Disclaimer: The names of all characters contained herein are the property of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Hard Eight Productions and the Fox Broadcasting Network. These names have been used without their permission. Rights to the actors themselves belong to their parents, to whom we are most grateful. The rest belongs to me, Paula "Spanky" Morris, and my dangerously whacked imagination (why anyone would claim such rights, I have *no* earthly idea). This story has been distributed pruvately and through SAAB fanfic list.
A little background, without giving too much away. I started this after seeing Dark Side of the Sun and finished it right before Stay with the Dead. It takes place sometime after Ray Butts and before Hostile Visit.
It becomes evident I was only guessing at what could be keeping Ty grounded. But whatever else is wrong or right with the story, I'm proud of guesses I made that were born out in later eps, especially Angriest Angel. On the other hand, there were plenty of things I couldn't even have dreamed up that were revealed in *that* ep. Eh. Here 'tis. See what you think.
Becoming Like Stone
"Get them off me! I can't shake these guys!"
"You concentrate on the Chig in front of you, Joker. Jack and I will take care of the other two." Shane Vansen was calm with the calculating exhilaration of battle as she nosed her Hammerhead over and dove toward the madly scrambling Wang, Hawkes narrowly on her wing. They dropped on Paul's wake from above, blasting the unsuspecting Chigs chasing him to component atoms as he made his own kill and turned for the nasty little catfight Damphousse was having with her attackers.
Hawkes war-whooped as he spiraled dangerously through the edges of the expanding debris field, hunting for lurkers. Vansen gave a tight grin; he sounded deliriously happy. Sometimes it was hard to tell with the big Tank. His emotional responses weren't always appropriate, only six years out of the vat. But he probably *was* happy. Like her, all he wanted was to shoot Chigs, to be the best. He didn't have anyone to fight for or go back to, like Damphousse and Wang. He wasn't out here for any higher purpose, like West. West...where was he?
She got deadly serious again quick as she saw Nathan's plane swarmed by three alien ships. And he hadn't said a word; so like him. A target lock pinged on her board as West clawed his way into position and took out two of his opponents. She lasered away at the third and suddenly the star-filled darkness was clear again except for the faintly glowing gas clouds of the destroyed alien fighters. "That's it, boys and girls. Let's go home. Did the Chigs get anything off?"
"I didn't hear anything, and I was listening in the high band," came back Vanessa.
"Me neither," answered Paul. "I think they were as surprised as we were."
"Maybe more surprised than us. We're alive." West sounded matter-of-fact and competent as usual.
"Come on, Jack," Vansen called. "We're almost bingo fuel. Quit fooling around." She scanned visually, but didn't see him. When she did spot him against the system's tiny white sun, it was just in time to see a last Chig swoop out of the glare and blow his wings off. "Coop!"
"Oh, shit." He still sounded happy as his communications crackled with the scream of tearing metal and then the explosion as his cockpit ejected. The alien ship rocked West's and Damphousse's planes with glancing blows before Wang put a missile in it. She still hadn't heard a message squirt as her team mates regrouped and scanned for any more snipers. Then she put out a grapple and picked up Coop's 'pit. He gave Shane a smug grin and thumbs up, mouthing words she couldn't hear. She was glad; he was probably snarling to one of his antique rock CDs.
Victorious, the 58th limped home.
Aboard the *Saratoga*, it was the usual efficient bustle in the hangar bay as their cockpits were raised. Mechs and other technicians rushed in, more concerned with the damage they had done to their equipment. Some glared at Hawkes, resentful at the destruction of his fighter. He looked as if he could care less as his broad back cleared the bay headed for the mess. Nathan and Vanessa were already going over damage reports with the engineers as Shane slid from her 'pit and pulled off her helmet, agitated and tired in the letdown after battle. Paul was hanging about, waiting for them. She shook her long, dark hair out of her eyes as it tumbled free; it always made her head itch after being suited up, but she had refused to cut it so far. Pulled back, it gave her no trouble, and she imagined it afforded some additional padding stuffed into her helmet. She was scratching at one of the itchy spots, following idly after Coop, when McQueen stepped into her path.
The Colonel's stare was cold and silver, and she got the full force of it for hard seconds as he stood, arms folded, glaring her down. She met his eyes and didn't flinch. "Vansen. With me," he finally snapped as he spun away. She hurried to keep up.
Colonel McQueen was as hard to figure as Coop, though the older Tank kept a tight military stranglehold on any emotions he might have. As she marched after the slender, pale man in Angel black, she was pretty sure he was angry. Coldly, deeply angry. And at her. She didn't understand. They had barely entered the main corridor when he led the way into a narrow access alcove, flung the hatch shut and locked it. Then he was in her face and his rage was tangible enough to make her sick to her stomach.
"What was that stunt you pulled out there, Vansen?" She could feel how uneven his breathing had become as he fought for control. His voice sounded like a fist tearing through velvet. "What did you think you were doing?"
"Killing Chigs, sir." Perplexed, she looked up and kept their eyes locked. She wasn't about to back off until she knew what this was about. A slow burning anger of her own began to build. "What I'm supposed to be doing."
"Killing Chigs? Hell, Vansen, anyone can kill Chigs. Even a dumb Tank like Hawkes," he spat sarcastically. "Killing Chigs is the easiest thing in the world. Protecting your team, following orders, now that's the hard part. At least, it seems *real* hard for you."
"Sir! We were to reconnoiter the planet and --"
"And locate the alien base! Report back! Not risk yourself and the rest of your squad in a knifefight that could easily have lost the entire wing! You were told this sun's emissions would play havoc with all sensors, telltales and communications except at close quarters. Your *orders* were to keep your head down and patrol. But *you* had to grandstand. This is turning into a war of attrition, Vansen. We can't afford to lose one man, one ship, to satisfy some rookie fighter puke's yen to pop Chig butt."
"So why isn't Hawkes in here? He's the one that broke formation and lost his plane." She knew he could hear the rising fury in her voice, that she was perilously near to insubordination, but she didn't care. And Coop -- he hadn't deserved her last comment.
"No, Lieutenant, *you* lost that plane. You were in command. You were responsible, responsible for everything from those unsalvagable flakes of scrap that used to be a damn fine war machine to the water wasted in the unnecessary sweat on your squad's faces."
She swallowed hard and fought to hold her ground. She felt she was bent over backwards to keep any distance between them as he pressed closer, intimidating, but she refused to back away. "Sir, our patrol was almost up and we'd seen no sign of a base. The Chigs dipped into the atmosphere close enough to spot us. We had no choice but to take them out."
"You were five. They were nine. You had a choice, an imperative, to use your Hammerheads' superior speed to run, *not* to risk your squad. *Not* to abandon your wing man. Even if he is just a Tank."
So that's what this was about. Tanks watching out for Tanks. She had thought McQueen above that bigotry. It made her madder than ever. "No, sir! It was equally important to avoid detection. It was my call. You put me in command, and *I* make the calls. I can't be second guessed out there, not even by you. Sir."
"So they're missing nine fighters and they're not suspicious?" He bent even closer, his breath cool on her burning ear tips, his voice dangerous and so soft she had to strain to hear. "What's the matter, Vansen? Still got a hard-on to be an Angel? Willing to let a Tank, a couple of team mates, die to get your wings?" And that was it. She was back in a base bar earthside, trying to pound the disrespect and arrogance out of an Angel, trying to pound acceptance in, while a silver-haired, ice-eyed man sat aloof and judged her. She shoved, shoved hard, and when she had cleared some space between their bodies, she swung, feeling the blow connect with a soild thunk. Some pragmatic part of her flashed the scene of her own court-martial in her mind, but that didn't stop her from landing another punch. Then the Colonel was fighting back and that was all she was thinking about.
They grappled, too close and too angry to really use any of their training. McQueen certainly wasn't aloof now; he was roughing up his knuckles beating the crap out of her, but she was doing an equal amount of beating on him. At one point, she blocked a roundhouse he threw at her head and he took her down with a leg sweep. Clutching a fistful of his uniform, she brought him down on top of her and rolled, kicking. He got her legs braced out with his, but she didn't let go and struggled up, using his body and the wall at her back as leverage. She had forced herself half-upright, with McQueen sprawled on top of her, when he finally jerked her hands lose and pinned them at her sides. Shane dug her fingers into the back of his hands mercilessly and tried to bite him. Maybe he'd been going for a head butt, but they both missed and their mouths came together hard.
She was never sure exactly who kissed who; she was thinking about as clearly as when she'd swung on a senior officer. All she knew was that she felt her veins had been injected with rocket fuel before; now a match had been struck to them. She pushed into him and he crushed her close, as if he wanted to stuff her inside his chest. There was nothing of gentleness in the contact; it was clumsy and grasping, as much a fight as the previous brawl, and their hands kept encountering places where they'd wounded each other. It hurt, and she minded not at all.
The bruising embrace lasted long moments. Then McQueen released her mouth and rolled away, gasping. He came up crouching in a far corner, staring at her as if he suspected she might attack again. They both stood shakily, keeping their distance. His pale gray eyes were now a dark, hot blue with emotion. He put out a hand to her -- whether to ward her off or draw her near -- and she saw she had scratched his neck bloody. Suddenly he straightened, and his control came down like a steel door. He wiped at his bleeding lip with the back of his hand, unlocked the door and swung it open with the other. He strode out of the room without a word or backward glance.
Vansen was frozen in her corner. She touched her swollen lips with her finger tips and realized her mouth, too, dripped blood. Her entire body ached. She couldn't believe how savage the thing had become: it depressed her. Great, she thought as she limped into the deserted corridor, my so-called military career is over, and I'm in lust, at the very least, with my commanding officer. My *Tank* commanding officer. Who hates my guts and is the one who is going to end my so-called military career. "Dumb, Vansen," she muttered aloud. "Dumb, dumb, dumb."
She wandered the side corridors, avoiding other crewpeople and trying to think. When Hawkes had tried to kiss her, she'd punched him in the teeth. But then, she'd gotten the hitting out of the way first this time. How could she associate any of this with the man she knew? That man was hard, strong, aloof, untouchable. Not heartless or cruel -- in fact, she felt he often displayed an odd empathy for situations and emotions of which he should have no concept -- but reserved, possessed of a quiet grace. Most disturbing of all, she realized she had wanted something like this, had wanted him, since their first meeting. His rank, her respect, military protocol, had given her a means of negating her desire, rationalizing it away. But now she had crossed the boundary, stepped outside that safe circle, and had no protection.
Heading for the racks hours later, with the sea-air taste of him still lingering on her tongue, she had come to a few conclusions: the last emotion she had seen in his eyes had been fear; and he had been right. At least about some things. She still didn't know what she was going to do about it. She still expected security to pick her up any minute.
The rest of the squad was asleep when she got back. Or so she thought.
"Where have you been?" Vanessa whispered as she eased carefully into bed.
"Out, *Mother*," she murmured back. She rolled over and put her face to the wall. She heard Damphousse lie back, but after a time, there was a rustling and stealthy padding, then the other woman's hand was gentle on her shoulder.
"Come on, Shane. Where you been? What did the Colonel want? 'Fess up; you can tell Mom." Vanessa's dark grin was impish when she turned toward her, but the smile faltered at the damage visible in the reddish half-light. "Shane? What the hell happened? Who did this to you?"
Her mouth opening on a lie, Shane suddenly knew she wanted to talk. Vanessa's friendly concern was more welcome than she could have believed before. "Not here. The showers."
As they passed his bunk, Hawkes raised up and stared at them sleepily. "Where you goin'?"
"Nowhere. Showers. Girl talk. Go back to sleep, Coop," Damphousse soothed. Shane leaned back into shadow and let her hair hide her face.
Cooper looked for a second as if he were about to get mad and argue. Then he yawned and nodded. "Whatever." He rummaged in his blankets, held something out to Shane: two round objects softly glowing in the dimness. "Here, Vansen, for you. Didn't see you in the mess."
Shane took the offered peaches, surprised. "Thanks, Hawkes." She was hungry, now that she thought about it. He only grunted, and was asleep again immediately.
In the showers, Shane examined her prizes. Fruit was one of the few real food items they ever got out on the line, and was a commodity doled out reluctantly by stores. She bit a huge chunk out of one, savoring it before the juice burned her mouth. "How'd he get two?" she asked, taking another, more cautious bite.
"Don't ask," Vanessa grinned. "Nathan smoothed it over." Shane grinned back at her, imagining the scene in the mess, then winced as her cut lip pulled open. Vanessa was all motherly concern again. She wet the corner of a towel and started dabbing at the hurt, but Shane grabbed it away from her, stuffed it in the sink and soaked it. She slid it around her neck, then tilted her head back and pressed its coolness to her throat. "Who's water card we using?"
"Mine," Shane said to the ceiling.
"Oh, fine then." Vanessa paused. "You gonna talk or not?"
"Yeah. Sure." She wanted to tell Vanessa everything. Needed to, in fact. But now she had the opportunity, she didn't know how to start. "What do you want to know?"
Vanessa gave an exasperated sigh. "Who beat you up, Shane?"
"The beating up was mutual. You should see the other guy."
"Who *is* the other guy? This isn't funny, damn it!"
"McQueen." That shut Damphousse up. She blinked a couple of times, began to say something and finally ended up plopping down hard to sit cross-legged on the floor. Shane slid down the opposite wall and stared at her team mate over her knees.
"Well, you've got to report him," Vanessa eventually got out.
"Oh, I would, except I started it."
"You are crazy, girl."
"Tell me about it."
"What could McQueen possibly do to make you mad enough to hit him?"
"Hmm. First, he took exception to how I ran the mission. Next, he accused me of endangering Cooper because he's a Tank. Finally, he's sure I'm nothing more than a gloryhound still trying to be an Angel, willing to climb over the squad's dead bodies to do it. That's when I hit him."
"I thought we did good."
"Apparently not good enough for Colonel McQueen. Not me, anyway."
"Surely he knows -- should know -- you don't feel that way about In Vitroes."
"Maybe. But he was right; I wasn't watching out for Hawkes careful enough. Sometimes, when he goes winging off on his own, I get irritated. He hardly ever follows the rules, and he can be so...so annoying. I look over, he's not on my wing where he's supposed to be, and I gotta clear Nathan. Pissed me off. But *I* was responsible. He did the right thing, looking for stragglers. I should have been with him. You know how often a full 'pit ejection, much less a canopy eject, works?"
"Not often enough."
"This time, he got an SA-43 shot out from under him. If I let a next time happen, he could die."
"Coop's a big kid, and he can take care of himself, like the rest of us. We look out for ourselves, we look out for each other. We come back. That's all that counts. But McQueen...." She shook her head. "I always thought he respected you. He's given you command enough times."
"Things change. He's sure not got any respect left for me after today."
Vanessa shrugged. "Oh, maybe he's got some left.... Did you win?"
Shane laughed harshly. She got the towel good and cold again, then slopped it over her face, scrubbing at the hurt and the fatigue. "How do I look?" she asked, pulling the towel away.
"I've seen you look better. Not quite so bad in the light."
Groaning, Shane pulled up her t-shirt. "What about these?" A series of small bruises were spread over her sides and stomach.
Vanessa hissed in sympathy. "Survivable. Anything else?"
"Besides hurting all over? My foot's still sore where I kicked him."
"At least you don't have a black eye. That would be pretty obvious."
Vanessa frowned, and leaning forward, plucked at a corner of the towel. She blotted at a spot above Shane's left eye and this time, Shane let her. "Well, this one is mostly in your brow line. If it doesn't swell or color any more than this, it's hardly noticeable. And if you wear your hair loose tomorrow, you can fix it to hide the bruise on this side. Your lip..." Vanessa sat back. "Your lip looks like you bit it in a G-snap. No one will think anything of it. But...it is a bite, isn't it?
"Ah, yeah." Shane sighed.
"And you didn't, like, accidentally do it during the fight?" Vanessa seemed to know the answer to her own question, even the unasked one, so she said nothing. "Shane. What were you thinking?"
She smacked the wall on either side of her with knotted fists. "Damn it, Vanessa, don't you get it? I wasn't thinking. Neither was he. Or it never would have happened. It started as a barroom brawl, which was stupid enough, and ended in some kind of clench that was half battle, half passion, and we were equal participants. It scared him. It scared me -- I *know* I'm not like that. I don't think he is either. But it was as if...we both needed it, the violence, the hurt. Like that's what set the whole thing off."
"Most people think In Vitroes are more violent, less capable of dealing with strong emotions. You don't think that had anything to do with it?"
" 'Course not." Shane gave a disgusted snort. "A little. Maybe it bothers me a little." She couldn't meet Vanessa's eyes for a moment. "Well, it was there, in his response, and then his confusion in the aftermath. Now, don't start with that 'Tanks' -- excuse me, *In Vitroes* -- 'are the same as anybody else.' You know I don't think less of McQueen, Hawkes, anybody for the way they get born, but it does make a difference. Like my background, and your background, makes us different. To ignore how In Vitroes have been treated is foolish.
"But hell, Damphy, I was just as confused. Still am. Who wouldn't be, especially somebody who started the first day of his life when he was 18? But McQueen's got more control than any of us." Shane ran a hand through her damp hair in exasperation.
Vanessa waved her hands in acceptance of her words, if not agreement. "Talk to the Colonel, Shane. I'm sure it was a one-time mistake for him, too. Let it pass."
"I'd do it again."
"I'd do it again. It was one of the most intense sensations I have ever experienced. Took a right cross to wake me up to it, but it was him. I wanted him."
"Oh, Shane --"
"Don't start, Dr. Damphousse. I've already gone over every father-figure, authority-fetish, hero-worship, forbidden-fruit argument I can come up with, and it's more than that." She groaned and slapped the soggy towel back over her face. "Though I'm still not sure what," she said, her voice low and muffled.
"I was thinking of all the regs against this."
"I know. My taste in men is appalling."
"Understandable, but hazardous, I'd say. To your health *and* his."
"In this case, it must be a death wish."
"Marines. Only lifeform I know gets a crush if you punch 'em out." They sat in silence for a time, then Vanessa giggled. "What a way to die."
"Those eyes, that mouth."
"And his voice! Keeps in shape, too. Don't think *I* haven't noticed. It really is a pretty devastating package. Can't say I blame you."
"Damphousse, you're not helping. You didn't think it was funny before," Shane growled, her head hung beneath her towel.
"Oh, ease up. It's still not, but we may as well laugh about it."
"It's embarrassing, talking about a senior office that way."
"Think so? All I'm doing is talking. That's part of your trouble, Shane. McQueen's too, probably. You're both so busy being good little soldiers, you shut that stuff up inside until it boils over, and that's messy. Now me, I joined the Corps; I didn't go blind. Of course I know my CO is sexy as hell. Of course I know I go to bed with three gorgeous guys every night. Maybe it's the uniform." She grinned again as Shane tossed the wet towel at her with a disgusted look. "Point is, I'm not going to do anything about it. Scenery like that -- one of the perks. Keeps things bearable. Much as I love 'em all, there's not one who compares in that area to my one, my only, the man I'm going to marry and his little girl."
"So you're saying I should start dating outside my occupation."
"Honey, I'm saying you should *date*, period. And I think this whole sordid escapade smacks of something a lot deeper than rough sex and a violent case of the hots. Work it out, OK?"
"Here I thought you were the sweet, innocent, down-home type."
"Not me. You're thinking of Paul." Shane snorted laughter, then grimaced as her mouth started hurting again. Vanessa gave her a warm and slightly piteous smile as she stood and offered her a hand up.
"You're not going to say anything to the others, are you?" She looked up.
"How you think you can keep this secret from those guys the way you look, I have no idea. But if that's what you want, then I'm silent as a stone." Shane took her hand and Damphousse pulled her up, squeezed her shoulder lightly. "Come on, let's get you cleaned up and back to bed. Worry about it tomorrow."
"Yeah. If I'm lucky, security will have me in the brig by then, and I won't have to worry about it at all." But when she tottered to her berth sometime later, nibbling at one of Cooper's peaches and trying to keep the juice from stinging her mouth, Vanessa's good-natured laughter and gentle care had eased her mind enough that she fell asleep with only one last thought of the panic in the wide gray eyes: why me, why now? What was so different about today that anger alone could shatter McQueen's alabaster calm as if it were ice in the sun?
Security hadn't made an appearance by morning, so Shane figured they weren't going to show after all. This day was down time, until a late patrol, so she began it where she had left off the night before: dodging the crew and the 58th. If she hadn't spent most of the previous night and the entire morning staying out of people's way, she would have picked up on the scuttlebutt sooner. As it was, she overheard the now-stale news as she turned a corner to miss two midshipmen pulling chips in a service corridor. Yesterday, another Angel had come and gone.
She found herself an isolated node and called up the common log for the previous day. She knew the female intelligence officer on the screen immediately, though she was almost unrecognizable from the blonde squad leader a wet-behind-the-ears cadet had jumped earthside, so long ago it seemed. Collins had been tall, proud, even beautiful in an austere way. Now she was ruined, diminished, the ravages of the firefight she had lived through irreparable. But the face still held pride and austerity. The Angel had come soon after their patrol began; she had left before the Wild Cards had berthed their planes. That this had everything to do with yesterday's incident, Shane had no doubt.
It was still some hours to their scheduled patrol. She found herself on the way to the hangar bay. In the secondary bays, she could check over the body of her plane, inspecting repairs. Actually, she simply enjoyed touching the wide wings and powerful lines of her SA-43. No matter how scorched and scarred it became, how rough its metal hide, she loved its fast, wicked shape. Such an eager pup. Such an honest weapon.
She was crawling along on her back, holding a work light up to check her plane's gray underbelly, when a pair of spit-polished black boots appeared beneath one wing. She knew before she scooted from under the opposite wing it was McQueen. He stood, arms folded loose over his chest in his familiar easy, wide-legged stance and watched her. A dark shadow smudged one eye, the thin, well-shaped lips were a bit swollen and a small cut marred one cheekbone. What excuse was he making for his battered face? If any. She said nothing as she got to her feet and confronted the quiet gray stare.
"It's called battle heat, Vansen," the Colonel said across the lean body of the Hammerhead.
"I've heard of it, sir," Shane said tentatively, unsure how to proceed. The "sir" didn't seem to set well with him on this occasion.
"Leftover adrenaline, tension, an urge to violence. A need to experience life after chasing death so hard."
"With all due respect, Colonel, I don't believe that's all it was."
"You got something to say, Lieutenant, say it."
"Off the record, sir?"
"Off the record. None of this is going in your folder; I'm the one at fault."
"Is it going in your folder, then?"
He held her eyes, his flat and gray as gun metal. "That's entirely up to you. I can't report myself without involving you. I believe you should determine the level of that involvement."
She blinked, surprised. Striking a senior officer -- that wasn't something that got overlooked, no matter what the circumstances. There had been no witnesses; he could have reported only her infraction, busted her rank, anything. She should have known McQueen's fairness and loyalty wouldn't allow him to do that. So he held himself responsible? That ticked her off; she knew it had as much to do with her.
"All right, then yes, I have something to say." She drew a deep breath. "If you think what happened was nothing more than a biochemical over-response, you're deluding yourself. The fight was one thing. I know myself well enough I can recognize which buttons were getting pushed, and I understand...all...your motivations. You were right about a lot of it; I see that now. But you're sure not the only one responsible for what happened after that. You owe it to me -- we owe it to ourselves -- to work it out before it causes problems, not sweep it away and ignore it."
"You could be right." He nodded, as if considering. "But I've got more experience at this than you. It can be controlled, and I don't care to explore the alternatives. End of discussion," he said abruptly, and turned to go.
"*What* experience? You call that *control*? Any more *control* and we'll be married, with three kids."
He rounded on her. "You know, Vansen, you're a real smartass. Maybe that's one of the things I like about you. But don't count on it. We're back on the record as of now. One more outburst, Lieutenant, and I'll bust you so far down you'll have to use a ladder to see daylight. So you take a cold shower. Take two. Call your boyfriend. Pick something suitable out of a catalog, something with *lots* of attachments. Whatever it takes to keep your hormones zipped and in your pants. I'll take care of my own 'biochemical over-responses,' thanks."
Bust her? Not likely. Not for this, after what he'd let pass. Raging inside, she pushed her face up into his, her voice quavering and low. "I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to lock myself away, set myself in stone. I'm not going to let myself get hard and cold like you. *I'm* going to burn." She gave him her back and headed for her plane.
His grip on her arm was strong and surprising as he spun her into himself; she hadn't thought he'd moved. His arms crossed at the small of her back, gathering her up, fingers digging deep into the flesh of either thigh.
He was tall, at least as tall as West or Wang, almost as tall as Coop, and she was the smallest of the Wild Cards. When he held her, he curled about her body. She loved that, even now, when he held her so hard it hurt. His mouth on her's was fierce and desperate, crushing her lips against her teeth. She gave back the kiss with the same hard heat, her fingers clutching at his tight-cropped white hair to hold him to her. He didn't flinch when she ran her hands down to the wide shoulders and felt the crusted cuts she had left on him the day before. But when she brushed the dimpled bump of skin at the back of his neck, he jerked his head back sharply and let go so fast she staggered.
She swayed, trying to regain her balance and composure. There was the panic-stricken look again. She must look the same, she thought: dazed and afraid. And hungry. But his eyes also held a deep, inward-turning disgust, as if he were suddenly sick of something. Sick of what they'd done, the force of the emotion? Sick of himself?
"No!" She couldn't stand the self-loathing she saw in his face before he clashed that steel door on the feeling once again. What difference could there truly be between herself, born and earthly, and him, angel light gone out and wings stripped? "Oh, no. Is that what this is all about --in vitro, in utero? What difference does it make *here and now*? You *know* this is something we both need!"
"Don't try to psychoanalyze me, Vansen. We don't fit the standard profiles. Our upbringing, possibly," he said with contempt. "Experience tells me what I am makes all the difference in the world. This is wrong for you, for me, the squad, the Corps. Nothing else -- no *feelings* -- matter. It goes no further." He swung up the ladder to the main bay, anger flaring in every muscle. Shane hesitated only seconds before climbing after him.
She caught up with him and fell in behind as he swept out of the hangar bay. He kept eyes front and so did she. "You say that, but we keep ending up in these lip locks," she whispered at his back.
"Get off my six, Lieutenant," he growled at her sideways.
"You'll have to court-martial me first, Colonel."
It would be impossible for him to ditch her without attracting unwanted attention. No one they passed seemed to think it strange to see the cadet commander and one of his Marines striding along as if they were on review. He didn't stop until he hit the officers' mess, deserted now mid-shift, and dialed up black coffee. Shane waited at attention, following as he walked to one of the huge observation windows, ignoring her. He held the mug tightly in both hands, steam rising to fog the port and the view of an incandescent nebula, swirling violet, red and indigo aft and starboard in a sight so heart-achingly beautiful it was unimaginable anywhere but in space. She doubted he even saw it.
"Colonel, I need to talk about this. With you. You need to talk to me, too. I know it even if you don't."
"Got a high opinion of yourself, Vansen."
"No, sir. Of you." He continued to face forward, and so did she, but she saw the reflection of his eyes in the window and how they moved over her face's own image. She knew she had hit home.
"Soldier, confessor. What else do you want to be to me? Mother, daughter? Lover?"
"I'd like to say friend, but T.C. McQueen is such a hard ass, he doesn't need friends."
His mouth tightened in what might have been a very small smile. "That's real sweet. You must have liked being a private." He sat the coffee on a nearby table without taking a drink and turned to lean in the window bay, facing her. She felt her breath catch in her, and shook herself mentally at the weakness. But his face was so strong, so implacable, the eyes harder than stone. "You're Corps all the way through. You know that's not possible. I'm your CO."
She shrugged. "Mom outranked Dad half the time. We used to joke about it, the change of command, every time one of them got a promotion."
"Is that what you want?"
She snapped him a sharp look. "No! I don't want anything like that."
"Then why are you pushing so hard? I'm ready to walk away and get back to real life."
"I'm not in the habit of throwing myself at senior officers, and I'm trying to figure this out for myself. Naturally stubborn, I guess."
"You've brought that to my attention on a number of occasions." The hinted smile. Made her skin tingle. She tried to ignore it.
"I was only...making a point. That they were friends. First. Before everything else. You could help me with this, you know."
"Point taken. All right, we'll try it your way, or I really will have to court martial you. But don't start thinking this is a date."
"You're not taking this near as serious as I am," she said, frustrated. If she knew how much like a little girl she looked at that moment, she would have cringed. All she saw was a softening about his eyes as she stepped closer. With him half-seated, they were more of a height. She wanted to take another step, but stopped herself. "So if this is so unimportant, if it's *under control*, how many times have you made out with a subordinate in the past? That the kind of experience you were talking about?"
"Oh, I think it's important. You aren't listening to me. And I'm trying to save you a world of hurt. My 'experience' was with a senior officer. Big mistake. One of the biggest I've ever made."
Who -- "Collins?" She was sure as soon as she said it. That would certainly have been enough to set him off.
"What makes you say Collins?" The tension in his voice matched the sudden stiffness of his body.
"I don't know. Seemed to fit. She was on board yesterday. I saw the way you watched her in Asteroids, that first night. The way she worked at ignoring you. And you said senior; she was always one rank ahead of you, and you were her wing man." She was thinking out loud. "There was ample opportunity for your 'battle heat,' the number of sorties you two flew with the Angels. I saw the rest of the guys in the squad, and if I'd been Collins, I would have picked --"
"*You* are not Collins. Never make that mistake: you are nothing like her!" He was angry again. Maybe he'd been angry at her prying the whole time and she had been too stupid to see it. She had been trying to help them both, she had told herself, but now she was only satisfying her own curiosity, without any respect for his privacy. "It happened once, and she hated me for it. Hated me for being there, for being an In Vitro, hated herself for wanting it, hated us both for letting it happen."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean --"
"You know so much, are you sure you need me to work this out? Anything else you want to know? My shoe size? My --"
"Listen, I researched the Angry Angels, OK?" She broke in quickly, embarrassed. "I wanted to be an Angel since I was 14. I knew everything about them up to the time I joined myself. I knew their battles, wins and losses. I knew when a Marine got Angel wings, I knew when an Angel died. I knew when you made it into the 127th."
"Couldn't keep up with the ball scores like everybody else?"
"It wasn't a hobby. It was what I wanted for my life! I had to know, because I had to make it, too. Like for you, I know you're from Anchorage, Alaska --"
"Irrelevant. It's not where I'm *from*, it's where I was *decanted*."
"-- your age, your full name --"
" -- your commendations, decorations, battles --"
"-- what made you an Angel --"
"*Irrelevant*! The Angels are dead; let them sleep. You're a Wild Card now."
"They were your friends. You fought beside them. How can you dismiss them like that?" She took another step closer and he drew back into the bay as far as he could. She had never seen him back away from anything. Except her.
"You don't know anything. All these irrelevant facts you've so painstakingly collected mean nothing. You don't know the Angels. You don't know me."
She dropped her eyes, rubbing at the old teeth-scar on her palm. "Not then, when all I did have were facts. How could a Tank make the Angels? I'd never met an In Vitro. I believed what everyone else said, about why they wouldn't fight in the AI Rebellion, that they were cowards. How could a coward make it into the Angry Angels? That's what the Angels were going to do, wipe the Silicates from existence, and I was going to be there to kiss 'em all good-bye. But a Tank..." She hazarded meeting the argent eyes. He looked even more uncomfortable than she felt, but he was listening. That she was blocking his way out might have something to do with it. "I was wrong. I figured that out a long time ago, for a lot of reasons. And I do know you now, by word and action; I know a man I'm proud to serve with."
"Don't do this." The panic was back. It had grown as she spoke and she thought she knew why. "Don't make me...feel...these things."
She drew in very close, because she had no choice. They were eye to eye, and she could tell he was trembling. So what? She was, too.
"Why? Everyone has these feelings. They're only human."
"I'm not. Don't expect the same responses."
"What makes you think you're not human?"
"We're grown, not born. We wake with no past, no shared experience to make us like everyone else, to show us what emotions are. Our 'parents,' if you care to call them that, never lived. Nothing but donated or salvaged genetic material, thawed out of cold storage. We are awakened and put back into sleep like turning on and off the lights. Our lives are slavish hells; if we want better, we have to fight with everything we've got, and even then, we're only allowed so much. The life of an In Vitro counts for less than even the meanest criminal human life. Dogs have more rights. We are reviled, hated, suffer unimaginable atrocities. No one else thinks we're human. How could we think we are?"
Shane shivered, remembering how "humans" had tried to hang Hawkes for no other reason than he was a Tank. She was close enough she could have moved her head and kissed McQueen, but she waited, not touching him, waited for him to reach out to her. She knew she didn't have the strength or courage. "Why do you think you aren't human?" she insisted.
His eyes shuttered closed. "Because I can't...I don't feel..."
"I'm afraid," he said simply, quietly.
"This --" His lips hovered above hers, trembling, like a hawk wary of landing. She licked the thin air between them, and there was the barest pressure of his mouth on her tongue tip, silk trailed over silk. Eyes closed only half way, she watched the strain in his face as he held himself back. It was more a confession than a kiss. She tried to imagine who he could ever have been close to, who he could even simply talk to, and came up with no one. Collins wouldn't have cared about him in any personal way. But Shane cared, if only because he was a Wild Card now, like her.
"There are worse things to be afraid of," she said, though she was terrified for her own heart. She may never have wanted anything like this for herself, had spent her life successfully avoiding it, but it had marched up and decked her anyway.
"Not many that will get you killed quicker." She knew he didn't mean himself. At least, not now.
"Tell me how bad it was," she half-whispered. There was a sigh that might only have been him taking a deeper breath.
He rose and turned from her to the stars and darkness beyond the glass. "I never knew anything better than the Angry Angels. When we went up, we where eager; we knew we would win. Not because we had never lost, but because we were the best, and this time, the only option was winning. We could allow ourselves to foresee no other outcome. No others could take on this enemy but the Angels. No others.
"It was a massacre. You, the whole world saw. Only minutes, and the Angels were gone. But in the thick, you know how time stretches. I saw them go down slow, and it must have been only seconds before I stopped fighting for our mission, and started fighting for my squad. She did, too. Chigs hit the carriers, the battlewagons, everything else up there, but we weren't fighting for them any more; we were fighting to save the Angels.
"I saw one of the carriers go, right before Collins was hit. The *Coral Sea*, I think. Or our *Yorktown*; never been sure. All that air, all that fuel, it slapped out at us like someone shaking out a burning blanket. I was too close. My electrics fried, the stick went dead, and I could only coast, waiting for my engines to blow. I saw the missile coming for her; I was close enough I could see her face. She looked at me as if she thought I would do something, knock it out, take it myself, anything to let one of us keep fighting. I must have been on fire when it struck, though I didn't feel it, and then she was on fire, too. I could still see her through the flames. With no electrics, I knew my fire suppression wouldn't kick in. I couldn't eject, full 'pit or canopy. I was going to die, and I was glad."
Another shivery sigh. "But I didn't. Maybe...maybe I wasn't real thrilled about that, for awhile. What was left of us was scraped up and patched together best as possible. I was told I would never fly another mission. I'd lost...everything that ever mattered to me. Then they gave me the Wild Cards."
The tight smile again. The thin, pale scar above his eye deepened, the only evidence of battle readily visible, almost unnoticeable if you didn't know what to look for. "Not a clue what I'd been handed. You're going to be better than the Angels ever were. More trouble, too. But, I think, you could be worth it." They stood together, side by side at the port, their thoughts drifting in silence. His eyes had a tendency to pick up color from his surroundings, and now, as she looked up at his hard face, they cast back a lambent violet from the far nebula. He was strange for a Tank, she thought. Strange for what his makers usually bred. Who had chosen his lithe height and power rather than sturdy strength, the startling white of his hair, the mirrored sheen of the silvery chameleon eyes? Perhaps he hadn't been what his makers had expected at all.
"Did you love her?" She said finally. No answer. "*Do* you love her?" He turned to her, but still made no reply. "What did Collins say to you?"
It was one of those rare times he would not meet her eyes. His pale gaze flickered back to the port, and she wondered what he saw then in the furious void. "Nothing, Vansen. She said nothing to me at all." And he walked quietly away.
Silenced. She suddenly knew they had silenced him. And remembering back to that first face-to-face encounter with the Angry Angels, how he had come in first, alone, and sat alone as his team had drank and joked on the other side of the bar, she realized he had been silenced his whole time with them. She shivered, thinking of the Wild Cards and how utmost and true they all were; deep in her heart, how much she loved them; how together, they were all at their best. She would put down her life for any one of them, and knew, with an almost savage joy, each would do the same for her. What must it have been like for him to feel that way, to be ready, willing, to lay down such a gift, yet with the same certain knowledge no Angel would make the least effort to catch him if he fell? Hard. It would have to make you hard. Hard and cold as stone.
McQueen was wrong. The Wild Cards were already better than the Angels. Never would they let harm come to one of their own. She went to find Coop.
Next : Part Two
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