Disclaimer: The characters and situations of 'Space: Above and Beyond' depicted in this story are legal property of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Hard Eight Production and 20th Century Fox Television and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement intended. SUMMARY: Eight Months after the events of "...Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best," West still hasn't come to terms with what happened to the Wildcards. West/Vansen RATING: R CHARACTERS: West/Vansen, Hawkes, mentions of the others

NOTES: I will never, EVER forgive Fox for canceling this show. I place it second only to Farscape on the "Unfairly Railroaded By Its Network" list. If the idiots hadn't kept bumping it for football... If they'd put it on later than 7pm (this was a 9pm show if ever I saw one)... If they'd marketed it better... If, if, if... The frustration level is incredible.

But there is one shining light at the end of this tunnel. At last, after TEN YEARS, the show has been released in its entirety on DVD. Hallelujah and praise the Lord! I've spent the last several days curled up on my bed watching episode after episode and crying time and again over the fact that a show with so much promise could be discarded so carelessly by its network. There were so many stories left on the table when this show ended, it makes my fingers itch. This story is my attempt to pick up on some of those loose threads and embroider them into something fresh.

It's also a chance for me to indulge my hopeless romantic side and splurge on some Vansen/West 'shippiness and angst. ;)



You'll never know how your face has haunted me,
My very soul has to bleed this time.
Another hole in the wall of my inner defenses
Leaving me breathless. The reason I know
That I am stricken and can't let you go.
When the heart is cold, there's no hope, and we know
That I am crippled by all that you've done.
Into the abyss will I run...

-"Stricken," by Disturbed-

"Nathan, you have to stop this."

"Shuddup. You're dead."

"Aren't you supposed to respect the dead? You were always such a stickler for upholding military code, you ought to know. Doesn't respecting the dead include respecting what they tell you?"

"You're dead. You can't do anything. Shuddup."

"West, this is a direct order from your superior officer."

"Shuddup. I gotta promotion, don't you remember? Got it 'cause you were dead. We're equals now, only I'm more equal 'cause 'mnot dead."

"Put down the bottle, Captain!"

"SHUT UP! I said SHUT UP! Leave me alone! You're not Shane! You're nothing but a goddamn ghost! A hallucination! I don't have to listen to you – you don't have anything to say! You're only here because my head won't let you go! That's why I have to keep drinking!"

It hurt to throw the bottle, stretching sore muscles that didn't want to be stretched, but at the same time nothing had ever felt quite so good. The sound of shattering glass was cathartic. Nathan had shattered and rebuilt himself time and again in the eight months since Anvil, but he was getting tired of putting the pieces back together. When the war had finally ended – abruptly, as if by accident – five months after the events of that day, the 58th had been amongst the first squadrons sent home. The official reason had been as a "reward for their excellent achievements in battle and in defense of their homeworld." Nathan knew that was just a sham; they'd been sent home because if they'd spent any more time on the Saratoga, either he or Coop would have ended up in the brig on a charge of insubordination, rowdiness, behavior unbefitting an officer, and quite likely murder. An ignominious end for the fleet's most prestigious squadron.

"Someday I'll drink enough that I'll wash you away..." he mumbled to the place where Shane's face had been; where he'd aimed the bottle, only to watch it pass right through.

He'd been seeing ghosts since the one month anniversary of the Day They Cashed Their Chips In. It was a nickname he'd invented himself but hadn't shared with Hawkes; it was inappropriate to the memory of the fallen Wildcards, and Hawkes didn't understand inappropriate. He would have started using it in everyday conversation, would have made it a motto, and West didn't want it to become a motto. He wanted it to be his dirty little secret, to match the dirty little guilt trip he'd never been able to shake. It was that guilt which had driven Kylen inexorably away from him. He was glad it had been a long-distance break, with him on the Saratoga and her back home with her family and friends on Earth; people whose personalities hadn't cycled 180 degrees in the time they'd been separated. Nathan couldn't blame her for running away. When they'd prepared to fly together with the Tellus Colony he'd been a bright-eyed optimist with grand dreams for the future; so damned earnest it made Nathan embarrassed just to think about it. But the Nathan who greeted Kylen after her rescue was a different man entirely: hard, embittered, jagged as flint. And that had been before he let his best friends die. After that, things just got worse.

It was the crowning blow when Kylen left him. The guilt which had nagged at him since he watched the metal box – he couldn't think of it as a cockpit anymore; it always became a coffin in his head – watched the metal box with Vansen and Damphousse inside plummet through that damn planet's atmosphere had tripled after that, and it hadn't gotten any better. It kept getting worse, if that was possible. The part of his brain which still functioned on a cogent level considered making a flow chart to track the progress of his guilty conscience as it fluctuated between irrational paranoia and full-blown depression, but that would have required effort, and it was just so much easier to say Fuck it to the world and let the darkness consume him.

Only two things kept him from ending it all by flying full throttle into an enemy fighter in the heat of battle. The first was the bloody-minded desire to kill as many Chigs as possible to make them pay for what had happened to Wang, 'Phousse and Vansen. The second was Cooper Hawkes.

The InVitro took the loss of the other Wildcards just as badly as Nathan, but without the same mind-numbing sense of impotence. Hawkes hadn't been the one piloting the ISSAPC. He hadn't been the one who felt the shudder as Paul split the ship in half. Hadn't been the one in a position to rescue Shane and Vanessa, thereby removing two-thirds of the tragedy and keeping the 58th, if not whole, at least less fractured. There had been times in the intervening months when Nathan would have given his right arm to hear Vanessa's soft voice or Shane's honey-silk alto, and he knew Cooper felt the same way.

But the InVitro was coping; he was getting by. Perhaps that had something to do with his continued communication with Colonel McQueen, who'd been shipped back to Earth after his most recent injury and was recuperating at a military hospital in San Diego. In many ways Nathan envied his friend; he hadn't had the courage to talk to his own family since he'd sent home the letter about Neil, but McQueen was the only real family Hawkes had; even more of a family than the other members of the 58th. After all, what did Nathan know about being a Tank? How were you supposed to tell this man, a man with no family beyond his squadron, that the people he loved most in the universe – that same family – were dead? And how in hell did you tell him that they were dead because of you?

You didn't, that's how. You took the coward's way and let him hear it from a banged up Colonel on the other side of the galaxy, because it was easier than saying it face to face. Then you went and hid in a hole with a bottle of Jack Daniels and tried to ignore the ghosts.

At first they only came at night, in his dreams, which made it easy to ignore them because he could wake himself up. Then they started visiting him during the day, capitalizing on his exhaustion and appearing during briefings, during patrols, once or twice during firefights. That was when the drinking began, as he tried to muddle his mind enough to keep the ghosts at bay. At first it worked, but then they started fighting their way to the forefront again, and he had to drink more to hold them back. He found himself pinching alcohol from the Tun Tavern, hiding it away in his locker, his strongbox, secret spots throughout the ship. Thank God the war ended when it did. Getting kicked out of the military for being a menace would have been one thing; getting kicked out for being a drunk was another.

He was having a bad effect on Cooper, too, which didn't sit well with him. The InVitro would have had a much easier time gelling with the new members of the squadron if Nathan hadn't been there like a cancerous bump on a log. West knew that Hawkes felt a kind of brotherly loyalty towards him which made him feel duty-bound to bark and snarl and gripe at the new additions. Doubtless some of that had been Hawkes' own sense of betrayal coming through, but Hawkes had always been adaptable. Sometimes he had to be bent and manipulated to fit into a new situation, but he always managed it. The Tank was just too likable – and, oddly enough, sociable – to stay on the outs with anybody for long; especially when that anybody was responsible for watching his six and keeping him alive on a daily basis, and he was expected to return the favor. Nope, if Nathan hadn't been there, Coop's period of mourning would have lasted perhaps a month, with occasional moments of gravity forever after; but he would have recovered.

If Nathan hadn't been there. With Nathan there, the Tank ended up in a bar fight almost once a week. They literally had a cot in the brig with his name on it. The only thing that kept him from getting kicked out of the military entirely was the fact that Commodore Ross liked him, and he was the best pilot on the 'Toga now that West could barely see straight from the gin.

When the war ended and they found themselves back on solid ground, Hawkes went to see McQueen and Nathan walked in the other direction. It was better that way. Hawkes didn't deserve the pressure of being Nathan's crutch and Nathan didn't want to put his last remaining friend at risk from his own reckless behavior. Sometimes he wondered if the InVitro ever thought about him, but most of the time he just sat in the corner of whatever hovel he'd found to curl up in for the night, and stared at the ghosts.

They only came one by one, never together, and he thought that was odd because they'd always been such a cohesive team. Paul came least often, which hurt a lot; of all the ghosts, Nathan liked Paul the best. That familiar twinkle in his eye, the stupid jokes, the way he refused – even in death – to admit that Chicago had crap for sports teams and showed no signs of getting any better. Sometimes, when Paul came to visit him, Nathan felt almost normal again. He could put down the bottle and talk to his friend and feel that, just for a moment, he wasn't a failure.

Vanessa was next on the list, and she made him uneasy. The bodies had never been found, and the last thing Nathan had ever heard about Damphousse was Shane's weary statement that the communications officer had been injured. His brain interpreted this as head injury, so whenever Damphousse's ghost made an appearance, one side of her face was always covered in blood. This didn't seem to bother her, though Nathan knew how much she hated blood, and that just made the effect all the more chilling. They never talked about specifics. She'd ask him about the weather, the political scene, the latest advances in home theater systems, and he'd answer her as honestly as he could, though he couldn't tell her much since he spent so much of his time at the bottom of a bottle and didn't know the answers. They'd always end with Vanessa leaning over to give him a phantom peck on the cheek – thankfully he couldn't feel the blood against his face – and then fade away with a smile and a promise to return.

The last ghost to visit him, yet the one who made the most frequent appearances, was Shane, and all she ever told him was that it wasn't his fault.

He resented Shane's apparition more than the other two, though he couldn't explain his reasons. Perhaps because she was the one he most wanted to talk to yet she refused to listen to him when he tried to speak to her. The only thing she'd respond to was his guilt, which she tried to siphon away with each new appearance. "It's not your fault, West. I told you to go. You were going to disobey a direct order? Let it go, West. Let us go."

"Well who d'you think you are?" he muttered to the empty room, knowing she was gone and not caring. "This 'smy guilt, dammit, not yours. I get to keep it if I want it. 'Sall I have left!"

What a sad, pathetic, ridiculously macabre statement of the truth that was. He hadn't been fully sober in close to a year, and the simple fact that he was utterly and completely alone was the one blindingly clear thought he could hold onto for longer than a few minutes at a time. His parents probably missed him but he couldn't go back to that house and see Neil's picture on the mantelpiece. McQueen probably worried about him but the Colonel had enough worries in life without adding a drunken captain to the list. Hawkes probably wondered where he'd gone, but Nathan didn't need to remind himself again that the InVitro was better off without him. After them, everyone else was dead.

Well, that was a thought. If everyone else was dead, then the easiest way to stop being alone was to join them.

"Wanna die," he mumbled, closing his eyes and settling deeper into the filthy corner of this abandoned room. Where was he? Had he paid for this place or was it just another condemned building he'd managed to find? Dammit, he didn't even have a bottle to help him sleep. "Lemme die."

"Sorry, pal, no can do."

Cracking open one eye, Nathan peered up at the voice. It was late afternoon, and the only light in the room came from the setting sun outside, streaming through the dirty window like spotlights. There was a figure standing over him, silhouetted from behind by the harsh orange light. He hadn't heard anybody come in but that didn't surprise him; he didn't pay much attention to anything outside his own head anymore. "Who're you?" he mumbled, squinting to try and see better and only succeeding in making his vision swim.

"Cute. You'd think you'd remember me or something, but I guess when you've been stewing your head in Jim Beam for this long, you forget stuff like faces."

"Can't see your face."

"Voices then. Whatever. Shut up. You stink by the way."

Nathan squinted harder, forcing the figure to swim back into focus. "Coop?" he asked.

The figure crouched down until they were eye to eye. "You are one hard son-of-a-bitch to track down, West, you know that?" the InVitro said with a grin. "You're damn lucky I love you like a brother or I might have stopped searching."

"Coop?" Nathan asked again. It was impossible. No one could have found him. No one. "How...?"

"I just kept asking everyone I met if they'd seen a drunk ex-Marine stumbling around who looked like he'd been sucking on a lemon. I figured one of these days I'd hit paydirt."

A flare of righteous indignation uncurled in Nathan's belly. "I don't... don't suck on lemons," he protested, trying to sit up straighter in his corner.

Cooper winced away and waved a hand in front of his face. "No, but it smells like you suck on anything that's had a chance to ferment for a week. When was the last time you ate?" When Nathan just blinked at him, Hawkes nodded. "Right, guess that means a while ago. You look like a frigging scarecrow, Jesus. Come on." He stood up, then scooped Nathan up off the grimy floor, much to the latter's chagrin.

"Pu' me down!" West groused.

"Can you walk?"

West didn't honestly know if he could, so he kept his mouth shut.

"Fine. Then no, I carry you. When did I become the strong, nurturing one in this relationship?"

"Where're we going?"

"Somewhere with a dunk tank. You need a bath."


They ended up at the next best thing, which was a small hotel a few blocks away in a less dodgy neighborhood. Ignoring the stares of the various employees, Cooper carried his friend up the stairs and down the hall to the room he'd been assigned. It was small, cramped with two twin beds, but thankfully clean. They'd been Marines and lived in the mud, but sometimes it was just easier to get things done when you didn't have to worry about cockroaches and rats.

Dumping his friend on the bed, Hawkes marched into the bathroom and immediately started filling the tub with hot, steaming water. He cast around in vain for any kind of bubble bath – Nathan needed soap, and badly -- but finally settled for turning off the cold and letting the rest of the tub fill with nothing but heat. That oughta kill off... whatever might be living on him, he thought amiably. It was weird – he shouldn't have felt this happy after finding his best friend collapsed in a derelict office building in the slums of San Diego, half dead from starvation and probably alcohol poisoning. But he was happy, because when someone was half-dead it also meant they were half-alive, which was a hell of a lot better than MIA.

At first he'd been furious with Nathan for disappearing, but that had only lasted a few days. In a way, he'd always expected Nathan to go away when they returned to Earth; he'd just always assumed the other Marine would leave a number or something so they could keep in touch. The fact that West hadn't done so had made Cooper nervous, and when he told McQueen, the Colonel hadn't looked too happy about the situation, either.

Thinking of which, he'd have to call McQueen soon to let him know he'd hit the jackpot.

But before he got to any of that, he had to make sure his friend was taken care of. Judging by the look of him, West was far from all right; but he was alive, which was better than nothing. A bath, a meal, a month or ten in detox, and he'd be right as rain. Whatever that meant; Cooper had never figured out what was so great about rain.

"All right, pal, upsy daisy," Hawkes prompted, hoisting his drunken comrade over his shoulder and trying to ignore the smell that wafted off him: a mix of alcohol, sweat and decay. Carrying him into the steamy bathroom, Cooper debated making his friend strip down, then decided Screw it and dropped him into the water, clothes and all.

Nathan sat up immediately, sputtering and swiping water out of his eyes. "The hell, Hawkes!"

"Sobered you right up, didn't it?" the InVitro asked gleefully. "Gimme your clothes."


"Your clothes. You're a mess, man."

"Cooper, I'm not giving you my clothes!"

"Why? Nath, we were in the Marines, man. I've seen you naked. Trust me, I'm only doing this for your own good. I've got other clothes for you, but what you're wearing has got to go."

Nathan eyed him suspiciously. "Fine," he relented after a minute. "But you have to turn away."

Cooper rolled his eyes. "Prude," he muttered, but obediently left the room.

A minute later, a wet ball of clothing came hurtling through the bathroom door, rebounding off the wall and landing with a squelch! on the floor. Cooper looked up from the Loony Tunes cartoon he'd managed to find on the room's TV. "I was lying about the other clothes!" he called out. "I don't have any!"


"This way you can't run away!" Hopping up from the bed, Hawkes bent down and swiped the soggy bundle of rags off the floor and peered around the bathroom door. "I'll go get you something. I have to make a few calls anyway. Start singing."

West glared at him through the steam. "What?"

"Start singing," Cooper reiterated. "I'm going to tell the nice maid I passed while I was carrying your sorry ass to the room that if she doesn't hear you singing, she has to come in here and check to make sure you're not dead. So unless you want some strange woman ogling you, start singing."

"Hawkes, I'm not going to die."

"West." This time Hawkes made sure his voice was firm, lacking the usual light-hearted nature of their banter. "For the past two months you've been dead. Hell, you were dead for a lot longer than that, but these last two months in particular. Don't think I'm going to let the little fact I found you alive change my mind about that. Now start singing."

Nathan continued to glare at him, then sighed and closed his eyes. "All right," he said, and Hawkes let himself relax a little. "Any requests?"

Cooper grinned. "Don't know," he said. Then, brightening, "Hey, how 'bout that one Shane used to listen to all the time. That Patsy Cline one. What was it?"

West opened his eyes again, and this time the patina of drunkenness was gone completely. Hawkes didn't think he'd ever seen his friend more sober. "Never," the other man said firmly. "No more."


"He needs some cool tunes, Not just any will suffice. But they didn't have Ice Cube, so he bought Vanilla Ice. Now cruising in his Pinto he sees homies as he pass, But if he looks twice, they're gonna kick his lily ass!"

This is ridiculous, Nathan thought as he sang, scrubbing at his limbs and trying to ignore how skinny his wrists had become over the last two months. I don't even know who Ice Cube is. Or Vanilla whatsit. The song was one of Cooper's favorites, though, and it had stuck in Nathan's head after listening to the InVitro play it over... and over... and over again on his antique CD player on the Saratoga. It was by a group called... The Spawn or something, he couldn't remember. It had a good beat and it was loud, which kept the maids at bay. Where the hell was Cooper with those clothes?

The water was still warm but Nathan was beginning to feel less and less human and more and more like a raisin with every passing minute. Pushing into a standing position, he steadied himself against the shower wall and flailed out with his spare hand until he made contact with a towel flung over the towel bar on the wall beside the tub. He didn't trust himself to remain upright if he bent over to unstopper the tub, so he fished around with his toe until he felt the latch move, then the dizzying sensation of water flowing past his ankles and down the drain. Ignoring this, he briefly toweled his hair then his body, fastening the damp swath of terrycloth around his hips once he was... well, less damp. Not exactly dry, but he was too tired to care at the moment.

The sound of someone knocking at the door made him groan. Cooper and his damned maids. "I'm here!" he called out, leaning against the back of the tub as he tried to get his legs steady beneath him. "Not dead!"

"Oui, monsieur?"

Oh God. A French maid. How frigging clichι. It would have made him laugh if he'd had the energy and hadn't been sure it would make him throw up if he did. "Fine!" he repeated. "Just tired! I'm going to take a nap, so just... spread the word!"

When she didn't answer he assumed she'd understood him. Sighing, he stepped unsteadily out of the tub, leaning forward to brace his hands on the counter in front of the mirror. Looking up, he caught his reflection and promptly looked away again. The thing that struck him most, oddly enough, was the lack of beard. He'd been teased incessantly as an adolescent about how smooth his face was. He'd tried to grow a beard, just to prove them all wrong, but after a couple of weeks with nothing to show for it, he'd given up. Two months had left him with little more than a faint shadow of beard that made him look like a hobo. Fitting, since that was what he'd become. A homeless, drunken hobo.

His mouth tasted like something had died in it. That needed to change. Casting about, he finally grabbed up a complimentary bottle of mouthwash, threw the cap in the trash, and downed the contents. Swishing it around his mouth, he barely noticed the burn as it ate away at the mess that was his teeth. He'd been drinking some of the worst rotgut known to man during his self-imposed exile; cheap mouthwash was positively vintage on his tongue.

Spitting into the sink, he took a moment to rinse his mouth with a few handfuls of cold water, then chanced another look at his reflection. Nope, hadn't changed. Still looked like crap. His eyes were sunk into his skull, with blue-black circles beneath that made him wonder how Cooper had recognized him, especially under all that grime.

The room was beginning to spin as his body remembered the steam had only sweated so much of the alcohol out of his system, and he was still drunk as a Lord. Deciding clothes were a secondary concern at this point, he hobbled out of the bathroom, feeling his way along the wall until he came to the nearest bed. Pushing away from the wall, he flopped down face first on the comforter. God it felt good to be on a mattress rather than a moth-eaten carpet in some dive on the bad side of town. Closing his eyes, he let the exhaustion take over and prayed the ghosts would give him just a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.



So much for uninterrupted sleep.

"Nathan, wake up."

It was her again. She was always the one who came to him when he was most exhausted and his defenses were low. Curling in on himself, he shook his head. "Go 'way," he grumbled. "Sleeping."

"You have to wake up, Nathan. I have to talk to you."

"I don't wanna talk to you," he mumbled. Reaching up with one hand, he managed to extricate the thin hotel pillow from beneath the comforter and hugged it tight to his body. Maybe he was using it like a shield, or maybe he didn't want to feel the rub of his elbows against his sharp ribs anymore; he couldn't be sure.

"You don't know what I'm going to say."

"Yeah I do."

"What then?"

Sighing, Nathan rolled onto his back, moving the pillow up so it covered his eyes and his words were muffled. "You're going to tell me it's not my fault and that I have to let you go," he told her. "That's what you always say. I'm tired of it. I'm tired, Shane. I just want to sleep."

"What if I told you something else?"

"Like what? You can't tell me anything, Shane. You're dead. You say the things my head makes you say, and my head always makes you say the same thing." He groaned. "Go away. I'm hung over and I don't have anything to make it go away."


"No!" With effort he yanked the pillow away from his eyes and stared at her. She was sitting on the edge of the mattress, watching him. A few hours must have passed because the sky had gone from fiery afternoon to velvet evening, with a bright moon that swallowed the surrounding stars. It made Vansen seem to glow around the edges. "No, I'm tired! Don't you get it? I'm tired, Shane! I just want you to go away and leave me alone! I can't...!" He pressed his hands over his eyes, growling in frustration.

"I can't do it anymore, Shane," he professed, exhausted. "I can't keep fighting myself over you. And Vanessa and Paul." He didn't know why he felt the need to add the others' names, but he did it anyway. "I let you die. End of story. Can't you just let me die already? Isn't that what you want?"

"I don't want you to die, West."

"Heard it before," he muttered and flipped onto his side so his back was to her. "Heard it over and over and over before. Just leave me alone."

"I can't do that, Nathan. It's my fault you're here like this and I'm not going to walk away from that."

"Why not? You're dead. You don't even have to walk. You can float."

"Dammit, West, look at me!"

That took him by surprise. Normally she didn't start yelling at him until they'd been arguing for a good ten minutes or so. Deciding to ignore her summons, he buried his face in the pillow and said nothing.

"I said look at me, Lieutenant!"

"Captain," he sighed. "You always forget I'm a captain now."

"In that case I won't be accused of unfairly asserting my authority on a subordinate when I kick your ass, West. So turn around. Don't make me get physical."

He snorted. "Sure, try."

"I warned you."

Nathan settled down, closing his eyes and preparing to go back to sleep.

Until he felt a strong hand close on his shoulder, and another on his hip above the towel, flipping him firmly onto his back. Eyes widening in shock, he stared up into the livid face of Shane Vansen as she pinned his shoulders to the bed. "Ready to listen now, Marine?" she growled.

"Shane...?" Nathan croaked.

"Do I look like Malibu Barbie to you?"

That was it. His brain couldn't take this. With a sense of relief, Nathan realized he was about to pass out. "Thank God," he muttered, before closing his eyes and letting the darkness take him.


Well, that could have gone better.

Shane sat on the edge of the bed again, Nathan stretched out behind her, and ran her fingers through her hair in frustration. This wasn't how she'd pictured their reunion. She wasn't often sentimental, but she'd always imagined something where their eyes met across a crowded airport terminal. He'd see her, she'd smile, he'd cry out her name, they'd run to each other...

Yeah, well. Not so much.

When Cooper had called her to say he'd found Nathan, at first she didn't know how to react. It had been hard enough returning to Earth a month earlier to find he was missing; she'd never thought things would get harder once he was found. One look at him shoved that misconception right out the window. Christ, what had he done to himself? Where was the clean-cut farm boy she used to tease for being such a goody two-shoes? And where the hell was Kylen? Hawkes had told her and Vanessa that Nathan and his girlfriend had broken up shortly after the rescue of the colonists, which Shane found hard to believe. Nathan had lived for Kylen; literally and figuratively. It just... it didn't make sense that he'd abandon that, no matter how much distance might have grown between the two.

Oh God, tell me I didn't do that to him, too. Oh Jesus.

How was she supposed to explain her reappearance? The fact that they'd been MIA for seven months? It still felt weird to admit that to herself. Seven months. The universe had changed while she was cooling her heels in a cell on some Chig-occupied planet in the middle of nowhere. It still felt like she'd crash landed in one universe and reemerged into a parallel one. The rail thin figure on the bed behind her just added credence to that assessment.

"He looks like he's been vacationing in Hell," Cooper had told her, which hadn't been a promising start. "He thinks you're dead." That made more sense; everyone thought they were dead. Their return hadn't been publicized – two POWs amid thousands – so it made sense that he wouldn't know about her resurrection, nor Vanessa's. It made things even weirder, though. Everyone who'd been under the erroneous belief that she was dead had been brought up to speed a month ago. It was strange having to do it all over again.

Provided he'd even believe her. When she'd spoken to him initially she'd expected him to automatically realize who she was and what her presence meant, but instead he'd started prattling on to her as if she'd never been gone. She understood now, of course; she'd turned into a voice in his head; a nagging little piece of his conscience. That made her feel odd. If anything, Nathan had always been her conscience, not vice versa. He'd made her step back and see reason when she couldn't see past her own devastation. Having the roles reversed was surreal.

Twisting around on the bed she forced herself to take a long, hard look at him. His hair was shaggy around a face that had gone from angular to downright skeletal. She remembered the eyes he'd fixed on her: dark, hollow holes in his head without any of their former luster. The slightly-more-than-five-o'clock shadow that dusted his jaw made him look ten years older than his actual age and just added to the dark shadows under his jutting cheekbones. The rest of his body wasn't much better. Dammit, she could have used his ribs for a washboard and his shoulders for a coat hanger. He'd always been lean, but now he was knocking on the door to emaciated. The clothes Cooper had bought for her to give him would hang on his body like potato sacks.

Her foot worried the plastic bag of clothes and toiletries on the floor between the beds, and she suddenly wished Vanessa were here rather than in New York. She was flying in on the next available flight, but that was still hours away. The other woman had always been better at things like emotions and psychology. Shane didn't know how to talk to people and make them open up. Sure, as CO of the 58th she'd been able to talk to her pilots, but she'd left most of that stuff to... well, to West. And something told her he wasn't going to be in a chatty mood when he woke up.

Gingerly, she leaned forward on her hands until she was face to face with him, hovering over his body. "Nathan," she said, as firmly as she could. "Wake up, Nathan. It's Shane. Really Shane. I know that sounds odd to you, but it's true. Wake up and talk to me, West. Take a swing at me if you have to, I don't care. Just wake up first. Come on."

Her voice must have been having an effect because she could see his eyes moving beneath his eyelids. Slowly, as though he were waking out of a trance, he opened his eyes and looked up at her.

She smiled. "Hi there, Marine."

Nathan just stared for a minute. Shane could almost hear the seconds ticking by. "Shane?" he finally asked, voice raspy.

She nodded. "Guilty as charged."

More staring. Then, moving faster than she thought possible given his weakened state, he scrambled out from beneath her, curling up against the headboard and eying her with disbelief. "No, this is a lie!" he shouted, hugging his pillow to him even tighter than before. "You're dead!"

Shane closed her eyes, wishing she had the time to count to ten, but opened them again after she got to three. "No, Nathan. I'm alive."

"I watched you die!"

"You watched my ship crash. We survived, Nathan."

He blinked. "'Phousse?"

"She's in New York, with her family."

Softly, too hopeful to be believed, "...Paul?"

She closed her eyes and let her head droop forward for a moment. "I'm sorry, Nathan," she murmured huskily, before swallowing down the lump in her throat and raising her head to give him a teary-eyed smile. "Only two miracles for you today."

He nodded vaguely, hardly hearing her. She watched his eyes dart across her face, up and down her body, as if trying to prove she was an illusion. Eventually he reached out a hand and tentatively touched her hair, shrinking back when he found it tangible beneath his fingers. "H... How?" he whispered.

Shane took a deep breath. "Promise you won't run away while I tell you?" He nodded faintly and she decided to take him on faith. "When we crashed, Vanessa and I were taken prisoner by the Chigs. It's okay," she told him quickly, seeing the pained expression that crossed his face at her admission. "It's all right. The first couple of weeks were pretty terrible, but then it got better. All right? Nothing for you to worry about, okay?"

Sitting up straight again, she continued. "They must have been talking peace with the bigwigs, because after those first two weeks, they more or less ignored us. We got our daily meals and that was about all the contact we had with them. Even the Silicates stayed the hell away. Vanessa and I figure that they didn't want to further damage the merchandise and endanger whatever peace they might manage to knock together on the grounds of war crimes." She rolled her eyes, laughing bitterly. "Isn't it great? Totally different sides of the galaxy, and they know what a war crime is."

"We didn't hear anything about peace talks."

"After the fiasco the first time around, I'm not surprised. They must have kept it under wraps."

"So that's why the war ended so abruptly. They didn't just surrender; we hashed it out with them."

Shane nodded. "It took a few months for all the POWs to be released. They had camps spread all across Chig territory, way back into the abyss. We were some of the last to be set free, about a month ago."

Nathan was just watching her now; he seemed fascinated with her right ear. She wondered if he'd even heard the conclusion of her story. "Nathan?" she prodded gently, and his eyes flicked up to meet hers. "Hawkes didn't tell us much about what happened while we were gone. All he said was you took it hard."

Nathan chuckled, though it was without humor. "Do you believe him?" he asked, leaning back against the headboard again and rubbing his rough jaw.

Shane shook her head. "Not really," she said. "I'm having a hard time believing this is really you."

"Join the club."

"What happened, West?" she asked, ignoring his comment. "What did this to you?"

He laughed again, and this time not only was there no humor in it, but it was loaded with derision. It was the kind of laugh evil masterminds used when they were about to reveal their nefarious plans to the dashing hero they had tied up beneath the pendulum blade.

"You, Shane," he said after a few seconds of that. Looking her dead in the eye, he said it again. "It was you."


Nathan stared into the bathroom mirror and tried to ignore how low the jeans Hawkes had bought for him hung on his hips. He'd ratcheted the belt to the last possible hole and they still drooped to the point that he could see the sharp ridges of his hipbones. He hadn't bothered with the shirt yet and his dog tags looked sickeningly bright against his pale chest. He had a feeling Cooper's simile was going to prove itself true. Spreadeagle him on a stick in the middle of a cornfield and stuff straw up his sleeves, because Nathan was willing to admit he looked like one hell of a sketchy scarecrow at the moment.

The reason he hadn't bothered with the shirt was because he was trying to shave, and failing badly. Cooper, bless his little cotton socks, had included a pack of disposable razors and a can of generic shaving cream along with the rest of the toiletries he'd passed on to Vansen to in turn pass on to West. Nathan had managed to get the shaving cream on his face with little difficulty, but the actual shaving part was causing him no end of trouble. He was out of practice for one, having ignored simple things like grooming for the past couple of months. Brushing his teeth he'd been able to do, but anything more coordinated than that was going to be problematic.

Secondly, his hands were shaking like the proverbial leaf on a tree. Every time he got the razor anywhere near his throat he had to pull away again or risk slitting into his own jugular vein. Tough to do with a safety razor, but the way his life had been going the past few months, he wasn't willing to discount the possibility. This time yesterday he might not have cared, but things had changed immeasurably in the last twenty-four hours and his world view had altered accordingly.

Shane was back. 'Phousse was back. Things like this didn't happen in real life. They happened in the movies, made for compelling TV, and were the subject of countless operas and Broadway sobfests, but they never, ever happened to normal people. Guess that means you're abnormal, West, he thought self-derisively. Not that it's a surprise.

Vansen. Oh God. How was he supposed to handle this? What he really needed was a drink, but he had a feeling Shane wouldn't be amenable to that idea. She'd mentioned something about force feeding him Cream of Wheat and dry toast; appetizing. The carbs would probably do him good, if the shock of solid food didn't kill him. At the thought of food his stomach rolled, though he couldn't tell if it was from hunger, nausea or anxiety.

Shane hadn't said much after his accusal, but then again neither had he. A few mumbled words about needing to get dressed, the force feeding discussion, and then he'd disappeared into the bathroom to change while she did whatever she was doing in the bedroom. He wasn't in the mood for a discussion right now. All he wanted to do was go to sleep and not wake up for a hundred years. Rip Van Nathan West. Was that asking so much?

"Dammit," he cursed softly after yet another failed attempt with the razor. This time he'd managed to nick his jaw in the process. Wadding up some tissue he pressed it against the cut and glared at himself in the mirror. He looked ridiculous, with a mane of shaggy brown hair and a faceful of foam that made him look like a caveman Santa Claus. The red blood made it almost festive, in a half-crazed, lunatic kind of way.

There was a soft knock on the door. "You decent?" Shane asked from the other side.

Nathan debated his answer before giving up and replying, "Yeah. Come in."

The door opened a little and she poked her head into the room. He saw her lips twitch as she tried to fight down a laugh. "Need some help?" she asked, all innocence.

"I'm fine, thanks," he answered, trying his best to ignore the fact that he had a wad of toilet tissue pressed against his face and shaving cream dripping down his neck.

Shane rolled her eyes and stepped fully into the room. "Shut up," she told him, eyes twinkling as she took the razor from his hand. Gently negotiating his body so he was leaning back against the counter and she was facing the mirror, she said, "Chin up."

It was useless to fight. Shane taught mules the art of being stubborn. Sighing, he tilted his head back, fixing his eyes on the ceiling. A moment later he felt the familiar rasp of the razor grazing along his jaw; it was oddly soothing. Completely of their own accord, his eyes began to drift shut.

"I'm heating up some water in the coffeemaker," Shane murmured, as he felt her reach around his body to rinse the razor in the standing water he'd readied in the sink. "I wasn't joking about the Cream of Wheat."

"Not even oatmeal?" he said plaintively as she scoured more foam from his face.

"Cream of Wheat," she repeated, and he could hear the smile in her voice. "It's easier on your system. Besides, it tastes better."

"In whose universe?"

"I grew up eating Cream of Wheat."

"And I grew up eating Choco Chunk cereal, but you don't see me pining for little brown squares of artificially flavored chocolate substitute."

"You ate that crap? And here I thought you grew up snacking on tofu tarts and oat bran hors d'oeuvres."

"I'm just full of surprises."

"That you are."

They stood in companionable silence for a while as Shane methodically moved the razor over his face. It felt good to be clean, Nathan had to admit it. All he needed now was a haircut – something high and tight -- and he'd feel almost normal.

"I've got some of my Hangover Cure in a thermos for you," Vansen said a few minutes later. She'd gotten one side of his face done and was working on his throat. "Your eyes are so red they'd make a bull change course on the streets of Pamplona."

Nathan knew Shane's "Hangover Cure." Anyone who knew Shane and had ever been drunk in the course of that relationship was acquainted with the "Hangover Cure." It earned the capital letters. She never divulged the recipe, but from past experience Nathan was certain the lion's share of the mixture was tabasco sauce and red wine vinegar. "Can't wait," he said, trying not to grimace. "Hawkes tell you I needed that?"

"He said something along the lines of you being a dirty drunk, yeah."

"Glad to hear he was being so charitable."

"Quit it. He was worried about you. It was all I could do to get him out of here before he woke you up with all his fussing."

Nathan frowned. "He was here again?"

Vansen rolled her eyes as she got to work on the second half of his face. "How do you think I found you? He brought me here."

"Why'd you make him leave?"

"Like I said, he was going to wake you up and you needed the sleep. I let you sleep a good five hours before I decided it was time to talk." He felt her fingers pause in their progress for a moment before continuing. "And I thought we should be alone for that."

Nathan sighed wearily, feeling Vansen's thumb resting lightly on his throat as his Adam's apple bobbed. "What do we have to talk about?"

"Don't be an asshole, West. You know what we have to talk about. Apparently you haven't been talking to anybody for a long time. That stops now."

"You're not my mother, Shane."

"No, I'm not, but since you seem resigned to shutting your actual mother out of your life, I'll have to act as substitute. So quit arguing with the woman with black ops training who has a razor blade near your throat."

Normally Nathan could tell when Shane was joking. This time he couldn't. "When did you get black ops training?" he asked, trying to steer the conversation in a new direction.

"That's for me to know and you to forget. Now don't try to change the subject." Reaching around him for the last time to rinse the razor, he heard her press the lever to unstopper the drain. Opening his eyes, he was in time to see her grab a facecloth off the side of the sink and wet it under the tap before bringing it up to wipe the remaining shaving foam from his face.

I'm not any good at things like psychology and sensitivity," she said, her eyes following the progress of the towel rather than meeting his gaze, "so I'm going to be blunt." Dropping the cloth on the counter again, she finally looked him in the eye. "What the hell happened to Nathan West?"

Nathan stared at her for a moment, then stood up straight, the movement of his body pushing her back a step as he looked away and leaned to the side to grab his t-shirt off the lid of the toilet. "He figured out his place in the universe," he said, deliberately cryptic, and pushed past her and out of the bathroom.

"And where's that?" Shane pressed, following close on his heels as he walked into the bedroom. She'd left a lamp on between the beds, and the pot on the coffeemaker was full of clear, hot water. "The bottom of the pile? In the doghouse? Dead?"

"Take your pick."

"Oh don't give me that crap, West. You know I don't buy any of it. I asked a straight question, I expect a straight answer."

"Stop trying to give me orders!" he shouted, rounding on her, surprised by the fury in his own voice. Vansen must have felt the same because she stopped dead in her tracks, though he noticed she didn't step back. "Just stop it! We're not in the Corps anymore, Vansen! At least I'm not! They made sure to discharge me while they could still get away with making it Honorable."

Sitting heavily on the foot of the nearest bed, he bunched up the t-shirt and tried to pull it down over his head. Grief, it felt huge, like he was trying to wear a curtain. Where the hell were the arm holes?

After a few awkward moments, he felt Vansen's hands quell his struggles to guide his arms into the sleeves. "You still wear your dog tags," she observed quietly as she helped him tug the cotton down over his head.

He was right. The shirt hung on him like a flour sack. "Habit," he muttered, tugging on the neckline to make it less clingy around his throat. How could the rest of the shirt be the size of a circus tent, yet the neckline still choked him?

She sat beside him on the bed, a warm weight that tilted the mattress, and he was suddenly reminded of Kylen. This whole thing felt like an average Sunday morning years ago, when Kylen would help him get ready for the day. Sometimes she'd tease him about being a heavy sleeper, then she'd perch on the bathroom counter and watch him shave, making ridiculous faces in a deliberate attempt to make him laugh. Then she'd stand at his closet and take out shirt after shirt, holding them up against his body until she found one that she thought looked best.

No. No no no. He was not going to think of Shane like another iteration of Kylen. That was half of what had gotten him here in the first place, and it was going to damn him all over again if he let himself get away with it.

"Nathan, none of what happened was your fault. You understand that, right?"

He laughed. It was hoarse and more of a croak, because he hadn't laughed in a long time, but it was still a laugh. "Have you been reading the same script as the Shane in my head?" he asked acidly, deliberately not looking at her. Leaning backwards until he was stretched out on the bed, he stretched one hand up until he felt his fingers close around the thermos on the nightstand, then drew himself up into a sitting position again. "You sound just like her, that's why I ask."

"Because I'm telling you it's not your fault?"

He unscrewed the top of the insulated mug, stared down at the red liquid inside, and took a long drink. It burned over his tongue and down his throat and made his eyes water, but it wasn't as bad as some of the moonshine he'd bummed off his fellow homeless drunks over the past few months.

"Fine. Silent treatment. Do you ever listen to the Shane in your head when she tells you it's not your fault? Or do you just ignore her like you're ignoring me?"

He took another pull on the thermos then let it fall away from his lips. Shaking his head to try and clear it, he screwed the cap back on.

"Listen to me. I gave you an order that day. I told you to leave. All right? Vanessa and I understood the risks of wearing the uniform, Nathan. You were protecting a ship full of civilians who didn't have that same onus on them. You did the right thing. If it had been me, or Vanessa, or Paul, or Coop, or anyone else in the fleet, we would have done the same."

He closed his eyes and sat very still. Sometimes, if he adopted this position, it made her go away. The fake Shane, that is, not this real one. The fake Shane he could fool; he'd never been able to fool the flesh-and-blood Shane. But there was a first time for everything, right? After all, who would have thought when he entered the Corps that the idealistic Nathan West would end up a drunk bum on the streets of San Diego?

"Here's what I don't understand, West, and I need you to explain this to me. Why this? Why did this send you over the edge? We all lost friends in the war. Hell, you lost family. I watched you sit in a foxhole and hold your dead brother. But you carried on after that. It didn't eat you up and turn you into a shell. What the hell was so different about this?"

Nathan clenched his fingers around the thermos, glad to have something hard to squeeze. "Stop talking," he said tersely. "Just stop."

"Why? Did I strike a nerve, West? TELL ME."

"Just... just stop it, all right!" Opening his eyes again he swung his head around so he could glare at her. "Don't you get it?"

Shane glared right back, but there was a kind of hopeless sadness behind it that softened her face. "No, Nathan, I don't get it!" she rejoindered. "I don't get it! You won't explain it to me, you won't explain it to anyone, and I'm sitting here staring at you and wondering how you're going to live out the week if you don't start talking! Because you look like you're on death's doorstep, West, and so help me God, I don't know how to pull you back."

Before he could move away, she reached out to him and pried the thermos from his fingers, putting it on the floor at her feet. Grabbing his hands between hers, she squeezed tightly and went on. "Talk to me, Nathan. Tell me how to help you. Tell me what's wrong."

He wanted to be drunk. He wanted to be numb. He wanted to be sitting on a railway trellis staring down at a canyon of rocks. He didn't want to be here, holding hands with a living Shane Vansen who wanted to talk. "It was you," he said, hopelessness lacing his voice. "It was you."

"What was me?" she asked, sounding frustrated and confused. "What did I do, Nathan? I gave you an order. What did I do that was so wrong?"

"You died!" he exclaimed, twisting her hands in his grip so he was squeezing her fingers. "You died and you wouldn't let me save you!"

"Nathan..." Her voice was measured, and he could tell she was fighting against the pain he was obviously inflicting on her hands. "I already explained that. I ordered you to leave. The colonists were more important. Kylen was more important."

Oh God. Oh God, she'd never get it, would she? She'd never understand.

Dropping her hands, Nathan reached up and grabbed her face. Vansen sucked in a breath, her hands coming up to hold his wrists as he stared into her eyes. "I didn't care about them," he hissed, pressing his fingertips into the warm, soft flesh of her face. "I didn't care about Kylen! Don't you get it? That's what all this fucking guilt is about! Not because I let you die, but because you died for the wrong goddamn reasons! We both thought I was still in love with Kylen. Dammit, Shane, I was in love with you!"


For a long minute, all they did was stare at each other. Shane wasn't often speechless, and frankly there were plenty of things she could have said to him in that moment, but for whatever reason they all died on her tongue as she looked into his eyes and watched his spirit crumble inch by inch. In the end, all she was able to manage was his name. "Nathan..."

He dropped his head as the word fell from her lips, and she watched his shoulders slump as though the world had suddenly come crashing down on him. "I didn't figure it out until you were gone," he murmured as his hands loosened and fell away from her face. "I thought I was just confused. That maybe I was just remembering all the things you'd done for me, and I was reacting to how I would feel without you there to do them for me anymore. I thought... I thought I'd see Kylen again, back on the Saratoga, and I'd love her like I'd always loved her."

The mattress tilted up as he slid off the edge and crumpled on his knees in front of her. Shane made sure to grab his hands before they dropped out of her lap, though she wasn't sure why. Maybe because she didn't want him to think she wasn't listening, because she was.

"So I let you go," he mumbled against her knees, his forehead cushioned on her thighs. "I watched you and Vanessa tumble into that planet's atmosphere, because I thought I was making the right decision; or at least, one I could live with. Live through. I don't know, it's... muddled." He squeezed her hands and she squeezed back.

"But then we got back to the Saratoga, and they rushed Kylen off, back to Earth, after just a couple of hours. And I realized... it was a relief that she was leaving." Looking up again, he found her eyes, and she felt a pang in her stomach when she saw the tears in his eyes. "I'd been living every moment of everyday during the war for her, waiting to find her again. I'd promised her I would; I'd told her I'd find her. And when I did, everything just stopped. I did what I'd promised – what was I supposed to do next? Marry her? I didn't even know her anymore. Or, more like it, she didn't know me. The Marines – lifetakers and heartbreakers, right? How was she supposed to understand the things I'd done, and seen, and heard about? How was she supposed to understand the things that you understood? That we understood together? That we'd lived through?

"Right before they shipped out, she came to me in the hangar bay, and I hugged her and kissed her and tried to remember what it was to love this woman. And I realized I didn't love her anymore. I'd stopped loving her months ago. She'd become an object; a symbol, whatever. Call it what you want. Kylen wasn't a person anymore, she was a phototag. You said it yourself, she'd become the object of my faith. When someone's become like that in your eyes, how do you take them down off that pedestal and make them human again? You can't. I tried, Shane. I tried so hard. We wrote back and forth a couple of times, I even got to call her once, but I think we both knew it was over. I didn't answer her last letter and she didn't write another one."

He took a shuddering breath and Shane tightened her grip on his hands, as if she could keep him from falling apart completely. "And that was when I realized what I did to you. To Vanessa. I let you die under false pretenses. I'd made it so damned... IMPORTANT that I rescue Kylen that I made you believe I wanted her more than any of you. Christ, Vansen..." He shook his head and extracted his hands from her grip so he could run his fingers distractedly through his hair. "Do you know what that did to me? I kept thinking, back and back: If I hadn't loved Kylen, would I have been the one piloting the wounded ISSAPC, or would I have been one of the co-pilots on your ship? If I hadn't loved Kylen, would you have asked me to leave you behind? If I hadn't loved Kylen, would I have even joined the Marines in the first place? Would there have been any Wildcards? Would you all have lived if I hadn't loved Kylen?"

"Nathan," Vansen broke in, trying to still his increasingly frantic speech. Reaching out, she ran her fingers through his hair, trying her best to soothe him. "You can't think like that. Coulda, shoulda, woulda. It's the fastest way to hell."

"I know!" he exclaimed. "Don't you think I know that? God...!"

He pulled away and turned around so his back was leaning against the foot of the bed and his head was propped against the edge of the mattress. Shane wanted to reach out and touch him again, but his skin was virtually crackling with suppressed emotion; it gave off an aura like electricity.

"I just kept thinking," he murmured, eyes closed as if he couldn't bear to look at the world anymore. "I just kept thinking, if I'd figured out... that I loved you before we found the colonists, would I have let you die? Or would I have told you to screw your orders and rescued you anyway? And the more I thought about it, Vansen, the more I decided I would have saved you and let the Chigs have Kylen. And that scares me so much, I can hardly breathe."

He'd said it again. He'd said he loved her. Shane didn't know how to handle that. She'd always had strong feelings towards Nathan, different from what she felt towards the other 'Cards. She'd forced herself to ignore them, tamped them down until they were just a low simmer in the back of her brain that flared up whenever he looked her in the eye or did something that made her heart triphammer with fear on his behalf. They could never be anything more than friends, she'd told herself a million times, and not just because she eventually became his superior. He had Kylen, and that kind of bond was sacred. She'd gone out of her way numerous times to tell him that she wanted him to find his lover, as much to assure herself that she meant it as to reassure him. And she had meant it. She had.

If I hadn't loved Kylen...

It turned her world on its ear to discover he'd had the same thoughts. And worse yet, doubts.

Sliding off the bed, she sat beside him on the floor and gazed at his profile. "Nathan," she murmured, laying her hand over his on the floor. "Regardless of what you may have felt, you still did the right thing. You were a military officer. They were civilians. You had a duty to protect them. So did I. I did what I had to do to ensure the colonists had a chance to make it safely back to the Saratoga. So this isn't just about you. It's about me, too. Me and Vanessa and Paul and Hawkes. Everything we did we did as a unit, and that included making sacrifices for the greater good."

He tilted his head on the mattress and reopened his eyes. They looked utterly black as he stared at her. "I still would have done it," he whispered, his hand moving faintly to lace his fingers with hers on the floor. "I would have rescued you."

Shane gave him a shaky smile, feeling tears on her lashes. "I'm glad you didn't," she murmured back, voice huskier than normal as she tried to speak over the lump in her throat. "Because then the families of all those colonists might never have seen their sons and daughters and husbands and mothers again. They never would have had this." She squeezed his hand.


Moving a little closer, she propped her chin on his shoulder and let her face rest in the crook of his neck. "A reunion," she whispered against his throat.

He was quiet for a moment, then she felt his head move slightly and his lips touched her forehead. A shaky sigh moved across her skin. Suddenly she felt his arms twine around her waist and he was hugging her for all he was worth, his face buried in her hair, his breathing a ragged, choked rhythm against her shoulder. "You were gone for so long," he groaned, his fingers digging into her hips as he pulled her closer, until she was virtually sitting in his lap.

Shane closed her eyes, wrapping her arms around his neck and holding him tightly. "I know," she soothed, ignoring the tears that rolled silently down her cheeks. "But now I'm back."

"I'm so sorry, Shane. I'm so sorry. So sorry so sorry..."

"Shhh..." She kissed the top of his head. "It's okay, Nathan. It's going to be okay."

How long they stayed like that she couldn't say. Time didn't seem to matter at the moment. All that really mattered was that Nathan was talking, even if it was just a soft, inaudible monologue against her collarbone. She wasn't sure what he was saying but she decided if it was anything she needed to hear, he'd let her know. They'd always had a silent understanding between them, a connection that was unique amongst the tightknit Wildcards, and it didn't matter that they'd been separated for close to a year. Some things never changed, and one of those things was this bond between them.

Eventually, the quiet was broken by a loud rumble. It took Shane a moment to realize it was Nathan's stomach growling. Chuckling softly, she asked, "Hungry, captain?"

West was silent for a moment, and she wondered if he'd heard her. Just as she was about to ask him again, he raised his head and smiled at her. If she'd been standing, her knees would have gone weak. It was that same mischievous, brilliant smile he'd had back in boot camp. In that split second, no time had passed. "I could eat, captain," he answered.

Shane raised an eyebrow. "You could eat captain? Sorry, Marine, but I'm afraid all you get is Cream of Wheat." Grinning, she extricated herself from his embrace and stood up, walking over to the coffeemaker, which was still gurgling as though it were choking a small monster.

"I don't get even a little nibble of captain?" Nathan asked, and Shane decided he really must be feeling better if he was flirting with her.

"You could always gnaw on your own wrist," she reminded him as she tore open a packet of Cream of Wheat and poured it into a Tupperware dish, then added the hot water.

"You know I love you, right?"

Shane stopped what she was doing, which was stirring the water and powdery packet contents, and just stared at the top of the bureau for a moment. She needed Vanessa. She needed someone to talk to who wasn't male and certainly wasn't named Nathan West. Her emotions were rolling like a ship at sea and she didn't know how to get a handle on them. This whole situation was confusing as hell and she didn't like being confused. "I know," was all she said aloud.

"You don't have to love me back, Vansen. It's all right. Things like this – declarations of love and all that? That's what put me here in the first place. I don't ever want you in this position. I just needed you to know, that's all."

A smile twitched her lips. "What makes you think I'd ever end up in your position, Marine?" she asked, before pivoting on her heel, Tupperware bowl in hand, and fixing him with an arched-eyebrow smirk. "For one, I'd have the sense to mooch off my family."

He laughed. "Yeah?"

"Yeah." Sauntering back to him, she moved easily onto her knees, idly stirring the creamy cereal. "And I'd be smart enough not to give up a good pick-up line just when I started making a bit of headway."

He arched an eyebrow at her. "Headway, huh?"

"Mm-hmm, maybe." His eyes were still dark, rimmed with exhaustion, and she could see his limbs trembling despite his relaxed posture. He was talking now, but she knew this ordeal was far from over. He'd only started to exorcise his demons tonight; it would take time to extricate them completely. "I'm a bit hungry, too. I think I could do with a nibble of captain myself."

Despite his obvious weariness, he gave her a bright smile. "You could always gnaw on your own wrist, Marine," he reminded her, dark eyes twinkling.

"Eat first," she said, dipping her spoon into the bowl and holding it up for him. "We'll talk about your kinks later."

"Is that a promise, sir?"

Shane grinned. God she'd missed this. "More like a reward."

She held the spoon to his lips, and he obediently swallowed the mouthful, making a face as he swallowed. "Guh, that's horrible," he shuddered.

Vansen rolled her eyes. "Crybaby."

"If you think it's so great, you eat it."

"Then I won't be hungry anymore, which means no captain snacking."

"I could think of some ways to give you an appetite."

"Can it, West. You're skinny as a rail. Try anything and I'd snap you in half, purely by accident."

"But not by design?"

"Depends what you're planning on doing."

"Do you want a full SitRep?"

"Eat first."

"That defeats the purpose."

"Welcome to civilian life, bastion of bureaucracy. Now if you want to get to the debriefing, EAT."

"Sir, yes, sir," he muttered, and mournfully swallowed another mouthful of her Cream of Wheat.

Shane watched him swallow and thought how little things had changed. Hawkes was still as inquisitive as ever. Damphousse was still her only girl friend. She could still have Nathan eating out of the palm of her hand, and she still loved him as much as she had on the Saratoga. It was easier to admit it to herself now that she'd heard him say the same to her. Getting up the guts to say it to his face was another matter entirely. She'd loved once and it had ended badly; she didn't think she could go through that again. But hadn't Nathan done the same thing, and come through alive on the other side? A little the worse for wear, but he'd heal. She'd make sure of that. Would it really be so bad if she had Nathan there for her from the start?

Not important right now. At the moment, all that mattered was setting West to rights. It was going to take time, and it was going to take patience, and she wasn't much good at being patient. Oh well. She'd learn. It all started here; zero hour. And for once, they had all the time in the world to get it right.


© 2005