Please see Chapter 1 for the disclaimers.

New Year's Eve

As Duke held his blonde-haired baby girl and reminisced missing several of her firsts, he made a decision that he would do whatever possible to avoid missing out on any of her other firsts yet to come; her first word, first step, first day of school, first dance, first date. "Urgh," he growled, when her first kiss crept its way into his mind. With Cobra defeated, several of the Joes were given their choice of reassignment or retirement, the latter of which was becoming more and more tempting to Duke, even though he wasn't sure he was ready to return to a civilian life just yet.

Noticing the time, he took his wide-eyed daughter upstairs and bathed her, covering her with bubbles as he rubbed a soft, terrycloth washcloth on her soft-skinned body. Smiling, he awed, "You are such an angel," as he wrapped his angel tightly in a white hooded towel and dried her off. "Brr, that's cold," he muttered, pouring a glob of powder scented baby lotion in his palm. He gently rubbed it onto Alexis' skin. "Let's see what your mother has for you to wear tonight," he said, opening the diaper bag, which Karen had given him. He pulled out a simple navy blue shirt and pant set with white lace trim around the shirt's neck. The outfit complemented Alexis' bright blue eyes. Preferring to remain in her nude state, Alexis wiggled as her father dressed her. Duke laughed, "Come on, Alexis, I know it's more comfortable without these, but we can't have you show up at the party in your birthday suit."

Alexis giggled and squirmed as the shirt was pulled over her head. She fought getting dressed every step of the way. After he finished dressing his daughter, Duke placed her in the crib while he replenished the diaper bag.

"Shall we go see mommy?" Duke asked, picking up Alexis. He carried her and the diaper bag to the Mustang and struggled to secure the car seat in the backseat. He frowned at the possibility of having to give up his other baby. "Good," he grinned, relieved that the seat fit. He looked in the rearview mirror as he backed out into the street, thinking there definitely was not enough room in the back for two car seats. Just having been around Alexis for a few hours, he already knew he would love to have more children, and soon. "How to convince Shana," he wondered aloud.

The '69 Mustang pulled up to the Abernathy house around six o'clock that evening. Several cars were already parked along the side of the street, including Scarlett's Vibe. After having twisted himself in strange positions to remove Alexis from the car, they walked to the front door; the glass storm door was closed, but the wooden one stood open. Out of habit, Duke knocked before entering the extravagantly decorated house.

Having heard the new guests arrive, Natalia Abernathy made a beeline to the foyer to see who it was. "Conrad, welcome home," she exclaimed warmly as she embraced Duke. "I'm so glad you all are back, safe and sound," Natalia smiled, touching Alexis' face. "She is so precious."

Duke smiled. "Yes, thank you. It's nice to see you again, Natalia."

"Here, let me take the bag for you," Natalia offered. "Your wife is in the family room with the others. Make yourself at home. You know where everything is. Clay is around here somewhere and is extremely anxious to see your daughter."

"Thank you, ma'am," Duke replied then made his way to the living room, passing and greeting several of the team and their significant others and/or children. He stopped short of exiting the hallway to admire his wife who was standing in a small circle with Ace, Karen, Jinx, Falcon, Gung-ho, and a few others. He felt his legs go weak as he saw Scarlett in the curve-fitting, mostly modest, black dress, the sleeves draping off her arms, leaving her neck and shoulders bare; her heirloom, diamond-accented emerald pendant, which was given to her by her dad shortly before their wedding ceremony, dangling just below the dress's neckline. "Damn, she still does that to me," he muttered under his breath, leaning against the wall for support.

General Hawk tapped Duke on the shoulder from behind. "Well, Conrad, are you just going to stand there or go see your wife?" He took Alexis out of her father's arm and went to mingle with the other guests, showing off what he claimed as his goddaughter. "Come on Angel, we have people who have been waiting a long and rough six months to finally meet you."

Duke took a deep breath and joined his wife. Standing behind her, he placed two gentle taps her on the shoulder with his fingertips. She turned around, shocked to see her husband. "Con! I've missed you so," she cried, falling into his arms.

"I've missed you too, Love," Duke said through his own tears, in between their kisses. He held her close to him, the scent of her perfume engulfing his senses.

"Where's Alexis?" Scarlett asked concerned, focusing her attention from Duke to Ace and Karen. "Karen said you had picked her up."

Duke turned Scarlett towards Hawk's direction. "She's in good hands," he smiled.

"Oh, I see," Scarlett laughed, relieved. "Did you two have time to catch up?"

"Yes," Duke replied, glowing. "We've even had the talk."

"The talk?" Scarlett arched her eyebrow.

"You know, the one where the overly protective dad tells his daughter she's not dating or leaving the house until she's thirty," Duke chuckled. He lifted his wife's face to meet his and looked her in the eye. "She's a wonderful baby. I'm sorry I missed out on her birth, among other things. How was living with your brother and dad?"

A tear trickled down Scarlett's face. "I wish you could have been here also. Sean was actually pretty decent towards me, although, he couldn't get away without a little sibling harassment. I love my dad, but two weeks of living with him was plenty for me."

"I'll bet," Duke sighed, smiling as he thought of his own family. He loved them as well but shuddered at the thought of ever having to stay in the same house as them for any longer than their trips back home.

"It looks like we'll have another niece or nephew soon," Falcon nudged his fiancée, rolling his eyes as Duke and Scarlett passionately kissed again.

Jinx pulled her fiancé towards her. In a stern tone, she chastened, "Vince, quit being jealous. Unlike us, they've been apart from each other for almost nine months. Do you think it was easy for Shana to stay home from this last mission? It was the big finale to all the years of work she and the rest of us put in, and she had to miss it. Leave them alone."

Hearing the commotion, Duke threw an evil glance at his brother. "So, what do you think?" he asked in Scarlett's ear, hoping her answer would be 'yes'.

"What!" she stated questioningly into his ear.

"Shall we have another baby?" Duke whispered seriously.

Scarlett looked her husband in the eye and saw his anticipation. "We'll talk later," she mouthed back as they rejoined the conversation.

"Shana," Gung-ho spoke up hesitantly and speculated out loud. "We saw Alexis' picture on the hospital's website, but the baby we saw had jet black hair like Keiko's, and Alexis is as blonde as she can be. Did they get the photos mixed up?"

Scarlett giggled. "No, Etienne that was her newborn picture. I wasn't able to send any letters or photos while you all were deployed. Her hair was pitch black until she was a month old. It happened so slowly, but one morning I went to get her from her crib and noticed it was blonde. Frank said the same thing happened with his son, and Dr. Greer said she's heard of the same thing happening when I took Alexis with me to one of my appointments."

"Hey, don't look at me," Cover Girl joked as she moved towards the group, Dusty by her side. "I haven't had a chance to mess with the rugrat's hair. I was too busy driving and repairing the Maulers for you all in case you forget."

"Ah, it's nice to be back home with family and friends," Dusty sighed.

"Oui, mon ami," Gung-ho affirmed, taking a champagne glass offered by Natalia. "Merci beaucoup, Madame."

"De rien," Natalia replied, smiling as she handed out the other flutes on her tray, reserving the last two for her and her husband.

"Is that for me?" Hawk grinned, freeing his wife's hand of the extra glass.

Natalia nodded. "Yes. I see you are finally ready to return Alexis to her parents," she eyed her husband suspiciously.

"Not really, but I figure they'd make me out for a kidnapper if I didn't," he joked. Returning Alexis to Duke, he took his wife's hand and gave her a gentle kiss. "Ready for another year together, Natalia?"

"Yes," Natalia managed to sneak in before her husband's lips reattached hers, blocking all speech. "I'm so glad you're home," she stated immediately after the kiss ended.

Hawk smiled and looked around the family room at his team. "We all are," he answered.

Meanwhile, the television was turned to a New Year's Eve special. The cameras transmitting everything from the show's host, the crowds, to the various parties held in the Times Square area. A couple of minutes before it was time to drop the ball, the cameras panned across the cheering crowd, bundled up in coats, gloves, hats, and blankets, standing outside in the cold. The cameramen stopped occasionally to focus in on several of the individuals or groups who dared the bitter temperatures to ring in the New Year; there were college kids donning their respective school's sweaters and paraphernalia, families, and some who appeared to be alone yet not alone at the same time. The people gathered in one of the most watched places of the world on this night were of all ages and walks of life, all were talking, laughing, drinking, eating while waiting to welcome in the New Year. As the scenes were aired, a warm, powerful female voice sang "What are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

Throughout the Abernathy house, the visiting, eating, drinking, and talking continued. Flint stood with his arm wrapped around Lady Jaye's waist, giving her a modest kiss as they stood under the mistletoe. Shipwreck, Torpedo, Bazooka, and Clutch, deeply involved in their final poker hand of the year, were oblivious to the other activity in the home.

"I can't believe Brad is skipping out on the last game of the year," Shipwreck said in shock.

Torpedo laughed, but spoke seriously, "Don't worry, Hector. He'll be in on the traditional first game of the year."

"Yeah," Clutch grinned evilly. "I don't think Karen's gotten him broken in that bad yet."

Standing beside her husband, Karen chuckled, having overheard the comments from the poker table. "I guess you haven't bragged about your Christmas gift yet." Ace had opened his belated Christmas present right after he returned home from dropping Duke and Alexis off. He couldn't believe his eyes when he unwrapped the three-in-one mahogany and leather gaming set. The table alone was a very nice dining table. One side of the double-sided topper was the poker table and the reverse held a checker/chess board. The game pieces were conveniently stored in inconspicuous compartments.

"Not yet," Ace smirked. "We'll be breaking it in soon enough."

"I'm sure you will," Karen replied as her husband scooped her up in an embrace.

"Yuck," one of the boys commented as they ran by the pilot and his wife, while another kid yelled, "Girl coodies."

Duke and Scarlett smiled, laughing along with the Armbrusters. They refocused their attention to Alexis, holding back their tears of joy as they both looked at their daughter and around the visible areas of the Abernathy house at their friends, most of whom were more like family now, as the song played. "Con, I love you," Scarlett muttered, gently touching his free arm.

"I love you too," Duke whispered back. Alexis babbled as she tilted her head back to look at the person holding her. "Hey, she said 'Dada'," Duke blurted proudly.

Scarlett and the others laughed. "No, honey, she's just jabbering," she gently corrected. Seeing the gleaming look on the returning father's face slowly disappear, she changed her mind and reassured, "believe what you want, Love."

"I will, but for the record, she did say 'Dada'," the proud father stated adamantly.

"The ball," Jinx stated gently as the countdown began. "Ten, nine, eight…" Soon, everyone in the Abernathy house had crowded into the family room to watch the big event, joining in on the countdown. "Seven, six, five, four…" The various couples/families and groups of friends smiled at each other and raised their glasses as the final seconds that would officially end the current year neared.

The renowned ball made of Waterford Crystal descended slowly down the pole. Lights flashed systematically around the sphere, while the ball itself flashed between its plain white to a brilliant green. As the ball reached the bottom, fireworks shot out of the side of the skyscraper.

"Three, two, one." All cheered "Happy New Year" and clinked their glasses before drinking their bubbling champagne or punch in the children's cases.

Smiling, Duke pulled Scarlett into an embrace, holding both of the loves of his life. He tasted the champagne lingering on his wife's lips until he was no longer able to ignore Alexis' hands thumping against the side of his face. His lips parted from those of his wife allowing his to place a gently kiss on Alexis' forehead as he gloated. Alexis giggled as her mother kissed her cheek. Amid the toasting and celebrating, the traditional "Auld Lang Syn" had begun on the television. The Joes and gathered friends and family quickly joined in, their voices evidence of the happiness and joy they each felt after being reunited with their loved ones.


I hope you all have a wonderful and prosperous 2005. Happy New Year! SP