Disclaimer: Space: Above and Beyond copyright Fox
Television, characters not used by permission. Hopefully neither they, nor the
incomparable Morgan and Wong will take exception. Thanks guys, for creating
characters so memorable they have minds of their own.
Warning: This one's not *quite* in my usual style. I tried, I really tried,
but T.C. McQueen is *the* single most stubborn character I have *ever* written
about. He absolutely refused to cooperate, and was quite clear what he would,
and wouldn't accept. So, I apologize to my faithful readers in advance, this
one's barely PG-13. :-) I hope you enjoy it anyway.
kellie at mrks.org
Constructive comments gladly accepted, flames deposited in the nearest fireproof dustbin.
c. 1998, Kellie Matthews
Fire! Oh, God, Shane could feel the heat, burning through her, blistering her skin. She struggled, trying to stand up, to run, but trying to move was like swimming through mud.
"Gotta get away," she told herself, hearing her own voice, thick and hoarse. "Warn th' others . . . fire . . ."
Something touched her face, cool and damp. It felt heavenly.
"Shhhh, Vansen. There's no fire. Settle down."
The husky, yet precise voice with its anomalous almost-drawl reassured her. She knew that voice, trusted it implicitly. If McQueen said there was no fire, there was no fire. She opened her eyes, but it was very dark, she could barely see the silver of his hair and the pale blur of his face.
"No fire?" She asked, just to be sure.
She saw him shake his head. "No fire. You're very ill, running a fever. Go back to sleep now, you need it."
"I know." The cool touch returned, sliding across her forehead, down her cheek, her throat, her chest, her stomach. She shivered in relief, and something else, something that made her warm in an entirely different way.
"Good. Go on now, back to sleep."
She closed her eyes. He wouldn't let her burn.
* * *
The world rocked. Shane felt like some giant had reached down and caught her, shaking her like a rag-doll. Her teeth chattered, her jaw taut with strain.
"Damn it, Vansen, open your mouth!"
That was an order, she could hear it in his voice. With difficulty, she opened her mouth, and something hard and roundish that tasted like graphite slid between her teeth. When the world shook again, the hard thing made it easier to bear, kept her teeth from grinding. After the earthquake subsided, she felt someone's hand on her forehead.
"Don't you die on me, Vansen," McQueen said harshly.
She almost smiled. "Order?"
"You'd better believe it, Marine."
She felt herself slipping over the edge of the world again. As she did, she heard his voice, desperate, aching.
"Vansen? Shane, no! Don't let it win. Fight, damn it!"
She wanted to fight, because he wanted her to. She would follow him into hell if he asked, but she had nothing to fight with.
"Can't," she sighed.
"Can!" McQueen said, taking her hand in his. "You can do it. I'd bet you still have it in you."
"Bet?" Shane stirred, as always drawn to the gamble.
"Anything you want. Just live."
She did smile then. Anything bet. Best kind. "'Kay. Deal."
She yawned, and closed her eyes. Tired, so tired.
* * *
"C'mon, Vansen, open up," McQueen's voice coaxed. Shane boggled at the thought of him coaxing rather than ordering, and did as he'd asked. He put something small and slick in her mouth and instinctively she bit down, then gagged on the bitter taste of whatever it was. She would have spit it out but his hand cupped her chin, forcing her mouth closed.
"Don't you dare spit that out," he commanded. "Here, drink this."
She felt moisture against her lips as he let go of her chin, and she opened her mouth. Water filled it, sluicing away the bitter taste. She drank greedily, sucking down the moisture that seemed like ambrosia, but too soon he took away the source. She whimpered, reaching for it. He caught her hands and pressed them back down.
"Not too much now. More in a little bit."
"Now!" She demanded.
"I want to make sure it stays down first. Just wait."
Too weak to protest, she subsided. "Where'r we?" Shane managed to croak.
She frowned, trying to concentrate. Antiope 6. She remembered the game plan, a quick in-and-out raid on a Chig-occupied mining facility. She remembered getting off the APC, remembered a firefight, nothing after that. Her time sense must be all screwed up. It felt like days had passed.
"It doesn't matter. You need to rest now."
She struggled, looking around for Nathan, Coop, 'Phousse, or Wang. "Where's everyone?"
"They're safe, relax."
* * *
Nightmares came, dark, and hot; broken by
brief dreams of relief when something cool and soft quenched the burning,
eased the pain. Sometimes starting at her feet, sometimes on her face,
the coolness would glide over her body, her breasts, her thighs, her
calves, like a the touch of a ice-eyed snowman. Each time it returned,
the cool made her feel better, taking away the maddening ache of joints
and skin, but rousing other aches that built with each repetition until
finally she grabbed the ice-elemental's hand and put it where she needed
it to be. He fought capture but she persisted. Eventually he
surrendered, and his wintery touch was all it took for her to burst into
delight. As if she'd absorbed his cold fire into her being, the heat in
her body seemed to recede along with each pulsing wave, leaving her
sweating and limp. She slept.
* * *
Shane opened her eyes. God, she felt like she'd been rode hard and put away wet. Every muscle in her body ached as if she'd run two marathons in a row without a break. Suppressing a groan, she levered herself up on her elbows and looked around. The first thing she noticed was McQueen, lying on the floor beside her, his head pillowed on one arm, sound asleep. His face was drawn and lined with exhaustion, and several days' growth of beard obscured his normally clean-shaven countenance. She frowned. What the hell? As she awkwardly sat up the rest of the way, the ugly green blanket slid down to her waist and she discovered she was buck naked beneath it. Shooting a glance at McQueen, she was glad to find him still asleep as she tugged the blanket back up and looked around.
They were in what looked like the container portion of an APC. Alone, by the looks of things. Though he was bedded down on the floor, there was something softer than steel decking beneath her. Curious, she looked at her 'bed' and discovered it was a pile of grass and leaves with a rain-poncho spread over it. She looked at McQueen, wondering if that had been his doing. Probably. It was just the sort of ingenious and terribly efficient thing she would expect of him. None of that explained what they were doing there, though, or where her clothes were, or why McQueen looked like death warmed-over.
Deliberately she raked her memories, and came up almost blank. Just a few incoherent snatches that could be memories, or dreams. She hoped they were dreams, because some of them made her eye McQueen and blush. She'd always thought he was a good-looking man, but ever since Winslow had commented on how much he turned her on, Shane had been hard put to sublimate that feeling like she usually did. It was as if hearing her perceptions confirmed by someone else had made him even more interesting. She shook her head, sighing. She was definitely in need of some R&R. She wondered how much the rental boys were going for these days on the Bacchus. Maybe next time she got leave, she'd find a blonde, and do him in Winslow's honor.
Well, enough of that. Time to take a better look around. She held onto the blanket with one hand, and tried to get to her knees. Bad idea. Her surroundings wavered and blurred in her vision, as a wave of weakness swept through her. She dropped the blanket and steadied herself with both hands.
"Whoa girl!" she whispered to herself. "Better rethink that plan."
At the sound of her voice, McQueen sat bolt upright, staring at her as if he'd seen a ghost. Shane tried to grab the blanket, overbalanced and sat down, hard, but at least her head wasn't spinning any more.
"Vansen? You coherent?" He asked finally.
She thought about it a moment, and nodded. "I think so, sir. A little weak, but here."
He closed his eyes, an expression of utter relief flooding his normally impassive features. She got the impression that if he were given to such utterances he would have been thanking some deity or other. He reached over and put his hand on her forehead, then let it slide down behind her ear to check her temperature there where it was more accurate.
"Good, I think your fever's finally broken," he said, moving his hand back up to her forehead. She flinched a little as she felt him peel back a bandage she hadn't realized was there, but he was gentle and it didn't really hurt. He nodded approvingly, and took her chin in his hand, turning her face toward the light as he gazed into her eyes. "No uneven dilation, that's good."
His hand on her face stirred memories of her dreams, embarrassing, distracting. She thought she could smell herself on his fingers, where they lay against her cheek. Not sweat, or perfume, but the unique scent of her own arousal. Was she imagining it? Surely she must be. She met his eyes, curious, and self-conscious. He looked back at her, as usual his gaze revealing nothing of his inner thoughts. She wished she knew how he did that. It was a skill she'd like to cultivate. He let go of her chin and sat back.
"Welcome back to the land of the living. I wasn't sure you were going to make it."
"Was I that bad?" she asked hoarsely.
He nodded, his jaw set. Knowing the man wasn't prone to exaggeration, she had to believe him. She looked around, then back at him.
"What happened? I don't remember much."
A tiny flicker of something showed in his eyes but before she had time to identify it, it was gone.
"We put down on Antiope 6, along with the 43rd and the 135th. We encountered unusually heavy resistance, and had to request immediate extraction. The 43rd was pinned, and we went out to draw enemy fire away so they could make it to the extraction point. You disappeared. I went after you and sent the others back so they wouldn't miss their extraction. It took me awhile to find you. You'd taken a head injury, and were concussed. Apparently you also took exception to some local microbe, because you've had one hell of a fever. At one point you were convulsing. I grabbed the first thing that came to hand to keep you from biting your tongue." He picked up an object off the floor and held it out.
Shane took it, seeing teeth-marks cut deeply into the pencil's wooden shaft. Earthquakes, and graphite. That, at least, hadn't been a dream. She ran a hand through her hair and grimaced, it was lank and felt greasy.
"How long have we been here?"
Shane stared at him blankly. He must have misspoken. "Six hours?"
He shook his head. "Days."
"But . . ." She looked around. "Just us?"
"Nobody here but us chickens."
She laughed a little at that, but it made her head hurt, plus it was beginning to dawn on her exactly what her being semi-conscious for six days must have meant. He had cared for her like a nurse, with all the intimacy that implied. Long ago, in some other lifetime, she'd babysat; she knew what was involved with caring for someone who had no control over their bodily functions. No wonder she was naked. She flushed with embarrassment, but was grateful just the same.
"Colonel McQueen, I don't know how to thank you. I . . ." she let her sentence trail off, unable to articulate everything she was thinking.
McQueen shook his head. "You'd have done the same for me."
He was right, of course. She would have, and gladly, but that was beside the point. "That doesn't make it any less exceptional."
He shrugged. "Looks bad when people die on my watch."
Shane could tell he was uncomfortable with her thanks, so she let it drop. Six days. She shook her head. It was bad enough with an infant, it had to be much worse playing nurse to an unconscious adult. Six days. . .
"So, when are they coming back for us?"
He sighed. She didn't like that. He didn't usually do that.
"What?" She prompted.
"They're not. As far as the Saratoga is concerned, we're dead. I have a working transmitter, but it's too hot out there to risk a signal that would draw the Chigs to our location. I don't know what we stumbled into here, but I've never seen such a high level of aerial traffic. We have to wait for things to cool down before we can try signaling."
Shane sighed. "Oh hell. Missing in action again? Nobody told me when I signed up that getting left for dead on Chig-infested hellholes was going to be a monthly occurrence."
McQueen chuckled. "Well, it's not exactly something they're going to put in the recruiting brochures, now is it?"
She grinned. "No, I suppose not."
He stood up then, and walked over to one of the storage lockers, sorting through it until he found whatever it was he'd been looking for. He turned back to her, holding a small Mylar packet.
"How's your stomach?"
She considered it. It growled in response. "Empty," she concluded
He looked amused. "No nausea?"
She shook her head. "Not so far."
"Good, because you need to eat something. ER-powder only goes so far, and you haven't been keeping down half of that. How do peaches sound?"
A rush of saliva burst over her tongue in anticipation of even MRE peaches. "Like heaven," she sighed. "Gimme."
His expression of amusement deepened. "Gimme, sir."
She grinned. "Gimme, sir," she echoed, holding out her hand.
He handed her the packet, and she ripped open the seal an inch or so, then sucked out one of the slices. Intense sweetness filled her mouth, a taste like flowers smelled. She closed her eyes in pure pleasure and rolled the piece of fruit across her tongue, absorbing the flavor. Processing had weakened the fruit's cohesion, so she didn't even have to chew it to break it apart. Slowly she swallowed, and sighed. "Oh, yeah. God, that's almost as good as . . ."
She broke off, realizing what she'd almost said, and looked up to find McQueen watching her, with that faintly amused expression that he used instead of a smile. She looked at him with lifted eyebrows. "Take a picture, it lasts longer," she said flippantly, feeling reckless.
He shook his head, grinning. "Enough, Vansen. I can see you're feeling better. Go slow with the rest of those until you're sure they're going to stay down. I'd prefer not to play swabbie any more than I have to."
Reminded of the situation and of what he'd already probably done for
her, her lighthearted response seemed a little out of line and she sobered
quickly. "You won't, sir."
* * *
The peaches stayed down. So did half an energy-bar. Unfortunately McQueen decided that was enough for the moment, though even room-temperature, Mylar-encased soy-enhanced 'meatloaf' sounded good to her right now. Personally Shane thought his bedside manner needed work. Taking the meal-packet right out of her hands was really too much. She knew better than to disobey a direct order, though, so when he left the APC to go 'scavenging' she didn't even venture near the food locker. Knowing him, he'd memorized the contents and would know if she took anything. She did check all the other lockers, though, looking for her clothes. She found her helmet, pack, weapons, boots, socks, and, tucked inside one boot, the patches that had once adorned her fatigues, but nothing else. She was baffled. Why had he removed the patches, and what had he done with the rest of her stuff? Where the hell were her clothes? Did he expect her to sit around in the nude? If so, then he'd damn sure better be prepared to do the same. The thought made her a little warm. To distract herself, she poked around the APC until she got shaky and had to rest again.
She hated being weak, she hated being bored, and she was uncomfortable being naked. It made her feel vulnerable. What if a Chig came by to check the place? McQueen had told her that the undamaged container had been abandoned several months earlier when the Chigs had taken the planet. It was grown over with the local version of kudzu, and the Chigs had apparently gotten used to it being there, and ignored it. Unfortunately, you never knew when a Chig was going to get curious. Driven to do something, Shane figured out a way to cris-cross the blanket over her front and tie it behind her neck so it would stay up. Not exactly classic evening wear, but better than constantly having to hold it in place.
She heard noises outside, and adrenalin flooded through her. She scrambled to the locker that held her gear, grabbed her weapon and aimed it at the hatch until an oddly rhythmic rapping sounded. She lowered the weapon and started to laugh, shaking her head. McQueen had a bizarre sense of humor. She slapped the door twice to complete the traditional 'two bits' sequence, and released the lock.
The door swung open, and a shadow-clad McQueen handed in two water containers and an oddly shaped bundle before climbing in himself . He pulled off the balaclava that had hidden his distinctive hair and fair skin from the night, and his gaze swept the APC as if to reassure himself everything was normal. It came to rest on her weapon and he nodded approvingly.
"Good, never take chances. I figured you'd know that knock, but we should have agreed on a signal before I left, I guess I'm more out of it than I thought."
Shane eyed him, and nodded. "No offense, sir, but you look all in."
"That I am, Vansen." He turned around to shut the hatch, then leaned a hand against the door and stretched forward, working out kinks in his shoulders, no doubt from carrying the water. She'd lugged those damned containers before, they weighed a ton, and somehow she doubted he'd found water anywhere close.
Shane's gaze slid down the length of him, resting for a moment on the taut curve of his ass. That Bacchus-boy would have to meet some pretty strict qualifications if she was really going to do Winslow proud. She wondered briefly if there was some way to find out McQueen's facility and batch number, and see if he had any sibs on the pleasure ship. Her face heated as she realized what she was considering, and she shook her head, aghast. Shit, after all he'd done for her she was ashamed of herself for even thinking it. She put down her weapon and moved forward, putting her hands on his shoulders to try to reciprocate his care of her by kneading the knots out.
He whipped around, startled, and she lost her balance. She flailed, and he grabbed her to keep her from falling. They stood body to body for a moment before he quickly let her go and stepped back, frowning slightly, looking oddly wary.
"Sorry, sir. I should have asked. I just thought I might be able to help."
She gestured at his shoulder. "The knots. 'Phousse and Wang say I'm pretty good with my hands. I didn't think."
He shook his head. "No, it's all right. You just startled me. I'm not used to . . ." He stopped, a peculiar expression on his face. "Anyway, thanks for the offer, but you don't have to do that."
Not used to what, Shane wondered. Not used to being touched? Come to think of it, she couldn't think of a single time that she had seen anyone touch the man. Ever. God, that would be awful. It wasn't just that he was a Tank, Hawkes was one, and he got his share of the usual comradely back-pats, butt-slaps, hair-ruffling, and the occasional hug. No, McQueen cultivated an air of aloofness that discouraged even an accidental touch. Why?
For the first time she began to wonder just what had gone into the making of him. He'd definitely left a broken mold behind somewhere. She scowled, suddenly feeling protective. It just wasn't right that he took such good care of the 58th, but no one ever looked after him. However, he was skittish as a wild horse and wouldn't trust easily; so what was the best tactic to use? As he leaned down to pick up the other bundle he'd brought back, she finally decided on the right way to go.
"I know I don't have to do it," she said haughtily. "If I had to, I wouldn't have offered."
He looked up, his aquamarine gaze perplexed. She'd startled him again. She quickly switched gears, trying to keep him off-balance. "Please, I'd like to, you've done so much for me."
He stood holding the bundle, looking awkward. "You've been ill," he said, as if that had anything to do with it.
She chose to misinterpret his concern. "Hey, if you were gonna catch what I had, you'd have got it by now. Come on. I really do know what I'm doing, I took a class. Or are you afraid I might hurt you?" That did it, he scowled. Shane bit her lip to keep from grinning. Hah, time to reel him in. "You don't need to be. I'm still kind of weak, my hands aren't at full strength."
He eyed her narrowly, and for just a moment she thought he'd seen through her game, then he shrugged. "If you like. Thanks." He stood there, holding the bundle, waiting.
She shook her head, sighing. "You have to put that down, and take off your jacket. I can't work on you like that. What's in there anyway?"
"Food, medkits, some other supplies."
"Where'd they come from?"
His jaw tightened. "A couple of downed craft, not too far from here."
She knew him well enough to know what that little muscle twitch meant. "No survivors?"
He shook his head. "Not after the Chigs found them, at any rate."
"Anyone we know?"
He shook his head, and they were silent a moment in an unconscious salute to fallen comrades, then he headed for the food locker with his bundle, and Shane cleared her throat.
He turned. "Captain?"
"You were going to put that down," she reminded him.
He looked faintly sheepish, as if he'd hoped she'd forgotten, but he did put it down.
Shane took a seat in the communications chair and swivelled it around so it faced the room instead of the console. "Jacket, off. Sit, there." She pointed at the floor in front of her.
He stripped down to his undershirt and eyed the floor warily until Shane was beginning to wonder if she needed a handful of sugar-cubes to coax him, but eventually he complied, dropping easily into a cross-legged position that said interesting things about his flexibility. Tentatively she reached out and put her hands on his shoulders. He didn't flinch, barely, but his spine was arrow-straight, every muscle taut. She ran her fingers over his scalene and trapezius muscles, and found them hard as rocks too.
"It'd help if you relaxed a little," she suggested.
"I am relaxed," he countered.
"Yeah, right," she muttered, and gave his left shoulder a slight push with her palm. It didn't move, not even a fraction of an inch. "Look, you're supposed to move when I do that, not resist. Think Zen or something."
McQueen nodded, and changed position slightly, placing his hands palm-up on his thighs. She heard his breathing change, even out, deepen. After a little while she tried her test again, and this time he swayed easily with her touch. Shane was amazed at the difference a couple of minutes made. A little nervously, she set to work, and quickly found that though he was less tense, he wasn't what she'd call relaxed. She worked deep, but gentle, not knowing his tolerances. Some people didn't think they were getting a massage unless it hurt, but she didn't like to be that harsh.
She started to shift her hands to his neck, then stopped suddenly, remembering that supposedly an In-Vitro's 'navel' was a source of sexual stimulation. If correct, that helped explain his earlier reaction. Part of her was tempted to find out, but a much larger part of her warned caution. If it was true, it spoke volumes about his trust in her that he would even let her touch him like this. She returned to his shoulders instead, going low instead of high. Beneath her hands his body felt every bit as solid as it looked, and very, very nice. She noticed that both his t-shirt and the short-cropped hair along the back of his neck were still slightly damp with sweat from his exertions, which for some odd reason, really got her going. She forced herself to concentrate before the massage turned into a caress.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, his muscles unknotted. By the time
she finally felt he was even halfway back to functionality, she was
exhausted herself. It wasn't until she leaned forward to tell him she
needed to stop that she realized he was asleep. She sat there for a
minute in complete surprise, barely able to believe he'd actually gone to
sleep sitting there with her feet under his butt and her shins supporting
his lower back, but he had. If she moved, she'd wake him, but she was
about to nod off herself. Finally she just slouched back against the
chair and let her head droop. It was as good a place as any to sleep.
* * *
McQueen woke slowly from dreams that left him uncomfortable in several senses of the word. It was bad enough having the occasional waking illicit thought about someone under his command, without having his subconscious start in on him as well. He didn't open his eyes, not quite ready to face the day, or the person he'd been dreaming about, yet. After a moment it occurred to him that he was sleeping in a pretty damned odd position, sitting up, but slouched to one side, his cheek resting against something warm, and silky. His hand was curled around something else that was warm and silky, but irregularly shaped and hard under the surface. He finally decided he had to open his eyes, if for no other reason than to figure out exactly where he was.
It took him a good few seconds to figure it out. His pillow was kind of a peachy-tan in color, and seen this close, he could make out a fine tracery of lines, and tiny dimples . . . weird. McQueen tipped his head back a little so he could look up, and nearly had heart failure as it hit him exactly where he was. He let go of Vansen's ankle as if scalded and sat up straight so he wasn't using her inner thigh for a cushion anymore. Thankfully she was asleep; at least, he prayed she wasn't faking. Shit. No wonder he'd been dreaming . . . what he'd been dreaming.
When he moved far enough away for his own peace, Vansen stirred, frowning a little in her sleep, one hand sliding down her thigh to touch the spot where his head had rested. He closed his eyes and clenched his fists, trying to stop remembering what her skin felt like under his hands as he'd bathed her, trying to bring down her temperature. He'd had no choice, really. She would have died if he hadn't been able to cool her off. It had seemed harmless enough until she'd grabbed his hand and demonstrated just how not-harmless it was. The girl had a helluva grip on her, he mused, rubbing absently at the faint bruises circling his right wrist.
It wasn't her fault, really. She'd been delirious, completely out of her head. He'd actually understood the need for something, anything, that felt good when you were that sick. He'd resisted, but hadn't wanted to actually hurt her, which is what it would have taken to pry her fingers from his wrist. In the end, not even certain she would live to regret it, he'd given in. He tried to convince himself that it was no big deal, but he was having a hard time believing it. There were just too many layers of taboo on Shane Vansen. Not only was she a Natural Born, she was a junior officer, and under his command as well.
It had definitely been a mistake. Stupid. He just had to forget about it. Simple enough. Yeah, sure, he thought, shaking his head. Simple. Right. So why was he dreaming about her? How could he forget the creamy heat of her under his fingers, the way her hips lifted, or the catch in her breathing as she came? Clearly it had been too long since he'd been with a woman, if two minutes could affect him like this. Unfortunately, that wasn't a situation that looked to be remedied anytime soon.
Unsettled, he wondered why the hell she had let him fall asleep like that. As sick as she'd been, she ought to be lying down, not sleeping uncomfortably in a chair. For that matter, why had he let himself fall asleep like that? It was sheer idiocy. Not to mention letting her touch him to begin with. Damn it, he knew better. He should have refused, but he hadn't wanted to hurt her feelings. Natural-Borns just didn't understand boundaries, they were always doing stuff like that, friendly things. He knew what that led to, once they remembered what he was.
Vansen, and the rest of the 58 were better than most, they were pretty good to Hawkes, but they still hurt him sometimes just because they didn't understand that sometimes it's better not to know what you're missing. McQueen looked at her again, and his irritation resurfaced, he couldn't leave her like that. He got up and went to stand beside her, gently shaking her.
She woke up, blinking sleepily, and looked up at him, her sulky mouth curving in a startlingly sweet smile. She stretched like a cat, with her whole body, purring. He tried not to notice.
"Reveille already?" she asked, her voice husky with sleep.
"No, I just thought you should get out of that chair and back to bed."
Vansen frowned. "Why? I like this chair. It's comfortable."
He eyed her irritably. Why did she have to be so contrary? "Just do it."
She got up and shot him a dark look. "Somebody sure woke up on the wrong side of bed."
He shook his head. "You have no idea," he muttered under his breath.
Vansen plopped down onto her pallet and rolled onto her stomach, propping her chin on her hands. "By the way, Colonel, where are my clothes?"
He sighed. He'd wondered when she was going to get around to asking that. The explanation was both simple, and complicated. "I buried them."
She gaped. "You what?"
"I buried them. Believe me, they weren't salvageable."
"What do you mean, not salvageable? I had a head injury! That wouldn't have done anything to my uniform!"
"Correct, as far as it goes. You had a head injury, and some kind of bacterial infection. Your clothing was contaminated. Also, you lay there unconscious for several hours before I found you, and there are no laundry facilities here, and do you really want me to go on with this explanation?"
She looked at him for a long, thoughtful moment, then color washed across her face and her gaze slipped away from his. "Uh, no. I think I get it."
Good. He really hadn't wanted to get into detail.
Vansen gave an irritated-sounding sigh and looked up at him crabbily. "So, I get to parade around here like Miss Refugee 2064, hunh? How the hell am I supposed to go out reconnoitering and scavenging in this?"
"You're not, I am. You're supposed to stay in here and get well."
"I am well!" she snapped, then looked a little sheepish. "Well, mostly. I always recover quickly, you've seen my sick-leave records." Her chin went out stubbornly. "I do not plan to be stuck in here until they come back for us. You said yourself there's no way of knowing how long that will be! I will go stark looney if I can't leave this room!"
He held up his hands in surrender. "All right, Vansen, we'll figure something out. Settle down."
She looked slightly mollified and lay there for a moment, then she rolled off the pallet and got up. He crossed his arms and glared at her.
"Hang on, just where do you think you're going?"
She met his gaze. "To the head."
He felt his face heat. He'd been taking care of her for so long it hadn't occurred to him she could do for herself now. He nodded curtly. "Carry on."
Her eyes gleamed with amusement at his discomfort. He wanted to laugh at himself, but couldn't quite let go of his dignity enough to do it. As the door to the head closed behind her, he dropped into the seat she'd vacated. It was still faintly warm from her body, which he really shouldn't be noticing. He had to get his mind on something else, something mundane and practical.
Clothes, of course she'd need clothes. He'd realized that even before he'd decided to get rid of her fatigues, but apart from his fear that they might harbor a communicable disease he simply hadn't felt able to take the time away from caring for her to try to figure out how to clean them. Nor, if he was honest, had he been completely sure she'd ever need them again. Thankfully, she did. Unfortunately he couldn't just requisition something for her from Ship's Stores. Still, there had to be an obvious solution. He slouched in the chair, thoughtfully tugging at the neck of his T-shirt.
Suddenly he looked over at his fatigue jacket, still lying where he'd tossed it the night before. He frowned. Sloppy, that, it wasn't like him. Still, it was the answer he needed. He got up and picked up the jacket, placing it on the communications console, then untucked his T-shirt. As he pulled it over his head, he heard Vansen re-enter the room. Timing was apparently not his strong suit. He finished stripping off the shirt and turned to find her standing in the doorway. Her gaze moved down him, took in the scars that corded his skin, and something flickered in her eyes. Not pity, not even sympathy, but an acknowledgment of what they meant, the pain they represented.
He felt a little strange to have her looking at him like that, so he wadded up the shirt and threw it to her. "Here, part one."
She caught the shirt, looked from him to it, then back, and smiled. "Thanks."
As he pulled the fatigue jacket on over bare skin, she spoke again.
"So where's part two?"
He buttoned the jacket, smiling a little. "Still on me. You're gonna have to wait a few."
He snuck a look at her out of the corner of his eye, watched her figure
it out and look like she was about to protest, then apparently think
better of it. As the saying went, beggars couldn't be choosers. Besides,
they were regulation issue, she normally wore a pair just like them
* * *
The only problem with wearing McQueen's stuff, Shane mused, was that it was too big in the waist. Well, not quite the only problem, there was another one she was trying hard not to dwell on. The one she did let herself think about was the fact that his shorts didn't want to stay up. When she walked, they slid lower with every step she took until they got to her hips, so she had to hitch them back up about every five steps. Not exactly functional. She'd tried tying a length of cord around the waist as a makeshift belt, but after awhile the waistband would manage to slide out from under the cord and she'd be back where she started from. It was getting annoying.
Of course, so was sitting around doing nothing. At least he was letting her eat when she wanted to, having finally decided that she wasn't going to puke her guts up at the slightest provocation. No wonder he was divorced, the man must be hell to live with. Overprotective as all get out. The way he was acting, she was surprised he ever let the 58th leave the Saratoga at all. Shane sent up a silent prayer to whatever Gods were out there that the Chigs would leave Antiope soon, otherwise she might just go out of her gourd. Boredom was a terrible thing. She'd searched the APC twice, and found nothing of a recreational nature at all. No books, no magazines, not even a comic. There were a couple of instruction manuals, but that was worse than nothing. She hadn't realized how much she depended on her squad-mates for company. Here there was no one to talk to except McQueen, and she hadn't yet figured out how to start an actual conversation with him.
Shane had no idea what his interests were, outside of the Corps. She knew he'd been with the Angels, but she didn't want to come across like some kind of groupie so she avoided that topic. She didn't know what kind of music he liked-- if any, what sort of books he read, what vids he favored . . . nothing except the facts that he drank his scotch neat and played a mean game of poker. She wondered if it would be any different if he wasn't a Tank. An In-Vitro, she corrected herself. Coop hated being called a Tank. McQueen seemed indifferent to it, even used it himself on occasion, but that was his prerogative. What would he be like if he'd been Natural-Born? It was an interesting speculation.
She shifted position slightly on her pallet so she could see him, and watched covertly as he sat writing. She wondered what he was writing. Was it a mission report, or something more personal? She still remembered the stark beauty of the poem he'd read to them as they boarded the Chig fighter before their mission to Kazbek. It had stunned her, stunned all of them, when he'd admitted he was the author. From that moment on, their perception of him had subtly changed, broadened. She wondered, if the option had been open to him, would he have become an author instead of a Marine? Even being an In-Vitro, Shane had no doubt that if McQueen wanted to, he could. He would apply himself to whatever he did with the same single-minded intensity that he brought to war-craft.
Normally she gave little thought to the trials of being an In-Vitro. Usually she just considered what a nuisance Hawkes' naivete and lack of focus could be. Had McQueen started out like that too, or had he been born with that laser-like intensity already part of him? How did one go from being a "Hawkes" to being a "McQueen"? Was it all just life experience, or was there more to it? How had her grandfather always put it? Oh yes, she remembered now. He'd have said McQueen was an 'old soul.' Surely no one could attain those icy depths in a single lifetime.
Apparently her covert gaze had gotten a bit too open. McQueen suddenly looked up from his page straight into her eyes. "Something I can do for you, Captain?"
Shane scrambled for an answer, embarrassed to have been caught staring. "Uh, no sir. I was just kind of thinking, you know, trying to come up with something to do about these shorts."
His gaze shifted from her face to her legs and back. "Is there a problem?"
Crud. She hadn't really meant to complain. "No, no, of course not! They're fine, but well, they just won't stay up."
He considered that for a moment. "Come here."
Uh-oh. What now? She got up and walked over to where he sat, having to hitch them up twice just in that short stretch. The corners of his mouth twitched, but he didn't say a word, just gestured for her to turn around as he assessed the problem, then he got out his knife and flicked it open.
"Um, sir?" Shane said uncertainly. What on earth did he intend to do with that?
"I need a piece of string, or some cord, maybe a bootlace."
Shane lifted the t-shirt just enough to show the cord around her waist. "I tried that already. It doesn't work."
"You tried something, but not what I have in mind. Hold the shirt out of the way and keep still."
She complied while he proceeded to make a series of small slits in the heavy knit fabric of the shorts, just below the elastic. He had to turn her twice as he worked, his hand against her waist. She tried very hard not to notice how his fingers felt against her skin, or that his head was bent so close to her she had only to move a fraction of an inch to feel his hair against her belly. Closing the knife, McQueen put it aside then untied the cord from around her waist and proceeded to and weave it in and out of the slits until he finally finished with the makeshift drawstring and tied it closed on one side. The shorts were now in no danger of slipping. They were a tad snug across her hips, he was clearly narrower through that area than she was, but at least the waist was where it was supposed to be. He sat back looking satisfied.
"There. Happy now?"
Shane stared down at his handiwork. So simple, so ingenious, why hadn't she thought of it herself? She nodded. "Thank you."
He turned back to his writing. She snuck a glance at it, and frowned, trying to figure out what language it was. It sure didn't look like English. Without looking up, McQueen spoke again.
"Will there be anything else, Captain Vansen?"
She snapped her gaze away from the page and shook her head. "No,
nothing. Thanks again." She retreated to her pallet and lay back down.
Nothing to do but sleep, she guessed.
* * *
Things settled into a routine. They slept during the day when any activity was most likely to be noticed by the Chigs, and once night fell they were often able to leave the concealment of the APC. Shane discovered that McQueen was keeping a log of Chig activity, which did, bit by bit, appear to be decreasing. Oddly, they had encountered no ground patrols at all. Not a single one. Just the activity at the mine itself, and the air traffic. Together they scouted all the downed human craft within a three-mile radius, burying bodies when they found them, and collecting identification so relatives could eventually be notified. She found it a grim, but ultimately satisfying task. They had to replenish their water supply every couple of days from the stream. Determined to wash her hair, Shane located small pool downstream from where they got their water that was deep enough to bathe in. They each took a turn standing watch while the other had a quick, cold bath. And, of course, she'd peeked. She couldn't resist. It was worth the risk.
Kelly would've been jealous as hell. The man had a body that just didn't quit. Broad shoulders, narrow hips, strong, muscular thighs, and that butt . . . Mostly she'd just seen him from the back because he'd been facing away from her, but she had caught a glimpse of more just as he'd turned to leave the water. If he looked like that after several minutes in cold water, what would he be like under more favorable circumstances?
To her disgust, she'd be willing to bet a week's pay that McQueen hadn't so much as spared her a glance, damn it. So much for the vaunted 'Tank hypersexuality.' Another myth bit the dust. In fact he hadn't wanted her to go into the water at all, afraid the cold would be too much for her recuperating immune system, but had finally given in after she hadn't shown any signs of a relapse for several days.
Unfortunately none of the duties they'd taken on really filled her time. She looked over at McQueen, where he sat looking serene. That irritated the hell out of her. How come he wasn't bored out of his skull? If Hawkes hadn't taught her otherwise, she would swear that In-Vitro's must have a genetically engineered anti-boredom gland or something. She completed her fortieth circuit of the APC's forward section and sighed loudly.
"Did you know there are five-hundred and twenty seven rivets in this section? How do I know you ask? Because I counted them! Five times! There are also 7 misaligned floor plates and . . ."
McQueen looked up, his expression as irritated as she felt. "Captain, if you don't stop pacing, I'm going to tie you to the deck."
Shane eyed him for a moment, pleased to have finally gotten a response out of him, even an annoyed one, then she turned away, muttering. "Promises, promises," under her breath.
She turned back, widening her eyes innocently. "Nothing, sir."
From the expression on his face she was pretty sure he'd heard her. Shane looked away, chewing at the inner corner of her lip. Damn it. Was the man oblivious? Did she have to trip him and beat him to the floor or what? Of course, she knew it was against regs but hell, who was gonna know about it? It wasn't like they were on the Saratoga where no one had anything better to do than pay attention to other people's business. The only other sentients on the planet were Chigs.
For that matter, who knew how long they were going to be stuck here? For all they knew, the Chigs had decided to make this place their new central HQ. They might never get off. It sure looked like she wouldn't at any rate. She suddenly realized she'd thought a pun, and smiled to herself.
"Something funny, Captain?"
She looked up, found McQueen watching her, and felt her face heat. "Umm, no, it doesn't . . . translate."
He sighed. "Too bad, I could use something humorous about now."
"Did you hear the one about the Chig and the . . ."
He grinned. "Heard it."
"Oh. Sorry, that's my only joke."
He shook his head. "Vansen, that's a sad comment."
She smiled ruefully. "I know."
"You're too serious. You need to lighten up."
She stared at him, her mouth open in shock. After a few seconds she closed it and shook her head, looking at him with lifted eyebrows. "Pot. Kettle. Black."
He chuckled. "Guilty."
She sighed. "I need something to do."
"I thought you were doing a fine job counting rivets."
She shot him a look that would have incinerated a lesser man, and he just smiled.
"How do you do that?" Shane asked, uncomfortably aware that she was dangerously close to whining.
"Be so . . . calm. Doesn't it bother you, doing nothing?"
He looked sympathetic. "It used to."
"So what changed?"
She rolled her eyes. "That's not very helpful."
McQueen put down his pen. "What changed was that I learned how to channel that impatience. When I was recuperating from injuries sustained in the AI war, my physical therapist was into yoga, and meditation." At her look of skepticism, he nodded. "I know, I don't look the type. Actually, he conned me and some of his other patients into going to one of his classes by telling us he had to have a minimum number of students or they'd cancel his class. I went, just intending to help out that once, but I found that it worked for me. It gave me a way to-- shut things off for awhile."
Shane nodded thoughtfully, thinking about the way he'd changed that time she'd given him a massage. "That's what you did that one time, then? When I told you to relax?"
He frowned thoughtfully for a moment, then remembered what she was talking about, and nodded. "Exactly. I just centered, and went into a meditative state. I shouldn't have fallen asleep, though. That's not supposed to happen." He looked embarrassed. "I never did apologize to you for that."
Shane shook her head. "It was no big deal. You were tired, you'd been taking care of me non-stop for six days, you earned it." She looked down. "I still need to find a way to thank you for that. I'd be dead if you hadn't. I owe you my life." She looked back up, needing to meet his gaze. "They say when someone saves your life, you're responsible for them for the rest of yours. If that's true, I'm gonna have to look after you for two lifetimes." She paused, and threw out a feeler. "Unless we can come up with some other way for me to pay you back."
He looked away, that muscle along his jaw tightening. "Nobody owes me anything."
"That is so untrue!" Shane exclaimed, getting angry for him, forgetting about her pass in a blaze of righteous indignation. "A lot of people owe you, Colonel. A lot of people who don't even realize they owe you, and a lot who know damned well they do, but will never admit it. And that stinks."
He studied her for a moment, then shook his head. "No, you don't understand. No one owes me because I don't believe in debt, at least, not on this level." He smiled slightly. "Poker, now that's something else entirely."
Shane frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Life isn't some cosmic balance sheet, Vansen, there's nobody out there keeping score. We all do what we do for our own reasons, and if our actions impact someone else, then we have to deal with that as best we can. But in the end we can only be responsible for ourselves."
"But you went out and got Chiggie von Richthofen for Winslow," she challenged.
McQueen's eyes were unreadable. "Is that how you saw it?"
She nodded. He sighed and sat back, slouching a little in a way that suggested a soul-deep tiredness.
"I guess I can see how it might have looked that way, but no, I wasn't paying him back. I was simply doing what I had to do. He was a threat that needed to be removed. I couldn't allow him to kill anyone else I--" he stopped, then forged ahead. "Anyone else. I couldn't allow him to continue to hinder the war effort. I knew I was the only person who could."
'Anyone else he--' what? Cared about? That was the most logical conclusion, and it was very him not to say it.
"So, you don't believe in revenge?" she asked.
He was silent a moment, thoughtful. "No, not really, though I'm human enough to understand the desire for it, and even to experience that desire on occasion."
"And you didn't feel it when you went after him?" She didn't have to say who, he knew.
He didn't reply at first, just gazed off into space, then finally he looked back at her, and the set of his mouth told her he was trying not to smile. "Not that I'll admit to."
She knew there was no point in pushing further. She sighed. "So, about this meditation stuff. I'm a California girl and it's pervasive there. I've always avoided it like the plague, but you think it's useful?"
"For me. For certain people, not for everyone."
"Are you a Buddhist?"
He did smile then, shaking his head. "No, I'm not anything. Meditation isn't about religion, Vansen, it's about something . . . indefinable, it's about soul, about spirit, about peace. You find the stillness at your center, you find rest."
Shane could hear the cadence of a poem forming in his words, and shivered. "Did you ever want to be something else?" she blurted, remembering his other poem, and her conviction that he could be so many things other than what he was.
He seemed taken aback. "Why?"
"You're so good with words, I wondered if you ever wanted to write."
He shrugged. "I do write."
"I mean, like books, for other people to read."
His mouth tightened. "Who'd read a book by a Tank?"
She felt an ache in her chest. "I would."
His gaze pinned her for a moment, then he looked away. "You and three other people."
"No. Lots of people would."
His gaze was ironic. "Sure, the ones who want to see how well a Tank can mimic a human being."
Her fists clenched. "The ones who know real beauty when they see it."
He shook his head, looking at her as if she were about six, and he was having to explain that Santa Claus wasn't real. "You just don't get it, do you Vansen? For every one of you, there are four of them, at least."
"So show them! Show them how much there is to you!"
He looked away. "They'd never believe it. They have a hard enough time with what little I do show them."
Shane could tell by the way he spoke, by the way he held himself, that he considered the conversation closed. She sighed, and paced a few feet before stopping and looking back at him. She caught him watching her, with an odd, unreadable expression on his face. She felt daring.
"Show me how to do that meditation thing."
He studied her, his gaze assessing her, measuring. She didn't look away.
"It's not for everyone," he said, giving her a way to back out.
"I won't know unless I try, will I?"
"It takes time to learn, and I'm not talking hours."
She grinned and gestured around the cabin. "Like I have anything better to do?"
He chuckled, then sobered, his gaze steady. "Most things have come easy to you, Vansen. You're strong, you're smart, and you know how to get things done. This won't be easy. Patience is not in your nature."
Shane wasn't sure how to take that statement. It almost sounded derogatory, but not quite. In all fairness, he was right. In fact it was a little disconcerting how well he'd pegged her. Of course, that was his job, to know his people, just like it was her job to know hers. It was odd to realize that 'her' people and 'his' people were the same, and that she was the overlap between them. She knew he was waiting for her to withdraw her request, but she squared her chin stubbornly.
"I want to try."
He approved, she could see it in his eyes, though he only nodded in
response. "Take off your shoes, then, and sit."
* * *
On some levels, agreeing to teach Vansen how to meditate was a good thing, on others, it definitely wasn't. He'd never realized how much you had to touch someone when you were trying to teach them yoga positions. Never for long, just a touch here to correct the arch of a spine, or one there to show the proper alignment of knee to hip, but it was frequent enough to test him. Each time he felt her skin under his hand he remembered. He was beginning to think longingly of the procedure the medics had planned for West when they'd thought he was hallucinating. If they could make him forget what he'd done, it might just be worth it.
Sometimes he wondered if she knew. He'd catch her looking at him with an expression on her face he could only call 'hungry.' He knew she was considered a bit of a predator on R&R, and had the uneasy feeling she'd marked him out as her prey. Every so often she would say, or do something that could, in some circumstances, be considered a 'pass' but he scrupulously ignored those. He wasn't going to slip again. Especially not when she was fully conscious and no longer hovering near death. There was no excuse now.
She was learning, though. Not quickly, not easily, just as he'd predicted, but she was learning. Though they were both getting a little tired of never seeing another face, her temper was staying controlled, and she'd even given up pacing. So, that was something good, coming out of something not-so-good. A couple of times there, he really had been tempted to tie her up, she could be that annoying. What had stopped him was knowing she'd resist, and the certainty that he wasn't up to a wrestling match with her. Hell, every time she had to go wash her damned hair it was all he could do to stand watch on the streambank while he knew she was bare and sleek in the water behind him. He always let her bathe first, because after that the cold water was an absolute necessity. Like now.
He scanned the woods for any sign of Chigs, but it was hard with his imagination firmly focused behind him. It probably wasn't really necessary to keep watch, it had been over three weeks since they'd gotten stuck here and nothing had showed the slightest interest in them. All the Chig activity was focused at the mine, a good five miles from the abandoned APC they'd made their encampment. He wanted to check that out, find out what it was that interested them so, but he wasn't a fool. Lately the aerial traffic had dropped off sharply, less than half what it had been, but he wanted to wait until he was sure it was going to stay quiet.
Speaking of quiet, was she deliberately making that much noise? He glanced over his shoulder, ground his teeth, and forced himself to look away. There was a not-very-nice description for women like Shane Vansen. He'd defend her with his last breath if necessary, but at the moment he itched to spank her. He almost groaned as that thought conjured memories of her skin under his hand. A small insectish critter about the size of a wasp buzzed around him. He waved it off a couple of times, but it was persistent, continuing to circle and dart around him.
A particularly loud splash and slight gasp from Vansen made him turn again, and he could see her, a silvery Nereid sitting hip-deep in the water, her skin sheened with moonlight. It was an appropriate image. The most malicious of the Nymphs, Nereids had a habit of entrancing and stealing men, who were never seen again above the waters. He was definitely feeling in over his head at the moment. A sharp, sudden pain flared at the side of his neck, where the collar of the fatigue jacket was open to the night air. Reflexively he slapped at the bug and crushed it against his skin, feeling some satisfaction in the knowledge that it wouldn't bite him again. Perhaps that wasn't fair, though. It had provided a welcome distraction.
He rubbed at the sore spot, and heard her moving again, the distinctive sound of someone walking through water. She was finally finished. He waited while she dressed, and didn't turn until he heard her pick up her weapon. She smiled at him as if blithely unaware of what she was doing to him, and gestured toward the water. "Your turn, sir."
That 'sir' was like a deliberate taunt. He thought about what the expression on her face would be like if he picked her up and put her over his knee, and for about half a second actually considered doing it, then he controlled the impulse. Without moving, he deliberately set down his weapon and started to undress. Her eyes widened. He took off his jacket and dropped it carelessly on the ground. He got as far as unbuttoning his pants before she turned away with a slight, strangled sound. He smiled grimly, set his jaw and waded into the creek.
The water just about killed him. By the time he was finished he was
shivering, which was the first time it had affected him like that, but he
was grateful. At least now he could walk. He dressed in silence, which
Vansen didn't even try to break, and when he finished he picked up one of
the two water-containers and headed back toward the APC, trying to ignore
the headache that had started to throb dully behind his eyes. He heard
her grunt softly as she hefted the other container, and followed him.
* * *
Shane levered herself up on one elbow unable to shake the feeling that something was wrong. She listened, but heard only her own breathing, and McQueen's, and the soft hum of the ventilators. She scanned the room, lit as always by the soft, cold glow of the solar-battery lights. Nothing seemed out of place, nothing seemed wrong. She focused on McQueen, trying to see if he had felt that 'wrongness' too, but he was asleep. She watched him for a moment, wondering if he would still be angry when he woke up. She wasn't sure exactly what had pissed him off, but he'd been in a foul mood.
Actually, she admitted to herself with a touch of shame, she was pretty sure she did know what had set him off. The clue lay in the angry bore of his gaze into hers as he'd started to undress there at the 'swimming hole.' Maybe she'd taken the game a little too far. She propped her chin on her hands and sighed. No doubt about it. She'd definitely taken it too far. McQueen was a gentleman, an honorable man. Her conscience stung. She'd been cruel to him. Shane set her mind to behaving herself from here on out. No more passes, no more teasing, no matter how long they ended up being here. Just the respect she really felt.
Shane studied his face, the normally hard lines of his mouth and jaw softened slightly by the beard that he'd had no choice but to cultivate. It was growing in a lot more blonde and less silver than his hair, and the contrast was intriguing. Rendered vulnerable by sleep, he seemed a different person than the McQueen she was used to. She wondered again what he would have been had he been born to a woman instead of a incubation tank. Would he have been, even remotely, the McQueen she knew now?
With a sigh, Shane was about to settle back down to sleep when McQueen started talking. For a moment she thought he was talking to her, but after trying to make sense of what he was saying, she realized he wasn't. He was obviously talking in his sleep. She sat there, surprised and disturbed. He never talked in his sleep. Hell, sometimes she wondered if he even *slept* in his sleep. He got quiet again, and Shane suddenly realized what had woken her to begin with. McQueen's breathing was all wrong, shallow and fast, instead of deep and slow as it usually was when he slept. She crawled over and sat next to him, noting the sheen of sweat on his face. It was a little warm in the room, but not warm enough for that. She sat there for a minute, frowning, and then quietly got up and went to find the thermo-scanner from the medkit.
Kneeling beside him again, she carefully brushed back the lock of hair that curled over his ear. His hair was longer than she'd ever seen it, and was soft against her fingers. He frowned and batted at her hand as if shooing away an insect, muttering something that might, at a stretch, have been "go away," but didn't really wake. That in itself told her something was wrong. McQueen was usually such a light sleeper that she couldn't even get up to use the head without waking him, no matter how hard she tried. She turned on the scanner, leaned over, and slid the cone into his ear. It worked silently until it finished registering his temperature, and then it beeped, the sound startlingly loud in the silence.
The next thing she knew she was flat on her back, pinned beneath the solid strength of his body, her wrist held in an iron grip. Shane lay there, momentarily stunned, and all she could think of was how good he felt against her. She looked up, and saw confusion in his eyes, their azure depths almost black. Her breath caught in her throat as watched him register her presence and saw the look in his eyes change. His expression went from puzzled, to knowing, to . . . something she didn't dare allow herself to believe. His eyes held a question, and she nodded, slowly, in answer.
He let go of her wrist and his fingers brushed her cheek, his eyes drifted closed, and then his mouth came down on hers. She accepted his kiss, tasting the hot, instant flash of desire, her hands curving over his shoulders, holding him to her. His hips rolled against hers, nesting the hard rise of him between her thighs, deliciously close, frustratingly separate. She caressed him with her hands, sucked on the startlingly soft curve of his hard mouth, shuddering with the intensity of it.
He lifted his mouth from hers, trailed kisses across her face, then down her throat as his hand found her breast and his fingers teased her nipple erect. She moaned, and he laughed, a soft, low sound against her throat, then put his lips against her ear.
"'So, if I dream I have you, I have you, For all our joys are but fantastical.'"
Oh, God, it didn't get any better than this; McQueen, quoting poetry to her. Shane threw her good intentions to the wind and grabbed McQueen instead. She slid her hands up underneath his jacket and found bare skin, slick with sweat. She slid her hands beneath the waistband of his pants, her fingers moving over the hard, flat plane of his belly, drifting lower. Damn, he was hot, she could feel heat radiating off him like the glow of a blast-furnace. Hot. Oh, crap.
She pulled her hands back out from under his clothes and groped around until her fingers found the scanner. His mouth slid down her throat, his tongue tracing a fiery path across her skin. She whimpered, trying not to notice what he was doing, and lifted the scanner above his head so she could squint at the gauge. His hand distracted her for a moment, shaping her breast with his palm. She dragged herself back to reality, read the scanner, and swore mentally. She should have known it was too good to be true. In his right mind, he'd never have given in.
"Colonel McQueen, sir, you're ill!"
His mouth covered hers, and she forgot for a few moments that she wasn't supposed to respond, loving the feel of his mouth on hers, the taste of him, the sheer, sensual exploration of his tongue along her teeth and lips. One of his hands moved down between her thighs, cupping the soft mound of her sex against his palm. A shock of stunning and strangely familiar pleasure went through her. Then she realized he was shaking, and not from passion. He was shivering. Regretfully she put both hands against his shoulders and pushed gently.
"Colonel, really, we can't do this. You'll be mad at yourself if you do. You're not well."
The instant her hands pressed him away, he lifted, looking down at her with weary betrayal. She suddenly realized how often this must have happened to him, and ached for him.
"I'm sorry, really. If you weren't sick, I . . ."
He put his fingers against her lips to cut off her words, shaking his head, and rolled off her with a sigh. She wondered if the sound was one of regret or exhaustion as he collapsed next to her.
Feeling like the lowest of scum, Shane sat up and leaned over him, unbuttoning his jacket. He opened his eyes and looked up at her in bewilderment.
"I have to get these off you," she explained, not sure how much of what she was saying would actually get through to him. "You're sick, just like I was. You've got a hundred and five degree fever, and I have to get it down somehow."
She finished with the buttons and tugged one sleeve off, then the other. That done, she scrambled across to where she'd left the rest of the medkit and pawed through it until she located a bottle of aspirin. She knew they were safe for him, she'd seen him take them in the past. Grabbing her canteen she was back by his side in seconds, shaking out four of the white tablets and urging him half-upright against her. She put the tablets in his mouth and put the canteen against his lips. He drank, choked, coughed, and for a moment she thought he would lose the drugs and the water, but he managed to keep them down.
She gently eased him back down onto his pallet, and reached for the button on his pants. He grabbed her hand, and she looked up, startled, into angry blue eyes.
She sighed, realizing how badly she'd managed to complicate things. "Sir, I need to take your clothes off so I can get you cooled down. That's all, I swear."
He shook his head, teeth chattering. "No."
"They're trapping the heat, not letting evaporation cool you. Please, let me."
"No." He looked around. "Water?"
Thinking he wanted another drink, she opened her canteen again and was about to lift him so he could swallow more easily when he grabbed it out of her hand and proceeded to slosh its contents over himself, letting the water soak his pants. He sighed, and dropped the now-empty canteen. Shane sighed too. The wet fabric would help cool him, but it was a temporary solution at best. Since he was determined not to let her undress him further, what could she do? She had no illusions that she could overpower him through main strength. Whatever she managed would have to be through guile. She stood, and he caught her ankle in his hand.
"Don' go," his words were slurred, but determined.
As upset with her as he had to be right now, she was surprised that wanted her to stay. He must be at least a little coherent if he realized he needed her to care for him. She knelt for a moment, and put a hand reassuringly on his shoulder.
"I'll be right back, don't worry. I just need to get a couple of things."
McQueen nodded, and let go of her. She hurriedly refilled her canteen, then collected the supplies she needed and returned to his side. He seemed to be asleep again, asleep or unconscious. Damn. She'd needed him to tell her which of the various antibiotics and antivirals she'd collected from the medkits were safe for an In-Vitro. Frustrated, she wondered why he'd gotten sick. Since she'd contracted the disease within hours of landing on Antiope, after three weeks they'd thought he was safely past any possibility of having caught it from her. It didn't make sense. He was healthy as a horse, and had the added protection of an In-Vitro's genetically-engineered enhanced immune system. Why was he getting sick now?
She sloshed water onto one of the cut-up pieces of blanket they'd been using for towels, and began to sponge him down. He was so hot Shane was half surprised that the wet cloth didn't sizzle when it touched his skin. Could Tanks stand higher fevers than humans, she wondered, and then scowled as she realized what she'd just thought. He was human, damnit. Same as her, just a little better engineered. A lot of people thought of In-Vitro's as sub-human, but she knew better. Super-human might be a better term.
As she bathed him, she noticed anew that his chest was seamed with both old scars and newer ones. She wondered about the history of those injuries. She knew a little bit about his past, knew he'd been indentured at decanting to a uranium mining colony that few Tanks ever returned from. Then he'd been in the AI wars, gone on to the Angry Angels and this latest threat from the Chigs . . . Her gaze went to his ear, knowing a tiny scar behind it was all that remained of the myo-electric implant that had been the reward for his service to Earth and its ungrateful populace. Shane shook her head, still amazed at the sheer willpower it must have taken to overcome its absence.
His hair was ringleted with sweat, and she gently drew the cloth across his forehead, down his throat, and stopped. There was an angry-looking welt on his throat, an inch or two below his ear. She turned his head away to bring his throat into better light, and looked closer. It appeared to be some sort of insect bite, or sting.
She sat back, staring at him thoughtfully. Could that be it? An insect-borne pathogen? She knew there were such things on Earth; malaria, encephalitis, Lyme disease. Why not here, too? It made more sense than the idea that a disease that had affected her within hours had taken three weeks to incubate in McQueen. Between caring for her head injury and her fever, McQueen probably wouldn't have noticed an insect bite on her. As a precautionary measure she swabbed the area with an alcohol pad and slathered it with a hydrocortizone cream. It probably wouldn't help, but it couldn't hurt.
She jumped. His eyes were open. "Colonel?"
"Help me up."
"I don't want you to have to do . . . things for me."
Things? What kind of thi . . . Oh. Those kind. She smiled. "Don't worry about it, Colonel. I think I still have my Red-Cross babysitting certificate around somewhere." His gaze narrowed. Oops, not the right thing to say. "What I meant was, it's okay," she stammered quickly. "You did so much for me, I can reciprocate."
He didn't respond to that, but instead rolled onto his side, and laboriously pushed himself up to his knees. Shane caught his arm. "Sir, you should lie down."
"Head," he said firmly.
Shane read the determination in his gaze, and knew better than to try to talk him out of it. She helped him stand and would have supported him, but he waved her off. Feeling a little hurt that he wouldn't accept her help, she bit her lip and trailed him every hesitant, unsteady step of the way, ready to catch him if he fell. When he got to the door, he caught the doorframe for support, and turned to look at her. He didn't have to say a word, his eyes said it all. She stepped back and waited.
After five minutes she was about ready to go in after him, after ten, she put her hand on the latch, and after fifteen she knew she had no choice. Taking a deep breath, she eased the door open. He was sitting on the floor against the far wall, his head back, clearly unconscious. His pants were unbuttoned and unzipped, it looked as if he'd stood up to fasten them, passed out, and slid down the wall. The room was so tiny it was impossible to maneuver him into a position where she could pick him up, so finally she ended up hauling him out by his ankles, mentally apologizing the entire time. Once she'd got him out of the head, she managed to get him over to his pallet without too much trouble, though she'd never realized how difficult it was to move a hundred and eighty pounds of dead weight.
Once she had McQueen settled, she double-checked to make sure he was
still unconscious, and started tugging off his pants. He might kill her
when he woke up, but she'd deal with that later. It took a good five
minutes of tugging, turning, and wrestling but she finally got him down to
basics. There were more scars on the lower half of his body, most of them
older. In some places he had scars on his scars. For the first time she
realized that many of the marks that marred his skin were too regular to
be anything but deliberately inflicted. Some of them were in places that
made her shudder. It came to her then, that what she was seeing was quite
probably the legacy of torture. The AI's were good at that. Blinking
back tears, she dampened the cloth again, and started at his feet, worked,
her way to his face, then started back down again.
* * *
For the next few hours he slept restlessly, sometimes waking to babble something nonsensical, before lapsing back into a quiet that frightened her. She struggled to keep him cool, and monitored his temperature regularly. It dropped steadily for a time, then plateaued, then began to climb again, spiking at a hundred and six. She thought she might lose him then. At that point, he was clearly in the throes of a nightmare, fighting some dream creature. When she tried to calm him he lashed out with a growl and caught her in the mouth with his fist. She tasted blood, and saw stars, but ignored both and flattened herself over him, trying to pin him down, more afraid he might hurt himself than her.
He struggled for a few seconds, then went quiet. She could feel his chest and belly moving under hers as he panted. Finally his hands came up to touch her shoulders, slid down her sides, over the flare of her hips, his fingers spreading wide to fan across her butt. She froze in place, trying to figure out what she should do, and chanced a look at his face. His eyes were still closed, though, and she started to relax, when suddenly his mouth tightened.
"Damn tease, just stay the hell away from me!"
His grip shifted, and the next thing she knew she was sprawled on the floor a foot away. He'd literally picked her up and thrown her. Shane lay there for a moment, stunned by how strong he was. She was no lightweight, but he'd tossed her aside as if she were a blanket. Then it hit her what he'd just said. Of course, it might have no bearing on her, it could just be some dream he was responding to, but in her heart she knew better. Slowly she sat up, and wrapped her arms around her legs, laying her head against her knees. She stared blankly off into space, her jaw set against the lump in her throat. Well, it shouldn't come as a surprise, especially after what had happened today.
Her attack of self-pity was cut short as McQueen lurched to his knees, scrambled a few feet, then collapsed again, obviously back in his nightmare. He might not want her there, but he needed her, and as long as that was the case, she'd stick with it, no matter what he said to her. She clenched her teeth and went to him again, managing to manhandle him back onto the pallet, though on his stomach, not his back, not that it mattered much. Skin was skin.
She went back to work with the wet towel, soothing it over hard-muscled
calves, up the backs of his thighs, over the rise of buttocks, into the
dip of his spine, across the expanse of shoulder, down one arm, then the
other. It was almost hypnotic, and she repeated it time after time,
letting the repetition fill her mind and crowd out the pain his words had
* * *
Shane checked her watch and sighed tiredly, looking around for a medkit. It had been six and half hours since the last dose, time to hit McQueen with the aspirin again. If she could get him to take it. He'd already refused twice. She still wanted to get some more powerful drugs down him, but didn't dare without knowing how they might affect him. She'd even risked discovery by the Chigs by turning on enough power to boot the computer and check the medical files to see if they listed antivirals and antibiotics that were safe for use by In-Vitro's. She'd come up empty-handed. Apparently no one had thought that information would be of use to a field medic.
She found a bottle, shook four aspirin into her hand, and thought about taking them herself. Her mouth hurt where McQueen had socked her, and her back ached from being bent over him for hours, trying to keep him cool and relatively comfortable. No, she needed to leave them all for him. She had no idea how long he would be ill, he might need every tablet they'd scrounged. Propping him up against her, she opened her canteen and tried to put the aspirin in his mouth. He turned away, refusing it. She sighed.
"Come on, Colonel. It's just aspirin, nothing else."
Her plea made no difference, his mouth stayed shut. Discouraged, she put away the tablets, and recapped her canteen, wishing he trusted her enough to let her take care of him. She trusted him implicitly, but she had clearly destroyed whatever trust he'd had in her. The thought depressed her. Left with nothing else to do, she picked up his left hand and drew the cool cloth across his palm, slid it between his fingers, then up past his elbow, to his shoulder, and across to the other side where she repeated the sequence. His fingers flexed, curling inward slightly, as if he cupped something soft in his palm.
"Vansen, let me go," his voice was soft this time, not angry, but coaxing.
Startled, she dropped his hand and watched him twist his wrist as if she still held it, straining against some invisible bond. She frowned, puzzled.
"No, Shane, don't. You don't really want this. Please let go, I can't do this, this is wrong."
Shane? Not 'Vansen?' And that coaxing tone, that soft, almost-whisper. How could she know it when she'd never heard it before? Why did the curve of his fingers, the way they moved, wake something in her, a dream? A cool touch on fevered skin. Half-remembered pleasure arrowed into her and she shuddered. Impossible. Impossible. He would never have done it.
But her body knew better. Earlier, when his hand had slid between her thighs, she'd recognized his touch. She remembered the shock of familiarity that she had, oddly, accepted without question.
"Shane, no." There was a strange desolation in his voice. "I can't, not with you. Please, I don't want to hurt you."
Elemental. She remembered now how it had fought being captured. She'd held it fast, though, forcing it to serve her need. She dropped the cloth and pressed her hands to her face, which was momentarily as fevered as McQueen's. The dream-creature had been real. No elemental, just a man, and an unwilling one at that. Why? Why had he let her do that? She realized she already knew the answer. Given a choice between helping her, or hurting her, he had chosen the former.
"Oh, God," Shane breathed. "I am so, so sorry. I never meant--" she broke off. She'd used him like a toy, not a person, not even aware of who he was. Just like people always used Tanks. On top of that, for her to have teased him as she had was unforgivable. Why hadn't he said something? Strangely, she knew the answer to that, as well. Realizing she didn't remember what she had done, he had kept silent to spare her embarrassment. This time she couldn't keep the tears away. "I'm sorry," she whispered over and over again, "I'm sorry."
After awhile, she realized she was neglecting her duties, so she picked up the cloth and set to work again, numbly drawing it over his fevered skin, trying to ease him, in a far different way than she had demanded herself. She sniffled, and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and kept working. Suddenly his hand came up, and caught hers. She looked into his lucent gaze, and saw awareness there for the first time in hours.
"Sir? You awake" She asked warily.
He sighed. "Yeah, Vansen. For the moment, anyway." He let go of her hand, and rubbed his forehead.
She grabbed the bottle of aspirin and opened it with shaking fingers, dropping several tablets before she managed to get four into her hand. "Please, take these, sir. You won't let me give them to you when you're out." Somehow she kept her voice even.
McQueen took the pills from her, and then her half-full canteen, drinking most of it without stopping for breath.
Shane quickly pulled an assortment of other vials from the medkit, and held them out to him. "Which ones can you take? I was afraid to give you anything, I didn't know what was safe for you."
A flash of appreciation crossed his face, and he sorted through the bottles, choosing four of the seven. "Any of these."
Shane didn't meet his eyes as she got out an antiviral and an antibiotic and handed them to him. He downed them with the rest of her water. She took the canteen and went to refill it, returning a moment later to find he'd pulled the blanket from the foot of his pallet and tugged it up to waist level. It didn't take a rocket scientist to realize he was embarrassed by his nudity. She couldn't think of a way around that, though. She needed to be able to get to as much skin as possible, and that ruled out giving him back his pants, but there was an alternative.
She picked up his pants from where she'd tossed them earlier. Reaching up under her shirt, she untied the drawstring that held up her, or rather, his shorts and pulled it free. The T-shirt was long enough to keep her covered as she quickly skinned out of the shorts, then stepped into his pants and used the cord from the shorts to cinch them tight around the waist. Leaning over, she rolled up the pant-legs until she could walk without tripping, then moved back to McQueen's side and handed them to him. He took them from her without speaking, and she busied herself at the food-locker, dumping a packet of electrolyte-replacement drink powder into her canteen and shaking it while he put them on. When she figured he'd had enough time, she turned back, and handed him the canteen.
"Drink as much of that as you can. It should help."
He nodded and drank, grimacing at the overly sweet taste. She looked down, waiting. He lowered the canteen.
She looked at a point over his left shoulder. "Yes, sir?"
"You're acting a little odd."
"Just concerned about your health, sir."
She heard him swallow more of the drink mix, then there was a short period of silence before he finally spoke again.
"What happened to your mouth?"
"Ran into a door, sir," she lied.
"A door," he echoed. "I see. And did that door by any chance have my name on it?"
She fought to keep her face impassive. "No sir."
He waited for a moment, then spoke. "Vansen, come here."
The order was quiet, but firm, and she obeyed reflexively. Kneeling next to him, she flinched, startled, as his fingers caught her chin and turned her face toward him. She couldn't meet his gaze, she might never be able to do so again. McQueen brushed a finger across the swollen corner of her mouth, then traced his thumb down her cheek.
She pulled away sharply, and shook her head. "Of course not, sir."
"What did I do to you?"
His question was quiet, but so intense she looked up and met his gaze. He looked . . . afraid. She'd never seen that look on his face before. Ever. He obviously thought he'd beaten her up. That 'ran into a door' had been way too lame, McQueen wasn't an idiot, and only an idiot would have fallen for that. She shook her head.
"Nothing! You did nothing to me. Absolutely nothing. Sir." She said it with all the force she could gather, trying to reassure him.
"'Methinks the lady doth protest too much,'" he quoted softly, his gaze lingering a moment on her mouth, before moving lower, then back up. He closed his eyes and clenched his fist, his expression filled with disgust. "Vansen, I remember," he paused, shook his head, and went on. ". . . some things. You said I was sick, and I didn't want to hear it. I kissed you. I touched you. I need to know, did I . . . ?" He stopped, unable to complete his sentence, his face a mask of shame.
She realized suddenly what he must think and gasped. "No! Oh my God, no, you didn't! I promise, you have my word, sir, nothing happened." She was babbling, but she couldn't let him think that. He was the most honorable man she knew, how could he possibly think that about himself?
McQueen searched her face, eyes locked with hers, read the truth there, and sighed in obvious relief. "Thank you." Then his gaze narrowed again, focused on her mouth. "But no one walks into doors Vansen. You can't believe I would buy that. What happened? Captain, under the circumstances I think we can drop the formality. You have permission to speak frankly, so tell me."
She shook her head. "Really, it was just an accident, sir. You were having a nightmare and I was trying to keep you from hurting yourself. It's nothing. I've gotten hurt worse horsing around with the 58."
He nodded slowly, accepting that, but not entirely. "You're sure I didn't--" he paused, and Shane shook her head.
"I'm sure, sir."
McQueen didn't speak for some time, then finally he shook his head. "I'm not buying. If that was all it was, you wouldn't be having trouble looking at me. What else happened?"
"It's not anything you did, sir," Shane said firmly, hoping he would let it go.
"Spill it!" McQueen barked, sounding almost normal again.
She sighed. He wasn't going to let her get out of this. "You talked a little, while you were out of your head, sir. Some of the things you said kind of, um, jogged my memory." She stared at the floor, her face flaming, knowing she was the color of an alert-light. "I-- I remembered when I was so feverish, and you were taking care of me, I kind of--"
"Enough." The word was bitten off. Shane looked up and found him staring at her, his face white, his mouth a thin slash. "I understand," he said, his tone as cold as ice.
She bit her lip. He'd figured out what she was talking about. Thank God. That spared her having to actually say it. She took a deep breath and forged ahead. "I'm sorry sir, it was inexcuseable," she said, starting to apologize.
"I assume you'll be filing charges, then?" he interrupted, his voice deadly calm.
Shane stared at him in complete bewilderment. "Charges, sir? What for?"
"You know what for, Vansen. Not only am I your commanding officer, but," he paused, and finally shrugged, and went on, ". . . I'm a Tank, and I touched you without your consent."
"What? No!" Shane was stunned. He thought she was upset with him? How could he think that? And what was this 'Tank' crap? He had to know she didn't see him that way-- didn't he? "Sir, that wasn't what I meant at all!" Her mind was racing, trying to understand how things had gotten all turned around like this. "Sir, neither your rank or your genetic status have anything to do with it!"
Shane realized that there was no way around it. To clear this up, she had to stop being a coward and admit what she'd done. "You did nothing wrong, sir, nothing!" She almost shouted the word, then backed off a little at his narrow glare. "You helped me, you saved my life, and I took advantage of that. I-- I don't know how else to say this. In a way, I raped you. There's nothing I can do to make that up to you. All I can say is how sorry I am."
It was McQueen's turn to look stunned. He shook his head slowly. "I'm not sure I heard that right."
Shane bit her lip, and miserably prepared to repeat herself, but mercifully he spared her.
"You said you raped me?" His inflection told her he was still not understanding,
She nodded, staring at her hands. "By definition, yes. I know you didn't want to do what I made you do, and that is what non-consensual means, in any dictionary. The way I've been acting, even without that, has been awful, but now that I remember, it's even worse. I am," she swallowed hard, and pressed on. "I am prepared to accept whatever disciplinary measures you deem appropriate, sir."
There was a long, awkward silence. Shane chewed on the inside of her lip, waiting. Finally, he spoke.
"You think *you* raped *me*?" He repeated, shaking his head incredulously. "I'm the one who did something wrong, Vansen."
Shane shook her head, and leaned forward, earnest in her need to refute him. "No, sir. I put you in a situation where you had only two options, neither of which were acceptable to a man of your. . ." she floundered for the right words, ". . . your moral character. My actions, not yours, were at fault, sir."
There was another long silence. "Vansen, you were concussed, running a high fever; you didn't know what you were doing."
"That doesn't make it right, sir."
"Vansen, look at me,"
She shook her head.
"That wasn't a request."
Shane heard the steel in his voice, and forced herself to meet his gaze. He didn't look angry. He didn't look hurt. What he looked, was slightly puzzled.
"For the past three weeks, have you or have you not been, ah--" It was his turn to stumble over a word, "--flirting with me?"
Shane couldn't help it, she laughed. "So you did notice."
"That's a 'yes'?"
She nodded. "I'm sorry. I know it was irresponsible, not to mention against regs. I shouldn't have, but I--"
McQueen held up a hand, cutting her off. He didn't speak for a moment, then he sighed. "I think we should just chalk this whole thing up to a learning experience for both of us, Captain Vansen."
She stared at him, stunned. "Excuse me, sir?"
"We both made mistakes, Captain. All that proves is that we're both," he paused, and the outer corners of his mouth twitched upward infinitesimally, " . . . human"
She stared at him, feeling relief break over her like a wave, almost crushing her with the weight of it. She thought maybe she gasped, but wasn't sure. "You're not," she paused. ". . . angry?"
He shook his head. "No, Vansen. I'm not."
She still couldn't quite believe it. "I don't understand, sir. Why not?"
"Like I said, Vansen, we both screwed up, but it's over now and I see no point in making things worse. I don't blame you, you don't blame me, so we're stuck." He chuckled, shaking his head. "Hell, it's not like we can go back to the Saratoga and file charges on ourselves. Looks to me like we've already set our own disciplinary actions."
She never would have expected this kind of clemency from McQueen, not after the way she'd treated him. She didn't know what to say, or do. Finally she managed to find her voice.
"Thank you, sir."
He shook his head. "Thank you, Vansen. Now, drop it."
* * *
After three days of having Vansen jumping at his every whim like some sort of medieval vassal, McQueen found himself missing her insubordinate flirt incarnation. She was really starting to get on his nerves again. He was fortunate in that his physiology had kept him from getting as sick as Vansen had. Well, his physiology and not having a head injury to complicate matters. Despite the fact that he was recuperating rapidly, she was treating him like he was still incapacitated, and he wasn't.
After that first night, his temperature hadn't risen above a hundred and three, and he hadn't lapsed out once. He was still a little wobbly sometimes, but he could manage most things for himself. However, Vansen seemed determined to 'do' for him. Constantly. He glanced around surreptitiously, noting with relief that she was nowhere in sight. She must be in the head. Good.
He stood up, slowly, and walked over to the communications console where he kept his logbook. Easing down into the chair, he sorted through the pages until he found the one he wanted. It had been days since he'd been aware enough to keep track of the number of Chig flybys he heard. Today, he'd been paying attention, and it seemed to him as if they had diminished dramatically in number, but he wanted to check his notes to be sure he wasn't misremembering.
Absorbed in deciphering his own shorthand notes, he didn't realize Vansen had left the head until she was standing right next to him.
"Colonel McQueen, I would have gotten those for you," she said reproachfully, standing with her hands on her hips like a disapproving librarian. "All you had to do was ask."
McQueen jumped, dropped his pen, and swore as she quickly bent and picked it up for him. He looked up at her with a loud, put-upon sigh.
"Captain Vansen, let's get something straight here. I am not an invalid. In fact, as you noted earlier today, my temperature's been normal for the last five hours. I do not need a nurse, a nanny, a babysitter or a servant, and I am getting pretty damned tired of this 'Saint Vansen the Contrite' act. Can we please get back to some kind of status-quo?"
For a minute he thought she was going to explode, her face got progressively more and more red. Maybe that hadn't been a very politic thing to say. He flashed suddenly on Wang and his deadly-accurate mimicry, and decided to give it a shot.
"Colonel McQueen, put down that blanket, I can arrange that for you! Sir, let me open that meal-packet for you. Don't get up, sir, I can go to the bathroom for you . . ."
He wasn't anywhere near Wang's caliber, but it had the desired effect. The anger on her face faded, and suddenly she burst out laughing. "Saint Vansen the Contrite?" she wheezed, between giggles. "Have I really been that bad?"
McQueen eyed her sourly and nodded. "Worse."
She shook her head, still chuckling. "I'm sorry, sir. I guess I've been, ah, overdoing it a little?"
"You could say that." McQueen allowed.
She looked apologetic. "I'll try to be better."
"Don't try. Do."
"Yes sir!" She saluted rigidly, but he could see a smile lurking around the corners of her mouth.
She relaxed, and looked at the pen in her hand, at him, back at the pen, then deliberately dropped it on the floor. He chuckled and bent to pick it up himself. As he returned to his notes, she reached across him and tugged a sheet of paper off the top of the console and handed it to him.
"Here are the records for the past few days, sir," she said quietly. "Since you were down, I kept track."
He nodded. "Thank you." He made a mental note to commend her initiative. It would have been different if he'd ordered her to do it, but doing it on her own was plain good soldiering.
He looked up, thinking about Chigs. "Yeah?"
"I think things have cooled down enough, don't you, sir?"
He frowned for a moment, trying to figure out what she was talking about. She nodded toward the communications console, and he understood. He nodded.
" It's about time to risk it. Not from here, though. We need to get far enough away from here that even if they can triangulate the signal, they won't end up here."
Vansen nodded. "I can take the portable unit down to where they had us pinned down when we landed. There's a lot of cover, with all the wreckage there. I'll set the beacon to broadcast automatically."
"*You* can take the portable unit?" He asked, with deliberate emphasis.
She didn't get it for a minute, then she did, and looked apologetic. "Sorry, sir. We can take it down there."
He nodded. "Yes, we can."
* * *
Shane watched the pinpoint lights in the sky growing larger, and sighed. It was nice knowing those were friendlies. She glanced at McQueen, whose expression seemed pensive. She wondered if he felt the same odd almost-regret to be leaving Antiope that she did. Some imp of mischief possessed her then, and she turned toward him.
"Permission to speak frankly, sir?"
"Of course, Vansen."
She studied him for a moment, then decided she probably ought to have been more specific. She tried again. "Permission to act inappropriately, sir?"
He studied her thoughtfully, obviously curious. After a very long moment, he nodded. His assent should have surprised her, but it didn't. They had reached a place of balance. A still place, where they were finally comfortable again. Well, as comfortable as they could be, given the way things were. She smiled.
"Thank you." Shane reached up and put her hand against his face, feeling the soft-rough texture of his beard against her palm, and leaned in. He pulled back, startled, but she followed. For a few seconds his mouth was unresponsive under her own, and she wondered if she had misread the situation between them. Then his mouth softened, one of his hands came up to cup the back of her head and the other one spread lightly across her lower back.
If her mouth hadn't been otherwise occupied, Shane would have given a triumphant whoop. Spurred by his response, she wrapped her arms around him, and gave him the kiss she'd been dying to; the one that told him exactly what she thought of him, how much she wanted him, now much she cared. He gave it back, in spades, his mouth fabulously tender on her own. Finally, his hand slid away from her hair, and he ended it. She stepped back, pleased to note that his breathing was as rapid as her own, though his expression, as always, was nearly unreadable.
"Someday, Tyrus Cassius McQueen," Shane said, utterly serious. "Someday, if we manage to survive this mess, there may come a time when you won't be my CO, and I won't be a junior officer."
He gazed back at her, unspeaking, and for a moment she wondered if she had just crossed the line, even if she had warned him, and gotten permission. Then, almost imperceptibly, his gaze warmed and he nodded.
"I imagine you're right, Vansen," he said drily, with that wicked deadpan delivery she had come to appreciate for the humor it hid.
Good. He'd taken it just seriously enough. It wasn't a promise. There was too much future in front of them for that, but it was an . . . acceptance. The possiblity had been broached. She grinned.
"Just wanted to let you know that."
He nodded. "Thank you, Captain. I appreciate the information." His voice was noncommital, as if she'd just told him the sky was blue. Not that she had expected anything else. He glanced at the APC as it settled toward the ground like an oversized iguana. "Looks like our ride's here."
She nodded. "Let's go home."
* * *
McQueen sat staring out through the port into the darkness outside the Med-evac ship and clenched his fists. They could have waited to tell him. No, that was stupid. It wouldn't have made any difference, not really. He would cope. He always did. What choice did he have? He'd go back to Earth, they'd patch him up, and then he'd be back out there, fighting. Fighting for what? For whom? Aerotech? He felt rage burning cold inside him. Wang. Damphousse. Vansen. They'd given their young lives for a fucking corporation. He laughed a little. Young lives. Hell, if he counted from decanting he was barely older than they were. He just felt aeons more ancient. Three good people were gone, he was maimed, and all for 'Sewall Fuel.' He understood now, understood it all, and the taste was bitter.
"Morituri te salutamus," he said savagely, lifting his water glass to the stars. He couldn't even do this properly. They wouldn't let him have any scotch, not with the drugs they had him on. He drank, and wanted to hurt something. Someone. Maybe himself. No, who was he kidding? The one thing he could never do, because he knew there was nothing after, and he didn't want to face that nothing. Besides, he would never dishonor their memory with that weakness. His eyes burned, but he refused to give in. He wondered how Hawkes and West would fare, without the others. West had never really gotten along all that well with Hawkes. Would they support each other now, or would whatever camaraderie they had die, like their friends?
Wang, gone. Sacrificing himself, as McQueen had suspected he someday might. If he'd gotten help after Kazbek, if someone had taken the time to help him understand what he'd gone through, would have made a difference? If he hadn't had to go through the experience of betraying his own, would he still be alive? McQueen knew he would always regret not having done more for Wang. He'd been in that place. He understood. Somehow he should have let Wang know that he wasn't alone in what he'd gone through.
Damphousse. She'd been the 58's tender heart. Too soft, but determined to win through against her own gentler instincts. He'd had his doubts about her at first, but she'd never let them down. He wondered if her 'anomalous intuition' told her that she and Vansen were in mortal danger, or had it mercifully left her unaware? The latter, he hoped. He could not imagine facing his own death with the certainty of foreknowledge.
Then there was Vansen. Her strength, her courage, her intelligence, all that potential, gone. She had been a good Marine, a good leader. He respected her as an equal, but right now all he could remember was the rich warmth of her voice, her humor, the taste of her mouth on his, and the depth of understanding in that "Someday." No 'someday' now. Someday was gone, that implicit possiblity stolen in an instant, in the space between two heartbeats. He would have given her poetry, but nothing would come. His pen was as empty as his soul. Still, she deserved something. He remembered that Wang once said she'd liked Yeats. Quietly he spoke into the darkness, glad for once that no one wanted to share quarters with a Tank.
The line McQueen quotes to Vansen in his
delirium is from The Dream by John Donne (1571? - 1631)
The poem at the end, is That the Night
Come by William Butler Yeats (1865 - 1939), from
"Responsibilities and Other Poems" published in 1916.
Major thanks to my idea-bouncers, Julia Kosatka and Tere Matthews, and my beta readers Sarah Stegall, Suzanne Vollmer, and Mary Ann (newsgaltoo). I may not always agree, but I always appreciate the input. :-)
Comments to: kellie at mrks.org