Moments of Joy
Shane sat at a table in the mess hall with the rest of the 58th. Wang and West were talking about baseball. West wasn't really interested, but he tried to keep up his end of the conversation so Wang could talk about his favorite obsession. Shane was watching Alex Larson talk to Colonel McQueen a few tables over. She wasn't sure she approved of that.
She'd watched Alex go sit with the Colonel in Tun Tavern the second night she was on board. Shane had been as stunned as everyone else when McQueen laughed out loud at something Alex said. So far, it all seemed harmless, but that could change quickly.
Shane admitted to herself that she was a little jealous. Colonel McQueen had always given everything he had to the 58th. They were the only people he socialized with other than the Commodore. He belonged to them. She smiled to herself, realizing she sounded like a little girl whose daddy has a new girlfriend.
Still, she had every right to be concerned. In the year and a half since McQueen had become their squadron commander, Shane had seen a lot of women come on to him, including Kelly Winslow. Without exception, McQueen had turned them all down. Most of those women were obviously just looking for a good time. They looked at McQueen's admittedly exceptional body, decided they could ignore the fact that he was a Tank, and made a pass. Even Kelly had been just about that crass.
McQueen deserved better. Furthermore, Shane did not want to see him get hurt. She cared about him too much to stand by and watch him wind up in pain. She didn't know what Alex wanted from the man, but she intended to find out.
After about a quarter of an hour, McQueen stood up and left. Alex finished eating by herself. Shane was considering going over and starting a conversation when a Navy Major she didn't recognize walked over to Alex's table and sat down. Shane was pretty sure he didn't have an invitation. From where she sat, Shane could see Alex's jaw clench. She said something to the Major and he replied. Alex rolled her eyes and stood up, carrying her tray toward the clean up window. The Major followed.
"Guys," Shane said, getting the attention of the rest of the 58th. She indicated Alex with her chin and all heads turned to see.
Alex walked toward the window and stopped when the Major got in front of her. They exchanged another word or two, then Alex went around him and put her tray down. She turned for the door, but the Major blocked her again.
Shane looked at the rest of the 58th and they nodded. She and Hawkes stood up and walked over to Alex and the Major. West, Wang and Damphousse followed.
"Is there a problem, here, Ms. Larson?" Shane asked in her silkiest tones.
Damphousse backed Alex. Hawkes, West and Wang circled around the Major. Hawkes folded his arms and looked down his nose at the smaller man.
Alex smothered a grin. "I seem to be having a little trouble reaching the exit," she told Shane in a sweet voice.
"I'm sure that won't be a problem any longer. Will it, Sir?" Shane looked at the Major.
He smiled a hard smile and looked at Alex. "Our conversation was over anyway. Thank you for your time, Ms. Larson."
Alex rolled her eyes as the Major walked away. "Thanks," she said to the 58th. "Who is that guy, anyway?"
"Major Hastings," Damphousse answered. "He's part of the 33rd."
Hawkes snorted. "Then he's not very good."
"He's Navy," Wang said. "By definition, he's not very good."
Alex got an amused look on her face. "Is all that stuff about Navy and Marines not liking each other really true?"
The five members of the 58th made affirmative or derogatory noises.
Alex laughed. "Colonel McQueen and the Commodore seem to get along very well."
"That's different," Shane said.
Alex gave her an inquisitive look.
"Colonel McQueen and Commodore Ross have been friends for a long time," Shane said. "The Commodore is special."
"He's as good as a Marine," Hawkes added.
Alex laughed again. "Shall I tell him you said that?"
"Probably not a good idea," Shane said.
Alex looked them over curiously. "You're the 58th. I've met Captain Vansen, but not the rest of you."
Alex looked from one to the other as the mini roll call sounded. She had a very broad grin on her face. "Pleased to meet you. I'm Alexandra Larson. Call me Alex."
Wang and West exchanged a look. "That wouldn't be appropriate, Ms. Larson," Wang said.
Wang opened his mouth, then closed it, looking at Shane for support.
"It's a chain of command issue," she supplied.
Alex gave her a steady look. "Since I'm not in the chain of command, you can call me whatever I want you to. And I want you to call me Alex."
They headed for the door to the mess hall en masse.
"Why was that guy bothering you?" Hawkes asked.
Alex shrugged. "A lot of guys bother me."
"That didn't look like a normal come-on," Shane said.
Alex gave her a look that said she'd rather not talk about it. Shane gave one back that said she'd push it.
Alex sighed and stopped walking. "He doesn't approve of my choice in friends."
Shane was pretty sure she wasn't going to like where this was going. "Meaning?" she prompted.
"Meaning he doesn't think a 'Natural Born Woman' should fraternize with a 'Tank'." She said the last word with obvious distaste.
"You're kidding!" Damphousse had a shocked look on her face.
"That was my first reaction," Alex said. "Apparently, though, he's serious." She gave them all a stern look. "I'd rather Colonel McQueen didn't hear about this."
"Why not?" Hawkes asked suspiciously.
"Because it would bother him. I don't want to lose a potential friend because he thinks the 'honorable' thing to do would be to stay away from me. I also don't know Colonel McQueen well enough to know whether he'd lose his temper and do something stupid. I don't want him to get into trouble because of a bigot."
Shane had to admit those were pretty good reasons. It sounded like Alex understood McQueen better than she said she did.
"I'll make you a deal," Shane said.
Alex looked at her.
"We won't tell the Colonel if you tell us whenever this guy or anybody else bothers you."
"So you can get yourselves in trouble instead?" Alex shook her head. "No, thank you."
"We're not going to get into any trouble. Are we?" Shane gave Hawkes a direct look and he glanced away. "I just want to make sure this doesn't escalate."
Alex studied Shane for a moment. "All right. I'll tell you, personally, if anyone bothers me. In return, all of you keep your mouths shut. Deal?"
"Deal," Shane said. Alex offered her hand and Shane pumped it once.
Alex looked around at the rest of the 58th. "I assume you can speak for the rest of them?" she asked Shane.
The Wild Cards chuckled.
"Yeah, you could say that," Wang answered.
"She's Honcho," Damphousse offered.
"I beg your pardon?" Alex asked.
Shane laughed. "It means I'm in charge."
Alex laughed. "Why do I get the feeling that I'm going to learn a whole new vernacular while I'm on board this ship?"
"Because you are," West quipped.
As they all started walking again, Hawkes looked down at Alex curiously. "Doesn't it bother you?" he asked.
"That Colonel McQueen's a Tank?"
Alex stopped again and looked at Hawkes coldly. "I *really* don't like that word."
"Why?" Hawkes asked.
Shane sighed. Sometimes Hawkes naivetť was a problem.
"How would you like it if I called you a..." Alex trailed off, obviously trying to find a derogatory term to apply to Hawkes.
"You could call him a Tank," Damphousse supplied quietly.
"Why would I do that?" Alex asked.
"Because I am one," Hawkes told her.
Alex blinked at him a couple of times, then started to blush. "You're an In Vitro?"
Alex closed her eyes. "God, I did it again." She put her hand on Hawkes forearm. "I'm sorry. You have every right to use that word if you want to." She paused. "But I still don't like it."
"Why?" Hawkes asked.
"Because it's derogatory slang."
Hawkes looked at Shane in confusion.
"She means it would be like calling me a Nigger," Damphousse supplied.
"Oh." Hawkes thought about that for a moment. "Okay."
Alex laughed. "I can tell this is really going to be a learning experience for me. Especially if I don't stop putting my foot in my mouth every couple of days."
Shane laughed. "That's the real challenge, isn't it?"
That evening, when Alex Larson walked into Tun Tavern, Vansen waved her over. Alex smiled in greeting and the members of the 58th smiled back and welcomed her. McQueen looked around suspiciously, wondering how she'd suddenly managed to become so chummy with his squad.
"Good evening, Colonel McQueen," Alex said.
"Ms. Larson." He nodded to her.
"Sit down and join us, Alex." Vansen indicated an empty chair between herself and Hawkes. McQueen had wondered who they were saving it for. Now he knew.
"Thanks." Alex sat and looked at the cards on the table. "Poker, I take it. Don't you folks do anything that doesn't involve betting and drinking?"
They looked at each other for a moment. "No." "Nope." "Can't think of anything," chorused from around the table.
Alex laughed. "Just as long as we've got that established."
McQueen looked around. "How did you get to be so friendly all of a sudden?"
"We met in the lunch room today," Alex said. "I think I was being inspected."
"Why?" he asked.
"Didn't you know they have to approve all your friends?"
Vansen coughed and covered her mouth quickly. McQueen shot her a disgusted look.
"It's the price of being loved." Alex's voice was full of laughter.
McQueen's eyes hardened and he shot her a quelling glance. This wasn't something that should be talked about. The look she gave back told him she only stopped because she'd said all she wanted to say.
"Are you in?" West asked Alex, pausing in his deal.
"I'll sit this one out. I like to see what I'm up against before I buy in."
West nodded and continued to deal. Siverson, the bartender, walked over with refills for the 58th. "The usual, Alex?" she asked. Alex nodded with a smile and Siverson put down a glass.
Hawkes looked closely at it. "What kind of drink is that?" he asked.
"Ginger Ale," Alex replied.
McQueen and the 58th stopped playing and looked at her. She sipped calmly, then shrugged.
"I don't drink alcohol. Not very often, anyway."
"Why not?" Hawkes asked.
"I like it, but it don't like me," she quipped. "I get drunk very easily, so I only drink around people I know well or trust implicitly. None of you qualifies yet. No offense."
"None taken," McQueen told her. He kind of liked that actually. Showed she was cautious and knew her own limits.
Thinking of limits made him glance over to where the other two civilian women were holding court. Alex followed his gaze, then smiled. "Lizzie's not so bad. Clarissa, though..." Alex shuddered.
"I know why you're here. Why are they?" McQueen asked.
"Clarissa Carstairs is the daughter of Senator Carstairs of Virginia. Her daddy felt that he needed something heroic to make him look like he was sacrificing for the war effort. She's it." Alex glanced over her shoulder again and shook her head. "She's okay at her work. If you can ignore her constant spoiled brat behavior, you can occasionally find a real human being under there. Not very often, though."
"What about the other one? Lizzie?" Vansen asked.
"Lizzie Pellowski's brother was on the Vesta colony when the Chigs attacked. She's here as a tribute to him. Like I said, she's okay." Alex grinned broadly. "She is, however, the most lascivious young woman I have ever met."
"The most what?" Hawkes asked.
"Horny," Vansen supplied.
Hawkes and Wang threw speculative glances in the direction of the young blonde.
"Don't worry, boys. She'll get to you eventually," Alex said.
"What do you mean?" Wang asked.
"Lizzie has a list of every man stationed on board the Saratoga. I don't know whether it's by rank or alphabetical, but I am certain that she intends to check off every single name on that list before she leaves here."
Vansen and Damphousse laughed loudly. McQueen chuckled under his breath. West grinned. Wang and Hawkes looked even more interested.
"How'd she get the list?" Damphousse asked.
"I downloaded it for her before we got here." Alex's eyes twinkled.
"Then how come you don't know whether it's by rank or alphabetical?" Vansen challenged.
"I gave her both. I don't know which one she's using."
Everyone laughed this time.
"It certainly makes for interesting living arrangements," Alex continued. "At least once a day I throw some naked young man out of our quarters."
"Do you give them time to get dressed?" Vansen asked.
"Depends on how much trouble they give me," Alex replied.
"Maybe I should hang around outside your quarters," Damphousse said.
McQueen actually found himself listening and enjoying the banter tonight. He usually found it all a bit trivial, but Alex livened things up with outrageous stories about the Civilian Training Program. She told them about Earth and what was going on back in The World. After a couple of hands, she joined in the poker game. She played a mean game, even bluffing him out once.
Clarissa Carstairs wandered by at one point. "Alex. Just one of the boys, I see. Well, when you have no other options..." She smirked.
Alex gave her a casual once over. "Clarissa," she said calmly, mimicking the tone the younger woman had used. "Still shopping at 'Tramps R' Us', I see."
The Wild Cards smirked. The younger woman's jaw clenched, but she tossed her head and left without responding.
After a couple of hours, Alex stretched and looked at her watch. "Ladies and Gentlemen, thanks for the game, but I must be going. If I don't get my eight hours beauty sleep, I turn into a pumpkin."
Everyone smiled and chorused good night as she rose and collected her chips. She had about the same as she'd put in, obviously knowing it was bad manners to quit while she was winning.
"I promise to give you a chance at my money some other night." She waved and left.
"You know," Damphousse said. "I thought the Civilian Program was a stupid idea, but she's not so bad."
"Yeah," Vansen agreed. "Is she good at her work?" she asked McQueen.
He nodded. "The Commodore is pleased."
"So is Lt. Martinez," Wang put in. "She's thrilled not to have to do all that paperwork anymore."
"How do you know what Lt. Martinez thinks?" Damphousse asked.
"Well, I ran into her yesterday..."
McQueen let it flow around him, not participating.
Alex looked up and saw McQueen standing in the door to her office. She'd begun to think of it as her office, anyway.
"Colonel McQueen. What can I do for you?"
"I read the Tao of Pooh last night."
"I liked it." Then he turned and walked away.
Alex stared at the empty doorway for a moment, then burst out laughing. At least he'd told her.
Alex had been on board the Saratoga for three weeks and four days now and things had fallen into a regular routine. She worked for six days, then had a day to herself. On the mornings she worked, she was in her office promptly at 0800 where she worked till around noon when McQueen or Ross or Martinez would wander by and remind her to have lunch. She'd eat with whoever reminded her or go find the 58th. In the evenings, she went to the Tun Tavern and played poker with the Wild Cards or pool with Shane or talked about books and philosophy with McQueen.
Sometimes when she talked to McQueen, Wang would join the conversation. Sometimes 'Phousse or Shane sat with them, but they generally listened without participating. The evening that Hawkes sat with them, Alex realized that the Wild Cards were baby-sitting. They must have decided that she wouldn't be bothered if she wasn't alone with McQueen.
So far, it worked. Major Hastings hadn't bothered her since that day in the mess hall. On the other hand, she was beginning to find it a little irritating to be chaperoned so closely. They'd allow her to have lunch alone with McQueen about half the time, and about every fourth evening she and McQueen would be by themselves, but the rest of the time, one of the 58th was always there.
She was a little surprised that McQueen hadn't caught on yet. Come to think of it, he must know something was up. He wasn't stupid. He hadn't asked her, though, and she hadn't volunteered any information. Besides, if he wanted to know what was going on, he'd probably ask the 58th.
On her days off, she slept late, usually till about nine or ten AM. 0900 or 1000 she amended to herself. She really needed to start thinking in military time. It still took her several seconds to count it out once she got above 1300. The 58th found it very amusing and always tried to confuse her. Especially Hawkes.
Alex smiled to herself, thinking about Hawkes. He was such a little kid inside, despite the grown up body. He enjoyed tripping her up on military time more than anyone else. That was why she hadn't made an effort to learn it. It made him happy to understand something she didn't, made him feel smarter to know something a Natural Born who'd gone to College and used big words didn't know.
When she woke up from sleeping late on her days off, she'd read and write letters to her family and friends. She'd requested a lot of luxuries be sent to her once she was permanently assigned to the Saratoga.
She and the other Civilians had been on board for three weeks and four days. Today was the day. She squared her shoulders and walked to the Bridge.
Ross turned around with an indecipherable expression. "Ms. Larson?"
"Commodore, we've been on board for three weeks and four days now."
She smothered a smile. He knew who she was talking about, he just wasn't going to make this easy for her. "Myself and the other civilians, Sir."
Ross nodded. "So you have." He started to turn back to McQueen.
Ross turned back. "Yes, Ms. Larson?"
"I would like to know whether or not I should be packing my gear."
"Are you going somewhere, Ms. Larson?"
Behind Ross, McQueen lowered his head, hiding a smile.
Alex gave Ross a level look. "That's what I'm trying to find out, Commodore."
Ross started to chuckle. The rest of the Bridge crew joined him, until they were all laughing. Even McQueen smiled. Alex laughed along with the rest of them. When the mirth finally died down, she looked at Ross and shook her head.
"You are not a nice man," she told him.
That set them all off again and Alex went back to her office, still laughing.
The 58th had a little impromptu party in Tun Tavern to celebrate.
"Okay," Vansen said. "We thought about getting you drunk, but decided that would be a little presumptuous. So, instead..."
Siverson reached under the bar and pulled out a wine chiller with a big bottle of Ginger Ale in it. The bottle had a big red bow on it.
Alex laughed. "You don't really expect me to drink all of that tonight, do you?"
"Of course," Vansen said.
McQueen watched in amusement as things got a little rowdy. Alex maintained her poise in the midst of being dragged to the Foosball table by Wang and forced to play several games. She looked over at McQueen once or twice with a 'save me' expression on her face, but he just chuckled. Eventually, Vansen rescued Alex from Wang and brought her back to the bar.
"I don't approve of voluntary sweating," Alex was saying.
"What kind of exercise did you do back on Earth?" Vansen asked.
"I swam. The water took the sweat away and life was good."
"There's nowhere to swim on the Saratoga," McQueen chimed in.
"I'm aware of that." Alex gave him a look that clearly said 'traitor'. "I've been using the treadmills."
"That won't keep you in shape for long," Vansen said. "You really should try the weight machines."
Alex borrowed one of McQueen's 'when Hell freezes over' looks.
"All right," Vansen said with a mischievous grin. "I'll bet you. A game of pool against you letting me train you on the weights."
"What do I get if I win?" Alex asked suspiciously.
McQueen snorted. He sincerely doubted that would happen. Alex wasn't bad, but Vansen was good.
"What do you want?" Vansen asked.
Alex narrowed her eyes and studied Vansen. "You know, Shane, you have great voice."
"So?" Now Vansen was suspicious.
"Have you ever considered singing?"
"I don't sing," Vansen said flatly.
A smile crept across Alex's face. "You do if I win," she said.
Vansen looked at Alex, then at McQueen.
"It was your idea, Vansen." His tone suggested she'd be a welcher if she didn't take the bet.
"All right. Deal."
The two women shook hands and headed for the pool table. McQueen sat and watched them.
"One game or two out of three?" Alex asked.
"Whichever," Vansen said.
"Two out of three."
Alex racked the balls and they began to play. Pellowski and the rest of the Wild Cards came over to watch. Shane broke and dropped several balls before missing a complicated shot. Alex smiled like the proverbial cat with a canary - and cleaned the table.
When the eight ball dropped, Vansen let out a holler. "No fair! You've been holding out on me."
Alex laughed. "Not really. I just play better when I bet."
McQueen laughed to himself. Vansen just might be in a bit of trouble here. The idea of Vansen being forced to sing was an amusing one.
The second game didn't go as well for either of them. They both missed a couple of easy shots and couldn't get the hard ones at all. McQueen sipped his Scotch and watched.
"Colonel McQueen." The voice was unfamiliar. He turned to see Clarissa Carstairs sitting on the bar stool next to him.
"I've been wanting to talk to you, Colonel." Her voice was a low purr. He had a good idea what was coming next.
"About what?" His tone was flat and unfriendly. He had a good idea what was coming.
"I thought maybe you and I could go back to your quarters and get better acquainted."
McQueen rolled his eyes. Didn't anyone ever come up with some new lines? "I don't think so," was all he said.
She put her hand on his arm and trailed one finger down it. Her touch made his mouth twitch with distaste.
"I've always wanted to try a Tank, and you are an exceptionally fine specimen."
He looked at her, waiting until he could control the anger before he spoke. "Ms. Carstairs, there is absolutely nothing that could entice me to go anywhere with you. Ever."
Her eyes hardened and her lip curled in a sneer. "I suppose you prefer Alex? I guess you just like big, fat cows. Or maybe you prefer boys?"
"My preference, Ms. Carstairs, would be for anyone other than you."
Her face flushed. "You stupid Tank! You're not even smart enough to know a good thing when it's right in front of you." Her voice rose with each word till she was speaking loud enough to be heard throughout the bar. The room got very quiet.
"Clarissa." Alex's voice was crisp and controlled, but it burned with anger. "A 'tank' is a hollow object designed to contain chemicals in a liquid or gaseous state. Colonel McQueen is a person. Grasp the concept."
McQueen appreciated the words, but he'd rather Alex hadn't said anything. She didn't understand how it was. Like most Natural Borns, she thought she could fix things.
Carstairs flushed deeper. "You think you're so smart, Alex. You can't even get a *real* man. You have to settle for one that no other woman would want."
One of Alex's eyebrows went up. Her face was cold. "It would seem that you wanted him a moment ago. That was what your little outburst was about, wasn't it? He turned you down?"
Carstairs' mouth worked, but no sound came out for a moment. "He made a pass at me," she declared. "I turned him down."
McQueen suppressed a sigh. A lot of people were going to believe that one.
Alex tilted her head and gave Carstairs a look of utter disbelief. "I see. You turned him down, and then told him he didn't 'know a good thing when it's in front of him' because he took it so well?" Her voice dripped sarcasm. "I'll buy that. Will you buy that Lizzie?"
"Sure, I'll buy that." The little blonde's tone said the exact opposite.
"How about you, Shane? Will you buy that?" Alex looked at Vansen.
"No." Vansen's voice was flat and her look at Carstairs said that the civilian was in big trouble.
"Aw, c'mon, Shane. I'll throw in the Brooklyn Bridge." Alex's voice was coaxing now, and several people laughed. McQueen could see she was trying to defuse the situation, but he wasn't sure it was going to work. It would be better if she'd just let it go.
"Damnit, Alex." Carstairs was furious. She knew she'd been made a fool of. "You're a disgusting, fat cow."
"If you say so, Clarissa."
"You think you're fooling anyone? You think everyone doesn't know what's going on between you and that Tank?"
Alex's jaw tightened the tiniest bit. "You're starting to irritate me, Clarissa. This is a bad choice on your part."
"You can't do anything to me, Alex Larson. My father..."
"Your father," Alex interrupted her, "couldn't even get you an appointment to this ship. Would you like to discuss how you arranged that one yourself?"
Carstairs paled and swallowed hard. "I don't know what you're talking about." Her voice trembled. Obviously, she knew exactly what Alex was talking about.
"Then I would say this conversation is over. Wouldn't you agree?"
Carstairs glared, then nodded sharply and turned to leave.
"Clarissa." Alex's voice stopped her. "I think you owe Colonel McQueen an apology."
Carstairs flushed with anger again. Alex's eyes were cold and the look she gave made it clear that she wasn't bluffing.
Carstairs looked past McQueen's left shoulder. "Colonel McQueen," she said through clenched teeth. "I apologize if I was rude."
She looked back at Alex, who turned back to the pool table. Carstairs stormed out the door.
McQueen turned back to the bar. He was impressed. Whatever Alex had on Clarissa Carstairs it was pretty good. Until now, Carstairs apparently hadn't known that Alex had the information.
"Colonel McQueen." Alex was standing beside him. "I'm sorry," she said.
"I saw Clarissa sit down next to you. I had a pretty good idea what she wanted. I could have headed off this whole scene."
McQueen took a sip of Scotch. "Why didn't you?" He didn't think it was her fault, he was just curious.
"Frankly, because I didn't think it was my place. For all I knew, you might have..."
He looked over at her as she trailed off with a blush. A faint smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "You're not serious?" he said. She couldn't possibly believe he'd be interested in a woman like Carstairs.
She blushed harder. "Well, you never know what a man is going to do... in certain areas."
He decided to ignore that remark. "It wasn't your fault, Ms. Larson. Besides, if you'd headed it off tonight, she'd have tried some other night."
Alex sighed. "You're probably right."
"Hey, Alex," Vansen said. "You up to finishing this bet?"
"Not really, Shane. How about I just forfeit?" A wicked twinkle came into her eyes. "With a twist."
"What kind of twist?"
"I'll let you set a workout program for me, but if I can make you laugh while you're training me, you have to give me twenty-five pushups."
Vansen thought about that for a moment. "Deal."
Alex laughed. "When do we start?"
"When we get back."
"You're going somewhere?" Alex asked.
Vansen nodded. "In the morning."
A flicker of concern crossed Alex's face, but she didn't say anything. McQueen was pleased that his kids had someone else looking out for them now. Someone who had enough sense not to get emotional.
Alex sat down and poured herself another glass of Ginger Ale.
McQueen and Alex looked over at Pellowski. Her eyes flickered from Alex to McQueen. She had a concerned look on her face. McQueen's jaw tightened and he looked away. It never stopped.
Alex's face got a sad, disappointed expression on it. "Lizzie," she said quietly. "I thought better of you."
The little blonde blushed and looked away. Alex turned to McQueen with that same sad expression. She looked down at her glass, then raised it and met his eyes. McQueen clinked it with his own and they both drank.
The 58th left the next morning. McQueen stood on the hanger deck as he always did, watching the cockpits drop. Each of his kids gave him a thumbs-up on their way down. Then he headed for the bridge and stayed there all day.
The day shift left and the night crew came on. McQueen stayed. About 2100, Alex came onto the bridge carrying a tray and a cup of coffee.
"I figured you'd still be here," she said. "I'll bet you haven't eaten all day."
He hadn't actually.
She set the tray down and handed him the coffee. He took it, a little surprised that she'd thought to bring him some food. He was also more than a little uncomfortable with the idea of her serving him. She was a Natural Born. It was one thing to have a subordinate bring him something - even that he rarely asked for. Alex was a civilian, though.
She stood quietly and he realized that she was waiting for him to say something.
"Thank you, Ms. Larson."
"You're welcome, Colonel."
She smiled and left the bridge. McQueen ate the food she'd brought him and ignored the surprised looks from the night crew.
The next day, 1500 hours, McQueen stood on the Flight Deck waiting for the 58th to return. The Wild Cards had come under fire, but taken no casualties. Damphousse's second engine was blown out, though, so the rest were hanging back, traveling at her speed in case more trouble appeared.
He stared out at the stars, waiting to catch the first glimpse of their ships.
The door opened behind him and someone walked up and stood beside him. He looked over and saw Alex, staring out the large viewport. She didn't look at him.
"Do you mind if I wait with you?" she asked.
He looked back out at the vastness of space, searching for those five ships.
They stood together in silence, watching and waiting.
After that, it got to be a regular thing when the Wild Cards left for a mission. She'd make sure he ate and, if the 58th was gone a long time, she'd bully him into getting some sleep. She used outrageous, completely far-fetched arguments that made him laugh despite the concern he always felt when 'his kids' were gone.
When the 58th called in, she'd wind up on the flight deck, watching with him. He generally had to point them out to her. She wasn't very good at spotting them. He kind of liked having her there.
The 58th took to calling her their mascot. She smiled and said she was too old to be a mascot.
Whenever the Wild Cards were on board the Saratoga, they always took turns sitting with him and Alex in Tun Tavern. He wasn't sure what that was about, but he didn't ask. If they wanted him to know they'd tell him. Besides, he wasn't sure it was such a bad thing having a chaperone when he was around Alex Larson.
McQueen wandered into the weight room to have a little workout. He was a bit surprised at the early morning crowd. The Wild Cards were all working out on various pieces of equipment. Alex was using one of the weight machines, doing leg presses. Vansen stood over her counting it down.
"Twenty-six. Twenty-seven. C'mon, Alex. You can do it."
"Sadistic Bitch," Alex said loudly.
McQueen stared at her in surprise, but the Wild Cards laughed. Vansen's mouth twitched. McQueen suddenly remembered the bet. He smiled and leaned against the wall to watch.
"Sadistic. Mean. Nasty." Alex puffed out a word with each press. "Evil. Cruel. Naughty. With unspeakable naughtiness."
The last was too much for Vansen and she cracked up.
"Hah!" Alex exclaimed. "Drop and give me twenty-five, Marine."
Vansen dropped to the deck, still chuckling, and proceeded to press twenty-five pushups. Alex kept pumping with her legs.
McQueen studied her. Her hair was getting longer. She must be growing it out. What was it she'd said to him once? 'Short hair is high maintenance.' She'd also dropped some weight since Vansen had been working her. She was leaner, more muscular. She looked good. Not that she'd looked bad before. He cut off that line of thought and went to one of the empty machines.
"Good morning, Colonel," Damphousse greeted him.
Alex's head swung around and she stared at him in surprise. He nodded to her and adjusted the weights, then sat down at the machine, took hold of the bars behind his head and began pumping. Alex watched for a moment, then turned back to her own weights.
Vansen finished her set and got up. "Okay, Alex. How about some free weights?"
Alex groaned. "You hate me don't you?"
Vansen bit her lip to keep from laughing. The rest of the Cards didn't bother. McQueen's lips twitched as Alex moved dejectedly to the free weights. He was beginning to realize he'd missed a good show by not stopping in here more often. Maybe he should change that.
One day as they stood on the Flight Deck, waiting to catch the first glimpse of the 58th's returning Hammerheads, Alex spoke to him unexpectedly.
"Do you think you could do me a favor?"
"Call me Alex." She looked over at him. "At least when we're not on duty."
"I think I can handle that."
A few days later, they were sitting in Tun Tavern talking about books. At 2200 hours, Alex made her normal pumpkin remark and stood up.
"Good night, Colonel," she said quietly.
"My friends call me Ty."
She stopped and looked at him with a surprised expression. A slow smile crept over her face.
"Good night, Ty."
"Good night, Alex."
Cooper walked down the corridor to Alex's quarters and knocked on her door. He'd seen Pellowski in the Tavern, so he knew Alex would be alone if she was in there.
The door opened and Alex smiled at him. "Cooper. Come in."
Cooper walked in and shut the door behind him.
"What can I do for you, Sweetie?"
Cooper smiled. She always called him Sweetie in private. No one had ever called him anything like that before. He looked at her for a moment, not sure how to proceed. Now that he was here, he wasnít so sure this was a good idea.
She stepped closer and put her hand on his arm. "Whatís the matter, Cooper?"
She was standing so close to him, a gentle smile on her upturned face. Shane had gotten mad at him when heíd just grabbed her and kissed her, but he wasnít good with words. He leaned down very slowly. She didnít pull away, so he kissed her softly. She started and pulled back.
"Sorry. Alex, Iím sorry..."
She put her finger to his lips, then took a deep breath. "Cooper. Sweetie, this is not what you really want."
He frowned in confusion. "Yes, it is."
Alex sighed and took his hand. She led him over to the bed and sat down with him. He started to put his arm around her, but she stopped him, taking his hand and holding it in both of hers.
"Sweetie, you donít want to sleep with me."
"Yes, I do. Why do you keep saying I donít?"
"Cooper, you donít think of me as..." She stopped and studied him for a moment with a puzzled expression. "You really do want to have sex with me, donít you?"
She smiled and shook her head.
"What?" he asked.
"I just thought you looked at me... well, sort of like a mother."
"I do. What I think a mother would be like, anyway."
"And you still want to sleep with me?"
"Why shouldnít I?"
She studied his face again. "No reason, now that I think about it. You wouldnít have that taboo, would you?"
"Cooper, Natural Borns have a taboo against having sexual thoughts and feelings about parents or teachers or people who they think of in those ways."
"Yeah. I guess Iíve heard that. Itís sort of like no fraternizing with a superior officer."
She grinned. "Exactly. Thatís why I was surprised you would even make a pass at me."
"Youíre not mad at me, are you?"
"No, Cooper. Iím not mad at you."
She looked at him curiously, but didnít say anything else.
"What?" he asked.
She looked away. "Nothing."
She obviously wanted to ask something, but was afraid to. He saw that look a lot when Natural Borns were curious about Tanks. "Go ahead and ask," he told her.
She studied him for a moment. "Cooper, do you feel inhibitions about sleeping with anybody?"
He shrugged. "I like girls more than guys."
Her eyes widened, but she smiled. "Iíll take that as a Ďnoí."
He grinned at her. "So, youíre not interested."
She laughed and shook her head. "Itís not that Iím not interested, per se..."
He leaned closer. "Then you are interested."
She put his hands on his chest to stop him and leaned away from him. "Cooper..."
"If we both want to, why shouldnít we?"
She laughed. "Oh, Cooper. This is so much more complicated than youíre making it seem."
"Natural Borns always make it complicated."
She laughed again. "Yes, I guess we do. But it is complicated for us."
She sighed. "Well, letís use us as an example. I consider you to be very attractive, sexually. You, apparently, find me attractive too."
He nodded and she smiled.
"Youíre a lot younger then I am, though."
"So, that bothers me."
She thought about it a moment. "Mainly because I prefer to be with men my own age, men whoíve had similar experiences."
He looked at her closely. "Colonel McQueen hasnít had similar experiences. Arenít you interested in him?"
Alex blushed a bright red and looked away.
"Iím sorry," Cooper said. "Thatís probably one of those things I shouldnít talk about, huh?"
She looked back at him. "I didnít realize it was that obvious. Itís okay to talk to me about it, Cooper. Iíd just appreciate it if you wouldnít talk about it with anyone else."
She took a deep breath. "Youíre right. I am interested in Colonel McQueen even though we donít have a lot of similar experiences. We do have a lot of similar interests, though, and he is closer to my age biologically."
"So how come you and him havenít...?"
She laughed. "Sweetie, I donít think heís interested."
He gave her a disgusted look. "Of course he is. *Heís* interested. *Youíre* interested. Why do you have to make it so complicated?"
She sighed and put her head on his shoulder. "I donít know, Cooper. I really donít."
One evening, after the 58th returned from a mission, McQueen, Alex and the Wild Cards were sitting in the Tavern, playing poker. Siverson brought refills for everyone, including Alexís Ginger Ale.
Vansen eyed Alexís glass with distaste. "One of these days, weíre gonna get you drunk, Alex."
Alex shrugged. "Why bother? Iím not a very interesting drunk."
"Iíd like to see for myself," Vansen told her. "What do you do?"
Alex chuckled. "I go to sleep, generally."
Damphousse looked over with a broad grin. "You go to sleep?"
"Um hum. After about three drinks, I curl up wherever I am and go to sleep."
"Three drinks!" Hawkes gave her a shocked look. "Thatís it?"
"Thatís about all I can handle," Alex said. She shot him a wicked look "I guess that makes me a Ďcheap dateí."
McQueen scowled. He didnít like hearing her say something like that about herself.
"What do you drink?" Wang asked.
Alex shrugged. "Not much that you have on this ship. I prefer strawberry margaritas and peach Bellinis. Drinks that donít taste like alcohol."
"I bet Siverson could work something out," Vansen said.
"So you donít drink hard liquor?" West asked.
"Iíve never really tried hard liquor. What is that you always drink, Ty? Scotch?"
She reached over and picked up the glass, sniffed delicately, then took a tiny sip. He stared at her, surprised. Most Natural Borns acted like Tanks had communicable diseases or something.
She wrinkled her nose and gave him a disgusted look. "You actually drink this stuff?" She put the glass down and made a face. "Ick." She took a couple of sips of Ginger Ale. He continued to stare at her and she looked at him sheepishly. "Sorry, I probably should have asked first."
"Thatís all right," he said.
Vansen laughed at her. "I take it weíre going to have to find something else for you to drink?"
Alex nodded vigorously. "Thatís awful."
Alex had been on board for three and a half months now. It was her day off, and she was standing in the loading bay with the 58th during mail call. She heard her name and turned around to see a large box waiting for her.
"Címon Cooper," she said, grabbing his arm. "Give me a hand."
The private who was handing out parcels scowled at her when Hawkes picked up the box. She smiled and blew him a kiss. The Wild Cards and Alex went to the Rec room and commandeered a table to sort through their treasures. McQueen wandered in and looked at the box in front of Alex.
"What, did they send you the whole planet?" McQueen asked sourly.
"Youíre going to eat those words in a minute, Tyrus McQueen," she said mischievously.
She set the box in the middle of the table and tried to open it. The tape was strong and she couldnít pull it apart, so she put on a pathetic face and looked around. West laughed and handed her a knife. She sliced the tape and opened the box, then carefully lifted out a pink and blue knitted afghan and put it on the table.
"Whatís that?" Hawkes asked.
"My grandmother made it for me when I was a little girl. I didnít want to bring it across the galaxy unless I was staying." She looked back in the box. "Yes!" she exclaimed. "Mama did good."
Reaching inside, she carefully pulled out two bottles of Mexican Tequila. "Here," she said handing them to McQueen.
He looked at them blankly, then looked over at her. "Whatís this?"
"Itís called Te-qui-la."
He shot her a nasty look. "Why?"
"Because youíve got to try something other than that disgusting Scotch. Not that I like Tequila any better."
She ignored his disconcerted look and kept digging things out of the box, throwing a bag of Oreos at Wang and a bag of Fig Newtons at West. "Real fudge and Texas pralines for Shane," she said. "Scented soap for ĎPhousse."
Both girls grinned in pleasure. ĎPhousse put the soap to her nose and inhaled deeply. Shane did the same with the fudge. Alex pulled out a couple of books and threw them at Wang, then some CDs which landed in front of Cooper. He looked up at her wide-eyed.
"These are for me?"
Her heart skipped a beat at the disbelieving look on his face. She promised herself that from now on, sheíd make sure he got something from mail call on a regular basis.
"Yep," she answered casually. "Soíre these." She threw down a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Heinleinís Starship Troopers and a couple of other books she thought he might like. McQueen gave her an odd look, which she also ignored.
"Try them," she said to Hawkes, gesturing at the books. "You might like them."
Hawkes picked up Jonathan Livingston Seagull and looked at it suspiciously. "Whatís it about?"
"Itís about a seagull who wants to fly like a bird of prey, but his wings arenít designed right."
Hawkes looked down at the book, then back at her with an expression that said he thought she was pulling his leg.
"Just read it," she laughed at him.
"Ms. Larson, what have you got there?"
Alex turned around to see Commodore Ross standing behind her with stern look pasted on his face.
"Civilization," she told him.
She reached into the box again and pulled out a large bag of Macadamia nuts and another of Pumpkin seeds. "Here. Something for everyone." She tossed them at him. He caught them easily and smiled his thanks, then looked down at the Tequila in front of McQueen and whistled. "Not bad. You gonna share?"
Homemade baked goods began to appear on the table. Alexís offer to Ďhelp yourselfí was met by immediate scrambling to open the bags. More books appeared. The Lord of the Rings series was dumped in front of McQueen.
"You need some fiction in your life," Alex commented.
Ross hid a grin.
A large bag of trail mix joined the Tequila and the Lord of the Rings. Then Alex pulled out a small bag with a note attached to it. She read the note and burst out laughing.
"This, I believe, is for you," she said placing the bag in front of Hawkes. "Itís from my eight year old nephew. Dear Aunt Alex," she read. "Mama said thereís a soldier who flies planes where you are whoís only six years old." She pointed at Hawkes. "Mama also said he didnít have any family to send him things, so I thought he might like my old Red Baron model. I really liked it when I was six. P.S. How come he can fly a plane when heís only six and Mama says I have to wait until Iím older?"
The laughter was soft, but appreciative.
"Thereís a note from my sister at the bottom," Alex continued. "It says ĎI guess I still have some explaining to do.í"
Alex looked over at Hawkes who was obviously deeply moved by the little plastic toy.
"Maybe we should send him a picture of you," she suggested, trying to lighten his mood. "It might help him understand a little better."
Hawkes looked up at her. "Would it be okay if I sent him a letter? Just to thank him."
Alex smiled. "Iím sure heíd like that a lot."
She reached back into the box and pulled out a big bottle of perfume and set it on the table
Shane picked it up and looked at it. "You donít wear perfume."
"Itís for Lizzie. She goes through the stuff like you wouldnít believe. She says you absolutely must put perfume in all of the twenty-two classic places every time."
"Every time what?" West asked.
Alex gave him a level look. "What does Lizzie do all the time?"
Everyone laughed with her.
ĎPhousse took the perfume from Shane. "I didnít know there were twenty-two places youíre supposed to put perfume."
"I only know five," West said.
Shane thought about it for a moment. "I get five."
"Seven," ĎPhousse offered.
"Two," Wang said.
Ross and McQueen exchanged glances, then looked at the ceiling, obviously counting in their heads.
Alex waited. "Well?" she prompted.
"Seventeen," from McQueen.
"Nineteen," was Rossí contribution.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Alex drawled with a wicked smile, "we have just separated the men from the boys."
Ross and McQueen smiled almost identically confident smiles.
"What are the twenty-two classic places?" Wang asked.
"Do you really want me to just tell you?" Alex asked. "Think how much fun you could have trying to find them for yourself."
"Think of it as a recon mission," McQueen suggested.
Alex gave him a look of wide-eyed surprise, then laughed. "Iím sure Lizzie would let you Ďreconí her if you asked," she told Wang.
"Isnít there anything for you in that box?" ĎPhousse asked Alex.
"Lots of things." Alex patted a stack of books, then indicated some music and movie CDs, a bag of lemon drops and another one of butterscotch. She picked up the afghan and put it back in the box, then piled the rest of her treasures on top. "Enjoy your loot," she said, picking up the box.
Ross looked around at the 58th. "Youíre not really going to let her carry that herself, are you Marines?"
"Itís not heavy," Alex protested.
McQueen stood up and took the box away from her. He set it on the table and added his bottles and books to the mishmash in the box. "Letís go," he said.
Alex considered protesting, but thought better of it. If Ty wanted to be gentlemanly, who was she to argue with him? Besides, it was the Commodoreís suggestion.
They walked down the hall in silence. When they were in the elevator, Alex turned to him. "You really didnít have to do this."
He gave her an unreadable look.
"Youíve seen what Shaneís making me do in the weight room. I could have handled it."
He ignored her.
"Are you mad at me?"
"Then whatís wrong?"
He gave her another unreadable look. "You wouldnít understand."
She felt anger starting to burn, but clamped down on it. She did not want to fight with Ty. Sheíd obviously done something to offend him. She just had to find out what.
"I wonít if you donít explain it to me," she said in a mildly irritated voice.
The elevator doors opened and he strode down the hall toward her quarters. She had to scurry to keep up with him. Her mind raced while she hurried after him, trying to figure out what sheíd done. He stopped in front of her door and she punched in the code and opened it for him. He walked in and looked from one bed to the other, then back at her.
"That one." She pointed to the bed that was neat and tidy.
He set the box down and headed for the door. She got between him and it.
"Hawkes," she said.
He just looked at her. She looked back.
He scowled and put his hands on his hips. "I know you think youíre being nice, but you donít understand. Heís young. Heís impressionable. Sometimes itís better not to show us what weíre missing."
She cocked her head and studied him. "Youíre afraid Iíll hurt him."
"Thereís no way you can avoid it."
She studied him for a moment. "So I should just do nothing? Not even try to be his friend?"
His face darkened a bit. "How long can you really be his friend?" He brushed past her and put his hand on the door handle.
She slammed the door shut and faced him angrily. "How dare you? How dare you suggest Iíd just desert him? I have friends that Iíve loved and cherished for twenty-five years. Why should Cooper be any different? Or you for that matter?"
He faced her, equally angry. "You donít know what kind of hurt you can cause a Tank."
"You think In Vitros have cornered the market on pain? Life is pain, Ty. The few moments of joy we experience are the exception, not the rule. The best we can hope for is contentment."
She saw the surprise on his face at her words and pressed her advantage.
"You think that just having the chance to be a child means your life is going to be good? Well, youíre wrong. Children have crappy lives too. They get ignored. They get mistreated. They get abused. Nasty things happen to them."
His face was unreadable again.
"I am a good friend, Ty. Iím loyal. Iím always there for my friends when I can be. And yes, I know itís not always possible to be there for people every time they need you. Thatís life. But I try."
She took a deep breath and looked down, composing herself. She was tempted to cry, but she knew that would make him feel bad. She looked back up into his eyes. "Cooper is a sweet boy, Ty. Iíll be his friend for as long as he wants me to be."
His eyes hardened again. "Cooper is not a boy, Alex. Heís a man."
"Physically, yes, but not emotionally."
"That wonít matter when he tries to get you into bed," McQueen said harshly.
"He already has." Alex was amused now. She hadnít thought Ty missed much.
His face had a slightly stunned expression. "He has?"
"Of course. I turned him down. We had a long talk and everythingís fine."
He looked at her, a little confused. "He didnít tell me."
Alex got more amused. "Does he tell you everything?"
"Apparently not." He gave her a measuring look. "What exactly did he say?"
Alex felt a blush creeping up her cheek. "Iím certainly not going to repeat it. Ask him if you want to know."
"I may just do that."
She blushed harder. With the absolutely perfect timing for which the universe is known, Lizzie walked in right then, followed by a young Lieutenant.
"Oops." Lizzie gave Alex a smile and wink. "Sorry, Alex. Didnít know you were busy."
"Sir." The lieutenant snapped to attention
"At ease, Rundquist," McQueen said.
Lizzie started to back out, but Alex stopped her. "Thatís all right, Lizzie. Colonel McQueen and I were finished with our conversation."
"Already?" Lizzie looked confused.
Alex rolled her eyes and pointed to the box on the bed. "Donít forget your loot, Colonel."
A tiny smile played over McQueenís lips. He went back to the box and pulled out his Tequila, books and trail mix. He waved them at Alex as he went past. "Thank you, Ms. Larson."
"Youíre welcome, Colonel."
Lizzie looked at the box and squealed. "Is my perfume here?"
"Yes, it is."
Lizzie turned to the young Lieutenant. "Sorry, Steve. Maybe some other time." She shut the door in his face and headed for the box.
Alex laughed. "Lizzie, you are unbelievable."
© 1998 Tere L. Matthews