The other days we run the two-mile course."

"Today is Friday. We only ran two miles."

"That schedule is not cast in stone. I decided the two-mile route was sufficient today."

Whitney's first thought was to tell the first sergeant that she shouldn't have changed the schedule on her account, but she bit off the words. Karen had done her a huge favor, and saved her the disgrace of falling out on her first run. "I think I should probably thank you for that."

Karen replied cryptically, "It's my job."

Whitney surreptitiously studied Karen as she drove. The T-shirt and shorts left little to imagination. Not only was the senior NCO gorgeous, she had the figure to go with her good looks. Whitney suddenly realized she would like to know this woman much better. There was an almost mysterious quality about her that intrigued her. It was more than that, though. She was attracted to her. The honest thought rocked her. Mentally slamming the door on the foreign thought, she began looking out the car window at the scenery.

The first sergeant glanced over at the smaller woman. She had become extremely quiet. Based on her short interaction with the Lieutenant the night she'd arrived, Karen knew the woman was generally outgoing. For some unfathomable reason, she wanted Whitney to feel welcome. Karen pulled into the BOQ parking lot, and made an uncharacteristic overture. "I could pick you up for breakfast when I get back on post, if you want."

Surprised at the offer, Whitney tried not to stare. The first sergeant had not struck her as particularly socialble. Well, she was probably just doing her job since the Company Commander wasn't around. Yeah that was it. The idea was attractive, though. Maybe she could learn a little more about her. Why not? "Thanks. I'd like that."

Karen was already mentally chastising herself, but she couldn't back out now. "I'll pick you up at 0800."

"Sounds good. I'll wait out front for you."

The tall dark woman watched the young officer get out of the car. She was really cute. She had a great body too. Karen snorted to herself. Like that should matter. She placed the car into drive intending to pull away.

Whitney turned back to Karen, and smiled. "Thanks for the ride. See you in a little while."

Karen was suddenly uncomfortable when she realized just how much she was looking forward to that. The senior NCO hid her thoughts with a shrug, and said, "Sure." Karen found herself almost wishing the new officer would act like a normal second lieutenant. It only took a second for her to realize she was only fooling herself with that thought. She wanted the young officer to do well. Why? What difference should it make to you? Not having an answer, Karen turned her thoughts to the familiarity of what was on the training schedule for the day.



Return to The Bard's Corner