I must apologize for being so late in posting this final chapter. It has been written for quite some time, but my Mum had some age related issues and I have been out of town trying to help my siblings sort things out. My family is settled and my computer and I are reunited.
Much thanks and appreciation go to UnwittingCatalyst and Purdy's Pal. You make me smile. =)
Thank you to everyone who has waited patiently for the story to finish.
"I seldom end up where I wanted to go, but almost always end up where I need to be."
Sam expected somebody – Mike actually – but the sandals that appeared in his sight line surprised him. He was sitting at the far end of the same bar where he had met up with Fiona a few days ago. For the last twenty minutes he'd been nursing his second drink and still wasn't any closer to finishing it or removing his carcass from this seat and carting it back to his empty apartment. The amber liquid swirled around mostly melted ice cubes and made for a murky looking glass, as he wondered about answers to questions he wasn't sure he had any business even asking. Those sandals only brought on more questions and he certainly didn't have answers for them either. The sandals shuffled as the body belonging to them settled on the bar stool beside him.
"A little out of your way, isn't it?" Sam asked.
Victoria shrugged. "I hear this place makes a great mojito."
"The mint ones are good. The peach…" Sam wavered his hand indicating so-so. "Now the Scotch…," he took a long swallow from his glass, forgetting that it was mostly melted ice. He prevented the grimace from becoming vocal, but couldn't completely hide his facial reaction. "top of line." His voice sounded funny to his own ears.
Victoria sighed. "I'm not here to write a column."
"Why are you here?" Sam thought he had a right to a little fore warning. If there were going to be further accusations, he'd need way more alcohol.
"I wanted to let you know that my mother and I talked. Something we haven't really done before." The shy smile let him know that whatever the talk was about, it ended well. He could only hope that Victoria found some peace with the answers her mother supplied.
"I'm happy for you." And he was too. She hadn't done anything to cause the hurt and pain that had fallen on her family. She deserved some closure, but Sam couldn't help worrying how far Angelo's secret might spread. With Cassandra Martins' name clearly mentioned in one of Angelo's letters home, all it would take is one wrong thing being said by either Carmen or Victoria and the Navy would have all the proof it would need to rescind Angelo's honourable status. Carmen could lose the house and restitution would have to be made for money spent on Victoria's degree. Not to mention what NCIS would do to him. Sam sighed as he watched the nearly extinguished bergs of ice slide from one side of its amber sea and crash into the other as he slowly rolled the base of his glass back and forth.
Still, Victoria looked settled with the past. It was more than he thought he'd get when all this started more than a week ago. Sam hoped that Angelo would be happy with that.
Victoria signalled the bartender and when he drew near enough to hear, she ordered another scotch on the rocks for Sam.
"You looked like you could use a fresh one," she explained.
Sam shrugged, "I wouldn't say no."
"You may even find they taste better when they're not half watered down."
Sam had to look over at Victoria, just to make sure that the smile he heard in her voice was present on her face. He wanted to return the gesture, but couldn't manage more than a ghost of his usual grin.
"What are you going to tell your friends, the people in your office, about what you learned on your trips to Miami?"
"You know, that's a funny thing," Victoria looked thoughtful, "I was curious when you said more people could be hurt by that file, so I called my supervisor at Camp Blanding to see if he had any more information, and he didn't know what I was talking about. Apparently that mission is listed as Restricted. He couldn't show it to me even if he wanted to."
Sam was pleased to hear that there was at least one military guy who knew what protocol was. Sam chalked up Victoria's lack of concern over the origins of the information as acceptance of an office blunder. However, he'd have to make a few phone calls, get in touch with a couple of buddies. He would have to tell Fi, she'd see that Mike knew about this new invasion.
"What's next for you and your mom?" Sam wasn't sure if he'd get an answer, but his curiosity had him wondering about the possible reply.
Victoria watched her fingers as they clasped tighter together. "Mom and I agree, we'll make things right. She'll sell the house and move in with me. We'll donate the money to a Navy Charity. I can't give back my degree, but mom says the government owes me that much for taking my dad away in the first place."
Sam wasn't surprised that Carmen would want to dole out her own version of justice. It was too bad that it included giving up the family home, but he knew if Carmen had made up her mind, it wasn't going to be changed by anyone.
"I'm sure there'll be sailors who appreciate the gesture," he said. "There may be some pretty tough questions if any of the Navy higher ups become curious about your sudden generosity. You'll need to give them some pretty clear answers." Sam knew with the Navy's desire to keep their reputation clean, if the brass smelled even the slightest hint of scandal, they'd call out the dogs until every last morsel of their lives was laid bare. Sam took a bitter swallow of his Scotch, to keep away visions of being subjected to chats in small rooms with old tables and wobbly chairs.
Sam was a little caught off guard when he realized Victoria had moved to stand beside him and felt the warmth of her hand resting on his shoulder. "Mom told me that you believed dad paid enough for everybody." She gave a gentle squeeze of comfort as she said, "We think you've paid enough, too."
Sam was at a loss for words. Victoria didn't give him too long to wonder as she explained, "Mom's already burned that last letter. There's no longer any connection between dad and …that awful woman." Sam could understand the reluctance to speak Cassandra Martin's name. He didn't want to ever have to say it either.
"Then why sell the house?" Sam asked.
"It feels right." Victoria smiled, "It also gives mom peace. And burning that letter is like erasing that chapter in her life. As far as she's concerned dad was planning on coming home and that's all she needs to know." She leaned in and gave a soft peck on Sam's bristled cheek. "You gave her that, and I thank you."
Victoria stepped away, slipping her purse strap high up on her shoulder. "I won't be digging into any more of my dad's missions. I know everything I need to. My dad was a SEAL and he had a great team backing him up; and I'll take on anyone who disagrees." She reached out and took Sam's hand and squeezed. "Thank you, Sam. I only wish it hadn't caused you so much grief for my family to find this peace."
Sam couldn't help himself. He stood and pulled Victoria into a hug and meant every word when he said, "You or your mom need anything, you call me. OK?"
Victoria wiped a finger under her eye, taking away the wetness that had built up there. "You're on speed dial."
Sam smiled, it was nice to know that Victoria considered his feelings enough to exaggerate like that. He watched her as she walked out of the bar. He doubted that he'd ever see her again, but felt sure that Angelo's family would be okay.
As Sam turned back to his seat, he came face to face with Michael Westen.
"Holy crap, Mike! You tryin' to give a guy a heart attack?" Sam slowly let himself down onto his bar stool.
Michael's cheerless tone brought on a brief bout of worry, but Sam looked into his friend's eyes and could tell that he was sorry for more than just surprising him. Michael had his hand on the back of the bar stool that Victoria had just vacated. Sam could tell that Michael was waiting for permission to sit down. It was a weird sense of power to know that he could send Michael Westen packing. All he had to do was turn to the bar and pick up his Scotch on the rocks and drink until he couldn't remember what he was drinking for.
But instead Sam asked, "You prefer ice tea or something stronger?"
"I could do with a beer," Michael gratefully accepted the peace offering as he took his place in the empty seat. He still looked uncomfortable and wouldn't look Sam in the eye. Sam was willing to wait it out. The fact that Michael was sitting here said all Sam needed to know. Still, it would help if he could get his friend to see it too.
"Your idea to send Victoria?" Sam asked.
"She called mom's looking for you," Michael admitted. "Between Fi and Ma they made a few phone calls. Once a bartender said 'yes' they called her back and sent me to make sure you were alright."
"Nice to know I'm predictable," Sam picked up his glass of scotch but only swirled the liquid around.
Michael gave a small laugh. "If it's any consolation, it took more than a dozen calls to find the right place." He looked around the quiet pub. "Fiona said she wouldn't have found you if you hadn't met her here last week."
That was something that made Sam smile. Out of this whole debacle, Fiona was the biggest surprise. Sam knew he and Fiona were friends, he just never realized that she knew it. He'd have to come up with a special nickname for her, just to say 'thanks for sticking by me'. She'd hate it and threaten some part of his anatomy. Ahh, now that's friendship with Fiona Glenanne. The dimple in Sam's left cheek began to deepen.
Michael must have been thinking along similar lines. "You're my friend, Sam. Always have been. Things got a little murky there, but they're clear now."
Sam felt something in his chest welling up on him. He took a quick drink of his scotch to help push it back down. Hearing Michael call things murky was as close as he'd ever heard the man admit to being wrong.
"I know it wasn't easy for you, this past week," Sam said, knowing that was putting it lightly. He had always known Michael would be hurt by Angelo's conduct, it was the one of the reasons Sam never shared any of that information with his friend. But Sam never expected that Michael would react so markedly on the side of doubt over Sam's actions. The last thing Sam wanted was to be the one putting cracks in the man's veneer. Beside him, Michael was nodding his head.
"How many times have you told me that you don't like my situation, but that you get it? Or, you agreed with me and said you hate those kinds of situations?" Michael was watching him now and Sam was careful with his reactions, not sure what his friend was looking for.
"This last week has been hell, Sam," Michael looked sad and beaten down. Sam hated seeing his friend like this, especially knowing it was his actions that caused it. Michael turned glossy eyes to him as he admitted; "Now it's my turn to tell you, I wish it were different"
Sam wondered if the 'it' Mike was referring to was Angelo's affair or his act of covering it up. Sam expected the 'it' included Angelo dying on that god forsaken mountain. He knew it was all the above when Mike continued.
"But I get it. If things were reversed, I wouldn't have done things much differently than you did."
Sam sat back in his chair and just stared at the man next to him. The day was just full of surprises. The next thing he knew a joyful laugh bubbled up and he was slapping his best friend's shoulder.
"Hey bartender," Sam called out, "a beer for my friend here."
"Thanks, Sam" Michael's smile was wide and toothy.
It was three days later and Sam smiled as his elbow was jostled. Michael and Fiona were settling themselves in the chairs on either side of him. He had already ordered and their drinks were on the patio table waiting.
"How was Nobu's?" Sam asked, glad he was able to use his contacts to make the short notice reservation at the high end sushi restaurant for his friends.
"Lovely, Sam. Too bad you couldn't make it last night." Fiona settled her Burberry sunglasses over her eyes as she leaned back to enjoy the warmth of the sun on her bare shoulders.
"Look sister, I can take a hint. The Baretta wasn't necessary," Sam laughed at the memory of Fiona caressing her weapon as she told him it was a reservation for two only.
"Just making sure there were no misunderstandings, Sam."
"If there's one thing about you, Fi, you're always very clear."
Fiona smiled as she took a sip of her iced tea. "Thanks, Sam."
Sam turned to Michael. "Maybe another time?"
"The future is hard to predict, Sam." Michael smiled as he brought his iced tea up to his lips.
"That it is, my friend. That it is." Sam took a drink of his mojito.
"Any luck finding out who put that folder together?"
"Unfortunately not," Sam reached under his chair for the folder Fiona had taken from Victoria over a week ago. There was no need to return the falsified documents to the Navy. Deep in the Navy's files the classified documents still rested. Sam verified that through several buddies.
"These files were done by experts though." Sam pulled a page out, rubbing at the old Navy Emblem at the top. "The stamps are from the right era and everything."
"You know, you could have saved me a lot of time and effort if you just pointed out that these were faked from the beginning," Fiona used the straw to stir the ice cubes around her drink.
"I did. Next time listen." Sam shoved the page back into the folder and dropped it onto the table.
Fiona sat up in her chair. She lifted her sunglasses up and slid them on top of her head. "I do not decipher coded messages, Sam. You telling Victoria that the author was missing some reports from team members does not scream out at me that the whole file is a fake."
"Like I said, you need to listen." Sam knew it was coming, and he turned as her blow hit his shoulder. He even managed to annoy her more by keeping the smile of satisfaction on his face. How he had missed this and was glad to have it back.
"So what does it all mean?" Fiona asked Michael, ignoring Sam's dimpled grin. "What was the purpose of feeding Victoria the wrong information? Other than to prove you still have a long way to go in dealing with your personal issues."
Sam almost choked on his mojito and was coughing just to start his lungs working properly again. He managed a watery look at the man beside him. He didn't look surprised by the comment and Sam could only assume that a lot of last night's dinner conversation was Fiona telling Michael off; or as she would put it, setting Michael straight. Sam didn't want to be swept back up into the miseries of the past week. He and Mikey had reached a peaceful accord in the traditional guy method - they skirted the issue and drank some alcohol. They were good.
Fiona, however, still had that glint that most females get when they are planning on improving their partners. It scared most men, and coming from Fiona Glenanne it scared Sam. He couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't be embarrassing for himself and even worse for Mike, so he nudged her shin under the table instead. Fiona returned the love with a hard boot from her very sturdy, and yet always fashionable, footwear.
Michael didn't seem to notice their silent conversation, as he was lost in the depths of his cold drink. "I think someone was trying to separate us. Take Sam out of the equation."
"Your burn notice friends messing with you again?" Sam didn't like the sound of that. It had come too close to succeeding. Someone knew more about them than he liked.
Michael wasn't happy about it either. "My family and friends will always be targets. Maybe it's time for you two to move on?"
"Michael, hasn't this little episode taught you anything?" Fiona was pulling her sunglasses back down. "We're stronger when we're together. It's when we stand alone that we're weak." This time the smack to his bicep was unexpected and Sam winced aloud. "Right, Sam?"
"I'm not gonna agree with you just because you hit me," Sam rubbed at the red marks appearing on his arm.
Sam watched as a grin appeared on Michael's face. It was still a bit of relief to know that their friendship had made it through the events of the past week. If anything, Michael was acting grateful for the friendship the three of them shared. Yet it was so Michael Westen to offer one more chance for them to distance themselves from his crazy world. "This won't be the end. They'll try again."
"Stop worrying, Michael. We'll deal with it." Fiona took a long drink and sighed up into the sunshine.
Sam watched his friends. Michael shrugged and accepted the fact he had friends. Fiona looked happy and relaxed. So Sam smiled and fit in, but he felt a nervous energy and knew it would be soon enough before they were back in the thick of things.