"There are strange things done 'neath the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
When I cremated Sam McGee."

Rain ended the poem with a flourish as Cullen giggled.  He cocked an eyebrow in her direction.  "That's not an appropriate response, Sarah," he said dryly.

"Sorry," she grinned unrepentantly.  "You just looked so, um, dramatic. It was actually quite impressive."

He grinned back.  "That's my patented 'mystic-Native-American' look."

"Do you guys really have to do this?" Nathan gritted. He turned away from the opening of their makeshift camp to glare at the two.

"Hey, you sounded just like Morgan just now," Cullen teased.  "Though she can glower a lot better."

"Pardon the pun, Nathan," Rain interjected,  "but why don't you chill out? It's minus 2 hours till extraction.  We have to pass the time somehow."

"Why don't you try Tyler and Hawkes on the radio again?" urged Nathan.

"They just radioed in five mikes ago," Cullen reminded him.  "They should be nearing the base by now ­ Tyler said radio discipline till they check back."

"I still say we should have with them," muttered West.  "Come on, guys, let's go after them."

"No," said Rain.  "Tyler's orders are clear.  We stay here."

Nathan glared at Rain for a moment longer and then went back to watching the path for signs of Hawkes and Tyler.

"So," Cullen ventured after a few moments of silence.  "Anybody wanna sing Christmas carols?"

Fortunately, the side of the chasm  turned into a slope of sorts about thirty feet down.  Morgan slid, more than fell, the last hundred of so feet, landing at the bottom with a bone-jarring thud.

Ouch, she thought, momentarily unable to voice the feeling as she struggled to catch her breath.  She tried to open her eyes and had to shut them again against the glare of the snow.  She replaced the visor that had been knocked off her eyes and tried again.

The icy sub-zero ground temperature demanded that she move, and she did, slowly, reluctantly, trying to gauge if she had broken any bones.  She was grateful that she had so many layers of clothing on ­ the padding had provided more than protection from the cold.   Her clothes were torn in several places, and she felt bruised all over, but she seemed whole.  Which was more than Hawkes would be able to say once she got ahold of him, she thought.

She struggled to her feet and looked around for Hawkes, experiencing a moment of panic when she didn't immediately find him.  "Hawkes!  Hawkes, where are you?"  Damn the white of their clothing ­ if he was knocked out they would make it that much harder to find him.  "Hawkes!  Goddammit, answer me!"


She turned towards the voice to see him plodding towards her.  He had landed a few dozen meters beyond her own position, his greater weight no doubt propelling him further.  She saw him stagger and go down, and she ran to his position, falling on her knees beside him.

"What's wrong?" she demanded.  "Are you hurt?"  She examined the shivering form and cursed as she realized that the lower part of his body, from mid-chest to this feet ­ was   encrusted with ice.  The clearing they had fallen into wasn't a field after all, but a lake, and one that was obviously not frozen all the way to the bottom.

"I went through the ice," Hawkes tried to explain, signs of shock evident in his eyes.

She cursed again and grabbed his arm, using all of his strength to help him stand up.  "We can't stay here," she announced.  "We have to find shelter, fast."  She looked around her ­ the lake stretched as far as she could see.  Behind her was the rock face of the ledge.  At least it could protect some protection from the wind and the snow, she thought.  Anything was better than being out in the open.  Hawkes swayed and she grabbed his arm tighter, keeping him upright.

"Let's go," she ordered, and led him back towards the mountain.

"Shit," said Rain, suddenly.  "Our radio's out."

"What?" Nathan demanded. "What do you mean our radio's out?"

"Which word didn't you understand?" asked Rain, dryly, as he pried open the radio case ad inspected the inside.  "I think the circuit board fried out."

"How did that happen?"

"What, you think technology exists to make life easier?" Cullen asked with a wry grin.  "We can make ships that go faster than light, Nathan, but they still can't make a radio that works in bad weather."

"SO what do we do now?" Nathan asked.

"What can we do?' returned Rain.  "We sit tight, rendezvous with Hawkes and Tyler, and wait for our ride home."

She dragged Hawkes on, pushing, pulling, nagging him to keep moving.

It felt like they'd been walking forever.  Through ice, wind and snow, hating the cold as she'd ever hated anything else.  I'm from Florida, goddammit, she complained silently.  I wasn't made to ever be this cold.

She hoped Rain and the others were doing better than she and Hawkes were. The one casualty of their fall had been the radio.  Her call for help had met with no response, possibly due to the huge dent now marking its center. There had been no time to actually check the hardware.  Hawkes was faltering, fast.   They had to find shelter.  Out of the snow, away from the wind.

He really should have known better, she thought.  Going after her had been a stupid move. If the ledge couldn't hold her, it certainly couldn't hold him. But she supposed he had commendable, though faulty,  instincts.  At least he hadn't yelled 'Hoo-rah!' and applauded as she fell.

But he really should have known better.

Now the two of them were lost in the middle of a snow storm on an ice planet.  And if that wasn't complicated enough, he had to choose a lake to fall in.  Smart.  Very smart.

Through the fiercely falling snow she spotted an opening, a slight indentation on the side of the cliff and angled them towards it.  She doubted it was more than a small hole on the hillside, but some shelter was better than nothing.

"Almost there," she told Hawkes, her worry increasing when he didn't answer.

Their luck was holding after all.  It was a cave.  The opening was small, barely three feet in diameter, but a quick peek with her flashlight revealed that it got bigger a few feet in --  big enough to hold both of them, and deep enough to provide shelter from the wind.  She had Hawkes crawl through the mouth of the cave first, pushing and prodding to keep him moving.

Hawkes collapsed, losing consciousness, just as they came to a cavern that was about five feet high and ten feet across.  Still on her knees beside him, she  quickly and dispassionately  stripped him of his clothes.  That plunge into the icy water had been bad enough, but now the water had frozen and plastered the clothes to his skin, further advancing  the fall of his body temperature.  There wasn't time to check for frostbite or wounds.  What was important now was to raise his body temperature to prevent hypothermia.

She winced as she worked on the ski masks and thermal underwear, hoping she wasn't taking off his skin in the process, but she couldn't take the time to be more careful.  Every second counted.  After she had stripped him completely, she took a thermal  blanket from her pack and briskly rubbed his entire body, trying to get rid of the liquid, generate some heat and restore his blood circulation.  When she was done she threw another two dry thermal blankets to the ground.  Grunting with exertion, she shifted his dead weight onto the blankets and then wrapped the ends tightly around him.

Now working double time she took the wet thermal blanket and did her best to cover as much of the opening of the cave as she could, tacking it on to the porous stone with the attached pins.  Hopefully that would be enough to keep the main force of the wind from entering and maybe block out some of the cold, too.

She dug into Hawkes pack next, thanking God that it was waterproof and that it hadn't been submerged into the water he had fallen in.  She was annoyed to find only one thermal blanket ­ she herself had had the three.  Maybe Hawkes was more used to the cold, she conceded.  Or maybe it was just typical male machismo.  She took that blanket and wrapped it around him, too, this time covering his head for added heat and protection.

She took a moment to glance at her timepiece.   She wondered if she dared to leave Hawkes while she went for help.  No, it was twenty mikes to extraction ­ she'd never make it.  Best they could hope for is that Rain and the rest would come looking when the time came and she and Hawkes didn't appear.  But considering the building storm outside, she didn't count on a speedy rescue.  Ross would know better than to send planes out in all that white.

She didn't worry about the others finding them.  Rain already had instructions on what to do in a  situation like this.  In the event that they got separated and one or more teams missed extraction, extraction would be attempted again the next day ­ same time, same place, -- pending other instructions.  The practice had been Standard Operating Procedure with the 'Wings and had served them well.  That way, there was always a plan and a rendezvous point, even if there was no way to communicate with each other.

She and Hawkes just had to survive the next twenty-four hours and they'd be home free.

Six hours till sundown.  She remembered that, at least, though she couldn't recall just how long the nights were supposed to last on Gethen.  The temperature would drop even further, she thought.  She had to stabilize Hawkes' condition by then.  She had to find a way to raise the temperature of the cave or he'd never survive the night.

She dug into her pack once more and brought out two flares.  She snapped one in half and threw the suddenly blazing stick to the other side of the cave. Fortunately, this was a flare designed for night-use ­ light and heat with minimal smoke.  The designers  hadn't been able to completely get rid of the flare's accompanying smoke,  but it would be bearable, especially since she hadn't been successful in completely blocking out the wind, either. Hopefully,   the heat this flare generated would be enough to raise the temperature inside the cave for the next few hours.  As soon as the storm abated a little, she'd go out and  look for some sort of fuel for a fire.

She saved the other flare for later, just in case, along with two other flares designed for daytime use --  colored smoke being more effective against the white background of snow than mere light.

She turned back to Cooper and laid the back of her hand against his temple, noting with dismay that his temperature seemed to be falling further.  And she realized, with even greater dismay, that there was only one thing left to do.

Even in the twenty-first century, shared body heat was still the best way to combat hypothermia.

Grimly, she bent to take off her boots, her uniform, the thermal underwear, leaving only her regular underwear.  Then she joined him on the cave floor, rearranging the blankets to cover them both.  She covered everything, including their heads, hoping they wouldn't smother.  She had no choice, too much of their body head could be lost if their heads were left unprotected. Besides, it helped to further filter out the smoke from the flare. Wouldn't it just be a kick if to survive hypothermia only to die from carbon monoxide poisoning?

She shivered as the coldness of his body finally registered.  She was cold herself, but he was practically frozen.  Maybe it was the extra layer of fat that females were cursed with, she thought idly, that was keeping her that much warmer.  She rubbed her hands over his arms and shoulders, slid her feet and legs against his, trying to stroke away the cold, and massage the blood through his veins.  She even warmed his face with hers for good measure, rubbing her cheeks against his cold ones.

At least he had tons of muscles, she thought.  Muscles generated heat.

He started to shiver, a good sign, and she hoped that his color was beginning to look better, -- she couldn't tell from within the confines of the cloth.     She held him more tightly, trying to prevent him from hurting himself as his shivers intensified, wracking his body.     Unconscious, he turned his body towards her, trying to get closer to the source of the warmth, wrapping his own arms around her, and pulling her body over his like a blanket.

Morgan fought down the instinct to struggle and remained still.  When he had settled a bit she started  rubbing his arms in a soothing motion and murmuring comforting words in his ear.  After a few minutes his tense muscles relaxed and he began to breathe more easily.  She breathed a sigh of relief of her own as she realized that his shivers were becoming less intense.    She hoped he hadn't hit his head when he had fallen into the river, a concussion would seriously complicate their situation.  But by the sound of his breathing he seemed to be resting more easily so she allowed herself to relax, fractionally.

At least he was warm now.

So was she.  It was strange ­ now that his temperature was climbing she was actually starting to feel comfortable.  Cozy, even.  Cocooned.

As soon as his temperature stabilized, she thought, she'd get up.  She just didn't want to risk leaving him too soon and undoing all her work.  Just a few minutes more.

Suddenly she felt exhausted.  She continued to stroke his back but the rhythm, as well as that of his breathing, as well as the sound of his heart beating beneath her ear, began to make her feel drowsy.

She tried to shift, but he was holding her too securely.  She sighed, and somehow, the sigh turned into a yawn.

Two minutes later she was asleep.

"It's ten minutes to extraction," announced West, his worry well on its way to developing  into full-fledged hysteria.  "Where are they?"

"Settle down, West," instructed Rain, trying to stamp down his own apprehension.  "Tyler and Hawkes know the time of extraction.  They'll be here."  He looked out of the makeshift camp, noting that the weather seemed to be worsening, but not so bad that Hawkes and Tyler would have real problems with it.  A storm was building up, but they had time to spare.  If Hawkes and Tyler made it back in time they'd be off planet before it really hit.

"They're in trouble," Nathan protested.  "I'm going to look for them."

"No," Rain snapped impatiently.  "For the last time, no.  Think it through, Nathan.  We're the ones with the dead radio.  We have no means to communicate either with Tyler or the Saratoga.  Tyler knows we're here. The Commodore knows we're here.  We're staying here."

"They could be trying to reach us," objected Nathan.  "Without the radio we have no way of knowing."

"If they're in trouble and couldn't reach us then she'd call the 'Toga," Cullen pointed out.  "In either case, Rain's right.  We have no choice but to stay here and wait."  She placed a comforting on Nathan's shoulder.  "I'm sure they're on their way, Nathan."

Cooper awoke first, reacting with panic to the darkness, his claustrophobia attacking in full force.  He was hot and he couldn't breathe ­ something was wrapped tightly around him and something heavy pressing against his chest.

He groped carefully around him, his hands encountering cloth ­ thick, soft, slightly damp.  Slowly, he dislodged the weight of it from around his head and blinked at his green-tinged surroundings.

Where the heck was he?

He seemed to be in a  dugout of sorts, and the green haze seemed to be coming from a light source a few feet away.  His surroundings smelled damp, with just a hint of sulfur. It took a second more to conclude that he was in a cave, and that the light source a flare.

The weight on top of him moved slightly and he froze, his senses alert. When no further movement was forthcoming he slowly, cautiously lowered the cloth some more.

Masses of raven hair spilled out, followed by a familiar face, currently asleep.

Holy hell, he thought, blinking in confusion.

He was suddenly aware that beneath the blanket he was naked, and Tyler practically the same.  He could feel her body against his, her soft skin, the warm breath, the dark hair wrapped around them both.

Well, this was certainly an interesting development, he thought.  He was either hallucinating or he was hallucinating.

He took a deep breath and inhaled the scent of her.  No ­ it was more than that.  It was her scent and his, together.  Her hair smelled like the shampoo that Corps provided everyone, chamomile and various herbs, which he himself used.  But her skin ­ he'd know that scent anywhere.   Something deep inside him reacted, in ways he wasn't prepared to deal with at the moment.

He had never held a woman like this, not even an InVitro.  Not even Suzy during that ill-fated visit to the Bacchus.  Sure, they had done everything else ­ at least according to Suzy ­ but Suzy's rules had been clear:  no kissing, no lingering, nothing unnecessary. And afterwards she had rolled over to her side of the bed and stayed there.  He didn't even remember that much of it, he'd been so hopped-up from the green meanies that everything had been a blur.  This was astonishingly real.

Captain Morgan Tyler was lying asleep in his arms.  And it felt…  good.

Holy hell, he thought again, completely at a loss as to how to react or what to do.  In the end, he did the only thing he could think of, the only thing that made sense.

He closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

"Any word, Sir?" Nathan asked an equally harried Commodore Ross.

"I'm afraid not, Lieutenant," answered the commander of the USS Saratoga.

It had seemed like a sound plan at the time.  When the APC had landed and Hawkes and Tyler still hadn't made an appearance, Rain had pronounced that they would get in and fly over the path the two had supposedly taken, find them, and pick them up.  Five mikes later the storm had hit them with a vengeance, lowering the pilot's visibility to zero, leaving them no choice but to return to the 'Toga,  against West's vehement protests.

"No Chigs sightings," Ross continued, "but none of Tyler and Hawkes either."

"Sir, I would presume that the Captain and Hawkes took shelter somewhere from the storm," stated Rain.  "Their radio could have fritzed out just as ours did."

"Let's hope so, Lieutenant," responded Ross.  "Right now it's just too dangerous to continue with this search.  We'll have to try again when the storm breaks."

"But, Sir --," protested Nathan.

"When the storm breaks, Lieutenant," repeated Ross.  "Both Tyler and Hawkes have had extreme conditions survival training.  We'll just have to hope that's enough."

Hawkes was just the slightest bit disappointed when he awoke for the second time and found himself alone.  Though the flare was dying out and the cave was steadily getting darker, he could see well enough that she wasn't there.

It was just as well, he supposed.  He wouldn't have known how to handle it anyway.  At least now he had a few minutes to pull himself together before he had to face her.  Right now he was at a definite disadvantage.  It had just occurred to him that Tyler had very likely saved his life and that placed him in a very awkward position.  The fact that he was lying naked on the floor of a dark cave didn't help any.

She returned then, brining with her a gust of cold wind and a sprinkling of snow.  She placed the  small armload of twigs and dead leaves she was carrying in the center of the cave, a few feet away from Hawkes, and then proceeded to remove her jacket and headgear, shaking the snow from the cloth and her hair.  Then she rummaged through her pack and brought out a large tin cup and waterproof matches.

"I have a laser torch in my pack," he volunteered tentatively. "In case you need it."

She didn't act startled to find him awake.  "I prefer matches," she answered, calmly.  "They're lighter and more dependable." She glanced at him, unperturbed. "Your clothes are still wet ­ you're gonna have to wear that blanket a while longer."

"How much longer?" he asked, fretfully.

"At least until your clothes air dry," she replied.  "By the way, I'm gonna have to use the GEEQUED comic I found in your pack for kindling."

Oh, shoot, he thought.  He hadn't finished reading that particular issue yet.

She smiled wryly at his reluctant look.  "Don't worry, I'll get you another one."

"How long was I out?'  he questioned.

"Not long," she replied, "just a little over a couple of hours.  Must be that famous InVitro healing."

She gathered some rocks from around the cave and placed them in a circle around the twigs and leaves,   creating a makeshift hearth.  Hawkes winced as she took the comic and tore out its pages, crumpling  them into small balls and adding them to the pile.  She then  touched a lit match against the balled up pages, pleased that they caught fire immediately.  The leaves and twigs took a little longer, but soon she had a small fire blazing brightly. "There wasn't too much wood to find," she continued, "but I think we have enough here to heat up some water for coffee.  Maybe some MREs, if you're up to it."

He grimaced at the idea.  "No, thanks," he said.  "A couple of energy bars'd be more my speed.  Coffee sounds good, though."  He hesitated.  "I'd help, but…"  He glanced sheepishly at the blanket covering his body.

"Modesty isn't a valued trait in the Corps, Lieutenant," she retorted, dryly, "but don't worry about it. I have everything under control."

She always did, Hawkes thought, a little resentfully, watching her cut open a couple of their water ration bags and dump the ice into the tin cup she had placed on top of the fire.

"We could melt some snow for the coffee," she commented when she saw him watching her, "but I don't really think we should risk it."  Leaving the water to heat, she moved over to his side.  Hawkes almost jumped out of his skin when she gently laid the back of her hand on his forehead.  "You don't have a fever," she remarked idly.  "How do you feel?"

"Cold," he grinned.

"Aside from that, I mean," she chided, her answering smile almost lost in the shadows.  "Headache?  Broken bones?  Did you hit your head when we fell?"

"I don't think so."

"What about frostbite?"

He wriggled his fingers and toes experimentally.  "Nope," he answered.  He was surprised again when she took hold of his hand and checked for herself. "I'm fine," he insisted.  "Just cold."

She let go and went back to the fire to check on the water.  "Well, hopefully the coffee will help with that.  You really should eat more than energy bars, though.  You burned a lot of energy these last few hours.  You need to recharge."

"Maybe later."  He frowned worriedly, remembering the rest of their squadron.  "Do you think the others are okay?"

"They're safe and warm on the 'Toga by now," she assured him calmly.

"I hope they didn't get lost like we did."  Hawkes wanted to bite back the words as soon as he had said them.  It was the perfect opportunity for her to point out that their getting lost was his fault entirely, first for falling on top of her, and then for falling into the lake.

"Rain grew up around mountains like these," she said,  "so that's not likely.  Don't worry about them.  Were the ones trapped in a snowstorm."

"The 'Cards worry about each other," he returned, defensively.  "Didn't the 114th?"

Her eyes flared and Hawkes could have kicked himself.   Tyler had it very clear that the subject of the BlackWings were off limits.  "We trusted each other to know what we were doing, and to do our jobs,"  she answered coldly.
"So we didn't have to worry.  At least not unless we had good reason to." She removed a couple of sachets from her pack and ripped them open.  "Rain has instructions on what to do in a situation like this," she continued. "If he followed them, and I know he did, then I don't have to worry.  It's when people don't follow the rules that I have to."  She removed the tin cup from the fire,  stirred in the coffee and sweetener, and then handed it to him brusquely.  "Here."

"Thanks," he said, discomfited by her answer.   "The 'Cards aren't real good at following rules," he had to admit. "That's how we got our name."

The look she gave him was flat. "I know."

Nathan looked out the Observation Deck, the familiar feeling  of helplessness threatening to cut off his breathing.  It was happening all over again.  Hawkes was lost, in danger, and there was nothing he could do but wait.  Wait till it was too late.

"Come away from the window, Nathan," Cullen urged softly.  "The Commodore promised he'd let us know as soon as the storm broke.  Come back to the barracks and get some sleep while you can."

"I can't," said Nathan, stubbornly maintaining his vigil.

"We're all worried, Nathan," stated Rain, "but there's nothing we can do right now."

"You said they were fine," he reminded them testily.  "You said they'd be back in time for extraction.  We should have gone after them like I wanted."

"Then there'd be five of us missing, instead of just two, with the Saratoga having no idea where to find any of us," Rain replied, shaking his head exasperatedly.  "If you don't mind me saying so, West, for someone who's been acting so… shall we say lukewarm about everything, you seem to be heated up all of a sudden."

"My friend is missing," he snapped at the two.  "Can't you understand that? And he's missing with that… that…"

"Don't even say it, Nathan," Rain warned.    "Our friends are missing. Hawkes and Tyler." He took and angry step forward but Cullen's hand stopped him.  He sighed and addressed Nathan coldly.   "Believe it or not, the fact there's two of them down there is the only thing that makes this situation bearable."

Cullen nodded her head in agreement.  "Give them a little credit, Nathan. Tyler and Hawkes are survivors ­ not people bent on suicide as you seem to be."

"Believe what you want of them personally," added Rain, "but those two are Marines. Captain and Lieutenant. Marines look out for each other.  You may hate Morgan but trust me, she would never let anything happen to Hawkes. And the same goes for Hawkes.  Trust them that much, will you?"

Nathan shook his head, angrily, helplessly.  "Hawkes is the only one I have left," he whispered harshly.  "I can't lose him, too."

Rain softened slightly at West's words.  "We're worried, too, Nathan, but we can not do anything stupid.  Right now the best help we can give them is to stay right here.  They can't worry about themselves if they have to worry about us."

In stark contrast to the howling of the wind outside, the interior of the cave was deathly quiet.  For once, Hawkes missed Cullen's cheerful chatter. It was bad enough being stuck inside  a small  dark cave, there should at least be some small talk to cut the tension, he thought.

He ventured a look at  his companion who was sitting cross-legged at the other side of the cave, scribbling on a small computer console. She looked busy.  And annoyed.

Unconsciously, he began humming a Pink Floyd song, tapping his hand against the ground in time to the rhythm.

"Settle down, Lieutenant," she ordered dryly, without looking up.   "This cave isn't big enough for that."

"Sorry," he grinned sheepishly.  "I kinda have a problem with small places."

"Claustrophobia is a common problem among InVitros," she said, matter-of-factly.  "Try not to think about it."

Easy for her to say, he thought as she continued with her scribbling.
"What are you doing?"

"Getting a head-start on my report," she answered shortly.  "And I'd appreciate no more interruptions."

"You know," he said tentatively.  "You could at least talk to me."

"No, I don't," she contradicted.  "Entertaining bored wingmen isn't in my item description."

"But," he ventured with a small smile,  "if I actually die of boredom, how would you ever explain it to the Commodore?"

"I'd just tell him you started singing and I had to put you out of your misery," she told him flatly, though he could tell, somehow, that she was kidding.

He was heartened.  Maybe this situation wasn't as bad as he thought.  He nodded somberly, mimicking her expression. "That could actually happen, you know," he said. "Come on, talk to me.  Please?"

She sighed and conceded, saving the document and replacing the small console inside her pack.  "Fine," she told him.  "You go first."

"Me?"  Now that he had her attention he didn't know where to start. "Um… You got a family?"

"Husband and kids? No.  Parents and siblings, yes."

"Big family?"

"Huge," she said, giving a small smile at the thought of her family. "Two parents, four brothers, two sisters, two sister-in-laws, two nieces, a nephew, a dog, four cats, assorted horses,  and  a partridge in a  pear tree."  The last few words were said in a sing-song tone, but he  focused on one word in particular.

"Horses?" he asked, his eyes round with almost childish wonder.

"My Mom's a vet," she explained.  "She raises them on the side."

"And your Dad?"

"Dad runs a citrus nursery for the neighboring farms."

"Must be nice to live in a place that has trees," he commented wistfully. "Especially a place near the ocean."

"Very nice," she agreed.

"You miss it?" he asked

"A lot."

"I never had a family," he commented, longing unconsciously lacing his voice.

"You should be thankful," she answered without sympathy.  "Nothing screws up a person worse than a bad family and a lousy childhood."

He looked at her curiously.  "But… your family sounds wonderful."

"They are," she answered.  "I got lucky.  Trust me, that's not always the case."

He hesitated, wondering if it was a good idea to ask the question he had in mind. "Can I ask you a question?"

Her eyebrow lifted.  "And what have you been doing so far?"

"I meant a real question.  Personal."

"Ah," she said, nodding, mock-sagely.  "We've exhausted the icebreakers and have graduated to 'truth or dare."  I should warn you that not a lot of people are actually good at this game."

"So can I?"

"You can always ask, Lieutenant," she shrugged.  "Whether I answer is another thing entirely."

"What are you doing here?"

"Excuse me?" she asked, not understanding the question.

"If your home is so wonderful," he clarified, "what are you doing here?  Why aren't you back on Earth enjoying all of that?"

Her gaze narrowed.  "I'm here, Lieutenant," she answered deliberately, gesturing broadly around her,  "to make sure that none of this touches them."

Something in the steely tone of her voice caught at him.  Her voice was quiet but she sounded fierce, protective ­ a leopardess willing  to kill and die defending her lair and her family.   Suddenly, he wondered just how far that circle extended.  A question popped into his head and the words were out of his mouth before he could stop them.  "Morgan, would you die for us?"

For a moment he saw her falter, startled by his question, a shadow appearing in her eyes.  Then she laughed and it disappeared, along with the oddly intent emotion that he hadn't understood.

"You really shouldn't play this game, Lieutenant," she said, still smiling in amusement.  "You're very bad at it."

"What do you mean?" he asked, confused.

"'Would I die for you?'" she mocked.  "Good grief, Lieutenant, you don't even know the right question to ask."

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