Sergeant Tony “Minnow” Baitcaster took a deep relaxing breath after he and his friends, Dale Kirkpatrick and TJ Hagerman set up camp in the Government Canyon State Natural Area, forty minutes outside of San Antonio. Dale worked in law enforcement as a detective for the San Antonio police department, and TJ was a fireman at Station 21. The only one missing from their group was Barry Snow, a Park Ranger. They had all met a few years ago through TEXSAR, a local search and rescue program. Tony he had assisted in a rescue of a little girl in the mountains.
Whenever they all had time off, the group of them would go camping together. Barry couldn’t make it this trip, due to work, but promised the next time. It wasn’t the same without the four of them together, as Barry usually played referee between Dale and TJ, but it was still nice to get out and enjoy nature. Though currently his peace and quiet was disrupted by Dale and TJ arguing over who had more saves in their career. It was an age-old argument between the two of them. Who was better. Fireman or cop? No one ever won, but it never stopped them from trying. And Tony just learned to tune them out.
This wasn’t a typical camping trip for Tony. He had an ulterior motive for getting his friends together. It was to help him overcome a personal challenge. One he didn’t want to burden his military friends with. They had all been through enough with all the recent missions and trying to stop an international trafficker, Alejandro Ferrera. They had rescued hostages from him in Panama, then he came after another Delta Force team in California. A few of the team members including their leader, Bulldog assisted the team a second time, but once again Alejandro escaped, only to be finally stopped shortly after.
If that wasn’t enough Bulldog had finally found love only to almost lose her to her ex when he tried drowning her. It was after that rescue that Tony’s personal problems went from minor to major. Yeah, he couldn’t burden his friends with his issues right now. He needed someone else to help him. He was hoping it would be these guys. They may not know what he did for a living, but he was hoping their outsider perspective would be the key to him overcoming his problems.
He was suffering from PTSD, and he feared he would jeopardize his teammates if he didn’t fix it quick. He was getting flashbacks of an old mission at odd times, he would get severe headaches and shakes. He started seeing the base therapist a few months ago, and Tony had told his therapist about the camping trips. His therapist strongly encouraged him to go on a trip after everything seemed to get worse after they rescued Catherine, Bulldog’s girlfriend, thinking it would help him get outside his work environment. Commander Jones, his direct supervisor, approved him to take a few weeks off.
And so, Tony arranged the camping trip with TJ and Dale. Because it was last minute, they could only get away for the weekend. He hoped the change of pace would get rid of the headaches and flashbacks. If anything, he just hoped it would help him get his head on straight and get back to work. He loved being in the Delta Forces. The adrenaline, the missions, all of it. If he couldn’t have that, what did he have?
He'd joined the Army right out of high school and knew he would make a career out of it. His goal had always been to be Delta. Once he’d been accepted, there’d been no going back. He knew this was the life for him until he retired, but if he couldn’t get his shit together his dream would be gone, and he would have nothing left. It was not something he could accept. He wouldn’t accept.
He had been friends with TJ and Dale for several years now. And while he loved hanging with his teammates, there was just something different about being with these guys. They had no idea what he did other than work on the Army base, Fort Sam. He would meet them at their houses or somewhere in town instead of them coming over. His apartment wasn’t anything to brag about. Tony didn’t want the responsibility of owning a house. He liked coming and going without a thought. He was also gone a lot, so it never made sense to him to own a house just for himself.
Tony tipped his head back with his eyes closed enjoying the sound of nature around him. Heated voices started rising behind him causing him to peak over to make sure all was well. TJ and Dale were really getting into their argument this time, more so than normal. He thought about intervening but decided to wait it out. TJ and Dale’s bickering would annoy most, and it had grated on his nerves more than once, but he knew how the conversation would go. They would talk about arrests and recent fires first then after the first couple of hours it would turn to women or something non-work related before they dropped the subject altogether. There was never any blood shed or fists thrown, just arguing. It was refreshing for Tony to not have to talk about death and missions. They could just be normal guys. And that's why he loved them. In a strict friend sort of way. There was only one woman he had ever loved. Alexia Monroe or Lexi to him.
Just thinking her name made his heart skip a beat. He hadn't allowed himself to think about his high school sweetheart in a long time. Every time he did it filled him with regret and what ifs. If he hadn't joined the Army right out of high school, they would be married fourteen years now with probably a dozen kids. But he knew the divorce rates for military couples and decided to cut her lose before he brought her down. Lexi deserved more than he would have had time for. She had said she had been willing to wait for him, but he didn't want her to have to.
She had plans to be a doctor, and he didn’t want to force her to have to move jobs every few years. So, he broke things off right before he enlisted. He made it a point of not looking her up thinking she was already married with a horde of kids by now. Too much time had passed to try and find her. And to what end? Torment himself with woulda, shoulda, coulda.
No thanks. He was doing just fine without her. Even if he was lonely.
He went out on the occasional date, though he couldn't remember the last one at present. He told himself it was because he had been on several back to back missions lately and hadn’t had time, but he knew it was an excuse. He didn't date because he always found himself comparing the women to Lexi and that wasn't fair to them. The few he took to bed he did so with the lights off and finished quickly so he could go home and forget them.
When he had joined the Army fourteen years ago, this was not how he envisioned his life, but it wasn't all bad. He had great friends, a close brotherhood and even got to travel the world. All in all, it wasn’t bad.
“We need another opinion, who do you think has more saves?” Dale asked, clapping him on the shoulder startling him from his thoughts. Tony shot out of his chair with his fist clenched.
“Yeah, I'm good.” Tony plastered on a smile that had always work in deflecting in the past. “I think you both need to focus on the fact you save lives and not the number.” He didn't keep count of the lives he saved or took. To him, it was a job, and he just did it. He followed orders and the rules, so he could come home and do it all over again. Rules kept him grounded. Rules kept him safe. Doubts got a man killed.
He stole a glance at TJ out of the corner of his eye but ignored his friends pointed look. They could compare saves until the end of time, and he still wouldn't say who had more because at the end of the day it didn't matter.
“Don't take it to heart, TJ. Tony here just wants to save you from the embarrassment that I’ve saved more.” Dale inserted taking the focus off him, for that he was grateful even if Tony hadn’t said any of that and would now start another argument.
“You, more?” TJ scoffed. “Do you pull people out of burning buildings?”
“Dude, you need to get a woman if you want your ego stroked.” Dale rolled his eyes. “Police put their lives in the line every second of the day. Firefighters only come out of their cozy firehouses when someone’s house is on fire, or there’s a crash.”
“That's enough,” Tony growled lowly at them. They both forgot about their glaring contest and turned and looked at him like he had grown a second head. It was rare for them to hear Tony not be jovial. He was always the happy guy when they saw him. They didn’t see the bad ass Delta Force operative. They all thought he was some paper pusher who saw the good in everything. Not right now he wasn’t. This trip was about them relaxing and him trying to get his life on track. Not their teenage type drama.
He couldn’t imagine doing anything else other than being a Delta Force operative, and he didn’t want to do anything else. He was damn good at what he did. So, he would do whatever it took to overcome his PTSD and rejoin his brothers. But he didn’t think listening to these two numb skulls squabble all weekend was the way to do it. It defeated the purpose of a relaxing weekend.
“You’re both fiercely proud men that serve this city and its community. TJ, you are a badass fireman. Dale, you’re a kick-ass cop. Now that I've stroked both your egos can we just enjoy our weekend camping?” He kept his voice low. He never raised his voice. He didn't need to. He may be shorter than most of the guys at only five foot nine, but he was still deadly. Just ask his enemies, or not, since they were all dead.
“You call that stroking? Dude, you need to get more if that’s your idea of stroking. No wonder your single.” TJ punched him in the shoulder, his mood instantly lightened as if he and Dale hadn’t been arguing for the better part of an hour. Tony shook his head, slowly counting back from ten to keep his patience.
“Remember you can't kill him,” Dale staged whispered.
Tony sighed, resuming his seat, and looked at the other campsites. The place was full which wasn't surprising. Early autumn and camping always went hand in hand. Several people brought large campers while others had small tents. Families surrounded them as kids rode their bikes along the paths. As he surveyed the people around them and cataloged their details his eyes caught on two women across from him.
They looked similar in height and coloring, so he assumed they were sisters. The women looked to be in their mid-thirties with long brown hair. The older looking one seemed upbeat as she moved around the picnic table making food. She talked animatedly waving her knife around as the younger one chopped wood. His gaze caught on her. Why did she look so sad while the other one looked so happy? He was a distance away from her, but he could see the shadows under her eyes. She wasn’t sleeping. He felt a sudden urge to go over to her and comfort her. Why, he didn’t know. He wasn’t a nurturer.
“See something interesting over there?” TJ elbowed him then looked to where Tony was looking. The woman chopping wood seemed to sense she was being watched because she stopped chopping wood and looked at them. Or more pointedly at TJ.