Jason knocked on the open door of Blackburn’s office. “You wanted to see us, sir?”
“Come on in, gentlemen,” Blackburn said. Clay followed Jason in, and both men stood at attention in front of their CO’s desk. “At ease. Sit down, both of you.”
They took a seat and waited quietly for Blackburn to talk. Clay figured they both knew what he wanted to talk about, and if Blackburn hadn’t brought them in, Clay would have insisted on sitting down with their CO and talking about their new status and how it was going to impact the Team.
“So, you two settling in okay?”
Jason looked at Clay, waving a hand as if to say ‘you take this one’. Clay just smiled and shook his head.
“We’re good,” he said, turning back to Blackburn. “We’ve registered with the Foundation and gotten our updated IDs. You should have the paperwork by now. We’ve run through some of the exercises the Foundation gave us, and it seems to be going well. If we have any issues that require us to go to the nearest Center, I’ll let you know.”
“Is that likely?” Blackburn asked.
“I don’t think so,” Clay said. “Jason is pretty well adjusted for a newly-online Sentinel. I don’t think we’ll have any issues, but the real test will be our next deployment.”
Blackburn looked at Jason. “You have anything to add?”
“No, sir,” Jason said. “Like Clay said, my senses are balanced and I’m not experiencing any issues. I think we’ll do fine on our next deployment.”
“Alright,” Blackburn said. “Do we need to talk about team structure? It’s been a while since I’ve been on a Team with an online Sentinel and Guide pair, but as I recall, it’s up to you two to decide whether any changes need to be made.”
The Cascadia Foundation had fought hard for that right, back when they’d first formed and taken over responsibility for all Sentinels and Guides in the US. They’d argued—and rightly so—that what suited the institution the Sentinel served in—in this case, the military—didn’t always suit the Sentinel. Having the ability to make changes to the unit—in particular, to get rid of anyone that the Sentinel didn’t trust—was critical to their ability to function.
“I don’t anticipate needing to make any changes,” Jason said. “I trust everyone on the Team with my Guide’s life, and I don’t see that changing.”
“I haven’t noticed anything concerning within the Team,” Clay said. “I’ll want to be involved when it comes to picking any new team members, but I think that’s a way off yet.”
“Fair enough,” Blackburn said. “Anything else we need to talk about? You’re planning to keep Ray Perry as your 2IC, right?”
“Yes, Ray will remain 2IC,” Jason said. “We’ll work out any other dynamics with the Team.”
“Sounds good to me,” Blackburn said. “Please feel free to come to me if you have any issues or questions.”
“Thank you, sir,” Clay said.
“We’ll be returned to the active rotation as long as you’re good with that,” Blackburn said.
“Any idea when our next tour will be?” Clay asked. “I want to get a jump on preparing the family for that. It’s going to much harder for them with both of us gone.”
“We’re several months out from that at this point, but I’ll let you know when I hear anything,” Blackburn said. “Now, the Team is planning a barbeque for this weekend. You up for attending?”
“Hell yeah, we’ll be there,” Jason said.
Clay chuckled. “You just want an excuse to drink beer.”
“Like I need an excuse for that,” Jason scoffed.
“The lack of beer at our house suggests that you need an excuse you can get past your wife,” Clay said.
Blackburn laughed as Jason rolled his eyes. “All she ever buys is that fancy wine she likes. And you aren’t helping, comparing notes on the wines you’ve had. It’s ridiculous. I’m outnumbered in my own house.”
“I thought you wanted me to get along with your wife,” Clay said, the big grin on his face earning him a shove from Jason.
“And on that note, get out of here,” Blackburn said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Jason and Clay stood up and came to attention. Blackburn waved them off so they both turned and headed out of the office. They walked down the corridor, headed in the direction of the Team Ready Room. Clay stopped just short of the door and turned toward Jason.
“You ready for this?” he asked.
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?” Jason asked.
“Because the last time we were in the field, you came online,” Clay said. “I know we’ve been working on using your senses, and you’re doing great. But we’ll be in the field for the first time as a bonded pair, and your instincts are going to be demanding things of you that you’ve never experienced before. I just want to make sure you’re ready for that.”
Jason leaned against the wall next to Clay. “I don’t know that I’ll ever be ready for it until I go through it.”
“Fair,” Clay said. “At a minimum, we should talk to Ray about this. Make sure he knows what to expect. I don’t like the idea of ambushing him with some new thing when we’re taking fire on a mission.”
“Yeah,” Jason said. He slapped Clay on the shoulder as he moved around him to enter the Ready Room. “I’ll let you handle that.”
“Hey!” Clay said in his best whiney-little-brother voice as he followed Jason into the room. “No fair making me do all the dirty work.”
Jason just laughed at him as he walked away.
The day of the barbeque was sunny and warm. The whole Team came out, including families and support personnel. There was plenty of beer—much to Jason’s delight—and lots of meat per Sonny’s request.
Clay had circulated the picnic area, greeting everyone and taking the emotional temperature of the group. For the most part, everyone there was supportive of Jason and Clay, and while some of them were mildly curious, they didn’t pry. Clay vacillated between pleased and impressed.
“So, anybody raise a red flag?” Jason asked when Clay had finished his rounds and was holding up a tree on the edge of the picnic area.
“No,” Clay said. He took a sip of his beer. “Everyone seems cool. Some curiosity around your status, so I definitely think an announcement is the way to go.”
“Yeah, that’s my read as well,” Jason said. He took a sip of his beer as he scanned the crowd.
“Your senses okay?” Jason looked at him, one eyebrow raised. Clay huffed. “You’re using them to assess everyone you talk to, whether you realize it or not. This is the most you’ve used them since you came online. So, are you doing okay?”
“I’m fine,” Jason said. “No issues with my senses at all. I’m even enjoying this beer. I swear I’m gonna get some on the way home and bury it in the backyard.”
“Hey, it’s not my fault there’s no beer in the house,” Clay said. “You’ve got a whole refrigerator in the garage. Fill it with beer. I doubt Alana would care.”
“Your lips to God’s ears,” Jason said. He took another sip of beer. “So, you talk to Stella lately?”
Clay winced. “A couple of days ago. She was busy working on a project for her degree, so she couldn’t make it.”
“And you believe that bullshit?”
“Eh,” Clay said, shrugging one shoulder. “I try not to read her. I don’t think she’d react well if she thought I was.”
“But you did it anyway, didn’t you?” Jason asked quietly.
Clay sighed. “Yeah, I did. She’s… not ready. For any of this. It stresses her out even more than the active-duty SEAL stuff did. And I have no idea when or even if she will be ready.”
“I’m sorry,” Jason said. He pulled Clay close, just holding on to him for a few moments.
When he pulled back, Clay smiled his thanks, even though he probably didn’t need to. All he could do was hope that Stella learned to accept this part of his life. If she didn’t… well, it wasn’t meant to be.
“Everything okay over here?”
Clay and Jason turned to watch Ray approaching. He knew Jason had heard the man because he’d tensed ever so slightly while they were hugging. Clay didn’t actually mind the interruption. Ray had a very soothing presence, and it was a good opportunity to put Stella and that whole clusterfuck out of his mind for a while.
“Yeah, everything’s good,” Clay said. Not that they’d tell Ray if it wasn’t. Clay didn’t really want to air his relationship woes in front of the whole Team. That way lay madness. “You and Naima enjoying the barbeque?”
“Yeah, of course,” Ray said with a smile.
“Good,” Clay said. “There is something we should talk about, now that the dust is settled.”
“Now, or…?” Ray asked, both eyebrows elevated.
“Now’s good if you don’t mind,” Clay said.
“Alright,” Ray said. “Lay it on me.”
“Jason and I bonded after he came online during our last mission,” Clay said.
He figured he wasn’t telling Ray anything he didn’t already know, but he thought he should be clear about their status, so there were no surprises. He opened up his shields a little so he could get a read on Ray’s reaction. He seemed to be accepting of the news, but Ray wasn’t the kind to judge someone, so Clay wasn’t really worried about him.
“I thought so,” Ray said. “I mean, I know it’s not something we’re supposed to ask about, but you spent the whole flight home in the iso room. Only two reasons why you’d do that and given that you moved in with Jason the day we got back, I figured you’d bonded.”
Clay nodded. “Do you have any concerns about us being bonded?”
“No,” Ray said. “It’s your business, and as long as you can help me keep Jason from getting into trouble, I figure it’s all good.”
“Hey!” Jason yelped. “I’m not that bad.”
“Who you tryin’ to fool, brother?” Ray asked with a smirk.
“So, Clay and I talked about it, and we’re going to keep you as 2IC of the Team,” Jason said. “There will be times when I’ll lean on Clay due to his skill set, but overall, I want you to remain in place as Bravo Two.”
“Whatever you need, brother,” Ray said. “I figured that between the two of you, it’d be Brave One and Bravo 1.5. I expect that’s how the rest of the team will see it, too, so you might want to factor that into your thinking.”
“There are some situations where that’s probably how it’ll go,” Clay said. “But we’ll try to give you a heads-up when we think that’s going to come into play.”
“You gonna tell the rest of the team?” Ray asked.
“That’s the plan,” Jason said. “Blackburn has reactivated us, so we’re officially back in the rotation.”
“Well, you know I’m with you a hundred percent,” Ray said.
He held out his hand and Jason took it, pulling Ray into a one-armed hug. Clay rolled his eyes at the very unsubtle imprinting he was doing. Ray didn’t appear to mind, but with the rest of the team, it was probably going to have to be something a bit more formal because Clay had never seen Jason hug a single one of them.
Just as Jason was pulling back, Blackburn called for everyone’s attention.
“It’s good to see you all out here today to celebrate with friends,” he said. “I know it’s been a long few weeks, but I’m happy to say that we are officially back in the rotation.”
Sonny, predictably, gave a Texas-sized whoop, drawing laughter out of the rest of the Team. Blackburn waved Jason forward to say a few words to the Team.
“As you might have already guessed, Clay and I have officially bonded,” he said. “Functionally, the Team will operate as before, with Senior Chief Perry as Bravo Two to my Bravo One. There will be times when Clay and I will operate as a unit, so we’d appreciate your support as we adjust to that in the field.”
“We’ll keep an eye on the pretty boy for ya,” Sonny drawled.
“You do that,” Jason said, raising his bottle of beer. “And thanks, for—well, just thanks.”
Jason stepped back, and Clay could feel how uncomfortable he was at being the center of attention. It was odd, considering that he was the Team Lead. But giving a speech was a different thing than giving a command in the field.
“Alright,” Blackburn said, calling everyone’s attention back to him. “Let’s get this party started. The food’s ready—and thank you to everyone who helped prepare it—so let’s eat!”
Sonny gave another loud whoop and was—no surprise—the first in line for food. Everyone else followed him, and Jason and Clay brought up the rear.
“You ready for this?” Clay asked quietly. “You and I both know that the only easy day was yesterday. It’ll only get more complicated from here.”
Jason slung an arm around Clay’s shoulders, pulling him in close. “Yeah, I’m ready.”
The steady, calm hum of Jason in the back of his mind told Clay all he needed to know. They were ready, and with an advantage like theirs—an online Sentinel and his bonded Guide—the bad guys would never even have a chance.