The tightness in Sam’s chest could have been mistaken for anxiety or heartburn, but Sam had spent the better part of his life paying too much attention to his body’s signals and learning to recognize different types of pain for that. He waited a couple of minutes to be sure, but when the ache spread to his jaw he stood up. Rising to his feet made him lightheaded, further confirmation.
The seven other men sitting around the conference table, all of them in military uniforms, immediately went silent, even the Singaporeans. Part of Sam appreciated the respect even as he spoke. “Gentleman, I’m afraid I’m going to have to step out of this meeting.”
Sam didn’t know what he looked like, but it couldn’t have been good, because there were no objections, only a question from General leading the meeting: “What seems to be the problem, Colonel?”
“I’ll need a doctor to confirm,” Sam said, “but I believe I’m having a heart attack.”
For a moment everyone in the room was still. Perhaps, Sam thought, he should clutch his chest and collapse into his chair.
Fortunately, his assistant, Lieutenant Walters, leaped up from her seat against the wall and moved to steady him. “I think you better sit down, sir,” she said. “I should make a call.”
“Probably wise,” Sam said as the lightheadedness grew. He eased himself down, hardly aware of the rest of the room finally unfreezing. Being military men, instead of milling about or all leaping to ask what he needed, they quickly cleared the room, sending someone to meet the ambulance and leaving one Singaporean lieutenant behind in case translations were needed while Walters spoke to emergency services on the phone in the corner of the room.
Sam closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing evenly and staying calm. After some time, Walters touched him gently on the arm.
“Is there someone I should call?” she asked when he opened his eyes, phone still to her ear, the cord stretched out behind her.
“John,” Sam said, and stopped, startled. He hadn’t even thought about it.
“John?” Walters frowned.
Walters had been his assistant for almost a year. She knew the names of his sister and his niece and nephew and his doctor and god knows how many other people who might have been appropriate to call, but she’d joined him after John had gotten him out of Afghanistan. The monastery didn’t have a phone, so she’d never taken a message from John, and she wasn’t the type to eye Sam’s personal mail even casually.
“John Rambo,” Sam explained. “He’s…” How the hell to quantify what John was to him? There was too much between them, and too little time before the paramedics would arrive. “He’s a friend. He lives in a monastery outside of Bangkok. They don’t have a phone, though, you might have some trouble there.”
Walters still looked puzzled, but didn’t waste time on her curiosity. “What should I tell him, sir?”
“Tell him…” Sam paused, closed his eyes and focused on breathing through the increasing tightness in his chest. “Tell him I want to see him again, and I don’t know that I’ll have another chance.”
Mary Walters gave herself exactly one minute, after the paramedics arrived and took Colonel Trautman away on a gurney, to internally panic.
The Colonel was an excellent commanding officer and an excellent boss (the two roles were not the same, no matter what her mother thought) and that bit about ‘I don’t know that I’ll have another chance’ had brought home the fact that he could die in a way that his calm announcement hadn’t. Somehow it was worse to think that that could happen in a conference room in a friendly nation than on a mission.
When her minute was up, Mary took a slow, deep breath and asked the Singaporean lieutenant still standing by to drive her to the hospital.
At the hospital, Mary fielded a barrage of questions about the Colonel, most of which she fortunately could answer after eleven months as his assistant and with access to the unclassified portion of his personnel file. When they let her go, she asked for the use of a phone and set about locating one John Rambo, of a monastery outside Bangkok, no other details provided.
Since his name sounded American, her first call was to the U.S. Embassy in Thailand. Happily, they knew exactly who she was looking for. All they could give her was the name of the monastery, but that was more than she’d had before.
It took her two hours, a hell of a lot of phone calls, and a translator, but Mary finally managed to leave a message with someone who swore they could get a runner up to the monastery to find Rambo and get him to come down and call her back. By then the Colonel was in surgery.
Whoever had promised that runner turned out to be a very good man, because the reception desk called Mary up to take a phone call barely an hour later.
The first thing John Rambo said to her was, “Why the hell am I calling a hospital for Lieutenant Walters about Colonel Trautman?”
“The Colonel’s had a heart attack,” Mary said bluntly. She paused, but there was no swearing, no alarmed questions, just echoing silence. “He said to tell you that he wants to see you again, and he doesn’t know that he’ll have another chance.”
“I’ll be there in five hours.”
There was a click on the line. It took Mary a minute to realize that Rambo had hung up. No questions about the Colonel’s current status, or when this had happened, or anything else. Just an ETA.
Mary honestly didn’t know what to expect from John Rambo. Living in a monastery gave one impression, his brusqueness on the phone entirely another. She didn’t even know how he and the Colonel knew one another. She found herself watching the hospital entrance, wondering every time a white man came through the doors if that was Rambo and then reminding herself that there was no guarantee he was white.
When he did arrive, there was no uncertainty--Mary knew it was him even before he caught her eye and strode across the room. He was incredibly muscular, with a square jaw and strong features. He walked into the room like he was expecting a fight, and she didn’t think that was just the circumstances. It was obvious how he’d met the Colonel, too. Despite the jeans and work boots and the worn linen shirt he wore, despite the long hair, everything about Rambo screamed ‘veteran’.
“Lieutenant Walters?” he said when he was in reasonable speaking distance.
Mary stood and nodded. “Yes. You’re John Rambo?”
“Yeah.” Rambo looked past her for a second, as if he could see through the walls and find Colonel Trautman with a glance. He looked back at her. “The Colonel?”
“He’s out of surgery and recovering in the ICU,” Mary said, figuring Rambo wouldn’t want the background just yet. “I checked in on him briefly; he was up from the anesthesia but not really alert. The doctors say everything went smoothly and the prognosis is good.”
Mary couldn’t be totally sure, but she thought Rambo’s shoulders relaxed a hair. “Can I see him?”
“Of course. I’ll show you the way.”
Rambo nodded, so Mary turned and led him through the hospital to the room where the Colonel was resting. As something of a VIP, the Colonel was in a private room. Rambo paused at the door for a long moment. Looking in over his shoulder, Mary was glad all over again for the steady beep of the heart monitor. Laid out against the stark hospital sheets, IV and oxygen in place, the Colonel looked fragile in a way that just seemed wrong.
Rambo finally stepped into the room and pulled the chair up to the Colonel’s bedside and settled into it. Mary pulled the door shut, but found herself a seat in the hall outside instead of going back to reception, in case Rambo emerged and wanted more answers.
John sat in the chair and looked at Trautman and found himself surprisingly glad that Trautman was still sleeping. It gave him a minute to get his head together.
He’d been at the monastery for almost five years and in all that time no one had ever sent a runner for him before. Even when Trautman came to find him for the Afghanistan mission, he came in person--calling ahead was that much of a pain in the ass for everyone. So when he got to the phone and Walters dropped ‘the Colonel’ and ‘heart attack’ in the same sentence, he’d been certain for a moment that Trautman was already dead.
The intensity of his relief at hearing that he wasn’t--yet, at least--had thrown John into a place where everything seemed surreal, like none of this could really be happening. After everything they’d been through, Trautman couldn’t die of a heart attack. It was Delmar all over again, except that finding out it had been ‘Nam that killed Delmar after all had crystallized that brief surreal moment into awful reality.
Trautman wasn’t dead, but looking at him laid out on stark hospital sheets was making it hard to climb out of the surreal place. John needed to get out of that place, though, because Trautman was the one who had the heart attack, so Trautman was the one who would need support when he woke up.
Dragging his chair closer to the bed, John slowly reached up and curled his hand around Trautman’s wrist, finding his pulse with his fingertips. As reassuring as the beep of the heart monitor was--and it was reassuring--there was something even more calming about the steady thump of Trautman’s heartbeat against his fingers.
John sat and thought while he waited for Trautman to wake.
Eventually, Trautman stirred, then groaned softly and stilled before his eyes opened. The cracked sternum had to hurt, no matter how good the painkillers were. John didn’t move his hand. When Trautman’s eyes focused, they quickly found John and despite everything, he smiled. John could feel more of the tension ease out of his shoulders at the sight.
“John,” Trautman said, his voice a little weak, but not as bad as John had feared. “You got here fast.”
“I wasn’t that far away,” John replied.
Trautman hummed, but didn’t voice any argument. “If I had to have a heart attack, I’m glad I had it here instead of Stateside. Is that strange?”
“Yeah,” John said.
Trautman let out of a puff of air that might have been a laugh if his sternum wasn’t in two pieces. “I love my sister,” he said. “But if I’m going to go, I want to be with someone who really knows me.” He stopped there, but John suspected that, like him, there weren’t many people left who knew Trautman the way he meant.
“You’re not going anywhere just yet,” John told him. “According to Walters, the doctors say everything went smoothly and the prognosis is good.”
“That’s good,” Trautman said, but his eyelids were sagging, the words distracted.
“You go ahead and rest, sir,” John told him.
Trautman’s eyes closed again, but he turned his hand under John’s and tangled their fingers together.
He was quiet and still for so long that John was sure he’d fallen asleep again. John stayed, regardless, not ready to give up the reassurance of seeing him or the warmth of his touch. He looked down at their interlaced fingers. Maybe it was time to make some changes. To take a chance.
“John.” John jerked his gaze up to Trautman’s, startled. “I’m glad you could come.” For a moment, John thought they were going to repeat the same conversation--it took awhile for the brain to sort itself out after general anesthetic. But then Trautman went on. “Even assuming I come through this, I doubt I’ll be able to make it back to Thailand for awhile. If ever.”
It wasn’t just the recovery time, John knew. The military sent Trautman into the area to run missions. He and John usually managed to tack a brief visit onto the end of them. A heart attack would take him out of combat permanently. No missions, no visits. He could travel as a tourist, of course, but that was a much more complicated prospect.
“That doesn’t matter,” John said. “I’m coming back with you.”
Trautman frowned. “I don’t want a nursemaid.”
“Good, because I’d be shit at it.” Privately, John was hoping Trautman’s sister would have that part covered.
“Then why leave your life here?” Trautman asked.
‘Here’ was Singapore, not Thailand, but John got the idea. “What life?” he said. “The monks are good men, but they’re not friends. I trade them labor for room and board. I threw everything I owned in a bag when I left, and no one even stopped to ask me if I was coming back. All I’ve been doing is getting by. Killing time.”
“John…” Trautman sounded like he wanted to argue, but they both knew it was true.
John made himself look Trautman in the eye. “You’re the most important person in the world to me, you know that?” Trautman looked surprised, but he didn’t dispute it. Maybe he was just surprised that John had said it out loud. “When Walters told me you’d had a heart attack, for a second I thought you were already dead.” Trautman started to speak, but John pushed on, cutting him off. “And you know what I thought? I thought, ‘After everything we’ve been through, he can’t go like this.’ And I thought, ‘It’s Delmar all over again.’” John dropped his gaze, looking at their tangled hands. “The most important person in the world to me, and at the end, it was still all about ‘Nam.”
“Well,” Trautman offered quietly. “It was… formative.”
“Yeah.” John nodded and looked up again. “It’s important. It’s always gonna be a part of me, you were right about that. But it’s not everything I am. It’s not everything you are, either. And when one of us goes, I don’t want the other one thinking about ‘Nam at the end. I want more than that. For both of us.”
Trautman looked down at their hands. Slowly, he stroked his thumb across John’s skin. “I want more, too.” John let out a breath, relieved. Trautman closed his eyes again, but John knew he wasn’t sleeping this time. “As a first step,” he said, “you’re going to have to start calling me Sam.”
Just thinking about calling Trautman by name made John’s heart race, as much with anxiety as with anticipation. Trautman had made the offer before, of course, but it had always felt dangerous. John hadn’t been willing to risk uncapping his own control without more signs that it would be welcome. But the last few hours had changed everything. He nodded. “Sam.”
Sam opened his eyes at that, and the way he smiled told John that he’d been right to worry about what he might give away, using his name. It was okay, though. Sam’s expression gave away just as much.