(on the Saratoga)
Vansen had gotten through the rest of that day more or less on
automatic. There had been debriefing and written reports,
although there was really precious little to report. After
getting off duty, she had personally thanked Crazy Judy and the
volunteers on the SAR team and bought them a round of drinks at
Tun's. Everyone would have understood if Damphousse had begged
off that, but she had seen it as part of her duty. She had left
early, a solemn Nathan escorting her back to their quarters.
Christy Ames hadn't stayed long, either, she had gone back to
sickbay to check on the rest of the team. Everyone was coming
along well, even Mark Miller, whose burns were going to need more
care than he could get on the Sara.
But now everything was done. Paul's things had been packed into
storage, to be sent to his family when the Sara returned to
port, and now his old bunk was neatly made up. Vansen had nearly
broken down herself when she had seen `Phousse lovingly tuck a
pressed rose into the box of Paul's belongings, it was one of a
dozen he had given her for her birthday.
Now Damphousse lay on her own bunk, sound asleep, worn out with
grief and all they had gone through this week. The doctor had
given her a sedative, after a word from Vansen. At least she
could rest tonight, tomorrow was soon enough to deal with a
reality that all the sorrow in the world couldn't change. West
had gone with Hawkes back to Tun's, they wouldn't be back until
late, and they knew to be quiet when they came in so they wouldn't
Silently Vansen slipped out. The lights were dimmed and the
corridors were nearly deserted this late, she passed cleaning
crews and so forth but acknowledged them only with exchanged
salutes. It was a long way up through the back corridors and
gangways of the ship to her destination.
High on the top deck of the flying bridge were several small
alcoves set with viewports. Vansen had no idea what they had been
designed for, but they were used mostly for storage. McQueen had
a hideout in one of them, a place where he came to be alone.
Until he had shown the place to Vansen, only Ross had known to
look for him here.
McQueen was sitting on the deck by the viewport with his back
against the bulkhead, looking out over the ship. Off duty, he was
wearing black sweats, he almost disappeared into the shadows. The
only light came from a landing light outside the port. "I thought
I'd find you up here," she said.
"I was sort of hoping you would," he replied. "It was too noisy
at Tun's. How is Vanessa?"
"Sleeping. I got the doctor to give her a good strong dose, she
needs her sleep more than anything. That burn is going to be
okay, she just needs to stay off her feet for a while. I helped
her pack up Paul's things. I told her she didn't have to do that,
but she wanted to."
"Yeah." McQueen gestured for her to sit beside him. She
hesitated a moment, looking back the way she had come. He grinned
in the darkness. "It's okay, no one can sneak up on you up here -
- you can hear that hatch open at the bottom of the gangway."
Vansen joined him then, settling herself on the deck beside him.
His arm went around her shoulders, she closed her eyes as they
kissed until they were both out of breath. Even after they broke
the kiss, he held onto her so tightly it almost hurt. She slipped
down in his embrace to rest her head on his chest, comforted by
the sound of his heartbeat. After a moment, she felt his hand cup
the back of her head, stroking her hair softly. "Shane, I knew
you were still alive out there, but they shipped me out and there
was nothing I could do to help you."
She shook her head. "Don't you ever believe that. When the hours
turned into days and no one came, it would have been easy to give
up. I knew my chances of setting that capsule down safely when I
decided to try it. When we couldn't get a mayday out, the logical
thing for everyone to believe would have been that we were dead.
But I knew you would never accept that, I knew you'd find a way to
get us out of there. So no matter what happened or how long it
took, I was determined that you were going to find us there
"I thought I knew what was important in my life. The Corps is
home, and a career officer is all I've ever been able to imagine
myself as being. I almost lost all of that, and none of it
mattered, because I almost lost you and that was all I could think
about. I love you, Shane. No matter what happens, I know that
"I love you, too...and we're a couple of damn fools."
He laughed. "I know that too."
Vansen turned in his arms so she could look up at him. "Ty, do
you want me to transfer to another unit? I'm serious. One of
these days you're liable to send us out on a mission and I won't
come back. I can handle that for myself, but I know what I'd put
He shook his head. "If you don't come back it won't matter who
sent you. All that would matter would be trying to go on without
you. I can't protect you, but as long as I'm in command of this
squadron I know the risks you take will be necessary ones. I can
live with that, Shane."
"If you're sure."
"There's nothing I can do to keep you safe. Hell, that peace
conference should have been the safest place on board the _Sara_,
and look what happened to me. All you and I are ever going to
have is right now, there won't ever be any guarantees. And the
truth is, there aren't any guarantees in civilian life, in
She thought about her parents. About Paul and Vanessa. There
sure hadn't been any guarantees for them. She nodded, accepting.
"So what happens now?"
"I'm still going back to Bethesda. Sometimes the Commodore
doesn't take no for an answer, this is one of those times. I'll
be gone at least six weeks."
Vansen nodded. "That's best. Whatever they do will have a better
chance of success now rather than later."
"I know. It's still going to be a hell of a long six weeks."
"Yeah," she agreed, smiling. "I'll be right here waiting when you
"This is going to take some getting used to."
Vansen started laughing. "Tell me about it! But you know what?
We can handle it."
McQueen kissed her again, and the steady hum of _Saratoga's_
mighty engines, felt more than heard, closed around them in the
darkness like a blanket. Vansen leaned into the kiss, hungry for
every second they could spend together. For now, safe in his
arms, that was enough.
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