- Text Size +

Different Circumstances: Part 9C of ?
by Marzee Doats

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Thursday, November 2, six weeks after the bombs

"What happens if they come back?" Gray Anderson challenged. He took a couple of steps toward Jake and Eric, backing them further into the corner the crowd had trapped them in. Jake could practically see Gray puff up as the disgruntled mob that had filled the sheriff's station began to mutter and grumble their agreement. From around the room there were calls of "Yeah!" and "That's right!"

"We've got armed sentries posted!" Eric shouted over the still-growing mass of irate citizens.

"And, if it comes to it, the bridge is still wired!" Jake yelled, glancing sideways at his brother. He and Eric hadn't spoken since Eric had gone for Jonah Prowse's help, and Jake wasn't sure if that was because they were still fighting or if they just hadn't had the chance. They had avoided one another while working the mop up operation at bridge, and once they were back at town hall, they'd presented a united front, talking to others and around one another without actually engaging in any sort of conversation.

It had taken longer than Jake had expected to get everything settled at the bridge. They'd waited an hour after Ravenwood's departure to ensure that the mercenaries were really gone, by which point they had volunteers to run the checkpoint for the evening and night, as well as relief scheduled for the morning. Remembering his promise to Heather, and realizing that he and Eric might be tied up for hours, Jake had collared Clyde Davis and asked him to stop by the house to let the family know that everything was fine for now. After that, Jake and Jimmy had driven out to check the roadblocks that were now up on Cherry Valley Road and Mott Avenue, and to drop off reinforcements and supplies. It was an hour past dark by the time he'd arrived back at town hall and walked into the tempest that Gray seemed rather happy to be creating.

"I still say we take it out now!" Gray bellowed next, prompting more approving rumbling from the mob of people.

"Well, you're not callin' the shots, Gray," Johnston Green reminded, threading his way through the crowd, which parted automatically for him. Gail followed behind him, their hands clasped, though she allowed Johnston to drop hers as he approached his political rival. Jake's gaze drifted to the empty space beyond his mother, looking for Heather. He didn't know whether to be concerned or relieved that neither she nor April had come to town hall with his parents.

"Glad to see you're on your feet, Johnston," Gray muttered, though it was an obvious lie.

Johnston spared the other man an irritated glance. "Mayor," he corrected loudly, moving toward his sons. He looked them over, his expression growing even angrier. Without a word, he turned his back on them and addressed the citizens gathered around the room. "Now, maybe one of you would like to tell me just exactly who you think is in charge here!" he demanded. Johnston continued not bothering to wait for an answer he knew no one would provide. "If we're hit from the other side, that bridge might be our only line of retreat," he explained, shouting to be heard. "Help is on the other side of that bridge. Our people," he yelled, his gaze drifting over Stanley and Bonnie Richmond, "The whole world, is on the other side of that bridge! And we destroy that bridge, we've already lost."

"Everyone wants this to happen, including your son," Gray barked in return, gesturing in Jake's direction.

Jake's startled at that, his shock at being called out evident on his face. His mother caught his eye, and surprisingly, there wasn't much sympathy in her expression. A sour taste pervaded Jake's mouth, reminding him that he couldn't trust Gray Anderson farther than he could throw him. He'd worked with the older man despite this fact, justifying his choice by telling himself that he was using Gray; it was obvious now that Gray had been using Jake too, and that he'd done a better job of it.

"No. Not everyone," Stanley declared, grabbing his rifle from where he'd propped it against the wall. He nodded at Johnston, acknowledging the look they'd exchanged a few seconds earlier, before pointing his sister toward the exit. "You come up with a real plan to protect this town, you let me know," he announced following Bonnie out.

Clearing his throat, Jake began, "Dad, I think you should -"

Turning his head, Johnston glared at his son. "Hold your tongue," he snapped before returning his focus to the crowd of citizens in front of him. He stared at them, looking around the room, sizing up Jericho's citizens. "I'm the only one here who was elected," he reminded them gruffly. "I will not do this. It is as simple as that."

"Maybe it's time we let the people decide if they still want you makin' their decisions," Gray drawled defiantly.

Johnston's only response was a raised eyebrow and a narrow look. "This is over. This meeting is over," he announced, holding his hand out to Gail. She stepped forward to take it, and they exited together, heading toward the staircase and Johnston's office upstairs.

The crowd began to disperse and even Gray Anderson couldn't manage to whip them back into a frenzy after Johnston's pronouncement, or - perhaps more importantly - Stanley's parting shot. Jake and Eric stood around awkwardly watching the room empty. Finally Eric left, crossing the vestibule to his office. Jake trailed behind him slowly. He knew he needed to speak to his father, but he was in no hurry to initiate that particular conversation.

"Jake," Eric muttered, clearly feeling caught as he exited his office only to find his path blocked by his brother. "Look, ah, I'm going over to Mary's," he explained, shrugging into his jacket and jerking his head in the general direction of Bailey's Tavern. "I - I told April," he confessed. "This morning."

Nodding, Jake frowned softly. "How'd she take it?" he asked, his voice a low rumble. Eric made a face, and Jake exhaled deeply. "That well, huh?"

Eric allowed a sardonic chuckle. "Yeah, well, it takes a lot to get April mad, but once you do...."

"You were expecting her to be happy?" Jake questioned, one eyebrow cocked in disbelief.

Spreading his hands open wide, Eric growled in frustration. "April had divorce papers drawn up before the bombs. I found 'em when we were cleaning up after the fire." He shook his head. "I honestly didn't think she'd care. Hell, I thought she'd be relieved. We couldn't have kids, and then somewhere along the way, we just turned into roommates."

Jake didn't look convinced. "All you've been is roommates, huh?" he returned, snorting.

Eric had the good grace to blush, though he still defended himself. "Neither of us has been happy for a long while. You know, we went away for the weekend just before the bombs, and we actually had a great time together, like we used to," he confided, surprising Jake. "But it didn't last. We came home, and everything was back to normal. No good. Just two people livin' in the same house. I can't get back what I used to have with April, but I can at least have that now with Mary. And, look," Eric reminded, exhaling nervously, "You're the one who said life's too short."

"I also said you had to make a choice, stop stringing them both along," Jake clarified. "That doesn't mean you don't have to deal with the fallout."

"Well, we've got that," Eric mumbled. "Mom and Heather are pretty angry too," he admitted. "Sorry 'bout that."

"They're mad at you, not me," Jake returned, studying his brother's face; Eric had always been very easy to read, and his sheepish expression was doing nothing for Jake's confidence. "Right, Eric?" he demanded. "Because, you know, I've got enough of my own trouble right now," he reminded, glancing at the ceiling - the mayor's office - above them. "I'm not answering for any of yours. I didn't tell you to leave April."

Eric acknowledged this statement with a frown and then clapped Jake on the shoulder. "All I'm sayin' is, April's still at the house, and Mom and Heather are there too. I'm not the one who has to live with them."

With that, Eric moved past Jake, heading for the main door. Looking over his shoulder, watching him leave, Jake muttered, "Gee, thanks, brother." Releasing a long breath, he moved toward the staircase and then climbed it slowly, delaying the inevitable if only for a few seconds.

His parents were together in his father's office. Gail stood next to Johnston's chair, and they were quietly discussing something in a manila folder that she held open for them both to read. For some reason, Jake felt as if he was intruding on an intimate moment despite the fact that they weren't even touching. He recalled at that moment, being nine years old and running into the living to find his mother sitting in his father's lap, crying. Gail had received a phone call with the news that her mother had died, and Johnston had held her in a vise-like embrace, pressing gentle kisses to her hairline, not saying anything. Jake had watched them from the doorway, and had known he didn't belong in that room, that he'd be interrupting. He felt that way now, but still he forced himself to knock on the doorjamb, drawing their attention from one another.

Gail straightened, closing the folder and clutching it against her chest. "I'll be outside," she murmured, stepping out from behind Johnston's rather unimposing desk. His mother looked both exhausted and unhappy; she didn't make eye contact. She was actually a step or two past Jake when she changed her mind, pivoting back around to face him.

"You're an adult, Jake," Gail frowned, clutching his arm. "You and Eric. And if today's taught me one thing, it's that you don't answer to me," she muttered, shaking her head softly. "But you answer to Heather," his mother reminded him, tightening her grip on his arm. "Or at least I assume you still do," she added, a bitter note creeping into her tone. "After this," she sighed, cocking her head in the direction of his father, "Go home. Talk to her. She needs some answers."

Gail let go of his arm and, without waiting for any sort of acknowledgment, slipped out of the office. Jake watched her go, too startled by her admonishment to even respond. He'd thought he'd have opportunity to explain everything to Heather later, but now Jake suspected someone had beaten him to the punch. He almost called his mother back to ask what, exactly, she was referring to, but the words died on his lips, and he settled for staring after her until she turned the corner and disappeared from sight.

Taking a deep breath, Jake faced Johnston, forcing himself to concentrate on the matter at hand. He'd talk to Heather in a little while, but first he needed to speak with his father. Dragging his feet, he stepped toward the desk, asking softly, "I kinda put you in a bad position out there, huh?"

Johnston, shuffling the papers on his desk absently, held his son's gaze for a long moment before answering. "Gray used you, Son," he told Jake, clearing his throat. "I hope you see that."

"Dad, you didn't see what those guys are capable of," Jake protested, holding up his hands. He couldn't help thinking that this was exactly why he hadn't told Heather anything about what he'd seen in Rogue River. Even now, he wasn't sure if he would be able to describe that horror to her. "But, I'm not here to fight," he assured his father.

That at least caught Johnston's attention and he abandoned his paperwork, leaning back in his chair. "What are you here for?" he questioned.

"We need a security force," Jake answered, giving voice to the idea that had been niggling at him ever since Jonah Prowse had issued his parting shot, telling them that they needed to figure out how to fight for themselves. He knew Jonah's suggestion was rooted in self-interest; he wanted access to his daughter and to the town, now that a business arrangement of sorts existed between Jericho and West Kansas Shipping and Freight. But Jonah was also absolutely right in that they needed to start taking responsibility for their own safety.

Jake could see the argument beginning to form in his father's frown. "A real one," he continued in a rush of breath. "Trained. Sanctioned by you."

His expression still skeptical, Johnston carefully maneuvered himself up and out of his chair. Walking slowly, he crossed the office to the corner bookcase. Running his fingers along the spines of volumes on the middle shelf, he selected one, and then carried the book to Jake. "This belonged to your grandfather," Johnston explained. "He had it on him when he landed at D-Day." He placed the book, the U.S. Ranger Handbook, into Jake's open hands. "When he had to take command of his platoon, that manual and his training got him from Omaha Beach to Germany."

Nodding, Jake studied the book cover, tracing his index finger over the title. "I remember the story," he admitted, his tone reverent, finally looking up at Johnston.

The two men studied one another for a few seconds, and then Johnston returned his son's nod. "Make sure you do it right," he instructed, holding Jake's gaze for another moment.

Jake's eyes widened slightly as the meaning of his father's words struck him fully. He really hadn't thought that Johnston would give the assignment to him. Unable to speak, Jake shook his head again, acknowledging the trust his father was placing in him.

"And Jake?" Johnston said, turning to move back to his desk. "I had dinner tonight with three rather emotional women. Now, some of that - most of that - was about Eric and April," he sighed, pursing his lips. "But some of it was about you." He picked up a pen and looked down at the papers stacked on his desk. "Get your house in order," Johnston grumbled. "And since, for now, your house lives in my house.... Talk to your wife. An apology would probably be a good place to start."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sunday, November 11, five years before the bombs

Heather watched as Jake walked around the single-engine Cessna one more time, checking his handiwork. The flight from Jericho had lasted just over two and a half hours, and they had landed - a perfect landing as far as Heather could tell - at the Rock Springs - Sweetwater County Airport twenty minutes before. On the ground, Jake had taxied the plane around to the south side of the general aviation terminal, where as he'd explained to her, they could leave the plane while they went for lunch.

Bringing the plane to a complete stop and powering down, Jake had grinned at her and said, "Your captain has turned off the seat belt sign," before leaning over to kiss her. "You may now move about the cabin," he'd added, chuckling softly when he pulled away. "But, stay there," Jake had commanded, tucking a lock of her hair behind her ear. He'd exited through the cockpit door then, coming around the nose of the plane to open her door for her and hand her out. "So, you havin' fun?" he'd asked, wrapping his arms around her waist.

"Oh, yeah," Heather had giggled, pressing her mouth to his. "This was a great idea," she'd assured him.

She wasn't sure that 'great idea' truly covered it. Their day had been close to perfect so far. Heather had been anxious at first that she'd get airsick, but she'd worn the Sea-Bands that she usually wore whenever she was on the water, and they had worked very well, much to her relief. Plus, the flight itself had been fun and fascinating. The plane Jake was flying was relatively new, one in a small fleet of planes owned by Jayhawk Aviation, a company in which, as Jake had explained, Grandpa Green had long been a silent partner. It hadn't been nearly as noisy in the cabin as she'd expected, and they had talked about what they were seeing and anything else that occurred to them.

Although he relied on the plane's instruments, Jake had brought along navigational charts for Heather to look at, giving her a crash course in how to read them before they'd taken off from Jericho Airfield. Jake was fairly familiar with the territory they had flown over, and he'd played tour guide very well. Heather had her camera with her, in her backpack which she'd shoved down into the space at her feet - a clear violation of FAA regulations she'd been sure, but Jake hadn't seemed to care - and she'd retrieved it, amusing Jake by taking photos of the scenery, though he'd rolled his eyes when she'd turned the camera on him.

About halfway through the flight Jake had snorted, pointing out what he deemed 'illegal cultivation on federal lands'. Heather had asked what he was going to do about it, and he'd admitted that he wasn't planning to do anything, changing his mind when he caught a glimpse of her scandalized expression. He'd asked then if she had anything to write with, and had read off some coordinates to her, promising to call it in. Heather had beamed at him, earning herself a lopsided grin in return.

"So, give me a few minutes, and then we can go," Jake had said, releasing her reluctantly. He'd explained then that he needed to inspect the aircraft and tie it down so they could get to the diner. Both of their stomachs had gurgled softly at the mere mention of eating, and she'd laughingly ordered him to hurry. Heather had stuck close, careful to stay out of Jake's way even as she studied his movements. He was obviously in his element, whistling softly to himself as he conducted his post-flight check and then secured the plane. Unable to resist the opportunity, Heather dug her camera out of her backpack, snapping another photo of Jake just as he came around the front of the aircraft.

"Why'd you do that?" he complained, frowning at her.

"Because I wanted a picture of you," she replied, grinning in return.

Jake rolled his eyes. "Why do you need a picture of me?" he asked, smirking. "You've already got the real thing."

Heather laughed, shaking her head. "True, but the real thing's going to Denver for four days," she reminded him. "This'll tide me over. Besides, I'm fascinated by 'Serious Pilot Jake'," she murmured, their gazes locking as he stepped closer.

He took Heather's camera out of her hand then, and squatting, returned it to her backpack, open at her feet. Standing, he pulled her into his arms again, and brushed a teasing kiss across the corner of her mouth. "'Serious Pilot Jake' is part of keepin' the plane from fallin' out of the sky," he told her.

"Oh, sure, wait 'til we're in Wyoming to tell me that," Heather joked, twining her arms around his neck. "Now I'm a really, really big fan of 'Serious Pilot Jake'."

"All part of the plan, babe," he chuckled. "All part of the plan."

They heard the sound of a motor and looked up in time to see an AvFuel truck come around the corner of the general aviation hangar. The truck rumbled across the tarmac and came to a stop about fifty feet away. Jake waved to the driver, shouting, "Afternoon!" as the man exited the cab.

"Afternoon!" the driver returned. "You're Green?" he asked, pulling his ball cap on. "I've gotta fuel order for Green."

"That's us," Jake agreed, lacing his fingers through Heather's. "We're goin' over to Dolly Doolittle's for lunch," he explained, "Be gone 'bout two hours."

The driver nodded. "I'll getcha squared away while you're gone," he promised. "Just need -"

Jake nodded and, letting go of Heather's hand, pulled his wallet out of the inside pocket of his jacket. He extracted a fuel company credit card and handed it to the driver, who slipped it under the clamp at the top of his clipboard, and began to copy down the information he required.

"Thank you," the driver - George, according to his nametag - said, handing the card back. He held the clipboard and pen out to Jake. "Sign at the X's and we'll be good to go, Johnston."

Not bothering to correct George, Jake accepted the clipboard, quickly scribbling his name next to each of three X's on the form. Meanwhile, Heather had taken advantage of his distraction to retrieve her camera from her backpack. Jake handed the form back to George just as she took their picture.

"Heather," Jake grumbled.

"Jake," she returned, grinning at him.

Separating the bottom copy of the form from the packet, George returned it to Jake. "Sorry 'bout the name thing," he apologized.

"It's okay," Jake assured, stuffing the yellow sheet into his jacket pocket. "My father and I have the same name. So he's Johnston and I'm Jake, but it's fine." He glanced at Heather then, rolling his eyes. "I was signing a form," he protested. "You didn't need a picture of that."

Her grin widened. "Maybe I do," she argued.

Blatantly eavesdropping now, George smiled at Heather. "Scrapbooker?" he guessed. "My wife's a scrapbooker. If you want, I can take your picture in front of the plane," he offered, pointing at the Cessna.

"That would be great," Heather accepted, handing her camera to George. "Thank you!"

Groaning softly, Jake concurred. "Great idea."

Leaving her backpack on the ground, Heather reached for Jake's hand, dragging him over to stand a few feet in front of the plane's nose. Jake moved slightly behind Heather, pulling her back against his chest. Wrapping his arms around her, he reached for both her hands, threading his fingers through hers. Kissing her temple, Jake stooped slightly and, holding his head next to hers, pressed his cheek to hers. George took a few steps toward them and, lining up the picture he wanted, commanded, "Say cheese!" He waited a few seconds more - until they were both smiling - and then snapped the picture. "Stay there," he ordered. "Let me take another, just to be sure."

The second photo taken, Heather extracted herself from Jake's arms, moving toward George. "Thank you!" she declared, smiling at him.

"My pleasure," George beamed, handing the camera to Heather. "Where're you folks from?" he asked as Jake joined Heather, automatically reaching for her hand.

Heather, smiling back over her shoulder at Jake, answered for them both. "We're from Kansas. Little town called Jericho."

George nodded. "Newlyweds?"

Bending down to retrieve her backpack, Heather blushed almost immediately. Standing, she stammered out, "Oh! Oh, no! We're not - we're not married."

"Aw, geez," George muttered, clearly embarrassed. "There I go again," he continued, fumbling and then dropping his clipboard. "Open mouth, insert foot."

Jake reached down to pick up the clipboard, beating George to it. Heather wasn't certain, but she thought she heard him mumble, "Not yet." Straightening, he returned the clipboard and reached again for Heather's hand.

Sighing, Heather offered George a weak smile. "That's okay. You never know," she giggled nervously.

"Sure, sure," George agreed, his relief apparent. "Well, you two had better get over to Dolly's," he declared, tucking the clipboard under his arm. "Try the meatloaf and mashed potatoes," he recommended. "Peggy - that's Dolly's daughter - follows her Mama's recipe, and always makes 'em with garlic and a dollop of sour cream," George described, making Heather's mouth water. "The chicken pot pie's pretty good, too," he added, nodding to himself. "And, by the time you're back, I'll have ya refueled and ready to go."

They thanked him for the advice, and then Jake took Heather's backpack from her, pulling it on before holding his hand out to her. They started to walk toward the terminal, looking back over their shoulders to see George move the fuel truck next to the plane. The walked through the general aviation terminal, exchanging greetings with a security guard, who was the only person besides George on duty at this end of the airport for the holiday weekend. Outside, Jake pointed out the small commercial terminal at the other end of the airfield and they watched a United Express flight take off before making their way across the parking lot to the airport's exit.

Dolly Doolittle's Diner was just over a half mile from the airport, down the state highway. A path had long since been worn into the grassy strip of land between the highway and the airport property, and there were 'Burma Shave' style signs every hundred yards or so informing pedestrians that there were 'Good Eats Ahead!' and assuring them that they were 'Almost There!' Jake and Heather walked hand in hand, not bothering to talk. Heather looked around, drinking in the scenery. Autumn had a firm grip on the landscape, and it was obvious that winter wasn't far away.

"Hold up a minute," she requested, halting in her tracks. Jake complied, stopping and then taking a step back so that he stood next to her. Flashing him a smile, Heather moved behind him, unzipping one of her backpack's compartments.

"You're not seriously going to take another picture," Jake groaned, chuckling softly.

"Not right this minute," Heather answered, having retrieved the item she was after. She zipped up the pocket, and then patted him on the shoulder. "Though, I reserve the right. This is my first time in Wyoming, after all. It's my twenty-third state," Heather grinned, slipping her hand back into Jake's and holding up her cell phone for him to see.

"What states are you missing?" Jake asked as they started walking toward the restaurant again. "And, you suddenly remembered that you have to make a call?"

"Pretty much the whole South except for Florida and Georgia - if you count the Atlanta Airport as Georgia - and everything west of here," she replied. "And, yes, if I can get a signal," she continued, thumbing a speed dial number on the phone. "I'm gonna brag a little," Heather told him grinning. She stopped him again, and standing on tiptoe, kissed him quickly while her call rang through. "Hey!" she greeted when it did. They resumed their trek toward the diner, Heather demanding, "Guess where I am?"

Michael, her younger brother, did not sound at all enthusiastic in his reply. "Hey, Heth," he mumbled. "I really have no idea. Somewhere in Kansas that's undoubtedly very exciting," he answered dully.

"Uhhnh!" Heather said, imitating a game show buzzer and drawing a grin from Jake, who squeezed her hand. "Wrong state. Try again."

"A state bordering Kansas, then?" Michael asked, yawning. "And, hey, if I hafta guess, you hafta guess. Where'm I?"

"Oh, you're somewhere with Caitlin," Heather dismissed. "Library, dorm or dining hall. And, actually, the state I am in does not share a border with Kansas," she informed her brother. "So there."

"Then I have no idea," Michael answered. She could hear him shuffling things, wherever he was. "And, we're in the student union, so there."

Heather sighed. "So you're not gonna guess?"

"I give up," Michael returned. "You stumped me."

"Fine. Wyoming," Heather replied, her tone bordering on put out. "Now, guess how I got to Wyoming," she ordered.


"Ha, ha. You're funny, Mikey. And weirdly close enough that I'll give it to you," Heather decided. "I flew here. In a private plane. Just for lunch," she practically squeaked, throwing Jake a wide grin and squeezing his hand. "With my own private pilot, in fact."

"Man, the boyfriend's really tryin' to impress you," Mikey grumbled in return. "'Heather and Jake, sittin' in a tree. K - I -'," he started to tease, but then she heard a scuffle at Michael's end of the call, and he was abruptly cut off.

"I smacked him for you," a female voice said next. "I'm Caitlin, by the way."

"Heather," she sighed. "And thank you. It's nice to finally talk to you," she added. "I've been wanting to."

Caitlin laughed. "I heard that about you. I'm not supposed to ever do his laundry, right?"

"Exactly," Heather confirmed.

"Well, I can pretty much promise that will never happen," Caitlin assured. "I'm not a big fan of laundry. I have to tell you though, your instructions were well written."

"I'm a teacher," Heather chuckled, shrugging. "I teach."

She heard another short struggle, punctuated by a giggling shriek from Caitlin, and then Michael came back on the phone. "Let me talk to the boyfriend," he demanded. "You talked to Caitlin, so I get to talk to Jake."

"What'd you do to her?" Heather asked, ignoring him. Caitlin was still laughing hysterically in the background.

"She's actually more ticklish than you," Michael answered. Heather could hear the grin in his voice. "Hmm. I think that's something I should tell the boyfriend."

"Yeah, right. That'll convince me to give the phone to Jake," she muttered, looking up at the subject of their conversation, rolling her eyes. "I don't think so."

In the next instance though, the cell phone was out of her hand, and Jake had it against his ear. "You need to talk to me?" Heather, now a half-step ahead of him, twisted around to stare, gaping at Jake. He reached for her hand, dragging her close and, holding the phone away from his mouth, pressed a light kiss to the corner of her still open mouth. "Sorry, babe," he murmured. "But this sounded interesting."

"Oh, man," Michael chuckled nervously, "She's so gonna kill you."

"You think?" Jake asked. "I just figured, Heather's met my whole family," he shrugged. "Thought maybe it was time I met someone in hers."

"Right," Michael muttered. He took a deep breath and began, "She's my only sister, so you know ...."

"I know," Jake answered, clearly his throat. He winked at Heather and wrapped his free arm around her, his hand pressed to the small of her back. "I know," he repeated, exhaling. "Trust me on that."

Michael waited a few seconds and then, carrying through on his threat, added conspiratorially, "She's also ticklish."

"Already knew that," Jake laughed softly.

"And, she's still my only sister," Michael reminded.

Their gazes locked, Jake smiled at Heather, who frowned at him suspiciously in return. He bit back a retort about 'nuns', remembering that Michael was the only one of Heather's brothers not involved in that debacle. Jake knew that, while she'd never actually admit to having a favorite, Michael was indeed Heather's favorite brother. Jake realized that he was willing to work for Michael's approval. Still smiling at her, Jake traced a lazy circle against her back with his fingertips. "And, I care about your sister."

"Well good," Michael sighed. "But, what are you doin' to me, man?" he demanded. "Private plane, Wyoming just for lunch? The coolest thing I have access to is the Zamboni."

"I know someone who's probably very jealous of that access," Jake chuckled, eyeing Heather. "So, do I pass?"

"For now," Michael conceded. "Lemme say 'bye' to Heather."

"Okay," Jake agreed, kissing Heather gently before returning her phone.

"So, does he pass?" Heather questioned her brother.

Michael laughed. "Like you'd listen to me if I said 'no'," he argued. "He calls you 'babe'. You guys are seriously serious. 'First comes love, then comes marriage'," Michael joked, laughing harder. "And you know what comes after that."

"You really are a juvenile, sometimes," she complained, starting to blush. She took a step away from Jake, afraid that he was able to hear her brother's teasing. "Where's my new friend Caitlin to smack you when I need her to?" Heather demanded.

"Snack bar," he answered. "And aren't you technically on date? Why exactly did you call me, anyway?" Michael questioned, not bothering to wait for her reply. "And, if he calls you 'babe', what do you call him? 'Stud muffin'? 'Pookie'? 'Honey bunny'? 'Snookums'?"

Heather groaned, turning an even brighter shade of red, drawing a concerned frown from Jake. "I am so hanging up now," she announced. "You're a pill, Mikey."

"Love you, too, sis," he returned, still chuckling. "Have a nice date."

"Yeah," she muttered, hearing him laughing as he broke their connection on his end. Heather punched her phone off, flipping it closed.

"You okay?" Jake asked, reaching for her free hand and then raising it to his mouth so he could kiss it.

"Yeah," Heather huffed, nodding absently. "My baby brother's just a brat." She smiled at him, shaking her head. "And, I'm hungry."

"Let's go then," Jake said, releasing her hand long enough to allow Heather to return her phone to her backpack. That task accomplished, they started back down the path to the diner, again holding hands.

Dolly Doolittle's Diner was a southern Wyoming institution, and even at nearly two o'clock in the afternoon the parking lot was packed. The signs they'd seen along the way had all been illustrated with Raggedy Ann and Andy-like characters done up as a pioneer woman and a cowboy, and there was one last sign, larger than the ones on the road, featuring the same pair in a pose reminiscent of American Gothic under the words 'Dolly Doolittle's Diner: Home Cookin' On The Range'.

"I have to take a picture!" Heather declared, grinning up at Jake. "This place is just too cute."

This time, Jake just laughed at her quietly and pulled off her backpack, holding it up for Heather to access. "What did you bring with you anyway?" he asked, curious. The bag wasn't extremely heavy but it was full, and knowing Heather, he guessed that she'd packed for a number of contingencies.

"My wallet, camera, phone, couple of bottles of water, some snacks," she listed, Jake nodding as each item was mentioned. "A notebook, couple of pens, two books, a sweater, extra socks and a rain slicker that folds up into its own little pouch," Heather completed, pulling her camera out. "I think that's it."

"You actually brought a book on a date," Jake snorted, his expression a perfect picture of consternation. He couldn't maintain it though and in the next instance he was smirking. "Nice to know that you're prepared in case of severe boredom or a plane crash," Jake kidded, chuckling.

For once, Heather didn't actually blush, but she did look embarrassed. "I always take a book on an airplane," she told him, starting to giggle at herself.

"Yeah, when you fly commercial," he retorted. Jake actually thought it was funny - and very Heather - that she'd brought a book - books! - along on their date, but he wasn't above ribbing her about it. He threw her backpack over his shoulder and moved closer to Heather, their arms brushing. "And here I was, trying to impress you," he told her, his tone still teasing, though he dropped the volume of his voice so that it was a husky rumble that sent shivers up her spine.

"Well, I haven't yet resorted to reading," Heather defended, looking up at him. Her expression had turned sheepish, and Jake couldn't resist dipping his head to brush his mouth across hers, nipping gently at her lip. "You're doing something right," she sighed, finding his hand with her free one.

"Good to know," Jake murmured, their gazes locked, as he lifted his head.

Heather shook hers to clear it, and taking a deep breath, grinned at Jake defiantly. "And, two bottles of water won't get us very far at all, so no crashing on the way home," she commanded.

"Yes, ma'am," Jake joked, taking a step back and giving her a mock salute. "Take your picture," he told her, cocking his head toward the restaurant's sign. "I'm hungry."

"Okay," she agreed, smiling at him. She pressed a quick kiss to his cheek, and then checking behind her to make sure everything was clear, Heather backed up a few feet in order to get both the sign and the diner building into her photo. "Let's have lunch," she declared a few seconds later, turning off her camera.

"Would you like us to take your picture in front of the sign?" an older woman asked as Jake held the backpack out so Heather could put her camera away. She was standing with an older man, her husband, Jake had guessed when he'd noticed them a few moments before. They had stopped on the sidewalk, waiting just outside of Heather's photo while she'd taken it. "That's always been a cute picture," the woman added, smiling at them both.

Heather looked up at Jake, trying to gauge his reaction to the offer. "It's the last picture I'll make you pose for today," she promised.

"Kinda hard to refuse that deal," Jake chuckled. "So, deal."

"Thanks," Heather grinned at him, her eyes dancing, before turning to give the camera to the woman.

"Oh, no," the woman said, holding her hands up and taking a step back. "Have Hank take it. He's better with things like that."

Hank took the camera from Heather, asking a few questions to make sure he knew how it worked. Jake grabbed her hand then, pulling her across the tiny strip of lawn to the sign.

"You know," Jake whispered, kissing Heather's ear once they'd arranged themselves in front of the small billboard, slightly to the left so that they didn't obscure either the Doolittle Dolls characters or the diner's name and motto. "I think she's a schoolmarm. She just has that look about her."

Heather turned her head then, craning her neck to study the female character, unknowingly thwarting Hank who had been two seconds from snapping their picture. "She's very prim and proper here," she agreed, giggling softly. "But I don't know, some of the signs on the road," Heather reminded, glancing up at Jake, "Had her dressed as a saloon girl."

"Saloon girl turned schoolmarm, then," Jake teased. This time they both looked back at the sign, once again frustrating their photographer. "And, he seems just fine with that," he suggested, nodding at the male character. This was apparently true; although the characters were posed much like the farmer and his wife in Grant Wood's American Gothic, the Doolittle Dolls were as cheerful as the original characters were dour.

Nodding, Heather conceded to Jake's argument. "Okay then. But, that just makes you the cowboy."

"Naturally," he agreed, chuckling and kissing the top of Heather's head.

It was this picture that Hank managed to finally capture, breathing a deep sigh of relief. "Okay, folks," he called out, grateful that their attention appeared to be returning to the matter at hand. "Say cheese!"

"Cheese!" Heather pronounced dutifully, and Jake surprised her by joining in. Her smile instantly doubled in size. Hank snapped this photo, and then another immediately after, when Heather looked up at Jake, beaming. Dipping his head, Jake pressed a kiss to her mouth, and this ended up being Hank's last picture.

"Thank you so much," Heather sighed when she and Jake had rejoined the older couple on the sidewalk.

"Our pleasure," Hank told her, returning the camera. "So, you folks fly in for lunch?"

"Sure did," Jake answered, reaching for Heather's hand. "We're from Kansas. Jericho. I've been itchin' to fly, and Heather's never been here, so we decided to come up."

"This is my first time in Wyoming, even," she explained, leaning against Jake's arm.

"Well then, welcome to Wyoming," Hank returned. "Couldn't pick a better place to visit than Dolly's, though I'm probably a little biased," he said, throwing his wife a sideways smile. "You know," he continued, "I've bought horses from a man in Jericho for years. Bought one, oh, two years ago now. EJ Green."

"Gramps!" Heather exclaimed, grinning.

"EJ's my grandfather," Jake clarified a second later.

"Small world," Hank laughed, shaking his head. "Well, be sure to tell your grandpa 'hello' from Dolly and Hank."

Heather gasped and stared, open-mouthed, at the two of them. "You're -You're Dolly?" she demanded, looking over her shoulder at the sign. "You're Dolly Doolittle?"

"Sure am," Dolly confirmed. "Our girls were raised in that kitchen, and our youngest - Peggy - took over about six years ago now, but -"

"But, it's still Dolly's place," Hank declared, wrapping an arm around his wife.

Dolly smiled, nodding. "It's still all my recipes, that's for sure. And, I don't cook like that at home anymore, so I have to let Hank come down a couple of times a week to eat his favorites."

"The first time I tried Dolly's fried chicken, I knew this was a woman I could marry," Hank joked. "And, by the time I'd had some of her apple crisp with a scoop of her homemade ice cream, well, I was in love."

"They do say that's the way to a man's heart," Dolly laughed, patting Hank on the stomach. "We've been married forty two years, so I must be doin' somethin' right."

"Pert near everything, Doll," Hank grinned at her. "Pert near everything."

"Well, I'm a mediocre cook at best," Heather confessed to Dolly before looking up at Jake and joking, "So, I guess we're doomed."

"Nah. Just keep the peanut butter cookies coming, babe," he teased, grinning and winking at her, "And we'll be fine."

Giggling, Heather exchanged smiles with Dolly and Hank. 'I'm Heather," she introduced herself. "And this is Jake," she added, holding up their joined hands.

"Good to meet ya, Heather and Jake," Hank said, offering his hand to Jake. "Now you must've been here before, if EJ Green's your grandfather. And, wasn't your dad the mayor?"

"Dad's still mayor," Jake answered, "And yeah, Gramps used to bring my brother and me up here couple times a year," he confirmed.

"Well, let's not stand around out here, talkin'," Dolly complained then. "You two just flew up from Kansas," she reminded, clicking her tongue. "You must be starving," Dolly decided then, slipping her arm through Hank's before leading the way to the diner's front door. Looking back over her shoulder, she caught Jake kissing Heather one more time before the two of them hurried to catch up. "So," Dolly asked as Hank held the door open for them all, "Newlyweds?"

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Thursday, November 2, six weeks after the bombs

Jake slid into the driver's seat of the Roadrunner and pulled the door closed behind him. Looking down, he examined the cover of his grandfather's army manual by the weak light of the moon. He considered again the job he'd asked for and, amazingly, his father had given him. Jake had had important assignments over the nearly ten years he'd worked for the DEA, but he realized that none of those jobs were nearly as consequential as this one. He promised himself that he would put together and lead a security force that Jericho and Johnston could be proud of. Sighing, Jake gently set the book on the passenger's seat.

Starting the car, he eased it out of the parking space on Main Street, his thoughts turning to Heather. His mother's statement had started him worrying, though he'd managed to push his concern off to the back of his mind until Johnston had repeated Gail's advice and admonished him to apologize. He'd wanted to ask for more details, but hadn't been able to work up the courage, and instead had bid his father good night and left his office. He took a deep breath, determined to find Heather and fix whatever was wrong.

He drove down the street slowly. Passing the church, Jake spotted a wobbly Emily Sullivan entering the through the main door. He shook his head, chuckling softly to himself; he had a fair amount of experience with Emily in all stages of inebriation, and it was quite obvious to him that she was plastered. "That's gonna be a bitch of headache come morning, Em," he muttered, coming to a perfunctory stop at the corner before bearing left onto the circle.

Without really paying attention, Jake made his way home, turning left at Seventh Street and then right onto Chestnut. Parking in the driveway behind 'Charlotte', he grabbed the Ranger Handbook off the seat beside him and, after locking the Roadrunner, went into the house through the front door.

The house was quiet and deserted, a first as far as Jake was concerned, certainly since he and Heather had moved in. The six of them - seven, now that the guest room had been loaned to Dhuwalia - had been living practically on top of one another, irritating each other more than occasionally as they'd tried to make the big experiment in Green family togetherness work. But Eric was gone now, Jake remembered, and his parents were still downtown. He left his grandfather's book on a table in the hallway and then wandered through the rooms on the first floor, finding no one and nothing but the ancient cast iron dutch oven - salvaged from the collection of obsolete but still useful items that had piled up at the ranch over the years - warming over the low fire in the living room fireplace.

Frowning, Jake climbed the stairs. The door to the bathroom was open, the room empty. Moving down the hall to the bedroom he shared with Heather, he pushed the door open and peeked inside, but she wasn't there. There was a soft light - candlelight, he guessed - bleeding out from beneath Eric's and April's door, and Jake listened for a long moment, straining to hear if Heather and April were inside, talking, but there wasn't a sound. He considered knocking and then decided against it, not wanting to disturb his sister-in-law if he could avoid it.

Growing concerned, Jake jogged back down the staircase and set about making a more thorough search of the first floor, hoping he might find a note or some other indication as to his wife's location. Starting in the kitchen, he walked around the perimeter of the room quickly, and reaching the backdoor pushed the curtain out of the way in order to check the yard. There was a lantern, burning low, sitting on the porch deck and, letting out the breath he'd been holding, he opened the door and stepped outside.

"There you are," Jake declared, relief evident in his voice.

"Here I am," Heather confirmed tiredly. Head down, she was sitting sideways on the old porch swing, her knees bent and her feet planted in front of her, taking up most of the seat.

Johnston had installed the swing some twenty-five years before as a belated Mother's Day gift for Gail who'd wanted somewhere to sit and watch her boys play in the backyard, especially on summer nights. Jake recalled that weekend project, taking turns with Eric retrieving tools for their father, or handing him screws and washers, or 'helping' him read the level. Gail, returning home from a visit with her sister in Rogue River, had been truly surprised and delighted with the present, hugging and kissing the three of them, though Jake and Eric had protested this vehemently, embarrassed that Stanley Richmond who'd come over to play had witnessed this display of affection. Gail had laughed at them, and then made all three boys blush by hugging Stanley as well. In the end, it wasn't too long before the backyard tree fort lost its appeal, and Jake didn't know that his mother had actually gotten very many of her desired summer evenings in the backyard, but the porch swing had remained, a place to retreat to for anyone in need of a quiet moment.

Jake recalled, too, sitting out on the porch swing with his mother the night before he'd married Heather. Nearly midnight, it had still been sweltering, and unable to sleep, the two of them had ended up on the back porch, splitting what they had modestly pronounced to be the world's largest ice cream sundae. The influx of Lisinski kin had forced Jake out of the ranch house and back to his parents' for his last week of bachelorhood, while Grandpa Green played host to two of Heather's brothers and their families. Home from the rehearsal dinner, Johnston had gone straight to bed, Gail grumbling that he'd never had trouble sleeping in the heat, not since his three tours in Vietnam. As they worked through the layers of ice cream, bananas, fudge and marshmallow sauce, Gail had alternated between complaining that she wasn't going to fit into her dress after their dessert, and offering advice on marriage and the wedding ceremony. "Don't lock your knees when you're standing up in front at the church, or you'll pass out," she'd reminded. "And, never go to bed angry," his mother had continued, drawing a snort of laughter from Jake; it was the piece of advice he'd heard most often during their engagement. But then Gail had smiled at him warmly and, spooning up another mouthful of ice cream, said, "Make sure you tell Heather that you love her, as often as you can. It's fine to know it, but it's better to hear it."

Gazing at Heather now, calmed just by the sight of her safe and sound, he couldn't help but imagine sitting here with her some evening in the not too distant future, watching their child play in the backyard. He'd spotted an old tricycle in the garage rafters the week before, and Johnston had never been able to bring himself to take down the tree fort. Even the tire swing still hung from the giant oak's sturdiest limb, always ready for a young visitor to the Green house.

"You're home finally," she observed, glancing up at him for only a second before returning her attention to the open palm of her right hand. Jake, his eyes now fully adjusted to the dark, watched silently as she played with her engagement and wedding rings, weighing and bouncing them on her hand before finally slipping them back on. "We ate without you," Heather informed him, clearing her throat. She looked up again, and this time he saw the tears pooling in her eyes. "Didn't really know when you'd be back," she sniffed.

"Heather," Jake murmured, his stomach starting to churn. He shook his head, dismissing his memories as he took a step toward the swing. Heather, however, slid her feet forward another few inches, ensuring that there wasn't room for him to sit, and he was forced to settle for wrapping his fingers around the swing's chain, causing it to sway slightly. "I'm sorry," he sighed, deciding to take his father's advice. "I asked Clyde Davis to stop by and tell you everything that was okay."

She nodded, not looking at him. "He did. So did Eric," she said, practically hissing his brother's name. "He said you were helping to blow up the bridge," Heather muttered, shaking her head softly. "Funny, you didn't mention that part when you told me about Ravenwood, and staying inside, and all that," she accused, meeting Jake's gaze at last.

"I didn't lie to you," Jake defended himself, tightening his grip on the chain. "I - I just didn't tell you," he argued. "There have always been things I couldn't tell you, you know that."

Jake watched as Heather stiffened and her eyes grew wide. She started to speak and then stopped herself, mouth hanging open. Taking a deep breath, she began again. "First of all, I didn't accuse you of lying. You're absolutely right, you didn't. What I said was that you didn't tell me what you were planning to do," Heather corrected angrily, wiping the back of her hand across one eye. "Because apparently you don't think there's any reason I'd want to know - to be prepared for the fact - that my husband was ready to commit suicide to - to - I don't even know why anymore."

"Babe -" Jake protested, letting go of the swing's chain.

"No!" Heather declared, glaring at him. "I have more to say," she decided, her chin jutting defiantly. "This - this isn't your job anymore, Jake. You don't get to keep me in the dark for 'operational security', or my safety, or any of the other reasons I've accepted these last four years."

"Okay," Jake acknowledged quietly. He took a step forward, and then turned, surprising Heather by sitting down on the swing, trapping her feet beneath his leg. He let out a long breath then, finally glancing at her sideways. "You're right. I should've told you what was going on. But I didn't want you to worry," he explained.

"Yeah, why worry today when I could just worry tomorrow while we were burying you in a shoebox, right?" She covered her face with her hands, muffling her words.

"Damn it," Jake swore under his breath. He'd been suspicious of her 'suicide' comment, but had still maintained hope that she hadn't heard about how things had gone down out at the bridge. He leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees and cradling his head in his hands. A wave of fear and dread washed over him, similar to what he'd experienced standing there on the bridge with the detonator in his hand, prepared to use it, and facing the swaggering, belligerent Ravenwood commander. Jake had fought his body's response - rubbery legs and a strong urge to throw up - to the situation then, and he fought it now. Now was worse, he decided, sucking air in through his teeth. He could feel Heather pulling away from him and he didn't know how to stop her.
"I did get that right, didn't I?" she asked quietly, pursing her lips. "Bill seemed to enjoy recounting the Jonah Prowse parts especially," Heather informed him, shaking her head. "He came by to give your Dad a report. It was very thorough," she muttered.

"I'm sorry," he murmured after an uncomfortable pause. Their gazes were locked, and Jake could see both fatigue and betrayal in her eyes. Frowning, Heather looked down at her hand and began to fiddle with her rings again, though she didn't take them off her finger this time. "I'm sorry," Jake repeated. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you everything that was going on," he sighed, running a hand through his hair. "I just didn't see any reason for you to sit back here, worried all day. And, I promise you, I didn't intend for things to turn out the way they did."

Heather looked up at that, gaping. "What does that mean?" she demanded, wrenching one foot out from under Jake's leg, kicking him in the process. "That you intended to blow yourself up?" she grumbled, glaring at him as he lifted himself up so she could extract her other foot.

Jake dropped back onto the seat, clenching his fists in frustration. "No!" he barked, returning her hard stare. He knew she was deliberately misunderstanding him, and it took all his willpower to keep from shaking her for it. But, he'd never raised a hand to Heather - to any woman - and he wasn't going to start now. "I didn't plan to be out on that bridge at all when Ravenwood came back," he explained through gritted teeth. "I was tryin' to finish up the job, and suddenly they were there, and - and then I was the only one on the bridge." Jake took a deep breath, deciding against mentioning that he'd ordered most of the volunteers off the bridge, or that the idea to demolish the bridge had originated with him. "Somebody had to do it. It just ended up being me."

Frowning, Heather twisted around so that she was seated facing forward, pressed into the corner of the swing as far from Jake as possible, the toes of her sneakers dragging on the porch as they swayed gently back and forth. "I'm sorry, too," she sighed, closing her eyes. "I'm sorry that the world changed. I'm sorry you think I can't handle these things, and that I have to be protected. I'm sorry that I need to depend on you as much as I do, and I'm sorry that I can't -"

"So now I'm not dependable," Jake interrupted, allowing a harsh chuckle. "Thanks, babe," he muttered, slumping in his seat. "You really know how to make a guy feel loved," he told her, clenching his jaw and looking away.

"I do love you, Jake, but I need to know that you're in this for the long haul," Heather retorted, crossing her arms over her chest. "Eric up and leaves April for a - a barmaid, and you decide to blow up a bridge and maybe yourself in the process. What am I supposed to think?" she demanded, risking a glance in his direction.

Jake groaned, scrubbing his hand over his face. Silently, he cursed his brother and then decided that he wouldn't be tarred with that brush. "What happened with Eric and April has nothing to do with us," he insisted, meeting Heather's eye. "I'm not going anywhere." He studied her for a long moment, frowning when she shivered under his gaze. "It's cold," he muttered. "You shouldn't be out here."

"I'm fine," she protested, smoothing his old Jericho High Varsity Baseball sweatshirt - the one she'd found in the basement just after the bombs - over her stomach. Heather had been stealing his shirts for a couple of weeks now, grumbling that none of her own clothes fit. Jake couldn't help but feel a certain amount of relief at the fact that she was still borrowing from his dresser.

"And, don't change the subject," Heather accused, pressing her hand to her mouth. "We're having a baby, Jake," she said a few seconds later. "And, I can't do that without you, not the way things are now. Maybe before, but not now. I need to know you're here," she sighed. "Today. Next week. Ten years from now," she listed. "I need to know I can count on you, that I can depend on you," Heather told him again, pushing herself to her feet.

She faced Jake, her lips pressed together and her eyes suspiciously bright. "Right now it doesn't feel like I can," she murmured, her face crumpling. Weeping softly, Heather turned away from him bury her face in her hands.

Scrambling to his feet, Jake laid a tentative hand on her back, unsure of his reception. Heather stiffened, and he had to fight the impulse to pull away. Feeling helpless, he watched her back, knowing that she was fighting to shore up her defenses, and this time those defenses were against him. A quiet, unintentional "Heather," escaped his lips.

"I'm sorry," she mumbled, her voice shaking. Heather took a step and a half away from him, putting herself out of his reach. "I think - I need to be alone for a little while," she told him, looking back over her shoulder. Her forehead wrinkled as she frowned, asking, "If that's okay?"

Grinding his teeth, Jake nodded. "Yeah. Okay."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

For the record, the Rock Springs - Sweetwater County Airport exists, but Dolly Doolittle's is all from my imagination.

You must login (register) to review.