Even Kittens have Claws

Part Seven -- by Becky Ratliff

See Disclaimer Information in Part One

By the beginning of evening watch, the partying had settled down, once most everyone had gotten the chance to get in on it. Damphousse got back to the barracks and saw West writing home and Hawkes lying on his bunk playing with a video game. She wasn’t surprised when Vansen and McQueen made it in within a few minutes of each other. She looked around. What was more, it didn’t look like anyone else was particularly surprised, either. That was interesting!

Vanessa remembered the last time an evening together had felt like this, and hugged her pillow close. Right before the peace conference had gone terribly wrong. She didn’t have the sense of anything bad hanging over them now...but that wasn’t much of a reassurance. While her “warnings” were fairly reliable, she had learned to her everlasting regret that she couldn’t take the lack of a premonition as evidence of safety. She hadn’t known anything was going to happen to Paul.

She pushed such thoughts to the back of her mind. It was getting easier to do that as time went by. At first, the grief had been like jagged glass. But as the days and weeks had passed, she had learned to put it aside for a while...until she could cry in the shower, or stare out into forever and seek the new star that was supposed to appear for a lost one, God’s candle in the window of heaven. And, gradually, although she had not believed it would ever happen, sometimes there were hours at a time when she lived in the moment. Serenity and even happiness had slowly come back into her heart.

She and West both noticed Hawkes looking at McQueen and Vansen, when he thought no one was watching him. West met her eyes and she saw the wheels turning. He grinned at her and touched a finger to his lips, it was all Damphousse could do to keep a straight face.

After McQueen left, Vansen rummaged in her locker then went back to the showers. As soon as they heard the water come on, Hawkes grabbed West and pulled him over to the bunk across from ‘Phousse. “Okay! How long have you two been holding out on me?”

“Ummm--” West evaded.

‘Phousse confessed, “Since we were rescued.”

“Who told you?”

“Nobody. I can’t help it if I’m psychic,” she said innocently.

“Well, who told *you*, Nathan? You aren’t psychic.”

“Nobody exactly told me. On the SAR mission, I just knew. But I didn’t think anyone else did. How did you find out?”

“Never mind! But it was just recently. I guess everyone thought they better not tell me, old Cooper’ll post it on the bulletin board or somethin’,” he griped.

“Nobody *told* either of us,” ‘Phousse pointed out. “Get a clue. They didn’t want us to have to lie.”

Cooper turned white and flopped back on the bunk. “Oh, God. Yeah. What if I have to take another loyalty test?” He’d lied about the monitor and got away with it. Would this secret be so vitally important to him that he could successfully lie about it too, in spite of the drugs and the lie

Nathan said, “After the stink that caused the last time? I don’t think so! Boss Ross wouldn’t let them!”

“He might not be able to stop it. They ask you if you know of anyone breaking regulations. If I say no and it doesn’t fly--”

“Cooper, you can say no and it won’t be a lie! They aren’t breaking any rules right now. You understand that, don’t you?” Damphousse asked.

“Yeah, but what about after--”

“Never mind after! Just now is all that matters. The absolute truth is that you cannot say they’ve done anything wrong, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. Yeah, that *is* the truth,” he said, with a heartfelt relief. A lot of the fear he’d been carrying around ever since he’d found Shane’s diary disappeared in the light of Vanessa’s common sense.

Shane came out of the shower rubbing her hair dry with a towel, which she threw in the laundry along with her dirty clothes. She lay down on her bunk with a book.

The hair on the back of her neck prickled. She looked around, saw Cooper stick his nose back in his video game. “Okay, what’s the matter now, Cooper?” She demanded.

“Oh, nothin’.”

Vanessa couldn’t help it any longer, she snickered and then started to laugh out loud. That got Nathan started. He said, “Sorry, Shane, we just figured out we’re all in the loop.”

She flushed beet-red and put her pillow over her face. “Somebody shoot me.”

Vanessa said, “It’s okay. Cooper was just worried you’re going to get in trouble, that’s all.”

She turned serious and sat up. “Coop, are you still on that? You *really don’t* have anything to worry about. When chain-of-command becomes an issue again, then we’ll go back to the way things were after Marged. Our duty comes first, and until after the war, we’re both where we need to be.” She reached up to grab his hand and gave it a squeeze. “We’re not going do anything that could mess things up for ourselves and everyone else, too. You ought to know that.”

Nathan said sympathetically, “That really sucks, Shane.”

“I know. Believe me, it sucked after Marged, too. But that’s the way things are. Really, I feel more sorry for you and everyone else who has someone back on Earth. At least we can see each other every day. That has to make it easier.”

Nathan nodded. Words couldn’t say how much he missed Kylen sometimes...but, on the other hand, he knew she was safe at home. He did not envy Vansen and McQueen the situation they were in, as far as that went.

Vansen looked at the three of them. “Now, has anyone got any more burning questions that you just *have* to ask? Because I don’t want to have this conversation again!” She declared.

Vanessa rolled over to look at her, and smiled. “No more nosy questions, Shane. As long as no one’s going to get hurt, it’s none of our business.”

Nathan and Cooper agreed. Cooper said, “That’s all I was really worried about anyway.”

“Okay, then. On a related thing, I have to meet Major Flannery at Tun’s tomorrow about the paintball game. Now, after what happened in the hangar today, I don’t want to go alone. X.O., you get to play chaperone.”

West laughed. “Okay, sure. What do you want me to do, punch him one if he kisses you again?”

“No, he’s not going to do that again! I just don’t want him to get any ideas.”

He said, “You’re way too late for that, he’s already got plenty of ideas.”

“Well, that’s what I’m afraid of. I sure don’t want to encourage him. And I’d like to keep him as a friend after I put a stop to it, too, if I can. Does everyone understand that? Cooper?”

“Who, me?” He asked innocently. “I’m not doin’ anything.” He saw the look Shane was giving him. “Really!”

“Good, because it isn’t Todd’s fault that he doesn’t know the situation. He hasn’t done anything wrong.”

Cooper nodded slowly, she was right about that. Soon after, she turned out the lights.


Dr. O’Leary said, “All right. I’ll release you to fly, because you meet all the criteria now. But I’m warning you that your hand will be painful for several days more. Don’t let it distract you at a bad moment and get you killed out there!”

“I’ll remember,” Cooper promised solemnly. “And thanks for not trying to make me take any pills.”

O’Leary said, “Son, the medical profession owes you an apology for what happened to you. It isn't easy to get clean and stay that way.”

“I ain’t the only one who’s ever done it. I *had* to, I would’ve got sent home if I couldn’t’ve got clean the first time.”

“Don’t give me that ‘Aw, shucks, ma’am, it was nothing’ routine, Lieutenant. Someone screwed up royally and you paid the price for it. You have every right to be proud of yourself, you accomplished a very difficult goal. I respect that a great deal. So I’m going to trust you to ask me if you need something for pain...and if you ever do, sure and you can trust me to make absolutely certain anything that I order for you is safe for you to take.”

She was rewarded by one of Cooper’s shy little smiles. “Thanks, ma’am.”

“If you don’t have anywhere you need to be, I believe Christy gets off duty in about fifteen mikes. You can look busy putting those supplies over there on the top shelf for us until then if you like.”

Cooper laughed. “Yes, ma’am!” The boxes weren’t heavy, but there were a lot of them, and it was a very high shelf. He stacked them quickly, matching the numbers on the boxes to the tags on the shelf. He thought suspiciously that it was a real coincidence how he finished stacking the boxes before Christy came out.

“Hi, Coop! How’s your hand?”

“Dr. O’Leary sprung me from light duty,” he said. “I’m *really* glad I don’t have to do any more inventory.”

“I hear that! Let’s get something to eat before we go to the gym, I just had coffee this morning and I’m starving.”


There weren’t too many people in the gym. Cooper’s locker was at the far end from Christy’s. The etiquette was that you kept your eyes on your own locker, and most of the time no one strayed far from that. But they were the only ones in the locker room. Christy impishly turned her locker door to aim the mirror -- and caught Coop sneaking a glance at her. Both of them started laughing.

Christy surprised Cooper by sticking her foot against the hatch as they were leaving and standing on tiptoe to give him a quick kiss. She said, “I hope you don’t mind me doing that...but I’ve been wanting to.”

Coop grinned. “I don’t mind.” He leaned over and kissed her in return, this time it turned into something a lot more than just a quick peck on the lips. After a moment, her arms went tightly around him.

Christy said, “We really don’t dare bag this karate thing, do we?”

“Not on your life,” Coop said. “Or maybe I ought to say not on MY life, ‘cause I’d be the first one McQueen got hold of.”

“Well, let’s get it over with, then.”

“You’re really not into this, are you?”

“I guess I’d better *get* into it!” She grinned. “What I’d like to do is go someplace and kiss you some more.”

Cooper had gotten used to being around Shane and Nathan and Vanessa, he’d started taking the way NB’s danced around important subjects for granted. Christy’s In Vitro directness was like coming home. He found himself grinning right back at her. “We’ll have plenty of time for that, too.”

They went out into the gym. A couple of other people were in the ring, they warmed up on the bikes while they waited.

Christy said, “We used to go mountain biking back home.”

“Home. That’s, what, Colorado?”

She nodded. “Aspen.”

“What’s it like?”

She leaned forward to the bike’s control panel and pulled up a sim of a trail not far from her home. “This is Barrel Rock Trail. It’s in the park where I was a ranger, before I got my RN and transferred to search and rescue. I used to bike ride and run on this trail all the time. I couldn’t believe they had a sim of it. You can see Aspen down there from the trail head, and that big red brick building is University Hospital, where I went to school. Right behind the dome of city hall?”

“Oh, okay.”

“Go left up here.” They went down the virtual trail about half a mile. “This is the ranger station. It’s an old sim, the SAR flight station is over there now where those picnic tables were when this was made. The picnic area is by the creek now.”

“This is where you worked?”

“Yeah,” she smiled. “The first few months I was there, I worked in the reforestation program. Then I became a ranger while they put me through nursing school. I already had a lot of hours from the Center. They didn’t want to send my transcripts, but they did when the park director threatened to sue.”

“They were probably still pissed because you ran away.”

“Well, that was their problem, they still had to send my transcripts. Of course, I couldn’t go back to Illinois until I turned twenty-one, or they could’ve picked me up ... as if I would ever want to go back there.”

“I know what you mean, if I ever see Philly again it’ll be too soon. But Paul grew up in Chicago and he was homesick a lot.”

Christy led the way down the trail, over a hill and down through a pine forest on the other side. The forest gave way to an evergreen-rimmed lake shore, on the other side of the crystal blue water the mountains climbed skyward. “You miss him a lot, don’t you?”

“Yeah. I guess nobody misses him as much as Vanessa does, but yeah. You’d have to say he was the first real friend I ever had ... me and Nathan didn’t used to get along real well.”

“Really? That’s hard to believe now.”

“Well, it’s like this. He and Kylen were supposed to be on the Tellus mission together, but he lost his ride ‘cause they admitted ten of us IV’s into the program. It was a big political thing. He took it out on me. And I guess I egged him on some.”

Christy smiled, but didn’t say anything. She could guess what Cooper meant by that!

Cooper said, “Anyway, that was then. Looks like they’re finished with the ring.”

He found that Christy had been practicing what he’d shown her the first time, at least enough to come up with a few smart questions.

For her part, she found out very quickly that sparring with another IV was a completely different situation. She was used to being nearly as strong as anyone she’d ever come up against, and much faster. Cooper knew how to counter nearly every one of the strategies she’d been taught, and even when she did manage to hit him a few times, he knew how to take a hit and keep fighting. The last straw was when he teased her, “Come on, Christy, you can do better than that! I thought you were supposed to be a big, mean sailor!”

She realized that he wasn’t even out of breath. Madder than she’d ever been in her life, she went on a full-out attack and kicked him in the stomach. All the air went out of him in a rush and he sat down flat on his butt, with a look on his face that was as much surprised as hurt.

Christy realized that she could have hurt him badly, and that thought shook her out of her blind rage. “Oh, Cooper--! Are you okay? I’m sorry!”

Laughter from ringside caught her attention. She looked around to see McQueen standing there. She realized it was the first time she’d ever heard him laugh out loud, it was rare enough to see him smile. McQueen asked, “Coop, are you okay?”

He had to get some air in his lungs before he could answer out loud, but he managed a thumbs-up to keep anyone from getting any ideas about hauling him off to sickbay again.

Christy said, “I’m sorry, Cooper. I can’t believe I did that.”

He had managed to start breathing again, but lost all advantage of it by laughing at the look on her face. He gasped, “I can’t believe it either. Don’t worry about it. I was supposed to be looking out for you.”

“But I knew we were just sparring!”

McQueen realized the joke was over when he heard her tone of real distress. “He’s okay, Christy, you just knocked the wind out of him. For the split second you threw that kick, no, you weren’t just sparring. Cooper deliberately pushed you into a fight-or-flight reaction. He wanted to see what you could do if you really were fighting for your life.”

“If I’d had a gun or a knife--and it wasn’t even anything important--” Christy sat down beside Cooper, she’d gone pale. “I really don’t think I needed to know that about myself! I’m supposed to be a nurse. My life, everything I believe in, is about saving lives, not taking them. But that was what I just tried to do, wasn’t it? Colonel, I don’t know if I want to learn any more of this ... even if it does mean I could get raped and killed by some gang in a back corridor. Not if the alternative is that I have to become something that goes against everything I want to be.”

The joke was definitely over, and that was definitely a misconception that needed to be cleared up. Like most people, all Christy knew about martial arts had come from the movies, and most of the movies had it all wrong. “Christy, martial arts is not about fighting in a rage like that. It’s about staying in control. If you learn stay in control of yourself, the choice of whether or not to use deadly force is always going to be yours to make. No one will be able to push you into a reaction the way Cooper just did. You will not ever have to do anything that goes against your beliefs. I hope it isn’t ever the choice you’ll make, but if your honor forces you to decide that defending your life is not worth taking another person’s, you’ll always be free to make that decision.”

Christy nodded. There were many people who cared about her. Since she had escaped from the indoctrination center there had always been people who loved her and looked out for her. But they'd always treated her like a child. McQueen both cared about her and respected her as an adult, who had the right to choose to sacrifice her life rather than forfeit her honor. “Yes, sir.”

Once Cooper felt like continuing, the rest of that session went back to practicing the moves Cooper had taught her before, and learning a couple of new ones. McQueen showed her a couple of technical things that Cooper had no idea how to teach, but most of the time he just watched without interfering. Christy was expecting some kind of a lecture, but when they got out of the locker room, he was gone.

Cooper asked her, “Did you change your mind about what you wanted to do?”

“No,” she grinned. “Can you think of a place?”

After some discussion, they ended up in the Wild Cards’ barracks, because Cooper knew no one was likely to be there. Suddenly shy, they found things to look at and subjects for conversation.

They were standing by a viewport looking out, Christy had her hand on the ledge. Cooper put his own hand over hers. She turned around and rested her cheek against his chest. For a long time, they stood there just holding one another, then they sat down on a bottom rack.

“I can’t believe you’re here,” Cooper said.

Christy smiled and took his hands in hers. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I don’t know. It’s just...I’ve mostly been alone. I was only at the Center eight months, and I was on the street up until the Corps ... the 5-8 are the only friends I’ve ever had until I met you and Mark.”

“Oh, Cooper. You mean, all those years, you had to just live on the sidewalks?”

“Couldn’t apply for anything better. I had to stay out of the system or the Center would’ve found me. You said it yourself, you couldn’t go back to Chicago. If I’d known they couldn’t get me if I left the state, I’d have gone somewhere else, but I didn’t know. There are a lot of tanks in Philly. I was able to stay in the neighborhood and fit in.”

Christy kissed his fingers. “It must have been so awful for you.”

He said, “It wasn’t easy, I guess...but I got by.” He drew her hands over to him, took a moment to notice how small and delicate they seemed in his. Here, in this place, Philadelphia seemed far away and unreal, like something from a half-forgotten nightmare. Long hot summers ... longer winters trying to find somewhere, anywhere to get out of the snow ... constant hunger and fear ... he’d almost forgotten that conditions like that existed until Demios. Since then he’d done his best to forget it again. The world he’d had to live in and the things he’d had to do to survive were so far away from sitting here in his own quarters with Christy beside him. He looked into her eyes and kissed her hands, released them to reach for her and draw her close.

Both of them pretty much lost track of their surroundings until they heard the hatch bang, they jumped like they’d been shot. “What was THAT?”

Cooper laughed, “It was just that hatch, they’re supposed to fix it. Who’s there?”

It was Shane, she’d stopped by to do some paperwork. But when she saw what was going on she changed plans immediately and pretended not to have noticed at all that they were both flushed and out of breath. She just crossed to the desk and picked up the hard copies she needed to do her work. “Coop, I said I needed that report on my desk. Where is it?”

“Uh--it’s there--maybe I left it on the printer?”

She tore it off. “Here, sign it. I’ll be in the office for a while. Hi, Christy.”

“Hi, Shane.”

Cooper scribbled his name on the report and handed it back. Without further discussion, Shane tucked it into a folder with the others and left the barracks.

Christy said, “We shouldn’t have run her away from her desk.”

When McQueen had been C.O. of the 58th, he had shared office space with Todd Flannery and two other C.O.’s. Now Shane had been moved in there too, it was a little crowded so she sometimes worked at the computer desk in the barracks. But she didn’t mind going to the office, and Cooper had finally figured out why. She and McQueen could work together there when no one was really around, but it was still a “public place” so nobody would talk about them. All he said was, “She works both places. Where were we?”

Christy laughed and snuggled up close again, it didn’t take long for her to stop worrying about Shane.

<end part 7>

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