Author's note: This is going to be a fairly long story and I need to get all the exposition out of the way first. Please bear with me, thanks :-)

Chapter 1

"Happy first alternate birthday!" her father cheered and raised his iced vodka strawberry shot. Lisa smiled and toasted back. The others - her mom, Cynthia and Jay – laughed a "Hip, hip, hooray!" and lifted their glasses as well. They were a motley bunch, Lisa thought.

She was sitting between her mother and father. Somewhere along the line her mother, meanwhile remarried, had rediscovered her inner Southern Belle and was wearing her flashy outfit with zest and pride.

Her father, on the other hand, looked suave in his dark suit. Mr. Reisert had started dating again recently. Lisa suspected that now she herself was getting better, her father also felt comfortable enough to be more involved in his own life rather than hers. They still talked a lot on the phone, but not nearly as much as they used to.

Both her parents had displayed their best behavior during dinner. You could tell they had a long history together and that not all of said history had been a barrel of laughs, but they were getting a lot better at talking. Almost like friends who had lost touch and now tried to reconnect after a long, long time.

Across the table sat Cynthia, smiling and her eyes bright with giggles. Secretly, Lisa sometimes compared her to a butterfly … who knew that this shy and timid caterpillar of a girl would turn into such a confident, perky and capable young woman? Cynthia now held Lisa's old position as floor manager at the Lux Atlantic while Lisa herself had been promoted to assistant of the general manager, quite a spectacular move for someone so young.

Next to Cynthia, Jay – another coworker at the Lux Atlantic - was fiddling with his empty shot glass and every so often, stole the occasional glance at Mr. Reisert ("I LIVE for silver foxes, darling!"). Jay liked to call himself "the token gay guy every girl needs nowadays" and, together with Cynthia, was the closest friend in the whole wide world to Lisa.

Right after she had told off the Taylors in the hotel lobby exactly one year ago to the day, Lisa had suddenly found all thought and strength beginning to drain from her until she felt like an empty shell too weak to think or talk or even stand. Cynthia had more or less dragged her to the nearest bathroom, meeting Jay on the way by coincidence, who, without asking a single question, had helped carry the barely conscious Lisa and locked the door behind them.

It was in this very bathroom that a new Lisa was born. She could hardly remember what was said, but Lisa had poured out her life's story, screaming, crying, vomiting, purging herself of the last couple of years since the rape all the way through that horrific night aboard the plane from Dallas to Miami.

There was something to be said for those hotel management courses, because throughout the hours, various people had knocked on the door wanting to talk to Lisa. It was Cynthia and Jay who politely, but effectively, fended them all off – no, help wasn't needed and no, Lisa Reisert was definitely not available for questioning. Cynthia had later told her that she didn't think they would have been able to get through with it if it hadn't been for Keefe himself who gave out the order that Lisa Reisert was to be left alone for the time being.

So apart from selected government officials and police, only four other people knew about the night of the red eye flight and had been sworn to secrecy: Lisa's parents, Cynthia and Jay. The terrorists and their employer had been apprehended, tried and sentenced to death by their own government which had issued an official statement of deepest regret and sincere apologies to the American people in general and the Keefe family in particular. The American government in turn graciously accepted the apology on behalf of the American people and the Keefes - together with oil drilling rights. Diplomatic relations resumed and all was well in the jungle.

As for Lisa's role in the whole mess … she played none. Officially, the hotel had been tipped off by an anonymous caller, thus rendering her and her loved ones invisible to the public eye. Keefe had spun it that in the greater scheme of things, Lisa Reisert – and Jackson Rippner – didn't exist, something she was eternally grateful for.

"Allright, it's time for presents!" Cynthia reached into her purse and produced a little package wrapped in blue. "This is from me and Jay."

Lisa blushed. "You shouldn't have … "

"Aw, shut up and open it!"

Laughing, Lisa unwrapped a shirt in an incredibly loud neon colour hitherto unknown to man that said TC FOREVER AND EVER. "TC" stood for "Tough Cookie", a nickname Jay had coined in one of those long nights with Cynthia and Lisa in the aftermath of the red eye flight. At the time, Lisa hadn't been sure what to think of it, but she didn't have much say in the matter. The name had stuck and now everybody but her parents called her TC.

"My turn." Her father's voice brought her back to reality and she took the envelope he handed to her.

"Oh, it's a gift certificate!"


Lisa giggled. "For a piece of furniture AND a ritualistic burning of all the Dr. Phil books he gave me."

A month ago, Lisa had moved into a small, two-room-appartment on the top floor in downtown Miami and had sold most of her old furniture in favor of new stuff. She had wanted a new start with new things to surround her when she came home from work at night.

Also, instead of browsing through Dr. Phil books, she now went to real therapy once a week. After the initial dread of having to open herself up to a complete stranger and trying to juggle being open without giving out classified information, she found herself getting better each month. Of course, Lisa did not tell the therapist about Jackson Rippner – classified – but mostly talked to Cynthia and Jay about him. Payment was a round of drinks in the weekly cocktail run with her friends that had become a much cherished tradition.

"Allright, allright, allright, now for mine!" Her mother's manicured hands pushed a little jewellery box across the table. It contained a simple, yet beautiful ring, platinum with a small, sparkling diamond.

"It's nana's ring, you know. When she was … when it was close to the end … Duke gave it to her. She told me he said it was for the most formidable woman he ever met." Delicately, she slipped the ring on her daughter's trembling finger. "Honey, if anybody should be allowed to wear that after your grandmother, it's you."

And with a sigh she added, "Fine then. Before it turns into a complete sob fest, I think we should break this party off. Are you kids doing anything tonight?"

It was Cynthia who regained her composure first. "Nope, need to be fit for tomorrow." Lisa hadn't been the only one changed by that night one year ago.

"Why, what's tomorrow?"

"It's tasteless movie day. Tomorrow we shall watch the entire American Pie series and get high on junk food."

"Hear, hear! Our motto: if you can't feel your arteries clogging up, it's just not worth it." Jay's smile could have lit up a small village as he eyed the cute waiter who presented the check to Lisa's mom.

"Mom, let me!" Lisa grabbed her purse.

"Nonsense! Spend that money on some clothes - Lord knows I have seen that little navy outfit way too many times."