Let's see, Devon, Catydid, the Tigers, Dr. Withers, and anyone else you don't recognize from the series belongs to me.
A multitude of thanks to Karen Evans, Becky Ratliffe, and Verdaeni for reading behind me.

Goodbye, Baby

Gabrielle Bessey

He finished lacing up his boots, then got up out of the chair. As he stood over her, Caitlin lifted up her arms, waiting for McQueen to pick her up. When he did, she grabbed hold of his flight suit with chubby little hands and began to gurgle. Reaching up, Caitlin put her hand against McQueen's lips and watched him. Unsure of what to do, McQueen stood there for a moment, then kissed Caitlin's palm. He smiled when she gurgled again--obviously he'd made the right choice.

Devon stood outside the hatch and knocked as softly as could on the metal. She wasn't surprised to find them both awake when McQueen opened the door with the baby in his arms.

Stepping up to them, she kissed Caitlin on the cheek and McQueen on the lips. "What's the plan for today?"

McQueen jostled Caitlin as he held her. "I'm not sure. It's supposed to be pretty light. I've got paperwork and field notes to review, plus a debriefing with the 58th." He stood and looked at the supplies laying on the floor. "What do I need for her?"

Devon began to pack the bag. "Diapers, formula, some toys, a change of clothes, a blanket for her to sleep on--that should do it I think."

She closed the bag and hung it on his shoulder, patting him on the back as she preceded him out into the corridor. There, they split--McQueen heading for the Ops room while Devon headed for the flight simulators.

McQueen found his 'Cards already seated. Seeing him, they snapped to attention, but found their interest diverted when they saw that he had Caitlin in his arms. He put the blanket on the floor and laid her down on it, giving her a stuffed animal to hold. Stepping to the podium, he waited for a moment before he got their attention--he understood why she held such an attraction.

The WildCards managed to pay attention during the debriefing, helping McQueen fill in all of the details of his field report. Reluctantly, Shane, Nathan, Vanessa, and Paul headed out--Cooper was still writing in his fieldbook. They stopped grumbling when McQueen promised to drop Caitlin off in their quarters so they could watch her while he was on the bridge.

McQueen picked up everything he had taken out of Caitlin's bag, replaced it, then put the bag on the table. Kneeling beside Caitlin, he stroked underneath her chin, eliciting a giggle. McQueen looked up to find Cooper staring at them in wonder. Cooper finished his notes, then sat back and watched as McQueen stood up holding Caitlin on his hip.

As McQueen picked up his notes from the table, he shifted Caitlin in his arms and saw a member of the flight crew motion to him. Looking at Caitlin, then at Cooper, he stepped over to the young man.

"Cooper, I need you to watch Catydid while I go check on one of the Hammerheads."

Cooper looked stricken. "What?"

McQueen shook his head. "Just make sure she doesn't put anything in her mouth that she might choke on." McQueen put her in Cooper's arms.

"Watch her head, don't let it bounce."

Cooper held Caitlin to his chest. "Just don't be too long."

McQueen stepped out of the room, looking back over his shoulder as Cooper stared at Caitlin.

For a long time, the two of them just stared at each other, checking out the stranger in front of them. Caitlin decided he was okay and laid her head against his shoulder, sucking on her fingers as Cooper instinctively began to rock. He'd seen Shane rub Vanessa's back when she was upset, and he thought that might be a good thing to do, so he started rubbing Caitlin's back. Tilting his head, he could just see out of the corner of his eye that she'd fallen asleep.

McQueen watched them through the glass, a small grin crossing his face.

When he stepped back into the Ops room, he had to hold back a chuckle at the serious manner in which Cooper held Caitlin. He looked as if one "boo" would shatter him into pieces.

"I think you can breathe now, Cooper." McQueen picked up his notes and Caitlin's bag.

Cooper let out a pent-up breath. "Uh, what do I do now?"

McQueen picked up Cooper's fieldbook. "Why don't you carry her down to my office? That way, we only have to worry about changing her position once."

McQueen led the way, with Cooper holding Caitlin close to his chest. Most of the crew shook their heads at the sight of a couple of tanks with a baby--after all, what did they know about kids.

Reaching the office, McQueen made a pallet on the floor out of her blanket. Taking her from Cooper's arms, he gently laid her on her side--only jostling her a couple of times. Fortunately, she didn't wake up. Cooper sat there for a minute and just stared at her, then looked at McQueen. "I think she likes me."

McQueen moved some papers on his desk. "Why wouldn't she?"

Cooper shrugged his shoulders. "'Cause I'm a tank."

McQueen leaned against his desk. "Cooper, she doesn't know that you're a tank, she just knows you as the man who held her while she went to sleep. She likes you or she probably would have been screaming the entire time."

"Oh." Cooper got up. "When are you bringing her down?"

"She'll be down in a couple of hours." McQueen sat down behind his desk. "Thanks for watching her."

"Sure, no problem. It was kind of fun."

There were times when McQueen was almost frightened by how easily Catydid had become a part of his life. If she wasn't with him, she was with Devon or the WildCards--just another part of his family.

He wasn't ready to send her to Earth. Logically, he knew she had no place on a battle ships, she needed to be with a family. His heart, which he usually kept under tight rein, refused to listen to his head. Still, he was somewhat ready when Commodore Ross informed him that there would be a ship heading back to Earth in a few days and that a Navy nurse had volunteered to take care of Catydid on the return trip.

That night, in his quarters, he told Devon of Catydid's imminent departure, not realizing how the emotions played across his face. As he sat in his desk chair, staring out at the stars, Devon wrapped her arms around him.

"It'll be hard, Ty, but you have to think about what's best for Catydid. That's what being a father is all about."

McQueen shook his head. "I'm not her father."

Devon grinned. "You love her, protect her, make sure she's not hungry, or cold, or alone--that makes you the best father. Biology does not make fathers, love does."

As he stood on the bridge, McQueen watched as the carrier hold docked with the ISSAPC. No one dared ask him a question, the look of hell fire in his eyes deterred anyone from coming close. He had known the time would come when he would have to say good-bye to Catydid, sending her back to Earth to be adopted by some family--he just didn't realize that it would be so damn difficult to let her go. He hadn't felt her taking his heart, but now--he knew it was gone.

McQueen had walked down to the docking bay with Catydid and all of the belongings she'd accumulated while she'd been onboard. Handing her to the nurse who was returning to Earth and had volunteered to take care of her. Devon and the 58th and 21st were there, each of them giving her a kiss. Devon laid her cheek against Catydid's hair as she said good-bye. Cooper stroked her hand, then quickly left. When they finished, they retreated, giving McQueen a moment. He rubbed his thumb across her forehead, then down her cheek, grinning faintly as she cooed. When she put her hand against his mouth, he closed his eyes, then kissed it. He handed the bag to the young woman, then handed Catydid to her after he held her close. Catydid began to whimper, as if wondering why everyone was so sad. McQueen stood there until the door closed, then turned and walked away.

McQueen listened to the chatter from the traffic outside the Saratoga, listening as the ISSAPC took off and headed toward Earth. After a couple of hours, the fire faded in his eyes and he only looked as if he'd lost his best friend. He was making notations in a small, hand-held computer from a star chart when he heard the frantic cries of the ISSAPC pilot.

"We're being pursued a Chig squadron...where the hell did they come from...look out..." the comm died as lidar displayed the remnants of the explosion. The silence was deafening, then broken by the sound of electronic components being crushed. Ross looked over to find McQueen's face ashen and his eyes closed, what remained of the computer lying on the chart table and blood dripping from his hand where he'd crushed it. When McQueen opened his eyes, Ross stared into a pool of sorrow so deep, he thought he would drown. He knew how much Catydid meant to McQueen, knew how much she'd come to mean to all of them. She symbolized everything they were fighting for--and seeing her lost was one of the most gut-wrenching things he'd ever had to face. He'd felt the blow in his gut, so he knew that McQueen's heart had just been ripped out and stomped into pieces.

Taking a deep breath, Ross walked over, opening McQueen's fist to look at the damage, then pulled out his handkerchief and pressed it against McQueen's palm. In the light of all the pain and anger that would surround his ship, he had to maintain some sense of order, telling himself he would grieve when he was alone. As he continued to press the cloth against McQueen's hand to try and stop the blood, he ordered a young Lieutenant with tears streaming down her face to send out an SAR team to attempt to retrieve the wreckage.

Looking back at McQueen's face, Ross saw the shield go up in his eyes, turning the blue to silver as he attempted to control himself. McQueen's mouth was compressed into a tight line, as he struggled. It was almost disconcerting to see the tears shining in McQueen's eyes--but he understood, more than McQueen probably knew.

"Better get to med bay, Ty." He laid his hand on McQueen's shoulder, gripping it, before steering him off the bridge.

McQueen walked slowly, moving as if he were a broken man--there was a gaping hole where his heart used to be, more so than when he'd said good-bye to her. Stopping, he leaned against the bulkhead and closed his eyes, trying to burn the image of the exploded ship from his brain. He didn't know how long he'd stood there--everything was a blur. He felt a touch on his arm and looked over to see Devon staring at him.

"What happened? What did you do to your hand?"

McQueen shook his head, realizing that nobody except the bridge crew knew what happened. He took a deep breath. "The ISSAPC ran into a Chig squadron..."

Devon gasped. "Oh, God, don't tell me..."

McQueen nodded.

A tear slipped down her cheek and she wrapped her arms around herself. McQueen grabbed her shoulder. "I need to go and have my hand looked at--can you go stay with the 'Cards and Tigers? I would rather they hear it from one of us."

Devon nodded and wiped her eyes, trying to achieve some sort of composure. "Yeah, I'll go." She turned to head towards Tun, knowing their kids were off duty.

As she walked away, McQueen heard her muttering. "...heartless bastards...payback..."

He pushed himself off the bulkhead and headed for med bay. Stepping through the double doors, he saw Dr. Withers.

"Doctor Withers, can you take a look at my hand?"

Withers came over and removed the soaked cotton. "What did you do?"

"I had a little accident with a computer."

"I can see that." Withers probed gently with his fingers to see if any parts were still embedded in McQueen's palm.

"Well, I don't see anything there. Let's get this stitched up."

Sitting on an examining table, he stared off as Dr. Withers stitched his hand, then bandaged it. "That should do it."

"Thank you, Doctor Withers." McQueen turned to walk out when he heard his name.

"There you are, Colonel McQueen. We've been looking all over for you."

McQueen turned around, and he could hear the pulsing sound of his heartbeat echo in his ears as he saw Catydid in the young nurse's arms. He took a step forward, then froze. The nurse was puzzled, walking over to him and putting Catydid in his arms. "She pitched such a fuss, that they asked us to leave. I guess we'll have to catch another one." She leaned over and pinched Caitlin's cheek. "Right, Caitlin?"

McQueen held her tight in this arms, rocking her gently as he tried not to squeeze her to death.

"Are you alright, Colonel?"

He looked at the nurse. "The ISSAPC you were supposed to be on was just destroyed by a Chig squadron."

She stepped back, a horrified expression on her face. "We could be dead."

"I thought she was." Turning, he walked through the doors and headed toward Tun.

Standing at the door of Tun, McQueen looked in to find Devon sitting beside Cooper with her arm around his shoulders as he bent his head to the floor. Paul and Nathan were standing close behind, their hands on their squad mates. Shane had her arms around Vanessa as the young woman's shoulders shook while she wept. The rest of the Tigers and WildCards were huddled together as they tried to deal with this news.

It was different when you lost a comrade to the Chigs--their mates knew what they were getting into, Caitlin was innocent. There was a death look in there eyes, and McQueen knew that the Chigs would suffer some serious payback.

Stepping through the door, they didn't hear him until he was right beside them--then it was Catydid's gurgle that brought them to their feet. He thought he would be swept over as they surged around him, hands reaching out to touch Catydid to make sure she was really there. McQueen couldn't even let her go for a moment to let anyone hold her--they understood.

Questions clamored around him, voices growing louder as the relief from seeing her alive filled them with giddy joy. McQueen held up his hand for a moment.

"The nurse said that Catydid pitched such a fit, they were asked to leave. No one knew it had been destroyed, or they would have let us know."

After a long while of holding Catydid, McQueen finally relinquished her to the rest of the squadrons. Most of them passed on the opportunity to hold her, simply stroking her cheek or her hand as she passed by. Nathan and Paul held her briefly, kissing her before passing her to the next person. Shane cuddled her, as did Vanessa, each of them closing their eyes as they brought her close to their hearts. Devon held her, laughing through tears as Catydid played with her braid. After hugging her close for several minutes, Devon gave her up to Cooper.

Devon almost began to cry again, as well as Shane and Vanessa, as they watched Cooper carefully wrapped his hands around her small body and held her close. He shifted her around so that she leaned against his chest, placing one hand on her belly to steady her. Immediately, Catydid wrapped her hand around his thumb, gurgling happily as he bounced her gently on his knee. McQueen thought Cooper would bust as the biggest smile he'd ever seen crossed the young man's face.

Even Commodore Ross held her, kissing her cheek when he joined them in Tun after discovering that she had not been on the ship when it was destroyed. As the hours slipped away, the pilots began to fade--the anger from thinking she was dead, followed by the joy of finding her alive had finally drained their energy.

Catydid was handed back to McQueen, where she promptly grabbed his id tags and began to suck on them, holding his flight suit with her free hand.

He saw the WildCards and Tigers to their squad rooms, walked Devon to her quarters and kissed her goodnight, then headed for his quarters after stopping by the med bay to pick up Catydid's things. Stopping by a viewport, he turned so that Catydid could look out at the stars with him as he pointed them out to her. She yawned, her nose crinkling as her eyes began to droop. She rested against his chest, snuggling up into his neck, which was fast becoming her favorite place. As her breathing slowed and the grip she had on his flight suit loosened, McQueen knew she'd finally fallen asleep. Staring out into the stars that had almost taken her from him, he laid his cheek against her head.

"I love you, Catydid."

The End

The sequel to this story is Edging Homeward

Gabrielle Bessey

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