Retired Gunnery Sergeant Emily Hunter sighed as she limped out onto the balcony and leant on the railing, gazing out over the busy city. Only nine months ago, she'd been in the thick of the action, standing tall beside her CO and taking down the Taliban. Now though, she was stuck in her small apartment, forced to watch the world go by as she wondered how her life had gone so wrong.
'From hero to zero in moments, what a way to go. Wouldn't be so fuckin' bad if I could remember how the hell it happened.' she uttered, digging her cigarettes out of her pocket and lighting one before turning and limping back inside.
Sinking onto the couch, she gently unwound the support bandage around her left calf and set it aside. Gently easing the dressings off, she looked at the horrid scar on the back of her leg and sighed, still trying to remember what had happened on that fateful day. Nothing ever changed though. One minute she was at the shoulder of her Lieutenant, the next, she was being carried to a medivac by another Sergeant. Growling softly, she opened the drawer in the coffee table and pulled out a fresh gauze pack, laying it over the gap and tucking it in a little before wrapping her leg up tight again.
'One day I'll find out what happened.' she muttered, easing to her feet again and hobbling into the kitchen. She grabbed a couple beers and returned to the couch to watch some TV and while away the day like always.
She was almost asleep when someone came knocking. Groaning softly, she sat up and grabbed her cane from beside the couch and eased to her feet, leaning heavily on the carved timber as she stood.
'Who is it?' she called, getting her balance and heading for the door.
'It's Shane, I need a favour Emily.' came the reply and Emily smiled. Shane Schofield was one of the few Marines who still took the time to come and see her.
'Just a moment Shane, you know how it is for this old Marine.' Emily nodded, making her way down the corridor and leaning against the wall before opening the door.
Shane looked like hell, streaked in dirt and grime but he still managed a smile as Emily opened the door and invited him inside. Grinning faintly, he picked up a well worn duffle and entered.
'What brings you to my humble home at this time of night Shane?' she asked, wobbling for a moment until Mother reached out and stabilised her. 'And you as well Mother.'
'Like I said Emily, I need a favour. Do you remember that Bounty Hunt that I told you about?' Shane sighed, glancing over his shoulder as Mother led a stranger through the door.
'Yeah, I remember. What's that got to do with bringing a stranger into my home?' Emily nodded, eyeing this new man critically.
He looked like hell, scars all over his exposed skin and eyes hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses. Running down one arm, she could see a tattoo but due to the angle, couldn't read what it said or what it depicted. He was painfully thin, shuffling along beside Mother and taking full advantage of her strength. Another large scar ran down his face, across his right cheek until it rolled off his jaw. Hundreds of small burn scars decorated his skin, telling a painful tale in more detail than words ever could. Among the scars, she could pick out some that were surgical but out of context, these scars couldn't tell her anything. The limp did tell her something though but she didn't like the information. Just below the line of his glasses, a line of horribly puckered scar tissue had her hesitating but she brushed her fear aside and tried to relax, knowing the full story would come out eventually.
'This is the man that saved my life. I know he doesn't look like a fearsome man now but back then, he was a man the world feared. He's hit a rough patch and needs a little help to get back on his feet.' Shane explained, moving aside so Mother could lower the man onto the couch.
'So why bring him to me? I'm having enough trouble as it is.' Emily sighed, not taking her eyes off this man as he slumped on the couch, one hand locked around Mother's wrist.
'You're the only one I trust with this Emily. After all Aloysius has done for me, I can't just throw him out in the cold. I've pulled what strings I could but that didn't do a lot more than had already been done. You don't have to shoulder the bills alone, the US Army is paying his pension and any medical bills associated with his injuries, just as the Corps is doing for you.' Shane offered, holding out a thick file.
'Let's say I do agree, just what am I getting into here?' Emily sighed, dropping the folder onto the coffee table and sinking into one of the armchairs.
'I may not be able to see you but I can hear you just fine.' Aloysius growled, still clinging to Mother's wrist as he sat up a little straighter.
'Somebody tell me what's going on before I throw all three of ya outta here.' Emily sighed, looking around the group slowly.
'We got shot down somewhere over Russia. I managed to get out but Rufus…he was still in the plane when it crashed. I was eventually captured by the Russians but no one said anything about having found a pilot or heard about one being caught. I don't know how long I was tormented and tortured until the Americans finally came to my rescue.' Aloysius explained, sagging back against the cushions and hanging his head.
'We're still trying to locate Rufus but the Russians are being particularly tight-lipped about him. Mother, Book II and I are heading back to Moscow tomorrow to help with the search. So what'd ya say Emily, will you take Aloysius in and help him get back on his feet?' Shane added, walking over to perch on the arm of the couch, right hand resting on Aloysius' shoulder lightly.
'I've got no place else to go Emily. It's this or government run accommodation.' Aloysius uttered, looking as though the wrong word could destroy him.
Hanging her head, Emily thought it over for a few minutes before getting to her feet and walking over to perch on the coffee table.
'I know what it's like to feel like you've got no one who cares about you. I'll take care of you now, it'll be okay. It may not be the Ritz but you're welcome here.' she offered, reaching out and lightly touching his arms. There was a moment of hesitation before Aloysius finally let go of Mother and grasped Emily's hands firmly.
'Don't let go Emily, please don't let me go.' he uttered, trembling slightly as he held on to his last refuge. 'I've got nowhere else to go.'
'Never Aloysius, I'll take care of you. You're safe with me, I promise you that.' Emily nodded, slowly drawing his left hand up to her cheek.
'Thank you.' he replied, managing a faint smile as he traced his fingers over her face lightly. Emily stayed perfectly still as those scarred fingers stroked over her features, right hand coming up to join the examination.
Lowering his hands slowly, Aloysius nodded and relaxed, a little more comfortable now that he had a mental picture of the woman he was living with.
'You've got such soft skin. You must be beautiful.' he whispered, taking her hand again.
'Hardly. I did my time in hell and paid the price for doing so. I've got hundreds of scars and a limp that has everyone running scared.' Emily sighed, reaching up to lightly touch his cheek. Aloysius hissed and pulled back, his posture screaming fear. 'I have a lot to learn about you, don't I?'
'He's been like that ever since we rescued him. It took weeks of work before we could get this close.' Mother uttered, slowly reaching out to lay her hand on Aloysius' shoulder gently.
'Can you blame me? After everything that I've endured.' Aloysius asked, fumbling around for a moment until he caught Emily's hand again.
'No, not at all. It's okay; we'll take this at your pace.' Emily replied, free hand resting on his knee softly. 'I'm here, you'll never be alone again.'
'I just keep thinking…it'll happen again.' Aloysius confessed, hanging his head and shuddering.
'I'll protect you, no matter what. No one will ever hurt you again. Can I get you anything to drink?' Emily soothed, careful not to force the issue with Aloysius.
'Coffee would be nice, white and two.' Aloysius nodded, left foot shifting in search of his bag.
'I'll get it Aloysius.' Shane offered, reaching down and grabbing the duffle he'd brought in with then. Opening the bag, he fished around until he found a well loved mess cup. Checking it was clean; he handed it to Aloysius and put the bag down.
'I see you came prepared.' Emily grinned, taking the offered mug.
'If I drop it, it's not so important. I don't want to break anything of yours.' Aloysius nodded, cheeks flushed in faint embarrassment.
'I won't hear of such things. We all have little accidents, its part of life. You'll be treated no different from anyone else I know, okay.' Emily sighed, putting the tin cup down and hobbling into the kitchen. 'it's never easy coming back from a serious injury, I know.'
'Thank you.' Aloysius called after her, already feeling more confident about things.
'As much as we'd love to stick around Emily, we gotta get going.' Shane sighed, getting to his feet.
'Yeah, figured that was going to happen. We'll be okay, you two get on back to base.' Emily replied, glancing over her shoulder at the pair.
'Thanks again for this Em. We'll check in from time to time just to make sure you're alright.' Mother added, squeezing Aloysius' shoulder before heading for the door.
'Thanks for everything Shane, you too Mother.' Aloysius nodded, not moving from his spot on the couch as the two serving Marines left.
Limping back to the couch, Emily set the coffees down on the table and sat, moving her cane out of the way quickly.
'Even if you do drop this, it's okay. I'm not going to get angry; it takes time to get back after an injury.' Emily nodded, picking up the old white mug and gently pressing it into Aloysius' hands.
'It's nice to finally be treated like a real human again. Those doctors were treating me like some kind of freak.' Aloysius confessed, sipping his coffee slowly.
'No one deserves that. You're not a freak, just a little rough around the edges.' Emily replied, slowly reaching over and letting her fingers trace over the tattoo on his arm. Sighing softly, Aloysius shifted his grip on the mug and rolled his arm over to reveal the tattoo he wore. Tilting her head to the side, Emily read the name Rufus and nodded before her eyes were drawn to the unusual jet just under his elbow. With forward swept wings and a dark paint scheme, it was a fearsome plane.
'This is the plane you were shot down in?' Emily asked, tracing the wings of the plane.
'Yeah, that's the Black Raven. Rufus loved that plane more than anything else in the world.' Aloysius nodded, fighting back the urge to move away from the gentle touch on his skin.
'I'm sorry, it's not my place.' Emily uttered, removing her hand and settling back.
Trying to hide a yawn, Aloysius fumbled around for a moment then put his coffee mug down on the table before settling back against the cushions.
'Come on, bed time I think. You've had a big day.' Emily grinned, gently taking his hand.
'Yeah, sounds like a plan. I'm beat.' Aloysius nodded, allowing Emily to ease him to his feet before guiding him down the corridor.
'I have no doubt of that. If you need anything, just holler, I'm a light sleeper.' Emily replied, easing him down onto the bed.
'I'd rather not be alone at all but I understand.' Aloysius sighed, feeling around for the pillow.
'You can share the main bed if you want. There's enough room for two, it's a king size.' Emily offered, sitting beside him.
'I'd like that. I don't like being alone, especially in new places.' Aloysius grinned faintly, reaching out and finding Emily's hand. 'it's too much of a reminder of what happened.'
'I can understand that. Come on; let's get you tucked up in bed.' Emily soothed, easing him up and back down to the main bedroom.
Pulling the covers back with one hand, Emily guided Aloysius around and settled him on the edge of the bed before walking around and turning on the bedside lamp. Shuffling onto the bed a bit more, Aloysius reached down and unlaced his boots before kicking them off.
'Thanks for this Emily.' he uttered, working at his shirt buttons.
'You don't have to keep thanking me Aloysius. I'm just doing what no one would do for me after I got shot.' Emily grinned, changing into her pyjamas quickly.
'Would you go get my bag please? I don't like not knowing where it is.' Aloysius asked, slipping his shirt off and dropping it down with his boots.
'Sure, be right back.' Emily replied, padding through the apartment and grabbing the open bag from where Shane had left it.
Returning to the main bedroom, Emily smiled as she watched Aloysius sleep, clothes in a neat pile beside the bed. Biting back a gasp of horror, Emily finally saw the damage done and understood why Shane had felt she was the only one that could be trusted. She put the bag down beside the door and climbed into bed, flicking the lamp out before getting comfortable.
'Goodnight Aloysius sleep well.' she muttered, snuggling down and closing her eyes.
'Night Emily.' Aloysius mumbled, rolling over and reaching out to lightly touch her wrist.
Snapping awake, Emily sat up and looked at her shaken companion as he battled with horrors known only to him. He was drenched in sweat, mumbling about Russians and their torture techniques.
'please no…I didn't see anything…no, please no.' he muttered, head tossing back and forth on the pillow as he fought whatever was going on in his mind.
'Oh god, say it isn't so.' Emily whispered; horrified by the thought he'd been awake through so much torment and pain.
Bolting upright, Aloysius let out a blood curdling scream and whipped his head around, almost as though scanning the room for danger.
'Easy Aloysius, I'm here. Shhh, you're safe now, it was just a dream. I'm going to touch you, don't hit me please.' Emily soothed, giving him a moment to think about her words before she shuffled over and wrapped him up in a tight hug.
'Emily? Don't let me fall, please, don't ever let me go.' Aloysius gasped, clinging to her desperately.
'I'm here, nothing could tear me away. Shhh, you're okay, it was just a dream. I've got you and I'll never let you fall.' Emily soothed, stroking his sweaty hair softly as they sat there.
'It was so painful, I'll never forget that day. They took everything from me but kept wanting more.' Aloysius choked, fingers tightening in Emily's shirt.
'Talk to me, let me share your pain. I won't pretend to understand what you've been through but it's not good for you to hold all that pain inside with no release.' Emily sighed, reaching back and turning on the bedside lamp.
'I don't know what they wanted from me, I told them everything. It didn't matter though; they still decided I had to pay for a crime I don't even know about. Look at me, all of this is because of them. Knives, cigarettes, baseball bats…hot pokers.' the last words were barely audible as he hid his face away against Emily's throat.
'They…burned your eyes out. Oh, that's a new level of low if ever I heard one.' Emily sighed, shuddering at the mere thought of what Aloysius had gone through.
'New level of pain too. It was absolute agony; I've never gone through anything like that before.' Aloysius nodded, lifting his head so Emily could see the damage. Where his eyes should have been, there was now nothing more than thick burn scarring, eyelids burned away and ragged flesh neatly sown closed to protect whatever was left inside.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, Emily reached out and lightly traced her thumb over the horrid burn scars where his eyes once had been.
'I wish there was something I could do or say but it all seems so hollow in light of all you've been through.' she sighed, cupping his cheek lightly.
'You're already doing something good. You're the first person to get this close and not show the smallest trace of fear, horror or disgust. Even Shane did, though he tried to hide it. That's why I don't let people see, I don't want pity or anything like that. I just want to get on with my life, or at least what's left of my life.' Aloysius replied, laying his head on Emily's shoulder again.
'I don't pity you Aloysius, I applaud you for having the courage to get up and keep going. Most people I know who get hurt like us just give up. I admit I did too. I haven't left this apartment since leaving the Corps.' Emily grinned, shuffling around to lean against the headboard before coaxing Aloysius back in against her side.
'Well maybe we can both learn and grow. I know I already am changing, I haven't let anyone this close since I was rescued.' Aloysius nodded, throwing one arm around Emily's waist and getting comfortable.
'Sleep Aloysius, I'll guard your rest. No one will hurt you anymore.' Emily promised, stroking his hair softly as Aloysius relaxed and snuggled closer. Reaching out, Emily turned off the lamp and settled, arms locked around her only true companion as he slid back into the realm of dreams.