"Shane, Shane can you hear me?"
The voice was muffled, almost as if it were fighting its way through a wad of thick cotton.
Vansen frowned, eyes tightly shut. The light filtering through was bright enough she knew she wouldn't be able to stand it were she to open her eyes.
She groaned in annoyance. If only the voice would go away she could snuggle back down in the black oblivion that was so comforting.
"Shane, sweetie, you need to wake up."
A different voice. "Give her some time. She's been through hell."
"But the doctor said she should be awake by now."
The cotton was thinning. She recognized the voices and struggled to open her eyes. The light was intense and painful, and she couldn't seem to quit blinking. But in the brief glimpses of her surroundings, she confirmed she'd been right about the voices: her sisters.
"She's coming around! Shane, we're here. Can you hear me?"
"Wa-water," she croaked out.
"Ann, fill that glass up."
"I'm getting it, I'm getting it."
Shane felt a palm slip between her head and pillow, gently helping raise her up. The glass was cool on her lips, the water even cooler. She took a few sips, then turned her head indicating she was done.
Her eyes slowly adjusted to the artificial light and she could see that her sisters had been joined by a man in a white coat, presumably a doctor.
He shined an even brighter light into her eyes, checking their reaction. Evidently what he saw pleased him because he smiled and put the penlight away. "Good afternoon, Captain Vansen," he said. "I'm Doctor Matthews. You gave us quite a scare there for a while."
"Where- where am I?" It definitely wasn't a medivac ship or the Saratoga.
"V.A. Hospital, San Francisco. Best care on the west coast, not that I'm prejudiced or anything," he answered with a smile.
"How long?" Her voice was getting stronger, though she was feeling more and more drained, and her whole body ached. It felt like she'd gone ten rounds in a boxing ring with a Hammerhead. She laughed a little, wincing in pain. A Hammerhead couldn't box. Add loopy to tired and achy.
"You've been out for almost a week."
"Shane, it was so scary. To see you lying there, so pale--"
"Jenna, she's okay now, that's all that matters. Falling apart won't do her any good."
Jenna took a couple of tissues out of the box on the bedside table and wiped her eyes, trying to compose herself.
Shane looked at her two younger sisters and thought how good it was to see them. She'd joined the Marines to escape responsibility for others, to keep from having to "take care" of anyone any more, and now she realized how much she'd really missed them.
Doctor Matthews took a syringe from a nurse and injected the contents into Vansen's I.V.
"She needs rest," he said to the sisters.
"But she just woke up!" Ann protested.
"And that's what we've been hoping for, praying for," he answered patiently, deftly maneuvering them both toward the door. "But she's still extremely weak, and her body needs more rest."
"We'll be here when you wake up. Again," Jenna said, giving Shane a tremulous smile.
Ann added, "And we'll bring Marianne."
"I'm not going anywhere," Shane replied sleepily. The drugs were working their magic, and she closed her eyes, drifting back asleep.
The planet's heat was barely tolerable, even though they'd landed in the midst of jungle-like cover.
She'd blacked out when the cockpit - only marginally slowed down by the chutes - had slammed into the surface. When she'd come to, she had no idea how long she'd been out. Her left arm hurt like hell, and when she tried to move it, she lost consciousness again. The second time she came around, she was more careful. After moving as delicately and methodically as she could, she fashioned a sling out of pieces of her jumpsuit. She was sweating profusely and out of breath, but other than the arm and a huge lump she could feel on her forehead, she appeared to be okay. Of course there was always the possibility of internal bleeding, but Vansen put that thought out of her head - she had more than just herself to think about. Damphousse was alive, but still unconscious, and when Shane took off the other woman's helmet, she could see a trickle of dried blood along Vanessa's cheek, coming from her left ear.
At least the cockpit was intact - who knew what the atmosphere outside was like. If it was anything like that on Anvil, they'd probably both be dead. The quarters were cramped, but she felt around under the seats and discovered two emergency oxygen support units. Each had enough for one hour of breathable air.
They were sitting ducks in the wreckage, but out there... who knew what was out there. They could be parked on the outskirts of a whole Chig city. West and the others knew about where they'd gone down, an A.P.C. would be along shortly to get them, she kept telling herself. It was just like on Cer - Nathan wouldn't forget about them, wouldn't leave them to die. The Marines always came back for their own.
Shane awoke with a start, eyes searching in the dark to make out where she was. Hospital room, not planet twenty-sixty-three-yankee. Earth, not Chig territory.
She lay back down and counted backwards from one hundred until her heart rate had returned to normal. She didn't want to go back to sleep, didn't want to dream. She wanted answers to her questions, but her eyelids had a mind of their own and refused to stay open. Before long the only sounds in the room were the various machine blips and beeps that echoed down the hallways.
Hawkes was sitting by her bed, reading the latest G.I. Geequed comic. Shane watched him; his eyes squinted in concentration on whatever adventures the Sarge was embroiled in this week. After a while, she coughed to get his attention.
He quickly closed up the comic and enveloped her in a big hug. "You're awake."
"Actually I've been awake a few times now," she corrected him and tried not to grimace: parts of her were still sore from the crash. She gingerly hugged him back; sometimes he didn't know his own strength.
He released her and sat back in the chair. "I would have been here sooner but my transport ran into some trouble, and then I've been sitting with McQueen."
"How is he?"
"He's hanging in there. Once the swelling goes down they're going to see about a prosthetic."
She reached for her glass of water and took a sip. When she'd finished, she asked the most important question, the one her doctor and all the nurses, even her sisters, had avoided answering. "What about the rest of the Wildcards? West, Wang, 'Phousse?"
Cooper took a deep breath and ran his hand through his hair. He looked decidedly uncomfortable, but Shane knew he wouldn't lie to her, or change the subject, no matter what he'd been told to do.
"What do you remember?"
"Just waiting for rescue for what seemed like days. Talking to Vanessa to let her know she wasn't alone. I must have passed out because one minute I'm talking to her about a prank Ann played when we were children, the next I'm waking up here in this hospital, and some doctor is telling me I've been out a week. A week?"
He nodded. "We were worried."
We. That was a good word. "So what happened? Where's the rest of the squad?"
"Most of the squad is still on the Saratoga."
"Chigs not ready to surrender yet?" she guessed.
He shook his head. "But we're pissin' them off."
She grinned. "You said 'most of the squad'?"
Cooper whole demeanor changed and Shane knew she wouldn't like what he was about to say.
"Vanessa's in a coma. The doctors don't know if she'll ever wake up."
Life was so fucking unfair. She'd tried so hard to keep them both alive. She held the tears back: she'd let loose when she was alone. She had to know about the others, first. "Wang?"
Hawkes hesitated for the longest time. "He sacrificed himself so West and I could get the colonists to safety."
Vanessa was good as dead and Paul really was. Maybe some questions weren't meant to be asked. Or answered.
"He's alive. Down the hall a couple of doors. He wanted to come with me, but the doctors won't let him out of bed yet."
"He'll be okay, though?" Please say yes.
"He's fine. A concussion, couple of broken ribs, bruises."
At her confused look, Cooper elaborated. "He was injured in the rescue mission. Nothing a few pins and rods can't fix." He smiled to lessen the severity of his words, but she could tell it wasn't as simple as he made it out to be: they would have kept him on the ship.
"He warranted the royal treatment, like me?" She joked, gesturing around to her private hospital room. "Why here?" 'And not back on the ship' was the unspoken rest of the question.
"Orders from Secretary General Diane Hayden herself." He quickly changed the subject, to a less-uncomfortable one. "I have the next five days off, so you're going to be seeing a lot of me." He gave her a lopsided grin.
Shane stood up and he moved to her side to help. "I'm fine, but I could use with a walk around the floor. Maybe we can swipe some ice cream from the cafeteria." Holding up her injured arm, she added, "When we get back, you can be the first Wildcard to sign my cast."
He linked his arm through her good one, ready to help her in case she needed it. She probably wouldn't but if it made him feel better. She smiled and looked up at him. "So tell me about our new commander..."
Shane was sitting up in bed, half-eaten tray of hospital food pushed to the side, idly flipping channels on the television. She'd never been much of a program junkie and it seemed getting injured hadn't changed that.
"Good evening," Doctor Matthews said by way of greeting as he entered the room. He checked the I.V. bag beside her bed. "How are things going? Your arm bothering you?"
"Not really," she answered, turning off the television and curling up on her side.
"The nurses tell me you haven't been sleeping well," Doctor Matthews said. She gave a shrug of her shoulders.
"I can give you something to help you sleep."
"No," she said firmly.
Nathan was just down the hallway, five doors down, and she visited him twice. Both times Kylen was camped out at his side, and feeling like a third wheel was never something Shane enjoyed, so she quit going. Instead she chose to spend her time either catching up on the domestic news, the sanitized war reports that seemed to be sandwiched by recruitment ads, or visiting with Coop and her family.
Cooper dropped a sealed envelope on the bed next to her. She stared at it, her name scrawled on the outside, and shot him a questioning look.
"It's from Wang," he said, uncomfortably. "West found it under his bunk, along with letters to his parents and almost everyone else in the squad."
She sat there, staring at the letter until he broke the silence. "Well, are you going to read it?"
"Oh yeah, right, sorry." Cooper gave her a brief hug and she tousled his hair in return. "See you tomorrow," he said, smoothing his hair back into place with a half-grin.
It was a long time before Shane got up the courage to even touch the envelope. It was as if opening it and reading what was inside would destroy the last hope she had that Paul had somehow survived. Realistically she knew he was dead, wasn't coming back, even though there wasn't a grave to lay flowers upon, or a memorial to pay her respects at. But a part of her didn't want to give up hope.
With a heavy heart she picked up it up and broke the seal.
"You never write, you never call..."
Shane turned her head at the sound of Nathan's voice. A smile lit her face, but just couldn't make it to her eyes. "Hey you."
He sat down in the chair beside her, resting his cane on a nearby table. "What are you watching?" He nodded toward the window.
"A cardinal." She pointed to where a bright red bird sat in a tree just outside her second floor window, sharp orange beak opening every now and then as it chirruped away.
"I'd forgotten how pretty Earth could be," he said wistfully.
"Thinking about retiring?" she joked.
"Not by a long shot. Someone has to be around to rescue you."
That was a mood killer. She put a hand on his knee. "That's twice you've come back for me."
"Technically I didn't come for you the first time; I only gave them your coordinates."
"I'm serious, Nathan. I owe you my life."
He lowered his eyes. "It wasn't enough for Vanessa."
They sat in silence for a while until Shane realized her hand was still on his knee. She withdrew it and tucked it between her knees. "So, how's Kylen?"
Nathan gave a wry smile. "Getting married in a month."
She might have known they'd get married. "Congratulations."
He looked confused. "Why are you congratulating me?" Then it dawned on him. "Oh, you think her and I?" He shook his head. "Another colonist she grew close to during their time as prisoners." Another wry smile. "She was afraid to tell me, afraid at first I'd be angry."
"Are you?" she asked quietly.
"Not really. Just because I held out hope didn't mean she would." He played with the ends of the belt on his robe. "I just want her to be happy. That's what I've always wanted."
"You're going to miss her."
He nodded. "I will."
"And it'll hurt. Even if you think you're over her and everything is fine, something will happen to remind you of how it was - a smell, a certain flower, a sound - and the hurt will come back." She spoke from experience, recalling the night of her high school graduation party, the night John had asked her to marry him: the feel of the sand between her toes, the warm ocean breeze that played with her hair and the hurt in his eyes when she'd turned him down. Even though she'd known it was the right thing to do, that hadn't made it any easier. She'd put him, their past, behind her when he'd walked into the tavern aboard the Saratoga and back into her life. And then the pain all over again when she'd lost him to Chiggy von Richtofen.
Nathan pried her hand from where it was nestled between her knees and held it. Tightly. "I don't want to talk about Kylen, not right now. I want to know how you're doing." He nodded toward her arm.
"This?" She held up her cast. "This is coming off tomorrow. Coop said if they came back and wanted to wait a day or two to let him know and he'd take it off for me." She laughed.
Nathan smiled at the thought and knew that Coop would do it, too, if it came down to it.
"Thank you, Nathan." Shane shook her head. "I know I keep saying that, but I feel like I can't say it enough."
Nathan squeezed her hand. "I knew I couldn't lose you and Vanessa. It was bad enough Paul was gone, I couldn't lose three of my best friends in the same day."
Shane's eyes teared up; he'd rescued two friends but only one had really come back whole. It was a few seconds before she realized he was talking again.
"...you couldn't possibly be dead. I'd know it somehow if you were, just like I knew you all weren't dead on Cer. I was wondering how soon Coop and I could lead a S.A.R. team. I was thinking about how, when we rescued you and Vanessa, we would have one hell of a group hug ..." he wrapped his arms around her and hugged her tightly.
Drawing back, he continued. "It's not exactly a group effort, but it's the best I can do for now."
Tears welled up in her eyes. She brushed them away with her free hand. "I haven't cried this much since I was seven," she joked.
Nathan reached out and helped wipe traces of wet from her cheek. "I hear almost dying does that to you."
They sat there in companionable silence, fingers entwined, each lost in their own thoughts.
There was a flutter of wings and Nathan pointed out the window. "Look," he said, "the cardinal's gone."
"He'll be back," Shane answered confidently. She wondered if the colors out the window were a little bit brighter or if it was her imagination.
The day before Cooper was due to return to active duty (and the Saratoga) four Wildcards gathered around Vanessa's bed. Since McQueen and Vansen had missed the official memorial aboard ship, they'd decided to hold a private one to say goodbye to their friend.
McQueen was in a wheelchair, hospital pants flapping uselessly around the stump of his right leg. He was scheduled for surgery within the week to replace it. Then he had weeks of grueling physical therapy to look forward to before he could take a proficiency fitness exam to determine whether or not he could return to active combat status. Until then, someone else remained in charge of the five-eight.
Outside, wind whipped around the corners of the hospital, slipping through invisible cracks to make an occasional low whistling noise. Shane shivered a little inside her robe and drew it tighter.
"I'm proud to have been his commanding officer," McQueen said, finally breaking the uneasy silence.
Another short silence, then Coop spoke up, "He never made me feel like a Tank."
"He was the bravest man I knew," Nathan added.
Shane took a deep breath. "I never blamed him for breaking. I hope he knew that."
Cooper cleared his throat and held up a small, leather-bound book. "West and I found 'Phousse's journal and, well, we didn't think she would mind us reading from it. Given the occasion." He cleared his throat again and began to read from the bookmarked passage:
"I think, of all the Wildcards, I'm closest to Paul. He's like the goofy little brother I never had. He likes football, he looks at porn, and he's shy around new people. I hope our friendship lasts beyond the Marine Corps. I'd love to take him home and show him all my favorite places. I'm glad he's a part of my 'family.'"
Cooper closed the book and Shane leaned down and kissed Vanessa's silky smooth cheek. She had no idea when she'd see her friend again; who knew how long the damn war would last now.
"Hoo-rah," McQueen said quietly. Cooper echoed the sentiment.
Nathan's hand found and enveloped Shane's smaller one. He gave a small squeeze. "Semper fi..."
"...my friend," she finished with a whisper.
Outside, the sun shoved its way through the clouds to send tiny slivers of light to the world below.
Disclaimer: All characters are property of Wong, Morgan and Fox. No infringement intended.