I've never really seen the point of pools being used for "organized exercise." You can't organize things in a damn pool; either they float away or everyone's like, "Oh, boy! Water!" and we start goofing off.

Anyway, on base, we don't use the pool for "organized exercise." Frankly, if we did, I imagine we'd look like the little old ladies doing aerobics in community pools that only get cleaned once or twice a season. We use the pool for "unorganized exercise."

You know. Sports and stuff. That kind of exercise. Exercise where we can push each other.

I remember there was a pool in both the high school and middle school I went to. The boys and girls would never have class together during pool session. In the Marines, we always have class together, and there's no one to tell you that you can't push a girl. Frankly, the girls don't care if you push them, because they'll push right back. I mean, there's more than just pushing. I don't think I've ever encountered a sport more violent than water basketball with Colonial Marines.

But, it was really damn quiet and a whole lot less violent without Hudson.

Not that long ago, Hudson accidentally ran into a building being used as a lab for silver flowers, toxic plants that give off hallucinogenic fumes and restrict your breathing. I got him out in time, but he ended up being transported to a hospital in Washington, D.C., where he came under the care of a scientist who used his condition for experiments. We can all safely assume Hudson was traumatized by his experience, but I didn't think it would effect him as badly as it has.

It's been a week since coming back to base in Australia, and the poor guy has changed. At least he's talking again; when I picked him up from the hospital, he was mute for almost forty-eight hours.

He's normally not the kind of person to isolate himself. He's usually loud and irritating during training, but now, he's quieter and just takes orders with no wise-ass comments. What's worse is that his quarters are right next to mine, and I can hear him locking the door to his bathroom and sobbing.

I know how he feels. I've been poisoned by the silver flowers before-two times, actually-and I feel obliged to help him because of that. It isn't a very good feeling, especially when you have no idea how to help the other person. I'm definitely not going to tell Hudson to just keep swallowing his pain every single day. That's how a lot of my problems started. I know what not to do, but I also don't know what would be the right thing to do. Because of that, I've been spending a lot of my time thinking about good ideas, which loosely translates to "nothing."

Anyway, yeah, it's been really quiet without Hudson.

It wasn't the most boring game of water basketball I've ever played. After all, Vasquez and I were on opposite teams, and we spent the whole time trying to block each other. She took the opportunity when we were on the far side of the pool, away from everyone else, to whisper to me. "Did you lose weight on your trip?"

"Kinda," I replied. "I got locked in a warehouse and starved for twenty-four hours. I think I look better than I did before. You don't like it?"

"No, I like it. Don't start going crazy, though-"

"Hey! The game's over, lovebirds!" Apone yelled from the other end of the pool.

Of course, with nothing interesting going on, the game ended a lot earlier than it usually does. Everyone else disappeared into the locker rooms, while Vasquez and I remained on the deck.

"I know you told me you were tortured, but you didn't go into detail," Vasquez said, grabbing a towel from a rack.

"Yeah. It was just tying me to a chair and not letting me eat, sleep, or drink." I shrugged. "I did a lot of thinking. At least they didn't keep me from doing that."

"What'd you think about?"

I glanced around, making sure only Vasquez was listening. "I was thinking about how I need to stop putting myself down, how I have to stop beating myself up and kicking myself when I'm on the ground."

"And did you stop beating yourself up?"

"No, not really. I acknowledged that it was a problem, though, and I'm trying to work on it."

Vasquez nodded a little while tossing the towel over her shoulder. "I thought a lot about you when you were gone. Well-" she rolled her eyes, "I shouldn't say 'thought.' I worried about you. A lot. For the first time, I . . . was finding it hard to conceal that from everyone else. I couldn't seem to handle two blows so close together, first being your sentence on the station, the second being this trip."

"I'm here now," I said. "I won't be leaving anytime soon. I hope."

"Better not leave anytime soon. Maybe I should insist on going with you."

I grinned. "Maybe you should. People would be suspicious, though."

"I know. Wouldn't hurt to try."

We stood in silence for a few minutes, until I broke the quiet with, "I missed you a lot."

Vasquez didn't reply. She glanced at me, then headed to the women's locker room.

"Hey, what's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong. I'm tired of standing here, soaking wet. I'd like to change. Is that too much to ask?"

"I'm just asking because you walked away after I told you I missed you. You told me you were worried about me, and I said I missed you."

"Yeah? That's it. We said our piece. Now we can go about our day."

"I still think something's bothering you."

"Nothing's bothering me, Drake. Drop the subject." Vasquez disappeared into the locker room before I could say anything else.

I walked out of the men's locker room still under the impression that Vasquez had something on her mind, but I didn't have a lot of time to dwell on it. While still adjusting my pants, Bishop approached me with a small stack of envelopes. "Mail delivery, Drake," he said.

"Is this a joke?" I asked. "I don't get mail."

Bishop shrugged. "It's all got your name on it, and the return addresses were confirmed by the USCM mail service."

"Alright, alright." I took the envelopes from him. When he was out of sight, I grinned a little when I saw one of the envelopes was from a Miranda Harrison. I met Miranda during my trip to Washington last week, and while we did help each other with a couple of personal issues, we also created some personal issues because Miranda liked me. As in the more-than-friends kind of liked. I took advantage of that in order to get information on Hudson. Although that blew up in my face (which was my fault), Miranda and I agreed to remain friends, and I said it was OK we write to each other.

I wrote in my previous journal that I was worried Vasquez would come across one of these letters and think I was cheating on her, but I also knew Vasquez has a lot of common sense and would probably listen to me before punching me in the face over it. I mean, she'd still punch me for not saying anything earlier, but you get the picture.

Anyway, I grinned because Miranda simply couldn't wait a little longer before sending me a letter. I get that in this day and age where mail is delivered pretty quickly, a week can seem like a long time, but still.

My grin faded when I looked at the other envelope, which was much larger than a letter. It had a return city that I recognized, even though I was certain I had driven it out of my memory. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Glancing over my shoulder, I started heading to my quarters to read this in private. After closing the door behind me, I undid the clasp on the envelope before removing the contents, all of which had official-looking typing and handwriting. Each individual paper had the stamp of the Pittsburgh school district, namely the high school, and it didn't take me long to see what it was all for: the board of education was offering me a chance to get my GED.

They may as well have sent someone to the main gate of the base to call me out, and then slap me across the face while saying, "Remember how you didn't finish high school, Drake?! Remember?! Remember how you got sent to prison?! Here's a chance to complete your education, Drake. Enjoy all the painful memories, too."

I know that's not their intention, but it still felt that way. According to the letter, this wasn't an opportunity every kid who left high school early could receive. Because I accepted the chance to join the Marines instead of finishing out my prison time, that's redemption according to the school board, so I could take the GED test, have it be completely paid for, and get my diploma so I could get a regular job whenever I leave the Marines. It's not a bad deal.

The problem I had was that it was digging up a lot of thoughts and memories that I was trying to deal with. Not only that, but I didn't want to deal with whatever the rest of my squad thought if they found out.

The test itself was already in the envelope, waiting for me to take it and then mail it back to Pittsburgh. I had time. I didn't need to do it now, but I knew the longer I waited, the worse I was going to feel about it.

My thoughts were everywhere during dinner, and all I could basically do was hope that no one was trying to talk to me. As I looked at the unappetizing, recently-taken-out-of-the-freezer rations in front of me, I thought about how I had dined pretty well back in D.C. That was definitely one thing I missed.

I knew having a diploma would give me a better chance at getting a job. Surely, I could get a job somewhere in D.C., and I could eat better more often. My stomach growled as soon as the idea crossed my mind, but I quickly became embarrassed when I realized everyone heard that.

"Food's right in front of you, Drake," Hicks said.

"I think he knows," Vasquez added, "but he got used to the fine dining in the city."

Everyone else laughed, and I heard someone say, "Cornbread and freeze-dried turkey not good enough for ya, Drake?"

"Fuck you guys," I muttered, picking up a piece of cornbread.

"Will you knuckle-nuts knock it off?" Apone snapped. "Drake, eat your Goddamn chow. I don't give a rat's ass if you're used to fine dining or whatever; you will eat what we put in front of you, even if it's a sock we find in the back of Hudson's locker."

"Yes, sir," I said, softly.

I can imagine all the smartass things Hudson would say, but he was just sitting at the end of the table, staring at his food. Apone didn't accuse him of being lazy, or told him that he needed to stop being so "irritable and moody." Almost immediately, I felt like Hudson's trauma was more visible than mine, and that was why no one was giving him a hard time. Why did everyone give me a hard time?

Anger began boiling in the pit of my stomach. I knew I couldn't say anything, because I'd be accused of being a liar. I had to let it go. I simply bottled things up better than Hudson; his problems were written all over his face.

I spent the rest of dinner keeping everything to myself, and the longer I stayed quiet, the more I just wanted to explode.

After dinner, I immediately went back to my quarters. My self-loathing told me that everyone had a good reason to give me a hard time, but my common sense told me that I didn't deserve this kind of treatment.

Sitting on my bed, I took a deep breath, trying to tell myself that I shouldn't let this bother me. This had to be one of the dumbest things to get angry over. With that, I took another breath, and headed into the bathroom to shower before getting settled for the night.

While I was in the shower, I heard someone knock on the door. "Who is it?" I called.

"It's me," Vasquez replied. "Can I come in?"

"Sure." I turned off the water and opened the shower door to grab my towel.

Vasquez entered the bathroom, observing me tying the towel around my waist. "I came to say 'sorry.'"

"For what?"

"For the fine-dining comment. I noticed you looked upset afterward."

"That's not why I was upset," I replied. "I'm upset because of Hudson. I want to know what makes his experience worse than mine. How come Apone lets him sit around, but gets mad at me when I sat around during my illness? How come everyone leaves Hudson alone, but when I got back from my punishment, I'm still treated like nothing's wrong."

Vasquez shrugged. "Hudson's making it more obvious that something's wrong."

"Big fucking deal! You all knew about what happened to me!"

"Drake, why do you feel like you should be receiving the same treatment as Hudson?"

"That's not the point. The point is that I feel like I don't matter to any of you! I could get shot in combat and you'd still go help someone else rather than me."

"OK, you know that's not true. We don't leave comrades behind in battle. Besides, I thought you said you worked on not putting yourself down when you were in D.C."

"Yeah, well, that changed. It doesn't take that much for any kind of progress I make to be flushed back down the fucking drain." I slammed shut the shower door. "Everyone else around me can improve their lives and get promotions and medals and friends and love and better jobs and what do I fucking get? Bad luck, setbacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder!"

Vasquez raised an eyebrow. Her jaw parted slightly as if to say something, but then she closed it, still giving me a confused look. "Drake . . . you didn't . . ."

"I wouldn't be saying anything about it if Delhoun didn't bring it up during a phone call in D.C. Just . . . I listed everything that was wrong, and he said it's highly likely I'm suffering from PTSD because I'm having such a hard time dealing with the nightmares and memories I have of those damn silver flowers."

"Why didn't you say something when you got back?"

"Because I could get kicked out of the Marines! I could lose my job, and I'll never get another one because no one would ever hire an emotionally disturbed man and think it's a good idea."

"Drake, you don't even have a diagnosis. As long as you don't bring it up with any medics around here, you're fine." Vasquez grabbed my shoulder, squeezing it hard. "You really did lose weight. I can feel some bones in there."

Part of me didn't appreciate her changing the subject, but I knew she was trying to make me feel better. I think she understood what I was saying, but needed time before coming up with a good answer. I like that about her. With that in mind, I gave a weak smile, prompting her to move closer to me and touch my chin. I leaned down to nuzzle her forehead, and she tipped her head up to kiss me.

"Do you feel better?" she whispered.

"No," I whispered back. "Let me get dressed, and then maybe we can-"

Vasquez shook her head. "Not tonight."

"Is everything-"

"I'm not up for it. Sorry. I would . . . I would rather talk to you."

"OK. I understand. Still, can I get dressed? Wait outside."

After getting a pair of shorts on, I left the bathroom to find Vasquez sitting on the edge of my bed. I sat next to her, putting my arms around her. "So, whaddaya want to talk about?"

She sighed. "Remember how I kinda pushed you away earlier, when we left the pool?"

I nodded.

"I probably should've handled that better. I mean, I thought the conversation was over and then you say 'I missed you,' and . . . I don't know."

"What? Got a little tongue-tied for a minute? That's OK. You got me a little nervous, though, that something was wrong."

"No, nothing's wrong. It's just . . . you keep going away, and it's almost like I'm waiting for the day that you go away for good."

"I'm not going away for good." I kissed her cheek. "I promise."

"Is that something you can promise?"

"Did I come back when I said I would from the trip to D.C.? I know I said 'I promise' then, didn't I?"

"You did."

"At least I didn't have a near-death experience, like last time."

"I'm pretty sure if you kept pissing Hornby off, he would've ordered you to be shot."

"But it didn't happen. Come on, why can't you be happy when I'm around? Did I do something wrong? You know I was thinking of you the whole trip. You know I loved you the whole trip."

"Did you really? Was I the first person you thought of when you woke up?"

"To be realistic, no. The first person I thought of was me, then you, then Hudson, then-"

"OK, I really don't care what order you put everyone in. I'm not denying that you were thinking of me. I just think you love going places by yourself a little too much."

"Hey, what's wrong with that? I actually think it's helping me."

"Well, I don't think it is. If it did, you wouldn't have yelled at me a few minutes ago about how you think we like Hudson better than you."

I sighed. "I didn't have a major transformation. Fixing yourself doesn't happen overnight. Why are you convinced this happens every time I go somewhere by myself?"

"I'm not convinced. I just wish you would actually put some effort into putting the Goddamn past behind you instead of letting it consume you every single day! You weren't like this when we first met."

"Are you saying I shouldn't be changing, period?"

"No. You need to change for the better, and you're just . . . not. Every time you say you've changed, you don't; you go back to dwelling on your past. It's like a nightmarish cycle. You need to get out of it!"

I couldn't argue with anything she said, because I knew she was right. It was painful to know, but, I had to know. That was all part of solving your problems; acknowledging they exist. Then again, I've known about my problems for a long time. I hate it when people point them out, but it's a little different when it comes from someone who's cared about you for several years, especially when they're on the verge of tears because of it. I've said before that it's extremely rare Vasquez cries, so I knew I fucked up big time when I saw tears rolling down her face after she shook my shoulders, as if that was going to do anything.

Author's Note: I'll put up a question next chapter, I promise.

I have mixed feelings about the start of this story. One, I think too many issues were introduced in a short amount of time, but at the same time, I think this method of conflict introduction will allow me to write a longer, more fleshed out story. I did tell myself months ago that this would be a series comprised of short stories . . . well, after doing some math, I found that the last two stories are both over a hundred pages if put to paper. I'm proud of that, but I doubt I would've continued if no one noticed these stories in the first place.

I mean, I know conflict is good for the story, but it's like I punched Drake in the gut a couple times. Or three or four times. I know there's a writing saying that goes "kill your darlings." I'm more like "abuse your darlings," haha. Again, happy reading.