A Favor for a Friend

an excerpt



Chapter One

"Aw, come on, Bart, you know you can do it a lot quicker than I can."

Bart frowned as he looked at Major Archer, who was leaning on Bart's desk and looking down at him with an expectant expression on his face. "Maybe, but that's hardly--"

"And you can word it better than I can," the major interrupted. "You know what needs to be said and you could explain more clearly, more thoroughly."

"Jake, don't try and do a snow job on me. I know you too well. You have years of experience preparing reports, and I think you forget I know what you have planned for tonight."

Jake dropped his head and sighed. "I should've known better," he said under his breath, but Bart heard him. He looked up and said, "Okay, I'm busted. I owe you big time, anything you want..."

"Anything? Oh, careful, Major Archer, I might just hold you to that," Bart said laughing.

Pacing now, Jake went on, "You know how important this is. You know how little live entertainment we get way out here on this damn rock spinning in space so far from home. We've been rehearsing for this for weeks, months. I can't let the guys down. Damn it, I want to play. Please, Bart. If you could just finish the report for me so it can be on Banks' desk by oh-eight-hundred tomorrow, you can ask any favor from me you want."

"Can I get it in writing?" Bart grinned, swiveling his chair and watching the other man move back and forth in front of his desk. He did, indeed, know how important tonight was for his friend.

Jake put his hands together in mock prayer and said dramatically, "Signed in blood."

Bart laughed. "Good thing I know you keep your word, my friend, because you'll definitely owe me big-time for this. I've just spent three hours preparing my report for the general and all I wanted to do was go to my quarters and relax with a good glass of wine." He didn't tell Jake he had intended to be there in the audience. He'd get hold of a recording afterwards.

"I'll swing a case for you," Jake said quickly.

"Oh no, you don't get off that easy," Bart said raising a finger. He smiled, eyes twinkling. "I'll think of something. Now be off with you and let me get on with this. I'd like to be home by ten!"

With a grin and a careless wave of his hand, Jake left the office, and Bart could hear him whistling as he made his way to the elevator. Shaking his head, Bart didn't really mind finishing Jake's report too much; the major was a good friend who was always there when he was needed.

Bart settled down to study Jake's report. Most of the meat of it was already there as a series of rough notes and out of order reference comments; he just needed to organize Jake's points and put his thoughts into coherent order. With a grin at some of Jake's more colorful phrases, Bart began to work.

* * * *

Jake leaned back in the elevator, savoring the knowledge he could put work behind him and enjoy relaxing the way he wanted. He knew he'd surprised some people when he joined the small group of musicians and more so when he suggested the string quartet recital. He smiled; he liked jerking some folks out of their preconceived ideas of who he was. The hard-assed, loudmouth soldier, who also loved classical music and could make a violin sing. Tonight was going to be their first recital and every seat was taken. He was sure half the audience was there to see him and--to a lesser degree--his companions fail. He'd show them. He would play "Four Seasons." They would love it--and so would he.

He sighed, wondering what Bart would say if his friend knew what he was thinking. He always needed to prove he was the best; something he knew bugged the hell out of Bart, who didn't think such things were important.

Then, at the last minute, the general demanded the report a whole day earlier than originally required. Jake's immediate reaction was anger. He'd considered trying to make the general change his mind, remind him of the concert, but he knew the general wouldn't have issued the order without good cause. General Banks had a seat in the front row for the concert. It was frustrating, as Jake actually made sure he had everything ready to finish his report in plenty of time the next day.

In truth, he'd known all along Bart wouldn't let him down; his friend knew how important his music was to him. After all, Jake explained it to him in great length at lunch in the canteen. Delia and Carl, two other members of their team, made their excuses and left as soon as they'd finished eating, leaving only poor Bart to face his excitement at the prospect. As he remembered the indulgence with which his friend listened to him, Jake suddenly wished that, of all people, Bart could be in the audience, watching him. Perhaps Bart might like a private recital?

* * * *

Bart had been working for about two hours and was nearly finished when he realized he didn't have information on one of the reference points Jake had scribbled in the margin. With a frustrated sigh, he knew he needed to go down to Jake's office for the relevant literature. As he stood and stretched to get the kinks out of his back, he decided the walk would probably do his aching muscles some good anyway. He sighed as he removed his glasses to rub at his tired eyes.

He downed the last mouthful of coffee and strode into the hallway to make his way to Jake's office a couple of floors below, smiling as he remembered the running joke that no one knew where Major Archer's office was because he so rarely used it.

He passed Lieutenant Garber as he exited the elevator on the tenth floor.

"Captain Hilton," Garber said.

"Lieutenant." As he acknowledged the man, he absently noted his vague similarity to Jake. He wondered at his imagination as he strode down the corridor, or he was just seeing Jake everywhere? He wouldn't be surprised; the man seemed to have taken over his life more and more in recent months.

With a sad sigh, Bart wished he could control his feelings better. Usually, when he was caught up in his work, he could keep them at bay, but even that became more difficult since Jake developed the habit of dropping by the office whenever he felt like it. Jake's action fuelled Bart's desires, making his coping strategy fail by degrees. However, Bart decided, on balance he would much rather have Jake's friendly overtures with the accompanying need to keep his feelings under tighter rein than only see him on official occasions.

Sitting in the chair behind Jake's desk, Bart allowed himself a brief meander through his usually forbidden thoughts about the major. Bart had served with a few senior officers, but never met anyone like Jake Archer. He was a firm commander in the field, but always fair, and when they were off duty, the major allowed that side to slide and was more of a friend than a team leader. He was the same with the other regular members of their team, Carl Bradley, Ron Eisley and Delia Edson.

Bart allowed himself to drift back through pleasant memories of laughter and tears; of days spent together during their downtime, occasionally the two of them, but more often with Delia, Ron and Carl, too. He recalled a hand rubbing the nape of his neck for a job well done. He remembered times after a hard mission of holding Jake's hand in the medical bay, or of waking to feel Jake's thumb rubbing absently over the back of his hand.

Or, even more special, that one time when a pair of strong arms hugged him and a hand cradled the back of his head. Jake's murmured words of relief when he'd been afraid Bart had been killed. His memory of Jake's hug turned to fantasy when he imagined the warm breath on his neck, a soft kiss on his pulse point and the hand on his head beginning to run through his hair tenderly, lovingly...

He sighed, pushing the tempting but impossible thoughts aside. He forced himself to look for the papers he needed instead.

He had just picked them up when he heard a terrific bang, so loud it seemed to echo. Simultaneously, he felt the floor lift beneath his feet and the ceiling seemed to be rushing toward him, even as the lights went out. He became aware of a strange sensation of floating, even though his mind told him that wasn't possible--which proved true when he slammed into something and fell with a thud to the floor below him.

Bart was abruptly aware of a sharp pain along his right side, an odd ringing in his ears and a burning feeling across his pupils made him realize his eyes were still open before they slid shut and he knew no more.