Chapter 5 – Grace

Jessica and Wildstar walked down a narrow hallway that led from the hangar to the underground’s emergency medical facility. The hollow echo of their footsteps changed as the damp walls of stone transitioned to the familiar, fabricated material of the infirmary.

Jessica stopped at the nurses’ station. She carefully placed her backpack on the counter and waited for the attendant to acknowledge her. “Is there any word about my brother?”

“No, Jessica. It’s much too soon,” the attendant replied.

Jessica pulled two pints of blood from her pack and placed them on the counter. “Here, Linda. A donation for Peter.”

Linda smiled at her as she took the bags. “I think we are doing just fine in that area, Jessica, but more is always welcome.”

Jessica’s attention was suddenly drawn by the noise of laughter down the hall. “What’s that?” Jessica asked Linda, but she was drawn down the hall toward the noise before Linda could give her an answer. Jessica heard Wildstar’s footsteps behind her.

“Those are the other donors!” Linda called after her.

“Jessica? What’s the matter?” Wildstar asked as she made a sharp turn to a pair of doors.

“This is a hospital! Not a social gath...” She roughly pushed open the swinging doors and stepped through them. She halted and felt Wildstar nearly run into her from behind.

Derek!” A young woman pushed her way forward through a small crowd of people and embraced Wildstar.

Nova! Wildstar beamed with a surprised smile and hugged her back.

“Wildstar?” A clean-cut, dark-haired man in uniform came forward. “We were starting to worry that the shuttle left you two behind.” He looked at Jessica with gentle brown eyes, beaming with an infectious smile. He respectfully took her hand in his. “Mark Venture, Jessica. I’m a friend of Peter’s. It’s so good to finally meet you!”

“I’m Nova, Jessica.” The young woman touched her arm from Wildstar’s embrace.

Jessica glanced back at Nova and attempted a reply, but an older man in uniform approached and offered his hand. “Sandor,” he said to her. “You look just like your brother's photographs.”

She took his hand and nodded to him with a brief smile. Jessica looked back at Wildstar questioningly, but Wildstar shrugged and shook his head.

Jessica opened her mouth to say something, but a young man came forward and offered his hand to her. He had sandy blond hair, which swept up from his forehead. He introduced himself with a friendly smile, “I’m Homer, Jessica, the communications officer. This is Dash, he’s our weapons officer.” He jerked his thumb to the tall, dark-haired stranger next to him. Dash adjusted his glasses and offered Jessica his hand. Several other crew members came forward and introduced themselves, until Nova finally intervened.

“Okay, everyone, let’s give them some room,” Nova said to the group. Jessica was grateful for the break. Jessica felt Nova's arm around hers, then her gentle guidance towards the seating area of the large waiting room. Jessica was silently grateful for Nova’s graceful diversion. “How long has it been since you’ve eaten?” Nova asked softly. “Some of the crew brought trays from the banquet.”

“I’m… I’m not hungry…” Jessica hesitated. Nova was suddenly aware of her tenseness. She paused beside Jessica. Her soft, brown eyes exuded compassion, but they searched Jessica's face for a response. “Why are you here?” Jessica pulled away from Nova's grasp. Her voice was loud enough to silence the conversations around them. “Your families!” She glanced at the others around them, feeling the weight and the heat of their stares. “This isn’t necessary! Cory and I…”

“The mission isn’t over until we know Conroy is alright,” Sandor interrupted her as he approached.

“It wasn’t much of a party without Conroy anyway!” Homer grinned, referring to the banquet held in their honor. Dash acknowledged the inappropriateness of the comment with a light smack to the back of Homer’s head.

Jessica brought her hand to her mouth to hide a stifled smile. She wanted to laugh, but her internal, emotional barometer scolded her with guilt. Thoughts of her brother overwhelmed her. They came in powerful waves, washing over her like bitter sea water. Her emotions were tangled and confusing. She was uncertain whether to be grateful for the support or angry at the interference.

'Who are these people?' she thought, looking around her. 'How am I supposed to deal with them?' She felt the sting of fresh tears in her eyes. Soft words of gratitude, heated words of anger, or words of any kind, escaped her.

Jessica’s exhaustion tore at the fragile threads of her emotions. Her hand moved from her mouth to her forehead. She desperately wanted the exquisite release of emotion that came with a deluge of tears, but only in seclusion, not surrounded by strangers. How was she going to manage the facade? Her strength, both physical and emotional, failed her. If only she could find a moment's peace, a refuge of solitude.

“Doctor Sane is assisting in your brother’s surgery, Jessica.” Jessica felt Nova touch her arm again.

She met Nova's eyes, surprised. She was well aware of Doctor Sane’s prowess as a trauma surgeon. Jessica acknowledged her with a brief nod.

Jessica felt a strong hand on her shoulder. She turned to meet Sandor's eyes in silence. “We’re just here for support. That’s all.” They regarded each other for a moment. Jessica didn’t know him, but there was a calming confidence in his words. His sincerity and his gentle smile were strangely disarming.

Jessica considered his words for a long moment. She placed her hand over his and diverted her eyes from him while gently removing his hand from her shoulder. Her legs felt heavy and weak. A tear escaped and slid down her cheek, but she quickly wiped it away and maintained her composure.

“I appreciate what you've done,” she began, her voice low and steady, “but I want you to go. All of you.” Sandor moved to say something, but he hesitated when Jessica lifted her hands, making a quiet plea for his silence. “I can't do this right now. You should be with your family, and I should be with mine.”

Jessica turned away from Nova and Sandor and started toward the entrance. She felt Wildstar's gaze on her as she passed him, but she didn't acknowledge him. She feared if she met his eyes, he would say something to change her mind. She stopped, only when confronted by a small group of men entering the room through the double-doors. They were dressed in the signature pilot's uniform for the Black Tigers. It was her brother's squadron. The young men circled Peter's crash site until they were dangerously low on fuel.

“Hardy! It's about time! We thought you guys would catch up with us eventually!” Mark Venture yelled to them from across the room.

Hardy was the first to move away from the entrance, walking into the room with the reserved, yet assured gait of a soldier returning from battle. Jessica was still and speechless. She felt the color drain slowly from her face. She stared, carefully taking in the details of him. He was just as she remembered.

He shook hands with some of his crew mates and acknowledged others with a friendly nod. The other pilots filed into the room in behind him.

If he ever possessed the brash arrogance of youth, he left it behind long before she knew him. He carried his scars instead. They were a painful reminder of his mortality, his undeniable vulnerability. Yet, they served him well. They balanced his bravado with the weight of hard lessons learned. He was a better pilot, a better teacher, and a better man because of them.

Jessica attempted to regain meager shreds of her confidence. She straightened her body and stiffened her shoulders. In a subtle suggestion of defiance, she lifted her chin, silently refusing the feeling of intimidation, which threatened her in his presence.

Hardy met Jessica’s eyes and as he approached her, he never looked away. She wanted to move, to walk past him, but she stood transfixed, trapped by the weight of his gaze. He stopped before her, inches from her, much too close to be strangers.

Jessica didn't step back from him, but her body seemed to withdraw slightly as he drew closer. The defiance of her demeanor faded. An apprehensive uncertainty prevailed in the quiet strength of his presence. Her eyes broke from his as the heat of his body overwhelmed her and she could no longer endure the intensity in his eyes.

“Hardy, this is Conroy’s sister,” Sandor offered, seemingly oblivious to the situation.

Her eyes followed the wisps of light-brown hair that fell against his face to the defined contour of his jaw line. She studied his lips, the lines of his neck, the oscillation of his skin where his pulse reflected his heartbeat, then the obscure creases on the collar of his uniform.

She was lost in the exquisite detail of him, the movement of his chest as he breathed, the faint sound of his breath as his chest rose and fell. She lifted a hesitant hand. She wanted to touch him, perhaps embrace him, but she was afraid. ‘Is he real?’ she thought. Her fingers settled against her lips instead.

Hardy took her trembling hand in his steady, confident grasp. He pressed it firmly to his chest, just over his heart.

“Um…” Sandor paused, suddenly aware there was something more between the pair, “So… you guys know each other?”

Jessica closed her eyes. She felt the strength of his grasp, the heat of his hand as it surrounded hers. Tears streamed down her face. Her breath trembled as she drew it in. The steady rhythm of his heart was strong against her palm. She felt his chest gently rise and fall beneath her hand with each breath he took. He had to be real.

Hardy gently touched Jessica’s face with his other hand and brushed strands of her hair away from her eyes. Her eyes finally met his. “I am truly sorry about your brother,” Hardy said softly to her. His voice had the feel of cool velvet against the skin.

Jessica swallowed hard, but this time her eyes never left his. The gentle sincerity in his voice brought forth more tears. “I... I thought... I would never see you again.”

Hardy was raised with a unique Southern gentility that seemed to be his endearing hallmark among his peers. It was the gentleman in him that whispered his next words as he leaned in close to her. “I am going to kiss you now,” he said softly, and she could feel his breath against her lips, “so you tell me if you want me to stop.” By the end of the sentence, he had closed his eyes and gently pressed his lips to hers.

She never had the opportunity to object. She wouldn't have had the strength. In that fleeting moment, in the hushed silence of the room, it was only the two of them.

Jessica’s fragile strength failed her. She felt her legs give way and, without effort, she slipped into the sheltering reprieve of darkness.


“Didn’t see that coming!” Homer said to Dash as they both stared in awe at the pair. Dash just shook his head in reply.

Hardy caught Jessica haphazardly in his arms as she fell. He knelt as the weight of her limp body pulled him down. His hand touched her face as he spoke her name, urging her to open her eyes.

Dash moved forward to assist Hardy, but Homer grasped his arm. “Hardy!” Homer started to point.

Hardy swept the young woman into his arms as he stood. Then he looked at Homer.

Hardy never had a chance to see what Homer was pointing at. The youngest Conroy launched at him from across the room. The sound of Cory’s fist connecting with Hardy’s jaw was surprisingly loud, causing a collective wince to ripple across the room. Hardy hit the floor, and Jessica fell in a heap across Hardy’s body.

“Now, THAT I saw coming!” Homer said to Dash. They looked at each other and nodded wisely.

Cory quickly knelt down and touched his sister’s arm. Hardy started to sit up, shaking the blur from his head, but Cory raised his fist to him again. He had every intention of getting another piece of Hardy while he was down.

Homer decided it was time to move in. He and Dash grabbed Cory from behind and pulled him away. Nova rushed to Jessica, and two of the pilots from Conroy’s squadron grabbed the red-faced cadet before he could struggle loose from Dash and Homer.

“Alright, you guys!” Wildstar said to the pilots, “Get him outside and let him cool off!” The pilots nodded. They had Cory by the arms and started dragging him backwards to the swinging doors. Cory’s heels scraped the floor between defiant kicks as they drug him away.

“Officer or NOT!” Cory screamed as he struggled to get loose. “You touch my sister like that again, and I’ll…” The swinging doors suddenly muffled his threat as they closed behind them.

“Don’t hurt him!” Wildstar called after them, as if he thought the command would do any good. “I mean it!”


Hardy gathered the young woman into his arms. He nervously hesitated before he touched Jessica's face. He looked up at Nova, “Is she alright?”

Wildstar turned to Hardy, before Nova could respond. “What was THAT?” Wildstar surprised himself with the high pitch of his words.

Hardy glanced at Nova, then looked at Wildstar. He hesitated. Wildstar knew he was wondering if it was a trick question. “A kiss… Suh?” The Southern lilt of his voice lent a mark of innocent sincerity to his answer.

“So, you KNOW her?” Wildstar made his confusion evident in his expression.

“In a manner of speaking, Suh,” Hardy replied with hesitation.

“In what manner of speaking is that?” Wildstar shook his head in confusion.

“Not in the… Biblical sense, Suh.”

Wildstar balked at the reply and quickly put up his hands, “Never mind! Too much information!”

Jessica stirred in Hardy's arms. Hardy looked down at her again and whispered her name. She opened her eyes, and her face twisted into a confused expression. “Did... you just... drop me?”

Hardy's face froze into an awkward, tight-lipped smirk. “I think you were just dream'n, baby.”

Hardy glanced at Nova again. She was smiling at Hardy. Wildstar was convinced Nova had a unique sense for reading people. She could see her way around a guarded exterior without even trying. He admired that quality in her, but he often felt vulnerable in her presence. She had the same effect on Hardy. Hardy's face flushed red, and he responded to her with a lopsided smile.

Nova touched his arm. “She’ll be alright, Hardy. We should get her to a bed.”

“Oh, no, Romeo!” Wildstar shook his head, “Nova and I will find her a bed!”

“Wildstah…” Hardy said. “It’s not like that at all!”

“You go find yourself a cold shower… I mean... something cold for your face!” Wildstar continued as he knelt down to retrieve the tangle of limp arms and legs, which was now Jessica. “Homer,” Wildstar began as he lifted Jessica gently from Hardy's arms, “check on the youngest Conroy. Make sure he’s still in one piece.”

Nova stood with Wildstar and gently touched Jessica’s forehead. Jessica groaned softly.

Wildstar glanced at Jessica skeptically. “You’re going to let me know if you feel sick, right?”

Jessica brought up her hand and rubbed her face. Without opening her eyes, she pressed her face into his shoulder. “Not if you are going to drop me,” came her muffled reply.

“Jessica?” Hardy said.

“Hardy!” Wildstar warned. “Later.”

Sandor took the cue and smacked Hardy on the back. “C’mon, Romeo! I saw an ice machine over here. I want to hear all about this ‘weak-in-the-knees’ technique of yours!”

Hardy shook his head as he rubbed the side of his face. “Oh, my Grandmotha' is gonna’ tan my hide when she finds out about this!”

Your Grandmother?” Sandor asked.

“Oh, yes, suh! That woman is half my size, but I swear, when she’s mad, she could scare the Devil right out of Georgia!”

Sandor laughed out loud as they walked. “Too bad we didn’t take her to Iscandar!”

“Desslok wouldn’t have stood a chance!” Hardy replied.


To Be Continued

Chapter 6 – Fire

Jefferson Davis Hardy recalls his baptism by fire and how it is strangely intertwined with the most captivating moment of his life.