"Auntie Court! Auntie Court!" two voices chorused.
The owner of one of the voices skidded to a pretty decent halt in front of her. The other one didn't bother to stop before she rammed right into Cover Girl's legs and clung on for her dear little snow-jumper-clad life.
Courtney wobbled at the impromptu tackle, her feet sliding on the slick stone at the impact, and couldn't quite get her balance back under her before a pair of big hands grabbed her from behind her shoulders.
"Auntie Court, you're back, an' you know, I got an 'Excellent' on my last card—" the voice was muffled, but still mostly understandable, even though that small face was currently pressed right into Courtney's stomach—was that Munchkin? God, it really was! When had she gotten so lanky?—"And Sunshine got it in everything, but you know, she's weird like that—"
"But she got voted class representative," and, yes, that definitely sounded like Sunshine's grumbly little voice, and when Courtney looked up from the little auburn head buried in her abdomen, it was to meet a pair of deep blue eyes in a small, scowling face. "And Mama said we could have whatever we wanted for our birthday as long as it's not 'two deer.' What does that mean, Auntie—"
"Yeah!" the limpet wrapped around her legs added. "We've got deer in our backyard, but there's more than two of them!"
Courtney Krieger would have ordinarily been embarrassed at the fact that those had definitely been Beach Head's big hands stabilizing her against the onslaught of hands wrapping around the backs of her knees... if it weren't for the sudden realization that her nieces had grown in her absence. Again.
And if it weren't for the fact that she heard him mumble, just a little bit behind her left ear, "Shit."
Cover Girl gave him a sharp look over her shoulder, trying to ignore the fact that Munchkin was bouncing up and down and babbling and still hadn't let go of her legs while she was doing it. "Beach," she hissed, turning to glance at him, "Language!"
He glared, let go of her shoulders and took one big step backwards.
Beach Head didn't say anything so obvious—or so stupid—as "Fuck my language, you didn't tell me there were gonna be kids involved in this!" In fact, his glittering, narrowed eyes said a lot more than that, and she suspected that if Beach Head had actually known how to cuss in other languages, the air would have been turning shades of French and Japanese and Chinese right about now.
"What was I supposed to say?" she murmured, watching the way the light caught on the hard angles of his familiar glare, those thinned lips. "'By the way, my sister's got kids, please don't eat them?'"
"You're not listening!" Sunshine informed her imperiously, crossing her arms.
"I'm listening," Courtney answered, absently, her eyes still turned to where her drill sergeant was now turning a really interesting shade of 'mottled.' "I just have a friend with me, and I want you two to meet him."
His eyes widened in something that, in someone else, she'd have called 'panic.'
Frankly, she half-expected Beach Head to beat a strategic retreat back to the car when the pair suddenly turned their attention from her… and peered from around her legs at him.
There was just the briefest moment of silence, and slowly, Munchkin unwrapped herself from around her knees and blinked up. And up. Her lower lip wobbled.
It was Sunshine, however, who demanded, suspiciously. "A friend? Really?"
"Yes, really," she replied, firmly. Sunshine was only six—she really couldn't know the difference between friend and… more than friends. Not that she and Beach Head were more than friends, not in any sense of that, er, sense, but… "Aren't you going to say hello?"
The kids blinked at her. Munchkin chewed that shaky lower lip a little pitifully.
Beach Head gave her the kind of stare that, if she'd been on the base, would have made her start running already, just to get a head start on those laps she'd be getting in the next nanosecond.
So Courtney Krieger had to admit that she was just plain shocked when it was Beach Head, their Master Sergeant and drill instructor, who sort of sighed. And then he reluctantly let his duffel fall to the pavement with a heavy 'thud,' and slowly slid down to one knee, resting his elbow casually on his bent leg.
She brought a hand up to carefully squash her grin. Even kneeling, he was still taller than her nieces.
"I'm Wayne," he answered, instead, his deep voice a soft rumble rather than a growl. It wasn't exactly amicable, but… at least it definitely wasn't his normal bark. "I work with your Aunt Courtney."
Her nieces both stared at him from a careful, wary distance.
Courtney vaguely wondered if she had anything like a tissue in her jacket pockets, just on the off chance that one of them started to cry. She wouldn't anticipate that reaction from Sunshine—it was anyone's guess if Sunny ever cried—but… Hell, Beach's glare on a bad day had made fully grown, military-trained men sob like, well, six-year-olds. And she didn't want to think that this was a bad day, but she had the sinking feeling he might not exactly share that particular opinion.
Finally, Munchkin wrinkled her nose. "You look mean," she informed him, decisively. "And you talk funny."
Oh, Hell. Courtney bit her lip. If she started cracking up now, he really was going to give her laps, on leave or not…
Well… but that reaction was better than the crying?
She'd give the kiddos that—he might not have been glaring, but Beach Head at purely neutral—which he actually was, right now—wasn't exactly the friendliest-looking man in the world, either.
But Sunshine frowned at her sister and stamped one little blue waterproof boot. "Bad! Munchkin, that's rude! Say you're sorry to him!"
Well… okay, that was… interesting. Courtney heaved a little sigh of relief, looking carefully between them. Apparently she didn't have to be responsible for disciplining her niece for saying something about Beach—well, especially since Munch was right on both counts, and... she'd have felt like a hypocrite, considering that she'd said a lot worse about him and on multiple occasions.
"But he does!" Munchkin turned around and glared at her sister. "And he does!"
The scowl—on Sunshine's face, not on Beach Head's—deepened. "I'm telling Mama!"
And with that, just as quickly as they'd arrived, they were gone—leaving Wayne still kneeling on the stone pathway at what was almost, but not quite, eye-level to a six-year-old, and Courtney trying not to die of what felt like an interesting combination of embarrassment and hysteria. Oh, God, just the look on his face…
"Jesus H. Christ," he muttered, pushing himself back to his feet with a quick, graceful jerk, and scooping up his duffel again. "What the Hell's the world coming to?"
Cover Girl snorted. Loudly. "Why? Because the kiddos come as a matched pair, or because Munchkin has you pegged?"
He gave her a strange look sideways, which just struck her as ironic to the extreme. "I'm talkin' about the fact that those two little girls look a whole Hell of a lot like you, Cover Girl. There something you not telling me?"
"Wha—hey! No!" Courtney blinked, her eyes narrowing—then she grinned, a little sheepishly. She was so used to that particular fact that, well, she'd mostly forgotten it—other than the realization that every time she saw them, Munchkin and Sunshine really did look more and more like her. "No, it's just that, well…"
"Courtney! Oh, you know, I really didn't believe you were coming, I really didn't, I mean, every other vacation there's always been this or that or saving the world one bobby pin at a time…" her sister—the twins' mother—scampered out into the driveway with her auburn hair bouncing—yes, scampered.
Courtney rolled her eyes; Tess never did anything at a walk. Ever. Whether it was cleaning, cooking, or, heck… getting pregnant. "Tess, you know I try, but—"
But that beautifully curled mass of waves to those slim shoulders, the hint of blusher on her sister's cheeks, made Courtney just a little bit jealous—how long had it been since she'd last actually set her hair and put makeup on her face? Six months? No, wait, more than that, the last big formal shindig that the team had put together had been about nine months ago…
It was as if Tess wasn't actually listening to her—which was possible. "And you really did bring someone?" she continued, her blue eyes—Sunshine's dark blue—wide and laughing as she looked right past Courtney—Cover Girl didn't even have to turn to know that Beach Head was probably staring his hazel eyeballs out. "My God, the sky's just fallen. Really, it… Hello there! Oh! I really thought the girls were talking about a stuffed animal that Courtney had brought them, or something. You know, you must be military. You're very brave, to come to Thanksgiving with us."
Courtney planted her hands on her hips and scowled. "How come he gets greeted before me?"
"I greeted you," Tess explained, wide-eyed with innocence. "He's just more interesting."
"Hey!" But Courtney laughed. That was the thing about coming home—other than the kids growing like the desert after a thunderstorm, nothing ever changed. And she found herself wrapped in a tight embrace, her sister smelling—like always—of lavender, those wiry arms in a white, fluffy down jacket wrapped tightly enough around her to spin her around. "Aw..."
Cover Girl could see over Tess' shoulder that Master Sergeant Wayne Sneeden was, in fact, staring—his hazel eyes, in fact, visibly wider, struck totally speechless at the sight of Theresa Krieger.
Courtney grinned at him.
Honestly? She wasn't really bothered much by this—or, at least, she was used to it. Most guys did tend to get kind of speechless at the sight of her older sister—even when Tess was just in jeans and an enormous, fluffy white down coat with fuzzy trim, like now. Courtney could honestly say that most every straight man she'd ever met thought Tess was absolutely gorgeous.
Well… that, and Beach Head's sudden silence might have had a little something to do with the fact that she and Tess were identical twins.
"Hell, Princess, you're multiplying," he muttered, finally, shaking his head.
She smirked. No, they weren't as identical as they'd been, once upon a time. But Cover Girl was pretty sure that if no-one looked too closely at their muscles and no-one went looking for her battle scars, she and Tess could still pass for each other.
"Oh, he calls you Princess!" Tess exclaimed happily, pulling away and patting both her cheeks with soft, mittened hands. "Court, that's so sweet!"
Cover Girl bit her lip—hard—very hard—to keep from collapsing into giggles at the horrified expression on Beach Head's face. Well, if he wasn't going to say anything about how it definitely wasn't an endearment, who was she to disabuse Tess of her happy little dreams?
"Anything else you're planning to throw at me, Courtney?" he growled, deep in his chest.
Cover Girl just grinned, and slung one arm over Tess' shoulders, scooping up her duffel with the other. "You coming in, Ranger Man?"
The thought that Beach Head had ways to get back at her that had nothing to do with horrible physical torture had, Courtney admitted, not occurred to her.
She'd forgotten something rather important, actually: that while their missions were still just as classified as they'd always been (and he knew that her family thought she was just a mechanic for the army anyway) their training on the base wasn't classified. And while he was quiet most of the way through dinner, well…
It kind of started going downhill when Tess, in her happily oblivious way, asked what exactly he did for the army.
It was well on its way downhill by the time he mentioned that he'd once had her running through the obstacle course belting out the "Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog" song.
The voices of her family burst out almost in chorus.
"You made her sing? Why would you do that to yourself?"
"Oh, you poor dear!" Tess' eyes—the traitor!—were wide with horror. "Did you have earplugs?"
"Well, just goes to show, our military really is made up of amazingly brave men and women…" her father mused.
"Hey!" Courtney interrupted, thoroughly annoyed, rapping on the table with her knuckles. "I'm right here, you know! And I'll have you know that I warned him I couldn't sing, but nooo…"
But—of course—no-one listened to her.
Though, honestly… she had to admit that she didn't really mind. First of all, because it was actually really entertaining watching him try to hold a conversation without swearing in front of her nieces—and he really was trying.
And, second… the fact that he called her parents "ma'am" and "sir" in his soft drawl might have actually been the most unexpectedly endearing thing imaginable.
But, well, he'd embarrassed her enough in front of her parents and her sister that she just stood back and tucked herself carefully behind a bookshelf when Sunshine stopped in front of the couch where they'd stuck him after dinner with one of her father's history books.
Beach Head looked up from the book, and gave her younger niece the kind of look she'd seen him routinely give the ninjas. Or live grenades.
Courtney bit her knuckle to keep from laughing, because, well, the look that Sunny was giving him was the same look she'd given a live termite queen that Munchkin had found in the backyard one day.
"Which one are you?" he finally demanded. "Can't tell you two apart."
Uh-huh. Even teachers on their first day of class could tell the two girls apart.
Sunshine blinked—for just a moment—but her brows creased together in a rather unimpressed look down her nose—a real trick, considering that even seated, Beach Head definitely towered over her. "I'm Sunshine. Why do you talk like that?"
Beach Head shrugged, closing the book warily. "It's my accent. It's how people talk where I'm from."
Sunshine blinked again, and hopped onto the couch next to him, folding her hands neatly in her lap. Cover Girl half-expected Beach to try and move just a little away from her, but he just put the book aside. "The army?"
That actually coaxed a quick, startled bark of a laugh out of him, much to Courtney's bemusement. "Nah. Alabama. It's—"
"I know what Alabama is," Sunshine interrupted, frowning. "I'm very smart, you know."
"Yeah?" but… was that her imagination? Had Beach Head's lips actually twitched at that? But he just leaned back against the cushions and opened the book again. Oh, that's not a good move, Wayne… Courtney smirked and leaned against the wall to enjoy the show. Sunny did not like being ignored."So why'd they name you 'Sunshine?' Seems like you're kind of a grouchy little know-it-all."
Good grief, Beach. Courtney rolled her eyes. Go ahead, insult a six-year-old.
But even though Sunshine was frowning—well, she was always frowning—she didn't look all that offended. And while it was possible that she hadn't gotten it, it was hard to deny Sunny's claim that she was, in fact, a lot smarter than the average six-year-old. Actually, sometimes Courtney thought that the little girl was smarter than the average adult.
"'Cause I'm my mommy's sunshine," she explained, finally.
"What's that mean, huh?" Beach demanded.
"You know," she replied, impatiently. "Like the song."
He slowly turned a page. "What song?"
"You don't know the song, Uncle Wayne?" blue eyes widened at him, and Sunny twisted in her prim seat on the sofa to stare at him.
"Like I said," he retorted, still looking down at the page—and, Courtney was pretty sure, ignoring the fact that she was calling him 'Uncle Wayne' with everything he had. "What song?"
Sunshine actually looked shocked—which, Courtney had to admit, was a first for the girl. She leaned towards him and cocked her head, studying him suspiciously—but Beach Head's face didn't so much as twitch.
"Everyone knows the song!" her niece complained, and there was almost something plaintative in her voice.
"Well, I don't," Wayne replied, calmly. "Guess you're gonna have to teach it to me, then."
And that was definitely a twinkle in his otherwise flat, calm hazel eyes.
It only took him five minutes more to get Sunshine singing "You Are My Sunshine" at the top of her little lungs.
And by then, Courtney had had to step out onto the porch before she completely lost it, despite the subzero temperatures outside, despite the sheer, ridiculously incongruous cuteness of the scene, and despite the fact that she knew her very well-meaning and very nosy sister was lying in wait outside with a cigarette and about a hundred questions.
Nope. Not a hundred questions. Maybe a thousand. Or two. She'd lost count.
And she was going to be staying out here, frostbite on the tip of her nose be damned, until she knew her twin had gone to bed. If she went inside now, Tess was guaranteed to have thought of something else that she'd forgotten to ask. And considering she'd already run through all the innocent questions, it was probably going to be something embarrassing, and she'd probably ask in front of Wayne.
Or, worse, in front of their parents.
Wait… okay, no, maybe asking in front of Beach Head would be worse. Which was saying something.
It wasn't that she'd been keeping Beach a secret from them… well, strictly speaking, there'd been nothing to keep from them, right? It wasn't like they were… anything. He was someone she respected, and someone she liked, and maybe she was attracted to him, but if she'd been with everyone she'd ever been attracted to, she'd have had to become a Mormon or something!
Or, okay, if they were something—and she wasn't admitting they were!—it mostly involved late-night chats and a drink out together now and again. It definitely didn't involve kissing, hugging, dancing, going on dates, or… or anything that had been brewing in her sister's imagination. The fact that Tess was such a romantic was, she'd always thought, part of the reason why Munch and Sunny even existed.
"Um," Tess had replied, "You do know that he's the only guy you've ever brought home, like ever, like even in high school, right?"
The, "Look, he's a friend, I didn't want him to be alone on Thanksgiving, and yes I know he's got an amazing body and what does that have to do with anything?" explanation hadn't really gone over all that well.
It'd actually resulted in the, "Court, you're not pregnant, are you?" question.
Well… Courtney blew on her hands before sticking them back into her lined jacket pockets. Actually, considering that Tess had already pulled out that particular bomb, she wasn't sure there were any more questions that her twin could ask that would be more embarrassing.
The screen door slid open, and she winced, involuntarily. Wait, God, I didn't mean that, honest, I'm sure you can think of something else that's worse…
But it wasn't Tess with a new slew of questions, and she heaved a sigh of relief, her breath a white cloud as Beach Head stepped out onto the porch.
Courtney had a brief moment to realize just how weird the thought of 'Beach Head' and 'relief' in the same sentence was.
He wasn't wearing a hat or gloves, but he'd shrugged on his black down-lined jacket—silhouetted against the house lights, it made him look even bigger. "Wondered where you'd gotten to," he muttered, swinging the door shut. "Yeah, now I see why you dragged me along, Princess—so you could run off. That family of yours is nuts."
But the smile she felt spreading over her face was, much to her surprise… well… actually genuine. "Uh-huh," she retorted. "I don't know, you seemed pretty comfortable when you were telling them about all the things you've made me do on the obstacle course? I thought Tess was going to fall right into her mashed potatoes!"
This time, the grin he gave her was more than a twitch—it was a flash of teeth. "What? Just makin' conversation, that's all."
"Oh, sell it to someone who's buying. Because that's why you spent a whole hour chatting Civil War literature with my dad, right?" she muttered.
His mouth pressed into a thin, familiar line, but his eyes were glittering in a way that she knew from long experience wasn't anger. "That's different, Cinderella. You never said your dad was a history professor."
But despite his mock-scowl, he was holding a glass out to her—a tumbler, brimming with something golden-amber. She blinked and took it from him, leaning back against the porch.
Well, it was true, her dad was a history professor—but she hadn't been the only one keeping secrets. Sure, she'd known Beach Head liked history books, but she really hadn't had any idea that he was, well, as well-read on Civil War history as he was. Well-read enough to impress her father, which, she was pretty sure, was not what her dad had expected when she'd said she was bringing a friend home for Thanksgiving dinner.
Heck, it wasn't what she'd expected.
Which sort of implied that she'd had expectations, which she hadn't, but…
Beach Head leaned out over the banister with his own drink in his hand, still muttering to himself. "…weren't plannin' to give me all the intel before the mission, huh, Cover Girl? I'm gonna get you back for that."
"Sorry. I didn't think that the big heap drill sergeant needed rescuing, otherwise I would have left the kitchen…" she replied, innocently.
"Rescuing!" this time, his characteristic scowl was out in full force when he turned and glared at her. "I didn't need any damned rescuing, but—and by the way, I've got a bone to pick with you about those kids!"
She smirked. Yes, he might have been able to hold his own against her father, but… "You needed intel about two little girls who barely come up to your knees, Wayne?" Cover Girl teased, nudging his ankle with a foot.
"Barbiedoll, when one of 'em attaches herself to my leg an' won't let go, she counts as offensive weaponry, okay?" he retorted. She swallowed her grin—hard. She didn't know when exactly Munch had decided that Beach Head might look mean, but he wasn't actually mean, but she suspected it had something to do with the fact that he'd picked her up and effortlessly slung her under his arm, one-handed, when she'd run right into his heels. "Seriously, if I don't look where I'm sitting, I swear I'm gonna flatten her."
"That must be Munchkin," she observed.
"The one who isn't mad all the time, yeah," he agreed, straight-faced.
Courtney snorted. "You are so not one to talk about being mad all the time," she pointed out. "And I don't know, seems to me that you two were getting along fine," she added, her tongue poking firmly—very firmly—into her cheek. Him trying not to smile as Sunshine warbled "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey…" Yes, that was officially her new favorite mental image of him. "And you do know her name isn't really Sunshine, right?"
"It ain't?" Beach Head took a measured sip of his drink, and glanced at her sideways. "Well, how the Hell was I supposed to know that? That clone of yours skips when she walks, I wouldn't put it past her to give her kids real fruity names."
Okay, that was… true. Which might have explained why Sunshine and Munchkin were still called, well, Sunshine and Munchkin, even though they were already in second grade. "No—Sunshine is Stephanie, and Munchkin is Meghan," she laughed. "You know, Wayne, you're pretty good with them."
Very good with them. Which wasn't just a surprise, it was… she wasn't even sure what it was. The universe imploding on itself, maybe.
But to her surprise, Beach Head just shrugged, comfortably. "Kids're easy. All you've gotta do is tell 'em what they want to hear an' make 'em feel like they're smart. They're like women that way."
This time, she kicked him—but he had his knee cocked to catch her toe against the side of his boot, rather than his shin, by the time her foot reached him.
"See?" This time, Beach Head was definitely smirking. "Damned predictable, girl."
So when she leaned over and nipped him just under his ear, it was so simple to tell herself that she was doing it just to surprise him. Just to startle him.
Just to not be so… predictable.
Even with the cold outside, his skin was warm, and when she danced away, the expression on his face was priceless.
He didn't say anything about it.
But then, neither did she. And when she spoke up again, a long, quiet moment later, she heard the thoughtfulness in her own voice. The… carefulness. She was never careful around him—was she? "I didn't realize."
"What?" she watched as he shook himself from looking out over the dark, snow-lined forest in the backyard of her childhood home.
"You told my sister that the reason you made me sing when I ran—"
"Yeah, as bad an idea as that was—"
She ignored him. "—it's because it makes me coordinate my breathing. I really didn't think there was a method to your madness. Like… ever."
"Sometimes." But this time, when she slanted a suspicious look at him sideways, Beach Head definitely was smirking.
Then he shrugged, and leaned over, pulling her against his hip with a short, barked laugh. She sucked in a breath as his arm came around her waist, the thick down of his jacket a soft swoosh against her own coat.
"And sometimes," he murmured, his lips surprisingly soft against her temple, and the firm curve of his smile like a warm brand against her skin, "Hell, you're just too much fun to torture, darlin'."
Start: August 10, 2009
End: August 12, 2009