Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. I'm borrowing her characters, dressing them up in MARPAT, and giving them some guns. BilliCullen and Scooterstale are making sure they're ready for inspection.
Home of Staff Sergeant Emmett McCarty
Falls Church, Virginia
"You're gonna burn 'em."
A pair of well-used tongs flipped through the air, bounced off the lip of the grill, and clanged on the newly laid flagstone patio.
"Damn it, Tink!"
With a high, soprano laugh, First Lieutenant Alice Brandon – a pale, dark-haired, big-eyed sprite of a woman – needled the massive staff sergeant beside her between the ribs, quickly darting backward with an impish grin and the grace of a dancer to outmaneuver his retaliatory swat. "Gotta work on those reflexes, Bear-man."
"I'll show you reflexes, Little Bit," Emmett barked back, lunging and, like always, missing as Alice abruptly feinted left, then right, and then ducked. "Get back here!"
"You better be watching those flank steaks instead," she teased, slipping beneath his outstretched paw to needle him again. "I'm starving, and you promised to feed us."
"God, how do you eat so much? Do you have a tapeworm or somethin'?" With one last half-assed swipe and a shake of his newly shorn head, Emmett gave up chase to burrow down into a banged up red and white cooler that was, for the most part, permanently stationed by the grill this time of year. When he found his target – an ice cold, amber-colored long neck – he grinned. "Hell, you're not even half of me but you eat twice as much." And at somewhere north of six-foot-five and packing a solid two hundred and fifty pounds of nothing but muscle, that was a feat.
"Impossible," a new, low, and undeniably feminine voice suddenly called from behind them. "You can eat a damned horse."
"About time you got here." Alice snickered, her lips curving upward when her gaze flitted from the wide-eyed, instantly discomfited expression on Emmett's face to the tall blonde stepping through the sliding glass door.
Then again, it wasn't like anyone could blame him for staring. Dressed in her usual civvies, consisting of nothing more than loose khaki cargoes, a fitted white tee, and a high, low-maintenance ponytail, Gunnery Sergeant Rosalie Hale still looked like a super model straight out of some glossy fashion magazine. Granted, she was the kind of super model who occasionally had the demeanor of a rabid pit bull, not to mention the second best target scores in the entire battalion, but a knock-out nonetheless.
"I brought dessert. Oh, and by the way, traffic on 66 was a motherfucker," Rosalie growled, crossing the patio to slap a large foil covered pan down on the wrought iron picnic table.
Alice and Emmett made similar faces and muttered in unison, "When is it not?"
"Right? I swear, I'd kill people – well, a lot more of them – if I had to drive that road on a regular basis." Rosalie spun toward Emmett, plucking the beer out of his hand.
"Hey, gimme that. That's not fo–"
As she cracked the cap, one brow arched and the left corner of her mouth pulled up. "Wanna fight me for it? I could use a few rounds about now." Her blue eyes danced. "Best of three."
"Fuck it, take it," the staff sergeant mumbled, stooping down to dig through the ice again. "Just wait til everyone else leaves and I'll show you…"
"What was that?"
"Nothing, Doll-face." Emmett looked up with a too-sweet flash of teeth and a slow, mischievous wink. Barely avoiding the toe of Rosalie's boot aimed at his calf, he laughed and twisted right, dragging the cooler half way across the flagstone.
"Anyway…" Shaking her head, Alice motioned toward the darkening, soon-to-be unrecognizable slabs of meat and the swirls of silver smoke. Her nose scrunched at the stink of char. "He's burnin' the food. Again. Do something, will ya?"
Emmett's chest puffed out, stretching the ancient, frayed olive drab tee he always wore at nights and on weekends. "I am not! Do you guys have any idea what kind of bacteria there is in undercooked meat?" Ignoring the lieutenant's instant peal of laughter, he grabbed a fork from the table, stabbed the nearest steak with blackened edges, and held it up like a trophy. "Now this is how you're supposed to cook beef. Well done. Not a hint of e. coli."
"Oh, my God, it's like a rock!"
Rosalie rolled her eyes and made a choking sound behind her palm. The split-second, private look that followed between the blonde and their anti-bacterial chef du jour, however, wasn't missed. At least not by Alice.
Five bucks on who's sleeping over tonight, she thought with a wicked grin. Not exactly prohibited, but certainly not encouraged. And definitely not something the Captain needed to know.
"What are you grinning at?"
"Nuh-thing!" Alice sang as she dropped down to one of the curved stone benches ringing the patio. Turning, she swung her legs over and hopped down to the freshly mowed grass. Crisscrossed and all. Smiling at the small, neat, post-War home that Emmett had babied between the seemingly endless stream of missions over the last two years, she kicked off her flip flops and targeted the right side of the house with a wave, tossing over her shoulder, "Yell when you're ready. I'm gonna see if the Captain has killed poor Jazzy yet."
Clinking their beers, the two sergeants both laughed at that. "Poor kid doesn't stand a chance!"
As soon as Alice hit the edge of the house, from around the side came a barrage of sound. There was the rough scrape and squeak of tennis shoes on asphalt, two male voices – arguing between heaving breaths – and then the rhythmic thump-thump-thump of a basketball. A second later, there was a loud, rattling bang, followed by the groan of the old metal rim.
Sweating and shirtless, both hardened and lean in the way that only came from time spent training and in the field, Captain Edward Cullen and Corporal Jasper Whitlock circled each other around a makeshift basketball court. When Alice slipped by and slumped down in the lounger by the driveway, neither Marine broke concentration or gave any hint that they had noticed the new arrival.
Jasper spat on the pavement before shoving the ball back at the other man.
"What's that, Jazz?" Edward's emerald eyes twinkled as he started dribbling.
The younger man spat again and pushed sweat-wet curls of blond hair out of his line of sight. "Whatever, man."
With a slow, almost predatory smile, Edward casually passed the ball back and forth between his legs, walking the perimeter of the faded, chalk-drawn arch. "So… I think it's, what… 19-15? Or is it 20-15? I can't remember."
"Just shoot, asshole."
Edward laughed before lazily elbowing inside the line. "That's Captain Asshole to you."
"Then just shoot, Captain Asshole." With a grunt, the corporal shouldered back and lunged for the ball, only to miss when Edward abruptly reversed and blocked him with his back and hips.
Glancing over his shoulder, that predatory smile widened. "Oh, you asked for it, Corporal…"
From the sideline, Alice leaned forward and just held in a laugh, knowing this particular game and its ending all too well. With a smooth, graceful kind of fluidity, the captain made a couple of sluggish feints and slowed his dribbling, each thump of the ball deliberate and drawing his opponent's attention away from his face and feet. Following the target, Jasper batted at the ball, leaning right, and like a flipped switch, without warning, those lazy, slow movements suddenly erupted in a burst of dizzying speed and motion. Almost too fast to follow, there was a blur of tanned limbs, a half dozen muffled grunts, curses, and Umph!s, and then the clean snick of the net.
"Shit, you're fast," Jasper panted, folded in half and bracing his palms on his knees.
Edward snorted, blindly chucking the ball against the backboard and into the basket again. "Nah, man. It was a good game. You're pretty quick."
Jasper huffed and wiped his face. "You say that because you won. Again."
Alice giggled from her lounger. "Lemme guess, he didn't bother mentioning that they tried to recruit him away from Canoe U., did he?"
Edward's lips turned up into a smirk as he sailed the ball through the net one more time. "That was a long time ago, Tinkadee. I'm getting old and I'm slow as shit now."
"Old, maybe, but slow, my ass," the corporal mumbled, still doubled over and panting.
The taunt Alice would have thrown died on her tongue when Edward suddenly turned to the left and stretched his arms over his head, arching his back. At just the right angle, the late afternoon sun caught the almost iridescent sheen of the old jagged scar that cut the captain's bare torso in half, beginning just below the left shoulder, crossing his sternum, and then trailing all the way down the right side of his abdomen until it disappeared beneath the low slung waistband of his shorts. On his left side, less obvious but still visible, there were half a dozen smaller, irregular explosions of white on tan, some of which she'd seen in action, others of which had been earned long before he'd been assigned to lead their team.
Badges, the Captain always called them, joking like being held captive and tortured to near death was par for the course. For their team, she supposed it could be, but that was one of those things they didn't talk about too often.
"Come and get it!" Emmett suddenly bellowed from the behind the house.
Ignoring the way his pilot's caramel eyes dropped when he caught her staring, instinctively knowing where her mind had drifted, Edward made a show of sniffing the air. When Alice looked across the driveway again, he chuckled as he tugged a faded polo over his head. "So just how burned are they?"
Forcing a smile when Jasper grabbed her hand and tugged her out of the chair, and then smiling for real when he held on a little longer than necessary, Alice shook her head. "I think he was going for refractory this time."
"That's it." Glancing up the cloudless sky, Edward sighed as the three made their way to the backyard. "Next Saturday, we're at my house and we're doing ribs. Em's not allowed within ten feet of the grill."
Ten minutes later, after a quick search through the cooler and a hasty set-up of the old table Emmett had salvaged from the scrap heap and brought back to life, five Marines raised their bottles. Nodding to each member of his team, Edward grinned and toasted a now-familiar line, "After three straight months in one hellhole or another, here's to two weeks of doing jack shit!"
The bottles clinked with a loud, "Ooh rah!"
As they dug in, each attempting to saw through the staff sergeant's version of well done, Jasper paused and glanced up from his plate. "Did you hear anything more, Captain?" He hesitated, licking his lips. "About that guy from DARPA?"
Edward looked up to find a pair of shrewd, calculating slate gray eyes behind that hesitation. Not surprising that the question on everyone's mind would come from him, he thought. While the newest member of their team and the greenest in the field, Jasper Whitlock had aced every strategic test the Corps had thrown his way and he hadn't done it by just waiting around to be told.
He frowned before responding. "Doesn't look good." Seeing that everyone else had stopped eating and were fully trained on whatever answers he had to offer, Edward laid his utensils down and ran a hand through his still-damp hair. "Talked to the General the day after we got back in. They're keeping this pretty close, so he wouldn't say much. But he said the kid probably won't – or by now, didn't – make it." Involuntarily, Edward's hand dropped to his side where he could feel the edge of one of his scars through the worn cotton of his shirt. "Least we got him out of there and brought him home, ya know? Least he didn't die in that fuckin' pit. No American – no one – deserves that kind of death."
Clearing his throat, Emmett leaned back in his chair and quietly asked, "Did he say anything about why he was taken?"
Recalling all too well the brief conversation they'd had while racing through the Arabian Desert, chased by a bullet-popping force no one had anticipated, a long second passed before Edward shook his head. "Didn't say. But it's pretty clear the guy was working on something big, though. Real big." Edward's jaw twitched. "You don't inflict that kind of systematic damage on someone over something small. They were looking for something important."
In the back of Edward's mind, he heard the distorted, pain-induced pleas that the young man had uttered as he'd hauled him bodily out of the pitch black, twenty-four inch well that, judging by the smell, he'd been hidden in for what had to have been weeks.
"Sir, I've got you. My name is Edward Cullen. I'm with the United States Marine Corps. Hold on, we're getting you out of here right now."
"No! He knows!"
"Sir, it's all right. We're getting you to safety. We've got you."
"He knows it… the formula… XR5… new agent… unstable… but enough… he knows… God, he knows it… Oh, God… kill me, please! I'm sorry… I'm so sorry… I couldn't… too much… you can't stop it!"
"Do they know who was behind it?" Rosalie asked, crossing her arms and mimicking the big man's pose.
Edward blinked. "Maybe… maybe not. I asked around a little… No one recognizes – or admits to recognizing – that symbol we found. They're saying it's something new. Some new faction that's surfaced, but no one seems to know what they're up to, other than nothing good. They don't even have a name for 'em yet."
Alice's brow folded and she flicked her thumb in an unconscious trigger motion. "What's that mean for us?"
"Is this it for us on this one? Or do you think we'll get called in?"
Seeing the bright red pool that now stained the floor of their Humvee, Edward grimaced and jabbed his fork into his steak. "That's above all our pay grades."
Marine Corps Base Quantico
"Have a seat, Captain."
There was always an edge – a barely perceptible wryness perhaps – when the two men addressed each other by rank.
"Yes, sir," Edward said. As the other man sat, he shifted his cover and took the straight-backed leather chair opposite the desk. In the center of the room, facing both the general and the rows of stern-faced men that lined the wall – other Marines who'd held this post – it wasn't what Edward called a welcoming position. And even with the fan blowing, the office was hot and stuffy, not enough to outright sweat but enough to make it uncomfortable and to call attention to the stiff, scratchy fabric around his neck. How people wore this shit every day, he couldn't fathom. Then again, it'd been months since Edward had had to pull out his Alphas.
Longer since he'd been called onto base for an official debriefing.
Far more at ease in their setting, the blond man with ash at his temples settled back in his chair. Despite his advancing years, he was lean beneath the uniform, as tough as nails, and he possessed the comportment and command to match the stars and the rows of decoration on the left breast of his jacket. The general crossed an ankle over the opposite knee and eyed the younger captain over steepled fingers.
"You need a haircut," he finally said.
Edward's brows lifted before he acknowledged the rebuke. "Yes, sir. It's next on my list."
"Smart ass." There was a long second of tense silence, wherein the only sound in the room was that of the whirring fan. The general's shoulders abruptly relaxed, and with a low chuckle and shake of his head, he cracked a stretching smile that wrinkled the corners of his ice blue eyes. "By the way, your aunt is pissed that you haven't called her yet. She told me to tell you that if you didn't stop by soon, there would be hell to pay."
With an instant grin and duck of his head, Edward raked a hand through his hair, ruining all his earlier efforts at taming the dark, coppery mess. "Shit. Can't you tell her I've been busy?"
"You really think I'm that stupid?" Lieutenant General Carlisle Cullen rolled his eyes at his nephew. "I think she wants to fix you dinner. Told me you were too skinny last time you were over."
"She thinks everyone is skinny," Edward laughed. "But I'll take her cooking over mine any day. How about Friday night?"
Carlisle didn't answer immediately, and his attention fell to the two quarter-inch thick manila folders stacked in the center of his desk. Following the general's gaze, Edward easily made out the spread-eagle DoD seal stamped on the top folder, as well as the smudged red and black lettering in the bottom corners. His shoulders straightened again and he nodded once in understanding. "I take it I won't be around Friday night?"
"Sorry, son. I'm afraid not."
Edward shrugged. "This is related to that kid from DARPA?"
Before the general could answer, there was a sharp rap on the door.
When the door swung open, a man and a woman walked in, each too efficient in their movements and alert to their surroundings to be civilians. A quick assessment showed matching black cases and both wore dark, nondescript suits that meant little to the outside world, but for Edward, gave him all the confirmation he needed.
"General," the man greeted, nodding before quickly surveying the room. His gaze slipped past Edward and then jumped back to take a longer look. With brown hair, brown eyes, a medium build, and an indeterminate age, the man was the ideal operative, Edward thought.
Carlisle inclined his head to the man. "Special Agent Peter Dalton. From Langley," he returned, glancing back to Edward, before offering a brief smile to the strawberry blonde beside him. "And Special Agent Charlotte Calahan. Please, have a seat…." Carlisle motioned to Edward and then to the two agents. "You likely haven't met Captain Cullen. He leads a… special group that we house within Force Recon."
Agent Dalton leaned forward with instant interest. "No, sir, we haven't met. But we've certainly heard of a few of the Ghost's… exploits." He uttered Edward's call sign almost in a whisper, and, eying the captain, he offered a smile. "Your and your team's reputations precede you."
Edward's jaw ticked. "Thank you, sir. I'm sure my team, especially my Gunny, will be more than happy to hear it."
Dalton's smile widened as the woman beside him interrupted, "Captain, we appreciate you extracting Dr. Biers. From what we understand from your report…" She paused and her pale, aquiline features pinched. "The situation was far more challenging than anticipated, and frankly, that's saying a lot."
"It's what we do, ma'am."
She regarded him slowly, and Edward had the distinct impression that a test – one with rules he was unaware of – was being administered. "Did Dr. Biers survive?" he asked after a moment.
Agent Calahan's face pinched again, but then cleared with a conscious square of her shoulders. "Unfortunately not."
Eyes dropping to his lap, Edward frowned.
This time it was Dalton who interjected. "We're still grateful you were able to locate him and bring him back. Your team should have been contacted earlier. Perhaps the outcome would have been different."
Edward shifted to stare at the general, who'd been silent since the introductions. His mouth was set in a hard, uncompromising line that Edward had learned as a boy. "How long did they have him, General?"
"The Secretary and the CIA brought me in three weeks ago, the day before I sent your orders." Carlisle's eyes narrowed. "But from what I understand now, he was taken a few weeks before that."
Edward swore under his breath. A hundred questions and accusations sat on the tip of his tongue.
Clearing her throat, Agent Calahan addressed him again. "Captain, we know that you and your team just went on leave, a very deserved break considering how long you've been out in the field. But we're in need of your assistance again."
"Why my team, if I may ask? There are others who do similar jobs and who are likely fresher. We've been going for months now and my people are tired."
"There are others, yes." She hesitated. "But yours is the best. You're small, lethal, lightning fast, and your record speaks for itself. We need the best right now."
His brows drew together and he looked to Carlisle again. "Another extraction?"
There was a long pause.
"No." The general shook his head and wiped his eyes in a rare show of stress. Waving at the pair of agents, he sighed and said, "Go ahead. Bring her in. This is your show."
Thirty seconds later, Edward stood as the door swung open again, this time revealing a slender, almost frail-looking slip of woman – a civilian by dress and tired posture and somewhere close to his own thirty-three years in age. Hidden behind a curtain of thick chestnut hair, he could just make out the outline of a fine, nearly bone-white face, heart-shaped, with a pair of lips that looked blood red against the paleness of her complexion. When she looked up and shoved her hair behind her ear, a pair of wide, haunted eyes ringed by shadows stared back at him. Were she not so terrified, he'd have called her beautiful.
"Gentlemen," Agent Dalton began. "This is Dr. Isabella Swan… Dr. Swan?" He gestured toward the general and then to Edward. "General Cullen and… Captain Cullen."
"Pleased to meet you," the woman answered, nervously, hands twisting together. "Ah… sirs."
Edward fought the involuntary twitch of his lips. Wrong time, wrong situation, and wrong pair of lips, he thought, tearing his eyes away from hers. "I don't understand," he directed at the agent beside him.
As they reclaimed their seats, Agent Calahan cracked open her briefcase to extract a file. When she passed it to Edward, he noted that the weight, the thickness, and the outside markings and seal were identical to the file on the general's deck. "Dr. Swan and Dr. Biers worked together," she explained. "Same areas, same projects, same… expertise."
The captain froze. "That area would be?"
The woman's dark gaze lapped the room before settling on Edward again. Something moved in her haunted eyes and her skin pulled tight over her cheekbones. "Advanced Weapons Division."
"And the… expertise?"
"Before Riley – Dr. Biers – was… taken," Dr. Swan started, swallowing. "We were working on…" Abruptly, she stopped and tilted her head. "Captain, what do you know about chemical and biological agents?"
He scowled at the file in his hand. "More than I'd like, ma'am. Enough to stay the hell away from them."
The ghost of a smile lit her lips before she nodded. "So, you know about VX, right?"
Every Marine knew about VX. "Nerve agent. Consistency of motor oil. Can be transmitted dermally or if atomized, via inhalation," he ticked off. "Ten times more toxic than sarin."
Dr. Swan took a deep breath. "As far as anyone else knows, V-Series are essentially as high as they go, nerve agent-wise…"
Edward's eyes widened. "I take it that's not the case anymore." It was a statement, not a question.
Rubbing her forehead, she closed her eyes and mumbled, "No, not anymore… there's the XR-Series… And XR5…" Dr. Swan trailed off.
Dr. Biers' voice screamed through Edward's head, forcing him to grip the armrest. "They know how to make it?"
Her eyes flashed open with a flinch. "Maybe… it was unstable… we couldn't get it to stabilize for more than a week. But Riley was… so very close to correcting the issue."
"Just how potent is it?"
"If VX is ten times more toxic than sarin…" She blew out a short, harsh breath of air. "XR5 is… multiply that by… a hundred… a thousand maybe. At microgram levels, it completely shuts down the entire nervous system. Your lungs seize and unlike sarin or VX, you die… immediately. You can't get atropine in your system fast enough to counter it. It can level cities in… an hour. It's…"
"Fuck." Shooting up from his chair, Edward paced the length of the room twice before turning to face the two CIA agents, each wearing their own horrified expressions despite the fact that they'd heard all this before. "You know who's behind this?"
Agent Dalton spoke first. "We haven't seen this group before and no one's speaking up, taking credit, or advertising. The channels are pretty much silent. We're guessing it's an intermediate – someone who's planning to either turn the material over to another larger group… or worse, sell it to the highest bidder. I think you can name a few of the likely bidders."
"From what we picked up from Dr. Biers' apartment, three men grabbed him, all of whom were highly trained, far more so than your average desert hire. He was outside the border before we even had an idea he was gone and… people like Dr. Biers – and Dr. Swan – are under surveillance… 24/7."
Edward shook his head in frustration. "Is that it? You just know they're highly trained? I told you that when I handed you the shot of that emblem and listed out his injuries."
Agent Calahan reached inside her case again, ignoring the narrowed eyes of her partner. "There's this, too," she said, pushing a dark, fuzzy satellite image across the desk. "You can't see much and we've crossed what we can get from the profile with every terrorist cell we know of. So far… nothing. We've talked to MI6, Mossad, you name it. No one knows."
Staring at the grainy image of a man with a sharp, prominent nose and long, light-colored hair pulled back in what looked like a ponytail, the tickle of déjà vu swept through his limbs.
"We need you and your team," Dalton said.
"Fine," Edward muttered, still staring at the image, willing the pixels to shrink and clear. "We'll be ready to go first thing tomorrow. I need a carrier for the Humvee and Alice's helo. I'll debrief my team and we'll work on plotting how to get back to the extraction site as a starting point."
General Cullen tossed him a second folder – this one stamped with the DARPA emblem. "Captain? There's one more thing."
Confused, Edward shoved the image inside the folder and laid his stack on the corner of the desk. "Sir?"
"We're placing one more member on your team."
The captain's frame went rigid as he looked from the general to the two CIA agents to his left. While more than capable operatives, Edward had no doubt, neither was anywhere close to being fit or trained for the kind of work his team performed. They'd be open, vulnerable – a liability to every man and woman within bullet range. "What? Sir…we don't operate like that… You know me… my team. They were hand picked. We've trained together. We fight together. We bleed together."
"You need a chemicals specialist."
He glared. "We've had the same training these agents have had. We know as much as they do, if not more. They'll get themselves killed. Or us."
Before the general or the agents could counter, the dark-haired scientist suddenly stood up, straightened her shoulders, and crossed her slender arms over her chest. The motion drew her loose-fitting shirt tighter around her upper body such that it framed curves Edward hadn't noticed before.
She stepped closer, enough that Edward had to tilt his head down to evaluate her expression. That same something from before moved behind her tired eyes, and this time he recognized it.
Emotions that could get a Marine killed, but ones he knew well.
"But none of you know XR5," she challenged, her voice strong, determined, absent any sign of the nerves she'd exhibited before. "I do."
Alphas – or service uniforms, are one of the primary uniforms worn by Marines. They're the equivalent of a business suit, and the most recognizable on-base variant consists of green trousers with a khaki belt, a green jacket, a khaki long-sleeve button up shirt, a khaki tie, black shoes, and a hard-framed Barracks Cover.
Canoe U. – nickname for the United States Naval Academy, located in Annapolis, Maryland, and one of the three main sources for both Navy and Marine commissioned officers.
Civies/civvies – slang for ordinary / street clothes worn by military personnel.
Cover – there are no 'hats' in the military. They're called covers.
DARPA – Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency responsible for the development of new military technologies.
DOD/DoD – United States Department of Defense, an organization charged with oversight of virtually all agencies having to do with national security and defense, including all branches of the armed services.
Force Recon/FORECON – is an abbreviation for United States Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance. The Force Recon companies are one of the Corps's elite special operations forces. They are comparable to Green Berets and SEALs in that they operate independently behind enemy lines, conduct direct action, are capable of performing in-extremis hostage rescue, etc.
Ooh rah/oorah/Urah – expression of enthusiasm or greeting, used exclusively by the Marine Corps.
Refractory – a type of brick used to insulate the inside of very high temperature furnaces.
V-Series/VX – a class of nerve agents known for extremely high toxicity, VX being the most widely known and most toxic. They essentially attack the central nervous system, leading to system failure, and eventually, asphyxiation due to respiratory depression. Like other nerve agents, including sarin, cyclosarin, and GV, V-Series agents are classified by the UN as weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
XR-Series/XR5 – doesn't actually exist in real life. Remember me saying I'd be making up stuff?