The air was dry and thick with smoke that made his lungs burn. The harness straps across his chest pulled against his side and he could taste the salty mixture of sweat and his own blood, running down from a gash above his eye. It took awhile to understand why that was happening, until he finally realized that the Black Hawk was lying on its side, leaving him hanging in his pilot’s chair. He could smell fuel.
With sudden, sick terror Jake realized that one or both fuel tanks had been ruptured in the crash. He had to shut down the main engines before the fuel ignited and everyone in the Black Hawk burned alive.
The engine control console was right above him. All he had to do was reach up and switch it off. If he did that everything would be fine, they’d have time to get out. But he couldn’t move.
Jake couldn’t move. His arms were like lead; just lifting his hand was almost impossible. He started screaming for help but his voice wasn’t working either and he couldn’t make a sound. He could see people moving outside his Black Hawk–the crew of Skites’s copter that hadn’t been hit–but they didn’t know he was there. They didn’t know he couldn’t turn the engines off. And the helicopter was going to burn and they were all going to burn and he was screaming and no one could hear him–
Jake’s eyes snapped open to the silvered dark of his room. He’d woken himself up with his own cries for help.
He rocketed upright, because for a second he wasn’t sure if he really was paralyzed or not and he needed to know if his body would obey him. For a long time he stayed like that, with his temple pressed against the smooth, painted drywall and his fists clenched and shaking. “God, help me. Please help me,” he panted the small, fervent prayer. “Please help me.” He put his hands on the wall, needing to touch something solid. “It was just a dream,” he said. “You’re okay. It was just a dream.” The wall, the bed, the shabby three-story house around him were real. He was in his sister’s house on a small side street in the city of Toronto and he was safe and this was real.
It hadn’t even happened like that. Jake hadn’t been the Pilot in Command. He’d been on the side of the Black Hawk that had rolled into the sand. And he’d been too dazed–too stupid–to know what was going to happen.
Jake put his hands over his face then raked his hair back. His forehead was damp with new sweat and it felt like his heart was never going to slow down.
He fumbled along the wall until he found the light switch and snapped it on. The bedroom flooded with light and made his eyes hurt, but at least if he could see he could be certain where he was. He squinted at the brightness until he could fully open his eyes, and then checked his watch to find out how long it had been this time. It was four thirty-six AM. He hadn’t even managed to sleep for four hours.
Jake heaved out a slightly shuddering breath. He wasn’t going to be worth shit in the morning but there was no way he’d be able to sleep any more tonight. He got out of the bed, thought about taking another shower but decided it wasn’t worth the effort.
He padded over the fake wood floor of his little basement apartment to the kitchen, tugging on a ragged shard of his thumbnail with his teeth. The kitchen was just big enough for a sink, bar fridge, a two-burner stove and a two-person table wedged into the far corner of the tiny room. He’d bought a laptop before he’d been deployed and it was one of the few possessions he’d been lucky enough to get back while he was hospitalized. Alice wanted him to use the desktop computer in the living room, though, so he wouldn’t isolate himself by holing up in the basement. She got pissed at him when he just stayed in his apartment, but right now Jake wasn’t about to risk waking her by going upstairs. She had enough problems. Besides, if she knew how little he was really sleeping she’d just start nagging him to get pills or go to a doctor or something, and Jake didn’t want to have to deal with it. It was easier being alone.
His laptop was better than her computer, anyway. He smiled to himself at how quickly it booted up and found the internet connection. The employment search engines were already bookmarked.
There were very few jobs for helicopter pilots in Ontario, especially near to the city, but he could be a helicopter flight instructor if he wanted, or fly tours out from the Billy Bishop Airport on Toronto Island. He had enough experience. All he had to do was apply.
Lying where Skites had dragged him, trail of his blood soaked into the sand a black line in the firelight. The smell of smoke and charred flesh all around him. Someone in the helicopter screaming as they burned…
Jake shut his eyes and swallowed then slapped the laptop screen down over the keyboard. “Don’t think about it,” he gritted through his clenched teeth. “Just don’t fucking think about it!” He ground the heel of his hand into one of his eye sockets until it hurt, focusing on the small point of pain. There. There. It was okay. He was fine.
He went back to the bedroom, thinking that he needed more civilian clothes as he threw on boxers and a pair of jeans. Alice said there were good sales on right now, but Jake always hated shopping and he couldn’t stomach the idea of crowded stores with their typically blaring music.
He splashed water on his face and brushed his teeth. He’d given in to Alice’s nagging and finally got his hair cut a couple months ago and it was still short enough that he didn’t really have to do anything to it. He went back to the bed and pulled his dog tags out from under the pillow and put them on, making sure they were hidden under the collar of his t-shirt.
He left Alice a note on the fridge upstairs telling her he’d be back later and not to worry about him, then made sure to reset the alarm just before he left. Alice kept insisting that Toronto was one of the safest cities in the world, but it was hard to trust strangers after spending time in a war zone. And sometimes Jake’s nightmares were about people breaking in and burning the house down with Alice and Molly still in it. He would never let that happen in real life.
Jake walked down the quiet, quiet street and automatically headed towards the Danforth, thinking that he might as well walk all the way downtown. The bars and clubs were closed now, but the temperature was finally bearable and at least it would give him something to do. He wondered if Gabriel was still up, wherever he lived. Maybe Gabriel had trouble sleeping too, though Jake doubted it. He considered going back to the tattoo shop, but there was no way it would be open this early. He’d see Gabriel that night, anyway.
But it was a long time until then, with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Jake would probably go to the gym later, since it was a good way of getting out of his head for awhile, but that place didn’t open until seven. Other than talking to Gabriel again, there was nothing for Jake to look forward to.
Jake shook away the thought, scowling at himself. He didn’t need things to look forward to, he needed a damn job. Something that would fill his time and mean he could actually help his sister out, since Alice kept refusing to let him use his savings or small VA compensation. And as soon as he could sleep a little better at night and keep from thinking about the fucking Black Hawk so much, he’d be able to. He just needed to get over what happened.
He walked on, heading further into the early morning.
“Gabe–will you please stop it already? You’re making me nervous.”
Gabe looked at Dee in confusion. “Stop what? I’m just standing here!”
“I know! Just…will you stand somewhere else?” She pointed helpfully at the loveseat with her hand that was wrapped around the spray bottle of environmentally friendly cleaner. “You’re all twitchy. It’s freaking me out.”
“I wasn’t doing anything!” Gabe protested. “Fine,” he huffed and grabbed his sketchbook off the counter, then ignored Dee’s heartfelt ‘thank God’ as he walked over to the loveseat. He would’ve preferred the chaise-longue, but Rob had claimed it as usual. He was completely stretched out and reading yet another novel Gabe had never heard of.
Gabe sat down. “There,” he called to Dee. “I’m sitting. Better?”
“Barely,” Dee said. She started vigorously spraying the countertop, her dyed-black pigtails swaying back and forth. Tonight she had on some ribbed black corset thing that looked like it was made of silk, just tight enough that her ample waist and breasts were spilling out a bit at either end of the material. It made her look even more voluptuous than she normally did, and while women didn’t do all that much for him Gabe could still appreciate how Seb couldn’t take his eyes off her.
Gabe shook his head and flipped his sketchbook open to the flash he was designing for Jake Maclean, formerly of Indiana and who was exactly fifteen minutes late. Not that Gabe was thinking about him. He pulled his current favorite pencil out from the binding rings and held it between his teeth as he looked at the flash design again.
It looked pretty good, if he did say so himself.
He’d researched pictures of deserts at sunset on the internet, to make sure he got the color and shadows right, though he wished now he’d been smart enough to ask Jake where he’d been. Gabe had taken a guess and assumed Iraq, because that was where all the American soldiers were sent, as far as he knew. For the first time in years Gabe wished he paid more attention to the news.
Gabe always tried to get the flash as accurate as possible for the customers no matter what it was, but with Jake he wanted to get it exactly right. Maybe that was why Gabe was feeling so jittery, waiting for Jake to finally get his ass in gear and walk through the door. Jake had been pretty intense already, describing what he wanted. Gabe didn’t want to let him down.
If he ever bothered to show up, that was. Asshole.
“All right, that’s done,” Dee said. Gabe looked up to see her throw a wadded-up piece of paper towel into the wastebasket under the counter. “Weren’t you expecting somebody? That’s why you made Seb take the walk-in, right?” she asked, as if she felt she had to remind Gabe that he’d taken advantage of the generosity of her occasional boyfriend.
“I told Gabe he didn’t have to come in today,” Rob said, still reading.
Gabe smiled smugly at Dee, even though she was right. Gabe had totally unloaded the walk-in on Seb, though that was mostly because he’d hated the girl’s laugh and she laughed at everything.
He wished he’d taken her now, though, because that way he wouldn’t have ended up sitting around like a dick waiting for some fucking American who–actually walked in the door right that second.
Gabe rocketed upright and Jake’s attention whipped around to him as fast as if Gabe had just pointed a gun at him, but his raised hands relaxed and his clenched jaw morphed almost immediately into a loose grin that lit up his face.
Jake looked incredible, Gabe thought, even though he was even scruffier than he’d been the night before and his shirt looked slept in. He was also wearing a pair of sunglasses that were so dark Gabe couldn’t see his eyes.
“Hi,” Jake said, wandering over and still grinning. “Sorry I’m late.” He didn’t sound it, but Gabe just gave a mental shrug and smiled back.
“Hi,” he said. The embarrassing rush of attraction hadn’t disappeared overnight. If anything it was that much worse, without the safety of the counter as a barrier between them. “I mean, that’s okay,” he added quickly when he realized he hadn’t responded to Jake’s apology. “I was just, um, going over your design.” He held up the sketchbook as if he had to prove it.
“Oh, great,” Jake said, though he made no move to take the book or even really look at it. They were standing close enough together that Gabe could feel the heat from Jake’s body, augmented by the warmth from outside. Gabe was also pretty sure there was a faint scent of alcohol when Jake exhaled. He wondered if Jake had been out getting buzzed while Gabe was waiting for him. “Wait. Here.” Jake slapped at the pockets of his jeans before he finally found what he was looking for. He held out a crumpled piece of glossy paper. “For the words,” he explained as Gabe took it uncertainly from him and smoothed the page out.
“That one,” Jake said, pointing at the largest type on the page. The paper had very obviously been ripped out of a magazine.
“Cool,” Gabe said, nodding as he looked at it. The font was the kind that Gabe always associated with medieval priests chanting and swinging incense burners, and pretty much what he would’ve picked himself for the tattoo. He still thought the words Jake wanted were harsh as fuck, but he wasn’t the guy who’d have to wear it. He folded the page more neatly and slid it into the sketchbook alongside Jake’s picture of the helicopter. “So, this is what I’ve come up with so far,” he said, holding out the book so Jake could take it from him, with the top page showing the flash design.
Gabe couldn’t see Jake’s eyes moving behind the smoked lenses of his glasses, but Jake’s head jerked as he glanced at the picture as if something in it had shocked him. He still didn’t take the sketchbook. Instead he skimmed the page and looked almost immediately back at Gabe again.
“It’s fine,” Jake said, but his smile was fixed and tight.
“You don’t like it? What’s wrong with it?” Gabe turned the sketchbook so he could see the picture, his stomach knotting. He hated it when he fucked up a design. Except all he’d done was to make a more detailed version of what Jake had described. And Jake had liked it, damn it, so what the hell was changing his mind? “I took a guess that you’d been in Iraq,” Gabe explained, because maybe that was what was wrong. “If that’s not what you wanted I can redo it–”
“It’s fine,” Jake said again. “It’s–there’re a couple things. But you did a good job.” But there was an edge, a tightness in his voice that made Gabe look at him again.
It was apparent that Jake was doing his best not to actually look at the picture, which meant that what he’d just said made no sense.
“I can redo it,” Gabe said.
“I said–!” Jake clapped his mouth shut on the near-shout and looked away down at the floor. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Sorry. It’s just…” He took a breath and looked up again with a thin, apologetic smile that vanished under his sunglasses. “There’s nothing wrong with the picture. Honest.”
“Okay,” Gabe said. He wasn’t sure he believed Jake, but he wasn’t going to push it. Maybe Jake really was buzzed, and that was why he was acting like this. Then again, the night before he’d been pretty on edge, too; maybe he was just on edge all the time. “Um…you said there was some stuff you still wanted?”
“Yeah,” Jake said. He might’ve been looking at Gabe, but with his shades it was impossible to tell. He didn’t say anything else.
“Okay…” Gabe said, feeling incredibly awkward. He knew he was blushing again but Jake was confusing him and Gabe had no idea what he was meant to do here. “Um.” He gestured in the direction of the stairs to the basement. “Do you want to discuss it down in the break room? Or–”
“Do you, uh, do you want to get something to eat, maybe?” Jake asked him.
Gabe blinked at him. “You mean, now?”
“Yeah,” Jake said. “But, it’s fine.” Jake gave Gabe another thin smile. “Sorry, I just figured–”
“No. I mean, yeah. Sure,” Gabe said quickly before Jake stammered himself out of his offer. “We can get something. I mean, that’d be fine. Good. That’d be good.”
“Great,” Jake said. He gestured vaguely at the door then back at Gabe. “So, should we…?”
“Yeah, sure.” Gabe refolded the sketchbook to protect the drawing then tucked it under his arm. “Oh, just a sec.” He looked at Dee, who he was sure had listened to the whole conversation but was pretending she hadn’t. Her lips twitched like she was trying not to laugh. “I’m going to go, okay? I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Have a nice evening,” Rob said.
“Thanks,” Gabe said. Rob had been so quiet Gabe had completely forgotten he was there too. He gave a small wave, embarrassed above and beyond even his moronic lack of vocabulary. “See you tomorrow, then.”
“Have fun,” Dee said brightly.
Rob smiled too, but his gaze was sharp as he watched Jake cross the room. Gabe gave Rob another smile in return and then headed to the door, eager to leave. “Let’s go,” he said to Jake, then held the door open for him.