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Katie squinted in the late afternoon sunlight as she emerged from the Clinton's berth. It was good to be back on land--and they had finished their mission a week early, so she was able to give her crew two weeks of leave instead of just one. She had been one of the last ones to disembark; it was her habit to go from stem to stern and make sure everything was safely shut down and secured.

Unlike most of her crew, she'd decided not to call Ben and let him know that they had returned early. Better to surprise him--at least as long as he didn't try calling the ship between now and the time it took her to drive home. It wasn't likely since he usually called after 1900, when he knew she was more likely to be available for personal calls--but it could always happen.

Ben....  The thought of her husband brought a soft smile to her face. If anyone had asked her five years ago if she thought she would ever renew her relationship with her then ex-husband, she would have laughed at them. But after the conflicts they'd been through together in recent years and some personal maturing on his part, she had decided it was worth another shot. While the old, cynical part of her kept saying it would end in disaster like their first attempt, the common sense half reminded herself that neither of them were the young, impulsive midshipmen they had once been. For that reason, they had taken things gradually, helped out in part by her sudden promotion to the Clinton a month after starting to date again. Spending months with only vidlink calls as a means of communication had helped the relationship progress at a slow but steady pace. A year after her promotion, Ben had transferred to the New Cape Quest base, which allowed for the chance to spend time together when the Clinton was docked. They had married the next year and, at two years and counting, their second attempt at marriage was progressing much better than their first. There were still quite a few times that they lost patience with one another--Ben's four older sisters mockingly called it their "relationship dynamic"--but, overall, their bond was much closer and more profound than it had been the first time around.

She couldn't wait to tell him they had two weeks instead of just the one they had both been expecting. Casting a glance to the left as she pulled into the driveway, she saw that his car was there, which meant he was at home. Blinking in surprise at noticing she had already arrived at home, she belatedly realized she'd driven the entire way lost in thought.

"Good thing I know the way," she snorted in self-mocking.

As she turned off the ignition, the impulse to ring the doorbell instead of letting herself in hit her and she laughed at the thought. I should--that will really shock him. So deciding, she thumbed the car door lock and closed it as quietly as possible. Biting back her smile, she headed up to the front door and rang the bell, imagining the look on his face when he answered the door to find her standing on the porch.

But three minutes passed without an answer, then five. Puzzled, Katie glanced over her shoulder at the two cars in the driveway before shrugging and putting her key in the lock. It was unusual that he wouldn't have noticed the doorbell ring, but it was possible he was occupied to the extent that he didn't hear it.

"Ben?" She closed the door behind her and flipped the deadbolt with one hand, frowning as silence greeted her call. Not hearing the doorbell was one thing. But there was no way the sound of her voice would have gone unnoticed when he was not expecting her to even be in the house. Tossing her keys into the basket hanging next to the door, she paused in the doorway of the den long enough to glance inside for any sign of Ben and, not finding him, headed for the stairs.

She called out to him again as she ascended the stairs at a quick pace, frowning at the total lack of response. Checking every room upstairs turned up no sign of him. Something wasn't right. His car was here and so were his keys, so he had to be home. For a brief moment, she considered the possibility that he'd gone for a walk, but then he would have had his keys with him. Heading back down the stairs, she was reaching for her cell phone when she caught a glimpse out the back door and saw a familiar form occupying a deck chair.

"There you are," she muttered with an amused shake of her head. As she reached the sliding glass door, she pushed it open and raised her voice to get his attention. "Is this the kind of greeting you give me after I've been six months out to..." She stopped short at the sight before her, her teasing lecture fading into a new smile.

Ben was stretched out on the deck chair with one arm tucked under his head. Curled in a ball at his feet was their cat. And sprawled on Ben's chest was their eighteen month old daughter, held securely in place by her father's other arm. All three were sound asleep; the toddler's soft, quick breathing was barely audible over the combination of Ben's light snoring and Oz's purr-laced exhalations.

Crossing the deck to the empty chair next to the one her family was laying on, she sat down on it, reaching out to first comb her fingers through Eden's silky-soft hair, then drawing them in a caress along Ben's arm. The touch made him stir and he shifted, his eyes slowly opening. Catching sight of her, he smiled faintly. Almost immediately, his eyes widened and he quickly sat up, disrupting the sleeping child.

"You--you're home?"

His expression was so priceless that Katie started to laugh. After a minute of staring in disbelief, Ben joined in. They were interrupted when Eden's fussing at having her nap interrupted rose to an indignant holler.

"Sorry, sweetheart." Ben hugged the little girl close, rubbing her back to soothe her. "You know I wouldn't have done that on purpose. But look who's home a week early." He turned her around to face Katie. Eden blinked, her fussing turning into a squeal of glee at the sight of her beloved mother. Immediately, she tried to squirm out of Ben's grasp, little hands reaching across the space between the chairs. He passed her over willingly, pulling a fake pout that made Katie roll her eyes at him despite her smile.

Awakened by all the commotion, Oz stood up, stretched and padded the five steps down the length of the chair to insist on his own share of attention. One black paw patted insistently first on Ben's arm, then Katie's knee and his voice rose in a demanding meow.

"Oz-oz," Eden reached over to pat the cat's head. Oz leaned into the touch, then hopped over to the other chair to sit with Katie and Eden. He objected when he was picked up, but his complaint faded back into a purr as Ben sat down next to Katie and set him in his lap. With a lap to commandeer, Oz began to knead in earnest, drawing a protest from the man and a fit of giggles from Eden. Katie cradled her little girl close and laughed along with her at Ben's complaints about claws in his leg and the lack of help to escape being "mauled" by an overenthusiastic feline.

It was good to be home.