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Disclaimer: Soldier of Fortune/Special Ops Force and all the characters therein are the property of Rysher, et al; this is a recreational endeavor, no profit is being made and no copyright infringement is intended. I respectfully thank The Powers That Be for allowing me to indirectly dabble for awhile in this amazing little universe they've created.
Rating: R, for violence, language, adult themes . This story deals with 9/11 and its aftermath.
Summary: In the days after September 11, Benny Ray and Margo search for the missing Matt and Nick, who were in the towers when they collapsed.
|**This is the sequel to "Through the Fire", and some of it might not make sense if you haven't read the first one.|
12 September 2001
Margo Vincent was in the kitchen, getting
dirty. Her dark hair, tied back in a loose ponytail, was dusted
with flour, and there were white streaks on her face from where
she'd tried to push back unruly strands as they fell into her
eyes. The apron that clad her thin, trim form was stained with
dark red-not blood, as had so often been the case in her life,
but sweet blackberry juice.
In front of her were the makings for
the best blackberry pie on the face of the planet. She had discovered
some months ago-back in early strawberry season, as it happened
to be-that she was very good with pies. She loved the feel of
the dough beneath her fingers as she masterfully kneaded it,
using the power in her arms to do something reasonably harmless,
"Your blackberry pie will have
nothing on mine," said Sister Mary Elizabeth from the next
counter top over. "You're kneading too fast and your berries
aren't fresh enough."
"You're kneading too slow and your
berries are still green," Margo told her archly. "The
Margo Vincent pie legacy will live for years."
"The legacy of being the worst,"
the sister grinned. It was an ongoing battle between the convent's
head cook and the young woman who was just a long-term guest,
a battle that had resulted in some very tasty dinners. It had
all started some time last year, when Sister Elizabeth had claimed
that, living the lifestyle Margo did, the other woman was incapable
of cooking, and indeed, Margo's first few attempts had crashed
and burned-literally. But after a few secretive lessons from
some of the other sisters, she became a serious contender, and
the war raged on. Good things happened when Margo Vincent went
head to head in the kitchen with Sister Mary Elizabeth.
Picking up a waiting rolling pin, Margo
started up a confident rhythm that soon left the dough flawlessly
flat and perfect. Lifting it up with practiced ease, she expertly
dropped it in the pie dish, skillful fingers crimping the edges
in a delicate pattern. She was just brushing it with egg white
when the Mother Superior entered the kitchen, her black habit
and severe demeanor seeming out of place in the provincial feel
of the stone and stucco room. "Margo, if you would come
with me? There is a man waiting to speak to you."
Surprised, she wiped her hands on a
nearby washrag and took off her apron, hanging it on a hook near
the door. "Is it John, Mother?" she asked, wondering
why her brother was visiting during the middle of the week.
"He is accompanied by your brother,"
the elder woman acknowledged, but would say no more. With one
last confused glance at Sister Mary Elizabeth, Margo followed
the Mother Superior out of the room.
In the Mother Superior's sparse, tastefully
decorated office, Margo saw first her brother, and ran to give
him a huge hug. It had been only a few weeks since they'd last
seen each other, since he tried to visit her at least once a
month, but it was always good to see him. "John! What are
you doing here?" she demanded happily.
"I was the only one who knew of
your whereabouts," he said, his frown indicating that he
was not at all pleased with the current circumstances. "Mr.
"Trout!?" Margo spun
around and speared the other man with a fearsome glare."Trout,
I told you I wasn't coming back until I felt ready, and I meant
He held up a hand. "Margo, I fully
understand that you wish to remain absent from such activities,
and I comprehend your reasons, especially since my very stubborn
daughter has argued on your behalf every time I open my mouth,
but we have a very grave situation that I felt it prudent you
should know about."
A situation. She hated that word.
Crossing her arms across her flour-dusted chest, she regarded
him with suspicion. Glancing at the Mother Superior, her eyes
asked the silent question.
"She knows what I'm going to tell
you," Trout said.
"While I do not condone the choices
you have made with your life, Margo, I cannot deny that you are
needed," the Mother said with an air of great deliberation.
"I have heard, and I still do not believe."
This from the woman in charge of a convent.
Great. "I'm listening."
"There has been a terror attack
on the United States," Trout said.
She thought of the embassy bombings
in Africa, and inwardly winced. She was tired of the grievances
these terrorists had against the U.S., and could hear his argument
now. Innocent civilians. You have to go risk life and limb
to liberate them. It was her job and what she had been trained
for, but she was trying to live a somewhat normal life for a
while. Just let me heal a little while longer
me sacrifice myself so soon after learning to live again. "Yeah?"
"Yesterday morning, two hijacked
airplanes were flown into the World Trade Center towers in New
York. Another hit the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed in Pennsylvania;
it was thought to be headed for the White House. Both of the
towers have collapsed in New York."
"What?" Margo blinked in shock.
This was no embassy bombing. This was close to home, a personal
"That's not all, Margo." Trout
gazed at her gravely. "Matt and Nick had a meeting in the
Trade Center. There was supposed to be a mission against drug
traffickers in New Mexico, and they were being briefed by one
of Nick's former DEA advisors."
A hundred million images flashed through
her mind: Nick, the beloved pain-in-the-ass; Nick, flirting
with some girl on the beach; Nick, hitting on her for the trillionth
time; Matt, smiling; Matt, covered in camouflage paint; Matt
dragging her through a burning building as their escape route
collapsed behind them; Matt, kissing her. "Are-are they
okay?" she found herself stammering. Collapsed? Skyscrapers
didn't just collapse. "They got out, didn't they?"
They had to have gotten out. She didn't know if she could live
"We don't know," Trout admitted.
"Thousands are missing, Margo. The death estimates are in
the ten thousands. The fires are still burning, and there's ash
all over the city."
"So-so they could be dead?" It was unthinkable. Matt and Nick were the sort of people who just didn't die. And the World Trade Centers, collapsed? Feeling like she was swimming through concrete, Margo hauled herself back to reality.
"Where's Benny Ray?"
"He was at Hermosa Beach during
incident. He's waiting for you back in the States."
She should have been furious that Trout had the gall to think
he could pull her home. Incident? Matt and Nick could be dead
"When you're ready, there's a plane waiting."
"Every airport in America has been
shut down," Trout told her bluntly. "This is a military
transport, and they're very anxious to get home. I realize your
hesitation," he said, sounding less like her boss and more
like a father, "but this isn't about a mission, Margo. This
is about the team. They've missed you. I promise you can come
back when everyone is safe. I'd just rather you were on American
soil right now. Are you coming?"
"Of course," popped out of
her mouth before she could think of anything else, surprised
at the gesture. Turning to the Mother Superior, she looked for
some sign of reprove in the woman's face. "I mean-"
"This is greater than you or I,"
the Mother said firmly. "Although you have been a welcome
presence among the sisters, we knew you could not stay. You are
a child of God, but it is clear His hand moves you in ways that
cannot be foretold. It is time you continued on with your life."
Margo opened her mouth to protest, but was waved off. "No,
child. Now go pack your things. I will explain your abrupt departure
to the sisters. They will understand," she stated.
Unable to argue, Margo could only nod her thanks, and back out of the room in stunned silence.
12 September 2001
If Trout's words had stunned her, the
images on the television horrified her. Over and over, Margo
forced herself to see the airplanes, sliding seamlessly into
the buildings with a pyrotechnic display C.J. himself would have
envied had not hundreds of lives been lost in that single instant.
Please, don't let Matt or Nick be among those dead
living in the convent this last year, she had gotten into the
habit of praying, but now, her prayers were earnest. Please,
God, don't let them die. She wished John were here; he would
know what to say, the right scripture to quote, a psalm to steady
her mind. The Vatican had expressly told him to stay put, and
amid the sudden political chaos, she completely understood. It
was probably wise of Trout to bring her home.
She hadn't been home in over a year, and her guts clenched in
apprehension. She had fled after being brutally raped on a mission
in Colombia, and left both the man she loved and the only place
she had ever truly belonged. Now, she was a little afraid of
what to expect. Don't let them be dead
The air was warm as she stepped out
of the plane, with the humidity unusually low. Looking around
the brightly lit airfield, Margo clutched her suitcase to her,
her duffel bag slung uneasily over her shoulder. Where was Benny
Ray? Suddenly, her need to see him was a fierce ache deep within
her breast. She loved Matt, but Benny Ray was her best friend.
They were all her best friends. She needed all of them, even
Nick. Now, Nick and Matt could be dead, and she wouldn't even
know it. She had to blink quickly to avoid spilling the tears
that welled up in her eyes.
Either she had voiced her question without
knowing it or Trout was a mind reader, because he gestured to
a spot beyond the floodlights. "He's over there." He
didn't need to say who.
She half-expected Benny Ray to be leaning
on crutches from the leg wound he'd had the last time she'd seen
him, but he quickly strode towards her unaided, proving that
a year was a long time to be gone. He seemed thinner and stronger
somehow, the plain 'U.S. Marine Corps' t-shirt and khaki cargo
pants he wore doing little to hide his muscular form. The smile
on his face was as pure and sunny as a Georgia afternoon, and
Margo couldn't help but sprint the last few meters.
"Benny Ray!" Dropping her
bags and throwing herself into his arms, all her breath was squeezed
out of her lungs in an instant by his joyous embrace. "Oh,
it's so good to see you!"
"Not half as good as it is to see
you, Sweet Pea," he replied, kissing her cheek and hugging
her tighter. "How are you?"
"Much better," she told him.
"And you're feeling better? You look good."
"Why, thanks." He grinned,
a down-home 'aw, shucks' expression that made her want to cry.
She'd missed him so much. "You're still the most beautiful
lady on the earth, darlin'." He reached out and touched
her dark reddish-brown locks. "Your hair's grown a bit.
Looks good longer."
Margo buried her face in his shoulder
to hide her tears, breathing in the clean, simple scent of him.
"I'm so glad you're here," she whispered. "I've
missed you so badly."
"Are you cryin' on me, darlin'?"
he asked softly, but she could see his own eyes glistening with
moisture. Caught up in the silence and power of the moment, they
just clung together, taking strength from each other's embrace.
Trout had finally caught up with them,
looking a bit annoyed and out of breath. Waxing diplomatic, he
shook the hand Benny Ray extended. "It's good to see you,
"I wish it was under different
circumstances, sir," the sniper replied, one arm still wrapped
protectively around Margo's shoulders. "I checked the phones
half an hour ago. Nothin', sir."
"Great. Just great." He massaged
the bridge of his nose tiredly. "Two of my best operatives
missing and possibly dead, hijacked airplanes flying into critical
buildings, and no news. Wonderful."
Benny Ray and Margo traded glances.
"Where do we start looking?" she asked, suspecting
that, for once, this wasn't going to be a military mission.
"I have the hospitals and morgues
on the lookout for anyone with Matt's or Nick's descriptions,
but there are thousands of families looking for their loved ones,
too. The whole place is a mess."
Margo couldn't suppress a shudder. Morgues.
She wasn't ready to even begin to consider the fact that Nick
and especially Matt might be in a morgue. "What floor were
"Ninety-first, north tower. The
conference room they were in was right next to an emergency exit.
They should have gotten out just fine."
"Then why haven't we heard from
'em, sir?" Benny Ray pointed out, somewhat sharply. Margo
could feel him tensing up, and she squeezed his hand in reassurance
she didn't entirely believe herself.
"Cell phone service all over the
state is probably flooded," she said, trying to stay calm
and logical. "And knowing Matt, he's probably trying to
help with the rescue effort."
"He would have contacted us,"
the sniper argued, but at another squeeze of her hand fell silent,
his own fingers tight around hers.
After winding through the base and flashing
Trout's security clearance at the guards, they reached the parking
lot. "Margo, I got some of your things in the car,"
Benny Ray said, and indeed, in the front seat of the Expedition
was her laptop, which she had deliberately not taken to Italy,
and a few changes of clothes in a paper bag.
Grinning, she shook her head. "How
did you get into my apartment? I told the landlady not to let
anyone in until I came back."
"We all have our ways," he
Trout handed them a small piece of paper
with an address and room number written on it. "I've made
reservations for both of you at this hotel. It's a suite, so
you'll have to argue over who gets the master bed and who gets
"Couch'd be just fine with me,"
Margo said, stifling a yawn with her fist. "Where will you
"My superiors scheduled an emergency
meeting I was supposed to be hours ago." He looked at his
watch. "Unfortunately, I happened to be in Italy at the
"You were in Italy just to get
A thin smile creased his features. "I
regret to tell you I was not. There was an intelligence conference
in Venice that I was attending. You just happened to be in a
"I'm touched," she said dryly,
but inside, she was. It was good to be back on familiar soil,
however grave the situation. She just wished Matt and Nick were
here to greet her as well. Where are you?
"You had better be." Trout
raised an eyebrow at the pair of them. "I'll call your hotel
room in the morning, or if I get any information. Until that
time, though, I fully expect you both to get some sleep, and
not go off on some crazy, unauthorized mission of your own. With
the state of this country right now, if you so much as show your
camo paint in public, you'll get shot."
"I understand," Margo said,
as Benny Ray murmured assent.
"Good." Without another word,
Trout tiredly headed off to his own car, disappearing into the
Once inside the SUV, Margo reached for
the radio, but Benny Ray intercepted her hand. "D'you really
wanna hear more?" he asked gently. "I checked right
before you landed. There's nothin' new. Everyone's still in shock."
"Maybe they found something."
"And they'd announce it over the
radio?" He shook his head. "Darlin', it's killin' me
as much as it's killin' you."
The rest of the ride to the hotel was
silent, and Margo mused that the companionable quiet made it
feel like she'd never left. She wanted to ask a million questions-how
were Benny Ray's kids, how was the Silver Star holding up, how
many girlfriends had dumped Nick since she'd been gone, how were
Chance and C.J. and Deke and Rico and Drummer
did Matt miss
-but she knew there was plenty of time for that
later. Now, they just had to bring Nick and Matt home alive.
She pictured the whole team sitting downstairs at the Silver
Star after the bar had closed and Debbie had long gone home,
drinking beer and swapping stories about surviving this horrific
attack. It made her heart ache with longing.
At the hotel, she stared at the television
showing CNN while Benny Ray got the key, and then mutely followed
him upstairs. He claimed the shower first, and she got out her
laptop, running her fingers over the keys. Logging on to the
internet, she tried to see what she could find, looking for Matt
or Nick's cell phone numbers and scanning the survivor lists
on several websites.
"Find anythin'?" Benny Ray's
voice startled her, jerking her back to reality. He stood in
front of her, holding one towel tightly around his waist, while
scrubbing his hair dry with another.
"No." Disheartened, she logged
off and put the computer away. "Nothing. I checked everywhere.
Their cell phones haven't been used, and they aren't on either
the survivor lists or among the-the casualties."
"They're still pullin' people out,"
he said. "There's still hope."
She forced a smile. "I know. Is
the shower free?"
He nodded. "'S all yours, darlin',
and I left plenty of hot water."
A shower was just what she needed, and she stepped out fifteen minutes later relaxed and ready to sleep. Benny Ray had beaten her to the couch, and rather than wake him up and insist he take the bedroom, she just covered him up with a couple of blankets. "Good night," she whispered, lightly kissing his cheek and taking a moment to inhale the familiar scent of him. She wasn't home yet, but she was with Benny Ray, and that was one step closer to home than she'd been this morning.
13 September 2001
The phone was ringing, and Margo jerked
awake, momentarily disoriented. There was only one phone at the
convent, and it was in the Mother Superior's office. Why was
there a phone ringing in her own room? Reality flooded back as
Benny Ray's voice floated through the bedroom's open door, accompanied
by the sudden glare of a lamp bleeding into the darkness. Grabbing
for a blanket in lieu of having a bathrobe, Margo draped the
sheet around her body and quietly tiptoed into the living room,
trying not to interrupt the conversation.
"Nick!" Pressing her ear against
Benny Ray's so they could both hear their friend, she tried to
control the sudden wavering in her voice. "Nick, are you
all right? Where are you? Where's Matt?"
"Margo?" Nick sounded exhausted,
and, she thought, a little scared. "I tawt you were still
"I'm back," she told him.
"For good. Are you all right?"
" His voice trailed
off. "A little scraped up and crispy around da edges, and
dey said I got smoke inhalation, but I'm alive."
"Where are you?" Benny Ray
asked. "Is Matt with you?"
Once again the ex-DEA paused, and Margo
got the impression that he was having a hard time putting his
thoughts together. "I'm in a hospital. I dunno which one.
Can't be too far away from da Trade Centers 'cause everything's
black with smoke."
"Nick, it's three in the morning.
Can you really see smoke?" Margo's hands were shaking, and
Benny Ray wound his fingers around hers in sympathy.
"Three in da morning?" He
"Oh. Maybe it's just dark, den."
"Are you sure you're all right?"
Talking to him was like pulling teeth.
"Dey lemme talk on da phone. Dat
counts for something
"Nick, is Matt with you?"
The sniper's fingers tightened around Margo's, crushing them
to the phone.
"Is he all right? Do you know where
he is?" Margo took a deep, quavering breath, feeling tendrils
of panic beginning to take root within her chest.
" There was
the faintest hint of tears in his voice. "He was right behind
me on da fire escape
"Is he with you now?" Benny
Nick broke down, his guttural sobbing
echoing across the line. "I have no idea
he was right
behind me, but he musta gotten lost in da crowd. I dunno where
he is. I tried to go back and look for him, but dey wouldn't
Margo's guts clenched, and for a moment,
she was positive she was going to be sick. Pressing her forehead
against Benny Ray's slick, sweaty cheek, she felt his body quivering
as he tried to hold his grief inside. "He got out,"
she whispered fiercely. "He had to."
"Dey said I should call you guys
and let you know I was okay," Nick said hoarsely. "Trout
I just called him. Margo
I'm glad you're back.
you're okay, aren't you?"
"I'm fine," she replied, wondering
how she ever managed a year without these men. "Thanks,
There was a brief, muffled discourse,
and then Nick admitted, "Da nurse says for me to get off
"What hospital are you at, amigo?"
the sniper insisted.
There was another pause, this one longer,
with more mumbling in the background. "Dey say it's NYU
"Call us if you get discharged,
okay?" Margo told him. "We're coming over there."
"No!" His reaction was immediate
and passionate, filled with agony. "Don't! Or-or at least
wait until daylight. Da whole place reeks of smoke and-and
death. Da streets are a mess. Don't come up here," he pleaded.
"Wait a coupla days."
"Dey're kicking me off da phone,"
he said abruptly. "Hang in dere, guys." Then the line
"No!" In an uncharacteristic
display of emotion, Benny Ray slammed the phone back into its
" Burying his face in his hands,
he sank back onto the couch, shaking with silent tears. Sitting
gingerly beside him, Margo bit into her knuckles, staring blindly
at the wall. She pulled her blanket more tightly around her shoulders,
shivering from something far deeper than cold.
"Do you want a glass of water?"
she finally asked, her voice sounding pathetically weak in the
sudden vastness of the room. He could only nod, and so she numbly
made her way to the little kitchenette, mechanically pouring
two glasses and handing him one, easing herself back down on
the couch and drawing her knees up to her chin.
He sipped lightly at the water, his
eyes red. She couldn't recall the last time she'd seen him cry.
"You all right?" he asked softly.
"Matt's alive," she said,
feeling conviction in her very soul. "He's not dead."
"You don't believe it, either,"
she hissed. "Don't tell me we're giving up without even
"Everyone comes home," he
told her, and she thought of a dozen situations when they could
have-should have-left the weakest person behind, and hadn't,
because of Matt's ideals. Reaching over, he pulled her close,
resting his chin on her forehead. "We'll find him, Sweet
Pea. And even if he didn't make it, we won't stop lookin' until
we have enough to bury."
"I hate the thought of that,"
"So do I, darlin', so do I."
13 September 2001
All hope of sleep for that night had
been lost, so instead, Margo and Benny Ray spent the remainder
of the dark hours alternating between the large road map he'd
absconded from the hotel lobby, the telephone and Margo's computer.
Huddled beneath her blanket, she tapped at the keyboard, eyes
glued to the screen with frightening intensity. "There are
new names on the list," she announced after a while.
Benny Ray looked up hopefully. "Anythin'?"
She shook her head, resisting the urge
to pound the table in frustration. "Nothing." Glancing
sideways at him, she bit her lip. "We've been at this for
three hours, and we still don't know squat."
"But at least we ain't lyin' around
feelin' sorry for ourselves," he said. He put down his cell.
"Nothin' from any of the other hospitals."
"Great." Margo decisively
pulled the phone cord out of its jack. "I for one am hungry,
and I'm treating you to breakfast."
"Breakfast?" He looked at
his watch. "Oh. Six thirty already? Will anythin' even be
"If not, I'll make you something."
She couldn't help but grin. "Don't
look so scared. I can cook. Really," she insisted at his
dubious expression. "The sisters taught me. I'm actually
"I'll believe it when I see you
in the kitchen and there ain't a huge cloud of smoke somewhere
in there with you," he said.
"You wound me with your rapier
wit, Sir Knight," Margo retorted. "Aren't you supposed
to be a gentleman?"
"Just fightin' fire with fire,
lady mine, ma'am."
"Don't you ever call me ma'am!
It makes me sound like some old grandmother." She was about
to swat him with part of a rolled-up newspaper when the phone
rang, and both she and Benny Ray pounced on it. Relinquishing
her hold, she allowed him to answer it, thinking that if it was
anyone but Trout, Nick or Matt, she was going to kill them. Let
it be Matt, calling to tell us he's okay
"Hello?" Benny Ray said, then
frowned. "Yes, sir, he called us. He said he'd called you
first." She relaxed slightly. It had to be Trout. "No,
sir, we were just discussin' breakfast. Haven't done anythin'
all night." Margo rolled her eyes. There was the lie of
the century. It had been an uproductive but sleepless night.
She thought she'd gotten maybe an hour of sleep, at the most.
Benny Ray handed her the phone. "He wants to talk to you,
Grimacing, she took the phone. She didn't really want to talk
to anyone right now. "Hello?"
"Good morning, Margo." Trout
sounded tired. "I trust you slept well."
"Didn't sleep much at all."
His tone was disapproving. "I told
you to get some rest."
"Neither of us could close our
eyes after Nick called, so we tried to track down Matt."
She marveled that her voice was steady. Just thinking about him
out there made her want to scream. Be all right. Please be
"None. We've done everything short
of going down there ourselves."
"Would you be against doing that?"
The way he said it, it seemed as though he was prepared to be
rejected. Margo let him know exactly how wrong he was in two
short, succinct words- "Hell, no!"- and she could imagine
him blinking in surprise. "Well, in that case, do it."
The line clicked.
"What's he want us to do?"
Benny Ray asked.
"Do you have any pictures of Matt?"
Margo started clicking things on her computer. "I know I've
got at least one in here somewhere."
"There's one out in the car,"
he said. "Are we goin' to New York?"
Nodding absently, she started packing her things. "We're going to find Matt."
13 September 2001
They'd been walking the streets for
four hours, and were covered in a thin layer of ash, grime and
sweat. The settling dust was so thick that Benny Ray had a bandanna
tied around his face, and Margo was holding the collar of her
shirt up over her nose as they questioned passers-by. All of
humanity seemed to be in New York right now, if not assisting
with the rescue effort, then desperately displaying pictures
of loved ones, trying to locate them.
"We oughta go see if Nick knows
anythin'," Benny Ray finally suggested, and Margo wearily
agreed. The sleepless night, combined with jetlag and stress,
was taking its toll on both of them. Finding the hospital, they
got his room number from the haggard receptionist, and made their
Nick appeared to be asleep when they
walked in, but at the sound of their footfalls, he sat up, looking
far too nervous to have been sleeping. "Benny Ray! Margo!"
His shadowed eyes were wide, his hair sticking out at odd angles.
There was a large bruise on his cheek, and a strip of gauze ran
around his forehead. "I tol' you guys not to come!"
"Think we'd just leave you?"
She gave him a quick hug, knowing something was really wrong
when he didn't make any comment about it.
"I tol' you
"How are you feelin', compadre?"
Benny Ray asked.
The weaselly little man scrubbed at
his eyes with the palms of his hands. "I swear Matt was
right behind me. He was right behind me. Now dey tell me dey
can't find him. He was right behind me."
"We've been looking," said
Margo, trying not to sound discouraged, "but we haven't
found anything, either."
"He was right behind
"Nick, it's all right," she
told him softly. "It's okay. We're going to find him. It
wasn't your fault."
"He was right behind me,"
he protested. "Dere one minute, and den boom! He wasn't."
"We're gonna find him," Benny
Ray repeated. "How are you feelin'?"
"Like shit," Nick moaned.
"Dis whole thing is like a trip to Disneyland in hell!"
He flopped back against his pillow. "Dey're not letting
me watch any TV. What's news?" Margo gave him a quick overview
of the situation while Benny Ray looked around the room, eyeing
Nick's unconscious roommate. When she was done, the ex-DEA was
wearing a look of stupefied shock, and Benny Ray couldn't help
but notice how her hands, clenched tightly around each other,
had white knuckles. "My gawd," Nick finally managed.
"Four airplanes? Holy shit, dis is big!"
"Yeah," echoed Margo hollowly,
and Benny Ray gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. It was clear
she was trying to be brave, but in her weariness, her guard was
"What are we gonna do?" asked
Nick, folding his arms across his chest. "If you guys've
been out looking, and dere's really not much else to do
What's Trout say?"
"I tried calling him this afternoon,"
Margo said. "He's locked in emergency meetings for the next
"It'll be longer than dat, knowing
who he works for." Running a hand through his hair, he shook
his head in disbelief. "Ho-ly shit. Are we in a mess
Margo's fingers twined around the phone
cord, and she tapped her foot anxiously as it rang. "Come
on, pick up
" Glancing at her watch, she realized that
she'd probably be waking her brother up. It was six hours difference
to Rome, which would make it
"Shit. Four o'clock in
"Margie?" John sounded sleepy,
but grateful that she'd called, and she inwardly cursed herself
for not calling sooner. "Is everything all right?"
"How'd you know it was me?"
"Who else would place a long distance
call to me at this hour of the morning?"
"Don't be. It is always good to
talk to you. Are you all right?"
" She paused a
moment, trying to remember why she'd called. She was so tired.
Perhaps she'd just wandered over to the phone and her fingers
had dialed on their own volition. "I just needed to hear
your voice," she confessed. "Some of that big-brotherly
wisdom. I didn't mean to wake you up; I didn't realize how late
it is here."
"Have you found Major Shepherd
yet?" he asked gently.
"No." She was not going to
cry. She was too tired to cry. "Not yet." She didn't
want to tell him that they had pulled the last survivors out
three days ago. Now, they were just recovering bodies. She, Benny
Ray and Nick had spent the last forty-eight hours looking to
see if Matt's corpse had been put in this morgue or that. Death
clung to her clothes. She wanted to be sick, but hadn't eaten
enough to bring up. Maybe that's why she felt so shaky. Have
to remember to grab a granola bar or something.
"I know you care very deeply for
him," John was saying, "but, Margie, you must consider
that the major-"
"He's not dead," she whispered
fiercely. "He can't be. We just haven't looked everywhere
"John, I know." Margo slowly
settled into a nearby chair, feeling almost boneless with fatigue.
"I'm just being stubborn, I'm not facing reality, I'm holding
out for the impossible-"
"Margie, there's always room for
"This isn't faith, John, this is
about a miracle!" As soon as the words left her lips, she
knew they were true. Logically, there was no way Matt could have
lived. All the evidence supported that fact. Her head knew it,
and her heart ached to even consider it. She loved him, but now
he was dead. Nick had made it out, but Matt hadn't been so lucky.
He'd just been lost in the crowd, and hadn't been able to reach
an exit in time. "He's gone."
John sighed. "Margie, first you
vehemently deny that your major is dead, and in the next breath
tell me it is so. Which is true? Are you calling me to tell you
what already believe?"
"I don't know. He can't
be dead, John. I love him." Taking a deep breath, she closed
her eyes, willing away the tears. Matt
"I just need
to know he's alive. Something. Anything. A scrap of clothing,
his dog tags, anything."
Her brother was silent for a while.
"Margie, trust God to bring him home. You must have faith."
"Faith alone won't bring him back."
"Faith will make the journey that
much easier. Believe me, little sister." His tone was playfully
chiding, then serious. "For what it is worth, I would like
to think that he is alive. He is a very resourceful man."
"I hope you're right, John."
"Have faith, Margie. Now go and
sleep; I can hear the fatigue in your voice," he insisted
over her protests. "You will do no one any good when you
are so tired."
"All right. Thank you."
"You know you can call me any time,
Margie. I love you."
"I love you, too, John." He
hung up, and she let the phone slip from her fingers, leaning
back against the supporting wall. Margo wanted his words to make
sense, wanted to feel something beautiful and inspirational,
but instead felt only thick-witted from lack of sleep. She knew
she should probably head back to the hotel room with Nick and
Benny Ray, but couldn't move.
Curling up in the waiting-room chair,
she let her leaden eyelids slip shut, and drifted off to a dark,
dreamless oblivion, somewhere where Matt was safe and they were
all on the other side of this country in a little bar in a half-remodeled
hotel. Somewhere where she felt safe. Somewhere not choked with
ash and fear.
Ash. Ash floated all around them, the oppressive heat of the fire bearing down on them, angry flames-the ones they themselves had set not half an hour earlier-licked malevolently down at them from the dry rafters. They were curled between fire and the locked door that blocked their escape.
She clung to Matt, knowing that death
was near, and terrified that she was going to lose everything-her
life, her love, him, here in her arms. "It's time,"
he whispered to her, and she could barely make out his words
over the roar of the blaze. "Close your eyes, Margo."
"No. I'm not going to leave
you," she hissed back. "You're not dead. I know you're
"We will be soon." He kissed
her forehead, and she moved to cover his mouth with hers, pulling
his body onto hers and down to the floor. Just touching him was
magic. He seemed somewhat taken aback, but he didn't move away.
"Listen to me," she told
him, "you're not dead. This is a dream."
His soot- and sweat-streaked face
crumpled in sorrow. "Margo, we're in San Pablo, remember?"
The tears in his eyes were most definitely not from the acrid
smoke. "I don't want you to die, not after everything that
has happened on this trip. I feel so bad, Margo. I love you so
"We're not going to die,"
she said. "You're alive. I know you're alive, but I don't
"I'm right here." He was
genuinely confused. "Margo-"
"Just listen. Where are you,
Matt? I need to know where you are so I can bring you home."
She brushed his sweaty hair off his forehead with the tips of
her fingers. "Everyone comes home. You're coming home. I
need to know where you are. I need you. I love you, Matt."
"Margo, you're not getting this.
That door is locked. The hallway collapsed. We can't get out."
"You're not getting this. This
is a dream. We were here a year ago. You shot the lock, and we
got out. We survived. Now you're missing, and I need to know
where you are. You have to help me, Matt, I can't do this without
you." She was crying now, the bitterness of his absence
burning like acid in her heart.
"I shot the lock?"
"Yes. And we got out."
Reaching underneath him, she grasped the pistol and handed it
to him. "Here. You saved me, and now I'm going crazy looking
"I don't want you to go crazy."
He kissed her forehead again.
She refused to be placated. "Promise
me you're alive."
"Margo, do you know what you're
me, Matt. John said this was in God's hands. I want my hands
on you, so promise me."
"Margo, you can't be sure-"
He sighed, resigned. "I promise."
Then, with a rueful smile, "You know I wouldn't do that
to you, don't you?"
"I know." She kissed him
again, and he shot at the lock and they tumbled out into the
cool, dry air of the jungle. Tumbled out-
"Margo?" Strong arms caught
her as she pitched to the floor, suddenly wide awake. Blinking
in confusion, she looked around. Benny Ray gently deposited her
back in the chair, a bemused smile on his face. "You still
with us, Sweet Pea? I saw you start to nod off, and then you
just nodded off right outta your seat."
She glanced from him to Nick, standing
a few feet away, still painted with bruises and dotted with scabbed
"Naw." The ex-DEA shook his
head. "If he's in dis hospital, dey're keeping him in a
closet or somewhere where we'd hafta get a warrant to go look.
We asked about ICU, but dey said no."
"Matt's alive," she said firmly.
"Promised, darlin'?" Benny
Ray raised an eyebrow. "You know you musta been dreamin'."
"He's alive." Heaving herself
to her feet, she made a move as if to start pacing off her anxiety,
then stopped, arms dangling limply at her sides. A wave of intense
fatigue almost dropped her where she stood. "Want to go
back to the hotel?"
"Dat's a great idea. I'm bushed."
As if to prove his point, Nick's elastic features were stretched
by a cavernous yawn. He and Benny Ray headed for the exit.
Disappointment flooded her senses. It
had only been a fervent wish, a dream, her exhausted imagination,
her heart overpowering her brain. "All right. I'm coming."
Six steps to the door, and a hand grasped
her shoulder. "Wait! Ma'am?" Margo turned around, and
found herself face to face with a young, dark-haired man in a
lab coat. He was clearly a doctor. "Ma'am, may I see that
picture you were showing earlier? One of my colleagues mentioned
it to me
Taken a bit aback, she automatically
fished Matt's photograph out of her pocket. "Have you seen
him?" she asked, not really expecting an answer.
"As a matter of fact, I have."
Her heart stopped. "Where? Where
is he? Is he alive? Can I see him? Is he okay?"
"Follow me," the doctor instructed,
and she took off like a dog on his heels, Nick and Benny Ray
a few feet behind her.
They were practically running, but it
still took forever. After an eternity, they reached the doors
to the ICU, the doors swinging open with agonizing slowness.
She was afraid to breathe, terrified that if he really was here,
the slightest disruption in this surreal dream would make everything
disappear. Please don't let me be dreaming. She surreptitiously
pinched her arm almost hard enough to bleed, proving that she
was indeed awake.
"In here," the doctor said,
holding a finger to his lips and pushing back one of the curtains.
Margo pushed past him, hoping beyond all hope that Matt was there
then he was. She stopped still, just staring in relief and shock,
wide eyes darting back and forth from his still form spread out
on the hospital bed, the wayward lock of hair lying motionless
on his pale forehead, to the beeping machines hooked up to his
"Is this the man you're looking
for?" the young doctor asked gently, shattering her reverie.
"Can you identify him? He's the last John Doe on this ward,
"He's Matt," she whispered,
her voice halting and hoarse as she had to forcefully remind
herself to suck in oxygen. "Matt Shepherd." Her paralysis
broken, she took two shaking steps and seized his cool hand.
Looking down at Matt with eyes that threatened to overflow, she
asked, "Is he going to be all right? Doctor
"Holland," he said, a sympathetic
smile creasing his smooth face. "And he's all right now.
Take care of him, Margo." She'd been concentrating on running
her hands over Matt's face, and reflexively turned at her name,
but Dr. Holland had vanished. In his place, Benny Ray and Nick
appeared, slightly out of breath and both fraught with worry.
"Sweet Pea, don't you ever go runnin' off like that-" The sniper stopped short, his abrupt intake of breath signaling his brain immediately changing gears.
"Major? Margo, how the hell'd you
find him? How'd you know where to look?"
"The doctor, Dr. Holland,"
she said, confused. "I showed him Matt's picture, and he
brought me up here."
"What doc?" asked Nick.
"You must have just missed him,"
she told him. "He'll be back later." Reaching for a
nearby chair, she pulled it up to the bedside. "Matt,"
Margo whispered, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. "I found
The curtains were thrust back by an
agitated older nurse whose large form was practically quivering
with anxiety. "This is very irregular!" she was saying,
swatting Nick out of the way. Benny Ray was a little quicker,
and his evasive maneuver looked far more suave and gentlemanly
than his companion's backwards scrabble. "What do you think
you're doing, barging in here like this?" She noticed Margo's
protective grip on Matt's hand, and blinked. "Are you family,
ma'am? Who gave you permission to come in here? Visiting hours
are long over."
"I'm not leaving," Margo said
in a tone that booked no argument. "And yes, we're family.
All of us," she stressed, indicating Benny Ray and
Looking from one to the other, the nurse
finally sighed. "All right. You can stay. But there can
be only one person in at a time, and you must be quiet, understood?"
She retrieved Matt's patient records and filled them in with
the correct name and information, then left, pulling the curtain
closed behind her.
"I'm staying," Margo said
automatically, drawing a little closer to Matt. "You guys
"Nope." Benny Ray shook his
head. "Darlin', I ain't the one who fell outta the waiting-room
chair talkin' on the phone. I promise I'll call you if he wakes
up, okay? I'm not takin' 'no' for an answer here."
"Two hours, then it's my turn."
"Seven? You've got to be
out of your mind-"
"Nope, still seven."
"Five." She was getting frustrating.
"Six, Benny Ray, and I mean it.
I'm coming back in here in six hours whether you're ready for
me or not." She tried to glower convincingly, but it never
worked on him.
"Six," he conceded, since
he had been aiming at six the whole time, "but if you're
back here any sooner, it's another eight, got it?"
"Got it." Margo hauled herself
to her feet, relinquishing the chair, planting a gentle kiss
on Matt's cheek that was totally at odds with her decidedly unladylike
grumbling. "Take care of him, okay?" she said plaintively.
"You know I will, Sweet Pea." He touched her shoulder briefly. After one last, long look at Matt, she reluctantly followed Nick out of the ICU, and Benny Ray eased himself into the chair. "Glad you're back, Major," he said to the unconscious man on the bed, settling back for a long but welcome night of simple guard duty.
17 September 2002
After kicking Benny Ray out about five
in the morning, Margo had dozed fitfully in Matt's bedside chair,
finally ending up with her head on her arms near his chest. His
very presence was a huge weight off her soul, and she basked
in his closeness, feeling about a hundred years younger. Thank
you, God, she thought. Remind me never to scoff at the
mention of miracles again. I owe you big time for this one.
Beside her, Matt stirred, and one hand
came down to rest on her crown. He said something that sounded
sort of like her name, and she turned, grinning as she saw his
sleepy blue eyes slide open and focus on her. "Hey, beautiful,"
he said, so hoarse she almost couldn't hear him.
"Hi," she whispered back,
throat tight with excitement and emotion. He was awake! "Told
you I'd find you."
"Kept my promise."
Eyes bright with tears, she wound her
fingers through his, kissing his cheek. "I never doubted
"Thought you were still in Europe."
"I'm home. Trout brought me back."
"For as long as you want me."
He grinned back. "For good, then."
14 October 2002
"Margo, I dunno know how you did
it," Nick said for the millionth time that day, "but
if you hadn't gone nutso and ran off like dat, we wouldn't've
"I told you, Dr. Holland found
me," she retorted for just as many times, impatiently waiting
outside the bathroom while Matt changed. "He asked about
Matt's picture, and said he knew where he was. You guys just
weren't fast enough to catch him."
"Dat's what you keep sayin, but
I don't believe it. How come you only saw him once?"
"I think you mighta been not all
the way awake," Benny Ray told her.
"I was awake." Margo looked
over at Matt, an approving smile on her face, though he was just
wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. He was healthy and walking with
crutches, and they were flying back to Hermosa Beach later that
day. "You had to have seen Dr. Holland, right?"
"Young man, clean shaven, dark
"Yeah, he was there." Matt
frowned. "I remember waking up a couple of times and being
really out of it, and hearing him tell me I was going to be okay.
I wonder where he went, because I don't remember seeing him after
they moved me out of the ICU."
"Well, I'm gonna go ask the ICU
people about him," Nick declared. "Because I think
you're both nuts." He took off.
"I'll go take these bags down to
the car," Benny Ray said, prudently choosing to leave Matt
and Margo alone together.
After he was gone, she reached over
and adjusted Matt's collar, her fingers lingering against his
skin. "You look great." He had gained back the weight
he had lost, and the scars from his burns were barely visible.
"I feel great." Wrapping one arm around her shoulders, he kissed her forehead.
"Come on. Let's go. We don't want
to miss our plane."
"You'll tell me if you start getting
"Or you'll tell me, Nurse."
His words were softened with a grin. "God, I'm so glad you're
back. I thought you'd never come home."
"And leave you by yourself?"
She snorted, but the derisive noise was at odds with the glistening
of her eyes. "Don't count yourself so lucky, Major."
"Oh, I count myself plenty lucky."
Reaching up, she kissed his cheek. "So do I. Believe me, so do I."
Everyone and all their bags were safely
stowed in Benny Ray's Expedition by the time Nick finally decided
to grace the world with his presence. He crawled into the back
seat behind Benny Ray, and the sniper started the car and pulled
"Well?" Margo asked, somewhat
smugly. "I told you he was there."
Nick shook his head nervously, his face
the color of Elmer's glue. "You're not gonna believe dis.
Are you sure the doc's name was Holland?"
"That's what his ID badge said,
and that's what he introduced himself as," she told him.
"And the badge had his picture on it."
"Right." He was clearly in
a state of shock. "But when I asked 'em about dat doc, dey
got all surprised and scared, and den one of da nurses says he
was on his way to a medical conference, and he was on Flight
"The one that crashed in Pennsylvania?"
Margo wrinkled her nose. "That's not right. I talked to
him myself almost a week after the eleventh."
"Yeah, I know, dat's what I said."
He shook his head again. "Da nurse got all teary and I decided
I'd better leave."
"That's really weird, Nick,"
said Matt. "Are you sure you got the name right? Maybe there
are two Dr. Hollands."
"I dunno," he answered skeptically. "When we get home, you just go ahead and look it up yourself, because last time I checked, dead men don't reappear and treat patients." He suppressed a shudder, and Margo reached over to brush her fingers across the back of Matt's neck, reassuring herself for the millionth time that he was actually there.
14 October 2001
Pale blue light leaked from beneath
Margo's closed door, and with a knowing grin, Matt crutched his
way down his hotel's hallway, wondering what on earth she could
possibly be doing on that computer at this hour of the night.
Everyone else had captured rooms for themselves hours ago, all
feeling far too fatigued to go back to their own places. Chance
and C.J. had flown in from Hawaii, and Rico was snoring softly
on the couch downstairs. Matt had been on his way to bed himself.
Knocking lightly on the door, Matt turned
the knob, and Margo flinched almost guiltily as he entered, offering
him a sheepish smile. "You're supposed to be sleeping,"
"So are you," he pointed out,
and eased himself on the bed beside her. The sheets were turned
down, and she was tightly wrapped in her fuzzy bathrobe, so it
was obvious that sleep was where she had been headed before this
other thing came up. "What are you working on?"
She moved the computer screen over to
where he could see it. "I couldn't seem to close my eyes,"
she confessed. "What Nick said about Dr. Holland was bothering
me, so I popped his name into the system to see what it would
"And he's dead. He's been dead.
Nick was right; he had been visiting family in Newark, New Jersey,
and was going from there to a medical conference in San Francisco."
Her green eyes were wide in the darkness of the room. "Matt,
there was absolutely no way he could have been at that hospital."
"Did he have a twin?" His
question wasn't a joke.
"He was an only child. I know what
I saw, Matt." Her hands flew over the keyboard, and a picture
of the doctor in question phased into focus. "That's him."
"That is him."
"If it were just me, or just you,
it wouldn't bother me as much," she admitted. "I mean,
you were injured and incoherent, and I was exhausted and grieving.
It would be easy to hallucinate something like this."
"But both of us?"
"That's what makes no sense."
"What about Benny Ray? I know Nick
didn't see him."
"They both had their backs turned.
We were getting ready to leave."
Matt twined his fingers through hers.
"And that still doesn't take into account the dream we had."
"I know." Margo briefly closed
her eyes, remembering the acrid smoke and heat as though it had
happened this afternoon. "You were there."
"And you wouldn't let me go."
He kissed the top of her head. "You brought me home out
"Out of faith
" Her voice
trailed off, a look of disturbed comprehension on her face. She
shook her head violently, apparently dismissing the idea out
of hand. "I don't believe it. No."
"It's just too strange."
"After our doc?"
"That's just it." She opened
her mouth as if to say something, but closed it again, rethinking
her words. "I had just gotten off the phone with John. He
he said to just let God bring you home. I was ready
to give up." It clearly pained her to say it. "We'd
looked everywhere, Matt. Everyone we talked to said you had to
that you were probably
and I couldn't accept that,
but we weren't getting any other answers." She was close
to tears, and he slipped one arm around her, cuddling her close.
"And I got off the phone, and I must have fallen asleep.
I was so scared to think you were gone. Then, I was dreaming,
and you were there
I wasn't about to lose you then
when Benny Ray woke me up, and we were going to go back to the
hotel, Dr. Holland was right there." She bit her lip in
consternation. "I don't have John's faith in God and I know
I probably never will, but it was too much of a coincidence
"I know what you mean." It
went against everything he'd ever known about logic and reason,
and yet, she'd still managed to find him. Reaching across, he
picked up the computer and, shutting it off, he deposited it
on the nearby nightstand. Now, the only illumination the room
had came from the orange of the streetlight outside the curtained
windows, glowing darkly in the gloom. Taking her gently in his
arms, he eased down beside her, until her head was resting in
the crook of his arm. "You need to sleep," he whispered.
"Only if you stay." She sounded
so small and fragile, but her arms were warm as they slipped
around his neck. She pulled the blankets up and over their bodies,
and curled up beside him. "I missed you."
"I missed you, too." He kissed her eyelids, and, wrapped in the arms of the woman he loved, fell fast asleep.
Some time later, in the wee, early hours
of the night, Margo awoke with the feeling they were being watched.
Without raising her head, she cast her eyes about the room, finally
becoming aware of a vague figure standing near the window, shrouded
by the darkness. Irrational fear stabbed through her, and she
almost sat bolt upright until the figure raised a hand and she
somehow knew it meant no harm.
"I told you he would be all right."
The voice was soft, with a gentle smile hidden beneath the world.
"You were right to trust me."
"Dr. Holland," she breathed,
not believing her eyes at all.
"Take care of him," the spirit
told her. "He loves you." He moved forward and she
felt something warm and metallic being pressed into her hand.
Matt's dog tags. They hadn't been recovered.
"I owe you everything. How can
I thank you?" she started to ask, but the shadow had disappeared,
and the room was empty. Beside her, Matt stirred, twisting up
in the blankets and blinking at her with sleepy eyes.
"You all right?" he asked.
"I'm just fine." She took
a breath to steady herself, and settled back into his arms. "But
I know John was right."
"Your brother is a wise man."
He drifted back to sleep, and only when she was sure he was out
did she gingerly slip the chain around his neck.
"He has faith," she whispered. "Like me. And now I have you."
and is part of the Soldier of Fortune/Special Ops Force FanFic collection.
Copyright © 1998-2002 by MeadowsV. All rights reserved.
Email me at email@example.com with your questions or comments.