Thank you for your reviews. And here comes your sappy thank you note for sticking with this story. Holy. Hell. I can't believe we're finally here. I can't believe I'm finally here. If you would've told me that when I started this story, this is where it'd lead me... I wouldn't probably have believed you. I've been what my organization calls an "angel" for almost four years now, and through half of that I've been on here, writing this as well. But I think researching for this story, learning about things I wasn't as aware of taught me so much more. I wanted to do more; the more I found, the more I did. That's why this story has taken the life it has... it was never going to be like this. But I am so, so thankful that it did. Because it taught me so much, made me grow, but I think, to me, what is important to, is that it has spread awareness and understanding on something that others might not have before. So, if this story was able to tug at your heartstrings and make your Auslly heart happy, but also showed you what war is, what veterans and soldiers go through, I'm super happy. War is ugly; war is not kind. But the whole point behind it is that there is always going to be people standing behind the military. And I think that's awesome.
Now, I waited to post this today because I had one final story to share with you. Many of you know that "Matt" in the story was based off a real life veteran. Until today, I had never met him in person, despite him living on Long Island like me. The other day, I got an email from one of the people I volunteer with, asking if I wanted to meet said veteran before we did our monthly visit with the PTSD unit. I was nervous, but also ecstatic and agreed instantly! I wasn't sure what to expect, because while he's very similar to Matt, he's actually a bit worse off. I went in today with an open heart, but believe me... it was one of the toughest things I've ever done. I could not stop myself from shaking; I had to remind myself/take a deep breath often. There is a line in the song by Toby Keith "American Soldier" that goes "Freedom don't come free" and in those moments, I understood it. That said, it was an incredible experience and though my reaction was more like Austin than Ally's to him, I am so thankful to have been able to meet someone who doesn't even know how much he inspired me. When he thanked me for writing him a card a few weeks back, I had to keep it together and believe me, that was tougher than I ever imagined. Still, I'm hopeful that I'll get to go back and meet with him again. Thankfully, his family situation is MUCH better than Matt's and he's got one hell of a support group behind him.
Anyway, back to my note. This story exceeded any expectations I ever had. I never thought I'd get to where I did with favorites/alerts/reviews, and seeing that number go up and up was something I never could've prepared myself for. I just... I just really love you guys all a lot, and I am so thankful to everyone for coming along this journey with me and Austin and Ally. They're always in my heart, just like this story will always be, and I really just hope you know how much I love you all, and am so happy to have been able to share this with you.
Finally, keep an eye out from time to time; I may post one shots that pertain to this story.
I love you all.
Thank you SO much.
"And it keeps me driving on, waiting on, letters from home."
Let me know what you think. Enjoy!
"It feels like I should be a little more… concerned," Ally reasoned, wrapping napkins around silverware before the lunch rush. It was June; the busy season was starting at the diner, and it seemed, sans Bridget's usuals (now returned Cassidy, Ally, and Trish), they had inexperienced waitresses yet again. Her boss preferred it this way. She liked that she was able to mold them anyway she pleased. The diner was a great place to start, she reasoned, and if they were going to stay in this industry, her place was the one to do it.
Cassidy sighed, filling salt shakers. "I am a bit worried myself. I don't like the idea of just the boys being alone. It's not that I don't trust them; its just he's never been with just friends. It was always me and Ryan."
Trish cut in, giving both Ally and Cassidy a look, "You do realize it's been a year you've been home now, and that Tyler is more than capable of taking care of himself?" She realized how harsh it sounded, then softened her expression, "I didn't mean it that way. I know how much you care about him, Cass. I just meant that if he thought he couldn't—or if the others weren't capable—he wouldn't have went. You have to think of it that way. I had to let Dez have some freedom, or he never would've healed completely."
"Okay, I guess you're right."
Ally was still doubtful—Tyler's injuries were different. And what the boys were doing was different. She hummed quietly as she tried to force herself to think about something else, moving to help her co-worker and best friend with the shakers. "I just hope that they're ready for this. All of them. I still think one of us should have gone."
"No," Trish said flatly, giving her a look. "I just said this, Ally. They're adults; they're capable adults. You have to give them some freedom. Besides, I think this was incredibly important. Besides, get that frown off your face: you get married in three days!"
She smiled at this, staring down at her ring. It had been about a year since the night Austin proposed to her on the beach, with that song, at Dez's wedding. And it had been a good year. Austin had gone back to school with her that fall; he'd been working on a communications degree. Neither of them expected it; no one did actually. They assumed he'd pursue music. When she asked him about it, he explained, "I can always do music. It's always going to be there for me. It's not practical of me to think it'll be my career though. Anyway, other things matter to me now, too. It's not just that anymore."
She never questioned his passion. Austin now spent every other weekend at the VA, in the PTSD unit volunteering with Kensi and Shay. They came in and spoke to those who were in the program, explained their own lives. It was the best representation that they were in the right place, and both of the boys thought it was the way to go. Ally went some days—sometimes she went when they weren't there. It was always worth a smile to hear the men and women inside talk about the two former military guys who overcame their own demons. From their perspective, he sounded like a superhero.
And she loved that.
Still, she knew he still had days that were rough. They were promised. Things could trigger her boyfriend so easily. In fact, while she loved fireworks of any kind, she often had to go to shows without him. Austin would stay with someone while she got to enjoy them just a little. Certain other smells or scenes on TV also made him seem far away. It was those days when she made sure she was extra loving, giving him a reminder that he never faced it alone.
They were a package deal; a team; together.
"Earth to Ally!"
She glanced up to see the girls shaking their head at her. She was like this often these days. The wedding made her very nostalgic. In fact, just standing in front of the billboard by the wall made her want to cry. It had a new platoon up there; their fifth now. Will and his guys were based out of the same very base that theirs had been. They were deployed to Afghanistan and were doing patrols in some of the very same places her boyfriend had been. He was a really nice guy and his buddies and him appreciated the support. Sometimes, it felt never ending.
They had been in a war for most of their young lives. The TV had died most days reporting it, but so many were still overseas. With new reports of other terrorists coming about, who knew when it would end? It terrified her, made her wonder when the violence would stop. But as long as their were willing individuals who wanted to put their lives on the line for the greater good, for the safety of others, Bridget's Diner and those who worked in it would be there, with countless other Americans, who would do the same.
That pride would never lessen. Not one bit.
"God, she's got that look on her face again!" Trish laughed.
Cassidy giggled, "Leave her alone, she's in love."
"I keep telling her, it's a trap!"
"Oh, is it now?"
The girls looked up to see Casey, Clara, and now one-year-old baby Cameron at the door. Ally told them to take a seat wherever they liked and she grabbed the menus, though she knew they didn't need them. She brought over a glass of kiwi lemonade, giving her boyfriend's brother a wink. It earned a chuckle from Clara, who knew just how much he loved the stuff.
"Hi Cameron!" she gushed. "How are you?"
"Allly!" he cheered back.
She beamed. The little boy could not have been any sweeter if he tried. "I'll bring you something really yummy, okay?"
The boy giggled and Ally went back to their friends. "It's been a long haul."
"I feel good about the future though," Cassidy murmured. "I mean, it feels brighter than ever before."
"That's because it is."
"I have something to tell you guys, by the way," Trish murmured.
"If you say you're pregnant, oh my God…"
Trish made a face, "Hell no. At least not yet. I'm not ready for any of that stuff!"
The girls laughed a second time.
"I was going to say," Trish complained, giving Cassidy a weak glare. "Before I was rudely interrupted, that Dez and I will be buying a house. Don't worry; we're not going too far. But we've both been thinking about it for a while and with our savings, I think we can do it. We want to make some adaptations though, so that it's easier for anyone who does come over who needs it," she explained, looking to Cassidy a second time. "Like Tyler."
"I'm so happy for you guys," Ally smiled, walking over a second time to give the other drinks to her boyfriend's family. "How are you two?"
"Good," Casey commented. "We're just about done painting the boat shed. I meant to tell Austin that before he left, but he rushed off so fast. I guess they were excited."
"They were. So the boat will ready to use by summer, too?"
"Oh yeah," he grinned, and then cast his eyes toward the other girls. "Have you heard from him yet?"
"No," she admitted, showing her concern again. "I'm a little worried. The girls told me not to, that they could handle it… but it does, you know? I can't help it."
"I'm sure they're right," Casey agreed, but he nodded at her as well. "Don't let those feelings overwhelm you, but there is a reason they're there. It's because you care. Don't ever forget that, either."
He grinned a second time. "No problem. We'll take the usual, by the way."
And with that, Ally gathered the menus and went back to her friends. The business was staring to pick up, and each of them had two tables themselves now. Still, there was time to gossip in-between those times and she enjoyed hearing her friends talk about what they were doing with their hair for the wedding, or what time they should go for manicures the day after next. It still hadn't hit her that tonight was her last night of work for almost three weeks and that after this, she'd be getting married and going on a trip.
It all seemed very fairytale, but she couldn't help but think it was right.
"You have the look again," Cassidy warned with a laugh.
Ally smiled, "Can't help it. I'm so happy."
"I love how this all happened," she admitted quietly. "It's been one hell of a ride, but I wouldn't change a single day of it. Everything that led us here, has led me to everyone in my life who I care about. And without any of those events, I can't say I would be standing here for sure right now. And I also can't help but think there isn't a single place I'd rather be."
Letters from Home
"You know I love him, but holy shit, this truck reeks," Tyler complained from the back of Austin's truck. He shifted uncomfortably from where he was, sans legs. "It smells like cigarettes and gum; how is that possible? He didn't even smoke!"
"It's part of its charm," Austin defended, giving his friend a dirty look.
He loved the truck more than anything, and currently inside of it with both Dez and Tyler, on their way up to Virginia, he couldn't think of a better place to be with two of his favorite guys. He picked up speed, making the old truck groan a bit, and turned into the left hand lane; they were only about an hour from their destination, having been driving for almost fifteen hours. They wanted to pick up Taylor from base, but he wasn't able to even get a 24 hour leave, so they'd have to do it just them. That was okay; they'd have to video chat him as they did.
"What was the exit again?" Austin asked, looking at Dez.
He picked up his phone. "Two from this one," he commented back, looking at the window. The sun was setting beside them, casting pinks and yellows through the highway. They had two stops actually, but the first one was not their main goal. Austin had thought of this a while back, because he felt that it was right, and he knew the others hadn't been there for the funeral either. So, he made the suggestion and while none of their girlfriends or his brother were crazy about it, they allowed the trip to happen just three days before the wedding. They were due back the morning before, just in time for a rehearsal and so that their respective beautiful girls did not murder them.
"Turn here," he was told, and he did.
Soon, they were flying down dirt roads, going past wild roses and other wild flowers, to a house he'd gotten to know so well over the last few months.
As much as he loved this truck, sometimes he really did enjoy going where they were. Ally came sometimes, too. Besides, she needed someone every so often in that house or he was convinced that she might just go crazy. After not coming to the wedding for Dez and Trish but having gotten the letters from it (to both couples-one for Dez, one for Austin), they knew they had a job of their own to do. Per a certain SGT's request, they were to spend some time with the redheaded flower woman they'd gotten to know.
"I hope she baked," Tyler commented.
Austin threw him a look, "That is not funny."
"It's the truth," he whined innocently. "Hers are almost as good as Ally and Cassidy's. Last time we were up, she sent me home with enough fudge for a month!"
"That's not why we're here," he reminded him.
"I know that," he said seriously. "I realize it."
Soon, they had parked the truck outside and were greeting a smiling Alex at the door. She indeed had something cooking (dinner it seemed) as you could smell it from where they stood. Together, they went inside for a quick meal, but Austin knew they couldn't stay long. He was far from home, but in an odd sense, this place had become like a second one for him. And because they couldn't bring the wedding to them, he thought maybe he could at least bring a piece of it here.
Marrying Ally was like some sort of dream come true. He knew the night he proposed, much like Dez had promised, that everything would change. He just didn't realize when he said that that it would all come together, too. But he didn't want to lie. It wasn't a simple, easy year either. There had been many rough days. But with her, it all seemed manageable and he never wanted to go without her again.
"You look good," came the soft voice of his late friend's girlfriend. Alex grinned at him while she shoved some salad in her mouth. "Happy. Healthy."
"Are you excited?"
"Thrilled," he commented. "You are still coming, right?"
"Yes," she laughed. "I am. I'm leaving tomorrow night."
"Good. You know we have a room for you at the apartment."
He thought about the apartment that he and Ally had moved into together about three months before. It seemed wrong of him to keep spending time at Ally's parent's house, and he certainly didn't want to overstay his welcome there either. Since Casey had a baby, and his other friends only had one room apartments, he had to figure something out. And it only seemed right to ask the girl he was going to marry to go with him.
They bought a small, two bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Miami. It was about a mile or so from the beach, so that he could spend some time by the pier, and far enough that Ally didn't have to worry about sand being everywhere. Compromise. In the meantime, Ally had been working more hours at the diner so that they could have a decent amount in savings, and Sam was trying to get him a part-time position at the VA so that he'd have his own job. He didn't like that Ally, sans his disability money, was paying all the bills. School was currently out for the summer, and he needed to do something. That was his best bet. If not, according to Ally, Joye would give him a spot at the shelter. Either or, he was helping local veterans who were once in a position like himself, and he would take it. That's all he wanted to do these days.
"Sorry," he laughed. "Daydreaming. I think we're about ready to go. We'll be back before it's too late, so don't lock us out."
The girl laughed. "I make no promises. You track mud into my house; I will make sure you regret it."
"Ooh," Dez teased. "A threat."
"I don't scare easy," Tyler teased too.
Alex rolled her eyes. "Men. I don't know how Rocky put up with any of you! You're like children."
"Rocky loved me," Austin said matter-of-factly, meaning it in a childish way, but when Alex's expression softened, he knew he'd hit a nerve.
She smiled softly, "Yes, yes he did."
"Yeah," he commented quietly, as the other boys headed back to the truck. "And I'm grateful for that every day."
The road was dark as they drove into the cemetery, killing the engine just outside of it. Technically, Arlington closed when it was dark and most of the gates were closed. But one was always open for maintenance workers to get inside, and they snuck in that one, with a little help from the knowledge of Alex. She did the same, most nights. Austin wonders if those were nights where she couldn't sleep.
They were careful as they crossed the large grounds, searching for markers that would lead them to the grave they were looking for. Austin had a lot on his mind in the last few days, that didn't include the wedding. Austin and his mom had worked toward getting custody of his Uncle Matt and moving him into a more proper home. His father didn't seem to care, didn't even put up a fight for who would be his proper caregiver. He knew his mom was hoping it bring him home just after the wedding, with a nurse who would help them out when she was at work. Either way, it was much better than hospital living.
Besides that, he knew that he had a speech to make at the VA in a couple of weeks, a ceremony for the PTSD unit and the funding the state had secured for the section that often went ignored. He had graciously accepted when Sam asked him to.
Still, this was something very important to him, too. He knew Ally wasn't thrilled with only he and the boys coming all the way up here for what probably seemed a little odd. The boys understood why, and they agreed whole-heartedly. If Rocky was with them, he would have wanted to be at the wedding. This was as close as they'd get.
Austin grabbed Tyler as he stumbled over a rocky-patch of grass, steadying the man before him. The younger soldier, if only by a few months, smiled thankfully back at him just as Dez shouted, "I found it!"
In the daylight, they never had an issue, but it was another thing all together to be breaking into a National Cemetery at night in order to visit with their late friend.
Still, they were doing it.
"Did you bring…?"
Dez nodded. "Yeah. It's in my backpack. I'll grab it in a second."
Together, they sat down until they were in the grass and started to light a couple candles. They had to be careful so that they didn't attract any attention, but they also wanted to make sure he knew they were here. Tyler passed Austin his guitar.
He also had his.
Dez lit the final candle. "Hey man," Austin started. "We figured you would want to know that I'm giving away my status as a free man in a couple days. Knew you would want to be a part of it, but it would be a little hard to do that where we are, so we brought the party to you."
Dez flashed his flashlight over the grave, illuminating the white stone.
Operation Enduring Freedom
Operation Iraqi Freedom
"We've come a long way," Dez added. "All of us. Who would've thought we'd all still be together, too? I never would've. I mean, it seems a little surreal. But like you, Rocky, they're my brothers. And I don't want to celebrate my main man here getting married without consulting you first. You see… this is like giving away a bride at a wedding. Except, it's you instead. You got to like, give us permission for him to marry. So, are you with us?"
The wind blew, and Austin just hoped somehow as a sweet flowery smell filled the air, that was his way of agreeing.
"I had a rough time for a while," Austin added, looking down at the grave. "I couldn't have gotten anywhere without your advice and help. Even now, you're helping me. Thanks for that."
"Here," Tyler finally stated. "We brought something for us to toast to."
He revealed the bottle of Fireball Whiskey, one of Rocky's favorite drinks. He carefully popped the plastic top off, showing it to the air. "I know it's your favorite," Austin commented.
"Yeah," Dez answered too. "So, here's to us."
"Speaking of," Tyler said as he took a shot. He handed the bottle to Dez, who also took a shot. The bottle went to Austin, who looked at it for a long time. A part of him wanted to take a shot, if anything for Rocky, because he remembered those summer nights overseas, taking them while hiding from their commanding officers. Those were the good times, those times when he was with his brothers, the ones that mattered most to him. But those were also different times. Instead of taking the drink, he looked back at the grave again. He made a promise a while back, that drinking was no longer one of his things. Instead, he took the bottle and poured a generous amount onto the grass.
"Here's to us."
"Let's do it," Austin said.
"And we'll always remember those of us that we miss. We'll always be brothers and we'll never forget. But that was us that we carried, with tears in our eyes. When the rest of us are buried, we're throwin' down in the sky. So raise a glass to the memories that won't ever die, here's to friends, here's to family and one hell of a time. Yeah, here's to us."
Those words were written a long time ago, during a night out in back of base with Rocky and the other guys surrounding him. The first two lines were the only ones written. In fact, it was only days before Rocky's death. He held onto those two lines for a long time, unable to add to it, unable to say what he wanted to. But when he showed them to Tyler and Dez, the words seemed to come. It made sense. They had written the first part to celebrate their deployment ending, but when it came down to it, it was a different kind of celebration all together.
They survived hell; they were different, scarred and bruised but never broken. Together, they could survive anything. They were brothers.
Light a flashlight on a tombstone
Let your best friend know he ain't alone
Go and pop a top, pour a little out
Just to let him know we're still thinkin' about him
For a while, no one said anything. They sat and let the small candles burn until nothing was left. Then, they just sat there, reminiscing about the past, about their deployment and what was to come. Eventually, Tyler and Dez got up. They said they'd be by the truck. Austin stayed though; he still had one more thing to look over.
With a smile, he took out a paper from his pocket, still in the envelope.
He opened it easily, knowing that whatever was inside would be perfect for the moment.
Because with Rocky, it always was.
If you're reading this… you're getting married. You're also reading this because I'm not here. I hope you haven't' been drinking because that means you're about to get all sappy on me… so here's to that. Are you ready? Congratulations my brother. I always knew you'd marry Ally. I remember thinking that at some point after you returned from your rest and recovery; the smile on your face was something very few men have. I know I have it every time I look at Alex.
So, I'm not there. I expect some sort of toast in my honor, a baby named after me… you know, the usual for a guy as awesome as I am. Maybe you could name a piece of highway after me. That always seemed cool. Please don't tell Alex I said that. She'll tell you I'm a moron.
Anyway, you're probably wondering why I wrote these letters. For a while, after Ellington's death, I was pretty down. I thought about everyone he cared about who he'd never have a chance to talk to again. He would never, ever be able to tell them how he really felt and for some reason, I didn't like that. I knew when we got the word we were deploying that things would not be easy. The war is at a high when it comes to violence and I knew the risks involved; this is something I realized when I signed up for this job. That said, I didn't want to be in his position, or any other fallen soldier's way. I wanted everyone who touched my life, to know that they did, and hopefully, even if I am gone, that I could still touch theirs. After all, I knew you two would get married and because I can't be an asshole about it to you in person, I need to be able to do it via paper! So cue anything you think I would've said to you. Think them all through, make sure you give me all the best options.
Are you done? Okay.
We communicate so much through these things and somehow, at times it seems like enough. I know it's not, nothing beats a good face to face conversation, but this is the next best thing. You know just as much as I do that we are scared every day over here. We face huge obstacles and deal with things many other guys our age don't. We have some great people in our lives that remind us why it is worth it. I'm sure you can think of those who are that to you.
My point is that you're getting married. I don't know when you're reading this. You could be reading it a few weeks before, days before, or maybe hours or second before. I just want you to know that you're not in the desert anymore; you don't have to be scared. Before you stop me, don't think that I don't know that you aren't. Everyone is scared. It's just a thing.
But then the fear melts and you're staring into the eyes of the person you love the most, and somehow, it all seems okay. Doesn't it?
That's the point of all the letters you have received in the months following my death. I know first hand how much it sucks to lose someone in battle and I know you are going to struggle. I know that at some point, you'll be over it, and if you're reading this right now, you must have. Because… I just know.
These letters can mimic how it feels to be with someone you care about. They remind you of what you fight for. When you were deployed and we were under pressure, what did you think back to? You know you had a letter from Ally in your pocket. Whose picture was under your helmet? You get my point.
I am so proud of how far you've come. Know that. Believe in it. And know, of course one last thing. You will always be a brother to me. And tonight, today… whatever time it is there I want you to know that. Remember how you felt that day when Ally walked into your life, and remember how it felt when you signed your name to that first letter. Those feelings, this feeling is all the same. It's a great feeling, isn't it? Because nothing, my friend, in the end, is better than a letter from home.