He’d started the shower for her long before he’d told her to go into his bathroom.
Take your time, he’d said. If you need, he’d stopped then and taken a deep breath. If you need anything, I’m right here.
He’d known what he was doing, and it makes her wonder how many times he’d done the same thing for himself. The misty fog had obscured the mirror, so she hadn’t been forced to look at herself as she’d stripped off the oversized Navy sweats Davis had found for her a continent ago, on the other side of the world.
She hadn’t tried to swipe the mirror clean; she doesn’t want to know. Maybe she’s unrecognizable, maybe she’s a stranger now. Maybe the cuts, the bruises, the split lips, the swell of her right eye – maybe it makes her someone else in the aftermath.
She doesn’t know.
The pain within is nearly excruciating, the pain without bearable because it’s no longer tied to terror and the unknown. She can only carefully lower herself into a foot of water in the hot tub because she can’t get the stitches on her upper back wet. She’ll wash her hair hunched over herself, wrap it in a towel before the rivulets can streak down her back – no longer blood, this time just water.
Something that will finally get her clean.
Mandy hasn’t really spoken to anyone yet, it’s not even something she can fathom. The words won’t come out of her throat, instead they are locked deeply inside because she’s afraid of what might spill out of her. She knows they are worried about her one-word responses; the nods, the shake of her head, the way she stared at them a few times until they stopped pressing her. They’ve insisted she come back to the base in the morning for another work-up. They’ll dig into her head then, and the idea terrifies her.
Only one person hasn’t pushed her, hasn’t asked her questions. He reads her, lets her have her silence, looks at her too long and then – when he knows he has permission - he makes decisions for her.
Let me take her home, Jason had told the base docs. I won’t leave her.
I won’t leave her.
It echoes inside of her head. A mantra, a safety net.
It’s her only hold on sanity right now - the deeply embedded awareness that he is on the other side of the slightly cracked bathroom door, probably sitting there on the floor drinking a beer and owning her haunts. He’s protecting her from hot water and a faucet because he hadn’t even known she’d needed protecting in all the weeks prior.
She grips the edge of the sink and tries not to sway.
Her relentless silence had saved her from giving them answers. But he deserves some, and she has to find a way to give him what he needs to know. He’d put his life and his career on the line for her. The idea of him finding her had first been a respite from the terror. He was Bravo One, he’d rescue her, surely he would. He was unstoppable. A Tier One Operator. A life force. Ferocious and driven and bulletproof. He accomplished the superhuman, always willing to fight battles that weren’t his.
But that mirage had morphed over the days, the weeks in captivity. In the dust and heat and agony, she had started to realize a new horror. Jason Hayes would find her body. Maybe. And she hadn’t wanted that.
Not for anything.
She couldn’t take him down with her. He had kids. Unlike her, he had something to live for. Something that waited for him after the Teams. She’d stopped daydreaming about him then and started living in the stark reality of her pain, her hunger, her lack of hope. She’d accepted her trajectory. She’d convinced herself it was okay if she died righting wrongs, atoning for the losses, so long as he never found her. So long as they disposed of her, completely. So long as she died alone and stayed that way.
She can’t cry, not now. Not when he might hear her. She hunches over, trying to hold the cries of relief within her.
Of course he hadn’t left her out there.
He’d come for her in a blaze of righteousness and anger and glory.
He’d looked at her in a way that said it was absolutely not fucking okay if she died, and especially not on his watch.
He’d wrapped her up, hauled her up when her frozen legs hadn’t worked after weeks of being folded beneath her. He’d murmured to her to try and reach her in her haze, saying it’s gonna be okay, it’s gonna be okay again and again even as he’d moved, carried her even as the bullets had ricocheted around all of them. He’d made sure she’d been stitched up on the C-17, he’d insisted on the Tramadol. She hadn’t had a voice, but his had been loud enough for both of them. Upon landing, like hell, she’s staying on base. She’s not ready. Then, the Hayes irreverence for rules and regulations had emerged. There is no fucking way, he had growled at some faceless entity from Havoc. The Agency left her out there, they can go fuck themselves. Then a moment later, for mock emphasis. Sir.
The quiet is her solace. Her mind, it isn’t right yet. It’s not working, organizing, processing. So they still don’t know that the edges of her vision still go black every few minutes. She still hears her own screams. She’s shaking, and even when she holds one hand in the other, she can still see the trembling. It takes everything in her to brush her teeth again, clutching the small vanity kit she’d been given. She’d dreamed of these things over the last month in captivity. Hot water, a toothbrush, warmth, the promise of sleep. And yet, they are not the salve she’d prayed for.
The only salve has been him.
“Marco,” he calls out hoarsely from the other side of the door. His hand knocks flat on the door once, gently. It creaks a little under the pressure but doesn’t open any wider. She hadn’t been able to bear the door closing her in fully, but he’s giving her the privacy she needs.
Polo, she wants to call back, but she’s still trapped too deeply within her head, the darkness.
She taps her hand back on the door, her nails almost digging into it.
“Okay,” he says quietly.
And she slips into the tub.
+ + +
She hadn’t dried off properly, so she’s probably dripping all over the floor of his loft. His t-shirt that she wears bears a trident, and she is swimming in it. Her feet are bare, her hair is barely combed because the pain in her back is kicking in again.
Jason is leaning against his kitchen counter when she emerges, and he moves quickly. She’d always marveled at how a man that large could move like a big cat – soundlessly, effortlessly - despite the wounds and injuries that she knows carve and bisect his body.
He lunges towards her, and that tells her she must have been swaying dangerously again. His hands settle gently onto her arms, and he’s lowering himself to look her in the eyes.
“You gotta eat,” he says, as if there is a roadmap to this. “Let’s get something into your stomach, then you can try and get some sleep.”
The panic swells at the thought of sleep. She’d made an ass out of herself on the transport plane. The way she’d thrashed as she drifted off, how she’d opened up some of the fresh stitches. She’d fought him trying to get off the gurney, and only fallen into light sleep when he’d acquiesced and let her sit upright next to him. She’d woken a few times, covered in a blanket and her head on his shoulder, as he’d been sprawled out, his thick thighs spread and serving as a table for the beer he had been quietly drinking.
She knows all of Bravo must think she’s a mess, a weak, lying link clinging to their Master Chief. But she’s not who she was a month ago, and she might never be again. This, this is survival.
Sleep. It had been something she would have begged for if it didn’t contain the worst of her terror.
He must recognize the dread coursing through her because he changes tactics.
“C’mon. Just some soup and toast. Let’s start there.” He talks to her like she is talking back. Like she isn’t this shell, this hollow, empty space. Like she might be okay one day.
She follows him to the table and lowers herself gingerly into the chair.
He’s set out a plate with toast, lightly buttered. A small bowl of still steaming soup – something that came out of a can, sits directly in front of her. He’s folded a napkin, placed a spoon on top of it. He left her a glass of water, and next to it are two Motrin because he knows she hates how the stronger meds make her feel.
But she can’t do this. Her hands remain in her lap, the shaking gets worse.
“Hey. Hey.” She can hear the panic rising in his voice. “Hang on. Okay? Just hang on.” And then he’s moving fast across the room again, this time away from her. She stares at the soup, unable to move, and the shuddering is getting worse. She presses her lips together, but the pressure is building within her, and it’s gonna find its way out.
He’s back and he’s got his Navy sweatshirt in his hands, and he’s pulling it down over her head before she can even shift. She feels paralyzed, trembling, and she’s focusing on the spoon. The sheer civility of the spoon. The napkin. The humanity of it shreds her, because it’s been weeks of starving, of being weak and desperate, just praying for food or water. He’s gently threading her arms into the sweatshirt now, and she’s coming apart. She can hear her breaths getting shorter, hear his fuck, fuck, fuck, and then he’s got her in the sweatshirt and she’s so warm.
She’s so warm.
It smells like him. Feels like him. It’s a cotton kevlar cocoon, wrapped and safe and she is…she is not gonna die. Not tonight. Not if he’s near.
She tries to look at him then, but her eyes are wet. Her chest is starting to contract. He’d blown the compound apart. He’d led Bravo team in there, she’d heard his voice before she’d seen him, she’d barely recognized reality but he had cut through it. He’d charged in there, the blistering disregard for his personal safety apparent, even as he kept the team together. He’d raised holy hell, raised fire and smoke and the depths of her hell to a place where he could find her.
And then he’d brought her home – five thousand miles across an ocean – and made her soup.
Her chest collapses. Twenty-one hours after they’d made exfil, she finally makes a sound of pain. It’s garish and wild, a keening, and he doesn’t run from it. Instead he’s crouching, approaching the devastation, wrapping himself around her as if she is a grenade he can manage by absorbing the blow with his body.
“Okay,” he says. It’s quiet. Calm. Fight or flight, and this man has always chosen fight.
She’s crying then, staccato breaths, gasping at air, grasping at him. Her fingernails are probably burrowed into his forearm. He’s using his body as a shield and this is who he is, he’s Bravo One. He will not let any of them fall, he won’t let her. This will be a battle, and he’ll help her through.
“Okay,” he says again. “I got you,” he tells her, pushing the words into her hair. “I got you.”
After twenty-nine days of prayers, she is finally answered.
He’s got her. She needs him.
And this is the infil, she thinks.
+ + +
She must have drifted off because when her eyes slowly blink open, her lashes scrape against his chest in the thick darkness. It’s not yet morning and no longer evening, and these, these are the crushing hours for people like them.
She remembers then how he had eased into his bed, as if it was something ordinary, something they did. He’d left his sweatpants on, put pulled off his Flyers t-shirt. He’d slipped in next to her, drawn her into him, half-on his lounging body, half-off. He’d been leaning against the backboard as she curled into the safety cavern between his heavy arm and his hip. She recalls how ruthlessly even he’d been in his breathing, how tense his muscles had felt beneath her chest as he remained careful of the wounds across her back.
He’d been drinking another beer - one of three full ones on his end table - and staring out into the nothingness as she’d slid into rest.
He’s got a song playing on repeat on his phone now, it’s soft and lulling and dark. She knows about playing sounds on repeat, why it soothes a body locked in the throes of anxiety. Repeating sounds allow the body to anticipate what is coming next, it creates a sense of safety. He used to run his microwave for sound, but she prefers this. The crooning female voice, it’s someone else in the room with them. The weight of the song blankets her, and she knows he’s awake, still. Even now, even hours later.
He remains half upright, a sentinel staring endlessly at the door.
She closes her eyes, burrows into him. He reacts, shifts, his arm pulls her in closer. He groans, curves his hand back up to her head, slips his fingers into her hair and fists it. Her cracked lips are against his shoulder. His skin is warm, clean, puckered with scars. Maybe she should be ashamed of her neediness, but there is an otherworldly sense of safety to him. The world has crumbled a dozen times over and he still stands. She tries to mold herself to the granite shelter of him, basking in his heat.
“You sleep okay?” he growls softly.
No, she thinks. Maybe she hadn’t jerked awake from the nightmares, but the losses still pervade her dreams. The dead body of a friend in a marketplace in J-bad, the screams of a doctor in Caracas. Jane Cole, unprepared for the torture. POW training that hadn’t helped either of them, none of them, because not knowing the outcome was the real torture for those held.
“Yes,” she says.
His laughter is quiet. A muted freight train that rumbles beneath her skin. “Liar.”
Liar. Yeah, she is. She’d lied to him when she said she could stay away from the life they still lead. When she’d walked away from him all those months ago, she’d hoped for better. But the truth is, she belongs to their underworld, it had already been too late to leave.
He must feel how she’d stilled because he finally moves. He slides lower in the bed, his movements calculated to what might cause her pain. He’s even with her then, his dark eyes locked on hers as his head finally connects with his pillow.
“You scared the shit outta me,” he mumbles, his hand fingering through her still damp hair.
“You came for me,” she tells him simply.
He pulls her face into his neck, holds her there and says nothing.
+ + +
The last time she’d seen him, he’d been standing in a hallway on base in Virginia.
They’d left his apartment at 0600 that morning, her toothbrush in her purse, his sweatshirt falling off her shoulder. There should have been more time after all that had happened. They should have had that day, that week. Just some time together. But they’d stood outside the Bravo cages, knowing there was no telling what came next.
As always, the inevitable had had happened. He’d spun up and she’d spun out. Over the last two months in Langley, she hadn’t returned his calls, his texts, she’d been unwilling to let him see her unraveling.
He’d brought home all the pieces of her; it had been her job to put them together.
Now, she stands rigid on the bridge in the C-17, the evening summer sun turning the tarmac into a scorching haze of red and yellow. She watches him as he approaches the plane, that sauntering gait of him getting closer to her with every step he takes. His sunglasses are on, he’s wearing fatigues and a week’s worth of beard. He is expressionless, stoic. Locked on her.
The hot wind swirls around her, even inside open the cargo plane. Her hair is longer. Wild maybe. She lets it curl these days, lets it blow across her face, untamed.
Around them, personnel load the bird. It’ll be the Congo, this time. It’s never anywhere close.
He boards the plane, tosses his bag to his right, comes to stand directly in front of her. He blocks out the light, a redwood casting shadows across her. There’s a fresh cut on his cheek, she knows he hasn’t been home long but there’s an arsenal of Dnipro Ukrainian SAM’s in the hands of the rebel forces that they have to find and retrieve, and it should be just another day, another collar.
He also shouldn’t be this close to her. He’s early, the rest of Bravo isn’t here yet but this is a base, there is always someone watching.
His eyes are hidden behind the sunglasses.
“Jason,” she starts.
She wants to tell him that she feels dizzy when he’s this close. She wants to tell him that over the last eight weeks, she’d closed her eyes at night and recalled the one night of respite in his bed when he’d brought her home. She wants him to know it’s the only way she could sleep – by curling her pillow around her body and pretending it was him.
She wants to tell him he is the only thing in this world that makes her feel safe.
Instead, “ADF is delivering the SAM’s to an ISIS-cell in North Kivu tomorrow night. I know Bravo just got back, but there’s no time to wait.” She lifts her chin, squares her shoulders. “I know you’ve got no reason to trust me, and if that’s gonna be a problem then you should tell me now.”
His hand comes up, and irreverent of her personal space, his thumb gently rubs the bridge of her nose. “It healed nicely.” His lips quirk, no real amusement behind the expression. “Almost like it never happened.”
She wants to scream at him that it had happened. It had all happened. They had happened. That night, fused to him, his brand of protection had shaken her in a way that even the night in J-bad had not.
She’s shaking, and she stares past him, focused on the concrete runway beyond. “You brought me home. It was my job to get myself back on my feet.”
“Yeah?” he counters sarcastically. “You good now? No more nightmares?” It’s a challenge, low and dangerous. He’s waiting for the lie.
There’s no reason to look at him. She doesn’t need to see the hard set of his jaw; his eyes are hidden behind the black lenses of the aviators. Hers aren’t though, so he probably sees the way hers well, the way she blinks back the ache. “Ignore and override, I learned from the best.”
She expects a harsh laugh. She expects him to walk past her. Instead, he does the unexpected. He takes of his glasses, carefully loops them through the neck of his shirt. And then he finally looks at her. Lets her see him.
They are haunted, glittering with pain. There are flecks of splintering emerald in the brown. His lashes are too thick and he’s squinting at her. He’s thrumming with energy, hot and furious and bleeding. “So you know then, huh?” he whispers, inches from her cheek.
She sways, desperate to close her eyes. She can’t see him this way. She can’t. “Know what?”
He tilts his head, and the way he aligns his big frame to hers should make her run but she needs this, she misses this, she craves this. Him. “You know ignore and override doesn’t work worth shit. Not when it comes to us.”
Beneath their feet the engine rumbles to life, Bravo is a team of encroaching light-bathed shadows a hundred feet out.
He steps aside then, around her, past her, beyond her. The shelter of him gone, the blistering heat finds her again. It comes from within, in a place he lives.
Her body is always the sun when he is near.
+ + +