i3

PART THREE: SEPTEMBER, 2035

I think I knew even before my parents decided to return to Haydon IV that I wouldn't be going (on the SDF-3 mission). I wanted to go; wanted to be with my friends, wanted to be with Angelo, but as much as I tried to convince myself it was the right thing to do, I knew in my heart I couldn't go through with it. That little vow I made on that hilltop back on Earth so long ago just kept nagging at me. Eventually I guess I just decided to give up and listen to it.

from Excerpts from the Journal of Dana Sterling

*****

"Your timing is exceptionally good today," smiled Lisa as she opened the door. "I just managed to get Roy down for a nap, so I'm free for a while. Unless the base calls, of course," she added, shaking her head tiredly.

Miriya laughed. "A child taking a nap. That strikes me as quite a novelty — I never managed to do that with my girls. For some reason it just wouldn't work."

Lisa smiled without answering and motioned for Miriya to follow her into the small kitchen of the Hunters' quarters. "I was just about to have some tea and relax for a while, so you might as well join me. I know, I know," she added, catching her friend's smile. "It's a habit I picked up from Claudia and never quite got over."

"Well, I picked up the coffee habit from Max, so I know what you mean. Hey, this isn't bad," said Miriya, taking a sip from the mug Lisa handed her. She sat drinking the tea slowly, thoughtfully. Lisa respected her silence for several minutes before she interrupted her.

"Okay, what's up?" she demanded finally. She had her suspicions, but she was hoping they would prove wrong. "You said you had something serious you had to talk to me about, so let's hear it."

Miriya took a deep breath. "I don't think you're going to like it," she warned, giving Lisa a sinking feeling of confirmation. "Max and I have talked about it for a long time, and we've decided we just can't be part of this mission. We're going back to Haydon IV for a while."

Lisa sighed deeply. "I knew it. I just knew it. Just tell me one thing," she said, looking at Miriya squarely, irritation creeping into her voice. "Why are you and Max willing to stay in the REF on inactive duty but not willing to do your parts when the fighting starts up again? On the surface it seems almost... hypocritical." She had to practically choke out the last word.

"Inactive duty is a job, like any other," shrugged Miriya. "We're willing to do our parts as faithfully as anyone, but not when our family is at stake. We never said we could be part of this mission, Lisa," she reminded her quietly. "We considered it, yes, but in the end we decided going back into battle is just our of the question for us. Our family has to take priority this time. I left one child behind for a military mission, and I cannot do it again." Her voice was soft, but she spoke with a determination that made it obvious she wasn't going to be budged.

"Rick and I are taking Roy along."

Miriya nodded. "I know. For you and Rick that's the right decision, but this time it's wrong for Max and me. Dana went through too much suffering when we put the army ahead of her, and I won't make the same mistake again. We won't risk Aurora, and we're not going to leave her behind."

Lisa drummed her fingernails on the table angrily. She couldn't argue the decision or the reasons, especially now she was a mother herself, but she was still disappointed and a little bit angry at learning this final stage of the wars would have to go on without two of the best warriors in the history of the Robotech forces.

"I hope you can understand, Lisa." Miriya watched her old friend carefully, realising what she was going through, wanting to help her, but unwilling to go back on what she believed with all her heart.

Lisa flattened the palms of her hands on the tabletop. "I guess on some level I can," she said slowly. "I worry about what could happen to Roy out there. But I think we'd worry more if he wasn't with us, and you can't afford to be distracted when people's lives are at stake." She seemed to be talking as much to herself as to Miriya.

"Yes. I know."

"So what's Dana going to do?"

Miriya sighed. "I don't know. Max and I would prefer her to come with us to Haydon IV, but it's her decision. At the moment she's leaning toward shipping out on the SDF-3, but I honestly don't think she's come to any concrete decision yet."

"I would have assumed she'd never leave her group to fend for themselves. And her boyfriend, especially."

"She doesn't want to. She won't talk about it with us, but I think that's where the problem comes in. Her friends have been her lifeline in a way for the past three or four years, Bowie and Angelo in particular, so naturally she doesn't want to leave them. But I get the feeling that she doesn't want to go back into the war either, so I really don't know what she'll end up doing."

"Who's doing what?" interrupted Roy sleepily, coming into the kitchen and rubbing his eyes. His mother picked him up and cuddled him on her lap, scolding him gently for being out of bed so soon.

Miriya watched them with just a touch of envy. At barely five, Roy hadn't yet outgrown such attention, and it brought back some warm memories. She wouldn't trade places for everything, but with one daughter who was twenty-two and another who was eight going on thirty, she knew moments like these were pretty much resigned to the past. She couldn't help feeling just a little sad as she watched Lisa with her son.

Lisa looked up at her with a solemn expression on her face. "Yeah, I can understand," she said quietly.

* * * * *

It had been Jean's idea to hold the get-together on the steps of the Royal Hall. As she told Vince, hopefully it would keep the conversation, destined to be of a serious nature due to the fact that the launch window of the SDF-3 was only a few short weeks away, from turning into nothing more than another REF strategy meeting.

They were all there — Jean, Vince, and Bowie; Rick, Lisa, and Roy; Max, Miriya, Dana, and Aurora; Karen and Jack; and Minmei and Rem — bathed in the light from some of those strange Tiresian street-light that looked as if they had been caught in some sort of suspended animation freefall, enjoying the fresh air and one another's company. At least, that was the original plan.

"You know, for some reason I just don't think we're ever going to see Earth again," Max was saying, gesturing toward Miriya. "I might be wrong, but it's like the time has past for Earth to be our home, almost as if we've outgrown it in some way." He was having trouble explaining the rather abstract thought, and looked at his wife for help, but she was engaged in her own conversation with Jean. He tried a new direction. "It's just that our destiny seems to lie here from now on — here and on Haydon IV."

Vince nodded solemnly and looked at Rick. "I've heard quite a few of our people say things like that lately," he told him. "That Tirol has become more familiar to them than Earth would be after so many years away. Looks like Tiresia's gonna end up as a military settlement colony after all. Tell you the truth, Jean and I have been sort of thinking of settling here ourselves after all this is over."

"That's it exactly," agreed Max. "But we're keeping our place on Haydon IV, too, so we'll have some place to go if we just need to get away for a while and remember that there is such a word as peace. What are you guys planning to do after all this is over?" he asked Rick.

The admiral shrugged. "Stay in the army, of course. So I guess we'll just end up wherever our orders take us. We may end up right back here, and we may have something to do that would keep us settled on Earth. Too soon to tell at this point."

"And it may be that no one will be able to live on Earth if we have to use those 's' missiles," interrupted Rem. Minmei, overhearing his warning, gave a gasp and clutched at his arm. He held her hand reassuringly as the months-old debate about the deadly missiles started up again.

Dana, sitting with Bowie at the other end of the steps, tensed at the sound of Rem's voice. How can I stand to be on the same ship with him? she wondered. It's one thing to avoid him in Tiresia, and at the base, but on the same ship...? She knew he was nothing like Zor, but the fact that he was a clone of the man she had loved and been hurt by still bothered her a bit, and ignoring him had proved easier than facing it.

Bowie touched her arm. "You okay?" he asked in a quiet voice.

"Oh, sure," she answered distractedly, then seemed to recover herself and added heartily, "I'm just fine, Little Brother." Rick overheard the remark through a lull in the conversation and winced at the familiarity of it. Since Dana and Bowie had been raised as siblings by the Emersons, she had used the affectionate nickname for years without ever realising its significance.

"Hey, where are your constant shadows?" Jack asked the two of them suddenly, having just realised that for once Musica was not at Bowie's side, and Dante was nowhere to be found.

"The girls are at home working on a new song," explained Bowie.

"And Angelo's... busy," Dana added evasively. The truth was, there had been a sort of estrangement between them lately, caused by the tension brought about by the prospect of being caught up in the middle of another war. And by Dana's withdrawn behaviour, as she tried to come to some decision about what part, if any, she would play in the mission.

Jack snorted. "I didn't know he ever got so busy he'd even let you cross the street by yourself," he laughed.

In another frame of mind Dana would probably have laughed at Jack's good-natured teasing about Angelo's overprotective nature, but it was too much to take at the moment and she snapped, "Oh, piss off and die, Baker!"

He stared at her, too surprised at the outburst to say anything, but Karen leapt to his defence. "Now wait just a minute!" she said, glaring at Dana. "That was uncalled for — there's no need for you to take out your bad moods on everybody else!"

Jack squeezed Karen's hand, giving her a look that was about half gratitude and half love... and part astonishment as well. It was one of those all-to-rare nights when their relationship actually seemed to make sense to both of them. They were very definitely together that night, and he was happy that she would defend him at all, even if it was only against one of Dana's temperamental spells.

Dana wasn't as impressed as Jack by Karen's rebuke; she just turned her head and ignored both of them. She sank back into her own problems, absentmindedly watching Roy Hunter, who was seated by his father's feet, playing with Polly. She was a bit surprised Polly should get along so well with the little boy. In all the time she had known him, she had only ever seen him take to a few people besides herself — her godfathers, her parents and sister, Angelo, and Bowie. But with Roy, he was behaving almost like a puppy.

Aurora was watching Roy, also, feeling strangely drawn to him all of a sudden. In the last three years, she had scarcely noticed him; he was just another child she had nothing in common with, but tonight he seemed to fascinate her for some reason. He was an appealing child, with Rick's facial structure and Lisa's eyes and colouring, but that wasn't it. The image in Aurora's mind was still a little vague, but for some reason she had the definite feeling this little boy would grow up to become a very important part of her future.

Suddenly, from the other side of the steps, she heard Rem laugh at some comment of Vince's. Aurora froze, her eyes glazing over. Then she got to her feet stiffly and made her way over to him as if she were in a trance, unaware of anything or anyone else.

Max noticed her and felt a sudden cold chill come over him. He grabbed Miriya's hand to get her attention and they watched their daughter be taken over by the sort of trance she hadn't been in since she had made contact with Dana, more than three years ago. The group suddenly fell silent as they watched Aurora, looking around at one another uneasily as she slowly made her way over to Rem.

Finally she stood in front of him, staring into his face with a frightening intensity. "It's going to be up to you," she told him in a low voice. "Soon a decision will have to be made, and it will be you who must choose the patch to follow. Don't give in to your impulses, Rem. It's vital. Don't follow your first impulse — wait and watch."

Rem swallowed. "What are you talking about?" he managed to ask. He was uncomfortably aware of her eyes, such a dark blue they were almost black, burning into his.

"When the time is right, that will become clear. And you must remember my warning." She stared at him a moment longer, then, satisfied she had made her point, Aurora retreated and sat down between her parents, leaning against her mother and closing her eyes.

Everyone stared at her, uncomfortable. This side of her hadn't revealed itself so dramatically in quite some time, and it was the first time some of those present had witnessed the occurrence for themselves.

It had a particularly unsettling effect on Dana. She moved to join her family, looking down at her sister concernedly. "Is she okay?" she asked Miriya.

"Are you?" her mother asked the little girl.

Aurora opened her eyes. "Of course I am, Mother."

"Well, what was all that about?" Dana asked in a puzzled voice. "Why did you tell him all that stuff?"

But Aurora refused to be drawn. All she would say was, "He had to be told." Dana's curiosity wasn't satisfied, however, and she kept pushing for answers until Miriya took hold of her arm gently, shaking her head.

Dana snorted and stomped back toward where she had been sitting with Bowie, feeling strangely defeated. Why couldn't she make them understand that she needed to know why Rem was going to be so important to this mission? But them, she couldn't really understand it herself.

She was so out of it that she tripped over Lisa Hunter, who had also been lost in thought all evening, in spite of Aurora's dramatic interruption. "Oh, sorry," she said distractedly as Lisa reached out a hand to steady her.

"Weird," Bowie said quietly, as Dana rejoined him. He shook his head. "I knew your sister had strange powers, but that...."

"Yeah. It's a real mind blower, huh?"

He nodded. "What do you suppose all that could have meant?" he wondered in a whisper.

Dana was staring across at Rem. "I only wish I knew."

* * * * *

Lt. Commander Dave Foley leaned forward, resting his chin on his hand. He gave Dana an inquiring look. "So. What'd you need to talk to me about, Lieutenant?"

"I've decided to pull out of the mission," she announced without preliminary.

Foley raised his eyebrows, but he didn't seem very surprised. "Got any particular reason?" he asked resignedly.

"Several — mostly personal. I've been thinking about it for a while now, and some things that happened last night finally decided me. So I'm going to go back to Haydon IV with the rest of my family."

He nodded slowly, not saying anything.

"Well?" demanded Dana. "Aren't you going to act like a commanding officer should and tell me all about how it's my duty and all that and trey to change my mind?" She had grown to almost like him over the last two years, but the old resentment about being "replaced" was still there, and she had never managed to avoid telling him how to do his job.

"Lieutenant Sterling," he laughed, "I've known you long enough to know that once you've made up your mind about something, nobody has an ice-cube's chance in a blast furnace of changing it." Then he turned serious and added unexpectedly, "Besides, family's a pretty good reason. That's why it's so important to me to get back to Earth."

Dana was surprised. She had never known Foley to talk about his personal life, so this sudden confidence threw her. "You have family back on Earth?" she asked.

He sighed, and she noticed how sad he looked. My sister was part of the Mars Division offensive — no reported survivors, but my parents and I keep hoping."

"Oh." Dana didn't quite know what to say. "Didn't know you had a sister." It was a lame thing to say, but at least it was something.

"Step-sister, if you want to get technical, but that's neither here nor there. When are you planning on leaving?"

"Couple of weeks, I guess. I haven't really gone over any of the details with my parents yet." She looked at her watch, largely as an excuse to get away from the interview. "Well, I gotta go. Hey, listen, thanks for, um, not throwing a fit or anything."

Foley laughed. "That's your style, not mine."

She stuck out her tongue cheerfully, in a decidedly unmilitary fashion, and left.

* * * * *

She was congratulating herself on how easy it had been, but it was a little premature; almost the second she was out the door, she ran into Angelo. From the look on his face, it was obvious he had heard most of the conversation.

"Just when were you plannin' on tellin' me about all this?" he demanded.

Dana looked up at him. "As soon as we got a chance to talk," she told him calmly. She knew he was angry, and understandably so, but she was a little uneasy that he wasn't blowing his top completely. From Angelo, angry calm was a bad sign, largely because it was so out of character for him she didn't know how to deal with it.

She tried to take his hand, but he pulled it away. "This isn't the place for it," she said, looking around at the almost empty hallway. "Let's go back to your place. We can talk there."

"I'm still on duty," he reminded her. "Your duty may not mean anything to you, but it still matters to me." He shook his head at her and walked away.

Dana let out her breath slowly, watching him go. "Oh, boy," she said to herself. She called out, "I'll meet you at your place later." It didn't surprise her at all that he made no acknowledgment.

* * * * *

Angelo paced back and forth restlessly in his quarters, not looking at Dana, who was sprawled across the bed, following him with her eyes. They had argued for more than two hours, going round and round the same points over and over again until they were both exhausted, but nothing had really been resolved. It was a total impasse: Dana feeling that she couldn't go back on the vow she had made to be finished with war forever, and unwilling to be near Rem; Angelo insisting he could never live with himself if he didn't do everything he could to help liberate Earth from the Invid.

The violent clash of tempers was behind them and they were clam now, but they were both hurting. Each of them could more or less understand the other's point of view, at least intellectually, but emotionally.... It was hard for them to reconcile themselves to the fact that they were obviously going to have to separate for awhile.

Angelo shook his head and sat down on the end of the bed. "Well. Who would have ever thought it would be our principles that split us up?" he said bitterly.

"It's not splitting us up!" Dana insisted with vehemence. "This is only temporary. You know that."

"Yeah, well I hope so."

She scooted over to him and touched his arm gently. "It'll be okay, Angelo," she told him. "It has to be. We may have to go different ways for a few months, but we'll get back. We've come too far to lose now."

"Your famous powers tell you that?" he asked sardonically.

"My heart tells me that."

Angelo buried his face in his hands and groaned. "You been watchin' too many bad movies," he accused. He tried to put his arm around her, but their positions made it so awkward they both had to laugh, despite the seriousness of the situation. She sat up and leaned into his arms, and he tried to swallow the sudden lump in his throat.

"God, I hope you're right," he whispered into her hair. "I'm not gonna lose you. I can't — not after everything we've been through. I'm not gonna give you up, I don't care what any damn Protoculture says!"

Dana looked up into his face solemnly. She bit her lip, trying to keep from crying, and said, "My big, tough sergeant. Wouldn't people be surprised to find out what you're really like?" She was trying to tease, but not succeeding.

He brushed her hair away from her eyes and sighed. "I hate this," he said. "The whole thing."

"I know," she said quietly. "I hate it, too. You know, you could still come with me if you wanted to." She said it hopefully, even though she knew it was no use.

"Oh, don't start that again," said Angelo, a little more roughly than he intended. "I don't wanna be away from you, but I didn't come here to hide out."

Dana turned her face away from him, saying, in a voice so quiet he almost couldn't hear her, "I'm not trying to hide out. That's what nobody understands. It's just something — "

"Just somethin' you have to do," he finished. "I know, I know. How many times have I heard that?"

She leaned back against him, burying her face in his chest. "Too many. We shouldn't have to be going through this. We shouldn't have to suffer just because we fell in love — it's not fair!"

"What's fair? Life ain't fair," Angelo said with that same bitter edge to his voice. "Is it fair you got jerked around your whole life? Is it fair that we can't have more than three years of peace without having to go out and fight again? Is it fair that my sister got blown to bits? Is it fair that Earth got torn up so many times by one... enemy after another?" He stopped himself from saying "alien" just in time, and she loved him for it, but she didn't know how to deal with the sudden torrent of words, emotions that had been pent up for years.

"Stop it!" she ordered, as he was about to go on. "I hate it when you're like this — it's scary."

"Yeah, well, I'm scared, okay?" He turned away, embarrassed. Dana's eyes widened in surprise; it was the first time she had ever heard him make that admission and she knew how hard it must have been for him.

She touched his shoulder. "Angelo — hey, it's okay. It's okay. It'll all work out." Her voice broke, and he turned around again, giving her a sad half-smile.

"C'mere." Angie lay back on the bed and pulled Dana into his arms, holding her as tightly as he could. In a lot of ways she was the strongest person he had ever met, but in some ways, she was also the most vulnerable. She began to cry softly, and he stroked her hair, trying to keep from breaking down himself.

* * * * *

After all the emotional stress she had been through already, she decided to wait a few days before breaking the news to Bowie. She invited him to lunch at Nirvana, Tiresia's answer to a middle class restaurant... and one which Dana knew didn't have a piano to distract him.

"Boy, it's ironic, huh?" he was saying. "You've always been a born warrior, and you say you just can't go along on the mission to Earth. And I'm a born pacifist, but I feel like I have to go along. Who would have ever expected that turnaround?"

Dana laughed. "Nobody I know. I certainly wouldn't have. But, you know, things happen. I don't think anything's turned out the way I expected it to. Well, that's another story, though," she said.

"Yeah. Just part of growing up, I guess; we've both done a lot of that the last few years."

"Whether we wanted to or not." They looked across the table at one another and smiled. In spite of everything they had been through, the closeness they had always shared was undiminished. The relationship had changed over the years, but it remained intact. It was going to feel strange being apart.

"I hope you can understand Why I had to do this," Dana said.

Bowie stared out the window, absently looking across the street at Munden's Furniture. "Yeah, I guess so," he answered finally. "But... it's just the thought of breaking up the team, you know?"

Dana nodded. "Yeah, I know. I don't want to break up the team, but I just feel like it's the right thing for me to do this time. I have to follow my instincts, just like when I brought us here. And anyway, you'll get to see the other members of the team when you get back. You'll have to say hi to them for me, okay?"

"Sure. I guess it'll be nice to see Louie and Nova and Dennis again. But I was still hoping we'd all be together. Kind of like a reunion."

"We'll get around to that one of these days."

Bowie nodded resignedly. He was upset, but he knew there was no point in trying to change her mind about anything, especially when it was this important. "Just take care of yourself, okay?"

Dana laughed. "Hey, I'm only going to Haydon IV — what could happen to me there?"

"You can manage to find trouble anywhere, Dana."

"Well, yeah. I suppose I've proven that often enough, huh? But you take care of yourself. And the girls."

"You know I will."

She smiled a little distractedly. "Yeah. And can you do me one favour?"

"Anything. What?"

Her cheerful facade cracked for just a second and she bit her lower lip, looking a little forlorn. "Look after my Angie, will you?"

Bowie smiled and took her hand. "You think he needs looking after?"

"Well, no. But he's going to need a friend, and I know the two of you have always been good friends. So will you... I don't know, kind of keep an eye on him for me?"

"Sure. Anything for you."

"Thanks." An uncomfortable silence fell over the two of them and they sat there holding hands across the table, neither one knowing what to say.

Finally Bowie voiced the question he had been wondering about. "How does Angelo feel about all this?" he asked.

Dana shrugged sadly. "'Bout the way you'd expect. I think he understands — at least I hope he does — but he's pretty upset. We both are, really. It just came as kind of a shock to find out that as important as our relationship is, it's not the sum total of our existence." She sighed deeply, then smiled, trying to put on a brave face.

He looked at her solemnly. He had known her too many years to be fooled, but he didn't say anything about it. "I couldn't do that," Bowie said. "I could never leave Musica, no matter how important it was."

Dana shook her head. "I think you could," she told him. "If there was ever a situation where everything both of you believe in was on the line, I think you could do it, no matter how much it hurt."

Bowie remained unconvinced. "Maybe. But I just can't see ever being able to live without her with me."

"Well, I hope you never have to try it. But what if there was a situation where you both had to follow your hearts in different directions because you knew that if one of you gave in, you'd end up building up so much resentment it would come between you eventually?"

"I still don't think that could happen to us. It makes it a little easier to understand about you and Angie, but Musica and I believe in exactly the same things."

"So do we. We just believe it in different ways."

"Sounds like a tough way to have a relationship."

"Have you ever known me to do things the easy way?" laughed Dana. "I mean, why fly when you can climb? That's my philosophy."

Bowie grinned. "I'm really going to miss you," he told her.

She squeezed his hand and scrunched up her eyes at him. "I know that. I'll miss you too."

* * * * *

The old Phaeton gang decided to throw a going-away party for Dana the night before she was to leave. The mood at the park that night was unusually festive, belying the fact that seven of those present would be going back into the war zone again in less than a week.

Sean was bragging about his recent promotion to first lieutenant. He would have preferred being known as Captain Phillips again, but he figured any sort of commission was a great deal better than none.

"Yeah, I guess they just couldn't ignore my obvious natural talent any longer," he said. The others groaned.

"Funny they ignored it for two years," observed Angelo drily.

"Well, I didn't see them offering you any commission, Sergeant," Sean snapped.

"They did. I turned 'em down."

Sean was disconcerted for about half a second, then he managed to recover himself enough to retort, "They wouldn't have let me refuse, not with my leadership qualities. I have the sort of abilities that they're really going to need to depend on out there, and I guess somebody finally realised just what an asset I am."

"Asset?" wondered Dana under her breath, accenting the second syllable in such a way it was made clear she thought another suffix was in order.

Marie looked at her lover disdainfully. "Oh, you arrogant little twerp!" she told him with a snort. They'd been fighting all day... just for a change.

Jason laughed so hard at the insult he choked, and Angie had to pound him on the back.

Musica, who could never stand to see her friends fight — in spite of having had several years to get used to it — tried to play peacemaker by changing the subject. "You know what this reminds me of?" she asked in her quiet voice. "Sitting out here in the dark makes me remember when we all camped out back on Earth before Colonel Wolff arrived with the ship."

"I preferred living on the ship," her sister put in.

"I still can't believe they intend to use my ship as a battleship," complained Dana, not for the first time. From the moment she'd commandeered Jonathan Wolff's SDF-7 class battle fortress, she'd thought of it as her own exclusive property. It bothered her somehow that her ship would be going into battle for the first time while she sat on the sidelines, a concept that was proving harder than she had ever imagined.

Marie snorted. "It's not your ship," she pointed out realistically. "It belongs to the REF, and they can and will do whatever they want to with it. Besides," she added before Dana had a chance to object, "it was Wolff's a long time before you got your greedy little hands on it."

"You suppose we'll run into him when we get back to Earth?" wondered Jason. He'd heard all about his cousin's history with the colonel, and was a little concerned at the prospect.

"I hope not," said Angie. He was still bothered by the interest Dana had had in Wolff, although to the best of his knowledge it had never gone much beyond the flirtation stage. He would prefer not to have to meet up with him again. "Wonder if old Wolffie's even still alive?" he mused, in a tone of voice that suggested he wouldn't mind it in the least if it were otherwise.

Dana sighed, then scowled at him playfully. "You don't let go of any of your old grudges, do you?"

"Oh, yeah? Seems to me I remember when we first met I couldn't stand you...."

"Seems to me that was entirely mutual," she reminded him. Their friends just looked at them and stayed out of it, they same way they'd done for years.

"...And you don't hear me complainin' about havin' to work with a bunch of bears and foxes and all that, do you?" Angelo continued. Dana shrugged. The non-human members of the Sentinels had been arriving in Tiresia for the past couple of weeks, and although it was a little strange for the old Southern Cross contingent to adjust to being around the Karbarrans, Garudans, Spheresians, and all the others, they had managed to get used to the idea.

Sean laughed at the two of them, shaking his head. "Why do you two fight so much?" he asked them, conveniently ignoring the fact that he and Marie behaved the same way. "Just for the making up?"

Angelo shrugged. "That, and it's good practice for when we get married, I guess." He put his arm around Dana's waist affectionately, and she leaned against him.

"Guess we should get going now, don't you?" she asked. He nodded. It was their last night together, and they didn't want to waste it. "I have to leave pretty early in the morning," she explained to the rest of the group, "so I guess, um, this is it for a while. See you guys soon, right?" She didn't seem to know what to say now that the moment had come.

The rest of the team nodded at her, just as tongue-tied as she was. It was going to seem pretty strange without her after all this time. She was eccentric and temperamental at times, but there wasn't one among them who didn't have the greatest respect and admiration for their leader.

She looked round at all her friends in turn, smiling affectionately as she remembered everything they'd been through together.

Finally she moved over to Marie and Sean and hugged them both at the same time, saying, "Now remember, you two — you're supposed to be fighting the Invid, not each other, okay?"

"Look who's talkin'!" Marie laughed.

Dana shrugged her shoulders and adopted her old innocent look. "Hey, I had to get in that last parting shot, didn't I?" she responded with a grin. The others laughed.

She hesitated for a moment when she came to Jason, then stood up on tiptoe to give him a kiss on the cheek. "Take care, Jase."

Jason grinned and gave her a quick, impertinent salute. "You too, chief," he told her.

Then came Bowie, Musica, and Allegra, standing in a group as usual. She gave Musica a quick hug. "Take care of him, all right?" she asked, nodding toward Bowie.

"Of course," Musica answered quickly. "We'll miss you, Dana."

"Well, of course you will!" Dana replied flippantly, tossing her head. She wanted to keep the whole thing as light-hearted as possible; a tearful farewell would be more depressing than she figured she could handle.

She smiled at Allegra warmly and took her hand for a moment. She didn't know her as well as Musica, but she had grown to like her a great deal. Allegra, the unexpected rebel. Some of the Masters' former slaves had reacted to freedom in very strange ways, and Dana could hardly recognise her as the timid clone she had first met.

Finally she stood in front of Bowie, who was looking a bit tearful. Dana's resolve left her for a second and she had to scrunch up her eyes to keep from crying. "Oh, Bowie," she whispered, touching his cheek. "Geez, I'm gonna miss you!" She surprised him by giving him a big, sloppy kiss over his left eye.

"Goodbye, Dana," he said quietly. "See you soon."

Angelo touched her shoulder. "Time to go," he reminded her gently. He realised how hard it was for her to make the break, and wanted to expedite matters a bit. She nodded, and he started off into the shadows.

Dana stood still a moment longer. She looked a little like a lost child as she glanced around the circle of her friends. "So long, guys," she said weakly.

"Come on, Dana!" Angelo called. She gave her group one last cheery grin and a mock salute and ran off to join him.

"My god," drawled Jason, "he actually does know her name." The others, having heard little but the originally mocking nickname "Ma'am" for years, cracked up.

Then the laughter died away, and they all stood around not quite knowing what to do with themselves.

* * * * *

The night passed much too quickly, the way all important nights seem to do. They spent the few precious hours they had left clinging to one another like two lost souls, talking for hours, making love with a frantic intensity, and just holding each other, determined to get as close as they possibly could.

Finally they had fallen asleep for a couple of hours out of sheer exhaustion. In a way it was more tiring than any of the campaigns they had fought during the Second Robotech War, because the exhaustion was more emotional than physical.

Angelo woke up to find Dana sitting on the edge of the bed, fully dressed, stroking his cheek tenderly. "Good morning," she said softly. He noticed her eyes were unnaturally bright, as if she had been crying. He took hold of her hand, and felt her fingers tighten around his.

"Well, I was hopin' you wouldn't already be up," he said disappointedly.

She gave him a quick little hide-and-seek smile and sighed. "Sweetie, if I hadn't done it this way, I would've never been able to get out of bed."

"Guess I can take that as sort of a compliment, huh?"

"If you want." She held his hand in her lap and looked around the room sadly. It was very dimly lit, the way Angelo liked to keep his personal space for some reason. It was a little easier for her to think about the fact that she wouldn't see this place for months than it was to face the prospect of not seeing him again for a long time.

Angie gave a sudden jerk on her hand, bringing Dana out of her reverie. "Hey, come back to reality, okay?"

"Sorry. I was a million miles away."

"Where was that?"

Dana looked thoughtful. "Not really where but when. Two years ago, when we first got here. I was thinking about the day when we cleaned out our quarters on the Phaeton, and I sat there and promised myself I would never lose you. And now look...."

"You ain't gonna lose me," he told her forcefully. "As soon as all this is over and those Invid are put in their place, I'll be back here and we can get married." He hoped he sounded more certain than he felt.

"Right," she said tearfully. Then she forced a smile, and told him, "I intend to hold you to that promise, Dante."

He nodded. "Good."

Dana pulled her hand away suddenly. "Look, why don't you go get dressed and I'll make some of that synthetic junk that passes for coffee on this planet."

"That an order, Ma'am?"

"Yeah. Now hop to it, sergeant!"

"You got it, lieutenant." It was an old habit of theirs, reverting to military lingo whenever they wanted to show affection without getting too sappy.

It came as no surprise to Dana that he chose to put on his uniform as always; he always said he was uncomfortable in civvies and seldom wore anything else. He came over and kissed her, and she stuck a cup of coffee in his face. Angelo laughed and said, "What are you grinnin' at?"

"Nothing, really. I was just remembering the time my father asked me if you ever took off that uniform."

"He shoulda known better than that. What'd you tell him?"

"The truth — that you usually only take it off in the shower and in bed. He didn't seem to be all that happy with the answer, as I recall."

Angie shook his head in sympathy. "Poor Max," he said. "I feel sorry for him, havin' to put up with you and that other little bundle of energy."

"Hey! I resent that!" He just grinned at her until she finally had to give in and laugh with him.

They ate breakfast slowly, not speaking, each lost in their own thoughts, but trying to keep from dwelling on the inevitable. Finally Dana broke the silence. "I'm going to have to leave soon, you know," she said quietly.

"How soon is soon?"

She smiled sadly. "Almost immediately."

Angelo looked away and swallowed hard. "Well..." was all he could manage to say, and the word came out in a chokey rasp.

Dana touched his arm gently. When he looked at her he noticed she had tears in her eyes, and he suddenly remembered just what it was that had made him love her so much for so long. He pulled her to him and kissed her, tenderly at first, then harder, not wanting to let her go.

When the kiss finally ended they clung to each other for what felt like a long time, and yet was nowhere near long enough. It took all of Dana's strength to pull out of his embrace, but she managed finally. The two of them stood facing each other, holding hands at their sides.

"I was going to say something silly and cheerful, but I can't think of anything," said Dana with an uneasy laugh.

"That's a first," Angelo tried to joke. It didn't sound so light, though.

Dana turned serious and reached up to touch his cheek. "Be safe," she whispered. "And don't forget I love you."

"No chance," he told her in the same tone of voice. "I love you, too." He winked at her, an old joke between the two of them, and she returned the token.

She hesitated with her hand on the door release button. "See you at the wedding," she said tearfully, then backed out the door, her eyes never leaving his. Dana turned suddenly and ran away as fast as she could.

Angelo closed the door slowly. He looked around his dark quarters for a minute, then went to his cabinet and took out a full bottle of whiskey. Not his usual solution, but the usual solutions wouldn't work. Not this time.

He stood regarding it for a long time. It wouldn't drown the pain, he knew that, but at least maybe it would take the edge off, make him forget exactly what it was exactly that hurt so much. He touched the framed photo of Dana on the night table, than sat down on the rumpled bed and drank.

* * * * *

Miriya was finishing up her packing when Dana came in. She looked up as she heard the door slide open, then put down the picture she was wrapping when she saw how worn out her daughter looked.

Dana gave her a very weak smile. "I guess you weren't very surprised when I didn't come home last night, huh?"

"I would have been a lot more surprised if you had."

"Yeah. Where's Dad and Aurora?" She seemed more distracted than usual, and her mother looked at her with concern before she answered.

"Max is out saying goodbye to Rick, and Aurora's in the bedroom packing."

Dana sighed tiredly. "I haven't even done that yet, and we're leaving this morning."

"I think your sister's taking care of that for you," Miriya told her.

"Oh. Well, that's good. She'd probably do it a lot more logically than I ever could." She sat down on the sofa next to her mother, leaning back and giving a deep sigh.

Miriya smoothed her hair worriedly. "You look terrible," she said. "Did you get any sleep at all?"

"Couple hours, maybe."

"Are you all right?" asked Miriya softly.

Dana shrugged. "I don't know." Without warning she gave up the pretense and opened up. "Mom — have you ever hurt so much you couldn't even cry?"

Miriya had been expecting that one, and fortunately had a ready answer. "Yes," she told her quietly. "Once. It wasn't the same situation, but it was similar. I think you know what I'm talking about." She picked up the photo again and studied it.

Dana looked puzzled for a minute, then she realised her mother had to be talking about the way she had felt leaving her child behind so many years ago, because the things she believed in required it. Definitely a similar situation. She looked over at the picture Miriya was holding — a photo of Dana at the age of five or six — and nodded to herself in confirmation.

"Well, at least maybe this time it won't take thirteen years," she sighed. "It'll just feel like it."

Her mother put her arm around her. "I'm very proud of you for what you're doing, Dana. I wanted you to know that. It takes great courage to stand up for what you believe in when you know it's going to hurt." She smiled and stroked her hair tenderly.

Dana was a little embarrassed, but tried to cover it up. "Oh. Well. Is that the human side or the Zentraedi side?"

"Hmm. I'm not sure, really. Neither... both... possibly it's just a product of the mix of genes." In some ways Dana was even more of a puzzle than her sister. Everyone knew why Aurora was the way she was, because of Miriya's exposure to the hin on Garuda before she even knew she was pregnant, but there had never been any convenient rational explanation for Dana.

Dana shook her head. "Nah. I think anything like that has to come from you and Dad both."

"I'm glad you prefer to think that. I'm touched."

"Yeah, well. I think I better go help with all the packing and stuff, 'cause if I don't this is gonna turn into one of those heartwarming things I can't stand." She grimaced, then headed off toward the room she shared with her sister.

Miriya shook her head and laughed. "Yes. I think she'll be okay." she told herself.

Eventually.

* * * * *

"Don't worry," Aurora told her sister. "You'll like Haydon IV. It's wonderful there."

The Sterling family, along with Exedore, was on the shuttle to Haydon IV. Dana had been staring out the porthole moodily, sunk in her own thoughts, when Aurora interrupted. She shook her head. "No. I'm sure it's a great planet, but it's your place, not mine. I'll probably die of boredom," she predicted gloomily.

Aurora laughed. "I'll teach you how to fly the carpets. You should enjoy that at least — it might even give you a chance to find some trouble."

Dana looked interested. "What carpets?"

"The Haydonite flying carpets. I've told you about them before; weren't you listening?"

"Probably not."

"Well, when we get there, Mother and Father and I can show you all sorts of things we've discovered I can promise you won't die of boredom."

Dana sighed. "Maybe I won't. Maybe I'll just die of loneliness first," she said dramatically.

"You're hopeless!" Aurora told her. She left her sister to her moodiness and turned to listen to the conversation her parents were having with Exedore.

"Oh, I could never give up science," he was saying. "It has always been my true calling. But I have to admit that there are times when I do miss being on the Plenipotentiary Council. I did enjoy being part of the decision making process."

Max laughed. "Maybe you should consider running for mayor when we get back, Exedore," he joked.

Exedore appeared to take him seriously. "Well, I have considered something of the sort, but I don't know... all those speeches."

The exchange made Aurora smile. She turned to see if Dana had caught it, but Dana was staring out into the darkness again, completely unconscious of the events on this side of the galaxy. Aurora touched her shoulder gently.

"What are you thinking about?"

"About Bowie. And Musica and Allegra, and Sean and Marie and Jason. About how I'm going to miss them all. And I was thinking about Angelo."

Dana leaned back in her seat and sighed.

Her mental powers were nowhere near as developed as Aurora's, but she had a vision of what the future would bring. In a few months he would come for her, and she would fly into his arms and never have to leave them again.

The End... for now.

*****

Time would prove Max Sterling's words correct: he and Miriya never would see Earth again, and the Sterling family would become almost exclusively Tirol-based. In fact, only one of their six grandchildren would ever be Earth-based.

Alex Dante, Dana's youngest child, was the only one of the group to eventually choose life on Earth. In her thirties, she retired to Laura Emerson's remote farmhouse where her mother had grown up (and which had been left jointly to Dana and Bowie and their families) to write books and raise her two children, Robert Dante and Theresa Dante, later Duvall.

Yes.

footnote from Wingmates: The Story of Max and Miriya Sterling, by Theresa Duvall