Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha

Disclaimers: In chapter one.


Very gently Dakota peels back the last of the bandaging under the soft cast, exposing the bobcat’s paw. The jagged scar of the wound still shows an angry scarlet, the paired dots of the suture pricks running parallel to it on either side like an abstruse pottery design. The skin around the injury, though, is healthy pink. A soft down of new fur, golden ground and umber whorls, covers it up to the edge of the scar. She feels the cat tense against her as she flexes the joint. "Easy, Igmú. Easy, girl," she croons into one tufted ear, tightening her hold to press the cat’s body close to her own. "Still a bit stiff, there, aren’t you?"

Raising her voice, she calls, "Shannon, would you come here a moment, please?"

The thud of jogging footsteps in the hall precedes the tech into the examining room, and the bobcat starts at the sound. It is hardly the first time that Koda has been the object of a crush-cum-hero-worship, but the young woman’s eagerness to impress is beginning to get a bit overwhelming. When Shannon opens the door, though, she is all professional calm. "Dr. Rivers?"

"Set up the X-ray, would you? I need a radiograph of Igmú’s right forefoot; it’s still tight. I can’t feel anything out of alignment, but let’s be sure."

"She’s about ready for release, isn’t she?"

"Almost. But she’s got to have everything working. She’s a runner and a pouncer, and without that ‘spring’ in all four feet she can’t hunt effectively."

Shannon steps out of the room to ready the machine, and Koda returns to her examination. Other than the torn tendons, now almost fully healed, the cat is in excellent condition, better than if she had spent the last lean months of winter in the wild. The fur under her hand is soft and sleek, rich with oils from the fish Koda has added to her diet of red meat and fowl. Firm muscles ripple beneath it. She is up to a solid twenty pounds, not bad at all for a young female with her full growth yet to come.


Every ounce of that twenty pounds balks, though, when Koda reaches for the syringe lying ready on the counter. "Easy, girl. Easy . . . easy. . . . Shit . . ."

The slick surface of the examination table works with her reluctant patient as she squirms and slides backward out of Koda’s one-handed hold. "Come on, girl, this is the last one, I promise . . .."

" Funny, I never believed the doctor when he said that, either." Koda looks up to find Tacoma standing in the doorway. He has changed his fatigues for jeans and flannel shirt, his belt festooned with tools, a hard hat dangling from one loop. "Let me help."

Koda nods, and he crosses the space between the door and the table at a single stride. At

the first touch of his hands, the struggle stops cold. From deep in Igmú’s chest comes a rumble like low thunder, and she butts her head against his chest, her great golden eyes half-closed in pleasure. He scratches her gently under the chin while Dakota lifts her scruff and administers her third and last feleuk vaccination. The purr never falters.

Koda strokes her now complacent patient’s ears as she pitches the empty hypodermic into the red biohazard pail hung under the table. "Do you have time to help with the radiograph? It’ll only take a moment."


Scooping the bobcat up, Tacoma follows her into the tiny X-ray room. A click and a couple whirrs later, he carries her back to hospital, leaving Koda to develop the film. When he returns, she has it up on the light box, staring intently at the bone where the torn tendons anchor. There is no abnormality, and she breathes a small sigh of relief. "Have a look," she says. "Everything’s in place; she just needs a bit of exercise to strengthen the paw. I’ll move her out into one of the outdoor kennel runs during the day, and—"


"—she’ll be ready for release in a week or so."


"I know you’ll want to be there." Very deliberately Koda unties her lead-lined apron and hangs it up. "Do you think you’ll be gone long?"

Tacoma’s hand moves in a small half-circle that Dakota knows means frustration, but he answers evenly, "Five or six days, depending on how much we can do on this first trip. Melly Cho is going with us to determine whether we can get Rapid City hooked back up to the grid."

"She’s that electrical engineer the census turned up?"

"Yeah. We may have one of the electric company linemen, too. They’ll be a big help." There is a small, strained silence, then he says, "Harcourt wants to hold an informal inquest on Dietrich when we get back. As soon as it’s over we can do what is right for Igmú Tanka Kte."

"Where’s Dietrich? Is he in a freezer somewhere, too?" Koda cannot keep the bitterness out of her voice; she does not try.

"Yes. At the morgue. His family want to bury him now that the ground has thawed."

"Well," she says shortly. "That’s understandable." She turns away from him and begins to arrange ampoules of antibiotics and vaccines on the shelf above the counter.

There is a long silence. Then, softly. "Look-- Damn, Koda, I know I’ve done this all wrong-- I’m sorry. I don’t know anything else to say, though. I’m sorry."

Dakota turns to face her brother. "I know you’re sorry. I accept that. What I can’t accept is—" Her voice catches for a moment, then steadies. "How would you feel if it were your teacher? If it were Igmú Tanka in there?" She gestures toward the back of the clinic where the freezer holds the wolf’s body.

"It would tear my heart out," he says simply. "But I would be glad to bring her killer to justice. I would be glad her children would live. And I think she would be, too."

An old story tells that the black marks at the corners of a puma’s eyes are the tracks of tears shed long ago, in the time before time, in mourning for her stolen young. And that, she knows, is the heart of the matter. It is the one thing she has not allowed herself to consider.

It is not only the bobcat who will be ready for release in a little time. Day by day, the she-wolf grows stronger, grows closer to the time when she will be able to hunt and provide for her young. The pup, whose blunt features hold the promise of his sire’s features and coloring to come, waddles about the run on stubby legs, splashing through the water bowl in pursuit of drifting paintbrush petals blown in on the spring winds. If law is allowed to lapse, if the trapping of wolves and bobcats and coyotes becomes a normal part of life again, then the pup could die the same way his father did. And no one would be there to spare his suffering or claim justice for him.

What would his father want? Her friend?

Salt stings Dakota’s eyes, and she turns abruptly away. After a moment, soft footfalls cross the small distance, and Tacoma lays his hands on her shoulders. She stands stiffly for a moment, then allows herself to lean against him, accepting his grief, his comfort, his strength. Her rage has not gone out of her, but it has found its true mark, Dietrich and those like him who give no honor to other nations and prize none for their own.

After a long moment, she raises a hand to cover her brother’s. She says, "Take care of yourself, thiblo. The wind farm is an obvious place for an ambush."

"Don’t worry. We’re taking plenty of firepower."

"Is Manny going?"

"He wants to. Allen won’t let him." A hint of laughter runs under his words. "He knows she’s not going to throw him to the dogs. She just wants him to think she might."

A light pressure of his fingers, and he is gone. She remains standing by the counter, her eyes wide and unfocused. Time has slipped again, in a way she knows long since. She sees not an array of bottles and ampoules and pill bottles, but a summer hill where a litter of wolf cubs tumbles squealing over each other, over their long-suffering parents. The female, almost entirely white except for grey about her ruff and on her ears, she does not recognize. The male, the alpha, who dozes in the overhang of the den behind them, is the pup now in her care, the other adults who sprawl on the rocks, their bellies bulging with fresh elk, his grown sons and daughters. A sycamore stands against the sky beside the den, and a hawk wheels against the high blue.

The vision fades, leaving behind only the certainty of its truth. With a heart lighter than it has been in days, Dakota heads back to the ward to check on a coyote with a short, absurd tail.


Kirsten finds herself moving toward the clinic at a clip that could technically, she supposes, be called a jog. With a flush of embarrassment, she slows to a walk, then quickly ducks behind a large tree as the clinic door opens, its glass sending out bright flashes of light as it catches the sun. Tacoma slips outside, well-muscled arms swinging easily with his movements. His head turns briefly in her direction, and Kirsten fancies he spies her, though she’s pretty sure she’s adequately hidden.

After a second, he turns away and Kirsten sags against the tree in relief, not at all wanting to tell Tacoma something she doesn’t even know the answer to herself. She watches him walk away. The ease of his stride and the proud tilt of his head reassures her. It is a one hundred eighty degree change from the sorrow-filled man she’s seen the past couple of days. This can only bode well for Dakota’s state of spirit as well.

Which, of course, renders pretty much useless her need to be here in the first place.

"Alright, smarty," she mutters to herself. "What now?"

Back to the jury selection? Home? A quick jog around the perimeter?

Her feet answer the question for her as they step around the tree and continue in her intended direction, toward the clinic. She looks down at them, traitorous things that they are, and frantically casts about for plausible excuses, discarding one after another the way a baseball player discards the shells of sunflower seeds he’s consumed.

"Shit!" The door’s to hand, and her mind is a complete blank. A tabula rosa, as her mother used to say when into her wine. The warm memory brings a brief grin to her face as she slips inside the cool, antiseptic scented clinic.

Shannon, from her position behind the reception desk, greets her with a warm, welcoming grin. "Hi, Doctor King!"

"Kirsten, remember?"

Shannon blushes. "Ok, Kirsten." Her smile returns. "Dakota’s in the back finishing up with mama wolf and her baby. You can go back if you like."

"That’s ok," Kirsten demurs, still feeling a bit the idiot for having come all the way over here without a suitable excuse. "I’ll just wait…out here."

"Okay, then. She shouldn’t be long. Do you want some coffee? I just made some fresh."

"No. Thanks."

She shrugs as if to say ‘suit yourself, then’ and returns to her paperwork.

Several quite uncomfortable moments later, the door opens, and Dakota steps through, wiping her hands on a white towel. The smile she sports upon seeing Kirsten wipes every bit of embarrassment and self recrimination from the young scientist’s mind. She rises to her feet quickly, grinning herself as Shannon looks between them like a spectator watching a tennis match from the front row.

Kirsten casts about for something to break the silence. "I…um…I was in the neighborhood and figured I’d drop by." God, Kirsten, could you possibly sound any more lame?

Taking the comment in stride, Koda tosses the towel into the laundry chute. "How are the selections going?"

"Boring as hell," Kirsten answers truthfully. "Plus, I think I was making the potential jurors nervous. Nothing like having the de facto President around to make it damned difficult to try and squirm out of jury duty."

Both Shannon and Koda chuckle at her feeble attempt at witticism, and Kirsten feels unaccountably warmed for it.

"So," Kirsten casts again, "have you had lunch yet?"

Koda shrugs. "I was planning on going over to the mess. Our cupboards are pretty bare."

"Mind some company?"

Once again, that smile comes; a smile that knocks all rational thought from Kirsten’s head and leaves her reeling in a whirlwind of pure emotion. The hand suddenly clasping her own grounds her like a lifeline, and she willingly follows wherever Dakota may lead.


"How about some fish for supper?"

Kirsten looks sharply up at Dakota. Long lashes veil her improbable blue eyes, but even in the gathering dusk, the small smile twitching at her mouth is unmistakable. She is not sure where the joke lies, but she knows better than she cares to that there is no fish in the refrigerator at home. For days, there has been no protein except for dried beans, eggs produced by a neighbor’s hens and the disgustingly spongy "cheese food" salvaged a month ago from the local USDA surplus station. The trouble with being a geek, she reflects, is that you become every Tom, Dick and Harriet’s straight woman. "Okay," she says, "I’ll bite. Yes, I’d like some fish for supper."

The twitch almost becomes a smile, and Koda says, "We don’t have any."

"So why are we talking about it?"

"Because if we take a couple rods down to the water in the morning, we might have some tomorrow. Do you fish?"

"No. I just bite."

Koda bursts into laughter, and Kirsten joins her, incredulous. I made a joke. And someone’s actually laughing at it. Love does weird things to people. It’s doing very weird things to me.

Above the flounced silhouette of a larch tree, a single star flares into visibility against the rapidly darkening eastern sky. In the west, the red glow of sunset lingers along the horizon. Kirsten stares up at pinprick ofbrightnesst. Star light, star bright—do I dare wish for what I wish tonight? Aloud she says, "When I was a child, I thought the stars were the eyes of great owls flying across the night sky. I was always afraid one would swoop down and catch me."

The taller woman tilts her head back and gazes at the sky for a long moment. "We Lakota have always believed that Ina Maka brought us forth from her womb here in the Paha Sapa. We were created here; we have lived and died here. Take us away, and we lose our souls. When Tali and I went to University, we were home to each other."

"That must have been lonely."

"It was. Some Nations believe we came from the stars, though, and will eventually return. That must be lonelier still, to have no land at all, anywhere, that is your own."

‘Home was never a place for me," Kirsten says softly. "We moved around too much. It was always my parents. For a long time now, it’s been Asi."

Dakota takes her eyes from the sky and looks down at Kirsten. "That must have been

lonely," she echoes.


From the street behind them comes the sound of squealing tires and the blare of a horn. "Doc! Thank God, there you are!"

Koda looks up sharply, and Kirsten, swiveling, swears under her breath. A battered red Dodge pickup skids to a stop beside them, a Tech Sergeant still in uniform at the wheel. His buzz cut and neatly clipped blond mustache belie the agitation in his face. "Doctor Rivers," he says, "can you come? My daughter’s cat has been trying to have her kittens since this morning, and can’t. She’s crying and won’t stop."

Light as an evening breeze, Dakota’s hand brushes hers as she steps up to the passenger window. "Who’s crying, your daughter or the cat?"

"Both of them. Can you come? Please?"

"Later," Dakota says softly, and again there is the soft brush of her hand. Then she climbs up into the truck and is gone, the tires squealing again as the driver hangs a hard U-turn and speeds off.

Kirsten turns back toward the house, making her way slowly through the growing dark. When she pushes the door open, Asi tumbles out past her, makes a couple circuits of the yard at a trot, then pauses to anoint his favorite fencepost. He halts again at the gate, ears up, tail poised but not quite wagging. From inside the house comes the fragrant aroma of coffee and something rich with basil and tomatoes, and she is suddenly as hungry as she is tired. "Sorry, guy," she says. "Maybe after supper, okay?"

An hour later, Asi sprawls on the hearth, head between his paws, oblivious to the world. Kirsten, her legs tucked under her, balances her laptop carefully on the overstuffed arm of her chair and tells herself she should get back to work. But the figures that stream across the screen blur even with her glasses, and she closes the top. Soft footfalls cross the room from the kitchen in the rear: Maggie, carefully balancing two mugs that steam with something herbal mixed with honey. She sets one down by Kirsten. "Chamomile. It’ll help relax you."

Kirsten glances up sharply. Maggie is out of uniform for once, in a pair of slim-legged black slacks and a pullover that emphasizes her slenderness and elegant height. Its dark wine hue picks up the undertones of her skin. The bobcat cuff glints on the curve of her ear. She looks like Cleopatra, damn her. Aloud she says, "Thanks."

Maggie settles comfortably on the couch, sipping at her own drink. Its aroma is different than the tea in her own cup, something with cinnamon. After a moment she says, "I brought you a gun from the armory. It was very generous of you to give yours to Harry that day at the census, but you really shouldn’t be without." A smile, half ironic, touches her mouth. "I probably should put a bodyguard on you, too, but I don’t think you’d like that very much."

"I wouldn’t like that at all." Kirsten hears the irritation in her voice and with an effort hauls herself back to civility. "You made him a handsome gift yourself, you know."

Maggie touches the cuff on her right ear briefly. "Maybe more than you realize. I had these made years ago, when I first qualified on the Tomcat and joined the squadron here."

"The Bobcats?"

"The Bobcats." She pauses. "I had them made because I was the new girl and the odd woman out. All the other flyers were men. Most of them didn’t take me seriously, and I wanted some sign of—not loyalty, exactly, not quite allegiance—some sign of my commitment to the life I’d chosen. Like a wedding ring, only not as obvious."

"Andrews and Manny wear them, too."

Maggie nods. "It became a fashion when I was named squadron commander. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and all that." She sets her cup down and leans forward. "But it’s a little more personal than that for me, Kirsten. I meant it when I said it’s like a wedding ring for me. My first love is flying. Always has been, always will be. There’s something about the freedom of the sky . . . something about that solitary, high blue with nothing but the canopy between you and infinity. . ." She makes a small, dismissive gesture, but her eyes are bright, an a smile hovers at her mouth. "It’s like the poet said once, you touch something that’s at the bare edges of perception, not of earth at all."

Kirsten’s heart slams hard against her ribs. She begins to know, or thinks she does, what the other woman is saying, and she is not at all sure she dares to believes it. She tries to say something appropriately profound, but no words will come to her dry mouth.

After a moment, Maggie says quietly, "No human can compete with that, Kirsten. My heart was given long ago, and I can’t take it back. I don’t want to."

She forces her mouth to form the sounds. "Not even Dakota?"

"Not even Dakota. I won’t try to tell you I don’t care for her, but that’s not what either of us really needs." She smiles and gets to her feet. "I’ve got to go back to HQ for awhile. I may not make it back at all tonight."

"Maggie—" Kirsten stops, not sure what to say. Nothing seems quite adequate. But she says, "Thank you. I—"

Maggie brushes her cheek lightly with a long finger, a gesture so like Dakota’s that for a moment Kirsten is stunned. She says, "No thanks necessary, my dear. I’ll dance at your

wedding when the time comes. Sleep well."

Long after she is gone, Kirsten sits staring into the empty fireplace. Dakota does not come home, and eventually Kirsten rises and turns the latch on the front door. She calls Asi softly to her, and goes to bed. She sleeps dreamlessly.


It’s black as pitch when Kirsten is pulled from her sleep, courtesy of a gentle knock on the door. With a soft ‘wuff’, Asi clambers out of the bed and trots to the door, then sits and wags his tail, whining softly.

The knock comes again, accompanied this time by a voice she would…does…know in her dreams. The sheets conspire to trap her as she struggles to sit up. She tosses them away, then quickly snatches them back when she realizes that she’d be putting on a show she’s not yet comfortable enough to star in. When all pertinent bits are covered to her satisfaction, she runs a hand through her hair and clears the huskiness from her throat. "C-come in."

The door opens, and Dakota pokes her head through, grinning as she notices Kirsten’s sleep-tousled form still tucked in bed. The rest of her body follows, causing Kirsten’s heart to leap into her mouth and flutter there, drooling. Koda is wearing a raggedy pair of cut-off jeans that display a heart-stopping length of tanned, muscled leg, and a hooded, sleeveless sweatshirt that displays her arms to the same effect. Kirsten tries to swallow, and fails. "Morning," she croaks, knowing that she’s staring and unable to stop herself.

Dakota is by no means oblivious to the look she’s getting. On the contrary, she feels it with every molecule in her body, and her skin warms and tingles as hormones are released into her bloodstream and busily tango their way hither and yon. She also knows that if she were anyone other than who she is, gone would be any thought of any morning activity she had originally planned. Kirsten, looking tired, and rumpled, vulnerable and devastatingly sexy, pulls to her like steel to a magnet. It is only because she is the woman she is that she resists, and gifts the young scientist with a broader grin. "Rise and shine, lazybones! The fish aren’t gonna catch themselves, ya know."

That breaks the spell, and Kirsten flops onto her back, making sure to take the sheet with her. "God," she groans. "You sound just like my father."

Koda raises an unseen eyebrow. Sounds like, maybe, but the thoughts she’s entertaining while looking at those suddenly displayed legs are anything but paternal. "You said you were up for fishing this morning," she replies, pleased that her voice sounds relatively normal.

"The operative word here, Dakota, is ‘morning.’. This," she swings an arm in a large arc, "is oh-God thirty. Even the fish are asleep."

"Wanna bet?"

The arm collapses across Kirsten’s eyes. "I knew you’d say that." Her sigh is worthy of the most scene-chewing actor ever to take the stage. "Do I have time for a shower, at least?" Not that the showers offer much. With the natural gas having petered completely out, the water is cold, bitter cold, or icicles. Then again, a cold shower sounds just the ticket right about now.

"Sure," Koda replies, thinking much the same thing. "I’ll give you ten minutes."

"So very generous of you," is the dry retort, causing Dakota to chuckle.

With that, she backs out of the room, taking Asi with her.

After the door has safely closed, Kirsten removes her arm and expels a great gust of air from her lungs. "Sweet…Jesus!"

Her head is spinning. Her heart is pounding. Even her damn palms are sweaty.

"Either I’m way deep in love, or I’m getting ready to have a stroke," she whispers to the uncaring ceiling. "Worst part is, I don’t know which one would be easier on me."


Exactly eleven minutes and one very cold shower later, Kirsten appears in the living room, dressed casually in a pair of well worn jeans, a simple navy blue T-shirt and hiking boots that have seen better decades. She appears appealingly rumpled, and even younger than she normally looks. Koda smiles at her from her place in the kitchen, and hefts the basket she’s packed from the table. "Breakfast. C’mon, the truck’s packed, Asi’s aboard, and the fish are waiting."

Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, Kirsten mumbles something unintelligible and follows behind like a little kid going to the mall with Mom when she’d rather be in bed sleeping. She finally manages to waken fully once she’s belted into the truck—borrowed from Judge Harcourt—and Koda is starting the engine. "Wait a minute. I thought we were just going down to the stream at the edge of the property. I’ve seen fish in there." She’s not…quite…ready to tell the circumstances behind seeing said fish, however.

Koda shrugs. "Too many people."

Kirsten nods in understanding. Though incredibly generous and giving, Dakota Rivers is an intensely private person, just as she herself is. A private person with an innate need to escape into that privacy at any given time.

Her eyes widen as she realizes the honor she’s being given.

"Is that okay?" Dakota asks, unsure of the reason behind Kirsten’s prolonged silence.

"It’s more than okay," Kirsten replies, grinning. Reaching out, she lays a hand on Dakota’s wrist, squeezing it in thanks. "Much more."

Returning the smile, Koda slips on her sunglasses, throws the truck into gear, and starts off, not minding in the least that Kirsten hasn’t yet seen fit to remove her hand.


Less than a half hour later, Dakota pulls the truck into a dense grove of trees and kills the engine. Kirsten looks around through the windshield as Koda opens the door and slips out, Asi at her heels. The big dog spies something off to his left and goes pelting off, barking fit to raise the dead. A second later, a flock of pheasants rises up with a ratting whirr, and Asi reappears, proudly wagging his tail.

Laughing at her dog’s antics, Kirsten slips out of the truck and takes in a deep breath of spring scented air. She then walks around to the bed of the truck, where Dakota is busy unloading their equipment. "Need some help?"

"Yeah. Grab this for me, will ya?"

Kirsten’s shoulder is nearly pulled from its socket as she grabs hold of the handled basket Koda hands her. "Jesus! What’s in here? Bricks?"

"You’ll see," Koda replies, smirking, and handing her several thick blankets. "I can get the rest."

Kirsten looks around again as Koda continues to unload the gear, taking in the seeming quiet of the place. Her mind, of its own accord, slips back a pace to a time when she had been in a similar place after the failed business at the android factory. The droids had come from nowhere and surrounded her truck. She shivers with the memories.

"You ok?"

Kirsten frowns, knowing it’s a stupid question, but needing to ask anyway. "Is it…safe here?"

Koda smiles. "It should be. And if it isn’t, we have Asi, and I have this." She hefts an oblong object that can only be a cased rifle. "We’ve got it covered."

Kirsten nods, saddened by the need to carry a rifle on a simple fishing trip. "Things are never going to be the same, are they."

Laying her gear down on the ground, Koda straightens, reaches out, and brushes the tips of her fingers against Kirsten’s spine, between the smaller woman’s shoulder blades. "I have faith in you," she begins, voice very soft. "And in the rest of us, to get rid of the androids and help make this land a good place to live in again."

"I wish I had your faith in me," Kirsten replies, sighing deeply.

"You do." Ignoring Kirsten’s questioning look, Koda retrieves the rest of their gear and heads off into the woods, Asi happily at her heels.

Fetching another sigh, Kirsten tromps in after her.


"This is beautiful," Kirsten whispers, as if giving full voice to her thoughts will break the enchantment of the area around her. A faerie ring of fantastically colored flowering trees surrounds an almost perfectly circular pond whose calm surface reflects the slowly lightening sky like a mirror made of smoked glass.

Fine, feathery grass grows along the shore, heads bent like Narcissus looking at his reflection in the cool water below. Frogs sing for mates across the expanse, their calls echoing and mixing with the chirp of crickets and the somnolent buzzing of a hundred other, as yet hidden, insects.

There is an almost sacred sense of peace to this hidden glen, and the calm seeps into Kirsten, soothing over edges made jagged by worry and strain.

"Thank you," she says, still whispering. "For bringing me here. I know this place must mean a lot to you."

Koda favors her with a smile that is, curiously, half-shy, half-defensive. Then she relaxes. "I used to come here when I needed to think." Her smile becomes more genuine. "Or be alone."

"You mean, you never…?" Kirsten asks, surprised.

"No. Never."

Kirsten feels her breath catch. "Wow." She shakes her head, trying to clear it. "I…uh…I don’t…" She looks up, startled, as a blanket is snatched from her arms.

"C’mon," Koda invites, grinning. "Let’s get this spread out and do some fishing."


"Oh God that was good!" Kirsten groans as she flops back onto her elbows. She wiggles a little; her jeans seem to have shrunk in the waist since she put them on this morning. The top button strains heroically with the effort of holding the fabric together.

"I’m glad you enjoyed," Koda replies, watching her companion’s body movements with interest—and a fairly accelerated heart-rate.

"Oh, I did more than enjoy, believe me." She laughs. "It’s strange. I never liked venison before."

"That’s because I never cooked it for you," Koda teases, grinning. "Here, try this." She hands over a wine glass filled with a Pinot Noir.

"Why Ms. Rivers," Kirsten questions over the rim of the glass, affecting a cultured accent, and batting her eyes, "wine before noon? Whatever will the neighbors think?"

"Screw the neighbors," Koda growls, taking a healthy sip of the vintage and thoroughly enjoying it. "Let ‘em get their own wine."

They settle into companionable silence for a time, both content to watch the sun play over the tiny wavelets in the pond, creating a colorful light show that neither tires of viewing. Their poles are side by side, held up by simple sticks, the bobbers riding along the tiny waves like toy boats in a gigantic bathtub.

The fishing has been good, with Kirsten proving herself an apt angler, catching more than her fair share of bass, perch and crappie. It will make a welcome change from the gruel that has started to pass for food back at the base, and Kirsten licks her lips, already thinking of sautéed fresh bass over early spring greens, completely unaware of the searing blue gaze tracking the movements of her tongue and mouth.

Blinking, Dakota deliberately turns her head toward the water and finishes the last of her wine in an untasting gulp, glad for the moisture it gives a mouth gone dry as desert sand.

"Thank you." Kirsten’s soft voice floats along on the flower-scented breeze. "I don’t think—no, I know I’ve never had such a nice morning. I…um…." Looking shyly down at her hands clasped across her belly, she continues, "I never was much for sitting down and smelling the roses. It was pretty much all work and no play, and it made me kind of a dull girl."

"Not dull," Koda responds matter-of-factly. "Just overworked." She smiles a little. "And underplayed."

Chuckling at the poor joke, Kirsten rolls her head and sees the sun peering fully over the ring of tall trees surrounding the pond. "Speaking of work…."

"I noticed." Placing her wine glass on the blanket, Koda begins packing the remains of their brunch into the basket. "Fenton’s coming to the clinic in a couple hours to look at Dietrich’s handiwork."

Realizing what that means, Kirsten hurriedly sits up, her face drawn and sad. "Oh, Dakota, I’m so sorry."

Koda tries to shrug it off. "’salright. It was going to happen sooner or later. Sooner’s just as well, I suppose."

Green eyes flash. "It’s not alright. It’s not alright and it’s not fair. Damnit, you shouldn’t have to go through this again!"

"If I don’t, who will? Who can speak for him other than me?" Her smile is sad. "Life isn’t fair. Death isn’t either."

Though her eyes, faraway, don’t register movement, she feels a warm, slight body press against her from the back and two well-made arms wrap around her waist as a chin rests on her shoulder. "You shouldn’t have to go through this alone, Dakota. Hell, you shouldn’t have to go through it at all." A brief pause. Kirsten’s gentle breathing tickles against Koda’s ear and cheek. "What can I do to help?"

Dakota smiles and turns her head so that their faces are on a level. "Just be you," she whispers. "That’s all I need."

"I will," Kirsten murmurs, sealing the vow with a kiss that quickly deepens. When she feels Koda’s tongue gently trace across her lips, she opens them, bidding welcome. With a groan, Koda pulls Kirsten’s arms away, then twists the smaller woman so that they are now face to face. Her own hands come up, sinking themselves into the thick, soft mass of Kirsten’s golden hair, stroking and tugging as their mouths move together sensually, urgently. Kirsten’s hands find their way onto Dakota’s broad shoulders, squeezing and releasing in time to her panting breaths. She is quickly becoming overwhelmed by everything—the emotions, the sensations, the taste of Koda’s lips and breath—and when she feels one hand leave her hair and trail, ever so gently, against the side of her breast, she moans and pulls away.

Slumped over, she breathes in deep, trying to catch her air and calm a heart lunging itself against her ribs with passionate force. A brief touch to her shoulder, and she looks up into Koda’s concerned eyes. "I’m…I’m….ok," she pants. "Just gotta….woah."

"What’s wrong? Are you alright?" Koda’s voice carries an edge to it, and that edge gets through to Kirsten on some level.

Taking in a deep breath, she straightens, and lets it out slowly. "Yes, I’m fine. It just…caught me by surprise."

Koda cocks her head in question.

In response, Kirsten lifts a slightly trembling hand and lays it against Dakota’s silken cheek. "I have never, ever felt like this before. Never. Physically, emotionally, it’s like…it’s like dangling over the edge of a cliff and the bottom’s nowhere in sight." She meets Koda’s gaze directly, willing her to understand. "It scared me for a moment."

Dakota smiles, and turns her head just slightly so that her lips rest against Kirsten’s palm. "I understand," she murmurs, kissing the hand on her face.

"You do?"

The smile broadens. "I do." Moving forward, she places the tenderest of kisses on Kirsten’s reddened lips, then pulls away. "C’mon. Let’s get ready for work."

Grasping Kirsten’s hands, Koda pulls them both up to their feet. The young scientist steps forward and wraps her arms around Dakota’s firm body and holds tight for several moments. "Thank you," she finally murmurs against the cloth covering Koda’s chest. She pulls back slightly, looking up at the tall woman. "Do you think that maybe…we would come back here again sometime?"

"Count on it," Koda replies, kissing the crown of Kirsten’s hair. "Count on it."


And here we are, yet again at the end of another episode in the life of Dakota, Kirsten and friends. <G> We hope you’re continuing to enjoy! We’d also love to hear from you. Drop a line, if you’d like, to Until next week, ciao!

Continued - Chapter 27

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