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The Warchild Series by alyse and terimaru [Reviews - 35]
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Category: Space: Above and Beyond
Characters: Cooper Hawkes
Rating: NC-17
Genres: Action/Adventure
Warnings: None

Summary: The first story in the Cooper and Madi series. Set sometime after 'Who Monitors the Birds' but before 'Sugardirt'.





Prologue

Diane Hayden sat in a calm manner at her desk, her fingertips roaming over the envelope in her hand, searching in vain for the Braille coding that would let her "see" what was before her. The people who worked with the Secretary General on a daily basis wouldn't have noticed anything out of the ordinary in this scene, but the woman sitting across the desk, June Maddox, had been Diane's closest friend since childhood and she recognized her facade of calm as sheer, cold rage. Her years as Diane's personal aide had only improved her ability to read her moods.

"Are you going to let me see what the slime sent you this time, Diane, or are you going to sit there and simmer all day?"

The Secretary General clenched her hands into fists before wordlessly passing the manila envelope to June. Her expression never changed in the slightest. June paused to look at the outside of the piece of mail but didn't expect to see any markings. They all came like this. Diane's other income daily mail was scrupulously checked before it was given to her. These envelopes demanding payment simply appeared on her desk.

June opened one end and spread it so that she could peep inside. Reaching in she pulled out the customary demand note and laid it on the desk. Today it seemed the blackmailer had added visual aids. June slowly pulled out an 8 x 10 photocard and turned it over to see the image on the front.

"Richard?" she gasped as she saw the picture. June felt as if someone had punched her in the stomach. She could barely catch her breath. Diane, already tense, made her way around the desk to sit beside the one person in the world that she trusted.

"What is it? Tell me, June. What about Richard?" Though it had been over twenty years since the women had spoken of him, Diane knew exactly to whom June referred. "June?" Diane took her friends arm and shook her to get her attention. June was the only person she knew who would dare ignore her.

June took a moment to compose herself before turning to the woman at her side. "He sent a photo this time, Diane."

"A photo of Richard?" Diane's voice echoed her confusion.

"No, it's a photo of a young man in a Marine dress uniform who looks exactly like Richard... well, except for the hair. Seeing that face was a blast from the past. I just blanked out for a moment. I'm really puzzled now, Diane. What does a picture of some Marine kid have to do with blackmail? Diane?" June turned to see her friend staring sightlessly into space and the look on her face had nothing to do with rage. It was an emotion June rarely ever saw in her friend; it was fear. "Diane, you're scaring me. Talk to me here."

"D...Describe him to me, the person in the picture." She requested woodenly.

"Well, he's tall and trim, well built, about...I don't know early 20's maybe...and handsome as sin, again like Richard. His hair is a little redder, kind of chestnut I suppose. I can't see his eye color. He's got a medal around his neck. That's about it. Diane, this is like looking at a ghost. What does it mean?"

"It means several things. First, I'll bet our little billing is quite a bit larger this time." June opened the paper on the desk and her gasp was Diane's answer. "It also means that Richard told the truth when he said he loved the color of my hair, lied when he said he wanted my features on the thing, and was gender centric enough to choose the Y-chromosome for his precious experiment. But of course you want to know what it means in terms of the blackmail right? "

Diane continued speaking without giving June time to respond. "This means that the blackmailer truly does have access to all of the records of the IVA. I kept hoping, praying, that he just hit it lucky with that one female InVitro, that he was bluffing about knowing the location of each ovum I sold to that damn facility. What you are holding in your hands is the worst thing that could have ever happened to me."

"Somehow this monster has stumbled across Richard's notes. He was the only one who knew about the existence of this...thing." As she spoke, Diane waved her hand in the general direction of the picture June still held. "I had hoped the notes were destroyed at Richard's death. IVA claimed they hadn't been located. They took his other research documents and of course the experiment."

"Diane, I still don't understand. You told me about the eggs you sold as a college student and I've got private sources on that case and as soon as we track this guy down, he's toast. We sent one of your little "blunders" to a mining colony, where thanks to the Chig attack on that cargo vessel, we have a confirmed kill. So now he's found another "blunder" . We knew there five. What does this have to do with Richard and some kind of experiment?"

Diane had to work to formulate the words through the rushing sound in her ears. All the work, clawing her way to the top, climbing over obstacles and bodies to get where she was today, in jeopardy because of a college romance twenty-six years old. Even June didn't know how stupid she had been that summer, how in love. Diane reached out and happened upon June's hand, gripping it tightly with her own ice-cold fingers.

"Right before Richard and I had that last fight, he talked me into signing a donor consent form that gave him full custody of the last ovum. He said he needed it for his research because the nature of his work demanded that he know the background of the participants. He was obsessed with creating a mentally superior InVitro. He even fantasized about creating a psychic race; he thought my blindness might positively affect the other senses of the experiment, though it wasn't to be blind . Richard talked constantly about it all but I didn't pay much attention. With the political power his father wielded IVA was powerless to stop him. Richard used my egg and his sperm and created his own tank in our image. He planned to raise it and study it. Perhaps enhance it's brain for precognitive performance. Then he died right after he stirred up the brew. IVA confiscated the experiment and I haven't heard another word until today."

June could only stare. "Diane, how could you have done something so foolish?" She asked softly. "We had plans even then for our political careers. You know how careful we were to cover any semblance of moral wrongdoing to appease those journalistic vultures. That's why we fought over you're seeing Richard to start with. Now you're telling me that this man knows of the existence of a child you allowed to be made into a human guinea pig? My God, Diane, that's cold even for you. And you signed papers. Wonderful." June's voice trailed off as the magnitude of the political scandal this could cause washed over her.

Diane turned to June angrily. "Don't ever refer to that piece of genetic garbage as a child in my presence again! That thing is an aberration of nature. They all are."

"That 'aberration' is your son, Diane. Yours and Richard's. Don't visit the sins of the father on the son." June's voice was cold and quiet. "Don't get me started on the InVitro rights issue. You can just thank your sweet stars that you had the sense to listen to me when I saw the turn the InVitro rights movement was making. Left up to you we'd be having monthly tank executions on the front lawn."

"Don't lecture me, June. Just do what you get paid for. Find it...then kill it."

Diane Hayden rose gracefully to her feet and left the office. She was almost late for the InVitro rights rally she hosted that afternoon.

~*~

"You've read the file that I gave you?"

"Yes sir."

"You know, then, why I asked you to come here today?"

"I presume that you want me to do something about the situation?"

"Yes. I don't want a repeat of the Blood Alley incident. That could have been avoided if we'd known what she was up to ahead of time."

"I'll see that it's dealt with, sir."

"I know you will, Lucas. Have you decided how you're going to handle it?"

"Quietly."

The elder of the two men, older by many years, smiled at that last comment, the tension in his face making it more of a smirk. He reached over, and picked up the photograph sitting in pride of place on the desk and examined it for a moment, his face saddening.

"He may be the last one Lucas, the last part of my son. I let my damn pride get in the way before. I won't let that happen again." He shot a keen look at the younger man standing stiffly on the other side of the desk.

"Can I trust you and your partner to take care of the details, Lucas?"

"Yes, sir."

"All of them?" He placed an emphasis on the word 'all'. The younger man met his gaze briefly, his face expressionless. His voice was equally expressionless when he finally replied.

"Yes, sir. My partner and I have our own reasons for wanting this. We've already taken steps."

The older man nodded sharply, returning his eyes to the photograph.

"Thank you Lucas. I'll leave it in your capable hands." He didn't raise his gaze even when he heard the door close softly. His next words were directed at the picture he held.

"I won't let it happen again, Richard."

The Bridge

When reveille sounded at 05:30 hours Cooper Hawkes had already been up and gone for several hours. A search of the Wildcard's wardroom yielded only a handful of bleary-eyed natural borns. At Damphousse's suggestion, McQueen finally found Cooper running laps on the track that encircled the gymnasium of the Saratoga. McQueen wasn't surprised to find him gone. Cooper, like any wild thing, never stayed in one place too long. McQueen knew too, that deep down Hawkes didn't really trust anything, including his quarters, to be there indefinitely, so he refused to get too attached to them.

Like a squirrel, Cooper had made hiding places all over the Saratoga. McQueen had stumbled across a couple of these during his own nocturnal ramblings. In the dark places where bulkheads met to form small, shallow caves the young InVitro had hidden away caches of dried fruits and MRE's - mostly desserts McQueen had noted with a half smile (Cooper had a notorious sweet tooth), packaged water, sleeping bags, pillows and usually a trove of 'found' articles from around the Saratoga. In Cooper's favourite bolthole on the upper deck of the Toga, McQueen found a metal box that held photographs of the Wildcards in various groups, a key card that opened the mess pantry after hours, a half-empty bottle of perfume that McQueen suspected was Vansen's, twenty-five dollars in earth money, and an old photo of himself with the Angry Angels he had never seen before - Cooper Hawkes' earthly treasures.

Ty was glad to know that Cooper had some secret places. They might come in handy for what he had in mind for the young man he had come to think of as a...son. It surprised Ty that he could even think the word; he knew he would never be able to say it out loud. He loved all his kids, each and every one of the 5-8, and they loved him; but none of them needed him the way Cooper did. So McQueen had taken it upon himself to do what any good parent would. He kept his eye on Cooper, made sure he was doing well with the rest of the 5-8, gave him advice on occasion, and threatened to beat some sense into him when that didn't work (McQueen acknowledged to himself that he was no Ward Cleaver).

McQueen's most recent period of parental angst had been over Cooper's education. Like all InVitros Cooper had been programmed through neural networks to speak, walk, read, etc... He was extremely intelligent and nosy as a cat. McQueen knew he was ready for another level of learning. Higher education was slowly becoming available to certain InVitros; the ones who could demonstrate acceptable social skills and a working knowledge of cultural norms. Because of Cooper's history with the Program, McQueen wanted him to gain this knowledge quietly, away from the prying eyes of Aerotech spies. They didn't need to draw any attention their way. It was fine and dandy for an InVitro to fight and die in the war effort, but Aerotech was still wary of Tanks getting educated and 'above' themselves. McQueen was again reminded that slaves in l8th century America had faced many of the same prejudices that InVitros did today and he wondered at a race that never learned from their mistakes.

Commodore Ross had known of the plan from the beginning. Ty respected his friend too much to try a trick like this without his permission. Glen Ross not only supported him, he found the tutor for Lt. Hawkes.

While Cooper had been in detox for his addiction to phylophetamines, the Saratoga had picked up the faint signal from an Earth vessel. An ISSCV sent out to investigate found the ship, a scientific space centre damaged by AI fire, and five survivors. Four were scientists who had been living on the centre for the past five years. The fifth, a daughter of one of the scientists, was visiting her father.

The scientists were kept below to recover from their traumas and to be monitored. Ross discovered to his unease that they were Aerotech scientists, reason enough to distrust the whole lot of them.

The young woman was healthy, enthusiastic, inquisitive, and bored to distraction. She'd nearly driven Ross crazy asking questions and seeking permission to roam the ship. Because he reluctantly found her and her Missouri accent so charming, he finally gave her unlimited access to the ship's library in hopes of keeping her occupied; but he suspected it was a stopgap measure.

Ross marked his desk calendar with a red X each day, counting off the days until a transport arrived on the Saratoga to return the Aerotech geeks Earthside: thirty standard days left to mark. Ty's approaching him about tutoring for one of his people was a prayer answered. When he found out it was Hawkes, he had taken a moment to weigh the consequences and decided to proceed anyway. It was Ty's instant disapproval of the young woman tutoring Hawkes that surprised Ross.

"Commodore Ross, I can't believe that you'd even think of letting her near Hawkes - her father is Aerotech! You know you can't trust those people an inch. Suppose she lets it slip to him that she's working with an InVitro, how do you think her father's going to take that? He'd report the situation so fast Cooper'd be Earthside on the next transport. She doesn't look very tough to me, Hawkes will chew her up and spit her out. I would also have to see her teaching credentials before I let her near Cooper, she may not even be qualified to teach him what he needs to know to pass the socialisation entrance exams."

Ross stood by patiently while McQueen went on for several minutes finding fault with everything from the girl's hair to her accent. He was somewhat bemused. From McQueen, this was a veritable speech. Glen let him run out of steam before answering. He and his wife had sent their children off to kindergarten. He'd been through this innumerable times. Ross could barely contain a smile as he realised he never thought he'd be going through it with Colonel T.C. McQueen, mother hen extraordinaire.

"Ty, I've discussed this with Ms. Gibson, she hates Aerotech, for keeping her away from her father - the five years in space was mandatory not voluntary - and she's an avid supporter of InVitro rights. For Heaven's sake, Ty, back on Earth she'll be teaching in an orphanage filled with the abandoned children of InVitro/natural-born parents. She believes that if the children are educated and taught social and parenting skills, tragedies like their abandonment will be a thing of the past. It's a new idea and has only the grudging approval of Aerotech. They've have given in under increasing political pressure from the world governments. Before that she did behaviour modification work with adult Invitros, trying to help them fit into society. Now do you see why I think she's the perfect choice to help Lt. Hawkes?"

"We'll give her a try, but I'll be watching them." was all McQueen would say. Glen sensed that his old friend was only a little more reassured.

After meeting with the young woman and Commodore Ross to define parameters and goals, McQueen felt the stage was set. He was pleased with the ease in which his plans had fallen into place though he was still uneasy over the tutor.

So here he was in the gym about to set his charge on the road to a future. Cooper would probably be a lifer in the Marines but with a good education, Hawkes would have the chance to advance up the ranks with an ease that he himself had missed. McQueen was feeling almost happy. Calling Cooper over to him from the track, he prepared for the last and hardest part of the battle - telling Cooper Hawkes he was going back to school.

~*~

"Screw that! I ain't goin' back to no school!" Cooper snarled, then at McQueen's incredulous look added a sharp "Sir!".

McQueen hadn't expected this to be easy but he was tired and Cooper's refusal to appreciate the magnitude of his and Ross's efforts suddenly enraged him. He grabbed Cooper by the front of his t-shirt and shoved him roughly up against the bulkhead of the ship. While Cooper was still speechless with shock, McQueen got right in his face and snarled back.

"You listen to me Cooper - Commodore Ross and I have gone out on a limb for your sorry ass! Now, we were doing this as your friends, but I'm telling you as your CO - you will attend tutoring sessions or you won't fly, it's as simple as that."

He gave Cooper one more shake for good measure before backing away a short distance. The red haze McQueen experienced was fading and he slowly gained control of himself again. He saw, too, the mistake of losing his temper. Ty was learning a valuable lesson in parenting; it's almost impossible to make your children realise that you want better things for them than you had. Knowing Cooper, he'd take this to mean that Ty thought he was stupid or backward, but he was too angry to talk it through with him right now. Damn, this parenting stuff was hard and he really didn't know the rules any better than Cooper, who was now furious and hurt in equal measure. And as usual, Ty thought with a touch of pride, that chin was stuck out in defiance, always ready to take on the world. McQueen gave him one last glare of warning and left Cooper to cool down.

Cooper swallowed the hurt; to hurt was to admit that someone or something mattered and he wasn't ready to accept that yet. He focused instead on the rage. McQueen might make him see some tutor but he couldn't make him learn. Sullen and angry, Cooper pushed himself away from the ship's wall and started to the Card's wardroom. A moment later, he turned and headed back to toward the upper decks. He was becoming too dependent on his friends when things upset or confused him. He figured he must be getting weak because lately it was getting harder to keep everyone at a distance. He had to remember that you could only survive by taking care of yourself. As he stomped up the stairs, he wondered why that thought left him feeling so alone.

~*~

Madison Gibson's first look at Cooper Hawkes' surly face told her all she needed to know about Colonel McQueen's success in winning him over to the side of higher education. Standing just inside the 'wardroom was 6-foot-plus of pissed-off InVitro Marine.

Great combination she thought, blowing her bangs out of her eyes and smiling wryly as she shook her head in resignation. Some vacation.

She ran through the mental checklist developed from experience gained in working with InVitros back on Earth. Chip firmly on shoulder... Check. "Fuck 'em all" attitude in place... Check. Aggressive emotions creating a force field of safety... Check. Body tensed and ready to fight... Check. "You can't teach me because everyone's already tried and they've told me I'm lazy, stupid and worthless" look in hopelessly old eyes...Check. Madi was won over instantly. She'd always been a sucker for that Rebel Without a Cause attitude.

"Hi, I'm Madi Gibson." she offered with her best smile.

Cooper's only response was an ice cold glare.

Well, so much for first impressions. Madi was undaunted, however; she'd known what she was getting into when Ross mentioned that Hawkes was an InVitro.

"Nice snarl," she threw over her shoulder before turning back to her work station. Time to let the kitty nose around the room a little before beginning the declawing process.

A little nonplussed at being ignored after working himself into such a fine rage, Cooper stood by the hatch a moment absently noting his surroundings. The room was dull and grey like all the others on the Saratoga, but somebody had placed some colourful things around on tables that looked interesting. Cooper bet she'd be glad if he left - she probably didn't want to do this any more than he did - so perversely he decided to stay a while just to irritate her. Since she wasn't paying him any attention, he decided to look around a little. If she didn't like it wasn't that too bad?

Then the woman was forgotten as he stopped dead in front of a table that held a whole box of antique compact discs. As if unable to believe his eyes, Cooper almost worshipfully picked up a handful to read title after title of old rock and roll songs.

Madi watched with interest as that bad-ass attitude fell away to expose the innocence and open-mouthed wonder of a child. Her interview with his friends about Cooper's interests had paid off big time. With his attention on the compact discs, Cooper didn't see the little triumphant smile playing around her lips as she watched him from the corner of her eyes - Gotcha! she thought with a feeling of hope. Sometimes she could help InVitros, sometimes they could never be reached. She had a good feeling about Cooper Hawkes.

~*~

Meeting with Colonel McQueen three days later to discuss her evaluation of Cooper's needs and his progress thus far, Madi had a different problem. She had fallen victim to the military's famous Need to Know Only creed.

"Lt. Hawkes can decode and encode any word I've thrown at him with amazing skill," she started out only to be stopped by Ty's confused look. "I'm sorry Colonel, read and write everything I've shown him... in several languages I might add. I want to stop right here a moment to point out Colonel that you should have told me Lt. Hawkes was trained as Black Ops in the Program. I have the right to know what I'm dealing with when I work with a student."

McQueen stared at her in angry astonishment. Madi was impressed, she could actually feel the anger radiating off him at the perceived threat to Lt. Hawkes' privacy.

"How the hell did you get access to Cooper's records?" he demanded.

"I don't need access Colonel, you're forgetting that my father is a scientist for Aerotech. I grew up in those labs. I know about the InVitros that were supposedly destroyed but instead were indoctrinated as assassins and black operatives. I also know that these were the only InVitros who were programmed to speak a language not that of their own country. Cooper Hawkes can speak no less than eight languages and I suspect he knows several regional dialects of those eight. So again Colonel McQueen, my question is why wasn't I informed that I was working with a potentially dangerous individual?"

McQueen stared at her hard for what seemed like hours before he finally answered. He wanted to assure her that Cooper wouldn't hurt a fly but he knew better. The rest of the Wildcards tended to treat him like a pesky little brother but the fact remained that Cooper Hawkes was a trained killer and he was potentially dangerous. No one really knew what might set him off. McQueen probably knew more about Hawkes from reading his confidential records than anyone on the ship. His file contained enough information to send chills down the spine and McQueen suspected it didn't even begin to cover what Cooper could actually do. When McQueen needed something to be thankful for he was grateful that Cooper hadn't killed his bunkmates over simple pranks they'd played on him. InVitros weren't born with a sense of humour. He decided to tell Madi part of the truth and employ a few diversionary tactics to get her off the subject.

"It's simple really, I was afraid if you knew you wouldn't teach him. Hell, I'm surprised you agreed to anyway knowing he was an InVitro. Does teaching InVitros fall into your 'good deeds of the day' file or are you attempting to atone for the sins of your father who works for a conglomerate that feeds off the misery of a race?"

Now it was Madi's turn to be astonished. She drew in a deep breath, ready to jump back at him, when suddenly she burst out laughing. At McQueen's wary look, Madi laughed even harder.

"It has just occurred to me, Colonel, that you don't trust me a bit more than that surly Marine you sent me to work with. I swear, that Cooper's a sight. Did I mention the fact that he's not spoken to me since he's been there? He'll only answer questions that I address directly to him, but he's coming around; why just this morning he started speaking in English. It's that box of CDs that's driving him nuts. He's eaten up with curiosity about them and I know he he's dying to ask to play them, but I can see a lot of you in him, Colonel. That boy's as tough as a pine knot. I so hope he breaks before he just keels over and dies of pure stubborn."

McQueen had the grace to look somewhat abashed. She'd hit the nail on the head with her observations. He didn't trust her but he did need her; and while he couldn't take credit for Cooper's personality he had noticed some emulation on Cooper's part. He'd put it down to a mild case of hero worship and was mildly flattered. Of course when Madi mentioned it in that sardonic tone of voice it didn't seem quite as flattering as it once had. Right now he had to think of something to say to appease her with one half of his mind and with another part he made a mental note to kick Cooper's ass for showing off with the languages. So much for keeping a low profile... next he'd probably be babbling about the Monitor.

"I didn't mean that as... I only meant... It is hard for me to trust. Old habits are hard to break. Cooper's damn lucky to have what he has with the 5-8, but that's an aberration. Most InVitros aren't accepted, they're feared and kept on the outside, away from the everyday lives of natural-born humans. I guess I just find it hard to understand why you're willing to help him... to want to help him and other InVitros," McQueen finished quietly.

"Colonel, to me, teaching is like building a bridge between the vast world of knowledge that exists and an individual. I can't always make a person learn but I can show him how to become a learner on his or her own and that makes it worthwhile. With InVitros who truly want a better life, it's especially exciting to watch them learn and grow."

"And," Madi drawled, "while Lt. Hawkes would like us to believe that he's not interested in the world around him, I can assure you Colonel he is starving for knowledge. I can see it in his eyes. Right now he's afraid to reach out for it but after a while, I'll be hard pressed to keep up with him. Cooper's spent his sentient years in emotional and physical poverty, but he's very well adjusted for a street rat. I think it's probably due somewhat to the strict regime of the military with the rules and team interaction. However, the greatest influence on his life has been his friends and you, Colonel." At McQueen's surprised look, Madi explained further.

"Surely you realise Colonel how few InVitros ever have the benefit of parental figures. Many of the children in our orphanages have been abandoned not only by their InVitro parents, but by their natural-born parents as well. They're unable to stand the peer pressure associated with having a half-breed child. I can almost understand the InVitro desertions, they have no idea how to be parents; but I'm infuriated by the natural borns who wilfully choose to subject their children to the horrors of those orphanages. I admire you Colonel for trying to help Lt. Hawkes. I hope he knows how fortunate he is."

Madi felt better after telling him how she felt, but she thought humorously that Colonel McQueen might die of embarrassment on the spot. She suspected that under all that intensity there was really a shy and lonely man who didn't feel too little, but rather felt too much. She changed the subject to avoid embarrassing him further.

"Now, Colonel, I hope we're clear on communications. In the future I need to know anything that might help me help Cooper, or keep Cooper from killing me with one finger if I push the wrong buttons. Comprende?" Madi asked, holding out her hand for a handshake of agreement.

McQueen hesitated; so much for diversionary tactics, but finally shook her hand. As he did so, Ty realised he would have to requalify his initial assessment of Madi Gibson. She was tougher than she looked.

"Okay, back to Lt. Cooper Hawkes."

~*~

Since Madi only had a few weeks left she decided to concentrate solely on teaching Cooper popular culture. The topic was so broad that it took her several hours to narrow the focus down to things she thought Cooper would respond to well. The list consisted of music, literature, and above all she planned to teach him some manners.

She'd been trying to make progress for about a week now. Cooper got meaner every day and Madi got more determined. They had watched what seemed like every laser disc the library that pertained to American society. He had learned of course, soaked each fact up like a sponge, but Madi knew it would take more than videos to teach him what he really needed to know about socialisation.

She attempted to work on his manners and in typical Cooper Hawkes style he did everything he could to irritate her. She had to admit that he had a real talent for it. She tried making small talk with him but he just walked around and poked at whatever caught his eye. When he realised she wasn't going to leave him alone until he responded, he answered every query with a monosyllable. How was your morning, Cooper? Sucked. Oh? Did you fly? No. What did you do? Stuff. How are Shane and Vanessa? Fine. Stubborn Tank. Bitch.

The really odd thing was that Madi loved it. She feared she was developing a terrible crush. Why couldn't she fall for sensitive men like that nice Lt. West? But she knew why. Madi hated being bored and while Cooper Hawkes might be many things, he was never boring. She also possessed a very forceful personality and she admired the fact that Cooper never backed down from her. Nathan really was a sweetheart, but she knew she'd wear him down in no time. With Cooper, the more they butted heads the more sparks they created.

So at 14:00 hours, Madi sat in her chair reading a book and anticipating the start of the fireworks once more. She didn't have to wait long.

Cooper stomped to the hatch of Madi's wardroom and beat on the door hard enough to cave it in. It really hurt his hand, but the pain felt good; it fed the rage. The trouble was, each day he came here he was losing a little of the rage. Now it was mere annoyance. Wild Chigs couldn't force him to admit that he was beginning to enjoy it. And her.

"Who's there?" Madi asked sweetly. She knew cheer and enthusiasm were two of the things sure to piss him off almost instantaneously. If she'd taken the time to think about it, Madi would have been more surprised than anyone to realise she had no fear of Cooper Hawkes. For someone who knew what these beings were capable of that was almost a miracle.

"Hello, kitty" Cooper growled.

Madi had to bite her lip to keep from laughing out loud. She couldn't understand why they said InVitros had no sense of humour. Cooper Hawkes was hilarious although he didn't intend to be.

"Come on in, Lt. Hawkes."

As usual, the first thing Cooper noticed about Madi was her hair. It was short and messy and the prettiest colour he' d ever seen in his life, kind of like gold and red mixed together. Also, as usual, whatever was on his mind popped out of his mouth.

"What the hell kinda colour is your hair anyway?" he groused.

"It's strawberry blonde." Madi said shortly, thinking that Cooper looked more tired than usual after flying today.

"Whoever heard of a blonde strawberry?" Cooper asked with a sneer. He wondered if she'd punch him if he touched a curl, it looked so soft.

He didn't know what was wrong with him, but he kept losing sleep thinking about Madi and her soft hair. Madi ignored his odd comments and his bad manners out of long habit.

"Take a seat Cooper. We need to get started. Your test results indicate that you're an audio learner. Makes sense. You love music, you can memorise something after you hear it one time, you learn better with aural stimulation. We're going to start on the literature phase today and I'll be reading to you instead of asking you to read. You'll benefit from the intonation I put into the words and phrases."

Cooper, slouched down in the seat across from her, was letting the honeyed sound of her voice wash over him. He never paid any attention to her, he just liked the way she said her words all syrupy and slow like "somethin"'. It sort of reminded him of the way Commodore Ross spoke, only softer and prettier. Then he suddenly tuned in as what she was saying caught his attention. He sat up so fast that Madi jumped back in her seat before she could help herself.

"Can you fix that? This aural learning... thing... can you make me learn like...like other people?" Cooper asked. He was thinking of the note that had saved his life in the InVitro facility. Defective. He'd never forgotten that description and he still believed it. If the Monitors said it, it had to be true.

It was the first spark of interest she'd got out of him since he'd seen the compact discs and Madi saw from the intensity of that electric blue gaze that he was very upset. Why had it never occurred to her before that Cooper might not realise how gifted he was? Did he think they'd waste this time and take this risk for someone who had no talent? Madi wished she could get into that thick skull of his to see what this man was thinking.

"If I could fix it, I wouldn't. Don't underestimate your talent, Lieutenant. I have to read everything to understand it. I have no ear for music. You can hear a concerto and hum it to yourself or play it in your mind anytime you want. You hear orders and instructions one time and they're in your memory forever. I have to take all kinds of notes and refer back to them repeatedly. Cooper, you obviously have no idea how lucky you are."

He looked totally unconvinced.

"If I'm so damned lucky then why am I here alone? None of the other 'Cards need a tutor. 'Course none of them are stupid tanks either."

"Cooper Hawkes, you listen to me. Look at me!" Madi was furious. She had to put a stop to this if they were ever going to make progress. As Cooper raised resentful blue eyes to hers, she ended his pity party once and for all.

"Cooper, you are here because Colonel McQueen and Commodore Ross care about you. They want you to have every opportunity available to an InVitro. Do you think you'd get this chance on earth? Hmm? You'd be back on the streets trying to survive just like before, no friends, no family, no one to care. You are not only the luckiest damn Tank I know, but if your test scores are to be believed, one of the most intelligent people I have ever had the opportunity to teach. Most Invitros don't make it on the streets Cooper. Half of the ones that do are mentally ill or stoned beyond help.

"You were smart enough to learn to survive. The things you don't know...things you say that you can't understand? Those are learned behaviours, Cooper. Your friends have had twenty or more years to learn, you've only had six, and five of those were consumed with living day to day. You have to give yourself some credit. You could teach them a thing or two about the streets."

"You could also give stubborn lessons to a mule! Now you need to decide right now if you want this to work or go back to sleeping in a cardboard box when this war's over. This is your choice Cooper, no one else's, just yours."

Cooper stared at her so hard she felt like he was trying to bore a hole through her head. She stared right back, with a tough nut like Hawkes you couldn't show any weakness.

Holding his gaze she couldn't help but be awed by his physical beauty; so handsome, talented, and capable, yet so guarded. McQueen had suggested she interview the two women in the unit to get some information about Cooper's personal interests. The Colonel had let them in on the secret tutoring, but not West or Wang. He told Madi the guys would tease Cooper and then he'd beat the hell out of both of them. McQueen needed Cooper to fight Chigs, not to warm the bench in the brig. Looking at him now, Madi couldn't imagine anyone having the nerve to tease him.

Most of the time Cooper kept a wary eye on her from under those heavy brows or skidding glances out of the corner of his eyes. Now with the full force of his ice blue stare pinning her to her chair she was again reminded that he could kill her twelve ways to Sunday. Tease him? Was McQueen serious? It'd be like teasing a wolf in a flimsy cage. Maybe this was why people said they had no sense of humour.

Looking into those piercing eyes, she recalled her conversation with Shane Vansen and Vanessa Damphousse. Both women had been reticent at first until she explained that it would benefit Cooper if she knew a little about him. So they told her about his love of music, his attachment to the Wildcards and his devotion to McQueen. Vanessa told her about his terrible poker face, how he never got the punch line of a joke, and that when speaking to any female but them, Cooper could barely form a coherent sentence.

As they warmed to their topic, Madi felt much like she had on the first day of school when she had taught the privileged natural borns. Anxious mothers would tell her of their child's preference for this toy or that laser disc. Shane told her to be patient with his attitude. She promised Madi that when he trusted her enough she would see why he needed it so badly; without his reserves, his shield, Cooper Hawkes was as defenceless as a child and every bit as vulnerable. Shane and Vanessa had taken one look at the person revealed to them and both women's maternal instincts had gone into overdrive.

Cooper really didn't know how lucky he was to have people who treated him like family. Madi was impressed by their devotion, but she wasn't fooled for a moment about Cooper. She knew InVitros like few people did. She was enjoying every minute of her time with this one and she'd lost her fear of Cooper, but InVitros weren't children. Cooper was an adult whose mind was catching up with his body, true; but what InVitros had to do to survive the programming killed any childlike tendencies.

"Okay. I'll make like an A.I. and take a chance." he suddenly said, jerking Madi out of her thoughts. "What do I have to do?"

Madi smiled at him with her warmest smile yet. "Well, Hon, you just listen and learn."

From that afternoon on, while Cooper Hawkes wasn't exactly a model student, he did open himself up to what Madi wanted to teach him. Madi's prediction to McQueen proved true. She scrambled every night through the ship's library resources to be sure to have enough material for Cooper the next day. He could learn at astonishing rates when he focused himself.

His progress was the most astounding she had ever seen in an InVitro and they all had great ability. The results of their work were so incredible that she found herself making notes for a paper she decided to write when she got back to Earth. Every bit of proof that she needed to convince politicians about the worth of teaching Invitros was right here in front of her.

Madi read everything she could to Cooper that would help him understand the concepts of a world he'd missed. He knew the definition of almost any word but had no concrete knowledge of what it actually was. He told her what a farm was but had never even seen a live cow or held an egg in his hand. She wished more than once they were back on Earth so she could take him exploring. She smiled just thinking about having Cooper all to herself without being watched over by the all-seeing eyes of Aerotech. Madi never lied to her father and she'd told him from day one what she was doing with Cooper. He gave her an kiss on the forehead and told her to be careful, especially of Jenkins. Bernard Gibson was a dedicated scientist and humanitarian who had total faith in his daughter. He had reason to trust her judgement.

Years ago, tugging his small daughter along with him to the labs, he began work with Aerotech in hopes of helping people, human and InVitro alike. Unlike many, he held no malice towards the InVitros because some chose not to fight the Artificial Intelligences. He saw them instead as the victims of genetic tampering gone mad and Aerotech simply as a company that became too competitive. What he actually learned about Aerotech and their IVA subsidiaries was so disturbing he aged almost overnight, his black hair turning to grey within five months. He stayed because they recognised his genius and offered to let him have free rein with any project he saw fit. Then of course there were the threats of physical violence that Aerotech used to keep their employees in line with too.

With his usual forthrightness, he told the advantages and disadvantages of the position to Madi who took the news without blinking an eye. She had been making decisions since her mother's death two years before. As young as she was she still recognised that her father, though a genius, had no common sense. She wanted him to help the InVitros she saw being born every day and decided it best for her father to take advantage of what opportunities presented themselves. Their plan had served them both well. Bernard Gibson had accomplished more to secretly help the InVitros from inside Aerotech than he ever dreamed. Madi, by association, was allowed to do her social work; another front Aerotech hid behind. Neither had any illusions about just walking away from the company. At Aerotech, you either left by the underground networks or you left in a box.

Jenkins had come to her room the previous night to wheedle information out of her. He was suspicious about her freedom to roam the ship when they were closely watched. Madi hated having to even breathe the same air as Jenkins, but she was hid her feelings for her father's sake and for Cooper's. Jenkins was a weasel. The fact that he'd found her wardroom gave her the creeps. If he found out about the tutoring sessions and told Aerotech, they'd all be in deep serious.

He also had a thing for Madi which was quite unrequited. During her time on the space station she'd bloodied his nose and taken to carrying pepper spray. Just the thought of his slimy, damp hands touching her was enough to make Madi want to shower. The thought of him finding out about Cooper had her looking for some privacy.

McQueen had her told about the hiding places. She told Cooper they needed to start meeting there and warned him about Jenkins. Instinct had her keeping his attraction to her a secret. The look in Cooper's eyes when she told him about the Aerotech squealer had Madi easing away from him and she began to suspect then that Cooper had his own nightmares about the esteemed corporate giant.

Cooper took her to his favourite spot high in the ship. Madi felt safer than she had since they'd started the tutoring. Just being with Cooper was so wonderful it made her forget about monitors and spies. Madi giggled as she fell back on a pile of soft sleeping bags that Cooper used to line his nest.

"Oh, Cooper, it's perfect! Light! I need light!" she demanded in her best queen's voice and he'd handed her his field light with a shy smile of pleasure that complemented his red cheeks. Madi thought he was adorable. She stuck a pair of antique eyeglasses on her nose and began to read aloud. Cooper loved to hear Madi read. Listening to her made him realise why he hated reading before, he simply hadn't known how to add all the sizzle into the words that Madi did. When she read to him the lyrical ups and downs of her voice sounded almost like music. She always picked the greatest stories.

She started with fairy tales and worked up to randomly celebrated classics of the past two hundred years. Cooper absorbed every word and asked a million questions. Madi kept lists of the questions and helped him find the answers in the library.

As Madi read today, Cooper watched from hooded eyes, half his mind on the story line while another part was thinking of Madi with her messy strawberry-coloured hair spread out over the pillow of his sleeping bag wearing nothing but those odd glasses. Her great grandmother, she said, had owned all sorts of wonderful spectacles. Madi had her lenses fitted for these. When Cooper asked why she just hadn't had her eyes fixed by lasers, she told him she was a traditionalist, whatever that meant. Now he thought they were cool in a retro sort of way; maybe he was a traditionalist too.

Madi, usually totally engrossed when reading a story, kept losing her place thinking how good Cooper smelled and how nice it felt to be so close to him. As they lay in their snug little indentation, she read Cooper an old children's book called The Bridge to Terebithia. He thought it was kind of silly to read a child's book, but liked it almost all the way through. He even mentally compared Jess and Leslie to himself and Madi. They had become friends after initial dislike and adversity, Madi knew lots of great stories, and they had their own secret places all over the ship.

Then Madi's voice got thick and she began to read about Leslie's death and how Jess had to go on without her. By the time Madi was through with the story she was bawling and Cooper was so upset he could barely talk.

"What the hell kind of story was that?" he asked angrily. "Look at you, you're crying like a baby. Stop it!" Madi started smiling at him through her tears and Cooper thought she must really be crazy. First she took him on and now she was laughing and crying at the same time. He hunched his back to her and stared hard at the opening a few feet away. Damn place was starting to get a little tight and he blinked his eyes rapidly, he must have got some dust in them.

"Cooper, please look at me," Madi said from behind him, but Cooper wasn't about to turn around right now. Madi shouldn't have read something so... wrenching, yeah that was one of her big words that pretty much covered the situation.

"Cooper, I'm sorry the book upset you."

"The stupid book didn't upset me," he growled, "I just don't like seeing you cry. That upsets me."

Madi just laughed, "But Cooper, I love this book because it is one of the few things in this world that can still make me cry."

Though he still wouldn't look at her, Madi sensed she had his attention.

"Do you remember how you told me you were numb to all the people dying around you, that you couldn't feel sad when they died?"

Cooper shrugged so Madi continued.

"Well, I'm like that too Cooper. My mother was killed in the A.I. wars, and so many people I know have died in this war. I look at dead bodies all the time and I feel nothing but pity. I need to read this book once in a while to remember that I can still cry. That's how I know I'm not dead inside Cooper. That's why you're so upset. You're disconnected from the horror you face each day, you have to be as a soldier; but this author made you want to cry because you're alive inside too, Cooper. Understand?"

She felt his shoulder relax a little under her hand and she waited silently. Another minute went by before his head turned slowly toward her but he still kept his gaze down. Madi started to back away when she saw something that stopped her dead in her tracks... a tear. One small tear running down the side of Cooper's face. He didn't even realise it. Madi was stunned. She worked with Invitros almost every day on Earth yet she had never seen one cry. Most professional counsellors thought they couldn't, that they were incapable of developing the empathy needed to feel another's pain.

Madi was again struck by how different Cooper seemed when compared to other Invitros. What kind of genetic material had they used that made him so original? She decided then and there to investigate this further when she got home. She'd hound her father into helping her. Though she couldn't put her finger on it, there was something mysterious about Cooper Hawkes and she intended to find out what it was.

That she would do later. This, Madi thought as she gave in to an overwhelming urge, she would do now. Lowering her head to Cooper's, Madi lightly traced the tear's trail then caught it with the pink tip of her tongue.

Cooper sat motionless, afraid the simple act of breathing might scare her away, overwhelmed by the sensations Madi was producing in him. As she began brushing soft kisses over his face, his eyelids became heavy and dropped to halfmast. As that soft mouth worked its way closer to his, his own lips parted unconsciously. Cooper wondered hazily if holding his breath had made him so dizzy or the feel of Madi's teeth nipping sharply at his bottom lip and her tongue soothing the wound. Then he stopped wondering about anything as he turned to meet her softness with the powerful force of his own desire.

What Madi had instigated, Cooper quickly took control of and Madi hazily thought that while Cooper might lack expertise he more than made up for it in enthusiasm. Before she could even take her glasses off Madi was on her back pressed into the sleeping bags by one thoroughly aroused Marine who was pressing the most delicious kisses under her chin on his way up to her ear. Madi was in the middle of a half-hearted attempt to stop Cooper when he sucked her earlobe into his mouth and pressed his erection between her thighs. The hand she placed on his shoulder to push him away changed its mind and wrapped itself around his neck to pull him closer and she surged up against him.

She ran her hand up and down his neck into his short auburn hair and brushing lightly over the navel there. Cooper responded by pressing his face against her breast and suckling her hardened nipple through her thin T-shirt. Madi almost climaxed on the spot. She was gasping for air and trying to get Cooper's belt unfastened when she realised he had stopped with his head up, listening.

"McQueen," he groaned, pressing hard against her one more time before sitting back on his haunches.

He pulled her up by her hand and arranged her in a sitting position with the book back on her lap. Madi was still in a daze. Cooper smiled as he took in her flushed face and reached up to straighten her glasses, fluff her hair and press a short hard kiss on her swollen red lips. She looked so sexy. If McQueen hadn't interrupted them his fantasy about those old glasses would have been reality.

Poor Madi, he thought, one of these days she was going to realise that he might be young in experience but he was no little boy; and he decided to prove that to her before she left this ship.

Though Madi never heard a sound, McQueen did indeed materialise in front of them. Cooper rose and pulled Madi to her feet. They'd both forgotten about the wet spot on her T-shirt but McQueen saw it right away. Though his face remained passive he went cold inside. Damn. Cooper Hawkes screwing the daughter of an Aerotech scientist. Why didn't he just tattoo a sign on his forehead that said Rogue Tank, Please Shoot Me!

"Got another mission today, Hawkes. Get geared up and meet the others for a mission brief in 15 mikes." McQueen ground out.

Cooper gave Madi a last hot look before hurrying off to his wardroom. As interesting as Madi was, and she was damn interesting, nothing in his life thrilled him more than flying Hammerheads unless it was flying Hammerheads and killing Chigs.

Ty watched until Hawkes was out of sight before turning a cold glance back to Madi. She looked right back and McQueen noticed her chin going up too. Well hell. He knew a lost cause when he saw one but he wasn't going to let her off without at least trying to scare her away from Hawkes. McQueen moved in closer until his nose was barely and inch from Madi's. Any of the 5-8 would have got chills from the look he was giving her.

"You hear me CFB, Gibson. You are here to teach, not fuck my pilots. If you mess Cooper's head up and he gets blown to space dust out there, I will hold you personally responsible. By the time I'm through with you, you won't be able to get a job waiting tables back on Earth." The very softness of his voice carried the threat better than any yelling would have, but McQueen wasn't dealing with some piece of fluff and Madi didn't scare easily.

"If that's supposed to have me running to my quarters screaming and crying, Colonel, you don't know me at all." Madi told him haughtily. "I know from talking to his friends that Cooper is an excellent pilot and I resent you implying that he is so weak that he would let something like this interfere with his work. He's the most focused man I have ever worked with when he's on a task. I refuse to let you put the responsibility of his possible death on my shoulders. If Cooper doesn't come back it will be because the odds against him were phenomenal." Madi felt her self-righteous anger deflating at the thought of never seeing Cooper again and her voice softened considerably. "I know you think this is just some game to me; but to be honest the attraction is real... and no one's more surprised than me. I've never got involved with an InVitro before. Cooper is not some pet Tank I've decided to play with or use to make a statement about how liberal I am. Let's not fight each other Colonel McQueen. We both have the same interest at heart and I would never do anything to hurt him."

McQueen gave her one more hard stare before backing away from her. He hadn't scared her but he had misjudged her... again. If Cooper had to fall, at least he'd chosen a woman with some backbone to her. She reminded him of Vansen when Shane went on defence of her favourite chick. He decided to back down on this one, he'd just consider it part of Cooper's education and hope for the best. If Hawkes fell apart after she left, the Wildcards would always be there to pick up the pieces.

Madi couldn't tell whether or not she'd reached him. He was an impossible man for her to understand, but she knew Cooper adored him and he was concerned about the men and women who served under him; in her opinion that excused him from any bad behaviour toward her. She just hoped she'd have the guts to do the same for her charges waiting back on Earth.

~*~

The 5-8's second mission of the day was on the ground. During the trip out in the ISSTV, Nathan speculated that since they were back to two missions per day maybe the lull of the past few weeks was over. That news wasn't met with particular enthusiasm by anyone. Vanessa and Paul had been sneaking some personal time together, Shane was finally sleeping well without those horrible AI dreams, and Nathan was using the quiet to work out his grief for Neil.

Cooper was especially underwhelmed. With the level of Chig activity back up his time with Madi would be shortened. Their only opportunity might be to work while the rest of the crew slept. He tried not to think about the time frame but it was useless. Madi's transport would reach the Saratoga in two weeks and then she'd be gone. She probably wouldn't even remember his name when she got back to Earth. Cooper rolled his head back against the metal wall and wondered about the ache that had formed in his chest when he thought of never seeing her again.

He wished for the thousandth time that week that he knew what to call these feelings he kept having where Madi was concerned. He'd felt something like this for Shane at one time. Now he figured he what he felt for Vansen and all the Cards was really what you felt for brothers and sisters. Cooper could never say the word 'love' out loud but he sometimes thought about it and he wondered if the others returned those emotions. For an InVitro however, those were scary thoughts, paralysing even.

When he felt the need for attention around his friends it was much easier to pick a fight than to actually risk the rejection he secretly feared. He and Shane certainly fought like siblings. He had taken it upon himself personally to keep her from getting too big for her britches now that she was a Captain by doing anything he could to aggravate her. Shane recognised his tactics for what it truly was... Cooper was just pushing his boundaries to see if they would really be there for him in much the way she had pushed her family. It all just came down to the question of how much do you really love me? One day she hoped he realised that she loved him to distraction. These people were her family now. Cooper might bitch at her every inch of the way but he would die for her, or any of the Wildcards, and she for them.

Now she was crouched beside him in a foxhole trying to hold him down while Chigs bombed the area above them. Cooper never dealt well with this aspect of the battlefield and if she hadn't been on the radio with McQueen she'd have disappeared as quickly as the other rats when they heard "Incoming!" When she was free it was no accident that the only hole with any space in it was occupied by a claustrophobic Hawkes. Since there wasn't time to dig herself in, Shane took a second to reflect that war was hell and jumped in with Cooper. A second later she was flat on her back with his Kabar a quarter inch from her jugular.

When he recognised her, he shoved her back against the dirt wall with a look of disbelief. "Damn it to hell, Shane! Don't you know better than to come up on me like that without callin' in first?"

His camo-painted face was covered in sweat and blood from a shrapnel wound to his scalp, which wasn't really surprising since he refused to wear his flak helmet, and Shane privately thought he looked spookier than any Chig. He sheathed his knife and resumed loading clips as fast as his hands would work and started making that weird humming noise as he rocked maniacally back and forth. Shane realised then that he had only stopped in here to reload and was about to jump back out. He never managed to stay in a foxhole more than five minutes. After a bombing they would always find him tucked into some rocks or other improbable place shielded from flying debris. McQueen never called him on it; he knew he'd rather die above ground than risk being buried alive in the holes.

"Cooper, you might as well settle down. There's no way we can get to the communications centre til this bombing wave is over. Now sit still... that's an order." As Cooper jumped up and sent a smart grenade in the direction of the Chig's bunkers, Shane rolled her eyes and wondered if Cooper would ever learn to say "chain of command". A second later he collapsed back down in the hole cursing Chigs as only Cooper could. Shane had never even heard some of the words and creative phrases that he let fly when his adrenaline was up. She gave up on rank and went after his soft spots.

"Cooper, you're not going to be much help to the Cards if your head is lying three feet from your body. Now stay down until McQueen radios us that it's safe to move, OK?"

He suddenly looked over at her as if surprised to see her there. "Yeah... yeah... okay." He was still wired and rocking but at least he stopped making that damned noise. Shane racked her brain for some foxhole chatter, anything to get their minds off being blown into Chig fodder.

"So how's tutoring going with Madi?" she asked as she pulled an antiseptic pad out of her own medkit and tried to pat it on Cooper's dodging head. Actually, this was a subject of much speculation among the Cards. She and Phousse had let Nathan and Wang in on the secret after they swore not to let McQueen know they told. Everyone tried to pump Hawkes, but when Cooper didn't want to talk you couldn't drag anything out of him, and he'd been totally mute on the subject around the squad.

"Fine," he mumbled. He looked thoughtfully at Shane a minute and then blurted "Were you having a nice day before we got here?" Shane was staring suspiciously at him. She probably thought he was about to go McKendrick on her. "Work with me here Shane, Madi and I do this everyday for practice. It's called small talk. Now you're supposed to say something meaningless back to me and it'll go back and forth sort of like that ping-pong game Nathan and Wang are teaching me to play." Shane laughed despite herself. Cooper had such unique view of the world.

"Well, you could tell me what she gave you when we left the Saratoga. Um... besides that peck on the cheek." Shane ventured. Cooper's face turned red under the blood and grime, but he unzipped a pocket over his chest and took out a CD case that looked really old and handed it to Shane.

"Wow," she breathed, "Cooper that's the Pink Floyds, she gave this to you?"

"Yeah, said I could listen to it with her when I get back."

Shane studied the disc in the dim light. "Momentary Lapse of Reason" she read out loud. "Cooper, this is really something... but... I thought you and Madi didn't like each other. When you first started going you said you hated it. What changed your mind?"

Cooper jumped up and Shane thought he going over but he just fired off some rounds and looked for Chigs on the ground. When he fell back down he concentrated on chambering a new round. He really didn't want to have this conversation but Shane was waiting and she had that dog with a bone look that Cooper knew so well.

"She basically told me if I wanted a better life I needed to quit feeling sorry for myself for being born a Tank and take advantage of the opportunities that I do have. So I'm trying and Madi says I'm doing good... um... well... she says I'm doing well. And...I like it now and I... uh... I guess I like her too... a lot."

Shane was floored, the Cards would be floored, well except for Phousse. She was the one who had seen the kiss on the cheek. Shane had been sceptical. She'd told Vanessa firmly that if anything like that was going on Cooper would have told her. Vanessa just gave her an understanding look and now Shane realised she was a little jealous and a little hurt. And how dare Madi call him a Tank?

She looked at Cooper's face and saw the misery in his eyes. "What?" she asked softly.

"I don't know what these feelings, these emotions mean Shane. All these thoughts keep running through my mind at the same time. I can't wait to see her again but I keep thinking about her leaving and it makes me hurt right here," he said placing his bloody hand over his chest, "and I wish I could go back to when I didn't like her and it didn't hurt but then that just feels empty, like when I didn't have you guys."

"Oh, Coop." Shane didn't know what else to say. She put her own grubby hand over his and laid her head on his shoulder. "All I know is that none of us get out of this life without feeling pain. That's part of being human." Cooper seemed calmer and Shane was about to ask something else when McQueen's static- marred voice came over the radio.

"Do you ladies need a hand out of that foxhole or have you killed each other?" Shane's full lips stretched into a smile as she reached for the receiver. "Sir, no sir! Lt. Hawkes and I are alive and well." Shane noticed for the first time that the shelling had stopped. When had that happened?

"Then maybe you two prairie dogs wouldn't mind coming up and helping us get rid of the enemy so we can get to that communications centre, Captain Vansen." McQueen suggested sarcastically.

Cooper and Vansen looked at each other, grinned, and jumped into the fray. McQueen had such an odd way of showing he cared.

~*~

Madi was on her way back from the library when she heard the announcement that the ISSCV carrying the 58th squadron was docking. She made her way towards that part of the ship, staying in the shadows out of the way, and no one paid the slightest attention to her. She was smiling at her cleverness when a medical team pushing a gurney nearly ran over her. She jumped back to keep from being hit then fell limply against the metal wall behind her when she recognised Cooper on the cart. It was difficult with all the blood and paint to even see his face clearly, but it was him; she could hear him growling at the hapless technician to get that "fuckin' needle out of his arm, he was fine!"

She wasn't sure how long she stood there before she realised someone was speaking to her. She thought it odd that she could see Nathan West's mouth move but couldn't hear any sound. She saw him look worriedly to Shane and say something, then her ears were ringing like bells as Shane slapped her face. Nathan raised his eyebrows and looked around, seemingly casually, to see if anyone else was in the corridor. He personally thought Shane put a bit too much enthusiasm in that slap to bring Ms. Gibson around.

"Shake it off, Gibson. Cooper's fine, it's just a scalp wound. If you're going to mess around with a Marine you'd better toughen up a little, sweetheart." Vansen suggested with saccharine sweetness. Now Nathan was rolling his eyes. Madi straightened up and took a deep breath.

"I think you're right, Shane, I am going to have to toughen up. Seeing Cooper like that, it just... maybe McQueen is right. I'm sorry. Please excuse me." She brushed by them both and practically ran back towards her wardroom. Nathan looked resignedly at Shane, who didn't seem at all ashamed of herself.

"Come on Shane, let's go get cleaned up. I've got to shower and you need to lick your fur. Then you can tell me what that was all about."

Several hours later Cooper and his newly-stitched head were out for the count with a possible concussion. The remaining Wildcards gathered around their table at the Tun. Shane had their complete attention.

"Phousse, I owe you an apology. You were right about Coop and Gibson. I should have believed you and I'm sorry."

Vanessa waved her apology off with a smile, "Forget it Shane, I'm more interested in the new news." Shane shot Nathan an accusing look which he managed to avoid by taking a sip of his beer.

"Well, since somebody has obviously been running his mouth, I may was well tell you what I know. Unfortunately, it's not much. He told me he likes the tutoring and he likes Gibson... a lot. What Phousse saw her hand off to Cooper was an antique compact disc. Coop was holding it like it was the Holy Grail." Shane took a moment to take a sip of her own beer. "So my guess is he's got a major infatuation... how serious could it be? She's been here what? Two weeks? Nobody falls in love that fast." Shane said with complete conviction. Then she saw the look Nathan was giving her and said "What?"

"I just think maybe you're oversimplifying things, Shane. You saw how she looked today when she saw Coop. She looked so... haunted. That is, she looked haunted until you almost slapped her teeth out." Nathan couldn't hold back a smile when he thought of Shane in that corridor.

"Well she called him a tank!" Shane exploded. The rest of the group lost their smiles.

"Coop said that?" Paul asked, obviously amazed.

"His exact words were that she told him to stop feeling sorry for himself for being born a tank and take advantage of his opportunities." Shane conceded. When she heard herself repeat Cooper's words they didn't sound nearly as bad as she'd first taken them. "Alright, go ahead and say it, I'm making way too big a deal out of this whole thing. You know... I left home for this very reason, I always felt I had to protect my sisters from themselves and now I'm doing it to Cooper. Why do I always do this?" she moaned.

Phousse reached across the table and laid her hand over Shane's. "I understand where you're coming from Shane, we've all been overprotective of him. Maybe... it's time to admit he's growing up. I've seen a big difference in him since we had R & R on the Bacchus. I never said anything to you guys but it was more than the Green Meanies and all. Something happened on that ship that changed Cooper." She smiled at Paul with extra meaning.

"Maybe we all changed a little after that."

"Well, I vote we support Cooper and avoid making things difficult for Ms. Gibson," Paul announced with a pointed glance at Vansen.

Nathan was surprised, Paul usually voted last, he always had to think things though to the point of infinity. "Paul, how do you know? We just got started." he demanded.

"I know cause I talk to her all the time in the ship's library and she's all right." Every eye was suddenly riveted to Paul.

Shane was incredulous. "You've talked to her and you never told us?"

Paul looked sheepish, "Until you mentioned Gibson I had no idea who Cooper's teacher was. Mid-twenties, reddish hair, blue-green eyes, about 5' 7"?" Paul asked.

"Now that she has Vansen's hand print on her cheek," Nathan threw in, "she should be a lot easier to identify."

At Phousse's nod of recognition, Paul continued. "I met her about two weeks ago and we really hit it off. She's funny, kinda cute," this with an evil grin at Vanessa, "smart, and um... I guess she just strikes me as someone who cares about people. I did get the impression that she wanted to tell me something or maybe ask me something. Now that I know who she is, I'm betting it was about Coop. But since she didn't know I know, I guess she couldn't."

Just then the alarm on Paul's watch went off. "It's time to wake Cooper and check on him. Who's turn?" he asked as he shut the alarm off.

"Mine." Nathan got to his feet. "Wait here for us, you know once he's awake he won't stay in there by himself," he threw over his shoulder as he left the Tun.

Shane and Vanessa exchanged amused glances, they weren't the only ones who watched over Cooper. Somewhere along the line, Nathan had lost his hatred of the "stupid tank" and the two had called an armed truce. After Neil's death their relationship began to grow when Nathan unconsciously took on the role of older brother to Coop. Shane and Vanessa discussed it and wondered if Nathan realised how much he had needed Cooper. Now they tended to pal around together. Cooper soaked up the attention and new experiences like a sponge. Shane worried that Paul might be the one left out but suspected Vanessa was keeping him busy.

Nathan quietly opened the hatch of the Wildcard's wardroom and walked over to Cooper's bunk. As he bent down to wake Cooper he noticed how bare the space above his bunk was. As long as Cooper had been here he hadn't even tacked up a photo. West figured he must not care for that kind of thing. Maybe InVitros didn't get attached to memorabilia like natural-borns. He swiftly shook Hawkes shoulder and then jumped back about four feet; the proper procedure for waking Cooper. He grinned as Hawkes came off the bunk in a flurry of motion. Nathan could never figure if he woke up first or swung first but the result was the same. As any of the Cards could tell you, if you touched Cooper while he was asleep he was liable to clean your clock and not even realise it.

"Wha...? West...? What the hell are you doin', can't you see I'm trying to get some rest?" Cooper put his hands on either side of his head and pushed as if that would ease the pain. Nathan could tell by the way he was squinching his eyes up that the light must be bothering him but he knew sympathy was wasted on Hawkes.

"Gotta wake you up every hour or so, Coop, in case you've got a concussion. Let me check your pupils and you can go back to bed." Cooper stood still but his eyes were mere slits. "Cooper, you have to open your eyes." Nathan said patiently. Damn, sometimes dealing with Hawkes was like dealing with a kid. He shined the penlight the docs had given him into Cooper's eyes and the pupils shrank like normal. "Alright Coop, see you later. Get some rest." Nathan started out the hatch only to be stopped by Cooper's suddenly anxious voice.

"Hey, Nate, uh, wait up. Let me get a shirt on and I'll go with you. Hell, if I sleep now I won't be able to sleep when you guys do." Nathan waited as Cooper brushed his teeth and washed up. He pulled on a shirt and ran a hand over his short hair in what accounted for grooming to Hawkes.

"How do I look?" He stood before Nathan with his hands held out to his sides.

"You look like hell, Coop." he said with all sincerity.

"Yeah, well I feel like hell. That's the look I was goin' for. Man, I'm starvin'... got anything to eat?"

"Shane saved this for you." Nathan reached under her pillow and threw a small apple to Cooper.

"What a sweetheart, remind me to thank her," he said as he pulled the hatch door closed. "What are you starin' at West?"

Actually Nathan was surprised that Cooper would thank anyone for anything except in a grudging way, but he wasn't supposed to mention the classes so he tilted his head to take in the shaved spot on Hawke's head. "Just checking out the new hairdo, Coop."

Cooper ran his hand gingerly over the bare spot, lightly tracing the seam of the stitches. The doc had said he could take them out in the morning. He guessed there were some good things about being an InVitro after all. He wondered what Madi would think when she saw his head. The 5-8 had docked late in the day and he had spent the early evening sleeping. Cooper decided to have a drink at the Tun then go and see her. Madi probably didn't even know he was back. With a grin of anticipation at seeing her again, Cooper crunched his apple as he and Nathan made their way back to the Wildcards.

~*~

In the Tun Cooper was greeted by smiles and whistles from the other three Cards.

"Hey, GI Geequed, how's the head?" Paul asked with a smile as he pulled out a chair beside himself for Cooper.

"Wanger! I'm alright." Cooper gave him a slap on the back and flopped down in the proffered chair, smiling shyly at Vanessa and Shane across the table. "Just thought I'd come down and have a drink before I go... uh, before I do some things I need to do."

They all shared a glance with Nathan who had been right about Cooper not staying alone and asked with their eyes if he knew where Cooper was going. His almost imperceptible shrug answered their question.

"I'll get you a drink," Shane offered and went off towards the bar.

"Let me see your head, Coop." He obligingly held his head down low enough for Vanessa to run her fingers lightly over the stitches than ran along his hairline above his left temple. "You were lucky, my friend," at everyone's surprised glance Vanessa smiled wickedly, "if you'd been hit somewhere besides that hard head it could have killed you." She plopped a tiny get-well kiss above the bare spot. They all laughed, Shane joining in as she set an icy drink in front of Cooper. He took a big swallow then made a face as he realized what he was drinking.

"Shane, you got Pepsi!" he complained.

"You love Pepsi and you don't need anything alcoholic after taking medicine, Cooper. Now shut up and drink it." She performed her own inspection of his stitches then ruffled his hair playfully before sitting down with the group. She smiled affectionately at Cooper. He was trying so hard to look disgusted at being fussed over and failing miserably. Shane knew he was wallowing in all the attention he was receiving.

His head felt like it had been drop kicked by a Chig, but as always, Cooper felt comforted just being in the middle his friends. Everything was back to normal with the Wildcards. They talked and laughed awhile, then sobered somewhat as Nathan gestured with his head and they turned to see McQueen come through the swinging doors. Things had been a little strained between Cooper and McQueen lately; that was another unsolved mystery. Now he came over to their table and stopped beside Cooper who gingerly raised his head and acknowledged his superior officer. "Colonel."

"Cooper." McQueen ran his glance around the table, nodding to each of his kids. "You all did good down on planet. Commodore Ross tells me that the backbone of enemy communications was broken. He's very pleased," McQueen informed them solemnly then he turned his attention back to Cooper who was staring at his ice cubes with seeming fascination. His eyes took in the soft drink on the table before he hooked a finger under Cooper's chin and tilted the younger man's head to examine the wound.

"You supposed to be out of bed, Hawkes?" McQueen drawled in his quiet way.

"I'm okay... Sir." Cooper's voice was just as neutral as McQueen's.

Vanessa, watching their faces, thought it was so sad that these two couldn't communicate their emotions to each other. She wondered if the others at the table could feel the fatherly concern emanating from their CO or see that Cooper was practically speechless with pleasure at being the center of McQueen's attention. Yet to look at their faces they could be talking about the weather. InVitros. She hoped Madi knew what she was getting into. He released Coop's chin and made small talk for a minute. Then seeming satisfied that everyone was accounted for and in good shape, he went off to the bar.

Cooper glanced at his watch and taking advantage of McQueen's interruption, rose to this feet. "Thanks for the Pepsi, Shane, and the apple. I've got to check on... something. See you guys later." They followed his departure with their eyes, then looked knowingly at each other as he left the Tun and turned right toward the guest cabins.

He made his way through the labyrinth of the Saratoga cursing the short hatch doors that forced him to stoop every ten feet or whack his head on the metal plates. He loved being with his friends and normally he would have stayed for the inevitable poker fleecing they gave him, but from the moment he had been back on the 'Toga he felt a strong urge to see Madi.

Despite his headache he was smiling as he came up on her cabin, thinking of how he'd left her the last time they'd been together. He knocked lightly at first, whistling softly to himself as he imagined Madi opening the door and pulling him to her for one of those kisses he liked so well. Cooper decided whatever it was he felt for Madi he liked it. For some reason he didn't understand he just needed to be near her.

He knocked again, still getting no answer. After more knocking and more waiting the whistling stopped and Cooper was frowning. The green light by Madi's hatch was proof that the cabin was occupied. Cooper was suddenly flooded with a whole new wave of emotions at the thought of Madi in her cabin with another Marine from the ship. All the uncertainties he'd felt on the ISSTV came flooding back and the hurt they caused made him furious, but determination held him there; he wasn't leaving without seeing her.

"Damn it, Madi, I know you're in there! You'd better open this hatch!" Cooper growled and this time banged on the door of the Saratoga's guest wardroom.

Madi lay in the dark on the hard bed listening to Cooper and debating abut opening the door. She'd spent the entire evening staring at the dark, trying to come to terms with the discovery she had made in the hallways of the Saratoga. Actually it had been more like a betrayal than a revelation. Madi had seen Cooper covered with blood and she knew, just somehow knew, that if he died she would want to die too. Knew that she, the most sensible, most levelheaded person in the world, was head over heels in love with Cooper Hawkes. The irony of the situation was overwhelming when she thought of the real reason she was aboard the Saratoga.

She had made her way back to her cabin and spent that time arguing with herself. Surely she was just over reacting; nobody fell in love in two weeks. Only an idiot would be stupid enough to fall for a Marine who would probably be blown to hell any day in this insane war. She wondered idly if she was worse than an idiot. She had fallen for an InVitro Marine whose life was endangered by something much more threatening than the Chigs.

Madi was appalled. She always planned on falling in love when she was thirty. She had the type of man picked out, the type of home they would live in, even the Old English Sheep dog that would play with their children. How could this happen? This was not what she had planned at all.

A sane woman, she told herself, would walk away from this situation and forget about some hotshot flyboy that she'd never see again after she returned to Earth. Once there she would be so busy with the kids... the thirty kids who would constantly remind her of Cooper... and she would never stop thinking of him, she finished solemnly.

Her mind told her to run, but her heart... her soul... knew it was too late. She loved him. She was mad as hell about it, but she knew... for her there would be only one; and whether she ran away from this or gave in to her love nothing would change that. Even if he never returned the love, even if he died. No matter how short or long their time together, however far apart they were, Madi knew that as long as she lived her soul would be intertwined with Cooper's.

She got up and opened the door.

Standing outside was a very upset Cooper Hawkes.

"Why wouldn't you open the door?" he growled. She didn't know what to say and so she lied.

"I was asleep," she said. "You woke me up."

His gaze took in the darkened room, and she could see that he'd decided to believe her, a fact she was grateful for. The last thing she wanted to do was to face an angry Hawkes, given the way that she felt at the moment. Scrub that, the last thing she wanted to do at the moment was to hurt him. She'd recognised that look on his face when she'd opened the door. That wary hurt look which told it's own story. He'd been afraid that she wouldn't open the door because she didn't want to. That she didn't want to see him. Which in it's own way was true. Although she doubted that he'd ever understand why.

He still hovered in the doorway, peering into her face, trying to gauge her mood, still not certain of his reception. The delay in her opening the door had dented his confidence, never very great at the best of times. The fact that her face was expressionless did nothing to reassure him. He couldn't tell if she was pleased to see him or not. He began to wonder if she regretted what had happened that afternoon, or even worse whether he'd imagined the whole thing.

He smiled shyly at her. "Hello, kitty," he said.

Her face broke into a smile. God he was cute when he looked like that. Knowing that she was going to regret it, she fixed him with stern gaze and asked, "Well, are you going to stand out there all night."

At the sight of that smile, he felt a warm glow start deep inside him. Again he wondered what you called the way she made him feel. What you called the way he felt about her. His mind shied away from the word 'love'. Although he was a lot more open, emotionally, than McQueen, he still had difficulty with that word, with that concept. All he knew was that seeing that smile made him feel comfortable, made him feel at home, another concept with which he was unfamiliar. Like being with the 'Cards, yet different somehow.

Realising that he was still standing in the doorway and that she was staring at him with a slightly quizzical smile on her face, he wiped the goofy smile off his own face and assumed his normal surly expression and pushed past her into the room.

There was an uncomfortable silence for moment. Not being able to think of anything intelligent to say, he stated the obvious, "I woke you up?"

"Uh huh. I was asleep." Real intelligent remark, Madi, she thought to herself viciously. Now you sound as tongue tied as he normally is.

"I figured you had to be if I woke you up." To hide his nervousness, he began to pace around the room, nosing into corners, picking up objects and examining them, not looking at her. He reminded her of nothing so much as a cat in new surroundings. Now he's the one who should be called kitty, she thought.

The thought made her chuckle. He turned around, startled, to look at her. That action, and the look he was shooting at her, reminded her of her cat even more, and she laughed even harder.

His eyes narrowed, as he tried to figure out what he'd done to amuse her so much. He didn't know what it could have been, but the thought that she was laughing at him made him feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. And angry.

"What's so funny?" he snarled. She stopped laughing as she caught sight of his face. He was glaring at her and his cheeks were starting to go red in embarrassment.

"I'm sorry," she giggled. "It's nothing."

He wasn't soothed by that. He was still glaring at her, and she could feel that walls slamming into place. I've got to head this off, she thought.

"It's just that when you walked into the room, you reminded me off someone." He looked a little mollified by that statement, but not much. He was still looking at her suspiciously.

"Who?"

Oh oh, she thought. He's not going to be happy about this. She tried to put him off. "It's not important."

"Then why were you laughing?"

I've hurt his feelings, she thought. If I tell him, it might hurt him more. But, if I don't... Damn his In Vitro pride!

She decided to bite the bullet. "It's because you called me kitty," she explained. "But when you walked into this room, you immediately started to examine everything suspiciously, and you reminded me of a kitty. My kitty, to be exact."

He frowned while he absorbed this, trying to decide whether to be insulted or not. She watched his face, as suspicion battled with curiosity. Just like her cat.

Eventually, curiosity won, as she knew it would. "You have a cat. What's it called?"

She considered him for a moment and then took the plunge. "I'll make you a deal. I'll tell you about my cat if you answer a question for me." He immediately started to look suspicious again. Damn, he was hard work. "Don't worry," she sighed. "I'm not about to invade your privacy. It's just something I feel that I'm entitled to know. Deal?"

"What?"

"Deal?" she persisted. He stood there with his arms crossed defensively across his chest. Some small part of her mind dwelled on the sight of those biceps swelling beneath the sleeves of his T-shirt. Down girl, she thought. You are not at the mercy of your hormones. After a brief consideration she amended that thought. The hell you're not.

His eyes were weighing her up. Those beautiful eyes. Madi, she told herself firmly, you have got to get a grip or you will really be in trouble. Any more of this and you'll be ripping that T-shirt right off him. That particular thought made her knees go weak, and a tight queasy feeling hit the pit of her stomach. Dammit Madi, you're behaving like a love sick school girl. You've got butterflies. At your age. And about a six year old.

Cooper didn't seem to have noticed anything amiss, a fact for which she was profoundly grateful. Finally he answered her with a gruff, "Deal." He frowned again. "Don't make me regret it."

She laughed. "Don't worry Cooper. I'm quite aware of the fact that I couldn't make you answer anything you don't want to. You're quite capable of breaking me in two if I get too presumptuous."

That adorable little crease appeared on his forehead between his eyes, as he frowned once more. "Madi, you know I'd never hurt you."

His words sent a delightful shiver down her spine. She swallowed the large lump that seemed to have formed in her throat, and realised with surprise that she was having to fight hard not to cry. She tried to inject a note of normality into her tone.

"My cat's name is Schrodinger. As in Schrodinger's cat. Although we call him the Moog for short. I don't know why. My father picked it for him. I've no idea what it means, but it seems to suit him. He's black and white, fluffy, and curious as hell. Why do you call me kitty?"

He seemed taken aback by the sudden change in topic, and then a shy smile crept across his face.

"Because that's what you remind me of. When you're curled up reading a book, with your hair all ruffled and wearing those ridiculous glasses, you remind me of a small fluffy golden red kitten I once saw. It was in a pet shop window in Philadelphia, and too expensive. Besides, what would I have done with a kitten, on the streets. I thought it was cute, though." Somehow he'd made his way across the room and was standing just in front of her. His index finger reached out and started to gently stroke her bottom lip. His voice dropped a register, until it was so low she could barely hear it as he added in a whisper "I think that you're cute. Especially in those glasses. When you're in those glasses, I wonder what it would be like to see you in just those glasses. In those glasses and in my bed."

As the meaning of his words sunk in, she seemed to lose the ability to breath. She also seemed to lose the ability to think. She could only stare into those beautiful blue eyes, mesmerised as his face closed the distance between them. Some small part of her mind, that small part that was still capable of rational thought, wondered where the hell Cooper Hawkes had learnt to talk so seductively. To be so seductive.

Suddenly she was on the other side of the room, unsure as to how she'd got there and breathing raggedly. She looked over to him, and saw him standing where she'd left him, watching her with an startled look. She must have run, she thought. Without thinking about it. She watched the hurt blossom on his face. I did that, she thought. I caused that pain. Maybe McQueen was right. Another part of her brain derided this thought.

"Madi," his voice was low and uncertain. "Did I do something wrong? I thought that after this afternoon... I thought you liked me." His voice trailed off, miserably. She'd never seen him so vulnerable, so uncertain.

"I do like you Cooper. I like you a lot. I'm just scared, that's all."

"Scared. Of me?" He sounded more upset and miserable, if that was possible. "I said that I wouldn't hurt you. Didn't you believe me?"

She hastened to reassure him. "Of course I believe you Cooper. It's not you who scares me. It's me."

He looked even more confused. She took a deep breath. "I'm scared of the way you make me feel. I saw you today. I saw when they brought you back to the 'Toga. I'm scared of the pain that I felt when I saw that you were hurt." She took a deep breath, surprised that she'd opened up to him that much. What is it about you, Cooper Hawkes, that lets you get under my skin so easily.

"But, I'm okay," he burst out. "I'm fine. The doctors said I've just got a mild case of concussion, that's all. That I'll be right as rain in no time."

"But what about next time," she burst out, agitated. "And the time after that, and the time after that. What if it's not all right then."

He frowned again. "But what about you?" he asked. That comment threw her off balance. She gaped at him, unable to understand what he could mean. "What about the attack on the station. What if the AI s had killed you then. What if they do it tomorrow. What if you get sick?' What if..."

"What if I get run over by a bus?" she laughed. His face relaxed into a smile.

"Yes, what if you get run over by a bus. How do you think I'd feel?"

"How would you feel?" she asked softly, moving closer to him. Her eyes captured his, not letting him escape. "How would you feel, if something happened to me?"

He looked scared again, and then a look of determination crossed his face as he returned her stare steadily. His voice was low as he replied, "I think I'd want to die."

That simple statement shook her to the core. Reaching up, she caught hold of his face and pulled it down so that their lips could finally touch. Their kiss was gentle at first, as though they were both still tender after the revelations that had been made, and then deepened. A jolt of electricity shot through her body, as his tongue parted her lips and caressed hers. After a moment she broke their kiss, and sighed raggedly as she rested her head against his chest.

"Now where did you learn to kiss like that?" she breathed. She heard, and felt a deep rumbling by her ear as he chuckled.

"Did you like it?" he asked innocently. "I kinda made it up."

She looked up into his face, which was flushed with pleasure. Oh god, she thought, I'm in trouble if he can make that up. What other surprises does he have in store? Meeting his eyes, she added words to what she'd already confirmed physically. "I liked it."

He lowered his head, and kissed her again, his hand moving behind her head to deepen the kiss. As he ran his fingers through that red gold tumble, she could swear she heard him purr.

His other hand began to move down her back, stroking gently, until it reached the small hollow above her buttocks. He pressed her against him, and she could feel how aroused he was. His mouth slipped from hers, as he sighed into her ear. For a moment, neither of them moved but just stood there, their arms wrapped around each other, their breathing ragged. He began to press small kisses along the side of her face, along her temple and hairline. She leant into his chest, enjoying the sensation of his lips against her skin, breathing in the scent of him. Suddenly the feel of his T-shirt beneath her hands was an irritant. She wanted to feel his warm skin sliding under her fingertips, not rough cotton.

She broke contact with him, and tipped her head back to look deep into his eyes. Capturing his gaze, she moved her small hands to the top off his trousers, and began to pull his T-shirt out. She ran her hands up underneath the material, her heart warming as she finally felt his smooth warm skin. His eyes closed to half mast as his breath caught in his throat. With a low guttural moan, he pulled her to him, pressing his lips hard against hers, slipping his tongue deep into her mouth to plunder her sweet depths. This time it was him who broke contact, stepping back slightly so that he could finish what she started.

She felt her heart lurch in her chest, as she let her gaze travel over that torso. He was so beautiful. She wondered if he had any idea how many women on this ship would give anything to be in her position at this moment. Or how many men for that matter. She knew that there was a great deal of interest in this handsome InVitro standing in front of her. She'd heard talk in the Tun, in the passageways and even on one occasion, the queue in the mess. But now, she was sure he had no idea. He was so innocent in that respect. Even now, he was looking at her uncertainly as she hesitated, as though he was afraid somehow that she was disappointed.

She looked back up into his face and smiled. A shy answering smile appeared on his own face. She ran her fingertips lightly over his chest.

"Cooper," she breathed.

"Hmmm?" He was lost in the sensations her stroking was causing.

"Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?" His eyes widened suddenly as her words sank in. He began to look suspicious again, as he wondered if she was teasing him. If she was, he didn't think that that was exactly fair. He hadn't been teasing when he'd told her how much he liked her hair. He'd never said anything like that to anyone before, not even Shane.

"Me?"

She laughed softly. "Do you see another Cooper Hawkes in this room?" she teased. "Cos I don't. Yes, you. You really don't do you? You've no idea what just the sight of you can do to me. I can't concentrate when you're around. I want to know what your arms feel like around me. I want to feel your kisses." Her voice dropped even lower as she moved closer towards him. "I want to feel you inside me."

She took hold of one his hands, and moved it towards her. "Do you want to know what you do to me, Cooper? Do you?" She placed his hand on her breast, moving the thumb so that it gently stroked against her erect nipple. He watched, mesmerised, his eyes moving between her face and his hand. Her eyes slid shut. "That's what you do to me, Cooper. That's what you do just by kissing my mouth."

She removed the hand which was holding his in position, and leaned into him. He left his hand there, and then brought the other one up to touch her other breast. She sighed.

"I do that?" His voice was awed. "Just by kissing you?"

"Mmmm... yes"

"What else do I do?" The question was an innocent one. She forced her eyes open to look into his delighted face.

"You make me feel hot and flushed," she smiled. "And like I'm wearing way too many clothes."

A cheeky smile shot across his face. "I think we can do something about that." His hand reached out to catch hold of the top button of her shirt. For a second he paused, searching for reassurance in her face. I've got to put a stop to this uncertainty, she thought.

"Cooper," she said firmly. His fingers relaxed on her button, but didn't let go, not yet. She brought her hand up to cover his. "I'm not going to change my mind about this. I'm certain that this is what I want. I'm certain that it's you I want. I don't play games like this, and I'm not going to lead you on, or tell you things that I don't feel. I'm sure... So I guess the question is are you?"

He hesitated for a minute, and her heart sank. He refused to meet her gaze, his eyes dwelling on his fingers as they twisted the button he held.

"Cooper, what is it?" She tried to keep her voice gentle, tried not to let him know how wound up she was, how much she just wanted him to press himself hard against her. A sudden thought occurred to her. "Cooper, have you ever... been... with someone? Anyone?"

He still refused to meet her eyes. She released his hand, and placed her fingers under his chin, forcing his head up so that he had to look at her. He still fought for precious seconds, before giving in, less than gracefully.

"Have you?"

"Would it matter?"

"If it matters to you, then yes. Who was she?"

"I don't know if it did." She was confused. How could he not know? But he continued, "It was on the Bacchus. There was this girl... this InVitro. We were both pretty out of it. One minute I was kissing her shoulder, and then... I guess we both passed out." He paused for a second. "I thought that she liked me."

She had to strain to hear that last sentence. "Didn't she?"

He muttered something which she forced him to repeat. "West paid her." His tragic blue eyes met hers voluntarily, as he poured out his woe. "I really thought she liked me. But she told me that she was only with me 'cos West paid her. I didn't know, I swear I didn't." He dropped his head again. "I hope nothing happened. I didn't want it to be like that, cos someone took pity on me and paid for it."

White hot anger shot through her. When she got her hands on Lieutenant Nathan West, well lets just say that they'd have to identify him by his dog tags. But right now, she had an upset, semi naked and very sexy marine to deal with.

"Cooper, I'm with you because I want to be. Because you make me go weak at the knees. Because I want to see the rest of that gorgeous body that you're hiding under those fatigues." That brought a smile to his face. "No-one paid me. To tell you the truth, I'd probably give anyone anything just for the chance to feel you kiss me again... and know you meant it. Okay?"

"'kay."

"Now, for God's sake Cooper, help me get undressed! Before I go crazy with lust here."

He laughed at that, his fingers now, finally, wrenching buttons out of button holes. One got caught, forcing her to gasp, "Coop, just rip it! Please!"

Finally, his hot chest was pressed against her, his mouth moving over her neck, and then downwards, lower and lower until his teeth grazed her nipple beneath the fabric of her bra. She thought that she would die from the pleasure of it. She strained against him, desperate to maintain this contact, wanting more. At last his searching hands found the fastening at the back, and her bra joined her shirt on the floor as his mouth fastened directly on aching flesh. A small, very small, part of her wondered where he picked up this trick, whether he'd just made this up.

Her hands fluttered downwards, across his chest, to stroke him through the fabric of his trousers, and felt a thrill of satisfaction as he jerked against her hand. His mouth broke contact with her breast, as he brought his face up to meet her mouth. He picked her up as lightly as if she weighed nothing at all, and she wrapped her legs around his waist as he carried her to the bed. Seating her upon it, he slid his hands down from her waist, over her legs to her feet. He undid her shoes, and removed both those and her socks.

Oh God, she thought, as he ran his hands back up her legs, this time on the inside of her thighs. Then she became incapable of even that much thought as he pressed his mouth against her, through the fabric of her jeans.

He almost ripped the buttons off her jeans as well, in his hurry to rid her of that garment. She sobbed in relief as he managed to pull her jeans and her knickers off together. Now she was completely naked, and more than eager to have him join her in that condition, but as she struggled to sit up, he pushed her firmly back onto the bed, and returned his mouth between her thighs. As his tongue flicked around her clitoris, she came virtually immediately, her hands twisting the sheets beneath her. He felt her twist beneath him and eventually he stopped, and she shuddered to a rest, her hand twisted in his hair.

As soon as she was capable of rational thought again, she looked down to where his head rested on her thigh. She sat up and pulled him to her, gratefully kissing him hard, tasting herself on him. It had been far too long.

Her voice was throaty as she finally spoke to him. "Don't tell me. You made that up too?"

He smiled that heartbreaking smile at her, "I just wanted to know what you tasted like. If it tasted as sweet as your mouth."

"Would you mind..." her voice trailed off, unsure of how to continue. "Would you mind if I tried?"

He paused considering it, and then shot her a devilish glance, as he ran his hand over her stomach. "I don't know, Madi, I think you might break your back."

"Cooper Hawkes!" she yelped, startled as he collapsed laughing at her feet. Reluctantly she started to laugh with him, unable to stay either shocked or stern with him for long. "That wasn't what I meant and you know it!"

He stood up and pulled her into his arms, rocking her slowly back and forth as he just luxuriated in the sensation of being held by a wonderful, warm human being who wanted to be with him. With him. Cooper Hawkes. Dumb, surly, ignorant tank.

Her hands felt wonderful as they slid over his skin, down over his chest and stomach, to once again caress him through his trousers. He liked it when she did that. It made his heart pound in his ears. He wondered whether she still wanted him 'inside her' as she said she did earlier. Just the thought of that made his knees go weak. He wondered is she'd make the same noise as she had when he was kissing her... he wasn't sure what to call it. He's heard other marines use words for that part of a woman's anatomy, but he thought perhaps Madi wouldn't like him calling it that. He had a feeling, from Shane and 'Phousse's reactions when they heard those terms, that they weren't nice. Like Tank. When he'd been kissing her... there. Where she tasted even sweeter than her mouth.

Her fingers started to unfasten his trousers and then snuck inside to stroke him directly. He gasped and tightened his hold on her. Nothing in his short, sad life had felt so good as her fingers just then. Nothing made him feel so good as being here with her did.

He couldn't tell her that then, feeling suddenly shy, which was odd when you considered what she was doing. Instead, he caught her eyes with his, and then leaned in to kiss her, trying to tell her with his mouth what he couldn't put into words. She relaxed into his kiss, her tongue stroking his, while her hand still caressed him. Then she broke the kiss with a sigh, and smiling up at him, said simply, "I still think that you're wearing too many clothes, Cooper Hawkes."

He watched her with hooded eyes, as she undid his trousers completely, pulling them over his hips and then gently pushed him down onto the bed so that she could remove them completely. His green marine issue boxers also joined the pile of clothes in the corner. She pushed him flat on the bed, as she started to kiss her way down his body, beginning with his face. Light butterfly kisses were placed over his cheeks and lips and eyelids, then harder kisses on his neck. Sometimes her teeth caught hold of his skin in a sharp nip which made him catch his breath in his throat, before kissing the brief pain away. By the time she'd reached her ultimate goal, he was thoroughly aroused.

This time it was his turn to grasp the sheets, as her tongue flicked up and down his engorged member. He thought that he would go out of his mind as she slid his length inside her mouth. Dimly, he realised that he was saying her name over and over again. He was close to climax, as he finally summoned the strength to break free. She looked disappointed, until he grabbed her and almost threw her down on the bed beneath him. He hugged her tight and muttered in her ear, "I want to be inside you too, Madi. Please?"

The sound of that request aroused her afresh, as he pressed her into the mattress, and sank his mouth back onto hers. He was poised to enter her, when rationality reasserted itself.

"Cooper, wait!"

He froze, as she gasped, "Condom."

"Wha?" was his incoherent reply, still lost in the sensations she caused.

"Unless you want to hear the patter of tiny feet in about nine months, my darling, we'd better be careful."

Darling. He felt a shiver of pleasure pass through him that had nothing to do with sex. No one had ever called him darling before. And he liked the thought of kids just like Madi, but for the moment he let her roll the sheath over him, her fingers arousing him further, if that was possible, as she did so.

Sinking into her was like coming home. There was a sense of completion there that he'd never felt before. He looked deep into her eyes, watching as they changed colour from deep blue to green as he moved deep inside her. He felt her tense again, as he thrust deeper and deeper, and then it was her turn to call his name as she shuddered violently, her nails digging deep into his back.

He felt her convulse around him, and that was enough to trigger his own climax, gripping her tightly as he felt himself explode with pleasure.

He lay with his arms wrapped tightly around her, unable and unwilling to move. For the first time in his life he felt... safe, that was the word. He could feel her heart beating underneath his ear, a comforting sound. 'I did that,' he thought. 'I made her heart beat that fast.'

"Well, lover," she panted out of breath. "Would you object to having that as your first time?"

He smiled sleepily up at her. "Lover? Is that what we are?"

She raised herself up on her elbows and took a long look down the length of their naked bodies, still entwined, then fell exhausted back onto the bed.

"After careful consideration, I think that we can safely say without any fear of contradiction, that we are indeed, without a doubt, lovers," she giggled.

"Lovers," he sighed, as he snuggled deeper into her embrace. "I like the sound of that."

"You didn't answer my question?" she smiled.

"Hmmm?"

She laughed. "Whether you'd be happy to have that as your first official time?" Please let him say yes. Please.

He raised his head from her chest and grinned at her. "I liked it. It was fun. Can we do it again?"

She howled with laughter. "You are insatiable. You want to try again so soon? I think I've created a monster!"

He rolled on his back, pulling her with him. She nestled up against his chest, wrapping her free arm around him.

"I'm glad you enjoyed it sweetheart. And yes, I'm sure we can do it again. Just give me a little time to recover."

Sweetheart. He liked that too. He wrapped both arms even tighter around her and pulled her up so she was lying on top of him. As he kissed her, she could feel him stirring against her thigh. He ran his hands down her back, before bringing them to a rest on her buttocks to give her the full benefit of his erection. She laughed against his throat.'

"You weren't kidding, were you lover? I'm afraid I'm going to have to have a bit of a breather. I'm a little sore right now."

He let go of her abruptly, his face concerned. "Did I hurt you?" She hastened to reassure him.

"No, honey. I'm just a little out of practice, that's all. It's just... using muscles you haven't for a while. I just need a few minutes is all. Then I'm all yours. You didn't do anything wrong. On the contrary," she stretched luxuriously. "You're just a little... bigger than I expected, than I'm used to."

"Is that a bad thing? Does that mean you don't want to do it again?" She had to laugh again. God, she thought looking into that anxious face, I love this man so much. The thought startled her anew.

"Coop, you must be the only man ever to worry about being too big." She pressed herself against him again. "I think that you're just the right size." A wicked voice inside of her added 'And you know how to use it. Now where did you learn that, my luscious six year old.'

She kissed him deeply, suddenly aroused, not wanting to was any longer, conscious that they only had two weeks, and that every second counted.

"Oh God, Coop. Do you have any idea how you make me feel? You reach places in me, no-one else has." She rolled off him, and lay by his side, running her fingers lightly around his nipples. "I think I'm in love with you."

He watched her hands intently. Then reached out to gently stroke her breast. "Mad?" His voice was hesitant. "What does it feel like? Love I mean?" Once again he seemed unwilling or unable to meet her eyes. "Is it confusing? Does it make you feel happy one minute and miserable the next? Do you feel that you'll burst? When someone smiles at you... and you feel kinda... real good, like nothing but 'em smiling at you matters... is that love?"

"It could be. Have you felt like that?" Again, a voice in her head went 'Please, please.'

"I kinda felt like that about Shane... once." Her heart sank. "But I don't anymore. I mean, she's real important to me... but not in the same way." Please don't let me cry. It's only been two weeks. It's too early. He's too young. There's time. There's plenty of time.

But in her heart she knew there wasn't. This war could take him from her at any time. Tomorrow. And then it would be too late. His finger continued to make swirling patterns on her breast, like a child doodling. He glanced up at her, nervously, then refocused his attention on his finger. His voice dropped down to a whisper. "I don't feel that way about Shane anymore. I haven't for a while. But... I think, I guess... I feel that way about you."

A tear escaped and ran down her cheek. He traced it with his finger, fascinated. "Madi, did I do something wrong?"

"Cooper, make love to me please. Now? I love you so much. I want you to feel how much. I want to feel how much you love me." Those last words broke on a sob. He moved on top of her, pausing for a moment to reach for a condom, smiling at her while he did so. He learnt quickly.

She sighed as he gently entered her, so carefully this time, determined not to hurt her again. Never again. His movements were slow and steady, gradually bringing her closer to orgasm. She could feel his lips on her face, kissing her tears away, and then heard him whispering in her ear, "I love you, Madi, I love you so much." over and over. His dog tags were brushing against her nipples, arousing her further and she felt her orgasm creep up on her, the warmth in her belly growing second by second and she finally climaxed to the sound of his love.

When she came back down to earth, she realised that he was still hard inside her. He stared deep into her eyes, smiling that so sweet smile, the one that made her heart ache and made her wet.

"Cooper," she whispered.

"We can stop if you want."

"Oh no, Coop. Don't stop. Don't ever stop. I love the feel of you inside me."

He began to move again, harder this time, more urgent. She dragged her nails down his back, meeting his thrusts with thrusts of her own, driving him on. This time she whispered in his ear, telling him how much she loved him, telling him exactly how he was making her feel, what he was doing to her. She could feel that he was getting harder, could feel that he was close, and the thought of that, the thought of feeling him come inside her again, was enough to cause a fourth orgasm, the most powerful yet. She screamed his name, not even aware that she had done so. She dug her nails deep into his back, as her body twisted and writhed as the convulsions within her grew in strength. Dimly, she was aware of him tensing and calling her name as he joined her in ecstasy.

He pressed kisses all over her face, whispering her name over and over. She became aware of a wetness on her cheeks not of her own making and realised that he was crying too, all of those years of loneliness finally being released. Oddly, he didn't make a sound. She kissed his tears away, and told him she loved him again. Finally, they fell into an exhausted sleep, still wrapped in each others arms.

~*~

Cooper sat on the edge of the bed and smiled down at Madi's sheet-swaddled form. He was learning that his new lover liked to hog the covers. She looked like a mummy except for the mop of red-gold hair sticking out in a messy, curly tangle. His smile deepened at the thought of the night before. Not even his banged-up head had slowed them down. He rubbed his hand over her rounded bottom and leaned down where he thought her ear might be. "Madi, I have to go." Cooper inhaled her warm, sleepy, morning smell like it was perfume and wanted nothing so much as to crawl back into bed and spend the day holding her. He was fascinated with the satiny texture of her skin. He pressed a kiss to her hair, feeling a thrill at being able to touch her so freely. He had never before been afforded such a luxury.

Madi was dreaming she was home in her own bedroom. When Cooper spoke she lifted her face out of the pillow and looked around in confusion. Propping up on her elbows she tried to lift both eyelids at the same time but only succeeded in getting one halfway open. Squinting at Cooper's bright-eyed and bushy-tailed look, Madi groaned "Oh my stars" and dropped her head back down. Just her luck, he was one of those revolting morning people. Cooper smiled and shook his head. He knew about this, Paul Wang woke in the same manner. Madi would find out soon enough that he always ran in high gear, probably because of something they'd done to him at the facility. He only needed about four hours of sleep a night, though the endless sorties could even wear him down.

"I should be back around 10:00 hours, Mad. We're running a short sentry this morning and then we fly again this afternoon. Don't forget our lesson."

He heard her mumble, "Wha time is it?"

"It's 0400. I've got thirty mikes to shower and get suited up." He was on his way out the door when he was stopped by her soft voice. "Cooper." She was smiling slightly but he could see the worry in her sleepy eyes. "Be careful. I love you." He strode over to the bed and gave her a hard, quick kiss and then he was gone.

Madi took a second to switch her pillow for the one Cooper had slept on. Snuggling into the fabric that held his scent, she put her fingers to her tingling lips and went out like a light.

Cooper left Madi's part of the ship at a dead run. If he was late getting to the mission briefing McQueen would tear strips off his hide. In his hurry he never noticed the figure who stood in the shadows opposite end of the passageway. As Jenkins watched Hawkes run out of Madi's room his entire body shook with rage at the thought of his Madison with that filthy tank. They would both pay for this. He would see to it.

~*~

She was jealous. There was no doubt about it. For months he'd been following her around, like a little puppy, eager for anything she threw in his direction, and now he wasn't anymore. He'd bounced into the ward room this morning, eyes shining, grinning all over that handsome face. It wasn't difficult to guess where he'd been, why he hadn't returned to the Tun last night to join the rest of them. Even her snapping at him for leaving the towel on the floor after his shower hadn't dimmed his enthusiasm for life. And seeing him towelling himself down, seeing the scratch marks on his back, hadn't helped improve her temper. She was almost certain he hadn't got those during yesterday's furball. Head injury yes, scratch marks no.

What was making it worse were the amused looks that Wang and West were shooting in her direction, or the sympathetic looks Vanessa was giving her. They'd already guessed what was causing her foul mood, although Cooper was still so high after last night he didn't even seem to notice. That was also pissing her off. He'd always been sensitive to her moods. Hell, he usually caused them. And even though they didn't stop him doing exactly what he wanted to do most of the time, he noticed. Right now, he didn't seem to be noticing anything.

He sat there, in the briefing room, staring into space, smiling slightly. Didn't he realise how goofy he looked! She snorted, glaring at him again but he remained oblivious. She caught sight of West and Wang exchanging looks out of the corner of her eye and turned her glare on them. They quickly avoided her look, although she could swear that West was grinning.

They jumped to attention, even Cooper, as McQueen entered the room to give them details of the mission. Surprisingly, it was her who was reprimanded for not paying attention. She was too busy glaring at Cooper. He seemed to be oblivious of the attention he was getting, and not just from Shane. The others were shooting glances at him every now and then, even McQueen. She could swear that he was glowing.

She snapped at him on the way out of the Briefing Room, admonishing him to keep his mind on what was going on out there. Unfair, she knew. Once he was in that cockpit, nothing else mattered. She ignored the hurt look he shot her, and pretended not to hear him whisper to West, wondering what the hell he'd done to piss her off now.

West caught her up just outside the hanger bay, having to run to keep up. The others trailed behind.

"You know, that wasn't fair," he said. She refused to look him in the face.

"Keep out of it, West," she snapped, heading towards her cockpit. He grabbed hold of her arm, preventing her from moving away from him. She almost decked him for that. He ignored the furious glare she directed at him and continued.

"This isn't fair, to him or to Madi." The others had entered the loading bay, shooting the pair of them curious glances as they whispered in the corner, but avoiding being in the firing line. Cooper looked worried as his eyes moved back and forth between them.

"Oh, so you're on her side now?" she sneered. "Well that didn't take long."

"I'm on nobody's side," he reasoned. "Except maybe for Coop's." His voice softened slightly. "I don't want to see him hurt anymore than you do, Shane."

"I'm not worried about that!" she lied. "I just want a wingman who's going to concentrate on covering my six and not mooning about over his teacher." The last word was a snarl. He shook her arm again.

"That's not fair," he argued, his voice low and serious. "Coop's never let you down, ever. God knows the rest of us have. Me taking that joyride on Tellus, looking for Kylen. 'Phousse unable to function when the Chigs used that fear weapon. Wang when the AI's got him, and when we were riding Pearly. Coop's never let you, us, down. Hell, even when he was on Meanies he managed to cover my six. He sacrificed his sister for us, for God's sake. He even went down that tunnel for you, although you know he's claustrophobic. He's not going to let Madi distract him when we need him." She relaxed against him.

"Oh, Nathan. What if she hurts him. She could do it too. Without even thinking. He's so vulnerable."

He shook his head. "She won't. You heard what Paul said. She's cool. And even if she does, we'll be there to pick up the pieces. Besides, he's a lot tougher than you think. He'd have to be, going through what he's been through. He'll cope."

She gave him a little self mocking smile. "You know that's not the only reason I'm pissed." He smiled back.

"I know, but I think you were right not to do anything about it. You may not realise it Shane, but you have much more power to hurt him than she does. If you'd have hurt him, he may never have recovered. I think he loves her, you know." She nodded miserably. "But you, you're his family Shane." He smiled at her again. "Now, Captain, we got a mission to fly." She gave him a faint smile and they moved towards their planes. She caught Cooper shooting her worried looks, and she gave him a reassuring smile, seeing him relax and smile back. He was really beginning to think that she was mad about him and Madi, but perhaps she was just in one of her moods after all. She got like that sometimes. Mind you, so did he.

~*~

Several hours later Madi woke and glanced at the clock by the bed. She yelped and jumped up to get ready to meet Cooper. Then she moaned all the way to the shower as those unused muscles protested their abuse from the night before. Madi appeased the muscles with a steaming hot shower and her stomach with a cup of steaming hot tea.

She jerked out the first thing she came to in the tiny closet, which happened to be a skirt, and giving it a look of consideration, put it on with a clean t-shirt and the vest she'd worn the day before. So much for wowing Cooper with a stunning wardrobe. She was going to have to find the laundry on this boat. Besides, he might as well learn now that she was a very low-maintenance woman. She ran a brush through her hair and thought, as she did every morning, how much she hated the curly mop and wished longingly for dark, straight hair like Shane Vansen's. A touch of makeup and some flats and Madi was ready.

She knelt before the entertainment box she considered vital to any trip and pawed her collection of CDs, laser discs, paperbacks, and crossword puzzles aside in an effort to get to the old, beloved books on the bottom. She hugged their tattered covers to her chest as she left the cabin with fifteen minutes to spare.

She was humming and smiling to herself as she rounded the corner of the passageway and bumped straight into the last person she ever wanted to see. Jenkins. The weasel. Madi jumped back as if she'd been scalded and hurried to pick up her fallen books before Jenkins could put his greasy hands on them. "What are you doing in this part of the ship?" she demanded. For once her father's associate wasn't smiling ingratiatingly at her. Instead he was staring at her with a completely blank expression. Meeting his eyes, Madi felt the skin on the back of her neck start to crawl.

"I wonder if your father knows what you're up to Madison." Madi resisted the urge to slug him for calling her that. Besides she was hoping that maybe Jenkins would show his hand and she could wrap this assignment up and concentrate on Cooper for the rest of her stay.

"What are you talking about, Jenkins?" Madi asked, wracking her brain for some idea as to how he'd found out about the tutoring, not that it mattered now. She was going to enjoy mashing this worm.

"Just a certain marine who lost his way last night. I'm trying to forgive you Madi. Don't give me cause to regret that forgiveness." Jenkins said with great melodrama.

Madi almost laughed in his face with relief. She was used to his cryptic and jealous messages from the time they'd spent together on the science station. Man, this guy was one odd bird. She nodded to him and rushed by. "Sorry to run off, Jenkins, but I'm meeting some new friends. Later." She hurried down the passageway and finally burst out laughing when she thought of his words. In her opinion Cooper Hawkes had found his way very well indeed. Keeping an eye out to make sure he wasn't following, Madi made her way up to see her favorite student.

~*~

He was pissed. She could tell. He was currently lying there on the sleeping bag he'd used to line one of his hidey holes, his head propped up on one of his hands, glaring at her. She sighed.

He couldn't believe that she wanted to read that mouldy book. Things had started off so well, as well. The second she'd walked in, he'd had her pressed back against his sleeping bag and had been kissing her. She'd wrapped her arms around his neck, her thumb stroking his navel. Didn't she know what that did to him? Didn't she know that that sent shivers down his spine and electric currents straight to his groin? And she'd kissed him back, hard, and made those little gasping sounds that he was beginning to realise meant that she was as excited as he was. And then she'd pushed him out of the way, and said something about that not being why she was here. And then she got out that book. That book written by some guy hundreds of years dead. And expected him to be able to concentrate on it, when the closeness of the space meant that she was pressed up against him, wearing those glasses and smelling so good. And every time he tried to touch her, she slapped his hand away and told him to concentrate. Like he could! It was all he could do to concentrate on breathing.

And she kept wriggling against him. She pretended nothing was happening, but he could tell she was doing it deliberately. Every time he got close to being able to concentrate on this dumb story, hoping that if he at least showed willing, she'd be amenable to teaching him something else in the time they had, she'd wriggle her hips against him. It wasn't obvious, except that every time she moved like that it sent fresh waves of desire through him. She knew what she was doing. It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair.

So he lay there and glared at her. She knew that it was her own fault. She was determined to make him concentrate on Dickens, but God, it was difficult to concentrate when he was raking those hot eyes up and down her body. The undisguised lust in those eyes made her shiver, made her wet. She wasn't helping matters either. She couldn't resist moving her hips against his side every so often, just to hear him gasp. It wasn't fair she knew that. Like it wasn't fair the way she'd run her fingers over his navel earlier, although to give herself credit, she hadn't known how erotic that was for an InVitro, until she'd heard him gasp, and felt him tense against her. She wondered idly what would happen if she ran her tongue over it, or suckled on it, the way he did on her breasts. She filed that thought away for future consideration.

He was still glaring at her. She gave him a sweet smile, and his eyes narrowed even further. She sighed again. "Cooper, you're not concentrating," she admonished.

"How can I concentrate when you smell so good?" His voice was sulky. "And when you keep doing that?"

"What?" she asked innocently, fully aware of what he meant. She rubbed her hips against him again, trying to suppress a grin and failing miserably. His eyes narrowed even further.

"That!" he almost spat. Boy, but he was adorable when he sulked. She resisted the urge to grasp that pouting bottom lip, and draw it into her mouth. But, then again, what the hell? So she did it anyway.

When she drew back, he'd stopped glaring at her. His eyes where half closed, and the looks he directed at her now were smouldering.

"I'm doing that," she emphasised the words with another rub, watching him catch his lip between his teeth, "to help you develop your concentration." That got him glaring again. She'd make it up to him later, she promised herself. Right now, she compromised on pressing another hot kiss against his mouth. "You'll never get anywhere if you can't focus on the matter in hand," she teased. "Book now, sex later."

"I've only got twenty mikes until the mission briefing," he groused.

"Then book now, sex much later," she teased again. That brought a fresh scowl to his face, and then a sly grin appeared. Nervously she wondered what he was plotting now.

"Promise?" he asked. At her nod he looked more satisfied. "Can we at least have the other book? The one about the revolution, and that Carton guy?" Well, she thought, at least it was still Dickens. She turned her back to him, reaching for the book behind her. Too late she realised that this was a mistake.

He pressed even closer to her, where she knelt on her hands and knees with the book in front of her. One of his hands disappeared up her skirt to lightly stroke her through her underwear. The other opened the book at the page they'd reached earlier.

"Cooper," she growled warningly. He gave her an innocent look.

"I think we'd got to this page," he said. His index finger was now stroking her steadily through the fabric, increasing the pressure every now and then, making her jump. "Is something wrong, Madi? You seem to be finding it difficult to concentrate." His other hand moved down her back, and began to inch her skirt up until it was bunched up around her waist, allowing him easier access. When it was arranged to his satisfaction, he lay back down on his elbow, and gazed up at her innocently. I've got to wear trousers next time, she thought. On the other hand he'd probably find a way around those too. He can be awfully inventive when he needs to be.

He was watching her expectantly. Now it was her turn to glare at him. She was determined not to be beaten by a six year old. She forced her attention back onto the book, a Herculean effort by anyone's standards, and began to read.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom..."

"Madi," he said patiently, "we've already read that bit." She turned to glare at him again.

"So we have," she spat out through gritted teeth. "I don't know where my head is today." He grinned up at her, and used his free hand to relocate the page he'd found, his other hand not ceasing in its rhythm, driving her slowly out of her mind.

"Chapter four," she ground out. "The Shoemaker. 'Good day' said Monsieur Defarge looking down at the white head that bent low over the shoemaking. It was raised for a moment... Cooper! what are you doing?"

He'd disappeared from view, and the next thing she felt was her underwear being pulled down to her knees. His hands gently forced her thighs apart, and his finger resumed its stroking. His head reappeared.

"Don't worry, I'm listening." She stared at him, glazed, lost in the sensations his hands were causing. "It was raised for a moment..." he prompted.

"Wha?" She was barely able to get that much out.

"It was raised for a moment... That's where you'd got to."

"Oh. It was raised for a moment," her voice was unsteady, "and a very faint voice
responded to the salutation, as if it were at a distance... Oh God Cooper, what are you doing to me!"

He examined the book critically, his finger continuing to move in and out of her now, in a steady rhythm. "You know, it says 'Good day' here. No mention of me at all. You've really got to concentrate, Madi. You'll never get anywhere if you don't concentrate on the matter in hand."

She glared at him, while he grinned back. "That's the problem, Hawkes. I'm concentrating on the hand and not the matter." She focused her attention back onto the book. " 'You're still hard at work, I see.'"

"Mm- hum," he breathed. "Definitely still hard at work." A second finger joined the first, sliding in and out of her, harder now. His thumb began to caress her clitoris, in a circular motion. Every now and then, his fingers would plunge hard and deep into her and his thumb press hard against her clit, causing a sudden surge of pleasure. Her knees began to go weak. He was concentrating on her face, now, the book forgotten. "Come on, teach," he growled. "Teach me!" She struggled onwards.

"After a long silence the head was lifted for another moment and the voice replied... and the voice replied... Oh God! Coop! Just fuck me please. Please I can't take this anymore, you win, just... please." The words were forced out of her.

"I can't Madi," he sighed regretfully. "I've got a briefing in ten mikes now. But I want to see you come. I want to see your face when you come. Open your eyes, Madi," he pleaded. "Look at me."

She forced her eyes open and looked deep into his eyes. They were darkened with desire. His fingers continued to plunge in and out of her, and his thumb continued to rub against her. She felt that familiar tension building. Her whole body tensed, and then exploded with release. She collapsed, sobbing with relief into his arms. His fingers continued their motion, much gentler now, as the final shudders of her orgasm shook her. Then he removed them, and wiped them over her lips. She sucked them gently, thrilling at her taste on him. He rocked her to and fro in his arms gently, while she came back down to earth.

"Madi," he whispered gently into her ear. "I think you'd better pull your panties up. McQueen is coming." He pressed one last kiss onto her lips, and then released her, still dazed.

"I'm going to get you for this, Cooper Hawkes!" she promised, straightening herself up. By the time that McQueen appeared to remind Cooper that the briefing was in five minutes, Madi, although still a little flushed, was reading from Tale of Two Cities as though nothing had happened.

~*~

Nathan West pulled the pin and sent a smart grenade toward a group of five Chigs that was bearing down on them from ten o'clock. To his right Cooper was picking off any Chigs who had the misfortune to peep around the huge stone batholiths that covered the planet's surface. Nathan reloaded and putting his back to Cooper added his firepower to the cause. "Damn Chig bastards," Nathan muttered. He couldn't believe how screwed up the military intelligence info actually was. The Wildcards had landed an hour ago to escort a first-aid ISSTV out and all reports indicated that the Chig presence was nominal. Now here they were outnumbered and outgunned and there wasn't a medivac to be seen.

Cooper was talking to Vansen on his headset, West's had gone out when he'd been thrown to the ground by a percussion wave from a chig shell. "Captain, we're almost out of ammo and Chiggie just keeps coming. No sign of any friendly craft. We're changing position now before we get surrounded. Please advise. Over." Nathan fired off a final round, then followed Hawkes, amazed as usual by how much Cooper enjoyed combat. He was grinning like an idiot. Nathan was hot and tired and numb; Cooper was locked, loaded and ready to go. GI Geequed.

"Coop, what'd Vansen say?"

"Get back to them, we're pulling out. Phousse can't find any trace of a medivac. Some kind of error. Fuckin' brainwipes." Coop's pet name for the brass made Nathan grin as well. He took point and headed back in the direction of the Hammerheads and the Cards. He had to keep checking over his shoulder to see if Cooper was behind him. The big lug was so quiet you could never be sure where he was. The going was slower through the slump and debris that littered the rocky surface but at least it seemed as if they'd left the Chigs behind. Then they rounded the next stone wall and came face to face with three more. Cooper got of a round into the Chig farthest to the left, then it went hand to hand. Both marines jerked out their Kabars and took out the two Chigs with swift, economical movements. McQueen's deadly children.

"Don't forget to be at the Tun tonight at 19:00 hours Coop," Nathan reminded him as he wiped green blood off his knife blade. "Why don't you ask that cute Ms. Gibson to come with you?"

Cooper suddenly faltered in resheathing his knife and nicked his hand. Nathan had to bite his lip to keep from laughing out loud. Hawkes trying to keep a poker face always amused him.

"Now why would I want to do that?"

Nathan started down through the last of the stone corridors before the planes, still cautious. He spoke quietly over his shoulder. "Well she might get lonely all by herself in that cabin. You should bring her down and introduce her properly to your friends. Let us get to know her. Buy her a beer or something, you know like a date." By Cooper's stony expression, Nathan knew he'd hit a nerve. "What's the matter, Coop, you afraid she'll like us better than you?" He knew Hawkes wouldn't back down from such a challenge.

"No, West, I'm not afraid of that ever happening. Madi's got good taste. But Shane's in one of her weird moods and I don't know about throwing those two together. You know more about this women stuff than I do, but I get this feeling that they're not going to be like bestest buddies."

Nathan hadn't thought of that but now that Hawkes mentioned it, getting Shane revved up sounded like fun. "It'll be okay, Coop. Bring her. It'll be nice to have someone new to dance with," he needled again. This time he did laugh at the look on Cooper's face as they broke onto the flat plane where they'd landed their Hammerheads. Shane, Phousse, and Wang were already in their cockpits and providing cover. Nathan forgot all about Madi in his rush to get strapped in and find out what went wrong with this mission. Cooper wanted to know as well, but he was also thinking of West's remark about dancing and natural-borns dancing with Madi and that didn't seem funny at all.

~*~

Madi was bored and restless by the time Cooper knocked on the hatch at 6:30 that night. She'd spent the long afternoon with her father and had even made a short visit to see Commodore Ross. She enjoyed talking with him and they chatted a while about people and places back on Earth. Madi caught him up on Cooper's progress and he seemed pleased. When he asked if she was comfortable she assured him she was but mentioned that she was running out of clean clothes. He politely offered to have her laundry done and delivered to her cabin. Madi considered it a very fruitful afternoon but she missed Cooper dreadfully.

Cooper knocked once then jumped as the door was flung open and a small hand grabbed his wrist and jerked him into the cabin. As soon as he cleared the opening Madi launched herself at him and flung both arms around his neck to bring his mouth to hers for a long, hot, wet kiss. He caught her and wrapped his arms tightly around her, burying his hands in her hair, loving the warmth and feel of her pressed against him. Madi ran her hands lightly up and down his neck, barely touching his navel and enjoying the shivers she could feel coursing on his skin from the contact. She pulled her mouth off his and looked into his hot eyes. "Hey Cowboy. How was everything down on the ranch today?"

Cooper shook his head and grinned. Cowboy. Madi was weird, but Nathan was right, she was cute. And he could get used to this he thought as he absently played with a bright curl. "Je t'aime. J'ai pense'a toi toute la journ'ee." (I love you. I thought about you all day.) Madi's breath caught in her throat at the sound of the beautiful language. "Cooper, what did you say to me?" Cooper smiled innocently. "I said, 'Want to come to the Tun with me tonight?' Maybe get to know my friends a little better?"

Madi was thrilled the he'd asked her to go out with him. Their courtship had started out a little backwards compared to most. She thought that something seemed to be worrying him a little but decided if it was important he'd mention it to her.

"When?"

" 'Bout 19:00 hours."

She tapped him on the nose with her index finger. "Speak in real-people time."

He grinned and translated, "7:00 p.m. or so."

Madi glanced at her watch and gasped. "Cooper that's only twenty minutes from now!"

"Madi, it only takes five mikes to walk down there so what's the problem?"

Men. Madi glanced at her wrinkled skirt and t-shirt with a grimace. Rushing to her closet she pulled out her last clean pair of jeans and a black tank top. Fifteen flurried minutes later with a little silver jewelry, her lipstick touched up, and a spray of perfume, Madi was as ready as she was going to be. Cooper was lying on the bed, grinning and enjoying the show. He thought Madi looked great. Madi was thinking about Shane who probably had a whole closet full of clean clothes to go with her long, dark hair.

The walk to the Tun took slightly longer than five mikes since Cooper insisted on pulling her into every dark access along the way for long, slow kisses. By the time they made it there Madi was ready to turn around and go back to the room.

When she saw all Cooper's friends gathered around a table in the corner Madi was suddenly struck by shyness. They seemed a lot more intimidating as a group or maybe pack was the word. She tried to hang back but Cooper just caught her hand and drug her along like his pet poodle. The Cards looked up at Wang's nod and turned toward the couple headed their way. "Play nice, Shane" Nathan whispered. Shane was wishing she'd worn her black T-shirt instead of the olive green one. She couldn't help but notice how black set off Madi's hair. Cooper hooked an arm around Madi and pulled her up to his side. Shane's eyes narrowed a little at the possessive gesture but she didn't say anything.

Guys this is Madi Gibson, Madi these are my friends." And so it went, slow and stilted until Nathan asked her to dance. She automatically accepted and had risen to her feet when Cooper suddenly wrapped his hand around her arm right below her elbow. Surprised, she looked at him questioningly and it suddenly came to her why he had been so worried earlier. She turned her own hand and grasped his arm in the same manner so that their inner forearms rested against each other. Vanessa thought the action resembled nothing so much as a primal ceremony. Madi simply stared into Cooper's eyes and smiled slightly until he seemed to find what he was looking for in her eyes. Reassurance and love. Then he slid his hand down her arm and drew her fingers to his lips for a kiss. The whole scene took less than a minute but nearly reduced Madi to tears. She swallowed the lump in her throat and went to dance with Nathan. She had a few things to say to him about the Bacchus.

Cooper talked and laughed with Shane, Phousse, and Paul but his eyes wandered constantly to Madi. Nathan brought her back and Paul left with her. When she finally sat down again Phousse had suggested they play poker and the cards were out. Madi felt like a fool when she had to tell them she'd never played cards in her life but instead of rolling their eyes as she expected, the news seemed to delight the whole group. Cooper started to warn Madi but Shane kicked his shin under the table. He looked at Madi then Shane and decided the cherry was on her own. The evening took a definite turn for the better from that moment. By the time the noise level drew McQueen over to see what the hoopla was all about Madi had lost all her money and most of her jewelry. Shane had her new pair of flats, Phousse had her lipstick, Cooper was playing with her earrings that he'd won back from Paul and clutching a hastily scribbled IOU for two of her compact disks of his choice, and Nathan was calling for her to anti-up. McQueen hid a smile at the fleecing. Though it was hard for him to believe, Gibson seemed to be worse at poker than Hawkes. Generally accepted as the worst player on the Saratoga, Cooper couldn't hold a candle to Madi. It finally got so bad that McQueen took pity on her and slid his chair over to help. Things settled down until it was her turn to deal and shuffle. Madi approached the task like a physicist assembling an atom bomb but she'd never held a deck of cards before. They all made it look so easy. How was she supposed to know they would be so slippery and that she and McQueen would like characters in snow dome when the cards came floating down. She looked so dismayed that she cracked the group up again, even McQueen laughed.

"I'm not playing anymore, you people are sharks," Madi complained good-naturedly. Shane nodded her agreement as she drew in the last take and slipped Madi's bracelet on her arm with a very shark-like grin. Madi felt so good about being accepted by Cooper's friends that she would have given up ten bracelets. Well, all of them but Vansen, but she had at least bent a little during the night.

As the group broke up momentarily for fresh drinks and breaks, Madi felt a touch on her shoulder and turned to see Cooper looking solemn and holding his hand out. "Dance?" Hearing an old ballad start, she just as solemnly placed her hand in his and allowed him to lead her in her sock feet over to the dance floor. Cooper pulled her into his arms and tucked her head under his chin. Madi clasped her hands around his neck and he folded his arms around her waist. While other couples danced and chatted, Cooper just held Madi and swayed, letting the notes of the music wash over him and trying to burn the memory of this into his mind so he would have it when she left. Madi occasionally pressed slow kisses to the underside of his jaw and snuggled closer. Cooper pressed his face into her hair. One song became eight and they still swayed together, not talking, just holding each other. The remaining Wildcards and McQueen finally gave up on them and started a new game, glancing at them occasionally, a different look on each face. Those looks were lost on Madi and Cooper, they couldn't see past each other's eyes.

~*~

Madi was still smiling and only slightly tipsy as Cooper slid the keycard through the scanner on her cabin door. "Cooper that was such fun. Thank you for inviting me. I like your friends."

Cooper was incredulous. "Madi, they scalped you. You even lost your shoes."

"Oh, I don't care about those things Cooper. The way trading works on a ship this size I'm sure everyone will make good use of my junk. I can always get more of that stuff when I get... later. I can get some new stuff later." Their time was going by so fast. Madi forced the thought to the back of her mind and gave Cooper a warm kiss. "I have to shower. Nose around but remember you only won two discs and you can't have the other Pink Floyd. I'm saving it for something special." She smoothed her hand along his jaw and let her fingers play in his hair; it was getting longer. "Can you stay tonight?"

"Yeah, we don't fly tomorrow. I need to get some paperwork done but I can finish it later." He was pleased to see that he brought a smile back to her face.

"Be right back." Madi called over her shoulder.

Cooper's fingers were playing with masses of tiny silver circles that made up the earrings he'd won and stuck in his pocket. He started to hand them back, then he too thought of their time and his fist closed over them. He needed these for his box that held all the things he wanted to remember. When he went through it and found these he'd remember Madi in the Tun, shoeless, with her nose wrinkled up and frowning as she stubbornly tried to figure out the intricacies of poker. He wouldn't need a trinket to remember holding her as they'd danced. Cooper sighed and went to pilfer through her compact disks.

When Madi finally emerged from the shower snuggled in her bath robe she found Cooper stretched out of his stomach on her bunk, stripped down to his underwear. "What have you got there?" She walked over to see what he was so engrossed in. When she saw it was her photodisk player she was swamped with homesickness.

"Who are all these kids, Madi, and why don't they have any teeth?" Cooper sounded so worried about their lack of teeth that Madi laughed out loud. Never a boring moment. She crawled in beside him, pressed a kiss to his bare arm and looked at the photo in the small hand-held display screen.

"Those are my children from the orphanage back home. I've known them for several years now. They've grown so fast...the oldest will be in the third grade this year. She affectionately ran her finger over the child pictured. "This is Matthew. He's our resident pyromaniac. He tries to burn the building down every day at 2:00 on his bathroom break. If he wasn't such a stickler for scheduling we'd all be toast by now." She hit the forward button. "And there's the twins, Avery and Kelsey. They're such sweethearts. They need a mother so badly though."

"Cute. Which is which?" Cooper was fascinated with the twin girls; he thought they looked like tiny dolls. He'd never seen two identical people before. "How come they don't have teeth either?"

"I have no idea by looking at the photo. You have to be with them to tell, they have completely different personalities. As for the teeth, natural-born children lose their baby teeth in front around six or seven. The girls are five. We don't have a kid in the group who can eat corn-on-the-cob right now," Madi absently pressed another kiss to Cooper's shoulder as he flipped through classroom scenes then stopped and reversed to a photo of a beautiful black-haired child who stood with crossed arms in an angry, rebellious stance and glared into the camera.

"Who's this and why does he look so pissed off?"

Madi's smile deepened as she looked at her most troubled child and her "son." "Reece. Reece has been pissed off since his parents walked away and left him in his crib when he was three months old. He's the only child at the Home whose parents are both InVitros. A neighbor kept him until he started running away. Last year I found him sleeping in a box on the street. I took him to that woman's house and she gave him to me... like he was a puppy or something." Madi squashed the old anger and continued.

"Reece is eight going on forty-five. He's intelligent, quick as lightning, he has a wicked sense of humor, and he's very territorial of the twins; but other than them he's totally closed himself off from the other children. I wish I could get closer to him. He doesn't talk much, usually only to tell me when he doesn't like the way things are being run at the Home. He's very orderly and militant and I have to watch him like a hawk. In my absence he's no doubt organized the children and seized control of the orphanage. Wonder if he'll let me back in?" Madi mused to herself. "Hopefully, he'll do something about the cafeteria food..."

"I plan to adopt him but it's so hard to do that and not take the girls. He insists on staying at the orphanage because he won't leave the twins. I let him because I think the socialization is good for him and when I'm away on a job I know he's being taken care of." Madi nearly bit her tongue off when she realized what she'd said. She glanced at Cooper to see if he noticed the slip but he seemed miles away. Intently inspecting each photo from all angles.

Cooper was feeling something he thought might be jealousy curl in his stomach when he heard the warm love in Madi's voice as she spoke of these kids nobody else wanted. He still struggled with the concept of love being encompassing and he wondered if Madi would stop loving him when she got back to these orphans and cast-off children she seemed so crazy about. Cooper frowned and looked at Reece again. He recognized the attitude. He could almost feel what the kid was thinking. "Do you... hug him like you do the others?"

Madi was surprised by the question but answered honestly. "Well, I try to Cooper but he gets so stiff. I'm always afraid I'm invading his personal space or something. I don't think he's the hugging kind. And of course I'm always wondering if he's got a knife he's trying to stick between my ribs too."

Though she said it with a teasing smile Cooper realized she was serious. He understood this as well. He'd lived on the streets. You learned to protect yourself or you died. End of story. No one could be trusted. The facility hadn't been worse than the streets. You learned to fight for your territory and you were lucky if you had a knife. Though he'd had the advantage of physical strength and an adult body, he could vividly remember the terror of the city and the lonely, cold hopelessness.

"You should hug him longer. Sometimes it takes a while to soak in... sort of like... the warmth has to thaw a place out, ya know? When you've been... cold for so long inside it takes longer to melt a spot."

Madi had to swallow twice before she nodded to Cooper's matter-of-fact statement which told her so much. "I'll try that." Madi suddenly realized what his insight could mean to Reece and other children like him. "What are you doing after this war's over, Cowboy?"

Cooper looked uneasy at the question. "If McQueen has anything to do with it I guess I'm headed for some sort of officer's training school then back to the Marines. He's says it's the best place for InVitros."

Madi propped her head in her hand and ran a finger down the back of his head, over his navel, down his back to his hips, and then back up. Cooper continued to look through the photoplayer but she could see the goose bumps raised on his back and smiled. "There's a college near me you could attend. In your spare time you could help out at the Home. We're in desperate need for male role models and it wouldn't hurt if you can swing a hammer either; something's always needing repair."

"You would let me near your kids?" Cooper seemed amazed.

"Of course I would, Cooper, what makes you think I wouldn't?"

"I can tell how much you love 'em. Why would you want some tank grunt hanging around? They're so new and clean... I'd be afraid I'd sort of... get 'em dirty, you know? All the killing and everything that I've done."

Madi quickly swiped a tear from the corner of her eye and resorted to humor to cover her real emotions. "I think you've seen too many laundry-soap commercials, hon. These kids would have you down wrestling in the dirt or playing army in about five minutes and they would want pony rides til you dropped. Then it would be on to the tea party where you'd be served Kool-aid and peanut-butter crackers and jam. Not neat treats."

And Madi could picture Cooper doing it as clearly as day, from the wrestling in the back yard to him sitting at the girls' little table and chairs holding a tiny porcelain teacup of tropical blue liquid in his huge hands.

McQueen wasn't getting him back. Ever.

"Marines, Madi." Cooper was saying as if he was talking to someone not very bright.

"What?"

"Marines. We're not going to play army. What are you teaching those kids? We'll play marines."

"You come down there Cooper and you can play anything you want," Madi promised. "Where ever I am, anywhere on Earth, there'll be a place for you there. These kids need someone like you."

Cooper changed the subject before Madi could see how those words affected him. Did she realize that he'd never had a place where he was wanted or needed before? Thinking about McQueen's plans for him, Cooper felt strangely torn about sharing his news. He had a feeling the Colonel wouldn't be as thrilled.

"What is that?"

Madi took her attention off his face to glance at the player. He must have found the picture of their resident pint-jar sized, praying mantis, Charlie. "Oh that was the ice cream party. What at mess that was! We were cleaning ice cream out of their ears for days. That is Lisbeth wearing most of her ice cream on her face."

"So what's ice cream?"

Madi thought he was joking until she saw his eyes. "Cooper, you're bound to have had ice cream," she asked questioningly. At his blank look she tried to qualify.

"So what you're telling me," she asked in shock, "is that you've never had ice cream before. Never, ever, in your entire life."

"Uh huh. Never. Not once in six years. I can't see why you're making such a big deal of this, Mad. There's lots of things I haven't done yet."

"Yes, but ice cream isn't just a thing. It's... it's... it's an essential food group."

"Well, I've managed to grow up big and strong without it, so it can't be that essential," he reasoned. Her eyes racked the length of his body, and privately she had to agree with that statement. He had grown up big and strong, very big and very strong. Her fingers itched with the desire to touch him, to run over those perfect pecs. She forced her attention back to the matter in hand.

"Yes, but I can't believe that you've never had ice cream. Coop, you don't know what you're missing. Ice cream is, well... it's..."

"Is it better than sex?" he asked, moving closer to her. This boy had a one track mind.

"Noooo..."

"Well, then I can't be missing much." He reached out and started to undo the tie on her robe. Definitely a one track mind. Not that she was complaining. Having a one track mind meant that he concentrated on what he was doing. And Madi was beginning to discover that when Cooper Hawkes concentrated on something, he usually mastered it quite quickly. And in this case, very quickly.

She started to lose track of what she was thinking, as his lips began to move down her throat, gently nipping and kissing. Make that very quickly indeed. Before she could lose herself entirely, she pulled herself away from him, ignoring his disappointed look. There'd be plenty of time for that later. Right now it was time to continue his education. And she'd already decided what the next lesson was going to be.

"Wait here," she told him firmly, trying not to lose herself in those beautiful blue eyes, and trying to ignore the urge to nibble her way along those lips, now looking adorably pouty. "There'll be plenty of time for that later." His eyes brightened at that.

"Mad," he wheedled, twisting his index finger in the knot of her robe. "Couldn't we do it now and later?" Oh God. She mastered her resolve, determined not to give into him. If she did they'd be in bed all night and all day, or at least until the next mission. And much as she'd like that... Madison Gibson, she told herself firmly, give in now and you'll never get him to learn anything beyond what you like to do in bed. Which is basically anything involving a naked Cooper Hawkes.

She moved away from him, ignoring his grumpy sigh, and started to pull on some clothes. His hungry eyes watched her from where he reclined on the bed, wearing nothing but his green issue boxers.

"Do you still have that pass to the mess?" she asked. His eyes narrowed.

"How did you know about that?"

"I'm beginning to know a great deal about you, Cooper. So my guess was right, you do have a pass?"

He was cornered and he knew it. She could see him wavering between being angry or laughing. Laughter won.

"Yes, I have a pass. You really do know me don't you? I'm beginning to think you night know me even better than the other 'Cards." There was a note of wonderment in his voice Taking care to avoid his hands, if he caught hold of her she would spend all day in bed, she leaned in and pressed a hard kiss against his lips.

"I should hope," she whispered against his mouth, "that none of the 'Cards do know you as well as I do." She pulled back to direct a hard look at him. "Unless of course there's something I should know."

He felt a thrill at her words. She's jealous, he thought. She's actually jealous. She was still glaring at him, wondering why he was suddenly grinning at her. "You know that there isn't," he said shyly. Mollified she kissed him again, feeling a little ashamed at her question. It really wasn't any of her business. The hell it wasn't!

"Where's the pass?"

"In one of... somewhere," he answered evasively. She sighed. He obviously didn't want to share his hidey holes with her just yet. Although he'd probably be even more suspicious if he guessed she already knew about them.

"Okay, go get it and meet me at the mess in five minutes. Dressed."

He smiled at that. "Okay, five mikes."

Five minutes later, he was standing outside of the mess, looking nervous. How had he got here so fast? She filed the question in the back of her mind, more important things to deal with first. Like how to stage a commando raid on the Commodore's secret ice cream stash in the middle of the night on a ship in the middle of a war zone. How do I get into these situations, she wondered. She fought the urge to giggle, as he tripped the lock with his purloined pass and they sneaked inside.

Five minutes after that they were safely ensconced in her ward room, booty clutched in Cooper's hands.

"It's cold," he gasped.

"Cooper, what do you expect," she giggled. "That's why they call it ice cream." He looked worried. "What is it, baby?"

"What if the Commodore finds out we stole his ice cream. They'll throw me in the brig. They might throw you in too."

"Honey, if they lock us in the same cell, I'll be happy." He smiled at that. "But I don't think we'll get caught. For a start, we're going to eat the evidence. There are also several hundred people on this ship, a lot of them considerably more shady characters than we two, and thirdly if they do narrow it down to us, I'll take the rap and say I took it on my own. Not being familiar with the running of the ship, I'll say I thought it was for general consumption. Now come here."

Grinning at the tone of command in her voice, he joined her on the bed, pulling his T-shirt off as he did so.

"Now why did you do that?" she giggled, already knowing the answer. He grinned back at her.

"I thought it would save time later."

"Definitely a one track mind," she muttered.

"What?"

"Nothing. Here." She fed him a spoonful of ice cream, watching his eyes close in pleasure as it melted on his tongue. "It's Cookies and Cream," she added. "My favourite."

His eyes were still closed, as the last traces of this wonderful new taste evaporated from his mouth. He looked so adorable, so sexy as he relished this new experience. She couldn't resist.

"Cooper?" Her voice was a throaty whisper.

"Mmmm?"

"Do you know when ice cream tastes best?"

"No."

"When it's melting."

His eyes opened in shock as she flicked a spoonful of ice cream onto his bare chest. He watched, still surprised, as she leant in and her small pink and warm tongue began to lap it up. As lightning bolts shot down his body to his groin, he wondered how something so cold could cause him to feel so flushed and hot.

She pulled back, her tongue licking the last drops of ice cream from her lips. He watched, fascinated, unconsciously mimicking her, licking his own lips which seems to have become inexplicably dry all of a sudden. "Mmmmm," she said, wickedly. "I think that I have a new favourite flavour. Cooper and cream."

A vague thought wandered across the portion of his brain still working, something about wondering if ice cream tasted even better if eaten from a Madi. The rest of his brain was currently focused on his groin, where his fatigues were suddenly far too tight. He reached in and kissed her hard, his tongue in her mouth tasting the last lingering remains of the ice cream. Suddenly he wanted more.

"More?" Her voice startled him. He hadn't realised that he'd spoken out loud. He raised his head slightly to meet her eyes, wondering if she meant ice cream or something else. She recognised the hunger in his eyes. It was mirrored in her own.

"Do you want some more ice cream, Cooper," she breathed into his ear, enunciating each word clearly. He shivered. Her voice, when it took that tone, it always did...stuff to him. He nodded, unable to speak, fixing his eyes on her face like a drowning man fixes his eyes on the sight of land.

Once again, there was a sweet explosion in his mouth as the ice cream melted on his tongue. He had his eyes closed, when he felt her warm tongue gently slid up his chin and into his mouth before withdrawing. "Missed a bit," she breathed. Damn it didn't she know what this was doing to him. Opening his eyes, he caught sight of the sparkling laughter in hers, and knew that she knew exactly what she was doing. It was time to turn the tables.

"Your turn," he growled, removing the spoon from her hand, and digging deep into the ice cream. Lifting the spoon to her mouth, he accidentally on purpose tipped it over.

"Cooper!" she yelped, as cold ice cream slid down the front of her blouse. He grinned devilishly at her.

"Don't worry, Kitty, I'll get it." Before she knew what was happening, her blouse was undone and a warm tongue was lapping up the rapidly melting ice cream. Damn but that boy could move fast when he needed to. His warm tongue sent even more shivers down her spine than the ice cream had. With a shudder, she realised that his tongue had moved, and was now outlining the shape of her hard nipple through the fabric of her bra.

"Cooper," her voice was rough with desire. "I don't think that there was any ice cream there."

Once again she was struck by how mischievous this moody marine could look, as he raised his head to shoot her a grin.

"Don't worry, Kitty. I'm sure we can fix that."

The strength seemed to leave her body in a rush, as in a flash her bra joined her blouse on the floor. He reached a finger into the ice cream, scooping some up and planting it right on her breast. He examined it critically for a second. The cold of the ice cream caused her nipple to stand out even more than her state of arousal had.

"There." There was a note of satisfaction in his voice as he settled his mouth firmly on her breast. White hot bolts of electricity shot straight to her groin as he began to lick and nip at her teat, rolling it around his mouth and sucking on it hard. Dimly, she realised that her hips were making a mindless thrusting motion, as she fastened her hands on the back of his head to hold him there.

His fingers scooped up yet more ice cream, this time dropping it on her other breast. His mouth followed the trail the melting dessert made, down over the curve of her breast towards the hollow of her stomach.

She gasped as his tongue flicked in and out of her belly button. More ice cream followed, causing her to shudder as she felt its cold against her stomach. His hands spread the sticky cream over her stomach and then proceeded up her body to caress her breasts, while his tongue continued to lap up the ice cream pool on her stomach. By now, she was beyond thought as she made mindless noises of pleasure. His hands moved down to the buttons of her jeans, and she raised her hips to help him pull them off her completely, together with her underwear, now damp with the need for him.

She was now completely naked, wearing nothing but ice cream. And that was being slowly licked away. Her head thrashed from side to side, as he nibbled his way up the inside of her thighs. She moaned in frustration as he avoided the place she most wanted him to kiss. He slid his way up her body, kissing her lips and grinning into her face, as once more he reached for the ice cream. He disappeared from sight, and she raised herself up onto her elbows to look down at him.

"Cooper, what... Ooooh" That last sound was wrenched out of her, as she felt a very cold finger slip into her. Her hips left the bed completely, as she felt his tongue follow. She moaned, her head tossing from side to side, as his tongue stroked around her clitoris and then plunged deeply into her. Her climax was earth shattering, her body twisting and her heart pounding.

He move back up her body to kiss her deeply. She could taste ice cream on his tongue. Ice cream and her. The thought brought flesh waves of pleasure to her body.

He lay beside her, staring into the ice cream tub. "Ice cream's melting," he commented matter-of-factly. She stared at him, amazed. How can he be so calm, after what he's just done to me? she wondered. How can he be so calm, after he's just heard me screaming his name over and over?

He tipped the tub over so that she could see, as though the reason she was so quiet was that she doubted it. It was definitely time to turn the tables.

She took the tub off him, and rolled him underneath her. "I guess we'll just have to finish it then," she teased. She dipped her finger in the tub, and began to write on his chest. He raised himself up on his elbows, twisting his head from side to side as he tried to read what she was writing.

"What is it? What are you doing?"

"Writing."

"I can see that! What are you writing?"

"I'm writing some words. Three in fact." She smiled at him. The curiosity was driving him crazy.

"I don't care how many words there are, WHAT ARE YOU WRITING!"

She laughed at him, and leant over to kiss him. "I am writing, my dear, gorgeous and sexy tank," she teased, "three little words. I... love... you." She finished the last word with a flourish, smiling at him while she did so. His insides felt as gooey as the ice cream. No matter how many times she said it, he still felt a thrill, as though he was afraid that the last time had been a dream. He didn't even mind when she called him a tank. Not when she said it in that tone of voice.

He gasped as her tongue began to trace the outline of the words, then proceeded downwards. It was her turn to undo the buttons on his trousers. Her hands pulled them down over his knees, and then outlined the shape of the bulge in his boxers. They soon joined the pile of clothes on the floor. She dipped her fingers in the ice cream, now fully melted, and let it drip off her fingers onto his bare flesh. Wherever a drop felt, her warm tongue licked it off. Soon he was thoroughly aroused, watching her with lust darkened eyes as she took hold off the ice cream tub, and with a knowing smile, emptied the few remaining drops over his erection.

Now it was his turn to gasp, as he felt her warm tongue lap up and down his cock, before she closed her mouth over it completely. Her hand moved up and down the base, while her tongue encircled the tip, round and round, slowly driving him out of his fucking mind.

She felt him tense, and knew he was close. When she felt that he could hold out no more, she stopped, rocking back onto her heels and watching him as it slowly dawned on him that she was going to leave him high and dry.

"Madi..." he growled warningly. She grinned at him.

"Turnabout's fair play, lover," she gloated. "You drove me crazy, and now it's my turn." She leant closer to him and whispered seductively, "When you come, I want it to be inside me."

The thought made him shiver, and he reached for her. She darted back. "Not so fast, lover."

"You started it."

"True," she agreed. "And I'm going to finish it."

He wondered what she had in mind. He didn't have to wait long. She unwrapped the condom she'd retrieved, and slowly rolled it down the length of him, placing one last kiss on the tip as she did so. Positioning herself above him, she lowered herself onto him, sighing happily as she felt him fill her.

He decided that he liked this position. He could see her face clearly, and it meant that his hands were free to caress her breasts, something he was unable to do when he was on top. He took full advantage of the situation, his hands full of her breasts and his thumbs caressing her nipples. She sighed again, and began to rock backwards and forwards, setting up a steady rhythm that slowly drove both of them insane.

His hands moved down her back, to grasp her buttocks, holding her steady while he thrust up into her. She matched him thrust for thrust, her orgasm building as he grew harder, closer to his own climax. Eventually he could stand it no longer, and grabbing hold of her waist firmly, he dug his heel into the bed and rolled them both over, so that now he was on top. He could thrust more deeply into her from this position.

From this angle, the pressure on her clitoris was even more intense, and it wasn't long before she reached her second climax. He wasn't far behind.

As they lay there, entwined, their breathing slower, he raised his head to look her straight in the eye.

"Madi," he said shyly. "I think I like ice cream."

~*~

June glanced at the Do Not Disturb notation by the door and went directly in to Diane's office. Hearing the door, Diane looked up and prepared to blast the receptionist again.

"It's me."

"I'm working, June, didn't that idiot put the sign on?"

"The idiot did what you told her, Diane, but I'm going to be away a few days and I need to talk to you now." Her excitement came through and Diane stopped reading the Braille letter and gave June her complete attention. Very little excited June Maddox.

"What's up?"

"We got him. The blackmailer." June sat down and smacked the folder she held on the edge of the desk. "He was an amateur working out of the basement of an IVA facility. The fool had everything there, including the records and photographs." June paused, trying to find the best approach to reach her friend. "Diane, I think now that we've gotten the perp we should discuss the other. I received this file yesterday and I've read it at least ten times. I keep thinking this one might prove useful to us in the future. The InVitro rights movements is escalating at an enormous rate. I want you to reconsider your earlier decision."

Diane was getting bored with the conversation. "June, I've made my position clear. The only way I'll ever be free of this is if I know they're dead. Otherwise, it could go on for years."

June opened the file and began to read as if she hadn't heard a word. Diane rolled her eyes. June had always gotten her way, ever since they were children. "Just listen, Diane. The one in the photo? I've got his service record. Lieutenant, 58th Squadron of the United States Marine Corps Space Cavalry. Decorated for the Battle of the Belt. Top-notch fighter pilot and an excellent natural shooter. Trained in operative skills and has participated successfully in covert surgical extraction maneuvers. 'Lt. Hawkes is an integral part of the Wildcards and is highly valued within his squadron. I have seen remarkable progress and development on the part of this Marine. I expect great things from him in the future.' Col. T.C. McQueen.

Diane caught her breath. "Did you say Hawkes??"

"Yes, um Cooper. Cooper Hawkes. He's the spitting image of Richard, Diane. It gives me the heebie-jeebies to look at him."

"June, I've met that Marine and now I know we've got to get rid of him."

"You've met him?"

"Yes, of course I had no idea who he was." Diane felt an odd sensation in her chest as she remembered that time on the Saratoga and thought of being so close to that particular InVitro. She shuddered and turned her attention back to June.

"So why the increased hurry to get rid of him."

"It's confidential, I can't even tell you. Just trust me."

June blew out her breath. Diane was so unreasonable at times. 'Okay, Diane, but down the road when we need an InVitro we can use, don't blame me for your impulsive actions."

"I won't. Just promise me you'll get rid of him."

"Consider it done. I'll call my contact on board the Saratoga and get it done today.

"What about the others?"

"Nothing's turned up yet. If it hadn't been for the photo I'd never have found this one. His IVA records have been completely wiped."

"How odd. McQueen. Is he still serving aboard the Saratoga?"

"Yes, with honors as usual."

"Thanks June. Now I hate to push you away but I've got to finish this. Let's have dinner when you get back, shall we? Diane smiled and held out her hand to her best friend. June grasped it and leaned down to hug her slightly.

"Take care of yourself, Diane. I'll be back in three days."

"Goodbye. And we are making the right decision, June," but Diane was talking to air.

~*~

Something was about to happen. Cooper's skin had been tingling all day as if ants were crawling on him. He couldn't believe his friends hadn't commented on it... the tension, the anticipation. It never occurred to him that they couldn't feel what he did. He'd been spooked for the past few days. Now as he strode down the passageway to the hangar bay the hair on his neck stood up and chills raced down his spine. Cooper hadn't lived as long as he had by ignoring such sensations. Someone was following him. He felt his body gearing into fight mode and increased his speed slightly. Getting help or a weapon never crossed his mind. During his five years of survival in Philadelphia he'd never had the luxury of backup and thanks to the InVitro facility he was his own weapon.

Something was about to happen. Madi knew because she had received the communiqué just minutes ago on the personal note pad her employer had so thoughtfully provided. The message was purposefully short and vague. "Sources indicate the subject will move today. Maintain observer status unless needed. Exercise extreme caution." It was her signal. What she'd been waiting for these past weeks on the Saratoga. She was relieved the call had finally come so she could get this over with and enjoy her last days with Cooper.

She scratched out a note to herself to check with him about planning a trip on his next leave. Maybe Paris. Smiling at the thought, she forced her mind back to the matter at hand. Out came her huge black suitcase that held everything she traveled with except for the entertainment box of junk. She chose loose, comfortable clothes and slipped them on over the thin body armor she kept in the lining of the case. She slipped on soft-soled shoes and dug out the entertainment box. Dumping it contents out on the bed, she pulled a small silken tab and the false bottom popped out. Madi smiled again as she thought of all the traveling and all the years of field work that she'd put in with no one ever finding her treasures because they were too squeamish to go through the mess.

Though she tried to mash it down the adrenaline started to flow. It had been so long. She lifted the small, compact firearm up the to her nose and sniffed. She loved the smell of gun oil. She rubbed it fondly, softly slid in a loaded clip and slipped a round into the chamber. She tucked it into the holster in the small of her back. The gun was a precaution only. Every operative had their own weapon of choice and for Madi it was knives. Guns were loud and messy. Knives were silent and smooth. In. Out. Over.

She balanced her throwing knife on the end of her finger, appreciating its perfectly balanced weight in her hand before slipping it back into its hidden scabbard. Since she wasn't sure what she might be up against, or how many, she also produced a smaller antique version of the marine's Kabar. Hers was much more streamlined but still had the strong blade needed to cut through muscle and bone if you had the strength to push it. Madi did. She added some extra clips and a few miscellaneous items to her various pockets then slipped on a loose jacket.

The agitation was getting worse and suddenly she let it take her. The rush was like a wave. It was wonderful, almost sexual, and it was the reason she'd resigned her post before. Not because she'd burned out but because she'd become addicted to the excitement. Nothing mattered but the next job. The next rush. Recruited in her senior year of high school Madi had traveled the world. Her father thought she was at college and she was; when she wasn't on a job. After six years her supervisor had requested her resignation because she wanted Madi to live. No one could keep up the risks she was taking and not get killed.

The downtime almost killed her before her roommate suggested Madi donate some of her free time to the InVitro shelters in an effort to get her out of her hair. There she found the other thing she loved in life. Children. Anybody's children. Madi didn't care what color or what race. Human, InVitro, whatever. Kids were fun and more than anything they always told you the truth. After so many years in the other world, Madi found that she suddenly craved the truth. And most importantly children were never boring.

It was for the kids that she occasionally took work that wasn't sanctioned by her government. Odd jobs here and there for a special friend and employer. She needed this job successfully completed and she'd have the money for the three she planned to adopt. She grinned thinking of the director of the orphanage seeing her now. Moonlighting was severely frowned on in the Home. Chuckling at that thought and buzzing with sensation, Madi went on a weasel hunt.

Madi checked his quarters first. No one. She systematically began a search of the main level. Her coming up on the target was a complete accident. She'd just stepped out of the PX when she saw him headed away from her. She casually changed course to follow. Her suspicions only grew as she watched the furtive manner in which he moved and the direction; straight for the hangar bay. Madi hurried quietly down the passageway in pursuit. He was gaining speed and she lost sight of him around a corner. She turned the corner and ...nothing. He'd disappeared. There were several cubbyholes and access panels lining the way. She pulled her gun and switched off the safety then put it back in the holster. Putting her back to the wall she edged down the corridor looking behind and forward as she came to the next bend.

She never knew where he came from. One minute there was nothing there, then she was grabbed from behind; a burly arm around her neck and one around her waist pinning her arms. Madi burst into movement without conscious thought, stomping her attacker's foot with her right heel, she felt his arm loosen a fraction in surprise. She shifted to the left and swung her right fist back into his groin with all her might. That definitely eased the hold. She jumped away and brought both straightened arms down hard on the back of her assailant's neck as he hunched over in pain. When her vision cleared her knee was on his chest and her Kabar against his Adam's apple. Madi looked down into the shocked and pain filled eyes of... Cooper Hawkes.

"Madi?? What the fuck are you doin'?!" he ground out between clenched teeth. The knife at his throat didn't worry him half as much as the screaming pain in his groin. Cooper thought he was going to puke and Madi's weight on his chest wasn't helping matters.

Madi's head was whirling. Where was Jenkins?! Then she knew as she felt the cold barrel of his gun at her temple. "Lover's spat, dear?" he crooned coldly from her side. Her eyes met Cooper's and she saw the fear in them; not for himself but for her.

"Don't blink an eyelid, tank, or I'll blow her brains all over this wall." He grabbed Madi by her hair and jerked her to her feet with the gun pressed painfully into her skull. "On your feet and get in there." Jenkins indicated the open access door leading to a supply room. Cooper managed to get up, thinking furiously of the best way to get to the dead man who was holding a gun to Madi's head. Madi was thinking the same thing. They stopped inside with Cooper facing Jenkins and Madi. "Shame on you, Madison. Trying to spoil my fun. I would have been so disappointed if you'd killed him instead of letting me do it."

"Jenkins? What in the world are you doing? What's the matter with you? " Madi demanded trying to sound confused, anything to buy some time. "My father will kill you for this!"

He laughed near her head then, such a weird sound Madi thought, considering the circumstances. "Don't play stupid Madison, you know why I'm doing this, you've known all along."

Jenkins leaned near to her and slowly licked her ear, watching Cooper's face go black with rage. He grinned maliciously. Now it was Madi's turn to feel nauseous. Jenkins continued to watch Cooper with a gloating smile, his body pressed up against Madi's, his mouth touching the soft shell of her ear, his hand fisted in her hair.. He was enjoying his feeling of power. "Your father will be devastated of course, to find that one of those poor misunderstood tanks that he trusted so much stabbed his daughter to death before I managed to kill him. By the way, thanks for the knife, love." Jenkins wiggled the handle from where it hung in his belt. "Bet Daddy doesn't know his little girl likes to cut people, hmm? And won't he be surprised to learn that his Madi, who looked as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, was screwing that same tank?" Madi's eyes locked with Cooper's.

Jenkins suddenly jerked her hair viciously, causing Madi's eyes to fill with involuntary tears and he laughed again. "That's right. Cry, you little whore. Cry and beg me not to kill your precious, tank, lover! Did you really think I was so blind I wouldn't know what you were up to?" He pulled her hair again and Cooper stepped toward him. Jenkins immediately turned the gun on Cooper. He laughed at Madi's indrawn breath. "I heard you screaming one night , Madison, from out in the hall. These ships certainly aren't very sound proof. Silly me, I thought he might be hurting you. Then I realized you were screaming his name as he fucked you. You slut!" He shook her by her hair like a rag doll.

"I would have been good to you, Madison. I've even mentioned the possibility of our marrying to your father. I found you quite attractive. To think you'd let a filthy tank crawl between your thighs... Now look, picturing that has upset me so that I can't decide whether to get rid of you first or him... It's probably a good thing I'm killing you Madison, you'd be such a distraction to my work."

He looked down the sights pointing to Cooper's heart. "I guess it'll be you first, tank. I'm sorry we don't have time for you to watch me cut her into ribbons but you know how it is. When the voices speak I have to work quickly." Hawkes stared back belligerently. Jenkins might shoot him but he was going to die before Cooper gave up his last breath.

"Please, don't!." Madi burst out. She'd die before she begged for her own life but she would plead for Cooper's. "Let him go Jenkins. This is crazy! I don't know why you're doing this," Madi lied, "but if you let us go, we won't say anything." Real tears of pain and rage ran down Madi's face as she wheedled with Jenkins, while frantically accessing the situation for a way out without getting them killed.

Jenkins was so close to Cooper. If she tried to knock the gun away there was little hope it wouldn't go off. Same with the knife, even if she managed to kick Cooper backwards her movements might cause Jenkins to fire. If she could get his hands to loosen she could distract him and she knew Cooper would do the rest. "They'll see through this and you'll be in prison. Think what you're doing. If you'll let him go, I'll go with you. I'll never see him again."

She sensed her words had some effect on Jenkins. He turned her head towards him more, still keeping the gun trained on Hawkes. His eyes sparkled with insanity and hatred. "It could have been fun, Madison, but I don't want his leftovers. If only you hadn't been such a bad girl. Your father and I will miss you for a while, but who do you think will care about this piece of genetic trash? I could never understand how you could bear to be around them. They're not human you know. If you had been nicer to me I might have made you another. Hell, they're a dime a dozen. If nothing else, I'd kill him just to punish you."

Madi saw it then in those crazed eyes; he was going to do it. Their time was up. She stiffened her left arm and hit Jenkin's gun up just as it fired. He loosened his hold on Madi, snarled and tried to get the muzzle pointed back at Cooper. Hawkes sprang onto Jenkins, desperately struggling for the firearm. Jenkins possessed the almost inhuman strength of the insane and he brought his other hand up and gripped Cooper's face, trying to push his fingers into Hawkes' eyes as they fought for possession of the gun. Jenkins squeezed the trigger and the gun discharged, the bullet ricocheting off the metal floor and walls. Madi saw Jenkins raising the gun slowly toward Cooper despite the resistance on his wrist. The gun went off again, this time though the bullet went into Jenkin's leg. He didn't even appear to notice, just continued to try to wrestle the weapon from Cooper. He was going to kill them all if he wasn't stopped.

Madi reached for the Kabar that had fallen from Jenkins belt onto the floor. Stepping into him and effectively sandwiching him in, she used it with all the skill and training she'd received; sliding it just between his ribs and giving it a twist for good measure. The gun dropped from Jenkin's suddenly limp hand and he fell toward Madi, his eyes showing only surprise. She grabbed his collar and held him up with both hands long enough to whisper in his ear, "You Aerotech bastard, he's worth a thousand of you." before she dropped him to the floor with a thud.

"Cooper..." Madi held her blood-soaked hand out to him, just needing to touch him, needing to feel he was safe. Cooper reached for her and drug her to him by her upper arms, her feet sliding over Jenkin's body. He wrapped his arms so tightly about her, that Madi had to pry them loose a little to breath. She saw he was shaking almost as badly as she. Through her carelessness she'd almost lost him.

"We have to get McQueen, Madi." She nodded weakly, pressing herself closer to him, trying to absorb some of his strength. Apparently her adrenaline rush was over and she felt lightheaded and sick to her stomach.

The shots had brought people running to the door and more were streaming down the passageway. Cooper pulled the door closed to block the view behind him before turning to an enlisted man on his left. "Get Colonel McQueen and keep these people out of here."

"Yes, sir." Cooper shut the door in his face, not even waiting to see if his orders were carried out before he pulled Madi back into his arms. If he hadn't been thinking about her all day, he might have paid more attention to Jenkins. He'd almost lost her through his carelessness.

~*~

A sentry stood guard by the door and held out his weapon to stop the man who tried to push past him. "I'm sorry, sir, you're not allowed in there."

Bernard Gibson pushed by anyway, opening the hatch to see his daughter in the tight grip of a tall, young Marine. When Cooper saw the door opening he thrust Madi behind him, putting himself between her and anyone coming into the room. Peeking around him to see the problem, Madi sobbed in relief and rushed into her father's arms.

"Dad!. I was worried about you. I was afraid Jenkins had done something to you as well."

"Madi? What's going on in here? Commodore Ross told me to come here. I heard on the way here that you'd been shot!"

"I'm fine, Dad. It's Jenkins I'm afraid. He tried to kill us. I think he was insane or something." Madi's mind was already rushing ahead, thinking of what to say to McQueen.

"Us?"

"Cooper and me." Madi glanced over to where Hawkes stood warily eyeing her father. She held her hand out to him and he finally took it and let her pull him over to them. "Dad, this is Cooper Hawkes. Cooper, my father, Bernard Gibson. I'm sorry you had to meet each other under such horrifying circumstances."

"Sir." Cooper nodded in Bernard Gibson's direction and held out his right hand. Bernard stared at him for what seemed like an eternity before he held out his own. "Hawkes." Madi thought they looked like two watchful lions circling each other and a smile touched her mouth. She'd never have believed she'd see her father doing something so primitive as defending his territory.

At that moment the door crashed open and McQueen swung into the room. Cooper snapped to attention, saluting his commanding officer. "At ease, Hawkes." McQueen took in the body in the pool of blood and sarcastically wondered why he wasn't surprised to see Madi Gibson. "Lieutenant, tell me in twenty words or less what happened here."

~*~

May/2064 This video property of US Marine Corps

State your name please.

I've done this twice already.

State your name please.

Madison Gibson. Madi.

Tell me what happened.

I told you what happened.

Tell me again.

No.

Why did you kill Jenkins? Lt. Hawkes was attempting to disarm him.

I was afraid he would get the pistol up and shoot Cooper or a ricochet might hit one of us. Jenkins kept pulling the trigger. He was incredibly strong, like he was on drugs or something. It just happened in the heat of the moment.

Why were you there?

I told you.

Tell me again.

No.

You do realize we could have you arrested?

For protecting myself against a jealously insane stalker who tried to kill not only me, but a decorated war hero as well? Why don't you do that Colonel? I'm sure your superior officers would love seeing that news-video played back on Earth.

Tell me about the knife.

I confiscated it from a student several years ago. I carry it for protection.

Why did you attempt to use it on Cooper?

He scared me. I had no idea who was behind me.

Where did you learn fighting tactics?

I wouldn't go so far as to call those tactics, Colonel. I work in a rough area of the city; teachers regularly take self-defense classes offered by the school. I surprised myself with what I remembered. I think Cooper was just thrown off guard by the simplicity of the moves.

And it was just an accident that you put that knife in the perfect spot to cause instant death?

I prefer the word 'luck' but you may call it an accident if you wish.

Are you sorry Jenkins is dead?

No. I'm sorry his mental illness went undetected but I'm not sorry he's dead. He tried to kill Cooper.

You're referring to Lt. Cooper Hawkes?

Yes.

You killed him to protect Lt. Hawkes?

Yes, and myself of course.

Ms. Gibson, would you lie to protect Lt. Hawkes?

I would die for him. I wouldn't think twice about lying to protect him.

Who are you Madi? What are you really doing here?

I'm a teacher on Earth. I'm in space to visit my father.

A teacher that carries a knife and knows how to kill a man with one blow?

The education system is not what it once was, Colonel.

Who are you working for?

I work for a state-run orphanage and group home for the children of InVitro unions.

Is Cooper the key? Is that why you've insinuated your way into his life? His emotions?

You're insulting Cooper, Colonel McQueen.

We played right into your hands didn't we Gibson? How easy you must have thought all of us. Did you accomplish your objectives on this mission?

Well, I would have like to have finished Dickens but...things kept getting in the way.

Don't mess with me, Gibson.

I would like to go now Colonel. I'm exhausted and I want to shower the feel of Jenkins off me.

I know you're lying Madi. I will find out why. You'll be sorry if you're involved in anything that injures or endangers Hawkes. I'll be watching you until you take your last step off the Saratoga. I should have listened to my first instincts and never let you within shouting distance of him.

Watch away, Colonel McQueen. May I go now?

Yes, you're dismissed.

Thank you.


TC McQueen backed the video up once more and played through it again. Examining every facet of Madi Gibson's face and body language. She looked rumpled and weary yet she'd sat up straight and answered each question. Well the first two times, then she had become increasingly cranky and unfortunately the camera operator hadn't arrived until the third round to tape the interview. McQueen had to truthfully say it was sheer fatigue that made Madi so uncooperative on the video. While exhaustion was a useful and accepted interrogation tool in the military, Gibson was a civilian and exempt from such tricks. At least for now.

She was lying. He could feel it but for the life of him he didn't know why and he couldn't prove it. Her story was plausible. Unusual but plausible. Hawkes' deposition before the inquiry panel matched hers in every detail, though he had had never seen Jenkins and he'd been confused about the nature of the attack. Yes, Madi had warned him earlier to watch out for Jenkins because he was Aerotech. Cooper confirmed that Jenkins had been a total mental case and he was emphatically convinced that the scientist would have killed them both. Though an investigation would take place, McQueen knew with the war raging and everyone busy the case would be settled quickly and quietly. That suited him fine. He certainly didn't want Hawkes involved in a trial.

McQueen was more worried about the missing puzzle pieces. Alarm bells were going off in his head and something was definitely off kilter. Madi Gibson looked like she'd have trouble mashing a spider yet she'd killed a man today then sat through the questioning as cool as a cucumber.

Sometimes, rarely anymore, some odd twist of natural-born behavior occurred in his life the he couldn't quite grasp. This was such an occurrence, such a paradox. He would solve it though and he knew when he did that Madi Gibson would be square in the middle of it. For her sake he hoped she was as innocent as she claimed.

~*~

"Well, Lucas, what do you have to report? I presume you do have something to report? I can't imagine that you'd risk coming here unless you did." The elder man's eyebrows lowered as he considered the man in front of him.

"Yes, sir." The man waited impatiently for a moment, before his next words broke out of him in an agitated flurry.

"Well, what is it?"

Lucas considered the question for a moment, determining the best response. "There has been, as you said sir, a development. Our operative has taken... steps to remedy the situation."

The elder man's eyebrows lowered even further.

"And?"

"And the situation is stable, for now. Our operative believes that she has neutralized the problem, but I've advised her to be on her guard."

The elder man considered his... employee was not the correct word. Salvation. Lucas' face gave nothing away, but he was beginning to be able to tell when there was something going on under that placid surface.

"You don't believe that she has... neutralized the problem?"

Lucas smiled briefly. "Let's just say that you pay me to be careful. And while the situation may be stable on board the Saratoga, our mutual counterpart will not let this matter pass. We need to be vigilant."

The elder man nodded. "What do you intend to do now?"

"My partner is taking steps to hit our opponent where it hurts. In the meantime, I intend to assess the situation aboard the Saratoga myself."

~*~

She watched his face as he took his first bite of the chocolate mousse she'd made especially for him. Well, it wasn't everyday that her lover celebrated his seventh birthday. She was pleased that she'd made the effort when she saw the way that his face lit up. In some ways, in a lot of ways, he was still a big kid. And the way to a kid's heart was definitely chocolate. She had to admit that it was one route to her heart as well. She'd always had a weak spot for sweet things herself. That was probably why she had such a soft spot for him. And ice cream. And him and ice cream.

He scraped the last dregs of the mousse out of his bowl with a happy sigh, and directed one of those shy, sweet smiles at her. It made her go weak at the knees. She smiled back, love shining in her eyes.

'I take it you enjoyed that?'

'Yes.' He paused uncertainly. She waited. She'd found that it was best to wait. Eventually he told her what was on his mind. He continued shyly, 'Did you make it just for me?'

'Do you see anybody else celebrating their birthday, who has a major weakness for chocolate?' she teased. His face lit up even further, and he reached across the table to kiss her. 'How did you manage?' he asked.

'I have my sources,' she laughed, not telling him that she'd spent days tracking down the ingredients, trading whatever she could get her hands on on the Saratoga's black market just to make today as special for him as possible. He deserved it, especially with what had happened recently. She'd been planning it ever since Nathan West had let slip, accidentally on purpose, that Cooper Hawkes would be seven years old on May 15th, 2064. She had a feeling he'd made sure to tell her, to try to head off her anger over the Bacchus debacle, for which he knew she held him personally responsible.

'Besides, whatever trouble I went to, it was worth it. You're worth it.' She emphasised her last point. She knew he was still uncertain about their relationship, still a bit nervous that perhaps she wasn't serious, or would regret becoming involved with a 'dumb tank'. She spent a large proportion of her time reassuring him. Often physically. She allowed herself a small smile at that thought.

He kissed her again. She took advantage of this, slipping her tongue into his mouth. She felt him shiver with desire. She broke contact with him for a second.

'Ready for dessert?' she murmured against his mouth. She felt him smile.

'I thought we'd already had dessert?'

'Honey, you haven't seen anything yet.'

~*~

A little while later, they lay together, wrapped in each other's arms in her small bunk. She was quite pleased that it was small. It gave her a good excuse to snuggle up next to him. He was chewing gently on her bottom lip, satiated for the moment.

'Madi?' His voice was low.

'Mmmmm?'

'I love you,' he whispered. He didn't say it very often, so she treasured every time. She hugged him even more tightly against her.

'I know, baby,' she whispered back. 'I love you too. You know that, don't you?' He nodded against the side of her neck.

'I know. It's just nice when you say it.'

He released her, and sat up, running his fingers through his hair, already tousled by their recent activity. 'Got anything to drink?' She nodded sleepily.

'I think there might be something in the fridge,' she added. He smiled at her grandiose name for what was essentially a small ice box in the corner of her quarters. That was the one benefit of her having what were essentially VIP quarters. Two electric rings and an excuse for a fridge. Although that had enabled her to steal him away from the Wildcards for an evening, on the grounds that a meal in her quarters was somewhat more special than the mess. And since he'd never celebrated a birthday, never had a reason to celebrate, they'd agreed, albeit reluctantly. Especially Shane. Madi got the feeling that Shane didn't like her much. Besides the Wildcards had held their celebration for him earlier that evening, all of them using it as an excuse to spoil him rotten, to show him how much they cared, even McQueen.

She was half asleep, dwelling on these thoughts, when he sat back down on the bed. She opened her eyes and rolled on her back to face him.

'I see you found the remains of the chocolate mousse,' she smiled indulgently. He also appeared to have acquired the whipped cream. And a devilish smile. She eyed him warily, wondering what he had planned.

His attention appeared to be focused on the mousse in his hands, but she knew him well enough to know that he was watching her out of the corner of his eyes.

'Kitty?' Oh oh, she was in trouble. He only called her Kitty when he was up to something. 'Where's the rest of my present?' She was puzzled. She'd given him that Pink Floyd c.d. he was so fond of. She couldn't imagine what else he meant. Then she caught sight of the gleam in his eyes, as he raked them up and down her body. Definitely trouble.

'You mean you didn't get me anything else?' His voice dropped seductively. 'I guess I'd better make my own entertainment.' She watched, mesmerised, as he dug his fingers in the remains of the chocolate mousse. She yelped in surprise as he dropped it onto her bare flesh.

'Cooper Hawkes, what are you doing?'

'What do you think, Kitty? Making my own entertainment.' Before she could protest anymore, he'd covered her mouth with his, and took her breath away with his kisses. His hands were busy rubbing the cold chocolate into her skin. She had to admit that it was strangely erotic. Perhaps that was just the feel of his hands smoothing over her. Or the heavenly smell of chocolate mixed with the equally heavenly smell of him.

He returned for more chocolate mousse, rubbing it over the rest of her torso. Soon, her body from the neck to the waist in sticky, gooey chocolate. She started to giggle helplessly as he sat back and gave a critical look at his handiwork. He seemed unsatisfied for some reason, and her eyes widened in shock as he reached for the aerosol whipped cream. Her shriek of laughter echoed around the room, as with a serious expression he took hold of the can and neatly topped her off with two swirls of whipped cream. He then took hold of two green cherries, and firmly placed one atop each breast. She must look ridiculous. By now she was laughing helplessly, as he sat back on his heels and examined her critically once more. A slow smile crossed his face.

'Kittybockerglory!' That made her laugh even harder. He watched fascinated, as her laughter made the cherries on her breast quiver. Leaning over her, he caught hold of one of them between his teeth and sucked it into his mouth. The sudden action caused her breath to catch in her throat.

He then began to lick the cream away, suckling her breast, nipping and licking his way around her nipple, before finally catching it between his teeth. He held it there, flicking his tongue across it, sending shockwaves of pleasure down her body straight to her groin. Finally he released it, and hearing her sobbing breaths met her eyes for a second, his filled with passion, before returning to his task and licking his way across her body to her other breast.

He didn't neglect her abandoned breast though. His thumb continued to caress it, stroking gently across one nipple, while his mouth ravaged the other.

Filled with passion and desire, she ran her fingers through his hair, twisting her fingers in his locks. One of her thumbs began to brush over his navel, gently stroking it, while her fingers traced their way around the outside of it. She felt him grow harder against her thigh, as his body stiffened against her in pleasure, a low moaning sound forced from his throat. His eyes met hers again, hazy with the lust that she knew was also reflected in hers, before he lowered his head once more and began to lick his way down the rest of her body.

By the time he had removed all of the chocolate to his satisfaction, every nerve ending in her body was screaming with her desire for him. She couldn't believe that they'd made love only a short time before, but here she was, desperate for him again. Desperate for the feel of him against her, the feel of him inside her.

She pulled his head up and kissed him deeply, pouring all of her love for him, all of her need for him into that kiss. His tongue plunged deeply into her mouth, wringing fresh cries of pleasure from her.

'I want you... I need you now, Cooper,' she whispered into his mouth. That was the only signal he needed, and he reached for the condoms beside the bed.

She cried out softly as she felt him slide into her. Wrapping her legs around his waist, she urged him on, deeper. He took her lead, and soon was thrusting hard into her, every stroke drawing a fresh gasp of pleasure from her, from both of them. She met every thrust of his hips with one of her own, and it wasn't long before the shudders of her orgasm shook her body, matched by those in his.

~*~

The ship was looked sleek in the starlight. Sleek and beautiful. Although she knew that it was coming to take her away from Cooper, she had to admire its beauty. So she stood at the porthole, looking out onto the landing pad, her heart counting down the seconds. In less than twelve hours she'd be on the ship, and Cooper Hawkes would be a memory. Her heart twisted with pain at the thought.

It settled onto the pad and the main compartment separated to be lowered into the hanger bay below. She was about to turn and leave, when she felt a tingling sensation start on her scalp. Something elusive, and yet strangely familiar.

So instead of heading back to her quarters, where she'd arranged to meet Cooper when he'd finished his reports she turned and headed towards the hanger.

She knew that it was him before he'd even stepped up to the hatch. She wasn't sure if this was a good or bad sign. Cooper was safe now that Jenkins was dead, wasn't he? She felt fear begin to crawl through her gut.

His face did nothing to reassure her, but then it never did. His expression was as cool and impassive as always. She sensed that he had seen her, but he did nothing to attract attention. He began to weave his way through the maintenance crews, deftly avoiding the cables which hissed their way across the floor. A tall man, good looking but not obviously so. Deceptively young looking, especially dressed as now in a pair of casual trousers and loose shirt. He gave the impression of being a graduate student, or recently qualified tech. Smart looking, quiet, respectable, preppy. Nothing like the determined and occasionally ruthless individual that she knew him to be.

'An old friend of my father's,' she thought. 'Or perhaps a junior on his staff. Aerotech but non threatening.' A story prepared in case someone were to question why a man would get off a shuttle and talk to her first. 'Someone I know vaguely, who has heard about the AI attack, heard about Jenkins, is worried about my father. Perfectly natural that he should speak to me.'

He stood in front of her, smiling slightly, as though he'd heard her thoughts. And perhaps he had. With Lucas you could never tell.

Lucas. She occasionally wondered if this was a first or last name, but had never found the time or perhaps the courage to ask. Lucas, in a way her friend and now her employer for want of a better word.

"Madi?" His voice was melodious. "Judging by the excitement our pilots were showing, I take it that the situation has been dealt with... expeditiously?" She nodded, her face expressionless, her mind even more so. He smiled slightly. "Good."

McQueen had seen them, was heading their way. 'A friend,' she repeated to herself. 'Non-threatening, safe, trustworthy. Nothing for McQueen to be concerned about. Perfectly natural that he should speak to me.'

It hit her. A sharp shooting pain in her head, and a twisting in her gut. She was vaguely aware that Lucas felt it too.

'Ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod.' A cry of pain and confusion and fear in her head. Above all fear. And then nothing. Cooper. Oh my god, it was Cooper.

She was hot on Lucas' heels on her way out of the hanger, the cry still fresh in her head, giving her a sense of direction. She tore past McQueen, uncaring when she slammed her hip into the door frame in her rushed swerve to avoid him, ignoring the star burst of pain in her side.

The walls of the corridors sped past her as she ducked and dived to avoid the milling people around her, desperate to keep Lucas in sight. They paused at an intersection. She searched frantically for any signs of where that cry had come from, but could feel nothing. Beside her, Lucas stood, his head cocked, looking for all the world as if he was straining to capture a faint sound, which in a way he was.

"This way," he panted, heading off down a small side corridor. She followed him blindly in her panic, unable to get that cry out of her head. She must have been wrong. How could she have been so wrong. She was so convinced that Jenkins had been the one sent to kill Cooper. And now? Now she wasn't so sure and that fear, the fear that she couldn't sense him anymore because he was dead, gave speed to her feet.

They turned another bend, and in front of her was a tableau she knew that she'd never be able to forget no matter how hard she tried.

Cooper lay stretched out on the hard unforgiving metal floor. She skidded to a halt, freezing on the spot as a new surge of fear filled her. Lucas pushed past her and knelt next to his... body.

"He's unconscious," he reported. As her knees sagged in relief she turned her attention to the other figure, sitting slumped up against the wall. Her voice, when she spoke, didn't sound like her. It sounded as though it came from a thousand miles away.

"Dad? What did you do?" He didn't answer, and her rage rose up and consumed her. "Tell me!" she screamed.

Someone caught hold of her arms before she could reach him. Her father still refused to look at her. Lucas was still crouched down beside Cooper, his fingers pressed against his throat. She watched, her heart in her mouth, as those long fingers moved up to brush Cooper's hair away from his face. There was a gentleness in his movements that she hadn't suspected that he possessed.

"He's in shock," he said gently. "We need to get him out of here as soon as possible." His voice was equally gentle when he turned to speak to her father.

"Doctor Gibson, what did you give him?" Her father still refused to answer. Still refused to look at any of them.

"Was it Meanies?" a harsh voice next to her ear asked. McQueen. He must have followed them here, his warrior's instinct telling him that something was very wrong. "Did you give him an overdose? Why?"

"It wasn't phylophetamines," Lucas said authoritatively. "Whatever he was given sent him into shock almost immediately."

"Then what was it?" McQueen demanded. "What the hell did you do to him?" He moved towards Gibson, his manner threatening.

"Dad?" she whispered, her heart breaking. "Please?"

He finally looked at her, his eyes red rimmed and his expression terrifying. He looked like a man who was gazing into hell after being an atheist all of his life. His voice was dead.

"I gave him anexamylene." It meant nothing to either her or McQueen, but Lucas obviously recognised the name. She heard his breath whistle through his teeth.

"We have to get him out of here," he repeated, a new note of urgency in his voice. "As soon as possible and before he wakes up."

"Will it make him violent?" McQueen wanted to know. "Is it addictive?" Lucas laughed bitterly.

"That, my dear Colonel would be the lesser of two evils. No it won't make him violent. He'll barely be able to function. If we're not careful, he could go into shock again almost immediately, and this time it might kill him."

McQueen was nodding tightly. "I'll call some medics, and we'll get him to sickbay as soon as possible."

"No, Colonel!" Lucas' words brought McQueen to a startled stop. "Sickbay is the last place he needs to be. We need to get him as far away from people, any people, as we can manage. It may not be far enough on a ship like this, but we'll do what we can."

"But if he's in shock..."

"Not that kind of shock. Believe me, Colonel, they won't be able to do him any good and they may do a lot of damage. Place them in their hands and he may never recover." Lucas' words were intense, and despite knowing nothing about this man, McQueen felt an urge to trust him on this. But not too far.

Madi had other matters on her mind. "Why?"

"I had no choice," her father pleaded. "You don't understand, Madi, I had no choice. They said that if I didn't do it that they'd hurt you. I couldn't let them do that. Please, Madi, believe me."

She couldn't look at him anymore, couldn't stand the sight of him. She knelt beside Cooper, tears streaming down her face. Her own father. She'd been convinced that Jenkins had been the assassin and it had been her own father. How could she live with herself if Cooper died, knowing that.

After she turned away, her father continued to beg McQueen to understand. "I had no choice. They threatened to hurt my daughter. Please understand. What would you have done?"

McQueen looked at him coldly. "I don't have any children." Gibson didn't appear to have heard him, or perhaps he knew better than McQueen, because he continued.

"If they'd threatened your child, wouldn't you have chosen him over her?" Unable to stand anymore, McQueen also turned away. But as his eyes fastened on Cooper, he found himself unable to hate Gibson as much as he should have done, would have liked to have done. He couldn't honestly say what he would do in the same situation. He hoped to God that he never had to find out. Sending Cooper into battle every day was hard enough, but a conscious choice like that...

He stood and looked uncertainly at Lucas, his mind racing, trying to think of places away from people, trying hard to figure out why this was so important.

"My quarters," he said eventually. "They're right at the end of the passageway. The next three cabins are unoccupied. It's as much as you're going to get on this ship."

Lucas considered this for a moment, and then nodded. "It will have to do." Together they managed to hoist Cooper up onto McQueen's shoulder, and began to move him to McQueen's quarters. As they left, Gibson made one last plea for understanding.

"They would have hurt her!"

Lucas paused for a moment, his eyes reflecting a mixture of pity and contempt. "And now you have," he said simply. "You've hurt her far more than they could have done. You've hurt the one person in the world she loves more than you." And then he followed Madi and McQueen, leaving Gibson alone with his guilt.

~*~

It took them a while to reach McQueen's quarters. They had to avoid meeting people, afraid of the questions that the sight of Cooper's unconscious body might bring. Eventually though, McQueen laid him gently down on the bunk, his muscles aching. He wasn't light. He smoothed Cooper's hair back in an unconscious imitation of Lucas, his face betraying his worry. Lucas watched him sympathetically.

"He'll be all right, Colonel."

"Are you going to promise me that?" His voice was harsher than he intended, his grief giving it an edge. Lucas smiled faintly.

"If I have to Colonel, if I have to. And Madi will tell you, I'm a man of my word." McQueen glanced at Madi, who was crouched over in the corner of the room, her face twisted in grief. It was unfair to blame her for her father's actions, and yet he did. He wasn't used to feeling this level of grief, this level of pain. And he needed someone to take the blame.

"I think you'd better leave, Miss Gibson." He kept his voice intentionally blank. Her eyes widened in shock. He couldn't expect her to leave. No one could be that unfeeling. She couldn't leave without knowing that he was going to be all right. She looked at Lucas for support. He returned her pleading look calmly.

"He's right Madi, you should leave." Her face twisted again at this fresh betrayal. "Madi," he explained gently, "he's in psychic shock. When he wakes up, he won't be shielded. He needs to be as far away from people and especially strong emotions as possible. You may do him more harm than good." She searched his face desperately for any signs of weakness, but there was none. Defeated, she slumped, tears flowing again. "I promise, I'll tell you as soon as he wakes up. Trust me, Madi." She had no choice. She left, her heart breaking with every step.

"You too, Colonel." He wanted to protest. Goddammit, these were his quarters. Surely he couldn't mean it. "I do mean it Colonel."

"I'm not leaving here until I get an explanation." The tone in his voice was the one that sent the 'Cards scuttling for cover, but it didn't seem to phase this man. Lucas studied his face intently for a moment, and then relented slightly.

"Very well, Colonel you'll get your explanation, but you'll have to leave as soon as Cooper shows signs of waking up. Now what is it you want to know?" He settled back on the bunk, next to Cooper's head, his hand resting on his shoulder. McQueen fought a momentary pang of jealously. There was a simple open affection in the touch, something he'd never felt able to show Cooper, no matter how he felt. Right now he stared at the limp body on the bunk and wondered if this was how you felt if you watched your children hurt.

"What's anexy..."

"Anexamylene? It's an experimental drug that Aerotech are currently working on."

"What does it do?"

"How familiar are you with the workings of the InVitro programme?" McQueen bit back a sardonic laugh.

"You mean, other than being a result of it?" Lucas smiled, wryly.

"I meant how familiar are you with the less... public developments?" McQueen shook his head confused. Lucas sighed heavily and continued. "Anexamylene is a drug that is supposed to enhance so called 'psi' powers. It's in its very early experimental stages and hasn't had much success." McQueen snorted.

"If this is the result, I'm not surprised."

"This isn't the normal result, Colonel. Normally test subjects show either no effect or slight headaches. This substance can't give you 'psi' powers, Colonel. It can only release what's already there."

McQueen looked puzzled again. "Where does Cooper come in?"

"About thirty years ago, an brilliant scientist by the name of Richard Noble was obsessed with the idea of creating an advanced race of InVitros, ones with psychic abilities if you like, as well as being smart, quick learners, fast, the ideal black ops soldier in fact. He had limited success. Then twenty six years ago he died and Aerotech inherited the results of his experiments, twelve InVitros. About five of them are now believed to be the result of Noble tampering with his own genome. His and his lover's of the time. The others, well who knows where their genetic material came from. When they grew to adulthood, and were born as it were, Aerotech was rather disappointed to find that none of them showed the slightest psychic ability. Kind of a blow to their hopes as it were. They were, however, still physically suited to black ops work. They did indeed learn fast and were strong, possessing incredible reaction times."

McQueen found his eyes drawn to the bed. "Cooper," he breathed.

"Indeed. Cooper." Lucas paused, deep in thought. "What they'd assumed, of course, was that these kind of powers were linked to puberty. Anecdotal evidence, although largely discredited, does tend to suggest that these powers show up around then. Therefore, fully grown InVitros, having skipped that troublesome stage while in the tanks, should emerge fully fledged as it were. They had no reason to suppose that these talents would show up any later."

"Is that what happened?" Lucas gazed at him, considering how much to tell him. He decided to tell him as much as he could.

"Almost. It's possible that these talents would have shown up in Cooper sooner or later. I have a feeling that they were already starting to. He has been more receptive to others recently hasn't he? A little more considerate?" McQueen considered this. He had noticed a change in Hawkes, but had put it down to a combination of increased maturity and Madi's influence. The boy was growing up fast.

Lucas echoed his thoughts. "Madi may have been a contributing factor. She is a borderline 'path herself, admittedly very borderline. And sometimes being around someone with a similar talent can trigger a response. In addition, we're beginning to realise that the emergence of this talent may have more to do with emotional than physical maturity."

"Which is why it didn't show up before."

"Correct. Unfortunately the anexamylene appears to have accelerated the process. Instead of developing at his own speed, Cooper has been thrust into his talent full blown. The rush of images, sounds and thoughts in his head must have been overwhelming. He went into shock."

"This psychic shock thing you were talking about?"

"Yes. That's why to was so important to get him away from people. If he woke up into the same chaotic environment the same thing might happen again. At least if he's away from people I might have a chance to shield him."

"Shield him?"

"Block out the noise Colonel and hopefully keep him sane." Lucas sat up sharply. "He's started to come round. I'm afraid you're going to have to leave. I won't be able to shield him from you if you're in the room."

"You mean that you're a..."

"'Path. Yes, Colonel. I'm sorry, I thought that was clear. Don't worry, it doesn't mean that I can read your mind. It just means that sometimes I can pick up your surface thoughts. Most of the time reading people's expressions is much easier." He smiled gently, and then added with more emphasis. "Please, Colonel. You'll only do him harm if you stay at the moment. Hopefully he'll learn to shield himself before too long."

"And if he doesn't?"

"Then, Colonel, he would be better off if Gibson had killed him."

~*~

Lucas looked tired, McQueen thought. Lucas. He still wasn't sure if that was a first or last name. He wasn't even sure if he wanted to know. So he asked the question he was more concerned about.

"How is he?"

He was relieved to see Lucas smile slightly. He was even more relieved to here his first words. "He's going to be okay, Colonel." McQueen released the breath he didn't even know he was holding. Lucas was watching him closely, and so he tried to hide the relief that he felt. Rather a wasted effort in front of a 'path like Lucas, he reflected.

Lucas moved away from the door, allowing McQueen access. He hesitated for a moment, unwilling to give the other man the advantage of knowing how desperately he wanted to see his youngest kid, of seeing that he was well with his own eyes.

While he was waging this internal battle, Lucas moved away from the door, leaving it wide open, making it a bit obvious if McQueen walked away. So McQueen gave into temptation and joined him in the room, his quarters.

Cooper was asleep. Lost to the world, he looked even younger than usual, the normal suspicion in his face gone completely. He seemed peaceful, his breathing steady and his body loose. No sign of the tension McQueen had observed earlier and his skin had lost the pallor which had worried him so much. Before he was even aware of what he was doing, his hand had reached out and gently brushed the hair away from Cooper's face. Cooper stirred slightly and rolled over but didn't wake. McQueen shot a guilty look at Lucas, but he appeared absorbed in contemplation of the stars outside of the porthole and McQueen was almost certain that he hadn't seen his lapse. Almost.

He cleared his throat, strangely nervous. "Is he...?"

"He's going to be all right, Colonel," Lucas reassured him. "It's not going to be easy, but he will be all right, eventually."

"What do you mean, eventually?" McQueen demanded, his fears aroused again. Lucas hastened to reassure him once more.

"Colonel, like everything learning how to do this isn't easy. It could be the most difficult thing that Cooper ever learns to do." He paused for a moment, considering the marine in front of him, his face creased with exhaustion. "Shielding takes a great deal of concentration at first, Colonel. It takes lot of energy. You can expect him to sleep a lot and he'll probably get a lot of headaches. It won't be easy for any of you I'm afraid." He paused to sip at the coffee in his hand. "Have you decided how much to tell the other 'Cards?"

"Do I have to tell them anything?"

Lucas smiled, although he was too exhausted for it to mean too much. "Considering that they're going to have to share a wardroom with someone who is going to be cranky, irritable, and occasionally behave irrationally..."

"That's new?" That brought a bigger smile to Lucas' face.

"Maybe not that new, but the headaches and nightmares may be. Plus, they're going to need to give him some space sometimes. He's not going to be able to keep his shields up all of the time, and when he lets them down, he's going to need to be left alone. I need to make sure that they understand that." Lucas' voice dropped slightly. "They're all he's got, Colonel. I don't want them to be alienated because they don't know what's going on, or because he's behaving oddly."

McQueen thought back to Cooper's recent addiction. The 'Cards had stuck with him through that, despite the curses he'd treated them with and the way he'd tried to shut them out when things got really bad. But this...

"Plus, I understand that this type of... phenomena," Lucas said the word with a wry smile, "is not entirely unfamiliar to them. Lieutenant Damphousse...?"

How did he know about that, McQueen wondered.

"Colonel, I know a lot of things," Lucas smiled. His comment gave McQueen a start. Until then, he wasn't sure that this man had been telling the truth. Part of him had thought perhaps he was just deluded, existing in his own little fantasy world. "If Lieutenant Damphousse is gifted, then she could be helpful. Regardless of how little or great her talent, at the minimum she can shield, and that means that at least Cooper will not be on his own when he lets his guard down. He won't be able to shield, but she can."

Lucas examined Colonel McQueen for a moment. "In fact, Colonel, you may not realise it but you also have a natural shield. It doesn't mean that you have talent, but some more... reserved... individuals are capable of shielding. It's an extension of their natural reserve as it were."

"Does that mean that Cooper can come to me when his... shields... are down?"

"It's a possibility. We can see how it goes." Lucas gave him another keen look. "It really won't be easy, Colonel. He's going to need a lot of support. A lot of... attention and reassurance. Are you sure you're up to it?"

McQueen bristled. How dare this interloper suggest that he wouldn't be there for any of his kids. Lucas sighed.

"I meant no insult, Colonel. But there's a world of difference between managing a group of competent marines, or even half scared kids and dealing with someone who's half convinced that he's going insane because he can't block the voices out of his mind. Or trying to reassure him when he's throwing up because the pain in his head is so bad. And the medics won't be able to help." Lucas snorted. "In fact I wouldn't let those incompetents within 50 feet of him." It was a sentiment McQueen shared.

"Is there anything else you can do?" Lucas shook his head.

"I can be at the end of a vidphone, Colonel if things get too bad. But the last thing we want to do is to draw Aerotech's or the IVA's attention to Cooper. I can give you some medication to give him if things get too bad. But I warn you now, that I've no idea what it could do to InVitros. It's only been used on natural borns, and precious few of them at that. For all I know, it could be worse for him than meanies. That's why I only suggest you use it if essential."

"Nothing else?"

Lucas' lip quirked up. "You could try alcohol," he suggested. McQueen raised one eyebrow. "It works, Colonel, believe it or not. And a storming hangover is preferable to the alternative."

"Which is?"

"A suicidal marine," Lucas replied softly. That shook McQueen to the core, and his eyes darted to Cooper, reassured when he saw the boy breathing evenly. "I'm not saying that it's going to happen, Colonel. Cooper's tough. Some aren't. And more than one has decided that they couldn't live with this anymore. Most of those were considerably less talented than Cooper." He stretched out, reminding McQueen of a highly bred cat. "It probably won't come to that, Colonel, but just in case it does I've given you those pills."

"What about Gibson?"

"Bernard Gibson? He's no longer a threat, Colonel, but I can't guarantee that there won't be more like him. All I can say is that we'll take whatever steps we can to prevent that."

"We?"

"My partner and I." McQueen looked at him hard, a gaze that Lucas returned steadily. He wasn't saying anymore about his partner.

"I meant Madison Gibson." Could he really not have known that?

"Madi?" Lucas seemed surprised. "Madi has never been a threat to Cooper. On the contrary."

"You sent her." It wasn't a question, but Lucas nodded anyway.

"We knew that someone had been sent to kill him, Colonel. We just didn't know who. Madi was our safeguard in case Cooper was unable to defend himself."

"And she thought that Jenkins was the one."

"It seemed logical, when he attacked them. The irony of course, was that he was just a sad and dangerous man obsessed with Madi." Lucas paused for a moment. "Poor Madi. She'll never forgive him." McQueen didn't have to ask what he meant. She'd never forgive Cooper for her father being pressurised to kill. What natural born could forgive a tank that. He couldn't have been more wrong. Lucas, however was too tired to pick that up. It was all he could do to hold his shields up around both him and Cooper.

"Do you want me to talk to your squad, Colonel?"

"No, I'll do that. Will you let me know when he wakes up?" Lucas nodded, relieved that this man was leaving. He hadn't lied when he'd told him that he had a natural shield. But Lucas was still having difficulty maintaining a shield over two people, even if the other person in the room could shield himself.

~*~

After McQueen had explained the situation to the remaining Wildcards, and answered their disbelieving questions to the best of his ability, he made his way back to his quarters where Cooper was safely ensconced. He was relieved to find Cooper awake this time. Lucas left them alone, after satisfying himself that Cooper was able to cope.

"How are you feeling," he asked softly.

"Okay," Cooper answered uncertainly. He still looked shaky. "What happened?" McQueen told him about Gibson and the drug he'd administered.

"I know that," Cooper replied. "Lucas told me that much. I just..." McQueen understood. Cooper had just wanted it confirmed by someone he really trusted.

"Madi?" Cooper asked. McQueen wasn't looking forward to this.

"She works for Lucas, Cooper," he said as gently as he could. "She was paid to watch you." His heart came as close to breaking as it had in a long time, as he watched the pain and disbelief grow on Cooper's face.

"Cooper," he whispered. "You still have the Wildcards."

It wasn't enough.

~*~

She'd been so worried about him. She'd talked to Lucas, and he'd reassured her that Cooper was going to be all right, but until she saw him, she hadn't been convinced. Her face lit up as soon as she clapped eyes on him.

"Cooper!" He froze. She rushed up to him, wrapping her arms around him in relief. She was completely taken aback when he shook her off. She staggered back, her hands behind her the only thing stopping her from hitting the wall. She reached one hesitant hand out towards him.

"Cooper, baby what's wrong." He just stood and looked at her, shaking. She felt her heart leap to her throat, almost choking her.

"Baby, please tell me." Her eyes filled with tears.

"Don't call me that," he hissed. "Don't ever call me that." She stared at him in shock. "You lied to me." His voice was shaking as well. "You lied to me..."

"Baby..."

"DON'T CALL ME THAT!" She shrank back against the wall, her hand falling by her side. His voice was disbelieving as he continued. "You lied to me. Everything you said was a lie." He tried to laugh, a travesty of a sound. "You must have thought it was a great game. Lie to the tank, tell him you love him, convince him of it." His voice cracked. "I believed you."

She shook her head, her eyes pleading. He wouldn't look at her. "But McQueen told me the truth. You were paid to be with me." He finally looked her straight in the eye. She could see the pain, but seemed helpless to do anything about it. She tried again.

"Cooper, please," she whispered. "I do love you, please believe me. No one paid me for that. To keep you alive, yes, but not anything else."

"Liar." She couldn't stand the pain and contempt in his voice. He continued, his voice wavering between a harsh laugh and a sob. "You know, Jenkins was right Madi. You really are a whore."

And then, with that, he was gone from her life. She stood there in the corridor, numb with disbelief.

Cooper couldn't go to his hiding place. It was full of memories of her. There was another place he knew, smaller, less comfortable but away from prying eyes. He didn't start crying until he reached it, and then he thought he'd never stop.

~*~

Sorrow washed away the numbness. How would she ever convince him if he wouldn't stand and fight. Madi turned and nearly ran over Shane Vansen. She automatically straightened and wiped all the expression of her face. She would die before she let Shane see her cry.

"I knew you'd end up hurting him."

"Shane, he's got it all twisted around and wrong. My job and my feelings for Cooper were two completely different things. Where could he have gotten this idea?"

"He got it from me."

Madi whirled around to see TC McQueen standing in the opening of his cabin. She was so upset she had to think for a second why he was here. Cooper had been staying in his quarters. Jealousy and suspicion rolled over Madi and that made her angry. Angry that she doubted Cooper for a moment. However, she found that she enjoyed the hostility much better than the pain so she let it grow until she was shaking with rage. "What have you told him?"

McQueen dismissed Shane with a look. She started to protest until another look from him had her reluctantly moving away - but not before she shot Madi a glance full of hatred and promise. Madi wanted to explain further but she could tell it would do no good and she wouldn't beg for anyone's understanding but Cooper's. Screw Shane Vansen and McQueen.

"I told him the truth." He held the hatch open farther and stepped back so Madi could enter his cabin. "Let's discuss this in private, Ms. Gibson." She rushed past him. Another time she would have been fascinated by his quarters and as nosy as Cooper about the books and pictures so carefully placed around the room, now she barely noticed them.

"The truth? And what version of the truth have you so righteously chosen McQueen? Exactly what in your 'truth' has him convinced that I used him so badly that he would call me a whore?" Madi was so furious she could hardly force her words out. She wanted to scream and hit this cold person in front of her who watched her so calmly. She wanted him to at least hurt as much as she hurt.

"I wouldn't call you that, Gibson. A whore doesn't have an ulterior motive. It's just cut and dried - sex for money. I'd call you a parasite. You attached yourself to Hawkes for your own gain and like most parasites you've wounded your host. It's too late to cry now, Madi."

"I saved his life, Colonel. What kind of parasite does that? I've watched over him since the day I arrived on this ship. I was in a nurse's uniform protecting him when he was in detox and coveralls watching his back in the hangar bay and rubber gloves cleaning his wardroom to keep an eye on him. And you were right, I did jump at the chance to be closer to him - to be able to concentrate on his protection without having to be concerned about some odd cover was wonderful.

But your implication that I manipulated his feelings is hitting below the belt, McQueen. You don't know me. You don't know what I feel for him. I never lied to Cooper. I would have died in his place and you've told him I was only with him for money? What kind of father does that? Is this what you think love is?"

"I'm not his father." But McQueen suddenly remembered Bernard Gibson and he knew he would sacrifice Madi to protect Cooper and he was ashamed. However his pride wouldn't let him back down. "Are you saying you didn't get paid to be with him?"

Madi was actually surprised she could feel more anger. "I 'm saying I was doing my job, Colonel and I got too close to the subject. That has nothing to do with getting paid.

"You know what you problem is McQueen? You can't understand that there's enough love in Cooper for everyone. He worships you and you're the closest thing he'll ever have to a father whether you want the job or not; but you have to learn that just because he loves me doesn't mean he loves you or the 5-8 any less. You're so scared and jealous that you won't let yourself see what our relationship means to him. Well, you've got him back for now. Enjoy it, Colonel...it won't last."

"What's that supposed to mean, Gibson?"

"It means that I'm not giving him up and I'm telling you fair and square right now. If it's a fight you want you've picked the right person. I intend to get him back and if you get in my way you're going to be the one hurt. Your lack of trust in Cooper will be your downfall, McQueen."

"I trust Hawkes where it counts, Gibson - on the battlefield or in his Hammerhead and he'll be fine once you're off this ship and out of his life."

"That's just it Colonel, I will never be out of his life. That's the truth you're hiding in your heart. Consider yourself forewarned, McQueen. He loves us both but he'll choose me if you force him to make that decision. It will kill him, but he will choose to be with me."

"Get off this ship, Gibson and forget about Hawkes. His family is here and he won't remember your name in a week."

"You're no better than my father, McQueen," Madi told him as she left and she enjoyed the pain that crossed his face.

~*~

It was raining. The streets were wet and slick, glistening in yellow glow cast by the street lights. It was late and eerily silent. For some reason, this made June Maddox very nervous.

She was reaching into her handbag for the keys to her car as she turned the corner to where it was parked. That meant that she didn't immediately notice the small figure seated on the bonnet. When she did glance up, her instant reaction was to wonder where this child had come from, and how it had got past the security which should have been in place in the governmental car park. She didn't like children much. They were nuisances at best and downright hostile at worst. Her face fixed in a determined and angry grimace. God help this one if it had done anything more than sit on the bonnet. No juvenile delinquent could mess with her and escape intact.

She hoisted her bag back onto her shoulder and marched towards the car. At this distance, in this poor lighting, she couldn't tell if the child was male or female. Long hair, but what did that say these days? She wasn't too concerned which it was. It was far too small to give her any trouble no matter which sex. No more than thirteen or fourteen at the most.

Her confidence was misplaced. As she moved closer, her mouth already starting to form the angry words, the figure turned at look at her. 'Yellow eyes,' she thought incoherently. 'It's got yellow eyes.' Some small part of her mind tried to rationalise this as an effect of the yellow lighting, but some deeper, older part, the part that remembered what it meant to be prey, knew differently.

A soft, singsong voice reached her ears. "I've been waiting for you." The statement sounded mild enough, but, oh God, the tone. The tone reminded her of sharp knives and sharper teeth, and sent fear racing through her body. And then the thing was moving towards her, impossibly fast.

The security guards didn't even hear her scream.

~*~

Lucas tapped on the hatch of the guest wardroom. "Madi, we've got thirty minutes until boarding. Are you ready?"

Her voice came to him muffled and indistinct through the metal but he captured the thought perfectly. "Go away, Lucas. I'm not budging a toe off this rust bucket until I've seen Cooper."

Lucas sighed and went in. Madi sat with her legs crossed Indian-style in the middle of the bed. Her eyes were watery with incensed tears and her nose looked like Rudolph's. Madi didn't cry prettily. "You know, Lucas, the social concept inherent to the locking of doors implies that the occupants behind those doors wish not to be disturbed." She spoiled her sarcastic tirade by blowing her nose quite loudly.

Lucas, paying no attention to her, simply walked to the closet, retrieved her suitcase, and started throwing clothes into it. That got her off the bed. "Stop that! They just delivered those things this morning from the laundry. Lucas, you're going to get them all wrinkled." Men. As bad as she felt, the last thing she wanted to do was iron when she got home. Madi pushed him out of the way and started putting the clothes in herself, forcefully, but not wrinkling them. Lucas tried not to smile. Madi looked sad but he knew she was more angry than anything. She wasn't one to wallow in tears and self-pity and he had timed his visit to her realization that mourning was, in fact, quite boring. She preferred fighting.

He moved over and started gathering odds and ends from around the room and throwing them into the hat-box thing that Madi always carried. Madi looked up from emptying a drawer full of underwear into her case to see him looking at a compact disk. It reminded her so much of Cooper that she felt an actual pain in her stomach. Get away from those! she screamed in her mind. Lucas seemed impervious to her thoughts though and Madi turned away huffily for some more clothes. Sometimes she liked to test Lucas. She had a theory about his special talent that no one spoke of - but when her thoughts were so clear and he didn't respond she always relaxed a little. She was too private to want someone tripping through her head.

"Madi, if you don't walk out of here on your own, McQueen will have you carried out. Do you want that? In fact, from the look of him I'd say he's absolutely giddy with anticipation over the event."

Madi had found one of Cooper's T-shirts half under the bed. She put it to her nose and inhaled his scent that clung to the material. A new wave of fury and sadness rolled over her. She quickly folded the shirt and put it in her suitcase, trying to concentrate on Lucas' words.

"Yeah, well, fuck McQueen," Madi groused. Cooper probably would be before she got back to Earth. Madi instantly hated herself for having such traitorous thoughts. Cooper loved her. If she caught him having sex and ice cream with anyone else she'd kill him herself. Madi thought of his cold, ice cream covered finger sliding into her and his tongue following it and her knees went weak. How was she going to live without him?

Behind her the book Lucas had been holding crashed to the floor. Madi whirled around to see what the noise was. "Lucas are you all right? You look kind of flushed. You're not getting sick are you?"

"No, I'm fine Madi," Lucas managed to get out past the constriction in his throat. "Just exhausted from all this excitement." Ice cream?

"Well as soon as we get home you need to go see Thursday and let her pamper you a little. You're probably working too hard."

"Good idea." He might even take along a gallon of chocolate almond he thought with a wicked smile. Madi was full of surprises. Still waters.

He found a pad of paper and a pen in the box and handed them to Madi. "Here, write Cooper a note and tell him you'll write and explain everything later. This whole situation has turned into a major clusterfuck, Madi, and we need to go home and let the dust settle.

"You're exhausted, I'm exhausted, Cooper's a mess. Think what's been dumped on him this past month, a natural-born would be institutionalized." He lifted her chin with his finger and looked into her blue-green eyes, swimming with tears. "If you love him, Madi, you need to give him time to heal. He'll bounce back a stronger person for this. Fire tempers steel. Now let's go."

"I don't have to do what you say, Lucas," Madi bluffed, but he could tell he'd won.

"Yes, you do. I haven't signed your paycheck." He stopped the next words out of her mouth. "And yes, you are going to take that check. And you are going to go back and start adoption procedures for Reece and the twins. And you are going to be okay, Madi. You're strong. It's one of the things he loves so much about you." He wiped away the tears that ran down her cheeks with the back of his hand and pressed a brotherly kiss to her forehead.

"Now," Lucas began brusquely, "Write this note and then go put some makeup on to cover that nose before you blind the crewmen. I'm going to take the note down to Paul Wang, who does believe you by the way, and ask him to give it to Cooper. Any questions?"

"Does Thursday know how lucky she is to have you?" Madi asked through her tears.

"I'm sure she doesn't appreciate me nearly enough." Madi scratched a short note and handed it to Lucas. "See you in ten at the boarding gate?" She nodded.

"Lucas?" He turned back from opening the hatch. "I'm glad you came. How did you know we'd all need you so badly?"

"I'm psychic," he said with a smile and he was gone.

~*~

She sat on the shuttle that was taking her away from Cooper, trying desperately hard not to cry. That had to be a way to see him. There had to be. She couldn't just let him out of her life altogether. She may never see him again.

Lucas reached out and squeezed her hand comfortingly. It was all he could do as the flight crew made their preparations to depart.

~*~

Epilogue

She watched as the water streamed over the planes of his back. God, he was so beautiful. She could watch him for hours, that beautiful body, the way he moved, as sure-footed as a cat. Eyes traced the outlines of his torso, sliding over the shape of his shoulders, down that powerful back to that narrow waist and hips. Over those tight buttocks. Powerful legs next, and down to trim calves. She could feel herself becoming aroused.

Steam filled the air, as she slipped off her robe, letting it pool about her feet on the floor. She locked the door to the shower room behind her and stepped into the stream, joining him. He didn't appear startled. He must have known that she was watching him. She let her hands trace the outline of his shoulder blades, luxuriating in the feel of his satin skin under her palms. She couldn't get over how smooth he was. Like a Greek statue. Like a Greek god.

She picked up the soap, lathering it between her palms, and then smoothing the bubbles over his back, and down to his waist. He braced his hands against the wall, lost in the feel of her stroking his back, the skin twitching where she touched.

She wrapped her arms around him, smoothing them over his chest and stomach, the soap making them glide easily over the planes of his body. She avoided the place she knew he wanted to her to touch the most. There would be time for that later. Right now, it was enough to feel the rest of him. To savour this. Who knew if she would ever have this chance again.

He arched his back, as he felt her hands sliding over his body, pressing back against her, feeling her breasts against his back, the nipples hard little pebbles. He reached around and grasped hold of her buttocks, pulling her closer to him, sliding his hands over smooth flesh.

She gave into temptation, and pressed her mouth against the hot omphalos on the back of his neck. She felt him buck against her, as she sucked and nibbled it, running her tongue over it back and forth. The gasping sounds he was now making were incredibly erotic, and she could feel the wetness between her thighs.

Now the only thing holding him upright were his hands pressed against the wall. His knees had gone weak, a direct result of the feelings she was causing. He gasped again, as she continued to suck on his neck while her hand moved downwards to clasp his erection, sliding her fingers up and down the length of it.

She stopped when she felt that he was close to the edge, wanting to prolong the experience. Her hands returned to roaming over the rest of his body, occasionally returning to stroke his cock, while her mouth roamed over his back and neck, now and then brushing his navel. Every time she did that, he jerked against her.

He turned around, and captured her mouth with his, his tongue conquering their depths. Now it was his turn, as he slid soapy hands over her body, paying special attention on her breasts and buttocks. By now, she was as aroused as he was. Each time his tongue flicked over her iron hard nipple, it drew a fresh gasp of pleasure from her. His mouth followed the contours of her body, flicking lightly over her belly button, her stomach, and then into the area between her thighs. He used his hands to part her thighs to allow him greater access, and now it was her turn to use the wall as support, its cool an erotic contrast to the heat of the water, and the heat his tongue was generating.

He flicked his mouth over her vulva and around her clitoris, then used his fingers to part the entrance to her vagina. She cried out as she felt his tongue plunder her depths, thrusting in and out in a rhythm older than time. She wound her hands in his hair, holding him there, as she climaxed, the hot wetness of her juices filling his mouth.

Satiated she released him, and he stood, pressing hot passionate kisses against her mouth. He reached for the condom she'd had the foresight to bring into the shower with her, where it lay in the soap dish. She helped him roll it down his length, and then he was finally inside her, filling her, making her complete.

He placed his hands under her buttocks, lifting her, and she wrapped her legs tightly around his waist, thankful that he was so strong. She'd never had a lover who could make love to her standing up before.

Her arms were wrapped tightly around his neck, her thumb stroking the navel there in time to the strokes he was filling her with. Her back was pressed up against the wall, the water running over her face, and over his body. The only sounds were the running of the water and the sound of them breathing, panting with pleasure.

She felt the familiar feelings of an impending orgasm fill her. He was growing harder within her, his thrusts becoming more brutal and deeper, showing her that he was close to the edge too.

He thrust again, hard, and again harder. She felt herself break into a thousand pieces, soaring away. She was dimly aware that she'd cried out.

He heard the cry as she came, and that sound enabled him to let go. He'd been holding on so tightly, wanting her to climax again before he did. He thrust once more, and then felt the waves of pleasure rush through him, forcing his cry to mingle with hers.

They held each other tight for several precious seconds, and then her legs released their hold around his waist and she placed her feet on the floor. She felt a momentary loss as he withdrew from her, but that passed as she felt him wrap his arms even tighter around her, and he finally spoke, whispering her name in her ear.

"Shane."

She felt his tears against her neck, almost as hot as the shower itself, and felt his body shake. And knew that he was missing Madi, crying for her.

The End






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