Ascent To Pine Grove

by dossier

Notes & Warnings

Baines' bus ride from Atlanta was long and uncomfortable. The bus heater had been blowing too hot all day and the sweat from the people around him had a miasmic feel, rank and malodorous. The bus had several other uniforms on board, but he'd arrived at the terminal in time to be the last passenger on board; there hadn't been any time to make acquaintances. Now, the only seat left open was the window seat behind the driver. Taking his place, Baines closed his eyes and considered the last ten days.

The leave would have been a nice respite from basic training and his AIT, except for the fact that Wendell Baines was also at home. Cy had done his best to make some amends with his father on arrival, but the single conversation had immediately burst into a conflagration of the first order. Wendell had been called to an "emergency" meeting at Three Mile Island, and disappeared, likely to return only after Cy had departed. 'There is nothing to be done; the situation is bollixed up permanently', Cy thought morosely. The discord with his father had eaten away at him for years, virtually all of his adult life. It was the fulcrum on which he rested, off-balance and uncertain.

Cyril Baines had come home with visions of the prodigal's triumphant return, accomplishments held in his hands like a sacrifice for the altar; but the temple was cold. The fires had gone out, and the offering turned to ashes that drifted through his fingers. He choked on the dry dust of defeat.

Rosalind tried her best to fill the void left in the wake of Wendells' unseemly exit, but- as ever- there was only so much that she could do. She let Cyril brood for a day then ordered him out of the house.

"Get up. Call someone from school. Go to a bar. Get out, get laid." Rosalind stood at the bedroom door, as she looked in on her first-born who was pretending to be asleep.

"Mom!" Cyril wailed in mock dismay. "Did you just tell me to go get laid?" He looked at his watch, "At ten o'clock in the morning?" He pulled the coverlet back over his head and burrowed against the wall.

"It's good for what ails you, boy-o. Have some fun Cy; you're too young to decline in here all week." Rosalind did not move from the door.

"You aren't going to leave me alone, are you?" The down comforter he was buried in muffled Cy's query.

"No." She moved to sit on the side of the bed, and patted the mound next to her. "It's a shame. I know it's hard to pick up the pieces and move on, but you have to do it. Come on, Cy."

A heaved sigh, and then Cyril pulled himself upright, and leaned back against the headboard. "Good morning, Mommie Dearest."

"Smart-ass boy. Give me a hug, and get out of bed. I've got breakfast nearly ready, the girls have been waiting an hour for you to make an appearance." Cyril wrapped his arms around his mother and put his face on her shoulder. The smell was uniquely mother, and it flooded his senses with the steady reassurance he desperately needed.

He released her thin shoulders, and the dogtags he wore jangled. She picked at them at bit, a look of concern on her face.

"How do you handle it-- being in the Army?"

Baines leaned back and closed his eyes, rubbing them absently with the heel of his hand. "I keep it to myself, and it's not like I don't see women too, you know that."

"I know," and she paused for a moment. "It's just that I worry about you, that's all. It's my job."

"I'm fine in the Army, Mom. I love it. I have purpose and direction, I have goals and I'm challenged physically."

"You do look well; managed to put some weight on those skinny bones. All of that hard work is going to go to waste though, unless you get out of bed and eat. Breakfast in ten, soldier-- and don't make me blow reveille."

He grinned hugely at his mother, and tossed off a smart salute. "Sir, yes sir!"

"That's better." She closed the door and went to finish preparing the morning meal.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~oo(O)oo~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The telephone rang on Thursday afternoon. Cyril had been avoiding answering the phone all week, in case it was his father. 'Coward', he thought to himself wryly, and on impulse picked up the receiver. "Baines' residence."

"Hello, Baines, how are you?" Oscar McShane had called to check on his newest prot‚g‚, surprising him. Baines hadn't realized the Colonel was in town.

"Fine, Colonel, thanks." Cyril held his breath for just a second, and his voice hitched a bit when he continued, "How are you?" He sounded breathy, and it was hard to keep his voice neutral when he talked to Colonel McShane. He blushed in furious silence.

"I'm great, Baines, thanks. Have you got a few hours free this evening? No plans made?"

"No, pretty much done with everything I was going to do at this point. Saw my father for about six hours before he bugged out."

"Sounds bad, kid."

"Just situation normal, all fucked up."

"We'll talk about it later. You need a ride?"

"Yeah, it's Bridge night for Mom, and the girls have some decorating party for a school dance this weekend."

"Hey, you weren't kidding about not having any plans. Pick you up in an hour?"

"Sounds great, see you then."

McShanes' voice made Cyril hard. It was deep, commanding, and struck a perfect chord within him, triggering a daydream that he indulged in occasionally; that of his mentor holding him down while licking him all over. 'Not that I would have resisted, at least not very much.' This train of thought was not going to make the evening any easier to get through; there was only one thing that was going to ease the situation.

The ability to jack off in the shower alone was a pleasure taken for granted up until a few months ago. The Army, for all its benefits offered very little in the way of privacy for sweet indulgences like this. He had taken advantage of the occasion as often as possible, all week.

Baines leaned back against the shower wall, the hot water sluicing down his front, and the cool tile on his back. He closed his eyes, and reached for his penis, he was barely hard, but a few quick strokes took care of that. Oh, to be twenty-four and able to become erect almost on command. He gave his balls a quick squeeze, and then slowly started to stroke the length of his hard cock. The image in his mind was the Faceless Stranger, the same one as always, and Cy was in thrall to him. No restraints were necessary; he always submitted and did as he was told. This time the stranger was watching as he masturbated, instructing him as to how he wanted it done. It didn't matter who the stranger was; he was always in control. He had never allowed this to happen before, but this time the face became Oscar McShanes'. He knew that in light of their relationship it was a tactical error, but he couldn't help it: McShane was everything he wanted in a man. Tall and powerful, he was masculinity personified.

Once the substitution occurred, Cyril came almost immediately, the semen spattering the glass shower door. He left himself in the afterglow for a moment, then perfunctorily wiped the evidence away, and finished his shower, as he considered the ramifications of what he had just let himself do. It would be too easy to slide down the rabbit hole and fuck up the chance he had to join McShanes' team.

The bar was a local watering hole, one of a dying breed. Fern bars with hors de oeuvres buffets were popping up all over the place and the old style establishments were having a hard go of it. It was simple, with dim light, tables and chairs, some neon beer signs on the wall. It was also the final resting-place for a few mementos that had been relegated to the rubbish bin at home-- a moth-eaten moose head with a missing antler, a pair of oars from some lost craft, a couple of ancient license plates nailed to the wall, and the requisite photos of the owners' past life, glorified by autographs. All were viewed through a haze of cigarette smoke, completing the ambience of the Bigger Jigger.

McShane picked a table near the wall; it was a busy night, Thursday rush hour. The regulars stopped after work for a quick drink and a little downtime before making their way home to their families.

Baines schooled himself to maintain a cool demeanor; he was still a little off balance from his earlier mental indiscretion. The imagined memory of Oscars' naked, broad shoulders flickered in and out as Baines lit a smoke to distract himself. He needed to have something physical to concentrate on, rather than the pale eyes of the imposing man in front of him.

"So, Baines, what is going on at home?" McShane thought it was time to get Baines to admit to him the root of the less-than-cordial relationship with his father. McShane thought he knew what the problem was; but he wanted Baines to admit it to him. The fact that Baines occasionally indulged in an alternate life style bothered him not in the least, though he did like to know whom he was dealing with before he issued an invitation to join the team. McShane wasn't going to let Baines keep sliding on this problem with his father, though. It could spell disaster at the most inopportune moment.

"Same as always. I came home, managed to piss my father off in the first two hours, and then he had some *emergency* that he had to take care of in New York. Besides that, swimmingly."

"What are you going to do about this thing with your father?"

"That nasty little argument vividly illustrated to me that there is nothing I can do about it." Baines took a long drink from his beer; this line of questioning was starting to make him uncomfortable. He'd never revealed to the Colonel the nature of the break between him and his father, and was certain he didn't want to. The characteristics that governed his relationship with his father bled over into the way he viewed McShane; he was scared shitless that the information in McShanes' hands would become a weapon. He warily skirted the issue. He wanted so badly to trust this man, but it seemed that he also was incapable of allowing himself to do so.

McShane watched the boy in front of him steadily. He had the look of a trapped wild animal about to bolt or attack. McShane had no scruples about using the tools that were presented to him, but there was no point in slicing the boy to ribbons. "Do you think running away is the answer?"

That irritated Baines. "Jesus, Oscar, I'm not the one that ran! I'm not the one with the problem!" He angrily stamped out his cigarette and lit another one when he discovered he had nothing to do with his hands. This was not going well at all; he'd just given McShane more information than he had intended to. How did McShane do this to him? Was it the chiseled jaw and the smooth lips wrapped firmly around the cigar?

"What problem does your Dad have?"

Baines looked down at his empty beer and started to peel the wet label off the bottle. There was no way McShane was going to let this go until he had drained Baines of every last secret. Fuck, what a rotten week this had been. He remained resolutely silent in the face of this interrogation, as he fiddled with the small pile of soggy paper strips.

McShane sat and let Baines work on it in his mind. The waitress came by, and he ordered them another two beers and a couple of shots of whiskey, this was going to take some firepower. The waitress returned fairly promptly and lingered a moment, two men who looked as good as they did rarely came into the place. Baines looked up at her and smiled, thanking her for the beer in way of a dismissal. He didn't feel like flirting and he sure as hell wasn't going to let her flirt with McShane right in front of him, either.

"Baines, I'm sorry. I know that whatever this is between you two, it's slowly destroying you. You'll have to deal with it someday, and I hope that you'll trust me when that time comes."

He couldn't even begin to think about letting McShane in on his thoughts. Oscar was too tangled up in them; part of the problem, not the solution-- and no way to tell him that either without spilling the whole sordid mess into McShanes' lap.

"Look, can we drop this? I'd like to just forget it for awhile."

"We can do that, for now. When do you leave for Redstone?" McShane willingly changed the subject to the matter for which he had originally called Baines.

"I have a reservation to fly down on Sunday morning; I need to be on base by three in the afternoon."

"I have a proposition for you. I have to drive to Atlanta on Saturday, and I'd like you to go with me."

God, could it get any worse? "How long a drive is that?"

"It's about fourteen hours. I was thinking of leaving tomorrow night and getting about half way, depending on how the traffic is on the way out of the city. But that's not carved into stone, either."

Fourteen hours in a car with Oscar McShane, the worst and best situation all rolled together in one hard-to-swallow lump. "I'll have to check with my mother; see if she had any other plans; I don't have any to speak of. Sounds interesting."

"You should consider taking the bus from Atlanta to Huntsville, too."

Baines looked at McShane with not a small amount of disbelief. "Take the *bus*?"

"Sure. Lot of enlisted men take the bus; it would be a good idea."

"Tell me, why would it be a good idea?"

"You'd be gaining a measure of empathy for the men that will be under your command someday. The Army has its elite; no doubt you'll be one of them with what you're bringing to the table; but in order to command effectively you have to know and understand the men who serve under you. That means living like one of them while you are one of them."

Baines was suckered. There was no way he could ignore this advice from his mentor-- that was why he was the mentor-- and no way he would even begin to think about taking the bus all the way to Redstone. "Sounds like a reasonable theory-- I still have to check with Mom, though. I imagine she's probably sick of me hanging around by now."

"Let me know in the morning, and we can make our plans accordingly."

"Where are you staying?"

McShane gave Baines a wry grin. "The Plaza Hotel."

Baines laughed out loud, and McShane laughed with him. "No kidding, The Plaza?"

"I've done the bus-riding routine, Baines. Didn't say you had to do it forever."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~oo(O)oo~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Explosives and Ordinance School was Baines' first choice of Military Occupational Specialty. It was more than just blowing stuff up, but that was the fun part. McShane had certainly exerted some influence in his getting accepted so early in his career, but Baines didn't ask, and McShane didn't volunteer the information, either.

He just thanked God that he'd only had to ride the bus in from Atlanta. The January weather had cooperated, so the road trip in the Land Rover had been uneventful, if not comfortable. Fourteen hours in a vehicle with a man you had an unrequited crush on wasn't what Cyril would have called a joy ride. Being that close to Oscar for so long made him intimately aware of how McShane smelled; Saturday night in the motel room had been part of Baines' own special hell, too. The fact that he had made it through the night without embarrassing himself too badly was counted as a minor victory. Baines had gotten little rest during the night, though. He managed, after a fashion, to sleep on the bus, and it had kept the old guy next to him from talking the entire seven hours.

After disembarking, Baines located the designated pick-up point for the short transfer to Redstone Arsenal. The January afternoon was warm and balmy, a blessed relief from the harsh cold he had left at home. Baines removed his jacket, and once he was out of uniform he leaned up against the wall and lit up. Inhaling deeply, he considered the weather. August in South Carolina had been sheer misery, but the advantages of wintering in the south were quickly becoming obvious as he soaked in the sun.

The moment had a surreal quality about it, almost out of time and mind. The oddly gilded sunlight of late afternoon angled in and shimmered off the dark, red brick wall. The air itself was an entity that sought to tease and blind him with sparkling promise. His life was in flux-- it could be that the precipice was at hand, but he couldn't see beyond this instant. Baines smoked his cigarette down to the filter, and absently field-stripped it into shreds that drifted away in the slight breeze.

He was about to light up again when another private came to rest uneasily against the wall next to him. This soldier was of a height with Baines, but with a slighter build. He glanced at Baines' cigarettes, but declined politely when offered one. "No thanks. Some weather, isn't it."

Baines instantly recognized this boy as a fellow northerner by the accent, or rather by the lack of the obnoxious drawl.

"It sure is. It was ten degrees below zero with snow on the ground when I left home yesterday morning. I think I could get used to this." Baines watched his companion with small sideways glances as he finished his second smoke. He could be younger by a couple of years-- dark hair, dark eyes, a thin blade of a face. There was a taut quality to the way he held himself, a deep tension that didn't invite scrutiny.

The second butt went the way of the first, and Baines turned to face his companion. "Baines. I'm here for the EOD School." He put his hand out in a way that brooked no denial. They shook hands briefly as the young man decided to respond.

"Yeah, me too. I mean, I'm here for the same school. Marty Blank."

"Nice to meet you, Marty."

They smiled briefly and Baines nodded, but said nothing further as the camouflaged school bus arrived on a cloud of dust. The Sergeant in charge stepped out, and started organizing the men and gear. Baines took a window seat after he had been checked off and boarded. Marty swung into the seat next to Baines shortly afterwards. Baines smiled at his new acquisition, they would be almost adjacent in roll call and duty assignments by a simple quirk of the alphabet.

The interminable process of billeting and class assignments was a typical case of Army hurry-up-and-wait. Baines was pleased to see that he was correct; they were assigned to the same unaccompanied enlisted quarters, only six men each to the small barracks.

Baines set his tray down across from Martin Q. Blank in the mess hall. Blank had been quiet and withdrawn last night, as they had settled down into the small housing unit. He'd answered any question put to him with as few words as possible, and his brooding darkness had managed to put a damper on the efforts of his roommates to become acquainted.

Baines wasn't so easily put off, though. "Hey Marty."

"Hey Baines. Have a seat." Marty looked up and smiled slightly as Baines sat down.

"Thanks, don't mind if I do." Baines returned the smile and tucked into the meal provided. It was good, basic food-- nothing fancy, but he could have what he liked without too much hassle. "This is much better than Ft. Jackson. They need to send that guy back through cooking school again." Baines knew it wasn't the aegis of a single person, but it made for a light conversational gambit.

"Went through Jackson too, huh? You don't suppose that we've simply become inured to the food, rather than it really being better?" It was the first curiosity that Blank had shown, and Baines leapt on it.

"Yeah, just graduated a few weeks back; I came straight to the EOD from there." He paused and added under his breath, "With a short side trip to hell."

Marty looked at him, he'd heard the added remark but he wasn't going to comment on it. "I was there in the summer a couple of years ago. God Awful place. So, how did you get the EOD so fast? That waiting list was pretty long, took me a year to get in."

Baines chewed for a moment. "I didn't question it too closely, can't say for sure."

"Must be nice." Blank wasn't fooled by the answer; he'd run into lots of rich boys whose parents had Senators for friends.

Baines shrugged noncommittally, "It has its liabilities. So have you seen any action?" He was curious, and as long as Marty was talking, might as well keep him going.

"Was in Central America for a tour. *Advisory* tour." His voice dripped with sarcasm and he rolled his nearly black eyes to complement the comment.

"What advice did you give?" Baines glanced up at his companion to see a glint of black humor in his eyes.

"Beyond telling the fuckers to point and shoot? None."

Baines grinned at the crass remark. "I didn't get a chance to ask you yesterday, where are you from?" He might as well have thrown a bucket of ice on the boy; he almost visibly retreated from the question.

"Nowhere, man, nowhere at all." Marty stood and picked up the tray and the debris on the table, a clouded expression on his face as he avoided looking at Baines.

He studied his companion. "I'm sorry, I thought it was a harmless question." The guy didn't want to talk about home, which was fine by him. He didn't much want to think about the subject, either.

Blank was still talking to him though. "Doesn't make for very good dining conversation."

Baines stood and prepared to leave as well. "You want to go the gym after a while? I need to study some first."

The expression on Marty's face lightened, and he almost smiled. "That'd be great, sure. I was planning on doing some of that too. Studying."

They had misjudged the amount of study material. There proved to be more than a few hours worth, and it left them little time for the promised workout. They settled on a few laps around the track and turned in early. Reveille was called at o-dark-hundred, as his drill instructor had called it.

It was a joy to be back in the stream of things. Baines settled into the new routine easily, but he noticed that Marty stayed in close proximity to him when ever possible. He also tended to stay alone unless he was specifically invited to join his barrack-mates in whatever activity they were engaging in. The intensity with which Marty looked at people, a kind of instant assessment and dismissal hadn't made him many friends. Baines liked the kid, though. Marty had an acid-edged wit, and they ended up as friends. It was a friendship that was edgy and sharp; Marty's caustic and dark humor was softened by Baines' easygoing acceptance of him. No one would ever mistake them for twins, but they seemed to complement each other.

Baines had a great empathy for the lonely and disenfranchised. Martin was more than that though, there was a dark blight on his soul, and it made Baines feel somewhat protective of him. The force of Baines' persuasive nature made others accept Marty to a degree, but he was still dark Neptune in orbit around Baines brilliant charm.

Marty was straight; Baines was certain of that, but then again all of his troop would assume he himself was perfectly heterosexual. He had hardly begun his first MOS, and he had already briefly contemplated breaking the promise he had made to himself. The fast track to Officers' School left no room for the scandal that a gay relationship with a fellow soldier would engender; but he could still imagine the explosion of passion that might be released from Martin Blank. He was held in check at all times, as if once cut loose there would be no retrieving the shattered pieces of Marty that would fly out uncontrolled.

One of the jobs Baines had been assigned to was clerical duty in the new Commandants' office. Colonel Garrett had arrived just a week after Baines; and part of the new regime was a new office staff. He was one of three students that had been assigned temporary duty in rotation; this kept it from interfering with their training classes. It was dull and rote paperwork mostly, but it gave Baines free rein to snoop the files. His new shadow had inspired his curiosity, so he was the first victim in Baines' campaign of rampaging through the files to stave off boredom.

Except Martin Q. Blank's file was classified.

There were a few statistical notes, and no other records. Blank had joined up about four months after his eighteenth birthday, and arrived at Redstone Arsenal shortly after his twentieth. All other information about his previous AIT's, MOS's, assignments and missions were strangely missing, even including his pay grade. Those files were probably under lock and key in the commandants' office. Baines loved a mystery. He was determined to draw out Mr. Mysterio, and see what the cloak-and-dagger routine was about. It was likely he would fail, but that had never stopped him before, with the spectacular exception of making amends with his father.

The Army had its ways, and that included lots of opportunities to take plenty of exercise. Baines was fond of running, and he could be usually found at the track early in the morning. There was a standard issue invitation for anyone that would like to join him; he enjoyed the company and always ran better times with a fellow runner.

Marty had waited a few days to see if any one else was going to take Baines up on the offer, but no one did. They either had decided that Baines a nut, or they had other early morning plans-- plans like actually sleeping until reveille. After that he got up early every morning with Baines to run or lift weights. Baines was very pleased to see that Marty wanted to join him on these early morning excursions. Martin was a natural runner-- long and lean of line, with subtle musculature that begged further exploration. Some days they would run sprints on the track, and push themselves to their best times. Other days would be spent jogging around the base and grounds of the arsenal, exploring the area. This was the time that was spent in deep conversation.

They would walk and jog and warm up for a few minutes; these moments were always spent in quiet contemplation. There was an intimate mood that prevailed, and the confidences offered were nearly as inviolable as a confessional.

"Do you have a girlfriend at home waiting for you, Baines?"

They ran for a couple of minutes before Baines decided how to answer the question. He liked Marty, and he seemed trustworthy; but five o'clock in the morning was no time to drop a bomb on a guy. "No, no girlfriends." Another few minutes went by and Blank appeared to be in deep thought. "Why do you ask?"

"Just curious, I guess. The other guys in the barracks are constantly talking about their girls, but you don't." Onward they ran, picking up the pace as they passed the halfway point.

Marty seemed receptive to questions-- a first, in a way. "You have a girlfriend?"

"I had a girlfriend once, but that was another lifetime."

"Long time ago?"

"Years ago, and miles away. Ancient history."

"Oh." Baines carefully opened the can of worms. "Did she dump you?"

"No, I had to leave town, and that was the end of that." A bland answer, but at least Marty hadn't shut down the conversation.

"Sounds bad."

"It was, but it was the only option I had."

"That's a hard position to be in, I can honestly say I understand the need to escape."

"What could you possibly have to escape from, Baines?"

"My father seems to disapprove of the person I've become. We haven't spoken a civil word in 10 years."

"So you just don't *talk* to each other?"

"More like we just end up screaming at each other, instead."

"Must be nice." Marty muttered darkly.

Baines left it at that. They had returned to the barracks, and were cooling down out in the front of the building. It was one of those gorgeous mornings; the sunrise was burning red-gold streaks through the gray clouds, pinking them with the new day. The drifting mist was just an hour-old memory, and the dawn held perfect promise for the day.

The barracks were mostly empty; Julio Hildago and Lee Benson had already left for breakfast. Derrick King was running around the room naked, and doing his best to annoy the last occupant, Hal Davis. King suffered badly from short-guy syndrome and a serious case of testosterone poisoning, but he could be a lot of fun when he stopped being abrasive. Baines had an opinion of Kings' chances of making the grade on the SQT for the EOD; but he usually managed to separate the performance from the person. Baines took it on himself to reprimand King.

"Jesus, King cut it out, put some clothes on."

Davis was the oldest of the six by a slight margin, and somehow life in the Army hadn't burnt out the last traces of modesty in the gentle mannered black man. King had realized that his exhibitionist tendencies bothered Davis, and he now made it his daily routine to torture Davis by being in a state of undress. Granted, King had reason to be proud of his well-developed physique, tanned even in midwinter.

"Yeah, or what? You'll make me do it? Bite me, Baines."

Baines glowered at King and dismissed him as he went to shower. "Dream on, King. Dream on." The exchange between King and Baines allowed Davis to escape out the door.

King dressed while muttering under his breath; Marty was left standing in the main room. "One day, you're going to go too far, King. And I'll be there waiting."

King gave Blank a cold hard stare, then slammed the door on his way out of the barracks. The conflict between King and Blank was instantly in full swing.

Blank turned to go shower as well, and Baines was standing in the door, damp from his ablutions, with a towel wrapped around him.

"Guess I just royally pissed off King."

"Looks like it."

The week following the incident, Baines found himself running subtle interference for Marty. King was persuasive when he wanted to be, and he was slowly taking the natural unease people felt around Marty and fanning it into an active dislike for the boy. There was heavy tension in the barracks; Baines tried to negotiate a peace between the two but neither was having anything to do with it. King relished his role as instigator, and Blank considered King too small a problem to worry about. Once, a small scuffle had broken out, no more than a bit of shoving, but the fracas was squashed immediately.

There was a major brouhaha on the horizon though, and there was little Baines could do about it. He only hoped that something else would happen and divert King from his mission to humiliate Blank in a fight.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~oo(O)oo~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The parade drill for the day was completed, and the uniformed men were dispersing from the field. It was a cold day, but the sun shone out of a fair, pale blue sky.

Blank and Baines were headed toward the barracks, thinking about the upcoming afternoon class. King angled across the field to intercept Blank. His belligerent attitude was fairly shouted out by his stance.

"Come on Blank, take your licks like a man; you can't run away from me forever." The sandy haired man blocked their path.

Blank smiled a sharp grin; it had more to do with baring his teeth than any mirth. "I'm not running away from you, King. That would imply that I was afraid of you, but how can I fear someone who's as tall as you are? It's impossible." Blank simply didn't take King or his threat very seriously; he didn't see what King was doing behind the scenes to poison what little reputation Blank had.

King looked ready to launch himself at Blank; the expression on his face was apoplectic. "This ain't over until I say it is, asshole. I'll make you sorry you were ever born."

"Step in line for that one, King. I'd say you're about 20 years too late. Why don't you try a threat that actually might frighten me? Come on big man, you can do better than that, I'm sure of it."

Baines decided to step in. "That's enough, Marty. Don't make this worse than it is."

Martin looked at Baines, his narrow chin emphasized by the questioning, tight-lipped expression.

King speared Baines with a glance. "You stay out of it, this is between me and Blank here." The icy blue eyes peered out from under the girlishly curled lashes that somehow seemed incongruous in the setting of King's face.

"Then I suggest *you* keep it between the two of you, and stop smearing this all over the base. I don't think you have any idea what you're getting into." Baines returned King's frosty look.

Baines himself wasn't sure, but you didn't get classified personnel records for nothing in the Army.

"Jam it, Baines." The only problem King had with Baines was his annoying tendency to defend Blank in conversation. He returned his attention to Martin, who in turn was looking curiously at Baines.

"Go on, King. Get outta here. Find someone your own size to pick on." Marty was now truly grinning at King; he found the situation amusing as hell.

King stalked off, but it was clear that the situation was careening out of control. Exasperated, Baines turned to Blank. "Why do you goad him on like that?"

"You think I need to be afraid of him?"

"No, but this is not making it any easier for you around here."

"Now, there is a threat." Marty replied sarcastically. "You're operating under the mistaken assumption that I actually care."

Baines glanced around the parade grounds, and then back at his companion. "What was that crack about being sorry you were born?"

"Leave it, Baines." Marty started to walk towards the barracks, eyes to the ground. Baines kept up. He knew about having a problem you didn't want to discuss, and there was nothing more said on the subject.

The sniping continued between King and Blank for the next few weeks. King would try to needle Blank into a fight, and Marty would just blow him off with a well-chosen phrase or two.

That was, until a particular Saturday in March. They had a standing twenty-four hour weekend pass, and they generally left the base. Sometimes it was the local watering holes for a few hours, and sometimes further a-field into the city.

This weekend was a few days after Baines' birthday, and he elected to get out and go to the new nightclub that had recently opened in Huntsville. It was probably nothing like the clubs he had frequented in Chicago during college, but it was a good excuse to escape the base for the night.

Baines took Marty with him, partly to keep him out of trouble on base, but mostly because he wanted the company. It wasn't likely he was going to go cruising for men, and having Marty there would keep him honest. There was also part of him that lingered over careless, intimate daydreams of Marty.

The motel was plain and simple, and within walking distance of the club. They checked in, changed, and had a quick dinner at the local diner next door. The line to get into the Midnight Cowboy was long by Alabama standards, and Baines was having none of it. He knew how to get admitted immediately, and promptly did just that. Marty and Baines were in, and the nightclub had nothing to do with cowboys. It was chrome, and leather, and the music was typical pop dance-club music. It was loud, loud enough to shake his insides and set up a corresponding buzz. Baines got a beer for himself, and a coke for Blank. In all the months they had spent together at Redstone, Blank had always refused to drink. They wandered the club for a minute, and then leaned on the rail that overlooked the dance floor.

The music made it nearly impossible to have a conversation, but Marty tried his best. Blank shouted into Baines' ear. "It's kind of loud, isn't it?"

Baines grinned and pulled Blanks' shoulder close to him, his lips taking the excuse to barely brush the ear he spoke directly into, as he held onto Blank. "Sound isn't even cranked up--the club is half empty. Give it another half-hour!"

After a few minutes of taking in the ambience, Baines got the urge to dance. He spied a pair of girls that looked reasonably unattached and made his way over there. He 'asked' one to dance by taking her hand and leading her to the dance floor and left Marty to sink or swim on his own; he could dance, talk, fuck, whatever.

Baines was having a great time cutting loose on the dance floor, but after a few sets, he remembered Marty. He glanced over at the table to check on him, and saw trouble brewing. King was in the house, and he had Blank sort of backed up against the table.

"Oh, shit. Excuse me." King threw the first punch as Baines was making his way through the crowd. Blank mostly avoided the drunken roundhouse, and then the fight started in earnest. There was a dark furor in the way that Blank was fighting, and King was the unlucky recipient of the pent-up aggression Blank had been storing. King didn't stand a chance; Blank took him down with a minimum of effort, and he stayed down. By the time Baines reached the scene, it was apparent that King wasn't coming around any time soon-- he was unconscious, and bleeding badly from a cut over the eye.

The club bouncer arrived at the same time as Baines. The two of them knelt next to the inert soldier and after making sure that King was indeed alive, he stood up and faced Marty. Blank appeared to be looking at King, but the stare was inward. There was turmoil in his eyes; his body was poised on the point of preparedness.

"Marty!" Baines had to shout over the music. "Marty, are you all right?" Blank didn't respond; Baines reached up to shake his shoulder and suddenly found himself in a half nelson with his right arm cruelly twisted behind his back. Fuck, this was great, just great. Blank has snapped completely.

"Whoa, Marty! Come on, now buddy. Let it go." Baines was talking to Marty even though there wasn't a chance he was hearing this. As suddenly as he had captured his second victim, Marty released Baines, and the chaos in his eyes had turned to horror. "Oh, God!" He uttered, the narrow lips mouthing the words under the din of the club. Blank stepped over King and shoved his way out through the crowd.

The bouncer focused his attention on the current crisis. "Does he always go nuts when he drinks?"

Baines yelled back, "Hell, he wasn't even drinking!" Baines was pissed that he had been caught so unaware. He thoughtfully rubbed his neck and the abraded wrist where Marty had seized him. The assault had come and gone so quickly, and it had obviously freaked out Marty worse than it had him. Baines knew he needed to get to Marty and find out what the problem was, but King required medical attention; he showed no sign of waking up.

He and the bouncer moved King into the back office to get the injured man out of the way and to break up the knot of curious onlookers. Baines used the office phone to call a cab, and left King under the care of a waitress, who was busily cleaning the blackened, dried blood off his slack face.

Marty was leaning on the wall just down the walk from the entrance, hands shoved into the pockets of his disheveled jacket. Baines leaned on the wall next to him, and lit a cigarette, and waited.

"Is he dead?" The question startled Baines with its blunt morbidity.

"Nope, but he's definitely unconscious."

"That's good I guess. That he's not dead, I mean."

"I'd say that was a very good thing. Why did you think he was dead?"

"It crossed my mind is all."

Blank was playing it cool, and that pissed Baines off more than the actual act. "What was that crap with me in the wrestling hold?" Baines wasn't going to let him off the hook for this, it was one thing to defend yourself; attacking your innocent friend was another.

"Sorry, Baines. I just wasn't thinking is all."

"Yeah, I'd say that was about right, as usual." Baines watched the cab drive up, and the doorman go to the passenger window of the vehicle to speak to the driver as he pointed towards Baines.

"I gotta go. It's not over, Blank." Baines was slowly simmering. Blank had taken King and toyed with him subtly until the fight was provoked; King wasn't smart enough to see it. The careless cruelty with which Blank had taken King down showed that he far outclassed King as a fighter, and that could label Marty Blank as a bully. Blank would get a chance to come clean about this, but he would only get one.

Baines reached the cab as the still unconscious King was being brought out of the club. He gave the bouncer a few bills and asked him to square with the waitress and bar tab that had been forgotten in the imbroglio.

Baines caught Martin's solemn eye as the cab slid into the late evening traffic, and replied with an impassive stare.

Marty watched the taxi disappear around the corner, and then shoved off the wall and started to walk back to the motel.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~oo(O)oo~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The classroom went exceptionally quiet when Martin Blank came through the door. Marty's reputation as a pariah was now firmly established; if even Baines wasn't speaking to Blank, then no one else was going to either. King had regained consciousness early Sunday morning in the base infirmary, but so far had refused to press assault and battery charges; Blank had also refused to do so. They were both under disciplinary review, however, and Baines was in the uncomfortable position of being the key witness to the fight.

The instructor was Master Sergeant Hopper; a man in his fifties, and his devotion to the EOD was evidenced by the conspicuous absence of several fingers on his right hand. He had no love for smart-aleck soldiers, and early on Blank had fallen into that category. He also recognized that Blank was one of his best students, and for that he gave him a measure of respect, but very little slack. The class was called to order and the work on their first class mission proceeded apace.

After dismissal, Baines was left packing up the material he maintained as the assigned team leader. Baines had been avoiding Blank; he had yet to be debriefed by the Army JAG. The difference between civilian and military law was huge; there was no reason to not speak to Marty, but he was still angry and didn't want to talk about it. That excuse was about to evaporate, though, and he'd be forced to deal with the situation intimately once King was released to the barracks from the infirmary tonight.

Blank stood at the door of the building, patiently waiting for Baines to finish, and leave the classroom. Baines gave him an emotionless look and passed him without a word. Blank started walking with him as he left the building.

"I'd like to talk to you, Baines. About what happened Saturday."

"I can't right now, I've got an appointment with the JAG rep and Colonel Garrett."

"Yeah, I know, me too."

They walked silently, side by side toward HQ and the CO's office. Reporting to the clerk in the outer office, they sat a few chairs apart, waiting to be called in. After a few moments a civilian came into the office and paused as he looked at Blank, and then Baines. He walked though to Colonel Garrett's office without checking in. Baines looked at Marty questioningly; Army lawyers were uniformed, and the bearing of this man shrieked power-- but not the military kind. Blank was altogether avoiding his gaze.

The two privates continued to wait.

More than a few minute later, the clerk was buzzed at his desk, and listened for a moment on the phone. "Yes, sir."

"Private Blank, would you step into the commandants' office? You can go, Private Baines. Your appointment has been canceled."

Baines knew better than to question the company clerk, he had held that position briefly, until the permanent clerk had been assigned.

Dismissed like, well, a private. That was the worst pisser about the Army. They were lower than worms' bellies and treated with just about as much respect. It was not near as bad in the MOS; they had been shown a modicum of regard in the AIT, and basic training had been the worst. Most things were on a need-to-know basis, and they didn't think he needed to know why he was suddenly unnecessary.

Baines saluted the Second Lieutenant and had opened the outer door to leave when Colonel Garrett opened his office door and came into the foyer. He spoke to Baines. "Private, do you have a moment?" Garrett was a dedicated professional, grayed at the temple, but it was obvious he had spent too many years behind a desk.

Baines did an about-face and saluted. "Yes, sir. I do."

"Very well, why don't we step in here?" Colonel Garrett motioned to the unoccupied office of the Army Missile Command's liaison officer. "Would you see that we're not disturbed, Lieutenant?" He spoke to the clerk over his shoulder as he ushered Baines through the door and closed it behind them.

Colonel Garrett took over the office; the slightly pudgy man sat easily behind the desk, and motioned to Baines to also sit. "At ease, soldier, we're just here to have a conversation. This is off the record, Baines."

"Yes, sir." Baines sat in a way that made it look like he was still at attention. He liked, and got along well with the older officer.

"Private Baines, how well do you know Private Blank?"

"We share quarters, and are classmates. It's very likely that I could be classified as his closest friend here."

"Were you acquainted with Blank prior to being assigned to the EOD?

"No sir, I met him on arrival here."

"Tell me about the fight in the Midnight Cowboy."

Baines gave a brief unembellished, description of the events from two days before. "King had Blank backed up against a table when I saw them. I started to go break them apart, but the fight started before I could reach them."

"You saw the whole thing, then?"

"Yes I did, sir."

Garrett leaned back in the chair and swiveled slightly to look out the half-drawn venetian blinds. "What is your opinion of Private Blank?"

Baines thought for a moment on the exact phrasing of his statement. "He's smart, capable, and_ driven."

The Colonel smiled at that. "I think I understand. I want to thank you for your aid and assistance on Saturday, Baines. You exhibited some quick thinking getting King back on base."

Baines smiled back at the Colonel, it was good to have his efforts recognized. "Thank you, sir."

"I'm sorry your Saturday pass was cut short, son. In consideration of that, I'll authorize a two day pass to be used at your discretion."

"That is very generous of you, Colonel Garrett. I appreciate the gesture."

"I believe we can consider the matter closed, assuming King doesn't change his mind and press charges."

"I hope so, sir. I know I'm sick of the whole mess."

Garrett looked at Baines straight in the eye, and agreed whole-heartedly. "You and me both, son.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~oo(O)oo~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Baines went to the gym, and found a pick-up game of basketball in progress, and he was immediately drafted. He'd spent an hour in ruthless competition of three on three, when he noticed Blank sitting high up in the small bleachers. He was leaning back against the pew behind him and had his legs stretched across the bench in front, a rare enigmatic smile lighting up his face.

"OK, guys, one more round, and then I'm out." Baines looked up again at the bleachers and Blank was gone-- weird as hell. He looked around the gym for the other man, and he was simply not there. Baines shook his head and returned to the game. They played to the next scoring point, and Baines went to shower and find Blank.

He finally caught up with Blank in the mess hall; he pretty much had the table to himself so there wasn't going to be any question of someone eavesdropping in on their conversation. Not that there was very much to overhear. Baines sitting down to dinner with Blank would send a signal that Blank was out of the doghouse, so it was probably a good thing that the peace conference was in a very public place.

"Baines."

"Blank." A short pause, and when he continued, there was that damned hitch in his voice that was a dead giveaway to his emotional state. He had discovered he didn't like being at odds with Martin. He cleared his throat. "So, you wanted to talk to me earlier."

"Yeah. Yeah, I did. What I meant was, I do. I do want to talk to you."

"Why did you leave the gym?"

"You were busy."

"You left kinda fast."

"I had to go see King."

"Oh, yeah, really?"

"Part of my punishment detail. Make peace with King, and I'm restricted to base until we leave for Nevada."

"Not bad. How did it go with King?"

"Pretty well I think, at least we're both still alive."

Baines winced at that one, but let it pass. "That's a plus. Are we going to wake up to the two of you having killed each other during night?"

"No, I think we have an agreement to let each other live-- for now." Marty smiled, encouraging Baines to share in the little black joke.

Baines did smile; it was an irresistible invitation. "So, Marty. Can I ask you a question?"

"Yeah, anything. Fire away."

"What were you thinking when you grabbed me after King went down?"

Blank took a bite, looking over and through Baines while he considered his reply. "I got some pretty specialized training before I came here. Sort of dovetailed in with my psych profile. Anyway, I was kind of zoned out, in a place that can be hard to come out of."

"I'm not buying it, Marty. What was going on in your head, man?" Baines looked him in the eye, and didn't look away when Marty's glance flickered.

Marty nodded, and smiled a little. "Didn't expect you to, but I had to give it a shot."

Baines continued to stare at Blank.

"In my head, I was fighting with my father, not King. I expected him to jump back up and keep fighting. You happened to catch me at that moment."

It was Baines turn to look away, his eyes flashing downward. 'This. This zone isn't accidental."

"No, it's not."

They ate quietly for a few moments, as they digested the meal and conversation alike. Baines looked back at Blank. "I don't want to know, do I?"

"Probably not a good idea, no."

Baines accepted that. "But why did you harass King to that point? Till he attacked you?"

"King is a bully, and I planned on taking him down a notch. He just turned into too good a target. He never got to the point where I could just humiliate him in a little fight on base so that he would get a disciplinary action."

"Because of Davis?"

"Because of Davis and a few other things." Marty spoke with a certain finality that made it very clear there was not going to be any discussion of what the 'few other things' might entail.

The change of topic spurred Baines on. "Who was that in Colonel Garrett's office?"

"An adviser for a group I'm supposed to go work with after I'm through here."

"And I don't want to know any more, do I?"

Martin grinned. "You're pretty smart for a white boy from Chicago."

"Thanks, that's a compliment coming from a white boy from Detroit. I think"

They grinned, some of the tension released by having boundaries set around certain pieces of information. The dark that surrounded Marty was like an anti-light to the perverse moth at Baines heart. It pulled him closer, and that was bad.

Baines still harbored a few secrets of his own. He was going to keep them for a while longer, even though he knew the longer he maintained the secret the harder it would be to break the silence. The rift between them had unsettled Cyril, and he hadn't liked the feeling at all.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~oo(O)oo~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was 5:00 AM and reveille wasn't for another hour. Baines dressed for his run in the dark; King had slept fitfully in his first night back in the barracks. Blank and King had been cordial and polite, but there was a strain in the air. Lee and Hildago were certain that Blank was the Anti-Christ, but Davis was grateful that Blank had forced King under some form of control, though the measures had been drastic.

The heavy rains during the night left them no choice but to run on the track. He hadn't expected Marty to join him as he was warming up, but Baines was glad that he had company this morning. His sleep had been plagued with a spate of dreams of telephones and attics, all with poor endings; his subconscious was telling him in no uncertain terms there was something bothering him. It could mean any number of things, but the message was clear, communication was at the heart of it.

They jogged slowly at first, warming up to the exercise, as well to the conversation Baines planned on having with Blank. The dawn's imminent arrival was hailed by the sky becoming a paler shade of gray. This was his favorite time of day, the few moments before the sun arose. Baines could savor the quiet, and draw from the strength of the new day. This was so difficult, the rejection he had faced so often and so intimately in the past made him gun-shy. It wasn't that he wanted approval from Blank, but he wanted some measure of reassurance that the relationship they had was based on acceptance, which was quite paradoxical, since how could Marty accept that of which he was unaware? How could Marty trust someone who had been keeping secrets from him? Baines knew Marty was sort of his "test market". There were other people from whom he needed acceptance.

"Marty, I've got to tell you something."

"Okay, what is it?"

Baines took a huge breath, and decided there was no beating around the issue, and dropped the five AM bomb he'd been waiting months to drop. "I'm gay."

Blank stopped running, and leaned over, gasping from the sudden stop in momentum. Baines stopped and went back to where Blank was holding onto his knees and panting.

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner. I hadn't actually planned on telling you at all."

"Baines, you expect me to be surprised?"

'Well, yeah, some."

"Sorry, man. No girlfriend, no horror story about a broken heart, a ten-year old disagreement with your father? Add it up, Baines."

Baines stared at Marty, with that blank face that covered nothing. "Really?"

"Don't worry about it. Might be a few suspicions around base, but you've done nothing to fuel the rumor mill, the absence of action may be more like it."

"And that doesn't bother you?"

"Not particularly, no."

Baines started to walk back to the starting line where they had left their gear, all thoughts of running pushed out of his mind. Maybe this was the point of the dreams, to open his own eyes-- that being gay wasn't the problem he'd been taught to believe it was.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~oo(O)oo~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The evening was soft and damp, faint tendrils of spring fog were starting to curl around Cyril Baines' ankles. He had stepped out for a rare half-hour that was perfect for a walk and a smoke. They were leaving in the morning for Pine Grove Flats, Nevada, and the expedition promised to be thrilling. Four instructors had chosen a small squad of twelve for the training expedition: retrieval of old canisters of mustard gas neutralizer that had been stored and forgotten in an old mineshaft. The canisters had to be nearly fifty years old, and the experience would be a perfect illustration of the particular objectives they had been studying. Baines and Blank were both chosen, as they were always one and two in class academically, although the instructors seemed to feel the same way about Marty as his troop members: uneasy and almost afraid.

Baines heard quiet steps behind him, and he slowed so Marty could easily catch up. "Hey Marty."

"Nice night, Baines."

"Yeah, it is. I talked to my Mom today; it snowed again at home. The next door neighbor had to come and clean the drive off for her. My father's gone off somewhere classified again."

Marty made a non-committal noise somewhere half-way between disinterest and agreement.

"You don't call home much, Marty." If at all, he though to himself.

"No point in making myself take the abuse, Baines."

Baines had four or five comments to make about the cryptic remark, but he left it. "Ready to go tomorrow?"

"Yeah, I'm jazzed. This'll be great." Marty sounded very pleased.

"Better than hanging around Alabama?" Baines asked, but he already knew the answer.

"You aren't kidding! I'll be so glad to get off base!" Blank replied fervently.

Baines laughed. "Yes, I can see that."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~oo(O)oo~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Travel the Army Way was intense and exhausting. The C-130 had brought the equipment they had pulled together, under tight supervision from the instructor, to the base at Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah. Four 5-tons were checked out and loaded, and the nightlong overland journey was made. On their arrival at Pine Grove Flats, the squad worked carefully and efficiently in the early morning hours; this might be a training exercise, but it had its inherent dangers. The bivouac was set up about a half mile from the mineshaft entrance, and the equipment was unloaded, inspected and prepared for the next day.

Baines was bone tired, but he was still keyed up with the excitement about the upcoming maneuver. The dry, clear night had revealed an incredible display of stars, and he sat behind the tent he shared with Blank to block the camp's artificial light. He had always enjoyed watching the night sky; at this altitude it was tantalizing and awe inspiring. The swirls of bright lights scattered on the dark sky had him nearly hypnotized, and he didn't hear Marty sit next to him.

"Thought I'd find you back here."

Baines was startled, "Shit, Marty. Either I'm way too tired, or you are getting really good at that."

"Good at what?" Marty replied with feigned innocence.

"That sneaking around shit."

"Oh, that. I'm just really really good at it, Baines. If I didn't want you to know I was here, you'd never know it." Marty sounded perfectly certain of that idea.

"You're so full of shit, Marty." Baines didn't sound so sure, recalling a few incidents in the past.

"You're a sucker, Baines."

The conversation dragged to a halt. The rapidly dropping temperature, the days' completed work and the onerous schedule for the next day precluded them from staying out very much longer. Baines and Blank crawled into their tent. Two to a tent, and they had been assigned together partly by the quirk of the alphabet that threw them together, and partly by Baines making sure it happened that way. He didn't need to have any worries in that respect. No one else really wanted to deal with Marty Blank. The rest of the squad had already repaired for the night, and so the camp was empty except for the two poor souls that had pulled the first shift of night watch. Baines and Blank would have first watch tomorrow night.

Baines stripped quickly to his BVD's, it wasn't strictly the approved sleep attire for a mission, but he definitely preferred it to sleeping in the clothes he had sweated in all day. Martin did the same; they fairly dived into their sleeping bags. Baines shivered for a moment in his bag before his body heat finally seeped into the material and began to warm. Marty was still rustling around next to him.

Baines asked in a low voice, roughened by weariness, "What's wrong?"

"It's cold. Can't sleep."

Baines considered his reply for a moment. "You want some help?" It was a simple question on one level, and a loaded question on many other levels. Marty could take it any way he wanted, or ignore it completely. The silence lengthened, and Baines had almost decided Marty was going to ignore him.

"Yeah, I do." He sounded almost sad, as if he expected to be rebuffed. Baines scooted his bag next to Marty's, and pulled him close into his chest. It was a good thing that the sleeping bags provided some padding, as Baines suddenly had a raging hard on. The opportunities to jack off in the company barracks were few and far between; it had been a few days since his last chance. It was nice though, that Marty had looked to him for some comfort, even if it was just additional body heat. Marty relaxed some, and actually snuggled back into the warm embrace provided. Baines fell asleep, despite his erection. He was too tired, and dismissed the little problem from his mind.

He awoke suddenly, and it took him only a moment to identify the cause. Marty had been tracing a finger over his face, but had frozen in place when Baines' eyes had snapped open. He whispered quietly; they were now face to face, mere inches apart. "Busted. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you_" Marty trailed off in misery, and started to push back, away from Baines.

"No, It's_ okay, really." Baines reached out and pulled Marty's head towards him slowly. There was no mistaking his intention, he was going to kiss Marty, and Baines was giving him every chance to stop him.

Their eyes were both wide open as their lips touched. It was a simple kiss. Two pairs of lips touching-- barely brushing each other. It was also a frisson of fire that raced through Baines, torching each and every nerve ending in its path. Marty started shivering again, but this time Baines doubted it was the cold. He took a second kiss, as Marty swooped to do the same. The temperature in the tent had risen to incendiary level as their tongues tangled and slid together. It was passionate, no doubt about it, and Marty was in control of the kiss; he had taken Baines between his hands and applied every ounce of his being into the exploration of Baines' face and mouth.

Baines relaxed into the caress, he loved the feeling of someone taking charge, but he wasn't idle. He managed to unzip the sleeping bag he was in and the one Marty was in as well. They had to be quiet-- the night watch changeover was due to happen shortly, and this was not something that wanted advertising.

Marty slid into the same sleeping bag as Baines, he was like quicksilver lightning with his hands and mouth, touching, and tasting Baines' skin, as if he intended to consume him. Baines pulled the quivering boy to him, and twined his legs around him so they were length to length, grinding his erection into Marty's equally hard cock. This was like a gift; he had never expected a liaison with this man, especially one made so erotic by the danger of discovery.

Marty had yanked down the briefs far enough to get to Baines' cock, and proceeded to devour it-- the dark, musky, male scent driving him on. He lapped it, sucked the head into his hot, wet mouth, biting it gently. He was a violent shock, a thunderbolt in the night, and he gave Baines no chance to do anything but accept the onslaught for what it was, blitzkrieg homage. Silently the inferno Baines had become in the hands of this crazed soldier was going up in sheets of fire, until the blast erupted into Marty's mouth. He drank it down, continuing his attack until there was nothing left to take of Baines.

Baines panted quietly, the sheen of perspiration chilling in the frigid night air. Marty was resting his head on Baines stomach, hiding his eyes on the fold of his elbow. He was kneeling in an attitude of supplication, awaiting absolution for his unmentioned sins. Baines pulled Marty's arm until he looked up in the dark. His eyes were tormented, black puddles in that white face.

Baines continued to pull Marty until he had him in his arms for a proper embrace, no sleeping bags to separate them. Marty had tears running down his face, and Baines could only wonder at their source as he gently swiped at them with his tongue and fingers. Marty shuddered at the caress but made no move to pull away. Baines held him close and petted the stricken boy in his arms, running his hands over the whipcord slim form.

Marty's erection was pressing into the vee of Baines' thigh, but he appeared to be ignoring it. Marty made no motion to further the contact between them at that point; he was as suddenly quiescent as he had been a furious gale only a moment earlier.

There were strange forces at work in Martin Blank, and Baines knew he would never solve them, nor even ever know what they were, but he would try to keep the demons at bay just now for his friend.

Baines was languorous and gentle; he was going to give this broken child a sweet taste of passion tempered with affection. It was all he himself had ever wanted, a moment of unconditional love in the arms of a lover.

Baines dragged trails with his tongue, creating a road map of damp traces to the heart of Marty. No need to blow on them, the wintry night air did its work for him. Baines ran his hands over the black hair, wishing for more length to wrap his fingers in. He kissed Marty; tasting his own semen for a moment, then the bitter taste dissolved away as the kiss deepened. Marty responded; the anguish that had clenched his throat shut easing under Baines' delicate ministrations.

Baines pushed Marty onto his back and rolled over with him, his cock starting to harden again. Marty's erection was like a prod, insistent and dull, in his side. He kneeled over the prone man, his hands stroking the long thin flanks. Baines ran his thumbs over the nipples until they hardened, then leaned in to gently lick them. Marty began to show his need, panting tiny breaths. Baines wasn't going to make him wait too long.

The trail map he made curved down into the shallow dip of the navel, and then sliding back, he pulled the briefs down and off Marty. The dim light gave him but a faint impression of Marty's heavy cock. Baines, still kneeling over him, grasped the jutting penis with a firm hand and slowly stroked him as he watched the look on Marty's face. He had closed his eyes; his small mouth hung slack as he breathed shallowly, but he was tense, as if he feared this act of tenderness. Cyril lay down without letting go of the cock, so that he could gather Marty up in his arms and kiss a moment of faith into him.

Marty poured himself into the kiss; it was like trying to rescue a drowning man. Cy was almost pulled under into the desperate waters, but he managed to drag Marty to the shallows with a buoy of kind tenderness.

Baines decided that he wanted to feel Marty come in his mouth, and he slid down, hand still slowly pumping the cock as he put his tongue out to taste. The bitter fluid seeping from the slit was like amyl nitrate; it set off an explosion in Baines' head, and the tremors rocked his body with the after-shock. He slicked saliva over the head, then slowly began to take Marty's cock as far down the back of his throat as he could, sucking on it hard as he pulled up and off the cock, stroking heavily downward with his hand. Marty attempted to thrash around, and fuck Baines' mouth, but this time he wasn't in charge, and there was no hurrying through. Marty got the message, and gave a tiny whimper behind Baines' head. His hand tentatively touched Baines on the back of the neck, caressing him in time with the strokes Baines was using as a counter point to the blow-job.

Baines' other hand was running down the long hairy thigh, reaching under to raise his knee. He reached to stroke his balls in their ridged sacs then downward to the perineum, and the crack of his ass. Baines was now moving steadily up and down Marty's cock, and stroking and pulling on it. He had no idea how Marty would react if he slid his finger into his ass, but considering his already fragile state; he didn't want to find out and upset him further; there would be other chances to explore the enigma Marty presented more fully. Baines settled for pressing his thumb hard over his prostate from the outside. He felt the orgasms overtake Marty and Cy swallowed the acrid semen as if it was the last thing he would ever have to drink.

He gave the cock one last, gentle suck, and then turned to look to Marty. The blighted look was almost gone; satiated surprise was in its place. Baines smiled, he was glad he had been able to lift his friends woes temporarily. He eased back up to enfold Marty in his arms. It was a heady feeling, being able to offer comfort and care. Baines had no idea if the man-child in his arms would stay within his power the next day, but it was enough that he was for now.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~oo(O)oo~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The radio crackled to life. "This is Romeo, I've reached the floor of the mineshaft. Proceeding to the canister site. Over." Blank was maintaining careful radio protocol, this wasn't just another school assignment; he took the challenge seriously, as only he could. Blank had been outfitted with a state of the art breathing apparatus, video attached, to protect him against possible contamination.

"Roger that, Romeo. Keep your radio open to this frequency for monitoring. Juliet, over." Baines smirked at the code names. Sergeant Hopper had chosen them for the team weeks ago in the preparations for the mission; being both in the 'b''s of the alphabet, they couldn't be Baker and Baker. Baines fervently hoped the Sergeant never knew how appropriate the monikers had become since then. Hopper was maintaining the a/v equipment, and Baines, as team leader had been designated key man for the radio.

"That's an aye-firmative, Juliet. Radio stays on. Over"

The original entrance to the old silver mine had long since caved in, the ventilation shaft was now the only way in or out. The team would survey the mine, locate and inventory all of the containers, marking any that seemed in danger of immediate disintegration when they blasted open the entrance. No way were they lugging fifty year-old cans of noxious chemicals up a hundred-foot ventilation shaft. Baines watched the video feed on the monitor, tracing Blank's progress on the most recent map. The U.S. Geological Survey data was at least five years old, dating from before the discovery of the canisters in '86. The area was only just stable, tectonically speaking, but the ancient structure of the mine was another matter all together.

"Juliet, come in. Over." Blank had reached the first of the canisters.

"Go ahead Romeo. Over."

"I've reached the canisters. Setting up the air contamination test now. Telemetry check in three, two, one-- now. Over."

Baines watched the feed from the equipment run through the test pattern, and confirmed to Blank. "Romeo, topside confirms all systems go. Over."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~oo(O)oo~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The day's objective had been achieved with a one hundred percent accuracy. The canisters had been inventoried and protected; the exploration of the caved-in entrance completed, and blast points set for the next day. They had minutely reviewed the details of the setup for the explosives.

Baines and Blank had been assigned first watch this evening; a five-hour shift based on the manpower available. There was little to watch for, the nearest town or ranch might as well have been on the moon-- not fifty miles down the mountain and out into the desert.

The rest of the troop had bedded down for the night, leaving Baines and Blank to their cold watch. There was no fire; no local fuel to speak of, but the tent that was designated HQ contained a small propane heater.

Baines knew that if Marty wanted to talk about what had happened last night, he would do so of his own accord. This morning's awakening had been odd; it had been as if the encounter hadn't happened. Blank was sleeping alone in his bag, and when Baines asked if he was okay; the reply had been a short nod, and nothing more.

"Shall we take a tour around the camp perimeter, Private Blank?" Baines asked in a light, bantering tone.

"It's our duty to protect the base from the swarming Mongolian hordes, might as well meet them head on." Marty smiled at Baines; he only truly smiled if they were alone.

Baines was glad to see the smile. He couldn't help feeling deprived during the day, he really liked Marty, and the strange tryst last night naturally made him long for more. He had yet to get the hang of one night stands; the fuck 'em and leave 'em attitude was foreign to him, although not completely unknown. "Come on soldier, move it out."

They grabbed their rifles, checked the safety and ammunition, and slung them over the shoulders of their heavy jackets. There was no conversation as they rounded the section where the sleeping tents were, and headed towards the depot where the trucks were parked. Blank shined his flashlight between the trucks as they passed them, illuminating exactly nothing. Tonight was not as brightly starlit as last night; the high clouds that held no rain disguised the sky with their cloak of secrecy.

Marty spoke in a low voice, as if he was continuing a conversation. "Um thanks, Cy."

Baines was not at all disconcerted; he knew exactly where the conversation had left off. "You're welcome. I was surprised, you know. I didn't really expect_a little shocked, I guess."

They were headed back towards the HQ tent and Marty touched Cyrils' arm, halting him. "I mean, not for just last night."

He turned to look at the young soldier, and saw in those dark eyes that this was likely this was the only declaration of affection Baines would get. His heart sinking a little at that realization, Baines gave the young soldier a quick one-armed hug. "Yeah, I know. Me too."

The rest of the two-week decontamination mission went as smoothly as the first day. The entrance was blown open with tactically placed explosives and cleared of rubble; temporary supports were installed to shore up the aging mineshafts. The canisters were removed and packed away in the 5-ton for the return trip to the new disposal station in Knoxville, Tennessee. After the Bureau of Land Management had made their final inspection to ascertain that the environmental hazard had been removed, the mine was permanently resealed for safety.

Tomorrow the squad would break camp and head back on the long road to Alabama. It was another cold spring evening and the high desert night provided a spectacular a show as any they had experienced in the last two weeks.

The entire squad was sitting outside together, sharing a moment of conversation and laughing at the foibles of the mission. Baines wasn't the only one who enjoyed the night sky and by mutual silent agreement they had turned off the camp lights.

Blank pulled a camp chair next to Baines, who was sitting in near proximity to the rest of the men, but not so close to eliminate the chance of a quiet conversation.

"I'm not going back to Redstone, Cy." Blank said it conversationally, but it took Baines by complete surprise. He'd known that they were only assigned together for a few short months, but he had at least expected to finish out the course.

His voice failed him again as he cleared his throat. "What, where are you going?"

"I'm peeling off when we get back to Dugway tomorrow. Grocer wanted me out of Alabama after the incident with King, but I managed to get him to agree to let me finish this mission. Convinced him this was a critical skill I'd need later on."

"When did you know this?" Baines' heart was racing, and the blood pounding through his ears made it hard to hear what Marty was saying. There was more to this, although he couldn't tell what it was.

"When he came to see me after the King thing. The orders were to release and transfer me out of the EOD, immediately. I didn't want to do that."

"Marty, what am I not getting here? You stayed, under disciplinary action, and went through all that with King? You could have left."

"I needed to stay. I needed to stay with you, but this was all I could get."

Baines said nothing. Somehow this brash boy had found his way into Baines' heart without him even realizing it until he was suddenly gone. Now he remembered why he had made himself a promise to not get involved while he was here; no matter what, it was doomed to end badly. Just when you thought it was safe, a train came out of nowhere to run over your heart.

The stars overhead started to swim in his unshed tears. He couldn't look at Marty and maintain any control, so he looked at the night sky, wishing he were anywhere but here.

A need for action overtook Baines, and he stood and quickly walked out of camp, down the now well-worn tracks leading to the old silver mine. The moon and stars were his silent companions as he made his way in their cold, pale light. The night was quiet; the denizens of the dark seemed to sense his humiliation and went quiet as he passed-- a salute to his pain. He made the half-mile trek to the mine, and then stopped. The earth had been torn up, and the gash in the ground hastily covered over, a fitting metaphor for how he felt. The trucks with the Bobcats and other equipment they were returning to Dugway tomorrow stood in readiness. Baines made a show of pretending to check the tie downs and locks on the equipment. He rounded the last truck, and came face to face with Marty.

Somehow, it made him furious. He felt like he had been toyed with; Marty knew his proclivities and managed to weasel in and trample Baines on purpose, was it a cruel joke?

Baines stepped towards Blank, and his fist connected solidly with Marty's face. It knocked the young man to the ground; he made no move to get up or reciprocate. Marty's lip had been split, and he was bleeding profusely. Baines knew that Marty hadn't made any move towards defense. His hand throbbed, he was panting and the pain and rage were so mixed in him, he couldn't separate them. Angry that he was hurt by this person, hurt that he was angry at himself and Blank, and sick with the knowledge that no matter what he said or did, they would soon be ripped asunder.

"Why didn't you tell me, you bastard? Hell, I had the courage the come out of the closet for you! Don't you think that would've been a good time to mention you were history in a month?" Baines yelled at Marty, his hoarse voice shearing through the night air. Cy's breath came in ragged gulps; the tears that had been welling in his eyes spilled over.

They were far enough from the main camp that it was possible they might not be heard; but the night air had a way of carrying sound to places it had no business going.

Marty stood up quickly. He was shocked at the intensity of Cyrils' reaction; hadn't expected the tears or the physical backlash. He did know he had to shut Baines up, before his yelling attracted the attention of the rest of the squad. He grabbed Cy by the shoulders and quickly pulled him into a tight clinch. Baines was slightly resisting the embrace.

"Oh, God, Cy, I'm so sorry, I had no idea."

"Yeah, me neither." Baines sniffled a little, then melted in the hug. He buried his face between the coat collar and Marty's neck, which felt hot against his own tear-dampened skin. The smell with which he had just so recently become acquainted intoxicated him--Cy couldn't resist delicately sampling the salt and skin with a wet, delicate nibble.

Marty pulled back slightly from Baines. Cyrils' eyes were huge in the shadowed light of the moon; the blackness nearly swallowed Marty as he looked into them. He gathered Baines face between his hands, thumbs rubbing the tears from those pain-filled eyes. He canted Baines head in his hands and gently kissed him. The commingled taste of metallic blood and briny tears clashed, sharp and bright like a bisecting knife.

Cyril savored the tang for a moment, before the newfound misery lumped into his throat, then pushed away. He lit a cigarette and started to walk slowly enough to camp for Marty to catch up.

They took their final night walk together.

Epilogue

The VA ward was starting to drive him mad. He was sick of the food, the other men, and the smell of illness in the air. He just wanted to go *home* even if it meant dealing with his father. The sting of being snubbed by Wendell Baines when he got his Purple Heart hadn't lessened; this need to go home was a measure of his desperation to escape the hospital.

He slipped off the bed, and pulled himself erect with the crutches. He had a full cast on his leg; it was probably overkill, but that was the VA Way. Yanking the bathrobe around him tighter and checking to make sure his cigarettes and lighter were in the pocket, he easily made his way out the door of the ward to wander the halls and make the rounds of his new haunts in the facility.

The circular nursing station in the center of the wing was a hive of activity at this time of day. The nurses, aides and doctors were rushing in and out with files and charts, and the phone was ringing constantly. Baines started to hop past, when his regular three to eleven nurse called to him. "Baines! Hey, Baines!"

Cy turned around and looked. Bootsy was about seven feet tall and weighed two-fifty in pure muscle. He was the one they called if they had to subdue a vet in the throes of a PTSD event, but there wasn't a gentler caretaker on the floor. He loped over to Baines, and handed him an envelope.

It was post marked from Lisboa, Portugal, addressed with unfamiliar handwriting and no return address other than the hotel the stationary had been appropriated from. Baines turned it over, looking at it with curiosity. He thanked Bootsy and shoved the envelope in his pocket then changed plans and directions, going directly to the smoking area outside the ward.

Seated in a sunny spot out of the March wind, Baines lit up and pulled the envelope out of the bathrobe. He looked at it again, and reveled in the wonder of its exciting, anonymous nature. He carefully unsealed the flap on the back, and pulled the single page from the envelope, beginning to read the tiny, tight scrawl. Recognition of his mysterious correspondent slapped him; the old lump of leftover pain crawled into his throat.

Dear Cyril;

I heard the news of your injury in Panama and your subsequent surgery. Congratulations on the Purple Heart, I know that it means so much to you. You were always the one who cared about everything, and every one respecially me.

Though he died almost a year ago, I got the news of my fathers death today, and it made me think of you. I know you didn't have a great relationship with your Dad, but wanted you to know the truth of how it was for me, even after these two years. I think you deserve it for being the friend I so terribly needed.

My dad was an alcoholic, an abusive man who managed to rape me physically and mentally, taking from me in a single instant, all possibility of childhood. I learned the true depth of passion from him; I learned to hate, massively. My girlfriend was my escape. Debi was everything to me; from her I learned that passion had more than one face. But it wasn't enough. One day I knew that I was going to end up the same way as my father, and I had to get out, or start killing.

I got out, and the Army and I discovered each other-- they had what I needed, and they needed me to do it. The time I spent at Redstone Arsenal with you was the last I spent in the regular Army. I've been traveling around, and doing what I do best since then.

It's hard knowing that someone you were supposed to love, and be loved by, was a monster, destroying what he was supposed to be shaping and uplifting, moulding a human soul into something better. I never got the chance to confront him about the things he did to me. I'm pretty sure that I would have killed him with no regrets whatsoever.

But Cy, you don't have that black place within you. You have an incredible will, and courage to keep on trying despite the cost. Hope comes from some wellspring deep within you, and I too, was fed from that spring. I could never repay you for that, I tried once, but it wasn't enough, and it was too late. It never could be enough.

My wish for you is to be happy; I want you to understand that your father is a small-minded man with no clue as to the absolute treasure that he has within his grasp. It's his loss if he can't reconcile your life in his mind.

Your Friend,
Marty

Cyril sat and looked at the letter. His feelings about Marty were still mixed, even after this long. Martin had made him look at his life in a different way, but he had hurt him terribly. Cy still felt that Marty had manipulated him. The six weeks after the nightclub had been subtly different; at the time Baines had chalked it up to Marty merely trying to win back his good graces.

He hadn't even recognized it as a seduction.

Baines carefully folded the single page and returned it to the envelope. He looked again to make certain there was no return address: there was none. The feeling struck him that the stationary itself was a subterfuge, and there was no way to contact Marty. Cyril had always known that he would have to come to terms with the end of the relationship alone. The thought saddened him, he had gently pushed for an address when they parted, but Marty had said that he would find him. It didn't seem like enough, to know that the demons were still in control of Martin, despite (because of?) his fathers' death, but his word was still good.

Baines shivered, the thin robe wasn't proof against the chill spring air; he wiped his eyes on his sleeve, gathered himself up and went back to his bed in the ward. He fingered the letter in his pocket, and considered the real message in Marty's dark letter. He slowly picked up the phone, and dialed the number.

Wendell Baines answered the phone, and when the operator informed him it was a "Collect call from Cyril Baines", Cy was terrified he would hang up. He didn't, the charges were accepted, and the two of them were left hanging on the connection.

Cyril took a deep breath; schooled his notoriously unreliable voice, and spoke.

"Dad, I'd like to come home."

Continued in "Day After Day"


Notes

Fandom: X-TroII/Gross Point Blank

Category/Rated: Slash, Adult

Year/Length: 2001/ ~15,200 words

Pairing: Lt. Baines/Martin Blank

Spoilers: Yes, for both movies.

Disclaimer: Not mine, no profit, only having fun. Despite the fact that New Line Cinema, Inc. and North American Pictures didn't even bother to give him a *first name*, he's probably theirs. *sniff*

Summary: Baines and Blank go Camping.

Series: Two of Three, preceded by Boy With Stars in His Eye, and followed by Day After Day.

Author's Notes: Many Many hugs and kisses to Sue, Jami and Ursula, who beta'd and provided warm encouragement and great advice. My deepest thanks to: Brian Chymlak, classmate and Army guy. He even knew it was slash! No one dies. I also had to do some serious messing with dates. No one goes through the AIT and MOS this fast....

Beta: Sue, Ursula, Jami.

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