Author's Note: Long commutes to student teaching are bad. Why? Because you end up running through several different plot ideas at once, and you just have to write some of them. This is one of those plot ideas. Don't worry, Phoenix Rising is still in progress and I have several more chapters to edit and publish after graduation (18 May! So close!). However, I'm curious to see how this goes over. Please let me know what you think! Thanks for reading!

Chapter One

"Tell the story one more time, Dad?" A yellow pencil twirled between thin, pale fingers as a teenage girl leaned into her kitchen table, intent on focusing on anything other than algebra homework. Her father shook his head as he began wiping dishwater from a pot with a faded and worn red checkered cloth. He chuckled under his breath and glanced at his enthused daughter.

"You've heard the story so many times before," he murmured, placing the pot in the drying rack and retrieving another dish from the sink full of dirty, sudsy water. Without a word, his child leaned her forearms on the table surface, cupping her chin with her hands, face illuminating in anticipation. He sighed with a smile spreading across his face and began to dry another dish.

"It was the perfect dogfight," the father began, wiping away the last remnants of water and methodically placing the dish away in the cupboard with care. "I was out on the tractor on granddad's farm, getting ready to plant some corn at home in Iowa. That's when the eagle flew in front of me. He was huge; six-foot wingspan, easy. And these three dumb crows were divebombing him and pecking at him as he flew."

"That's because the eagles land in their nests and eat their eggs, right, Dad?" the girl questioned, eyes widening all the more.

"Exactly," he murmured, organizing silverware in its respective drawer. "Anyway, the eagle lands about one hundred feet in front of the tractor, and each crow lands to surround him, about twenty feet back. He was massive, at least three feet tall, and every time he moved towards one of the crows, they'd move back in defense. But, the eagle was cornered and couldn't take all three crows."

"And then came the reinforcements," supplied the girl. Her father smiled.

"The eagle's mate came flying in, diving towards the crows. Just before that eagle impacted the ground, the crows took off, thinking they'd get more pecking in. Now, the first crow being targeted by the diving eagle never stood a snowball's chance in hell. There was a tiny explosion of black feathers and that bird was toast. The diving eagle then banked hard right, using the energy it accumulated in the dive and took out crow number two about two seconds later."

"And unfortunate crow number three?"

"I'm getting there. The previously grounded eagle was now airborne and had an altitude advantage on the crow. He made a short dive and banked hard right. The crow tried to escape the hit, but it didn't work. He was taken out about twenty feet airborne."

"And the best part?"

"Well, it easily topped any airshow I've seen in my lifetime. Beautifully executed, and if I didn't know any better, I'd swear it had been choreographed. I passed within twenty feet of one of the eagles once it had landed and begun eating its catch." The father chuckled in a sort of dark manner. "You could tell by the look in his eyes, he knew who was king of the skies."

"That's such a great story," the girl lowered her head to contemplate the still unfinished worksheet.

"It's one of my favorites," the father admitted, placing the last dish in the cupboard and hanging up the used towel. "No matter what happens, you're never flying alone. There's always someone that has your back, even if you don't see them right away."

The girl shrugged and looked towards her father, who was now standing behind one of the chairs pushed in at the table. She smiled and brushed a strand of blonde hair from her face.

"Did you feel that way when you were flying?" she asked, smile hopeful on her face. Her father's face fell slightly and he leaned closer to his daughter.

"Very frequently, yes," he admitted. "But I notice it more when I'm not. My flying days are long gone, Erin, but I still know that there are people in life that have my back. Your mother, for example. You don't need to go to extreme lengths to find the people that will stand with you."

"I guess you're right," the girl sighed, and began writing formulas on her worksheet.

The father moved towards his daughter and gently kissed her on the top of her head. "I've got your back, Erin," he said reassuringly. "And lots of other people do, too. I pray that you'll never have to go through what I did to understand that."

That moment was long gone, now seeming foreign and strangely ironic. The F/A-18 Hornet fighter aircraft now purred beneath her, streaking through the skies. Sure, she'd been in a pinch before. They all had.

"Mikey, on your six!" Erin called to the Hornet ahead of her, who'd had an enemy plane dive in from higher altitude, locking onto his position. The Hornet banked hard right and dove, enemy in hot pursuit.

"Cameron, get out of there!" another pilot's voice rang through Erin's cockpit. She reflexively rolled to the left and began to climb. She'd neglected the fighter pursuing her as she climbed. The altimeter was close to peaking when she dove again, hoping to pick up speed.

"Eagle calling," Erin hastily began, "I've got one fighter on my six, another coming in at three. I need backup!" She flew the airplane deftly, machine and woman becoming one, hoping to outmaneuver the enemy.

"Cameron, move it!"

"They've got sidewinders!"

It was all a blur in that moment. Erin looked back behind her to see the enemy barreling down behind her. A flash of light, another sidewinder fired. She pulled back on the throttle, hard, hoping to dive again to escape.

She yanked hard on the eject lever, hoping the chute would deploy in time. Her heart pounded in her ears. The world blurred to incomprehensible nonsense.

I'm sorry, Dad.

Fire. Rage. Explosion. Pain.

The very next thing Erin was conscious of was splashing into freezing water, the waves of the Pacific Ocean lapping around her. She fought, entangled in her parachute, watching a burning heap of what was once airplane plummeting toward the water.

She tried to signal the other planes circling ahead, but they began to retreat back to the carrier. Erin scanned the horizon. Nothing but water for miles. She leaned her head back in resignation, water splashing onto her face, salt ocean water mixing with tears. Erin Cameron, shot down in enemy waters. No one would come looking for her. She wasn't dead yet. But she might as well have been.

Elijah Howard was standing on the flight deck, eyes locked on the skies now tinted various hues of purple, orange and pink. The sun was setting on the Pacific, and Eagle Squadron was due back at any time. He'd made a habit of waiting on the flight line and counting the planes as they came in, one by one, trapping the third wire and landing safely on the carrier deck. He'd done it ever since Erin's first flight on the carrier.

He'd been waiting for her to come home every time, open arms and a smile of relief when the cockpit opened and she climbed out. He'd been waiting for her to come home ever since they were children, to realize that he'd always be there ready to welcome her. He'd always been waiting for her. He wouldn't dare tell her, but he hoped and prayed that by simply being there, standing on the flight line, she'd begin to realize just long he'd been waiting.

The first plane came rumbling in, screaming as it made contact with the deck and violently decelerated as it caught the trap wire. Two planes. Three. Four. All the planes came in at regular intervals, catching the spaghetti and clearing the way for the next squadron member to land.

Elijah picked up on a tense atmosphere as pilots opened their cockpits and climbed out of the Hornets, dejection and failure mixing on their faces as they left the flight line to head to debriefing. The nerves began to gnaw at his stomach as he continued to count aircraft landing on the deck. Nine… Ten…

"That's the last of them," Mike Evans called out, signaling to traffic controllers and the air boss. Elijah counted the planes once more, certain of his count. There were only eleven planes. No sign of Erin.

"Mikey!" Elijah called after the pilot as he walked along the deck. "There's only eleven planes. There's supposed to be twelve."

"I know that, Howard," Mike spat, continuing to walk, barely acknowledging Elijah's presence.

"Mikey, don't do this to me!" Elijah yelled, moving his legs faster. He caught Mike squarely between the shoulders and brashly turned around the larger man, who scowled down at Elijah unpleasantly.

"Where's Erin?" Elijah demanded, heart pounding in his throat. His eyes searched the rough pilot's face, noting the tired, worn eyes and unfailingly sour frown that seemed to pull every feature down with it. Mike sighed and looked toward Elijah with a gaze of absolute, pathetic pity.

"Howard," Mike began, voice and spirit heavy, "She went down."

"This was supposed to be a routine flight! You can't possibly tell me that -"

"I know! That's what we all thought. But they came in fast, and they were all over us. She was doing everything she could, but they got her with a sidewinder. Some of the boys thought they saw a parachute, but we couldn't get a visual. I'm sorry, son. She was a hell of a pilot, believe me, and her loss will be felt. But she's gone. You need to accept that."

Elijah shook his head, staring at the gray surface of the flight deck. Something snapped within him, and adrenaline coursed through his veins. Pure rage and anger conflicted inside him as grief threatened to tear him in two. He blinked back the misty tears that clung to his vision and set his jaw firmly.

"I refuse to believe that," Elijah murmured. "She's alive. Somewhere, I don't know where. But I'm not giving up on her. We need to find her."

"We don't have the resources," Mike began.

"I don't care!" Elijah roared in response. "She's out there, alive, somewhere. She's always been a fighter. Always. And I refuse to write her off until I'm given proof that she's dead. I'm going to find her. Somehow."

He turned and stormed off the deck, mind racing. Raw emotion began to take over. He looked at the sun, sliding down the horizon, the last few rays of light quickly dissipating. He hoped, desperately, that somewhere, Erin was looking at the same sun, drawing its last ounces of warmth and feeling some semblance of comfort. He had to find her. He'd always been waiting, but now the time of waiting was over.

It was his time to bring her home. Safe. Like she should have always been.

Fighter Pilot Terms (my pathetic little attempt to educate the world):

Check Six - The equivalent of "look behind you." Checking one's six usually means that there's something behind the aircraft that needs to be noted, like an enemy plane or missile.

Sidewinder - a heat seeking missile

Catch the Spaghetti - fighter pilot slang for catching the trap wires on the deck of an aircraft carrier and landing an airplane safely

Reviews appreciated (and I'll try my best to reply to all of them!). Thank you for reading!