Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: My thanks to Kerry for the speedy beta work, to Lyse (and others) for the technical help about the US Navy, and to Charlotte and Nancy for all their input.
JD lay back and listened to Buck humming to himself. It was early; the sun wouldn't be up for another hour. Buck's humming gave way to singing, and he smiled as the strains of 'Anchors Away' drifted down to him, then it was drowned out as he heard the shower water start to run. It was some thirty minuets later that Wilmington padded down the spiral stairs and across the dark apartment.
"I'm awake," JD called from his room.
"Sorry, didn't mean to wake you."
"You didn't, 'sides, I need to get up now anyway." He reached out and flicked on the lamp.
JD came out; to find Buck was almost dressed. His clothes were what Ezra called casual and everyone else called smart casual. Navy blue Dockers, navy polo shirt.
"Are you sure about this?" JD asked.
Buck avoided his gaze as he did up his heavy jacket. "It's time."
"Yeah, I'm sure. You almost ready?"
"Give me a sec t' pull some boots on. You still gonna eat on the plane?"
There was no response, Buck had already picked up his bags and headed out.
JD pulled up outside the airport. "Take care," he said softly.
Buck looked over and winked at him. "Dont I always?"
Dunne's head snapped around, all the memories of all the foolhardy, dumb ass, incredibly brave things Buck had done since he'd know him, flooding his brain all at once. In one terrifying vision he saw Buck lying bloody and unmoving in the street, saw him in a hospital bed connected to machines and tubes, saw him step into the path of a bullet - a bullet meant for him.
"No!" came the reply sharply, far more sharply than had intended.
Buck was, as ever, unfazed. "Don't fret, I'm too old to be doing any of that dangerous shit, mostly I'm gonna teach a few classes, maybe march in a parade." JD was still frowning. "Okay?" he prompted.
"Yeah, okay," his young friend finally admitted.
This would be Buck's last ever TAD with the Navy Reserve. He was quitting, after 20 years of service, 8 on active duty and 12 in the reserve; he was calling it a day. Ever since Team Seven had been formed two years ago, his ties to the navy had been weakening.
That dark day, while they waited to see it Buck would survive surgery, after taking a bullet for JD, Chris had told them how the two of them had met.
It was on Chris' very first tour of duty as an Ensign. As he looked back, he had admitted he was the poster boy for convention. School, college, navy, do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not stop to look around at life. So there he was, 'Mr Convention' with men under his command and a truly evil Petty Officer called Shadrack, who took a perverse pleasure in letting him make mistakes. Buck was only six months out of boot camp himself, but while Chris was nervous and more than a little scared, Buck - the only other newbie - seemed at ease, effortlessly confident and street wise. Buck was a very quick study and he hated to see people suffer, so he started to give the young Ensign little signals if he was about to do the wrong thing. It didn't take long for Chris to learn the ropes or get the measure of Shadrack, but he never forgot Wilmington's help. Right at the beginning Chris had wondered if he had made a huge mistake. Seeing the easy way Buck dealt with people and duty, he reckoned life as an enlisted man was so much easier.
Chris' first assumptions about Buck were almost all wrong, and that in itself was a lesson. Buck projected an image of laid back nonchalance, but then Chris found out he was studying whenever he got the chance, trying to amass credits that would help him toward a college degree. It wasn't easy to find the space, or time, still do his job and have some semblance of a social life, but he was doggedly determined. Chris quickly found out Seaman Wilmington was even more stubborn than him - and that was saying something! Buck was self-confident, intelligent, and with his combination of charm and streetwise smarts he was a natural leader, so that even though he was new, the other ratings looked to him for leadership. In Chris' eyes he was perfect officer material. True, he came from a poor background, but poverty was no real barrier, and it quickly became clear he wasn't afraid of responsibility. Yet in conversations they had it became clear to Chris that Wilmington didn't share his view, he had never even thought about becoming an officer.
What Chris hadn't told them was that he had finally figured out why his friend didn't think he could be and officer. It took a lot of years, a lot of trust and a lot of alcohol for Chris to finally figure it out. Buck's streetwise confidence had been hard won, growing up on the very edge of society, no real home, no stability, no continuity, always moving schools, never knowing how much money there was. The truth was, he just didn't think he could be an officer, because he was just 'poor white trash', and people like him didn't get to be officers, because they weren't the right type. Even now, after all these years, Chris wasn't sure he had really convinced Buck he was no-one's 'trash' that he was in fact the very opposite, a true 'prince among men'.
The difference in their rank though, was a constant barrier to their friendship. Chris was posted to a different ship, and eventually accepted by the SEALs and successfully completed their basic training - the BUD/S. Not long after, he happened to see a list of the next men to do the 'BUD' and spotted one Wilmington B on the list. He asked if the B stood for Buck and on being told that it did, he admitted he knew Buck. It had to be him, how many people in the Navy could there be with 'Buck' on their birth certificate.
"You know him?" he was asked.
"Yes Sir, were served together some time ago."
"He's a good man sir, we would be lucky to get him."
As the plane began to descend into Honolulu the old feelings of pride and excitement returned, the tightening in Buck's gut, the lump in his throat that he had to fight from turning into tears every time he saw the USS Arizona Memorial. He hadn't been to Pearl that often, but the fates had smiled, either that or someone was looking out for him, because here he was, on his very last AT, at Pearl, and the last day of that AT, was the eleventh of November, Veterans Day.
Serving had always been more to Buck than a free education, and it was more than a way to gain the respectability his subconscious told him he lacked. Then there was the belonging. Apart from with his mother, Buck had never belonged anywhere; he'd never lived anywhere long enough to belong. Arriving in Las Vegas when he was seventeen was the closest he had come. Yet even at school he didn't fit in, he was held back a year so it was hard to feel he belonged, when all his peers were a year younger. He was a good athlete but he never got to play team sports because he was never around long enough to get onto a team, so by seventeen he just didn't have the right skills. Then, just two months after he graduated high school, his mother was murdered, stabbed in a hotel room, and Buck was totally alone. His school counsellor had suggested the military as a career, though he had originally rejected the idea because he had to stay close to his mother - to protect her. Having lived by the sea on occasion and always loved it, he joined the Navy and suddenly he belonged somewhere. He was part of something, he was on the inside looking out for once, and more than that, they actually seemed to want him. And it was about protecting people, protecting his country. His sainted mother had always said her boy was part 'momma grizzly' - he just had to protect. He was forever bringing home strays, both human and animal. "Youre a big strong boy darlin' - use it for good," his mother would say to him. He had failed to protect her, but he could help to protect others.
It was an uneventful active duty; he had qualified as an instructor many years ago, long before he was promoted to Chief, and now he taught what was second nature to him, 'surveillance'. It was a skill the Special Forces were crying out for, post 9-11. There were always those who were dismissive of Reserves, believing they were either too old, too out of touch or too out of practice, to be of any help.
"Man! Why do we have to come here and get lectured to by some reserve has been? Guy probably weighs 300lb never done any duty that weren't behind a desk."
There was a murmur of laughter around the room. Several eyes rested on a young SEAL's officer now squirming in his seat.
"What to hear more Lieutenant Tyler Sir? Buck asked.
Tyler sat up straight. "No Chief that wont be necessary."
"Good to hear Sir." He looked around the lecture hall. "Good surveillance means keeping your eyes and ears open." He looked back at Tyler "How do you suppose I got you on tape - well disk - Sir?"
"I stood right behind you, not three hours ago. Planted a bug on you - you can return it when you find it. Now using your eyes, do you still think I weigh 300lb and only ever worked a desk - Sir?"
Tyler finally looked at the man before him, tall, trim, in good shape, he took in the man's medal ribbons, a silver star, a bronze star and two purple hearts and that was just the top three, and right there above them, the SEAL's badge.
"Right, gentlemen, and lady, lets look at the latest advances in surveillance and how you can use them to defend our country and her allies, shall we?"
A week into his duty Buck was called to see the CO. He marched smartly in to the office, came to attention and snapped a text book salute.
"Chief," the CO greeted.
"Take a seat." Once Buck was seated, the Captain smiled at him. "I know you are determined to leave, and if I thought I could change your mind I would. We need men like you."
Buck gave a rueful smile. "Sorry sir, it's been twenty years, my life has changed, I need to move on."
"Fair enough. I didn't ask you here to persuade you to stay. I have an offer for you Chief, something those twenty years have earned you."
Veteran's Day had always been a day of observance for Buck. His mother was an outcast from her own family; a family so detached that Buck had no idea who or where they were. But she had been close to her grandfather, who had died when she was twelve, but who left a lasting impression on his granddaughter and on the great grandson he never knew. He was a veteran of the First World War, a Marine, and every November 11th he would take the grandchildren to the parade. But only Cynthia would go willingly, only she actually liked to hear his stories, only she really cared about the day for what it was and not just as a holiday. This deep respect for the final sacrifice of past generations, she passed to her son.
On this Veterans Day there was, as every year, a parade to the Pearl Harbor Memorial Park, culminating with a solemn service at the memorial to those lost on the Arizona. To carry the flag at the head of the navy contingent of the parade was huge honour. Buck could hardly believe his ears when the CO asked him to do it. He had protested he was only a reservist, that he was too old, the honour of carrying the Stars and Stripes traditionally went to a very young seaman, often the youngest on the base. His CO had explained that the various commanders on the base were asked to submit suggestions and he had put Buck's name forward. The base commander was so impressed with his record as a twenty year veteran and holder of the silver star, and by the fact that it would be his last day in the navy that he had given him the job, if he wanted it.
He had hardly slept that night, the need to get his dress whites looking immaculate and unaccustomed nerves keeping him awake. He wanted someone to be there, he needed his friends, his family to steady him and he wanted to share this moment with them. This was possibly one of the proudest moments in his life and he had no one to share it with.
Uniform crisp, and perfect, cap on square, gloved hands sweating, Buck waited to be given the flag he would carry. 'Don't fuck up, concentrate, don't cry, dont fuck up, don't fuck up.' He repeated the mantra in his head over and over again. There hadn't been much time to practice and 'fucking up' was his biggest fear, but becoming overcome with the emotion of the day was another fear. Buck - raised entirely by women - was a man who had few hang-ups when it came to the outward expression of emotions. Sadly the macho world of the military and law enforcement didn't share his views, so - in order to conform, to fit in - he had learned to curb his outward signs of emotion. Fitting in, that was another thing he had learned early in life: defer to others, agree with their ideas, plans or opinions and you just might be allowed to join. The trouble was his sense of right; his hatred of injustice and prejudice was often in conflict with his desire to fit in.
The leather strap which would take the weight of the flag rested heavy and reassuring on his shoulder. When the Master Chief presented him with the flag, he settled it in the cup that hung at his hip and took a firm hold.
"You earned this, enjoy," the other man whispered as he stepped back, coming smartly to attention.
Buck allowed only the hint of a smile to escape as he about-faced and marched to his place at the head of the column. Sometimes he mused, life was just as good as it could be, and even if he had no one to share it with, he wouldn't have missed this moment for the world. Not fucking up he managed, concentrating he managed, not crying was the hardest part, but when ever he felt the emotion of the occasion overcome him he would force his mind to picture his new 'family'. Chris laughing, a rare and wonderful sound. Ezra stretched out on the couch while the rest of them watched football, all of them bellowing at the screen. Vin grinning at him across a crowded room and knowing he was gonna walk into a Tanner practical joke sometime soon. Josiah reading a book, while all kinds of mayhem erupted around him at a team picnic. Nathan 'tut tutting' while he patched up another injury, probably inflicted in the same mayhem Josiah was ignoring. And JD, his surrogate kid brother, bouncing off the walls, talking nineteen to the dozen, grinning like a loon at his own God awful jokes. Those images kept him doing his job, kept him from letting his CO and the base commander down by blubbering like an idiot.
He listened to the names of those who would never grow old, the names of very young men, not much more than boys, lost forever, never to know love, never to see a man walk on the moon, never to see the end of the Cold War - not that they had seen the beginning of it - never to sit and weep on a bleak day in September. Men and boys who would never walk down the aisle with the love of their life, never hold their child, who would never see a grandchild. And as he listened and fought down his response to their hurt, he knew once more how lucky he was. There always came a moment, when he finally gained control of his emotions, when the chance of tears flowing was over. When that happened he could relax, just a little, and he let his eyes scan the sombre faces around him, veterans, relatives, patriotic and grateful citizens and visitors; there were even a few survivors. And there they were, six faces as familiar as his own, right there in front, watching him, Josiah with the camcorder. They had come; they were there with him, just like a real family, like real brothers. His ex fellow SEAL and commanding offer, a former Marine and Viet Nam veteran, a former Army medic and a former Ranger, men who all knew just what an honour he had been given and who knew how he felt. JD had also worn a uniform, he was an MIT graduate who could have had his pick of high tech, high wage jobs, but he didn't, he chose to serve and protect his community. And Ezra, who was raised in privilege, raised to believe that the acquisition of money was the almost a sacred duty, had given up the chance to become a corporate high flyer to become a federal agent and even when that went wrong he didn't quit. These men understood him; they were his real family.
The parade and service were in the morning, culminating at eleven o'clock. Once they were back at the base, everything was squared away and he'd had lunch, Buck had to deal with the inevitable paper work that went with his exit from the service. Before a farewell supper in the Chief's Mess, he was given a formal farewell from the Admiral. After a sumptuous meal, he and his fellow Chiefs drank and told tall stories of past missions, impossible odds, and comically helpless officers. He never had to buy a round and was amazed how many people wanted to shake his hand and wish him well. For all the endless free drinks and good company he had to be at the airport at six the next morning, so kept a tight rein on his drinking and made his excuses relatively early.
At five thirty the next day he picked up his bags and exited his quarters for the last time. As two weeks earlier, he skipped breakfast, preferring to eat on the plane later. For Hawaii it was chilly, a light drizzle fell, and he turned up the collar on his leather jacket, as he walked. He still had his uniforms over his shoulder, but wasn't sure why - he would in all likelihood never wear them again. To his surprise - considering it was still dark as well as early - his CO and the Master Chief were waiting at the gate to see him off.
"Off back to snowy Denver then Buck?" the CO asked.
"It's home sir, wouldn't want to live anyplace else."
"Not even paradise?"
Buck shrugged. "Got my own piece of paradise waiting for me at home."
"Don't tell me some woman finally tamed the great Buck Wilmington?" the Master Chief joked.
Buck gave him one of his enigmatic, head tilt smiles. "No nothing like that, paradise comes in all shapes and sizes."
He looked away to the gate. "I gotta go." He pulled his security pass from his pocket and handed it over. "Guess this is it."
"You could still change your mind you know," his commander offered.
Just then a mini van pulled up and a familiar group of men tumbled out
"Nah." With that he strolled briskly out of the Navy forever.
"You came," was all he said as he reached the rest of the team.
"Of course we came," Larabee assured.
"Yup," came a familiar Texan drawl.
"It was awesome," JD chimed in.
Buck smiled. "Let's go home."
It took a while for Buck to realise that they weren't driving toward the airport but in the opposite direction.
"Umm, I got a flight at eight you know?"
"Not any more, we got two days leave and the weekend."
Buck frowned. "What?"
Chris grinned, then explained that JD had changed his booking, Josiah had 'persuaded' Travis to give them all two days leave, with the weekend coming that was four days. Ezra had somehow got last minute tickets, and found them a beachfront cabin.
"We've got supplies in the back and a jeep comes with the cabin," Vin explained.
Buck tried to assimilate all the information. "Four days?"
"By the beach?"
"Wait, I don't have beach clothes here."
"I brought some of your stuff with me," JD explained.
"Well alright, step on it Josiah, let's not miss one minute in paradise!"
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