Twilight is the property of Stephanie Meyer. No profit is being derived from this work of fanfiction and no copyright infringement is intended.

Many thanks to my wonderful friend mynxi for being my beta.

Also, a huge thank you to KareBear for being my consultant on all things military and ranch related!

Lastly (but far from leastly), thank you to Nicoconsd for pre-reading (and still being my friend even though I forgot to credit her!)


Fighting an exhausted yawn, I closed the last stall and dimmed the lights. Ranger stared reproachfully at me, clearly confused at my unusual silence. Normally, I found taking care of the horses to be a pleasant chore, but tonight I was too bone-tired to chat and interact with them. Taking a deep breath, I opened the barn door, bracing myself against the cutting wind that rushed in. The blowing snow was so heavy that the bright outdoor lights were reduced to a fuzzy blur.

I ducked my head and stepped into the thigh deep snow that had already drifted up, securing the door tightly behind me. It had been snowing all day and the forecast called for blizzard conditions throughout the night.

I trudged across the yard to the house and forced the back door open against the weight of the drifted snow. Today had felt endless as I cared for sick animals and their concerned owners before heading home to tend to my own livestock. Too exhausted to expend the same effort caring for myself, I grabbed the leftover beef stew from last night and put it on the stove to reheat while I took a quick shower.

As I stood under the spray, I smiled. I was exhausted, but I was self-sufficient and content. It had been a long road from Washington State to Deer Lodge, Montana and the journey had been full of heartbreak and loss.

After finishing high school in Forks, I headed off to the University of Washington in Seattle. There, I quickly became friends with Alice Cullen, who drew me into her own circle. Before long, I felt completely at home with her and her boyfriend, Jasper, as well as his sister, Rosalie and her boyfriend Emmett. It didn't take long for me to fall head over heels for Alice's strikingly handsome brother, Edward. I was shocked to discover he returned my feelings, and we were practically joined at the hip from that moment on.

While I was friendly with everyone in the group, Jasper and I grew especially close. We were both naturally quiet around others, but when we started to spend time together, we realized we both had similar tastes in music, books, and sense of humor. Alice never batted an eyelash at the time Jasper and I spent together, realizing that our feelings for each other were completely platonic. However, Edward disliked it from the beginning and frequently manipulated me to prevent me from seeing Jasper.

That should have been a warning to me, but I was so awed by Edward and so in love with the man I imagined him to be, that I just allowed him to steer me wherever he wanted me to go. Edward's jealously of my time with Jasper began to intensify and he began to resent it whenever I had to spend time away from him, obsessively insisting that I wasn't safe with anyone but him.

He never hit me, but he began to take his frustration out on nearby objects, throwing dishes and even smashing a small end table once when I couldn't accommodate his demands for my time. For almost two years, I tried to work it out with him by explaining how his actions made me feel and even suggesting we go to therapy together, but he refused to admit anything was wrong. When he began trying to stop me from going home to visit Charlie, I decided that enough was enough. I was petrified about how my friends would react, but my instincts were screaming at me to remove myself from the situation I was in.

It took me months to finally work up my courage to break up with Edward, and when I did, all of my worst fears were brought to life. Edward wouldn't accept it and went into such a rage that I had to call Jasper and Emmett to drag him out of the apartment I shared with Alice. When Alice arrived home, I told her what had happened and she slapped me across the face and told me I wasn't good enough for Edward anyway.

I packed my stuff into my beat up old truck and left without looking back. I had very limited funds, so the next few months were extremely difficult while I found housing and a job to pay for it. I quickly found out that most of my "friends" were really Alice's friends, and I became extremely lonely. Emmett and Rosalie cut me out entirely of their lives, although I was pretty sure Emmett regretted the loss of our friendship.

The only thing that kept me from becoming consumed by depression was Jasper. Assuming that Alice would forbid him from contacting me, I had been shocked to receive his first e-mail after the breakup, but he said he just felt like he had to check up on me. At first, I insisted that keeping in touch would put him in a bad position with Alice, but he flatly insisted that that wasn't my concern. He told me that he knew he wasn't being unfaithful to Alice and that if she ever asked, he would answer honestly.

In the end, I selfishly agreed to stay in touch via e-mail, even though I worried that Alice would catch us. Jasper saved my sanity for the rest of that school year. He encouraged me when I felt overwhelmed and made the loneliness of my new life bearable. I knew without a doubt that if I ever asked him for help, he would be on my doorstep immediately, but I was determined never to put him in the situation of choosing between friendship with me and his relationship with Alice. I knew what the outcome would be, and I was unwilling to lose Jasper's presence in my life.

Our friendship truly became long distance after we graduated that year. Unsure of what he wanted to do with his history degree, he made the decision to enlist in the Army, despite strong opposition from Alice. The thought of him at war made me sick to my stomach, but I supported him in every way I could. Before I could fully process it, he was gone, first to basic training, then to job training, followed by a rapid deployment to Afghanistan.

I had been accepted to vet school at UW, so I focused on my studies and on being a good friend to Jasper. We exchanged e-mails when possible, but he was frequently away from internet connections, so they were pretty sporadic. I tried to make up for it by sending frequent care packages and writing old fashioned letters.

As time passed, he became my true confidant and I his, on all matters other than Edward and Alice. We had tacitly agreed that discussing them would be unhealthy for our friendship. I hated it that there were things we couldn't share with each other, but I was truly grateful to have him in my life at all, so I considered it a small price to pay.

I don't know what I would have done without Jasper's letters after Charlie was shot and killed on duty during my third year of vet school. Although Charlie had been a quiet presence in my life, he was my dad and losing him was devastating. I had already become quite isolated due to my heavy course load, my part time job as a vet tech, and my sense of self protection after being abandoned by my friends, so the loss of my father left me feeling very alone.

Charlie's shoes were impossible to fill, but Jasper's support and compassion were even more integral to my healing than the grief counseling he eventually convinced me to attend. Just as I got my feet back under me and lifted myself out of the loss, I was floored when I received notification of a bequest from Charlie's will.

It was a ranch property in Montana that had been my Grandmother Swan's. Not only had I never been there, I was completely unaware of its existence until I read the letter from Charlie's attorney. The property had been managed by a foreman after Grandma Swan's death, but he was now retiring. The attorney told me that Charlie had specified that his wish was for the property to remain in the family, although he understood if it was too much for me to handle.

As soon as classes ended for the summer, I drove out to inspect the property. I spent the first night in the filthy little farmhouse sobbing on the hard-as-a-brick bed. After my night of hysterics, I pulled myself together and started tackling things one at time. It was a daunting prospect. The barns, fences, and even the house were all in need of repair. The few people I met in the nearby town were surly and unhelpful when I asked for advice.

I was intimidated, but I forced myself to start at the beginning, and by the time I had to return to school, I had made the repairs that were absolutely necessary and hired a foreman. He was a "just-enough-to-get-by" kind of guy, but that was all I could afford, so that was fine. I had even found a few friendly neighbors to steer me in the right direction when I had questions about raising sheep.

My last year of vet school was an experience I never want to relive, split between coursework, practical experiences, and overseeing a ranch from long distance. Many times I considered giving up some or all of my goals, but I held on thanks to Jasper's support. I didn't burden him with the worst details, but he knew I was struggling to hold everything together. Just knowing that he was cheering for me made all the difference at the time.

Turning the shower off, I brought myself back to the present. The farm was just skating by in the black, although it certainly wasn't profitable. I had finished my large animal residency and was working in partnership with another local vet, allowing us to split on-call shifts. This made it possible for me to put in some time at the farm handling the stuff my hired hands, Laurent and James, couldn't or wouldn't do.

I dragged myself downstairs to my reheated stew and considered the two men who were working for me. James was downright creepy and gave me an uncomfortable feeling when I was around him. I had been reluctant to hire him, but there were no other applicants for the job, so I settled for him. Laurent was a decent, albeit slow hand, but unfortunately he followed James' lead in almost everything. They had never truly earned my trust, so I kept a close eye on their work, checking for any signs of abuse or neglect of my animals or property. So far, my concerns had been groundless, but I wasn't about to relax around them yet.

I finished my meal and headed for my laptop, hoping for an email from Jasper. He had recently been discharged under circumstances that weren't clear to me, but I hadn't heard from him since he'd arrived back in the States. His enlistment period wasn't due to end for three more months, so I had been shocked when he informed me he'd be coming home. My e-mail replies had gone unanswered and I wasn't sure how many more times I could send the same message without being a cyber-stalker.

I was still staring at the screen trying to figure out what to do when I heard a loud knock at the front door. For a moment, I just stared at the solid oak door in shock. I never had visitors. I was too far up the mountain for casual visits. In fact, I couldn't even recall if I had ever opened the front door. Another knock sounded and I forced myself to my feet and headed over to the door.

I pulled the door open over the protest of the hinges, causing me to stagger slightly as I looked out into the snow. Shock almost brought me to my knees when I saw Jasper's face looking back at me. He automatically reached a hand out to steady me, and I abruptly blurted out, "What are you doing here?"

He stood there, wordless and shivering in his too-thin jacket until I shook myself out of my shocked state.

"Never mind," I said breathlessly, tugging him inside the house. "You're freezing to death."

He still didn't answer, so I just led him to the couch and stirred the fireplace before I went to get him a towel. My mind raced as I hurried to the linen closet. It had been years since I was face to face with Jasper, but I could tell he had been through something terrible. His face was expressionless, but his eyes were haunted.

Biting my tongue in an effort to not ask him a million questions, I knelt beside him on the couch and started drying his hair with the towel. I guessed that he had been home for at least a few weeks, as his military cut was already growing out into the shaggy golden curls he had when we met.

I patted him dry, mindlessly babbling anything that popped in my head while I did so. My nerves were jangling for some reason, and I just couldn't seem to stop talking. He just watched me silently as I fussed, cooperating when I asked him to move as I dried him off. My heart broke a thousand times in the five minutes it took to get him dry. He was so altered from the quiet but light-hearted guy I knew.

He allowed me to pull him to his feet and lead him to the bathroom. "I laid out a set of Charlie's old sweats. You get warm clothes on and I'll get your dinner ready." I moved to step out of the doorway, but I was surprised when he reached out to pull me close.

Disregarding his freezing cold shirt, I immediately leaned into his arms. He hugged me tightly for just a second, whispering, "Thank you," into my hair before abruptly releasing me and stepping into the bathroom.

I busied myself reheating a dish of stew for him and putting a pot of coffee on. Minutes later he reappeared in the kitchen door holding his cold and soggy jeans.

"Sit down and eat," I said softly, indicating the place I had set for him at the table. "I'll go put those in the dryer. Do you have any other laundry?" I asked hesitantly, unsure of where he had been since returning to the States.

I was actually shocked when he answered my question.

"No," he replied hoarsely, "my bag's in my truck a few miles down the road. Snow finally got too deep for the truck so I had to finish the trip on foot."

"Jesus, Jasper," I whispered, feeling weak in the knees. "You could have died out there. You're not dressed for this weather."

He smiled wryly, the expression a hollow echo of the quick grin he used to sport. "Good thing I'm trained to handle extreme climates," he answered without meeting my eyes. He tucked into his bowl of stew and I went to throw his clothes in the dryer. When I returned to the kitchen, he had already finished eating and was just sitting at the table, staring at the empty dish in front of him.

I sat down next to him and slowly reached my hand out to gently grasp one of his. I felt as if I was burning alive with the need to comfort him, but I was afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and making him feel worse. Our long distance friendship hadn't prepared me for how it would feel to sit in the same room with him while he was clearly hurting.

He started at the touch of my hand, but made no move to pull away. Watching carefully for any sign that my touch was unwelcome, I reached out with my other hand to gently turn his face toward mine.

"Will you tell me?" I asked simply, looking into his warm brown eyes.

"I can't," he whispered, suddenly squeezing the hand that I was holding.

"Okay then," I answered sincerely. I would be ready to listen whenever he was ready to talk. His posture radiated fatigue and I could tell he was tired both body and soul. "Let's get you settled for the night then."

He continued to hold my hand as we stood and he followed me to the bedroom. I turned the light on and stopped at the door. "I only have the one bedroom furnished, but you're welcome to it. I'll be curled up by the fireplace," I said firmly. I was determined that no sense of chivalry was going to prevent him from being comfortable for the night.

"Will you stay with me, Bella? I just want to hold onto you," he said softly, looking down at our joined hands.

"But Alice," I croaked, shaking my head back and forth. I opened my mouth, but Jasper cut me off.

"Alice has no say where I sleep," he said flatly.

Shocked speechless, I simply nodded my agreement. This was a different Jasper than I had known, but I knew without a doubt that he would never lie about something like that and I also knew that he would never cheat on Alice.

I completed my night time routine in a daze, my heart racing at the idea of sharing a bed with Jasper. Although I hadn't been celibate, I hadn't shared a bed with someone since Edward. All of my "conquests" had been mutual one-offs, just casual encounters with people I would never see again. The thought of sleeping next to someone was foreign and dangled the dangerous temptation of emotional intimacy I hadn't had in years.

When I returned to the bedroom, he was already in bed and I mentally laughed when I noticed he hadn't stolen my usual side of the bed. My stomach was a nervous knot as I approached the bed and climbed in. He reached for my hand and I quickly placed it in his. He sighed and the sound finally broke through my silly tension. No longer concerned about my own feelings, I wanted nothing more than to make him feel better.

Unable to resist my need to comfort him, I rolled toward him, curling myself around him so that I could run my fingers through his hair. He sighed again, but his entire body was already relaxing under my touch. He rolled to his side and I shifted to spoon myself around him, wishing I could protect him from whatever was tormenting him. Within minutes, his breathing was deep and regular and my own eyes were drifting down.

I woke up when I felt Jasper twitching his head back and forth. His entire body was clenched and he was grinding his teeth. I tried to wake him, but he didn't respond to my voice or gentle touches. Finally, I curled back around him and started running my fingers through his hair, marveling at how soft it was. Within minutes, he was relaxed again and sleeping peacefully. I pressed a small kiss to the top of his head before I drifted back to sleep, trying to avoid thoughts about how natural it felt to be wrapped around Jasper.

When I woke in the morning, he was propped up on one arm, staring down at me. Our hands were still clasped together and I squeezed his tightly. He looked better this morning. His eyes were still haunted, but he wasn't radiating tension anymore.

"Are you ready to tell me?" I asked softly.

"Not yet," he answered steadily.

I just nodded and dragged myself out of bed to start breakfast. He was more talkative this morning although I kept the conversation about the present only. The snow had stopped and we decided to try to drive out to his truck after we ate.

After bundling myself up and worrying helplessly over the fact that I didn't have a better coat for Jasper, I led him out to the car port so we could take a look at the driveway.

"Do you think your Jeep can make it?" he asked doubtfully, shooting a glance at my beat up red 1967 classic.

I took another minute to evaluate the depth and texture of the snow before nodding affirmatively.

"Yep, I'll give it a try. Probably won't melt much by the time I have to go to work tomorrow anyway," I added with a shrug. Snow plows didn't run this far out, so Grandma Swan's Jeep had been a real life saver because I definitely couldn't afford a car payment on a new 4x4.

Working together, we shoveled a sort of snow ramp out of the carport, a method I had perfected to minimize the amount of shoveling I had to do in deep snow. We climbed into the Jeep and I started her up. I clutched the wheel tightly and eased us out onto the driveway. The edge of the road was only identifiable by the wire fences of the pastures. It was tricky work keeping us on track on the fresh snow, but my trusty Jeep was up to the task.

"How'd you come by this old thing anyway?" he asked, absently running his hand along the dash.

"It came with the place," I answered lightly. "It's about the only thing that was in decent shape when I got here and so far it's the only thing that I haven't had to dump a ton of cash into."

I sighed, wishing I hadn't brought up the money issue. I was barely scraping by and money was frequently on my mind. However, I didn't want to spend my time with Jasper worrying about my budgetary woes. Always sensitive to other people's moods, he just looked at me solemnly and let the subject drop.

In the deep snow, it took almost an hour to drive the mile to Jasper's pickup. We spent the time quietly listening to talk radio, exchanging laughs and comments every now and then. Jasper seemed much more at ease this morning and I burned with curiosity about what had made him so distraught last night. Was it something that had happened in Afghanistan or was it whatever had happened between him and Alice? I realized he needed space and time, but the questions wouldn't stop racing through my head.

We reached his F-150 and worked together to dig it out. I teased him about flagging me down if his big truck couldn't handle the snow on the way back and finally got a real smile from him. My heart eased a little in my chest at that flash of the Jasper I knew. I led the way back home, laughing when his suped up truck had more difficulty with the snow than my beat up classic.

My hands were tired from gripping the wheel when I pulled into the driveway, but I knew I was just getting started with the hard work for the day. I doubted either James or Laurent would make it out to the ranch due to the weather, so it was up to me to do the necessary chores. I was currently running at almost two-hundred sheep, three horses, ten hens, and a rooster, so it was going to be a long day even if I just did the bare bones jobs.

Jasper pulled up and parked behind me and I smiled at the sight of another car in the carport. I couldn't deny that while I found a lot of satisfaction in my life, I was without close friends.

"I have to get started in the barn," I said apologetically as he stepped out of his truck. "The satellite is probably working now that the weather's clear if you want to watch TV, and my laptop's on the couch. I won't be in until before dinner, but help yourself to anything in the kitchen."

He shook his head at me in disbelief. "You think I'm going to sit and watch TV while you work? Just let me change boots and you can put me to work," he said easily as he walked into the house.

I smiled at the thought of having some help during my long day. Jasper rejoined me a few minutes later, wearing his combat boots and a ratty old flannel. The sight of his military gear reminded me how grateful I was that he was home and out of danger. Whatever demons had driven him here to me, at least he was out of harm's way. Without thinking, I stepped up to him and gave him a tight hug.

He immediately wrapped his arms around me and squeezed back. My eyes filled with tears as I tried to remember the last time I had hugged someone. Finally, we released each other and he looked at me intensely as I wiped my eyes dry.

"What was that for, Bella?"

"I'm just so glad you're here," I answered honestly. "I worried about you so much. It's just unbelievable to have you here with me."

I gave him another quick squeeze and stepped away.

"Okay. You volunteered, so let's get to work," I said with a smile. He grinned back at me and I led the way to the barn. He had no experience with livestock, but he was a quick learner and a fast worker once he knew what to do. It was a marked contrast to working alongside Laurent who was slower than molasses, and James who sometimes seemed to actively interfere with getting work done.

Just as we were about to finish up, Jasper called my attention to the unoccupied pens at the far end of the barn.

"Son of a bitch," I swore quietly as we both looked at the small pile of cigarette butts. I also noticed a few rolled butts and gave one a quick sniff, quickly confirming my suspicion that it was pot.

"Fuckers are smoking in my barn!" I seethed, turning in search of a dustbin. I was almost blinded with rage. It was the lowest form of carelessness to smoke in a barn, putting my entire property, not to mention the lives of the livestock, at risk of fire.

Jasper watched silently as I cleaned up the little mess and disposed of the old butts.

"I'll have to let them go," I said, finally ready to verbalize the unwelcome thought. Despair washed over me. "I can't keep paying them to work here when I can't trust them. I have no idea how I'll manage this place," I said bleakly, surveying the suddenly vast barn. "This isn't the time of year to get new help."

A tear slipped free and I hastily wiped it away, embarrassed that I was whining to Jasper. My problems were big to me, but they were hardly the life and death issues a soldier in the field was used to confronting.

"I'm sorry, Jasper. This is my shit, not yours." I smiled ruefully, hoping I could keep holding back the tears as I tried to figure out a way to care for the ranch and do the work that paid the bills. "We're done for today. Thanks for all the help."

He looked at me contemplatively for a few seconds and then approached me, placing both his hands on my shoulders. I tipped my head up to look at him and another tear slipped free. He wiped it away with his thumb and brought his hand back to my shoulder.

"You're not alone, Bella," he said quietly. "You don't have to do it by yourself. I've got nothing going on right now, so as long as you need a hand, you've got me."

My head spun at the possibility of both having someone to help me and having my best friend around. Without thinking, I launched myself onto him, wrapping my arms tightly around him.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," I repeated breathlessly.

He laughed and set me down, frowning as he wiped another stray tear of my cheek.

"Still crying?" he asked.

"I'm just overwhelmed," I admitted. "I missed you so damn much, Jasper. All the time I missed you. And now you're here and going to stay, and I'm just so happy that I can't think straight."

"I missed you too," he said softly, taking my hand and leading me out of the barn and back to the house.

We washed up and he helped me throw a pot of chili together. He actually cracked a few jokes about being rusty in the kitchen after years of k-rats. It reminded me of the humorous way he described army life in his letters during the first few years he was away overseas. I just laughed along with him and enjoyed the feeling of sharing my space with someone.

We enjoyed our dinner together and I shooed him out of the kitchen while I washed up. He built the fire up while I brewed a pot of coffee and we curled up together on the little sofa in front of the fireplace. We stuck our legs straight out and let our feet get nice and toasty as we relaxed after our day of hard labor.

My emotions were fluctuating between joy at having Jasper here with me and fear at the thought of getting too attached to him. I clearly recognized that my feelings for him were quickly moving from friendship to attraction, especially now that Alice was no longer in the picture. His body language made me feel like he was on the same page, but I felt the barrier of whatever secret he was carrying.

I was feeling hope for a future shared with a partner for the first time since I had left Edward, but I forced myself to temper my expectations. Before I opened my heart to the possibility of being with Jasper, I needed to know what had driven him to me.

Turning to face him, I took a deep breath and asked, "Will you tell me now?"

My heart pounded with anxiety for a minute while he stared past me. I realized that I may have crossed a line by pushing the issue, but I needed to know what Jasper was trying to deal with. He finally met my eyes and minutely shook his head negatively. My overtaxed heart broke a little for both of us, but I just reached out to take his hand and looked back at the fire.

I could almost feel his gratitude for my acceptance of his need for space. He squeezed my hand and tugged me closer so that we were leaning on each other. In hopes that opening myself up to him might help him become comfortable enough to come clean, I started talking.

"I've often thought how funny it is that we became closer friends once were geographically farther apart," I said casually. "I always enjoyed your company when we hung out, but I didn't fully appreciate you until after Edward. I don't know if you ever realized how much I've relied on you. You saved me so many times just by listening and being there for more, even when you were half a world away."

His grip on my hand grew tighter, but neither of us turned to face each other. Deciding to throw it all out on the table, I continued talking.

"I tried to keep my emotional distance from you out of respect for your relationship with Alice, but somehow you still became 'home' to me. And now that you're free and here with me every instinct I have is screaming at me to be close to you, almost like I'm trying to make up for the time you were so far away."

Tossing aside my fears about his reaction and what it would mean tomorrow, I shifted myself to face him and leaned in, pressing my mouth gently to his. For a second, he was still, but then he tentatively moved his lips against mine.

We kissed softly and I concentrated on remembering every facet of the experience. This was the dream I hadn't allowed myself to have and I realized that it might never happen again. I gave myself up to the soft heat of his lips and the smell of his skin.

Eventually we separated and he looked steadily down at me.

"I never knew," he whispered, clearly shocked at my actions. "I can't believe that I never realized you felt that way."

"I didn't even let myself think about it," I admitted, shrugging my shoulders. "I never had any hope that we would be together this way, that you would be single and in the same room with me. Having you here feels like home, Jasper. And I can't give up the chance that maybe you feel the same way. It's okay if you don't. I'll love you as a friend just as much as I ever did, but I don't want to live my life regretting that I never let you know how I felt."

He didn't answer and my hope began to fracture, but finally he closed his eyes and leaned down to kiss me again.

"Home," he whispered against my lips, and I allowed my hopes to soar. Choosing to ignore my concerns about the possible effects to the only meaningful friendship in my life, I met his tongue eagerly with mine when it brushed my lips.

He lifted me onto his lap and I moaned out loud when I felt his erection rubbing up against the seam of my jeans. I roughly yanked his shirt over his head and he palmed my breasts over my top before sliding his hands down and reaching up under my shirt.

My head fell back as he kneaded my breasts and toyed with my nipples. It had been quite awhile since my last non-solo activity and I was already on the edge of combustion. I helped him push my top over my head and he pushed me back on the couch.

He leaned over me and took a nipple into his mouth. I tugged on his hair as he nipped and teased at each breast until I was writhing with need.

Running my hands over his firm chest and abdomen I quickly reached the fly of his jeans and wrestled the buttons open. He ran his fingers from my breasts down to the top of my yoga pants and stopped. He looked directly into my eyes and whispered, "Are you sure?"

I reached up to touch his face, running the tips of my fingers over his cheeks, trying to memorize the feeling.

"I'm sure," I answered honestly. I was sure there would be consequences to doing this, but I was also sure this was what I wanted.

He tugged my pants down and I moaned out loud when he pressed a soft kiss against the front of my panties. He slipped a finger under the elastic and gently over my outer lips. The anticipation of his touch was maddening.

"Please," I panted. He gave me a sly little smile and slid his finger slowly upward toward my clit. I closed my eyes and shifted my hips upward, trying to guide him where I wanted him. Before I could beg again, he finally circled my clit, using the perfect amount of pressure.

He used his other hand to slide my panties completely off and quickly slipped two fingers inside of me. I cried out at the pleasure of being penetrated. I thrust against him and he began rubbing my clit again, sliding another finger inside me.

"You feel so good, Bella," he said huskily. "So wet and tight."

Jasper's voice talking dirty just did it for me and I closed my eyes and moaned through an explosive orgasm. I opened my eyes and wiped away a stray tear of pleasure before I looked up at him. His brown eyes were fixed on me and I blushed a little at the intensity of his gaze.

"It's been awhile," I mumbled as I sat up, suddenly embarrassed about coming all over his hand in less than three seconds.

"Hey," he said gently. "It's me. You have nothing to be embarrassed about. It's been a long time for me too, and I'll probably break your record."

"Is that a challenge?" I asked in a sultry voice.

His voice hitched as I knelt down on the floor and started tugging his jeans down, leaving him in blue boxer briefs. His dick was straining beautifully against the soft cotton, and I could just barely see the head peaking past the elastic.

"Bella, I don't wanna come that way," he warned, but I just couldn't help myself. I yanked his underwear down, exposing his dick. It was perfect- thick, straight, and begging to be licked. I ran my tongue along the vein, smiling when he tossed his head back and moaned. I took him in my mouth and sucked firmly.

"Bella," he moaned, lifting my hair back so he could watch. The mental image of him watching me was a huge turn on and I rubbed my legs together for friction. I moved my mouth up and down, pumping in rhythm with my hand.

His gasps and moans were music to my ears, but he abruptly pulled away and gently moved my head.

"C'mere," he said, tugging me up onto his lap to straddle him. I eagerly lined my opening up with his dick, smiling at the drop of pre cum I saw on the tip. Just as I was about to slide home, he brought his hands to my waist, stopping me.

"Condom?" he panted.

"I'm clean and on the pill," I gasped. "I'm good if you are."

"Thank God," he moaned, relaxing his grip and allowing me to lower myself down onto his erection. We moaned simultaneously as he filled me. I took a few seconds to enjoy the feeling of him inside me and to enjoy the sight of his face tensing with pleasure.

"Please," he gasped, and I smiled at the role reversal. I started moving myself up and down and quickly found a rhythm he liked. He continued to hold my waist, but his grip was loose, allowing me to set the pace. His face twitched and he grunted as he visibly tried to hold off his orgasm.

"Lean back," he ordered gruffly. I eagerly complied, relieved when he supported me behind my ass with one hand. With his other hand, he began thumbing my clit. I continued to thrust on him as I looked at where we were joined. He closed his eyes again and his jaw clenched. I could tell he was close to coming so I reached down with one hand to help him rub me just where I needed.

His hips started thrusting up wildly against me and he shouted my name as he came. He gently pinched my clit and I was over the edge again, grinding myself down against his wild thrusts until the waves of pleasure passed.

I collapsed against his chest and he shifted us so that I was lying on top of him. I could feel his dick softening inside me and I nuzzled my face into his chest, pressing soft kisses here and there. He grabbed the soft old quilt from the back of the couch and wrapped it around me, covering us both.

He was completely relaxed underneath me until his dick finally slipped out of me. I was half dozing and didn't react, but he sat up with a start.

"We're gonna ruin your couch," he said drowsily, sitting all the way up and using the quilt to mop up the dripping after effects of our coupling.

"Shower?" I suggested sleepily.

He agreed and carried me upstairs to the bathroom. It was a tight squeeze in my tiny shower, but the thrill of running my soapy hands over his firm body was worth every contortion.

After the shower, we collapsed into bed, he in his boxers and me in a cotton pajama short set. Neither of us slept. He was very quiet and I could feel the tension coming back into his body as he lay beside me. My stomach lurched at the thought that he was sorry about what we had done. I rolled over to face him and reached for his hand, looking directly into his sad eyes.

"No regrets," I whispered. "You don't have to worry about the future. It doesn't have to mean anything more than two friends being there for each other."

His expression was startled as he listened. He shook his head and I felt hope again.

"No, Bella. There's no way to take the meaning out of what we shared. It is more. I'm not worthy of it, but it is more."

The burden he carried was written in the lost look in his eyes and the tension in his jaw. I wanted nothing more than to help him carry the weight of whatever it was that was haunting him.

"Will you tell me why you think that?" I asked softly, cupping his cheek with my hand.

He closed his eyes and I braced myself for his refusal. Instead, I was shocked when he began speaking.

"My squad was transporting a group of Taliban prisoners to a larger holding compound," he began, without opening his eyes. "My lieutenant was a scary bitch named Maria Alvarez. She was just crazy. She demanded total devotion from everyone under her and she would go from zero to pissed for no reason."

He closed his eyes and visibly shook himself out of the memory before continuing. "So we had this group of five prisoners, just low level Taliban grunts, on a week-long transport detail. She was just awful to these guys. Taunting them, threatening them, making obscene gestures… that kind of stuff. It made me uncomfortable, but it was a short assignment, so I just tried to keep my head down and my mouth shut."

He paused and sighed. "Until the last night of the detail. I came to take over guard duty and found Lieutenant Alvarez and three of the other guys all over the prisoners. They had covered their heads and stripped them naked. Bella, they were doing awful things to them," he whispered, his eyes pleading with me for understanding. My heart ached as I guessed the turn the story would take.

"Awful things," he repeated hoarsely. "Beating them, putting guns to their heads, touching them…just wrong shit, Bella. So I pulled Alvarez aside and told her I thought she needed to cool down. I tried to act sympathetic, like I didn't want her to get into trouble, but she just turned it back on me and asked me who was going to tell. Then she threatened to have me court martialed for insubordination. I didn't want that kind of trouble. I was less than a year away from finishing my enlistment term and I didn't want to embarrass my mom and dad."

He rolled away from me and I allowed him the space he needed to finish the story, only touching him by running my fingers through his hair.

"So I shut my mouth and walked away, Bella," he whispered, the weight of the guilt he was carrying evident in every word. "I don't even want to know what happened after I turned my back. I sat up that whole night as far away from them as I could get so I wouldn't hear the sound of it. The next morning, the prisoners looked fine to the casual glance, but if you looked in their eyes, you could tell they were broken."

He was speaking so quietly that I had to strain to hear him. "As soon as we reached the base, I found the commanding officer and reported what had happened. There was a big investigation and Lieutenant Alvarez and the guys involved were all court martialed and dishonorably discharged. They came down pretty hard on me too, but I was able to skate out with an "Other Than Honorable" discharge."

My heart was literally broken for him. I knew Jasper Whitlock and I knew that he was seeing the faces of those prisoners in his mind.

"I failed, Bella. I failed myself, I failed my nation, and I failed those prisoners."

He paused again and I pressed a kiss to the top of his head and tried to wrap myself completely around him.

"I'm so sorry," I whispered. "I'm so sorry you were faced with that and I'm sorry I couldn't be there to help you."

"How can you even care about me after I did that, Bella?" he asked incredulously. "I ignored the fact that they were torturing human beings just to protect myself. I don't deserve your sympathy, let alone your friendship," he said bitterly.

"Yes, you did one very bad thing," I agreed. "It was bad that you didn't stop what was happening. But that was just one thing. You did a good thing when you stood up and reported it. Someone else might have just kept right on ignoring it. So yeah, you made a mistake, but you corrected it. And Jasper," I said, fighting my tears, "I can understand how you made that mistake. Being under someone's command is difficult, especially when that person doesn't deserve that responsibility. So I'm proud of you, Jasper, and grateful for you and the men and women like you who carry heavy burdens so the rest of us don't have to."

He didn't answer, but I started to feel some of the tension easing out of his body. Finally, he began speaking again.

"My last days were awful. Everyone hated me. Maria's friends saw me as a traitor and beat the shit out of me a few times. The brass higher up hated me for bringing attention to a messy situation. So I just focused on getting home," he breathed, finally rolling back over to face me.

"But home wasn't home anymore. My dad told me I had protected the wrong people and my mom just tried to reword it so that I came out blameless. I tried to avoid talking about it, but then it just turned into the giant elephant in the room. Rose tried to be supportive, but she just doesn't understand."

I made a sympathetic sound and slid myself underneath him so that he was reclining against me. It allowed him to avoid looking at me but still gave me the ability to give him the comfort of my touch.

"What did Alice say?" I asked cautiously. I didn't want the gory details, but I felt I deserved to know how he had ended up on my doorstep.

"Things with Alice haven't been good for a long time, Bella," he admitted softly. "It never felt right to bring it up with you in our letters, but she just didn't handle me being away very well. When I would come home on leave things would be good, but she just didn't seem to care much about me while I was oversees. She rarely wrote or e-mailed, and sometimes she didn't even call me when we had agreed on a phone date. I asked her once if she wanted to end it and she said 'no', but she just didn't seem willing to support me at all when I wasn't standing right beside her."

I wrapped my arms and legs tightly around him, sickened by the thought that Jasper had been uncared for by the person who should have been his biggest support.

"Even before things got bad, I had made the decision to end it with her, but I felt better about doing it face to face. After all these years, I felt like she deserved better than a break up letter. But then everything went to shit and I was discharged, and she didn't even come to see me."

I almost choked in outrage and he laughed bitterly. "I called and asked her to come out to my mom and dad's place in Texas because I didn't feel up to travelling, but she just kept blowing me off, saying she was too busy with work and that I needed to come to her. I just felt so alone, Bella… like no one was even really seeing me anymore. I started having panic attacks where I just couldn't breathe, which made my parents freak out even more."

I squeezed him tightly, completely understanding the feeling of being lost in your own skin. "So, I finally had enough of it all," he said softly. "I got in my truck and drove up to Seattle to see Alice. It took less than ten minutes to end our relationship. I had become an idea to her, not a real person. I wouldn't be surprised if she's seeing someone else already, not that I should throw stones," he said, looking at my legs wrapped around his. "Then I got in my truck and drove to you, to my real home."

I clasped both his hands in mine and held him as tightly as I could. There were no words to make it better, but I wanted him to understand what I was feeling.

"I wish I could take it all away," I said gently. "But I don't think it works that way. I will do anything to help you, but being with me isn't going to be a magic wand that makes you feel better about the mistakes you made. I'm so glad I'm home to you, because you're my home too, and have been for quite awhile," I added. "But I want to be someone you want, not someone you need. I think you need help that I can't give."

His body tensed again and I struggled out from under him so that I could face him. "You don't have to do it alone, Jasper. I'm willing to do whatever you need me to do while you learn to accept yourself again. I know it's fast and I know there's a chance you'll want to run the opposite direction once you're more on your feet again, but I'm all in. I want us to be home together," I admitted in a whisper.

"I will never run away from you," he said forcefully, tugging me toward him so that he could kiss me. I kissed him back, trying to show him all the things I couldn't tell him. Our embrace turned passionate and eventually he shifted us so that he was lying on top of me. Our few items of clothing were tossed aside and we took our time truly getting to know each other's bodies. This time was slow, gentle, and tender- everything my encounters since Edward hadn't been.

Afterward, we drifted to sleep wrapped all over each other. When I woke, the pale light of dawn was seeping into the room. I could tell he was awake, even though he was lying still.

I rolled onto my side to face him. "What are you thinking?" I asked quietly, concerned by the contemplative expression on his face.

"I'm thinking what now?" he answered, his voice still husky from sleep.

"That's easy," I teased lightly. "Right now, we drag ourselves out of bed and throw together something for breakfast." He rolled his eyes and I could see he was getting ready to clarify his question, so I held a hand up. "Then," I continued in a more serious tone, "you help me hold this shambles of a sheep farm together for another day. We repeat."

I leaned over and kissed him softly, just because I could. "Then, when you're ready, I know a counselor over in Helena. He has a military background and I think he might be a good fit to help you work through all this."

He stiffened at my words and I could tell he was struggling with the idea of seeking therapy. He was so used to being the problem solver and admitting he needed professional help would be difficult for him. He looked away from me and my heart clenched. I closed my eyes and silently prayed that he would choose the path to becoming whole again, as difficult as it might be for him to face.

The seconds stretched out and I began to lose hope. Finally, he turned to face me again, his expression enigmatic. He cupped one side of my face with his hand and I pressed my cheek into his palm.

He leaned down and kissed me tenderly, whispering "I will become the man that deserves you again, Bella Swan." I fought tears as I returned the kiss, giddy with relief. When we separated, I beamed up at him, causing him to chuckle at my goofy expression. "So what's for breakfast," he quipped lightly.

"Something big. I'm going to need all the strength I can muster to fire those two ass holes today," I said, my tension about dealing with James and Laurent returning quickly.

"Hey," he said softly, tipping my head up to look in his eyes. "I'm here for you too, Bella. You've got backup now. We're a team from here on out."

I smiled at him, realizing that every lonely moment, every tear over my poor choices in the past had been absolutely worth it. "Together," I agreed, pulling him to his feet so we could face the day.

AN- Hope you enjoyed my first ever contest entry! I'm pleased to say that it placed third in the Judge's Choice category of the "For Love of a Man in Uniform" contest at Twific Reviews! I'm considering expanding the story into a few more chapters- let me know what you think about it! Thanks for reading!