A/N: We had so much fun last time we wrote a story together that we decided to try again. We're about to pester you with the result. Massive thanks and lots of sloppy smooches go out to our wonderful team, sherryola, Dinx, jointgifts, nowforruin, and Mizzdee!

Disclaimer: We do not claim ownership for Twilight or any of its characters. Stephenie Meyer gets that privilege. However, we do have to take responsibility for the creation of the diva's personality. All bail money we'll need for his crazy self can be sent to us directly.

Chapter 1 - Army Special


The heat was unbearable. The dust was fucking everywhere. The sun was giving me the illusion that I was a goddamn pie baking in a goddamn oven. I was hot. Tense. Dirty. Overwhelmed with thoughts that I wanted nothing more than to evict from my head forever. I really had no time or use for thoughts about my sorry excuse for a family now – I was too busy being miserable.

"Morning, Cullen. Nothing like a beautiful April day, huh?"

I fought the grimace threatening to appear on my face because, honestly, who the hell was I to throw a damper on Jake's good mood? I gaped at him. At that moment, it was the question I wanted the answer to more than anything – why was I miserable when Jacob Swan was in such a good mood?

Our circumstances were exactly the same – same heat, same dust, same sun, same uniforms, same godforsaken war. We had both agreed to come here, although his decision had support back home while mine did not. But why the fuck was he so cheerful? And it wasn't just today – Jake was always fucking cheerful, grinning, and happy. Shit. I knew I was jaded, but I had no idea that I was that jaded.

"Cullen?" Jake was looking a little less cheerful and more concerned now, probably because I was staring at him like an idiot who had never seen a human being before.

"Yeah. Morning, Jake." I sighed and took off my helmet and ran a hand through my damp, sweaty hair. Ugh. There was dust there, too.

"You okay, Rusty?" Jake asked.

I forced a smile. Hell, I was supposed to keep up my men's morale, not tear it down with my miserable thoughts. Although we had gone through basic training together, my hard work and dedication had made me a sergeant faster than most others – including Jake, who was unconcerned with titles unless they were movie titles. "I'm fine," I said. "I just had one of those embarrassing epiphanies."

Jake grinned but didn't look like he understood. Of course he didn't. He was too damn unspoiled and too damn cheerful. I didn't know how he pulled it off. Lucky bastard.

"So hey, I've got cookies for you," Jake said, thrusting a plastic container into my hands. "You know, my sister insists on making everyone in the squad their favorite cookies at least once on this tour. Well, you're up, Rusty!"

He grinned. "Considering how you always stuff yourself when I get peanut butter cookies, I figured they were your favorites, so here ya go – compliments of the best sister in the world."

Jake's sister was legendary in our squad. She sent cookies, cakes, candy – hell, Jake even talked her into sending issues of Playboy as long as he swore that they weren't for him. She really didn't know her brother as well as she thought she did, especially if she expected him to be honest about porn. She also had a way of twisting her words in such a way that every day events became the greatest source of entertainment when Jake read her letters out loud at night to the whole squad.

"Thanks, Chief. They look great. Please thank her for me," I said, looking down at the most delicious-looking cookies I had seen since I was a kid and believed in goddamn Santa Claus. A cold glass of milk, and I would have been in fucking heaven. Though, with my luck, the milk would be full of sand like everything else was.

"Will do," Jake replied with a wide smile, still doing one hell of an impression of the happiest man in the world. Okay, maybe I would be happy, too, if I had a sister who sent me cookies and porn. Mine didn't send me as much as a postcard.

I stored my cookies in the safest place I could think of because they were fucking sacred. I tasted one – one – because the little pieces of heaven had to last.


Best cookie ever. I mentally nominated Jake's sister for sainthood while I walked over to join my squad and checked my gear. No one had ever deserved to be a saint more than she did. Maybe eating her cookies would make me experience a miracle. Maybe I would wake up tomorrow morning back in the States and all of this would just have been one big motherfucker of a nightmare.

Or not.

I hated the patrols, just like I hated most of our jobs here. It was only when I took a look at the bigger picture that I liked what I was doing, although admittedly it was sometimes difficult to see the difference we were supposed to be making here.

I had served my first tour overseas in Iraq, but this was my second time in Afghanistan. In both places, I did my best to keep my attention on my men and off the massive dent we were attempting to make in the international duck pond. If my eyes strayed from the men and my job, I only ended up fucking frustrated. Well, more frustrated.

Sometimes I allowed myself to wonder a little bit about why the hell I didn't get the fuck out of the Army. The only reason I could come up with was a pathetic one. I didn't know what the fuck else to do with myself and my life. Even if I was miserable, I served a purpose here. I was good at being a soldier, and if I really put my mind to it, I could honestly claim that I was making a difference.


Even in my head I sounded like one of those stupid commercials. An army of one, my ass.

Everything and everyone on the patrol was tense. Yesterday, a patrol had been shot at, and one of our guys was critically injured. Every time something like that happened, everyone would be a little on edge the next day – or longer, depending on how fucking jaded you were. Unfortunately I was only tense because my men were. Nothing out of the ordinary happened on the patrol, though, so that was a relief.

The mail was discussed while we ate our dinner – goo supposed to be some kind of stew with dumplings. At least I hoped they were dumplings. It was fucking nasty. The mail was always one of the hottest topics of discussion – guys sharing bits of news from home, showing new pictures of wives, girlfriends, and kids. Others were getting misty-eyed over sentimental letters from their mothers and squaring their shoulders in pride after receiving words of praise from their fathers. And, of course, teasing from the lucky few on the receiving end of goodies such as chocolate or cookies from someone back home with a kind heart.

Then there was me – defining silence in the midst of the happy chaos with nothing to add or share. I never really got any mail; at least no one wrote to me regularly. The cookies from Jake's saint of a sister were the only goodies anyone had ever sent me on my tours overseas, and it was only because I happened to have Jake in my squad.

Because I had nothing to share, I made it a point to appear as if I was not listening when the other guys read from their letters. But the truth was that I craved their little tidbits of normality like a fucking addict. It was rather embarrassing. I could always count on Jake to feed my addiction, though. He didn't just read his sister's letters out loud, he damn near yelled them out loud so that everyone could hear what she wrote. He took such great joy and pride in everything in his life – from his sister's letters to the multi-colored, knitted socks his mother sent him once in a while because his feet got cold at night. I had never met anyone so unspoiled as Jake, and I would never give him grief about his socks like some of the other guys. He was refreshing. And I was going goddamn stale.

The content of the letters was by no means fascinating, but the way they were written made us all feel like we were experiencing the trivial little everyday encounters ourselves. And that was what we all wanted - to be home. The stories always had a funny twist, too, making us laugh – more often than not at the expense of a particularly clumsy friend of hers. Early on, Jake shared with us that he had no doubt that all the funny stories were true because his sister's friend did have a tendency to find herself in embarrassing situations. Once there had been an added PS in a letter, saying that it was with the consent of her friend that she wrote about the funny incidents. Her friend had apparently told her that for once in her life, she was grateful for her clumsy tendencies because they put smiles on her heroes' faces. When Jake read that out loud, no one laughed.

I offered the guys in my squad some of my cookies that night. I didn't want to. All I wanted to do was to hide and eat all of them myself. But of course I couldn't. The other guys who had received cookies from Jake's sister had shared, so I had to share, too. Crap. At least I kept half of them hidden, so I could have them to myself later.

I didn't sleep well that night. My dreams were a jumbled mess of peanut butter cookies, missing mail, and dust. Because dust was fucking everywhere – even in my subconscious.

That meant that I was more grouchy than usual when we inhaled our breakfast. Jake was his usual, sunshiny self, though, and I gratefully let him pull me out of my gloom. Our friendship was the most peculiar thing, really. I was quiet, moody, introverted, and haunted by the shadows of my past. Jake was the exact opposite. He was a naturally happy, smiling, straightforward kind of guy whose deepest, darkest secret was that he had jizzed in his pants when watching his first porn movie at age fifteen. Yep, the guy was practically spouting rainbows out his ass, and he probably rode unicorns back home in his spare time.

We were both from the fine state of Washington and both in the Army, but that was where the similarities ended. Yet, he was the only one in this hell hole I would categorize as a real friend. I'd give my life for anyone of them, but they weren't friends – at least not friends in the sense that I'd tell them my secrets or whatever.

I knew it was my own fault that I was so isolated, but I had no way – and no desire – to change that. Jake didn't care about the walls I had erected around myself. He was someone that his family was proud of, a charming motherfucker, and obviously used to getting what he wanted and, for some obscure reason, he wanted my friendship. And he took it before I even had the chance to offer it myself. I would have, though.

Everything – life – was easy for Jake, and I envied him for that. My own life was such a mess, and while the road stretched out in a goddamn flower-edged line for him, my own way was murky and shadowed at best. I had seniority when it came to our jobs, but Jake was the one who seemed like he had life figured out. Like him, I was twenty-six, but I had no idea what the hell I was doing. It sucked. However, I still liked him.

There was one fact that I was proud of. Despite – or maybe because of – my antisocial behavior, I was one of the most respected sergeants in the camp. There was never any shit with my squad, and fuck me if I didn't take pride in that. My life had been reduced to nothing but the Army over the past few years, so it really mattered that I was successful within the boundaries it set for me.

It had been with a different idealism that I had signed up for this gig, but all of my grand ambitions and ideals had been slowly shattered along the way. Or choked in the goddamn dust. I had been so fucking proud of my decision, and still was in so many ways, but it had cost me so much.

The following day, we went on patrol again. It was probably impossible, but it felt even hotter than the previous one. I had long ago stopped looking at thermometers and their fucking ever-rising temperatures. That shit only depressed me, and I was good in that department even without the influence of the weather.

Jake was grinning as we got into our vehicles. "Only three more weeks, Rusty. Three more weeks and I am back in Forks! I can't wait!"

"Actually, it's only nineteen days," Alec Scott corrected with a lazy grin. "You gotta keep up, guys."

"Nineteen days till Forks." Jake grinned. "Ahhhhh…"

"How the hell can you miss a hole in the ground named Forks?" Tyler Crowley asked. He was from LA, and anything smaller than that was, in his opinion, not worthy of being put on maps.

"Forks is fucking great, man," Jake bravely defended his hometown. "Tell 'em, Cullen."

I laughed. "Sorry, Swan. I've never been to Forks, but I have been to Port Angeles, and the area is beautiful. I'll vouch for Washington as the best state in the country any damn day."

"Fuck yes!" Jake enthused, making us all laugh.

"What are you going to do in the hole in the ground when you get back?" Crowley asked.

"Join the family business," Jake replied. "I'm getting out of the Army. She'd never say it, but I get the feeling my mom's not real fond of me being over here."

"I'm almost afraid to ask, but what is the family business?" Crowley asked, snickering.

Jake flipped him off good-naturedly. "My parents own the only diner and the only bar in Forks – called Upstairs and Downstairs, respectively. I'm gonna work Downstairs – in the bar."

"You're shitting me – Upstairs and Downstairs?" Crowley guffawed.

"Hey, hey, hey, there is absolutely nothing wrong with those names – or the fine establishments that they are. Fuck you, city brat. You're all goddamn city brats," he complained, looking around at us. "You just don't know what you're missing out on."

It was true. The rest of us were from bigger cities, and we probably didn't know what we were missing out on – just as Jake had no idea what it was like living in the city.

I had grown up in Seattle. I loved the city, but it didn't feel like home anymore. Maybe I should spend some time on that soon – finding a place to call home. Maybe.

The mood was less tense on the patrol that day – Crowley even cracked a joke when we passed a bombed out shed, asking Jake if it had any resemblance to Downstairs back in Forks. Jake stuck out his tongue like the mature US Army fighting machine that he was.

I didn't have time to laugh. Not even a chuckle escaped me, and a smile never made it to my lips before the bullets started flying around us.

We were being fucking ambushed.

The fact that I was a goddamn jaded bastard meant that I skipped right past the shock that hit the others momentarily. I had been in similar situations before, and I barely needed to think before I started barking out orders.

I then registered two things at the same time. Jake had been hit in the neck and was bleeding on the floor. And Jones, who was driving the vehicle, had also been hit and was slumped over the steering wheel. He must still have had his foot on the gas, because the vehicle was moving. I yelled at Crowley to take over the driving before we ended up in a ditch and became a stationary target for the motherfuckers still shooting at us.

I was sure that Tyler Crowley did his best because that was the kind of man he was, but we did end up in the ditch. And just as I heard a chopper overhead coming to help us out of the mess we had ended up in, the world around me exploded.

Again my jadedness made me register something faster than should have been possible. Only this time I wasn't sure I had wanted to know what was happening before everything went black. It was a fucking rotten last thought to have.

Roadside bomb.

Floating. I was floating. Voices were floating around me, too. Was I a cloud? Or maybe a flying carpet starring in a new version of Aladdin? Maybe I was just dead. Or dreaming. But my dreams usually involved dust, and there sure as fuck wasn't any dust here right now. Not even the floating kind.

Then I felt the pain and started considering that maybe I had it all wrong, and I was really in hell. I had no doubt that God was as acutely aware of my past as I was. Yeah, and I couldn't really see myself being allowed through the pearly gates. Hell it was.

I had fought many battles before, but few had been as fierce as the one which allowed me to open my eyes. Sweet victory. And what the fuck? There was an angel hovering above me – white clothes, blonde hair, beautiful smile, and was that a halo? Fuck me, I had it all wrong again. Since I apparently was in heaven, what monster fuck-up had taken place to allow that?


The angel was trying to get my attention but her voice was…floaty. Shit, I needed to update my vocabulary one of these days.

"Are you in pain, Sergeant Cullen?"

Fuck yes! But why was I in pain if I was in heaven? Weren't the two mutually exclusive or some shit?

I think I managed a nod. And then I was floating again. Or fading. I wasn't really sure which, and I was too tired to care. I just went with it.

The next time I woke up, both the pain and the angel were there. Only the pain was worse, and the angel wasn't really an angel. She was a nurse, and she let me in on what I had been up to lately. It was kind of like when you'd been drunk and were told the story of your drunken escapades the next day while you nursed a motherfucking hangover. Fuck, I wished I had been getting trashed.

Nurse Angel started out by reminding me of the roadside bomb that I had managed to forget all about. The memories assaulted my mind, and Nurse Angel had to repeat her next words about the extent of my injuries.

I had completely missed out on my cozy, little stay at Landstuhl because of a medicine-induced coma due to swelling in my brain. Well, fuck me for missing out on a vacation in Europe. She told me that I was currently at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. I had apparently hurt my back, completely blown out my knee, narrowly avoiding having my leg amputated, and tried to beat the world record in the highest number of cuts and scrapes. I couldn't wrap my head around the things she was telling me. Even though I remembered the blast and felt the pain now, it didn't feel like it was something that had happened to me.

I asked about the men in my squad, but Nurse Angel didn't know anything. That gave me all the encouragement I needed to fall back asleep. Avoidance had been tested through centuries and probably millennia, so it was good enough for me, too.

The third time I woke up, an all too familiar voice reached my ears and made me keep my eyes shut, feigning sleep.

"And you are absolutely sure that he will be okay?" I heard my sister, Alice, ask. Fuck. Hearing her voice after all this time both hurt more than my leg did, but it also healed me a little bit.

"Yes, Sergeant Cullen is already well on the way toward a full recovery," someone assured Alice. "He will need a lot of physical therapy, and I can't give any guarantees that his knee will ever be strong enough for him to be reinstated for active duty, but all in all he will be fine, Miss Cullen."

Miss Cullen? I kept the frown off my face. I thought for sure she and Jasper would have been married by now. My once-upon-a-time best friend had proposed to my sister right around the time when everything went to hell, and Alice had been in full planning mode even though they hadn't even started college yet.

"I'm sure he will be awake soon and pleased to see a familiar face," the male voice said – probably a doctor or some shit.

I held my breath as Alice hesitated.

"Um…no, I should go. We don't really talk. I just…I just needed to make sure that he was okay," she finally said.

There was no reason for me to be surprised or disappointed. I even told myself that I would have done the same if our roles had been reversed. But it goddamn stung.

Suppressing all thoughts of my family in the way I had been perfecting for years, I focused on sleeping – ignorance was bliss.

Being hospitalized was fucking boring, especially when the drug-induced fog cleared from my head. All I did was stare at the ceiling and attempt not to let my thoughts get the best of me. Then I started my physical therapy and suddenly appreciated the staring at the ceiling thing a hell of a lot more. Motherfucker, those demons moonlighting as physical therapists knew how to make a grown man cry. I had this theory that they had replaced whatever was inside of my knee with Jell-o while I was in a coma – because that was what it felt like when the demons made me use it. Maybe they were harder on me because I didn't complain – but then again, what soldier would? I just gritted my teeth, swallowed the pain, and ignored the demons' attempt to be funny. They really weren't.

"How are you this morning, Sergeant?"

I grimaced and ignored her. I had taken up praying to God regularly since waking up at Walter Reed. The reason was my nurse, Tanya. I had mistaken her for an angel the first time I had seen her, and while she definitely still looked like one, she had turned out to be Nurse Devil instead. She was clingy, unprofessional as fuck, and had absolutely no respect for personal space – especially not mine. On top of that, she was also a gossip, nosy as hell, and had the class of a goddamn whore. I had requested another nurse, but nothing had come of it. Tanya was probably performing sexual favors for whoever was in charge of that shit. I certainly wouldn't put it past her.

Despite all her shortcomings, she did have her uses. Although her gossipy ways had nearly given me a heart attack when I overheard her tell another nurse how she was planning to find herself a hot soldier to marry, and that I was her prime candidate – oh fuck no! – her loose lips had also provided me with the news that one Doctor Cullen was frequently calling to ask about my condition.

Like my sister's visit, which no one had ever bothered to tell me about, it was something that I didn't know what to do about. No matter how I looked at it, it fucking hurt that my family was curious enough to inquire about me, but apparently didn't care enough to actually visit or talk to me.

I would see guys around me in similar circumstances – only they were surrounded by people who thanked God for sparing their son's, their husband's, or their brother's life. I barely thanked God for keeping me alive. I just begged him to free me from Nurse Devil and her wandering hands.

I did get one visit from my commanding officer, Colonel Banner. Most depressing visit ever. He surprised me one afternoon after a grueling session of torturous physical therapy.

"It's good to see you, Cullen," he greeted me, sitting down in a plastic chair next to my bed and presenting me with a box of chocolate purchased in the hospital's gift shop. The sticker with the price was still on it.

"Thank you, sir. You, too."

He nodded. He wasn't the most talkative person I had ever met, and he had perfected the art of communicating with a series of different nods – confusing the hell out of you until you got to know him and could decode the nods. "So, how is your rehabilitation coming along, Sergeant?"

"As well as can be expected, sir," I replied. "At least that's what they tell me."

Colonel Banner nodded again. "Yes, your doctor told me about your knee. Damn shame."

I raised my eyebrows because that shitty doctor of mine barely told me anything. The colonel took it upon himself to continue. "If I may give you a piece of advice, Cullen…I've seen men in your situation many times before. Trust me when I say that the last thing I want is to discourage you, but get out now, son. Don't renew your contract. No one is going to think you are a quitter or any nonsense like that, and it will save you a lot of unnecessary grief. Get out now and find something to make you happy. You are an extraordinary soldier, Cullen, but you have done your duty – and beyond."

Shit. And that was me getting dismissed. Sent on my way. Thrown out with the trash. Adios, Cullen.

After everything I had done for the Army and my country – risking my life, sacrificing everything, and being blown the fuck up – they just wanted to get rid of me. I'd show them that it took more than a fucked-up knee to get the better of me. I hadn't come as far as I had by quitting when things got rough.

Only…he was right. I didn't want to spend months and months in a feeble attempt to get my knee back in shape only to get shot down. Maybe I was a quitter, but I didn't have that kind of fight left in me – mainly because I wasn't sure that the Army was something I wanted to fight for anymore. It wasn't like they wanted to fight for me. The only problem was that it was all I had in my life.

I forced myself to ignore my own crisis and focus on something much more important – something that had been driving me crazy.

"Sir, can you tell me what happened in Afghanistan? I was knocked out when we hit the roadside bomb, and there hasn't been anyone who could tell me anything."

Colonel Banner looked slightly uncomfortable, which meant it was fucking bad.

"Jones, Crowley, Swan, and Byrne were killed, and nine others, including you, were injured. You and Jackson were the most critical. He lost both his legs but should be fine. They got to you as soon as they could."

Emptiness washed over me at the colonel's words. Somewhere deep inside of me there was a flicker of grief, but the emptiness swallowed it quickly. There was something utterly wrong about someone like Jake not existing anymore. I didn't know exactly how I could have prevented what had happened, but I felt like a complete and utter failure. My greatest fear had come true – I had failed my men in the worst way.

I barely registered the colonel leaving after a series of un-decoded nods, a load of platitudes, and mention of leaving the Army again. I felt like I was drowning in a sea of gloom, bobbing around amongst the waves like an empty raft.

I thought about Jones, our southern boy, whose mother faithfully sent him cornbread, because he was sure that he couldn't possibly survive without it. And I thought about our big city snob, Crowley, who underneath all his bullshit was one of the fiercest and bravest guys I had ever met. There was also Byrne, our usually quiet Irishman, who ran his goddamn mouth like an old woman every time he came within ten feet of alcohol. And Jake. Happy go-fucking-lucky Jacob Swan who had thought he could take on the world single-handedly. Jake who was the epitome of life, and had saved my sorry ass from becoming too damn depressed countless times with his jokes and smiles and letters from his sister. Jake who had been three lousy weeks away from getting out alive. And I hadn't been able to save him – to get him back to his family.

The gloom never left me. I blew off the psychiatrists I was supposed to spill my guts to. I did everything the demon physical therapists told me to, reveling in the pain because it was the only thing that made me feel alive. I took the advice the colonel they shoved down my throat by not renewing my contract, and then I bailed.

Bailing in my case meant limping out in borrowed scrubs.

The army had been my foundation in life, and now that it was gone, I had to go and find a new foundation. It was difficult, though, because I had no idea what I was looking for or where I was supposed to look for it. So I was going to look for it all over.


One silver Volvo held all my worldly possessions. One tattered notebook with a maroon cover held many of my jumbled up thoughts. One place somewhere held the promise of a future for me – but unlike the Volvo and the notebook, I had no idea how to find the place.

I searched for it relentlessly. I spent a few days in Atlanta where I visited Jones' grave. It took me an hour to decide on what kind of flower arrangement best said, "I'm fucking sorry for failing you, buddy," and then another hour to find the courage to walk through the gate at the cemetery. Seeing the name on the headstone killed me a little bit, and I couldn't help but wish that the fucking roadside bomb had killed me instead of Jones. And instead of Crowley, Byrne, and Jake. This was all wrong. I had the same feeling when I stood at Crowley's grave in LA and Byrne's in Chicago. All three places I got completed trashed after seeing the familiar names engraved on fucking stones. It was just wrong.

I drove right through Arkansas, threw darts at a map of Arizona to figure out which towns to visit, got drunk and gambled away too much money in Las Vegas, did a U-turn, sure that Texas held my future and trashed a motel room when discovering that it didn't. Nothing was right anywhere.

Weeks passed as steadily as the states, cities, and towns. The cities were too big and the towns too small. The south was too hot and the north too cold. My knee ached like hell from all the driving, and my back protested loudly at the lack of decent beds. I was in constant need of doing laundry, and I was lonelier than ever. I was as fucking miserable in the States as I had been in Afghanistan. Go figure.

It was a cold day in September when I drove into Seattle. It was inevitable that I would end up in the one place I had refused to even think about visiting in my search for what more and more seemed to be the ghost of a dream. I let the familiarity wash over me while I took in all the well-known sights. I considered stopping and staying the night at a motel, but the panic rising in my throat at the thought made me keep driving.

I didn't allow myself to think it through, but for once I wasn't unsure about where I was going. Perhaps I was even heading for the real destination of my road trip. Maybe looking for my future had been another way of saying that I was looking for closure all along. For forgiveness. I had not acknowledged it at the time, but that was, deep down, what my visits to Atlanta, LA, and Chicago had been about. So now I was going to the great town of Forks. I was going to say goodbye to Jake and ask for the forgiveness that he could never give.

The "Welcome to Forks" sign greeted me in the rain the following morning. I had spent the night at a motel in Port Angeles, tossing and turning in a bed with a too-soft mattress. Now that I was this close, I wasn't sure that I was ready to actually say goodbye.

It was so fucking sad, but Jake had been the only friend I'd had had in the Army. There had been plenty of people I had admired and respected, as well as those that I had accepted and tolerated. But friendship had become an almost foreign concept to me ever since my old life had left me behind.

Forks was small. So small that I had passed through it before I even realized it. I turned around and made my way back, driving through it a few times until I knew exactly where to find the bar and the diner, as well as the cemetery. Visiting the town was not enough, like it had been with LA, Atlanta, and Chicago – in Forks I knew that I had to…

Had to what, exactly?

I sat a long time in my car outside the cemetery thinking about what I had to do. Would seeing Jake's grave give me closure? Or would it make me cry like a goddamn baby and admit to myself that I was fucking lost? The latter seemed very likely. I was not ready for that shit, so I drove away from there under the guise that I hadn't gotten any flowers. Me, my fear, and my guilty conscience all knew it was bullshit.

I easily found the local florist, and for once I had no difficulties finding the right kind of flower arrangement. It seemed everything was easy to find in Jake's beloved Forks. Sunflowers caught my eye immediately. Jake had been a mobile, cheerful sun for those around him, keeping up the morale when it was low and telling jokes to whoever was feeling homesick, miserable, or scared. Now that Jake shone no more, leaving him sunflowers seemed appropriate.

I drove back to the cemetery, determined to do this for the only man I had considered a friend since my family had abandoned me. When I got out of the car, my attention was captured by a loud group of Native American guys standing outside the gate. They reminded me eerily of Jake with their dark skin and dark hair, but I knew there was reservation around here where his mother originated from. I glared at them. They were fucking loud and disrespectful, being at a cemetery and all.

"It's almost disgraceful that you're mourning him, Bella. He chose his own destiny by going to Afghanistan – he might as well have walked out in front of a train!" I heard one of the guys say rudely as I got the flowers out of the backseat.

"Jake was a hero, Sam," a female voice said. "But, of course, you and your stupid disciples know nothing about that, you miserable cowards."

My head whipped around at whiplash speed at the mention of Jake.

"A hero?" Another one of the imbeciles huffed. "He died fighting someone else's war. He made a fool of himself, and now you're making a fool of yourself – again – crying over him."

Rage consumed me, and I deposited the flowers on the roof of my car before marching over to do what I had failed to do in Afghanistan – protect my friend.

"I suggest you shut the fuck up since you obviously have no fucking clue what you're talking about, asshole!" I seethed, coming face to face with the brainless bunch.

"Mind your own business, man," one of them said, towering over me.

I didn't care that he looked like he was on steroids, and that I was fucking out of shape. With the rage coursing through me, I had no doubt that I could still kick his ass.

"The memory of anyone giving their life to protect what he believes is my goddamn business, and you are being fucking disrespectful!"

"What the hell do you know about Jake? He was our friend," another one of the idiots said.

I scoffed. "Friend? Well, I happen to have met the enemy, and they were about as friendly as you are."

"Fuck you, man," was the intelligent reply thrown my way before the morons shuffled off.

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes briefly, trying to let my anger go. It was one thing not to agree with our country's involvement in Afghanistan, but to talk trash about a friend who had died fighting for people's freedom…shit. The world was full of idiots.

My eyes snapped back open when I felt a hand on my arm. The bit of human contact almost burned my skin. It was the girl who the moron gang had been giving shit. In my rage I had completely forgotten about her. She was looking at me wide-eyed and, holy hell, she was pretty. Jake had never mentioned a girlfriend waiting for him at home. In fact, he had made it sound like every girl in Forks was eagerly awaiting his return. But this little thing – porcelain skin, long, coffee-colored hair, eyes the same color, and curves just begging for a man's touch – had defended him like he had truly mattered to her.

"I didn't actually need your help. Just because you think you know something about serving in Afghanistan doesn't mean that you can just play hero to strangers who don't need it," she said seriously. She turned away from me and walked off before I could articulate a reply.

Well, damn.

I shook my head and watched her walk away. What a little firecracker. I guess I should have told her that I hadn't done it for her but for Jake. However, I wasn't sure it had made a difference to her. I sighed. Time to forget about pretty, little firecrackers. I needed to go see Jake.

I picked up the flowers and went in through the gate. I glared at the sun when it broke through the clouds, angry that it could shine at the place that Jake loved the most when he wasn't there anymore. It wasn't right. The cemetery wasn't big, and just like everything else in Forks, it didn't take me long to find the grave I was looking for.

When I stood in front of the headstone, looking at the engraved letters and trying to comprehend that Jacob Swan didn't exist anymore, I suddenly had no words. There were no apologies tumbling from my lips and no begging for forgiveness. There was nothing except a lone tear running down my cheek.

I couldn't do it. I couldn't even say goodbye. I put the flowers down and practically ran out to my car. I leaned my head against the cool metal and took a deep breath. I had never run away from anything before. I had thought myself brave, but I was a fucking failure. I got into the car and drove away. I had to come back. I couldn't say goodbye right now, but I also couldn't leave Forks without doing it.

Not far from the cemetery, because nothing was far from anything in Forks, I saw a sign again that made me slow down. Upstairs & Downstairs. Diner upstairs and bar downstairs. I really wanted a drink, but figured lunch would be a better alternative, so I pulled over and parked.

Alright, Jake. Let's see what you've got.

A/N: Still with us?

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