Title: Dead Behind the Wheel
Author: alakewood
Fandom: Stop-Loss
Warnings: Spoilers for the film, but still AU. Vague, yet possibly disturbing, details.
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 830
Summary: Sometimes, even survivors of war can be casualties.

oxoxo

The flight stateside, the bus ride home; the whole time, the smile on his face was easy. He felt happy and it felt genuine. It wasn't until Sergeant Brandon King was asked to ride in the back of a convertible with his best friend, fellow sergeant and hometown-hero, Steve Shriver, in the parade that the smile felt fake.

A carefully worn mask that he hadn't been aware of putting on, yet, there it was. His fear, he guessed, was what made him see through the illusion – his reflection in a window, staring back at him in mockery. Smile as big as you can, it said. They'll still see the murderer, the monster you've become. There's so much blood on your hands.

But when he saw his parents, his mother hugged him, crying and smiling through her tears. "It's so good to have you home, baby."

Maybe she was pretending he hadn't changed, too.

oxo

Like a sinkhole, you couldn't see it at first. Started small, eating away at the ground, creating a hollow space. An empty space that stretched wider, vast under the surface. Everything looked normal, the same, unchanging, until gravity caused it to collapse in on itself. Revealed it for what it really was. Vacant, deep, dangerous.

Of course, in the beginning, he'd held it together a lot better than Steve had – digging himself a grave in Michele's front yard, lying in it, armed with a gun as he waited for the enemy. They all fell apart slowly, sanity eroding – drunken fighting, shooting things up – but it wasn't nearly as noticeable as it should've been, even as it escalated.

Brandon noticed it with Tommy first. Something was wrong.

oxo

When Brandon went to get his discharge papers signed and was told of the stop-loss on his contract, that was when it all caved in..

Faced with going back, the collapse was sudden and absolute.

The sleeping demon in his subconscious awoke and pushed through to the surface. It fought with his desire to stay home where he could become who he used to be – become normal again. Where he could pretend to be the man who had never watched Preacher get shot in the face or seen the aftermath of a grenade he'd thrown into the next room or killed a child because the man holding him would've killed Brandon and Steve if he hadn't shot them both first.

As strong as the desire to stay, was the urge to go. Back to the war, where every man on the front lines – who had seen what he'd seen – was as hollow and numb and dead on the inside, nothing but a shell. A killing machine on autopilot set to 'kill or be killed.' He was a danger, here, he knew. At least, over there...

The demon inside was gleeful, rattled its cage, ready to return to carnage and violence and death, fueled by a never-ending supply of bloodlust and rage. It wanted war, destruction, decimation.

oxo

The road-trip to DC was a blur, and full of nightmares – some of which were real. Like when he almost killed those thugs – it would've been so easy and it would've felt good.

Steve found him in Tennessee. Seeing him standing there in his dress uniform, Brandon knew something was going on. That Steve would willingly go back to that Hell. That he'd give up the chance of normal and happy, a life with Michele, and return to something so far from normal that was, at best, barely an existence.

Later, after Tommy's funeral, he learned the real reason for Steve's deal with Boot. It was more than just agreeing to sniper school so Boot would drop all charges against Brandon, more personal – Steve felt that if Brandon had no choice to go back, well, neither did he. "If you gotta go back," he'd said, "then I'm going with you. Somebody's gotta watch your six. Besides," the smile faded into something serious. "All I've got is you and the Army."

Brandon stood there for a moment, then walked away, refusing to believe that going back was the only option. However, even as he, Michele, and his mother got into the car to head for Mexico, he knew that Steve was right.

He felt the demon clawing its way out and filling up that empty space.

oxo

Sitting beside Steve as the bus left Brazos, the demon assumed control and he felt the smile, slow and easy, return to his face. He waved goodbye to his mother and watched as her resolve quickly turned into tears.

Brandon knew she felt it, too – no pretending now: he wouldn't be coming home.