Every breath is a second chance...

~Always by Switchfoot



Peter Conroy clings to life in the care of physicians on Earth.  As the Argo sits in dry-dock, following her mission to Iscandar, Wildstar discovers Jessica Conroy stealing meds from the on-board infirmary.  A chase ensues.  In the last moment Wildstar encounters Peter's sister, she's falling away from him, through a jagged opening in the battle-damaged hull of the Argo.  However, instead of finding her body broken on the hanger floor, there's no body at all...



Hardy entered the hospital cafeteria.  Cory was sitting in a chair with his arms crossed and his jaw clenched.  Lance, another Black Tiger pilot, was the only one left watching him.


“Has he cooled down at all?”  Hardy asked Lance as he went to the empty kitchen with a box in hand. 


“No, Sir!  I think he still has some fight in him yet!”  He patted Cory on the head, but Cory suddenly smacked the pilot's hand away.  He shot Lance his best glare of warning.  Lance laughed out loud.  “I still think we oughta' teach this one to respect his elders!”


Hardy smiled.  “Maybe later!  I've got someth'n better!”


Lanced watched over his shoulder as Hardy removed a pie from the box.  “Is that what I think it is?”


“Oh, yeah!”  Hardy rubbed his hands together with a smile.


“From your Grandmother?”  Lance stood up and gave Hardy his full attention.  “Oh, man!  You've been talking about that ever since we left Earth!”


“If ya' have some, you'll know why!”


“Big slice!”  Lance prodded with a grin.


Hardy turned and drew some plates from a nearby shelf.  Hardy felt Cory's eyes on him.  He could almost smell the hole the young Cadet was burning into his back as he portioned out slices of pie onto the plates. 


He turned and smiled as he handed a plate to Lance.  “Hey, I've got some business with the young'un over there.  Do ya' mind?”


“Are you sure?”


“Yeah, ah'll be fine!  Ah' don't have mah' arms full ah' female this time!”


Lance thanked Hardy for the pie and left the two alone.


Hardy picked up the two remaining plates and some forks.  “Cadet, do yah' believe yah' sister should be happy?”


Cory's intense glare didn't waiver as Hardy moved toward the table with one plate in his hand and another balancing in the crook of his arm.  “Of course I do!”


“Well, so do ah'.  Ah' would like to make her happy, if she will have me.”


The words seemed to slightly disarm the young man.  Cory's glare softened. 


“Ah' can't do that if you and ah' are try'n to kill each other.”


“She doesn't need a fighter jock!”  Cory snapped.  “How do you plan to make her happy if you're gone for six months or a year?  My Dad didn't want that life for her!  She needs someone who's around, someone that will take care of her!”


“Ah' think you underestimate your sister.  She takes care of herself.  From what ah' understand, she looked after you and Peter after your mother died.”


Cory was silent.  He looked away and leveled his furious glare at some obscure spot on a nearby wall.


“Ah' am very sorry for handlin' our reunion the way ah' did.  Mah' intentions toward your sister are honorable...”


“Honorable?”  Cory shot back.  “You don't know her, or what she needs to be happy!”


“Then help me to understand what she needs.”


“You want advice?  From me?  You want me to tell you how to get into my sister's pants?” 


“You go too fah', Boy!  Don't speak of her in that way!” 


“Don't call me 'boy'!”


“Ah' call ya' anything ah' damn well please as long as ya' wear'n tha' uniform.”   A long silence passed between them.  They stared at each other with their best bristling glares.  Hardy finally used his fingertip to push a plate toward Cory.  “Eat.  That's an order!”


“I'm not hungry!”


Hardy rolled his one visible eye.  “Oh, ah've heard that before!  Half that pent-up anger is hunger you didn't know ya' had.”


Cory glanced at the slice of pie before him.  He eyed Hardy with suspicion. 


“Really?  Ya' think ah' done someth'n evil to your pie?”  Hardy took the fork from his own plate and stabbed the slice he pushed to Cory.  He scooped up a piece and shoved it in his own mouth.  “Mmmmmmmm, good stuff!” 


Cory glared at him again, still smoldering.  Finally, Cory sat up straight in his chair.  He leaned over the table and pulled Hardy's plate to him.  He picked up his fork and stabbed the dessert with intention.  Obviously, trying to prove he wasn't afraid of it.  All the while, they continued to glare at each other, anger still smoldering, but slowly dissipating, like smoke from a pipe. 


Cory shoved the fork in his mouth.  His expression softened slightly into, what Hardy surmised, was surprise. 


“Don't like it?”  Hardy asked as he reached for the plate.  “Ah' can eat it.”


Cory grabbed the plate from the table and held it far out of Hardy's reach.  He propped his feet on the chair next to his and resumed a reclined position.   


“That's more like it!”  Hardy smiled, then he thought, 'Grandmother's sweet potato pie could slice through angry resolve, like a hot knife through butter.'





Cory suddenly jumped to his feet and stood at attention when Wildstar and Nova entered the room. “Is she here?” Wildstar directed his question to Hardy.


“Suh?”  Hardy responded with a look of genuine confusion.


“Jessica.  Did she come back here?” 


“Ah' thought she was with you!” Hardy replied, then he glanced questioningly at Nova, but she was silent. “Ah'  went to get her someth'n to drink. When ah' came back, both ah' you were gone.  I thought yah' finally got her to eat someth'n.”


“Are you being truthful with me?” Wildstar's words tumbled fervently from an emotional heap of fear and rage. 


“Derek!” Nova whispered.  He knew she was chastising him for the implied accusation.


Hardy's body stiffened and the tone of his voice changed. “Ah'm sorry?”


“I asked you a question...”


“Ah' heard it...” Hardy shot back, visibly making an effort to control his voice, but his Southern drawl always thickened in the midst of angry words. “Yah' ah'ready know tha' ansah' to that.”


Wildstar turned to Cory.  The young Cadet was still, with his eyes directed forward.  “Cadet Conroy?” 




“Do you know where your sister is?”


“Jessica, Sir?”


“Do you have another sister?”


“No, Sir!  Just the one!”


“Where is she?”


“Sir, we thought she was with you!”


“If you know something, Cadet, tell me now!  While I am in a forgiving mood!”


“Sir!  Can you tell me what I'm supposed to know, Sir?”


“If Jessica was in trouble, Cadet, where would she go?”


Cory hesitated.  “Jessica's in trouble?”


“I'm asking the questions here!”


“I... I don't have any idea.”


“Think, Cadet!”


“We only see each other when I make it home on leave!  Maybe if you told me what this is about...”


“If I find out you're lying to me...”  Wildstar felt Nova's hand on his arm.  It was her silent plea to stay his anger.  “I can get you scrubbed from the Academy!  Do you understand?” 


“Sir, honestly, I would tell you if I knew but...”


With Nova's intervention, Wildstar realized, in the heat of the moment, his emotions ruled his words.  Blindly lashing out at those around him wasn't helping the situation.  The bitter feeling of helplessness was unrelenting.  It prodded at what remained of his patience.  He suddenly turned on his heel and brushed passed Nova as he left the room. 


Hardy trailed him out the door.  Cory was right behind him.  “Wildstah!  What's go'n on?  Wildstah!”


“Hardy, I've got to know!” Wildstar turned to face him. “Would you protect her, if she were in trouble?”


Hardy released an exasperated sigh.  “Ah' would defend her honor from false accusations, just as 'ah would for Miss Nova!”  Wildstar wasn't satisfied with his response.  He started to turn away from him, but Hardy continued.  “Ah'right... let's back-off the accusations for ah' minute until we understand what's got yer' skivvies in a knot!  Mah' Grandmotha' says yah' can't walk 'round like that!  Yah' get a rash!”  He hesitated.  Wildstar guessed he was debating whether to answer a question with another question.  He was right.  “Protect her from whut?”


Wildstar's anger burst forth in rapid-fire words.  “She breached security at the Argo's LZ!  She boarded the Argo without assistance or authorization.  That, in and of itself, should be enough for a one-way ticket to the brig, but she didn't stop there!  She damaged military property and stole medical supplies!”


“That can't be!”  Cory shouted from the doorway.


Hardy's jaw dropped.  “Whah'?”


“How much do you know about her, Hardy?”


“Ah' know she's Peter's sister!  Ah' know she saved mah' life!  That makes her good people in mah' book.”


“She broke into the infirmary on the Argo, Hardy!  She took medications and supplies rated for use by only authorized medical personnel!  In my book, that makes her a thief!”


Hardy slowly shook his head.  “No...” His voice was soft when he spoke, as if he was trying to wrap his head around the idea.  “Ah' don't believe you!”


“She wouldn't do that!”  Cory shouted and started toward the two men, but Nova touched him on the arm.  He looked back her.


“Please, Cory,  she said softly.  “Some of the drugs she took can be very dangerous!”


“She didn't do this!”  He shouted at her, completely forgetting his rank.  He turned and approached Wildstar and Hardy, until he was face to face with Wildstar.  “You're wrong!”


“What makes you so sure, Cadet?”  Wildstar snapped, and Cory stared at him as if the question seemed absurd.


“She's my sister...” he replied softly.  “I've known her my whole life!  She has never harmed another living thing!”


“I saw her!  With my own eyes, Cadet!”  Wildstar shouted back at Cory, but the young man stood his ground.  “Then she jumped out of a blast-hole in the side of the Argo and disappeared!  Did you teach her that little trick?”


Cory's eyes widened, but Wildstar couldn't discern between shock or anger.  Then Cory asked,  Was she running from you?”  Wildstar hesitated, carefully considering how he would answer.  Cory bristled at the silence, and Wildstar could see him clench his jaw, just like his older brother did when he was angry.  “Did you corner her?”  Cory spoke his next words slowly.  His tone was menacing.  “Was she trying to get away from you?”


Wildstar's insides went cold and numb.  His fury exploded in the tone of his words.  “I was chasing her because she ran!  Think about it, Cadet!  Why would she run, if she wasn't guilty?”


Cory's eyes flared and, in true Cory fashion, he reacted without thought.  “You son of a...”  He raised his fist to Wildstar, but Hardy intervened, pushing him off balance, and shoving him hard against the wall.  Cory tried to come off the wall again, but Hardy pushed him back.


“Cory!  Enough!  Ah' can't always sight Wildstah for good judgment, but 'ah know he wouldn't harm her!”  Hardy looked at Wildstar while holding Cory in place with a firm hand.  “We got two choices here.  We can hash this out with fists, or we can cooperate and start look'n for her!  What's it gonna' be?”


“What's going on here?”  The words drew everyone's attention towards the short, stocky figure at the end of the hallway.


“Doctor Sane!”  Hardy released Cory.


“You better not be spoiling for a fight!  Doctor Randal and I don't need any more work today!”


“My brother!”  Cory shouted.  “How is he?”


Doctor Sane held up his hand, attempting to calm the young Cadet.  “He's doing well!  He's very strong!”  The Doctor was still removing bits of his surgical attire as he spoke.  “I gave your sister a briefing in ICU about an hour ago.”  He removed his colorful scrub cap, dotted with kitten faces, and blotted the sweat from his bald head.  “She's sitting with him...”


“Jessica?”  Hardy asked.


Doctor Sane looked surprised.  “Is there another sister I should know about?”


No one answered him.  In fact, he was nearly trampled as all three young men rushed passed him.  He spun around with the momentum of their wake and shouted after them.  “Hey!  That's the Intensive Care Unit!  Immediate family only!”


Cory arrived at the right room before the others.  He halted at the door frame, only to cushion the impact of Hardy and Wildstar as they slid to a stop on the linoleum.  No one moved for a long moment.  Finally, all three of them released a collective sigh of relief. 


Jessica was asleep.  Seated in a chair next to her brother's bed, her head rested at Peter's side.  Her hand was over his.  She looked truly fragile, as if she would shatter if touched, but she was alive.


Wildstar bowed his head, closed his eyes, and pushed his hand through his hair as he sighed.  He was angry and weary, but those emotions were overwhelmed by a strange sense of relief.  Exhaustion followed.  When he opened his eyes, he met Cory's angry glare. 


“Sir, with all due respect, you've done enough!”  Cory's whisper was harsh.  “I think you should go!”


Rather than confronting the youngest Conroy with rank or charging into the room and demanding an explanation from Jessica, he yielded to Nova's insistent and gentle hands.  She guided him from the doorway.


They started to walk away, just as Doctor Sane rushed passed them.  “Alright, everyone!  That's enough!”  Doctor Sane placed a hand on Cory's arm.  “Come with me.  Doctor Randal and I will brief you on your brother's condition.”


As Cory was pulled away by the Doctor, Wildstar stopped in his tracks.  He looked back at the doorway.


“It's her brother, Derek,” Nova whispered to him.  “She's not going anywhere.”


Wildstar pulled away from Nova and walked passed Hardy.  Hardy reached out to grasp him by the arm, but Wildstar jerked free of him and entered the room.  He took a folded blanket from an open shelf on the wall.  It fell open to its full length in his hands as he approached the sleeping young woman.  Carefully, gently, he placed it over her shoulders with the same care and concern as she had once shown him. 


Jessica gasped as she opened her eyes and lifted her head.  Her face was expressionless.  Yet, her eyes found his.  They questioned him without words.  Soft, rhythmic sounds marked the pace of Peter's vitals in the background as they stared at one another. 


The eternal struggle: whether to care deeply for someone again and risk the agony of loss, as Wildstar had with his brother, his parents, and with Nova.  Or, should he reinforce the porous walls surrounding his heart.  The terror he felt at the sight of Jessica's fall was a bitter reminder of this truth, this nagging necessity. 


Peter somehow looked past these walls, and the angry facade Wildstar put forth to the world, and he called him on it.  Peter lived with similar, feral thoughts in the long shadow of his Mother's death, but his family would not release him from his emotional obligations.  Jessica was the key to his re-balance and his ability to reclaim his life.  She wouldn't abandon her brother to isolation or self-loathing. 


Peter knew Wildstar was alone, and the walls to his heart would only thicken without intervention.  He couldn't see himself as a worthy friend if he left Wildstar to such a fate.  Thus, was the request, the responsibility of family, afforded to Wildstar.  It was, so he could chip away at his walls and learn to find a way around them.  It was, so Wildstar could find purpose beyond the ruins of his own family.  A man with bonds had something to fight for beyond duty or obligation.   


The eternal struggle.  One path would make him a better soldier.  The other, would make him a better man.  The soul had room for compromise, for a partial of each, but not the whole of both.  Which to choose?  Death in battle seemed much less painful than to endure the bitterness of the human condition.  Oh, God, to have a heart of stone!


There were no answers for the questioning blue eyes, even as they shimmered like pools of water rippling in the sun.  Wildstar was silent.  His relief left him without the urge for confrontation or even the desire for words.  He simply turned and met Nova's soft, brown eyes.  He stared into them as he approached.  Realms of safety, they were.  A refuge of acceptance, a shelter of understanding, if he would only dare.


She smiled at him.  She was pleased by his tenderness.  The heart won this small conflict, but the soldier lay in wait.  Another time. 


He left the room and brushed passed Nova in the doorway.  She turned and walked beside him.  Her fingers brushed against his as she walked with him.  Finally, he took her hand and held it.  There were no glances exchanged between them, no words.  Rarely, did they need words.  Another victory for the heart, but the soldier always kept count.  



Jessica raised her hand gently and touched the blanket.  Her eyes followed Wildstar as he walked away.  Words of appreciation rested at the tip of her tongue, but she couldn't force them out.  She locked eyes with Hardy as Wildstar passed him.  He was standing quietly just outside the door.


He nodded his head with a tentative smile.  She responded in kind. 


He finally moved away from the door and disappeared somewhere in the hallway.  She settled back into her vigilance, left alone with the pulsating sounds of Peter's life through a multitude of plastic tubes and electric things. 



“I need you to do something for me.”  Conroy's back was to Wildstar as he removed his holstered weapon from his belt and placed it in the same, orderly position in his locker.  Conroy shut the locker door with some force.  Not enough to slam it, just enough to emphasize the seriousness of the pending conversation.


Wildstar looked up at him from his prone position on his bunk.  Their bunks were across the gangway from each other and their lockers next door to one another.  So, as the mission progressed, they had no choice but to get to know each other.  At least, enough to speak frankly when circumstances demanded.  Conroy turned and sat on his own bunk, then looked at Wildstar very seriously before he spoke.  “I need you to stop brooding.”


Wildstar released a controlled breath and stared at the bottom of the bunk above him.  It wasn't a subject he wanted to broach at the moment.  Conroy ignored Wildstar's unyielding countenance and continued.


“I know this whole thing with calling our families back on Earth has been difficult for you.  I'm sorry for that.  If you think about it, it hasn't been any easier for those of us that have family left back home.  It's still about saying goodbye to people we love.”


“I'm not brooding.”  Wildstar didn't hide his irritation.  He associated the word he repeated with a woman's emotional reaction, and it was insulting.


“Okay.”  Conroy leaned on his legs and clasped his hands in front of him.  “I need you to stop sulking!”     


“I'm not sul...”


“You made Nova really upset, and that's just mean.  I feel responsible for it!  I told Nova to get you before you missed your opportunity to talk to your family.  She was going out of her way to do something nice for you, then you hit her with that ton-of-bricks about not having anyone to call!  How were we supposed to know?  You never talk about them!”


Wildstar was silent.  He didn't meet Conroy's eyes, but he felt Conroy glaring at him. 


“You're an idiot.”  The comment was obviously meant to get a reaction out of Wildstar, but he stubbornly refused to oblige.  “Everyone on this ship has lost someone!  Including me!”  Conroy sighed and pushed his hand through his short-cropped hair.  He was frustrated.  He was thinking.  'I can almost smell the smoke!'  Wildstar thought to himself.  “You're a leader, Wildstar.  You have people looking up to you and depending on you, and you're freak'n them out!”  Conroy paused.  “Hell, you're freak'n me out!  So... stop it!” 


The words finally drew Wildstar's attention and he met Conroy's eyes.  Conroy was right.  He failed to realize  how his attitude might impact those under his command.  It could undermine his authority and diminish confidence.  'And Nova...' he thought, 'Way to go, stupid!'   


He stared at Conroy, who leveled him with an intense, sobering glare.  “Your people need to know you're okay.  That way, they know everything else is okay.  Get it?”


Wildstar nodded.


“There have been times I've wanted to smother you in your sleep, but for some reason, that girl still likes you!    You owe her an apology.  Understand?”


Wildstar imagined Conroy annoying his younger siblings with a similar 'big brother' speech.  He wondered if Alex would be saying the same thing.  “She likes me?”


Conroy ignored his question and carefully removed a photograph from the wall behind his bunk.  He handed it to Wildstar.  “I gave you my letter, in case something happens...”


Wildstar raised his eyebrows as his eyes widened.  “Isn't it bad luck to...


“Yes, I'm taking a huge risk.  Now, shut-up and listen!  I need you to do one more thing.  If something happens to me, I want you to look out for them.”  Conroy nodded toward the picture in Wildstar's hand.  Peter Conroy was in the center, a toothy grin plastered across his face.  His long arms were wrapped around the necks of his younger, shorter siblings.  They, in turn, made faces as if they were choking in Peter's embrace. 


Wildstar sat up in his bunk.  “Nothing's going to happen to you, Conroy!”


“Right... So, will you do it or not?”


“Of course!  If that's what you want.”


“Cory is pretty solid and squared away.  He has some direction.”  As Conroy continued, Wildstar inspected the motley trio in the photograph with some trepidation.  “It's Jessica I worry about.  If we weren't on the verge of extinction, I would have killed her a long time ago!”  Wildstar smiled at the comment.  “She tries too hard.  She thinks she can take care of herself!”


“Takes after you!”  Wildstar met Conroy's eyes.  “Why me?”


“Because you're a pain in the butt, and I don't think I should have to suffer alone!”  Conroy paused, and Wildstar sensed more sobering words on the horizon.  “They could be family to you... if you wanted.  They're infuriating and completely dysfunctional...”


“That explains a lot...”


“But, they're good kids.”


Wildstar smile broadened.  He was touched and honored at the request, but he didn't know how to respond. 


Conroy must have anticipated such a reaction.  He quickly filled the uncomfortable void with an ultimatum.  “If you tear-up or say 'I love you, man', I swear, I'll punch your lights out!”  He glanced at his watch.  “Day's a' waste'n!”




“You heard me!  Nova is probably off her shift by now.  I'll bet she's getting dinner in the galley.  Perfect time to go and apologize!  You know, before you forget.”


“I don't... I mean... Now?”  Wildstar stuttered.  “I don't know what to say!”


“Hmmmmmm,” Conroy said thoughtfully, as he rolled his eyes.  “Just tell her the truth!  How 'bout 'Hi, Nova!  I'm a big jerk, but I'm working on it!'  Simple.  To the point.”


“I... I think...”


“Don't think!  Out!”  Conroy pointed toward the exit with a forceful arm.  “If you think on it too much, it'll never get done!”


“You can be so damn pushy!”  Wildstar rose reluctantly from his bunk, like a child enduring the punishing glare of an angry parent. 


“Only when I'm right!  You can thank me later.”  Conroy called after him.


Wildstar knew he would find little peace until he met Conroy's demands.  He left the bunk room as he worked his apology over in his head.  He missed his big brother, at times like these.  He always seemed to know what to say.



Time passed, but she had no concept or awareness of its passing.  Had it been minutes?  Hours?  She didn't know. 


She studied Peter's hand before her.  Even now, after a year in space, it was rough and callused, just as she  remembered.  It was a reflection of the satisfaction he found in working with his hands.  His latest endeavor was evidenced by the black material beneath his short fingernails; it was something left over from his work on his fighter.  When they were young, his hands bore traces of the outdoors.  Chalk, dark earth, and the red dust of sandstone etched his palms and marked his skin.  'God, how he loved to climb,'  Jessica thought. 


“I remember you...  she whispered and her thoughts drifted to a time before the bombings, a more innocent time. 


“Do you trust me?”  Peter asked.


“No...”  Jessica hesitantly shook her head as she clung like Velcro to the rocky outcrop.   


“Well, now is a good time to start!”


“I don't think I can go any higher!”  A slight breeze swept over her and sent a chill through her.  Her pajamas and robe offered little protection against the dry mountain air.  She pressed her body into the deep, red sandstone.  The rock still retained remnants of heat from the setting sun.


“Yes, you can!  You are fearless to the point of stupidity!  Just like me!”


“Dad is going to be really mad if he finds out!”


“He won't find out, unless you tell him!  Look at me!”


She slowly lifted her head and met his eyes.  He was reaching down to her with the same rough and callused hand.  Just beyond it, she could see his broad smile, fueled by his boundless confidence.  


“C'mon!  It's worth it!  I promise!”


“What if I can't get down!


“I'll make sure you get down!”


Jessica sighed.  It was the same every time.  Just a little bit higher.  Just one more step.  Why did she follow him on these midnight excursions?  In the woods beyond their backyard, critters with fur and claws and teeth and fangs roamed freely.  However, she couldn't help it.  He was her big brother, and she would follow him anywhere.


She slowly lifted her hand and grasped his.  With the strength and resilience of an older teenager, he lifted her from her narrow perch in one smooth movement.  Carefully, gently, he set her down and she settled to her hands and knees, taking a moment to get her bearings.


“See?  What did I tell you?”


She lifted her head and looked to the night sky above them.  “Peter... wow...”  It was beautiful and miraculously infinite.  The top of the stone edifice provided them with an unobstructed view in every direction, high above the tall pines.  There were few man-made light sources near their wooded home.  Their father liked his privacy.  It made for wonderful viewing at night, but staring through the trees from the suspended deck of the house could not compare with Peter's view from that rocky outcrop.  She could see why he loved it so.  Why he kept reaching.  Why he kept climbing.  The stars were so bright, and so close, they could be standing among them.


Peter offered his hand and he helped her to her feet.  She clung to his arm, unsteady and unsure, but completely memorized by the endless cascade of stars. 


“I'm going out there some day!”  He pointed to the night sky.  They witnessed the brief streak of a falling star.  “I'm going into space!”


Jessica sat down.  She wasn't afraid of heights, but even a slight breeze made her feel uneasy on her feet.  Gazing off where her brother was pointing, she replied, “I don't know why you want to go there, Peter!  Dad says, it's a vacuum!  Nothing can live there!”


“We don't know that!  Maybe God lives there!”


“I don't think so!  I think he would be very lonely up there by himself!”


Peter sat down next to her, crossing his legs.  “I think he has lots of company up there!  Mom is up there.  Grandmother, too!  I'll bet he has more company than he knows what to do with!”


Jessica looked at him in the moment of silence between them.  Coyotes howled and bayed in the distance, lending an eerie tone to the night.  “You talk to her sometimes, when you're alone...”


The smile slowly faded from Peter's face, but his eyes never left the sky.  “Yes.”


“Does she ever talk to you?”




“Yeah... me neither.”  Jessica's gaze returned to the sky.  “Me neither...  she whispered to Peter's unconscious form in the hospital bed.


“How long has it been since you’ve eaten?”  The whisper was barely audible over the ventilator.  Jessica looked up to see Hardy standing in the doorway.  It seemed she had heard that question many times before, but this time, she honestly couldn't answer.  She didn't remember.


“I’m not hungry...”


“Awe, yeah you are,” his voice was soft and smooth with his Southern lilt, “You just don’t know it yet!” His gentle smile was casual and a little lopsided as he whispered, “This is mah’ Grandmotha’s famous sweet potatah' pie!  It’s been a whole year since I had one!”  Hardy glanced down the hallway, then he tiptoed into the room with a plate covered with a napkin.  He pulled up a chair and sat before her.  “Ah' saved a piece, just for you!  No one can be mad or sad when they bite into this little slice of heaven.”  He pulled away the napkin and held up the plate, presenting her with a neat slice of fluffy orange substance framed by a golden brown crust.  Hardy passed the plate close to Jessica’s face, allowing the sweet aroma to drift to her nose.  “One bite!” 


She sighed as she shook her head. “I’m too tired, Jefferson.”


“Well, then, you can go back to sleep, but you gotta’ eat first.”  He took the fork from the container.  “It’s got whipped cream!” He could have sold a used car with his enthusiasm. “Tha' real stuff, none of that low-fat crap!” He leaned forward and whispered to Jessica, “Mah' Grandmotha' says, ‘if you’re going to be bad, you might as well be really bad!’” He carefully scooped a small piece onto the fork and held it close to her lips. 


“C’mon, little bird! Don’t leave me hang’n here.”


Jessica paused, studying his smile through her exhausted haze.  She hesitantly leaned forward and put her mouth around the fork.  She closed her eyes and let Hardy pull the fork back gently.  The soft, sweet substance melted in her mouth.  The texture was cool and pleasing.  She opened her eyes and returned Hardy’s broad smile.  He was right, and he knew it.  She was really hungry, and it was really good.


“Alright then, little bird,” he said with satisfaction.  He started to scoop another piece from the plate, but she stopped him with a touch to his arm.


He met her eyes, just as she felt a tear slide down her cheek.  Jefferson,” she whispered, “I have to...  she paused and swallowed hard.  “I have to tell you something...”


Hardy's expression became very serious. “No.”  He shook his head slowly.  “No, ya' don't!  Ya' don't owe me an explanation for anything.”


She bowed her head, completely overwhelmed.  She didn't deserve his kindness.  She didn't deserve his love.


“You're exhausted,  he whispered to her, “an' your blood-sugar bottomed-out hours ago.  We gotta' take care a' you, so you can take care a' Peter.  C'mon now.  Take anotha' bite for me.  Mah' Grandmotha' always remembers to add a little love and some heal'n magic.  I promise you'll feel bettah'.”


“Jefferson, I...”


“You hush now,” he said softly, scooping up another piece with the fork.  “Less talk.  More pie.”


Again, she leaned forward and took the fork into her mouth, savoring the taste and the splendid intimacy of the moment.  She was hungry, but she ate very slowly, unwilling to hasten his exit.  The scene repeated itself several times, until only crumbs remained.     


Hardy set the plate aside and pulled the blanket snug over Jessica’s shoulders.  She laid her head on the bed at her brother's side, so she could feel him stir if he awoke.  Hardy promised to stay with her until she fell asleep.  “It's going to be alright,” he said softly as he stroked her hair.  “It's all going to be alright.” 



To Be Continued


Chapter 12 – Guardian


Author’s Note:  Enjoy!

Disclaimer:  Star Blazers is owned by Voyager Entertainment.  

Beta Reader:  Sybil Rowan!  Thanks again!

Date Written:  February, 2011

Word Count:  5608