AUTHOR'S NOTE: This
bit of fluff is written expressly for, and is dedicated to, the James Morrison Discussion
Group. It was inspired by a discussion thread from a few months ago concerning what a
woman would have to do in order to "catch" McQueen. So, here is my response -
from a McQueen who has suddenly found himself, unwittingly, "caught," who is
trying to figure out what happened. Rated PG13 for adult themes, but really, this is quite
safe for general audiences. Comments appreciated - and may be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
She was beautiful, that was a problem.
Beautiful in that classical way he always found so compelling. Blonde, willowy, with chiseled, high-cheek boned, aristocratic features, and a smile that was at once whimsical and aloof, as if she was thinking about something privately amusing. A secret she might, if asked, share. It was a problem.
She was smart, too. That was another problem. Not just savvy and knowledgeable about the things they all needed to be smart about, but book-smart, a reader, loving the topics he loved - poetry, philosophy, history. He so rarely found anyone he could *talk* to about those things, on that level, even among those who would bother to have casual conversation with a tank. It was definitely a problem.
Plus she was Navy, which was a problem on several counts, because traditionally Marines and Navy weren't supposed to like each other all that much, though in reality there were plenty of cross-service friendships. But she was in a different branch of the service from him, and, being in her mid-thirties, an "appropriate age" on that bucket full of children, and, as a Lt. Commander and commanding officer of the Saratoga's tactical information unit, she was of "suitable" rank and responsibility. So, she wasn't off limits for any of the reasons he usually rallied to convince himself not to get involved on those (very) rare occasions he was tempted. It was *really* a problem.
And she was natural-born and that scared him to death. After his divorce, he had sworn to himself that he would never get involved like that, again; never again would he put himself at risk like that. He had managed very well, too, right up until the night she had turned up in the Tun Tavern while he was watching Vansen at the pool table taking some loud- mouthed second Lieutenant's money away.
That was exactly the way Wang had put it when he had run into the Wild Cards in the passageway near the canteen: "Hey, Colonel! If you're not busy, sir, we're goin' down to the Tun to watch Vansen take Dobrowski's money way. If you'd like to join us..."
He'd gotten after Wang, before, about the 'hey, Colonel,' stuff, but he'd been in a mellow mood that evening, and the boy really didn't mean any disrespect, it was just high spirits, he knew that. Besides, he couldn't stand Dobrowski, either. So he'd let the familiarity pass and had gone with them. He'd been standing with his back against the bar, watching the match, when he noticed her out of the corner of his eye. Couldn't help but notice her, really, standing there with the stem of a wine glass held lightly in her fingers, laughing softly at something someone beside her had said. She was still in uniform, which meant she'd probably just gotten off duty. A Navy Lt. Commander. He noticed that. She had looked over at him and nodded. He had nodded back, it seemed like an appropriate response at the time, then turned his attention quickly back to the pool table.
Vansen whipped the obnoxious young platoon leader handily, making her commanding officer a few dollars into the bargain, and then the general conversation had drifted to the WWII Pacific theater and military strategies and certain similarities in the current war. He had answered somebody's question. He didn't even remember what the question had been.
"Wouldn't that depend a lot on one's opinion of Doug MacArthur?" a voice had ventured. He had looked over to see her watching him.
"I take it you're not a fan," he replied. The woman had smiled at him, then. She had a nice smile. She had a nice voice, too. Low without being husky, exactly.
"Well, let's just say that I find General MacArthur historically problematic," she chuckled her reply. "By all accounts, his peers found him a little problematic, too."
" 'Bulldog' Halsey respected him," he countered.
"And 'Chesty' Puller hated his guts," she answered pertly, laughing out loud this time. "And aren't we arguing our positions from the wrong sides of the military?"
Halsey being an admiral, and Puller the commanding officer of the First Marines. He understood the reference. He also understood that this woman was flirting with him. The realization shocked him a little bit. It wasn't a blatant come on, but she was definitely pulling his chain - on the kind of intellectual level he could appreciate. Her depth of knowledge intrigued him. At least that's what he told himself it was. And he'd noticed a couple of things. For one thing, she obviously knew what she was talking about, which was interesting. World War II was not a hobby everyone enjoyed. And her hair, which she wore short and swept back from her brow, was exactly the same shade of pale gold as the white wine in the glass over which she was smiling at him.
Monica Drury. Lt. Colonel Tyrus Cassius McQueen sat at his desk, in his quarters, and tried to figure out how in hell the state of affairs had reached this point. He flipped idly at the tactics binder in front of him; he knew he should be working, but he was completely unable to concentrate. He was tired and he was furious with himself. He had almost done something really stupid, that afternoon. He had almost kissed a woman he did *not* want to get involved with, and he repeated that assurance to himself, once again, even as his body throbbed a convincing argument against it. He'd been on *duty*, for God's sake, at the time. So had she. He'd escaped, but it had been a close one. And now he could not get it out of his mind.
It had been his own fault. The moment he realized how much he looked forward to seeing her, how often he thought about putting himself in the way of running into her accidentally, he had *told* himself to beware. To stay away. There had been no reason for him to go down, himself, to the tactical information center four decks below the Saratoga's command bridge. He needed the dailies, but he could have just as easily called down and had some junior officer bring them up to the bridge. But, no, he had gone down, himself, and found her on duty, as he had known she would be, looking lovely and efficient and disturbingly pleased to see him. The reports were in her office, behind the floor-to-ceiling plotting panels, waiting for someone to call for them from the bridge. He had followed her in and then they had been alone in the cramped and cluttered space. She had leaned close to explain some notation - close enough for him to feel her breath, for him to smell the faint, sweet warmth of her skin - and he had almost done it. Turned to her slightly as she had looked up at him, saw her lips part, saw the small pink tip of her tongue resting against the gleam of white teeth and had almost leaned down and crushed his mouth against hers. He had wanted to.
The urge was gone in an instant, replaced by panic, and they had backed away from each other, quickly. Mumbling appropriate covering conversation, he'd left abruptly, his heart still pounding.
And he still could not figure out how she had gotten this far into his consciousness, how he had reached the point where he could not stop thinking about her. It had sneaked up on him, unwelcome, unwanted, unfair, and now he could not even figure out when it had all happened. There had been that night in the Tun Tavern when she had playfully challenged his stand on MacArthur's strategies, and then he had not seen her again for almost a week, until she'd shown up, one night, in the canteen - book in hand...
He was sitting at the bar with his back to the door, and so had not seen her come in. He had not even recognized her voice, and was momentarily speechless when he turned around and saw her standing there.
"I was hoping I'd find you here," she continued pleasantly. "I found something I thought might interest you. You mentioned the other night that you hadn't read this, but wanted to." And she handed him the book. He took it warily. *Goodbye, Darkness,* by William Manchester. He *had* wanted to read it, the personal account of a man returning to the battlefields of his youth. A memoir of the WWII Pacific war. He had heard about it, found it mentioned in any number of secondary texts, but he had never been able to find a copy at those times he had been looking for something to read. In spite of himself, his face lit up, and that mild excitement quickened in him that he felt whenever he encountered desired books.
"Thank you," he said, smiling faintly. "I, uh... I have wanted to read this..." He fumbled a little, and she smiled back at him.
"Enjoy it," she said. "Let me know what you think." And before he could say another word, she turned and left, leaving him staring after her in vague wonderment.
He spent most of his free time over the next few days reading. The book proved to be everything he expected - compelling in some places, annoying in others. The author's use of descriptive language drew him, and there were times when he found himself nodding silently as he read. There were other times when he just found the narrative whining, and a few where he found himself wanting to defend the Fifth Marines - his Marines. For days, whenever anyone saw him off duty, in the rec room, in the canteen, even in his quarters if someone came by to deliver a message, they found McQueen with his nose in that book. When he finally finished it, he had felt the hollow sadness that often accompanied the completion of a really good read. He missed it, like a friend who had been by for a visit and had since left. There were points, images, that hung in his mind, needing further contemplation. He wished there was someone with whom he could discuss it. But his subordinates were too, well, subordinate, and the commodore was busy. There were few people on the Saratoga with whom he could sit over a cup of coffee or a beer and talk, even if anyone else *had* read it.
It occurred to him, about then, that now that he was finished, he really needed to return the book to its rightful owner. During those days when he had been engrossed with the narrative, he had not thought at all about Monica Drury, nor seen her, even at a distance. Now he remember her smile, and her wit, and the fact that she had read it. It didn't even take him more than a day to screw up the nerve to seek her out. He found her in the rec room, bent over a key pad and a pile of charts.
"What did you think of it?" She smiled up at him as she took the book from his hands.
"It was good," he replied. Then realizing that he probably ought to say something more, added, "A little frustrating. And I found some serious discrepancies. But generally, I thought it was a good account."
Drury nodded. "Yeah, I found it most accurate, historically, when he was writing about battles he *hadn't* fought in."
McQueen agreed. "He was right about one thing. When you're out there in the thick, you have no awareness of anything except what's going on right in front of you. You have no sense of the larger whole. No idea of history. Surviving, keeping your men alive, that's the only thing that matters..." Those passages had meant a lot to McQueen, actually. He had fought in places like that. He *knew* what it was like.
"I read it for the first time at Annapolis," Drury said. "I remember the instructor emphasizing exactly that. That it was not an accurate history, that no one in the trenches ever has any sense of history... and he also said it was a good portrait of what could happen if you went into battle emotionally unprepared..."
But McQueen shook his head. "You're never prepared," he told her, with feeling. "No matter how many times you've seen it, no matter how many battles you've fought, you're never really ready for it. You can't be. You get used to it, that's when you let your guard down. That's when you die. You just train yourself to get past it."
Drury looked a little wistful. "I've never seen combat," she admitted. "Not like that. I've spent my career on bases, or on carriers. The ships I've been on have seen some action, especially this one, but I've never known war like this..." she touched the book lightly, and McQueen thought, for a moment, that she almost sounded guilty. He wanted to say something, but he didn't know what. He also noticed that she had beautiful hands, slender and tapered, with the nails trimmed short in neat, efficient ovals. She smiled again, warmly, breaking the moment, and gestured for him to sit down.
The invitation disconcerted him. This is what he had been looking for, and yet, McQueen was not used to revealing himself, his thoughts, to people. Especially not to strangers. As much as part of him wanted to talk, longed to really, opening up to this woman like that unsettled him. Feeling slightly vulnerable all of the sudden, he balked, citing some report that really did not need to be written right away. He thought she might press him, or at least look disappointed, but she merely nodded politely, wished him a good afternoon, and went back to her plotting her charts. He left, feeling dissatisfied with the encounter and not quite sure why.
Two days later he brought her a thin volume written by a war correspondent in Vietnam. A different war, but an interesting perspective. No, she had not read it, though it had been on her list for a long time. Thanked him very much for it. It took her a few days to get back to him. She found him in the canteen, again, alone at the bar. She handed the book back to him, then took the stool beside him. The book had disturbed her and she wanted to hear his thoughts. McQueen ordered her a drink. Chablis. The choice intrigued him. Not that people didn't drink wine; back on Earth, when he'd been married, he had drunk his fair share, when the dinner had been appropriate. But it seemed such a... civilized choice out there in the middle of war. They had talked for a long time.
And so it had gone for almost three months. They met occasionally, shared books, talked. About history, poetry, life. The war. Awkwardly at first, and then, gradually, more comfortably. He learned that she was thirty-four, career Navy from a Navy family. That her parents were both dead. She had never been married, but she had lived with someone for a while. It hadn't worked out. "I wanted to get married and have a family. He didn't." He learned that she had left the Navy for a little while after that, for civilian life. That hadn't worked out, either, so she had joined back up.
He had no idea how much she had learned about *him* from these conversations. He might have been surprised.
Even though he wracked his brain for the whys and wherefores, McQueen could not be sure exactly when he had first realized how much he looked forward to these encounters. He could not remember the first time he had felt his pulse race at the thought of seeing her, or felt his gut lurch when he caught sight of her sitting across the room. He did not remember when he had first started fighting that weird battle with himself; to go where he thought she might be, to avoid going where he thought he might run into her accidentally, to search a room for her face, to purposely *not* search a room for her face. It had happened so subtly, so slowly. It wasn't until he suddenly realized that he had not reacted this way since those days when he had first met his wife, years ago, that he knew he was on the brink of being in a *lot* of trouble.
Most of the reason he had been bushwacked so effectively, McQueen rationalized as he sat alone at his desk doodling in his tactics binder, was Drury's fault, really. Well, fault might not be the right word, but she had been so, well, sneaky about it all. Like, for instance, although Monica Drury was funny and playful and rather flirtatious, she never actually did anything the least suggestive toward him. She never came on. Not that he was *used* to female officers coming on to him, but it happened, and it made him angry because it insulted his honor, and he suspected it was mostly due to the novelty of his being a tank. So he tended to be on the look out for it, but for all their growing intimacy, Drury maintained a discrete physical and psychological distance. He remembered the only two times she had even touched him, both times lightly, almost accidentally, as she had been making some point. Once on his forearm, and once on the back of his hand. Each incident had sent a thrill of electricity through him, it had been so unexpected. But mostly they remained securely each on their own sides of the conversation, and the drinks, and the books. And she looked very lovely, over there on her side. It gave him a funny feeling.
If she had been more forward, he would have figured out what was happening earlier. And done something about it. Like run.
Also, they were never really alone together. That was probably another reason why it hadn't dawned on McQueen what was going on. They always met in the rec room, or the mess, or the Tun Tavern and they always sat at the bar, never intimately at a table in the corner. And they rarely had more than an hour or two together at a time. They *were* very busy and often on conflicting duty schedules. She never suggested that they go somewhere more private. Not even someplace like the Saratoga's observation deck, which was usually inhabited, but not so busy as the canteen. And, of course, he never suggested it.
If she had suggested such a thing, he would have figured it out.
There had begun to be talk, though none of it came to McQueen's ears, and it was just as well that he did not hear the murmurings about the "tank lover," or find out that Drury, unbeknownst to him, was fielding wisecracks from her Navy friends about spending so much time with a Marine. McQueen also did not see it when Vansen nudged Damphousse and smiled, in the Tavern, nor did he see the more eloquent gesture that passed between Nathan and Paul, which was probably a *very* good thing.
If he had heard the talk it would have dawned on him. But he was so little looking for anything that resembled a *relationship* that he simply did not notice. And, therefore, did not figure it out. Not until it was almost too late, anyway. Not until he had really scared himself.
He had been in blissful high denial. Even when he had finally admitted to himself that he was falling for her, he denied it, and simply told himself to stay away. Like that was going to solve anything. And then they had been alone together in her little office - the first time they actually *had* been alone together - and he had almost committed the unimaginable and kissed her, right there, while they were both still on duty and he didn't even want to be in love with her. McQueen threw his pencil against the wall in frustration.
This predicament really sucked.
He did the only thing he could do, under the circumstances. He ran like hell. Buried himself in his work, shut himself off, even from the Wild Cards, pulled his gruff and crusty "mustang" demeanor around himself like a suit of armor and prayed for respite. He managed to avoid her for two weeks. He missed her, missed the rush of conversation, missed the electricity, the excitement being with her gave him. But he did feel safer staying away. He was in his quarters when the knock came.
"Who's at my hatch?"
"Lt. Commander Drury, Colonel."
He should have expected it, he supposed. Now that she was standing there, outside his door, waiting, he acknowledged that he should never have expected her to just go away without some explanation. He owed her that. Now he just needed to think of one. Fast.
"Come in," he said.
The hatch opened and shut behind him. He did not turn until he knew she was in the room, and the door was safely closed to the outside passageway. Seeing her there made his breath catch in his throat. He wanted her, he wanted to pull her into his arms, lay her back on his bunk, thrust his body into her and hold her forever. Never let go of her. The idea terrified him.
"If I've done something to offend you," she began without preamble, "I'd appreciate the opportunity to apologize."
She was angry. That surprised him. It hadn't occurred to him that his actions might have hurt her feelings. It should have occurred to him. He shook his head.
"You haven't done any to offend me..." he replied gruffly,
Taking a step closer, she frowned at him in confusion. "Then what? Ty, you've been avoiding me for weeks. I don't understand. What's wrong? What's going on? " She looked at him hard. "Why won't you talk to me?"
He could really hear the hurt, now. It upset him, knowing he had hurt her. She'd been kind to him, in a way that so rarely happened. And he'd treated her badly. How typical, he thought sourly, of a tank.
"Monica, I..." he stumbled, "You haven't done anything. It's just... I've been busy." She frowned, and he knew she wasn't buying it. He turned away from her, leaned his hands against the back of his desk chair for support, and stared out his port hole as if the right thing to say could be found floating out there in space. "I don't think this is a good idea..."
Stupid. Stupid thing to say. He braced himself for her challenge, the demand to know what wasn't a good idea, and why. She had given him no reason to believe she returned his feelings, or was even aware of them. He was a tank, after all. What would a woman like her want with him, outside of an occasional hour of conversation. And even that was a gift. These feelings, this wild desire, was his not hers. His mind raced, seeking answers that would satisfy her, answers to questions he expected to hear her ask. Answers he was not too sure he had.
What he did not expect was for her to step closer to him, and lay her hand upon his bare arm. Her palm felt cool against his flesh. He looked down at it and then at her face. She smiled faintly, as if coming to some decision. Then, reaching up with her other hand, she cupped his cheek and gently guided his mouth to hers. McQueen was too surprised to react until that warm softness touched him. He jerked back, but she did not let him go, her lips clinging lightly to his, her hand slipping behind his head, holding him against her mouth.
She ended the kiss, as she had started it, letting him go suddenly. She leaned back and looked into his face. He swallowed. The blood was roaring in his ears so loudly couldn't hear himself think. He felt cornered, like a hand-shy horse looking for a place to bolt to, thinking of nothing, for a moment, but of the need to get away someplace safe and think this through. What she had just done. What it meant. But he couldn't run, so he didn't do anything. He just stood there.
Drury sighed. "McQueen, you think too much."
This was crazy, he was out of his head to even consider what was happening here; he had been here before and it had been disastrous, a terrible, painful episode that he had hoped would be behind him forever. But...
Drury smiled slightly and cocked her head up at him. There was question in her eyes, and mischief. And understanding. And desire. He knew he was not mistaken. She was wise, this pretty woman. Maybe she knew something he didn't.
And then she smiled a little more broadly, and it was McQueen's turn to sigh. He drew her to him and she lifted her mouth, again, to be kissed. This was going to be a hell of a problem. But he'd worry about that later. She was here, now. And he was here, now.
And maybe she was right, after all, he thought, as her lips touched his again, and parted under the pressure of his own. Maybe there were times when it just wasn't useful to think so much.
And, anyway, he was good at solving problems.
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