This story is a multi-chapter, two POV, one that I have already completed. It'll likely be my weekly posting until it's marked complete, in-between any updates I manage to finish. MamaJoyce, this story is for you, The Guys, and everybody out there like them ... I hope it lives up to our conversations. All familiar characters belong to Janet. The mistakes are solely mine.
The problem with being the best is I'm the one they call first. When I made the decision years ago to dedicate my life to my country, or sacrifice myself for it, it was an easy choice. I had lived from day-to-day. I was given a mission and I excelled at completing every one of them. Then I was given a team of men to lead into and out of every battle. The more training and responsibility I received, the more lethal I became. It's hard to admit, but there's no hiding from the truth, I lost Carlos in becoming Ranger, but Stephanie showed me that I can be both men and still be accepted ... even loved.
Which made my decision to save someone else's life at the possible expense of the one I've been waiting forever for, an extremely difficult one. While I will always put my people's needs ahead of my own, my loyalty feels divided. I am the best at what I do, and I'm the man who can get in and out with few-to-no casualties, but the thought of leaving Stephanie after finally getting her is ripping my guts apart.
Before ... if I died, my family would mourn, but they would help each other get through it. I can't let myself picture what my death would do to my Babe. So I won't allow it to happen despite the shit I'm up against here. As I laid there in another fucking sandy trench, in hundred-degree weather, trying to keep my eyes and mouth closed as often as I could to prevent bringing any illness home with me as we waited on word if we can finally move in or if we once again have to start looking for another location. My job is to get two Soldiers out of what had turned into a hostage situation after what was supposed to have been just a standard recon mission. And unfortunately, I have a few moments to think about what I had to walk away from again.
The night I left three weeks ago has been forever seared into my brain. Wearing one of my t-shirts, with nothing except soft skin and the memory of me beneath it, Stephanie grabbed her shoulder bag that had been on the kitchen counter, and she pulled out a small box from it.
"You'll probably think it's stupid ..."
"There is nothing you can do or say that I'll feel is stupid, Babe."
"I'm glad you feel that way, because I knew this day would be coming at some point and I'd need something to hold onto when it did."
She opened the jewelry box and handed me a dog tag like the ones I'll be wearing for an indeterminate amount of time again, but hers is a sterling silver tag with the words "I'll carry your heart" engraved on it with a heart cut out of the metal between the four words. She went back to the box and then took a small ring from it that held the same heart-shaped cutout from the tag that had "With Me" scrawled across the tiny heart.
She slipped the ring onto her left ring finger and then looked at me. "Obviously ... I've seen that you have your own dog tags, but maybe you can just stick that one in your pocket or something? I want you to know that I'm going to be here, loving and waiting, for you no matter how long it takes you to get back to me."
It didn't take more than a millisecond to know what to do here. I'd mentally reached the place where I was ready to shed my Rangeman skin and switch out my all-black uniform for a desert one. I'd already added a symbol of my old life as soon as I got the call and agreed to put myself and everything I love on the line so I could get two men like me back to those who love them. I tugged my tags out from under my t-shirt and pulled them off over my head.
"What are you doing?" She asked, watching me in a way that let me know she'd still been hoping I'd go on the lam with her instead of overseas like I promised decades ago to always do.
With two hands I dropped my dog tags around her neck. Seeing them settle between the breasts I spent the night loving, had me feeling something I rarely do ... fear. If I don't make it back to her ... I cut off that thought. I will be back and she will be waiting for me. Nothing else can be considered.
"I want you to have something of mine to cling to when you get scared if it can't be me," I explained, when she looked down at her chest and my identification lying against it, before she met my eyes again.
She caught both in one fist and brought them close to her face. I'd have given anything to know what she was thinking and feeling at that moment, but I didn't want either of us to hurt more than we did already.
I told myself that saying goodbye in my apartment would be easier than an airport because Ella would be here within a minute of my departure so she could help console and distract Stephanie, when really the location was a selfish choice. If she broke down in front of me, I wouldn't be able to leave her standing there. I'd either want to take her with me, or I'd get two men killed by wasting time we don't have by suggesting possible replacements for me. Neither were options.
"This is probably the wrong thing to say here," she said, after a minute of sifting through her thoughts, "but I swear to God, Ranger, if you don't come home soon, I will hunt you down and kick your ass."
Despite her worries, it was the perfect thing to say. If she cried right now, I'd lose it.
"I'll be back, Babe. If you believe nothing else, believe that I will survive any kind of hell just to be able to come home to you ... like I've done every single time in the past."
"Is there a number you can program into my phone that I can use if you don't call me as quickly as I'd like?"
"I'm afraid not, but I will be in touch as soon as I'm able to be."
"In person or over the phone?" She asked, clutching my tags tightly in her hand again.
"Whichever is faster."
"I don't like it, but I'll take it. Do what you have to do, but please, please, please ... don't take any unnecessary risks."
"I'll do what I can," was all I could promise her.
I swore I would never lie to her ... and I won't start now. When she kissed me goodbye at the door, she held onto me so securely, and for so long, as I took the stairs to the lobby ... I could feel the impression of my dog tags as if I were still wearing them.
And now here I am with an equally battle-worn set of ID I hope won't be needed, waiting for another round of shit to explode around me, with Stephanie almost six thousand miles away from this shitty location. I will see her again, but there are a few things I need to do, and a couple of assholes to eliminate, first.
"Mission's a go," I told my men, once I got word that this latest intel still checked out. "We're to go in, take out these fuckers before they get organized and become a bigger problem for us later on, and get the fuck out with our guys. Got it?"
"Yes, Sir," they all said.
"Move," I ordered them, getting this job underway as we headed towards the supposedly 'abandoned' building that'd been taken over by a small-scale terrorist cell. The only thing abandoned here is common sense and human decency, the building is currently housing them and any hostage they can get their fucking hands on. "Don't let a single asshole walk away from this."
After a series of nods, we moved in for the kill. The information and pictures of the fuckers responsible for this that I was given when I landed in-country was solid, but we knew with fewer 'followers' of this half-assed organization, meant they could pick up and move out with no warning, which they've done three times so far since I arrived here. My skin began to prickle in warning five minutes after we started to advance.
My mouth was in the process of ordering Gonzoloz, and the brown/black Labrador named 'Little Bear' I'd insisted on taking ... I wasn't leaving without our men even if I had to chase them across the fucking country by scent alone, to freeze. My hand already had a fistful of Mike's uniform in it when gravity helped bring his foot down too close to the trigger of a hidden explosive. The blast was loud and damaging. Before I could assess the extent of their injuries, I dragged Mike and L.B. towards a freestanding rock pile that had better not have anyone fucking hidden behind it, while relying on McCurry and Sosa to cover us. From the blood I saw coating the sand, and the grunts, curses, and whimpers, my team were making, I wasn't surprised to find both Gonzoloz and Little Bear missing part of their legs.
This is what nightmares are built on. I have too good of an idea of what the condition of the men we'd be extracting will be, but now two of my own people got injured, not only on my watch ... but at the end of my own fucking arm.
I radioed for a chopper and made sure it was known to the unlucky sonovabitch at the other end, that heads wouldn't just roll if I lost my men, they'd be blown the fuck off one by one if Mike and L.B. don't get immediate help. My brain was already reconfiguring the mission, now that the blast gave away our position, but my body was acting on autopilot to save my men. Not wanting to ever be at a disadvantage, I'd gone through the training that makes me qualified to be a Medic if I was ever inclined to switch from killing men to healing them on jobs like this one, so I located my kit without needing to look and got to work trying to slow the blood loss on both patients, with McCurry and Sosa helping wherever and whenever I told them to.
I know Mike Gonzoloz's wife is eight months pregnant, and if he dies on us ... that will affect his daughter before she even has a chance to be born. I can't live with that on my conscience as well. It was hard enough knowing Julie had been living her life without me, and I was still mostly alive during the time I was away from her. I won't put another family through that.
I was concerned, really concerned, seeing the extent of injuries and hearing and seeing the pain-filled winces as I treated them, but my gut eased marginally when I heard the Medevac chopper getting closer. Our surroundings were eerily still aside from the particles still falling from the air to litter the bomb site while we kept our asses in one spot as we awaited a pickup. The enemy appeared to be just sitting on their asses so they wouldn't waste any bullets putting them in something other than us. It isn't happening.
"Sosa," I barked. "Keep your head down and your body concealed, but be prepared to assist us or to blow anything away that's moving when it shouldn't be. I don't want them firing at us as we're getting Mike and L.B. loaded up."
"McCurry, keep one eye on me and the other on Sosa."
"Got it, Sir," he replied.
I battled the wind, noise, and propeller-thrown debris, the chopper produced when it landed as close to us as it was safe to. I didn't like it, but I had to pass responsibility of half my team over to someone else until I was in a better position to care for them.
I double-timed it back to my men, and the three of us watched the chopper take off with our men and everything, and every part, belonging to them on board, while scanning the area, ready to happily open fire on anyone who tried to keep it grounded. The fact that there was no anti-aircraft action taken, lent more credibility to us not only being more powerful physically, but also intellectually. This is a Stark Street situation in sandier soil.
I addressed my men when our injured team members were on their way to a different phase of hell. "We appear to be dealing with recreational assholes instead of professional ones, so there's a ten percent chance they're relying on IEDs and a prayer to keep us away from them and believe we'll abandon the mission ..."
Sosa snorted in a cocky manner. "As if."
I allowed my features to soften momentarily. "I like your attitude. If there's any chance I can still get our men out, I'm taking it."
"We're with you," McCurry agreed.
"Happy to hear it. We'll stick to our original plan, but we now know we're walking through a literal minefield. I'm not in the mood to report any more casualties, so I'm taking point. If one finger of mine moves, you keep your bodies fucking still. Do you understand me? If you see me hesitate at all, you don't even breathe until I give you the go-ahead to."
"Yes, Sir," was repeated by both.
I had to put Gonzoloz and Little Bear out of my mind until our mission is completed successfully, but I know they'll be at the forefront of, and weigh heavily on, it the second we get the men we're after on another chopper out.
"Let's move," I told them, not allowing any of us second thoughts.
Despite the sound and activity that had preceded our arrival ... the darkness, debris, and smoke from the explosion still hovering over the field between us and the building we're about to overtake, provided a small amount of coverage to hide our approach. Although we aren't a complete surprise, the fact that we hadn't aborted the rescue attempt, even being down two members of our team, took balls they don't think we have. They'll die for that assumption.
We couldn't shoot RPGs into the place, or make it a target from the air to wipe out the majority of our enemies so we could just pick off the few who were left standing. We have to go in fast and hard but carefully so we don't get our men executed or ourselves killed. McCurry and I took out the fuckers who were in charge of guarding the building, and we hauled ass before anyone had a chance to retaliate.
The life-sized sand castle had seen better days long before we got here, but it sustained a few more war wounds courtesy of us just for housing extremist assholes who don't deserve to be alive, let alone receiving shelter. And as an added 'Fuck you', we simultaneously broke in the scraps of wood that'd been acting as doors so we could enter the shithole.
I was barely able to suppress my urge to gag. The stench of unwashed bodies, blood, and excrement, hung in the air as thick and cloying as Jersey smog. I'm no longer feeling optimistic that we got here in time, but I refuse to leave without them. In my mind, leaving a man behind has never been, and will never be, an option. Even if I'm only able to give their families back the bodies of their loved ones, it will help me sleep better at night ... if I can manage to sleep at all.
With this being similar to search-and-seize jobs we've done together in the past, we separated inside. McCurry took the bullet-pocked stairs to the second floor. Sosa headed for the dug out area beneath us that we know could be used as a basement. I kept the first floor so I could provide backup to either one if I turned up nothing. Nothing wasn't what I discovered. I turned a corner and walked into a real life horror movie. The rifle that I had pointed at the men started firing a millisecond after I ID'd one of the faces as someone we know who's connected to the kidnapping. His head exploded without me giving him another thought. I was already moving onto the asshole right behind him.
I couldn't let myself think about anything ... their death expressions, the now visible brain matter, or the sights, smells, and sounds, we'll have to remember for the rest of our lives once we leave here. All my mental and physical energy went into reaching the two Sergeants I came for. Whoever or whatever comes between me and my objective will be quickly destroyed.
I sensed McCurry in coming behind me before I heard the double-click sound we have in place to identify each other. "Upstairs is clear."
"Sosa isn't back. And I'm good here. See if he needs another trigger finger."
And he left me with whatever was in the next room. I took out the fucker who didn't have the time or the brains to duck back behind the jamb of a previously blasted-out door, so I made sure he never had to think again. Who he's been torturing is who I'm here to bring home. There were two more wannabe terrorists to remove before I could get to work cutting the dirty ropes that are attaching our men's arms, ankles, necks, and mid-sections, to the stone wall behind them.
The two different hair colors, and the cammies that are dirty and torn in places but still recognizable, are all that told me that they are the two Soldiers we want. Their faces, heads, forearms, and the skin exposed beneath the rips in the legs of their uniforms, appeared to be one large, swollen bruise with sporadic gashes that already look and smell infected.
"Holy fuck!" Sosa hissed under his breath, when he came back with McCurry.
"Later," I bit out, "now's not the time. Help me get them out of here."
I used my radio to get two more Soldiers airlifted out. I gave our coordinates and arranged for their extraction with a time and pick-up location. I did what I could to get the Sergeants cleaned up, got some much-needed meds into them, and we got started on rehydrating them, before we put them in more pain by making them move after weeks of marathon walks followed by periods of absolute immobility. Hell is too good of a place for the fuckers who'd do this to another human being, let alone two of them.
Sosa and McCurry helped carry Sgt. Terrance Gary out, while I got an arm around Sgt. Emery Kendrick and carefully maneuvered him over the rubble and bodies and out of his weeks-long nightmare. It was past time for them to get back to their families who will hopefully be able to help them survive this. Our time to head home will come, but we'll stay behind to document and provide photographic evidence of the rescue and the part we played in it.
Aside from Gonzoloz and Little Bear getting injured, this had been an almost seamless in-and-out job. But seeing the legs of Mike and L.B. separate from their bodies, and knowing that their lives have just been changed forever, changed mine. It didn't help that I also recognized the broken spirits and knew all the feelings behind the death-acceptance in the eyes of the two men we just rescued. I can already predict that this mission isn't going to be over in my mind for a long time to come. That I'm now much closer to being able to see my woman again is the only thing that kept my boots moving under the weight of everything I'd been helpless to prevent.
A/N: The dog tag/heart ring combo that Stephanie got for her and Ranger, is something I saw online.