Watchtower, Pt. 3

by Liz

Paul and Annie walked in to the cacophony of the cabin. Caroline was in the kitchen sorting lunch, Jim was regaling Peter and Kelly with stories in the great room, Kermit was the bartender, while Steadman and Ryker sat back and drank in the family experience. Both men were bachelors with no close relatives.

"What are you drinking, Annie, Paul?" Kermit asked.

"White wine for me, Kermit," Annie said, standing to the side.

"Scotch, please," Paul replied.

Paul guided Annie to the edge of the kitchen counter, facing her to the great room, and in a quiet voice began to explain subtle changes in the furniture since the last time she had been there.

"Here you go," Kermit said, handing them their glasses.

Paul skilfully guided Annie to the couch in front of the fire. He stood and listened to his brother talk.

Kermit looked up at Paul and noticed a nervous tic beginning. He would put his right hand to his left shoulder and rub his fingers on his sweater. This was something he started doing in Vietnam to dry his fingers before taking a shot. Kermit walked into the great room casually and stood in eyesight of Jim, trying to catch his attention. As soon as Kermit got near Paul, he understood. Suddenly, Paul brushed by him, walked to the kitchen and left the cabin. Jim stood quickly as did Matthew and Andrew.

"What happened?" Andrew asked.

"What did you say to him?" Matthew demanded.

"It wasn't Jim. It was Peter." Kermit said, softly.

"What? What did I do?" Peter asked, standing.

Annie stood too, reaching for her son.

"Did you go to Fragrant Garden before you came up here?" Kermit asked.

Annie leaned into her son and sniffed.

"Yeah, but, what did I do?" Peter asked, looking at everyone, not comprehending.

"You set off a memory, sweetheart." Annie said, putting her hand on his arm, gently.

Kermit walked to the closet and grabbed his coat and Paul's, as well as a flashlight.

"You want me to go with you?" Jim asked, following him to the door.

"Nah, he's going to be embarrassed enough, anyway. Don't wait lunch for us. Send the kids back if we're too late. But, Jim, keep Annie here. Paul needs her just as much as he needs us." Kermit said.

"You're right, I know. I hope we have enough scotch for the rest of the day." Jim joked.

"See you soon." Kermit said, as he left the cabin.

Jim turned and took a deep breath to try to answer his nephew's questions. Kermit followed the footprints in the snow, walking as fast as he could, remembering that there were several more inches on the way and the flakes were getting bigger. Paul didn't have much of a head start, but then, he knew where he was going. Kermit found him at the lake sitting on a bench, shaking from the cold.

He walked up slowly and put the down parka over Paul's shoulders. Paul turned around quickly, the coat falling onto the snow. He looked at Kermit without recognition.

"Paul? It's me, Kermit." Kermit said, softly.

Paul stood and walked backwards away from Kermit, his hands in the air.

"Paul? It's me, Kermit. Come with me, please; it's snowing and it's cold. You'll get sick without your coat." Kermit said, holding his ground.

Paul continued to back away until a large tree stopped his progress. Kermit stood, not moving, staring casually back at him. Suddenly Paul slid to a crouch in the snow, his hand brushing back his hair.

"Ah, man, I'm sorry," Paul said, his breath hanging in the air.

"It's all cool. What was it that set you off?" Kermit asked, walking towards him.

"Peter smelled of mung bean, fish sauce, and that Thai basil, which was on everything." Paul said, quietly.

"Yeah, he went to Fragrant Garden this morning." Kermit said.

"He didn't know." Paul said.

"No, he didn't. What did you remember?" Kermit asked, gently.

Paul looked up at him; his face darkened and he shook his head. He stood again and walked away. Kermit picked up Paul's parka and followed at a discreet distance, watching the shaking increase. Kermit smelled the smoke as Paul lit a cigarette and kept walking. Paul picked up the pace as they trudged through the snow following an existing trail. Kermit looked at his watch and noted it was just one o'clock, as he continued in Paul's wake.

Paul walked with his hands deeply dug into his trouser pockets. The thick wool sweater was covered in snow and he squinted, looking through the snowflakes and the cigarette smoke. He wore insulated ankle high Merrills, but the snow was up to his mid calf. He kept walking, following the path around the lake. It had been years since he had done it and this seemed as good a time as any. It was so quiet and clean. The only sound he heard were his footsteps, the only smell, his sweat through his sweater.

Kermit walked in Paul's footsteps. His parka was unzipped half way down and his hands were comfortable in its pockets. His boots were waterproof, but he could feel his toes getting cold. They continued to walk. When they reached the point opposite the cabin it was getting hard to see. The sun was low, the shadows were pale, and the snow continued. Paul stumbled to his knees twice and once tripped, falling face-first into the snow. Kermit hung back, hoping Paul would ask for his help, but knowing he would not.

Paul came to a stop when it became too dark to continue. He knew they were a good forty-five minutes from the cabin without bushwhacking through the snow.

"What's wrong?" Kermit asked, walking up to his side.

"It's too dark to walk any further. I'm trying to remember what shelter there is around here. I'm sorry, Kermit, I wasn't thinking." Paul said, turning to face him. Kermit saw the beginnings of a panic attack on Paul's face as the darkness increased around them.

"It's okay," Kermit said, turning on the flashlight and shining it at Paul's chest.

Paul smiled and visibly calmed down. The path was just wide enough for the two men to walk side by side without walking into each other. It wasn't easy going. The snow was almost up to Paul's knees. It was a heavy wet snow that made each step very difficult. An hour later they could smell the smoke from the fireplace and see the wan light from the porch. They trudged on and finally walked into the cabin.

Jim looked up from his work at the kitchen table when he heard the footfalls on the porch. Matthew and Andrew were playing cards in the great room while Annie was curled up on the sofa reading. The door opened and in walked Kermit and Paul.

"Hi," Jim said, standing up to walk over to them.

"Hi," Kermit replied, draping Paul's unused parka over a chair before removing his own.

The card players looked up and smiled to see their friends return and resumed their game. Annie put down her book and listened to the conversation, resisting the urge to go to Paul. Jim had told her that Paul still had some things to work out and she needed to give him space. Paul simply stood staring at his boots. The snow started to melt and large clumps fell off his sweater onto the floor.

"Paul, you need to go in and take a warm shower and get out of your wet clothes." Jim said, softly.

Paul nodded quietly and walked to the bedroom and shut the door. Kermit removed his wet boots and put them in the box by the door. He walked to the counter and made himself a large scotch. He took a sip and then walked to the front of the fireplace. Jim followed with his own glass of scotch.

"Did he say anything?" Jim asked.

"Not a word except to apologize for getting caught in the snow at dusk without a flashlight." Kermit replied.

"That must have thrown him," Matthew said, quietly.

"Yeah, he got a little anxious. You know, that's a big lake. What time is it?" Kermit asked, too tired to look at his watch.

"Quarter to six," Andrew replied.

"I don't hear the shower." Annie said, softly.

They listened to the quiet cabin and heard only the crackle of the fire.

"I'll go," Jim said, walking towards the bedroom.

"I guess, I'll fix dinner," Annie said, with a sigh.

"May I help you?" Kermit asked.

"Of course, thank you." Annie replied, offering her arm.

"We'll do the dishes." Matthew said, not looking up from the game.

"We will?" Andrew asked with a grin.

"Yes, we will." Matthew confirmed.

Jim opened the door of the bedroom and was surprised that there were no lights on. He shut the door behind him and waited quietly as his eyes became accustomed to the darkness. He took a tentative step forward and found Paul's boots. Jim crouched, picked them up and the socks he found nearby, and put them next to the wall, away from Annie's path. Standing quietly, he didn't move for five minutes and then he heard it; a faint moan from the far corner. Jim turned on the light by the bed and looked up. Paul was crouching on his haunches, bare feet flat on the floor, his head in his hands. Jim walked over to him and crouched as well.

"You're supposed to be in the shower." Jim said.

"Can't move," Paul whispered.

"What do you mean?" Jim asked, seeing for the first time how wet Paul was from his afternoon hike.

"Headache," Paul replied.

"Do you have your medication?" Jim continued.

"No, you kidnapped me, remember?" Paul joked, weakly.

"I'll be right back," Jim said, standing up.

He walked to the lamp, turned it off, and walked into the great room.

"Annie, did you by any chance bring his migraine meds?" Jim asked.

"Yes, I tucked them into my purse." Annie replied from the kitchen.

"Would you talk to him, please? He's sitting on the floor in the corner, one o'clock. Kermit, you need to help me get him up and out of those wet clothes." Jim instructed.

"What do you want us to do?" Matthew asked.

"Continue with dinner," Annie quipped over her shoulder.

Andrew looked at Matthew and sighed.

Annie opened the door and vectored to Paul, kneeling at his side. Kermit took off his dark glasses and turned on the bedside light. He found a set of pajamas and walked with Jim to Paul's side.

"Get me a glass of water, would you? It's almost too late for the medicine but I can try." Annie said, concerned.

Kermit walked quickly to the bathroom and returned with a cup of cold water. Annie helped Paul swallow his medicine and then held his hand. His eyes were closed and he was shivering.

"We need to get him out of those wet clothes." Jim advised.

Jim and Kermit picked Paul up and carried him to the bed. They stripped him, dried him, and dressed him in his pajamas. Annie pulled up a chair to the side of his bed to be near him. Jim pulled up the comforter to Paul's chin as he appeared to fall asleep.

"I need to stay with him for the next few hours or so. Would one of you give me another glass of water, this time in a plastic cup?" Annie asked.

"Sure, sweetheart," Jim said, walking to the bathroom.

"I better see how the guys are getting on with dinner," Kermit said.

"Oh, yeah," Annie said, with a small smile.

Kermit squeezed her shoulder, put on his glasses, and walked back into the great room. Jim walked in and put the cup of water on the bedside table.

"Ah, Annie, he looks so tired," Jim said, standing next to her.

She stood and embraced him, surprised by his emotions. She rubbed his back in large circles and felt him relax.

"I do love him so, Jim. It really hurts that he can't talk about it to me." Annie said, into his shoulder.

"I know you do. He's been that way all of his life. He internalizes everything to protect those around him. He is fiercely defensive of his loved ones. He'll get through this, I know he will, he just needs us to help him and he is unsure that that's okay." Jim explained.

"I'm glad you and the boys are here." Annie said, stepping back out of the embrace.

"They are boys, aren't they? Speaking of which, I should go check on them. Would you like something? Do you need anything?" Jim asked.

"A cup of tea would be wonderful." Annie replied.

"A cup of tea it is." Jim said, kissing her on her cheek.

She heard the door shut and reflected how similar her husband and brother-in-law were. Both intelligent, brave, and in many ways, sentimental. She smiled, and put her hand out to Paul, who moaned softly at her touch. He rolled onto his side away from her and whispered almost silently 'Bull Run'. Annie frowned and thought to ask Jim when he returned. Jim walked into the great room and rubbed his eyes gently. He looked up at the other three men, not knowing exactly what to say.

"Matthew, Annie would like a cup of tea, please." He asked.

"Of course," Matthew said, turning back to the stove.

"Kermit, what do you think has him upset?" Jim asked.

Kermit looked at Andrew who looked at Matthew who remained silent.

"Gentlemen, you have more to fear from not telling me than you have from anyone else for disclosing information." Jim said, in a low voice.

"Bull Run?" Andrew said, questioningly towards Matthew.

Matthew looked at him and nodded imperceptibly. Kermit sighed, and poured himself a drink.

"What was Bull Run?" Jim asked.

"Paul has to tell you. I will say this. Imagine the worst day in your life, bring your best friends, and multiply it by infinity and you may be close." Matthew said, pouring water for Annie's tea.

The fact that Matthew's hand was shaking did not go unnoticed by Jim or any of the team members. Matthew handed Jim a mug of Constant Comment tea. Jim picked up Annie's book from the couch and walked into the bedroom. Paul had started his first phase of the migraine; the unsettled sleep. Jim put her tea on the bedside table and handed her the book.

"I'd like to stay." Jim said, softly.

"I'd like that," Annie replied.

Jim pulled a chair up to hers and stretched out his legs. Together they watched Paul sleep. It was painful as he tossed and turned. He spoke in French and Vietnamese at different times but did not wake up. Clearly he was agitated but it didn't wake him, so Jim let him go.

"Bull Run," Paul said, clearly.

Jim sat up in his chair, suddenly alert. Paul started to breathe faster and then woke up. He swung his legs over the bed and looked at Annie and Jim. He started to speak but fell into paroxysms of coughing. Annie knelt in front of him.

"Jim, rub his back." Annie instructed.

"Paul, you have to relax. This is the medicine making you cough. You will be all right. Jimmy is here." Annie said.

At the mention of his brother's name, Paul opened his eyes and looked for him.

"Hey, little brother. Ya gotta take it easy; will you do that for me?" Jim asked.

Paul held onto the sheets in iron fists. The perspiration rolled down his face and mixed in with tears as he tried to slow down his breathing. He relaxed into Jim's back massage and started to hum. Jim smiled and looked up at Annie, who seemed confused.

"When he was little and scared, he would hum to feel better." Jim explained.

"Drink some water, Paul." Annie said.

Jim handed her the plastic glass and she helped Paul take a few sips. She handed the glass back to him. Paul shut his eyes and fell slowly back onto the pillows. Jim adjusted the sheets and rubbed Paul's chest slowly as he used to when they were children to calm his younger brother.

"I think he's down for a while. Your tea is on the bedside table. I'm afraid it might be cold, now. Would you like me to warm it up or, better yet, would you like to join the guys and me? " Jim suggested.

"I'll be out in a few minutes," Annie said.

"All right," Jim replied, leaning over to plant a kiss on her head.

Jim walked to the door and took one last look at Paul before leaving the room.

"How is he?" Kermit asked from the kitchen.

"He's asleep. It is Bull Run that he's worried about. He actually said the name out loud. Paul also spoke in French and Vietnamese before waking himself up." Jim replied, draining his remaining scotch before making a new one.

The silence was almost deafening. Jim looked first at Matthew, who stared at the floor, then Andrew, who was chopping onions, and finally rested on Kermit, who was stirring the ground beef for the spaghetti sauce.

"How's the sauce coming?" Annie asked, walking silently into the kitchen.

"Finishing browning the beef, Andrew is almost done with the onions, and then we need more direction." Kermit said, concentrating on the stove.

"Matthew, what are you doing?" Annie asked.

"I'm looking desperately for a job." Matthew admitted.

"I think the fire in the great room needs tending to." Annie said.

"I can do that," Matthew said, walking out to the great room.

"Andrew, would you put the pot of water on the stove?" Annie asked.

"Sure," Andrew said.

"And I shall open some wine." Jim said.

"Thank you, Jim. Would you make sure there's some sort of juice in the fridge for Paul? He's going to want some when he wakes up next." Annie said softly.

"Yes, I will." Jim said.

"Now, Kermit, let's get going on the sauce." Annie said, walking up behind him.

Forty-five minutes later, they sat down for dinner in the kitchen. Kermit had placed two Coleman lanterns on the table and then turned off the overhead lights. The conversations were quiet and full of reminiscences.

They were interrupted by a thud from the bedroom. Kermit stood quickly.

"Let me go," Kermit said, already half way to the bedroom.

He walked in and found Paul sitting on the floor. Shutting the door behind him, Kermit walked up to Paul and crouched next to him.

"Examining the carpet?" Kermit joked.

"Dizzy, hard to stand up," Paul said, softly.

"How's your headache?" Kermit asked.

"Still there. Are you real?" Paul asked, looking at him.

"Yeah, I'm real," Kermit replied with a smile.

"Where are your glasses?" Paul asked, closing his eyes and leaning his head against the bed.

"In my pocket. Just perfect lighting in here for me. We're eating by lantern in the kitchen. I'm a happy man. Are you thirsty? There's water here on the table for you." Kermit asked.

"Annie won't let me have water during a migraine. I need the sugar, so she gives me juice. Juice, please," Paul said, beginning to breathe hard against the pain.

"Okay, hang in there. I'll be right back." Kermit said.

"Can't move anyway." Paul whispered.

Kermit left the room and walked quickly to the fridge to get some juice.

"How is he?" Annie asked, fearfully.

"Your husband has discovered his legs are like rubber. I don't know what woke him up but his head still hurts and he's thirsty." Kermit said, pouring a rocks glass full with orange juice.

"Do you need help getting him back into bed?" Jim asked.

"I don't think so." Kermit said over his shoulder, walking back to the bedroom.

Kermit walked into the bedroom and shut the door behind him. He walked over and knelt in front of Paul.

"Hey, big guy. Here's your juice." Kermit said.

Paul opened his eyes and reached for the glass. Kermit kept his hand on the glass, helping him. Paul swallowed, closed his eyes, and leaned his head back again on the bed. Kermit stood up and put the glass on the bedside table.

"Okay, Paul, let me help you stand up so we can get you into bed." Kermit said, reaching to pull Paul to his feet.

Paul opened his eyes and looked up. He clasped Kermit's hands and felt himself being pulled upright. Immediately, Kermit put his arm around Paul's back and walked him to the bed. He helped him sit down then slid his legs under the sheets. Paul rolled onto his left side and fell asleep. Kermit walked out of the room, closing the door behind him, and rejoined the others.

They finished dinner and Jim, Kermit, and Annie walked into the great room while Andrew and Matthew did the dishes. It was warm and cozy by the fire and soon, Kermit was asleep. Jim sipped brandy, watching the fire, and Annie continued with her book. Half an hour later, Andrew and Matthew walked in with glasses of brandy and sat near the fire.

"I'm going to bed. I'll see you all tomorrow." Annie announced, standing.

The men stood as well, each kissing her on her cheek, before she walked into the bedroom. Jim looked down at Kermit, who was still asleep, stretched out on the floor in front of the fireplace. He pulled a throw blanket from the back of a chair and spread it over him.

"I'll sack out on the couch," Jim said, sitting down to take off his shoes.

"We'll see you tomorrow, then," Matthew said as he and Andrew took their brandies to bed.

"Good night," Jim said, stretching out on the couch.

"Good night," Andrew replied.
Paul woke up suddenly, he was shaking and perspiring, but he couldn't remember what he had been dreaming. He got out of bed and walked quietly to the door. He opened it and went into the great room, closing it softly behind him. The fire had burned low, but there was still warmth and a glow radiating from it.

Jim and Kermit both woke up at the sound of the door opening. Too many years of sleeping in dangerous places made both of them wary. Paul walked around the edge of the sofa and sat slowly in a chair near the fire. He seemed captivated by Kermit's still body on the floor. Quietly Kermit got to his feet and faced Paul. Paul launched himself at him, collapsing at his feet, sobbing noiselessly.

"I am so sorry, Kermit." Paul said, softly.

Kermit dropped to his knees and looked at Paul. Jim sat up, trying to follow the conversation.

"What's wrong Paul? Why are you sorry?" Kermit asked, reaching out to his shoulders.

"It's my fault," Paul said, tears still streaming down his cheeks.

Kermit looked at Jim and shrugged his shoulders. Paul sat back on his heels, his hands digging into Kermit's arms, his eyes full of sadness.

"What's your fault, Paul?" Kermit asked.

"I blinded you," Paul blurted out, removing his hands from Kermit and burying his face in them.

Kermit looked at Jim. Jim stood and walked over to Paul.

"Paul, what did you do yesterday?" Jim asked softly.

Paul stopped crying suddenly and looked up at Jim. His gaze hardened and his hands formed fists.

"My team got ambushed yesterday, Major. You should know, you ordered it." Paul said, getting to his feet quickly.

"Captain, you need to calm down." Jim said, holding his ground.

Kermit stood as well, unsure of what to do. Paul stared at Jim, his hands clenched at his sides; the muscles in his jaw were dancing. He was breathing heavily, standing in his pajamas, the top clinging to him, soaking wet. The only sounds in the cabin were the crackling fire, the snores from Andrew, and Paul's heavy breathing.

"Paul, let's head to your hootch and break open that bottle of scotch your brother sent you." Kermit suggested.

Paul looked at Kermit and blinked. He looked back at Jim and then looked at the fire. He reached out to steady himself as a wave of dizziness spread over his body.

"I gotcha, Paul. Have a seat," Kermit said, helping him sit down.

Jim walked into the kitchen and retrieved three glasses and the bottle of scotch. When he returned he poured the three glasses half full. Paul had his face in his hands, elbows resting on his knees.

"Paul, drink this," Jim said, handing him a glass.

Paul looked up and took the glass with shaking hands. He sipped it slowly and coughed. Jim rubbed his back and the coughing stopped. Kermit crouched by him and put his hand on his knee. Paul reached out with his right hand and covered it, still not able to look at either man.

"Man, I think I'm losin' it." Paul whispered.

Jim glanced at Kermit briefly.

"I think you need to sleep some more. It's two-thirty, do you want to sack out here or in the bedroom?" Jim asked.

"I need to be with Annie," Paul replied softly.

"Okay, well, you know where we are. " Jim said.

Kermit stood and helped Paul to his feet. Paul gave him his scotch glass and walked slowly to the bedroom door. He took a breath and walked in. The room wasn't completely dark and he could hear Annie's quiet breathing. Paul walked to her bed and reached for her.

"Paul, what's wrong?" Annie said, waking quickly, feeling his still damp pajama top.

"Can I sleep with you?" Paul asked softly.

"You never need to ask, sweetheart." Annie replied, lifting the covers and scooting back on the full bed.

Paul got into bed and rolled to his side, pulling the covers over him. Annie reached her left hand out for him and drew him to her. Paul had started to shake from the cold but when Annie curled her warm body against him he began to feel better. She rested her arm under his, her hand on his chest. Listening to him breathe, Annie relaxed after he fell asleep.

Paul woke up with Annie's head on his chest. The sun was bouncing brightly off the new snow. He felt better, but the migraine medication always took its toll on him, leaving him achy, tired, and sometimes on edge. Carefully, he moved Annie's head to the pillow and went to the bathroom. Shutting the door, he turned on the light and looked in the mirror. He wasn't really surprised at the four day old beard, but the harsh circles under his eyes were unsettling. Paul padded quietly back into the bedroom and dressed. He walked silently out of the bedroom into the great room. Kermit was sipping coffee in the kitchen; Jim was still stretched out on the sofa.

"Coffee?" Kermit asked, turning to see him.

"Please," Paul responded.

Kermit poured coffee into a mug and handed it to him.

"Thanks," Paul said, taking a sip.

"You should take a shower." Kermit advised.

"I know, I needed the caffeine," Paul admitted.

"How are you feeling today?" Kermit asked.

"Let's just say all heavy machinery is out, and you probably shouldn't give me a steak knife." Paul joked.

"Ah, a little tired; a little edgy?" Kermit assessed.

"Who's tired and edgy?" Jim asked, brushing back his hair as he walked in.

"I am," Paul said quietly.

"Well, if I walked around the lake in a snowstorm, had a migraine, woke up in the middle of the night, and hadn't eaten since yesterday's breakfast; I might feel the same way." Jim said, taking a mug of coffee from Kermit.

"I woke up last night?" Paul asked.

"Yeah, no big deal," Kermit said, lightly.

Paul turned away and sat at the kitchen table, staring into his coffee. Subconsciously he started to tap the table with his left hand.

"Cereal, Paul, or can you eat something more?" Kermit asked.

Paul didn't seem to hear him.

"Paul, answer Kermit." Jim instructed.

"What? Sorry, Kermit, uhm, English muffin, if we have any. Thanks," Paul said, looking up.

"You're welcome." Kermit said.

Jim stood, leaning against the counter sipping his coffee while watching his younger brother. The tapping started again on the table.

"Jim, what do you want for breakfast?" Kermit asked after splitting the muffins and putting them in the toaster.

"Two eggs over hard, toast, if we have any," Jim said, not taking his eyes off Paul.

"Right," Kermit said, starting on breakfast.

Ten minutes later, Jim was finishing his eggs while Paul continued to stare, neglecting his muffins. Kermit refilled their coffee cups and started making a fresh pot.

"Morning," Annie said, as she entered the kitchen area.

"Morning, Annie," Jim and Kermit said.

Annie stopped at the table and heard the tapping.

"Morning, Paul," she said, reaching for him.

He stopped tapping immediately, sliding his hand onto his lap. He stood abruptly and walked by her into the great room and sat in a chair, his right hand supporting his head.

"Give him a little time, Annie. He didn't have a good night." Jim suggested.

Annie nodded slightly. Kermit handed her a cup of tea and she sat down at the table next to Jim, who put his arm around her and hugged her close.

"What? Hugging at the kitchen table? Where's Paul? Even if you are his brother..." Matthew said as he walked into the kitchen with Andrew in tow.

"Morning, boys," Annie said with a small smile.

"Morning, Annie," Matthew said, leaning down to kiss her.

Andrew followed suit and then took a mug of coffee from Kermit. They exchanged glances but not words.

"What would you like for breakfast?" Kermit asked.

"French toast," Matthew said, without hesitation.

"Great idea," Andrew said, sitting at the table.

"I'll have some too, Kermit, if it's not too much trouble." Annie added, quietly.

"Your wish is my command, Madame. You boys will have to set the table. Jim, do you need anything else?" Kermit asked.

"No thanks, Kermit, I'm going to take a shower, and then have a brotherly talk." Jim replied.

Jim kissed Annie once more and squeezed her hand before standing to walk to the bedroom. He emerged a mere fifteen minutes later and walked up to Paul.

"Grab your coat; we're going for a walk." Jim said.

Paul looked up and him and nodded silently. He stood up and walked to the closet. He took his coat and walked outside without a word.

"Don't go too far, I don't know what the weather is going to do and he's really unsettled." Kermit warned.

"We'll either be in the wood shed or at the bench by the lake." Jim said, walking out of the cabin.

Paul stood nervously, trying to zip up his parka. His hands were shaking and he couldn't seem to figure it out. Jim walked up to him casually and gently took the zipper, connected it, and zipped Paul's parka up to his neck.

"Thanks," Paul mumbled.

"You're welcome," Jim said, starting to walk in the cold morning air.

Paul followed reluctantly. Jim stopped and handed him a cigarette, taking one for himself, and lit both. He turned around and resumed walking. Paul followed silently. He looked up and saw they were at the lake. The tall tree which had fallen the previous fall had been turned into a natural bench last spring by Peter and his chain saw. Jim brushed the snow off and sat down, smoking his cigarette. Paul walked over to him, but was too edgy to sit down.

"Spill it," Jim ordered flatly.

Paul looked up quickly and then turned away.

"We're not leaving this place until you tell me about Bull Run." Jim said.

Paul spun around and stared at him. He pushed his hair back with his left hand and smoked with his right. He turned around again, his back to Jim. Jim watched Paul's shoulders bunch up. There was no doubt in his mind that this was going to be hard for him, but there wasn't another option. Paul started to pace in front of Jim. His right hand held his cigarette; his left hand was in a fist. Jim waited for twenty minutes, watching Paul struggle until he stopped and looked at him.

"Twenty-six," Paul whispered.

"What?" Jim asked, straining to hear him.

"We lost twenty-six men that day. Operation Bull Run was thought up by the MACV-SOG boys. Basically, they knew there was a bunch of VC just on the other side of a small river about 20 klicks from our FOB in Kon Tum. Team Apostle was to provide onsite intel and then there was to be an attack. The attack was a feint from the south with a full brigade-strength attack from the north. We were flown in five days ahead of strike day, just to set things up." Paul said, pausing to remember.

"Just you, Kermit, Andrew and Matthew?" Jim asked.

"We picked up two men, uhm Kendricks the medic, and Foley, the radio/munitions specialist." Paul replied.

He started to pace again in the heavy snow, a cigarette hanging from his lips, his left hand clenching and unclenching.

"Was there a sniper mission as well?" Jim asked.

Paul stopped and turned to look at him, his eyes narrowing into a squint.

"Yes, there was a PAVN colonel who was reported in the area. Kermit was to take him out." Paul said, unzipping his parka.

Paul resumed his pacing.

"The funny thing with planning a mission based on American history is that no one saw the writing on the wall. Bull Run was doomed because one side didn't do what they were 'supposed to do'. Yeah, well funny thing about war, the opposition tends to surprise you all the time." Paul said bitterly.

"You followed orders?" Jim asked, prompting him.

"Hell, yes, well at least at first. I led the men in. We did our recon, transmitted intel back and waited in the rain for our orders. We were ordered to stay put except to off that PAVN colonel. Kermit and I went out in the morning, God it was so damn hot and wet. Trying to keep the gear somewhat dry was so hard. I was the spotter but I was also the reserve sniper. I kept trying to keep my weapon and trigger hand dry. It became, I guess, an obsession." Paul said, dropping his cigarette quickly when he burned his fingers.

Paul dug his hands in his trousers and continued to pace.

"You hit your target, then what happened?" Jim asked.

"Kermit and I didi'd back to our camp and waited. We didn't have to wait long. We were to hold position. Battalion had four squads heading into our area. We were the hammer on the ambush. Unfortunately, the VC didn't know that. We were easily outnumbered four to one. I called Command to point out the obvious, but the Major who was in charge was dead, so I called in an air strike." Paul said, his voice catching.

"You called in a strike on your own position?" Jim asked, standing.

"I had no choice. It was becoming Bull Run revisited. Besides, the only Allied forces in any danger were Team Apostle. The squads on the north side of the river were fine." Paul replied.

"You said twenty six men died...?" Jim asked.

"Two men were from my team, lest we forget. Twenty-six men died because the fly boys overshot the target. Christ, Jim, it was insane; dusk, bullets flying, grenades flying, bombs dropping. Then I heard him cry out." Paul said, his voice low and quiet.

"Who?" Jim asked.

"Kermit, who else?" Paul replied angrily. "In addition to a normal bomb run, the flyboys dropped what we called flash-bangs on their first pass. They blind you but don't kill you. One landed in Kermit's foxhole. I will never forget his screams. The pain from the burns to his eyes was excruciating, but he wanted to continue to fight. He couldn't see well, Kendricks wanted to bandage his eyes but Kermit wouldn't let him. In the end, we were all hit in some way or another. My God, there were VC everywhere. I called for a dust off but there wasn't an LZ anywhere near where we were so the Huey just dropped McGuire rigs. As we clipped on, Kendricks bought it, as did Foley."

"So there you were again, the core Team Apostle, being lifted to heaven." Jim said softly.

"Yeah, albeit one hundred and fifty feet below the chopper dangling where any yahoo with a rifle could pick you off. I held on to Kermit until we landed. After that, I have no memory for almost a week, I guess." Paul said.

"I think you're ready to go talk to your teammates. Let's let them fill in the blank spots." Jim said, walking up to him.

Paul looked up at him and nodded slowly. They walked together through the snow until they got to the cabin. Jim led and Paul followed as they walked inside.

Andrew and Matthew stood up, as did Kermit. Annie kept silent, sitting on the couch. Paul and Jim shucked their outerwear and walked into the great room.

"I need to talk about Bull Run. What happened after we clipped into the McGuire rig?" Paul asked, standing by the fireplace.

"Kermit started to struggle; the pain was so great. You took your spare 'biner and clipped him to you as a safety. He kept struggling against the pain. You held him until a few minutes later, when Kermit unclipped his line. You took his full weight." Andrew said, softly.

"We landed at Kun Tum and we were all a mess. Kermit was blind; you had two broken ribs, a fractured hand, and a shrapnel wound. Andrew had a bullet in his hip, and I had one in my chest." Matthew said.

"I don't remember being hit or injured." Paul said.

"I broke your ribs when I landed on you in the foxhole during the air strike. I don't know how you got hit but it was in your hip, I think. Your hand was caught in the pear ring when Kermit released. His weight broke your hand. The medics couldn't believe you were alive, let alone conscious." Matthew said.

Paul's face darkened as he started to remember that day. He put both hands on the mantel and stared into the fire.

"Why did Paul yell at me this morning, Kermit?" Jim asked.

"Because the whole stupid plan was started by a major out of MACV-SOG; Major McVee." Kermit replied.

"I'm not him." Jim said, defensively.

"No, but you were a major in MACV/SOG. Paul just got confused." Kermit explained.

Paul followed the conversation closely, but still didn't understand.

"What are you talking about?" Paul asked, irritated; turning around to look at them.

"You took a trip to Vietnam this morning and thought Jim was McVee." Kermit explained softly.

Paul reached into his pocket, pulled out a cigarette and lit it. Andrew and Matthew sat down in the two chairs by the fireplace. Jim stood blocking the path to the front door. Kermit stood blocking the path to the bedroom. Paul started to pace in front of the fireplace.

"What set you off yesterday" Jim asked quietly.

"The smell of mung beans. I demanded that the team eat Vietnamese food so we would sweat the same smell as a Vietnamese person. I hired a cook, the whole nine yards. Every day we ate mung beans." Paul explained, pausing to look at him.

Paul resumed his pacing, running his hand through his hair and rubbing his beard. The room was quiet.

"Paul, I don't blame you. Man, how could I? You saved my life," Kermit said softly, looking at Paul through his dark glasses.

Paul stopped and walked up to him.

"I...thank you," Paul said, pulling him close for a hug.

Matthew and Andrew soon joined in and there was quiet in the room as Team Apostle renewed their vows.

"Sweetheart?" Annie asked quietly.

Paul wiped his tears, broke from his embrace with his mates and knelt before his wife at the couch.

"Yeah, babe?" Paul replied.

"I have loved you, from the first day I met you at the restaurant to now and all of the days in-between. Please, don't ever doubt that." Annie said, putting her hands on his face.

"I have never doubted your love." Paul said, embracing her tightly.

"I don't know about any one else, but I could use a drink and some lunch." Jim said, lightening the mood.

Paul released Annie and stood up to walk to Jim. They embraced tightly and Jim whispered something in Paul's ear that made the tears he had tried to hold in burst forth.

Paul volunteered to start the grill. He stood outside in the bright sunshine, grilling steaks and smoking cigarettes. Jim was, again, the bartender. Annie made a salad and Kermit helped with the grilled potatoes. Lunch was a feast. Andrew and Matthew told stories of the few times that Team Apostle went on liberty. The panic and terror was gone, replaced by a familiarity bred from true friendship.

"We gotta go back to town, Paul." Andrew said, standing from the table.

Paul stood and embraced his two friends.

"Thanks for being here." Paul said, softly.

"Whenever you need us, there we'll be." Andrew replied.

Everyone walked outside to see them off. Andrew and Matthew got into the four wheel drive Kermit had driven up in and left the cabin.

"You okay?" Jim asked Paul.

"I gotta take a nap." Paul said, leaning against the cabin, watching them drive away.

"You mean before you fall down? Yeah, good idea." Kermit said, smiling.

"I'm joining you," Annie said, reaching for his arm.

Jim opened the door to the cabin and held it open for Paul, Annie and Kermit to walk through. Kermit made a beeline for the couch and stretched out. Paul and Annie walked into the bedroom and shut the door. Jim made a pot of coffee

Kermit was still sleeping on the sofa, and Jim was working in the kitchen when the door opened from the bedroom.

"Okay, so, dinner and then a drive back home?' Kermit asked, waking up to the sound of the opening door.

"Oh, yeah," Paul replied.

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