Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. I'm borrowing her characters, dressing them up in MARPAT, and giving them some guns.
Home of Senior Staff Scientist Isabella Swan
Hands clasped behind his back, Edward glanced up at the speckled brickwork above Bella's townhouse door, and for the second time in the six-odd months he'd known her, a rare, faint dusting of pink climbed his neck.
Grinning for all she was worth, Bella shoved a stack of cardboard boxes against the wall and out of the walkway, stepped out onto the landing, and pulled the door behind her.
Unable to resist, eyes freely roaming, she took in the straight-backed Marine in front of her, from the pristine white barracks cover to the crisp midnight coat on top of royal trousers, all the way down to the black, high-gloss oxfords. On her way back up, she paused on the blood stripes running down the sides, the gold oak leaves on his shoulders, and then on the mass of colorful ribbons and medals decorating Edward's chest.
Freshly shaven and sporting an almost-austere new haircut, he looked like something out of one of those romance novels Alice kept throwing at her.
"Do you guys…" Tucking her clutch under her opposite arm, Bella waved a hand at his general person. "Wear this a lot?"
One corner of Edward's mouth pulled up, softening the firm line of his jaw. "No… thank God."
"Well, you should," she said, brows climbing and not even trying to disguise the gleam of appreciation. "It's a good look."
At that, Edward laughed and before she could blink, he leaned down, swept a curling ribbon of hair off her shoulder, and touched his lips to the soft, smooth skin just below her ear. "You're beautiful."
Now, it was her turn to blush.
"So…" When Edward offered his arm, Bella slipped her hand inside the warm crook of his elbow and gave him an easy smile. "What do people do at these ceremonies anyway?"
As they descended the steps and made their way to the car, Edward looked up at the chilly, gray on gray, late-autumn sky and frowned. "Honestly, not much. Mostly just stand around and avoid the fucking politicians. There'll be some food or something at the end."
Bella squeezed his bicep. "It sounds like you don't really like these kinds of things."
Edward's frown deepened as he swung open the door and held out his hand to help her in. "I don't."
"Why's that?" Adjusting the flimsy fabric of her cocktail dress, Bella carefully eased down into the butter-soft leather seat of the black, low-slung, aggressive-looking sports car Edward normally kept in storage. Left at idle – with the heat thankfully running – the thing purred like a panther.
Not answering, Edward instead thumped the door shut, skirted the freshly planted "For Rent" sign in front of her house, and jogged around to the other side. When he settled into the driver's seat, he took one look at her, grimaced, and then turned up the heat. "Better?"
She just flashed him a row of teeth because he was probably already sweating.
"I don't know," Edward said, finally addressing her question as he stared out the windshield at the long line of matching houses and concrete driveways. Here and there, breaking up the grays and browns, bright green wreaths with shiny red bows hung from the doors and windows. "They never hand these things out when something good happened. It's always when something bad happened, and you managed to make a few good choices at the right time and in the right place."
Smoothing out a non-existent wrinkle in the dark silk of her dress, she thought for a moment before slowly saying, "Isn't that… pretty much the definition of heroism?"
His lips mashed together.
Reaching across the console, Bella's fingertips found the rows of medals on the left-hand side of Edward's chest, lightly touching the navy and white ribbon with a cross pattée affixed to the end. In its center, the relief of a ship sailed along choppy waves. "Is that what this one was for?"
Instead of going down that lonesome road, Bella asked, "Well, are you nervous?"
Edward started at that. Abandoning the benign picture of civilian suburbia, he eyed her askance and then abruptly threw the car in reverse. "Why would I be?"
The instant dubious, almost comical expression she sported made him feel warm all over. She drew her next words out like he'd missed something truly important. "Edward, it's the White House and… the President."
A surprised laugh spilled off her lips, echoing in the cabin. "Does anything make you nervous?"
One brow cocked high, and Edward's shoulders rolled in a lazy shrug. "Sure."
"Yeah, right." Blowing out a huffy breath, Bella just shook her head because now that she thought about it, she wasn't sure he even knew what the word meant. Sure, confident, even under duress – especially under duress – Major Edward Cullen was a man untouched. She knew that better than anyone. "Like what?"
"You." Shifting gears with a subtle flick of his wrist, Edward punched the gas, and that panther-like purr turned into a growling roar. As he pulled out onto the highway, he flashed her a wide, unexpected grin, erasing the earlier melancholy and in the process making her heart thump a little harder. "With a loaded weapon."
Just resisting the urge to pop him, at least not while driving, she shot him a put-on glare. "I'll show you weapon."
"Yes, ma'am." Edward shifted again, and that grin just spread even wider. "I look forward to it."
The White House
Washington, D. C.
Two hours and nearly a dozen security checks later, Bella stepped into the warm creams and golds of the East Room reception hall. Not quite sure what to do or where to go, her eyes lapped the room, flitting from the gilded paintings on the walls to the heavy, gold drapes that bracketed the windows, and finally settled on the raised platform and podium against the opposite wall. On the left-hand side of the platform, positioned in front of a trio of flags, sat a framed light blue rectangle with thirteen white stars in its center.
As soon as her heels rapped against the parquet floor, a young, dark-haired Marine with gold on red chevrons on his shoulder appeared at her side. With quick, efficient movements, he escorted her down the center aisle between rows of ornate, cushioned chairs, and politely motioned to a spot right in the middle of Edward's team.
Like their commander, decked out in full dress blue regalia, his Marines were a picture of sharpness, decorum, and stern comportment. In other words, they looked absolutely nothing like the relaxed, joking, sometimes-ridiculous men and women who'd dropped by last night to help pack up her house. Especially not the mammoth of a man sitting beside her.
The second Bella's escort turned back toward the entrance, Emmett stiffly leaned toward her. Still focused on the platform at the front, he gave her a surreptitious smirk. "You don't have to say it."
Bella's brows angled down. "Don't have to say what?"
His eyes glittered. "I look fuckin' hot."
Bella's lips twitched and as she peeked around his barrel of a chest, she just caught Rosalie's exasperated eye roll and sigh. A hard punch of air abruptly spilled out of the staff sergeant's mouth, followed by a whispered, "Damn it, woman! We talked about this!"
Wearing a nail-spitting glare, the gunnery sergeant growled out a low threat, and there was no doubt whatsoever that the woman could – and would – back it up. "You will behave yourself for the next two hours, or so help me I will make you wish you had."
The big man tilted his chin up and made a fussy show of straightening his shoulders and staring ahead. "Fine."
Not about to wade into that, Bella turned to Alice and nodded toward the pair of cameras sitting on each side of the room. Her cheek sucked between her teeth. "Is this being televised?"
"Nah," Alice said, shaking her head. "Recorded, but no way it'll be broadcast, at least not anytime soon… Not with Edward and us here and still active." She sent Bella a little wink. "We're kinda secretive like that." Motioning over to the other side of the aisle, she pointed to a row of beefy, six-foot somethings in midnight blue and gold. "Them, too."
It took her a second to register exactly who she was seeing. "Holy… They look… different."
Emmett made a low, annoyed tsking noise right as Alice beamed. "By different, you just mean clean. Just shows that those slobs actually can bathe and shave, at least when they want to."
On Alice's other side, sounding about as happy as Edward had when she'd opened her door, Jasper muttered, "More like when their general tells 'em to."
Studying the row of Deltas, Bella watched a serious, quiet conversation between their captain and sergeant first class. "I didn't realize they'd be here. Did you know?"
Alice gave Bella a small half-smile. "It's not everyday someone receives a Medal of Honor, B. The general and his wife are up at the front... Eli's here, too." She thumbed toward the entrance right as the Israeli walked in. Like the rest of them, Major El'azar Dayan was a study in dark, dignified formality, broken only by a split-second flash of teeth the moment he spotted her.
Before she had time to ask or even acknowledge, however, the room abruptly went silent, and as the audience stood in unison, Bella's stomach gave a little flip. Unable to stop herself, wide-eyed and holding her breath, she just stared when Edward appeared in the entry and walked shoulder to shoulder with their president as they made their way to the front of the room.
And as his Commander-in-Chief spent the next twenty minutes recounting the most terrifying, awful night of her life, those nerves finally stilled. Something warm and weighty settled inside her ribcage.
Because they won.
"The president of the United States, in the name of the congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Major Edward Anthony Cullen, United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as an Captain and Commander of Force Reconnaissance Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, Special Missions Unit Alpha, in Puntland Region, Somalia, in support of Operation: Break the Dawn on 5 July 2011…
"By his undaunted courage, bold fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of almost certain death, Major Cullen's gallantry and uncommon valor are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the Marine Corps, and the United States Naval Service."
As the president looped the light blue ribbon around Edward's neck and straightened the five-pointed bronze star with Minerva in its center, his gaze traveled the room before finally flickering over to Bella. Without conscious direction, as applause echoed all around, her lips moved, silently mouthing three tiny little words.
Not the first time it'd been said, nor would it be the last, but when a slow, responding smile creeped into Edward's stony features, nothing more than a subtle warming of his otherwise stoic expression, her blood sang through her veins.
By the time the room emptied into the adjacent reception area, the clock on the wall read three. Gazing around the wide, formal receiving area, complete with massive crystal chandeliers and elegant gold-on-cream serving lines, she watched the mix of milling Marines, soldiers, and suits.
On her second lap, a pair of wineglasses sneaked into her periphery, followed by a wall of starched midnight blue. "You want the red or the white?"
"Thank God." Glancing up, Bella's cheeks creased, and she plucked the glass from Edward's right. "I'll take the red."
Edward nodded, dipping his chin toward the other end of the hall where the general stood between a pair of pepper-gray men in dark, well-cut suits. "Told you. The politicians just can't help themselves."
Bella's nose scrunched when Carlisle's ice blue eyes found hers. "Okay," she whispered, almost conspiratorially. "Maybe the party's a little dry."
"Just wait until next month when they hand you that Medal of Freedom." Chuckling, Edward took a polite sip, trying his damnedest not to wince at the too-sweet tartness while simultaneously reminding himself just how much he hated Chardonnay. "This place will be crawling with them."
"Damn it," Bella muttered under her breath, but when she caught the major's sour expression, amusement bubbled in her bloodstream. Before he could suffer another sip, she reached over and swapped out the glasses. "You think they could just mail it to me?"
"How about you ask…" Another low chuckle tumbled out of Edward's mouth. "And then tell me how that goes."
About the time she would have replied, behind them came a loud, boisterous laugh, followed by a hard clap on Edward's back. "Shalom, my friend!"
Edward grinned at the approaching Israeli and extended his hand in greeting. "Rav Seren, harbe zman lo hitra'enu."
Delight in every one of the man's handsome olive features, El'azar's dark eyes skipped from Edward to Emmett and then to Rosalie. "This is a different look for your team, no?" He wagged his shaggy brows. "Is there a parade I don't know about?"
Across from Alice, who looked like she was about two seconds from bursting, Jasper snorted, tugged at his collar, and grumbled a dry, "Might as well be."
"Fuck that." Emmett made a scoffing sound. His chest puffed up like a proud peacock. "I look amazing in this shit." Absurdly smug, the staff sergeant elbowed the blonde beside him. "Don't I, Dollface?"
There was a beat of utter silence, where Rosalie's eyes slid shut. She took a slow, deep breath, and then when she opened her eyes again, she threw her commander the fakest smile Bella had ever seen. In a startlingly calm voice that made everyone freeze, she nodded to Edward and simply said, "I'm going to get more wine."
"Shit." That smug expression vanished, replaced by more than a little fear. Emmett swiped the back of his nearly bald head. "She's goin' to kick my ass when we get out of here."
As the gunnery sergeant walked away, bristling with every step, Edward's shoulders shook. Turning back to El'azar, he asked, "Nu, ma nishma?"
"Meh, same as always." The major shrugged and waved a random hand. "Hakol beseder b'eli haseder."
Recognizing the familiar ritual, Bella grinned up at him. "Still sweating your balls off, huh?"
The man's face split in two. "Ah, neshama," El'azar purred, holding his fists to his chest with dramatic flair. "How I have missed you… It's boring without you." Peeking over to Edward, not at all hiding his teasing, he added, "I think you should come back home with me. We know what to do with one who possesses talents such as yours."
And now, he was apparently recruiting her.
Right here, in the nation's capital.
Of course, Edward just rolled his eyes. "How long are you here for?"
Pouting – just a little – El'azar shrugged again. "A few days. Your general would like to chat about some things. You know, national secrets and such…" He gave Bella a subtle bump and another one of those incorrigible, flirtatious winks. "Speaking of… I hear interesting things, Bella Swan."
Bella's eyes narrowed. "What things?"
"Eh, lo kelum." When her fists dropped to her hips, the major's palms shot up in mock surrender. "I'm sure we shall speak of it soon enough."
"Alek." She blew out an aggravated breath and slugged back a drink of chilled fruity wine. "You're… a handful, did you know that?"
The man positively glowed, but when Edward lifted his brows in silent question, El'azar just hummed. And then, in some of the worst acting Bella had ever seen, he made a show of eying the line of Deltas across the way.
"Ah, Captain Black," he called over, already sliding away. "I've been looking for you. Where is your young lieutenant? I have something for him."
El'azar threw Bella one last not-so-subtle smile over his shoulder. "I'll see you before I depart."
As they watched him slink in between Jacob and a no-longer-limping Paul, Bella leaned toward Edward. "What do you thi–"
Automatically straightening as Carlisle stepped into the Israeli's vacant spot, Edward dipped his chin in deference. "General."
But like always, for a long, quiet moment, as Edward's team looked on, the two men stared at each other in their never-ending game of wills. And like usual, the older man broke first with an amused chuckle. A second later, his lips spread into a warm, proud, father-like smile. "Well done, son."
Edward's chin dipped again. "Sir."
For the next few minutes, they settled into an easy back and forth, talking about the ceremony, the food, and finally, Edward's recent clearance for active duty.
"Oh, and I nearly forgot," Carlisle went on, holding up a finger when Esme waved him back over. "Black called."
Glancing at the general, Edward's forehead creased, but a moment later, suspecting what was coming, his jaw rolled, and he glared at the hotshot captain across the room. "What'd he want?"
Carlisle snorted and pointed at Jasper, who immediately flushed a shade rivaling the blood stripe down his trousers. "Your scout sniper, of course."
Right on cue, Jacob twisted at the waist and shot them all an arrogant smirk, and Carlisle just belted out a laugh. "That's what I told him," he said, turning to the sergeant standing beside one of the best pilots the Marine Corps had ever seen. "Unless you want to swap over, that is."
Jasper grimaced. "Fu– I mean, no, sir." His expression cleared as he glanced over to Alice and then to his commander. "I'm good right where I'm at."
"Good to hear." As he went to leave, Carlisle stopped and turned back to Bella. "Dr. Swan."
Bella's head tilted. "General?"
"I also wanted to let you know that I just received word back from SECNAV." He gestured over to one of the distinguished, pepper-gray men in dark suits he'd been speaking to earlier. "Our request has been fully approved."
Every muscle in Bella's body locked down as she stared at the blond man with ash at his temples. After a second of stunned surprise, she sucked in a deep lungful of air, and inside her chest, her heart thudded a jagged rhythm. The grip on her wineglass tightened, so much so that she carefully placed it on the high-top table behind her. "Option C?"
Carlisle's eyes twinkled. "Option C, it is." Ignoring his nephew's narrowed expression, he added, "Come down next week, and we'll go over the details."
She tried to respond, but all she could seem to do was swallow and nod.
Later, as the crowd eventually began to thin and disperse, Edward motioned to Bella, and they began a slow, ambling stroll down one of the long hallways off to the side of the reception hall, pretending to study the dark oil paintings lining the walls. Right in front of one of the larger frames, an image of the Founding Fathers, he stopped.
Hands clasped behind his back, Edward gazed down at his scientist. Still reeling from whatever Carlisle had told her, her teeth worried her lower lip, and her breathing sawed in and out in choppy bursts.
"Well," he finally said, lips already twitching. "When should I expect you?"
Bella jolted and her eyes flew to his. "What?"
His whole upper body shook. "I'm assuming you'll be joining my team."
Edward gave her a flat, pointed glare.
"Has Carlisle talked to you?" Bella's voice was low, laced with something akin to scandal, but then abruptly rose in both volume and pitch. Her hands flew in random directions. "He said he wouldn't until he heard back! That… that son of a–"
"He's not said a word to me." Edward's laugh echoed in the hall.
Without warning, images of her straddling his lap in that rundown Somali hotel so many months ago flitted though his mind. Unable to resist, Edward bent down, so close that she could feel the heat pulsing off his chest and the brush of his lips along the shell of her ear.
Repeating that same line from that long-ago night, he whispered, "Really, Doctor, what kind of shitty recon Marine do you take me for?"
"Crap." Bella gulped back a flutter of nerves. So quietly he almost missed it, she asked, "What do you think?"
Running his hands down her bare arms, he leaned back to study her too-pretty, too-fine face – a face that had no business whatsoever out in some godforsaken warzone. "What do I think?"
"Objectively?" Edward's jaw ticked and the grip he had on her forearms tightened. "I'd give my right arm to have someone with your knowledge and expertise."
Pink climbed Bella's cheeks, and the effect made her radiant. She ducked her head. "Subjectively?
For the first time in months, Edward's gut clenched into a tight, unwavering fist, and he shoved a rough hand through his hair. "The thought of it is absolutely terrifying…" He squeezed his eyes shut. "So."
Edward exhaled a loud, tired breath, doing his damnedest to keep from shaking the woman. And especially his uncle. "So, Dr. Swan," he said, his voice low and growling. "Let's just say you better eat your fucking Wheaties."
Of course, like always, Bella just scowled at him, even as her fingers walked up the placket of his coat. "And just what is that supposed to mean?"
Glancing back toward the hall, to where his attack dog of a gunny stared daggers at someone he couldn't see, one corner of Edward's mouth pulled up into something that Bella could only call dangerous.
"Combat training with Rosalie begins tomorrow…" Edward's gaze went to his wrist. "At zero dark thirty."
"After that," he went on, slicing a hand through the air before she could object. "Then Jazz'll start you on rifle and weapons handling… In the afternoons, Em will cover extraction and entry basics, and Alice will run you til you can't run anymore." He stepped closer, eating into her space, and his voice dropped to a low baritone. "And then… when your muscles are jelly and you're ready to scream at me, I'll…"
"Teach me how to be sneaky?"
Edward smiled, and it was the same kind dark, anticipatory smile that would have sent her running months ago. "Among other things…"
"But I'm serious, Bella," he said, intense, probing, and with eyes gleaming like emerald fire. "If I'm going to have to watch the woman I love walk into a firefight and get shot at on a regular basis, for my own sanity, you better be damned sure that I'm going to turn you into the deadliest creature on the whole fucking planet."
Edward's fists fell to his hips in an all-too-familiar pose, and one brow arched, as if daring her to argue. "Are we clear?"
With a quick, stealthy glance down the hall, Bella grinned a heart-stopping grin, yanked him down by the coat, and kissed him senseless.
Thank you so very much for reading, especially those who have stuck around since the very beginning. I'm truly, truly grateful for all your kind words and encouragement along the way, and of course, I would love to hear from you here at the end.
I hope you enjoyed this little ride. I know I enjoyed writing it and living it in my head. Thanks for letting me play.
Shalom: hello, goodbye, peace, etc
Rav Seren, harbe zman lo hitra'enu: major, long time, no see
Nu, ma nishma: so, what's new
Hakol beseder b'eli haseder: everything is in order within the chaos
Neshama: soul; term of endearment
Lo kelum: it's nothing
Alek: yeah, right
Medal of Honor: The Medal of Honor (MOH) is the United States government's highest and most prestigious military decoration that may be awarded to recognize American soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and coast guardsmen who have distinguished themselves by acts of valor. The President typically presents the Medal of Honor at a formal ceremony intended to represent the gratitude of the American people, with posthumous presentations made to the primary next of kin. MOH recipients receive certain privileges and courtesies for life. Also, although not required by law or military regulation, members of the uniformed services are encouraged to render salutes to recipients out of respect, regardless of rank or status. This is one of the few instances where a living member of the military will receive salutes from members of a higher rank.
NOTE: it usually takes many months, years, or even decades to determine qualification for MOH. I sped that process up quite a bit… because it's Edward :)
NOTE 2: the italicized verbiage in the chapter above was taken and blended from actual MOH citations.
Medal of Freedom: The Presidential Medal of Freedom is an award bestowed by the president of the United States to recognize people who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. The Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal are the highest civilian awards of the United States.
Navy Cross:The Navy Cross is the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps' second-highest military decoration awarded for sailors and marines who distinguish themselves for extraordinary heroism in combat with an armed enemy force. It's second only the Medal of Honor and is the blue and white ribbon with the cross pattee Bella touched in the chapter above. You can infer this is the medal Edward received for his actions in '07.
Wheaties: for non-US/Canadian readers, Wheaties are a variety of General Mills breakfast cereal. Its advertising is known for featuring prominent athletes and individuals in top physical shape. The phrase: "You better eat your Wheaties" is an old tagline, which is colloquially used more generally. It basically means: to mentally and physically prepare or bolster oneself for a task or activity that requires a large amount of energy or effort.