“Alright, folks, gather ’round,” Lt. Commander Eric Blackburn said as Bravo Team shuffled into the briefing room. They settled into their usual seats, with Jason nearest the front and Clay across from him. “We have a green light for the mission. Wheels up in thirty minutes, so this is your last chance to ask any pertinent questions.”
“Do we know how many hostiles are aboard ship?” Jason asked.
“We’ve seen five patrolling the deck,” Blackburn said. “There are still two people on the bridge, and from what the ship’s owners say, they believe there’s only one pirate on the bridge with the Captain. We believe there are only three hostiles guarding the crew, but there could be more. The shipping company wasn’t clear on just how many crew there were aboard when the ship left port.”
“So, what you’re sayin’ is there could be hostiles hiding among the crew,” Sonny said.
“Yes,” Blackburn said. “The Somali government is, needless to say, disinterested in prisoners, so your instructions are to take out the hostiles with all due force. As long as you bring back the hostages, the body count is immaterial.”
“Anybody have anything on the crew?” Clay asked since it seemed like no one else was going to. “What condition do we expect them to be in? Any health issues we need to be aware of?”
“Considering the shipping company isn’t even sure who’s onboard, that information is a bit sketchy,” Blackburn said.
Mandy Ellis stepped forward. “We have confirmed information on the Captain, First Officer, and several of the regular crew. I’ve done a little digging, and I believe that at least one person on the crew is likely working for or with the pirates. Whether they were bought off or just infiltrated the crew is uncertain at this point.”
“How do you want us to handle the hostages once we’ve taken out the pirates?” Ray asked. “If there are conspirators with the crew, we can’t give them the opportunity to stab us in the back.”
“Since this is a US-flagged ship, you’re to bring back all the hostages and we’ll sort out who among the crew might be a sympathizer after we’ve interviewed them,” Blackburn said.
“If one of the hostages comes at me, I’m shooting his ass and I don’t care what y’all think,” Sonny muttered.
Jason let out a low growl, getting everyone’s attention. Clay projected calm at him, hoping to head off an outbreak of hostilities at the briefing table. Jason took a deep breath, and Clay could feel him pulling himself back from the brink. It was honestly kind of stunning to see Jason do it, considering that he wasn’t online. Satisfied that Jason wasn’t going to blow at the table, he returned his attention to the briefing.
“I’m sorting through the rest of the crew’s bios,” Mandy said. “If I can identify the suspected sympathizer before we land, I’ll pass that information on to you.”
“Good enough,” Ray said when it became clear Jason wasn’t going to answer.
“Alright, get your gear and head for the plane,” Blackburn said.
The Team stood and started to make their way out of the briefing room and toward their lockers. Ray held a hand out and stopped Clay from leaving the room, glancing around to make sure they no one was around to overhear.
“You sure he’s okay?” Ray asked.
Clay took a deep breath. Could he say it for sure? No, but he also didn’t think Jason would be a danger to his men or the mission.
“He’s hanging on by a thread,” Clay said quietly. “It honestly won’t take much, I think.”
“Great,” Ray said as he rubbed a hand over his face. “Not much we can do about it anyway, but if you need anything, you know I’m here for you.”
“Thanks,” Clay said, flashing a weak smile.
“Now, come on,” Ray said, clapping Clay on the shoulder. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
The moon was just a sliver in the sky as the Team made its way to the cargo ship, floating just off the Africa coast in the Indian Ocean, not far from Mogadishu. That had been one of the deciding factors in green-lighting the mission: having as little moonlight as possible would allow them to move about with less risk of being seen.
Nothing much had changed since the last briefing, which was good. Their only problem was, the longer this went on, the jumpier and more agitated the pirates would be. They risked the pirates getting so frustrated they’d start shooting hostages. That hadn’t happened yet, but it was all the more reason to move as quickly as possible.
Their boat glided silently up to the side of the ship, and Sonny used a rope to pull the stairs down so they could use them to access the ship. One by one, starting with Jason, they ascended the stairs and dropped down onto the deck.
The cargo containers soared above them, providing plenty of cover as they moved about the ship. At Jason’s direction, they broke off into two-man teams to take out the guards roaming the deck. No one even batted an eyelash when Clay fell in behind Jason, making it clear he’d be watching Bravo One’s six.
Specialist Davis called out positions on the guards over the radio, and in no time, all five were down. The Team gathered at the base of the steps up to the superstructure. Jason gave directions, though he hardly needed to. They’d run through this so many times, they all knew each other’s dance steps by heart.
Jason, Clay and Trent, along with Cerberus, headed up toward the bridge while the rest went for the engine room. Just like they’d expected, there was only one hostile on the bridge along with the Captain.
“You okay, sir?” Clay asked as Jason kicked the hostile’s gun away and checked for a pulse.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m alright,” the Captain said. “He was getting frustrated, started talking about shooting hostages, but I don’t think he’d given the order yet. My high school French is a bit rusty, but it didn’t sound like he’d ordered anyone shot.”
“Bravo One, this is Bravo Two,” Ray’s voice came over the radio. “Engine room is secure.”
“Roger that, Bravo Two,” Jason said. “Bridge is secure. We’re headed for the hostages now.”
“Do you know how many hostiles are guarding the crew?” Clay asked.
“There are four, I think,” the Captain said. “One of the crew… He was new. Just signed on for this trip. I think he was helping the pirates. They gave him a gun and told him to stay below and help guard the hostages.”
Clay and Trent shared a look. When Clay glanced at Jason, he didn’t even need to read him to see the building storm on his face. That wasn’t good. He looked back to Trent and tilted his head, hoping the other man got the message. Trent nodded, took up Cerberus’ leash and moved toward the door.
“Okay, this one’s not going anywhere,” Jason said as he joined them. He keyed his radio. “Havoc, this is Bravo One. We are passing Led Zeppelin. Be advised that there is one confirmed hostile posing as crew.”
“Good copy, Bravo One,” Blackburn said. “We’re still seeing three confirmed hostiles with rifles. They do not appear to be alerted to your presence.”
“You good to go?” Jason asked the Captain.
“Yeah, I’m good,” the Captain said.
“Okay, let’s go,” Jason said. “Stay behind us. If we tell you to duck, you duck.”
“Got it,” the Captain said.
The three of them headed off the bridge and down the stairs to the crew mess. The rest of Bravo Team was already there. Clay pulled out the infrared detector he’d been carrying and pointed it at the door. He glanced up at Jason to find him staring at the door with his head tilted. Clay could swear he was listening to whatever was happening on the other side, except Jason wasn’t online. Not that it would take much, at this point.
Clay looked up and gave both Jason and Ray a nod, confirming what they already knew: at least three hostiles and half a dozen crew.
Jason turned and signaled the Captain to wait around the corner, where he would be protected. Once he’d moved out of the way, Sonny took his place in front of the door, battering ram in hand. Jason nodded once, and the door splintered.
Clay wasn’t sure who went through the door first, Jason or Cerberus. They both moved like lightening, the rest of the Team pouring into the room behind them. Three of the hostiles dropped almost immediately, but the fourth was holding a handgun on the crewmember he was using as a human shield. A female crew member.
Once the shouting and shooting died down, they found themselves in a Mexican stand-off.
“Get the rest of the hostages out of here,” Jason murmured to Ray.
The hostile watched warily as Ray and the others coaxed the hostages out of the room. Clay took the opportunity to sidle even closer to Jason, hoping his presence alone would help him keep a lid on the brewing storm he could feel rolling off his Team leader.
“This isn’t gonna end the way you hope,” Jason said to the man.
The hostile didn’t say anything, just adjusted his grip on the gun and pulled the woman he was holding hostage closer.
Clay tensed as he felt the subtle change in Jason’s demeanor. It was like a switch being flipped. One minute he was calm and the next he was exploding into action. He leaped across the room, grabbing the hand holding the gun and pushing it up and away from the rest of them. The hostage ducked out of range and pressed herself against the wall. Jason didn’t even notice, just jammed the heel of his hand into the man’s face, and even from across the room Clay could hear the bones breaking.
The hostile dropped into a heap on the floor. Clay knew he was dead without having to look. Jason turned to him, the wildness in his eyes making even the members of his own team shuffle back a step.
Clay rushed forward and pressed Jason into the wall, putting his full weight behind the effort to keep Jason still. He knew he had no hope of containing a fully online Sentinel if he lost it and went on the attack, but he was counting on the fact that Jason knew he was a Guide and their familiarity to overcome any resistance.
“Dial it down, Sentinel,” Clay murmured, just loud enough for Jason to hear. “The hostages are safe. You can stand down now. You hear me?”
Jason looked him in the eye, but he was still too far out of reach. Clay glanced over at the former hostage. She was still holding up a section of wall, watching them with concern and maybe a little fear. That wasn’t good and might even be contributing to Jason’s alertness.
“Ray, get her out of here,” Clay said. “Don’t get too close.”
He saw Ray edge his way into the room, practically hugging the wall. When he reached the woman, he wrapped an arm around her and guided her away from them. Jason growled a little as he watched the woman being led from the room.
“Ray’s just going to take her outside so she can get checked out,” Clay said.
He heard Ray on the radio, reporting their current status. Blackburn was probably going to have questions, but for right now, they would keep.
Jason finally seemed to come back to himself. He moaned, banging his head lightly on the wall behind him. “I didn’t hurt anybody, did I?”
“No, Sentinel, you didn’t,” Clay said. “Well, nobody who didn’t already deserve it.”
Jason glanced over at the hostile still sitting in a crumpled heap a few feet away. “Well, that’s not so bad.”
“No, it isn’t,” Clay said.
He pulled back, dropping his arm from across Jason’s chest. That drew a whine out of Jason, making Clay chuckle. He pulled Jason close, tucking his face into Clay’s neck so he could glut himself on Clay’s scent. It was the fastest way to calm an upset Sentinel, though it was most often used by bonded pairs. Clay wasn’t going to overthink why he was allowing such an intimacy between them, but he knew he’d have to explain it eventually.
Jason’s arms found their way around Clay, pulling them into a tight hold. He could feel Jason relax by degrees, though he knew the Sentinel in him wouldn’t relax until he was someplace he felt safe. Then, he’d probably crash and wouldn’t that be fun.
Long minutes passed as they just held each other. Eventually, Clay heard footsteps outside the room just as Jason tensed up a bit. Clay thinned his shield just a bit so he could get a better read on how Jason was doing. He’d have to do a more in-depth scan once they returned to base, but for now he wasn’t doing too bad. Still edgy, and verging on exhausted, but no longer on high alert.
Clay opened up a little more, finding that Ray was the one standing just outside the door. He was worried but seemed to be handling things fairly well.
“You need something, Ray?” Clay asked over his shoulder.
“The chopper’s inbound, about ten minutes out,” Ray said. “He gonna be okay to get on board?”
Clay shifted and spoke directly into Jason’s ear. “You need to pull it together. They need to see you walk out to the chopper under your own steam. You up for that?”
Jason didn’t say anything, but he nodded his head against Clay’s neck.
“I’ll be with you every step of the way,” Clay said. “The chopper’s gonna be rough, so keep your hearing dialed down as far as you can go. You remember how to do that?”
Jason nodded again, took a deep breath and straightened up. Thank God for all the training the Navy made latent Sentinels go through, because otherwise Clay would be dealing with a new Sentinel with out of control senses in the field. Clay stepped around to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Jason as he nodded at Ray. Jason keyed his radio and leaned closer to talk.
“Havoc Base, this is Bravo One.”
“Bravo One, this is Havoc Base,” Blackburn said. Clay could hear the relief in his voice. “You good?”
“I’m good,” Jason said.
It wasn’t even a lie; for all that he’d come online in the middle of a stressful situation, he was actually doing well.
“Alright, chopper’s inbound with the replacement crew,” Blackburn said. “Once it lands, the crew and the retrieval team will disembark and Bravo Team will board to return to base.”
“Roger that, Havoc,” Jason said.
He glanced at Clay, who gave him a reassuring nod. When he looked back at Ray, the man was smiling at them.
“Whenever you’re ready, brother,” he said.
As soon as they landed at the airport in Nairobi, Jason was off the chopper and headed for the plane. Clay jogged along behind him, keeping a weather eye on his Team Lead. He wished they could have landed closer, but for all that the Somali government wanted the pirates taken care of, they weren’t especially willing to allow the assault to originate from their territory.
The helicopter ride itself had been rough. Jason had struggled with his hearing the whole way, alternating between too loud and dialed off, which made him panic because he couldn’t restore his hearing to normal levels right away. He’d wanted to appear strong and in control in front of the rest of the team, but he simply wasn’t, and that was distressing. Added to that was the fact that the rest of the team was keeping an eye on him, trying to reassure themselves that he was okay.
Overall it had been a miserable ride, and Clay didn’t expect the plane ride home to be much better.
“Welcome back,” Blackburn said as the team boarded the plane.
Jason nodded at his CO as he walked past, but Clay was the one to acknowledge the man. “Sir.”
He turned to stand beside Blackburn as the rest of the Team boarded the plane. Beyond them, a team of doctors and counselors provided by the shipping company were tending to the crew. The chopper lifted up and disappeared into the night sky on its way back to the ship to pick up the retrieval team and the bodies of the pirates.
Ray came up the ramp last. As the three of them moved back inside the plane, the ramp began to raise. Clay could hear the plane’s engines fire up, which meant they’d be in the air momentarily. He needed to head back and make sure Jason was sorted for the trip home, but it was obvious that Blackburn wanted to talk to them about what happened on the cargo ship.
“He okay?” Blackburn asked first.
That hadn’t been what Clay was expecting, but he’d take it. “The chopper ride was bad. He struggled with the noise the whole way. I think the ride home’s gonna be just as bad. I may need to isolate him.”
“Can you tell me what set him off?” Blackburn asked.
“One of the pirates was holding a hostage at gunpoint,” Clay said quietly. “I felt it the second he flipped on.”
“He was pretty controlled,” Ray said. “I expected him to get violent, but the only person he hurt was the hostile.”
Clay snorted. If by hurt he meant ramming the pirate’s nose up into his brain cavity, killing him instantly, then yeah, he’d hurt the man.
“He stayed aware and in control the whole time,” Clay said instead of what he was really thinking.
He wanted to make sure Jason was covered in all of this. Not that the Navy could punish him for killing a hostile holding a civilian hostage, but bureaucrats the world over had been known to sideline Sentinels who came online violently because they couldn’t cope with the primitive nature of the Sentinel.
“Relax, you two,” Blackburn said. “I have no intention of punishing Jason for something that was clearly beyond his control. I just want to make sure I have the facts straight. Make sure you submit your AAR as soon as you can, though, just in case.”
“You got it,” Ray said.
Clay nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Did you two bond in the field?” Blackburn asked Clay.
Ray sucked in a surprised breath. Clay sighed. “Sir, with all due respect, that’s not something I can discuss with you.”
Blackburn raised his hands in surrender. “Fair enough. I’m assuming you’ll want to use the isolation suite up front for the flight back.”
“Yes, we will,” Clay said.
“Alright,” Blackburn said. “Go take care of your Sentinel.”
Clay nodded rather than dispute the fact that he and Jason were bonded. He headed for the front of the plane where Jason usually set himself up. He found the Sentinel sitting on a pile of gear holding an open beer.
Shaking his head, Clay shed his gear and sat down beside the other man. “You holding up?”
“The beer tastes like crap,” Jason said with a huff. He set the mostly-full can aside and rubbed both hands over his face. “My clothes don’t feel right, the lights are too bright and I still can’t get my hearing to stabilize.”
“Cut yourself some slack, Jason,” Clay said, nudging the other man with his shoulder. “You came online less than an hour ago. It’s going to take a while to level out.”
“Fuck,” Jason muttered. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. I never—this wasn’t supposed to happen. I don’t want to… Fuck.”
Clay glanced around, but it looked like everyone was lost in their own post-mission rituals and no one was paying them any attention. Still, for this conversation, and probably for Jason’s sanity while got a handle on his senses, it would be better for them to move to the isolation room.
“C’mon, let’s go,” Clay said. He stood up and turned toward the iso room. Jason just sat there, staring at him with a frown on his face. “I don’t think anyone’s paying much attention to us, but this conversation is best had in isolation. Plus, it’ll help you level out your senses.”
Jason took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then let it out. “Yeah, okay.”
Clay had never known Jason Hayes to be docile and agreeable, so this Jason was kicking up his level of concern. He thinned his shields as they took the few steps up to the upper deck, trying to get a read on the man. He felt the emotional turmoil rear up and smack him in the face. There was a lot to unpack, but chief among the emotions pouring off the man was fear.
They stepped inside the isolation room, and Clay shut the door behind him. Jason’s shoulders dropped immediately as all the noises, smells and sights from the main cabin simply disappeared. He dropped onto the full-sized mattress shoved into the corner and dropped his head into his hands.
Clay sat down next to him and just leaned in, resting his shoulder against Jason’s. He practically melted into Clay, and whatever tension was left in him just fled. They sat that way for long minutes, just breathing.
“Thanks,” Jason murmured once he’d settled down some.
“Any time,” Clay said quietly.
He thinned his shields a little more, feeling the roiling emotions Jason was trying to keep a lid on flowing out like waves in the ocean. Fear was muted now, but anxiety and confusion were still high.
Clay sighed. The iso room on a C-130 somewhere over Africa was hardly the place to have any sort of life-altering discussion, but he didn’t think Jason’s senses were going to level out anytime soon. Plus, he was pretty sure Jason wouldn’t want his family to see him when he was such a mess, and that wasn’t going to be good for anybody.
But, first things first. He could make the Sentinel more comfortable. That would certainly help. He stood up and went to the footlocker against the bulkhead. When he opened it up, he saw exactly what he was hoping for. He reached in and pulled out a t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, along with a pair of socks. He thought about it for a second, then reached for the boxer briefs tucked into one corner. Might as well make sure none of his clothes were an issue.
“Here,” he said, turning around and handing Jason the bundle of clothes. “Get yourself changed. I’ll step out and sort myself out while you do that.”
The look Jason gave him broke his heart a little. Yeah, things were about to change in a major way for them. Clay would have to settle his mind as much as possible so he’d be in a good headspace for what was to come.
“I’ll be back in just a few minutes,” Clay said, reassuring him. He crouched down and placed a hand on Jason’s, pushing a little calm out toward the other man. It wasn’t perfect, because they weren’t bonded, so Jason was a little resistant to Clay’s empathy. “There are wipes in the footlocker, if you need them.”
Jason looked at him for a few long seconds, eventually nodding his assent. Clay let out the breath he hadn’t been aware he’d been holding as he stood up and stepped out of the room. The rest of the Team were scattered around the plane, either sleeping or listening to music. No one paid him the least bit of attention as he swapped out his BDUs for the t-shirt and sweatpants he always kept in his pack, just for this situation.
He headed back to the room, stepping inside just as Jason was pulling his own t-shirt over his head. Jason settled back on the mattress, scooting back to lean against the wall. Clay crawled up beside him and stretched out his legs, pressing his shoulder into Jason’s.
“So,” Jason said once he was comfortable.
“So,” Clay repeated. “Want to tell me what’s going on in that head of yours?”
Jason huffed a laugh as he rubbed a hand over his face. “I never expected to come online. I figured if I hadn’t before now, it wasn’t going to happen.”
“You know that’s stupid, right?” Clay asked. “The odds of a latent Sentinel on one of the Teams coming online are pretty high.”
“Yeah,” Jason said. “I just… I’m not sure Alana can handle it. Me being a SEAL and a Sentinel. She doesn’t like sharing me with the Team. I can’t even imagine what she’ll be like when she finds out I’ll have a Guide.”
“You’d be surprised what people can handle,” Clay said. “She’s a strong woman. Your Guide will have to make sure he gets along with her, but I don’t see a problem.”
“Wait, I thought—”
Clay chuckled. “It doesn’t have to be me, you know. You’re entitled to find the perfect Guide for you. I do suggest you find one soon. I think, because of the way you came online, you’re going to have trouble with your senses until you do.”
“And if I’d rather have you?” Jason asked, giving Clay the side-eye.
“You don’t have to bond with the first Guide you meet,” Clay said. “I won’t be offended, I promise.”
“I trust you,” Jason said quietly. “It’s why I picked you in the first place. The rest of the Team… They let me choose. We didn’t have to have a Guide on the Team, hadn’t had one for a while. But there was something about you that I couldn’t resist.” Jason huffed a laugh. “That sounds stupid.”
“It sounds honest,” Clay said. “And I’d rather have honesty from you than anything else.”
“So, how do we do this?” Jason asked.
“To be clear, we don’t have to do it now,” Clay said. “We can wait until we get home to bond. I’m in no hurry, though I do think the sooner we do it, the sooner we can get your senses leveled out.”
“I’d rather do it now,” Jason said. “I have a feeling, once I step out of the iso room, my senses are going to go into overdrive, and I’m not sure I can take that.”
“Okay, then I suggest we lay down and get comfortable,” Clay said.
They stretched out on the mattress. Clay tangled his feet with Jason’s, earning a smirk from his Team Lead.
“Now, just take me in with your senses,” Clay said. “Don’t be afraid to touch and taste. While you’re doing that, I’m going to lower my shields so I can imprint myself on you.”
“Any chance I’m going to get an… unexpected reaction if I touch you?” Jason asked, one eyebrow raised.
Clay shook his head, a small smirk tipping his lips. “No. You’re not my type.”
Jason chuckled. “Same. Just making sure.”
“You ready?” Clay asked.
Instead of answering, Jason reached out and ran his fingers down Clay’s face. He could hear the rasp of Jason’s fingertips as they passed over the stubble he’d grown in the last month. His hand lingered on Clay’s jaw; Clay could feel Jason’s fascination with the texture of another man’s beard.
The more Jason explored, the more confident he became. Smell and taste engaged along with touch as he sniffed and licked and touched in random places, committing it all to memory. It was intimate in a way Clay wasn’t expecting. Not sexual at all, but more intimate than he’d been with any of his previous sex partners. It was… surprising.
Clay closed his eyes and lowered his shields by degrees as Jason continued his exploration. Jason filled his mind, all that he was and thought and felt, bright as technicolor blooming in his mind. Clay answered that vibrancy, flooding Jason’s mind with his own, filling in the cracks and crevices and locking them together like puzzle pieces.
Neither man was aware of the passage of time as they filled each other’s senses with the other. They finally fell into an exhausted sleep curled around each other, oblivious to the world outside.