CHAPTER TEN

October, 1969

She knew he was awake at the sudden tensing of his body. Carefully, but obviously, she sighed and snuggled in closer to him. She had slept with enough soldiers to understand their reflexes, and soldier or not, the sooner he recognized her, the better for both of them. She was surprised, however, when he tensed even more, and suddenly moved as if to get out of bed. Had it not been for his injury, he would have succeeded.

He groaned and fell back on the bed, and Dao Quy quickly sat up, resting a hand lightly on his chest.

"Shhh, lay still. The knee is not good this morning."

Eyes closed, he shuddered slightly and mumbled, "Tell me about it."

"Please wait. I fix. Promise." She smiled ruefully as she got out of bed. She hated the stilted English, but the Americans expected it, and it always boosted their egos when they were able to 'teach' her proper English so easily.

She quickly found the small jar of ointment. It was not the usual preparation the American hospitals carried, rather a mix of fragrant and medicinal oils used in traditional Vietnamese medicine. Another reason her position at the hospital had been so easily compromised. Shaking away those thoughts, she took the jar and returned to the bed, quickly pouring a small amount into her palm and rubbing it into her hands, both absorbing the oil and warming it.

"Please lay still. This will hurt at first, but will feel better much soon." Waiting for his approval, she looked up at his face. It was only when he quickly closed his eyes and nodded that she remembered her own nudity. Holding back a smile, she began gently massaging the swollen knee.

The smile turned to a professional frown as her therapist training took over. The knee was swollen much more than it should be at this stage, and she knew immediately he hadn't been taking care of it. Where was his doctor, anyway?

Kneading carefully, she ignored the soft moan and concentrated on her work. She worked steadily, gently. She moved slowly upward, just above the knee, easing the thigh muscles, releasing the strain on the knee. She could feel, as well as see, the tension melting away.

Another soft moan. Not from pain this time.

Out of the corner of her eye, she looked up at his face. His eyes were closed, but there was the slightest hint of a smile. She looked back down to her work, and, still massaging with one hand, reached for the ointment jar. Quickly pouring a bit more on her hands, she began kneading once again. Then, not even realizing she was holding her breath, she moved to the other leg.

He tensed for a moment, but her deft hands kept moving, kneading, manipulating, caressing. Slowly he relaxed at her gentle touches. She moved again, this time sliding her hands softly up to his stomach, then chest. Always gentle, hands never completely leaving his skin. Up to his shoulders now, and, with soft pressure, and careful of his knee, she helped him roll to his stomach.

Knowing he was nearly asleep, she slowly and ever so carefully moved one leg over his, so she knelt astride him. Again, he tensed, but this time she ignored it, pressing her hands, warm and soft, more firmly into the tight muscles. As she moved up his back, her tempo increased, ever so slightly. She felt his shoulders rise and fall more deeply, slowly reflecting the rhythm of her hands.

Eyes half closed, moving into her own special world, she retraced her path down his back. Further.

Further.

He groaned beneath her, and slowly they moved so he was again facing her, his eyes, like her own, nearly closed. She felt him beneath her, and she slowly leaned forward, moistening her lips, slowly lowering her body to lie ever so gently on his, pressing her lips to his cheek, moving slowly across the unshaved surface until she felt his lips, moving hers slowly, pliant, ever so cautiously until finally he responded, as gently as she at first, then more urgently. Her hands reached up, grasping his shoulders, slowly running her body along his, then back again, feeling the friction, the heat, his hands moving up and down her body, grasping her, pulling her, kneading as she had done only moments before...

He started to roll them over, but she quickly placed a hand on the sheets, shaking her head gently as he looked up at her, slowly sitting up, moving back. She felt him once again, this time moist and hot, and she pushed down, slowly, slowly, making herself go slow even as she felt his long shudder, and then they were one. She rose up, only to sink immediately down again, up, then down, faster and faster and she heard his breathing become ragged and she felt him hard and absolute inside her. Her own breath poured from her throat and he pulled her down, held her tight as she felt the white hot and she dug her fingers into his shoulders as his body shook, once, again, again...

They slept, holding on to each other, until nearly noon.


*****

Hannibal had driven through Cam Ranh Bay almost an hour ago, and only his determination to find Peck kept him from paying a visit to that jarhead CO. He would have laid a few facts down for that bastard. Not that it would matter. He knew, no matter what happened with the Marines, Peck's military career was over.

Now Hannibal had to find Peck and make sure that was the worst that happened.

It was a good seven-hour drive to Saigon; good meaning no roadblocks, mines, VC or other booby traps. He'd left Nha Trang just after noon, which meant he'd pull into Saigon a couple hours after dark.

Not good.

In the end, he stopped in Phan Thiet. There was a large military base there, and the town was relatively safe. Safer than the highway after dark, at any rate. He found a hotel catering to Americans and a bar not far from it. The worst thing he could do, of course, was to drink, considering where he was and where he was going.

That didn't stop him. One thing Peck had definitely done - driven him to drink.

He ordered the sorry excuse for a burger, which tasted a lot more like Airedale than Angus. He let the Scotch wash out his mouth, and sat back in his chair, watching the other servicemen. He was thankful he didn't see one jarhead. Mostly pilots from the 192nd.

Though to be honest, pilots weren't exactly on his Top Ten list either. He believed Murdock when he said he didn't know where Peck was; not for one minute did he believe Murdock didn't know he was leaving. As much time as those two had spent together beforehand...then again, Peck knew Murdock had been with Hannibal a lot longer than he had, and he normally played things very close to the vest.

Especially after what Hannibal had said.

He downed the next glass of Scotch in one gulp, and stood up, throwing his money on the table. He decided what he needed was some fresh air. One step outside and he decided his hotel room would have to do. He made a note never to vacation in a fishing village.

Ever.

From the bed in his room, he watched the sky turn from violet to black through the grimy window. In a few minutes, all he could see was the halo from the street light below the window.

Didn't matter. He was quite sure he wouldn't get much sleep tonight anyway. He could sleep any time, any place, out in the boonies. Had to. After all, out there all you had to worry about was getting your head blown off. Nothing to think about other than making sure it was the other guy it happened to instead.

He liked battle. Not the killing and the dying but the challenge. And it was tangible. If all your guys got out alive, you won. Period.

But this thing with Peck...

Shit.

What was it he'd said, way back when, about grabbing a cat by the tail? He puffed slowly on his cigar. Should've listened to his own advice.

Although, in all fairness, none of his guys were exactly up for sainthood. He didn't know any SF guys that were. Fight hard, play hard. Real hard. Fistfights weren't uncommon, even among their own. Okay, so BA and Wiley tended to get a little carried away with that, but damn it. A fight was out there. Open. Some guy pissed you off, you beat the crap out of him. Or vice versa. Then it was done.

Not with Peck. Nothing he did was straightforward. There was always an angle. Always.

Hannibal shoved the window open and tossed the cigar. That's exactly what Hannibal had told him at the hospital.

That, and more.

Hannibal leaned against the window frame, staring into the alley that was his vista. He could blame his outburst on the afteraffects of the camp, the guys they lost, the confinement in the hospital, lack of action. Hell, he could find a hundred excuses.

None of them worked.

Wiley had been hauled in front of the Provost so many times he'd lost count; Ray came a close second. He wouldn't even think about BA. And each and every time, Hannibal had gone to bat for them. Never questioned why they ended up there. The fact was, they had, and they were his men. Period.

And damn him, that was the whole problem with Peck.

No matter how many times he saluted or called him colonel, no matter how many miracles he performed with supplies, or perks he grabbed for the guys, or for Hannibal, Peck was not Hannibal's man.

Peck belonged to no one but himself.


*****

She woke slowly, feeling warm, her mind not quite connecting with reality at first. She stiffened her muscles, relaxed, and moved closer to the warm skin that seemed to surround her.

She hadn't felt like this in...

She heard a small chuckle, felt the vibration under her arm, and looked up, smiling.

"You remind me of a cat, basking in the sun." He chuckled again.

Smiling wider, she raised up, resting on her elbow, and looked down at her 'husband'.

"And you are like the cat that ate the canary - very, very smug." She bent down, kissed him softly on the lips. His hand came up, gently cupping the back of her head. Moments later, she was resting her head on his shoulder, thinking she could stay like this forever.

"You should have sex more often, Dao Quy."

She sat up, frowning. He grinned up at her.

"It seems to improve your English dramatically. Another week, you'll be speaking like a Rhodes scholar."

She blushed, and he laughed out loud before suddenly sobering. His words were stern, his voice soft.

"That wasn't supposed to happen, you know."

She nodded, not looking at him. "I know. But I don't know why."

He sighed. "It's a long story. And undoubtedly boring."

Her fingers drifted over his chest, contemplative, thinking of her own past. "I don't think I need to know, unless you want to tell me. Some time. But it doesn't matter, does it? In this time, this place?"

He tilted his head to the side, looking at her. She began to feel uncomfortable, thinking perhaps she had spoken out of place. Then he smiled, a small, wry smile.

"No. No, you're right. No one can change the past, can they? Not any of it. But there are lessons to be learned from it."

"If they are the right lessons. Learning that two plus two equals five does not make it right."

This time he laughed, and drew her down. She felt the muscles in his arms, holding her close.

"You know what I think?"

"What?"

"I think Lam Thanh found me a very smart 'wife'."

They lay companionably in bed for a short while longer, until he declared he was starving, and noted that they did, after all, have things to do that day. Dao Quy immediately got up, and helped him into the shower. Grabbing her robe, she hurried out of the bedroom and called Pin, instructing him to send for the rest of her things. She noted with satisfaction that he did not respond in the surly manner he had last night.

Having taken of care of immediate matters, she moved into the kitchen. Although it was late in the day for breakfast, she began preparing the pho with noodles, roasted peanuts, shallots and other herbs. While that cooked, she picked through the fruit in the basket on the counter, noting that Pin had not been as discriminating as she would be when supplying the household.

She had heard the shower shut off, and finished preparing the table before hurrying into the bedroom. She would also shower, and dress quickly; their breakfast should be ready by the time she was finished. She smiled drolly at the childish giddiness she felt.

Their first breakfast together.

The smile dropped as she entered the bedroom. Max was seated on a low stool in front of the dresser, his robe draped around him.

In his hand was the wallet.

"Come here, Dao Quy."

Quietly, she knelt in front of him, on the floor. She pulled her robe discreetly around her. Now was not the time for coyness. She could see not only resignation, but disappointment, on his face.

"If you're going to snoop, Dao Quy, you should learn to be more careful about putting things back."

She looked at the floor. "I am sorry, Mr. Butler."

"Did you find what you were looking for?"

She had to make a decision now. Last night, he had been cordial, but distant. This morning...

"I did not understand what I found."

He sighed deeply, straightening on the stool. He stared at the ceiling for some time before looking down at her again.

"You found the other IDs. Now you're wondering who I really am."

"I am wondering who you want to be."

He shook his head. "You and me both."

He awkwardly began to get up from the stool, and Dao Quy immediately stood, taking his arm. She helped him over to the bed, where he sat down heavily, rubbing his knee. She waited.

He reached over to the bedside table, pulled out a cigarette and lit it, staring at her through the smoke.

"I have several enterprises I'm involved in. There are times when it's...necessary that the people involved know only what I want them to know about me. I think you understand."

She nodded. Waited.

"There's no reason for you to worry about it. You won't be involved in any of these...situations. Ever."

She looked more closely at him. Ever?

He smiled at her. Not reassuring her.

Asking her.

She smiled back. "Only this one, maybe?"

He laughed out loud. She liked that sound. Very much.

"You win. But this is the only one. Okay?"

"Okay, Mr. Butler."

"The name here is Max."

"Max. Or Templeton? Or maybe William, or..."

"You really are a vixen, there, Miss Dao Quy."

"You should call me Błn. That is what my family calls me."

"Błn? But..."

"It is only to ward off the evil spirits. An old tradition."

"Very well, Błn. And you will call me..."

"I will call you my faceman, because you have so many - and all of them very, very nice."

"Ah, and what of the evil spirits?"

"They will never know which one to catch..."


*****

He sat on the couch, watching Dao Quy fuss around in the kitchen, preparing their lunch. She'd gone out first thing that morning, coming back loaded down with delicacies from the local market. Pin had been sent to accompany her, and Peck wanted to laugh at the look on his face as he hauled in the various bundles. Despite his upset, Pin had dutifully assisted in putting away the groceries before scurrying away to his more usual duties.

She looked over at him now, and smiled. He grinned back. She had protested when he insisted Pin go along, but he knew she was secretly pleased that he was concerned with her safety. And he was. She may know her way around Saigon, but she was also a beautiful woman in a city filled with soldiers. He was taking no chances. Not with her.

His 'wife'.

He sighed, turned to look out onto the patio. Yesterday, talking, learning about each other, getting comfortable, they'd seemed to fall into their new roles with such ease. It was like the girls at the orphanage, playing house. He'd gotten roped into their games when he was little, either as the son or the husband. Until he got old enough to realize little boys didn't play those games.

But that's what he was doing now. Playing house. Granted, there were some additions to the way they played it at the orphanage. Very nice additions. But they were still playing. Which was okay. They both knew the ground rules. They both knew that in another month or so, the game would be over. He'd be healed up enough to go back to Nha Trang, and she...

He didn't like to think about that. For either of them. He was strangely not comforted by the fact that Dao Quy wouldn't be standing around in bars, looking for the next john. He'd talk to Lam Thanh, make sure she was taken care of as much as possible. She was so young and intelligent - she shouldn't be in this business at all.

But that was Vietnam now. Everything, from the war to jobs, even whom one married, was based on politics, and who was pissed off at whom.

He had no delusions about his own future. Smith had made that perfectly clear, back at Cam Ranh Bay. Couple that with Wrenn's visit the day before that...

He leaned back in the couch, stared up at the ceiling. How the hell had his life gotten so fucked up? Every time he thought he had things under control, something happened and it all went to hell. No matter how he worked it.

Growing up, he kept being told he couldn't make things happen. Just be himself, and the right family would come along. If they didn't, it was because God had some other purpose for him.

Right.

At sixteen, long past the he's-so-cute-let's-adopt-him stage, he'd finally realized that God had dropped the ball. Things worked out so much better for him when he took an active hand in them.

At least, until Leslie.

He straightened on the couch. None of that mattered now. He was what he was, did what he did. The fates, or God, or something out of his hands had gotten him into this mess with Smith; he'd get himself out of it. He had no doubt his transfer papers would be waiting when he got back to Nha Trang. Wrenn had been pretty confident of that. Had to be, to propose what he had.

He didn't especially want to be under Wrenn's thumb again. And he definitely didn't like this latest job. But, until he could find another unit, or a way back to the World, there weren't a lot of options. Of course, there was that one little hitch.

Wrenn had planned to kill him.

That was then. This was now. Wrenn had shown more than a little interest in the relationship between Tommy Angel and Chow. He also knew Peck had connections on both sides. Not by choice; just one of those things that happens when you deal with people who aren't high on scruples. But Wrenn wanted those connections. More than he wanted Peck, but it was a package deal and they both knew it.

So far, he'd never dealt in drugs. Whether it was Sister Rose and her stern lectures, or just a general distaste for the people involved, he couldn't say. And he'd made a good enough living without delving into that world. That would change, tonight.

He looked over at Dao Quy, busily chopping...something. This was definitely one of those situations she would not be involved in.

Never.

He smiled as she brought the bowls to the table, fussing about the poor quality she had found in the market.

Time to play house.