Grey glowered as Jonas Blane smoothly maneuvered the sedan into the driveway. The smallish house sat welcoming back from the street, the bushes neatly clipped and the last vestiges of summer flowers bravely defying the encroaching cold weather. "Why're we stopping here? I thought you were taking me home."
"We are," Bob Brown jumped in before Jonas could answer. "This is going to be your home for the next few days."
"Sgt. Grey," and Jonas allowed a rumble of amusement to color his tone, "did you or did you not wheedle your physicians into letting you out of the hospital a good four days before they said they would discharge you?"
"And did you not," Bob was getting into the game, "fall over merely traversing the distance between your hospital bed and the wheelchair? It was hilarious, I assure you."
"That was because—"
"A similar circumstance ensued getting up from the wheelchair to this very car," Jonas recalled. "I believe I saw the nurse trying to refrain from laughter."
Charlie's face took on a stricken look. "Not Jennifer? The one whose phone number I scored just yesterday?"
"The very one, sergeant."
"Crap." Charlie sank back onto the back seat of the sedan, all of his meager energy vanished in a flicker. He closed tired eyes, the gesture almost lost into the lightening purple of the bruises. "Top, please. Take me home."
Jonas softened his voice, but not his position. "Not a chance, Charlie. Not a chance. Not with Hector away," he added, "on a business trip." He turned around to look at his passenger, not liking what he saw. There shouldn't be a white bandage wrapped around the man's head, covering the spot where the boulder struck. The two black eyes should have been from an overindulgence at a bar brawl, not a fight to stay alive in a cave-in. The crutches to help him limp along—well, they just shouldn't.
Jonas took pity on the man. "Put up with it, soldier, for a day or two. We'll reevaluate your status once Williams gets back."
Charlie muttered something under his breath.
"You got something to say, soldier?"
Charlie brightened as best as he could. "No, Top." He reached for the car door.
Bob beat him to it, pasting a big grin across his face. He pulled open the door for the passenger. "This should be fun."
"What, you don't think I can walk into the damn house?"
"I think you're going to fall flat on your damn face," Bob told him cheerfully. "In fact, I'm so certain of it that I bet Top the next round of beers Friday night."
"I didn't take that bet," Jonas observed serenely. "I don't like to lose."
Charlie's spirit of competition flared. "I can do it. I can walk into your damn house without falling over."
"All talk, and no action," Bob gibed.
Charlie snatched the crutches from the seat beside him, swinging both legs out of the sedan and touching the good one to the paved driveway. "Out of my way, Brown," he growled. "I'm coming through." He hoisted himself to his feet—foot—and set out.
"You might want to walk over the grass," Bob suggested blithely. "It's softer than the pavement."
"Wouldn't matter," Jonas put in. "The man's already got more bruises on his head than strands of hair. Falls and gets another one, nobody'll be able to tell."
A growl was Charlie's only response. He staggered, and righted himself.
"Hey—" Bob started forward.
"Back off, Brown. You're going to owe me and everyone else a beer, come Friday." Charlie took another step, settling the crutches before swinging forward on them.
Bob folded his arms, hiding the nervousness inside. "You know, he just might make it."
"He'd better. He falls over now, he's going to take out my wife's petunias."
Snarl. "You can at least get the damn door."
"Certainly, sergeant. Certainly." Jonas snaked out one long arm past his house guest to turn the knob to the front door and push it open.
Charlie's mouth was hanging open now, gulping for air, and his face had gone white with beads of sweat popping out. He placed the tips of the crutches over the transom and, with an effort, swung himself through. He swayed.
Bob couldn't help himself; he steadied the man.
Charlie didn't appreciate the help. "I can do this!"
"Sure, you can, Carlito. I'm just keeping you from putting blood on Molly's carpets."
A voice floated from the kitchen in back. "Jonas, is that you?"
"It is," Jonas replied, "with a couple of friends."
"Oh, good. You've brought Charlie home…" Molly's voice trailed off as she took in the sight. She took in a deep breath; the scolding was about to start.
Bob beat her to it. "He's trying to win a bet, Molly."
Molly let out the breath fast. "Oh." Her face took on a frankly disapproving look. "Oh, I see." She folded her arms. "Well, in that case, don't let me stop you from enjoying yourselves."
"Just…a blast…" Charlie was openly gasping for breath now.
"If he falls over, he's going to hit your coffee table," Bob told Jonas. "That would be just plain rude. Serena made that nice little paper flower for him, sitting on the table. If he hits the table, he's going to knock off the flower."
Jonas agreed. "We can't have that."
"Not…gonna…fall over…" Charlie took another step, only half the distance of the previous ones. He tottered dangerously.
"Which is harder, his head or your table?"
"Oh, his head, by all means," Jonas returned. "He just proved that with a certain boulder."
Charlie really wanted to say something in response. He couldn't. He didn't have enough breath to speak. Molly looked to Jonas, clearly telegraphing her concern.
"Chair's only three steps away," Bob encouraged. "Three steps, one round of beer."
Growl. Very little sound to it, but a growl nonetheless.
"A fine example of how Unit soldiers never quit," Jonas said admiringly. "We could make this into a recruiting tape."
"Top, we don't recruit. We don't exist."
"Too bad. Perhaps we could make the tape anyway, and give it to the Rangers."
"That would work. We could plaster Charlie's face over posters all across the country."
"Colonel Ryan would likely have something to say about that," Molly told them tartly, her eyes on the staggering man in her living room. Hasn't this gone far enough?
It had. Charlie didn't quit, but his body gave out on him in a sudden rush. His eyes rolled back into his head, and his grasp on the supporting crutches loosened.
Both Jonas and Bob were behind, catching and easing the man down into the upholstered chair that he'd been aiming for. Jonas snatched up a pillow or two to prop the man's head against the back of the chair while Bob lifted his legs onto the coffee table that they'd joked about, protecting the wood from the leg cast with yet another pillow.
Molly brought a glass of cold water. "Have you gentlemen finished having your fun?"
Jonas held the glass to Charlie's lips; Charlie himself was too worn out to hold it without spilling. "We have. I believe Sgt. Grey owes us a beer, due and payable this Friday night."
"Should he still not be able to walk," Bob agreed, "then we will agree to delay payment until the following week. With interest," he added thoughtfully. "A second round should cover it."
The voice was weak, but the eyes—once again open and dark against the bruised skin—blazed fiercely. "What're you talking about? I won, Brown."
"Won?" Brown snorted. "Man, you were out. You went down."
"Don't remember hitting the floor."
"That's because we caught you."
Charlie sighed deeply, relaxing into the comfort of the chair, secure among his brothers. "Right. Didn't fall." The eyes closed, and a smile etched itself across his features. "Never touched the ground."
Jonas Blane chuckled. "Bob, my man, we've been had." He laughed again. "Drinks on us, next Friday."
Lissy looked up suspiciously from the gold foil-wrapped present in her hand. "What's this?"
"Go ahead; open it," Mack Gerhardt invited. He draped an arm over Tiffy's shoulders, grinning.
"What is it?"
"You'll find out if you open it."
Lissy tried to slow down, but her curiosity got the better of her. A quick rip, and the foil fell away, revealing a square white box. She pulled off the top; inside was a velvet-covered container. She looked up. "Dad?"
"Keep going, sweetheart."
She did. She tugged the velvet box out of its protection, pulling open the lid. A gold chain spilled out onto her hand, a locket with a delicate filigree tracing looped through it. Lissy thought she recognized it. "Daddy, is this…?"
"No, sweetheart, it isn't," Mack was quick to tell her. "We thought that it was best to give that to Sgt. Masters's wife, once we'd extracted the information from it."
"That was nice," Tiffy said, hiding her fear. "It was the last gift he'd ever be able to give to Maria."
"There's nothing inside the locket," Lissy said, opening the tiny gold piece. "Wait a minute; what's this?" She plucked a small note from inside the velvet box. She read it aloud. "'In memory of something that never happened. Sergeant Charles Grey.'" She looked up. "Daddy?"
Mack regarded his eldest daughter, the one who had just done a lot of growing in too short of a time. The shadows were leaving her face, but his little girl would never regain her innocence—it was the price they had all paid for a moment's indiscretion. "Charlie's idea. We couldn't give you a medal for your part in this, but we can tell you that you deserved the honor."
"The locket's empty, Daddy."
"That's right, sweetheart. It's empty because this piece of life never happened."
"Ooh, pretty!" Serena's face shone with joy. "Can I keep it? Is it from Uncle Charlie?"
"Yes, sweetie, it is," Bob agreed, his arm around Kim's waist, watching Serena rip the gold foil to shreds. "It's a real necklace, from Uncle Charlie."
"It's special, sweetheart," Kim told her, lifting the velvet box out of the white cardboard surrounding it. "You can wear it to church if you promise to be careful."
"Can I sell it in my store?"
Bob and Kim exchanged a glance. Bob answered. "Not this one, honey. This is something that you'll never sell. It's something to remind you and me and Mommy just how special you are."
"In fact, it's so special that I'm going to keep it in my own jewelry box until you're older," Kim added. "We'll take it out for church, and then put it back." She picked up the note that accompanied it, reading the words silently.
To the time that we spent together, and to the bravest girl I know. Sergeant Charles Grey.
This paper would stay inside Kim's jewelry box, along with the locket with nothing in it but memories. Her daughter couldn't understand the implications of what she had been through, and that was okay with Kim. It wasn't only the soldiers of the Unit who made sacrifices for the good of the country and the world. Their families too sacrificed right along with them. The ultimate sacrifice hit every one of them.
Kim wished with all of her heart that her daughter hadn't earned the locket.
And the world went on.