Author: Jaz, © February 21, 2003

Rating: PG - Gen fic

Warning: Sappiness abounds!

Disclaimer: Tour of Duty and the characters herein are the property of Zev Braun Productions. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money is being made from this story.

Summary: A birthday celebrated in 'Nam.

The Birthday Blues

Sergeant Anderson heard the noise of the approaching helicopter over the persistent din of the gunfire surrounding him. He threw a quick backward glance over his shoulder, encouraged by the sight of the lone Huey in the distance as it made its way to the LZ behind him. He returned his gaze to his line of fire, holding back before shooting at the unseen enemy as he called out to Goldman on his left.

"LT! Chopper comin' in!" he yelled, pulling out the magazine from his M-16 and flipping it to reload, his eyes never leaving the muzzle flashes sprayed out in the bushes ahead of him. The thick foliage provided excellent cover for the VC hidden within, and Zeke was well used to allowing the sudden bursts of light to guide his shots.

"Outstanding," Goldman responded dryly, as he picked his own targets. The relief he felt at the thought that they would soon be out of this unexpected onslaught of enemy fire was barely noticeable in his tone. "Let's get the men ready to fall back!"

Anderson's deep voice bellowed out, its steadiness and surety communicating more than just direction to Team Viking. "Alright, listen up!" he called. "Time to head home, boys! Get your butts back to the LZ, pronto!"

Zeke shifted his position slightly, pulling himself closer to the tree he was using for cover as his men began their retreat. The next few minutes went like clockwork, as each man reacted instinctively to the sergeant's commands. He watched them make their hurried dash to the choppers, proud of each of them. Nothing was more important to Anderson than bringing his boys back home alive. Maybe, just maybe, today was going to be a good day.

Percell was the last of the team to run for the LZ, and he had just passed by Zeke's position, dodging a low hanging branch as he ran. Zeke did a quick perimeter sweep, assuring himself that none of his boys were still engaged in the battle. Satisfied, he glanced over at Goldman. "LT!" he called out again. "Go! I got the rear!"

Lieutenant Goldman found himself alternating between irritation and amusement over his sergeant's 'orders.' It came as no surprise. Zeke Anderson always had the rear. He believed it was his soul duty in life to be the last one to load up in order to ensure that no one else was left behind. It was simply his way of doing things, and Goldman understood that, had seen it countless times in action. Because of that, he could usually let it slide, even if Zeke seemed to be crossing the line by telling his commanding officer to go. Today, however, he had no intention of leaving the sergeant out here alone. For some reason, today, of all days, he felt a need to make sure they went back together.

Getting his sergeant to agree to that was another matter entirely.

He raised himself to his feet, still crouching, noticing the muzzle flashes behind and to the left of Anderson. He knew they wouldn't have much time, and he fired off three final shots in that direction before lifting himself fully off the ground, determined to compromise. "Alright," he called out, "but you're right behind me, you got that Sergeant?"

"I heard that," Zeke muttered, waiting a half second longer before rolling and pushing his body off the ground to make a run for the chopper. He felt a burning in his shoulder as he lifted up and knew that his resistant muscles would be protesting tonight. Sometimes, getting old sucked.

Goldman hung back just enough to make sure he could hear Zeke was right behind him, and then he put more effort into his retreat. He could see Percell and Taylor as they provided cover fire from inside the slick. Running hunched over, he made it to the chopper and grabbed the extended hand of the gunner who pulled him aboard. He turned immediately to watch Zeke's progress, calling out his encouragement to his sergeant. "Move it, Anderson!" he shouted, noticing that the VC were separating themselves from their cover in an effort to keep their enemy from escaping.

Zeke climbed on board the chopper directly into the spot that had just been vacated by Taylor and rapped his fist against the outside, giving the signal to the pilot that all was clear for liftoff. The pilot skillfully raised the bird into the air, ignoring the enemy rounds, some of which pierced the underbelly of the chopper. Anderson assisted the door gunner in laying down fire as the chopper veered sharply left and moved out of range of the VC weapons. He felt a grim satisfaction in seeing one of his bullets find its target.

The sergeant felt himself relax as the bird found a safe place in the air and began its journey back to base. There was no way to describe the feeling he got at times like these, knowing they'd beaten the odds once again. He prayed to God that there wouldn't come a time when it would be otherwise, but he knew better than to believe that. He pulled his legs further inside the slick and leaned back against the padded wall to survey his men, each of them safe and bound for base. Looked like it was a good day after all.

Goldman closed his eyes for a moment as the chopper flew through the air, grateful for the wind he could feel streaming past his face. He had always liked that feeling, even as a boy. During summers when the General wasn't home, his mother would allow him to roll down the car window as far as it went and lean out 'just a bit.' He'd close his eyes and feel the wind as it rushed passed him, blowing through his short hair, and imagine he was flying. Now, flying here in 'Nam, he did his best to imagine he was back in that car. Strange how things have a way of coming full circle as you get older. No matter—with the wind rushing past his face, the feeling hadn't changed. It was the feeling of freedom. That was a feeling he needed constant reminding of these days.

He looked intently at the weary faces of his team, settling briefly on each one. It was funny—they didn't look so much like boys any more. There was an edge on their faces, a glint in their eye, a hardness about them. It didn't take much to realize they'd grown up in a heartbeat. For that matter, so had he. In Vietnam, the passage of time wasn't necessary for getting older. It was growing older in Vietnam that seemed to be harder to accomplish.

They were a quiet bunch right now, and he found that surprising given the success of their search and destroy mission. The unexpected little surprise of finding the VC had left several men guarding the stolen weapons cache hadn't changed the outcome, it had merely given him the excuse to call in for a rapid evac, resulting in the Team Viking's returning to the base ahead of schedule. After thirteen days in the bush, that thought alone should be making the guys a little more animated. He decided to remind them of that fact.

"Hey," he called out, making himself heard over the sound of the chopper's rotors doing their dance in the sky. All eyes immediately turned to him with that simple command.

"You guys did good out there. Hell, you did great," he reiterated, pausing a moment to look each man in the eye. "I'm proud of you."

The words sank in, the men unwilling to say anything. Praise from their lieutenant wasn't uncommon; it just wasn't usually put into words. Each man knew they had their lieutenant's approval, and each man gave the lieutenant fierce loyalty in exchange. He was their lieutenant. God help the man who tried to change that.

"In fact," Goldman continued, allowing a small gleam to brighten his normally dark eyes, "You guys did so well, we're heading back two days ahead of schedule. Hot showers and hot food tonight."

This brought the expected round of cheers from the tired soldiers surrounding him.

"Hey, LT," Taylor spoke up, "Can we get some hot women with that too?" he asked, elbowing Percell, who immediately joined in the chorus.

"Yeah, LT, how 'bout it?" Danny echoed with a smirk on his face.

Goldman held up his hand. "Hold on, guys. You know better. There ain't no way I can get you all passes into Sin City tonight…."

He listened as the cheers turned into a chorus of groans of disappointment, and held his hand up slightly higher. "But…." he offered, "I'll see what I can do for tomorrow night."

Marcus rubbed his hands together in glee. "Way to go, LT!" he said. "'Cuz I am definitely in need of some fine female attention."

"Since when does a female have to be fine for you, Taylor?" Ruiz piped up. "Hell, you'll take anything in a skirt,"

"Good point, Ru, good point," Taylor agreed, not taking offense at his friend's words. "After all, even the ugly chicks are in need of a little good luvin' now and then. And believe me, a night with Marcus Taylor is all about good luvin'!" he bragged.

Percell groaned and shoved Taylor with his shoulder. "Oh, please, Marcus. Spare us the gory details."

Taylor looked up at Percell before righting himself from where he'd been pushed none too gently against Ruiz. He grinned at the Spec4, his teeth white and gleaming against his dark skin. "Why, Percell, I'm wounded," he said, feigning hurt.

"Yeah, in the head maybe," Johnson joined in.

Goldman sat back a little further against the pilot's seat and watched, pleased to see his words had had the desired effect, and the men were beginning to let loose. He gazed across the body of the chopper to where Anderson sat with his eyes on the men, listening to the conversation as it flowed around him. Zeke had been uncharacteristically silent during the exchange, and Myron wondered, not for the first time, what went on in his sergeant's mind during these periods of quiet contemplation.

"Hey, wait!" Alberto suddenly commented, excitement obvious in his voice. "LT, you said we're getting back early. What's the date, man? Anybody know today's date?"

Silence greeted him for a moment as the men attempted to remember what day it was—they all seemed to blend together out in the bush.

"Friday. The 27th," Zeke stated quietly from where he sat.

"It is? You sure?" Ruiz asked, not pausing for an answer. "That's excellent, man!"

"What, you got a hot date, or something, Ru?" Taylor asked.

"No, nothing like that. It's my sister's birthday, that's all. I didn't think I was gonna get to call her, but now… Man, she woulda been ripped if I didn't remember her birthday," Ruiz declared.

"Why's that?" Doc Hock asked. "Don't she know your time ain't your own when you're in-country?"

"Yeah, she knows, Doc, she knows. But birthdays are huge in my family. It's like this all day celebration. Starts out at breakfast with just my family, and by the end of the day, there must be, like, a hundred relatives hanging around. We have this huge feast, food enough to feed a whole platoon. When we were little kids, we always did a piñata. Now, there's lots of dancing and stuff. And the birthday kid gets a ton of gifts. It's like—the best day of the whole damn year." Ruiz's words tumbled over each other in his excitement as he began to remember his own birthdays in years past. It wasn't long before the other members of Team Viking began to recall their birthdays, and each sought to share those memories with the 'family' that was now around them.

"We didn't have a lot of family," Taylor began. "Usually just my grandmother and me. But, man…she always did it up right. Not so much in gifts, but just by makin' me feel special. And this cake she made, with chocolate frosting, ooooowweee, that was the sweetest thing you ever tasted. Man, could I go for a piece of that right now." He closed his eyes and licked his lips, smiling at the memory.

"At my house," Percell cut in, "the party started the minute you woke up. My parents came in and sang 'Happy Birthday' just to get me out of bed. Worked every time, 'cuz I'd be so excited about the day. At breakfast there was a present waiting for me at my place. But the best part of havin' a birthday was that ya didn't havta do any chores for the whole damn day."

"Yeah, Danny, me too, me too!" Johnson said, the smile growing on his face. "For the whole day, nothin' to do but relax. Now, that was special."

"Yeah. It was great if it was my birthday, but not so hot when it was my sister's…double the work then," Percell remembered.

"Right on, man," Johnson laughed. "I heard that!"

"Hey, Johnson—what was the best birthday gift you ever got?" Ruiz asked curiously.

Johnson thought a minute, and then answered with certainty, "My grandfather's bible. My grandmother gave it to me on my birthday the year he died. He always had that bible with him; it was filled with all sorts of notes he'd written—reading through it was like spending time with my grandpa again."

The group fell silent a moment, with only the constant whirring of the blades to mark the passage of time.

Johnson, realizing he'd dampened the mood, sought to repair the damage. "How about you, Ruiz? What was your best gift?" he asked.

"Aw, man, that's an easy one," Ruiz stated, closing his eyes in memory. "A fifty seven Chevy. My uncle, he worked for this junkyard. This car came in one day, and I swear, it was nothing but a heap of scrap. But he gave it to me anyway, and the two of us, we spent hours fixing it up. Now her motor purrs like a kitten—she's waitin' for me when I catch the freedom bird."

Taylor laughed out loud. "Yeah, man, I can just see you cruisin' the streets of the Bronx in a car called "Kitten!" he sputtered.

Ruiz felt the heat creeping up the back of his neck at the other man's laughter. "You're such an idiot, Taylor," he said. He shoved Taylor in much the same way Percell had a few moments before, and this time it was Danny's lap that Taylor ended up sprawled across.

"What about you, Danny?" Doc Hock prodded, hoping to continue the conversation. "What was the best birthday gift you ever got?"

Danny smiled an easy, relaxed grin, and removed the toothpick he'd been chewing on from his lips. "The year I turned 13, my father got me a filly."

Taylor gawked at the man with his jaw literally hanging. "Holy crap! You mean your father got you a chick when you was just thirteen? You lucky sonuva…!"

Percell let out a deep belly laugh at that, taking more than a minute to answer his envious hootchmate. "No, Taylor, no," he replied, chuckling. "I said a filly! A horse, Taylor! A damn fine one too. She's the best barrel horse I've ever ridden."

Taylor shook his head. "Damn, Percell, you disappoint me. Your best gift was a horse? What kind of a guy gets off on that?" he asked.

"Don't knock it 'til you tried it, buddy," Danny assured him.

"Yeah, well, I still think you'd have been better off with a chick," Taylor grumbled. He looked over at the still silent Anderson, catching his eye, and was about to ask him about his best gift when Anderson spoke up, cutting him off.

"Alright, ladies—base is in view. Y'all gather up your gear and head for the showers, 'cuz you are the sorriest lookin' lot of soldiers I've ever seen. But ya done good," he added with his lopsided grin.

The chopper cleared the treetops and flew toward the helipad, hovering briefly before lowering its awkward body to the ground, the skids settling down just shy of the recently painted peace symbol.

Zeke sat on his rack in his hootch, methodically cleaning his M-16 with an old toothbrush. His hair was still damp from the recent shower, and being in a clean pair of fatigues and dry socks brought him contentment. A man of simple tastes, it didn't take much to make him happy. As he cleaned, he allowed his mind to follow the paths brought up by the team's conversation in the chopper.

He'd never paid too much attention to birthdays. In his mind, a birthday was just a day marking another year gone by. Lately all they'd done was remind him he was getting older, and that he was getting older alone. In fact, he'd been doing his best to ignore them all together. The last two had been easy enough to disregard—he'd been out in the bush, and naturally, he had other things on his mind. He'd been half hoping that would be the case this year too, but his luck had run out there. Getting back to base two days early left him with nearly 8 hours left of birthday and no way to spend it.

Not all his birthdays had been bad. There'd been that year when he was first married, and Carol had gone all out to make it special for him. He'd come home to a candlelight dinner and a homemade cake, and she treated him like a king for the rest of the night. One of the best birthdays he'd had—the thought of it still brought a smile to his face.

And there'd been another special birthday—the year he'd turned 11. He could remember it like yesterday. Judd had shown up that day, convinced the nuns that it wouldn't do any harm to let the boy play hookey with him. Judd could sweet-talk a nun out of damn near anything. He'd taken young Ezekial to his very first baseball game. (It was always 'Ezekial' when the nuns were around, but Judd would call him 'Zeke' when they were alone. Made him feel special—Judd was always good at that.) It didn't matter to Zeke that it wasn't the major leagues; the hot dogs were still the best he'd ever tasted, and that day, the best birthday he'd ever

Apart from that, he'd never really celebrated a birthday. He just figured birthdays were one more thing that orphans didn't have.

A knock on the door of his hootch interrupted his musings. This was no doubt a good thing, as he was well on his way to a good case of the birthday blues. "C'mon in," he called out, not much caring whom it might be. He'd welcome company of any kind at this point.

Lieutenant Goldman entered the hootch, using his backside to keep the door from slamming behind him. He pulled the hat off his head and crossed the room to where Zeke sat, lightly rapping the cap against his sergeant's shoulder. "Hey," he said in greeting, allowing a rare smile to cross his features.

"Howdy, LT," Zeke responded in genuine pleasure. "What's up?"

Goldman walked over to where he knew Zeke kept his beer and helped himself to a bottle without asking. "Nothing much. I got a ton of paperwork, including the After-Action Report, and I can't face the thought of any of it. On top of that, they're serving mystery meat over at the mess hall. Wasn't much point in rushing back for that. Besides, whatever it is, I'm pretty sure it isn't kosher." He raised the bottle to his lips and took a swig before smiling, striving to sound casual. "I was gonna head into town for some dinner, and I was hoping you might want to come along."

Zeke's ever-present twinkle deepened in his gaze. "Why, LT, I'm flattered," he said, winking. "But I thought ya couldn't be gettin' passes into Sin City tonight."

"Yeah, well, maybe not for the whole team. And I have no doubt they'll be pissed when they find out tomorrow. But we're not really going into Sin City. I got somewhere else in mind."

"Where's that?" Zeke asked. He began putting his weapon back together, reassembling the pieces without conscious thought.

"A little restaurant McKay told me about—the Beaucoup Blues Bar. He said they even have a little blues band there on weekends."

"Vietnamese blues, huh? Well, that surely sounds like something I need to see for myself," Zeke said, grinning. The thought of spending the evening in the company of his LT certainly outweighed the option of sitting here feeling sorry for himself. "You got yourself a date."

"Good," Myron said, pleased as well. "I'll head on over and get us a jeep. Why don't you meet me at the motor pool in about 15 mics?"

"No need for that, LT. I'm 'bout done here—I'll walk on over with ya now." With that, he shrugged into his cleanest fatigue shirt and accompanied the lieutenant out the door.

The two men found themselves seated at a quiet little table several hours, their dinners having been eaten, the food a pleasant surprise. One never quite knew what to expect in an untried restaurant, but they both agreed they owed McKay for the tip on this one.

Myron was working on his third beer while Zeke nursed his second. He was enjoying the atmosphere of this place, and found the entire evening strangely reminiscent of their recent outing in Tay Nihn when they had escorted Digby to Long Bihn. Or not escorted him, and it ended up. The band played softly in the background, doing a fairly good rendition of a song by Johnny Coltraine. Zeke raised his bottle to his lips as he watched a young Vietnamese musician pull out his harmonica and start to play.

Myron heard the sound, and shifted his chair slightly to get a better view. He turned back to see Zeke watching the young man, a distant look in his eyes, and decided to plunge in with a question he'd thought about often lately.

"He's almost as good as Horn, isn't he?" Myron asked quietly, watching Zeke, waiting to see his reaction.

Zeke never took his gaze from the musician, simply nodded thoughtfully. "Almost," he replied. "But I ain't never heard anybody play the way that boy could. Aw, man, he made the sweetest music…"

Myron paused, hearing the wistfulness in Zeke's voice, knowing it was combined with something else. Sorrow, more than likely. He lowered his bottle to the table, keeping his hand wrapped loosely around it. "Why'd you stop playing, Zeke? Was it because of Horn, because of what happened?"

This question drew Zeke's gaze from the band to face the deep brown eyes of his friend. He saw the question there, and the concern that accompanied it. He had stopped playing once Horn went home. But he didn't think anybody had noticed.

"I reckon," he answered finally. "I couldn't bring myself to play anymore once we sent that boy home the way we did. It was my fault he went back up the hill to begin with. He never shoulda been there. Once he left, it just seemed to make sense to stop playing. I even threw the damn thing away. To be real honest with ya, LT, sometimes I regret doing that. Every now and then, I wish I could pull it out and play. If nothing else, it sure was fun annoying the hell out of everybody with it," he grinned.

Myron looked up at Zeke's face with intensity blazing in his deep brown eyes. "You can't blame yourself for what happened to Horn, Zeke," he replied. "Not for Horn, or any of the other kids we've sent home the same way. Horn didn't go back up the hill for you; he did it because it was his duty. And because his buddies were counting on him. He came through for them that day, and I have to believe that's done more to bring him peace than staying down that damn hill would have."

Zeke considered his lieutenant's words for a long time, the silence settling around them in much the same was as the cigarette smoke hung in the hazy air. "I reckon you might be right," he finally agreed.

"Don't let it eat at you any more, alright?" Myron cajoled. "Neither one of us can afford to shoulder the blame every time one of our guys gets hurt. You taught me that," he reminded him.

"Yessir. There's truth to that. Guess sometimes I need to be reminded my own self," Zeke replied.

They were silent for several minutes, a comfortable silence shared between old friends. Myron motioned to the waitress to bring another round of beers, and when she returned, her tray also contained two pieces of pie, one with a single candle burning in it. Setting this up unnoticed had not been easy, but Myron knew when he saw the look of surprise on his sergeant's face that it had been worth it.

"Happy birthday, Zeke," he said simply.

Zeke stared at his lieutenant, suddenly finding himself at a loss for words. "LT, I…I don't know what to say," he offered feebly, feeling awkward. "How'd you know it was my birthday?"

Myron let out a laugh. "I am your CO Zeke," he said. "I have access to your file, remember?"

Zeke shook his head, grinning. He could feel himself blushing. "I just…well, I never thought much about it. Didn't figure nobody would care, is all. Birthdays ain't never been much for me," he offered by way of explanation.

"Yeah, I figured as much. And I'm not trying to embarrass you or anything, but you're a good friend, and I thought this would be a good time to make sure you realize that. You've been there for me in more ways than I can count, over and over. You're a damn good soldier, a damn good sergeant. I lucked out the day I met you, even if I was a little slow to realize it." He smiled at the memory of the rather difficult start to their friendship. "I don't think I would have made it through these past couple of months especially, if you hadn't been there to watch my back…" he left that thought unfinished, knowing Zeke would know what he referred to.

"At any rate, I just wanted to let you know that in my world, I have good cause to celebrate the day Zeke Anderson was born."

Zeke averted his gaze, feigning sudden interest in the bottle he held in his hands, his cheeks beginning to feel as if they were on fire. He was not at all comfortable being the center of attention, and the words from his friend were high praise indeed, especially considering the source. He was thankful that he had at least two beers in him by now, or he probably would have beaten a path to the door in seconds. He raised his eyes to meet the young lieutenant's wondering how much of this was the alcohol talking.

Myron held his gaze steady, his own embarrassment obvious in his face, but for once, he didn't regret his words. It wasn't really much of a price to pay if it helped his sergeant to realize he was special indeed.

"Damn, LT," Zeke said, the words coming out strangled.

Myron laughed again, breaking the uncomfortable silence. "Relax, Zeke. I'm done, I promise. You can breathe again."

Zeke let himself laugh along with him, feeling the tension in the air diminish. "Good thing, LT. 'Cuz if you got any sappier, I'd be worried for your sanity."

"Yeah, well, birthdays are a reason to get sappy," Myron said, raising his bottle in a silent toast. "I guess I took a chance here tonight, Zeke, by keeping this celebration between the two of us. I wasn't sure if you'd rather have all the guys in on it, but I figured you'd probably prefer something simple. I should warn you though, that McKay probably let the cat out of the bag. I wouldn't be surprised if the guys ambush you when we get back to base."

Zeke groaned good-naturedly. "'In for a penny, in for a pound,' isn't that what they say, LT? I reckon with all the birthdays I've managed to ignore over the years, I got no cause to complain about dealin' with it now." He allowed his gaze to capture the lieutenant's. "I do appreciate the fuss you've gone to tonight. It means a lot…"

Myron reached into his pocket and pulled out a small box, carefully wrapped in old newspaper. "Yeah, well, there's more…I got you something," he said awkwardly, placing it on the table and pushing it toward his sergeant. "I wasn't sure if I should, but…well, just go on and open it."

If anything, Zeke's blush deepened 'til his ears were bright pink. Celebrating birthdays seemed to be a mixed blessing, but he was sure he could weather the storm for a bit longer.

"LT, you shouldn't have…" he said as he began opening it, his excitement with the gift obvious.

"Yeah, well, you might be saying that and meaning it one you see what it is," Myron stated dryly.

Zeke lifted the lid off the box to reveal a shiny new harmonica lying inside. He picked it up carefully, as if he were afraid it would break, and turned it over gently in his large hand.

"LT, I…" he swallowed, unable to formulate a single coherent thought. "I…"

"I hope you don't mind," Myron began hurriedly. "I know it was a long shot, but I hated the thought that you gave it up. Just didn't seem right. But if you're really not interested anymore, don't feel like you have to play it, okay? I won't be offended, honest."

Zeke looked up from the instrument he now cradled in his hand. "How the hell did you manage to find one of these in-country?" he asked, still in shock.

"I didn't," Goldman answered. "I…well, I sort of wrote to Horn and told him what I wanted to do. He picked one out for you and sent it to me. He also gave me this." Myron reached into his pocket and pulled out a sealed envelope with Zeke's name on the front. Handing it to his sergeant, he added, "He's doing real well, Zeke. He's all healed up and back in school. He wanted to make sure you didn't give up playing. Made me promise to tell you that."

Zeke took the offered envelope and fingered it. "You wrote to Horn for this?" he asked, incredibly touched by the thoughtfulness of such a gift. "Damn." He shoved the envelope into his pocket, looking forward to reading it later.

He closed his hand around the harmonica, clutching it. "LT," he started, trying to put his thoughts into words, "ya know what the guys were sayin' before on the chopper, about their best gift?" He hesitated before continuing. "Well, this is mine. I thank you for it." He looked the other man in the eye, his gratitude showing clearly, and slipped the harmonica into his shirt pocket. He found the weight of it there comforting.

"Well, I'm glad you like it," Myron said, allowing his pleasure to show. "Because I have a feeling the rest of the team may kill me when they find out."

Zeke chuckled, grateful for the lieutenant's attempt to lighten the mood. "Yep, I reckon they might at that," he agreed.

They finished their beers along with the dessert, and Zeke waited while Myron settled the bill. Walking together back to the jeep, Myron climbed behind the wheel. "Try not to get upset if the guys ambush you with birthday cheer when we get back," he warned. "I'll stick around and cover your six."

"I'd appreciate it, LT. Nobody else I'd rather have doing that," he mused.

As they rode back to the base in comfortable silence, Zeke looked up to see the stars overhead and felt comforted by their presence. He rubbed absently at the ache in his shoulder, reminded again of the passage of time. He'd never given much thought to his place in this world, though he'd wondered on occasion why he was here. Looking at the young man seated beside him, he was suddenly glad he was. If nothing else, he could find meaning in this friendship he shared.

It was a hell of a way to beat the birthday blues.