hecu_marine: (dress blues)
The Bar patrons were right about one thing: pretty much the instant Shephard crossed the midpoint of the steps leading upstairs, he stopped being an eight foot tall blue-purple alien thing in armor and started being a human in fatigues again. Yeah, he wound up with his face in the stairs, but it was his face and he got to curse about it without cutting his tongue to ribbons, which, all in all, he considered a net plus. His bunk was exactly where he'd left it, too. That was a big plus. Milliways tended to move it around without warning. He patted the doorframe, murmured his thanks, and headed into the shower. He'd spent a good portion of the afternoon running the lake as fast as his bizarrely bent and hoofed alien legs would allow, just to see what he could accomplish with them, and now his human body was outright exhausted. He barely bothered drying off afterwards. By the time his head hit the pillow he was already asleep.

"On your feet, Corporal."

It was one of those voices you did not disobey. It was a voice dead men would not disobey. Shephard was saluting before his eyes were even open. "Sir."

He came awake properly, suppressing a yawn, as the other man returned the gesture. His eyes fell on the white feather in the band of his bush hat, skipped swiftly down to the stripes on his arm, the service insignia on his chest-

"Permission to pinch myself, Gunny?" Shephard said in a strangled voice.

"Granted." Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock's face wrinkled in a momentary smile. "Although I can tell you right now it won't make much difference."

"After last time, Gunny, I don't much feel like taking chances." He pinched the back of his forearm as hard as he could, biting back the swearword that rose into his throat. "Still there?"

"Sure am."

Shephard let out a massive exhale, nodded. He didn't remember seeing any headcrabs in the Bar, and he sure wasn't in nearly as much pain as he remembered from the Borealis, so...

"You can relax, Corporal. This is the real thing." The older man cocked an eyebrow at him. "Temporary. But the real thing."

"Last time-"

"Was a pretty by-the-book hallucination. The part with the Smurfs should've tipped you off." He shook his head and added, dryly, "Really, Corporal? Smurfs?"

"Ain't my fault I got that kind of shi- stuff in my head, Gunny." Shephard winced. "Question, though-"

"Yes, Corporal, I am in fact currently dead," Hathcock answered. "And yes, I am in fact physically present, through means I am not currently at liberty to disclose beyond 'Milliways'."

Shephard nodded silently. He'd just spent the day as a four-jawed backward-legged eight foot tall space alien. Bringing one of the greatest snipers in Corps history back from the dead and letting him into Shephard's room was absolutely nothing by comparison.

"I'm not the only one, either." The other man hesitated, as if weighing his next words. "Matter of fact, Corporal..."

"Gunny?"

"I'm led to understand you've set yourself something of a career goal, Corporal," Hathcock said. "Redeeming your unit's honor and reviving the rest of the Corps. Am I correct in that understanding?"

Shephard fought the urge to shift uncomfortably under that gaze. "Yes, Gunny," he said instead, and drew himself up a little straighter.

"That's what I thought." Hathcock didn't quite sigh, but he suddenly looked as if he'd like to. "That's a pretty tall order, Corporal. For anyone."

"I'm aware of that, Gunny. I don't know that I've got much of a choice. Job's got to be done."

"Mm." Hathcock put both hands behind his back. "About that."

"Gunny?"

"I'm not sure if you know what you're getting into, Corporal. Or what you've got to bear up under."

Shephard started to open his mouth, started to say something about the flack he'd already caught from Ms. Vance and the others at White Forest. Then he stopped. Something in his visitor's look suggested that that wasn't what he meant at all.

"Corporal, if you're genuinely serious about picking up where the Corps left off, you'd better be prepared to see it through to the bitter end. Starting with understanding just exactly who you're making yourself beholden to."

"I already know that, Gunny. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't."

Hathcock shook his head. "Maybe. Maybe," he said. "But this isn't the kind of thing we can trust to 'maybe'. Or to bad motivations, either. Answer me this, Corporal, as honestly as you can. Who or what are you doing this for?"

There was a brief, irritated instant in which Shephard almost said to spite every motherfucking dog bastard shit who ever gave us hell. It brought with it the flash-memory of his Osprey's last moments over Black Mesa, and the last time he ever saw any of his fellow HECU members alive; he swallowed. "Doin' it for the men we lost, Gunny. Black Mesa, the Xen invasion, the Combine... all of 'em."

"Mm." The other man nodded. "Good answer. I hope you mean that, I really do."

"Don't know how I ought to go 'bout provin' that I do, Gunny."

"Good thing I do, then, isn't it." Hathcock gave a drawn, mirthless smile. "I'll make this simple, Corporal. You hold your position, right here, right now, just as you are. You hold that position until I tell you to stand down. Simple enough test, isn't it?"

'A simple test' from a man with three stripes on his sleeve did not happen, in Shephard's experience. They were no more simple or easy than they were escapable. His jaw clenched a moment before he nodded. "Whatever you say, Gunny."

"Good." Hathcock stepped back, gestured sharply to the nearby shadows. "Send 'em in, boys."

Shephard braced himself, waiting for the attack he was sure was coming. All that happened was that a lone uniformed figure stepped out of the shadows- a figure Shephard remembered with a sudden, cold burst of shock. "Corporal Stephen Bahl," the pale man said, "Hazardous Environment Combat Unit. Goose 3, May 16th, 2001."

Bahl saluted; Shephard stared, only returning the gesture out of reflex. As Bahl stepped back into the shadows, Shephard looked wordlessly to Hathcock.

Hathcock lifted an eyebrow briefly. "Problem, Corporal? A man ought to know what he's fighting for."

There was motion in the shadows again. Shephard turned back to find another familiar face- "Corporal Patrick Deupree, Hazardous Environment Combat Unit. Goose 3, May 16th, 2001."

He saluted, stepped back, and was replaced by a third, dark-skinned figure that Shephard knew all too well. "Sergeant Harrison Tower," the other man growled. "Hazardous Environment Combat Unit. Pit Worm's den, May 16th, 2001."

As Tower vanished into the shadows Shephard looked to Hathcock again. "Gunny? Why?" he whispered.

"'All the men we lost', Corporal," said Hathcock quietly. "'Black Mesa, the Xen invasion, and the Combine'. You're the only one alive who can speak for them all, so you'd better be able to bear up under that."

There was a long, long silence.

"... all right," Shephard finally said, and turned back to face the next approaching dead man.

It was about to be a very long night.
hecu_marine: (pic#)
To the ears of someone accustomed to the sounds of a human city in their heydays, or the sounds of Milliways, it's quiet. There's no machinery to be heard anywhere, no engines of any kind. There's no music trickling through the background. There's no sound of human speech.

To someone used to the sounds of wilderness, it's only moderately quiet. Insects are going more dormant as evening draws on, and birds are still twittering to one another, though they're one by one roosting and dropping off to sleep. Tree branches and undergrowth chatter in the occasional breeze, the last gasps of anything like summer before autumn gets its chance to shine.

And the fire hisses and pops, crackling gleefully in its little pit. That's probably the first thing someone newly awakened under the late evening sky will notice in the little clearing, unless it's the worn and torn burlap underneath them, or the former saplings stripped down to poles on either side.

The only other human in the clearing doesn't even figure into it; he's on the other side of the fire, holding still in his camouflage fatigues and dark green vest, and isn't likely to be noticed under the best of circumstances. At least, not just yet.

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Sergeant-Major Adrian Shephard

October 2016

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