Disclaimer: We don't own Twilight, or its characters, in any way, shape, or form. Stephenie Meyer does. Instead, we teach them to do tricks with promises of fudge.
A/N: A big thank you to nowforruin for making good use of her red pen on this one.
"Aw, come on, Rusty. Please?"
"I said no."
"How much do I have to pay you?"
He sighed. "You can't pay me to celebrate Christmas, Jake. Either you want to or you don't. And I really, really don't want to."
"But why? Christmas is everything that is awesome – great food, presents, time off, family, snow, and trees in the living room. What more could you possibly want?"
"Well, since you're asking, I'd fucking love it if just one of those things were actually here. The food is shit, we get no presents except if the Taliban camouflage a bomb for us, no time off, no family, snow doesn't do well in this stinking heat and godforsaken dust, and even if we had trees, we have no living room to put them in, do we?"
I rolled my eyes. "Details."
He snorted and examined what he'd picked up from his plate with his fork. I wasn't quite sure what it was either. If I remembered correctly, they'd told us that it was meatloaf. I'd yet to find the meat or the loaf. All I could taste was ketchup, because if it wasn't obvious what they served to us, I'd automatically drown it in the red stuff. At least then you knew what that was.
Jones sat down next to me. "Hey, Swan. You might wanna inhale that ketchup slobber. Mail's here."
"Woohoo! Cookies!" I took time for a fist pump before shoveling more food into my mouth. It was foul, but a guy couldn't live off cookies alone. Unfortunately. I had tried, so I knew what I was talking about.
"Any news from Atlanta?" I asked. Jones was reading a letter while he ate, and the least the guy could do was share. Honestly, man. Entertainment came in stamped envelopes there, and whoever had the good stuff shared. That was how it was.
"Well…" He smirked. "They've got this thing there. Don't know if you've ever heard of it as it appears to be a local custom. It's called Christmas."
"Really? That sounds awesome. What is it?" I asked, turning the sarcasm up full volume. I could practically hear Rusty rolling his eyes.
"Let me just see what my girlfriend's writing. Ah, yes. Here it is. It involves trees inside the house, eating a lot of good food, giving presents to your friends and family, and singing songs. If it's ideal, it involves snow, too."
"That sounds like a party. I'm in! How about you, Rusty? Put a tree inside your house and sing a song?"
"Oh! There's turkey, too. Isn't it like that other thing, you know, with the pumpkins and stuff?" Jones asked, wide-eyed.
"Easter?" I suggested. "No wait, that's eggs."
"Christ," Rusty moaned. "Don't turn in your uniforms. You'd starve if you took that show on the road."
I lifted a forkful of…what was it again? Oh, right. Drowned meatloaf. "We could just as easily starve here. At least, if we went on the road as comedians, we might come to a place where they have that Christmas thing."
"Dude, that stopped being funny an hour ago," he told me.
"We hadn't mentioned it an hour ago."
"You, Cullen, are a cross between the Grinch and Scrooge. It's not pretty," Jones said.
"Sounds good," Rusty replied. "I'd be fucking worried if you thought I was pretty."
Snickering, I pushed my plate away. "Anyway. I'm full. Time for cookies and mail. Come on, Rusty."
"I'm your dog now?" he asked, picking up his tray and standing. Then he picked up mine, too. "No, wait. I'm your slave apparently."
"Stop whining like a girl. I'll share my cookies."
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was how you shut up Edward Cullen.
I hummed Jingle Bells while we walked across the camp. There was nothing like Christmas to make a guy homesick as a little kid on their first sleepover. In my head, I could smell freshly baked cookies and mulled wine. I could almost ignore the dry heat and feel the cold slapping against my cheeks like when we waded through the snow in the forest in search of the perfect Christmas tree. And man, did I have the pickiest mom in the world when it came to Christmas trees. She'd caused several almost-frostbites in the Swan family. It had to be perfect. And while I didn't see why it had to be so damn perfect when it got covered with ornaments anyway, a trip to the desert made me appreciate the crusade she had been on with making Christmas all kinds of awesome. Traditions mattered even if I hadn't realized it before I'd have to go without them. Traditions, family, and a certain way of life were what we were fighting for so far away from home, after all. I kicked a stone on the ground, sending it flying. Stupid war. It was fucking rude to keep a guy from Christmas.
"Merry Christmas!" I greeted the mail dude. I saw him often, but I had no idea what his name was.
"If you say so," he muttered and turned to get my mail. He definitely knew who I was. Jake Swan was fucking legendary when it came to mail.
"Someone's getting coal in their stocking," I said as he returned with three packages for me. I was that awesome.
"There's a letter for you, Cullen," mail dude said, sounding almost surprised.
However, if he was surprised, Rusty was in shock. He took the letter and turned it over in his hand.
"Who's it from?" I asked. Could someone from his shittastic family have grown an actual heart?
"No idea. Someone named Madge in Nebraska."
I snickered. "Madge? Really? Is that your secret cougar sugar mama?"
"Obviously," he deadpanned. "Seriously, I don't know anyone in Nebraska, and I sure as hell don't know anyone named Madge. It's got to be a mistake."
"It's your name on the envelope, isn't it?" I asked.
"Yes." He looked at the envelope again. "It's probably a relative or something of someone we…lost."
I cringed. It sucked donkey balls that those were the only kind of letters he ever got. And did that Madge woman have to write him just in time for Christmas with her questions about her fallen grandson or whatever? Rusty was moody enough as it was.
"Just open it and get it over with. Then you can help me eat some cookies before we report for duty."
Sighing, he did just that, but frowned when he started reading the letter. "What the…oh, hell. Chief, I swear to God that if you're responsible for this, I'll fucking blow up every damn cookie your family sends you."
"Hey! No hating the cookies." I clutched my boxes. "And what the hell are you talking about? I didn't do anything!"
"It's a letter from some woman who, and I quote, 'takes pride in sending poor, lonely soldiers letters for Christmas.' Tell me you didn't sign me up for some pity program."
"Aw, that's kinda sweet. You know, if she hadn't called you poor and lonely. But I didn't have anything to do with it. I swear. If I'd thought of it, I would have made my mom write you instead or something."
"Your mom…yeah…" He laughed humorlessly and looked at the letter again. "Christ, Jake. I never in a million years thought it would be like this."
He shook his head, looking very tired all of the sudden. "Nothing. Gimme that cookie."
I hesitated for only a second. I could have pressured him to talk about it – turned it into some girly session with hugs and shit. But we were dudes, and he was asking for a cookie. He'd talk when he wanted to talk. Until then, it was cookie time.
I handed him a box and attacked another one myself. "Here, you open this one."
"Dude, I'm not opening your mail."
I stared at him. "Are you for real? I'm right here and asking you to do it. I won't call the MPs, I promise. Christ. You're a real grandma."
He snorted and handed the box back. "I'm still not opening it."
"You want me to chew your cookie, too, so you don't strain yourself or wear on your teeth?"
"Open the damn box, Jake."
Shaking my head, I pulled off all the packing tape. Something told me that Emmett had helped Rose wrap the box because he believed in excessive use of tape – packing tape, duct tape – hell, I'd seen him tie stuff together with old video tapes. I smiled as I thought of him. I missed him. The Army was missing out by not letting him in. From when we were toddlers, we'd done pretty much everything together, so it had been weird not to have him around. He'd done well for himself in college and finally looked past Rose's clumsiness to see the wonderful girl hiding underneath. He'd found a lot of cool Seattle friends, too. His roommate from college sounded pretty awesome, even if he seemed to have the most annoying girlfriend in the world.
The first thing I saw when I opened the box was fudge. Peanut butter and white chocolate fudge. I moaned. I was so going back home and winning Rose away from Emmett. I fucking loved fudge. I nearly swallowed the first piece whole and then offered the plastic box to Rusty. The next thing I pulled out made me laugh. It was a small Christmas stocking filled with coal. I threw that at Rusty, too.
"What the hell is that?" he asked after moaning appreciatively over the fudge, too.
"My best friend trying to be a comedian."
"I like him," Rusty decided. "If you must make us all suffer through Christmas, you deserve coal. Just the fact that he's sent it halfway across the world makes him awesome."
"Yeah, yeah." I took out one of the two letters in the box and started reading. Emmett had exciting news – he'd proposed to Rose, and after accidentally dropping the ring and kneeing him in the groin, she'd said yes. That made me laugh – fucker deserved a knee in the groin after sending me coal. I knew I could count on Rosie.
"What?" Rusty asked when I whooped out loud for the third time – first at reading about the engagement of two people that I loved very much, then the knee in the groin, and then the grand finale.
"I get to be the best man when two of my best friends tie the knot next year. How fucking awesome is that? They are getting the most embarrassing best man's speech ever." I grinned to myself, and for the first time, I was happy that Emmett wasn't in the Army and deployed somewhere dangerous. Rose deserved her man home safe and bravely trying to avoid paper cuts in his office.
"Be nice," Rusty told me.
"Why? I've collected embarrassing stories about them my whole life. I gotta use 'em for something." Digging back into the box, I found two kinds of cookies and chocolate. Okay, so maybe I'd cut back on the embarrassing stories about Rose and just praise the fact that she was a saint. Emmett, on the other hand, I'd crucify for the coal. I snickered as I took a bite of a sugar cookie.
There was no time to open the boxes from my parents and Bella before we had to report for duty. I filled my pockets with cookies and told Rusty to do the same before I stored the boxes under my bed. After patrol duty, there'd be an epic sugar cookie battle. I'd asked my mom, Bella, and Rose to send me sugar cookies, and now it was judgment day where I tested who made the best ones. If Rusty was nice, I'd even make him my co-judge.
As it turned out, patrol was not patrol. It was The Epic Anti-Christmas Mob who spent the entire time raining heavily and thoroughly on Jake Swan's parade. Morons. I knew why everyone was so hell bent on being anti-Christmas – they thought it made it easier to be stuck in the desert for the holidays. But it didn't. Nothing made that easier. So I was washing the disappointment down with cookies and Christmas tunes no matter what. And maybe a little pouting. A guy could pout if everyone was out to bring down his Christmas spirits, right?
So I pouted. And then I pouted some more because no one was giving a crap. It was Christmas Eve the following day, and all the guys were talking about was unimportant crap like deep sea diving, Bruce Willis movies, and hot dogs. Hot dogs! They should be talking about turkey and cookies. Oh. Cookies! I had cookies to judge and letters to read. There were probably also presents. Why the hell was I wasting my time listening to people talk about hot dogs? I nearly ran over to the barracks.
Cookies! Cookies! Cookies!
Inside, however, I forgot all about cookies. There was a…thing…next to my bunk. And next to the thing was Rusty, looking like he'd broken the cranky neighbor's window while playing soccer. I frowned and looked at the thing again. Wait. It wasn't a thing, it was a…a…. I cracked a smile.
A Christmas tree.
The tree – if you could call it that – was some kind of dead shrubbery. It looked sad and hilarious at the same time, but what struck me the most was the thought behind it. Rusty didn't mean it as a joke – he was trying to cheer me up. I didn't actually need cheering up as I'd just been pouting for the heck of it, but if I had needed it, it would have worked.
The tree – and I did call it that – was decorated with empty candy wrappers, socks that looked like mine and as a result definitely were dirty, toilet paper, and a soda can as the topper. Cherry Coke. Underneath were a couple of lumps of toilet paper wrapped around something. Presents maybe?
"What's this?" I asked, looking over at Rusty.
The way he made it sound like a question had me almost laughing, but I caught myself. I knew that Rusty was pretending that Christmas didn't exist—it warmed my heart that he was trying to make me smile.
"Never mind. It was a stupid idea anyway," Rusty said, picking the tree up and walking toward the door.
"Wait!" I called out. "Don't take away the Charlie Brown Christmas tree!"
He looked back down at the tree. "Shit, it does look like that pathetic excuse for a tree. Fuck."
I snickered at him. "Dude, leave it. It's perfect. I can't wait to brag to everyone back home that I had a better tree than them."
Rusty snorted and sat it back down. "You're an idiot. It's not better. Not by a long shot."
"Emmett and I always wanted a tree like Charlie Brown had when we were kids," I said, motioning to the tree. "We loved that and the toys on the island for misfits. Mom and Dad always rolled their eyes at us and said that we were not getting something that would shed all over the house."
"Charlie Brown trees and misfit toys? No wonder you won't leave me alone." Rusty ran a hand over his face.
I ignored his depreciating comment. "So, what did you get me?"
"Jars of sand," Rusty said in a monotone voice.
"Awesome. I can take some of the desert home with me."
Rusty shook his head and smiled. "Nothing gets you down, does it?"
I rubbed my hands together. "So, seriously, what did I get?"
Rusty sat down on his bunk, refusing to answer. He was acting just like my mom did before Christmas morning. I loved presents, but I had no patience whatsoever. Every time I asked what my parents had gotten me, she'd tell me to knock it off and go play. By the time Christmas Eve rolled around, she'd point upstairs when I'd try to get the information from her. I never understood why they had the presents under the tree before Christmas, anyway. Didn't they know it was mean to put out gifts and not let me open them?
"Fine. Here." He walked over, picked up the presents wrapped in toilet paper, and handed them to me. I bounced on the bed and began unwrapping. Sweet. Inside the packages were a tube of toothpaste and a coupon to use Bob for a full week, no questions asked. The coupon was enough to get me excited, because I could think of all kinds of pranks Bob and I—and Rusty, of course—could pull. I was also almost out of toothpaste, and it meant I didn't need to make a trip to the commissary. Ugh. I hated going to the commissary. They had no sense of humor whatsoever, and I was tired of being followed around like a toddler.
Rusty was staring at me with his arms crossed and a slight worried look on his face. I smiled at him. "Thanks! You, me, and Bob are going to have so much fun!"
He groaned and hung his head. "Damn it. The coupon is for Bob. Not me."
I snorted. "I have the perfect plan to get back at the kitchen staff for making us eat the slobber they serve. Are you really going to tell me that you're not interested?"
He ignored me, just like he always did when I came up with an awesome plan. Rusty knew he was going to do it, though. I was certain he secretly loved helping me pull pranks.
I set down my items and pulled the boxes I'd yet to open from under my bed. What to get Rusty? I didn't really bring anything with me, other than the necessities, when I entered the Army, and if I'd known we were going to exchange presents, I'd have gotten him something. Ripping open the box Bella sent, I thought maybe Rusty would appreciate some cookies. Rusty was the only person I trusted to help judge the fuckawesome amount of sugar cookies I had, anyway.
As I pulled out a small tin and a letter, something else caught my eye. Inside was the lucky coin I'd carried with me since I was seven. Emmett and I had been screwing around one day by the train tracks, and I found it between one of the slats in the track. I'd somehow convinced myself that day, because it hadn't been flattened and still looked perfect, it held some sort of magic power. I'd come to my senses since that time, but it still held a lot of sentimental value for me. I loved Bella even more for sending it, and I knew it was the perfect thing to give my grumpy commanding officer/best friend. If anyone needed a little luck in their life, it was that man.
"So, since you didn't tell me we were getting each other anything, I didn't have time to wrap this. I want you to have it." I held the coin in my hand out, palm side up.
He peered down at it. "I can't accept it. Your family sent it for you, not me."
I rolled my eyes at him. "Dude, I've had this thing for years. It's not a present to me. It's already mine."
"And why are you giving me a fucking coin?"
"Because it's lucky."
Rusty huffed and sat down. "Then I really can't take it. I'll jinx the damn thing."
"Will you quit being such a sourpuss? You're my friend, and I want you to have the coin. End of story. Besides, you'll hurt my feelings if you don't' take it."
He snatched it out of my hand, turning it over and inspecting it with a slight smile. I went back to opening boxes while I thought about how that was the only thing Rusty would probably get for Christmas. I really wished that I could practice target shooting with the people he called family, because Rusty didn't deserve to be forgotten, especially around the holidays. He was a good guy, and it made me sad to know some people out there didn't appreciate what they had.
A thought formed in my head. But could he be persuaded for what I had in mind?
Just a few days before, Rusty and I had found out when our tours would be up. I was planning on going back to Forks, and he had talked about signing another contract. At the time, I couldn't believe that he was even thinking it, because who really wanted to stay in this godforsaken place? Sitting there and watching him show some sort of gratitude over a hunk of metal that probably didn't mean anything to anyone else besides him and me, I figured that—maybe—he was staying just so he didn't have to face the fact that his family probably didn't want him.
I was one persuasive motherfucker when I wanted to be, and I decided it didn't matter if he wanted to or not. I was going to ask him to come home with me. My family was awesome, and they'd love him. My mother alone would make up for all the shit he'd ever been through. That woman was a goddess.
The only thing left to do was figure out how to pull it off.
"Hey, Rusty," I said, opening up the tin. "I have a competition going on back home. Mom, Bella, and Rose sent me a crap ton of sugar cookies. Care to help me figure out who's the winner?"
I held out the container, and Rusty snatched one up. "I'll do my best. But, just so you know, I'm voting for your mom now. From what you told me about her, that woman scares me."
I laughed. Yes, Rusty was going to fit right in my little family back in Forks.
A/N: We'd like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year - we hope you'll be having a wonderful holiday season. Thank you so much for your support on our little, Dusty adventure. We'll be back with lots more in the new year!