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    Libby Drew
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

In Service of Others - 1. Chapter 1


In Service of Others


“My loyalty to my Country and Team is beyond reproach. I humbly serve as a guardian to my fellow Americans, always ready to defend those who are unable to defend themselves. The ability to control my emotions and my actions, regardless of circumstance, sets me apart from others. I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My Nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time.” —The Navy SEAL Creed

 

I.

Jess came back to himself bent at the waist and ankle deep in a shallow pool. He reached out, desperately seeking purchase, and his hand connected with something wet and solid: the plump thigh of a gray cement cherub. A gentle waterfall splashed from the end of the creature’s bugle, dousing Jess’s wrist.

“I’m in the fucking fountain,” he muttered.

“You are,” a man’s voice answered.

Jess lifted his head, taking in the barest of the stranger’s details—tall, blond, and well-dressed—before dropping his gaze to the orange and white dog at his side. The dog panted and smiled. Jess gave a shaky snort.

The man stepped over the lip of the fountain, leather loafers and all, and waded toward Jess. “Here. Give me your hand,” he said. He held his out, which was strong and capable-looking, and wiggled his fingers. “Your right hand. You can keep holding on with your left as long as you need to.”

The instructions touched something in him which should have been dead, but would probably never fade completely: the compulsion to obey orders. “Yes, sir,” he said. The sarcasm he’d hoped to convey missed the mark entirely. Or the man ignored it.

“Name’s Ben. Haven’t been called ‘sir’ since I left Bagram.”

“Yes, Ben,” Jess obediently recited.

“Good man,” Ben said when Jess raised a trembling arm. He grasped Jess’s hand in his and squeezed. “How are you feeling?”

In general, the same as always these days. “Fucked up,” Jess said, then sighed when Ben huffed a laugh. With a deep breath, he released his grip on the cherub, straightened his spine, and went where he was pulled, through six inches of frigid water toward dry ground. Ben helped him step over the fountain’s lip onto the cobblestones, then promptly pressed him to sit on the edge. Morose, Jess frowned at his waterlogged sneakers.

The dog, who’d been watching with her front paws perched on the ledge, dropped to all fours and settled between them. Uncaring of his damp state, she leaned into Jess’s leg and looked up at him. She had a beautiful boldly-patterned coat, vivid white and orange. They stared at each other for several seconds.

“This is Cora,” Ben offered. At her name, the dog’s ears shot forward.

“I don’t like dogs,” Jess informed her. “Back off.”

Cora set her chin on Jess’s knee.

Ben stroked her head affectionately. “Sorry about that. Clearly she doesn’t believe you. Plus she’s trained to offer comfort. Don’t begrudge the lady her job.”

Denying he needed such a thing at the moment would be fruitless. Giving in, Jess stroked a hand over Cora’s shiny coat. “She should be comforting you. You just ruined a nice-looking pair of shoes for nothing.”

Brow furrowed, Ben tilted his head. So did Cora. “It was hardly for nothing,” Ben said. “What’s your name?”

“Jesse Adams.” Jess dragged a hand across his mouth, mortified it was still trembling “Jess.”

“Take your time, Jess,” Ben said.

He did, concentrating on the small details of his surroundings. Birdsong and children’s voices filtered in. So did the bright sun, hot on the back of his neck. He took a steadying breath, then another when the first failed to clear his head. The dog, Cora, nuzzled his leg.

“Good girl,” Ben told her. A hand settled on Jess’s back, rubbing gently and slowly, back and forth. “She definitely has a crush on you.”

Jess petted her head, relieved to find his hand steadier. But with the steadiness came mortification. He eased away from Ben’s touch, and Cora, and stood, feet squishing in his shoes. “Thanks. I have to go.”

“There’s no rush,” Ben said, but he let Jess pull away.

There most certainly was. His car was within sight, a beacon of safety, or at least a satisfactory place to hide if his brain decided to take another powder. “No, I’m good. Thanks again.” He indulged in one more appreciative glance at his savior, then sloshed away with as much dignity as possible.


II.

Another beautiful fall morning in California. Another day in the prison of his own making.

The nightmares hadn’t been horrible the night before. Jess credited the three shots of vodka, which could either make them better or worse, depending. Either way, he’d been wired enough to take the risk. The appointment at the VA, then the episode with the guy and his dog, had left him out of sorts. Physically achy. Mentally scattered. Vodka with a feather pillow chaser seemed warranted. Unfortunately, chemically-induced sleep didn’t translate to a refreshed mind and spirit. SEAL training 101. He’d slept, but the deep muscle aches remained, and his emotions were still tender.

He had no blood relatives, and since what family he could claim was currently deployed, he didn’t expect the knock on his door at eight o’clock. He answered it in nothing but board shorts and a cup of coffee.

“Hi,” Ben said, gaze flicking over Jess’s bare chest before returning to his face. “Good morning.”

Jess said nothing, just sipped from his cup while Cora woofed quietly and raised a paw in his direction.

“Sorry if I caught you off guard,” Ben said. “I figured they would have told you I was stopping by. And, I know you probably weren’t expecting to see me, exactly.”

Jess made a mental note to cut back to two shots of vodka at bedtime. He inhaled more coffee fumes and eyed Cora before replying. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. And, hi. Sorry again about the shoes.”

Ben opened his mouth, closed it. Cora looked from him to Jess, then stood and woofed impatiently. Shaking off his verbal paralysis, Ben said, “Doc Mettic suggested you for my program. I recognized your name on the referral list when it came through my email last night.”

“Um,” Jess said intelligently. Ben grinned, and something fluttered in Jess’s stomach, a sensation rare enough these days that he thought it extinct. What the hell was he supposed to do with that?

“You okay?” Ben asked, shooting him another shy smile.

It was the smile, and what it might be broadcasting, that decided him. “Would you like to come in? And maybe explain? I have coffee.” He stepped back, propping the door open with his foot.

“That’d be great,” Ben said, stroking a hand over Cora’s head.

Jess wasn’t convinced “great” was the proper word, but time would tell. He donned a semi-clean shirt, ran damp hands through his hair, thought briefly about showering, ditched the idea, then padded back to the kitchen where Ben and Cora waited and poured a mug of coffee for his visitor.

“I can pay you for the shoes,” was the first thing he said. He couldn’t, really. Not without something else suffering. His financial situation was a house of cards these days. One strong gust could topple the whole thing. Disability benefits didn’t compare to combat pay.

“You’re not responsible for my shoes,” Ben said, exasperation plain in his tone. He looked to have ten years on Jess’s twenty-six, judging by the lines on his face, but he pouted like a toddler. “So enough of that already.”

“Yeah, okay,” Jess said, sipping from his mug. “So, what were you saying about Dr. Mettic?”

Ben handled the about-face with military-like reflexes, which fit, of course. Nobody hung around the VA for fun, and he’d said something about being in Afghanistan the day before. “Your name came through on Doc Mettic’s referral list for my therapy program.”

Jess nodded, waited, got nothing. “What therapy? I’ve already told him I don’t want to take any drugs.”

Ben held up a hand. “No drugs. It’s a service dog program.”

Oh, no. Jess set his mug down with more force than necessary. “Don’t need a teddy bear, thanks. I’m good.”

“There’s no weakness in it, Jess.” Undeterred, Ben dropped a hand to Cora’s head. She hadn’t left his side since they’d entered the house. “And believe me, I get the antagonism. We’re supposed to always be in control, right? Balanced and vigilant. And never, never needy. But let me tell you: that’s bullshit. Pure bullshit.”

“Must’ve missed that memo,” Jess said under his breath.

Ben let the comment go. “Why not at least entertain the idea?”

Jess hadn’t been recruited for SEAL training at eighteen for being pretty. “How many names come through on your list?”

“Monthly? It varies. Four? Five?”

“And you got this list yesterday? The day we met.”

“Yep.”

“How do you prioritize your appointments?”

Caught. Ben pursed his lips to hide his smile. “Okay, you got me. I recognized your name.”

“And immediately thought, ‘I’ve met this guy. He could use a furry security blanket. Gonna make him my first call.’”

“No,” Ben said. Authoritative and final, that tone. Officer-voice, Jess called it. “That’s not how it went down.”

“No? Was it my sparkling personality?”

“Are you being serious?”

Jess laughed. “My adorable ass?”

Ben said nothing, which was cheating, and the bastard had to know it.

“You out?” Jess asked. He left the question vague on purpose, cursing the flutter in his stomach.

Ben’s lips quirked. Cora, bored with the innuendo apparently, gave a low whine, and Ben relented. “Been out for two years. I’m a civilian now.”

Jess frowned at the non-answer.

“And by the way, I’ll be reaching out to everyone on my list this week at some point, so don’t start feeling like a special snowflake. I’m here in person because Doc wrote in his notes you’d probably shut me down if I broached the subject over the phone.”

“I’m going to shut you down in person, too. You had to know that.”

“I knew I had a better chance this way. And, off the record…” He reached out, set a hand on Jess’s bicep, “I wanted to see you again.”

Talk about playing dirty. “That’s seriously unethical.”

“Yeah, it really is.” Ben shrugged and wrapped both hands around his mug. “But I’m not a lieutenant anymore. Just someone trying to make things a little better for those of us who came back. A man, and in no way a saint. You want a no-bullshit conversation? There you go.”

Well, he’d asked for it. And Jess could give as good as he got. “Thanks for coming over, Ben. I don’t want a service dog.” He started to say he didn’t need help, then held his tongue. “Now that we’ve got that out of the way, is there anything else you want to ask?” He saw the struggle in Ben’s eyes, wasn’t sure what had put it there, and frankly didn’t care.

“Like what?” Ben asked, voice neutral.

“Like, ‘Thanks, Jess. Understood on the service animal thing. You’re a SEAL, not a pansy, after all. But hey, wanna fuck?’”

Being a prick came naturally these days, and Jess hated himself for it. Almost as much as he hated being reminded he was only a portion of the man he’d used to be. The rest had been stripped away in a desert eight thousand miles away and was lost forever, buried in some godforsaken sand dune. So fuck Ben what’s-his-name if he couldn’t take a dose of directness.

Ben barely blinked. “A SEAL reads the situation and adapts. A pansy runs away.” He downed the rest of his coffee and set the mug on the counter. “Wanna fuck?”

Jess cursed the leap of anticipation his body made. “Sure,” he said through gritted teeth.

His answer put a look of disappointment, of all things, on Ben’s face. He stood, made a subtle gesture to Cora, who stood and positioned herself by his side, and slid a business card across the kitchen island toward Jess. “For if you change your mind on the program.”


III.

The Navy’s training, then combat, ensured Jess could fall asleep anywhere, anytime, and stay that way unless a threat materialized. He’d tethered himself to a rock in a flooded sea cave once, relatively certain his air pocket would disappear while he slept, and even that little tidbit hadn’t stopped him from catching some shut-eye. Sand was either icy or scorching, depending on time and conditions, though not unpleasant to sleep on otherwise. He’d catnapped in airplanes, Humvees, and a handful of submarines. Mostly he’d awakened rested and alert, ignorant of any dreams.

Now, sleep was a bitchy, testy thing. His bed was too soft. The floor was better, but only marginally. The couch, lumpy and too short, usually held him under for an hour or two, but the dreams were what truly made sleep insidious, spinning the most horrific moments of his captivity around in his brain like a macabre carousel.

He self-medicated regularly. His tools were dull, his body debilitated. In the time before this one, Jess would’ve battled restlessness with a two-mile ocean swim. Or a six-mile soft sand run. Grueling PT. Obstacle courses. Now, emptying the dishwasher exhausted him.

Sometimes he thought about killing himself. But not often. Not yet.

What really pissed him off was the fear, because he’d been dropped into every screwed up situation on the planet and never been afraid. Now the thought of getting his mail made him sweat. “Yep, Jess,” he said to himself, eye to the front door’s peephole. The mailbox mocked him from the end of the driveway. “You are one fucked up dude.”

It wasn’t the possibility of danger to himself that held him inside. He’d left those eventualities behind when he retired from the SEALs. It was not having control of his mind that scared him, and how that might translate to violence. Most people didn’t understand how a random bang, or horn, or yell, or anything really, could turn him inside out. And they had no idea what he was capable of. He didn’t need a weapon. His bare hands alone were deadly.

“Sink or swim, Jess,” he whispered, lips brushing the cold metal of his front door. Sink or swim.

He started with a random Google search on service animals, got buried under the randomized results, and immediately narrowed his search to “military ptsd service dog useless”, then changed “useless” to “useful”. He’d been a glass half-full guy back in the day.

Google loved the idea and coughed up dozens of cute dog pictures to prove it. Jess thought about his mailbox, fifty feet from his front door, then about seeing Ben again, and decided he might be convinced. Since his bag o’ irrational insecurities didn’t include admitting when he was wrong or low-key flirting, he called the number on Ben’s card while still sitting at his computer.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said when Ben answered with an upbeat hello. “I’d like to hear more about your program, if that’s still possible.”

“It’s been two weeks,” Ben said. “I figured you weren’t going to be in touch.”

“I thought maybe I was sexy enough you’d make a little more effort to convince me,” Jess shot back, truth for truth.

The few beats of silence were telling, then Ben said, “It has to be your decision, Jess.”

Fucking psychobabble. He’d already seen his shrink this month. That was how he’d ended up in the fountain, for God’s sake. “Fine,” he snapped. “I’m interested.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Ben said evenly. “Would you like to meet somewhere?”

Jess immediately broke out in a cold sweat. “I don’t really go out,” he admitted. He waited for the chuckle, the thinly-veiled mocking tone, but got something else altogether.

“Okay. I’m free after three today. Want me to stop by then?”


IV.

Jess’s reflection showed him what he’d lost—weight and muscle definition—as well as what he’d gained: dark undereye circles and stooped shoulders. His hair had been stylishly long and tousled a couple of months ago but was now just unkempt. Shaving seemed a momentous task for little payoff, so he shoved his kit back under the sink, brushed his teeth, and called it good.

If Ben wanted him, he could have him as is or not at all. He wasn’t that desperate to get laid. “Such a liar,” he muttered as he puttered around the living room collecting dirty dishes. And that was the other thing about dogs: they always seemed to know when you were being dishonest. Jess lied to himself a lot these days.

Ben claimed to be out of the military, but he still carried himself like a soldier, in Jess’s opinion. With that in mind, he expected the man to arrive at three sharp, which he did, Cora trotting obediently at his side. Jess opened the front door before they reached the steps. “Thanks for coming over.”

“Of course.” Ben smiled at Jess as he ascended, and nope, Jess hadn’t misremembered—the dude was built. Big and buttoned-up like he wore full dress blues under his khakis and polo. That was okay. Jess could work with uptight. They met at the top of the steps and shook hands. Jess didn’t hide his perusal. Ben bit back a smile but didn’t do any looking of his own.

“I’m glad you called,” Ben said. “Very glad.”

That sounded promising. But also at odds with Ben’s body language. “I’m at the point where I’m willing to try anything,” Jess said.

“Last resort, huh?”

Jess didn’t deny it.

Ben leant down to pat Cora on the flank. “Well, why don’t we go in and get acquainted.”

Jess brewed gahwa. He’d enjoyed some amazing coffee over the course of his travels, which had sparked an appreciation for fine beans. Ben deserved the best he had on hand. For the ruined loafers, if nothing else.

“Nice,” Ben said after the first sip. “Can’t place the spice.”

“Cardamom.” Belatedly he wondered if the taste would spark unwelcome memories for Ben, but if they did, he made no sign.

“Well.” Ben set his cup aside. “Let’s start with the basics. Introductions. Cora is a two-year-old Brittany. Her parents were also service dogs, very good ones, and she definitely inherited their talents.”

“Oh.” Jess ran a hand through his hair. “So it would be Cora? I thought she was your… yours.”

Ben waved off the awkwardness. “Nope. I do have a dog. Sam. He came home with me from Afghanistan. Cora’s in training.”

Cora’s head whipped back and forth as her name was bandied about, then came to sit against Jess’s leg. Ben grinned. “I knew she liked you.”

The thought warmed him. “Okay. Explain to me how she can help.”

“Right to it?”

“Only way to learn.”

Cora did a crap-ton of useful things, apparently. She watched for people approaching from behind and the sides, then subtly blocked their approach. She recognized signs of an impending panic attack, many times even before her handler did, then deescalated them by leaning, pawing, nudging, or licking. She interrupted nightmares and offered comfort afterward.

“Really?” Skeptical, Jess looked down at Cora, who, sensing she was being scrutinized, nuzzled his hand before placing her chin on his thigh. Her eager, hazel eyes peered out from under an expressive brow. Jess’s heart softened. “You’re gorgeous, sweetheart.”

“Yeah. Don’t let her use those powers at the dinner table. You’ll end up feeding her your whole hamburger.”

“Speaking from experience?”

“Maybe. We’ll practice a few commands today. ‘Check’, ‘Nudge’, and ‘Seek’. If crowds make you tense at all, we’ll add ‘Block’.”

The embarrassment, fierce and not unexpected, closed this throat. Jess shrugged and scratched Cora’s ears. “Whatever.”

He didn’t meet Ben’s gaze again until the silence became awkward. When he lifted his eyes, Ben said, “There’s no stigma here.”

“There sure as fuck is.”

“Only if you bring it into the equation.”

“Kind of hard not to.”

“Come on, Jess. Use that famous intelligence and bravery you’re known for. Just get past it.”

“Okay.” Jess barked a laugh. “Nice deflection, but if ‘just get past it’ were a thing, you wouldn’t be sitting here with your cute freaking dog, failing to flirt with me.”

Ben sighed. “I know. Listen, I’m sure Doc Mettic has already covered this with you, and you’re smart enough to know it yourself, but we’re not bottomless wells. We can bury and bury, but eventually the lid’s gonna come off and the bad shit’s going to come a callin’. You’re no less of a SEAL, or a man, when that happens. How you deal with it determines that.”

There was too much heartfelt truth in Ben’s words and tone for Jess to dismiss. “Thanks for the pep talk,” he said quietly.

Ben held both hands out, palms out. “Ready to hear more?”

“Hit me.”

“Let’s start with ‘Nudge’. This command is for overwhelming memories, flashbacks and anxiety attacks. She may do this on her own, but if you want to initiate her intervention, just give her the command.”

Jess stared down at Cora. Unwavering, she looked back. “Nudge,” he said. Cora came to all fours and gave him a firm headbutt on the arm.

Ben nodded approvingly. “She may follow up with another one. Or a lick, if she senses you haven’t refocused. Now try ‘Check’.”

And on it went.

“I’ll be back tomorrow, if that works for you,” Ben said after a couple of hours. “Consistency is key.”

For who, Jess thought. “Sure,” he said, unable to hold back his bitter laugh. “I’ve got no other plans.”


V.

“Who’s this?” Jess asked the next morning when Ben showed up with Cora as well as a large German shepherd.

Ben dropped a small duffel inside the door. WARRIOR PROJECT was embroidered across the side in all caps. “This is Sam.”

“Sam Shepherd,” Jess said, smirking.

“I know, right?” Ben winced. “I didn’t pick it. He came to the unit already named and trained.”

Jess greeted Cora, who expressed her pleasure at seeing him with enthusiastic tail wagging, then took a seat, gesturing for Ben to do the same. Ben sat in the adjacent chair, and Sam settled at his side, stiff and at attention. “He seems pretty tense,” Jess said. “Thinks he’s still in the Army.”

“He’s not the only one with that problem.”

“That would be funny, except I was in the Navy. Don’t be confusing them again.”

Ben shook his head. “You SEAL pups are so sensitive.”

“Not at all. We just know we’re the best.”

Ben dropped his head into his hands. “Your ego’s intact, anyway.”

Jess stretched out his foot and toed Ben’s calf. “You should know that by now.” At Ben’s one-shouldered shrug, he said, “So tell me about Sam.”

Ben regarded his dog with affection. “Sam here can sniff out an IED from fifty feet away.”

Jess raised an eyebrow. “Impressive. How did you end up with him?”

“The handler/dog bond is one of the strongest there is.”

Not exactly an answer. Patient, Jess stroked Cora’s head and waited. Ben relented. “We were deployed together three times. Got a close-up view of just about every rock, road and village from Kabul to Kandahar.”

“You brought him home with you?”

“Not exactly.” Clearing his throat, Ben sat back. The shepherd shifted his weight, pressing against Ben’s calf, and absently, Ben set his hand on Sam’s neck. “I have some experience with what you’re going through, Jess. I was a mess when I got back. That constant idea that your time to die could come at any moment… it weighs on you. I took it all in, like we’re trained to, and buried it. Didn’t even realize how screwed up I was until I got out of the hospital.”

“You were injured.”

Ben’s hand, which had been rhythmically stroking Sam’s back, stilled. “I was.”

“Bad?” Jess asked. The thought disturbed him more than it probably should’ve, considering Ben was little more than a casual acquaintance.

That question was blatantly ignored. “I had it all. The alphabet soup of PTSD. Nightmares. Panic attacks. Hypervigilance. Emotional and functional disturbance. Substance abuse.” He met Jess’s concerned gaze. “Suicidal thoughts.”

Jess caught his breath. “You were depressed?”

“Nope. I was pure baseline. No highs. No lows. Just completely emotionally shut down.” Ben gave a deep sigh. Sam glanced up at him, and the two shared a look. “Sam showed up at my door one day. With a military escort, of all things, and a letter from my commanding officer. It was two sentences long. The guy was never one to wax poetic.”

“What did it say?”

“It said, ‘Here is a protector to watch over you. Like you watched over the world.’” He reached to unclip Sam’s collar, then tossed it over the coffee table to Jess, who caught it deftly. “He came with this too.”

Jess was confused until his eye caught the inscription etched on the inside of the leather band. “‘This We’ll Defend.’ The Army motto.”

“I figure he’s saved my life about a hundred times. So far.” With one last fond smile at Sam, Ben refocused on Jess. “Enough of that. Ready to get started?”


VI.

When Ben showed up every day for two weeks, Jess figured the guy either didn’t have a life or had a secret crush on his client. Hoping for the second, he never remarked on the frequency or length of the visits, which stretched longer each day. Then, two weeks after Ben introduced him to Cora, he suggested a walk around the neighborhood.

Jess preferred their status quo—the idea of being in public still scared him—but backing away from a challenge wasn’t in his nature.

“Ready for this?” Ben asked as Jess stepped into his sneakers.

“The only easy day was yesterday,” Jess recited like a good little SEAL. Hooyah.

Ben eyed him as he fastened the buckle on Cora’s service vest and attached a lead to the clip near her withers. “This isn’t a mission. You can speak up if you feel you’re not prepared. You can say you don’t want to go and give me no reason at all.”

That was a novel concept and still too foreign for Jess to wrestle into submission. “No, I’m ready.”

Ben shot him an encouraging smile as he handed over the lead. “She’s good. One of the best I’ve trained.”

“I’m not worried about her,” Jess grumbled. He kept Cora’s lead in a death grip while Ben attached Sam’s vest. Nausea rolled through his gut. “I feel like I’m about to take a test I didn’t study for.”

“Yeah, and I know you. That’s got to be terrifying.”

“Fuck you,” Jess said with a laugh.

Just inside the door, Ben reached for Jess’s hand and squeezed it in his. “Breathe.”

Jess held tight when he tried to withdraw. “Do I get a reward if I do good?”

“Sure,” Ben said, stroking a finger over Jess’s knuckles. “There’s an ice cream place across from the park. I’ll buy you a cone.”

They made it down the street, across the intersection, and through the park to the playground without incident. Cora walked pressed against Jess’s leg, the pressure surgically precise. She licked his hand every minute or two.

“What’s that about?” Jess asked.

“You’re close to hyperventilating,” Ben said. “It’s her way of alerting you.”

Jess almost denied it. “Shit, I didn’t even realize.” He reached deep, drew on his training to slow down and even out his inhalations. It must have worked because the sloppy hand kisses ceased.

“Want to stop here?” Ben indicated a bench, and Jess nodded. They sat, Ben murmuring to Sam, “Watch our six,” and the shepherd turned to keep an eye on what was happening behind them.

Jess shook his head. “I don’t need that.”

“Maybe I do.”

With one eye on Sam, Jess considered Ben’s statement. “Where were you stationed?”

“Told you. All over.”

“I mean the last time.”

Ben leaned back and crossed one leg over the opposite knee. “Small village in Afghanistan. Can’t remember the name.”

Lie, Jess thought. The first Ben had told him, was his guess. Even Sam gave his master a hard look.

“Place was kinetic. Small arms fire, mostly. A-K’s. Bullets. Which was fine, believe it or not. We were dug in. Eventually we beat them down enough to spread out and patrol for IEDs.” He stopped and swallowed hard. Jess watched him do it twice before reaching over to take his hand. Sam rose to all fours and nudged Ben’s knee with his snout. “I’m fine,” Ben said, scratching his head. The sad smile he turned on their joined hands almost had Jess pulling back, but Ben curled his fingers over Jess’s, trapping them in his. “They were buried everywhere. Fucking… everywhere. And it wasn’t just soldiers getting hurt. Locals too. Civilians.” He worked his jaw back and forth. “Kids.”

Sam pawed Ben’s leg. Then, to Jess’s surprise, the big dog leapt onto the bench and climbed into his lap.

“Okay, okay,” Ben said, exasperated, but not pushing Sam off either, Jess noticed. The shepherd was a healthy size, a still heavily-muscled war dog, and had to feel like a ton of bricks on Ben’s legs. “This is something we’ll train Cora to do as well,” he said to Jess in a more normal voice.

“Crush me?”

Ben laughed, gave Sam a pat, said, “Good check, good check,” and coaxed him off the bench. “Provide calming tactile pressure. It’s a grounding technique. Brings you back if the memories start feeling a little too real.”

“Does any tactile pressure work?” Because Jess could think of a few more pleasant kinds.

“I think,” Ben said, slowly pulling his hand away. “It’s time for that ice cream.”

Since directness was an ingrained aspect of his personality, and had been even before the military, Jess said, “Listen, if you’re not interested, if I’ve read this wrong, just say so.”

Ben stayed hunched over, elbows on his knees for a moment before rising and taking up Sam’s lead. “It’s not that I’m uninterested. I’ve just got my own insecurities, kid.” He set off toward the ice cream stand, and Jess followed, Cora at his side. He chewed on Ben’s confession as they walked. Sam trotted next to his master, thoroughly scoping the parking lot and surrounding picnic tables. Apparently, ‘once a soldier always a soldier’ applied to dogs as well. A civilian from birth, Cora wasn’t as suspicious. She trotted to the window, sank to her haunches and examined the colorful picture menu, head tilted, while Ben ordered.

“It doesn’t seem fair,” Jess said.

“What?”

“You doing all this for me. Cora. The time. The training. In the meantime, who’s helping you with your issues?” Jess asked as the cashier took Ben’s money and handed over the goods.

Ben presented him with a chocolate-dipped cone. “You are.”


VII.

The last appointment with Dr. Mettic had ended badly. Jess wasn’t eager for a repeat.

“It’ll be different,” Ben insisted, squeezing Jess’s shoulder. “This time you have Cora.”

“And you,” Jess insisted, feeling cowardly but unable to swallow back the words.

“If you like. I’ll walk you as far as the courtyard and wait by the fountain until you’re done.” He pulled Jess into a hug, which was worth a thousand trips to the shrink, in Jess’s opinion. He clung hard for a minute, relishing every hard plane and angle. “This is what she’s trained for,” Ben said. “You have to trust her.”

“I do.” He did. It wasn’t a lie. But he didn’t like variables, and there was never any predicting what demons Dr. Mettic would unleash in that day’s session. “Thanks,” Jess said belatedly.

“This is going to work,” Ben whispered in his ear. “Then we’ll go back to your place and celebrate.”

It did work. And three hours later on his back porch, Jess allowed Ben to rub it in over a cold lager. “I did feel my heart start to pound a couple of times,” he admitted.

“Mmm.” Ben took a sip of beer. They lounged side by side in matching Adirondack chairs, dogs lying a few feet away. Cora slept while Sam watched a pair of squirrels chase each other through the tall oak overhead. “Did you give her any commands?”

“No. She gave my ear a bath a few times, though.”

“She’s discovered it’s one of your sensitive spots.”

Jess watched Ben’s lips seal over the end of his bottle. “It is. Hope you’re taking notes.”

After a full month and literally a hundred playful comments, Jess had almost stopped looking for a reaction to his come-ons. Tonight, his eyes caught the slight dip of Ben’s eyelids and subtle blush that rose on his cheeks. They wouldn’t be getting naked that evening, clearly, but it was progress.

From somewhere close by, a child screamed. Both dogs raised their heads. Cora’s gaze swiveled from Jess, to the direction of the scream, then back again. Sam assessed Ben visually, then rolled onto his side and zeroed back in on the squirrels. Cora, on the other hand, stood, stretched into a bow, then padded over to sniff Jess’s hand. “She’s checking on you a lot tonight,” Ben said. “Was it a bad session?”

“Aren’t they all bad?” Jess muttered. Ben didn’t answer, which was a clever trick of his to keep Jess talking, and it usually worked. “It kind of sucked, yeah. We talked about… fuck.” He took a long swig from his bottle. “My team was spun up last minute for a mission. High value target. We only had a few hours to prepare, which is no excuse, but everything went wrong. Full on fubar. I was, uh… captured. Me and three members of my team.”

Ben shot him a sharp look. “Where were you?”

“Can’t disclose that. Sorry.”

“Understood.” Ben rolled the beer bottle between his palms. “You all make it out?”

Throat tight, Jess shook his head. “Got pinned down. Missed exfil. Took ‘em forty-eight hours to find us.”

When Ben reached for his hand, Jess clasped it tightly. “I never had anyone important, you know?” he said. “Grew up in two different foster homes, didn’t get tight with any of the other kids there. Walked into the recruiter’s office on my eighteenth birthday and never looked back. So, the Navy, it’s my home. And my team was my family. We were good, Ben. We were so fucking good. I used to think nothing could touch us.”

It all reared up. The guilt. The pain. The sense of failure. Almost overwhelming, but not completely, because he also felt Ben’s hand in his, Cora’s weight in his lap, and, son of a bitch, her tongue in his ear again. “Oh my god,” he grumbled, pushing halfheartedly on her chest. “Stop. That’s obscene.” The licking ceased, but she didn’t go far, choosing to camp out on his feet. Jess pretended to grudgingly allow it.

“I’m going to leave Cora with you tonight,” Ben said as he shrugged into his jacket a couple of hours later. He cut off Jess’s refusal. “It’s time.”

“You think I won’t be okay on my own?”

“She’ll just worry about you all night if I make her leave now.”

Jess barked a laugh. “Nice save.”

“You’ll be fine.”

Fear took Jess suddenly. Not the usual kind, either. “You’ll come back, though, right?” Because if Ben didn’t, if this was goodbye, Jess would most certainly not be fine.

Sam sat obediently while Ben attached his lead. “I’ll stop by in the morning. See how you guys did.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

Ben arrived as promised at 8 a.m. with fresh breakfast sandwiches from the deli. He returned the next afternoon to help Jess work on his busted water heater. The following day, he asked if he could stop by to have Jess help him pick names for a pair of puppies he was adopting. Eventually, the excuses stopped, though the visits continued, and Jess privately celebrated breaking through one of Ben’s walls.

Cora moved in, and Jess started sleeping through the night.


VIII.

The fog began to lift. Jess’s BUD/S instructor would have given the bulk of the credit to the renewed exercise and workouts, and he wouldn’t have been completely wrong. Getting back into peak physical condition after sitting on his ass for three months was no picnic, though. The endorphins helped.

So did Cora.

She ran alongside him, never flagging, then flopped on the rubber mats laid out in his garage, watching while he pushed himself through calisthenics and strength training. Jess found her to be a good listener, maybe as good as Dr. Mettic, not that he’d ever say it to the man’s face. And since she appeared to never tire of listening, he kept talking.

“Tell me about Ben,” he said one day, a bit breathless. “You’ve been with him since you were a puppy? He said he knew your parents.” He’d been holding the plank for ten minutes, and was feeling it, but fifteen was his goal.

Cora lifted her head from where it had been resting on her paws and regarded him with sleepy eyes.

“Not sure I have him figured out yet,” Jess admitted. “Guy has a gold medal in mixed signals, don’t you think?”

Cora’s tail thumped lazily on the floor.

“Yeah, he really does.” Jess pushed out a long breath and ignored the trembling in his core. “So.” He peeked at Cora through the fringe of sweaty hair that had fallen over his eyes. “I need some mission parameters. Any ideas?”

Cora reached out to paw his shoulder.

“Fuck him into submission?” Cora woofed under her breath, and Jess gave up, collapsing to the mat with a groan. “That’s a plan I can get behind. I just have no idea how to execute it.”

He decided on a home-cooked meal: steaks, his famous cheesy whipped potatoes, and roasted asparagus. If nothing else, it would mean an evening with good food and good company. And Cora would get a playdate with Sam. At this point, the German shepherd was as much a member of their little family as she was. “Bring Sam, of course,” Jess told Ben on the phone. “I bought a small flank steak for him and Cora to share.”

“He’ll never want to leave,” Ben said with a chuckle. The statement, said in jest, made Jess’s stomach flutter.

“He’s welcome to stay as long as he likes,” Jess replied quietly, then shook his head at the ensuing silence that echoed over the line. “Does six work for you?”

“Six is fine,” Ben said.


IX.

Jess watched from behind the kitchen island as Sam trotted through the front door. Ben followed more slowly, pausing to hang Sam’s lead on the hook next to Cora’s before heading in Jess’s direction.

Eyes sharp, Jess caught the slight unevenness in his gait. “Did you stub your toe?”

At the question, Ben’s stride faltered, and he glanced at Jess, eyes wary, before continuing across the living room. “Sorry?”

“You’re limping.” Jess paused in patting herbs onto the Delmonico he was preparing. “Did Sam trip you?” Ben started to answer, stopped, then pursed his lips and ducked his head. Curious now, Jess pulled parsley from the strainer and shook off the excess water. “Everything all right?”

“Yeah,” Ben said, voice pensive. “I just didn’t think you’d pick up on that. The limp. Guess I should’ve, knowing you.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment. You okay?”

“I… am.”

“That sounds convincing.”

With a sigh, Ben sank onto one of the stools at the kitchen island, appeared to gird himself, then said, “It’s the prosthesis. The gel cushion is getting worn out, and it makes long days more difficult. I’m due to get a new socket fitted. Just haven’t gotten around to it.” He looked prepared to say more but didn’t.

Jess waited a beat. “I didn’t know, I’m sorry. How much did you lose?”

“I never told you, so don’t be sorry. Most of the foot. The guy walking in front of me stepped on an IED. He lost more than I did.”

Deciphering the tone proved impossible. Jess heard the defensiveness, though, loud and clear, and wondered what, or who, had put it there. Still, the solution wasn’t rocket science. “Sorry that happened to you,” he said, then turned back to the steaks. “If it’s painful, take it off.” Three turns into the pepper grinder, Ben still hadn’t moved. Jess frowned up at him. “What’s wrong?”

“I—I don’t normally…”

Jess waited, grinder hovering over the meat.

“I don’t normally do that.”

“Okay.” Jess shrugged and moved on from pepper to crushed garlic. “But it’s clearly painful. You really shouldn’t put off getting fitted for a new one, especially if the padding’s been compromised. Must make the skin super tender if you go long hours with it on.”

Eyes glued to Jess, Ben nodded, but he didn’t otherwise move.

Jess rubbed fresh garlic into the steaks. “I kind of wanted us both to relax tonight, you know? Have a nice meal… whatever. So take it off and grab a seat. You carry travel crutches in your bag, I’m assuming.”

“I do,” Ben said in a whisper.

“Sweet.” Jess regarded the steaks critically. “Hope you like garlic. I might’ve gone a little overboard. Don’t worry, though. All the dogs got on theirs was a bit of sea salt.”

Ben stared at him for nearly a minute—Jess purposefully ignored him—then rose and fetched a pair of folding crutches from his WARRIOR PROJECT bag. He took them to the couch, sat, but did nothing else.

Swallowing a sigh, Jess washed his hands, then stalked into the living room and planted himself in front of Ben. Hands on hips, he said, “Okay. Let’s have it.”

“Let’s have what?”

“The sitrep. What’s the problem with the prosthesis?”

Ben sank back against the cushion. “It’s not pretty.”

“No?” Jess pressed a hand to his heart. “You don’t say.”

“Asshole.”

Something in Jess’s chest relaxed at the fond tone. “I’ve been on missions all over the world, Ben, and some have been a hot mess. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen just about every physical injury imaginable, including some that men never got up from.”

“I believe it.”

“Then what are you worried about?” He leaned closer, gently butting Sam out of the way when he tried to ease between them. “I’m not going to hurt him, Sam. Come on, Ben. Spill.”

“I already did.”

Jess rewound the conversation in his head, assessed the words, then shook his head. “Do you think I’ll be turned off by it?” Ben didn’t answer, which was answer enough. Jess blew out a breath. “I won’t be.”

Ben tilted his head back against the cushion and closed his eyes. “So sure?”

“I take it you know someone who finds it unpalatable?”

“Turns out, I didn’t really know him.”

And there it was. Jess was smart, but his true gift had always been keen intuition and the courage to follow it. He tossed the kitchen towel aside and sank to a crouch in front of Ben, whose eyes shot open when Jess clasped his calf. “You asked me to take a chance on Cora. I did. I’m asking for the same thing now. Come on. What can you lose?”

Ben lifted a hand and cupped Jess’s cheek. “You.”

“That’s not gonna happen. So let’s do this thing.” He grabbed the crutches, shook them out, locked them in place, and waited.

Ben swallowed hard. “Okay,” he said and hitched up his pant leg.

A life full of uncertainties had given Jess an appreciation for the things he could control. This hang-up, this one fear that Ben nurtured, Jess could blow it out of the water without even trying. “Not sure whether to curse this guy for being a prick or thank him for letting me have you,” Jess said as Ben loosened the laces on his sneaker.

Ben shook his head, withholding any comment. He went at most tasks with complete focus, Jess had found, and this was no different. He pried the shoe free, then stripped the sock off the orthotic. “Dynamic carbon,” he told Jess, unstrapping a brace from his calf. “Smooths out my gait. Puts less pressure on the socket.”

“Good to know,” Jess said, eyes locked on Ben’s face.

Ben’s hands shook as he broke the suction on the sleeve and slid the prosthesis free. Jess set the device aside and examined the residual limb. “Yep, definitely red and swollen.” He hooked the nearby ottoman with his leg and pulled it over, staying Ben’s hand when he tried to push the material of his jeans back down. “Keep that elevated while I finish dinner, okay?”

Ben caught his fingers when he stood. “We okay?”

“Yeah,” Jess said with a low laugh, leaning down to press a lingering kiss to Ben’s lips. Their first. “We’re fine.”

Later, when the dogs had slipped into a meat coma, and Jess couldn’t wait any longer, he led Ben down the hall to his bedroom. Ben stopped just over the threshold, using the end of one crutch to ease the door nearly shut.

“Close it all the way,” Jess said, stripping out of his t-shirt.

Ben shook his head. “The dogs will fuss if they can’t get in.”

“Really?” Jess crooked a finger, coaxing Ben forward, until they were standing chest to chest at the end of the bed. “So they might bust in on us?”

“Maybe.” Ben nuzzled Jess’s neck, stealing his breath and obliterating his cheeky reply. “Is that going to be an issue?”

Jess sank to the mattress, took the crutches and put them aside, and pulled Ben down on top of him. “I’ll get past it.”


X.

The dogs adored the beach, and Jess loved to watch Cora play with Sam. He lobbed the KONG into the air, laughing as Sam raced her to catch it. He had size and strength, but her speed and agility meant she won this game more than she lost.

“She turns on a dime,” Jess said, then fell silent.

Wordlessly, Ben took his hand as they strolled. “What’s going on? You’ve been quiet all morning.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Jess felt compelled to say. “Not really. Just got an email late last night, and I’ve been thinking about it.”

“What was it?” Ben shielded his eyes from the sun as Sam gave up on stealing the KONG and started loping back toward them, Cora on his heels.

“It was an offer. A job offer.”

“Okay.”

“To train SEALs.”

Ben nodded his approval. “Makes sense. You have the skillset and the temperament. Here, or in Virginia Beach?”

“Here. At Coronado,” Jess said, frowning at the open antagonism in his tone. Ben picked up on it, of course.

“You don’t sound thrilled. Do you not feel ready?”

“I could do it.” He did, after several months, finally feel stable enough to entertain the idea. But the past year had brought many changes, and not all of them unpleasant. “Just not sure I want to.” He sighed. “But I have to do something. And let’s face it, Ben, the Navy is all I know.”

“It’s not all you know.”

“Is this conversation about to get R-rated?” Jess gave an oof as Cora bounded into him, red KONG hanging precariously from her teeth. He snatched at it, and she danced away.

“Not immediately. Maybe later. I do have an idea, though.”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve been looking for a partner.”

Jess eased close enough to stop the wind from blowing between them. Ben’s heat, his bulk and scent, tempted him to touch, as it always did. “Thought you’d found one,” he said against Ben’s lips.

Ben curled an arm around Jess’s waist, but he didn’t kiss him. “I meant a business partner.”

Jess swayed far enough back to examine Ben’s expression. “For the Warrior Project?” He smiled cynically when Ben nodded. “You want me to work with service dogs.”

“There’s more to it than that.”

“No, I know. It’s just… I’ve never done that.”

“Oh hell, Jess, you’ve been doing it for months. You pretty much trained up those puppies on your own while I was dealing with the Tomlinson case. I actually don’t know what I would’ve done if you hadn’t. Listen.” He retreated a step and made sure he had Jess’s full attention. “The demand is far greater than I can meet on my own. I don’t have time for all the men and women who could use a dog like Cora.”

A flutter of something in Jess’s stomach had him swallowing hard. He wasn’t a nervous soul by nature, so what was it? Excitement? To buy time, he hooked a finger in the waistband of Ben’s jeans and pulled him back in. “Maybe you would have the time if you stopped spending every night at my place.”

“Maybe I would, but I’m not going to do that.”

“No?”

“No. It’s a work/life balance thing.” Ben gave in to Jess’s tug and kissed him. Jess licked the salty taste off Ben’s lips as the dogs bounced around them in the sand.

“You really think I’d be good at that?” Jess asked.

Ben’s loud laugh startled a flock of nearby gulls, and they lifted off the beach in a graceful wave. The dogs gave chase, Cora’s ears flopping so adorably that Jess didn’t have the heart to call her back. “Jess,” Ben said. “Have you ever not been able to master a skill you set your sights on? That’s just who you are. It’s your gift.” He turned Jess in his arms, folded him against his chest, and together they watched Cora and Sam kick up wet sand as they ran along the shore. “I’ll get you your own duffel bag.” Ben said in his ear.

“Sweet talker.”

Ben hugged him close. “So what do you think?”

Jess turned the idea over in his head. It felt right. It felt perfect, actually. “Yeah, okay. I’m game.” He smiled at the pleased sound Ben made in his ear, steeling himself as Cora raced toward him. He caught her front legs as she pounced, but she still managed to plant her wet, sandy paws on his chest. She grinned at him, and he grinned back. “Let’s do it.”


END

Copyright © 2023 Libby Drew; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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17 hours ago, JohnnyC said:

Thank You Libby for This Beautiful and Caring Story about These Two Vets 😁

You are so welcome! Thank you for reading and commenting. 😊

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17 hours ago, Bifairy said:

Loved this. Perfect balance of sweet, serious and heartfelt.

Thank you! So glad you enjoyed it. 

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12 hours ago, Jim Fraser said:

Beautiful story @Libby Drewand but from you I've learned to only experience perfection. Made my heart so warm. 

Awesome! So glad to hear you enjoyed it. Thanks very much for the comment. 

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6 hours ago, drpaladin said:

Men are not machines regardless of the extensive training they receive and too often we demand the impossible from those serving in the military.

This gives us a view into how service animals aid those suffering from PTSD. I found it fascinating how these subtle interactions mollified stress so effectively. Amidst this we have a burgeoning romance between two damaged men. Well crafted and told.

Always a pleasure to know I entertained you. Many thanks. 🥰

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2 hours ago, CincyKris said:

Beautiful story!  This was a realistic account of 2 men living and learning how to cope with life after service.  They will be able to be happy and successful together, and help others like them survive. 

Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. 

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On 10/26/2023 at 6:24 PM, Libby Drew said:

Jess suffers from PTSD, which triggers flashbacks. That is how he ended up in the fountain. Thank you so much for the comment and compliments. They mean a lot to me. Glad you enjoyed the story. 

 

Actually, Libby, it would have been better if you used this to start the story.  You could have shown Jess reliving one of these episodes, diving for safety, and realizing he'd merely ended up in the fountain at a different point in time.  It would have given the reader a lot better idea of what was going on.  

Edited by Bill W
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