i1

Author's Notes: I am well aware that I'm in a tiny minority of Robotech fans; a "modified McKinneyist" so to speak. I like all the novelisations, but "End of the Circle" is anathema to me, mostly because of how all the characters were treated. This story was written in the early part of 1990 as an emotional reaction to that travesty. Don't bother flaming me: I've heard it all, get over it. The main thing is, if you're a huge EOTC fan, DON'T READ THIS!!!!!

INTERMISSION

PART ONE: MAY, 2033

The first transmission from that ship is infamous now; so much was said in so few words, it left us speechless.

"This is Dana Sterling," the voice began, "former first lieutenant with the Fifteenth Alpha Tactical Armored Corps of the Army of the Southern Cross."

Base Tirol turned out en masse for the ship's planetfall. Only Max and Miriya seemed unfazed by the event, and I remember thinking that they had somehow expected this all along. Later, I would learn of the telepathic link Aurora and Haydon IV's enigmatic instrumentality had helped them establish with Dana.

Lisa Hayes Hunter, Recollections*

*****

Unfazed? Well, on the surface, perhaps. But inside, Max's heart was beating at a rate that could not possibly be considered healthy by human standards. Beside him, Miriya looked the essence of patience and serenity, but her hand trembled a bit in his. Aurora stood just in front of her parents, staring into space in that incomprehensible way of hers. No way to tell what she was thinking.

Any minute now....

And then there she was, stepping out of the ship's hatchway with what looked suspiciously like a smug expression on her face. Dana stood still for a full minute, apparently enjoying the attention, as her crew members grouped themselves around her. A young man who was unmistakably Bowie Grant came to stand at her side, bringing with him a small, pale woman with luxurious dark green hair. A very tall, very muscular man positioned himself at Dana's other shoulder, standing close to her and glaring suspiciously at his surroundings.

Dana herself gazed interestedly at the crowd of onlookers, then caught sight of her family and started toward them purposefully, unhurriedly. Ten paces from where they stood, the facade broke and she hurled herself into her mother's arms, crying, "Mama!"

A strangled sob escaped from Miriya as she held her daughter for the first time in thirteen years, touching her shoulders, her hair, her wet face.... The two of them regarded each other at arms' length for a moment, blue eyes staring into green, both trying to find some sense of familiarity.

Dana felt a hand fall on her shoulder, and found herself looking into her father's face.

"Uh, hello," Max said lamely. He didn't know what to say to her; she was a stranger to him.

The stranger whispered, "Hello, daddy...," and hugged him, and suddenly she was his little girl again. She was older, definitely bigger, but she was still his Dana. Max held her tightly and smiled at Miriya, eyes glistening. Their family was together.

Aurora, meanwhile, gazed on the touching little scene with interest, but no hint of jealousy whatsoever. Her mother put an arm around her shoulders.

When father and daughter ended their embrace, Dana turned around and took her sister's hands. They smiled at each other.

"Well, Aurora — it's nice to really meet you."

The little girl just giggled.

"Well," observed Miriya, "I guess there's really no need to introduce the two of you, huh?"

"Of course not, Mother," Aurora told her. "We know each other."

"Well, sort of," said Dana. "I don't even know how old you are or anything."

"Five and a half."

Dana looked at her parents and protested, "She's lying!"

Her mother and father shook their heads. "No, Dana, she's telling you the truth," Miriya told her.

"It's a long story," added Max.

"I'll bet! I'm sure we've got a lot of long stories saved up after thirteen years. But right now there's somebody I really want you to meet." She disappeared back in the direction of the ship, leaving her parents to shrug their shoulders and wonder why everything suddenly seemed so natural, as if their long separation had been only weeks instead of years.

* * * * *

The new arrivals had been meeting people, curiosity seekers and senior military types asking questions none of them were qualified to answer. Angelo was being passably polite — for Angelo — to the ones who outranked him, but his attention was focused more on the Sterlings' reunion than anything else. Nevertheless, Dana managed to sneak up on him while he was busy telling some general or other that yeah, Earth had won the war with the Robotech Masters... sort of, and no, he didn't really know what Colonel Wolff's plans were.

"Hi!" she exclaimed, coming up and goosing him. "I need you for a minute."

"Ah, Lieutenant Sterling," interrupted the general, "there are a few questions that need to be answered, so if we could just set up a debriefing session as soon as..."

"Yeah, not right now, okay?"

"...possible. Uh...?"

But she clearly wasn't listening to him; she was busy dragging Angelo away.

"That guy was a general, you know," he laughed. He enjoyed the way she ran over brass just like they were regular people.

"Good for him. I've got more important things to think about right now."

"You only need me for a minute, huh?" Angie teased.

"Mmm, for now...." He knew that seductive voice pretty well by this time, but somehow wasn't surprised when she changed her tone and added, "Ready to meet them?"

"Honestly? No."

She laughed at his nervousness. "Oh, be brave. You'll survive the ordeal, and it certainly couldn't be any worse than your father's reaction to me."

"If you say so," shrugged Angelo, unconvinced.

"Stand tough, sergeant," Dana ordered in her best military fashion, then softened and added, "And remember I love you."

"Mutual, Ma'am."

She kissed him briefly, then took his arm and dragged him off to where her family was waiting.

"Well, this is the person I wanted you to meet. My second-in-command, Angelo Dante — I wouldn't have made it this far without him."

Max had been watching with a 'so?' look on his face, but the way she held Dante's hand, the tender expression in her eyes, suddenly made him wary.

"Angelo, this is my family: my father, Max; my mother, Miriya; and my little sister, Aurora."

"Uh, nice to met you."

Aurora giggled; the man was so nervous he looked as if he might throw up. He could barely even manage to shake hands with Max and Miriya. She sensed he was used to being in control of the situation, and that this was somehow very different from anything he was used to dealing with.

Dana watched her parents' reactions, polite and a bit puzzled, and threw in, seemingly as an afterthought, "Angie's my fiance."

The smile on Max's face wilted slowly.

"So... when are you getting married?" asked Miriya, with a cheerfulness that was only half false. She wasn't really upset, although she could tell her husband was, just... surprised. They had known for a long time that Dana would be the one to find them rather than vice-versa, but they certainly hadn't expected her to show up with a fiance in tow.

Dana and Angelo exchanged glances.

"Well, not for a while yet," Dana answered. "I mean, the whole situation's still pretty unsettled, and we only just got here, so we kinda just agreed to wait and see. Besides, I haven't spent any time with my family yet, and that was supposed to be the whole point of my coming here, right?"

Max relaxed visibly. He decided it might be prudent to change the subject. "Bowie's with you, isn't he?"

"Of course. I just saw him and his folks a minute ago, somewhere over there. Wanna go see them?"

"Well, maybe we shouldn't interrupt."

"Oh, don't worry about that. Besides, I've seen your reaction to Angelo, now I'm dying to find out how Jean and Vince are going to react to Musica." Her parents wisely decided to forestall any questions on that subject.

"I think I'm just gonna stay right here if it's all the same to you." announced Angelo. "Gettin' in the middle of one family reunion at a time's about all I can handle."

Aurora grinned at him in a way the sergeant didn't think was quite normal, and asked, "Want some company?"

"Uh, sure, I guess." Well, hell, he figured, she was a lot younger than her sister; how much trouble could the kid be?

Miriya put her hand under Aurora's chin and gave her daughter a mock-stern look, telling her, "do me a favour and stay here, okay? No wandering off for several hours at a time."

"Don't worry, Mother, I'll stay put."

Aurora sat down on a packing crate and kicked her feet like any normal child, regarding her future brother-in-law solemnly. Angelo watched her a little uneasily. This kid was seriously starting to spook him, the way she just sat there and looked at him with those huge dark blue eyes. There was something strange about her. She was charming, yes, but definitely spooky. Even Dana wasn't that unsettling.

"You wander off, huh?" he asked, just to break the silence.

She shrugged. "I like to walk around and explore. We just arrived here, you know. Mother and Father don't really mind unless they can't find me when they need to. They know I can take care of myself with no problems."

He didn't doubt it. Not one bit. "How old are you, anyway," he asked her. "Ten, eleven, what?"

The little girl just grinned at him in that unearthly way of hers, not answering. "How old are you?" she countered.

"Twenty-eight."

"Are you in love with Dana?"

"Well, yeah."

"Why?"

About that time Angelo started looking around for an escape. No sign of her family coming back yet. Damn it! He swallowed and decided to tough it out.

"Uh, well, we've been through a lot together. It just made us real close, I guess."

Aurora decided she liked him. He was honest.

"Do I make you nervous?"

"Oh, what would make you think a thing like that?"

"You act uncomfortable," laughed Aurora. "And I seem to make most people nervous. I'm very good at it, you know."

"Yeah, I noticed. Your big sister likes that game pretty well, too."

* * * * *

Although Dana had the tact to greet her family by herself before introducing them to her lover, Bowie had thrust is adored Musica on his parents practically before he had even said hello to them. His whole attitude seemed very challenging, as if he were telling them they had to accept this woman or else.

Jean Grant was a very intelligent woman, and she recognised what her son was doing. She was friendly to Musica, but Vince could tell she resented the intrusion into what should have been a private family moment. He wasn't sure what his own feelings on the subject were; he was feeling too many conflicting emotions at the moment to be able to sort out his thoughts about anything.

A very uncomfortable silence was beginning to fall over the foursome when the Sterlings showed up. Max and Miriya picked up on the tension immediately, but Dana jumped right in the middle of things with her usual panache.

"Aunt Jean! Uncle Vince! How's this for a surprise? Never thought you'd see us here, I'll bet!" She managed to hug them both at the same time.

Jean laughed and put an arm around her. "Dana," she said, "I should know better by now than to be surprised at anything you do! You really managed this whole expedition all by yourself?"

"Well, I had some help from a very loyal crew — including these two," she said, indicating Bowie and Musica.

"And when are we going to meet the rest of this loyal crew of yours" interrupted another voice.

Dana whirled around and grinned delightedly when she saw who it was. She started to yell, "Uncle..." but remembered her military training just in time. She halted abruptly and saluted.

"Admiral Hunter, Admiral Hayes," she said formally, "Lieutenant Sterling of the Phaeton reporting."

Both Rick and Lisa smiled broadly as they returned her salute. Lisa took her hand, and extended another to Bowie."

"Relax, Dana. You used to call me 'Aunt Lisa', remember?"

"Yes, I remember. And Uncle Rick.... Maybe you're right. I think it is time for general introductions. I'll introduce you to my crew back at the ship as soon as I rescue my second-in-command from my sister." And she was off running.

* * * * *

Dana, hand in hand with Aurora and a very grateful looking Angelo Dante, arrived at the Phaeton just ahead of her parents, the Grants and the Hunters. The general she cut off earlier was still there, giving her a look that was not exactly friendly. She noticed with amusement that he lightened his expression considerably when he saw the admirals.

She took a deep breath and began the introductions, starting with her family, then Bowies', then Rick and Lisa Hunter. Then she pointed to her friends and introduced them one at a time:

"My second-in-command — and my fiance — Sergeant Angelo Dante; Lieutenant Marie Crystal; Private Sean Phillips..."

"Formerly Captain Phillips," Sean interjected.

"Discipline problem," explained Dana, jerking her head in his direction. "Then there's Lieutenant... where's Jason?"

"He thought he spotted his cousin in the crowd and took off after her," Marie told her.

Dana indicated the two Tiresian sisters standing with Bowie. "And this is Musica and Allegra, the twin mistresses of the cosmic whatchamacallit."

"Harp," put in Bowie.

The REF personnel greeted the newcomers, and Lisa told them she wanted to set up an informal debriefing session for the next day, so each group could catch up on the history of the last thirteen years. She suggested that since it was getting late, the Phaeton contingent should spend the night in the ship and they would be assigned new quarters in Tiresia tomorrow.

Aurora whispered in Dana's ear that her place was all ready for her at the Sterlings' apartment. Her sister nodded.

"If you want to stay with us, Bowie, we'd love to have you. I'm sure we can find room for you," suggested Vince. "It's been too long since we've lived together as a family."

Bowie smiled a little sadly. "Dad," he said quietly, taking Musica's hand, "I'm afraid it has been too long. I need to have a place of my own, so I can have Musica with me. And she and Allegra won't be separated, so...."

Jean was about to object when three more people joined the group Their faces were partially obscured by the spreading darkness, but Dana recognised one of them immediately. She ran up and grabbed her friend's arm.

"Jason! We've all been waiting for you, and —" She broke off abruptly, catching sight of the distraught look on his face. "What's the matter.

He shook his head absently. "Tell you later," he said. "I did manage to find Minmei, though."

Dana presented him to the REF members as Lieutenant Jason Lynn. Rick opened his mouth in astonishment, and looked at Minmei for confirmation. she nodded. He could scarcely believe that this quiet, rather withdrawn young man was the same person as the bratty kid he had known in Macross all those years ago. Then he looked at Dana and Bowie again, and realised they had all grown up and changed.

Jason suddenly snapped out of it, and realised he hadn't even introduced his famous cousin to his teammates. He did so, and added, "This is her friend, Rem," nodding to his other companion.

As Dana got her first good look at Rem, she suddenly felt a cold wind blow through her. There was something about him; not the way he looked, exactly, just a certain air about him.... She backed up apprehensively and stumbled into Angelo's arms. Angie looked at her wide, staring eyes and pulled her closer.

* * * * *

Max lay back on the bed and scowled at the ceiling. He glanced over at Miriya, who was calmly reading.

"Well, what do you think of 'Angie'?" asked Max suddenly, pronouncing the name in an odd tone of voice.

Miriya kept on reading as she answered, "First impression? I like him. He seems very dependable, and he's obviously devoted to Dana."

Max frowned a bit, then announced, "Yeah, well, I'm not sure I trust him."

His wife, realising what this was all about, grinned into her book.

"I mean, what do we know about this guy?" continued Max. "We just met him, and suddenly we find out he's going to be our son-in-law? I don't know about all this, Mir. I just don't know."

Miriya put down the book and touched her husband's arm. She said gently, "Oh, Max. You're jealous. Daddy's little girl is in love with another man, and it's hard for you to accept."

"Jealous?!"

"Um hmm. You didn't see the expression on you face when Dana introduced him."

He considered this. "Yeah, but I'm not jealous. It's just... Dana's my daughter, my little girl."

"She's not a little girl any more, Max."

"I know. But it's hard to think of her being grown up enough to fall in love and get married. Last time I saw her she was...." He sighed. "Am I being stupid here, Miriya?"

"No, darling." She took his hand and kissed it. "I think it's probably a very natural reaction. In fact, I have the feeling that Vince and Jean are probably having a very similar conversation right about now. Did you notice the way Jean was being rather cool toward that girl Musica tonight?"

"Yeah. Can't say I really blame her, though, under the circumstances."

"I'm not trying to blame her, or you either," Miriya told him. "I know you can't help feeling a little bit jealous. Don't worry about it."

"I'm not jealous. I'm just... jealous...." he finished sheepishly.

They fell into one another's arms laughing. Max straightened up and looked at his wife with very bright eyes. He cupped her face in his hands.

"I love you," he told her. "You know that?"

"I know," whispered Miriya. "I know."

She looked at him intently for a minute, then carefully removed his glasses and placed them on the bedside table behind him. She pulled him closer to her and began kissing him. Max groaned slightly and responded, running his hands through her thick green hair. He suddenly forgot just what was worrying him.

* * * * *

Dana woke with a crick in her neck and an intense hatred for the tiny single bed she was sleeping in. It was too small to be comfortable, and besides, she had never slept well alone anyway. She thought longingly of her comfortable bed — and her bedmate — back on the Phaeton. She sighed wearily and sat up.

In the next bed, Aurora was sound asleep. Apparently insomnia didn't run in the family. Some people have all the luck, thought Dana sourly. It was a little too soon to know what she felt toward her odd sibling, but they had had a very good talk the night before. She had heard the story behind Aurora's accelerated growth rate and her strange powers, and a little bit about her old home on Haydon IV, the Planet of Magic.

Dana stretched and got out of bed. She wondered what Angelo was doing now. Snoring, probably.

The thick carpet felt good under her bare feet as she wandered into the living room. She looked at the room curiously; it was very pretty, cozy and comfortable, but it wasn't quite what she would have chosen herself. Too overstuffed and too white. But she figured she could get used to it. She noticed her mother watching her from the adjoining kitchen and smiled.

Miriya smiled back pleasantly. She noticed the oversized (to say the least) t-shirt her daughter was wearing and suspected she knew who the shirt's true owner was. She wondered what Max was going to think.

"I have something for you," she said

"What?"

Her mother handed her a paper-wrapped bundle. "Official REF uniform. To wear to the debriefing session today. And beyond, if you intend to stay in the military."

"Not much doubt about that," said Dana, unwrapping the package. "High-heeled boots? High-heeled boots?!" she practically shrieked.

"What's wrong with that?"

"Well, it's pretty dumb for a military uniform. How impractical can you get. We had low heels in the Southern Cross."

"Mm!" snorted Miriya. She wasn't really annoyed, but she was dreading the factionalism she figured was coming. The RDF and the Army of the Southern Cross had always been rivals, and she wasn't too pleased with the thought of that rivalry existing within her own family.

Dana looked at her strangely, a bemused smile on her face. At her mother's inquiring look she shook her head. "Oh, sorry. It's just that you suddenly sounded a lot like my friend Nova when you did that. It's strange; she makes that same sound when she's irritated."

"Which one is she?"

"Oh, she's not with us," explained Dana. "She and her boyfriend decided to stay behind to help with the Invid underground. And besides, they were going to have a baby, so they didn't want to come along. She's probably had it by now. I caught the bouquet at their wedding, you know."

Miriya had to laugh at the jumbled narrative. Some things never change, she thought, remembering an excitable little girl who had talked the same way. In some ways, Dana was the same at twenty as she had been at seven. But only in some ways.

"Is that when you got engaged?" The 'catching of the bouquet' ritual at weddings was one of the human traditions she found most bizarre, particularly as it so often ended up in a physical altercation between female guests, but she'd observed it now on a number of occasions.

"No. I don't believe in silly superstitions like the next bride nonsense. Or if I do, I'll pick 'em myself! Seriously, though, Angelo and I were already engaged by that time. We went to visit his family a couple of days before that, to try to get them used to the idea."

"What's his family like, anyway?" asked Miriya.

Dana made a sour face. "Well, his brother's okay, I guess. I don't know how, considering he's married to the biggest bitch in the universe. And his dad.... Well, I'll just say that he's an ultra-conservative, chauvinistic, bigoted jerk — and that's complimenting the guy. We got along real well."

"Oh. What about his mother?"

"I never met her. She died just after the war ended. All I know about her is that she was one of those good-little-wife types, devoted to her family and the making of fruitcake. She kept sending Angie all these care packages loaded with the stuff, and he never got up the nerve to tell her that he hated fruitcake! He was always griping about it."

Miriya laughed. Dana's style of conversation might be erratic, but it was definitely not boring.

Dana grew more serious. "I liked his sister Jackie a lot, though. She and Angelo were really close. I met her a couple of times during the war, before we got together. He says sometimes I remind him of her." She smiled a little sadly.

"Casualty?"

"Mm hmm. Her whole squadron got wiped out at one time. Things like that happened a lot. I don't think there was anybody who didn't lose someone. I mean, there was Uncle Rolf, and then... well, I don't really want to talk about it right now."

Her mother took her in her arms, holding her close. "A birthright of war is a hard thing to inherit, Dana," she told her solemnly.

Dana nodded.

"Oh, Mom...."

And suddenly she was crying.

* * * * *

"I feel like an exhibit in a freak show," whispered Jason. Sean and Marie laughed.

"Makes you want to get up and dance on the table, huh?" suggested Sean.

"And do a striptease as well, I suppose," Marie asked mockingly.

Her paramour looked interested. "Well, if you really want to...." he encouraged.

She gave him a dirty look. "What I really want is for this Spanish inquisition to get started."

"Yeah, well, we can't get started until our valiant leader gets here to make up history as she goes along." Marie and Jason snickered. They were all well aware of Dana's selective amnesia.

Angelo glared at him. "Watch your mouth, Phillips," he warned.

"Oops. I forgot. Don't say anything bad about his woman."

"God, I wish they'd stop staring," Jason groaned. Like many people who went overboard trying to attract attention as a child, Jason Lynn had grown up to become decidedly self-effacing. He'd long since given up trying to compete with his famous relatives, preferring instead to fade into the background whenever possible. It was understandable that the Phaeton mission would naturally attract a lot of publicity, but why couldn't these people focus their attention on Dana instead? It was all her doing, after all.

"Well, maybe they would if those two idiots would settle down!" growled Angie. "I'm gonna go wait by the door."

One of the REF members who was staring at them was a young commander by the name of Jack Baker. He was thinking that the Southern Cross contingent had been away from military discipline too long. They didn't seem to have any standards of behaviour. Phillips, Crystal, and Lynn were behaving like a pack of lunatics, and Bowie Grant and that green-haired Tiresian, Musica, were openly holding hands. Of course, Jack had his hand resting on Karen Penn's knee underneath the table, but that was different.

Karen looked at Jack, then looked back across the room at Sean and Marie, who were still playing their little games. She had a suspicion that she had come across some kindred spirits here.

* * * * *

Dana felt someone grab her wrist. She turned around to find her fiance grinning at her, looking extraordinarily handsome in his new uniform.

"Go ahead, I'll be in in just a minute," she told her parents.

Miriya nodded understandingly and propelled Max, who was suddenly frowning again, into the debriefing room.

Angelo nodded after them. "What's wrong with your dad?"

Dana shrugged. "Who knows? He was fine up till a minute ago."

"Oh. I get it."

He pulled her out of sight into a small alcove, so they could have a little privacy — actually their first real moment alone since they had arrived on Tirol. They kissed deeply for a minute, then held one another at arms' length, each inspecting the way the other looked in RDF uniform. Both were pretty pleased with the results.

"You're beautiful, y'know that?" smiled Angelo.

"You don't look so bad yourself."

She leaned against him and sighed, putting her head on his chest. He rubbed her back. "How'd you sleep?"

Dana snorted. "Sleep? You've got to be kidding. How 'bout you?"

"Pretty lousy," he answered. "Our old bed seemed awful big and awful lonely all of a sudden."

"I know the feeling. My new bed seemed awfully small and lonely. And I've got my sister as a roommate."

"Well, there's a way around that, you know."

"Angelo — we've been through all this before. What's the point of finding my family if I don't spend time with them?"

"I know, I know...."

It was an old argument, one they'd had several times over the past five or six months, and Dana didn't like the way it was headed. "Look," she said quietly, touching his cheek, "it's not that I don't miss you, but this is something I have to do. You know that. And once you move into your new quarters in Tiresia, we can still spend a lot of nights together."

"Promise?"

"Abso-tively. Now we better get going."

After one last, quick kiss, the two of them headed inside the debriefing room. Just inside the door Angie suddenly stopped her again, nodding towards their friends. "Oh, hey, I almost forgot. I thought you should know what was wrong with Jason last night." His voice was low, conspiratorial.

"Yeah, I wondered about that. What happened?"

"He found out that his brother got killed a few years ago."

Dana shook her head sympathetically. "Oh, that's rough. Poor kid."

Angelo almost laughed. Poor kid? Dana had to be almost a dozen years younger than Jason, but she was so used to being in charge of the group that she somehow felt senior to them all, Angelo included. The eight years between them had bothered him quite a bit at first, but eventually the age difference had sort of disappeared.

"Hey, you two!" yelled Sean. "Stop billing and cooing and get in here so we can get this show on the road!"

Angie turned red and swore under his breath, "I'm gonna kill him. One of these days, I'm gonna kill him."

* * * * *

Rick Hunter called the meeting to order. "I think we should get started now since we all seem to be present and accounted for. If certain parties can stop fondling each other long enough to get on with the proceedings," he added sharply, although there was a glint in his eye that just might have been amusement. He turned to see his wife hiding a smile, and she refused to meet his gaze.

There were a few titters of appreciative laughter from all corners of the room, but it stopped almost immediately at a glance from the admiral. Sean casually undraped his arm from the back of Marie's chair, where he had been tickling her neck. Jack removed his hand from Karen's knee so fast that he rapped his knuckles on the underside of the table, sharply and painfully.

Then the debriefing began in earnest. Dana and her core group — Angelo, Bowie, Sean, Marie, Jason, Musica, and Allegra — spent the next several hours taking turns filling everyone in on thirteen years of Earth history.

They told of the downfall of the Robotech Defense Force on Earth; the monopoly of power gained by Anatole Leonard, Lazlo Zand, and Wyatt Moran; the feudalism that enveloped Earth; and the coming of the Robotech Masters. When they got to the story of the clone Zor Prime and his involvement with the 15th, as if by some unspoken agreement between themselves, no one made reference to Dana's relationship with him. However, Bowie and Musica's union made up a significant part of the narrative as they spoke of her rescue from the Masters' ship and the part she played in the end of the war; more than a few of the people present were reminded of the parallel with Max and Miriya Sterling and how their marriage had affected the outcome of the first Robotech War.

The erstwhile 15th squad told of the discovery of the Flower of Life growing within the ruins of the SDF-1; the death of Rolf Emerson; the destruction of the Robotech Masters and Monument City; the sacrifice of Zor and the spreading of the Flowers throughout the planet; Dana's fruitless attempts to warn the shattered remnants of the Earth government about the threat posed by the Invid; the camp set up by the former Southern Cross soldiers and the clone refugees; the arrival of Jonathan Wolff and his failed warnings; the retrofitted hyperspace drive system designed by Louie Nichols; and their six month journey to Tirol.

There remained much to be said, and many questions to be answered, but that could wait a couple of days. The crew of the Phaeton still had to settle into their new homes, and tomorrow would be a general moving day.

Everyone present was relieved when they were dismissed; it had been a long session. Fascinating, but tiring. Most of them started for their respective dwellings, but a few crowded around Dana and her friends. Lisa Hunter was saying that they should get together socially very soon, so she could show off her 2 1/2 year-old son Roy, the light of her life.

"Excuse me, Lieutenant," said Rem, coming up to the group. "I'd like to talk to you if I may."

Dana froze when she was who it was.

"You see," Rem continued, "I am also a clone of the original Zor, and I need to ask you a few —"

Dana was trembling. "I'm sorry..." she choked out. "I can't...." She bolted out the door of the Great Hall, leaving everyone staring after her in confusion.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset her. If there's anything I can do to...."

"You can leave her alone!" Angelo rounded on him. "You and any other Zor clones that might happen to be around. That bastard hurt her, and —"

"Not on purpose," Bowie reminded him quietly.

"Oh, yeah! You just try and tell me he didn't enjoy messin' with her mind, Bowie, just try and tell me that. Good ole Zor really got off on that, especially since he could just turn right around and claim, 'Oh, sorry, it ain't my fault, I'm under the Masters' control, it's me you oughtta feel sorry for.' Like hell it wasn't on purpose. And I don't care one way or the other, 'cause Dana still got hurt, and I'm not about to stand by and watch the same thing happen again!"

He shoved his way past Rem, glaring at the hapless clone.

Bowie sighed. "I'm sorry about that," he told Rem. "It wasn't your fault; there was no way you could have known. Don't mind Angelo, he's just extremely protective of Dana, and they're both still pretty sensitive about the subject of Zor Prime."

"Thanks for the warning."

Max Sterling stared out the door, concerned about his daughter and whatever had happened to her to cause her such torment. He was starting to revise his opinion about her fiance.

* * * * *

He found her in a dark courtyard around the corner. She was standing with her arms wrapped around herself tightly, staring out at the city without seeing it. Her cheeks were wet, and she was still trembling. Angelo put his hand on her back.

"Are you all right, Ma'am?"

"No." She spoke so softly he could barely hear her. "I'm not really sure I'll ever be all right."

Angelo put his arm around her, but she shrugged it off. Dana sighed exhaustedly. "It just keeps happening," she said. "Every time I think I'm over it, it just comes up and hits me in the face again. And every time I'm really happy, when I really have something to look forward to and I think I'm starting to get my life in control, these memories come crowding back in, and they... I...." She broke down.

He held her, stroking her hair, and let her cry. He had no idea what to say to comfort her; not this time. They had assumed the whole mess with Zor was in the past, but no one had considered that there might be another clone waiting to reopen those old wounds.

The thought of Dana having to suffer so much put Angelo in a rage. "That guy better stay away if he knows what's good for him. 'Cause if he doesn't —"

"No, Angie," she interrupted. "You can't blame Rem for what he is. There isn't anybody to blame."

Yeah, there is, he thought. Zor. But he didn't say it. He merely told her, "Don't worry, we'll get past it. Got past everything else, didn't we?"

She nodded, but inside she wondered if they really had. She looked up at him with such a haunted expression on her face it tore him apart. "Just hold me for a while, okay?" she pleaded.

"I've got you," he whispered. And he'd be damned if he'd let anything ever change that.

* * * * *

"I know you're busy settling in, but I really need to talk to you."

Bowie laughed. "That's all right, Uncle Max. I could use a break."

Max looked around the apartment. It was fairly small, with two bedrooms and a kitchen adjoining the living room, the sort usually given to couples with one child. Or, in this case, a couple with a sister.

"Nice place," he said.

"Thanks. Now if I only knew where I could get a piano...."

"Um, there's an old service club downtown that hasn't been open for years. You could try getting in touch with the owner, I guess." Bowie nodded appreciatively.

Max sighed and got to the point. "What happened last night?"

Bowie looked uncomfortable. "Maybe you should ask Dana about that," he suggested. "I'm not really sure it's any of my business."

If Max had been less worried about his daughter, he might have reflected on the novelty of a member of the Grant family actually preferring to stay out of someone else's business. However, in his present state the subtlety was lost on him.

"Dana has barely spoken two sentences since she got home last night. All she does is sit there holding that Pollinator. I'm worried about her."

Bowie looked concerned. It was never a good sign when Dana retreated into herself and refused to speak. "Well..." he hesitated.

"Please, Bowie? I'm asking you as a friend. You know Dana better than anyone, and I need to know how to help her. What happened to her?"

Bowie looked at Musica, seeking her counsel. She nodded almost imperceptibly. He sighed. "Will she even talk to Angelo?" he asked.

Max shook his head. "I don't know. I don't think she'll talk to anyone. It's like she doesn't even know we're there."

"That's not good. When Dana goes into her Wall of Silence routine, there's no way to bring her out of it. The only thing any of us can do is just wait till she gets herself past the worst of it and starts talking again."

Max felt like tearing out his hair in frustration. "There has to be something we can do!"

"I'm sorry, Uncle Max, there just isn't. When she gets like this, she won't accept help from anybody. You're right when you say she doesn't know you're there, because nobody can get through to her in this mood. She'll just have to bring herself out of it."

"Well, at least tell me what happened to provoke it. What was it about Rem that spooked her so much? Is it because he looks like the Zor clone that was in your squadron back on Earth?"

"Uh, no, Rem doesn't really look all that much like Zor. Maybe there's a little resemblance here and there, but not a lot. I'd say it's probably just that he's related that bothers Dana so much. I mean, the whole situation with Zor took a lot out of her, and none of us expected to find another Zor clone."

A sudden thought struck Max. "What 'situation' exactly? Were they... involved, or what? Was she in love with him or something like that?"

"Something like that. She thought she was. She was fascinated by him for some reason, almost obsessed, I think. It wasn't like what she feels for Angelo now, but whatever it was it went pretty deep. And she ended up getting hurt pretty badly."

"When he died."

Bowie nodded. "That and his betrayal. I know he wasn't intentionally spying for the Masters, but it still hurts to be betrayed by a friend. And she thought of him as a lot more than just a friend. Then he died, and that hurt Dana a lot. Plus on top of that, after the war ended she was trying to get this whole mission put together and she had to be the strength for the whole group. I'm just glad she had Angelo to lean on when she needed to."

That was something else. Max was still curious about the big, aggressive sergeant his daughter was planning to marry. He knew very little about the man except that he was very protective of Dana and seemed to have a fiery temper. According to what Dana had told Miriya, he came from a very traditional, conservative Italian family and had been a bit of a jerk when they first met.

"How does Angelo fit into all this?" he asked. "What made him jump all over Rem last night?"

"Oh, he was just protecting Dana as usual. He has a tendency to get a little carried away where she's concerned, but he means well. He really loves her, you know."

"I hope so," said Max. "I don't want her to get hurt any more than she already has."

Bowie smiled reassuringly. "Angelo is the last person you have to worry about hurting her. They've been through too much together to ever risk messing up the relationship. They belong together — just like Musica and I." As he spoke, he caught Musica's eye and smiled. She smiled back tenderly.

Max began to feel a little better about the whole thing. He trusted Bowie at least to be an impartial witness, and was glad he had thought of talking to him.

"Well, if that's the case, I'm glad. They just seemed a little mismatched to me."

Bowie laughed. "You're not the first person to say that. I guess it does seem like an odd match at first, but you wouldn't believe the fight they went through before they could even manage to trust each other. When they finally found out how to work together, they started respecting each other, and it just sort of went on from there. They're good for each other."

"I hope so. I guess I'm just being an overprotective father. Nobody's good enough for my little girl."

"Hey, maybe that's what's wrong with my mom," surmised Bowie.

"I wouldn't doubt it." Max stood up to leave. "Well, thanks for the advice, Bowie. I'll let you get back to settling in now."

"Bye, Uncle Max. Wish I could have helped more, but there's just no way to get Dana out of these moods. She'll come out of it by herself in a while."

As Max left, Musica turned to Bowie and said, "Do you realise? Our very first visitor in our first real home?"

"Hey, that's right!" He pulled her closer and kissed her.

Allegra, watching them from the kitchen, shook her head. She suddenly remembered something one of Jonathan Wolff's crew had said about Bowie and her sister, back on Earth: "Gawd, what a pair of saps!" When the meaning of the phrase was explained to her, she had found very little reason to disagree. And she found even less reason now.

* * * * *

Sean looked around his new quarters with an expression of distaste. It was plain and very military, with no hint of personality or life to it at all. They would definitely have to change a few things.

"Not exactly what I'd call the perfect little lovenest," he told Marie, who was busy unpacking the few possessions they had.

She shrugged. "Was it any better on the Phaeton?"

"No, but those were just temporary quarters. This is supposed to be ours. It's depressing — the place is a dump."

"Oh, quit griping and help me unpack, Sean. If you were left to your own devices, you'd probably decorate the place like a Turkish brothel."

He grinned. "No, I wouldn't. I don't know what Turkish decor looks like."

"Just br— On second thought I don't even want to know. I can't believe I just walked into that one." She bent over to examine the contents of a box on the floor, giving Sean a view he considered much more pleasant. He leered at her, then pulled his features into a more serious expression when she straightened up and almost caught him.

He put his arms around her and nuzzled her hair. Marie laughed. "Hey, that tickles!" she protested.

"Why don't we go see if we can find any ideas for redecorating the bedroom," suggested Sean.

"Oh, that's a nice euphemism. Don't you ever think of anything else?"

"That's a rhetorical question, right?"

"Obviously... mmmm...." He began kissing her neck, knowing just the right way to make her melt. "You know, we haven't even got around to putting sheets on the bed yet," she reminded him gently.

"So? Remember all those months we spent camping out? We didn't even have a bed."

She thought about this a minute, a wicked smile playing across her features. "Well, in that case, I guess we don't really need one now, do we?" Sean's eyes flew open in astonishment as Marie pushed him down on the floor.

* * * * *

Jason figured he really ought to be unpacking, but he just didn't feel like it. There was really no rush, anyway, since he lived alone, and he thought the time had come to get a few answers out of his cousin.

As he looked around the apartment Minmei shared with Rem, he was a little surprised to find a photo of Kyle on the shelf. There was also a snapshot of Minmei's old singing partner, Janice Em. Odd combination, he thought.

Minmei caught him looking at the pictures and explained, "Rem and I have an agreement. Part of the basis of our relationship is that we'll never deny our pasts. My therapist says that's very healthy."

"Therapist?"

"Oh, sure. I've been in therapy for three or four years now. It's helped me a lot... and so has Rem. I don't know what I'd do without him," Minmei enthused.

Jason nodded indulgently. "Uh, yeah. That's really good, Minmei. But I really needed to talk to you about what happened to Kyle."

Minmei's eyes clouded over at them mention of his name.

"Hey, look," Jason told her gently, "I don't want to upset you, but Kyle was my brother. I need to know how he died."

"He was trying to save me. He was trying to save me and T.R. Edwards shot him! Just shot him in cold blood and didn't even look back. Then he died in my arms." She was trying to keep control, but wasn't having much luck.

Her cousin wiped the tears away from her cheek and tried to console her. She noticed that his eyes were wet, too. She suddenly felt very close to him.

"I'm sorry," said Jason. "I just had to know."

"Kyle died a hero, Jason. You should be proud of that. No matter what he did before, he redeemed himself in the end. At least we have that to hang on to."

Jason smiled a little sadly. "That's good to know. I mean, Kyle and I were never close, but he was the only brother I had, and it's nice to know that he turned out all right in the end. It makes a difference." He seemed to be talking more to himself than to Minmei.

"Yes. It does make a difference. My therapist says that it's hard to lose someone you love, but it makes it easier if you can at least respect who they were."

"Yeah, that makes sense, I guess." He looked back at the photo on the shelf, and asked, "Rem honestly doesn't mind you having that picture of Kyle around? I think the last thing I would want to see around my house is a picture of my girlfriend's ex-lover."

Minmei stared at him. "But Kyle was more than just my ex-lover. I loved him, and Rem understands that. I told you, we don't deny our pasts, and Kyle was a very important part of my past. That's why we have the pictures of him and Janice around."

Jason felt a little confused. "I thought Janice was just your singing partner. What's she have to do with not denying your past?"

"Oh, she was a lot more than that. Before she died, Janice was like a sister to me, and she and Rem were in love. Actually, Rem and I came together because we were both grieving over the loss of the ones we loved, and that's one reason we honour their memories so openly. That's what my therapist recommends."

Creepy, thought Jason. He was dying to ask how Minmei's therapist would recommend they deal with the problem of calling out the wrong name in the throes of passion, but he decided against it. He figured she deserved some privacy after having such a well-publicised love life for so many years. And besides, he didn't really want any more second-hand therapy.

All he said was, "Oh."

Minmei realised he wanted to change the subject, and asked him how his love life was going these days. He shrugged. "So-so. There are a couple of Tiresian girls from the ship I see off and on, but there's nothing serious happening."

"Why not?"

"Well, you know, I'm kinda getting the idea that the Masters' clones were brought up a whole lot different from the ones that got left behind here. I mean, these girls grew up really repressed, not knowing about emotions or all the other stuff we take for granted as normal. I guess it sort of makes sense that it'd hit 'em all differently, right? I suppose your therapist would say some of them sort of overcompensated a little," Jason explained.

Minmei nodded gravely. It was one of her therapist's favourite topics. "So what'd they do?"

"Well, you know Musica was sort of the inspiration to everybody all along, and she and Bowie are just so freaking happy that a bunch of the clones took it into their heads that this love thing was something they should try out for themselves. Marca fell for somebody, but he didn't feel the same way and she got burned pretty badly. She's a really sweet little thing, but she's a little clueless about relationships."

"That's not a nice thing to say."

"I know. Still, aren't we all?" His cousin frowned as the truth hit a little too close to home. Jason continued musingly, "I don't think Marca's going to open herself up again too soon. She's kind of a wound that needs healing. And unfortunately I don't think I'm the guy that can do it. Now, Allegra on the other hand, says she sort of looks at the whole love thing like it's fine for some people, but she just doesn't get it herself. She's just not real interested in anything other than sex. Very Freudian," he grinned.

"Well, you sound pretty enthusiastic about that yourself!" she snorted.

"Oh, definitely!"

Minmei looked at him, then looked away, uncomfortable. This certainly wasn't the little boy she remembered from Macross, or the teenager she'd last seen before leaving Earth. The slight callousness he displayed when talking about his girlfriends reminded her a little too much of his brother in his younger days. However, she wasn't sufficiently recovered to allow herself negative thoughts about her beloved Kyle, so she forced that thought away quickly.

Idly, she asked, "So why'd you change your name?"

"My name?" Jason asked blankly. "Oh, I guess you heard me called Jason Lynn instead of the other way around. I just reversed it is all. It was easier than trying to explain to people once I joined the army that Lynn was my last name, not my first name, and they were all just, 'Huh?' because they had no idea about Chinese names. Though I don't know why, since you and Kyle popularized the other form."

Minmei nodded, not really understanding. The earlier feeling of closeness was gone now, and they were both rapidly coming to the conclusion that they no longer knew each other — if they ever had. Both of them hoped that they would be able to develop some sort of relationship, since they were now the only surviving members of their family, but that would remain to be seen.

* * * * *

Apparently the only member of the 15th who was seriously attending to the chore of moving was Angelo Dante, and he wasn't doing much more than going through the motions. In his quarters on the Phaeton, he was sorting his and Dana's things into boxes, but he was too busy worrying about her to really pay much attention to what he was doing.

For what felt like the hundredth time, Angelo had to fight off an impulse to go after that guy Rem. The more rational side of him realised that Rem was as much an innocent victim of circumstances in this matter as anyone else, but he wasn't feeling all that rational at the moment. It was the same as it had always been; anything upset his Dana and he saw red. What he wouldn't quite admit to himself was that maybe defending her wasn't the entire issue, that maybe he also wanted a scapegoat because he had never had the chance to tear Zor to pieces.

He slammed a box down on the counter so hard it came apart, spilling everything in it. He muttered a few randomly chosen obscenities and started picking up the mess again.

"Bad day?"

Angelo turned around, startled. He hadn't heard Dana come in, but suddenly she was standing just inside the door, looking pale and exhausted.

"You look like hell," he told her. Dana gave him a thin smile but didn't reply. "Feelin' any better?"

She shrugged. "Just had to get out of the house for a while. The walls felt like they were starting to close in, so I figured I should come over and get my stuff."

"I got most of it packed up already."

"Thanks." She sat down on the bed and looked around restlessly. The two of them had been through so much in this room. They had made plans, had serious discussions and silly conversations and more fights than either of them cold remember. It was just a place, but Dana knew she would miss it. The Phaeton had been her home for almost a year, this room for the last seven months.

Angie sat down close to her, laying one huge hand over both of hers. "So much for this place, huh?"

She leaned against his shoulder tiredly, wondering what he was remembering — tenderness, passion, bitterness, or something completely different. "Yeah. We've been through a lot here."

"Mm hmm. Remember the first time I asked you to marry me?"

Her little hide-and-seek smile appeared again, just for an instant. "Of course I remember. You were so nervous I practically had to force it out of you."

"I wasn't that nervous!" he protested. Dana just raised her eyebrows at him. If she'd been in a better mood, she would have asked him who was rewriting history this time.

"Well, never mind," he said, deciding it might be a wise tactical maneuver to change the subject. "I'm just glad you're talkin' again. You had me worried there for a while."

"You worry too much. You and Dad both. He even went over to Bowie's this afternoon to see if he could find out anything that might help me. I heard him telling Mom about it. Really kinda sweet when you think about it."

Angelo nodded. When he had taken Dana home the night before, it was easy to see how worried her father was about her. That was certainly one thing he and Max had in common, because she had had him more anxious than he really wanted to admit.

"Hey, about what happened last night — "

"I don't want to talk about it," she replied shortly.

"Yes, Ma'am," he said, backing off.

Funny, she thought, there was a time when he would never have backed down like that. Once he would have enjoyed upsetting her.... But he had changed, as had she and all the rest of their group. He had gone from being her adversary to being her friend, her lover, her confidant, her protector, and her most loyal supporter. She wondered why she was getting so nostalgic all of a sudden; probably the effect of being in their quarters for the last time. It made her feel very sentimental.

She gave him a sudden affectionate smile and said, "Sometimes I honestly think I don't deserve you." Angelo, having no way of knowing what she had just been thinking, stared at her and wondered what had brought that on. But he had never learned to keep up with her moods yet and had serious doubts that he ever would.

"Oh, I'm fairly sure a lot of people have said that we deserve each other," he joked, trying to lighten the atmosphere.

Dana hugged him and laughed for the first time in more than a day. She was still upset about everything that was happening to her, but he had a way of making her feel better. Almost without exception she had lost everyone who had ever mattered to her over the years — although she had her family back now — and she resolved then and there that she would not lose him, no matter what happened.

She winked at him suddenly and jumped up. "Let's get to work here, soldier!"

Angie was still looking at her strangely as he got up and handed her a box. He was thinking that her younger sister hadn't managed to corner the market on weird behaviour. Might be a fun contest to watch, if any of the innocent bystanders survived.

* * * * *

Rick and Lisa had learned over the last couple of years that with a toddler in the house, conversation could only be desultory and spasmodic at best. As a result, they now saved most of their meaningful dialogues for odd moments during on-duty hours, or after Roy was asleep. Tonight, however, they were at least attempting to keep to one subject, although their unruly son had other ideas.

"I cannot believe how much those kids have changed," Lisa was saying. "No, Roy, eat it, don't put your hands in it."

"I know. Last time we saw Bowie and Dana they were what, seven? Now they're twenty years old, veterans of an intergalactic war, and both planning on getting married."

"Against Max and Jean's better judgment, I'd say," laughed Lisa.

Rick laughed, too. "I'm not sure what it is with Jean, because Bowie's girlfriend seems very nice."

"From what I've heard, it's a natural reaction for the parent of the opposite sex to be a little hostile to the idea of their child's love life. I'll probably end up reacting the same way in a few years when this one brings home some girl and says he wants to marry her."

"Then I guess it's a good thing we don't have a daughter, or I'd probably end up doing the same thing Max is doing now. Not that I really blame him, though, considering that big, dumb career sergeant Dana's got herself hooked up with."

Lisa considered this. "You know, I'm not so sure he is dumb. He's certainly not the intellectual type, but he's intelligent enough to keep Dana interested. Besides, Miriya seems to like him, and you know she's not going to be influenced by a handsome face."

Handsome? thought Rick. "Well, that's certainly a point," he allowed. "What do you think of the rest of the group?"

"I think it's amazing that they ever managed to keep from killing one another. Kind of a mixed bunch to say the least."

Rick laughed, agreeing with her assessment. "Not unlike the Sentinels, when you think about it. Speaking of which, is it just me, or do Phillips and Crystal sort of remind you of anyone?"

"You mean Jack and Karen? I had the same thought. I'm betting they'll probably become a foursome within the next few months. Roy, stop throwing your food!"

Rick grinned at his little boy and slipped him a wink. Roy was a little young to understand the significance, but he laughed at his father's expression anyway. "Strange to think that we have a baby while our oldest friends have grown-up kids."

"And I'm older than any of you," sighed Lisa. Strange how much comfort there was lately in the thought that she was five years younger than she would have been if it hadn't been for the SDF-3's miscalculated spacefold from Earth.

"Ah, forty-two's not that old," her husband told her.

"Daddy, see me?" interrupted Roy. Rick turned around to look and got a very small, very sticky hand plastered in the middle of his face.

"Why, thank you," he told his son drily.

Lisa handed him a towel to wipe his face, then turned a stern expression on their demon-child. "Roy Hayes Hunter — you apologise."

"I'm sowwy." One of the things Roy had learned in his short life was that he better obey when Lisa used the Mommy voice on him. That particular tone of voice told him she had taken enough of his nonsense and meant business. Later on, he would come to refer to her in this mood as "Admiral Mom."

"I think it's time for someone to have a bath and go to bed," she announced, picking up a loudly protesting Roy and carrying him out of the room.

Rick waved goodnight and smiled to himself as he watched them go. He couldn't help marvelling at how happy he was — even with a slightly sticky face.

Half an hour later, Lisa returned, looking tired but very content. She stood in front of Rick and smiled down at him.

"You don't have cereal on your hands, do you?" he asked. She chuckled and shook her head.

"Then c'mere." He pulled her down onto his lap and she put her arms around his neck, relaxing against him. The same thought was in both their minds: not all meaningful dialogues need words.

* * * * *

"I'm telekinetic, you know," announced Aurora.

Angelo stared at her. "Huh? What's that mean?"

"It means I can move things without touching them, just by using my mind. Watch this." Angelo watched, astounded, as a small silver bowl filled with Flowers of Life began floating across the room.

"She's a born exhibitionist," Miriya remarked to him.

Aurora heard her mother's remark and laughed, causing her to lose concentration a second. The bowl fell to the floor with a thump, muffled by the thick carpet.

"Shit." The little girl clapped her hand over her mouth and giggled.

Angie grinned. "Where'd you pick that one up, Little Ma'am?" Dana heard the remark and shot him a dirty look from her corner of the sofa. She was not happy with the nickname he had given her little sister; "Ma'am" had evolved into her own special pet name, and she didn't like any corruption of it being given to someone else.

"Hard to imagine, isn't it?" Miriya looked at her older daughter as she said it, but she was smiling. Angelo tried to imagine his own parents being so indulgent about an older child teaching a younger sibling how to swear. He couldn't.

He had been spending a lot of time with the Sterlings as a family lately, partly just to be with Dana, of course, and partly to get to know his future in-laws. He was discovering to his surprise that he liked them very much, and was relieved to find it was mutual; Max was starting to come around. And their family life fascinated him: the parents were openly affectionate with each other and with their daughters, and all four of them treated one another as equals. It was rather a novelty to him, being so different from the way he'd been brought up. His own family was close, but there was a rigidly observed hierarchy that was absent entirely from the Sterling family.

Aurora had discovered that the big, tough sergeant was a soft touch with children, and had set about wrapping him around her little finger. She had adopted Angelo as her big brother, not caring that it might be several years before it became official. She absolutely adored him, and the feeling was entirely mutual — a fact which Dana resented a little bit. Strangely, she wasn't quite sure if she resented her sister for taking up her fiancé's attention... or if she resented her fiance for getting along with her sister better than she did!

At the moment, though, she had more important problems to think about... namely having her command taken away from her. She and her group had been seconded to a new unit (the 15th ATAC squad of the REF; nobody was really sure if that had been done to make the new arrivals comfortable, or it was just Vince Grant's idea of a joke) which already had a commanding officer. It had been explained to her that there just were no hovertank squadrons lacking a C.O. at the moment; she had a feeling that even if there were, a Southern Cross trained officer would not be the first choice of most of the brass, despite her experience and connections.

She had been wondering lately how Sean had managed to cope when the same thing had happened to him. She figured it was because he wasn't born to command the way she was and had deserved it anyway. Either way, she had taken an immediate dislike to Lt. Commander David Foley, the man who had, as she saw it, stolen her command away from her. Dana saw him as the originator of all the career troubles she had so far encountered on Tirol. And if she could have found any way possible to blame him for that disastrous encounter with Rem a couple of weeks ago, she would have done that too.

Dana sighed and scratched Polly's ear, telling herself to stop thinking about Foley and definitely stop thinking about Rem. Since that time, she had gone out of her way to avoid the clone (and to make sure her boyfriend did the same), but she was still very unnerved by the experience. And Dana Sterling was not a woman who particularly liked being unnerved.

Her mother sat down in the chair close by and they exchanged tired smiles. It had been a long day, and Miriya looked nearly as stressed out as Dana felt. The younger woman remembered suddenly that her parents hadn't been back on the job more than a few months themselves, after an absence of several years. Maybe readjusting to the rigorous lifestyle took some time for everyone. Aurora never seemed to run out of energy, though; she rose and dashed out of the room, saying something about finding some of her drawings.

"Hey, Polly! Haven't seen you in a while." Angelo came over and sat down beside Dana, and the Pollinator jumped in his lap. He had actually grown quite fond of the odd little creature; on the trip out from Earth it had often shared the foot of their bed.

"He's been here several times," Dana told him.

Miriya stretched out a hand to pet the little creature. "Yes, it's aroused quite a bit of commentary. I think you're the only person who's really been able to make a puppy out of a Pollinator." She almost repeated Rem's surprised remarks, but thought better of it in time.

Her long, red fingernails caught Dana's attention. "Doesn't Dad mind you wearing your nails so long?" she asked curiously.

Miriya gave her an astonished look. "Well, no, why should he?"

Oh, no, thought Angelo. Please no, don't say what I think you're about to say...! He touched Dana's arm, trying to persuade her to shut up. She ignored him.

With her usual candid, wide-eyed expression, she said, "But Angelo always wants me to keep my nails short — I always scratch him real bad in bed, otherwise."

Angelo's face turned a very interesting shade of purple and he made all sorts of futile gestures in an attempt to muzzle her.

Dana continued unabashed, "Oh, yeah, when we first started sleeping together I used to really claw his back to pieces every time we made love. Didn't a couple of the places even make scars?" she inquired of her fiance. He wasn't able to answer. "Anyway," she went on, completely unembarrassed, "He said that I was as much of a tiger in bed as was out, but we'd definitely have to keep those claws trimmed. So I've kept my fingernails short ever since then. I just thought you and Dad might have the same problem."

It was all Miriya could do to keep a straight face. She was rather glad Aurora had left the room, and even more glad that Max wasn't home to hear what Dana had just said. It was true he was starting to like Angie, but he still wasn't terribly happy about the thought of his daughter sleeping with the guy, and Miriya really wanted to spare him the gory details. She mumbled something about calling the base to see if Max had left yet, and got out of the room as fast as she could. It occurred to her to feel sorry for Angelo, too, since he would undoubtedly have a lot more of that in his future.

As soon as she was out of the room, Angelo turned on Dana. "What the hell was that all about!?" he demanded?

"What was what all about?" she asked innocently. "I only wanted to know how she could wear her nails so long, since it's always been a big theme with us."

"Exactly — between us! Did it ever occur to you that maybe there might be some things that should be just between the two of us?"

"Oh, honestly. I don't know what you're getting so bent out of shape about. It was only my mother; she doesn't mind."

"I mind!" exploded Angelo. "You don't have to go and broadcast all the details of our sex life every time somebody's fingernails catch your attention!"

"Geez, you're still so conservative sometimes — it's ridiculous!"

Aurora came back in the room and, immediately seeing what was going on, she made a face and ducked out again unobserved.

"At least I can keep my mouth shut once in a while!" Angelo roared, contradicting himself by the way he said it.

The two of them stood there glaring at one another. After a moment, Dana turned her back and said icily, "Oh, go home. Just... go home."

Angelo started for the door. "Yeah, I'll go home. Give you a chance to work out whatever the hell's wrong with you this time." He left without even trying to kiss her goodnight. Or, for that matter, even wanting to.

Dana looked at the door after he left, and shook her head. "Well, that was stupid," she said aloud, referring to her own behaviour as much as Angelo's. What's wrong with us lately? she wondered. Behaving like imbeciles, getting into fights over absolutely nothing... they were both under so much stress lately, trying to adjust to life in Tiresia, amongst other things, and their tempers frayed too often for comfort. All the little things they had to deal with added up, and it was starting to put one hell of a strain on the relationship.

She sat back down on the sofa, very tired all of a sudden. Maybe that had something to do with it, too. She felt herself being watched, and turned around to find Aurora's eyes on her.

"Is it safe yet?" she asked.

Dana nodded ruefully and her sister sat down next to her. They both noticed without surprise that Polly had disappeared.

"I wanted to show Angelo my pictures before he left," Aurora said a little sadly.

"Sorry." Dana's tone made it sound less like an apology than a sarcastic 'oh, that's just too bad!' but Aurora didn't seem to mind. She never minded. That made Dana feel a little guilty, for not taking enough interest in her.

It wasn't that she didn't like her younger sister, in fact she supposed she felt some measure of love for her, it was just... well, she didn't know anything about kids, especially supernaturally gifted ones. Besides, she still found it a little hard to deal with the fact that their parents had temporarily retired from the military for Aurora's sake, and yet they had left Dana behind for a military mission. But there was no point in taking all that out on the kid, especially since she had enabled the family to find each other again.

"Can I see the drawings?" she offered halfheartedly. Aurora looked into her eyes for a minute, seeing probably a great deal more than Dana wanted her to see, then shrugged and handed them over.

There were about a dozen altogether, some done back on Haydon IV, some on Tirol, featuring different subjects. There were drawings of Flowers of Life, portraits, and one Aurora described as the view of the city of Glike from the roof of their building on Haydon IV. The one thing they all had in common was that they were stunning. Dana was amazed at how good they were; Aurora did everything well, but she seemed to be even better at drawing than anything else. Without realising it, she put her arm around the little girl, still staring at her favourite. It was a picture of the two of them with their parents, done even before their mind-link.

They looked up when they heard the front door open. Max smiled at them as he passed, happy to see the two of them acting so close for once. He gave them a quick, "Hi, girls," and disappeared toward his bedroom.

He was back a few seconds later with a strange expression on his face. "Do you have any idea why your mother is sprawled across the bed laughing?" he asked. Dana and Aurora merely exchanged glances and giggled. Max looked at his daughters with an expression that clearly said, Why me? He had no idea what had gone on here tonight, and he felt fairly certain he was better off that way.

* * * * *

The single easiest way to make a small apartment seem even smaller is to put a hovertank in the living room. The second easiest way is to install a grand piano. Bowie Grant, characteristically, chose the latter.

He had somehow managed to acquire the monstrosity from an out of business service club in downtown Tiresia, and it now dominated the whole place. Bowie and "the girls" as he usually referred to Musica and Allegra collectively, were constantly having to walk around it, but none of them seemed to mind. Apparently the three of them valued their music more than their space.

This was only the second time Jean had visited her son in his quarters, and the first time since he had gotten the piano. She stared at it and shook her head, wondering how three adults managed to share what little room there was with it. She realised that her inability to comprehend why they would want to was somehow symbolic of the problems she was having with Bowie.

She didn't mind his preferring music to the army — she could tell he had a great deal of talent — and respected his decision. But she didn't really know him anymore. It was almost impossible to reconcile the little boy she and Vince had tearfully left behind so many years ago with the soft-spoken young man who was playing the piano for her now. He was so intent on the music he almost appeared to be in a kind of trance.

"Would you like some tea, Mrs. Grant?" Musica's soft voice brought her out of her own reverie.

"Hmmm?"

"Tea?'

"Oh. Yeah, thanks." What she really wanted was for the girl to leave for a while, so she could have a chance to talk to her son alone, but the two of them seemed to be joined at the hip. Jean genuinely liked Musica — she was very sweet and kind, and, most importantly, very much in love with Bowie — but she wished she wasn't around all the time.

Bowie came to the end of the song and shook himself out of it. He had always entered a world of his own when he played, but the girls had taught him to trance even better, to completely lose himself in the music. He turned around and studied his mother's face. "What'd you think?" he asked.

Jean gave him a warm smile, very proud. "It was lovely, Bowie. Absolutely beautiful."

He laughed faintly, embarrassed but pleased. "Thanks, Mom," he told her. He was a little surprised to find that her approval meant so much to him.

Musica handed Jean a cup of tea, then touched Bowie's shoulder. "I'll be back later. I promised Dana I'd let her take me shopping," she told him. He nodded and kissed her lightly. She made the necessary circuit around the piano, and left as quietly as she did everything else.

Bowie made a face. "Shopping with Dana?" he groaned. "So much for the army's lovely first paycheck."

Jean decided not to get sidetracked on the whole military issue for now. He'd said he'd give it a try for the present, and that was that. "Why not just a synthesizer keyboard?" she blurted, gesturing towards the huge piano. It wasn't what she'd intended to say, but that was unfortunately all too typical of their relationship these days. Small talk took the place of conversations they really needed to have.

"It's not the same," he shrugged. "I used to have a really great keyboard in my room in the barracks, but I hardly ever touched it. Usually I'd be down in the ready room, playing the piano. It actually sounded much more polished, but it was... I don't know... too artificially perfect or something. It's great for working out melodies, or background or something, but there's just no substitute for the real thing, I guess."

His mother nodded, not really understanding. She enjoyed music in a rather superficial way, but her son's obsessive need for it was beyond her ken. She tried to follow his conversation as it got more technical, and more enthusiastic, but eventually she had to hold up her hand, willing him to stop. Jean was by nature too straightforward and direct to have any patience with holding back, and this small talk wasn't accomplishing anything. The hell with Vince's advice, she was going to get Bowie to talk to her.

She looked her son firmly in the eye and said, "Bowie, we are going to talk."

Uh oh, thought Bowie, here it comes. "I thought we were talking," he said with deceptive casualness.

"We've talked about music. Now, I realise how important it is to you, but I think we have a few other things that we need to catch up with after thirteen years apart, don't you?" She gave him an encouraging, motherly smile and patted his hand. Somehow the gesture made him feel more anxious.

Bowie smiled weakly and turned back to the piano without answering He started playing very softly, but without really concentrating. He wanted to talk to her, but he really wasn't sure how. It felt as if there were an invisible wall between the two of them. A wall that started forming the day they had said goodbye on the Factory Satellite.

"Bowie...."

He played a few more notes and then stopped, turning back to face Jean. He looked at her and sighed. "Yeah, I know," he said. "I know you just want us to be close again. I want that, too. But... it may take a while. I have a few things I have to sort through for myself first, and I need time to do it. I'm sorry, but we're just gonna have to wait and see what happens."

"Wait and see," sighed Jean. "I think I hear the echo of Rolf Emerson in that."

It was perfectly true. The philosophy was one of so many things he had learned from Emerson, the man who had been his mentor. In fact, that was part of the problem; one of the main things he needed to work through was the thought that somehow, over the years, he had grown to love the Emersons even more than he had loved his own parents. But he couldn't tell her that. He just nodded sadly.

"Mom... we were separated a for a long time. We can't expect to get to know each other again overnight. It's not something that can be forced. Please say you understand." His voice was quiet, but determined. Just like his personality.

Jean nodded, accepting it, though not too happily. She knew better than to hope they could be like the Sterlings, who seemed to be managing their family reunion as effortlessly as they managed everything else, but she had hoped things between her and her only son wouldn't be quite so tense.

But at least he was being honest with her, and that was a start.

* * * * *

Sean's birthday in early December fell just over six months after the group's arrival in Tiresia, so they logically decided to throw a double celebration at the apartment he shared with Marie.

It was a fairly small gathering — the 15th hadn't made very many friends on Tirol outside of their own "family" group; they tended to view the original REF contingent as a bit cliquey, not realising that their own reticence was viewed the same way — but it was a tremendous success. The Lovely Yoshie had flowed freely, and all the guests had had a wonderful time before tottering home woozily in the small hours of the morning.

The only ones still remaining were Karen and Jack, who had lived up to Lisa's prediction and become good friends with Marie and Sean, and Dana and Angelo.

Karen was relating stories of some of the more interesting personalities they had served with during the course of the Sentinels campaigns, chief among them the Praxians, Bela and Gnea. Marie and Dana didn't seem very pleased with the interest their men were showing in the stories.

With an air of mischievousness that was considerably enhanced by the liquor, Karen leaned forward and told them in a loud stage-whisper, "If I were you I'd watch these two around them. Especially that younger one. She's had her eye on Jack here for a long time, and she might be looking for fresh prey by now."

"Oh, we'll watch them, all right," said Marie, who had considerable experience keeping a watchful eye on Sean. Dana nodded vehemently, even tough she had only ever had to warn away one woman, a young refugee Angelo insisted was just a nice, sweet kid, and to whom Dana invariably referred as "that Tiresian slut".

"I don't think I have anything to worry about from Bela, though," continued Karen. "Did anyone ever tell you about the unique compliment she gave Jack one time?"

Her audience shook their heads. Jack sat there hoping it wasn't the story he thought it was.

"She said, 'Jack Baker's like a daughter to me!'"

Jack had been trying to live down that line for years, but it wasn't easy with her being so eager to tell it to any new audience she found. He reddened as his new friends laughed at him.

"What'd you have to go and tell 'em about that for?" he groaned.

Karen gave him an infuriating smile. "Because I love you," she answered, voice dripping with honey.

"Well, you sure got a hell of a way of provin' it!" He turned to the others for support. "Geez, the only time this woman was ever nice to me was when I was in the hospital, and that was several years ago."

"You should consider yourself lucky," laughed Marie. "When I was in the hospital, all Sean did was flirt with the nurses."

Sean protested, "Only because they wouldn't let me in to see you, sweetheart." Marie gave him a look that indicated she didn't quite believe him.

Karen tsk-tsked at him playfully. "Disgraceful. What a way to treat a war hero. She puts her life on the line trying to save the world, and you act like that."

"I saved her in the first place!" protested Sean.

"Well, that's true, but your squad brought the guy out in the field in the first place after all. I got shot down trying to save some lounge-lizard who moonlighted as a spy or something. It was all Dana's fault."

Dana jumped to her feet and glared at her. "Now wait just a minute, Marie. I think it's time we got this straightened out. It was your own damn fault you ended up in the hospital. I didn't tell you to go out there and get your butt blown up trying to save George Sullivan!"

"No, but you — " Marie started to say.

"Now, girls, what's the point of bringing all this up now?" Angelo interceded. "It happened two years ago."

Dana turned her patented innocent look on him. "Well, I would have told her at the time, but I knew she was having emotional problems," she explained sweetly.

Marie was on her feet now, ready to go for the throat. "Emotional problems!?" she exploded. "Why, you little...!"

At that point, Angie and Sean figured enough was enough and jumped in to keep them apart. The two women glared at one another as Sean grabbed Marie around the waist and Angelo held onto his fiancee's arms.

"Hey, Dana, don't you think it's time to call it a night?" he suggested, rubbing her shoulders to calm her down.

"Good idea," she said. "Bye, gang. Happy twenty-fifth, Phillips. Oh, and Marie... hope you get your memory back okay," she tossed over her shoulder, managing to get out the door before Marie could vault across for another go at her.

Angelo gave them a resigned look and followed her out.

"One of these days I am definitely going to have to kill that woman," seethed Marie.

* * * * *

Jack and Karen left a short time later. As they stepped outside, Jack remarked, "Those people get into some of the most pointless fights I've ever seen in my life."

Karen gave him a look. "Unlike us, of course."

"Of course."

They laughed and started off arm in arm, sobered a little by the chilly night air.

"Your place or mine?" Jack asked.

She considered. "Mine. No, yours. No, on second thought, why don't I go to my place and you go to yours." She was still feeling a little unsteady.

He adopted a persuasive tone which made Karen wonder if he had been taking lessons from Sean. "Ah, Kar... come on. After all, you owe it to me after embarrassing me in there."

"I owe it to you?"

"Uh, maybe that was a bad choice of words. What I actually meant was... well, um, I actually meant...."

Karen shook her head and grabbed hold of his sleeve. "Come on, Baker," she said, leading him away. "See if you can figure out what you meant while we go to your place."

"Maybe we should just move in together once and for all," Jack mused. "Maybe that'd solve all our problems."

Maybe it would, thought Karen. Or give us a whole new set....

* * * * *

Mornings in the Sterling household were almost always fun, especially when the adults were off duty that day and had time to spend together as a family.

Now the four of them were finishing off the remains of a leisurely breakfast. Max pushed his chair back from the table and winked at Miriya. "Well, your cooking has definitely improved since we first got married," he told her cheerfully.

His wife laughed. "Good thing it has — yours has gotten worse!" she teased. Max grinned and grabbed her wrist playfully.

"Remember when you set the coffee pot on fire?"

"Which time?" laughed Miriya.

The daughters looked at one another as the flirtation continued. "I think they had a good night," Dana said under her breath.

Aurora watched as Max pulled Miriya onto his lap, then she turned to her sister and said quietly, "They never used to act like this on Haydon IV. They were always so calm and peaceful. I think I like this better."

"Yeah, well, isn't it illegal to have fun on Haydon IV? Or is it just impossible?"

"It's not impossible to have fun there. It's a great place!" protested Aurora.

Dana made a face. "Sounds like a nightmare of boredom to me. Nothing exciting ever happens, nothing to do, nobody to argue with...."

Miriya disentangled from Max's arms, smiling at her older daughter. "Not everyone likes to live in a constant state of turmoil the way you do, Dana," she reminded her.

"Well, I don't like to live in a constant state of peace," replied Dana. She made 'peace' sound like a dirty word. "At least there's something doing in Tiresia."

"There has to be," Max said. "It's a growing community now. Lots of families springing up, so they have to keep up with the changing needs." He took off his glasses and cleaned them with his napkin. The he rubbed his eyes tiredly, laying the glasses down on the table.

Dana casually picked them up and held them in front of her face, glancing through the blue lenses. She put them on and immediately felt slightly dizzy; they were definitely the wrong prescription for her.

"How do I look?" she asked.

Her father squinted at her. "I don't know. I can't see you."

"I can't see you, either!" laughed Dana. Miriya and Aurora exchanged humourous glances, trying to keep from laughing.

"You look a little ridiculous," Aurora told her sister with a grin.

"Gee, thanks."

"Hey, can I have my glasses back, please?" interrupted Max.

She took them off and blinked, taking a moment to refocus. "Sure," she said, handing the glasses back to him. He put them on and sighed with relief.

"Ah, vision!"

"Well, I'm going to the park," decided Dana. "See if I can find a volleyball game going or something. Beats sitting around here all day playing with Dad's glasses. Wanna come along, sis?"

Aurora looked a little startled by the offer. She and her sister usually enjoyed one another's company at home, but it was unusual for Dana to invite her to go along when she had plans.

"Okay," she agreed hesitantly, "but I'm not getting dragged into any silly sports games."

Dana rolled her eyes. "Well, nobody said you had to. Just get out of the house for a while. Come to the park with me and enjoy yourself like a normal kid for once in your entire life."

"I won't come if you're going to act like that," Aurora warned her.

Dana clenched her teeth in exasperation. That child could be so infuriatingly superior at times! "All right. I promise I'll be nice and sweet and agreeable," she said through her frozen smile. "Just come on, will ya?"

The little girl put on her most innocent expression and shrugged. "Why not?" she said, heading for the door. Dana followed, fuming, feeling as if she had just lost a personal battle of some kind. She hated the thought that a six-year-old — her very own sister — had the power to get the better of her almost without effort.

As the door closed, Max sighed and shook his head. "Whose bright idea was it to get the two of them together?" he asked Miriya with a rueful laugh.

* * * * *

"I still can't believe it's nearly Christmas," sighed Dana, looking around the sun-drenched park in one of Tiresia's outer squares.

"Hmm? Why not?" her sister asked, without taking her attention off her sketch pad. She was drawing a picture of Exedore and a group of children sitting a short distance away from the two sisters. Telling stories, especially old Earth fairy tales, to the youth on Tirol was one of the few luxuries the Zentraedi allowed himself.

Dana sighed again and looked down at the shorts she was wearing. "It's just too warm," she griped. "On Earth it was usually cold at Christmas. This doesn't have the right feel to it; I don't think I like the idea of Christmas in spring."

Aurora shrugged. "Seasons are different here. I think you just like to complain, and it doesn't matter about what."

"What? I'm the most even-tempered person I know!" objected Dana.

"Uh huh." Aurora put the finishing touches on her sketch, ignoring the fit of temper her fiery sibling was gearing up for. Dana had been halfway looking for a fight all morning, but she definitely wouldn't find it with her.

Dana knew it, too. She had never seen her younger sister show any sign of temper whatsoever; their father was fond of saying that he thought Dana had inherited Aurora's share of temper, and Aurora had inherited Dana's share of patience. Actually, though, Dana was congratulating herself on the amount of patience she was managing to show, because the little girl could be extremely irritating when she chose to be.

For once in her life, the lieutenant backed down, remembering that the two of them were supposed to be having fun together. "If you're finished with that, why don't we go play on the swings?"

"The swings." Aurora was giving her a look that was only faintly condescending, but it drove Dana crazy.

"Yeah, the swings. Those things right over there."

"I know what they are, I just don't see the point."

Dana took a deep breath. "The point is to have fun. Don't you even know how to play? You're six years old, for chrissake! Why don't you just loosen up and play like a normal child for once in your entire life!"

"I'm not a normal child, Dana," she reminded her softly. "I never have been and I never will be. And I have my own way of having fun, my own games. You know that."

"Mind games," muttered Dana. And you're winning, too, you little brat, she thought to herself. Then she felt guilty for even thinking it, and for losing her temper. To cover up, she stalked over to the swings by herself, without saying a word.

Aurora joined her a moment later, sitting down in a swing but making no attempt to do anything but watch her sister go higher and higher. "Don't go too high, Dana," she warned her anxiously.

"Oh, why not?"

"The chain will break."

Dana slowed the sing and stopped with a sudden jerk. "How do you know the chain will break?" she demanded.

"I just know it will."

Her older sister snorted. "Why? Do you get telepathic messages from the chains saying, 'I am about to break'?"

Aurora gave her that patient look again. "Of course not. I just know. These chains are too thin for someone your size."

"I'm feeling reckless today; I'll risk it."

The younger girl just shook her head. "You're reckless every day." She started off to retrieve the sketch pad she had left behind, looking back over her shoulder to warn, "Be sure you get off before it breaks."

"Yeah, sure," muttered Dana, swinging high once again. "These chains aren't even rusted. The little genius doesn't know everyth...aaarrgh!" Before she knew it, she was propelled backwards through the air to a not very soft landing.

"Dana!" Aurora was at her sister's side almost instantly, making sure she was unhurt. "Are you all right?" she asked anxiously, kneeling by her.

Dana sat up and winced, rubbing her head and glaring at the swing that was now dangling by one chain. "Ouch. No. I think my pride is mortally injured... and you will be, too, if you dare say 'I told you so'."

"I wouldn't. How does your back feel? It's terribly scratched."

"I would have to be wearing an open-back shirt. See? It just goes to prove what I was saying earlier, because I would have been wearing something more substantial if Christmas was in winter like it should be."

Aurora laughed at the irrational logic. Dana glared at her for a moment, then gave up and started laughing too, albeit a bit sheepishly.

"I'm not looking forward to tonight," she said.

"Why not?"

"Because I have a date. And I'm not going to have to tell Angie what just happened, then I'm going to have to sit there while he laughs at me."

* * * * *

He laughed, all right, so loudly it attracted curious stares from most of the people in the coffee shop they were sitting in.

"Oh, shut up," Dana told him good-naturedly. "You'll get us thrown out of here."

Angelo shook his head and gave her a wink. "You always were a walking disaster area," he said, reaching for her hand.

Dana slapped his wrist. "Do you honestly think I'd hold hands with a man who laughs when the woman he loves almost kills herself?"

"Yeah."

She shrugged. "Oh, I guess you're probably right," she admitted, linking her fingers with his. The two of them sat in silence for awhile, his brown eyes looking into her big blue ones with a warm affection that would have surprised a lot of people.

Eventually the conversation resumed, turning inevitably to the upcoming holiday and speculations about what Christmas would be like in Tiresia. Dana repeated her earlier complaint about the weather.

"Oh, come off it," Angie scolded. "You know you don't like cold weather. You used to say you never should have been born in the Northlands. You're just lookin' for an excuse to gripe. Look on the bright side, why don'tcha?"

She laughed. "Ooh, you're one to talk. Mister Eternal Optimist himself!" she joked, rolling her eyes.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever. All I'm sayin' is you're usually the one that gets all bouncy and bubbly about things like Christmas. You're the one who wanted to deck the halls in the barracks back during the war."

"I would have done it if we hadn't had to go into battle all the time. As it turned out, the only Christmasy touch was that fruitcake you kept passing around. Heavily spiked, as I remember."

"Brandy and rum. Mom's secret recipe." Angelo smiled sadly. "I kept thinkin' that if I didn't get a chance to go home, there was always next year. But there wasn't."

"I know." She touched his fingers sympathetically. Then she changed her tone and added, "Hey, sergeant, I'm not going to have you getting morbid on me, here!"

Angelo brightened considerably, especially when she mentioned him spending the holiday with her family. But he still had one reservation. "Your folks won't mind, will they? Christmas is for families, you know."

She made a face at him. "You know they won't mind. Besides, sooner or later you're going to be a member of the family, dummy!"

"Can't be soon enough for me. What about presents, then?"

"I get the most!"

He shook his head. "Brat. I meant for your family. What the hell am I supposed to get your mother?" Finding an appropriate gift for a prospective mother-in-law was tough enough at the best of times, but what if the lady in question was a former Zentraedi warrior?

Dana considered this for a minute, then answered, "Something red." The expression on his face made her add defensively, "Well, she likes red. The way I am about pink, Mom is about red. We're a very colour-oriented family."

Angelo sighed, wondering if anyone ever got used to Dana's games. "Well, what about your dad? What can I get him?"

"Something blue," she answered decisively.

"Thanks, that's real helpful," he said sarcastically. "At least I know what I'm gettin' you, though."

"What?" asked Dana, with the expectant air of an excited child.

"Something... pink." The deliberate way he said it irritated her more than the words themselves. And he looked very pleased with himself, too.

"That wasn't funny."

"I thought it was," he smirked.

A robot waiter rolled up to their table and announced, "We will be closing in five minutes," before rolling on to the next group of people.

"Already?" frowned Angie. "I'm still hungry."

Dana laughed. "You're always hungry."

"Well, I'm gonna get some doughnuts since we've still got a few minutes before they close for the night." He hurried over to the counter.

Dana leaned against the door frame and watched him argue with the purple-haired clerk, who clearly didn't want to do any more work that night. Angelo returned with a triumphant expression, the bag of doughnuts in one hand. "We can save some of these for breakfast," he told her. "I got plenty."

She raised her eyebrows. "We? And just who says I'm spending the night with you? Especially after the way you teased me a minute ago."

"Well, you don't have to," Angelo shrugged, walking past her out the door, completely unconcerned. Dana stared after him in irritation for a second, then caught up with him.

"Where are you going?" she demanded, although she knew perfectly well.

"Home."

"What about me?"

He stopped and looked at her, barely suppressing a grin. "You're more than welcome to come with me. Or if not, I guess you probably know your way home. Choice is yours."

"Geez, you're a rude date!"

He nodded. "Goodnight, Ma'am." And with that, he walked off into the darkness.

Dana stood weighing her options. If she let him win that little battle of wills and went home annoyed, her insomnia would be worse than ever. On the other hand, if she spent the night with Angelo, she would have plenty of opportunities to get even with him.

That decided it. Grinning to herself wickedly, she started after him.

* * * * *

Sobbing.

Angelo woke up slowly, trying to figure out where in his dream the sound was coming from. As he came to consciousness, he realised that it was Dana, crying in his arms. He held her closer.

"What was the nightmare this time?" he asked gently.

She took a deep breath and let it out with a shudder, curling up into a tighter ball beside him. Obviously she was quite upset; Angelo knew from experience that she only curled up like that when she was very unhappy. When she was content she sprawled all over him in a tangle of arms and legs.

"I started off dreaming about Zor," she said quietly, then stopped and looked at her fiance to see how he was taking it so far. That name was one they avoided mentioning whenever possible. The clone was still a very touchy subject between the two of them.

Seeing no adverse reaction other than a certain tightening of the muscles around his mouth, she continued, "And then Rem appeared in the dream, and I just kept getting more and more confused and couldn't tell what was going on anymore." Dana huddled closer to Angelo, and he wiped a couple of tears out of the corner of her eye.

"Ssshh," he soothed. "Don't cry; it was just another nightmare."

"That's not all," she went on. "I dreamed that I was so unsettled about everything that I drove everybody away from me and I ended up alone and lonely. And you even stopped loving me."

"Oh, yeah, that's really likely to happen!" Sometimes, he knew, an appropriate sarcastic comment could comfort her more than being babied.

"And I... I dreamed you ended up marrying on of those amazon women that Karen was telling us about!"

He couldn't help himself; he threw back his head and laughed hysterically. After a moment, she giggled a little, too. He was the only person in her entire life who had ever managed to make her laugh at her nightmares.

When his laughter had subsided a bit, he smiled at her and said, "Y'know, I think that bump on the head you got yesterday affected you more than y'thought it did, 'cause I ain't plannin' on marrying anybody but you. You're just about all I can handle."

Dana laughed, obviously feeling much better.

"Oh," she sighed, "where else but one of my stupid nightmares could anything that demented come from? The whole dream sounds like it was invented by some madman with malaria."

Angelo looked at her strangely, but he was willing to go along with the game if it would keep her from getting upset again. "Maybe one of those jungle-hopping mercenaries from the Southlands who writes soap operas as a hobby," he suggested with uncharacteristic whimsy.

Dana giggled and threw a leg over him. "I think you're almost as crazy as I am!"

"I must be."

"What time is it?" she asked suddenly. He looked over her shoulder at the clock on the nightstand. It was on her side of the bed, but she had her back to it and apparently had no intention of turning over to look.

"It's about an hour until the alarm goes off," he told her.

"Not much point in trying to go back to sleep, huh?"

"Not a lot. Got any ideas what we can do for the next hour?" he asked leadingly.

Dana chuckled hoarsely, kissing his jaw-line. "A few...." she murmured.

"Mmm... like what?"

"What I really want to do... is take a shower!" she announced, jumping up suddenly. "I need to massage out these sore spots from my accident yesterday."

"What!?" howled Angelo, as she disappeared into the bathroom. He hurled himself back down on the pillow and muttered in frustration.

A few minutes later, just as he was pleasurably contemplating the idea of going in after her, she reappeared, dripping wet and wearing only a towel. Looking at her, his breathing suddenly got very shallow. Dana walked over to the bed and stood looking down at him. "What's the matter?" she asked teasingly.

"Uhhh, nothing. Nothing." He reached out for her, and she put her arms around him, clasping her fingers behind his neck.

"I'll have to take another shower after this...!" was all she had time to get out before he dragged her down.

* * * * *

Rick was drunk.

Not overwhelmingly drunk, just enough to be happily sentimental and in a party mood. Lisa, ever the admiral, found herself torn between a certain amount of disapproval — they weren't actually supposed to be chaperoning the dance, but it was best for people in their position to at least set a good example, after all — and the urge to laugh at her husband's behaviour. It was nice to see him have a good time for once. Especially if it got his mind off Mars Group, scheduled to reach Earth within a few short months.

"You remember the first big party the REF threw here?" he asked, gesturing at the crowd of people in Tiresia's Great Hall.

Lisa smiled and nodded. "Oh, yes. The New Year's/victory party. The one the Sentinels crashed. Long time ago."

"Mm hmm. Long time ago. We were newlyweds then. And now we're an old married couple, watching over the young folks...." He made his voice sound old and creaky.

Lisa groaned and gave her husband a gentle slap on the arm. "Oh, stop teasing, Rick!" she laughed.

"Sorry. Old Earth tradition: you have to act like a nut at Christmas parties. It's required."

"Especially when you've been sampling the eggnog."

Her husband blinked at her, feigning resentment. "I resemble that remark," he told her, unable to keep a grin off his face. Lisa tried to keep herself from smiling back at him, but her efforts weren't entirely successful.

She turned away from him and surveyed the room again, wishing she'd caught the beginning of the scene being played out a few feet away. Jack Baker seemed to be abjectly apologising to Karen, who stood, hands on hips, evidently not having any of it. Marie Crystal, next to them, was biting the knuckle of her right forefinger as she watched, shoulders shaking. Sean grinned and shook his head, clapping Jack on the shoulder. Jack gave up the battle. With a shrug, he turned and danced off with Sean Phillips, leaving Karen gaping after the two men and Marie almost doubled up with laughter.

"And you accuse me of being drunk," Rick murmured in his wife's ear.

Lisa shook her head indulgently. "I merely said you'd been indulging in the spiked eggnog. But at least you're cute about it."

"Thank you, Admiral. And may I just add that I'm perfectly sober enough to be aware of my good fortune in having the loveliest date in the room. Not to mention the rare pleasure of having some time to spend with her for a change, without having to worry about the military." He looked into her face with a slightly more serious expression, stroking her cheek with one finger. "And since we have this rare personal time, I think we should take advantage of it and have a little fun. Wanna dance, Mrs. Hunter?"

"I thought you'd never ask."

* * * * *

Although the former Phaeton crew members made an effort to spend time with their families and new friends at the party, inevitably they kept drifting back to their own familiar group. Each one of them — Dana, Angelo, Sean, Marie, Bowie, Musica, Allegra, and Jason — found a certain security with the other seven that was lacking elsewhere. Everyone else in the room had fought a completely different war, while the 15th and company had a common bond they couldn't share with the others.

"Hey, you guys look sort of familiar. I think I may have seen you before," Dana joked, as Marie and Sean rejoined the group after a few minutes' shared insanity with Jack and Karen.

"I was thinkin' the same thing," replied Sean cheerfully. "I don't know why we keep running into each other, 'cause you clowns are lousy company! I guess maybe we're just hanging out here because this party's so dead."

Angelo gave him his customary smirk. "Spoken like a true playboy. Least this beats your birthday party, Sean. Hosts are nicer, anyway."

The atmosphere in that corner of the room suddenly became a little tense. It was apparent that he was referring to the fight that Dana and Marie had gotten into at that particular party, and certainly obvious whose side he was on. The girls themselves had made their peace weeks ago, however, and Dana nudged him with her elbow. "Hey," she whispered. "It's Christmas Eve. Don't start anything."

"I'm not startin' anything," he protested innocently. Dana regarded him sternly, one eyebrow raised disbelievingly. Then, satisfied that he intended to take the warning for once, she winked at him and took his hand, absently letting her fingers play with his.

Everybody had noticed that the two of them seemed to be sticking much closer together than usual tonight, but no one mentioned it because it was easy enough to guess the reason. Not only was Marca — the Tiresian girl Dana had once threatened with grievous bodily harm if she put one more move on Angelo — at the party, but Rem and Minmei were also among the guests. It was a potentially vulnerable situation, so Angie was as usual trying to protect Dana, while she was trying to protect them both.

The situation was almost as stressful for Jason. Effectively trapped in the middle of the whole thing because of divided loyalties that by rights shouldn't have to be divided, he didn't know which way to turn. Dana and Angelo were his friends; they had accepted him into their group back on Earth, had made him an honourary member of the 15th, despite the fact he had served with another unit. But he liked and respected Rem, who after all was living with Jason's cousin. And he occasionally dated Marca... . It was a classic Catch-22.

Sometimes the whole problem made him feel like kicking his heels and screaming, the way he had done when he was a child. But, he reminded himself, he was a grown man now and he had to find some adult solution, some way to handle being friends with all sides. He felt like he had to prove his loyalty to all of them, so he consistently made overtures of friendship that really shouldn't have been necessary. Asserting his loyalty once again, he watched as Marca danced by in the arms of a soldier he didn't recognise, and asked Dana for a dance.

She shook her head. "Sorry, Jase. Tonight I'm only dancing with my fiance."

"That's all right," Angelo demurred. "You go ahead. Lynn's one of the few guys I trust. I'll just stay right here."

Dana rounded on him, hands on hips, Jason's invitation forgotten for the moment. "You promised me a dance! We've been here for an hour and I haven't gotten you out on that floor once, and you promised — "

"I didn't promise nothin'. I said I'd take you to the damn party, and maybe, maybe, if they played a slow enough song I might be able to shuffle my feet and pretend I can dance. I ain't no freakin' ballet star, y'know."

"You're also not — " She cut herself off with a growl of frustration, grabbed Jason Lynn by the sleeve and dragged him to the middle of the dance floor. "He didn't want to come at all," she complained. "He just wanted to stay at home, but I talked him into it — I should have just left him at home and come by myself. You know, the only guys I've danced with all night have been you and Rick and Dad and Bowie. I could have done the same thing if I'd just come with my family and left that stick-in-the-mud behind. Of course, if I'd done that, Angelo would come skulking up here like a jealous moron to see what I was up to, that's just like him, you know. Did you hear what he said? You're one of the few guys he trusts. What's he think I'm gonna do, run off with Rem or something? Like I can stand the guy any more than he can?"

The song was up-tempo and Dana was trying to lead, leaving Jason almost as hard pressed to follow her rapid steps as her even more rapid complaints. "Well, he's really a pretty nice — " he began, but she cut him off again immediately.

"He's unreasonable, that's what he is. Always has been. Don't you think so?"

"Um, Dana, honestly I'd rather not get in the middle of this whole thing, okay?"

She looked at him like he'd lost his mind. "Well, who's putting you in the middle of anything, Jason? Honestly, you'd think I asked you to take sides or something. You men are all alike, completely irrational. Ah, a slow song! I'd better go grab Dante before he hides in the bathroom or something."

With that, she stalked off, leaving Jason staring after her open-mouthed. Shaking his head, he made his way back to the buffet table, reminding himself he ought to be used to that sort of thing by now. Sean and Marie had disappeared again, but Bowie and Musica were back, talking with Allegra.

"Well, she got him out there," Bowie greeted him with a grin.

"He has my pity," Jason responded ruefully. "Personally, I'd like to find someone semi-normal to dance with for a change. How 'bout it, Al?"

Allegra looked shocked; he'd called her that many times, though not in public. "Not if you call me Al," she sniffed. "I've warned you about that."

He bowed low, in a gesture both courtly and slightly ironic. "I beg your pardon, Miss Allegra. May I have this waltz?"

"Of course, Jason. But you humans have some strange customs."

As they danced off, Bowie put his arm around Musica. "You know," he told her conversationally, "she may have a point about that."

* * * * *

As usual, Dana and Angelo forgot their fight in the sheer joy of making up afterwards, and although he was being perfectly honest about not being able to dance, the two of them clung together on the dance floor, swaying slowly. It didn't take long for Angie to start enjoying himself.

Dana leaned her head against his chest and let out a sigh of contentment. He rested his chin against the top of her blonde puffball hairdo, having to lean down slightly to do so, and whispered suggestively, "Stay with me tonight?"

She shook her head regretfully. "Mm-mmm. Not tonight."

"Well, why not?" Angelo asked peevishly. He had been counting on waking up with her on Christmas morning.

"Look, this is the first time I've been with my family for Christmas since I was a little girl. I just want to have the chance to enjoy the whole experience with them, from the time I wake up. Can't you understand that?"

He almost did, knowing how much her family meant to her, but in his disappointment Angelo couldn't keep from cracking, "I hate to break it to you, Ma'am, but there's no Santy Claus."

"Oh, you're real funny," Dana responded contemptuously.

"Sorry," he said, ashamed of himself. "I guess I can see your point. It's just, uh, I kinda wanted you all to myself."

Dana, thrilled, considered offering a compromise. "Well," she said thoughtfully, "they won't be expecting me back until late. And it's not like you really wanted to come to this party anyway, so I suppose we could sneak out early."

Angelo smirked. "Maybe there is a Santa after all."

* * * * *

Max closed his bedroom door and leaned against it, heaving a sigh of relief. "Well, what did you think of our first holiday with both our girls?" he asked Miriya.

She laughed exhaustedly. "I think I'd almost rather go back into battle again. No, I'm joking. Honestly, I can't say that it was a lot different than it was when Dana was little. Fun and exhausting."

"I can definitely see a few attributes in common with the Christmas Khyron invaded," Max joked. "Of course, there's one major difference. At least when Dana was a baby she didn't have a boyfriend to give her gifts like skimpy nightshirts. I'm surprised she didn't have to go home with him to try it out, though considering what time she got home...." He shook his head.

Miriya folded her arms. "Maximilian, you don't disapprove half as much as you pretend to," she told him with mock severity.

"Maybe not," he admitted. "Just don't tell Angelo I said so. I don't want him getting too complacent. She's still my little girl for the moment, you know."

"What are you going to do when the same thing happens to Aurora in a few years? Or maybe a few months, considering her growth rate."

She laughed at his horrified expression.

*taken from The Sentinels #5: Rubicon, copyright 1988 by Jack McKinney