Written by: Susanne Beck and Okasha

Disclaimers: In chapter one.


Koda checks her watch as she takes the steps of the Rapid City courthouse two at a time. With her other hand she steadies the laptop where it thumps against her side, drumming counterpoint to the rhythm of her feet. To her disgust, she is late; the complete lack of loiterers and smokers on the arched portico tells her that she is very late. Swearing quietly to herself, she flings open the heavy glass doors that have by some miracle been spared by both uprising and vandals. Or—and it’s an encouraging thought she has no time for—they have been replaced in an awakening of civic responsibility. Score one for the rebirth of democracy. She jogs across the foyer with its semi-circle of bronze Great South Dakotan busts, boot heels ringing hollowly in the emptiness, then up more stairs. Even if it were not cordoned off by yellow tape, she would not gamble on the elevator when the electrical supply to the building is as iffy as a politician’s honesty.

Two stories up, she barrels out of the stairwell at speed, slamming the swinging door back against the wall. In the hall outside the courtroom a portrait of the (probably) late President Clinton hangs crookedly over the door, smiling out from behind cracked glass. Martinez and another corporal she does not know stand rigidly at attention on either side of the entrance. That other corporal apparently knows her, even if she does not know him; instead of blocking her path, each man grabs a door handle to let her through without slackening her stride. Koda tosses them a smile and a quick "Thanks, guys!," jerking her hat off just as she passes under the lintel.

She is not as late as she feared. With a rustle of cloth and a scraping of feet, the audience is just seating itself as Harcourt settles into his own chair. In this court, designed not for trials but for coroner’s inquests, there is no high bench or witness stand. Instead, Harcourt sits behind a long meeting table on a low dais, bracketed by state and national flags, six citizens ranged down its length beside him. A single chair beside the table faces the audience; a smaller desk, beside it, houses a recorder and a laptop computer, operated by the same Sergeant who has acted as clerk of the court in the ongoing rape trial. The arrangement is deliberately informal, designed to reassure those who fear incipient martial law or outright military takeover of the city.

While the preliminary paper-shuffling occurs, Dakota takes in the set-up, her eyes raking over the packed rows of seats, seeking her cousin and brother. It seems as though half the surviving civilian population have come to make their own judgements in Dietrich’s shooting, as have a substantial number of Airmen and soldiers from the Base. These are conspicuously not in uniform, but the prevalence of buzz cuts, half a dozen sitting together here and there in the crowd, gives them away. A close knot of people in the front row, a woman with fragile limbs like a bird’s, two young men and an old man with thin white hair and a wind-scoured face, she takes to be Dietrich’s family. On the opposite side of the room, barely visible for the intervening rows of spectators, she finally locates a green uniform amid half a dozen more in Air Force blue, and the pale wooden shapes of crutches propped against the back of an empty chair.

As she makes her way toward them, Harcourt glances sternly at her over the tops of his half-glasses, then pushes them further up onto the bridge of his nose and begins his opening remarks. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today to determine the manner and cause of death of William Everett Dietrich, deceased, of Rapid City, South Dakota. This inquest is pursuant to the laws of the State of South Dakota, specifically section 23-14-1, which states that ‘the coroner shall hold an inquest upon the dead bodies of such persons only as are supposed to have died by unlawful means.’" His eyes rake the courtroom. "I call your attention, ladies and gentlemen, to that word ‘supposed.’ We do not know, yet, whether Mr. Dietrich met his demise in an unlawful manner, but we hope to do so by the termination of these proceedings. I caution you all, and especially the jury, about making any assumptions in this matter beyond what the evidence will show.

"Further, because the person who claims to have fired the shot that killed Mr. Dietrich is a member of the Lakota Oglala Nation, we will also follow the laws of that nation as amended in 2005, Section 05-12-16, which states that an inquiry shall be made into ‘any human death, if a determination of the cause and manner of death is in the public interest’ and into ‘all deaths involving accident, homicide, suicide and those from an undetermined manner.’"

As Harcourt continues his explanation of the court procedures, Koda slides into the empty seat beside Tacoma, carefully and soundlessly laying the crutches flat on the floor. Glancing down at his heavily bandaged hands, she gives him a look that causes his face to tint darker in embarrassment, and he gives her his best hangdog grin. Shaking her head, she slips the carrying strap from her shoulder and sets the computer in its case beside them. "Sorry I’m late," she whispers. "Your feline friend decided she was going to make a run for it. It took us twenty minutes to corral her."

For an instant Tacoma’s eyes are bright with alarm, then he relaxes, grinning, against the chair. "But you won."

"Shannon and I won, with minimal blood loss. The ficus in the waiting room did not survive."

"Did you bring. . .?"

"No. I have the slides. If they need to see more, they can go to the clinic."

Koda’s fists clench involuntarily, and she makes a conscious effort to relax. She and Harcourt had argued for an hour about the way she would present her testimony, he insisting on having the wolf’s body present, she flatly refusing. They had settled on the compromise of slides, with the jury only adjourning to view the evidence if necessary.

"Hau," Tacoma says, agreeing, and it seems to Dakota that further indignity to Wa Uspewicakiyape is something that he, too, has dreaded. But he says, "Where’s Kirsten?"

"Working on putting our suicide bomber back together. Shhh." Koda cuts the conversation short. She can feel the blood rise in her face. Her feelings for Kirsten have only grown clearer and stronger since the day the scientist, most unscientifically, found her grieving by the stream, but she is not ready to talk about them. Still less is she prepared to be publicly labeled as one of a pair of bookends, half a couple. She does not want to share the thing that is happening between them, not yet, not even with Tacoma.

Still punishing him? The thought strays through her mind unbidden. Or just holding it to her own heart awhile yet, a gift to be only her own and Kirsten’s for a season?

But now is not the place or the time for such wonderings.

"Where’s Manny?" she whispers, catching Fenton’s eye and nodding once.

"In the witness room licking his wounds and hiding from our formidable Colonel."

"Got him bad, did she?" Koda asks, unable to quite contain the smirk that curls about her lips.

"Flayed him alive," Tacoma replies with his own touch of smugness. "He’ll be swamping out heads for a year. Maybe two, if he’s lucky."

"I’m surprised she didn’t quarter him in the brig."

"It was touch and go for awhile. I think his injuries won him some mercy points."

Dakota laughs quietly, then turns her full attention to the front of the courtroom.

Harcourt segues from the law in general to the specifics of the inquest’s authority. "You must understand that this panel has no authority to bring charges against anyone, or to make a determination of guilt or innocence beyond that implied in the determination of the manner of death. The court will decide only two things. One is the cause of death, which should be fairly straightforward and will depend upon medical testimony. The other is manner of death, which is not the same thing.

"There are five possible rulings as to the manner of death. There is death from natural causes; accident; homicide, which does not necessarily imply an unlawful act; suicide; and death in an undetermined manner." Harcourt pauses, looking up and down the long table. "Does the jury require any further clarification on any of these points?" Silence and the shake of a head or two are all the answer he receives. "Very well, then. Let us proceed. Major Rabinowitz."

Major Rabinowitz, one of the few medical personnel to survive the initial raid on Ellsworth, takes the witness chair and is sworn by the clerk.. Under prompting by the Judge, he recites his credentials: MD from Johns Hopkins, 1988; internship and surgical residency at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, service in Afghanistan and Iraq with the 6th. Bomber Wing. And yes, in the course of his career he has seen all manner of projectile wounds, everything from M-16 rounds to shrapnel to steel-tipped arrows.

With a nod, Harcourt leans back in his chair. "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you may put your questions to Dr. Rabinowitz."

The questioning in this round is predictable, almost perfunctory, and Koda follows it with only half her attention as she forces calm onto her own mind in preparation for her testimony. She must be cool; she must be detached. She must give no hint of her personal interest, make no display of her grief. For justice.. For all the wild beings who deserve to live out their lives without the added perils of human cruelty. She calls up the memory of the mother wolf, Wa Uspewicakiyape’s mate, sleeping peacefully, her pup curled up beside her, a spatter of milk drying on the end of his nose. For all the years and the generations to come. She holds that thought clear before her, a banner and a promise, while voices drone on half-heard.

Did Dr. Rabinowitz examine the body of William Everett Dietrich, deceased?

Yes, he did.

Did he perform an autopsy?

Yes, ma’am.

What were his findings?

Mr. Dietrich died of a gunshot wound to the head. Specifically a 9 mm. bullet that entered the frontal bone of the skull medially and approximately one centimeter above the level of the supraorbital ridge and exited, also medially, at the Y-seam where the left and right parietals meet over the occiput, leaving a wound approximately 4.75 cm across.

In layman’s terms?

In layman’s terms, he’d been shot between the eyes and his brains blown out a two-inch-plus hole in the back of his head.

Died instantly?

No one ‘dies instantly,’ but brain activity and autonomic functions would have ceased within minutes, possibly seconds.

Any other wounds on the body?


Cause of death: gunshot wound to the head. So say you one, so say you all?

No one disputes the verdict; no one was expected to. No one finds it necessary to see the autopsy photographs which the good Doctor has prepared as slides. The easy part is behind.

Koda forces her attention back to the courtroom as the clerk calls Lieutenant Manuel Rios, USAF. Manny takes the oath, swearing, as Koda had done, not on the Bible but on the medicine pouch invisible beneath his shirt and tie. The hand that he raises still shows red where the transparent dressing covers the burns he sustained in pulling Donaldson from the flaming APC, and a murmur runs through the room. Rapid City has become a small town, Ellsworth an even smaller one, and the tale of the attack on the convoy returning with the generators has made its way not only through the entire military corps but into the civilian population as well, growing in the telling. Added to Manny’s exploits at the Cheyenne, it has become a piece of local folklore, rapidly swelling toward the epic of the Red Knight and the Androids. One part facts, two parts awe, seven parts pure imagination: shake well and serve warm.

Somebody needs to be keeping a real record of what is happening. Otherwise we’re all at the mercy of Blind Harry and the grapevine.


Gingerly, moving as though his muscles still pain him in a dozen places, Manny takes the witness chair and begins his story.

The pickup bucks and yaws as Andrews wrestles it along the double ruts that pass for a road. Something large and hard, probably a rock hidden under lingering snow, bangs against the forward axel, and Andrews winces as the front end of the truck comes down hard. In the truck bed, a pair of wire cages rattle like tambourines with every lurch, while something smaller rolls loosely from side to side, clattering across the metal ridges. "Yo!" Manny yells above the din. "You gonna charge me for this chiropractic treatment? My damn tailbone’s busted!"

Andrews grins, never taking his eyes off the trail. "Hey, you’re the one that swore this ditch was really a road. I just follow directions."

"It is a road," Manny insists indignantly. "It just hasn’t been graded recently, that’s all."

Another rock, this time mercifully passing under the left wheels, raises the driver’s side of the vehicle a good six inches and slams Manny’s right shoulder into his window. In the back, one of the cages skates clear across the cargo bed and hits the side with a clang of metal against metal. "We’re gonna have to tie those things down on the way back if we find anything!" Andrews shouts above the racket.

"I brought the rope. There’s an easier way back if we need it, though." He pulls a pair of wire cutters from his pocket. "The Callaghan place has a blacktop running up from their main gate along the tree line we’re headed for."

"Fuck, man!" Andrews takes his eyes off the twin ruts to glare at Manny. "Why the hell aren’t we on it now?

Manny shrugs, replacing the clippers. "You don’t cut somebody’s fence unless you have to. Hell, there was a time you could get arrested just for carrying a pair of cutters off your own property."

"For a pair of pliers? Damn, I always knew you Westerners were weird."

"Not for ‘a pair of pliers.’" Manny makes quote marks in the air with his right hand. "For what you were likely to do with ‘em. They’re rustler’s tools."

"Yeesh." Andrews’ breath hisses out between his teeth. "We’re getting major bones dislocated, just because of some antiquated law? Is there even anybody still on this Callaghan place to give a shit?"

"Well, bro, if there is, I don’t wanna get shot just to please your greenhorn butt. Mind that—oh shit."

The right front tire comes down in a deeper than usual rut filled with snowmelt, spins and sinks to a halt. Andrews guns the motor, which only digs the wheel deeper and sends

mud spattering out into the dry grasses on either side. Abruptly he cuts the engine. "Okay. You steer. I’ll get out and push."

Manny shakes his head. "Turn it back on. Just don’t run over me when I say ‘go.’"

Not giving Andrews time to argue, he slides out his side of the truck and makes his way to the back, grinning. A city boy like Andrews might need a freeway to get from home to the corner store, but this is old hat to the ranch-bred Rivers clan. Leaning over the side of the truck bed, he extracts a three-foot length of two-by-eight. To the muffled sound of Andrews’ swearing, he wedges one end under the offending tire. "Okay!" he yells, hopping out from in front of the grille. "Go!"

With a grinding of gears, the truck surges out of the rut and onto level ground beyond. Manny tosses the board back into the truck bed and climbs into the passenger seat, steadying himself with his good hand. "Damn," says Andrews, "I thought you said this thing was four-wheel-drive."

"I did," Manny agrees equably. "And it was. Been a little too occupied to fix the old rustbucket, if you know what I mean."

A few hundred yards further up the rut, Manny surveys the line of bare trees along the top of a ridge. A vein of exposed limestone , broken and tumbled in spots, runs under it, here and there making a shallow overhang where a denning wolf might shelter. From what Koda has said, from what Tacoma has said she said, the place where she had found the dead pups ought to be just about—"Pull over at the next level spot," he says. "The rockpile under that ledge doesn’t look natural."

As the truck comes to a halt, he studies it more carefully. The pale spring light, standing down from noon, lays long shadows along the top of the rise, throwing cracks and gouges in the stone into sharp relief. In several places, blocks broken off from the rock face have fallen to the soft clay soil below, to be half hidden by rain-borne earth and winter-dry vegetation. Under the ledge, though, the ragged chunks of stone are all relatively small and massed together. Exposed rock above them shows dark and weathered above the outcropping, rootlets forcing their way through fissures where the rock will one day split but has not yet. Manny runs his hand over the stone, noting the rounded edges of old breaks, the grit where soil has discolored its creamy whiteness. He points to the cairn beneath the jutting rock layer. "Those rocks didn’t fall there. This has to be the lair."

"The male should be somewhere around here, then," says Andrews.

"Somewhere fairly close. You can bet the bastard put the trap near here because he thought there was a den in the area." Turning back to the truck, he takes a 30.06 Winchester surmounted by a massive scope from the gun rack behind the seats. Carefully he loads a dart into the chamber and hands the weapon to Andrews. "You’re going to have to do the shooting if we need this; my left arm still won’t support any kind of weight."

Andrews slips the rifle strap over his shoulder. "Just tell me when and what at."

"Watch where you step," says Manny, and heads toward an open glade to the east.

The snow still lies on the ground in patches, slick around its melting edges. As they mount the ridge and approach the small stand of trees, Manny can see what appears to be a mound still heaped beneath the bare canopy. The recent fall has drifted nowhere else, though, and here on the north side of the ridge it lies clean, marked only by the rippling wind. Andrews, at his shoulder, says softly, "That’s him, isn’t it?"

Manny nods grimly. "Likely. We need to make sure, though. Don’t put your feet down anywhere you can’t see. We don’t know how many of the damned things there are."

A moment later, he kneels beside the mound, lightly brushing powder away from fur that still shows red where the blood of the terrible wounds has frozen. Very gently Manny clears the head and throat, still showing the puncture marks of teeth, works his way down the torn limbs and belly to the mangled leg. Rage rises within him, burning its way up from a spot just beneath his solar plexus, tightening his throat, clenching his fists into knots around the ice-hard flesh beneath his hands. From behind him he hears Andrews swearing softly and incessantly, biting off the words with the cold precision of an automatic weapon stitching a line of metal-jacketed rounds along an enemy front. "God. Damned. Son. Of. A. Mother. Fucking. Bitch!"

"You got it," Manny says, levering himself up. He pulls a small camera from his pocket and pops off half a dozen shots, the flash bouncing glare off the snow. "Be sure you don’t step anyplace you can’t see the ground; there’s gonna be more of these fuckers."

"How do we know where to look? They could be anywhere."

"Not quite. See that chain?" Manny points to the base of the tree where the open trap lies half-buried in snow. "Gotta have something to anchor to, tree or fence post. We walk this line of woods first. Then we try Callaghan’s fence."

The second trap has been set less than a hundred feet away, secured to the base of a slender birch. Andrews spots its chain, still new and glinting in the sun that filters through the branches. Carefully Manny brushes fallen leaves away from the tether, following it to the open jaws of the trap itself. A sharp jab at the center with a fallen branch snaps it shut with a sickening crunch. A third has been sprung, but nothing remains of its victim except a tuft of hair and a red-brown smudge along the jagged line of the teeth. Manny bends to rub the soft, stippled fur between his fingers, noting its length and silky texture. "Rabbit," he says. "Somebody beat the bastard to it, coyote maybe."

"Where now?"

"Let’s try—down!" Manny throws himself flat as a bullet whines past just millimeters

over his head and buries itself in the trunk of the tree behind him. Andrews sprawls in the wet leaf mould beside him, tugging at the holstered pistol riding at the small of his back under his jacket. A second shot streaks past, and a third. "It’s coming from the fence line over there!"

"Who the hell--?" Andrews falls abruptly silent. From the north side of the line of woods comes the snap of a twig, then another. Someone moving carelessly, confident enough not to be concerned about giving away his position.

Manny pulls his own sidearm and pumps a round into the chamber. The footsteps are clearly audible now, moving along a line perhaps fifty yards to the east of them. Pushing up on his good elbow, Manny can just make out a ripple of movement in the thicker underbrush, a shadow darting from tree trunk to shadow to tree trunk again. Andrews shoots him a questioning look, raising his pistol; Manny waves it down again.

Wait. Until we know how many they are. Until we know what they are.

Abruptly, the footfalls change direction, no longer moving on a tangent parallel to their position. The snap of dry twigs grows louder, coming straight toward them now. Closing his eyes, Manny remembers snowy mornings years gone by, crouched among a tumble of stones above the deer trail, waiting in silence as his breath made white fog above the white drifts about him. He calls that silence to him now as his father and grandfather have taught him, drawing it about him like a cloak, willing himself into the landscape, his skin to bark, his spine to living wood. When he has become the center of perfect stillness, he rises to his feet, not so much as the sound of a breath to betray his movement. Like a shadow he slips around the oak behind them, bracing his injured arm against the trunk, sighting over the blunt blue steel muzzle of his gun held steady in both hands. And he waits.

In the seconds that remain, the rustle of underbrush grow suddenly quieter, the footfalls softer and further apart. The end comes quickly, then, a rush of movement, a tall man with a weatherbeaten red face and salt-and pepper hair brushing the collar of his buckskin jacket bursts into the clearing, sweeping its perimeter with the barrel of his deer rifle, settling his aim almost delicately on Andrews where he still lies belly down among last year’s leaf fall.

"Well, now, boy. You been robbing my traps, have you?"

From his vantage point just wide of the trapper’s line of sight, Manny watches as Andrews’ fingers slip from the butt and trigger of his handgun. Very quietly he says, "No, I haven’t. I’m just out to get a rabbit or two for supper."

"Where’s your friend, then? Oh, hell, yeah, I know there’s two of you. And I know what you been doin. Been pacin’ you ever since you found that goddamn wolf." The man hawks and spits. "Bad luck, there. Bear got to him. Wolverine, maybe. Pelt’s ruined."

After a moment he says, "Who the hell are you? You’re not local."

"I’m from the Base. We’re hungry, too."

"I just bet you are." The trapper raises his voice. "Hey, you out there! Show yourself or I’ll give you one less mouth to feed! Won’t need so many ‘rabbits.’"

Manny slides around the side of the tree, gun still leveled. "Drop it, bastard. Now."

The man turns slightly to his left, the rifle’s muzzle swinging up to aim at Manny’s head. The roar of its discharge mingles with the report of his own weapon, and Manny watches as the long gun flies windmilling out of its owner’s hand to strike the ground butt first, firing again harmlessly into the air, the man himself staggering backward with crimson blossoming suddenly between and above his eyebrows, his Stetson carried off his head in a spatter of blood and brain. He falls on his back, vacant eyes staring, and is still.

Andrews picks himself up, brushing dirt and black leaf rot from his knees. "Manuel my man, your timing was a bit close, you know that?"

"Nah, I had you covered the whole time. Let’s see who we got here."

A brief search of the dead man’s pockets yields a South Dakota driver’s license issued to one Dietrich, William E., and a ring of heavy keys. Several are the small brass variety that open padlocks, and Manny counts them with growing disgust. "Six. That means there’s at least six of these goddam traps, assuming that each key opens only one lock. We got our work cut out."

"What’re we gonna do with him?" Andrews gestures toward the dead man with his handgun before slipping it back into its holster. "There’s a hungry coyote family out here somewhere who can use the protein, if you ask me."

Manny catches the other man’s eye briefly. He is not joking. "Nope. Wish we could, but we’d better take him back and go through the legal motions. Think you can wrestle the truck up here? It’ll be hell of a lot easier than trying to carry him back all that way."

It takes twenty minutes, with much grinding of gears and spinning of wheels, but Andrews jerks the pickup to a stop just on top of the slope and just short of the trees.

He slams the door behind him emphatically. His freckles stand out against the flaming red of his face; sweat runs down from the brim of his h. He says equably, "Fuck you, buddy. You, and the horse you rode in on, and your grandpa’s paint pony. It woulda been easier to push the goddam rattletrap. You got any idea how we’re gonna get it down again?"

"No sweat. We just drive it along this level section here till we get to the end of the treeline." Manny pats his pocket. "Then we cut the fence and use the road. Give me a hand here, will you?"

Without ceremony, they bundle Dietrich into a length of plastic, careful to retrieve his hat and weapon. Getting almost a hundred kilos of dead weight into the truck bed three-handed leaves Manny swearing with frustration at his useless shoulder. The wolf, still frozen and seventy pounds lighter, is easier. Andrews draws the body carefully onto a waiting blanket, then onto a tarp. Together they carry him gently as a child back to the truck and, after a moment’s hesitation, settle him in the back of the cab.

"You sure you don’t want to bury him out here?" Andrews asks as he folds a disturbed length of plastic back into place. "Taking him in—it doesn’t feel right."

"It isn’t right," Manny answers grimly. "He’s evidence of a crime, though. And nothing against you, buddy, but he’s the best corroborating witness as to why I shot that piece of shit."

Over the next hour, they find three more traps. The coyote, caught by his tail, looks up at them with wary eyes that still hold a glint of mischief, and his lip rises in a defiant sneer as Andrews raises the Winchester to place the tranquilizer dart accurately in his thigh. A few moments later he is out cold and in one of the wire cages, a blanket tucked around him against the chill. The badger in the fifth trap, caught by a foreleg gnawed down to bone, is beyond help, eyes glazed with fever, sides rising and falling in rapid, shallow breaths that make an audible gurgling sound. Andrews raises the dart gun questioningly, and Manny shakes his head. "That’s sepsis," he says. "Pneumonia. Nothing we can do except end his suffering."

Andrews reaches for his pistol, but Manny stops him. "Wait." Opening the trap, he gently draws the steel teeth back from the shattered leg. The badger watches him dully from dimming eyes, making no resistance. "Easy, boy. Easy." Then to Andrews. "Now. Let him die free."

The last trap holds the bobcat. She is freshly caught, her wound bleeding bright scarlet into the snow. At their approach, her nose wrinkles in a snarl, baring fangs fit to tear off a man’s hand. Hissing, she backs away from them, dragging trap and chain with her to the limit of its length. "Oh boy," Andrews observes, unnecessarily. "This one’s not gonna cooperate."

When he finally does get a clear shot, they lay her carefully in the other cage, her wide unseeing eyes black, rimmed with gold. Manny runs his hand gently over her flank as he settles a blanket over her, rubbing behind her fine ears, still unmarked by fighting. "We’re gonna help you, girl," he whispers. "You’re a real beauty, you are."

Andrews grins as he starts the truck and it lurches along the flat strip parallel to the treeline. "You never told me you were a cat person. You’ve got a thing for that bobcat like your cousin the vet has for wolves."

"Yeah." After a moment he says, "That’s why I put up such a fight to get into Allen’s

squadron. Bobcats."

"That’s what they’re calling her, you know."

"Allen? Bobcat? More like man-eating tiger, you ask me."

"Nah, your cousin. ‘She-wolf of the Cheyenne.’"

Manny snorts. "Well, I guess it’s better to have a she-wolf chew your ass to shreds than just anybody. She’s not gonna like it that we brought the old man back..."

"Sounds like cold comfort to me." Andrews hauls left on the steering wheel, and brings the truck to a juddering halt in front of Callaghan’s fence. "Now what?"

Manny hands him the wire-cutters. "Clip the fence. Get on the road. And drive like hell."


It’s well past midnight when Kirsten, bone weary and with a headache that has increased its level exponentially, enters the house. Her usual greeter is conspicuously absent, and she makes her way through the kitchen quietly until she stands in the doorway to the living room. The rhythmic thump-thump of Asimov’s tail gives his location immediately, and as she steps closer, she can see his sparkling eyes from atop the human hip he is using for a pillow.

Stepping around the couch, her vision is filled with the sight of Dakota half-curled on her side, facing the fire and fast asleep. Her crooked arm supports her head as her hip supports Asi’s. Her chest rises and falls in a slow, easy and silent rhythm. Her flannel overshirt lies draped over one arm of the couch, leaving her in her black tank and jeans.

Kirsten’s eyes travel with true pleasure over the sweeping curves of her bronzed and muscled body, taking in each facet as if seeing it for the first time. Her own body warms and flushes, her exhaustion quite suddenly a thing of the past as a new, and seldom felt energy flows through her on eagle’s wings. Asi watches her curiously, but doesn’t move from his self-appointed perch. Kirsten circles around him, quiet as a wraith, and slowly lowers herself to the ground by Dakota’s head. The Vet’s face is obscured by the thick fall of her hair, which shines like silk in the light of the cheerily crackling fire, beckoning Kirsten silently to run her fingers through its inky mass.

She heeds the summons, barely daring to breathe as her fingers, not quite steady, tentatively brush against the silken strands. When Dakota’s breathing remains deep and easy, Kirsten, emboldened, brushes the thick locks away from her face with a slightly firmer touch, smiling as the Koda’s flawless profile is slowly revealed. Her skin is burnished copper, unlined and fairly glowing with vitality. Her lashes, long and dusky, rest softly on her cheek, creating tiny crescent moon shadows on the soft flesh beneath.

Whining softly, Asi tickles her with his cold, wet nose, and she giggles softly, lifting her hand from Koda’s hair and pushing him away. Looking affronted in a way that only German Shepards can, he nonetheless settles, resting his head back on his human pillow.

When Kirsten turns back, she finds herself swallowed whole in eyes the color of the Caribbean. She forgets the mechanics of breathing as Dakota’s gaze, warm and tender and yet with a spark of fire hot enough to scorch, takes in every inch of her face. A strong, long-fingered and perfectly sculpted hand raises up, and fingers trace themselves with impossible gentleness over the cupid’s bow of Kirsten’s lips.

"Nun lila hopa."

The voice that speaks the words is deep and husky with sleep, and Kirsten feels a current rocket through her body. She smiles against the butterfly touches, understanding the sentiment, if not the words themselves.

"Thank you," she whispers. "And you…you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen."

This earns her a smile that is equal parts radiant and innocent, and her breath leaves again with the intensity of emotion washing over and through her. She moves not a muscle as Dakota’s fingers leave her lips and trail along her jaw, then slide down her neck, lingering at a pulsepoint she is sure is bounding like an orchestral bass drum. They travel further, soothing against the hollow of her throat, feeling the skin as it stretches taut from a convulsive swallow.

Still smiling, Koda lifts her head and props it on her free hand. Her fingers blaze a molten trail down the "V" of Kirsten’s collar, and still themselves there, resting lightly on the fabric covering the rest of her body from view.

"I love you, you know," Kirsten says, and then freezes, unable to believe she’s actually spoken her heart aloud.

"That’s good," Dakota replies after a moment, gently tugging on the collar of her shirt, "because I love you, too."

"You…do?" Kirsten’s voice is soft and filled with wonder.

"Mm. I do."

The gentle tug comes again, and Kirsten goes with it, lowering her head and brushing against Koda’s offered lips.

"So very much," Koda whispers, deepening the kiss as she helps Kirsten stretch out on her side. Asi gives an affronted grunt, but moves away as the two women settle together, bodies touching and moving along their lengths.

Tracing the tips of her fingers over the delicate whorls of Kirsten’s ear, Dakota deepens the kiss, parting her lips and inviting her inside. Moaning softly, Kirsten accepts the invitation. It’s all she can do not to crawl inside this woman who has so effortlessly stolen her heart, and she growls in frustration as her hands clamp down on the thin material covering Koda’s broad back, stretching and pulling the fabric near to tearing.

Caught up in the emotion of the moment, Dakota allows the passion between them to rise, breasting new heights as her tongue tenderly duels with Kirsten’s, tasting their shared excitement on her palate as the flavor of their kisses changes and grows heady.

Breathing deep through her nose, she deftly begins to bank the fire before it blazes beyond her ability to control. It’s not that she doesn’t want what is happening between them. Far from it; she finds herself wanting it more than she can ever remember wanting anything. But she knows, surely as she can feel the frantic beat of Kirsten’s straining heart against her breasts, that there is a time for everything, and the time for a full exploration of their love is not yet.

The transition from burn to simmer is so seamless that Kirsten doesn’t even protest as Koda softly pulls away. Her eyes flutter open and she smiles, happy beyond knowing. "This is nice," she purrs, her voice husky and a full octave lower than her normal speaking voice.

"Mm. Very nice." Tipping her head, she rubs her nose along Kirsten’s, then dips further to steal a soft kiss before pulling away again. "I love you."

Tears immediately spring to Kirsten’s eyes. Her smile is radiance itself. "You don’t know how it feels to hear you say that."

Tenderly wiping the tears away with her thumb, Koda leans in for another tender kiss. "I think I might have some idea," she murmurs, lingering for another moment. She then slides her cheek against Kirsten’s silken skin and holds her in a warm, tight embrace, reveling in the closeness and the love that permeates her soul.

This is right. As right as anything could ever be, even in a world gone totally wrong. She lets the last of her barriers slip free without a parting thought, and opens herself totally to the love this one special woman offers up so easily.

She is free.


Ok, ok, don’t kill me. I know we stopped at a bad time, and I also know that some of you are getting tired of the "tease" (which really isn’t meant to be one). Next week, we are presenting a special "two hour" (read extra long) episode of the Growing. Chapter Thirty will FINALLY have what I think most of you are looking for. Promise. So join us next week, ok?

Continued - Chapter 30

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