DISCLAIMER: The characters and situations of the TV program "SPACE: Above and Beyond" are the creations of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Fox Broadcasting and Hard Eight Productions, and have been used without permission. The characters of Meredith Henderson, Julie, and Smith were created by Gabrielle Bessey. No copyright infringement is intended.

This story is not to be published on any ftp site, newsgroup, mailing list, fanzine, or elsewhere without the express permission of the author. Please send comments to gdbessey@ingr.com.

NC17 rated

Growing Up
part Three of Oreo series
Gabrielle Bessey

When I look into your eyes...
I see the boy who was
and the man who will be.

G. Bessey

Every crew member not on duty gathered in the landing bay as the ISSCV carrying the USO show opened its doors. Women began streaming out, and the men cheered loudly. Shane leaned over to Vanessa. "Figures there wouldn't be any men."

Vanessa smiled and nudged Shane. "Looks like you spoke to soon, Shane."

Several muscled young men followed the women into the landing bay.

Commodore Ross welcomed the manager of the show aboard. "We're glad to have you here Mr. Smith. We've been looking forward to your show."

"Thanks, Commodore. It's a pleasure to be here, and we're going to give you one hell of a show. Our fighting men and women deserve the best." Smith smiled out at the sea of young faces. Everyone cheered at the mention of a good time.

Ross smiled. "I'll have your people shown to their quarters."

"Splendid, splendid. When can we get a look at the area where we'll be staging the show?" Smith began rounding up his performers, even as he asked the question.

"I'll have one of my staff take you there after you get settled in." Ross ordered some young sailors, who could barely contain their joy at seeing new women, to help with the luggage.

Cooper leaned against a hatchway and wondered at all the excitement...until he caught sight of long legs disappearing into a pair of cut-off jeans. She passed a suitcase to one of her costars, then stretched to ease the kinks in her back. Turning around, she caught sight of him staring and smiled. At that moment, Cooper felt as if he'd just been punched in the gut. He realized he was holding his breath and let it out in a slow gush. Paul stood next to him, saw the expression on his face, and followed his line of sight.

"Hook, line, and sinker." He laughed and left Cooper staring at the young woman who'd captivated him.

Paul made his way to Nathan, Shane, and Vanessa, who were watching the young sailors buzzing around with great amusement. "Hey guys, I think Cooper's in love."

Shane turned to Paul, "What do you mean?"

He gestured toward the members of the USO troop. "I was standing next to him, and when I looked up at him to see why he didn't answer my question, I noticed that he was staring at one of the women in the troop."

Shane leaned past Paul. "Which one?"

Paul pointed to a woman who was reaching over people who had kneeled on the floor to pick up some props they had dropped. She was tall, about 5'10", with caramel-colored hair that was working its way loose from its braid. They couldn't see her eyes, but they saw that she smiled and laughed a lot with those around her, drawing people in. They couldn't tell much about her from their position.

Paul smiled. "She's got great legs."

Shane slapped him on the arm. "Let's get out of this madhouse."

The 58th stood at the hatch and stared at the number of people who had already arrived to see the show. Pushing their way through the crowd, they made their way to a table that had been designated for them (after having drawn lots with other squadrons). Scanning the people, Shane caught sight of McQueen. "Colonel, over here."

McQueen sat down. "It's worse than the PX on payday."

Everyone drew straws, with the exception of McQueen, to see who was going to go get drinks. Vanessa and Nathan stared at each other. "If we drop a smoke grenade, we can clear a path."

Vanessa elbowed her way towards the bar, with Nathan tight behind her. After several minutes of nudging people out of the way, they made it back to the table with a minimum of spillage.

Smith stepped up to the microphone as a spotlight swept over him.

"Welcome everyone. We have singing, dancing, a little comedy, everything you could ever want. Without further ado, our first performer, Ms. Meredith Henderson, singing 'Someone to Watch over Me'."

The spotlight faded and the crowd hushed.

Her voice drifted through the air without accompaniment, touching each man and woman..."Someone to watch over me..."

As she began the song, light slowly surrounded her, moving up the snug green, velvet dress to linger on her face. Her eyes were closed, lost in the music. Then, she opened them, green eyes surveying the audience that had been silenced by the magic in her voice. Slowly she let her gaze drift from face to face, until she saw Cooper, and again, she smiled. McQueen saw her singing to Cooper, as did each person at the front tables.

She finished the song and every man stood and clapped furiously. Cooper just sat there, overwhelmed by the fact that she had sung this song for him. He turned to look at McQueen. "Why'd she do that?'

McQueen shrugged. "Maybe she likes you."

There were several acts, all quite good, and whenever Meredith performed, she sang for Cooper.

After the show, all of the performers came out and greeted the audience that had rousingly welcomed them. Meredith was surrounded by admirers. She laughed and shook hands and joked with the young men who were enamored by her voice, as well as her beauty. Even as she accepted their compliments, she gazed about the room until she found the one man she had seen earlier...the man whose eyes had touched her soul. "If you will excuse me, gentlemen. There's someone I must see." She smiled and eased out of the throng of men that had encircled her. She weaved her way between tables, stopping occasionally to smile and chat with a well-wisher.

Cooper looked uncomfortable as he sat at the table with Nathan and Paul.

She smiled at the group as she approached from behind Cooper's chair. "Good evening, gentlemen. I hope you enjoyed the show."

Paul and Nathan both spoke. "It was great." "You guys were great." Cooper sat there, suddenly shy.

Meredith looked down at him. "What about you, Lieutenant..." She leaned closer to look at his name tag and Cooper caught a scent of something beautiful. "...Hawkes? How did you like the show?"

Cooper stared up into her eyes. "It was, um, really good."

Meredith laughed. "May I join you?"

Paul and Nathan got up, and Paul smiled. "Uh, we gotta be going. See ya, Coop."

Cooper turned to look at them leave with a pleading look on this face, then slowly turned back to face a grinning Meredith.

She held out her hand. "I don't bite, really. My name's Meredith."

He gently took her hand, almost as if he were afraid he would break it. "I know. My name's Cooper."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Cooper. How long have you been onboard the Saratoga?"

"It's been about a year. I went through advanced flight training, then was assigned here."

"Have you always wanted to fly?" She stared at him, letting him know that his answers were important, not just idle chit-chat.

A look of anger crossed Cooper's face, quickly followed by blankness as he seemed to distance himself from her.

"Some judge sentenced me to the Corps because I broke the windshield of a police car."

"Why?" Meredith almost whispered the simple question.

"Some guys tried to, um, uh," Cooper didn't seem to know quite how to deal with this line of questioning.

Meredith reached over and touched his hand and a jolt of electricity shot through Cooper's body. He stared at her fingers, then looked wonderingly at her face. "You don't have to tell me anymore if you don't want to, Cooper."

"No, it's just that...I'm an in-vitro, and they were trying to kill me". The words came out in a rush, and Cooper waited for her to withdraw as so many others had done.

She left fingers where they were, gently stroking his hand. "I know you're an in-vitro, and I'm sorry that they tried to hurt you." Suddenly, Cooper grasped her hand and squeezed it, as if holding on for dear life. Meredith smiled and her eyes filled with an understanding and acceptance he had never seen in anyone else except other in-vitros.

McQueen stood at the bar and watched Cooper and Meredith, the beginnings of worry starting to fill his gut.

Cooper lay on his bunk, staring at the bottom of the bunk over his head, but only seeing Meredith's gentle eyes.

Nathan leaned over and whispered loudly to Paul. "Yeah, Cooper's got it bad."

Cooper looked over at them, questions filling his eyes. "Got what bad?"

Nathan smiled and disappeared back on his bunk. Paul leaned on one arm. "Love, Cooper. You've been stricken with a malady that has no known cure."

Cooper grunted and turned his back on the others. As he drifted into sleep, he wondered if it were true, that he finally knew what love felt like.

The officer's mess was filled with officers and members of the troop. When the 58th entered, they wondered if they would ever get a chance to eat. As luck would have it, when women from the troop left the mess to go practice for the performance that night, three-quarters of the room cleared. They strolled through the line, loading their plates with something that could vaguely be described as scrambled eggs and bacon, and headed for their usual spot in the corner. From this vantage point, they could observe everything going on and everyone coming in or leaving. Nathan nudged Cooper as Meredith walked into the mess. She stared at the breakfast offerings, gamely decided to try it, and walked toward an empty table. Shane watched, then called out. "Hey, you wanna join us? It's no fun eating alone."

Meredith smiled, "Thanks, I appreciate the offer."

A space beside Cooper magically appeared as Vanessa and Paul scooted down the bench. She sat down, gingerly placing the plate in front of her. "Does anyone have any idea what this is supposed to be?"

Paul laughed. "We think this is the 151st way to fix powdered eggs and fake bacon. I think some Chig sent them a cookbook to try and get rid of us with food."

Meredith laughed, a seductive, throaty laugh reminiscent of glamour queens from 1940s. "I've eaten at a lot of mess halls, but I have to say that this has got to be the most unrecognizable stuff I've ever seen."

Everyone laughed, including Cooper, who seemed to find his voice after losing it when she sat down next to him. They ate in companionable silence, until McQueen walked in, motioning to them.

"We've got a mission brief in 30 mikes." McQueen's eyes shifted from Cooper to Meredith, noticing how close they were. Meredith felt a chill as she saw the worry in his eyes. As she turned to look at Cooper, she saw that Shane had also seen the look of displeasure. McQueen turned and headed out the hatch.

Meredith picked up her plate, following the 58th to the window that led to the kitchen, and dropped her dirty dishes into the bucket. As they headed out of the hatch, she lingered, placing her hand on Cooper's arm. "May I speak to you for a moment?"

Cooper still felt ill-at-ease standing so close to this woman who spoke to his heart. He had never felt like this with anyone and he didn't know how to act.

"If you're back from your mission by the end of the show, I was wondering if you'd like to...um...maybe get a drink?" Meredith felt a little nervous at being so forward. It scared her a little that this Marine had touched her soul, making her remember how badly she had been treated as a child, knowing that he had also felt that pain. She didn't know anything about him, other than he was an in-vitro and he had never really had a friend.

"You want to get a drink with me?"

"No, silly, I want to get a drink with your evil twin. Of course I meant you. Is there some regulation that prevents you from being seen with me?" Meredith laughed again. He liked it when she laughed.

"Uh...sure, we could go to Tun Tavern, if you want."

"The show should be over around 11:00 p.m. Can you meet me at my quarters around 11:30? That'll give me enough time to change."

"I'll be there." Cooper headed out the hatch.

"Cooper..." he turned to look at her, "be safe."

The show that night was a rousing success; those serving on the Saratoga had exhausted their supply of entertainment, and anything new was welcomed with open arms.

Meredith hurried through the crowd of well-wishers, anxious to find out if the 58th had returned safely from their mission. On her way to the quarters she shared with Julie, another singer in the troop, she caught a member of the crew.

"Can you tell me if the 58th has made it back?"

"I heard they were headed back, but I think they ran into some resistance. As far as I know, they should be docking soon."

"Thanks." She hurried toward the V.I.P suites, almost running by the time she got to her hatch. When Julie came in, Meredith was busily tossing clothes on the bed.

"Girlfriend, what are you doing?" Julie removed clothes from her bed and dropped onto the covers. "I hate doing so many shows in such a short time. Why did I sign up for this tour? Why?"

"Because you're an idiot like the rest of us." Meredith dug into her suitcase. "What should I wear?" She stopped, hands in mid-air. "I can't believe I'm actually nervous." She looked over at Julie. "Why am I nervous? It's not like I've never been out on a date. It's just drinks. There's nothing to be nervous about...right?"

Julie laughed. "You have got one bad case of serious lust going on here. Maybe you need to lie down for a while. Oops, Freudian slip."

"Just help me pick out something to wear."

"Saratoga, this is the Wildcards. Request permission to dock."

"Permission granted. Welcome home."

Cockpits raised into the flight deck, followed quickly by doors lifting and the flight crew rushing in to release them.

Paul stretched. "I could use a hot shower and a cold beer. Anyone want to join me?"

"For the shower or the beer?" Vanessa smiled as she also stretched to release the kinks of being trapped into a confined space for too many hours.

Nathan walked past, heading for their quarters. "Count me in."

"What about you, Coop? You in?"

"I'll be there. I just gotta do something first."

Cooper rushed through his shower and finished dressing before any of the 'Cards could question him about his "errand". As he made his way to Meredith's quarters, he kept reminding himself to relax. Knocking, he shifted from one foot to the other.

Meredith opened the door and he froze, the "hi" never making it to his lips. She wore black jeans, with a black leather, silver-studded belt. The top three buttons of her black tank top were unbuttoned, giving Cooper a teasing glance at the white lace that edged her bra. She wore silver hoops in her ears and a silver cross around her neck. Black boots added two inches to her height.

Cooper said the first thing that came into his head. "You Catholic or something?"

She laughed and her whole face lit up. Impulsively, she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him, pressing close. "I'm so glad you're home. No, I'm not Catholic. One of foster mothers gave it to me, and I've never taken it off since."

Hesitantly, Cooper gently placed his arms around her.

Pulling back, she smiled. "How about that drink?!"

As they walked into Tun Tavern, Cooper could feel the eyes upon him. He was especially conscious of the fact that Meredith was holding his hand.

Cooper started to loosen his fingers, but she just gripped them tighter. She winked and led him to an empty table. Pushing him into a chair, she leaned in close behind, loosely wrapped her arms around his shoulders, and whispered in his ear, "What can I get you, Marine?"

"Beer is fine."

"I'll be right back."

Meredith handed her bar chit to the bartender and asked for two beers. As she headed back for the table, she overheard two pilots wondering why she was with a tank. Stopping, she gave them a blank stare. "Because I was looking for a man, and there are only little boys at this table." She headed back for Cooper.

"You don't have to do this. Everyone's going to be saying that stuff."

"Cooper, the only people who matter are sitting at this table. I'm not saying it...you're not saying it. To hell with the rest of them." She lifted the bottle. "Here's to a quick end to this war, and you and the 58th safely home."

She learned that he loved playing virtual reality games, he had only had his first introduction to Shakespeare a few months ago, and that he hated green beans. He learned that she liked to read cheap romance novels, her favorite color was green, and she had this funny snore that Julie swore sounded like a flock of Canadian geese.

Everyone watched as Cooper and Meredith carried on an animated conversation that tuned everyone else out. The envious pilots, the 58th, and McQueen, who had arrived unnoticed by everyone...except Meredith. She felt a chill as she saw that look in his eyes again.

They stopped just inside the docking bay.

"So this is where it all happens..." Meredith whirled around, weaving in and out of the cockpits. "Which one is yours?"

Cooper led her to his cockpit, wondering why she wanted to see it. It was just a machine.

"And these indicate all of your kills?" She stroked the stickers.

"Yeah, everyone's a Chig fighter."

Meredith leaned into look at the array of equipment that filled the console. "I'm amazed that anyone can understand this."

"It ain't so bad."

Meredith stood up and moved to the front of the cockpit, as Cooper sat on the edge of the opening. Moving back to stand beside him, she noticed how uncertain he looked. "What's wrong?"

"I don't understand any of this. I mean, you're human, why do you want to be with me?"

Those eyes looked so lonely, and they tugged at Meredith's heart. "You're human, too, Cooper." She placed her hand on his cheek. "And I want to be with you because you make me feel things I didn't think I would ever feel." Cupping his cheeks, she leaned down and pressed a gentle kiss on his lips. Feeling them part slightly, she stroked his bottom lip with the tip of her tongue before she nibbled on it. Cooper stood, pulling her up in his arms almost before she knew what was happening. His kiss was hungry...as if he had never eaten.

He tasted so good. She ran her hands down his chest, pausing at the button on his pants. They separated, hearts beating madly, trying to catch their breaths. Cooper leaned into Meredith, resting his forehead on hers. She reached up and stroked his lips with her index finger. "I've wanted to do that all night. I could get so used to this."

Cooper smiled.

Meredith swung Cooper's hand as he walked her back to her quarters. "Are you doing anything tomorrow? I mean, if you don't have a mission or anything."

"No, not after I write my report and get in time at the firing range. Why?"

"I was hoping you'd come by practice and then we could go somewhere and talk."They stopped in front of Meredith's hatch.


"Yes, Cooper, talk. It's what we've been doing."

"I thought that was called kissing."

She punched him on the arm.

"Yeah, we could go somewhere."

Meredith looked down, then looked back into Cooper's eyes. "I had a wonderful time tonight. Thank you for showing me the flight deck and the cockpit of your hammerhead and the..."

Cooper silenced her thanks by pulling her to him and covering her mouth with his own. She wrapped her arms around his neck, sliding her hands over his navel. For a second, he waited for her to pull away, but she simply pulled his head closer. When she parted her lips, her tongue gently stroking his, he forgot about standing in front of her hatch and concentrated on the feelings she aroused, feelings that were making themselves known in very physical ways.

He broke the kiss, taking in a gulp of air. Meredith stood there with her eyes closed for a moment. "Most especially, thank you for that."

"I think you'd better go in now."

"I'll see you tomorrow, Cooper. Pleasant dreams." Meredith kissed her index finger and pressed it to his nose. She eased the door open so as not to wake Julie and disappeared into the dimly lit room.

Cooper headed to the 58th's quarters, a bemused expression on his face. Everyone was asleep when he entered the room. Quietly, he got ready for bed and sank into his pillow, reliving the evening. He smiled.

Smith directed the stage crew. "Come on people. We've got to get this new set up for the show. Meredith, you and Julie need to get your costumes checked. We haven't done this number in a while and I want to make sure everything is still attached."

Cooper sat and watched in wonder as every member of the troop raced around, seemingly in a thousand different directions, yet no one ran into each other. Meredith came over and dropped into a chair beside him.

"I can't believe we're doing the fish number."

"The fish number?"

"Julie and I dress us like mermaids and sing. We hated doing it and had hoped it would die a quick death. No such luck."


"Yeah, you know, half women, half fish, bikini top that looks like shells and a skirt that hugs our legs and looks like a fish tail. Mermaids supposedly lured sailors to their deaths, as well as save them. I feel really stupid wearing that costume. After I try it on, we can get out of here."

Meredith returned in fifteen minutes. "Let's blow this joint before Smith comes up with any more brilliant ideas."

Cooper led her up to a part of the ship he thought of as his own private place with portholes that were large enough to show a wide expanse of stars. He sat on the floor, pulling her down beside him.

"Cooper, this is beautiful."

He reached over and tucked a tendril of hair behind her ear, and she pressed her cheek against his palm and sighed. Cooper pulled her into his arms, lying back against the bulkhead. Moving around, Meredith leaned back against his chest so that she could look up at the stars and lose herself in starlight. They weren't pressured to talk, but the safety she felt encircled in his embrace allowed Meredith to tell him what her life had been like.

"Sometimes, I think in-vitros are lucky to not have any parents."

Cooper stopped stroking her hair. "I've always wanted parents."

"You wouldn't have wanted mine. I never knew who my father was. My mom used to get drunk every night and come home with whoever bought her the most drinks. Most times, she ignored me; she'd look right through me as if I weren't even there. Everyone at school used to look down on me, telling me my mother was the town whore. The teachers would try to make sure I was warm enough...had enough food, but mostly they ignored me too. Then, when I was 11, she fell asleep on the couch with a cigarette in her hand, drunk as usual. They say she never felt a thing." Meredith wrapped her hands around the arm that held her to Cooper's chest. "Sometimes, I hope she did."

"Then I went to several foster homes. Most of them were okay. I used to wonder if I wore a sign when I got older that said just because my mother slept with anything that walked, I was just like her. I got the worst looks from parents who thought I was out to steal their sons. I hated living there and couldn't wait to get out. I moved to Los Angeles, did a lot of waitressing, and ended up singing at one of the bars where I worked. It was a lot of fun, and one day, Smith showed up looking for people to join the troop. That's how I ended up here...the whole sad, sordid tale."

Cooper was silent for a long time. "What did they mean, steal their sons?"

"They were afraid I'd pick some rich boy and maybe try something to get 'on the right side of the tracks'...away from everything that represented where I had grown up".

"Try something?"

"You know, ask for money...or try and get pregnant so he'd marry me. At least, when I moved to LA and, now, traveling from place to place, no one really knows me, so they don't make any judgments. To them, I'm just a pretty face and a great voice. I like it like that." Meredith turned her wrist to look at her watch. "Damn...I've got to back. The fish number is first and it takes forever to get into costume. Are you coming tonight?"

"I wouldn't miss the fish number for the world."

Having spent several long, tedious, nerve-wracking months, anything would have entertained the troops stationed on the Saratoga; they even liked the fish number.

Smith smiled at Meredith and Julie as they came off stage. "Well, it hasn't lost its touch...it still appeals to the masses."

Julie made a gagging noise. "They're just excited about seeing something new. Watching cows sleep would probably be a big hit."

"Hey, watch where you swing that light." Smith rushed off to harass a member of the stage crew.

"You seeing Cooper tonight?"

"Yes, he even laughed at the mermaid number; of course, he's only been around for six years..." Meredith smiled at the memory of Cooper's laughter ringing through the audience. Even with the number of people filling the front tables, she could pick him out in a crowd. "Julie..." suddenly shy, Meredith looked down. "Do you think you could bunk with Linda and Ann tonight?"

"Anything for you, girlfriend." Julie patted her on the shoulder and headed for the dressing room.

Cooper knocked on the hatch and was surprised when Meredith called for him to come in.

"I hope you don't mind, I was kind of hoping we could just hang out here, away from the crowd."

"Uh...sure. No problem." Cooper sat down on the sofa that occupied one side of the room.

Meredith moved about the room, straightening things, trying to get rid of some of the nervousness she felt. Suddenly she turned and looked at him with a questioning gaze. "Cooper, are you a virgin?"

For a moment, it was as if time froze. A soft red blush crept up Cooper's cheeks. "Uh, no, I'm not."

"Have you been with many women?"

"No...just one, she was an in-vitro, too...while I was on liberty. Have you been with a lot of guys?"

"Just two. My first love and my ex-fiance."

She walked over and sat down next to him on the couch. "I need to talk to you about this. I don't pick up guys at every stop, I don't tease, I don't throw myself at every cute guy in a flight suit. I saw you and it was like I'd known you a long time. You were easy to talk to, you made me laugh; I liked the way you looked at me...the way you look at me. When you touch me, I feel as if I'm melting and I know that I want to make love with you." Cooper opened his mouth, but she pressed it close with her finger. "Let me finish. I'm not doing this because you're an in-vitro, I'm not doing this out of pity because you're still practically a virgin and I feel sorry for you. I want you because you make me feel like the most beautiful woman in the world." Meredith picked up Cooper's hand and stroked his palm with her thumb. "I also need you to know that I'm leaving in five days. I don't know if I'll ever be back, and I don't know if we met at another place and time if we'd feel this way...I just don't know. A lot of people are going to die in this war, so many already have, and I don't want to regret not loving you while I had the chance. Does this make sense...I'm not sure if it makes sense to me."

Cooper was silent for a moment. "I don't know a lot about this emotional stuff. I left the in-vitro training facility before they talked about things like sex. I just know that when I look at you, when I'm with you, I want to touch you and have you touch me. I want us to be together. What happens when you go..."

Meredith smiled at him, squeezing his hand. She straddled his thighs and pushed him against the sofa with her free hand. Leaning close, she pressed kisses along his jaw, then nibbled on this earlobe. Whispering, "You know, making love is a lot like dancing, and I know guys like to lead, but do you mind if I lead this time?"

Cooper was too busy enjoying Meredith's hands to do anything but nod. She kissed his cheeks, his nose, before she came back to his mouth, drawing his lower lip into her mouth. Cooper moaned, pulling her closer so that she felt his sex press against her.

"Did she teach you anything, Cooper?"

"Who, what?"

"Your first lover...did she teach you anything about pleasing a woman?"

"She told me that the back of the neck was a weak spot on a woman..."

"There are lots of weak spots, Cooper."

Meredith got up and led Cooper to the bed. Standing next to it, Meredith grabbed the bottom of Cooper's t-shirt and pulled it over his head. Slowly, she ran her fingers down his chest, lingering at the spot where his belly button would have been, then continuing to the waistband of his pants. She smiled, then pushed Cooper onto the bed. "Forgot about your shoes." Once that obstacle was removed, Meredith pulled Cooper back onto his feet. He seemed lost, like he sort of remembered what to do, but not quite.

"What am I supposed to do?" He let her unbutton his pants and they fell to the floor.

"What do you want to do?" Slipping her fingers in the waistband of his boxers, she sank to the floor, drawing them with her. Standing up, she leaned close to press a kiss to his neck as she stroked him with her hand. "You are so beautiful..." she whispered into his chest as kissed her way across his muscles.

"I want to see you...I want to touch you...and I want to know where your weak spot is..." Cooper whispered, then groaned as Meredith's fingers continued to stroke his body.

With trembling fingers, Cooper unbuttoned Meredith's shirt and eased it from her shoulders. He just stared, as if he wanted to touch her but was afraid. She took his hand and cupped it around her breast, using her thumb to guide his in stroking her nipple. In amazement, he watched it grow hard under his touch. Looking into her face, he saw her lips part and her eyes close. "That's one spot." She opened her eyes and looked at him with emotions he had never seen. Reaching around, she unclasped her bra and let it drop to the floor.

Again, Meredith guided his hands, leading them to the buttons on her jeans. Gaining confidence with every passing moment, he quickly unbuttoned them and slowly slid them down her thighs, along with her silk panties. Leaning on Cooper's shoulder, she stepped out of them and pushed them away with her toes. He drew his hands up her legs, marveling at their sleekness, the silky feel of her skin. When he stroked her inner thigh, he felt her tremble. Standing, he paused to just look at this beautiful woman who filled him with love.

She wrapped her arms around him, pulling his head down to tease him with kisses. He put his hands on her hips, pulling her close, and she felt how hard he was getting. She climbed onto the bed, stretching out, and held out her hand. Cooper lay down next to her, reaching out to stroke her body, trailing his fingers from her lips down her neck, across her breasts, to the hollow of her belly, lingering at her belly button, before making his way to the soft down between her thighs. Meredith reached over and pulled a small, foil wrapped package off the bedside table. She giggled as she looked at Cooper. "Julie left this for us, but I'm beginning to wonder if it's going to fit."

Removing the condom from the package, she slipped it on before he knew what was happening. Cooper sank down, sighing as she took the weight of his body onto her own. Shifting, she opened her thighs and wrapped her legs around his hips.

"Home" was the word that came to mind as instinct took over and he thrust into her. Meredith gasped, arching her back, then rising to meet him as he buried himself in her. Stroke for stroke, she guided him, watching the emotions move across his face, showing him where she wanted to be touched. As he stroked her, her head fell back and she closed her eyes, reveling in the sensations that each touch elicited. Liking slipping into the sun, she paused, then let the waves of pleasure roll over her.

He felt like he was falling off a cliff into a sea of stars as he thrust into her one last time, his seed spilling into her. He rested his forehead on hers and looked into her eyes. They smiled and he placed a gentle kiss on her nose. "Is it always like this?"

"If you're lucky."

Cooper rolled to Meredith's side, pulling her with him so that she lay half sprawled across his chest. She felt his breathing slow, and looked up to see him drifting off to sleep.

As he drifted in the dusky region between sleep and wakefulness, Cooper realized that he felt warm...safe...loved...and human. Opening his eyes, he looked down to find Meredith curled up at his side, her hand placed over the beating of his heart. He placed his hand over hers, entwining their fingers. She sighed, then snuggled closer to him, wrapping her leg around his. Cooper closed his eyes again and returned to the comfort of sleep.

Cooper stood at Meredith's hatch, hair tousled, eyes sleepy, and a bemused expression on his face. "Thank you."

"Cooper, you don't have to thank me. Believe me, it was as much a pleasure for me as it was for you."

"Uh...about tonight..."

"Why wait until tonight? Practice should be over around two. I'll meet you in my quarters." Meredith picked up Cooper's hand and kissed his palm. "Go get some sleep."

Cooper pulled her close and kissed her long and hard. "Tonight." Then he turned and practically ran toward the 58th's quarters.

Neither of them saw Nathan and McQueen.

Nathan and McQueen continued walking, the silence growing heavy.

"Perhaps we're reading more into it than we should, sir."

McQueen stopped and gave Nathan an exasperated look. "You think they were playing 'Go Fish'?"

"No, sir, I don't. But Cooper's a big boy, he can take care of himself."

Nathan tried to ease some of McQueen's worry. "He didn't have any problems leaving Susie behind..." McQueen gave Nathan a blank stare. "I mean...other than the green meanies. When Meredith leaves, he'll have some nice memories."

"Yeah, well, "Susie" was just a couple of hours. I think there's a lot more at stake here than Cooper's virginity, and I'm afraid that when she leaves, she's going to be taking a lot more than memories."

Cooper tried being quiet as he opened his locker to grab his flight suit. Shutting it, he jumped when he saw Shane standing there.

"And just where were you last night?"

Cooper tried avoiding her by sliding past and heading for the showers.

"Cooper, McQueen was looking for you and didn't look to happy when none of us knew were you disappeared to...although I had a pretty good hunch where and who you were with."

"Look, I was with Meredith, okay? If McQueen wants to know, he can ask." He disappeared around the corner, leaving Shane standing there shaking her head.


He leaned back around to stare at her. "What?!?!"

"We've got a mission brief in 30 mikes."

Cooper avoided everyone's questioning looks as he sat in the briefing room, waiting for McQueen.


"At ease." McQueen stepped behind the podium. "This should be a relatively easy sortie. You'll be patrolling the Hydrus quadrant. No confirmed enemy sightings, but watch your sixes. You never know where they're going to strike. Keep your minds focused." McQueen stared at Cooper as he relayed their mission parameters.

"Let's make it happen people."

As the 58th filed out, McQueen asked Cooper to remain behind.

"Yes, sir?"

"I saw you coming out of Ms. Henderson's quarters this morning."

Cooper stood at parade rest and never said a word.

"I can't order you to stay away from her, but I can advise you to be careful. She is not a member of this crew, and she won't be here to back you up when you need it. Don't forget that she's just passing through."

"Is that all, sir?"

"That's all, Lieutenant."

As he watched their hammerheads begin the engagement sequence, McQueen made a note to himself to drop by the rehearsals and have a word with Meredith, before things got to out of hand.

Meredith's first thought was that Cooper had been hurt. Moving quickly through the throngs of costumers and stagehands, she stopped in front of him.

"Is he okay?" The worry in her voice and the fear in her eyes almost made McQueen turn and walk away.

"Cooper's fine. Is there someplace private where we can have a moment to talk?"

"Uh...yeah, we can go into my dressing room." Meredith led them back behind the stage and into one of the huge storage closets that had been transformed into a makeshift dressing room for the USO troop. She knew she wasn't going to like what was coming and decided that going on the offensive might help.

"Why do you dislike me, Colonel?" Meredith stood in front of McQueen, her arms crossed over her chest.

"I don't dislike you, Ms. Henderson."

"Every time you look at me, it's like you've just scraped something disgusting off your shoe. Why is that?" She wouldn't let him escape without an answer.

"It's been my experience that people like you come in, dazzle soldiers who've been away from loved ones too long, then leave...never thinking of those you've left behind." McQueen stared into Meredith's face.

"People like me." Meredith looked down for a moment. When she looked up, her face was pale, but her eyes burned with a rage from years of name-calling and epithets. "You don't know me, Colonel. And you sure as hell should know better than to judge."

"Look, I just don't want to see any of my people get hurt."

"This is about Cooper, isn't it? Is it wrong for me to enjoy someone who looks at the world with innocent eyes? Is it so wrong for me to fall a little bit in love with someone who looks at me and doesn't think that I'm justsomething that has been used and tossed aside as if I were garbage?" McQueen was disconcerted by the tears welling up in her eyes.

"All my life I've been pushed aside for being the daughter of white trash who slept with anything in pants and drank herself into an early grave...people thinking I'm going to try and steal their sons away and lead them down into the gutter. I've never misled anyone, and I've never lured anyone away. I've always been very honest when it comes to love."

"I'm sure that will be a big comfort when you're gone." McQueen moved to the side and started walking away.

"What bothers you more, Colonel...the fact Cooper is getting some or the fact that you're not?" There was anger in Meredith's voice as she hurled the question at his back.

Slowly he turned, looking at her probing eyes. "Neither, Ms. Henderson...neither fact bothers me. What worries me is that you're going to break his heart, and we'll have to pick up the pieces."

"Do you honestly believe that I go from base to base, ship to ship, seeking out lost souls so that I can leave a trail of broken hearts behind me? I know what it feels like to be left alone, scared, holding out a hand only to have it pushed away. I'll be damned if I do that to someone else."

"I'm glad to hear that." McQueen turned away once again, leaving Meredith to stare at his retreating back.

When their Hammerheads disengaged and settled into the flight bay, Cooper was out of his cockpit and heading for Meredith before any of the others could say anything. No sooner had he knocked on her hatch when Meredith opened it, grabbing the front of his flight suit and pulling him inside. Hungrily, they kissed, pulling off clothes, stumbling toward the bed. Fast and furious, like a wild summer storm, they made love as if they hadn't seen each other in days. When it was over, Meredith lay on top of Cooper, each breath coming in small gasps as she tried to calm her racing heart. Raising up, she leaned down and kissed him, licking the corner of his mouth. For long moments, they lay there, wrapped in each other's arms.

Cooper's watch beeped. "Damn, I've got to fill out flight reports."

Rolling off and stretching out next to him on the bed, Meredith leaned on one arm and traced her finger on his chest. "At least I know I'm more important than flight reports." Her finger stilled. "You aren't going to get into trouble, are you?"

"No, but I don't get 'em done, the rest of the 'Cards are gonna shoot me."

"Better get them done then. I'll see you tonight after the show."

After putting on his clothes, punctuating each article of clothing with a quick kiss, Cooper tucked in his t-shirt and zipped up his flight suit. With a lingering glance at her nude body, Cooper opened the hatch and slipped out. Meredith rolled over and hugged the pillow to her that still held his scent.

Neither of them told the other about their conversations with McQueen.

"Okay people, we've got to get this stuff loaded and get underway. They're waiting for us on the Ronald Reagan." Smith hustled the troop along, picking up stragglers as they slowly placed their gear aboard the ISSCV. Cooper stood out of the way, watching as everyone weaved among the props and stage sets. When everything else had been loaded, he watched Meredith toss her bag to a stagehand, then saw her search for him in the crowd. She caught sight of him and moved between performers as she climbed the steps toward him.

"So this is goodbye."

"I never say goodbye, Cooper, not to the people I love." A tear rolled down her cheek. When she reached out her hand, he swept her up into a hug so tight he thought he might break her. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she held on for dear life. When he put her down, she took off her cross and placed it around his neck.

"To keep you safe..." Meredith pulled his head down and kissed him, parting his lips with her tongue, drinking him in as if he were the sweetest thing she had ever tasted. He was drowning in her kiss, knowing that he might never see her again, and his emotions were torn.

>From across the bay, the 58th watched them say goodbye, wondering how Cooper was going to get through this. McQueen also watched and wondered how many pieces Cooper's heart would break into when she left.

As they parted, Meredith stroked Cooper's cheek with her fingers. "Be safe, love." Then she turned and walked away, not looking back so that Cooper would not see the tears falling. He watched her board the ISSCV, then turned and walked out the hatch and headed for the widow's walk aboard the Saratoga. Standing there, his fingers wrapped around the cross she had given him, he watched the ISSCV take off and head into the stars. He felt a touch on his arm and looked to find Vanessa standing close.

"Are you okay?"

"I will be."

The End

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G. Bessey