Co-Author and Editor: Sharon ‘Trivia’ Blank
Dedicated to Allronix, whose own writings inspired this fic.
This once easily-obtained sanctuary from the stresses of life had, for Zachary Foxx, become an almost forgotten memory. His once-peaceful dreams were now assailed with the nightmares that he was forced to relive again and again. It was always the same. Always it began. Always it ended. No matter how he tried, even when awake he was trapped with in this nightmare of his own making. He could see her. He could hear her. He could even feel the touch of her hands against his skin…the soft caresses upon his face. She was so real he could even smell a hint of her perfume upon the surrounding air. And always he would awake alone…broken…lost…always the nightmare replayed.
* * * * * * *
When I think back on these times
and the dreams we left behind
I’ll be glad cause I was blessed to get,
To have you in my life…
The campus was a bustle of activity on the sunny morning. Students rushed from one class to the next. Cadets matched along the grass-filled quad performing their close-order drills. It was to this spot that seventeen-year old Zachary Foxx was drawn during his visit. He was awed by the precision of the exercises the group performed, and for the first time in his young life, he felt a pull…a longing to do something. He had always felt drawn to the military life, ever since his Grandfather had set him on his lap and told him stories as a toddler. This was what he wanted to do.
He was drawn back from his daydreams by the insistent sound of his instructor’s voice calling him back to the group. He glanced one last time at the cadets and turned, only to find himself on the ground and staring up into the eyes of a young woman.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, “I am so sorry. Here, let me help you.”
He shyly reached out and accepted the offered hand. “Thank you. I should watch where I’m going.”
She smiled; it was the most beautiful smile he had ever seen. “My fault entirely. Are you a student here?”
“What?” He stammered, still lost in her smile. “Oh, no. Just touring the campus. But I do plan to come here after I graduate.” He knelt down, picking up the book she dropped. “I’m Zachary Foxx.”
“Nice to meet you Zachary Foxx.” She accepted the rescued book. “Well, sorry for bumping into you.” She smiled again and turned to leave.
“Nice to meet you too…” He paused, just realizing he didn’t get her name.
She turned and again he felt himself get lost in her smile. “Eliza…Eliza Daugherty.”
* * * * * *
“Zach,” Jessica Foxx greeted her son as her entered there cozy home that evening. She was a pleasant-looking woman with deep blue eyes and hair so blond it was almost white. Her smile held a touch of humor and the kindness that she possessed. Zach was well aware of the strength that smile hid. He had seen it often enough when she faced his father to protect either his sister or himself. “How was the tour?” she asked, a teasing smile on her face.
“It was ok.” He shrugged as he tossed his bag into one of the chairs in the living room. “I did get to see the cadets do their close-order drill.”
“That would catch your attention,” she teased her son as she ruffled his hair in passing. “In the meantime, before you decide to start your military career, would you mind setting the table?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He smiled and gave her a mock salute as he headed off to the dinning room. “Hey, squirt,” he greeted the blond girl sitting at the table.
“Hi,” she responded automatically.
“Ok, what did you do this time?” Zach asked his sister as he pulled out a chair and sat next to the girl.
“Yeah, right. You make a habit out of sitting at the table looking miserable over nothing. Come on, Colleen.”
Colleen Foxx looked up at her brother and he could note the signs of recent tears in his thirteen-year-old sister’s blue eyes. “Dad’s going to kill me. I know he is.”
“What? Why do you think Dad is going to kill you?”
“Because…” She paused, “I failed that math test. He said if I failed another test he was going to kill me, Zach!”
He quickly tried to calm her before his mother heard the conversation. “Did you try your best at it?”
She sniffed and quickly wiped the tears off her face. “Yes, but no matter what I do…”
“Then tell Dad that. He’ll understand.” Zach plastered, what he hoped was a convincing smile on his face. He understood the fear that gripped his sister. He had felt his father’s anger more then once in his life and had the scars to prove it. He watched as his sister jumped at the sound of the front door slamming and their father’s voice carrying in from the living area. From the tone, Joshua Foxx was in no mood to listen. Zach could hear his mother trying to calm down the enraged man before he confronted his daughter, but as the case usual, the man paid little heed to her words. Zach slowly rose from the table and with quiet footsteps went to the doorway.
“Josh, please. At least let her explain.” Zach heard his mother plead with the man and winced as the sound of a hand connecting with bare skin echoed through the house. He quickly peeked around the corner and saw his father standing over his mother, who was trying to stop the blood flowing from her split lip.
“I warned you, Jessie,” the man growled, “don’t protect her, she isn’t worth it.” He turned and Zach quickly ducked back behind the corner. “Colleen!”
“He’s going to kill me, Zach,” his sister cried as her face paled and her body trembled at the sound of her father’s voice.
Zach stood, frozen for a moment. He had to do something or she would bear the brunt of the anger that engorged the man. With one last glance back at the living area, Zachary Foxx made up his mind and quickly grabbed her hand and with his other free hand grabbed up her jacket and dragged her out the back door. “Go to Grandfather’s.” He shoved her arms into her light jacket. “Don’t come home until I come for you.”
“But, Zach, if I leave….”
“Don’t worry about me.” He glanced back at the house, the sound of the man’s voice resounding within its walls. “Go before he comes out here. I’ll come get you later, I promise.”
She nodded and after a quick hug dashed out of the yard and into the dark fields that surrounded their home. Running to the one place the children had come to know as their sanctuary. Things had not always been like this in the Foxx household. Zach remembered, vaguely, happier times before his father had changed. Colleen had never seen that side of her father, she only knew the man that now existed as Joshua Foxx, and both children had quickly learned to fear him. Zach remained standing within the dark yard, gathering his thoughts and strength for the confrontation that was sure to come when his father discovered that Colleen was not in the house.
“Where is she?!” The man demanded as he slammed the door open and stumbled into the yard. “Where is she, boy?”
Zach stood his ground facing the man that he had once been proud to call father, watching as the man drunkenly staggered across the yard towards him, his dark hair unkempt and his brown eyes bloodshot. Joshua Foxx was by no means a small man, standing near 6’4 and weighing in at almost 200 pounds. He was well built from his years of service in the armed forces. He had been discharged for disciplinary problems, and that was when the change had begun. “I asked you a question, boy.” The man grabbed the front of Zach’s shirt, pulling the boy within inches of his face.
Zach fought back the nausea that enveloped his stomach at the reek of the man’s alcohol-laced breath. “I sent her to Grandfather’s,” he answered truthfully, his hands clenching and unclenching in his anger.
The man growled and with a shove sent Zach flying back hard onto the ground. “You’re more a fool than your worthless mother.” He took a swig from the bottle in his hand. “I warned you last time you protected that girl, Zach.” He tossed the now empty bottle on to the ground where it shattered, splintering it into several pieces, then pulled his belt from his pants and walked towards his son, still lying on the ground. “Take off your shirt,” he ordered.
“Josh, please don’t.” Zach heard his mother beg from the doorway.
“Back inside, Jessie,” the man growled out in a drunken slur, “or you’ll get the same.”
Zach caught the look his mother flashed him before she disappeared into the house. “I’m sorry.” Her eyes said.
“Now,” Josh backhanded Zach on the face. “I said shirt off. Don’t make me tell you again, boy.” He flexed the leather belt in his hands. Zach meekly removed his shirt, revealing scars along his back from previous beatings at his father’s hands. “On your knees.”
Zach assumed the familiar position, his back to his father. He could hear the sound of the leather creaking as his father again flexed the belt. He tensed his muscles, preparing himself for the strike that he knew was coming. He could hear his father as he shifted his feet and felt the change in the air pressure as the belt snapped towards him.
He gritted his teeth against crying out at the pain that ripped through his back. He would not give the man the satisfaction.
He bit at his lip, fighting the scream that threatened to escape his lips. He had to stay strong, otherwise the man would win.
Tears flowed down his cheeks as blood dripped from newly opened wounds on his back. Yet he still did not cry out with the pain.
He fell forward with the last powerful strike, lying on the ground, his breath escaping in gasps as he fought the urge to scream out in the burning pain that lanced his entire body. He could hear the man’s footsteps as he returned to the house. He remained there, waiting for the pain to ease enough so he could stand and walk into the house. He heard the door open and close, and for a moment fear gripped his mind as he thought the man was returning. Instead, gentle, loving hands helped him sit up. He glanced up and looked into his mother’s tear-streaked face. He could see the bruise beginning to appear on her pale cheek and the encrusted blood on her lip, she didn’t seem to notice, she was so worried about him.
“Come on.” She helped him to his feet as he again bit back cries at the pain. “We’d best get those cleaned before they get infected.” Slowly they made their way to the upstairs bathroom, where she slowly helped Zach sit on the counter so she could clean his wounds. She handed him a small cup with a familiar warm liquid in it. Zach gratefully drank down the concoction and sighed as its warmth spread through his freezing body. Silently, his mother went about cleaning the cuts along his back, a practice she had grown too used to performing over the years. He winced slightly as the medication she placed stung on the open wounds, once done she handed him a clean shirt and went about cleaning the mess. Zach placed a tender hand upon her arm, stalling her rapid movements. She glanced up at him; her eyes sparkling with unshed tears. “Maybe it would be best if you stayed at your grandfather’s for a while,” she whispered as she went back to her cleaning. “Until your father calms down.”
“That will be a cold day in….”
“Zachary,” His mother cautioned him, quickly glancing out the door to see if the man had heard. “Please, don’t make it worse.”
“Sorry,” he winced as he stood from the counter and pulled the clean shirt over his head. “I’ll go... but just for tonight.”
“Thank you.” She smiled weakly. “I’m sure things will get better soon as soon as he can find a job.”
“I know,” Zach agreed, more for his mothers benefit than his own belief. “I’ll just grab some stuff and head over to Grandfather’s.” He left her standing in the small confines of the bathroom and quickly grabbed a change of clothing from his room before heading out the front door and into the dark night.
* * * * * *
When I look back on these days
I’ll look and see your face
You’re right there for me…
An unusually bitter October wind blew across the empty field as Zachary Foxx quickly made his way down onto the track for his morning run as he had done for the last three years since joining the academy. He glanced about and noted that only one other had braved the bitter morning air. He had seen the girl about campus before, but had no excuse to go up and introduce himself. With only the two of them on the track, he might have his chance now.
The girl glanced up when she heard his footsteps on the gravely path and smiled slightly to him in greeting. She pushed back some strands of long brown hair that had managed to escape her braid. “Hi.” Her voice was like music to Zach’s ears. “So I’m not the only one crazy enough to be out here.”
He smiled in return and reached out his hand. “Zachary Foxx.”
“I know.” She smiled again and shook his hand. He gave her a confused look, and she explained, “I don’t tend to forget people I mow down.”
He chuckled as he suddenly remembered that day. “May I join you in your run, Miss….” He quickly searched his mind, trying to recall her name.
“Eliza Daugherty, and please. I would love the company.”
“Daugherty? Are you related to the Commandant?”
“He’s my father.” She laughed at the look that crossed Zach’s face. “Don’t worry, he’s not as bad as he makes you cadets think. Now, let’s run before the mob gets here.”
Zach whistled to himself as he wandered back into his dorm room. He had enjoyed his run with Eliza and had even asked her if she minded him joining her the next day as well. “Foxx.”
He turned to see that it was the dorm commander who had spoken to him and quickly pulled himself to attention. “Yes, sir,” he answered
“You have a personal message. Take it in my office.” The commander motioned Zach into his office and slid the door shut, leaving him alone. He settled into the one chair the office offered and flipped on the communit.
“Mom? What’s wrong?”
“Zach!” Her voice cracked with emotion. “It’s Colleen…” She broke off, tears flowing from her eyes
Zach jumped to his feet, his eyes blazing in anger. “What did he do to her?”
“I don’t know. I came home and…”
“She’s gone, Zach. I don’t know where, but some of her clothing is gone, along with the money she was saving.”
He closed his eyes, regaining his fragile grip on his temper. “Is he there?” She nodded. “I’m coming home. I think I might know where Colleen is. Don’t worry Mom, I’ll find her.” He disconnected the line and went in search of his commander.
“Zach?” Eliza caught up to him as he exited the building. “Is something wrong?” she asked, falling into step with him.
“Family emergency,” he muttered. “I have to get home.”
“How? You don’t have a vehicle.” She grabbed his arm pulling him to a stop. “Do you plan on walking the whole way?”
“If I have to.”
“Look, my vehicle is right over there.” She pointed to a small yet sturdy-looking car. “At least let me give you a ride. I want to help.”
He thought for a moment, a sudden panic filling his mind. What would she think of him if she met his father? Would she still see him as the person he was? Or would she see only what his father was? “All right, but we have to hurry.”
* * * * * * *
“Last road to the right,” Zach directed, “all the way to the end. We’re the only home down here.”
Eliza turned onto the small road and followed it until it dead-ended at a small, yet comfortable-looking home surrounded by fields full of tall grass. “Would you mind waiting here?” Zach asked. “I won’t be long.” He gave her a quick smile before disappearing into the house. “Mom?” he called out.
“What are you doing here, boy?” his father’s gravelly voice came from behind him. “I told ya never to come back here.”
Zach forced himself to count to five before turning to face the man that had been the source of his terror for most of his life. “Mom called,” he answered in an unemotional voice.
The man took a swig from the bottle clutched in his hand. “About that worthless sister of yours, I bet. I hope she got what she deserved.”
Zach’s anger snapped and he grabbed the drunken man, throwing him up against the wall, smashing the bottle in the process. “What did you do to her?” he demanded. The man laughed. “If you hurt her I swear…” he slammed the man so hard the plaster cracked off the wall.
“Zach!” His mother’s voice snapped him out of his anger, “Please, don’t do it. Don’t sink to his level.”
He gave his father one last shake before releasing him and watched as he fell unconscious to the floor. “You don’t have to stay here anymore, Mom. Why don’t you pack something and go stay with Aunt Sarah?”
She gave her son a startled look, “Zach, I can’t just…”
“Yes, you can.” He took her arm and led her back into her room. “You don’t need to protect us anymore. I’ll find Colleen, after I get you out of this house.” He handed her a bag and started taking clothing from the drawers. “Promise me, Mom.”
“All right, Zach,” she picked up the wedding photo that had been sitting by the bed. “You know, I remember what it was like before…before he....”
“Don’t.” He paused from placing clothing in the bags. “You didn’t force him to drink, Mom. None of this was your fault.”
She looked up at her son, and for the first time in Zach’s life she allowed him to see the pain and suffering that she had always hidden from her children. “I could have stopped him. I…I should have stopped him.” She reached out and grabbed hold of Zach’s hand. “I saw all the signs. I knew what was happening. I thought that I could help him.” Zach knelt wiping away a tear from her cheek. “I never meant to let him hurt you or Colleen. I just…just…”
“Shhh…it’s alright Mom,” he comforted the crying woman. “You couldn’t stop him anymore then I could, and I remember you taking the brunt of his anger when I was younger. You did all you could to protect us.”
“But it wasn’t enough. Colleen…”
“I’ll take care of her.” He rose, picking up the bags he had hastily packed. “Come on, it’s time we all left this behind us.” Zachary Foxx turned giving the place he had called both home and hell one last glance before trying to forever bury the nightmares that had been forged within the walls. He motioned for his mother to precede him down the stairs, hoping that perhaps his father was still passed out on the floor. The sound of his mother’s gasp quickly destroyed that hope.
“Where do you think you’re going, Jessie?” the man’s voice snarled as he roughly grabbed her. “I’ve told ya before, you ain’t ever leaving.”
“Let her go.” Zach demanded, grabbing the man from behind and pulling him from the cringing woman. Josh turned on him, one fist slamming back into Zach's side, knocking the breath out of him. While the younger man was staggering, trying to remember how to breathe, his father snaked one arm around his throat and squeezed, choking him. By the look on his face, it was obvious that he had no intention of letting Zach survive this defiance.
"Josh! Please, don’t!" Jessica screamed, trying to pry the man off her son, only to be shoved forcefully to the ground.
"STAND DOWN, MISTER!" Eliza snarled in her best imitation of her father dressing down a particularly idiotic recruit. "You raise your hand to them one more time and I'll have you in the brig so fast you'll think you just hit lightspeed."
"Who the hell do you think you are, telling a man what to do in his own house?!" Josh said as he tossed Zach to the ground and moved towards Eliza. Zach lay where he had fallen, trying to regain his breath. He could hear his mother's sobs in one direction and his father's growling voice in another. And then the frightened shout of a familiar voice.
"LET... ME... GO!"
Zach's head snapped up. Josh had grabbed Eliza's arms and was holding her tightly, slowly forcing her to her knees. Zach had seen that maneuver before... force someone to their knees, and then kick them or knee them in the face. It was one of Josh's favorite maneuvers. Zach's lips pulled back from his teeth. "Not her," he whispered to himself. "Damn you, NOT HER!" Forcing himself to his feet, he rushed his father, slamming into him in a tackle worthy of a pro football player. They fell to the ground together, and Zach pulled back enough to straddle Josh and start pummeling him.
"Zach!" Eliza tried pulling the enraged man off his Father. "Zach…stop!"
He turned his head to glare at her, and she stepped back a pace at the primal rage in his expression. That snapped him out of it, and he stood, backing away from her, from what he'd done. Zach's eyes darted between Eliza and his mother, torn between running from what he'd done and the need to protect his mother.
"I'll take care of her, Zach," Eliza said impulsively, and that tipped the balance. He turned and ran.
* * * * * * *
He had no memory of how long he ran, but when the rage had finally calmed enough for him to notice where he was he found himself in familiar surroundings. The cabin had been standing there for as long as Zach could remember. His sister and he had spent many nights hiding there from Josh when he would get into on of his drunken rages. He smiled slightly. That was probably why his feet had carried him there without his conscious thought. He could remember his Grandfather telling him stories at night and gently tucking him into a bed that he was able to sleep in without fear of the man coming into the room, and he remembered coming and doing the same for Colleen after their Grandfather had passed away. This was the one place both of them had always felt completely safe, the man would never touch them here.
He shuddered slightly as the bitter night wind swept through the clearing and, with a sigh, made his way up the steps and into the dark house.
Things were as he remembered them; books upon the shelves, furniture covered to protect it from dust, even the familiar scents of wood and the meadows from outside tickled his nose. He flipped on the light and wandered towards the kitchen area to see if the rations he had stashed were still there. It was there that something caught his eye. Last time he had come, he had made certain to remove all the trash and clean the dishes he had used, and here there were wrappers on the counter and dishes in the sink. His thoughts turned rapidly and with a sudden realization he dashed up the stairs to the sleeping room, quietly opened one of the doors, and felt sudden tears burning his eyes.
She was sleeping; her face was contorted in fearful lines, as if the dreams she was having were unpleasant. There was little doubt in his mind that they were. Zach could see the pattern of dark bruising along her face and shuddered at the thought of the ones that must be covering the rest of her body. She rolled over, mumbling in her sleep for him to‘stop’, that she would‘do anything he wanted’. Zach felt his anger rise again at the sight of his sister in this condition, but quickly fought it back down. He needed to remain calm if he was going to help her. He slowly walked over to the bed and with tender hands, trying not to startle her, shook her.
“NO!” He was shoved back, nearly losing his balance. “DON’T TOUCH ME!” Colleen’s voice was nearly hysterical, her body posture ready for her to spring and run if she had to, and her eyes…Zach’s heart froze…her once-innocent eyes now held nothing but fear. “What has he done to her?” his mind screamed
“Colleen.” He spoke softly, trying to covey safety and calmness in his voice and posture. “It’s me, Zach.”
She trembled as she stared at him. “Zach?” She seemed to relax a little as her mind calmed enough for her to recognize him. “Zach?” She repeated trying to believe what her eyes and ears were telling her.
He took a slow step forward, reaching a hand out to her. Wanting to let her be the one to make the first move, he stopped just in front of the bed and waited. “Yes, it’s Zach.”
She seemed to mull this over in her mind for a moment, and with a suddenness that startled Zach she throw herself into his arms. “He wouldn’t stop…I tried…couldn’t stop him.” Zach held her as the sobs racked her body, tenderly rocking her and reassuring that ‘he’ would never hurt her again. Then as suddenly as it had started, she stopped.
“You ok?” Zach asked, as he smoothed back some hair from her sweaty forehead.
“Now that you’re here,” she sighed. “Mom!” She suddenly froze in fear again. “He’ll go after…”
“It’s ok, I got her out of the house,” he quickly reassured her, and then just as quickly changed the subject. “Now, why don’t you go take a shower and I’ll go downstairs and get some food ready. Then we can talk.” He tossed her a towel from one of the closets and left her to clean up.
“Zach,” He turned and faced her. “Thank you.”
He smiled and ruffled her hair. “That’s what big brothers are for.”
* * * * * * * *
“So,” He said when he heard her enter the kitchen area. “Would you like soup…soup…or soup?”
“I don’t know. I think I’ll have the soup.” She smiled and accepted the bowl he handed her and with slow, painful steps walked to the small table. “I guess I really messed up this time.” She stopped mid-motion her face contorting into a sad expression.
“Hey kiddo, you didn’t do anything.” Zach walked over and took the bowl from her, setting it on the table. “It was never your fault.”
“Then why? Why did he do it?”
Zach sighed. "Because the fact that he's our father doesn't keep him from being a sick bastard who's screwed up his life and is doing his best to drag us down with him," he said bluntly. "We can't let him do that."
She stood, visibly shaking now, tears coursing down her pale cheeks. "I begged him to stop. He...he wouldn't stop, Zach. Why wouldn't he stop?"
He pulled her gently into his arms. "Colleen... he's crazy. He hasn't been right in the head since he started drinking himself into unconsciousness every day. It's made him mean, and angry, and he'll hurt anyone he thinks he can get away with hurting. And we're easy targets." He swallowed hard. "Colleen, I have to ask... did he...? How far did he get?"
"He…he didn't, Zach," she said between sobs. "I kicked him."
He cradled her head against his shoulder, stroking her hair comfortingly. "Good. You did what you had to. It's going to be okay. We're going to get you out of there. We aren't going back to that house without police protection."
She suddenly froze. "I'm never going back there." Her eyes were dark with fear. “Not ever."
"Okay, okay. We won't go back. But he's gone too far this time. We have to do something to get him out of our lives." He held Colleen away from him, just far enough that he could look her in the face. "Colleen, we need to go to the police and tell them what he tried to do. If you press charges, then he'll be going to prison for a long time."
"No," She pushed away from him. "I don't want to remember it."
"Colleen, you know he's got to be stopped! You're the only one who can do that. You have to go to the police."
She shook her head as she backed away. "I can't."
Zach ran his fingers through his hair. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to push you, it's just... this could be the way out for all of us, don't you see? Promise me you'll at least think about it?"
She took a deep breath and gave her brother a small nod. "All right Zach, I'll think about it."
He smiled at her. "That's all I'm asking. Just think about it."
* * * * * * *
She peeked into the room, watching the form of her sleeping brother. She couldn't do what he asked, even though she knew deep down that it was the right thing to do. She just wanted to forget...forget the yelling, the pain, everything. She softly closed the door and with quiet footsteps walked down the stairs and out into the starless night.
Zach wasn't sure what woke him, whether it was some faint sound, or even the silence of an empty house, but whatever it was, it told him that something was wrong. That vague unease drove him out of his sleep-warmed bed and into the little room that had been Colleen's from the time she'd been a baby. The faint moonlight shining through the window told him all he needed to know, and he cursed and slammed his hand against the doorframe before running through the house and out the front door. The cold grass under his feet made him curse again, and he went back into the cabin for his shoes and a flashlight. He spent the rest of the night looking for his sister, but he never saw a trace of her. He returned to the cabin at dawn, chilled and exhausted. The first thing that met his eye when he walked in the kitchen was the bright white of a piece of paper propped up on the kitchen table. Hands shaking, he picked it up and read.
I am sorry, but I just want to put all that happened behind me. I know that I have disappointed you, and for that I am sorry. I just can't do it. I can't stand there in a court in front of everyone and tell them what it felt like to have his hands on mine, to smell his breath in my face and know that this was my own father doing this. I hope that one day I will be able to come back and tell this to you in person, but for now I can't face myself, let alone you or Mom. I wish things had been different, like the stories Grandfather told us with the happy endings that I used to believe in. Now I know that happy endings are not something that exist in real life, only the pain is real. I’m sorry Zach. Forgive me. I love you.
With shaking hands Zach slowly refolded the note and laid it back on the table. "There’s nothing to forgive, Colleen."
* * * * * * *
Zach paused outside the house, trying to pull his emotions together before knocking on the door. He wondered how Eliza would look at him now. Would she hate him? Would she be afraid? He sighed, there was only one way to find out. He reached out and knocked.
The door opened, and Zach looked up into the face of his commanding officer. One of the Commandant's eyebrows lifted. "Yes, Cadet?"
"Um, Commandant Daugherty, I need to speak with your daughter please."
The Commandant frowned. "I'm assuming that you have a good reason for that, Cadet... ah?"
"Foxx, sir. Zachary Foxx. Um, your daughter helped me out the other day, and I needed to, well, ask her about something and to apologize to her for dragging her into a family problem..." he said, feeling his face turn red and start to sweat.
"And which daughter would that be?"
"Huh? Um, Eliza, sir."
"Sean? Who's at the door?" a kindly looking woman asked as she came up behind the commandant.
"Cadet Foxx," Daugherty said flatly.
"Zachary? Oh, for heaven's sake, Sean, let the poor boy in." She neatly nudged the Commandant out of the way and bustled Zach through the impressive front hall. "I heard all about that terrible incident yesterday from your mother. Now, you aren't to go back to that house alone, do you hear? I've been trying to convince your mother to talk to the police about your father. She's not sure she wants to press charges. Maybe you can talk some sense into her, you seem like a level-headed boy."
"Is she alright?" He asked
"Oh, yes. A few bruises, but nothing serious. I checked her out myself." She frowned. "Which is another reason that I'd like your mother to press charges. I am legally obligated to report suspected domestic abuse, after all."
"Zach?" He looked up and saw his mother standing at the in of the hall clothed in a light bathrobe, her eyes asking the question. "Colleen?"
"I don't know," he said with a wince. "I found her at Grandfather's, but then she ran off. She was... real upset."
"Oh God," Jessica went pale and started to sway slightly. "What did he..."
"I think you better sit down, Jessie." Eliza's mom reached out and helped her back into the kitchen.
"He didn't do anything," Zach tried to reassure his mother. "He just tried. She got away before he could do anything."
"Zach, you just sit here,” Eliza’s mom gently pushed him into a chair, “and I'll get us all some coffee."
"Thank you ma'am."
"Robin, please, Zach. Ma'am makes me feel like an old woman. Gillian,” she asked, turning around as a woman who looked like an older copy of Eliza entered the kitchen, “would you tell your sister to come down, please?”
Less than a minute later, running footsteps came down the stairs and into the kitchen. "Zach! My god, are you all right?"
Zach looked up at Eliza. "I'm fine. You?"
"Just worried about you."
Zach blinked in surprise. "About me? Why?"
"After what that...that man did to you and your Mom!" She stopped herself, surprised at her tone of voice.
"I'm sorry," Zach started to apologize. "I never should have dragged you into this."
"Dragged... Zachary Foxx, I'm not angry at you, I'm furious with him! You should never have been put in that situation to begin with."
"It's my fault." Jessica spoke up for the first time, her hands shaking as she clutched her coffee cup. "I shouldn't have called. I knew Josh was in one of his moods."
Zach scowled. "And if I hadn't shown up he'd have beat you bloody. Again," he snapped. "You did exactly what you should have by calling me."
"Enough!" Robin's voice stopped the conversation cold. "It was no one’s fault."
"Except Josh's," Eliza seconded.
"Jessica, why don't I show you where you can sleep." Robin said as she guided the still-stunned woman out of the small kitchen, leaving Zach and Eliza alone. "I'll just give you something to help you rest."
As the older women left, Eliza put her hand over Zach's. "Are you really okay? You weren't just saying that to reassure your mom?"
"I just..." He paused and looked away, not sure if he should involve her further.
She inched a little closer. "You just what, Zach?"
"It's nothing," he lied
"You know," she said casually, "you're a really horrible liar."
He smiled slightly and glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "You know, my Mom says the same thing."
"An honest woman, I can tell. Now quit stalling, mister," she said. It wasn't quite a joke, not quite an order.
He sighed. "Colleen," he answered simply.
"Your sister? What about her?"
"I found her. He...He beat her bad." He shuddered as he remembered the condition she was in when he found her.
"Oh, how horrible. Where is she? Did you take her to the hospital?" She put her arm around his shoulders, giving him support.
"I tried to talk her into going to the cops last night," he said, leaning into her arms. "She said she'd think about it, but when I went to check on her later she'd left."
"Are you going to tell your Mom?"
"Tell her what? That she got the crap beat out of her and ran away?" He laughed a bit bitterly. "I think she'll figure it out quick enough. Not like it'll be a big surprise."
Eliza sighed, "It would be better if she heard it from you though."
He looked uncertain for a moment, and then sighed. "You're right. I'll tell her when she asks, okay?"
"Okay. Now how are *you*?" she asked, stressing the 'you'.
"Me? I'm okay."
"Right. Well, when you decide that you aren't all right, let me know, will you?" She stood and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "When you're ready to talk, I'll be here to listen."
* * * * * *
In my dreams I’ll always see you soar above the skies
In my heart there’ll always be a place for you
For all my life…
“Ok Foxx, deep breathe and just ask her.” Zach thought to himself as he checked his reflection in the mirror one last time. “What’s the worst she can say?” Then out loud, “Well, no comes to mind.” *Of course, this assumes that the Commandant lets me live long enough to ask her, * Zach thought gloomily. *I think he kind of likes me, but I'm not really sure that I'm the kind of man he thinks would be worthy of his daughter. Hell, I'm not worthy of his daughter, but I'm going to do my best to make her happy if she'll have me. *
"Zach?" His mom smiled as she peeked around the corner into his room. "My, you look handsome."
He looked over at her. "You think so? The uniform's not wrinkled or anything? The ribbons are straight?" He looked himself over in the mirror one last time, and firmly stopped himself from combing his hair yet again.
She chuckled and motioned for him to turn round. "Perfect."
He bit his lip, an old habit that he'd thought he'd gotten rid of years ago. "Mom? Am I doing the right thing? Eliza's so beautiful, and kind, I'm not sure she's not just feeling sorry for me sometimes..."
"Zachary," Jessica sighed and walked over sitting on his bed. "Do you love her?"
"Does she love you?"
"I... I think so. She says she does."
She patted the mattress and waited until Zachary sat beside her. "Are you afraid that you're going to become your father?"
"I..." he choked at that, pain ripping through him at the memory of how life had been before his father had gone that one step too far. "I can't do that to her, I can't risk it. I don't ever want to hurt her."
"Life is a risk, Zach. Don't give up because you are afraid." She gently placed a hand on his cheek. "You have a good heart, and if you truly love her don't let Josh ruin it."
He put his hand over hers and held it to his cheek for a moment, then kissed her cheek. "Thanks, Mom. I'd better get going. The Commandant is expecting me." He grimaced. "Wish me luck."
He smiled faintly and left, back military-straight and head held high.
* * * * * *
"Zachary." Robin smiled as she pulled the door open. "Sean is in the den."
"Private Foxx," Sean Daugherty stood his face expressionless as Zach entered the room.
"Commandant Daugherty," Zach answered. He almost didn't recognize his own voice. It sounded much too calm to be his.
"Please," Sean indicated a chair as he retook his own. "Now what is this matter you need to discuss with me?"
He swallowed, but kept his voice steady. "It's about Eliza, sir."
"I intend to ask her to marry me tonight. I'm here to ask for your blessing."
"And what makes you think you’re worthy of Eliza?" he asked, his voice empty of any hints of his mood.
"I'm not, sir. But I intend to do my best by her if she'll have me."
"And how do you plan to support her on a Ensign’s salary? "
"I've got a second job, sir," Zach said steadily. "It doesn't interfere with my duties, so I can get a little extra cash. I've been saving up."
"I'd think that you'd be helping out your mother with that," Sean said smoothly. "She's had a rough time of it, after all."
"I'm sorry Sir, but what does my Mother have to do with me wanting to marry Eliza?" Zach asked, suddenly confused.
"Oh, I was just thinking that she must lean on you quite a bit. What with your sister having run away, and all. I know Robin's been doing her best to support her, but she's still pretty fragile emotionally after what your father did to her."
Zach quickly reined in his temper, "Sir, my mother in no way will interfere with Eliza and I. As for my father, we haven't seen him since that day."
"That is a good thing. I know that if anyone treated my daughter the way that your father treated your mother... well, I just might save the taxpayers the cost of a trial." He gave Zach a very hard, very thin smile.
For one stunned moment, Zach just sat there. And then the thin tether he'd been keeping his temper on almost audibly snapped. "Listen, Commandant, I may be younger than you. I may be lower rank than you. But if you even think about accusing me of abusing Eliza I'll blasted well kick your ass from here to Pluto base, and to hell with the consequences! I would never hurt her! NEVER! I was hoping that you would approve of me. I thought that you liked me. But I don't need your permission. This conversation was simply a courtesy. I will marry your daughter, if she'll have me, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let you stop me!"
Sean stood there silent for a moment and then to Zach's surprise started to chuckle.
"Sean." Both men turned to see Robin standing in the doorway. "Stop torturing the boy."
"Well, don't just stand there, Private." Sean gave Zach a gentle push. "She’s outside, on the back porch."
He shook off the surprise, gave them both a tentative smile, and then ran out of the room.
* * * * * *
“God! She is so beautiful.” Zach thought to himself as he watched Eliza through the glass door. Her long brown hair hung loosely down her back and moved gently, like a dark wave, at each touch of the light breeze that would sweep across the deck. Her musical laughter would occasionally break through the otherwise silent night as she and her sister shared a joke. “Ok Foxx, deep breath. All you have to do is open the door, walk out there, and ask her.” With a slightly shaking hand he reached for the handle, but at the last moment pulled back. “Who am I kidding?”
“Gillian,” Robin’s voice carried from the den, “Could you come inside for a moment, please?”
At the sound of their mother’s voice both girls turned and Zach felt his heart skip a beat as Eliza’s eyes met his and she smiled. “I think I’ll leave you two alone.” Gill shock her head, but gave Zach a wink as she passed him.
“And how long have you been standing there?” Eliza asked, her eyes sparkling in the moonlight.
“Breathe Foxx…Breathe.” He smiled and walked out on too the deck. “Not long, I had to talk to your father about something.”
She quirked an eyebrow, “Oh? And you survived?”
“Sort of.” He took a deep breath. “Eliza, I need to ask you something.” She leaned back against the railing and stood silently, waiting for Zach to continue. Zach again felt his heart skip a beat, and suddenly found that the words he had rehearsed all day in front of the mirror had vanished from his mind. He felt the panic begin to rise up in him, but just as quickly forced it back down and took a deep, calming breath. “Eliza, the year we have spent together has been the happiest of my life. You have helped me get through so much and never asked for anything in return, even when I insisted on repaying you. Eliza Daugherty, I find that I can’t see the rest of my life without you.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small box, then slowly got down on one knee. “Will you marry me?”
She stood there frozen in time, one hand lifted to her mouth in shock, tears gleaming in her eyes. “Zach, I don’t know what to say…”
“Try yes!” Her father’s laughing voice came from behind them.
Zach blushed bright red as he realized they’d been observed. “Sir, I…” But Zach was forced to stop when Eliza threw her arms around his neck and kissed him.
* * * * * * *
Zach couldn't quite believe how well this was going. Sure, he had butterflies in his stomach bigger than your average shuttle, sure he'd almost managed to lose the ring twice, but everything was still falling into place and Eliza hadn't had a sudden attack of sanity and run screaming for the hills. He'd managed to find the rings, and his best man, Alex, one of his roommates from the Academy, had them in his hand as he stood behind Zach. The priest smiled at them benevolently, and even through the veil that concealed Eliza's face, he could see the flush of pleasure on her face when he snuck glances at her out of the corner of his eye.
"Dearly beloved," the priest was saying, "We are gathered here today in the sight of God to join together in matrimony this man and this woman." Zach tuned him out a bit as he went into the short speech the priest had prepared for the occasion. He'd heard it before during the rehearsal anyway. Much better to concentrate on the warmth of Eliza's hand on his, the soft breathing, the little looks she was giving him through her veil. He tuned back in as the actual vows began. "Do you, Zachary Foxx, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife? To have and to hold, in sickness and in health, to love, honor, and respect until death do you part?"
"I do," he said, and was proud of himself for the steadiness of his voice. He'd had an instant of panic that he wouldn't be able to force the words past the dryness of his throat, but he had.
"And do you, Eliza Daugherty, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband? To have and to hold, in sickness and in health, to love, honor, and respect until death do you part?"
"I do," Eliza said. She sounded a bit choked up, and Zach could hear sniffles behind them. He suspected that his mother was one of the ones that was crying. She always cried at weddings.
"Is there anyone here who knows of any reason that this man and this woman should not be wed?" the priest asked, and Zach could feel himself relaxing. Everyone here was thrilled by their making it official. So it was a rude shock to hear a well-known and hated voice speak up.
"I do!" his father's voice came from the back of the church. He could tell just from those two words that Josh was drunk out of his mind. Zach had never in his life felt quite so tempted to just shoot himself as he did when he heard the absolute chaos break out among the guests. Eliza was clutching his hand so hard that he swore he could feel his bones creaking, her free hand over her mouth. The blush he'd managed to see through the veil only minutes before had disappeared, leaving her face as white as her dress. The guests and wedding party alike were frozen in shock as the drunken man advanced toward the altar, spewing venom with every step. He made it almost halfway through when Commandant Daugherty shook of his paralysis and moved, face set in an expression of rage that left absolutely no question of what he'd like to do to the intruder who was trying to wreck his little girl's wedding.
"Damn you, Josh!" Jessica screamed at the drunken man.
"Shaddup, woman!" Josh snarled back. "You an' yer coddling ways are making a wimp outta him. Stay outta my way or I'll give you what I gave that little bastard girl of yours. And don't think I didn't know about her!"
Daugherty moved with the fierce precision of the Space Marine he'd once been to confront the interloper, who stopped in sudden shock. Apparently even Josh's alcohol-pickled brain was capable of recognizing the primal menace of the man stalking towards him. Daugherty stopped inches in front of him. "Get out. While I'm still in a mood to let you."
Josh smiled, and took a swig from the bottle clutched in his hand. “And if I don’t?”
Daugherty pulled the bottle out of the drunken man's hand and gave a terrible smile, voice lowering so that only Josh could hear him. "Then I will take great pleasure in shoving this goddamn bottle so far up your ass it'll leave pieces in your fucking nasal cavity."
"What the hell do you think you’re doing here?" Zach demanded of the man.
Alex put a hand on Zach's shoulder. "Zach. Back off. Let us handle this. You go comfort Eliza." His old friend moved in front of him to stand next to Daugherty, face grim. Zach nodded and took a deep breath regaining control of his temper before turning to face Eliza, who still stood at the altar in shock. About this time, Josh made the stupid mistake of taking a swing at Daugherty, who grabbed the wildly-swinging arm and twisted it, bringing the drunk to his knees. Alex jumped in, grabbing the other flailing arm, and between the two of them and a couple of the other guests, hauled the man bodily out of the church, dumping him on the grassy lawn in front of the church before returning inside and locking the doors. The doors were thick enough, and the chapel large enough, that they could barely hear the screams and kicks of the man who'd been so precipitately ejected from the ceremony. They were, however, able to faintly hear the sirens as the police officers that one of the guests had had the presence of mind to call arrived.
Zach held the weeping Eliza to his chest; face tight with rage and humiliation as he apologized to her again and again. "Zach," Jessica softy spoke behind him. "Why don't you take her in back and calm her down."
"No," Eliza pulled away and quickly wiped away the tears on her face. "I'm fine."
"You're sure, baby?" Daughter said as he returned. She sniffled a bit, but nodded, head up proudly. He smiled at her. "That's my girl.”
As one Zach and Eliza turned back to the pastor. "We'd like to continue." Zach said
"Of course," the pastor said. "Let me see. You have made your vows to one another, before this assembly and God. Are there any valid objections to this marriage?" The required moment of silence passed, with only the faint sounds of Josh's curses disturbing the peace, and the priest smiled. "Very good. In that case, by the authority vested in me by the state of Washington, I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss."
With hands slightly shaking, Zach raised Eliza's veil and tenderly kissed her.
* * * * * * *
I’ll keep a part of you with me
And everywhere I am there you’ll be…
A soft…gentle touch, a tender…loving voice, a familiar…long missed scent.
Zachary Foxx slowly opened his eyes, praying that, perhaps, the nightmare he was trapped in had ended. Slowly…fearful that if he moved to fast, the moment would dissipate, he reached, for what, felt like an eternity, his fingers brushing the empty, cold sheets next to him.
Nothing…alone…empty…She was gone.
The nightmare continued.
And everywhere I am there you’ll be…
* * * * * * *
Well, you showed me how it feels
To feel the sky within my reach
And I always will remember all
The strength you gave to me…
“Zach.” Eliza reached over and gently shook her sleeping husband. “Zach, it’s time.”
Wearily he opened his eyes, attempting to comprehend what his wife was trying to tell his sleep-filled mind. “What, hon?” he mumbled.
“It’s time,” she said again.
“Time?” His mind suddenly clicked on what she was telling him, and he shot up in bed wide-awake. “How far apart?” He asked as he jumped out of bed and shoved his pants on.
“I’ll call your Mom, and get the bags.” He reached for a shirt and quickly ran a hand through his rumpled hair.
“You just wait here. I’ll take care of everything.” He turned to run from the room.
“Zachary Allen Foxx.” He stopped and turned to look at his wife. While her face held a stern expression, her eyes glittered with her amusement. “We have plenty of time. The contractions are only 15 minutes apart. So I want you,” her voice held the same tone she often used with their two-year old son, Little Zach, “to take a deep breath and calm down.”
Zach stood there for a moment regarding his wife before he chuckled to himself. “Sorry, hon, got carried away, I guess. Your wish is my command.”
Eliza smiled to herself as Zach bowed gallantly before her. “I’ll call Mom and Dad. Why don’t you get the bags and call your mother. Gillian said she would come sit with Little Zach for us.” She turned from her husband and went about dialing the correct numbers on the communit.
* * * * * *
Waiting. This was the part Zach hated most. He glanced at the clock, noting that it had now been over 12 hours, and still she was only half way dilated. He reached up and tenderly wiped some hair from Eliza’s sweating forehead, and she glanced over and smiled.
“Why don’t you go get something to eat?” she suggested. “I’m not going anywhere for a while, according to the doctor.”
“Are you sure?”
“They’ll page you if anything happens. I promise.”
“You want anything?” he asked as he stood and stretched stiff muscles.
She thought for a moment. “Actually, could you call Gill and check on Little Zach?” She glanced up as the room’s door swung open. “Hi Mom, Dad.” She smiled tiredly at her parents. “Zach was just on his way to get something to eat.”
“Good idea.” Robin turned to her husband. “Why don’t you join him Sean. That way us women-folk can talk.”
Sean winked at his son-in-law. “Looks like were getting kicked out. Come on, Zach, let’s go boil some water.”
Robin rolled her eyes as the men left and then turned her attention to her daughter. “So.” Her eyes quickly glanced over the monitor, noting the baby’s current condition. “Everything looks good so far.”
Eliza turned over trying to find a position that the baby wouldn’t disagree with. “Why do I hear a but in there, Mom?” She winced as another contraction came.
Robin picked up the damp cloth that Zach had left beside the bed and wiped the sweat off her daughter’s brow. “Well, you have two choices. We can either wait a few more hours and see how you progress or we can give you something to help speed up your contractions.”
“What do you think?”
“Like I said, right now everything looks good, however Dr. Young and I are getting a bit concerned about your lack of progress. Worst case is a C-section, but that is last resort if this little one decides to be a stubborn as her…” She stopped as the beeping of the monitor became erratic.
“Mom…” Eliza called out as an extremely strong contraction hit. Robin was already glancing over the information the device was giving her. “Mom?” Eliza again tried to get her attention, the fear evident in her voice. “What’s wrong?”
Robin wasted no more time and with quick yet gentle hands forced Eliza onto her side while she called out for the AI to call Dr, Young quickly. “Eliza, whatever happens do not push, and I need you to stay as calm as you can.” She looked up as the door was thrown open and Dr. Young and a nurse ran into the room. Robin nodded her head towards the monitor and the readings that were evident on its screen, and then to the nurse. “I want you to page Lt. Foxx back here ASAP.” The nurse nodded and disappeared from the room.
“Please,” Eliza’s voice cut through the chaotic feel of the room, “someone tell me what’s wrong with my baby!”
“Eliza,” Dr. Young came over and knelt down to be eye level with her. “Right now the best thing you can do it stay calm, it will help the baby.”
Eliza felt the dampness of tears on her cheeks as she caught the worried look on the doctor’s face. “I need to know. Please, I just need to know.” She felt someone’s hand slip into her own, and felt her mother lower herself onto the bed next to her. She squeezed her mom’s hand, drawing what strength she could from the contact.
“Your baby’s heart beat has become erratic,” Dr. Young began, “It is possible that the cord has become wrapped around her neck, or she may be in a breach position.” He turned as the door was again thrown open and Zach burst into the room. The doctor nodded to him, but continued. “At this point I do not feel comfortable with allowing you to continue with natural labor. I would like to do a C-section and get the baby out as fast as we can, before her heart beat drops any lower.”
“Zach…” Eliza reached out.
Zach quickly moved forward and took the spot that Robin vacated on the bed. “It’s going to be all right, hon,” He wiped away some of the tears on her cheeks. “I’ll be waiting right here, I promise.” He leaned down and tenderly kissed her. “I love you.” He whispered.
“Zach, they need to go.” Robin laid a hand on his shoulder.
He nodded and with a finale caress of Eliza’s cheek rose from the bed and watched as she was wheeled away down the sterile white hall.
* * * * * *
“Lt. Foxx?” A nurse called out into the waiting room. Zach’s head shot up and his bloodshot eyes locked onto the woman’s face. “If you’ll follow me please, Dr. Young would like a word with you.”
Zach glanced over at his in-laws before slowly following the nurse down the long dreary hallway to a large window. Inside, the room was brightly lit and the walls held cheery scenes painted in pastel colors. Sitting in neat rows were several incubators, empty, except one. Around the lone occupant of this room stood Dr. Young and several nurses. Zach stood, transfixed with the tiny occupant of that one incubator, the baby seemed so small and weak as she waved one of her tiny fists in the air, her color more gray then the healthy pink he remembered Little Zach was. But despite this and all the tubes, wires, and equipment surrounding her, Zach couldn’t help but think she was the most beautiful little girl he had ever seen. “Is she alright?” he asked the nurse. “And my wife?”
“Your wife is fine, Lt. Foxx, she’s recovering from the anesthetic right now. You’ll be able to see her in an hour or so.” She turned and opened the door into the room, motioning for Zach to precede her. “As for the baby, Dr. Young is the best one to ask.” She handed him a sterile gown and gloves, and once he was gowned she led him to the incubator.
“Lt. Foxx,” Dr. Young smiled when he looked up. “You have a beautiful little girl here.”
“Then she’s…” He was unable to finish.
“She’s fine. Her oxygen level was a little low, but she’s improving nicely.” He placed a hand on Zach’s shoulder. “All this equipment is just to make sure she stays that way.”
Zach’s eyes locked onto the baby, his hand froze mid-motion. “Can I touch her?” The doctor nodded. He reached out and placed a finger into her tiny hand and smiled as it curled around the finger. “Hello, little girl,” he whispered. With his free hand he tenderly stroked her light blond hair. The baby let out a small sigh and seemed to relax into his caress, her trust unquestioning. Zach watched as this most precious creature slowly opened her deep blue eyes, and she seemed to regard the man before her for a moment before falling into a deep sleep. “How long will she be in here?” Zach asked, while he still watched his daughter sleep.
“At least until the morning.” Dr. Young answered, but his attention seemed to be directed somewhere else. “Excuse me, Zach, I’ll be right back.”
Zach nodded, still engrossed in this little being that he and Eliza had created. He glanced up and saw Robin and Sean enter the room, both gowned as he was. “They say she’s going to be fine,” he said when they had approached close enough.
“Zach, there’s someone outside who needs to talk to you.” The tone of his father-in-law's voice told him something was seriously wrong, and his jaw clenched as he moved out to the observation area. There were two men there, both wearing Ranger uniforms, and he felt his gut churning. Something was very wrong. He removed the sterile gown and exited the nursery. “Captain.” He saluted.
“At ease, Lieutenant.” The man’s expression and posture only increased Zach’s worry. “Is there somewhere we can talk?”
“I’d prefer to stay here, sir.” He turned slightly as Sean exited the nursery and came up behind him. His concern growing by the second, for Sean to feel that he needed to be here…Zach felt his heart begin to race, but managed to keep the panic from his voice. “Is something wrong?”
“Zach, it may be best if we find somewhere for you to sit down.” Sean said, placing a comforting hand on Zach’s shoulder.
“Just tell me, damn it.”
“Very well.” His captain nodded, “Lt. Foxx, it is with the deepest regret that I am to inform you, that at approximately 1430 hours today, Mrs. Jessica Ann Foxx was killed in a head-on collision…”
Zach blocked out the rest of the words as his mind reeled at the news. “Dead?! She can’t be!” His mind screamed. “Sir, I…” He turned looking back through the window, hands gripping the wall for support.
“Zach,” Sean quickly reached out, helping to support the shocked man.
"Oh, god," Zach said, setting his back against the nearest wall and sliding down it. "Oh, god, she was coming to see us. She wanted to see her granddaughter. I just talked to her. She can't be dead."
"I was told she died instantly." His captain said while placing a comforting hand on Zach's shoulder. "You have our condolences for your loss, Lt. Foxx."
From the nursery, he heard a thin cry, and the sound jarred him back to himself. Taking deep gulping breaths, he pulled himself together. He had a daughter. He had a son who'd have to be told that his favorite grandma wasn't coming over any more. He had to get a grip, now. With shaking hands he pulled himself back to his still-unsteady feet and regarded the men before him. "Thank you, sir." He was surprised that his voice was so calm...steady. "I should tell Eliza."
Sean looked at him carefully. "Yes, I think you should."
Zach nodded and slowly moved down the hall as if in a trance, his mind still trapped in denial. She couldn't be gone.
Sean gently steered them toward the room that the nurse had told him Eliza would be taken to. Zach moved like a zombie, obviously not all there mentally, and Sean cursed the fates that had given Zach a daughter the same day they'd taken his mother. Sean pushed the door to one of the many rooms along the hall open, and Zach froze for a moment, his eyes locking on Eliza. She smiled at him, but it quickly disappeared when she noted his posture and expression. "What's wrong?" she asked.
Sean retreated quietly, knowing this was something that Zach wouldn't welcome his presence for. Zach stood just inside the door, just staring, unable to speak. Eliza's eyes narrowed. Even as tired as she was, she could see that his expression was screaming with tension. "Zachary, come here."
He obeyed, moving more like a machine than her husband, responding automatically to a command voice. "Sit down, and tell me what's wrong." Slowly he lowered himself to the bed.
"Mom's dead." His voice was flat, not uncaring so much as numb.
Eliza's jaw dropped. "Wh - what?" she stammered, eyes wide as the blood drained out of her face.
"Mom's dead. She was in the car...and she was driving...they said she died instantly, but she can't be dead. She can't. She hasn’t seen Juliana yet. She has to see her granddaughter."
"Oh, Zach," she said, eyes welling up with tears. She opened her arms, and he fell into them, shaking as the fragile hold he had on his emotions shattered into dust.
"Why? Why her, why now? It's not fair, dammit! She was just getting her life really together again. She just got that promotion at work, and she loves spoiling little Zach, and…and..." his words were lost as he started sobbing, clutching at her as she wrapped her arms around him as tightly as she could.
She held him, sharing in his grief. Waiting until she felt his muscles begin to relax slightly, before speaking. “Zach, I know we decided on Juliana,” Eliza paused as her voice cracked. “But your mom was special to both of us and I think that maybe, Jessica would be honored if we named our little girl after her.”
He raised his head, eyes wet with tears, but a watery smile managed to make it through his pain. "Yeah, I think she'd like it a lot. A little of her to be with the granddaughter she never got to see." Zach pulled her close again and they held each other for a long time, taking comfort in each other.
* * * * * *
Zach sat in the church where he and Eliza had been married, listening to the same priest perform a very different ceremony. Eliza clasped his hand in hers tightly, offering wordless support. He recognized most of the people sitting in the pews, but one face he had hoped to see, that he had not seen for over seven years, was not among the crowed.
The eulogy came to an end at last. He hadn't heard most of it, too lost in the memories of his mother to pay attention. The smell of the flowers was strong, and he was beginning to wonder if he'd ever be able to enjoy the smell of a garden again or if it would always remind him of today. As the mourners began to file out of the church, he sighed, and Eliza gave his hand a quick squeeze. "She's not here," he said.
"Maybe she hasn't heard?" Eliza asked, knowing instantly who he was talking about.
"It was in all the papers. She must have known."
"Not necessarily. She might have moved away, left the area. If she did... even if she did find out she might not have been able to afford the trip."
"I guess you're right," Zach said, depressed. Then he gave her a little smile. "You're always giving people the benefit of the doubt, aren't you?" He lifted her hand to his lips and gave it a little kiss.
"Part of my charm. Come on, we need to get to the cemetery for the interment." She stood, and they walked to the car for the short drive to the grave site.
At the grave side, there was another short ceremony, this one attended only by those closest to her. There was Zach, of course, and Eliza and her parents, a few close friends, and Josh Foxx. Zach nodded civilly at him. He'd never managed to really forgive his father for the hell he'd put the family through, but since he'd stopped drinking they'd managed to come to a wary truce, and the years of marriage meant enough to both of them that they were to tolerate each others' presence as they said goodbye to a woman who'd meant so much to both of them in such very different ways.
As the casket was covered, people began to drift away, most stopping to offer condolences to Zach. Josh was one of the last, stopping in front of Zach. He reached out tentatively, but Zach shook his head. He wasn't able to deal with this now. Josh nodded and moved on.
The truce held.
"I'll wait for you by the car." Eliza said before moving away to give Zach a moment.
"Thanks, Liza." Zach waited until he heard the last footsteps fade away, and then moved to place his hand on the smooth granite of the headstone. He ran his fingers over the inscription, silently wishing that this were a nightmare that he could perhaps wake up from. "I wish you could have met Jessica, Mom," he said as he caressed the stone. "She reminds me of you. I wish Colleen was here. I sent out the obituary to all the papers, hoping she'd see it, but... she didn't show. Even Dad showed, but not her." He paused to clear his choked throat. "God I miss you." Zach gave the stone a final caress as he rose. With slow, tired footsteps he left behind the one person who had always stood by him, who'd always believed in him. His strength, his sanctuary, his guardian angel. His mother.
In the shadows of the small woods that surrounded the cemetery stood a lone figure. She watched as Zach moved from the grave site and fought every urge to run over and embrace him. She waited until he was out of sight before moving to the grave and placing the small bouquet of flowers before it. She stood, silently saying a prayer and allowing the tears to fall on the freshly covered ground.
"I'm sorry I wasn’t there for you," she whispered. "I tried more than once to call or write a letter, just to let you know I was ok, but I couldn’t.” She kneeled down, placing a small photo by the stone. “There was so much I wanted to tell you Mom, and someone I wanted you to meet. His name is Alex and he just turned a year old. He reminds me a lot of Zach already and I can see a little of you in him too.” She stood quickly, wiping the tears from her eyes. “I wish I had been strong like you. Then maybe I would have been able to face him, but I couldn’t…I still can’t. I just wish…” She paused, glancing away. “Wish I had been the daughter you wanted. I…I have to go, Mom. I love you.” She again knelt and softly kissed the stone. “Good-bye.”
* * * * * * *
Your love made me make it through
Oh, I owe so much to you
You were right there for me
In my dreams I’ll see you soar above the sky
In my heart there’ll always be a place for you
For all me life…
Zach stood at attention in front of Commander Walsh. The older man had been tapped for his position as the head of the new Bureau of Extraterrestrial Affairs a few months ago, and he'd impressed Zach from the first. This was the first time that he'd be called directly into the Commander's office for a personal discussion, and he wondered what was up.
"Come in, Captain," Walsh said. "I've got a question for you. What exactly do you think about these Kiwi and Andorians?"
"I find them interesting, sir." Zach answered feeling slightly confused by the commander’s question.
"Well, the Andorians are very logical, very efficient. They've got a real knack for engineering and the sciences, and they've shown themselves to be quite willing to help us raise our own tech levels to match their own. They aren't exactly the life of the party, but they seem to be people that we can deal with on a fairly open basis. The Kiwi, on the other hand, are almost polar opposites of the Andorians. They seem to be quite open emotionally, and to have a certain... joie de vivre that the Andorians lack. Add to that their expertise in agriculture and hydroponics, and their understanding of stabilization of closed ecosystems, and they could have been created precisely to counterbalance the... formality of the Andorians."
Walsh chuckled slightly, "No, Captain, I meant your personal feelings towards them."
"Personally, sir? I rather like them."
"Good," He reached down and pulled a file from one of the drawers. "The Kiwi have requested an Ambassador be sent from Earth."
"It seems that Eliza Foxx's name is at the top of their list. As you know, your wife has been doing diplomatic work on the colonies for some time now. Combine that with the Kiwis' request and the fact that as a Ranger you're fully qualified to act as her bodyguard, and you make the perfect people to send on this assignment."
Zach frowned. "Commander, we have two young children. Would we be expected to leave them on Earth?"
"Not at all, Captain. The Kiwi have extended the invitation to your entire family. There are already several families based on Kirwin, so your children won't be the only ones there."
"I... see." He looked thoughtful for a long moment. "Is this a formal notification of assignment, sir, or do I have the option of turning it down? Because if it's optional, I really think I need to discuss this with my wife before making a decision."
The Commander smiled. "Nothing formal yet, just a request."
"Thank you, sir. I will consider it, and give you my answer tomorrow. Was there anything else?"
"No. Dismissed, Captain."
Zach saluted and left, thoughts whirling. He needed to call Eliza. Zach used the communit on his wrist to call Eliza and ask her to meet him for lunch as he walked back to the office area where he normally worked between missions. She answered quickly, and gave that quirky smile he loved at the expression on his face. "I guess I don't have to ask if you just got the same offer I did. Meet me for lunch at Donatello's? I've got the rest of the day off, and I was told you would too."
Zach smiled and shook his head slightly. Trust her to already have a plan. "Sure. Meet you there in about an hour?"
"It's a deal. Love you," she said, and closed communications.
An hour later, Zach walked into the small Italian café where they often ate and looked around, spotting Eliza sitting at their usual table. "So," she smiled up at him when he reached the table. "I take it your Commander talked to you today?"
"Yeah. Kirwin. It'll be a big change, but it's also one heck of an opportunity." He shook his head, slightly dazed. "You know, a year ago I would have laughed in the face of anyone who talked about this, but now...wow."
"You think we should do it, then?"
"I... yeah. Totally aside from the fact that it'll be one heck of a boost for both our careers, who knows when an opportunity like this will come along again? It's not everybody who gets a chance to see an honest-to-god alien planet, after all."
Eliza glanced over as the waiter approached their table. Both gave their orders before continuing. "I agree, but I think we should talk to the kids first."
Zach nodded. "The last thing we need is for them to feel like they've been hauled off by force. Honestly, though, I don't think they'll object too much to the idea. There are other kids there, Commander Walsh tells me, and both of them are fascinated by the aliens. Knowing them, they'll probably think of it as an adventure."
She gave him a teasing look. "I wonder where they got that from?"
"What?" He plastered an innocent expression on his face. They laughed together, and the conversation turned to more mundane topics as their food came and they ate before returning home to discuss things further.
The slamming of the front door a few hours later announced to both adults that their children had arrived. Their voices carried into the living room from the hallway. "Cut it out, Zach."
"You’re asking for it."
"Ooooh, I'm scared
"Quit it or I'll tell Mom!"
"You’re such a baby, Jess."
"Mom doesn't want to hear it," Eliza said, raising her voice to be heard. "Could you two come in here? Your father and I have something to talk to you about."
There was a moment of silence from the hallway, and two very curious and slightly wary adolescents came into the living room. "Who died?" Little Zach asked.
"No one," Zach said. "Your Mom and I have something we want to ask you."
"Told ya." Jessie said, sticking her tongue out at her older brother.
Eliza cleared her throat. "If you two are quite finished..."
"Sorry, Mom," both children mumbled
Zach decided to talk first. "We just had a very interesting offer made to us at work. You remember how interested you two have been in the aliens? Well, it seems that they've been asking for an ambassador to be assigned to the planet Kirwin."
Jessie's eyes widened with excitement "You mean they asked you?"
"They asked us," Eliza confirmed. "Your father would be acting as chief of security at the embassy. And the two of you could come along."
"Kirwin, that's the one with the short guys with the ears, right? They are so cool..." Zach Jr. said, fully as excited as his sister. "And we could go with you, to an actual alien planet? Oh, man!"
"We get to go?!" Jessie jumped up and hugged both her parents before running out of the room. "Wait till I tell Irma."
Zach and Eliza exchanged glances. "Well, I guess that settles that question," Zach said with a laugh.
"Now," Eliza said with a slight grimace, "I just have to tell Dad."
"Now that one, I leave to you," Zach said, and retreated to the kitchen at her glare.
* * * * * * *
I’ll keep a part of you with me…
Zach shifted restlessly in his sleep as his mind replayed an old, familiar nightmare, resurrected by the emptiness of the sheets beside him. It was the worst moment of his life, the one that had changed everything about him in a few brief hours. No matter how long he lived, those memories would haunt him with their desperation, their terror, and their despair.
And Everywhere I am there you’ll be…
* * * * * * * *
Eliza directed a puff of air upward, blowing a stray hair out of her face. She was looking more than a little frazzled, and glared at the innocent communit as it chimed for her attention. "GV, who is it?"
The AI unit, which had been ordered to let only the most urgent calls through while the family was going through the final stages of packing, answered apologetically. “It is Commandant Daugherty.”
Eliza frowned. Her father knew they were packing, and wouldn't bother them unnecessarily. "Put him through," she said, standing up from where she'd been packing the delicate crystal wineglasses they'd inherited from Zach's grandmother. She wiped a hand over her forehead, pushing her bangs out of the way. She'd been putting off getting a haircut too long again. "What's up, Dad?" she asked curiously.
Sean's face was grave. "Gillian's most recent mission went bad," he said grimly. "The decontamination procedures failed, and they were exposed to the disease they were trying to treat."
"What?" She turned her complete attention to the screen, her face revealing her shock. "I -- is she... all right?" Eliza said, mind whirling, trying to figure out if she could possibly get out of this mission. Her sister being infected with a disease that was known to be almost 100% fatal would definitely qualify as a family emergency, after all...
"We don't know yet." He answered hands massaging his temples. "I was just informed, and... Lizzy, Justin didn't make it."
"Oh, God, poor Gill... they've only been married three years."
"Mom, Zachy won't..." Jessie stopped suddenly when she saw the expression on her Mom's face. "Mom, what's wrong?"
"I... something went wrong on your Aunt Gill's last mission, sweetie. She's very sick, and your uncle Justin... he didn't make it."
Jessie stood in shock for a moment. "Do…do you want me to get Dad?"
"I... yes. Yes, go get him, please"
Jessie ran to her parents' bedroom, and seconds later Zach appeared and wrapped his arms around her. Eliza leaned into his strong embrace gratefully. "What's this about Gillian?" he asked Sean sharply.
"I don't have actual details of her condition. Only that it's critical at this time and that only one other on her team has made it this long."
"Damn," Zach swore, then visibly choked back whatever else he might have said as he noticed the wide-eyed stares of his children, hovering in the entrance to the living room.
Sean sighed, "I hated to give you this news right before you leave, but I wanted you to know in case..."
Zach frowned, visibly torn. "You know, this isn't something that can't wait a few weeks if it has to. Or something that they couldn't assign to someone else, for that matter. The Kiwi will understand if it's a family emergency, they're very family-oriented themselves."
Sean shook his head. "No, Zach. I appreciate the offer, but you've got a job to do, and there's nothing you can do here but sit around and wait with the rest of us. Go do something useful," he said with a faint smile.
Zach looked down at his wife, who tilted her head up and kissed him lightly. "He's right, Zach. This is an important mission, and we're the best ones to carry it out. Much as I want to think that staying here would make a difference, all we could really do is pray... and we can do that anywhere."
The next morning dawned clear and cool, perfect weather for a launch. Zach and Eliza had their hands full with their suddenly rambunctious offspring. The kids had been taught some of the basics of space flight, enough to avoid messing anything up, but they'd never been allowed onto a real ship and were excited enough by that and the relocation that they were able to almost forget about their aunt and uncle. Their parents were having a hard time getting them to settle down, but they managed to get the kids aboard without causing too much havoc and settled them down for takeoff.
"Good day, Captain Foxx," Waldo greeted him as he boarded, followed closely by Zozo. "I trust your family is well?" the Andorian continued.
"*We're* fine. Wish I could say the same about Eliza's sister or her brother-in-law, though." Zach's lips thinned. "She and Justin got infected by that bug from Arkanesee and Justin didn't make it. No one's sure about Gillian."
"My condolences, Captain Foxx."
Zozo frowned. "That's terrible. Listen, Zach, I know that the Council asked specifically for you and Eliza for this job, but..."
Zach held up a hand. "No, Zozo. We're going. There's nothing we can do here but worry and wait, and frankly we'd both rather have something useful to do until we know one way or another."
"A very logical course of action," Waldo said approvingly.
"We better get settled, we've got five minutes till take off." Zach said as he nodded in thanks to both ambassadors. The takeoff was accomplished with Zach's usual clockwork precision, a smooth acceleration that lifted them into the air and then pushed them firmly into their seats as he opened up the throttle and took them straight up out of the atmosphere and headed for outer space.
* * * * * * *
Zach moaned in his sleep as his mind replayed the terrible events. The hail from the Iron Falcon, the fight with Captain Kidd's crew, the horrible pain of the shot, and then, worst of all, that moment...
* * * * * * *
Zach felt his heart leap into his throat at the site of the ship exploding in front of his very eyes. "Eliza!" he shouted. He'd lost her, lost her forever, the best thing that had ever happened to him.
Suddenly the view screen came to life and Zach found himself facing the strange pirate captain that had yanked his ship from hyperspace. "I am holding your companion, human." The pirate seemed to gloat. “We’ll meet again, Galaxy Ranger, and we’ll do some business.”
“God, no, I can’t lose her!” He reached out in vain, hoping that perhaps he could stop the ship with his thoughts alone. His heart pounded as the pirate ship disappeared into light speed, the last thing he remembered seeing before unconsciousness claimed his mind. “Eliza!”
* * * * * * * * *
Cause I always saw in you my life
And I wanna thank you now
For all the ways
You were right there for me…
Pain. That was the first thing that forced itself into Zachary Foxx’s mind. He tried to force his eyes open, but found himself unable to control his body. His mind felt foggy…heavy…he knew the world went on around him. He could hear voices and smell the air. But try as he might, he could not force his mind or body to respond to him. So he lay there…trapped, unable respond to the voices that filled his mind. One familiar…one not, but both tinged with worry. He fought the darkness off as he forced himself to concentrate on the voices.
“He should have been able to shake off the anesthetic by now.” The familiar voice spoke. It was a soft, gentle voice. One that made him feel safe.
“It’s hard to say, Doctor.” The unfamiliar voice responded. “His injuries were severe, and the surgery was another trauma.”
The soft voice sighed. “Yes, I just hope that this works.” He felt the soft touch of fingers on his face.
“He’s made it this far.”
“You don’t know Zach.”
He gave into the darkness.
The pain was back, and this time it brought knowledge with it. He again tried to force his eyes open and his mind to focus, and found that he did have more control. Slowly, painfully, he opened his eyes, squinting at the bright light that shone above him. He allowed his eyes time to adjust and focus, then carefully glanced about the room. It looked like any other med-room he had been in. Plain walls, curtain-covered windows. That too-clean smell that seemed to engulf all hospitals, and the constant beeping of the machines. He felt his chest expand of its own will as one machine forced air into his lungs, and the heard the whine as another took his blood pressure. He then took stock of his condition. He could only feel half his body. That thought alone chilled him. He glanced down. Under the light covers he could see two arms…two legs…he was whole. He closed his eyes with relief. Then the memory struck. Beside him the machines’ beeping increased.
The alarms blared…
Running…trying to get to the shuttle. He had to get off this ship, Eliza and the children too. Pain…agonizing pain shot through his right side as he was struck with a full powered stunner. He fell, he fought to move, but couldn’t make his arm and leg work. Hands…he looked up…Waldo…helping, supporting him into the ship. The star-scape…they were free. Phoenix…his ship…gone in a burst of fire. Pain, physical and emotional, tore through his mind and soul. Eliza!!! Jessica!!! Zach!!! There, to the right, the life-pod…two life forms. The children, his mind told him. She would have gotten them out. The sight of his wife…bound…frightened…alone. Gone in a flash of hyperspace.
Pain…inescapable…unavoidable. He fought to keep his mind focused, a battle he was quickly losing. Gone! He screamed. She can’t be! Darkness…creeping…clawing…claiming his mind. The children, must stay for them. Pain…soul shattering…heart wrenching,
The alarms blared…
Suddenly, the room seemed absolutely packed with people as white-coated men and women ran in, exchanging rapid-fire commands in medicalese. Zach felt the room close in on him; his heartbeat became more erratic as it seemed more and more people crowded into the tiny room. His eyes darted from one to another, and he began to struggle as best he could, as they started poking and prodding at him. He choked and tried to reach for the tube in his throat but his left hand wouldn't respond and his right was strapped down, attached to the bars on the side of the bed.
"All right," the familiar voice from earlier spoke from within the crowed. "Everyone but Dr. Q-ball out."
*Robin. Thank God...*
She walked over to his bed calmly and stroked his forehead as the room cleared out. "You need to calm down, Zach. You've been badly hurt, that's why you're on a respirator. If you can just calm down, I'll take the tube out. Now that you're awake, you should be able to breathe normally, so you won't need it. Just stay calm." She kept speaking soothingly to him until his heart rate evened out, and then carefully pulled the tube out of his throat and let him sip a bit of water.
"Eliza..." He tried to speak, but the words seemed to catch in his raw throat.
"Still missing. We have made contact with the pirates and Walsh is negotiating for her."
She turned and pointed to a window. "Here. Safe."
Jessie and Little Zach stood outside the observation window, looking worried. With an effort, he raised his right hand a little bit and smiled. He didn't really feel like smiling, but the effort was worth it just to see his children's faces light up in relief.
"Why can't." He had to pause to stifle a cough. "Move."
"You've been injured in the escape. Ambassador Waldo says you were shot. We have you stabilized and are doing what we can."
"How... bad?" It had to be bad, he knew. He couldn't feel his left side...
Robin got a very uncomfortable look on her face. "We're still running tests."
"Lying," Zachary said.
Robin glanced at Q-ball and with a sigh she turned back to Zach. "You would have died if we hadn't treated you the way we did."
"What?" For the first time, Zach looked over and saw that it wasn't bandages covering his left side. The white looked suspiciously like plastisteel.
"You received some pretty severe neuromuscular damage, and the blood flow to the left side of your body just wasn't there any more. We had to amputate. Even a couple of years ago, you would have died or been in a wheelchair for life. With modern cybernetics, on the other hand, you should be able to live a normal life," Q-ball said proudly.
Robin glared at him. "Did you never hear of tact?" she growled.
"What in HELL did you do to me!" Zach went white. "You're telling me that you cut off half my body and put a fucking machine in its place?" he shouted as best he could. Out the corner of his eye, he saw an orderly leading the kids away. Well, some small cold miracle...
Alarms shrilled again as Zach's heart rate went through the roof, and Robin tried to calm him down. "Zach! Zach, calm down! You're going to hurt yourself!"
"I don't care!" He tried to sit up, tried to struggle out of bed, but the cold dead weight dragged at him, and still-healing bio-cybernetic linkages protested, screaming white-hot pain down his nerves.
"Zach please, if you rupture the connections..." Robin tried to reason with him.
"Get the hell away from me!"
He vaguely heard Robin trying to calm him, heard the scrawny fellow that she'd called 'Q-ball' chattering, but nothing made it through the pain and the panic until he was hit with a sudden cold deluge. "Zachary Foxx, you calm down right NOW!" Robin snapped, still holding the bucket she'd used to drench him. "Now," she said more calmly as he stared up at her in utter shock, "I am going to call some orderlies in here to get you dry and change the bed linens. You will behave yourself. If you do as you're told, you just might be able to go back on active duty when you recover. If you don't, then I have to rely on a bunch of strangers to find my daughter -- your wife. I don't think either of us wants that."
"Um... yes, ma'am," Zach said meekly.
"Good. Now, once you're dry, I will come back and discuss your options with you. You will remain calm and act like a rational human being when I do, won't you?" she asked sweetly.
"Yes, ma'am." He knew that tone of voice. He was not about to argue with her.
He silently endured the orderly's ministrations as they helped him out of bed and changed his gown and sheets. Once he was resettled, Robin returned carrying a tray of what looked like food.
"Now," She set the tray down. "If you have calmed down enough to have a civilized conversation, there are a few things we need to talk about."
He glared at her. "Like what?"
"Like what you’re going to do once you recover."
"Recover? I've lost half my body. How the hell am I supposed to recover from that?" he said bitterly.
She sighed and sat on the bed beside him. "With the technology you have do have a chance at 100% recovery Zach."
"No. I have a chance at being 100% functional again," he sneered. "But I'll never been totally human again, will I?"
Robin sighed. "Do you really think that humanity is dependent on how much of your body is biological?" she asked gently.
"I... damn it, Robin. I just..."
"I know it’s a lot to deal with right now, Zach, but you need to think of Jess and Little Zach too." She glanced towards the window. "They're scared to death."
"The kids. And Lizzie...how am I ever going to explain this to them?"
"The kids already know. I told them what we'd have to do. And as for Eliza, if we can't get her back, then that's going to be a moot point, isn't it? You need to focus on getting better, Zach.” She moved the tray closer. "Now I know this isn't the best meal you've ever had, but it’s better then the stuff you get on base."
He looked at the tray, "Smells the same."
"Eat it anyway," she said dryly. "You need to get your strength up."
"Grandma," Jessie whispered as she peeked around the door. "Can we?"
“Well...” She looked over at Zach. “For a minute.”
Slowly, both children entered the room, standing at the foot of their father's bed, afraid to touch him for fear of causing him more pain. Zach smiled at them as best he could, not wanting to frighten them any worse than they already were. "Come here," he said huskily, and reached up with his good hand.
Jessie smiled and moved to touch her father, but quickly pulled back as if afraid she would hurt him.
He reached out and touched her hand. "It's okay. Just be careful, okay?"
She nodded and slowly put her hand into his. "Daddy, are you ok?"
"I will be. Your grandmother won't let me be anything else," he joked as best he could.
Little Zach stood behind his sister. "What about Mom?" Jessie sobbed at her brother’s question
Oh, God, Zachy, why did you have to ask me that? Zach asked silently. "As soon as I'm healed, I'll be going after her," he promised. "If the Rangers haven't brought her back by then. I know that Commander Walsh will do his best to help get her back as soon as possible."
"Promise, Daddy?" Jessie's blue eyes locked on to his.
"All right," Robin said with a strained smile as she stepped forward, "it's time for you two to let your father rest."
Jessie bit her lip as she was reminded how close she'd come to losing her father, but gave him a quick peck on the cheek and headed out of the room. Little Zach took his father's hand in his and squeezed it hard before he left. "Get better, okay?" he whispered.
"I'll do that," Zach said with a faint smile.
"Now, Lt. Foxx, it is time for you to rest. You have a lot of work to do and it starts tomorrow." Robin said after the children had left. Hearing no response, she turned, then shook her head with a fondly sad smile. Zach was already sound asleep.
* * * * * * * *
You were right there for me,
"Ok Zach" Robin stood in front of his wheel chair. "Today's the day. What I need you to do, is slowly, and I mean slowly, stand and grab hold of the bars."
Zach pushed himself up as best he could. He'd managed to get the knack of standing the day before, so he struggled upright well enough. But attempting to reach out to the bars overbalanced him, and he almost fell. Again. He thought he'd fallen more in the past week than at any time since he was a toddler.
Robin quickly supported him around the waist. "Get your balance." She waited until he had managed to regain his footing. "Now, I want you to take a step."
He picked up his right leg, and put it forward.
He tried to get his left leg, the bionic one, to obey him. He wound up swinging it awkwardly out, unable to convince the knee joint to bend properly, and Robin had to brace him as it sent him lurching.
"It's ok, Zach, it’s going to take time for your body to learn how to move the bionics," she encouraged him. "But come on, I want more than two steps out of you."
He struggled his right foot forward, and then his left. Right. Left. He went to pick up his right leg, and went down, Robin not strong enough to support his full weight as the cybernetic leg skidded out from under him. He hadn't placed it properly.
"This is hopeless!" Zach's frustration was evident in his voice
"No, it's not. You just need to learn how to do it. Now come on, get up."
Zach sighed and reached up with his right hand, slowly pulling himself to his feet.
"Good." Robin placed his hands back onto the bar. "Now, left foot forward."
He walked, with her help, ten feet. By the time that he'd reached the end, he was covered in sweat.
It had taken him an hour.
Robin helped him settle back into the wheel chair. "That was good, Zach." She handed him a cup of water.
Robin lightly cuffed him on the back of the head. "Don't back-mouth me, mister."
"I'm serious. I'm never going to be able to get back in the field with all this metal dragging me down. My balance is screwed up and even if I do manage to get the cybernetics to work, I'll be slower than molasses in a Prairie winter.”
“Give it time, Zach.”
"Do I have time? Does Eliza have time?"
Robin winced at the words. "I don’t know, Zach." She quickly wiped a tear off her cheek
Zach reached up and touched his mother-in-law, cupping her face in her hand. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be so harsh. I'm just frustrated. It's taking so long to learn this."
"Hungry?" Robin asked, changing the subject to less painful areas.
He shook his head.
"Well, you need to eat anyway. Healing is hungry work."
"I don’t think I'll..." He stopped as the door burst open and Gill limped in, leaning heavily on her cane.
"Gill, what are you doing up?" Robin asked. "You should be resting, you still haven't recovered completely."
Gill ignored her mother and went straight for Zach. "You bastard!"
Zach blinked, looking at his sister-in-law in shock. "What?"
"How could you leave her?!"
"I didn't... I couldn't... Gill, I didn't have a choice, I couldn't get her out!"
"Gillian!" Robin grabbed her daughter’s arm. "Don't do this."
Gill looked at her mother with an expression of utter betrayal. "And you, how could you coddle him like this? He left your daughter to die, Mom!"
"Gillian Inessa Daugherty, that is enough" Robin stood firm between Zach and her daughter. "You need to calm down and stop throwing around these baseless accusations."
"Baseless accusations? Damn it, Mom, he left her!"
"He didn't have a choice! Gillian, I have seen the reports, I have seen the security recordings made from the ship's sensors, and more importantly, I am his doctor. He was half dead when they arrived, Gill. He couldn't save her!"
Gill wavered slightly, "He...He could have tried! Someone should have tried to save them!"
"I... I did, Gill. I swear to you, I tried!" Zach's voice was choked with tears that his pride wouldn't let fall.
Gill turned on him with her venom renewed. "Well, you should have tried harder!"
"GILLIAN!" Robin's temper snapped at that. "Get out, now. Don't come back until you're prepared to be civil. And don't you dare make accusations when you don't know what the hell you're talking about."
"That's a very good idea," Sean said from the doorway. He'd obviously heard enough, as his voice and stance radiated anger. "Gillian, you're ill and you're tired. Let's get you back to your room." His words were polite enough, but the tone made it clear it was an order.
Gillian looked at her father and turned opening her mouth to speak again.
"Now, Gillian," he said inflexibly.
She narrowed her eyes, "Just remember YOU left her behind Zachary Foxx." With that she turned and limped out past her father.
Sean sighed. "Sorry, Zach. She's got a bug in her bonnet right now. I'll try to settle her down. Just remember: it wasn't your fault. You did everything you could."
"Please, just leave me alone."
Sean nodded. "All right. But if you want to talk, just let me know." He crossed the room long enough to squeeze Zach's shoulder supportively and then hurried after his daughter.
"Zach," Robin said gently, placing her hand on his knee as she knelt down to look up at him.
He turned his head away. "Just leave me alone." He touched the control pad, and the wheelchair backed away from her and moved silently out of the gym.
* * * * * * * *
In my dreams
I’ll always see you sore above the sky
In my heart
There always be a place for you
For all my life…
Zach settled a bit as he remembered the rebirth of hope, the day that he was given his team. They wouldn't have seemed like much on paper, he supposed. There were only four of them, after all, and none of them 'perfect soldiers' by most peoples' reckoning. But there was something about them...And that something became the one last hope he could cling to.
* * * * * * * *
Zach walked into the briefing room to meet his new team. He was moving a bit stiffly, but did his best to hide it. He didn't need sympathy, and didn't need them to think he was weak even if he wasn't back to full strength yet.
His blue eyes quickly glanced about taking in the three people sitting about the room. The black man was in many ways the easiest to categorize. His whole attitude shouted that he wasn't taking this whole 'chain of command' thing seriously. For that matter, he didn't seem the kind to take anything seriously, and his record bore that impression out.
He was well known for his sense of humor and his habit of pushing the regs to their breaking point, but everyone also acknowledged that for all his flippancy he was the best programmer that BETA had, and he wasn't bad in a fight either. Quick and dirty hacking was his specialty, and if anyone could turn an alien computer system inside out, it would be Walter "Doc" Hartford.
The tall, slender woman standing beside him -- and gently discouraging Hartford's flirting -- wasn't known for such flamboyancy or borderline insubordination. Quite the opposite, in fact. No one had known her to be anything but courteous and respectful. The problem was, she was... well, odd. She knew things, things that shouldn't be known, according to scuttlebutt. True, verifiable psychic abilities were rarely found, but the mysterious Niko most definitely had them.
It made people nervous, even when they shouldn't be. No one had any evidence that she used those abilities except when necessary to accomplish the mission, but there was always that niggling suspicion in peoples' minds that she might. And she had made lieutenant rather quickly...
The real wild card in this situation, though, was the tall blonde man standing quietly in the corner. He looked ordinary enough... in fact, if it weren't for the disquietingly feral gleam in his eyes, Zach might have been tempted to consider him a bit of a 'pretty boy', but he'd reviewed the personnel file on his team before coming here, and of all of them, Gooseman's was the most heavily classified.
That personnel folder was pretty sparse, with the bare minimum of information available. Age, height, weight, the usual, with the unusual addition of the special shapeshifting ability that had enabled him to become a Series 5 Ranger. But where other Rangers would have personal information and history, Gooseman's file simply said: "TRANSFERRED FROM SUPERTROOPER PROJECT. ALL OTHER INFORMATION CLASSIFIED."
It didn't surprise Zach that Gooseman was the first one to notice him, but he didn't show any reaction, simply assessed him with one quick glance from head to toe and apparently put him in the 'currently non-threatening' category. That look alone told Zach that he'd have problems with Gooseman is he didn't establish himself as both competent and in charge immediately.
"Well, could it be Mon Captain?" Doc's sarcasm rubbed Zach the wrong way.
"Rangers." He spoke in the 'command voice' that he'd been trained in since his days in the Academy, and noticed that Gooseman reacted to it, straightening to attention. "I'm Captain Zachary Foxx. I see you've already introduced yourself to Ranger Niko, Hartford. Have you also made Ranger Gooseman's acquaintance?"
Niko gave a demure smile and nodded to Goose.
"Excellent. In that case, let's get to the briefing. If you'll all be seated?" Zach's eyes flicked over to the Supertrooper, who moved to the table with leonine grace. His whole attitude screamed 'I could kill everyone in this room without breaking a sweat', and Hartford responded to that, shifting uneasily as Gooseman moved past him to sit well within Zach's personal space, smiling a faint, predatory smile.
Zach ignored the challenge implicit in Gooseman's attitude, calling up the files on the Phoenix mission. "Here's our problem," he said, and began the mission briefing. He gave them all a terse report on the disastrous trip, not sparing himself anything. It was an effort not to show anything when it came time to play the security recordings showing his injuries and Eliza's capture, but he managed to keep his voice firm and his face controlled.
Niko's soft voice broke his thoughts. "Do we know how many were actually taken Captain?"
"Including Eliza, sixty-four. But we are not certain that the aliens who captured her are connected to the Crown troops who attacked Kirwin and abducted the human personnel there."
"Who else could it be?" Doc asked. His tone was flippant, but there was a glint of seriousness in his eyes.
"This," Zach said as he called up another file, "is the Andorian police file on the alien who attacked us. He's a pirate called Kidd. His ship is the Iron Falcon. He is apparently an independent operator, but one who spends a lot of time in Crown space. As such, we know that he does have some dealings with the Queen of the Crowns, but whether or not he knows how badly the Queen apparently wants humans is in question. If he does, he'll try to sell Eliza to her agents. If not... we're not certain what he'd do with her."
"That’s a lot for only four Rangers Captain."
Zach gave a tight smile. "I've been assured that we are the best personnel for this mission."
Gooseman snorted. "Or at least the most expendable."
Zach shot the ST a look before continuing. "No Ranger is expendable."
"Just keep telling yourself that, Captain," Gooseman drawled.
"Rangers," Commander Walsh nodded at each as he entered the room.
"Commander Walsh," Zach said respectfully, and noted the way that Gooseman pulled back a bit deferentially.
"I see you're getting acquainted with your team, Captain. I'm sure that they'll do their best for you." Walsh's eyes rested for a long moment on Gooseman, then moved over to Hartford.
Gooseman lowered his eyes slightly in what might have been acknowledgment. Hartford just looked at the Commander innocently. "But of course, sir. When have I not done my utmost to serve and protect the citizens of this fair League of ours?"
Walsh snorted. "Commander Nagata will give you the full briefing of your mission at 1650 hours today. In the mean time get to know each other."
His eyes turned back to Gooseman, "You’re to give full disclosure, Gooseman, per Senator Wheiner’s orders."
Gooseman's lips twitched in what might have been a smile if it hadn't been strangled to death at birth. "Understood."
Walsh nodded again and without another glance left the room.
* * * * * * * *
I’ll keep a part of you with me
And everywhere I am
There you’ll be…
He moaned a bit in his sleep, shifting restlessly, and a shadow moved towards him, emerging from the darkened bathroom. He didn't notice, too caught up in his dreams to be awakened by the soft footfalls padding toward the bed.
His eyes twitched under his closed eyelids as memory flowed through his dreams. He remembered crawling through the ventilation system of the psychocrypt, searching for the crystal that held his wife's soul. He remembered the feel of the crystal, alien, cold and hating. He remembered the pain of the blast that had knocked him out and of having his own lifeforce pulled out of his body and forced to attack his teammates as a Slaverlord. And he remembered losing her again. He felt his soul cry out again that day when he had been forced to leave her behind again.
He sat up, panting, fighting not to weep, and his hand went toward the blaster next to the bed as a shadow moved towards him through the darkened room.
"Easy, love, it's just me," a woman's sweet voice came, and she touched him, hands warm and gentle.
He looked at the woman in shock, his mind screaming that she couldn't be here...she was lost to him. "Eliza? Eliza..." tentatively he reached out a hand and caressed her warm cheek. "You’re real." he whispered. He reached out and pulled his wife to him, burying his face in her hair. He'd forgotten. He'd been dreaming, and he'd forgotten that the nightmare was over. She was back. They'd gotten her back.
"Shhh..." She gently held him to her, patiently waiting for his mind to calm. "I'm here, Zach. I’m here."
Eventually he calmed and they settled down, curling together for warmth against a chill far more mental than physical. She snuggled against his side; hair faintly tickling where he'd turned his head to rest against her forehead. She smelled warm and clean and alive and he drifted off to a much more pleasant dream.
He dreamed of the mission that returned his love to him. Of the battles that raged across the empty places between stars and of the massive offensive that had given him and his team their shot at the Psychocrypt. Most of the League Navy had launched an attack on the Palace, blasting into the fleet of destroyers that defended the asteroid field that concealed the nerve center of the entire Crown Empire, and the Series 5 team had used that as a distraction
They'd snuck in through the defenses and made their way through the miles of corridors into the Throne Room itself, where the Queen had been waiting.
She had stood there taunting Zach with the one thing she knew would break his defenses…Eliza's crystal.
He remembered the cold hate-filled moment of terror as she held up the crystal, and he knew, even though his arm glowed brightly with the charge from his Thunderbolt, that he couldn't do a damned thing. And then, like the answer to a prayer, a flash of light off metallic links, and the collapsible whip Goose kept concealed in his glove wrapped around the crystal and yanked it into his teammate's hands and there was the familiar roar of the Thunderbolt going off right by his ear and the Queen staggered back, clutching at her stomach and snarled a threat before vanishing, teleported away.
It was in that moment as he realized what Goose held in his hand that time stopped for him. He had her crystal; he had finally done what he promised himself and his children he would do. Eliza was coming home at last. They'd run out of the Psychocrypt, back to Ranger-1, and back to Earth where his wife's body waited in its icy prison.
"Any word yet, Cap'n?" Goose asked as he found Zach still sitting in the waiting room.
"Not yet. It takes a little while to bring someone out of cryo safely." He rubbed his thumb over the smooth crystal in his hands, ignoring the vaguely nasty feeling that it left behind. Underneath that he could feel Eliza, and that was worth anything.
Goose nodded. "You need anything?" Goose unconsciously ran a hand through his hair.
"Nothing. Thanks." He felt almost amused at the speed with which the former Supertrooper escaped from the waiting room.
Niko wandered in, looking behind her at Goose's retreating form. "What did you say to him, Zach?"
"Nothing." Zach sighs as he sat back in the chair only to be up pacing again as soon as he settled. "Don't blame this one on me, Niko. I think he just hates hospitals."
She walked over to him and sat down, taking his hand in hers reassuringly. "It shouldn't be long now."
Zach froze, eyes wide as the familiarity of the voice registered, then his head whipped around to look. "Colleen? My god..." He stood and walked to his sister in her neat white nurse's uniform, staring in astonishment. "My god, Colleen! It is you!" He hugged her tightly, lifting her off her feet and laughing.
She laughed as he swung her around. "Zachy!" She hugged him tightly to her.
"Zach?" Niko asked behind him, "who is this?"
Zach turned, "This, Niko, is my baby sister, Colleen Foxx. Colleen, this is Niko."
"Actually it's Colleen McGuire now, but it's a pleasure to meet you, Niko." She smiled back up at her brother "So how did you meet this big lug, anyway?" she said affectionately, squeezing her brother's waist tight.
Niko smiled, "We’re in the same Ranger team."
"I thought I recognized that uniform. So you made it after all. That's wonderful." She smiled up at him brightly. "We have got so much to catch up on!" she bubbled, then looked abashed. "Oh, listen to me. I came out here looking for you, I guess, Zach. I'm assuming you're the Captain Foxx they were talking about, at least. They're ready for you in Recovery Room 3."
He actually hesitated for a moment, despite his eagerness. "Niko, don't let her leave without getting her contact information!" With that, he was out of the room like a shot.
The soft beeping of a hear monitor was the first thing that trickled into his senses as he entered the darkened room, and then he saw her. She lay there as he'd seen her last before they put her in the cryocrypt, still and pale and dead-looking, though he could see her breathing. The crystal on her breast gleamed malevolently in the reflected light and the one in his hand seemed to warm slightly.
He walked over to her and gently placed the crystal in his hand against the one formed on her body. When the crystals touched, the one in his hand seemed to squirm and melt into her body, flowing into her without leaving a trace of either crystal.
He watched, waiting...scarcely breathing..."Eliza," he whispered
Her breathing, slow and shallow, changed, became deeper, and a faint line appeared between her eyebrows as she winced slightly, then shivered. She opened her eyes, confused, and smiled when she saw him. "Zach."
"Cold," she muttered, and he pulled her up and into his arms. She snuggled close to him, and he could feel the cold empty place inside him filling up with joy.
* * * * * * * *
And everywhere I am there you’ll be
There you’ll be…
This once elusive sanctuary from the stresses of life, had for Zachary Foxx, become a welcome escape from the reality of what was his life. His nights were once nothing but an unending loop of nightmares, but now he lay encased with in the arms of the one person he loved more than life itself. He tenderly brushed her cheek and smiled as she sighed in her sleep. He lay there watching as she slept, and knew that for the first time in a long time, when he closed his eyes the nightmares wouldn’t come.
It was over…
The nightmare ends…
And everywhere I am there you’ll be
There you’ll be…
Special thanks to Allronix for letting me use some of her background on Zach.
"There You'll Be", written and performed by Faith Hill.