I haven't tried these characters before, but please give it a shot, and let me know what you think of it! Thanks!!

VVVVVVVVVVVVV

Rings

It was strange, wearing a uniform again. It was stiff. He wouldn't have thought about it a few years ago, but his recent months as a civilian had opened him up to comforts and luxuries he had never previously been allowed. He straightened the brim of his hat as his footsteps clicked against the sidewalk. It had also opened him up to loss, heartbreak and chaos. He drew himself up and saluted a fellow officer as he passed, his chiseled face hardening. That was why he had come back. Here, there was no chaos--only structure, discipline. Here was an existence that did not require heart.

The California sun shone brightly down on the green front lawn of the naval base. He strode purposefully the straight sidewalk that was flanked by perfectly-trimmed hedges and two rows of palm trees. He could smell the salt on the air, could hear the seagulls distantly calling.

He approached the double glass doors and the two guards saluted him.

"Captain Wolfe, sir."

"Gentlemen," he answered, his voice deep and quiet. Crisply, one guard opened the door for him. He stepped inside, turned left and immediately took of his hat, tucking it under his arm. Swiftly, he strode down the hall and stopped in front of a desk where a secretary sat.

"I'm here to see Admiral Bryant."

The secretary glanced up and smiled.

"He's expecting you, Captain. You may go in."

"Thank you," he answered, his expression never moving. He stepped past her to a plain white door, reached out a broad, scarred hand and turned the knob.

A mustached man in his late fifties rose from behind his wide desk with a smile. He had a rugged, sea-weathered face with deep wrinkles between his eyebrows. His once dark hair was mostly silver now, but his blue eyes were bright.

"Shane! Good to see you again!" He rounded his desk and extended his hand. When Shane gripped it, the other man squeezed. Shane now made himself smile. Nowadays, such an action had to be thought through--it was no longer natural.

"Hello, Admiral."

"I have to tell you how glad I am to have you with us again." The Admiral's joviality faded somewhat. "Though I'm sincerely sorry that it couldn't have been under better circumstances."

Shane glanced down.

"Thank you, sir," he said simply, and fell silent. The Admiral cleared his throat.

"Well, make yourself comfortable."

Shane did so by setting his hat down on a chair, then drawing himself up again. The Admiral smiled briefly, then spoke, leaning back against his desk and crossing his arms.

"I know you're just come back to us two months ago, but I wanted you to have a shot at this before anyone else did."

Shane's brow furrowed, but he waited. Bryant went on.

"If I'm not mistaken, you were assigned to part of the Plummer case some years back, correct?"

"Plummer?" Shane repeated, blinking.

"Yes," Bryant pulled his bifocals out of his front pocket, slid them on, then picked up a piece of paper. "You were assigned first to rescue a Dr. Howard Plummer," he said as he scanned the sheet. "And then after he was killed and you were shot, you were assigned to protect his children and find the Ghost program."

Cold, phantom pain slid down the center of Shane's gut where the bullet had penetrated. His eyes unfocused. Bryant mistook it for confusion.

"You were with them for over two weeks. The children's names were Tyler, Peter,

Lulu--"

"Seth and Zoe," Shane finished, his voice low. He looked at his superior. "And that mission ended five years, six months ago yesterday."

"Ah," Bryant nodded, looking over his glasses. "So you do remember."

"Yes, sir." Shane kept it from his voice, but strange, timid warmth spread through him at the sound of those names, almost easing the ache of the bullet wound.

"Then it may interest you to know that we have discovered a lead concerning the man who shot you and murdered Dr. Plummer."

Shane's left shoulder twitched.

"What? We caught the ones responsible for breaking into the house and trying to steal the program."

"There were two factions involved," Bryant said. "Those with Surbian connections broke it off after your attack on the boat--but not before trying to silence all of you. After that, Korea picked up the ball, and failed. Further investigation concerning the Surbians turned up nothing--until one week ago."

Shane folded his thick arms across his broad chest, listening. Bryant went on.

"We have contacts in Venice, a Mr. and Mrs. Velicio, who are ex-CIA. They say they can provide the location of the crime lord who killed Dr. Plummer."

"And?" Shane prompted.

"Nothing yet. They want to deliver that information personally--any other method they deemed too dangerous."

Shane's eyes narrowed.

"That place must be pretty hot."

"It is," Bryant agreed gravely. "The crime lord is in Italy."

Shane slowly lifted his chin.

"So this isn't just an intel recovery mission," he realized in a low tone. "It's a capture."

"And it's undercover," Bryant added, walking around behind his desk again.

"I don't do undercover," Shane reminded him warily.

"I know--but I want you on this case."

Shane shifted, struggling to keep his composure.

"How many can I assemble for a team?"

"Undercover, Captain," Bryant said again. "Only one person is going with you, and she's already been chosen."

"What?" Shane dropped his arms. "She?"

"Yes, she's been specially trained in undercover work--I don't think you could do any better."

Irritation pressed hard against Shane's sternum but before he could object, Bryant had reached over and pushed a button on his intercom.

"Jennifer, send Lieutenant Plummer in, please."

"Yes, sir."

Shane's eyes flashed, and he jumped away from the door. It swung open, and a young woman marched inside and snapped a salute. She was average height, with gold-blonde hair pulled back tightly into a bun. She wore the standard, crisp, tan Navy uniform. She was slender, and carried herself strongly. Her face was beautiful, with defined, high cheek bones, a straight nose, soft mouth and long-lashed, large, brilliant green-blue eyes. But her expression was hard, stubborn, closed--and familiar. Shane stared.

"Lieutenant Plummer--thank you for agreeing to take this mission. Your expertise will be invaluable."

"Thank you, sir," she answered, straight-toned.

"Lieutenant, I am sure you know your partner for this mission, Captain Shane Wolfe." Bryant gestured and smiled.

The young woman turned, and her eyes flickered a moment when she saw him. Shane inwardly staggered. For just an instant, he saw so much behind those vivid eyes--pain, bitterness, and infinitely more that he could not decipher.

"Zoe," he managed, his voice uneven. That instant, her expression shut again, and she closed him out. She arched an eyebrow.

"I go by my middle name, now: Rachel." She turned her head back toward the Admiral. "But I would appreciate it if my commanding officer would use my rank."

Stung by her coldness, Shane bristled.

"If I decide to take this mission."

Her eyes flickered again. He hesitated. What was going on here?

"Yes, Captain, you are the commanding officer here, but Lieutenant, in undercover situations, rank cannot always be verbally used, as I am sure you know." Bryant sat back down in his swivel chair. "In this instance, you are to work as a team, but the decisiveness belongs to Captain Wolfe."

Zoe's jaw tightened. Shane regarded Bryant. Shane's threat was empty, then--Bryant was giving orders. Shane was going. Clasping his hands behind his back and biting down on everything he wanted to say, he made himself step up to stand beside Zoe.

"When do we begin, sir?" he asked, his voice crisp and as free of emotion as Zoe's had been.

"Tomorrow morning," Bryant replied. "You will be debriefed on the plane."

Two voices answered.

"Yes, sir."

VVVVVVVVVVVVV

Shane packed in his silent single apartment, filling one small duffle bag with everything he would need. He then set his bag down on the carpet near the door and glanced around his room. It was all neat, orderly--empty. He shut off his light and slid under the covers, tossing his pillow onto the floor. He stared at the gray ceiling. Silence filled the room.

His left hand drifted over to the other side of the bed--the side that now always remained made up. An ache ran through him at the soft, uninterrupted smoothness of the blanket beneath his fingers.

He squeezed his eyes shut, but his gnawing pain kept him awake--that, and wondering what had happened to little Zoe to make her guarded expression so much like his.

TBC