Playing a Wildcard
Groggily, Vansen unclasped the back of her helmet and gingerly removed it. Her hair stuck to her forehead and the sides of her face. When she brushed it away, she winced as her fingers came in contact with a bruise.
"Dammit," she swore savagely.
Looking to the co-pilot's seat, she saw Nathan still unconscious, his head slumped to one side for his restraints kept him upright. Vansen released hers so that she could get up and see to her friend.
"West," she said, leaning over him. "Wake up. Don't croak on me now."
His eyes flickered at the sound of her voice but didn't open. His face was covered with blood from a cut on his cheek. Vansen rummaged around the cockpit for the medi kit. Finding it, she went to remove his helmet carefully and began to dress his wounds.
"Let's see those beautiful brown eyes, Nathan," she said. "I'm not going to talk to myself until they find us."
As if on cue, Nathan's eyes fluttered and opened. Vansen sighed in relief. He blinked up at her.
"What happened?" he asked hoarsely. "Where are we?"
Vansen finished bandaging his cut and went to sit in her seat. Her eyes scanned the control console for any sign of life.
"We were chased by two chigs and got trapped by this planet's gravitational pull after they shot out one of our thrusters. It took all we had to land this baby without exploding, but the g-forces must have made us pass out."
Nathan sat up and unbuckled his restraints. He glanced at his watch with a frown.
"We've been here for half an hour," he told her.
"We're dead in the water," Vansen pronounced. "Nothing's working."
"The radio?" He took the receiver and began punching in the Saratoga's codes. "This is Lieutenant Nathan West of the 58th squadron. Do you copy, Saratoga?" When there was no answer, he added desperately, "Can anybody read me?"
He and Vansen exchanged worried glances when all they got was static.
"Do we even know where we are?" Nathan asked wearily. "Goddammit...what else could possibly happen?"
"Don't tempt fate, West," Vansen said, sitting back and crossing her arms.
Suddenly, the cockpit was rocked with blasts from the outside. The tell-tale whine of Chig rifles made the two Marines jump to their feet and take cover on opposite sides of the door. Nathan reached into a compartment and pulled out two rifles and several clips of ammo. He threw a rifle and a couple clips to Vansen. They stood at ready, their breathing coming out in shallow gasps. Nathan fought back a wave of dizziness and closed his eyes briefly. The movement was not lost on Vansen, but they couldn't waste any time checking over injuries now.
"Goddammit," Vansen swore between clenched teeth. "We're probably surrounded."
She stayed low and looked outside the windows. She could see two teams of three chigs coming at them from either side. Vansen thanked her lucky stars that they were surrounded by large trees with thick trunks. They would provide ample coverage.
"We've got six coming at us about ten meters away," she told him. "I'll cover you. Make a run for it. We can't stay around here."
"On three," she ordered. "One...."
Her hand hovered near the manual override to open the door.
Their eyes locked.
The doors slide open and Vansen threw a smartgrenade towards one group of chigs then the other. Nathan ran for the trees, seeking shelter behind a tree trunk, and fired a few shots. She waited a few moments then quickly followed suit, firing behind her as Nathan provided cover from where he was. She'd almost reached the trees when she felt a stinging pain on her upper arm. Almost dropping her rifle, Vansen cried out. Nathan caught her in his arms and together they ran, laser shots hitting trees nearby and making bark rain around their heads.
"How many are left?" she asked, wheezing.
"Three," he replied.
Vansen took out another smartgrenade, but Nathan grabbed it before she could throw it. He pulled the pin out and pushed the grenade into the branches of one tree. They were a good distance away when they heard the explosion, killing the last three chigs. If Vansen had thrown it, they would have made a run for it and the grenade would have only gotten two at most.
"When they come after us, they'll see the destruction and figure that we've gone in this direction," he explained breathlessly.
"Good thinking," she said.
They didn't stop moving until they reached the foot of a mountain. Nathan helped Vansen sit, hidden behind a large rock formation. She had one hand on her arm, but blood soaked her gloves and her flightsuit.
"I just got nicked," she told him.
"Do you have the medi kit with you?" he asked.
She shook her head, beads of sweat dripping down her forehead. "I had other things in mind."
Hunkering down next to her and fighting nausea, Nathan unzipped his flightsuit and took off his white undershirt. He then tore the shirt into strips and began to tend to her wound. Vansen leaned her head back against the rock, her eyes closed, as he stopped the bleeding.
"What the hell are we going to do now?" he murmured, shaking her head. "We can't go back to the ISSCV so the SAR team, if they're even going to bother sending one, won't know where to look."
"We wait it out," Vansen said. "They'll find us."
When he finished, Nathan sat next to her
"It's cold," he said, shivering and zipping up his flightsuit as far as it would go.
"Too bad I got shot."
Vansen stood. "We can make a fire. Gather some dry wood."
Nathan glanced at the trees surrounding them. "That won't be too hard," he remarked wryly.
Twenty minutes later, Vansen got a small fire going and they warmed themselves by it. The sun began to set and cast ribbons of orange and yellow across the blue sky. Their breath began to come out in small puffs, but Vansen didn't want to make the fire bigger for fear of detection. They sat as close to the fire as they could without setting themselves on fire until they could feel their fingertips again. Nathan began to look around them.
"We can try to find shelter," Nathan suggested. "I have a feeling this planet is not very hospitable at night."
"Where could we possibly start?"
"This mountain. There are probably caves or niches...something..."
"Alright. Movement should get the blood flowing."
They put out the fire and gathered the remaining wood. They walked close together to share body heat. Vansen leaned into him, trying not to shiver and Nathan put an arm around her. Squinting, Vansen studied the wall of rock along the base of the mountain and thought she spotted a small opening not too far from where they were. She pulled away from Nathan to get a better look and sighed in relief when she saw that it was. But upon nearing it, she realized it was smaller than she thought and she stood as still as stone.
"We'll have to crawl to get in, but hopefully there'll be someplace for us to stay," Nathan said.
When she didn't answer, he glanced at her and in the waning light saw how pale she'd become.
"It's dark in there," she said flatly.
"I'll crawl in and see if there's someplace for us to stay," he said, putting his hands on her shoulders. "You'll be alright out here?"
Vansen armed her rifle and fired a shot into the hole much to Nathan's shock.
"What was that for?"
"Animals," she replied.
He stared at her then chuckled. "Good thinking."
She nodded and motioned with her rifle for him to go in, still struggling to regain her composure. He got down on all fours and crawled in. The light from the setting sun was almost completely eclipsed by his own body, so Nathan had a difficult time seeing where he was going. After five minutes, he gratefully saw a cavern ahead and stood. It wasn't large, but it was enough for the two of them. He felt a draft and was relieved that there was an air hole because they needed to build a fire. He crawled back out and told Vansen.
"I can't crawl in there," she told him. "I can't."
He put a hand on her uninjured arm. "I'll build a fire inside so there'll be light then you can join me."
She looked up at him and managed a small smile. "Thank you, Nathan."
"I can't leave you to freeze out here while I'm in there getting toasty warm," he said.
He took the sticks and disappeared into the hole. Vansen gathered more wood. When she saw the flickering light of a fire moments later, she crawled in. Nathan was already making himself comfortable when she reached the cavern which had a very high ceiling. She sat down across from him, leaning against the stone wall. They cradled their rifles in their arms.
"I would hang my shirt in f-front of the h-hole, b-but I've got n-nothing to h-hang it up w-with," Vansen said, her teeth chattering despite the fire.
"S-sit next t-to me. We'll c-conserve b-body heat," Nathan suggested.
Vansen moved and they sat side-by-side, huddled together. It gradually became warmer and their teeth stopped chattering.
"It's dark outside," he observed. "It'll only get colder."
"You have to stay awake," she said. "You probably have a concussion."
"Shit," he swore.
"I'll stay up with you just in case you fall asleep. I'll keep you awake," she said matter-of-factly.
The minutes ticked by like hours. Vansen put her rifle down next to her and put her hands under her armpits. Nathan tossed a few more sticks into the already big fire.
"How's your arm?" he asked.
"The cold made it numb," she replied. "So I guess it's good for something. How's your head?"
"It feels like someone beat me over the head with a Chig."
She chuckled appreciatively at the mental picture his words presented.
"I hope they find us," he said.
"It would have been more useful to stay in the ISSCV, but those damned Chigs had to show up."
"Yeah, they have a tendency to show up where they're not wanted."
Vansen studied a spot on the wall across from her. "I'm sure they feel the same way about us."
They lapsed into silence, watching the shadows the dancing flames of the fire cast against the walls. Tendrils of smoke twisted their way up eventually drifting outside. The darkness made it undetectable, all the more better for the cavern's erstwhile occupants. Idly, Nathan took out the phototag of himself and Kylen, twisting it through his fingers. Vansen glanced sideways at it. Nathan and Kylen had been reunited, albeit briefly, more than six months before. He hadn't seen her since. And Vansen suspected he'd hardly spoken to her since then, but like a rock, Nathan remained true to her, not even glancing at another woman.
"I admire you, West," she muttered. "Being so faithful to her when you didn't know whether she was coming back or not. I've never loved anyone like that. Most people will probably never love anyone like you love her."
I don't think I could ever love anyone like that again...not even Kylen., he thought, but said aloud, "Lucky me."
"You're lucky." She tucked her legs up against her chest and rested her arms on her knees. "I hope she knows how lucky she is."
He pushed the button and Kylen's voice echoed in the chamber. I believe in all of you.
"Sometimes, I do wonder if I haven't gone crazy," he confessed, brushing his thumb against the picture.
He ignored her. "After everything I've seen and done, I don't think she'd recognize me now. We only talked for a short time on the Saratoga...even then I could feel the barriers between us. That's why I haven't tried to increase the contact between us. It gets awkward."
Vaguely, Nathan wondered why he was sharing all this with Vansen. He could barely face it himself.
"But you did this for her," she was saying. "What woman wouldn't appreciate that? That kind of devotion is hard to come by. You're a romantic, I'll give you that."
Vansen snorted. "Are you kidding me? All the love at first sight crap doesn't sit well with me. You're right about having seen and done too many things--my rose-colored glasses are shattered."
He smiled. "Somehow, I don't think you ever looked at things that way."
"Can you blame me?"
He thought of a young Shane Vansen hiding up in an attic, watching silently, horrified, as her parents were murdered right underneath her. His hand searched hers and clutched it.
"No," he said quietly. "I can't. You're a strong person, Shane. I admire that in you."
"Between your devotion and my strength, we've got a lot of admiration between us," she joked lightly.
Nathan studied her face by the firelight as she stared into the fire. The red and orange flames flickered in her blue eyes, reflecting against her chestnut hair. The jagged scar that ran along her jaw from her temple to her chin stood out whitely against her creamy skin. She was fortunate that it was the only souvenir she'd come away with after the crash on Anvil. His hand held hers tightly as he thought about how closely he'd nearly lost her, Paul, and Damphousse. He'd never felt so lost and alone, not even after Kylen was missing did he feel that way. But now they were all back, even Paul, raising Cain in space once again.
"I'm tired," Vansen remarked hoarsely. "Keep talking, Nathan. We have to stay awake."
He glanced at his watch. "It's nearly midnight."
"You think it would be safe to take a quick nap?"
"I don't think I can take a quick nap at this point. It's all or nothing."
She squinted at him. "Your lips are turning blue."
Vansen moved closer to him and put both arms around him, cradling him as he laid on his side across her lap. He rested his head against her crooked arm.
"Take your arms out from your sleeves and keep them close to your body," she instructed.
He did as he was told and gradually began to feel a little warmer.
"What I wouldn't give to be able to go back to the ISSCV," she murmured.
"We can give it a try."
"No thanks. I've already been shot once this week."
Vansen ran her fingers through Nathan's shorn hair. In a fit of temper, he had Wang cut it close to his head because having his helmet on for long periods of time made his head itch.
"It's times like these that I wish I hadn't joined the Marines," she said, stifling a yawn.
"That's not true and you know it. You love this job."
She sighed. "Yeah, I do. But I still have to wonder why I didn't become a writer or a cook--you know, a safe occupation."
"You could poke an eye out with your pen or spontaneously combust while baking a strawberry shortcake," Nathan pointed out. "You never know."
"Why don't you just leave, Nathan? Kylen's back...you've got no reason to stay now."
"You guys are my reason. I'm not leaving you out here. It's all of us or nothing."
"War teaches us extremes, doesn't it?"
"Amongst other things. Seriously though, I'm not leaving you out here. You need me."
"I'd miss you."
He looked up at her. Her eyes were nearly closed and he had a feeling she wasn't quite aware of what she was saying. She was running an idle hand along his shoulder, her thoughts turning inward.
Vansen sighed gustily, praying silently that they wouldn't die in this cave. After everything they'd been through, it would seem anti-climactic for them to die so simply. Not that dying in battle was complicated, but there sure was a lot more glory in it. She glanced sideways at Nathan who was looking back down at the phototag. The firelight flickered shadows across his fine-boned face, highlighting his cheekbones and the flecks of green in his eyes. He was lost in his thoughts, but it didn't take a psychic to guess about what--or rather who--he was thinking of. It made her even more aware of how alone she was at least in the man department. She wasn't a romantic, as she'd told Nathan, but like almost all people in the universe, she did want to find her soulmate--someone to spend forever with, someone to wake up next to every morning and go to bed with every night. Unbeknownst to her, her arms tightened around him.
"My God... I haven't had sex in such a long time," she said sleepily.
Nathan's laughter made Vansen sit up straight. She had the grace to look embarrassed at her words. She hadn't even realized her mind was going in that direction until she'd said them out loud.
"It's alright. I know the feeling."
"With you, Wang, and 'Phousse missing, I had other things on my mind."
"It happens to everybody."
He threw her a dirty look. She only smiled angelically.
"That's not what I meant. That's never happened to me."
"I'm surprised you had a chance to try it out at all. Being the saint that you are."
"I lived in farm country, Vansen," he said wryly.
"Oh....right. So you must have been around eleven when you discovered girls were made out of sugar and spice for the first time."
"I was sixteen."
"And it was Kylen," she said. It wasn't a question.
"How did you guess?" he said sarcastically.
"How about you?"
"John Oakes," she answered, her voice low. "Who else?"
"Has there been anyone after him?"
"Yes. But I'm not a slut, so don't even start thinking that."
"I'd never think that. Not Captain Shane Vansen."
"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked warily.
"Nothing bad, Shane," he said, turning in her arms so that he could look at her. "I meant that you're a woman of upstanding moral character."
"I like that."
They smiled at each other. In unison, they turned to stare at the dying fire. Nathan shoved an arm back in his sleeve to throw in a few more sticks, but retracted it quickly.
"You know what?" Vansen began.
"We can't stay awake forever. Who knows when they'll find us? This planet is a Chig hot-spot and they might not be able to make it."
"Exhaustion's making you hysterical, Shane," Nathan said, sitting up and taking her face in his hands. "Breathe."
"I'm not hysterical," she said, her eyes narrowing. "What I'm telling you is a possibility that keeps on getting stronger every second we're here."
"So what do you propose we do?"
He stared at her.
She stared back.
It was only when her lips quirked did he realize that she was joking.
Her laughter echoed in the chamber. Nathan laid back down in a huff. She hugged him, resting her cheek on his arm.
"You should have seen your face. You looked like you were going to either tear my head off or run for your life--or should I say celibacy. You're such a good fiance, Nathan."
"That was totally uncalled for."
"It woke me up."
He snorted. She shook him gently.
"I was just kidding, Nathan. Don't be upset."
"What if I had said yes? I would have embarrassed both of us," he exclaimed.
She blinked. "You would have said yes?"
"What if I did?"
Vansen could feel her cheeks redden. That was a question she wasn't ready to answer---that she didn't want to answer. She'd always thought Nathan was cute in a clean cut, farm boy kind of way, but it was only with time did she come to see him for who he really was. Strong, kind, and faithful, Nathan was every woman's dream.
Even mine, she realized.
"I'm sorry I said anything," she said aloud. "Let's drop it, Nathan."
"It's cold, we need something to do," he said, his lips turning up at the corners.
She looked at him. "Ok, ok...I get it. Payback..You got me. Ha-ha."
He grinned and turned back to the fire. Vansen silently cursed herself for bringing the subject up.
"If we're not found in a day, I'll make love to you," he said suddenly.
She squinted at him. "Excuse me?"
"If we're not found..."
"I heard you. Stop it, Nathan."
"I'm serious, Vansen...Shane. I mean if we're going to die, we might as well live a little before we do."
"How is sleeping together living a little?"
"Don't tell me you haven't wondered. We've known each other a long time, Shane. We've been through a lot together and that forms bonds that even the closest couple doesn't have. But we're also human beings with needs."
"Oh for crying out loud."
"Yeah, I heard you. Nathan, you're losing it."
He glared up at her. "Listen to me, Shane. I think you're a beautiful woman with an even more beautiful soul. If Kylen wasn't around, I'd be hitting on you left and right." Or even while she is....
The thought made Vansen smile. "I doubt it. You're not the type."
"Fine. I'd send you flowers. Whatever."
She touched his face. "I know what you mean, Nathan."
"This conversation is getting weirder by the minute."
Their eyes locked and before Vansen knew what she was doing, she brought her face down, her lips hovering over Nathan's. He watched her, his lips parting. The contact was brief but it was enough to send shivers right down to her frozen toes.
"Now I can die happy," she said lightly to ease the tension, but Nathan caught the look that had flitted briefly across her face and a lump formed in his throat.
He didn't say anything. He merely turned away and watched the fire. She leaned back and fought back the hysterical laughter she felt growing inside her.
"How long, Shane?" he asked.
"How long what?"
He hesitated, but knew that it was either now or never. "How long have you been in love with me?"
She tensed for he had voiced a thought that she wasn't even sure about. "Who says I am?"
He didn't look at her. "I do."
"Well, you're wrong."
She shoved him off her lap and retreated to a safer distance. She hugged her legs to her chest, rocking back and forth to generate some kind of heat. Nathan sat up, put his arms back in his sleeves, and looked at her.
"I probably shouldn't have said that," he said by way of apology.
She didn't answer.
"Shane...it's alright if you do."
Even in the flickering light, he could see her eyes glistening with tears. He wanted to go to her, but was sure he'd only get a fist in his jaw for his trouble.
She looked at him, her gaze focused on a spot on the front of his flightsuit. "Shut up, West." She looked away.
He followed her eyes and saw the phototag. He took it off and held it in his hand. He was so young then. They both were. War was years away and they only had their future ahead of them. But war did happen and so things changed. Too many things. With confidence, he knew that if Vansen was in love with him, he would not refuse her. He couldn't. He knew he could fall in love with her easily--if he hadn't already.
Maybe that's the problem with Kylen and me...I'm not in love with her anymore...
"What if I said I thought I was in love with you," he said.
When she didn't answer, Nathan looked towards Vansen and saw that she had fallen asleep. He crawled to where she sat and gently shook her. Her eyes popped open.
"Damn," she swore. "Thanks."
She didn't hear me...
"I've had enough of thinking you're dead," he said, scrambling for some semblance of dignity.
"Yeah, it happens."
She avoided his eyes, focusing on the tip of her boot. Nathan tilted her chin up and experimentally brushed his lips against hers again. He didn't close his eyes and neither did she. He saw the emotions dance across her face. Confusion, anger, desire...
"Have you lost your mind? What the hell are you doing?" she asked, though her tired tone contrasted with the harshness of her words.
"I kissed you," he replied.
"Yeah, I noticed. Don't be an asshole, West."
He took her hand and studied her long, slender fingers twined with his. Her palm was rough and her nails were trimmed down to the quick--sensible, useful hands. For a moment, her hand stayed in his, but then realizing what he was doing, Vansen took it back.
"Nathan, we're both tired. We're doing and thinking things that we shouldn't."
He sighed and sat next to her, their shoulders touching.
"Because if we do this and we go back to the Saratoga, where do we go from there?" she asked. "You have Kylen. What would I be? A back-up? A one-time thing? And we're still in the same squadron. Things would be awkward at best."
"I know," he muttered.
"And if it doesn't work out, I'd be losing one of my best friends. Is it worth it?"
Nathan looked within himself, into a place he didn't want to acknowledge...until now.
"Yes," he answered quietly.
He turned his head to find her looking at him. She put a hand against his cheek, a small smile on her face. Her eyes glowed, but she didn't say anything. His eyes beckoned to her, but she fought the urge to throw herself at him. It was as if years of pent up emotion had culminated in this one moment when everything in the universe didn't matter except for the two of them. He put a hand over hers, smiling back.
"Not here," she said softly.
Nathan put an arm around her and she rested her head on his shoulder.
"You're not on the rebound or anything, are you, Nathan?" she demanded, sitting up quickly and wincing when her injured arm protested.
"No." He brushed a thumb against the wrinkle that had formed between her eyebrows and pulled her back down to him. He grinned at the inspired thought that had popped into his head. "I'm just playing my wildcard."
Vansen shrieked with laughter, but he silenced her with a kiss.
Suddenly, the sounds of something scrabbling outside the opening made them freeze. Quickly, they held their rifles at ready and were ready to start shooting when a voice called out, "Vansen? West? You guys in there?"
Vansen wanted to cry with relief. Nathan let out a laugh.
"Hawkes! I've never been so happy to hear your voice!" he replied.
"Nice hiding place you guys got here. If Wang didn't have his damned heat-seeking goggles on, we'd never find you," Hawkes said.
"You coming out or what?" 'Phousse added.
"We're coming, we're coming," Vansen said.
She stood and brushed off the dirt from her flightsuit. Nathan watched her silently. She held out a hand to help him up and he took it, but instead pulled her down to him. Frowning, she knelt in front of him, expecting him to say something. Instead, he kissed her, but it was not brief or chaste. This kiss was hungry, hinting at what was to come.
"Hey! Clock's ticking," Wang yelled.
They parted, breathless. Nathan took her face in his hands.
"Tired or not, that was real, Shane," he whispered. "I always believed that everyone has a soulmate..."
"I know, Nathan," she murmured in reply. "I know."
They smiled. Then, Shane went through the opening and he followed her to where their friends waited.