Seventy-eight. That was how long he lived. Seventy-eight years. It was much longer than he'd thought he'd last. He passed in his sleep. He'd been alone but as happy as he could be with those memories and that bad leg that required him to use a cane. At least, he'd thought he'd been happy.
Wolf had never considered himself overly religious. He'd shouted a few "Jesus Christ!"s in his day on the battlefield but that was about it. Well, there were those few prayers he'd sent out but those were more sarcastic than faithful. He didn't go to church and he wasn't sure he believed in heaven.
He was buried with the honor befitting a retired SAS soldier. Fox and Snake had been there in full dress uniform, standing behind his sister and her progeny. It was a rather nice funeral, and Snake throwing in that picture of K-Unit, complete with Cub standing awkwardly in the background, at training into his coffin had been considerate.
But Wolf wasn't quite done with his journey yet. He still had some things to do.
When he became aware of himself, he was standing outside a small restaurant. He looked around and found that the place was situated on a floating rock. That was strange, he noted. Not normal at all. It was dark and Wolf could see stars.
He recognized the restaurant; his Uncle had owned it once and he'd spent plenty of time there as a kid. He decided to go inside; he knew he was dead, could feel it in his very soul, but maybe someone could tell him where the hell he was.
He entered the old building and found that the floor was still creaky and the soft lighting still reflected off the dark wood of the tables. It was quiet in there and he was alone, or so he thought.
When he turned he saw her instantly, and recognized her a split second later. Gloria. His high school sweetheart. She was sitting in a booth and was staring out the window. He went over and sat down across from her for lack of a better idea. She looked the same as when he last saw her; when he was eighteen and leaving for the army.
"Hello Rey," she said as she turned to look at him.
"Gloria," he greeted. "Where are we?"
"This is our booth at Chino's Rey."
"Yes, I know that," he said annoyed. "But where are we?"
"The Catholics call it Purgatory," she said. "But you can't just buy your way out."
"What do you mean?" he asked not catching on. She gave him a weird look.
"You didn't pay all that much attention in history class did you?" she asked.
"I left high school over sixty years ago," he said.
"It's basic history Rey," she snapped. Gloria had always loved school and it was a continuous annoyance to her that he preferred to sleep through it.
"That I learned sixty years ago," he argued. She shook her head at him and changed the subject.
"You've lived a pretty full life Rey," she said. "Good career, good friends, good family. But you've done your far share of shit that you've never atoned for or let go. That's why you're here."
"To repent?" he asked, eyebrows raised.
"Yes," she said. "And to make good on the things you've done and the people you've hurt."
"Hurt?" he asked forcefully. "What did I ever do to you? If I remember right, you broke up with me!" She gave him a sad smile and nodded in acknowledgement of the point.
"Yes, I did," she agreed. "Do you know why?"
"I recall some bullshit excuse," he snapped, arms crossed. He'd been in love with Gloria and even though they'd gotten into a fight, the break-up had been the last thing he'd expected. He had wanted to marry her and it had hurt him terribly when she'd done that for apparently no reason. She was his last true relationship.
"I was scared Rey," she said cutting into his thoughts.
"Of what?" he asked.
"Losing you," she answered.
"You broke up with me Gloria," he reminded her. "How is that not losing me?" She gave him a laugh full of mirth, flashing her pearl white teeth.
"Well, I had a plan," she said. He believed it; Gloria was the type who always had a plan for everything. "But it didn't go as I thought it would."
"Bet that annoyed the hell out of you," he said.
"Yes it did, actually," she replied.
"What was the plan?"
"Rey, I never wanted you to be a soldier," she said and he nodded remembering all the fights they'd had about his dream job. "But I knew you wouldn't be happy doing anything else. In the end, I knew we couldn't be together because neither of us would be capable of change."
"What do you mean?" he asked, confused as to where she was going with this.
"I wasn't strong enough," she said. "And you were too strong. I wouldn't be able to have you leave again and again, and never say anything. Eventually, I'd break and want you to quit, like I'd tried to never even get you to start. It would have driven us apart. I loved you Rey, and I wanted to be in your life, but it would have had to been as your friend."
"It wouldn't have felt right, Gloria," he said, shaking his head. "We belonged together."
"Perhaps," she conceded. "But have to admit Rey; it would have been a problem we wouldn't have been able to work around. I wanted you to be happy with your life, so I let you go."
"You said you did it so you wouldn't lose me," he said. "But you did lose me, and I lost you."
"True," she replied. "I didn't expect your ability to hold a grudge. I thought we could be friends after you'd cooled off but you're quite stubborn."
"Yeah, I've heard that one before," he said and she laughed. He ended up laughing with her, just like old times. He looked at her. He had loved her once, had wanted to marry her. She had been the world to him. "I love you, Gloria."
"I love you too, Rey."
He recognized the place instantly but where Chino's had filled him with nostalgia, this place filled him with some dread. Brecon Beacons. Hardly the most heavenly place, he thought bitterly.
He found himself standing in front of the Sergeant's office, if you could call it that. It was a hut filled with filing cabinets, a card table holding a laptop and a phone, and a couple of folding chairs. That was it.
Speaking of the Sergeant, he was sitting on the front steps of the hut in his army fatigues. Wolf instantly stood attention out of pure habit. It seemed that habit would follow him even in death. The Sergeant just smiled.
"At ease, soldier," he said, tone fully amused. He nodded to the empty steps beside him. "Come join me."
Wolf sat down next to him, resting both hands on the curved handle of his cane. The man beside him also looked the same as he last saw him. Well, except for the soft smile on his face. That was certainly new and a little bit creepy. They sat in silence until the Sergeant spoke.
"You did good soldier," he said and Wolf couldn't help but smile. He was pretty sure that was the first compliment he'd ever gotten from the man.
"Thank you sir," he said.
"I remember your training," the man continued. "You were good; knew then and there you'd go far. Knew you were a survivor, a bastard but a survivor." Wolf winced slightly. So much for compliment.
"I loved it," Wolf informed his training Sergeant. "My job, I mean." The Sergeant gave a knowing nod.
"You know, I've seen a lot of men pass through here," he said. "Only ever had one kid though. But that's not the point; the point is that there are only a few in a generation who can do the things you've done and weather it so well."
"Didn't do a lot of good things sir," Wolf said.
"Course not," the man said. "You fought a war. Did a lot of shit, broke some hearts, and a couple of heads. But the intent was good and that's all that matters. You saved a lot of people."
"It was my job," Wolf said shifting a bit under the praise.
"Yes, it was," the man agreed. "You know it's easy for people to say that they want to do good in the world. It's a lot harder for people to say they have. You're one of the few who can say they have."
"What's your point?" Wolf asked.
"Forget your regrets. They'll only hold you back."
"Back from what sir," he asked, thoroughly curious. The Sergeant gave him a long, hard look.
"Peace, Wolf," he said. "You can't be at peace with all those regrets. Shit happens for a reason soldier, and that's okay."
"It's not that easy," Wolf argued back. "To just let go of everything you've done."
"Only if you make it not that easy," the man replied. Wolf didn't feel like arguing that point.
He knew this place as well. It was a small clearing in the woods. The trees were old and tall, the foliage thick. It was dark and there was a faint mist in the air giving the place a creepy feel. The grass was littered with bodies and blood stained the ground. It was the site of a battle, one of the most brutal Wolf had been a part of. It had also been his last.
In the center of the clearing was a boy, no more than eighteen, with dark brown hair and blue eyes. His clothes were baggy and blood stained, his torso riddled with bullet wounds. Wolf knew this boy, even if he had yet to discover his name. Wolf had killed him.
"Hello, Wolf," the boy said as Wolf approached.
"What do you want?" he asked, feeling himself on edge. He couldn't help it; he'd known the kid as a terrorist.
"Just wanted to say hello," he said.
"Why?" he asked suspiciously. "It wasn't like we were friends."
"No," the boy said, laughing a bit. "No, we weren't."
"Then what do you want?" Wolf asked again.
"You killed me," was the reply.
"You were trying to kill thousands of innocent people," Wolf snapped. "And for what? A couple of trees?"
"They were beautiful trees," he said.
"How the hell did you get into heaven?" Wolf asked. The boy may have been young but he was ruthless. He'd seen the kid shoot down an eleven year old for no other reason than she was the daughter of a land developer. Fucking eco terrorists.
"How did you?" the kid shot back. "You've killed people."
"Not in cold blood," he replied. The kid started laughing.
"Oh, really?" he said. "You're paid to kill people, Wolf. How is that not cold blooded?" Wolf didn't answer. "I'm not here to argue with you."
"Then what do you want?" he asked yet again.
"I believe apologies are needed," he said and Wolf gave him a weird look.
"I'm not going to apologize for taking you down," he said.
"Don't expect you to," the kid replied. "I want to apologize to you." Wolf was sufficiently shocked into silence. "I may have been a terrorist and a murderer, but I had reasons. A past. A name. My motives were pure, my actions were not. I wanted to apologize for ruining your leg. But I had reasons for shooting you."
"And what were those?" he asked. "Beyond just trying to put me in pain."
"Humans are complicated creatures, Wolf. You know this. Do you remember when we were holding you hostage?"
"How could I forget?"
"Yes, well, do you remember that conversation we had?" Wolf nodded; he'd tried to convince the boy not only to let him go but that what he was doing was wrong. "Well, you succeeded. Kind of."
"What do you mean?" Wolf asked, confused. "You didn't try to stop."
"No," the boy said. "I was too far gone by then, in too deep. But you did make me feel guilty. We had started placing land mines in the clearing when you came for us. You were going to step on one. I had to stop you." Wolf couldn't believe it. Since that night he'd lived with the fact that the kid was a cold blooded killer. He never considered that the boy still had something of conscious. Had he really gotten under the boy's skin that much? Enough for the kid to feel the need to save his life?
"Why?" Wolf asked, completely thrown. "Why save my life?" The boy gave a guilty looking shrug.
"I was lost for a long time, Wolf," he said. "I was messed up and in a bad place. What you said to me, it hurt, but it was true. I never wanted to be a monster. Never wanted to be a cold blooded murderer." Wolf didn't have much of an answer to that. The kid had sent him to early retirement but had kept him from an early grave. Wolf didn't even consider that the boy was lying. It just didn't seem possible to lie in heaven. Speaking of heaven?
"Bit of a gruesome scene," he said. "For heaven." The boy gave his first real smile.
"We get to choose our heaven Wolf," he said. "The place that gives us peace."
"So you chose here?" he asked incredulously. The kid nodded.
"It wasn't always like this," he said. Wolf gave him a weird look but suddenly the corpses and blood was gone. So was the mist and darkness. And Wolf saw a beautiful clearing in the woods. He heard chirping and water from an unseen creek. Ah, that made more sense. "This was what I wanted to protect," the boy said, cutting into Wolf's thoughts. "It's beautiful." Wolf just nodded in agreement.
"What your name?" he asked. It had never mattered before. The boy had been a monster, now he was just a dead kid. He was a little more human now. He deserved a name.
"Darren," he said. "My name is Darren."
"Nice to meet you Darren."
He was in a pub. That much was obvious. He tired to look out the window but it was fogged up, as if there was no world out there. There probably wasn't. The lighting was soft, like Chino's but it wasn't an old girlfriend sitting at the bar, drinking a beer.
"Eagle," he greeted going to sit next to his old teammate. This was one of the last people he'd expected to see again. But so had the last three people he'd met. He briefly wondered how many people he'd meet again.
"Five," Eagle said suddenly, startling Wolf. "You meet five." How the hell had he known what he was thinking? "I went through the same thing."
"A pub, Eagle?" Wolf asked, changing the subject. "This is your heaven?" Eagle gave that roguish grin Wolf knew so well.
"We could only ever drink one beer while in the SAS," he said. "Unlike you, I didn't retire." Wolf winced at the memory. Eagle had died during a job. They'd been going to extract some MI6 agent. That battle had been bloody and long. Wolf never even saw the MI6 agent but had been told he'd died as well. With Eagle, they'd said. The two had supposedly been on their way out. He'd never fully known what had happened, some explosion. He knew that much; Eagle's body had been charred. They'd had to identify him through dental records.
"Don't feel guilty," Eagle said, bringing Wolf from his memories. "It was fun while it lasted."
"Fun?" Wolf practically snarled. "Eagle you were blown up!" The man just shrugged, taking another sip of his beer.
"Occupational hazard," he said.
"This isn't funny."
"It's been like, what, fifty-five years? Let it go man," Eagle said, tone firm. Wolf just shook his head. "I signed up for the job. We all knew the risks."
"Shouldn't have happened," Wolf said. Eagle reached across the bar and brought a bottle out. He set it in front of Wolf.
"Here, have a beer," he said. Wolf glared at him, which Eagle ignored, but twisted the cap off and took a drink any way. It had been a long time since he'd had a drink with his friend.
"Shit happens for a reason, Wolf-man," he said.
"That's what the Sergeant said," Wolf replied. Eagle scowled.
"Yeah, Brecon Beacons was the first place I visited," he said. "I thought I'd gone to hell." Wolf gave a small laugh.
"It's a weird place to have as a heaven," Wolf agreed before looking around. "But so is a pub."
"Let you in on a secret Wolf?" Eagle said, lowly as if someone was going to overhear him. Wolf gave shrug. "You can't get drunk in heaven. I guess hangovers are for hell."
"You're a strange person," Wolf replied. Eagle smiled even wider.
"Indeed I am, Wolf-man," he said.
"Eagle?" Wolf asked, after a few moments of silence. Eagle grunted in acknowledgement. "Are you okay?"
"Yes, I am," he said. "Are you?" Wolf avoided an answer by taking another drink. "You know, you're a real bastard."
"Don't act like you don't know it," Eagle said. "I mean it was pretty obvious with how you treated Cub and all. But don't feel bad about it. Your good outweighs your bad. That's why you're here. Shit happens Wolf, but you're a good person. A good friend. Don't feel guilty about what happened to me. You never could have stopped it. It was my time to go. I'd finished what I'd needed to do in the world."
"We couldn't even recognize you," Wolf said, his throat starting to close as he remembered finding Eagle's body. "We knew it was you, but they made us wait for the dental records before we could say it."
"Life is rough," Eagle said. "But that's what makes it life. I was happy with my life Wolf. And I'm okay. I'm at peace."
"What happened that day?" Wolf asked. "They didn't tell us much."
"I'll bet they didn't," Eagle said before launching into the story. "After we got separated I managed to find the agent. He was pretty beaten up, but he managed to tell me what was happening. The guy he'd been sent to stop somehow got his hands on the launch codes for half a dozen nuclear missiles. He was planning to launch them to certain points on the globe. The launch was set to a timer and the control panel was in the building. But the building was also set to blow ten seconds after the signal was sent. The trigger for the bombs was on the opposite side of the building of the control panel. I didn't know how to stop the nukes and the agent couldn't walk on his own."
"You went for the nukes," Wolf said and Eagle nodded.
"We managed to stop the launch but by then only thirty seconds were left before the building blew. The radios were fucked and there wasn't enough time to do anything. So we sat down in a couple of chairs, I made a joke, and we died laughing." Wolf couldn't help but shake his head.
It was so typically Eagle to make a joke when he knew he was going to die. But that was Eagle. Going out laughing was the only possibility for him.
"Who was the agent?"
"Sorry Wolf, that's classified." Oh for the love of-. They were dead! Eagle caught his look of pure annoyance and burst out laughing.
"Stop laughing," Wolf ordered. They sat in silence for a bit longer until Eagle spoke again. The man was talkative by nature and couldn't shut up even in death. Wolf found it both achingly familiar and annoying.
"You know you died a day after the anniversary of my death," Eagle noted. Wolf didn't like the sound of where this going. It didn't help that Eagle was smiling just a little too widely.
"So?" he said.
"So, way to cut off the electricity to my spotlight," he quipped. Wolf just smacked him upside the head.
"Ow!" Some things never did change.
He was sitting the bottom bleacher facing a football field. Wolf had enjoyed football as much as the next guy but he hadn't known anyone who had played. At least he thought he hadn't as he recognized the boy kicking a ball into a goal. He'd recognize him anywhere. Even after all these years.
"Cub." And even though it was practically a whisper and the boy was meters away, he turned and smiled. He was dressed in football player uniform, right down to the shin guards and cleats. The boy jogged over to him and stopped to stand in front of him.
"Hey Wolf," he said. "Was wondering when I'd see you again."
"Hey Cub," was all he managed. Of all the people he'd seen, Cub still managed to be the one to catch off guard the most. But then, it was like this every time they met. Which admittedly, had only been twice. Once at Brecon Beacons and once at Point Blanc. "What am I doing here?"
"You're here to apologize," Cub said instantly and Wolf raised an eyebrow.
"Apologize?" he said as if it was the least likely thing to occur during this meeting. "For what?"
"Well, you were a bit of a bastard to me," Cub told him and Wolf knew he was referring to Brecon Beacons.
"You were a kid in the SAS," Wolf said as if that explained it all. In way it actually did. Cub just sighed and rolled his eyes.
"So?" he said. "It's not like I didn't prove myself capable."
"You kicked me out of a plane," Wolf reminded him.
"You deserved it," Cub argued.
"Exactly," Wolf said and the smugness in his tone made Cub crinkle his eyebrows in confusion. "We're even." And now the boy looked annoyed.
"You know I really shouldn't be surprised."
"And why not?" Wolf leaned back resting his elbows on the bleacher behind him in a show of casualness.
"I was told you had a problem with apologizing," he said. "Apparently, you always think you're right."
"Who told you that?" he asked.
"Eagle," Cub replied. Wolf narrowed his eyes.
"You've spoken with him?"
"Of course," Cub replied with a shrug. "I visited him once, about forty years ago. He wouldn't let me leave until I had a beer. Did you know you can't get drunk in heaven?" Wolf couldn't help it, he smiled.
"Well, hangovers are for hell," he said repeating Eagle's words. Cub's smirk told him he recognized them. There was a moment of silence as Wolf worked up the courage to ask him something.
"When did you die?" he asked softly. Wolf had always been curious about the boy; he was a rare occurrence after all.
"I was seventeen when it happened," Cub said. Wolf felt sorry for him. That was very young.
"I'm sorry," he said. He didn't register the fact that he'd just apologized. He wasn't saying it because of his behavior at training, he was saying it because the boy had died so young, and knowing him, probably painfully. Cub shrugged.
"It's okay," he said. "I didn't have very much left in the world anyways. But I stopped World War three, so that was good."
"You're awfully talkative," Wolf said. "I don't remember you like this."
"I'm happy Wolf," the boy said. "I'm at peace. And there's no reason to hide anymore." Wolf nodded, a smile on his face. For the first time in a long time, he felt at peace too.
"Alex!" Wolf's head, snapped in the direction of the shout. Three people stood on the other side of the field. Two men and a woman. The men looked like brothers and the woman was holding one of the men's hand.
"Coming, Dad!" Cub, Alex, shouted over his shoulder. "It's time for me to go," he said, turning back to Wolf. "And it's time for you to go to your heaven." Wolf had sat back up at one point during the conversation and Cub reached for his cane, gently pulling it away from his hands. "You won't need this where you're going."
"Where am I going?" he asked.
"That, Wolf, is up to you." The boy turned and walked away. He was halfway across the field when called out to him.
"Cub!" he shouted, and the boy stopped and turned back towards him. "Thanks." He didn't reply, just smiled and left.
The day was overcast. Fox thought it was perfect for the funeral. It matched Wolf well. If it was raining it would be too depressing, something Wolf wouldn't have wanted. If it was sunny, it just wouldn't be him. Wolf was by no means, a cheerful person. It had been sunny on the day of Eagle's funeral. That had fit perfectly despite the fact that it was a somber occasion. Fox wouldn't have been surprised if Eagle's last words had been some sort of joke.
After Wolf was buried, he and Snake had extracted four beers from a cooler in his car. They'd each popped one open as they stood by Eagle's grave just a little bit away from Wolf's. Snake had opened a third and poured it into the ground where Eagle's head would be. They did this every time they managed to make it out here. Share a drink with a friend.
Fox had wandered off at one point his half empty bottle in one hand, and the unopened one in the other. Snake followed him to stand in front of a large, black tombstone. It was large but simple. A name, the dates of birth and death, and a quote that read, "We are what we are."
"Who's this?" Snake asked, as he read the name but didn't seem to recognize it.
"You know him," Fox said.
"I don't think I ever met an Alex Rider," Snake replied but Fox shook his head.
"This is Cub," he said and Snake gave a small noise of surprise before turning back to the stone.
"He was seventeen," the ex-soldier said sadly. Fox nodded.
"You remember the day Eagle died?" he asked.
"How could I forget?"
"Alex was the agent Eagle was with," Fox said. "They stopped a nuclear war." Snake was shocked into silence with sudden divergence of information about that horrible day. He hadn't ever realized they'd lost two members of K-Unit.
"How long have you known this?" he asked. It was terrible secret to carry around for all these years.
"Since it happened," Fox said taking another drink. "I couldn't tell you. Classified."
"Why tell me now?"
"Doesn't seem all that important to keep it a secret anymore," Fox said. "We're the last members of the original K-Unit you know. Had to tell somebody." Snake didn't reply just laid a hand his friend's shoulder and finished his own drink. "You think they're okay?" Fox asked suddenly.
"Yes," Snake said instantly. "They were good people." Fox nodded.
They stood there for awhile until Fox dropped his empty bottle on the ground and popped the cap to the other beer. He poured it onto the grave, just as he'd done with Eagle's
"Never did get the chance to have a drink with the kid," he said.
"Was he even the type?"
"Not really," Fox said. "But with everything he'd gone through, he deserves one."
Snake just nodded in agreement. He hadn't known the kid very well. Hadn't seen him since Brecon Beacons and even then he'd barely said a word to the boy. He hadn't expected to see his grave. But that was Cub, popping up in the most random of times and places.
He lifted his now empty bottle in a toast-like gesture.