A huge thanks to Little Lady Hawk who helped me brainstorm and edit this fic! Thank you!

Disclaimer: I do not own G.I. Joe.

A Birthday Gift: Chapter One

Conrad Hauser was currently doing his best not to scowl at the young airline clerk who was attempting to help him to the best of her very limited ability either get back in the air or on the road to St. Louis. "I'm sorry, sergeant, there really is nothing more we can do. The weather has flights all over the country delayed or cancelled. There will be no flights out, commercial or private, until the weather clears."

Conrad ground his teeth together in an effort to control his tempter and at least appear civilized. "All right, no flights. How about a bus or a car?"

The harried airport clerk checked her computer, "I'm sorry sir, there don't appear to be any bus lines going to St. Louis this evening. It is rather late."

A muscle in his jaw twitched and Conrad scowled at the clerk, "A car." He barked out.

The clerk swallowed nervously, "I can check again, maybe something's come available."

"In the last five minutes?"

"I'm sorry sir, that's all I can do. There is a chance the weather will clear before morning and your flight won't be delayed but a few hours."

Accepting that he had exhausted the clerk's meager resources he left the desk and went in search of a chair. There were none. He placed his laptop bag, duffle, and uniform bag on the floor and leaned against the wall. He had been crossing his fingers for weeks that this time his leave wouldn't be cancelled at the last moment. When it hadn't he'd figured he was in the clear. He could almost taste the birthday cake his mother would be baking at this very moment. He hadn't been home in five long years. Every extended period of leave he'd gotten he'd made plans to go home to visit his mother and stepfather. And every damn time something had come up to interfere with his plans, Cobra, someone else needing emergency leave, severe injury and now the weather! His mother would be heart broken if he was this close and didn't make it home in time for his birthday tomorrow.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He was in Atlanta at Hartsfield airport, a major transportation hub. There were options, he was sure of it, he just hadn't figured out what they were yet. He ran his hands over his face, God he was tired! It had been a hellish week getting things in place so he could take leave and the air turbulence hadn't exactly made the flight here restful. The flight had been delayed hours before taking off for Atlanta only to get grounded once it arrived. His stomach growled. The peanuts and coffee he'd had on the flight had long since worn off. He needed to get some food; he'd think better with food in his stomach.

An hour later he was plunking coins into a vending machine, discovering that while the airport was open this late the restaurants were not. The candy bar he consumed took the edge off his hunger but only just. He went to check flight information on the monitors nearby and discovered his connecting flight to St. Louis had just been cancelled. The urge to ram his fist into the monitor was tempting but he restrained himself. He was not going to spend the night in an airport. He sighed and pulled his phone out. Shauna was home. He hated to interrupt her visit with her family but she was an Atlanta native, maybe she could tell him somewhere he could get something to eat or at least the name of a hotel where he could get a decent night's sleep. He dumped his stuff on the floor once again and sat down to call Shauna.

Shauna O'Hara was in the kitchen of her family's home washing dishes and keeping an eye on the rising waters of Peachtree creek in their backyard. NPR, National Public Radio, played softly in the background while the storm raged outside the kitchen window. She wished the rain had held off a day. She'd gotten home yesterday morning and had driven out to Charlie Brown Field, a smaller airport in Fulton Country where she kept her plane, The Red Baron. She'd been itching to fly the Baron yesterday when the skies had been clear but knew if she took off she'd never make it back in time for dinner, the thrill of being in the air was just too enjoyable.

The rain picked up its beat, bringing her out of her thoughts, "Are we taking bets on how far the creek will rise?"

"Hmm." Her father looked up from the paper he'd been reading and studied the storm for a long moment. Peachtree creek had run through Atlanta long before city was built. The creek now cut and wound its way through the city and the outlying areas, frequently overflowing its banks to flood streets and homes that had been built too close to the creek. He counted himself lucky his own house sat several hundred feet away from the banks of the creek on a small hill. "It's still full from all the rain we got off the hurricanes in September. You know the water rose high enough to wash the back fence out don't you?"

Shauna turned around, shocked, "No. I don't think you told me about that. I remember that happening a few times when we were kids." She shook her head in disbelief, "I don't know why I'm so surprised the fence got washed out, I know the rains were heavy for a long time. Still, I'd rather not have to replace the fence in January."

"You shouldn't have to. When we replaced it we placed it a good ten feet back from the bank. The creek bed here is at about five feet down and the most any of us could remember it rising was seven feet over its bank."

Shauna put the last big pot on the counter to dry just as the phone rang. "Hello?"

"Shauna?"

"Conrad? Hey! I didn't expect to hear from you so soon. You get home okay?"

"No." He was glad she had answered the phone; he didn't have to hold in his anger and frustration with her. She'd understand how he felt.

Her whole body stiffened at his answer and fear shot through her, "Are you okay, what happened? Where are you are?"

"I'm fine. I'm at Hartsfield. My flight was delayed and then cancelled due to inclement weather."

"Well don't scare me like that! I thought something bad had happened!"

"Something bad did happen! My damn flight was cancelled!" he yelled

"I thought you were hurt."

"Well I'm not. Just pissed off."

"Oh, I hadn't noticed." She replied sarcastically

"I'm tired and hungry. I need the name of a decent motel nearby."

"A motel? Are you out of your mind? I'm not going to let you stay at a mote! Just tell me where to meet you at the airport and I'll be there in an hour."

"Shauna…" He sighed; he wasn't in the mood to argue with her, "Just give me the name of a damn motel. I'm not letting you come out in this weather just to save me the cost of a room."

Temper flashed in her eyes and her father studied her intently, "Hauser, tell me where you are so I can come get you. You're my friend; I am NOT going to let you spend the night before your birthday in some stupid motel! Not when my house is an hour away."

"It's not your house, it's your dad's house."

"He won't mind. It's just the two of us tonight. All of my brothers are at home with their families. We have plenty of room."

"Shauna, I don't won't to impose on your time with your family. Just give me the name of a motel and somewhere I can get some decent food."

"Just tell me where to meet you and I'll come get you. I can cook you something when we get back."

His grip on the phone tightened, "Shauna…" he ground out, "I'm getting damned close to loosing my temper."

"And that should worry me because? Conrad, if I was stranded in St. Louis wouldn't you insist I stay with you and your family?"

"That's different."

"How?" Silence filled the phone line. "Hauser, stop acting like a bear. It's going to take a lot more than a grumpy attitude to get me to change my mind. No, my dad's not going to mind. I checked on the Baron earlier today, she's in good condition and ready to fly anytime I am. I'll fly you out to Missouri as soon as the weather clears. Now, I'm getting my car keys and my coat. Stay where you are. I'll be there in an hour or so. I'll call your cell."

She slammed down the receiver and turned on her heel and stalked out of the kitchen, muttering "dammed stubborn man…after five years you'd think he'd learn when to be reasonable…"

She walked back into the kitchen a moment later, slightly calmer and started rummaging through cabinets. "Dad, that was my friend Conrad. He was on his way home to St. Louis and his flight got cancelled. You don't mind if he stays here do you? It'll probably just be for tonight."

"No, that's fine. Is your friend all right? It sounded like you were arguing?"

"We were. Don't worry, he's just frustrated he's so close to home and can't get the rest of the way there. At least he made it closer this time."

"This time?"

"He hasn't been home in five years. Every time he has leave something comes up and his leave winds up being cancelled."

"Hmm. If you tell me what you're looking for I can tell you where it is faster than you could find it."

"Granola bars, energy bars, something like that."

"First cabinet to your right, third shelf. I take it that Conrad is a good friend of yours?"

"Yeah, I guess you could say he's my best friend. Remember that picture I sent you a few years ago? The one where a bunch of us were at a bar on St. Pat's day? He's the one standing next to me. Tall, blond, I think I have may have leaning into him in the picture. It's sitting on my dresser. Ah hah! Found them! You don't mind if I take the whole box do you? He probably hasn't had anything to eat lately and that tends to aggravate his temper."

"No. I don't mind if you take the whole box. I'll cook some soup while you're gone."

"Thanks, Dad! That'll be great!" She dropped a kiss on his cheek and opened the kitchen door.

"Take Frank's SUV. The keys should be on the Georgia Tech key chain. It has automatic door locks. If you stand in the doorway and click the bottom button it should unlock the doors. You won't be quite so wet getting there."

"Okay. Bye, dad. It'll be slow going with the rain so I don't know how long I'll be but I'll have my phone with me."

He watched her pull out of the driveway and then walked to the living room windows to watch her drive down the street. When she was out of sight he walked down the hall to her bedroom and found the picture she had mentioned sitting on her dresser, right where she said it would be. The picture was a group shot with Shauna in the middle standing next to a large blond haired man with a beer bottle raised in salute. Shauna had one arm around the man's waist and a bottle in her other hand. They were both smiling at the camera. He looked at some other pictures she had of her army friends and found them together in almost every picture. Many of the shots were candid and they were looking at each other rather than the camera. Patrick O'Hara suspected there was something more than merely friendship between them but Shauna would have told him if she were in a relationship. It was possible they were unaware of the energy that sparked between them but he doubted it. So why, he wondered, were they not together?

He walked back out to the kitchen pondering what he could do to find out without embarrassing his daughter or her friend.

With the nasty weather it took her longer than usual to get to the airport. She found him fairly easily since she was long since familiar with the airport's layout. "Conrad!"

He had been standing against the wall rather than sitting against it when he heard her call him, "Shauna." The relief he felt when he saw her bright blue eyes was almost beyond words. He wrapped his arms around her and she hugged him fiercely, seeming to know how he felt without needing words or even a decent look at his face.

She stroked the back of his head for a long moment, trying to ease his pain and frustration. "How are you doing?"

He pulled back and mentally gathered his wits, "Better. Much better now that you're here."

"Well, it is my job to rescue you, you know."

He gave a half-laugh, "Yeah, well you're pretty good at it."

She whipped a granola bar out of her pocket and handed it to him, "Here. This will help a little more. My dad has dinner waiting if you can last long another hour."

"Shauna..." he mumbled during bites, "have I told you yet that you're wonderful!"

She laughed, "No, but now is a good time to start." They walked out of the airport and found her brother's car.

He took in the car seats and baby toys scattered about the floorboards as

he stowed his duffle bag and laptop bag in the back of the SUV. "Are you living a secret life I don't know about?"

She grimaced, "No. It's Frank's car. He left it at dad's house this afternoon and rode home with his wife. He has two daughters, one is still a toddler, and a third baby on the way."

He hesitated before he opened the door and climbing in beside her, "Shauna, are you sure I'm not imposing?"

"Conrad, I told you you're not. It really is just dad and me tonight. The family had a huge lunch today and I got a chance to visit with everyone. The kids all have school tomorrow so there were no plans to get together tonight. Besides, it will be nice to have you visit, even if it is for just one night. We hardly get to spend any time together anymore. Well, time alone that is."

"Maybe you could stay a day or two when you take me to St. Louis."

She glanced at him and smiled, "I'd like that. It would be nice to meet your mom and step-dad. And especially nice to be able to spend your birthday with you." She reached over and gave his hand a quick squeeze.

He returned the gesture and yawned. "Sorry. The flight to Atlanta wasn't exactly restful."

"Close your eyes, we've got awhile until we get home. I'll wake you up."

The drive home was uneventful. The weather was nasty but there was hardly any traffic this time of night. The storm seemed to take a break until they got close to home. She pulled in the driveway and turned off the engines, noting her dad had left the lights on for her. Conrad was hunched down in his seat, sleeping. He didn't look very peaceful. She ran her fingers lightly over the wrinkles in his forehead he made by frowning in his sleep, as if by her touch she could smooth away the worry and stress he carried with him. He murmured her name in his sleep and turned toward her. She ran her fingers lightly down his face to stop at his lips, "Conrad, Conrad, we're home."

He woke the instant she spoke his name, jerking and then relaxing when he saw her face and realized where he must be. "We here?" he asked as he rubbed sleep from his eyes.

"Yes. I'll get your stuff. Dad is actually opening the door right now."

Conrad sat up and looked past Shauna to see an older gentleman, white hair, and a tall, strong frame. Not as big as he was but close. He couldn't make out the expression on the man's face but if he were in her father's shoes he would have lots of thoughts and questions about a strange man his baby girl felt so strongly about she would venture out in the middle of a raging storm to rescue him from having the spend the night at the airport. "Patrick, right? Is that your dad's name?"

"Yes, good memory. I told him a little about you but not much. Don't worry, he won't interrogate you, at least not tonight." She smiled a wicked smile and jumped out of the car to fetch his duffle, leaving him with his laptop and uniform bags.

He followed her out, thankful that the carport's canopy sheltered them from the worst of the rain.

The rain started coming down in sheets right as they stepped out of the car. It was less than three feet from the edge of the carport's canopy to the door but they were both dripping wet when they ran into the kitchen.

Patrick held the door open as they ran in. "Come in quick lad! I'd been praying the damn rain would hold off a few more minutes. Ah, well, at least it held off long enough for you to get here. Welcome to our home, Conrad, humble as it may be, I'm happy to meet you."

Conrad stuck out his hand to grasp Patrick's in a firm handshake, "Thank you sir, I appreciate your hospitality more than you could know."

Shauna stepped up and kissed her dad on the cheek, "Thanks for keeping the lights on. Is there coffee?"

"Aye, Coffee's hot and so is the soup. Show Conrad where to put his things and I'll have it on the table by the time you get back."

"Okay, are we putting Conrad in the baby room or downstairs?"

"Since you told me he'll only be staying the one night I put fresh sheets in the baby room. It's a small bed but a good deal warmer than the one downstairs."

"Okay." She turned to Conrad and gestured for him to follow her out of the kitchen. They walked through the dinning room and living room and down a short hallway. "The bathroom is here on your left. This door here on the right is a linen closet, if you get cold just help yourself to a blanket, the next door is mine." She glanced in, "Hmm…should have made the bed this morning."

"Getting lazy on your vacation?"

"I won't answer that. Anyways, this is your room for the night. You can see why we call it the baby room."

The door next to Shauna's opened into a room with a narrow twin bed shoved against one wall. A small bookshelf beside the bed was crammed with books. A crib and changing table took up the opposite wall and a rocking chair with a few dolls sitting on its cushions was angled next to the lone window. There were two rolling carts with drawers in primary colors and two huge plastic buckets, one holding baby toys of various sorts and sizes with the other holding large Lego building blocks. Toy cars were scattered under the crib. A baseball and glove lay on top of the bookshelf, as if waiting for its owner to pick it up and dash outside for a game of catch.

"Who plays?" Conrad asked, glancing at the baseball and glove as he placed his duffle and book bag on the bed and shrugged out of his coat.

"All of us." Shauna laughed, "But Sean and I both played ball in high school. Sean played in college and even thought about trying out for the minors."

"Did he?"

"No. He'd been working as a gopher for the sports section of the Atlanta Journal when a job as a reporter opened up and the guy who was retiring recommended Sean for the job. The job was like a dream come true for Sean. He didn't think twice about the minors after that."

"It's hard to imagine giving up a chance in the minors for reporting job."

Shauna shook her head, "Not if it's Sean." Shauna took off her own coat and held out her hand to take his. I'm going to hang them up in the bathroom for a bit. "Is the bed okay? There's a slightly larger, significantly lumpier mattress downstairs you could sleep on but it's in the basement and the basement is only half finished so it's drafty."

"This is fine Shauna. And it's only for one night."

Shauna nodded, studying him, "Conrad, I'm sorry about the way things worked out, I know you wanted to be home tonight. I'll get you out to St. Louis as soon as the weather lifts."

Conrad smiled; he really was lucky to have such a good friend. "I'm sorry I worried you on the phone, I'm disappointed not to be home already but I'll get there tomorrow. Tonight I'm with a good friend and if I can't be home, there's no place I'd rather be."

Shauna was going to say something else but her dad called, "Shauna, soup's on the table and it's getting cold!"

"Let me hang our coats up dad and we'll be right there."

Shauna turned her attention back to Conrad, "Come on, you're hungry and wet. Let's eat and then you can hit the sack. I figure after battling the Washington politicians and then the airport you could some decent rest. Oh!" she paused just outside the door and looked back, "Do you need to call your mom?"

Conrad followed Shauna out the door and waited while she hung up their coats. "No, I called her after I hung up with you. I told her I'd call her again in the morning when I knew what my schedule would be. She knows I'm with a friend so she won't worry."

Patrick handed them each a bowl of potato soup and a steaming mug of coffee as they walked into the kitchen. They sat down, Patrick said grace and they started to eat.

Patrick eyed Conrad; the lad must be half starved to attack potato soup like he was. He thought about what he had noticed about Conrad so far. The man was fit, working with Shauna he'd have to be. He had her friendship, which would have been hard won. There didn't seem to be many barriers between the two. They'd argued on the phone but had kept up a steady stream of chatter since they walked in the door. "How's the coffee, lad?"

Conrad picked up his mug and took a long sip, slightly startled to find it liberally laced with good Irish. He smiled, his lips curving up and one eyebrow lifting, "It's about the best I've ever tasted, thank you."

Patrick waved his hand, "It's a nasty night out; the coffee should take the edge off of the cold and damp. Did you call your folks, lad?"

"Yes sir. I called them after I spoke with Shauna on the phone. They know I'm with a friend. I'll call them again in the morning when I have a better idea of when I'll get there."

"I heard Shauna mention it's your birthday tomorrow?"

Conrad let out a small laugh, "Yes sir, my mother was actually icing my birthday cake when I called."

Shauna smiled, "It's so sweet that she still makes you a birthday cake. If I'm here I usually get a store bought cake."

Patrick put his coffee mug down and looked at his daughter, "Sorry lass, my cooking skills don't extend to making birthday cakes. And even if they did, you haven't been home on your birthday in more years than I can remember."

"But I've been home."

"Thank God." He turned his attention back to Conrad, "Now lad, tell me a bit about your parents."

Conrad took a sip of coffee, briefly making eye contact with Shauna, 'No interrogation tonight, huh?' He put his mug down, "My mother and step-father, Jack, live near St. Louis. Jack is retired from the army and is running his family's farm."

"What does he farm?"

"Corn and cattle. He's dabbling in horses."

Shauna looked at him, surprised, "I didn't know that. I knew about the farm

of course, just not that Jack had gotten into horses, when did that happen?"

"Recently. Right now it's just a sideline but Jack is interested in breeding."

She grinned, "So is that where your obsession with cowboys comes from?"

"I don't have an obsession with cowboys."

She grinned wider, "Yes you are. Every time it's your turn to pick for movie night, you pick a western."

"Not always! The Quiet Man is not a western and neither is Hatari!"

Shauna laughed, "No, they're not, but John Wayne stars in both of them!"

Patrick shook his head, "She's got you there lad."

Conrad sighed, "Yeah, I guess she does." He took a sip of his coffee, "But I can always get with the World Series."

Shauna slammed down her coffee mug, splashing coffee all over the table while Conrad laughed, "Just this once! Just this one lousy time was your team better than mine! Next time..."

"That's enough!" Patrick cut in, "Shauna, reach behind you and get a towel. Conrad, as amazed as I am that Shauna didn't reach across the table and strangle you for that comment, I would suggest you bait her with something else next time. Shauna may let you live for it but her brother Sean might not."

Conrad sobered, "I apologize sir, for a moment I forget where we were."

He waved his hand, "It's forgotten, and as much as I appreciate your manners, call me Patrick please."

Conrad nodded, "Patrick it is then."

Across the table Shauna silently gaped at her father. A firm mix of Irish Catholic and Southern, formal manners were something her father highly valued. Never could she remember a time when a 'friend' of hers or her brothers had been given the honor of addressing him by his first name.

"Close your mouth, lass, you'll catch flies. Now, Conrad, tell me how you and my daughter met, and how the two of you came to be such close friends."

Shauna shook her head, mopping up the rest of the spilt coffee and listening to Conrad tell her father how they became friends. When he censored the tale in her favor, leaving out the part where she crash-landed their plane on an aircraft carrier, she decided to forgive him for the baseball remark. When he started to tell another story she glanced at the clock and realized how late it was.

"OK, guy's it's really late and if I'm flying tomorrow I'm headed for bed. Conrad, you're welcome to stay up and swap stories about me with my dad until you fall over asleep, but I warn you both to take the tales worth a grain of salt."

She gathered up the bowls and put them in the sink under running water. She turned to Conrad, "Since this house was built before dishwashers were in existence and my father…" She gave her dad a hard glare, "…still refuses to let his son the architect modernize his kitchen I'm on KP duty."

Patrick gave his daughter a friendly swat on the arm as tried to gather up his empty coffee cup, "I'm going to have me one more cup of coffee and then head for bed. You get Conrad settled. The dishes can wait 'till morning."

Shauna cupped her left ear and leaned in close to her father, "What? Am I hearing this right? You're going to actually let me get out of chores?"

Patrick smiled at her, "You've got a guest lass, and, …" He sighed dramatically, "Since I don't have my only daughter home as often as I like I'm willing to spoil her everyone once in awhile. "

Shauna snorted, "Spoil? Postponing dish duty until morning is spoiling me?"

"I could always change my mind?" Patrick looked at her over the edge of his refilled mug

Shauna gestured for Conrad to follow her out of the kitchen, "No, no, that's quite alright. I'll take what I can get." She dropped a kiss on his cheek as she went by, "Night da." She whispered

Patrick hugged for a long moment, reluctant to let her go, "'Night lass." He stared out the window for some time after they left the kitchen, wondering at the speed with which time passed. His baby girl wasn't a baby any more but a grown woman with a man after courting her. Well, maybe not yet but he'd have a little talk, man to man, with Conrad before they left tomorrow. He was sure he could make Conrad see reason, especially with a little help from her brothers. Patrick smiled and wondered what Conrad would think of them.