AUTHORS NOTE: This story begins about one month after my first story, "Awakening," ends. The characters Heather Scott, Rob Scott, John Wallace and Roger Lansing are mine, and should not be used without permission.
"Interview with the Vampire" by Anne Rice is mentioned but not quoted. The music of Sarah McLochlan is mentioned as well, and is wonderful to write by.
Comments are welcome and may be sent to Dora Shelton at dshelton. Enjoy!

Dora Shelton

Part One

Heather Scott sat against the wall in the back of Tun Tavern, both of her feet up on the small table. She had her chair tilted back against the wall which acted as a headrest and her eyes closed. But it was obvious to anyone who might see her that she was not asleep. Too many thoughts causing the flicker of a variety of emotions to appear and just as quickly disappear in her face. But the tavern was empty, so she knew that there was only the bartender with her to bear witness. It was nice to have the quiet in which to think.

She could hear the bartenders changing shifts and was vaguely curious who was coming on duty today, but never moved even when she heard steps approach her table and stop. She did not open her eyes and gave no outward sign that she knew that she was no longer alone. It was always an interesting experiment for her to wait for whatever reaction people would have in any given situation.

"OK, Heather?" The voice she heard was familiar, the only bartender she had ever spent time talking with. The day shift was the quietest in the tavern, and they had become friends in her off days when she would just sit and watch the stars out the port with a warm cup of coffee in her hand. She did not feel like coffee today, however.

She opened her eyes and smiled at him. "Yeah, Joey, I'm OK. Just thinking. Nice and quiet in here. Bring me a bottle of bourbon, would you?"

She watched as he judged her response. He was surprised at the request and a look of curiosity crossed his face. Deciding that she probably deserved a strong drink, he nodded slightly and went to the bar. Heather went to the computerized juke box and selected two Sarah McLochlan songs that were over 100 years old. She returned to her seat and looked out the port, seeing the expanse of stars seeming to reach out forever. She heard Joey's foot steps return, then the sound of the bottle and two glasses land on the table. When she did not hear his steps move away, she looked up.

Joey sat down at the table and poured the bourbon. He appeared worried when he looked at her. "You haven't been around since you learned that your husband died." It was a simple statement, but there was a multitude of unasked questions hidden behind it. He sat watching Heather play with the glass, waiting to see if she was ready to talk.

Heather took a sip of the drink, looking thoughtfully at the man sitting across from her. She set the glass down and leaned her elbows onto the table. Talking to Joey had always been easy, and she knew that it would be easy now. She smiled a sad smile before she replied. "Well, you know how it is. I needed to get my head together and a room full of booze is not the best place to do that. I wanted to do it walking, not swimming." She looked down for a long moment before continuing in an amused tone, "Besides, Joey, you know how I get when I go one drink past happy."

Laughing outright, Joey relaxed. He had only seen Heather get really drunk once and that had been quite enough for him. It was not amusing then, but now he could laugh about it since she had come in and repaired the damages to the tavern herself. He never saw a woman who did not have the backing of a squadron of marines fight like that.

That night almost nine months before was a celebration with a few of her crew mates and Joey remembered Heather was more than a little drunk. She had just learned that she was granted her transfer into the flight crew for the 58th.

One of the members of the flight crew for the 65th, Roger Lansing, had remarked that he had never met a marine pilot who was not a complete ass. Heather had her reasons for becoming defensive at this, since her husband was one of those asses referred to in the statement. She stood up and told him that the booze had obviously gone to his mouth and that she felt he should retract the statement since it was simply incorrect. Lansing was not going to back down from a woman who was a full six inches shorter than his six foot three inch stature. Joey smiled, thinking about it. Lansing should have just shut up.

When Lansing continued to run his mouth, Heather walked up to him and smiled sweetly. "Now, Lansing, you don't really mean that, do you?" Her voice sounded like honey, but those who knew her were already on their feet, crossing the room in the hopes of getting her out before they all ended up in the brig. Heather took to heart the teachings from flight crew training that even civilians had to always be battle ready, since they would be needed to fight should their ship be boarded by the enemy. That night Heather was battle ready.

Lansing never knew what hit him. Before he could ever reply to her sweet question, he had been kneed in the groin. He doubled over and was suddenly out cold on the floor when the chair hit him over his head and back. At that, his crew mates had rushed to his aid, but two more were down before one of Heather's friends had grabbed her in a bear hug from behind and headed for the door. Her crew mates held the others off until they could get her safely to the barracks, where they had to physically sit on her until she calmed down and had enough coffee to sober her up.

Since that time, Joey knew, Heather never took a single drink past happy, not wanting to risk losing her assignment to the 58th. Not long after that, Lansing shipped out, returning to Earth. How the incident avoided being reported, or ever mentioned, he never understood. But it was quite a sight, watching her beat the tar out of such a large man.

Satisfied with her answer, Joey finished the drink he had poured himself. "Well, if you want to talk, you know where I am. But it looks and sounds like you are doing fine." As he stood and walked back to the bar, she thanked him for his concern. He just smiled that big smile of his and went back to work.

She poured her glass full, leaned back and put her feet back up on the table, allowing herself to get lost in the quiet, soothing sound of McLochlan's voice. This was the first time that Heather had been to the tavern since she learned that Rob died over a month ago. She had told Joey the truth, she had needed time to think without the temptation to drown her sorrows and get herself into trouble. It would have been easy to drown in her sorrows after learning of Rob's death. After secluding herself in private quarters for a week, sorting out personal business, she wanted nothing more that to escape from everything, including the totally lost feeling she had. But then the 58th had given her more than enough reason not to do that to herself. Although she was a strong person, she was tired mentally by the end of that week. They had more than come through for her, giving her a private flag ceremony in which they made it known that she was now a part of their family. The feeling of loneliness and exhaustion left, and with it the desire to escape.

In the month since that time, Heather had gotten to know all five of the pilots of the 58th, not just Vansen and Hawkes. She had learned much about them just watching them, but her impressions of those she had not been friends with changed once she got to know them. In looking beyond the surface appearances, she found the people beneath more complex than she had imagined. She smiled to herself now, wondering how she could bond with such a wide variety of personalities so easily. She decided that it did not matter how it happened, she was just glad that it did. They had honestly become her family, heart and soul.

Yet their commander, Col. McQueen, was still a distant figure to her. She loved to watch him, feeling great admiration, and more dangerously, great attraction. He was still fascinating to her. She wanted more than anything to get to know him, but she simply would not approach him. He was the commanding officer of her best friends, so she felt that it was not her place to move toward him. She remained satisfied with learning about him by watching him and catching bits of insight from the discussions of the others.

Looking at her watch, she realized that she had been here for hours. Joey was serving people who began to file in at the end of their shifts. Soon, the tavern would be packed. Heather looked at the bottle on the table which was only half full now and feeling that strange, alcohol induced calm that allowed her to think endlessly, decided that it was time for coffee. She screwed the lid onto the bottle, pushed it across the table and had coffee in front of her before she could even ask for it. Heather smiled and thanked Joey as he took the bottle back to the bar.

After her second cup of coffee, with her head slowly clearing, she knew that she no longer mourned the loss of the husband who she never had the chance to get to know very well. She was at peace with her situation and if not happy, satisfied with her life again.

If she had been on Earth, it would be summer. Luckily, the environmental controls onboard the Saratoga did not distinguish the difference in the seasons. If it had, the heavy labor Heather was engaged in would have been unbearable. She moved and managed the equipment on the flight deck with sweat streaming into her eyes. As she headed to the next set of machinery needing relocation, Hawkes came running onto the flight deck.

Hearing the sound of someone yelling her last name, Heather stopped and turned toward the entrance. Seeing Hawkes standing there looking around the large number of bodies moving machines, she yelled and waved at him to get his attention, "Here, Lieutenant." She began walking in his direction as he jogged up to her.

"Boy, you're all wet," Hawkes told her as he looked her up and down.

"Yeah, I get that way when I work hard. But I'm not sure you would understand that Coop." She could never resist a small jibe at Hawkes when the chance arose.

Hawkes frowned and replied, "Huh?"

Heather fought back a laugh. She was often amazed at the little boy in the man before her. "Never mind, silly, is everything OK?" She wondered if his rushing to find her might mean that there was something wrong or someone hurt.

"Oh, yeah. OK. Um, I was wondering if you might want to meet us at Tun tonight. Gonna kick back for awhile." He was fidgeting and seemed preoccupied.

It was not unusual for one of the Wildcards to invite her to join them in their free time. Heather always looked forward to being with them, no matter what was going on. But she had rarely seen Hawkes so excited. Her curiosity was peaked but she did not have time to go into that now, she was too busy. She knew she would have the chance to find out what was affecting him when she met them later. She looked around the flight deck to see how much more work was left. Seeing that the work would be finished soon, she knew that she could get out of the barracks a little early. She turned to Hawkes, who was impatiently waiting for her answer, and smiled, fighting the urge to ruffle his hair. "I think I can make it. What time?"

Hawkes grinned and answered, "Good. We're meeting there about 1900 hours." Before she could say anything more he turned and ran out the flight deck entrance. As she watched him go, she felt the tug of those big sister instincts that she only felt with him. These feelings were amusing for her considering the fact that she was an only child. Mopping the sweat from her forehead, she returned to work.

Heather arrived at the tavern early. She looked around the room and saw that there was a table occupied in the back but the Wildcards were not there yet, so she took a seat at the bar. Since she did not know what the plans were for tonight she ordered a soda while she waited.

She sipped her soda, watching the news from Earth on the screen across the room. After a short time she could feel someone watching her, and assuming it was the group sitting in the back of the room behind her, she ignored it. It was not until she heard the bartender set a glass on the bar next to her that she realized she was no longer sitting alone. She let a few moments pass, not wanting to seem too eager to learn who had approached, before she turned to see who it was.

When she turned to face the bar and looked to her left, she was startled to find Col. McQueen watching her. She was surprised to find him sitting on the stool right next to her, since he usually sat with at least one stool between him and anyone else at the bar. "Colonel." She gave him a slight smile with the greeting.

She was further surprised when he did not turn away, instead returning her simple greeting, "Scott." He watched her intently for a moment, as if looking for something deep within her. But the probing gaze did not intimidate her. Like all things about McQueen, this only fascinated her. She saw something flash suddenly within his expression just before he looked away. She wondered what he was looking for and what he had found.

Heather decided to take this opportunity to try to start a conversation with him before he became lost in thought. "Col. McQueen, can I ask you something?"

He looked up, guarded as always. "Ask."

She turned on her stool to face him, watching him intently with her head cocked to one side. "I realize that the Angry Angels were a special group. But why do you still wear their uniform?" This was a question that she knew that nobody ever asked him, but only whispered aloud out of his hearing. She also knew that, being McQueen, he might dress her down, tell her that it was none of her business, and storm out of the room. However, she felt the possibility of learning the truth was worth the risk.

McQueen turned to face her, with his left arm resting on the bar. She met his eyes, noting he was thoughtful, not angry. He took a drink before answering, judging his words. "The Angels were the best, Scott, and I'm the last. I wear the uniform in loyalty to them. Through it I show my respect to their memory and the memory of all those men and women that died in this war. It is my right to wear it and I do so to ensure they are remembered by others."

Heather thought about his answer. It made sense to her but it was too standardized, meant to satisfy the surface of the question only. To Heather it was incomplete. "But Colonel, you are the commanding officer of the 58th now. You have moved on to lead a group who are now the best, maybe will be better than the Angels. Don't you think that they deserve to be recognized in their own right with more than just your incorporation of their patch on your uniform?" She knew that she was coming close to the line she was expected not to cross, close to questioning his motives. She watched his reaction, hoping that she had not gone too far, even though she had questions that might push farther into the issue and his motives. She decided that she did not know him well enough to ask the questions that were really on her mind.

McQueen considered the question, although from watching her he realized she was really asking much more. He waited to see if she planned to push deeper into the issue. When satisfied that she would not, he took it one step further for her. "You wonder if my wearing a uniform different from those I command is an insult to them." He made it a statement rather than a question. McQueen looked down into his beer, thinking that since she was the Wildcards' friend, she deserved an honest answer. He also believed she would be satisfied not to push the issue where she had no right to go. After a moment he looked up. "I know the 58th are some of the best marines in this war, so no insult is intended to them by my choice of uniform. But this uniform is a reminder to each pilot, in every squadron, that they are not invincible. People die in this war every day, and unless we remember that, we may screw up and die with them. It is a reminder that even the best can be bested, Scott." He looked away, pain flashing across his face. Just when Heather thought he had finished his answer, he added, "Besides, I can't fly with them, can't be up there taking part in all of the action they see. Because of that, I am set apart and remain apart."

That one act of looking away, and the pain that flashed across his face, told her what his explanation did not. It was not pain from the loss of the Angry Angels, but at his inability to be complete in his duties to his own satisfaction. He had developed a respect for the 58th but he felt distanced from them because he did not fly with them, was not completely one of them. He also knew that allowing them to adopt his black uniform, which would have been the proper manner of uniform change, would prove his attachment to them. Refusing to show such an attachment made Heather realize that more than anything he feared losing them. The difference in uniforms was his way of keeping them at arms length, at least in his mind and theirs. Although his inability to fly hammerheads with them was part of his reason, he used it to justify his personal motives as well.

Heather thought about this for a moment, staring into the glass he held in his hand. She knew that he intended his answer to end this particular conversation. She would not pry any deeper, but she would not leave the issue without his knowing what she thought. She looked up into his face with full understanding. "You can't save them from whatever may happen to them by holding them at arms length Colonel." McQueen looked up suddenly, his intense gaze boring into her, but she met it without flinching. His surprise at the depth of her understanding was not lost on her. "And you cannot separate yourself from them with just a uniform. You may not always be in that sky with them physically, but I know that you are always with them. You are a part of them, not just someone who directs them from the bridge." She smiled in understanding, "And you can't hide the fact that they are also a part of you now. A uniform can't change that."

She saw his emotions begin to surface, but just as suddenly buried as he looked away. When he looked up again, his guard was back in place. He saw her looking over his shoulder as he heard Hawkes' voice. "Hey, Heather, I got something for you. Come see." McQueen looked down into his beer as the 58th passed them and moved to a table.

He felt a slight relief that this conversation was at an end. Heather looked over at him and smiled. "Goodnight, Colonel." She stood and moved to the table with the 58th.

As she sat down, Vansen and West both gave her a questioning look. She shook her head at them, silently telling them not to ask her what her conversation with McQueen was about. Accepting this, both looked at Hawkes, amusement in their faces.

"OK, Coop, what do you have for me?"

Hawkes fidgeted in his chair like an excited little boy. The rest of the 58th was enjoying watching his excitement as much as Heather was. Vansen prodded him along, "Well, Coop, we don't have all night. If we are going to the movies, get on with it."

Hawkes looked quickly at Vansen, then back at Heather. "Um, you remember that book you read about those vampire guys? The one you gave to Shane when you were done with it?" His words were flying out of him in his excitement.

Heather remembered the book. "You mean 'Interview with the Vampire'? It was a great book. Did you read it when Shane was done?

Hawkes smiled, "Yeah." He looked at Shane and West, then back to Heather.

Vansen had to push him to continue, "Well, go on. Tell her."

Heather looked at Vansen and West questioningly. Damphousse was almost in tears holding back her laughter, while Wang sat back rolling his eyes. Vansen just cocked a one sided grin at Heather. West raised his eyebrows and cocked his head toward Hawkes, silently telling her to ask him what was going on. Heather looked back at Hawkes and asked, "Well, what is it? You are making me nuts."

Hawkes looked down at a large manila envelope he had removed from his uniform. "Um, did you know that they made a movie out of it right after it was written?" Before she could answer, he put the envelope on the table and almost shouted, "I got it."

The surprise was evident in Heather's face. "Oh, my God. You got the movie? I heard it was great! I never expected to see it until the war was over."

Hawkes stood up so fast he tipped his chair backwards. "Yeah, lets go watch it. Come on."

Heather could see McQueen watching them with a curious expression from the bar. The tipped chair must have caught his attention. Hawkes grabbing the envelope and heading for the door of the tavern kept his attention. He watched Hawkes walk out the door before the others could even stand, hearing them all to finally burst out laughing.

As they stood to go, Vansen told Heather, "He got it this morning and has been driving us crazy with it all day. He ordered it for you as soon as he learned about it."

Heather laughed. "Well, I heard that it's as good as the book, so I'm sure we will enjoy it." They walked toward the door, Heather bringing up the rear. "We better catch up, or he will have it half watched before we even get there."

John Wallace, Heather's supervisor, entered the room adjoining the flight deck in a rush. "Listen up! Hammerheads incoming, wounded onboard." With that announcement, everyone was up and in action. Everything around the cockpit stations had to be cleared away so the medical teams could have immediate access to any pilot who might be injured.

Heather wondered, as they all did, what had happened and who was hurt. Her worry, of course, was a deeper one. These people were her friends, her family. But worst of all, she wondered if all five would come back.

Heather watched through the glass as the cockpits were raised up through the floor. The doors opened and she rushed in, counting only four. She rushed up to one, noting it was Wang. As the hatch opened, she asked him if he was all right. When he nodded, she helped him with his helmet. As she continued to disengage him from the interior of the cockpit, he grabbed her arm to stop her. "Heather, check on West. He was hit."

Taking that as a sign that Wang was all right, she rushed off toward West's cockpit. As she moved across the room she called for the medical team. When she saw the medical team begin to move her way, she also saw McQueen enter the deck. Before she reached West, she took a final look around the flight deck and noticed that Vansen was the missing pilot. To prevent panic from setting in, she reminded herself that West was in immediate need of her help.

She reached West at the same time McQueen did. Looking over West once, she saw blood on his face and yelled over her shoulder to the medics, "Head wound. Move!" They worked silently together, both knowing what needed to be done. They disconnected the lines from the helmet but left it on his head. While Heather disengaged West from the security of the cockpit, McQueen looked over the equipment inside, shutting down the hammerhead controls which were still operational. She and McQueen had him ready to lift out of the cockpit when the medics arrived at their side.

The whole time West mumbled incoherently. As Heather and McQueen began to move out of the way so the medical team could extract him, West recognized McQueen and reached out. "Colonel." He was obviously making an effort to focus his vision. "Vansen. They were locked onto her and she was hit. She was having some problems getting back all right, where is Vansen?"

McQueen helped the medics get West out of the cockpit and place him on the gurney. As soon as his helmet had been removed McQueen began talking quietly to West. "She's on the under deck, West. We don't know any more yet." McQueen looked at the medics questioningly, and they nodded. West was a little disoriented but the wounds were nothing serious. He motioned with his head toward the entrance. With that, West was carried away toward infirmary.

McQueen turned to Heather. She had remained to learn what she could about Vansen, and her eyes locked with McQueen's. She took a deep breath and let it out, obviously trying to remain calm, lost momentarily deep within herself. McQueen watched her expression change minutely with the various emotions she was feeling, watching her force herself to be in control. Suddenly, she realized that he stood there watching her, so she looked away, surveying the flight deck. When she looked back at him, meeting his gaze, she was again in control. She thought she saw mild surprise pass over his face. He just as suddenly seemed satisfied about something, as if she had passed one of his unspoken tests.

McQueen looked around the flight deck at each of the four cockpits, ensuring there were no pilots left to extract. When he saw they were all empty, he looked toward the entrance of the flight deck, seeing the rest of the 58th waiting for him, looking worried. Heather took this opportunity to move away, going to help her crew go over the cockpits, looking for damage. McQueen glanced to his side, finding Heather was gone.

McQueen went to his marines. Damphousse began her report before it was asked for. "Colonel, Vansen barely made it onto the ship. I think she remains on the under deck because she passed out on her landing. We are all lucky to have made it back. We were met by four Chig squadrons and had to down seven of their fighters just to clear a way to tuck tail and run. West and Vansen were both hit. West made it here OK, but Vansen faded in and out all the way back. We don't know how she is, Sir." A worried look emphasized her last statement.

McQueen listened intently. When she finished he looked at each pilot individually. Damphousse was shook up but in control. Hawkes looked lost and angry, which was as he expected. Wang looked worried. He decided that since there was nothing they could do but wait, it was best to send them on their way. Damphousse could not keep them focused in the way Vansen or West could, yet he was pleased that she was the one to have taken the lead in this situation. Still, he knew that anything he gave them to do now would not get done properly. "Hit the showers and get something to eat. I will advise you on their condition as soon as we know anything."

The marines filed slowly out of the flight deck. Hawkes paused at the door and looked back toward McQueen. He saw McQueen was watching them leave and looked down for a moment. He then searched the flight deck until he saw Heather. He watched her working at West's cockpit until she looked up and noticed him. She sat back on her feet and flashed him a worried smile. He looked back at McQueen and left the flight deck.

As Hawkes walked out, McQueen made a mental note of the exchange and turned to look at Heather. She saw Hawkes leave, then was crawling into one of the cockpits head first, making repairs. He knew that she was close to Vansen because Vansen had approached him and Commodore Ross about a private flag ceremony for Heather after her husband had been killed in an air battle. He had also noticed, by watching their interactions, that she and Hawkes were close. Now he wondered how close they really were. He had never seen Hawkes look for support and encouragement from anyone outside the 58th before this moment except when the news crew came to the Saratoga to film a story on In Vitro's in the war. But now he realized that the words spoken by Vansen in the flag ceremony were not hers alone, but that Heather Scott really had become family to other members of the 58th. Yet, as worried as she must be about the injured Wildcards, he saw that she knew her duty came first. Anyone else would have been begging their supervisor to go to infirmary and wait for word. Instead, she was head down and ass up in a cockpit.

In that moment, he believed that she would have made a good addition to his marines. But since she was a civilian, he would have to be satisfied with the fact that his kids had found such a reliable friend in her. Today had been a day for lessons and surprises for McQueen. He smiled sadly to himself as he left the flight deck and headed toward infirmary.

The doctor had kept West overnight for observation, but he was already tired of lying around in bed. He was anxious to get out of infirmary and back to the 58th's quarters.

He looked at the bed next to his where Vansen lay, remembering the night before. McQueen had stopped by the infirmary before turning in for the night, telling him that they believed Vansen lost consciousness just after landing on the Saratoga. She took out a stack of tires along the wall on her landing rather than breaking to a stop. She had to be extracted from her hammerhead on the under deck. Her injuries had been serious and had it taken them longer to return home, they might have lost her. They had all been lucky, as Damphousse had said.

West remembered that she had been burned on her legs by an electrical short that occurred when her hammerhead was hit by one of the Chigs, taking out her guns. Had she not pulled her bird straight up when she did, she would not have come back. Later he learned that she had also been banged up pretty bad, with a couple of broken ribs and a gash in the back of her head. The electrical short had not caused a fire in her hammerhead, but the wiring smoldered, creating gasses that were slowly poisoning her and which had caused her to be only semi-conscious on the trip back to the Saratoga. That was the longest flight West had ever experienced.

His own hammerhead had been struck early in the fight by debris from a dusted Chig, damaging his controls and causing him to bang his head. It had been painful, but the action of engaging the Chigs had kept him focused. On the way back to the Saratoga, however, while they were keeping Vansen talking to keep her conscious, he had lost the adrenaline rush that had kept him going, and began to get dizzy himself. He remembered that Vansen had actually lost consciousness once in the air. Then he remembered the very fuzzy events of landing on the Saratoga, seeing McQueen on the flight deck, and then waking up in the infirmary that night with the doctors telling him that he had a concussion.

The rest of the 58th had not yet been allowed to visit. The doctors insisted that West be allowed to rest after McQueen left. However, the doctor wanted the quiet more for Vansen, who at that time had not regained consciousness yet, rather than for West.

Late that night Vansen regained consciousness. After a few routine tests by the nurses, she was allowed to sleep. West did not get to talk to her, but the nurses had informed him that she would be fine. She would have to remain in the infirmary for a few more days, but was past the critical period.

Still thinking about the night before, West looked down at the head resting on the edge of his bunk. Heather sat on the floor next to the bunk, the side of her head resting on her hands, sound asleep. The long dark hair which she normally wore pulled back was spread out on his blanket. He had awakened in the night to find her sitting on the floor between the bunks watching Vansen. She heard him stir and moved near so they could speak quietly. After listening to him recount the events of the mission, she told him that she had been able to sneak into the infirmary and the nurses did not know she was there. They talked quietly about his and Vansen's injuries, but at some point during their visit he fell asleep

On waking, he found that she was still there, sleeping at the side of his bunk. The nurses had eventually made their rounds and told West that since it was obvious she was not disturbing anyone, they would let her stay, but she should leave before his doctor was scheduled to return at 0800 hours. He thanked them as they continued their rounds.

West smiled, reached over and lifted a strand of Heather's hair, playing with it as she slept. He had grown accustomed to her being near the 58th. She had become a part of them, like a sister. He thought about how different she was than Kylen; she was more like Vansen, but not really like her either. She confused him sometimes, and he had given up trying to figure her out long ago. He wrapped the hair around his finger, and watching her, became lost in thought.

Vansen sat back on her bunk, glad to be back in the 58th's quarters. She had been out of the infirmary for almost a week, but was still grounded. It was making her crazy staying in the quarters while everyone else was out flying. She was happy now, however, since the whole squadron was in quarters, and she was enjoying the little rifts among the others.

Stepping into the Wildcards quarters, Heather felt at home. She stood in the doorway, waiting for things to settle down somewhat.

"You know that is crap, Paul." Damphousse loved to get Wang wound up, taking him up on any opportunity he gave her.

Wang always got defensive. "When other people talk about the meaning of life, they have 'differing views.' So why is it that when I say something on the issue, I am always full of crap?"

Since Wang set himself up for an easy attack, West decided to join the fun. Looking at Wang with that mischievous little boy appearance he got at such times, he quietly said, "Because you *are* always full of crap." Wang snapped his head around to look at West. West realized that he just pushed Wang to his limit. He rolled his eyes toward Vansen, a silent plea to the ranking officer that she had better put an end to their Wang-bashing before it got out of hand. Wang could never accept defeat even though he almost always lost.

"All right, that's enough. Who cares anyway? Our meaning in life right now is surviving and, if possible, winning this war. That's about all the meaning I can handle." Vansen hated always being the one to end things just when they were getting interesting. She noticed Heather, still standing in the doorway. "So did you come to give Wang a hard time, too?"

Heather smiled and replied, "No, that's no challenge." She looked over to see Wang throw up his arms then drop on his bunk in resignation. She moved to Vansen's bunk, sitting on the edge of it. "So, how is the head?"

"OK now. The last few days I felt really dizzy, but I have my equilibrium back." Vansen leaned back and closed her eyes, relaxing. "I think I know how the Colonel felt when he had his implant removed. I felt weak and helpless, and I hated every second of it."

Heather was glad to see Vansen fighting against her injuries. "Well, I heard that in a few more days you will be back on flight status. Then we can all go to Tun and get in a nice, old-fashioned bar fight." Heather laughed then, because Vansen opened one eye to look at her questioningly. "Yeah, I'm joking. But I miss you guys. " She cocked her head to one side with a mischievous look and continued, "You never come out and play anymore."

Hawkes popped his head out of the locker he was cleaning, looking confused. "Play what?"

Vansen and Heather both laughed. Vansen opened her eyes and tilted her head forward, looking up at Hawkes, her smile carrying into her eyes. "It's just an expression, Coop. She means that we don't spend a lot of time together lately."

Hawkes looked relieved that the joke was not on him for a change. "Oh, yeah."

West threw the pillow off of his bunk at Hawkes, hitting him right in the face. "Get a clue, you dumb Tank."

Hawkes picked the pillow up off the floor and threw it back at West, who caught it. "Cut it out or I'll kick your butt, Chig-lover!" Vansen shot West a warning glance, not wanting another argument started now that it was finally quiet. When Hawkes realized that West was not going to create a problem, he went back to cleaning out his locker.

Heather stood and stretched. "Well, I have to go. I just wanted to tell you guys to meet me in the officer's mess at 1900 hours. And don't eat dinner." She smiled at Damphousse, mouthing silently to the two women, "The packages came in." Vansen and Damphousse looked at each other expectantly.

Hawkes sat back on his heels to look around the locker door. "But the mess closes at 1830 hours and stays closed until 2200 hours. We'll starve. They lock everything up." Hawkes saw that his last remark caught everyone's attention, and they wondered how he knew the stores were locked up. Realizing he was caught, he knew he better fess up. "I checked once."

Heather dismissed his whining. "I bet you check weekly. Besides, I know you are still a growing boy and I will not let you starve. Just meet me there." She stood and headed for the door, mussing Hawkes hair as she passed him. She stopped just inside the doorway before leaving, looking sternly back at him. "And don't eat, or else!"

Hawkes looked at West and asked, "What's that all about?" West just shrugged his shoulders and leaned back on his bunk. Vansen and Damphousse exchanged knowing glances, which did not escape Hawkes. "What?" They began to laugh at Hawkes, who was frowning at them and getting defensive. "What's so funny?"

Vansen got herself under control, and replied, "Don't worry about it. You don't have to know everything."

Annoyed, Hawkes slammed the locker shut as he said, "Aw, man, you always do this to me. I hate that." When he looked up, a wounded look on his face, Vansen and Damphousse again burst out laughing. Hawkes, having taken enough for the time being, stomped out of their quarters.

At 1900 hours the Wildcards met outside the officer's mess. The door should have been locked, but it wasn't. Vansen looked at the group and grinned. "I really hope nobody ate, otherwise you are going to be disappointed." With that said, she opened the door of the mess and walked in.

The rest of the squadron followed and were immediately assaulted by the smell of tomato sauce. They saw one table set up for them and saw Heather behind the counter. Damphousse was taken by the smell alone. "Oh, wow. I haven't smelled anything that good since my ex-fiancee's restaurant."

Hawkes sentiments were not on the food. "Aw, man, are we going to be in trouble. You're going to get us all in the brig, stealing food from the kitchen, Heather."

As they walked up to the counter, she had begun filling plates. "It's OK, Coop. The cook knows I'm here. I ordered this stuff a while back. I was surprised that he really could get the ingredients fresh. I thought you guys might enjoy a home cooked meal for a change." She flashed a knowing look at Vansen. "Besides, I owe you guys. A lot."

She handed a plate across to Hawkes, who stood and stared at the fresh asparagus, lasagna, garlic bread and salad. "Whoa, what is this stuff?"

Vansen looked around him at the plate in his hand. "Haven't you ever had lasagna before?"

Hawkes thought for a second then replied, "Nope."

Vansen smiled up at him. "Well, then you are in for a treat." She looked up at Heather and asked, "How did you get fresh vegetables and ricotta?"

Heather just laughed. "I have my ways!"

Hawkes turned and set the plate on the table. The others turned when they heard him utter a panicked, "Uh-oh. We're done for."

Vansen ordered, "Attention on deck!" The last thing they expected was to get caught by Col. McQueen and Commodore Ross. Heather, not under the same protocol as the marines, continued to dish up plates of lasagna.

The Commodore looked at the group, each individually. "What is this I see? Rats in the kitchen?"

As his eyes rested on Vansen, she began to speak, but he smiled with his eyes twinkling and halted her words. "At ease, 5-8. Captain Vansen, how are you feeling?"

Surprised that he was not dressing them down for commandeering the kitchen, she just stared at him for a moment. Realizing she had been asked a question, she quickly answered, "Fine, sir. Feeling fit for duty as soon as the doctor reinstates me to flight status, sir."

Ross nodded, the smile never leaving his face, and walked up to the counter and gave Heather a knowing wink. "Scott, I would have thought that they would have the entire meal eaten by now."

Heather handed him a plate full of food over the counter. "Well, Commodore, they probably would have, but they were about to explain to Hawkes what the glob on his plate is."

Heather handed McQueen a full plate of food. He turned to look at Hawkes, amused, seizing this opportunity to take a poke at Hawkes. "What's the matter, Hawkes, you've been around for six years and you don't know what lasagna is?" He then grinned and looked at Heather. "And I hear Scott makes the best Lasagna on the ship." The curious look West gave McQueen did not escape Heather's notice.

Heather replied, "Hold judgment until you taste it and live through the night, Colonel." With full plates in their hands, Ross and McQueen took places at the far end of the table.

Heather filled another plate and passed it across the counter. When it was not immediately taken, she looked up and saw the amazed look on Vansen's face. She laughed and decided that she had better explain. "You just asked how I got the fresh ingredients, Shane. First I had to get the cook to agree to let me use the kitchen and to get any ingredients at all. That was easier than I expected. I just had to agree to make double of everything and leave what was left for the kitchen staff. But the only person on the ship who has the pull to get fresh vegetables and ricotta is Commodore Ross. And you can see that I was able to reach a similar agreement with him." Vansen shook her head, obviously impressed.

"And I can see that it was well worth it, Scott. You are a wonderful cook. If you ever get tired of grease and noise, you have a place on my kitchen staff." Ross was obviously enjoying the meal, based on his complement. McQueen remained silent while he ate, watching everything around him.

She filled the last plate and came around the counter to place it at her seat at the table. She went to the cold storage area and returned with three bottles of wine. Handing one of the bottles of wine and the corkscrew to West, she asked, "Would you mind, Nathan. I always get cork in the bottle." She set the other two bottles in front of him while he removed the cork from the first. He handed her the bottle, and she passed around the room filling all of their glasses. When West handed her the second bottle, she set it on the table between Ross and McQueen, who sat slightly apart from the others. When the third bottle was open, West set it on the table for the 58th.

Hawkes was the first person done. "Man, that lasagna stuff was good." He looked toward the service counter obviously wondering if there was food left there.

Heather, sitting next to him, leaned against him and whispered, "I'll give you some more if you think you will have room for dessert." He nodded his head. Heather stood, carried his plate to the counter and brought another plate of food, setting it before him.

"Anyone else for seconds? We still have half a pan left." The reply was a lot of moaning about being stuffed. Ross and McQueen were finished and stood. They carried their plates to the receptacle, and thanked Heather for the meal. When they started to leave, Heather stopped them. "Commodore, Colonel, wait a minute."

She ran into the cold storage, and returned with another pan. She placed freshly made cheesecake on two plates and covered them. "Take this with you." She handed each two packages. One containing leftovers, the other containing the dessert. "We can't let the kitchen crew have more than their share can we?" She smiled, continuing, "Thank you for letting me do something special for everyone." On the last word, she glanced at Col. McQueen and then looked down. "It means a lot that you would trust me enough to let me do this."

Ross smiled back at her. "If anyone has earned this, it is this group of people. Enjoy the rest of your dinner." Both men then moved toward the door. Heather, on her way back to the group at the table, did not notice McQueen stop at the door and glance back at them before leaving.

At 0600 hours the 58th filed onto the flight deck. They knew that they were only on routine patrol today, while other squadrons were searching for a Chig base not far away. They understood the implications of this, and agreed with them. Today marked Vansen's return to flight status, and when pilots return to flight status, the first flight is always routine to ensure that there is no residual effects of the injuries sustained. Like checking new equipment, the pilots must be seen to be working properly. They were pleased with the routine flight, feeling it would be nice to have a relaxed flight for a change.

As Vansen got into her cockpit, Heather approached and took her helmet. Once secured in the cockpit, she helped secure Vansen's helmet and watched as she ran through her checks. It was something she had seen each pilot do innumerable times before, and nothing seemed any different. When finished, Vansen looked up and told her, "Check complete, ready to go."

Heather took a good look at Vansen, looking for any signs that she felt any hesitation about flying again. If anyone could see it, Heather felt she could. When Vansen saw her watching her intently, she smiled a truly heartfelt smile. "Set me in my hammerhead and let my fly. I need some freedom." Heather saw the joy in Vansen's eyes. She wanted to fly, could hardly wait. Everything was fine. Heather laughed and tapped Vansen's helmet. Heather turned and ran off the flight deck, moving to the observation area.

As the doors closed, several people lined up to watch the cockpits descend to the under deck. Until she heard the voice, Heather did not realize that Commodore Ross stood next to her. "Well, Mrs. Scott. I take it from the exchange between you and Captain Vansen that our little bird is ready to stretch her wings."

Heather looked over at the Ross. He stood watching the descent of his pilots with a grin and a sparkle in his eye. As she looked back out to the flight deck, she replied, "Yes, sir. She's as excited as a little girl."

As the cockpits passed out of sight, he looked at Heather. "Thank you for being there for them." He then turned and walked out the door toward the bridge.

Previous : Awakening Pt. 1 & 2
Next : Part Two

Dora Shelton 1996