The air was humid and unpleasantly hot. Brad passed his hand over his forehead to wipe away a drop of sweat that was about to get into his eye before he returned his hand to the handle.
He'd rented a simple bike at from a local agency at Trincomalee airport and was now following the map he'd printed out, the one where he'd marked Ray's address in red. He didn't really need the map, he'd memorised every detail before he'd even got on the first of his four planes.
Even the head wind didn't ease the heat, and Brad wiped his hand over his brow yet again. The drive was supposed to take about forty minutes, the man from the rental agency had said with a friendly smile. Brad took in the landscape he was driving through, the mountains, the thick rainforest vegetation with flowers in various colours, the muddy street crowded with small trucks, cars, buses, motorbikes and bicycles.
He'd never been to Sri Lanka before. In fact, he doubted he ever would have come here if it hadn't been for Ray's postcard with nothing but an address and the suggestion to come by for a visit if he felt up to meet Ray's kids. That had been it, nothing else written on the card. But it had done the trick, just like Ray must have known it would, and Brad had organised a journey halfway around the world to get to the small town of Mutur on the island of Sri Lanka. Yeah, that hadn't been part of his holiday plans if anybody had asked him just two weeks ago what he'd intended to do with his leave. But what could he say, his curiosity had won over his reason.
Ray's kids. That didn't bode well. Brad had pointedly avoided to think about the ideas those words gave him. He couldn't really imagine how Ray had ended up having children - it had been plural on his postcard, and that had Brad slightly worried.
It had been quite a while since they'd last talked on the phone. Two weeks before Christmas, to be exact, when Ray had tried to get him to join the reunion he'd organised. Well, it was more of a get-together of Bravo in their favourite bar in Oceanside than a real reunion, and Brad had only agreed after Ray had threatened to transfer the whole celebration to Brad's house. That had been seven months ago and in the few emails Brad had received since, Ray hadn't said a word about kids. Seven months wasn't enough time to get kids - plural again, mind you - the natural way.
But then, it was Ray they were talking about. Nothing Ray did ever followed the natural way. He had a talent like that.
Brad slowed when he reached the outskirts of Mutur and kept an eye out for the building that matched the address Ray had left on the postcard. It was one of the few structures still standing, so it didn't take long to find it within the many houses in ruins and the temporary shelters that could be found everywhere. The building was a bit ramshackle, like all the buildings still standing around here seemed to be, probably due to the aftermath of the tsunami. There was paint peeling from the walls, but the brightly coloured sign over the main gate looked new.
'Bravo Company Orphanage' it said in letters of various colours, flowers and animals surrounding them, obviously painted by children. Brad frowned, but he couldn't say if it was more due to the name or the fact that Ray had given him he address of an orphanage. He had an inkling what this was all about, especially since Ray never did anything without reason - even if his reasons might not always be obvious.
Brad got off the bike and parked it right next to the gate. He slowly, almost carefully walked through the open wooden doors into the wide courtyard that was surrounded by one storey buildings on three sides. There were several small groups of children of various ages strewn all over the courtyard, obviously playing or talking with each other, some of the older ones were reading or learning together.
It wasn't Ray who greeted him, though. Before Brad had any chance to look for an adult, a little boy ran past him, screaming, chased by a slightly older girl. Brad's gaze followed them just to see a familiar looking man step out of the door next to the gate, wrapping one arm around the girl and lifting her off the ground while the boy hid behind his legs. The man said something to the girl and although Brad couldn't actually understand the language, he got that the man was chiding her. He then turned to Brad and nodded.
"Hey Brad, you finally got here." Doc Bryan said matter of fact, obviously not at all surprised by his presence. "Make yourself useful and grab the little rugrat hiding behind me."
The Doc turned and said something to the boy who then cheered and ran towards Brad, his arms stretched out in the universal gesture for 'pick me up'.
"I told him he could ride piggyback, so be so nice and let him, okay?" Tim said and turned to cross the courtyard, trusting Brad would do what he was asked. One gaze at the huge hopeful brown eyes of the little boy and Brad knelt down with a resigned sigh to let the child climb onto his back, the little arms closing firmly around his neck. There were cheerful noises close to his ear, a bit too loud to be comfortable, while Brad followed Tim across the courtyard towards one of the buildings surrounding it.
"Josh! Your TL is here!" Doc shouted into the doorway before he sat the girl down on the table next to the door. He turned to her with a serious gaze and talked to her for a moment. She nodded earnestly to show she'd understood, then the Doc gave her a little smile and jerked his head to the other children. She bounced off the table and joined a group of girls a few metres away, already talking loudly before she'd even reached them. Brad watched the scene, the boy on his back bouncing up and down excitedly and his little arms doing their best to choke Brad.
"U.S. Marine strangled by four-year-old. What a glorious death." A familiar voice commented dryly from behind him and Brad turned to see Ray standing in the door with a huge grin on his face. He wore shorts and a faded t-shirt and his hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail. A camo bandana was wrapped around his left wrist. Brad recognised it immediately.
Tim just snorted at Ray's words and gave Ray a pointed look before he glanced at the boy on Brad's back. "Don't pretend Roshan hasn't ever strangled you. I distinctly remember him doing it - more than once, in fact."
"Traitor." Ray grumbled in Tim's direction and shot him a dirty look.
The Doc seemed entirely unaffected. He just pointed at Brad with a raised eyebrow. "Now be so good and get Roshan off Brad's back before he kills our guest."
Ray grumbled some more under his breath, but Brad could see the smirk that tugged on his lips while Ray peeled the little excited boy off his neck. He put him on his feet on the ground and said something to him, switching languages same as the Doc had done with the girl. The words were followed by a wink and a grin that the boy returned before he hurried off to his friends, shrieking excitedly.
Brad followed the retreating figure with his gaze. "Do I want to know what you told him?"
"No." Doc said at the same time that Ray replied with a mischievous grin, "I just said that he should be proud that he'd ridden a giant."
"You're a bad influence for these kids, Ray." Brad said with a shake of his head.
"I'm doing my best." Ray retorted and grinned even wider.
Before Brad could give an appropriate reply, an middle-aged woman in a colourful tunic appeared at the gate to the courtyard, gave a shout and waved at them. Doc waved back before he turned to Brad and Ray. "I have to go to the market now. I see you guys later."
He turned around and met up with the woman whom he greeted with a friendly nod before they disappeared through the gate. Ray followed Brad's gaze and answered the impending question before Brad had even asked it.
"That was Padma. Tim and I call her our 'guiding angel'. We wouldn't have managed without her help." Ray explained in an uncharacteristically serious voice. "She's one of our neighbours. She's a teacher at the local school and she speaks English. She has helped us out in the orphanage since we got here and taught us the basics of Sinhala - that's the most widely spoken language in Sri Lanka - so that we were able to understand the kids and speak to them."
"Nah, I'm still learning." Ray replied and turned back to enter the low building he'd come out of to greet Brad. "It's enough to get through daily life and to manage my monsters."
Brad followed him inside and couldn't help smirking. "Your monsters."
"Oh, don't be fooled, they might look all cute and nice right now, but wait until there's a quarrel." Ray gave an exaggerated shudder. "You wouldn't believe how scary kids can be."
Brad snorted. "I have two nieces and three nephews. Believe me, I know."
"Good." Ray clapped his hand in a triumphant way and grinned like the cat who just ate the canary. "Then do me a favour and keep an eye on them while I make lunch for the pack."
"You're throwing me in the lion's den?" Brad grabbed his chest in a show of pain. "You are a cruel man, Ray Person."
"Oh, don't worry, ice princess." Ray chuckled while he grabbed a huge pot. "There's a woman somewhere in the courtyard, about half your size. Her name's Manisha and she takes the afternoon watch. Pretty feisty person. Has the monsters all under control. She'll protect you."
Brad managed to keep a straight face. "I'm glad to hear that."
"Now go and make yourself useful, Sergeant, or there will be no lunch for you." Ray ordered and swung the wooden spoon to emphasize his point.
Brad just chuckled and went outside to do his duty. The courtyard was as crowded as before, but there seemed to be a little more order to the general chaos. It took Brad only a fraction of a second to find the woman Ray had mentioned - Manisha - who was indeed only half his size, if even. She had an air of quiet authority around her and when she calmly said something to two fighting boys, they listened immediately. Brad smirked. Yeah, she had the 'monsters' under control all right.
By the end of the afternoon, Brad wished she'd been in command of OIF.
About two hours after lunch - a loud and lively affair where Brad had somehow ended up with the little Roshan on his knees - Tim and Padma returned form the market and brought a handcart full of food with them, everything from rice to fruit, vegetables and meat in various forms. Brad thought he'd spotted the leg of a chicken stick out of the cart. Ray, Tim and Padma - a matronly woman with a no-nonsense air about her - made the everyone help store the food, pointing out the names of the single items and the kids repeated them eagerly. Padma made Brad carry the huge bags of rice, much to Ray's glee. She noticed and made him heave half a pig into the cool room. Brad was careful to not let her see his satisfied grin.
By the time they had dinner, Brad had grown used to the constant chatter around him that he didn't understand. Roshan had attached himself to Brad's side like a barnacle to a ship's bottom. Tim had translated some of what he was saying and the gist of it was that he thought Brad was a magic golden giant who'd been sent to be his protector so that nobody could take him away from the orphanage. Brad wanted to strangle Ray for putting that idea in the boy's head, but he couldn't bring himself to disappoint the little kid with the cheerful nature. Damn Ray.
"He'll probably stick to you until you leave." Doc said, a warm little smile on his face while he watched Roshan sitting on Brad's left knee, talking to the boy seated next to Brad. Brad was sure he'd never seen the Doc smile so much before. "You're the first stranger he's grown so fond of. Usually he's fine with other children, but he's very shy with adults."
Brad just raised an eyebrow. "I can't say I've noticed."
"Well, that's probably because you're a magic golden giant, not an adult." Tim replied with a smirk. Suddenly, in a whizz of movement, a little girl of maybe three years appeared and climbed on the bench next to Tim, her fingers gripping his short to help her climb. Doc smiled at her and gripped her arms to lift her up on the bench and she immediately huddled close to his side. She wore a colourful tunic over dark trousers, her black hair was held back in a simple braid and she looked at Brad with curious brown eyes.
"Brad, meet Lakmini, our youngest one." Tim said and let his hand rub soothingly over her back. "Josh calls her 'little bug'. He found her in the ruins when we came here, and ever since she's grown very attached to him."
"And to you, it seems." Brad remarked and pointedly looked at the way she'd cuddled up against Doc's side.
"Yeah. Padma always says that Lakmini adopted us as her new parents." Doc smiled warmly at the little girl and gently patted her hair, then his smile turned sad. "She lost her whole family in the tsunami. Padma knew them, they lived across the street. We have no idea why Lakmini wasn't with them when the waves hit, but it saved her life."
"How old is she?"
"Three, according to Padma." Tim fell silent for a moment, then he said in a very quiet voice, "Sometimes I hope she's too young to remember that day."
Brad nodded but kept silent, his gaze wandering over the two tables filled with children of all ages, eating and talking and laughing. They seemed to be all right, but Brad couldn't help wondering what they must have seen and lived through.
"How many kids do you have?"
"Right now? Thirty-four." Tim looked over the boys and girls with a sigh. "We had sixty-three at the beginning, but we managed to find family, relatives, guardians, friends. We hope to find more. No child should grow up in an orphanage if there's family left."
"They seem happy here." Brad couldn't help remarking.
Tim nodded and patted Lakmini's hair again, giving her a warm smile. "We do our best to give them a place they can call home, no matter if it's for a few days or forever."
After dinner, the older kids helped Doc and Padma clean up in the kitchen while the younger ones, who were more likely to destroy the dishes than wash them, followed Ray and Manisha out in the courtyard. Brad stayed in the kitchen to help - Padma's orders, and he knew better than to defy her. So he joined the ragtag group of kids armed with a dish cloth and dried whatever was pressed into his hands. The kids had their fun misdirecting him when he tried to put away the dishes, and Brad found it oddly satisfying to be included in their games.
As soon as their duty was done, the children were out of the door to join the younger ones in the courtyard. Brad watched how Padma said her goodbyes, then he felt the Doc nudge his arm.
"Come on outside." Tim said and handed him a coconut with a straw. "It's story time."
Brad refrained from asking what that meant, assuming that he'd find out soon enough. He followed Tim into the back of courtyard, right outside of the kids' dorms, where Ray was sitting on the ground with his back leaning against the wall, surrounded by the all of the kids, young and old alike. They had sat down, huddled together, the small children close to the older ones. There was an atmosphere of thrilled anticipation in the air, and as soon as he was sitting, Brad felt Roshan settle against his side. After a moment of hesitation, Brad let his hand rest on the little boy's shoulder.
Once everybody was seated, Ray began talking. Within minutes, all children were listening with engrossed attention to his words, joining him in the world of fantasy, adventure and heroes that he created with every sentence. Brad just smirked, wishing he could understand Ray's words, but admitting that he didn't need to to get that the story was really good. Doc sat in the background with Lakmini curled up in his lap, her gaze focussed on Ray while she was sucking absent-mindedly on her thumb.
Ray wove his tale with the help of suggestions he enquired from the children, using his whole body to act out the story. He gestured, imitated voices of different characters - one of them obviously a little girl, and his squeaking impersonation of her made all kids giggle with glee - and he even involved one of the boys in an imaginary sword fighting. When he was done, he gave the kids some time to talk about the story, knowing they needed a moment to calm down. Some boys played out the sword fight again and Brad watched them with a smirk.
"He's done this from the first night on." Tim appeared next to Brad, the sleeping form of Lakmini slumped in his arms. His gaze was focussed on Ray, who was helping the boys with their sword fighting. "He couldn't say more than three words in Sinhala at that point, but somehow he managed - with hands and feet and a lot of acting - to tell them a story and make them laugh."
Brad just nodded. That sounded like a thing Ray would do.
"It was five days after the tsunami had passed through. Most of the kids had lost their families, their homes and their sense of security, all of them had seen people die and had lived through unimaginable horrors, yet Josh made them smile." Tim stopped and Brad turned towards him. There was a raw expression on his face, something so deep that Brad had to look away. It felt to intimate to watch. "He gave them a bit of their childhood back, at least for that half hour of storytelling. There hasn't been one evening since that he didn't tell them a story."
Ray shouted something over the general turmoil of the children talking all at the same time and they quieted down. Tim left Brad standing at the back of the courtyard and joined Ray in herding the kids into their dorms. It didn't take long to get them all settled in their beds. Many of the younger ones shared a bed in two or three - not enough beds left after the tsunami, the Doc explained quietly, but he and Ray were working on building new ones - and Brad was surprised at the easy discipline that seemed to prevail.
Once everybody was settled - Brad noticed that both Ray and Tim said good night to every single one of the children, and he himself had to carry little Roshan to his bunk - and the lights were turned off, Ray, Tim and Brad retreated to the tiny house that was separated from the dorms by the kitchen. It had only two rooms, a bedroom and a common room with two large, simple tables. Part of the room was now taken up by the sleeping pallet that Ray had organised for Brad.
Ray grabbed three beers from the kitchen and brought them outside where Tim and Brad were sitting on the ground. A breeze was coming in and brought a bit of relief of the humid heat of the day.
"Sorry you had to wait so long for a cold beer, homes, but we have a 'no alcohol' policy as long as the kids are awake." Ray explained when he handed the bottle over.
"I would never have expected you to be the voice of reason." Brad smirked. "Ray, I fear you may turn into an responsible adult."
Ray gave a heavy sigh while he slid down the wall next to the Doc. "Yeah, yeah, the first signs of age."
Tim snorted, but accepted the beer he was offered. "Stop whining, kid. You're seven years younger than me."
"To the Bravo Company Orphanage." Brad said with a smirk and held out his bottle. "And to Ray growing up."
Ray huffed in protest, but still clinked his bottle with Brad's and Tim's and drank. "Ahhhh, this feels so good."
"You mean the beer or the quiet?" Tim asked with a smirk.
Ray grinned. "Both."
"Your 'monsters'." Brad chuckled and took a sip of his beer. "I certainly didn't expect this when I got your postcard."
"Neither did we when we first came here." Tim remarked and leaned back against the wall, his shoulder touching Ray's. "This was just supposed to be a relief and rescue mission of a few weeks. Now we've been here for over half a year."
They fell silent for a moment and Brad wondered what was about to come. He could feel there was more, something Ray and the Doc hadn't told him yet.
"We've just made it final with the ministry that the orphanage can stay under our care." Ray said suddenly, and it took Brad a moment to understand.
He was quiet for a few more seconds, then he looked up and found first Tim's and then Ray's gaze. "You're staying. For good."
It wasn't a question, and Ray didn't take it as one. "Yeah. This is it for us, Brad. They're our kids."
Brad thought about it for a moment, the he allowed his smile to show. "Yeah, I could see that today." He raised his bottle again and grinned. "To your little monsters."
Ray laughed, Tim chuckled and then their bottles connected in cheers.
It wasn't long after that they called it a night. Brad felt the exhaustion of the travel and the long day catch up with him - not that he'd ever admit that to Ray - and he was looking forward to lying down and grabbing a few hours of sleep. They went inside and brushed their teeth over the kitchen sink and Ray handed Brad a bottle of water for the night before he turned to the bedroom.
"Night, Brad." Tim said with a nod of his head before he touched his hand to Ray's lower back and followed him to the room that served as their bedroom.
"Yeah, funny dreams and all that." Ray mumbled over a yawn and Brad just nodded. He was asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow, and that hadn't happened to him in a long time.
When Brad woke at dawn, he made his way over to the kitchen after taking a leak. Never mind the heat that hadn't considerably lessened during the night, Ray sat with a earthen mug of steaming hot coffee at the little table that was originally meant for food preparation when Brad came in.
"Morning, princess." Ray greeted him with a grin and pushed another mug over the table.
"Morning." Bread was a bit surprised to be greeted with coffee, but he wasn't going to complain. He sat down opposite of Ray and sipped on the coffee, just the make a face. "What the hell is that, Ray? What have you done to the coffee?"
Ray grinned almost triumphantly. "That's M&Ms. Good, heh?"
"Only if you burned your taste-buds." Brad glared at the offending coffee, then at Ray, then pushed the mug away. "Where's Doc?"
"Oh, he's not an early riser." Ray replied with a grin and handed Brad another mug. "Here, that'll be more to your taste."
Brad accepted the new coffee with a suspicious look at Ray and tasted it carefully, not sure what to expect. It proved to be decent black coffee without any fancy or weird additions, and Brad sipped it in quiet while Ray drank his own mug and then the one Brad had rejected. It was about half an hour later that the door to the common room opened and Tim entered.
"Morning." He grumbled barely audible under his breath, the words obviously directed at nobody in particular. His hair stood up in various angles in a really impressive bedhead and his movements were slow and sleepy. With an eyebrow raised halfway in amusement and halfway in surprise at seeing the famous grumpy Doc Bryan like this, Brad watched him shuffle through the kitchen. Tim stopped next to Ray and leaned in to peck a little kiss on Ray's lips before he stole Ray's mug without the slightest sign of remorse. He didn't even flinch at the taste. It was the ease and the simple familiarity of the gesture that got Brad, the way they both didn't seem to be aware of the gesture. Yeah, this was it for them.
"Morning, sleepyhead." Ray said with a smirk and poured himself a new coffee, carefully adding a handful of M&Ms, before he sat down again. Tim moved around the kitchen in what seemed to be a slow morning routine, preparing some breakfast and setting it on the little table. Before they had even started eating, Lakmini came running in the kitchen and climbed on Ray's lap, babbling excitedly about something that Brad wasn't sure he would have been able to understand even if he'd spoken her language. Ray didn't seem to have any such problems. He replied to her, patting her back and handing her a piece of his breakfast meat. She gnawed on it and attentively listened to his words while Tim sat on the other side of the table and reached out to steal Ray's mug yet again.
Brad smirked. Poke would never believe this.
Actually, nobody from Bravo would.