Kieran Dougherty was not a tall man. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was downright short. At least, he thought so. When he was on the ground. Which was one reason he liked to fly. The gray-eyed man with short, straight mouse-brown hair and an extensive collection of freckles liked to fly the way retrievers like to swim. The biggest design flaw of airplanes, in his opinion, was that they usually had to land to be refueled. The other options were unfortunately beyond the resources of his organization at the moment. Still, he could accept that, just as he could accept that an old and perpetually restored puddlejumper was a lot less conspicuous than something with a lot more range and capability. Besides, he liked prop-driven planes. You could really feel the air in them. Not that he would have turned down something newer and fancier, mind you. He stopped daydreaming and focused his full attention as he began his descent for Charleston. Any way you cut it, his worst day flying was still better than a day stuck on the ground.
As he slid into the pattern, Schmidt strapped into the copilot seat beside him and looked out the window at the city lights as they came in. When he wasn't talking to the tower, Dougherty kept his mouth shut. He knew Schmidt was listening to the engines. It wasn't by the book, but damned if Harry wasn't the best aircraft mechanic he'd ever had. The guy loved engines, and was almost psychic in his ability to detect anything that wasn't quite right with "his" bird. He was pretty damned good with the other stray aircraft they had to cope with now and again on this crazy job, too.
After landing, he got Lucille into the hangar and left her to Schmidt while he went outside for a cigar, waving goodbye to Cally and Papa as they wheeled a couple of carefully anonymous black and gray bikes out the back door, mounting up and disappearing through the chain link fence, hair and faces hidden under the ubiquitous black helmets. Charleston airport was salty, and sandy, and the air was thick with cold moisture that smelled like rain. Wind blew sand against his cheeks and he had to squint to keep the little bits of grit out whenever the wind shifted. He took deep drags off the Cuban cigar, staring at nothing and wishing he was still in the air. He finished it and dropped the butt in the ashcan by the door before going back in to hear Harry's update on his aircraft.
"So how is she?" He looked over to Schmidt, who was whistling as he pulled on a coverall and got his toolbox out of its locker.
"Well, she sounds real good. I should be able to just go down the list and have her all checked out before I leave tonight." He pulled a wrinkled and oil-stained piece of paper out of the box and spread it out neatly on the rolling cart where he was beginning to lay out the well-used and carefully cared-for tools in their precise places. Harry didn't really need the list, he was just a touch obsessive. Dougherty could understand that. It was one reason he trusted the other man to work on Lucille. On the other hand, Dougherty had a personal life, sort of, when he wasn't in the air. Since he'd been assured he wouldn't get to fly again for at least seventy-two hours, he was eager to go make the acquaintance of the pitcher of stout that was calling his name. Maybe even find a girl with the right combination of looks and loneliness. And a no expectations of permanence. A few minutes later he waved cheerfully to the security guard, leaving the airport in search of beer and women. Song was optional.
Cally shared a lane with Granpa on their way home. She still missed her little apartment, but she wouldn't trade the girls for anything, even if motherhood did mean moving back home. Oh, she hired one of Wendy's granddaughters to play nanny whenever she expected to be gone for awhile, but there still needed to be someone to watch over all the details and make sure everyone got where they should be on time and all the bills got paid. If Granpa was Clan O'Neal's patriarch and clan head, Shari had matriarchy down pat. The O'Neal Bane Sidhe hid their headquarters in a Himmit-camouflaged mini Sub-Urb deep under Indiana. The Clan O'Neal hid its headquarters in plain sight in a sprawling farmhouse, in the swampy pine woods of Edisto Island.
Technically bounty-farmers, living under various names and identities, the O'Neals and the Sundays, their immediate in-laws, and assorted Bane Sidhe waifs and strays had kept the area on and around the island swept clean of all but the occasional stray abat, the pests, for at least twenty years. It would have been inaccurate to call the clan self-sufficient on the local land and sea. They had a source of working capital. The Clan O'Neal men (by now the Sundays were regarded as a cadet branch) who planned to work for the Bane Sidhe tended to seek training, and find it, in the armed services. While Fleet Strike and Fleet remained the primary armed forces of the Galactic Federation, the various United States and Canadian military organizations still remained. Missions tended to be against pirates or insurgents. Or the U.S. military "loaned" units to Fleet or Fleet Strike, or other Galactic interests, for specialty functions. To limit the problems associated with being off-planet and unavailable, the O'Neals tended to gravitate to what was still called counterterror special ops. Large parts of the country on both coasts still lay in ruins, but the United States was no more able to survive without the rest of the world now than it had been prewar. The war itself had been a special case, but strategic resources from overseas were as important now as they ever had been. In modern times, counterterror really meant protecting those strategic resources and the trade lanes that served the many single-export colonies.
The clan members' service in the military provided excellent training while continuing an honored family tradition, albeit under assumed identities. It also brought hard currency into the Clan community. Their pay covered goods and services that the island community couldn't make or grow for themselves. It stretched the dollars from the small cash crops some of the women grew each year. Low-country agriculture had been a hand-to-mouth proposition long before the war, and the O'Neals didn't go in for tourism, great beaches or not. Still, shipping by moonlight was an old and revered tradition along the North American coastline. A couple of what she still thought of as "the kids" had quite a talent for it.
Having grown up with just Granpa, and then having lived alone for so long, Cally still felt vaguely claustrophobic if she stayed too long in what had become a happy, if chaotic and often quarrelsome, jumble of aunts and uncles younger than she was mixed with all sorts of cousins, grown or growing. Not to mention various people relocated by the Bane Sidhe, who needed to live someplace anonymous for awhile. Without the slab, that added up to a good little small town, even though a number of kin had wrapped themselves up in very sincere identities and assimilated into the outside world. The Clan was careful to turn in enough Posleen heads for bounty, maintaining the illusion that the area was still infested. This brought in a little hard currency, but they were having to go farther and farther afield each year in search of prey.
Cally and Papa's drive didn't take as long as it could've, once they'd navigated the tunnel under the Charleston Wall. The O'Neals kept the track between Charleston and Edisto well maintained, but took pains to make it look dilapidated. When they got on a good patch of straightaway, they could really open up the engines and make some time. It would have been suicide without the buckleys running IR watch for whitetail deer. With them, it was merely foolhardy. But fun. Well, except for a bug that hit her helmet's air-intake and sieved into her mouth, leaving her spitting what tasted like grass the rest of the way. You took the good with the bad.
It was predawn by the time they got home, the sky turning slowly from blue-gray to gold. The sun wasn't up, and neither were most of the kids. One of the girls coming out to milk her cows waved to them as they pulled into the packed sand and shell driveway. They wheeled the bikes into the shed behind the house, racking the helmets neatly on a set of carved wooden hooks. As Cally climbed the cinderblock kitchen stairs and trudged down the creaky pine hallway to the add-on Granpa had built for her and the girls, she knew her ass was dragging. All that way and all that work for nothing. What a night. She checked that her shades were pulled down and sealed tight before shutting her door and going to bed, shedding shoes and clothes on the way. As long as it stayed dark, her body would neither know nor care that it was daytime out there. She needed at least a good six hours before she was going to feel human again. She patted the washcloth on her nightstand where Shari had left it. That was thoughtful. The sheets smelled faintly of lily of the valley as she snuggled between them and shut her eyes.
The grass was wet under her feet and her sneakers squelched loudly as she snuck through the trees, hunting rats. The twenty-two rifle in her hand was pointed upwards, away from any non-targets. Oh, God—she ducked as an owl flew past right in front of her face, a struggling rat between its claws. A rat with a human face. Oh no, not the faces again, I hate the faces. A twig broke next to her and she jumped, inadvertently pulling the trigger. The shot echoed loudly in the night. A woman beside her in an antiquated nun's habit sneered, "Stupid girl! You had your finger on the trigger. Now they've got you for sure." She tried not looking at the face, but the glazed eyes and tongue hanging out drew her own eyes upwards. And then she could hear the hissing growl and the thud of clawed feet behind her. The horses were coming for her. She dropped the rifle and ran and kept running, down the empty Galplas corridors, spattered and rust brown. There was a door and she didn't want to go in it but she had to hide. The door swung open and another one of the faces leered out from the darkness. "They'll kill you just like you killed me. But come in, come in. I was such a scumbag, I deserved it. You'll be in such good company, won't you, Cally?" Her T-shirt was plastered against her in cold sweat as she turned and ran again. They were closer now. Quick, into a ventilation shaft! And she was over the edge and falling, and the faces were in the walls again, going past as she fell, and she tried to scream but she—
She was sitting up in bed, her breath coming in gasps. The T-shirt she'd slept in was cold and wet on her skin. She grabbed her washcloth, burying her face in it and shuddering. That was a bad one. They told me the dreams might come back when I started working again, but damn. What time is it, anyway? She looked over at the alarm clock and groaned. Only nine-thirty? Ah, hell. Might as well get up. No way I'm getting back to sleep after that.
She pulled on a robe and a pair of big, cushiony slippers that had been fuzzy once upon a time, and wandered into the kitchen in search of coffee and breakfast. She yawned, feeling her back pop as she stretched out the kink that had somehow worked its way into her spine.
Shari was in the kitchen. Slim, her hair the gold of the dune grass on the beach, Cally's step-grandmother looked twenty-something, like all juvs in their first century. She'd been a middle-aged mother back in the war when Cally was just thirteen. Both women had old eyes—eyes that had seen too much. Shari's were more motherly and less haunted. The kind of mother's eyes that didn't miss a thing. She was loading her breakfast dishes in the dishwasher when Cally came into the kitchen. The O'Neals had to be careful to keep it quiet, but electricity was damn near free. When you had friends who played with antimatter almost as an afterthought, power for basic household needs wasn't a problem. Raising the kids to understand and follow blackout rules on the electric lights could have been rough, if they hadn't been doing it all their lives. To satellites or aircraft, what few there were, Edisto Island looked like just another war-wasted and not-yet-recovered stretch of wilderness. Well, it almost was. Secretive clannishness had, by now, become a set of ingrained habits. The O'Neals had learned some hard lessons about survival and had adapted and copied a few tricks from their Galactic friends. In a pre-Posleen world, Clan O'Neal would have been a flock of very odd ducks. In the modern world, they were survivors.
"You're up early. Not another nightmare?" A frown crinkled Shari's forehead as she pressed a mug into Cally's hands, "I just fixed a fresh pot. Carrie said you got in about milking time this morning."
"Yeah, she was just going out. The kids are at school?" Cally yawned again, pouring a mugful of the wonderful-smelling fresh, strong coffee, but neglecting to pollute it with cream or sugar. It didn't matter how many times they told her it was hard-coded, she was convinced she was keeping just a little of the extra weight off her thighs and chest by watching what she ate. She split a bagel and dropped it in the toaster.
"Mmm. I expected it would be almost time for them to get out and come home by the time you and Michael woke up. Pam works so hard on her lesson plans, it's a shame to have the girls miss a day. So, 'fess up, how long's it been since you went to confession?" Shari asked.
"Uh . . . a few months, I guess." Cally hedged. Actually, it had been more like eight months, since she'd gone back to work full time and been taken off of the six-monthly courier run to the Moon. Dammit.
"Go to confession. I'm not Catholic, but even I'll agree it does you more good than that fancy Bane Sidhe shrink ever did. Here," she said, putting a box of cornflakes and a bowl on the table. She turned to grab the milk. "Still can't see why you like that stuff when I've got cheese grits in the crockpot. It's not like you have to worry about your arteries. Go to confession." She must have thought Cally's pensive expression was disagreement because she shook the wooden spoon in her hand towards the younger woman. "You're my friend, Cally O'Neal, and I won't have you getting all shredded up inside again. It was bad enough when you were pregnant with Morgan. Go or I'll . . . I'll sic Michael on you!"
"All right, all right already. I'll go. Last thing I need is Granpa nagging." Cally said, crunching her cereal and wincing as the sound echoed in her skull against her headache. God, I really needed more sleep.
The younger woman was halfway through her breakfast when the door opened. A largish pile of dirty white fur and drool came bounding in, scattering sand across the clean floor. As Shari pulled the joyfully maniacal dog off of Cally and ushered it back out the door, she glared at her husband, who was shaking out his own shoes off the edge of the steps.
"Sorry, honey. He got past me again. Nagging about what?" Papa O'Neal looked sheepish as he shut the door behind the dog. He shook his head, looking for someplace he could politely spit. Shari handed him a mug and a broom.
"Good morning, Granpa. I thought you'd still be in bed." Cally said, brushing sand off her lap.
"When you're older and wiser, you'll have the sense to take a nap the day before a night job." Papa O'Neal sometimes seemed to forget he didn't look a day over twenty-five.
"Yes, Granpa. We all know the elderly sometimes need an afternoon nap," she said, brushing her hair back behind one ear. It was a habit from the Sinda persona she had never quite dropped.
"Elderly, hah! Who had the aches and pains last time we met in the gym?" He grinned, dodging as she took a swipe at him, and began to sweep.
"What were you thinking about for dinner tonight?" she asked Shari, pointedly ignoring Granpa as she drained her cup of coffee.
"I thought I'd make a crab and chicken casserole Pam came up with and get rid of a few leftovers. Why? What's on your mind?" Shari finished loading the dishes and started the machine.
"Just wondered if there was something I could fix to help out."
"If you could make something for dessert this afternoon, I'm sure the kids would like it. I could use something sweet myself." Shari took a cloth and began wiping down the counters.
"That works. I need to go down to Ashley's for some stuff. I can get the kids and make the weekend incinerator run if you want," Cally offered, glancing at the nearly full can.
"Thanks. Um, Mark's spending the night with Lucas. The keys to the truck are on the hook," Shari said absently, preoccupied with slapping away the hand that was playing around the belt loops on the back of her jeans. She wasn't slapping very hard. Cally smothered a grin and grabbed up the bag and the keys as she scooted out the door, reminding herself not to get back too quick.
Years ago, when she was a teenager freshly home on summer break, she had ridden cross-country with Granpa in a dusty red pickup truck from the School, in Idaho. They came back through all of the midwestern rear area country, until they met up with Shari in Knoxville, where she'd been filling the shopping list. It seemed Granpa had shamelessly used the slab and about a dozen different identities, with some judicious palm grease, to buy up the bounty farm allotments for all of Edisto Island. Even back then, she could easily imagine him going through all the changes, because it still looked strange as hell to her to see him with red hair and all young and everything. He probably would have kept on buying until he'd owned half of Colleton County if Father O'Reilly hadn't gotten concerned and ratted him out to Shari.
Still, even the Bane Sidhe had had to agree that the possibilities were useful. And it was already a done deal by the time they'd realized what he was up to. Granpa got to keep his island, but the price for Cally was that her first summer home from school had been spent hunting Posleen and getting a crash course in low-country construction. Typically, Papa O'Neal had spent his free time during her first year of school in a combination of shady trades of Galtech goods from the Rabun Gap cache—those he didn't plan to keep for himself—and brushing up his construction skills doing day labor jobs.
The hardest part had been sweeping the island once they got there. Satellite shots showed the bridge was intact, but they hadn't known much else. And at the time Edisto Island was very nearly as far as anyone had penetrated into the Lost Zone. The ride in the back of truck, on the first load of mostly cinderblocks, ammo, and the bare necessities, watching the treeline for feral Posleen, had not been fun. Not fun at all. She'd gotten five of them, and that was just on her own side. The large, ochre, centauroid reptiles had to be the most repulsive things she'd ever seen.
She'd thanked God that Granpa had decided that speed was more important than profit and had put off taking the heads and hauling them on the truck to the first bounty outpost at Spartanburg. They were repulsive enough lying dead on the pavement leaking yellow ichor into the ground. Having that stinking mess in the truck right next to her would really have been too much, wrapped in a tarp or not. He'd sprung for the rental fee for a really big truck for that one, bringing down most of the parts of the house. Most of the parts of Granpa and Shari's house were, of course, Galactic materials. Extruded and formed to spec, they could laugh off a direct hit by a hurricane. And over the next couple of centuries, they probably would.
Sensors and scanners for civilians hadn't even been a dream in some bright boy's head that soon after the war. Making do with the Mark I Eyeball when a Postie just might have picked up a railgun from somewhere wasn't quite as terrifying as being in a bunker too damned near ground zero of a nuclear explosion, but it had been close. The worst part of the ride had been whenever they crossed a Postie bridge. She'd known they were structurally sound, of course, but the reminder of organized and technological Posleen had rubbed salt in memories that were all too fresh.
The first month on the island had been a hot and muggy hell, especially to a girl who'd recently acclimated to the Idaho mountain air. Sister Gabriella had really believed in PT, so at least she hadn't been out of shape. Standing her watch at night, stalking Posties from one end of the island to the other, bit by bit, in the day had been tiring and tedious. It wasn't that there were a whole lot of ferals. There weren't. Fleet and Fleet Strike and all the rest had done their job, and, once the God Kings were gone, the ravenous hunger of the feral Posleen normals had done even more. It was just that Posties, even single isolated feral normals, were so terribly nasty. At least she'd gotten to vent her frustration at the heat and the mosquitos and the sand in everything whenever they'd actually found a Posleen. Granpa didn't care, he'd just let her vent, as long as she didn't give him cause to scold her for wasting ammo. She didn't. Well, not more than once. And she'd had a really bad morning that day.
Shari's kids had stayed at a Bane Sidhe safehouse back in Knoxville that summer. Cally hadn't blamed her one bit for keeping them out of it. They hadn't been trained for any of this. She had. Well, she'd lived with Granpa during the war, which had amounted to the same thing. By the time they'd finished clearing the island, putting up the cinderblock and earth-berm-reinforced guardshack had been nothing. Guarding the bridge for the three days it had taken Granpa and Shari to bring back the big truck of building materials from Knoxville had been interesting. Before they left, she had helped Granpa and Shari load up the rotting but still identifiable Postie heads in the back of the pickup. Another nasty job.
Granpa had helped her run the line of tripwires connected to alarms back and forth across the bridge. It was still a day and a half before she could convince herself to take the time to sleep. In the end, only one of the moronic, leaderless feral normals had happened along and actually tried to cross the bridge. Then had come the icky task of chopping it into pieces she could carry and dropping them over the side of the bridge and down into the water. She pitied the aquatic scavengers that had to dine on the thing, but she could hardly leave it on the bridge to rot and attract more. And then she'd had to wrap the head and keep it so they could take it in for the bounty later. She'd made sure it was downwind.
After Shari and Granpa got back, having brought Billy to ride high sentry and help out, they'd reviewed the island looking for the best place to build. On a plot on the landward side, next to a big bay, Shari had found an old bit of street sign that had somehow survived the scavenging. It had said "Jungl" on the only bit that was left. Granpa had laughed and said that was home for him. The name had stuck, and even all these years later everybody still called it Papa's Jungle House. When they didn't call it Mama's house. Cally still couldn't figure out quite how it had happened, but over the decades Shari had somehow become honorary mother or grandmother to the whole island, whether the kids or grandkids or—hell, the relationships were all too confusing—were hers, or not.
When she was out and about, Cally could still see what she regarded as the O'Neal touch in the layout of the island. Everything was downplayed to any potential observer on land, sea or overhead. Trees and brush and dunes broke up vertical outlines and while planted fields were impossible to hide, a whole lot could be done with roofs and netting. Between irregular overhangs and creative use of vegetation, most roofs couldn't be distinguished from the air. Hiding, of course, wasn't the point. Obfuscation was enough. With so many people moving into the Lost Zones, the purpose was to make the O'Neal compound seem just one more group of poor but independent bounty-hunters.
The houses of O'Neals and Sundays were not showplace houses, designed to be artistic, designed to be seen. Rather, they were designed to fade into the background. Shrubbery and vegetation around the houses wasn't planted to artistically enhance, but to blur straight lines and obscure. A prewar Green would have loved it. All so artistic. All so earthy. All so . . . deadly.
Cally savored the smell of the salt on the brisk fall air as she walked across the road from the parking lot to pick up the kids. The olive drab pack on her back, brought along for the groceries, helped block the wind. She'd worn her shooting glasses to keep the fine, blowing sand out of her eyes. The school was only about a klick from the house, and right across from the small building that served as a local barter market and grocery store. She wouldn't even have driven if there hadn't been the trash to haul. Ashley Privett, Wendy and Tommy's oldest, had made a good business out of selling baked goods when she'd first arrived on the island some years ago, and over time had evolved into a sort of barter grocer, keeping track of what came in from whom and selling on consignment.
After the BS split, Cally had figured out a way to stretch her shrunken salary by using half her personal baggage allowance on each trip between home and base carrying something abundant one place and scarce in the other. Consequently, her pack was about half full with jars of soy sauce, corn syrup, four quart jars of moonshine, and some bagged popcorn. Bringing corn to the low country would have been like bringing sand to the beach except for the relative difference in price, and that the Indiana popcorn popped a lot better. She'd gone out with two pounds each of roasted coffee beans, baking chocolate, cane sugar, homemade cigars, a pack of vanilla beans, three bottles of rum, and a bolt's worth each of indigo denim and unbleached shirt-weight oxford cloth. Her market for stone-ground hominy grits had gone out in the first year, after one of the women on the cleaning crew on Base had figured out how to make it herself. It had been a niche market, anyway. Besides, cloth was better. There was always a market for blue jeans. She supposed she was technically a smuggler, among other things. Not like it mattered. Assassin, smuggler, thief, but not a drunk—it's kind of hard to become an alcoholic when your blood nannites break it down before you ever feel the effects. Not a brawler—well, mostly. Not a rapist—she'd heard it was technically possible, but it wasn't to her tastes or her needs, even if she had been celibate for months now. Dammit.
That was the worst thing about getting back on the team. Her six-monthly regular courier slot to the moon would be given to someone else on light duty, and she'd have to find some other way to arrange time with James. Okay, Stewart. And of course she couldn't explain why she wanted to keep the courier route. She couldn't even ask to keep it. She'd been lucky to get it in the first place. James had been on Earth for conferences twice since Morgan was born. Unfortunately for her love life, she was probably going to have to wait until he could get down here again. Anything less wasn't an option. In forty or so years' work for the Bane Sidhe, she'd had enough casual sex to last multiple lifetimes. She'd denied it often enough, even to herself, but she'd been looking for "the real thing." Having found it, she was hardly going to settle for less. Oh, if the fate of humankind was at stake, she wasn't going to be a prude, but she'd also determined to say no to plans that involved her as a honey trap if it was just a matter of getting information faster or cheaper. Sure, sometime faster or cheaper might mean life was on the line. But more frequently than not, it wasn't. Motherhood was an excuse for saying no. It sometimes meant they weren't happy with her, but under the circumstances, she could live with that.
Still, it was good that Granpa owned the island free and clear. Before the split, her pay had been enough to keep a footloose single girl in beer and skittles, but hadn't been anything to write home about. Since the split, if she hadn't moved back home, she'd be struggling to make ends meet for herself, let alone the girls. It frustrated James that he couldn't help, of course. But in her business, having more money than you ought was dangerous. Bosses were understandably paranoid about who else might be paying their covert operatives, and for what. Fortunately, since the smuggling was almost a public service to the organization, it was honest income. Enough for a bit extra for Christmas and birthdays, anyway. Saving the world was great for warm and fuzzy feelings, but the pay sucked.
She kicked at the sand and a bit of some scrubby creeping plant with one foot, frowning as the sand in her sneaker reminded her of the hole she had worn through the sole. Still, living in the next thing to paradise was a nice compensation on its own, thanks to Granpa. And if paradise was gritty and placid and boring, those were what made a good place to raise kids. Even if the Bane Sidhe had made her into a thief. At least every mission she went out on to steal something was one mission where she probably could manage not to kill anybody. That was something, wasn't it?
She shoved her hands in the pockets of the olive drab windbreaker she'd pulled on over a faded red T-shirt and jeans. The fall wind was starting to cut right through the holes at her knees and back pocket. Time to patch this pair. She stepped over a dried palmetto frond that had gotten blown together with spanish moss and downed leaves.
The external walls of the little schoolhouse were plastered with tabby and screened with vegetation; the thin sheet of Galplas that surfaced the roof had been tuned to a camouflage pattern Shari had done up on her PDA. The windows, while clear, had been coated with a thin film that kept the sunlight from glaring off of them, although they still admitted daylight and allowed the children to see out. On the side closest to Granpa's and Shari's was one of the small concessions to color that the teacher and some of the mothers had insisted on—the children's flower garden. Currently, there was a small carpet of pansies peeking mischievously out at the afternoon sunlight. It was another reason Cally picked up the kids herself in the afternoons whenever she could—the flowers were nice.
Most of the kids were out on the obstacle course by now. Well, okay, there was a seesaw and a rope swing, when somebody wasn't climbing it. The monkey-bars and tower and such were all kid-sized, and the kids tended to attack everything from the cargo nets to the tower in no particular order, substituting random, chaotic enthusiasm for the single-mindedness of adult PT. Still, the O'Neals and Sundays and various children of Bane Sidhe families were the only children she'd ever seen play hide and go seek in ghillie suits. At four, Sinda hadn't quite gotten the idea yet. She was sitting under the tree happily weaving flowers and bits of brightly colored construction paper into the new section of loose, unbleached cotton netting Granpa had given her last week.
"Mommy!" Morgan yelled, dropping off the rope swing and running across the packed sand. Sinda, whose head had jerked up as soon as she heard her sister cry out, wasn't far behind her, having left her netting behind her on the ground. Cally crouched down and spread her arms, catching one girl in each, and enjoyed the best moment of her day.
"Did you two have a good day?" she asked, looking into one set of green eyes and one set of brown ones. Sinda's honey-blonde hair hung around her shoulders in curls. Morgan's straighter and shorter brown hair looked like she'd been rolling around in the sand.
She braced herself for impact as a little red-haired girl, liberally daubed with fingerpaint, crashed into the three of them. "Aunt Cally! Aunt Cally!" she squealed.
Cally picked up three-year-old Carrie, who was actually technically her aunt, weird as that was, and planted her on one hip. "Hiya, squirt!" she said.
"Come look at my Billy suit, Mommy!" Sinda started dragging her over to the now brightly decorated piece of netting, while Morgan said something about her books and ran inside.
Cally looked down at the netting as her four-year-old pulled it over her head like a scarf and preened at her. "It's a very colorful ghillie suit. The most colorful one I've ever seen," she said.
"Do you just love it?" Sinda asked.
"It's very pretty. But isn't it going to stand out when you play hide and go seek with the other kids?"
Sinda's forehead wrinkled a bit. "I could hide in the flowers!"
"Every time?" Cally said.
Sinda nodded cheerfully. "I like flowers. They're my favorite."
"Okay. Are y'all ready to go to the store?" Cally asked as Morgan came back, a blue denim backpack slung over one small shoulder.
They walked across a path that had bits of pavement, indicating it probably had once really been a street, to the store. Privett's Grocery was a weathered gray pine building, almost a shed, really, with a mud-brown roof of Galplas tiles and a couple of windows with big, gray, storm shutters latched open against the walls. A bright splash of color came from the fresh fruits and vegetables displayed in wooden carts on the front porch. The carts were obviously new, the boards the golden white of fresh, unweathered pine.
As soon as they got in the door, Carrie started struggling and Cally put her down. The girls drooled over the assortment of fudge behind the counter while she swapped her trade goods, incoming for outgoing, and picked out her own groceries. Shari's cabbages hadn't survived this year, so Cally grabbed a head of cabbage for coleslaw, and a bottle of lemon juice that must have been put up last year. A pitcher of lemonade would be a nice treat for everybody. She got each girl a small piece of fudge wrapped in rice paper, fighting the temptation to buy one for herself. Christmas was just around the corner, and it was going to be tight this year. Besides she was making brownies for dessert. Halfway down the steps she turned around and went back for the square of fudge. It was definitely getting to be time to do something about her salary.