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***Part One***
Word Count: 4,180

October 1984

He had no idea why he was here. He had absolutely no good reason to be back. He'd sworn when he left in July that he'd never set foot in this town again. Certainly, he hadn't come back for his parents. As far as he knew they had no idea he was in town. He had no intention on correcting that either.

It so happened that his leave timed perfectly with Shermer High's homecoming. He only knew that because one or two of the handful of people he'd kept in touch with through letters since graduation had told him.

It was those people he'd come back to see. He took one guy up on his offered couch until he had to get on a plane next Sunday morning to go to his ordered next stop. He hadn't had a lot when he left Shermer. If people could see the stuff he'd come back to town with they wouldn't believe it. He could hardly believe it.

"I wish I could blame letting you talk me into this on my being drunk," he said as his friend James drove them toward the high school and the annual homecoming football game. He had regular clothes, but they were pretty old and he didn't want to wear them. He'd saved every penny he could while in boot camp, spending only what he had to on uniforms and items needed while there.

"It'll be fun, Man," James said, taking a second to turn up the radio playing Dire Straits' Money For Nothing.

"For you." Sadly, he was sober for this excursion James had roped him into going on.

"Oh come on, you can't tell me Vernon seeing you won't make you laugh."

"If I never see that asshole again I'd be happy."

"You're going to give him a heart attack if he sees you. You should have gone with the dress blues, Man, I'm telling you. Much more effectively shocking and impressive, I guarantee you'd get lucky this weekend anyway."

"I'm not looking to get laid. That's the last thing I need right now. I'm even less out to give anyone, least of all Vernon, a heart attack. I wouldn't want that guy's bad health or demise on my conscious."

He reached inside the collar of his shirt at the thought of the assistant principal and tugged on the ball chain that held his dog tags. It was the only thing that he was required to wear every day, all day, for the next four years. His clothes could change based on what he was doing at any given time, but the dog tags had to stay.

Whether he wanted to admit it or not, he owed his current career path to Assistant Principal Richard Vernon. Well, in part, anyway. The other person he owed was much nicer to look at. It was Vernon who had put the idea of what John was going to do with his future in his head.

He didn't have a whole lot of choices available to him.

Prison seemed to be the most logical path he was heading down, but something had changed in him that day. Someone had been kind to him, touched him and expected nothing in return. Well, nothing beyond him touching her back.

He'd hung out with her more than a few times after that day. He thought they stood a chance. A chance of what? He hadn't been sure, just knew that she'd surprised him in how she was. She wasn't a stuck up bitch at all. He was open to more.

Like everything else in his life that had potential he'd screwed it up with her, too. It hadn't been his fault this time, though, and that fact ate at him when he took the time to think on it.

She'd walked in on him in what she thought was a compromising position with one of his girl friends. It wasn't, but he knew what it looked like and there was no way she was going to believe his denial that they'd just been talking. Their conversation the day of detention about whether he believed in one guy and one girl came back to haunt him. He couldn't blame her and rather than look like a sniveling idiot who chased after a girl he'd gone out on a couple of dates with he'd let her go.

He'd written her more than one letter while at boot camp. He hadn't mailed any of them because they all sounded pathetic. He would've rather gotten letters from her than James, Kevin, Tony, and Sheila (who, ironically, was the girl who he'd been caught with). By the time he'd written one that didn't sound hopelessly pathetic she'd been away at college and he had no idea where so he hadn't mailed that one either.

He'd contemplated wearing his dress blues tonight. The possibility of seeing Vernon and people like him while wearing them did paint a nice picture in his head. A nice fuck you to everyone who thought he'd be dead or in prison by now.

He'd decided against it, thinking the more subtle service uniform would be more effective. He wasn't here to make a statement, not really. He was here to hang out with the few people he considered friends before heading back out west for Infantry school. He'd made James promise tomorrow they'd hit Woodfield Mall so John could have access to something less conspicuous for the rest of his leave. He'd taken solace in the fact he wasn't the only one in boot camp who had essentially nothing but the shirts on their back.

He clutched his garrison cap to him before stepping out of James' car once they'd gotten there. God, he was an idiot. He had absolutely no business coming back here. He was one of those people who firmly believed his past was better left behind him. He slid the cap on, tugging on the sweater he wore over his khaki shirt instead of the standard issued coat.

"I swear to God if I have a miserable time this is your fault."

"It'll be fun."

"For you," he said under his breath. "At my expense."

James was one of four people John liked well enough to write letters to. After the first couple of weeks he probably would have written anyone back who'd taken the time to write him truthfully, but he hadn't wanted anyone but a select few to know where he'd gone off to.

It wasn't too bad actually. He and James met up with the other three he'd kept in touch with, grabbing seats on the bleachers to watch the game. John had absolutely no interest in watching the game, but Kevin's younger brother was playing so that was the reason they were actually watching and not standing around talking to one another. Tony had his eye on a cheerleader, so his attention was more on them than the game but it was all right. Sheila was just here to see him because they'd known one another since they were kids. She swore never to tell his parents anything about him or his whereabouts, it was the only reason he kept in touch with her.

Shermer was ahead by two points in a pretty uneventful game partway through the second quarter.

"John?"

He glared at James with a shake of his head, glancing in the direction his name had been called from.

"Allison?"

Wow had she changed and judging by the possessive arm around her she and Andrew were still hot and heavy. He wondered where Andy had chosen to go to college, John was sure he had more than one scholarship offer.

"Wow," she said. "I had no idea."

"Uh, yeah, no one did really and I prefer it stay that way."

"Is that a real uniform," Andy asked.

"Uh, yeah, I think you can get in more trouble than I'd be looking for for stealing military uniforms."

"Well, they sell stuff at Army Surplus."

John pulled his dog tags out from under his shirt and sweater. "These look real enough to you, Andrew?" he asked. There was no question they were real. Like all dog tags they gave an informational rundown: name, blood type, social security number, military branch, gas mask size, and his religious preference. He'd scoffed at the last, but had selected Protestant in the end.

They were, of course, to identify him in the event he was dead and too destroyed to identify by any other means. He had both of them on the ball chain around his neck. Once he got out of school, his next stop, and saw action in the field he'd start wearing one of them on a boot in the event his leg got severed from his body. Or his leg was all that remained of his body. This wasn't Vietnam so he wasn't counting on that happening.

He hadn't been counting on seeing combat, but as it turned out his choosing to enter under the Infantry MOS had been right up his alley. He was able to become an Expert on the rifle range. The physical requirements of the MOS were almost his undoing, but for once instead of someone talking down to him, encouraging him to fail his DI had actually been encouraging. As encouraging as a Marine Drill Instructor could be anyway. He was on his way to Infantry Training after leave, so whatever the DI had done had worked to get John to pass the tests he had to pass.

"Yeah, I guess they do. You're on leave then?"

"Yeah, ten days in between boot camp and training."

"For what?" Andy asked.

"Infantry and Combat Camera, hoping to get assigned as a Combat Illustrator but that's not up to me."

"I didn't know you draw," Allison said, overlapping Andy's "cool."

John shrugged a little. He wasn't sure it was cool exactly to line up to fire a gun at the enemy, but for whatever reason he seemed to have a natural talent for that.

"So, you two. School?"

"I'm down at Southern."

"Got your scholarship somewhat close to home then?"

"Yeah," Andy said.

"I'm still at home, going to Harper," Allison said with a shrug.

"Nothing wrong with Harper." Harper was a local community college that a lot of people went to for a variety of reasons. He wasn't sure what Allison's were, perhaps her parents couldn't afford a four year college and she didn't want to be up to her eyeballs in debt upon graduation. She'd still have to go to a four-year college to get a Bachelor's degree, but he imagined Harper fees were a little less so the debt would be a little less than someone going to a big university all four years.

"Yeah, well, if I could get out of my parents' house I'd like it a lot better."

"I hear ya," John said.

"I know you do," she said with a shrug.

John chuckled a little at that. "Yeah, I suppose the way I went about it was a little extreme."

"How'd you do it anyway?"

"Honestly, about a month after the day of detention I was on the verge of getting into some real trouble. A cop caught me, knew I was up to no good. He pulled me aside, bought me a cup of coffee, and told me the next time he saw me he was going to arrest me and I'd have that on my record for the rest of my life since I was an adult. He gave me a couple of options."

"And you chose the Marines?"

"I didn't have a whole lot of choices open to me, Andy. The cop was right, I knew where I was headed. If he had arrested me that night instead of taking me to Denny's and talking to me I wouldn't even be able to be an Illustrator, you have to pass a security clearance check."

"I'm glad someone talked you straight," Allison said.

"Thanks," John said, knowing Allison meant it. She was a bit odd, but then he supposed who wasn't.

"Did you see Claire?" Andy asked.

"No," John said.

She was here? He hadn't expected that. He'd assumed she was somewhere far away from Chicago. During their brief time together he knew she'd gotten acceptance letters from Yale and Stanford, both very far away. Another reason he hadn't pressed too hard on getting her to believe he hadn't been fooling around with Sheila the night she'd walked in on them. There was no point if she was going to end up in Connecticut or California. Ironically, he'd ended up in California but he hadn't known that at the time.

"She's here somewhere. We just saw her a few minutes ago."

"Really?" he asked, for the first time not thinking it was such a dumb idea for James to drag him here.

"Alone, too," Allison said. "Well, with friends but, you know, alone."

"Al," Andy said.

"What? He can't know she's not with someone?"

"He probably doesn't care if he hasn't even looked for her."

"Why would I look for her here? Isn't she at school?"

"She's just here for the weekend. She was last year's queen," Andy said.

"Oh," John said. "Right."

He had no idea not having ever set foot in the stands of the football stadium before ever. He certainly hadn't gone to any of the homecoming dances to know what was done. He supposed last year's king and queen would get to take their final bow, but what if they were too far away?

"I haven't seen her either way," John said.

"Oh, hey, there's a party at Churchill Woods tomorrow if you want to come," Andy said.

"I'm kind of dependent on James for a ride while I'm in town," John said with a shrug.

"He can come, too."

"Sounds good," James said.

Like Andy knew who James was but for some reason he was being included in the invite it seemed. For that matter, John wasn't sure why Andy was inviting him. A few months ago he would've assumed it was to bring some weed with him, but clearly he didn't have access to anything like that now. He still had resources, but he wasn't getting near anything illegal while on leave.

"Ally and I will get there around eleven to stake out a good spot in the picnic area. We'll hang some signs up that'll say Shermer on them, just follow them."

"Cool," John said.

He had no idea if he'd go or not, but he supposed if James wanted to drag him there he'd go along. It was better than sitting at James' house all day doing nothing. Almost twelve weeks of boot camp and seeing nobody but other recruits or actual Marines he was ready to see some normal people before getting back to it.

"Dude, you didn't tell me you were friends with Andy Clark and Claire Standish."

"I'm not, not really."

"Could've fooled me. If it was just me here he would never have said one word to me and I certainly wouldn't have snagged an invite to Churchill Woods."

"You knew about it?"

"Sure, everyone knows about it. There's a party there the Saturday of homecoming weekend every year, but if you're not invited you don't go."

"Huh," he said, he'd never known about it. Then he never got involved in school activities to care that people got together outside of school for barbeques and picnics. "That means you want to go I take it?"

"Well, yeah, come on."

"All right. There's a mall out that way we can go to instead of Woodfield Mall."

"I don't see why you don't just wear your uniform all week."

"Because I don't want to! I'll wear it enough over the next four years."

"Yeah, yeah, so are you going to go say hi to her?"

"Who?"

"Claire?"

"Why?"

James shrugged. "I saw the way you reacted to hearing she was here. I never pegged her as your type, but you know she's real pretty and all. And she's right over there by the concessions."

John glanced that way, sure enough there she was. She was hard to miss even in the crowd. He hadn't paid her much mind before the day of detention but afterward he was hyperaware of her presence everywhere. He was especially aware of her unhappy glances cast toward him after finding him with Sheila. Evidently four months away from her hadn't dampened that awareness.

"Yeah, sure, I could use a Coke anyway. Want one?"

"You're not going to let me come with?"

"Fine, you get the Cokes," he said, handing James a couple of dollars to cover three of them as they headed in that direction.

"What are you going to say to her, Man? Is she going to flip like Vernon would to see you like this?"

"I don't know," he said, honestly not knowing how she'd react to seeing him. They'd fooled around in the storage closet the day of detention and he hadn't pushed her for anything more than that the following Monday at school. He hadn't really known what he wanted from her or her from him. The time they spent together after that day never saw them get past first base.

He still wasn't sure what he'd want from her, especially being he was shipping back to California in less than two weeks. He had to admit, he'd look forward to letters from her a lot more than he did James, Kevin, Tony, and Sheila.

He knew when she noticed him. He saw the look of clear surprise in her eyes despite it being night time. She happened to be standing near a light pole. She was talking to a couple of other girls, but she'd stopped when she spotted him.

"Go get those Cokes, James. Three of them," he said when she started walking toward them.

"Yes, sir," James said with a chuckle.

"Hi," she said.

"Hi yourself," he said, acting as casually and calmly as he could. Almost twelve weeks of boot camp aided him quite a bit, but she still affected him. "Handing over your crown, huh?"

"Yeah," she said with a shrug.

"That's quite an expense for a tiara."

"Expense?"

"Yeah, flying here."

"I drove."

"Oh," he said. "Obviously you're not going to school in Connecticut or California."

"No, I chose Purdue."

"Ah," he said. "Close to home without being too close."

"Exactly."

"This your first weekend home?"

"Yes. Yours?"

He chuckled a bit. "Yeah. I just got out of boot camp, yeah."

"When did you decide to enlist?"

"About two weeks before graduation."

"How did you pass the drug test?"

"I stopped after I talked to the recruiter, was pretty upfront with him because he seemed like a decent guy who wanted to help me turn my life around. He made sure I'd pass the test."

"So you haven't?"

"In months, no. Have you?"

She shrugged. "Not really. A couple of times, but it was never anything I purposely sought out."

It was one of the reasons he liked her. She'd smoked up with him the day of detention but hadn't been hanging onto him, looking for product after that day. That happened to him more often than not because his stuff was the best in school.

"So, Purdue huh?"

"Yes."

"Major?"

"Elementary Education."

"Ah, going to teach the youngsters of the future, eh? You like it?"

"Yes, so far. I mean, right now I'm still doing mandatory classes. I'd ask the same, but does anyone really like boot camp?"

"Not really, but it was better than the alternatives I faced."

"Oh."

"Yeah, you know what those are."

"I'm glad. I mean, really, I'm glad if nothing else you got out of your house and you're safe."

"It's a sad state when my Drill Instructor was pretty easy after living with my parents for eighteen years."

"I know," she said, settling her hand against his. She didn't hold it exactly, just brushed her fingers against the back of his hand. He glanced at her hand, surprised a little because she'd been pretty pissed off the night she in no uncertain terms told him whatever was beginning between them was finished.

"I thought of writing you," he said.

"You could've, I would've written back."

"Yeah?"

"I can give you my address if you want. I mean, Mom and Dad would forward it to me, but it'd take longer."

"Right. Yeah, I'm not sure how much time I'll have over the next couple of months, but I'd like that."

She reached into her purse, grabbing a pen and a slip of paper.

"Where to?" She handed him the paper, which had her address on it.

"Back to California for Infantry school," he said.

"You're going to shoot people?"

"Well, not every day, but that is what Marines do. So, yeah."

"Oh," she said. "I suppose. I guess I never thought much about it."

"I'm going for a secondary MOS as a Combat Illustrator, too."

"Really?" she asked. "I'm so glad. You drew more then?"

"Yes, you have to submit a portfolio to even be considered. That's what I did with my time between starting the recruitment process and boot camp."

"That's great. I think I still have some of your supplies at my house if you need them."

"Nah," he said.

She was one of the few who knew he drew. He'd done it a few times at her house while she worked on her homework. He'd left things there, the better things that he knew if his mom or dad saw they'd break or throw away just to be spiteful. He hadn't counted on the fact she'd be out of his life as quickly as she entered it. She'd probably freak out if she knew that of the twenty pieces in the portfolio he submitted she, or parts of her, accounted for about eighty percent of the work.

"You can keep them. You draw, too, I know."

"You look nice by the way," she said.

He smirked a little at that. "Surprised I clean up well, Princess?"

"No," she said. "I knew you would," she said.

They hadn't gotten to the point of talking about prom, but he'd thought about asking her. She mentioned finding a dress one day after school when he'd gone home with her. He had been too chicken to ask her because he had no money. He could probably have swung the money to pay for his ticket, but not both tickets, a tuxedo, a corsage, and whatever else went into prom. So, he never asked and then she was gone from his life. She'd gone with someone and he'd been itching for a fight that night, thinking of her with someone else. All because he'd been a friend to the one person in his neighborhood he'd been able to count on most of his life. That had pissed him off more than anything.

James approached them, handing them each a cup of Coke and walked away.

"Who was that?"

"Friend I'm staying with while I'm in town."

"Oh."

"I saw Andy and Allison. He invited James and me to hit Churchill Woods tomorrow."

"Are you going to come?"

"James wants to."

God, why was talking to her so difficult? It shouldn't be, but it was.

"You don't?"

"Beats sitting at his place twiddling my thumbs, I guess. I only have ten days, I may as well do stuff with them. I don't have a car while I'm in town so I'm kind of relying on him to get around. We were going to go to the mall tomorrow anyway."

"The mall? You?"

"Yes, I left here with pretty much nothing so that means I came back with pretty much nothing. I'd like to wear more than my service uniform while I'm in town."

"I wouldn't wear anything but it if I were you."

"Yeah?" he asked.

She shrugged a little, glancing behind him. She was blushing, which looked kind of nice on her. Her eyes got hard then, she looked downright mad in fact. What the fuck was that about?

"Claire?"

"I have to get back to my friends," she said.

"Okay," he said, confused. "Will I see you tomorrow?"

"I don't know," she said dismissively.

"If I don't go shopping would I get better than an 'I don't know' as an answer?"

"No," she said and walked away, leaving him to wonder what the deal with her personality change was.

He turned around and realized what she'd probably seen that pissed her off.

She'd seen where James went to sit. She wouldn't have known Kevin or Tony was with him, but she would probably have assumed Sheila was.

"Great," he muttered.

Return to Top

***Part Two***
Word Count: 3,980

"So she thinks Sheila's what?" James asked later that night.

"I don't know," John said. "Someone I'm sleeping with I suppose."

"Why don't you tell her the truth?"

"It wouldn't serve any purpose, then or now. Either she trusts me or she doesn't."

"But you hadn't gotten to the point of being exclusive had you?"

"I don't think she's the type to have multiple boyfriends, James, so I'm sure the presumption on her part was if I was spending time with her that was it."

"She knew you had friends that were girls?"

"Sure, but I didn't know Sheila was going to come over that night. My parents were gone so I told Claire just to come in when she got there in case I was in the shower or whatever. She wasn't certain what time she'd be able to get out of her house either after homework and stuff. So it was kind of up in the air."

"Right."

"Sheila came over because she and Don got into an argument because she was late. Once she'd calmed down we watched some TV. She fell asleep, I left her there while I took my shower, figured I'd wake her up when Claire and I were about to leave. She clearly needed rest if she'd fallen asleep on my bed while watching TV. So, I took my shower and Claire walked in."

"So?"

"I wasn't dressed, James. I forgot to bring clothes with me into the bathroom. She came in when I was in my room getting them."

"Oh," he said. "But Sheila was?"

"Well, yes, of course, she wasn't in the shower with me."

"You didn't explain…"

"I didn't have the chance to explain. She saw me in a towel, Sheila sleeping on my bed, called me a choice name or two, turned around, and left before I could even really process what exactly had happened. I couldn't blame her. I knew what it looked like."

"You really think she'd think you'd have sex with someone else and then go out with her a few minutes later?"

"Well, I wasn't having sex with her so maybe. I don't know how chicks think! And considering she told me the next day in no uncertain terms was I to call her again, evidently she thought I was capable of doing that."

"Wow. I didn't know."

"Not many did."

"And Sheila?"

He scoffed. "Yeah, she slept through the whole thing. She felt bad when I told her, but she was so wrapped up with her own stuff."

"What's that?"

"I told you, James, were you listening. She was late."

"Late?"

John chuckled softly.

"She's pregnant?" James asked, evidently processing the facts.

"Yes."

"Don's?"

"I guess, I assume, but I don't know for sure. She drank a lot, I heard she'd gotten drunk at a party or something when Don wasn't there. I haven't talked to her much about it. I was kind of mad at her that night. You didn't notice she's pregnant?"

"I just thought she'd put on some weight, I didn't know."

"Christ, don't tell her that."

"So, she's talking to you tonight, happy to see you, and then sees Sheila."

"Who is obviously pregnant to me, but maybe not if you didn't notice."

"Are you going to explain to her tomorrow?"

"No," he said softly. "She gave me her address before she saw Sheila; maybe I'll write her a letter. I tried more than once, finally got one to sound decent but I never sent it."

"Dude, talk to her. She was into you until then. I saw it. Sheila won't be with us tomorrow, so she'd have to think you wouldn't go without her if you two were going to be parents. You should forget about wearing civilian clothes, though. You have a huge advantage."

"It's not an advantage."

"But it is."

"I didn't enlist to get a girlfriend, James."

"Yeah, but if it helps you get one, why not?"

John shook his head. "We're going to the mall in the morning, James. If I have to steal your car I'm getting some clothes."

"All right," he said.

"Thank you."

***

He'd bought just enough to get him through the week. James thought he was crazy, but John didn't care. He was not going to use his uniform as some sort of tool to get Claire to talk to him. Either she would talk to him if she was there when they were or she wouldn't.

"You going to be able to fit all that in your bag," James had joked. He hadn't bought a huge assortment, a couple pair of jeans, some T-shirts, and a few flannel shirts. Funny, at boot camp he hadn't felt the need to cover up, but back here in Shermer the instinct to hide his father's handiwork was strong even though he was out of the house now.

They arrived at Churchill Woods around one o'clock. It was packed. They had to park a good distance away from where the actual picnic area was. John was used to the distance, but James wasn't so much.

James was one of John's more normal friends so he didn't stand out too much here as being different. He was a senior now, but it seemed like there were current and former students alike here today so he doubted that would matter. No one stopped and stared or pointed at them, asking why they were there.

"God I hate this, you realize being here means I'll have to talk to people I didn't even like talking to when I was in school."

"Find Claire, talk to her."

"You're entirely too concerned about my love life."

"Obviously you're not, so I have to be. Jesus, I wouldn't let her walk away over something stupid like that."

"It wasn't so stupid at the time. She was going to college; I was going nowhere so I didn't see the point."

"Well, no, but that was months ago and she clearly was over it until she saw Sheila again. And you're not going nowhere now."

"Why did you want to come here anyway?" he asked.

James shrugged a little and John realized when he saw James glancing in someone's direction his friend evidently had his eye on someone, too. He didn't know her, so he wasn't sure if she was a senior, too, or what.

"I see," John said. "Go talk to her then, it'll give you something to do other than worry about me talking to Claire."

John grabbed a can of Coke from a huge cooler, looking for Andy or Allison. He wasn't sure if they organized this whole thing by themselves or with others or what and while he doubted he'd eat anything he'd certainly pay for the pop he drank.

"You made it," Allison said when he found her.

"Yeah. Thanks," he said. "Not sure what I owe you for this," he held up the Coke can.

"Nothing."

"Come on."

"We have plenty," she said, gesturing to an area where they did in fact have an abundance of cases of pop. "You look more relaxed today."

"I do?"

"Yeah, you know, in regular clothes."

"Ah, yeah, I had just gotten into town yesterday and James sort of dragged me out before I could do much else."

"Where is he anyway? I remember seeing you with him in the smoking area at school."

John gestured toward where he'd seen James walk off to. "Talking to someone."

"Oh," she said. "And why aren't you talking to anyone?"

"I am talking to someone."

"Not who you want to be talking to."

"Christ, why is everyone so hung up on Claire and me talking?"

"Maybe because it's obvious you two like each other and should be talking."

"Sometimes liking each other isn't enough." He said, taking a sip of his pop. He spotted Andy talking to some guys by the grills. They had a couple of them going strong. There appeared to be more than enough food, but there was no telling how many people would actually show up to something like this. "After Harper are you going to go to Southern then?"

"Probably. I don't know. We'll see."

"Is he worth it?"

"What?"

"Changing?"

"You wondering about yourself?"

"No, everything I've done has been for me. I'm just wondering. You're night and day different from that day. I'm pretty much the same, just with Drill Instructors instead of a prick of a father dictating my every move."

He spotted Claire about the same time she seemed to see him. She scanned the area around him, returning her attention to whatever her friend was saying.

"She still drink Tab?" he asked.

"Or Diet Coke."

"Why you guys drink that crap is beyond me."

Allison shrugged. John handed her some money. "I'm not a freeloader," he said before heading to the coolers again to find a Diet Coke. He noticed Allison put the money in a cup with money others had evidently contributed. James was on his own beyond a couple of pops.

"Hi," he said when he approached her and her friends.

"Hi," she said. The two other girls she was talking to didn't say anything. He expected that. He knew them by face, but probably hadn't said more than two words to them his entire life.

"Thirsty?" he asked, offering her the pop.

"Thanks," she said, taking it.

"Can we talk a minute?"

She sighed loud enough for him to hear. "I guess. I'll be back," she said to the two girls and walked with him a ways away.

"So, Sheila is why you got mad last night, right?"

"Is that her name?"

"You've known her as long as you've known me, Claire. We went to the same schools you did all our lives. Don't act like that."

"I was just surprised to see her with you last night, too."

"She wasn't with me. I mean, she was with me, but so were James, Tony, and Kevin. They're the only people I kept in touch with once I left. I almost didn't with Sheila."

"Why not?"

"My parents know her. She lives a few houses down from them."

"Oh."

"I made her promise to never tell them anything about me. She swears she won't. She even offered to get a post office box so I could mail her letters there instead of her house. I didn't make her go that far."

"Would they hurt her to try to get information about you?"

"No," he said, taking a sip of his pop. "Well, at least I don't think so. I honestly don't know."

They were both quiet for a minute, probably both thinking about that. He hadn't really entertained the thought Sheila might be in danger by knowing where he was until now. He just didn't want her to leave letters from him or his address laying around to where her parents could see them and relay the information unwittingly to his parents.

"It's not mine," he said after a few minutes of silence. They'd sort of walked away from the crowds. There were a few people around, but not a huge group like back at the picnic area.

"Well, obviously she thought it was."

"No," he said. "You jumped to conclusions."

"You were in a towel and she was in your bedroom."

"Yes, I know what it looked like. I do, and it's why I never tried to explain myself to you. I knew no matter what I said you'd picture how you found us. She came over to talk because she'd gotten into a fight with her boyfriend after telling him she was pregnant. I'd told her walking home from school that my parents would be gone for the night. She didn't know I had plans. We watched some TV and she fell asleep."

"So you always watch TV with her on your bed?"

"I guess. Yeah. We've known one another since we were kids. We played in her pool together when it was no big deal if she had a top on or not. You know? I wanted to take a shower; she was asleep, seemed silly to wake her up when she was obviously tired so I let her keep sleeping. I just forgot to bring clothes with me into the bathroom."

"And you let me think."

"I knew what you thought and I knew you were mad enough that my explanation wasn't going to wash. I didn't see the point. You were going away and I wasn't. I guess I figured it was for the best it happened that way instead of later on."

"I thought you were a two-timing asshole."

"Were we even dating, Claire? I don't know what we were doing."

"So you were sleeping with other girls?"

"No! Christ. No! It wasn't like that. Why does everything come down to who I am or have had sex with with you?"

"Well, while you were seeing me it matters."

"I didn't have sex with anyone while I was seeing you."

"And you don't believe me," he said when she was quiet for a minute or two after he said that. "Claire, I wouldn't do that to you. I knew what seeing me meant for you, I knew what the rules were."

"You just asked me if we were even dating."

"Well, sure, because I'm not sure we were. Had we gotten to that point yet? Do I qualify as an ex-boyfriend in your eyes? I didn't think we'd gotten there, but I wanted to so I went by what your rules were."

"So, other girls you see don't care if you have sex with your other girlfriends?"

"I've never seen anyone else. Not like you're talking at least so no they didn't care because I wasn't exclusive with them."

"I saw her last night."

"Yeah, I knew when I turned around and saw that James had sat near her that you'd jump to conclusions."

"Is she okay?"

He shrugged. "She says she is in her letters. I just got into town yesterday so haven't really talked to her or anything. She'll probably pick me up for dinner one night while I'm in town."

"You write to her?"

"Yes when she writes me I write her back. Boot camp isn't a cocktail party, Princess. It was nice to hear from the real world even if I didn't have a lot of friends to write to me. James did a couple of times, the other guys I was with last night Kevin and Tony wrote once I think," he shrugged.

"You could've written me. I would've written back."

"You told me not to contact you again."

"I was mad."

"I did actually, but I threw them away. I figured better to throw them away on my end; at least I'd know for sure they weren't read."

"I would've read it."

"You say that now. I knew what it looked like."

"You could've…"

"Made an excuse? Told you what had really happened? You wouldn't have believed me at the time. Besides, I kind of figured you were better off anyway."

"Me? Why?"

"Yes. You didn't need someone like me weighing you down."

"You weren't a weight, John. I liked spending time with you. When it was just the two of us at my house or something you were always so nice, different. God, I loved watching you draw. It was the only time I ever saw you look peaceful."

"I know you did," he said. "I'd still like to draw you."

He had, of course, several times, after they'd stopped seeing each other. Most of it was embellished from his mind's imaginings, though he didn't embellish too much just guessed what things he hadn't seen looked like.

"I'm not going to pose naked for you," she said, blushing pretty deeply.

"That's a pity."

"Why?" she asked, sounding suspicious.

"Because it would be great to have that next to my bed."

"Shut up," she said.

"I'm not going to shut up when I'm being honest, Princess."

"So, you leave when?"

"I fly out next Sunday morning. I don't have to be there until Monday, but I figured I'd get there and settle in a day early."

"How long will you be gone?"

"I'm not coming back. I came here this time because I really had nowhere else to go and while you get paid in boot camp it's not enough to take a vacation with or anything. I left here with nothing and I had to buy some things. James offered his couch. Regardless, I probably won't get leave between Infantry school and reporting to my first duty station, but I'll be in Infantry school for two months."

"That long?"

"Yes, and I don't know when my next leave will be."

"What are you going to do all week?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. I got the shopping done today."

"I see that."

"You don't like it?" he asked. While nothing special, they were actually nice clothes for him. They were new and clean with no holes or stains on them at any rate, so that was pretty nice in his world.

"You just look strange without the hair," she said.

"Yeah, it'll grow back eventually."

"Are you going to grow it back out?"

"I hadn't thought about it. Maybe, I guess I'll see how I feel when I'm in a position to choose." He finished his Coke, squeezing the can as he looked around the area. They weren't the only ones off by themselves, but she'd been talking to other people when he'd gotten there.

"Listen," he said. "I just wanted to explain, to say that Sheila's situation isn't my fault. I didn't want you thinking I knocked her up when I was seeing you. If you want to get back to your friends that's cool, I'll leave you alone."

"John," she said.

He pulled his wallet out of his pocket and the slip of paper she'd given him last night from it. "Do you want me to use this, Princess?"

"If you want to write to me, yes."

"Are you going to write back?"

She smiled a little. "I might."

"Might, huh? Well, I'll mail a letter next week with my address if you want to use it. Just don't get upset with me if I don't write you every day or anything. I've been told not to expect too much downtime other than maybe Thanksgiving or Christmas."

"You think you'll be there through Christmas?"

"Probably, yeah," he said. "I'll be somewhere anyway."

"That's too bad."

"Why?"

"Because it's Christmas."

"To you that's probably too bad. To me, Christmas was just another day so it doesn't matter."

"What are you going to do?"

"For Christmas?"

"No," she laughed. "Now."

"Find James, talk him into leaving."

"Why?"

"There's no one else I really wanted to talk to. I have nothing to say to Allison or Andy beyond what I've already said."

"Well, you could stay and talk to me. Maybe have a hot dog or something."

"Surely you have people waiting to talk to you."

"That doesn't mean you can't talk to me, too."

"In front of them?"

She shrugged. "Why not?"

"I'm not exactly their type."

She slid her hand through his arm. "They're not going to bite you, John. You're with me, so they'll be nice to you and talk to you as if they did all through school."

"Great," he said. He tossed his crumpled Coke can into a trash bin they passed on their way back toward the larger group of people. "Why exactly am I doing this instead of finding James?"

"Because when we're done I'm going to give you a ride back to his place."

"You are?"

"Yes. Unless you had something else to do. He looks like he's talking to someone anyway, so I doubt you're going to convince him to leave."

"I suppose that's an incentive to socialize with people I had no desire to ever see again."

"Does that include me?"

"No."

"I wish you'd told me what was really going on."

"I've explained why I didn't."

"I know I still wish you would've."

"It wouldn't have mattered, Princess. I still couldn't have taken you to prom or anything."

She stopped walking. "Is that why you didn't say anything?"

"Part of it. At the time, you were getting acceptance letters from Yale and Stanford."

"Among others."

"I know, but you were pretty excited about Yale."

"I was."

"I sort of figured what was the point. You wouldn't really want to be strapped with a loser like me back home anyway."

"You're not a loser."

"I came pretty close to getting arrested," he admitted.

"What?"

"Yeah. The cop had seen me before, knew what I was up to. He gave me some choices, but if it had been another cop instead of him I'd probably be sitting in a jail cell about now."

"But you're not."

"Yes, but at the time, Vernon was right."

"Vernon was an ass."

"He was, but he was right about me not being in a position to amount to anything. My parents' fault in part, but it was my fault, too. It doesn't really matter anyway, does it?"

"I just wish."

"Who knows where I'd be if things didn't happen the way they did that night, Claire. I'm not saying I'm glad, but it was probably for the best."

"Is she still with him?"

"Who?"

"Your friend?"

"Oh, Sheila? Yeah, sort of, I'm not sure how well it's going. He thinks it may not be his."

"Why?" she asked with a frown.

He chuckled softly. "You really want to hear this?"

"I don't know, do I?"

"He doesn't think it's mine, but I guess she got pretty trashed at a party one night and there was a rumor going around that she, uh, had a good time with a couple of guys."

"A couple of guys? And she's your friend?"

"Don't judge, Claire. She was drunk, and I don't believe it's true. I know her; I've known her all of my life. She's not that kind of girl. Now if you want the names of girls I would believe that about I can give you a list."

"No," she said. "That's okay."

"Don heard the rumors, though, and it took him a while to believe she didn't either."

"But he does believe her?"

"I think so. The last letter she sent me, though, said he told her he's going to get a paternity test done once it's born."

"Well, I can't blame him. Can you?"

"No, given the circumstances, I'd do the same thing. It would sure suck to pay child support for eighteen years for a kid that wasn't even yours."

"I saw her last night and I thought…"

"I can imagine what you thought."

"I thought you were an asshole all over again, talking to me while you were there with your pregnant girlfriend."

"Can I ask you something?"

"I guess."

"Did you really think I'd have sex with her right before you were going to come over?"

"I didn't know what to think! I reacted to what I saw, there wasn't much thought behind it."

"If it's any consolation, I had an equally bad reaction on the night of prom."

"You did?"

"Yes. I think that was the most miserable night of my life."

"I'm sorry."

"Did you have fun?"

She shrugged a little. "It was nice."

"Nice?"

"Yeah, you know, nothing real exciting."

"Do you have any pictures?"

"Yeah," she scoffed. Of course, she probably had a couple rolls of film worth of pictures.

"Of just you?"

"Yes."

"Send me one?"

"Are you going to hang it next to your bed?"

He chuckled. "No, that spot is reserved for a better picture. But I'll keep it."

"I can do that."

Return to Top

***Part Three***
Word Count: 4,518

He had to admit the day wasn't half bad. She'd been mostly right in that people would talk to him without disdain. Some weren't so nice, to him or to Claire either for that matter. The haircut was a pretty good giveaway as to what he'd been up to since graduation and some were curious about his choice. He didn't tell anyone there about his secondary MOS, it was no one's business. For some reason his drawing had always been very personal and private to him. He wondered if half of them even remembered him. Some of the people he'd grown up with so he was sure they did, but some he hadn't known before high school so they probably didn't.

He found James midway through the afternoon and told him that Claire offered to give him a ride back to his place. He had a spare key to let himself in and out because James had school next week and both of his parents worked. He was sort of floored his parents were okay with him camping out on their couch, but it was in their downstairs rec room so not in the middle of traffic. It beat having to pay for a motel room that was for sure. He was curious if they wondered why he wasn't staying with his parents, perhaps James had told them the situation.

"You want me to get you a hot dog or something?" he asked when it was closing in on dinner time.

"No, I was going to see if you wanted to go somewhere else. I figured you would've had enough by now."

"And miss out on a second helping of the culinary skills of Shermer's finest?"

"Sarcastic much? It was burgers and hot dogs. What were you expecting?"

"Nothing, really. It wasn't bad."

They hadn't run out of food at least. After lunch more stuff had been brought for dinner by some parents or other former students. During the day it was pretty basic picnic fare to go with the hot dogs and burgers. Various types of chips, some different salads like cole slaw and potato salad. In the evening, though, he noticed there were some baked beans and casserole type dishes to go with the burgers and dogs. Evidently, they were expecting more people to show up in the evening than had during the day. It surprised John she'd want to leave if that was the case.

"You didn't eat anyway," she said, seeming to realize that just now.

"No."

"Why not?"

He shrugged. "Andy invited me to be nice because he ran into me last night. I don't belong here."

"You were still invited, you could have eaten. And you do belong here. You went to Shermer High same as the rest of us."

"James said it was pretty much invitation only, if I hadn't run into Andy wearing my uniform I wouldn't have gotten the invite. I know how it works, but it's all right."

"Once you've graduated it's not invitation only," she said.

"Well, that's good to know. I can sleep better at night knowing I'm not crashing the party."

"I thought you had a decent time."

"I did. It wasn't so bad. I admit, but most of these people I'm never going to see again."

"Maybe, maybe not. Who knows?"

"I know, Claire."

"So does that mean you would want to go somewhere else?"

"You're driving."

"Yeah."

"Well, it's up to you then, isn't it?"

"That's not helping," she said.

"Whatever you want, Claire. Honestly, I'm surprised you're giving me the time of day."

She shrugged. "I was mad. I overreacted. I probably should've talked to you about what I saw."

"I knew why you reacted the way you did." In more ways than one, really. It wasn't just the idea that he'd been having sex with someone and she'd seemingly caught them. He was the first guy she'd done anything with. To say she probably felt stupid was probably an understatement.

"I still should've," she shrugged.

"Given me the benefit of the doubt? I wouldn't have if I was you. I was talking about today more than anything, though, really. You don't know I'm telling the truth."

"About being the father?"

"Yeah, that."

"What good would it do you to lie? If you were still in town, maybe, but you're going to what? Lie to me about being the baby's father to get me to write letters to you over the next few years? What purpose would that serve?"

"Letters are the only thing you have to look forward to." And phone calls, but he was assuming calling her would be out of the question so he wasn't even going to bring that up.

"So you'd lie to get me to write letters to you?"

"I wouldn't no, but I'll bet someone might come up with that if you tell them the situation. I'm just surprised. James said you would believe me since I came here today without her."

"You talked to him about me?"

"He asked me what the deal was."

"Oh God."

He chuckled. "Don't worry, Princess, I didn't tell him anything happened between us. Your spotless reputation is intact. In fact I told him very plainly we didn’t have sex."

"He believed you?"

"Why wouldn't he? Why would I walk around saying I didn't have sex with you if I did? Are you nuts?"

"I guess," she said, worrying her lower lip a little with her teeth. And that made him focus on her mouth, which was a very bad thing to focus on just then. Months of nobody to kiss made him crave hers even more. Because despite the fact she'd never even done that before him, she was a very fast and willing learner.

She was quiet for a few minutes, scanning the people there. He still wasn't too sure why she wanted to leave with him. Giving him a ride back to James' place was one thing, but to leave with him before the party was even close to being over. He imagined people would be coming throughout the evening during and after the dance let out.

"Do you like pizza?"

"Yes," he said. That was a pretty ridiculous question. "I haven't had pizza since…"

"Oh God," she said, offering her hand to him. "Please don't tell me since before you went to boot camp."

"Uh, yeah, that would be the last time I had pizza," he said, taking her hand. She'd done stuff like this on and off during the day, touched him or stood closer to him than she needed to. She hadn't actually invited him to touch her back until now, though.

"I've had it, but they just don't make it there like they do here."

"You can't beat Chicago and its pizza."

"No, you can't. I never knew how true that was until the past couple of months. How was your food?"

He shrugged. "Food. Not bad. Not great. I mean, it was nothing I'd write home about."

"You wouldn't write home anyway."

"You got me, Princess," he said with a chuckle. "It was all right. I didn't starve or anything."

"Good," she said.

He let her lead them to her car; at least he imagined that's where they were going. She stopped at her car, walking to the passenger side and unlocking the door. He let go of her hand then, sliding his arms around her. They were completely alone for the first time all day. Always there were people nearby even if they weren't talking to them. No one was here but them, though, at the moment.

"You never answered my question earlier, you know."

"What question was that?"

"Do I fall under ex-boyfriend territory?"

She laughed softly. "Really? That's what you're concerned about right now?"

"Well, yes and no."

"Why?"

"Well, the answer could prove very telling in how you respond when I kiss you."

"You haven't kissed me," she said.

He didn't hesitate any longer to do it then. Months in a barracks with a bunch of other guys made him a little needy. And hungry. He was sure the way he claimed her mouth told her that pretty clearly. That day of detention they'd done some pretty intense making out. After that day, they had, too, but not all of the time. He actually liked hanging out with her, listening to her and sharing things with her like his drawing. He'd sort of forgotten how much he'd enjoyed kissing her that day of detention and the reaction it had caused in him.

It did again today, too. Only worse. Weeks of no privacy, not even in the shower, evidently made his body react as if he was the one until a few months ago who had never even kissed someone.

Lips parted, his first but hers were right behind his so it didn't really matter who'd broken down first. They'd both wanted more. He slid a hand behind her, cupping her very fine ass as he tugged her to him.

Bad move.

Very bad move.

She broke the kiss, stepping away a little. She didn't slap him, though.

"I'm not having sex with you."

"I'm sorry," he asked. Had he said something he didn't realize he'd said? He didn't think so.

"I said I'm not having sex with you."

"Why would you think that's even remotely on my mind, Claire?"

She blushed deeply and he realized why she thought that.

"Oh," he murmured. "I can't really control it. Sorry."

"You don't have to be sorry."

"Well, it makes you think I'm expecting sex from you, so yeah, I guess I do."

"If you didn't I'd probably get mad."

"Expect sex from you?"

She laughed softly. "No. React to kissing me."

"Why's that?"

"Twelve weeks of boot camp is probably pretty lonely."

He chuckled a little. "I'm not sure anyone would refer to it as lonely exactly, but I get what you're saying. Yeah?"

"Well, that means the first thing you did after you got out wasn't find someone."

"I hate to tell you this, Claire," he whispered, stepping closer to her again. He found her ear with his mouth. "I think I'd react to you like this no matter what."

"Why?" she whispered.

"Because it's you," he replied, finding her neck then. He grazed the skin there with his lips. She made the most exciting sound when his tongue slid along the same spot his lips just had.

"I'm still not having sex with you."

"Christ. Have I given you any indication that I'm expecting anything from you? You're the one who offered me a ride back to James' place."

"I know."

"I can kiss you without trying to get into your pants. I did it before."

"I know. I remember."

"Thank you," he said, glad she remembered he hadn't pushed. As tempting as it had been to do so he hadn't. She'd been in complete control over what they did the entire time they hung out. Some days they didn't even kiss, they just watched TV or something. He was fine with that. He'd never had someone who just wanted to hang out with him before.

He drew away then, kissing her jaw. "You still want pizza?"

"Yes," she said.

"Let's get out of here then."

They sat there until close to ten o'clock. Why it wasn't too busy he had no idea, but neither seemed to mind not feeling rushed to eat and leave right away. He found out more about Purdue and the classes she was taking. She found out more about what he'd been up to when he got pointed in the direction of jail or something else.

"Do you know his name?"

"Yeah," he said.

"You should tell him."

"He knows. My recruiter knew him, that's why he was willing to work with me around the timing of the drug test so he'd know I'd be clean. I got the feeling I wasn't the first guy he'd given such an ultimatum to."

"It was still nice of him."

"He probably saved my life. Maybe not literally. I mean, I'd be alive if I was in prison. Figuratively, though, he did."

"Right," she said. They both got quiet after that, not the most upbeat of topics to touch on. She probably didn't get the way he'd grown up either as hard as she might try.

"So, is this the first Homecoming event you've gone to solo?"

She smiled a little, taking a sip of her pop. "Yes, actually, it is."

He shook his head slightly at that confession. "A closet full of dresses I suppose, too?"

"Yes, between Homecoming, Turnabout, and two Proms."

"What are you going to do with them?"

"I don't know! My mom will do something with them eventually I'm sure. I don't need them. Maybe there will be some formals at Purdue or something I'll need one or two of them for."

"Sorority stuff, I suppose?"

"Yes," she said with a blush.

"Hey, there's nothing wrong with it. Not my thing, but then neither is college. Clearly if they weren't popular they wouldn't be around."

"Assuming they still fit."

"Why? Are you planning on gaining weight or something?"

"No, but it happens."

"I doubt to you. You can come to school with me if you want."

She laughed at that. "No, thanks. I think I'd survive that worse than you'd survive college."

"You're probably right."

"I suppose I should get you back before it's too late."

"I have a key, but yeah, I doubt his parents would appreciate me coming in real late. They didn't lay down any rules or anything, but it's their house and James has younger brothers and sisters."

"I didn't know, but then I hardly know him."

"Why would you? He's a year behind us, but he's a good guy and while not fully in with my crowd certainly wasn't your crowd. He's the oldest of five."

"Five?"

"I know, right? I don't get it either, but they have a nice family. They're nice to one another and everything. His mom, like, cooks them breakfast before school every morning."

She grimaced a little at that. "Yours didn't?"

He scoffed. "No. I was lucky if she got out of bed long enough to make sure I made it out the door most days."

"I'm sorry."

"It is what it is, Princess. I'm out of there now."

"I know. Just that you look at what James has and think that's abnormal. I mean, I guess my mom didn't cook me breakfast every morning, but she made sure I ate something every day at least."

"It's all right," he said, pulling out his wallet.

"I can pay, it was my idea."

He stared at her. "I know you can pay, Claire, that doesn't mean I'm going to let you."

"But you said you didn't get paid a lot."

"I said I couldn't take a vacation or anything. I'm staying at James' place so I don't have a hotel room to pay for, which I would have had I gone somewhere else for my leave instead of coming here. I didn't buy a huge selection of clothes because I won't need more than what I got. I have no one to support but myself, so I think I can buy you pizza."

"Thank you. I just wasn't expecting you to pay."

"Yeah, well, I couldn't let you pay so there it is."

"What are you going to do after?"

"The Marines?"

"Yeah."

"I have no idea. I guess it depends on where they station me. If it's somewhere I like maybe I'll stay there when I'm done. That's years from now. Why?"

She shrugged. "Just wondering if you had any plans."

"To stay alive and out of trouble. That's my plan."

"Well, that's a good plan."

"You know, I wasn't expecting to see you this weekend," he said as their waitress came to take his money.

"You seemed surprised."

"I didn't know you'd chosen Purdue. It would've been kind of funny if you'd been out at Stanford while I was out there."

"I know. I did look at Stanford pretty closely, but I decided I wasn't ready to be so far away yet."

"Yet?"

"Maybe one day. I like Chicago. Don't you?"

"Princess."

"I'm not talking about your house or growing up. I mean just in general."

"I guess, I don't know. The only thing I knew growing up was that Chicago offered all kinds of things that someone like me couldn't gain access to. Museums and cultural stuff, which I'm sure you cut your teeth on."

"Yes," she admitted.

"So, while you were enjoying those things I was like a kid in a candy store who couldn't have anything. My parents could never afford to pay for those types of field trips or if they could, Mom and Dad would drink the money away."

"I know. The stuff is still there, though, John. Today."

"Yeah, well, I'm not going to do that stuff by myself."

"Why not?"

"Because," he said with a frown. "People will think I'm weird."

"What people?"

"I don’t know. People."

"Who don't know you and will never see you again. I bet if you put your uniform on, no one would think twice about you doing that stuff."

"You and James, encouraging me to use my uniform as some sort of advantage."

"I'm not, I'm just saying, anyone seeing you in uniform would assume correctly you're on leave with time on your hands. They wouldn’t think you're weird for going to a museum or something I bet."

"I don't know."

"I'm not trying to force you. I'm just saying, just because you couldn't do that stuff as a kid doesn't mean you're still prevented from doing it now."

"Would you go with me?"

"I have to go back to school tomorrow."

"I just meant in general."

"Sure I would. Why not?"

"It's kind of a date thing to do."

"Yeah?"

"Just wondering."

"You come to Chicago when I'm on break from school I would be happy to go somewhere like that with you."

"Why?"

"Because I enjoy doing those things! I still say you're making too big of a deal about going by yourself. If you want to go. Go."

"Easy for you. Chicks don't look weird doing that stuff by themselves."

She stared at him for a minute. "You're worried people will think you're gay?"

"Well, yeah," he said.

She laughed softly. "I'm not sure that thought would cross anyone's mind when it came to you, John, whether you were at a museum or not."

"You know me."

"I never once thought that about you before knowing you."

"You never saw me at a museum by myself."

She sighed. "Don't go then. You're here all week, you may as well do something with your time other than sit in James' house by yourself waiting on the four or five friends you have to take you places."

"I have no car."

"There are trains!"

He smirked a little then.

"And you're teasing me," she said, exhaling sharply.

"A little. I'd never considered going by myself that part is true. You're probably right no one would look at me too strange if I was doing stuff like that in my service uniform."

"I don't think they would if you wore those clothes either," she said with a shrug. "I mean you have your military ID, right, lots of places give discounts so it shouldn't be an issue."

"It'd be more fun going with someone."

"I'm sure it would. Find someone to go with."

"I already have, but she's not available."

"This trip."

"That's one way to get me to come back here on leave I guess."

"Is it the only reason you'd come back?"

"Pretty much. Tony and Kevin are doing their own thing this year. I'm not into the same stuff, you know. So, I've changed, too, I guess. It's just different. I don't imagine it's going to get any less different the further into my training I get."

"That's the point, though, right."

"I guess it is."

"Well, when you write to me I'll write you back and let you know when my breaks are."

"You know it doesn't work like that, right? I don't get to pick and choose. Well, I can try, but there's no guarantee I get the exact days off I want."

"I know, but I can still tell you when they are so you know."

"You can do that."

"Now, let's get you back to James' house before they get mad at you and make you stay in a hotel or something."

"That may not be such a bad thing tonight."

"Oh my God. Again, I'm not having sex with you! You're lucky I'm even talking to you. You do know that, right? I didn't have to do that at all. I could have seen you last night and walked away."

"I know, and I told you I was surprised you did. You ever kissed on a bed, though, Princess? Not having to worry about Mommy or Daddy walking in?"

"You know I haven't."

"You don't need to have sex to have fun, Princess."

"You sure about that?"

"Pretty sure, yeah."

"Well, you would know."

"You telling me you didn't have fun with me?"

"I did," she admitted.

"Me, too. And you don't really know as much about me as you think you do. You of all people should know that not everyone is what they seem. You think anyone at school, high school or college, would believe you've only kissed one guy? That guy being me, no less?"

"You don't know what I've done since April."

"You're right, I don't," he said, and for some reason the idea of her doing something as seemingly basic and meaningless as kissing anyone else really, really bothered him. "You leave a trail of guys between here and Lafayette craving your kisses, Princess?"

"I should say yes."

"Say what you want."

"What about you? You never said whether you left boot camp and met someone for the night before coming here. I doubt very likely you got right on a plane as soon as you graduated. I'm sure there's no shortage of women who do just that for the graduating classes. Never mind the few months between the night I walked in on Sheila in your bedroom and when you left."

"Would it bother you?"

"No more than my kissing someone else would bother you."

"You think that wouldn't bother me?"

"Why should it?"

"Why should what I do bother you?"

She shrugged.

"Let's go," she said.

He sighed with a huff, knowing somehow the last few minutes of conversation probably set him back a few pegs in her eyes. Why he was trying so hard he wasn't sure. She said she'd write him, but chances were she'd meet someone while at Purdue who wanted to be a lawyer, doctor, architect, or something respectable and less dangerous than being a Marine. Someone who could take her to the things at her sorority that required formal dresses.

She'd still write him, he had no doubt of that, because for some reason she'd feel as though she should. He hated that idea, that he might be some sort of charity case to her. He'd gotten this far with little to no help from anyone; he didn't need anyone sending him mail for the next four years because she didn't want him to feel lonely or as if there was nothing on the outside for him.

True, he didn't have anything on the outside now but a handful of friends. He had no belongings or possessions to his name, not even a car. He'd bought a portable radio while at the mall, which at the moment consisted of the only personal item he'd be bringing to Infantry school with him. Pathetic, maybe, but he had four years to carve out a life for himself.

They didn’t say much else on the way to James'. There wasn't much else to say it seemed. She was leaving tomorrow and he'd have the next week to contemplate whether he should even send her a letter when he got to school or not.

He was beyond shocked when she put her car in Park on the street outside James' place and leaned in to kiss him. It wasn't like the kiss earlier, but it was better than no kiss.

"What was that for?"

"To say good night and that I'm not mad at you."

"You could have fooled me."

"I hate when you do that."

"Do what?"

"Try to pretend you have no feelings."

"I'm not used to it, and I'm certainly not accustomed to being able to express them."

"I know."

"I can't say the Marines is going to make that any better. It's not exactly charm school."

"I haven't kissed anyone."

"I haven't had sex with anyone," he said. "Pretty sure I couldn't have anyway."

"Why not?"

"Because I wanted you!"

"You did?"

He scoffed. "Really, Princess? You need me to say that?"

"It's nice to hear."

"So is hearing you haven't kissed anyone else."

"That would really bother you?"

"Stupid, I know, but yes. I had every intention of contacting you when I was done with boot camp and school and at my first duty station."

"Why?"

"Because we weren't done yet, at least I wasn't done yet. I needed to get my life in order."

"It's not now?"

"It's better than it was, but like I said I won't have a lot of free time. I won't get leave until probably after Christmas and I don't know beyond letters how much contact I will be able to have with you."

"You don’t get phone calls?"

"Yeah, I think at night and on weekends they give you some time assuming you earned the time."

"I'll give you my phone number tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?"

"Yeah, tomorrow. Pick something you want to do downtown and we'll do it. I have to go to church with my parents, but I can pick you up around ten o'clock because we always go to the early service."

He narrowed his eyes a bit, regarding her. "You have to go back to school tomorrow."

"I have no specific time. It's only like one hundred twenty miles. Did you have plans tomorrow?"

He smiled a little. "I should say yes."

She rolled her eyes. "Well, then, you wouldn't get my phone number."

"I guess that's incentive for me to be honest and say I have nothing going on."

"I'll see you tomorrow then."

"You don't want to know what my choice in places is?"

"Think on it and tell me when I get you."

"All right," he said, opening the passenger door.

"Thanks for the pizza."

"Thanks for a surprisingly nice day." He squinted a little, leaning back into the car a little. "We are going alone, right? There's no Shermer High thing tomorrow downtown?"

"It'll just be us."

"Music to my ears, Princess."

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***Part Four***
Word Count: 4,536

"And you're sure about this, man?" James asked.

John shrugged. "No, not really, but I'll never know if I don't try. If it's really terrible I'll come back early. I'm sure your parents won't be upset I'm gone for the next couple of nights."

"Well, no, that's not true. They don't mind. I've explained why you don't want to go home. You gave my mom money for food, which she said you didn't have to do."

"Well, over a week of using your stuff is a long time. You guys are saving me on a hotel bill, so I can give your mom something for including me in family breakfasts and dinners."

"So, you'll be back on Saturday?"

"Yeah, early evening probably."

"I can't believe her roommate is okay with it."

"Why not? It's not like we're going to do anything in front of her."

James probably assumed they were doing things outside the presence of her roommate and John didn't have it in him to admit he was taking a bus one hundred thirty miles or so to see someone he had done little more than kiss.

"Well, I hope everything goes all right. She believes you about Sheila, though, at least. That's a start. Call me when you're back and I can pick you up."

"You're not doing anything Saturday night? I sort of figured I'd have to take a train back to town and hoof it the rest of your way to your place."

"Probably not. If you call me, or have her call me, on Saturday with which bus you're catching I can be sure to be around when it's scheduled to get in. Or, you know, if you need to come back tomorrow instead."

"Thanks," John said. He was bringing everything he owned with him. He kind of had to since it consisted mostly of his uniforms. He'd have to come back through Chicago even if he stayed Saturday night since his flight was leaving from O'Hare. There was no airport near her college so he couldn't switch it even if he'd wanted to, unless he wanted to fly out of Indianapolis. He could do that, he supposed if things went well enough he didn't want to go back on Saturday.

John got out of James' car and walked to the bus station. He was lucky James' mom was okay with her son driving John downtown at five in the morning. Some parents wouldn't allow it. John could've taken a train, but James had seemed to want to take him.

John wondered if James thought he was going somewhere else so as not to be a bother to his parents anymore. John kind of liked staying there honestly. It was an entirely foreign environment for him, a whole family eating meals together. They talked while eating together, too, and laughed and stuff. They'd even teased John Sunday morning at breakfast about getting back later than James had on Saturday night. (Except for one of James' younger sisters who John suspected had a fourteen-year-old crush on him so didn't seem too happy to find out it'd been a girl who dropped him off.) These were things John had never experienced in his life. James' dad didn't always eat with them. He was a doctor so sometimes was already at work or had been at work late. He ate with them when he could, though.

John fell asleep on the almost three hour bus ride to Lafayette. It wasn't a real exciting ride and being so early in the morning no one was in the seat next to him. The bus actually got there on time, which was good because she had class at eleven. She wasn't on time, though, leaving him to stand there for a while until he saw her car pull up.

"Did you think I wasn't going to show up?" she asked.

"I wondered."

"I wouldn't do that to you."

"Well, you know, some would probably say I deserve it."

"Not today you don't," she said. "I wasn't exactly positive where the bus station was so I had to stop at a gas station and get directions."

"Oh," he said with a nod. "No visitors for you then?"

"You're the first so far," she said as he set his bag in her trunk.

"Most others probably have their own ride anyway."

"Not all of them do," she said. "What would you do with a car right now anyway? You wouldn't have anywhere to store it until you could have it."

"Yeah, there is that."

"It's not too bad of a drive, though," she said.

"No, I got to sleep for most of it. Now, you're sure your roommate is all right with my staying with you? I'm more than willing to get a motel room if she's not."

"You don't have to do that. I swear I asked her. We're not best friends or anything, but she's all right. I got permission from my RA for you to stay tonight."

"Why?"

"Because the dorms are only open for guests twenty-four hours Friday through Sunday nights."

"And you're not going to get in trouble if you're caught?"

"No, it seems mentioning you being on leave from the Marines after boot camp and about to be gone again for months made it okay."

He chuckled a little at that. "I see."

"So, she probably thinks you're my boyfriend or something."

"And you are all right with this?"

"I asked you to come here."

"I know you did, but I'm just making sure you thought this through. People seeing you with me, thinking I'm your boyfriend."

"What's to think through? I don't really care what they think anyway. We're not doing anything wrong. I didn't lie about you being in the Marines or being gone for months. I just omitted you may not come back this way again."

He slid his arms around her, drawing her toward him.

"You and me together like this for days. That could potentially be bad."

"Are you going to try and make it bad?"

"No, but then I don't have as much to lose either."

"Then I'm not worried. I figured you deserve to do something with your leave that's more than sitting at your friend's house."

He narrowed his eyes a bit. "Is that why you're doing this? So I'm not bored? Claire, listen, I don't need you to entertain me. James has a TV with cable and they have books at their house. His parents even get the Tribune delivered to their house. Believe me I know how to keep busy."

"Wow, talk about an overreaction to what I said. No, that's not what I meant. I just meant you can go to school and maybe have something nice to think of when things may not be so good there. If being at James' house is something you think will give you good thoughts well then I guess it was me who overreacted."

He chuckled. "No, I suspect being with you will be better for that."

"See?"

"I just don't want you to think…"

"I know," she said, leaning up to kiss him. "I don't think I'm responsible for you in any way, John. You said you weren't really talking to your other two friends, Sheila's working, and James is in school all day. I just figured it'd be kind of fun."

"I'm not sure fun is the word I'd use."

"Why not?"

"I'm not sure yet, ask me on Saturday."

"Are you hungry?"

"Yeah, a little, James and I had cereal before we left, but that was hours ago."

"Want to get breakfast? There's a place on the way that someone said is pretty good without being real expensive."

"Sure. Since when do you worry about stuff being expensive?"

"Since my parents have me on a pretty strict budget so I don't order pizza every night."

"Ah," he said with a chuckle. "Yeah, I see. I suppose they went through that with your brother?"

"Yes! And guess who gets to pay for his crimes?"

"Well, I'll buy you pizza this weekend if you want one."

"I have no plans on eating in my dorm room once while you're here."

"No?"

"No. I have class today from eleven until one, my roommate's gone until after three so I figured you could take a nap if you want while I'm in class since you probably got up even earlier than the Marines woke you up to get to the bus station before six."

"It was pretty early."

"Then after that there's some things I've found to do while you're here."

"Like?"

"Well, there's a zoo I thought might be kind of fun, a hiking trail along the Wabash River. It goes for miles I guess."

"Whatever you want to do."

"You have no opinion?"

"No," he said.

"Why not?"

"I've never been here to know what my options are. I would've gone to the zoo with you last weekend; it's not that I don't like zoos. I just thought the Aquarium would be cool."

"I know, and it was."

They ate breakfast, getting to campus almost to the point she'd be late for class. She showed him where the bathroom was for him to use and left him to his own devices almost immediately after that. He turned the TV on; knowing at this time of day there wouldn't be much on. He kicked off his shoes and settled himself on her bed glad she'd taken the time to point out which was hers to him before leaving.

She knew when he woke up almost immediately. His breathing changing was the most telling sign. She slid her hand resting at his chest away, but he grabbed onto it stopping her from moving it far. He slid it back to where it had been resting against his chest.

"Hi," he whispered.

"Hi," she said. "The nap idea was a good one I take it?"

"Yeah," he said. He turned his head a little, regarding her. "How long have you been back?"

"An hour."

"And you're just now waking me up?"

"I wasn't trying to. I fell asleep for a little bit and just woke up myself."

"Oh," he said. She could see him processing that. "Here?"

She gave a soft laugh, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder. "Where else?"

"I don't know. I'm kind of sad I missed that."

"What?"

"You crawling into bed with me."

"Well, you'll be able to see it tonight."

"Not the same with your roommate here I bet."

"Probably not. Sorry."

"How was class?"

"Fine."

"All done for the day then?"

"Yes."

"What did you have in mind?"

"Honestly?"

"Yes."

"Just to lay here with you for a little while longer."

"Why?"

"Why?"

"Yeah, why?" he asked.

"Why wouldn't I?"

"I'm not sure."

"Oh, well, I don't know how to explain it. It's nice."

He turned onto his side, placing a hand to her hip before sliding it a little behind her to cup her ass. "It is very nice."

She reached up, touching his head. He said his hair had grown out from the initial buzz cut three months ago. It was still pretty short though. She ran her fingers through it just the same. Not nearly as effective or as nice as when he had hair for her to touch. She hadn't realized that she had an opinion on his hair until now.

She kissed him then and he kissed her back. She groaned softly as he shifted them so he was on top of her. It happened so fast she didn't have time to really react until he was already there. Her instinct was to stop kissing him, to push him away except he didn't do anything to suggest he was trying to take the kiss further. It took her a couple of minutes, waiting for him to do something more that didn't come before she slid her arms around his neck. She deepened the kiss, feeling her heart pound she was so hyper aware of him flush against her. He took his cue from her, seeming to sense until she'd deepened it she was deciding.

He found her jaw and ear, causing her to gasp when he kissed them. Then her neck just under her ear where he did more than kiss it. She didn't stop him, sliding her hand over his shoulder and along his arm until she found his hand. She laced her fingers through his, gripping tight when she finally met it as he licked and sucked the small area there he was focusing on.

"Don't say it," he murmured, finding the part of her neck right by her shoulder just then.

"Say what?"

He chuckled softly. "That you're not having sex with me."

Her eyes flew open at that.

"I know we're not. Don't worry, Princess. That's not even on my mind, but it makes doing this much more enjoyable not thinking that you're sitting there thinking that while I'm doing this."

"Why isn't it on your mind?"

She felt him inhale sharply at that question against her neck.

"Because I wouldn't do that to you even if you were willing."

"Do what to me?"

"Have sex with you and then leave for months having no idea when I'd see you again."

"That's the only reason it's not on your mind?"

"Yes," he admitted. "I'm a guy, Claire. I look at you and think about it. It's the way we're wired. I'm not going to act on it."

"But what about you?"

"What about me?" he asked, working the buttons on her blouse so he could kiss lower. He glanced at her alarm clock; mindful of the fact she'd mentioned her roommate had class until three.

"You won't go back to school after kissing me like this frustrated?"

He chuckled. "I don't think I'll have time to be frustrated, Princess. I didn't even have the privacy in boot camp to do anything about it even if I wanted to so I can go a while."

"And you haven't since then?"

"Had sex? We went over this already over the weekend."

"No, not sex."

"What are you asking me then?" He nipped her skin not even an inch above her bra and it was her turn to inhale deeply.

"You didn't? Haven't at all?"

God, he wasn't answering her. Was it a bad question? She wasn't sure. He used a fingertip to push her bra down a little bit, allowing him to kiss even lower.

"Are you asking me what I think you're asking me?"

"What do you think I'm asking you?"

He chuckled, sliding the fingertip lower to graze her nipple which caused her to gasp loudly. She hadn't been expecting it.

"Are you asking me if I've made myself?"

"Yes, that."

"Not until Saturday night I didn't."

"Why Saturday night?"

"You really need me to answer that?"

"Oh," she whispered. He slid the cup of her bra out of the way completely so he could take her nipple into his mouth then. "John."

"Yeah, I know, she's going to be back soon. You want me to stop?"

"God, no."

He chuckled, going back to what he'd been doing.

"Was it good?"

"Was what good?" he asked.

"Saturday night?"

"What I imagined you mean? Not as good as the real thing I'm sure, but it did the job it was supposed to do."

"I'm glad."

"You're entirely too concerned about this not to mention the fact I just admitted to doing that to thoughts of you. Why?"

"I just," she sighed, biting her lower lip as he darted his tongue along her nipple. "A part of me feels like I should."

"Should?"

"Have sex with you."

He stopped what he was doing then, regarding her. "I didn't come here to have sex with you. I'll repeat what I said earlier, I'm not going to have sex with you and then leave for months not knowing where I'm getting shipped off to after school. Chances are it's going to be somewhere in the US, but they do have a base in Japan. I've heard the odds are pretty slim of getting sent there right away, but I don't know. If I get the Combat Illustrator job I want I could be sent any number of places as the need for my skills is required. I wouldn't do that to you or me."

"What if I wanted to?"

"I'd go to school and probably feel like the biggest idiot in the world, but I still wouldn't do it. We both deserve better than that."

"Better than sex?"

"Better than our first times having some sort of pressure or necessity associated with it. What if I leave and you meet somebody? Then you'd feel guilty or as if you owed me something somehow. I don't really feel like getting a real Dear John letter from you. I'm in no hurry, Claire. I've waited this long, what's a few more months?"

"It hasn't been that long!"

He chuckled. "I meant in general."

She frowned a little at that. "Huh?"

"You know, to have sex."

"Yeah."

He leaned up to kiss her. "You're cute when you're confused."

"What am I missing?"

"I've never."

"Shut up," she said and this time she did try to push him off of her. "Why would you lie about that?"

"Well, that's the question you should be asking yourself not me. Why would I lie about that? To you! Why especially when you're suggesting you might be willing? I certainly have money to pay for a motel room if you were so inclined and I thought it was a good idea."

"So you've never?"

"No."

"But those girls." No way. It was some sort of trick. It had to be.

"They're girls. I mean, I've done things, sure. Just not the actual act or anything that involved any of my clothes coming off."

"You'd take them off for me?"

"Yes," he said, sounding so sincere and yet a little afraid by that admission.

"Why are you telling me this?"

"I'm not sure really. Explaining I guess why I'm not in a huge hurry to get you into bed for the purpose of sex. I mean, I like being in bed with you like this just fine. I'm sure I'll enjoy being in bed with you for the rest when we get to that. And that's why I told you."

"Why?"

"I'll get weekend liberties from time to time, the ability to go off-base and into town for the day or evening. I know you have ROTC types here; I don't want you hearing stories of what Marines do with their liberty time and think I'm sticking my dick in anything that's willing while writing to you."

"Don't be crude."

"It's the truth! I figured if you knew that you'd be less inclined to think that's what I'm up to when I have free time."

"Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

"It didn't seem real important. You're the one who keeps insisting you're not going to have sex with me. I just don't want you thinking I'm going to leave here and find what I don't get from you from someone else."

"Are you going to take off your shirt tonight?"

"I hadn't planned on it. Oh, to sleep you mean?"

"Yes."

"I could. Why?"

"I think I'd like you leaving knowing I've seen you without some of your clothes on."

"It's not pretty."

"You're a guy, guys aren't supposed to be pretty."

He chuckled.

"Yeah, well, definitely I'm not."

"You think that bothers me?"

"I don't know. I've never let myself find out."

"I'm not those girls."

"I gave you a hickey," he said, grazing the spot on her neck.

"I guessed that's what you were doing."

"Sorry."

"I didn't stop you."

"No, you didn't. Too bad I can't find a way to leave them without my being here."

"Why?"

He shrugged. "I like the statement behind them."

"What's that?"

"That you're spoken for."

"Rings do that just as well."

"Subtle hint there, Princess." He snickered. "Anyone can wear a ring on that finger. No one can leave themselves a hickey."

"I wasn't hinting."

"That's good because I don't think I'm ready for that."

"Me neither."

"My recruiter gave me some pretty specific advice about life-altering choices to avoid."

"Like?"

"Oh pretty no brainer stuff really. No getting engaged or married. No buying expensive things like cars, motorcycles, boats, or homes for Mom because I have money in my pocket when I'm not used to it. No rushing out to get a tattoo."

"Having sex with someone you're not sure what you're going to do with?"

"Probably that would be in there, too." He chuckled. "Is that what you think? That I'm not sure?"

"Well, how could you be?"

"Well, I wasn't holding out for marriage or anything."

"I'm not really either."

"No, but your decision not to was rooted more along the lines of readiness or an actual desire to wait than mine. I just simply didn't think anyone would want to with me or if they did they'd call the cops when we were done."

"Because you have some scars?"

"I didn't say it was logical. And it's not just some. He was smart about not leaving most of them where they'd be visible. Sometimes he'd get so inebriated or mad that he'd forget he was supposed to hide them. Like the time he gave me the one I showed you guys."

"I hate that you had to live like that."

"No more than I do, Princess."

She ran a hand over his cheek and jaw. "You're a good looking guy, John, when you want to be. That he made you doubt that or think that someone wouldn't want to look at you because of what he did to you makes me sad."

"You know it's funny, it got better in boot camp. I wasn't as worried about what people thought there. Then I came home and the first thing I bought at the mall on Saturday was long-sleeved shirts. I never once in boot camp thought 'I need to cover these up'. You know?"

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

"It is what it is."

"You don't have to hide any of it from me."

"You say that."

"I mean that. I can't promise I won't get mad – at him - not at you."

"I've stopped being mad at him."

"Really?"

"Too many better things for me to worry about than dwelling on something I couldn't control or stop. I stopped it when I could and well, it turns out I'm pretty good at shooting guns. Who knows if I'd have discovered that if it weren't for how I grew up? Even if he never laid a finger on me, life at the Bender house wasn't happy so the trouble I got into likely I still would've."

"You would've found something else you were good at."

"Maybe. Who knows? I just realized at some point during my time at boot camp that I could keep worrying about my past or I could just move forward. My past got me to this point so I can't ignore it completely, but I don’t have to revel in it. It's one of the reasons I never mailed you any of the letters I'd written you."

"I still wish you would've."

"And I still think it was best I didn't. You may have read it, but you probably would've doubted I was telling the truth. If you had believed me and then seen me with Sheila last Friday night at the game when she was obviously pregnant, well, I suspect I wouldn't be here."

"Probably not."

He glanced at the clock again, realizing their time alone was just about up.

"When does she have class tomorrow?"

"In the morning like I do."

"You should let me take your car tomorrow morning."

"Why?" she asked.

"Oh, you know, put my uniform on; maybe find a barber who can do a good high and tight and then go cruising around town for chicks while you're in class."

"Ha ha. No really? Why?"

"Don't trust me to drive your car, Princess?"

"I'm just wondering what you need."

"I was thinking maybe I could splurge on a room tomorrow night somewhere."

"John."

"Not for that! I swear you worry about me thinking about having sex with you entirely too much. I just want one night without her or anyone around but us. We can do whatever you want tomorrow night. Go to a party, hang out here with her. I don’t care, but I'd like to wake up Saturday morning to just you."

"You think you can do that?"

"Do what?"

"Just sleep with me?"

"I'm doing it tonight."

"Yeah, because you have to."

"I could've gotten a room for tonight if I wanted to."

"Can I ask you something?"

"I hope you know you can ask me anything by this point, but go ahead."

"You said you had no desire to come back to Chicago."

"I don't think I said Chicago specifically, but I don't really."

"So what are you going to do with me?"

"Do with you?"

"Yes, Chicago is my home, and unlike you I do have a reason to go back."

He shrugged. "I guess I go back to Chicago then."

"Even though you don't want to?"

"I have nothing holding me there. I have no family I'm willing to acknowledge. I have grandparents, aunts and uncles, and some cousins or something somewhere, but they obviously don't give a shit about me or they would've done something."

"I don’t want to be an obligation."

"You're not. When I enlisted the idea of you wanting to be in my life was non-existent so when I shipped out to San Diego I had no plans on setting foot in Shermer again. Tony, Kevin, James, and Sheila mentioned Homecoming weekend was going to fall during the time I had leave. James' family offered me their couch. It beat spending hundreds of dollars on a hotel room for me to twiddle my thumbs out of boredom in for ten days."

"So, you've thought about it?"

"Since last Saturday? Yeah, I've thought about it a lot. What about you?"

"What about me?"

"You seem to have your heart set on staying in Chicago. Let's just hypothetically say this between us works. What if I want to make a career out of this? I'd be able to reup a time or two in the Marines, but I've been told eventually they sort of force you to retire so anyone who wants to make a real career out of it would have to enlist in another branch."

"Well, it wouldn't be easy, but if this between us works then I guess I'd go where you were. I could teach anywhere."

"You could, yeah."

She reached up and kissed him, sliding a fingertip along his lower lip.

"For that, though, to move myself across the country I'd definitely need more than a hickey."

He chuckled. "For that I'd get you more than a hickey."

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***Part Five***
Word Count: 3,094

It took over two weeks for him to get his first letter from anyone. He'd sent Claire, Sheila, and James his address the day he'd arrived. James and Sheila knew if Tony or Kevin asked for his information they could give it to them, but he didn't plan on going out of his way to write them. It was pretty clear to him during his time there that they were at different points in their lives. Tony might change some if the cheerleader he was interested in got interested back. She didn't strike John as the type to put up with drinking and drugging. Then what did he know? He never would've pegged Claire as the type to smoke up at all, and she had been the first one to join him in doing just that the day of detention.

He'd been out in the field the last week so he had no way of knowing when her letters actually got there, but he did notice the postmark was about three days after he'd mailed his letter to her. He was beyond exhausted as were most of the guys in his unit, but he wasn't the only one who tore open his mail anxious to read the contents.

Dear John,

You must have written me right away. I'm glad since you said you're only there for about two months. Then maybe two months seems like a lot longer to you than it does to me. I guess that's probably true. All I have to worry about is waking up on time for my eight o'clock class and getting homework done. I don't have drill instructors (they're instructors for you, right? I think I remember you saying that) interfering with everything I do.

Anyway, I had fun with you while you were here. I wasn't sure agreeing to a room with you was smart. I hope you know how tempting it was for me to give in and ask you for everything. Maybe you wouldn't have, you said you wouldn't have, and I believe you meant it. It was tempting, though. Sleeping beside you without Amy not more than ten feet away was nice, and very worth it. I still wish you would have let me pay for something while you were here. I felt sort of bad about that, but thank you for everything. The food isn't bad on-campus, but a couple of days break from it was nice.

By the way, I don't know if I told you I was glad you chose the Aquarium when we went out the Sunday in Chicago. It'd been a while since I'd been there. I would have gone to the zoo; I hope you know that even if it was a little cold. The Aquarium was nice, though. So, that's one place down you said you'd never been to. And then that way we didn't go to two zoos in less than a week. Besides while the one here is a nice zoo, seeing it right after going to Brookfield would have been a huge letdown. You didn't mention if you did anything else downtown before you came to see me. I have some ideas in mind for the next time we might both be in Chicago. You'll have to tell me if you went anywhere else.

Oh, and I liked your full uniform. I know you have a more formal one, but when I saw you Friday night at the football game you were wearing a sweater instead of the coat that made your uniform more of a suit. Not that the sweater wasn't nice, too. It was. Just the full uniform made you look more official.

And that sounded terrible. I'm sorry. I should probably start over, but I have a test in Biology tomorrow (have I mentioned that I HATE Biology) that I should be studying for, so I'll probably just send this and hope you know what I mean.

Anyway, I'll write again in a few days. I do remember you told me you may not be able to write often so I won't get mad or anything. I promise, but write when you can. Okay? I'll give you the dates I'll be home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, too. If you write to me around those dates, you may just want to send it to my parents' address. I'll write that at the bottom, too, and my phone number there in case you don't have it anymore. I still have my own line so you can call anytime without worrying about bothering Mom and Dad.

I hope you're doing well in school. Is that an appropriate thing to say? I mean, I want you to shoot well so you don't get killed and other Marines around you don't either. Right? It just sounds so strange to wish someone luck learning to do that.

She didn't say a whole lot else. It was the front and most of the back of a piece of notebook paper. So, not super short. She mentioned a party at her sorority on the weekend. He imagined she probably had things like that to go to every weekend. She gave him the dates she'd be off for school, including when she'd be going home for the summer.

He refolded the letter, writing on the front of the envelope that it had her vacation dates in it. He had a little more room here than he had had at boot camp, but he still planned on keeping everything neat and orderly in his foot locker. That way when he was done in a couple of months he didn't have to worry about not having everything. The note on the envelope would make it easy for him to find the letter he was looking for when it came time for him to see about dates of leave.

There was a second letter from her. It didn't say a whole lot, hoping he'd gotten her first letter and that he was doing all right. She told him more about classes and mentioned some friends she'd gone to a party at her sorority with the weekend before. This letter must have just come in the last day or two, judging by the Sunday date she'd written on the paper.

Along with the letters from Claire was a letter from James' younger sister. That had surprised him immensely. She'd evidently seen the envelope to James and copied his address down because John couldn't for the life of him imagine James encouraging Samantha to write to him. She didn't say a whole lot and she didn't ask him to write her back. He wouldn't, of course. Even if he wasn't four years older than she was, she was his friend's sister, and hopefully someone whose parents would let him sleep on their couch again if need be. They wouldn’t do that if they had a clue Samantha had written him.

He put the letter back in the envelope, glancing briefly at the three envelopes. Very different handwriting. Samantha's was neat and nice, but Claire's was more … elegant for lack of a better word. Not that he knew much about penmanship, but he knew if he wanted someone to write a letter for him Claire's handwriting would be the one he'd want someone to think was from him. Well, if he was a girl anyway. He wondered if girls like Claire had lessons in things like handwriting. He had no doubt she'd gone to classes for etiquette, manners, and all sorts of things John wouldn't begin to comprehend. Debutante stuff. Had she had one of those formal coming out parties? He had no idea as he'd never bothered to think much about her before the day of detention.

He didn't have a whole lot of time, but he wrote a quick letter to James. He had to tell him Samantha wrote to him. He didn't want to get Samantha in trouble, but he also didn't want to risk having his friend's mother's generosity and kindness end because of something beyond his control. He told James to be sure Samantha knew he appreciated the letter and that he wasn't mad she'd written to him. He had to admit if she wrote him again, he'd read the letter but he wouldn't write her back. That letter written, sealed, and addressed he focused on the next one.

His letter to Claire was going to be a little lengthier. One thing he hadn't mentioned to her was that no one actually went through mail letters were taken and read by other guys once in a while. It'd happened to him the first letter or two Sheila had written until the guys in his barracks realized Sheila wasn't a girlfriend.

So, he made sure to close the letter cautioning her not to say anything in a letter she wouldn't want a bunch of other guys in school with him to know. That included things he'd mentioned to her that those same guys had no business knowing. Hopefully she'd know what he was talking about, but he didn't need everyone here to know about his experiences (sexual or otherwise). He also told her he'd try to call her over the weekend, though the letter would arrive after the phone call because he'd try to call tomorrow morning if he could.

By the time he got that done it was about lights out time. He got that letter ready to go as well and then settled himself in for the night. Now that he'd gotten a couple of letters from her he could think about calling her over the weekend. He hadn't last weekend when he'd had the opportunity because he really hadn't known what to think about their situation. Their night together had been pretty nice. Actually, he had to admit it was probably the nicest night of his life. Pathetically, nothing had happened between them. At least nothing that hadn't happened before that night without the benefit of them being in a motel room with no chance of being disturbed. Her clothes had stayed on, his shorts had remained on. The rest had come off. It had seemed important to her for some reason that she see him.

He wasn't sure why, but being the sucker he was when it came to her he did it. He was pretty sure she had no idea that his back and legs were as bad as they were. Honestly, he wasn't even sure how bad his back was, but he'd heard the reactions from people a time or two over the past few months to know it wasn't pretty. He didn't look at himself in a mirror, though. His legs, well, he could see those. The backs of them bore the brunt of the damage. Anyone who tried to say that getting smacked by a belt didn't hurt or harm anything needed only to look at him as proof they were lying.

He wouldn't deny it was nice, but sitting here now the idea of another couple of months with little to no privacy made him wish she had asked or pushed for something more to happen between them. That was crazy thinking because the last thing either of them needed was that between them. He thought they both knew it wasn't a lack of wanting to, certainly they were both curious. The timing was just off. If he'd been able to spend all of his ten days with her.

Well, maybe.

Who knew, really? He did know that if he'd taken things too far and something happened, either on his end or her end, he'd feel guilty. He sure hated the thought of her with another guy and she obviously was bothered by him being with another girl but months was a long time with sporadic communication. He knew part of his two months here would be out in the field as the past week had been. He told her because he'd been warned in advance but being told and not hearing from someone over a weekend when you know they get weekend calls was different.

It was early the next morning when he got in line for the phones. He could have waited until tonight, but he thought he had a better chance of catching her in a dorm room on a Saturday morning than on a Saturday night. With the time difference it was almost nine o'clock there since she was in the Eastern Time Zone in Indiana. Weird to be about one hundred miles from home and in a different time zone.

'Hello.'

"Is Claire there?"

'This is.'

"Hi. It's John."

'Good morning. How are you?'

"I'm good. You? You sound sleepy. Did I wake you?"

'A little. I'm fine, though.'

"A little? Sorry. I was thinking this would be a better time than tonight."

'Umm, yeah, I was out kind of late last night. And you're fine. You can call whenever.'

"You sure do like those parties your sorority has."

'They're fun.'

"If you say so. I got your letters yesterday."

'Both of them on the same day?'

"Yeah, I was in the field all week so the first one came after we left and I'm guessing the second one came yesterday. Thank you."

'You don't have to thank me.'

"Well, I liked reading them and I want to be sure to tell you that so you send more."

'They were pretty boring.'

"There's nothing wrong with boring. That's probably pretty good anyway until I get my permanent orders. You know? Less nosey people there to mess with my stuff."

'Oh,' she said.

She was quiet then.

"You didn't say anything wrong in them, no one read them. Believe me, I heard a couple of letters while in boot camp read out loud that would make a porn star blush. I think we're safe from that for now anyway."

'So I shouldn't write you about the things I want to do to you?'

He groaned softly. "You can write about whatever you want, Princess. I'm just warning you that my eyes may not be the only ones who see it."

'I'll never meet any of them.'

"No. Unless you came for my graduation."

Silence again.

'Really?'

"It'll be during your Christmas break, but I've heard it's no big deal. I was just saying they'd see you if you came for that."

'I'm not sure I could, but I could ask my parents. When is it?'

"December twenty-eighth."

'I can see if my parents would be willing to let me go.'

"Let you go see a guy graduating from the Marines? I doubt that'll go over at all. You don't have to, Claire. I was just saying that's the only way they'd see you to put a face with the name. I'd at least have the night off, though, maybe one or two before I had to leave for my base. But you write whatever ideas come to mind you want to write down. Just know they may be read by others. And I'd prefer things I told you in confidence stay out of those letters."

'Yeah. I get it,' she said.

"Thank you."

'Porn star blush? Really? That bad?'

"God, yes. The poor guy was pretty embarrassed. I don't think she realized what she'd written might be seen by others."

"See and I would just assume."

"Right? I mean, this isn't prison, we don't have wardens going through our mail, but it's a bunch of guys who sometimes lack for better things to do then picking on someone who gets letters from his girlfriend. Especially when some of those guys get no mail."

"They weren't even married?"

He chuckled. "No."

"How many did she write like that?"

"I'm not sure how many came before the last few, and with no access to phones he couldn't very well call her and tell her not to write that stuff."

"Did you see her?"

He chuckled. "Yes. More than a few of us made a point of scoping her out at graduation."

"You were checking out his girlfriend?"

"Well, Princess, we had to see if she was worth the embarrassment."

"Was she?"

"Not to me she wouldn't have been."

"Why not?"

"Because she wasn't you."

'I'm not sure I'd even know how to write a letter like that.'

"You have the next four years to find out."

'I guess I do. How was the field?'

"Princess," he said softly.

'Don't want to talk about it. Gotcha. Um.'

"No, you can ask me whatever you want. It's just I get ten minutes with you I don't want to talk about the past week I spent sleeping in the dirt. You know?"

'You slept in dirt?'

He chuckled softly. "It's the Marines, sweetheart."

'I guess it is.'

"You still have my shirt?"

'Yes,' she said softly.

"Wearing it?"

'I am actually.'

"I like that idea a lot."

'It's a little big.'

"It's supposed to be, it's my shirt."

'I know. Both it and my blanket smell like your cologne.'

"Is that bad?"

'No, I like it. It'll fade I suppose.'

"I left the bottle at James' house. I could have him send it to you."

'Not the same.'

"I know," he said.

'Why'd you leave it there?'

"Not much need for it here," he shrugged, not that she could see it.

'Good to know.'

He chuckled. "On that note, I should probably go."

'So soon?'

"Yeah, we only get a few minutes and there's still quite a line behind me."

'Oh, I suppose, everyone's calling home especially if you were gone all week.'

"Yeah. Are you going to go back to sleep?"

'Maybe.'

"I hope you sleep well then."

'Talk to you next weekend?'

"Unless I get some time during the week."

'Okay. I'm not sure what to say. Be careful?'

"That works. Thanks. I'll talk to you later, Claire."

'You always sound so serious when you say my name.'

He chuckled again. "I'll work on that."

'Why?'

"You want me to go through life calling you Princess?"

'It's not so bad, though sweetheart was kind of nice.'

"Hmm. You noticed that?"

'I did.'

"Me, too. You didn't say anything so I wasn't sure. I'll call again soon."

'Okay,' she said.

He hung up first, hated doing it. He was never much of a talking on the phone person. He wasn't much of a letter writer either for that matter. He'd also never had anyone he wanted to talk or write to before.

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***Part Six***
Word Count: 4,765

John was more than a little surprised to find he had a box waiting for him when he checked for mail. His first thought when his friend Tim had told him about a box for him was that James' mom had sent him something. It seemed the kind of thing she'd do. He'd hoped it was James' mom and not his sister at any rate. She'd written to him a couple more times since the initial letter. She never said much and he had to admit it was nice to get mail addressed to him. He had to assume James talked to her and she was either ignoring her brother or was just writing to be nice. It was possible. If one of James' brothers wrote to him he wouldn't look at it as closely so he supposed he shouldn't worry about it too much.

Dear John,

I hope everything's okay. I'm sorry I wasn't in my room on Saturday if you called. I meant to be, I swear, I even set my alarm clock so I'd be more awake this time. One of the girls on my floor needed a ride to the hospital. She broke her ankle, I'm not really sure how but I was the only one awake with a car to take her. She's on crutches now, so she's going to have fun getting around campus. She has a boyfriend here on campus that can help her carry her backpack; I guess that's something at least.

I had to take her to get a prescription filled for pain killers. While she was waiting for it to be filled, well, I started thinking about you. Why I was thinking about you in the middle of a drug store, I'm really not sure. Regardless, it gave me an idea. The idea led to the box this letter is included in. I know you mentioned you'd bought a radio. I assume you meant like a Walkman not a boom box, so I hope the batteries are the right size. If they're not, well, I guess maybe you'll find someone there with you who has something they'll fit. I know you don't have a lot of free time, but you must have some before bed so hopefully the magazines I picked out will be something you want to read. I have no idea if you like sports, but I know you like music and stuff so I'm pretty sure you'll like Rolling Stone at least. The Sports Illustrated and Time were just in case you were really bored. Give me some ideas for next time?

(Please don't tell me there shouldn't be a next time either, that's not an acceptable answer! Next time I'll send you magazines *I'd* read so unless you want Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Vogue you'd better give me your own (better) ideas.)

Yes, I actually baked the cookies myself so don't make fun of them if you can only use them for target practice. After buying most of the stuff in the box (yes, I went out a second time to buy a few other things) and bringing Emily back to my dorm I went to the sorority house where they have an actual kitchen. There's one on my floor, but it's not very big and I don't have dishes. So, if they're terrible, I apologize. I'm not much of a baker I guess. At least they're not burnt. I didn't want to send too many, but tell me if you like the chocolate chip ones or the peanut butter ones better. Or if there's another kind you like better, tell me that, too. Someone recommended I put them in a plastic bag to help them keep better, so I hope that works. They're my way of giving you some piece of Thanksgiving I guess. (I'm not sure what cookies have to do with Thanksgiving, other than I baked them myself and Thanksgiving is about home-cooked food.)

I know you're there for only like another month, but if there's something else you want me to send you just let me know. I'm happy to do it. If there are things in the box that you like better than others let me know that, too. (And please don't get mad at me about spending money, I liked doing it. It was kind of fun.)

Not talking to you last weekend got me thinking, though. Who would they even contact if something happened to you? I hope not your parents. I suppose that's a bad question to ask. Right? I'm supposed to talk about positive things, but if I don't write it down I'll forget and I was sort of curious. I'm sure it'll never be an issue, but it just made me wonder.

I hope you don't get made fun of about the stuffed bear. I figured since it was a Chicago Bears bear that would be better than a plain bear in the eyes of other guys. (Amy thinks Jim McMahon is cute, I'm not entirely sure I agree.) I slept with it for a few nights; hopefully it'll smell like my perfume like your shirt did for me for a while. So, hopefully you weren't lying about liking it! (The perfume I mean.)

She talked about her plans to head home for Thanksgiving next week and a few other things. He'd told her in his second letter not to bother trying to come out to see him for his school graduation. He assumed incorrectly he'd have a day or two in between graduation and heading to his first duty station. He would be lucky, he'd been told, if he had a night. He was glad when he talked to her the next time that she hadn't made any arrangements. He would've felt pretty bad if she had and he wouldn't be able to spend time with her. Then, he supposed, if her parents had bought her a plane ticket she could have changed it for a visit when he was out of school.

He picked through the box after he'd finished reading the letter. There was quite a bit of stuff. He wondered just how much time she'd had at the drug store – and which stuff she'd bought initially. A deck of cards, a Frisbee, a hacky sack (which he was absolutely no good at but a couple other guys were so he'd probably give it to one of them), a couple of packages of beef jerky, mixed nuts, sunflower seeds, a few packages of Pop Tarts, some hard candy, some mints, a book of crossword puzzles, Chapstick, sunblock, eye drops, foot powder (best thing ever! How could she possibly have thought of that?), nasal spray, socks (another pretty good idea), boot laces, and a couple of bandanas. There was also a paperback book in the box. That was in addition to the cookies, magazines, and batteries. He wasn't a sports fan, but he'd read the magazine and pass it on to someone else, the same with the other magazines actually. He wasn't a crossword puzzle person, but it was better than having nothing to do so that he'd keep.

He regarded the bear she'd mentioned. It wasn't very big as stuffed animals went, which was a good thing. He couldn't keep it on his bed or anything, but he'd fit in his foot locker just fine. He was very grateful he wasn't the only person who'd received a stuffed animal from someone or he would have felt pretty ridiculous.

"Thought you didn't have anyone?" Tim asked.

John shrugged. "It's sort of complicated."

He chuckled. "When isn't it for guys like us? Long distance relationships suck in general, but throw in the inability to communicate regularly."

"I suppose," John said. "You're married, though. She gets it, right?"

"Well, sure."

Tim was one of the ones who did get married before heading off to the boot camp portion of their training. John had liked Tim when they were in San Diego together and he liked him here at school even more. There was more than one newly married Marine who did things with their weekend liberty time John was pretty sure their wife wouldn't approve of. He didn't quite understand that way of thinking. If you were going to sleep around why get married? It made no sense to him. He supposed the guys were thinking the wife would be faithful and they could do whatever they wanted. He knew one guy whose girlfriend gave him the ultimatum of marriage or breaking up so he'd chosen marriage. He wasn't too happy with the decision currently because his wife got pregnant right away. He hadn't been counting on that happening before the ink was dry on their marriage certificate.

Tim, though, he seemed to like his wife and being married to her. Not to say he didn't look. John wasn't blind either. Looking wasn't bad. At least he didn't think so. He supposed Tim's wife might think differently on the subject, but looking didn't hurt anything. Some of the women they ran across obviously wanted to get looked at so John never felt as though he was doing anything inappropriate. (Some very obviously wanted more than to just get looked at, too, and they very rarely left alone just in the few times John had gone out when he'd had the chance to.)

John opened one of the plastic baggies that had cookies in it and took a bite of one, shaking his head slightly. She severely underestimated her baking ability. They weren't bad at all, but then he hadn't had homemade cookies in … Well, he couldn't remember the last time. Baking wasn't something his mom ever did that he could remember; neither was cooking for that matter. If it didn't come out of a can or a box from the freezer or a cupboard it pretty much exceeded anything his mom ever did in the kitchen.

"I thought you were from Chicago."

"I am."

"Why is this from Indiana?"

"She goes to school there."

"Ah. Lafayette. That's Purdue, right? The Boilermakers?"

"Uh, yeah, Purdue. Is that what they are? I have no idea. They named their college mascot after a drink?"

Tim chuckled, taking the cookie John offered him. "No. If I remember correctly it was something to do with heating and molding medal. Like a blacksmith. It's a pretty old school, going back to the eighteen hundreds. I doubt the name would come about today."

"Oh, that makes much more sense," John said, glad Tim didn't think he was an idiot for not knowing that. How the fuck would he know what a boilermaker was?

"Does she have a name?"

"She does," John said, taking another bite of his cookie. "Claire."

"And how complicated are we talking?"

"Uh, well," he said, figuring why not. There was nothing embarrassing about the story really. So, he told Tim, knowing chances were it would get told to someone else and so on. It was the way things worked around here. He was used to it.

"So, just not sure yet?"

"Not really, no. I wasn't counting on seeing her when I was there on leave."

"Word of advice?"

"Sure," John said, finishing his cookie.

"At least establish whether she's committed to you."

"You think she'd send me this box if she wasn't?"

"I think women are complicated and she's at college in a sorority where there are parties every weekend. Hell, every night probably if they're anything like the fraternity my brother was in. I think she likes you and wants you to know she likes you, but women need something more. You said she's pretty. You're not going to be the only guy interested if that's the case. You know?"

"I'm not going to marry her."

Tim chuckled.

"I wasn't suggesting marrying her, no. I'd been dating Mandy since freshman year of high school so it's a little different for us. You certainly could tell her you'd like her to be your girlfriend."

Girlfriend. John had never had one of those. Not the way Tim was talking about it at least.

"And that's going to stop her from finding someone else closer to her?"

"Well, if that's what she wants from you, yes. If it's not, well, then I guess you'll know."

John fastened the baggie closed, setting it on his bunk. He'd have to put everything she'd sent into his foot locker, but the baggie of cookies he was leaving out for now. He wondered if she knew someone at school who had a reason to send packages like this, because everything that was food she'd put in a Ziploc baggie probably so it would stay fresher.

"You going to call her tonight?"

"I was thinking about it, but it'll be kind of late for her when I get to."

"I'd be thinking pretty hard about it late or not if someone it was complicated with sent me this stuff."

"She sent me foot powder," John said, holding up the bottle of the stuff. "And Chapstick."

"Better keep that under lock and key."

John chuckled. "I have no idea how she'd even know to send it. Or socks and boot laces."

"Well, obviously she's thought of you here. Maybe she's asked around. And, Clive Cussler, by the way, is a pretty good author."

"I don't know that I've ever heard of him."

"My dad reads him otherwise I probably wouldn't have. So, what will you do if she says yes?"

"Have a girlfriend I guess and a reason to go back home."

Tim glanced at John pretty steadily for a few minutes. His eyes swept lower to John's legs. He shook his head a little and then glanced toward the floor where the box was currently sitting. John knew what Tim was thinking about, that John had enlisted to avoid going back home.

"Not many reasons to do that otherwise I assume?"

"Nope, not one. I mean a couple of friends, but not many that don't do things I shouldn't be around."

"Well, maybe you could time your leaves with her breaks and you could do things away from Chicago. If you're stationed somewhere warm, which we both know our choices as far as Infantry goes are going to be North Carolina or California, she may enjoy getting away during the winter."

"I'm not going to let my past dictate what I do."

"Nor should you. I'm just saying you're from the same town. I don't see letters coming from Mom or Dad, so I assume that means both are out of the picture."

"Yes," John said, trying not to sound defensive.

"I don't know how big your town is, but if you go to see her what are the odds you'll never run into either them or someone they know?"

"I know," he said.

He'd thought of that, of course. It was the reason he hadn't done too much away from James' house the time he was there. He'd gone to the couple things to do with school and had dinner with Sheila, but they'd gone somewhere downtown his parents would never have set foot in. Other than that he'd stayed put for the most part.

"I'll let you get that stuff put away. Thanks for the cookie."

"Sure."

It was after eight o'clock when he got the chance to use the telephone. He didn't usually try to call her during the week for that reason. Eight o'clock was eleven o'clock her time and he tried to be mindful she had classes in the morning even if she was up studying or doing whatever late. He didn't want to be the reason she was up late. However, for whatever reason there weren't huge lines for the phones tonight so he figured he'd take the chance.

'Hello.'

"You sound more awake today," he said.

'That's because I am typically more awake at this time. Nine in the morning on Saturdays is really early, John.'

He chuckled. "It's six in the morning here."

'Yeah, well, I'm a college student!'

"So you are, Princess."

'Is everything okay?'

"Everything's fine. Why?"

'Well, you've never called during the week before.'

"I've never gotten a package before."

'Oh,' she said.

"Thank you very much."

'You liked it?'

"Well, that's a pretty silly question, but yes. The cookies were very good by the way."

'Yeah? You're not just saying that?'

"No, if they were awful why would I want to lie and risk you sending more?"

She laughed. 'Good point.'

"You shouldn't have sent all of that stuff, Princess. Really. Just the magazines would have been more than enough."

'Well, I felt like it.'

"I appreciate it, don't get me wrong. I mean, you thought of some pretty cool stuff. How did you think of it anyway?"

'Which stuff?'

"Socks. Boot laces. Foot powder. Chapstick. Eye drops. All of which I can buy, you know?"

'I know you can, but I figured it's a few less you have to spend your money on. And the food I thought of myself. There's a girl in my sorority who has a boyfriend in the Army. He's overseas, I can't remember where. Anyway, she gave me some ideas.'

"Well, tell her they were good ideas."

'I will. So, the cookies were okay?'

"I told you they were good. I only tried the peanut butter ones so far."

'So, you like peanut butter better than chocolate chip?'

"I guess," he shrugged. "I don't know really. I'd like whatever you feel like baking. I've never had someone bake for me before."

'I'll do a lot of baking with my mom when I'm home for Thanksgiving. I'll send you some Christmas cookies.'

"Your mom would be okay with that?"

'Sure, why not?'

"I don't know."

'They're just cookies.'

"I know, but they're for a guy."

'I can send cookies to you, John. She may ask who you are or something.'

"About that."

'Yeah?'

"I was kind of thinking." He had no idea how to phrase such a thing, especially over the phone.

'You don't want me to send you anymore?'

"What? No, I do. I just," he shrugged, glancing to see who was around who might be listening in. The nice thing about the phone area, everyone was always pretty focused on their own conversation because they were so limited on time that people weren't prone to eavesdropping. "I was thinking I don't think I'd like it if you did for anyone else."

'Did what?' she asked.

"You know, um, baked cookies for them."

'Well, I don't think that's a problem. I don't have anyone else to bake cookies for.'

"I was just thinking, you know, I asked before if we'd even gotten to a certain point."

'I remember,' she said. "You kissed me before I could answer you.'

"You had an answer?"

'That day? No, I wouldn't have known how to answer.'

"Does that mean you have an answer now?"

She gave a soft laugh and he smiled at that. 'I think so.'

"You think so, Princess?"

'Well, if you're saying what I think you are I told someone I had a boyfriend on Saturday.'

"You did?"

'Yes,' she said softly. 'I figured even if it wasn't true, he'd never know. I mean, it's not like you're going to get here anytime soon and say you're not.'

"He?"

'Yes.'

"I see. Well, I can't say I'm upset he thinks that."

'You're not?'

"No, you can tell whoever you want that."

'I could be very mean right now.'

"Mean?"

'Yes.'

"How?"

'I could say I'm not ready for one guy.'

"If you're not, Claire, I'm not trying to make you. I just figured," he sighed a bit. "I liked getting the package and I liked the idea of telling people who asked who sent it that it was from my girlfriend. And I really hate the idea of calling you some Saturday or Sunday morning and hearing a guy answer your phone."

'No guy is going to answer my phone. The teddy bear is why, isn't it?'

"No, the sender of the package is why. The bear is cute, by the way. I can't sleep with him."

'I know.'

"I'd rather it be you anyway then just something that smells like you."

'Me, too. You still don’t know when you'll get leave?'

"No, it'll depend on whoever is in charge when I get to where I'll be stationed. But you know, a friend here mentioned chances are I'll end up staying in California or possibly be sent to North Carolina, both have better weather in the winter than Indiana. Hawaii is a very remote possibility, but I guess it happens once in a while. I'm not counting on that, though. So, maybe for spring break or Easter you'd be interested in coming to see me if I can arrange to get a weekend of leave time."

'You talked about me?'

"He asked about the package."

'I see.'

"I don’t talk a whole lot, Princess, don't take it personally. I'm really trying to focus on my work. You know? They know I write letters to someone and everything I've just never been upfront about who I'm writing to."

'I understand.'

"So, was that a yes?"

"To visiting you?"

"Well, that, too, but the other question."

'To whether I'll only send you cookies?'

"Yeah, that."

'That's a yes.'

"Good to know."

'Does that affect your plans this weekend?'

"No, I've been a good boy every weekend."

'Me, too," she said.

"That's good to know because, well, have I mentioned I'm very good at my job, Princess?"

'Shooting guns?'

"Yes."

She laughed. 'You won't have to shoot anyone. I promise.'

"Thank you."

'How do you feel?'

"What?"

'Well, I know this wasn't an easy conversation for you to even think about. I'm kind of surprised we're even having it and you didn't just presume.'

"I feel fine. I mean, we were getting to this point in the spring we just had a bit of a delay in getting here. I think if I was able to see you steadier that I may have just presumed."

'True.'

"So, I'm good with it. I admit I wonder if you're thinking straight, but that's just the hint of my parents left in my brain telling me I'm not good enough."

'John,' she said softly.

"Yeah?"

'I like you. That's good enough for me.'

"I like you, too. So, what did you tell the guy about me?"

'You know, just the basics for him to leave me alone.'

"And you want to be left alone? Or just from him?"

'John, I just said I want to be your girlfriend. Would I do that if I wanted anyone else?'

"There are probably guys there you haven't met yet."

'I imagine there are, yeah, but I still won't like them.'

"I know the feeling. All right, I won't mention it again."

'Being my boyfriend?'

"Uh no, you can mention that anytime you want to. I mean not wanting me to be that."

'Are you going to be able to call this weekend still?'

"I should. How's your friend?"

'She's all right. She'll be on crutches for like six more weeks.'

"I'm glad it was her and not you."

'Why?'

"Because I like your parts just the way they are, not broken or hurt."

She sighed softly. 'And I'm glad you're in a position that I don't have to worry about that with you anymore.'

"Yeah, well, like you said before I'm a guy. Guys aren't supposed to be pretty. You are supposed to be so don't do anything to change that."

'I'll do my best.'

"So, yeah, I'll try and call this weekend."

'If not, next weekend I'll be home.'

"Right. I have the letter you sent. Should I not call you Saturday morning then?"

'You can call whenever you want. I don't know how much I'll be home in the evenings, but I'll be home that Saturday morning for sure.'

"Try not to have too much fun, Princess."

'I'm sorry you can't come over for dinner on Thanksgiving.'

"Maybe next year."

'Yeah? Really? You'd do that?'

He shrugged. "Sure. Why not? I've always been curious why the day meant anything to anyone. It'd be nice to find out."

'Well, it's a date then, whenever you can get here for Thanksgiving whether it's next year or the next one.'

"I'll hold you to that."

She sighed again. 'I hate this part of the conversation.'

"Why?"

'Because I know you have to go and I feel like we haven't really said anything.'

"I think we said some pretty important stuff tonight."

'We did.'

"Well then, I'd say we said something."

'I guess. I just hate hanging up because every time we do I always think of something I should've told you.'

"Write it down."

'I do, but you must be sick of letters that start with I forgot to say this.'

"Trust me when I say I will never get sick of letters from you. Ever. No matter what they say."

'You just say that because I'm legal.'

He chuckled softly. He'd told Claire about Samantha writing to him. He certainly had nothing to hide, but it seemed to him if he withheld that information it would seem as though he did. "That's right, that's the only reason."

'I knew it.'

"You caught me."

'I knew it.' She laughed softly. 'She's probably going to egg my car if you stay at James' again and I pick you up.'

"Nah, I don't think she's mean or anything and I've come to the conclusion if it was one of his brothers writing me I wouldn't look too closely at their reasons."

'Well, sure, because they're… Oh,' she said.

"Right? That was the same thing I realized. Maybe she's bored and just trying to be nice. I mean, James doesn't write me two-three page letters so maybe she just figures – correctly – that I'd enjoy reading anything."

'As long as she's not writing things that'll make you blush.'

He chuckled. "I'm pretty sure she doesn't even know about what would make me blush yet."

'If she's writing you letters she knows.'

"You think so?"

'Yes.'

"Hmm," he said. "I guess I shouldn't send the letter I just finished writing her then."

'Very funny. You already told me you haven't written her back.'

He chuckled. "I know and I have no plans on starting. Whatever her reasons I'm not going to encourage anything. That's the last thing I need."

'My parents might let you stay at our house.'

"What?"

'You're worried that her writing you will make James' mom disinvite you the next time you come into town.'

"More or less. I mean, I don't know how normal parents operate, but even I know that could make his mom think twice about it."

'Hopefully, she knows you well enough to know you wouldn't do anything. I'm saying, though, that my parents would probably let you stay at our house. I'd have to ask and I'd probably have to explain why staying at your own house isn't an option, but I can't imagine my dad saying no.'

"Your dad. What about your mom?"

'She'd probably say no, but I'd just talk to my dad and he'd change her mind for me.'

"I see. Well, it's something to consider if that happens. I told James so that's really all I can do. I mean, she never did anything inappropriate."

'Well, that's good because that's my job.'

"Yeah?"

'I wish I could pretend you weren't standing with a bunch of other Marines around you.'

"And I wish I could pretend that I didn't know your phone wasn't across the room from your bed."

'The phone cord stretches so I can sit on my bed while talking.'

"Well, that's something to think about for another time."

'That time?'

"Yes," he said. "Sweet dreams."

'I think I'll have some good ones tonight, yeah.'

"Me, too."

'You should call at night again.'

"I hate risking waking you up."

'I know, but this way I can hang up from talking to you and go to sleep with your voice fresh in my mind.'

"And that's good?"

'Yes.'

"I'll try."

'Okay. Good night, John, I'm glad you called and that you got the package.'

"Thanks again for everything. You didn't have to."

'Yeah, well, I wanted to.'

He hung up first as he always did. He wasn't sure why she always waited, but he always felt as though he was cutting her off hanging up first.

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***Part Seven***
Word Count: 2,649

She hadn't seen either of John's parents in years. She guessed probably elementary school for his dad, possibly sixth grade for his mom.

She probably wouldn't recognize his father at all because she'd rarely ever seen him. His mom she'd seen enough when they were in elementary school to recognize her, though. She was at the Jewel, picking up some last minute things for her mom for Thanksgiving dinner. She had no idea why her brother couldn't have picked them up on his way.

John's mom was at the checkout aisle next to the one Claire was in, which happened to be the only two registers open in the Jewel.

"Hey Claire," the cashier said.

"Hi Heather," she said, so engrossed in seeing John's mom she hadn't been paying attention to the fact she knew her cashier. "Working on Thanksgiving, huh?"

"Yeah," Heather said.

"You still haven't heard from John?" Claire overheard the other cashier ask John's mom.

"No. I called the police to see if he'd been arrested a few months ago. He hadn't been."

"Where would he go, I wonder?"

"I don't know."

Claire glanced at them with a slight frown. Heather was a classmate of Claire's and judging by her expression knew who John was and what his parents had been like to him. She shrugged at Claire, ringing in the few items Claire had been sent to buy.

"They'd have contacted you if something had happened to him."

"Yes," his mom said.

So, she'd called the police looking for him back in June. And then what? She didn't have kids, but she could only imagine if her son or daughter was missing she wouldn’t stop looking for them until she had no more breath in her body.

"I just don't understand why he'd just leave. Not even a note so we'd know he was gone and not dead somewhere."

Claire wanted to feel sorry for the woman, who looked awful. Years of drinking and whatever else she'd done hadn't been kind to her. She was tempted for about a minute to speak up.

What stopped her?

She knew John didn't want them to know anything about him or his whereabouts. That wasn't what stopped her, though. Not entirely anyway.

While it had been a little over a month since he'd visited her at school, the image of what he looked like without his shirt on was fresh in her mind. It had been one of the worst things she'd seen in her life. He'd never said if his mom ever did anything to him, but she clearly had done nothing to help keep her son safe.

That was what stopped Claire from saying anything to reassure his mother that her son was all right.

"What time are you done?" Claire asked Heather.

"Two o'clock."

"That's not too bad."

"No, I'd just be at home pretending I care about football with my dad and brothers anyway."

"Oh," Claire said. Heather's mom was a nurse, so was probably working today, too.

"Well, I hope you have a good Thanksgiving. It was good to see you."

"You, too," Heather said.

"Thanks," Claire said, grabbing the paper grocery sack. She spotted John's mom in the parking lot, getting into an old Pinto that Claire recalled looking much nicer the last time she'd seen it. Since Jewel was pretty dead they were parked right next to each other.

She watched as discreetly as she could as she set the bag of groceries in the trunk. She was looking for something, anything, some sign that his mom was actually concerned at all about John. She still wouldn't say anything, but it'd make her feel a little better. She saw nothing to indicate that was the case, though. No tears, no discomfort after the conversation with the cashier who she obviously knew well enough to talk about John with.

She left glad John was very far away this Thanksgiving.

It was close to midnight when her phone rang, totally waking her up. She knew it was John before answering. No one else would call her this late. Midnight her time was only ten his time.

"Hi," she said.

'You all tired from plates full of turkey?'

"Yes."

'Good.'

"It was. Mom didn't skimp. My brother brought his girlfriend so she went the extra mile to impress the potential daughter-in-law."

'Well, that's good. Is she nice?'

"Yeah, she's all right. I've met her before, so has mom but it was her first holiday with us. How was your day?"

'The usual, though we did get something that resembled apple pie. It probably wasn't nearly as good as yours, though.'

"Well, maybe next year."

'Maybe. I've gone this long without it. I'm not suffering.'

Claire thought of his mom. Nothing she'd had in her basket seemed to be last minute items for Thanksgiving dinner. She'd noticed cigarettes, some cold cuts and bread, potato chips, and a box of cereal among other more everyday items.

"I saw your mom today," she said before she could think about whether to tell him.

'I'm sorry. You what?'

"I mean I didn't like talk to her or anything. I was at Jewel. Mom sent me to get some things and your mom was there, too."

'I see,' he said, sounding cautious.

"I didn't say anything to her, but the cashier she used asked about you."

'What did she say?'

"That she didn't know where you were. She'd called the police when you first left, I guess, but it doesn't sound as though she has since."

'That's something at least, I guess. Honestly, it's more than I gave either of them credit for doing.'

"I wasn't sure I should tell you."

'I don't really care. Why didn't you say something to her? You could have done a good deed and eased her mind that I was safe somewhere.'

"I don't owe her anything. If you wanted her to know that you were alive and well you'd have let them know by now. Besides, I closed my eyes and saw what they did to you."

'I should've kept my clothes on,' he said.

"No, you shouldn't have, John. I don't see that every time I think of you or anything."

'If you say so, I just don't like that's what you see when you picture me.'

"I don't usually. I swear. I think it was just seeing her, even if she never laid a hand on you she let that happen."

'Yeah, no mother-of-the-year awards were received at my house. And thank you.'

"For?"

'Not telling her. I'm sure it was tempting, even for a minute or two there. She can put on a good show when she wants to, believe me.'

"I thought about it for like two seconds."

'Like I said, I'm sure it was tempting. You wouldn't be human if it didn't cross your mind. Normal people would want to know, be assured their child was okay.'

"What do you do tomorrow?"

'Back to the field. We had pretty easy days yesterday and today.'

"Oh. So, no phone call Saturday morning?"

'No, sweetheart, I'm sorry.'

"There's no reason to apologize. You called today, that's more important anyway."

'I did get to draw today.'

"Oh?"

'Yeah, just the mess hall and some Marines eating.'

"Well, that's good, though. How did it turn out?"

'Pretty good.'

"Good. That must mean they're thinking about you being an Illustrator and not something else, right?"

'I'd think so.'

"Well, that's good, right?"

'Yeah, it'd been a while since I'd been able to do anything but a quick sketch so it was nice. For once I didn't feel as though I was going to get in trouble for drawing on someone else's time.'

"Because they'd asked you to do it?"

'Right.'

"I'm glad."

'I'd still rather draw you.'

"Maybe."

'Maybe?'

"Yes."

'Well, that's better than the no I got before.'

"I didn't say how much of me."

'That's not nice. Why do I have to disrobe and you don't?'

"What can I say? Life's rough."

'Tell me about it.'

"I'm sorry."

'Me, too, but I'll take maybe.'

"Well, that's all you'd get for now anyway besides me saying that I liked seeing you without your shirt."

'Yeah?'

"Yes."

She yawned and he chuckled.

'Evidently not that much you didn't.'

"No, I did. I'm sorry. Mom woke me up to help her with the turkey."

'Teaching you the ins and outs of being domestic, huh?'

"Yes."

'I won't keep you, Princess.'

"No, I'm sorry."

'Nah, there's quite a line tonight.'

"I suppose. I'll talk to you next weekend then?"

'Count on it.'

"Okay. Happy Thanksgiving, John, I'm glad that you called."

'Me, too, and I'm glad you had a nice day.'

"Have a good week."

'Thanks. The sunblock you sent will get used.'

"Good," she said. She liked knowing she'd sent him useful things.

***

"Back to Saturday mornings," he said, though she didn't sound sleepy.

'I see that,' she said.

"You and your mom were pretty popular here last night."

'Oh?'

"You said you were going to send me some Christmas cookies. There were dozens in there, Claire. The Marines frown on overweight Marines. You know this, right?"

She laughed. 'Well, when I told my mom I wanted to send some cookies to someone she asked me who. When I told her about you,' she sighed. 'Well, she got a little carried away with baking. She got kind of mad at me I sent you so few the first time.'

"Well, there was more than enough to share with quite a few who don't get anything from anybody."

'I'm glad you're not one of those people.'

"Me, too, Princess, me, too."

'Good.'

"So your mom knows about me then?"

'Yes.'

"And?"

'And what?'

"Did she say anything or did you tell her everything?"

'I did and she didn't really say anything. She asked if she knew you that was about it.'

"Ah."

'She was sort of surprised I think.'

"Why?"

'I guess because I've never really had a boyfriend before. Not one that I've talked to her about. Certainly not one I've baked cookies for.'

'I see."

'She did say you could stay in my brother's old bedroom if you had to.'

"Really?"

'Your door would have to stay open.'

He chuckled at that. "I bet it would. She does realize I could just visit you at school or get a motel room there where you could visit me."

'Sure, but it's her house so her rules. You know?'

"Too bad, because once wasn't nearly enough."

'No, it wasn't. My bed in my dorm isn't nearly big enough, though.'

"I'm glad you think so."

'Me, too.'

"How were classes?"

'Fine.'

"Yeah? Finals are coming up, right?"

'Yes.'

"You're going to ace them all, right?"

'I'm going to try.'

"Good."

'So, when should I stop writing?'

"Probably when you leave for Christmas break."

'Okay.'

"At least the next address should be permanent. Well, as permanent as it can get in the Marines anyway."

'I like that idea.'

"Me, too."

'So, you shared the cookies.'

"Yes."

'Good. That was what Mom and I figured you'd do.'

"I sent you something today."

'Oh?'

"Yes. It's kind of a Christmas present."

'It's a little early,' she said. She couldn't ignore the giddy feeling she felt in her stomach that he called something he sent her a Christmas present. He couldn't send her packages so it had to be something that fit in a standard envelope.

"I wanted to be sure you got it."

'Well, thank you.'

"You don't even know what it is yet."

'You sent it so I don't need to know what it is to know I'll like it.'

"Well, hopefully next Saturday you'll have gotten it and you can tell me what you think."

'I'll let you know, you know I will.'

"So what's planned for today?"

'Nothing really. Laundry.'

"No parties?"

'Later.'

"With guys who don't know you have a boyfriend?"

'Some.'

"Be sure to fix that."

She laughed. 'I'll get right on that.'

"I need to fix that."

'Huh?'

"Nothing. Just tired and babbling, I guess. It was a long week."

'Well, I'm glad the cookies helped.'

"They did. You delivering them would be nicer."

'Well, when you know where you're going, tell me and I'll see about bringing cookies with me.'

"You'll be the first to know, I promise."

'Hmm. You're sure you won't let James know first?"

'Well, I could, but him hand-delivering cookies has never entered my mind."

'Good to know.'

He chuckled.

"You don't need to bring me cookies, you know. I have no intention of doing much of anything I can say over the phone the first time I see you."

'There are things you want to do you can't say over the phone?'

"Yes."

'You could say them in a letter. No one reads my mail.'

"I'll see what I can do."

Neither of them had gotten to the point of writing anything very suggestive in their letters. Maybe that would change or maybe neither of them was that comfortable writing things like that. He wasn't sure. He sure wouldn't mind getting a letter like that from her.

'So another couple of phone calls?'

"Yup."

'Will you be glad to be done with school?'

"Yes. I'm ready to get this life started. I wasn't sure, you know. I felt like the cop had me over a barrel, but now that I'm here, doing this stuff."

'You're good at it?'

"Yeah, and I kind of like it. You know? I feel like I'm doing something. Even if I never see combat I'm still here, willing to do that if need be."

'I understand. And I'm ready for you to get this life started, too.'

"You just like knowing I'll be in the middle of nowhere for the next four years."

'You think you will be?'

"I don't know. We'll see."

'No Japan?'

"Very unlikely, so is Hawaii."

'Hawaii would be nice.'

"Right? Though it's pretty costly I've heard, even on-base."

'I suppose.'

"Okay, Princess. I have to hang up."

'I know.'

"I'm sorry."

'You have nothing to be sorry for. Go learn how to be a Marine.'

"It seems I'm working on how to be a boyfriend and a Marine at the same time. I'm not sure which is more difficult."

'You're fine on the boyfriend front.'

"Well, good. I can sleep easier knowing I'm doing that right at least."

'You're not sure about the Marine part?'

"No, I am. I'm pretty good at it as it turns out. I guess discipline, this kind of it anyway, and I work well together."

'I'm so glad.'

"Me, too, because I was fresh out of ideas if this didn't work."

'It sounds like you were willing to let it work, that has to have helped.'

"Yeah, my recruiter said the same thing."

'Thanks for calling.'

"I'll talk to you soon."

'I wish you could sleep with the bear.'

"Why?" he asked.

'Because I'd kind of like to have a night with you again and at least something I'd sent you would be sleeping with you.'

"I'll try not to make you wait too much longer and I promise it'll be more than one night this time. No roommates."

'Okay.'

"Yeah?"

'Yes.'

"I'll work on it as soon as I can then."

He hung up first as he usually did, feeling pretty good about the conversation overall. He wasn't sure as one month turned into weeks and almost two months if she'd get tired of the distance. She didn't seem to be so far, though he imagined that could change yet. He just hoped she truly understood leave time wasn't up to him so things like Thanksgiving and stuff weren't up to him. Yes, most of the time days off for holidays were given, but not travel time or anything.

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***Part Eight***
Word Count: 4,258

She wasn't quite sure how she ended up here. Where was she? About to get off an airplane in the middle of nowhere. It had all happened so fast and she was shocked her parents had let her go. Still as she was taxiing on the runway after having landed in North Carolina she was surprised they'd allowed it. Perhaps realizing she didn't really need their permission to do something questionable with John when he came to visit. Maybe they just trusted her. She wasn't sure. All she knew was she was, according to the travel agent her parents used, about 15 miles from him for the first time in weeks.

'Hello.'

"Merry Christmas."

'John, hi. I was a little worried. I tried not to be because I know you can't always call but no letters either.'

"Yeah, I know, I'm sorry. Things got a little busy the past couple of weeks. I graduated about thirty minutes ago and am waiting on a bus to take me away from here."

'So you're not staying there?'

"No," he said. He'd kind of hoped he would be and had told her that more than once. Sadly, it didn't look like anyone he knew, or at least knew well, was going with him.

'So where to then?'

"North Carolina."

'Well, that's better than that other place, right?'

"So I've heard, yeah," he said with a chuckle. The other place was a base he'd heard nothing but bad things about. Why it was so bad he wasn't sure, but he was glad he'd never have to find out firsthand. A couple of guys he'd gotten to know fairly well were going there so he imagined he'd hear about it at some point.

"Listen, I only have a couple of minutes, but I wanted to throw this out there because if I didn't and you could do it I'd be real mad at myself later."

'Okay.'

"I've been told I'm going to be in temporary housing for a week or so. I'm waiting for space in the barracks on-base so that means a hotel on the Marines dime. I was thinking if your parents could swing it you could come see me for a few days. I'd be busy, but I'd see you nights which is better than not seeing you at all. I could pay them back for the ticket."

'I don't know if they would let me.'

"Well, I'll call you when I get the chance. Tonight when I get in, maybe tomorrow morning. If you can't, you can't. I just know I'd kick myself if I said nothing and you told me later you could've."

'I can ask.'

"Okay, Princess. I've got to go."

'Hey, where would I be flying to?'

"Oh, sorry, Richlands, North Carolina. I've been told it'd be less than thirty bucks for cab fare from that airport."

'And you wouldn't get in trouble?'

"I was told my down time is my down time. I mean I'm not going to flaunt you're there as much as I might like to. So, as long as you don't interfere with my performance we should be fine. I'll get a per diem for the room and food, but I can buy your food, too."

'I have money to buy my own food with.' She laughed softly at that. 'I'm just glad that you're all right.'

"I was going to write you, but things got kind of crazy so I couldn't."

'I understand.'

"It will get better, I promise."

She sighed softly. 'I know. I just wasn't expecting weeks to go by without hearing from you.'

"Yeah, well, I wasn't expecting someone in my unit screwing up making all of us put in extra field time."

'Oh. That's what happened?'

"Yes," he said. "How was your Christmas?"

'It was nice. Pretty quiet.'

"Well, if you can convince your parents, maybe I'll get to give a New Year's kiss."

'Is that all I'll get?'

He gave a low laugh. "I maybe could be talked into more than one."

'Yeah?'

"Yes."

'I hope I can convince them then.'

"Me, too. I'll call you when I can. And tell them I'll pay them back for the ticket."

'I will. Travel safe.'

"I will, Princess."

So that was how she ended up here waiting on a cab to take her to his hotel. Her parents knew she was staying with him. She wasn't going to lie to them, especially since they knew he'd visited her at school. She had no idea what she was going to do with her free time. She'd brought a couple of books just in case, though she imagined there were places she could walk to and stuff.

The cab driver knew where the hotel was and she stopped at the front desk to the get the envelope he said he'd leave for her. A key and a note telling her which room number was his were inside. It was over seventy degrees, which compared to Chicago's thirty degrees when she left made her want to go outside and enjoy the rest of the day.

She wasn't expecting him to be in the room. She assumed he'd be on base somewhere doing whatever he did with his day.

"Why'd you leave a key if you were going to be here?"

"I wasn't sure I was going to be here. Turns out I have today and tomorrow duty-free since I'm in limbo. I had to report this morning and will tomorrow morning, but was cut loose essentially until the second."

"Everyone?" She set her bag down near the dresser.

"No. Someone's got to work. You know guard the weapons and stuff, but since I and a few others just got here I guess they were feeling generous. I don't know. I'm not going to question it. Waking up at five o'clock in the morning just to be sent back here kind of sucks, but it means I get more time with you than I thought so I'm not complaining."

"Neither am I. Now I'm really glad my parents said yes."

"Yeah?"

"Yes," she said. "You didn't tell me it was going to be so nice," she said, gesturing to her coat which she'd hung over her arm because she hadn't needed it. She set it on top of her bag.

"You'd still need the coat to go back home with."

"I know. I could have packed something cooler, though," she said. "Like shorts."

"If I have my say you won't need the shorts." He smirked a little at her expression. "Come here before you get mad at me and turn around and leave."

"I am here."

"Not close enough."

"You could come to me."

"I was taking a nap. I'm here. The bed's here. Trust me, you will never know how nice it is to get a nap - in a real bed - on their dime."

"I suppose I won't," she said, walking to the bed. He drew back the covers as she sat on the edge of the bed to kick her shoes off.

"Do you need to call your parents and let them know you got here all right?"

"I called them from the airport while I was waiting for the cab."

"Smart thinking. I'm really glad they let you do this."

"Yeah?" she asked, sliding into bed next to him.

"Glad enough I would let you keep your shorts on."

"I didn't bring any shorts."

"I know, you already said that." He tugged on the waist of her pants. "No jeans?"

"No! My parents would never let me wear jeans on an airplane."

"I suppose too casual?"

"Yes," she said, breath catching a little as he leaned in to kiss her. She groaned softly, eyes closing as he deepened it almost immediately. She wasn't going to object. She never dreamt that going two months without kissing someone would be a hardship for her.

Her fingers slid along his chest as his hand slid along her hip, caressing her there before drifting behind her to cup her ass. He drew her closer and she gasped softly.

"Hi," he whispered when they both needed to take a breath.

"Hi," she said back.

"I missed you."

"Me, too."

"Enough to trust me to get rid of these," he asked, tugging on the waist of her pants.

"Now?"

"Do you have somewhere else to be?"

"No," she said with a soft laugh.

"Well then?"

She reached down then and started working the button.

"Nuh uh. I get to."

"You just want to say you were able to get me out of my pants and be literal about it."

"Damn straight," he said, sitting up enough to slide down a bit so he could unfasten her pants and work them off. He slid his hands along her legs as he peeled them off, her socks, too. She groaned softly as he ran his hands along her legs, rubbing them.

"Too rough?"

"No," she said with a frown, watching him. "Why?"

"Just making sure. I think I have callouses on top of callouses anymore. I think I can take apart and reassemble my weapon in my sleep. That's the point, of course."

"They feel fine."

"Yeah?" She didn't think he was really looking for an answer. He was watching his hands as they touched her legs, grazing her kneecap with a thumb and then the other one.

"God you're soft."

"I'm a girl; I think I'm supposed to be."

"I like it," he said.

"Yeah?" She laughed softly that she said the same thing he did just a second ago.

"Yes," he said, sliding his hands up further along her thighs. "Open your eyes," he said.

She hadn't even really realized she'd closed them. She opened them, though, watching as he slid a hand to her panties. He grazed her nub with his thumb, doing it again when she reacted. And again. She watched almost entranced as he moved his hand to slide his fingertips into the waistband of her panties.

"Pink," he said.

"You just noticed?"

"Yes," he said. "Well, it just registered."

"I wore them for you."

"You did," he asked.

"Mm hmm. You said you liked me in pink."

"I do, very much," he said, sliding a fingertip over her nub causing her to gasp. "Too much?"

"No," she said.

"Not enough?" he asked with a chuckle.

"I don't know."

"It's all right. I could do this for the next two days and be satisfied."

"Shut up," she whispered.

"I could, sweetheart, just to have the sounds you're making to carry with me while we're apart."

"Oh God," she said. How embarrassing.

"I like it, don't go coy on me, and keep your eyes open," he said.

"But," she whispered.

"Open," he insisted.

"I can't help that I want to close them."

"I know, and I want you to fight it so you can see what doing this to you does to me."

"Doesn't talking to me do that to you?"

He chuckled. "Not quite as extreme, but it sure can. What can I say? You turn me on, Princess."

He slid his hand lower, fingertips grazing her labia. She bit her lower lip to keep from crying out, but kept her eyes open as he parted her lips and slid a fingertip inside of her. His other hand was at her hip, peeling the panties down. She had absolutely no desire to stop him from doing it either.

He positioned himself between her legs. She didn't have to look in a mirror to know she was blushing profusely as he watched his finger slide in and out of her. Then his mouth was at her nub, tongue sliding around it and pretty much all conscious thought left her at that moment. He made her finish so fast she might have been embarrassed ordinarily, but he didn't seem to care. He kept doing what he was doing, seeming not having any intention of stopping.

And then she started feeling guilty that she was doing absolutely nothing to him.

"John," she whispered when he was taking a break from using his mouth on her to give her a hickey on her inner thigh. Judging by how long he'd been sucking on the spot it was going to be much, much darker than the one he'd given her in October.

"Hmm," he murmured, seemingly unwilling to stop what he was doing just yet.

"Can we? I mean, can you switch with me?"

That made him stop what he was doing.

"Switch with you?"

"Uh, yeah. I want to be on top of you for a little while."

It was his turn to blush. She couldn't say she'd ever seen him blush in her entire life.

"You sure about that, Princess?"

"I'm sure."

"You saw all I had on was my shorts."

"Yes."

"Doing that was pretty damned exciting."

"I know," she said. "It was to me, too."

"All right," he said, sliding off of her only after he grazed the spot he'd been marking with his fingertip.

"Why'd you leave one there?"

"I figured your parents will be looking for any indication we did anything. If they check there we have bigger issues than them worrying about us having sex."

"They're not going to."

"That is very good to know."

He lay on the side of the bed he'd started out on and it was her turn to touch. He didn't like her to so much. She knew that. She tried not to focus or dwell on any scars more than any other spot. It was hard not to in some cases.

Her hand shook a little when she reached his shorts, sliding it inside of them. She grazed the tip of his shaft with her thumb before running her fingertips along his length. She was pretty sure he'd stopped breathing for a second or two there, afraid she'd change her mind or something no doubt. He was breathing now, though, and pretty rapidly, too. She slid his shorts down and off, shaking her head a little as she skimmed his legs with her hands.

His hands went to her hair as she took him into her mouth. God, he was big and hard, filling her mouth so completely. She worked him in and out of her mouth, adjusting to the feel and size of him. He seemed to really like it when she ran her tongue along the tip of him. She stopped for a minute, returning the favor of a hickey in the same spot he'd given her one. She figured anywhere else on him was probably off limits for a while, or until they had more than a couple of days together.

She slid up along his body, kissing and touching as she went until she found his mouth. She kissed him, surprised at the neediness behind it. She reached for him between their bodies, touching his length and stroking him before guiding him to her.

He groaned softly, breaking the kiss.

"God, you know I want to, Claire, but I don't have anything. I wasn't figuring you'd want to."

She kissed his lower lip, licking it before finding his jaw. She slid her lips along him there to his ear. She slid her tongue around his earlobe, nipping at it for a second.

"You don't need one."

"Claire, Princess, I'm not willing to risk it."

She laughed softly. It was her turn to give a soft groan as she slid the head of him to her nub.

"What's so funny?"

"You. I wouldn't do that to you. I went on the pill."

"When?"

"Oh, about the time you left me in October."

"And you're sure you're safe? I've heard it can take a while."

"Positive. The health center told me a month. It's been two. I have the pills here, too, obviously. You can watch me take them if you think I'm lying."

"I don't think you'd lie to me about it, Claire. I'm sure there are guys closer to you that you could trap versus someone you won't see every day if that was your plan."

"Don't want anyone else."

"That is very good to hear."

She slid his length back to her opening, pushing herself over him.

"Any other questions?"

"I have a million of them, but you're in control so clearly you have all the answers to them already."

"Yes, I know what I'm doing," she whispered. "You could help, though," she added.

"Oh, yeah, sure," he said, reaching between them to help guide him into her.

She gasped, no intention of closing her eyes now as she slid him completely into her. She stayed like that for a minute or two, adjusting to him inside of her. She hadn't thought much beyond taking him inside of her, like moving afterward. She sat up a little, causing him to go even deeper inside of her. Maybe a little too deep, but she sat still for a minute or two again as his hands were busy touching her everywhere he could reach. She particularly liked when he timed his thumb stroking her nipple with another deep push of him inside of her. His hand slid between her legs, bringing her release almost right away. He wasn't too far behind her, hands at her hips to hold her still a bit as he thrust up and into her.

She hadn't moved from on top of him yet. Neither seemed in any particular hurry for her to either so she stayed put because she liked being there, listening to his heartbeat.

"I put in for leave the weekend of that formal dinner and dance thing you mentioned in one of your letters," he said, running his fingers through her hair.

"You did?"

"I did. I figured it'd give me a good excuse to wear my formal uniform."

"When will you know?"

"It may not be until the day I get to leave. I've heard that's the way it works sometimes."

"Okay. Well, I'll plan for the possibility then."

"Unless you don't want me to come. I could take it back and do something later like when you're done with school altogether for the year."

"No, I do, I mean, you don't have to. I wasn't expecting you to come for that, though, that's not why I mentioned it. I realize it's probably not your thing, but it would be nice not to go alone."

"And miss seeing you in a nice dress? I missed out on that once already, I'm not doing it again if I can avoid it."

"I got your picture, by the way. Thank you."

"Are you thanking me for both of them?"

"Yes. I made a copy of the one of you."

"Why?"

"So I can have one at home and one in my dorm."

"Oh," he said, not having thought of that. "So, now your mom has a face to go with the name?"

"Yes."

"And?"

"And what? What can she say? You're a good looking guy and serving our country. What's to complain about? I'm here with you, aren't I? So she must not object."

"She's a mother and being a guy serving our country she probably thinks I'm out to take advantage of you."

"Would yours like me?"

"Like you? What's not to like? But honestly, I'd prefer she know nothing about you with relation to me."

"I have no plans on meeting them or anything, I was just curious."

"I'm sure she'd like you. You're nice and all, but I don't want either of them thinking they could get something from you."

"From me?"

"Yeah, you know, things. Money. Whatever thoughts would go through their heads. I wouldn't put anything past them.'

"Oh, really?'"

"They can be pretty crafty when they want to be."

She sat up a little, running her fingertip along his chest lightly.

"And the other picture was gorgeous. How long did it take you to draw it?"

"Honestly? I started working on it on the airplane out to school and I finished it maybe a day before I sent it to you."

"It took you that long?"

"I had to get it right. I'm glad you gave me that picture of you from prom. It helped, though I hated drawing you in that dress."

It'd taken him weeks and more than a few times of contemplating throwing it away to finish the picture of her. She was wearing the dress in the picture of her from prom she'd given him before he left, but he'd drawn her posing with a horse almost like something from ages ago. The dress she'd worn had struck him as somewhat old-fashioned that way, Victorian he supposed. So, the idea came to him to put something in the picture other than a car. Her crown was there, too, of course. Every minute of free time he could spare he'd put into the drawing, wanting to get it just right. He could probably have taken another week, possibly two on it and still gotten it to her before Christmas but with everything that had happened he was glad he hadn't pushed it.

A photograph of him in his winter Combat Utility Uniform he didn't think really constituted a Christmas present, though he was glad she finally had a picture of him for her dorm room. He hadn't had his own camera so getting the picture for her wasn't as easy as some might think. He'd rectified getting a camera over the weekend so he had one now. He wasn't so sure he'd take pictures of himself, though. He'd gotten it in the event he was called on to do some photography for the Marines instead of just his illustration positions. It was doubtful, but if he had the tools and they needed a photographer he could be called on.

She slid beside him, but he didn't let her go far.

"Why?"

"Because someone else got to see you in it when I should've been able to."

"So, should I choose another dress for the formal then?"

"Wear whichever dress you want."

"So that is what you wear in the field?"

"The picture?"

"Yes."

"Yeah. One of the guys took it for me."

"Thank them for me."

"He's gone now. He went to a different base. We didn't get to know one another real well, not well enough to write letters so I'm not sure I'll hear from him."

"Oh, well, thank you for asking him to take it then."

"You're welcome. I figured fair was fair since you gave me a picture of you."

"I brought the other one home. It's in my bedroom."

"Oh?"

"I didn't want to risk anything happening to it. My mom got a frame for it for me."

"That was nice. I'm glad you liked it. I'll have something a little better for you the next time I see you and have had time to breathe, but I figured our first Christmas I should do something."

"You did fine. You don't have to get me anything else. I couldn't think of anything better than something you made for me, John. Honestly."

"I'm glad you say so, but I can still do better."

"Coming to my formal is more than enough."

"I'll let you take care of a room for us. I'll pay for it, but you make the reservations somewhere nicer than the place we stayed last time. Just be sure to cancel them if you don't hear from me saying I'm on my way."

"It wasn't bad."

"No, but after my sleeping arrangements since basically July I could go for something nice."

"How nice?"

"Pretty much what I spent when I was in there is all I've spent other than necessary items. Your care packages helped me avoid paying for a few things I would have had to."

"Why are you doing that?"

"Doing what?"

"Spending so little?"

"Well, I have this girl, you see, and I'd like to be able to show her a good time when I get to see her."

"You don't need money to show me a good time."

"It sure helps, Princess."

"Just one night?"

"Probably two, maybe three if I'm lucky. I figure if I ask for only one or two nights that's more that I can get during summer break. Whoever you make the reservation with make sure they know I'm in the military and see if they're flexible with checkout and not charging for nights we actually reserved if I don't get the full leave I requested."

"Okay."

"So, the pill, huh?"

She laughed softly, ducking her head against his shoulder a little.

"Yes."

"I guess you realized I was a pretty sure thing then, huh?"

"No! I just didn't want that to be a reason we couldn't if we wanted to."

"Sweetheart, about you I'm about as sure as I can be and I'm glad you thought of it."

"Me, too. I was nervous at first, I wasn't sure if you'd get mad."

"Mad?"

"Yeah, I don’t know."

"Want me to show you how angry I am, Princess?" he asked, sliding on top of her. Her arms slid around his neck, drawing him down to kiss her.

"Is that a yes," he asked, drawing away just enough to ask the question.

"Please."

"Proper to the end," he said with a chuckle.

"Was that not the right response?"

"As long as it's saying yes you can say whatever you want."

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***Part Nine***
Word Count: 2,135

They didn't leave his room other than to eat. He had bread and peanut butter in his room, but he figured she deserved better than that three meals a day. He figured he had a lot of bad reputation to make up for. He wasn't sure what her reason was. It didn't matter really as they were both in agreement as far as not keeping their hands off of each other.

They didn't always end up having sex. He swore he could spend hours just going down on her and making her finish. She evidently felt similarly because she'd enjoyed seeing how fast after finishing she could get him hard again with her mouth. He'd had a hard time convincing her when she was going down on him to slide herself on top of him so he could use his mouth on her at the same time. The first time anyway, and he guessed she enjoyed it because he hadn't had to practically beg her more than that once. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy just lying there letting her lick and suck on him. He enjoyed it very much. He just wanted to please her as much and as often as he could knowing it'd be a few months until he could again.

The TV was on with the volume as low as it could go. He didn't really care, but for some reason she'd wanted to watch the ball drop in Times Square. She was currently sleeping beside him with about thirty minutes to go before midnight. A new year. It was crazy where this one had taken him, landing him here in bed with her. Not just in bed with her, but having sex. She'd gone on the pill for him, which blew his mind. That meant she'd actually gone out of her way to contemplate and decide she wanted to have sex with him. No spur of the moment decision, though there was no saying when it was going to happen. It was a fluke he was able to see her these couple of days.

He slid a hand along her back, tracing her spine as he drifted lower to cup her ass. He knew he had to wake her up or she'd get mad at him for some reason. As if he really put stock into things like starting the New Year off with a kiss. A kiss from her, though, was worth waking her up for.

He pushed the covers back, sliding a little lower on the bed so he could watch as he used his fingers on her. She always got embarrassed when he watched so he didn't do it for as long as he'd ideally like to. He had no idea why it turned him on like crazy to watch his fingers sliding inside of her, parting her lips enough to see how wet she got for him. It reaffirmed for him that she really wanted him because no matter there was a part of him wondering what she was doing with him.

So he took advantage of her being asleep, sliding his fingers along the crevice there leading from her ass to her nub. He grazed it with a fingertip before sliding it inside of her. One finger was joined by a second and he groaned softly as she gripped him. He hadn't expected her to stay asleep for too long when he'd started touching her.

"No, don't," he said, setting his free hand at her ass to stop her from turning over. She gave a soft sigh as if she was going to protest or argue with him, but maybe she realized they hadn't done anything that hadn't felt good to this point.

He did encourage her hips off the bed a bit. She complied, allowing him to use his mouth on her this way. A little different with the positioning this way, but not drastically as the idea was the same either way. Her moving her hips, raising them off the bed a bit more and pressing into his tongue and mouth were proof to him she liked it anyway.

He nipped at her inner thigh once she'd finished, drawing back and kissing one of her ass cheeks before positioning himself behind her. He was already hard so didn't need any help from her to be ready for entering her. He placed his hands at her hips, clutching her maybe a little too tightly as he slid inside of her. He was slow at first, keeping his thrusts pretty shallow to allow her to get used to him being inside of her this way. He'd heard it could feel a little different this way, and well he wasn't entirely sure she wouldn't think it was wrong or bad and tell him to stop.

She apparently didn't think it was wrong or bad, she certainly didn't tell him to stop. Instead she made the most arousing sounds that probably would have made him finish there and then except she was telling him to go deeper inside of her.

Who was he to disappoint her?

He cupped her breast with a hand before finding her hand with his. He took her hand with his, guiding it between her legs. She tried to jerk it away, but he wouldn't let her.

"John," she whispered.

He guided her fingertip along her nub and she groaned then.

"I can't touch it this way as well," he replied.

"But you can," she whispered.

"Oh, I'll touch you, too," he said, letting go of her hand and sliding his to a breast again. He drew away from her a bit, pulling himself out of her further than he meant to before sliding himself back into her. She didn't move her hand away from between her legs, but it took her a minute or two before she actually started touching herself the way he'd hoped she would.

He knew when she'd made up her mind to do it, though. For the last couple of minutes before her decision she hadn't pressed her hips against his thrusts almost as if trying to decide if she should tell him to pull out of her and move on top of her the proper way after all.

She didn't, though. He didn't have to see her to know she was embarrassed even though she was doing it. As if he'd think badly of her somehow. Maybe he wasn't supposed to think she did that to herself. He wasn't sure how chicks thought on things like that. He just knew he wanted her to finish like this because if she did and it was good chances were she'd let him inside of her like this again.

And again would be very good because he really, really liked it this way. He hit a spot inside of her from this position that made her gasp. The first time or two he'd wondered if he was hurting her since he felt as though he was inside of her a little deeper this way although her on top of him was about the same he supposed. He was in control this way, though.

He leaned into her, kissing her shoulder as he moved inside of her. His fingers were stroking her breast, taking her hardened peak in between two fingertips and grazing it with his thumb. He whispered in her ear, wanting her to finish, encouraging her to bring herself off.

He didn't last as long as he wanted to, but she did pretty quickly after he did. He stilled inside of her, rubbing his cheek against her shoulder before kissing her back. He slid a fingertip along her spine again.

"I think we missed your ball dropping, Princess."

She giggled softly.

"What's so funny?"

"I think you're wrong."

"I don't know how else to tell you it's after midnight."

"Oh, I believe you, but I don't think I missed my ball dropping."

He chuckled softly. "Now you make with the dirty jokes." He reached for her hand, bringing it to his mouth so he could kiss each fingertip. He groaned softly at the taste of her. He'd never get tired of it either.

Eventually he moved from behind her. She slid her leg along his calf, arm going around his waist as if trying to bring him closer. There wasn't even an inch separating them so he wasn't sure how much closer he could get, but maybe she wanted some assurance that now that they were done he wasn't rethinking sex like that.

"Happy New Year, Princess," he whispered.

"Happy New Year, John."

"What would you have been doing if you were at home?"

"I was going to go to a party, probably would have seen Andy and Allison."

"Was this better?"

"I should say no."

"Why should you?"

"Because you'll feel entirely too good about yourself."

"You make me feel good about myself, Princess. It's all you."

"Thank you," she whispered, leaning in to kiss him.

"Thank you."

"The Marines must help in that, too."

"The Marines are not in my bed with me."

"Not tonight they're not anyway."

"You know, I get now why some of the guys I know got married."

"Huh?" she asked.

"Well, when I was at boot camp there were a couple of guys who'd gotten married before going in. I didn't get it, especially the guys who while we were at school weren't exactly adhering to the forsaking all others part of their vows."

"I get it," she murmured.

"I didn't do anything!"

"I know you didn't, but it bothers me anyway. Those poor women, worrying about their guys who are cheating on them. It's just wrong."

"I agree, but having you here in bed with me the past two nights I get it."

"It would be silly for us anyway. I'm in school."

"I know, I'm not asking you to. Not today anyway. I just meant, I get it. Spending the night with you in October was different, you know. We weren't," he shrugged.

"Committed?"

"Yeah, that," he said and she laughed. "So, this is the first time I've woken up to someone knowing they weren't going anywhere. They'd be here."

"I'm not going anywhere, John. I wasn't in October either."

"I know that now."

"Good."

"You would have summer breaks."

"I'm not going to have a husband I only live with three months out of the year."

"They'd be a fun three months, though."

She kissed his shoulder, rubbing her cheek against it. "Not fun enough."

"I don't know, Princess, what we just did was pretty damned fun."

"It was."

"She admits it?"

"She admits it."

"No regrets?"

"Right now, no. Tomorrow? I'm not sure."

"We didn't do anything wrong."

"I know that, logically."

"Well, you're nothing if not logical, Princess, so don't let your morality and upbringing dictate what you want to let yourself do with me."

"I didn't! It was just strange."

"That means you'd do it again?"

"You behind me?"

"Well, that, yes, but you know, bring yourself off."

"Maybe. Would you?"

"Why?"

She shrugged. "I don't know it'd be kind of fun to see."

"You want to watch me?"

"Sure. You know, that way I could have an image in my mind of what you look like when we're apart and that's all we have."

"Christ," he murmured.

"Is that a no?"

He shook his head. "It's not a no. It just makes me wish I'd rethought the off-base housing at least I'd have my own phone line."

"Hmm, you'd do that?"

"Do what?"

"Have that type of phone conversation with me?"

"When it's all we'd have for months? Sure. If you'd want to, if you wouldn't then I wouldn't force it or anything."

"I'm not sure, but I think I'd like it."

"But only if you have that image to think about?"

"Not only, but it'd be nice."

"Next time you use your mouth on me I will help."

"Really?"

"You sound surprised."

"A little, maybe."

"Princess if it does it for you it does it for me and I have nothing to hide. You've seen it all by now anyway."

"Not all of it."

"I finish the same whether it's you doing it or me. Do I get to choose where I finish?"

"Where?"

"Well, yeah," he said, sliding a fingertip along her stomach. "Like there." He slid his finger lower along her thigh. "Or here."

"I think that could be arranged."

"Yeah? Then I could think of what it looks like on you during a conversation like that."

"You like that idea?"

He grabbed her hand, sliding it over his length.

"I guess so."

"I guess I need to find some place to make private phone calls from once in a while."

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***Part Ten***
Word Count: 3,142

February 1985

John stared at the picture longer than he needed to. He had it memorized by now. He had absolutely no business getting jealous, but he found himself insanely so. He continued looking at it as if it would change somehow if he stared long enough. He realized this reaction was probably the intent of the person sending it to him.

Samantha.

She hadn't written to him since he left school in December. He sort of thought she'd gotten over whatever crush it was she had on him. Evidently not. Either that or she was until seeing the picture, making her believe sending it would help her case somehow.

The picture in question?

It was a newspaper picture from their local country club's annual Sweetheart Ball, which was held every year around Valentine's Day. It was, he presumed, a way for the upper class of Shermer to ensure their sons and daughters were exposed to others like them. John knew about it only because he and his buddies used to go to the country club a lot. It was a great place to get stoned or drunk after dark. The weekend of the Sweetheart Ball was always a special occasion to them because the chicks were always dressed to get noticed.

It ordinarily wouldn't have been a big deal, certainly to anyone else reading the local rag the city of Shermer liked to call its own newspaper it wouldn't have been anything out of the ordinary. To John, though, staring at the picture of Claire dancing with someone else crushed a part of him he hadn't quite known existed until the past ninety minutes or so. He didn't recognize the guy, but the photograph was grainy as newspaper photos tended to be and the guy wasn't looking at the camera because Claire was.

Their phone call earlier hadn't helped.

'Hello,' she said.

"Hi," he said, trying not to sound as if anything was wrong.

'Hi. How are you?'

"I'm all right."

'Just all right?'

He shrugged, not that she could see him do it. "Yeah, you know, long day after a long couple of weeks in the field."

'I know. I was kind of surprised to hear from you again today,' she said. He'd called her in the morning since they'd gotten in real late the night before. He'd just wanted her to know he was back safe and sound. It was strange yet comforting for him to have someone to be accountable to. He wouldn't exactly label it as accountable because for the next three plus years he was only accountable to the U.S. Marines. Still, though, he knew she worried about him.

"I just missed talking to you and realized I hadn't asked you about your weekend or anything when I called earlier."

'It was fine.'

"Just fine?"

'Yeah, you know, the usual.'

"Yeah," he'd said, pinching the bridge of his nose. He fought back the urge to let his foul mood out, not wanting to say something stupid.

'Are you sure you're okay?'

"Yeah, I'm fine. I'll let you go. I'm sure you've got stuff to do."

'Just homework, but okay,' she said, sounding as confused as he felt.

"I'll talk to you next time then," he said.

'I'll be here,' she said, sounding as though she meant it.

He'd hung up feeling like a big idiot. She hadn't sounded any different. Yet, he'd gone back to his room and stared at the picture again. She looked gorgeous. He couldn't tell what color the dress was since the photograph was in black and white, but it was something lighter in color. White, cream, pink, yellow, or maybe even a lavender. Was it one of the dresses she'd mentioned being in her closet she'd worn to school dances? Or had her mother taken her shopping for another new dress for that night?

He'd gotten the impression her parents' were all right with their involvement, but he knew her mom could be a bit flighty. Maybe her trip to see him in January had set off alarm bells in her mother's mind, hinted at being more serious than she really wanted Claire to be with someone like him. Sending him cookies was one thing but expensive flights to North Carolina another story. John could see that logic anyway.

His roommate chuckled softly as John folded the photograph, inserting it back into the letter Samantha had sent with it. He slid both back into the envelope. Her letter, like the others she'd written, hadn't said a whole lot. She told him about her classes and what her family was up to. She asked him when he was coming back to Chicago. He didn't know the answer to that at this point. For all he knew he wouldn't be going back there.

"You find something funny over there, George?"

"Staring at it isn't going to give you the answers you want."

"I'm not sure asking her will either."

"Really?"

John sighed softly. "No, that's not true. She wouldn't lie to me."

"You're just afraid of the answer then?"

"Afraid of it? No," John said, bristling slightly at the choice in words. John was afraid of very little anymore. He'd survived living with his parents, there wasn't much left for him to be scared of. He could care less about the fact she was the one he'd lost his virginity to. He hadn't been holding out for anything in particular so if they broke up afterward he wasn't going to feel used or anything. He didn't like the thoughts seeing the photograph was giving him. Doubts. His father's voice whispering discouraging, insulting words about him not being good enough for the likes of Claire Standish U.S. Marine Corps or not.

"Just ask her. You got back here last night to four letters from her. That doesn't speak to me of someone looking elsewhere, but what I know about chicks you could fill a shot glass with."

"I just wish the person who'd sent it didn't have questionable motives. I don't want to start a fight over something stupid over the phone."

"You think she'd blame you for asking for an explanation?"

"I think I was pretty mad when I talked to her and she said she'd done nothing over the weekend when I had physical proof that wasn't the case."

"Maybe it wasn't anything to her."

"I get dressed up like that, it's something to me."

"Is it to her?"

John sighed. "Not really. I mean, she doesn't do it every day or anything, but it's certainly a normal part of life for her."

"Just call her and ask her."

"She's really going to think I've lost it if I call three times in one day."

"Or that you miss her."

"Yeah, just what I need, her to think I'm clinging to her."

"I don't think asking for clarification on something like that is clinging, man. Maybe she'll like knowing you are down here worrying about her."

John stood from his bunk, not at all sure why he was taking advice from George. George had at least four women writing to him and from what John gathered none of them knew about one another. He had no idea what his relationship was with the women in the real world and John wasn't sure he wanted to know. At least four because there were a couple of other women who wrote him, but George insisted a couple were his cousins. John wasn't sure that was true, and would likely never know. Then again if someone who could balance a handful of women was telling him he wasn't overreacting then maybe he wasn't.

"I'll be back," John said. He heard George's amused chuckle follow him out the door and down the hall a ways.

He stood by the phone for a few minutes before actually picking it up. Fortunately there wasn't a line. Evidently everyone who'd gotten in from the field with him last night had made their phone calls throughout the day. If he called her a third time he'd have to come clean with what was bothering him because she'd know something was up. She wasn't stupid.

Really, it boiled down to he was mad someone – Samantha – sent him a picture of her looking rather cozy with another guy. He was fairly certain it was innocent. She'd probably gone to the ball every year she'd been able to. (It seemed to John you had to be fourteen in order to go, but he wasn't certain on the nuances.) There was one question that was nagging at him, though. One he was rather curious what her answer was. That was what was bothering him, he realized, and it would until he'd gotten an answer.

His mind made up with that last bit of thinking, he picked up the phone and dialed her number for the third time that day. He'd enjoyed reading her letters last night when he'd gotten back. Samantha's he'd saved for today, actually forgetting about it until after morning chow time and his first phone call to Claire had happened.

'Hello,' she said, sounding sleepy and he instantly felt bad.

"Hi," he said.

'John?'

"Uh, yeah," he said.

'Is everything all right?' she wasn't sounding so sleepy now. Her concern seemed legitimate, sincere.

"Yeah, I guess."

'You guess? Okay. What's wrong? Did something happen? Are you all right?'

Both were quiet. He was trying to figure out not just what to say but how without sounding like the jealous boyfriend he was currently being. Or a jackass. He wasn't sure which would be worse in her eyes. She probably was trying to figure out what was going on with him.

'John?'

"Yeah, I'm here."

'Not that I'm not happy to hear from you three times in one day, especially when it's been two weeks but if there's something the matter.'

"Why'd you go to that dance?"

'What?'

"That dance at your country club."

'I,' she paused. 'How did you know I went?'

He snorted. "My secret admirer saw your picture in the Shermer paper and sent it to me."

'Oh God,' she murmured. 'I'm sorry.'

"Yeah, me, too."

'Why are you sorry?'

"I don't know. For being a moron. Why are you, my girlfriend, going to a Sweetheart Ball?"

'I go every year.'

"You didn't have a boyfriend in previous years."

'It was just a dance,' she said.

"Yeah, for future yuppie couples to meet and fall in love."

'I didn't go for that.'

"The picture says otherwise."

'I haven't seen it. I didn't even know there was one of me taken. It was just a dance.'

"So, I can do that then?"

'Do what?'

"Get all dressed up and dance with random girls who don't know I have a girlfriend? That'd sit right with you?"

'John,' she protested.

"Well, they don't know about me, do they?"

'I didn't lie about it, no. I mean, I didn't walk around saying I had a boyfriend but if someone asked me personal details it certainly came up.'

"You're sure?"

'John, I'm positive. I even mentioned you are a Marine, so yes.'

"And you're sure?"

'Yes. I was home and there was nothing else going on. I admit, I kind of like going to those things.'

He scoffed.

'I do. What can I say? It's fun to get dressed up once in a while and since it's the guys from the club they know I'm not there for that.'

"They do?"

'Yes! It's the same guys every year. I mean, sure there are a few new ones every year, girls, too. And, no, I wouldn't like it if you did that.'

"Why can you then?"

'Well, I don't know,' she sighed softly. 'Because it's something I did before we were dating.'

"I don't like you dancing with other guys."

'I don't like other girls sending you letters.'

"She's fourteen."

'You think that would stop some guys?'

"It'd stop me. Jesus, what kind of guy do you think I am?"

'I know that you're not that kind of guy. I'm just not sure she knows that.'

"Next time I'm in town I plan on talking to her."

'You haven't told her before now?'

"No, I'm not going to say shit like that in a letter. I mean, what if I'm wrong and it's innocent. I'd feel like an ass. And if I'm right," he shrugged. "I don't want to break her heart either."

'John.'

"I mean be mean about it. Say she likes me."

'I think it's safe to assume she does if she's clipping photographs of me from the newspaper and sending them to you.'

"Okay. Well, at fourteen, would you have wanted to get that type of letter from the guy you liked?"

'I didn't like anyone when I was fourteen.'

"And I'm very glad that's the case. Put yourself in her shoes, Claire. I'm not encouraging her. I haven't written to her, not once. I wouldn't do that to James, to her, or to you. I will put a stop to it if it's what it appears to be."

'I guess.'

"How'd this get turned into a conversation about her anyway?"

'She's trying to break us up.'

"I'm not sure she's aware how together we are or she just knows you were the one who I spent time with that weekend."

'Must be nice,' she said.

"Not really. I have my roommate laughing at me."

'George, right?'

"Yes."

'It doesn't sound like he would know what a girlfriend was.'

"No."

'I'm glad you're not like him.'

"Me, too. I'm not sure I'd even want to try and keep track of who I've told what to."

'Are we okay?'

"Yeah, it wasn't the picture that bothered me so much. I mean, you go to your parties and stuff, and I imagine there's dancing at some of those things."

'There is.'

"It was that particular event that bothered me when the purpose pretty much is matchmaking."

'It's just fun. I don't know very many who've actually gotten together because of that ball anyway.'

"Yeah, well, I didn't like it. And then you said you hadn't done anything over the weekend."

'I'm sorry. I should've told you. It honestly didn’t even occur to me because it was more or less another night like any other for me.'

"Yeah, I guess."

'I'm glad you called back and I have to admit I guess I'm glad it bothered you.'

"Why?"

'Because that means you care.'

"Of course I care," he admitted. "You think I don't?"

She was quiet.

"Claire?"

'No, I know you do. It's just nice to have it demonstrated especially when you're so far away all of the time.'

"I would very much like to demonstrate that for you."

'You would?'

"Yes. Where's Amy?"

'At the library.'

"At this hour?"

'Yeah,' she said. 'You can't really do that where you are anyway, can you?'

"No, it's tempting, though, since you sound agreeable." He'd tried a couple of weekends after she'd visited him to have that type of conversation with her but she'd ended up being too embarrassed. He hadn't pushed because he doubted it'd be quite as fun if he felt as if he'd coerced her. "You think she'll be at the library Saturday morning?"

'I don't know. Why?'

"I was thinking it would be very nice to have that type of conversation with you."

'You were huh?'

"Yeah, but if you were going home or something I won't go through the hassle of getting off-base."

'No, I'll be here and I'll beg her to do something.'

"You will, huh?"

'Yes. I'm sorry about the last time, it just felt kind of strange.'

"All right. I'll figure it out then and you don't have to apologize. Ever. Just talking to you is nice so don't think I'm only looking for that type of conversation with you. I'm sorry if I woke you."

'It's all right. I'm glad you called instead of getting real mad about it. You'd be liable to turn it into something more than it was if you sat and stewed on it.'

"Possibly," he said. "Who knew I was the jealous kind?"

'You're human and probably have more reason than some to have doubts. Unfounded as I think they are because trust me when I say I'm happy with my boyfriend I know it'll take more than a few months to make them go away.'

"Probably."

'I'll talk to you Saturday morning then?'

"Yes," he said.

'I look forward to it even if you're spending money to do it.'

"It's just money and me, too."

'Good night.'

"Night. And Claire?"

'Yeah?'

"I more than just care."

'I know. I love you, too, John.'

For the first time that he could ever remember in all of the times they'd talked she chose this conversation to hang up first so he couldn't have responded to her as he wanted to. He was tempted to call her back, but she'd hung up first for a reason so he hung up the phone and returned to his room.

She'd said she loved him. Of course she said it because he in a roundabout way had been saying it, too, but he wasn't sure he should say that yet. Her hanging up so quickly led him to believe she wasn't sure she should either.

"Everything all right, man?" George asked when John got back to his room.

"Yeah."

"Simple explanation?"

"Yes," he said.

"See. That girl is going to be trouble for you if you let her be."

"She's not trouble. It's not her fault. It wasn't the picture that bothered me anyway."

"Not the girlfriend, the other one. You need to nip that in the bud or she's going to spend the next four years trying to find a way in."

"It wouldn't happen anyway. She's my friend's sister."

"I'm telling you, man, take care of it before she really becomes meddling. If she even thinks she scored a point sending you that newspaper article she's going to do it again and the next time she may find something that will do the trick."

"She's not going to find anything."

"You sure about that, man? Nobody's perfect."

"I'm sure because I'm not looking for perfection. The next time I go home I plan on taking care of the problem."

He really hadn't expected it to go this far. He just assumed after a few months of him being gone she'd move on to someone closer to her. Evidently not. He got the appeal of the bad boy. He'd perfected the image and gotten his fair share of girls interested in him over the years because of it. He grimaced slightly at the thought of having any type of conversation with Samantha. He really hadn't wanted to.

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***Part Eleven***
Word Count: 1,793

April 1985

He had a few hours in between his flight arriving at Midway Airport and his bus departing from the downtown terminal. It was only about ten miles and he certainly could have called a cab, but he figured it'd be a good time to take care of his situation with Samantha. So, he'd called James a couple of nights ago to see if his friend would be interested in joining him for pizza during his layover. He'd assumed, of course, he wouldn't get bumped from any of his flights. He wasn't flying during peak season so that had helped.

He wasn't surprised Samantha was in the car, too. John had suggested she join them. He didn't know if he'd make it to Chicago during the summer. If Claire's parents were all right with him sleeping in her brother's room he'd prefer to stay there since she was the reason he'd come back here anyway.

He was hoping he could convince Claire to do something with him this summer instead of making him come home with whatever leave he might be able to get. He hadn't asked her about it yet. One leave at a time he sort of figured, though she was done with school in a couple of weeks so he'd have to mention a trip somewhere to her this weekend if he even wanted a chance of getting time off before she had to go back to school again. As it was, he was told over a week ago this leave had been approved.

James must have left early because John hadn't had to wait long. He'd gotten off his flight, collected his duffle, and stopped at a bank of pay phones to call Claire and let her know he'd gotten into town. He'd hung up from that phone call and James was there. Samantha moved to the backseat when John made it to the car and set his duffle bag in the trunk. He made sure Claire knew of a dry cleaner in her town who could press his uniform once he'd taken it out of his duffle. It was in a garment bag so hopefully wouldn't be too bad, but buses didn't have areas for garment bags so he'd had to pack it.

He'd only worn his dress blues twice before. Once for his picture in Basic Training and the other to a formal dinner party he'd gone to as an Illustrator. He knew he'd have more occasions to wear it as the years went on but for now it struck him as being a huge waste of money. At least she'd see him in it for the first time with his Private First Class ribbon in place. He'd gotten the promotion just before the dinner party he'd had to attend shortly after arriving here.

They got to a pizza place and John wasn't really sure where to start. They ordered their pizza and something to drink. He'd gone this route, feeling it was better than doing it at her house. Or alone. His reason for wanting James there? A witness he'd done nothing wrong or compromising with her. That was the last thing that he needed, and while he didn't think she'd do something like that he knew the daughter of a doctor would be believed over him. Any chance of advancement for him could be pretty well ruined with some sort of accusation of conduct unbecoming.

"What time does your bus leave?" James asked.

"Nine thirty. Tell your mom thanks for letting you guys come down here to get me. It would have been a long, boring four hours otherwise."

"I was glad you called," James said.

"How's school going?"

"Fine," James said with a shrug. James was a better student than John had been and college was expected given his father's occupation, but James wasn't entirely sure what he wanted to do with his life yet.

"And you, Samantha?" he asked.

"Fine," she shrugged.

"You settled your argument with what's her name?"

"Yes," she murmured.

'How'd you know about that?" James asked.

"That's kind of why I asked you to bring Samantha along," John said.

"Oh," James said, regarding his sister with a 'what have you done' look.

"I don't want to sound unappreciative. I doubt you'll find a Marine, any Marine, who doesn't love getting mail. I can't stop you from writing me, Samantha, but I can ask you not to if your intentions are to try to interfere with Claire and me."

"Claire?" James said. "How do you even know who she is?"

"I saw her with him that weekend you went to Homecoming stuff. Everyone knows who she is," she said as if that should be obvious. "She was Homecoming and Prom Queen last year."

"Sami, what are you doing? I told you not to bother him anymore."

"Her letters aren't bothering me. I haven't written her back or anything for a reason, but sending me pictures of Claire cut out from the newspaper. That bothered me."

"You did what?"

"I thought he should know while he's defending our country that she's dancing with other guys."

"God, Sami. You don't even know what kind of agreement they have. I'm sure John knew about that stupid Sweetheart Ball. Did you ever think since he's defending our country what you sent him could distract him and get him, or someone else killed?"

"He's not deployed," she huffed.

"That's not the point. If Mom finds out you've been writing him, let alone meddling, you'll be grounded all summer."

"You don't have to tell your mom, as long as it stops. No one else has to know."

"You're telling James," she said. John could tell she was holding back the tears. He could see them shimmering in her eyes and he hated that he was causing them. He didn't like being a bad guy. He really didn't, but he had no idea how else to handle this situation.

"Because I wanted a witness."

"What?" she shrieked. More than one set of eyes looked in their direction. "You think I'd? I'd never do that."

"Yeah, well, my future sort of depends on nothing remotely scandalous or illegal happening. Being involved with a minor would definitely be illegal."

"Sami, didn't you get the clue when he didn't write you back? When he told me to ask you not to write him anymore?"

"I'm not mad about the letters. Claire mentioned maybe you just liked having someone to vent to. I get that, and I'm flattered you thought of me like that. I think it's probably best, though, you don't send anymore now."

"Because of the picture?"

"Pretty much," he agreed. He had to admit if she hadn't sent the picture in question they probably wouldn't be having this conversation. "I didn't want to say this in a letter or over the phone. So, I'm sorry if it seems as though I waited a long time. I'm not trying to embarrass you or be a jerk."

"Yeah, right," she murmured.

"Hey, Samantha, I'm not. I'm not even sure what I did for you to notice me. I'm sorry if I gave you some sort of impression I was into you like that. Even if there was no Claire, you're still a kid. My friend's kid sister at that."

"Sami, you have to stop now," James said. "If Mom or Dad find out…"

"They don't have to know," John said.

"I don't know, man," James said. "I sort of feel like they should."

"I know, but as long as she stops I'm okay."

Samantha didn't say much after that, not that John could blame her. John felt kind of bad for her, but he just couldn't take the chance.

"Are you coming to town this summer instead of just passing through?" James asked when they were just about finished.

"I don't know. I'm going to try to get Claire to go somewhere with me: New York, Disney World, Boston, or something. Somewhere not home."

"No desire to come home?"

"No, if I have to then I have to, I guess. Coming to see me on-base may be different in her parents eyes than going away with me for days."

John paid for the pizza, a fair trade for James to drive down here and pick him up. Midway Airport wasn't a hop, skip, and a jump from Shermer. Most people he knew hated driving down here, but he'd been bumped last minute from his flight into O'Hare. It was either take the flight to Midway he'd come in on or cut it real close to making the last bus of the night.

Samantha moved to the front seat when John got out at the bus terminal.

"I'll take care of this, man, I promise. I'm sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry for, James. You didn't do anything wrong. She didn't really either until the last letter. Tell her I'm flattered once she's calmed down, will you?"

"You already did."

"I know, but I don't think she really heard me and I don't want to give her the impression I'm remotely interested."

"If she wasn’t my sister?"

"She's still only fourteen."

"I'll tell her," James said.

"Tell your folks I said hello, and thank your mom for the banana bread. If I do come for the summer, I'll probably stay at her place but I'll certainly swing by and say hi to everyone. I don't forget people who are nice to me."

"I don't blame you. I'd rather stay with her, too, if for no other reason her house is less crowded."

"Thanks for the ride again."

"Thanks for the pizza."

"Anytime."

That hadn't gone nearly as painfully as he thought it would. Of course, Samantha probably hated him, but maybe that was for the best. He had no idea how else to handle the situation without things getting sticky. Involving James embarrassed her, he knew, but he hadn't had a whole lot of options. (Other than letting Claire handle it when she was home some weekend but John didn't think that would go over any better.)

He had less than an hour to wait for his bus to depart. He tried to call her, but she didn't answer. He didn’t let it ring a whole bunch of times so she could have been down the hall or something. So, he pulled the paperback (that Claire had sent him) out of his duffel and set about reading it while he waited.

He was definitely looking forward to the next part of his leave much more than what he'd just gotten done doing. He just hoped James took him at his word that their parents didn't need to be involved.

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***Part Twelve***
Word Count: 3,851

He used the key that had been left for him under his name at the front desk. She'd had to reserve the room under her name because he didn't have any credit cards. It was certainly a step-up from the pretty cheap place they'd stayed at when he visited her in October. He was about to flip the light switch so he could see to put his things away, but there was enough light from the hallway to let him see shoes and a dress in the small coatrack area designated for hanging things.

She hadn't told him she was going to stay with him tonight. He supposed he should have expected it, but she had classes tomorrow since it was Friday. He was flying out of Indianapolis bright and early Sunday morning, her idea. She wanted to take him to the airport and he couldn't say he minded. It was only sixty miles to that airport and driving with her was certainly better than a bus ride.

He shut the door, sliding the security chain in place once he did. Quietly he set his duffle down before shedding his clothes in order to join her on the bed. He left his shorts on only because he wasn't entirely sure she'd see her being here as an invitation for him to climb into bed naked.

He was tired. Flying standby had its drawbacks, like waiting for hours for a seat on a connecting flight. It was the reason he'd chosen the late bus when he chose times. He was kind of lucky he hadn't ended up having to stay overnight downtown Chicago somewhere. It was why he'd taken Thursday off instead of Sunday, wanting to make sure he got here in time for her shindig.

He slid an arm around her as he settled in beside her. She was on her side currently so he fit behind her nicely. His hand slid along her hip, causing him to groan softly when he discovered she wasn't wearing anything under her nightshirt.

He didn't instantaneously get hard, but it was pretty close. His hand slid along her thigh, higher to her stomach bringing the shirt up as he went. He found her neck with his mouth not at all embarrassed by the almost hungry way he kissed and sucked on her skin there. She must have taken a shower when she got here because her hair was still a little damp and she smelled nice. Soap and a subtle perfume he always forgot to ask her the name of because she always distracted him when they were together. He liked it on her, though.

"Mm, hi," she whispered sleepily.

"Hi yourself. I wasn't expecting you to be here."

"Why not?"

"You have class tomorrow," he said.

"Yeah, I got here early so I could sleep until you got here and I figured you could sleep when I have to leave."

"Is that right?"

"Mm hmm," she murmured.

"You have plans for me between now and then, do you?"

"I do," she said, turning to face him. Her hand skimmed along his torso. She seemed to like what being a Marine did to his body. Lower along his abdomen to his shorts. "Why do you have clothes on?"

"You have clothes on," he said.

"Because I was sleeping."

"You slept without them in December."

"Because you were in bed with me."

"I'm in bed with you now, too," he said.

It didn't take them long to remove the offending articles of clothing.

"God, I missed this," she said.

He chuckled softly.

"What's so funny?"

"I just never thought I'd hear those words coming out of your mouth, Princess."

"It's true. Even without the sex, the sleeping part. I liked it."

"Yeah?"

"Mm hmm," she said before kissing him.

Hands grew busy, eager as they each worked at reacquainting themselves with one another. Touching, stroking as they assured one another they were really there together again. He slid on top of her, his mouth joining in on the exploration. His fingers slid between her legs as he used his mouth at her breasts. He sucked long enough in a couple of instances to leave a mark, but he didn't think she cared any more than he did. She didn't stop him at any rate and certainly by now she knew what he was doing.

"I'm not going home to my parents this time you know," she whispered, hands at his head. She was encouraging his mouth higher and he took her up on the offer.

"If we're not careful it's going to look like I beat you or something," he said as he dipped a finger inside of her finally.

"I don't care," she whispered.

He chuckled softly. "The pristine princess likes there being physical evidence she's not so innocent after all, eh?"

"I like them from you," she said.

"Yeah, well, you'd better not be getting them anywhere else."

"No," she said as he moved his finger in and out of her slickness. She was as ready as he was.

"God you feel so good," he whispered.

"I could feel better."

"You could? Is there something wrong?"

"Yes!"

He drew away a bit. Was she serious?

"Stopping isn't going to fix it," she said.

"I see," he said, returning to what he was doing. He slid his finger out of her, up a bit to stroke her nub as he found her ear.

"So what can I do to make you feel better, Princess?"

"You don't need to ask."

"Hmm, I think I do."

"Oh God, John, please."

"Nuh uh, tell me what's on your mind."

"You in me, now," she whispered.

"You're still taking your pills?"

"Yes! You think I'd stop?"

"Just had to be sure," he said, sliding inside of her. He'd intended on being gentle about it, slow knowing it'd been a while. That plan flew out the window as soon the head of him was at her entrance. She arched into him almost at the same time as he pressed into her, drawing him deeper more quickly than he'd meant to.

She cried out and he started to pull out thinking it was too much, too fast. She slid a hand to his hip, fingertips grazing his ass.

"Don't you dare stop," she said breathlessly. She tipped her head back on the pillow as he thrust back into her as deeply as he had been to start with. It was almost as if she was offering her neck to him.

"I like being right here best anyway," he said.

"Oh God, me, too," she said as he nipped at her throat.

"Yeah? You like me deep inside of you?"

She laughed softly. "I think that might be the most ridiculous question you've ever asked me."

"Hmm," he said. "I see, I give you what you want and then you make fun of me."

"Yes, all part of my nefarious plan."

She was more responsive than she had been their first few times together. Not that she'd just lain there then, but she'd seemingly been a bit embarrassed about what he'd think if she was too active a participant. He'd assured her during their couple of conversations they'd had that he'd gone off-base to have with her that there was nothing she could ever do wrong. Maybe, too, she knew more what to expect this time so could let herself enjoy it. He didn't care which it was, her moving underneath him, meeting his thrusts by arching into him almost as if trying to draw him even deeper into her was almost more than he could take.

He told her that, too.

"It's okay. We have all night and all weekend. I sort of figured neither of us would last that long this time."

He gave himself credit for lasting as long as he did. She felt too good, but it was her giving him a hickey on his shoulder that was his undoing. She'd been very careful in December not to put them anywhere they'd remotely show in his uniform. She did tonight, too, but she was very enthusiastic about giving this one to him and it was a heck of a lot closer to potentially showing than the couple she'd left him in December had been.

He shifted them so they were side by side. She didn't let him move too far, though, settling her foot on the other side of his calf. As if he had any desire to be anywhere but right here until Sunday. He drew the blanket around them. It was surprisingly nice out today so the blanket wasn't hugely necessary but it was instinctive, he supposed.

"How were your flights?" she asked.

"Fine," he said.

"Long day, I bet you're tired," she said.

"Yeah, I'm not complaining, though."

"No?"

"It got me here, so no."

"I'm glad."

"Me, too," he said. "I hopefully took care of the Samantha situation during my layover in Chicago."

"Is that why you flew there instead of Indianapolis?"

"Yeah," he said.

"I was hoping it wasn't because you thought I didn't want to drive to Indianapolis to get you."

"No, I know you would've and it would have been better, but I wanted to get it done."

"It could've waited until summer."

"It could've, except I'm hoping I can talk you into meeting me somewhere other than Chicago whenever I get my leave."

"Like where?"

"I don't know," he shrugged. "Like I've ever been anywhere out of the Chicago suburbs until now. New York? Disney World? Myrtle Beach? The Dells?"

She giggled softly. "You're going to fly up from North Carolina to go to The Dells with me?"

"Well, it wouldn't be my first choice, but if that's what you want to do I would."

"I'd have to talk to my parents."

"I figured that'd be the case."

"I'm not sure…"

"I assumed they may not like the idea. They certainly couldn't stop you from visiting me over spring break or something, though, so I'm not sure what difference it being summer break makes."

"It's their house and, well, they're paying for my schooling."

"I get that," he said. "I thought about seeing if you'd want to move down there for the summer. I'm not sure what type of job you could get or anything which is why I haven't done much but thought about it."

"With you?"

"Well, no, I wouldn't be able to change on and off base like that, but I'd be able to see you most weekends unless I was in the field."

"Or got deployed somewhere."

"Always an option, yes," he agreed.

"So, how'd that conversation go anyway?"

He shrugged, relaying the conversation to her. "She wasn't happy, neither was James. I don't know if I went about it the right way or not. I don't think she's the type to do something crazy."

"You never know."

"Exactly. I can't risk it. If she was our age I probably wouldn't be as concerned, but girls that age can be a little nuts."

"Hmm, you realize I was that age?"

"I do, and I'm sure you were a little nuts. I mean, I didn't like know you well or anything, but then I guess fourteen year old boys probably are a little nuts, too."

"You think she'll stop writing?"

"I don't know. I think I embarrassed her so I'm not sure what her reaction will be. I guess my next option is to return her letters to her."

"God, that'd be awful."

"You're taking her side?"

"No! I hope she never writes you again," she said. "It's kind of weird. I mean, a letter or two, like you said she's your friend's sister."

"Right? That's what I thought at first. You know? I mean, guys just don't do the whole pen pal thing. James tries, but he's busy doing whatever he does. He got a job before Christmas."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, at Montgomery Ward."

"Oh, I didn't think he needed to work."

"I don’t think he does, but I think that girl he was talking to when I was talking to you at the picnic might like to do things once in a while. Who wants to ask their parents for money for a date?"

She chuckled at that, settling against him. "True."

"I just hate being the bad guy, you know? She's a nice kid and I'm sure she doesn't mean anything harmful or anything."

"You're probably right. I'm glad you talked to her, and I don't know how else you could've done it either. A letter seemed like it could backfire."

"How so?"

"Well, she could take your writing to her as a sign if she wanted to."

"A letter telling her to stop writing her?"

"She's got a crush on you it would seem. I can't really blame her. I developed one on you within an hour in that library."

"I much prefer you."

"That is very good to know," she said, shifting her head against his shoulder a little.

"I thought you took a nap so you'd be well-rested for my arrival."

"I did. I am. I just like having you here. I told you I really like the other stuff, too."

"You sure you want to go to that thing Saturday?"

"Pretty sure, yes. Why?"

"We could just stay here all weekend."

"We could, but I'm not turning down the chance to see you all dressed up."

He sighed softly. "The feeling's mutual. I saw you brought your dress here."

"I did," she said. "I'll bring the rest of my stuff I need to get ready tomorrow after class, but I figured I'd bring it here today so it's here. I can drop your uniform off at the cleaners I found tomorrow if you want."

"Or you could tell me where the place is and let me use your car."

"I could do that."

"I should probably be sure I'm leaving it with someone who's going to do it right. They have rules and stuff."

"Right, I know. I said I could let you have my car."

"Besides I have a couple of things to pick up while you're busy learning how to become a teacher."

"You do? Here?"

"Yes, here, things I couldn't bring with me."

"Hmm," she said.

"And I'm not telling you what they are."

"That's not fair."

"Life's not fair, Princess."

"You sure I can't convince you?"

"Positive. I've been told girls like surprises from their boyfriends."

"Who told you that?"

"More than one guy who offered me commentary on this weekend when I mentioned I'd never been to something like this before."

"A dance?"

"Yes."

"Never?"

"Who the hell would I have to go to a dance with?"

"You could have found a date, John. I don't have to know what you were doing all through high school to know that girls liked you and would have said yes to you."

"Sure and with what money was I supposed to buy a suit, a corsage, and dinner?"

"I see your point."

"You do realize I'm not a dancer, right?"

"I sort of figured, yeah."

"Hmm," he said. "Not disappointed?"

"No, I'll teach you."

He snorted. "By Saturday?"

"Well, no, but for the next one you'll be better."

"The next one?"

"Yes, they do this every year. You know, end of the year celebration stuff."

"I see. I'm on the hook for the next one, too, I suppose?"

"No, if you have a miserable time Saturday I won't make you. I was surprised you wanted to come to this one."

"I told you I missed out once on seeing you dressed up I wasn't going to again."

"I know and you're sweet for that."

He scoffed.

"So, no, if it's bad," she shrugged. "I'd rather you use your leave to come see me for something you want to do."

"I want to rent a cabin with you on water somewhere and do nothing but lay in bed with you naked for days. Doors and windows open and nothing but the sound of the water bothering us. A lake, the ocean. Down south, up north in the woods. I don't care. That's what I want."

"That does sound nice."

"It does, doesn't it?"

"I'll talk to my dad."

"Good to know. Now about this long nap you took," he said.

"You just came here for sex, didn't you?"

He chuckled. "You caught me."

"Well, I don't want to send you back feeling neglected."

"We wouldn't want that, no."

***

"You didn't tell me your dress was so low cut," he said, eyeing her as she adjusted her dress. It was strapless and as it was pushing eighty degrees today she didn't need a coat but had a sweater to wear over it for later tonight.

"What?"

"Your dress."

"Yeah? What about it?"

"You never told me it was like that."

"What's wrong with it?"

"Nothing, but I really don't want people to think I hurt you."

"I think everyone there will know the difference between a bruise and a love bite, John."

"I hope so," he said. "I noticed mine doesn't show."

"Well, I didn't think that'd be right."

"You're probably right," he said. "I've never asked."

"Please don't," she said with a soft laugh. "I'll just assume anything above shoulders is off-limits."

"Hmm," he said.

She watched him as he regarded himself in the mirror. He wasn't vain, she knew that though he had every reason to be because holy cow did he look amazing in his full dress uniform. He was making sure his ribbons were where they were supposed to be.

Marksmanship. Those were the ribbons he'd received to this point, one for a rifle and one for a pistol. A world she knew nothing about, guns and weapons. He'd mentioned he was good at his job, but he'd failed to mention they had competitions and he'd won one of them.

"No sword?" she asked.

"Huh?"

"Do you have a sword?"

He chuckled. "No. I'm not an officer and they're really just for show anyway."

"I see," she said.

"You like what you see, Princess?"

"You really think you have to ask me that? I'll answer, though. Yes, I like what I see very much. You know I do, though."

"Really?"

"Yes. I'm pretty sure I'll be the envy of every one of my sorority sisters. You clean up very nicely. I've never paid much attention to men in uniform before. I mean Naval Station Great Lakes wasn't too far from us, remember? So we'd see some while doing stuff downtown or something. Those sailors in their uniforms have nothing on you, though."

"Thank you. You look very nice, too," he said. "But in addition to the marks I've left being visible to everyone I'm not sure where you're going to put your corsage."

"I could wear it on my wrist," she said.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah, most of them have a wrist thing," she said, taking the container holding the corsage. She opened it and picked the small assortment of flowers up. "See," she said.

"Not as nice, though," he said.

"You can try pinning it to me."

"And draw blood? No thanks," he said.

"It's not fair you can't wear a boutonniere."

"My boss, the President, frowns on it," he said with a chuckle. He kissed her. "Next time I'll just wear a suit and then you can get me one."

"Okay."

"I'll probably need some help with the suit, but we have a year it sounds like to deal with that."

"True."

"So," he said. "I pass inspection?"

"Yes."

"Good."

"Do I?"

"Almost."

"Almost?" she asked. What more did she have to do? She'd spent longer on her hair and makeup than she usually did. She even had sexy panties on under her dress for him to see later.

"Close your eyes for me," he said.

"John," she protested.

"Do you want to know why I said almost or not?"

"Fine," she said, closing her eyes. She heard him walk across the room and unzip his duffle bag. He returned a couple of minutes later and her heart started racing when he took her hand.

"Keep them closed," he said as if knowing her instinct was to look to see what he was doing. "It occurred to me in October that I need something a little more permanent than hickeys to suggest you're taken."

"John," she murmured.

"You can open your eyes now," he said as he slid a ring over her finger. He was lucky it fit, thankfully a little loose. "Not what you were hoping for maybe," he said.

"It's beautiful," she said, running a fingertip along the opal. It was very colorful with a couple of smaller diamonds alongside the stone.

"Well, I liked it so I went with what I liked without someone to ask."

"What do you think I was expecting?"

"I don’t know a diamond of some sort," he said.

"I wasn't expecting anything and I certainly wouldn't expect a diamond."

"You deserve one."

She shrugged. "Maybe one day."

"I'm planning on it."

"When did you buy this?"

He chuckled.

"What's so funny?"

"I bought it after Valentine's Day. It was amazing how many deals were out there afterward."

"Oh," she said, unwilling to take her eyes off of her hand yet.

"Sorry, should I not say that? I mean, I would have bought that one regardless of the price. I saw it and knew it would look good on you."

"It does," she said.

"So, now you're ready."

"Now I really feel bad. I've never gotten you anything."

"You're not supposed to get me anything. And you send me stuff all of the time."

"Yeah, cookies and brownies. Cards."

He took her into his arms, sliding his arms around her.

"Haven't you heard the way to a man's heart is through his stomach so cookies and brownies are a good way of going about that?"

"Do I need food to do that?"

"Get to my heart?"

"Yes."

"No. I love you without food even in the equation."

"Good I'm glad and I love you, too." She kissed him, drawing away a little. "Are you okay?"

"Okay? Yeah, why?"

"You just said it."

He chuckled. "You hung up on me before I could say it back in February and I just assumed you weren't ready to say it regularly or anything. I mean, it's how I feel, I'm not ashamed to admit that."

"Thank you."

"Thank you, Princess. Now let's go dance."

"You don't know how tempting it is to say screw it and get you out of your uniform."

"You can help me out of it later. I promise. I put it on, may as well put some miles on it before the end of the night."

"Okay," she said, grabbing the sweater she had for later. She took his offered hand, still not entirely sure she wasn't dreaming this whole night. John gave her a ring in a Marines uniform and said he loved her.

Return to Top

***Part Thirteen***
Word Count: 4,627

He'd entered Boot Camp with less nerves and apprehension. This was different somehow. No one but him would've known if he'd failed there. Well, no one he knew anyway since no one knew he'd enlisted.

He wasn't here by himself or even for himself, though. He was part of Claire for tonight. That meant everything that he said and did would be associated with her. Good or bad. He'd never had that type of thing weighing on him before.

She suggested he drive for whatever reason. Odd only because she knew her way around town and where they were going better than he ever would. It gave him access to her left hand, though, and he found himself toying with the ring he'd given her while he drove.

It was a pretty nice ring, even he knew that. The six diamonds were there for decoration more than anything and were pretty tiny. He hadn't bought it for them, though. The opal was a different story. It was good sized and to his untrained eye nice looking. It had cost him a good chunk of the money he'd saved up since enlisting even with the pretty generous discount the jeweler had given him. He would wager part of the reason for the discount was due to John being a serviceman. Not everyone did those things, but the towns and businesses that existed because of military bases usually did.

He hadn't bought it near base, though. He'd been with some guys at the next larger town's mall when they had a Saturday to kill. One of them had a vehicle. John had accepted the offer to tag along really not having been away from base since October. He didn't count the bus ride from California to North Carolina. The place he found the ring wasn't the first jeweler he'd stopped in that day. He'd taken some ribbing from one of the guys because John had insisted he and Claire weren't serious enough for him to worry about jewelry. He'd really been looking to get an idea of what he liked and how much what he liked cost. He'd known in October, though, he needed to give her some token of their relationship that was tangible, physical. Her agreeing to be his girlfriend was one thing, but staying that way for the next four years with no promise of at least the potential for more was asking a lot.

When he'd seen this ring, though, he'd known. Crazy because it was just a piece of jewelry, but still he'd known. Another jeweler had tried to sell him on all sorts of weird shit: fire opals or black opals. He didn't want that. He liked just regular ones, but evidently he wanted a very specific one because none of the others he'd seen had appealed as much to him.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"Nothing. Why?"

She shrugged. "You're toying with my ring as if you're debating about taking it back."

He scoffed. "Not a chance. I would have given it to you earlier, but sending it to you in the mail seemed … What's the term people like you use? Uncouth."

"Hmm. Okay. So, nervous?"

"A little, I guess. This is a first for me on so many levels. I don't know any of your friends. I have no idea what you've told them about me. I just don't do well in crowds of people. There was a reason I was a loner in high school for the most part. And most of all I'll bet your friends won't have hickeys all over their bodies."

"They've also seen their boyfriends since January."

"There is that," he mused.

"John, I knew what my dress was like, how low cut it was the night you got here. I could have stopped you after the first one. I didn't stop you from leaving any, even the real dark ones that are visible but not on my neck."

"Yeah, I'm sorry about those. I was trying to be somewhat considerate and leave those bigger ones somewhere people wouldn't see."

"It's okay. God, I liked getting them and I liked getting dressed seeing which ones were visible. There's one that's not completely visible and it's so obvious there's more to it. I mean if I saw you every day maybe I wouldn't like them so much."

"Yeah," he said agreeing. He'd never had the desire to leave not just so many but visible ones before. Always in high school there'd been parents around, so it was new to him to have free reign so to speak on where and how many he could leave. It was more than that, though, behind his giving them to her. He wished he could understand it. Sure, he'd left them before but usually it'd been more or less accidental.

He liked her having them, knowing they'd be there when he left tomorrow for a few days afterward. If he had anything to say about it there'd be a couple of more after tonight, but he wasn't the one who had to drive to Indianapolis and back after a late night so he wasn't going to take offense if she checked out on him early tonight.

She gave him spot-on directions, which he appreciated having no clue where he was going. He'd driven with people who were all like "turn right" five feet from the intersection when it was too late for him to safely do it. She wasn't like that at all. He parked the car and stepped out, placing his cover on before going around to her side to open her door for her.

He'd never had this kind of date before either where things like opening doors and offering her his arm were expected. He knew what he was supposed to do in situations like this he'd just never had to put the knowledge to use until tonight. He'd made her promise on the way here if he didn't do something he was supposed to she needed to clue him in instead of getting mad or looking bad in front of her friends.

Her friends.

He'd met some of them the night before when they'd been out for dinner. A few had been at the same restaurant. They'd seemed all right, but John had a hard time putting aside his thoughts about sorority girls and fraternity guys. He was keeping himself in check, but it was an entirely different world to him. One Claire evidently wanted to be a part of. He knew she wasn't as shallow as she let on in high school. He'd found out the day of detention to some degree, but her letters over the past eight months also clued him in to the fact that there was more going on in the mind of Claire Standish than most people gave her credit for.

"I think people will take one look at you and understand completely, so I'm not worried about it."

"You say that, and I think you believe it, but I'm not sure I do."

"Do what?"

He ran a fingertip along the edge of the one she'd mentioned the dress hiding part of. It was clear there was more to it, though, then what was visible.

"Understand why I give them to you."

"Is there a reason you need to understand? Beyond both of us like it?"

"I guess not. It's just never been a thing for me before."

"I'm glad."

"Yeah?" he smirked a little at that.

She shrugged. "It means there's a reason you want to whether you understand it or not."

"I'm not sure want is the right word."

"How do you mean?"

"It's more like I need to, you know?"

"There's good possessive and bad, I think anyway."

"And this falls under which category, Princess?"

"Good because I don't mind. You seem to need that physical reassurance, proof that I'm yours."

"Yeah," he agreed.

"Since you've never wanted let alone had a girlfriend before I suppose it's natural you want to. I don't know. If we saw one another every day maybe you wouldn't feel that need."

"You've put some thought into this."

"Sure," she said as they started toward her party. "I've asked myself why on me they're fine. And more than one! In high school, I thought anyone with one was a slut. The guys I didn't pay much attention to, but the girl giving the guy one got the same thought as a girl with one herself. So, what does that make me?"

"Not that! Geez, Claire!"

"I know that, though I felt a little weird going to the Health Center in October for the pill when I had no commitment from you."

"You had a commitment from me last March, Princess."

"At least it's an easy anniversary date to remember."

"How so?"

"It's the only time I ever had detention!"

"So, in other words, you don't expect me to remember?"

She shrugged. "I think I consider October the start anyway."

"That date I can remember, but I remember the other one, too, you know."

"They're not that important anyway, John."

He scoffed. "Right. You say that."

"Now if we got married and you forgot that date I'd be mad."

"I'll just have to figure out a way to make that happen on March 24 and I'd be golden."

"You would do something like that."

"I think you give me too much credit."

She laughed a little, which was good because he wasn't quite sure how the conversation turned to marriage.

The dance wasn't at the sorority house. It was at a hotel in one of the banquet rooms. It was a pretty nice setup, actually. They had gotten two rooms, using one for the dinner portion of things and the other for the band and dancing. There were some tables on that side of the room, too, but they'd left a good amount of space for the dance floor.

"Why didn't we just stay here this weekend?"

"Because they weren't willing to let me off the hook with the reservation if you couldn't make it last minute."

"Really?" That surprised him.

"This isn't open to just current members of the sorority. Anyone who's joined the sorority can come. So there are a lot of people from out of town. Or, like you, a boyfriend flies in from out of town. Plus a lot of couples get rooms for the night so they don't have to drive later."

"Right. I get it."

"So, they were basically full. If I canceled at the last minute they might not have been able to fill the room already having turned people away."

"Gotcha. I'm sorry."

"There's no need to apologize."

Dinner went all right. There was assigned seating with little cards with their names at their spot on the table. He'd never in his life been to anything formal like this. He'd heard stories of functions at her dad's country club and prom, but this was his first time seeing it in person.

He didn't talk much. He participated in the conversation as little as possible. He answered questions asked of him and stuff, but mostly he listened. He only knew about college what Claire told him in her letters. She at least gave into his request to keep her sweater on through dinner. She didn't button it all the way, though, so it was still pretty obvious what they'd been spending their time doing since he got into town. No one said anything, so either they didn't care or were too nice to say anything.

"Oh God," she said during one of the slow songs he was willing to dance with her to. He hadn't braved a faster song yet and as he didn't seem to be the only guy doing that she didn't mind dancing those with her friends.

"What?"

"Remember I wrote you about my friend Camille and her weird-o boyfriend?"

"God, Princess, I'm not so good with all of the names. You've told me about so many."

"This one you'd probably remember because she walked in on him fooling around with another guy."

"Oh," he said. "Yeah, that one certainly stands out. What about it?"

"He's here."

"So?"

"She didn't invite him. She invited someone else."

"Hopefully someone who likes girls."

"Be nice," she said.

"I'm talking to you no one else, I don't have to be nice about it. I mean, come on, how could you not know you're not turning someone's crank?"

"Really? So, every girl never faked it with you?"

He shrugged. "How the fuck should I know that? I never caught them lying to me about it if they were. You saying that I don't know what I'm doing, Claire?"

"No!"

"You sure, because if I'm doing something wrong now's probably the time to speak up before you get pissed or frustrated and think someone else could do it better."

"How did this get turned into being about us and our sex life? I'm happy."

"You mentioned girls faking it with me. I find it hard to believe you wouldn't know. We're talking guys here anyway. There's a difference. We're pretty simple, especially under the hood. We get turned on, we react. We don't react there's probably something wrong like we're not interested. Guys our age uninterested in a girl willing I can count on one hand the reason."

"I don't think they'd gotten to that point yet. They just started dating about the same time we did."

"Oh. So, he's here. What's that mean? Is she serious with the new guy?"

"He's here and not real serious. I think walking in on that sort of freaked her out. You know?" John followed her gaze in the direction of the girl he presumed was Camille talking with the guy he assumed was the ex-boyfriend.

"How much fooling around are we talking here?" he asked.

"What? I told you they hadn't gotten there yet."

"Him and the other guy, Claire? Was it a drunk frat guy thing, jerking one another off or what?"

"God, I don't know! They were in a bedroom together. That's all I know. I didn't ask for specifics, I'm not a pervert."

"You could've fooled me, Princess, with the one or two conversations we had since January."

"Shut up. I am not."

"I'm not complaining, mind you. I love everything about you, and there's nothing wrong with anything we do."

"What could he possibly be saying to her?"

"Begging her not to tell anyone? I would be if it was me I'm pretty sure. He's a freshman like her?"

"Yeah."

"His entire college experience could be fucked up because of one stupid thing."

"It's too late anyway. I mean, she hasn't told many I don't think. She told me because we pledged together and got along. Both of our mothers were in the same sorority when they were in college. So we vented to one another a time or two that we had no choice as to which sorority we joined. And what our mothers would do if we didn't get accepted for some reason."

"So, is her date going to intervene or just let some other guy handle her?" The ex in question had grabbed Camille none too politely or gently by the arms.

"I don't know," she said, eyeing the situation herself.

"John," she said, setting a hand at his arm when he started toward them.

"Claire, I can't just sit back while he puts his hands on her. You of all people should be able to understand why I have an issue with it."

She sighed softly, letting go though so she seemed to understand his need to at least try to intervene and reason with the guy. He hadn't always been his dad's first choice. He'd seen pictures of his mom when she was this age, before his dad had choked any life out of her. She'd been quite a looker, even he could acknowledge that despite it being his mother. He hated her yet as much as he hated her and would never understand how she could sit back and let the things happen to her son that did. Well, he knew by the time his father had switched his attention to John, she was probably relieved. And pretty dead inside by then.

"Is there a problem here," he asked. Claire's friend clearly wasn't pleased by the ex's intrusion. Why was her date doing nothing? He didn't get that at all. Serious boyfriend or not, someone put their hands on someone he was with at this type of function he'd be all over stopping it.

"It's none of your business, Soldier Boy."

"Wow. Did it take you all of two seconds to come up with that retort? I'm not a soldier, I'm a Marine. There's a difference."

"Whatever. It's none of your business. Butt out."

"Well, see, my girlfriend likes Camille here, speaks highly of her in the letters she writes to me. I see someone not her date with his hands on her, I think probably I should stop him from doing something stupid."

"I wasn't."

"You say that, but the smell of alcohol on your breath and the look in your eye tells me you may not know what you're capable of doing right now."

"Who the hell are you?"

"No one," he said, but John knew the look in the guy's eye very well. "Why don't you leave her alone, talk to her some other time? She's here to have a good time with her friends. Let her have that. Don't be a dick."

It took the guy a few minutes, but he did let go of her. By now, John wasn't the only one paying attention to the situation.

"Good choice, but if she doesn't want to talk to you later, take the hint and leave her alone."

"I just wanted to apologize."

"Yeah, I get that, but it seems she might know things about you that you don't want to get around. So it's probably best not to piss her off. Embarrassing her here is probably not a good way to keep her in a good mood."

John had struck home with that comment. The guy probably thought he could harass her into giving him another chance. Why he'd want one if he swung the other way, John wasn't sure. Maybe the guy wasn't sure whether he liked guys or girls yet.

"John," Claire said, touching his sleeve. He hadn't realized she was that close to him.

He stepped away then, letting the other guy make the choice to continue causing a scene or leaving.

"Thank you," Camille said.

"Not a problem," John said.

"Are you all right, Camille?" Claire asked once the guy had left.

"Yes, just surprised. I have no idea why he showed up here. I haven't talked to him in like two months."

"Well, he knew for sure you'd be here and that you'd probably talk to him to avoid a scene," John offered.

"What?" Camille said.

John shrugged. "It's what I would do if I was in his situation."

"Really?" Claire asked.

"Not that I would be in his particular situation, but if I had to beg you for a second chance after being caught with my pants down I'd pick a night you were slated to have fun. Your room, you could slam the door in my face."

"You've put thought into this?" Claire asked.

"A year ago, Princess, you have no idea the thoughts I had about how to get you to talk to me. Or at least listen."

"Oh," she said simply, leaning in to kiss him.

"What did you do that for?"

"For being you."

He snorted.

"It was a brave thing to do. You had no idea what he was capable of."

"I can't stomach seeing someone hurting anyone they supposedly care about."

"I know, and I'm sorry you even know what it's like. I love you, you know."

"I love you, too, Claire," he said.

"Are you going to be all right, Camille?"

"Yeah," she said, leaving them to talk to someone else. John presumed it was her date.

"Where was he when that was going on anyway?"

Claire shrugged. "He probably thought it was none of his business."

"I don't get that way of thinking."

She leaned toward him, sliding a hand along his chest to his shoulder.

"Do me a favor?" she whispered against his ear.

"I can try, Princess."

"Remember this moment the next time you doubt yourself or think that you don't deserve this. Us. Because, believe it or not, it's what I saw in you that day of detention. And why I got mad you just gave up on us to begin with."

He slid his arms around her, drawing her closer against him. "I can try."

"I hope the fact I love you helps."

"It does."

"Good. Now if you're done being the good guy," she said.

"I think I am."

"Then follow me so you can be a bad guy for a little bit."

"Where?" he asked, knowing he'd follow her anywhere so it was stupid to ask.

"Really, Princess? The coat closet?"

She shrugged, her back resting against the door she'd just closed.

"We have a room. You do remember that?"

"It's not here."

"We could leave."

"I'm not done dancing yet."

"There's no music in here, so no dancing."

"What can I say? I want to do a different type of dancing with you for a little bit."

"In here?"

"Yes, I want you. Is that simple enough for you?"

"You sure?"

She reached for him then, the front of his trousers. "I've been sure since I saw you get dressed this afternoon. I told you I wanted to get you out of your uniform."

"Yeah, I figured you meant later, in our room."

"There's no time like the present. Besides, heroes get rewarded, haven't you heard that?"

"You know I can't say no to you, Claire."

"Then shut up and get over here."

"Remind me to defend your friends more often."

"Every day at least," she whispered, meeting his mouth eagerly.

***

The rest of the night went by uneventfully. For the first time since October they did nothing but sleep when they got back to their room. Evidently, sex in coat closets wore her out or something. He didn't miss out on the chance to mention that to her. She'd told him he could walk to the airport if he wanted to. She joined him in the shower in the morning, more than making up for falling asleep on him. He noticed tears in her eyes when they'd finished. He'd kissed them away, saying nothing because he was pretty sure he didn't want to hear the answer to his question. Instead he'd told her he was going to miss her, too.

"Thank you for coming," she said while they were seated at his gate, waiting to find out if he'd get bumped to the next flight or not. Since it was Sunday and she had nowhere to be she was going to stay with him until he actually got to board an airplane.

"You don't have to thank me for visiting you, but you're welcome. Let's try to pick something this summer that doesn't require me wearing that uniform again, though. Okay?"

"Sure," she said.

She'd been pretty quiet after that. They made small talk about the people he'd met the night before, putting faces with the names she'd written about more than anything. He supposed it was a good thing he'd come if for nothing else at least now he had an idea of who and what she was talking about in her letters. When he'd been there in October she'd showed him around campus but she'd glossed over it so much that it was kind of a blur. This trip she'd focused on the buildings where she had classes and stuff so he had more specifics to go with her letters than before.

"Christ, don't do that," he whispered when it was time for him to get on the flight. Of course when he didn't want to be able to get the first seat he'd chosen he did.

"I can't help it. I'm going to miss you."

"I know, but I hate seeing you cry just the same."

"Call me when you get in."

"I can from the airport, yeah, but when I get back I'm not sure if I will be able to."

"I understand."

"I will over the weekend, though, for sure."

"For sure for Marines is different than for sure for me."

He chuckled, tilting her chin up a bit so he could kiss her. "You're right; I could be stuck in the field for the next two weeks. So, I'll do my best to call you over the weekend. Is that better?"

"Much," she said. He kissed her cheek, wiping away her tears with the pad of his thumb. "I didn't think it would be this hard."

"I'm sorry, Princess. Maybe next time…"

"Don't you dare say I shouldn't bring you to the airport the next time. I wanted to bring you here today and I will want to bring you the next time and the next. You knew I would cry."

"Yeah, I figured, but I didn't think I'd hate seeing it this much."

She sniffled and he kissed her again before heading into the walkway that would take him back to the Marines.

His flights back didn't take as long as getting there had. Since they'd gotten to the airport so early he was able to get a seat on the first flight that was headed in his general direction. It seemed most people chose to travel later on Sundays than earlier, or at least today they did.

He called her when he got back as he said he would before catching a ride back to the base. There was always someone heading in that direction, today was no different so he didn't have to wait too long there either.

"Good weekend, man?" his roommate George asked him.

"Yeah, it was."

"You knew which fork to use and everything?"

John chuckled. "It turns out it's not that difficult if you pay attention, watch what everyone else is doing."

"That's right," George said. "Good to hear it. Glad you're back even if you're not. I've heard the first leave is the hardest if that makes it better."

"Not really, but I can see that, yeah."

"She going to go away with you this summer?"

"She's got to ask the parents' permission."

"Good luck with that."

"Right? I suspect I'll be heading to Chicago and sleeping in her brother's bedroom."

"Well, she doesn't have to tell her parents you're coming into town, does she?"

"Huh?"

"Find a place to stay somewhere there. She maybe couldn't spend the night with you, but they can't stop her from going out during the day. Come on, you just spent three nights with her, you want to visit her next time with rules and curfews in place."

"Well, they could," John said, but George was right, of course. He just hated the idea of spending the money on a hotel when free lodging was available to him either through her parents or at James' house. "I'll see what her parents say first."

George was right, though, going from sleeping with her this entire weekend to being down the hall from her but not being able to would suck. He'd do it if he had to, but he liked sleeping with her even without the sex.

"See you at chow?"

"Yeah," John said, preparing to resettle himself in while George did whatever he did on-base.

Return to Top

***Part Fourteen***
Word Count: 2,907

'Hello,' she said.

"Best sound I've heard in so long I can't even say," he said.

'What?'

"What she asks. Your voice is what."

'When did you get back to base?'

"Night before last."

'Oh,' she said.

"I had some things to do here and when I got done to the point I knew I'd have time to actually talk to you it was late."

'I know," she said. She was frustrated, though, he could tell.

"No one ever said this was easy what we're doing."

'I know that, I do. I'm not mad. It's just hard for me to understand sometimes because your boss is rather vague yet very pushy at times. You know?'

He chuckled at that. "Are you all settled in back home then?"

'Yes,' she said.

"Good."

'Dad's still saying no,' she said.

Her dad had said no to her going anywhere with him this summer, even another trip down to see him. John had sort of expected the answer, but he was sort of surprised to hear three weeks later he was still saying no. She'd been pretty confident he'd change his mind after some time to think about it.

"I sort of figured he wasn't going to change his mind," he shrugged. He wouldn't if it was him.

'They want to meet you.'

"I'm sorry?"

'I think the implication is basically no more trips to see you until that happens.'

'Christ, it's not as if I'm kidnapping you or talking you into eloping."

'That would certainly solve the problem.'

'Which?"

'Either.'

"Well, I'm not going to jail for kidnapping, that's for sure."

'And the other?'

"I hadn't thought that'd be an option."

'Why not?'

"Because of whom you and your parents are. You know, daddy's little girl gets the big wedding with the white dress and a million guests you'll never see again in your life if you've seen them more than once before that day."

'That's the only reason?'

"Well, you being not so far away might help."

'There is that.'

"And one of us has to finish college."

'There are colleges in North Carolina. Some within a hundred or so miles of Camp Lejeune."

"Yeah, well, it's important."

'What you're doing is just as important, John.'

"We need you to teach kids so they have more choices open to them than I did."

'You had teachers, most of the same ones I had.'

"Yeah, none who gave a shit to find out anything about me. Promise me, Princess, you won't be like that."

'What?'

"You ever meet someone like me; don't step on them even more."

'I wouldn't.'

"I hope not."

'So, it was two weeks this time?'

"Yes, very glad to sleep in my bed last night."

'I bet.'

"You in it would've been nicer."

'It would've.'

"Did you go out last night?"

'For a little while.'

"Hmm. No keggers?"

'I didn't feel like drinking.'

He was quiet for a minute or two, replaying their conversation so far.

'Are you still there?'

"Uh, yeah."

'You got quiet.'

"Just thinking."

'About?'

'You're not trying to tell me something, are you?"

'What do you mean?'

"Needing to meet your parents, eloping, colleges down here."

'Well, no, I mean, yeah this summer going somewhere won't happen. The next leave you get, though, if you meet them this summer they can't use that as an excuse.'

He was quiet again.

'John?'

"So, you're not pregnant or anything?"

'What?'

"You heard me. You're not drinking. I pay attention when we talk, believe it or not, and you've said a few times you haven't been in the mood."

'You think I lied?'

"What?"

'I told you I was taking my pills.'

"They're not a guarantee. I know that. I've heard of accidents happening even with that."

'Then there was something else going on. They forgot a day or they were on some other medication or something.'

"What?"

'I'm not going to explain it beyond as long as you don't miss a day, which I haven't. Ever. Not once. It's as one hundred percent as you can get.'

"As you can get."

'John, I'm not, I promise. Well, I guess I wouldn't know yet from seeing you last month, but I swear I just miss you. Is that a bad thing? It's been over two weeks since we talked. So, yeah, I've thought about what it would be like to be that close to you that I could see you on weekends.'

"I couldn't stay with you unless I had leave."

'It'd be better then what we have now.'

"Claire…"

'You don't agree? You'd rather have me states away?'

"I do, but as much as I hate to admit it, your parents are right."

'Wow. You want to meet them?'

"I'd rather go through boot camp again to be honest, but it's the logical next step. If it were me, if I was your father, I'd want to meet me, too. Because he has to be thinking that what you're thinking is a possibility. If you've told them I plan on making a career of this that means it wouldn't be just college you'd be moving away from them. I'd want to meet the guy that my daughter was contemplating hauling her ass across the country for, too."

'That has nothing to do with where I go to school.'

"Claire, what is with you?"

'What do you mean?'

"Why is this bothering you now all of the sudden?"

"It's not.'

"Don't lie to me. Whatever you do, we are, I don't want you to ever lie to me. The truth may suck, but we need honesty."

'How do you have so much time to talk today?'

"I'm at a friend's off-base house."

'Oh.'

"Princess, I love you."

'I love you, too.'

"I'm not going anywhere. You know you're the only person I've ever said that to, right? Ever. Maybe once upon a time I said it to my mom, but it's been years. You get how significant that is for me to admit that to myself let alone you?"

'I know.'

"Do you?"

'Yes.'

"I'll put in for leave as soon as I can get it. If your parents are still all right with my sleeping in your brother's room, I will take them up on their offer. Beats them wondering where I'm sleeping."

'If they aren't?'

"Well, I don't know then. I'm not going to stay at James' house."

'Good,' she said softly.

"Is that what this is about? Samantha? Did something happen I don't know about?"

'No,' she said, not sounding convincing at all.

"Claire."

'Someone egged my car.'

"What?"

'You heard me.'

"I was afraid she'd do something stupid, but I don't think she'd go after you."

'She's already done some pretty stupid things, John. I don't know if it was her, but I was at a party and mine was the only car egged.'

"Do you want me to call James?"

'No, if something else happens I'll take care of it.'

He chuckled softly. "Are you sure?"

'Yes, I kind of want to meet her anyway, but I won't if nothing else happens.'

"All right. Anyway, that would mean I'd have to get a room elsewhere if your parents won't let me stay there."

'I hate the idea of you spending money. The hotel last month and one here. The times you've gone to one so we could talk privately.'

"I don't regret any of it. This is a military base, Princess. Motels renting rooms by the hour aren't difficult to find around here." Getting there wasn't always easy, but he managed to find ways so far.

'Hm, they are, huh?'

"The only reason I know that is those phone calls to you. Speaking of which."

'Yeah?'

"You being home, they should be easier, yeah?"

'I suppose.'

"No Amy to worry about anyway. I'll try to get away next weekend again."

'Okay.'

"And I'll put in for leave on Monday."

'It'd be nice if you could be home for Fourth of July.'

"Too much of a chance of running into one of the Bender's. No thanks," he said, afraid she'd mention that. He enjoyed the carnival Shermer had every year over the Fourth of July the same as anyone, but it wasn't the place to go when trying to stay off someone's radar.

'I suppose.'

"Sorry."

'The ring!'

"What?"

'Another thing you've spent money on.'

"That was one hundred percent necessary. I have nothing else to spend money on, Princess."

'Necessary?'

"Had to make it perfectly clear you're spoken for."

'You don't have anything.'

"I'm a guy, sweetheart, guys don't wear rings."

'What if we were married?'

"Then, yeah, I guess."

'Really?'

"That surprises you?"

'A little. Some guys don't wear them.'

"I'd have to take it off sometimes, going into the field or whatever, but I'd wear it."

'What if I want you to be spoken for?'

"Princess, I love you, is that not enough?"

'It is it just seems unfair.'

"I'm not getting your name tattooed on my body."

She laughed. 'That's good. I don’t want you to. I like your body just the way it is.'

"You do now?"

'Yes, but you know that.'

"I do."

'I'd like it better if it was lying next to me right now.'

"Next to you?"

'Well, assuming we'd just be waking up.'

"Ah. Are you facing away from me?"

'Yes," she whispered.

"Well, then next to you could work just fine."

'It would.'

He chuckled. "If I stay with you will your parents ever leave us alone? Or let us leave the house, un – what's the word – chaperoned?"

'I'm not sure.'

"Do they need to know where I'm staying if not with you?"

'Huh?'

"I need to meet them, I get that. So, going to see you and not telling them I'm in town isn't an option. I thought of it initially as a possibility. Get a room downtown somewhere, maybe you could tell them you were doing something with your friends down there. They're asking to meet me so getting it done now is best, I get that. That doesn't mean they need to know I'm at James' house or a hotel, right?"

'Honestly, if I had a choice?'

"Lay it on me."

'I'd choose no sex and seeing you as much as I could.'

"Well, check with them then. Like last month I'll have no idea when I'll know it's granted. Now because I'm not being specific as I was for your thing in April, maybe they'll just grant me something right away. I don't know. And Fourth of July, I imagine that's a pretty popular holiday for guys to want off. You know if I can get my leave in the next couple of weeks, you coming here for the Fourth would be possible."

'We'll have to see. And you'd be okay with that?'

"Okay with what?"

'What I just said. No sex.'

"A few days of that for the possibility of them letting you come with me somewhere next time or here next month. Yes."

'Thank you.'

"You really weren't sure I'd be okay with that?"

'I don't know.'

"Christ, Claire, if all I wanted was sex, no offense, but I could save myself a whole lot of emotional entanglements here. I want you; I plan on a little over three years from now being able to wake up next to you the rest of my life."

'I know.'

"Do you? Do you really?"

'Yes.'

"Besides, there's always your car."

'What would you have done if I'd said I was pregnant?'

"God, I really don't want to hypothetically talk about that, but I guess I would've been a long-distance father."

'That's all?'

"You have to finish school, that'd be doubly important then. I've thought about it. Every letter I got from you for a while after you were here I half expected it."

'Wow. Really? You thought I'd lied?'

"No, but I don't know how it works exactly beyond it's a pill and you take it. Princess, I hear stories. My recruiter, my drill instructor, other Marines, I'd have been a fool if I didn't at least think about what I'd have done if I'd gotten that letter from you in January."

She laughed. 'John, honey, I will take it every day until we decide I shouldn't. Together. I swear. It's a little trickier at home, but I imagine Mom and Dad would rather see I'm taking it then not.'

"You've never called me that before."

'I've thought it lots of times.'

He could tell she was nervous about having said it. Why, though? "That I'm your honey?"

'Yes,' she said, sounding cautious.

"And you think I could possibly act as if I'm not spoken for?"

'No, I know you do. I trust you. I wouldn't want you to meet my parents if I didn't. I just wish you had something like my ring.'

"You think of something not a ring and I'd wear it."

'But you'd wear a wedding ring?'

"Yes. Not right now, I mean, not just to wear one I wouldn't."

She laughed. 'I wouldn't do that.'

"That's good, Princess."

'I can talk to my parents' today.'

"Okay."

'I'll send you a letter Monday with their answer. I really wish you'd reconsider Fourth of July.'

"My parents and their so-called friends like the beer tent and it's too risky. Even if I didn't see them, there's a chance I'd see someone they know. I've dropped off the earth to them; I don’t want to risk it."

'I get it.'

"I know you try, but you won't ever completely. They probably think I'm dead by now, and I'd prefer it stay that way."

'Where's your friend?'

"They went out for breakfast, I think."

'They?'

"Yeah, he's married."

'Oh, I guess that explains the off-base house. I'm glad you've been making friends.'

"I'm not great at it, but I am, too."

'Well, they obviously trust you.'

"I guess. By the way, they mentioned if you come down here again you're welcome to their spare bedroom. So, you can tell your parents that if they ask where you'd stay down here if I can get up there in the next few weeks."

'I guess you do talk about me.'

"Only just about every waking moment that's not dedicated to Marines business."

'You haven't sent me any pictures lately,' she said.

He didn't always have time to send her drawings, but he had been taking tons of pictures of everything since buying a camera in December. He sent her pictures whenever he sent her letters usually there was a sketch or something in there, too, but what time he had to draw went to what he was assigned to draw.

"I've been busy, Princess. I have three rolls to develop. I'll send some."

'Drawings?'

"You get pushy sometimes," he teased.

'Actually I have a better one.'

"What?"

'A request. I have a couple pictures of us from the dance. I just got them before I came home. I was going to get copies made.'

"Okay."

'That's what I would like a drawing of.'

"Us?"

'Yes.'

"You sure about that? I've got some excellent bird pictures on these rolls."

'You think I'd rather have a drawing of a bird?'

"You can get a drawing of us anytime."

'I'd have one already if that was true.'

"Fair enough."

'You'd rather draw the birds?'

"Then draw myself, sure, but all right."

'Thank you. I'll get copies made and send them to you.'

"There'd better be something very good in the letter they're sent with if you're going to make me do that, Princess."

'Hmm. Like what?'

"Remember that cabin on a beach I want to take you to?"

'Yes.'

"Tell me what you'd like to do while there."

'That's all?'

"All?"

'That's easy is all I meant. I can do that? It's okay to send you a letter like that?'

"Yes."

'But you said…'

"At school. It's a bit different now. More freedom makes guys mess with other people's shit less."

'If you're positive.'

"You're worth any teasing anyway, but you do that and I'll draw you any fucking thing you want."

'Anything?'

"Yes."

She laughed then.

"What?"

'Nothing. I'll wait to make that request until I've had practice writing like that.'

"Hmm. Okay?"

'Put it this way, dirty letter deserves a dirty picture.'

"I told you in October I still wanted to draw you!"

'Not of me, honey.'

He paused. "Oh."

She laughed again.

"I'm not a self-portrait expert."

'I didn't say what I wanted you to draw.'

'Princess."

'I'll tell you when I'm ready. You said anything.'

"When your parents' won't open your mail?"

'Yeah, that, too.'

"All right, if I have to wait I have to wait."

'Thank you.'

"You don't have to thank me. I love you, so I don't think there's anything I wouldn't do for you."

'Besides get my name tattooed on your body, you mean? I feel the same way.'

"I know. The fact you're willing to write that type of letter says so."

'Tell your friend thank you.'

"I will."

'Should I send some money to help pay for the call?'

"No."

'You're sure? We've been talking for a long time.'

"I've got it covered."

'Okay. Next weekend?'

"Maybe sooner since I don't have to worry about waking Amy up anymore."

'That is a bonus. I love you, John.'

"You, too, Princess."

Return to Top

***Part Fifteen***
Word Count: 3,397

June 1985

"God, you're very tan," she said after their brief kiss.

"Two weeks in the field will do that to you, Princess," he said.

"That was weeks ago, though."

"What can I say? I stay tan, I guess. Plus I do things outside on weekends. You know basketball and stuff. It hasn't been real sunny, but we try to take advantage of it when it is."

He stepped out of the way of the people coming out of the gate behind him so he could kiss her properly.

"Hi," he said when they both finally had to take a breath.

"I missed you."

"Me, too," he said.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"Nothing," he said cautiously.

"John, I can see it in your eyes."

"We have two weeks to talk about it."

"Yeah, about that. Why two weeks?"

"Well, I had sixteen days to use up."

"You could have saved them for later, though. You're going to be back to zero again and won't have any when I visit you before going back to school."

He'd finally gotten her off the idea of transferring schools, thankfully. Not that he wouldn't want her close by, but this was the Marines nothing was set in stone. Not even the base he was assigned to. As it was, he'd been right in discouraging her to do it. He'd spend the next while feeling horribly guilty of her being there by herself if she had.

"Princess, I will explain it later, I promise. Let's get out of here so your dad won't worry any more than he has to. I did what I thought you'd like best. Okay?"

"Sure. You want to go to my house right away?"

"What are my other options?"

"We could get something to eat. I do have to call my dad and tell him where we're going, though."

He chuckled. "Of course you do."

"It's late," she said. "He worries about me driving down here."

"I know. Next time I'll try harder to get a flight into O'Hare so it's not so out of the way."

"No, it's fine. He just wants to know when we leave and where we're going so he has an idea of when we'll be home."

"Something to eat sounds good then."

"Pizza?"

"Sounds fantastic."

"Okay then," she said, taking hold of his hand.

She went to the bank of pay phones to call her dad while he waited for his duffle to come in at the baggage claim area. He had nothing with him of importance this time so he wasn't as worried as he had been coming up here in April with his dress uniform. There was nothing in his duffel he couldn't replace easily and fairly cheaply.

They went to a pizza place he loved, and she knew that, too. He hadn't been able to go in April with James and Samantha because it wasn't practical to get there from Midway and then back to the bus terminal downtown.

He grabbed her hand when she started to sit on the booth across from him.

"Nuh uh," he said.

"I didn't think you liked sitting next to me."

"Whatever gave you that impression?"

"I don't know. I tried to before," she shrugged.

"Different, I guess. I knew we'd go back to our room and be alone. I know I'm not going to get much time alone with you this time. So, I want you as close to me as I can get you while I can have you there."

"Oh," she said, sitting next to him.

They ordered a pitcher of Coke when the waitress approached their table almost as soon as Claire sat down. He was really dreading the conversation they'd have to have, but he couldn't put it off. If he did, she'd get mad at him for not telling him right away and he wasn't going to leave her with her mad at him on top of everything else they'd be dealing with.

"So, commenting on my being tan. You've gotten some sun, too, and I know you don't tan easily so that means you've been working at it."

"Sure, at the club. Mom and Dad have been trying to keep me busy or distracted I guess. Dad hasn't invited me to go golfing with him in eons. Mom doesn't like tennis. She's good because she played when she was younger into college, but she says she always feels as though people are watching her there. I've gone to the beaches downtown a couple of times, too."

They gave their pizza order to the waitress when she came back with their pitcher of Coke.

"And now I get to keep you busy for the next couple of weeks."

"There is that. Mom and Dad asked if you'd want to go up to our lake house while you're here."

"Whatever you want. I have nothing to do."

"Yeah, but if you wanted to spend our time downtown or something."

"Claire. I'm here to see you. If we go downtown or swim in a lake makes me no difference."

"Are you going to see your friends?"

"Tony and Kevin, probably not. I got a letter from Tony when I sent him my address in January, but I haven't heard from him since. Kevin I think sent two, but it hasn't been since March I don't think. They're not doing things I should be around anyway. You know?"

"Do you miss it?"

He shrugged, taking a sip of his Coke. "I guess a little, but being out of my house I don't need it like I did. It's not something I can even think about doing anyway, so there's no point in missing it."

"What about James?"

"School's out and he hasn't changed his hours yet at Ward's to anything but the weekends and evenings he's been working so lunch probably tomorrow or something."

"Do you need my car?"

"You could come with, you know. I have nothing to hide."

"No, but he's your friend and I'm sure you'd like to see him without his sister or me along for a change. I don't have to go along like I can't be away from you for a couple of hours or so of your two weeks here."

"All right. Well, I'll ask him in the morning, he's probably willing to pick me up."

"Okay."

"And Sheila?"

"Well, that's a little more complicated."

"Why?"

"Well, turns out Don's kind of a possessive asshole," he said.

"Huh?"

"I told you there were some … stories floating around about her."

"Yes, but he had the paternity test done and it was his."

"Yeah, true, but I'm not sure he ever stopped believing those stories could be true. I don’t think they are, but even I have to admit she does some pretty stupid things when she's as trashed as she supposedly was at the party in question. Anyway, she moved in with him because her parents for whatever reason were okay with her living at the house pregnant but they didn't want a baby in the house again or something. He's kind of a dick about letting her see anyone who's not female. She has no car and she's not working, so seeing her is kind of out of the question unless I somehow get his approval."

"With a baby? Really? What's he think she's going to do?"

He chuckled. "Make another one? I'm really not sure. He and I never really got along, I don't think he believed we were never a thing."

"What if I went with you?"

"You'd do that?"

"Well, you'd like to see her, wouldn't you?"

"Well, sure."

"And the baby?"

"I don't know much about babies, but I'm curious I guess. Yeah, I'd like to see her, too."

"That's normal. She's your oldest friend. It's okay to be curious."

"I just wasn't expecting you to be cool with it."

"I know it's not yours."

"Yeah, but the three of us have a bit of a history or whatever it is that you want to call it."

She shook her head, leaning into kiss him. "Not anymore we don't."

"I'll give you her phone number then, you can call her in case Don answers."

"She can't even talk to you?"

"I don't know! The couple of letters I sent her after she moved in with him I sent to her parents' house. He's nuts, I'm telling you. It drives me crazy she's staying, but not being here in person I can't really talk her out of it. And maybe he's not doing anything wrong, but controlling someone's every move and keeping someone away from anyone else isn't a good thing."

"Well, I don't know what to say. She chose to live with him, and you're right you can't really talk her out of it if she wants to be there. It doesn't sound as if she really has anywhere else to go either. I'm just glad you're not like that."

"It's not easy."

"How do you mean?"

He took her hand, kissing her fingertips, grazing his thumb over the opal on the ring he'd given her. "You have no idea how hard it was for me not to say 'yeah, fuck it, let's elope' when you brought it up last month."

"But that's not because you don't trust me and want to stop me from seeing my friends. People I've known all of my life."

"No, but it's very much a base need I have not to let you slip through my fingers."

"I'm not."

"I believe you, Princess, but things are about to get a little more complicated than they have been to this point."

"What do you mean?"

"It's the reason I took the full two weeks I had available to me this trip."

"Okay," she said.

"And it's the reason I absolutely did not want you to transfer colleges on a whim."

"John. What?"

"I'm getting deployed."

"What?"

"I know you heard me, Claire."

"But we aren't at war with anyone."

He chuckled. "There are always things going on. I'm going with a unit that requested me because of my Illustrator and photography skills."

"But you're not a Combat Photographer," she said.

"No, but I've been taking photographs every second I can, even in the field I pack it with me. It's a valuable tool, because sometimes drawing a picture isn't always feasible but I can snap a picture, develop it, and then draw it from the still photo later. I'm an Infantryman so I can handle myself if something happened so I'm not someone they have to worry about."

She turned away from him then, not her entire body but her face. She focused on the pitcher of pop that was closer to her than it was to him right now.

"Claire," he said.

"So, what does that mean?"

"I'm gone for six or seven months."

"Months?"

"Yes, but that also means when I come back I'll have over a half year of leave time banked. If we can arrange it to where you come see me over your spring break, I might be able to work it to where I get weekend passes instead of leave time and I'd still have leave to spare later."

"And in the meantime?"

"You can still write to me and send me your packages. I'll get them, it'll just take a little longer for me to get them than it does right now."

"When did you find out?"

"About a week ago when they granted my leave and suggested I take the full two weeks I had banked."

"Where?"

"I'm not entirely sure. Somewhere in the Mediterranean. That's all I'd be able to tell you anyway."

"Even if I was your wife?"

"Even if," he said.

Their waitress chose that moment to set their pizza down on the table. He assured her they didn't need anything else. She no doubt saw the tears in Claire's eyes and probably thought he was breaking her heart or something. Maybe he was, he didn't know.

"We knew this could be a possibility, Claire. I told you there were no guarantees I'd be anywhere for any given amount of time. That was why I did not want you switching schools. Even if I wasn't deployed, I could have been transferred to a different base."

"I know, I get it."

"There are some other things, too. Can you talk to me?"

"Other things?"

"Yes, kind of important things. But I need to know you're not mad and can actually talk to me."

"I'm not mad. It scares me, but I'm not mad."

"I survived my parents, Princess. You're not going to get rid of me that easily."

"I know, it's still scary. There's something more…dangerous about it."

"People can die on our own military bases stateside."

"Yes, I'm aware of that."

"Your dad I presume has notaries on his staff?"

"Of course," she said.

"I have papers I need you to sign."

"Papers?"

"Yeah, this is where it gets complicated or at least weird. I don't have anyone else I trust, you understand that, right?"

"Yes, I know."

"And while I've made some friends they aren't people I trust and I certainly wouldn't trust their wives."

"Okay."

"I'm going to make you a joint account holder on my checking account."

"John."

"I don't have many bills. I have no house, car, or anything like that, but I have a couple of credit cards I'll need you to make payments on."

"Wow, okay."

"And, well, if something happens to me you need to have access to it. I'm also signing Power of Attorney over to you, which means you can do those things for me. Pay my bills, file my taxes if I were to be gone that long. But it's also for my health. If something happens to me you'd be in charge of the care I receive, whether they keep me on life support and stuff. My service and burial if that was necessary."

"John."

"Claire, we have two weeks. I have no one else. If we don't talk about this and you don't sign these things, my parents would get the call. Do you understand that? Everything I've worked toward would be for nothing. They'd have access to my money. Forget my money, I don't really give a shit about that because it's not like I have a lot. They'd have access to my body if I was in a coma or something. You're already the beneficiary on my life insurance policy so I don't have to change anything there."

"What? Jesus, you didn't tell me that."

"Well, I don't plan on dying, but you need to know these things. I don't have any belongings except a boom box I bought a couple of months ago and a few other things. Nothing of any consequence or that's worth anything, but anything that's left in my barracks you'd get and could do whatever you want with."

"Don't talk like that."

"I have to! I don't like thinking it, but I have to. Really, you just need to do the signatures for my bank account so they have your signature on file and your name obviously. And the power of attorney, but I brought everything so you'll have copies. If you want your dad to look them over."

"No, that's not necessary, I just don't like thinking about it either. And I can be your power of attorney?"

"I was told yes. It could get muddy if my parents caught wind of anything and contested, but as long as you and the Marines do your jobs and keep them in the dark it shouldn't be an issue."

"They'd take me to court, wouldn't they?"

"Yes, but if I die, Claire, you take whatever money's in my account and put it somewhere. Give it to your dad or your brother to hold onto so my parents can't get it. I don't have a lot, but it's enough I don't want them getting their hands on it. And six or seven months away with nothing to spend money on I'll have even more."

She rested her forehead against his shoulder.

"So, a couple of credit cards? That's what you're talking about me being responsible for while you're gone?"

"That's it, and there's hardly anything on either of them. I've just been paying like forty dollars a month just to establish the credit. I'll call tomorrow and change the address for the bills to your address once we are sure your parents are okay with forwarding them to you once I go back. I won't be able to put in another change of address once I'm gone. I know it's a lot, but you really are the only person I trust. Most importantly when it comes to my parents because you're one of only a handful who know the situation completely."

"You wouldn't want me to tell them if you died?"

"No. If you wanted to send them a copy of my obituary afterward or something, if that would make you feel better somehow, I wouldn't blame you for doing that. I don't want them anywhere near me, though, if I'm in a coma and I've stated that plainly in these documents."

"All right."

"If Vernon could see me now worrying about my bills getting paid and powers of attorney."

She laughed softly, kissing his cheek. "He'd have a heart attack."

"Yeah, well, I told James back in October I didn't want to be responsible for that guy's bad health on my shoulders. I didn't want it then, I don't want it now but it is kind of ironic that I'm sitting here having this conversation with you."

"Why?"

"You had to think, in the back of your mind, that Vernon was right."

She bit her lip, nodding a little. "You had a choice and you made it. It doesn’t matter how you got where you are today, John, it just matters that you're taking it seriously and are good at it."

"How do you know I'm good at it?"

"Because I hear the pride in your voice and it comes through in your letters when you talk about a drawing you did getting selected or praised. You wouldn't be talking about a career a year into this if you didn't like what you were doing."

"Yeah, well, talk to me again about the career thing in eight months."

"Could you get deployed again?"

"Anything's possible, probably. I don't know. I wouldn't right away, though, I don't think barring a war. Then, well, of course, I would be."

"Well, that's good at least."

"Are you okay?"

"Okay," she shrugged. "Not really. I haven't gone seven months without talking to you ever. Do you realize that? The longest was close, I guess, after we stopped seeing each other after detention but that was totally different."

"I know. We'll get through it. One thing, though."

"Yes?"

"Mail gets gone through and read."

"What?"

"All mail gets gone through to be sure there's nothing hazardous or threatening in it. I can't say that when they see it's just a letter that they read every line of text, but I think you should assume that's the case."

"All right."

"I have an address, but I'm not positive of its accuracy. They gave me a number family can call to verify it once we're gone. I've included the name of the unit I'll be with and the number you should be able to call to get a mailing address for me if you don't want to wait until you get a letter from me. Be sure you reference the unit number for anything to do with me."

"Okay." She slid her hand to his, lacing her fingers through his and gripping his hand tightly. "Now I kind of wish we hadn't told my parents you were coming to town."

He chuckled softly. "It's better to get it out of the way, Princess. We shouldn't start lying to them either as tempting as it was. Besides, it's two weeks, surely we'll get some time in there alone."

"Maybe we can go swimming late or something."

"Hmm, in the water?"

"It's a thought."

"I like your way of thinking. If you have any other ideas, be sure to share them with me."

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***Part Sixteen***
Word Count: 2,741

August 1985

Dear Claire,

So, I told you that I’d write to let you know that I arrived safe and sound. I have. It occurred to me after I left from base and had time to really think on all of this that I should apologize to you. I’m sorry that I laid all of this on you. I honestly hadn’t given much thought to things like my bills needing to get paid in the event I was ever gone. I know it might seem like too much, but I appreciate everything you’re doing for me. It’s a lot to ask of you, but I wouldn’t if I didn’t trust you. And, yeah, maybe I should work on trusting more than just you, but I guess it’s one of those things built into the way I am. I just don’t do that easily. It’s hard for me to trust someone who doesn’t know everything about me as you do and I don’t lay my past on people. Guys suspect, of course, but other than one or two it’s not mentioned. Their wives or girlfriends certainly don’t know. On the other hand, a positive to that, is I’ve learned to stop giving a shit what anyone thinks of what they see when I’m without a shirt on or wearing shorts.

I thought long and hard on who I would have asked if I didn’t have you, and the only person I could come up with was James’ mom. Sad that I trust his mom over my own, I know, but I really don’t know who else I would have asked. All I know is if I didn’t have you I probably wouldn’t have the friends I do have on-base because you’re the one who made me realize that friendships can be kind of nice.

If I didn’t mention it while there (I think I did), thank you again for going to Sheila’s with me. Regardless of how in the past you claim the misunderstanding to be, it was still real nice of you to do. I was glad to see her and hear that she’s okay. I’m still not entirely sure I trust Don, but I can only hope knowing what I went through she wouldn’t lie to me. If you think about it when you’re home over breaks, stop by and see her and the baby once in a while just so I can be assured she’s really okay. If you can’t, or don’t want to, I get that. She’s not your concern, and really shouldn’t be mine. I just know somewhere along the line my parents were like they were, you know? Young with a baby they probably thought they were going to love.

Seeing little Ericka got me thinking. Do you want kids? I mean, not like tomorrow (at least I hope not tomorrow). I’ve never asked and I realize we’d need to be married first. It just got me thinking. You held her and you had this look in your eye. I’ve been told it’s normal, women like babies. It sort of gave me a momentary bout of panic, though. Do you have doubts about having them with me because of how I was raised? I wouldn’t blame you.

Anyway, I’m going to sign off now before I get even deeper than I meant to. I had nothing but time on my way here to think. Thinking about you was much better than thinking about the big unknown that I was flying over here for. I’ll get this in the box so I can send it on its way to you. I was going to wait to send it (what’s in the box with the letter not the letter itself) until I’d been here a couple of weeks, but I was told there may not be another chance for a while. We’re kind of on twenty-four hour standby. So, I’m sending it now. I’m sorry if it seems odd I’m sending something to you when I just got here, but I saw these and thought of you. And, well, the next time I see you if you’d like to wear the wearable item and little else I wouldn’t complain.

Oh, and for this month only, would you please not look at the credit card statement when it comes? Just pay it. If you do look, don’t get mad at me, I took some cash out so I’d have some money in addition to these purchases. Still, it sort of takes the surprise out of buying you something when you’re the one sending the check into the company later and have an idea of how much cash I had on me.

Love,
John

P.S. In case I don’t get another letter off to you, drive safe when you go back to school. And try not to let that sorority house living interfere with your studying. I’m counting on you to keep making that Dean’s List so you can teach all the future kids (ours included one day) of the world.

Claire’d been more than a little surprised to have a box waiting for her when she got home from her day at the club with her mom and friends. Everyone was doing what they could to distract her from the fact John had left and she wouldn’t see him let alone even talk to him again for months.

She’d known it was a possibility, but she never dreamed he’d be shipped off somewhere when there was no war going on. He mentioned things always going on and that made her wonder how much danger he was in.

Her dad hadn’t been too pleased that Claire was now responsible for the things John had put her in charge of. He thought it was too much pressure when she had school and him being gone to worry about. Really, though, what difference would it make if she was responsible for paying a couple of credit cards or not? She’d still worry and probably get distracted from school to some degree. At least this way she felt as though she was helping him beyond writing him letters she wouldn’t even be sure he got. He’d agreed eventually, realizing she was an adult and she just would have gone somewhere else to get another notary to witness her signing the documents.

She set the letter down and looked inside the box. It showed how much she missed him already that she chose to read his letter before even looking at anything else. They weren’t wrapped or anything beyond some tissue paper. There was a beautiful (absolutely, positively gorgeous) silk scarf that was the most amazing blend of emerald green and purple she’d ever seen.

The other thing obviously wasn’t meant to wear, but it was something she could put on her wall at school. It was a decorative plate that looked like it might have been hand-painted.

Both things probably cost him a small fortune never mind how much it cost him to mail the box to her, and was likely why he was asking her not to look at the statement.

He’d been gone over a month now, from visiting her anyway. She wasn’t entirely positive when he left for wherever in the Mediterranean he was. He’d told her when he left Chicago that he likely wouldn’t be able to call her until he was back. She’d expected it, but was still disappointed she didn’t get a good-bye phone call. Judging by the postmark on the box, he’d mailed it over two weeks ago. She had no idea if regular letters took that long to get there, she hoped not.

At least she had getting ready to go back to school to distract her. She was going to live in her sorority house this year. Her dad wasn’t completely thrilled she was going that route, but she’d decided dorm life wasn’t for her. She suspected her parents weren’t in favor of the idea because it meant John would have somewhere to stay when he visited her that didn’t require them staying at a hotel for privacy.

They hadn’t gotten a whole lot of time together when he’d been here. She’d expected that. Her parents had to at least suspect they were having sex, though neither ever said anything to her. She wondered about that sometimes, the fact that neither of them had to this point talked to her about what she might be doing to not get pregnant. They didn’t want to think about it. She got that, but if she ever had a daughter in this same situation she’d be sure.

She pulled out her stationery and a pen, sitting on her bed to write him another letter. She’d written him a few already. She wrote him a little bit every day and then every three or four days mailed a letter. Some days she wrote more than others, but she always wrote something, even if it was just to tell him she was thinking about him at that moment. She read his letter again before starting on hers to him.

Dear John,

Thank you so much for the scarf and the plate. They’re both beautiful, the scarf especially. I’m sure you knew that I’d love them both, though. For someone who claims not to have good taste, you did exceptionally well. (And, yes, I think I can arrange to wear it when you get back. Wherever you want me to wear it even.)

I know you won’t be able to tell me where you are, but I hope wherever you are it’s nice. Both weather and people. I wonder about that, you must be at a base or something. You said the Marines are kind of part of the Navy. I know that’s not how you explained it, but that’s what I got out of your explanation anyway. So, maybe a Naval base? I shouldn’t try to figure it out, but I hate not knowing. Of course wherever you are I hope it’s nice, too, from a safety standpoint, but I try not to think about the fact you may not be safe. It makes me feel better just assuming you’re over “there” drawing something or someone important with absolutely no possibility of encountering any danger.

Mom and I played tennis this morning. I did all right, but she won as she usually does. I never really paid attention to how good she was until this summer when I’ve needed to keep myself busy so I’ve taken her up on her offer to play. She’s no Martina Navratilova or anything, but she’s really very good for someone who doesn’t like to play in front of people. It makes me wonder if she hadn’t had me and Christopher if she’d have been able to play for money.

I had a dream last night about you. I know I shouldn’t say anything specific, so I’ll just say it was about our last night at the lake house. You can imagine the rest. If not, well, I’m writing down the details of the dream for you so you can read it later. It was a very nice dream, except I woke up missing you. Then, I do that anyway, but I hated the fact you weren’t here. Even your time on leave here, waking up to you just at the house not even in bed with me was nice.

Dad says I’ll be back at school soon and things will get better. He’s right, I know that. I can’t wait to get my room set up. I liked Amy, don’t get me wrong, but I’ll have my own room! I just wasn’t made to share such a small space with someone for long periods of time. It’ll be so nice not to worry that I’m studying too late and keeping someone awake. Or that I can’t talk to you the way I’d like to because she’s there when you call.

My brother is meeting us at the club for dinner tonight. I actually only came home to change and get ready for dinner when I saw the box waiting for me. It was a nice thing to come home to! I’ll wear the scarf tonight. I have a dress that it’ll look absolutely divine with. Thank you again! I hate that you spend money on me, but you already know that. (And okay, I don’t hate it, but I hate that you seem to think you need to. You don’t.)

You asked about kids. I almost didn’t answer because I wasn’t sure you really want an answer. I know my life wasn’t the same as yours, but I have doubts, too. Neither of us had the best examples, I guess. I always said in high school when their fighting and games got real bad that I’d never have them. That was before I fell in love with you, though. So, yes, I would have them, but only if you wanted them, too. I wouldn’t want you to have one because I want to or you think I want to so we should. I think kids should be wanted from the beginning or it’s kind of a screwy way to even begin. (Yes, I know accidents happen like with Sheila so please don’t think I’m saying people like her are bad parents. I’m not, just that it has to help the situation wanting them from the part of trying for one.) In a few years when I’m done with school and everything, and we’ve actually had time to spend together for a while yes, I would.

Is that the answer you wanted? I’m not sure. Maybe you were hoping I’d say no. As to doubts about you being a father. I have none. You told me how you handled the situation with James’ sister. If you had any part of your parents in you, you wouldn’t have been so calm about it. You also agreed to let me handle the egging of my car situation even though we both suspect it was her. (And, no, nothing else has happened since that night, so maybe she got over her frustrations and has moved onto someone who isn’t my boyfriend.)

Anyway, I’ll write more tomorrow as I always do.

Love always,
Claire

It was sort of ironic that she got something from him today, because she had been shopping this week for things to send him. She couldn’t send him cookies like she had in the past, but she remembered the things he talked about liking best and she was working on putting a box together for him. She remembered, too, the practical things like eye drops, Chap Stick, socks, and boot laces she’d sent him that at the time seemed super silly but he’d commented more than once on their usefulness and that useful things weren’t bad.

She had no idea when he’d get the box. She hated that part the most. All of the edible things she bought like nuts and Pop-Tarts were good forever, so she wasn’t worried about them spoiling or expiring, but she just hated sending him something not knowing if he even got it.

She folded the letter up, putting it in the envelope with the other letters from the past couple of days and stashed it in her nightstand drawer. She didn’t think her mom searched her room, but Claire wouldn’t put it past her. Though what her mom hoped to find, Claire wasn’t sure. She hadn’t smoked pot since high school. She didn’t really drink much. She certainly wouldn’t keep either thing in her room if she even had it on her. She kept her birth control pills in her purse, which her mom seemed to respect the privacy of. Claire never suspected her mom of searching through that. An unspoken rule between women, she supposed. You just didn’t touch another woman’s purse, no matter what.

Five more months. She could do this. Her brother had asked her if she wanted to do it. Claire hadn’t even thought of the possibility of ending things with John. His getting deployed wasn’t his fault, certainly not something to break up with him about. It would be a long five months (she was hoping it was five and not six, but she’d heard him say six or seven months), but it wasn’t anything hundreds of other women hadn’t gone through.

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***Part Seventeen***
Word Count: 1,612

December 1985

Princess,

I know it’s been a while. I’m sorry for that. While I can’t say where I am, I can say I’m okay. Just busy. Remember those callouses on top of callouses I worried you’d think were too rough back in December? That seems ages ago now, doesn’t it? Anyway, I’ve been doing so many drawings that I’ve developed new ones from the pencils I use. Who knew?

I hope sorority house living is all that you were expecting it to be. I also hope that you’re staying out of trouble while living there. While I don’t worry about you exactly I do worry about others around you causing you to get in trouble.

Thank you for your packages. I’m sorry I didn’t get a letter off after the first one. I started one, but by the time I got to get back to it days later things happened that I couldn’t write you about anyway so I just sort of decided to start over. I never got to do that. There just aren’t enough hours in the day it seems.

I love you, I hope you believe that and know that I think if we get through this we’ll be able to manage getting through most anything. I may not write you every day like you do to me (and I appreciate very much by the way) but I think about you more than I should probably admit to.

Proof I’ve thought of you more than I probably should is enclosed. I miss hearing your voice. I miss hearing you tell me about your week of classes, even if I didn’t understand half of the shit you were saying. There’s a reason I’m a Marine and not a college student. This stuff doesn’t go over my head. I hope you like it and it makes a good Christmas present. One of these years I’ll actually be with you on Christmas to be able to give you something nicer than the last couple.

Love,
John

She unfolded the enclosed sheet of paper carefully. She knew without having to see it that it was a drawing.

“Wow, that’s amazing,” her friend Ashley said.

“Thank you,” Claire said. She couldn’t agree more as she looked at it. She was standing on some rocks overlooking a body of water. She wasn’t naked, but she wasn’t wearing much either. He’d even captured her hair being swept up by the wind vividly. It wasn’t tasteless, certainly no worse than a swimsuit. She was wearing the scarf he’d bought and she noticed he’d even drawn the ring he’d given her. It was on her right hand, though, and she wondered why he’d drawn it that way.

“Why’d he go into the Marines again?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” Claire asked.

“Ability like that he could do anything he wanted,” Ashley said.

“He is doing what he wants to do,” Claire said defensively. So many people didn’t get that. They didn’t know John had been presented with two options, picking the Marines over jail. They didn’t need to know that because it wasn’t important. He seemed to have found what he was supposed to be doing. It took a push to get him there, but who could argue with someone serving their country and wanting to do that?

“Gotcha. Just usually there’s a reason it seems people go in anymore.”

“I guess I don’t know anyone else to compare or question it. I know he likes it.”

“Is that your bathing suit?”

Claire laughed. “No, I’m not nearly that bold.”

“You may want to consider being that bold if that’s how he sees you.”

“It is nice,” Claire said.

“You going to take that one home, too?”

“At least to see if Mom can get a frame for it. I might bring it back.”

“How much longer?”

“Until he’s back? Two months.”

“That’s not bad.”

“It’s better than the seven we started out with.”

“It’s a good thing you’re doing.”

“What?”

“Sticking with him. Not everyone would or could. I saw you with him at the end of year banquet in the spring. You seem happy together.”

“Of course I’m happy with him.”

“Again, not everyone could do it. Going months in between visits would be hard.”

“It’s not easy, and I won’t deny I thought real hard about switching schools this year.”

“You didn’t though.”

“No, he convinced me not to.”

She laughed. “It would’ve been a real long seven months at a new school so far from home.”

“I know, at least he’s going back to that base. He may not stay there, though, which was his original reason for telling me not to.”

“Well, I’ll let you write your response to him. I know you’re dying to.”

“Thanks,” Claire said.

“Sure, see you later.”

Claire couldn’t help but stare at the drawing. It was beautiful. The thing that struck her, though, was how beautiful he drew her being. She saw herself as pretty enough, but not like this. The woman in this picture. Well, it made her think of Helen of Troy and the story about her. She didn’t think she was Helen, but it made her wonder though, if he was in Greece and the scenery rubbed off or influenced his drawing of her.

She set the drawing aside so she could write to him. She still wrote every day, mailing them a couple of times a week. She had no idea how quickly he got them. He hadn’t written her real often and his letters weren’t real long. That disappointed her sometimes because it was the only communication she had with him. She’d been spoiled she realized with their fairly regular and sometimes lengthy telephone calls.

She’d do anything to hear his voice now. If there was some way to arrange it, she would.

There’d been no activity on his credit cards. She only noticed because the balance was always around the same amount as the payment the previous month had brought it down to. She wasn’t sure if he didn’t need the cards or what. Maybe he hadn’t taken them with, just withdrawing a cash advance and leaving them behind.

John,

You always know when I need you it seems. Your drawing was not just gorgeous but well timed. I had kind of a bad day in one of my classes. Nothing bad, I just didn’t perform on a test as well as I wanted to. It wasn’t from lack of studying or anything, I just misread a couple of questions. It’s only one grade, I know, but it was the last test before finals.

I’ll be home for a few days at Christmas. I’m not going to stay for the whole break this year, though. I just get bored there or feel like my parents try too hard to keep my mind off of you being gone. I know it doesn’t matter to you because I’d get your letter whether you wrote me here or there.

I miss you. That’s been on my mind lately, too, I suppose with Christmas coming up and knowing that it was a year ago that I flew down to see you. It was a great way to spend New Year’s. The six or seven months are almost done. I can only hope you’ll stay put for a while now even if I can’t see you for a while just to talk to you is better than nothing. I miss hearing your voice, I like it. I don’t know if I ever told you that, but it’s nice to listen to you.

Classes are fine other than the test today. I have all A’s and I think one B, maybe that one is a low A. I’m not sure, it depends on how he grades things.

You didn’t tell me when I should stop writing you, and I imagine anything I sent to you there would be forwarded to you back here. I’ll stop after next week, though, just to be safe. I wish I knew if it was going to be closer to six or seven months.

That cruise ship thing was pretty scary. Were you near that? I know, I know you can’t tell me but you’re in the Mediterranean. I think I heard there was Naval personnel involved, so that made me wonder about you. I hope you’re okay anyway.

I’ll write more tomorrow.

Love,
Claire

She had three letters in the envelope set to go to him with the one she just wrote so she sealed the envelope up and got it ready to mail out. She was looking forward to going home even if it was only for a few days. Her mom was a little miffed that she wasn’t staying the full break, but Claire just wasn’t ready to be at home more than necessary until summer. She was seriously reconsidering his suggestion of her moving down closer to him and getting a job down there for the summer. After months of not seeing him she would like seeing as much of him as she could. Her parents wouldn’t be thrilled, but she could deal with them she supposed if she decided to do that.

She set the drawing in one of her drawers so it wouldn’t get smooshed or anything. Her mom would like it, she’d commented more than once on how talented John seemed. She’d decided her parents’ were never going to love him, they knew who his parents were and everything. They liked him all right, though, and so long as he continued treating her well they would continue to like him she guessed.

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***Part Eighteen***
Word Count: 2,291

February 14, 1986

Claire sat in one of the chairs in the common room, feeling really depressed. It was Valentine’s Day and there had been no card, not even a letter from John. It was an incredibly stupid, selfish thing to get upset about but she just missed him and was hoping for something normal to come out of their time apart.

“What’s the matter?” Ashley asked.

“Nothing,” Claire said.

“Hmm, it doesn’t seem like nothing.”

“It’s not important. I’m just tired."

“Why don’t you go on up and take a nap then?” Betsy said from the other side of the room.

“Because my room is empty,” Claire said.

“Yeah, but you’ll feel better after a nap. At least go on up and change out of your clothes. Put something worthy of a Friday night on.”

“I suppose,” Claire said. She’d been close to tears all day for absolutely no good reason. It was a stupid holiday. She knew that. She knew no letter or card didn’t mean anything with their situation as it was currently, but God it hurt just the same.

She wasn’t the only one without a date for the night so they were having a singles party. Claire wasn’t single, but she was without a date so she’d attend. No couples were allowed. She wasn’t sure how long that would last, but it was a fun concept to try anyway. They even bought punch that wasn’t red to avoid anything tying into Valentine’s Day.

She grabbed her backpack, wondering at the odd looks between Ashley and Betsy. Was her hair totally messed up or something? Or were they just feeling sorry for her? She wouldn’t blame them because she’d been feeling pretty sorry for herself lately. Seven months was just entirely too long. It wasn’t his fault, she knew that but God it was awful not to at the very least hear his voice.

“Hey Claire,” Laura said when she passed her in the hall on the way to her room.

“Hey Laura.”

“You coming to the party tonight?”

“I’m planning on it, yeah,” she said. Unfortunately.

“Well, I’ll see you whenever you get downstairs then.”

Again with the odd look.

Had she done something wrong? Had their house mother written her up for something? She didn’t think so. She always tried to be responsible about her duties.

She opened her door, setting her backpack on the floor next to her desk before flipping on the light. And then she screamed. She thought she heard a laugh or two coming from down the hall so she knew she wasn’t dreaming or hallucinating.

“Not exactly the greeting I was going for, but I guess I know I have your attention.”

“How?”

She had no idea what she was trying to ask. Tears were spilling out of her eyes so uncontrollably she didn’t even try to stop them or bother worrying about her mascara running everywhere in front of him.

“Hmm, maybe we should start with simple things. Like hello. I missed you. Happy Valentine’s Day. I love you. Do any of those things jog your memory?”

She closed her eyes, absolutely certain she was seeing things. He was here. In her room. He’d somehow managed to get here without her knowing. How was that possible?

“Why?”

He closed the distance between them, closing the door behind her.

“Come here,” he said, taking her into his arms. She went willingly because God there was absolutely nowhere she’d rather be at this very moment than in them. He brushed his thumbs along her cheeks, swiping the tears away before lowering his mouth to hers.

She gasped before groaning into his mouth as their tongues met. She still couldn’t stop the tears from falling. It seemed she had seven months’ worth coming out all at once because more than once she’d wanted to cry from the absolute frustration of little contact with him.

“Oh God, you’re wearing a skirt, too,” he whispered against her jaw as he worked the fastenings on his pants. She helped him, too, letting him pick her up when he was ready before wrapping her legs around his waist.

“Fuck,” he murmured as he sank into her.

“Oh God, yes, please,” she said.

“Yes?”

“Oh God, John, that is exactly what I need right now. Just that. Like that,” she said as he pulled out and thrust into her deeply and fast.

He gave her what she wanted. She didn’t guess he minded her saying that was what she wanted. She had no idea when he had to leave, but she knew he’d make it up to her at the very least in a while. She tried her best to meet his thrusts, but it wasn’t as easy with her around him like this. His mouth was at her neck, sucking hard enough she was wondering if she’d have a bruise on top of the hickey. She slid her hand between their bodies, bringing it to her nub since his hands were kind of full and she could tell he wasn’t going to last very long. She didn’t want to last long either.

He held onto her after they’d finished, hands supporting her easily until she moved to unwrap her legs from around his waist. She kicked her panties out from around her ankle. She hadn’t even realized he’d gotten one leg out of them. He picked her up then, carrying her to her bed. A bed that she was very grateful now that she’d made this morning. She didn’t always. He set her down before joining her.

“Are we better now?” he asked.

She nodded, still unsure she was going to be able to string a coherent sentence together.

“You thought I forgot, didn’t you?”

She nodded again.

“I’m sorry, Princess. I thought this would be a much, much better gift than a silly card. Am I wrong?”

She shook her head, reaching for him then. She ran her hand along his jaw, feeling the stubble there that was way beyond what she was used to with him. No doubt she’d have some chaffing on her neck where he’d been leaving her the hickey.

“Yeah, I’ve been up for almost seventy-two hours now trying to get here by tonight so I haven’t had time to shave. Don’t tell my boss, okay?”

“I won’t,” she said.

“Thank you.”

“Three days?”

“Uh huh,” he said, nipping at her fingertip when she finally got around to touching his mouth.

“You must be exhausted.”

“I’m oddly rather awake at the moment. Give me a few minutes and I’ll probably crash and burn. If you’d taken much longer to get back here I probably would’ve fallen asleep.”

“I’m sorry.”

“No reason to apologize, Princess. If you’d known you would’ve been here sooner. That defeats the purpose of a surprise, though, letting you know in advance.”

“How did you get here?”

“Is that what you were trying to ask me before?” he said with a chuckle, grazing her cheek with his.

“Yes,” she said.

“Flew to Indianapolis. After that, I wasn’t sure what I’d do a bus or cab if necessary. I was going to walk here if I had to, but I met a nice woman on the plane who was coming here to visit her son. She gave me a ride.”

“Really?”

“Yes. She seemed to think it was fate or something I got seated next to her.”

“Maybe it was.”

“Maybe so. She said she hoped we have a nice Valentine’s Day.”

“Did she?”

“Uh huh. She asked me if I was going to take you to dinner somewhere.”

“Are you?”

“Can I get a nap first?”

“You can have as long as you need under one condition.”

“What’s that, Princess?”

“I get to take one with you.”

“I suppose if you have to you have to,” he said, kissing the top of her head.

“This isn’t what I pictured,” she said softly a few minutes later.

“Huh?” he asked. He was close to being asleep. She could tell by his breathing that he wasn’t far.

“You coming home.”

“What did you picture, Princess?”

“Certainly not having sex against my door.”

He snorted. “Well, it was the best I could do given how uncontrollable my urges are around you. But, hey, you want to climb on and do the work I think you’d find the necessary parts of me cooperative again.”

She turned onto her side then, sliding her hand along his chest. He had taken off his shirt, leaving his t-shirt on with his utility uniform pants still on.

“I kind of like this better.”

“Hmm. Those seven months haven’t turned you frigid have they?”

“No, did I just seem frigid to you? I just missed you.”

“I missed you, too, sweetheart.”

“Laying here with you is the best Valentine I could have gotten.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes.”

“I guess I won’t give you what I got you then. I can’t take it back, but I can find something to do with it I’m sure.”

“Funny man.”

“That’s me.”

“I love you, John. I’m glad you’re safe.”

“Me, too, Princess, me, too. Give me a couple hours to catch some shut eye and I’m all yours. I heard something about a party.”

“We can’t go.”

“Why not? I didn’t piss anyone off in the hour I was sitting in your room. They actually all thought it was pretty cool, were willing to keep you in the dark about my being here.”

“They did well. I thought I’d done something wrong the way they were all looking at me.”

“They seem nice, the couple I met anyway that I remembered from your thing last year.”

She laughed, tracing a circular pattern over his shirt at his chest. “The party is for non-couples that’s why we can’t go, and I don’t think I could pull off not being part of a couple with you tonight.”

“Oh, well, that’s definitely not us. You were going to go to a non-couples party?”

“Well, the other half of my coupling wasn’t here.”

“As long as that was the only reason.”

“It was.”

“That’s good because I’m too tired to beat anyone with a stick to get them away from you.”

“You should talk, meeting women on airplanes.”

“One old enough to be my mother.”

“You never know.”

“Do me a favor, Princess?”

“Anything.”

“Anything? Really? Wow.”

“Yes, anything. Name it.”

“Take my boots off for me?”

“Is that all?”

“Well, if you wanted to remove some of your items sleeping next to you that way would be nice.”

“I won’t keep you awake?”

“Honestly, I think I’m too tired right now, but when I wake up I will do much better than take you like I have no manners at all.”

“I don’t recall hearing me complain about it.”

“No, in fact I seem to recall you asking me to do something very naughty, Princess.”

“Shut up.”

“I will not. I didn’t realize such thoughts as telling me to fuck you occurred to you.”

“You do too. I’ve said it to you on the phone.”

“Mm, it’s different somehow.”

“Different?”

“Sure, our conversations over the phone aren’t real, kind of I don’t know fantasies I guess.”

“Should I take it back?”

He laughed at that. “Not on your life. I’d absolutely love to hear that again.”

“Hopefully not after you’re gone another seven months.”

“If that’s what it takes…”

“Don’t you dare go volunteering to be deployed somewhere.”

She slid to the end of the bed, working the laces on his boots before taking them off. She dropped them on the floor next to her bed.

“How long are you here for?”

“Until Sunday morning.”

She sighed softly.

“I’m sorry. It’s the best I could do.”

“It’s better than I imagined so I’m not complaining. It’s just not long enough.”

“It never is with you, Princess.”

She slid his socks off, too, draping them over the tops of his boots. She stood from the bed then, shedding the rest of her clothes before joining him.

“How many of your friends here are going to believe that we’re just sleeping in here?”

“You mean the ones that were hopefully not walking past my door a few minutes ago?”

“We were pretty quiet I thought.”

“None,” she said, drawing the blanket around them.

“I will make it up to you later. I promise. And then some.”

“You’re fine.”

“Don’t want my girl left feeling needy or anything.”

“You’re here. That satisfies every need I could have right now.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes.”

“I have one you could take care of.”

“I already took your boots and socks off. What more do you need?”

He smiled, shaking his head against her pillow. “Snippy. I see, I come back to snippiness.”

“What do you want, John?”

“I have everything I want right here, Princess. But I would very much like a kiss.”

“Another one?”

“One where you’re actually aware of kissing me? Yeah, I’d like that a lot.”

She leaned up to kiss him, parting her lips enough their tongues could meet for a minute or two before she broke the kiss. She found his jaw and neck next then his ear.

“I love you,” she whispered before kissing his earlobe.

“I love you, too, Claire.”

She slid her hand under his shirt a little, touching his stomach as she settled against him.

“Feels nice,” he murmured and she knew that was probably the last coherent thing she was going to get out of him for a while. Three days he’d been awake trying to get to her by tonight. She had no idea where he started from, but he’d ended up here and that was all that mattered to her.

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***Chapter Nineteen***
Word Count: 1,880

“Are you going to wake up with me, Princess?”

“Huh?”

He chuckled. “You seemed interested in dinner when I mentioned it earlier.”

“I am.”

He laughed, running a fingertip along her arm that hadn’t moved from his stomach for about two hours now.

“What’s so funny?” she asked.

“Oh, just trying to figure out which of us has been up for three days? And which of us has a Valentine’s Day gift to open she doesn’t seem all that interested in? And that surprises me. Where’s that materialistic girl I met?”

“I’m interested.”

“That got your attention.”

“I sleep better when you’re accounted for I guess, so I haven’t slept real well for months.”

“Yeah? Funny, I sleep better knowing you’re tucked safely and snuggly in bed each night. That means me and my unit have done our jobs.”

“In your bed would be nicer.”

“You’d like that?”

“What? Being in your bed every night? You know I would.”

“Even if it meant you’d be away from your folks and friends, on your own if I was deployed again?”

She looked at him, sliding her hand along his stomach. “It wouldn’t be easy, but at least you’d come home to me. And I could visit them while you’re gone.”

“True.”

“You’re not getting sent away again, are you?”

“Not immediately, but six months from now…”

“Anything could happen. I know,” she said softly.

“Yeah, it’s unlikely, though.”

“Good.”

He sat up from the bed then. He made his way to his bag across her room. He found the small bag in there for her and turned on the lamp at her desk he’d seen while waiting for her. God, he thought she was never going to come back to her room. He’d gotten awful close to dozing off more than once. He sat on the edge of the bed.

“You awake?”

“Yes,” she said.

“So, these are for you. Proof I didn’t forget,” he said. “I’m sorry the rose isn’t real, but I didn’t really have time to be choosy or overly selective.”

She sat up then, clutching the blanket around her. “I mailed yours,” she said.

“I figured. It’s all right. I’ll get it eventually, and it’s not quite as important to me as it is to you.”

She set the rose on her lap after running her fingertip along the petals. It was a deep red velvet and “it’s very pretty”.

“I’m glad you think so.”

She read his card then.

“That’s pretty sentimental for you,” she said.

“Yeah, funny how being away from you for months made me feel that way and want to find a card that said what I was feeling.”

She leaned in and kissed him.

“Thank you.”

“Oh, I’m not done yet.”

“John. You’re home. That’s present enough. Really.”

“No, it’s not. I mean, I’m glad you think so. Did I tell you I made Lance Corporal while I was gone?”

“No, you didn’t in all your lengthy letters you failed to mention that.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t really know what to say beyond just letting you know I was all right and thinking about you.”

“You did fine. Anyway, that’s great.”

“It meant a bit of a pay increase.”

“I hope so.”

“That means I had a little more to spend on something for you.”

“John,” she said.

“I had over six months to think on things. What I’d do when I got back. First thing was get here, of course.”

“Second thing?”

“Ask you to marry me.”

“What?” she asked.

“You heard me,” he said. He pulled the little box out of the bag the other things had been in. “But if you were wanting the exact phrasing I can do that. Claire Marie Standish will you marry me?”

She watched as he slid the ring onto her left ring finger. It was a little snug going over her knuckle but once over it fit just fine.

“I think you’re supposed to answer me.”

“I’m sorry. You surprised me. Yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes, I’ll marry you.”

“Thank God.”

“You actually thought I’d say no?”

“After the last seven months, I wasn’t completely sure if you’d decide it was too much.”

“It didn’t change how I feel about you.”

“I’m a very lucky guy and very glad.”

“Not everyone’s so lucky, I guess?”

“No.”

“I’m sorry for them, but those women weren’t nice. Or didn’t love them to begin with.”

“Some people find it harder than they thought. The distance. Then throw in a deployment or two.”

“It is incredibly hard. There hasn’t been a day that I don’t worry about you, wonder if you’re okay and how you are, whether you have food and water. It was worse the past few months, but I’m so proud of what you’re doing.”

“Thank you,” he said, kissing her. “So, dinner to celebrate and then maybe a private celebration later?”

“I like the sound of that.”

“You know what I’d like the sound of?”

“What?”

“That naughty thing you said you wanted me to do to you earlier?”

“Yes?”

“I want to hear you say that to me for the next,” he glanced at her clock. “Not quite thirty-six hours over and over again.”

“Oh, God, John, I couldn’t even actually say it once. Why?”

“Seven months, Princess. None of our phone calls, no letters with anything remotely personal in them besides I love you, no contact, and you want to know why?”

“I know. I just…”

“You said that was what you needed from me.”

“I know, and it was.”

“Yeah, well, that’s what I need from you.”

She slid onto his lap, sliding her hands along his arms to his neck. She kissed his neck near her hand, kissing him there.

“You want to hear me tell you to fuck me?”

“Yes,” he whispered.

“You want to know I missed you that badly?”

“Uh huh,” he said when she nipped at his skin she’d just licked. “You want to know that I dreamt of you behind me, in me so deep that it almost hurt.”

“God, Claire,” he said, shifting her on his lap a bit. “I promised you dinner.”

“We’ll find a restaurant later,” she whispered, kissing his ear. She peeled his shirt down a little along his shoulder kissing his shoulder. She licked him there, brushing her cheek against that spot. She shifted her hips. “Right now, I want you in me again.”

“Turn around,” he whispered.

She laughed. “He likes the idea of being behind me?”

“He does,” he said.

She turned around on his lap more than willing to have him in her like this. Their first time together she’d been a little hesitant, afraid afterward he’d think less of her somehow. She wasn’t sure why exactly but it’d been engrained in her that good girls – ladies – didn’t DO things like that. She’d liked it, though, too much to stop him from doing it again.

“What are you waiting for?” she asked.

His fingers were between her legs, stroking her. She was already wet and ready for him. She knew he felt that she was. She reached behind her to touch him, sliding her hand along his length to the base of him so she could cup him the way he always seemed to like. She shifted her hips, moving against him.

“Say it,” he whispered.

“I did!”

He found the back of her neck, kissing her there. He started licking and sucking the skin there. God, the idea of someone seeing a mark there, knowing he’d have to be behind her to leave it there really excited her. He had to feel her moving against him, wiggling on his lap, practically begging him to fuck her just like he wanted her to say.

“You’re not being fair,” she whispered.

No response, of course, because he was busy. He very rarely stopped doing that when he started unless he absolutely had to. She groaned softly and he gave a muffled chuckle. It was different somehow, saying it to his face and facing away from him. She wasn’t sure why.

“As long as you keep doing that until you’re done,” she breathed deeply. “Please fuck me.”

He didn’t do anything right away and she groaned in frustration. She knew he heard her. Then he was shifting her over him so he could slide into her.

“Oh God, just like that,” she murmured. He liked this position because while she was on top of him he still had some control because he could move her using his hands at her hips a little easier than she could move herself.

He didn’t stop kissing her neck until well after he’d finished and he took a lot longer than she thought he was going to. She leaned back against his chest as he held her to him. His fingertips grazed along her upper thigh.

“Was that so hard?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Facing away from you it’s just different.”

“Thank you,” he whispered, kissing her shoulder. He ran a finger over the spot on her neck he’d been marking. “You wanted me to keep marking you. Why?”

“I liked it.”

“Liked it being obvious I was behind you?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“But telling me to fuck you is worse?”

“Not worse, just different. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not mad. Once is good. I can let that sustain me until you think you can say it again. I love you,” he said.

“I love you, too.”

He slid his left hand over hers, lacing his fingers through hers. He raised her hand up a little looking at the ring there. He’d tried to picture it on her finger and failed to see it properly. Wearing it on his pinky finger just wasn’t the same and he sure as hell wasn’t going to ask another woman to try it on so he could see what it looked like. She was the only one he ever wanted to wear it. Well, maybe a daughter or granddaughter one day.

“You like it?”

“Yes.”

“Me, too. I saw it and just knew it was supposed to be yours.”

“You did well.”

“Thank you, Princess.”

“For liking the ring?”

“Well, that, too. Saying yes, going outside your comfort zone for me. Saying you miss me and really showing me you miss me are sometimes different things.”

“If I didn’t want that…”

“I wouldn’t want to hear you say it if you didn’t want it. It just turns me on hearing you say something so improper.”

“I say improper things all of the time.”

“It’s not the same.”

“Am I getting too heavy?”

He snorted at that. “No, but if you want to move you can. We could get dinner still, too.”

She laughed softy. “Yes, let me put on a new skirt and underwear.”

“You may want to rethink the skirt angle if you ever want to actually leave this room.”

“I’ll take my chances. Besides it’ll make it easier later. You have seven months to make up for in less than two days.”

“I will do my best.”

“I’m sure you will. What are you doing?” she asked.

“Watching you change.”

“Why?”

“Because I can, Princess, because I can. It’s as simple as that.”

“Oh,” she said.

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***Chapter Twenty***
Word Count: 4,417

“So, what do you want to do with the rest of the day?” she asked.

“You’re the one who wanted to do things. I’d be perfectly content going back to the room and not leaving again until I have to tomorrow morning.”

“I know that, but I have to be able to tell people I did something besides have sex with you all weekend?”

“Why?”

She shook her head. She knew he was kidding. Of course the idea of spending the rest of the night in bed with him wasn’t a bad one. She just felt as if they should do something considering it was their first whole day together since last summer, and would likely be their last whole day together until this summer.

“Come on,” she said. “You can’t tell me the looks on some of those parents’ faces at the Children’s Museum weren’t priceless.”

“Yeah, sure for you because they were looking at me, not you. They probably thought I was there to scope out their kids or something.”

“They were not. It was very obvious you were there with me not for any other reason.”

“Yeah well, still.”

“You said you’d never been to one before.”

“Well, sure, you asked. I didn’t realize you were going to take me to one here and now. I figured you were just asking a general question.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Nothing to be sorry for. It was sort of fun.”

“How hard was that for you to admit?”

He chuckled softly. “I admit if I had to choose between spending my time there or the Museum of Art I’d probably choose the Children’s Museum.”

“Really? I didn’t think you thought the art museum was that bad.”

“Yeah,” he shrugged. “The other one wasn’t bad, but the Children’s Museum is more hands on, you know? I don’t know. Plus, well, it was kind of cool watching some of those kids getting into the exhibits and stuff.”

“It was,” she admitted. “I just thought it’d be something different. If I’d known you were coming I could’ve thought of something a little better.”

“You did fine. Back to your question about the rest of the night. I don’t know. We could certainly go back to the room.”

She’d paid for a room for the night when they’d decided to go into Indianapolis for the day. He’d offered to pay, but she insisted she could. It seemed only fair since he’d paid for practically everything already to this point in their relationship. He’d even paid her parents back for the plane ticket when she went down to visit him last December and they hadn’t asked him to.

“That’s fine.”

“Well, if you really want to do something. We could see a movie. Or I suppose go swimming. There’s an indoor pool.”

“Yes. You’d do that?”

“Sure. Why not?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I wasn’t sure you would want to, so I didn’t mention it.”

“Would you like to swim? Do you even have a suit?”

“Do you?”

“I have shorts.”

“I brought one in case.”

“You just want to see me half naked.”

“True.”

“I swam with you at your parents’ lake house.”

“Yeah, but that’s not…”

“Public? Yeah, I know. I’ve gotten used to people staring. They eventually stop or they don’t, it makes me no difference anymore.”

“Good.”

“I mean I didn’t do it to myself, obviously. So, whatever,” he shrugged.

She knew it was a pretty big deal for him to get to this point, though. She tried not to let it show, but it still made her so angry and sad inside that he’d lived like that.

“You know,” she said. “You haven’t said when you want to get married.”

“You didn’t ask. You said yes that was the most important part for now.”

“You know when you want to?”

“Well, I’d like to tomorrow, but I know that won’t fly with your parents. So, you talk to them and tell me what they say.”

“Well, they’d want it to be in June.”

“Of course they would,” he said. “Presumably, next June?”

“I’d still be in school.”

“Yeah? So, I’d get off-base housing before we got married, you could spend the summer and breaks with me there and finish school here.”

“You don’t want me to live with you?”

“I do. You know I do. I also know that after three years of school not all of your credits may transfer and you’ve worked hard to be done in four years. We’d see one another on breaks and the occasional weekend I’m sure. And if I was to get deployed again, at least you’d be close to home for holidays instead of down there.”

“I was thinking about this summer.”

“Getting married this summer? Your parents would not go for that, Princess, even I know that.”

“No, not getting married this summer. I was thinking about going down there and finding a job.”

“Really?”

She’d surprised him, she could tell. She’d thought about a lot of things while he was deployed. Not being involved with him was not one of the things that ever entered her mind. Being closer to him when she had the chance to be, though, that entered her mind a lot. What if something happened? He’d told her there was always stuff going on. What if smaller stuff (whatever that meant exactly and she knew he could never actually tell her what it meant) turned into full-blown war somewhere and he was gone again. She doubted there was a time-limit on deployment for that kind of thing. He could be gone until his enlistment time was up.

“Yes.”

“There’s lots of stuff in some of the coastal towns south of LeJeune along the way down to Myrtle Beach. I’d be able to see you every weekend without using leave.”

“Really?”

“Yup. As long as I check in and out and leave a way to get a hold of me in case I’m needed.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah, well, I knew last summer it wasn’t really a possibility so I didn’t try to convince you too hard.”

“Like I’d find a job that gave me weekends off.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. You’d have weekend nights off and mornings, too, I bet.”

“Could you find out for me, like where I could stay and stuff?”

“Sure. I can do that when I get back. I could talk to a couple of my friends and see if they’d be willing to rent you their spare bedroom or something.”

“Then we’d never be alone.”

He chuckled. “I could still sleep with you.”

“True. You’d be okay with that?”

“Three months of sleeping with you every weekend? What’s not to be okay with?”

“I don’t know.”

“You wouldn’t be?” he asked.

“I would be, you know I would be. It’d still be strange, I think, in someone else’s house.”

“Well, they’re not your parents and I don’t think I’d ask someone like Dan who has kids.”

“Right, I know. And, yes, sleeping with you every weekend for three months would be very nice.”

“It would be.”

She wasn’t sure that could be a bad thing, too nice. She’d get used to it and then she’d have to come back here and seeing him when she could. Then she was right back to what she’d been thinking about when he was gone, though. Whatever time she got with him was better than no time. Phone calls were nice. She loved talking to him, because she felt like she was getting to know him in a way. He wasn’t a great letter writer. He wrote to her, but they were usually short so she wouldn’t be able to say he never wrote to her. She understood that. Being able to see him every weekend, though, without worrying about getting behind on homework or the fact that the weekend visit to see her was taking away from his accumulated leave time, and a potentially longer trip to see her. That would be very nice.

That made her think about when he mentioned getting married. Their situation was already going to be unconventional. They’d have to get married around his schedule regardless because she’d be done with school before his time was up. He was re-enlisting anyway, unless something drastic happened in the next two years to change his mind on that.

“So you want to get married next spring?” she asked.

“Claire, honey, whenever you want to get married. If you want to wait until you’re done with school that’s fine with me. Like I said, you said yes that was the most important part. If being married and separated for most of the first year would be problematic for you I’d totally understand that. We’d at least have the summer together.”

“You hadn’t thought beyond asking?”

“Not really, no.”

That didn’t really surprise her. She wondered if he’d even been to a wedding before. Surely he had to have been to one at some point in time, but she supposed maybe not. Not everyone went to weddings as kids. Her parents brought her, but she’d been to weddings where she and her brother were the only kids there.

“You know my parents are going to want to put an announcement in the Tribune.”

He sighed softly. She could just imagine what he was thinking. His parents could see it and know that he was not just alive and well but getting married.

“Is there any way you can convince them not to? I mean, do they know about my parents?”

“I can talk to them. It’s just…”

“It’s how it’s done, I know. Please tell them how hard I’ve worked to drop completely off their radar and I’d really like to keep it that way.”

“I will.”

“Should I be home with you when you tell them?”

“What?”

“Well, I don’t know how it works. Am I supposed to ask your dad first?”

“No, I mean, I suppose you could have, but no.”

She watched his thumb as he slid it over the diamond.

“Should you be wearing this before you’ve told them?”

“You don’t want me to wear it?”

“I’m asking a question. I don’t know how they’ll react. I don’t want them mad at me.”

“They won’t be mad at you and I’m not taking it off until the day of our wedding.”

“Hmm. Why then?”

She laughed softly, sliding her hand out from under his to hold his. She laced her fingers through his and squeezed his hand.

“Because you’ll put the wedding ring on that finger during the ceremony.”

“Oh, yeah, I suppose.”

“I’ll talk to them. They’re not going to be mad.”

“Disappointed?”

“No. I mean, I’m away at school and you’re away for months at a time. They’d have to realize you may not wait until we’re all together.”

“They were pretty cool last summer, I was surprised,” he said.

“They were,” she admitted.

She was surprised, too, honestly. They hadn’t purposely left them alone, but they hadn’t ever gone out of their way to impose on them either. Her mom and dad went antiquing one day while they were at the lake house for a couple of days, leaving Claire and John alone for hours. In Shermer they hadn’t been alone for quite that long at a time, but her parents had never said anything when Claire woke up in her room and went into John’s room to lay down with him every morning. His door stayed open and nothing happened between them with her parents at home. They seemed to know that, too, and had left them alone for the most part.

“You’d really want to be married and not live with me all of the time?” she asked.

“No, I don’t really want to do that, but I don’t want to put it off either just because of that. I mean, theoretically I could get deployed again so you’d be alone anyway. If I were to get sent to Japan and went without you I think my time there would be shorter than if you went with me.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, I think someone told me that, but that was way at the beginning and I admit marrying you wasn’t on my mind so I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to what he said.”

“Oh,” she said.

“Now, if you could transfer down by me somewhere your senior year and be assured that all of your credits would come with you then by all means. I just don’t want you moving down there to be the reason you’re stuck going another year. I want you out there teaching those kids as soon as you can be.”

“Earning a living, you mean?”

“Well, yeah, someone’s got to pay off this ring,” he said with a soft laugh.

“I still can’t believe you bought it. It’s beautiful.”

“Yeah? I’m glad you think so.”

“That means you’d wear your formal uniform again, right?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes. You looked nice in it.”

“I think you’re biased, Princess.”

“I am not. I don’t think other Marines look gorgeous in their dress uniforms.”

“That is very good to know. Wait. How many other Marines have you seen in a dress uniform?”

“None,” she said with a soft laugh.

“Hmm. We’ll have to fix that.”

“How?”

“Well, they have balls. I never thought about going to one, but if you wanted to come. At least I wouldn’t have to pay your parents back for your ticket down to see me this time.”

“What do you mean?”

“I guess I’m asking if you’d like to come down for the ball LeJeune has every November.”

“Oh. Really?”

“Yes, really. I was gone for the last one obviously so asking you to come down was out and I was at school when there would’ve been one the year before that.”

“You really want me to come?”

“Well, yeah, if you can’t or don’t want to I’d completely understand. You’d meet some of the guys I talk about anyway and their wives or girlfriends.”

“I’d love to and you don’t have to pay for my ticket.”

“Claire.”

“No, don’t be ridiculous. I can pay for my own ticket.”

“I’ll get the dates for you when I get back. I think it’s somewhere around the first weekend of November. Maybe Veteran’s Day weekend, but I’m not sure since I wasn’t here for it last year.”

“Okay.”

“You’ll have to buy a dress.”

“Yeah, I figured. A formal one?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“I can go shopping for a dress.”

He chuckled softly. “Yeah, I didn’t think that’d be a hardship for you. Me, on the other hand.”

“You could go shopping with me.”

“I don’t think I’d be good company.”

“Hmm, I could make it fun for you.”

“Shopping for a dress? I don’t see how that’s possible. Besides I didn’t think I’m supposed to see dresses beforehand.”

“Just my wedding dress.”

“Oh,” he said.

“I mean, you know, if you were with me and we find a store with a dressing room that’s not busy…”

“That’s very naughty, Princess.”

“You said you’d like to in public once.”

“Well, yeah, preferably not somewhere where I’d actually get arrested like at a mall.”

“They wouldn’t arrest us.”

“I was kind of thinking a movie or the backseat of your car. Or if you came to down there this summer, somewhere along the beach late at night.”

“You don’t think they’d arrest us at a movie theater?”

“I think as long as we didn’t get caught, a dressing room would be risky.”

“Isn’t that the point?”

“I’m still not sure that’s worth enduring you trying on dresses, because I know you, Princess, you’re not going to choose the first one you try on.”

“I could!”

“You could not. You might like the first one, but you’d try on at least five or six others before deciding for sure.”

She sighed softly because he was right, especially a dress for something like that. God, she’d have to research what to wear. Somehow she didn’t imagine any of her high school dance dresses were suitable for a military ball.

“I’ll make a deal with you.”

“Okay,” she said.

“You take me with you one day when you know you’re not going to be there for two hours I’m game.”

“Really?”

“Yes. You know, like maybe going there for that reason not to really buy anything. And maybe somewhere where neither of us is known, so I don’t know where that’d be. Here in Indianapolis, I suppose. Or I guess any mall in Chicago that’s not near Shermer.”

“And you don’t have an opinion on my dress?”

“No, because I know you already know the things I’d tell you not to do.”

“Not to do?”

“Yeah. Nothing bordering on illegal showing.”

She snorted.

“You’d be surprised. It’s a military ball but some of these guys bring their girlfriends who don’t have a clue what that means I guess. So, they dress like they would to go out for a night clubbing. You know, hair teased a mile high and their tits and ass barely contained. Sorry,” he said.

“Oh,” she said.

“I know you won’t do anything like that. So, no, I have no opinion beyond I want you to look gorgeous. That’s a given, so whatever you choose I’m good with.”

“So nothing exposed. That’s it? No color preference? Long or short?”

“Claire, I don’t know. You have way more experience in this stuff than I do. Your thing last spring was the first and only thing I’ve gone to. You cut your teeth on this stuff. I trust you. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have mentioned you coming. Hell, I wouldn’t have asked you to marry me if I didn’t think you would make a good impression for me.”

“Funny that, right? You worrying about what kind of impression I’d make.”

“I’m not worried in the slightest. I’m just saying, I know you wouldn’t embarrass me or anything.”

“I certainly wouldn’t deliberately.”

“You couldn’t even if you tried, Princess. If you want to send me a picture or something before you buy a dress I’d tell you if I like it or not, but really your friends would be a better judge than me anyway. You said you have one whose boyfriend is in the Army or something, you could take her along. As long as you show up and have clothes on fitting a ball I’m good.”

“Hmm.”

“Relax you have months. I’d much rather you worry about this summer and your plans for that. It’s a dress, you can find a new dress anytime.”

“Says you!”

He chuckled and brought her hand to his mouth to kiss it.

“You’ll be fine, Claire. Don’t worry about it. What did we decide we’re doing with the rest of our night? Swimming? A movie? Dinner somewhere?”

“I don’t care. Whatever you want to do. You’re the one who’s been gone for the past seven months. If there’s a movie you want to see we could.”

“I can see a movie when I get back to base.”

“You could, but not with me.”

“There is that. Well, let’s find out what’s playing then.”

They found a Chuck Norris movie, John almost passed on it but Claire insisted she could sit through it. She hadn’t been away from everything for months and months so surely she could sit through an action movie. It wasn’t bad when all was said and done. They went to a nicer place to eat afterward. She would have been happy with pizza, but he seemed to want to make up for the movie. She wasn’t going to complain about good pasta.

The next morning came too soon as far as she was concerned, she knew he felt the same way. They slept a little but not much. He could sleep on the plane rides back and she would be able to go back to her room and sleep the rest of the day if she had to. She had a little bit of homework to do, but most of it was reading so if she didn’t get it done until tomorrow she’d just have to fake her way through class that she read the material.

Just like the last time he’d visited her she sat with him at the airport until he actually made it onto a flight.

“God I hate this part,” he whispered.

“I know you do. I hate it, too.”

“It’s not even the getting on the plane that I hate. I mean, I know I’ll see you again in a couple of months probably. It’s the tears. I think about them the entire way home and I feel so guilty that I’m doing this to you.”

“It’s my choice! I don’t have to do it.”

“I know, and I tell myself that, but it doesn’t make me feel less guilty, Princess. I hate seeing you cry and I hate being the cause of it no matter how necessary it is.”

“In a couple of years it won’t be necessary anymore.”

“There is that, and I look forward to that. I’m glad you can see it that way.”

“I do. I know it’ll get easier. We both have things to keep us busy anyway.”

He sighed against her ear as she hugged him.

“Is that why you drew that picture of me without my ring on?”

“What?” he asked.

“The picture you sent me after you were first deployed. I wasn’t wearing my ring in it.”

“You noticed that?”

“I did! I never take it off so of course I did.”

“I’m very glad to hear that, and yeah, that’s why. I mean, I hadn’t bought the one on that finger now already no, but I knew that one was going to be replaced with something more significant at some point.”

“I wondered why it was missing. I thought maybe you couldn’t remember exactly what it looked like.”

“Nope, like everything about you, I have it memorized.”

“I love you,” she whispered.

“I love you, too, Princess.”

“You’ll find out about this summer for me?”

“I will, you need to talk to your parents, too, though.”

“I’m an adult.”

“You are, but they are still paying for your school. Don’t just spring it on them and be sure they know you’re not going to leave the summer pregnant or something.”

“Oh God, I’m not going to tell them that.”

“Why not? Come on, they’re not dumb. They know, Claire.”

“I know they do, they know I know they know. I just don’t want to talk to them about that.”

“Even if it makes them feel better about you coming to stay there for three months? Not to mention getting married possibly when you still have a year left. I’d think that’d reassure them that we’re not out to do something stupid.”

“I wouldn’t say having your baby would be stupid.”

“In general, no, I wouldn’t say that either. Right now it would be kind of stupid. I don’t want to be hundreds of miles away from you when we do that unless the Marines make me be anyway.”

“I know.”

“Talk to them, Claire. They might actually be glad to know that we talk about this stuff, you know?”

“I just, God.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to have the conversation with my parents either.”

“Easy for you to say, you don’t talk to them.”

“I know.”

He kissed her again, running a fingertip along the spot on the back of her neck where he’d left her more than one hickey this weekend. She shivered slightly at his touch and he chuckled. She hadn’t seen them, but he’d told her that morning that he was sorry for making them so grouped together. She didn’t care and he knew that.

“This summer we will explore this fondness you have for my leaving them there.”

“We will?”

“Mm hmm. I’ll experiment and see if there are spots you like better than others.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“I want to find out for myself.”

“A job…”

“Yeah, there is that. I guess I just couldn’t leave more than one at a time then. Or if one of my friends is willing to rent you their spare bedroom you could forego the job.”

“I can’t just live off someone.”

“You’d live off me. I’d pay them.”

“John.”

“Yeah, I know, bad idea. I like it, though, to be able to spend all that time with you.”

“You have to go or you’re going to miss the flight,” she whispered.

“I know. I’ll talk to you during the week.”

“I know,” she said.

She hated that part the worst. He’d get back, call her from the airport to tell her he got there okay, and then she wouldn’t hear from him again for days. It was just so unfair that he got back to base and had to work again right away, especially after being gone for so long.

“Drive safe.” He pulled some money out of his wallet and handed it to her.

“What’s that for?”

“In case you need to stop somewhere. If you’re too tired, stop and get a room or stop at a restaurant and get a cup of coffee.”

“I have money.”

“I know you do. Jesus, just take my money will you? I worry about you driving all that way on little sleep. I want to be sure you have options, okay?”

“I’m sorry. I’m not trying to argue with you. Thank you.”

He kissed her cheek, brushing his own against the tears there as she took the money.

“Have a good flight,” she whispered.

“Yeah,” he said, gathering his bag then and walking toward the walkway.

She stood by the windows at the gate, watching the plane as it backed up from the Jet Bridge and away from the gate. She had no idea where his seat was to know if he could see her or not, but she stood there until she couldn’t see the plane there. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand before turning to leave once he was on a runway somewhere waiting to take off. She saw the look of sympathy in the agent’s eyes when she glanced in her direction. Claire offered her a bit of a smile before making her way from the gate back to her car.

Return to Top

***Part Twenty-One***
Word Count: 4,050

She’d exceeded the distance she’d driven away from the Chicago area hundreds of miles ago. This was also the furthest south of Illinois she’d ever been, barring a couple of trips to Disney World when she was growing up. For those trips, though, they’d flown into Orlando and stayed there, not venturing away from their hotel and the Disney area.

She’d stopped more than once just to get out of the car and walk around for a minute, grab herself a Diet Coke, and use the bathroom even though she wasn’t desperate to use it. The air always did her good. Overall, though, it was a nice drive. She was hoping John would be able to drive back with her, but she wasn’t sure if he’d be able to get the leave time or not.

It wasn’t a bad drive, but it was long enough that she almost wished she’d taken her friend Ashley’s offer to drive down with her.

Almost.

When she pulled up in front of the address John had sent her with very precise directions on how to get there once she got to Jacksonville, she was very glad Ashley wasn’t with her. She wasn’t sure why three months seemed too long after she’d gone seven months without seeing him before then, but it seemed like forever. She didn’t want anyone else around them for the evening anyway. She knew since she was here she’d be meeting people. She was looking forward to it. Just not tonight.

She’d left super early (for a college student anyway), practically the middle of the night, to be sure that she got here before he’d have to leave for the night. She hated that thought immensely, of being this close to him but not being able to spend the night with him. She’d make do, though, seeing him during the evening for a little while after he was done with his duties was better than the nothing she’d gotten to this point in their relationship.

The garage door opened almost as soon as she pulled onto the driveway and she pulled her car into it. It was a two-car garage and there was another car parked in it. It belonged to John’s friend she knew.

She got out after turning her car off, not even bothering to get her things from the trunk. She could do that after he had to go back. He closed the garage door almost as soon as she’d turned her engine off.

God he looked incredible standing there in the doorway waiting for her. He seemed to think she looked pretty incredible, too. His hair was shorter than it had been in February and the four days’ worth of facial hair was gone, of course. He hadn’t shaved before leaving her because she’d admitted to him she kind of liked it, but she knew he would’ve had to as soon as getting back to base. The Marines didn’t allow facial hair.

She slid her arms around his neck as he slid his around her waist, drawing her to him for a kiss. Not that he had to convince her. Both groaned as he slid his hands lower along her hips. Hers slid lower along his neck to his shoulders and chest. She reached for the hem of his T-shirt, sliding her hands underneath it as he drew her skirt up along her thighs.

“You always wear skirts,” he murmured, finding her ear.

“You like me in skirts.”

“I know, but one of these days you’re going to think I have nothing in mind but having sex with you right away,” he said, working the zipper on his jeans open.

“I wouldn’t want you to have anything else in mind right away,” she said as he gathered her to him.

“Really?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

She breathed in deeply as he found her neck.

“Because after months again if you didn’t want to fuck me I’d worry.”

He pressed her against the wall next to the door and slid inside of her deeply. She cried out as she stretched around his length to accommodate him. He always felt so incredibly tight sliding inside of her for the first time again after so long. She knew he liked the feeling as much as she did.

“You know I want to.”

“I do. I just like when you show me you want to.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes,” she said, though it sounded more like a hiss than an actual word just then because he was hitting a very good spot inside of her just then.

He chuckled a little.

“You like that there?”

“Yes.”

“Me, too,” he said, hitting the same spot again, causing her to finish. He wasn’t too far behind her. He rested his head against her shoulder and she chuckled softly at how fast he was breathing just then.

“Hmm. What’s a matter? Did I wear the Marine out?”

“No, Princess, I can just never get enough of you.”

“That’s good.”

“I think so,” he murmured, setting her down and smoothing her skirt down around her once again.

“Me, too.”

“Hi,” he said then.

“Hi.”

“I’m glad you made it safely.”

“I think you demonstrated that already.”

“Oh, that wasn’t a glad you made it safe thing. I do have an I’m glad you made it safe thing, too. That was an I missed the hell out of you thing.”

“It was?”

“Mm hmm.”

“I missed you, too.”

“That is very good to know. How did finals go?”

“Good.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes. I think I got a B on one of them, but I had an A in the class, so I could afford a B on the final.”

“Good.”

“So, you want the tour? Want to get your bags?”

“I’ll do that after you have to go.”

“You sure?”

“Positive.”

“Well, that’s part of my I’m glad you made it safe thing.”

“What?”

“I don’t have to go back tonight.”

“Shut up!”

“I checked out, left the number here, as long as I’m at formation tomorrow morning as expected we’ll be fine.”

“That is the best news I’ve heard all day.”

“Still want to wait to bring your stuff in?”

“No,” she said and he chuckled at that.

He headed into the garage with her to collect her things. She didn’t have that much stuff, but since she was going to be here for three months she had more than just a weekend’s worth.

“All right then. Let’s have a look around at your home away from home for the next few months.”

“I still can’t believe you know people who will just let me live here.”

“Well, I told you, he’s been transferred to Hawaii and his wife elected to go with him. She may not stay because I think I’ve mentioned it’s pretty expensive to live there. It’s just the two of them, though, so she sort of looked at it like an extended vacation if she chooses to come back here ahead of him. So, you’re kind of helping them out by staying here. Someone’s here at the house so it’s not sitting vacant. You’re paying them rent so they’re not having to pay the mortgage outright. I don’t know what they’ll do after you leave. I told them since I’ll have the keys if they need me to come check on it a couple times a week or whatever I can.”

“Right, I know. It’s still very nice of them.”

“They like you.”

“They don’t know me.”

“They know me and they know what I’ve told them about you. They like you.”

“Well, I’m glad. I like them, too.”

“You don’t know anything about them.”

She chuckled.

“They’re letting me live here instead of at a hotel or a cheap dive of an apartment. I like them.”

The house wasn’t very big since they had no kids and weren’t planning on having any while Mark was in the Marines. It was a nice house, though. Clean and well cared for, even the carpet looked nice.

“So this is your room. You could sleep in their room I guess if you really wanted to, but I didn’t think you’d want to.”

“No, that’d be weird.”

“Yeah, a little,” he agreed.

They both set her things down near the closet. She’d put her things away tomorrow since she’d be alone all day. God, he’d have to leave so early.

“And you can really stay here tonight without getting in trouble?”

“Yes. I should maybe not every night during the week. There’s some issues about taking up a bed that the government is paying for but not really sleeping in it, but I figure three months they can handle my not bunking there every night.”

“Oh,” she said. “So does that mean we can do something?”

“We can do whatever you want. We could’ve anyway. What did you have in mind?”

She pulled her keys from her purse, handing them to him. “Show me around?”

“Yeah? Really? That’s what you want to do with your first night here?”

“Yes. That’s what I want to do my first night here. I want to see where you live. If you want to call someone and see if they want to meet us for dinner we can do that, too.”

“You surprise me, Princess.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“What? You had visions of me not letting you out of bed until you had to leave tomorrow.”

“Kind of.”

She frowned slightly. “Really? I’ve only been here once and it was when you’d first gotten here. Neither of us had a car. I’d like to see what you’ve told me about in your letters.”

“Relax, Claire. It’s fine.”

“No, I mean if you weren’t going to be spending the night here maybe, but you are.”

“Claire. You’re fine. It just surprised me is all. We can go wherever you want, and yeah, I can call a couple people to meet us for dinner or something.”

“Good.”

“You need to call your parents.”

“I know,” she said. She’d sort of forgotten, so she was glad he thought about that. They would’ve been worried sick if she didn’t call to say she’d gotten there safely.

She had a good time, she hoped he knew that. He seemed not so sure about that. Certainly, his friends were different than hers but considering John hadn’t had friends in high school she was glad to meet people who he cared to get to know.

They’d driven around, him showing her places and things he’d talked to her about the past couple of years. He showed her things she would need to know like where to buy groceries. They’d met three of his friends at a place for burgers. He assured her on the way home that she wouldn’t always be the only woman when they did things like that. Last minute, one of the guys who’d joined them had kids and other things like that. She got it. She didn’t mind.

It was weird to be lying in bed with him like this. Tomorrow he’d wake up and have to go to base and carry on with his normal day. She’d have to try to find a job. Her parents would help her if she needed it, but she wanted to find a job. She didn’t want to live on her own and rely on her parents even if it was only three months.

“What are you thinking about, Princess?” he asked from beside her. She thought he was sleeping. They’d gotten back to the house before eight o’clock and had gone to bed right away. The need for sex wasn’t even the driving force behind that. He had to be up before the sun came up and she’d been awake since about midnight. She hadn’t slept real well the night before either not used to going to sleep at three o’clock in the afternoon.

“Tomorrow.”

“You’ll be fine. I left you directions to everywhere you might want to go. And as long as you can remember how to get here to the house you can go anywhere you want.”

“I know. That’s not what I’m thinking about.”

“Oh?” he said, turning onto his side. “Is there something wrong?”

“No,” she said.

“Why are you whispering?”

She laughed at that. “I don’t know. Habit, I guess. I’m not used to be completely alone with you and I know you’re trying to sleep.”

“You’re sure you’re not having doubts about coming here now that you’re here? I wouldn’t blame you, really. You’ve never been this far away from your parents and Chicago for so long.”

“No, that’s not it.”

“What then?” he said.

“I’ve never had a job.”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t know what I can even do.”

“Oh,” he said.

“I mean, teaching was safe, you know. I figured I could get my master’s and stuff and teach in college to make it not so stupid that my parents raised me the way they did and I want to be a teacher.”

“The world needs teachers, Claire. More importantly, the world needs good teachers. I think you’d be wasted at the collegiate arena.”

“Why?”

“Because I think you’d be good with kids, you know? Be a good teacher, make them want to keep going to school so they’d want to go to college.”

“I guess.”

“What about the mall?”

“What?”

“A job? There’s a mall. You know how to do makeup and stuff. Go to one of the department stores and see if they have makeup counters.”

“That’s a good idea.”

He chuckled softly. “You’ll find something, Claire. And if you don’t, I’ve got you covered.”

“You shouldn’t have to!”

“Why not?”

“Because that’s not your job.”

“Sure it is. I made it my job when I asked you to marry me. I mean, I gave you the idea to come down here. I knew it wasn’t going to be super easy to find a job down here, but you’re smart.”

“Thank you.”

“Start at the mall and go from there if nothing turns up. You don’t have to get a job. You could go to Myrtle Beach every day for all I care.”

“I could, huh?”

“Yeah, as long as you’re here in this bed every night I don’t care.”

“You’re not going to be here in this bed every night.”

“I’m going to be here in this bed for as many nights as I can be.”

“I like the sound of that.”

“Me, too.”

“My parents want us to wait until I’m done with school.”

“I figured they would.”

“I don’t want to wait.”

“Claire.”

“I don’t. I’m not going to transfer schools unless I know for a fact I can graduate in four years, but I don’t want to wait because it’ll be more convenient for them. I mean how is our being married going to be any more or less difficult than what we’re doing now.”

“I think they’re thinking of us more than them. You’ll be done with school, I’ll almost be done and ready to re-enlist.”

“You want to wait?”

“No, I told you I want to right now, but I don’t have parents to worry about. Did you talk to them about the engagement announcement thing?”

“I did, and they’ve agreed not to do it.”

“Tell them thank you.”

“I already did.”

“Well, tell them again.”

“They understand.”

“I’m glad.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll let you get your sleep.”

“They do know I’m re-enlisting, right?”

“Huh?”

“You’ve told them that, right? I mean, they don’t think if we wait until then that you’ll be done and I’ll be out and we’ll set up house next door to them or something. Do they?”

“I’m not sure I’ve told them that, no. I mean I think I have, but I’m not sure.”

“You may want to fill them in on that detail, Claire, it may change their opinion a bit. They’re probably afraid you’re going to pick up and haul your ass down here for a year not realizing that I’m staying put. Maybe not here, but the military.”

“Right. Yeah, I will.”

“And you’re fine.”

“Huh?”

“You’re not keeping me awake.”

“I am too.”

“Well, a little, but it’s all right. I like talking to you like this. It beats a phone.”

“It does.”

“Will I get to meet George?” she asked after a few minutes.

“Yeah, I can bring him to meet you.”

“I can’t go on base, can I?”

“You could, with me with limited access. We can do that, too, one day, sure.”

“Okay.”

“We can do whatever you want. The next three months are as yours as I can make them.”

“Thank you. Good night,” she said.

“Done talking now, huh?”

She kissed him and sighed softly. “I don’t want you to be late or be responsible for getting you in trouble.”

“Thank you, Princess.”

“Do you want a ride there in the morning?”

“If you’re awake that would be great.”

“I’m sure you can figure out a way to wake me.”

He chuckled softly. “I’m sure I can think of one or two, yeah.”

“Oh and Claire?” he whispered a few minutes later.

“Yeah?”

“I’m very glad you’re here.”

“Me, too.”

***

“What’s with the purse?” he asked.

“What?”

“The purse on the counter. Why is it clear?”

“Oh,” she said. “It’s for work. It’s so they can see what's inside.”

“Why?”

“To be sure we’re not stealing anything.”

“Oh,” he said with a nod. “I guess that makes sense.”

“I remember a friend. You might remember her, Kathy Steiger. She worked at Carson’s I think and had a bag like this, too. So it must be a retail thing.”

“I see. Well, I’m glad you’re not a thief then.”

“Right?”

He chuckled slightly at that. She felt him watching her as she turned the oven off. She was not a real good cook, but she was determined for the next three months not to count on eating out every day. Three meals a day out would get hugely expensive. Breakfast was easy, she could make toast or cereal. Lunch was pretty easy, too, because she could just make sandwiches or something. Dinner, though, was a little more complicated because he was going to be coming here every night. So, she actually had to make something that resembled a meal. She’d already been on her phone with her mother twice for ideas. She’d never paid attention to what her mom did in the kitchen.

He sat on a chair at the kitchen table while she did some things. She’d had to wait to do the vegetables and stuff until he’d called her to say she could come get him. He had people who could give him rides, but people didn’t leave base every day. So it was either her get him and bring him back or not see him. That wasn’t a difficult choice to make. If she didn’t work she’d just let him take her car, but then she’d be stuck here and he wouldn’t go for that.

“One of your friend’s wives came to see me today,” she said, getting plates and stuff out for them.

“Really?”

“Yes. Um, Gloria?”

“Ah yeah. Okay. I could see her needing to buy makeup and stuff.”

“She was out of her foundation and came to get it from me.”

He narrowed his eyes at her and she realized he may not know what foundation was. She imagined he’d have no reason to beyond the few times he’d seen her put makeup on.

“That’s good, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, just weird.”

“It’s kind of like that, you know. I don’t know. The wives kind of support each other.”

“She was nice.”

“She is.”

“It just surprised me.” Claire hadn’t realized anyone knew she was working here so when someone asked for her by name she thought for sure they were looking for another Claire.

“Well, I’m sure Rick told his wife where you found work.”

“Because you told him.”

“Yes. That’s what we do. They know you’re here and were looking for work. They’re going to ask me stuff. Am I not supposed to tell them?”

“No, you can. I’m not mad. She gave me her phone number and said I could call her sometime.”

“Well, that’s good, right? I mean, she doesn’t work so you could have lunch with her sometime or go hang out with her at their house. They don’t live far from here so you could even walk there. I don’t know what she does all day, but I’m sure she’d love the company.”

Claire chuckled softly.

“That doesn’t surprise me. And yes, she told me I could call her for lunch sometime.”

“Good. She’s nice. Your type of people.”

“My type of people?”

“Yes. You know? Pretty well-to-do parents who probably aren’t entirely too crazy about their Marine son-in-law.”

“My parents like you.”

“Oh, I know, and I’m very glad. If they didn’t you wouldn’t be here this summer. I know this. However, you can’t tell me that they wouldn’t prefer you find a nice lawyer or a doctor who’d keep you near them. And whose job doesn’t come with a risk.”

“Everyone’s job comes with a risk.”

“Doctors don’t have as much of a chance of getting shot in a war zone, Princess.”

“I know.”

“You thought I was what, sending her to see you?”

“I wondered.”

“I wouldn’t force someone on you. I mean, I want you to get along with my friends and their wives or girlfriends, but I’m not going to do that.”

“She bought a lot of stuff, too.”

“Really?”

“Yes, it’ll be a nice commission.”

“Well, that’s good. That was nice. I’d buy stuff, too, if I could.”

“You could buy stuff for me.”

“Not from you!”

“You could. I’d get the stuff and the commission.”

“I think your manager would probably catch on to what we were doing if we did that.”

“Probably.”

He chuckled softly, sliding her onto his lap and wrapping his arms around her.

“I could really get used to this, you know that?”

“What?”

“Coming home to you at the end of my day.”

“I could, too.”

“Dinner.”

“Ugh. I need to learn to cook without calling my mother before you count on dinner from me.”

“You’ve done fine.”

“Sure with baking chicken and pasta. Neither of those things are that difficult.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m sure people could find a way to screw them up.”

“What will Mark do with the house if his wife stays in Hawaii with him?”

“Sell it probably.”

“Don’t they have off-base housing that you don’t have to buy?”

“Yes, but some wives don’t want to live in that type of housing.”

“Oh.”

“Would you?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess if you’re making a career out of this I’d probably want a house that was ours. It wouldn’t matter to me so much, though, as long as it was a house with a yard.”

“A yard?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“For kids to play.”

“Oh.”

“And maybe a dog.”

“Hmm. We’re going to get a dog?”

“I’d like one.”

“Okay.”

“You don’t like dogs?”

“I’ve never had a dog. Can you honestly imagine how my parents’ would have treated a dog?”

She grimaced at that.

“No, I guess not.”

“The dog would come first?”

“I would think so.”

“It would have to be a big dog.”

“Why?”

“Because I’d like knowing when I’m out in the field for training or whatever that you and any kids here with you are safe.”

She blushed and he chuckled softly.

“What?”

“It appears you have trying to make them on your mind.”

“I always have that on my mind when you’re in front of me. When you’re sitting on my lap I find it hard to think of anything but that.”

“Yeah?”

“Mm hmm,” he said, kissing her.

“You’re not hungry?”

“Famished.”

“For food, John.”

“It can wait.”

“I cooked!”

“And I appreciate that very much. Can’t you tell?”

“Very funny. That has nothing to do with cooking.”

“It has everything to do with cooking for me. It has everything to do with all that you do for me.”

“I like doing things for you.”

“Me, too. I like doing this thing for you especially a lot.”

Return to Top

***Part Twenty-Two***
Word Count: 3,382

“You’re sure Mark is all right with us doing this?”

“Claire, it’s a little late now, don’t you think? And yes, I’m positive. You’re paying them rent. We’re not having a wild frat kegger. It’s a barbeque with some Marines and their significant others and families.”

“Yes, but it’s a lot of people!”

“Yeah, and it’s a gorgeous day out so people will be outside. No one’s going to trash Mark’s house. I promise. You’re worrying over nothing. They all know whose house you’re staying at and why. They wouldn’t do that.”

The idea had started out as inviting a few of John’s friends over had turned into something huge. Gloria and June, another wife of a friend of John’s, had come over yesterday and helped her make as much stuff as could be done in advance like salads and desserts. Everyone was supposed to bring a salad or a dessert, too, but she had to make some because if everyone brought brownies and then all they had to eat was what John was grilling she imagined she’d have some pretty hungry and pissed off Marines on her hands.

They had enough food to feed … Well, a Marine unit. A small one. John and his friends were in charge of grilling the steaks, hamburgers, and hot dogs. She’d wanted to get brats instead of hot dogs, but John had reminded her that there were going to be kids there, too. So, hot dogs had won out versus bratwurst.

She’d spent her day on Friday before John came over for the weekend cleaning every inch of the place. She wasn’t a slob, so it wasn’t a huge ordeal, but she’d scrubbed the bathroom and everything knowing people were going to be in there. Those same people would be judging her, analyzing her, looking for reasons to maybe not like her. She’d gotten along fairly well with just about everybody. There were a few women she wasn’t overly fond of, but she was pleasant to them and they were to her as well. She just knew that they weren’t going to be good friends or anything. Some wondered why they were just now meeting her. She wasn’t sure what was difficult to understand about the fact she still, legally, lived with her parents and they were paying for her school.

Gloria and June she liked. A lot. Even better, they were friends with one another, too, so the three of them could do things together. Like shop. The three of them loved to shop and it was nice to be with people who did it as thoroughly as Claire did.

“You’d better wear your hair down today,” he murmured, kissing her neck. He focused on the spot she knew he was talking about.

“Yeah, I know, someone wouldn’t stop last night.”

Since she’d cleaned everything so thoroughly on Friday she only really had to spot clean things yesterday before Gloria and June came over. Today was even easier. John was right, most everyone would be outside, but she still had to presume people were going to be in the house. Certainly, they’d use the bathroom and stuff while here.

“I don’t remember hearing you tell me to stop,” he whispered, sliding his hand along her stomach.

“Well, of course not.”

He chuckled then, grazing the mark he’d left her with his tongue and she shivered as a result. She absolutely loved when he did that. She had no idea why.

“Stop.”

“I will not stop.”

“There’s not enough time.”

“There’s always enough time when you’re wearing a skirt. We’ve proven that on more than one occasion.”

“But then you’ll leave me another one that I can’t cover up.”

“I can try not to.”

“You never succeed.”

He chuckled at that.

“Yeah, you’re right. I don’t. I can’t help myself for some reason.”

“I don’t mind them.”

“I know.”

“Then why do I have to cover this one up?” she asked, touching the back of her neck. Going by how long he’d been focused on the spot last night she was guessing it was pretty dark if not pretty large, too.

“I don’t know because people will think that’s all we do.”

She laughed softly. “It kind of is.”

“It is not. We watch TV. We’ve seen movies. I’ve taken you to dinner.”

“And then we come home and have sex.”

“Well, sure, you’re going to go back to school in August and I’m going to have months of nothing again.”

“Me, too.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“What if I don’t want to cover it up?”

“You don’t have to. You can do whatever you want. I was just warning you.”

“Hmm. So you want people I know that I let you be behind me but not people you know?”

“I didn’t say that! I don’t think people I know really care what we do. I don’t do it to you for that reason either. I just like doing it. I can’t explain it. A visible sign proving that you’re mine. I’ve never had anything that was mine before.”

“I know.”

“Besides, you’re the one who said you liked them there.”

“I know.”

“I can certainly work on leaving them in less visible places if you’d rather.”

“No, I wouldn’t rather. I think I’d feel naked without one.”

“I like you naked.”

“I like you naked better,” she whispered.

“Yeah?”

“Mm hmm.”

“Come on then, show me.”

“I can’t! I have no time!” He was tempting her, but he knew that. He always tempted her and he usually won no matter what she was doing. She’d even been late for work more than once when she had to work a weekend and he was here. Being late wasn’t an option for him the nights he stayed with her during the week.

“You’re putting entirely too much thought into this. They’d be happy with what you’ve made so far.”

“John.”

“Come on,” he said, tugging on the hem of her skirt a bit. He slid his hand along her inner thigh and she groaned softly as it crept higher.

“What is your deal this weekend?”

“My deal? Besides having you here you mean? I don’t know. What can I say? I’m a guy, I get horny.”

“What do you do when I’m not here?”

“Take lots and lots of cold showers, Princess.”

“Really? That works?”

“Well, yes and no. I mean, you’re not here so I don’t think about it as much unless we’re having one of our more fun conversations. You make me come and then I’m good until the next time we talk like that and you make me come again.”

“Hmm.”

“You’re here now, though, and that means there are no limitations. I guess my mind and my body both like that idea very much.”

He brushed up against her and her eyes fell closed. He couldn’t see that, of course, since he was behind her, pressed up against her so she could feel that he was serious.

“I’ll find somewhere new to leave one. No one will see it but me,” he whispered, brushing his cheek along the back of her blouse.

“Yeah?”

“Mm hmm,” he whispered, kissing the spot again.

“I…”

“I’ll help you out here after.”

She snorted at that.

“I can already see what your idea of helping me is.”

“I promise. Whatever you need me to do.”

“Anything?”

“Uh huh. Name it, I’ll do it.”

She chuckled softly, turning then to face him. She slid her arms around his neck and kissed him.

“What did I just agree to, Princess?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Why not?”

“You know what you’re getting out of the deal.”

“I do. I guess I’ll set the terms once I’m sure the conditions are met.”

“I see. You have doubts on that?”

“I don’t know. You might have things on your mind to distract you.”

“From you? Not likely. You know it’s your fault.”

“What? How is this my fault?”

“Can’t you be a typical college student and wear jeans?”

“I hate jeans.”

“See? And you wear these skirts and I know what’s under them and I start thinking about how easy it would be …”

“I could wear longer skirts.”

“What that touch the floor? Your skirts are already pretty long for the most part. I’m not sure that would matter anyway.”

“No?”

“No.”

“You’re wasting all this time talking then it really will be too late,” she said.

“You’re still standing here.”

“I’m waiting for you.”

“Well, that’s easily fixed,” he said. Her arms were already around his neck so he didn’t have to do much maneuvering to pick her up and carry her to her room. She liked to think of it as their room.

***

It was fairly late. Most everyone had left by now except Gloria and Rick and June and Adam. The day had gone very well actually. People had to get their kids to bed or get up early tomorrow morning. So did John, Rick, and Adam, but someone had to leave first and Claire didn’t take it personally or as an indication she’d done something wrong.

The small keg Rick had brought was just about gone. The six of them were doing their part to finish it off.

“So, how often do you get home anyway?” June asked.

“I go home once a month or so when I can. Sometimes I have things going on,” Claire said.

“John doesn’t go there very often,” June said.

“No, not real often,” John and Claire both said.

“Honey,” Adam said softly.

“What?” she asked.

“Nothing. Some people don’t go home, you know?”

“Well, I know that,” she said.

“Why don’t we not make Claire feel like she’s the subject of an inquisition and talk about other things?”

“It’s all right, Adam,” John said. “Claire’s really the only person I’d have any reason to go back home for. I have a few friends, but I don’t talk to my parents. I visited her last summer at home, but usually it works better to see her at school. Less chance of running into people I don’t want to see.”

“Oh,” she said. “I didn’t know.”

“It’s all right, really. She’s here this summer and hopefully will be next summer, too.”

“Do you know when you’re getting married yet?” June asked.

“I’ve asked her that, too, and she hasn’t given me an answer,” Gloria said.

“Do we,” John asked. “I told her it was up to her and her parents.”

“She’s been here for close to a month and you haven’t asked her yet,” June asked.

“I’ve been more focused on the fact she’s actually here for three months after basically a year of not seeing her or even talking to her for eight of those months,” John said.

“Mom and Dad said it was up to us. They did say in lieu of the engagement announcement in the paper there’s going to be a party.”

He sighed softly. “You didn’t tell me that part.”

“I was waiting,” she said.

“You’re not going to put an announcement in the paper?” Gloria asked.

“No,” John said quickly. “I don’t want my name anywhere my parents could see it.”

“Oh,” Gloria said.

“Forgive her, John, man, I’ve never…” Rick said.

“I’m not mad. Why would either one of them know?”

“Well, if you need any help down here June and I can do that. We’ll be sure you have our information when you leave for the fall.”

“Thank you,” Claire said.

“So, anytime we want?” John said.

“Yes. They think we should wait until I’m done with school, but they understand if we don’t want to. I thought I’d look into the transferring thing more closely before we made a final decision.”

“Oh.”

“I was thinking of driving to Duke one day to talk to someone. I sent away for a copy of my Purdue transcript so as soon as I get that I will.”

“That’s a bit of a drive.”

“Well, I’d live on-campus during the week and come home to you every weekend. It’s better than no weekends. And being that I’d be a senior I may have a better schedule. I don’t know. Maybe I’d be able to come home one night during the week, too.”

“I like the sound of you coming to our home any time.”

“Me, too,” she said.

“How long will it take for your transcript to get here?”

“I called as soon as I got here so it should be anytime, maybe tomorrow. I was kind of surprised it hadn’t gotten here already. I had one, but I left it at home and I really don’t remember where. The idea of Mom searching through my things bothers me.”

He chuckled a little at that.

“Are you sure you don’t want help with the kitchen?” Gloria asked.

“No, I’m fine. I’ll have all morning tomorrow to do it.”

“Do you need a ride back to base?” Adam asked.

“Nah, Claire will get me there in the morning.”

“I don’t miss those days,” June said. “I used to hate having to wake up with him so early in the beginning when we only had one car.”

“Well, I’d look at a car if we had a house, but I haven’t needed one until now.”

“I didn’t either,” Adam said. “What was the point? It was just that June wanted to be able to get around.”

“Because I didn’t want to be stuck at home all day, every day,” she said.

“I know, honey,” Adam said, giving her a kiss.

Not too much later the two couples left, Rick taking the keg with him to return. John helped Claire bring the few remaining things from outside in. There wasn’t much, a few cups and plates. She’d used plastic cups and paper plates so there weren’t many dishes for her to wash really. John guessed based on the location of the couple things he found that it was kids who’d left them and forgotten about them versus an adult.

They were in bed later. John was pretty sure this part of their time together would never get old as far as he was concerned. He hoped not anyway. She’d gotten a little mad at him earlier because he’d said he’d leave a hickey somewhere new, somewhere no one but him would see. He hadn’t been able to resist leaving her another one on her throat on the opposite side as the one he’d given her on the back of her neck. She wasn’t real mad except one of the kids had asked her what she did to herself.

“So, you’re really looking at transferring your senior year?”

“Yes. If I could do it next year I would, but I don’t think there’s enough time.”

“I agree, it’s probably too quick of a turnaround.”

“Now, if they accept me…”

“Do it,” he said quickly.

“Are you sure? You were adamant I not do it for this year.”

“That was totally different. We weren’t engaged. I wasn’t sure what was going on with me. I’m still not sure if I’m going to stay here, but I’m more confident I’ll be here for a while yet. I may get borrowed out to places here and there for my drawing.”

“Right.”

“You are a lot more aware of the risks now. The chances of my getting deployed again in the next year are slim, but they could happen. Does your sorority have a chapter at Duke?”

“Yes.”

“That would help, too. I’d feel much better knowing you’re not just down here by yourself and I get sent off to Libya or something.”

“Oh God, don’t even joke about that!”

“So, next June? Is that what you’re thinking then? You said your parents would want June.”

“If you’re sure you don’t want to wait.”

“I’d marry you tomorrow if you agreed to that.”

“My parents would kill us.”

“There is that.”

“Unless we didn’t tell them.”

“Claire,” he said cautiously. “We can’t lie to your parents about something like that.”

“Why not? We could still do the whole wedding thing next year. Or we could tell them and then just do a big formal reception, do our vows at the country club in front of everyone instead of at a church.”

“No,” he said.

“Why not? You said you would if I agreed.”

“Because you’d hate me.”

“I would not.”

“You would, too! You’d miss out on the dress and the parties and the bridal thing they do. You know where you get presents and stuff. I’d do it. You think about it and if you still want to in August before you go back I would, but no lying to your parents. If you want to do it we’d invite them, your brother, any friends you really want here and do it right.”

“In three months?”

“Sure. It’s the Marines, Princess. You don’t think weddings happen at the drop of a hat around here?”

“I suppose,” she said.

“It may not be in a church, but it’d get done.”

“Hmm,” she said.

“I really wouldn’t want to only because I think ultimately you want the big church wedding, but if you told me in August you really wanted to.”

“I was thinking of asking Sheila to be a bridesmaid.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“Why?”

“Because she’s your friend and you’ve known her forever. I was going to go see her the next time I’m home.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” she said.

“That’s very nice of you.”

“Well, if you had a sister I’d ask her.”

“So I should ask Christopher? Is that what you’re telling me?”

She laughed softly, distracting him by running her foot along his calf.

“You don’t have to do anything.”

“But that’s what’s done?”

“Usually.”

“You need to tell me these things, Princess. I don’t know!”

“He wouldn’t be upset if you didn’t.”

“Yeah, but your parents, your friends would wonder why I didn’t ask him over some guy I haven’t talked to in two years like Tony or Kevin.”

“You could ask them, too. And James.”

“Four of them?”

“Yes. That’s actually pretty small.”

“Small? Are you kidding me? How many friends would you have if I wasn’t so limited in choices?”

“I don’t know. I’d probably keep it to five or six.”

“Wow, Princess. And you wonder why I think you’d end up hating me or at the very least regretting eloping?”

“No, I get what you’re saying.”

“If you ask Sheila, let me know what she says. If money is an issue for her, or you think it might be, tell me.”

“I’d buy her dress if it is, you don’t need to do a thing.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes. And her daughter would be old enough to be a flower girl, too, next summer.”

“You’ve really thought on this.”

“I have.”

“Then this summer is out.”

“What?”

“Come on. We can wait a year. If you’re at Purdue you’ll be busy going home when you can to get things for the wedding done. If you’re down here we’ll see one another every weekend that we can. We can wait a year.”

“I know.”

“I like that you’re so anxious.”

“Of course I am.”

He chuckled, running a fingertip along the hickey on the side of her neck. “I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”

“You didn’t. Not really. I’ve kind of gotten used to people commenting about them after I’ve been with you.”

“Not kids, though.”

“No, not kids. I just told him I burnt myself with a curling iron.”

“I’ll be more careful.”

“Yeah, I’m going to have to find a blouse or sweater to wear to work tomorrow that won’t let that one show.”

“Too many rules. You should quit your job and stay here all day.”

“So you can leave me visible hickeys?”

“It sounds logical to me.”

She laughed softly. “Why not just work on leaving them where no one will see.”

“Yeah? You have an idea?”

“I do,” she said.

“Hmm. Anywhere good?”

“I think so.”

“Do you want me to start practicing getting into the habit now?”

“You could.”

“I’m going to hate August when it gets here,” he whispered, moving on top of her.

“Me, too,” she whispered.

Return to Top

***Chapter Twenty-Three***
Word Count: 3,135

September 1986

“God, I thought you’d never come back,” he said when he stopped kissing her outside the base. It was a nice kiss, but not one of their better ones after not seeing one another for a while since they were still on base property. No one was watching them but he always behaved differently when they were around here versus at Mark’s house or when he was visiting her. Sometimes it was difficult for her to get her mind around the fact he had this completely different, separate, life from her where he behaved completely different than he did around her.

She’d gone back home in August to get everything in order she needed to. Her parents weren’t at all thrilled with the turn of events, but she suspected they expected spending the summer with him would result in her transferring a year earlier.

John and Mark had made some sort of arrangement for the school year. Claire wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but she knew she wasn’t paying them rent any longer. Evidently, his wife wasn’t overly happy where she was. She was going to give living in Hawaii six more months and if she still wasn’t thrilled with it she’d come back to the house. If she decided to stay, they’d put the house on the market and Claire would be able to use it on weekends until it sold. She was able to use it on weekends now, too. There was no cable at the house anymore since they were only going to be there a few nights a week. John was still going to pay the utility bills, but they didn’t amount to much. Mark and his wife liked the fact the house wasn’t standing empty for months at this point. They didn’t get much mail or a newspaper delivered to the house. Once in a while mail came for them and Claire always sent it on to them. Most of it was junk mail, she could tell by the return address on the envelope but just in case.

Claire couldn’t imagine what wasn’t to like about living in Hawaii, but it wasn’t her place to judge. She could see herself pretty happy some place like Hawaii, though. She’d loved it the times she’d been there. Japan she wasn’t as sure about. Then being so far from her parents and her friends would suck. Hawaii wasn’t someplace you could drive from, and she knew the flight from Chicago was eight hours so obviously it was longer than that from North Carolina.

She hadn’t been able to get here last weekend because she’d wanted to get her bearings on-campus. She’d gone there a couple of times over the summer and walked around to familiarize herself with buildings, but now that she was there and had a class schedule she’d wanted to again. As it turned out John had been in the field anyway, so it had worked out well. He hadn’t known he’d be gone for a full two weeks when he went.

She had one class on Tuesdays and Thursdays and didn’t have class until ten o’clock on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, which meant she would be able to come here Tuesday and Thursday nights if they wanted her to. She knew he could get in trouble for being off-base during the week too often so she didn’t want to push things. Once in a while, though, it would be nice. Whether she went there during the week, she’d get there Friday and not have to leave until Monday morning. Since she would have to get him to base bright and early oversleeping wasn’t going to be an issue.

She’d been able to avoid dorm living by getting a room at the sorority house. She was amazed at how quickly things fell into place.

At home she’d seen Sheila and her daughter Ericka, asking her if she’d be a bridesmaid and for Ericka to be their flower girl. Sheila had been so genuinely surprised that Claire was glad she’d made the decision to include John’s friend in the wedding.

“I missed you, too,” she said, kissing his neck. She missed him more than she wanted to admit even to herself. It scared her how easily she fell into seeing him as frequently as she did. Sure, she hadn’t seen him every day. Sometimes he couldn’t get off-base during the week, but very rarely did two days in a row go by where she didn’t see him at least for a little while. After two years of hardly seeing him at all, missing a day or two was something she could deal with.

“Yeah?”

She rolled her eyes. “You don’t believe me?”

“I’m not sure I do.”

“John,” she said. “You can’t be serious? I hated being home every day I was there.”

“Relax, Princess, I was teasing, but it’s nice to know you were maybe as miserable as I was.”

“You at least had things to keep you busy.”

“That is true. I doubt somehow that you lacked for things to keep yourself occupied, knowing you likely won’t be home again for a while.”

“True.”

“How’s Sheila?”

“She’s good.”

“Yeah?” He asked and she could tell he wasn’t sure if he should believe her. “You’re not just saying that so I’ll feel better.”

“No, she really is. Ericka is adorable. She has a car now. Sheila does, I mean, obviously her daughter doesn’t.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. She really seemed okay. She was surprised to see me without you obviously.”

“How old is she now?”

“Sheila?”

“No,” he said. “I know how old Sheila is considering she’s the same age as we are.”

“Oh, Ericka? I don’t know, I didn’t ask. I’m a horrible judge on those things. Eighteen months or so? Wasn’t she born in January?”

“That sounds right, yeah.”

“It made me think about us.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. You know, kids.”

“You didn’t stop taking your pills, did you?”

“No! I wouldn’t do that.”

“Good. You at least need to be done with school first.”

“Even for me to be pregnant?”

“You say yes in front of the priest and you get to your senior year and then we’ll talk about that.”

“Really? You’d be okay with that?”

“Yes. Well, maybe. I think a lot would depend on where I’m at, too.”

“You wouldn’t want to wait?”

“I would like to wait. I haven’t lied about that. My thought process originally was for us to have some time to be together before kids. Actually together not letters or long distance phone calls and the occasional weekend or week together. You being so close for the next couple of years could certainly help me change my mind.”

“It could, huh? I couldn’t?”

“Oh, I imagine you could, too, yes.”

“Hmm,” she said.

“We have to at least be married first, Claire. I’m not doing that.”

“I know,” she said.

“And you’ll have a job to think about, timing your maternity leave with your school schedule at least that first year. There’s also my reenlisting and the potential for me to get shipped off somewhere else. Would you want to have a baby in Hawaii or Japan if I got sent there for a while? I mean, they have babies there, but you’d be so far away from your parents. That’d bother you and them. Rightfully so.”

“You have thought on this.”

“Well, sure. I listen to what other people say, I store it away. You don’t want to give a school any reason not to want to bring you back, like having a baby months after starting a new job.”

“You’re right.”

“And if we were able to time it for summer time you’d get way longer than six or ten weeks.”

“Teachers get jobs during the summer sometimes.”

“You wouldn’t need to do that.”

“No?”

“Nope. I think I’ll make Corporal this year yet.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Maybe. Nothing’s definite, of course, but I’ve heard whispers that I’m on the right track for it. Certainly by the time we’re married I should make it.”

“That’s good, right? I mean, they know you want to re-enlist and everything, so they know you’re not just biding your time for the next two years.”

“It is.”

“Good.”

“Were you able to find a dress while you were home?”

“Yes,” she said.

That had been one of her projects while being home. Find a dress for the ball. She and her mom had spent more time than he probably wanted to know about finding the perfect gown for the ball in November. The saleswoman where they’d ended up buying the gown knew exactly what kind of gown Claire would need for the event she was going to. It wasn’t high school prom or a night at a club. And while their ball wasn’t the main one held in D.C. every year, it was still the Marines and she was going to be a reflection on him: good or bad. It was the reason she’d spent hours looking for the perfect one.

She and her mom had kind of had fun. Her mom told her she’d had more fun shopping for this gown than she had any of Claire’s high school dance dresses. She’d explained it was the first time that Claire was wearing a gown for a man, not to be seen or have attention on her. She’d never thought about it that way before, but she had a point. Every one of her dresses for high school dances were for her. This one wasn’t, couldn’t be. Sure, it was flattering and beautiful, but she’d bought it with John and his situation in mind, not with becoming Homecoming or Prom queen in mind.

“I brought it with me today. I’ll keep it in the closet here so it won’t get crushed. My room is much smaller than it was at the other house.”

“Sorry,” he said.

“No, it’s okay. Smaller room versus seeing you every weekend? I’ll give up the bigger room, especially since I’ll only be sleeping there four nights a week.”

“I love the sound of that.”

“Me, too,” she said.

“Are we stopping for dinner?”

“I thought maybe we could stop and pick up some groceries.” She was looking forward to time with him, wherever they were. She just hated that he felt he had to spend money on her all of the time. Eating out all weekend, every weekend would get expensive. When she’d lived at Mark’s house for the summer they hadn’t eaten out much at all. Maybe it was more permanent seeming, her having a house with a kitchen to cook in.

“You don’t want to go out?”

“Maybe we could buy something at the store that doesn’t require much cooking. Frozen pizza? Or maybe they’ll have some of that rotisserie chicken I bought that one day.”

“That was pretty good,” he said.

“Unless you want me to cook something.”

“It’s up to you. I assumed you’d want to go out somewhere.”

“I hate you spending money on restaurants.”

“Yeah, well, sitting at the house all weekend, every weekend is going to get old for you I bet.”

“Not for you?”

“No, it’s a break from the base, George, and a bed that isn’t that comfortable. I know you think you’re still learning how to cook, but anything you cook for me and just me, well, and you, is far better than the assembly line stuff I get on base.”

“Well, maybe next weekend we can go out. This weekend I’m fine with just you.”

“Fine with it, huh?”

“Yes.”

“I have an idea,” he said.

“What?”

“Why don’t we drive toward Myrtle Beach, find a restaurant with seating outside and eat. We could take our time eating, then maybe take a walk on the beach.”

“You just want to have sex with me on the beach.”

“That would definitely be a positive.”

“I’m not agreeing to have sex with you in public.”

“How about in your car on the beach?”

“Maybe.”

“I’ll take maybe, Princess. Drive south.”

“All right.”

“You know, that idea I mentioned a long time ago about a cabin in the middle of nowhere with no one around but us and some water…”

“I remember.”

“Would you be up for that for a honeymoon? Or did you have something more exciting in mind?”

“More exciting?”

“I don’t know what you want. We haven’t talked about it. I imagine we could go somewhere outside the States if you wanted. I have a passport and I have more immunizations than you can imagine after my deployment.”

“How long do you think you’ll get?”

“Well, as a bonus to you living nearby now I won’t have to take nearly as much leave time as I took to visit you so I could store it up. I’d have to find out, but a couple weeks could probably be swung.”

“Could we do both?”

“Both?”

“Yeah, the cabin in the middle of nowhere for a while and some place more exciting? Or somehow combine them?”

“Hmm,” he said. “I’ll have to look into that. That could be doable. Maybe find something that’s within driving distance from stuff to do while still being quiet.”

“I never knew you really wanted to do that so badly.”

“What? You on a beach? What’s not to like about that thought? I thought every chick wanted to recreate the scene from that Burt Lancaster movie.”

She laughed softly. “I’m impressed you know about it.”

“I’m not a complete dolt.”

“I never said you were. It just doesn’t seem like the type of movie you’d watch.”

“Oh. I caught it on TV once I think. Mom liked it.”

“Really?”

“Yes, it was one of the few times I can recall her sitting still for almost two hours without refilling her glass or bowl.”

“She did that in front of you?”

He scoffed. “Princess, after a while she didn’t pay me any attention so she did just about anything you can think of someone should not do in front of a kid.”

“You know, I think I can’t get shocked or surprised anymore with you and yet you still manage.”

“Sorry,” he said. “It is what it is.”

“I guess at least she wasn’t shooting up in front of you.”

“No, never saw her do that. I saw her do a line once.”

“Of cocaine?”

“Uh yeah,” he asked, clearly wondering what else he’d be talking about.

“Did you ever think of calling the police?”

“On my parents?”

“Well, yeah.”

“No, they would’ve dumped the shit and I would’ve gotten punished for being a snitch. Can we talk about something better?”

“Well, how about a wedding date?”

“Sure. You and your parents decided on one then?”

“Yes. I think so. June 20.”

“Okay.”

“Mom and I decided on the dress for me, too.”

“Decided on it?”

“Well, yeah, I’m having it made.”

“Isn’t that…”

“Expensive? Not really hugely more expensive than some outrageously priced factory assembly line dresses.”

“Whatever you want, Princess.”

“Well, I figure you’re going to look very nice I should do the same.”

“I think you’re underestimating how you look to me every day, but I get it. So, the dress and a date I guess it’s really official.”

“You thought I’d change my mind?”

“No, but until now it was more of a hypothetical. A commitment without a formal time or place in the future.”

“Well, we don’t have to get married in June.”

“No, that’s fine. It doesn’t matter to me as long as you’re there.”

“I will be there.”

“I put in a request for a couple of days before and the week after Christmas off. I have a ton of days to burn by the end of the year. I figured maybe we could go somewhere. We could drive down to Florida somewhere or up to New York. Wherever.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“I’d like that a lot, but I should go home for Christmas. And you should think about coming there with me.”

“I assumed you would go home. I was going to fly up there for Christmas Eve, then we could fly back together on the twenty-sixth. Or fly wherever we want to go on the twenty-sixth.”

“My parents would probably want to see us for more than a couple of days.”

“I guess I hadn’t thought about that. You want me there with you?”

“You know I do.”

“All right, I guess I could talk to James and your brother and stuff.”

“Yes, that would be a good time to do that.”

“We could go somewhere for New Year’s Eve. Or fly back here and go somewhere from here.”

“We wouldn’t be able to sit together, though.”

“For that flight, I’d actually get a real ticket and not fly on standby.”

“That would be nice.”

“I agree. I’ve never flown on a plane like a normal person.”

She laughed at that.

“What? It’s true.”

“I know, it’s just funny. You were flown to Italy.”

“I know,” he said. She knew enough about his deployment to know that’s where he’d spent the bulk of his time. She didn’t know anything more than that, but he’d told her that much.

“So you’d really do that? Spend a week or so up there with me and my parents?”

“Sure. I did it last year before leaving. I don’t dislike them or anything. They’re nice enough to me. I guess I should get used to doing that. I just don’t think of it first because it’s foreign to me, wanting to include family in anything.”

“You don’t have anyone?”

“What?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Cousins. Grandparents.”

“I do, sure. Mom and Dad weren’t some science experiment grown in a lab or something.”

“Well, I know that.”

“I have cousins. I wouldn’t know any of them if I passed them on the street, though. Maybe their parents I’d recognize.”

“How many?”

“Princess, really?”

“I’m just curious.”

He sighed.

“It’s fine if you don’t want to talk about it. I was just curious. You’ve never mentioned anyone ever.”

“Because they don’t matter to me. My parents at least sort of have an excuse for their behavior. Their parents, their brothers and sisters – they don’t have an excuse for sitting by and letting happen what happened.”

“No, of course not.”

“So, I don’t spend my time thinking on them.”

“But your cousins weren’t at fault.”

“No, most of them were within a couple of years of us older and younger. I haven’t seen them, though, since,” he shrugged. ”I don’t know. Junior high. Maybe.”

“I just wish you had someone to have in the wedding who mattered.”

“I do, Princess. You. I don’t need anyone else.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank you for saying yes.”

Return to Top

***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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