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Sand Dollars

Chapter Text

June, 2006

Albert tugged at the collar of his uniform, inwardly cursing the stifling heat of the shaky boeing aircraft he’d been trapped on for the past fifteen hours. A thin sheen of sweat covered his entire being and he pushed a hand through his hair, wrinkling his nose a little at the short length of his regulation cut. He usually liked to keep his hair on the longer side when off-duty, framing his face and curling at the nape of his neck. And even though he supposed he should be used to the short, crew cut by now, he didn’t have to like it. Besides, the longer hair suited his face better. Or so that’s what he was always told.

The announcement of their descent echoed through the plane and Albert sighed, vaguely wishing he’d pissed one more time before the fasten seatbelt sign flashed on again. The eclectic mix of uniform service members that surrounded him began shifting around, readjusting their seats back to their original positions and stowing their tray tables.

Albert rolled his eyes minutely, realizing that he should probably do the same before some asshole called him out for it. Everything always needed to be perfect around these people. Dress right dress and all that crap.

But as much as all this shit gave him a headache, there was no place he’d rather be.

His circumstances growing up had been less than ideal. A dead mother at nine and an absent father at eleven had gotten him dumped into the foster care system with his two brothers (who he eventually got separated from and hadn’t heard from since. Which he definitely wasn’t still fucking devastated about. No, he was good at moving on and dealing with his shit. Yeah, very good). No less than fourteen homes later, he turned 18 and finally, finally, he was done being some fucking ward of the state.

But fourteen homes meant just as many, if not more, schools. And when you’re being shoved from household to household with nothing but a couple bags filled with clothes and other absolute essentials, you don’t really have time to do well in school or apply to colleges.

The National Guard had sounded like a blessing at the time. An absolute saving grace with health and financial benefits to last him a literal lifetime. He always had been good at listening to directions and taking orders, so he figured he’d be a perfect fit. And he had.

Those first few years between enlisting and basic training had been some of the best of Albert’s life. He’d made bonds to last him a lifetime, felt the thrill of having something that was his and he was good at. He had found purpose where he previously had none.

Then three planes had gone and crashed into the Twin Towers and Pentagon and everything went to shit.

Albert and one of his buddies from Basic, Sean (who went by Spot, but nobody knew why. Albert had asked once and Spot had just smiled and kicked him in the shin) were living in New York at the time, having moved into a little apartment on the Upper East Side. The morning of September 11 had yielded one of the clearest, bluest skies Albert had seen in his entire life.

He remembered waking up to a call from his squad leader, barely able to comprehend the situation through his killer fucking hangover. He and Spot really hadn’t planned on getting hammered on a Monday night, but sometimes life in your early 20s just happened like that.

The next four days had been a blur of smoke, sirens, debris, and dust. So much dust. It had taken weeks for Albert to feel like the damn stuff was finally out of his lungs and if he still thought about it too hard, a phantom tickle would creep up in his chest.

He tried not to think about that week too much. Spot and him had returned home around the same time, both in varying states of exhaustion and dissociation. They didn’t discuss what they had individually been through, but an unspoken understanding of the nightmare they’d both witnessed had led them into the same bed that night, the need to forget shrouding everything else.

Albert and Spot’s relationship wasn’t anything that could be truly named. They weren’t best friends. They weren’t boyfriends. They weren’t fuckbuddies. But they understood each other better than anyone Albert had ever known in his 27 years on this god forsaken earth. And in that understanding, the knowledge that sometimes you just need to feel good for a night went without having to be spoken. Feeling good didn’t just mean sex, though. They cuddled a fair amount too, which was strange considering how touch averse Spot was with other people. During their first deployment, though, several long days had led to quiet nights spent in each others arms, where they allowed themselves to forget the horrors they were subject to witness and just be.

They were basically inseparable. So when the heavens happened upon them and they were to be deployed into the same battalion again, despite Albert climbing through the ranks and surpassing Spot by a fair deal, he had silently thanked a god he hadn’t prayed to since eight years old.

Leaving home was easy, mostly because Albert didn’t have anyone to leave behind. Spot was already overseas, having left a couple weeks earlier while Albert finished up some things down at the Pentagon. While being deployed sucked, Albert at least had Spot to look forward to.

The plane jolted, tilting a little as it made it made its final descent into the Tal Afar Airport. Albert leaned back against the headrest, closing his eyes and white knuckling the armrests. He was a fine flyer once the plane was up in the air, but taking off and landing fucked him upside down and sideways.

He was just beginning to count his breaths, clamping down the rolling waves of motion sickness, when a low voice spoke next to him.

“Are you alright, sir?” Albert cracked open an eye, glancing sideways at the person next to him, “Not a fan of flying?”

The guy looked...rugged. There was no other word for it. His black hair was cut close to his head, well within regulation and looking a little patchy at the sides. His wide set eyes were sharp and calculating, glinting with something like mischief that would unsettle Albert if he hadn’t seen that look a million times over in the mirror. He looked younger than Albert by a good few years and the lack of shadows in his gaze and on his face cast a look of innocence over him. Albert remembered those days- when naivety led him to a false sense of security. He had been untouchable; indestructible.

“Only take off and landing,” Albert said, clearing his throat and putting on what had to look like a strained smile. He pried his right hand off the armrest and held it out for the guy to shake, “First Sergeant Albert Dasilva. Good to meet ya.”

The guy had a firm handshake and he didn’t seem to mind that Albert’s palm was a little sweaty from nerves, “Private Elmer Kasprzak.”

Albert smiled, “First time in the Sandbox?”

Elmer smiled, looking a little self deprecating, “That obvious, sir?”

Albert shook his head, aiming for comforting, but still sounding vaguely choked, “I just know the look. Way too excited.”

“Oh,” Elmer furrowed his brow, looking like he was trying to decide whether to be offended or not, “I’m just happy to finally be on the frontline, sir.”

“I commend you,” Albert said, wistfully, “It’s a brave thing to be doing with such a strong attitude.”

Elmer blushed, “Thank you, sir.”

“You don’t have to tack ‘sir’ onto every sentence,” Albert assured him, “Some guys are really strict about that, so keep in the habit, but I’m not too picky.”

“Oh, okay s- uh, okay,” Elmer flushed deeper and Albert chuckled a little bit patting his knee.

The plane touched down with a jerk and Albert closed his eyes again briefly while it slowed. Eventually, it came to a stop and the fasten seatbelt sign flashed off. Albert reopened his eyes to see Elmer staring out the window, awe and apprehension noticeable through the look in his eyes and the crease between his brows.

“C’mon, Private,” Albert said, unbuckling and clapping the younger man’s shoulder, “we got places to be.”

XXX

Getting assigned last minute to a completely new battalion and then being shipped overseas two weeks later was not how Race suspected he’d be spending his first year out of West Point. He didn’t mind really. He hadn’t really had any true connections to his old squad and after his little incident with Oscar Delancey, a new start was appreciated.

That didn’t make the whiplash of deployment any less bittersweet.

His nerves hadn’t stopped twisting since General Kelly had informed him of his new assignment, going back and forth between excitement and paralyzing anxiety until his gut was furling with both simultaneously. But now that he was here, things were starting to settle within him. This was his life now and it was going to be his life for the next twelve months. Better get used to it.

He put the last of his shirts in one of his dresser drawers, casting a cursory glance around his side of the room, before eyeing his cheap, Walmart alarm clock. 09:45. The next wave of soldiers should be arriving soon and with them, his roommate.

A wave of anticipation rolled through Race’s stomach and he grimaced. He had yet to make any meaningful connections with his soldiers so far, many of them wary of having a new CO. But he was a people person and this alienation was killing him, even though he understood their hesitation. Part of him hoped that whoever his roommate ended up being wouldn’t hold the same vigilance towards him. Maybe he could even make a friend. Someone he could theoretically get a drink with. Completely hypothetically, of course. Drinking wasn’t allowed on base.

Sighing, Race grabbed his patrol cap, cramming it onto his head and grabbing a pack of cigarettes from his desk. He bounded down the stairs to his trailer and made his way over to the coffee line, nodding his greeting at a small clique of soldiers as he passed. He only got a couple nods in return, and every single one of them wore matching, judgemental looks. Race tried not to take it to heart.

The line for coffee took forever and Race hummed a little to himself, toying with the pack of cigarettes in his pocket while he waited for the cue to move at a snail’s pace. Once he held his little styrofoam cup in hand, he ventured off to the smoking pit, draining his coffee along the way.

Soldiers were beginning to arrive and Race lit up a cigarette, watching with casual curiosity as groups flooded into camp. He eyed them, vaguely wondering who each of them was. Who he would get along with. Who he would despise. Who would despise him.

He quickly got overwhelmed again and stomped out his finished stub, lighting up another to kill a few more minutes.

An indiscernible amount of time passed and Race kicked his last cigarette to the dust, pulling back the sleeve of his ACU jacket and checking the time. 11:15. Damn, that coffee line really had taken forever.

Deeming his little break long enough, Race wandered back towards his trailer, heart rate kicking up a bit when he noticed that the door was propped open.

Steeling himself, Race climbed the stairs, knocking once on the door jamb, before ducking inside.

The person inside turned his head, peering up from where he was folding a few grey, regulation workout pants on his recently made cot.

He was wearing his ACU pants and boots, but his jacket had been discarded and with a quick glance around, Race found it draped over the back of his desk chair. The guy was attractive- a sharp jawline accentuated by his pale skin and dark red hair, which was trimmed attractively, fading up the sides. It was as if the guy knew from experience how to make the most of the look without pushing regulation. His arms and chest were muscular, highlighted by the stretch of his tan, liner t-shirt.

A charming smile stretched across the guys face as he straightened up, crossing the small expanse of their room and holding out a hand, which Race took firmly.

“First Sergeant Albert Dasilva,” He said, his voice smooth and a little gravelly, “Pleasure to meet you, sir.”

Race smiled back, “Lieutenant Antonio Higgins,” he said, hoping he sounded a lot more confident than he felt, “I’m honored to be working with you and your squadron and I’m looking forward to getting to know everyone.”

Albert dropped his hand, turning back to continue unpacking his things. He only had one large duffle and two small carry on bags and suddenly, Race felt self conscious about his two duffle and impressive assortment of other luggage.

“Honestly, we’re just lucky that you were available to serve with us, sir,” Dasilva said, straightening his shoes by his closet, dress right dress, “Everyone was really bummed and pretty panicked when Lieutenant Morris fucked up his leg, so it’s great that General Kelly was able to get you on board so quick.”

Race crossed to his side of the room, tossing his cap back onto his cot and slumping into his own desk chair, “I was pretty eager to get overseas, but I wasn’t expecting it to happen so quick.”

Dasilva hummed, sounding a little surprised, “This is your first deployment?” He asked, looking over his shoulder and raising his eyebrows a little.

“Yeah,” Race said, ducking his head a little as he flushed, “Just got outta West Point last May.”

Dasilva whistled, looking impressed, “You musta done damn well if you’re already a Lieutenant,” he said, smiling a little challengingly, “and add the fact that Kelly sought you out directly,” he shook his head, bemused, “Damn, sir, you’ve got quite the rep.”

Race wrinkled his nose, “My so called ‘rep’ ain’t really getting me anywhere with your men.”

Dasilva shrugged a shoulder, waving his hand dismissively, “Don’t take whatever they’re doing to heart,” he said, “They’re all still upset about Lieutenant Morris. He was a great Lieutenant and a lot of the guys are still feeling his absence. They’ll warm up to you, sir.”

Race grunted noncommittally. He knew that Dasilva was trying to make him feel better with his little pep talk, but the knot in Race’s stomach only grew. It seemed like he had pretty fucking big shoes to fill.

“Aha!”

Race was pulled out of his spiraling worries by Dasilva’s voice and he looked up to see him holding a toothbrush and toothpaste.

“Finally found them,” Dasilva said, triumphantly. He waved them a little in Race’s direction, “I’m gonna go freshen up. That fifteen hour flight always makes me feel grungy as shit.”

Race nodded his acknowledgement, watching as his new bunkmate exited the room and traipsed down the steps, leaving the door open behind him. He could see him greeting other soldiers with a level of enthusiasm and charm Race could only dream to match. His jealousy spiked even further when he got equally happy greetings in response.

Blowing out a measured breath, Race flipped open his notebook, toying with the pristine patch on the front as he vaguely studied the Arabic terms he’d been practicing on the plane ride there.

He was pretty good already, if he said so himself, with an impressive language proficiency score of 3+ under his belt. But solidifying knowledge was always beneficial, no matter one’s skill.

A few minutes later, Dasilva bounded back through the door to their trailer, finally easing the door shut behind him. He stuck his toothpaste and toothbrush back into his little hygiene kit and tucked the thing neatly into the top drawer of his dresser.

Race kept his eyes on his notebook, not entirely sure how to progress with their conversation. He was out of his depth- usually being the loud and confident one, but somehow rendered socially inept in this completely foreign environment.

Dasilva didn’t seem to notice his internal battle, though, and a moment later, he spoke up.

“You fluent yet?”

Race startled a bit, looking up, “Almost, I’m still working on conversational communication, but I’ve got all the basics in the bag.”

Dasilva grinned, seemingly not jarred by the sudden change in language, “That’s good. Already something you have over Lieutenant Morris. With him, we almost always needed a terp on site.”

“No need for one of those here,” Race said, switching back to english.

“Obviously, sir,” Dasilva agreed. There was another lull in conversation, but Dasilva didn’t seem uncomfortable, “Do you like running?”

Race felt his stomach flip excitedly, “Yeah, actually, I love it. Did track all through middle in high school. That’s actually where-” He cut himself off hastily. Dasilva did not need to know about his little adolescent nickname that he still used unironically. Not yet anyway.

Dasilva gave him a funny look, but didn’t push, “Great. I go running every morning with one of my buddies before call. You’re welcome to join us if you want.”

“That sounds nice,” Race said, “I’d love to. Who’s your buddy?” He added out of curiosity.

“Sean Conlon,” Dasilva stated and Race hummed, recognizing the name, but not having a face to put it with, “He and I go way back.”

The weight of the words seemed to hold something heavy, but Race returned Dasilva’s courtesy and didn’t push.

“Sounds like a good guy,” Race said, “What time should I wake up?”

“We usually go around 04:45,” Dasilva said, leaning back into his regulation pillows, “You’ll probably hear my alarm anyway.”

Race nodded, “I’ll set one on my clock, too, just in case.”

“Good plan.”

A knock at their door had both of them exchanging a curious look. Race stood to get it and found a taller man with straight, cropped brown hair and a rigid nose standing at ease outside the door. He smiled cordially when Race looked up at him and offered him a hand.

“Lieutenant Higgins?” Race nodded and the man shook his hand firmly, “Excellent. Captain David Jacobs, it’s nice to meet you.”

“You too, sir.”

“General Kelly would like to see you over in his office,” Jacobs continued, sounding a little warmer. His eyes flicked over Race’s shoulder to Dasilva, who hastily stood at attention.

“First Sergeant Albert Dasilva, sir,” Dasilva said, his voice hardening as he saluted.

“At ease, soldier,” Jacobs said, “Pleasure to meet you.”

They all stood in silence for a short pause, before Race awkwardly turned and grabbed his patrol cap.

“General Kelly requested for me now, sir?” He asked Jacobs.

“Yes,” Jacobs confirmed.

“Alright,” Race placed the cap on his head and looked back to where Dasilva was still standing, “I’ll see you later, Sergeant.”

“See you, sir,” Dasilva smirked, “Good luck.”

Race resisted stating that he’ll need it as the trailer door swung closed behind him.