I am actually finishing up Fish Out of Water 3 (Road Fish) and I’m doing Avengers Swag Assemble too. (AKA, Amy’s little sweatshop.) So, pretty busy weekend for a woman who didn’t go anywhere–but Burton and Ernie are about in the place where I’m wrapping them up and dropping them off at the beginning of Fish. Then I’m writing the whole novella and releasing it right after Fish in the fall.
So that’s actually sort of cool.
But in the meantime, let’s see what they’re up to now…
Hiding the Moon, Part 11
Burton cleaned up the last of the Chinese food at around two in the morning. Ernie helped him–well, helped by licking some of it off his chest–and then they ended up in bed again, and this time when Burton fell back against the rumpled sheets, he felt well and truly done.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d fucked himself out like that–but he obviously had been missing something in the meantime.
“What are you thinking?” Ernie asked, snuggling in against his chest. “I’m thinking I wish I’d charged my phone–I need to read something right now. It’s reading time, if I’m not out at the club, you know?”
“Mmm…” Burton’s phone had a reading app. “What do you like?”
Ernie’s chuckle was so wicked. “Action adventure and spy stuff.”
Burton pulled it up for him and paused, phone in mid air.
“You want the rest of my story,” Ernie said softly.
“Please. I need to know what I’m dealing with here.”
Ernie chuffed out air. “Whatever I was supposed to be doing, I failed. I mean, you’d think a ranking officer would understand, right?”
“What didn’t they get?”
“That good and bad are subjective!”
Burton blinked. “That’s pretty fucking obvious, actually.”
“Right? But they would ask me to talk to a guy and tell them if he was good or bad. I asked them what sort of criteria they wanted–because I’m not a moron! And they said, ‘Just good or bad, son.’ So, well, I’d tell them. Exec;t… I guess I thought ‘good’ was someone who wouldn’t kill without cause.”
Burton took a quick breath. “That’s my general definition too. Someone who’s not cruel. Someone who’s kind to all people not just special friends.” He didn’t mention racism–he didn’t have to, he figured, because Ernie patted his chest unhappily, like he was apologizing for something.
Hell, wasn’t Ernie’s fault.
And this other thing didn’t seem to be either.
“That’s what I thought,” Ernie said, voice dropping. “But they wanted someone who would… you know. Follow rules. Regardless. So, like…”
Burton’s heart turned cold and pumped ice through all his veins. “So like, someone who would look at a picture of a clueless club kid who fed every stray cat in town and take him out without asking why.”
Ernie shrugged. “And I could have told them that–but they kept saying they wanted someone who could be molded into the perfect soldier. Eventually, every man I shook hands with gave me a sweat-screaming, wet the bed nightmare. One day they just… just took me to Albuquerque. I have no idea even why that city, although it wasn’t so bad, really.”
“Maybe they thought the same thing you would,” Burton said thoughtfully. “Maybe they thought it would be a place where not too many voices were in your head.”
“Well they were fuckin’ wrong,” Ernie said unhappily. “They gave me money for my education, a year’s worth of cash in the bank and an honorable discharge. I… I have no idea what happened next, but… but I’m telling you, some of the men I had to assess…” He shuddered.
“Any names stick out?” Burton had seen a lot of good men in the military. But he’d seen the few bad apples, too. The ones who came to the states and beat up their wives and made the news with a lot of blood on their hands. They weren’t his job–weren’t his business–but sometimes he really wished they were.
“This one guy…” Ernie sighed. “Had red hair and this ugly knife scar across his face–“
Burton sucked in his breath. “Galway,” he muttered.
“Yeah. Him. Anyway–he liked hurting people. And when I told my CO that, he promoted the guy. Another guy named Owens who… God, the inside of his head was like a dirty toilet. And a bunch more.”
“Ernie,” Burton said, his voice dropping to a dangerous quiet.
“I’m going to call some friends in the morning. Some people who will take you in, and not ask questions, and be kind to you. But I need you to do me a favor.”
“Why can’t I stay with you?”
Burton remembered Jason’s warning that he was on his own. “Because I”m about to find out how to join this unit. You wouldn’t happen to remember your CO’s name, would you?”
“Commander Karl Lacey,” Ernie said promptly. “But you’re… what? What branch are you?”
“Multi jurisdictional covert operations.” Burton kept his voice bland, and Ernie rolled his eyes.
“Black ops. I’m not stupid.”
“You are if you mention me to anybody but my friends in So-Cal.”
Ernie sighed. “You’re going to… what? Infiltrate the enemy? Can you do that?”
Burton shrugged, feeling sleep pull at him. “It’s my job,” he said, yawning.
“Here. Give me your phone–“
“Only that app,” Burton said, unworried. Yeah, his phone could be a scary place–if he hadn’t locked everything down but the entertainment apps.
Ernie snorted. “I’m not stupid. I don’t want you to have to kill me for real.”
Ernie snuggled back into his arms. “Didn’t you tell your handler I was dead?”
“I said I walked away–“
“But he assumed. No, that’s fine. I can be dead. As long as I can read this book on your phone and maybe play Two Dots.”
“All the scary stuff is locked,” Burton said with a yawn.
“Yeah. I know. But I’m not going to tempt fate.” Ernie smiled, so sweetly Burton’s heart about broke. “I mean, we’ve had this night. How much better can my life get?”
He started reading then, and Lee Burton, who trusted nobody, yawned and fell asleep with Ernie on his chest.
He woke up a few hours later, and Ernie was right where Lee had left him, phone off and shoved under the pillow. His mouth was parted just a little and he was snoring softly.
Burton paused and stroked his hair from his face. “Okay my boy, I’m going to find a place for you to be safe for a while. If I’m any sort of person at all, I’ll find you a home before this is over, just so you know.”
“You’re my home,” Ernie mumbled. “Two more hours, Burton. T hen we’ll be on the run.”
Burton didn’t say anything, thinking about how this kid needed some peace and Burton was the last person to give him that. Thinking about how he was going to just leave the kid with strangers and run back into an operation where he might not talk to anybody for months.
Thinking about how this kid deserved so much more than just a wonderful night and a promise that Burton might not be able to keep.
He figured he’d keep his promises to himself then, and maybe wouldn’t voice any of them until he knew for sure what he could make come true.
With a sigh, he set his alarm for two more hours, but before he fell back asleep, he texted, Ace, I need a huge assed favor. Hear me out before you say yes.
When he woke up, he saw the message almost immediately.
And that’s why he’d trust Ernie with Ace Atchison, he thought giving thanks for his few good deeds. Because Ace had so much faith in him, that he’d die before he let Burton down.
Burton felt the same about Ace.
And now he felt the same about Ernie.