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Frisco's knee was on fire.
He had to lean heavily on his cane to get from the shower to the room he shared with three other vets, and still his leg hurt like hell with every step he took.
But pain was no big deal. Pain had been part of Navy Lt. Alan "Frisco" Francisco's everyday life since his leg had damn near been blown off more than five years ago during a covert rescue operation. The pain he could handle.
It was this cane that he couldn't stand.
It was the fact that his knee wouldn'tcouldn't support his full weight or fully extend that made him crazy.
It was a warm California day, so he pulled on a pair of shorts, well aware that they wouldn't hide the raw, ugly scars on his knee.
His latest surgery had been attempted only a few months ago. They'd cut him open all over again, trying, like Humpty Dumpty, to put all the pieces back together. After the required hospital stay, he'd been sent here, to this physical therapy center, to build up strength in his leg, and to see if the operation had workedto see if he had more flexibility in his injured joint.
But his doctor had been no more successful than the legendary King's horses and King's men. The operation hadn't improved Frisco's knee. His doctor couldn't put Frisco together again.
There was a knock on the door, and it opened a crack.
"Yo, Frisco, you in here?"
It was Lt. Joe Catalanotto, the commander of SEAL Team Ten's Alpha Squadthe squad to which, an aeon of pain and frustration and crushed hopes ago, Frisco had once belonged.
"Where else would I be?" Frisco said.
He saw Joe react to his bitter words, saw the bigger man's jaw tighten as he came into the room, closing the door behind him. He could see the look in Joe's dark eyesa look of wary reserve. Frisco had always been the optimist of Alpha Squad. His attitude had always been upbeat and friendly. Wherever they went, Frisco had been out in the street, making friends with the locals. He'd been the first one smiling, the man who'd make jokes before a high-altitude parachute jump, relieving the tension, making everyone laugh.
But Frisco wasn't laughing now. He'd stopped laughing five years ago, when the doctors had walked into his hospital room and told him his leg would never be the same. He'd never walk again.
At first he'd approached it with the same upbeat, optimistic attitude he'd always had. He'd never walk again? Wanna make a bet? He was going to do more than walk again. He was going to bring himself back to active duty as a SEAL. He was going to run and jump and dive. No question.
It had taken years of intense focus, operations and physical therapy. He'd been bounced back and forth from hospitals to physical therapy centers to hospitals and back again. He'd fought long and hard, and he could walk again.
But he couldn't run. He could do little more than limp along with his caneand his doctors warned him against doing too much of that. His knee couldn't support his weight, they told him. The pain that he stoically ignored was a warning signal. If he wasn't careful, he'd lose what little use he did have of his leg.
And that wasn't good enough.
Because until he could run, he couldn't be a SEAL again.
Five years of disappointment and frustration and failure had worn at Frisco's optimism and upbeat attitude. Five years of itching to return to the excitement of his life as a Navy SEAL; of being placed into temporary retirement with no real, honest hope of being put back into active duty; of watching as Alpha Squad replaced himreplaced him; of shuffling along when he burned to run. All those years had worn him down. He wasn't upbeat anymore. He was depressed. And frustrated. And angry as hell.
Joe Catalanotto didn't bother to answer Frisco's question. His hawklike gaze took in Frisco's well-muscled body, lingering for a moment on the scars on his leg. "You look good," Joe said. "You're keeping in shape. That's good. That's real good."
"Is this a social call?" Frisco asked bluntly.
"Partly," Joe said. His rugged face relaxed into a smile. "I've got some good news I wanted to share with you."
Good news. Damn, when was the last time Frisco had gotten good news?
One of Frisco's roommates, stretched out on his bed, glanced up from the book he was reading.
Joe didn't seem to mind. His smile just got broader.
"Ronnie's pregnant," he said. "We're going to have a kid."
"No way." Frisco couldn't help smiling. It felt odd, unnatural. It had been too long since he'd used those muscles in his face. Five years ago, he'd have been pounding Joe on the back, cracking ribald jokes about masculinity and procreation and laughing like a damn fool. But now the best he could muster up was a smile. He held out his hand and clasped Joe's in a handshake of congratulations. "I'll be damned. Who would've ever thought you'd become a family man? Are you terrified?"
Joe grinned. "I'm actually okay about it. Ronnie's the one who's scared to death. She's reading every book she can get her hands on about pregnancy and babies. I think the books are scaring her even more."
"God, a kid," Frisco said again. "You going to call him Joe Cat, Junior?"
"I want a girl," Joe admitted. His smile softened. "A redhead, like her mother."
"So what's the other part?" Frisco asked. At Joe's blank look, he added, "You said this was partly a social call. That means it's also partly something else. Why else are you here?"
"Oh. Yeah. Steve Horowitz called me and asked me to come sit in while he talked to you."
Frisco slipped on a T-shirt, instantly wary. Steve Horowitz was his doctor. Why would his doctor want Joe around when he talked to Frisco? "What about?"
Joe wouldn't say, but his smile faded. "There's an officer's lounge at the end of the hall," he said. "Steve said he'd meet us there."
A talk in the officer's lounge. This was even more serious than Frisco had guessed. "All right," he said evenly. It was pointless to pressure Joe. Frisco knew his former commander wouldn't tell him a thing until Steve showed up.
"How's the knee?" Joe asked as they headed down the corridor. He purposely kept his pace slow and easy so that Frisco could keep up.
Frisco felt a familiar surge of frustration. He hated the fact that he couldn't move quickly. Damn, he used to break the sprint records during physical training.
"It's feeling better today," he lied. Every step he took hurt like hell. The really stupid thing was that Joe knew damn well how much pain he was in.
He pushed open the door to the officer's lounge. It was a pleasant enough room, with big, overstuffed furniture and a huge picture window overlooking the gardens. The carpet was a slightly lighter shade of blue than the sky, and the green of the furniture upholstery matched the abundant life growing outside the window. The colors surprised him. Most of the time Frisco had spent in here was late at night, when he couldn't sleep. In the shadowy darkness, the walls and furniture had looked gray.
Steven Horowitz came into the room, a step behind them. "Good," he said in his brisk, efficient manner. "Good, you're here." He nodded to Joe. "Thank you, Lieutenant, for coming by. I know your schedule's heavy, too."
"Not too heavy for this, Captain," Joe said evenly.
"What exactly is 'this'?" Frisco asked. He hadn't felt this uneasy since he'd last gone out on a sneak-and-peekan information-gathering expedition behind enemy lines.
The doctor gestured to the couch. "Why don't we sit down?"
"I'll stand, thanks." Frisco had sat long enough during those first few years after he'd been injured. He'd spent far too much time in a wheelchair. If he had his choice, he'd never sit again.
Joe made himself comfortable on the couch, his long legs sprawled out in front of him. The doctor perched on the edge of an armchair, his body language announcing that he wasn't intending to stay long.
"You're not going to be happy about this," Horowitz said bluntly to Frisco, "but yesterday I signed papers releasing you from this facility."
Frisco couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You did what?"
"You're out of here," the doctor said, not unkindly. "As of fourteen hundred hours today."
Frisco looked from the doctor to Joe and back. Joe's eyes were dark with unhappiness, but he didn't contradict the doctor's words. "But my physical therapy sessions"
"Have ended," Horowitz said. "You've regained sufficient use of your knee and"
"Sufficient for what?" Frisco asked, outraged. "For hobbling around? That's not good enough, dammit! I need to be able to run. I need to be able to"
Joe sat up. "Steve told me he's been watching your chart for weeks," the commander of Alpha Squad told Frisco quietly. "Apparently, there's been no improvement"
"So I'm in a temporary slump. It happens in this kind of"
"Your therapist has expressed concern that you're overdoing it." Horowitz interrupted him. "You're pushing yourself too hard."
"Cut the crap." Frisco's knuckles were white as he gripped his cane. "My time is up. That's what this is about, isn't it? " He looked back at Joe. "Someone upstairs decided that I've had my share of the benefits. Someone upstairs wants my bed emptied, so that it can be filled by some other poor son of a bitch who has no real hope of a full recovery, right?"
"Yeah, they want your bed," Joe said, nodding. "That's certainly part of it. There's limited bed space in every VA facility. You know that."
"Your progress has begun to decline," the doctor added. "I've told you this before, but you haven't seemed to catch on. Pain is a signal from your body to your brain telling you that something is wrong. When your knee hurts, that does not mean push harder. It means back off. Sit down. Give yourself a break. If you keep abusing yourself this way, Lieutenant, you'll be back in a wheelchair by August."
"I'll never be back in a wheelchair. Sir." Frisco said the word sir, but his tone and attitude said an entirely different, far-less-flattering word.
"If you don't want to spend the rest of your life sitting down, then you better stop punishing a severely injured joint," Dr. Horowitz snapped. He sighed, taking a deep breath and lowering his voice again. "Look, Alan, I don't want to fight with you. Why can't you just be grateful for the fact that you can stand? You can walk. Sure, it's with a cane, but"
"I'm going to run," Frisco said. "I'm not going to give up until I can run."
"You can't run," Steven Horowitz said bluntly. "Your knee won't support your weightit won't even properly extend. The best you'll manage is an awkward hop."
"Then I need another operation."
"What you need is to get on with your life."
"My life requires an ability to run," Frisco said hotly. "I don't know too many active-duty SEALs hobbling around with a cane. Do you?"
Dr. Horowitz shook his head, looking to Joe for help.
But Joe didn't say a word.
"You've been in and out of hospitals and PT centers for five years," the doctor told Frisco. "You're not a kid in your twenties anymore, Alan. The truth is, the SEALs don't need you. They've got kids coming up from BUD/S training who could run circles around you even if you could run. Do you really think the top brass are going to want some old guy with a bum knee to come back?"
Frisco carefully kept his face expressionless. "Thanks a lot, man," he said tightly as he gazed sightlessly out of the window. "I appreciate your vote of confidence."
Joe shifted in his seat. "What Steve's saying is harshand not entirely true," he said. "Us 'old guys' in our thirties have experience that the new kids lack, and that usually makes us better SEALs. But he's right about somethingyou have been out of the picture for half a decade. You've got more to overcome than the physical challengeas if that weren't enough. You've got to catch up with the technology, relearn changed policies "
"Give yourself a break," Dr. Horowitz urged again.
Frisco turned his head and looked directly at the doctor. "No," he said. He looked at Joe, too. "No breaks. Not until I can walk without this cane. Not until I can run a six-minute mile again."
The doctor rolled his eyes in exasperation, standing up and starting for the door. "A six-minute mile? Forget it. It's not going to happen."
Frisco looked out the window again. "Captain, you also said I'd never walk again."
Horowitz turned back. "This is different, Lieutenant. The truthwhether you believe it or notis that the kind of physical exertion you've been up to is now doing your knee more damage than good."
Frisco didn't turn around. He stood silently, watching bright pink flowers move gently in the breeze.
"There are other things you can do as a SEAL," the doctor said more gently. "There are office jobs"
Frisco spun around, his temper exploding. "I'm an expert in ten different fields of warfare, and you want me to be some kind of damn pencil pusher?"
Joe stood up. "You've at least got to take some time and think about your options," he said. "Don't say no until you think it through."
Frisco gazed at Joe in barely disguised horror. Five years ago they'd joked about getting injured and being sucked into the administrative staff. It was a fate worse than death, or so they'd agreed. "You want me to think about jockeying a desk?" he said.
"You could teach."
Frisco shook his head in disbelief. "That's just perfect, man. Can't you just see me writing on a blackboard ?" He shook his head in disgust. "I would've expected you of all people to understand why I could never do that."
"You'd still be a SEAL," Joe persisted. "It's that or accept your retirement as permanent. Someone's got to teach these new kids how to survive. Why can't you do it?"
"Because I've been in the middle of action," Frisco nearly shouted. "I know what it's like. I want to go back there, I want to be there. I want to be doing, not teaching. Damn!"
"The Navy doesn't want to lose you," Joe said, his voice low and intense. "It's been five years, and there's still been nobody in the units who can touch you when it comes to strategic warfare. Sure, you can quit. You can spend the rest of your life trying to get back what you once had. You can lock yourself away and feel sorry for yourself. Or you can help pass your knowledge on to the next generation of SEALs."
"Quit?" Frisco said. He laughed, but there was no humor in it at all. "I can't quitbecause I've already been kicked out. Right, Captain Horowitz? As of fourteen hundred hours, I'm outta here."
There was silence thensilence that settled around them all, heavy and still and thick.