Mist drifted through the tangled branches, giving everything a soft, faded cast as if she were caught in a dream. The winter sun couldn’t penetrate the cloud cover that muffled every sense she had, and she didn’t lower her guard for a second. Azucena could never mistake Vietnam’s jungles for the wilds of Peru, but something about the way the undergrowth had half-swallowed the remains of this village reminded her of home.
“Everything here is so wet,” someone commented, dropping down to sit next to her with a put-upon sigh.
“Ay, you and your concrete jungles,” Azucena said, a smile twitching at the corner of her mouth. “You don’t get fresh air like this in your cities.”
Ying shrugged, leaning against the half-rotted wall to strip down her TS-95 LSW with practiced movements. Even with her head down, her eyes flicked back up every couple of seconds to survey their surroundings. “Cities don’t have so much mud. Too much sliding, here.”
“I was surprised to hear you volunteered for this mission, mi pata,” said Azucena, running idle fingers along the barrel of her own light machine gun. “They say you only do city work, no?”
“Too much familiarity will make me complacent,” Ying said, short. “Mira said the Candelas will be useful on this mission.” And no one used the Candelas with as much precision and efficiency as Ying.
Azucena nodded absently. "Everything all right downstairs, mija?" she asked, one eye on the younger woman's bowed head. Something had driven her up to Azucena's watch post before her own shift.
"Fine," said Ying without looking up.
Azucena hid a grin. "Is it Ela, again?"
"Is what Ela again?" Ying returned evenly.
"Ay, mija, don't let her get to you," said Azucena, fond. "You know she only does that to wind you up."
Ying snapped the cartridge back into her weapon. "She called siu mai a Chinese taco, Amaru. A Chinese taco."
"That was not very nice of her," Azucena said, both amused and confused. The two youngest of the team fought strangely like this -- one hot and one cold.
Ying hummed agreement, lifting her gun to sight down its length before settling it back in her lap. For a long moment, a peaceful but watchful silence hung between them. The mist drifted in thin curtains here and there, pulled by invisible strings.
"It looks like it will rain again," Ying said at last, looking none too happy at the prospect.
"It's winter. It's not so bad," Azucena consoled her. "When it rains here, in the summer? Dios mío. We would never get dry." She stretched out her legs, tensing and releasing the muscles as she swung her gun’s strap over her shoulder. "Safe watch, mija."
Ying raised a hand in an absent wave, her attention focussed on the jungle outside as Azucena stood and headed for the door.
She heard Ela’s voice as soon as she stepped into the hall, jagged and disdainful though she had moderated her volume in respect to the mission. “You cannot claim such a thing as a cultural heritage unless you accept how much that culture is shaped by colonialism and the capitalist trend.”
“What thing?” Azucena called, tucking her gun against her chest as she navigated her way down the stairs. They creaked and wobbled beneath her, but she made it to the ground floor without issue.
Ela made a disgruntled noise in her throat. Lesion answered for her, “Naiihcha. Hong Kong milk tea.” He held his gun loosely, ready to spring to action despite his slumped sprawl against the corner from his seat on the floor. He’d taken off his backpack, using it as a backrest instead. His eyes were closed.
“Putting milk in tea is not culturally unique,” said Ela impatiently. “Making the tea sweet is not culturally unique. You stand by your Hong Kong milk tea only because you are expected to.”
“Because I’m from Hong Kong,” Lesion said, unbothered. Unlike Ying, Lesion didn't bother to shed his accent for unofficial communication.
“Because you are from Hong Kong!” Ela exclaimed. Lesion opened one eye to trade a tolerant, longsuffering look with Azucena before closing it again. “Amaru, do you like -- what is it. Yamas?”
“Llamas?” asked Azucena, letting her gun swing at her side as she settled down next to her backpack. “Pues, sure. I like llamas.”
“See!” Ela said triumphantly, like she was proving a point. “You commit to this performance because it is what you are expected to do. How can anyone hope to change the status quo if no one changes the term of the performance?”
"Ask your Uncle Lesion," suggested Azucena, rifling through her pack for an MRE. She knew she had a chili mac in there somewhere.
"Uncle Lesion is busy," said Lesion without opening his eyes. "Ask your mama Amaru."
"You guys are not funny," Ela complained, throwing herself onto her bed roll. Spitefully, she added to Amaru, “ Stary pryk. I hope your crackers are all smashed.”
“Ay caramba,” Azucena said mildly, finally fishing the package in question out of her bag. She ripped the top off with her teeth and dumped the contents out onto her lap. “Sorry, chica. They look good.”
Ela huffed, disgusted, and shifted so she was facing the wall. Lesion opened his eyes again to roll them pointedly at Azucena.
Chuckling, Azucena set about demolishing her meal. The rain started up again as she ate, drumming lightly against the roof tiles and dripping in through the leaks in the ceiling and walls. Beyond the clouds the sun would be dropping now, and so too would the temperature with nightfall.
The team had another day’s travel before they reached the target for Operation Smoky River, a bunker hiding in the abandoned city reclaimed by the jungle. Their difficult approach did mean good news for them, though -- just as getting to the target was hard, so would be escaping for those they hunted.
Azucena thrived in this sort of jungle. She had lived in and fought in it for decades, and despite her fellow operatives’ reservations, she was confident of their ability to succeed easily. This was her home ground.
Except, not quite.
This was jungle, yes, but this wasn’t her jungle. The trees weren’t her trees and the mountains were her mountains, and even the enemies were a different breed.
Footsteps approached, light and familiar, from the next room. “Buenas, cariña,” Elena said, warm and low. She sat down next to Azucena, close enough that their arms brushed. Fresh mud flecked her boots and raindrops dotted her hair and face.
Azucena reached down to dab the water from around Elena’s eyes with the cuff of her sleeve. “Crackers con queso?” She offered the package to Elena.
Elena waved it away. “No, gracias. You eat it.”
“Está tranquilo out there?” asked Azucena, jerking her head towards the door.
The other woman nodded, stretching out her legs. “Like a tomb. Did you ever think you would live like in the songs?” Elena prodded, a mischievous glint in her eyes.
Azucena snorted. “What song?”
“Navidad en la selva,” returned Elena with suppressed mirth. “Christmas in the jungle.”
Azucena clicked her tongue with mock irritation. “Ay, do you have to be so obvious?” she scolded. “Have some dignity, Directora.”
“Oye,” Elena complained. “Don’t make it weird. Not tonight.”
Azucena chuckled. “Bueno, bueno,” she said, packing away the empty wrappers from her MRE and reaching over to pull Elena against her. “I will make it ‘weird’ tomorrow, then.”
“Tch,” said Elena but went loose-limbed, resting her head on Azucena’s shoulder. “Sorry to pull you in on this operation, but we needed you.”
“You knew you needed a jungle crawler to go with all these city slickers. It’s not so bad, is it?” Azucena dismissed. “Trees. Rain. Mud. Just like home. Plus, there’s you. That makes this a good time.”
Elena wrinkled her nose. “Most people call a good time a fancy party. Lots of food. Indoor heating.”
Azucena laughed. “Can you imagine you and I in pretty dresses? The band is playing. I swing you in my arms around and around because I don’t know how to dance.”
“Cariña, you can swing me in your arms anytime,” Elena said, tilting her head up to look Azucena in the eye.
And just like that, Azucena found her breath and her words stolen away. Even in the dim lighting of the camping lantern, beneath tousled hair and muddy uniform, she saw the warmth and sincerity in Elena’s eyes. “This is a terrible place to go all romantic on me,” she managed at last, her voice rough.
Elena rolled her eyes beautifully. “I meant the Garra Hook,” she said. “On the mission. Swing me up to the second floor, no?” Elena had definitely not meant the Garra Hook or the mission, but Azucena let it slide. “Qué es la problema with going romantic in the jungle?” Elena added. “You are here. That is reason enough for me.”
“No problema,” Azucena decided. “You are right. If you are here, it is perfect. Feliz Navidad, Elena. Merry Christmas.”