Winter saw things decidedly getting quieter in my business. After being paid a king’s ransom by commoners in Puerto Rico in order to get rid of a cartel boss (those poor saps. They didn’t seem to realize another one would replace him within days), I had been having a very quiet beginning to December. As such, my home life was able to resume a very quiet pace.
The cartel job was pretty great. Most jobs, I have to plan everything down to the smallest detail. I have to ponder about political fallout, make sure I use weapons that leave no trace, if the goal is to have this be seen as an accident, or to have weapons from an enemy nation if it’s to be seen as a political assassination. Same deal with poisons. Use ones that are known to specific regions, so as to confuse investigators. But cartels are no fuss, no muss. Sure, it’s a sticky job. Jungles in Puerto Rico are hot as hell, and humid to no end. Good way to clean out your pores. Not even kidding. Spend some time in a rain forest and your pores will be clean as a whistle. All the gunk will be sweated out.
Sneaking in through the jungle to their estate. The guards are so unprofessional. They all seem to be operating under the assumption whoever is a threat will be coming through the front gate. They probably aren’t entirely wrong. Given the rival cartel business, it’s who I would be most worried about. Face painted and in striped fatigues like the undergrowth. Thick jungle doesn’t have as much undergrowth as you’d think. The canopy blocks all light.
Once I got close, climbed the canopy to get a good angle. Found the perfect one. Wrapped a rope on the branch. Since it could support my weight, it would be perfect to rappel down. Always make sure to have your escape route ready before taking your shot. The angle was on the guy’s office. He was in there now, arguing with some of his men. Looked to be very heated. Decided to wait. Had a hunch that it would be better. I could take him now, but the alarm would be tripped, and I’d rather have a quiet escape.
After a bit, and a green boa constrictor coming to say hello (I like snakes, so that was cool. Got a pic on my phone), the argument ended and his men left. The boss was alone in there.
Time to get to work! Raised my rifle, checked my suppressor, and took aim. The sunlight was behind me, so I didn’t have to worry about my scope reflecting light. This was almost too easy. Guy pulled out a cigar and lit it, sitting back at his desk. Another day in the life of drug kingpin. He was bent over his desk, so his head was a small target, but with his back to me, there was lots of room to pick how to kill him. Wind factor was negligible. Wind getting through thick jungle is a joke. It doesn’t happen, period.
Took a deep breath, held it. The suppressed snap of the gunshot. I had a specially designed capturing device on the outside of the ejector port to make sure the casing didn’t fall. I didn’t like to leave a trace. The rope, I would, but it was the kind you could get at any hardware store. Not chance of anything being traced back to me.
The bullet zipped through the air, busted through the window. It blasted right through his backside, ripping it open. I aimed for where his heart would be. Hit my mark, too. He crashed to his desk in an instant, never to rise from it again. Another person dead, in the endless war of drugs that America keeps going by keeping it illegal.
Sent the text to the person who made the contract, made sure the payment cleared, went home. Would have sucked if I would have had to make violent retribution on some poor people because they didn’t pay, but they knew the cost of doing business with my company. Most who make that leap do. Stories of clients who jewed me on my payments suddenly having misfortunes of their own were whispered among those who wanted to do business with us.
Now, as December began, I was with Emily helping to put up my fake Christmas tree. I normally wouldn’t have bothered, but she was so adamant about doing so. Apparently she is all about this holiday. For me it’s just memories I’m trying to escape, but her optimism was rather infectious. I couldn’t help but find myself just rolling with it. If nothing else, it was something to pass the time. There’s only so long I can stare out at the ocean and think about whether I should do some PT or just take a nap. Naps are the greatest thing in the world. So weird how I hated them as a kid, but as an adult I can just do that. The perks of age.
“You don’t have a star for the top of your tree?”
I shrugged. “You’re lucky I have lights and ornaments. Hell, that I have a tree at all.”
She rolled her eyes. “Well, we are so getting one! One of those shiny ones with the lights! Those are pretty.”
I shook my head. “Sure thing, kiddo.”
“Trust me, it’ll be awesome! Well, at least you have lights. And garland! It’s in pretty blue! Why’d you pick blue?”
Look down for a moment. “It’s my favorite color.”
“That makes sense.” As she was getting out stuff from the box, she looked up. “Was that the color of the engagement ring?”
Perceptive little one. “Yeah. It was a sapphire.”
Her eyes widened. “A real sapphire?!”
“Aye. A pretty penny, but worth every cent.”
“Wow. So, does that mean you were the one who proposed?”
I nodded. “Aye.”
There was this knowing smile on her face. “How did that go?”
“As well as I could have hoped…”
It had finally arrived. I knew it would fit. Had found out her ring size and made sure the jeweler had gotten it right. Looking at the ring, it was so incredible. A sapphire ring, in white gold, with leaf designs around it that had smaller white stones in it. The stone wasn’t huge, but that was fine. I was content to just have it be what it was. Everything inside me told me the time was right. We’d been living together for a year. Bought our first house. My sisters were wondering why she or I hadn’t popped the question by now. It was just so different. Looked up all the things about how to propose.
For the first time in forever, my hands were shaking. I was going to do it this morning, at breakfast. We both had the weekend off. Drill weekend for her was last week, so we had all the time in the world. She talked about us going out to Seward for a couple days, as Monday was a federal holiday. Told her that sounded awesome. If this went well, it really would. Of course, she’d probably nuke the plans after people get told and everyone has to see her.
Getting posted at JBER had been good for her, because her parents and big sister live up here. For me, it made little difference. The STARS teams are told to go about their lives until we get a call about a mission. At least when our team is active, which Alpha was right now. Things had been quiet.
Told her I’d make us some breakfast. Waffles sounded nice. With maple syrup. None of that weird American syrup that has the consistency of snot. I don’t get who can like that stuff. It tastes like sugar. Raw sugar. As I made them, I would sometimes put my hand in my Navy hoodie and play with the box the ring came in. I would do it as we were eating. That would work, right?
Jean looked up at me, seeing my expression.
“Everything alright, love?”
“Yeah. Just got some stuff on my mind.”
“Wanna tell me about it?”
“I will, when breakfast is ready.”
Her little smile as she nodded. I could look at that forever. “Okay.”
After I got the waffles on a plate, I grabbed the cinnamon butter I made (found a knock-off recipe of the kind that Texas Roadhouse makes. That shit is delicious!) and syrup, bringing it to the table.
“Oh, thank God. I’m starving! That smells so good!”
We dished up and dug in. Girl was like the wolf. I was just happy to be here, in this moment. Stomach going fucking crazy. Just do it! Do it now!
“Hm?” she answered distantly, still eating.
Hands shaking uncontrollably. “So, this is good, right? Where we are right now?”
She gave me a look. “Yeah. Why do you ask?”
Reached into my pocket. “Well, I was kinda thinking about something. Been thinking about it for a while now.”
She stopped eating.
“Any chance that you’d like to do this forever? By being my wife?”
My hands were so out of control I dropped the box on the table.
Her own hands shook as she grabbed it, slowly opening it. Eyes were getting misty fast. When she saw the ring, her hand went over her mouth.
“Oh my god, Quinn. It’s beautiful.”
“Thanks. But, I mean…will you marry me?”
Tears were going down her face as she looked over at me.
“Of course I will! Oh Quinn…” She was immediately in my arms, holding me, then kissing me. Both of us started crying and laughing. It was such a confused, joyful emotion. I’d never experienced it before in my life. Still kinda felt like throwing up, but right now I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
Emily had those big doe eyes that women get when they hear stories like this.
“That is so sweet!”
I snorted. “I was such a nervous wreck for days leading up to that. Good thing there wasn’t a mission. I would have been fucked.”
“Screw that. So, who wore the gown?”
I gave her a look. “And what makes you think that both of us weren’t in uniform?”
That hard look that only a woman can give. “One of you did. I don’t buy for a second that neither of you did. Not one!”
Letting out a sigh. “Yeah, she did. I mean, with how fast her mother was up our ass to plan this out and to make sure her daughter had a beautiful dress, it couldn’t be any other way.”
“What about you?”
“Oh, you won’t catch me DEAD in a dress. Not today or ever! Even as a little kid, I hated them. Made mom mad when I would be wearing jeans and a t-shirt to Mass on Sunday.”
“So you were in uniform?”
“That’s a big affirmative.”
“Did you get one of those cool officer uniforms?”
“Aye. By that point I was a CW03, so yeah, I got to be looking fly as fuck in a ceremonial dress uniform.”
“Cool. You have a picture?”
“How did I know you were going to ask. Yeah, wait one.” I got up and headed into my bedroom. The picture was on the dresser. Looking at it, I smiled. Felt good to have these muscles working again.
Walking back in, I handed it to her. There was me in uniform, full dress blue, as it was autumn. To my left were four of my sisters. Thinking back to how angry the process of picking them had been, since I knew the others would be pissed. Right next to me was Rodriguez. She was my closest hermana, and Best Woman. Then there was Bethke. The runt of the litter, I was always a big sister to her. Then there was Crow, our Blackfoot tribe member. A woman of few words, but when she spoke you knew she meant it. Finally, there was Beacham. Kind of the Mother Hen of our group, I knew I’d have to have her with me as my groomswomen.
“Oh my god. Her dress is beautiful!” Emily whispered.
“Aye. It belonged to her mother. They had some tailoring done to it, and then it became hers.”
It wasn’t extravagant. White and simple.
“Who’s next to her?”
“Her Maid of Honor, Karen. That’s her big sis. Then there was Petty Officer Montgomery. Those two were close friends on base. Her friends Nicole and Samantha.”
“I didn’t know she had a sister. She’s pretty too.”
A little chuckle. “Oh yeah. Jean always went on about how her sister was prettier than her. Not in this jealous sorta way, but always super serious. She genuinely believed it. Made me laugh every time.” Warm memories.
I laughed. “You keep saying it, but that doesn’t make it true!”
Her indignant face was so adorable. “But it’s true! She has always been prettier than me. Look at this picture of us when we were babies! Tell me I’m wrong!”
Laughed harder at this. “You are so ridiculous.” Leaned in close and kissed her. “I love that about you.”
Gave me the mean face, but kissed me back. “You’re just saying that ’cause you’re biased.”
“Well, I mean, if I thought she was gay too, maybe I’d have to reconsider…” Had that faux-whimsical look on my face.
“Oh that does it!” And we started wrestling again. These little moments were great.
Kiddo looked right at me. “Were you tight with her family?”
The gripping feeling was back, holding tight and not letting go this time.
“That’s one of those things for another day, kiddo.”
She frowned, but nodded. “Okay. Promise?”
“Yeah, I promise.”
Looking at me in uniform, she asked who was next to me. I told her their names and who they were to me. Crow was always someone I felt I could talk to. She was the one who helped me pick out the ring. So few words, but that woman was dead serious, and I always felt like she could balance out my more cocky moments. When she said something was a bad idea, we listened. Said she could hear voices in the wind telling her when a course of action was a bad idea. Given how her gut instinct was always on the money, I never doubted.
“You all look so cool. I think I would be in uniform too if I was getting married.”
“What if he wants you in the dress?”
“He’ll know that I’m gonna be rocking it in uniform. He has a problem with it, Navy forever, biotch!”
Both of us laughed.
There was a knock at the door. We both looked up.
“Hm, wonder who that could be. Be right back.”
Kiddo got back to the tree as I left. Guess Christmas was back in the driver’s seat again of today’s interaction.
When I got to the door, I opened it and went pale.
“Bethke!” Her ginger face hadn’t changed. Still that same youthful appearance.
In a flash, she took a swing at me. Training immediately kicked in. I stepped back, taking proper stance. CQC with someone who knows what they’re doing. This could get ugly. But then I remembered, we had done this before.
Full-contact sparring. Now this is what we’re talking about! I loved that they just let us do this. It’s all highly supervised, of course. Lt would never let us risk an injury that would jeopardize the mission, but we were allowed to fight it out in a full-contact ring. Given how tight we get run, Command knew that on a ship, it was good to give space to let us work out stress. Not to mention, this was a great way to work out grudges amicably. Something about fucking someone up helped you come to terms with whatever their transgression was.
Which was where Bethke and myself found ourselves now. Two gingers on a team meant that there was going to be some dust that got kicked up. We’re too hot-headed for there not to be. And the runt had been grinding my gears for a while now. She had youthful anger, but I had stamina. My shit-kicking years were behind me after I joined the Navy. She was still working shit out.
I kept my distance, just countering her blows. Kiddo was trying to use aggressive tactics to overwhelm me. For a lesser combatant, that would be smart, but I know what I’m doing. She’d wear herself out quick. Blocking, deflecting, getting in a couple hits when she left obvious openings. Soon, she left a big one, and I took it. Grabbed her arm and used it as leverage to get behind her. Threw her to the mat and held her there. Judge called it. Chief Warrant Officer Beryl was cheering as I stood up. Since when is she on my side? Weird.
I helped Bethke up, and we shook hands. She was breathing hard, but clearly had worked some shit out of her system. Smiled at me.
“Damn, Pierce, I thought I had you there for a second.”
“Not a day will go by that you’re ever gonna have a leg up on me, Bethke.”
She gave me that rueful look, but it was in good fun. Bonding between sisters, what better way than kicking each other’s ass?
Our fight took us through the entry way into the kitchen. Bethke was far more reserved. She learned from our last bout. Emily stood up, looking scared. Had to keep this in the kitchen. Wasn’t going to risk getting her involved in this.
“Why are you here, Bethke?”
“Lt told us he found you! Didn’t take me long to track you down when he told us what you said to him. You’re gonna pay for ditching us!”
“I’m not apologizing for what happened. I know the choice I made.”
“Fuck you!” Now she was on me. This kind of fight was easier. A fury of trained attacks, trying to get inside my defense. Reach was what I had on her, since I was a fair bit taller. If she could get close, it wasn’t great. Anyone who’s ever seen two people who know how to fight go at it, you can testify that it is impressive to watch. Most fights are short, since people have limited energy and hitting someone hurts. But we knew how to be smart, deflect blows carefully and not rely on our fists.
“I’m not the girl you fought last time! I’ve grown since then!”
Blocking her and pushing her back, I nodded. “I believe it, Bethke.”
“I don’t need your approval anymore!”
Now the blows were coming really fast. She knew what the gambit was, and now was going all-or-nothing. It was hard to keep her back. I was being pushed out of the kitchen, and this was not good.
“Stop-it!” Emily screamed. “Stop trying to hurt Quinn!”
Bethke’s attention was diverted for just one second, and that was all I needed. I locked my leg around hers, bringing her down. In a flash, I was on her. Grabbed her arm and twisted it around her back, burying my knee in to hold her down.
“Are you done?!”
“Fuck you, Pierce! Go to Hell!”
“I ain’t letting you up until I know you’re gonna chill. So are you fucking done?!”
She struggled for a minute, trying to break free, but it was clear she was pinned. Tears started flowing down her face, with her roaring like a wild animal. After another minute, she lay still and cried into the floor. It was a sad cry, with genuine pain mixed with shame for having to be seen like this by someone she was trying to hate. Someone she used to respect.
“I’m gonna let you up now.” I said with the authority of a superior officer. I might not be anymore, but it was a tone I still could do.
Rising, Bethke sat up and stayed there on the floor.
I looked over at Emily.
“Go home, kiddo. We’ll pick this up later.”
“I’m not leaving you alone with this crazy bitch!”
Breathing hard, I looked at her. “It’ll be okay. Trust me. Go on home. I’ll call you later.”
She gave Bethke an ugly look, then headed for the door. Shutting it behind her, the house was strangely still, save for the Johnny Mathis Christmas music in the background. Walking into the kitchen, I grabbed a towel, wetting it a bit. She nailed me good one and it broke skin on my face. Wiping the blood off, I tossed it to her.
Catching it, she wiped her face. My former little STARS sister stood up, walking over to the counter where there were stools and having a seat.
“You okay?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No.”
Nodding, I went into the fridge. Pulled out a bottle of Kahlua, vodka, and cream. A White Russian sounded pretty good right about now. Pouring the drinks, I slid one over to her, being careful not to get too close. I had just given her a potential weapon. She look at it, then took a drink.
“Still can make a good drink, I see.”
We awkwardly sat there, drinking and looking down.
“Why did you come here, B?” I asked finally. “Was it just to pick a fight?”
She shook her head. “No. I wanted answers. Figured if I kicked your ass, you’d be more likely to give them to me.”
I sighed, sitting down on the counter. “You didn’t have to fight me to get answers, Bethke. I would have told you what you wanted to know.”
A saddened grin. “Okay, maybe I partially came here just to fight. You had it coming.”
Taking another drink. “Well, I can’t argue with that.”
Finishing it, my former sister looked at me directly. Her eyes all puffy from crying, with dirt on her face from the floor.
“Why did you leave us, Pierce?”
Thought for a moment, then finished off my drink. “Because I couldn’t get you all involved in what I was planning to do. I knew that it was almost certain that I would go down in flames for this. I couldn’t do that to you and the rest of Alpha Team.”
“We would have gone into Hell for you! After when they did to J, we all wanted revenge.”
“I know that! Don’t think for a second that I didn’t. But I wasn’t going to let you all have to bear that weight for me. This was my burden, and I was going to have to pay for it.”
“But you didn’t! That’s what pissed us off. You got off scot-free.”
Shaking my head. “I got lucky, Bethke. Damn lucky. The person who gave me the intel I needed was willing to make a deal. So I did. I was prepared for this to end with me being tarred and feathered at court-martial. Dishonorably discharged and being spit on by the Navy forever. Dumb, stupid chance saved me.”
Her eyes were wide. “Who gave you your intel?!”
“I can’t tell you that. I guarantee that everything that happened with me and them is locked away in a black ops file that is redacted to beat the dog in some secured vault of IS. I’d be putting you at risk by telling you.”
“It goes that high?!”
“Aye, it does. I knew who would have the intel I needed and I went to get it. Part of me figured I would be killed getting that far. Was the hardest mission I’ve ever done. Things just played out the way they did.”
The fire in her eyes had faded, now replaced by trying to comprehend what she was told.
“Why didn’t you come back to tell us that? Everyone was so angry when we heard the news about your court martial. If you had told us…”
“If I had gone back in there after that, there would be a whole bunch of other women trying to kick my ass. And I couldn’t take all of you. You can’t know how hard it was to think about my sisters hating me. But that was the price I paid for going as far as I did.”
Standing up, brushing herself off, she set down her glass. She started walking toward me. I tensed up, but she stopped there and held out her arms. Set down my drink as well, letting her approach. We hugged gently. Just like my little sister all over again, with her burying her face in my chest.
“I’m sorry, Bethke. I’m so sorry.”
We held each other for a while. Finally, she stepped back.
I looked at her. “Can you tell the others? Let them know why I did it?”
She shook her head. “No. You can. They need to hear it from you.”
Looking down again. “I…I don’t think I can face them.”
“Let me make the call! Alpha Team isn’t active right now. They would come if you called. Let me gather them, and you can tell them what really happened.”
My hands were shaking again. I nodded. “Alright. Make the call. Tell me when they can gather, and I’ll go.”
“Aye-aye!” The youthful smile was back. That look she had when she made big sister happy.
I walked her to the door. Offered to make dinner for her, but she wasn’t interested. Needed time to process everything. I got that. Gave her my number to call after she had gotten the others together. She said that it would take some time to get everyone in the same place, as they could be doing who knows what, and Pennyfeather was on her honeymoon with that guy she had just started dating before I left. Guess they are going strong all these years later.
As she was walking out, she turned around. “I’m…sorry, for hitting you.”
I smiled at her. “Don’t be. Like you said, I had it coming.”
That moment had us standing there, just looking at each other, and the bonds we made in combat spoke. We understood. Time to call Emily and tell her things were okay.
Until next time, a quote,
“From stranger, to battle buddy, to family.” – Anonymous