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"Often tested"
"See all you can really do is hope and pray.
You've got less then two seconds to decide,
and then you hope and you pray that the decisions
you make keep your boys alive. Either way, though,
live or die, you'll relive that decision everyday for
the rest of your life thinking maybe there was a
better way it could've went down, but, at the
end of the day, really the only wrong decision
that can be made in combat is not making one
at all."
-Corporal Trever Morris, USMC (Vet)

My Darling,

When you open your eyes this morning it will be night time here. But I'll not be seeing the sunset nor the night. I have finished my mission, and maybe my personal wars will finally be at peace.

Peace, what a funny word when you think about it. What really is peace? Peace is something that one who has never seen war will never really know. Peace is those few moments in the shade of your humvee when the bullets and the bombs die away long enough to get in a meal or a shave or a five minute nap.

Well, if I had to choose a promise to be the first one I made to you that I had to break it wouldn't be this one. I swore I would never write one of these letters because I always swore Id be coming home and I didn't want to mess that up, but after the first week of being in country I decided that maybe I should. Just so you would have something tangible to hold on to for comfort, but I really don't know what to say.

You hear about the letters of undying love and letters of devotion to duty and pride in oneself and you know me and expressing those things out loud, but I guess this really ain't out loud is it?

You know how much I love you and the kids, but in case you don't ya'll are the reason I came over here and fought against the wolves that attack in the facelessness of night. I am the guardian of the angelic ones, the one who stands against the raging demons from the darkest reaches of hell and laughs in their face. I am the defender, your defender and I am proud of that.

Well love I have to go now, there's a mission to be done and orders to be carried out. I wish I could be there to hold your hand through the storms and rejoice with you in the sun but I will be looking in on all of you. Sweet dreams baby, and give the kids a kiss for Daddy.
Very Sincerely Yours,
Sgt. Dade Mitchell,

Country: Iraq, Location: Undisclosed- October, 1525 hours:

"Sound off you assholes let me know we're all still breathin'!" Sergeant Dade Mitchell shouted through the thick acrid smoke. His lungs, throat and eyes burned and he was reminded for an instant of his first cigarette. The seven ton truck taking them from the air strip to the base they would call home for the next seven months was laying on its driver's side from what he could tell.

"Nothin' like an IED to say 'Welcome to our country' eh, Sergeant?" A voice replied.

He made a mental note that the Corporal was OK, "Lazaro can you see anything?"

"No, I can't." Came the reply "But from what it feels like Simms is tryin' to hump my arm, Sergeant."

The senior Marine chuckled, "Simms try to stay within the bounds of 'don't ask don't tell' I need all you guys for this rotation."

But when Simms answered it was from the other side of the truck. "I'm not goin' anywhere near 'don't ask don't tell' Sergeant. I gotta wife waitin' for me back in the real world, and believe me she's a lot prettier then Lazaro."

"Then who is this mother fucker that ain't lettin' go of me?"

Conroe's weak response sent the Sergeant's stomach to his knees, "It's me Corporal, my left side feels kinda funny and since I can't see nothin' I grabbed hold of the first thing I felt. Didn't realize it was your arm."

It was time to take charge. "Simms get this smoke cleared we need to see what the fuck's goin' on!"

All efforts went into that order. Tyson and Loveless pitched in and with the help from a few guys from the other squad riding with them. They got a hole cut wide enough in the canvas covering to let enough of the unrelenting Iraqi sunlight into the bed of the truck that the damage could be assessed.

By the time they arrived at their 'home' base, they had received word that Conroe had been taken back to the main base in Fallujah and was pronounced Dead On Arrival due to massive shrapnel wounds sustained in the blast.

Not even twenty-four hours into the rotation and he already had a man going home in a pine box. That night after getting his gear stowed he sat and was compelled to write a letter that he swore on his own life more times then he could remember that he would never write.

"You really can't think like that, dude," Doc Lyn sighed letting himself fall to the floor of the room Mitchell shared with Tyler and Ryans, "That's bad ju-ju ya know? Almost like you're asking for something to happen."

"It's not anything like that Doc, I don't know I just feel like it's the right thing to do. Like in my gut, ya know, it's weird." The Marine addressed the letter to his wife and shoved it into an obscure location that would be out of the way.

"It's called indigestion from the MREs, Mitchell, you'll get used to it, just another thing to adapt to."

"What do you suggest to handle it, Doc?" Mitchell asked with a grin.

"You know the drill, Jarhead, drink water, change your socks and burn that damn letter, or you're just asking for it. It's tempting karma and fate, Mitchell. Like painting a big target on your back."

The sergeant scoffed at his friend's remarks, "Yeah because being an American Marine in Iraq ain't doing that at all, huh?"

Stateside- May, Day One

"Where is he?! Do you see him?!" Stormie Mitchell shouted above the exclamations and loud laughter of reunion. She balanced Rhett on her hips, took Brody's hand again quickly and scanned the parking lot for her husband again. Her green eyes first searching for Corporal chevrons on the collars and then looking up to see faces of Marines who were not her husband.

Her best friends were frantically searching the sea of desert digital utilites as well, "I don't see Jeff either!" shouted Alexa Tyler, she looked down at her son, "Walker look for Daddy, sweetheart, he's here somewhere!"

They both looked around to Jae'lynn Loveless who calmly shook her head, "Don't take off ya'll they're looking for us too!" She sat her two kids, Chris and Ryanne, at the picnic table and leaned against it, "It'd be easier for the guys to find us if we just be still."

Stormie let out an aggrivated sigh. She and the boys had met her friends at the battalion offices at nine that morning, and it was now 3 in the afternoon. They had helped the advance party decorate the area and watched the kids run and play in the quad between the barracks buildings and the CP. They had chatted with all the other wives that had shown up at various hours to wait with all the other family and friends. The joyful roar was deafening when they were told the plane had landed, it was twice as loud when they saw the trucks and buses pulling into view.

"Well now, Mrs. Mitchell, where's that no good Grunt you call your husband?" His voice snapped her out of her disgruntled reverie. She jumped into his arms, the smell of Iraqi sand assaulted her nose, familiar from the previous two homecomings. It was all she could do not to cry, he was finally home!

They settled in at a picnic table the boys taking up a knee apiece on Dade's lap, laughing at Dade's remarks about how big they were, as they sat with the Tylers, and Jae'Lynn and Nikolas. The hour seemed to fly by like seconds and all too soon they heard the First Sergeant call out "Weapons Company form it up! Let's go Big Whiskey!" It was time for the Marines to turn in their rifles and get their gear off the trucks.

Dade turned to her and ran a gloved hand through her auburn locks. "You waiting for me?" he seemed worried that she wasn't.

She smiled, almost lazily, still so overwhelmed that he was finally home. "Don't I always, love?"

He quickly kissed her and jogged over to his platoon. She turned and hugged her friends, the tears finally falling, a mix of relief and joy. They stood there for a few minutes silently crying watching the Marines several yards in front of them. They didn't need to explain, they each understood. They had made it through, once again. Their Marines had come home safe.

After a few hours of sifting through gear, and cleaning rifles before returning them to the armory, a large group of them agreed the local steakhouse sounded like a great idea. After stopping in at home for a shower and a change of clothes, Dade had stayed in the truck while she had taken the boys, he couldn't believe how much they looked like him, into her parents' house. He wasn't ready to try and make 'civilized conversation' about being home yet; while he watched his wife at the door he grinned a bit at the memory of the hell they were put through when they first got together. Her parents, both from the area originally had seen thousands of Marines come and go over the years, they didn't want their only daughter hurt, even though their sons had joined the Corps themselves. His buddies hounded him nonstop about her being a local, she was it though, and all these years later he still had no doubts.

The group of friends they were meeting were obviously not the only ones who thought of the steakhouse, by the time they all met there the waitresses were working to clear an entire section just for the company. This led to calls to new cell phones of single buddies to drop what they were doing and join in. A few wives had left over decorations from the homecoming at the battalion and a banner announcing Weapons Company was back had been procured from somewhere. Fifteen minutes later when the crowd was finally shown to their tables it looked like the restaurant had been expecting them all day. Streamers and balloons in red white blue and yellow hung from every available area, and the wait staff assigned to the section applauded as the group entered.

They had been settled in for about an hour. A pitcher of beer on each table, everyone in different stages of the meal when the waitresses brought shots of Jack Daniels to each person. "Curtosey of your battalion commander." The manager explained, leaving the room without another word.

Gunnery Sergeant Rios stood, raising the shot glass that had been sat in front of him. "Marines, family members." He inclined his head to the room and waited while everyone stood and raised their own shots, "We're honored to remember our brothers who didn't step off the plane with us today. Fallen, or wounded, we'll remember them until we see them again. Marines: to our fallen brothers"

"To our brothers." echoed throughout the room as the shots were taken and the chaotic roar of the room returned to it's previous volume. All except for Corporal Dade Mitchell who engulfed his wife's hand in his own and hardly spoke a word for the rest of the evening; his dark eyes seeming darker as they continually scanned the room.
Country: Iraq, Location: Undisclosed- November, 1530 hours:

Mitchell's mother in law answered Stormie's cell phone. This was only the second time he had been able to get to the phones in the three weeks they had been in country.

"Where's my wife?" He asked unable to control the emotion in his voice.

He could hear her chuckling before she answered, "She's sleeping Dade, and so is your daughter."

Mitchell hoped that he hid the tears from the Marines on either side of him but his voice cracked just the same when he spoke, "Just tell her I called and that I love her ok?"

His mother-in-law laughed even more, "You really think it's that simple? You have other people here that wanna talk to you before we wake up Stormie."

He could hear the noise of the phone being passed and his mother unceremoniously came on the other end. "What in the world are you thinkin' scarin' your mother half to death gettin' all blown up and stuff?"

It was his turn to laugh, "Sorry mom, hazards of the trade."

He could tell she was smiling, "Yeah well, don't let it happen again or your grounded, young man."

She handed the phone to his dad just as suddenly as it had been passed to her. His dad didn't really have much to say which was par the norm. Neither did Stormie's dad, but in the midst of working hard to make small talk he heard the soft cooing of his daughter and then an exhausted sounding Stormie asked who was on the phone.

"How's the love of my life?" Mitchell asked when she came on the other end.

"Worn out would be an understatement but it's the best I can do for now." She chuckled weakly. "How about you? We heard about the warm receiving ya'll got."

Mitchell cleared his throat, her drawl warmed him but this was not the topic he wanted to discuss after the birth of their third child "Yeah, nice huh? How's Marjorae?"

He could sense her shrugging her shoulders even though she knew he couldn't see it. Her voice was taut, she had a heard time discussing the tiny little Gold Star. "As well as can be expected, Jae'Lynn has her kids for a few days."

Dade was extremely relieved to finally have a way out of this conversation! "Speakin' of kiddos, how's ours?"

"Their raising cain at Alexa's for the time being, but Mama's about to go and pick 'em up. They still look out the window for you in the evenin' and Im not about to break the habit."

He smiled to himself. He could only imagine what they were thinking, her voice brought him back before he got too far.

"Did you get any of your mail yet?"

"I got the letter you mailed a week before I left with the pictures. Will you take lots of her and mail them to me?

She promised she would, scolded him for even asking that question and then his time was up, he had to say goodnight. She loved him and he loved her. He would be careful and yes he would call as soon as he could, she would give the kids a kiss for him and, of course, promise them he would be home soon. For no apparent reason Dade walked back to where he was calling home for the next few months feeling a little bit hollow.

Stateside- May, Day Twelve

"You knew!? You knew she left and you didn't say anything!?" Dade bellowed and stomped over to his truck.

Stormie sat on the steps of their porch and gave a few seconds pause before she explained. "You always tell me not to get involved, Dade. 'It's not our life so it's not our business.' remember?"

He had to give her that, he couldn't count how many times he had told her those exact words. "But Fulton's one of my Marines, babe. It's my responsibility to keep his life squared away. When did she leave?"

"Probably about halfway through, she told me about it at one of the functions. Said she'd met some guy online from Alabama and that she was going to be with him."

"Well, how about that, you had a whole 3 or 4 months to tell me so I could help him get used to the idea of his wife being a faithless slut! Instead you let him get blindsided with overdraft statements being the only sign of her or the kids in that entire house!" He lit a cigarette and glared at his wife.

"A distracted Marine is a dead Marine, along with his squad, his platoon and his company that counts on him! Even if it had been my place to speak up about Tonya leaving, I wouldn't have done it for that exact reason!" Stormie stated matter-of-factly. She had almost quoted verbatum what the family readiness major had told the collective wives of the battalion at the numerous pre-deployment briefs she'd attended in her married life.

Dade's blood boiled. "I swear to God if you were a man! You're doubting my ability to keep my Marines in check and you may as well be saying I'm a failure to my Corps, woman!"

Stormie sat dumb-founded. How had he come to that conclusion? Where did he get that out of what she had said? She watched him drive away and typed out a message on her phone. -He's on his way to ya'll's house again.- She sent it to Alexa and went back in the house. Cleaning the kitchen in the twenty minutes it took Dade to get off base and out to the Tyler's. -The eagle has landed :o) We'll send him back home in an hour or so.- Alexa sent back, letting Stormie know her husband had once again survived an outraged trip. She finished her chores and settled in to wait. True to what Alexa told her Dade walked in an hour and twenty minutes later.

"How many more times am I going to have to send Alexa the same message before you don't make it over there, Dade Riley?" Was the question she left him with as she climbed the stairs, making her way to their bedroom for the night.

Dade sighed and slumped onto the couch. All the things running through his head that he couldn't tell her, and all the things he wanted to say. He wasn't even really mad at her, but he hated himself for how he handled the situation. He watched one of his junior Marines hang his head as Dade had helped him carry his stuff up to his barracks room. Everything the woman had left him fit into the backseat of Dade's truck. Dade had had no idea what to say to the man, maybe that's really why he wanted to know in advance. Maybe it had nothing to do with getting Fulton used to the idea, maybe it was so he would've had a better idea what to say to help his Marines. There was nothing worse then knowing he'd let his Marines down, he stole a glance upstairs at that thought and saw his bedroom light was still on. Well, maybe that came in second he told himself as he stalked up to make amends.

Country: Iraq, Location: Undisclosed November,- 2235 hours:

"Face it bro, you missed it and that's all there is to it." Tyler never did have a habit of placating him to make him feel better, and, running dark in the middle of downtown in an alleyway, Mitchell wasn't looking for anyone to. The other three men in the truck stayed out of the exchange between the two Sergeants.

"She said she'd send pictures as soon as she could."

Tyler shrugged as he turned and leaned his back against his door, he tore open an MRE and, before eating anything, took his CHARMS candies and threw them away without looking to see where they landed. The candy was considered bad luck by any grunt in the Corps. "Pictures won't replace being there, Mitchell. You feel an empty place that won't be filled by anything in this lifetime, and that's because your daughter was born, and you weren't there. It'll become less noticeable with time because you'll get to hold her, and play with her, but it'll always be there."

The radio between the front seats sounded off with the chatter from the other trucks. It was time to move to the next location, night patrols were becoming rediculous. Mitchell snorted, "When did you become the expert on being a father?"

Tyler brought his arm back and swept his legs out from under him, an easy target since the smaller Marine was in the torret. He spoke into the radio as if nothing was going on the in truck, "Roger that we're oscar mike." Then he turned back and almost glared at Mitchell, who was settling back into the torret. "The same time you did."

Mitchell let the conversation lull for what seemed like an hour due to all he was staring at were dark windows, in reality it was probably only fifteen minutes. Tyler had finished field stripping his MRE and had started dozing with his helmet over his eyes to block out the full moon light. He couldn't take the silence any longer, "Hey Jeff."

The older man startled awake from his twilight sleep, "What?"

"You forgot the fact that I'll get to torture boyfriends." Mitchell said, throwing a smirk down at his best friend. Not daring to take his eyes off his respective targets for more then a few seconds.

Tyler grinned and shoved him out of the way. He took up the same position that Mitchell had held for the past 4 hours. "Smoke a cigarette psycho, you're imagining things."

"Imagining am I?" He chuckled, keeping his cigarette hidden from anyone who might be trying to get a bead on them. "You don't think Stormie will let me?"

It was Tyler's turn to snort, "Stormie might be able to stop you but she's not going to be able to stop me and the rest of the guys. And with all of us taking turns givin the kid a hard time you aint gettin anywhere near him."

Bringing his arm back, Mitchell took Tyler's legs from beneath him as his best friend had done to him. Tyler let out a yelp and glared at the other Marine. They both broke out into chuckles and Dade drifted into a doze similar to that his buddy had enjoyed.

Stateside-June, Day Twenty

"Hey boys, join me on the porch?" Loveless stood up, shakily, and grabbed his beer and cigarettes. He nuzzled Jae'Lynn lovingly and walked out. Mitchell stood as well, kissing Stormie, and filed out with the majority of the Marines that were sitting around the living room enjoying Nikolas and Jae'Lynn's weekly cookout.

Only one stayed behind, Lazaro looked at his bride of 2 weeks, De'Anna, concerned. "You be ok?" He asked, only slightly slurring his speech. She nodded wordlessly and watched him join the rest.

"Yo Jae, you got anything about a hundred proof?" Alexa nodded in the direction of the kitchen.

"Most definately!" Jae'Lynn made no effort to hide her rush to get away from the open screen door leading to the front porch where the Marines had just congregated.

As the other wives followed suit, De'Anna grabbed Stormie's arm. "Why did they go outside to talk? Were we not all talking in the living room?"

Stormie threw back her shot and sighed at the young woman next to her, "We were, WERE being the operative word, hon. Besides what they're talking about no one in present company wants to hear anyway."

De'Anna was confused and declined the shot Alexa offered, watching another wife whose name she didn't remember take it instead. "Why? What are they talking about?"

"Bombs!" shouted Alexa, and then clapped her hand over her mouth. "Sorry." she said a little more meekly, pouring another shot.

"Bombs?" De'Anna wrinkled her nose.

"And firefights."

"And snipers."

"And patrols." Came scattered responses from the small group huddled around the counter, all eyes on the new wife.

"I know I sound like a boot, I'm sorry." De'Anna blushed, "But you mean they're out there talking about the war? Why'd they go outside just to talk about the war?"

"Hey Babe!" Dade shouted from the screen door, "Can you bring out another round for me Tyler and Laz?! Oh and grab my smokes!"

"Anything else I can get for you sir?!" Stormie shouted back laughing and, still chuckling slightly, she turned to De'Anna and replied, "I don't know about you, but what my husband blurts out in his sleep is enough to give me nightmares myself."

De'Anna looked around the room at the other wives nodding in agreement as Stormie left to fill her husband's order. They all knew she was on her way back when they heard "Thanks sweetheart and don't 'sir' me dammit you know I WORK for a living!" followed by roaring laughter mixed with a few ribbing comments. "Oh yeah, sure Mitchell!" and "I bet he hides his butter bars under his pillow!" were the loudest two, coming from Loveless and Jeff.

After Stormie had came back and helped herself to another shot. De'Anna interrupted the new conversation, again. "But why do you not want to hear it? Nightmares or not, do you not care enough about what your husband's have gone through to want to know about it?"

Alexa shook her head and Jae'Lynn snorted. Marissa Ryans, who had only this last deployment under her belt spoke up before Stormie did, "You'd do right to listen to us, girl. 'Cause I'll tell you, I walked in on Vance on the phone a few days ago, he was talking to your husband about an After Action Report; the AAR said 3 hostile casualties and my husband laughed and said that's because they never did confirm if they got the guy that was putting rounds in the bricks behind his head!"

"Oh 'Rissa-" Stormie started, but the younger woman stopped her. "No, it was my fault. I knew they were talking about Iraq, and I let my curiousity get the better of me, but let me tell you this Mrs. De'Anna Lazaro, there are things about war a wife is better off not knowing. You want to know what war is like? Sign up and go yourself, but don't put your husband through the torment of seeing the horror on your face when you ask how many men he's killed and he's foolish enough to tell the truth!"

Country: Iraq, Location: Undisclosed- November 0755 hours:

"Damn you Mitchell!"

Mitchell turned at the shout just in time, he blocked the punch and knocked his attacker, Corporal Vance Ryans, off his feet. Ryans landed on his hands and knees at Mitchell's feet and the Sergeant took a step back to show he was not on the defensive, "Calm down, Ryans, what's your deal?"

"You had them take me out of the trucks!?!? I'm in the friggin armory until further instructed?!?! What the hell!?!?!" Another half-hearted swing at the Sergeant in front of him landed Ryans in the sand just like the last one. The younger Marine sat up, and with a defiant glare at the group of men staring down at him, stood and removed his chevrons with a hard yank.

The rank pins landed at Mitchell's feet in the sand. "There Sergeant! You can have Corporal, Lance Corporal, and however farther down you feel like goin until Im back in the trucks where I belong!"

As Ryans was storming away Lazaro, and everyone else that had been working on their trucks along side the Sergeant, looked to Mitchell for an explanation, which was simple enough to give. "The docs at the MEK say one more impact and he's as good as a vegetable for the rest of his life. Any of you guys want that?" When they silently shook their heads the Sergeant gave them a quick nod, "I didn't think so, and neither do I." He stowed his tools and went searching for his wayward Corporal.

Ryans was in the smoke pit behind the company offices, Mitchell wondered how many he had smoked in the past few minutes. Lighting one of his own, he sat down next to the younger man without asking for an invitation. They sat there in stressed silence for a few minutes before Mitchell spoke. "Vance, how long have you been married?"

The man beside him shrugged, either honestly unsure or still unwilling to talk to the Marine he viewed right now as having betrayed him. So Mitchell continued, "Well, she's a spitfire just like mine from what I've seen of her the few times we've all gotten together after. I get chased around with a frying pan enough by my wife. What makes you think I want your wife chasing me with worse cause you didn't make it home on your own accord?"

"Oh man, don't start with that! There's the same chance with every man in this company and you know that!" He was standing and shouting again, and that was what Mitchell wanted to avoid. "Anyone of us at any time can buy it! It's friggin war Dade! That's how it works! We all know that BEFORE we sign that dotted line I got every much a reason to be in those trucks outside the wire with ya'll as any other friggin grunt in this company!"

Mitchell stood as well and took the Corporal by the shoulders, "If the driver so much as hit's the brakes to avoid a kid and you whip your neck just right, it's over. You're a shell, kept alive by machines, sound good to you? Cause it don't sound to me like a risk Im willing to take with one of my best Marines."

"Best? Yeah sure, blow sunshine up someone else's ass, Sergeant, I've seen my pro/con reports." Ryans sat again, lighting another cigarette.

"Garrison reports don't count out here, jackass, those are for desk jockey's anyway." Dade pointed to the wall that seperated them from what was the makeshift comapany offices. "Those papers may say you're average." He then whipped his arm around to the direction they both just came from, "Those Marines say otherwise and my Marines mean a hell of alot more to my decision making then some paper stuffed in an office in Lieutenant Heilson's filing cabniet!"

"Then listen to what I have to say! Those Marines need me! YOU need me!" Ryans through his cigarette away and spoke with clinched fists.

Mitchell's shoulders slumped, "I never said we didn't, Vance, not once, but your wife, your family, they need you too, and I have to do what I feel will be in your best interest to keep you alive long enough to see them again, you're my Marine, my responsibility."

Ryans knew the argument was lost, but he offered a parting shot as he walked away, "I'd rather die out there in a truck, then sit here and watch ya'll go out knowing that if something happens I could've been there to stop it, or change it! That's my responsibility."

Stateside- June, Day Forty-One

The get together this weekend was at the Tyler's. It was Jeff's birthday, but for the last week it had been any excuse to buy a case, or bottle, and just drink for Dade and it had Stormie irratated. Worst of all, he wouldn't talk to her, or even yell, and she was confused to say the least. In the kitchen, with Marissa and Alexa she finally voiced as much as she perched herself on the counter. Marissa looked at her as though she were an alien. "You don't know?!"

Stormie snuck a spoonful of Jae'Lynn's baked beans and shook her head, "Know what?"

The younger woman pulled Stormie off the counter and led her to the windows over looking the backyard. There, standing with Christianson and her husband, was a man she'd not seen since the day they'd left on this latest deployment. She broke from Marissa's grip and headed for the door. His face was scarred and his favored his right leg, but Stormie didn't care. Without so much as a word she marched right up to Corporal Michael Carter and hugged him, hard. After about 5 minutes of small talk she came back into the house, "Why did no one tell me he was back? He looks great!"

Her question went unanswered as Jae'Lynn came into the kitchen shaking her head, "Masters is here, with his new wife."

Marissa rolled her eyes, "Great, if he starts in on Mitchell-"

"Starts in on Mitchell about what?!" Stormie was about to forgo confusion for plain, simple anger. What did the rest of the company know that she didn't?

Alexa shushed her as the late arrivals walked through the kitchen. They all exchanged pleasentries and Alexa invited his wife, Kym to stay with them, but looked visually relieved when she declined and went out back with her husband, practically glued to his side. "He's telling anyone who'll listen throughout the battalion that Dade got Carter hurt on purpose." She relayed to Stormie once they were out the door.

It all made sense to Stormie now. Dade wouldn't share something like that because it would sound like he was second guessing himself, and the drinking was to cope with the fact that he was. "Oh come on!" Stormie shouted. "What the hell does that do for anyone, but stir things up?"

Jae'Lynn nodded, pointing at her. "Exactly! He's trying to plant doubt in the higher ups because there's two Marines up for maritorious Sergeant next week. Masters and your husband."

Stormie shook her head and went to look out the window, Masters was on the other side of the backyard then her husband, who was still talking to Carter. He would exchange glances with the larger Marine from time to time, but Stormie knew if Masters opened his mouth tonight it would get real ugly realy quick.

She didn't have to wait long after supper to see just how ugly. An hour and 2 bottles of Jack into a very loud game of Three-man later and Masters stood up, unsteadily and walked over to Christianson who was quietly telling Ryans what he knew about how one of first platoon's Sergeants was killed in a carbombing. The girls were laughing at the top of their voices and Ryans was having a hard time hearing. Masters yelled at the top of his voice, "Fisher's the only one to blame for the fact that he bought it! You can't leave your squad and play cowboy like he did or you get dead, just like he did!" The entire house fell silent.

He swung around to face Carter, who was pretending not to hear, and Dade, who was pretending to be too drunk to follow the game, or pretending to be more sober then he really was. Tyler grabbed Mitchell and hoisted him over to Christianson, "Hey Mitchell, Mark needs to go out for a smoke can you take him?"

Dade laughed, "Can't you find the door, Mark, you drunk?"

Christianson nodded to Tyler, and took Mitchell by the shoulder leading him through the open kitchen towards the back door, "Nah man, you gotta show me where it is, I'm lost."

They'd only taken a few steps, though, when Masters started in, walking after Dade to make sure the smaller Marine heard what he had to say, "I'm really glad, though, that I got switched with you, Carter. I got to get into first platoon where all the squared away Marines are. Sorry that Mitchell got you fucked up, though, he was looking to get somebody taken out, the way he was driving and all. Seriously, it sucks to be you, dude." Stormie sucked in a breath and stood to get up, Alexa stopped her and shot a look over to Kym that said 'you better square your husband away.' The newest wife stood, but seemed glued in place with her eyes locked on how this was all going down.

Dade turned to charge Masters, stopped only by Christianson grabbing his shoulders. "You sorry son of a bitch!" Dade shouted, "You weren't there, you fucking coward! You don't know!" He was unaware of the angry tears running down his face and Christianson kept telling him to remember his bearing for the sake of the women and to calm down as he and Ryans, who seemed to appear out of no where, all but carried him out the back door.

Seconds seemed like hours, and Masters surveyed the room. Carter just stared at him in shock. "What?!" Masters shouted, at no one in particular, "We all know it, I just ain't afraid to say it!"

He started towards the door that Dade had just been pulled out of, but before anyone could blink Tyler had the largest Marine in the company on the floor in a chokehold. His voice was level and calm. "The man's right, Masters, you weren't there. You begged First Sergeant for a transfer because first platoon was tasked with taking EOD out. Less chance of getting blown up that way huh? You don't know that only thanks to the sheer reaction time of Mitchell's instincts everyone in that truck, including Carter, is alive today! Now, I'm going to let you up, and you're not going to say a word. You're going to collect your trash, and your wife, and you're going to get the hell out of my house."

All the wives looked at Stormie, silently pleading the same question. How could she not tell them that her husband had saved their husbands that day? She just shook her head as she stood to go check on Dade. How could she tell anyone what she didn't know?

Country: Iraq, Location: Undisclosed- November, 1344 hours

"What the fuck, dude?" The echoing blast came from behind them and vibrated the seats of their truck. Mitchell silently wished for an instant that the Pogue who had taught the driver's course he went through two years ago was there to watch how quick he'd brought that Humvee to a stop! Taking up defensive positions they tried to figure out who was hit by the location of the colomn of smoke.

"Corpsman!" came a distant bellow. Doc Lyn disappeared with his pack to answer the call.

The radio in the truck crackled to life "Turkey two-two, this is Turkey two-four , over." It was Tyson, he was driving a few Humvees back.

Tyler responded "Turkey two-four, this is Turkey two-two, give me a sit-rep, over."

The unease in the response was almost tangible "No good, Turkey two-two, Gunny's down. We've got hostiles on the rooftops of two buildings and in at least three windows of another. We radioed in for first platoon-" and in that instant the air around them came alive. Cracks and hisses of near-misses brought Michell's mind into hyper drive and his senses were driven to almost overload. Orders were being shouted and a calming chaos insued. Mitchell grinned like a fox in a henhouse, he knew this was what he was born to do!

"Light em up you sons of bitches! Give em hell boys!" Tyler was screaming somewhere above Mitchell's kneeling position. The sounds of supression fire from his side of the line was music to his ears. His mind wandered for a split second to first platoon, why were they taking so long? What part of the city had they been in? He almost laughed out loud as he ducked behind the tire of the Humvee to reload. Too bad they're missing all the fun!

It was fifteen minutes before first platoon arrived, fifteen minutes that seemed like five hours. Mitchell sat in the aftermath, smoking a cigarette. The smoke mingled with the faint hints of gunpowder that still hung in the air around him, and he realized at that moment there was never another time in his life the damned things tasted as good! Gunny was going to make it, no one else was seriously injured, and the most he got was a two inch scratch on his arm, and, assuming it was from the brushgaurd of the Humvee, he shrugged it off. All in all it had been a good day.

A week later while showering, Mitchell brushed his arm against the wall. Noticing it was tender he brought up the scratch in his field mirror for closer inspection. Swollen and red, not a good sign. After cleaning his Ka-Bar as best he could, he lanced the wound. Along with the pus and blood, a chunk of indistinguishable metal pushed it's way out. Half an hour later, The Sergeant sat on his rack, dumbfounded, as Doc Lyn stitched up the wound explaining that he had been grazed by a ricochet, and a piece of the round had lodged itself in his arm. Mitchell turned down the offer of a purple heart recommendation.

Stateside- July, Day Fifty

The newly pinned Sergeant Mitchell lay awake, staring at the ceiling of the house they were issued on base; the house they had lived in since he and Stormie were married. God, had he really been with his unit that long? Almost 4 years, time to start thinking about those re-enlistment papers still sitting on the kitchen counter where he had thrown them a few weeks ago upon returning home from work. He hadn't realized until just then that cars turning up the street shone their headlights through their bedroom windows. Cars. Headlights. Humvees. Checking the gas gauge before they rolled out. Why that route? Gunny Travillo decided on that earlier in the day, a different route had been out of the question. Damn that glory-hounding idiot, just because he wanted medals... oh well he was out now. Why not a few seconds sooner? Don't really matter all that much, getting blown up's getting blown up. A few seconds sooner, though, and Carter wouldn't have been in the torret.

He ran a hand over his eyes and stared at the clock on his phone, trying to decide if it was lying to him and just saying it was 0430 to screw with his head. Head. Head shot. A few seconds later and he would've caused the second shell to explode, igniting the first one that would've been positioned under his gas pedal, then what? Five flag draped coffins, Five gold stars, five grieving families. Why didn't I just see the damn wire? He realized bitterly how many times he'd asked himself that question since that day. He knew the answer, too: the sun was at a certain angle that kept him from identifying it.

He hit the button on his phone that disabled the alarm and rose from the bed for the day; he was torn. Masters was an idiot who knew less about war then the boot, Conroe, that had just dropped into the company the day before, but he was right. What if there was something Dade could've done to keep Carter from getting wrecked? He heaved a sigh and let the shower water run down his face. Honestly, aside from being in that torret himself what was there? Maybe that was it, maybe he should've been the one in the torret that day. What would that have accomplished?

Dade never could find a satisfactory answer to this question. He stepped from the shower and readied himself for the day. He found the bed empty except for the cammies laid out ready for him. Smiling inspite of himself he marveled at his wife's predictability. The familiar sounds of her in the kitchen greeted him as he decended into the living room. She was making his usual breakfest and had his thermos and lunch ready to go, sometimes he wanted to tell her everything. She understood more then the majority of the wives they knew of, but this? He wrapped his arms around her waist and buried his face in her hair. She giggled and, in the process of moving to finish up, kissed his cheek. He groaned and retrieved his boots from the side door.

"Sleep well?" She asked as she brought the rest of his stuff to him as he finished blousing the cuffs of his trousers legs and stood.

"Ok, I guess." It wasn't really a lie, he told himself as he kissed her bye and walked to his truck. It was protecting her from having to worry about him, she did that enough when he was gone.
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