He Will My Shield and Portion Be

by Himawari (ヒマワリ)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/287118.html)

Dawn over Bagram Airfield was a dull gray. A high ceiling of clouds softened the morning. Dust, that thick Afghan dust that rose from every road and covered every building, tree, and plane, was rising from the paved roads and the dirt paths between buildings. It blurred the outlines of the Hindu Kush rising up in the distance beyond the base and the town, snow-covered and angular against the growing light. Chaplain Aaron Kiko trudged from his quarters up Disney Drive toward the chapel, his booted feet stirring up more dust as he went. The chapel was his, and these were his airmen, at least for the moment.

Kiko was greeted by airmen and contractors and a few soldiers alike. Some were going for morning runs in their physical training uniforms and garish visibility belts while the road was closed off, while others hustled to or from their work shifts. Many were going to dining facilities for breakfast, or to the post exchange for toothpaste or protein powder or magazines. The steady stream of “Good morning, Chaplain,” “Hey, Chaplain,” “How’s it going, Chaplain?” broke up the trip. A few saluted, but only a few, which was just fine with him. The base hummed with activity from vehicles and the roar of planes coming and going, even at this hour. That hum never stopped.

There were still times when Kiko loved the hum and roar of the airfield, even though the din grated on everyone’s nerves most of the time. The noise was constant, with flying machines coming and going at all hours, construction all day, and motor vehicles passing constantly. The aircraft arriving and departing from the flightline were still beautiful as they banked in the air over and in front of the mountains. Sometimes it was the loud whoosh of a F-15 Strike Eagle trailing well behind the tiny outline of the craft streaking into the clouds, or the incredibly loud whine of C-5 Galaxy engines as the enormous cargo birds lumbered on and off of the airfield like mechanized bumblebees, appearing too slow and heavy to stay in the sky. Every day it was the roar of turboprops on HC-130 Combat King airborne refueling units as they took off, and the growl and thump of HH-60 Pave Hawks as they beat the air overhead. Many airmen became so immune to the flying machines around them that they no longer looked up for anything less than the mortar alarms, but Kiko still stopped to watch or listen when he could.

There wasn’t much time to stop and watch on a base of thirty-five thousand personnel. Days like this Sunday were particularly exhausting: he’d been up until almost midnight, between sitting with various soldiers after his evening meal and planning a memorial service for the next afternoon, and had fallen into bed, for once too tired to lie awake thinking about the grieving soldiers he had counseled that day. Still, he appreciated the routine of being on base. Kiko’s first tour as a war zone chaplain had been as a modern-day circuit preacher of sorts. He’d made the rounds to forward operating bases throughout the south of the country, holding services and counseling soldiers and airmen in all sorts of conditions, through all sorts of troubles, leading worship amidst rocket fire and reading meditations by the red light of his headlamp.

Bagram was different because it was a small city, and still a small city, even though a troop drawdown had been announced. While many personnel passed through his chapel during a few days on base, many more were here for months at a time. Military life here was a slow grind punctuated by fear of regular indirect fire, even for those who never left the confines of the base. Personnel were packed into close quarters, drinkable water was scarce, dust perpetually covered everything, and communications from home weren’t always good news. Kiko would run two regular Sunday services today, plus the memorial service and pastoral care sessions.

The chapel was a painted plywood B-hut, much less permanent than the corrugated relocatable container housing Kiko was living in on base, but they’d done their best to make it a place of rest and comfort, with icicle lights clipped to the roof line and double-width doors to make it look a little more church-like. Kiko was almost to the chapel door when someone clapped him on the back.

“Hey Chaplain, miss me?” drawled a familiar voice from behind him. He turned around, into the handshake and arm slap of a bro hug from the man behind him. His pulse quickened as he carefully reached to reciprocate the bro hug, catching a glimpse of the name patch reading PHIL MISAJON on the breast of the man’s flight suit. He was careful not to hang on too long, no matter how much he wanted to.

“Hi! Did you just get in?” he asked, a little too loudly, and he couldn’t hide his smile. Keeping it casual in public was habit, but it was still hard, especially when he hadn’t seen Misajon in weeks. They’d met when Misajon’s unit was in pre-deployment briefings and training, in the bar across town from base that many gay servicemembers quietly frequented. Talking with Misajon hadn’t felt at all like the conversations Kiko had when counseling airmen at work. They just talked about having grown up in boisterous Catholic families but having left the Church, and about various adventures they’d had along the way, getting giggly and reminiscent and comfortable with each other over their beers. Kiko had shared his number and invited Misajon over to his house for pizza and a movie, pizza which had ended up getting cold while they ignored the movie.

It was Misajon’s first tour, and he was in and out of Bagram from time to time, going out to FOBs that Kiko had served on his first tour, and back for parts or maintenance or flight training. Kiko had gotten his deployment orders the day before Misajon shipped over, so while they both expected their new relationship might fizzle under the strain of a tour, they kept in touch. Sometimes Misajon showed up at Bagram on zero notice, for maintenance or briefings.

“Little while ago, yeah,” Misajon said, shrugging and slinging his bulky helmet and faceshield assembly over one shoulder, his grin bright and pilot-cocky even in the dust and mist of the early morning, just a little too radiant for a man greeting a fellow soldier. He was taller than Kiko, and the flight suit made him even more long and lean, compared to Kiko’s wider shoulders and his sturdy, bulky combat uniform. “I gotta get some sleep, then I got a reset day, longer if they have to fly in a part to fix my chopper. Good to see you….” He trailed off, but Kiko could hear the unspoken “Aaron” that Misajon–Phil–didn’t say.

Kiko felt a smile spread across his face. “Glad you’re here. I have about a Sunday and a half ahead of me, but can I catch up with you after that?” After a moment, he added, “And you’re welcome at a service, of course,” He gestured toward the chapel behind him, “but get some sleep, man.”

Misajon’s smile lit up his face. “I will. Text me when you’re done, if you’re not asleep on your feet by then,” Misajon said, falling in beside him. They walked the last few steps to the chapel together, and Kiko bent to undo the latch on the door, but it was already undone. That meant Gonzales-Martinez was already there, and Kiko sighed inwardly, wishing that just for once his chaplain assistant had been a little late to work.

Senior Airman Gonzales-Martinez was inside, with her laptop already fired up and praise music merrily playing from an iPod dock as she sorted through orders of service and paperwork on the worktable by the door. The ductless air conditioning units were already fired up, circulating cooler air in the stale environment of the B-hut, and she’d already found their vestments and hung them over the open door of the little closet in one corner that they used for storage and changing. When she caught sight of the two officers, she snapped to attention, clearly itching to salute even in the chapel. “Sirs!”

“Good morning, Airman, as you were,” Kiko said as they nodded acknowledgement. “You remember Major Misajon?”

“I do, sir!” Gonzales-Martinez said, stepping forward. “Will you be joining us for services this morning, sir?”

Misajon smiled. “No, Airman, but I appreciate the invite. I’ve gotta try to sleep through all this racket. Keep Chaplain Kiko on the up-and-up today, all right?”

“Of course, sir!”

Misajon turned to leave, giving Kiko a clandestine grin as he did so. “Praise God and pass the ammunition!”

“Amen,” Kiko said, trying to keep his face kindly neutral as he watched the pilot leave. Then he turned back to his assistant, and took out his own laptop and service notes. “Okay, let’s get started.”

Every service brought together a different group of people on base, though there were some regulars. There were always going to be soldiers and airmen who might be coming off shift or about to go on shift, or having a reset day. There weren’t “days off” in a combat zone, only reset days, subject to the needs of the chain of command and the whim of the enemy. The shifting nature of the congregants meant that while Kiko did prepare some remarks to say at services, he generally left room in them to incorporate things he heard from the service members as they congregated, and to respond to the current life of the base. He usually didn’t go so far as to read scuttlebutt from the websites run by soldiers stationed on base, because he didn’t need to; things he heard airmen say as they approached the chapel, and heard in DFAC, were usually enough.

This morning, as usual, he stood just outside the chapel doors, just to the right of the cheery floor mat saying “WELCOME!” in six languages, and greeted everyone who entered. In a more temperate climate he would have thrown the chapel doors open, but the dust of Bagram made that untenable. Men and women shook his hand, some of them exchanging words of greeting, some of them only nodding tiredly as they took their places inside. He encouraged them to fill out the intention cards just inside the door, with first names and a joy or sorrow they would like the assembly to pray for or keep in their hearts. It was a pretty full house that morning, and a number of the airmen in attendance bore combat aviation brigade patches. This pleased Kiko, because he knew those mechanics were some of the most overworked people on base.

One of the compromises Kiko had made with his assistant, as part of a Religious Support Team of mixed faiths, was to let her play some of her amazing collection of praise music before services started. Her choices evoked her evangelical upbringing, and her work as a deacon and music director in her congregation back home in Baltimore. He’d had some fears that it would frighten away some of the more universalist and questioning people he hoped to reach with his base ministry, but that had been unfounded. Word had rapidly spread that one of the USAF’s rare Unitarian Universalist ministers was serving at Bagram, and the services usually hosted a variety of faiths and states of questioning. This was just as it should be. To her credit Gonzales-Martinez held up her end of the deal, greeting fellow evangelicals and agnostics alike and welcoming them all, whether they greeted her as a sister in Christ or simply as a fellow airman. She passed out orders of service as the plain wooden bench seats quickly filled up.

Kiko began this first service of the day simply, by ringing the hollow tube chimes hanging at the front of the chapel. As Gonzales-Martinez put her guitar strap over her head, he said: “Welcome, all of you who are gathered here now! Welcome, to this day and to this place, to a time when you can rest from your duties elsewhere, to a place that knows no rank nor branch, to a gathering for all, men and women, people of every race and nation, civilian or in uniform. Welcome. We will begin with a song that many of you know, and we invite you to join in song.” Gonzales-Martinez plucked the leading notes to “Amazing Grace,” and everyone joined in for the first verse.

By the second verse, the congregation’s voices sounded a little stronger, particularly on “and grace my fears relieved.” There were four verses listed in the service order flyer, and the congregation seemed ready to really belt it through the dangers, toils, and snares. Which was just as well, Kiko was thinking, as that was the point of this song, when the electronic clanging of the indirect fire alarm went off over their heads.

The congregation burst into action, ducking around the benches to find flat spaces to lay, as the secondary alarm began its recorded chant of, “INCOMING, INCOMING, INCOMING!” over them. Gonzales-Martinez tugged hard on the strap of her guitar with one hand to flip the instrument behind her as she hit the floor, the body of the instrument thumping against her back. Even as he made certain everyone was down and lifted his hands to cover his ears, he wondered if she’d practiced the fluid motion before.

Kiko began counting aloud, lying facedown on the floor among his congregation, to mark the length of the alert. Chaplain or not, he was responsible for the safety of these servicemembers. Non-combatant or not, he would have to start moving them to the bunker outside if the all-clear hadn’t begun in thirty seconds. The nearby alarm wasn’t the only one going off, which meant a larger segment of the base was under fire right now. He kept counting, partly for the count and partly to mark the time for the men and women on his chapel floor.

When he hit thirty and the alarms were still sounding, he and Gonzales-Martinez got up on their knees, and Kiko shouted to the room, “Outside, shelter’s out the door and to the left, go, go, go!” And everyone began to move again, rising to their feet and jogging for the door, helping each other up as they went. He and his assistant stayed to the back of the crowd, clearing the chapel and leaving last. Gonzales-Martinez deposited her guitar in its open case as they left the building.

Outside, the sounds of the IDF alarms were even louder, and in the distance they could hear one of the automated C-RAM systems fire back at an incoming projectile, the blurt of the Gatling like someone ripping a giant cloth. Then a nearer C-RAM fired, the sound almost on top of them and deafeningly loud, startling a few airmen nearly off their feet as they rounded the corner outside the chapel. Everyone put on a burst of speed to get into the makeshift bunker, ducking around the front barrier and into the cave-like interior of the pre-formed slab concrete shell. The shelter was low enough that most of the people in it had to stoop, and many had already found places to lean against the walls, leaving the middle for more people to file in.

Mutters of “Aww, shit!” and “Fuck, God DAMN it!” from the shaken men and women were followed by mutters of, “Sorry, Chaplain.” Kiko waved the apologies away with a smile and a few pats on shoulders as he ducked to the center of the crowded bunker. The alarms continued, outside, and there was another burst of C-RAM fire from the nearby battery, only somewhat muffled by the walls of the shelter. Everyone was breathing faster, and he could see the flush as adrenaline coursed through their bodies. He took a deep breath to steady his voice before speaking.

“Well, speaking of dangers, toils, and snares, here we all are,” Kiko said, to nervous laughter from the crowd, and he could see their level of watchfulness fall a notch. “Any injuries? Everyone accounted for?” There was an uneasy little murmur as everyone looked around them, but no one volunteered any problems. “Good job, everyone, it’s not like we practice evacuating the chapel during a service very often, but–”

A shell whistled loudly overhead. Kiko had a split-second to see the winces on the faces around him, and began to duck and cover his ears himself, and then there was the loud, slamming boom as it struck and exploded. The ground and the shelter shook, knocking a few people into their neighbors, and everyone reached to steady themselves. Another round of varied exclaiming and cursing went up, and this time, no one apologized. Kiko wasn’t sure but he might have been one of them.

It took Kiko a few seconds to find his voice. “Okay, everyone still all right?” There was a mutter of assent. He tried to think of what else to say, and came up empty. A few seconds ticked by, and he listened to his breath and everyone’s breath, puffing around him, frightened but controlled.

“Sir, let’s start verse three over again,” Gonzales-Martinez volunteered. A few airmen pulled orders of service from their pockets.

Kiko nodded. “Give us a note then, Airman, please.” She hummed a beginning note, which Kiko echoed, and the hum spread throughout the room. “Through many dangers, toils and snares / I have already come,” they sang, some solemn and some smiling at the fitting lyrics, and Kiko couldn’t blame them at all. Though some still looked very shaken, their voices got stronger as they finished one verse and started the next, rising in unison over the alarms. It reminded Kiko of singing a capella praise music with some of his high school friends, in their church that didn’t use musical instruments in worship.

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise / Than when we’ve first begun,” they sang, finishing the printed lyrics, their voices filling the small bunker. By the time the song ended, the IDF alarm had ended, and some of them were even smiling.

“So now we wait,” Kiko said to them, “As is so much of our work during deployment: waiting, keeping watch, keeping the faith. We know that parts of deployment are frustratingly dull, and that keeping watch and waiting can be as tiring as the adrenaline we feel at times like this. All of it wears on the soul, and that is why we come together to–”

And the rising and holding horn of the all clear alarm sounded, as the crowd of servicemen and women in the bunker breathed a shared sigh of relief.

“–to hear the All Clear and hope that there’s not another IDF alarm in ten minutes,” Kiko said, getting more chuckles from the group. “Field trip’s over.”

The assembled soldiers and airmen seemed to rally as they trooped back into the chapel, chatting quietly amongst themselves. Once inside, the service continued with the lighting of the Chalice, the sharing of readings, and the sharing of joys and sorrows. Kiko invited them to come back to talk or to worship later on, whenever they could. “Whether something happened to you today, or yesterday, or happened a while ago; whether it’s something you saw or heard or not enough sleep and the same old food and snoring hut-mates: please, come and see us, come and celebrate with us. You may have the urge to bury yourself in your work, but please don’t; come and talk with us, we’re here to help you. And until you come back here or until you return to your homes and your families and friends, be safe out there, and know that the thoughts and prayers of so many people go with you. Please join hands with your neighbors.” They did.

He stepped to the Chalice and put out the candle, and then raised his hands to give a closing benediction. “We extinguish this flame but not the light that we will take out into the world, and hold in our hearts until we meet again, here, or with those we love, wherever in the world our paths take us.”

Gonzales-Martinez struck up the chords of “Let Us Break Bread Together” as he continued.

“May those who love us lend us strength; may our comrades lend us cheer; may our works make the world we live in a better place. May the peace of this place and this community sustain us now and after we return home.” Kiko let his hands fall to his sides as the congregation began to move, chatting and shaking hands and coming forward to shake his hand. He let the routine of Sunday overtake him, talking with airmen and soldiers as if it were a normal service, even though it had been anything but.

They went on with the day, reusing the same service order and hymns in the room under the control tower that served as the flightline chapel. Here it was flight crew, some still in their visibility vests and belts, with earphones around their necks. The room here was darker and duller, with the fake wood panelling typical of prefabricated office blocks, and very little decoration, unlike the chapel Kiko’s team called home. Kiko found that the energy he’d brought to the first service and the conviction with which he’d said the benediction had waned a little, though the congregants seemed to appreciate it just as much. By the time the flightline service was over and he and Gonzales-Martinez were sitting down to a quick lunch in Dragon DFAC, he was happy for the break.

The afternoon memorial service was harder. Unit memorial services were just hard, full stop. They were intended to be held soon after a death and to be highly personal, and most succeeded in being brutal in their simplicity.

Staff Sergeant John Forbes had been deployed with the 755th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron, and he had been killed, Kiko was told, by insurgent small arms fire on patrol. Kiko had spent some time, the day before, helping Forbes’ comrades choose music and readings that fit. It always struck Kiko when planning these services how young most of the casualties were, and how young their grieving young friends were. It was an age group he associated with college kids, with his own college friends. Here they were, young people serving across the world from their homes, living in B-huts instead of dorms and eating horrible DFAC food instead of horrible dorm food. No matter how much they joked about the food and the parking tickets, these young people had far, far bigger worries than getting to class on time or finding a designated driver. Kiko had lost a college classmate to a drunk driver as a younger man, and every time he met with grieving comrades, it brought a little of that back: this could have been him, if he’d served as an enlisted man, earlier in life.

Forbes’ friends, a solemn young woman named Staff Sergeant Procopio and a tall, awkward man named Senior Airman Harris, had spoken quietly at the planning meeting about the things Forbes had enjoyed. The man had played guitar and been a demon at Mario Kart. He had loved Alison Krauss and Dire Straits and had referred to Meryl Streep as “his movie star girlfriend.” He had been the man who sang “Money For Nothing” way too loud and way too early in the morning, and who got a little weepy over Finding Nemo that one time, which nobody had ever let him live down.

The service was held on a parade ground outside the unit headquarters near the west perimeter, with a small podium set up and a battlefield cross made of Forbes’ rifle, helmet, and boots. Memorials had a standard format, and didn’t require a chaplain, though most of the time a unit requested one. Someone had found the Alison Krauss version of “Be Thou My Vision” to play for prelude over the address system. The unit commander led the ceremony, directing them through the posting of the colors and the singing of the national anthem, for which Gonzales-Martinez played her guitar. Then he invited Chaplain Kiko up to give an invocation.

“In this time of grief,” he began, “we come together to pay tribute to a comrade, to his life and his sacrifices, and to take comfort in commemorating him. We ask blessings and comfort to be bestowed on his family and all of those that loved him. Bless all those who have gathered here, and will gather at home, to celebrate the life of Staff Sergeant Forbes. Help us to appreciate the gifts you give us, and give us those brief moments of peace and beauty in the long days we spend in the sun and the dust. Help us to remember the joyous times we had with our comrade, and to take comfort from them as we mourn his loss. Amen.”

The assembly murmured an “Amen” in response, as Kiko looked over them and into the mountains in the distance. The outline of the mountains was sharp and breathtaking at that moment, bathed in the harsh sunlight of high altitude, the morning haze long gone. Had Forbes been looking at those mountains the morning he was killed? Kiko snapped back to the present and nodded to Staff Sergeant Procopio before stepping down.

Procopio came forward to read a psalm, her voice strong in the thin air. Then Senior Airman Harris came forward, and read “To An Athlete Dying Young.”

“And set you at your threshold down / Townsman of a stiller town,” he read, his voice quavering a bit. It sounded a little odd, his modern, middle-American accent reading a Victorian poem about death, but Forbes had loved Out of Africa, they’d said, and watched it on his laptop a lot on deployment.

They played “Brothers in Arms” over the address system then, and Kiko found himself looking up at the mountains again, even though they weren’t mist-covered like the song said. Where was home for Forbes, Kiko wondered? And where was home for the rest of the airmen assembled? The song mentioned returning home, and as it ended and the quiet meditation period began, Kiko found himself thinking of his own home, of going to the ocean in Delaware, of driving across Pennsylvania to visit his sisters. He hadn’t talked to either of them in at least two weeks, because he saved his morale calls and occasional Skype calls to phone his mother in Ohio.

The unit commander spoke for a while in tribute to Forbes, but Kiko hardly heard his words. The chaplain thought his own thoughts as he waited for the unit commander to finish speaking, only coming back to the present again when it was time to step up and present the Benediction.

“As we end this celebration of our comrade’s life and what he gave for us, we will go back to our jobs and also continue with the hard work of grieving. Let us take comfort in each other. While it may be easier to hide in work than to face our grief and loss, may we find ways to share those feelings with each other. As we share our sadness, may these shared experiences build our strength as comrades in arms, our connections to loved ones at home, and help us to protect and serve one another on the battlefield and throughout our lives.”

The address system began playing “Amazing Grace,” and while he was practiced enough not to show it, hearing the song a third time today struck him as just a little bit hilarious. As they were walking back to the chapel after the memorial service, it came to Kiko: he was so done with this deployment. He had eight weeks left, he knew that, but he was terribly burnt out for only four weeks back from R and R. He didn’t remember burning out that fast, the last time. Maybe he was getting old?

But the work wasn’t finished, because the first of the afternoon pastoral care appointments was waiting on the chapel porch when they pulled up. He was a tall, thin man with short blond hair, wearing Master Sergeant stripes. His name tape said Hill. Gonzales-Martinez let them both into the chapel, and then took the truck off to run errands.

Hill and Kiko sat down on the benches in the chapel.

“How’s life on base, Sergeant?” Kiko began.

“Well, pretty good. My men are good. We have a lot of work, but we can do it. Long hours, but that means we’re too busy to miss home much.” The man came to a stop.

Kiko waited some seconds before asking another question: “How long have you been deployed?”

“Four months, Chaplain, so I expect to be home some time in July.”

“That’s good, that’s when I expect to be home, too.” Kiko stopped and waited again.

“The thing is, chaplain–” Hill stopped to think. “I’m not even sure how to talk about it. I’m worried I won’t be able to keep commanding my men.”

“Why’s that, Sergeant?” Kiko feared he knew what was coming.

“I don’t have any homosexuals in my squadron, and I don’t want any! They keep talking about it, how they’re going to let them serve, and… how can I command gay men? It’s against God’s law.” Hill paused for breath, and Kiko sat and nodded, and just listened as the man went on.

It was May. Some folks had had their training on how to deal with gay servicemembers, as the Department of Defense rolled out what looked like an end to the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and it sounded like this man hadn’t had it yet. He might very well have a gay airman in his unit, though obviously if there were any, they hadn’t let on to him. Or perhaps he suspected, and was just in denial.

Every airman who came through Kiko’s door with this sort of problem was a little different. Kiko asked them how they treated others whose religious code wasn’t the same as theirs. There had been a day when the airman’s response had been that he didn’t hold with people dating outside their race, and that day had straight-up sucked. Today, Hill talked about how he dealt with his men who were living with a girlfriend outside of marriage, how he knew they were fornicators, and how he shut his men down when they got crass, but generally let them be. This was better than some commanders Kiko had talked with, at least.

“The training may help, so see what you think after you’ve had it,” Kiko said. “Public display of affection isn’t any more allowed for gay airmen than for anyone else, Sergeant, if that sets you at ease at all.” And boy, don’t I know it, he thought, thinking of Phil Misajon.

At the end of their conversation, the Master Sergeant Hill shook Kiko’s hand in both of his, apparently much relieved. “Thank you, Chaplain, this is a weight off my chest.”

“Glad to help, Sergeant. Godspeed, and if you need to talk some more, you know how to reach me.” Kiko wondered what the man would think if he knew his Chaplain was one of those homosexuals. He suspected Hill wouldn’t be shaking his hand so thankfully if he knew how much dick it had touched over the years. Kiko suppressed a snort at that thought, and then tried to put it out of his mind through the rest of the pastoral care sessions.

Kiko hadn’t gone to get dinner yet by the time darkness fell. He sat at the table in the back of the chapel, writing a report to his command on his laptop. It felt familiar and safe to keep working, keep typing things up, keep following procedures. Easier than his own thoughts, after a day this long.

“All right, good night, Chaplain,” Gonzales-Martinez said, and turned to the door. Kiko went back to his laptop, and it was a moment before he realized she hadn’t left yet. He looked up, and found that she had turned back to look at him. “You know, what you said about staying at work to avoid the rest of your life goes for you too, sir.”

Kiko sighed and leaned his head on one hand, elbow on the table, while he looked up at her. “I know. I’ll go soon, I’ve just gotta put a few more thoughts in order. Thanks, Raquel.” He considered saying something more, but discarded it almost immediately. He outranked her, he rationalized, and he didn’t want to stand in the way of whatever plans she had for decompressing. He realized he’d been sitting there, thinking and staring, for a few seconds, and he shook his head a bit. “Yeah, I’m almost done.”

Gonzales-Martinez pursed her lips and ran her fingers through her short hair before replacing her cap on her head, not acknowledging his pause. “Maybe you should text Major Misajon, sir, he always seems to cheer you up. He seems like really good people.”

“He is. I’ll do that.” He patted his trouser pocket for his phone. “But take your own advice, Airman. Have a good night!”

“Thanks again, sir. Good night.” Giving him just a hint of a fond smile, she turned and left, closing the door carefully behind her.

He began tapping out a message:

Still at chapel wrapping up have you had dinner yet?

He finished it, pressed send, and went back to his reports. Before long, the phone pinged, indicating a new message, and he thumbed the display open.

Hold position bringing dinner from DFAC.

He smiled, looking down at the phone, and went back to the paperwork again.

After a while, Kiko had lost track of how long, there was a knock on the chapel door. “It’s open!” he yelled, and then regretted it, because what if it was not Misajon, but was someone in need of pastoral care? He began to rise to his feet as the door opened.

But it was Misajon, with dinner. Or possibly Misajon needed pastoral care too, but after today, God in heaven, Kiko hoped not.

“Okay, we’ve got options!” Misajon exclaimed as he carried in a stack of disposable DFAC containers. “Bratwurst, sauerkraut, a couple of cheeseburgers, black beans, greens, I hope you’re hungry.” He set the boxes down. “Hi there,” he said, looking at Kiko across the table with an expectant grin. His naturally tan skin seemed darker under the fluorescent lights than it was under the sun. Misajon wore his hair trimmed very close, to minimize his receding hairline, and because he said longer hair just made him look like Kim Jong Il in Nomex. Kiko just thought he looked sexy as fuck, tall and tanned in those flight suits.

“Hi,” Kiko said, feeling a rush of relief. “Thank you for bringing food.”

“No problem.” He passed Kiko a box and a fork. “Just dig in, we can swap if you want more of something.”

“Thanks.” Suddenly starving, Kiko opened the box and picked up a bratwurst in a bun. He took a bite, and sat back. More of the tension drained from his shoulders, but more of the emptiness seeped in. He took another bite, and looked down at the sausage as he chewed. “Wow, I’m so hungry this actually tastes good.”

“That’s not going to last long,” Misajon said, pulling out a bottle of labuyo hot pepper sauce and thumbing the cap off with one hand. He poured a liberal ring of it on the inside of a cheeseburger bun. He passed the bottle over. “My sister sent more from California. Joyride to Manila for more has been cancelled.”

“Bless her. Thought you were hoarding your hot sauce?”

“It was easier than smuggling a bottle of Texas Pete out of DFAC.”

Kiko shook his head as he poured hot sauce on the bratwurst, and leaned one elbow on the table as he took another bite. He swallowed, and nodded. “Yeah, that’s better,” he said tiredly, “Now if only my sisters could ship wax peppers over.” It came out a little sadder than he intended.

Misajon put his hand over Kiko’s where it rested on the table.

Kiko pulled his hand back, shaking his head. “Don’t. Someone might come in.” That’s the last thing I need, he thought. Damn stupid DADT. Damn stupid deployment.

“Nobody’s gonna come in. It’s Sunday night. It’s almost not an issue anymore.”

He shook his head again. “Still don’t wanna take chances.” He reached for the bottle, to put a little more hot sauce on his food.

“Aaron, you’re shaking.”

Kiko sighed, and that came out a little shaky too. “I’m fine. I’m just hungry.”

Misajon sat back and crossed his arms. “No you’re not. What happened today?”

“Nothing. I don’t know. It was a little crazy, and it was really long, and there was a lot to do. We had an, I dunno, an IDF alarm during the morning service, and that threw the whole day off.” Kiko started on a cheeseburger, putting hot sauce on it, too.

Misajon leaned in. “Dude, you had an IDF alarm while you were trying to preach?”

“Not then, before that. During the first hymn. It was– it went fine, we got everyone to the bunker.”

“You hear any mortars?”

“Yeah, right over our heads.”

“Jesus Christ, Aaron!”

Kiko put his hands to his ears. “God, just… not in the chapel, okay?” He pushed back from the table. “Look, can you let me finish eating? I’m sorry, I can’t fight and eat at the same time, and I really need to eat.”

Misajon sighed. “Sorry. Eat.” They munched in silence for a while. Kiko finished the cheeseburger and attacked the black beans with more hot sauce. Labuyo was good on black beans. Maybe his sisters could find someone who still pickled Hungarian wax peppers and send him some. Or at least some jarred horseradish. This was crazy; he was even starting to miss his mom’s cabbage rolls, which he’d hated as a kid.

“Whatcha thinkin’ ’bout?” Misajon mumbled around a bratwurst.

“My mom’s cooking.” Kiko took a deep breath and didn’t dare look up. “You wanna road trip some time when we both have leave? I’ll take you to see my family.” God, this was a terrible idea, Misajon was never going to–

“Yeah. I’d love to,” Misajon replied. “Think your mom will like that you’re seeing a helicopter pilot?” Kiko looked up, speechless, to find Misajon smiling at him. He looked fond. He put one hand out across the table, palm up, not touching Kiko’s. Just resting it there. Kiko didn’t answer. He didn’t know what to say.

“You know I think you have one of the hardest jobs out here?” Misajon asked him, after a while.

“How’s that? I talk for a living.” Kiko was in no mood to put any gloss on it.

“Here’s what I think,” Misajon said, licking a little hot sauce off his other hand, and mashing a paper napkin as he talked. Damn, the man even made that look sexy. “When there’s trouble, you’re the only guy that can’t shoot back. And it’s not like there’s much you can do about IDF except take cover.”

“I have the baddest-ass deacon ever as my assistant, and she’s carrying, that’s gotta count for something, right?” Kiko countered.

“That may be.” Misajon said, “But seriously, call one of the other chaplains, talk to someone. Take your own advice, I’ve heard your line before about not hiding in your work.” Misajon smiled, his lips pursed sadly.

“Okay, okay.” Kiko dropped his head to his chest. He put his hand in Misajon’s.

“Aaron, I’m going to call you each day just so someone calls you by your first name, and fuck credible information if someone thinks I’m being too familiar with you. But you also need to talk to someone.”

“I will. I promise.” He sat there in silence, his brain finally starting to slow down.

Misajon leaned forward. “I was planning to convince you to snuggle for warmth in that sleeping bag you keep in the supply closet, to be perfectly honest. Or in the main room, but that feels sacrilegious even to me.”

Kiko grinned. “Yes,” he said. It sounded kind of sordid, and very against regs, but he was too tired to argue, and too much in need of comfort to resist any longer. “Yes, we can have a sacrilegious slumber party in the supply closet.”

“Well then!” The pilot stood up and stepped away from the table. “Come here.”

“Jeez, bossy.” He stepped into Misajon’s personal space and looked up. Misajon was tall. Kiko hadn’t thought he was into being the shorter one, until he met Misajon.

“You’re just not used to being bossed because even brass are polite to Chaplains.”

“Being a man of God has its privileges, you know that.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Misajon scoffed, putting his hands on Kiko’s biceps and squeezing gently. “God is in the sun and the butterflies and in every .50 cal.”

“Shut the fuck up and kiss me, Major,” Kiko said, putting an arm around Misajon’s waist on the non-sidearm side and closing his eyes. Misajon’s lips met his, and for a moment Kiko thought his knees were going to give out. He leaned up and in a little, putting the other hand on Misajon’s shoulder. They stood there and kissed for a bit, Misajonl’s hand cradling the back of Kiko’s neck comfortingly. After a while, Kiko backed off. “Come on, let’s get this sacrilegious slumber party underway.” He caught Misajon’s hand, pulling him in the direction of the corner closet. Misajon chuckled and followed.

The closet was simple, enough room for a set of shelves on one side and a set of pegs on the other for hanging vestments. It had been built walk-in deep to hold a sound system that had ended up in one of the other chapels on base, so there was plenty of floor space to throw a sleeping bag down. Misajon released his hold on Kiko and snagged the bag, then dropped to his knees, unrolling the bag ahead of him.

“Scoot over, Hotlips.” Kiko sat down on the bottom edge of the sleeping bag and started unlacing his boots. Misajon turned around to join him, placing his boots at the other corner of the sleeping bag. Kiko took his combat blouse off, but left his t-shirt on. He reached for the zipper of Misajon’s flight suit.

“Wait, hold up a second, shoulder holster,” Misajon said, and began unbuckling it. This he placed next to his boots, the muzzle of the M9 pointing away from them. “Okay, go to it. Ugh, fucking in Nomex? No thank you.” He squirmed his arms out of the tough material as Kiko finished unzipping it, shoving it down around his legs and kicking it off. He was wearing a t-shirt and boxers underneath, and he was already hard.

Kiko reached up to hang his headlamp from a hook above them and turn on the red LED. Then he reached forward and closed the door to the closet. “Come on, you’ve fucked in your flight suit before, right? Everyone loves pilots.”

“Oh, hell no. That’s my last shred of respectability,” Misajon said, but then he tackled Kiko and dragged him down, smothering his squawk of surprise with a kiss. He straddled Kiko and ground their crotches together as he put both hands on the man’s face. Kiko groaned raggedly as the world shrank to just them, there, in a little room, one on top of the other.

Misajon murmured in Kiko’s ear as he fumbled with the man’s belt buckle: “Hey, you wanna fuck me?”

“No, I was thinking you should fuck me. God, I’ve missed you.” He thought for a minute as he kissed Misajon some more, his hands roaming over the man’s back. “But wait, here? That could get… messy.”

Kiko could feel Misajon’s wicked grin spread against his lips. “Flight suit pockets are magical,” he whispered. Sitting up on folded legs, he dug in a pocket of his flight suit and pulled out a wad of blue paper shop towels, a pair of condoms, and a bottle of lube. He set them alongside the sleeping bag, and went back to undoing Kiko’s belt buckle and stripping his pants and briefs off. Then he attacked Kiko’s t-shirt, running warm hands up his chest and leaning in to mouth at a nipple as he pulled on the fabric. Kiko crunched up, gasping, to let the shirt slide off over his head. They fell back together, touching from head to toe.

Misajon went back to exploring Kiko’s mouth with his tongue, just pushy enough to hold all of Kiko’s attention, just gentle enough to be comforting. Kiko could feel his shoulders loosening up against the hard wooden floor, and the hot tension pooling in his belly. He pushed Misajon’s t-shirt up over his ribs, and Misajon paused just long enough to get it off. He began pulling at Misajon’s boxers.

“Someone’s eager for cock,” Misajon muttered into Kiko’s ear as he leaned to one side to pull the boxers off. Then he gasped as Kiko’s hand found the shaft of his dick, beginning to stroke before he’d even settled back down. He nudged Kiko’s legs apart, settling in between his thighs, their erections fitting together in Kiko’s hand. “Oh, now that’s nice. I could do that for a while.”

“Please don’t tease, not tonight,” Kiko gasped as he rubbed at both of them. “I need… need you…”

“Shh, I know. I’ve got you.” He reached for the lube and clicked the cap open with one hand, holding himself up with the other. The next thing Kiko knew, and he wasn’t sure how Misajon managed it, a slick finger was rubbing at his hole, spreading the lube around, massaging and relaxing him until that finger could slip inside. Kiko groaned at the pressure and the slight burn; it had been a while. He lost track of time as Misajon’s nimble touch worked him over, one finger moving deeper and touching wonderfully sensitive spots inside him, then a second finger, joining it and stretching him wider.

Kiko whined needily when Misajon’s comforting weight lifted off him, pulling him closer, lining him up. He heard the rip of the condom wrapper. He could feel the head of Misajon’s cock pressing against him, and Phil leaned down to kiss him as he slid in further. Kiko felt a shout burst from his lips, releasing the pent up frustration and arousal and loneliness of the day, as Misajon slowly sank further into him. “I’ve got you, babe,” Misajon said again, putting his hands on Kiko’s hips as he started to move.

It felt like little sparks of lightning, the feeling of Misajon fucking him, the feeling of Misajon’s cock filling up his ass and still stretching him just a little. Little sparks of lightning, blossoming into a ball of pleasure every time Misajon pulled back and hit just the right spot. Kiko lost track of time again, the world nothing but dim red light. Misajon was above him, thumbs pressing into his hips, holding him close, fucking into him. It was so damn beautiful; prettier than the mountains, more intense than the alarms, longer than long days in the arid dust. Before long Kiko was coming with a long moan, his belly clenching and his own dick shooting into his hand, come spreading across his chest. He felt Misjaon coming inside of him, pulsing with pleasure and then slumping as he caught his breath.

Kiko was boneless, wordless, and he felt for Misajon’s hand. He held it, squeezing gently, as he heard Misajon’s breathing even out. Then he felt Misajon’s softening cock pull out of him, and heard rustling as Misajon moved away to clean them both up. The shop towels scraped a little on his skin as Misajon wiped him off, making Kiko squirm.

“You good?” He heard Misajon whisper.

“Way better,” Kiko whispered back, not able to manage anything louder. Better or not, he was still the most exhausted he could remember being in a very long time.

“Need space? Or need me close?” Misajon murmured, brushing a hand across Kiko’s head.

“Close,” Kiko said, and reached for him. Misajon reached up to turn off the lamp, and then gathered him in.

“What’s the very first thing you’re going to do when you get home?” Misajon asked in his ear.

“Call you,” Kiko said, thinking: this was home.


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