AN- Sorry for the long delay. I'd hoped to have this done and up this time last year, but there was a good bit of upheaval in the extended family, including the loss of a young cousin, barely in his 20's to a long illness that sucked the life right out of everyone as we circled the wagons. I'll make no promises, but I have about 18 (single spaced) pages or 13,000+ words that should end up as part of the next chapter already done. As always, enjoy. I don't own them. I just borrow them to play.

Chapter 11- I'm Just a Part of a Greater Plan; It Doesn't Matter Which Part I Am

Eliot wasn't the only one who slept little that night. Everyone seemed anxious to get to work. The moment Hardison's program kicked out a list of likely targets to be searched, the real planning began in earnest. They had a few windows of time to work around and they needed to maximize their limited resources. They couldn't leave until after the family had gone out for the day, to be sure they weren't noticed, and they'd have to wait until after dark to return for the same reason.

Parker had spread out one of the free Chamber of Commerce maps she'd picked up earlier, plotting the locations on it so they could trace out their path (and escape if need be). Hardison was starting to gather the seeds of their visit into Lexington and placing orders for equipment he probably would not be able to find readily. Sophie had gone into her own head, holding court with her legion of selves to prepare for tomorrow's opening performance.

Eliot himself had gone back out to the barn and came back with the large whiteboard on wheels he'd spotted earlier in one corner. He was amazed that Billy hadn't stirred, though Lighthorse had supervised. He scrubbed it down and then started to plot out the operation with assignments, times, and objectives. Some training couldn't be unlearned.

"Where'd you get that?" Hardison had finally come up from the bowels of his digital domain for orange soda and noticed the new addition to their command center, er, corner.

"It was stored out in the barn." The older man gestured to a few traces that had stubbornly refused to be completely erased. "Looks like they use it for game tournaments and bingo. I figured we could borrow it."

"Old school, but it works." Hardison had developed a grudging respect for low-tech solutions. He'd learned the hard way that there were some things he couldn't out do with his modern tricks.

"Parker? Can you toss me one of those maps?" He held out his hand and quickly fastened it up on the backside of the board with some of the magnets fastened there. Also borrowing a red pen from Parker, Eliot marked the known locations. He hadn't found a pattern yet, but there had be one. He just wasn't sure if the large sections of cut-off land like the park and the mine skewed it or not.

He startled slightly when Parker appeared beside him with her own map of today's targets.

"I used pencil for the places we wanted to case so we can use it over. The stars are where Hardison's bugs go." She placed it next to his with more magnets. "Wow. They've been busy." She looked at what they had confirmed so far.

"And they've had a head start, so we have to be busier." Eliot was looking at her map and, without a word, the two switched places.

"They always get a head start. That's how the game works. It's hide and go seek." Parker looked at him earnestly.

"Well, right now we're playing the waiting game so we can leave without being seen." Eliot pointed out. "We have to be ready when it's go time. Lists, maps, equipment..."

"Eliot, we're professionals. We'll be ready." Sophie tried to soothe him. He noticed a slight shift in her accent. She was getting into character. It was a good sign.

"Commencement is at eleven, but the hall is booked starting at ten." Hardison threw out.

"Makes sense. They have to set up before they go and the party starts at two." Eliot glanced at the kitchen clock. He should start breakfast, so they'd have time to brief before they headed out.

At least this was calming. He could do this in his sleep. He started setting out pans and pulling out what he needed from the fridge and cupboards. He had almost let himself get lost in the process, when sound and movement from the back porch grabbed his attention.

Eliot held up his hand to quiet the others an instant before Billy let herself back in from the porch. She was slightly bleary-eyed and the boards had left an imprint on her left cheek despite the blanket. She mumbled and rubbed her face with both hands. With the backs and sides, not the palms he noted. It was odd. Most people used the heels of their hands, not their wrists for that. Reminded him of a cat washing its face.

Billy made her way to the bathroom with a steady and deliberate, but uneven, gait. The four quickly hid anything they didn't want her to see. It was wasted effort. Without her sunglasses, she squinted to the point only one eye saw anything at all and it was blurred from sleep and uncorrected by lenses, and, with one foot bandaged, her gait was even more off kilter as she headed straight for the bathroom. There was a collective wince as her left knee, elbow, and head all made contact with the door frame. She giggled, "Sorry, handsome. I didn't see you there." The woodwork remained unmoved by the words or apologetic pat as she closed the door behind her.

Hardison chuckled as he overcame his shock. "Is she like, sleepwalking or something?" His face was easy to read. He wasn't sure if it was funny or if something was wrong. If she was awake, she wasn't the morning person you would peg her for. The toilet flushed and the sink came on.

"People sleepwalk, right? And talk too." Parker was a little confused too. She hadn't expected this either really, but who knew what Parker ever expected?

"They do more than that sometimes. I recall a girl climbed a thirteen story crane in South London and didn't wake up until her parents called her on her cell phone. Though a pregnant woman using the loo in the middle of the night, well early morning, isn't exactly odd." Sophie commented thoughtfully. She would be one to file away bits of behavior for later use.

The sink turned off and moments later there was some rattling on the door before it opened, as if someone couldn't quite find the knob, and Billy started her reverse course to the back porch. The same off-balance sway in her steps made Eliot nervous. He wasn't sure what the bigger threat was: a fall or some other injury or what could happen if he woke her. It took a few pats at the back door to find the knob, but Billy found it and strolled back out with the worried collie escorting her the whole way. The four couldn't resist following her and peeking out through the door and back window. The young woman simply eased back down, burrowed into the blanket, and cuddled the dog to her like a pillow. Lighthorse went along with it. He'd slept with his human before.

Sophie pushed the door closed gently. "Let her be. She's sleeping. We have things to do and not enough time to do them. Well, those of us who sleep." Eliot saw the look she shot him and Hardison.

"I sleep. I just don't need as much." Eliot fixed her with a stare.

Hardison lodged a protest of his own. "Just because I can function on a non-traditional sleep cycle doesn't make me a freak, too."

"A freak? No, it's called conditioning. It's called discipline. It's called eating something other than sugar constantly." Eliot leaned in to shake the bottle of orange soda briefly and then quickly wheeled the borrowed whiteboard inside Sophie's bedroom and out of sight.

"Call it whatever you want. That ain't nat'ral." Hardison straightened up a bit as he defended his remark.

"You know what ain't natural? Living in a fantasy inside a box." Eliot smacked the side of the laptop as he passed by on his way back to the kitchen.

"That's just wrong. Don't be hatin' on the tech. This is our link to the outside world and Nate, in case you forgot. I'm the one keeping an eye on Sterling and making sure they don't get too close." Hardison gently stroked the side of the screen as he re-adjusted it to the correct angle.

Eliot grumbled quietly to himself as he picked up his preparations for breakfast. He hated to admit it, but he was getting restless. He wanted to punch Sterling and his goons. He wanted to punch Haywood, Vaughan, and their lackeys. He really wanted to punch Nate. Then, he wanted to punch Sterling again. Instead he set up a griddle and took his frustration out on the tiny lumps in the pancake batter.

He wanted to fix a breakfast that would stay with them. There would be food at the party and probably lots of it, but you never knew exactly how things would play out. Besides, preparing a meal always occupied him mentally and physically. The settling effect was just what he needed and he'd deny it if asked.

A few drops of water told him the surface wasn't hot enough yet. Eliot cut up some fruit to go with the pancakes while he waited. The window was too tempting and he peeked out on the back porch. Lighthorse was nowhere to be seen and Billy had rolled out of the blanket, sprawling onto her back, left hand resting on the soft rise of her exposed stomach and her right thumb in her mouth. She'd be awake soon. He could tell she was fighting it, but her internal clock would win out.

He rechecked the griddle and started the first batch frying. Looking up at the familiar footsteps, he locked eyes with Sophie.

"You really should be more subtle. I suspect she'd be more than a little upset, if she catches you checking up on her." That didn't stop her from glancing out herself. "Looks like her right hand man has deserted her." She helped herself to a handful of fruit.

He flipped the pancakes and nodded. "Something tells me he hasn't gone too far." The collie had a habit of taking off briefly to check up on things from time to time, but he always returned to Billy when she was outside or a place he could be alert to her or alert her in turn if she was indoors.

Whatever Sophie was going to say was cut off by a ringing phone. They briefly glanced at each other to see who's phone it was, but it was too muffled to be coming from inside. Plus the ringtone wasn't one any of them would choose. The irritated patting as Billy hunted for her phone confirmed it was hers.

"Yeah-lo, Ma...You talked to Gran...Yeah, yeah, I'll head up...I crashed out here...I'm a little gimpy...I'll explain when I see you...It might take me a bit..Mari and Twink are out here with me...Yes, Ma, you are short two sheep...Recount them...Ma, that's how many there were before we bought Rose and Twinkie was born...Is Lighthorse with you?..He must have took off when you opened back up...He's not there now?.. Must be headed back...I could use the help...Ma, hang up or I'll never get up there...Because I need both hands to handle Twinkie...Just hang up...Hang up!...Never...Just..." She screamed into the phone and hung up, cursing in frustration.

Rising from the deck, Billy started adjusting her clothes and pulling on her vest, unaware of her audience.

Hardison seemed in a mild state of shock. "Did she just yell at her mama and hang up? Nana'd killed me."

Billy cast an irritated glare out at the pouring rain and at her bare feet. They could see her shoulders rise and fall when she sighed and started for the back door. The four quickly scattered, before she made it inside and caught them. She waved distractedly at them and started looking for the rest of her gear. It wasn't until she'd collected her shoes and socks and flopped down on the couch that she looked at any of them. Even then it was to offer a shy and awkward smile along with a quiet "sorry" to Sophie when a paper fluttered off the coffee table, blown off by the gust generated by Billy's sock as she swung it hard against the floor several times by the top.

"Softenin' them a little. Got stiff when they dried." She felt compelled to provide some kind of explanation for the action since it seemed a bit odd, but the muddy water and blood had conspired to stiffen the fabric to the point it would have been almost impossible to pull it on otherwise. "I really should be bothered by just how often blood has to be soaked out of my clothes, but it's beyond that point. How dry is this one?" She murmured the last to herself as she reached into the left shoe of the pair. She paused a minute and stuffed a bandana into it as a barrier. "Just gonna get soaked again." She flipped it over to examine the puncture in the bottom and jerked her head up in surprise when she found the epoxy patch. "Well, thank you kindly. As Gran says, 'I'll dance at your wed'in'.'"

Eliot nodded in response. "You don't need to do that."

"Thank God. I ain't got rhythm and you can't tell me tryin' to dance from bein' 'lectrocuted again." Billy was visibly relieved.

"Again?" Hardison raised an eyebrow and, with four sets of questioning eyes on her, she felt compelled to speak again.

"I'm klutzy or have bad luck or some such. I've had a few run ins with electric before. You know, electric fence, trouble pluggin' somethin' in, or, you know, standin' barefoot in a puddle while holdin' onto the aluminum storm door and door jam when lightnin' hit the house..." The last was again mumbled to the floor and the shoe she was struggling to get on without hurting her injured foot more than she had to.

"You were stuck by lightning!" Parker was excited by the revelation.

"Partial strike and it was kinda farcical. I don't usually go into detail if I don't have to. It was ten years ago, but I still feel stupid. Seriously?" Her audience hadn't lost interest like she'd desperately hoped. "Fine. I had a cat, Frosty, that had two kittens, Reeses and Samantha. Once they got to about six weeks old, they were 'latchkey kitties'. They weren't weaned, but she wasn't exactly hands on. Frosty would go off and leave them and, if it rained, they had to find shelter themselves. I tried to bring 'em in when that happened or take them to the barn.

"Well, anyway it was a big storm loomin' and I had a bad headache, stupid sinuses, so I crashed earlier before it hit. By the time I woke up, it was rollin' across the valley and up the ridge like the two AM freight train, so I started rushin' to find them. I checked out on the porch, thinkin' they might have tried hidin' out there. Nope. I looked under all the furniture and everythin', but the wind was blowin' hard enough that the rain was hittin' the sides of the house clear back under the roof. So I tried the east side of the house, away from the wind. I cut through the house and came out the door that comes into the cellar. This was before we put on the new door, leveled the sidewalk, and replaced the gutter. The downspout ran across to the drain right overhead and it leaked square above the door. The threshold wasn't sealed the best and the sidewalk was sloped towards the house, makin' a freakin' pond and leakin' in under the door. I looked out and, sure enough, Reese and Sam were drenched and hidin' under the oil tank for the old furnace and they wouldn't come to me, so I went and got my raincoat and told Gran about the water under the door.

"I headed back and, when I swung it open to go get 'em, lightnin' hit a rod. It came down the ground cable, crossed the aluminum gutters, 'lectrified the whole thing as it went, and followed the water...right through the break in the downspout and through the aluminum door, aluminum door frame, and the submerged aluminum threshold. I just had the luck of standin' barefooted on the threshold with my left hand on the frame and the right on the door. Knocked me back hard enough to crack the door to the water heater's closet and melted the cuffs of both sleeves of my blue vinyl slicker. I came to just as Gran came with some towels or so I'm told. There are gaps before, after, and, thankfully, durin'. We pieced things together afterward. I got up and fetched the babies while Gran stuffed the gap and mopped up some. It wasn't really a big thing. Other than some tics and twitches, that could very well be from one of the times I've been hit in the head, there isn't anythin' lastin'. It wasn't one of my brighter ideas. I should have grabbed my boots, but I hate SHOES!"

The last was a loud whine that was nearly comically as she fought with her shoelaces, still trying to get the damp shoe over her padded foot. She beat it on the floor in anger and, then, took a breath before carefully working the water swollen laces back through the eyelets to loosen the shoe enough to get it on. She growled in annoyance as she had to reverse the process to close and tie it. There was a muttered comment that sounded suspiciously like "work of the devil".

Eliot glared at Sophie as she shifted her look of compassion at Billy to one of amusement at him. He was still finishing up with their breakfast and Parker had set the table. He wanted to breach the subject of how Billy intended to get back to the house with the injured lamb and his mother and he didn't expect her to react well.

Finally, wrestling both her shoes onto her feet, Billy leaned back on the sofa, closed her eyes, and stretched.

Eliot saw Hardison blanch at the popping and cracking that culminated in a very loud pop that must have been her sternum from the way she reached up and massaged her breastbone with her fist. He smiled and made sure popcorn was on his hopping list.

Sophie reached over and patted Billy's leg. "You're tired this morning. I don't imagine you slept very well."

"I slept fine, really. I prefer a firm surface. My back does better. I have a sheet of plywood under my mattress for that reason. I'm just not really a mornin' person. Hell, I'm not a daytime person. I'm a night owl on a farmer's schedule. My internal clock's been out of whack since Clinton was in office." She sighed and splayed her hands over her steadily expanding abdomen. "This one's just been makin' it a little worse lately. One of the only symptoms I've had really. Plus," she flicked her hand at her foot before resting it back on her growing baby bump, "anytime I do somethin' like this my metabolism kicks into warp drive and I want to sleep all the time, except when I want to eat everything in sight. Not that I haven't been doing that lately anyway. If I don't watch it, I'll weigh three hundred pounds by Thursday." She patted her stomach and looked over at her now dry coat. "I'm gonna have to..." Her phone rang again and she started to roll her eyes, but startled a little when she looked at the number. "Yeah-lo, Reverend Shepherd. Is somethin' wrong?" Her eyebrows shot up as she listened to the voice at the end of the line and she quickly was forced to refrain from laughing. "Uh, no I did not read this week's bulletin before I uploaded, but I will kill the link to it on the site just as soon as I get back to the house. I'll let you go then so you can catch Sister Karen before she starts printin' them for tomorrow. I'll see you this afternoon." She soberly ended the call and descended into a fit of laughter.

They all looked at her a moment before quickly deciding she was in no shape to let them in on the joke. They then looked to Hardison for the answer.

"I'm looking. Give me a minute." He pulled something up on his computer and started chuckling himself. "Oh, man, that is bad." The other three quickly crowded around to read the typo for themselves. It seems auto correct had taken it upon itself to add the letter "i" to the word "pens" and not only vastly changed the word, but also the entire tone of the paragraph.

"...Reverend Shepherd has been engaged in a community outreach program to foster greater closeness with the public. Drawing on his own resources in their creation, he's been gifting his penis to all he meets, man and woman, young and old. This has led to the formation of many new relationships, but it has required sacrifices of his own time and on the part of his wife. The deacons have been discussing greater support by the congregation and joining in the giving themselves." Sophie read it aloud and everyone was laughing by the end. "Oh my, this makes it sound as if he were a randy old man shagging the entire county."

Billy nodded, unable to speak, tears coursing down the sides of her face from mirth. After many deep breaths, she managed to choke out, "We're Baptists. The only way it could be worse would be if he was a priest!"

Hardison saved a copy of it, because it was too good to pass up, and then offered, "I can kill the link for you. If you want." The social etiquette of techies was a nuanced thing. He could easily gain access and sever the link, but he wouldn't invade her turf without permission since they were on the same side.

"If you'd be so kind. I'll swap it out when I get the corrected version, but as long as the link is dead, you'd havta go lookin' to find it." She nodded in understanding. It was one less thing to worry about today, so she'd take it.

Parker brought over her rain jacket, rain pants, and cap. "Thank ya." Billy accepted them with a smile. "I needed the laugh. Sorry if I'm not exactly social...Not my strong suit at the best times."

"No worries. This is an improvement over last time." Hardison commented from his setup.

"Yeah, last night wasn't exactly a good time. Searchin' for lost livestock in a downpour and then havin' make for the nearest shelter for first aid wasn't how I wanted to spend last night. I wanted to do some readin' out on the rear balcony and maybe move part of my kit stash to the closet in the room at the far end of the hall." Billy kept studying her rain gear and then glancing thoughtfully at the bathroom door, obviously clueless about her earlier visit. Eliot mentally shrugged. That wasn't a surprise with her being nearly to her second trimester.

Parker seized on a single word. "'Part' of your stash? Is it really big?"

Billy ducked her head and smiled, a little embarrassed. "Not by some standards..." She was trying to be truthful without actually giving a number.

Sophie couldn't help, but tease the girl a bit. "By which standards exactly are you measuring it?"

"Hey, I know a guy who converted an old semi trailer to warehouse his stash. Mine's a drop in the bucket and I normally finish a couple a month, at least...some months, four or five." Billy refused to make eye contact and there was a hint of blush visible before she ducked behind her long hair. Her hand skimmed her abdomen in a wordless apology. She might be frustrated with the situation, but she was accepting of it. She could wait a bit to get back to her workbench when the reward for her patience was what hers would be.

"How many?" Sophie really was enjoying this, but she was being playful about it.

"Less than five hundred and that is countin' figure kits and the animals and the dinosaurs. Well, unbuilt. There's about two hundred built and those really don't count." Billy was getting annoyed, but knew it was mostly in fun.

"Wow, I didn't see that many." Parker's curiosity was piqued.

"I don't have room to have them all out there in my room and most of my stash is in my closet. I always end up fixin' somethin' when the little cousins visit. Then again, the most damage I ever had to mend was when Ma's older brother grabbed a tank by the turret and managed to break it off the chassis and it fell on my HMS Tiger. I had a time tryin' to fix the rotors on the chopper. I had to trash the plastic in the end and used a piece cut from soda can aluminum." A shadow of remembered horror flash across Billy's face and she had to shake it off. "Movin' my workspace will give me more room and let's me lock the door. Baby proofin' with extreme prejudice. I can't exactly etch a set of slat armor when somebody might get into the pan of muriatic acid and peroxide if I look away or blink." She gave herself a meaningful poke in the side. "Best to make the adjustments sooner and get used to them ahead of time. Besides, I've stuffed the stash wherever I had room until I can't find what I want without major diggin' and I can make sure my list is current or that F-15 won't be the only thing I end up with two of by accident. Plus, I currently have a halberd in my closet that really needs moved before I decapitate myself huntin' for a lost shoe or belt."

Why was Eliot completely unsurprised that she had a six foot, medieval polearm in her bedroom closet? It was old school, unconventional, functional, and had all the subtlety of, well, an ax. Fitting. Either no one else was surprised either or they just didn't know what to say, as the statement went by without comment.

"But you have, like, four of that ...Lionfish kit?" Parker was on roll now. Obviously she'd explored a little.

"The key word there is 'accident'. The Lionfish was a Balao class sub and the kits were clearanced to three dollars. For that, I can build me one as a Balao class, backdate one to the earlier Gato class, and the other two will probably end up as a later Tench class and one of the odder mods the Navy trialed at one point or another. For that price, I won't feel too nervous cuttin' up the hulls and such. And we will not speak of my Spitfires. I know I have a lot of them and there will be more. Most of them aren't going to be build out of the box and will end up as something different. There are a lot more versions than what there are molds for so some mixin' and matchin', add-ons, scratchbuilt parts are in my future."

Every person in the room found themselves smiling. Not from the words, they meant nothing to them. No, it was Billy's reaction to them. It could only be described as glee, utter glee, at the idea of being elbows deep in hundreds of tiny parts. It didn't make much sense to Eliot, but Sophie's acting career and Hardison's orcs didn't either. In the long run, it only mattered, because it mattered to them. It didn't hurt anyone, so whose business was it?

"Definitely more talkative than when you were here before." Hardison was wanting to tease about the sleepwalking, but kept hinting around at it.

"Am I missin' something? I was in here last night and..." She ran her fingers over her temple and adjusted her cap with a wince. There was a look of understanding an instant later. "Was I sleepwalkin', talkin', climbin', eatin', usin' power tools?...I had to have done somethin', 'cause that's tender and it wasn't before." Billy trailed off, waiting for input. Obviously, she was more than a little aware of her nocturnal behavior.

"You, uh, just came in to use the bathroom...and bumped into the door frame." Hardison decided it would be best to just come out and say it once she had an idea of what had happened. It was a little awkward for him to talk about now that she knew.

"That all? Hmm. I woke up within ten feet of where I went to sleep with the same clothes on, well, clothes period. Wake up naked on the kitchen table a few times and you know why I can be alert without movin' a bit. Ma put chains on all the outside doors up high so I wouldn't wander out when I was little. She found me sleepin' in her car one mornin'. Scared her pretty good. I'm a deep sleeper. I've gotten a reputation for sleepin' anywhere and in about any position. I once power napped with my legs crossed Indian-style and propped up on the bottom of a table to the point I was nearly standin' on my head. If my classmates didn't think I was weird before that recess, that was pretty gone after. Sometimes I roll out of bed too. That's why my bed's against the wall on one side and I had a toddler rail for a decade." Billy shrugged. She restless awake or asleep.

Sophie patted her on the knee. "At least, you've out grown that."

"Not exactly. We kinda figured out I only roll out of bed when I'm alone. We safety pin a body pillow lengthwise on the bed and I don't roll out. I may wander off, but I don't fall in the floor." She laughed at that. She was comfortable with the idea. It was just the way things were, no more and no less.

"If it works, it works." Hardison shrugged. "You know, I have a neat little compression algorithm that would save a ton of space with the archived newsletters. You interested?"

Billy was dressed and headed for the door, but stopped at Hardison's work center to chat.

Eliot instinctively blocked out the geek speak for the sake of his sanity. Hardison seemed to enjoy having someone who had a decent working knowledge of his little cyber domain and respect for his skills. As the older man filled a platter, he was vaguely aware of something about orcs, dragons, and necromancers. If one gamer prattling on about some dungeon or another was annoying, two were enough to make him grind his teeth. Just when he was trying to think of something to put a stop to the assault on his composure, Billy's phone rang again. Her mood went downhill the second she recognized the ring tone and she waved an apology at Hardison on her way to the door.

Glaring at the display, she accepted the call with a terse, "What do you want me to tell Ma so you don't get yelled at? Otherwise you would have just called the home phone." The incredulous expression told them it wasn't anything good. "What the hell is wrong with you!? Look at the damn calender. Yes, I'm busy, so, no, I can't come down there. 'Doin' what?' My God, Ma admits to nearly droppin' me in Doc's driveway and havin' to make a divin' catch, but were you punted down every set of steps in three counties? It's graduation. You know, sittin' in a crowded, overheated gym full of people I'm completely apathetic towards, at best, in a ridiculous getup to be followed by an afternoon full of 'family fun time'. I packed a book on the Black Death in my car last night to give me somethin' to cheer me up. I suppose this means you aren't comin'?" Billy listened to the other end of the line in growing irritation.

"No, I don't care if you come. I don't care if nobody shows up. I don't want to come. I didn't want a damn party. Hell, I tried to get out of graduation itself. I just don't wanna spend an afternoon listenin' to Ma whine, Gran sulk, and four out of every five people ask me why my only sibling didn't come to my graduation despite me going to both of hers and, might I remind you, I was so carsick at the college one that I threw up three times: once at your place, once in the parkin' garage, and once in the middle of the mall you drug us all to after! Wait a minute... you haven't said why you want me to come. You only do that when you've done somethin' that's gonna piss me off too, so you wait until I'm there to tell me. That means somethin' happened I've warned you about and you completely ignored me. Well, it isn't winter so the pipes haven't burst, because you didn't plug in the heat tape Ma bought and I installed. You wouldn't be in such a damn fizz for me to fix it if you just punched a hole in the wall shovin' the door open..." She grew very quiet, trembling slightly, and eased a strip of satin out from under her watch band, rubbing it against itself almost frantically between her fingers. Her words came came out as a mixture of incredulous and enraged.

"Josey Jay Carlisle, you slack jawed cretin, bereft of any sort of common sense and utterly incapable of grasping the simplest of reasoning no matter how hard someone tries to explain it to you, did you park your car under the maple tree despite me and Ma telling you a million times not to and did the dead limb I pointed out three years ago fall out of the tree and onto your car last night in the storm? The limb I offered to prune out if you would either move your car or give me the keys to do it myself just last summer, but you didn't trust me with your new car and you wouldn't interrupt watching freaking 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' to do it yourself, despite owning it on DVD, which I know you do, because I bought for your birthday when Ma bought you your first DVD player!" Several minutes of incoherent shrieking, growling, and curse words mixed in with gibberish followed.

Leaning against the door jam, Billy pulled a tiny sock patterned with zoo animals from her pocket and forced herself to take deep, controlled breaths. Sighing, she held the phone back to her ear. "What kind of damage are we talkin' about? Totaled or touch up paint? It can't be past the point of rescue if you think I can fix it...Is it smashed to bits or just cracked?...Okay, you can cover the cracks inside and out very carefully with clear packin' tape and if you don't use the passenger side door or try rollin' the window down, it should hold it solid enough to not shatter and get glass everywhere. Try not to cut yourself. You'll need to carefully open the door though and hang a piece of clear plastic sheet over it so it hangs down the side of the door and then tuck the end under the door or just don't cut it and lay the roll inside. You want it snug enough so water stays out. The door itself is okay, right?...That's good. I'll just get a replacement window and swap them out...Scratches are no big deal. I went ahead got touch up paint when you bought it as a matter of course...Yes, for the pinstripes too...Joes, if I can paint the face and uniform of a figure barely the size of my thumbnail, I can fix the pinstripes on a damn Focus. Now, what were you sayin' about the mirror?...Hanging by the wires...Well, duct tape it to the hood so it doesn't get mangled any worse. As long as the mirror's okay, I might can reuse it. I'd fit a plastic bag over the mirror and the hole to keep water out of the mech...You'll have to talk to Ma about the insurance. I haven't read either policy...Well, yes, either, it could be under the auto, the homeowners, or both since they are from the same company. I don't know...You better go tend to your car before water gets in where it shouldn't and something shorts, like it did on the green Taurus. Do that and then call Ma. Don't tell her you talked to me first, just tell her what 'you' did for now and go from there. I'll have to see about a window and maybe a mirror at the salvage yard. I'll have to check the manual to see how the mirror is. Not the owner's manual, the Chilton manual...Yes, I bought a Chilton for it...Because being your on-call mechanic sucks, but being an unprepared, on-call mechanic sucks more. Now go get to tapin'. Before something happens and you need a real mechanic."

Billy shook her head as she started stuffing her phone back in her pocket along with the small sock she still held. When the young woman hesitated in the middle of her move from the door frame, Sophie felt the need to lighten the mood.

"Are you going to kiss your baby with that mouth?", she teased.

Billy smiled her roguish smile in response and nodded. She was quiet and the smile changed. It softened and became gentler, more thoughtful. She slipped off her sunglasses and ran her hand over her face, letting herself make fleeting eye contact, before returning the shades to her face and starting out the door. "Every chance I get for the rest of my life."

Eliot chuckled. If that couldn't brighten Billy's mood, nothing would. A breathless bark announced Lighthorse's return and Billy somehow managed to grin wider.

"You magnificent bastard. I've always said you were worth three hired hands and this is gettin' added to my list of proof." That brought everyone to the open door. The dog had not returned alone. Trotting along at an annoyed pace with the Border collie at his heels was the mule, Marius.

"Day-um. Smart dog." Hardison had to nod in respect.

"Experts say that they are the smartest of the breeds. I can see why." Sophie commented on the dog's reasoning.

If his person couldn't walk back, he'd just have to arrange for her to ride back. When Annie had opened the barn back up as she'd gone to feed this morning which she did on weekends, Lighthorse had gone to fetch the mule. Marius wasn't happy about it, but the dog had been sent for him before and he'd finished eating anyway. That didn't mean he would pass up the shelter of the small barn.

Eliot grabbed a strip of bacon from the plate and headed to the spot Lighthorse stood, reared up on the fence, looking very pleased with himself. "I think you've earned this." He offered it to the dog, but it wasn't accepted until Billy nodded and told Lighthorse it was okay. Smart move.

"I'd best get movin'... 'fore Ma comes lookin'." She ducked into the barn without another word and Eliot followed after her. She could use some help getting up on the mule with the lamb and he wasn't about to let her try without it.

He was glad to see the lamb was up and hobbling about, not unlike his shepherd. It was a good sign. The leg would probably be fine given some time. Billy was already slipping the feed sack over him again in preparation for the trip back. The wool would keep him warm, but she wanted to keep the bandages dry.

"Can you get up there by yourself?" Eliot asked as he leaned past her to pick Twinkie up.

Billy rolled her eyes and called Marius over to the manger. Using the hay rack as a handhold and the feed box as a step, she boosted herself onto the mule as a reply.

It was Eliot's turn to roll his eyes as he gave her the wiggling lamb to settle across the mule's shoulders. "Just be careful."

Lighthorse already had Marigold over by the door, waiting to take her back to the main barn, though she'd stick close to her lamb even without his coaxing.

"I've got it. Quit fussin'. Go. Finish fixin' breakfast so y'all can do whatever I want no details about. We've all got things to be doin'. Go." She tipped her hat in silent thanks and started Marius back up to the house with a practiced squeeze of her knees.

Eliot headed back inside to wash his hands and finish cooking. She was an experienced rider on familiar terrain. Marius knew the way without her, so she was just along for the ride.

Parker was still tinkering with the place settings when he finished washing his hands. Eliot swore he could still smell wet wool. It was pervasive. It wouldn't take much for him to finish cooking.

"Everyone set? I want to move the second we can. There's too much we need to do." He fixed the other three with a stare.

"Really?" Sophie met his gaze without hesitation.

"I've already got some orders ready to be picked up." Hardison gestured to his screens.

"He ordered some stuff for me too." Parker was trying to remember where the silverware went and gave up, leaving it in a pile.

Eliot grumbled, but finished quickly and passed it to Sophie to place on the table.

"When we get done, Parker, you go keep an eye on them and let us know when they leave." Eliot took the syrup from Hardison.

"No need, man. I tagged Billy's phone. We can just watch when the signal moves." Hardison puffed up a little. It was a good idea, but Eliot refused to tell him that.

"Are they drivin' separate?" He had to smile a little at Hardison's momentary confusion. That was something that hadn't occurred to the hacker.

"Let me just tag..." Hardison turned his attention to the netbook he'd brought to the table. "Where are they? I know her ma and grandma both have those pay as you go things, because Billy manages all three of them from one account." He hunted longer until he reached one unassailable conclusion. "They must be off. Who owns a cellphone and doesn't use it? Old folks is who." It was his turn to grumble.

"Or, you know, someone who just has it for emergencies." Eliot had to admit enjoying this small oversight far more than he should.

"I'll just set the system to tag them when they turn on." Hardison quickly made some adjustments to his protocols. "Probably shouldn't hold my breath though. Think Granny even knows how to turn it on?"

Eliot thought a moment. It was probably meant as a safety precaution to guarantee the elderly woman could get help if she needed it. "Oh, I'm pretty sure she could use it if she needed to."

"I'm gonna check and see if there's any other electronic chatter up there I can follow. Shouldn't be hard. You know we're connected to the household network all the way out here?" He ate one-handed and scoured the network with the other. Something made him whistle. "Someone is not happy with the recent changes to the batting order of their favorite team and the coaches are getting a screen-full during their live-chat. I wouldn't have pegged Billy for a base...ball...fan. She can't be up there yet. Dude, that's Grandma giving it to them!" There was almost glee in the young man's eyes. It seems anyone over eighty that could hold their own in a chat room made Hardison's day. "The old girl's got spreadsheets and all sorts of stats up. I take back everything I ever said about old people and computers."

Sophie laughed over her cup of tea. "She wasn't too interested in it when Billy built a set up for her. It was wintertime, if I recall. Billy found her an English feed of one of those Japanese league games and it was all over. I had to end one video chat early because Billy had to go fix something for her when it went mid-game."

"GrannyRedStockings is, like, everywhere." Hardison was glued to the screen and Parker leaned over to look at the screen.

"Whoa, she doesn't think much of the new shortstop either." Parker turned the screen so she could see it better.

"I would not get into a baseball argument with that woman if you paid me. She has the catcher's Little League records." The two youngsters were fixated by the screen and Eliot cast an amused look at Sophie.

"Now you see where Billy gets the gift for argument and that relentless drive to be thorough. The competitive streak as well, though that may come from both sides."

It was only then that Eliot was clearly reminded that Sophie was the one who had the most history with the girl, despite the amount of time she'd spent with her in recent days. "You have any ideas on bein' able to tell when they leave without sendin' Parker up there?" Eliot was open to options.

"Hardison already found it. That computer feed will be on until Bill's mother and grandmother leave. Those two will go together and it isn't like we have to hide our presence from Billy. She invited us here." The grifter took another sip of tea and helped herself some more of the berries. "These are rather good."

He nodded. They were very fresh and the taste was more like heirloom varieties than the more commonly found commercial producers. "Some kinds of these are just startin' to come in season now. These are probably out of the first pickin' or two. The strawberries start earlier, the everbearin' kinds, and the June bearin' aren't quite ready yet. I saw a marker for Quinault it one of the raised bed along the garden. That's an everbearin' and I saw markers for several other kinds, but couldn't read the names from where I was. There's probably June bearin' that will come on all at once and end up in the freezer or canner. I didn't get a good look at the blueberry patch or the frames for the briar berries, like the raspberries or blackberries." He'd love to be able to take a good look around, if he ever got the chance or had the time.

"My, they are very self-sufficient aren't they, though I suppose they had to be up here for so long." She was in a reflective mood. He had learned to recognize it and decided it was a good sign.

He nodded in agreement. "They didn't have much choice if they were gonna last. As long as they've been here, they got it right." He stood to clear his spot. "Are we ready to decide exactly what we are doin' once we get out?"

Sophie handed him her plate and leaned back with her tea. Parker did the same with her plate. Hardison wasn't quite finished, but nodded the go ahead. They were eager for action and it was upon them.

Eliot rinsed the dishes quickly in the sink and then retrieved the board from Sophie's room. He traced his finger along a route heading west out of the county. "I want to look at these three locations as we head for Lexington. Even if we are noticed, we'll be gone long enough that they'll forget about us. Once we get into the city, we need to split up to cover what we have to today, so a second vehicle is a given."

"I would suggest a black sedan, not a new model, but not over five years old either." Sophie rose to place her cup in the sink and retrieve her notes. "We may have to trade off the van, depending what we're doing around the city, but the sedan will be useful later, I think."

"Okay, Hardison, start lookin' for a likely choice. We also need, at least one map of the city, two or three to be safe. We all should get a couple cheap, burner phones, but we need at least one smart phone for us to use in the field." He nodded at the younger man and got a nod in return. They were the best, because they took what they learned to heart and, whether they liked to admit it or not, they had been each others' best teachers.

"I've been looking at real estate to find us a base of operations in the city and I found a charming little Victorian that looks rather promising. It needs some work, but that makes the comings and goings look quite understandable." Sophie glanced at a note she had written to herself. "Once we have the sedan, I'd like to take it to see about the house. If it works out, we won't have to bring everything back here." She gestured around at the cramped little cottage and got several nods of approval.

"I'll take the van and start getting supplies and equipment." Hardison patted his netbook and the lists it held.

"I'm staying with him." Parker pointed to Hardison and got a smile in return.

"I'll go with Sophie then. I need to see about somethin' and she can drop me off. Once we have every thing, we meet up and head back. If we split up, we can cover more possible spots. I'll take..." Eliot didn't get to finish, because the old phone hanging by the back door rang.

Several tense moments and glances passed, before Sophie purposefully rose and answered it with Eliot listening at her elbow. "Carlisle residence." She used her best approximation of Billy's accent and hoped for the best.

"Not bad, Sophie. You sound like one of my cousins. I thought I'd let you know my cousin just came with the hall key and her van to help haul everything, so I should be alone within , oh, forty-five minutes and you can go do whatever then." Billy's amused voice was loud and clear over the phone line.

"My, you certainly seem in a better mood." Sophie raised an eyebrow.

"We got everything settled out at the barn. Ma is pleased with the finished wall and the chicken house, and by extension me. I got a good look at the spread for this afternoon and it's basically all my favorites. Plus, I had pigs in a blanket for breakfast while listening to Ma yell at Joes on the phone and cuss my cousin all to pieces after I told her what happened. I wouldn't want to be him today. His ass is grass and it's in for a mowin'. Ma ain't thrilled that I will be receivin' my diploma on crutches with only one shoe, 'cause I can't get either of my left dress shoes to go on over the wrappin'. I tried to skip the whole sideshow, but no dice. Can't have it all. Well, you need to get ready for...somethin' and I need to figure out how to manage on crutches in this stupid robe thing. I'm gonna fall on my ass. I know it. My right knee has a completely different range from normal and I catch it on the fabric every time it reaches its outside swing." Billy was muttering in annoyance.

"Just be careful, dear. We don't want either of you hurt." Sophie wished she could offer more, but she couldn't think of anything to say.

"Eh, maybe I'll fall on that addled sow they let be assistant principal. There's enough paddin' on her to cushion the space station if it fell from orbit. I'm just gonna pin this thing up until I get there. That way I can at least walk. Well, sort of. Bye then." Billy promptly hung up without waiting for a response.

Eliot was a little surprised, but Sophie wasn't remotely so. "She's not big on goodbyes, is she?" He asked as she placed it back on the hook.

"Not in the slightest." She confirmed.

"Well, we need to start gatherin' up what we need so we can move as soon as they're gone. I'll back the van up to the porch." Eliot needed to be doing something, anything.

He grabbed his jacket and headed out to the barn. If didn't take long to have it backed out of the building and up to the porch, so he busied himself doing an inventory of what they had in it already. There were first aid supplies, Hardison's stuff, a bag of Sophie's in case she needed a quick change, a bag of Parker's, and a few odds and ends they'd collected along the way. Eliot grumbled as he gathered up the trash that had accumulated in the hacker's space. He mentally added a little trash can to his shopping list. Hardison could clean up after himself.

Sophie was the first to appear, dressed in a casual work outfit, well in keeping with her latest role as an antique book dealer. She gave him an I-told-you-we'd-manage-ourselves look and commandeered the passenger seat.

He left her to the legal pad she was reading and he took a moment to look at the plants in the beds surrounding the small house. He was right. There was a decent selection of the common herbs mixed into the tasteful arrangement of perennials. Even in this isolated space, the landscaping was well maintained. The mulch was recent. The dead leaves and other debris was scarce. There were a few weeds maybe, but he wasn't sure. They looked a little like some of the mature plants close by. Either they were immature sprouts of the plant or there was a chance they were and they'd been left to prove themselves.

Each plant had a stake with either the common name and scientific name or the variety name and what it was. "Dill" was tucked between "Tropicana- Rose" and "Wild Horses- Daylily". "Marjoram" was peeking out from the shadow of "Flame- Peony" and "Snow Queen- Siberian Iris". Annie Carlisle was the gardener in the family and was likely responsible for what was here and where it was placed, but the tidy, even mulch and steady, precise handwriting on the plastic tags were distinctly Billy's handiwork. He knelt by the railing to reach out to get one. Up close, he could see why the marker was holding up to the weather so well. The edges of the letters had blurred and ran slightly, because they had been dipped in some clear coat, likely more than once. Whatever it was, it gave the label a shine that also beaded the water.

Even accounting for the blotched ink, the writing had a childlike quality. There was a slight tremble to it, like it had taken a lot of effort to form the letters correctly. He'd seen Billy pause and knead her right wrist enough times to know it bothered her often. He knew a nagging injury when he saw one. The well-worn brace kept in the truck cab was a clear indication she needed the extra support and protection it provided frequently.

He'd seen the records. It had been a very bad break for a closed one. She's had surgery on it twice and it still hadn't healed correctly, even with three pins in it. Almost five years later, it made an audible clicking sound when moved certain ways. The sound of bone on bone was too distinct for him not to recognize. It was reason to try to lighten her load. She would simply tough her way through it, but, right now, she wouldn't take anything for it. An ice pack or heating pad was probably the most she'd allow until the baby came, and was weaned for that matter. He stuck "Earth Angel- Hosta" back where it belonged and stood up just in time to see Parker carrying a box for to the van for Hardison.

That was something else he needed to keep an eye on. There was something developing between the two of them, something that would be pretty serious and devastating, if it went too wrong. Hardison needed to go about it the right way, because Parker had enough issues without him adding to them. If, in the end, things didn't last between the two of them, then maybe things would be easier for the next guy. It probably wouldn't hurt, if someone had a chat with Parker, but he was sure he wasn't the one for that. Maybe he needed to have a talk with Sophie when the two went off together. They could divide and conquer. They did their best work that way.

Eliot sighed and took the driver seat while Hardison and Parker settled into the back. "We good? You lock up?"

When he got the affirmative nods, he started the engine and hoped the sound wouldn't carry too far. Sound sometimes carried for miles up the ridge from the town, like a natural amphitheater. He wasn't sure if it worked the other way as well. He hadn't thought to ask. When the van reached the edge of cover, he and Sophie cautiously scoured the open area. Once they got out on the road, no one would notice too much, but they didn't want to be seen exiting. He rolled the window down and listened for any traffic. "It seems clear. Parker be ready to unlock the gate and remember to put the lock back between the gate and post."

He drove as quick as he dared to the gate and was through the instant Parker had it drawn back far enough. He had it going again before Parker even had the door shut and just in time. A dark green SUV came up the road from town and rounded the corner right as he reached regular speed. It turned into the main drive before it got close enough to get a clear look at them. As they passed the driveway, he saw it was the woman from the yard sale, carrying a covered buffet warmer to the back of her car and a teenager, maybe fourteen or fifteen, had two cake carriers. It was another cousin to help transport the food and her daughter helping her. He searched his memory and came up with a name. "That's Lesley from the storage place, so that must be Elise with her. They said they was comin' to help move the food."

Sophie squinted briefly, as if searching her own memory. "If I recall, she's just a few years older than Josey. She's the youngest of the aunt's children and her daughter was the first baby born into the nearer branches of the extended family after Billy. Family dynamics play far more into Billy's life than she likes and, with a family like her's, there's as many dynamics as a small country. She was the odd one out. She was too old to mesh with Elise and the cousins that were born around that time and the ones that were closer to her own age were in West Virginia or out that way. That lone wolf attitude of hers is as much chance as choice." The older woman had a soft look on her face, as like she were wishing things had maybe been a little different. "Well, Karl is close in age and nearby and it seems like all they do is fight. I think she had him upside down by his ankles at Christmas. Something about him blocking her path with his feet and it blew up from there. It does that a lot."

She was gifted at keeping track of social interactions and relationships and had sifted out a great deal from the dozens of conversations she'd had with Billy over the years. "Remember when she says 'cousin' it can refer to any number of degrees of relatedness. It's a default word in their family for when two people know they are related, but aren't sure exactly how close or don't want to take time to work it out. I think she said there are close to a thousand cousins of various degrees spread out around the world."

Parker piped in from the back. "Some way back grandfather had, like, thirty kids. Most of them had lots of kids too, but not that many."

Explains the house. Had to put them all somewhere. Eliot tuned out Parker and Sophie's discussion of the Carlisle family history for the most part and pointed them due west on the highway to Lexington. Reviewing his mental to-do list, he added picking up a graduation card, because, even if he was crashing, he still had manners.

**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**

Nate's side hurt. Mostly from the bullet wound, but also from the laughter. He couldn't help it. The hospital had scheduled marathon weekend shifts for its newly minted doctors and nurses and they had come to tour the prison ward just as Sterling had arrived. The perennially paranoid Sterling assumed it was an attempt to flood the ward with people so that a stable and healing Nate could be broken out. He'd gone so far as to have the building closed down and backup from the Boston Police Department brought in to search the entire building, ventilation ducts and elevator shafts included, but had refused to even allow the police in until he had personally checked each one. Once he was certain they knew who they were looking for, he'd taken up the chair by Nate's bed to ensure that his old friend and rival remained there.

"Mind letting me in on the joke?" Sterling leaned in slightly.

"You'll know soon enough." That had the desired effect of putting Jim off-balance. You shut down a major hospital on one of its busiest times of the week and called in police backup to turn the place completely upside down looking for four people who are almost a thousand miles away.

This might just be what he needed to get the heat pulled back from the others. If he could do nothing else for them, he could get Sterling to ease up. His superiors would never let him expend manpower without results indefinitely. The longer the hunt lasted, the more major setbacks Sterling's men encountered, the more people he inconvenienced, the more likely it became that he would lose men and resources to other tasks. Agents would be reassigned. Funds would be reallocated. Support tasks would receive lower priority. Every time that happened, it became less and less likely the team would be found. Watching Sterling gradually have a meltdown was simply an amusing side effect.

"I know better than to underestimate your little team of merry men." Sterling leaned back and checked his phone.

And yet you always do. I wonder what Eliot would think of being called a 'merry man'. "You forget I'm from here. This isn't a new thing. This hospital has done this before. I can remember the cops coming into the bar and taking pity on someone who had the misfortune of being brought here when 'the grass was on shift'. They always wondered if the death rate went up this time of year." Nate casually poured a glass of water with his free hand. "If you are just going to sit there, you could have had the decency to bring a chessboard or maybe we could start a book club. There are a lot of ways to pass the time, since we aren't doing anything productive." He started drumming his fingers in the way he knew Sterling hated and kept it up.

Sterling was good at hiding his growing irritation, but Nate knew him too well. He started humming an off-key melody out of time with the beat and, occasionally, repeated parts, as if he were trying to work them out correctly. He never quite got it to mesh and Sterling disappeared into the bathroom as Nate started the sixth round of "Bohemian Rhapsody". He smiled. God save Queen.

Nate looked up as the door opened to admit a small, scrub-clad blond. The figure looked around expectantly and cast a questioning look at Nate upon spotting the empty chair. Sterling chose that moment to burst from the other room and snatch up the newcomer in a bear hug from behind.

"Hey, man! At least, buy me dinner first!", yelled the surprised, slightly-built, male orderly.

Sterling dropped him instantly. "I mistook you for someone else."

"I was sent to tell you that the Chief of Staff wants to talk to you." The small man adjusted his clothes and quickly stormed out.

The echo of the closing door hadn't even faded when Sterling's phone rang. The way he looked at the caller ID told Nate his old friend wasn't happy to take the call. As his jailer stepped out into the hall to answer, Nate settled back into his bed to plan the next move.

He had no doubt that this latest goose chase had cost the Interpol Agent a good amount of his autonomy and, probably, some of his manpower. He'd have to have Hardison check for him to know the exact details. Things were certainly improving though, and that was a good thing, since the team intended to spend part of the day in the city where there were more police and cameras. The best thing he could do now was sleep. He suspected he'd have a lot to catch up on when the night, and the update, came. He silently wished them luck.

**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**

The drive west took longer than needed, but the side routes were less traveled. It also helped them get the lay of the land. Sophie noticed Parker was working quite intently on one of her maps. She knew better than to interrupt her. Parker would let them know when she had something. The first stop had been a bust. The small house had been burnt nearly to the ground. That had gotten Hardison three very hard looks.

"Small oversight, people. Let me just adjust my algorithm to take into account any major structural damage on record." He was quick to learn from his small mistake. He also took responsibility for it. He's growing up. It was good to see.

Eliot was on edge. He'd been preparing to check the place out and was still keyed up.

Sophie knew when she needed to insert herself and just how to do it. That was her specialty after all. "Actually, can you get the fire marshal's report? The process is rather delicate. Perhaps one of the chemicals involved ignited."

Both men looked at her. Hardison spoke first. "Yeah, I can do that. In fact, let me look for anything related to the ingredients and see where that takes me."

"And the equipment. That might help lead us to somewhere or someone." Eliot nodded at Sophie to acknowledge her idea and she inclined her head in reply.

They had moved on to the second location rather quickly after seeing the condition of the first one. It seemed deserted, but that meant nothing. Eliot went in alone to give a once over to the abandoned service station. The comms were silent for quite a while, but then Eliot's voice came over the feed.

"There's nothing here now, but there was activity here pretty recently and a lot of it. I think we need to do some surveillance or something to keep an eye on this place. I'm turnin' on this button cam so you can get an idea of what kinda space you're workin' with."

"I'm getting it now. Hey, can you get the ceiling and the power source too. Okay, okay, that's good. We'll have to cover the two walk-in doors and the garage bays, inside and out. I can make them motion sensitive so they won't stay on, if they have to use battery, but if the electric is active..." Hardison was already working out what he'd need to cover the area.

Eliot quickly checked the breaker box, flipped on the main, and hit the light switch. The area lit up immediately. "It's still hot. Who's payin' the bills and why are they keeping it on?" He flipped it back off to keep anyone from noticing he'd been there. He returned quickly, careful to leave no sign of his visit. They were headed west again as soon as he was strapped in.

The remaining trip would have been uneventful, except Hardison's phone taps notified them of some very interesting calls coming through James Sterling's phone. He called in reinforcements, convinced of an impending escape, only to refuse them access when they first arrived. There were a few good laughs over that.

"He's completely paranoid." Hardison commented at Sterling's refusal to permit anyone to enter the hospital without his personal inspection.

Sophie considered a moment. "I'm sure Nate has been doing all he can to feed that. If Sterling stays convinced we're close-by, plotting a rescue attempt, he'll keep most and the best of his men there to counter it. By the time he realizes his mistake, his superiors will have taken most of his resources away and any leads will be cold." She cast a meaningful eye at Eliot and received a conceding nod after a moment's thought. He understood Nate was still helping them as much as he could and that took some of the sting off, but it didn't do a thing to ease the burning desire of going back for a man left behind. That would never be alright with him.

She wasn't exactly happy with it either. She'd swooped in as the independent heroine, bringing deliverance with her, and he had to be all noble and self-sacrificing and steal her thunder. If she hadn't been beaten to it, she might have shot him again. She hated being upstaged.

The shift was almost tangible when they reached the suburbs. The roads, the streets, the houses and businesses, all started to shift from rural charm to urban sprawl. Signs started to direct drivers to the University of Kentucky or Transylvania University almost as soon as they crossed the outer loop. It was as if the city itself was trying desperately to shed the country bumpkin image by touting its institutions of higher education.

"So, where is this car lot?" Eliot called back over his shoulder at Hardison, who'd been tasked with finding them a suitable car during the drive in.

"Here. I printed you a map." Hardison handed a sheet of paper forward and Eliot snatched it from his hand, looked at the address, balled it up, and tossed it back at the younger man, hitting him in the head.

"Not cool, man, not cool. I try to make it easy for you and you get all ungrateful..." Hardison was on the verge of descending into one of his diatribes.

"I used to live here. Remember? I don't need maps. An address is plenty." Eliot grumbled and made a turn that wasn't anything close to the map's route.

"How are we playing this? Couple? Friends? Relatives?" Sophie was still deciding what the best angle for negotiating was. To be honest, it would probably be best if they waited until the last minute to decide, once they met the salesman.

"I say you and me do it and we play it by ear." Eliot made another turn, keeping them out of the main high traffic areas. "We'll be the two he see's when we pull in. We don't want him to see how many of us there are. It'd be suspicious."

"My thoughts exactly. We need someone to monitor what's going on in Boston and that is definitely a job for Hardison, plus Parker can hear the background noise without needing it filtered and boosted. That saves time with the amount of audio we have." Sophie was nothing, if not diplomatic. She knew it would go down easiest if she made it seem as if Eliot and she were the only ones who could be "spared" to buy the car. It was an old trick, but it worked well if used right.

Eliot certainly knew his way around the city. They were pulling into the back drive of the single salesman lot rather quickly for sticking to the backstreets and obeying all the traffic laws. They were the only ones there and the middle-aged dealer quickly put aside what he was doing, put on his blazer, and came out to greet them. He didn't seem happy to be out in the misting rain, but if his customers came, then he wouldn't complain.

"How can I help you fine folks today? Are you just lookin' or do you have something in mind?" He offered them each his hand. "David Wehr and I live to sell cars."

"Andy Thompson and I'm just a ride and set up eyes under the hood." Eliot shook the offered hand. He had no need to supply anything beyond a name and used something off the top of his head.

Sophie took his hand with a smile. "Lauren Kellogg and I'm here to look into buying a car."

David gave her hand a kind squeeze and they knew he was hooked. "Well, then, I think we can help each other. Should I just show you everything or do you have some criteria to work with?" He gestured grandly around the small lot.

Sophie inclined her head as if she were thinking about what she really wanted, when really she was deciding on what she could tell him to lead her to the exact car she came for. "Well, I know I want a car, not one of those huge things. My late husband always had a truck or SUV, and, every time I opened the door, I felt like I needed a spotter." Their salesman looked around quickly, mentally winnowing down his inventory, and then looked back expectantly.

"Four doors and a generous trunk?" She said it hopefully and elaborated. "I'm in the used books business and I do good bit of buying at estate sales. I was looking for something that would be a bit easier to find a spot to park, but still have room to load everything. Something easy on the petrol would be appreciated."

David looked a bit confused until Eliot spoke up. "She means gas mileage."

"Oh, I think I have something." He lead them straight for the black sedan they had came for.

"I'm so embarrassed. As long as I've lived here, I still haven't gotten used to what you Yanks' have done to the Queen's English. Though to be fair, Henry always took care of this sort of business." She looked sideways and wiped at her eyes.

"My sympathies. How long as it been? If you don't mind?" He patted her arm kindly, as she searched for a handkerchief.

Eliot spoke up again. "Six years."

Sophie countered. "Five and half. I always thought it would be those awful cigars of his, but I guess I should have worried more over how he ate. I just never thought about it. I cooked healthy meals when he was home, so I never stopped to think about lunches ordered in or take out for dinner when he worked late. I doubt it was any better when he traveled."

Eliot played up his role as supportive close friend. "You can't blame yourself for what he did without you, besides plenty of perfectly healthy men have heart attacks from overdoing it in the snow."

David tried to join in. "He's right. My cousin's brother-in-law did the same thing. He taught PE at a middle school up in Henderson. He ran the drills with his kids. Ate right. One day, a couple Februarys ago, he shoveled his drive and the sidewalk and got it into his head to try and do the old couple's across the street without takin' a break and keeled over on their sidewalk. They didn't know he was there and his wife didn't at first either, but when she saw it was partially cleared at their place, she came to check on them and found him. He was long gone at forty-eight."

"You're both right. I'm being daft. Besides, it wasn't even the heart attack. It was the fall from the roof while he putting up the lights. I just think that if he had taken better care of himself or rested a bit before he started decorating, he wouldn't have had the heart attack and fallen. Honestly though, they weren't sure if that caused the fall or if the shock of the fall caused the heart attack." She worked at composing herself and David opened the door of the black sedan.

With a chivalrous, guiding hand, he led her to the door. "You sit a minute. Catch your breath. Dry your eyes. Me and Andy here are gonna take a look under the hood and at the tires and have all that out of the way for you." Oh, he was good. Trying to create an emotional link with the car that he could use to his advantage at the bargaining table.

The two men were very engrossed in conversation behind the hood and she dutifully went through the motions of composing herself and investigating the interior. The raised hood hid her well from view, but she could tell that the conversation shifted from the discussion of mechanical matters to something more personal. She had no doubt that 'Andy' was doing his part well. Hmm, perhaps I should insist I'm not ready to move on and take this step without my dear husband.

That would work. Let him think that he was about to lose the sale to her fragile heart and he would be very pliable if she judged right and she lived by those instincts. The two closed the hood, circled the car looking at the tires, and then slide into the vehicle with her.

"Well? Do you feel up to a test drive?" David reached out to pat her arm.

"I don't know. This is such a big step. I'm not sure I'm ready." She put on her best struggling- to-control-her-emotions face and looked from face to face.

The salesman spoke up. "You know what? How about we just go for a little drive around the block? You can get the feel of handlin' somethin' smaller, see if it's what you want, and if it's not, then you'll know the next time. It's just twenty minutes of drivin' around. Nothin' more." He gave her a kind smile and looked sideways at Eliot for support.

"What could it hurt? It's a test drive, not a blind date." Eliot gave her an understanding look and there was something else there. He made sure the dealer saw it. It must have something to do with their conversation under the hood. She'd have to ask later. She played oblivious to it and caught the eager salesman giving Eliot a look of sympathy.

"I suppose that would be alright. It's just a few minutes to get a feel for it." She gave the two a look of resolve and their salesman smiled at her.

"I'll just go get the keys and the file on it. Go ahead and get comfortable." He scurried off back to the office in hopes of a sale and left them alone.

She settled into the driver's seat and Elliot climbed in the back. Once the doors were closed, Sophie asked, "What went on between the two of you up there?"

Casting a glance at the building, Eliot leaned forward to fill her in.

Dave popped the hood and gestured for Eliot to have a look. Eliot cast a cool eye over the presented engine compartment. It looked good. Everything was in order. All the connections looked solid and the parts in good condition. It was a clean. It was a little too clean. His mind immediately went to someone trying to clean up a major event, like a bad leak or engine fire. He could use that, feel out the dealer a little.

"Did you have a mechanic look this over? I don't like the looks of this. It looks like something went majorly wrong and they patched it up, scrubbed it down, and pawned it off on somebody else." Eliot gestured at the shining metal.

"What?" The salesman quickly inspected the engine himself and then realized what Eliot was saying. "Oh, that. My guy was doing the standard inspection/tune-up he does on all my stuff and he had his boy helpin'. Sean's eleven and he's been helpin' out from time to time, learning from his old man. He topped up the power steerin' fluid and left the lid off. He had to clean it up until it passed me and his dad's expectations to drive the lesson home. I can call the guy and he'll tell you the same thing. Since I want you to be sure I'm on the up and up here, I'll extend my warranty by an extra month, four instead of three."

Eliot studied the man a long moment. He seemed to be telling the truth and it made sense. He even made a show of faith. "Tell you what, we'll test drive it. If she likes it and it seems to be runnin' good, we'll see if we can agree on a price. It's her that has to be happy with it. I just want somethin' that gets her where she's goin' without havin' to call me 'cause it quit. I don't mind doin' it, but sometimes trackin' her down along some windin' little country road where she broke down comin' from some estate sale or other can get real old."

The other man nodded. He offered Eliot a knowing smile and leaned in. "You have my sympathies, man. Havin' a woman like that for a friend who isn't interested in more right now and might never be has to be hard. All I can say is hang in there and I hope it pays off for you."

"He thinks you're pining for your dead friend's widow and I am completely unaware of your feelings. I can use that." Sophie offered Eliot a dangerous smile and adjusted her seat.

**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**

Hardison had wisely used the trip into the city and the wait in the van to build up Sophie's new background. There would be one and likely two credit checks today, maybe more, so it was vital to have it squared away. A genuine car or real estate purchase would make it iron clad, but he wanted it solid enough to stand up to these initial checks to get those real transactions. He knew Sophie was planning on paying cash for it, so there wouldn't be a bank transaction to worry about this time. Sometimes things were just too easy. Those times were right before something blew up in their faces. That didn't mean he wouldn't enjoy the break by watching the show unfolding before him.

Shows really. Between the invented drama Eliot and Sophie were sucking the poor car salesman into and the real drama Nate had Sterling burying himself in, he was seriously in need of some good popcorn.

He and Parker were listening to the tapped phone conversations as they came in and keeping one ear on the action outside over the comm feeds and the cameras he had mounted to the outside. He also had maintained his watch of the Carlisle family's cell phones and set an alert to warn him of any cell activity or even presence within the family property. He wanted to be sure no one became aware of them accidentally. Their host was being generous and he certainly didn't want that to come back to bite her, honor among (honorary) thieves and all.

He was to the point in his life where he could admit to himself that part of the appeal of technology was the way it made him powerful, like a superhero almost. It had drawn him in as a foster kid, bounced from home to home until Nana got him. Everything else might be different, but Saturday morning cartoons were Saturday morning cartoons. While television gave him some stability, video games and, later, computers gave him a way to exert himself, outside the boundaries of real life circumstances. He could be whomever he wanted to be with no baggage. He never looked back.

With him, Parker, and Sophie all taking turns listening to the captured conversations, they were catching up. His eavesdropping worm was working well, maybe too well, if they couldn't stay on top of the information it gathered. An alert informing him that the extra layers of security he'd added to the Carlisle family's little in-house network as a thank you (and apology for snooping) were now in place gave him an idea. During his peeking into Billy's digital footprint, he'd noticed she used a dictation software. (He also installed the newest version using the old format as a skin in hopes she wouldn't notice right away.) If he combined something similar with a voice recognition feature and ran the stored conversations through it, they would become text that could be quickly skimmed and even keyword searched.

He quickly started pulling together what he needed to see if he could make his idea work. If he could pull it off, and he saw no reason he couldn't, then they could shift the man hours they'd been using to listen to the recordings to focus on their new job. He'd learned many things from Nate and using scarce resources as efficiently as possible was one of them. Another was that shortcuts that worked were worth their weight in gold. With luck, his new shortcut would free up some of those resources.

The decision to take a test drive pulled Hardison back to double checking Sophie's back stop. They would need it shortly. Reassuring himself that it would hold up, he quickly checked all the other screens he had going before he went back to his new program. There was nothing interesting on the updated police blotter. The only thing he was monitoring that showed anything significant was the screen tracking Billy, her mother, and grandmother.

A screen showed the three were almost to the school when Eliot and Sophie arrived back from the test drive. He'd hacked the security cameras there earlier when he was looking for archived footage and, in a forward thinking maneuver, graduation was being streamed live on the school's home page. The Carlisles were running late, so Billy had parked in the student lot and, moving far more quickly on crutches than a normal person should be able to, she met her mom's car out front to help her grandmother into the building. Annie drove away to park, leaving the elderly woman and her limping granddaughter to get in out of the rain. Halfway to the doors, the old woman gently nudged Billy's side and said something that made Billy stiffen. She relaxed after a few words more, and, exchanging a meaningful look, the pair hurried inside as best they could.

Hardison was curious about what was said, but he was distracted by the negotiations for the car going on in his comm and the need to shift to a camera inside the school's entry way. At the sound of any angry voice shrieking Billy's name and lecturing her about having a hat on indoors and being late and unpresentable, both Hardison and Parker focused on the video. The assistant principal was making her way to the entry doors, not pausing in her tirade despite the horrified looks she was getting from the parents, staff, and local dignitaries. The short, dumpy woman in a pale blue skirt suit froze as she breached the edge of the crowd. She hadn't been able to see more than Billy's head, topped in a dripping fedora, until then. She was desperate to find an out in that moment, suddenly realizing she was being seen not as the authoritative administrator chastising a wayward student she presented in public and more as the heartless martinet many said she was when no one of importance was watching her.

Billy simply set her jaw, apologized, and shifted the bag with her mortar board to under her left arm and removed the soaked hat with her right. She didn't have to do a thing to make the other woman look a fool. Ms. Prescott was doing that just fine on her own. Crutches and an eighty-six year old grandmother required a sedate pace and she cut a rather imposing figure, even with only one shoe. From nearly black curls recently trimmed and gelled into place to the single cowboy boot polished to a mirror shine, leather and silver trim both, what little the leather duster revealed most definitely did not say 'unpresentable'. If the starched cuffs on the dress pants were a hint, a drill instructor wouldn't have been able to find a single fault.

In what was a perfectly timed stage whisper or that overly loud voice senior citizens use thinking they're being quiet when their ears are deceiving them, Billy's grandmother leaned in and declared, "Hateful old thang, isn't she?" Billy kissed her cheek fondly, the portrait of an indulgent granddaughter.

In the van, Hardison choked on his soda and triple checked that he was recording this for posterity.

A graying man with wire glasses quickly offered his arm to Gran and promised to find her a good seat in the crowded gym.

Billy pointedly moved in the direction of the cafeteria, intent on leaving her coat and hat to dry with those of her classmates and make her final preparations for the ceremony. If she saw the sour look she received, she ignored it and the quietly spoken, "We'll talk later", received no reply from her.

Faculty and family hurried to take their places or find seats, Annie among them, leaving the graduating class lined up in the hallway. Billy ambled back a few minutes later, clumsily trying to walk in her green gown that limited the side to side motion of her right leg that was part and parcel of her gait. Her knee kept hitting her right crutch or being hit by it. Nearly everyone was watching curiously. Sighing, Billy looked at the group. "There was an incident last night involvin' missin' sheep, a thicket, and some old woven fence in amongst it. I managed to put several inches of rusty fence wire up through the bottom of my boot and into the foot yet besides. It's liable to reopen it I put too much weight on it, but, at this rate, I'm gonna fall, either from the crutches or this stupid thing." She gave an annoyed kick with her right leg and smiled when the seam on one side of the zipper failed, giving her a little more room to work with.

She quickly took her place behind another girl with shoulder length brown hair who stood watching her with an exasperated kind of concern. "It's nothing though, right?"

Billy offered a crooked smile. "I've sadly done this sort of thing before, remember? I soaked it clean, wrapped it up, and my tetanus shot should still be good. I expect I'll be down to just one crutch by Monday and none before the week's out."

"If I told you to be more careful, would it make a difference?" Billy's friend poked her in the shoulder.

"I guess you could. It's never worked before, but there's a first time for everything." Billy shrugged. She leaned in and her words were so quiet that they had to lip-read in the van. "Is something up with you, Sarah?"

Sarah shook her head in denial. "So this is the last time they'll line us up like this. Carlisle after Carey."

Billy nudged the other girl. "Least we can stand one another now."

"It only took most of second grade for us to get along. So, are you gonna take swimmin' lessons again this summer? Another six weeks of me tryin' to teach you and a bunch of grade schoolers to swim, where at the end, they'll be passed on to the next level or two and you'll get a ribbon for participation?" She mimed placing something over Billy's neck as a joke and then froze. "Where are your cords and ribbons and everything." She gestured at the decorations around her own neck.

Billy growled and handed Sarah her right crutch. "Still in my pocket. I forgot all about the stupid things." She unzipped part way and fished several little bags and pouches out of the dark blue vest over the dark blue, pinstriped dress shirt she wore beneath.

"Here." Sarah took them in her free hand and gave Billy back her crutch. She unwrapped ribbons, cords, and a medallion and worked to arrange them around the taller girl's neck. Billy replaced her mortar board and struggled to hold still while Sarah affixed a handful of pins to her chest. "Geez, and my parents made a big deal about what I earned. My dad wants to have my stuff framed and you'll just stuff yours off in a drawer or box somewhere. It is a big deal, even if you don't think so. Then again, some of us have to actually work at it, Einstein." She counted the individual pins she tacked in place. "There's nearly two dozen of these. That's top honors in at least two classes every year since junior high. Well social studies or history was always a given. It's your thing, but you've got science, math, art, shop, computers, foreign language- you would take two and master both...I'd love to be inside your head for ten minutes." Sarah tapped her friend on the forehead.

"Funny, I'd like to get out of it for ten minutes. Five even." Billy sighed and leaned on the wall. "Would they let us go in already. The last thing I need is for this to swell up and decide to seep." Sarah recoiled a little. "Oh, don't give me that look. I'm being realistic here. It's why I don't donate blood. I'm a klutz with rollin' veins so I don't have any blood to spare if they could even get it."

"You are such a pessimist." Sarah was leaning beside her.

"And you're always Miss Silver Lining. We balance each other out. You're a planner. I'm a doer. You're a people person and I put the anti in anti-social. You're good with words and I mix them up in three languages. You're a musician. I'm a mechanic. You've had two boyfriends in seven years. I take what I want, when I want it and am gone in fifteen minutes. You're going to be a teacher and I'm a geologist in training. After this, you'll be a Cardinal and I'll be a Wildcat." Billy leaned fondly against her oldest friend.

Something drew Sarah attention to the rear of the line and Billy followed her friend's gaze to a guy in the back. Sarah looked hurt and Billy looked homicidal. Billy turned and ducked her head in close. "What did he do? He's done something. I can tell. I know you don't tell me things, because I don't like him and never really have. I've kept quiet for five years, because you liked him, but I told you when you first got together that I didn't trust him. Something about him just never sat right with me. Now he's done something to make you take off his promise ring. Now tell me what I need to kill him for. I shouldn't have let you talk me out of threatenin' him in the first place."

"You were gonna put the fear of God into him." Sarah was carefully dancing around actually answering.

"It wasn't God I wanted him afraid of. He screws up and barring intervening causes, he'll answer to God in sixty-plus years as an old gray man who died peacefully in his bed. I wanted to make it clear that if he were to screw up in certain ways, I would be the intervening cause and he could answer to God as misshaped, teenage eunuch who died screaming and begging in some remote place where the body would never be found. You said I'd scare him off. I didn't scare Anthony off with the same speech and you dated him for two years. Sure, it scared him enough that he had a nose bleed right after, but he was a great guy and you're still friends. Now, quit stalling and tell me. Do I need to figure it out? I can do that. You know I can. How many times have I done it and had you call me creepy for it?" Billy looked between the two and then cocked her head a second.

"You were happy after you went out Thursday night, so it wasn't about that. Your grandparents came in from Chicago yesterday, so you haven't seen him until today. He couldn't have done too much while you were all getting ready in the cafeteria...He's only an ass when he doesn't have many witnesses...wait, you're both in band so you would have had to come earlier to help get the eighth graders settled in as your replacements." Sarah was looking very uncomfortable by then.

"So it happened in the music areas...It had to be something major." Billy suddenly seemed on the verge of charging off after the offending ex-boyfriend, but Sarah grabbed her wrists and held fast. "He's banging the sophomore than plays the flute. I heard he was, but I had no proof." Billy ground out her conclusion. "I take it you got far more proof than you wanted?"

Sarah maintained her grip, but seemed stunned that Billy knew.

"Why are you that surprised? Surely, Lacey told you. I don't know how stupid you have to be to tell your friends about the taken guy you're after anyway in the presence of his girlfriend's sister and friend both." Billy seemed surprised that Sarah was surprised.

"What do you mean Lacey would have known? When was this?" Sarah was scrambling for information and the band was starting to play.

"I took both languages they offer, remember? That means I took German II with nineteen sophomores and a few slacker juniors. The little trollop was going on about it in the communal language lab when Lacey was in from Spanish II and we all could hear her in-between bits of dialogue on the head phones. This was clear back, God, between Valentine's and my birthday- so late February, early March, I think. It was before spring break, because people were making plans for it."

Billy was torn between trying to comfort her friend, something she was never good at, and murdering the cheating boyfriend, which she was more than capable of. In the end, she followed Sarah into the gym when they were motioned in. Billy cast one last look back, making eye contact and fixing the cheater with a look that even made several people standing between them and both observers in the van recoil. If it wasn't for witnesses, he'd been a dead man already. That much was clear.

Hardison quickly switched to the ceremony feed and they both were so transfixed they jumped when Sophie and Eliot opened the doors.

"What has you two so jumpy?" Eliot was in threat assessment mode.

Sophie leaned in to see the screen they were huddling in front of. "Is that graduation?"

"Uh, yeah." Hardison answered quickly and pulled it up on the other screens. "They're streaming it online. It's was a thing the outgoing computer science class did." Hardison had checked the set up. It was clean and had backups. It was a lovely piece of work to him. Economy. Elegance. Reliability. Those were hallmarks he was starting to associate with anything Billy had a hand in and she was one of only six seniors in the combined programming and web design class.

"What has you so on edge then? What happened?" Eliot was determined to get an answer.

"Billy had a run in with the vice principal and it doesn't sound good." Hardison offered.

"And she wants to kill her friend's boyfriend for cheating with a flautist." Parker continued. She got a few eyebrows for her matter of fact statement and choice of words both.

Hardison grimaced. "I get the impression the girlfriend caught the flautist in question playing a whole different instrument this morning in the band rooms."

Sophie nodding knowingly. She understood best how much of a hot-head Billy was inclined towards being at times. "If looks could kill..."

Hardison finished her thought, "...he'd be a smoking scorch mark on that tacky institutional tile."

"Let's get out of here so we can keep an eye on things without him wonderin' why we're still settin' here. There was an alley a few blocks from here we can use." Eliot gave Sophie directions and she slipped out to collect her new car.

The two vehicles parked side by side in the small parking lot of a body shop that had gone out of business that was just off the alley. The three generally ignored the series of boring speeches, including the valedictorian who pretended to have brought his shopping list and not his speech as an opener, while they were waiting for Sophie to rejoin them. The young speaker had wisely kept it short and, soon, the principal was was reading names and accomplishments as each student crossed the stage.

Sophie climbed back inside and looked expectantly back at the screen. On the feed, Sarah held Billy's crutches while her friend used the back of the chair in front of her to stand and the two headed for the stage with their row. Each student typically returned to their seat once they crossed the stage, but "Sarah Marie Carey" waited at the far side of the stage and patiently waited as Billy mounted the stage at the announcement of "Wylene Wilhelm 'Billy' Carlisle", earning a wince from the young woman in question, and her full name was followed by an impressive litany of awards, honors, and achievements from her entire school career, ending with the scholarships she had already gotten and her acceptance into the University of Kentucky.

The last step to the platform was one too many, because her knee clipped her right crutch as it swung outward to allow her to raise her foot up the remaining distance. Predictably, Billy went down on all fours, busting both sets of knuckles between the floor and the crutches' grips and adding to the collection of bruises she always had on her arms and legs. Laughing and smiling at her own clumsiness, Billy threw a reassuring quip out. "Well, that was bound to happen. I should know better than to think I'd get out of here without one last accident for old times' sake." She matter-of-factly dug out the pair of handkerchiefs she carried for just this sort of thing, wrapped her bleeding knuckles, and raised herself to her feet. She gamely accepted pats on the back in lieu of a handshake and managed to take her diploma folder, but turned it over to a waiting and slightly worried Sarah before deciding she'd have better luck dismounting with only one crutch, passing the right one to her friend, and managing to get down without falling this time.

The pair made a brief stop while the next name was read to reassure Billy's mother and grandmother, sitting on the bottom bleacher, that Billy was fine. Gran poked her in the ribs and chided her about being careful. Billy simply nodded, kissing her cheek and indicating to Sarah to let her grandmother hold onto the diploma. With one last whisper in Gran's ear, Billy slipped a paper from inside her vest into the folder and returned to her seat.

"What do you make of that?" Hardison peered at the screen.

"It look like she's sensin' trouble and hedgin' her bets," Eliot had a look that said he was sensing trouble too.

The ceremony was ending and people were leaving the gym while the graduates were waiting to be directed back to claim their coats. In the van, they chuckled at Billy stuffing her mortar board back in the plastic sack and shedding the cumbersome robe to place with it while still in the chairs on the gym floor. Sarah took it and handed it off to Annie Carlisle as the new graduates were finally herded back to the cafeteria. They were still laughing at their young friend's unfailing sense of practicality while Hardison was searching through the feeds to find the cafeteria. He jerked back when he found it.

"Looks like she was right to expect trouble." Eliot growled, getting three nods of agreement.

**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**BREAK**

Parker looked back at Hardison over the top of the boxes they were loading into the back of the van. He looked like he was thinking really hard about something. Hardison had a whole list of things he needed and, when they split up, Eliot and Sophie left in the car to do things and Parker and Hardison took the van to get things, lots of things. They were nearly done and ready to meet up, so they could check out the place Sophie had found for their city base, off load what they could, and head back. Sophie had texted them an address with instructions to come whenever they were ready.

"You okay, girl? You haven't said much since..." Since Billy left that woman unconscious on the floor and never missed a step walking away. It had been kind of a shock for everyone to watch that. It was like the person they knew went away for a little while and the one that took her place was scary.

"Is she okay?" That wasn't really what Parker wanted to ask, but she wasn't sure what exactly to say.

"Yeah, I think the little mama is fine. She caught herself on the doorway and I'm pretty sure the baby wouldn't have even noticed. There's lots of cushioning and stuff."Hardison fumbled for the words and passed her several bags to put somewhere. "She lost her balance when you guys were working on that wall, right? They both were fine after that. This was probably about the same."

She reached for the garment bags to lay on top. "That's not what..."

"I know. I just..." He trailed off and closed the doors. Coming around to climb in the driver's seat, he looked at her as they fastened their seat belts and put the address in the GPS. He was just as thrown as she was.

"That person is scary. I don't know her, not that her."

Hardison didn't look at her or say anything at first. He seemed to be concentrating on the directions from the GPS and the pings and alerts coming from the computers behind them. "I get what you mean. It's like someone threw a switch and she became someone else, but, Parker, Eliot came be like that and we know him. We trust him with our lives. How many bad spots has he got us out of?"

"I know, but it was hard to get used to both Eliots. I didn't know there were two Billy's. This other one just appeared." Parker was quiet again and Hardison busied himself changing lanes and turning. He had his thinking face on.

"I wouldn't say there were two of them. They just... go places in their head that I don't think they want to go, but they learned they have to sometimes. It's a survival thing. They do what they gotta do to get out of a situation alive. Eliot has had a lot of close calls and he has to worry about us now, too. That's his job. He used to retrieve stuff for people and now he retrieves us when we get in in over our heads. He gets scary so he can take care of us. Billy not really different. She's a mama now. That changes pretty much everything, whether she wants it to or not. She's been in some scrapes, knows how to take punishment, and can just as easily dish it out. Maybe she'd been more inclined to let things go before, but she's got a kid to worry about gettin' hurt. Takin' care of that kid is pretty much her top priority for the rest of her life. We saw it. She was fallin' face first for a metal door frame and she made sure the baby would be safe before she moved her arm up in front of her to keep from banging her head. Her core instincts have completely rewired themselves to protect something that could curl up in the palm of her hand and she's totally okay with that. That's the way good moms are. You know what they say about a mama bear and her cub. Billy went mama bear, because she thought she had to and then got them both out of there. She was fierce, but that's a good thing. She's gonna protect her little peanut."

"Apple." Parker mumbled as they turned onto the street leading to their destination.

"What?" Hardison was confused by the sudden shift in conversation.

"That's what her book said. The baby is about the size of an apple now."

"My bad. She didn't want her apple sauced and took care of business. She's the same girl you been making friends with the last couple days. She's probably setting somewhere, with a book, chilling out and waiting for the party to start so it can be over. She'd probably talk to you about it if you wanted to. You might want to wait though. She's probably a little unsettled right now."

Parker nodded. "Look. There's the house." She pointed to a Victorian in need of a little work with a black sedan in the driveway.

Hardison made some noise about making up a couple work van signs for them. No one would look twice at a work van parked in the drive way of a place needing a little TLC. A few hats, shirts, and coveralls would have them go unnoticed for months. The two car garage could easily conceal the van, if they stayed overnight.

"Let's go find those two and see what stays here and what needs to go back with us. I think I'm gonna need a few more computers and a printer for here, at the very least." Hardison released his seat belt and got out, leaving Parker to follow.

He hadn't been too helpful, though he had helped some, Parker decided, as she followed Hardison inside. She needed to talk to Sophie or, maybe, Eliot, but he'd make those faces when she asked. He might be the better choice, but he wouldn't be the easy one to ask or the clearest. Sophie first, then Eliot if she still needed something answered. If she waited a little bit, she could ask Billy instead of Eliot and she'd have the answers Parker wanted and could probably explain them too, if she needed it. Billy was really good at explaining things.

The guys were wandering around, inspecting this "secondary base" as Eliot called it. Hardison was trying to decide what he should bring in from the van that could stay here. Eliot was banging around in the kitchen. It was shelter. It would be fine as long as there was food as far as Parker was concerned and she told Sophie as much when she asked for her thoughts.

"Yes, I suppose one can live with the basic amenities, but I do rather enjoy my comforts. I think the kitchen is really the only room that is truly finished, though I would like to add a coat of paint and give it warmer feel." Sophie took a seat on the staircase and gestured for Parker to join her, as Hardison hurried past to collect a few things out of the van.

"What's on your mind, sweetie? You've been rather quiet for a while now." The older woman hooked her arm around one of the railing spindles and leaned against it, as she fixed Parker with a thoughtful look. "You've been thinking about something since we saw what happened in the cafeteria. Are you alright?"

"How can someone be like that? Calm and relaxed one minute, knocking someone out the next, and, then, calm again." Parker poked at some drops of water that had fallen off her jacket onto the tread of the step she sat on.

"Ah, that. Well, I think we agree that she had quite a trigger for that first transition and the second was an illusion. I doubt she was as calm as she seemed. They say the sins of the fathers shall not be visited on the sons and daughters, but that old bag was determined to punish someone for Gran making her a fool. The grandmother's words turned into a confrontation with the granddaughter. That old woman is a treasure. I can understand why so many are so fondly devoted to her. She has a way with people. Billy handled herself rather masterfully as well. She had won the argument utterly, leaving that foul woman no chance of winning, and was walking away, head high. Ms. Prescott couldn't stand being defeated that way, so she tried to drag Billy back into the fight, literally. I think anyone would have clocked her, so thoroughly and so publicly. Billy just happens to have been much bigger and stronger, fueled by anger and maternal fear, and swinging an aluminum crutch. When she comes to, Mrs-High-and Mighty is going to have two headaches . One from the concussion and one from effectively assaulting a former student. I suspect Billy would happily call it even, just to be quit of it all, but there were more than a few witnesses and they did call an ambulance." Sophie winced at the mess.

"There was blood everywhere." Parker chuckled a little at the memory.

"Head wounds bleed and there must be quite an edge where that crutch slides to adjust. Billy is going to hate dealing with this mess, but she'll be fine. Though it wouldn't hurt to ask Hardison to clean up the surveillance footage from the entry and the cafeteria, just to help things along." Sophie looked thoughtful and glanced in the direction she'd last seen their young computer expert.

"She didn't even look back, though. She just kept walking even when people were yelling behind her." Parker was still curious how someone could just completely ignore that many people reacting at once. Especially Billy, who was painfully hard wired to keep track of her environment at all times, hypervigilence Eliot had called it once.

"Ah, that. There's a Polish proverb Billy's fond of. The general translation is 'not my circus, not my monkeys'. She tries to live by that. As she usually points out, the 'monkeys' in her 'circuses' are enough to worry about without adding more. She'd already washed her hands of the people and the place, so she went on to go deal with her own circus and left that one to its ringmaster." The older woman smiled and cast a quick look at the practically wrapped package containing the rather fortuitous gift she'd picked up for her role as party guest.

Parker nodded at that reasoning. "She has every thing, but monkeys to worry about."

Sophie chuckled. "I know. It may not be as exciting as what we do, but there is always something going on there. She always seems to be in the middle of a dozen things and still knows exactly what's going on and what she's doing. I've found it to be strangely soothing these past few years just to call her up and listen to what is new with her. Somehow she always has the time to talk even when she's in the middle of something.

"Last year, I called and chatted for over an hour before I finally asked what the noise, banging, and the odd echoes were. Turns out, I'd called in the middle of her replacing the hot water heater. The old one had finally given out completely and they'd decided that instead of simply replacing it, perhaps with a larger one, that they would change over to a series of the newer, tankless ones. They'd already done the first floor so the kitchen and one bath would have hot water. When I called, she was half stuffed into a linen closet on the second floor, pulling out the lowest shelf to make room for the unit and trying to connect in to the old hot water line, while running a new circuit breaker down through the floor and walls to power it. I was so horrified at my poor timing, I tried to hang up, but she had nearly finished by then and simply needed to turn on the new breaker and see if she got hot water. I certainly forgot everything that I was dealing with for a while and she had her hot water. She never lost a beat then either. She went to flip the switch, turned on a faucet, and told me about one of the cats mistakenly thinking the locust blossoms on pond were solid ground and soaking itself by jumping in while she cleaned up her tools. She always has a story or three to make you laugh until your sides ache." Sophie fondly shook her head at the memory. Billy always seemed to find the time when she needed it or make the most of what she had, at the very least.

"So, we shouldn't worry about what happened." Parker wasn't sure if she meant that as a question or not.

Sophie patted her on the leg and pulled herself up to go find Hardison. "Until things seem otherwise, I wouldn't. I think this situation is much like the one that started this mess. Billy has it won before it ever truly starts and it's simply a matter how quickly and gracefully that's accepted by the other parties. She doesn't need our help with this, but we can help her with another matter. Shall we?"

Parker nodded and hopped up from the step and followed her into the nearest room. Eliot and Hardison were going through some of the things they'd picked up in town. Hardison thought he could leave a lot of it here.

"I mean, if I get done what I need with it now, I should be okay leaving it here. It'll make more room in the van and space is a premium at Billy's. I'm gonna go set this up upstairs and we should be able to just leave it here." He gestured at his bug making supplies. Eliot grunted and helped carry a folding table past the women and to the stairs they'd vacated.

"Hardison, can you clean up the footage from this morning and leave it neatly on the servers for the authorities to find if they come looking for it." Sophie stopped him with one hand as he passed her.

"Sure thing. I've already cleaned it up for posterity's sake. I'll go back and tidy up the hour or so on either side, blend it in a little, and it'll be all good." Hardison grinned at her. "There's a few cell phone videos circulating too. Seems a lot of people liked watching karma come down hard."

Eliot growled and turned back to them. "Who doesn't? You can tell a lot about somebody by how slow people are to help them...or if they'll help someone when they really don't want to. Any preference where you want this?" He directed the question at Sophie and she placed a hand on his back, pointing up the stairs.

"The attic is empty and would be perfect for him to set up. If we need to have someone here, the attic is never on the tour." She smiled at him, winning his cooperation with a mix of charm and reason.

"Come on. We've got a lot of stuff to carry and unpack before we can leave." He huffed and started up the stairs.

"The attic. Really? That's where you're putting me? There could be anything up there, spiders, bats, rats, ghosts...Y'all will miss me if something eats me or transports me to another reality." Hardison started up behind Eliot.

"Ghosts and another reality? That's what you're worried about? Let me tell you about this reality where there's no ghosts, but there are these spiders in Cambodia that..."

Their voices faded as they went upstairs, though Hardison's "Why did you tell me that, man!" was plain enough. The two women looked at one another and laughed.

Sophie slipped her arm through Parker's. "We have some time before we need to start back. Shall I give you the tour?" Sophie seemed a little pleased by the prospect, so Parker nodded and only vaguely listened to her friend go on about architecture and color schemes. Her mind was on which questions she could ask Billy tonight. Sophie's house wasn't the only one she was going to explore today.