Clay wandered into the kitchen to find Emma washing dishes. Well, she’d probably been baking, but to Clay it just looked like a big mess.
“Need any help?” he asked as he leaned against the island—on the side where there was no mess.
“Oh, hey, Clay,” Emma said, glancing at him over her shoulder. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to sneak up on you,” he said.
Emma smiled at him. “It’s okay, I’m used to it. My Dad seems to do it all the time. He’s like the most Sentinel-like Sentinel ever. Even before he came online.”
“Yeah, he really is,” Clay said, chuckling at how right she really was. “So, you want some help?”
“Sure,” she said.
He walked around the island and stopped in front of the bowl she’d been mixing. Peering inside, he recognized what he thought was probably cookie dough. At least, it looked like what his mother used to make whenever he brought home good grades.
“Chocolate chip cookies,” Emma said without him having to ask. She dropped the bag of chocolate chips beside the bowl. “Add those to the batter, please.”
“All of them?” Clay asked as he picked up the bag.
“Yep, all of them,” Emma said. “Dad likes his chocolate chip cookies really chocolatey.”
“I can get behind that,” Clay said.
He picked up the bag and poured in a bunch of chocolate chips, then grabbed the spoon and started mixing. Even though he worked out and had pretty muscular arms, he was still struggling a bit to get the chips incorporated into the dough.
“Now you know why I always wait until Dad shows up to mix in the chocolate chips,” Emma said.
Clay laughed. “Mercenary. I like it.”
“Just smart,” Emma said, but she was smiling as she said it.
While Clay added the last of the chocolate chips, Emma warmed up the oven and pulled out the cookie sheets. Once he was finished, she started scooping out balls of dough and dropping them on the cookie sheet.
When the cookies finally went into the oven, Clay and Emma stood side by side, staring at the oven as time ticked down on the timer.
“So, how are you doing?” Clay asked with what he hoped was a nonchalant tone. He thinned his shields a bit to get a read on her as they talked.
Emma’s rolled eyes told him he’d missed the mark.
“I’m fine,” she said. “Why? You worried?”
“It’s my job to worry,” Clay said, shrugging. “But about you, not especially. There’s just been a lot of change around here, so I want to make sure you’re okay with it all. And make sure you know that you can talk to me if you need to.”
“Thanks, Clay,” Emma said. She nudged his shoulder with her own. “But I’m good. Mom and Dad explained the whole Sentinel thing when I was a kid. I guess I thought he’d never come online because he hadn’t until now.”
He could feel her certainty, along with contentment, which was a good sign. It meant she was coping well with the whole situation and he didn’t need to worry about her as much.
“There’s no real timeline for these sorts of things,” Clay said. “And it’s not ideal, how your Dad came online, so it’s probably going to take him a while to adjust. Has he apologized yet for hearing something you didn’t want him to?”
“Oh my god, yes!” she said. “I was talking to one of my friends on the phone, and he asked about it later. Totally embarrassing.”
Clay chuckled. “He’s gonna be like that for a while, so just try not to hold it against him.”
“How long is a while?” Emma asked with a frown.
“Don’t know.” He shrugged. “But I’ll keep an eye on him and make sure it doesn’t get weird.”
“Thanks,” Emma said. “Just… thanks.”
Clay dropped an arm over her shoulder and hugged her close. “Anytime.”
Clay had a plate of fresh cookies in hand when he went looking for Mikey. He had no idea what to expect from the kid. He’d mostly stayed in his room, but Clay got the feeling that that wasn’t all that unusual. Still, he wanted to check in to make sure he was coping well with all the changes.
Mikey’s door was open, and the kid was playing a video game when Clay knocked on the doorjamb.
“Hey, mind if I come in?” he asked. “I have cookies.”
Mikey looked up, definitely interested in the cookies, if nothing else. “Sure.”
Clay walked in and sat down on the other chair in the room, setting the plate of cookies down near the TV. Surprisingly, the kid wasn’t playing Call of Duty like he’d expected. Instead, he was playing Gran Turismo.
“You mind if I join you?”
Mikey shrugged, never taking his eyes off the screen. Clay grabbed a cookie and settled back in his chair, opening up a little bit to get a feel for where the kid was at. Thankfully, he didn’t seem angry that Clay was there—either in his room or in the house, he couldn’t really tell—just a little uncertain, which Clay could definitely understand. He took a bite of the cookie and nearly moaned at the taste.
“Oh god,” he said, closing his eyes. He felt Mikey’s attention swing to him, and sure enough when he turned and opened his eyes, Mikey was staring at him. “The cookie. It’s awesome. You should try it.”
“Emma made them?” Mikey asked.
“Yeah,” Clay said. “Well, I put the chocolate chips in, but she made the dough. You should try one.”
Mikey set down the controller and grabbed a cookie, shoving almost half the cookie in his mouth. “Dad really likes chocolate chip cookies, so Emma always makes them this way.”
“She told me,” Clay said. He could tell that, while Mikey liked the cookie, it wasn’t the nearly orgasmic feeling Clay had gotten, which made him wonder whether Mikey even liked chocolate chip cookies. “So, what’s your favorite?”
“Cookie?” Mikey asked. When Clay nodded, Mikey shrugged. “I like chocolate chip cookies.”
“Try again, kid,” Clay said.
Mikey frowned. “Are you reading my mind?”
Clay could tell he definitely didn’t like that. “That’s not how it works. I can sense your emotions, but only because mundanes can’t really keep themselves from broadcasting their emotions. I tend to keep my shields up around the people I live and work with out of respect for their privacy.”
“But you just did it to me,” Mikey pointed out reasonably.
“I did,” Clay said, offering an apologetic smile. “I wanted to make sure you were okay with me living here now. I realize we didn’t really ask you how you felt about it, so I wanted to make sure you weren’t angry that I’ve moved in.”
“I’m not angry,” Mikey said. He shoved more of the cookie in his mouth.
“But you’re not exactly happy about it either,” Clay said. “Anything I can do to make it easier?”
Mikey polished off the rest of the cookie and picked up his controller again, but he didn’t restart the game. Clay could feel a host of emotions moving through him, but none lasting long enough for him to get a handle on. Finally, when it looked like Mikey might not say anything at all, he looked over at Clay.
“Do you think I might become a Sentinel, like Dad?”
Clay blew out a surprised breath. Of all the things he might have been thinking, that was probably the one thing he hadn’t expected.
“I have no idea,” Clay said, aiming for honesty. Mikey’s shoulders tensed as he looked back to the TV. “Sentinels and Guides tend to produce children with the gene, but there’s no guarantee that you have it. You could be a Sentinel or a Guide. Or completely mundane.”
Mikey’s head whipped around, his eyes huge. “I could be a Guide? But I thought—”
“That you’d be a Sentinel because your father’s a Sentinel,” Clay finished for him. He paused before saying anything else, then cocked his head as he opened his empathy up further. “Honestly, I don’t get a Sentinel vibe off of you. Which doesn’t mean you aren’t, just that you don’t feel like a budding Sentinel.”
“You can tell that just by… reading me?” Mikey asked, resonating with surprise.
“Usually,” Clay said. “It’s not definitive, but Sentinels—even latent ones—have a certain… feel, for lack of a better term. If it worries you, we can have you tested, but the truth is that even if you are a Sentinel, you might never come online, so it’s not really something you should worry about.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Mikey said, shrugging.
“Do you mind if I ask what bothers you about being a Sentinel?”
Mikey shrugged again. “I like playing hockey, and my coach says I’m really good. What if I want to play hockey? I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t let me play if I was a Sentinel.”
“Nobody better tell Wayne Gretzky that,” Clay muttered, just loud enough for the kid to hear.
“Seriously?” Mikey practically shouted. “Wayne Gretzky is a Sentinel?”
“Yep,” Clay said, popping the ‘p’ for effect.
“And they let him play hockey?” Mikey asked. “How come nobody knows that?”
“Well, it’s widely known in the S&G community,” Clay said. “The NHL has rules about Sentinels playing in the league. Most professional sports do, actually.”
“But I thought Sentinels were supposed to be cops and soldiers,” Mikey said.
“There are Sentinels who are doctors and teachers and all sorts of other professions,” Clay said. “But the one thing they all have in common is that they serve the community they live in. Not every Sentinel is cut out to be a soldier, but they can all use their senses to contribute to society.”
“How come I never knew any of this?” Mikey asked.
“I don’t know,” Clay said. “There’s a website you can look at, though. If you’re interested in finding out more. The Cascadia Foundation put it together for families of Sentinels and Guides, to answer any questions you might have.”
“Cool,” Mikey said.
Clay chuckled. He’d never had kids, or any experience with kids, but it seemed like he was doing okay.
“You play Call of Duty?” Mikey asked as he reached for another cookie.
“A little,” Clay said. “Don’t have a lot of time for video games, but I’ve played a few times. You wanna play?”
“Yeah,” Mikey said. He paused briefly. “Peanut butter.”
“What?” Clay asked, totally confused.
“The cookies I like,” Mikey said. “Peanut butter.”
“Okay, then,” Clay said, warmth blooming inside at having been trusted with that information. He’d bet good money that nobody else in the family knew that about Mikey. Maybe Emma would be willing to learn how to make peanut butter cookies if he asked.
Mikey polished off his second cookie and reached for the second controller, handing it to Clay and then swapping out the game.
“You ready?” Mikey asked once he had everything set up.
Clay smiled, relieved to know that Mikey was accepting of his place in Jason’s home. “Let’s go.”
Clay was practically vibrating out of his skin by the time the doorbell rang. He’d been sitting on the living room couch, so just a few quick steps brought him to the door. He yanked it open to find Stella standing on the other side, looking worried and unsure.
“Hey,” he said, flashing a smile. “Come in.”
“Hi,” she said, her own smile a little weak.
She stepped inside, but stopped short of the living room, just looking around. Clay had liked the place almost instantly. Alana had really done a great job with the house. It was homey and inviting in a way his apartment could never be. In the end, he hadn’t even kept a single piece of furniture from his old place; they’d just moved his clothes and some of his mementos and called it good.
“It’s nice,” Stella said, echoing Clay’s thoughts.
“Alana did a great job decorating,” Clay said. “Come on. I’ll show you my room.”
He led her around the corner to a bedroom on the front of the house. It was pretty big, with a large window facing the street and his own private bathroom. When he’d first moved in, there had only been the bed, but as the weeks had rolled by, he’d acquired a dresser and a couch near the window.
“Wow,” Stella said as she followed him into the room. “This is a pretty big room.”
“Sentinel housing has its perks,” Clay said. He leaned out the door and spoke quietly to his Sentinel, who was out on the back deck. “Hey, Jason. Can you give us some privacy?”
Stella looked at him like he’d lost his damn mind as he closed the door and guided her over to the couch. He settled at one end, allowing her to choose just how close to him she wanted to sit.
“I read about that on the website,” she said as they settled in. “About how Sentinels normally have a house with two masters so their Guide has a room all to themselves. I guess I didn’t expect that. I thought you’d be sharing with Jason.”
“Well, considering he’s married—and we’re both straight—that’s a hard no,” Clay said.
“Yeah, see, that’s where you lose me,” she said, shaking her head. “I thought Sentinels and Guides always formed some sort of relationship. But you’re saying that’s not true?”
“Well, the most recent statistics available suggest that around ten percent of the general population is homosexual,” he said. “It’s not much different within the Sentinel and Guide population, although there may be more bisexuals in the S&G population, because the vast majority of Sentinels and Guides are male.”
“Huh,” she said.
He shrugged. “It’s not like it’s something we talk a lot about. I mean, compatibility is so much more important that sexuality. At least, in a Sentinel and Guide relationship it is.”
“And you and Jason were compatible?” she asked.
“Yeah, we were,” Clay said, smiling. “We are. We’ve always worked well together, so it was easy to slide into a bond.”
“But not a sexual relationship,” she said, though it sounded a little like a question.
Clay had decided not to try to read her, wanting an honest conversation without his empathy feeling like an unfair advantage. Right about now, he was regretting that choice.
“No, no sex,” he said. “Right now, we’re probably like good friends. The longer we’re bonded, the more we’ll feel like family. At some point, we’ll probably as close as brothers, but that’s a way off yet.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “I didn’t mean to just start interrogating you.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “I knew you’d have questions. Ask me anything you want. There are some things I won’t talk about, but for the most part, I’m an open book.”
“So, how would it even work between us?” Stella asked.
Clay thought that might be the one question she wanted answered.
“Not much would actually need to change,” he said. “Since my relationship with Jason isn’t romantic or sexual, you and I can keep seeing each other. Jason will probably want to do an imprint on you, because he’s going to be neurotic about his family and those who are close to us. He’ll probably come off as an overprotective brother, actually.”
“He wouldn’t mind us dating?” she asked. “Or having sex?”
“He’ll probably wrinkle his nose and bail out of the room the first time he smells sex on us, but he’s not gonna tell me no,” Clay said. “That’d be kinda hypocritical of him. He can have sex with his wife, but I can’t have sex with my girlfriend? Yeah, that’s not gonna fly.”
“He can smell that?” Stella asked. Clay didn’t even need to be reading her to sense her horror at the very thought.
“Yeah, he can smell changes in your scent profile,” Clay said. “He can see details most of us would never even notice, like faint scratches or love bites. And unless I tell him to not listen, he’ll hear everything we do and say.”
“He heard you. When you stuck your head out the bedroom door and asked for privacy, he heard you from wherever he was in the house.”
“Yeah, he did,” Clay said. He took a deep breath. “Dating a bonded Guide isn’t any easier than dating a SEAL, to be honest. So, I want you to be sure that you can handle it before we go any further.”
“I don’t…” Stella trailed off and took a deep breath, a slightly hysterical laugh bursting out of her, clearly without her permission. She shoved a hand through her hair and sighed. “I love you. I’m not sure I even realized it until sometime this week, when I hadn’t seen you for a few days and I was missing you like crazy.”
“I love you too,” Clay said. “But I don’t want to pressure you into anything.”
She cocked her head in a way so reminiscent of Jason that Clay was momentarily startled. “Are you reading my mind right now?”
“No, I’m not,” he said, shaking his head. “I can’t actually read minds. At best, I can get a sense of your emotional landscape. I have a limited ability to influence someone’s mood, but that sort of thing always leaves me with a headache, so I try not to do it often.”
“And you use that ability to help your Sentinel manage his senses,” she said.
“Sort of,” he said. “What I really do is give Jason something to focus his senses on that’s consistent. Sort of like a baseline. I can also monitor his emotional landscape and help him manage his reactions to any situation. But bonding helps me as much as it helps him.”
“How?” she asked.
“Well, part of what makes it possible for Sentinels and Guides to use their abilities is access to psionic energy,” Clay said. “Sentinels are actually manipulating psionic energy when they expand their senses, and Guides use psionic energy to sense the emotions of the people around them. Sentinels are also able to bolster a Guide’s mental shields, which makes it possible for me to block out the ambient noise of other people’s emotions.”
“You mean, you couldn’t block out other people’s emotions before you were bonded?” Stella asked. “That sounds terrible.”
“It’s not fun,” he said. “I actually had decent shields before Jason and I bonded, so I was able to block out a lot, but when I was tired or injured, I couldn’t focus enough energy on my shields, so it generally took me longer to heal up because I wasn’t able to get the rest I needed.”
“But now that you have Jason, he helps you block out pretty much everything,” she said.
“Pretty much,” he said.
“Were you able to… block me out, when we were together?” she asked in a small voice.
“Yeah, I was,” he said, a small smile tipping his lips. “The only time it was hard was when you were talking about something you were really excited about. Your mind is even quiet when you sleep, which is kind of unusual for a mundane. But it made it easy for me to sleep with you, so I’m not complaining.”
“Well, that’s something, at least,” she said, giving a weak smile.
“Look, I know this is a little scary,” Clay said. “We can go as fast or as slow as you want. Or, we can call the whole thing off. It’s up to you.”
“No,” Stella said, almost immediately. “No, I don’t want to just call it off.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Maybe we could spend some time together?” she asked. “Maybe I could get to know Jason and his family. I think I’d like to see you two together, see how you fit. Would that be okay?”
“Yeah, that would be just fine,” Clay said. “I’ll check with Jason and Alana and see what day would be good for them. You could come over for dinner and hang with the family.”
“I’d like that, I think,” Stella said, flashing another small smile.
Clay smiled back. “I’d like that, too.”
Clay wandered out to the deck to find Jason sitting with a glass of iced tea, just staring off into the distance. He grabbed a glass off the tray and poured himself some tea, then sat down across from Jason.
“Rough?” Jason asked.
“Eh, not terrible,” Clay said. He took a sip of tea, going back over his conversation with Stella. “We cleared some things up. She wants to come over and spend some time with the family. Get to know you guys.”
“That’s good,” Jason said. He glanced over at Clay. “You look worried. What are you worried about?”
Clay sighed. “That she’ll change her mind again. I love her, you know? And I don’t want to lose that. Lose her.”
“Considering she didn’t run at the first opportunity, I doubt you’re going to lose her,” Jason said. “But I’ll make sure the kids are on their best behavior when she comes over. Will that help?”
“Just make sure you’re on your best behavior, too,” Clay said, smirking at Jason. “I’m not sure how she’ll react to anything overtly Sentinel.”
“If she’s going to freak out, better that she does it and gets it over with than for you to wait for the other shoe to drop,” Jason said. “Besides, it’s not like I can turn this off.”
“No, it’s not,” Clay said. “And I don’t want you to. I just… I don’t know. Maybe I’m worried over nothing. She came over today, and she didn’t have to. She could have just ghosted me.”
“You sound like one of my kids,” Jason said with a snort.
“Great,” Clay said. “Where’s Alana?”
“She had a client today,” Jason said. “Said she’d be back in a couple of hours.”
Clay nodded. “How’s she doing?”
“Eh,” Jason said, shrugging a bit.
Something about that pinged Clay hard, so he focused on Jason’s emotional state. He could sense Jason’s frustration and worry, which could be about almost anything, but Clay figured it was directly related to Alana.
“I’ve tried to stay out of things between you two,” Clay said. “You don’t need me mucking around in your marriage, but if you think she’d benefit from talking to me, I’m happy to do it.”
Jason took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He got up and walked to the railing, turning around and leaning back with his arms crossed.
“I’d like to say she’ll get over it, but I don’t know,” Jason said quietly. “We didn’t think I’d come online, and now that I have, I think she doesn’t know what to do with that.”
“I get it,” Clay said. “I never expected to come online as a Guide, and even after I did, I never expected to bond. Coping with a rapidly changing life isn’t easy. I’ll talk to her, see if I can help.”
“Yeah, okay,” Jason said.
It didn’t seem like that made Jason feel any better, so Clay got up and invaded Jason’s personal space, pulling him into a hug. Jason immediately buried his nose in Clay’s neck, inhaling deeply. He relaxed almost instantly into Clay’s arms.
“What else?” Clay asked as they held each other.
“I think we were headed for divorce before I came online,” Jason mumbled into Clay’s neck. “I—I don’t know if I could handle it if she left. Even with you here, I’m not—I can’t lose her.”
“Let me talk to her,” Clay said quietly. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll talk to her and see if I can help.”
“Thank you,” Jason whispered.
“You’re welcome,” Clay said, rather than just brushing off the thanks like he wanted to.
This was obviously important to Jason, and Clay understood that perfectly well. To a Sentinel, divorce equaled failure, and they didn’t cope with failure well at all. Clay would do everything he could to keep that from happening.
Several days later, Clay found his opportunity to talk to Alana. She was in the kitchen making dinner, so Clay figured he’d offer to help and chat along the way.
“Hey,” he said as he wandered into the kitchen.
Alana turned and gave him a small smile. “Hey, yourself.”
“You want any help?”
“Sure,” she said. She’d tried treating him like an honored guest for the first couple of days, but Clay had put an end to that as soon as he’d figured out what was going on. He wasn’t going to live in her home and not contribute as much as he could. “You could cube the potatoes for me. I’m going to roast them, so one-inch cubes would be great.”
“I can do that,” Clay said.
He picked up the knife she’d laid out beside the cutting board and the pile of freshly-washed potatoes and got to work. Several minutes passed as he worked through the first few potatoes while Alana seasoned the chicken and got the biscuit batter ready to go.
“So, have you settled into your room okay?” she asked, just as Clay was getting ready to break the silence.
“I have,” he said, smiling. They’d gotten the standard grant from the local S&G Center for a newly-bonded couple that would allow them to set up Clay’s room without burdening the family with more expenses. Clay never spent much of his salary, so he could have afforded to buy stuff for his new room, but this way no one had to dip into their savings. “The couch was a great find. I’ve been enjoying sitting there at night reading a book.”
“We still need to get you a TV for your room,” Alana said. “I get the feeling like you’re only tolerating the Glee reruns out of the goodness of your heart.”
“I actually don’t mind Glee,” Clay said. “Jason seems to actively hate it, though.”
“Jason hated Gilmore Girls, too,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Thankfully, he seems to like Game of Thrones. I’d have divorced him otherwise.”
Clay chuckled, but internally, he was concerned. His read on her emotional landscape was troubling. She was stressed and worried, with an additional layer of confusion. It reminded him of Stella so much that he had to actually stop cutting potatoes in order to focus on that for a moment.
Stella had been afraid that her place in Clay’s life was in jeopardy because of his bond to Jason. What if Alana was afraid of the same thing?
“Hey, you forget how to cut potatoes?” she asked, breaking into his thoughts with a quiet word and a hand on his arm.
He smiled at her, intrigued by her use of a technique for bringing a Sentinel out of a zone. It was surprising that she knew that, but maybe he should have expected it. She’d been married to Jason for a long time.
“I was just thinking,” he said. “Got distracted.”
Alana leaned against the counter beside him. “Dangerous when you’re holding a knife.”
“Probably,” he said. “Then again, we’ve been trained to use all sorts of weapons until we can do it in our sleep. Not much chance of me cutting off a finger, really.”
“I remember when Jason went through the hand-to-hand combat training,” she said. “He always came home bruised up, and that was using rubber knives.”
“We don’t always pull our punches in training,” Clay said. “It sets a bad precedent. If we stop going full bore when we practice, we’ll be more likely to hold back during actual combat.”
“Which would be bad,” she said. “I know. I got chapter and verse from Jason.”
“On the upside, I think now he’ll wipe the floor with everybody, now that he’s a Sentinel,” Clay said. “He’ll be just that much faster and stronger than pretty much everyone except fellow Sentinels.”
“Including you?” Alana asked.
“Probably not me,” he said. “But that’s more because we’re bonded. He can’t hide things from me the way he can from anyone else.”
Alana frowned and looked away. Clay sighed, set down the knife and turned to face her.
“Look, I could tap dance around this thing, but I think maybe being direct is best.”
“What thing?” she asked warily.
“You and how you’re coping now that Jason is online,” he said.
“I’m fine,” she said, looking away from him. As if that could stop him from getting a read on her.
“The thing is, I know you’re not fine,” he said gently. “I want to help, if I can.”
“I’m just… dealing with it,” she said. “This wasn’t what I was expecting, but I’m handling it. I just—”
Clay waited, but she didn’t finish her sentence.
“I was an only child growing up,” he said, totally out of the blue.
Alana turned and looked at him, completely puzzled at the non-sequitur.
“Which sucked, really, because when my folks divorced, I had no one else to commiserate with,” he said. “I always wondered what it would be like to have siblings. Then I joined the SEALs and found a lot more annoying older brothers than I knew what to do with.”
Alana chuckled, which was what he’d been aiming for.
“Bonding with Jason, though,” he said, smiling despite his best effort not to. “Bonding with Jason has given me the true sibling relationship that I never had growing up. He’s like my big brother. There will never be anything beyond that between us, but I’m so grateful to have that, given how lonely I was as a kid.”
“I never knew that about you,” she said. Clay could feel her concern slipping away, but there was a thread of worry still there.
“Not something I talk about a lot,” he said.
“Did you always know you’d be a Guide?” she asked.
“No,” he said. He snorted as he remembered back to his father’s reaction to that bit of news. “My father is a Sentinel and an ex-SEAL. He assumed I’d be a Sentinel, too. So, when I was tested after I enlisted, and it showed I had the Guide gene… well, let’s just say he wasn’t happy.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. She laid a hand on his arm, rubbing gently. Clay could feel her genuine sorrow, and let it soothe his soul from the hurt he still carried over that moment from his past. “That must have been hard, not having your father’s support.”
“Yeah, well, I became a SEAL despite the fact that he’d always told me that a Guide couldn’t be a SEAL.” Clay shook his head. “I still don’t think he’s over me being a Guide, but he can shove his stupid assumptions up his ass for all I care.”
Alana burst out laughing. “So, you’re not still carrying around a heap of resentment. Good to know.”
“Never said I was perfect,” he said with a shrug. “About the only thing I worry about is whether I eventually fuck up my relationship with Stella because I’m a SEAL.”
“Why would you do that?” Alana asked. “She’s always seemed like she handles being a SEAL WAG pretty well.”
“Ultimately, it’s what broke up my folks’ marriage,” he said. “Mom resented the hell out of him at the end. Because he was away so much, and because he didn’t—couldn’t, really—talk about it. He wasn’t the most communicative person in the world, and she hated that about him.”
“I can understand that,” she said quietly. “Watching the person you love pull away from you bit by bit until there’s so much distance between you it can be measured in miles, even when you’re in the same room.”
That was a huge red flag to Clay, and he wondered if maybe that was her biggest fear after all.
“That’s not going to happen to you and Jason,” he said earnestly.
“No?” she asked with a humorless laugh. “How can you be so sure?”
“Because you have me, now,” he said. She looked at him like he’d completely lost the thread. “Part of my job as Jason’s Guide is to help him carry the burden of the work he does. Sentinels aren’t wired to hold on to the past the way you and I do. But it’s my job to help him work through any issues he does have. I’m his sounding board so he doesn’t have to bring those things home to you.”
“And if we don’t talk about those things, what do we talk about?” she asked. “The weather? Hockey scores?”
“Yes?” Clay said, though it came out far more like a question than he’d intended. “You get to have the kind of relationship with your husband that wives in every branch of the military would love to have. You get to have the best of Jason, and I get to handle everything else.”
“That doesn’t seem very fair to you,” she said. “Or to Stella.”
“I have the training that allows me to process and dismiss emotional turmoil, so I’m not really going to be burdening Stella with anything,” he said. “Well, providing she sticks around.”
“Jury’s still out on that, huh?” Alana asked.
Clay shrugged. “She’ll either be able to cope or she won’t. To be fair, I didn’t tell her I was a Guide, so she has every right to be upset with me.”
“But she hasn’t run for the hills yet, either,” Alana said. “That’s gotta count for something.”
“Maybe,” he said. “We’ll see.”
“Well, you let her know that she’s always welcome here,” Alana said. “It was nice having her over for dinner the other night.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that,” Clay said. “And you know that I’m always here for you to talk to, right? I’m not just Jason’s Guide. I’m… well, I’m here for all of you. You’re family now, so if can help you at all, just ask.”
There was a flash of gratitude from Alana that made him almost sag with relief. He felt more hopeful now than he had when their conversation started. The last thing he wanted to be was the reason Jason and Alana broke up.
“You better get back to cutting potatoes, Mister,” Alana said when she’d finally pulled herself together. “Dinner doesn’t make itself around here.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Clay said, popping off a half-assed salute, just because he could.