Chapter 1

16:40 PDT Saturday, July 27th, 1991
7914-B Arthur Street
Oakland, CA 94621

Master Gunnery Sergeant (retired) Joseph Hebert was perplexed. He honestly wondered where in hell his life had taken such a strange turn, how his routine had been so thoroughly disrupted.

Lenore Collins was the cause. Lenore was a twenty-year-old fireball, complete to the red hair, and she'd come to totally dominate his life in absolutely no time flat. What she saw in him had him baffled, but there was no doubting the physical attraction and chemistry they shared. She'd stalked him for about a week, and then in a moment of weakness, when the Gunny had been under severe stress, she'd trapped him into an admission.

She hadn't compromised his trust. Instead, she'd shown him that she was serious about her pursuit, and she'd done it in the most direct way possible. The Gunny still felt as if he were living in a fantasy, that reality would set in, and all of it would - poof - be gone.

Yet, the undeniable exasperation he felt when his closets were rearranged and his cooking was... supplanted, the exasperation wasn't any part of a Walt Disney fairy-tale happily-ever-after that he'd ever heard of.

Last night she sat on his lap and played with the scar tissue on his head by his ear, while she watched him drink his beer. She and he came to a compromise – two beers on a weeknight, and no more than three in the day during a weekend. Weekend nights ... would depend, and she gave him such a smoldering look when she said that, he'd growled in his throat in response. That had led to other things. Pleasant things. The Gunny had learned it was good to be in love.

The Gunny left a short while ago, and Lenore was a little relieved. That morning, slight awkwardness had arisen after he'd invited her to go for a morning run with him.

"Go get us something for supper, Gunny," she told him while pushing him toward the front door. "We'll talk about getting me into shape over supper."

After she learned that he was in far better shape than she during the short jog, she'd taken him on a tour of his own house, and together pried into everything that had been the same for the last few years.

"I'm not moving in and changing everything in your life without discussion, Gunny," she'd told him. "Some things I will," and here she blushed at his smile, but didn't break her verbal stride, "but I'm not moving all your towels and soap on you without talking about it first."

The inevitable discussion about dishwork followed quickly, and while neither enjoyed cleaning up, both agreed they had the discipline to do it after the other cooked. Lenore and the Gunny shared a laugh over the word 'discipline', and then she looked at him with seriousness in her eyes. "You could easily dominate me, Gunny. I don't want that ... but you could."

He'd stared intensely at her for a moment, while her heart beat wildly in her chest. He simply drew her to him, and kissed her. He let go after just a moment, and smiled.

So now, she had pushed him out the door to go to the Albertson's and rummage up supper, which she fully expected would be some variant of steak and frozen peas. Making herself busy for a few moments, she wandered through the rooms, planning on what furniture could fill the spots where something was missing, and wondering what kind of shape the Gunny's finances were in.

She found she was in that room, the one she'd unconsciously labeled 'The Library'. Her curiosity suddenly burst into flame as she crossed the threshold from the hallway. The lone chair facing the television was hard and uncomfortable, so she took the top three of those magazines from the leftmost edge of the stacks on the shelves, and took them downstairs to the couch in the main room by the front door.

She made herself comfortable on the couch, and flipped through the pictures. The mostly-nude ladies didn't do much for her, but she began reading an interesting article on genetic diversity of all things. Flipping through the pages, she found a section on advice – and smiled, thinking she'd found the Cosmo-for-guys section. 'How to Interpret Her Moods'. What kind of name is Xaviera, anyway? But it was the 'forums' section that captivated her interest. She found herself squirming on the couch while avidly reading the improbable erotic encounters, and as the Gunny's step sounded on the stair outside, she managed to whip her hand back out of her sweatpants before the door opened.

Lenore watched, wide-eyed, as the Gunny came through the door, and took in the scene. She watched his nostrils flare wide as his eyes flicked from the magazine to her, and back. She heard the twin thuds as he dropped the plastic grocery bags on the floor.

Wordlessly, the Gunny kicked the door shut behind him with a flick of the heel. She stood, uncertain, on weak knees, while the excitement fluttered in her. Lenore took a step to the middle of the room. The Gunny advanced on her, and swept her into his embrace.

Sometime later, she came back to an awareness of her surroundings and found they were in the kitchen. She giggled as she followed the trail of her clothing – and the Gunny's – back to the living room, and picked up the groceries he'd dropped at the door. As she straightened, he came up behind her to hug her. She'd felt the rumbling in his chest, and the movement of his lips in her hair as he told her how much he loved her, and she was more content than she'd ever been before.

"Ooh," Lenore said, as she bent to fetch the peppers from the ancient refrigerator. Built like a vault, it was a testament to the finest technology the 1960s could bring to bear. The Gunny made an inquisitive noise while quartering an onion, and she looked back at him from under her strawberry hair, from her position bent over rummaging through the drawer in the heavy machine. "I'm a little sore, lover. You're the biggest I've had." Lenore watched him stop the motion of the knife for a moment, and smiled at the tiny twitch his lips made.

Supper was chicken kabobs, something Lenore had never had. The Gunny had diced chicken breasts ("The bone-in kind are cheapest, use this knife to separate the meat...") and marinated them in white wine and oil with dill and garlic. To the mix he added the cubed peppers and quartered onions. He tossed the ribs from the chicken into a small pot and simmered a broth from them, and saved the majority of the broth in a jar in the nearly bare refrigerator. Lenore watched the frugality, and filed it away for future comment, though she was immensely relieved to see that the Gunny did not live on Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. He put on some of the rice, adding some of the chicken broth, and lit the charcoal on the back stair.

Lenore skewered while the Gunny trotted out to his truck, retrieving a twenty-five pound bag of white rice, causing Lenore's eyebrow to rise. He only shook his head at her mute invitation to explain.

Thirty minutes passed, while they sipped the wine from plastic tumblers, and when the charcoal was ready, they quickly cooked.

Pleasantly full, and warm from the wine, the two were relaxing on the front porch in the warm late July sunset. Lenore was snuggled into the Gunny's side, his arm over her shoulder, and she was playing with the wrinkles of his shirt over his chest.

"Gunny?" she started, in a small voice. "Gunny, there's something I really, really, need to get off my chest."

The Gunny looked down at her, and she felt the play of muscles as he smiled through her cheek's contact on his shoulder. Emboldened, she began. "You know I wasn't a virgin. I gave it to my boyfriend in highschool, at Homecoming. We were in love."

She pushed off him, and looked up at him, her weight on her palms, pressed against his thigh and his shoulder. Earnestly, she searched his face. "I mean it, Gunny. I loved him, but not like this, with you. He was a football star, a running back and outside linebacker ... we were a good couple. We spent a lot of time together."

The Gunny nodded, but kept quiet. Lenore gave him a smile, and said, "Thanks. Football is important in West Texas, football and God are the local entertainment, and there's not a lot else going on where we lived. There were fast cars, too ... I gave it to Gary after the Homecoming game, and it's like the cliché – in the back seat of his Chevelle." Her expression was serious, as she told him, "Gunny, he was a boy, and you're a man. I was a girl, becoming a woman, and he was able to make it good. You're so much better it's not even a contest..."

The Gunny frowned. "Lenore, I'm not feeling insecure with you. I can see how much you love what we do..." Lenore shushed him with a kiss.

"Let me finish, Lover. God, I love the sound of that, 'Lover' ... Gary was considerate, and I enjoyed the hell out of what we did. Enough so that we found ways to do it a few dozen more times, until spring. But ... Gary had his friends, too, to be tough in front of, and he had plans for college. He was a senior, and I was a junior. And I didn't know what I wanted to do, but being Mrs. Gary Pearson wasn't in my choices. The night of the Senior Prom, he was being a clown for his friends more than he was being my boyfriend, and I told him to pay attention to me and stop showing off."

The Gunny winced. "Lenore..."

"Shh. You're right, I told him he wasn't getting any after the dance. I have spent so many, many nights wishing I'd waited to tell him that until he took me home..."

The Gunny turned, concern in his eyes. "He didn't..."

"No. He decided to drink with his friends, then took me home right after the dance, complaining about not getting any that night." Lenore sniffed, bright-eyed. She turned her face at the Gunny, but did not see him. "He was driving down a farm road at over a hundred miles an hour, to meet back up with his friends, and managed to get his car airborne. The newspaper said the car rolled at least twenty times, Gunny, and was almost three hundred feet off the road. He didn't hit anything, just the ground, but his neck was broken, they said. It's taken me a real long time to get over this, Gunny, a really long time, because I could have been a little more tactful, or waited, or even let him have his way, and then he'd be alive."

Lenore sniffed, a tear only an inch below her eye, and smiled at the Gunny. "But then I'd never have met you, and I cannot imagine ever being happier."

07:40 PDT Monday, July 29th, 1991
7914-B Arthur Street
Oakland, CA 94621

Xun Ming eased open the door, and slipped in, her bucketful of sponges and supplies in her hand. Almost immediately, she noticed the aroma in the house had changed. There had been more cooking done than usual, and there was the scent of soap or shampoo, and other subtle differences.

Having her suspicions, Xun Ming first checked the refrigerator, and sure enough, there was more food – and less beer – than usual. She approved of the mayonnaise jar with broth in it, something the Gunny had done a few times before. She knew he ate well, if frugally, but never kept a large amount of food in this refrigerator – never as much as there was today. With sudden hope in her chest, she went to check the jars of staples that had lined the short countertop between the refrigerator nacelle and the kitchen sink. In all her experience, these jars in this house had never changed their contents.

Xun Ming was pleased to see the ancient contents had been replaced. The rice jar had clean-smelling white rice nearly up to the brim, and there was sugar and flour in the other two jars. Suddenly feeling like a little girl, she spun and ran to the pantry, and flung the door open. Sure enough there was an opened twenty-five pound bag of rice.

Rice in the southern Chinese culture was the stuff of life, and having enough – a surplus, the more the better, really – rice on hand is one symbol (among many) of prosperity. For years, Xun Ming had been after the Gunny to buy enough rice to have a wife. The logic of this was that having the rice could only remove an obstacle to the goal.

Xun Ming cared for the Gunny, the gentle giant had always spoken softly with her, had always paid her well and promptly for her service cleaning his house. Even after Xun Ming's sons and daughter had grown big and strong here in America, even after they had provided for her rent and healthcare, she still worked cleaning the houses of the families she knew and loved. Over the last few years, most had moved away, leaving only the Gunny in his section of Oakland that Xun Ming was scared to be in after dark.

The twenty-five pound bag of rice was a sign to Xun Ming that the Gunny had found someone. She knew it, the Gunny had left the sign for her, and she smiled widely. Quickly, she cleaned the kitchen surfaces, and mopped the floor. She dusted the living room/foyer, and quickly darted up the stairs.

Once at the top of the stairs, she'd turned to the bathroom, and immediately noted an extra toothbrush. There were new, unfamiliar bottles of shampoo and conditioner. A quick sniff told her they were part of the scents that she'd noticed upon entering the house. Since the scents were vaguely feminine, Xun Ming dared to conclude the houseguest was female, and her hope grew. Two towels hung neatly on the towel rod, and Xun Ming began to picture what the mystery woman would be like.

The picture she had in her mind changed quickly though, when she moved into the bedroom. Though there was only the one bed, and no sign anywhere in the house that anyone might have slept elsewhere, the clothes in the closet were a young person's clothes – bluejeans and tee-shirts, some floral tops, and swimwear. Xun Ming found a drawer with the young girl's underclothes, and she quickly began to feel sorry for the girl.

It was obvious to Xun Ming that the Gunny had had to take in a relative, possibly a young cousin or niece, maybe one just going to college (though Xun Ming would have bet a younger girl by the clothes she saw). It was too bad, a shame, really, that the Gunny could not afford another bed for the young girl, though she was sure there was nothing going on that there shouldn't be. The Gunny was too much a gentleman for that, Xun Ming knew.

Finishing in the bedroom, Xun Ming moved down the hall to the weight room, which needed only a quick dusting. Then she moved into the last room, the room with the magazines and the television.

Xun Ming wasn't a prude, she knew what lonely men did with the kinds of magazines that had pictures of naked women. She didn't mind that, growing up in rural China, she'd had three brothers and a sister, and all of them had had the same urges she had. Yet, the neat stacks of magazines were disturbed – and three moved conspicuously, haphazardly restacked.

Frowning, Xun Ming knew she had to report this to the Gunny. It wasn't right for a houseguest, even a young relative, to poke into the Gunny's private things, and especially to not return the things back to the places they were found. She sighed, and worked her way down the stairs, dry-mopping the dust off the floors.

This tea is just right, Xun Ming decided, it felt good in her hands. As she was contemplating the remainder of her day, the door opened, and in slipped a thin redheaded girl. Too thin for America, she thought, though the girl had a marvelous figure. As she stood, the girl noticed her.

"Oh, hello," the girl said, "I'm Lenore." The girl, Lenore, took in the mop and the bucket and the teakettle, then smiled at Xun Ming. Moving with calm assurance, she removed another mug from the ancient cabinet and fished out a tea bag from the box at the back of the stove – a box Xun Ming had missed earlier, she'd used her own tea.

Pouring, the girl sat down at the table with Xun Ming, and took a deep sniff of her tea, her eyes smiling at Xun Ming. Xun Ming smiled back.

"You must have noticed I've moved in," Lenore said, easily, "I really hope to be part of the Gunny's life forever." The girl watched for Xun Ming's reaction, not warily, but – Xun Ming had to think about it for a second, and the best she could come up with in English was 'inclusive'. Lenore looked like she wanted to know what Xun Ming thought, she realized.

Xun Ming approved. "You bring him happiness?"

Lenore gave ever the slightest frown at Xun Ming's accented English, but then smiled more widely. "As often as we can, we make each other very happy."

Xun Ming saw she colored a little, wincing slightly at her unintended earthiness. The older woman smiled again, and as slowly and clearly as she could, she said, "He is a very big man."

Lenore grinned wickedly, and held her hands about seven inches apart, frowned, and then moved them slightly farther apart. "Yes, he is." Both women laughed richly and deeply, and Xun Ming reached across the table to touch Lenore's hand.

Two hours later, Lenore's open manner and lighthearted nature had captivated Xun Ming. The redheaded girl worked very hard to listen and follow Xun Ming's poor pronunciation. She had quickly realized Xun Ming had no problem understanding Lenore's excited conversation, or keeping up with her sense of humor. Xun Ming hadn't had as good a time speaking with anyone in years, she realized. The time had flown by, not that she'd had anywhere else to go this morning.

She made her goodbyes, and, though Lenore had come in from her morning run and hadn't had a shower yet, Xun Ming impulsively hugged the girl before leaving. Being near Lenore made her feel like a young girl again.

17:35 Monday, July 29th, 1991
7914-B Arthur Street
Oakland, CA 94621

Life was settling down by the eighth day, the Gunny decided. Lenore had said she wanted to fit into his life, not totally rearrange it to be to her satisfaction, and he'd had to admit, so far she was more-or-less true to her word.

Of course, you'd never been greeted at the door with a nearly-nude girlfriend, holding a beer before, either. In the Gunny's book, he would put up with a lot of life-rearrangement for a good cause, and that certainly qualified.

Lenore was ... not quite insatiable, he reasoned. Voracious was a good word for it. She had a voracious appetite for sex and physical contact. She'd announced quite firmly that they were going to "screw until it falls off or catches fire", to build up his stamina and staying power. She'd argued that he had never gotten past the initial, scared, part of a relationship, and that his short fuse had reflected it. He had to admit she was right, already he was lasting longer – much longer. Sometimes he was sore, and that helped, too. When the Gunny was sure she was asleep at night, he thanked his God in his prayers.

That was another thing about her. He'd always been quiet in his religion, making more services shipboard than not when he was on a cruise, but hit-or-miss when he was garrisoned. Sundays, when he was working at Oak Knoll, if he had the time to catch a service, he would, but on his days off he wouldn't go out of his way. Lenore told him that God was big in Texas, in the same way that Joe Montana or Tom Cruise was big everywhere else, and he'd seen his share of what she'd called 'Holy Rollers'. With only a few words exchanged, they'd agreed what they held in their hearts for each other and for their God didn't always need a chaplain (his word, hers was 'preacher') to lead them to it every Sunday.

Predictably, this agreement had led to sex. The Gunny had survived The Crotch (the endearing term he held for the Marine Corps) pretty much undamaged, with only a few dings and extra zippers in his skin. He had some arthritis in the left shoulder and both feet, painful in the mornings for pushups and late at night, but his ankles, knees, and hips came through all the running the Marines had made him do okay, another thing to be thankful for.

Yet he had never been so thoroughly worked as Lenore worked him as she put him through what he thought of as 'his paces'. He'd been so completely captivated by her; he'd do anything for her. Making her feel good had become his number one goal in the world, when she got that lust in her eye and when he was able to make her shake and shudder in sweet release, he'd understood what his purpose on Earth truly was. All the rest of it, the guiding of young men, and the fighting of a war, helping the injured in the hospital – all of this was simply to help other men and their ladies discover what he'd found so recently, and keep them from harm while doing it.

Lenore was demonstrative, too. The Gunny found he didn't mind at all who she showed her love for him to. Small gestures of affection in public and in private simply made him feel good – and making him feel good was obviously making her feel good.

The Gunny was complete. He'd been happy before, but now he knew he was complete, and there was nothing he'd deny Lenore.

Lenore put this to the test this evening, though the Gunny didn't mind because all that he had on Earth was hers. She met him at the door with one of the two beers she'd been allowing him on weekdays – he'd never allowed himself more than three on a worknight anyway. Wearing only panties and a smile, she handed the beer to him, and rubbed herself on him in that way she had, then watched as he drank the beer quickly. Then, as per what was becoming usual, she'd pulled his shirt tails out of his pants, and then unbuckled his belt while humming. After she had him in her mouth for a while, and he'd been able to hold back, she pulled him (for the eighth night in a row) to the couch, where (again, for the eighth night in a row) she had a towel spread.

And this night, she picked up the clothing when they finished, kissing him. "Supper's on the stove, I'll drop these in the hamper." She skipped off.

What the hell, the neighbors can't see, he realized. The Gunny strode into the kitchen, naked, and set the table.

From the laundry room at the back door, Lenore called, "Gunny? Where do you throw your change?"

"I got a milk jug upstairs, Lenore. Just throw it in there." He listened for a few moments, as she ran up the stairs. That girl has far too much energy.

A few moments later, a subdued Lenore came down the stairs again, and into the kitchen. She was wearing one of his hospital white shirts, and nothing else, though she had a hand towel in her hand. She placed it on her seat, then kissed him on the cheek before she sat.

As he served her – she'd made chicken cacciatore – she asked, "Gunny? What're your plans for that change jar?"

He looked up from ladling his food out over his rice, and shrugged slightly. "Dunno. What'd you have in mind for it?"

"Um, can I have it?" She sounded diffident, something he wasn't used to from her. "Maybe I can get something for me?"

He straightened, looking at her. "Okay, Lenore. It's yours." He sighed, then said something he'd been thinking about for a while, but hadn't wanted to bring up, though he knew he should. "Lenore, we have a lot of talking to do ... about you working, or going to school, or..." he trailed off.

She brightened visibly when he'd said the change was hers, and nodded thoughtfully. "Gunny, after we talk a little, I want to bring Deb into that conversation, and I think, maybe the Chief also."

The Gunny nodded, this was in line with his thinking, also. "I think maybe Kostowe could hire you, Lord knows you pull your weight. Deb ... can probably plot your future as a Supreme Court Justice. She's a little ... off," he said, consideringly, "but I really think she likes you ... she wants you to succeed where she didn't, I think. Don't tell her, but I like her too – she's a little bent, but she works hard and gets what she wants done."

Lenore caught his eye, and said something that floored him. "Gunny, it's not too late for me to go to a real school. I know it's quick, but since I met Sandy, and then you, and everyone around you, I want to do my part, too. Didn't you ever think you could be a better officer than the people you worked for? I think with you guiding me, I should be able to get through ROTC."

Sandy was Sandy Sparks, a young Specialist in the Army who'd moved into her younger brother's life. She'd met him on duty, and the two had fallen into a political maneuver by the United States Border Patrol that ended up with a dramatic shootout. The Border Patrol intended to make the Congress agree they needed a huge infusion of cash to work on policing the border with higher-tech equipment and more warm bodies. The Gunny figured privately it was about the ego of a few men, but he admitted to himself that he didn't patrol the border or live near it, so his opinion was uninformed.

But Ben had gotten shot, and his family had taken him to the Bay Area for recuperation – why here instead of Texas, where they were from, he wasn't sure. They had then met the Gunny when he looked at Ben and saw he had an infection. From there, things got crazy.

She would make a good officer, too, he realized. She'd be wasted pushing all that paper, though. The thing to do is to get her into something much more active – and not in the U. S. Fucking Marine Corps, that'd ruin her, and I don't want a Marine... The Gunny shut down that line of thought quickly, but admonished himself. It's still true. Jesus, if I last long enough, she'll go far.

"Okay, Lenore. We talk to Deb about getting you into school, and then we talk about ROTC." He had a momentary thought, but dismissed it, rather than speak it out loud. If she goes and does something active that keeps her from pushing paper, it'll put her in harm's way. And keep her from having children for a while.

The Gunny was not at all sure how he thought about that. Troubled, he was silent most of the evening, while they ate and then cleaned the mess.

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