Title: The Only One Who Knows
Authors: Cat Grant, L. A. Witt
Three Years Ago
“Goddammit, Lieutenant Walker! Get the fuck up off the motherfucking ground right fucking now!”
Josh grimaced at the sound of Chief Flint’s voice and forced himself to his feet. His legs were done. Completely fucking done. How long had they been running in full battle rattle on soft, slippery sand? The December sun wasn’t even that hot—not that it mattered; lugging around a forty-pound rucksack still had him drenched in sweat. He’d lost track of time ever since his vision had started to sparkle and he’d had to concentrate on forcing his legs to work instead of crumpling underneath him.
The other guys panted and grunted and swore, but they kept going. Josh fell behind. Caught up. Fell behind again. And this time, he couldn’t catch up.
And of course, this time, Chief Flint was watching.
Flint called the entire group to a halt and gave them permission to drop their rucksacks. Before Josh’s had even hit the ground, the chief got right up in his face. “You think I’m going to let you lead a fucking team of goddamned SEALs into hostile fucking territory when you can’t even stay up on your goddamned feet, Lieutenant?”
“No, Chief.” Josh licked his parched lips. “I’m sorry, Chief, I—”
“I don’t want your fucking apologies!” Flint screamed at him. “I want you running at the front of the fucking pack, not stumbling around like you don’t know what your motherfucking legs are for! Am I fucking clear?”
Josh gritted his teeth. “Yes, Chief.”
Flint narrowed his eyes. Quieter now—but no less menacing—the chief snarled, “This is the third time I’ve seen you drop, Walker.” Stepping closer, he added, “I’m starting to wonder if you’re cut out to be a SEAL at all.”
Josh’s heart skipped. “I am, Chief. I am cut out to be a SEAL.”
“And why the fuck should I believe that?” Flint gestured at the rest of the men. “Why in the fucking hell should I believe for a second that you are SEAL material when all you’re showing me is someone who couldn’t have made it through enlisted boot camp if he tried?”
A couple of the enlisted guys snickered. Josh set his jaw. Officer training was intense, but the enlisted guys never let the commissioned ones forget they’d been through worse.
“You know, Walker.” Smirking, Flint folded his arms across his camo blouse. “I don’t think you’d last a day in Marine basic.” He leaned in a little closer, their faces almost touching. “I think you, Lieutenant Walker, would be one of those pussies who ran out of Basic with his fucking tail between his pussy little legs. Am I right?”
“Am I right, Lieutenant Walker?”
Rage turned Chief Flint’s face red. “Then when are you going to fucking prove it, you piece of shit?”
“Whenever you want me to, Chief.” Josh tried not to cringe. Something told him he’d be eating those words before long.
Chief Flint stepped back. He held Josh’s gaze for a long, unsettling moment. Then, without breaking eye contact, he barked, “The rest of you are dismissed. Walker, you stay here.”
The other men scattered, some offering murmurs of “Good luck, brother” or “Nice knowing you, LT,” as they went by.
Once they were alone, Flint stepped up right in front of Josh again. His eyes tried to drill holes into Josh’s skull. This was one of the few times Josh didn’t pay attention—much attention—to the fact that Chief Flint and his physique were prime examples of why Josh had had more than a few fantasies about SEALs.
His tone was…not gentler, but not quite so hostile. “What happened out there, Walker?”
Josh gulped. “I didn’t stay properly hydrated, Chief. I thought I could handle it, but the sun and the exhaustion caught up with me.” He took a deep breath. “It was my mistake, Chief. It won’t happen again.”
“Isn’t that what you told me two days ago?” Chief Flint cocked his head and raised his eyebrows. “That you wouldn’t fucking puss out on me again? On your motherfucking team again?” He didn’t give Josh a chance to respond before he said, “I’m not getting through to you, am I, Lieutenant?”
“I…don’t understand, Chief.”
“I’m aware of that.” Flint beckoned sharply and started walking. “This way. Now.”
Josh followed Flint toward the mess hall and then around behind it. Josh’s stomach twisted. He’d heard the stories from the fleet about fan room beatings. Some idiot couldn’t get his shit together, his fellow sailors took him into one of the fan rooms on the ship and beat the fuck out of him. Straightened most of them out in a big hurry.
Was this the SEAL training equivalent? Shit.
Behind the mess hall, Chief Flint grabbed a metal folding chair that had been propped up against the door. He carried it over to where Josh was standing and set the chair down with an emphatic bang. With his boot, he nudged it until its legs were just a few inches away from where the shade from the mess hall ended and the bright sunlight scorched the ground.
Then he sat. In the shade, of course. He folded his arms across his chest and glared up at Josh. Gesturing at the ground in front of him, he said, “Push-ups.”
Fuck. What the hell was this? Boot camp?
Josh took a deep breath, then got down on the ground. The sand was hot enough to sting his hands but wouldn’t cause any actual damage. He looked up at Flint. “How many, Chief?”
“You’ll fucking keep going until I tell you to stop.”
Josh eyed him. “Isn’t this hazing?”
“Nope.” One boot heel landed between Josh’s shoulders. Then the other. “But I’m pretty sure this is.”
“Chief, with all due—”
“Push-ups, Lieutenant. Now.”
Josh obeyed. He was already exhausted, overheated, in dire need of rest, and Chief Flint’s boot heels bit into his back, and the added weight made every motion agony. Josh’s arms shook. He clenched his jaw and forced himself to breathe in and out through his teeth. No point in passing out, but he wasn’t so sure he had a choice.
“Chief…” Josh’s head fell forward. Almost hit the ground. “I can’t, I’m—”
“No fucking excuses,” Chief Flint snarled. “Push-ups, Lieutenant. Until I’m good and fucking ready to tell you to stop.”
Sweat trickled through Josh’s short hair and down his face. A drop burned its way into his eye, and he focused on that pain instead of the relentless burning in the rest of his body. His chest was nearly on the ground, the warmth from the sand radiating onto his face and torso. He ordered his body, then begged it, to cooperate, and struggled to push himself up.
He couldn’t. He simply had nothing left.
His elbows buckled. He collapsed to the ground, barely keeping his face from hitting the hot dirt.
He’d barely collapsed before the boots on his back disappeared.
Flint dropped to his knees beside him and grabbed the back of Josh’s blouse. “Is this the kind of motherfucking SEAL you’re going to be, Lieutenant? You going to drop out like a motherfucking pussy right when things get tough?”
“No, Chief.” Josh loathed the weakness in his voice as he croaked out the words. “No, Chief. I’m not.”
“Then why the fuck are you caving in after a few fucking push-ups?” He released Josh’s blouse, almost shoving him away. “Answer me, Lieutenant!”
Josh let his forehead hit the scorching sand.
“Push yourself the fuck up, Lieutenant,” Flint shouted at him. “And don’t fucking tell me about how fucking tired you are, goddammit. When I send you out into motherfucking Kandahar or fuck knows fucking where, and one of your fucking teammates takes a goddamned bullet, are you going to leave him there because you’re too fucking tired to haul his ass out?”
“Because it’s times like this, Lieutenant, when your body can’t take another goddamned second, that your team needs you to push through. Do you want to come home from fucking Afghanistan or Iraq and tell a man’s widow you let her husband fucking die because you were motherfucking hot and tired?”
Josh tried to moisten his lips. “No, Chief.”
“Then when you muster tomorrow, I fucking expect you to act like it. Am I clear?”
“Am I motherfucking clear, you son of a bitch?”
Chief Flint stood. His boots were just a few inches from Josh’s face. One well-placed kick away from giving him a face full of sand. But he didn’t.
Standing had never been as difficult as it was just then. Josh’s muscles were done. He was shaking. Light-headed. He got to his knees, and as he tried to make it all the way to his feet, his vision darkened.
A strong hand grabbed his upper arm. “Take it easy, Lieutenant.” Now Flint’s voice was gentle. “Just go slow.”
The hand around his arm became an arm around his shoulders, and Flint eased him to his feet. The chief led him in through the back door of the mess hall and guided him to one of the tables.
Josh sank onto one of the benches, closing his eyes and exhaling from the sheer relief of being off his feet and no longer forced to perform.
Flint touched his shoulder. “You all right?”
Josh nodded. He wasn’t in any danger. He’d had heatstroke enough times to know when he was in trouble, but right then, he just felt like shit.
“Don’t move,” Flint said.
Josh folded his arms on the table and rested his head on them. His sleeves were soaked with sweat. His skin felt sunburned, but he doubted it was. He’d surfed his way to a solid bronze tan before he came to BUD/S. It would take more than a few miles and some push-ups in the sun to burn him.
Chief Flint returned a minute later and handed Josh three bottles of water. “Here. Go easy on it. Don’t drink it all at once.”
Josh nodded. “Thank you, Chief.”
Flint sat across from him, dog tags rattling quietly as they bumped the table’s metal edge. He folded his hands on the table and watched Josh struggle with the cap on the first bottle.
“Need a hand?”
There was already plenty of heat in Josh’s cheeks, but a little more showed up anyway. “I’ve got it, Chief. Thanks.” And finally, the seal broke, and the cap came off. Water had never tasted so fucking good.
Chief Flint didn’t speak. Neither did Josh. He probably wasn’t allowed to, and he sure as fuck wasn’t inclined to. He did allow himself a look at Flint. When the man wasn’t screaming at him or anyone else, when he was in a calmer state, he was damned easy on the eyes. Probably fair-skinned most of the time, but he spent most of his waking hours under the California sun, and it showed in his deep tan and bleached hair. Fucking ripped. He’d stripped off his camouflage blouse and just wore a brown T-shirt, which stretched across chiseled abs and an amazing set of shoulders. Shame he was such an asshole, though the cold water in Josh’s hand made him wonder about that.
About the time Josh was three quarters through the second bottle of water, Flint broke the silence. “Feel better?”
“Yes.” Josh started to take another drink but paused to add, “Yes, Chief.”
Flint sat up a little, folding his arms and leaning over them. His green eyes weren’t so full of rage now. Intense, still, but that must have been their natural state. “Do you think I’m tougher on you than I am the other trainees?”
Well, now that you mention it…
Josh pressed one of the cold bottles against the side of his face. “I…um…”
“I am,” Flint said. “I’m going to tell you that right now. I am harder on you than any other man in your class.”
“Do you know why?”
Josh shook his head. “No, Chief.”
“Because I see something in you that I don’t see in any of the other men,” Flint said. “What I see in you is the raw beginnings of the type of SEAL who puts himself on top of a grenade to save his men. Or carries out a SEAL with a broken leg even though you’ve already taken a bullet to the chest. Exactly what every SEAL should be, and what all the most exceptional ones are.”
Josh swallowed. “Really?”
Flint nodded. “You’re team leader material, Lieutenant. Not just a SEAL. A team leader.” He leaned closer, screwing with Josh’s blood pressure. “Am I wrong about you, Walker?”
“No, Chief. You’re not.”
Eyes locked on Josh’s, Flint reached across the table and put his hand on Josh’s forearm. The gesture forced all the air from Josh’s lungs.
Speaking so softly Josh could barely hear him, Flint said, “Prove me right, Lieutenant. Because we both know I am.”
Josh found just enough breath to reply with, “I will, Chief.”
“Good.” Flint squeezed his arm, then pulled his hand back and got up. He looked down at Josh. “Get yourself cleaned up, and get some rest.” The cold, hardened chief was back. “And tomorrow, you’d damn well better have your shit together, or you can kiss your shot at a trident good-bye.”
Josh managed a whispered, “I will, Chief.”
Flint started to walk away.
The man turned around, eyebrows up.
“Thank you, Chief.”
Flint nodded sharply, then turned and continued out of the mess hall.
Every muscle in Josh’s body ached from the run and from the push-ups he’d forced himself to do. His body was still hot from the sun and exertion. But on the back of his arm was a distinctly cool spot, the place where Flint’s hand had been.
Of course it was just a platonic gesture. A touch meant to reassure, or…or something. Josh couldn’t quite figure out what. Definitely wasn’t meant to have any kind of sexual effect on him, but that didn’t stop him from getting goose bumps under his uniform. His body was too damned exhausted for any response beyond that, though. And pity it was just a fantasy. It was a good one.
He finished the water Chief Flint had given him, then forced his aching legs to work. He headed back to the barracks to get cleaned up.
Tomorrow, there was no way in hell he was disappointing Chief Flint.