It would take days to recover and weeks to forget. Reconnecting a life torn asunder was a feat easier said than done. There would be nightmares, sadness, anger, and the unnamable sense of violation and vulnerability. There would be turbulence and strife but from it they would all emerge with a stronger sense of life and freedom than ever before.
First up to bat was the sense of loss and confusion when they awoke two days later to news that Orin had checked himself out of the hospital. The only thing left behind was a note asking that they not be angry with him, and that they might see him again in time. Mason could only attempt to quell the feelings of betrayal in the girls by explaining to them that it was all a part of the workings of a person like Orin. People who lived in shadows, on the run, doing things that didn't get written down. He assured them that all would be fine…and in the end, that had to be enough.
Mason decided to take the job as new Director of the Protection Program-for the time being, at least. During their recuperation, the tentative attraction between him and Sofia grew. As she would no longer be acting Queen of Costa Luna, Mason invited her to see Lake Monroe as soon as their house was restored. She accepted with the reddish tint of schoolgirl giddiness in her cheeks.
Carter decided that she would return to Costa Luna as soon as school was out to spend the summer at the palace, with Rosie. Things were still slow and gentle between them, but with each hour their fondness and thirst for one another grew. They decided it best to keep their feelings private. For however long, they did not know, they only knew that they could hardly stand to be apart.
Carter slowly realized the truth of her worth. There was a part of her that would always be the humble bait girl from Lake Monroe Louisiana, but another part was awakening to the fact that she had the desire to be so much more, for herself and for the people she loved.
When they returned home, they found that a crew had already been hired to repair their home. A note from Orin was delivered to them thanking them for taking him in and enclosed was a check to cover the cost of the repairs.
There was no return address.
For Rosie, her maturation and awakening to the true nature of the world came at the price of innocence. She had lived in ignorant bliss for most of her life, and that wall of protection was now shattered all around her, leaving her to step carefully over the broken shards as she made her way forward. But she was stronger and braver now, ready to lead her country with every bit of gentle compassion in her heart while understanding the need for great strength. She was painfully aware that there would be trying times ahead, but she faith that, no matter what, they would emerge from the darkness.
She tried for days to find Orin, even going so far as to call Colonel Campbell personally.
"Princess, it's good to hear your voice again. I just received my invitation to your coronation in a few days. I'm very much looking forward to it."
"Thank you very much, Colonel. I look forward to seeing you here."
"So, to what do I owe the pleasure of this call? Everything is all right, I hope."
"Everything is fine. I just…"
"Orin–" Campbell finished her thought.
"Yes. Do you know where he is? We are all very worried about him."
"He's fine. He just needs time to recuperate. I wish I could tell you more, but I can't."
"Why did he leave like that? He didn't even say goodbye."
"Orin really isn't that type. Guys like him don't like emotions. They don't really know what to do with them. They usually don't believe they're needed unless there's a mission to complete."
"But we do need him," she pressed.
"I'm sorry, Princess. I understand what you went through, but there's nothing you could say to him to make him stick around, nothing that could make things any better. But I can tell you for a fact that he cares about all of you, and that you're in his thoughts."
"If you talk to him…please tell him we would love for him to be at the coronation…I would like for him to be there."
"I'll be sure to do that. If I talk to him. Who knows? You might just get your wish. One thing I can guarantee-he's watching out for you even as we speak."
The coronation was accelerated to a few days later. After such a massive breach it was imperative to restore confidence and pride in their country. The celebration was in full swing from shore to shore as the people of Costa Luna ushered in a new era of royalty. Not since the crowning in faraway Genovia had a people known a ruler so young and fair.
The streets were awash with revelers shouting jubilations from one end of the small island nation to the other. Multicolored bits of confetti drifted about like snow and long streamers whipped through the air upon every rooftop, cracking their tails in the wind.
Meanwhile, at the palace, Rosie gazed through her double doors once again at the beautiful Costa Lunian landscape, this time with Carter at her side. Both were dressed in regal silk dresses, destined to capture and break many hearts that day and days after. But only two hearts existed in that space, both aflutter with excitement and urgency.
"I am nervous, Carter."
The black haired girl reached up and placed her hand upon the Rosie's shoulder. "Don't be," she said, smiling. "Everything is going to be fine. We just have to remember to…breathe."
Rosie and Carter closed their eyes momentarily as a light breeze blew in form the balcony, the cool air kissing their skin tight.
Carter ran her hand along Rosie's arm and stared at her beauty. Everything that had happened was so hard to believe. After all the pain, Carter almost had an easier time believing in the bad than the good. It wasn't that she'd been alone so much, or that she'd been attacked and her home destroyed, or even that she'd been abducted and nearly killed. It was that she was alive and safe, and in the presence of the most divine girl she'd ever known. Even the hot touch of Chelsea's lips could never equal that of her Princess Rosie.
Rosie turned and looked deep into Carter's eyes. Carter-not the bait girl, not the fiery young girl who'd fought with her at first, but the lovely and trusted friend she'd finally found after so very long. "How did I end up with an angel like you?" She asked.
Carter, like always, was taken aback by the honest gaze in Rosie's eyes, the simple yet elegant curvature of her cheeks and lips. "Maybe," she whispered, "we were sent to save each other."
Leaning in, slowly, as if through invisible liquid, they kissed. Gentle but as deep as the passion they felt for one another. It lingered in the moment like a taste of pure honey as they drank each other in.
A knock on the door. "Princess."
They jumped back from one another, hands instinctively reaching to cover their mouths. A flush of redness colored their cheeks as they looked at each other and laughed.
"You may enter," Rosie called after regaining her composure.
One of her maids opened the door and informed her that the procession would be starting very shortly.
"Thank you, Lupe. We will be right down."
Lupe left and the girls finished their preparations and headed for the door.
"Carter," Rosie stopped, "I'm still scared. What if something happens?"
"Nothing is going to happen."
"We can't know that for sure. What if someone comes for us again?"
A third voice, "Then they'll have to go through me, and I'd take on the whole world for the two of you.."
Their mouths dropped open in shock before they even turned their heads to the doorway. He didn't even see their feet move as they sped across the floor and dove for him with open arms.
"Whoa!" Orin exclaimed as he struggled to keep them all upright. Their arms entangled him like a web, squeezing so hard he felt blood rush to his head.
"Okay, we need to talk about how you express affection," he told them.
They took a step back and their tearful expressions just as quickly turned to anger.
"What?" He asked.
"You asshole!" Carter yelled. "I should punch your lights out."
"Then I should have you thrown into the stables," Rosie added.
"What did I do?" He held up his hands defensively.
Carter started forward. "What did you do? You know exactly what you did!"
"Yeah," Orin admitted, lowering his head slightly, "I do. I'm sorry."
"Why?" Rosie pressed. "Why did you run away? Why didn't you even return here?"
"Because I couldn't. It was bad for me. I was in survival mode. I had to run, that's what I do. It can't be explained any better than that. I know you don't understand it, but know that I was thinking about you guys, and I made sure that Campbell watched out for all of you. Did you get my gift, Carter?"
"Yeah, we got it. But you shouldn't have done that."
"Yes, I did. You took me into your home, and I couldn't keep those bastards from wrecking it."
"You have a home here, too," said Rosie.
"I know, Rosie. I know, and I'm sorry. I should have come back."
"Well," Carter sniffled, "at least you're back now."
"Yes, I am. I'm here to watch Princess Rosie become the finest ruler this country has ever known. Come on, let's go."
An hour later, Rosalinda Maria Montoya Fiore-Queen of Costa Luna-walked down the red carpet from the alter with the crown of her country and its people securely upon her head. The courtyard was filled with cheers of exaltation. Brigadier General Alvarez was in attendance, he eyes awash in tears for his knew queen.
From the shadows of the upper balcony, Orin watched with something akin to happiness as Rosie and Carter both smiled and laughed below, surrounded by adoring subjects and the people they loved. He did not want to soil the reunion by telling them that he would be leaving that night.
He knew he had no place in their lives now.
"Good to see you again, Captain," Major Mason greeted as he and Colonel Campbell approached.
"You too, Major. Glad you're all right."
"Yeah, I've gotten a bit of color on the island, though it's a little more color than I was hoping for," Mason joked, referring to the dark bruises still painted on his face.
"Tell me about it. I lost some color myself, as in almost all of it."
"That was a pretty stupid stunt you pulled."
"It was, but I don't regret a second of it. Carter looks good."
"Yes. She's great…because of you."
"No, don't," Mason said, his voice cracking slightly under the weight of emotion. "You saved my daughter's life so many times, and I…I can't ever thank you enough or repay you for that. I've never had the honor of serving with anyone greater than you, Orin, and if you ever need anything at all, I want you to get in contact with me, okay?"
"Will do, Major. You're a great man and a great friend. We'll see each other again. And good luck with everything."
"Thank you." Mason said and returned to the celebration.
"So, Orin," Campbell said, leaning against the wall beside Traverse, "what now?"
Campbell grinned, "I think you've had enough time off."
"You've got something in mind, I'm sure."
"Well, Kane did get access to an entire database of hidden royalty. We have no idea how much he knows or how much he's already sold to the highest bidder."
"True, but I wouldn't worry about him right now. I'm not a part of the babysitter's club, Colonel, but if it ever comes up that one of these girls is in trouble…maybe I'll offer some help."
"Fair enough. You know it's a shame you don't want to come on board because there's a very wealthy heiress, a Princess Mia Renaldo of Genovia, that could use some major security."
"Let it go." Orin told him. "All right, all right. In the meantime, I've got plenty of operations lined up that I could use some help with."
"Colonel, did you see me re-enlist anywhere?"
"Did I say operations? I meant jobs. Rather high paying contracts, really."
Orin cocked his head, "I'm listening."
"Ever heard of London Tipton?"
"Daughter of the tycoon? Heiress to the Tipton business empire?"
"Not a lot, just what I've seen in the papers. Another ditzy socialite." He narrowed his eyes at Campbell and asked, "Why?"
"Her father's gone into hiding, thinks a few of his unscrupulous business partners might be after her to get to him."
"What do you care? It's not military, she's not royalty. You in the bodyguard racket now, Colonel."
"Her father happens to be a major defense contractor and contributor. His companies gets hundreds of millions of our budget every year. Lots of connections in Washington. And he's offered quite a monetary investment incentive for our help."
"I'm not looking to watch after some media starlet while she tries to cut her first record or some crap. This all turned out okay, but…"
"Look, you said you're not ready to get back in the game. I'll accept that, for now, but you've got to do something. You're not going back to where you were before, I won't let you. Besides, bodyguard work seems to agree with you."
"The pay better be damn good."
"Double what you got for this."
Orin's eyebrows touched the roof, "Double?"
"Plus bonus pay, hazard pay, and expenses."
"And I just have to what? Watch out for her? Keep her hidden?"
"Pretty much. Right now she's living at the Tipton Hotel in Boston, but we're about to relocate her onto the S.S. Tipton, her father's first luxury cruise liner. She'll go to school there, blend in with the other people that live aboard."
"A constantly moving target," Orin nodded. "Smart, but risky. If somebody gets a bead on her they can hit it and there won't be anywhere to run."
"That's why she needs the best protection she can get. Come on, Orin. You don't have to be there long, just enough time for us to find out who's been threatening Tipton. A few weeks on a cruise ship isn't such a bad deal if you ask me. Cushy living, attractive women."
Orin sighed. "You know it's not my element, but that's a pretty big paycheck."
"So you'll do it?" Campbell asked, expectantly.
Orin looked down again at Rosie and Carter as they danced below. He hadn't expected that he would feel so good for protecting innocence. It wasn't the dirty work he'd always forced himself to do. Maybe there was still hope in helping good people. Maybe…
He shifted his gaze to Campbell. "Why not?"
"Good. I'll arrange everything. You can leave tonight. I-"
"You know what I've got to do first. It'll take at least thirty-six hours. If I survive, I'll be in Boston by the end of the week."
"Orin, this is stupid. You need to let this go, we can get it done another way."
"No. They're safe…for now, and I'm going to make sure they stay that way. I'm their insurance policy, and it's time to cash in."
Campbell sighed, fully aware he would never be able to dissuade Orin from his self-appointed task. "Okay, Captain. I'll make arrangements for you to head out tonight. You'll go in low and quiet, parachute in after nightfall. But I don't have to tell you that you might not make it out alive."
"You're right, you don't have to tell me."
"Orin, why are you really doing this? I had to beg you to take this job, why are you so hell bent on this now? Do you really care for those girls that much?"
Traverse's face revealed nothing of whatever emotions he was concealing inside. He merely said, "Tonight," and walked away without looking back.
The country was largely a wasteland. The azure blue skies of Costa Luna gave way quickly to a sunless, overcast pallor that covered the endless gray oil fields where slave laborers toiled day and night beneath angry swollen thunderheads. Beyond the perpetual motion of giant iron derricks there lied acres upon acres of harsh land devoted to growing opium and coca plant for the refineries that ran day and night creating the country's chief exports. Rebel forces rose and fell every day under the mindlessly vicious rule of General Magnus Kane. In the streets of the largest city, bags of rice were sold at eight dollars a pound in a country where most workers were lucky to make fifty cents an hour. All commerce was controlled by Kane's merchants and to defy his pricing was to be shot dead or brutally beaten in the street for stealing. It was a nation in chaos.
But the jungle was the same as it had always been. Hot madness clung to every inch of his body as he crawled for hours through the heavy growth, inching his way ever closer to the place he'd marked on the hillside. Just over twelve hundred yards to Kane's compound, and the spot from which he would end a war that had not yet begun.
His weapon–the .408 Cheytec high performance round. Its sheath-the Intervention, model M200. He wanted to use a knife, to get in close and collect his payment in blood, but Kane's security had been raised to near astronomical levels in the days following his return.
Sunlight filtered in through the dense green canopy overhead as he lay waiting on the jungle floor. With rifle in hand he had crawled-inch by inch-closer to his target for nearly half a day. The fluids of his body mingled and mixed like a seasoned stew against his skin as his sweat pooled under him. Job or no job, with honor or without, the jungle could drive anyone insane.
But not today.
He came to the steep hillside facing the west, perfect line of sight to most of Kane's compound. He set up upon a fallen tree trunk, pulling the legs of the bipod down one at a time and making sure that they were firmly set.
As he brought his eye to the expensive Leupold scope the dozens of specks in the distance popped into focus as if they were mere feet away. He calculated the distance, adjusted for elevation and wind speed. It was a calm day, they air as thick and still as congealing blood.
There-sitting at a table before a lavish pool. The General was enjoying his afternoon tea, a pair of sunglasses adorning his otherwise smiling face.
It was time.
"That pitiful country isn't even worth my time, Uri." Kane laughed into the cellular phone at his ear. Long distance call, one of his long time friends from the former Soviet Republic. Uri Gregarov, arms dealer, human trafficker, terrorist, and all around opportunist.
"I must say, however, that the women were simply top notch. I was hoping to at least come away with a few more brides, but I have bigger fish to fry. In fact, speaking of lovely women, I have something you may find very interesting. Some information I've come upon recently. The locations of the children of some of the world's wealthiest royal families. Think of it, Uri! The chaos we could create. Any one of them would be worth quite a ransom, don't you think?"
Kane's phoned beeped. He failed to recognize the number when he lowered it from his head and looked at the screen.
"Uri. I have another call. I'll talk to you later, yes? We'll discuss how much this information might be worth to you. Yes, tell your friends, the more the merrier." He ended the call with Uri and changed lines. "Hello?"
"You didn't say good-bye, Kane. I have to say I felt a little let down. That was the best fight I'd had in years, I was sad that you had to run."
"You're alive," Kane said, rising from his seat and walking toward the crystalline swimming pool. "Such a shame. The thought of you dying in a sea of blood has kept a smile on my face for days."
"Aw, Kane, don't say that. Not after all we've been through."
"You are filthy American vermin."
"Are you still upset that I ruined your wedding night? I'm sorry, but I just don't think she was right for you."
"You know I will find you, Captain Traverse. And I will find your two little bitches again, as well. I can no longer offer you the convenience of a quick death. I will make you watch as I defile and eviscerate them both…then you will follow."
"Let's not talk about them right now. Let's talk about us. We've got unfinished business, you and me."
"I couldn't agree more. Why don't you come see my country sometime. I would be happy to give you a tour, the longest of your life."
"Thanks, but I've already seen quite enough. I mean, there's only so much slave labor and so many coca fields a guy can take before it just loses its thrill, you know what I mean?"
Kane's body suddenly tightened. He reached up and removed his sunglasses. Slowly, like a predator on the verge of becoming prey, his eyes scanned the jungle surrounding his compound.
"I'd never lie to you, Kane. I figured you'd be dying to get back at me for ruining your plans in Costa Luna, so I decided to bring the fight to you."
"Then why don't you come to my compound. We can settle this like men. What do you say?"
"Wish I could take you up on that offer, and any other day I might have done just that. But…I guess I found some things that are worth living for."
Kane bellowed insidious laughter. "You haven't the guts to meet me face to face," he growled.
"Enough bullshit. You know why I'm here. You messed with the wrong people, and I'm going to make sure you never mess with anyone again."
Kane, red faced and huffing, snapped. "You are a coward! If you were anywhere near the borders of my country, I assure you I would know about it. You are nothing! I will dedicate every ounce of my energy to making sure that your trip to hell is paved in agony. Do I make myself clear?"
"Crystal. Now allow me to make myself clear."
In the jungle, Orin used a small radio detonator to trigger the satchels of C4 he'd placed in the sheds of an opium field no too far from Kane's compound. The sheds contained thousands of pounds of refined product ready to be shipped. In an instant they went up in flames.
Kane's jaw nearly fell off when he saw the half a dozen fireballs light up the fields to the east. Partially in surprise that he'd just lost millions of dollars worth of cocaine and opium, but even more surprised that Orin's threats were real.
"Im…impossible…" He croaked, only barely able to hear Orin's final words through the phone.
"You know the best part about seeing the look on your face, Kane? I never have to see it again. Adios, motherfucker."
No wind. Silent. Calm.
A tight squeeze of the trigger, no creep. Clean break.
A center mass shot at thirteen hundred yards with a heavy grain bullet.
With the final masterstroke, it was done, the canvas completed with the splash of Kane's entrails upon the corrupted ground.
After the initial freeze of shock, his troops went berserk. Air support would scramble soon. They'd tear the country apart looking for him. Time to move.
He packed up and radioed for evac. Airspace would be hot, evac point was miles away. Dangerous.
Taking one last longing look at the half dead sky, he thought back when it all started, the events of the past weeks replaying in his head like a cinema. The old man he'd hated for so long until he realized how much of a father he'd been, the two innocent girls he'd grown to care for more than he ever thought. Mason, the friend he never thought he'd see again.
This is for you-all of you.
And with that thought, Orin Traverse turned and disappeared into the jungle.
Well, that's it guys! Phew! I can't believe I've been working on this story for so long. Writing doesn't come easy for me, but you guys really make it worthwhile. I had all but given up there several times when your kind and encouraging words pulled me through and I hope I'm a better writer because of it. I want to thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart for reading any part of this story. Even if you didn't like it. Heck, even if you hated it. I've relied on your comments and reviews to keep myself going and I made it through. I can never thank you enough. I hope you've enjoyed the story as much as it's driven me crazy writing it.
For the time being. I have a few other projects to work on that I hope to find a publisher for one day. Some of them are posted and some yet to be posted. Most of my original stories are on my profile right now, and I hope to add more in the future as well as adding more to my Lulu storefront. I've also got a couple other fanfic ideas I'm bouncing around right now. One of them I'm sure you guys will get a kick out of.
I want to thank as many of you individually as I can.
Dark Phantom 96
Gleek Faberry-Achele Fan
I hope I didn't miss too many people. I had to copy my list of story alert subscribers and those who commented. I have to give extra special thanks to a few of you, though, namely AuthorOfTheDark and Nur S'ba. You guys were so consistent and detailed in your comments and it was truly a pleasure to hear from you after each update. You guys were my pillar of strength along with Milli2011, Dhinheart, Evangeline Vera, and WolfGurl211. I can't tell you all how much I've appreciated your support. Again, if I missed anybody I'm deeply sorry.
I know that a lot of you like to read at long stretches and I'm sure a few of you have an e-reader of some sort, so I've put The Program all together into novel format and converted it to simple PDF form. I've loaded it up at this address:
Just scroll to the bottom and click slow download, you only have to wait about twenty seconds. I'm going to try to put some more works up this way on my profile soon.
Well, what else is there I can say? My best regards to all of you, I wish you the best of luck in all of your endeavors. Until next time.