Will held out the folded note. “Personal call,” he explained. “I think it’s your girlfriend.”
Tony’s face lit up. “Becca?” He read the note quickly, and cast a longing glance up the hall where Will had come. “I can’t,” he said reluctantly.
“I can watch for you,” Will offered. “It’s just skeleton crew. No-one will know if you duck out for a bit.”
“They’ve got the two Asian ones out already. They’re bound to come back eventually.”
“How long have they been gone?” Will asked, leaning against the security console. He knew how long—he’d been watching from around the corner, and the log sat right on top of the clipboard, 01 signed by Ensign Barton on orders from Colonel Une, and 05 was in isolation for interrogation. Will pointed to the names. “Come on, you’ve got at least an hour. Plenty of time to say hi to Becca and the baby.”
Tony hesitated. Then, in a rush, he agreed. “All right,” he said, taking off his key cord and security pass and handing them over. “The one that’s in there is quiet as a mouse anyway. I’ll be right back. Don’t tell anyone we did this.”
“Sure,” Will agreed. “I’ll be here.”
The cameras swept the corridors. The base was quiet. Will used the security pass to enter the programme, and turned off the camera facing the cell door.
“All clear,” he called softly.
Ortiz came out first, Tucker and Sig hurrying behind. “Gimme the key,” Ortiz hissed. He all but ripped it from Will’s hand. “How long we got?”
“Tony’s a chatterbox,” Will said. He licked his lips. “Sig…”
“Shut up, kid,” Sig told him. Ortiz opened the cell and shone his torch inside. Sig gripped Will by the arm, and put his lips next to Will’s ear. “This is our chance. You know what these bastards did to our men. Don’t wimp out on us now.”
Tucker came out of the cell. It was the boy with the long braid. Tucker carried him bodily along, his big hand wrapped over the boy’s mouth. Ortiz followed them with his pistol drawn and aimed at the boy’s head.
“Storeroom 14,” Sig said. “Let’s go. Come on, kid.”
“This is Maxwell,” Duo repeated into the comm. “I’ve got two in the water already and it’s getting pretty choppy here. What’s the status of our backup?”
It took a long time for the static to clear. Duo asked twice for a repeat. He could barely spare a hand for the comm; the steering fought him for every centimetre, and he was struggling to keep the nose of the chopper level against the gale-force winds. Another spatter of shots flew out and ricocheted off his windscreen.
“Negative,” the answer finally came. “We ca—You read?”
“Maxwell!” Ravi ducked his head through the port. “Line’s fraying! Can you lower us?”
Duo slammed a fist to the console. Everything was going fucking wrong. “What’s the word on the canon blast?” he shouted back. “I go any lower and that thing is gonna hit us clear.”
The stranded ship below them had been in trouble when they’d arrived. They’d had the story, in a jumble of shaking stutters from the first agent they’d rescued out of the ocean. The Preventers crew had surprised a pirate smuggler, and a gunfight on choppy seas had gone all to fuck when the storm hit. The Preventers’ schooner was nothing but driftwood now, and Duo could make out bodies floating in the water through the beams of the chopper’s floodlights. The smugglers had the advantage of firepower, and they were turning all of it on the chopper.
Ravi came back. “We have to go lower!”
Duo wrenched the nose around. It was getting hard to see out the windscreen, even switched over to night-vision. The storm was whole sheets of rain on them, a constant force pushing them down to the sea. Ravi clung to the back of Duo’s seat as he turned the plane in place. He managed to keep them in position, and began to carefully descend, keeping his eye on the crazy rocking of the mast below his belly.
They brought up another man. Duo had to back away from the wreck below, or let himself be blown back, as it happened. Bullets clanged against the side of the plane and in through the open doors; someone yelled. Duo freed a hand once more for the comm. “Backup!” he yelled. “Men in the water. Agents down, repeat, we need backup because we’re going to have to fucking leave them!”
It wasn’t Ravi who came back. It was Johnson. “Canon!” the agent warned him, grabbing one of the handholds on the ceiling seconds before Duo’s alarms went mad all across the console. “Hold on—“
The explosion hit the front end of the chopper. Duo’s console burst into flames while the hit threw him back in his chair, the auto-locks on his belts keeping him strapped in while the fire flew around his face. Only experience kept him still through the panic—his suit was retardant and the sprinklers would come on any moment, but god, he was going to be eaten alive and trapped—
White powder sprayed down from above and the fire finally died, only interminable seconds after it had begun. Duo gripped the steering with hands that hurt, that shook. Somehow he’d stayed level. Johnson wasn’t behind him anymore. He searched for the comm that he’d dropped. It was dead.
“We’re getting out of here,” he called back to the fusilage. “Everyone latch down.”
The alarms were a constant drone. He couldn’t separate one from the next to take care of first. He didn’t know if they still had a line down there, with the cameras shot and the mics dead. No-one was coming through to the cockpit.
He didn’t see the next canon blast coming, but he felt it. The whole chopper lurched forward from the rudder, spinning them about mid-air. They dropped altitude sharply, steering felt entirely fucking cut, his whole fire-damaged console was blaring at him, and Duo did the only thing he knew wasn’t going to kill them all—he took the plunge down instead of hauling upright and risking an impact on the water at an angle that would snap the plane in two before they could do anything about it. The waves rushed up at his windshield at a frantic speed. Duo threw the chopper into reverse at the last possible second, spun one-eighty to the right, and slammed back into his seat as he accelerated up and away from the ship below.
“Danger,” the computer chanted at him. His lights crashed, plunging him into darkness punctuated only by the red emergency glow. “Abandon ship. Danger. Abandon ship.”
He scrabbled to release his safety belts. The plastic had melted, but the buckles finally gave. He used them to tie a knot around the steering, tightening until he was sure it would keep trajectory and speed against the winds. He pitched into the walls as he felt his way back through the port to the fusilage, and tripped over a body. He couldn’t find anything that felt like a head, so he just gripped a double handful of flight suit and dragged it after him toward the square of light and noise that were the open bay doors.
Hands grabbed him. Johnson’s voice screamed, “No more lines! Inflate your jacket!”
He obeyed without question, and tried like hell to find the pull tag on the body that had to be Ravi. “Where’s the others?”
“Jumped already.” Johnson stood, wobbling crazily. “Took the raft.” He held out a hand for Duo. “Come on!”
He couldn’t find the tag. He locked his fingers around Ravi’s belt and hauled him upright into his arms. “Go!” he shouted, and flung himself out the doors.
He lost his breath falling down into the storm. It seemed to take forever. He hit the water with his shoulders, and then he was drowning, weighed down with Ravi’s body and out of air. He flailed one-armed, kicking with feet that went numb with the cold, scared he was swimming in the wrong direction with everything equally black. If he’d made it this far just to die he was damned if he wasn’t coming back fucking pissed as shit—
He passed out.
He was floating. He couldn’t feel his hands or legs anymore, but there was a dark mass bobbing near him, staying with him, and he hoped it was Ravi. He couldn’t see anything, but spray pattered over his face every few seconds, so he must have been floating face-up. He was freezing cold.
He woke again. There was light. It wavered over him, blinding him, bright as fire. Flare. Someone with a flare.
He went under briefly while someone grabbed at him. He choked and coughed while they pulled him back up, but awareness had returned. An amphibious face with goggles hovered near him with that flare brightening everything around them, including the cage that was lowering down from a chopper. Backup had finally reached them.
“Agent Maxwell!” the swimmer shouted in his ear. “Get in the cage.”
He didn’t protest. He let the swimmer shove him in the metal bars while they were tossed about by the waves. “Where’s my team?” he shouted back.
“We already got four others. You’re the last up!”
There wasn’t time for more questions. The cage jolted as the line snapped tight, and Duo was rising out of the water. He’d been in the cage before, but not since training years ago, and not when he was half hypothermic and sick to his stomach with dizziness. He had to close his eyes when torches shone down on him, and he was sick a little, then, spinning around mid-air. He lay limp until the hellish ride finally ended, and babbling voices pulled the cage onto the new chopper.
They dumped him to the rubber mats. He was sick again, pure bodily reflex—he had nothing to throw up. Someone wrapped a thick blanket around him and coaxed him into a crawl away from the doors. He collapsed onto a cot while his guardian slapped an anti-nauseau patch onto his neck and started stripping off his flight suit.
“You’re burned,” the agent told him. He peeled back Duo’s sleeve carefully, and Duo caught a glimpse of his own arm. He’d been hurt in the cockpit fire after all, and never even felt it. It didn’t feel real yet, even seeing his own skin come sloughing off, stuck to the suit.
“My team,” he said, when he thought he could form the words.
“We got Johnson, Mills, and Epperlie.” The other agent pressed a thermos on him. Duo almost dropped it—against his chilled skin it felt hot enough to hurt—and just clutched it awkardly to his chest. “We also got Matterlin, from the ship. If anyone else is down there, we couldn’t find them.”
He was so relieved to hear names he knew that he didn’t immediately register the absences. “Ravi?” he said. “Wiser? Anyone from the ship?”
“I’m sorry.” The agent crouched on the floor and started wrestling Duo’s boots off. “I know you did everything you could.”
It finally filtered through that he knew the oval of face trying hard not to look up at him. It was Will Stanley.
Who touched the thermos, forgotten in the crook of Duo’s unburned arm. "You don't have to talk to me,” he said. “Just... drink it." He tossed Duo’s boots aside and began to rub Duo’s bare feet with the hem of the blanket. "Just until you stop shivering, okay?"
Another agent joined them, the broad white cross on his back identifying him as a doctor. He seized Duo’s arm, and checked him over with a handtorch. “You’ll be all right,” he said. “Let’s get you cleaned up and wrapped.”
“You did everything you could,” Merquise assured Johnson. “If we’d had a second team ready to go faster, we might have been able to save more men, but that’s not anything you could have changed.”
“Thank you, sir,” Johnson said. He was nursing a sprained ankle, tentatively testing the crutches the doctor had given him. “Sir, I also want to recommend Sergeant Maxwell. He kept his head. He’s an excellent pilot.”
“I’ll add your comments to the official report.” Merquise dismissed him, and glanced around the conference room. Will jumped when the man’s eyes landed on him.
“You’re allowed to go home,” Merquise suggested. “Your part was over when you landed safely.”
The Colonel sighed. He rose, gathering his notes, and crossed to the door, where Will had been trying to hide. “I understand what you’re attempting to do,” he said, gazing down at Will. “I don’t know if it’s noble, or just futile, but I feel I ought to warn you that it may well be impossible to reconcile with him.”
Will looked away guiltily. “I still have to try,” he said softly.
Merquise didn’t answer right away. At last, though, he nodded, and left without saying anything else.
It was the early hours of morning. Base was almost empty; cleaning staff were making their way through the building, unobtrusive in their habits. Will nodded to a woman he knew, headed home from the night shift. He found himself a couch in the lobby, and waited.
It was almost dawn when Maxwell finally emerged from the clinic. His arm was a bulky wrap under a grey jumper, and he walked like a man exhausted to the limit of his endurance. Will jumped to his feet, and steeled himself for the sullen look Maxwell turned on him.
There was no way for Maxwell to avoid passing him on the way to the doors, at least. So Maxwell came closer, halted no more than a foot from him, actually, and said flatly, “Whatever you want, the answer is no.”
Will ignored that. “Can I give you a ride home?"
That won him a stare. Finally Maxwell shook his head. “You trying to be my new best friend or something?"
"You need help,” Will said obstinately. “I'm here."
He also knew, from a quick trip earlier to the parking lot, that Maxwell’s car was a stick shift, and there was no way he could drive with his arm in the shape it was. Moreover, Duo had been so long in the clinic that the rest of the team had been sent home, except for the two who were staying for observation. There was no-one else around to make the offer Will was making.
So, grudgingly, Maxwell said, "Fine."
Even expecting Maxwell to concede, Will was still surprised he’d actually done it. His stomach turned over nervously. “Right,” he said. “My car's this way."
His compact little car felt smaller with Maxwell inside it, hunched on the passenger seat as if he would be sitting on the outside if it were economical. They were both silent as Will guided the vehicle down the winding road through the park lawns. A sleepy-eyed woman let them through the gate with a wave when Will showed his pass, and Will turned onto the highway.
"Where's your apartment?" he asked Maxwell.
“North two miles and left on the water,” Maxwell responded shortly.
He cranked the heat up, until the blast was hot enough to make him sweat. Maxwell did untense just slightly, though, and finally directed one of the vents directly on himself. Will was pleased. “You'll warm up eventually,” he said.
"Thanks, Mummy," Maxwell muttered sarcastically.
Will flushed. "Shutting up now."
"God, get your fucking back up."
“I don't want to fight with you."
"What do you want from me?"
It was, Will thought, the first time Maxwell had asked him an honest question. He knew his behaviour puzzled the other man, and offended him sometimes, but it felt, for a wild moment, like progress.
“I want an opportunity to be kind to you," he said.
Maxwell exhaled hard, and slumped back in his seat. His head turned toward Will. "This may be a radical notion,” he replied, “but it's not that easy to make up for the past."
"I know.” Will’s palms were sweaty. He wiped them, one after the other, on his trousers, and gripped the steering wheel hard. “I know I can never take back what happened, or fix how I failed you. I just-- I'm trying to show you... I'm not your enemy now."
Maxwell was pale in the dawn light. His eyes were washed out, faded. "It's not that simple. It's not that simple for me."
Will looked back at the road. "Would you feel better if I asked for a transfer?"
Will wiped his hands again. "Would it help if I didn't?"
Maxwell looked away. "It's not even remotely about you."
"What's it about, then?" he asked.
There was a wooden sign pointing down a long drive. There was a cluster of tall houses at the end of it, all lined up at the edge of the marshy ocean where Maxwell had almost lost his life the night before. Maxwell pointed, mutely, and Will eased onto the dirt road. Their destination was an old wooden home, two stories tall, gently worn on the corners. Cheerful blue shutters covered the windows, shielding them from the morning sun. Birds were already out and about, their calls just audible through the noise of Will’s engine, like the gentle wash of the water. It was a good place, Will thought. It looked comfortable. Peaceful. It didn’t look like it could possibly hold such a turbulent, angry man.
Maxwell spoke suddenly. His voice was rough, aching.
"I want to know how you could do it,” he said. “Just stand there."
Will turned off the car. "I was new.” His lips were dry. He licked them. “I was scared. I didn't know any of those guys, but they all outranked me." He stared at the waves just visible between two of the houses—it was still a little grey out, but the storm that had claimed all those lives last night was gone now. "Nothing I can say to you will ever adequately explain it. I wasn't proud of it then, and I'm not now."
"It's just not a good enough reason to let someone almost die," Maxwell said harshly.
"I know. It's haunted me all this time." Will clenched his hands, then put his keys in his pocket. “Don't hate me, but can I come up and help you get settled?"
"God! You're not gonna get a fucking prize for making nice." Maxwell kicked open his door and stepped out onto the sandy drive. He didn’t bother to close it behind him as he went stalking for his porch.
Will did, and closed his own door, too, and ran after Maxwell. He got up the front steps just in time to slip through the open door, and nearly bumped straight into Maxwell. A burning glare sent him back a step, but Maxwell didn’t tell him to get out. He stripped off his jumper, struggling over his injured arm, and flicked on an overhead light that threw the foyer into sharp relief.
"You wanna see my souvenirs from that night?" Maxwell demanded. Will found his back to the wall as Maxwell lifted an arm into his face and presented his white skin. There were bumps all along his ribcage from breaks. A purple scar that didn’t look quite surgical that started under his armpit and curved round to his back. Then he unzipped his jeans and pulled them down, making Will flinch. His undershorts covered his privates, but showed the scars over his groin, too, three of them. “Courtesy of OZ’s finest. How’s that, huh?”
"I'm sorry,” Will said forcefully. “I am. Do you think I wouldn't take that night back if I could? All we can do is move forward."
Maxwell’s eyes wouldn’t let him go. Will tried to look away, but they held him, pinned him there, and Maxwell never even touched him. "You my therapist now?" Maxwell asked softly. "I do just fine every day I don't have to spend with the poor little boy who was too scared to call for help while his buddies kicked me in the face and crotch."
If only Maxwell would look away. Will licked his parched lips again, and said, "Doc told me I should force more tea on you. Maybe I should go make some."
Maxwell almost smiled. It hovered on his mouth for a moment; and then, finally, his eyes dropped. "Fine."
Will didn’t know what to make of that. But Maxwell stepped back, and let him move, so Will slid by him. The small foyer put him into a den with a brick fireplace, a pot of dried flowers in the grate, and an old oak table with black wooden chairs. The kitchen was on the far end around a half-wall, a cramped little thing of hand-painted tiles and slim wood cabinets.
He heard the shower turn on when he set the kettle on the stove to boil. He rubbed his hands dry one more time, and stood staring down at them until they stopped shaking.
By the time Maxwell returned to the kitchen, his hair in a wet plait dripping down the back of his shirt, Will had the table set with steaming tea, a bowl of tomato soup, and a plate of grilled cheese sandwich. Maxwell surveyed it without comment.
Will finished rinsing the soup pot, and set it on the plastic drying rack beside Maxwell’s sink. "You're not shivering now, at least,” he said. “I… could pick up some groceries. If you want."
"You are not my boyfriend, Stan." Maxwell picked up half the sandwich, as if testing its reality. It made a dull plop when he dropped it back to the plate. "Unless I'm misreading the signs, and all this making nice was about getting some hot revenge sex."
Will cursed his complexion when he felt his face heat. Knowing he was red as a beacon, he stuttered weakly, "I don't imagine you—that you would-- have any—interest, at all, in having any kind of sex, with me."
Maxwell’s sudden laugh made Will jump. It was not a nice laugh. "Holy fuck," he said. "It was about sex." He put the tea cup on the counter, and stood in front of Will. He began to unbutton his shirt. "You should have just said."
Will was horrified. "It's not," he protested. "What kind of a freak do you think I am?"
"A freak just like the ones who bent me over during the war." Maxwell’s eyes were hard and unforgiving. "Think that didn't happen? They must have a special training programme for Ozzies. How to fuck like you mean it." His shirt hung open. He reached for Will’s, and pulled it hard out of his trousers.
Will jerked away, trapped against the sink. "Do you think I wouldn't have said something if they'd tried that? I'm willing to accept responsibility for my part that day, but... I can't answer for what happened since.” He couldn’t pry Maxwell’s fingers off his belt. “And... and don't tell me no-one in the Rebellion acted inappropriately. Duo, please.”
Maxwell shoved him back hard enough to bounce off the counter. "Please," he mimicked meanly. Then his face went still and serious. "Please. Please. Please. Please." Softer and softer, until the last was a whisper. "I said that, too."
Will didn’t dare to breathe.
Maxwell let him go. "Get out," was all he said, and Will did.