Well, most folks didn't fall for the cliffhanger. But here's the follow-up! Thank you all for the kind reviews! A huge thank you goes to Karama9 for beta work on this. It was a MESS and her help definitely resulted in a finished product that shouldn't need a giant red marker to read.
When the Joes were gathering for PT in the early morning daylight, the first arrivals were, uncharacteristically, Clutch and Shipwreck. Their early arrival raised a few eyebrows. They shrugged and acted as if it was nothing of note. SnakeEyes gave them a sideways look which made them nervous enough to move to the back of the group.
Jaye stretched her back, raising her arms over her head and going up onto her tiptoes with a long drawn out groan. Although several eyes watched this appreciatively, the usual culprits made no snarky comments. That silence made SnakeEyes look over at the two again. Jaye sighed and looked around after a moment. "Where's Beach?"
Scarlett finished her own stretches and looked towards the Pitt herself. "He's late."
Jaye frowned. "He's never late. Not to PT."
People murmured softly to themselves and slowly went from looking curious to worried. If two of them looked more frantically worried than the rest, no one seemed to notice. Stalker took over the PT exercises and the Joes finished up in short order, heading inside in small groups, still chattering about the missing drill instructor. Jaye trotted to catch up with SnakeEyes and Scarlett. "Hey..."
Scarlett paused and smiled at her. "Yeah? Is your ankle okay? You landed hard going over that wall."
"It's fine. Where do you think Beach is?" Jaye's gaze traveled around the entire area. "I'm glad Courtney wasn't scheduled for morning PT. She'd be going crazy out here with worry." Scarlett hummed to herself and exchanged a look with SnakeEyes. Jaye insisted, "Shana, do you think something is up? Or maybe Beach had something else to do? He can't just disappear now, right?"
SnakeEyes hesitated before he signed to both women. *We don't know what will happen. He didn't come with manuals on what to expect*
Scarlett sighed heavily. "Well, for CoverGirl's sanity, I hope he gets time to say goodbye if you know, he moves on or whatever."
Jaye glanced back at the now-empty obstacle course. "Me too." Her gaze settled on two figures huddled together talking. "What's up with those two trouble-makers?"
SnakeEyes gave a shrug and headed inside. Scarlett only gave them a glance. "No telling. Probably something to do with a betting pool."
One last long look at the two Joes and Jaye turned to follow her two friends inside.
Shipwreck was whispering urgently at Clutch. "Dude... we killed him! There's no way he would miss PT! We have to tell someone!"
Clutch grabbed the sailor and shook him. "Shut up! Tell who? You want to go tell CoverGirl that we accidentally sent her boyfriend to the great beyond, our bad? She'll murder you and then once you're dead, you'll meet Beachhead in the afterlife and he'll murder your spirit!"
Blinking in confusion, Shipwreck looked at his friend. "Can he do that? I mean... kill my spirit? Other than you know, how he'd kill my spirit here on earth..."
"FOCUS! We need to shut up and figure out what to do! Someone is going to figure out he's gone! And if we don't want to be the guests of honor at a lynching, we need to make sure we don't get blamed." Clutch waited for Shipwreck to agree. "So we need to just play it cool. Beach could still show up any time too. Maybe he went off and did some ghost stuff? You know... haunting somewhere or dragging chains around. Something that ghosts are SUPPOSED to do, other than freaking out a bunch of military people."
"Could be. I'll be a barnacle-eating dog if I believe Beach would miss PT though." They hurried inside. "Maybe Duke sent him to do something?" Shipwreck's voice rose hopefully. "Maybe he's doing a mission that only a ghost could do and that's why he's not running PT?"
"Yes, that's obviously it." Clutch nodded and pushed the lift button a few times nervously. "Let's go work in the armory after breakfast."
"Shouldn't you be in the motorpool?" Shipwreck gave a false smile at LowLight and Torpedo who were walking down the hall. "Hi guys, just going to get breakfast, like every morning, because there's nothing wrong today. Everything all normal, like every day. Like every morning. Yup." They gave him weird looks as they continued down the hall. "Whew. I'm going to have an aneurism."
"Not if you'd just shut up. And I'm not going to go hang out right next to Courtney all day. I'd just up and implode every time she looked at me. She'd know something was up." He lowered his voice. "Women always know things. It's some female thing they have that tells them when guys are lying. They just know."
Shipwreck nodded solemnly. "It's got to do with ovarians. They have those and that must be how they know stuff. They always catch me if I try lying to them too. Probably have these ovararites in their brains and those detect lies and deceit."
"Could be. Let's eat breakfast. That'll look normal." Clutch grabbed up a tray as soon as they walked into the messhall. "If we eat a big breakfast, we won't look guilty and they won't be looking at us."
"Good idea!" Shipwreck held out his own tray. "Give me a ton of eggs. Lots of eggs. Good appetite here, cause there's nothing at all wrong with today. It's a good day." The server narrowed his eyes but plopped two scoops of scrambled eggs onto the tray. "Thanks friend!"
"Yeah, that's subtle." Clutch sighed.
Jaye watched the two men as they sat down and began picking at their overloaded trays of food. "I think those two are up to something."
Flint looked over briefly before turning back to his stack of pancakes. "Who? Clutch and Ship? They're always up to something or other. What's new?"
"What's new is that Beach didn't show up for PT." Jaye watched Flint pause in lifting a forkful of pancake to his mouth. After only a split second, he tucked it in and chewed, looking thoughtful as she continued to speak quietly. "And those two are acting bizarre. Think it's a coincidence?"
Flint shrugged slightly. "It could be. What could they possibly do? There's no way to lock Beach into a closet now. He's probably either doing that 'rest' thing, or maybe he's doing some mission or training thing." He polished off his breakfast. "He's fine. Those two are probably hatching up some plot that involves all you ladies in skimpy outfits." He started to get up and stopped as he saw her face. "What?"
"I'm worried. I know, it's probably nothing, but I just feel like they're acting bizarre. And I'm worried that something did happen with Beach and what will Courtney do? I know I know... ghost... all that. But still." She fastened her eyes on his. "I think you should go talk to Duke."
Flint heaved a sigh. "Look, it's nothing, he's probably..." His voice trailed off as her eyes went sharp and piercing. "Prooobably fine,but it surely can't hurt to go bring this to Duke's attention, right?"
"Right." She stood up and pecked him on the cheek lightly. "Thanks honey." Jaye walked away, giving the two suspicious Joes a contemplative look as she passed their table. Flint watched them get even more nervous than before. As soon as she left the room, they both dumped their still full trays into the garbage and exited quickly.
Leaving the messhall, Flint thought about the odd behavior but dismissed it. He'd go talk to Duke later today when he had a chance. He was certain Allison was over-reacting to all of this.
Later in the day, Clutch came hurrying up to Shipwreck. "I think CoverGirl knows."
Looking around the deserted armory, Shipwreck blanched. "Shhhh! Why would you think that?" He checked out the door. "Someone could hear you."
Clutch shook his head. "No one is down here. And she came in the motorpool finally."
"See, you should have stayed away from the danged motorpool! You should have stayed down here! It's those ovarites! She was bound to know!" Shipwreck wadded his sailor cap in his hands nervously.
"Duke came and told me to get up to the motorpool! I couldn't not go and then she wasn't even there and I thought, hey, she's off today, it'll be the best place to be, so I don't run into her! But noo, she had to come in and she glared at me the whole god damn time! Even though I didn't say ANYthing to her! I just kept working on the Jeep and every time I looked at her, she was shooting me these death ray eyeballs! She's got to KNOW!" Clutch tried to take several deep breaths. "She's going to wait until I'm not looking and she's going to brain me with a wrench and then BeachHead will fuck me up in the afterlife. I'm going to get beaten up by a dead Ranger in the afterlife! That's sooo unfair!"
"Calm down." Shipwreck thought frantically. "Hey, so I'm sure she won't actually kill you. So we can let her think it was all you, 'cause she already knows about you!"
"WHAT?" Clutch reached out and slapped Shipwreck in the head. "Look, it was all your idea to begin with! I'm not about to take the fall by myself! I get pinched for this, you're gonna go down too!"
"What's going on in here?" Ace poked his head in. "Do I need to break up a fight or something?"
"No! Nothing is going on!"
"No way, everything is fine!"
Ace peered at them for a moment. "Okaaay. So whatever squabble you guys got, you'd better put it aside. BeachHead's evaluation fight is happening in an hour, get your bets in now." Ace grinned. "Usually it's all SnakeEyes, but this time bets are running heavy on Beach so I'm offering odds."
Both of them looked away. "No no, we're good. We'll be there... sure..." Shipwreck took a breath. "Just... nothing. It's all good."
Clutch nodded. "Yeah, everything is fine."
Ace watched them for a moment and then hummed. "Okaaay. Well, hit me up before time if you change your mind." He disappeared and Shipwreck looked at Clutch a minute.
Clutch raised his hands. "We gotta go tell Hawk."
"We gotta tell Hawk."
Hawk sat behind his desk, completely expressionless as the two wayward Joe soldiers confessed in a babble of guilt. Both of them seemed to combine taking full responsibility and pointing fingers at each other.
Clutch cut in on the sailor's explanation. "It was just a harmless joke, just joshing with our teammate!"
Shipwreck butted in again. "Our beloved and appreciated teammate! Really... honestly Hawk, we wouldn't have done nothing at all the hurt the Sergeant major! Heck, I didn't think there was any way we could hurt him!"
Clutch nodded. "Not that we were trying to find ways to hurt him. We just thought we'd... you know..."
Hawk raised an eyebrow. "You thought you would engage in a cruel and thoughtless taunt at the state of our departed Sergeant major?"
Both of them stood silently. Finally Clutch looked aside. "We didn't think that... well, that it would..."
Hawk leaned forward slightly, his intense frown making both men twitch. "You didn't think, period." He reached to press the intercom button. "CoverGirl to my office immediately."
Clutch stood up quickly. "Should we go?" Hawk's glares fastened on him and he sat down just as quickly. "We should stay here."
Shipwreck gathered his courage. "But Hawk... you won't tell CoverGirl we were responsible for sending Beachhead away... by accident of course... right?"
Hawk's face seemed to soften a moment. "No, of course I won't. You are her teammates and the team needs to be able to work together in unity." He waited a second while both men sighed in relief. "You'll tell her yourselves."
The identical looks of horror would have been funny in other circumstances. Although both of them opened mouths to protest, Hawk's expression made them stop without speaking and swallow hard. "Yes sir..."
When CoverGirl knocked and stepped inside, the two guilty parties ducked their heads and avoided her gaze. Her defiant stance and hard glare seemed to indicate she had her suspicions that something was going on already.
Hawk's voice was polite as he spoke to the tank jockey. "Courtney... it seems two of your teammates have something to tell you." He watched dispassionately as they pleaded mutely for mercy.
Finally Shipwreck turned to look at her. "Uhh... the thing is..." He glanced away. "We... that is, Clutch..."
Clutch broke in. "Shipwreck had an idea that we should prank Sergeant major..."
Shipwreck glared at him. "And Clutch figured we could prank him if we worked together..." Clutch started to protest and the sailor relented. "And we both decided to do it, but not 'cause we don't like Beachhead... you know, we do like him! Just 'cause he's a good guy and our bud and all." His guilty look made her cross her arms and frown harder. "Look, Courtney, we didn't MEAN to do nothing bad. Honest, we wouldn't ever do anything to hurt Beach!"
Clutch nodded. "We wouldn't! I mean, tease him a bit or pull a joke, but we wouldn't hurt him! And you know, we figured... since he's a ghost and all, I mean, we didn't think there could be any way to actually hurt him or you know... make him... uhhh..."
Shipwreck spoke more hesitantly. "Help him... move on... so he could, ummm, enjoy the afterlife." His tone lightened slightly. "Help him go to his rewards and such, because he deserved that heavenly stuff and all."
CoverGirl's eyes narrowed. "So you destroyed Wayne's ghost. You couldn't kill him any more, so you sent off the last trace of his soul. For. A. Prank." Her vicious tone made both men twitch. "And you have the nerve to sit here and act like you did something laudable? Really?"
"We didn't mean to do anything bad!" Clutch spoke up desperately. "We wouldn't hurt anyone! We didn't hate Beach! Honest to GOD Courtney!"
Shipwreck dragged off his sailor's hat to twist in his hands. "Clutch is right, we didn't never hate Beach. We just.. well, we always played jokes on him before he was dead and it was just like the old days, we figured we would just..."
Courtney's fists clenched. "You thought you'd do the most cruel thoughtless thing possible and taunt Wayne with the faked sight of Heaven calling to him? You thought you would bring his hopes up that he wouldn't be trapped wandering the earth, tied to a set of stupid dog tags for all time! You made him have to decide whether he wanted to give in to the draw of the 'beyond' or stay here with the team... with me? This is what you consider 'not bad' or 'not mean'? I mean, God forbid you ever decide to really be jerks! I guess you'd have to kill someone's puppy in front of them then!"
Clutch and Shipwreck both tried to protest weakly. The low rumble from the air silenced them instantly.
"Courtney... that's enough."
She frowned and turned towards an empty corner of the office. "I don't think so. I don't think these two slimeballs could EVER make up for this!"
"It's just bad judgment.. they ain't never shown the good sense God gave a turnip on the best of days... wouldn't be intelligent to expect it now." The corner darkened slightly and a dim shadow formed.
Shipwreck felt his face twitch. "Uhhh..."
The shade turned towards him and brightened and colored into the familiar Ranger, giving them a slightly bemused look. "Uhhhh? That's yer response? No, 'oh thank gawd you ain't gone Beachhead' or 'oh gosh we're so happy we didn't murder yer soul Beachhead'? The best you got is 'uuuuhhhhhh'?"
Clutch leapt to his feet and pointed. "YOU'RE NOT DEAD!"
Beach rolled his eyes. "Of course I'm still dead you dumbass."
Clutch stuttered slightly in shock. "Well... y-y-yeah, but you know what I mean! You aren't gone!"
"No, I ain't gone." Beach crossed his arms and got a smug expression. "You shoulda caught on when Courtney started beratin' ya'll over what you did."
Clutch and Shipwreck looked at her frowning angry face and then back to Beach. Shipwreck was the first to regain his voice. "Why?"
Hawk sighed. "Because the only way she would know exactly what the prank you pulled entailed was if someone that was present told her. Since obviously neither of YOU had told her, then the only other person would have been Beach." He watched the two catch on slowly. "The first thing Beachhead did was come to me and inform me about your actions. When I agreed to let him stay 'gone', he went and let CoverGirl know what happened and what was going on."
Beach snorted. "Like I'd let her suffer just to punish you two jackasses."
Clutch opened and shut his mouth. "But you're not gone... so that's good!" He brightened. "So we didn't do anything wrong!"
Hawk's voice stopped Courtney's angry response. "You did a great deal wrong, starting with the idea that playing cruel pranks is a good use of your energy. But that's fine." Hawk smiled slightly. "Since you've brought it to our attention that you have so much extra energy, we came up with ways for you to expend all that extra energy."
Shipwreck's face fell. "Extra PT?"
"Oh that'll be just the start..." Beach smirked and gave a little nod at CoverGirl who still looked as if she'd prefer to kick both of them in sensitive areas.
She unbent enough to smile. "You'll be cleaning the motorpool floors... with toothbrushes... in the dark."
Clutch and Shipwreck both had slumped a little lower with each condition. Shipwreck gave a little moan. "But but... I don't even work in the motorpool... "
Hawk nodded. "And that's why after you both finish scrubbing the floors clean in the dark, you'll get to spend the next punishment duty scrubbing the testing pools... with toothbrushes... in the dark."
Clutch made a face. "I don't swim really well..."
Hawk smiled. "Then it's good that your punishment will assist you with lots and lots of practice using scuba gear. Now say thank you to Sergeant major for not pulling your intestines out when he realized what sort of prank you'd decided to play."
Both men turned slightly pale and looked at the shade in the corner. "T-thank you, S-sergeant major."
Beach nodded amiably. "Yer welcome. Not that I didn't consider it a bit... guy gets quirky about bein' disrespected that way." His eyes fastened on Clutch. "It's like someone makin' a Jewish slur, you know..."
Clutch ducked his head. "I'm sorry! I didn't think about it. I mean... it seemed like it would be... funny."
"Funny?" CoverGirl started towards him and was halted by Beach's arm thrust in front of her. "Funny! I'll show you funny! You'll walk funny for the next week if you ever try something like this again!" She pointed at them both. "You listen up... I swear to you... you harm Wayne, and I'll kick you so hard... your grandchildren will walk funny!"
Hawk cleared his throat as Beach rolled his eyes. The general glared at Courtney until she dropped her gaze and mumbled an apology. "I trust that there will be no retaliation after today?" She nodded. "I didn't hear that, corporal."
"No sir, no retaliation sir." Her sullen tone left no doubt that she was agreeing only out of respect for Hawk.
"Good." Hawk stood up from his desk. "Now you two miscreants can take yourselves out of my sight lest I decide that the punishments aren't enough..." Shipwreck and Clutch saluted and scrambled out of the office at top speed. "Then we can head to the dojo so that BeachHead can attempt to pass his hand-to-hand evaluation."
Beach's eyes sparkled. "Yes'sir. I'll take the ninja down this time." His determined expression and bouncing step as he took off at a fast walk down the corridor made the general shake his head.
CoverGirl walked at a more sedate dignified pace beside Hawk. "Sir? He's going to get his butt handed to him anyway, isn't he?"
"You know..." Hawk mused for a few seconds as they walked. "He does have a lot of advantages, being able to turn insubstantial, or even disappear from sight. He could give SnakeEyes a run for his money this time."
The mechanic narrowed her eyes at him. "So you're betting on Wayne?"
"Oh no no, he's definitely going to get his ass handed to him in the end." Hawk smiled at her. "He always thinks this will be the evaluation that he bests my ninja. Somehow, SnakeEyes always manages to think five steps ahead and have counters to everything already worked out. I don't know how he'll pull it off this time, but I have faith he'll do it somehow." Hawk nodded slightly. "At any rate, it'll entertain the team for a while and it will also help cement Beach as the same old BeachHead as before. He needs that. The team needs to be comfortable around him if he's going to stay in the Pitt."
"Yes sir." She grinned. "I still put my money on Beach." She lowered her voice slightly. "I'd rather lose the cash than have him think I've lost faith in him."
"Understandable, Corporal. Understandable." Hawk opened the door to the spacious training room. "After you?"
"Why thank you, sir." She stepped into the crowded room. It promised to be an entertaining evaluation indeed.
Next up, hand-to-hand show down between a Master Ninja and a ghost. I'll try to upload before another 6 months goes by! Thank you for reading.