Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. I'm borrowing her characters, dressing them up in MARPAT, and giving them some guns.
Marine Corps Base Quantico
The clock read exactly two in the afternoon when Bella stepped into the general's office, a stark yet imposing beige on beige affair looking out over a massive grassy field lined by tall, leafy trees. Opposite the window sat a wide, sparsely appointed cherry desk. Behind it, stretching the length of the entire wall, hung a double row of portraits in coordinating frames. Severe, stern, and with the kind of bearing and comportment few civilians could ever match, each image was little more than a slight variation on the straight-backed man with ash at his temples who stood in front of her.
Not quite sure how to address him, especially since she'd laughed at his dinner table three nights ago, Bella ducked her head, offered a small, close-lipped smile, and replied with the same short greeting.
With a curt dismissal of the dark-haired junior officer who'd escorted her in, Carlisle motioned toward a pair of stiff-looking chairs positioned across from his desk. "Please have a seat," he said, automatically cataloguing the scientist's stiff shoulders and tight features as she made her way across the room. "I appreciate you driving down. I know I-95 can be a disaster this time of day."
"It wasn't that bad."
Barely suppressing an involuntary grimace, Bella settled into what had to be the most uncomfortable piece of furniture on the planet. Add that to the stuffy temperature – a solid five degrees above what even she would call comfortable – and she had the sneaking suspicion that the man put his guests on edge on purpose. Or… maybe, like his nephew, he was just used to a harsher environment.
As Carlisle sank into the far more comfortable leather chair across from her, Bella's gaze fell to the corner of his desk to a set of manila folders, stacked and organized with Jasper-like obsessive order. When she picked out the familiar red stamp marking the one on top, without warning, her stomach gave an involuntary flip, and her eyes jumped up and lapped the room.
"Captain Cullen will be joining us shortly," the general said, carefully studying Bella's reactions over steepled fingers. "I just wanted a moment or two to discuss a few things with you first."
Instantly distracted from the stack of folders, Bella's head tilted, and when she answered, her response was quiet and drawn out, almost as if it were a question. "Okay… sir."
"No need for formality." Unable to stop the creeping amusement at the uncertainty in the woman's address, Carlisle waved at the space between them. "At least not when it's just the two of us." He shot her a wink then, and his entire demeanor relaxed. His lips spread into a strikingly handsome, affable expression Bella doubted most of his Marines ever had a prayer of seeing. "How are you doing, Bella?"
Not quite sure where this was heading, Bella stared at him for a second. "I'm doing well." And again, it sounded more like a question than a statement.
The general's hands, still rough and calloused despite the years behind a desk, clasped and dropped to his lap. One pale brow arched. "Are you sure?"
Bella's forehead creased. "Gen– Carlisle, I'm okay," she said, dipping her chin to punctuate the point. "Really, I'm fine."
"You know that there are resources available to you if need them?"
A quiet huff tumbled out of her mouth. "Ed– Captain Cullen… Let's just say he's made certain I'm aware."
"He's just concerned about you. We all are." Carlisle hesitated then, and that handsome smile vanished, replaced by a hard line bracketed by the kind of deep grooves that could only come from extended periods of stress and worry. "I'm assuming you know of his own capture and two-month-long torture back in '07?"
Hearing it spoken so bluntly made Bella's heart climb up her esophagus, erasing any hint of irritation. "Yes," she replied, gripping the armrests to keep her hands still. Her left, now out of the splint but still healing, twinged in acknowledgment. "He's shared some of his experiences." She paused for a second, glancing over to the caramel-haired woman in the gold frame, and her voice went soft. "I can't begin to imagine what that was like… for him, but also for you and Esme."
Carlisle shifted – an oh-so-slight movement that few would ever even notice – and blew out a long, slow breath, as if deciding just how much he wanted to say. "It was the worst two months of my life…" he finally said, looking her straight in the eye. A beat later, he gave himself a little shake, and then those shoulders straightened into those of the solid, stern commander who'd opened the door. "Which is why we want to ensure you're managing."
Bella sent him another small smile. "I understand, but really, at least for now, I'm fine. If I find I'm not, I promise I'll let you know."
Seemingly satisfied, the general nodded once and then reached over to the stack of folders and grabbed the one on top. Balancing it on his knee, he opened it, but Bella didn't need to see inside to know its contents. "I've read the report you submitted, along with Captain Cullen's," he said as he skimmed and flipped through the first few pages. From across the desk, Bella could see notes scrawled in the margins, and every so often, neon yellow highlighted short passages. "Between the two of you, and the hard drives you recovered, I believe we have a very clear picture of what went down."
Carlisle glanced up, once more studying her with unnerving intensity. Only this time, he wore an expression that Bella couldn't quite name. It was the same kind of look Rosalie might give a brand-new rifle. "You did exceptionally well."
It took her a moment to process what he'd said. "I'm sorry, what?"
Closing the file, he chucked it back on the desk. "You handled yourself very well."
Bella frowned. "No, really it was all of them. Captain Cullen's team…" That frown deepened and she waved a random hand. "They were… very kind to me."
Without warning, the corners of his eyes creased, and Carlisle belted out a loud, out of place laugh. "Kind isn't a word I'd ever use to describe that particular team.
"Every single one of them," he went on. "As well as Captain Black and Major Dayan, made a point to express personally just how impressed they were by your performance and professionalism." Leather creaked as he leaned back in the chair and crossed an ankle over the opposite knee. "Gunnery Sergeant Hale was especially complimentary, which, frankly, says more than all of the rest put together." Blatant pride was written in every one of the man's features. "That woman is one of the toughest, most no-nonsense Marines we've produced in ages."
"General, I have no idea how to respond to that." A pale dusting of pink climbed out of the scientist's navy-blue blouse, up her neck, and all the way to her cheeks. "But seriously, Captain Cullen's team was… incredible." Her nose scrunched. "I honestly had no idea that teams like that even existed outside of the movies."
The general's cheeks spread. "Yes, they are indeed something else."
Outside the window, half a dozen columns of short-haired, stiff-shouldered Marines in woodland MARPAT filed out onto the wide grassy yard. A series of loud, barked orders filtered through the glass, immediately followed by shouted replies in unison. Unable to resist, fascinated, Bella watched as the men and women stood ramrod straight and then moved through a set of drills in near-perfect synchrony.
"So, how's life back at DARPA?"
Jumping a little, Bella dragged her attention away from the window and back to the man in starched khaki and green. "It's fine."
Carlisle gave her a disbelieving look. "Fine?"
Lips mashing together, Bella took one final peek at the Marines out on the lawn. A tall, beefy man stood toe-to-toe with a younger man in one of the columns and bellowed out a nearly incomprehensible set of pissed-off questions and instructions. When the Marine didn't answer fast enough, at a command Bella didn't catch, he abruptly dropped to the ground and started a fast-paced set of push-ups. One side of Bella's mouth curled up, and she just shook her head.
"It's…" She looked back to Carlisle. "A lot quieter than I realized."
Carlisle chuckled. "I bet so." Following her flitting attention, he watched with amusement as one of his drill instructors assisted a few of the newer privates. "What did you think of the operation?"
A barrage of sounds and smells and images instantly assaulted Bella's brain. She could almost feel the weight of the armor cinched around her chest, the tightness of the holster on her thigh, and the rush of the wind as they'd descended out of that helo near Mogadishu in the dead of night. When she breathed in, Bella tasted the dust from the desert, fragranced by the sparce evergreens and grasses. Her heartrate kicked up in time, just a little, and a light sheen of sweat made her palms clammy. "It was… absolutely terrifying…"
Bella swallowed against the sudden, almost-effervescent buzzing in her veins. "Exciting? Rewarding? Does that make sense?"
The general made a humming sound, and again eyed her in a way that she didn't quite understand.
A slight V appeared between Bella's brows. "Okay, what is hmm supposed to mean?"
Biting back another laugh, Carlisle grinned at the pale slip of a woman. "I bet you gave Edward fits."
Bella leveled him a flat, unamused look that she, no-doubt, picked up from the very same man. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Instead of answering, Carlisle just swapped gears. "I had a discussion the other day with SECNAV."
"Who?" Her face pinched.
"Secretary of the Navy." The general's gaze dropped to the stack of folders on his desk. "He was… intrigued by your skillset and how you interacted with the team."
She grimaced because intrigued was never a good thing when it came to politicians inside the Beltway. "How so?"
"Despite the extremely challenging and fluid circumstances – frankly, far beyond what was anticipated when we agreed to place you on the team – the operation was highly successful. Against all odds, the team was able to locate an unknown terrorist cell, eliminate the targets, and secure XR-5 in short order. You played a large role in that," he replied. "The Secretary was quite complimentary."
Before she could finish, he leaned forward and asked, "What do you know about Captain Cullen's team?"
The man was going to give her whiplash.
"Not much…" Bella answered after a moment. Chewing the inside of her cheek, she tried to piece together what she'd picked up from that conversation way back in the Iranian mountains. "I know it's part of something called Force Recon."
"Correct." Carlisle opened one of the side drawers and pulled out an 11x17 that appeared to be some kind of massive organizational chart. "Edward's team is a little different, however."
When he spun the sheet around and pushed it in front of her, Bella scooted forward in the chair and propped her elbows on the desk. Studying the lines, boxes, and intricate connections, she asked, "How do you mean?"
"Years back," Carlisle said, pointing at a trio of boxes. "The Force Reconnaissance companies handled the Marine Corps' most challenging special ops duties – black and green. But in '06, we carved a lot of the more… active engagements out when we added the Marine Raider Regiment under MARSOC…" He tapped the sheet and dragged his forefinger along a dashed line to another color-coded box. "Which, along with other special forces units from the other branches, has oversight from SOCOM joint command.
"But when we started up Captain Cullen's team back in '07…" The general tapped one of those first boxes again. "We purposefully kept them within Force Recon."
Bella's eyes moved from line to line, mentally tagging the unfamiliar terms and acronyms. "I don't think I follow."
Carlisle leaned back. "It just means that they're one of the few Tier 1 Special Missions teams that doesn't technically fall under SOCOM. They remain firmly under Marine Corps command, which, in all honesty, chaps more than a few asses."
Bella's eyes narrowed. "Why would that matter?"
The general flashed her a row of pearly white teeth, but this grin bore hints of the same kind of eagerness and dark anticipation that she'd only seen in advance of a firefight. "It gives us a lot more… say over who's on it, how many is on it, how it's run, and what specific missions and operations it undertakes."
A dull throb started in Bella's temple, and she just managed to suppress the urge to demand that he just spit it out. "Why are you telling me this?"
His shoulders rolled in a smooth shrug. "We're just chatting."
"I don't think I believe you… sir."
"Fair enough." Carlisle laughed and threw his hands up in surrender. "You're right. There is a reason I'm telling you this. Your manager at DARPA has informed me that since you've been back, you've been… restless."
"Why are you talking to my manager?"
Carlisle ignored the question, as well as the incredulous – and slightly angry, if he judged right – expression on the woman's face. "He tells me that you don't seem as interested in your work as you were, which would be more than understandable if you were having trouble processing what happened in Somalia or to your former partner." Those shrewd, ice blue eyes bored into hers, studying her like a puzzle he was bound and determined to solve. "That doesn't seem to be the case with you, however."
Crossing her arms over her chest, Bella leaned back in the general's godawful, straight-backed chair, and for a long, tense moment, the two just stared at each other across the desk.
Carlisle's lips twitched before he finally broke the silence. "We think you're bored."
Completely unprepared for this particular turn, Bella's lower lip sucked in between her teeth. "What if I am?"
"What do you think about a career change?"
Bella froze and nearly choked on the breath she'd just sucked in. "Pardon me?"
His gaze somehow turned even sharper, like a hawk homing in on its prey. "How would you like to join the Marines, Dr. Swan?"
Somewhere in the background, Bella vaguely picked up the soft, steady tick from the clock on the wall. Her gaze flickered from Carlisle back to the window, where a dozen other Marines were now on the ground, pushing themselves up and down as fast as their drill instructor could make them go.
"Are you kidding me?" She wheezed out something between a screech and a hoarse laugh. "Are you sure you read Edward's report? I'm not exactly good at following orders."
Carlisle's eyes gleamed in appreciation. "That's not really a concern." He tapped a finger on the folder he'd pulled out before. "But in all seriousness, considering the nature of the threats we're dealing with these days, we think Captain Cullen's team would benefit from someone with your skillset."
She threw up her hands. "But… I don't have any of their training."
Carlisle scoffed, like it had no bearing on the conversation at all. "We structure our teams to have a variety of skills and areas of expertise. We can teach you what you need to function effectively. Considering what I've heard about your marksmanship, I doubt it'd take long."
Darting back to the field, Bella squinted. "Would I have to go to boot camp?"
Now at that, Carlisle snorted. "First off, that," he said, pointing at the window. "Isn't boot camp. We don't do recruit training at Quantico. That's just a typical training drill." Bella's eyes boggled, which nearly netted her another snort. "But more importantly, like I explained before, Captain Cullen's team is a special one… and sometimes special rules apply to special teams. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to count your recent activities as training in lieu."
"I don't even know how to hold a rifle, let alone use one."
He waved her off again with another dismissive tsk. "Not a problem. It's understood that we'd need to get you up to speed on some specifics, but I think we could shorten the arrangement considerably, tailor it to what you'd actually need and use, and, of course, keep it here. In fact, I suspect that the team would handle most of your training themselves."
Slumping against the backrest, Bella swiped a tired hand over her face. "I don't know what to say. I… I don't know."
The general's features softened then. "There's no need to answer now. I just wanted to float the option." He tucked the org chart back inside his desk. "And it doesn't have to be A or B. There's an option C, as well, where you could maintain a presence at DARPA or at the Naval Labs when you're not actively deployed."
Bella's brows climbed. "You're saying I could still do research sometimes?"
"I believe so." He shrugged. "It'd take some negotiation at the DoD level, but considering what you've accomplished and the fact that SECNAV has already taken an… active interest, I doubt it'd be a hard case to win."
Staring up at the stern-faced men on the wall, she blew out a loud breath. "This is… a lot. Can I think about it?"
"Of course, take your time. They won't be deployed again for quite a while."
Despite the stuffy heat, goosebumps skittered across Bella's skin, and her stomach fluttered. For a second, not exactly comfortable with the question sitting on the tip of her tongue, she hesitated.
"Go ahead. Ask."
"Does Captain Cullen know about this?"
"He's not aware… just yet." Once again eying her across steepled fingers, something akin to mischief sneaked into the general's stern features. "I thought it best to discuss with you beforehand. If there's no interest from your side, then it would be an unnecessary conversation."
Considering what she knew of Edward Cullen, Bella suspected that by conversation, he really meant argument. "Is this even allowed?"
The general's face split in two. "Remember, Doctor, special teams, special rules." There was a beat of silence, and then those pale eyebrows climbed into the fakest mask of innocence she'd ever seen – other than on Emmett. "Regardless… I have no idea what you're talking about."
A hard rap on the door made Bella jump, and with a final wink, Carlisle said, "Just think about it. Let me know if you're interested." And then, in a lightning-quick one-eighty that made Bella's head spin, he was once again the stony-faced commander, barking out a sharp, "Enter."
Still slightly wan, but in far, far better condition than anyone would have ever expected, Edward stepped across the threshold into the familiar, boring beige of the general's office. Like always, the room was an inferno, made worse by the stiff, scratchy fabric of his service uniform, and for the thousandth time, he wondered just how people wore this shit all the time.
When he would have commented, a pale woman with a too-fine, too-pretty face in dark navy sitting in front of the general's desk grabbed every bit of his attention. Before he could stop himself, one brow cocked in a near-perfect mimicry of his uncle. "Am I interrupting?"
"Captain, come in," Carlisle said, motioning toward the empty chair next to Bella. "Dr. Swan and I were just reviewing a few things in her report before you arrived."
Not believing a word he said and not sure he really wanted to know the truth, Edward just nodded. "Of course, sir."
With quick, efficient strides, Edward crossed the room to the vacant chair. "Dr. Swan," he said to Bella, just resisting the tug on his lips as he caught the faint pink of her cheeks. Out of the cammies and back in her work uniform – a silky-looking blouse that clung to her shape and a skirt to match – she looked like a dream. "I didn't expect to see you this afternoon."
"That would be my fault," Carlisle interjected. Entirely too entertained by the piss-poor dissembling in front of him, he had to school his expression. "There's some information that I'd like to share with you both."
Edward turned to Carlisle, and for a long, silent moment, the two men eyed each other across the desk in some type of unspoken challenge of wills that seemed to spark the air. Studying the younger man, noting that absolute stillness and icy confidence that gave the captain his callsign so many years ago, Carlisle finally broke the stalemate. "You need a haircut, Captain."
"It's on the list," Edward replied, abruptly grinning at the game that they always played. "Sir."
"Asshole." Carlisle flashed him a row of teeth. "How's PT coming along?"
"Slow." Leaning against the hard, wooden chairback, a sharp, but not quite painful, pang radiated out from the pair of healing stab wounds. Roughly shoving a hand through his hair, ruining every bit of the effort he'd put into taming it, he added, "Up to a little under three miles."
What the captain considered slow was damned near miraculous for most. "Pace?"
"Acceptable, but even Em would smoke me at this point." Edward made an ugly face. "Got to go up to Walter Reed next week. They want to throw me on a treadmill and run some tests to make sure everything's doing what it's supposed to."
The general nodded. "How do you feel, though?"
"Fine." When Carlisle glared, Edward made a frustrated chuffing sound, and Bella had to clamp her lips together to stifle the giggle that threatened to spill out of her mouth. "Still sore," the captain finally said. "But that's to be expected. I'll be back in fighting shape soon enough."
Carlisle studied the other man for another brief moment before eventually nodding. Reaching over to the stack of folders, he grabbed an inch-thick file. Dog-eared and slightly bent, it was clear that this one had been poured over with a fine-tooth comb. A half-dozen stamps from as many agencies decorated the cover. "I spoke with Agents Calahan and Dalton the other day, as well as one of Major Dayan's… associates at King Saul Boulevard."
At once, Bella's spine straightened and before she could stop herself, a sharp, "And?" spilled out of her mouth.
Carlisle smiled at the woman's show of impatience. "It appears that Dr. Aronović's little outfit may not be the end of it, that there may be some deeper workings going on."
Everything went still, and in the silence, the soft ticking of the clock sounded like thunder.
Heart pounding a hundred miles a minute, Bella glanced at Edward, whose cool, relaxed bearing betrayed not a hint of surprise or fear, and then she looked back to Carlisle. Her fingers wound themselves into the fabric of her skirt. "General, what does that mean?"
"There is some evidence that Dr. Aronović had help and that he may have been working under someone else… someone much higher up the food chain."
Eyes as wide as saucers, Bella's palm clapped over her mouth. "Help?" she asked, tackling that first little revelation. "From whom?"
"Another larger organization… external governments…" Carlisle's shoulders rolled in a lazy shrug that did absolutely nothing to hide the simmering anger that sat just beneath the surface. "And there are some that believe that there may have been internal involvement, as well."
"Holy shit." Mind racing, Bella's lips parted, closed, and then parted once more. "How? Why?"
"Unclear." The general leaned forward. "At least for the moment."
In Bella's periphery, the hard line of Edward's jaw rolled and beneath the starched, stiff green of his service coat, cords of muscle flexed, but when he spoke, his voice was as calm and clear as ever. "That would certainly explain how they were able to amass those weapons and people without hitting our radar."
Carlisle nodded once in a curt affirmative. "Exactly."
The air in the room seemed to swell, and something dark and anticipatory moved in the captain's eyes as he stared across the desk. "What does this mean for us?"
"Nothing for now." Carlisle slid the file across the desk. "Langley is chasing that rabbit, but in a few months, this could very well come back around."
"You really think so?"
"Who knows," the general said, rubbing his face in a rare show of fatigue. "But considering your recent background and successes, your team would likely be at the top of the list for any operational scenarios." He offered his nephew a grim smile. "As always, we'll just have to wait and see." A beat later that smile morphed into a wicked smirk, and he added, "So, you better not fuck around, Captain. Hurry up and get your ass cleared for active duty."
Edward laughed and shot the man a mock salute. "Yes, sir."
Thirty minutes later, after another few rounds of debriefing and small talk, Bella stood to leave. Right as Carlisle went to call for her escort, Edward rose, tucked his cover and the file underneath his opposite arm, and waved him off. "Don't worry about it. I'll take care of her."
A smart-ass return was on the tip of Carlisle's tongue, but instead of teasing them both, he just signaled his permission. Right as Edward swung the door, holding it and motioning for Bella to go ahead, the general called out. "Oh, and Captain, one more thing."
Edward twisted at the waist. "Sir?"
"Your paperwork went through."
Bella peeked back in the room, just in time to catch Edward's sudden, unexpected scowl. His forehead creased and by his side, his fist balled into a tight hammer. "Fuck."
Carlisle chuckled before adding, "Your deal was also approved. So, no need to worry about any of those jackass lieutenant colonels ruining your fun."
As fast as it appeared, that scowl dissolved, replaced by genuine surprise and what Bella could only call elation. "Really?"
Home of Major Edward Cullen
"No, no, no! They're not done yet!"
Cracking the cap off his beer, Edward took a long swig and then shot the other man a hard, uncompromising stare. "My house, my grill, my rules."
Emmett's nose scrunched, making him look like a pouty toddler on steroids. "But…"
"Em," Edward said, snatching the tongs from the Marine's hand in a move so quick he didn't even have time to blink. "They're done, I promise. No e. coli anywhere."
The big man swiped at the stolen tongs, missing by a mile. "Keep mine on five more minutes. Better yet, ten."
Blowing out a loud, sighing breath, Edward rolled his eyes. "Absolutely not. I refuse to ruin good beef."
"Fine." Emmett harumphed. When he crossed his arms over his massive chest, the black, twining tattoos that peeked out from the old olive drab tee he always wore and ran along his forearms flexed and rolled. "If I puke my guts up or get the shits, it's on you."
From around the side of the house, there was a peal of high, tinkling laughter. "Dude, are you fucking kidding me?" Grinning from ear to ear, Alice popped around the corner and bounded up the stairs to the wide – and from the looks of it, recently power-washed – backyard deck.
Dodging the staff sergeant's swinging paw, Alice threw a pair of grocery bags, both filled to the brim with chips and every kind of junk food imaginable, down on the glass tabletop in the center. "Is he already bitching?"
Out in the yard, opposite a smirking, newly minted Sergeant Whitlock, Rosalie chucked a weighty red bag across the fresh cut grass. When it dunked straight into the hole, not evening touching the edges of the board, she laughed and yelled up to the deck. "When is he not?"
"I heard that!"
Dropping into one of the swiveling club chairs by the table, Alice kicked off her flip flops and threw her legs over the armrest in her typical, slouchy pose. "Where's B?"
Edward pulled the last T-bone and tented the aluminum for the requisite resting period. "Should be here in," he said, checking his wrist. "A couple of minutes. Probably got stuck on 66."
Chucking another bag, this one just missing the hole and sliding off the end of the board, Rosalie spat out a low curse. "That road's a fucking parking lot. Someone needs to firebomb it."
Alice's face lit up. "Oh, my God, that's it!"
Finally giving up on the grill, Emmett sprawled out in a meticulously stained Adirondack and chugged the rest of his beer. "Tink," he drawled, rolling his eyes as he simultaneously flipped the empty bottle into the cardboard box across the deck. "You can't take out the fuckin' interstate."
Alice just huffed. "No, dummy. We need to swap out those shitty little beanbags…" She pointed at the set of blue and red bags Jasper and Rosalie were throwing. "With flashbangs or at least fireworks. That would be fun."
On the grass, Jasper let out a low snicker and without even bothering to look at the board across the way, sank two of his blue bags in a row, netting him a nail-spitting glare from his opponent. "What's that now, Gunny? Twenty to what?"
Instead of aiming at the board, rearing back like she was playing baseball instead of cornhole, Rosalie launched a bag at the younger man, nailing him square in the chest. "Shut up, Sergeant."
Emmett howled, smacking his palm against the armrest. "'Bout time she went after someone else!"
Instead of running away, in a rare, playful display, Jasper grabbed up the remaining bags off the lawn and fired them off one by one, popping the gunnery sergeant with each throw.
"Oh, fuck, he did not!" Alice erupted in a fit of giggles that had her nearly toppling out of the chair. When Rosalie cocked a single brow and then, without warning, barreled across the yard, no doubt, aiming for a hard tackle Jasper would feel for days, Alice laughed even harder. "He's got a death wish!"
Hands on his hips, shoulders shaking, Edward watched his two Marines chase each other across his backyard. While his engineer-cum-sniper had youth, precision, and speed, his gunnery sergeant had the kind of determination and temper he'd never – ever – bet against. She also packed a wallop, and as Rosalie circled one of the larger oaks, stalking him like a hunter after big game, Edward almost felt sorry for the younger man.
Of course, like it was the show of the century, Emmett just leaned forward with glee and whooped. "Get 'em, Dollface!"
Behind them came the snick and slide of the glass door. A second later, a set of heels rapped against the decking as Bella moved into Edward's periphery. Still in her work clothes, she grinned at the ridiculous scene in front of them. "Do I want to know?"
"Probably not." Glancing down, Edward smiled at the blend of amusement and disbelief written all over Bella's too-pretty face. When she plucked the ice-cold longneck from his hand and knocked back the rest of it in a single, long pull, he chuckled. "Shitty traffic?"
"Always." Bella's nose crinkled in lingering annoyance, but a beat later, her palm ghosted down his ribcage in a surreptitious caress that he felt down to the bone. "I'm going to go change, okay?"
"Hurry up. Food's ready in ten."
Unable to stop himself, Edward's eyes followed her as slipped back into the house. When he turned back, his pilot eyeballed him across the deck, preening like a proud peacock. "Ahem," she said, lifting a pair of dark, perfectly manicured eyebrows as she simultaneously stretched over the armrest to grab a bag of chips. Wasting no time, Alice ripped into the bag and crammed a handful of salty goodness into her mouth. "I didn't see B's bag."
Edward sighed. "Haven't you ever heard that you're not supposed to talk with your mouth full?"
Smirking for all she was worth, Alice grabbed another handful. "You also never leave your front door unlocked, which means that someone…" She sang that last word. "Has a keeeyyy…"
A loud, garbled curse came from the yard, followed by a slightly concerning muted thud. Edward peered over the railing, just in time to catch Jasper roll headfirst across the ground. Laughing, Rosalie pinned the man's arms behind him in an iron-clad submission hold. "Say it, Jazz," she said, laughing harder when he squirmed. "Say it, and I'll let you go."
Shaking his head, Edward turned back to his pilot with a piercing glare. "And I think you need to mind your own damned business, Captain Brandon."
Which just made Alice snort. Sticking out her tongue, she blew him a slobbery raspberry. "Whatever, Major Cullen."
The door slid open again, and Edward automatically turned, right as Bella slipped through, sporting nothing more than a pair of plain khaki shorts and an ancient, threadbare olive tee, three sizes too big and knotted at the waist. Like before, when she stopped beside him, it was just a little too close, enough to raise a few brows if he cared enough to notice. Digging into the cooler, he grabbed a pair of bottles, cracked the caps, and passed one over.
Ignoring the still-smirking sprite across the deck, Edward leaned down and whispered, "Stealing my shirts?"
"It's broken in," Bella replied, entirely too innocent. A second later, just loud enough for him to hear, she added, "And it smells like you."
That warmth in his chest – by now, a familiar madness – throbbed. "Good." Edward's lips brushed the shell of her ear, and despite the summer heat, Bella gave a little shiver. "I like you in my clothes."
A moment later, a tired, disheveled, and slightly shell-shocked sergeant climbed the steps and slumped into one of the empty chairs next to Alice. Here and there, blades of grass stuck out of Jasper's hair. Bright green smudges stained his shorts and knees.
Fighting – and losing – against the twitch of his lips, Emmett's brows climbed. "Lookin' a little rough there, Jazz."
Instead of answering, Jasper flipped the bigger man off, grabbed Alice's bag of chips, and started shoveling them in his mouth.
"Hey," Alice yelled as she flailed for the bag. "That's mine! Get one of the other ones!"
Jasper just lifted his arm, keeping the bag well out of her shorter reach. "I just got my ass kicked. I need these more than you do right now."
"See?" Emmett snorted out a laugh as Rosalie dropped into the matching Adirondack beside him. Unlike the sergeant, there wasn't a single hair out of place. She wasn't even breathing hard. "I keep tellin' you people, but you won't believe me." Emmett thumbed over to the woman next to him. "This woman is mean."
Rosalie beamed at the compliment. "You want a turn, Staff Sergeant?"
"Maybe." That grin of his turned truly wicked, and as Bella started uncovering the rest of the food, her lips automatically curved, knowing something cringe-worthy was about to come out. Emmett slid his shades up to the top of his head and wagged his brows at the blonde Marine. "You wanna swing by the store later on and get some jello?"
There was an immediate chorus of groans and gags.
"Ew! Gross!" Alice said as she chucked a wad of paper towels across the deck, beaning the man in the skull. "God, it was so much better when you were less obvious."
The gunnery sergeant scowled at the world, but then a second later, a rare, rare pink climbed her cheeks and all she said was a pissed off, "Whatever."
Wide-eyed, Bella looked over to Edward and mouthed a silent, "Holy shit!"
Ten minutes later, after spreading out enough food for a battalion, five Marines and a DARPA scientist raised their bottles. Following their long-established tradition, Edward grinned and nodded to each member of his team, only this time he lingered a little longer than usual on the dark-haired woman sitting beside him. "After two months of hell, here's to… however many weeks or months of doing jack shit."
When they laughed and clinked their bottles, Edward's grin softened into something a little more somber.
"In all seriousness, Bravo Zulu, Marines," he said. "Bravo fucking Zulu."
Home of Major Edward Cullen
By the time Emmett's Jeep pulled out of Edward's driveway, it was well after midnight.
"Just leave all that," Edward said, leaning against the doorframe into the kitchen as he watched Bella try to cram the rest of the plates into the trash. "I'll clean up in the morning."
Of course, she didn't listen and kept right on cramming. "It'll stink." Nose crinkling, Bella waved a hand by way of explanation. "Just let me get the rest of this crap in the bag and we can take it out."
Chuckling, Edward pushed off the door and strode across the charcoal gray slate tile. Gently wresting the bag away, he shoved the can back under the cabinet. "It'll be fine."
He stepped into her then, positioning his knee between her thighs, forcing her backward toward the hallway and where he really wanted her to go. When Bella started to protest again, Edward's palms shot up and framed her pretty – and now currently scowling – face. "Plus," he whispered, ghosting his lips across hers and sending a flurry of shivers down her spine. "There's more important things to do right now."
"Like?" Bella whispered back, letting him corral her. Her fingertips slipped beneath his faded blue polo and walked up the hard, unyielding planes of his abdomen. This time, as her nails scraped across his skin, he was the one who trembled – a faint, barely-there flinch that made Bella do it again.
"How about I just show you." His hands fell to the hem of her shirt, and before she could blink, Edward whipped it over her head and chucked it across a nearby barstool. "Repeatedly."
A tingling warmth pooled in the pit of Bella's stomach, even as the cool breeze from the air-conditioning pebbled her skin. She gave his shirt a hard pull. "Take this off."
Edward's face split in two at the impatient command in her voice.
"Yes, ma'am," he replied, releasing her just long enough to reach over his shoulder and yank the offending fabric over his head in a single pull. The tight, healing muscles in his back and chest twinged in protest, but he barely even registered it, not when she was already peeling off her shorts and bra and not when she was staring up at him like he was something to eat. "Jesus Christ, I want you."
A slow, almost bashful smile lit Bella's face, and the tip of her tongue licked across her bottom lip.
And that was it.
That was all he could take.
Before Bella could suck in another breath of crackling air, Edward's mouth was on hers, hard and fast, then soft and slow, kissing her the way he'd wanted to all night – the way he'd kiss her until dawn if she'd let him. And by the time they blindly stumbled into the pristine gray and white bedroom at the end of the hall, a trail of discarded clothing littered the floor behind them.
They stopped moving only when the backs of Bella's thighs bumped the bed in the center of the room. Never leaving the warm wetness of her mouth, Edward skimmed his calloused fingers down her ribcage, to her hips, and then back to up to cup her breasts. When he rubbed his palms across the hard points that topped them, a soft, breathy moan spilled out, but when he touched her between her thighs, slick and sliding, the sounds that came out of her mouth nearly made him spill right then and there.
Bella reached down between them, but Edward was faster and batted her hands away. Instead, dragging himself away from her lips, he tipped her back onto the mattress, netting him a tiny scream of surprise.
That fizzy warmth in Edward's chest flared to life, but instead of giving her what she wanted, he shook his head. Knowing that there was no way his body could handle a round of full-on gymnastics – at least not yet – he dropped to the carpet on his knees.
"I told you," Edward said, damned near mesmerized by the lines of lean muscle and feminine softness in front of him. "Repeatedly. And I want to start with this."
Grabbing her by the legs, Edward tugged Bella to the edge of the mattress and spread her knees. And as her elbows dropped, collapsing back down to the mattress, he replaced those slick fingers with his lips and tongue.
"Holy fu–" Bella whispered up to the ceiling, clawing the sheets at the sudden, unrelenting onslaught of sensation.
Like everything else about him, Edward was focused and strong and absolutely merciless, and it didn't take long for her to start to lose it and thrash against the mattress. Unable to stop himself, Edward grinned against her center, but when Bella's hands flew to the back of his head, holding him in place – as if he had any intention of leaving – he just laughed.
"Don't you dare stop, Edward Cullen," Bella threatened, breathless and more than just a little desperate. She gave his hair an unsubtle yank. "I know where you keep your weapons."
Which just made him laugh harder.
But he wasn't stupid, and before she could pull his hair out – or find his gun safe – Edward gave her exactly what she wanted. Within moments, he had her at the brink, and when he added a pair of fingers to the strokes of his tongue, hitting her in all the right places, she tumbled over the edge.
Wiping his mouth across the softness of her inner thigh, Edward stood. Staring down at her like she was the only thing in the world worth looking at, he gave her lower half another little yank, just enough to reposition her from where she'd climbed the bed, and then he propped her ankles up on his shoulders. "Yeah?"
"Yes." Bella wound her hands into the sheets and tilted her hips to take him inside. "God, yes."
"Fuck." Edward stilled, just for a second, just long enough to register the heat and tightness, and when she shifted, he swore it felt like his entire body was being squeezed. "If you don't stop that," he panted, dragging his lips along the toned muscle of her calf. "You're going to make me come like a damned teenager."
Of course, Bella just flashed him a mischievous, oh-so-sexy little grin, rolled her hips, and did her magic all over again.
"Fine," Edward growled, drawing back and pushing inside once more, this time hard and fast enough to lift her off the mattress. "We'll just go again."
And then, there was no more talking, just the sounds and sights of him driving into her over and over and over.
Swimming in sensation and something akin to euphoria, Edward didn't stop or slow, not until she was making more of those sounds that made him crazy. Holding off as long as he could, he reached down to thumb the spot that made her writhe and fall apart. Hot, slick wetness instantly coated him, and when he finally jerked and spilled inside of her, he swore he saw stars.
Once he could see again – and breathe – Edward collapsed down to the mattress, hot, sweaty, and alive. Laughing and wincing as that soreness caught up with him, he threw an arm over his eyes and groaned, "Shit, that's going to hurt tomorrow."
There was abrupt movement beside him.
Bella's teeth worried her lower lip, and without even realizing it, her fingertips skated across Edward's skin, soothing and gentle, circling the angry-looking, healing mark from the red-head's 9mm. "Crap, I'm sorry. We shouldn't ha– "
"I'm not… at all," Edward said, flopping his arm back over before dragging his now-damp and entirely sexed up scientist against his side. In the soft light from the lamp by the bed, the emerald of his irises glittered and danced. "I'm also not done. Give me ten…" He hesitated. "Okay, maybe fifteen."
"Bella, I'm fine," he said, pulling her wrist up to his lips. "Strike that, I am much more than fine."
Sometime later, well after the streetlights dimmed and the usual late-night traffic stilled, they finally peeled back the sheets and crawled under the blankets. Above, through a conspicuously clear skylight, Bella stared at the dark velvet of the nighttime sky. Even with the faint glow of ambient suburban light, a thousand stars twinkled and shined.
As Edward's thumb slowly kneaded the top of her shoulder, Bella turned her face into the crook of his neck. "So… how was your day?"
A soft chuff answered her. "Boring."
"Yeah," he said after a second, mashing his lips in a hard, straight line. Readjusting the covers, he pulled them up to her neck while kicking his opposite leg out the side. The woman would roast him if he wasn't careful. "I've run out of projects to do."
The look Bella gave him was priceless. "Aren't you supposed to be… resting?"
Staring down his chest, Edward leveled her a pointed glare. "I am resting."
"I see," Bella said, muffling a laugh, because compared to his norm, she supposed he was. "In that case, you can just come over to my place. I have a shit load of stuff you can do."
"Don't think I won't," he warned, mindlessly combing through the long, silky strands of her hair.
Bella yawned. "When do you go back?"
"I have to report in next Wednesday."
"So soon?" Turning so her chin rested on his chest, Bella stared up at him, watching the way the shadows played across the angled planes of his face. The dark purple-gray circles that ringed Edward's eyes had vanished, along with the deep lines of stress and worry. Yet even relaxed, he exuded a kind of calm, confident, collected composure few could ever hope to match. Catching herself, she gave herself a little shake. "Did they at least tell you what you're going to be doing?"
Edward sighed. "I think they want me to sit in on some dumb class… to provide input on real-world scenarios."
"Let me guess, Sneakiness 101?"
He sighed again. "Something like that." He gave her hair a light tug. "Anyway, how was your day? Well, other than the shitty traffic..."
Now it was Bella's turn to make a face. "Long… and kind of boring," she said as she ran her hand up and down his bare chest, following all of those hard lines and valleys. "They gave me a new partner."
"Yeah?" Edward's brows climbed his forehead.
"Her name is Jane something." Bella's nose crinkled and she blew out a loud, irritated breath. "Honestly? She's… kind of a pain in the ass."
A laugh rumbled in his chest. "I'm sorry."
Bella just shook her head. "Whatever, I don't think I'll have to deal with her for very long."
"Eh, I don't know." She shrugged. "Just don't think it's going to work out."
They were quiet for a little while longer. Staring up at the sky above, they watched the waxing moon slide behind a dark, wispy cloud. In shades of gray and metallic silver, the stars continued to sparkle and shine, reminding Bella of all those other nights, out in the middle of nowhere, alone with her Marine beneath the same starry sky. As if he knew where her head was going, Edward's arm wound tighter around her, holding her close, just like those nights the desert.
"You know," she said after a minute. "This is a lot more comfortable than that rock in Somalia."
When Edward didn't answer, she pressed her lips to his throat. "Hey, what are you thinking about?"
One eye cranked open. "You." He voice was soft.
Bella's lips spread against his skin. "Do I get to know the context?"
For a long, still moment, Edward didn't reply. Without conscious direction, his palm drifted to his side, trailing over the long, jagged scar that had nearly cut him in half so many years ago. Ghosts from the past echoed in his mind.
"Wife? Is there a pretty little blonde waiting back home?"
"Nope. Not many women can tolerate my job… And I prefer brunettes anyway…"
But instead of going down that rabbit hole, he shoved all that shit away and kissed the wave of Bella's hair, inhaling a warm, deep breath of citrus and clean. "Just thinking how different this is from what I'm used to."
"I'm assuming that's a good thing."
He smiled. "More than good… In fact," Edward said, so quietly she almost missed it, as he threaded his fingers between hers. "I may not let you go."
Bella's stomach dropped, but all she said was a light, "All night?"
Edward's eyes glittered in the dark, and one corner of his mouth pulled up into a crooked smile that softened his features and made Bella's heart beat a little faster. "Sure, we'll go with that for now."
"Good." Pushing up on her elbows, Bella crawled up his chest until they were face to face, and the inch of air between them sparked in recognition. "I'd hate to see you try to get rid of me. I really am very good with a .45."
Edward's shoulders shook, taking her right along with him. His arms cinched around her in an iron-clad hold, and when his mouth took hers again, he nearly stole her breath away.
Against her lips, Edward whispered, "Ooh-rah."
1) In the real world, while civilians can and do join the military up to ~35 yrs old, Carlisle's proposal to Bella (immediately on a spec ops team, no boot camp, part-time, etc) isn't something that would likely happen. But that's why we read fiction. It's more fun this way.
2) Regarding promotions in the Marine Corps… Unlike much of the civilian world, promotions aren't just a function of performance. To be promoted, you must have minimum time in service and in grade. And above a certain level, there are only so many spots available, which means you may have to wait for vacancies. It's nothing against Emmett or Rosalie. Edward (who declined promotion once already), Alice (whose promotion was being delayed due to inter-branch politics), and Jasper (who's already put in enough time as a corporal) simply had enough time in rank, and the slots were available to be promoted.
3) I took some liberties with regards to medical recovery times. Many moons ago, when he was a very fit twenty-something, Mr. katinki collapsed a lung and required both a chest tube and surgery. He was back walking around ~like normal after about two weeks. A collapsed lung due to severe puncture trauma would likely/definitely require longer healing times than that, and gunshot wound healing times really, really depend on what kind of internal damage occurred. Because this is fiction and Edward is in peak physical shape (and a general bad ass)… he's a fast, determined healer. So, there :)
4) Those recalled lines in the last scene ("Wife? Is there a pretty little blonde…") is a reference to Edward's capture and torture in '07. That scene is included in MISSION: Ghost.
5) One last epilogue-ish chapter to go.
Bravo Zulu: refers to the combination of the Bravo and Zulu nautical signal flags, i.e., Bravo Zulu, also BZ. Historically, it was conveyed by flaghoist or voice radio, meaning "Well Done" with regard to actions, operations, or performance. In addition to flaghoist and radio, use of the term has been extended in contemporary times to include written correspondence, message traffic, and email within US, UK, Australian, and Canadian Navies and Marine Corps. It's used by commissioned officers in command or senior supervisory positions to congratulate and compliment colleagues, juniors/subordinates, etc
Cornhole: for those not in the US/Canada, cornhole is a simple game often played at picnics, tailgating parties, camping, etc. I think there are even professional leagues, too. The set up consists of two slanted boards positioned several feet away opposite each other. Each board has a single hole and opponents are given weighted bags to toss. You get points for landing the bags on the board, and more if you make it in the hole. Don't ask me how the game got its name. My 12-year-old, Beavis & Butthead-loving humor laughs every time I say it.
DoD: The United States Department of Defense is an executive branch department of the federal government charged with coordinating and supervising all agencies and functions of the government directly related to national security and the United States Armed Forces. All branches of the US military fall under the DoD, as well as DARPA.
MARSOC: United States Marine Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) is a component command of the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) that comprises the Marine Corps' contribution to SOCOM. Its core capabilities are direct action, special reconnaissance and foreign internal defense. MARSOC has also been directed to conduct counter-terrorism and information operations.
Marine Raiders Regiment: formerly known as the Marine Special Operations Regiment (MSOR), is a special operations force of the United States Marine Corps, part of Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC). In February 2006, the Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC) was created. The majority of the combat personnel assigned to the two battalions were drawn from the Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance community.
Naval Labs: The United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) is the corporate research laboratory for the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps. It conducts basic scientific research, applied research, technological development and prototyping. The laboratory's specialties include plasma physics, space physics, materials science, and tactical electronic warfare.
PT: physical therapy
SECNAV: Secretary of the Navy, or the statutory officer and head of the Department of the Navy. The Marine Corps are a little different than other branches of the military. They're technically under the Department of the Navy. By law, the Secretary of the Navy must be a civilian at least five years removed from active military service. The Secretary is appointed by the President and requires confirmation by the Senate.
SOCOM: The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM) is the unified combatant command charged with overseeing the various special operations component commands of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force of the United States Armed Forces. The command is part of the Department of Defense and is the only unified combatant command created by an Act of Congress.
Tier 1: a term sometimes used to specify the premier highly secretive, special operations forces. Typically considered in this category would be: SFOD-D (Delta Force), DEVGRU (SEAL Team 6), Army Ranger's Regimental Reconnaissance Company, Army Special Forces (Green Berets), Air Force Special Tactics Squadron, etc.
Walter Reed: The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC), formerly known as the National Naval Medical Center and colloquially referred to as the Bethesda Naval Hospital, Walter Reed, or Navy Med, is a United States' tri-service military medical center, located in the community of Bethesda, Maryland. In 2011, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) was combined with the National Naval Medical Center to form the tri-service Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.