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The Eleventh Hour

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 “I do not fear the darkness; for I am the terror that owns the night.” - American Republic

 

No moon, no stars, and a cold, heavy hail drizzled out of the mountain sky. To anyone else, the shitty weather would provoke misery and general contempt, a place that no one wanted to be. 

Anyone but them. 

Because anything that made their enemy miserable and vulnerable became their strength.

Like shadowy monsters in the night, hidden by the rolling fog and loud patter of freezing rain, Bravo and Alpha Teams closed onto the massive fortress. Jason eyed the SEALs while pressing his body deep into the cover of the rock-wall that surrounded the compound.

“Ready, boys?”

The soft snap of their safeties flipped off.

“I have two tangos in sight. Call your shot, Bravo One,” Full Metal said. He peered over the low wall, eyes on the two lone sentries stationed on either side of the compound’s entrance. 

Mistake Number One: The guards were in plain view and though they were heavily armed, they lacked body armor and weren’t keenly observant. They’d been trained by the Taliban but they clearly lacked actual execution.

“Left,” Jason whispered and aimed. “Three, two, one -”

Twin suppressed shots. The men fell. Silence. 

“Passing Lincoln,” Jason said into his comm. Step five was now complete; Eric would likely be marking his whiteboard back at TOC that very second.

With a nod from Full Metal, Alpha Team slipped away and Bravo waited patiently as the others climbed the rear of the compound to the roof. Shortly after, their radios buzzed to life and Alpha One declared, “All call signs, Alpha Team set, we’ve reached the roof and we’re ready to breach." 

“Copy, Alpha One. Bravo Team moving to breach.”

Bravo pried open the entrance doors and then, deathly silent, they poured inside with incredible precision. The corridor was dim, lit only by a faint glowing candle in the first room to their right- the main sitting room. Together they fanned out in synchronized steps, the only sound was their boots, barely echoing across the mud brick floor. They cleared the first floor together: two large sitting rooms, a kitchen, washroom, and two small storage areas, all void of the number of hostiles they’d been briefed on. 

Clay’s blood was singing, thrumming with hot adrenaline as the team ascended the stairs to the second floor. Every nerve was on alert; each step closer to the bedrooms they took the higher chance they’d encounter their targets, who likely slept unknowing of the danger that had just breached their dwelling.

Just as they’d rehearsed, Bravo Team split to cover more ground. Though they knew their American hostages were at this very compound, they’d had no intel of exactly where, and the compound itself was massive. Jason, Ray, Trent and Brock continued on to the upper third and fourth levels to join Alpha, while Sonny and Clay began clearing the second. It hadn’t been more than fifteen seconds when what followed next happened nearly simultaneously: 

Suppressed fire from the third floor then sharp cries, followed by retaliating fire - distinctly loud Russian-made AKs, not the weapons they were carrying. Any attempt at stealth was now gone.

Then the door to Sonny’s immediate right crashed open. A man tore from inside the room, face twisted in a violent, biblical rage, dragging a terror-struck child, who he used as a human shield. More cries came from inside the room - it was a woman, and her screams pierced the air with words that were clearly English. One of their hostages.

Their so-called smooth sailing mission had just hit a shit storm.

“Put him down! Put your weapon down! Get on the floor!” Clay shouted in Pashto. He watched in horror as the man scurried backwards and dragged the weeping boy down the long hallway, rifle pressed deeply to his temple. 

Sonofabitch. I got him,” Sonny said, raging forward. “Go, handle her! Bravo One, this is Three, I’ve got an HVT in sight, I’m pursuing.” 

Clay didn’t hesitate, knowing Sonny could handle it because hearing their hostage sobbing in the large bedroom - that was his priority. He entered the room, his night vision goggles rendering a strangely light and dark green visible darkness as he searched for the source of the cries in two seconds flat.  

Human eyes glowed back at him in his NVGs; it was Carmen Mendoza, one of their hostages. Her naked body was tied up, curled in the far corner of the room. A soaked gag had fallen out of her mouth and hung against her chin and agonized moans left her cracked and bleeding lips. He took a step towards the brutalized woman to calm her and announce that they’d come to rescue her and her husband…

It happened fast. There was a blur of motion in the corner of his eye; Clay turned, only took a moment to identify that it was one of their targets, Farjaad, storming towards him and so he squeezed a long burst from his HK416 into the man. Farjaad fell, twitched, then went still. 

Behind Farjaad’s body there was another flash of movement. A man emerged from behind a partition, scrambling towards two AK’s propped against the wall just a few feet from Carmen. Clay hadn’t been able to see his face, couldn’t tell if this was their other hostage or another radicalized insurgent. Their mission was, in part, to rescue the hostages from this compound and Erik Mendoza will still missing. Erik could easily be confused by the sudden assault and could be trying to defend himself and his wife.

“Get down on the ground!” Clay shouted in English. Then in Pashto when he was ignored he yelled, “Get down! Do not go for the weapon!”

But the man scurried faster and so Clay lunged, tackling him. There was a brief fight for power but he was well-trained and quickly took the upper hand. Straddling him, Clay struggled to keep the man down and also adjust his NVGs that’d been jarred loose in the fight. He only needed a second to finally get facial recognition; the man below him was not Erik. It was Giv, Farjaad’s brother, a man who was in deep with the same terrorist organization. Kill any combatant on sight except for your HVTs Jahangeer and Ilyos Yusufi, Blackburn had gruffly told them. So he did: double-tapped him in the chest. Giv gurgled and then went silent.

“All Bravo elements, this is Bravo Six,” Clay said slightly out of breath into his comm, “I have two enemy KIA’s, jackpot on the female hostage. I repeat, jackpot on female hostage.”

Clay took a deep breath and stood, eyes sweeping the room. Though he didn’t see anyone, just the woman, the hairs on the back of his neck had risen. As a Tier One operator, it’d been instilled in him to notice the little things: the disturbed dirt or snapped twig on the side of a trail, the silhouette of an SVEST hidden under layers of clothing. Even across the shadowy room as his eyes focused on Mendoza, he saw the slight change in her facial features: her brows pinched together, eyes widened impossibly bigger, lips parted in a soft gasp.

Fear. Primal fear.

But not of Clay.

She was looking just over his shoulder.

A deep, soldierly instinct caused him to swing his rifle to the left but - 

He was a second too late.

Pain crashed across his back, jarring and deep. The air whooshed from his lungs and he stumbled forward, smashing headfirst into the door frame. The second impact was resounding through his core. His NVGs snapped off, helmet taking the brunt of the crash. Clay didn’t even have a moment to clear the black spots from his vision when a fist raked him hard across his jaw, knocking his helmet off, followed by the hot taste of blood. His head was quickly slammed back into the door frame, wood splintering under his brow. A foreign hand jerked his rifle as he stumbled drunkenly, taking it as far as it’d go from his gun-sling, and then the butt end smashed into the back of his skull. The only conscious thought he could muster was that this was bad.

This was very, very bad.

The insurgent got his hand on his rifle again and they struggled over control of the weapon together, despite Clay’s graying vision and sudden loss of hearing. There was a flash of the muzzle as the guy got a loose finger on the trigger; the shot went wild, missed them both, and as the trigger was pulled again the gun miraculously jammed. It skittered to the floor as their continued struggle turned into swinging fists.

Clay managed to pitch to the left to dodge the next blow, falling out of the room and into the hallway. He turned, curled his fist, and the man ran right into his punch, a hit straight to the solar plexus. The hostile went backwards and that was when Clay saw what he had in his grip: the glint off a six-inch formidable combat knife. Blood dropped in rivulets off the serrated blade. 

Whose blood? 

The man recovered instantly and sprung to close the two foot gap between them. Clay didn't have time to reach to his hip and pull out his sidearm and so he rushed forward, using his forearm to shove the guy’s hand with the knife outwards, away from his own body -

They both went down to the ground and fought and rolled, limbs entangling, the sound of flesh on flesh, relentless. Clay got in three well-placed blows but the man didn’t let up, continued his brutal assault in a rush, like he was impervious to pain and the human limits of stamina. The blows that Clay did land didn't phase him at all, just made him angrier, louder, and stronger. 

Alarmingly, there was no reprieve when another punch cracked against his temple again.

He slumped bonelessly to the floor and that was when time slowed down.

It hadn’t even been a minute since the start of the attack and he was pinned down to the ground, barely conscious. Looking up through puffy, bloody and watering eyes, Clay finally got a good look at the guy’s face: it was Ashur, the Yusufi brother’s 3IC. Drug runner, human smuggler, all around Very Bad Guy. His face was red-purple, veins popping, spit spewing from his mouth as he roared at him in a strange slurry mix of Pashto and Dari. One hand was wrapped around Clay’s neck, pressure increasing twofold, completely cutting off his air. Clay’s only mercy was that the knife, still gripped in Ashur’s other hand, was hovering above. The man seemed to be taking extreme pleasure in just choking him out instead of cutting him up.

Clay wrapped his fingers around Ashur’s wrists to try to dislodge him. Even as his vision began to sparkle and fade, he could see Ashur’s blown pupils, see his face twist into a wolfish grin. A literal stream of sweat rolled down his face, soaking his shirt.

It was unnatural. 

Unnatural.

For a microsecond in between his body’s blind panic to get air, Clay connected the dots. 

They’d been infiltrating high-level drug traffickers… kingpins who had unfettered access to a surplus of stimulants, hallucinogens, and untested synthetic compounds. He felt the first bit of real fear rising as he realized why he was fighting someone who displayed inhuman strength, unmatched even for a Tier One operator. 

Desperation roiled deep within him, sending his body into overdrive. With all his might, Clay twisted his hips, unseating Ashur just enough for Clay to jerk again, this time getting enough leverage to get his knee high enough to connect with his groin. Ashur fell off him but only for a second.

“Sonny!” Gasping and choking, Clay finally had breath to call out. “Bravo, I-” a wheeze, a cough, “I.. need -” 

He got halfway vertical and fingers went for his thigh holster. His hands were shaking, he was dizzy, his fingertips just brushed the pistol grip of his Sig, when -

The resulting body slam stole the little breath he had left in his lungs, the thread of air making its way out producing an odd wheezing gurgle. In the fight for his life, Clay hadn’t seen how close they’d rolled to the staircase until they were plummeting over the edge.

Limbs a tangled heap with Ashur’s, they somersaulted down the long flight of unyielding cement stairs, pitching down hard and ugly and - 

His body stopped with a violent, heavy jolt, his vulnerable head cracking against the mud brick wall. Pain exploded, sparking fireworks behind his eyes. For a moment that’s all there was: pain, darkness, silence.  

Then his world was spinning. He came back to himself and took loud, heaving breaths. Or, he thought he was, because his ears were ringing so loudly that he couldn’t hear much of anything. Forcing his eyes open, he saw his own legs akimbo and then the expanse of the empty stairwell in front of him.

He had hit the floor hard and ended up with his head and shoulders against the far wall. Wetness was sheeting down his face. Clay reached up with a shaking hand to swipe the blood out of his eyes, but it just smeared on his hand and ended up everywhere. As the ringing in his ears began to wane, he heard the exchange of gunfire on the floors above. The mission came back to him in a rush as well as the insurgent who had taken him down the stairs.

Clay rolled his head to the side. Ashur was close - maybe three feet - and though it was dark it only took a second for his eyes to focus; he could see blood all over the guy. He also saw the long metal of the knife in the man’s neck. His eyes were open and unseeing. He was dead.

The bit of relief was fleeting, though. He needed to move and get back to his team. 

Swallowing after several painful breaths, he managed to get enough muscle to respond to try to pull himself up into a sitting position. But the second he tensed his abdominals, his body ignited in pain, a searing agony that shot through his lower belly, encompassing and effusive. It stole his breath and his eyes rolled back as his body went wholly limp. For a moment he breathed hot wet, noisy breaths as tears leaked from his eyes and his world went vaguely distant. 

When the pain receded enough to think again, Clay sucked in a sharp gasp. 

He heard a very far-off Six! Six! from the floors above. Intermittent gunfire continued, interspersed between shouts from his team and the enemy. 

He needed to move.

He was out in the open and injured. Clay had the rational thought that if he couldn’t make it up the stairs to help his team, the least he could do was get to cover and not somehow become a liability or another hostage.

Clay tried to get up again. It took several attempts, but by sheer force of will he was able to get to his feet and that was when he felt a strange, nauseating pressure in his gut and a sudden warmth gushing over his shirt and pants. He looked down. Even in the dark he could see that the shirt under his vest, his pelvic area, and his left thigh were saturated in fluid. 

His fingers came away wet and red when he touched it. All at once, bodily tremors overtook him and his belly throbbed in time with his heartbeat, the same rapid heartbeat that galloped faster and faster in his ears. Stuttering, flailing.

It hurt.

God, it hurt.

Ignore it, he urged himself. He couldn’t linger. You need to move.

Every step was agony but he did it, one staggering step followed by another. Clay made the short distance from where he’d landed, over to the sitting room across the hall. The door had been left open when it had been cleared earlier, and it was dark and quiet. Twelve steps, maybe fifteen with the way he was stumbling, and he’d make it to the far wall where he could render himself aid and then maybe get back to his brothers. He made it to the wall just in time as vertigo rolled up and over him. Even though he tried to brace himself, he slid down and landed hard on his ass, the impact jarring his side. Agony blossomed from deep within and his lips parted in an airless gasp as blood dribbled from his mouth.

Clay looked down.

There was a bulge under his shirt that hadn’t been there a minute ago. With a shaking hand he pressed on his lower belly, and the bulge shifted under the slight pressure, squishing like a wet sponge. It took everything within him to lift the hem of his shirt. 

And when he saw that his insides were now on his outside, it was as if he was in a vortex, all noise sucked away, even the frantic hammering of his heart. No amount of SEAL training could prepare him for this type of trauma. 

Distantly, Clay heard voices: they were thin and fraught and far away. 

Six, can you hear me?

Clay, SITREP.

Clay!

The shock of everything had caused the pounding in his skull to intensify and he gasped raggedly for breath. His blood-slicked hand reached for his comm, then realized it'd been knocked loose in the fight.

Before he could call out, Clay found his stomach rebelling. The bile burned up his esophagus and it tasted acrid on his tongue as it came out. He convulsed as he heaved, belly tensing rock hard. He heaved again, more forcefully this time and it was all too much. The pressure in his abdomen from vomiting sent him down to his side and a torn sob escaped him. The bulge under his palm grew bigger, the feeling of it resounded through his body with horrifying intensity.

This was bad, he fleetingly thought for the second time that night. He could still hear the pop pop pop of bullets in the floors above him, and he wasn't sure he could put up much of a fight if one came to him.

After everything, Clay wasn’t going to go out in a blaze of glory. He was going to be done in by a knife to the gut and a push down the stairs.

He couldn’t let that happen. He wouldn’t.

Hearing what he thought was the succinct thudding of boots down the stairs, Clay braced his belly and somehow stood, leaning against the wall behind him with his full weight. One shaking hand held the bulge on his belly, the other raised his gun to aim. His vision was tunneling and he was shaking like a leaf but he wouldn't go down like this.

A few seconds passed where nothing happened and then his awareness started to slip. Toes and fingers tingled and everything started to buzz and slowly dissipate.

This wasn’t what he wanted at all.

 

###

 

Twelve Hours Previous:

What Clay actually wanted was to rescue two hostages. Such things were pretty much par for the course when it came to DEVGRU, and this mission was no exception.

“You’re looking at the photos of Erik and Carmen Mendoza, just recently married American college students who went backpacking in the Wakhan Corridor of northeast Afghanistan. They disappeared two months ago. We now have actionable intelligence about the precise location of where they’re being held.”

“Hiking? In Afghanistan?” Brock asked. 

Sonny just looked insulted. “Why in the hell would someone go to Afghanistan by choice?”

Mandy raised a perfectly arched eyebrow. “Contrary to mainstream narratives that are limited to incidences of violence, not all of Afghanistan is a war torn state. The Wakhan region has remained conflict-free over the years and untouched by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda influence. It’s been a markedly peaceful area.”

Sonny made a ‘hmmph’ noise and chewed his toothpick. “Markedly peaceful? Well I’m not sure the Mendoza’s agree with that statement.”

Jason studied the information projected ahead of him and began to feel impatient, still waiting for Mandy to finish her point. “What’s the story, Mandy?”

“I said ‘has been’ peaceful. We have reason to believe the Haqqani Network, a subset of the Taliban, has moved into a pocket at the northern tip of the Wakhan Corridor. They’ve been using this area to smuggle synthetic drugs and weapons in and out of Tajikistan. We believe they saw the Mendoza’s as targets of opportunity, snatched them. Westerners are capable of generating hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in ransom from their governments and families.”

“Our government doesn’t negotiate with terrorists,” Clay said simply.

“Doesn’t mean they won’t try,” Eric said from where he stood by Mandy, arms crossed.

“We’ve picked up some local chatter,” Mandy continued, “and know that the two have been taken directly across the border, about two kilometers, to a remote village in Tajikistan.”

Mandy thumbed the pointer in his grasp. A map of Wakhan Corridor disappeared and now the headshots of seven men were displayed for them to see. Eric moved to the projected images and spoke, “These are your two HVT’s: brothers Jahangeer and Ilyos Yusufi. We’re also estimating there to be another five men at the compound, who regularly support the brothers. We only have first names: Abdul, Farjaad, Abbasi, Ashur, and Giv. Ashur seems to do most of the chief shit for the Yusufi’s, in addition to a long list of transgressions including sport killing in Eastern Afghan, human trafficking.”

“Sounds like a real nice fella.”

Blackburn walked to the table and placed two documents in the center. The first, a topographic map of the Wakhan Corridor and bordering Tajikistan region; the second, a detailed sketch of the compound itself. “Here’s your route in: you HAHO in the Wakhan Corridor. You’ll hike the border with Alpha Team into Tajikistan, using the backside of this mountain for good concealment from the target compound. From primary insert to the compound, you’re looking at a two night hike. At the compound, Alpha Team will climb to the roof, they’ll clear down. Bravo, you enter from the ground level, clear up. You coordinate over comms with simultaneous assault, you both meet in the middle. Bam. Secure our two hostages, take the Yusufi brothers alive, meet at the rally point and make exfil together.”

Jason regarded the map cautiously. The compound was large but not impenetrable. The surroundings provided cover, and the remote land meant oppositional backup was far away. Their hostiles were drug smugglers and weapon runners - not war combatants, which meant they were tactically green. The only thing they had working against them was the terrain and the weather: the high Pamir Mountains that surrounded the Corridor were only second to the Himalayas. It was these very mountains and the dangerous terrain that kept them from inserting any closer to their target. And at such a high altitude, the weather was often unpredictable and severe. It could make traveling and flying in the area impossible for days at a time.  

Mandy added to this, “The region is steep so expect typical comms problems.”

Either way, this mission was classic. One they’d done dozens of times with success.

Jason locked eyes across the table with Ray, nodded to him. Easy.

Ray echoed with a firm nod. Easy. 

 

###

 

Between the giants of Hindukush and the Pamir Mountains, Alpha and Bravo Teams dropped into the Wakhan Corridor in perfect silence from the skies. 

It was the beginning of October, which meant winter was almost upon the region. As they touched down at the drop zone, a barren valley that ran between the three mountain ranges, they were left shivering from the night wind. Jason counted heads then studied each silhouetted figure, looking for limps or signs of injury from impact. 

They each nodded to him. All good.

“TOC, this is Bravo 1. Successful insertion. Heading for target,” Jason said quietly and then turned towards his teams. “Full Metal?”

Alpha’s team leader had just finished wrapping his parachute in a tight bundle and stood. “We’ll stay out back, follow your lead. Derek, you’re rear security.”

“Ray, I want you on point,” Jason added as he also stowed his gear. “Sonny, behind him. The rest of you, fall into patrol order behind me. We'll hike until dawn.”

They moved out. Jason waited until the others were far enough away then subtly grabbed Clay’s shoulder, squeezed it. “You good, kid?”

It was Six’s first mission back since the bombing in Manila and they were all a little on edge. Given how his team had almost lost him, how he still had the thick and knotted scars to show every time he undressed in front of his team, Clay was not surprised to see the (not-so-subtle) hints of continued mollycoddling and even second-guessing. They would never outright say it, but he saw it in the way Davis packed his gear (stowing extra hand warmers, hot chocolate, and wool socks just for comfort), saw it in the way Trent triple checked his med bag and added extra supplies, saw it when Sonny stoically clipped his hammock next to his on the flight over, a few feet closer than normal. 

Their confidence in him was fractured.

One night that went terribly wrong; it hadn’t been his fault and yet he still had to bear the consequences. Clay couldn’t let go of the notion that until he proved himself to his team, that he was just as able-bodied as before, his spot in DEVGRU was jeopardized.

Clay regarded Jason out of the corner of his eye, gave him a nod and tight smile. After a lifetime of abandonment and never feeling good enough, he’d worked hard to not be seen as weak and dependent. The helplessness he felt to prove his worth to the only people he had left, weighed heavily on him.

 

###

 

At dawn, they made camp in a little cave under a jagged rock outcropping. Alpha took first watch and set the perimeter as Bravo settled in for a few hours’ rest. Temperatures had plunged to just above freezing during the night and they were all tired and yearning to warm up. Just as Clay shimmied into his sleeping bag and closed his eyes, he felt a nudge.

Cracking an eye open he saw Sonny, extending a mug of warm hot chocolate. 

Clay took the offer with a happy groan and sipped in approval. “You’ll make a good housewife someday, Sonny.”

Surprisingly, Three didn’t take the bait and just sipped his own. “Well, you look like hell. Somebody’s gotta take care of you, Wonder Boy.” 

The long, doleful cries of wolves echoed in the distance and they sat quietly for a few moments, their silence only broken by Ray and Brock who held their own soft conversation a few feet away. 

Sonny’s solemnity and scrutiny were unnerving him. Had been ever since he’d been officially cleared to operate. Clay ran a hand through his curls and tried turning his attention onto something that didn’t include observations of his well-being. “Did you know Marco Polo walked along this trail?” 

“Marco Polo? ‘Marco Polo’ as in: pool tag ‘Marco Polo’?”

Clay scoffed. “What are you, five? Yeah, Son, Marco Polo. You ever take a history class?”

“You were reading -” Sonny gave him the eye, but folded his arms together and settled as if the story was just getting interesting. “I always knew you were the soft type.”

“I was reading,” Clay continued, “before wheels up and Marco Polo came through the Corridor with his family on the way to China, just over the border.”

Sonny ‘humphed’. Thought. “So why is the game named after him, anyway?”

“They say he got separated from his family on one of his expeditions. His family kept calling for him by ‘Marco’ and he responded ‘Polo’ until they found each other.” 

“Well if that ain’t the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is.” Sonny settled deeply into his sleeping bag and set his mug aside; he would rinse it out later after a few hours sleep. “Alright, what do you say we rack out, nerd boy? We got a big day ahead.”

Clay cracked a smile and finished his hot chocolate. It felt good going down, soothing something that’d been clenched and aching since Stella left him, since he nearly died in Manila. A minute later, he was tucked in warmly, almost shoulder to shoulder with Sonny.

He uncovered his arm, held his out his fist. “Night, brother.” 

Sonny tapped it with his own. “Night, sunshine. No snoring, ya hear? And keep those icicles that you call feet away from me. You turn into a damn octopus when it’s cold, don’t think I’ve forgotten how much…”

Lashes fluttering and finally closing, Clay’s smile grew, because even as his friend continued his drawled complaints, Sonny subtly shifted closer, sharing his warmth.

 

###

 

It was another night of hiking the vast Corridor’s valleys and plateaus, passing ruins of villages and lonely ancient tombs. Surrounding them on all sides were dramatic, snow-capped peaks of the three towering mountain ranges, and if Clay closed his eyes long enough, breathed in the frosty mountain air, he could envision himself being in the tranquil Rocky Mountains of Colorado, not a theater of war. 

They followed the icy, roaring Panj River through narrow canyons and deep gorges. The going was slow; they made sure to keep a good distance between themselves and the few nomadic herders who moved frequently to look for pastures for their yaks. In between tiny settlements were vast stretches of nothingness, just exhaustingly rugged terrain - but this is how they preferred it. They were supposed to be ghosts here, so the less civilization the better.

At last they crossed the border into Tajikistan, but as they finally set their sights on the compound, the weather swiftly deteriorated. Clouds settled low, bringing a sudden mixture of hail and howling winds. Lightning flashed, and the storm crescendoed as thunder rumbled deeply overheard. Clay’s nose burned in the frigid air, but he could hardly feel it. A surge of hot, electrifying adrenaline thrummed from his very core. 

This was it. Manila had bucked him off the horse, but tonight was the night to get back in the saddle, prove his worth to his brothers.

Little did he know, with each forward step towards the compound, he drew closer and closer towards the moment that would change his life, quite possibly forever. 

 

 

Chapter Text

There was a man in the corner, and he held a rifle pointed directly at Ray Perry.

But Ray’s reflexes were quicker than his. A muted pop pop issued from his own HK and the tango dropped heavy and lifeless to the ground, ruby red blood saturating his pajamas. The room plunged into an eerie silence; within seconds he had the very last bedroom on the fourth floor cleared and he joined his leader out in the hallway. The 2IC’s body was physically thrumming from the fury and whirlwind of combat. He lived for these missions: not a single hitch on infil and they’d breezed through clearing the terrorist’s labyrinth. Their absolute domination of the takeover felt electric.

Ray reached out his fist and he shared a quick fist bump with Jason. “What’s our next move, bossman? Any word on our hostages?”

“Nothing yet. Full Metal just said fifth and sixth floors are secured, they have Ilyos Yusufi, but he’s down with a shot to the leg,” Jason said indifferently; their HVT was a particularly bad motherfucker. As long as he didn’t die before handing him off to the CIA, he deserved the suffering. “Dustin Fossett is rendering aid.”

Ray nodded. He knew Dusty to be a just-as-capable medic as their own, who could easily handle a gunshot wound. “You hear from the others?”

Jason shook his head and called for a SITREP from his team. Brock and Trent radioed in from the third floor, instantly obeying his command: they reported an all clear, but no sign of those that they’d been there to rescue. While he waited for communication from Bravo Three and Six, Full Metal came down the stairs. In typical fashion he was unflappable, a clear sign that things were in control on the upper levels. “Keith has the women and children secured in the far bedroom. The HVT’s gonna make it, but the damn pansy won’t quit screaming. Dusty wants to put a security round in him just to shut him up.”

“Any sign of the Mendoza’s?” Ray asked.

There was a beat of silence, then, “Mike found Erik Mendoza in the upstairs bathtub. Dead no longer than a day and a half, he’s still in rigor mortis. No sign of the wife.” 

Jason’s jaw muscle ticked, lips flattening into an angry line. 

They’d lost him by the slightest margin. “Dammit.”

“Bravo One, this is Three, I’m on the second level,” Sonny at last called over his comm. He was breathless and sounded… off. “I need some help down here. We, uh, we got a problem.”

The budding anger he’d felt about their hostage suddenly unfurled into something much more intense. Because Tier One operators could handle themselves and most of the shit they came across. So calling out for a problem? That meant complications. Bad ones.

A cold shiver ran up his spine and his eyes snapped to Full Metal’s.

“Go,” Full Metal said. “I’ll take care of upstairs and keep the perimeter secured.” 

Jason nodded to him, then barked into his comm to Three, “Coming to you.” 

He briskly moved down the stairs with Ray at his heels. On his way down, he called out again over the comms for Clay, still acutely aware their kid hadn’t responded. “Six, what’s your location?” Nothing. “Spenser, SITREP. Now!”

Clay could be a pain in the ass; he could be cocky and difficult, but he was never sloppy. To go completely radio silent? He wouldn’t, it was that simple.

Together, they all met Sonny on the second floor. The sight through Jason’s NVGs showed nothing but an empty hallway and Sonny at the far end of it. A toothpick of a boy, no older than three, clutched at Sonny’s vest, sharp heels digging into his hips as he sobbed. The child had buried his head into Three’s throat, skin on skin, and as they drew nearer they saw a small trail of blood coming from a cut on his temple.

“What happened?” Jason demanded.

“Jahangeer heard the shots upstairs, tried to squirt and use him as a shield,” Sonny said, referring to the boy. “I got him cornered, had to take the shot. He was gonna shoot the kid. Haven’t been able to do a good search for Clay with him like this. You know it ain’t like him to go silent, boss.”

The growl that came from Jason in response to Sonny’s explanation felt foreign. His emotions had swelled so suddenly, a red haze of growing anger which had nothing to do with the op that was quickly spiraling. Because he could handle the ugliness that came with certain mission failures, but he damn well couldn’t deal with a missing man. Not Clay.

“Ray,” he snapped, needing an end to the child’s loud sobs so he could think. “Take care of the kid.”

“Give him here,” Ray pushed past Jason and took the boy gently into his arms. “I’ll bring him upstairs with the others. Easy, little man, let’s go find your momma and take care of that cut, okay? That’s it, you just relax now...”

“What the hell, Sonny. Did I or did I not tell you to keep an eye on Six on his first few missions back? How the fuck did you lose him?” Jason said maybe a bit too harshly. But Sonny just pushed past him, heading towards the opposite end of the hallway. “Sonny!”

And then the Texan went very, very still. 

In the far corner of the farthest room, their female hostage laid bound on her side. There was a gunshot to her neck and her eyes were glazed open and sightless. But Sonny wasn’t looking at her. Instead, his eyes were at his boots where, just inside the threshold of the room, was a helmet, discarded on its side, NVGs cracked. Blood splattered the doorjamb, the wood wet and splintered. 

“Fuck,” Sonny said, half choking on the word. “Jason.”

Jason’s eyes flitted to the helmet and then their downed hostage. Coupled with Spenser’s ongoing silence, more bodies meant more trouble. Especially bodies that weren’t Bravo Six.

“Six, give me a SITREP!” Jason said in a last, futile attempt over his comm.

“Boss! We got one at the bottom of the stairs, he wasn’t here before,” Brock called hastily from the stairwell. He was being yanked downward by Cerb’s leash. “Looks like Ashur, he’s dead.”

Jason kept his grip tight on his rifle as he advanced down the steps to the first floor after Brock. Sonny and Trent followed them closely. 

###

From behind, Trent could see the stiffness in Jason’s shoulders, knew from that sign alone that their leader was unsettled. That same uneasiness stirred in the pit of Trent’s stomach as they reached the first floor where he came to Ashur’s splayed body. He nudged him with the tip of his steel-toe boots, took in the sightless eyes and knife buried to the hilt in his neck, didn’t even bother with a pulse check. Satisfied the insurgent was dead, Trent turned his eyes to the hallway, and - 

Air left him in a rush.

NVGs aiding to penetrate the murk, Four saw the outline of a body. The sight was a suckerpunch, violent and visceral, because right there in front of him...

Was Clay.

And blood.

So much blood.

Their kid was seemingly only upright by leaning against the wall, knees bent and wobbling like they were made of jelly. Even in his green-tinted vision, Clay’s complexion was waxen and shocky-looking, marred by running sheets of dark fluid down his face. Some of that blood and threads of spittle twirled off Clay’s lips as he panted for air. 

Wild blue eyes flickered back and forth, having trouble tracking and finding the four faces that’d suddenly rushed to the doorway. His Sig was aimed somewhere to the right of Sonny, the barrel trembling as he fought to stay standing. His right index finger was poised against the trigger.

“Whoa, whoa Clay!” Sonny balked and slammed his forearm into the nearest body he could reach - Brock - shoving him backwards. “Hey Wonder Boy, it’s us. You know us. Take your finger off the trigger there.”

“Get baack,” the kid slurred. He slumped even further into the wall, head sagging as sweaty, bloody curls fell across his forehead. But the sidearm aimed higher and though it was still off mark, his intent was made. 

At them.

"St-stay… th’fuck back. I'll, um, I," Clay forced out past an uncooperative tongue, sounds jumbling on the way out as if he couldn’t speak. "I'll, I’ll shoot.”

Jason had been right on Sonny’s heels and despite the threat he charged forward. “Drop your weapon, Spenser. That’s an order.”

Clay’s eyes squeezed shut, he teetered dizzily, and that was their cue - the rest of them collectively moved in together. Jason and Trent managed to reach him at the same time. Their leader snatched the gun barrel and his other hand squeezed Clay’s wrist, twisting it with just enough pressure that he released the weapon. Jason shoved the pistol over to Sonny to handle. At the same time, Trent’s transition from assaulter to medic was seamless as he gripped Clay’s shoulder, squeezed, eyes quickly taking in the most obvious head injuries: significant bleeding from wounds at his eyebrow, temple, cheekbone, lip. General puffiness and swelling, and blood dripping from his nose and mouth. Eyes that couldn’t focus on anything. 

“What happened, Spenser? Jesus, let me look at you.”

“Um, I..” he looked down at his belly. “I need.. need t’go, I-"

“Hey, whoa,” and up close, Jason could see that there was more than just head trauma. Clay’s belly, groin, and upper thighs were saturated in blood. A thick, coppery scent washed over him, enough to turn his stomach.

“You’re not going anywhere. You need to lay down and let me see where you’re bleeding from. Come on.” Trent tried to guide him down but Clay was having none of it. He jerked backwards, flush against the wall, looked to the doorway like he was going to bolt. Trent growled, “Boss,” that one word having enough meaning to convey his message. Years of unspoken communication between them had Jason moving into position.

“I got his upper. You get his legs,” Jason said.

“Watch his head,” the medic muttered, repositioning himself. No time for gentleness but still mindful of the injuries they could see, the two of them grappled with their brother. Sonny shoved in a second later, grabbing Clay around his waist as Trent swiped his legs out from under him. In two seconds flat they had him down and immediately, blood pooled and began to collect on the ground. Their hands were coated with it.

“Where the fuck is this blood coming from? Clay, stop moving, let me see,” Trent hissed and ripped off his NVGs. “I need light over here!”

Headlamps split through the darkness with Clay in the spotlight. 

Jason was already tearing the velcro of his tac-vest open. He leaned down, used his teeth to split the collar of Clay’s shirt and then ripped it completely down the middle. Trent had taken sheers and made quick work of Clay’s weapons belt, thigh holster, pants and boxer briefs, all while saying, “Listen here, buddy. I’m going to check you out, nothing personal, got it?”

A second later, their kid was fully exposed from neck to knees in the center of their small circle. Trauma Naked as the old saying went; there was no such thing as modesty on the battlefield, not with hidden injuries and this much blood. Clay’s chest hitched with every frenetic inhale and red soaked the planes of Clay’s belly, groin and thighs but…

“Clay,” Sonny said raggedly. “Oh God.”

There.

“Trent?” Jason choked out.

Sonuva... 

This was bad, Trent thought with a sharp exhale and the visual assessment left him actually stunned. The medic hadn’t felt out of his element in a long time - years even. He’d treated more gunshot wounds than he could count. Blast lung, shattered bones, limbs blown off and made to stumps. But this?

The wound was gaping open, his viscous organs right there. Clay’s organs.

Right fucking there.

The gash was at least six inches. Distally, near his hip, the wound was deep and he could see bits of milky-white bone. It gushed freely, the hemorrhage a dark red, steady flow. A venous bleed. Proximally, towards his naval, the wound was a bit more shallow. It’d cut through layers of fat, muscle and the thin, stretchy layer of peritoneum that enclosed his insides...

And emerging from Spenser’s rigid, heaving abs were curls of bowel like one of his wife’s pink Peonies in full bloom.

Clay turned his head towards Trent, eyes glassy and unfocused, as if he wasn’t sure what was happening. The gaze hit him like a physical blow and he was pulled back in time to Clay, prone on the asphalt in Manila, in a stupor and bleeding out from his leg, dying. The parallels between now and the bomb blast were uncanny, left him reeling. 

Pull yourself together, Sawyer. He needs you.

So Trent harnessed his emotions and profuse shock, pulled them painfully into check. Then steeling his nerves, he didn’t stop to feel or plan, he simply acted.

Detached.

Had to, because the man below him was no longer his little brother, he was a patient. You couldn’t fall apart on your patients.

He found his voice, had just enough in him to bury the tremor. “Jesus, you’ve done yourself in good this time.”

Likely sensing the faint movement of air on bare his skin and the shock of those above him, Clay slowly emerged from the daze he’d been in. Eyes were half-mast, but his pupils were so fully dilated that that blue color was completely swallowed despite the bright lights from their helmets.

Shock.

Head trauma. 

Likely both.

“Sonny, get over here, put on these gloves. We need to stop this bleeding,” Trent said. He’d already tore open his med bag, yanked on a pair of black latex gloves. He ripped open packs of HemCon and started packing the gauze into the deepest part of the wound by Clay’s hip, trying to plug the bleeder. 

Battlefield medicine wasn’t pretty, mostly because hemorrhaging always took priority - and oftentimes you couldn’t avoid the barbarous, brutal care that was necessary to control it. Only after that was managed would he begin to do other assessments, treat the less serious wounds. All of that always trumped IVs and it sure as hell trumped pain medicine. It might been ass-backwards to civilian medicine, but this was what saved lives in combat.

So though Clay’s evisceration was gruesome and excruciating, it wasn’t immediately life-threatening. It would have to be managed last.

The kid bucked weakly below his hands. 

When he’d gotten a full roll of the hemostatic dressing packed into Clay’s hip, he said to Sonny, “Okay, use the heel of your hand to press down hard. He’s gonna scream but I don’t care, don’t let up pressure until I tell you, it’s the only way we’re going to stop the bleeding.”

Teeth gritted, Sonny put his full weight into it, grew a little paler at the noise that gurgled out of Clay’s throat. 

“Whu-wait,” Clay managed to grate out, eyes snapping open to dart at the silhouetted figures above him. He stiffened as a wave of red-hot agony swept over him, having been yanked from the tenuous and dream-like state of semiconscious he’d drifted into. Booted heels dragged but gained no purchase on the wood floor and when the attempt to get away failed, he curled his arms and pushed at the searing fire lighting up his left hip.

“No! Clay, don’t touch!” Trent ordered, still rifling through his med bag. “Jase, I need you to hold his hands before he contaminates that wound.”

“Hey, none of that,” Jason firmly interceded and took the younger man’s wrists. He shuffled on his knees a little closer to Clay’s head, trying to get in his line of sight. “You need to lie still, Spenser.”

“B,boss?” came the gasped question from below him and the way Six said his name made his legs weak. He sounded like he did in the back of the ambulance in the Philippines, right before he’d lost consciousness for good that night. Maybe it was because his kid was typically so fearless and proud, that it made the few times he did break down his walls that much harder to bear witness. Jason was glad he was already kneeling. “Shit .. no, stop, you’re hurr.. hurting.. me. I don’ want... stop.”

“You’re going to be fine. We need to get the bleeding stopped so you’re gonna feel some pressure,” Jason glanced over his shoulder at Trent, who had seemed to unpack his entire medical kit, laying out supplies in easy reach. “What do you need, Four?”

“Just keep his hands outta here,” he answered dismissively. Then to Five he said, “Brock, take this gauze, hold it to that gash above his eye, he’s losing blood from there like a stuck pig.”  

Brock grabbed the dressing and slid to kneel above Clay’s head, pressed hard on the wound. He used his knees to cushion the sides of the kid’s head, keeping him still. Though head injuries bled like a bitch, this was excessive and Trent needed to stop as much hemorrhaging that he could.

In the midst of their controlled chaos, their comms buzzed to life with Blackburn on the other end, requesting their status.

Jason took a breath, shifted both of Clay’s wrists into one grip and then keyed his comm. “HAVOC, this is Bravo One. We have Ilyos secured. Jahangeer and both hostages are deceased. Multiple women and children have been detained. Compound is secure, Alpha has the perimeter and is completing the search for intel. Bravo Six is injured, we’re rendering aid.”

“Understood, Bravo One,” though Blackburn’s reply was steady as ever, there was a split second pause. “How is he?”

“We’re at least looking at head and abdominal trauma, significant bleeding. We need immediate evac,” then he looked down at Six, whose face was scrunched with pain as he tried to squirm away from them.

“Standby, Bravo One,” Blackburn said.

Hands trembling, Clay fumbled for a halt to the pain and noise around him, and when Jason wouldn’t let go of his wrists, he latched onto his boss’ fingers instead. “S-stop. I- I think… wrong.”

“What’s wrong, buddy?”

“The, the bomb, Jase. I think, I, - it’s… here. Where’s’the bomb?”

“Bomb?” then to his medic, “Trent, you hearing this?”

Supplies unpacked and ready and with his stethoscope on, Trent nodded and shimmied closer to Clay. “Listen, Spenser. Looks like you took an impressive nosedive down the stairs and that’s why things aren’t making much sense right now. You just gotta relax a second while I take a look over your chest, all right?” He quickly listened to each lobe of his lungs and then with gloved hands, he palpated along his chest, feeling for fractures or the Rice Krispy feeling of displaced air that would indicate a pneumothorax. A sound of relief escaped his throat - at least one thing was going right for the kid. “You’ve got some impressive bruising along your ribs, but nothing’s broken and no tension pneumo. That’s good, brother,” he said loudly to try to break through Clay’s increasing agitation. He had a knack for talking to downed vics, knew it helped push down their panic and keep their attention. And if he could keep Clay speaking, he would know without taking extra precious seconds that his airway was still patent and open.

“So here’s what’s going to happen,” he continued, calm and deliberate, draping the stethoscope around his neck. One hand swiped Clay’s bare chest with an antiseptic wipe, the other grabbed a FAST1. “I need to get some fluids in you but you’re shocky, which means getting an IV or A-line will be tough. We’re going to do a sternal intraosseous infusion instead, it’s a lot quicker. We did an IO on our hostage last year, you helped me set the tubing. Remember that, Spenser? Tell me what country that was in, I can’t remember the location.”

An unintelligible murmur fell from Clay’s lips.

“Didn’t hear that, bud, gonna have to say it louder,” Jason admonished lightly, trying to keep Clay conscious.

“ ‘raq?” he pushed the word past a thick and uncooperative tongue.

“Almost got it. Was Aleppo,” Trent deflected, knew that had Clay been in his right mind, he’d never have missed the answer. “All right, listen here. You’re going to feel a pinch in your chest in a minute. Go ahead and look up at Brock’s pretty eyes for me.”

Clay’s eyes skirted up but he couldn’t see anything past the blinding light of a headlamp. “Brrock?”

“The one and only,” came the warm, undeniable voice of Five directly above him. “We’re going to get you feeling better in no time, brother. Cerb, c’mere, lay down right here.”

“Huh?” Clay moved his head a little, felt the hard rubber of knee pads on either side of his head and then suddenly Cerb’s wet nose at his neck.

“Hand it to me. Yeah, I got it. Okay, open up, Clay,” Brock said.

“Whu’...?”

Then something soft was pushing into his mouth. “C’mon, open.”

“Wha’... sto..p,” Clay whimpered. He winced, moaned, trying to close his mouth like a baby that didn’t want to eat. But Brock was somehow firm and gentle at the same time, managed to slip the wadded up roll of gauze between his teeth.

“Bite on that.”

Trent felt along Spenser’s sternum, found the sternal notch, stuck the adhesive-backed foam patch down on his skin and pressed down firmly to seal it tight. “Jase, Sonny, need you to watch him,” he flicked a warning glance up at them both, the message unmistakable: It’s going to hurt. Bad. Hold him tight... no, much tighter. Trent grabbed the introducer tool, pressed the cluster of needles into position against Clay’s skin and then in the next second, pushed hard and deep to penetrate the bone. 

Clay screamed, raw and guttural.

Fresh agony swallowed him whole; it was so sudden and so violent that he was wholly unprepared for the onslaught. His vision blinked out and his body convulsed as if his pelvis had been jerked upwards by a puppeteer. 

But above him, Jason and Sonny had been ready. They threw their weight into his, countering his arching body and pushed him to the floor.

“Easy, Clay!”

“There we go, there we go. All done, brother,” Trent soothed as he hurriedly connected the IV tubing to the port and then adhered a clear plastic dome cover to protect the entire infusion site. And though he sounded unshaken, he was sure that the sight of Clay writhing below his hands would be ingrained in his mind, his nightmares, forever. “Guys, how’s his bleeding doing?”

“Good here. You did good, little buddy,” Sonny said as the kid keened below them. He peered down at Clay’s gaping wound that had been packed full with gauze. The gauze itself was sopping and saturated, but blood was no longer running down the sides of his hips and groin.

Brock tossed the soaked wad from Clay’s mouth and then lifted the piece of gauze at his temple, inspecting the wound. “Looks good here too, bleeding’s let up.”

“Okay, you’re both good to leave them alone. Keep an eye on them though, if he starts bleeding again I’ll have you hold pressure,” and to Sonny he said: “Gonna need your help in a sec.”

“Bravo One, this is HAVOC,” Blackburn’s voice crackled over their comms.

“Go for Bravo One.”

“We’ve got a problem: your exfil is going to be delayed. We’re looking at high winds, dense fog, and hail; it’s rendering us near-zero visibility on the mountain. Bottom line, you’ll need to hunker down until it passes enough to get a bird to you.”

Anger won over rationality and Jason’s words couldn’t be held back. “You’ve gotta be shitting me.”

They had no sure exit and his kid was bleeding out. Actively dying.

And there was nothing he could do about it.

Chapter Text

“We’ve got a problem: your exfil is delayed. We’re looking at high winds, dense fog, and hail; it’s rendering us near-zero visibility on the mountain. Bottom line, you’re gonna have to hunker down until it passes enough to get a bird to you.”

Anger won over rationality and Jason’s words couldn’t be held back. “You’ve gotta be shitting me.”

Sonny was livid, disbelief evident in his bright eyes. “Sonuva… Candy-ass pilots.”

They had no sure exit and their kid was bleeding out. Actively dying.

In a split second, Jason did the only thing he could do: saw the variables, pulled them together and planned.

“Can’t do that, HAVOC. We can’t confirm reinforcements weren’t called in before we got the drop. We’re sitting ducks up here,” he hissed out. “There’s an old farmhouse northeast of here, about a kilometer from the border. We’ll stabilize Six, make our way there, and hold out until the boys come get us.”

“Roger, Bravo One. We’ll be in contact and get the chopper to you as soon as we can.”

“HAVOC, this is Bravo Four,” Trent said into his comm. “We need a consult with the med team, I need to know how to proceed with our casualty.”

It wasn’t very often that Trent called for direction but he’d also never treated this type of abdominal trauma, let alone with evac so delayed.

“Bravo Four, I’ll get the trauma team on the other line. What’s the status of your casualty?”

“Bravo Six has sustained a concussion and an abdominal evisceration. He’s conscious but disoriented and suffering from moderate blood loss. We’ve established an IO, running wide open with normal saline. Need to know how to proceed with the evisceration before we move out: pack it back in and suture, or cover and wrap?”

“Stand by, Bravo Four.”

“Hey, Trent…” Brock’s attention flicked up to Trent, looking anxious and sounding hesitant - something which was so not Brock that Trent immediately refocused on him. “He’s got some fluid coming out of his ears.”

“You’ve got to be fucking shitting me,” Trent cursed, echoing Jason from a minute earlier. He dropped the pack of gauze he’d just grabbed and dove for Clay’s head. A gloved hand tilted his head from side to side, putting his ears under the glow of their handlamps. Sure enough, small trails of clear fluid dripped down the shell of his ears and into his curly, blood-soaked hair. Under the tips of his fingers which cradled the base of Clay’s skull there was a large, swollen bump.

And suddenly everything made a hell of a lot of sense. 

“What’s that mean? The fluid?” Sonny was anything but small in stature but he sounded it from where he sat, leaning close. “What’s wrong with him?”

“It’s cerebrospinal fluid. He’s got a skull fracture,” Trent said bluntly, and anything that Sonny had left to say dried up on his tongue, throat constricting painfully.

Trent thumbed open each of Clay’s eyes, studied the pupillary reactions to his headlamp. “Pupils are sluggish.”

Trent had treated every injury and illness of Clay’s since he’d joined their unit, and the kid’s symptoms were unfailingly plain and predictable. He knew to expect that small injuries brought exaggerated whining, that stomach bugs and headaches brought stillness, and that simple head injuries brought stunned placidity. 

He’d been so engrossed by the shock of Clay’s other injuries that he’d overlooked the one glaring distinction of this head trauma: pleading, slurring, babbling? This was far worse than a simple concussion.

He should have known better. He did know better.

It was too unnerving. 

He didn’t want to think about it more, and surely didn’t want to linger on the very real possibility that this could end with a final salute and his kid six feet under. 

“Damnit, Spenser.”

Clay winced at Trent’s rough treatment of his head. His throat throat issued a weird, groaning gasp of a sound, and he finally strung words together. “Tren’? What.. what’s, happ-ening?”

Jason looked over, saw the way their typically nonplussed medic was clenching his jaw, and he stepped in. “Listen, Spenser. I know you’re confused right now but you gotta stay calm. Remember we went over this earlier? You took the fast way down some stairs and you hit your head, that’s why things aren’t making sense,” Jason said, though most of his attention was now back at Trent, who had recollected himself and was back on comms with TOC. 

“Negative on the blood transfusion, none of us are a match,” Trent answered Blackburn. “He’s draining cerebrospinal fluid from both ears now. But bowel is a good color - pink. I’m not seeing any leakage or bleeding from inside the abdomen itself, our only bleeder was from his pelvis which is now controlled - priority is now the head injury.”

“Copy, Bravo Four,” Blackburn said, “our med team here has advised the best course of action is for you to wash the bowel with saline, then pack it back into the abdomen and close the wound with staples. He’s to have no meds or water by mouth, but you have pain meds you can give him by injection.”

“Boss?” Clay asked hoarsely, frowning when he saw his leader’s face through the blinding beams of light above him. He shifted restlessly on the floor. “What… happened? Shit, whe’.. where’m’I?”

Jason briefly closed his eyes and clenched his jaw against the fear that began to bubble deep in his belly. He repeated again, “You fell down some stairs, Clay.”

“Fell?” Clay repeated, uncertain. He stared up at his team above him as if he’d only just now become aware of their presence and he immediately got a little bit more alert. His fragmented thoughts rushed in hard and fast, but nothing clicked solidly together… he was on the hard ground. His brothers were overhead, deep lines of worry on their faces. He felt a bone-deep weakness and he hurt everywhere. 

It was Manila all over again, his worst nightmare, and once again he’d let down his team.

Fuck.

He would have fucking none of that.

Not weak, not hurt, get up get up get up get up...

Clay vigorously shook his head, as much as Brock’s knees would allow him, booted heels dragged against the floor as he was instilled with a disorientating, crushing panic. “Wait, wa,wait… lemme up, I’m.. b-boss? M’fine. I, uh… m’fine, m’not hu-hurt ‘gain,” he stammered, breath coming in rapid gasps. He tried to lock eyes with his brothers above him but everything was too unsteady and his mind disconnected to another place in time again. “The-they’re here.. I ca-can’t let… you down… ‘gain. I think, bomb.. Lemme up! We gotta.. go!”

Jason and Trent exchanged a glance, only holding it a second because, despite his injuries, Clay found a sudden surge of strength and rolled hard to the left. 

“NO!” They all cried in unison. Jason and Brock pushed him down by the shoulders while Sonny got his legs, sending Clay back down to the floor reeling in pain. The movement had disturbed the packed gauze in his hip, sending rivers of red blood down the sides of his pelvis.

“Fuck, Clay, stay still!” Trent ordered as he scrambled to add more gauze into the distal end of the wound. With his other gloved hand and a wide sheet of gauze, he braced Clay’s organs in place. The medic took a breath, talked through it for his own sake. “Dammit. We need to stop him from moving, stabilize this wound or he’s gonna bleed out. And this has to stay clean or we’ll be looking at some serious infection. Kneel on his shoulders if you have to, but for fuck’s sake, keep him down. Swear to Christ, Spenser, after we haul your ass out of here, I’m gonna start billing you personally for a damn frequent flyer fee.”

“Brock, trade places with me,” Sonny said, and the two of them quickly switched. Sonny crouched low, looking down into his brother’s ghostly pale complexion and the fear in his eyes.

“Hey there, Bamm-Bamm,” he said. “What’s this I hear about you giving our medic trouble?”

“Sonny?”

“That’s me, your favorite Sonny Quinn.”

But Clay ignored him, tried to pull his hand free from Jason’s iron-like grip, wanting to find his spare pistol in his thigh holster. “Need… m-my gun. Give it t’me. They, they’re here.”

“And just what do you think you need your gun for, kiddo? We schwaked all our tangos just a minute ago. No need for your pistol.”

“No…” Clay fought to get on his side again. There was a muffled Jesus! Hold him! from Trent, who, with Brock’s help, scrambled to hold pressure against his abdomen. “Gimme mmmy gun. They, they’re still here. St-still here.. Y-you need… backup,” then with an explosive exhalation of air that sprayed blood and saliva, he cried, “Sonny!” 

“It’s okay. You’re okay,” Sonny soothed. His touch was light as he smoothed Clay’s hair back, kept his expression neutral, even though inwardly he was freaking-the-fuck-out. “Relax, brother, c’mon.”

As if it was that easy.

As if it was even possible that a person with their guts hanging out and their head split open could just relax and keep still.

Clay, stand down!” Jason bellowed. Those words in particular should’ve cut through the mounting panic, but there was nothing. Clay’s body fought against the hands that pinned him down - chest heaved, sweat mixed with older blood that beaded down his face and neck. 

“Sonny, give it to him!” Trent hissed.

“Hold him good, Jase,” Sonny said breathlessly. Once he was sure Jason had Clay’s upper body secured, he let go and seized the kid’s Sig that he’d shoved into his waistband. He released the mag, pulled the slide back to clear the chamber. Once he was sure the pistol was unloaded he took Clay’s hands into his own, molding the shaking hands around the cold metal.

“Easy now, easy. Here ya go, kid,” Sonny said, leaning close. “You feel that? That’s your pistol. I need you to calm down and watch my six, we clear? You gonna watch my six, little buddy?”

Finally settled, Clay hummed low in his throat. He blinked up at him, detached. “Yeah.”

“That’s good. That’s real good, Clay. Now listen here, you’re hurt, but Trent is gonna fix you up and have you feeling better in no time, don’t you worry.”

Clay’s left hand dropped to the floor with a thud. His right, holding this pistol, was shaking from the weight of the weapon. He let it fall to his bare chest but his grip was true, finger poised carefully over the trigger. His eyes slitted open, looking tiredly around the room for danger. It was taking everything in him to stay conscious but his mission wasn’t over. He still had his team to watch.

### 

With his kid now cooperative, Trent released a sharp breath. Him and Brock had finally gotten the bleeding back under control and so now they could focus on taking care of the evisceration and pain control. It still hadn’t escaped him that they needed to move quickly - though they were in a rural setting and the storm would hamper any enemy reinforcements, they didn’t know for how long. 

Trent grabbed an autoinjector out of his med bag. 

“Okay, brother, I think it’s about time for some pain relief, what do you think?” He kept up the quiet conversation as he worked. “Brock, hold this here, keep counterpressure on his belly as I tilt him. Clay, I’m gonna roll you to your side, give you a stick in your hip. Let us do all the work. Jason, get his shoulders, we’re gonna move him towards me on three. Ready? One, two, three…”

After a quick alcohol wipe on his exposed skin he injected the ketamine, counted to ten and then rubbed the gluteal muscle with the heel of his palm. Clay noticeably relaxed as they moved him back flat, but his grip remained steady on the pistol. 

“How’s that, Clay? Scale of 1-10,” he asked as he lifted Brock’s hands away, briefly checking under the gauze to make sure nothing had shifted. 

“ ‘m good,” Spenser slurred. All the fight was fleeing him, leaving behind a worn weariness that made it difficult to even string words together.

“Give me a number on your pain.”

“Wha’... n’mber?”

“Scale of 1-10 for your pain, Clay,” Trent repeated again.

“Mmm… two.”

He seemed satisfied for the moment. “You let me know if it gets worse, got it?”

“That’s an order, Spenser,” Jason added.

“Mmm ‘k,” Clay murmured, then swallowed tensely. 

Trent eyed him, knew that look. “You nauseous?”

There was a second pause and then Clay, suddenly pale, nodded slowly. Trent rummaged quickly through his med bag, grabbing another injector. Should’ve prepared it earlier, he groused to himself, because he knew that narcotics made the kid nauseous. With a quick stick, he dosed him with Ondansetron. “Sorry, buddy. That should help soon.”

The effects of both drugs were nearly instant; Trent was grateful, considering what they were about to make him go through. Their youngest’s eyes blinked heavily upwards. His grip faltered, slid off his Sig.

“I’m gonna take your pistol, Clay,” Sonny said gently. He tucked the weapon back into his waistband and then placed his palm on his shoulder, squeezed. “You did a good job watching my six, now it’s my turn.”

“Wait.. bu-buut.. we good?” Clay’s gaze sluggishly tracked around the room, counting faces.

“Team’s all here,” Jason said. “Ray’s upstairs but he’ll be down in a minute. We’re good, Spenser, you can stand down.”

Sonny leaned closer, said in a soothing drawl, “We smoked ‘em and now we’re gonna get you tucked in nice and cozy and I bet the next time you wake up, you’ll be sipping on apple juice and gettin’ a sponge bath from one of those pretty Chair Force nurses at Bagram. How’s that sound?”

Clay made a noise of agreeance from the back of his throat. His whole world shifted out of focus, body growing numb, but Sonny went on above him, calm and unwavering. He hadn’t realized he’d closed his eyes… he felt the tug of unconsciousness and then he felt nothing at all.