Sergeant Matt Eversmann stood through the mercifully short ceremony in numb silence. He knew the sick sense of guilt and grief he'd had since the battle would hit him again but, all the same, he was thankful for the small reprieve. He'd spent far too many hours reliving every moment in vivid detail.
Second guessing himself was pointless he knew it, and Hoot had told him as much during the endless night at the stronghold (the Alamo, as some in his chalk had taken to calling it when recounting those long, bloody hours) but no matter what he did or how hard he'd pushed himself with drills or going back into the city or on more missions, little details the stench of gunpowder and blood, the panic in Doc's eyes when he'd realized that Jamie couldn't be saved, the ache in his shoulder from the press of his rifle, the rat-at-at of machine gun fire echoing in his ears kept assaulting his senses like tiny, well-placed bombs . He couldn't wait to ship the fuck off this pile of sand and misery and get back home to Benning. Hopefully getting out of Somalia would help him sleep.
He searched the crowd of men all standing at parade rest, heads bowed in prayer or contemplation, until he found Delta Force: all of them were wearing regulation BDUs for once, and they were all clean-shaven. It was more than a little disconcerting. He was too used to seeing them running around the base in civvies and acting like this was some grand vacation, only with bullets and grenades instead of room service and an indoor pool. Matt found Hoot easily his sheer size and bulk were enough to make him stand out, even from the rest of his unit and, as if sensing another's eyes on him, Hoot looked up. His eyes, so dark they seemed almost black, locked with Matt's. And, for a moment, everything and everyone around them fell away until it was just the two of them. In Hoot's unwavering, yet compassionate gaze, Matt felt like maybe he could breathe without drowning. Like maybe he'd get through this with some semblance of his sanity intact.
Then Hoot winked a completely inappropriate, irreverent gesture, given the circumstances and the spell was broken. Matt bit back a chuckle and forced himself to look at General Garrison, who was reciting the end of Henry V's Saint Crispin's Day speech - "But we in it shall be remembered; we few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother" in a measured, controlled voice that belied the anguish he knew the general must be feeling. They'd all lost so much more than they'd ever expected.
But Matt felt a little bit better, knowing he wasn't alone.
After the crowd dispersed, most of the Rangers made their way to their bunks and began the process of trying to pack up to roll out. Word had trickled down that the U.S. forces were pulling out as soon as Durant was rescued (and he would be rescued, there was no doubt in anyone's mind) and the brass wanted all units ready to move as quickly as possible. It didn't escape anyone's notice that they'd failed their objective Aidid was still out there, still wreaking havoc but no one mentioned it. After getting royally fucked by Aidid's militia even though they'd kicked righteous ass and, hellaciously outnumbered, had won the battle no one was surprised that a skittish president had pulled the plug. It didn't seem to matter that they all had been prepared to stay as long as it took to bring Aidid down. What the hell was the point of losing all those men if it wasn't to serve the greater purpose of completing their mission?
Matt made his way from bed to bed, checking up on everyone still left in his chalk that was mobile, making sure everyone had everything they needed. Nerves were still frayed, but it was getting a little better. He found Lance Twombly mechanically going through his gear and clothes, and stopped. He'd been more worried about Twombly than the others he'd taken Jamie Smith's death particularly hard.
"It was a good ceremony." Twombly rolled one of his shirts, then shook it out and rolled it again before stuffing it in his duffel. His eyes lit on everything and everyone in the hangar except Matt. "You thought it was good, right?"
"Sure," Matt agreed, even though he didn't care one way or another. Good service or not, it wouldn't stop anyone from still being dead. "It was fine."
"I guess that's it, then, huh." Twombly threw another shirt to the bed, frustration clear in every tense line of his body. "I mean, we all get together and General Garrison quotes from some play and says a few words of prayer and we have a moment of silence and that's it, life goes on, mission gets jacked and then canceled, and it's like nothing ever happened. Like Cliff and Dom and Jamie " his voice cracked " and the others never even existed."
Christ, Matt hated this part of his job his men looking to him for answers, for guidance. He wasn't any good at it. Every time he opened his mouth, he was sure he was making things worse. But he had to say something. He had to be a leader, even if he felt like he was faking the shit out of it.
"Hey. Hey, c'mon. Lance, look at me." Matt put his hand to the back of Twombly's neck and gently squeezed, brought their foreheads together. "No one is gonna forget them, okay?"
"Yeah. Yeah, okay, sure." Twombly sagged against him for a minute, then gently eased out of his hold. Matt let him go. "You'll, uh." Twombly cleared his throat, tried again. "You'll let his folks know, right?" He spread his hands helplessly in front of him. "That I'm sorry. You think I should write them a letter or something? Telling them I'm sorry I got their son killed?"
It wasn't you who got him killed, it was me, he wanted to say, but didn't. It wasn't true, first off, and it wasn't what Twombly needed to hear. "Twombs, it wasn't your fault. Jamie was doing his job and you were doing yours. You're not responsible for who gets shot." The words sounded familiar, even as he was saying them, like he'd heard them somewhere before. "Jamie was looking out for the chalk, that's all. It's war, okay? Shit happens, simple as that."
"Yeah, I guess." Twombly flashed a small smile and scrubbed a hand across his face. "Doesn't make his death any easier to deal with, though."
"I don't think it's supposed to be easy." Matt patted Twombly's shoulder. "You good?"
"Yeah," Twombly nodded, and he did look better. Not quite as pale or frantic. "I'm good."
"Alright. As you were, Specialist."
"Yessir, Sergeant, sir."
It wasn't until Matt had stepped away and was packing his own duffel that he remembered where he'd heard that speech before. Hoot had said it to him the night Jamie died.
It was another three days before Matt saw Hoot again. He was in the commons area at one of the tables, calmly field-stripping his rifle with an ease born of long practice. Matt sat across from him, watching in silence, mentally going over every step along with Hoot's actions. Odd how something so simple could be so soothing, but Matt put it down to Hoot's presence more than anything else. Ever since the battle, he'd found that just seeing Hoot was like a balm to his nerves, like everything really was going to be okay after all.
Hoot didn't look up until he was finished, and had put his set of wire brushes aside. He looked as calm and collected as ever. Fucking Delta, man, nothing ever fazed them. "Heard you were shipping out today?"
"Yeah, at fourteen hundred hours. Layover in Germany, then back to Benning." Matt was counting the hours. Everyone in his unit was. "How long is Delta sticking around?"
"Another week, I think, then back to Bragg, then who knows." Hoot shrugged like it was no big deal. Matt figured he was used to it by now no one joined Delta thinking they'd be sticking Stateside for any length of time.
"Well, uh, good luck." Matt held out a hand. "And thanks." He couldn't begin to articulate everything he owed Hoot, but he figured a simple gesture of gratitude was enough to go on.
Hoot reached across the table, the handshake rough, but firm. "You did good out there. Remember that."
"Thanks." Matt felt oddly bereft, like a goose stepping over his grave or something like maybe...hell, he didn't know. His nerves were fucking with him again. It would be a long time before he was squared away with what had happened here, and the sooner he made peace with it, the sooner he could work on getting through it.
He stood, and offered what he hoped was his usual smile. "I'll see you around."
He was five steps away when Hoot called after him. "Hey, Matt!" Matt pirouetted around in a perfect 180. "If you need anything, get in touch, alright? I mean it."
"Roger that." Matt etched out a half-ass salute that he knew Hoot would appreciate, and waited for Hoot to mockingly return it. "Be safe out there, Delta."
Matt rolled into the southeast parking lot of the main barracks and cut off the engine, giving his surroundings a quick glance. There was a square block of housing to his left and a wide dirt path to his right that opened up at the crest of a hill and looked like it might lead to a practice field or range or something. A squad jogged past him in perfect formation, all dressed in PT sweats, and another marched past in desert BDUs and with rucks strapped to their backs. It was a comfortingly familiar scene like he hadn't left Benning at all.
There was a sharp rap on his driver side window, and he jumped, startled by the sound. Sergeant Sanderson was smirking down at him, showing off deeply grooved dimples. "Welcome to the big leagues, Ranger!" he yelled, the words muffled by the glass.
Matt climbed out of the car with a grin, surprised to see a familiar face so soon. He'd thought he'd have to hunt someone down to tell him where Delta was training. "Sergeant Sanderson, sir." Even though he and Sanderson were of equal rank and Sanderson was standing in front of him looking like a surfer in board shorts and a t-shirt, with sun streaks in his hair, Eversmann still offered him a salute.
"At ease, soldier." Sanderson crossed his arms across his chest, and peered at Matt through friendly, light eyes. "One of the entry guards phoned and told me you'd signed in. What brings you to Delta's neck of the woods?"
"On leave, sir."
"It's Jeff, son. Cut it with the 'sir' shit."
Delta always did play by their own rules, Matt thought, and nodded. "Uh, okay, Jeff." Even though he had permission, it still felt weird as hell. He tried to imagine calling Captain Steele by his Christian name, and couldn't. He wasn't even sure he knew what it was. "I, uh, I was actually wondering if Sergeant Gibson uh, Hoot if he was around."
"Yeah, he's getting in some CAR-15 practice at the indoor range. C'mon, I'll take you."
Matt walked beside him, feeling a little incongruous in his jeans and short-sleeved work shirt, even though he wasn't on duty and God knew he looked far less out of place than Sanderson. "You guys aren't, um, shipping out anywhere in the next few weeks, are you?" He knew as everyone did that most of Delta's missions were top-secret, but he hoped that Sanderson was at least allowed to say if they were leaving the country.
"Actually, we just got back. We're getting ready to go on block leave ourselves in the next forty-eight."
"Really?" This was shaping up to work out better than he'd hoped. "I don't suppose you can tell me where you were."
Sanderson just stopped in front of a squat, butt-ugly brick building, and flashed him a crooked, enigmatic smile before handing him a plastic tube that housed a pair of earplugs and ushering him inside.
Even with the plugs in, the noise that greeted him was still deafening. Matt took it in stride he was well used to the cacophonous sound of assault rifles, pistols, semi-automatics being fired in his vicinity. The range was mostly full, but Matt spotted Hoot right away. He was dressed much like Sanderson, in board shorts and a tee, and his hair was still longer than regulation and curling around his ears. He was also sporting about four days worth of growth on his chin and what looked like another fifteen pounds of muscle on his frame, but the quick, clean economy of his movements as he brought the rifle to his shoulder was pure military training at its finest. Then again, Matt had seen Hoot's skills up close. He knew the guy was super-human.
"Hey, Hoot!" Sanderson yelled, and made a beckoning motion, "got a visitor!"
Hoot finished emptying his magazine into the paper target, then harnessed his weapon and turned. His wide, open grin was a welcome sight. He half-jogged to where Sanderson and Matt were standing, and stopped. "Well, well, Sergeant Eversmann. I'll be damned."
Matt was certain he had to look like an idiot, he was smiling so hard. "Sergeant Gibson, sir."
"You've filled out some," Hoot commented with an approving nod. Then he was slapping Matt on the back, the hug bone-crushingly hard but surprisingly affectionate for all that Matt thought maybe Hoot had cracked one of his ribs when they parted. "What brings you to the boonies of North Carolina?"
Matt cupped the back of his neck as he ducked his head. He'd really wanted to ease into this conversation, maybe after a few beers or something. "Uh, you, actually."
Hoot and Sanderson shared a look, then Sanderson jerked his head towards the door. "Why don't you take five, get some air."
"Sounds good." Hoot clamped an arm around Matt's shoulders and steered him outside towards an empty metal picnic table. He pushed Matt onto one of the benches, then straddled the one across from him. They both removed their ear plugs, and the sudden background noise was a little disconcerting.
"Alright, what's on your mind?" Hoot asked.
Now that he had Hoot's attention, the sheer insanity of what Matt was about to ask hit him like the proverbial ton of bricks. Fuck, he should have called first, did some recon, something. Too late now. May as well stick it out. "Well, I, uh...alright, here's the thing. Jamie's parents, they're, um, getting on now "
"I'm sorry, who?"
"Jamie. Corporal Smith," Matt supplied, when Hoot continued to look at him blankly. "He, uh, died...at the Alamo that night?"
"Oh, right." Hoot's face instantly cleared in sympathy. "Right, I'm sorry. I couldn't place him at first. Keep going."
"Anyway, his folks, well, his mom, um, she doesn't get around so good these days, so they, uh, asked me if I, um, well, uh "
"Spit it out, Matt," Hoot interrupted, not unkindly.
As if he'd been waiting for permission to speak freely, the words left him in a rush. "Jamie always wanted to see the Grand Canyon and his parents thought it would be a nice gesture to scatter some of his ashes there. And I thought, well, shit, I've got some leave coming to me and I was his chalk leader and I felt like a road trip, y'know, and I was thinking, uh, that you might want to come along. Drive out with me."
Hoot shook his head and tapped at his ear like maybe he was mishearing. "Come again?"
Well, that could have come out better. "Look, I know we're not best buds or anything, but we got on alright in Somalia and Jamie really looked up to you. Said you were the toughest SOB he'd ever met. I think he'd have been honored, y'know?" This had seemed like such a good idea back at Benning. What he got for thinking. How could he have ever thought that a guy like Hoot would want to spend that kind of time with a guy like him a lowly Ranger whose life he once saved?
Hoot shook his head impatiently. "It's not that, it's just...didn't he have other friends in your chalk that would be more, I dunno, appropriate?"
"No one I'd want to spend that long with in a car," Matt admitted, then continued, knowing he was skating on thin ice. He really hadn't wanted to bring this up so soon, and certainly not without a fuckton more alcohol giving him courage, but maybe, if Hoot knew that someone else knew, it might sway him. "And, I, um, heard through the grapevine...about, uh, Bosnia...thought maybe you'd like a change of scenery..."
Hoot's eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. "What'd you hear?"
"Is it true?"
Hoot was silent for so long that Matt worried maybe he'd gone way too far and was about to get his ass kicked or get shot or something. He was sure everyone in Delta would help Hoot bury his body where no one would ever find it. And it would serve him right, too, for sticking his nose in shit when he'd known better.
Then: "You really want me to spend my leave driving with you to the Grand Canyon?"
"Yeah, pretty much," Matt replied, not even bothering to hide his relief that Hoot was still speaking to him. He couldn't hope for much more than that.
"Well, it's not the worst idea I've ever heard," Hoot shrugged, the motion casual, like he hadn't just been staring daggers at Matt for the last who knew how long.
"Wait, what?" Matt widened his eyes in shock. "You're saying yes?"
"Wasn't that why you came up here?"
"Well, yeah, but..." Matt laughed, a mixture of relief and amusement. "You're right, I shouldn't be trying to talk you out of it."
Hoot grinned, wide and easy and familiar. "You might be singing a different tune after a couple of days. Hey, I don't suppose we could get some fishing in?"
Matt didn't even blink at the change in topic. Right now, nothing would surprise him. "Sure, I packed some camping gear, y'know, just in case I felt like sleeping outside. Can't see any reason we couldn't park by a lake or river or something. Not like we're on a time limit."
"Yeah, okay, sounds good," Hoot nodded. "We're not off duty for another 48 hours. You got a place to bunk in the meantime?"
Matt shook his head. He hadn't thought that far ahead. He was still reeling at the thought that Hoot had actually said yes. "Thought maybe I'd grab a motel room over on South Bragg."
"Fuck that, man. Bunk with us in the barracks. Howe has a spare bed in his room you can use." Hoot stood, and scratched as his chin as he jerked his head in the direction of the range. "Now, c'mon. I'm sure Sanderson's told everyone by now that you're here. You should say hi."
Just that easy, Matt thought, as he followed Hoot back into the room. But then, Hoot had a way of making everything simple.
Matt was still half-asleep and yawning when he stepped out of the shower and smoothed his towel across the fogged up mirror. A familiar reflection stared back at him: he was still a tall, lanky motherfucker, but he'd put on some muscle in the last year or so, and the military had honed his once gangly awkwardness into a smooth, quiet grace. He had the Ranger tab tattooed on his right shoulder and, underneath on his flank, his social security number and blood type in black ink. On his chest was a rosary tattoo, a permanent testament to his upbringing and faith. His hair was shorn in the brutally short high-n-tight style that set all Rangers apart from other infantrymen, and his eyes, a clear, warm brown, were offset by an almost too-pretty face that was saved by a strong jaw and a small, jagged scar high on his right cheek, courtesy of the battle at the Mog.
At least he'd gotten a decent night's sleep, he thought to himself, pleased to see that he didn't have any bags under his eyes. His insomnia had been getting steadily worse over the last few months. He hoped to God that a few weeks off would do the trick and get him back to normal, otherwise he was jacked.
Hoot was waiting for him when he made his way back to Howe's room, already dressed in cargo pants, a Pearl Jam tour shirt, and Birkenstocks on his feet. His boonie was hanging from a string around his neck, and his days-old scruff was well on its way to becoming a full-on beard at this point. He also looked alert and downright energetic, which was just fucking criminal.
"Oh my God, you're one of those crazy morning people," Matt groaned, when Hoot greeted him with a far too-cheerful good morning.
"What's the matter, Ev, too early for you?" Hoot grinned.
"Fuck you, I am totally not awake enough to do verbal battle before coffee." Matt pulled a clean shirt and pair of jeans from his duffel and got dressed as quickly as his sluggish body would allow. "Roosters aren't even up at this hour."
"You want me to bring you coffee in bed tomorrow, princess?"
"Ha fucking ha." Matt slung his bag over his shoulder. "You're driving first, just so you know."
"Don't matter to me," Hoot replied, and they started towards the parking lot. "Did you rent a ride or something?"
"Hell no," Matt said, insulted by the thought. He stopped for a moment and took a deep breath he could smell honeysuckle in the air and noted the grass beneath them was still wet with dew. At least the sun was coming up through the trees.
He made a vague waving motion towards his car, then yawned again. "There, that one's mine. Had her serviced before I drove up from Benning oil change, new tires, radiator flush so she should be good to roll."
"This is yours?" Hoot put a hand to his heart and staggered back in exaggerated reverence. "A '71 Charger SE?" he breathed, all reverent, like he was in church. "Holy shit, Matt, that is one sweet ride."
"It was my dad's. I bought it off him with my first paycheck from the Army."
"400," Matt corrected, then grinned. Not much made him happier than showing off his girl to an appreciative audience. He'd forgotten that Hoot was a classic car buff. "Here." He popped the hood so Hoot could have a look.
Hoot gave a low whistle. "Oh, man. Straight V-8. Four barrel carbs?"
"Yep. And 190-horsepower. She can move on the open road," Matt replied, with a smirk and tossed Hoot the keys.
"Hell fucking yes. Let's get loaded and gone."
Hoot only had the one duffel bag, but he also had a reel case for his fishing rods. Matt stowed his own bag next to Hoot's and slammed the trunk shut before climbing in the passenger seat. With any luck, he could get another hour or so of sleep. He couldn't stop yawning.
The engine started with a throaty rumble and Hoot gleefully guided them off base and onto Highway 24 with ease. They'd agreed the night before when they were mapping out their route that they wanted to stay off the interstates as much as possible, so they could see more of the country. Interstates were nice and all, but they made for a boring trip.
"You mind if I smoke?" Hoot asked, after they'd been on the road for about ten minutes.
"Nah, man, knock yourself out."
"What've we got for tunes?"
Matt popped the glove compartment and poked around, trying to remember what he'd brought. "A shit ton of cassettes," he finally pronounced.
"Any Zeppelin or Aerosmith?"
"Yes to both."
"Zeppelin, then. Zep II, if you have it."
Matt pushed in the cassette, and the screaming guitar of "Whole Lotta Love" filled the air. Hoot started singing along in a loud, off-key voice, and after a horrified minute, Matt fumbled for his ear plugs. Hoot really had the worst voice he'd ever heard.
Two hours later, Matt felt much more like a human being. In spite of Hoot's godawful singing, he'd managed to sack out for another hour, and they'd stopped at a Texaco to pick up some coffee and stale doughnuts for breakfast. He'd offered to drive, but Hoot had waved him off, so Matt settled back in his seat, feet propped on the dash as he watched the trees roll past him in a comforting blur.
"So, what've you been up to since I saw you last?" he asked, genuinely curious. Apart from a couple of exchanged postcards, he hadn't heard from Hoot since he'd left Somalia.
"Been here and there, putting out fires."
"Anything you can talk about?" He knew about Bosnia, but he figured Hoot wasn't ready to bring that up yet, and he wasn't exactly in the mood to talk about it, either.
Hoot just glanced at him out of the corner of his eyes and chuckled, then snagged his Oakley sunglasses and pushed them over his nose. "What about you?"
Figured Hoot would deflect the subject back to him. What he got for asking a Delta a direct question about their missions. "Just got back from Haiti, but that was mostly a joke. We spent four months standing around with our thumbs up our asses, guarding government buildings and getting eaten to death by mosquitoes. I don't even know why we were there I never even took the safety off my rifle. 10th Mountain could have handled it easy without us."
"You have no idea. Seriously, you can't tell me anything about what you've been doing?"
"Classified, brother," Hoot said, sounding completely unrepentant. "Most everything we've done has been quick strike, though, nothing where we've had to hunker down and stay awhile."
"I guess that's something," Matt offered. "Get in, get out, go home, sounds like the perfect scenario."
"That's the idea," Hoot said, then glanced at Matt again. "Let me ask you something. Why'd you really want me on this trip? I barely knew Jamie Smith."
"Just thought you could use the downtime," Matt shrugged. In truth, he couldn't pinpoint why he'd thought of Hoot to accompany him. He just knew it felt right. After a year and a half, it was about time they'd caught up. "Why'd you say yes?"
"Like you said, change of scenery never hurts. Besides," Hoot grinned, "it's not every day a guy gets to drive a car as cherry as this."
"You agreed to the trip before you saw the car," Matt pointed out.
"Yeah, I know," Hoot replied, then flashed another mysterious smile.
Matt just shook his head and laughed. It figured. "You know, you can open her up, if you want. We're on a flat stretch for the next few miles."
"Right on," Hoot answered, and floored the gas.
"You should think about trying out for Delta when we get back."
Matt coughed as he swallowed his sip of Coke down the wrong pipe. His one-handed grip on the steering wheel went white-knuckled. They'd switched places just outside Johnson City, after filling the tank and grabbing a quick bite at Hardee's.
"What?" he finally asked, when he thought he could speak without choking again. Where the hell had that even come from?
"You're cool under pressure." Hoot didn't even look up from his book. It was crazy how someone that big could be so still. "That's a valuable skill on ops. Not to mention, you've got practical combat experience and expert weapons training and you can get shit done under adverse conditions. You're being wasted in the Rangers."
"Man, I'd wash out the first week."
"I don't think so." Hoot licked his thumb before turning a page. "You're a lot tougher than you give yourself credit for."
"Uh, thanks. I'll think about it." Weirdest conversation ever, and that was saying something. No way Matt would even be invited to try out for Delta, let alone make it through the selection process, or the six-month OTC training. Hell, Grimes had washed out halfway through, and he'd had Sanderson's full backing and support.
Still, weirdest conversation ever or not, Matt couldn't help the small burst of pride that swept through him. It meant something that a man Hoot thought he was worthy to be an equal.
He distracted himself by humming along to the cassette still Zeppelin, but they'd moved onto Physical Graffiti. At least Hoot had stopped singing along. "Hey, man, you remember them playing this song outside Noreiga's during Just Cause?"
Hoot finally closed the book, and listened to the opening strands of 'In My Time of Dying' for a moment before nodding. "I'd've picked "Tramped Underfoot" myself. I mean, if we're going with Zeppelin tunes."
"I think they only played it for the song title. My favorite was when they played Judas Priest. 'Run To The Hills.'"
"That's Iron Maiden, not Priest," Hoot corrected, then let out a short laugh. "Man, I remember Griz went nuts during that song. Dumb sonofabitch thought he was Bruce Dickinson, all wailing and head banging and shit. Totally undignified."
"Dom, uh, Dom Pilla, he was like that whenever they played GnR. Dude thought he was Slash, y'know?"
"That was a good Christmas."
"Yeah," Matt smiled. "It really was." He hadn't thought about Panama or Dom in forever. It felt good to talk about Dom without the cloud of anger and grief hanging over everything. Maybe he really was learning to let go, or however it went. Speaking of, they were in Tennessee...
"Hey, do you mind if we stop and look up a buddy of mine?"
"Anyone I know?"
"Yeah, maybe. Kurt Schmid. He was the medic for our chalk in Desert Storm and the Mog."
"Right, I remember him. He worked on Jamie at the Alamo, right?"
"Yeah." Matt ignored the pang at the mention of Jamie's name. Maybe he wasn't quite as ready as he'd thought. "Kurt, uh, he rotated out in February." Said he'd seen enough of war and Army bullshit and wanted to lie low at home and do nothing for awhile. Matt couldn't really say he'd blamed him. "His folks live outside Smithville, near Center Town Lake, which is right on our way, couple of hours out."
"Sure," Hoot shrugged. "In no hurry to get anywhere, right?"
They stopped to top off the tank just outside Cassville, mostly so Matt could grab a better map of the area. He had a newly updated Thomas Guide, but some of these smaller twisting country roads weren't always on the bigger maps. Hoot manned the pump while Matt went inside to pay. There was a bored-looking middle-aged woman manning the counter with relentlessly teased white-blonde hair and hard eyes that spoke of a life of disappointment she reminded Matt of his Aunt Katie, who'd married young and had kids and then spent the next 18 years making their lives as miserable as hers was. Aunt Katie and her sorry-ass life were one of the main reasons Matt had wanted to join the Army, just so he could get the fuck out of town and explore the world a little bit before he got too old and bitter to care.
"I've, uh, got a fill-up on pump 4."
Her eyes flickered to the read out on the cash register. "$14.68."
Matt slid a $20 across the counter. "Hey, you know where the Schmids live?" Kurt had always said he lived in a shithole of a tiny town maybe everyone knew the neighbors around here.
The attendant appraised Matt from his battered flip flops to his BDUs cut off at the knees to his t-shirt with a small barbeque stain on the collar to his scar missing nothing. Matt thought she might be able to tell him how many cavities he had. "You served with Kurt?" she finally asked.
"Yes, ma'am. We were in the Rangers together."
"It's good his friends come to see him. Boy's spent too much time at the lake smoking pot and not going back to college and earning his degree." Before Matt could formulate a reply, she'd flipped over a napkin and drawn a quick, crude map. "His folks own a place out by Highway 26. He stays in the boathouse. If he's not there, try the docks out near the rec center."
"Thank you." He pocketed the napkin and his change, and wandered out to the car, where Hoot was already in the passenger seat and flipping through a book of crossword puzzles.
"What's a four letter word beginning with "s" for predatory bird?"
"Probably skua," Matt replied, and started the engine.
"Thanks." Hoot glanced up. "We know where we're going?"
Matt held up the napkin. "We do now."
"Small towns. Gotta love 'em," Hoot commented, and filled in another clue. He was using a pen, not a pencil. Typical, Matt thought, and eased back onto the highway.
Hoot let out an impressed whistle when the lake came into view. "This is some pretty country."
Matt could only agree. When they'd driven across the Sligo Road Bridge, a slow roil of fog was just coming off the lake, shrouding the surrounding trees and hills and lake in a blanket of grey. It was eerie and beautiful, like an Edgar Allen Poe poem come to life. He could see why Kurt had come back here.
Kurt's parents lived in a two-story ranch-style house on about an acre of land just off of Old Highway 26. Matt could see the boathouse when they pulled onto the gravel parkway and shut off the engine. He could barely make out the lake through a break in the tree line.
"Must be a bitch to mow," Hoot commented, looking at the sprawling yard with something that looked like trepidation as they climbed out of the car.
"No shit," Matt chuckled, just as the front door to the house banged open and Kurt Schmid ambled down the porch steps. He'd grown his hair since getting out it was starting to wind around his ears and neck and he'd gained a little weight, losing some of the whipcord leanness in his frame. His jeans were frayed at the cuffs, and his t-shirt a faded, but cheery yellow. His friendly, too-wide dimpled grin, though, was still the same.
"Holy shit, Matt!!"
Matt was engulfed in a heartfelt hug a moment later as Kurt thumped him on the back, letting out a whoop of welcome that was deafeningly loud. Matt could feel the fine trembling of muscle under his hands and pulled back, peering into Kurt's slightly glassy eyes. Guess the attendant lady had the right way of how Kurt was spending his time. "How you doin', Kurt?"
"I'm good, man, real good. Holy shit, I can't believe you're here." Then he noticed Hoot, still standing by the car, and did a classic double take. "Hoot Gibson?! Get the fuck out, no way."
"Kurt," Hoot grinned. They exchanged a firm handshake, then Kurt glanced between them.
"Glad as fuck to see you, but what the hell brings you two to my neck?"
"Passing through, thought we'd look you up, see how you were."
"Passing through? Where you off to? Wait, don't tell me. You're a D-boy now, and driving Hoot's ass around is part of some crazy initiation."
Hoot flashed Matt an I-told-you-so grin that he ignored. "Nah, man, still humping with the rest of the Rangers at Benning," he said, then jerked a thumb at Hoot. "Hoot and me, we're on leave. Taking some of Jamie's ashes to the Grand Canyon, thought we'd make a road trip out of it."
"Yeah?" Some of the light in Kurt's eyes seemed to dim. Jamie would have hated it, Matt thought suddenly, hated that just his name made his friends freeze up. Then Kurt seemed to pull himself together, and he nodded. "That's cool, man, that's really cool. He always wanted to go, remember?"
"I do." Kurt was trying. The least Matt could do was meet him halfway.
"Well, come on inside, let me get you something to drink. You can stay and visit awhile, right?"
Matt looked at Hoot for confirmation before saying, "Yeah, sure."
Kurt had volunteered to show them around the area "not that there's much to it, except the falls and the lake" and the three of them had spent an enjoyable few hours traipsing through the paths that wound around Burgess Falls. There was a quiet peace to the area that Matt appreciated. He wouldn't mind coming back again, maybe staying for a few days, renting a boat or something. It was sure as hell prettier than Lake Lanier back in Georgia, and far less crowded.
When they'd gotten back to the house, it was past dark, and Kurt's parents had insisted they stay for dinner and the night, the boathouse had plenty of room, and Kurt hadn't had any of his Army friends to visit since he'd gotten out... Kurt had given them a helpless parents-what-can-you-do shrug, but Matt knew it was for show. He was pretty sure if Kurt's mom hadn't insisted they stay, he'd have done it himself.
After dinner, Hoot had noticed the chess board in the living room and challenged Kurt's dad to a friendly game. Three hours later, they were hunched over the pieces like they were plotting a military coup (hell, they probably were), and locked in a rather even battle. Matt had forgotten that Hoot played he had vague memories of Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon arguing over strategy while Hoot played Devil's advocate to both sides, but that was it but, by all appearances, he was pretty good at it.
He was interrupted in his musings when Kurt kicked at his foot. "I need some air. Wanna keep me company?"
It was a cool, clear night Matt was glad he'd thrown on a jacket before they'd gone out but there were unmistakable signs that summer was finally on the way. "Place must be crawling with tourists in July," Matt remarked, keeping easy pace with Kurt as they trampled through a wooded area towards the beach.
"Around the resorts, it can get a little crowded, but we don't get too many people our way." He stopped at the water's edge, and shoved his hands in his pockets as he rocked back and forth on his heels. "You should come back in the summer."
"Maybe I will," Matt replied, studying his friend's profile by the bright light of the moon reflecting off the lake. "So, gossip is around town that you spend your days fucking off and getting stoned."
"Sounds about right," Kurt answered, lips curving into a small smile. "You here to lecture me, Ev?"
"Hell no. I'm the last person to lecture anyone about how they're coping. But if you felt like telling me how you're really doing, no bullshit, I'll listen."
"No bullshit?" Kurt let out a harsh laugh that sounded like a sob. "Man, I am fucked up. Over a year later, and I still can't sleep at night without help. My folks want me to talk to someone. Like, a psychologist. They think I'm nuts."
It sounded familiar, too familiar for comfort. Matt's own mother had urged him to speak to someone about what he'd gone through last time he'd gone home. He hadn't had the heart to tell her that therapy wasn't going to bring her innocent, idealistic Boy Scout back. "Maybe they're just worried," he offered. "You know the VA offers counseling to all combat vets."
"I don't need a fucking shrink to tell me that I'm messed up over what happened," Kurt scoffed. "Do you?"
Matt shook his head. "Guess we'll both just have to muddle through on our own."
"Well, you know what Galentine always said...'we're Rangers, son, we don't talk about our shit, we fix it '"
" with violent and extreme action,'" Matt finished, saying the words in unison with Kurt. They both looked at each other and laughed.
"Christ, I miss that crazy bastard sometimes."
"Me too," Matt confessed. "You know, he's riding a desk now. Took over Grimesy's old position."
Kurt winced in sympathy. "Jesus, that's got to chap his hide."
"Eh, it's just 'til his thumb finishes healing. Then he'll be back in the trenches with the rest of us grunts, doing all the Special Forces dirty work."
"You're really sticking with this, aren't you?"
"For the next two years, at least," Matt shrugged. "We'll see how I feel after that."
"I think I might get my medical degree, maybe. Learn to patch people up for real. There's a college near Cookeville, y'know, I could still live at home, help my folks out around the place."
"You've got the VA bill, man. Use it." Matt thought it sounded like the best idea he'd heard all year. Hell, he'd drive Kurt down tomorrow and register him himself if he thought it would help. One of them had to move on, and have a shot at another kind of life.
Kurt cast him a sidelong glance, then scuffed his toes in the sand, making indiscriminate patterns. "You'll, uh, you'll say a few words for me, won't you? When you toss his ashes?"
"Yeah," Matt answered softly. "Yeah, of course. You bet."
He looked up as Hoot came wandering out of the bathroom, wearing a pair of jeans and nothing else, holding his shirt and boots in one hand. His hair and chest and arms were still damp from the shower (and honestly, Matt thought Hoot was even more ripped than he'd been in Somalia, he looked like he could bench a horse without sweating), and Matt could see that Hoot had a new tattoo just under his left arm, near his rib cage. Matt saw the familiar red and the sword of the Delta insignia, but he couldn't make out the words underneath.
Hoot noticed him staring as he sat on the sofa to put on his socks. "Something on your mind, Matt?"
Matt scrubbed a hand over the top of his head. He needed about a gallon of water and coffee and a few aspirin, then he'd feel a fuck of a lot more human. He was never, ever doing shots with Kurt again. "Not really." Even his voice sounded fuzzy. "Just, uh, you've gotten new ink since Somalia."
Hoot twisted a little to stare at the tattoo, then shrugged and pulled his shirt over his head and down his chest. "It's a list," he replied, calmly. "Griz, Randy, Gordy, Fillmore, Busch."
Every fellow Delta that had died during the battle. Matt felt a flush creep up his neck. He was suddenly ashamed that he'd never even thought to honor his fellow fallen brothers like that. "I'm, uh, gonna go hop in the shower."
Hoot bent to lace his boots, muscles rippling with the movement. "I'll see if Kurt's stashed any coffee in the kitchen."
Matt couldn't get to the bathroom fast enough. He shut the door and leaned heavily against it, feeling like he might be sick. Focus, man, focus. He calmed himself with deep breath after deep breath, until his hands didn't feel so clammy and his stomach settled to a manageable level. But it was a long time before he moved.
After a long, hot shower and four aspirin, Matt thought he could face the world without feeling like he was gonna lose it. But he refused Kurt's mother's offer of breakfast. No sense in tempting fate.
Hoot was his usual sadistic and spry self it wasn't right, man, it wasn't right at all. Matt was sure the dude was a Terminator or some kind of cyborg. Although he got major points for securing a big-ass to-go canteen of coffee for Matt for the drive, which meant Matt might not kill him before noon. Not that he thought he'd succeed, but he might get lucky.
Kurt walked them to the car. He didn't look in any better shape than Matt, which was comforting. At least he wasn't suffering alone. Kurt's hug was soft, like he was afraid Matt would break or something (or maybe he was afraid of breaking himself, who knew). "Stay safe on the road, man. Be a shame if you made it through the Mog and got your sorry ass killed because you can't drive for dick."
"Hey, man, that wasn't my fault," Matt protested, then explained, for Hoot's benefit: "When we were in stationed in Thailand a few years back, we might've had a run-in with a crater while driving around Bangkok."
"It was a ditch, and you drove right into it," Kurt grinned. "It was raining like a motherfucker and here we all are, in the mud and trying to push the car out with zero traction. Took us two hours."
"I've got a few stories like that myself," Hoot replied with a smile, then stuck out his hand for Kurt to shake. "You take care of yourself, Doc."
"You too, Hoot."
"And stay in touch," Matt called, when he climbed into the car and rolled the window down. Kurt gave a thumbs up. Matt kept his eyes on the rearview mirror, and Kurt, until they went around a curve and out of view.
"He'll be alright," Hoot quietly commented, his voice oddly gentle.
"Yeah." Matt let out a long breath. "Yeah, I know."
"So, who do you think has the best chance this year to win a ring?"
Matt tapped on the steering wheel in time to the music they'd been playing Metallica all morning and were on ...And Justice For All. After a pit stop in Murray, Kentucky, they'd been making pretty good time on Highway 17 on their way to Mark Twain National Forest and, according to Hoot, the best damn bass fishing in all of the United States. Matt was looking forward to camping out himself. He was pretty ambivalent about fishing mostly, he went with his buddies because there was always beer but he loved nothing more than sleeping outdoors.
Hoot set down his crossword book, and frowned, the space between his brows wrinkling in confusion. "Are we talking baseball? Shit, I didn't even know the strike was over."
Matt brought himself back to the conversation at hand. "Christ, Hoot, it was over last month. Where've you been? No, wait, don't tell me, you can't talk about it."
"Sorry," Hoot said, even though Matt knew he wasn't. "Guess it's good they're back on the field, though. Gonna take a long time before the fans forgive 'em for fucking up the World Series."
"Amen to that. So, who do you root for?"
"The Cardinals, I suppose. They're my home team."
"Yeah, that's right, you're from Missouri, aren't you?" It struck Matt, not for the first time, how little he really knew about Hoot: where he was from, what his civilian life was like if he even had one, how he grew up, if he'd ever wanted to do anything more than be a soldier. Like most guys in Delta, Hoot loved to talk, but carefully steered all conversation away from himself. It was a stark contrast from Matt's buddies in the Rangers, who couldn't get enough of sharing their life experiences with anyone who'd listen.
"Yeah, but we didn't get to many professional ballgames. Soccer's really more my thing."
"Really?" Matt couldn't hide his surprise. "Like, the UEFA and all that?" He'd have never pegged Hoot as liking anything that wasn't 100% full-blooded apple-pie American.
"Used to go to a lot of games when we were stationed in Germany," Hoot replied. "Not much else to do off-duty except hike, hunt, drink beer, and watch soccer. I got to appreciate the game and the fans. What about you? Who'd you grow up rooting for?"
"I was raised outside Philadelphia. Home of the Phillies and Eagles and some of the single most obnoxiously passionate sports fans you'll ever meet."
"Yeah? Randy was from Philly."
"Was he? I didn't know." Back in Somalia, the D-Boys had mostly kept to themselves, except for a select few, like Hoot and Griz and Sanderson, who'd taken the time to spend with some of the starry-eyed Rangers and impart wisdom and tips and tricks for getting through combat missions and dealing with the endless downtime in between. Matt, like the rest of his unit, had been too busy looking up to the men in Delta like gods a lean, mean fighting force to rival the ancient Spartans to joke around with them or treat any of them like one of the guys.
"He's still got family there, I think. I heard Stephanie and the kids moved there...after."
"I don't blame her." Like everyone else involved in the fighting that day, Matt hadn't actually seen the footage of the Somalis dragging Randy's body through the streets until he'd gotten stateside and a couple of his friends had shown it to him. The rage that had swept through him still scared him sometimes when he thought about it too much that anyone, even an enemy combatant, would so willfully disrespect the dead but he imagined it had to be ten times worse for Randy's actual friends and family. "Do you keep in touch with her?"
"Sanderson does," Hoot replied shortly, then opened his crossword book again, a clear signal that the conversation was finished. They didn't speak again until they pulled into a BP outside Boone for gas, and that was only to switch places so Hoot could drive.
Mark Twain National Forest was easily one of the most beautiful places Matt had ever seen. He could definitely see why Hoot liked coming here. The trees were majestic and bursting with spring leaves, the foliage was the sort of brilliant green that almost hurt the eyes, the wildflowers were just starting to bloom in radiant bursts of color, and the river near their camping site emptied into a picturesque lake that looked like something out of a Robert Frost poem. Even the air felt different. Cleaner, somehow.
Matt could definitely think of worse places to spend the night. And Hoot was clearly in his element. He'd visibly relaxed once they'd chosen a clear patch of land to set up camp and gotten their gear unpacked, the tenseness in his shoulders easing. He had even started singing (thankfully under his breath) while clearing out brush for a place to set up the firepit.
Matt finished putting together the tent a four-sleeper Coleman half-dome he'd had for years and was as durable as his car and started gathering firewood. Hoot was busy setting up a perimeter of rocks around the pit. They made a good team, he thought. It was nice to know that some things were still the same.
It was a perfect night to sear steaks over an open flame and drink beer around the fire and just be. Matt hadn't done nearly enough of that lately. He'd been too afraid to be alone with his thoughts to try.
He scooted his camp chair a little closer to the fire, feeling a little drowsy from both the excellent meal and the three Buds he'd had for dessert. Hoot was buried in reading his book, but nodded his thanks when Matt passed him another can from the cooler. Both had pulled on their lined BDU jackets when the sun had gone down the calendar may have said late spring, but clearly Missouri hadn't gotten the message. It felt like March.
"Did you used to camp with your old man?" Matt asked, curious and wanting a little conversation to keep himself awake. He wasn't quite ready to sack out yet. "That how you knew about this place?"
"Not really. He wasn't around too much." Hoot glanced up, then went back to his book. "But my granddad and uncle used to take me out. We came here sometimes."
Matt tried again. He wasn't in the mood to read and writing in his journal held little appeal at the moment. "What's that you're reading?"
"Great Poetry of the 20th Century."
That had to be a joke. "Come again?"
"Great Poetry of the 20th Century," Hoot repeated, and looked up with a smirk, dark eyes glowing from the dancing light of the fire. "What, you thought I didn't know how to read or something?"
"No, it's just...you've been reading poetry for the past two days?"
"I like figuring out what they're talking about. Keeps me thinking."
If Matt had a million years, he'd never understand what made Hoot tick. With his scruffed clothes and scruffier beard and hair curling wildly around his ears and the back of his neck, Hoot resembled more a mountain man than a scholar of the arts. "Read something to me."
"I don't believe you," Matt stated, certain that there was a punch line here and he just hadn't found it yet. "So, read me something from whatever poem you're on."
"Alright," Hoot drawled, clearly deciding he was going to humor Matt, then flipped the page again. He cleared his throat and, in a soft voice, began to recite:
"Do not let me hear Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly, Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession, Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God. The only wisdom we can hope to acquire Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless."
He closed the book and gave Matt a challenging look, but Matt was no longer in the mood to tease him. Instead, there was only the flick of a lighter as Hoot lit a cigarette.
Matt gagged as the stench of blood overwhelmed him, choking out every breath as he held the ragged edges of Jamie's wound open for Doc to maneuver. Jamie'd passed out, thank fuck for small favors, but there was still far too much blood saturating Matt's hands. He knew Doc was saying something to him, but he couldn't hear past the roaring in his ears, couldn't think beyond a simple prayer:
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.
Pray for us.
Matt took a long drink from his canteen to wash the (psychosomatic, he knew) metallic taste of blood out of his mouth before quietly letting himself out of the tent, careful not to make too much noise when he zipped the flap shut behind him. The camp chairs were still in place near the fire pit and Matt pulled on his boots and jacket before settling in one. He knew there'd be no more sleep for him tonight. At least he'd gotten a couple of hours.
He studied the trees surrounding him, the stars twinkling above, remote and unreachable. It seemed so peaceful out in the black. For a moment, he cursed that his height made it impossible for him to go through astronaut or fighter pilot training.
He envied Hoot's ability to switch everything off and sleep without the nightmares or ghosts haunting his sleep. Was it a Delta thing maybe something he'd been taught when he got the tab? Or maybe it was innate, a raw talent that Delta honed to a fine edge. Matt had a couple of friends in the Rangers that had gotten through the grueling training and into Delta Force, and the change in them had been astonishing to witness. It was like they became different men without fear or remorse or doubt. What must it be like to have such human frailties drilled out of you until you were nothing more than an elite killing machine? To have such rock solid certainty of your mission and your place, to be unencumbered by anything as plebeian as your own subconscious rebelling against you while you slept.
Learning that trick would be worth just about any price.
Matt let his thoughts drift even as he kept a close grip on his fishing rod. Not like there were any bass biting this morning, which was just as well. Instead, he thought about the poem Hoot had recited last night "the only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility" and wondered if Hoot had chosen those lines on purpose. God knew Matt had been trying to let go of what had happened in the Mog, but it wasn't easy. Nothing came easy these days.
He was so sick and tired of defining his life between Before and After. Like he'd never get back to normal, or what passed for it these days. There had to be something wired wrong in his brain he didn't know anyone else, other than maybe Kurt, who was as fucked up over everything that had happened. He didn't want to forget; he just wanted the option of not thinking about it. Just for one fucking day. That would be nice.
There had to be a happy medium. Somewhere. And Matt was going to find it if it killed him.
Hoot let go of one hand on the steering wheel to tap at the back of Matt's journal. They'd been back on the road for about an hour. Neither had caught anything, but Matt had thought maybe Hoot had just wanted to spend a few hours doing nothing. "Been meaning to ask you," Hoot said. "What is that you're always writing in that thing?"
"It's, uh, a journal." Matt shifted uncomfortably in his seat, cursing himself for the defensive action. Hoot had just asked a question wasn't like he was asking to read it. "Y'know, I like to write out my thoughts. Started one when I was in college and it stuck."
"Like a diary? What you've done, innermost thoughts and dreams and all that?"
"It's a journal," Matt stressed. "Diaries are for teenage girls."
"I see. Journals are diaries for guys?"
It took a minute a very long minute for Matt to figure out that Hoot was fucking with him. "You sonofabitch."
Hoot's laughter filled the space between them as he slapped at the steering wheel. "You should see your face."
"Are you pouting, princess? You are, aren't you?"
"Shut up," Matt grumbled, wondering if anyone would blame him if he shot Hoot and buried the body where no one could find it. "Lots of people keep journals."
"I know, I was just messing with you." Then Hoot added, in a much more serious tone: "Do you mind if we make a quick stop near Leonard Wood?"
"You know someone at Lost in the Woods?" Matt asked, curious. He thought all of Hoot's friends were stationed with him at Bragg.
"Kinda, yeah." Hoot seemed to wrestle with himself for a minute before speaking. His voice held an odd, hesitant quality to it that Matt had never heard before. "My old man's in a facility right off base."
Facility? Matt wondered what kind, but didn't want to intrude. He'd find out soon enough, and Hoot seemed pretty uncomfortable talking about it. "Of course, man. No problem. You grew up around here?"
"Yeah," Hoot nodded, looking relieved at the slight change of topic. "After Korea, my dad was stationed at Leonard Wood this is back when it was still an infantry base, before the division up and moved to Ft. Riley."
"I didn't know your dad fought in Korea."
"Lost an uncle in Vietnam, too. My granddaddy fought in World War I and my great-granddad in the Spanish-American War."
Hoot's family sounded very different than his own. Matt's parents were both teachers at the local high school and, while he knew they were proud of him for his accomplishments and for his service, they didn't understand why he'd joined both the Army, then had gone through RIP to join the Rangers. They never would, and that was fine.
But a few more things about Hoot started to make more sense. He wasn't in the Army out of some gung-ho sense of macho-ism. And small wonder Hoot always sounded so certain of what he was doing and why. It wasn't a Delta thing it was pure and simple, tradition. Familial pride in following a legacy set by his forefathers. Not running from the past, like Matt had, but embracing it.
It had started raining in fits and starts over the last hour or so, and the clouds were a heavy, angry blanket across the sky. It seemed to fit the mood inside the car. Hoot had been mostly silent, pensive almost, if Matt had to pin a single word on him. Somehow, it made Hoot seem...human. Mortal, just like everyone else.
The facility was a VA-run hospice care building about five miles from Fort Leonard Wood. It was a pretty enough place, as far as it went. The building, painted a cheerful yellow, looked like it had been converted from an old plantation or mansion, with a nice, airy porch that wrapped around the front and sides. The lawn had a nice-looking garden and plenty of paths wide enough for a wheelchair or two. It was clear Hoot was no stranger to the place he walked right in the front door and spoke briefly to the receptionist on duty before turning down a long corridor. Matt followed at a discreet pace. He felt a little like he was intruding on something incredibly private.
The room was a reflection of the place bright and airy, with the walls painted the same yellow as the exterior. There were two chairs beside a large hospital bed that dominated the space, but it was the man resting in the bed that took up all of Matt's attention. He'd clearly been a powerful man in his prime Matt could see where Hoot had gotten his build but his body had been ravaged by disease, maybe cancer, maybe pneumonia, it was hard to tell and Matt was no medical expert. He just knew the man lying in front of him looked like death personified. His skin was sallow, stretched tight over protruding bone. Every breath seemed to rattle his ribcage. His hair, what little there was of it, was a faded white. Only his eyes, the same dark brown as Hoot's, were clear and sharp.
Hoot half-turned when Matt stopped beside him, then went back to studying the wasted figure on the bed with an unreadable expression. "Matt, this is my dad, Master Sergeant Norman Gibson." Hoot's voice softened when he addressed his father. "Dad, this is a buddy of mine. Matt Eversmann. We served together in Somalia."
"Sir," Matt nodded, thankful he was able to get the word out without stuttering.
Hoot's father garbled something unintelligible that might've been a greeting, then fell back against the pillows, clearly exhausted by the effort of movement. Hoot placed his hand on top of his father's, the healthy tan of his skin stark contrast to the sickly yellow. "It's okay, Dad," he said, softly. "It's okay, just relax."
Matt left them to their privacy and slipped out the door and to the porch, and took several slow, cleansing breaths. The rain had started again, but it was just a sprinkle this time. Matt easily ignored it, still shaken by what he'd just seen. He wondered if this was what he had to look forward to down the road. Fuck knew what sort of toll all the years of combat did to a person's soul until it had to manifest itself physically.
He bowed his head, clasped his hands together, and silently recited the Lord's Prayer, taking comfort in the familiar litany of his own childhood. Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name
God may have bigger things to worry about than the well-being of one man, but, as Matt's mom was always fond of saying, praying never hurt a soul. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.
"And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," he murmured under his breath, hoping beyond hope that someone was listening.
"And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil "
Matt jerked his head up in surprise Hoot was standing next to him, a sad mockery of a smile on his face. He'd never even heard the door open or Hoot move.
" For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever, Amen," they finished in harmony, and Matt made the sign of the cross as Hoot continued to look at him with that same sad smile.
"I bet you were an altar boy," Hoot commented, sounding far too controlled and normal.
"Nine years." No point denying it. "That obvious, huh?"
Hoot flicked at Matt's t-shirt, right above his breastbone. "The rosary tattoo you've got is a pretty big giveaway."
"What about you? I don't think you were praying with me to keep me company."
"I'm not much of one for church, but that don't mean I don't believe in God." Hoot let out a mirthless chuckle. "Griz used to say there were no atheists in foxholes."
"I'm pretty sure he didn't invent that phrase."
"Either way, it's still true. Did he ever show you his drawings?"
Matt nodded. "I saw one or two. He was really good."
"Yeah, he was." Hoot fell silent. Then, in a much softer voice, almost like a confession: "My old man he, uh, he was never quite right after Korea. He was able to hide it for awhile after he came home, got married, started a family, but one day, when I was, I dunno, four maybe, something inside him just...snapped. He was never there after. Not really. No one can figure out what's wrong with him...it's like he just decided to waste away, and no one can do anything about it."
It sounded terrifying. Matt wanted to ask if Hoot was afraid if that would happen to him one day. He wanted to ask what really happened in Bosnia and if what he'd heard was true. But he asked neither. Instead, he bumped his shoulder against Hoot's in silent support. Hoot leaned against him gratefully.
Neither moved for a long time.
"Pull over." It was the first thing Hoot had said since leaving his old man's, five very long hours ago.
Matt did as ordered, pulling into the small gravel lot just off the main highway. There was a small soccer field on the other side, and a group of about 15 middle-school aged kids kicking a ball around in what looked like an impromptu game. Matt could see backpacks and books lining the edges of the field they must've just gotten out of school and decided to play.
Hoot climbed out of the car, and jogged to the group. "Hey, who needs a goalie?" he asked, in a friendly, easy tone.
One of the kids, a dark-haired skinny boy about 10 or 11, widened his eyes when he got a good look at Hoot's size. "Mister, you're bigger than our entire goal post."
"Eh, let him play, we'll crush you anyway. We don't need a giant to goalie," another boy a stocky blond said, clearly on the opposing team.
"Ev, can you goalie?" Hoot called to Matt, who nodded automatically, still confused as to why the hell they'd stopped. Hoot jerked his thumb in Matt's direction, but spoke to the blond. "Your guys can have him, then, to make it even."
An appraising gaze eyed Matt up and down, then he nodded and stuck out his hand to Hoot. Hoot's easily dwarfed it, but the shake was professional and no-nonsense. "It's a deal. I'm Brandon."
"I'm Hoot. That's Matt."
"Hey, I'm Matt, too!" the dark-haired boy exclaimed, and gave Matt a wide, toothy grin. "Everyone calls me Matty, though."
"Everyone called me Matty when I was a kid, too," Matt commiserated, giving Matty a conspiratorial wink. He still had no idea what was going on, but he liked kids well enough, and this group seemed cool.
"You guys in the Army or something?" another kid a girl with braids and skinned knees piped up. "You've got funny Army haircuts. Well, he does," she amended, pointing at Matt.
"We sure are," Hoot replied. "Now, are we playing ball or what?"
A chorus of cheers went up from the crowd, and they divided into teams. Matt took one goal post, and Hoot the other. An older kid with one arm in a sling played referee, blowing loudly (and very enthusiastically) on a whistle to start the game.
It was clear from the first minute of play that these kids were not fucking around. They were really good like, probably on the local soccer team that had gone to State or something, good. The ball was a blur moving up and down the pitch, with the kids making quick kicks, impossible stops, and bending the ball in ways he'd never even seen. Matt's team had already gotten past Hoot for one goal, and a forward (or whatever they were called) on the other team was barreling towards him at a rocket-like velocity. Matt kept his eye on the ball, feinted left, and was completely fooled when it was kicked over to the right and went in just inside the post.
He picked himself off the ground, dusted some of the dirt from his jeans and shirt, and saw Brandon eyeing him. "You might want to keep an eye on Michelle," Brandon said, helpfully, and pointed at the girl who'd kicked the goal. "Her dad used to play for Chelsea. That's in England. They call it football there."
"Got it," Matt said, giving Brandon the thumbs up. Inwardly, he groaned. They had the daughter of a former professional player on one of the teams. He and Hoot were about to get slaughtered by a bunch of pint-sized sharks.
But Matt couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Hoot smile so easily, without any shadows or irony behind it.
Brandon and Matty both stopped in front of them, backpacks slung over their shoulders. "You guys did okay out there," Brandon said. Matt got the feeling, for him, that was high praise.
"We play every day around this time if the weather's good," Matty added. "If you come back this way, look us up. We'll give you some pointers."
"Look forward to it," Hoot grinned, and didn't move until the last kid had long since gone. "That was a good game," he finally said.
"We got our asses kicked."
"Yeah, I know." Hoot turned that blinding smile on him, eyes twinkling with honest amusement. "Fun, wasn't it?"
Matt could only shake his head and laugh. "Yeah. Yeah, it was. But next time, we're joining a baseball game. I can hit a helluva lot better than I can goalie."
Matt shielded his eyes from the sun with his hand; he'd left his sunglasses in the car. "Can I ask what brought this on?"
For a second, he didn't think Hoot was going to answer. Then, he seemed to come to some sort of decision, and replied: "Me and Gary and Randy used to, um...there was this group of school kids when we were stationed in Korea, that used to play most afternoons. And we'd join 'em sometimes, sometimes with Griz, sometimes not, us against the kids. Got spanked most of the time, but the kids loved it. Thought it was the most fun thing ever, playing soccer with a bunch of soldiers."
"I wish I'd known them better."
Hoot seemed a million miles away for a moment. But his gaze seemed to pierce right through all of Matt's carefully erected defenses. "Me too."
'Well, come on," Matt said, when he could find his voice. He got the feeling something important had just happened, but he couldn't figure out what. And, in any case, this wasn't the time to try to figure it out. "Thought we'd stop for the night on the other side of Wichita. Another storm's supposed to blow through tonight and I don't wanna be on the road when it happens."
"Look at you, you're like a kid at Christmas," Hoot commented, sounding far too amused as he walked alongside Matt. Then again, Hoot hadn't even wanted to stop in Dodge City, so his opinion clearly didn't count.
Matt lazily flipped him off. He couldn't stop grinning at everything it was all so lovingly replicated and preserved. "Are you kidding me, this is fucking-A. Didn't you ever play Cowboys and Indians as a kid?"
"Sure," Hoot said, scratching at his beard as he looked around, "but I was always the Indian."
"Somehow, that doesn't surprise me. Probably where you learned all of your guerilla tactics," Matt said, and really, knowing that made sense. Fucking Delta. "But me, I always wanted to be John Wayne or Gary Cooper."
"And I'm not surprised that you wanted to wear the white hat."
"I liked that they stood for something." Matt wasn't going to apologize for his beliefs or for being an idealist. Hell, he still believed it, even after everything that had happened. "I mean, c'mon, what's your favorite Western?"
"High Noon, if I had to pick."
"Exactly." Matt punctuated the word with a jab of his finger to the air. "And look around you, man. This is total High Noon country. It's awesome," he repeated.
"Knock yourself out, kid."
"Oh no, you're not getting out of sightseeing with me. There's a museum around here somewhere that recreates an actual saloon shoot-out."
"Explain to me why we'd want to see a bunch of actors recreating a shoot-out when we've been in the real thing?"
It was a close call, but Matt refrained from smacking Hoot upside the head. He had a feeling Hoot would take the gesture as an invitation to beat the shit out of him if he did, and while he was confident in his brawling skills, he knew he had nothing on Hoot's prowess. "Because we don't fire six-shooters or wear cowboy hats," is all he offered, instead. "Now, you coming or what?"
"I want it noted this is under protest."
"Duly noted." Even though they both knew that if Hoot really hadn't wanted to be there, nothing Matt could have said or done would have changed his mind. "So, what is your favorite movie, then? I mean, you obviously don't like Westerns, so what do you like?" Beyond Hoot's musical preferences for classic rock and heavy metal, Matt didn't know much about his pop culture taste.
Hoot's reply was prompt, and surprising. "Dumbo."
Matt was sure he'd heard that wrong. "The Disney film?"
Hoot lowered his brows, managing to look both imposing and like an annoyed kid all at once. "You gotta problem with Disney films?"
"No, of course not, just, um. Like, for real?"
"My grandmother used to take me to see classic Disney movies on Saturday mornings at the local cinema during the summer," Hoot shrugged, like it was no big deal that he had just upended another one of Matt's long-held assumptions about him.
"Okay. Just, uh, would've figured you for Bridge Over the River Kwai or Apocalypse Now or something."
"I don't need to watch someone else's view of what war really means."
"Roger that," Matt agreed softly. He'd lost his taste for war films himself in the last year or so himself. The bad ones just pissed him off with their inaccuracies and the good ones reminded him too much of what he'd lost.
"But, hey, this is your stop," Hoot continued, and Matt got the feeling he wanted to change the subject as much as Matt. "You hung with me yesterday and played some soccer. The least I can do is play tourist with you."
"I appreciate it." And then, because he knew it would annoy Hoot, he added, "Maybe we can get you a cowboy hat, get you in the spirit of things."
Hoot just laughed. "Not in a million years, Ev."
Matt smiled to himself and held the door open to the Boot Hill Museum, gesturing Hoot inside. They'd see about that.
"Holy shit." Matt couldn't believe his eyes. He rattled the newspaper, check the article again, but the print stayed the same.
Hoot stopped humming along to 'Angry Chair' and lifted an eyebrow in question. They'd just passed the Colorado state line a few miles ago, and switched places so Hoot could drive and Matt could catch up on the day's news. "Holy shit, what?"
"You're not gonna believe this," Matt commented, then cleared his throat and read: "Yesterday, General Mohamed Farrah Aidid declared himself President of Somalia, following a swearing-in ceremony in the capital city of Mogadishu. Aidid, long a target for the U.S. military..." Matt tossed the paper to the floorboard in disgust. "I can't even read anymore. That fucking asshole is still breathing and declaring himself fucking overlord of Somalia, and we weren't even allowed to finish our mission to bring him down."
"I'll admit he's not my choice for President, but maybe a little stability is what the people need."
"You're telling me you're okay with this?"
"I'm telling you it don't matter what we think," Hoot shrugged. "Aidid stopped being our priority over a year ago."
"Of course it matters," Matt exclaimed, amazed that Hoot could be so willfully ignorant. "Our friends died, Hoot. And for what, so our government could prop up some fascist government that starves its own citizens and partner ourselves with a mass murderer who sent an entire city after us to kill us?"
"Our friends died because their country and president demanded it, because we swore to uphold an oath. It's not about politics, kid, how many times do I need to tell you that?"
Matt couldn't believe he was hearing this. It was one thing to follow orders that's what soldiers did but this wasn't about following orders or bullshit Army clichιs about doing one's duty. "Is that what you tell yourself to sleep at night? That Shughart and Gordon's bodies were dragged through the streets, and Dom and Jamie and Lorenzo and Casey and everyone else all died, and it's okay because they swore a fucking oath?"
"It's war." Hoot's grip on the steering wheel tightened. His voice took on a rough burr of barely suppressed annoyance. "That's what war is. But I'll tell you something you'd go right back out there again, right now, no questions asked. And so would I. And that is something the civilians and politicians'll never get, not in a million years. And it's not because we're adrenaline junkies or we like shooting big guns to compensate for a small dick or because we think our way of life is better than the rest of the goddamn world. We do it because there is no purer love out there than what one soldier feels for another when their lives are in each other's hands. Nothing else can touch it."
The open, honest passion in Hoot's voice was like a slap in the face, instantly deflating Matt's righteous sense of anger.
"Nothing else can touch it," Matt repeated, softly. What else could compete with that camaraderie and closeness? Once you'd faced death with someone, you were bound together forever.
Hoot sighed, and loosened his hands on the steering wheel. "Look, let's just...I dunno, get to the next town and I'll buy you a beer or something and we can get drunk and forget the politics and all that bullshit. The last thing I want to do is argue with you, especially about this."
"Yeah, sure." Matt's reply was automatic. Hoot had, once again, managed to make him feel like a green kid fresh out of basic, and he hated it. Hated even more that Hoot was right he was always fucking right.
They stopped in a roadside bar that looked like it had seen much happier days, but the place was packed and the beer was nice and cold, and that was really what mattered. Matt hadn't said much to Hoot since they'd stopped he was still annoyed at him, to be honest but he was happy to see that Hoot had kept his promise to pay.
Fuck Hoot anyway. He knew Hoot was just as fucked up about Somalia as he was. If he wasn't, he wouldn't freeze up every time he mentioned Randy or Griz or Gary. If he wasn't fucked up, he would have talked about Bosnia already (and Matt wanted to throw that in his face, just to show him how hypocritical he was). He was so sick to death of Hoot's condescending calm. Maybe Hoot thought Matt was too stupid to see through the tough guy stoicism, but Matt understood far more than Hoot gave him credit for.
He kept slamming shot after shot (Hoot had wandered off awhile ago, Matt had no idea where and didn't care), hoping he could get drunk enough to pass out somewhere and maybe get a decent night's sleep for once, but alcohol didn't seem to be doing the trick. He was still pissed off. It was promising to be a long night.
The couple right next to him at the bar were also having a bad night. They appeared to be in the middle of a rather vocal argument and the girl said something, then turned to presumably stalk off somewhere else. The guy she was with grabbed her arm to keep her from moving, and Matt could hear her surprised gasp of pain even over the music from the jukebox. Something inside him snapped at the sound. An icy calm washed over him, bringing everything into crystal clear focus.
He tapped on the guy's shoulder. "The lady said to leave her alone."
The guy jerked his hand away from the girl and turned to face Matt, wobbly with drink and anger. He was slightly shorter than Matt, but stocky, broad through the shoulders and chest, looked like he might've played some football in high school, but wasn't as active now. "Fuck you, buddy. It's not your business."
"Well, I'm making it my business. So, apologize to the lady and we can all get back to our evenings."
"Screw you. I don't need to apologize for shit." The guy's gaze turned hard and mean as he raked it over Matt. "I know that stupid-ass haircut of yours. Fucking Ranger, man, think you're so much better than the rest of us who were in the infantry. Well, I got news for you. The rest of us worked just as hard."
It would just about figure that Matt had to have a beef with a former infantry dick. Well, fuck this asshole and his whining. "Let me guess. You humped the rear your entire tour and you're pissed that you never saw any action or killed anyone?" He poked the guy in the chest. "Let me tell you something "
"Matt, come on, let's get out of here," Hoot said, appearing at his side as if by magic. But then, Hoot had plenty of training in moving like a ghost.
Matt shook his arm off. He didn't want to calm down or go anywhere else. He wanted this fucking sorry asshole to understand how lucky and pathetic he was.
"This your boyfriend?" the guy asked, with an inebriated aura of bravado. "You better listen to him and back off before I wipe the floor with you."
"I don't need any help to kick your ass," Matt stated, and smiled his best fuck-you smile.
He easily dodged the first swing, then came in hard and fast to the guy's middle, going for his solar plexus, then dropping him like a stone with a well-placed punch to the kidneys. The dude's friends three of them who'd been standing to the side up to this point, roared in displeasure, and Matt welcomed the challenge. He hadn't been in a good old-fashioned bar fight since The Traffic Light right after basic.
"Aren't you going to help your friend?" he heard the girl ask Hoot.
"Oh, he's got this," Hoot replied, but he didn't sound too proud or happy about it. Well, fuck Hoot, too. Matt could handle himself, especially in a showdown with three drunk civilians who had no idea how to fight.
He'd just delivered the last punch and was congratulating himself on a job well done when the cops arrived.
Matt looked up when the outer door to the holding cell clanged opened. "You got five minutes," the officer said, and stepped aside to let Hoot pass.
Great, just what he needed. He rolled onto his back on the hard bunk so he wouldn't have to see Hoot's smug expression. "What are you doing here?"
"Well, I thought about baking you a cake with a file in it, but that seemed a bit like overkill," Hoot drawled, like this was the funniest thing he'd witnessed all week.
"You're a fucking comedian. You should quit Delta and go on the road." He didn't need this shit. He was already annoyed with himself for getting arrested, his knuckles were scraped and raw and throbbing and he was starting to sober up. The last thing he needed was Hoot laughing at him.
"Alright, seriously. The sheriff here's a vet. Vietnam," Hoot added, when Matt didn't say anything. "Said he'd be cool with releasing you to my custody if you promised to behave until we left state lines. Apparently the guys you pummeled aren't the most popular gang in town."
Hoot, coming to his rescue again. Just like always, Matt thought to himself, then rolled to stand on slightly wobbly feet. "I didn't ask for your help," he said, voice shaking with anger. "I don't need you to fight my battles for me or bail me out."
"Matt, it's not like that."
"Yeah, it is. And you know what? Fuck you. Maybe I don't need you mentoring me or babysitting me anymore, goddammit." Matt hit the bars of the cage in frustration. "I'm not your goddamn pet project or part of your redemption for what happened in the Mog or in Bosnia or wherever the fuck."
Hoot didn't flinch, but Matt could see a brief flare of heat in his eyes before he spoke. "I don't think you're a pet project. Or that I need redemption."
"You lying sack. You think you're some sort of superman or something, and you're not. At least I'm not afraid of admitting I've got nightmares." He rubbed his face tiredly, suddenly exhausted by the argument, by Hoot, by everything. It wasn't worth it. "Now go, man. I've got to sleep this shit off and I can't do that if I'm arguing with your sorry ass."
He waited until Hoot had left before sinking back down onto his cot. Already, he could feel the start of a vicious hangover hovering just behind his eyes.
Hoot held out the cup when Matt got close enough. "I've got aspirin, if you need it," he said, as calm and cool as ever. Like last night had never happened and Matt hadn't behaved like an immature drunken asshole.
"Gimme." Matt cradled the cup gratefully and took the first bracing hot sip. It scalded the shit out of his tongue, but he didn't care. Already, he felt a little more human. Hoot gave him three aspirin and he swallowed them (again, gratefully) before going back to the coffee. He was still craving a bacon and egg sandwich, but this would definitely do him until he could get some grease into his system.
"Thanks," he finally said, when he thought he could form actually words, and not just grunts. He was appreciative as fuck for his Ray-Bans that blocked the worst of the sun's brutal rays, and he was desperate for a shower and about four more hours of sleep. But, first things first. "Look, I, uh, I said some shit last night..."
"All of it earned," Hoot interrupted, in a firm voice that brooked no argument. "Don't worry about it. Ready for some breakfast?"
If Hoot wanted to pretend like nothing happened, Matt sure as hell wasn't going to argue the matter. "I could murder a big plate of hash browns and some eggs and bacon right about now."
"Well, hop in. There's a diner up the road next to the motel. You can grab a shower after."
"Right now, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, I love you."
Hoot chuckled, the sound rusty, but sincere, and opened the driver's side door. "You're still buying breakfast."
Four Corners Monument wasn't much to look at, but Hoot and Matt figured it was worth a small detour, anyway. It wasn't like either of them were ever going to pass this way again.
"Twombles and Nelson came through here once," Matt commented, looking down at the marble plaque that noted which state was where. They were currently standing in New Mexico. Oddly, it didn't feel any different than standing in Utah. "Laid themselves out like they were playing Twister or something and got someone to snap a few shots."
"I am not playing Twister with you on a monument."
Matt barked out a surprised laugh. "I wasn't asking, man. But now I gotta ask where your sense of adventure is."
"Let's just say it doesn't involve playing Twister in a public place."
Matt groaned at the obvious, and really bad, innuendo, even though he was secretly thrilled that he and Hoot were back to standard operating procedure. He'd honestly been afraid that Hoot wouldn't want to speak to him again. Hoot just hooked an arm around Matt's neck and dragged him to the middle so they could have a look around. The view was pretty boring and didn't look much different in any of the four states, but Matt supposed that wasn't really the point.
By mutual decision, they decided to stop in Tuba City for the night and drive the last hundred miles or so to the Grand Canyon first thing in the morning. Neither wanted to get there after dark, and it had been threatening to storm all day. No point in pushing themselves, Hoot had said, and Matt agreed. Today, Matt would have agreed with Hoot on just about anything.
In fact, on the walk back to their hotel after grabbing dinner at the local Denny's, the skies opened up in a flash of lightning. Instantly, both Hoot and Matt were drenched from the deluge, rain pouring in thick sheets, thunder rumbling in the distance, promising even more rain on the way.
Matt started to make a run for it towards the shelter of the hotel lobby, then gave it up after a couple of steps. He was soaked to the bone, may as well not tempt fate and slip on the slick sidewalk. He turned, walking backwards, and saw Hoot just standing where he'd left him. His hair was plastered to his head, t-shirt clinging to his body like a second skin, and his shorts were so wet they seemed molded to his thighs. As Matt watched, transfixed, ignoring his own sodden state, Hoot closed his eyes and turned his face to the heavens as if in prayer. In that moment, he resembled nothing so much as an ancient Greek god come to life, as much a part of nature as the trees and grass.
Unbidden, he was reminded of a snippet from a poem he'd read somewhere, or maybe one Hoot had read aloud to him sometime in the last few days: I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river is a strong brown godsullen, untamed and intractable, patient to some degree...destroyer, reminder of what men choose to forget. That's who Hoot was, he thought. An untamed, intractable force of nature, sweeping everyone into his vortex. Matt admired it as much as he resented it who didn't want to be the center of their own universe, rather than a small moon in someone else's orbit? But he understood, at last, why it was he kept seeking Hoot out in Somalia and during the battle and after and even now.
"You're a fucking lunatic!" he called, raising his voice to be heard over the rain.
"From you, I'll take that as a compliment," Hoot replied, and shook his head like a dog, spraying even more water around, like it wasn't still pouring cats and dogs. "You wanna do a few laps, burn off some energy?"
"Are you serious?"
"Come on," Hoot waved. "We've been in a car all damn day. A run'll do us some good."
"We're on leave, Hoot. Which means vacation."
"Your body still needs to train."
Matt glanced down at his shoes he was wearing his cross-trainers then shrugged. What the hell. Not like he was going to get less wet. "Alright, fuck it. Someone's gotta keep your ego in check."
"That's my boy."
"Bring it, Grandpa. All we ever do in the Rangers is run."
"Well, come on, then, let's see what you're made of. Say, that little park we passed earlier?"
It was a close race both were of a height with each other, and Matt hadn't been lying about the amount of running he had to do on a regular basis but, in the end, Hoot was just that much faster. Matt couldn't even summon the energy to be surprised. Hoot may be human after all, but no way was he a mere mortal.
The rain had slowed to a steady fall by the time Matt flopped to his back on the grass, mud squishing around him. Hoot sat cross-legged next to him, looking completely unwinded, like they'd just taken a leisurely stroll instead of a mile-long sprint. "First guy I ever lost was in Panama, during the invasion," he said quietly, the words echoing in the sudden silence.
Matt froze in place, afraid to breathe too loudly, lest he stop Hoot's from speaking. He had no idea what had brought this on, but he wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. "Was it anyone you knew well?" he asked, deliberately making his voice as gentle as he could.
"Not really. I'd only been in Delta a few months by that point, so I didn't really know all the guys. But I felt it. We all felt it, the way you do when one of your own goes down. But the first time I lost friends..." he paused, swallowed.
"The Mog?" Matt guessed.
"Yeah." Hoot turned a tired smile in Matt's direction. "Guess we weren't so different out there that day."
"You helped me keep my shit together," Matt said, meaning the words with every fiber of his being. "I owe you a debt I will never be able to repay."
"I don't want your gratitude. I never have."
"Well, that's too bad, because I'm more grateful than I can tell you."
In answer, Hoot just reached out and rubbed a hand across the top of Matt's head, callused fingers catching in the bristles.
The view was, in the most literal sense of the word, breath-taking, so stupendous that it defied description. But Matt couldn't force himself to get excited about finally getting to see it with his own eyes. He wasn't sure he could ever think about the Grand Canyon again without thinking of death. Just one more thing the Mog had managed to steal from him, he thought. Just one more way he'd changed.
He and Hoot parked at a deserted observation point, and got out of the car, the wind whipping around them like an embrace. Hoot shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket, but stood as tall and proud as ever, like he was daring the wind to try to move him. Matt hunkered into his own jacket as he dug the vial out of its protective packaging in his duffel, and they walked to the cliff's edge, both of them looking down at the endless valley below.
"Did you want to say a few words or anything?" Hoot asked, gently.
"No." Matt shook his head, throat working. What was there to say that he hadn't said already?
Forgive me, he offered silently, even though he knew that Jamie would have never blamed him he knew Matt and Doc and everyone else had done all they could.
He took the lid off the stopper, and tipped it out over the edge of the cliff. They watched as the ashes floated in the current, drifting into the Canyon and beyond, and Matt felt that maybe his soul was right there, soaring along with Jamie's. Finally free.
Hoot was the first to break the almost tangible silence. "You asked me a few days ago about Bosnia."
"You don't have to talk about it." Last week had it only been a week ago he would have given anything to have Hoot open up to him, to talk to him and treat him like an equal. But that was before he'd understood that, for Hoot, they'd never been anything but equals the entire time. The revelation was...humbling.
Hoot squinted against the harsh light of the sun. He didn't reach for his Oakleys to shield his eyes. Matt tried not to read too much into it. "I really thought I was doing good, y'know, I thought I was handling my shit, standing tall, doing what needed to be done, like always." Hoot's voice was naked, raw, completely devoid of his normal insouciance or deflection. "And then we got the call to Bosnia and it was brutal, Matt, you can't imagine how bad it was. Seeing what this country was doing to itself and, I dunno, maybe it did remind me of Somalia, but it felt worse. Because Randy and Gordy and Griz weren't there. Does that make any sense?"
Matt had to clear his throat before he could speak. "Yeah," he managed. He sounded as raw as Hoot. "The unit wasn't the same."
"Exactly. And maybe we were all getting used to that void, maybe we all felt it, maybe that's why no one stopped me. But when we got to that safe house and those fucking smug bastards were just there, y'know, just laying down their weapons as cool as cucumbers, like surrendering made up for all the shit they'd done...and I swear to you, my finger was on the trigger before I even registered it..."
He'd heard enough. "Hoot," he said, and squeezed Hoot's shoulder. It felt like granite under his hand. "It's okay, man. It's okay."
Blindly, Hoot reached up and laid his hand over Matt's, clutching so tight that Matt could barely feel his fingers. "I was so fucking mad. I don't think I've ever been that mad before in my life."
"It's okay," Matt repeated. He didn't know what else to say.
"You wanna know the really fucked up part?" When Hoot looked at him, Matt could see all of his own demons and fears reflected in Hoot's gaze. "When I was done, for a split second, I thought about turning the gun on myself."
Matt fought to keep himself from recoiling in horror. "Jesus..."
"Jeff disarmed me before I could really think about it too much."
Matt reminded himself to buy Sanderson the biggest drink in existence the next time he saw him. The mere idea of a world without Hoot in it... No way in hell, man. No way.
"You remember what you said to me at the Alamo? Right after Jamie died?" He plowed on, not waiting for Hoot to answer. It was his turn to grab onto Hoot's hand and not let go. "You told me that should haves or could haves didn't matter, because it was just war, and there wasn't any controlling it, and that I'd have plenty of time to think about all of this shit later. Well, I've had time to think, and what I think is that you saved my life. And not just mine, but everyone still left in my chalk. Because of you, I was able to focus and lead my men out of there, and I don't know how that balances out the books in God's plan, but it...it matters, okay? It matters."
"Okay." Hoot nodded, the motion jerky, and let out a shuddering breath. "Okay," he said again, and it was the easiest thing in the world to press his lips to Hoot's, to pour everything that couldn't be said that didn't need to be said into something as real and simple as a kiss. Matt had a split second of panic when Hoot shifted, but it was just to bring their bodies into closer alignment, and Matt relaxed into the next kiss, trusting Hoot completely, following his lead like always. There was only the endless now - the feel of chapped, but gentle lips against his, rough stubble scraping against his chin, the pounding of his heart beating in time to Hoot's, grounding him and nothing outside this mattered.
They were both short of breath the next time they lifted their heads. Matt waited for the jolt of shame or panic or embarrassment, and was mildly surprised when all he felt was a singular sense of rightness. Like maybe he and Hoot had been on this path for the last year and a half, and they were always meant to wind up here.
Hoot slid his hand down Matt's shoulder, along his arm, and briefly tangled their fingers together the movement somehow more intimate than the kisses they'd just shared before stepping back. "You ready to do a little exploring?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I think I'd like that."
Hoot flashed him a private smile, then turned to trudge back towards the car. Matt started to follow, then pivoted, looking back over the cliff wall to the stunning vista laid out before him. "I miss you, man," he said, letting the words carry in the wind, knowing Jamie would hear them, wherever he was.
Then he spun on his heel and started towards the car and Hoot.
The temperature had plummeted during the night, and he shivered as he threw back the sleeping bag and crawled into a pair of jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and his jacket. The vision that greeted him when he left the tent was nothing short of Biblical. Proof that God existed, and that true beauty could be found in the world.
He quickly crossed himself, offered a quick prayer for himself and another for Hoot (he wouldn't pray for forgiveness for last night the Church could say what it wanted about certain matters, but Matt knew his God was far more tolerant), and set off down the rocky path to find him.
Hoot was standing on a slight rise, eyes closed, face tilted towards the sun just peeking over the horizon. He didn't move when Matt stopped beside him, but the small smile curving his lips told Matt everything he needed to know.
They were still jacked up, God knew, but at least they had each other.
"When we get back, I'm gonna put my name in for Delta," Matt stated, surprising himself. Although, once it was out in the open, he didn't feel like taking it back. This was where he belonged, making a difference and kicking ass.
If Hoot was shocked by the 180, he didn't show it. He didn't even move. "Thought you said you'd wash out."
"Nah, I can do it. I mean, if you made it through, should be a cakewalk for me."
Hoot snorted in laughter. "Alright, tough guy."
"Although, if you had any tips..."
"I think I could walk you through a few things, give you a leg up for selection and OTC training. I mean, since I'll be sponsoring you and all," Hoot said, and finally opened his eyes. In them, Matt thought he could finally see a little bit of peace, and he hoped that Hoot saw the same thing reflected back at him. "Not like we're in any hurry to get back."
"Nope," Matt agreed, and matched Hoot's smile. "We got all the time in the world."