Leo watched the roiling grey clouds move overhead and clenched his hands on the steering wheel of the small rental car, savoring the ache of his bruised and torn knuckles. His world, or what was left of it, seemed poised to tumble down around his head but he couldn't find it in him to regret beating the crap out of Barker. The bigoted asshole deserved it, or worse, for what he'd said about Terry.
Nausea rose in his throat and he fought it back. He would not puke in the parking lot at Arlington, dammit. He'd come here to pay his respects and he would do his goddamned duty and do it right. It was the least he could do for his fellow soldier, his fire team mate, his best friend -- the man who'd given his life for those of the rest of the squad. After two tours in Iraq, less than three months before they were done with this last tour, all Hell had cut loose in a rain of blood, shrapnel and shards of bone during what should have been a routine op.
One by one, he forced his fingers to uncurl and release from the steering wheel. He wiped his sweaty palms on the stiff denim of his new jeans and took a few deep breaths to steady himself before he cracked the car door open. The heat of the mid-summer Virginia day rushed into the car, quickly overwhelming the chill of the air-conditioned interior. The humidity made it a lot harder to breathe than the dry heat of the Middle East, even though it was actually cooler here. He was glad he'd decided not to wear his Class As or a suit. Just the long-sleeve dress shirt would be hot enough.
The smells were different, too. Gone were the rancid odors of the desert, the base, the machinery, the local livestock and even his fellow infantrymen. Instead, his lungs filled with the scent of new-mown grass and the tang of the nearby river.
Leo climbed out of the car and quietly shut the door behind him. It seemed disrespectful to slam the car door in this place. The car locked and double-checked, he threw his shoulders back and began the long walk to talk to Terry.
The ingrained walking cadence mindlessly carried him forward and allowed him far too much time to think. To remember. He passed other people but carefully avoided looking at them. What could he say? What would they say? He couldn't deal with other people right now-- hell, he wasn't sure he could deal with himself right now.
The weight of those he walked among almost overwhelmed him. The true meaning of freedom and its cost exposed through the acres and acres of graves that stretched over the grounds of Arlington. Each one paid a heavy price-- some by choice, some not. What would they think of what he'd done? Of what he was? Of the lies he'd told to be allowed to continue his service to the country he loved?
All too quickly, he reached the round brass marker of Section 60. He stepped carefully between the ranks of the graves, treading as lightly as he could among the fallen, taking care to not tread on the ground they'd earned all rights to. In the next to last row, he spotted the name he sought.
"Terrence Ray Olson." His whisper was the last straw and he fell to his knees in the soft grass next to the grave. The white marble marker made it so final. His gut churned again at the memory of the last time he saw Terry, bloody and torn apart by the IED he'd thrown himself on top of. Leo had rushed to Terry's aid but when he'd flipped him over to start field first aid, his friend's head nearly fell off. The explosion had almost decapitated him. He'd been dead before Leo or anyone could help him.
Bitter bile filled his mouth as he fought back the renewed urge to puke.
"I'm sorry, Terry." His voice strengthened a bit. "You saved us all and I couldn't do a damned thing for you."
He rubbed his hands on his legs again. He kept feeling the blood coating them, no matter how long it had been or how often he'd scrubbed them.
The tombstone was gleamingly new, stark white with precise black letters spelling out Terry's information, including the medals he'd been posthumously awarded. So few words to encapsulate a life. Part of a life, anyway. The part the military recognized. A few small items sat atop the marble stone but he didn't give them much more than a passing glance.
"I made a big mistake, man, and I think I'm in deep shit now."
He settled down cross-legged in the grass by Terry and bowed his head to speak quietly to where he imagined Terry might hear him. "Barker is such a fucker. He got assigned to our fire team, on entry, after you were... killed. Shithead couldn't see a haji if he was wearing neon robes and dancing in the middle of the road waving an AK-47."
He plucked a few blades of longish grass near his knee and tore them slowly to bits. The scabs on his knuckles pulled with the motion. "He can't even do his damned job. Instead he spends all his time hating on everyone else. I kept trying to just do what I've always done--stick to doing my job and ignoring Barker whenever I can. The man would make a much better FOBBIT. At least there he wouldn't be as much of a liability."
Leo tossed the shredded grass to the side and plucked some more. "He keeps going on about fags and queers. On and on and on. When we got home, I went out for a drink with the squad before we all went on R&R and someone told him you were gay. I don't know who, though. When he started talking about how you deserved to die for being a fag, I lost it."
He caught himself picking at the scabs on his knuckles and forced himself to stop. He didn't need some sort of infection on top of everything else.
"I jumped him, Terry. Went right over two other guys and started swinging. I don't remember a lot about the fight itself, just that Barker fights like a fucking girl. Star and Helling pulled me off him and I remember asking him how it felt to have the crap beat out of him by a fucking fag." Leo sighed and shook his head. How stupid could he have been? His entire career in exchange for a brief moment of vengeance?
"There's no way he won't report it, Terry. No way in Hell."
A huge hand seemed to grab a hold of his chest and crush it. What was he going to do? It wasn't as if some of the squad didn't know he and Terry were gay. It had just never been an issue. They put on a good show of being straight, everyone else made a show of believing it, and they all did their damned jobs.
Memories flooded through him of the two tours they'd shared and their friendship. Funny moments, scary moments, even nights on a pass when they were unable to sleep and instead shared their tales of home, growing up gay and how they coped with the Army regulations. Each moment seemed to replay itself.
"Excuse me? Sir? Excuse me." His head jerked up at the sound of a quiet voice. A thin, sad-looking woman stood on the other side of Terry's grave, looking at him with swollen, red eyes and a tentative smile. "The cemetery closes at seven and it's 6:30. I didn't want you to be interrupted by the guards instead."
"Thank you." His voice choked up and he cleared his throat to try again. "Thank you. I'll wrap it up for today."
The woman nodded and caressed Terry's cold, polished headstone with one trembling hand. "I'm sorry for your loss. For all our losses." She turned and slowly walked away, shoulders slumped with the weight of her own grief.
Leo knelt and ran his fingers gently over Terry's name. "I miss you, bud. Thank you for what you did. You saved my life, you saved all our lives." Tears welled up in his eyes, despite his best efforts to hold them back. "I brought you something."
Coming to his feet, he examined the items on top of the headstone. A small pile of ordinary grey and brown pebbles gathered on one side, flanked by two glass pebbles, obviously arranged just so. But next to those was a set of rubber-edged dog tags, facedown on the marble and still on their chain. Curious, he flipped them over and saw they belonged to a Skinner, William R., USMC. The social security number had been carefully cut out of the tags but they were worn and dinged up. They'd seen use.
He gently placed them back as he'd found them and reached into his pocket for the challenge coin he'd brought for Terry. The heavy brass disk had the Army Emblem on one side and the crossed rifles of the Infantry on the other. He'd carried it with him since he'd decided to enlist as a teenager, just out of high school, but after Terry died he'd bought another for himself so he could give his friend this one. The one that carried so many memories.
Caressing the enameled coin one more time, he set it on top of the headstone to join the other tokens. "I forsake not my country, my mission, my comrades, my sacred duty...." His voice choked out the last few words. Unable to continue, he snapped a salute toward the headstone and turned to make his way back to his car.