The stars aligned, a slow day at work on the West coast and soccer tournament on the East coast, and magical writing happened. We were not expecting to get time to write this for another several weeks and are pleased that this is not the case. It is with mixed emotions that we post this last and final chapter.
Face let his back rest against one of the wood logs that had been pulled into a circle. With the sun setting it was the last of the warm rays he was going to get for the day. Eyes closed he let the calm of it wash over him. It had been months since he'd simply rested and let the moment be. He wasn't one to take pleasure in the sounds of nature and he preferred the crashing of rolling waves and the ocean air over the crackling fire, chirping crickets, and frogs croaking out their twilight serenade, but he'd take it.
The sun felt better against his skin than he remembered. That bone deep warmth that soothed his soul and stilled his world. It was part of what had been absent these past few months. He'd found it as a kid by sneaking out of the orphanage and running to the ocean shore, sitting in the beach grass watching as the sun set, taking with it it's warmth and peace. Later on he'd shared that time with few; a blanket, a girl - Kimberly Rillion and he had kept each other warm into the wee hours of the night more than once, but never anyone else. Those ocean waves powerful and soft in the backdrop. He'd been enamored by it.
"Hey!" Cruiser's voice brought him back to the present. "You're going three alarms there."
Sure enough, the marshmallow on the end of his stick was well beyond the golden brown he wanted, engulfed in charing flames instead. Shit. He flicked his wrist, trying to get the flame to go out while not sending the thing flying, but it was pointless, finally he just flung the thing off the end of the stick and into the fire pit.
"I'm no expert but I don't think that's the most efficient way to roast marshmallows." Hannibal sat down next to him smiling. "Then again I could be wrong. It wouldn't be the first time."
"Yeah," Face agreed, "My technique could use some refining." In the time it had taken Murdock to eat half a bag of marshmallows on his own, Face had managed to eat one and burn two. "I may need to hire out."
Murdock grabbed the stick from Face's hands and smiled. "I got your six Face."
With that he slipped off to the far side of the fire and the special spot he had found. He swore it was perfect for the right degree of marshmallow tan.
There was still too much silence and too much tension in Murdock, but the brittle, sharp edges were fading. It was good to see.
"How you holding up kid?" Hannibal's voice cut into his thoughts.
"I'm better." It had been a long couple of weeks, but the cold sweats and stomach cramps that had doubled him over had finally eased up. "The cravings are still pretty bad though."
"The mental part is harder than the physical. You still have a long road ahead."
"Yeah." He watched the flames dancing around the logs, consuming the fuel, cracking a popping with life. "Take it day by day I guess." It was the only option out there. He glanced over at Murdock, turning the marshmallow slow and steady, getting it just right.
Hannibal's hand was on his shoulder. "You won't have to do it alone."
Face dropped his head, forearms resting on his knees. He was more at home in these woods with people he'd known for less than a year than he'd ever been. It was foreign and subtly comforting in a way he'd never let himself feel. "I don't think I can."
Face nodded. He was starting to understand that in ways he couldn't quite articulate. But Hannibal was right and Murdock was all the proof Face would ever need for that. The pilot was sick, just as sick as Face was, maybe even more so. Somehow the only way either of them was going to survive their cancer was in union. "I always thought it was my only choice, you know? It almost killed us."
"For a few minutes I thought it had killed you."
Face looked back at Hannibal. "I should have told you I didn't want the discharge."
Hannibal nodded. "I should have asked you. We learned our lessons the hard way."
He meant it. Face had learned long ago in life about forgiveness, but it normally came with disappointment or some other strings attached. Hannibal meant it and there was nothing else there. They'd made mistakes, they'd paid the prices. It was done and over. Almost. "What about Murdock?"
"He's crazy, but stable." Hannibal moved his hand, taking the cigar out of his mouth. "Whatever you choose to do, he's going to be there."
"No," Face shook his head, it wasn't as simple as that. "He needs to fly and I can't leave the state right now."
"I'm not leaving the states without you." Murdock held two perfectly golden brown marshmallows out to Face.
Hannibal cut in before Face could talk sense into Murdock. "I'm not either."
BA added, "Ain't none of us leave you fool asses. Got it, Jack?"
Face looked around the group of them, each in turn, finally landing on Murdock. "You can't give up flying for me." Before he could protest it Face turned his attention back to Hannibal. Out of all of them he should understand. "I have a court date in a few weeks and my only goal right now is to get through the day without shooting up. You can't put life on hold because of me."
"It's not on hold, Face." Cruiser's steady voice cut through the uproar of the conversation. "But we're a team and it doesn't function without you." Cruiser shrugged, flicking the ash from his smoke towards the fire pit. "So you get your shit together and afterwards we all figure out what happens next. It's not on you, it's on us."
Once again Hannibal nodded. "He's right kid. Do you need a hand with your case?"
Face took the stick Murdock was holding out to him, perfectly roasted marshmallow in place. "There's no case to be made Hannibal, I'm guilty. It's whatever the judge wants to throw at me and it's not like I've got a stellar record to play up in my defense." He really didn't want to go back to jail. Even the thought of it made him want to curl up in a ball and ignore everything until it all went away. It wouldn't help and Face knew it, but damned if ignoring reality wasn't an alluring alternative.
"Then I'll visit you in jail and be waiting for you when you get out." Murdock was smiling. A calm, sure, smile. Not crazy - at least not showing the crazy.
"Yeah, I'd like to avoid that option if possible."
"Then fight it." Murdock shrugged. "One thing you're good at is getting in and out of trouble."
Face took a bite of the sugary mess. Murdock was half right. "You know last time I was in a courtroom Mother Superior begged the judge to lock me up." Face looked between Murdock and Hannibal. "Turns out there's no shucking and jiving around a nun's testimony." Turning his attention to Hannibal, he didn't bother to try to hide the worry. "How tied do you think my hands are on this?"
"Depends. I know if you're clean and looking to join up they'll drop the charges. If not then it's showing contrition and that you're a low risk of re-offending."
Proving he was a low risk for re-offending would be more difficult but there was no way he'd pass a physical agility test right now. "I hadn't thought of enlisting again."
"Don't enlist." Hannibal's voice was steady and sure. "Become an officer. I need an XO."
A laugh escaped Face before he could stop it. "An officer, seriously?" Looking at Hannibal was all he needed to answer that. "You are serious." Could he even? OCS was for people with a plan and goals. For people like Hannibal. But Hannibal was the best there was; he commanded troops like no other CO Face had served under. Like any of them had served under and now he was staring Face in the eye asking him to become his XO and all Face could do was stare back.
"You less of a fool than any other officer." BA didn't even look up from the radio he was tinkering with.
"Yeah?" There was awe in his voice. "You promise not to hit me if I wind up with some bars on my collar?"
"Don't worry Face, he never hit me." Murdock offered. "Of course he couldn't catch me… so there's that."
"What are you going to do, Murdock?"
"Depends." Murdock swallowed another marshmallow. "If you go for OCS then I'm joining the army. They need chopper pilots. If not, I'm gonna stay here with you."
"You still seeing Trace?"
Murdock just smiled that crazy smile at him. "Trace? Nah, he's dead. Seeing dead people would be crazy."
Nodding, Face considered it. For the first time in far too long, possibly ever, he had options. Real options. He'd spent his entire life running away from things instead of to them. It was time to change that. "I'll talk to the DA, see what I can work out." He looked over at Hannibal. "You up to being a character witness if I need one?"
"I'll be there. We all will."
Face sat back again, looking around the group of men. His team - his family, all here side by side. Each nodding their heads, speaking and thinking as one. He was home. He could feel it in the calm center he'd finally found and see it in the stillness of everyone else. They were home as long as they were together.
August 2011 - May 2016
Thank you to everyone who has taken this journey with us. It has been five years of fun and enjoyment. This book has seen children born, loved ones lost, location moves, career changes, returns to school, and the rigors of real life and the added chaos of a cowritten body of works from opposite sides of the nation. This is the first book of many that have been outlined, so keep your eyes out in the coming months for the next book in the series.