The C-130 taxied down the runway and rolled to a stop in front of the hangar. Clay and Jason had emerged from the iso room about thirty minutes before they landed. No one paid them much mind; everyone was busy pulling their gear together and getting ready to disembark.
The ramp lowered, bringing with it the bright light of day. Clay squinted, but couldn’t really see anything. He felt more than saw Jason step up beside him. Glancing over, he caught Jason’s inscrutable stare from behind his sunglasses. Underneath, Clay could still feel some turmoil, but it was far less than before they’d bonded.
“You ready for this?” Clay asked quietly.
Jason took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”
They walked down the ramp together, the rest of the team following behind. There’d be formal debriefs later, but from what Ray had said, the Team had talked through the mission while Clay and Jason had been isolated. Clay had appreciated that they’d left the two of them alone, but he didn’t want their bond to disrupt the normal operation of the Team. Hopefully, they’d all learn to adjust.
They rounded the building and headed for the parking lot. Clay wasn’t sure what to expect. He’d driven himself in because they hadn’t been sure when the order to deploy would come, and they wanted to train as much as they could before they left. So, he hadn’t seen or talked to Stella in a couple of days. He hadn’t been paying attention to whether or not Jason had talked to Alana, but that conversation was probably going to be hard no matter how long it had been.
Clay saw Stella first, leaning against the bed of his truck. She smiled and waved at him as soon as she saw him. He glanced around, seeing Alana and the kids gathered around Jason’s truck, which was sitting directly across from Clay’s. He felt a twinge of concern from Jason and caught the pinch in the man’s eyes behind the sunglasses when he glanced over.
“Good to see Alana here,” Clay said quietly.
“Yeah,” Jason said, but there was no enthusiasm behind it.
“It’ll be fine,” Clay said. “I’ll drive over in my truck. We’ll tell her together.”
“What about Stella?” Jason asked.
Clay couldn’t help but glance over at her where she stood, smiling at him. He smiled and sketched a small wave.
“I’ll talk to her,” Clay said. “I’ll make sure she understands.”
“And you’re okay coming to live with us?” Jason asked. He stopped and turned to face Clay. “I don’t want you to feel like you don’t have a choice.”
“It’s really not a choice, Jason,” Clay said gently. “You’re not going to tolerate me living someplace else. We talked about this on the flight. I’m not especially in love with my apartment, anyway. It’s just a place to keep my shit.”
Jason huffed a laugh, as Clay intended. “Okay. I just don’t want you to feel like you’re not free to go about your life. I mean, I can’t promise I won’t violate the fuck out of your privacy with my senses, but I’ll try to keep a lid on it as much as I can.”
“No, don’t,” Clay said. “Don’t dial your senses down for my sake. I’ll get used to it, and I promise I’ll tell you when I need you to back off.”
“Like when you bring Stella over?” Jason asked, one eyebrow raised.
“I’m not gonna apologize for liking sex, Jason,” Clay said with a smile.
“Yeah, okay,” Jason said. “See you later?”
“I’m just gonna go by my place and pack up some stuff,” Clay said. “Then I’ll be over.”
“Okay,” Jason said.
It was clear he didn’t really want to leave Clay; not that Clay wanted him to leave either. Their bond was still so new it was thrumming in his head. They’d be okay to separate for a couple of hours, but any more than that would probably make them both jumpy.
Clay watched as Jason greeted his family, giving his wife and both kids big hugs. Alana looked over at him before she got into the truck, a confused frown on her face. He’d have to keep an eye on that situation.
“Hey,” Stella said as she walked up to him. “Were you going to stand over here all day?”
Clay smiled and pulled her into a hug. “No. Just making sure Jason got off okay. He had a rough time.”
“Is he okay?” she asked as she pulled back.
She pressed a hand to his face and lifted up on her toes to kiss him. Clay felt the heat bloom inside, the same thing he felt every time he kissed her. She was excited to see him; she was practically humming with it. He felt a little bummed that he’d have to push off any more intimate reunion with her for a couple of days. Hopefully, she’d understand why.
“He’ll be alright,” he said. They wandered over to his truck so he could drop his bag into the bed. He pulled her close again and smiled down at her. “He came online on this mission.”
“Online?” Stella asked. “As in, he’s a Sentinel and he’s online? Oh my god. Is he okay? Will he need a Guide?”
“He’s okay,” Clay said again. “And he has a Guide. Me.”
“You’re a Guide?” she asked. She took a step back, shaking her head. “Why didn’t you tell me? This is huge. I mean, I wasn’t expecting you to break up with me in the parking lot after a mission, but—”
“Whoa, whoa,” Clay said, darting forward and taking her hands. He pushed a little calmness into her, trying to pull her back from the spiral she was working herself into. “First of all, just because I’m Jason’s Guide doesn’t mean we have to break up. And second, I didn’t tell you because my online status wasn’t relevant. I wasn’t expecting to bond. Ever. So, I didn’t mention it.”
“I—I don’t understand,” Stella said. “Don’t Sentinels and Guides always bond? Isn’t that how it works? I mean, that’s how it is—”
“You should know better than to believe what the entertainment industry says about anything,” Clay said. “I’d be happy to explain it to you some time. You can ask me any questions you want to. I promise I won’t hold anything back.”
“But not today,” Stella said. She deflated a little. “You can’t do it today because he needs you.”
“Yes, he does,” Clay said gently. “We bonded on the plane on the way home. It’s not ideal, because most of the time, a newly-bonded pair will isolate for at least 24 hours. But if you’ll give me a couple of days, I’ll sit down with you and we can talk it all out. Meanwhile, I can give you a link to some information that you won’t find anywhere else. So, you can read up.”
“I’d like that,” Stella said.
“I know,” Clay said with a smile. “You like information. The more the better. And that way, it’ll balance the scales the next time we talk.”
“Where is this information?” she asked, her curiosity getting the better of her.
“The Cascadia Foundation,” he said. “There’s a section of the website for family members to log in and learn about Sentinels and Guides. There are chat forums and FAQs. All sorts of information that the general public doesn’t get. You just have to promise you won’t talk about it with anyone else outside the community.”
“You’d give me that?” she asked. It wasn’t hard to catch the surprise she was feeling. “You’d tell them we’re family?”
“You are family,” he said. “And if you do plan to stick around, you’ll become part of Jason’s family, too. If that’s what you want.”
Stella nibbled on her lower lip. It took a monumental amount of restraint to not just pounce on her and kiss the hell out of that bruised lip. Instead, he took a deep breath and raised his shields, blocking her out.
“Okay, I’ll look at the site,” Stella said.
Clay didn’t melt with the relief he felt, but it was close. “Good. I’ll send you the link, and I’ll call as soon as I can.”
“Okay,” she said. She darted in and pressed a kiss to his lips. “Take care of yourself.”
She dashed off before he could say anything else. He watched her jog over to her car and practically peel out of the parking lot. When she’d disappeared around the corner, he pulled out his phone and sent her a text with the website and login information, hoping it would be enough to keep her from doing something rash like breaking up with him before they could really talk.
Clay parked his truck in front of Jason’s house and shut off the engine. He paused and took a deep breath. Facing Alana and the kids with this new change to all their lives wasn’t going to be easy. If he let himself, he could get really worked up, but that wouldn’t help anyone.
Instead, he ran through a breathing exercise one of his instructors in Guide training had taught him. When he opened his eyes, he glanced up to the front porch to find Jason standing there in the open doorway, arms crossed, looking worried.
Clay hopped out of the truck and jogged up the front walk.
“God, you’re like an over-eager puppy,” Jason grumbled. He yanked Clay close and buried his nose in Clay’s neck as he wrapped his arms around the man.
“Were you worried I wouldn’t show?” Clay asked, smiling at the thought that he’d caught Jason out even as he sank into the embrace himself, relief coursing through him at being reunited with Jason.
Jason just huffed as he pulled back. “Come on inside. Alana’s being weird, which means she knows something’s up. We better tell her before she gets mad.”
“Yeah,” Clay said.
“Hey, how’d it go with Stella?” Jason asked as he turned to walk into the house.
“Do not say she’s fine,” Jason said. “I can see by the pinched look in your eyes that it was anything but fine.”
“Okay, she’s not fine,” Clay said. Jason turned to look at him as Clay closed the front door. “She was upset that I hadn’t told her. I gave her the link to the website. I’m hoping more information will keep her from doing something stupid.”
Both men turned to see Alana standing there, staring at them. For an online Sentinel and his Guide to be sneaked up on, it was embarrassing.
“Stella was,” Clay said. “We talked a bit, but I think she needs some time to process.”
“Process what?” Alana asked.
“Are the kids still in the living room?” Jason asked, even though they could see and hear them from where they were standing.
“Yeah,” Alana said. She had a confused frown on her face like Jason was being deliberately obtuse, which he was because as segways go, that was terrible. “Is that why you’re here, Clay?”
“Let’s all go inside and we’ll tell you what’s going on,” Clay said.
He chivvied Jason and Alana into the living room, where both kids were—rather miraculously, Clay thought—still hanging out. They sat down, Clay on the side chair and Jason with the kids and Alana on the couch.
“Hey, Clay,” Emma said. “I thought you’d be at home or hanging with Stella.”
“Yeah, well, something happened on this mission, and we need to talk to you about it,” Clay said.
Mikey’s head popped up from his phone. He looked from Jason to Clay to Alana, then back to his Dad. “It’s nothing bad, is it?”
“Nothing bad, I promise,” Jason said. “I came online while we were gone, and Clay and I bonded on the flight home.”
Clay thought he probably could have been less abrupt with his announcement, but Jason Hayes was used to being a blunt instrument. Subtle was definitely not in his wheelhouse.
There was silence in the room as each member of Jason’s family stared, first at Jason and then at Clay. He thinned his shields just a bit, so he could take the temperature in the room. Jason was still nervous, which was almost drowning out everyone else’s emotions. But, when he shunted Jason’s emotions aside, he could feel the rest of them.
Emma was mostly curious, with a healthy dose of teenage ‘oh how sweet’ thrown in. Mikey was wary, which Clay could understand. Clay was basically invading his family, and until they’d all gotten used to living with each other, he expected the kids to feel territorial over their father.
Alana was another story entirely. She was hurt and jealous, but there was a layer of shame over those emotions, as though she understood how unreasonable she was being. Clay would have to keep an eye on her; he didn’t want to come between Jason and his wife, especially considering they wouldn’t be sexual partners as well as Sentinel and Guide.
“Say something, Alana,” Jason said.
It was the wrong thing to say because Alana instantly got defensive. “What do you want me to say, Jason? That I’m happy for you? That this changes nothing? You’ve got a Guide now. Where does that leave me?”
“And I think that’s our cue, Mikey,” Emma said. She jumped up from her seat and grabbed her brother’s hand. “Come on. I’ll let you beat me up in Call of Duty.”
Mikey didn’t seem to sense the tension in the room, or else he was ignoring it. Either way, he followed his sister out of the room and up the stairs to his room.
When Clay looked back at Alana she was sitting with her head in her hands, with Jason wrapped around her and trying to comfort her. She wasn’t crying, so that was at least something. But she was still upset.
“Alana,” Clay said. He waited until she looked up at him. “I may be Jason’s Guide, but you’re his wife. I’m not taking your place; I’m just here to support Jason’s senses. I know this is going to be a difficult adjustment, but I’m hoping that if we get to know each other, we can become a team. The three of us—or maybe more like the five of us.”
“Six, if you count Stella,” Jason said. “This is what they talked about when they told us about Sentinel families. All these… people.”
Clay chuckled, and much to his surprise so did Alana.
“Yeah, they did talk about this, back when you enlisted,” Alana said. “It’s why they insisted on Sentinel housing for us, even though you were latent.”
That explained the large, two-story house they were living in. Military Sentinels—whether they were online or merely latent—were normally assigned to Sentinel housing, which was a two-story house with a master bedroom on both the first and second floors, along with everything else large homes normally had.
“I’m not trying to disrupt your life,” Clay said gently. “And I’ll understand if you don’t want me living with you. It wouldn’t be easy, but I’m not interested in forcing you into anything.”
Jason gave a low growl at that. Clay shot him a look along with a little bit of calming over their bond.
Alana shook her head. “No, I get it. This was always a possibility. I guess I just wasn’t expecting it. He hadn’t come online, and after so many years I stopped thinking he would.”
“You and the kids will always come first with me,” Jason said. He pressed a kiss to Alana’s head even as he looked at Clay, who nodded at him. “I’m not leaving you for Clay or anyone else. I promise.”
“I know,” Alana said. Clay could sense her certainty, so at least she believed that. “Let me show you to your room, Clay. There aren’t any sheets on the bed; they’re in the closet, so it won’t take me long to make up the bed.”
Clay stood up, waving both Jason and Alana back down when they made to get up with him. “Stay. I can make the bed.”
“Alright,” Alana said. “We’re just doing take-out tonight. It’s what we usually do when Jason comes home from a mission.”
“That’s fine,” Clay said with a smile. “I’ll eat just about anything, really. Well, except for pineapple on a pizza.”
Alana made a face. “I’m right there with you.”
“Pineapple and ham pizza is great,” Jason said.
“You heathen,” Clay said. He got up and headed for the door so he could get his bag, dodging Jason’s swipe as he went by. “I’ll just go get my room squared away. Let me know when dinner is ready.”
Before they could say anything more, he slipped out the front door. He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. That had gone better than he’d expected. Of course, he’d been expecting a twenty-car pile-up on the I-10, so anything would be better than that. Still, he’d keep an eye on things, just to make sure they were all adjusting well.