A/N: I finally finished Book of the Dead (insert shameless plug: read that one if you haven't) and was ready to move on to some other ideas taking up space in the cloud. Who am I kidding? I'm not that cool. These ideas have been taking up space on the hard drive and probably some floppy disc before that. But faced with the specter of another few years to finish a story, I'm using Nanowrimo as the catalyst to get this one done. One month, no problem! It will either work out ok or be an epic failure of typos and gapping plot holes galore. This takes place prior to BOTD and is in the ARAH run. All non-ownership disclaimers apply. Hope you enjoy. As always, reviews—the good, the bad, and the ugly—are sincerely appreciated.

Chapter One: In the Beginning

Kansas City, Missouri: The Raphael Hotel

His hand was poised before her door as the age old question—knock or don't knock—circled around in his head. The hour was late. Eleven o'clock the night after an intense assignment was late. Knocking on her door at this time of night was sure to make all sorts of statements and innuendos. One didn't knock on a female colleague's hotel door at 11 o'clock without something more in mind. Typically, he wouldn't meet knuckle to metal unless he believed other things were going to meet. That was his old self; right now he was still navigating the new. He withdrew his hand, scratching at the spot on his forehead where felted wool rubbed sunburned skin. It was a nervous habit, one he didn't even know he had until she pointed it out one day, laughing at its predictability. One scratch meant a pause to figure out the right word, two scratches and he was pondering a paragraph worth of thoughts. Three scratches, well three meant the whole world was about to explode and he was just buying time. Buying time, sheesh, he could make a nice down payment on a time share if he stood there any longer.

He raised his hand again, ready to make that decisive move. All he needed was a little forward momentum and deed done. Could he do it?

Not yet.

He withdrew his hand wiggling his fingers at his side. No doubt about it, he was in a pickle. When one was in a pickle, it was best to withdraw forces, regroup, and restratigize. An eyebrow went up. Was restratigize even a word? Up went the hand to that exposed patch of skin. He took a step back, assessing the door. As far as hotel doors went, it was serviceable. Giving off the faint aroma of a recent paint job, the metal showed no stress fractures or divots around the handle. The keycard reader was recently installed and he had insisted that she request a fresh card and have it scanned under his watch at the front desk. The clerk had been none too happy about the ensuing check-in pile up, but it wasn't his job to make the clerk happy. It was his job to keep her safe. He was confident no one was getting inside that door unless the current occupant allowed. At least that worry wouldn't keep him up. There had been times when he stationed himself outside her door lest anything unexpected arise. Possessing circadian rhythms that could set the Navy's atomic clock, he always managed to rouse himself and slip away unnoticed before she started her day. He could fool himself and assert he would do the same for anyone on his watch. Truth be told, he wouldn't. It was for her. All for her. And because it was all for her he was finding it increasingly hard to just knock.

What was in a knock? A knock at any other time would be just a knock. Not tonight. Tonight a knock meant so much more. A knock would be serious much the way their conversations had turned as of late. A knock would kick another chink in his armor. He would be exposed and lord knew he hated that. His image was carefully crafted and maintained, a fine veneer hiding fears and complexes from the rest of the world. Although many may accuse, he was no braggadocio. What was that saying, his mouth was writing checks his body couldn't cash? Nope, no one would ever say that about him. If he said it, it was as good as the gold standard. It was what he didn't say. It was all the things he chose to keep to himself. A knock could expose that. It could expose his feelings, his self-doubt. Granted, no one staring down the barrel of Baby Jay, his shotgun, would ever suspect that his internal monologues could rival Hamlet's. They could. Yes, his true self was in there, buried deep beneath the man he projected to the world. She was starting to meet the man underneath. He suspected she liked him. Maybe even more than just liked.

They weren't always at ease with each other. In fact, their partnership had a rather rocky start. When Duke informed her of their first mission together, she expressed some displeasure at being assigned to "work with his ego." It wasn't like she had room to talk. His wasn't the only ego known to patrol the base. She'd been up in a few faces as well. First rule of engagement, do not antagonize one half of a deadly ninja duo. No, she could give as good as she could get and he saw in her a challenge, nothing more. Although one shouldn't mix work with pleasure, in his line of work that was pretty much his only option. Sure it led to Red calling him a "big 'ole walkin' horn dawg" in her exaggerated Southern drawl, but facts were facts. He was a handsome man, he saw a certain attraction to her, short hair notwithstanding, why couldn't they be discrete? Unfortunately, she didn't share his world view. Rather than swoon at the thought of him, she was more repelled. Well, as could be predicted, that only fed his resolve. Then it all changed. Back up, it wasn't as if it was a sudden realization, it was more gradual, with the Cobra attack on the Pit serving as the final death knell for his old self. After the attack, her pointed question about his fears caught him off guard. He wasn't expecting that and answered truthfully. She didn't expect him to be so forthright and responded in kind. They each took a step back and established a new baseline. She wasn't just a teammate to conquer, she was a friend. He could let his guard down.

And let it down he did. Where a conversation would have started and ended with a pick-up line, it now began with a question and spun into several days worth of debate. A note in his mailbox would state, "page 36." He knew she wanted to talk about page 36 of the novel they were both reading, the unofficial start to the Joe's book club. Although when Shipwreck took over moderating duties for a spell, the quality of the selections was dubious at best, as became the participants. Eventually books turned to cards and that was the end of their great social attempt to bring literature to the masses. He was at peace with the club's demise. He liked it better when it was just the two of them anyway. He liked having a confidant. He could admit to indecisions. She seemed to know when to comment and when to just listen. Try explaining that to Red. Red would never believe in a million years that she could just listen. But she did. And the more he was with her, the more time he wanted. She seemed to reciprocate that until tonight. Man, what to think about tonight?

The mission they just completed was hard, hard being an understatement. Their mission, which they had no choice but to accept by the way, was to infiltrate and take out a hostile cell that kidnapped some hotel heiress and threatened to blow up part of Kansas City. Mess with barbeque and you had a dog fight on your hands. The terrorists, led by an unstable Russian ex-Mafioso named Igor Stratsky, were holed up in a vacant storefront in Country Club Plaza, an outdoor shopping center with which she had more than a passing familiarity. The plan was to switch her for the heiress, get him the code, pass it to the FBI, and take down the baddies. On the plane ride over she immersed herself in footage of the heiress. A vapid character with a lazy accent and shocking platinum blonde hair, she nailed her. It was so spot-on that he found he was losing interest in her as her. Where she ended and her heiress began was a little too close for comfort. It was only when she gave a wink and a shrug before climbing into the air shaft did the reassurance flow. It was show time.

She managed to finagle her way into Stratsky's lair and he took out the two marks guarding the back door. They met in the middle where she handed off the bomb code and he hooked her up with a wire. He ran the code to the FBI and she resumed the plight of the unfortunate heiress, the bomb's location then revealed by idle chatter picked up on her mic. The FBI took over, defusing the bomb and arresting the rest of Stratsky's gang. Stratsky was found in his make-shift office, passed out in a cushioned leather chair, his oxford shirt unbuttoned and his trousers discarded under the desk. It disturbed him to have the knowledge that Stratsky was a brief man, make that a minimal brief man. He cringed at the unwanted memory. In all the surveillance footage, Stratsky was wearing pants. He wouldn't question how Stratsky came to be; some things were just best left unasked. Still, he felt the return of the restless stir of anger that shouldn't be his. It was anger that first poked up after the Destro mission. The sight of chrome dome kissing her hand was, in a word, maddening. The subtle blush that washed over her cheeks and the nervous school-girl giggle did little to soothe his spirits. No doubt about it, there was a green-eyed monster sitting on his shoulder and he had a feeling that little fiend was going to be there for a good while.

Putting those thoughts aside, the completion of the mission should have been cause for a celebration of sorts. Rather than high-fives and witty banter, she had been quiet. Quiet wasn't really the word he associated with her when dealing with maniacal sociopaths hell-bent on ruling the world through terror and intimidation. No, then she was anything but quiet. But today, after the plot was foiled and the reports submitted, she withdrew into herself and away from him. A nod of the head here, deferring to his judgment there, she was an empty canvass projecting everything away. He didn't like it. When she turned down his invitation to dinner, a real dinner with candles, a tablecloth, the works, he found he liked that even less. Even though she claimed a headache, it came off as a hollow excuse despite her exemplary acting skills. He'd been around her enough to know when she had a real headache. Persistence didn't pay off; she exhibited some frustration that he wouldn't just leave her alone. He wanted to believe they were beyond just leaving each other alone. Sure things were never stated in the declarative. They couldn't. At least that's what he thought. Maybe he was wrong.

Therefore, when she retired for the night, he couldn't follow suit. He couldn't leave it alone and now here he was, hand still in front of that blasted door, thinking of an excuse, anything, just to get inside. The sound of a crash within served as the impetus he needed. Pounding on the door with his fist he called out, "Jaye, Jaye, are you ok?"

Behind the door came the muffled sounds of someone cursing and stumbling, the scritch-scritch as she fiddled with the lock, a whoosh as the door opened a bit too fast and his pounding fist almost socked her. "Whoa!" she ducked, grabbing the doorway with her left hand, raised overhead, head peering out. "Flint? How ya doing!" She swayed in the still air, hovering, hanging by the thread of her arm.

He lifted his hand and scratched three times, the world had gone to hell. The covert operative known as Lady Jaye appeared to be about three sheets to the wind. Her pupils were dilated, struggling to maintain her focus front and center. Her body rocked in the doorway, equilibrium absent. Back to its normal color, her hair was pushed off her face by a white cotton headband. She recently started to let it grow out and he had no complaints about that. The headband served as a frame to a picture that was shockingly bare. Her grandmother always said that a lady was not a lady unless prepared with mascara and lip gloss. It was her guiding principle; he could count on his right hand the number of times he had witnessed her with no makeup. This was now number five. His eyes trailed down her figure. She was swimming in an ancient gray Army t-shirt. Pushed down athletic socks completed the ensemble, all signaling that this was a planned binge.

"What you got there?" He pointed to the arm hidden behind the door.

She giggled and bit her lip, "Nothing."

"Oh, I think there's something," he gestured with his left hand, "Out with it."

With a dramatic sigh, she lifted her right hand, holding a bottle of wine aloft like an Olympic torch. "Ta da! You found me out Mr. Hall Monitor. Are you going to report me?" She waggled the bottle in front of his nose. Her breath had a faint vinegary smell of cheap booze. He felt his balloon deflate. She tripped forward.

As he caught her, "Come on, let's get you in before anyone notices."

Looking left and right, he made sure the coast was clear before dragging her over to the edge of the bed where he plopped her down against her protestations. Surveying the somewhat tidy room, he deemed it to at least be a refined affair. On the desk across from the bed, her dinner was untouched, the silver dome still covering the plate. Refreshments, however, had been served. He picked up an empty wine bottle lying on its side. Not her usual Chateau Margaux, this bottle of red was an afterthought, a means to an end. Taking a whiff, the scent was sharp and pungent. He was by no means a wine connoisseur, but even he could recognize a skunk among the flowers. Making do, her boot knife jutted out of the discarded cork. Classy.

He pulled the desk chair over to the bed, sat down, and faced her. Her shoulders were slumped and she was sucking on her bottom lip, her nervous habit. He weighed his options and decided on a direct march up the center, "Jaye, what's going on?"

Her eyebrows lifted in an act of defiance as she put the bottle to her lips to take a drag.

"Oh no you don't," he grabbed the bottle, a few drops tumbled down her shirt, "I think you've had enough for this evening."

"Hey!" her faced puckered into a pout and she swatted at him.

Flint walked the bottle over to the desk, "You'll thank me in the morning."

Stewing, "No I won't."

Flint disappeared into the bathroom and returned with a glass of water. "Here," he thrust the glass into her hand, "drink this." Her eyes remained fixed on him, willing evil thoughts his way. Reluctantly, she obeyed. The better part of her reason was in there, somewhere. Flint just needed to fish it out. "Have you eaten anything?"

A shake of the head.

With a sigh, he got up and retrieved a cold roll from under the plate cover. Although he debated tossing it to her for the needed comic relief, he decided to take it easy on her. This wasn't the remnants of a girls' night out with Courtney and Shana. It was a self-inflicted wound masking a cry for help. Things were going to be more serious than he thought.

He allowed her time to munch on the roll before starting up his interrogation. As the food settled in her stomach, the light, while dim, came back to her eyes and some color flushed her cheeks. He pointed to the roll, she nodded, and he got up to fetch the other one as she polished off the first. She was still drunk, she was still going to hurt, but it would be a more manageable hurt.

As she dove into the second roll, she exclaimed, "I'm drunk."

Flint couldn't help but laugh, "Yes, you certainly are."

She looked forlorn, "And it wasn't even the good stuff." She sipped more water, "But it worked right, I'm drunk?"

"Yes hon, you are drunk."

"Hon?" Her eyes narrowed and her head tilted to the side. The term of endearment was a new addition.

"Figure of speech."

"Oh, ok."

He detected a note of disappointment. It was a slip-up really. They weren't there yet. Not to say he wasn't there and then some, so much so he often had to catch himself from calling her "dear" or "babe" or any number of affectionate terms, but it was the talk, the talk with a capital "T," the talk they should have and needed to have. Life couldn't be so organic when Uncle Sam was paying your bills. If she was in, if she was willing to be in, that would bring up a whole different set of obstacles and complications. But that was for another day. On this particular evening she didn't need an amorous warrant officer; she needed her friend, "Any special reason?"

"Reason?" She exhaled sharply, blowing up on an imaginary piece of hair. She swatted at it, missing her forehead by a few inches.

"For your celebration."

"Oh, yeah, I forgot about that." A giggle and then her face turned sad and serious. She looked away, "You weren't supposed to see this."

He leaned forward, placing a hand on her knee, "Hey Jaye." She ignored him. "Alison." That got her attention. "Come on, let me in."

"You don't want in on this."

"I do." He placed his other hand on her knee willing her to open up to him.

Shaking her head, she withdrew from his touch, tucking her legs up underneath her frame, "Please Flint, Dash." The name resonated with her. She glanced up at him, "I never call you Dash." She became perplexed, "I don't know why. That's your name. I just never think of you that way."

"Try."

"Dash." A smile, "I like it. Dash." A pause and then a look around the room as she leaned in conspiratorially to whisper, "but I can't call you Dash."

"Why not?" He was slightly amused by her drunken state. She was always so careful and precise with her words. Now it was like he had the inside track to her guarded secrets. He wouldn't abuse it, well, maybe.

"Because Dash is personal." She blew a quick stream of air through her lips, failing utterly in any attempt to blow a raspberry, "Because if I call you Dash then everyone will know."

That perked his ears, "Know what?" Perhaps he could salvage something out of this night.

"Oh you know," she blurted out, falling back into the safety of the comforter, wrapping her arms tight around her chest.

Flint couldn't help himself and he crawled onto the bed, sliding up next to her, resting on his side, staring down, "Tell me." It took all his self control not to trace the outline of her face.

Her heart began to beat in her chest, not that it wasn't beating before. It was only that she was now acutely aware of its presence and its response to Flint's voice and the nearness of his body, more particularly, the closeness of his lips. His lips. His whole face consumed her thoughts from the crinkling around his eyes when he smiled, a big genuine smile, to the way his right ear was slightly bigger than his left. All those things were magnified by his presence next to her on the bed. Her mind went spiraling and an Oh god crowded her thoughts because he was there, next to her, on a bed. A bed! She tried to think of something else, anything, anything to get that out of her head. Tonight wasn't supposed to be about that. It was supposed to be about, that. Her runaway brain screeched to a halt and she physically reacted, pressing down on her chest, willing her emotions to keep in check. It was too late. The tears started.

"Hey, Alison, are you ok?" Stupid question, he grimaced and reached over, brushing a tear away from her cheek. Unable to speak, she shook her head no and turned away from him, hugging herself, giving in to the pain. He felt helpless, much as he did when he watched her disappear into the ventilation system, the sunlight gleaming off of her patent leather pumps until all he could see was a void of blackness. Now with her back turned toward him, the silent sobs racking her body, he didn't want to be helpless anymore. He understood the parameters of their missions. She would be the one putting herself out there. As a tactician, he accepted that. He understood where they were strong and where they were weak. With her skills, it was crazy to do anything but what they did. But now, privately, he wasn't content to stay away from the field. He wanted in. Reaching over, hesitant, his hand hovered above her for a few moments, knowing that once he crossed the line he would never go back. As his hand plunged through the invisible plane separating the business from the personal, he sensed a metaphysical pop. He touched her forehead, his fingers tracing the outline of her face, willing to take her pain and make it his own. Her body relaxed and she shifted in to him, her back nestled against his chest. He was tense as he felt out the situation. Laying his head down, he extended an arm and she rested her head, clutching his hand in her own. His other arm draped over her side, reassuring, protecting. There they remained until she spoke.

"Seventeen years ago my father took the family with him on a business trip to Milan. He didn't like to travel alone, said he'd done too much of that in his life, and always saw each trip as a potential adventure. We saw the best of the world and the worst. He held nothing back. But I didn't join everyone on this particular trip. Summer camp hadn't let out yet so I stayed behind with Grandmother Hart. I'd fly over the next week. School came first." She lowered her eyelids and scrunched up her mouth in an imitation of her father, her pointed finger emphasizing every word, "Education is an opportunity we don't take for granted."

"First order of business for them was a visit to a recent acquisition of Hart Industries, some textile manufacturing plant on which my dad had set his sights. It was in a more ragged section of town he thought could benefit from some capital infusion. Being a businessman, he also thought it was in a prime location to supply last minute orders for Milan's fashion week. He had all sorts of ideas for that factory from retrofitting it to running a resource collective to encourage workers to submit designs.

"Giovanni Moretti, the head foreman, met my dad to take him on a tour of the plant. At the last moment, dad decided to have my mom and brother come along. My mom was into fashion and he thought Jimmy would benefit from observing the on-the-ground aspects of the business." Her words took over, recounting the story burned into her brain from 20 years of obsessive attention to the details. In her mind's eye, she was there, a passive observer, forever a witness to the defining event of her life.

Signor Moretti led the group out onto the manufacturing floor, pointing out the fabric machines installed by Hart Enterprises to Mrs. Elizabeth Hart-Burnett, "Signora, with this addition we can now double the short term output with less time and improve quality check."

Elizabeth examined the pooling fabric between her fingers. "Signor Moretti, it's beautiful! Look dear," she turned to James Burnett Jr., "they even got the pink flowers right." The fabric at issue, spouting out of a fast weave loom, which James was betting would revolutionize the plant, was a pattern designed by one designer-in-training, young Alison Hart-Burnett. Feeling bad that his youngest was stuck with his wife's mother, a fate he privately considered worse than death, James planned on having something made for her from a picture she had drawn. When he picked her up from the airport next week, it would be a special surprise to make up for any perceived abandonment.

"And here," Moretti ushered the group through a set of plywood double doors, "is where we process incoming orders."

Elizabeth screamed and grabbed Jimmy, shoving him behind her body. Moretti had led them into an auxiliary office where four masked men waited, guns raised and pointed at the family.

"Hands up where I can see them." Moretti stalked around James whose hand was leveled at his chest, his small pistol concealed in the inside pocket of his blazer. He never traveled without it. James slowly lifted his hands, glancing at Elizabeth, desperate to give her reassurance. His blood was boiling and if it was him, he'd fight. But with his family there, he wouldn't do something stupid and risk their lives. Chances were they just wanted a little extortion, something to pad the coffers. He'd dealt with it before and would do so again. He submitted to Moretti's inspection and didn't flinch when Moretti slapped him across the face seizing the pistol, "Trying to pull a stunt Signor Burnett? Don't be foolish." Moretti turned to Elizabeth and Jimmy, "I am sorry Signora, we were told only Signor Burnett was touring. You will excuse that we are not prepared for you as we should be."

"What do you want?" James cut in.

"The end of our corporate masters and the imperialist state they control." Moretti motioned to one of the men, who walked over, grabbed James' hands and began to tie them behind his back. "We fight for the freedom of Italia's people. We will not be toys for the foreign elite."

Lady Jaye came back to the present, "They were members of the Red Brigades, a Marxist group seeking the revolution of Italy. They were violent terrorists who kidnapped, robbed, and assassinated. They created such fear that the years of their main existence were known as the Years of Lead. But dad didn't worry about them. At the time my parents went over, the BR targeted Italian officials. This was their first strike against Americans. It was just, I don't know, random." Her words were disjointed as she struggled to make sense of it all, "Of all the factories in the world, my father picked that one, engaging in a bidding war with a British firm to get it. All the research and due diligence that went into the acquisition failed to disclose the ties to the BR? That's what they did, they went after factories. But there was never any thought. Italy, right? I mean, Italy? Who doesn't go to Italy because they'll be kidnapped and held for ransom? Talk about left field." She blew at the imaginary hair on her forehead.

"My grandmother received a phone call shortly thereafter from an affiliated source relaying the terms for their release. An exorbitant amount of money and an agreement that the Hart's would use their influence to persuade U.S. NATO officials to seek to expel Italy from the alliance." She let out a sarcastic laugh, "Yeah, good luck with that one."

"Well, you can imagine what happened," she suddenly affected an aristocratic air, "We do not negotiate with kidnappers. The Harts will pay no ransom. We do that now, we will never survive. We do not give in." She paused, her words choking in her throat, "Stodgy old bat was probably right, but it was my family, not hers. That was my mom, it was my dad, it was Jimmy." She paused, trying to quell the torrent of emotion bubbling to the surface, "Flint, she was playing Russian roulette with a 16 year old. I have to believe, deep down, that it was because of my dad. Maybe if my dad wasn't there she would have found a way. The presence of my father elevated the situation, it made it a headline. She did not bow to headlines."

She paused, her tone softer, almost dejected, "Then again, maybe she knew. Maybe she knew no matter what she did it would end up the same. Why give up your principles if it wouldn't change anything? She held her ground and thirty days later they were dead. Realizing that she wouldn't negotiate, fearful of discovery, they decided to kill them. Dumping their bodies behind the factory, the BR fled, gone from the map." She looked up at the ceiling, the anguish fighting over her face, holding back the torrent of tears that wanted to fall. Finding her composure, she continued with a sharp exhale, "Although Grandmother Hart buried the story in the back pages, Uncle Robert kept up the search. It took years. He did it though; he tracked down the four gunmen, lobbied for their extradition, and donated all sorts of assistance to the prosecution. It was an airtight case. They'll never see the light of day.

"Giovanni Moretti, now he was another story. When the Red Brigades were on the run, he turned. Suddenly he was a good guy, working for the government. The Italians claimed he had renounced the BR and was a collaborator di giustizia," she emphasized the words with her hand, "a collaborator with justice. And just like that," a snap of her fingers, "he disappeared into Italy's version of the witness protection program. Untouchable. Life went on. But I didn't forget. I couldn't. I thought with enough time, he would atone for his deeds." Her words trailed off as she stared out into the distance.

"I've tracked down every possible lead and he remains, untouchable." She pointed over to an envelope resting on the nightstand, "Every time I think I've found him, it turns into another dead end. I have to give it to the Italians, they've erased his existence." She turned her head toward him, "I thought if I could pour enough money, I'd get him and he would pay. But everyday it becomes harder and harder. Memories are short, people die. Now it's a torched records warehouse. But I will find him, he will know pain." Her voice turned hard and bitter, her eyes focused. To Flint she was like a valkyrie deciding who would live and die in battle, confident in her decision. Flint sensed the panic just beneath, the fear that Moretti would slip away forever. She was good at that. She could compartmentalize, setting her true feelings aside to play a part. Nonetheless, he was starting to catch on to her. He thought he alone could truly read her and he was reading her now. She wasn't so strong; she needed him.

Flint pulled her into his body, holding her close. How he wanted to take it all away. It wasn't his to take. Not yet. It was a start and gave him hope, hope that someday, maybe, just maybe, they would have more. She pushed away from him, her gaze intently fixed on his face. His hand moved on its own, wiping away the tears streaking her cheeks and pooling under her chin, following the curve of her face up to her lips, brushing them, his fingers lingering. Then it happened, he couldn't say how, but suddenly her eyes were closed and her face was upturned, meeting his, lips to lips, a delicate need turned into a ferocious roar. He struggled to keep his body in check. Futile, it was on autopilot, responding to her touch, doing what a male body will do, flesh separated from its brain. His mind was drowning in desire. He knew he had to fight to surface. A moan drifted through the room and he couldn't tell if it was her or him. He wrapped his arms around her, crushing her against his solid chest. Eyes closed, he succumbed.

"Wait," her voice was breathless and disjointed, "wait, I," she moved her lips away from his, resting them next to his cheek.

He was a man drugged, barely able to register the stop in commotion, "Whaaaa?"

Sniffling, she composed her thoughts, "Do you know how I got Stratsky to give up the code?"

It was a bucket of cold water dumped on his head. Damn, he didn't want to open this box. He feared hope wouldn't be enough to get him through.

She was good at reading body language and sensed the change in his. She wrestled herself away from his embrace, turning her back to him. He rested a hand on her shoulder, bracing for the worst. She had to get this out, she would get this out. She couldn't say why it seemed so important at the time. It just did. She felt he had to know before anything more happened. The need was urgent and irrational. She had to tell him, she just had to, "I negotiated with him on his level. I . . ."

Flint squeezed her shoulder, "Please, Alison, I, I don't want to know." He was met by silence, only the rise and fall of her back gave any indication she was listening. He began again, "I know there are going to be things you have to do to save people, to save yourself. I'd like to think that I'm a big man and can accept that. The problem is I'm just a man. I'm not so sure if I can, well, you know." He sighed, "Maybe you don't know. It's not you, not what you have to do." Flint's speech picked up momentum, "It's the thought of them, the thoughts I would have of what I'd want to do to anyone who touched you. I'd never think badly of you. You're my best friend. You're more than my best friend, you're. . ." Suddenly the silence was too uncomfortable, she should be saying something, responding. Here he was pouring out his soul and she remained mute, leaving him hanging. "Alison?" he shook her. Her body gave no resistance. "Ali?" Her head rolled to the side, she was passed out. He shook his head, just his luck. "Well, I can't blame you hon. I'd want to pass out too." Touching her face, he pulled himself away, reluctant to lose the moment. Crestfallen, and feeling guilty for feeling that way, he pulled the covers back, tugging and pushing her toward the pillow. Tucking her in, he kissed her forehead, "I'm sorry Alison, I'm so sorry." It was going to be a rough morning. Once in the confines of his room, he picked up the phone.

She awoke sometime around five a.m., her head on fire and mouth filled with sand. Wine was bad enough, cheap wine even worse. Sitting up was a mistake and she collapsed back down to the pillow. She had no idea how she even made it to the bed. Last she remembered she was standing in front of the desk swilling down a rancid bottle of red, drowning out the world. The world was now making itself known. She groaned and prayed for a swift death. Fighting the nausea, she glanced at the alarm clock, the numbers red blobs floating in space. Squinting, the blobs were no clearer. Great, now my eye sight is gone. "Oh, thank heavens," the blobs were blobs because of the tall glass of water refracting the light. And next to that glass was a container of much needed Tylenol. How'd they get there? Propping up on one arm, she reached over, flicking on the bedside lamp, temporarily blinded by the brightness. Oh man, what did I do? Drawing the glass to her lips, a piece of paper, slightly saturated from its double duty as a coaster, tumbled to the sheets. Unfolding it, she recognized Flint's deliberate scrawl. "Oh god," she covered her eyes with an arm. Faint memories danced in the shadows of her consciousness.

Alison,

I called Duke last night and told him you came down with food poisoning because, despite my pointing out that one should indulge in BBQ while in Kansas City, you insisted on some weird fish thing. Completely believable given what happened in Denver. Duke said to get well (and stick with the local cuisine). I called the front desk and extended your stay for the weekend. Housekeeping will skip your room today. Your flight is rebooked for Sunday night. The front desk has your new itinerary.

As for me, I'm too close to home to not visit. I'll see you back on base. Please call. If you need me, I'm just a car ride away.

Dashiell

A groan escaped her lips. If the drink didn't kill her surely embarrassment would. He saw everything. She meant to be alone last night, to drown her sorrows in some swill and be done with it. When she received word that the warehouse containing the files related to the investigation of her family's kidnapping mysteriously burned down, her center came crashing down. She had been so certain that this was finally going to be the key to unlocking Moretti's whereabouts. Instead, she was right back at the beginning, faced with a blank slate and no more leads. She'd get through, but last night, she really just needed some help to forget. Why did she open the door? She could kick herself. Now who knew what he thought, how he perceived her.

Rather than take his note at face value, as he was oft to instruct her, she allowed her mind to run wild with the worst of thoughts. Surely he thought she was weak, weak and emotional, unable to master the basic skills of life. He had to step in and fix her problems. No, she couldn't accept his actions as kindness; she had to see them as revealing her frailties. How could she face him now? She sunk down under the covers. Here she had thought they were getting somewhere. Where that was, she couldn't say. All she knew was that she was starting to feel soft for the big lug.

"Oh god!" She bolted upright, her fingers touching her bottom lip, still feeling the firm pressure of his. Stratsky. Stupid, stupid, stupid, her inner voice admonished her. Why did you say anything about Stratsky? It was enough to shut Flint up. His words were brisk and cutting, "I don't want to know." Of course he wouldn't want to know, who would? No, in her drunken stupor she had to confess that she made out with the Russian, as if that would change anything. Well, it did princess, nice work. You can say good-bye. And that thought was enough to send her running for the bathroom.