Chance didn't bother to turn on the lights. Instead, he took comfort in the relative darkness of his latest scammed apartment, the only illumination the city lights fifteen stories below him. Staring out at that million dollar view from an overstuffed leather chair, he took a sip of the owner's scotch. Like everything else the man had, it was expensive, excellent and being used by a fugitive, who at the moment didn't care if he was drinking Auchentoshan 16 or bottom shelf Jack Daniels.
A soft knock interrupted the silence. Chance didn't bother saying anything. He could tell by the pattern, it was Fletcher. Not that Fletcher was the type to knock. He just went where he wanted and apologized as needed. Some would say it was a gift. Chance would not. Not tonight.
Nonetheless, Chance knew it had only been a courtesy to let him know that he wasn't alone. He didn't bother answering or even moving other than a quick flick of his eyes in Fletcher's direction. A moment later the lanky pilot was inviting himself closer.
The quiet held as Fletcher pushed his hands into his pockets and moved to the window. Chance was content to let the stillness linger, weighed down by heavy thoughts too complicated to sort through, too sticky to shake loose. And the silence would disappear soon enough. Fletcher had interrupted Chance's brooding for a reason. But until then, Chance wasn't fishing.
A benign blandishment, as such things went, the better for Chance not needing to answer.
"How come you're sitting, sans company, in the dark?"
And there was the question.
Chance took another sip of scotch, savored the burn. Let it roll on his tongue, tumbling around like his thoughts, before swallowing. "Seemed fitting."
Just the way he wanted it. It was easier to hide the ugliness in the dark.
With the cloak of darkness, he could pretend those things he worked so hard to ignore had never existed. Could wrap himself in the comforting buffer of shadow and refocus on the finer things in life – like the company of beautiful, pinup-caliber women and sleek cars. Change the perspective, jazz it up a little.
As distorted and fraudulent as it may be (and he could admit to both, here, now), his good old friend Denial had always had his back. It let him believe that he was choosing to live the life of a carefree, dashing rogue, instead of attempting to deal with the fact he and his team were forced into a life on the run; the country they had fought, bled and killed for having betrayed them, branding them traitors.
But every once in a while the pretty pictures weren't enough and, just like everything and everyone else always had, Denial left him to fend for himself. No safety net to keep him from falling, no farewells, no well wishes to see him on the other side. Then it was just him and that striking, clear, hard, and inescapable reality.
"You looking to forget something or trying to remember?"
Hell, he almost spilled his drink as Fletcher's voice cut through to him again. How had he forgotten he wasn't alone in this room? He'd asked Chance a question though, one that people didn't ask. Okay, one that most people didn't ask. But then again, Fletcher wasn't most people. And not just because Fletcher actually gave a damn about Chance's answer.
A large, vocal part of Chance wanted nothing to do with this discussion. It wanted him to hide until Denial returned from where ever it had gone and wrapped itself around him like a warm blanket again. But after all they had been through – the raw, painful memories that, even now, he couldn't get near- Fletcher was one of the few people who had earned more than that voice wanted to allow. And the sincerity that Fletcher was asking with was one of several reasons why this was one of those rare times when lying wasn't an option for Chance.
He hated that.
"Neither," he finally answered. But the truth wasn't that simple; it never was. "Both."
He shook his head, closing his eyes as he tried to figure out the difference. There were so many things Chance had never imagined, never wanted to struggle through, never wanted to be. And yet somehow, they defined him now. Even if, in the midst of the charades, the high-end liquor, the thousand dollar suits, he never had to think of it. Almost never.
"Just trying to remember that core, Fletcher. It feels like it's getting lost."
"This helping? Being alone?"
"Even when I'm in a room full of people, I'm alone." Chance let out a sardonic laugh. "Come on, Fletcher. You know that."
Thomas Reid, William Stoll, and all of the hundreds of other men Chance had been at one point or another; they were personas. They were tools of his trade and his nature that allowed him that freedom he craved so badly. They were exactly and only what he needed, wanted, to portray at any given time.
But they weren't him; they were nowhere even close to him. Chance made damn sure of that. And ninety percent of the time he savored the distance his charades provided— the complete dissolution of feelings other than what fit the con, what he could control.
"I don't know what it's like to be you, Chance, but I know you're not alone."
When Chance finally pulled his eyes up to Fletcher again, his thoughts came to a stop as those deep brown eyes bore right through him. Fletcher had always been able to do that and damned if Chance knew how.
"Even when you're in the empty darkness, drinking someone else's scotch."
How could Fletcher know that?
Chance held that gaze. Something inside of him refused to back away from the exposure it brought. Maybe because it was Fletcher, because it wasn't giving the man anything he didn't already have, earned years ago on hands and knees with bloodshed and tears.
"There are days when I don't even know myself, Fletcher." And if he didn't know who he was, there wasn't a chance in hell that anyone else did, either.
But Fletcher had never been one to waver. "We change." A simple shrug of his shoulders and Chance's problems had been solved. "Keeping up with that can be a full-time job."
Chance cocked a dismissive brow, taking another drink to try to find that distance where none of it mattered. "I think I missed a few changes along the way." Hell, there wasn't enough booze in this entire apartment to make this go away. The ice slid up the glass and onto his lips as he drained the last of the scotch. Hell, why not? He had the whole bottle, may as well make use of it. "I'm sure they were great ones. After all, they made me a better person and whatnot."
"What chapters are you missing?" Must have been the damn scotch's fault, but for a minute he had forgotten Fletcher was impervious to sarcasm.
"I don't know, Fletcher." Chance waved his hands around the room, the ice in the glass clinking loudly at the sudden, jarring movement. "You tell me."
There was only a fraction of a second's pause from Fletcher. "I figure you lost a few chapters on when and why the things that matter to you changed, and how to deal with that."
Chance blinked. For some reason, he hadn't been expecting an actual answer. Not that he should have been surprised, Fletcher had never been one to back down or scare away easily – or at all. But still, the fact that he had answered, and isolated things right back to Chance— that core he felt he'd lost, the why of it. All Chance had ever wanted to do was not feel. Damien Chelser was a powerful investment broker who had more money than brains. There wasn't a problem in the world that throwing some cash at it couldn't fix. Luke Nickelson was a real estate broker who specialized in multimillion-dollar contracts. He traveled the world and when things started to get sticky, he simply left.
All of which was the direct opposite of what Fletcher was implying. That things mattered. That, even worse, they mattered to Chance. "That's the trick, Fletcher. Nothing matters and I don't care."
"That's a lie, and we both know it." Fletcher just smiled as Chance sat back in the chair, letting out a long breath, as though he'd just been hit in the gut and deflated. "If that was true," Fletcher continued, "you wouldn't be here and you wouldn't be talking to me."
Chance dropped his eyes away from that sad and gentle smile. And away from that truth which was staring at him. Bad enough Denial had left for the evening. Fletcher just had to bring the party favors, Truth and Valor. Those things that had somehow managed to define him and terrify him at the same time, and which he didn't have a hope in hell of explaining. Sure, he knew what they were well enough. But applying them to him, they got mixed up with all those little half-truths that made up his life and feelings he didn't want to name. With even the syllables floating around his head, taunting and out of reach, they didn't have a chance in hell of making it to fully formed sentences.
Shaking his head just a bit, he glanced back up to Fletcher. Wasn't the scotch supposed to be making this easier?
Must not have drunk enough. Hell, why not pour some more? He had the rest of the bottle to work himself through and maybe by the time the bottom of it wound up in his glass, he'd find some clarity. Or maybe he just wouldn't give a damn anymore and he'd be able to get some sleep.
"Don't worry too much about explaining it to me, Chance." Fletcher was looking up at that dark night sky, longing in his voice – as though if you simply wanted something bad enough, your dreams would lead you there.
If only that were true.
"I don't need to understand. You're the one who has to figure out how to go from the person you thought you were, to the person you need to be." He sighed as he looked back at Chance, that quiet knowledge radiating off of him like an old monk. "Harder still, you gotta figure out the difference."
Chance shot Fletcher a sideways glance, jaw clenching just slightly under the scrutiny. "I don't even know who I thought I was to figure out that difference."
He let out an unamused laugh, low in the back of his throat, shaking his head. It was like having two blank pieces of paper that were supposed to comprise a map to his life. Only it didn't have a starting point and there was no end in sight. Without the beginning, there was never going to be an end.
He needed another drink.
"Ahh." He smiled over to Fletcher with false cheeriness as he raised that glass. "Cheers." God that burning felt good. It took his mind off of everything he wanted no part, so he drank down the glass and refilled it again. Case and point: Kincaide Z. Malone was not supposed to drink in large quantities, and yet here he was, trying to drink away everything he was- or was it everything Chance wasn't? He had played these games so long even he got lost. Of course, he didn't have that damn map to guide him, either.
"Well, if you don't know, then it makes things a little easier."
Now Fletcher was just trying to be contrary.
The lanky pilot pushed himself off the window and walked over to the bottle. "You just have to figure out who you want to be and who you need to be."
Chance found himself frowning as he watched Fletcher do something he hadn't seen him to in years: pour himself a drink. "You know ya shouldn't drink."
"And you shouldn't sulk and feel bad."
It was just another fact in Fletcher's world. Unstable mental health medications and liquid depressant ala Auchentoshan, be damned. Fletcher raised his glass and took a sip, smiling slowly. "Cheers."
Chance watched as Fletcher wandered around the room, stopping at the bookshelves that held no books. Instead, they were home to a vast collection of bits and pieces that passed for object d'art. Some would even consider them rarities. Most would simply smile and nod as though they truly did appreciate the hidden beauty in those pieces.
Fletcher was not one of those people. Instead, Chance watched as he toyed with the expensive trinkets, trading one in for another as he meandered along the shelves.
Curiosity and maybe too much Scotch got the best of Chance and he pushed himself up, swaying, and catching his step as the alcohol hit him. He frowned. That was not supposed to happen. At the very least, swaying jeopardized the still full glass in his hand. Alcohol's most transparent moment was when you finally decided to do things, like stand up, and found a much greater challenge than expected.
Chance managed to cross the room to Fletcher without incident. He didn't even spill his drink, and that was just plain impressive.
Fletcher grinned at him as he held up what had to be one of the world's ugliest bowls and turned it over in his hands. "Do you think they made it look like this on purpose?"
"Either way, I bet they sold it like that on purpose."
"If they did, I bet it's this hideous so us unsophisticated types would be left scratching our heads."
"I'm sure the art review said something 'bout symbolism." Chance slurred and took a deep steadying breath, forcing his lips to cooperate with his tongue in the effort to form words. Fletcher was changing the subject and Chance did not want to miss that opportunity. "Unrefined human spirits or somethin'."
"That does sound better than over-priced, expensive shit that looks an awful lot like what happens to a bug when it hits your windshield at eighty miles per hour." Fletcher gave the pottery a long, pensive look. "I'd be doing beauty a favor if I broke it."
Chance raised a brow questioningly, leaning his weight on the shelf as he nursed the scotch and waited to see what Fletcher's verdict would be. There wouldn't be any stopping him if he decided to go to bat for the betterment of humanity. Chance was far too drunk for that. Finally, with a deep seeded and regretful sigh, Fletcher put the bowl back on the shelf and moved on to the large oil painting on the far side of the wall.
Chance narrowed his eyes at the painting that Fletcher was scrutinizing, forcing them to focus on the moderately splotchy work that passed as red carpet, premier, fine 'art'. It would be a black tie affair, with women in thousand dollar dresses and champagne that flowed freely. Alexander Vanderbelt would have appreciated the art. Hell, he had a twill jacket with elbow patches and black-rimmed glasses that said he appreciated all of it. And— Chance smiled— he loved red carpet schmoozing.
"Kinda looks like the time we hit that water buffalo with the Deuce and a half, don't it, Chance?"
"Is that your inner art reviewer or your fondness for furthering other's psyches?"
"Neither," Fletcher answered without a doubt. "It's my bullshit detector. Finely honed and always on. Take this, for example." Fletcher held up a small statue that looked like a mushroom with a nose piercing. "An art critic would tell you this is a primitive work celebrating male fertility and the earth mother. But my bullshit detector says, nope! That's just play-dough with a stick in it." Fletcher put the piece back, another fine piece of Americana saved from his clutches. "Chuck's done better work in art therapy and the man eats paint."
Chance chuckled. "Imagine what that would produce."
"I don't have to, I've seen it." Fletcher shivered dramatically and drained his glass, set it down then grinned. "And it was still nicer than that painting."
Fletcher had never been one to buy into the latest craze. But he sure understood them all too well. Chance took a deep breath, glass in hand, waving a semi-circle around the whole place as he pursed his lips, puffing out his cheeks. "Everything, Fletcher, everything in this place, me included, is a crock. Chance value and not a damn thing more."
Before he could blink or do anything to stop him, Fletcher had taken the drink from Chance's hand and drained it. Damn him.
"Nope, you're wrong, Chance. You're worth everything and this place is only worth what the market will bear." The world according to Fletcher. Actually, that was the world according to Fletcher stolen from Chance. How the hell did he do that?
"Mmm..." Chance gave him a skeptical look but didn't push it. "You remember in Afghanistan, that time we missed our ride back to base because of those Navy boys?" He hadn't thought about it in a long time, but he did now, leaning his shoulder on the shelving (no reason to support himself when there was a perfectly good wall here to do it for him, after all), and a smile pulled at his mouth as he pictured those assholes coming in just as Chance and Fletcher were gathering up their stuff to go, throwing around accusations of a fixed basketball game.
That had been a good fight, not least because they'd won it. Fun and pulse-pounding, and capped off with them sliding into base in the squids' hot-wired jeep, just in time to race into the TOC, winded and bruised, and avoid Wolf's wrath – veritable pictures of their best behavior. Chance scoffed. As if Chief had ever had reason to doubt.
"I remember the big one had a glass jaw." Fletcher's face lit into a massive grin. "And Wolf was so happy we made it back, he even pretended to buy our lies."
"Well, who wouldn't?" Chance had carefully crafted a well strung series of very believable events designed to lead any listener to believe they should be receiving the Medal of Valor just for making it to the briefing on time. They had overcome insurmountable odds, after all.
Chance couldn't help but chuckle. Wolf had played along, with that mocking, enthusiastic smile as he critiqued, agreed, and called complete bullshit on them all at the same time.
"If I remember correctly, the naval commander didn't seem to. Of course, the fact that his unit's jeep somehow ended up in our base's motor-pool didn't help."
"Ah, yes. Captain Pluto. He was a real charmer." Big and bull-headed, giant anchor on his forearm and everything. "He didn't seem to appreciate the instructive drawing you left for them on the dash though."
"You know me, Chance, I've always been the helpful sort."
"And so modest, too."
"I know!" Fletcher turned back towards the small table that held the bottle of sixteen year old scotch. "Hard to believe he would want me up on charges just for offering some helpful hints on how his men could pull their heads out of their asses."
Chance watched as Fletcher filled the glass that was formerly Chance's and took a deep sip. Part of him wanted more of that booze. His heavy eyelids and numb fingers argued against that idea, however. And walking back over there... that just seemed like too much work.
"All things considered, he should have been thanking you, Fletcher. Course, Wolf's getting their jeep back, complete with Dex's improvements and his offering to make sure we never exchange more than MRE's may have helped soothe him."
"Hah! That and the fact that they knew we could kick their sorry squid asses!"
A warm laugh bubbled out as Chance slipped his hands into his pockets. Wolf had run interference for them . . . not really a lot, but—"You know, all the shit we pulled and he never once threatened to pull my anchors."
"Or my wings."
For some reason, that Chance had never been able to figure out, no matter what they had done and how outright they had deserved it, Wolf had never pulled that card on them. He ran them through obstacle courses. He put them on kitchen duty or worse. He found evil new ways to make them regret ever making whatever fool decision had led them to the colonel's devious focus. But he never put them down. Wolf didn't demote his men.
Even when they almost certainly deserved it.
It was almost like Wolf felt their rank wasn't his to take away. Like those three months getting his head drilled straight had conveyed something more than a shiny bit of metal, more than that sense of responsibility and brotherhood they represented. Without him even realizing it, that golden fouled anchor had come to define him as much as Fletcher's wings had defined the pilot. It was almost unbelievable to think he'd once been a strung out kid with no reason to live.
Would it have made a difference, he wondered, if he'd known their importance before the military had stripped them, like Fletcher had?
"We worked too hard for them and they meant too much to us." Fletcher's voice was as far away as Chance's thoughts, but that didn't stop the jolt that passed through Chance at his words. Fletcher never had understood the difference between thoughts that were meant to stay private and ones that were safe to say out loud.
Actually, scratch that, he did know. He just never seemed to care with Chance
"Ironic that we both lost them anyway."
The pain buried deep in that quiet statement wasn't hidden from Chance. Whatever identity Chance had tied up in those anchors, it didn't touch what Fletcher felt. Fletcher was a pilot, always had been. And to be a pilot, you had to have wings. End of story.
It was one of those truths they all knew, but no one ever dared to voice. No matter what.
Chance's chest pulled tight against his deep breath. He rubbed at it absently, "Sometimes I think those anchors would have lost meaning stateside." Then he'd just have been pushing paper, running errands, helping command soldiers who never really cared and who came and went on a whim. "Your wings – flying, it wouldn't be the same running some cargo ship or performing stunts to impress the upper brass."
"Yeah," Fletcher sighed, his smile tight. "You're probably right."
Chance stilled and dropped his eyes. As if it made any difference to Fletcher why he was flying as long as he was. As if Fletcher would admit how much his wings meant.
He wasn't expecting Fletcher to suddenly look up at him with wide eyes, searching, only not Chance this time.
"You ever notice how he still calls you Chief and me Captain? That's never changed to him. No matter what." There was a hint of light in Fletcher's eyes that Chance hadn't seen in far too long. "The military may have taken that from us, but Wolf hasn't."
Chance couldn't help but smile. "Especially when he wants me to do something I'd rather not." Like return money that arguably wasn't his. His eyes drifted down to the marble floor as his voice dropped. "You know, I still have my anchors. The Coast Guard may have stripped me of any rank or ownership…" He paused for a moment, but the alcohol had made his tongue loser than he was accustomed to. "But they can't have those."
"Those anchors are yours and no one else's. You did all the work; don't matter if you're Tom or Albert or Chester." Fletcher was watching Chance intently as he continued. "That kid who had every reason to run, to be something easier, something safer, but didn't. That kid who busted his ass and never complained about it. Who came all the way to hell and back and bled for us. That is who you were and who you are. That's what matters. This?" He made a large sweeping gesture of the room. "Is nothing but window dressing."
It was probably the alcohol, but Chance found he couldn't deny the truth of that. It was too . . . too something dangerously close to right. And it had to be the alcohol, that warm feeling in the pit of his stomach, but he made a snap decision anyway and went with it. "Are you okay to drive?"
Fletcher cocked a lopsided grin at Chance. The one that was all so many people ever saw in him as he stated the obvious. "I'm a wayward mental patient who's been mixing psychotropic drugs and alcohol. I'm thinking maybe driving is off the table."
Fletcher shrugged as his smiled turned down a bit, mistaking Chance's intent. "It's a nice night for a walk." He tossed back the rest of the drink and set his glass down on the table. "I'll go; you should probably get some sleep anyway."
Chance smiled and pulled his hand out of his pocket, waving dismissively at Fletcher. He wasn't about to let him slip away to wallow either. Or meander down the streets of LA intoxicated. Wolf would have a field day with that.
"Nah, I wanna go to the apartment on 47th." It was a shit hole that even the rats stayed out of, but it was safe. Chance had buried that trail so deep that no one would find it. Ever. So it was where he kept the few things in his life that mattered.
Chance almost laughed at Fletcher's expression. It was priceless. His head was tilted as he blinked in confusion like an owl. It wasn't something Chance saw a lot of.
"Umm, okay. You wanna get a cab or hoof it?"
"Unless the cabbie will take bug splatter artwork for payment, we're gonna have to hoof it."
That goofy grin was back. There was no way that Fletcher could have any damn clue why Chance suddenly wanted to drag him to the wrong side of town in the middle of the night, and he clearly didn't care. He was along for the ride, up for fun and ready to watch Chance's back. Just like old times.
"Let's get a move on then."
With that, they headed for the door. Drunk and uncoordinated, Chance's shoulder bumped up against Fletcher's more than once in an attempt to correct his balance. But there was something he had to show Fletcher. Something that no one else knew he had. It was the recovery of a drunken impulse and it was only fitting that he returned it in the same state.