On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, an old marine friend came searching.
Word Count: 3.906
Playlist: Please Come Home for Christmas - Eagles
Knowing that he wouldn't ever have another chance, Coco snuck out from his bunk. He knew that she would be sound asleep at this time, and he'd be long gone by morning. He crept across the courtyard, keeping out of sight from the lookouts. When he reached her bunker, he slipped past the door and counted the beds until he came to the foot of hers.
He stood at the end of her bed, watching her breath. The steady intake of breath calming him. He inhaled, and gently sat himself down on the edge of her mattress. He leaned forward and brushed the hair out of her face. He didn't have ant regrets. That wasn't how he operated.
Regardless, he'd miss her. The closest friend he'd made in a long time. Someone who understood his need for quiet solitude. Someone he could confide in without even having to say a word. They laughed together, and they raged together. She had his back on every mission. He never had to worry about his back being vulnerable. Not with her.
Licking his lips, he leaned forward and reached under her cot, grabbing her duffel bag. He inched it out until it was between his feet. He untied the leather bracelet around his wrist and folded it into the envelope he carried in with him. He shoved both into the far pocket, deep into the depths of her bag.
He shoved the bag back into place and paused. He rest both his elbows on the corresponding knees and ran his fingers into his hair. With his head bowed he wondered if he was doing this backwards. Maybe she'd want him to say goodbye in person. He sighed. It was too late. The order had been made.
He was being dishonourably discharged. With an order to be gone before the sun rose the next morning. He closed his eyes, remembering the moment everything went south. Pride of his superior getting in the way of his skill set. Sometimes bruised egos resulted in loss of personnel. He wasn't sorry, but he would miss being a part of the unit.
With a shake of his head, he turned back to her sleeping form. He laid a hand on her forearm. He toyed with the idea of kissing her, but thought it wasn't fair. Not for him, and not for her. It should be her choice. Not one he made for her. He squeezed her wrist, hoping that in whatever dream land she was visiting, she felt the subtle farewell.
She stirred slightly and he waited, wondering if she'd wake. After a moment she settled back down, rolling onto her other side, her back to him. He took that as his sign, stood up and snuck back out of her tent and back across to his own. He had some last minute packing to do.
The next morning was a rush of dressing and running out to my assigned post. The day was long and hot, but the silver lining was the few hours of layover that Cruz and I had in the pit. Typically, we worked opposite shifts, having a similar skill set, but on occasion they paired us up. When we weren't working on the same mission, we had the unspoken routine of meeting in the mess hall to catch each other up on our unit members and to deal out bets won or lost.
I methodically stripped down to my basic uniform before rushing back to my bunk to grab my toiletries. A quick shower was in need after being out in the sun all day long. I had good news for him today. We won the bet on Johnston shooting himself in the foot – literally. The kid was a mess, and we all knew it was coming. Thankfully, we bet within the right timeframe and would be splitting the pot. Nolasco was going to be pissed.
I dried my hair, braided it back away from ym face and put on a clean uniform. I grabbed a pack of cigarettes, the ones I always had sent up from my hometown for him and made my way out to the mess hall. I strode through the front entrance with a huge smile on my face. I bee lined for our unofficially reserved table only to reach it and find it empty.
I glanced around the room, finding that all his other unit members were present. All except him. I spotted his second, Smith, and as soon as our eyes met, he ducked his head. Something was up. I stormed over to his table and loomed over him.
"Where's Cruz?" I demanded.
Smith stared at the floor, shaking his head. The gravity of his reaction hit me and my stomach plummeted. Something was very wrong. If he'd been an ass and got bathroom duty there would've been a sly smile. Smith was downright refusing to meet my eyes, or even look at me.
"What happened?" I pushed, perching down on the bench below me.
Smith sighed, "Discharged."
My mouth dried. That couldn't be. There'd been a mistake.
"What?" I croaked.
"He's gone." Smith reiterated, "Shot the cigar out of our officer's mouth."
I shook my head, "He wouldn't be that stupid."
Smith closed his eyes, his head bowing, "He's not coming back."
I shot up, knocking the bench out from under me. I swore under my breath and took a moment to compose myself before holding myself high as I calmly walked out of the tent. Once I was through the doors, I let out the breath I was holding. I could feel tears prickling in the corner of my eyes but I held them at bay.
I sped across the compound and burst into his quarters. A few of the guys there yelped at my sudden appearance, but once they realized who I was they all quieted down. I scanned the beds until I found the only one that didn't have any sheets.
With deliberate steps, I made my way down the aisle and found myself standing at the foot of his bed. Everything was gone. Not even a cigarette butt left. Somewhere deep down, I had hope that he left me something. Something to remind me of himself. Or a way to find him outside of service. But there was nothing. All I had were memories. Ones that would would eventually blur into oblivion.
"Shit, Cruz." I fell down onto his empty cot.
Not a single thing left to be reminded of him. All I knew was his name and that he was from the United States. How was I supposed to find him? We never found a reason to share that kind of intimate information. Was it silly of me to assume we'd always be around? I should've thought ahead. Now I was without one of my closest friends. Gone forever.
… years later …
"Babe?" I heard my fiancé call from down the hall?
I poked my head out the door, "Yeah?"
I spotted him at the end of the hall, dragging a bunch of stored bags down from the attic.
"Wanna come take a look through these? See what's to keep and what's to donate?"
I nodded, "Give me five and I'll be right over."
I heard his mumbled response and I smiled. I turned back into the closest and continued packing away all the towels and linens. As a Christmas present to ourselves, we decided to buy a house. It wasn't anything huge. A bungalow in the nice area of town. I sighed, knowing that I still had doubts but couldn't place why. I was happy. Although it felt like something was missing.
I tried not to dwell on the paranoia I held in the back of my mind. We'd been together sine before the end of my last tour. We met while I was on leave and then continued an undisclosed relationship while I was away overseas. He was a good man. He loved me and treated me proper. He was safe.
Maybe that was my problem. I was used to being on edge, on the run. Always looking over my shoulder, or watching my fellow Marine's back. I wasn't used to being settled down., and definitely not comfortable with buying a house.
I knelt down next to the filled box and taped it up. With a sharpie I labeled it 'Hall Closet'. I lifted it onto the stack of other finished boxes and with clap of my hands I moved over to the spare room where he'd dumped all the bags from up in the attic. I ruffled through the first few, seeing that they were old and out of season clothes.
I divided everything into two piles. Donate and Keep. With a methodical approach, I empty each bag and made a logical decision about the contents within them. It wasn't until the last one that I thought about just tossing the entire thing. I stared down at my service duffel. I hadn't opened it since I last packed it up. There were some harsh memories deep within the fabric of that item.
I breathed in, closed my eyes and found my center. There was never going to be a better time than now. I couldn't keep hauling the bag around from house to house unopened. I needed to face fears. Truth be told, it wasn't really fear of bad memories. It was fear of the nostalgia. The yearn of going back. Feeling that pull once again.
I was worried that if I opened the bag I'd jump back into service. Something I worked hard to not have to go back too. I did my time. I served my country. I wanted my time to explore who I was now. Find my own identity.
With a deep breath in, I reached forward and unzipped the army green bag. The main part was filled with my boots and old uniform. A few extra shirts and all my paperwork. I took out the papers and placed them in the keep pile. I reached into the side pockets, finding them empty. Then I rummaged around in the back pocket.
First thing I found were my dog tags. I smiled as I held them up. I folded them into the palm of my hand and slid them into my pocket. I didn't want to lose these. I went back to the pocket, making sure nothing else was left behind when my fingers brushed against something smooth. I grabbed it and pulled.
A bracelet and a letter came popping into existence. I swallowed. That was a bracelet I hadn't seen for years. They belonged to someone I hadn't thought of in a long time. Longer than I knew my fiancé for. I fingered the leather, letting it roll onto my wrist. It was a bit too big but was easily resized. I tugged on the ends until it was snug. I flipped the envelop over and saw my name scrawled in his familiar writing.
My heart stopped. Where had this come from? How had I never found it before. How long had it been sitting in my bag? I twirled the paper between my fingers. Did I want to know the contents of the envelope? I bit my lip. Of course I did.
With shaking hands, I flipped it over and slid a finger under the sealed portion breaking it open. I pulled out the folded papers, and found myself looking at a long letter, written on both sides. I swallowed, tears forming as I began to read the familiar writing.
I read through the letter three times before I fully comprehended what he was getting at.
I rolled my lips together, "Shit Cruz."
I glanced down at his signature line, where he left the name of a city. Santo Padre. It was my hint. I let the tears fall. He left my something of him after all. I spent all these years forcing myself to forget him. At what cost? Had he been waiting for me? Was I too late?
I ripped out my phone and googled the city. IT was in the southernmost California. I heard footsteps coming up the stairs and I startled, dropping my phone and shoving the letter into the back pocket of my jeans. I turned around, hoping that my fiancé bypassed this room and kept going.
He called out to me as he passed, letting me know he was thinking of ordering in for dinner and I collapsed down into a heap on the floor. I stared down at the city on google maps. Was it too late?
My fingers gripped the top of the car door. My knuckles white with stress. I stared up at the large junk yard sign. I hoped I was in the right place. It was hard enough that it was Christmas eve. If I was in the wrong place, it wouldn't be likely that I could find someone to help me out. Not at this time of the year.
I sighed, slammed the door shut and reached through the window into my bag. I grabbed the envelope, stuffing it into the inside pocket of my jacket. I rolled my shoulders and cracked my neck. I tried to relieve as much built up stress as possible. I wasn't sure what I was walking into. This could be the worst plan I'd ever have in my life.
I up and left my fiancé in the middle of the night. Caught a red eye to San Diego then rented a car and drove the two hours outside of the city to Santo Padre. All the research I'd done led me to this scrap yard. I wasn't sure what was behind the gate, but I hoped Cruz would be there. I patted the area on the front of my leather jacket where the letter was sitting, making sure it was still there.
I gathered all my courage and walk around the small opening in the front gate. I assumed the place would be deserted, or at least closed. I was trying to convince myself not to get my hopes up but at the same time every nerve ending in my body was alight at the simple thought that I might get to see my old best friend again.
I rounded the corner and found an open courtyard with lines of motorcycles. Harley's to be exact. I gulped. All warnings in my head starting to go off. I spotted an office off to my right and then what looked like a cantina little further ways ahead. My boots kicked up dust as I walked into the middle of the compound.
I held my head high, not wanting to seem frightened. I glanced over at the office and the door was open but I couldn't see anyone in there. I opted to make my way to the bar. If there were people about, it would definitely be in the bar.
I didn't make it far into my trek when a group of men began filing out of the doors and down the steps. I stopped immediately, scanning my environment. A man with a thick mustache and leather vest was the first to spot me. He took a few steps towards me. In an attempt to look less threatening I tucked my hands into my jean pockets.
"Can we help you?" He asked, the Spanish accent subtle but still distinguished.
I nodded, "I'm looking for Johnny. Johnny Cruz."
The mans eyebrows shot up and he glanced to his left. I followed his eyes but was disappointed when it wasn't Cruz. The man beside him shifted, falling behind and stepping back into the bar.
"May I ask who you are?" The first man inquired.
I looked back at him, "Ex-Marine. Cruz and I served together."
The man pouted in approval. An understated shock lining his features. I was used to that reaction. It was strange, but still in today's day and age, men found it surprising when women were service members. Especially Marines.
There was a commotion over by the doors to the cantina. Another group of men came out and unfortunately I still couldn't spot Cruz. I visibly deflated. I was starting to think that I came to the wrong place and these guys were plotting something sinister. I took a step backwards and 'Mustache' noticed.
"No need to worry, carina." He soothed.
I opened my mouth to give him a scathing retort when my last name echoed into the area around us. My head shot up and I was staring at Cruz. He was scruffy, but still Cruz. I stared at him, all confidence gone. I was a deer caught in headlights. What was I doing here again?
Most of the men backed off as Cruz made his way towards me. He stopped a few feet away. We stared at one another. His confusion and contempt obvious while my expression emulated distress.
"What are you doing here?" Cruz questioned.
I opened my mouth and no sound came out. I squeezed my eyes shut and stilled my racing emotions. Clarity hit me again and I reached into my jacket pocket. As I made the move, Cruz pulled his gun forward, aiming it at the ground but at the ready. I held up my hands in surrender before continuing.
I dipped my fingers into my pocket and pulled out the letter. As I held it up between us, the sleeve of my jacket slipped down, revealing his old leather bracelet. His eyes shot between the bracelet and the letter before narrowing the slightest bit.
"I found it yesterday." I explained, "After all these years. I thought you were lost to me. Nothing left behind. Nothing but your name." I paused, taking a breath before continuing, "I didn't even know where you called home. You were there one minute and the next you were gone. I lost my best friend overnight. You left without a word, Cruz. I had to learn from Smith what happened. And then - " I began to stutter, "and then I moved on. I forced myself to forget you. to forget the comradery, we built. It worked. I focused on the tours and then one day someone else came into my life. Someone completely opposite to you. Safe, secure, ordinary."
I gulped, realizing where my rant was leading too. A place where I had trouble going myself and wasn't sure I was ready to blurt it all out in front of a group of strange men and a man I didn't know well anymore.
"Why are you here?" He said again.
I frowned, shaking my head. The tears were at critical level now. If I didn't turn around every man in immediate area was about to witness my uncharacteristic breakdown. I breathed out and shoved the letter back into my pocket and retreated. I took a few steps backwards without breaking eye contact until it was too much. I whipped around and sped walked out of the yard and back around the gate.
I tried to catch my breath but it came in hitched intervals. The onset of a panic attack. Seeing him was making me come to terms with my predicament. Forcing me to finally address what I was shoving down and ignoring. I reached the car and slammed both my hands on the hood. I took a moment to try and compose myself. At least enough to drive.
I pushed away and reached for my door when someone caught my wrist. I gasped, spinning to find Cruz standing there, his eyes imploring.
"Why did you come?" He asked for a third time.
I huffed, angrily wiping away the wetness from my cheeks.
"Can't you say anything else? Or are you a mimic now? Asking me the same question over and over isn't going to help any."
He licked his lips, "You haven't answered me."
It was short and concise. He explained in one sentence why he kept asking. It was his way of trying to feel out the situation. Why did I come? What was I hoping to gain from this excursion? I attempted to tug my arm back but he tightened his grip around my wrist. He wasn't going to let me run away.
He knew I knew why I came. Two peas in a pod. That's what we were. He knew all my tricks because he used them too. He knew I was struggling. He knew I was hiding. He was forcing me to get it out. To admit why I came to him. He may not have known all the back story. That I left at the first lead, half cocked.
I didn't care that his location wasn't confirmed. It was the closest thing I had to seeing him again and I took off. He sensed what I was running from and wanted me to admit to it. He didn't need to ask any other questions.
"I don't want to get married." I whispered.
He stared at me, his typical expression in place, "So don't."
I sighed, relieved. He would support my decision. It was all I needed. Him. I looked down at the engagement ring on my finger. His eyes followed mine. Without any prompting, he took his free hand and covered my other. He didn't take it off, wanting to respect my boundaries.
Instead he waited. Without allowing myself to second guess my decision, I Reached down and plucked the ring off. I dumped it into my pocket and threw my arms around Cruz's neck. His arms slid in around my lower back and our noses brushed against one another's.
I breathed him in. He smelt like leather, beer and cigarettes. The latter two weren't the most appealing, but it was Cruz and I didn't care. I tilted my face up, allowing for more room and brought my mouth within a centimeter of his. We stared at each other momentarily before he met me the rest of the way.
My entire body exploded with reaction as his lips pressed against mine. Losing myself in the moment, I pushed against him and our kiss became hard and rushed. Years of lost time falling down around us. We had a lot to make up for. He shoved me against the side of the car, his hands roaming up my back.
Our teeth clashed against the other's, our tongues wrestling. I threw everything I missed about him into that kiss. I threw all the years missed into it and he reciprocated. It wasn't sweet. It wasn't gentle. It was hard, rushed and passionate. We needed each other and that much was cleared. He bit down on my lip and I let out a breathy moan. A small moan echoed from the back of his throat before he pulled away.
Breathing heavily, he pressed his forehead against mine. Both of us stood there, catching our breath with our eyes closed. His grip loosened and he embraced me warmly. I laid my head against his chest, allowing my heart rate to level out. His lips brushed against my ear lobe as he made his way to leave a light kiss against my temple.
"It's Coco now." He murmured.
I chuckled, wanting to know the story behind that name but prepared to wait for another day.