Everything that happens in this chapter regarding Spearward's deployment is biographical. This is my Major's story. And keep in mind this outtake takes place BEFORE the epilogue.


^^TotS^^

August

Christopher's body shudders just before he flips his head to the other side. At fourteen-months-old, he's sleeping through the night, but he still whimpers and whines from time to time. The squeak he emits now makes me grin from ear to ear, but I freeze in my moment of bad parenting. I'm actually hoping he opens his eyes. I won't go as far as to physically disturb him, but I know damn well that standing over his crib is a sure way to wake my son or any sleeping baby for that matter. Every other night that Bella and I check on him before we turn in, we inevitably pause in terror when the floor creaks and he stirs, even if it only lasts for a second or two.

Tonight is different, though. This is the last night I'll be able to be here. In the calm, in the quiet, with the peace of our small family and the warmth of our home surrounding me and filling the ache that will inevitably make itself known milliseconds after I walk away from them. Who the hell am I kidding? I'm feeling the pain already. Bella's thirtieth birthday, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's Day…dammit, this fucking blows. When I was single and only had to think about my mom and sister, being stationed far away or deployed during holidays or special occasions didn't affect me as much, but now? Words can't describe the misery already rushing through my mind knowing what I'm about to miss.

I crouch down in front of the slats of the crib.

"Hey, ManMan." My voice is barely even a whisper. "My stomach is sick at the thought of leaving you and your Momma for the next eight months. I can't believe I won't get to kiss you every night or chew on those chubby turkey legs of yours." A lump forms in my throat and my jaw tenses, because if I don't squash the need to spill these tears that are forming, I probably won't be able to stop them once they start. "Do me a favor and try not to grow up too much, okay? And give Momma lots of hugs and kisses when she needs them. You know how much she loves when you snuggle up in her arms. She'll be—"

"Honey?"

I turn to see Bella's silhouette standing in the doorway to the nursery. She shifts her weight, her sexy-ass hip jutting out to the side. Pretty sure I need to nibble on it later. I stand and scrub my hands over my face, reaching out for her. Her fingers find mine as I pull her into my body. Resting her head against my chest, we stare in silence down at our perfect boy.

"I just wanted to watch him sleep one more time."

Her hand rubs across my stomach. "If we ever have the chance to Skype, I'll sneak into his room so that you won't feel like you're missing a thing."

My lips are warmed when they kiss her temple. "Thank you," I manage, but clear my throat of its grittiness just in case. Breaking down won't make anything better. We know what's about to happen. I haven't had my number called since before we got together in Hawaii. Once you change duty stations and you're under somebody else's command, all bets are off. It's my time. Everybody has to go eventually. The war on terror is waiting.

"Come on," she coaxes. "I'll help you gather the rest of your supplies."

Closing the door behind me, I follow her into our guest bedroom where all of my military gear is spread out on the bed and floor. Dozens of red slash marks on my check-sheet account for what I've already prepared; just a few basic items remain. I spend the next fifteen minutes loading up my backpack, load-out bag and sea bag while my wife watches quietly from our computer desk, flipping through the pages of the General Power of Attorney I handed her yesterday.

I stand to stretch, knowing that the last few items are the toiletries I'll need when I grab a shower in the morning; so my job here is essentially done.

Bella and I lock eyes; sending me a wistful smile, she walks my way. Her fingers thread through mine as she flips the wall switch off and pulls me from the guest room.

The only light in our bedroom is the glow of Christopher's monitor. Without words, she drops my hand and pulls her satin nightshirt up over her head, revealing her gloriously naked body. I've seen her like this every day for two straight years, but I swear I do a mental fist pump every time, knowing what a lucky bastard I am that this woman— who's perfect for me inside and out— chose me…inside and out.

I step forward and run my hand through her hair, pulling out the elastic band that holds it back. Our faces are inches apart; even in the darkness, I can see the gathering moisture in Bella's eyes.

"Hold me," she whispers, folding herself into my waiting body.

It's the only invitation I need. We get lost in our embrace, the weight of my departure heavy in the room and our hearts. After a couple of minutes, the desperation to kiss her overwhelms me, and I softly skim my lips against her mouth. Eventually, my tongue strokes hers and she moans, her fingernails digging into my shoulders. Time to lay my wife down on the bed and worship her like she deserves.

Tracing my fingers along every enticing curve, I take my time with her, the craving to make this night last as long as possible at the forefront of my mind. I memorize her skin, her taste, her whimpers and breathy sighs. It's the only thing that will keep me sane until next April, while I'm so far away from the loves of my life.

Sweet and gentle motions evolve into what feels like an unquenchable thirst. We can't get enough; how will we ever make tonight enough? She begs me to go harder and I do…I'd give her anything she desires. I swallow her cries of pleasure, our kisses never ceasing. When she freezes in the rush of her orgasm, pushing her head back into her pillow, I speed up and bury my face in her neck, reaching my high.

I wrap my body around hers while she drifts off to sleep. My eyelids close from time to time, but I'm mostly awake, staring at the baby monitor and Bella's upper body as it rises and falls with each deep breath. We make love again when she stirs in the wee hours of the morning. No words are spoken; she simply kisses my lips till we're both ravenous with need and she climbs on top of me, taking us both to heaven.

When my alarm buzzes a couple of hours later, Bella rolls over and presses her body into me, while her fingers search for my hand. She slides her slender leg between mine as I brush the hair away from her face, noticing a tear drip over the bridge of her nose.

"Again, Edward…please, just once more."

^^TotS^^

Because it's an individual augment and not a unit deployment, I'm flying out of the Naha Airport rather than Kadena Air Force Base. I insist that Emmett drives with us because the thought of leaving Bella and the baby crying in a crowded airport twists the knife in my gut all the more. After checking my bags and weapon at the ticket counter, we make our way down the escalator to the Japanese shops and the security gate.

"C'mere, little guy." I scoop up a wriggling Christopher, and he settles in my arms, putting his palms on my cheeks. This is our thing. He loves to rub my face when I've just shaved, and he giggles at the difference when my stubble grows in and it feels 'ratchy, as he says. I peek at Bella who's turned away from us abruptly, her hand brushing away a tear she probably hoped I didn't see. "Daddy's gonna miss you so much," I murmur into his sweet-smelling shoulder. "You be good to Momma."

He starts squirming again, wanting to roam, so I kiss his wispy, brown curls and set him down. When he starts to toddle away, Emmett follows behind him.

"I got 'im. You guys take your time."

I pull Bella into my body, and her forehead hits my chest. She sighs heavily, tightening her arms around my waist. The world seems to pass us by, not paying a bit of attention to our melded bodies.

She sniffs once more and looks up at me with her chocolate doe eyes. "You've got one job over there, Major."

I quirk my brow. "Supp-O?"

"Okay, two jobs," she says, rolling her eyes. "Supply officer, yes…but more importantly…you come home in one piece, got it? Team Masen doesn't work unless we're a threesome. So that's your job. You stay safe, and do whatever it takes to get back to us."

"Roger that, Ma'am. Any other last orders?"

"Kiss me goodbye."

I press my lips to my wife's and stay there for several seconds before we end it with a few more quick pecks. "I'll call you as soon as I can. Do me a favor and don't watch the news, okay?"

She nods minutely. "I watch Backyardigans and Sesame Street. No chance of me catching anything else on the tube." She smiles with a watery wink.

"Good." I capture her lips one last time. "Love you, baby."

"Love you."

I pull back and spin on my heels, grabbing my bag during the motion. Thankfully, the line at security is very short, or I'd be tempted to continue to look back. Once I'm through the gate and collecting my belongings, I glance up to find Emmett hugging Bella, and he gives me a knowing nod, which I mirror. We're here for them, brother. I hear him in my mind. You just concentrate on staying alive.

I chant to myself as I make my way to the gate. She'll be fine. They'll be fine. They have to be…and so do I. There's entirely too much to live for.

^^TotS^^

September

After spending three days at CentCom in Tampa, I board a bird that flies me to London, then Ramstein Air Base in Germany and finally lands me at Bagram Air Base in eastern Afghanistan. I was able to talk to Bella on the phone several times while I was in Florida, but I told her it might be a while before she hears from me again, once I start my journey to the sandbox.

I've been here at Bagram a few times before during my other tour, so I don't feel the need to go rushing out to explore and end up buying an overpriced personal pizza from Pizza Hut, even though I'm sure Bella would appreciate the irony.

See baby? It's not so dangerous…even in a warzone we have a Pizza Hut and Dairy Queen.

It's late in the evening by the time I get my holding lodge assignment, which pretty much doubles as a plywood shack. So yeah, lots of protection offered in one of these bad boys. Thankfully, I'll only be here for a day or two before I board the convoy that'll take me to Kabul, where I'll be spending most of the next eight months.

I clean myself up and get ready for bed, donning my standard issue green t-shirt and green silkie PT shorts. Not ten minutes after I lie down, the siren goes off, indicating there's an incoming mortar attack. I leap up like a man possessed and immediately put on my flak jacket, Kevlar vest, helmet, and my drop holster around my waist with the leg piece attached. All of this gear and still wearing my fucking pseudo-pajamas not to mention the flip-flops on my feet. I'm sure I look insane, but I don't give a crap. First night in theater and there's a damn attack? Aww, hell no!

I run out of the shack into the eerie, pitch-black night. My weapon is in the alert position, pointed at the sky, and I'm looking around for somebody, anybody.

"Sir, are you all right?" An Army sergeant from base security approaches me, probably thinking I'm a fucking lunatic with the way I look, but at least he doesn't say anything. Outranking folks has its privileges at times; he knows better than to question my attire. "Better take cover in that bunker with the other temp lodgers, Sir!"

I want to tell this kid that I'm ready to fight. Show me who to get and I'll do it. My adrenaline rush has me wired for sound, but I hold it together and beat feet over to the cement bunker. I get in and crouch down with all the other sleepy people. Clearly, they didn't get the same memo about the attack; they're all acting nonchalant with no protective gear whatsoever. Unsat.

Not me. My wife gave me a damn order, and I'm following it.

Twenty minutes and a lot of awkward silence later, we get the all clear that the threat has been neutralized, and we're safe to go back to our shacks for the night. Suffice it to say, for as exhausted as I am from traveling, I don't know how I'll come down from this first night of action.

If this is any indication of how the next eight months will go, I think I'm in for quite a ride.

^^TotS^^

October

"How you doing, Staff Sergeant?"

"I'm okay, Sir. TGIF, right?" We both laugh at his corny joke, knowing full well that there's no such thing as a weekend in a war zone. We're on call twenty-four hours a day. With the exception of the four-day pass that we can take in Qatar during our deployment, every day is a workday. "Happy to be back here on base to stock up. Oh, and I have another requisition for you." He passes me some paperwork. I scan it and flash him a "You've gotta be kidding me" look.

"Thirty new bunk beds? I just sent you thirty last month when I started! How could you possibly need another thirty?" I toss his paper to the side, chuckling.

"We just do, Sir. I mean they do."

I lean back in my chair and dig the heels of my hands into my eyes. I haven't slept well since the last time I spoke to Bella. Christopher has a double ear infection and is screaming around the clock. At least he was, as of forty-eight hours ago. I felt awful that I couldn't be there with them to help.

"You're gonna have to give me something more, Kendall. I know our job is to supply the Afghan National Army, but what the fuck? Are they eating the beds?"

Staff Sergeant Kendall looks pained, mumbling, "They aren't very sturdy, apparently."

I shake my head, still unsatisfied with his explanation.

"Please, Sir. I'm begging you to not force me to tell you."

I dip my chin and flash him a look so that he knows not to mess with me. We're not made of money as much as the ANA would like to believe.

He closes his eyes, taking a deep breath. "Yesterday evening when the other embedded trainers and I were packing up, we stopped by one of the Afghans' mess tents, and there were several men, civilian nationals and Afghan soldiers, sitting around the table playing cards..." he clears his throat, "…and uhh— there were some other Afghan soldiers in the corner of the tent… on the beds." He eyes me and waits.

I feel my eyebrows rise, waiting for the punch line. Several seconds pass in silence. "Out with it, Staff Sergeant."

"It was Man-Love Thursday, Sir."

"Pardon me?"

He huffs. "Man-Love Thursday. Y'know. The Afghans, uhhh…they do their thing on Thursdays because Friday is a holy day for them in Islam, and they can repent."

I'm frozen in my seat. "So… you're saying they're gay?"

"No, Sir. Most of the Afghan men are married to women. They just…" he trails off shaking his head. "They just do it to get off, just on Thursdays. It isn't about love apparently. Sir, I—"

"Say no more!" I wave my hands, not at all interested in conjuring up the images. "Thirty more beds, coming right up. I'm not questioning somebody's culture, but I can tell you right now that I'm ordering the frames with a strip of metal to reinforce them. I can't keep ordering beds like this every damn Friday."

I shake my head as Kendall contorts his face. "Thanks, Sir. And uhh— sorry for the, y'know."

"I'm not judging them, Kendall. I just need to know where my money is going," I laugh, signing the requisition.

^^TotS^^

November

"Good luck in Kandahar, Sir."

"Thanks, Fardeen. And I guess you get to enjoy the day without me breathing down your neck for once." I close my computer as my Afghan interpreter laughs at my quip. With all the craziness around here, I know he's happy to be able to lay low for one day.

"Yes, Sir. I am certain you will have much to tell when you return."

I quirk my brow in his direction, following him out the door. "You know something I don't?"

"No, Sir." He sheepishly looks away with a smirk. "You're going to a dedication ceremony, yes?"

I nod.

"May I suggest you bring your camera?"

I shake my head and chuckle. "Oh, God. Another story for the wife?"

"I'm sure your wife will find your experience much more amusing than you."

"Thanks a lot, Fardeen," I groan while straightening my cover. "I'll be sure to take notes and report back."

"I look forward to it, Major Masen."

The next day, a couple of other officers and NCO's board a plane with me, and we fly into Kandahar, then take a convoy over to attend a dedication ceremony. The Afghan National Army is still learning to get on their feet in order to rise up against the Taliban. They've opened a new recruiting compound for their forces and have invited members of the US Military who continue to support their efforts.

"Eating out in town tonight, Sir. Didju take your Dramamine?" Dawson asks me as we exit our Humvee.

I nod, feeling my pocket for another back-up pill. "Wonder if it'll be little beef or big beef tonight."

"What the hell is big beef or little beef?" Wagner pipes up. He just arrived two days ago and this is his first tour. The young lieutenant is definitely wet behind the ears.

"Aww shit, this kid…" Dawson mocks, shaking his head. "Big beef is cow. Little beef is anything other than cow. Get used to it, Devil Dog. You're about to learn the hard way."

Something to my left catches my eye, and I notice a goat attached by a short rope to a sawhorse. As the crowd begins to gather in front of the building, a couple of the Marines and I joke with each other.

"Do you suppose the goat knows he could take off, and that chintzy sawhorse wouldn't have a chance in hell at stopping it?"

"You need to get outta here, goat. I have a feeling you're about to join in this celebration." I contort my face hearing Crofton's comments. Animal sacrifice? I roll my eyes and remind myself that their ways aren't our ways. I managed to escape witnessing anything like this on my last tour, but I suppose I'll just have to suck it up this time.

As the nationals and military members quiet down, the ceremony begins. The other Marines, soldiers and I stand at attention while many Afghan officials deliver their speeches. Too bad we didn't bring our interpreters with us. I only know a few words in Pashto. Fardeen would definitely come in handy right about now.

When the Afghan national anthem begins to play, a couple of guys grab the goat and walk it toward the front step of the building. One of the guys sits on the back of the goat, takes what looks like a damn butter knife and slices the goat from ear to ear in honor of the blood spilled by soldiers and nationals in their fight for freedom. It turns my stomach, but it is what it is. A couple of the guys I'm with snap some pictures, fascinated by the underlying culture. I just stand quietly until we're directed to our next site.

An hour later, we're all sitting at the dedication banquet as trays of food get passed around. We have to be polite as guests of the ANA, which is why we take our nausea medication, never knowing what we'll be forced to eat. Some meat with a deep red-orange glaze is placed on our table. Dawson is our guinea pig and tastes first.

"Definitely little beef tonight," he sighs and quickly chugs his water. "Poor little goat."

I roll my eyes before closing them and do what I've gotta do. Thank God for hazard pay. I miss my wife's manicotti.

^^TotS^^

December

"I miss you," Bella sighs. "The babies were so sweet today. Erica finally got the hang of walking. She's adorable chasing after Christopher."

"I bet Em and Rose have baby gates everywhere."

"Oh, God…you should see their house," she laughs, "It's like a prison. Poor Max and Jake want to know what happened to their worlds. All these babies walking around and they can't wander the houses like they used to."

I chuckle. "Poor pups. How's my Maxxy boy doing?"

"He's awesome. Always our protector. Oh, I meant to tell you that we got the DVD in the mail. Christopher's eyes lit up when he saw you on the screen. We've read Leonardo the Terrible Monster about a dozen times in the last few days since it arrived." I hear her sniffle as her voice cracks at the end. "He couldn't figure out what he wanted to do more: watch you reading to him on the screen or read the book that was in front of him. You knocked it outta the park with that Christmas gift, Daddy."

I swallow back the lump that immediately forms and press on. "Are you all packed up for your big vacation?"

"Yup. Bought our tickets last week. Take off on the twenty-second. I'll be with your family for the first week and my parents the second."

"God help the poor suckers on that international flight. Christopher and Erica on a thirteen-hour flight. At least it's you, Em and Rose traveling together. Between the three of you, hopefully you can keep two toddlers entertained," I laugh. "That was good of your parents to come out to Cali instead of having you fly the rest of the way to New York."

"Oh, yeah. They didn't want to do that to me knowing I was on my own. It'll be a good time. But you'll be missed like you are every other minute of the day." Her voice cracks again.

I nod, knowing there's nothing I can say to ease the ache. I knew Christmas was going to fucking suck without them. "I want you to have an awesome time, and we'll celebrate when I get home, okay?"

"Sounds perfect. Think you'll be able to call on Christmas?"

"I promise I'll try, baby. Have a safe trip. Squeeze my little guy for me."

"You know I will. I love you, Edward."

"Love you too, baby. Goodnight."

^^TotS^^

January

This traffic gives me the fucking creeps. I inch along behind the other Land Rover and try to stay focused, while my sergeant yammers on about the bootleg DVDs he scored last night. As part of our deal with the ANA, we contract with host nation vendors to get many of our supplies, and today we needed to make a run into town. Everyone is on high alert, knowing how active the Taliban has been in this area. Plus, a convoy was hit two weeks ago on Ambush Alley. All I see right now are crowded streets and shifty eyes. It's just bad juju any way you slice it.

No sooner do I make eye contact with a few civilians out my window, than the car behind us rams into our Rover with significant force, jolting us forward with a loud bang. We're completely boxed in and every fucking training seminar about roadside bombs in highly populated civilian areas rushes through my head. I shift into park and throw the door open, my blood pressure skyrocketing. I exit the vehicle with my weapon drawn, my sergeant following suit on the passenger side. The man in the car looks terrified as he stares me down. He puts his hands up in the air, nodding, before he opens his door.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, Major Masen…relax." The Lieutenant Colonel from the Army who was traveling in the vehicle in front of ours joins me at the scene.

"No, Sir. This car slammed into us, and a crowd is gathering. We need to get out of here."

"Hang on," he says to me. Turning to the driver of the car behind ours, he starts in. "Are you hurt?" The Afghan man shakes his head, but I can see two women in the back seat who are crying. What a clusterfuck. "Here's our card. Take it, and call if you have any injuries."

I don't say anything but continue with my weapon at alert. My eyes scan the crowd, which continues to gather more onlookers, putting me even more on edge. We need to get the hell out of here. These people in the car might be innocent, but that doesn't mean that members of this crowd don't have a different idea. Civilians are used all the fucking time as decoys, human shields or bombs themselves.

"Okay, Major Masen…let's move out."

Never turning my back on the crowd, I make my way to the door of the Land Rover and get in. Thankfully, the traffic isn't as congested as it was ten minutes ago, so we're able to take off toward our base.

I breathe a sigh of relief and try to figure out if this experience will go in the Tell Bella or Don't Tell Bella column. It's debatable at this point.

A week later I'm called by a captain at the office of the base lawyers, who says that the family in the car that crashed into mine is claiming they had some type of injury and are seeking compensation. We all know it's bullshit. Nobody was hurt in that accident. Afghans know the military has money to back them, so they simply try to take advantage of the situation. This isn't the first time, and we all know it won't be the last.

"Listen, Major Masen. We're trying to reduce hostility with the nationals, and it's come to our attention that you and your sergeant drew your weapons at the scene. We just want to remind you that it's important for you treat the civilians with the respect they deserve. No need to add to the rising tensions."

I have to stop myself from laughing, knowing what I know…what we all know. "Okay, then. You just let me know who the bad guy is over here, and I'll be sure to only point my weapon at him."

I'm met with silence on the other end of the phone. He knows I'm right. We're not over here fighting identifiable warriors. There aren't Stormtroopers or Orcs marching toward us, weapons drawn. Women, children, animals…everything is and has been used when these extremists are trying to make their point. Conventional warfare is out the fucking window. They don't play by those rules, so we can't be expected to follow them either.

"Roger that, Sir."

That's what I thought. I rest my case.

^^ TotS^^

February

"Edward?" My name comes out like a shaky gasp from my wife's mouth.

"Hey baby. Happy Valentine's Day."

I get no verbal response, but I can hear a few whimpers in between her sniffling . "Do you have ANY idea what I've been going through?"

Well, damn. That was hardly the response I was expecting. "Uhh—"

"Don't you know? Do you guys get news over there?"

"Bella, I don't have a clue what you're talking about."

"You and your damn helicopter ride!" she snaps. "You tell me five days ago you have to take a trip, and it'll be on a chopper. Fine. It is what it is. You've been in the air before. You fucking ride on roads called Ambush fucking Alley, so yeah, I've gotten used to this constant state of nausea. But I don't hear from you for five days at the exact same time that it's all over the news that a Chinook crashed in Eastern Afghanistan killing all thirteen Marines on board!"

I stay silent because yes, this is my screw up. There are things I can tell her and things I can't. I certainly can't give her a play-by-play of where I am and what I'll be doing every day over here. It's always about OPSEC. We have to operate at all times as if the enemy can hear every word we say. This was just shitty timing that an aircraft went down at the same time I went radio silent with her.

"I'm sorry, baby. I— I thought you were going to stay away from the news."

She clicks her tongue. "Edward! I'm living on a Marine Corps base, for God's sake! Even if I weren't watching news coverage on AFN or online, it's on the front page of the Marine Times every day, and I see those in the lobby of every building I enter, not to mention the check-out lines!"

There's nothing but quiet again until I hear Christopher laughing in the background, and I have to smile. I hear a shuddery breath and decide to take my chances. "Baby?"

"I didn't answer the door when the bell rang," she continues to vent. "I heard it on Tuesday and hid in Christopher's room. He was napping, and I was sitting on the floor of his nursery, leaning up against the crib. I figured if it really was bad news, the phone would start ringing too, and the knocking wouldn't stop…but eventually it did."

I squeeze my eyes shut, trying not to focus on the image of Bella answering the door all those years ago when I came to tell her Mike was dead.

"Anyway, it was a couple of Girl Scouts from the neighborhood. And now you're not getting your Samoas or Thin Mints because you drove me to the brink of insanity this week."

I smile, knowing she's coming back down from her fury. "I can accept that. I'm so, so sorry that I made you worry. I'd never purposely avoid talking to you."

"I know," she sighs. "You're forgiven. And yes, Happy Valentine's Day to you, too. Stupid bonehead."

^^TotS^^

March

I've got three weeks left out here in Shangri-La and was hoping it would all go smoothly, but today doesn't seem to be my lucky day.

Ever since I arrived, my job has been to supply the ANA with all the equipment they might need. Beans, bullets, Band-Aids and everything in between. We've been waiting for a shipment to arrive from Pakistan, but for some reason, it's delayed. The local vendors who deal with Pakistan are waiting to get paid by us, but until I have my truckload of magazines for the AK 47s the ANA uses, I'm not paying anybody.

"Where's my ammunition, Mr. Hassan?"

The middle-aged Afghan man timidly steps up to my desk. "We've just been notified that the truck, its driver and all the passengers are being detained by a border patrol unit," he explains. "Major Masen, perhaps you can talk to them. I'm in need of my payment."

"And I'm in need of my magazines," I say calmly. "When I get the supplies I ordered from you, you'll get your cash from me."

My office draws up a letter, which we messenger to the Afghan police unit in charge of the border patrol. We explain that these detainees are working with the US military, and our shipment and the men with it have been seized in error.

They continue to give us the run-around as we correspond with these fools throughout the day, but they still won't release our shipment. I know it's time to take some action that means something around here. My interpreter, Fardeen, knows that they're illegally detaining them, wanting bribes before releasing them to the military.

I notify my general, who grants me a member of his special security team as the muscle I need to go storm the castle. When I tell you this kid looks like motherfucking GI Joe, I'm not exaggerating even a little bit. This E4 has grenades, extra rounds, smoke flares attached to his hip. I take one look at him and know I'm staring at the reincarnation of Rambo, but without the bandana around his head.

As we approach the Ministry of the Interior, in search of the police commissioner, I steel myself for inevitable drama.

"Corporal Gordon. We're heading in here, and I need you to make something happen for me."

"Yes, Sir."

"Nobody goes in this room," I order, pointing behind me, "or comes out…until I say so."

"Roger that, Sir." He nods, tightening his grip on the M-4 that's strapped to his chest.

I announce myself, asking to speak to the police commissioner. I'm told by one of his underlings that he's not here, but the deputy commissioner is available. Fine, I'll humor them, even though I know they're full of shit.

Corporal Gordon stands his post behind me, facing the door as I start speaking with the deputy.

"I need you to release the vehicle and people you detained," I command, my "don't fuck with me" voice in full effect.

"I am sorry, Sir, I cannot. The men in question were trying to ship arms out of the country, and they must remain in our custody."

"That's not true," I argue. "The weapons were made in Pakistan, and those men your patrol grabbed were hired to pick them up and deliver them to us."

We go back and forth a few more times, and the situation becomes increasingly tense.

"Do you understand that I'm not leaving here until I get my weapons and my men?" I bark, seeing several people gather outside the office.

Somewhere in the midst of our heated dialogue, a curtain separating a different section of the deputy's office sweeps to the side, and a man steps in. Corporal Gordon flips the fuck out, shouting commands at the guy to back up and get out. It takes me a few seconds to decipher the scene in front of me. The man who entered the room is a servant, carrying a tray of tea and biscuits in preparation for the meeting that's about to take place, and he probably doesn't speak a lick of English. I don't know how the guy isn't pissing his pants with the way Gordon jumped on him, but he is shaking like a leaf, the entire tray of cups and spoons rattling.

I tell Gordon to stand down and allow the man to deliver his tray, before I turn back to the deputy. "If you want this meeting to happen without any more near-misses, you need to turn over my vehicle and my weapons." His servant— well, all of us really— probably just lost a few years off our lives. GI Joe was only doing what I ordered him to do.

"Perhaps we can go get the commissioner," the deputy says, acting like the damn light bulb just went off in his head.

"Good to go. Glad you're suddenly seeing things my way." I can't contain my obnoxious tone.

Miraculously, the commissioner appears minutes later and takes us downstairs to the holding room. The smell of death permeating the air is stifling. When we get to the cell where our drivers are being detained, the men leap up and start hugging Gordon and me. It's all I can do to stop myself from hauling ass in the opposite direction. I get that they're happy to be let out of their cages, but these men stink like a fucking garbage truck on the Equator.

We make our way to the impound lot and spot our jingle truck. Thankfully, all the magazines are accounted for, and we're able to get the hell back to base.

The next day, the vendor we contracted with shows up with gifts for us as a thank you for retrieving the shipment. We politely refuse because we're not permitted to accept any gifts from the nationals. I just nod my head and thank God that I've lived to see another day. I just need to stay alive for twenty more days.

^^TotS^^

April

I'm trying my best to stay calm as the elderly couple in front of me rises from their seats, gathering their belongings at a snail's pace. The man steps out in the aisle and looks up into the overhead compartments. I've got to help these people along, if I want to see Bella and Christopher in the next few minutes.

"Is this one yours?" I question. The old guy nods, smiling and bowing.

"Arigato gozaimasu."

"No problem." I pull down his two carry-ons, and the couple gingerly makes their way off the plane.

I brush past them and take off like my life depends on it, which to be perfectly honest, isn't too far from the truth. I make it through security and grab my bags, feverishly scanning the crowd for my family.

And suddenly they appear.

Christopher's hair has grown, more curls than ever. He's wearing a t-shirt that says, "My xoxo are in Afghanistan," a camouflage heart on one side of the shirt and a stars and stripes heart on the other. My wife's eyes are sparkling with unshed tears as I approach.

"Here's Daddy, bud!" Bella's voice is shaky but elated, and I scoop him out of her embrace, kissing her as appropriately as possible for the Naha airport. I hold my son tight to my chest, just breathing him in. My other arm is around Bella's back as we relish our group hug. Christopher bends away from my chest and puts his palms on my cheeks.

"Daddy." It's all I can do to not bawl my eyes out, hearing his voice now that he's back in my arms. "Hi, Daddy."

"Hey, ManMan." My voice bobbles and I pull him close again, feeling Bella's shoulders shaking as her tears fall.

My heart continues to race in my chest while I exhale in relief. It seems as if I was holding my breath for the almost-eight months I was away. But the long days and even longer nights are finally over. I'm here. I made it. They're safe. We're together again.

I send my millionth silent prayer of thanks up to the heavens. Time to go home with my family.

^^TotS^^

I stare up at Bella, watching her writhe as she whimpers and moans. The hot water of the shower swirls on the tile around my knees, her sweet pussy quivering while I lick and suck away. The scratch of her long fingernails sends chills down my spine when she whispers my name.

"God, I've missed you so much, Edward." My fingers slide through her slick lips as my tongue swirls and prods.

I move my other hand from the grip I've had on her hip, my fingers searching out her nipples for the tweaking I know that will send her soaring. Her thigh that's draped over my left shoulder locks up and quakes all in the same moment as a new rush of her juices drips onto my tongue. She's flying and I take my cue to slow my feast.

When the heaving of her chest subsides, I stand, wrapping my arms around her waist. The steam billows around us while we kiss, taking turns standing under the hot spray. Bella reaches down to stroke my cock, which has been stiff as a board for this entire encounter. I walk her backwards, and she lets out a gasp when her back comes in contact with the tile. I hoist her body up and thrust my dick into her, swiveling and grinding, making up for all our lost time.

"This performance isn't going to be nearly as impressive as I'd like," I growl, the sensation of being inside her overwhelming my senses.

She giggles through a gasp. "Then, we'll just have to do it again."

My lips skim along her collarbone before I lift my eyes to find hers. Our gazes lock and I speed up while her walls squeeze around me.

"Yessss, Bella." My mouth claims hers as our tongues dive in and out of each other's mouth. "I love you so fucking much, baby." My voice cracks at the end when I reach my high, slowing my strokes.

"I love you," she whispers, kissing my neck before I lower her feet to the floor and slip out of her warmth. We stand there for another minute, wrapped in our embrace, catching our breath as the hot water starts to run warm. The coconut and orange scent of her shampoo smells like home and gives me a sense of peace, as if I didn't know I was safe and surrounded by her love already. She tips her head up, resting her chin on my chest and smiles. "Welcome home, hubby."

^^TotS^^

May

"Well, that didn't take long." Bella falls into bed beside me while I close out my Facebook chat session with my sister.

"What's that? Laur and Ben setting the date?"

She smiles from ear to ear, just as happy for them as I am. "No, but that is something to celebrate."

"Okay, so what didn't take long then?" I put my laptop on the floor and wrap my arm around her shoulder as she cuddles into my side. Her head takes its rightful place in my nook, as she calls it.

"This." She passes me a test stick I'd recognize anywhere. Two parallel pink lines stare back at me. "Ready for number two, Daddy?"

I chuckle, squeezing her tightly, a rush of butterflies invading my stomach. "Oh, I'm ready. I've got this Daddy-thing on lock," I lie, but enjoy the silliness of the moment. "You can bring me as many little pink lines as you want."

We share another kiss, just smiling stupidly and basking in the moment of this exciting development.

She turns into my chest before I lean down to whisper in her ear. "Let the adventure continue, Clementine. Go Team Masen."


Military Terms:

Supp-O- the abbreviated term for a supply officer in the Marine Corps.

Unsat- military lingo for unsatisfactory.

ANA- Afghan National Army.

SNCO- Staff Non-commissioned officer. On the enlisted side; anyone with the rank of E6 or higher (Staff Sergeant and above).

Chinook- a twin-engine, tandem rotor, heavy-lift helicopter. Primarily used for troop movement, artillery placement and battlefield resupply.

OPSEC- Operational Security; the policy of being responsible and aware of your surroundings so as to never give away any kind of sensitive information (military or otherwise) which could compromise the mission at hand.

magazine- an ammunition storage and feeding device within or attached to a repeating firearm.

AK 47- selective-fire, gas-operated assault rifle; first developed in the Soviet Union.

E4- on the enlisted side, Corporal of Marines.

M-4- M4 carbine; automatic weapon most frequently used in recent combat conflicts.

"stand down"- a temporary stop of an offensive military action.

"good to go"- phrase used in military lingo. Means "we're ready for action."

jingle truck- typically found in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Colorfully decorated trucks that earned their nickname by the US military because of the "jingle" sound they make due to the chains hanging from the bumpers of the vehicles.


A/N: And with that little "c" in the upper corner, we've come to the end. Thank you once again to Team Cabana for all their help and support over the last 18 months. Much love to my readers for giving TotS their time and attention when there are so many stories to choose from out there.

Military terms quiz in the Cabana FB group will post at noon EST on Sunday, June 1st. The first three people who PM me with the most accurate answers will win some fun USMC prizes.

My next task will be the continuation of GREED, so stay tuned for that. Thanks for the memories, friends. See you soon.

xo, Jen