|Note: Slash piece with predominantly Cooper Hawkes/Paul Wang, unlikely as it might seem. Contains uncanonical interpretation of Wang's past. Written before watching 'Dear Earth', so this is my own view of what was. Full apologies for any confusion generated as a result.|
To Be Among the Stars
"Shit! Wang, you were supposed to cover me. What the hell happened?" Hawkes practically tore his helmet off his head, shaking his sweat-drenched hair out of his eyes. If looks could kill, Hawkes would have found himself facing a court-martial for the murder of a fellow Marine, rather than the calm face of Lt. Paul Wang.
Wang took his time getting out of his cock-pit, and removing his helmet before he chose to speak.
"You told West to cover you, Cooper."
"Shit, man!" Hawkes threw his hands up in the air in exasperation. "He had a bunch of chigs on his tail! He could not cover me! You should have seen that!"
"I saw him going after you, and then, Damph and Vansen radioed me for assistance..."
"And you went to their aid like some knight in shining armour." Hawkes' look was openly derisive.
"Look, Hawkes," Wang's voice had hardened. "I might not be an ace pilot like you and Vansen and West, but I do know that when you are outnumbered four to one, you need help, all right? And that was the help they needed. How many were you chasing?"
Hawkes looked away defiantly, his teeth clenched. Abruptly, he turned and walked towards the doors of the docking bay, his helmet dangling from his hands.
"Hawkes!" Wang's voice rang out sharply. There was a momentary pause in the bay. Everyone, maintenance and pilots alike, were used to raised voices in the bay, especially after a particularly hairy encounter like the one the 58th squadron had just had with the enemy. What no one was used to was the raised voice of a usually cheery and soft-spoken Lt. Wang.
The soft buzz of machinery and conversation started up again almost immediately, but it was obvious that everyone had an ear tuned in to the showdown being played out before them.
"Uh-oh. Looks like Coop's stepped on someone else's toes." Damphousse murmured, watching with horrified fascination as Wang went up to Hawkes who had paused by the doors. "Just never thought he'd ever get to Paul like that!"
"I'd better go break it up before McQueen gets in here." Vansen glanced up into the control room where their stern-faced CO was already watching the scene below him, with a measure of annoyance. Hawkes....again! Would he never learn? And Wang? The usually mild-mannered Marine's reaction had surprised him.
"How many chigs did West have on his tail?" Wang asked quietly, his face betraying no emotion.
"Two." Hawkes' answer was sullen.
"And how many were you chasing?"
"And how many were on your tail?"
Hawkes looked away again. He was feeling uncomfortably contrite, but he'd be damned if he let Wang know! Apologies were not his style.
"How many chig planes did you have on your tail, Hawkes?" Wang repeated the question a little impatiently. He was getting tired of being pushed around by the likes of stubborn, arrogant people like Hawkes. Sure! He was no ace pilot. But that did not mean that he was incapable of forming his own opinions and decisions out there in space. He was a Marine, just like him, had gone through the tough training, just like him, and was part of the 58th squadron, just like him! Being a part of The Wild Cards was his proudest achievement so far, and he did not enjoy being treated like an imbecile. Especially not here, in the middle of the docking bay.
"So, how many were there, Hawkes? Four? Five? What?!" If Hawkes was going to remain silent any longer, he would either scream, or God forbid! Resort to physical violence, even if he knew that the young Invitro could probably beat him into a pulp if he tried! The heady euphoria of taking out five enemy planes all by himself had infused him with an irrational feeling of invincibility. It was a strange feeling, but he was not about to let it go yet. He had earned it, damn it!
"One." Hawkes mumbled, still not looking at his unnaturally irate team member.
"ONE??!!" Wang did not mean to yell, but it just came out that way. "One damned chig on your tail, and you call me out for that? You were the one near the asteroid belt. You could have done something!"
"What? One plane doesn't matter? One plane could have taken me out, all right? What do you think, Wang? You think one plane is safe? One plane or four planes, they are all out to get you, okay?" Hawke's voice had raised as well, in imitation of Wang's. But another part of his mind was thinking quickly.
When was the last time he had seen him freak out like this? Shit! It was over those cockroaches! But then, it was hard to judge by that one incident alone. They had all freaked out then. Strange. It had been Wang then who had started that Marine marching song to take their minds off their fears, right at the end. But he had never freaked out like that again, since then. Freaking out was just not a normal characteristic of Paul Wang. Cooper Hawkes, maybe, but not Wang.
He saw the blow coming, and ducked with lightning speed, seconds before it would have smashed into the side of his head. Shit! What the hell was Wang trying to do? Spoiling for a fight or just trying to get killed?! What? Fighting chigs were not enough?
He ducked again as another punch headed his way, but he was not expecting the counter punch from the other side that caught him squarely on his chin. Wang might be slight, but he sure packed quite a punch! He grimaced and glared at a furious Wang. Well, if that was the way he wanted it!
He launched himself at the other man, matching blow for blow, ignoring the orders from Vansen to stop fighting. He didn't start it anyway. Not this time!
"Hawkes! Wang!" A different voice cut through the jumble of noise. The two men were still grappling on the floor of the docking bay, oblivious to the command.
Wang, as he had expected, was getting the worst of the fight. In a strange perverse sort of way, it felt good taking out his frustrations physically. He would probably hurt like hell in the morning, but he was not sorry for it. He saw someone, West, dragging Hawkes off him, and he gave a twisted smile. At least he had managed to land some blows in there. Enough to bruise the smooth skin of the Invitro's face anyway. If Hawkes was looking that bad, he wondered what he looked like! And then, he decided he did not really want to know after all.
He stood up a little unsteadily with Vansen's help. Cooper was glaring at him, as he had expected him to be. He saw him shrug off West's hold on him, and he shrugged off Vansen's hand as well. And then, he turned to face the furious, ice-chip glare of his CO, Colonel McQueen. People in authority always made him nervous, and he never forgot
Shouting, he decided, as the silence stretched. Definitely the shouting!
"I expect to see the both of you in my office at 1700 hours." The command was bitten out, in McQueen's usual clipped manner. There would be no questions, and he did not expect any. 1700 hours was one hour away. That should give them both time to shower and change and think over what had happened.
Cooper's reaction had come as no surprise to anyone. His volatile temper was always getting him into fights with West, anyway. What surprised everyone was that the instigator of the fight had been Wang. Quiet, mild, good-natured Wang?
Wang headed straight for the computers when they returned to their quarters. The strong sharp smell of sweat and ozone clung to him, as he planted himself before the terminal and keyed in his password. The beeping informed him of another spacenet message.
"Hey, Wang. How about taking a shower, huh?" Damphousse wrinkled her nose at him.
"Hm...." he ignored her, as he scanned the screen quickly. He was oblivious to the sticky sweat and grime that clothed him as closely as his sweat-drenched uniform did. His fingers flew over the keyboard, typing out his response to the message he had just received.
"Hey, Wang. Some people have to breathe, here!" West sniffed and coughed exaggeratedly. His hair was still wet from his shower and the clean smell of soap and shampoo trailed in after him. It was not exactly fragrant. It was Marine-issue after all and they could not have their men smelling like spring meadows, could they, now? Especially not in the middle of a war!
"Shut up, West!" Wang shot him a murderous glare. It was so uncharacteristic of him that West promptly obeyed, with a questioning glance at Damphousse who simply shrugged.
"Wang, you have 45 minutes to your meeting with McQueen. I don't think he will appreciate it if you stink up his office." Vansen tried to approach him, but a glare thrown her way, stopped her. "Hey, what the hell is wrong with you, huh? We are just trying to help, all right? You want to kill yourself fighting with Cooper, go ahead. Don't drag us all into your sudden craziness okay?! What the hell is wrong?"
Wang stared at her for a moment. One of his eyes was swelled shut, but his good eye filmed over unexpectedly with unshed tears. He swallowed once, and opened his mouth as if to say something. The bruises on his face were slowly turning purple. He would look and feel like hell the next morning. The room was silent.
He swallowed again, and gave a slight shake of his head, as if to say that they would not understand. Then, he turned back to the computer screen, typing furiously, as if to make up for the lost minutes.
The other three let out a frustrated sigh. What could they do? If he did not tell them what was wrong with him, how could they help? Wang had always been the quiet one. The cheeky one. His call name was not 'Joker' for nothing. He was the one who never failed to lighten any tense mood they were in, the one who always acted so carefree, the one who seemed to sail through life seemingly oblivious of the dark side and the pain life had to offer. He was almost like the little brother of the squadron. Everyone liked Paul Wang.
Which was why no one could understand this sudden change. This other side to the Wang they knew. Suddenly, the people who thought that they knew Wang so well, realised that they did not know him after all.
The furious typing had stopped. He hit the 'send' button, and logged out. Turning around, he looked startled as he came face to face with three worried looks. A look of confusion clouded his face. Then he offered a tentative smile.
"I'm sorry for snapping." He mumbled around his by now swollen lip. "Don't ask why, all right. I just want to be by myself for a while." He got off his chair.
"Hey! Anyone seen my...." Hawkes stopped in midsentence as he came face to face with Wang at the door.
There was a tense moment. The two men stared at each other. There was an unspoken communication, and then, Hawkes stepped aside to let Wang pass. The others blinked in surprise. Had Hawkes really stepped down?!
"Geez! What's wrong with the guy?!" Hawkes tilted his head towards the man who had just left.
The only answer he got in return were three very confused shrugs and shakes of heads. Things were getting more and more bizarre.
Colonel McQueen sat back in his chair and looked impassively at the two young Marines before him. The young Invitro, Hawkes was, as he was wont to do, glaring at him. He was a fearless one, young Hawkes. Even now, knowing that he was in trouble, he was still defiant, still challenging the higher authorities. His pride would either take him far up the chain of command, or it would break him. There were no in-betweens with someone as stubborn, fiery and volatile as Cooper Hawkes.
The icy blue gaze shifted to the slight man standing next to Hawkes. Now, this one was a dark horse. He had never heard a word of complaint about Lt. Wang. No one had ever had cause to. He obeyed orders, sometimes almost blindly; he respected authority, to the point of fearing authority; and he was good for the morale of the squadron. Other than a few encounters, which had also involved the whole squadron, McQueen had never had to take him to task. He was, up till now, an exemplary Marine.
Today, however, the usually placid and vaguely fearful gaze had been discarded. A lock of dark hair that had been so carefully slicked back fell down into the uncharacteristically defiant dark eyes. The open, honest face that made him look almost too young to serve in the tough, dangerous world of the Marine corps, was set with a stern resolve. Physically, there was much to distinguish the sturdy Invitro from the slender Oriental soldier. However, both their intense looks were identical. They were both waiting for their CO to mete out their punishment, and they were both ready to protest.
McQueen was expecting it. A brief smile flitted across his granite countenance. Whatever he was going to say would bring protests. Of that he was certain. But at least it would be just from one quarter.
"Are you going to explain your actions, Lt. Wang?" his sudden question startled both the Marines, so quiet had the room been.
"Sir, I lost my temper, sir." Wang answered calmly.
"Were you provoked?"
"Sir..." Hawkes interrupted at the very same moment that Wang chose to answer.
"The question was not directed at you, Lt. Hawkes." The sapphire gaze was levelled at him, cutting him off. "Lt. Wang. Were you provoked?"
Wang's eyes dropped for a second, and then, he looked up again, directly into his CO's eyes. "Sir, no, sir. I was being irrational. It was not Lt. Hawkes fault. I hit him first."
The look on Hawkes face was priceless. His head snapped around, and he stared at Wang who was studiously avoiding his look, choosing to stare instead at a point somewhere above McQueen's head. McQueen bit back a smile. He had not expected this.
"Well," he sat up and linked his fingers on the desk top. "For fighting in the docking bay this afternoon, I am going to revoke leave for the both of you and...."
"Sir!" Hawkes interrupted again. "This is not fair! You heard him! He said he started it! Why should I get my leave revoked as well?!"
"Sir, I have to get leave to go planet-side, sir!" Wang began his carefully rehearsed protest. "I..."
"Hawkes! Wang!" McQueen cut through their protests. "I have not finished. Interrupt me again and this will go on record, understood?"
"Yes, sir." The two of them mumbled, chastened.
"Your leave will be revoked, but it will be the upcoming 1 week leave. You may go onshore with the others this weekend."
There was a stunned silence in the room. Revocation of leave was expected, but this new twist was not.
"Why not this weekend, sir?" Hawkes ventured to ask.
"Well, Lt. If you'd like that revoked as well, that can be easily arranged." McQueen raised an eyebrow enquiringly.
"No, sir." Hawkes was quick to answer. "But, I don't understand why my leave is getting revoked as well, sir. Lt. Wang has told you that he started it."
"Lt. Hawkes, you were involved in the fight, as well as Lt. Wang. He did start it but you proceeded to help him continue. From both your bruises, I would say that you were both equally culpable. And therefore, you are both equally liable for punishment. Are there any other questions?"
"Sir, if I had not started it, Lt. Hawkes would not have..." Wang began, but was cut off in mid-sentence.
"Were you listening to me, Lt. Wang?"
"What did I say?"
"We were both equally culpable and liable, sir."
"Right. I think that is clear enough then. Any other questions?"
There were none.
"Lt. Wang, I'd like to have a talk with you. Lt. Hawkes, you're dismissed."
Hawkes saluted smartly and turned to leave, but he could not help a curious glance behind him as he closed the door. What did McQueen want with Wang? An untenable sense of curiousity caught hold of him. Their punishment had not been light. Revocation of leave was never fun. But it did not make sense that their later leave be revoked instead of the upcoming one. He sensed that it had something to do with Wang. What was it he had wanted to say before McQueen had cut him off? He had said something about having to go on-planet that weekend. Why? What was so important? Was he meeting someone? Who could be that important? A girlfriend? Nah! Impossible. Wang had that weird on-line relationship on spacenet with some girl he had never met before. It confused Cooper, who wondered if it was normal. After all, though physically adult, he was barely 7 years old! And in his 6 or so years of experience, he had never come across anything like that.
"...your father...heard this morning..." he turned his highly tuned Invitro hearing towards the closed door. He did not want to spy. A part of him knew that it was wrong. But his curiousity won out. He had to know what it was with Wang. He liked the amusing little fella and he had not wanted to hurt him. Time he learnt to control his hot temper. Maybe there might be a reason for his uncharacteristic behaviour in the docking bay earlier. His glance flicked down the empty corridors and he pressed himself up closer to the door.
"I appreciate your understanding, sir." Wang's voice was a little unsteady. "This is the least I can do for him."
"Were we not fighting a war, you would be entitled to longer leave. To settle all that you have to..." McQueen's usually stern voice was softer, less curt than usual. Hawkes' brow furrowed. What was up?
"Thank you sir. But there is not much I have to do. My sister has settled the necessary papers. They are just waiting for me to perform my duties as the eldest son. This weekend leave will be just right, sir. There isn't much else I want to do on-planet."
"If there is nothing else, Lt..." Hawkes quickly slinked away before Wang was dismissed. His mind was churning. What was up with Wang? And what was this about being the eldest son, and crap? So what if he was the eldest son? It was something that he, as an Invitro, would never understand, but it went towards what had happened with Wang earlier in the day, and that he was determined to understand. He did not know why, but suddenly, it was imperative that he understood why Wang had attacked him. It was partly through his provocation, that much he realised, but it was also partly something else.
Hawkes recognised frustration. He was full of it. And he had seen it in Wang's eyes the spilt second before he had been punched. He saw some form of frustration in the others, but theirs were obvious. West and his missing girlfriend, Shane and her parents, 'Phousse and her family on earth... but Wang? There was so little that he actually knew about him. So, what was he frustrated about? And that was what he was going to find out... somehow.
"Can't wait to get back to Mom's cooking!" West joined Shane and Vanessa at the porthole. "Where are you going this time, Shane?"
"My sister's invited me to stay with her for a while. I guess I'll go see how they are doing without me." Vansen turned away from contemplating the blue planet that was Earth.
"Will you guys be okay?" She glanced at Wang who was watching a recorded football game, and Hawkes, who was lounging sullenly in a corner of the rec. room.
"I'll be fine. Go and have fun, 'Mom'." Wang teased with a bright grin. His sombre mood had lightened considerably since the incident three weeks ago. His cuts and bruises from his altercation with Hawkes had since healed and faded. He was almost back to being the same jovial Paul Wang they all knew. 'Almost' because they all still remembered all too clearly, the other side of him.
"Want me to bring you a souvenir from home?" West grinned.
"Oh, shut up, West!" Wang groaned in mock irritation. "Isn't it bad enough that I'm stuck here on the Saratoga while you go gallivanting off home?"
"You can't say that you didn't ask for it!" West grinned wickedly.
"That's enough! Out!!" Wang shoved West playfully out the door. "You too, Shane, Vanessa, out! Before I break some other rules and stowaway in your luggage or something!"
The laughter of their other three fellow Marines could still be heard in the corridor, through the closed door, as they left for their transport home.
"Looks like it's just you and me then, Coop." Wang put the video on pause. "Anything you'd like to do before we go on duty?"
"Nothing with you!" Cooper scowled at him, and went to the virtual reality set. "It's all your fault we're stuck here, anyway!"
"Hey, I'm sorry. I was just asking!" Wang shrugged and turned back to the screen while Cooper put on the headset.
"Hey, Coop! Mind turning that down a little?" Wang called over, a little later, to Cooper who was adding to the sound effects of the already noisy VR gun. Cooper either ignored him or did not hear him. But he did not comply.
"Cooper Hawkes! Turn that down!" Wang muted the sound from the game and turned irritably to the noise from the corner.
"Hello? You in there?" Wang gave up and went over to tap the headset firmly, knowing full well that it would irritate the hell out of Cooper who hated to have his games interrupted.
"What did you do that for?" Cooper demanded, taking off the set. He scowled angrily. "I was just going to..."
"Hawkes, Wang." A clipped voice cut through Cooper's tirade. Both the Marines snapped to attention in the presence of their CO.
"I want you to suit up and be ready to report to the docking bay for your pre-flight briefing. You will be flying with the 67th."
"But, sir. What about the 58th?" Cooper ventured to ask.
"Lieutenant Hawkes. This is a time of war. We need all the fighters we can get out there. You are a Marine. I am your commanding officer. You follow my orders. If I tell you to fly with the 67th, you fly with the 67th, understood?" McQueen's tone brooked no argument.
"Yes, sir." Cooper looked sullen. His only reason for asking was because he, being an Invitro, was not as accepted in some squadrons as in others. The 58th had become his family, and he knew that they did not regard him as anything other than one of their own. But this 67th. What did they think? It was hard being the outsider.
"Don't worry, Coop." Wang seemed to read his mind as they went to change into their uniforms. "I'm part of the 58th."
Cooper simply grunted something unintelligible in reply, but he was secretly glad that there was someone he knew, at least, even if this 'someone' was the one who had caused him to be stuck in this situation in the first place!
"I don't think they'll find us here." Cooper peered through the thick bushes.
"And what makes you think that they'll stop looking for us just because it's night?" Wang demanded, wiping the blood from his eye.
"I never said that. I just said that they might not find us here." Cooper snapped irritably. "I haven't seen any chigs around here, have you?"
"No." Wang admitted. "I saw the last one about an hour ago by that ridge over there."
"Yeah. The last one we killed." Cooper grinned evilly in the dark. "One chig for every plane they shot down."
"None of the others survived, did they?" Wang asked, knowing full well what the answer would be.
"No." Cooper said shortly. "It's just you and me now. And we don't even have a fucking plane to get back to the 'Toga in." He grumbled. "What does the transmitter say?"
NO SATELLITE TRANSMISSION AVAILABLE
"Nothing." Wang closed the little computer and sighed. His head was pounding, and he was starting to feel dizzy. That knock to the head that he had taken on landing must have been harder than he had thought.
"You okay?" Cooper turned back to look at him. The trail of blood from the hairline glistened black in the darkness. "Maybe you should do something about that cut on your head."
"I will." Wang mumbled through the penlight in his teeth, as he tried to do something to the transmitter to boost its signal. He sighed again after a few unfruitful moments.
"We need to get to higher ground." He said finally.
"We can't move until daybreak. It's too dangerous to be moving around unfamiliar territory at night." Cooper sat down beside him. "Got anything to bandage that cut with?"
"Nothing that would not cause it to be contaminated." Wang grinned as he tore a strip of cloth from his shirt. "Imagine how embarrassing that would be. Dying from a wound to my head caused by shoddy landing, on a chig-infested planet. That make sense to you?"
"No one said anything about dying."
"Oh, right. I was just being morbid, wasn't I?" Wang tied the strip around his head, grimacing slightly at the pain.
"That hurt?" Cooper was concerned.
"Of course not! Shall I hit you on the head to show you just what fun it can be?" Wang gritted his teeth against the sharp pain and the dull throbbing in his skull.
"You should rest, Paul. We'll take turns to keep watch." Cooper suggested, taking in Paul's pale face.
"Good idea." Wang agreed, lying on the cold, damp ground. He grunted a little as he stretched his stiff muscles. Good thing he was not as stubborn as Cooper could be. "Think they'll make us pay for the Hammerheads we lost when we get back to the 'Toga?" He asked, when he had gotten himself as comfortable as he could be on the lumpy, sloping surface.
"If we earn enough to pay them back! Don't think we can afford it, though!" Cooper grinned. "We'll just tell them that it was inevitable. I mean, when one of your wings or your tail is on fire, they'd bail out too. I'm sure McQueen will know how that feels."
"I sure hope he does! Not that being in the Marines will make us potential millionaires." Wang laughed softly.
They fell silent for a moment. Nothing else moved in the still surrounding. Not even a cricket chirped. Even the moon had hidden itself behind a cloud, throwing them into pitch darkness.
"Wang, you ever get angry about anything?" Cooper asked suddenly.
"Me? Of course! I mean, I'm human, aren't I?" Wang sounded taken aback. "Why?"
"I was just wondering. I mean, I told you to cover me earlier, and then, they shot your tail. I mean, you could have yelled at me, or something."
"And what would that achieve?" Wang shrugged. "We are both stuck here. We are both without planes. And we both can't get back. All we have is this make-shift transmitter. If the 'Toga thinks that we are all dead, they won't even bother looking for us, would they? So, I'm stuck with you. Getting mad is not an option. Not when I don't blame you. I could have gotten shot at any time. Forget it. It's not your fault."
"But you yelled at me the other day."
"The day we got our leave revoked."
"Oh, that. I guess I was mad. I'm really sorry about that. It wasn't exactly your fault. I was mad about a lot of things that day. It was just... confusing." Wang sighed. "I had just heard that morning, that my father had died."
"I'm sorry." Cooper was a little subdued. Things were starting to look a little clearer.
"No. Don't be. You didn't kill him. Cancer did." Wang grinned.
"But you were frustrated too about something, weren't you? I mean, I thought you were, which is why you came at me the way you did. I just didn't expect you to react in that way."
Wang sighed and closed his eyes. Cooper looked at him, wondering if he had fallen asleep, and was not going to answer his question. Maybe he was prying into something too private. He had not expected him to answer his question anyway, even if he had his reasons.
"I had just received a message from my sister before we left, about my father's death." Wang said softly as he looked up at Cooper and then, he ran his fingers through his hair distractedly. "I wasn't upset about it or anything. It was just that it..."
"...I guess it was just pretty sudden. You can go through life hating someone so much, and yet, when they go out of your life, you don't know what to think or feel. Especially when that person is your father. To be happy would be exaggerating it. To be sad would be a farce. There is nothing to be angry about because he can't hurt you anymore, and yet, you think you have to feel something. Because he's your father. I was confused, and I was frustrated. I never meant to involve you in this mess."
"Your father? You hated him?" Cooper asked curiously. He had never thought of Wang openly disliking anyone, much less 'hating' anyone
"My father." Wang said the word as if it left a bad taste in his mouth. "My father was not so much a 'father' as he was a lousy father-figure. Would you regard someone who came home roaring drunk almost every night, pissed as hell from drinking and losing at the gambling tables, keeping us in constant debt, and who beat your mother, sisters and you up for fun, as a 'father'?"
"Well," Cooper ventured carefully. "I won't know, really."
Wang slid him a look, not sure if he was making fun of him. But the genuinely confused look on the young Invitro's face made him smile. "Of course you don't, Coop. The answer, of course, is no. No father should do that. I hated him."
"If it was so bad, why didn't you run away?"
"It wasn't an option open to me. I had two elder sisters, but I was the eldest, and only son in the family. It was my duty to look after my sisters and my mother, to protect them from my father's drunken rages. Besides, I loved my mother. I couldn't bear to leave her to whatever abuse she suffered at his hands."
"But, so what if you were a son? I mean, I'm sure your sisters could have handled themselves? After all, they are older than you, you said?" Cooper looked a little confused.
"You see, Coop, in Asian families, we have this concept of 'filial piety'. No matter how bad things are at home, you are supposed to always respect your parents and elders and never to oppose them. It's sort of like, not trying to oppose McQueen, because he's our CO, you know? But that is a bad example." Wang amended after some thought. "We can still oppose him indirectly if we think we are right, and if he does something obviously wrong. But it doesn't work that way in families. Even if you know you are in the right, and even if you know that your elders are in the wrong, you still have to respect their wishes, respect them as your elders and still look after them when they are old. No matter what a living hell they made your life. That, in an extreme scenario, is what filial piety is all about."
"Despite living in 21st century Chicago, my family was still pretty much a traditional one. And as the only son, I have the added duty of being the head of the family when my father is not around. I have to be responsible for them." Wang explained. This was difficult enough to explain to the normal man on the street. What more to an Invitro who had no concept of family!
"But you said you had an older sister. Wouldn't she be the natural head of the family? What about your mother?"
"Things work a little differently in Chinese families, Coop. Times have since changed, but as I said, mine was a pretty traditional family. We tend to place the emphasis on the boys in the family. Girl children have hardly any place at all in the social standing of the family and society. That was why my sisters always got worse beatings than I did. He didn't dare hit me too hard in case he hurt me too badly. I was the only son he had. The only one to carry on the family name, and he knew that. He never forgave my mother for not being able to have any other children after she had me. Things were really bad. I tried my best to intercede whenever I could, but he used to wait until I was away at school, and then, I could not do anything." Wang's voice took on a hard edge. The memories were too disturbing.
He could still hear the muffled cries of his mother and sisters, trying not to wake him at night, knowing that he would throw himself on their welted and bloodied backs to protect them from the belt or rod his father used. He knew from experience that his father would stop when he realised that it was him, and not the womenfolk that he was beating. It was what he always counted on, and though it hurt, he knew that it never hurt more than what his mother and sisters had undergone. And everyday, with every beating and injustice, he hated his father a little more.
"It's a sick system, and one that I'm glad is changing." He added. "My sisters, for one, are a physics researcher, and a representative in the United Nations Women's Assembly. It would have been unthinkable for them to do anything other than to get married, were my father around to oppose them."
"But didn't he just die recently?"
"Passed on." Wang corrected. "We don't like to say that they 'die', no matter how horrible they were. And yes, he just did. But he had been ill for a long time. He was bedridden from cancer of the liver. My sisters took the opportunity to go and further their studies. I stayed behind a while to help my mother. And when she ... passed on, and I had nothing else to stay for. Filial piety or no, there was no way I would throw my life away for the monster who claimed to be my father. So, my sister and I put him in a home, and I left." He shrugged.
"To join the Marines." Cooper finished.
"Yeah, the Marines." Wang smiled a little sadly. He looked up into the star-spangled night sky. "I used to see the stars from my bedroom window at night, and I always wondered what it would be like to be among the stars. To be able to fly in space, free, with only the stars to guide you. It was my dream to do that. To fly among the stars. And," he flashed Cooper a slightly guilty smile. "And that is why I joined the Marines as a pilot. Nothing very patriotic about it, I'm afraid."
Cooper shrugged. "Hey, big deal! I was forced to join the corps. That should make me even less patriotic than you are!"
"I never really thought that I'd have to think about 'laying down my life for my country' so soon after the AI wars. I was just thinking about all the flying I could be doing." Wang said thoughtfully. "And then, this chig war started." He closed his eyes tiredly. His head was starting to throb again.
"Hey, you okay, Paul?" Cooper asked worriedly when he saw the grimace of pain on Wang's face.
"Yeah, I'm fine. No worries." Wang opened his eyes and gave him a shaky smile.
"You said you hated your dad, and yet you went back when he died?" Cooper asked, determined to keep him talking. He did not know what exactly was wrong with Wang. He had hurt his head, that much he knew. And he knew that head wounds did sometimes seem worse than they actually were. But he also knew that there was no messing around with them. They might actually be worse than they seemed.
"Filial piety again." Wang mumbled. "That darned thing rules you. You just can't shake it, no matter how much you try to change your life. You can hate a man your whole life through, and yet have to conduct his funeral rites, just because he's your father. Irony of life."
"Looks like you didn't have that great a life after all."
Wang grinned. "No, Coop. You are not the only one with a screwed up life, man. Count me in!"
"Do you still hate him?"
"I don't know." He sighed. "I stopped thinking about him years ago. I just did not want to anymore. He was dead to me, the day I left home. Now that he's really gone, there's no point in continuing to hate him, is there? There has to be more to life than carrying around emotional baggage like that. There comes a time when you just have to throw it all away. I think I did that the moment we cremated him. Though there are some kinds of emotional baggage that you just can't get rid off, no matter how long it takes." He said contemplatively and turned on his side.
"You don't mind taking the first watch, Coop? Wake me when it's my turn."
"Okay." Cooper sat back in the shadows, watching and listening out for the arrival of any of the enemy. The night was still, silent and dark. Their little camp was well-hidden behind thick bushes.
He looked over at a sleeping Wang, and he frowned a little. Never had he ever expected that quiet young man to have gone through all that he had. It made his six, short, difficult years seem pale in comparison. How long had he endured that life? Twenty? Twenty-five years? That was a lifetime to Cooper! And he had never even thought about running away, because of his sense of duty to his family. That sort of endurance, tenacity and tolerance deserved a lot of respect. More than Wang actually got, most of the time.
Then again, his past life was just something that he hid so well behind his smiling countenance. Hardly anyone knew anything about him, except what little he had let on while on their missions. He had known about his cockroach phobia and his ability to read the stars, but not much else. And he felt strangely honoured that he had chosen to entrust him with this aspect of himself. It was obvious that he did not like talking about it. He had sensed the tense, hard edge to his tone. Maybe he had not much of a choice, considering the pestering Cooper had subjected him to. But he could still have avoided telling him. He had always had that choice. But he had chosen to tell him. And for that, Cooper suddenly felt much closer to the good-natured, but increasingly more enigmatic Paul Wang.
The night bore down on him, dark, and coldly unfriendly. Enemy territory. They were in enemy territory. He thought he could hear the chigs clomping in the distance, looking for them. But there was nothing. All was silent. Dark and silent. And he knew he was alone.
Oh God no!! It was Colquitt and the Black Ops mission to Tigris all over again. Colquitt's broken body, the infernal Chigs tracking him, having to hide underwater, his visions of horror, the memories of the Invitro Training Facility... he was going to be alone again.
Shit! What was wrong with him that caused all this missions to end up this way?! Why did he always have to be the only one left? His first away mission with Colquitt, and his CO had died on him. This time, one mistake, and here he was, stranded on a planet. A bloody chig infested planet! Satellite communication was down... again. And was he going to end up alone again? He was starting to believe in what the humans called a 'jinx'. That was what he was. A jinx on the mission.
He looked down at the body next to him. The moon was shielded behind a cloud. The body was cool to the touch, unnaturally cool despite the warm night. The blood on the forehead was a dried black mess, clotting and knotting the hair. He glanced around. All was silent. The trees and bushes afforded them adequate cover... for now. He would have to move come morning, before the chigs resumed their rounds.
A pale silver touched the leaves. The moon was slowly sailing out from behind the cloud. The pale cold moonlight spread it's fingers across the landscape. It touched the face of the person next to him. Cooper leapt back in horror and then, settled down again. He would have been entranced by the pale beauty afforded by the moonlight had he not recognised the body by him. The body that looked as if it was fast asleep. Fast asleep in death.
First, it had been Colquitt. And this time, it was Wang.
He choked. The breath was caught in his throat. Shit! No!! Not Wang! It had to be a joke. He choked again and hiccoughed. There was a tightness around his chest. Breathing was getting difficult. Was he going to die as well?! Was the air on the planet more dangerous than they had expected? Was there some other gas in the air that was poisonous to both humans and Invitros? He coughed again, and swallowed the lump in his throat. He blinked. His eyes were wet.
He raised his hands, touching them to the wetness that was now flowing down his cheeks. He looked at his fingers in wonder. Tears? He was crying? But... he never cried! The tightness in his chest loosened a little with the tears, though he still hiccoughed a little. The tears were flowing faster now. Another strange sensation began from deep within him. It slowly welled up, until it escaped from his mouth with the next hiccough. A sob. He was sobbing. Crying. And he could not help himself.
He looked down once more at the pale, moonlit face of Paul Wang. His fingers trembled a little as he laid them on the smooth, cool cheek. He could not be dead. He could not! Not when he had just started to get to know him. Not when he was just starting to understand the complex young man that hid behind that facade of goodwill and good humour. Not when they were just starting to be friends. Not when he had never said he was sorry for that time in the docking bay. For yelling at him, for not accepting his judgement, and for hitting him.
He looked down at the familiar face knowing that he would never again hear his voice, never see that mischievous grin, never see that teasing twinkle in his eyes. He had just only started to know him. This was not fair!
Yes, he had always liked him. It was difficult to dislike him. Sometimes, it seemed as if he was even more innocent than Cooper himself. And at other times, he was so wise. This young man was a paradox, and he wanted to get to know him better. Much better.
In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he realised that he had always been a little attracted to the young, good-looking Asian Marine, who had always hovered unassumingly in the background. It was as if he had always been there, to the extent that he had never thought about what might happen were he no longer there. He had just never considered that possibility. Paul would always be there to cheer them up, and be part of the Wild Cards. Paul would always be there. Period.
But now he was not. And Cooper was at a loss. Strange how just one knock on the head could change two lives like that. Make that one life. There was only one life now in their camp.
And yes, he was attracted to him, physically. It was just not something one really thought about your friend, and team member. Not when he was a guy anyway. That much, he knew. It was okay with Shane. That was acceptable. But this...
It was strange indeed, how death changed one's perspective of things, and feelings. The thought that someone might be gone forever simply highlighted all the missed opportunities. It brought to fore all sorts of latent feelings. It was disturbing. Furthermore, he also knew that the thought of kissing a guy, friend or no friend, was not something one thought about as well. And yet, here he was, thinking of it right now.
He stroked the cool cheek gently, his young inexperienced mind wondering if what he was thinking of doing was considered normal behaviour. A small smile curved his lips, through his tears. Well, normal or not, he was dead now, wasn't he? Dead men couldn't tell, and he, Cooper, would definitely not tell. Who else was there around? Chigs? Hell! If they ever got pally enough with those barbaric aliens for them to tell of such an intimate gesture, then, it deserved to be told!
He touched the lips warily with his fingertips, as if expecting him to suddenly bite him. He would not have minded it that much had it happened, actually. But nothing happened. All was silent as before. He sniffed a little, his mind made up.
The moon was his only witness as he leaned down, touching his own, briefly to Wang's pale lips. Strangely, his lips were still soft, though cool. Another sob rose within him as he laid his cheek briefly against Wang's....
And he got the shock of his life as a hand came round to shake him, gently at first, and then, more roughly. A familiar voice hissed through his consciousness.
"Coop! Hey! Wake up, man! You want the chigs to find out where we are?!"
Cooper opened his eyes. Had he been dreaming then? Which was the dream? This or the other?!
"Paul?" He ventured tentatively. He blinked. His eyes felt damp. Had he really been crying? Which was the dream and which was reality?
"You were mumbling in your sleep." Wang raised his head to look out over their cover. Nothing was in sight. He glanced down at his watch. It was 3 am. Time enough for them to remain there for at least another 3 hours, before the sun rose.
Cooper shook his head a little, dispelling the sleep from his eyes. He blinked again. Wang had a grey makeshift bandage around his forehead. So, he hadn't dreamt that. He had really been hurt.
"It's all right. The headache's gone." Wang settled himself back under the bush. "The satellite transmission is still off. We have another 3 hours before the sun rises. We should get a move on then. Try to get as far as we can up that hill before the chigs get wind of us."
"Was I asleep?" Cooper rubbed his eyes.
Paul flashed him a lop-sided grin. "Even heroes have to rest, sometimes! And I guess my getting hit on the head didn't help you much did it? It just slowed us down."
"So, I was dreaming, then?"
"Sorry. I was talking to myself."
"Don't make a habit of it. On earth, they put you in a white padded cell for talking to yourself." Wang told him seriously, and then he grinned. "But I guess after all we have been through, we qualify to talk to ourselves anyway. Who knows if you'd talk to another person if neither of us survives this mission!"
"Don't say that!" Cooper frowned at him. It struck too close to his dream. "We will get out of this, all right? We just have to get up to that hill over there, and I'm sure the 'Toga will receive our signal."
"You have more confidence in me than I do!" Wang told him, picking up the satellite transmitter and replacing it in his pocket. "That is provided that I can boost the power long enough and strong enough to get it to the 'Toga."
"You will." Cooper said resolutely, refusing to discuss it any further.
Wang shrugged and lay down on the damp ground. "I don't think I'll ever complain about our bunks again, after this." He sighed, linking his arms behind his head. "Hey, Coop. Ever thought about how funny the way some things turn out?"
"Like what?" Cooper sat back into the shadows. The pale moonlight of the crescent moon dappled through the leaves of the bush, playing on Wang's face. It reminded him, strangely, of his vivid dream.
"Like this." Wang peered into the dark shadows where Cooper was. "I mean, the only reason why we ended up on this mission was to make up the numbers, right? And we would never have had to, had we not... I mean, had I not started the fight in the docking bay the other time. At this time, we would probably be somewhere on earth, relaxing by a pool somewhere..."
"I hate water." Cooper said shortly.
Wang laughed softly. "Sorry, I forgot. Guess I'd hate it too, were I living in it for 18 years! Not an insult, okay?"
"None taken." Cooper smiled a little at that laugh. Suddenly, unbidden, the memory of his dream crept up upon him again as he watched the figure lying not 2 feet away from him. He could almost feel the soft lips on his, now warm and alive, the warm breath... he swallowed, glad that the darkness hid his blush.
Cooper had never had anyone care for him before joining the 58th and specifically, the Wild Cards. And consequently, he had never had to care for anyone else before as well. He had simply had to look out for himself. Just to care for himself. This... caring... responsibility... feelings for another, was as alien to him as the chigs. Even more so, actually. He knew that he did care for the others in the 58th. They were a squadron. A team. The same way he cared for their CO, McQueen. He was their mentor. Their leader.
But then, there was this other feeling. Another form of 'caring' that he seemed to be feeling at the moment. The feeling of desolation when Wang had not come to his aid, in the attack those 3 weeks ago. The curiousity behind wanting to know why Wang had attacked him the way he had. The pleasure when Wang made some off-hand joke to lighten up their spirits after a long tiring day. The worry when Wang had gotten hurt. The anger and blind rage when he had seen what the AI's had done to Wang. The eventual understanding when Wang had told him about his father, and his life. The emptiness, despair, and loss he had felt in his dream when he thought that Wang was dead.
This new 'caring', and Wang.
It was weird.
"... West and the others." Wang said contemplatively.
"What's that?" Cooper pulled his thoughts away from himself to pay attention. What on earth was he thinking?
"I said, they probably had to call back West and the others to look for us." Wang repeated, and suddenly laughed. "Looks like we are depriving them on their holiday as well!"
"We could very well die before they find us, you know." Cooper did not join in the laughter.
"Now, who's being morbid, Coop?! They'll find us. Like you said, we just have to make it up to that hill. And I'm sure I'm technician enough to make this darned transmitter work!" Wang smiled reassuringly at him.
Cooper smiled back weakly. They both knew he was right though. They could very well die before they got found, or before they got up the hill to transmit their message to the Saratoga. McQueen would be watching out for their signal, no matter how faint. But there was no use when there was no signal to watch out for, was there?
Death. He remembered the dream again. Wang dead, and not knowing that he was sorry.
"If we.. if we don't get out of here..."
"Hey, Coop. I thought we just decided that we will!" Wang stopped him. "Don't be so pessimistic."
"I mean, IF we don't get out of here, I just want to say that..."
"You aren't going to get mushy on me, are you, Cooper Hawkes?" Wang teased, obviously uncomfortable with what he was trying to say.
"Paul," Cooper ignored him. "I just want to apologise for that day in the docking bay. I should never have yelled at you or hit you."
"As I recall, I hit you first." Wang told him. "So, I am as much to blame as you are for that. No need to apologise. I've forgotten it already."
"But if I had not yelled at you, you might not have been provoked." Cooper persisted doggedly.
"And if I had not hit you, we would not have had our leave revoked, and we would not be off on some God-damned mission, only to crash on God knows where. We would not be sitting here in the dark, scared shitless of chigs, and we would not be having this conversation right now." Wang pointed out. "We're even. Only we might not even survive this stupid thing!"
"Paul, I..." Cooper began again, his young mind in a whirl. Bits of his dream kept imposing themselves on his consciousness. It was disturbing. He could not understand why he kept seeing Wang's cold body. Wang was not dead. He was there talking to him, wasn't he? How could he be dead?!
And then, he remembered the sense of loss that had accompanied him when he had realised that his friend was no longer with him. He remembered the emptiness, and he remembered the sense of loss in never having really 'kissed and made up' as Shane had said once.
Well, he thought to himself. Now's as good a time as any. After all, we might not even be alive tomorrow! And even if he kills me now, well, at least, it'll be better than being torn to a hundred zillion pieces by the chigs, or worse still, be tortured by the AIs!
"Paul..." he edged closer to his friend.
"Hmm...?" Paul looked at him, blissfully unaware of his intentions.
"I'm really sorry."
But Cooper was not listening to him. His apology was not for what he had done. It was for what he was about to do. He leaned down a little awkwardly. Damn! It had been so much easier in his dream! His shirt caught on a branch, and he tugged impatiently at it. The branch let go and he automatically braced his arms on the ground, on either side of Paul's head, to keep his balance.
Paul simply looked back at him, his dark eyes wary. And yet, there was something else. He did not say anything. He did not do anything. He just lay there, his dark eyes, speckled silver in the moonlight, looking up at him.
Cooper tried again, ignoring the still silence. He lowered his head warily... and his hand slipped.
"Oh shit!" he exclaimed, as he fell, cracking his forehead against Wang's, narrowly missing the bandaged concussion. He rolled away in pain and embarrassment. Well then! That was that!! At least he had tried!!
By the time he stopped seeing stars, he noticed that Wang was making strange muffled noises. They sounded like muffled sobs or breathlessness. The other man was curled up away from him, his shoulders shaking a little with each muffled sob. Shit! He hadn't hurt him, had he?!
"Hey, Wang. Paul. You okay?" he looked over at the other man. He still did not get up. Maybe he would when the world stopped spinning.
"Mmmffhh" Was Wang's muffled reply.
"Shit, man! You okay?!" Cooper demanded more urgently.
"Mmmffhh... okay." Cooper relaxed a little when he heard the last word. But that still did not tell him if he was okay or if he was not okay.
"Paul! What's wrong with you?" Cooper demanded. The sky had stopped spinning. Maybe he'd get up. Maybe.
"Mmffhh...ha-ha!!" Wang gave up muffling his laughter. His shoulders shook with the effort to keep it down, and he curled himself up tighter, laughing like he would never stop.
"Oh, God! Oh my God!" he managed to gasp after a while. He lay on his back, wiping the tears of mirth from his eyes.
"Shit, man! You had me worried there!" Cooper frowned at him. "And I don't see what's so funny! I just about embarrassed myself back there, and you just lie there laughing?!"
"Well, Coop. You have to admit that it was pretty funny!" Wang grinned at him, threatening to set himself off again. He bit his lip in an effort not to. Cooper was hurt by his apparent lack of understanding. He saw that. But that was not true. He understood. He understood all too well.
"I still don't see what's so funny about it." Cooper was starting to get angry. His lower lip was pushed out in an unconscious pout. He turned away from Wang, refusing to look at him. How could he laugh at him?!
"Aww... Coop. Don't get mad." Wang laid a hand on his shoulder. "Look I'm sorry, okay? I didn't mean it, but it was just... hey, I'm sorry, man."
Cooper still refused to look at him. His face burned with embarrassment. What was he going to think now? That he, Cooper Hawkes, was abnormal for even attempting to kiss him? What if word got back to the others? What if word got back to the 'Toga? He'd be one dead Invitro.
"Coop?" Wang tugged on his shoulder, forcing him to turn back and look at him. He kept his eyes averted. He did not want to see the laughter in those dark eyes.
"Look, Coop. It's really very easy." Cooper flicked him a glance. What on earth was he talking about?! The dark eyes were not laughing at him as he had thought they would be. Instead, they were filled with a wry amusement, and Wang had a small smile of understanding on his lips.
"You see, Coop." Cooper's focus blurred as Wang's face came closer. He closed his eyes. He could feel the warm breath on his lips. "You just have to get your position right. Just so." Wang said softly, pressing his lips to Cooper's. A light, gentle pressure, and then, he raised his head.
The dark eyes twinkled down at him. "See. Nothing to it!" he smiled.
Cooper did not say anything. He stared up into Paul's familiar, friendly... beloved? face a little wondrously. Had that really happened? Or was he dreaming again?
"You kissed me." It was both a statement and a question.
Paul's eyes grew a little wary. "I... I thought it was what you intended to do when you....I'm sorry."
"What for?" Cooper was taken aback.
"I thought you..."
"I did." Cooper grinned at him. "Until I decided to crack both our skulls open instead!"
Paul's smile returned. Cooper raised his hand, laying it against the smooth cheek. The smooth, warm cheek. Wang was alive. And this was no dream. He slipped his fingers into the thick dark hair, curving his hand around the back of his head as he drew him down towards him.
"Careful now, Coop. Can't have us both knocked out cold this time!" Wang teased.
"Mm-hmm..." was Cooper's only reply as their lips met for a second time.
Romantics talk about such kisses being accompanied by the earth moving, shooting stars and fireworks. If that had truly happened, it would have scared the hell out of both Cooper and Wang! Such occurrences on an alien planet were not exactly conducive for survival! Besides, the only shooting stars and fireworks that were going off were in their heads. Electric charges seemed to rip through their bodies, as their tongues intertwined behind their meshed lips, sometimes wrestling, sometimes, teasing. And the only thing that was moving were their hands, roaming exploratively over each other's well-muscled bodies under the obstructing Marine fatigues.
"Oh fuck!" Cooper was the first one to break off.
"Sorry, Coop. That will have to wait I'm afraid!" Wang grinned teasingly at him. "We are in hostile territory after all."
"That was what I was going to say." Cooper raised his head to look over the bush. The sky was lightening. Soon, the sun would be up, and they would have to be on their way. "We were supposed to be on chig lookout."
"Guess we got a little distracted." Wang's grin widened. He took out the satellite transmitter, and switched it on again, hoping it might work this time.
NO SATELLITE TRANSMISSION AVAILABLE
The same message flashed across the tiny screen. He switched it off, conserving the battery, and slipped it back into his pocket.
"Can you imagine it if the chigs had caught us then?" Cooper settled back down with a grin.
"Well, that would probably have screwed up a couple of centuries worth of research for them!" Wang grinned back at him.
"Paul." Cooper looked down at the ground, picking a leaf off his shoe. "Is this, what we just did... is it normal?"
Wang looked at the young Invitro officer, and he sighed. All that young innocence made him feel a little old. Age-wise, they were both about the same age. But experience-wise, Cooper was still a kid. A 7 year-old kid, fed on a daily diet of hate, fury and frustration. He doubted if he had ever had any love in his short life so far.
There was a pause. "Paul? Is this... abnormal then?" he sounded so much like a little boy when he looked and spoke like that.
Cooper looked up, startled. "If it's not abnormal and yet, it's not normal, what is it?"
Paul shrugged. "I don't know. I guess it's all a matter of perspective. If you were heterosexual, then, yes, this is abnormal, by your standards. If you were homosexual, then this would be normal, by those standards. It's all how you look at it."
"How do you look at it?" Cooper was curious.
"I don't." Paul told him. "You see, I think that love is sort of universal. Anyone can love anyone, regardless of gender. You are only labelled according to your sexual preferences. Who you do it with and how. Sex is only an expression of love. And well," he shrugged. "However you look at it, it doesn't change the fact that somebody loves another, does it?"
"I guess not." Cooper agreed. "But you are pretty religious, aren't you?"
"I'm religious, Coop. Not stupid." Wang grinned. "And religion tells us to love one another. It doesn't tell us who we can, and who we can't love."
Cooper was silent again, as he traced meaningless patterns on the damp ground with a twig. He was thinking.
Wang looked up into the lightening sky. It was not yet daybreak, but it was bright enough for them to continue on their way before the chig patrols came by again. They had to make it to the top of the hill to be safe from the chigs, and to get their satellite transmission to their ship.
"We'd better get going before it gets truly light." Wang stood up, carefully.
Cooper stood up as well, scanning their surroundings. The landscape was still empty and still. What probably passed for a bird on this planet warbled its song in a bush next to theirs. That was fine so long as there were no chigs around. And to their knowledge, no chig sounded like a bird!
"Paul?" he called, just before they set out. Wang turned to look questioningly at him. "You know what you said about love and loving someone?"
Wang nodded, wondering where this was taking them.
"Well, I was wondering... how do you know?"
Wang shrugged again. "I guess you just know. I don't think there is a set way for how you should feel about someone. It's not like a program that you run, that everyone has. It's different for different people."
"Oh..." Cooper still looked a little confused. He bent down and adjusted his boot and then looked up again at Wang. This time, he was smiling.
"In that case, I think I love you, Paul." He looked a little embarrassed even as he said it. A faint colour stained his cheeks.
Wang smiled back at him, and backtracked until he was standing beside Cooper. He laid a cool hand on his burning cheek and leaned in, kissing him tenderly. "Thank you, Coop." He said softly. "That is the nicest thing you could ever say."
"What about you, Paul? Do you... love me?" Cooper asked hesitantly. He had just realised that Wang hadn't said anything.
"Didn't I just tell you so?"
Cooper's brow furrowed. He had not remembered him saying anything of that sort! "No, you didn't."
Wang smiled again, and again, he kissed him. "Now Coop, if you were listening to me earlier, you'd know if I did."
"But you were answering my question about whether what we were doing was normal or not. You said that you thought that anyone can love anyone else regardless of gender and..."Cooper began, and then he paused. A lightbulb clicked on in his head. "Oh!"
"Right. Oh! You weren't asking me about love then, were you?" Wang grinned. "I don't know. Maybe I have loved you for a while. Maybe it's just now. Maybe... I don't know. I have always cared for you, though. But, no matter what happens, you can always trust me to watch over you, okay? I'll always be here. And I will always care for you."
Despite the warm words and tender kisses, a chill ran up Cooper's spine. Deep in his bones, he felt that there was something much deeper behind those words. But he simply dispelled them as his paranoia. He wouldn't feel safe until they got back to the Saratoga. And besides, the morning was rather chilly. It had to be that.
"You know Paul, you were right." Cooper said as they moved as fast as they could in the direction of the hill they had targeted. "It really is funny how some things turn out."
"No, Lieutenant! And that is an order!" McQueen growled at the defiant West and Vansen standing before him. "I will not risk any more pilots."
"But, sir, Lieutenant Hawkes and Wang are down there! We can't just leave them!" Vansen protested.
"We are not going to leave them." The Colonel snapped irritably. What did these young officers think he was? A cold-hearted, unfeeling machine? He knew that the other two Marines were stranded on the planet. He knew too that all the others in the squadron had been massacred. But he had faith in his Marines. He knew that they were still alive... somewhere.
"Sir, Vansen and I could..." West began tentatively.
"Lieutenant. I said 'no'." McQueen's voice was soft but deadly. It was menacing in it's quietness. "If I hear of any of you sneaking off without permission, you will be suspended, understood?"
The two officers scowled, but nodded. "Yes, sir."
"I know you are worried. I am as well." He admitted as much. "But we just have to wait for their satellite signal. I know they are trying to contact the Saratoga. We just have to wait."
"Hurry up, Paul!" Cooper urged, scanning the barren landscape under them. A dead chig lay at his feet, oozing the noxious green gelatinous mess that they had come to associate with the aliens.
"I'm hurrying!" Wang snapped through gritted teeth. "There is only so much I can do with one small screwdriver, okay? There! That should do it!" he snapped the transmitter casing shut and switched it on again.
The blue screen flickered to life, and the two Marines stared at it, hoping against hope that it would say something encouraging.
It flickered once, twice, and then blanked out. Neither of them moved. It was almost too much for them at that moment. It could not have happened!
"You killed it." Cooper broke the silence. "You killed it! Our one hope to get back and you..."
"Shut up, Coop!" Wang picked up the transmitter angrily. He flipped it over, prying the grey casing open. The screwdriver broke. That was the last straw. Wang swore vehemently, and slapped the little computer in frustration. It beeped a little, as if in protest, and he swore again, ready to dash it onto the rocks below.
"Wait! Stop that!" Cooper grabbed the transmitter out of Wang's hand before he could destroy it. He set it on a rock. The screen was glowing blue again. The white words scrolled across the small screen.
SATELLITE TRANSMISSION ACTIVATED
The five most wonderful words the two young Marine officers had ever seen.
"Sir! We just received a signal from the planet!" The officer spun around in his chair, grinning broadly. "We've got them!"
McQueen gripped the railing tightly, closing his eyes to hide the relief that shone there. They were all right! He knew it! He knew that they'd be all right! He opened his eyes again, seeing the expectant faces turned towards him, waiting for his next orders.
"Vansen, West, come with me." This was one rescue and reconn mission he was going on.
"What's going to happen once we get back to the Saratoga?" Cooper joined Wang in the shade of an overhanging rock.
"When we get back? Well, I don't know about you, but first, all I want is a nice, hot shower, and to change out of these... can you call them clothes?" Wang wrinkled his nose at the smell and grime.
"I don't mean it literally, Paul." Cooper frowned at him. "I was talking about, you know, what we were talking about earlier."
"We'll just have to play it by ear, Coop." Wang shrugged. "Let's just say that it's not exactly something that they look favourably on in the Marines."
"But you said that it didn't matter."
"Not to me, it doesn't. Maybe not to some other people as well. But for the majority, it matters terribly. Something to do with having to be able to trust your buddy. It's an old Marine prejudice."
Cooper was quiet. He looked up at the sky thoughtfully, scouting for the ISSCV that would be sent to rescue them. Wang did the same. The sky was blue with white cottonwool clouds. A bird streaked across the blue expense.
"Would you rather we didn't... I mean, I can handle it if... you know." Cooper was still staring at the sky.
Wang turned to look at him. "Is something wrong, Coop?"
"No. It's just, well, things will be difficult, and if you'd rather not... I mean, I..."
"No one ever said it was going to be easy, Coop." Wang smiled a little. "I mean, look at you and Shane. Was that easy?"
"No." Cooper admitted grudgingly. "But this is different, isn't it? I mean, at least when I was going after Shane, I could do so openly, even if people did laugh. But if we..."
Wang looked over at him, and then away at the blue sky again. Cooper was right in a way. What would happen when they returned to the Saratoga? Various thoughts ran through his mind. There was just one foremost one, however.
Is this fair to Coop? Am I being fair to him?
That one thought played havoc with his feelings. He hated conflicts, and now, there were two conflicting emotions in him. One, desiring something more with Cooper, and the other, drawing him into the darker side of his emotions.
No, he decided. It won't be fair to Coop, and I won't be fair on him.
"Maybe you are right, Coop. Maybe we shouldn't do...be... anything." He said finally, not looking at the shock, surprise and hurt he knew he would see on Cooper's face.
He was right. Cooper was horrified. He had simply suggested it, just to get it out into the open. Just so Paul could dismiss it, and comfort him with that knowledge that he had given him the option to back out. So, what had gone wrong? Where had his plan faltered? Was Paul really talking as if nothing had happened between them just those few hours ago? Had he really been dreaming then?!
"Paul? I... I don't understand. I thought we..."
"Yes, Coop. I do still love you, and I will still always watch out for you." Wang turned back to face the hurt in the dark eyes. "I just don't think that we should... be anything, that's all. I cannot, Coop."
"Why? Is this some more of that Chinese jazz that I don't understand? What's happened, Paul? Talk to me, damn it! What's wrong?" Cooper jumped up, distraught.
"It's not you, Coop. Please. Calm down." Wang got up as well. What had he gotten himself into? He should never have said anything. Or to be precise, never have done anything the night before.
"It's just me, Coop. It's not your fault. And it's not a race thing. It's just me." He said as calmly as he could.
"Then why? I thought everything was fine!" Cooper whirled round, angry and hurt.
"You said you'd be all right if I didn't..."
"I was not serious! I only said it because you were supposed to tell me it was okay. That we'd be all right! I never expected you to agree! What's wrong, Wang? Why?!" The anger had given way to confusion.
"I... I can't explain it, Coop." Wang was torn between comforting him, and sticking to his decision.
"You don't love me after all. You were never serious about that too." Cooper looked away, kicking a pebble over the ledge, impervious to the fact that it would alert the chigs to their position. He was feeling violent at that moment, and he was ready to take on a chig. A whole army of them, if he had to!
"No, Coop. I was serious about that." Wang laid a hand on Cooper's shoulder, ignoring his attempts at shrugging it away. "I cannot explain it right now. It would not be fair on you if we..."
"Not fair on me?" Cooper looked back at him curiously.
"It won't be fair on you." Wang repeated, and would not say more. He had said more than he had intended to, anyway. His dark eyes held a guarded look as he turned away to return to the shade from the blistering sun.
"I don't understand." Cooper followed him.
"Don't try, Coop." Wang gave a wry grin. "Look. I do love you. I'd like more than anything for us to be..."
"Are you afraid of what the others might say?" Cooper looked as if he had hit on the answer.
Wang shook his head. "No, Coop. I really don't care what others might say. You should know that. Everyone makes fun of my spacenet 'affaires de coeurs', but it's just because no one understands. It's easier to make fun of it, rather than to try to understand something that you are unfamiliar with or is unconventional. It's just human nature. You, being an Invitro, would have come up against it often enough."
"Is it me then? Is that why you..."
"No!" Wang protested vehemently. "I never said that! I said it was me. I have to sort myself out before I can try sorting out anything else. It has nothing to do with you, you understand? Nothing! It's just me!" He ran his fingers through his hair in frustration, as he looked away again.
"Paul?" Cooper ventured after a short pause. He had been taken aback at the vehemence and pent up anger. He thought that he had seen that side of Paul Wang for the last time in the docking bay.
"Paul, look. I'm sorry. I won't push you, okay? I don't understand what is going on. But if ever you feel that you might change your mind, I well... I'll be right here, okay?"
"Thanks Coop." Wang gave him a lop-sided smile. He looked a little embarrassed at his unintentional outburst. "I'm sorry for yelling at you."
"It's not just about your father, is it?" Cooper looked him fully in the face, holding his attention with his intense gaze. He was daring him to deny it.
"I wish I knew, Coop." Wang shrugged and looked away, and fell silent again.
"I guess..." Cooper sighed and peered out once more at the sky. "I guess, loving someone is also about respecting the other's wishes, and being able to let that person go, isn't it, Paul?"
"Very wise, Coop." Wang smiled. Reaching out a hand, he turned Cooper's face towards his own, and gently kissed him. "If you remember nothing else of me, Coop, just remember that I do love you, and I never ever meant to hurt you, okay?"
Cooper frowned at the cryptic statement. He opened his mouth to ask what it was Wang meant, but a familiar sound caught his ears. They both exchanged a look, and simultaneously glanced up into the sky.
A look of pure joy lit up their faces as they scrambled out of their hiding place to meet the ISSCV that was now landing a short distance away. They were finally going home!
"Wang!" Cooper stormed over to the other hammerhead cockpit, and banged on it impatiently. "Get out of there, now!"
"Don't you start, Cooper." Wang took his time getting out of his cockpit. "You were not supposed to break rank. What was I supposed to do? Let you fly to your death?"
"I never asked you to follow me! What? You on a suicide mission?!"
Wang face clouded a little, but he glared back at Cooper. "And I never asked for your permission to follow you either!"
"We could both have been killed!"
"You might have thought of that when you went off on your little crusade!" Wang shot back at him. "If I hadn't gone after you, you'd be now, somewhere in space in ten billion bits! And, they would probably still hold you responsible for the loss of your Hammerhead! Besides, West was going after you, but I was nearer."
"I still don't think that..." Cooper began stubbornly.
"Hey guys! Guys!" Captain Vansen ripped her helmet off her head and rushed across to where Wang and Hawkes were standing, facing each other with angry looks.
"Don't start that again, all right, Hawkes." She misinterpreted his look of surprise as that of offensive. "Once is enough, all right? You guys want to fight, you can do so in the rec. room. Fight out here again, and you'll get leave revoked again, okay? You guys want that again?"
Hawkes flashed a look at Wang. The other man flashed him back a sudden mischievous grin. Hawkes coloured a little and frowned at him. The frown was what Vansen caught.
"Hey, Cooper, Wang, don't fight out here, all right? Look, forget it, okay? Just shake hands, whatever... just kiss and make up, okay?" another look passed between the two again. Little did she know ...!
"What do you say, Paul?" Cooper held out his hand.
"Oh, absolutely!" Wang grinned widely as he accepted the handshake.
"See, it wasn't so hard, was it?" Shane looked rather pleased with herself, as she looked at both the men approvingly. Another of the looks passed between them again, and she frowned a little. Neither she nor the rest of the 58th would ever understand what it was she had said that caused Hawkes and Wang to suddenly burst out laughing fit to kill.
"Gee... haven't thought about that for months now." Cooper opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling thoughtfully. "Haven't thought about him since... since that day..."
He looked over at the sleeping form of Nathan West and smiled a little. Funny how things turned out. West had started out with a chip on his shoulder against Invitros, and yet, he was now his best friend, and even more than that, he was his lover.
He got out of the bed and crossed over to the porthole window. The sky outside was dark. Only the stars shone down, pinpoints of light in the otherwise dark fabric of space. It was always dark out there in space. There were just the rare points of light to brighten it.
Just like my life. Cooper thought morosely. Dark, until the light came into my life.
The pinpoints of light in his life. Flying with the 58th, serving under Colonel McQueen, the Wild Cards : Shane, 'Phousse, West, Wang... Paul Wang...
One by one, the lights blinked out. Shane and 'Phousse were... God only knew where they were! Wang... Wang was gone... forever. He did not even have the comfort of knowing that he might one day return. Why didn't he tell him that he was going to do that? Did he know what he was going to do? Had he planned to go the way he had? Was this what he had meant that day on the planet when he had refused to...
Damn you, Wang! What about me? Didn't you care? Oh, Paul...
He hugged himself as a strange feeling rose up in him. He had tried not to think of him for so long now. So far, he had been successful. He had not remembered for months now. This feeling was unlike anything he had ever felt before. It was pain and emptiness and desolation. It was fun and laughter and teasing. It was loving someone, it was missing someone.
No. It was loving and missing Paul Wang.
Invitros don't feel like this. Invitros don't miss people. They don't love people! He told himself fiercely as he stared at his reflection in the window. His defiant expression glared back at him, as if daring him to admit that it was all an act. Who was he trying to kid anyway? He was an Invitro, and he missed Shane and Vanessa, and most of all, Paul. And he loved them all too, some more than others.
The feeling was suffocating as it rose up to his throat. He was finding it hard to breathe. He took a deep breath. It didn't help. He gulped a little as his breath caught in his throat. He had only felt this way once, and then, not even physically. It had been in a dream. A dream with... him. A dream where Paul had been dead, and he had... cried. Low, heart-wrenching sobs. But he had never done so physically. Not even when he had heard the news. Not even at the funeral.
A strangely familiar dampness flowed down his cheeks. He wiped them absently, and yet with a strange fascination. Tears? I'm crying? I'm actually crying? But... I... I don't cry!
Suddenly, unbidden, a familiar, beloved voice spoke in his mind. //Invitros are people too, Coop. Just born differently, and at a different time. You can love, and you can cry. You just have to learn how to. Even humans have to learn how to. And that is something that only experience can teach you.//
"That's something you taught me, Paul." He whispered, as he tried to suppress another sob. "How to love, how to laugh and now, how to cry. Why did you have to go?"
//I couldn't live with myself, Coop. I know you all forgave my betrayal. But I could not. It's about pride and honour, Coop. I felt I had neither left after what happened at the AI penal camp. That was why I couldn't let us be... anything. I did not want to hurt you any more than I already would. I hope you understand. Please understand. Hey! Look at it this way. I promised once to always be there for you. Now, I can actually watch over you, wherever you are!//
"Wha...!" Cooper's eyes were drawn involuntarily to the reflection of the bed. He coloured.
//Okay, so, I'll ignore certain bits of your life!// The voice was familiarly teasing. //Even you deserve some privacy! But, West?!//
Cooper couldn't help an amused laugh. Well, you aren't here, Paul. And I like him.
//I know. I was just teasing. Not criticising your choice, Coop. Just rather mortified that Nathan is so inclined! You would never have guessed, would you?//
No, I didn't really. Cooper admitted. I guess there comes a time in our lives when we just have to move on from the memories. Not that we forget, of course. We just have to move on.
//Philosophical, Coop!// the voice in his head teased. //Guess you've grown up, huh?//
Guess so, Paul. I guess so.
He looked out at the dark sky again. Suddenly, it didn't look so dark anymore. There seemed to be more stars. The stars seemed to be giving out more light. His eyes were drawn to one exceptionally bright one.
"Thank you for everything, Paul. Thanks for giving me you, limited as the time was." He smiled. "And watch my back, buddy. Much as I still love you, I don't think I'm ready to join you... not just yet!"
He blinked. Was it his imagination or had the star winked at him? He stared at the bright star again. It shone back brightly, unwinkingly at him. He shook his head. Must be going nuts!
First, Paul Wang, and now Nathan West. West was the only one left. The only one he could bring himself to care about now. None of the Wild Cards were left.
Just him and West.
Funny how things turned out.
© Sioux 15 April 1997