The day dawned bright and golden, the morning found Captain Willow Rosenberg leaning against the railing on the outside deck of the Odysseus' bridge. The bridge was located on the starboard side of the flight deck, amidships, in what was known as the 'island.' A tall tower which served as both the place from which the ship was controlled and as the aircraft control tower. From where she was standing, a few stories off the flight deck, Willow had a clear view of the rest of the fleet. She could just see the low silhouette of the Achilles, their sister carrier off just beyond the Ajax. Apart from the fleet, there was nothing but white-capped blue water in every direction.
Willow was beginning to realise that green was her favourite colour... and she missed it already, even after just a few days on the carrier. She gripped the railing that surround the deck, the sun fell on the exposed skin of her hands but she felt no warmth. Eventually she had to let go because she feared her skin would freeze to the ice cold metal.
"You'll get used to it," Willow looked to see another officer joining her, a steaming cup of coffee in his extended hand.
Tad Dempster, one of the executive officers, offered her the coffee with a smile on his still youthful but bearded face. Besides learning that her body was allergic to the cold, sea air, Willow had also learnt that all the sailors on the Odysseus were not self-absorbed pricks like Boone. Tad had gone out of his way to make sure the Devils, Willow in particular, found themselves a home on the carrier. However unpleasant that floating tin home might at first seem.
"Thanks Tad," Willow accepted the cup of dark black liquid gratefully, more for the warmth it offered than the actual drink itself.
Her fingers tingled painfully as they often did when being introduced to heat after being frozen. The wind had also decided to join the party and it was now whipping across the flight deck and swirling up around where Willow and Tad stood high above. It whipped Willow's unbound hair across her face and she drew the heavy hood of her jacket up over her head. The feeling returned to her ears in time but she was fairly certain that her nose was lost to the cold.
Tad watched the young woman at his side draw the wool-lined hood up over her long red hair. He could still see her face peeking out from beneath the cowl, pale skin with child-like freckles and lips, still blue from the cold. The hood cast a shadow over her face that he thought suited her... he couldn't quite fathom her out. Willow appeared to be the type of girl who would be quiet, shy, maybe even submissive. However, his first impressions had been since proved very wrong. There was nothing shy or retiring about this little hellcat who stood beside him. He should have seen it straight away but now he could hardly miss the fire in her green eyes, a passion for both flying and life in general that burned almost unchecked.
Tad grinned when he remembered the unbroken chain of victory rolls Willow had done over the carrier the day before. Thankfully, Boone had been in the can and had missed the display completely or Willow probably would have found herself flying nothing but the flagpole. She just didn't care... Tad often wished he could be a little more like that... like her.
She took a small sip of the coffee, pursing her lips slightly at the bitter taste. Her nose wrinkled in a cute manner and Tad found himself wanting to tell her so. Although fraternisation between the sexes was technically against the rules, it was a rule every one broke and the commanding officers could do little except make sure it didn't interfere with the running of the ship. Tad took a quick gulp of his own coffee, wishing it were something stronger. He opened his mouth to speak.
"Don't," Willow said quietly, not even looking at him.
Tad closed his mouth and looked around in case there was someone else she were speaking to... they were the only two on the deck.
"Huh?" he had never been a stunning wordsmith.
Willow took another sip of coffee and repeated herself, "Don't... just don't Tad."
"Okay," Tad replied, feeling his face burn despite the cold, not even really sure what he was okaying.
They were standing in what Tad thought was an uncomfortable silence when Boone joined them on the deck.
"Morning Commander," Tad said nodding his head.
Willow didn't even turn around, she was still staring out to sea from beneath her hood. Boone joined them both at the rail and Tad felt the tension in the air increase. It was obvious that the Commander and the Captain would never be the best of friends... or even remotely friendly friends.
"Coffee Dempster," Boone said quietly.
Tad looked down at his cup, "Yes it is sir."
Boone looked at him out of the corner of his eye as though he were the stupidest man on the planet and Tad almost immediately realised that he was.
"Oh... yessir," he quickly turned for the door.
"Cream and sugar!" Boone called at his departing back.
Willow stiffen at the thought of having to stand out there with Boone and wondered why it was that she was even standing out in the cold when she could be tucked up in the officer's mess out of the wind. There was something about being belong decks that Willow hated, it was a combination of the groans that the ship made, the low ceilings and the smell of damp socks. At least out here she could see the sky even if she couldn't be in it twenty-four seven.
"How's life onboard treating you so far Rosenberg?" Boone asked, Willow suspected it wasn't out of any desire to be polite.
"Just fine sir," Willow wasn't about to let anything else out.
Boone nodded as though that was all he expected her to say, "We just received word over the comm. system that the flight from the US mainland is almost here, they should be coming through the net in a few minutes."
The net, if Willow squinted and looked up at the sky she would see the faint, pinkish web that looked as though a giant fisherman had cast his net over them... hence the name. No one would or could tell her where it had come from, all she knew was that it kept them safe and invisible to hostile forces. She still wasn't sure if that was a good thing in her book... there were no hostile forces to be kept safe and invisible from.
Willow looked away to the east, her eyes scanning the horizon. At first there was nothing except an increasingly grey sky which reflected her mood. Any moment now though, she would see the two squadrons, a dozen fresh planes and pilots, which had set out from America to meet them. She hugged herself tightly against the chill, silent and brooding as they stood and waited.
Finally there were specs on the horizon, just dots at first which could have been birds. Then the steady drone of engines drifted over the wind. Willow watched them grow bigger until she could see unmistakably gull-shaped wings and a high tailplane at the rear.
"Gullstrikes," Willow whispered to herself.
"Grumman Gullstrike Zeros, the latest and greatest in carrier-borne air power," Boone nodded, "Kinda puts your little red bugs to shame doesn't it?"
Willow ignored the barb and instead watched the lead plane circle to land. As it came closer she saw the bright blue colour scheme, a broad white stripe running down the fuselage, yellow prop spinner. Willow heard her teeth scrape together and realised she had unconsciously been grinding her teeth. She felt like throwing the coffee cup out over the railing.
"It's Buffy's squadron isn't it?" Willow asked Boone with a tight voice.
"Sorry," even that word sounded like a barb coming from Boone, "We didn't want to tell you, Captain Summers was adamant we didn't... she seemed to think that it would upset you, cloud your judgment."
"She's not wrong there... Slayer Squadron... I can't believe you didn't tell me... why didn't you... oh, don't tell me, because they're the best..."
"They rival the Red Devils for the spot of top squadron in Air Command... you know as well as I do that they were the best choice..."
"Doesn't mean I have to like it though does it?"
Willow watched as the lead plane came in, throttle cutting back, nose lifting as its wheels came closer to the carrier's deck. It touched down smoothly, arrester hook catching on the very first wire... only the best pilots could manage such a landing. With a grinding of wheels the plane came to a sudden and violent halt. The ground crews rushed out to help the plane taxi over the lowered crash barriers to await the arrival of the next plane.
Compared to the tiny Draken, the Gullstrike was a large plane. It's huge nose made visibility during take off very poor but it more than made up for that by the power of the engine it concealed. Willow watched a small figure emerge from the lead plane. The figure jumped from the cockpit and took off a helmet to shake free long blond hair. From her vantage point Willow wrinkled her nose. The figure happened to glance up at the bridge, instantly recognising Willow despite the distance the fact that she had her hood up. The blond waved, Willow could see her shiny white smile. Willow's only response was to tighten her grip to the point that he tin cup had actually began to buckle.
"What happened between you two... I heard you were best friends at the Academy," Boone asked as the distant figure that was Captain Buffy Summers moved off the flight deck.
"It's a long story," Willow replied gruffly, she made to turn inside.
"I also heard that whatever it was... it was your fault," Boone's voice stopped her.
"It's in the past," Willow's eyes narrowed but she wouldn't look at Boone.
"Seems she has every right to hate you for what you did."
"If you know so much about it then why the hell are you asking me?"
"I'm just asking," Boone replied, flashing his white teeth in what Willow thought was supposed to pass as a smile.
He saved her the trouble of having to leave by leaving himself, saying something about his coffee.
After a few more minutes of trying to put up with the wind, Willow too was about to turn and make her way inside to brood in solitude when another newly arrived pilot caught her gaze. For what reason, Willow couldn't really say... There was just something that made her unable to turn away...
Whoever it was jumped from the cockpit of their plane with none of the showy flamboyance that Buffy had displayed, even helping the ground crew to secure the plane's wings in the folded position for storage below decks. As the pilot worked Willow watched closely and despite the bulky flying gear Willow could tell the pilot was a woman. They way she moved, what little of her face showed beneath the flying helmet and the goggles and the blond hair that peeked from beneath her helmet. Willow watched and waited, willing her helmet and goggles off at least.
The mystery woman never obliged Willow's unspoken wishes and she moved from flight deck, keeping her gaze directed down at her feet. Willow felt a small pang of disappointment when she disappeared completely from view.
Save it Rosenberg, you're on the same ship... chances are you'll run into her eventually.
Boone retuned with his coffee and Tad in tow. They both moved to watch Slayer Squadron's Gullstrike's being lowered on the elevator into the hanger below the flight deck. Willow decided she had lingered in the fresh air long enough and excused herself from their company. Right now listening to the ribald conversation of the Devils seemed a welcome alternative to Tad's awkward attempts and Boone's blatant badgering.
"If you'll excuse me, Tad... Commander," Willow turned with a swirl of her coat.
"Bye Captain," Tad replied a little too quickly and eagerly.
He watched Willow's back until she was out of sight down the stairs before turning back to the flight deck. He saw that Boone was looking at him strangely and felt very unnerved beneath that gaze. Well, any gaze of the Commander's unnerved him but this even more because he had no idea what kind of gaze it was. Tad took a gulp of his now cold coffee and tried to ignore Boone.
Boone however was not about to be deprived of his amusement, "You've got it bad."
"Huh sir?" Tad thought blushing in front of the Commander was the worst thing he could possibly do.
"You've got the hots for our little Captain Red there... and I can't say I blame you, she's definitely a good-looking dame and she would probably fit quite nicely in your bunk wouldn't you say Dempster?"
"I-I... wouldn't know sir," Tad spluttered.
Boone nodded with a pleased smile, "And I don't think you'll be finding out any time in the near future... not with her you won't."
Tad wondered where on earth Boone was going with this line of conversation, was he trying to say that he would put a stop to it if it ever happened? He thought that might be something the Commander would do for the sheer fun of it.
"If you don't mind my asking sir... it won't work between Captain Rosenberg and I... well, besides the fact that I'm sure she doesn't like me..."
"Take it easy sport, she's just a bit bristly that's all... but that's not what I was saying. I'm fairly certain that our Captain's preferences are exactly the same as yours and mine."
"Preferences for what sir?" Boone was making Tad's head hurt with all this seemingly pointless rhetoric.
"Girls Dempster," Boone slapped Tad heartily on the back before making his way back inside leaving Tad to frown in bewilderment.
Tad mentally went through the conversation in his head to see if he had missed out on anything. Then it dawned on him and his eyes widened in realisation,
Tara was acutely aware of the woman watching her as she moved about on the flight deck, gaze almost burning despite the distance between them. As she knelt down to secure her aircraft to the elevator platform, she dared to risk the briefest glance up to where she stood on the deck high above her. All she caught was a glimpse of pale skin beneath a deep hood, most of the woman's face was in shadow.
Tara couldn't even explain to herself why she kept her flying helmet and goggles on even though there was no reason for it. There was just something... Tara shook her head, it was ridiculous...
No matter what she did, Tara was aware that someone was watching her the whole time and it both unnerved and excited her in a scary way. Finally, she couldn't remain under that gaze any longer and she retreated from the flight deck, following the rest of Slayer Squadron to de-briefing. Even as she escaped into the bowels of the carrier, her heart still thumped wildly in her chest for no apparent reason.