|They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more....... Micah 4:3|
Matthew Quentin Shepherd stood before the mirror in the quarters he'd been assigned and carefully adjusted the beret on his head. He frowned at the result - it didn't sit quite right because of the bandages that wrapped around his skull, covering the long wound that gashed through where his right eye used to be. The doctors assured him that once the injury had healed, there were procedures that could correct the scarring. That seemed pointless to Matt - what mattered a scar on his face? Nothing could ever heal the scar in his heart.
He absently adjusted the ribbons on his uniform - the uniform he hadn't worn since leaving the Army - but today, two of his soldiers were being laid to rest, and it seemed appropriate. There was a polite tap at the door and a British-accented voice calling his name. Drawing a deep breath, Matt opened the door.
Chance and C.J. were waiting for him, also attired in their dress uniforms.
"It's time to go, Major," C.J. said gently.
Matt nodded tiredly, too drained to notice how Chance took up a protective position at his now-blind right side. Outside, a young enlisted man moved to assist them into the waiting limo, but C.J. waved him off. He and Chance would see to the Major themselves.
Matt stared out the window as the car proceeded to the chapel. He wasn't seeing the Virginia greenery though he was seeing an echoing marble corridor in the Vatican a ruddy-haired English priest had guided him to the Bishop's office. Secretly, the younger man had wondered how the injured and obviously weakened man had kept his feet - had even gone so far as to offer to send for a wheelchair, but Matt had refused. He needed to deliver this message in person, and to stand on his own two feet and look Margo's brother in the eye and tell him that he'd finally managed to get his baby sister killed.
As it turned out, Matt hadn't had to say a word. John had seen him, standing battered and broken and alone and he'd known...
A friendly hand laid on his arm brought Matt back to the present.
"Matt, we're here," Chance said quietly.
Automatically, Matt moved to exit the vehicle, not seeing the concerned glances his friends exchanged behind his back.
Other limousines were lined up in front of the base chapel. A woman and three children were being assisted from one of them. Chance went over to speak to them, bending to engulf the two smaller children in a huge bear hug. Billy Riddle stood straight and tall at his mother's side, plainly trying to behave as his father would have wished.
Xavier Trout and his daughter came over to Matt. Alison reached out to hug him and kiss his cheek. She pretended not to notice when Matt turned his back on her father and walked away.
"Where's Nick?" Trout asked C.J. quietly.
"Rico's bringing him. The doctors didn't really want him to get out of bed yet, but he insisted and Rico promised to look after him."
C.J. sighed heavily. "He's still in a coma." He glanced quickly at Matt then back to Trout. "Look, it' not your fault things like this they're not anybody's fault, it goes with the work, you know?"
"I know," Trout replied hollowly. His mind understood the Brit's words, but his heart knew otherwise. He was the one who'd organized this team and gave them their orders. It was his fault. All of it.
"The Major he just needs some time," C.J. was saying.
Chance tapped him on the arm and gestured to the chapel doors. The pallbearers had maneuvered the two caskets inside, and now Secret Service agents were escorting the President and her family into the building.
Somehow, Matt found himself sitting in the first pew, next to Benny Ray's son Billy. He remembered how the boy's face had gone pale when he'd answered the door, and seen only Matt how he'd refused to cry, trying so very hard to be strong for his younger brother and sister.
Matt stared at the two flag-draped caskets. Both were identical - he knew, because he'd chosen them himself, but some trick of the eye made the left-hand casket appear smaller, somehow, and more delicate. Perhaps it was the baskets of white roses and lilies that flanked it or perhaps it was only his tormented conscience.
Margo's brother John was conducting the service, along with a Marine chaplain who'd known Benny Ray during the sniper's time at this station. John's white vestments seemed to drain all color from his face and his voice cracked frequently as he spoke of the deceased - of their courage and dedication. He broke down completely while reading the Twenty-third Psalm.
As the other chaplain assisted him into a chair, a voice in the congregation picked up where John had left off. Somewhat startled, Chance recognized Daryl Drummer's rough voice reciting the ancient words of comfort. He nodded once to the old soldier and raised his voice in prayer too. C.J. followed suit, and the rest of the assembly joined in as well.
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
There had been some question about whether or not the team members would be allowed to be interred at Arlington. There were questions about their military status, as well as exactly whom they were working for at the time of their deaths. Ultimately, it came down to an Executive Order from the President. Margo Vincent and Benny Ray Riddle had died defending their country and their president and they would, by God, be given the heroes' resting place that they deserved.
Matt sat numbly in one of the chairs that had been provided at graveside. He dimly heard Benny Ray's daughter sob at the sharp crack of the rifle salute and felt someone's hand grip his own shoulder tightly as the last note of taps echoed away.
He vaguely saw the President rise and accept Benny Ray's flag from the officer conducting the honors ceremony. She looked deeply into the eyes of the widow who hadn't spoken to her husband in years, then pivoted slightly and offered the flag to Billy.
"Accept this flag on behalf of a grateful nation and a proud Marine Corps, in memory of your father's honorable service and sacrifice to his country."
His face pale, the young boy offered a salute. There was a look of warm approval in the President's eyes as she acknowledged the gesture.
And then she was standing in front of Matt, impeccably dressed in a simple black suit, with her trademark gold eagle brooch pinned to the lapel. A small bandage on her cheek was the only evidence of just how close the attempt on her life had come to succeeding.
A small voice in the far recesses of Matt's mind screamed that he should rise for his Commander in Chief, but it was drowned in a dreadful, aching emptiness that left him powerless to move or to speak. Friendly hands accepted Margo's flag for him, setting it in his lap and wrapping his nerveless hands around it.
The President had tears sparkling in her own eyes as she spoke to him gently. " your wife's sacrifice will never be forgotten by this nation "
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