AUTHOR'S NOTES: This is another McQueen/Vansen conversation, this one taking place shortly after "Sugar Dirt."
Shane Vansen and T. C. McQueen, and the original S:AAB premise belong to Glen Morgan and James Wong, and Hard Eight Pictures, Inc. borrowed with love, but without permission. No copyright infringement intended.



ABSOLUTION

by

Sheryl Clay

The amber liquid swirling around in his glass would not provide absolution. Lt. Colonel T.C. McQueen knew this. And he knew better than to look to it for release. He was not even entirely sure why he felt he needed either; he knew the decisions he had endorsed had been right. But the burden still weighed on him, though the final decision had not been his responsibility. The lives that had been lost. The lives that *could* have been lost. He did not like to think about it. He sipped from his glass.

"Colonel?"

McQueen turned on his stool at the bar and looked at Vansen standing beside him. She shuffled her feet nervously and crossed her hands behind her back.

"Sir, I, uh, was wondering if I might have a moment to, uh, talk to you, uh, off the record, sir. It's, uh, kind of personal..."

McQueen gaped a little in surprise. He did not tend to invite confidences. The only one of the Wildcards who had ever approached him with a personal matter, besides Hawkes, (and that was different,) had been West. And that had been more or less an accident. Now here was Vansen, of all people, coming to him to "talk". He was not sure how to react.

"If you have a moment, sometime..." she concluded, drawing away.

McQueen felt her retreat and went after her, on impulse. He wondered what she wanted, what had upset her enough to send her to him. And he could use the distraction... "Pull up a stool, Vansen. I'm not exactly busy, right now."

She waited a beat, then took the bar stool beside him.

"What are you having?" McQueen asked, nodding toward the bartender. Vansen hesitated. She had not intended for McQueen to buy her a drink, but now that he had offered, she did not think it polite to refuse him.

"A beer," she said quickly. McQueen gestured, and the bartender set the drink on the bar.

"So?" McQueen prodded, looking at her curiously.

Vansen looked at her beer. "I, uh... Some things happened on Demios... that I need to talk to you about..." she hedged.

McQueen frowned. This was not the conversation he wanted to have. "I'm not you're confessor, Vansen..." he began. She looked at him sharply, and he realized that the words had sounded harsh. "Look, I've been there. You don't need to... explain anything to me," he concluded more gently.

Vansen nodded, understanding him. "I'm not looking for a priest, sir. I'm looking for a *military* adviser to tell me if the decisions I made, and the actions I took, on Demios were the right ones."

McQueen looked at his drink. "Well, right now I'm not sure I'm the right person to do that, either," he sighed. He saw Vansen looking at him oddly and he nodded at her. After all, he had started this. He owed it to her, now. "What's on your mind?"

She paused, searching for words. "When things started to fall apart after we knew the Saratoga was not going to send support down to us; after we were forced into the bush to try to survive on our own..."

"After we abandoned the Demios mission," McQueen glossed, not mincing words. Vansen nodded.

"I kept the Five-Eight together and busy by enforcing burial duty, and putting together those daily reports." She looked over at McQueen, suddenly. "You know, I *know* that they say Marines always bury their dead. But is that really a point of honor? Or is it just something to give us a purpose, when we run out of useful things to do?"

The question surprised him. "I know it must seem that way, sometimes," he answered, as if considering the possibility for the first time. "But it is the right, the honorable, thing to do. It is the thing that keeps us human in the face of all the horrible actions we're forced to commit through the circumstances of war. And yes, sometimes it gives us a purpose when there *is* no other purpose." He frowned at her suddenly. "Those reports you sent back from Demios were *important*, Vansen. Don't ever think you weren't doing anything useful. Those reports kept us going, on Ixion." Kept *me* going, he added to himself.

Vansen nodded serenely, absorbing this. She sipped at her beer. McQueen wondered where she was going, what the problem was. So far she had not told him anything he had not already read in her report.

"Twelve days before you came back for us, the radio went dead."

McQueen nodded. He knew this, too.

"I, uh, didn't tell them, the rest of the 'Cards... You know all this, I put it in my report..." McQueen quirked a wry look at her, and she smiled ruefully.

"I didn't tell them, and I just went through the act, every day, of making my report. Then Hawkes found out the radio was busted, and they all went crazy on me. They accused me of patronizing them, of lying to them, of treating them like children - but I was afraid if they knew the truth it would all fall apart. That I wouldn't be able to keep them together, otherwise," she took a deep breath. "That I wasn't a strong enough, or good enough leader to keep them together without that tiny bit of purpose and hope..."

Ah, McQueen thought. At last, the *real* problem. Vansen turned and looked at him, and he was stunned by the agony in the girl's eyes.

"Did I do the right thing, not telling them?" she whispered. "Was I right to lie? Or should I have trusted them to handle it?"

McQueen looked at her thoughtfully for a moment. "Sometimes, Vansen, a leader has to make the decisions that will allow him or her to continue to lead."

Vansen frowned and cocked her head.

"The responsibility for the lives and safety of the Five-Eight was yours, as their honcho, as senior officer. You had to assess the situation you *had*, the lives and personalities you were dealing with, and you did what you felt you had to do to keep command, to keep order and sanity, in the face of them. There aren't any right or wrong answers under those circumstances. I can't second guess your decision, Vansen, I wasn't there. I don't know what condition the others were in. What they would have done, for sure." He gave her a calculating look out of the corner of his eye. "You want my gut?"

Vansen gave him an odd look, but she nodded.

"West would have been there. He would have handled it. He has his *own* purpose to keep him going. Phousse... probably. For a while, anyway. Phousse is tough. Wang would have found comfort in numbers, but he would have fallen apart pretty quickly. And Hawkes would have gone right over the edge. Probably taken off and you wouldn't have been able to stop him."

The look of relief on Vansen's face broke McQueen's heart.

"Yeah," she sighed.

"Shane, you kept them going for over two months - alive, together... For *twelve days* you, alone, knew that there was no communication with the outside world. That there was virtually no hope. You carried that burden alone, with no one to turn to..." McQueen looked at her as if he had just realized, himself, the magnitude of her actions. "That's a *lot*" he insisted.

Vansen closed her eyes and a small sob escaped her. She took a deep breath and wiped her eyes quickly. "Sorry," she mumbled. McQueen nodded and gave her a moment to collect herself. She contemplated her drink a bit, then took a deep swallow.

"There's something else..."

McQueen raised an eyebrow in question.

"When they found out about the radio and told me what they thought about it, I told them I was glad. That I was tired of looking out for them, that I was sick of being responsible. That I didn't want to lead them anymore. I *told* them that. I shouldn't have lost control like that. I had a *responsibility* to keep it together, in spite of the things they said. I... I'm not sure I'm cut out for this."

She looked at McQueen, and he just looked back at her blandly.

"I'm feeling like I shouldn't be an officer, I shouldn't be leader... Like maybe I don't *want* the responsibility..."

McQueen nodded gently, and still said nothing.

Vansen scowled at him in frustration. "And *please* don't tell me everyone gets that..." she sighed.

McQueen smiled. Not the quirky little look that he got on occasion when something amused or touched him, but a real smile. It startled Vansen to see it. When McQueen *really* smiled, his forehead creased, his eyes sparkled, every muscle in his face got involved. It made her wish he would do it more often.

"All right," he agreed, sipping his drink. "I won't tell you that. But I will tell you that *I* get it. I've been in the Corps for almost sixteen years. A lot of those years have been spent leading somebody somewhere. Making decisions that effected peoples lives. Guiding them, teaching them. Baby-sitting Yeah, I've felt like just walking away from it all..."

Vansen looked over at him shyly. "With us?"

McQueen nodded at her, deciding to be honest since she had asked him. "Sure. When they first handed the Five-Eight to me, I'd just lost the entire 127th - the best there was, and I couldn't keep *them* alive. The last thing I wanted was responsibility for a squadron full of wet-behind-the-ears, fresh-out-of-accelerated- training kids. "

Vansen looked at him in mild shock. "Were we really that bad?"

McQueen saw the distress in her face and relented. "You had your moments," he said, but he said it kindly. He contemplated her a moment, wondering if he was ready to make the admission to her that he wanted to make. The admission that he already had made to Ross. And to himself.

"And then you started to get under my skin, " he concluded quietly, "and burden got worse."

"Sir?"

"That's the pisser about command, Vansen," McQueen told her. "The more you care about the people you're leading, the harder it is to lead them. The heavier the load. The lonelier it makes you." McQueen gave her a thoughtful look. "It's worst when sound command decisions may be bad moral ones. You weren't the only one making hard decisions over the last couple of months, Vansen. And maybe you're not the only one questioning those decisions, now." He stared down at his drink. Vansen just cocked her head at him and waited. After a moment he went on softly.

"When Pegasus Command made the decision to abandon Demios and advance on Ixion, they asked my opinion. As a student of military history. I told them that I thought we should retreat from the current battle and attack the more strategically valuable position. That we should exploit the Chigs' mistake. You're familiar with Guadalcanal?"

Vansen nodded.

"Commodore Ross reminded me that the Five-Eight was still on planet. I stuck by my recommendation. Now, it was not my decision, and I'm not sure that my opinion, one way or the other, would have made all that much difference in what Command finally decided to do. But if it *had* been my decision, I would have done it. I would have ordered the fleet to abandon Demios. Even though it meant abandoning you. Even though it meant betraying your trust."

Vansen frowned at him. "But it *was* the right decision," she protested, and McQueen could see that she was speaking as a soldier, from military knowledge, not from any desire to comfort, or butter up, her CO.

"Commodore Ross was opposed to leaving Demios," he challenged.

"Ixion is a critical position," she insisted. "It would have been *irresponsible* not to take advantage of the Chigs' weakness."

"Even though it meant abandoning twenty-five thousand troops to certain death?"

"Sir, if you had been *able* to ask us for *our* opinions, we would have told you to go..."

"Are you speaking for everyone, Vansen? All twenty-five thousand?"

Her face fell, and he knew he had made his point, but he felt a little guilty about taking it out on her. He looked down at his drink.

"Twenty five thousand troops went down to Demios. Two thousand came back. Twenty five thousand men and women trusted us to be there for them and we left them there to die. And even though it was not my decision, I take that knowledge to bed with me every night because it could have been. And the only reason I'm able to sleep at all is because *you* brought my kids home. I could have lost you all, down there. I'm not sure the Commodore sleeps. So yeah, sometimes I hate being a leader. Sometimes I *hate* knowing what the right thing is to do, strategically. Sometimes I wish I could just walk away." He took more than just a sip of the scotch in his glass.

"I wanted to join you. I asked, begged, Ross to let me stay behind with the supplies. He said no." He paused, then said, almost to himself, " I *didn't* want to abandon you, alone..."

Vansen could hear the pain in his voice. Impulsively, she reached out and put her hand over his on the bar. Then, realizing what she had done, she pulled it away quickly. McQueen caught it, and gave it a small squeeze before he let it go. Vansen sighed at her beer.

"Sorry," McQueen said.

"No," Vansen replied. "I was just thinking that I came here looking for comfort, looking for... absolution, and it never dawned on me that someone else might need... You did the right thing, sir. I can't speak for twenty five thousand troops, but I can speak for me. And I think I can speak for the rest of the Wildcards. It was the right decision to make."

McQueen frowned at her. Then he smiled. Not the whole-face smile he had given her before, but something softer. Grateful.

"Something else happened down on Demios," Vansen told him. McQueen raised an eyebrow.

"There's more?"

She smiled. "After the thing with the radio, before you arrived, we thought the Chigs were coming back for us. I... just couldn't do it anymore. I couldn't keep running. I couldn't go on. I told them that, too. That I couldn't do it, anymore. And they told me they would stay with me." She looked up at him. "After all that, even after I had... betrayed them, they were still there."

McQueen nodded. "Yup," he sighed. Then he looked at her, and his eyes radiated the warmth in his heart. He raised his glass in toast to her, and after a seconds hesitation, she raised hers, too. The ring when the glasses touched sounded like a clarion. They nodded to each other, smiled a little, and drank.

The End

Sheryl Clay
1996

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