Jensen smelled the salt in the air the moment he and Jeff stepped off the shuttle. Mila pressed up against his side and he dropped his fingers in her fur to settle her. She probably wanted to protect him from the other passengers, since her genetic enhancements made her more perceptive than the average dog.
Jeff took Jensen’s arm and guided him through the crowd. Their voices were loud – a mix of people talking, laughing, and going about their day. The Atlantic base was a hub of activity at the best of times, but especially so now when the tide of the galactic war had turned so thoroughly.
Fourteen years ago he’d stepped foot here as a green recruit for the Sex Corps. He’d left crippled and blinded after that disastrous last mission, with his sanity barely intact. Jared had spirited him back home to Texas to recover and it was there that Jeff had come to find him.
"All right?" Jeff asked in a low voice. He was so close that Jensen caught his unique scent – something strong and powerful that just screamed Jeff. It calmed him, damping down the panic that lurked just under the surface.
Jensen had adapted to his blindness -- he had -- as long as he kept to places he knew well, like the ranch back home. Here the empty space surrounded him without ending and he couldn’t begin to picture his location. He touched the device attached to the back of one ear. If he’d actually turned it on he’d get a verbal description of his surrounding area, but those descriptions were often more annoying than useful.
"Fine," he told Jeff, though Jeff knew damn well when Jensen wasn’t being entirely honest. "It’s been a long time."
Jeff continued to guide him, and Jensen left the device off. He trusted Jeff more than technology. "Not long enough for me. Ferris isn’t going to be happy to see me."
"She’ll be thrilled once she finds out you’re giving her exactly what she wants." Jensen still hated the idea. The military had wanted Jeff to bring Jensen back, to have him return to duty in order to go back to Harmony.
Harmony. Just the thought of the city had Jensen’s heart thumping a little faster. On that planet, he and Jeff had found each other, though it had started out as just another assignment for Jensen. He’d been the expert, guiding Jeff through a society with strict submissive/Dominant roles. But by the end of the mission, the playacting had become reality.
"Jensen, you want to go back." Of course he did. Jensen’s injuries had relapsed, thanks to the genetic engineering of the bastard who’d tortured him. Harmony was the only place with technology advanced enough to have a chance to heal him.
"It doesn’t mean I want to do it on their terms."
Jeff laughed. "You're not. It might be their ships and fuel, but it'll be under your rules."
Jensen couldn't help but grin. Jeff always knew exactly what to say. Even so, it had taken a while before Jensen had let him back into his life. So much time had been wasted thanks to Jensen's last mission, which had left Jensen injured and Jeff thinking Jensen had been killed. After Jeff had come to look for him, Jensen had pushed him away, uncomfortable with his injured body. Jeff refused to give up on him, and now here they were.
Was Jensen ready to go back to Harmony? After being tortured and enslaved by the Confed, Jensen had shied away from sexual contact. The sudden aversion had taken him by surprise, since his entire career had been about letting his body be used by whomever the UP military had ordered him to. Jensen had taken pride in his skills and ability to use his sensuality against their enemies. Jeff had awakened that desire again, and Jensen had felt a sense of relief – he hadn't lost something that was so intrinsic to who he was.
But on Harmony he'd be Jeff's sub again. They'd shared a scene or two in the bedroom, and Jeff had gotten it into his head that being Jensen's Dom meant being responsible for him outside of it. On Harmony they'd live that life and Jensen would be on his knees more often than not. At one time it had felt like a sanctuary, a place where Jensen could be himself, the natural submissive that he was. Now, he feared he was too broken to be that sub again.
"Ackles and Morgan, here to see General Ferris." Jeff spoke for them both once they entered the administration building. They had an appointment. Jensen wasn't dumb enough to spring this on Ferris without preparing her.
"Of course, sir. Please go on up. I'll let her know you're here." The aide sounded familiar.
It took Jensen a moment to remember that voice – to be fair he'd been half out of his mind with painkillers at the time. "Cadet Gyllenhaal? Is that you?" He fussed with the device on his ear, finally turning it on.
"It's Lieutenant Gyllenhaal now."
Jensen had never seen Sergeant Gyllenhaal's brother, so his mental picture of Jake was of a more masculine version of his sister. He told the device to mark the name and face for the future and then grinned at the young man. "What are you up to?"
Gyllenhaal had been training for the Sex Corps, but after Jensen's capture and very public torture, the UP had recalled all scuts – Sex Corp soldiers - from the field.
"We're all grounded. Some transferred to the other branches, but I really think they don't know what to do with us." Jake sounded exasperated. Jensen couldn't blame him; working a desk was not what they’d been trained to do.
"You could always transfer to the space branch," Jeff said. "We could use some good recruits in the Reclamation zone."
Jensen tensed a bit. Jeff had said 'we' – so much for being retired!
"I'll keep that in mind, sir."
They said their goodbyes and headed up to meet with the general. Jensen didn't want to be late. Tension tightened the back of his neck the higher the lift rose. Ferris had been his mentor when he'd been in training. She'd meant a lot to him; she still did.
"Hello, Jensen. It's good to see you again." Her voice rushed over him and gave Jensen the oddest sense of home. She was the closest thing to a parent Jensen had left. There might be others in the Corps who felt like family to him, but Sam Ferris was the only one to hold that role of mother and mentor.
"I wish I could say the same." He touched his temples, so she'd get the joke.
She caught her breath, so loud Jensen could hear it. He hadn't wanted to make her feel bad. Why was this so hard?
General Ferris looked genuinely happy to see Jensen. However, when her gaze fell on Jeff, her eyes narrowed and she all but glared at him. Jeff ignored it; he hadn’t left on the best terms with her the last time he visited. Hell, she might be more upset with him for bringing Jensen back here.
Mila guided Jensen to the empty chair next to Jeff, and sat on his feet, as if protecting him. It had been a damn good idea to get the dog. She calmed Jensen, providing extra support during his panic attacks. Right now Jensen sat up straight, but his hands were curled into claws in his lap, as if they pained him. After this was over Jeff vowed to massage each palm, to kiss and nuzzle the scars that marked where Jensen had been stabbed and pinned to the ground.
The thought of what had been done to Jensen still set rage boiling in his gut. The Confed liked to torture for the sake of torture and Jensen had been a political prisoner; they'd delighted in attempting to break him. But despite everything, his Jensen had not broken. He'd escaped, taking down the emperor of the Confed in his wake, and saving the UP in the process while the Confed fought itself looking for a new leader.
Still, Jeff couldn't completely stop the guilt that crept up on him in the middle of the night. Jensen had been alone out there and there had been nothing Jeff could do. He’d been helpless, just like when he’d lost his wife years ago.
"Jeff told me they wanted us back on Planet 328." Jensen leaned forward as he spoke.
Ferris picked up a stylus and tapped it absently on her pristine desk. "After the scuts were recalled, the Space corps replacements were hardly adequate." She let out a sigh. "Captain Bell went back in an attempt to smooth things over, but even that didn't make them happy."
"They're picky like that." Jeff remembered that all too well.
"We're willing to go back to 328." Jensen got very serious. "But on our terms."
Ferris looked right at Jeff, as if Jeff was the one responsible for all of this. "Oh? What terms?"
"Neither is us is going to re-enlist. If the UP wants us, we go in as civilian contractors. It's not completely unprecedented." Jensen was right - there were civilian team members in the Reclamation project. But by doing this, they wouldn’t be bound by certain military rules.
"I think we can work with that." She slid her fingers over the flat of her desk, pulling up a holoscreen. "But I'll have to run it past my superiors."
Jensen nodded. Neither of them expected otherwise. Jeff could only anticipate what other concessions the UP would want in return. "Is Hodge currently on base?"
Ferris looked surprised. "Yes, he is."
"I'd like to meet with him. We need to know what state he left Harmony in."
"I'll have Gyllenhaal see if he's available. If you’re heading out, we want you on that ship as soon as possible." Now Ferris looked just as determined at Jensen.
Jeff hoped this wasn't a terrible idea. Not the going back to Harmony. He wanted that with every fiber of his being. If there was a chance that Jensen could be healed with their advanced technology, Jeff would grab it. What he feared what the price the UP would enact for that healing.
Jeff hadn't seen Hodge for almost two years now, but even still, he knew the former scut hadn't looked so rigid and polished. Aldis Hodge was dressed in Space Corps colors, the uniform shirt stretched across his broad shoulders, which were held stiff as he walked into the conference room Ferris had arranged for their use.
"Commander, Major." Hodge stood at attention.
"At ease, soldier." Jeff smiled, but Hodge didn't shift his position. "At least have a seat, Hodge. This will take a while."
That cracked Hodge's stoic expression. He sat across from Jeff and Jensen. "Ackles – it's good to see you again."
Jensen grinned. "So everyone keeps telling me. I'm not used to being a celebrity."
Jensen's face had lit up the news feeds twice – the first when the Confed had sent the vid showing off their captives, and the second when he'd returned a hero. But Jared had kept Jensen out of the public eye, so he could heal from his injuries. That's why it had taken Jeff so long to find him.
Hodge sank the tiniest bit in his seat. "Man, we were all pulling for you. They tried to raise a coup over in Harmony."
"A coup?" Jensen repeated.
Jeff dug his fingertips into the hard wood of his chair. He could see it clear as day: the accusing eyes glaring at him, demanding that he do something. "Back when we first saw the feed of your capture, Hodge and some of the others tried to get a rescue mission going."
Jensen bit his lip. "But by the time you got the vid it was probably months out of date."
"And not a damn thing we could do about it." Hodge straightened again, into that perfect military bearing that looked so alien on him. "You know every scut was thinking – that could be me."
Jensen bowed his head. Jeff knew he was remembering his friend Mike, who'd been murdered on the vid, as well as the twenty-seven other scuts who'd died at the hands of their captors. He squeezed Jensen's thigh, giving what support he could.
"Well, doesn't matter now, does it? No scuts in the field anymore." Jensen took a deep breath.
"No." Hodge agreed. He tugged on the collar of his uniform as if it were uncomfortable. "I'm retraining for the Space Corps."
That explained the exaggerated care in his posture. "That can't be easy." Hodge was in for a hell of a lot of hazing. The Space Corps was Jeff’s branch and prejudice against scuts ran deep.
Hodge shrugged. Jeff realized Hodge didn't have much of a choice. Even if he wanted to say something or complain, he couldn't, not here on base, where the cameras always watched. He'd have to take his medicine like a good soldier.
"Aldis." Jensen surprised them both by using the man's first name. "What can you tell us about Harmony when you left? Why would the queen want me and Jeff back?"
"Besides the fact that they all love you there? Shit, man, you talk about celebrity." Aldis grinned. "Are you seriously going back to Planet Kink?"
Jeff coughed to hide the laughter that wanted to bubble up. That was certainly one way to describe Planet 328. "We're hoping their tech can heal Jensen's injuries.”
Hodge grew very serious. "If their tech could do that – well, that's something the UP would be VERY interested in. Very interested." He waggled his eyebrows and Jeff got the unspoken message.
There was no denying their government's interest in the alien technology that made up the city of Harmony. The war with the Confed had stretched them to the breaking point and only some sort of advanced weapon would turn the tide of war. But right now the Confed was hardly in a position to fight back, not unless the four remaining heirs stopped fighting each other and joined forces. New weapons tech would only be greedy at this point – and would let the UP devastate the remaining Confed forces.
"I'm sure they would," Jeff agreed, nodding to show he understood. How much of the UP's demand for progress had marked Hodge's mission?
"So, yes, we're going back." Jensen appeared to be looking right at Hodge. "Can you tell us anything we need to know? How did Kristin get to stay behind?"
Kristin Bell had been Hodge's partner – she should have been recalled as well. Jeff wished he'd paid attention to that back when he was still stationed out there, but he'd avoided Harmony and thrown himself into the rest of the Reclamation project – finding new planets with old UP colonies on them – to avoid thinking about Jensen and what they'd found together.
"Bell was recalled, just like me. We hadn't even made it halfway out when the base called the ship in a panic. Two Spacemen weren't cutting it." Hodge shook his head. The Space Corps were ill equipped to deal with the unique features of Harmony. If it hadn't been for Jensen, Jeff would still be ignorant of how a D/s society worked. "Command would only let one of us go back. I guess it's easier to fake being a Dom than a sub. She's assigned to some Spacer named Hartley."
"Fuck," Jensen muttered under his breath. He and Justin Hartley had history, going back to when Jensen was at the academy. Jeff had even had to get Hartley off Jensen's back while they were both on the Mercury.
"Look," Hodge leaned forward, clasping his hands on the table. "When I left there was a whole lotta political shit going down in Harmony. I can send my reports to your comm code – once you get the clearance settled."
"That's probably the best idea," Jeff agreed. "We have to catch the shuttle back to Texas."
He was worried about Jensen. It had been a long day, and they still had some traveling to do. After Jensen's relapse, Jeff had taken it upon himself to make sure Jensen was talking care of himself – taking his meds, and not overdoing it. It was time to go home.