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Improper Service

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Moving quietly from the cockpit after talking to the pilot, she trailed her hand down the side of the closest recliner’s backrest and lightly patted Bryce’s shoulder. He’d been so exhausted that he’d fallen asleep through takeoff. His slight snore didn’t break stride; then again, he was used to sleeping sitting up. Reclining back, feet up, was probably a luxury for the guy.

Lara chose the small sofa near the rear of the rented luxury jet. She wanted to be left alone, so she faced the back of the plane, her back against the armrest, and drew her feet up into a cross-legged position, arranging a couple of cushions against the plush back to lean into. Several minutes passed, and even though she was in no frame to sleep, she tensed with mild resentment as she heard footsteps move her way and felt the pressure of someone sitting at the other end. She knew the footfall, felt the weight of the body impacting the sofa; even recognized the soap wafting on the slight breeze of the man’s movement (though only a faint scent now, after so long through the jungles and only a cursory airport-bathroom shower and quick change of clothes). She kept her eyes closed. “I don’t wish to have a conversation.”

Silence. She heard the whisper of pages, a shift as he most likely crossed a leg over the other knee, and decided to let it go – for now. He wouldn’t stay quiet forever; he hadn’t left his overstuffed recliner to move back here just to finish his book. Lara recrossed her arms over her chest and concentrated on willing herself into a nap, but after several more minutes, knew it was fruitless – for one thing, she kept waiting for the familiar throat-clearing and intake of air before he spoke. For another, she never slept well when she was being watched.

Cracking an eye, she watched him read in all absorption, apparently oblivious to her presence. That’s a load of bullshit, she thought. Her resentment grew, piggybacked on the residual anger and sadness Sheridan’s ruthlessness and death – and just the cascade of disasters of this whole cocked-up expedition – had created. Before she could modulate her tone, she hissed, “What do you want?”

Hillary continued reading, presumably to the end of a paragraph, then looked over. Instead of addressing the question, he looked past her down the aisle, then lifted his chin toward Bryce. “Nothing interrupts his forty winks, does it?”

“I’m really not in the mood-”

“It would seem to me you are in quite a mood, yes.” His tone wasn’t accusatory, just matter-of-fact. “I only wanted to see if I could offer some assistance.”

She finished opening the one eye. Just the one. “You can’t fix what I’ve done on this one, Hillary.”

“I wasn’t suggesting it’s even possible,” he answered, putting the book on the sofa between them. It was a subtle indicator that he’d give her space even if she talked. “And considering I don’t know what you’ve done, I couldn’t offer.”

“You don’t fight very well,” she grumbled.

“As I’ve said before, Lara, if you’re angry at someone else, do not take it out on me.” She could tell he was only half-serious; she regularly groused at him enough that he knew he’d get to hear plenty that wasn’t his doing. “So – what are you angry about, specifically?”

Finally, there it was – he’d taken a longer route to his point, but she’d known it was coming. The small extension of time all that conversing had bought had been enough for her personal resentment against Hillary to fizzle out. Why she still felt resistant puzzled her, since she’d certainly discussed more intimate matters with the man, having known him nearly half her life. “You can’t repair this,” she repeated, eyes defocused on the sofa back, mind occupied.

He shifted subtly, angling his crossed knees more toward her and putting an arm up along the back of the sofa. “It is in my job description to offer.” She glanced at him, noting the half-smile that occasionally accompanied his more droll observations. “How does that saying go? The difficult, we do immediately; the impossible-”

“Takes a little longer,” she finished, feeling one corner of her mouth lifting despite her. Hillary was the first one she’d ever heard that from; it was something he’d calmly pointed out one day when she was about sixteen, practicing dancing in the library with her friend, Colleen; she’d kept stepping on the outsides of poor Col’s feet, and the girl had finally limped away for tea, making the sign of the cross against Lara, to her butler’s amusement. “I should’ve known you’d say that.”

“And I should have the bloody thing finally carved above the front entrance of Croft Manor.” He eyed her thoughtfully; she looked away. “What did Sheridan do?”

Well, right to the candy center, isn’t he? Then again, he had advised her against arguing for Terry’s release in the first place. Come to think of it, MI6 hadn’t put up much resistance against the idea; she wondered if someone placed rather highly had hoped things would go south for him, sparing the government the further indignity of housing a turncoat. Perhaps Lara was simply an unwitting hired assassin. “What I told him not to,” she answered simply.

The quietly powerful sound of jet engines filled the next couple of minutes. “Then again,” she added, bitterly, “I knew he couldn’t follow orders. But why he had to pick that particular-” His last words still made her uneasy and angry, and she swallowed, feeling like a real fool, something she generally prided herself on avoiding. She shut her eyes and inhaled sharply, running off the moisture that wanted to spring up behind her eyelids. “I was an idiot for thinking he might’ve changed at all; how could I have expected more than he gave the people he was in fucking combat with?”

Just when she thought she might have to excuse herself and leave, Hillary spoke. “He did change some, Lara. When he showed up looking for you, he could’ve stuck to the shadows, found your group and gone right to the box. He didn’t have to free us first.” He paused. “And the man certainly didn’t need one of us to pretend to know how to fly.”

At that, she opened her eyes and shifted to look over her shoulder at Bryce, still slumped back sleeping, the earbuds probably still delivering a feed of techno-funk into his brain. “I have no idea how you got into a helicopter with him,” she said, turning back toward Hillary.

“I have no idea how he got it or kept it in the air. I’ve blocked it out and intend to never think on it again.” He briefly eyed the other man, then shook his head at Lara. “You could argue, I suppose, that Sheridan needed someone to keep the copter in the air since there was nowhere practical to land. But I think he’d have found a way around that without us. He helped us for you.”

“He turned on his own troops.” For years she’d excused Terry’s actions, tried to think he’d had a reason for it other than rank selfishness, even as she’d known well enough that he was guilty that she hadn’t tried to speak on his behalf before she needed him on a dangerous expedition. “He helped us for money and a ticket out of the stockade.” She shook her head. “No honor at all. I was right to leave him in Hong Kong, and I should’ve better made sure he couldn’t follow me.”

He cleared his throat. “Lara – he’s not the only one who’s ever been dishonorably discharged.”

She looked up; now it was Hillary’s turn to fix his eyes elsewhere, something she’d almost never seen him do. She hadn’t seen him look that uncomfortable in years. He’d even gotten used to her occasional attempts to shock him with some bit of nudity, his expression usually indicating he was suffering the antics of a stubborn child. “I know,” she said, simply.

That seemed to surprise him, but only briefly. “Of course,” he said, obviously remembering she’d served her own short stint in the service, not to mention she was well-placed enough to access his records.

“That was different, though. Friendly fire … well, it, it happens.” She knew no self-respecting soldier of any stripe easily accepted causing the death of his own comrades. But it was a fact of life, and they both knew it. “It can’t be on your record as anything but dishonorable,” she pointed out. “But Terry’s not like you. I saw the aftermath of what he did; I was there. It wasn’t a mistake.”

“Neither was mine.”

She sat up straighter. He hadn’t whispered it or stuttered. The words were clear as day. “Hillary?”

He shifted forward again, fingers laced together on his knee. He didn’t look at her. “Apparently even your clearance doesn’t extend to the full details of my file.” She watched his jaw work, the teeth grinding beneath the skin. She was about to prod him when he sighed – and continued.

“Roth was our lieutenant; he was fast, capable, knew strategy, followed orders. In other words, highly valuable. The man could sense trouble miles away; it’s like he smelled it, and he was never wrong. We all admired him a great deal, even those of us who didn’t think we were all that impressionable.” He paused to smile at that, and Lara realized to a man of forty-two, himself nearly twenty years younger would likely now seem to be a kid. “We followed him into various circles of hell. For the longest time I never wondered how much was just there, and how much he manufactured in his effort to ‘get the job done.’” His voice dropped into a lower register as though he were quoting someone, and she saw his hands clench one another harder.

“The first time, he fired into a dark room; we didn’t even see a weapon in sight. Said it was in our packet, that we’d be better safe than sorry. Three of ours were in there – with children. And an old man.” As the story wore on, his pauses became more staccato, his knuckles whitening with punishing squeezes. “It was overlooked. So were the next two times – one of those, I know for a fact he clearly saw the marine he shot. It was an American … the man had criticized him two days earlier, for a previous ‘friendly fire’ shooting.”

Probably realizing his hands couldn’t handle what he was doing to them, he unclasped them, looking down at them; Lara’s eyes traveled down his line of sight and studied the half-curled fingers, very still now. “I finally reported him. I entered a structure to recon; he and three others had been inside beyond the allotted time.” Lara recognized he was slipping into the dispassionate recounting of service documents. His reasons for distancing himself soon became apparent. “Roth … he was forcing one of the others, at gunpoint, to-” He swallowed, then cleared his throat. “To violate a teenage girl. In front of her mother.” She watched as those fingers drew into fists, and looked back up to see an eye narrow in profile and the nostril flare. “He tried to order me to participate. I told him I’d shoot myself, or him, first,” he muttered, a growl underlying the words.

Lara said nothing, but realized her mouth was open. Even her muscles were tensed.

Hillary unballed his fists and carefully placed both hands palms down on his knee. His jaw worked once or twice, and then he visibly calmed. “Then, I made up having spotted an enemy advance, we retreated, and when we were back at the base, I reported him. He was questioned, but nothing was done. And, I knew I was dead.”

“They didn’t believe you.” She said it very quietly, almost loath to speak, but he wasn’t giving those details on his own. “Didn’t anyone else-”

“I had a good record. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe me. As I told you – he was highly valuable.” He snorted. “More than some wet-behind-the-ears subordinate officer-in-training.”

She could see where this was going. “So you shot him.”

“So I shot the son of a bitch,” he agreed, eyes still in his hands. “I used one of his own tricks against him; I … turned out to be no better than he was.”

“Did the board know?”

It got him to look at her, and he actually laughed. “A marine reports his senior officer for rape and murdering his own, and then just happens to accidentally shoot him four times? Yes, Lara, they knew.” He’d never used such a snide tone with her. “They knew, and I’m damn lucky they didn’t send me to prison. Sheridan probably would’ve ended up bunking with me, they by all rights should’ve kept me in there so long.”

She cocked her head. “If you’re telling the truth-” His eyes widened in affront, and she shook her head, waving it away. “I don’t mean it like that. I’m saying, if you told them the truth, how this really happened, that’s probably why you weren’t imprisoned.” She thought back to her suspicions about MI6 releasing Terry into her recognizance. “In fact, you might have done them a favor, fixing a problem they were unwilling to.”

The lines of his face were less tense, and his voice modulated back to its normal tone as he put both feet down and leaned forward, forearms on his thighs. “I have considered that,” he admitted. “It does not make what I did any less reprehensible.”

She slid her legs off the front of the sofa and scooted closer, stopping when her leg brushed the book and putting a hand on the back of his shoulder. “Aunt Henry once told me that Daddy said the only way to judge yourself was to honestly say if you’d do something the same way given a second chance.” She squeezed her fingers lightly into shoulder muscle. “What would you do now?”

“Knowing everything I do now?” He didn’t hesitate. “I’d club him in the head that first time. Or give him a dischargeable wound. Might’ve saved some more lives.”

“Yes, Hills.” She slid her hand over, resting her arm behind his neck. “That’s what you did, it sounds like.” She sighed. “If the point of this story was that you’re somehow like Terry, you might as well hang that up. His crimes were not remotely like yours.” She squeezed his upper arm with her other hand. “However, I appreciate the honesty. But it hasn’t changed my opinion of you – just so you know.” He looked at her, sideways. “You’re not getting out of this household that easily.”

He grinned briefly. “Nothing else has worked in thirteen years,” he quipped. His eyes were still troubled, though.

“Speaking of which …” She withdrew her arm, but didn’t move away, now leaning forward on her own legs, matching his pose. “You didn’t put up a big fight when they kidnapped you and Bryce.” She had noticed while Hillary was disheveled when they were delivered to her, neither had visible injuries.

“Would’ve been a little difficult, two against six, with no weapons.” He looked past her, down at their sleeping geek, with a wry expression. “Well, one and a half.”

Lara chuckled, turning to look at Bryce as well. “Good,” she said, turning back. “There’s no need to bring unnecessary injury to yourself, after all.”

“Hmm.” He wrinkled his forehead in mock deep thought. “I wonder what wise elder taught you that?”

“‘Elder’ being key, I think.”

He didn’t rise to the gibe. Instead, he said, quite seriously, “You’re not an idiot, Lara. That was the point. I learned from my mistakes, and found another chance because of your aunt, and you. You gave Sheridan a chance, too … and, from what happened, it sounds like he very nearly earned it.”

“That box …” She looked up into his eyes. “I can understand why he did it. Maybe that bothers me. It glowed, Hillary. Literally. I mean, I could feel something was inside, some terrible, or maybe wonderful, power.” She gestured, cupping her hands as if holding it still. “Where does something like that come from? Who made it? What’s in there? I could’ve found all that out, perhaps.”

“Or, perhaps, you could have ended up dead and bringing the seven plagues down on us all.” He sat up straight. “That seems to me the most likely outcome.”

She leaned back into a sofa cushion. “If I knew how to write properly, I could pen a tome about it.” She laughed, trying to dispel the unnerving effect that glow still had on her, and shake off the regret of having done nothing. Lara Croft was not good at not doing. “Maybe I will anyway. At any rate, you and Bryce are getting vacation when we get back.”

“Hazard pay was what I was going to request, actually.” She glanced at Hillary. “I do have two children going to university next year.”

She snorted, and he gave her a quizzical look. “Hillary! You’ve invested for that already. I know you have. You save everything. You’re so tight, you squeak.” When he looked affronted, she shook her head. “Don’t do that. You and all your equally squeaky mates go to the pub on half-off night. No matter what a lady friend orders when you’re out with her, you get the chicken or a salad; it’s the least expensive dinner on any menu.”

She’d rarely seen Hillary blush. “How do you-”

“Now that’s insulting.” She narrowed her eyes. “How do I find out anything?”

He started to shake his head, confused, and then understanding dawned. He looked again toward Bryce. “You have him spy on me?”

“That’s not strictly true. I have you spy on each other.”

“But he never does anything.”

“Then consider yourself fortunate that your job isn’t more difficult than it already is,” she reasoned. “Besides, that might be changing soon. You were napping on the way to the airport, so you didn’t hear Ace over there going on about that chopper and how he’s going to take real lessons when we get back.”

“Dear lord,” Hillary murmured. “I really will have the worst job off the continent.”

“Not entirely,” she corrected him, raising her right hand. “You’re not the one who has to give him the lessons.”