Title: Bullets by the Door
Summary: Afghanistan was fucking beautiful.
Thanks to seperis, and to Patrick Park for the title from his song of the same title. Title, title, title. Woot.
Morning starts while it's still dark. The barracks stretch restlessly, then stand to attention -- sheets folded back, boots polished, eyes front to the long sandy horizon. John's just another camouflage coat between two soldiers in the mess line, as coffee slops into cups, milk onto cold cereal, he's not anybody's son, anybody's mentor, anybody's protégé. He's just another Air Force guy cleaning his weapon and nodding seriously at the sad, solemn face of his commanding officer as they go through the pre-op briefing. The camp outside masses for the attack, and John's helicopter jumps to life under his hands when he turns it on.
"You ready?" his co-pilot asks, and John lifts them off the ground, dust swirling around them as he grins into the too-bright sunshine. "Feels good to be flying again," he says over the motors, and his co-pilot grunts as he checks the controls. Below them, the Humvees form up, a solid line, and John takes point in the helicopter guard, blending in seamlessly as they swell forward.
The ground beneath them's more red than gold, deep dark crags cut into it. Goats and people scatter as they pass over, and John watches the horizon line, the shining black of the copters in the sky with him, the olive drab of the Humvees beneath them, motors whirring, thumping, beating in time with the steady regular thudding of John's heart.
Afghanistan is fucking beautiful.
It's nothing like the warm pastels of his mother's living room, the cold glass of his father's office, or even the too bright colors of Jessica's apartment -- it's more alive than that, more alive than the green trees, the pale sand he remembers from home. Sweat trickles down the back of his neck, through his hair, past his helmet. Afghanistan's hotter than any desert in America, more alive. A guy behind them in the formation makes a crack about sunbathing, and John laughs out loud, startles his co-pilot into laughing.
"You're in a fucking good mood, Shepperd," says the co-pilot, and John doesn't even know his fucking name - could be anything. "We could all die today," the guy continues, and beneath them a red mountain pushes up on the side of the thin orange road the HumVees are crawling over.
"Yeah, well," John tells him. "Good day to die as any."
That gets him a look, because the co-pilot's looking forward to going back home -- probably some grey town in a grey state, where he'll go out for beer with his buddies, be a cop, or a gym teacher or a construction worker, and say all the same things that people have been saying to John his whole life, pale, meaningless words that are drier than the dust settled into John's hair. America is filled with crowded rooms and claustrophobic conversations, and John feels like he was sleeping his whole life until he woke up to the red sun, the red dirt here.
Classrooms, planes, dining rooms and restaurants -- nothing mattered there, not him, not his father, not his mother, not Jessica. Least of all him, though, he hadn't mattered there, and here, now, he zigs through a canyon, responding to the radio when he's warned about possible ambush sites, and he never knew shit about home, not really. Not there.
When John's not flying, he tries to spend most of his time in the barracks, or outside, talking to the rank and file guys that none of the officers give a shit about. They're quartered in a village outside Kandahar, in a green and grey tent thrown up between the rubble that used to be one house, and the rubble that used to be another. There's usually a pretty good card game going on by the ruins of a wall on the south eastern side of the camp, and John's learning that he's pretty fucking good at poker.
Donaldson, this kid from north Alabama who honest to God sounds like an extra from Forrest Gump, has some kind of inexhaustible source of contraband alcohol, and is always cheerful about losing. So, when he's playing, John makes it a point to sit in. The other officers always look at John like he's some kind of fool when he slinks out of their tent down to the game, but like he gives a shit what they think.
The other officers are assholes who are trying to turn Afghanistan into everything John ever hated about home, what with their stupid stories about Generals noticing this, or that, or the other thing, or reporters getting them on camera, or getting their name quoted in some bullshit story for another jingoistic newspaper. They spend most of their time spit polishing the General's ass with their tongues, and it's every dinner party he's ever been to, with people scraping and bowing and falling all over themselves to get his father's attention, and it's pointless. It's meaningless.
When John sits back and feels the sun warmed stones against his t-shirt and lights a thick, expensive cigar he won off the kid sitting next to him two hands back and feels Donaldson's secret stash of whiskey burning down his throat and lays down a straight flush for the fourth time in three nights, the enlisted men around him shake their heads, clap his shoulder, smile at him say, "Shepperd, you're a damned machine," and he's one of them, just like that. No Major, no "yes sir", but a couple of "Fuck you"s and a lot of grinning all around.
He didn't have to come here. His dad offered to pull a few strings, get him assigned to the Pentagon, with some kind of cushy paper pushing job and no danger. Donaldson deals out another hand, says, "Thought I'd counted all the aces in this deck, but flyboy over there keeps coming up with new ones. Funny, that," and they all laugh. John flips him off and blows a ring of smoke up into the purple sky, and he's fucking glad he's there, fucking *glad*.
The officer's tent is the smallest, dankest place in the whole world, and John hates it almost as much as he hates the maps that cover every surface of the place, almost as much as he hates the ass jockeys shouting over one another, each with a plan fucking stupider than the last one. The Colonel's a nice enough guy, but he listens to them too much, argues back, and they don't know what the hell they're talking about. If John said something, he'd probably listen to that, too, but it's not worth it. It's not worth a damned thing to say shit in this tent, because even if the bastards do stop talking long enough to listen, they don't *hear*, they're too busy smiling at their own strategies, too busy being pleased with themselves and thinking about how fast they can climb up the ranks. The officer's tent is a ladder, and John is just not interested in climbing.
He wants to be back outside, in his helicopter, in the card game, walking through the village, whatever. He wants to be back with the men, who are actual people, instead of these strategies shaped like people.
He doesn't say shit unless spoken to, and when the Colonel's blood shot eyes land on him, John slouches further down in his chair. "Anything you want to add, Major?" the Colonel asks, and John thinks about not even answering, thinks about it so long that everyone there stiffens slightly, and the Colonel's eyebrows go up with impatience. "Major?" he repeats, and John blows out a long breath.
"Just that it won't work," he says finally, and it's quiet for like ten seconds before the whole tent explodes with argument again and he sits back, bored, and stares at the sun coming through the camo patterns on fabric above him. It takes another four hours before they agree on the original stupid plan, and that's how he gets the reputation for starting trouble before he even does a damned thing.
Everybody else gets excited for their turn to send emails home. Once a week they get shepherded to the computer lab, told they've got an hour or so to write their loved ones. Mail call comes every two weeks, with fat envelopes and care packages from the States rolling in. Jessica sends him a pair of sunglasses that he even wears, and more than a few pictures that end up in his trunk instead of stuck by his bed.
John writes his dad, writes Jess, tells them he's doing okay, and that's about it. Other guys write these long, long emails, and real letters on real paper, taking up like whole notebooks. The really young ones cry sometimes at night, clutching photographs like lifelines, and John just doesn't get it.
"I miss you so much it hurts," Jessica writes him, but it's buried between all of these paragraphs about who's sleeping with who, and what's happening with celebrity gossip and stupid conversations from dinner parties John would have found a way out of if he'd been there to go. John's dad pretty much just always tells him to be careful, and then cuts and pastes from the New York Times.
At first, he felt like there was something wrong with him, some kind of lack because he couldn't really bring himself to get too worked up over the people back home. He still feels like that sometimes, mainly when he's reading the snail mail letters Jess sends that are all blotched all over from tears. He *should* miss her, and he gets that. He does.
He just doesn't.
And maybe there *is* something wrong with him. But more often, he thinks that there's something wrong with Jess, with his father, with the whole fucking world outside his camp, because who the hell cares which chick Tom Cruise is going after, or who won the Oscar for best actor? How can anyone even give a shit about that kind of thing when every single breath John takes here is one that helps him protect the guys around him, helps him take care of his men, helps him learn the lay of this land so well that he could be set down anywhere within twenty clicks of their position and find his way back in time for a meal.
He doesn't have time for anything else, and sometimes, he's surprised he ever did.
There is a shitstorm happening on the ground beneath him, and John can't get close enough to help. He's barking orders into the radio, responding to his senior officer's commands, banking and diving and firing, and his co-pilot's hand is shaking. There's a blast somewhere to John's left, glass and metal crunching, the hiss of fire, and then a whine as a chopper goes down, so he doesn't even need to hear the frantic "Chopper down! Chopper down!" buzzing in his ear to know what just happened.
He breaks away from formation following the wreck, yells, "Who was that? Who went down?" into his headpiece, and his co-pilot’a voice breaks when he answers. Below them, the fire is ebbing, men flowing back to the transports in waves as they retreat.
The hit chopper goes down behind enemy lines, and even when the Colonel's voice starts bleating over the headset for all units to return to base, John orders them to keep steady, provide cover, and puts down beside them. There are bullets everywhere, his co-pilot sending a round in front of them as John races over the rocks, toward the screaming of his men. Something hot and sharp tears into his shoulder, his thigh, and John keeps running until he's burning his hands on the melting sole of one man's boots, then another. They're burned black, burned bad, but when John asks them, "Can you fire a gun?" they both nod, bleeding.
"Okay," John says, grinning at them like a maniac, "Nice landing, let's go," and the air is hot and bursting through his lungs, all three of them supporting one another, a desperate three-legged race back to the shining black of his Mojave where his co-pilot waits looking drawn, tight, terrified. Hovering overhead is the rest of the formation, two more choppers laying down enough fire to make them a road all the way home. He can see the faces of the people they're fighting, the faces of his men on the other side of them, the faces of his pilots overhead keeping them safe. He can smell the sweat of the men beside him, and he's only two steps away from the chopper when he goes down. He doesn't feel himself get hit, just feels the ground beneath him, and the hands pulling him up, as he stares at the sky above him, and it doesn't hurt.
It doesn't hurt at all, because it's just John, the men, and beyond them all the whole damned world stretching out, blue and red, and black, and John laughs. He laughs with his whole broken body as they hand him into the chopper, as they take off, as someone keeps screaming, "Oh shit, oh shit, he's losing a lot of blood, shit, shit, shit!"
Oh, he thinks, giddy, I get it, I *get* it, and he thinks about Jess' red blotched face when she saw him off, her white knuckled hands, the stern lines of his father's face, and he understands that they love him. He thinks about Jess, and he hopes he'll get to see her again, her thin face and her bright eyes and her loud laugh, and she really is beautiful, he thinks, his eyes drooping closed. They're both beautiful, they're all beautiful, and John loves them as his heart pumps weakly and the choppers speed back to the base.
He loves them and the men around him, and the men they're fighting, and this country and it seems like he's been reaching for something his whole life that he's just now finding. He doesn’t know what to call it – peace, love, understanding, goodwill toward men, whatthefuckever – but there it is, right there in the sky, in the blood colored dirt, painted over everything like a gloss. This is world is all there is, and it is enough, it is more than enough, it is wonderful, John thinks. And if only he can keep hold of that when he wakes up, he thinks, eyes drooping closed. God, if only he can keep hold of it, he’ll always have this in him, this laughter, this calm, this love. If only.