***Chapter Twenty-Four***
Word Count: 3,998

November 1986

Dear John,

I try not to think of you out in the field. It was a lot easier to do when I wasn’t so close to you. I wouldn’t know, for instance, that it was less than fifty degrees last night and that you were likely cold wherever you were sleeping. I realize the Marines don’t care if you’re cold, that’s not their job. It is my job, though, and I do care immensely. I suppose at least it hasn’t rained much. That’s assuming wherever you go is nearby. I guess maybe you could be anywhere.

I wished you were here today. Well, that’s a stupid thing to say because I wish you were here every day. Today especially, though. I got into a stupid argument with my brother over the phone. We hung up mad at each other. I’m sure he’ll get over it and I will, too, but it bothers me. Mom wants to have all of this control over wedding things that I don’t want to give her. I understand she and Dad are paying for it, but just because I moved doesn’t mean I want her to plan the wedding she’d want for herself if she could do it over again. Christopher says I’m being ungrateful and selfish, Mom is only trying to help since I’m so far away. Clearly, I’ll be home at Christmastime and probably again over Spring Break to do things that I need to do. I don’t need my mother picking out my bouquet. That’s mine! I want to do it! She had her wedding day, this is mine. Christopher doesn’t understand because he hasn’t even met anyone he wants to marry so he hasn’t even thought about stuff like this.

Okay, I put this down for a couple of hours and came back to it. I just read what I wrote and I guess it does sound a bit ungrateful. I’m not trying to be, but I don’t want to give her full control over stuff.

Is that wrong? Is that being selfish? I’m only getting married once, I don’t want something my mom thinks will look nice. I want something I know will look beautiful. I want it to be perfect. We’re getting married because of me. That sounds wrong. I know if you had your choice we’d go to a courthouse and be done with it. I know this. I know you’re doing this for me, for my benefit. So, I want it to be everything I’ve dreamed it would be.

John shook his head a little at that. As if she ever dreamed he’d be her groom until a couple of years ago, but he understood what she met. He’d just gotten in about an hour ago. She was due here for the weekend because of the ball they were going to. He hadn’t called her because it was late, not that late but he wanted her to sleep. If he called tonight she’d want to stay up talking to him, which he wouldn’t mind but they were going to have a busy weekend.

You probably don’t care about flowers or anything else so I’m venting to the wrong person, but at least if you were here. Well, I know you’d tell me I deserve the flowers I want because that’s the way you are. At least with me.

My week was good otherwise. Classes are good. I’ve made sure I’m caught up on all of my reading assignments so if I don’t come back to campus until Monday morning I’ll be fine. Don’t drop dead from this confession, but I actually stayed in last weekend. There was a party at our house and everything, but I just stayed in my room for the most part. I went downstairs for a while to mingle a bit, but that was it. I was in bed before eleven o’clock.

Stop laughing at me! Maybe I’m finally getting too old for that stuff? I don’t know. I’ve noticed this year I’m less … social than I was in years past. And, no, don’t start feeling guilty and think that it’s because I’ve changed schools. I just really want to focus on my classes and getting my work done. The sooner that happens the sooner we’re married. I want that. I want to get on with our lives. Together.

While I’m talking about my feelings I suppose I should confess this, too. I’m sure you’ll get a laugh out of this, but here goes…

I’m nervous about the ball. I’m not sure I should admit that. I’m excited about seeing you dressed up again, but oh my gosh. This isn’t prom or something lame like that. What if I trip over my skirt? Or say something really stupid to someone who could prevent you from advancing? I know advancing isn’t automatic in your situation and it’s not based solely on merit.

Funny, isn’t it? That I’m worried about things like that. Me? Can you believe it? I can’t. But I am because I know this is what you want to do with your life, at least as much of it as you can.

It was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. Well, read since he couldn’t hear her say it. She’d never do something like what she was worrying about. If there was anyone he was confident wouldn’t embarrass him ever in this lifetime it was her. If anything he was worried some of the guys who knew about her but hadn’t met her yet would take one look at her and wonder what the fuck she was doing wasting her time on a guy like him. Her seeing that there were other Marines out there who didn’t look like he did.

Realistically, he knew that wasn’t the case, that she’d be interested in someone else. The doubt was still there, though. It probably always would be.

Almost nine months since she’d said yes to marrying him and he had to admit he still woke up some mornings figuring he’d get a letter from her telling him she’d changed her mind and couldn’t marry him after all. He wasn’t the guy she’d first met. He knew that, but shadows of his dad were still there in his mind telling him he didn’t deserve someone like her. Or that he’d turn out just like his old man when all was said and done and one day, not too long from now she’d regret marrying him.

He swore to God, on his job, and on his life he’d never do anything to make her regret making that decision.

Funny, he’d never really believed in God before enlisting. He ran a thumb over his dog tags, remembering his hesitation at putting any religious affiliation down. He didn’t go to services or anything now, but he’d come to believe in Him a lot over the last couple years. He couldn’t come up with any other reason he’d be doing these things. Marrying Claire aside, succeeding at something. It’d been beaten into him since he could remember that he’d never amount to anything.

“Everything all right?” his roommate asked.

“Yeah,” John said with a frown. “Why?”

“She hasn’t written you much since before the summer.”

“No, she hasn’t really had to.”

“Just making sure you didn’t just get a real Dear John letter.”

“No,” John said. He had to admit when he saw a letter from her he’d wondered what was wrong because like George said she hadn’t written as much as she used to. In fact, now that he thought about it this was the first letter he’d gotten from her since August. He didn’t mind, but the mail was still nice even if she was a hell of a lot closer to him now than she was last year. “She wouldn’t do that anyway.”

“If you say so. If either of us had a nickel for every guy here who’s gotten one who thought they wouldn’t get broken up with that way.”

“They aren’t her. She wouldn’t do that. She,” John shrugged, folding the letter up and putting it back in the envelope as he did with every letter he’d gotten from her to this point. “She has more class than that. Besides, she didn’t transfer schools to decide she was tired of dealing with my being a Marine.”

“Probably true. You’re not calling her tonight?”

“No, if she’s sleeping I don’t want to wake her. She’s worried about the weekend, I’d rather not wake her up this late.”

“She might get mad you didn’t.”

“I haven’t called her the night we’ve gotten back more than once, she’s used to it by now.”

“I kind of envy you going this weekend.”

“Like you couldn’t go if you wanted to?”

George scoffed. “Nope, not this year. You can bet if I don’t call home the night of I’ll be in more trouble than I need.”

“I don’t get how you’re able to pull it off.”

“Very carefully,” he said.

John chuckled, but he didn’t get that at all. It’d be one thing if the women he was involved with knew he was involved with others but John didn’t get the impression they had any idea he was corresponding with a handful of women. Then he’d never been in a position to have to worry about potentially balancing more than one woman. Balancing Claire was difficult enough. He couldn’t imagine writing letters to four or five women, having to remember who he’d said what to every time he picked up a pencil to write the next one or the phone to call.

Kind of funny, he supposed, that when it got down to it he was a monogamous guy after all.

Not to say he hadn’t looked the past two years. He wasn’t blind or dead. Looking wasn’t cheating, though, and some of the women they ran across he’d have to be a saint to resist looking. He was never tempted, though.

He found a ride to the house the next afternoon when he was done for the weekend. He was surprised to see the garage door open and her trunk open as if she’d just gotten there. He’d been running a little late so assumed she’d have been here for a while already. He made his way through the garage and into the house.

God, he wanted to be able to do this every night. Come home to her. Soon he’d be able to, but it was almost worse in some ways having her so close yet not entirely his yet. One more year. They could do this. Seeing her every weekend was great, but when she dropped him at Base Monday mornings bright and early he really hated seeing her pull away, knowing he wouldn’t see her possibly until the next weekend. Or in this case, four weekends ago.

“Jesus. How about a little warning you’re here!” she said when he entered their bedroom.

“Uh, you left the garage door open. I assumed you wanted me to come in that way.”

“I did not!”

“Claire,” he said, stepping up behind her. He pushed aside some hair and kissed her neck. “How do you think I got in here?”

“Oh,” she said. She had the keys to the house because even the nights she was able to come here during the week she usually was able to get here before he could.

“Yeah, oh. You didn’t mean to leave it open?”

“No, I guess I forgot. I got distracted going through my bag to make sure I brought everything.”

“You were going to drive back tonight to get something you’d forgotten?”

“No. I remembered my shoes and everything, so anything I’d forgotten I could’ve run to the store to get.”

“Good to know.”

“I’m sure you were really worried.”

“Well, if you showed up to the ball in gym shoes I think I wouldn’t be too thrilled with that, no.”

She laughed softly. “I wouldn’t have done that.”

“I didn’t think you would, but I’m glad to know you won’t embarrass me or anything,” he said, running a fingertip along her arm.

“I’m going to do my best not to do that.”

He chuckled softly, kissing another spot on her neck. “I missed you.”

“Me, too,” she whispered as his fingers reached for the front of her blouse.

“I swore I wouldn’t do this anymore now that you were living down here,” he whispered as he kissed the back of her neck and shoulder, working the blouse lower along her back.

“Do what?”

“Have sex with you as soon as one of us walked through the door.”

“Why would you swear off something like that?”

“Because there’s a huge difference between going a few days without seeing you and months like before.”

“I know! It’s been weeks, though,” she said, reaching behind her to touch the front of his pants. She worked them open. He’d say as anxiously as he was undoing her blouse but he didn’t think she could be more anxious to touch him than he was her because he swore to God he’d never take for granted he had this in his grasp every fucking day of his life until he died.

He chuckled.

“It has. I like when you show me how horny you get, Princess,” he said.

“Did you shut the garage door?”

“The automatic door? No. The door leading to the house? Yes. I wasn’t sure if you were going out again.”

“We should…”

“We should be doing exactly what we’re doing. No one’s going to walk in here.”

“You did.”

“Yeah, because my fiancé lives here. Well, sort of she does.”

“I wish I did.”

“No more than I do.”

“I know.”

He groaned as he worked the zipper on her skirt so could slide it off.

“Why are you stopping?”

“I’m not!” Did he seem as though he was stopping? He didn’t think so. Fuck. He planned on not stopping until very possibly dawn based on how horny he was at the moment.

“Kissing my neck.”

“Oh! You can’t show up there with hickeys all over your neck.”

“I suppose,” she said.

“I will make it up to you tomorrow night.”

She laughed softly as he ran his palms along her hips and slid inside of her. She settled her hands against the wall, shifting a bit so he could move inside of her better. He liked taking her this way, she always seemed to enjoy it, too, so they were in agreement on liking it it seemed. They’d shower afterward, order pizza or something, and find something probably pretty lame to watch on TV for the rest of their night. He couldn’t think of a better way to spend the night. It was a far cry from what he imagined his parents were doing or what most of the people they went to school with figured he’d be up to.

He’d never admit it, though he imagined she knew without his saying so. He was a little nervous about tomorrow night, too. This wasn’t a sorority party so it was way different than what they’d gone to in the spring together. His future could get effected if something stupid happened.

“What happened?” she asked a while later when they were in bed for the night.

“What?”

“John. I know every inch of you. Some better than others, but I know this,” she said, grazing a fingertip over a spot on his arm. “Wasn’t there the last time I saw you.”

“Oh,” he said with a shrug. “I got grazed by a stray bullet.”

She sat up then.

“What?” she asked. She reached for the lamp by her side of the bed.

“Remember that Phillips guy I’ve mentioned?”

“Yeah,” she said cautiously.

She would, too, because he didn’t really fill her head with stories about other Marines. She’d send him letters throwing in names of this person and that person, which was helpful he supposed but he just didn’t really care about the names of people he didn’t know. She met the ones he cared enough about to share her with them. The others he didn’t really give a shit about. He’d save their lives if he had to, but he wasn’t going to invite them over for dinner. Weird how that worked, he supposed. Phillips was an idiot and an asshole. He’d complained about him more than once because he really was going to get someone hurt or killed one day. That was how she knew to sound cautious, too, because the only guys he talked about in letters were the handful he got along with or the others he didn’t get along with.

“He dropped his weapon.”

“Oh my God. And you didn’t tell me this?”

“When was I supposed to tell you? It was nothing anyway, really. Barely a scratch.”

“John, I can feel it.”

“Sure because you touch me the way you do. No one else will notice because no one else does that.”

“John you were shot! How can you make light of that.”

“It was an accident. He’s an asshole.”

“I know, but you have a…”

“A scar?” he shrugged with a scoff. “You suddenly having second thoughts because of that one versus all the others?”

“No! I just, that’s awful.”

“Yeah, he was disciplined. I can assure you he won’t be dropping his weapon again.”

“I still can’t believe you said nothing!”

“There was no time. You think the first thought on my mind two weeks later after not seeing you for over three weeks was, ‘gee I should tell her about that scratch I got.’ They didn’t send me back or anything. They looked at it, slapped a Band-Aid on it, and off I went back into the field.”

His breath caught as he watched her run her finger along the scar there. It hadn’t been a deep cut or anything, but it had been long. If he’d been in a different spot by even a couple of inches he probably would’ve had a bullet hole wound to recover from. He loved when she touched him. He hated it was this that had her touching him, but he loved it just the same.

“It’s not just a scratch,” she whispered, leaning down to kiss the spot. She brushed her cheek against it then and he sighed softly. He would’ve liked her looking after all of his wounds over the years. She had a stellar bedside personality. For him at least.

“I didn’t even get stitches.”

“That’s not a very good gauge because you didn’t get stitches on lots of others that likely needed them.”

“I know,” he shrugged.

“Is that why you didn’t? Because you hadn’t on the others?”

“I guess. I don’t know. I don’t know any different I guess. I was always taught as long as it’s going to stop bleeding…”

“Oh my God! Our kids are not going to be brought up like that.”

“I hope our kids aren’t ever in the position to need stitches, Claire.”

“Well, of course, but accidents happen.”

“Really? You’ve had stitches?”

“No,” she said with a scoff.

He chuckled softly. “You sure? I didn’t think so, but I’d be more than happy to investigate closer to be sure you’re not lying to me.”

“You’d know!”

“I’ve never looked for scars before.”

“You’d still know.”

“I don’t know…”

“I’ll likely get some.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” he asked.

“John,” she said softly, sliding a hand from his arm and the scar there to his chest. “Settle down. I don’t mean what you think I mean. I meant, if I have kids… You know, stretch marks and stuff.”

“Oh, well, those are the good kinds of scars. Trust me.”

“Why should I?”

“Because they’d be because of our kids.”

“I suppose.”

“Man, I thought…” he said.

She cut him off. “I know, hon, I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant at all.”

“Have you talked to your mom or Christopher?”

“No,” she said with a soft sigh, resting her head against his chest.

“I’m sorry. Maybe over Thanksgiving?”

“Yeah. I hope we can sit down and hash it out. I wish you could come with me.”

“I wish I could, too, but I’d rather use the days in December.”

“I know. We’re lucky you could take so many at one time.”

“We are. New Year’s Eve, though?”

“Yeah?”

“That night is ours. I don’t care where we spend it, but wherever it is it’s going to just be us.”

“Our first New Year’s Eve was just us.”

“I know. And I plan on spending it much the same way as that first one.”

“I told you I’d take care of that night.”

“I know. I’m just making sure whatever accommodations you made you understand I’m not going to a party or anything else with you that night. You, a bed, and room service. That’s all I want.”

“We didn’t have room service that first one.”

He chuckled. “I know. I was kind of a clueless ass. I’m sorry.”

“Can you believe that was two years ago?”

“Nope,” he said, running his fingers along her back and shoulder. “It seems like yesterday and forever ago at the same time.”

“Me, too,” she said.

“I’m so glad you didn’t lie about being on the pill.”

She laughed softly, kissing his chest.

“I’ll keep taking it until we agree I shouldn’t anymore.”

“I know. A couple years at least, right?”

“Worried I’m going to want to try this summer?”

“A little. You’d be able to convince me, too, once we were legally allowed to do that.”

“I know, but I know we should at least wait until I’ve graduated.”

“That is very good to hear.”

“I’m sorry you’re arguing with your mom, Princess,” he said a while later. “Is there something I can do?”

“No,” she said with a shrug. “I’ve asked Sheila to have lunch with me while I’m home for Thanksgiving.”

“Really?”

“Yes. She said she’d have to bring Ericka, which I told her I had no problem with.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, but I like her.”

He chuckled softly at that. “I’m very glad.”

“Have you heard from James?”

“Not really. You know, he writes now and again. He’s dating someone new.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, couldn’t tell you who or anything, I’m not even sure he mentioned her name. If he did it was a letter or two ago and you know me, I retain names like crap.”

“I know.”

“Thank you for correcting me.”

“You aren’t lying!”

He leaned down and kissed her.

“That’s why I love you. You are so good at sweet talk, Princess.”

“Yup, that’s me.”

“I do love you.”

“I love you, too. You still should have told me about getting shot! I cannot believe you waited until I felt it!”

“I didn’t realize it was noticeable. Honestly, it was just another day.”

“You were shot!”

“I was not shot. It was a stray bullet. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Try not to be in any more wrong places, okay?”

“I will do my best.”

“That’s all I can ask for, I realize this.”

“It’s a dirty job, Princess.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she said with a sigh. He knew she hated that part of what he did. He’d never been in any real harm’s way, but nothing was a given in the military. It was only a year and a half ago or so where a helicopter had crashed at an Army base in North Carolina killing everyone onboard. Not that John told her about that happening, she’d heard about it and had worried about him like crazy for a while afterward. She’d always worry, which he liked more than he probably ever wanted to admit to her or anyone else. He’d never had that before, so he’d take it and enjoy it. He thought he was entitled.

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