This story is an attempt to explore the circumstances under which McQueen and Vansen might finally have a truly personal conversation. McQueen has unique and individual relationships with each one of his 'Cards, responding to each one differently, as well as responding to them all as a group. But while Vansen is the one he seems to rely on the most, she is the one with whom he maintains the most formal relationship. She is still the only one he has not called by her first name. So. What might bring them to the point were they might actually talk to each other as human beings as well as Marines?
T.C. McQueen and Shane Vansen are the property of Glen Morgan and James Wong, and Hard Eight Pictures, Inc. borrowed with love but without permission. No copyright infringement intended.
Lt. Colonel T.C. McQueen never did figure out just how they all got separated. They had been huddled against the escarpment, pinned, taking incoming, when suddenly the shelling stopped and word came down to move out. So they moved. And then the shelling started again, and they were all out there in the open. They could see the shadowy outlines of Chigs approaching through the smoky night.
"Take cover! Take cover!" McQueen screamed, knowing there was precious little cover to be had. "Vansen!!" She had the field radio.
The missile hit the outcropping beside him, exploding it, sending shattered rock, and McQueen, flying. When he came to again, he was lying on his back under a small heap of stones. His helmet was gone, and so was the Fifty-Eighth. McQueen shifted his legs, the rocks moved easily, and he sat up to find that, by some miracle, he was not seriously injured. Cut, bruised, there was a gash on his forehead bleeding into his eyes, but he was not dizzy or nauseous, and none of his bones were broken. Wiping the blood away, he looked around. He could not see the Wildcards, and he needed to find his helmet, not just to protect his sorry cranium, but because his helmet radio was his only link to his squad. He started to crawl along on his hands and knees, keeping his uncovered head low as the shelling continued around him.
"Colonel!" The voice came at him out of the dark, familiar, welcome, blessed.
McQueen settled back on his haunches, raising his head as high as he dared. "Vansen?"
She dropped down beside him; from where he could not see. "You're hurt," she whispered, reaching out and touching his bleeding head.
"I'm okay, it's just a cut." He grabbed her arms. "Are you all right? Where are the others?"
"Yeah. I don't know," Vansen said. "We were taking heavy incoming and everyone kinda got separated. They've got to be around here, somewhere, but I'm only getting static on my helmet mike. Oh," she said suddenly. "Helmet. I found yours."
She handed it to him. Nodding thanks, McQueen settled it back on his head. Vansen looked at him strangely. "It scared me," she admitted quietly.
McQueen just looked at her. Then his face softened. Yeah, it would have scared him, too, had he found one of theirs. He keyed his helmet radio. "Nothing, not even static. It's dead."
Vansen nodded, and pointed at the side of his head. "The antenna's gone," she said. McQueen cursed softly.
"Where's the field radio?"
"In about a million pieces," Vansen admitted sourly. McQueen grimaced.
"Well, it can't be helped. Come on, we've got to find the others," he started to crawl away. The whistle of artillery sung over their heads, and the path just in front of them suddenly exploded. They could hear the soft pulses of Chig rifle fire in their ears. McQueen threw himself over Vansen, and rolled them both into the recesses of the rock.
"It's no use," he gasped, letting her up. "We've got to take cover. We can't move in this. We'll have to just hope we can reach them on your helmet..."
"There's a hole I found over there," Vansen pointed. "It's were I was hiding. It's not very big, but it's fairly protected..."
McQueen nodded, and gestured for her to lead the way.
The hole was not very big, Vansen was right about that. About six feet square, and just barely high enough for McQueen to sit up in. It was more like a shallow cave than a hole, and the rock ceiling would not cover them completely because of its upward slope. But it *was* protection, of sorts, from the shelling and possibly from enemy detection. It was the best they were likely to find. Vansen flipped on her field light, and McQueen followed her.
"Hole is right," he told her as he crawled in. "Now I know why we called *Solitary* 'the hole'."
She looked at him worriedly as he came up to her. "Sir, you'd better let me clean up that cut. You're bleeding all over."
McQueen was inclined to tell her to leave it. But she was right, the blood kept running into his eyes, blinding him, and an unattended wound was always a danger in the field. He leaned back against the cave wall, and nodded, pulling his helmet off.
Vansen pulled a couple of first -aid sponges, pre-moistened with antiseptic lotion, and some sterile gauze out of her cartridge belt. Starting carefully at the hairline, she cleaned the blood away, trying not to wipe up too much of the skin-dulling black face McQueen wore. She was trying to find the wound. There was so much blood in his hair, she was not sure she would find it, and then McQueen hissed and pulled away from her hand, and she knew she had.
"Sorry," she murmured, as she continued wiping. McQueen grunted something that sounded like -okay-.
Actually, she had a nice touch, very capable, very gentle. Her fingers were knowing, and the certainty in them made him relax. McQueen half wondered if she had had some kind of medical training somewhere, outside the Marines. It dawned on him, suddenly, that this girl had been under his command for a year, and he knew almost nothing about her. Oh, he knew she was a natural leader, that she came from a Marine family, that her parents had died in the AI Rebellion. She was an outstanding pilot, perhaps his best, after West. Nathan West was maybe incrementally better behind the stick, but Vansen was the better package. West could not touch her as a leader, as a Marine. Vansen was a lifer, a thirty year man in her blood. He had always thought so. He wondered, now, if that was what *she* wanted for her life.
In fact, of all his Marines, Vansen was the one he relied on most, and knew the least about. It had not been intentional, but the truth was, he had gotten to know his squad to the extent to which they needed *him*, and Vansen just never struck him as, well, needy. She was a Marine.
He loved them all. West, the hot headed, hot-shot pilot. Good man, but wore his heart on his sleeve. And pretty much everywhere else. It had taken a while for McQueen to bring West into line, and for a time, he had even wondered if he would be able. But in his heart, West was a warrior of the old chivalric mold, and once McQueen had been able to tap that, the boy had come right along. Damphousse. Level headed scientist, and long-gone hard charger, but underneath it all so sweet it hurt, sometimes. Tender, empathetic 'Phousse, she was the heart of the unit, in a lot of ways. McQueen did not always know how to react around her, when she would look up at him with her eyes so trusting. So sure he could fix whatever was wrong.
Wang. McQueen snorted softly to himself. There had been many nights when he had lain awake in his bunk wondering what the hell Paul Wang was doing in the Marines, and how the hell he was going to keep the boy alive long enough for him to grow up. Of all his kids, the least prepared, emotionally. Superstitious, ritualistic almost to the point of absurdity. Callow. Impetuous. Young. All the adjectives seemed to fit Paul Wang. And then circumstances intervened, aging him beyond his years, and he became a soldier, because he had to.
But McQueen did not delude himself that these three were in for more than the duration. As soon as this war was over, if they lived, they would be gone, back to their real lives. They would probably remember him, and they might even keep in touch for a while. But ultimately he would become part of the stories they would tell their grandchildren. Nothing less, but nothing more. It hurt him, a little, when he let it, but it knew it was inevitable. He'd been in the Corps for fifteen years, after all. A lifer. He had seen it before.
Then there was Hawkes. But Hawkes was a different case, all together. The young In Vitro was a lifer, too, McQueen believed, but because there were so few other options open to him, not because it would have been his first choice. Hawkes had come to the Marines a fuck-up, and found the family he would never have anywhere else; found the only place where he would be judged by his actions at least as often as he would be judged for what he was. If he lived, he would be safe there. He would not leave it. And he would not leave McQueen.
Sometimes, when he was being particularly honest with himself, McQueen admitted that Cooper Hawkes filled gaps for him, too. That he tried a little harder with Cooper, because he did not want the boy to suffer as he had. Because Hawkes, as a fellow In Vitro, shared a basic emotional understanding that *McQueen* found gratifying. And being honest, he tried not to project too much of his own life on Cooper, not to fit the boy into a mold that might not be his, just because he, T.C. McQueen, needed to see that reflection of himself, needed the emotional connection that a man wanted with a son.
But Vansen. Vansen was different, in a way that none of the others were different. Vansen had come to him *already* a Marine, in her soul. He did not *have* a string of adjectives, of other considerations, to apply to her when he thought about her. Vansen *was*. He relied on her to be there. He relied on her to do the right thing. Granted, she was young, she screwed up, sometimes. But far less often than anyone else. She took correction and discipline calmly and seriously, but she was not afraid to push back - respectfully - when it was warranted. She was his right hand.
And as such, he realized now, he had dismissed her from his consciousness. Well, no that was not true, either - quite. He watched her carefully, guided her career from a distance, placed her in situations that would try her and teach her - far more often and with more care than he did the others. He had fought like a steer for her promotion, even when Ross, himself, had protested that it was too soon. That a field promotion would probably be taken from her after the war if it was given so early. But McQueen had pushed, and he had won. Vansen made captain. He was confident that her further actions would justify his faith.
But he did not know her. He did not know what drove her, as he knew with West. He did not know what her fears where, her weak spots, as he did with Wang and Hawkes. He did not know her sensitivities, as he knew with Damphousse. She was just Vansen. He could not even recall a time when he had called her by her first name.
"I'm gonna have to butterfly this," she said, tisking at the gash she had uncovered. "It's deeper than I thought."
"You know what you're doing?" McQueen asked her, to have something to say. Vansen quirked a smile at him.
"All through high school I was lifeguard at the public beach," she replied. "I've taped up my share of gaping head wounds."
McQueen tented his brows, but let her continue. She wrapped the gauze strips carefully around his head. "That should keep it," she said finally. "You should even be able to get your helmet back on."
"Thanks, Vansen," he told her, meaning it.
She shifted her weight, trying to sit down without knocking against him. He tried to move to give her room. It was no use, the cramped space simply did not afford the luxury. Vansen finally got around enough to sit against the wall.
"Kill the light," McQueen told her. "We don't know what might be out there, walking around." Vansen killed the field light. The hole was not completely dark, after that, but it was close, lit only from the filtered moonlight drifting in from outside in the thick, and the occasional rocket flares. They could see each other's outlines but details were a blur. Until one of them turned to the other, and what light there was reflected off a face.
"Do you think they're all right?" Vansen asked after a moment, not turning. But McQueen did not need to see her, he could hear the distress in her voice. He wanted to reassure her, wanted to reassure himself, but he could not lie to her. Not there.
"I hope so," he said. "But this fire fight is some of the worst I've seen."
"Then shouldn't we be out there? Looking for them?" she demanded. "Helping them?"
McQueen never got a chance to answer. A missile hit the rim of their cover, shaking dirt and rocks down from the ceiling. McQueen grabbed Vansen by the head and pulled her toward him as he ducked down. When the debris finally settled, Vansen came up sputtering.
"Forget it, I retract the question," she coughed.
"We wouldn't last thirty seconds out there, Vansen," he told her. "We're no good to them dead."
"Well, we're gonna get buried *alive* in here," she retorted. But he was right, and she knew it, and he knew she knew it. McQueen understood. He, too, wanted desperately to crawl out of the protection of this rocky womb and *do* something to find his people. He just knew it would do no good. They were bull's-eye, the fire was too heavy. They would die in minutes, if they lasted *that* long, accomplishing nothing but reducing the Earth Forces by two more soldiers. But it was hard.
"Try your radio, again."
Vansen keyed the pick up, shook her head. "Still nothing but static." She sifted her weight around, trying to work the kinks out that had started cramping her legs. The motion pressed her heavily against McQueen's side, and she rested there a moment, taking comfort from the contact. Then remembering herself, she sat up, and drew way.
McQueen smiled a little to himself. "It's all right, Vansen," he murmured. She glanced up at him, confused and a little wary. "There must be something in the regs, somewhere, that says if you're trapped in some rotten hole, taking heavy fire with your commanding officer, it's okay to lean on his shoulder..."
He could not see her face clearly, but he could almost feel her astonishment. My god, he thought, do they really see me as that much of an ogre? Then Vansen laughed softly and she *did* lean against him, letting her weight rest against his shoulder and arm. The gesture caused McQueen an unexpected warm rush of feeling. He bent his own head toward her slightly in response.
"This probably isn't what you had in mind when you signed on," he ventured after a moment. An explosion answered him, but when the noise died down again, Vansen replied.
"I always knew it was a possibility," she said, matter-of-factly.
"So why *did* you join up?" McQueen asked. If he was going to die in there in that hole with this girl, which was becoming more and more likely, at least he wanted to know who she was first. "I know your parents were Marines. Was it for their memory?"
"Maybe a little," Vansen agreed. "But mostly, I did it for myself. It was what I wanted. I'd spent my whole life since was twelve doing things for other people. I wanted this for me." She looked at him shyly. "I wanted to be an Angry Angel," she admitted in a small voice.
McQueen had never experienced paternal pride, but he guessed it must be something like what he was feeling at that moment. "You would have been," he said, his voice reflecting his respect.
Vansen gaped a little, then looked away quickly, overcome. McQueen could almost see her blush.
"Is this really what you want to do with the rest of your life, Vansen?" he asked her. "Because you've got the talent. And the heart."
She did not answer right away. But when she finally did, her voice was strong, sure. "Yes, sir." A shell landed near them with a deafening explosion, making them both cringe. "If I live that long," she winced.
McQueen chuckled, despite the gravity of their situation. "Well," he said more seriously, "if it is, I want to help you. You've got what it takes."
Vansen hesitated. "Thank you, sir," she said shyly, and McQueen was a little surprised at the effect his praise had on her. After all, she must have known she deserved it, that it *was* the way he felt. Another shell exploded, kicking debris down from above. McQueen coughed as the dust cleared.
"If *I* live that long," he amended. Vansen laughed. She leaned a little closer to him, and let her head fall against his shoulder this time. The night had gotten darker, the moon must have passed over the horizon. He wondered if she might go to sleep, and almost hoped she would, even though it would deprive him of conversation he found himself wanting. Then Vansen shivered. He could feel her against his arm.
Vansen nodded and took a deep breath. "It's just," she hesitated. McQueen frowned at her. She shrugged. "I'm afraid of the dark."
McQueen smiled kindly. "Everyone's afraid of something, Vansen," he told her. She cocked her head at him, close enough for him to see that minx-y look in her eyes that she sometimes got when he generalized, and she was getting ready to call him on it. He kind of liked it about her, actually. Kid had balls. Respectful, but she wouldn't let him get away with much.
"So, what are *you* afraid of?" she asked him. Well, he should have been prepared for that. He gave her a sideways glance.
"Promise not to laugh?" he answered. Vansen looked intrigued. She nodded.
"Heights," he admitted, looking a little embarrassed. Vansen gaped. Then she laughed.
"But... you're a pilot!" she sputtered. McQueen nodded ruefully.
"I know, I know. And flying doesn't bother me. Neither does rock climbing, or stuff like that. But get me up in a tall building... Or on a catwalk? I can get dizzy standing on a chair."
Vansen shook her head, chuckling softly. She looked out the mouth of their cave for a few minutes, watching the missiles flare. McQueen wondered what she was thinking. He almost asked her when she finally spoke up.
"I, uh, know you didn't exactly 'join up' yourself," she ventured, "but why did you stay in the Corps? After the AI Rebellion was over."
McQueen thought about what he had told Hawkes, when the boy had asked the same question. That he continued to fight, continued to risk his life, in order to make a point that not all In Vitros were worthless slackers who did not stand for anything. That one In Vitro, at least, was something more than just a tank. What he had told Hawkes was the truth. But there were many truths, and that had only been part of the reason. The noble part, perhaps, but maybe not the most honest.
"It's my home," he said quietly. "Where else would I go? The Corps is my family. I belong here. And it's the only thing I really know how to do."
Vansen nodded. "Yeah," she said simply, understanding on a level that few others did. McQueen could hear it in her voice. It was the same for her.
"You never thought about leaving?"
McQueen considered this. How much did he want her to know about himself? How much did he care to confide?
"Once," he admitted hesitantly. "After my marriage broke up. But I didn't..."
Vansen just nodded. McQueen wondered if she would pursue it, the opening he gave her, the mention of his "other life." He wondered if he wanted her to. What he had confided in Kelly Winslow he had said in a moment of weakness when the girl had reached out to him and touched an open wound. He had talked to Hawkes a little, but very little. Nobody really knew, except for Ross, and McQueen had been drunk, that time. Would he tell Vansen the real truth, the truth even Winslow had not gotten? Would she ask?
"Kelly Winslow told me she's very beautiful," Vansen said. She would not pry, directly. She would not intrude upon his privacy, and yet, instinctively she had hit upon the crux of the matter. The real failure.
"She is," he replied. That beautiful lie he simply could not fathom. That golden fantasy at which he had so miserably failed. Vansen did a strange thing, then, unexpected. She reached over and gave his arm a squeeze. McQueen looked down at her face reflected in the dim light of the bursting rockets, and saw her smile.
She began to speak, again, softly. "My parents," she said, "were killed during the AI war. Silicates murdered them."
McQueen nodded, he had read that in her file. And heard her say as much to the others, when she thought he was not listening. "Yes," he replied gently. "I know."
"My sisters and I were witnesses to it."
He had not know that. "I'm sorry," he whispered, horrified. He did not know what else to say.
"I loved my father very much," Vansen continued, hesitantly, carefully choosing her words. She paused, a moment. "Since coming to the Five-Eight, though," she finished softly, "I miss him less."
McQueen just looked at her. He swallowed hard, taking in her meaning. For a moment he was speechless with emotion, his chest tight, hot tears pricking behind his eyes. Then he swallowed again, and took a breath.
"Toward the end of the AI wars," he began evenly, conversationally, "I was a prisoner of war. The, uh, AIs are infamous for the, uh, creativity of their tortures. They uh," he paused. "I'm not able to have children because of what they did. It's the reason why my wife left me. One of them."
Vansen looked up at him in sorrow. He glanced her a bit of a rueful smile, dropped his eyes.
"Since coming to the Five-Eight, though, I mind it less."
She looked surprised, but not very. She smiled slightly, pressing her lips together. Then she turned her head, and pressed her face against his shoulder. McQueen reached over and slipped his hand behind her neck, pulling her close. They did not speak. They sat that way for a long time, it seemed. Until McQueen noticed that the sounds of artillery had lessened, and then Vansen's helmet radio bleeped.
"It's them," she said, sitting up suddenly.
"Queen Six, this is Wildcards, are you out there," West's voice came over the link. "Queen of Diamonds, this is Wildcards, can you hear me?" He sounded desperate, distraught.
"King of Hearts, this is Queen of Diamonds, we copy. Queen Six is with me, where are you, are you all together? Are you all right?"
"Yeah, where are you two, we're with 5th Force. We've got an extraction! You have to hurry, we're at ...." he gave her the coordinates. McQueen looked at Vansen, shook his head.
"Nathan, that doesn't help us. Give me a landmark..."
There was a hesitation then West said, "We're about three hundred meters south of the C3 tower..."
"Roger that," Vansen said. She grinned happily at her colonel. "Let get out of here!" and she started to crawl toward the mouth of the cave.
"Shane," McQueen called her softly, She turned. She could barely see his face in the dim light, but she could feel his emotion. "Thank you."
Vansen smiled. Then she held out her hand. "Come on," she said warmly. "Let's move it. We're gonna miss our ride."