Chapter 1: Beginnings
In which there are meetings. And knives.
“We’ll send in Summers.”
When Lt. Colonel Franklin Clay had put in a request for help because of the demon fuckers that made it impossible for him and his team to obtain their objective of taking out an American drug lord hidden away in the Columbian jungle, he’d expected to be told that they’d send in a Para Unit.
The Para Squad, formally Paranormal Defense Squad, was who dealt with the fairy tale parts of the world. The branch was fairly new, officially, but it did its job and didn’t fuck up too badly too often. They were the kind of people who responded to requests like this. You know, green guys in drug lord’s employee, my daughter just exploded, where did the snow in June come from, why is the water flowing upwards and who the fuck let all those Dracula-wannabes into the house? Freaky Shit, capitals absolutely required. You reported something like that, they sent a Para Unit your way and wished you good luck. Except, that’s not what they’d told him.
Instead, they’d said: “We’ll send in Summers.”
Not a unit. Summers. As in, one person. He (politely) repeated his statement of at least twenty fucking non-humans on site. Sir. and the answer stayed the same. “We’ll send in Summers.”
And then a dead line. Hung up on him. Desk-jockey asshole.
After staring at the phone incredulously for a moment and then cussing for about five minutes, he’d done the logical thing. He’d started calling in favors to find out who this wunderkind Summers was.
(If there was one part about being Special Ops that Clay loved, it was the favors. Since he technically didn’t exist, he knew a whole lot of shit about a whole lot of people and the expressions on their faces when he – spook of spooks – paid them a visit and told them that they owed him one was simply hilarious.)
His favors hadn’t yielded shit.
So he’d gone a few steps up the food chain and called in a few more favors. And eventually found a mousy guy with a nervous tick who told him, via satellite feed, that Summers had popped up on the radar in ’03 as a liaison between the Para Squad and a private firm that was in the same business. ‘Liaison’ had quickly become ‘the wet blanket we throw on every fire we can’t put out ourselves’.
Somehow, Summers had been moved from conference rooms to the Columbian jungle and no-one seemed to find that strange. Clay had wondered, for a moment, why exactly the chick was letting herself be kicked around the globe like an armed band-aid, right up until his informant stopped giving out information and started ranting.
Summers was psychotic. Demon hunter of the worst (which meant, in Clay’s book, the best) kind. Kill count way beyond triple digits. He didn’t know if he believed that, but he figured he knew why the woman let herself be shoved into the field when she was supposed to be nothing but a liaison. She was a fighter, same as the Losers, hardwired for action, action, action.
After that, he’d known what to listen for and caught some more rumors. All going in the same direction. Insane. Insanely good. Psychotic. Killer. Hero. Nutjob.
She was gonna fit right in.
Two weeks after he’d put in his request, Clay was standing on a teensy-weensy heli-pad on a teensy-weensy base somewhere in Columbia, waiting to pick up Summers.
The heli touched down and he watched from a safe distance as the door was pushed open and a short blonde jumped out, a duffle slung over each shoulder. Her long hair whipped around every which way, making him cringe. She screamed something into the heli and someone seemed to scream right back because she threw her head back and laughed.
She didn’t look very psychotic.
But then, not everyone could look like Roque.
She waved and then ducked down, jogging towards Clay. The heli was back in the air before she reached him and they stood there, just looking at each other until the noise died down enough for them to hear their own thoughts again.
“So, you’re Colonel Clay?” she asked, looking up at him. She was a tiny thing, frail looking, especially in her civilian clothes. Her hair was a tangled mess around her shoulders, getting in the way of the bags, making his fingers itch. But even without all the intel he’d gathered on the woman, he wouldn’t have mistaken her for harmless. There was a glint in her eyes that said ‘killer’, said ‘danger’. He wasn’t dumb enough to ignore it, not after a lifetime of dealing with people that had that very same look. Not after being one of them for the better part of twenty years.
‘Small’ didn’t mean much when all you needed to be a killer was a finger to pull the trigger.
He nodded and held out a hand for her. “And you’re Summers.”
She laughed as she nodded, taking the hand. Laughing turned her from pretty into mesmerizing. She had the animal magnetism of a great cat when she let herself go like that. He bit back a sigh. They’d been stuck in this goddamn jungle for the better part of two months now, with barely any human contact. A woman like her in a camp with four horny men? There’d be blood and he had the feeling it wouldn’t be hers.
He blinked away the daze her laughter left him in and asked instead, “What’s so funny?”
“One of these days someone from the military is going to voluntarily use my first name. I really, really believe that.”
He grimaced but didn’t say anything. It was better that way. Who the fuck named their child ‘Buffy’? He nodded toward the jeep parked at the edge of the clearing they were in and said, “Ready to go?”
She laughed again. “You’re being very polite, Clay.”
He considered taking offense to how quickly she dropped his title, but she was a civilian and he was pretty sure it was revenge for calling her ‘Summers’.
“You’re a civilian,” he pointed out as he led the way.
“Doesn’t stop most big wigs from barking orders at me like I’m a dog with a trick,” she idly answered, hoisting her bags higher on her shoulders. He had to bite down on his instinctive impulse to carry the woman’s bags for her. Around here, people pulled their own weight. If she was used to it, she would take offense to him offering. If she wasn’t, it was high time she learned.
“Things are a bit different around here,” he told her as he got in on the driver’s side, leaving her to dump her gear into the back. One of the bags made a loud clanking sound. Weapons then, not clothes. He was starting to like this woman.
She hopped in shotgun and slammed the door before her hands went into her hair. As he started the car and turned them back towards camp, she finger combed it and then started braiding it back.
Really starting to like her.
Now if she was all that he’d been promised, they might just survive this mission.
They made small talk on the half hour ride through the jungle. Mostly harmless but somehow useful stuff. How much did it rain here? How far to the nearest town? Where did they get supplies from?
But he learned a few things about her, too. She was twenty-five and didn’t act like it. She was on a first name basis with Miller, the man who ran Para, and Finn, his SiC. Actually, she called them Gray and Ri, so it took him a minute to catch on to who she was talking about. When he asked, she said they ‘went way back’. He left it at that.
They reached camp (two rusty metal sheds and a tent) just as they started to run out of conversation and Summers looked around with a grimace. “Goodbye, personal hygiene,” she muttered, sounding girly for the first time. “I’ll miss you.”
Clay barked a laugh and got out, grabbing one of her bags as he went because, hell, why not. He picked the one with the weapons in it and was a tiny bit impressed at how that tiny girl had lugged it around like it weighed nothing when really, it had to weigh a hundred pounds.
She grabbed the other bag wordlessly and followed him to the bigger shed (house, pardon him), where the rest of the team would be waiting. On the way, he pointed toward the tent. “Sleeping quarters,” and the smaller shed, “Storage.”
Military said women should have their own sleeping quarters but that sure as shit didn’t fly out here. Summers didn’t bat an eyelash, only said, “Chorus snoring. Awesome.”
It didn’t even sound particularly sarcastic.
Inside the house he dumped her bag close by the door and got greeted with a few grunts and waves. Summers stepped up next to him and he pointed at everyone in turn. “Roque, weapons, Texas, our sniper and Snake, tech and transport. Everyone, meet Summers.”
Texas, a tall, gangly man who never tanned, grunted and frowned. Snake looked up from his equipment long enough to register a fifth life form inside the building. Roque looked like he couldn’t decide whether to laugh or yell.
Summers snorted before Clay could say anything. She dumped the bag she was carrying on top of her other one and said, “No, this is an elaborate joke. They hired me and flew me all the way out here to screw with you. Punked!”
Since Roque wasn’t actually used to anyone being stupid enough to give him lip, he sort of stopped in his tracks and frowned. Texas looked like he was almost laughing. Clay most certainly was.
He got himself under control when his SiC finally settled on snarling and glowering, which was completely lost on Summers who turned to Snake and asked, “So whatcha got?”
Since he wasn’t looking up, he didn’t realize she was actually talking to him until Clay barked, “Snake!”
His tech jumped so high he almost cleared the edge of the table with his ass and Clay sighed. There were two ways to land in this unit. The first was being screwed in the head badly enough that no normal command wanted to deal with the fallout of when you inevitably lost it and went on a killing spree. The second was pissing off someone high up in the chain of command. He and Roque both fell in the first category. Snake and Texas were in the second.
They were both very, very good in their chosen profession, sniper and tech, but out here, on missions that were only half a step above ‘suicide’ (and sometimes not even that), that wasn’t enough. When the shit really hit the fan, those two were a weakness instead of an asset. Clay just hoped their transfers got approved before they were dead, but he wasn’t holding his breath. He liked those kids, but that was how life was for a Loser. Sink or swim. Most people sunk and it was an ugly job, finding new swimmers. Judging by the way Summers looked at a startled Snake, she saw that Snake wasn’t a combatant, too. Tech support, with the stress on ‘support’. He manned the comms and drove the get-away car.
Question was: Which side of the equation was she going to come down when things got hot? Asset or weakness?
“Yes, ma’am?” the techie asked as soon as he had himself back under control (which, admittedly, was faster than it had been three months ago, maybe they’d turn the man into a real Loser after all).
“Don’t call me that, I’m younger than you,” she shot back, in a way that said she’d had this exchange many, many times. “I wanna see what you got about the reason I’m here.”
Snake blinked owlishly at her and then looked at Clay, who motioned for him to go ahead and pull up the footage. Snake nodded and worked his magic on the computer in front of him. With a few keystrokes, he’d pulled up the surveillance cameras in the compound, which he’d tapped within two days of their getting here.
He flipped through a few files and came up with the stills he’d made and enhanced, showing everyone in the compound. He pulled up the pictures and shoved away from the table a bit to make room for her. She bent at the waist to take a closer look and, like Clay had predicted, the drooling started. There wasn’t a pair of eyes in the room (except her own) that wasn’t fixed on her ass or cleavage.
Sleeping with a woman in close quarters was going to be an exercise in pillow biting, unless she started wearing bags. And even that probably wouldn’t help.
Summers either didn’t notice or ignored the drool pooling around her feet with long practice. She clicked through a few pictures and then looked up at Clay, lips quirking in a less friendly version of her earlier laughter. “You sure know how to pick ‘em, Clay.”
She nodded and straightened, stepped around the table and leaned against it with her hip, arms crossed. “Those guys,” she hooked one thumb over her shoulder at the computer, “Are some of the toughest suckers you’ll find.”
She said ‘sucker’ instead of ‘fucker’. Cute.
Still, that didn’t sound very good. “How though?”
“Only way to kill them is head and heart.”
He raised an eyebrow. Standard kill shots if you wanted to make sure your enemy was really dead. One in the heart and then another in the head, so the fucker won’t get back up. “I can do that,” Texas piped up, patting his rifle, slung over one shoulder.
She shook her head, not even looking at him. “Guns won’t do. You need to cut the head off and the heart out. You can put them down temporarily if you damage either, but they’ll get back up if you don’t finish the job within, say, fifteen minutes. Quick first move, take them out, then pretend it’s Halloween and get carving.”
Which meant the entire op was going to be close range combat. Which meant, past the initial assault, Texas and Snake would be utterly useless. Shit.
Summers looked them all over once, head cocked to one side. Roque was the only one who met her gaze evenly, playing with one of his ever present knives. She snorted, he smirked. “So,” she finally asked once she was done with her inspection, “Hand to hand?”
Clay nodded at Roque and then raised his own hand, admitting, “I’m good bare, not with knives.”
She didn’t look like she’d expected anything else. Instead she sighed and turned back to Roque and nodded at the knife dancing between his fingers. “You that good with a real blade?”
Texas choked and barely managed to turn his head away from sensitive equipment before snorting coffee. “Real blade? Girl, what do you call that ten inch monster he’s handlin’?”
Roque, who didn’t like it when you insulted his babies, flipped the knife in his hand and changed the grip to a fighting one, glaring black death. Summers smiled brightly at him. “A toothpick,” she announced.
Roque being Roque took offense and lunged forward like a dog on a chain, all teeth and snarl, knife up at his shoulder, ready for a killing move. Summers blinked, tried to look impressed.
Clay, who’d been watching her instead of his SiC’s usual antics, was pretty sure she’d followed the entire move. She’d tracked it and Roque, while a big motherfucker, was by no means slow.
“So,” she repeated, “Real blades?”
Yeah, Clay was going to like this bitch just fine.
Chapter 2: Operation:Butterfly
In which Buffy works with the Losers for the first time.
Three days after first meeting Summers, Clay and the rest of the Losers were lying in wait in the middle of the Columbian jungle, waiting for the to-go signal from their ‘liaison’, who had told them that she was getting them past the gate and not much else.
Clay was glad that things had moved so fast because they all needed to get the hell out of this jungle, but Summers’s way of doing things had left him spinning a bit. Within half an hour of meeting him, she’d had Roque so worked up that he actually attacked her.
Thirty seconds after that she’d had him flat on the floor, a three foot honest-to-fuck sword at his throat, asking him if he had any more questions. Roque had, for probably the first time in his life, shut up.
Then he’d asked if he could touch the knife and Clay was utterly convinced that, the very second Summers shrugged and handed him the weapon, his slightly unbalanced SiC had fallen head over heels in love. With Summers and her weapons bag.
After that little interlude, Summers had taken over planning for the job and by sunset, she’d had it all worked out. All Clay had to do was nod and give the thing the go-ahead. He had felt a bit superfluous at that point.
Three days later he had mostly recovered from his tail-spin into uselessness and was just very, very glad that there was an end in sight. The op should have taken a month, tops, and yet here they were, almost five weeks after everything should have been over, still stuck in the jungle. Clay hated the jungle. He really, really did. Heat. Rain. Bugs. Humidity. Snakes. Heat. Cats. Heat. No TV. No supermarkets. Humidity. No running water. Heat. And did he mention the fucking heat and humidity?
“You know what?” Summers suddenly rumbled over the comms, sounding cranky.
“What?” Texas asked from his position a few dozen yards to Clay’s left. Snake was with the Colonel, Roque to their right. Summers was somewhere ahead, getting ready to be their ticket into the compound they were about to blow sky high.
“The US Government owes me a pair of designer jeans,” she snapped and Clay opened his mouth to ask ‘what the fuck’ when she rounded the last bend in the road leading to the compound.
The last time he’d seen her she’d shooed them all out of the clearing that was their primary rendezvous to change ‘into her outfit’. She’d been wearing jeans and a shapeless old t-shirt then. She was still wearing those jeans now, but most of them seemed to have… disappeared. She’d turned her pants into something that would have made Daisy Duke blush and scramble for cover. Her t-shirt was gone, too, replaced by a tank top two numbers too small. No bra.
Her hair was loose and sticking to her neck and shoulder and she was practically naked, struggling with a map about as tall as she was, giant backpack strapped to her shoulders and waist. Naked arms, naked legs, a ton of cleavage and all covered in a fine sheen of sweat. She looked like Jungle Expedition Porn.
Over comms, Texas swallowed very loudly. Roque cursed. “The fuck is she doing, boss?”
“She can hear you, Roque,” Summers muttered, lowering her head so she could speak unseen. “And I’m getting us in. It’s working, isn’t it?”
As the blonde kept stumbling along with seemingly no clue where she was going, Clay finally turned his head to look at the guard post by the front gate of the latest drug lord’s secret command central. And yes, it was working. The two guards at the gate were looking like they’d seen God, or whatever qualified as Him after six months in the jungle with no female company.
They should have sounded every alarm they had because sexy blonde women lost in the middle of the Columbian jungle did not happen outside the porn industry, but apparently their downstairs brains had taken over.
They were both drooling as Summers came ever closer, seemingly still oblivious to them. Then, about twenty yards away, she finally looked up and her face lit up like Christmas.
She crumpled her map in one hand and started jogging toward the gate and Jesus, maybe Clay could understand why those idiot guards were spellbound. He hadn’t been out here half as long as those guys and he couldn’t look away from Summers’s… bounce.
She reached the guys quickly and stopped, fanning herself, panting like she’d run a mile. The woman should have been a con-artist, not a demon hunter. The guards didn’t so much as blink, afraid of missing something.
“Hi,” she finally said, voice breathy, even over comms.
Snake let out a small laugh and whispered, “Look at those guys. They’re total goners.”
Texas snorted. “Yeah, they’re not the only one. Boss, you gotta make that woman wear bags or something.”
“He’ll do no such thing, you asshole. I like what I’m seeing,” Roque threw in.
“Can you guys help me?” Summers asked and they all jumped as they were reminded that yes, she just heard every word of that, idiots.
One of the guards nodded. “Sure!”
“You see, I got lost. I mean, I had this guide and he was supposed to make sure I stayed safe, but he stole my money and disappeared during the night, yeah? And now I’m totally lost. I’m Bethy, by the way. I’m a biology student from Michigan and I’m writing a paper about, you know, butterflies. I love butterflies, they’re so tiny and pretty and I just want to… you know?”
Guard #1 nodded in a daze.
“Awesome? But, like I said, my guide ditched me and now I’m all alone in this big, scary forest and I read the Little Red Riding Hood as a kid, you know, and I really, really need some help. I mean, I know there are no wolves around here, but there was this cat, okay? And then there was another cat and they fought and it wasn’t like on TV and then they went away but I’m kind of scared and… well, cats, you know?! So, could you guys? I’d be totally grateful!”
If any of Clay’s men had fallen for that lame-ass story, he’d have kicked them. Right after he resurrected their dead asses and reamed them a new one for getting killed because they were thinking with their dicks. But these guys were apparently hired for brawn, not brain, because they didn’t find Bethy from Michigan strange at all.
“Dumb fucks,” Roque muttered and Summers twitched, like she wanted to say something, but just kept smiling.
One of the guards handed his rifle off to his partner and stepped forward. “So, uh, where are you trying to go, doll?”
Summers’s smile grew wider, which, Clay had learned, meant she was about ready to explode. Roque had, in an impressive display of asshattery, gotten her to smile that exact same way no less than seven times in the past three days. Whether this smile was caused by her being called ‘doll’ or the sheer overabundance of stupidity was anyone’s guess.
She got a grip fairly quickly and shoved her map at the guy, making sure he had both hands full and keeping the second guard with the two rifles in her sights, too. Whoever had been dumb enough to think that woman would ever allow herself to be confined to a desk job needed to be taken out back and shot. “See, there’s this, you know, clearing, where my prof said the butterflies meet, like, once a year when it’s mating season, you know? It’s supposed to be here somewhere. You know it?”
Yes, Summers had just introduced ‘mating season’ to the conversation. And to top that, she popped the gum she’d gotten from somewhere. Loudly. It rang through the jungle like a gunshot. The guards didn’t even flinch. She was playing them like a pro, completely wrapping them around her finger. Clay was almost certain that, at this point, he and his men could have just walked past those guards with a wave and gotten no more trouble than a distracted grunt.
Guard #1 unfolded the map, struggling with it, turning it this way and that, pretending to look for a clearing when really, he was staring down ‘Bethy’s’ top. After a minute he asked his buddy for help, who put down the rifles (holy fuck, how dumb were they?) and came over.
“I got a shot, boss,” Texas announced as the man came to a halt on Summers’s other side.
Summers jerked a bit but didn’t look at their position. “Negative,” Clay growled into the comm. “We don’t want the attention. Let Summers do her thing.”
The blonde relaxed and started chattering about butterflies and how pretty they were, somehow managing to get both guards closer to her and farther from the gate, still.
“Anytime now, Summers,” Clay said.
She cocked her head to one side to show she’d heard and opened her mouth to say something when a third guard appeared at the gate, pretty much out of nowhere. It was one of the demons guarding the place, clearly recognizable by his green tinted skin and the spikes on his head. He probably would have stayed out of sight of a human, but apparently this one had more brains than his two human buddies, because he looked furious as he barked, “What the fuck are you doing?!”
Guard #1 and #2 jumped out of their skin. Summers simply looked up at the guy, about to play the same game on him. But instead of being reassured by the blonde ditz at the gate, the demon’s face contorted into utter rage.
“Slayer,” he spat, the word like poison.
Clay had a quiet moment of ‘what the fuck’ before Summer’s ‘oops’ reached him over the comms and she moved. Guard #1 got her fist in his face, #2 her backpack. Both went down like rocks and she went with them, rolling and coming up right in front of the closed gate. She pulled one of her swords out of her pack and lunged, clearing the gate like it was a foot high at the most.
No way in hell was that woman human.
It explained her outstanding reputation, though, and Clay had spent too long crawling around the outhouses of this world to really see black and white anymore.
She landed more or less on top of the demon, kicking the radio out of his hand before he had the chance to press a single button. She swung her sword once, widely, and he ducked, putting himself right in front of her reverse swing.
His head hit the ground less than five seconds after the whole scuffle started. None of the guards had called for help or even gotten to their weapon.
“Holy fuck,” Roque breathed, sounding dazed. “Marry me.”
Summers, who was already inside the gate post, pressing buttons to let them in, laughed. They were all moving already and reached her within a handful of seconds, weapons at the ready. Snake and Roque made quick work of the guards, simply dumping them out of sight in the tree line. By the time they came around, they wouldn’t be a threat anymore and stupidity was, unfortunately, not punishable by death. Texas launched his rifle up onto the roof of the post and then scrambled up after it, getting into position.
“Honey,” Summers said as she retrieved the rest of her weapons from the backpack and abandoned it on the ground, “You just love me for my skills. That’s no way to build a relationship. Now hand me that knife, would you?”
To the Losers’ complete and utter amazement, Roque nodded solemnly and handed over one of his prized knives. They all watched as Summers did what she called ‘pumpkin carving’, removing the demon’s heart.
Then she wiped the knife off on her shorts and handed it back, handle first. Roque took it, flipped it once and made it disappear again.
“So, can you handle it?” Summers asked as she grabbed her gear and leaned inside the guard post to thumb the gate closed again.
Clay looked at her, eyebrow raised. “Handle what?” he asked as he motioned for Roque to lead the way along the perimeter.
“Getting Uncle Sam to buy me new jeans.”
Snake laughed quietly and then offered, “Got it. There are two guards coming at you from the right and another two…”
Yeah, so, Clay didn’t care what kind of favor he had to call in for this one, he was definitely keeping this woman.
Chapter 3: Knife Wounds
In which Buffy and Roque are not having a love affair.
“Roque,” Clay grumbled, looking half asleep in his chair. It was late and they were all stuck in yet another run-down shithole, waiting for the go-ahead on the latest op. This time they had running water and electricity (which meant less bitching from Summers and less body odor all around), but a shithole is a shithole is a shithole.
Texas and Snake were playing some kind of game on Snake’s laptop and Clay and Roque were watching a Spanish action flick on the tiny, ancient TV Snake had scored somewhere. The colors were fucked and everyone bled green.
Roque hummed a bit in acknowledgement but didn’t move otherwise.
“Go see where Summers is?”
“You go.” Reflex.
“Roque.” Also reflex. They’d been fighting for the better part of ten years. By now, it came easy as breathing.
Roque considered going another round, upping the ante, turning rote into a real fight, but within a minute Clay was going to be a fucker and pull rank, so it wasn’t really worth it. No fun if the other guy didn’t get worked up at all. Roque stood, putting down his beer and made for the door.
As he passed Texas, the man clucked his tongue and muttered, way too loudly, “Someone’s in lo-ove.”
Roque smacked him upside the head none-too-gently, ignoring the white man’s grumbling. Usually, the captain respected snipers. It took a very special kind of fucked-in-the-head to be able to look through a scope from a safe distance and kill someone in cold blood. Snipers didn’t get the kill-kill-kill, survive-survive-survive thrill that close range combat offered, the very thing that made combat worth it. Roque loved the thrill of blood and danger, loved fighting for his life. Snipers were ice-cold and calculated and the snipers that got dumped with the Losers were usually doubly so.
Texas was the exact opposite of that. The man was a coward through and through and when asked, actually admitted that he’d become a sniper so he’d be far away from danger. Fucking coward. Roque had no respect for the man. At all. Hell, he respected Snake more than he respected Texas and Clay knew it, so all he did was grunt for Roque to get his ass moving.
Roque did and pretended not to enjoy the way Texas only relaxed when he was a safe ten feet away from him.
He found Summers outside in the dark, moving quietly with one of her swords, swinging and slicing at a quarter of her usual speed and looking hot as hell while she was at it.
No, Roque wasn’t in love with the chick. But he had a dick and she had all the right equipment to crank his engine. Plus, blades. Roque had been seven when he’d picked up his first shiv and he’d never been without at least one blade since. Blades were like he was, smooth and deadly, quick and precise. Guns flared white hot when you killed someone with them, but knives stayed cold. The blood dripped off them, didn’t stick. A blade didn’t need to be reloaded, didn’t need to be taken apart and adjusted. A blade meant there was you, and the fucker on the other side and then a gush of hot blood. Nothing else.
Roque loved blades and Summers handled them like she did, too.
He leaned against the wall next to the door, waiting for her to finish whatever it was she was doing. She looked over at him once, silently acknowledging that he was there, and kept moving. Another point in her favor: She could ignore him. Most people couldn’t. He was big and angry and carried the scent of danger like cheap perfume. When he entered a room, people cowered or tensed or, at the very least, kept an eye on him. They were aware. Even Clay knew where Roque was in relation to him at any given moment when they were in close quarters.
Summers didn’t. She was so sure of herself and her skills that she dismissed him. A man had to respect that kind of arrogance.
Half an hour later, she was still at it and Roque, who had no actual desire to watch green blood pour out of men yelling in a language he spoke only brokenly, had slid down the wall to sit on the ground. He had one of his knives in hand and was wiping at a tiny spot of rust with a random rag he’d fished out of one of his many pockets.
The spot flaked and fell away, finally, and he stuffed the rag back where it came from, flipping the blade and balancing it on one finger. The tip dug sharply into his skin as he moved with the knife, keeping it upright and eventually, gravity won and the knife’s weight pushed the tip through the skin of his finger. He twisted his hand and caught the falling weapon with the other one, licking the blood away as it welled up in a single, perfect drop.
Then, simply out of boredom, he pressed the bleeding digit against the flat of the blade, leaving a perfect print. He licked that way, too and spun the knife yet again, throwing it in the air and catching it with a twist. He trailed the edge of the blade along his forearm, tracing veins that were utterly invisible under his midnight skin. Suddenly, Summers laughed.
He looked up, knife still poised to slit his wrist, and found her standing a few feet away, leaning on her sword like it was a cane.
“What?” he barked, glowering because it was his default expression.
“Did you take a class for that? Serial killers 101?” She nodded toward his knife as she spoke, clarifying.
He grinned at her, all teeth, and ostensibly scratched along his jaw with the tip of the blade. “Comes naturally, baby.”
She raised an eyebrow but said nothing as she moved toward where she had dropped her weapons bag and the sword’s sheath. She pulled out her own rag, wiped the blade clean and then sheathed it and stored it away. She hunted through the bag for a moment, found a four inch Bowie and tucked it away in her waistband.
He kept playing with his own while he watched her, balancing again. He nicked two more fingers, licked the blood away and the blade clean each time.
Then she zipped up the bag and stood, slinging it over her shoulder. She turned to face him and asked, “Is it the steel or the blood?”
He tilted his head to one side, studying her, hiding the blade of his knife behind his forearm. His clothes were black and it was dark. If he closed his eyes now, he’d disappear into the night. Summers looked at him like she could see every inch of him. He was quiet too long and she elaborated, “That fascinates you.”
He stood in one smooth move, magicking his knife away and pushing close, crowding her. Compared to him, she was a child, tiny and breakable. Except that there was more in her blood than human and she could probably break him easily. Tempting, so very tempting. Looking down at her, he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to fuck her or fight her.
“Maybe it’s the kill that does it for me,” he rumbled into her ear and he wasn’t sure if he was finishing his own thought process or answering her question.
She looked up and up and up at him, not stepping back, not cowering, not posturing. Utterly still. “Blood then,” she concluded and then chuckled. “It’s always about the blood.”
He stepped back, annoyed. Fucking bitch never once reacted the way he wanted her to. The only other person who’d ever gotten him spun up like this was Clay, and even that had turned into routine over too many years and too many missions. Roque had to work and work hard these days, to find the fire in their fights that used to come so easily. But being pissed off at Summers was so new and shiny and so much easier than being pissed off at Clay, who knew all Roque’s tricks and more often than not, refused to play. “You’re crazy, girl.”
She smiled, and look, she had teeth, too. “Possibly,” she allowed and stepped right up into his personal space, trailing a hand along his stomach and side as she squeezed past and into the house. Her parting shot: “My sister says I just have an unhealthy tendency to poke at things better left alone.”
She was halfway down the hall when he noticed that she’d lifted his knife.
“Bitch!” he howled.
She spun on her heel, wriggling her fingers in a wave before popping her head into the makeshift break-room and complaining like a twelve-year-old, “Clay! Roque’s calling me names again!”
He’d pretty much settled on ‘fight her’ with an option of ‘kill her’ when he stumbled into bed hours later and hit something hard on the way down.
He dug it out from under his back and find the knife she’d taken from him, with a note attached that simply said, Love, Buffy.
Ridiculous fucking name.
He was back to ‘fuck her’ and cursing her under his breath when Texas chuckled from his bed on the other side of the room and whispered, very loudly, “In lo-ove.”
Roque punched his pillow hard and wondered how pissed Clay would be if he woke up and found his sniper with a slit throat.
Chapter 4: Signature
In which Buffy has a staring match with papers. Very important papers. And a scorch mark.
Buffy sighed and poked at the thin stack of papers in front of her with one finger, glaring. It glared right back. She considered pulling the knife she’d won off Roque last week and using those papers to test its sharpness.
Really considered it.
Instead she pushed them to the left and inspected the longish scorch mark in the wood of the table. It was from a bullet, she could tell. There were more matching pock marks scattered over the table and a few holes in the walls of the safehouse. The whole place had the look and smell of a few heists gone wrong.
A few years ago, staying in a house that was so obviously not safe would have made her cringe. The bullet holes, the blood stains on the carpet in the lounge, all these things would have made her uncomfortable.
A lot had happened since then. She’d spent a few months helping Giles and Willow pull the new Council together until Graham had saved her from death by boredom and offered her a job. Liaison between the newly formed Para Squad and the equally new Council.
He’d had her at ‘hi’, but he laid it all out nicely for her. A branch of the military devoted to killing demons. Him and Riley in charge. No more experiments, no more Walshes. They could use her expertise, he said, in training people, teaching them what to kill and who to leave alone. She’d gone and within a month she’d been in the field, doing what she was good at: slaying.
The more seasoned Para people joked that she was Unit One, the very first and only unit made up of a single person. She lived up to the rep, that was for sure. It was a transitory life, always on missions, often with other people, equally often alone, and her downtime spent helping out around the Council, taking slayers on their virgin cruises. She spent the minimal amount of time in conference rooms, but even that took up time. Always busy, always moving.
She didn’t even have an apartment anymore, content to always be moving or, on the rare occasion when something managed to slow her down, crashing on Dawn’s sofa.
She liked it that way. She really, really did. But she never quite got rid of the feeling that all the moving she was doing was really searching and she had no idea what for.
All she knew was that home wasn’t home anymore. Dawn and the Scoobies said too much time with the army had changed her but she was pretty sure she’d been different before she started hanging out in mess halls and field camps. Harder, more jaded. Sunnydale’s last days had killed something in her that hadn’t come back from the grave quite right in the first place.
Pity, pity. She didn’t miss those parts unless her family was holding up a mirror for her to see what was different.
Finding, she thought. When Lt. Colonel Franklyn Clay had asked for a Para Unit to help his Special Ops team in Columbia, she’d been sitting on the other side of Gray’s desk, listening to the conversation. And when he’d hung up the phone and looked at her, she’d simply nodded and gone to pack her things.
And then, Clay at the heli-pad, all gruff and grim and polite, Roque with his knives, attacking her like a rabid dog and laughing after she put him on his ass. Texas and Snake and their silly games, those conversations they had over comms concerning her ass and her boobs, forgetting she could hear them.
That op in the middle of the jungle, Clay’s muttered comment about ‘Jungle Expedition Porn’ right before he’d asked her to stay because with her the Losers had five members again, as they were supposed to.
It wouldn’t even be a lot of paperwork. She had the clearance, had the qualifications and could pretty much do whatever she wanted in the army. The brass knew what they had in her. This time around, at least.
She’d told Clay that it would mean the Losers would get more jobs like the last: demons and other assorted nasties, instead of the straight-up human jobs they were used to. They’d have one foot inside Para until she left them. He’d shrugged, grinned and said it’d be a challenge for a change.
And then he’d come back two days later and handed her those papers. The ones that were glaring at her. She pushed them back to their original place, straight in front of her and tilted her head to one side. She hadn’t signed them yet.
Didn’t know if she would.
Did she want to be part of a team again? A team where she was not the leader? A team like the Losers?
That was where the true dilemma lay. She liked this team. She liked the dynamic, liked the spirit, the gallows humor, liked the typical luck the unit seemed to have. Us against fifty dudes with AKs, man. It was a running joke between them that it always came down to exactly that.
And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Last week, Buffy had cut up a pair of her favorite jeans to play a completely idiotic blonde, lie her ass off and then fight her way into the compound of a drug-lord, where she’d proceeded to kill a dozen demons with the running commentary of the Losers in her ear, critiquing her technique, her butt in those pants and the sloppy security of the place. After that, she had deputized Roque and together, they’d spent an hour chopping off heads and carving out hearts and when he’d been done, he’d chased Snake around the place with his bloody hands, making zombie noises.
To summarize: there’d been blood, guts, hearts and those guys had still laughed and cracked lewd jokes. Crude, rude and very, very numb to the horrors of the world, but still laughing.
Buffy fit right in with an ease that scared her because it didn’t scare her at all.
And now she had to make a choice. Sign those papers and stay, let herself slip into the easy rhythm she was already half used to. Become a Loser and make these men her new family. Belong to them, with them, and let go of the girl she’d been. Become Summers, the woman, instead of Buffy, the girl. There wasn’t much difference between the two, except for how Summers didn’t try to hide the unpretty parts of herself like Buffy did.
Or she could refuse to sign, pack up her bags and go back to Gray and Ri and Dawn and the Council and travel the world alone.
Maybe this wasn’t what she’d been searching for. Maybe, in a few months, she’d have enough of Roque’s constant anger, Clay’s knowing smirks, and the boys' idiocy.
But maybe not.
And she couldn’t…
“You still staring at those things?” Clay entered the room in a cloud of smoke, sitting down on the chair across from her, tapping the contract with an amused air, fat cigar between his fingers.
Buffy didn’t lift her gaze as she said, “No.”
He laughed and his breath smelled like booze. Booze and cigars and sweat and blood and fistfights. Clay and his men were a far cry from anything little Buffy had ever dreamed her life to be.
Dawn and Willow would call them ‘seedy’ and shudder. Xander would be intimidated and try to downplay it with dumb jokes. But Buffy… Buffy had fit right in with Faith’s crudeness, with Spike’s brashness, with the soliders’ joking around at the Initiative.
Buffy hadn’t ever dreamed of sitting in a bullet-riddled safehouse in Columbia with a man who made a living killing other men, but she’d always fit in surprisingly well with the undesirables of the world.
So why the hell was she still pussy-footing around?
“You want a pen?” Clay asked, none too subtly.
She snorted. “I thought you sign this type of thing in blood.”
“I’m sure Roque has a knife you can use, if you feel like doing this the old-fashioned way,” the Colonel offered without missing a beat. He took a drag of his cigar and leaned back in his chair, making it creak ominously.
She pulled the knife from the back of her waistband and laid it on the table between them without comment. Clay barked a laugh.
“Why’d you offer me the job?” she asked on impulse.
“You’re good at what you do,” he shrugged, picking at a scorch mark in the table, utterly unconcerned with where it came from.
“I’m the best at what I do,” she corrected, with more tease than heat. She was the best. There was a reason Para referred to her as a complete unit.
He smacked the table once with his palm flat, applauding her. “That’s the kind of attitude we like around here.”
And that was, kind of, exactly her point.
She looked at him, very levelly, before asking, “Pen?”
He fished around the pockets of his cargo pants for a minute before coming up with a black and a red pen. Thinking he was funny, he handed her the red.
She took it with a roll of her eyes and signed the papers. And then, for the hell of it, she colored in the scorch mark on the table, too.
Chapter 5: Give and Take
Give and Take
In which the Losers teach Buffy three things and she teaches them one in return.
She resisted at first. Valiantly. Said that she’d survived two years surrounded by soldiers without them rubbing off on her and would survive the next two, too. And then another two. Because she’d been raised by a fine lady instead of in a barn.
Texas made a lewd comment about the ‘rubbing off’ he could and would do on her and got smacked in the nose for it.
That was during the first month, after Roque mocked her for saying ‘sucker’ instead of the alternative.
Three months in, they set the charges to go off in two minutes and then got delayed on their way out by one and a half minutes. They hit the truck running and Snake gunned it out of there, but the blast of the explosion still picked the tail end of the vehicle up and sent everything and everyone flying.
The barrel of Clay’s AK landed straight in her eye.
She shoved him off with enough force to land him on his ass five feet away, pressed a hand to her bleeding eye and took a deep, deep breath, “Ffff…”
Everyone held their breath. If they hadn’t, she probably wouldn’t have noticed what she was about to say. As it was, she growled fiercely and commanded, “Ffff…etch me something to put on that, would ya?”
Since she was glowering and they had all learned the hard way not to get in her way when she was, no-one pointed out what had just happened.
Six months in she let herself be goaded into playing Mario Cart with Snake and Texas, who hounded her all day, telling her that as a woman, she probably couldn’t drive shit (nevermind that they’d both gotten a taste of her driving before and looked slightly green and awed afterwards), that she was scared, that they were better, and she couldn’t lose if she didn’t play in the first place.
Personally, Clay was convinced it was the last bit that did it, because they were basically calling her a coward.
Predictably, seeing as how she had superhuman reflexes, she trounced them. Then she threw her controller at Snake, stood, did a victory dance and crowed, “Take that, fuckers!”
And the best part? She didn’t even notice she’d said it until Roque clapped her on the shoulder and drawled, “Welcome to the team, bitch.”
Clay found Summers sitting in her room in the safehouse, curled up on the bed, staring at the opposite wall. He didn’t knock but stood in the doorway until she acknowledged him. There was a reason Summers had her own room whenever they had the space and it wasn’t just the fact that she was female.
Woman was vicious when you surprised her.
Eventually she turned her head so her cheek was resting on her knee and looked straight at him. He came in, closed the door and leaned against the wall. “Cortez was your first, right?”
She nodded. Their latest op had gone sideways and Summers had been forced to kill a human to save the team’s collective asses. And while Clay had seen her hack into demons with abandon before, he’d never missed how she slowed down and only ever knocked humans out in a fight. She didn’t lose a single word about the rest of the team killing, but she stuck to demons.
First kill always screwed with your head. It was one of the reasons Clay was glad he didn’t run a normal unit. Everyone who landed in the Losers usually had a few kills under their belt. Summers had a few thousand, probably, but not human ones. Not voluntary ones. It made a difference. And he sucked at talking people out of funks.
She shrugged. The movement was only half visible behind her shield of knees and arms.
“Feeling guilty about not feeling guilty?”
That got a reaction. She lifted her head and stared at him. It wasn’t a glare, or one of her threat-to-limb-and-life glowers but a simple stare. Looking at, and then right through, him. He was rarely more aware of how much she wasn’t quite human.
“For the past ten years everyone told me that killing a human changes things. Changes you. Irrevocably.”
Uh-oh. When Summers pulled out the big words, she was brooding. Usually she preferred to play dumb, even around the team.
“Did it?” Clay asked, carefully even and with an open expression.
She contemplated his question for a moment, but not long enough to not have thought about it before. Then she said. “No.”
He nodded, having expected nothing less. Summers was the kind that always came out on top, no matter what.
“Then what’s got the boys sneaking around like you’re a minefield?”
She snorted and finally relaxed, stretching her legs out long on the bed. “I don’t feel particularly changed. That either means the Council has been feeding me shit for the past decade, or that I’m already as screwed in the head as they said killing humans would make me.”
And, Clay knew without her saying, she wasn’t sure which one she would prefer. Being lied to, or being cold. So he tactfully refrained from saying out loud what they both knew: that it was option B. She was simply a bit unhinged, a bit off center. Just like him and Roque. A bit too wild for the world. A bit too damaged.
Here, that was okay. Among the people she called family, it wasn’t. Sucked to be a wolf with sheep for friends. And there was nothing he could do (or wanted to do, for that matter) to fix her, or her problems. All he had was the tried and true method of Losers everywhere.
He shrugged and pulled up the sleeve of his shirt, tapping the tattoo on his shoulder with two fingers. She frowned. “Are you asking me to critique your body art?”
He laughed. “No. I’m telling you to get some ink. Get the killin’ outta your system and move on.”
“Can’t change it anyway?” she inquired.
“Ink for every dead?”
“No.” Mostly because, in their line of business, they’d never get out of the tattoo parlor. Last week he’d set a bomb that had killed fifty people. “Ink for everything you need to remember.”
And then forget. They put ink on their skin so they wouldn’t have it on their souls. Turn the ugly and the hard-to-deal-with inside out and move on. Clay had a tattoo for everything big that had happened in his life since he’d joined the army. His first kill. His first op as a Loser. The first time he’d killed a child (ten years old and the stupid, stupid boy had had a gun, he’d had no choice). The first man dead under his command. He had a flower tattooed around the scar left from the first time one of his women had shot at him and a knife for Roque, who was so deep under his skin, ink had been the only way to get him out. Love, death, life and the Losers in a picture story on his skin.
Buffy frowned at him for a minute and then nodded.
Three hours later they returned to the safehouse and Roque pounced on her, shamelessly groping her with the excuse of looking for her ink. She tried to bat him off, but he refused to budge, saying she owed him because she hadn’t let him come with as she popped her ink cherry.
He hit pay dirt on her left hip and she rolled her eyes and pulled down her jeans, pulling off the saran wrap taped over her tattoo. It was small and simple, the black outline of a five-pointed star, a bit less than an inch in diameter, filled in with bright yellow.
It was a sunny, happy tattoo and it didn’t look like a kill mark. Clay, who’d watched her pick it out, kind of thought that that was the point.
It was Snake who came up with the fact that everyone in the team had some sort of dumb nickname, except Summers. She pointed out that both Roque and Clay were going by their last names and he could name his computer if he wanted, but not her.
To which Snake shot back that ‘Roque’ was bad enough to be a nickname and Clay was ‘Boss’, which was also a nickname. Then he went on to try a hundred different nicknames on Summers, who endured until he suggested ‘Blondie’ and then coldly informed him that she had one already.
It was ‘Slayer’ and would he go and clean up the goddamn kitchen now?
After that, they all thought he’d given up.
Right up until he got laid up with a concussion and started rattling off names again. He didn’t stop until she threatened to kill him dead and solve all their problems in one go. She spent the next two days next to his bed, cleaning out his puke-bucket anyway.
And then he got dead drunk and tried again. She manhandled him into the kitchen, shoved his head into the sink and turned on the cold water until he promised to stop. She brought him a towel as a reward.
Because Snake was the most accident prone mofo Clay had ever seen, he broke his leg in the middle of the desert less than a month after that and med evac was three days out, with a lot of armed and angry enemies between them and the Losers.
They were running out of provisions and ground to retreat to and Snake was laid up and developing a hell of a fever. Summers was the only one who was holding up halfway well and she spent most of her time dragging Snake, who was babbling and well beyond coherency.
She tolerated it for a few hours longer than Clay would have before telling him, in an unusually gentle voice to, “Shut the fuck up or I’ll gag you.”
The answer was a simple, “Yes, Mom.”
He kept calling her Mom until med evac got there and pumped him full of shit to make his fever go down. A week later he was good to leave the hospital and Texas celebrated the occasion by ribbing him mercilessly for being a momma’s boy.
Snake just shrugged, pushed his sunglasses up on his nose and leaned back in his seat, grinning. “I don’t know. She makes us clean up our shit, looks after us and tells us when we’re being idiots. I say we call her Mom.”
Summers, way at the back of the van leaned forward and said, very quietly, “You are so lucky that you’re up there and I’m back here.”
They didn’t call her anything but ‘Mom’ for the next month.
“Goddamn it, Pooch, you can’t just turn the car around in the middle of a fucking op and risk your damn life for Roque when he’s being a fucking idiot. Fuck!” Clay yelled, panting.
Pooch, knowing better than to argue that they did not leave men behind, simply stood there and took it. Clay would have done the same damn thing and everyone knew it. Roque had been about to be blown to kingdom come and there was no way he’d have made it out on foot. They didn’t leave people behind. But that didn’t mean heroics didn’t scare the holy fuck out of their usually fearless leader.
Pooch figured it was kind of like getting yelled at by your momma for pulling dangerous shit as a kid. Except that Clay was way scarier than Pooch’s momma had ever been. That, and Summers had the official Mom-position filled. Personally, the driver didn’t find her very maternal, but she sure as shit looked after them.
Had. Past tense. She’d left the unit a month ago. Maybe that was why Clay was yelling so much?
“…. and goddamn it, we’ve got rules for this sort of shit!”
“Damnit, Clay,” he finally piped up because seriously, even scared-yelling got too much after a while and fuck, he’d done what was right. They wouldn’t be standing here if Roque was a crispy shadow on a wall somewhere, would they?
No, they wouldn’t.
“I did what I had to do and fuck the rules on that one.”
Aaaand suddenly Clay was in. His. Face. “No. No, Pooch, this is one rule you do not ignore, you got that. That one rule fucking sticks if I have to fucking tattoo it on your ass.”
“Don’t. Fucking. Die!”
Pooch nodded, wondering if the expletive had been in there when the rule had been coined. He didn’t think so.
He saluted anyway.
Chapter 6: Analyze
In which movie night does not quite go as planned.
Clay sneezed and then cursed just because he could. That, and he felt like shit. He would have glared at Snake again, but he kind of felt sorry for the man, since the entire team was glowering at him like he’d cancelled Christmas.
He deserved it, though. They’d told him not to go running around in penguin-weather without a hat on. Had he listened? No. Instead he’d brought home a spectacular case of the cold and dragged them all down with them. Out of the five of them, not a one was healthy. The level of sickness ranged from a case of the sniffles (Summers) to sick as a dog (Snake, who no-one had any sympathy for), with the rest of them somewhere in-between.
And because giving away your position by sneezing during an operation was not advisable, they were stuck here until they were healthy again. Only Clay was fairly certain that Romanian winters did not lend themselves to people getting better from a cold. Dying of it, maybe.
He cursed again and leaned back in the sofa he’d commandeered. He was the boss and if he was going to suffer, he was going to do it on the only comfortable piece of furniture in the place. Texas and Snake were sitting on the lumpy bed of the hotel room they were in, sharing a box of Kleenex between them like girls at a slumber party. Roque, who was too scary for even bacteria to really attempt messing with him, was screwing around with the laptop that held the team’s collective entertainment.
Summers on the other hand, was flitting around like a bee: busy, busy. The team’s standard MO for cases like this (which happened more often than Clay liked because they were constantly living in each other’s pockets during ops), was to find some hard liquor to climb into and then retire to bed for the next twenty-four hours with a gallon of water or so.
Mom (and no, he was not calling her that out loud, even if he could see why Snake thought it was a fitting name at times like this) had taken one look at the booze and thrown it out, bitching at them that bringing their immune system down further wasn’t going to help. Then she had recruited (a by then only slightly sniffling) Roque and dragged him all over town to get meds and everything they needed for tea. She drugged them all up to the gills and somehow, mugs of tea kept popping up wherever Clay looked.
He wasn’t going to admit it, but her way didn’t feel half as shitty as his did.
But now their superhuman was coming down with the super-strain of cold Snake had brought them, too, so she was finally slowing down. She was currently dumping a pile of blankets and pillows she’d fetched from her own room in front of Clay’s sofa.
“Simpsons?” Roque asked, plugging the laptop into the surprisingly modern TV.
Collective groans followed and Clay shook his head. “No way. I’m pulling rank on this. I’ve seen enough Simpsons to last me a fucking lifetime, Roque.”
The big man shrugged and double clicked on a movie before straightening and looking around. The bed was taken. The sofa was taken. Summers patted the floor next to her and Roque sank down with a grunt, stuffing a pile of pillows under his ass.
“Hey! Mine!” she protested the pillow-abuse.
“Find something else to lie on,” he shot right back, not moving a muscle.
For a moment Clay thought they’d have yet another fight on their hands. But then Summers got that glint in her eye that meant Roque was about to get flustered and pulled a blanket over herself before lying down. With her head straight in Roque’s lap.
He jerked up his arms, looking down at her like she was spreading cooties on him. “What the fuck you think you’re doing?”
“Finding something else,” she informed him, sounding vaguely more nasal than usual. Then she punched his thigh like she would a pillow and settled down. Roque kept his arms in the air for another minute, glaring. The rest of the team watched, biting their lips to avoid laughing out loud. Five foot nothing completely unhinging six foot four always made them crack up.
Then Roque accepted defeat and gingerly settled one of his hands on the back of Summers’ head, fingers digging into her hair.
Clay snort-swallowed a laugh and then ordered, “Run it.”
“You know,” Summers drawled, “If that were a real fight, that dude would have lost about three hands and his head by now.”
“Dude,” Snake protested with a cough, “He’s immortal! Jack can’t touch him.”
“Does immortality extend to severed limbs?” Texas threw in, then sneezed.
“Forget the limbs,” Roque rumbled. “Why is he waiting for the fucker to get back on his feet? He should stab him right there. Pin the son of a bitch and blow him up, or something.”
“It’s called honor, Roque.”
“Shut it, Mom. I ain’t watching this crap no more.” With that, Roque dislodged the blonde from his lap and went to change the move. Apparently, he had enough of pirates.
“Dude,” Snake piped up as soon as the first images of Independence Day flickered across the screen. “No way. A computer virus? Seriously? They’re this super advanced race that travels thousands of light years to enslave the Earth and they don’t have a fuckin’-“ sneeze, “-firewall? I coulda done better than that at twelve. Change that shit.”
Texas grunted disgustedly in the middle of the first firefight of the next movie, throwing a wad of used Kleenex at the screen. It fell short and landed on Clay, who threw it back, followed by the remote. Unlike the sniper, he hit.
“Ow, fuck,” the Texan howled, holding his nose. “I dan’t bweathe anyway, Cway, you fuck’r.”
“Don’t throw your shit at me, Corporal,” Clay shot back.
“The movie’s cwap!”
“No it’s not,” Roque barked, trying to keep his attention on the screen.
Texas stopped prodding at his nose long enough to say, “Yes it is. Who the fuck uses Desert Eagles? They’re big. They’re flashy. And they don’t hold more than nine rounds. That’s shitty.”
“So they’re modified, shut up.”
“Ain’t no modifying a Desert Eagle, you dumb prick. And how many shot does the guy have anyway? We’re going on thirty. He hasn’t changed his clip!”
“Right. An explosion this size? The guy should be a smear on the pavement. And look at…”
“Roque!” Clay yelled, way beyond fed up with his team bitching at every. Single. Movie. They. Had. “Shut up, damn it!”
“What? It’s not realistic!”
Clay closed his eyes. He took a very deep breath. He paused to cough and took another, more shallow breath. Then he exhaled.
“Put on the fucking Simpsons, Roque.”
Chapter 7: Requiem
Warning for Original Character Death (offscreen) and its aftermath.
In which no-one goes to the funeral.
She didn’t go the funeral. None of them did. They all knew that there was nothing in the coffin. Nothing that mattered anyway.
He’d always been too cocky.
Thought that being out of sight of must mean he was safe. Thought that since he was looking at the world through a sniper scope, the world could only look back at him the same way.
A grenade lobbed onto the second story roof he was posted on taught him differently. Buffy didn’t think the second between his heartfelt, “Fuck,” and the detonation had been enough for the lesson to sink in.
So she didn’t go the funeral.
And neither did the boys.
They would have gone and hunted down the fucker that killed Texas, but the guy was dead before their sniper, gunned down by Roque a split second too late. All that was left was to buy a few bottles of cheap as shit booze (Texas’s favorite and they were just sentimental enough to drink the swill, which they never did while he was alive) and get falling-down drunk.
They were camped out at Clay’s place because it was closest to the base they’d arrived stateside on. Roque’s place was a hundred miles further out and Snake’s apartment was up in New England. Buffy had a couch at Dawn’s place in Cleveland, but she wasn’t about to invite a unit of grieving special ops men into Scooby territory. That way lay only pain.
They were all scattered around the living-room: Clay in the love seat, Roque stretched out on the couch. Usually she would have fought the man for the spot, but he’d been in a piss-poor mood ever since Afghanistan and she knew that he would take the smallest provocation as a reason to start a fight. She might have enjoyed beating Roque up any other time, but not now. Not when he’d only be fighting to lose. If he was angry enough with the world to get his bones broken, he could do it without her help.
She took another swig straight from the bottle and pointed at the dead potted plant on the windowsill next to Snake’s head. “What’s that?” she asked.
Snake, sitting against the wall on the floor, twisted enough to look at the plant and snort. Clay threw the cap of his bottle at him and informed her primly (as prim as one could get with half a bottle of shitty booze in them), “It’s a plant.”
She nodded, feeling the alcohol sloshing around in her head a bit. Uh-oh. Better stop now, unless she wanted a return of Cave-Buffy. “I can see that. But why’s it there?”
“Plants brighten up the place,” Clay said and it sounded like a quote. Roque snorted, contempt thick in his voice. They all ignored him.
“We haven’t been stateside in four months,” Buffy felt the need to point out.
“He was allergic to that kind, I think,” Snake suddenly said from his spot on the ground and everyone turned to look at him. He was curled up, bottle forgotten at his feet and there were tears in his eyes.
Buffy sighed and fought the urge to look away. The techie was older than her, but she felt like his mother for real these days. He wasn’t made for special ops. He’d simply pissed off the wrong person at the wrong time and landed his ass in the perpetual war-zone that was the life of the Losers. He’d confessed, on the flight back, that Texas was the first buddy he’d lost. It had made Buffy feel impossibly old.
She and Clay and Roque were down, yes. But it wasn’t guilt that was putting them into this mood, or even loss. It was failure. Clay as the commanding officer, Roque as the one who’d had the shot at the guy that killed Texas and Buffy as the girl with the hero complex (and preternatural reflexes). They had all failed. And the price was Texas’ life.
But Snake had been the man’s friend. Maybe his only real one in the unit. He’d grated on the nerves of the rest of the team more often than not. Three of the Losers were here because they’d failed. The fourth was here because he’d lost a friend and that… sucked.
It sucked really hard.
Time to play Mom.
Buffy put down her bottle and made her way over to their curled up techie, pulling at his elbow. “Up you go, buddy,” she said, managing to get him mostly upright before he thought to protest.
“Where we goin’?” She looked down at his bottle and sighed. Falling-down drunk was about right.
“We’re getting some coffee in you. And then we’re getting you a tattoo.” Hey, if it worked for the rest of the unit, it would work for him. Besides, she had a star to add to her collection and she was pretty sure that, somewhere on his body, Clay was collecting fallen men, too. They all needed a dose of ink, was what they needed.
Also, Buffy needed to stop drinking.
Snake tried to focus on her with bleary eyes. “I never got a tat before. Does it hurt?”
“Like hell,” she nodded, trying to tow him towards the door. “Colonel? You comin’?”
The older man nodded and stood, amazingly steady after two hours of gloomy drinking. He got a handle on Snake and Buffy went to poke Roque, who hadn’t so much as twitched. “You comin’, big guy?”
He grunted. She poked him again. He came up swinging, eyes bright with anger. Rolling her eyes, Buffy caught his fist and held it there, in the space between them. He growled and tried to lunge at her from his position on the sofa. The momentum sucked and she had him flat on his back with a knee between his shoulder blades before he had time to take another swing at her.
She pressed down hard once and then backed off slightly. “You done?” she asked, intentionally light.
He spat, “Fuck off!”
“Great,” she chirped with a cheer she didn’t feel and let go, hurrying towards Clay and Snake, who’d watched the exchange with blank faces.
They slipped out of the door a split second before a bottle hit the door and shattered on impact. Roque howled and Clay hollered right back, “You’re cleaning that up, Roque!”
She’d been right. There was an eagle on Clay’s shoulder and exactly ten small, black and gray stars in the background. It looked very patriotic. Texas became the eleventh star.
There was a joke in there somewhere, but Buffy was still too blitzed to find it.
Snake, who had sobered up only slightly after they poured two big cups of Starbucks’ rattiest coffee down his gullet, picked an armadillo. Because it was the Texas State Animal, or something. A fucking armadillo!
The tattoo artist, who’d taken one look at three trashed-at-noon people with dogtags (Buffy’s were a gift from Ri, not official) and spared them the usual ‘not while you’re drunk’ speech. Since his parlor was only a handful of miles from the nearest base, Buffy figured he’d seen his fair share of soldiers come to ink their losses.
He’d done the armadillo on Snake’s shoulder without a single raised eyebrow, patiently listening to Snake extolling their dead sniper’s virtues, few as they had been. But since one didn’t speak ill of the dead, both Buffy and Clay had simply looked on and not said a word about how, in the end, it had been Texas’ own arrogance that had gotten him killed. They’d warned him that the fight was moving to his position, had told him to run. The angle had been all wrong, so he hadn’t even been able to give them cover. He’d simply stayed up there because he thought he was untouchable.
The tattoo artist did raise an eyebrow when Clay pulled off his rumpled shirt, revealing almost twenty years of warfare carved, shot, slit, stabbed and inked into his skin.
“Jesus, what are you people? Special ops or something?”
Star number eleven.
Since the tattoo was tiny, Clay was done in under fifteen minutes and Buffy was next, pulling her own shirt up to bare her stomach and the seven stars already decorating it. She pointed at a spot halfway between hipbone and navel and said, “Same as the others, but bright green.”
Texas had called her ‘Green Eyes’ exactly once. She’d punched him in the face for it. It was one of her fonder memories of the idiot. The guy with the needle shifted around her for a moment before tracing a finger across the scar she’d retained from getting stabbed during Sunnydale’s last stand.
“I could cover that up,” he offered, very studiously not looking at the other scars left from ten years of fighting for her life nightly. She was pretty sure she was scaring him a bit and drunk enough, still, to find it funny.
“Nah. Just where I showed you.”
By the time they returned to Clay’s place, it was dark. Roque had cleaned up sloppily and then proceeded to help himself to their booze, since he’d blown his up. He was drunk enough to be mellow for fucking once and Clay pulled out a deck of cards.
They played a few rounds (with Buffy losing every single time) before Snake conked out on the floor, bitching about how his shoulder burned.
Clay rolled his eyes and threw a blanket over the man before pulling out a bottle of twelve-year-old scotch and pouring three glasses. They toasted Texas and downed the drinks with little regard to taste and expensiveness.
Then they gave up on cards and went to find themselves some horizontal surfaces for the night. In two days their new sniper and the driver the brass had insisted on them getting (because, apparently, the entire fiasco that had been Afghanistan could be blamed on the fact that they did not have a driver, when they should have.) were going to report for duty and they were going to be sent back out no more than a week after that. Easy job, to give the new guys time to integrate, but a job nonetheless.
Life went on.
Another thing Buffy loved about being a Loser? No-one called you heartless when you didn’t cry.
Chapter 8: Headless Jimmy
Violence against melons.
In which there are melons and plenty of duct tape. And crack, quite possibly.
Clay, like every other soldier after twenty years of active service, had his fair share of nightmares. Dead comrades, gruesome injuries, lost in the jungle. The usual repertoire of horrors.
When Roque had become a Loser, a new scenario had joined his nightmares: Roque bored.
Then Summers had signed herself onto the team and since then, Clay got seriously twitchy if his two best fighters were stuck anywhere for more than a few hours without entertainment or supervision.
It never ended well.
There was that one time where they’d decided to go skinny dipping in a shallow pool they’d found in the jungle and ended up with leeches all over them. Or the one time they’d gotten tired of Texas’ mouth and duct-taped him from head to toe and hung him upside down from the ceiling until Clay got back and cut him loose.
Or the time in Panama that involved a kiddy pool, several dozen gallons of grape jelly and copious amounts of the Patron that had been meant as a bribe for some officials they needed to look the other way.
That had been after the time Roque wanted to see if you could flambé a human without hurting them, like you could pudding. Snake’s eyebrows had never grown back quite right.
Really, no-one could blame Clay for trying to keep his two weapons specialists as busy as possible with whatever inane tasks he could come up with, food runs and laundry duty included.
The motto was: Do Not Let Them Get Bored and everyone who’d ever spent any amount of time in close quarters with them was fully on board this cruise ship.
So really, when Roque came marching past him with an assortment of things in his arms (including but not limited to: duct tape, clothes, several towels, Snake’s sleeping bag), Clay was right to feel very, very antsy. They had been stuck in their latest safehouse for over two days, unable to do much of anything and there were only so many distractions in a place like this.
He waved at Roque, but the man only grunted and stomped out the backdoor. Summers came around the corner a moment later, carrying (Jesus fucking Christ), what looked like every blade she and Roque owned between them.
Small knives. Big knives. Serrated knives. Straight knives. Fixed knives and ones with blades that folded into the handle. Butterfly and Bowie knives. Throwing knives. Hunting knives. Ornamental and functional, antique and new, cheap and expensive, stolen, won and bought.
Clay stood and followed their token female out into the backyard. Roque had put his equipment down on the worn picnic table and was now fumbling with the tape. Summers set the knives down next to his things, putting them in neat, orderly lines, sorted from smallest (one inch blade, good for hiding in the center of a bra and don’t ask how Clay knew that) to the biggest (two and a half foot machete, taken off a dead man in Western Africa).
There was a pile of smallish watermelons next to the table that hadn’t been there this morning.
Clay felt the sudden urge to rapidly and decisively vacate the premises and never come back.
“Roque,” he barked, because at least Roque would answer, instead of smirking and throwing his hair over his shoulder, mostly out of a severe lack of hair, but whatever. Small mercies. “What are you doing?”
The man didn’t look up from where he was taping a random stick to the handle of a mop. “Testing a theory.”
The Colonel swallowed. When Roque felt the need to be evasive, things were bad. “What theory?”
“Internet,” Summers said, taking the mop-crucifix from Roque and starting to stuff it into a very loud Hawaiian shirt that belonged to Texas.
They were building a scarecrow?
“What kind of theory on the internet?”
Summers stopped trying to get the buttons right and blinked, very slowly. “Is it really ‘on’, or is it ‘in’ the internet? Roque, what do you think?”
“Who gives a fuck?” the big man asked philosophically, bending to pick up one of the melons and inspect it. Summers leaned the mop-guy against the table, plucked the fruit from his hand and handed him the towels and the duct tape.
“Shoulda done that first,” she remarked as she help up the shirt and Roque wordlessly started taping the towels to the mop in a sort of torso. Another grunt.
“Soldiers,” Clay barked. “What theory?!”
“Huh?” Mom looked up, giving him a surprised look. “What… oh. Snake. Snake plays that stupid game. With the elves and the half-naked blue women and… stuff. And there was this discussion in a forum-thing last night. They were fighting about whether or not you can split a human head simply by throwing a knife at it. We want to see if it works, because we don’t think so. Except maybe with slayer strength, but those geeks don’t have that, right?”
Oh Jesus, this was what his mother had meant when she’d told him every prank he’d ever pulled on her would come back to bite him one day. Except she’d probably been talking about little Clays, not fully-grown, homicidal, knife-swinging psychopaths. “The melons?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
Summers patted the one on the table fondly. “The heads,” she confirmed.
“Right.” He retreated. He could have tried to stop them, could have ordered them to stand down, but they would have found a way to do it anyway and make his life even more of a living hell while they were at it, simply because they could. Plus, if he had to listen to another lecture about how he was ‘stunting his men’s creativity in its natural development’, courtesy of Summers, he was going to scream. She had a very annoying tendency to pull it out every time he shot down one of his men’s crazier schemes.
He very carefully backed away until he reached the backdoor and then made a beeline for the fridge. Beer. He might just get through this with beer. He grabbed a bottle, reconsidered, took the whole six pack and settled on the steps leading into the backyard, a safe distance away from the goings-on.
Roque was about to tie the scarecrow to the only tree in the yard, when Mom stopped him. “Sleeping bag first,” she insisted. “We don’t wanna harm the tree.”
Roque looked at her sideways but obeyed, taping the sleeping bag to the trunk of the tree in question. Clay looked from the two inch thick piece of fabric to the knife collection on the table and decided it was the thought that counted. Wordlessly, the two mounted the scarecrow as their CO watched.
And then came the first problem.
“How are we gonna fix the melons to the end of the mop?”
Summers shook her head wildly. “Nuh-uh. Can’t tape the whole melon over. It’d ruin the experiment. Maybe a hole in the bottom?”
She picked up a stiletto dagger and unceremoniously rammed it into the first melon, twisting. It split down the middle, one half rolling off the table and more or less exploding as it hit the edge of the bench. Apparently, the melons were a bit ripe.
The blonde danced away from the flying pieces of fruit and observed, “Well, I already knew you could split a skull like that. It’s about the throwing.”
Then she picked up another melon and dug a hole into it, more gently than before. Clay took a bit swig of his beer and decided not to ask how she knew about splitting skulls with knives.
Eventually, they figured out how to fix the ‘heads’ to Jimmy’s mop, excuse him, ‘neck’.
They then spent fifteen minutes quibbling over which knives to use, since they only had fifteen (now fourteen) melons and about fifty knives. Throwing more than one knife at one head would falsify the data and thus ruin the experiment.
After that, Mom settled down next to Clay and pulled out paper and pen, ready to take down their results. Clay, then on his third bottle of beer on an empty stomach, was starting to find the whole adventure mildly amusing. Roque, who had gotten the dubious honor of getting to start with the small knives (completely unworthy of his skills, he said), promptly missed the melon on purpose with the one inch knife, burying it to the hilt in the sleeping bag behind Jimmy’s back.
Poor Snake. He was probably going to miss that sleeping bag.
After burying the next biggest knife in the sleeping bag, too, Roque finally reached for a four inch knife, which he deemed worthy of his skills. He hit Jimmy right between the sharpie-d on eyes and his head exploded in a shower of melon-gore.
“Wow,” Mom said, staring at the mess. “Didn’t expect that.”
She put away her notes and went to prep another melon, drawn on face and all. Roque took her place next to Clay and she threw the knife with scary ease.
Boom. Chunks of melon hit the table and slipped off the edge, landing on the remaining stack of clothes and towels. Texas was not going to be happy either.
After number five, Roque took down the results in handwriting that was decidedly less loopy and girly than Mom’s and then stood, moving to get the next melon. Summers stopped him with a shake of her head. “This isn’t right. I think the holes are ruining the integrity of the melons.”
Roque tilted his head, thinking the suggestion through, obliviously fingering a knife. Clay didn’t say anything, just kept watching. He felt a bit smug about hearing Summers use a big word, because it meant she felt safe enough, comfortable enough, around them to stop putting on the ditzy routine all the time. It was probably sappy as hell, but Clay liked knowing that his team liked being his team.
“Well,” Roque finally spoke up, “You nixed the tape. So how we gonna get the melons to stick?”
In the end, the taped over a spot on the melon and then dug the hole right there, through the tape. That way, they had the hole, but the melon didn’t burst the first time someone looked at it too hard.
Five through thirteen went off without a hitch, throw a knife, embed it in the melon, put melon aside. None of them exploded like the first few had, unless you counted what happened when they were carelessly dropped into the ‘used’ pile next to Jimmy, the melon-man. Clay suspected that they’d gotten them out of some vendor’s trash, because there was no way anyone could have sold melons that overly ripe. Every time the two dropped one from waist height, it exploded in a shower that had a radius of at least three feet, most of the time more because they kept putting a bit of extra power into the ‘dropping’. Apparently, they were having a lot more fun than Clay, who had to keep covering his beer to avoid it getting melon-flavored.
Right before melon number thirteen met its maker, Summers piped up, “Can I use slayer strength? Like, just this once?”
Roque considered, looked down at the notes and then nodded. “Go for it.”
She hefted the knife, tested its weight and then adjusted her grip, since the foot long blade wasn’t meant to be thrown. Then she drew back her arm and the knife went flying.
The melon exploded like a tasty bomb and the knife buried itself in the sleeping bag and the tree behind it, several inches deep.
Summers wiped a bit of melon from her cheek and frowned. “Whoops.”
They stood (or in Clay’s case, swayed) around the pile of melon goop in the middle of the yard. There were splatters of fruit all over the place and a large heap at their feet. The knives were covered, the material they’d used to build Jimmy was covered. Jimmy himself was barely visible through the new sheen the Hawaiian shirt had taken on. The picnic table was drenched in fruit juice and Clay was pretty sure he had some of that shit in his shoes. He’d definitely had some in his beer earlier.
It looked like Melonland had exploded.
“Results?” Summers asked, kicking at a piece of melon.
“Inconclusive,” Roque returned promptly, kicking the piece right back at her. It hit her shin with a wet smack and slowly slid down her bare leg.
“Well,” the blonde said with a shrug. “At least we know what’s for dinner.”
Clay, who was at this point, drunk enough to not even care what they’d done to the yard, themselves and assorted things belonging to their teammates (which was going to cause no end of fighting), shook his head and wriggled his toes in his shoes.
Definitely melon in there.
He figured he should be glad they weren’t loopy enough to try their little experiment on random people on the street, but he would have probably slept safer if they’d just watch TV when they got bored, like anyone else.
“I’m taking a shower,” he announced, picking his way through the debris. Mentally, he was already compiling a list of tasks to give Summers and Roque to keep them out of trouble for the rest of the day. Getting him some painkillers was at the top of the list, followed by cleaning up the damn yard.
Anything that got them away from him.
Once their fearless leader was safely out of earshot, Buffy turned to look at Roque. “Do you think he’s ever gonna figure out that we do this shit just to mess with him?”
Roque, who was licking a knife clean, shook his head. “Nah,” he decided. “Probably not.”
Chapter 9: 17 Stars
Mucho violence and death. For real, this time.
In which Buffy has seventeen stars tattooed on her side. Well, almost seventeen. (There’s a lot of death and violence here, people.)
1. Cortez was supposed to be their informant for the operation, but instead he was the one they were after. Trap, trap, trap. They had guns to her team’s heads and the only way out was with a knife through Cortez’s heart.
The star is yellow, like the sun.
Her only regret is not regretting what she did.
2. She promised the girl that she'd get her out.
“You’re safe, you’re safe,” she whispered, kept repeating it as she half-carried, half-dragged the girl toward freedom. The girl was weak and tired and broken and she still tried to walk, tried to get her feet under her.
She promised to get the girl out. You could almost see the sky from where she finally collapsed, dead five minutes after being freed.
The star is electric blue like her eyes.
3. Seven children as hostages and two men holding guns on them. She didn’t even think about it, just told the children to close their eyes and knocked the guys’ heads together so hard they saw stars.
She spent the next two days baby-sitting them on their hike out of the desert, with laughing children clinging to all appendages and Clay and Roque trying to seem aloof and failing because really, no-one can look aloof with a kid on their shoulders, steering by the ears.
One of the children, a girl, had pink studs in her ears. They caught the sun just so. That’s the color of that star.
4. They were running, running, running, fifty dudes with AKs on their asses and gaining because Roque had been dumb enough to let himself get shot in the leg and Clay kept cursing, cursing, cursing, fumbling with the remote trigger of the charges they’d risked their lives to set.
He had a cut above one eye and blood kept obscuring his sight, making his fingers slippery. Buffy said a very bad word, took the trigger from him and pressed the button.
Clay offered her the official report later, but she never read it. She didn’t want to know how many people she killed by pressing that button. Killing that way felt wrong to her. Doing it face to face was one thing. It meant the opponent had a chance, no matter how small. It was fair in a way a bomb set off from a mile could never be.
The star is an obnoxious red, not like blood, but like the button that spilled it.
5. Three days in the jungle with Roque, who had a busted leg. Again. It was like a habit, or something. The rest of the team had blown out of there but there was no way they were moving Roque without a med evac chopper, not with his leg looking like something a dog chewed on. They’d be back with help, but right then, it was Buffy, Roque and a whole lot of jungle.
She could take the heat, the lack of food and water, the mosquitos, the endless, sleepless nights keeping watch. She was okay with all of that.
The thing that rubbed her raw, right to the bone, was Roque. He started running a fever on the first morning and was hallucinating by noon. He rambled incoherently, mistaking her for all kinds of people, thinking he was a kid again, ten, fifteen, twenty.
She got the ink because she needed a way to pull the feel of his tar-black hate out from under her skin. A way to drain away the bitter taste his memories left in her mouth and heart.
He didn’t remember any of it afterwards, but she did and it was hard, looking at Asshole Roque and seeing all the things that had made him. Harder still, wanting to kill people that were long dead.
That star is white, because it’s as far from black as she could get.
6. The sixth star is a dull, dirty green, the color of money. She got it after the first (and only) time she ever won a game of poker against the guys. She’s sure, to this day, that Clay made them let her win, but as long as they pretend they didn’t, she’ll pretend not to know and run her fingers fondly over the ink.
Things she wanted to remember, Clay said, way back when. Sometimes, she wants to remember the good things. The silly ones.
7. She got the next when she was exactly twenty-six years and one hundred and five days old. It was the day she officially became the oldest living slayer on record, beating Nikki Wood by a day and a handful of hours.
The oldest of her kind.
As if she hadn’t felt ancient before.
The boys treated it like another birthday (read: another reason to get drunk) and then dragged her to get ink. She picked chocolate brown for that one, in memory of Sineya.
First and oldest.
(To this day, that star is the one closest to her navel, the connecting point between child and mother. In a way, she came from that long dead girl as much as she came from her own mother.)
8. Texas. Green. He’d called her ‘Green Eyes’ exactly once and gotten a knuckle sandwich for his troubles.
9. She’d killed before. Demons in the thousands, a few dozen humans, too, by then. But never in cold blood. She’d never stood back, outside the heat of battle, the frenzy of live, live, live, and decided that someone needed to die.
And she’d especially never gone through with it.
But Manny Meyers was a baby killer, a child molester and a rapist and she killed him even though there was no immediate need for it. She puked afterwards, heaving until her stomach was empty of everything she’d eaten in the past month, while Pooch held back her hair.
“It’s okay,” he said, but it really, really wasn’t. Because this time, she’d had a choice. And she’d chosen monster.
The star is the dull, washed-out grey of a bullet.
10. Suicide bomber, C4 belt strapped to his narrow waist, crossing over his chest. Twelve fucking years old, running straight at them, screaming things she didn’t understand in Arabic, his eyes on fire.
Twelve fucking years old.
It was Roque who shot him and Clay who kicked the trigger out of his hand. But it was her who closed his eyes.
The star is blue like the sky that day.
11. There were seven men between her and an injured Pooch.
Dark red, like the blood that caked on his skin, flaking off onto her as she carried him out.
Sometimes, she marveled at how easy killing had gotten. But most of the time, looking at the people she’d saved was enough to silence those thoughts.
12. He said his name was Adam and they had an amazing week in Cuba while Clay was feeling up a few contacts for information.
In the end, Adam was the one they were looking for, the drug-lord come terrorist-financier.
She should have known better than to think a trust-fund baby on vacation was all he was. Things never were that simple with the men she slept with.
Another lover dead.
Burnt orange, the color of the sun as they’d watched it set over the ocean, slurping cocktails and telling each other lies.
13. When Dawn called to tell her she was pregnant, Buffy was ready to fly back to the states and murder Xander.
After she’d calmed down, the urge to fly back home remained, so she did. In the end neither Dawn nor Xander needed her to hover and be anxious, but she did anyway, for a while.
She got the star, vibrant green like new grass and hope and her sister, on the day Baby Ellie was born. So far, it’s her favorite reminder, right under her left breast, close to her heart. And if you look close, really close, there’s an ornate little silver key right at the center.
Dawn got the matching star on her ankle six months later, after she stopped breastfeeding, with the initials BAS in the center. Because she said there was no way she was getting a stake inked into her skin. Ever.
14. Faith came late for Buffy’s housewarming party. Two weeks late. But she brought a shopping bag full of cheap, sweet wine and they spent the night watching A-Team reruns, getting drunk and giggling like the teenagers they never really were.
Sometime during the night Faith discovered Buffy’s ink and asked if any of the stars were for her. Buffy told her no. She’d considered backtracking, making her way backward through her life, inking important moments, but it didn’t feel right. The ink needed to be fresh when the memory was. There was no star for Faith and all the shit they’d done to each other, she said, and somehow, that opened all the floodgates.
In the morning, lying face to face on the bed, still fully dressed and hung over as hell, Buffy scraped together all her courage and said, “I love you.”
And Faith snorted and laughed and held her head and said, “Ya know, you’re not half bad since you joined the toy soldier squad, B.”
Which, for her, was as good as an ‘I love you’ anyway. After all those years, it was time to put old ghosts to rest.
When Buffy decided to commit The Drunken Night That Made All The Old Hate Go Away to memory, Faith insisted on coming along. She picked purple for that star and insisted that it go next to the brown one. And then she spent the rest of the day telling everyone they passed that Buffy had her under her skin now.
She sounded very gleeful about that fact.
15. Three junior slayers kidnapped and gone for a whole month. She didn’t sleep, didn’t eat, didn’t stop.
The day they found them, dirty, hurt, hungry but alive, she went home to take a shower and then to the tattoo parlor, still riding the high of utter elation. Alive, alive, alive. For once, everyone lived.
That one is yellow, a shade lighter than the first because she couldn’t stop smiling that day and the color reminds her of that.
16. Emily Andrea Colton was born seven years after Sunnydale fell. Seven years after her mother became a slayer.
She was the first slayer-baby born into a new world. A world where her mother would probably live to see her daughter graduate highschool because she wasn’t alone anymore.
Because there were many now and while they still died, they also lived and aged and had lives.
Emily was the fact that they were more than death given face and life. And a cute button nose.
Lilac is the color of both Emily’s birthstone and the matching star on the hip of the Alpha Slayer.
17. Five dead soldiers in Bolivia, their names dragged into the dirt, their memory kicked and spat on, their heroics forgotten, their good deeds ignored for one bad deed, only one, that Buffy knew they hadn’t committed.
Five dead soldiers in Bolivia.
She stood in the doorway of the tattoo parlor for ten minutes before turning back around and walking out.
Something in her gut said not yet.
Instinct and hope and an idea.
Not yet, not yet.
It wasn’t time for that star.
Chapter 10: Driver Needed, Now Hiring
Driver Needed, Now Hiring
In which we learn how to become a Loser in five (easy) steps. Well, five and a half, really.
0: First, you gotta agree to take the job.
The first time Linwood Porteus met Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Clay the man’s arm was in a sling and he still sported the last vestiges of a helluva shiner around his left eye.
He stood in front of Pooch’s door and asked to be let in. “I’ve got a job for you, if you want it, son.”
At first, Pooch didn’t even realize the man was military. He’d been on forced leave for the past month because he’d punched his CO in the face in Afghanistan to go back and save two guys from his unit against direct orders.
He’d made it out, the guys made it out, the car made it out and the annoying as fuck CO who’d put his own escape in the only vehicle they had above getting two wounded men out of the line of fire had made it out, too. Unfortunately.
As it was, the only thing between Pooch and a DD was the fact that he’d been in the right and the CO obviously in the wrong. Still, no-one wanted a guy who didn’t follow orders if he didn’t like them. He’d been sitting at home since he got back stateside and Jolene was just about ready to shoot him for sitting on the couch all day, brooding and bitching.
Clay asked, “Can I come in, soldier?”
He sat on Pooch’s couch, drank coffee from Jolene’s good china with a wry smile of amusement at the flower patterns on it, and wanted to know, “Ever heard of the Losers?”
Pooch had. Everyone in the world of black ops had. The Losers were the cream of the crop and the kind of crazy that stood out in a room full of lunatics. When a mission was impossible, it went to the Losers and they got it done with a hefty dose of luck, even more insanity and a whole helping of mad skills.
The Losers was where the military’s rejects and orphans went to either sink or swim.
Very carefully, Pooch said, “Yessir.”
Clay leaned back into the couch and said, “We lost our sniper last week.”
Holy hell, Pooch thought. No wonder the man looked so tired and beaten up. They’d probably just arrived state-side, body-bag in tow. Proof that the Losers’ famous luck wasn’t always lucky. Pooch’s manners wanted him to offer his condolences, but the soldier in him clamped down on the manners. His momma would have been ashamed but Pooch had met men like Clay before. They didn’t like hearing ‘sorry’ from anyone. So he waited and wondered what a dead sniper had to do with him, a driver.
“Command says we lost him because we’re short the regulation five men. That’s bull, but an order’s an order. So apart from needing to find a new sniper within the next week, I also need a driver. Want the job?”
Later that day Jolene looked at him, long and hard and a bit scared and then sighed because she’d been complaining that he was climbing the walls for the past month and she knew he thrived on danger. She knew he wanted that job. So she sighed and nodded and let him go.
He loved her all the more for it.
1: You gotta accept the idiosyncrasies..
Pooch figured out why Clay thought the whole ‘five men’ thing was bullshit when he first met the rest of the unit on the plane that was going to take them to an ‘undisclosed location’. Jolene had dumped him at the gate of the base an hour earlier, kissed him goodbye and told him not to fuck up. He’d promised to try.
The first guy through the doorway was Clay. The second his SiC, a big, angry man named Roque. Third was the tech and former (makeshift) driver, Snake. Then came the new sniper, a surly, short guy by the name of Miller and then, when Pooch thought everyone was accounted for, a short blonde woman in civvies followed, cup of Starbucks’ coffee in hand, yawning widely. Five men indeed.
She dumped her gear next to the door, unsecured, and slumped into the nearest seat. “Why do missions always have to start in the middle of the night?” she asked no-one in particular.
No-one answered while they all secured their stuff and buckled in. Clay called out the all clear and Pooch felt the plane start moving. Just like that, off to a new mission with a bunch of strangers. Pooch was more excited than he probably should have been.
The plane was picking up speed when Roque, who had, until then, only glowered silently (looking like a serial killer, in Pooch’s humble opinion), answered, “It’s not the middle of the night. You just don’t know when to go to fucking sleep.”
Miller grunted his assent, which was funny, because he didn’t know these people from Adam either. The woman gave him a look but said nothing about it, slurping her coffee.
“Say it with me, people,” she demanded after a moment. “Noc-tur-nal. Unlike Snake, I can’t sleep anywhere and at any time.”
Snake grinned, clutching his computer tighter as they took off. “It’s a skill,” he boasted.
“No, it’s not,” Roque shot down, “It’s you being a lazy fuck.”
Snake pointed and glared right back. It didn’t look half as scary on him. “Take that back, man. I saved your ass more than once.”
“Columbia,” Roque argued.
“I was not sleeping. I was passed out from blood loss, you jerk.”
Judging by the SiC’s expression, that was no excuse. Pooch smothered a chuckle as Snake looked away from the big man, attempting to hide behind his computer. Apparently, he wasn’t willing to outright fight with Roque. Pooch couldn’t blame him. Fucker was scary.
The woman finally finished her coffee and put a hand out to snap her fingers in front of Roque’s face. Apparently, she wasn’t scared of the guy like any sane person would have been. “Stop being mean, Roque.”
“Shut your face, Mom,” he shot back, not missing a beat.
She grinned brightly at him and then sunk back into her seat, turning to Clay who, until then, had watched everything with the indulgence of a parent. “You gonna gimme some names, Clay? Or do I have to call them New Guy and Other New Guy?”
Pooch chuckled and wondered who the hell the woman was. She was in civvies on a plane full of army guys, comfortable with them and obviously not shy about her place. Miller was blatantly checking her out.
Clay pointed at them in turn. “That’s Corporal James Miller, our new sniper. And Sergeant Linwood Porteus, the driver.”
She looked at Pooch very carefully before asking neutrally, “Linwood?”
He shrugged. He loved his momma, but he’d accepted long ago that she’d been very high when she’d named him. “Just call me Pooch.”
A smile grew on her face and Miller was positively leering at her now. “Roque?” she sing-songed.
He grunted in return and pulled out a – holy motherfucking shit, that was a knife! “What?” he asked as he grabbed a rag and started wiping down the blade.
“You can never, ever, ever poke fun at my name again. ‘Linwood’ is way worse than ‘Buffy’.”
Pooch, who knew all about horrible names, merely raised an eyebrow. Buffy? Sounded like a hippy-kid. Californian, probably. Miller, on the other hand, had been absent in tact school when they covered names and choked out loud.
“Buffy?” he barked, laughing, “You’re fucking jokin’, girlie.”
He was pretty sure a blind man would have noticed how the three male Losers tensed up when Miller called Buffy ‘girlie’.
“Miller,” Clay interrupted before anything happened, “Meet Summers. She’s on loan from Para.”
There was a warning in there and Pooch heard it loud and clear. It didn’t say ‘don’t mess with our girl’, like one would expect. It said ‘don’t mess with that woman if you value your balls because she’s gonna wear them on a necklace’.
Anyone working for Para was tough as fucking nails. Anyone Para thought good enough to loan to a special ops team on their own was probably scary as hell. And a unit like the Losers wouldn’t be dragging anyone with them if they were a hindrance rather than an asset.
Summers pulled her weight. So Pooch shrugged and said, “Cool. Do they really have shrink rays?”
Miller, though, seemed to miss the warning he’d just been given completely because he inspected her like a piece of meat, heel of her boot to the top of her head, and snorted. “Yeah,” he drawled. “Sure.”
Roque stopped polishing his knife just long enough to raise his head and look at Miller. It was the look the snake gave the bunny shortly before dinner time and Pooch couldn’t quite shake the feeling that he’d just passed a test and Miller hadn’t.
2: You gotta be crazy.
They called it a practice mission. Training wheels on. Half throttle. Basically a walk in the park.
Pooch had no idea what to call it because he was busy trying to stay the fuck alive and not lose his shit in the process. He’d narrowly avoided getting blown up along with his car and was now crouched behind barrels with questionable contents (probably highly flammable and going to blow him up anyway) and trying not to get shot by the angry motherfuckers they’d been trying to very quietly steal all their intel from.
Summers was crouched next to him, bandaging up Clay’s left arm with a piece of her shirt, lest their fearless leader bleed to death. Their med packs were long lost… somewhere. Clay, who didn’t seem all that concerned with dying, was shooting with his good arm and yelling orders at Snake over comms. Miller was somewhere above them, laying down cover fire that didn’t do much good and Roque was to their left, hiding behind a couple flimsy crates. Considering them, Pooch decided he liked his barrels just fine after all.
Still, “We’re going to die.”
Over comms, Roque laughed. “Man,” he crowed, “Fifty dudes with AKs.”
Summers nodded as she finished tying the knot. “Standard fare,” she added as she spat out a piece of fabric from ripping her shirt, picked up her own gun with a look of distaste and asked, “You seen anything with wheels before the good times started?”
Pooch, who was still hung up on the way Roque had said ‘fifty dudes with AKs’ like other people said ‘cloudy with a possibility of rain’, took a moment to work through what she’d just said. Good times? Su-ure.
“Jeep,” he finally managed. “Through that door.” He pointed to the far side of the warehouse they were in and then quickly pulled back his arm and returned fire.
“Snake?” Clay asked, ducking around the barrels long enough to try and get a look at the place.
“On my way there, boss.”
“Good. Roque, we’re coming at you. Cover us. Mom, take the rear.”
Wo-ow! There were at least sixty feet of open space between them and Roque and again as much between him and the door, which was probably locked. The bad guys were up on the gallery, overlooking everything. “We’re really gonna die.”
Summers smacked him upside the head. “Positive thinking!” she demanded.
“We’re really gonna die!” Pooch crowed, smiling widely.
Summers snickered. “That’s the spirit. I’ll cover you.”
With that she shoved him out of their cover into the line of fire and Pooch had no choice but to run. He suddenly missed his barrels. They’d been really awesome, in hindsight. He kept most of his attention on running without falling, sending random bursts of cover fire in the approximate direction of the bad guys. Clay was right behind him, whooping loudly. If Jolene ever found out about this, she was going to kill him.
It took a breathtaking seven seconds for Pooch to skid behind Roque and his crates, safe again. Well, safer. Roque was laughing so hard, he seemed close to tears.
Pooch spun to check that Clay had made it and noticed Summers still behind the barrels. She gave him a short wave and then swung, throwing her gun their way, leaving her unarmed. The fuck?
He figured out what she was up to a second later when Clay grunted, “The Amazing Mom is afoot again.”
Roque nodded and ducked around a crate to lay cover fire for her, as she suddenly stood, arms above her head and launched, head first, into a flip. Another, another, another. She practically flew across the open space, faster than Pooch had run and offering less of a target with her crazy acrobatics. She ended with a cartwheel over Clay’s head and landed in a crouch next to Pooch, who handed her back her gun.
Smiling sunnily at him she asked, “Next leg?”
Lord help him, but Pooch laughed.
3: You gotta be able to hold your liquor.
“’N t’n, y’know, t’n, he’ssss, like… he’s…, ‘n I says, I says…he’s…,” Miller trailed off, mercifully forgetting what he’d been going to say. Summers watched him with an expression of distaste, lip curled in a very unattractive way. Pooch, who had watched her make faces behind the sniper’s back all night, found himself hoping (not for the first time), that she didn’t look like that at him when he wasn’t looking.
“Awesome,” Roque agreed with the man, not moving a muscle in his face. He grabbed the bottle, swept an arm over the table to collect all the empty glasses and started refilling them until half an inch from the top. No more, no less. He’d been doling out the shots all night and even as their levels of intoxication passed ‘drunk’ and reached ‘utterly smashed’ he’d never spilled a single drop.
As a seasoned soldier, Pooch had seen men put away their weight in booze, but the Losers were acting only slightly tipsy after four plus bottles of tequila between the six of them and at least two six-packs of beer. Could we say functioning alcoholics, anyone?
He guessed more shoot-outs, more danger and more insane schemes equaled a need for more booze to drown out the shit, but this was getting ridiculous. They were drinking like fish, damn it, and they weren’t letting either of the two new guys back out. Hell, even Summers was drinking like nothing he’d ever seen.
She weighed a hundred pounds (he knew, he’d gotten to carry her unconscious ass last week) and drank like Roque. Sure, she’d muttered something about ‘feeling that’ early on, along with ‘giant snake monsters’ and ‘cavemen assholes’, but that didn’t seem to be stopping her. When he’d asked how she wasn’t unconscious on the floor about an hour ago, she’d shrugged and said something about a super-metabolism. It had taken three tries, but she’d gotten the word out correctly in the end. Pooch knew women could hold their liquor. Jolene could play drinking games with the best of them. But this? Was fucking out there. Way out there.
Roque slung the full glasses back to their owners and raised an eyebrow at Clay, who sat next to Miller. The Colonel elbowed the sniper and got nothing but a grunt from the man, who’d sunk into himself at the end of his sentence.
Then Miller snored and Pooch snorted, feeling himself sway a bit in his seat. Oh yeah, he was way, way, way past drunk. He really hoped those guys didn’t do shit like that regularly, because his liver would turn deserter within a month. That shit wasn’t healthy.
“Gone,” Clay observed before asking, “How many was that?”
Pooch thought he was asking about drinks, but Summers answered, “Three. His first command, his first time – can we say eugh – and the mission in Burma that went belly up. All in under,” she stopped to check her watch, “Three hours.”
Snake, who looked the drunkest out of the ‘old’ Losers, giggled a bit. “He’s gonna get us killed.”
Clay nodded, his SiC simply shook his head in disgust and Pooch’s booze-soaked brain finally put the pieces together. “This was a test,” he said, proud that he barely slurred.
Summers nodded and then grabbed onto Roque’s shoulder to keep from falling off her chair as she swayed dangerously.
“Pussy,” the big man rumbled in her direction, but didn’t brush off her hand like he would have if she’d been anyone else.
“Asshole,” she shot back without missing a beat. “I weigh half as much as you and I matched you, didn’t I?”
“Yeah,” Snake threw in, waving a hand in front of his face distractedly. Pooch found that hilarious and bit back on a giggle without much success. Cut him some slack here, he was drunk as a skunk. “But you’re gonna be use…use…uuuseeeless for the next three days.”
Summers’s answer was short, to the point, and delivered with a single digit.
“You got us drunk to see if we talk out of school when we’re blitzed,” Pooch stated, not asked.
Clay nodded, slowly and carefully. Now that Miller was a goner and Pooch had apparently (he hoped) passed the test, they all suddenly looked a lot drunker than before. Less carefully hiding it, maybe. “Loose lips sink ships,” he offered unapologetically. Then he hooked a thumb at Miller. “He failed.”
“Did I pass?” Pooch asked, needing to be sure.
Mom stood, slowly toddled around Roque and Snake and patted Pooch on the head. He thought she meant to pat him on the shoulder and missed. “Tototally,” she assured him. “’S important. National security. Plus, people who can’t hold their liquor are boring.”
She smiled brightly, nodded to herself and turned to stagger to bed. The men watched her go until she was out of sight. Then the Colonel asked, a bit wistfully, “Remember the time we tried to do it to her?”
Snake and Roque made noises of agreement. Vaguely. Pooch’s question probably showed in his expression (his poker face was shot after two beers) because Clay took pity on him and said, “We could barely keep up. Only way to get her drunk is to do it fast. If you give her time…” he shook his head mournfully.
Pooch decided he didn’t want to hear the story because he wouldn’t remember it anyway in the morning and put his head down on the table next to his still full glass. He closed his eyes and hoped, really hard, that someone had thought to stock up on painkillers before this little test.
If not, they were all fucked.
4: You gotta know when to shut your mouth.
The whole team watched dispassionately as Miller stormed out of the room after Summers had fired one snippy comment too many in his direction and no-one had interfered on his behalf.
Pooch, even though he knew he had nothing to do with the constant friction, felt guilty. So far, he had passed all the little tests the team had thrown at them and he felt comfortable with these people. Miller did not. It was his own damn fault, mind you, for being a chauvinist, arrogant asshole, but there it was.
“Summers,” Clay finally sighed when Miller was safely out of earshot. He sounded resigned more than annoyed, and Pooch knew it was because there was no controlling Summers. Between her and Roque, their CO had his hands more than full.
The blonde shrugged noncommittally. “He’d going to get himself killed because of his arrogance,” she said plainly.
“Wouldn’t be the first sniper to go that way,” Roque countered and Snake stiffened behind his laptop.
“Texas was not arrogant,” he bit out, fists clenching on the table. Instant anger.
Clay sighed again, sounding even wearier than before. “He was a fucking idiot,” Roque said, still conversationally. Casual cruelty. He was good at that, when he wanted to be.
Snake jumped to his feet, almost upsetting the table and his tech stuff. “He died saving our lives!”
“He died because he was too fucking arrogant to run when Clay told him to. He thought he was safe and he thought he knew better. That’s why he’s fucking dead.”
“That’s not true!”
“Yes, it is,” Summers threw in her own two cents, infinitely more gentle than the SiC, but still in a tone that did not tolerate disagreement.
The tech looked close to tears and Pooch made a point of studying the ground. It was one thing, knowing you were on the team because someone else was dead, but having it spelled out like this? Sucked ass. Snake was obviously grieving for a dead friend and the rest of the team had no patience for it, which didn’t help. Snake shoved his equipment to one side and thumped his fist on the table before pointing an accusing finger at Summers.
“Like you’re any better? Texas was arrogant? What about you? You obey orders when you feel like it, and last week, huh? Clay told you to get out but no, the great Buffy Summers has to stay back and go hand to hand against a bunch of demons just to prove she’s better! How’s he more arrogant than you?!”
The woman sighed and ran a hand through her hair, looking frustrated. “I’m still alive, that’s how. I know what I can and can’t do and Texas didn’t. It sucks, but it’s his own fucking fault he’s dead and you know it.”
For a moment, Pooch thought the tech was going to jump her and try to claw out her eyes or something, he looked so angry. Then he reigned himself in and spat, “Fuck you. All of you. You fucking arrogant… fuck!”
He stormed out and Summers flung herself back in her seat, kicking at the crate serving as a coffee table hard enough to send all kinds of maps and drinks flying.
For the longest time, none of the four left in the room said anything. They all knew Snake was right. Pooch looked from Clay to Summers to Roque and wondered when their luck would run out.
5: You gotta trust the team.
Okay, so, maybe this was negative thinking, but Pooch was fairly sure that he was about to die. Messily. Painfully.
Which was kind of expected in his line of business, but fuck all if he planned to do it today. Today started out nicely. There’d been sunshine and breakfast that didn’t come prepackaged and unrecognizable and he’d gotten to phone Jolene to just chat for a while, blowing off steam.
At least he thought that had been today. He suspected he was missing some time, seeing as how the last thing he remembered was waiting in the chopper for the team and now he was stripped down and duct-taped to a chair in a dark, dank, hot as fuck hellhole of a room that looked like the inside of a cancer patient’s lungs. No, seriously.
But then he supposed that the scenery should really not be his top concern, seeing as there was a grimy little table in the corner by the door, piled high with shiny silver things that had suspicious brown flecks on them that were definitely not rust.
He considered panicking for a moment and then decided to think rather than shake and gibber. He conjured his woman’s face in his mind, took a deep breath and started working on getting back to her.
His head rang like a church bell and he tasted blood. His left arm was burning like a mother and he vaguely (very vaguely) remembered having been grazed there. The wound in his thigh was definitely not a graze, but it had scabbed over so at least he wasn’t going to bleed to death. He didn’t know where he was, but inside the stronghold of the terrorist fucks they’d been sent to take out was a fairly good bet. He didn’t know how long he’d been here, but not too long. Someone would have paid him a visit already. The last he had heard from the team they’d been blown somehow. Roque and Clay had gone to ground under radio silence, which meant they were (had been) headed for the secondary rendezvous fifteen klicks out. Snake had been pretty far out with his toys, so he was probably safe and sound. Miller had been supposed to cover them, so chances were good he was either dead or seriously hurt because the cover? Yeah, not so much.
Pooch had no idea where Mom had gotten to in the whole mess but he had faith in the woman. She was scrappy as hell and determined enough to give even a fucking Taliban pause.
So he figured his chances of getting saved were fairly good. The team was most likely alive and together and this whole mess wasn’t even close to the Losers’ standards of FUBAR.
So Pooch leaned back in the rickety chair and relaxed as well as he could. Cramped up muscles were the last thing he needed when the cavalry came riding in. He closed his eyes so he didn’t stare at the torture instruments in the corner the whole time and breathed in time with the throb in his thigh and arm. In his head, he edited the whole story for when he’d tell it to Jolene.
Thirteen thousand two hundred and twelve (maybe thirteen) throbs later, there was screaming somewhere close by and no gunshots. Mom then, or Roque. They were the only ones that would get this far into the place without a shot.
Pooch stopped counting and opened his eyes.
Chapter 11: Buffy's Night Out
This is where the attempted assault tag comes from. It's bringing its friend, non-consensual drug use with it. In other words, someone gets roofied and assaulted.
Buffy’s Night Out
In which we learn fun things to do in bars; drinking games, dancing and violence. (Warning for almost-rape and ensuing violence.)
For most soldiers, downtime was like Christmas come early. Being stateside, being with their families, sleeping in their own beds, eating real food. No danger, no excitement, no-one shooting at their asses.
The Losers were bored, mostly. Miller, who didn’t count a Loser no matter what the paperwork said, disappeared as soon as they landed and they wouldn’t see him again until five minutes before the plane lifted off again.
But the rest of them? Roque and Clay had apartments with dead plants and an inch-thick layer of dust. Buffy and Snake had couches with their names on them in the homes of relatives. Pooch was the only one with a real home and Jolene wasn’t there this time, so there was no reason for him to go home. They ate pancakes and apple pie until they were close to throwing up, slept for twelve hours straight and then they were bored.
See, thing is, it wasn’t like they liked being shot at. Except they kind of did. Adrenaline junkies, the lot of them and they really, really didn’t know what to do with themselves if there wasn’t someone to hit or shoot at. It was kind of sad, really.
Summers suggested scattering and going their own ways for some random vacationing, but only Snake had anywhere he wanted to go. He hadn’t gotten a chance to visit his parents since Texas had died and he wanted to catch up, so they were down to four with nothing to do and too much time on their hands.
Naturally, they went partying.
There where wolf whistles and cat calls when the four Losers made their way to the carpool to get the hell off the base they called their home this week. Not because of the three guys and jeans and shirts but because of the one woman in their middle.
Clay tried not to look, he really did but, Jesus, the woman cleaned up well. He was used to her in tight jeans and shirts so the body underneath the clothes really didn’t come as a surprise. The short cocktail dress, the long, golden curls and the endless expanse of tanned skin kind of did, though.
She had linked her arms through Pooch’s and Roque’s and their tall black made her short blonde stand out even more. She was dazzling. Clay was tempted to send her back to change. He would have done it, too, if he hadn’t known that she would find something shorter still to wear just to spite him for playing daddy.
They drove a ways out, none of them keen on spending their night drinking with cherries fresh out of Basic, and found a nice and crowded bar two towns over. They had enough food on the menu to feed all four of them and after that, Clay went and bought the first bottle of booze, as was tradition.
“Game?” he asked as he slipped back into the booth, dropping a handful of shot glasses carelessly on the table.
They each grabbed one and Pooch suggested, “I Never?”
Everyone rolled their eyes because I Never had been Pooch’s favorite drinking game since he figured out all the crazy shit they’d all done over the years. The game was the easiest way to check if rumors were true and get ammunition on people. Since the night was young and they’d all split to find their own fun as soon as the bottle was done, no-one complained too much.
They played two rounds where no-one had to drink much before Roque sent a shit-eating grin Clay’s way and said, “I never fucked anyone that tried to kill me beforehand.”
Since everyone knew that Clay picked his women based on the statistical probability of them going bat-shit insane in the foreseeable future, no-one was surprised when he glared and then downed his drink. They were kind of surprised when Mom followed suit.
Everyone stared at her. “Seriously?” Pooch wanted to know.
She nodded and went a bit starry-eyed. “The sex was awesome, though.”
The Pooch grinned and decided to investigate further. “I never slept with anyone who tried to kill me after.”
Clay drank. Summers matched him.
Clay’s turn. He stared at the slayer and then said, “I never shot at a lover.”
A frown. “Does a rocket launcher count as ‘shot at’?”
“Okay.” She drank, refilled her glass, eyed the already half empty bottle with derision and thought that the military made people alcoholics. She topped Clay off, too, and shot back, “I never slept with anyone who shot at me.”
He drank. She didn’t.
Roque again. “I never slept with someone I had a knife fight with.”
Surprisingly, he didn’t drink. Summers hesitated, then did. When she got questioning looks, she shrugged. “It was an axe. And it happened years before we had our first civil conversation.”
“The Pooch does not believe that shit. You’re worse than Clay, girl!”
She smirked and turned to Clay with a triumphant look. “Now, hold on,” the Colonel complained, feeling a bit insulted. Not that he enjoyed his misadventures with women, but they were his trademark, damn it. “One of them tried to blow up my car. With me in it.”
“So? One of mine helped lead me into a trap that was supposed to end with me dead by demon in the sewers.”
“I got chased through the Everglades by a pissed off husband with a shotgun.”
“I got kidnapped by the guy because he wanted to prove his undying love to me by killing his ex in front of me.”
“No. Speaking of the crazy bitch, I should probably figure out where she disappeared to. Huh.” She made a face, then focused on their fearless leader again.
“One of the bitches tried to stage a coup in a third world country.”
“My first boyfriend tried to literally suck the whole world into hell.”
“O-kay!” Pooch interrupted, holding a hand between them, arm outstretched. “I’m calling it like it is. Boss, Mom’s got you beat. Her relationship luck is even shittier than yours.
Summers beamed. “Thank you!” Then she considered what she’d just won and her expression fell a bit. “I think.”
Roque went to fleece a couple of college kids at pool and Clay followed him, never one to pass up a good laugh. Pooch settled at the bar to quietly drink and not have sex with anyone who wasn’t Jolene and possibly keep an eye on Summers, who was taking the dance floor by storm, her short skirt flying and her smile flashing.
There was a high probability of drool puddles forming on the floor and the Pooch found himself looking at what was on display against his will. It wasn’t that he was hot for the woman, no. Lord knew he had his hands full with the one he had waiting at home. But it was kind of impossible to look away from a woman that knew her body inside out and trusted in it. There was something magnetizing in a woman that was utterly unreachable. And yet the blonde seemed mostly unaware of the attention she was getting, simply dancing to amuse herself and work off some of the endless energy she had.
A few guys walked up to her, dancing with her a bit, trying to flirt. She was kind to all, but sent most of them packing. A couple were content to just dance and talk for a while without expecting more. She kept those around longer and they parted with smiles.
And then there were the persistent ones. If Pooch hadn’t seen Summers kick the asses of half a dozen heavily armed men twice her size, he might have been worried for her. As it was, he simply pitied the poor fool that thought he could touch her without express permission and get away with his fingers attached to the rest of him.
Suddenly there was a commotion by the pool tables and Pooch stood, trying to figure out if he’d have to bail his superiors out again. Roque looked ready to skin a cat, but Clay interfered and talked the whole thing down to non-lethal territory. Sometimes Pooch wondered what Roque had been like before he’d had Clay to smooth over his edges.
Most of the time, though, he really didn’t want to know.
Once he was sure there’d be no fighting he took a trip to the bathroom and then spent ten minutes waiting for another seat at the bar to open up. When he finally found one and turned to seek out Summers in the crowd, she was dancing with a big, burly guy, a cocktail in her hand, smiling. Pooch recognized the guy as one she’d sent packing earlier. Apparently, he’d come back to make amends.
He ordered another beer and sent a passing waitress to fix up Roque and Clay, hoping that the alcohol would mellow them both enough that they wouldn’t get banned from this place, too. Really, the list of watering holes the Losers were not allowed to set foot in anymore was ridiculously long. And down time like this? Tended to make it even longer.
Ten minutes later Mom was done with her cocktail and still dancing with the same guy. He slid an arm around her waist and whispered something in her ear. She nodded, handed her glass off to a waitress and led herself be pulled through the crowd toward the exit. Pooch frowned. Picking up random stranger in bars wasn’t really the blonde’s style. Sure, he hadn’t known her all that long, but it seemed out of character for her.
Then someone jostled her and she capsized into her date, almost falling and Pooch cursed, long and loud. The guy had come on to her, she’d turned him down, he’d come back with a drink. And now she was stumbling. Summers never stumbled. She wobbled sometimes when she was drunk, but it took a lot more than she’d had tonight to get her there. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
That little fuck had slipped her roofies.
Pooch didn’t bother fighting his way through the crowd. He simply stuck two fingers between his lips and whistled loud enough to make everyone in a ten foot radius wince. Then he waved, catching the attention of his team mates, and waved toward the exit where Buffy was just disappearing, a beefy arm wrapped around her waist.
Clay looked questioning, raising one shoulder in a half shrug. Pooch shook his head and mimed drinking something. The CO’s eyes grew wide as he understood.
Ten seconds later three pissed off special forces soldiers were shouldering their way to the door, the expressions on their faces promising murder.
When Pooch signaled them across the entire bar, Clay thought he was simply commenting on the fact that Mom had found someone to take home. Unusual, but it was her business. But then the driver mimed drinking something and Clay felt his own eyes widen as Roque stiffened next to him.
“Motherfuck,” Roque growled, sounding murderous. He slammed his beer down hard enough to make the college kids he was playing pool with jump and go wide-eyed. One of them opened his mouth to ask what was going on, but suddenly there was a knife in Roque’s hand and he backed up quickly.
“Imma cut that fucker,” the big man rumbled and Clay found himself nodding as they started across the room, the crowd parting before the cloud of menace Roque was projecting. They hit the exit in record time with Pooch joining them, hands balled into fists.
“If that guy manages to hurt her,” the growled and Clay was a bit impressed with the usually easy-going driver.
They stalked outside, automatically spreading to take in their surroundings and look for their lost team mate. Clay was the one who spied a flash of her red dress disappearing into a nearby alley and took off at a run, glad that he’d left his gun back at the base. He’d have a hard enough time keeping Roque from killing the fucker without the added temptation of shooting his balls off himself.
The others were right behind him as he skidded into the alley and what he saw made his blood boil. The soon-to-be-dead dick had Summers pressed up against the wall, her skirt bunched around her waist, his hands fumbling at her underwear. She was batting at him with the power and precision of a dazed kitten, which was more than a normal woman would have been able to do after being slipped roofies, but still not enough.
The guy was sucking and licking at her neck and whispering something filthy in her ear. She squirmed, making a small, hurt noise, and Clay lunged, pulling the guy off her and punching him in the face with the force of his whole body behind it. The fucker went down like a sack of shit and stayed there. That might have had something to do with the boot Roque dug into his back to keep him down, but Clay really didn’t care.
Pooch was carefully talking to Buffy (because she was Buffy, suddenly, not kickass Summers, not Mom), calming her before he tried to touch her. She was drugged and dazed, yes, but somewhere underneath was still a trained killer and it was impossible to say when and how she’d work through the chemicals in her system. Slayers, they’d learned, didn’t really react normal to chemicals. At all. Better not end up with a busted nose. Satisfied that his female team member was taken care of, Clay turned back to where Roque was still digging his foot into the coward’s spine. The angry man had grabbed the other’s hair and was pulling his head up and back, knife at his throat.
“Roque,” Clay cautioned, voice low and soothing. He didn’t feel like covering up murder tonight. He would, for Roque, for this shit, he would, but he didn’t want to.
Instead of answering, Roque jerked the guy’s head farther back, bending his back almost to breaking point. He groaned and twisted weakly, trying to escape until the knife pressed into the soft skin of his neck made him still in fear. Suddenly Roque laughed and slammed the guy down with the hand he’d buried in his hair. His face hit the dirty concrete with a wet sound and no-one flinched. Then Roque grabbed at his neck and came up with a chain of small metal beads that they all recognized.
Their would-be rapist was wearing dog-tags. He was a soldier. Clay felt himself smile and he was sure it wasn’t a nice expression. With a flourish, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed the base to call the MP. He was going to make the man wish he’d never been born.
Behind him, Buffy seemed to finally start reconnecting with reality because she asked, voice wobbly, “Pooch?”
Pooch laughed and nodded, putting a hand on her shoulder, reeling her in to hug her with one arm while he fixed her dress with his free hand. She leaned into him and sighed. “You’re not a dog.”
“Nope,” he agreed as Clay hung up from a very short, concise call.
He waved at Roque and Pooch. “Take her back. I’ll wait with this little fuck for the MPs to come get him. We can all make our statements tomorrow.”
Roque growled. “Can I have five minutes alone with him first?”
The colonel sighed and looked down at the guy. He considered it. He really did. But then he shook his head. “We’ll hand his ass to him, Roque. But for that, he needs to be alive.”
The SiC opened his mouth, but Clay cut him off before he could start. “And mostly undamaged. Take Mom home.”
To punctuate the order, Summers suddenly whimpered. “I’m not feeling so well,” she informed Pooch and then jerked away from him to barf pitifully, barely managing to keep standing.
“Shit,” Roque muttered and, with a last kick at his prisoner, tucked away his knife before doing something completely out of character. He shouldered past Pooch and grabbed Summers by the waist from behind, steadying her as she puked everything she’d drunk and eaten that day. He held her goddamn hair!.
When she was done, Pooch handed her a tissue he’d found in his pockets and she managed to mostly wipe her mouth clean. She dropped the used tissue and looked around blearily, like the action had taken what little energy she had left. She finally noticed Roque and blinked at him. “Roque,” she greeted, stumbling as she tried to turn in his hold. “You’re very big.”
Then, as if she was telling him a big secret, she stood on tip toe and whispered loudly, “It’s about the blood, you see?”
Roque looked down at her a bit wide-eyed, but not like her words weren’t making sense to him. Those two were strange. Then she mercifully passed out and Clay hoped she wouldn’t remember anything come morning.
“Let’s get the princess home,” Pooch suggested, jiggling his car keys. Roque nodded as he picked her up, bridal style, his grim expression stopping anyone from making a dumb joke.
Clay watched them leave and then turned back to the groaning soldier on the ground. Her cracked his knuckles and smiled. “Just you and me now, pal,” he said.
The next day Summers woke with a headache from hell and didn’t remember anything. They filled her in and, on her insistence, took her to see the man who’d almost raped her.
He had a broken nose, two shiners, a fractured cheekbone, two broken fingers, a broken toe and a few cracked ribs. She looked at him, then at the Losers and back at him.
“You broke his toe,” Pooch informed her with a grin. “Stepped on it with those killer heels before we got there.”
“And the rest?”
Roque shrugged modestly. “He fell.”
She laughed, a bit shaky with almosts and possibles and said, “Thanks guys.”
Chapter 12: Please Don't Take My Man
Aftermath of the last chapter. Warnings still apply.
Please Don’t Take my Man
In which Jolene is a lot more patient than the situation probably warrants.
Jolene Porteus had always been a patient woman.
As the oldest of three siblings, she knew was patience was before she could spell it and being a woman in the military didn’t exactly help. So she knew, had known all her life, how to sit back and simply wait for people, for things, for what she knew would come. For karma to kick assholes off their pedestals and the universe to reward the little kindnesses she always tried to do to those that deserved them.
Meeting Linwood Porteus made that ability grow exponentially. First because he was a lot like a little kid in a toy store. The first time she’d let him stay the night, she’d found him in the morning, tinkering her toaster to only produce heart-shaped toast anymore (How?). It had been utterly sweet and so very deranged that she’d simply sighed and dragged him back to bed, toast forgotten. When he’d been deployed to drive in Afghanistan, she’d reached a whole new level of patience. She’d spent months without a word from him, nothing but the newsfeed on her cell phone and her faith in his mad driving to hold on to.
He’d come back. She’d known that he’d come back and she’d been patient and she’d been rewarded.
And then Colonel Clay snatched him up and she thought she should be up for canonization because only a saint could be this patient.
He didn’t call. He didn’t write. He didn’t even send life signs through buddies, like he sometimes had when he was in Afghanistan. She realized that that was because all his buddies were with him, stuck in the same shit he was, but by God, she’d have liked to know her man was alive for more than Christmas and Easter.
And then, when he came home, when he finally called over a crappy connection from the ass-end of nowhere, he told stories, so many stories, and each one of them felt like a part of him she was losing.
She was a soldier’s wife. She knew that her man would never completely belong to her. Not in this life. But the Losers, that damnable bunch of misfits, were taking him from her, crazy stunt by crazy stunt.
There was Roque, who reminded Lin of the ragged street gags he grew up amongst, angry and wild and bitter and they got along fine because Lin said the trick was to treat him like a temperamental engine, to let him rumble and spit and still take good care of him. Jolene had grown up in a nice, suburban house, not rich, but not poor and the slums and casual violence that Lin knew so well were alien to her.
There was Clay, who inspired a kind of loyalty in Lin that seemed unholy. “I think I’d follow him just about anywhere, Jo,” he told her after his first round with the Losers. “He’s just… he believes in this shit, you know? And he doesn’t just stand at the back and bellow orders. He never sends his men anywhere he isn’t willing to lead and that’s just… he’s a good man, Jo.”
High praise from a man that had spent his life in the foster system and the military, bounced around and casually discarded at every turn.
There was Snake, who was a friend, if nothing else. A friend who was there for all the things Lin wasn’t allowed to tell her about but sometimes did anyway. A friend who had the same scars and the same nightmares and that made him closer to Lin than she was, sometimes, when he couldn’t sleep.
There was the sniper, a guy named Miller that no-one in the unit liked and Jolene was glad that there was at least someone that Lin didn’t like, someone he didn’t get along with.
And then there was Mom. She had a real name, too, Jolene hoped, but Lin always spoke of her as Mom. Mom said. Mom did. Mom kicked so-and-so’s ass. Mom wasn’t in charge of the unit but she still ruled it in the way only a woman could and Jolene wasn’t sure that, if she told Lin to do one thing and Mom told him to do the opposite, he wouldn’t hesitate, wouldn’t seriously wonder and consider.
She felt like she was on one side of Lin, pulling on one arm, and the rest of his unit was on the other side, pulling in the other direction, five against one. Four, maybe, since he didn’t consider Miller part of his unit, but still. Four against one.
She felt like she was going to lose and she hated it, hated, hated, hated because she was patient and she was loyal and she loved her husband like no-one else in the world and somehow, she was still losing him.
That wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
Lin had leave and she was stuck at her new job. She’s split from the military shortly after their wedding because it was easier. But her new civilian job was just that, new, and she couldn’t willy-nilly take a week off when Lin called and told her he’d be state-side in twenty-four hours. She was at a conference in LA and scheduled to stay there until a day before he was scheduled to leave again.
It fucking sucked.
He said it was okay, that he’d stay with the rest of the unit on base, that he’d be fine, they’d have time some other time. Except that the ‘with the rest of the unit’ was exactly what she didn’t want to hear and apparently, her grumpiness radiated from her every pore, because her boss asked, “Are you alright, Jolene?”
She shrugged, told her how it was. Husband. Special ops. Home for a week and then gone again for God knew how long. She used the word ‘suck’ a lot until her boss, a woman in her early sixties, always perfectly put together and perfectly ruthless when need be, patted her on the shoulder and said, “Well, get going then.”
Jolene blinked once, very slowly. “What?”
Christine smiled, “Darling, you’re only young once. Go back to the hotel, pack your bag and get your man. I can manage on my own and I’m sure you’ll put in the overtime to work this off, won’t you?”
Jolene nodded, resisted the urge to hug the stiff woman and bailed. Forty-five minutes later she had a flight back home, was sitting in a taxi to the airport and calling Lin.
“I’m on my way home,” she said as soon as he picked up.
“I’m on my way home. Christine told me to go. I’ll be there tonight. Come home?”
He hesitated. She asked him to come home, to come to her, and he hesitated. She took a deep breath and steeled herself. “I… shit… this is… I’d love to come home, you know that. I miss you like crazy. It’s just that… it’s Mom.”
Another deep breath and she told herself patience, told herself you love him, there’s an explanation, patience, and he said, “We went out partying last night and she… shit, Jo, some guy slipped her roofies and we almost didn’t get there in time and I just don’t… none of us really want to leave her alone, right now.”
Relief, sympathy, anger, relief and frustration. All rolled into one. “Can’t the others look after her?”
She flinched at her own words as soon as they were out of her mouth and amended, as quickly as she could, “I didn’t mean that. I… I just miss you, too. I want you home. But I understand.”
They were silent for a minute, both torn between here and there. Patience. Jolene exhaled. “Why don’t you just bring them? All of them? I want to meet them anyway.”
Two hours after Jolene got home, luggage in one hand, groceries in the other, the doorbell rang. She was still in her smart clothes from work, barefoot and wine-mellow when she opened the door to find her husband grinning at her like she was the sun.
She vaguely registered a bunch of people standing a bit off to the side, but she really didn’t care. She flung her arms around him, kissed him with the intention of never letting go and laughed when he finally pried her off, smiling, happy, light.
“Hey, babe,” he greeted, quiet and private. Just them and she wondered how she could ever doubt this man at all, who loved her more than himself and wasn’t afraid to say so out loud.
He wrapped an arm around her waist and shoved her inside, waving for the others to follow and she got her first glimpse of them. Clay had to be the gruff white one and Roque couldn’t be anyone but the tall, dark and scarred one. There wasn’t anyone matching Snake’s or Miller’s description, but there was a woman that had to be Mom and Jolene couldn’t help but think that she really hadn’t expected this.
Military women could be as hot as any other woman and they were often fitter, but the women fighting on the front lines, the specialized and combat hardened ones tended to not look quite so pretty and small. Jesus, she was small.
Lin led them to the living room, where he point at them in turn, introducing, “Jolene, this is Clay, Roque and Mom. Guys, meet my lovely wife.”
The men were all polite grumbles while the woman smiled and held out her hand. “Kids these days. When I’m not Mom, I’m Buffy. Pleased to finally meet you. Pooch never shuts up about you!”
Jolene took the hand and thought that damnit, not liking this woman was going to be harder than she’d thought.
They had dinner and made small talk for a while before they started pulling out embarrassing stories about each other and Jolene found herself laughing so hard, she almost snorted wine. She learned that Roque really was as grumpy as Lin always said and that Mom was a mortal version of Superwoman and that, apparently, her husband didn’t call for his momma in the field, but for Jolene.
She blushed bright red at that, causing Clay to smirk and lean back in his seat, “True love,” he mused, sounding fond.
Roque smacked him on the back. Hard. “What would you know about it?”
“Good question,” Lin agreed with a laugh before Mom threw in her two cents.
“The closest you’ll ever get to a wife is Roque, Clay.”
Everyone laughed again, except Roque, who reached out in a way that suggested he was about to hit the blonde in the shoulder. Only he stopped at the last possible second, arm making a jerking motion in the air. Aborted.
Abruptly, all the laughter stopped and Jolene was left a bit lost, especially when Roque stood, grabbed his beer and said, “Thanks for dinner. Was great.”
He spun on his heel and stalked toward the backdoor, calling Buffy ‘bitch’ over his shoulder. Lin and Clay looked after him with wistful expressions and the awkward tension around the table kept rising.
“Why don’t you two idiots go join Roque in sulking in the dark while I help Jolene clean up?” Buffy suggested in the end, making a shooing motion. Lin shot Jolene a look before nodding and Clay grabbed their beers, moving outside quickly.
The two women were left alone at the table and Buffy blew a strand of hair out of her face. “Awk-ward,” she sing-songed eventually, smiling at Jolene. “Sorry about that. They’re all kind of spun up because of what happened last night.”
“Right,” Jolene jumped, cringing, “You…” She trailed off. Not sure how to phrase it.
Buffy didn’t seem to care though. “Were almost raped. You can say it. I don’t remember anything except a very stoned conversation with Roque about butterflies and hand grenades. Woke up with a killer headache this morning, but that’s it. They’re way angrier than I am and they didn’t take out all of their frustration on the poor idiot.”
“They beat him up?” She wasn’t really surprised that they had, just that the other woman was telling her. Things like that tended to stay in the unit and wives weren’t included in things like that.
Buffy snorted. “Apparently, I broke his toes before the roofies really kicked in. Let’s just say that when I saw him this morning, there was a lot more broken than his toes. He’s gonna get what’s coming to him. I just wish they’d stop treating me like spun glass.”
She pouted and Jolene understood what had happened with Roque. He’d almost hit her, in good fun, and then stopped because of, what? The last guy that had hit her? Not wanting to hurt her on top of that? Or because he thought she would splinter and break?
“Give them a few days,” Jolene suggested, because there really wasn’t much she could say.
Buffy shrugged. “Maybe. But it’s ridiculous. Statistically speaking, I save their asses a lot more than they save mine. And yet here we are. It’s not like I’m some defenseless woman.”
The fact that someone had managed to slip her drugs suggested otherwise, but Jolene knew better than to say that. Being constantly on guard against the evil that men did got exhausting, sometimes, and living in distrust and fear was no way to go through life. “Doesn’t mean they don’t care.”
Mom rolled her eyes but then sighed and nodded, admitting that Jolene was right. To avoid having to say it out loud, though, she started stacking plates and cutlery and made her way into the kitchen with a precarious armful of breakable things. Jolene watched her go until she remembered that this was, in fact, her house and she should be helping. She grabbed the rest of the dishes and followed, finding Bfufy already running water into the sink like she was completely at home in the strange kitchen. Since Jolene had a vague idea of how many different kitchens the Losers saw in a month, she wasn’t surprised.
Still, her house. “Let me do that,” she said, stepping up next to the shorter woman.
“Only if you let me dry,” Buffy compromised. Jolene nodded and they started working in silence.
They were almost done when Buffy spoke again. “He really misses you, out in the field, you know?”
Jolene, who did know, nodded. But Buffy didn’t seem satisfied. “I don’t think you do. He’s like, constantly talking about you. Jolene, Jolene, Jolene. He feels bad every single day he can’t call you and he gets absolutely rotten when we have to lay low for longer than a week.”
Oh. Just… oh. That was… Jolene felt herself blushing while, deep in her chest, something warm and gooey unfurled.
“It gets annoying,” Buffy added, spinning a plate expertly in her hands and sounding fond, “like, annoying enough to make me glad he’s the only one with family.”
“The only one?”
“Sure. I mean, we all got family somewhere. Except Roque. I’m pretty sure Roque was spat out of hell fully formed. I got a sister out there and friends and all. Snake’s got his parents. But no-one has any significant other to go home to. Except Pooch. And he’s really, really trying to do right by you. Just thought you should know.”
Jolene nodded, swallowing around the lump in her throat and fought down the urge to hug the other woman, although she didn’t think the blonde would mind. There was, Jolene was beginning to see, a reason everyone called her Mom.
“Thank you,” she said, talking to Buffy and whoever else was listening. For rewarding her patience, for letting her have her man and for the fact that he loved her as much as she loved him. “Thank you.”
This one's out of order, but it's not like there's grand plot reveals, so you should all follow along fine.
Like My Mom
In which Jensen is kind of filling a hole. In a completely PG rated way, thanks a lot.
So. Jensen was the baby of the unit, in age and seniority both. He was cool with that. Had to be, since he’d always been the baby. That’s what happened when you finished high school at fifteen. Kind of hard to be the oldest kid in a group when you were, in fact, way ahead of just about everyone.
He was cool with that.
The Losers were cool and they didn’t give him shit beyond the obvious and obligatory hazing and Clay let him pull his crazy stunts and even looked proud when said crazy stunts happened to save someone’s life and fuck regs. Cougar, the uber amazing sniper guy, had only been a Loser for maybe three months longer than Jensen, so it wasn’t like they were this absolutely tight-knit group with Jensen on the outside.
Except they kind of were, only it was Jensen and Cougs on the outside and they totally didn’t do it on purpose, except for Roque, who was an asshole and did.
It was just… the inside jokes. Like, loads of them, okay? Every unit had them and, as far as Jensen could tell from blacked-out files, Roque and Clay at least had been together for over a decade, so that wasn’t really surprising. Pooch had only been with them for two years or so, but in black ops, two years were practically a geological age or something.
It was just… they kept comparing Jensen to some former member of the team they called ‘Mom’ and whenever they did, they all looked at each other with expressions Jensen couldn’t figure out and it bugged him. Major buggage here. And Cougar, with his big silent act and not a clue who Mom was either, was no help.
So obviously, Jensen was on a mission. That mission was called: Find Out Who The Fuck Mom Is And Why Everyone’s Comparing Me To The Fucker.
FOWTFMIAWECMTTF, for short.
Yeah. It was a bit of a mouthful. Mostly, Jensen just called it the Thing.
Obviously the first step was to hack top secret mission reports and read them all. First thing he figured out was that they were actually comparing him to a chick, which, yeah, okay, he coulda figured out. It was kinda in the name and all that.
But, really? A chick? No picture in the file, for whatever reason, but a description. At least she was apparently hot. And, wow. Para. Jensen had met a few guys from Para once and they were badass. Possibly as badass as the Losers. There was just no freaking those guys. Demon guts, slime, teeth, claws. They just kept firing, like some fuckawesome avatar in a zombie video game or something.
So Mom was a chick, but she was a total badass chick.
Jensen was badass, too.
Sure he was.
He just had no idea why they compared him to her. Apart from the badassery, of course.
Step two, then.
Step two was more… eh, covert intel gathering. Mostly, it consisted of walking up to Pooch, saying something smooth about Jolene and then asking him who the fuck Mom was.
The first answer he got was, “Para liaison. She left the unit when her sister got knocked up. Wanted to be home for the sprog.”
Then, when Jensen tweaked his question to, “What was she like?” he got some actual answers.
“She talked too much. Puns all around. And she kicked all our asses. And she got along great with Jolene.”
Which, considering the stunts they pulled and the wildly edited versions of said stunts that Pooch presented Jolene with, okay, was probably a problem. She’d probably been, like, a spy for Jolene, who was a very scary woman and should not know all the shit they got up to. Jensen had only heard about her so far, never met her, and he already feared her.
Roque assured him that was only healthy.
So Mom was a smartass and a badass. Which was cool. He was being compared to a cool chick and he thought that was the end of the Thing.
Except then Cougar got his dumb ass shot and while Jensen patched him up in the middle of some fucking jungle, he kept yelling, “Don’t die! I said you don’t get to die! What the fuck were you thinking, Cougs, almost fucking dying when I told you to not fucking die?!”
And Clay exchanged a look with Roque and said, “Are you sure you’re not related to anyone called Summers?”
Jensen was too busy yelling to answer. Pooch was laughing like the world was ending.
And then Roque got into a snit over Clay’s latest future-ex-with-bombs and stalked off. Pooch tried to talk him down and almost got a knife in the face in gratitude and Cougar said nothing and got yelled at anyway and Jensen was pretty sure that Roque was going to go out into the city and find someone to murder in a very slow, very serial-killer way and that was Not Good.
Actually, make that Definitely Not Good.
Clay came stumbling out of his bedroom five minutes later, still fumbling with his belt and looked around before sighing. “Roque?”
Pooch pointed at the door. “Fucked off. He’s in a mood, Clay.”
Understatement. Of. The. Year.
Clay rubbed hand over his face. “Anyone up for beating him back to sanity?”
Nobody moved. Jensen and Cougar looked at their fearless leader with something akin to disbelief. Beating Roque back to sanity? Was he nuts? The man had knives and was willing to use them! Also, Jensen seriously doubted that Roque had ever been sane, so there was really no ‘back’ to beat him to. Thirdly, knives!
Sighing into the silence for a second time, Clay cursed and then said, “Wish Mom was here. She’d put him fucking straight.”
And then, somehow, suddenly, Pooch and Clay were both looking at Jensen expectantly. He jumped when he noticed and pointed a very indignant finger at himself. “Me? What do you want with me? I’m not going after him. What makes you think I’d be the right person to go after him?! He’s crazy. Cra-zy, I assure you!” He shook his head and preemptively backed up a few feet.
“You’re kinda like Mom,” Pooch professed in a desperate tone. “Mom could fix Roque when he got like that. So go fix him!”
Hands up, palms out, Jensen shook his head until he felt dizzy. “No fucking way am I going after that asshole. He hates me!”
Clay snorted. “He doesn’t hate you. When Roque hates you, he puts a knife in you. Now, do I need to make this an order, Corporal?”
Jensen blinked because seriously? Where they serious? He had to go after the nutjob of the unit because he vaguely reminded them of the chick that used to do the job? “Your logic is absolutely fucked, boss. He’s going to murder me! Why wouldn’t he murder me, huh? I wanted to see thirty! Hell, I wanted to see twenty-five! What do I have that you don’t, huh? Huh?!”
He may have gotten a bit shrill there at the end. He didn’t feel guilty about it, though. He was going to die! He was going to be the first guy ever to die of friendly knife!
Pooch waved a hand in his direction. “Because you’re sane… ish. Kinda. Like, a different kind of crazy, okay? And you laugh. Happy laughter. So just…”
There went the hand again. Apparently, Pooch didn’t deal very well with not having anything concrete to say. He got all… fluttery.
“Seriously?” Jensen asked, again. “You’re sending me out to die because I laugh? That is so totally not fair and I am writing a letter to my congressman. From heaven. Because Roque is going to kill me.”
“You’re good,” Clay suddenly said, hand over his eyes.
Jensen stopped dead in mid-rant. “Thank you?”
“No,” the Colonel waved him off. “Not like that. You’re… good. There’s something about you that’s not… twisted. Like you’re still…” he growled and hit his thigh with his palm. “Do not make me use the word ‘pure’, Corporal.”
Right. Pure. Erm… Wow. Jensen was speechless.
“Roque’s not going to seriously hurt you because he has some lines left to cross. Just… go, alright?”
Jensen went and Clay was right. Roque yelled and he kicked things over and he took a swing at him once, but he didn’t actually try to hurt him. Eventually, he said, “Mom woulda kicked Clay’s ass for this.”
Then he went quietly and Jensen thought that maybe it wasn’t about being a smartass and a badass. He thought that maybe it was about how they missed her and she’d kept a balance for them that they couldn’t keep on their own.
And he thought maybe he should feel honored to be compared to the woman that had apparently held them all together and kept them clinging to sanity.
He thought that maybe they overestimated him.
Chapter 14: Wig-some
In which there are three missions that call for a disguise and one that doesn’t.
For the record, Buffy didn’t mind having to put on a disguise for a job. She’d been playing the blonde ditz all her life and that was just another way of hiding. Words and actions instead of clothes and wigs, but really, it was the same thing.
Disguises were okay. Sometimes, they were actually cool.
This, however, was not cool. This wasn’t even in the same hemisphere as cool. This was… she looked down at the platinum wig and the white dress in her hands and then back at Clay, who looked very stern, and the rest of the boys, who were stuffing their fists in their mouths to keep from laughing and thus forcing her to kill them.
“That… you…” she took a deep breath. There was really no other way to put it except, “What the actual fuck, Clay? Have you completely lost your mind?”
Pooch made a wheezing noise that might have meant a lot of things. For example, it might have meant that he was choking on his fist. Or that he was having the laugh of his life. It was probably a mixture of both. She bared her teeth at him in a smile.
“You’ve dressed up for infiltration before, Mom,” Clay argued, somehow still straight-faced.
She held up the parts of her disguise. “Marilyn Monroe, Clay? Marilyn Monroe?”
“This particular South American drug lord has a weakness for her and ordered a double to come and sing him a Happy Birthday on Friday. That’s the in we’ve been waiting for for weeks.”
Roque waved a hand in front of his face and caught his breath long enough to wheeze, “You’ll be fine,” before dissolving into giggles again. They weren’t even manly chuckles. He was just flat-out giggling, the fucker.
“I can’t even hold a note unless there’s a spontaneous self-combustion inducing musical spell involved!”
Silence. At last. Pooch tilted his head to one side like his name-sake and asked, “What?”
She waved him off. “Never mind. Can we focus? I am not dressing up as Marilyn Monroe to go and sing a drug lord a birthday song. Not on Friday or on any other day of the damn week. Is that clear?”
She glowered and everyone wisely nodded, hands raised in defense. Good boys. Then Clay sighed gravely and ran a hand over his face. “Okay then, men. We need another way in. Snake, what’s our next best option and how big are the chances that we’re all going to die?”
Snake shrugged. “Frontal assault. Probably get all our asses killed, though.”
Clay nodded again, all resigned expression. “Gather your gear, then. Unless…”
He looked sideways at Buffy, who flung the wig at him. He caught it with an expectant look on his face and she sighed and nodded.
In the background, Pooch started humming Happy Birthday.
“I fucking hate you all.”
“You know,” Roque said chattily, as if they weren’t running full tilt from half a dozen Russian mobsters armed with machine guns, “This is the first time I have to pace myself so you can keep up with me.”
Buffy slapped at his shoulder and almost lost her balance. “You try running with goddamn five inch stripper heels, Roque!”
Over the comms, Snake cackled.
“Pooch,” she barked, still running and trying to tug her micro mini skirt back down over her butt at the same time, “Tell me you are close and coming to rescue us any second?”
“I am close and coming to rescue you any second,” the driver parroted dutifully.
Clay rumbled something in the background that might have been an admonishment to not say shit like that when there were lives at stake. Snake picked that moment to announce, “Guys, I’ve finally got the security cameras and… Mom, are you wearing a G-string under that skirt?”
Buffy tugged on the skirt again and fiercely wished for jeans. Or, failing that, a big knife to kill everyone involved in this mess. “Hooker, you asshole,” she snarled, “I was pretending to be a hooker. Granny panties wouldn’t have worked.”
“Does the bra match?” Roque asked from beside her, still sounding way too amused. Hail of bullets here! Couldn’t men ever focus on what was important?!
“This is so going into my spank bank,” Snake muttered.
Buffy snarled. Full-out, animal snarl. “Okay, this is it. Big knife or not, I am murdering you all in your sleep.”
Then she stopped just around a corner and ripped one of those goddamn heels off her left foot, followed by the other. She gave her skirt one last tug and when the first pair of mobsters came around the corner, she nailed them both right in the face with her five inch clear plastic heels.
The next guy around the corner snarled something that her three-day crash course in Russian translated as ‘whore’ and Buffy saw red. She dug her hand sharply into the back of Roque’s belt and pulled his backup knife from a hidden sheath in his waistband.
Seven inches long, serrated edge. It was a beauty. She flipped it to her other hand, twirled it once and glared at the mobsters trough cheap fake lashes.
“I’ll show you ‘whore’, you inbred, stupid, chauvinistic, drug-dealing, woman-disrespecting, slave-trading man!”
In her ear, a little voice that sounded like Pooch said, “Uh-oh. Now we’ve made her mad.”
“Why do you jerks always make me dress up like a sex toy for missions?” Buffy asked, mostly rhetorically, as she tugged her barely-there baby-tee into place over her chest. She wanted a bra really, really badly, but of course that wasn’t part of the costume.
“Hey, you’re wearing pants this time, so stop complain’,” Roque growled at her.
One cue, everyone looked down at the painted-on white skinny jeans she was wearing, along with a slutty pair of black heels. Yeah. Not really better than the hooker skirt. She wasn’t pretending that she could be bought this time, but club-floozy was only a very small step up.
She was wearing neon plastic bangles, for Christ’s sake. Plastic bangles! Her fashion sensibilities had atrophied a lot since she’d taken to crawling around jungles, but plastic bangles had died with the techno movement in the nineties! It was moments like these that she considered taking Ri up on his offer and training docile little cherries to kill monsters. A desk job. Nine to five. No secret missions. No dress-up. No mortal danger.
She’d be bored to death within a week and everyone knew it.
“I think the circulation in my feet is cut off,” she snapped right back, looking down the stretch of white, almost see-through fabric.
“Sex sells,” Was Miller’s apathetic comment. She might have actually appreciated it, in a very weird way, if he hadn’t been staring at her rack while he said it. Very deliberately she raised one spike-heeled foot and kicked him in the shin hard enough to make him howl.
“Eyes front and center, jerk,” she barked.
If Clay didn’t find a replacement for the guy soon, there’d be an unfortunate accident involving an anvil. Dropped on Miller’s head.
“Bitch,” he snarled back, earning him a glare from the collective males of the unit.
Right. The mood was definitely getting sour in here. With a sigh, Buffy grabbed the purse that went with her outfit, checked that the stiletto daggers in her hair were well hidden and popped the backdoor of the van they were hiding in. “If I rip those pants kicking someone’s ass, you are treating me to a wellness weekend. All the trimmings. No excuses. Now excuse me, I have a criminal to drug.”
With that she swung out of the bed of the van, landing smoothly despite her hellish heels. The things she did for her team. Seriously.
Buffy couldn’t stand Miller. He was the shittiest, most arrogant, chauvinistic asshole she’d ever met and he’d been born without a funny bone in his body. If she could have, she’d have ‘forgotten’ his ass in a dozen deadly locations around the world by now.
Alas, he was still a member of her team and no-one, absolutely no-one, got to mess with her team except for her. And possibly Roque, because that shit was funny.
So kidnapping Miller and trying to use him for ransom? Threatening to cut off body parts? Torturing him?
Did not fly.
The sniper had been missing for eight hours now, six of which they’d spent trying to track down intel on the gang that had him. Half an hour ago, someone had dropped a name and the location of a bar where someone might know more.
They were parked in front of that bar right now, with Clay and Roque fighting over ways to get in, disguises, tricks, full frontal assault. Pros and cons, all of which they barked at each other in the tone of people about to lose their shit.
Buffy was sitting up front next to Pooch, casing the joint. They were both staring out the windshield, not really willing to get caught in the crossfire of the fight going on behind them, when Buffy suddenly noticed a non-descript little sign, black on red, close to the entrance.
It spelled only gibberish for most people, a piece of trash left on the wall of a trashy bar. To her and all other supernaturally inclined it meant that the bar was demon-friendly. Humans beware, except humans couldn’t possibly understand that sign. There was irony in that, somewhere.
Buffy felt a wicked grin split her face as she reached for the weapons bag between her legs and pulled out her favorite sword. Then she opened the door and jumped out of the car, striding toward the entrance of the bar.
Behind her, doors slammed and everyone cursed. Clay yelled for her to stop fucking walking, but she wasn’t listening. This time, they were playing on her turf. This time, there’d be no silly disguises, no games and no human law.
The boys had almost caught up with her by the time she kicked down the door with a single, well placed foot. Inside the bar, movement and noise ceased at her entrance.
She was still smirking darkly as she stepped inside, sword slung casually over her shoulder. “Evening, gentlemen,” she greeted frostily. “I’m the Alpha Slayer and the first of you to tell me everything you know about the Black Brotherhood I’m going to let live.”
You could have heard a pin drop in the ensuing silence. She was pretty sure Pooch was making the sign of the cross behind her.
Her smirk widened, all teeth now. “Maybe.”
Chapter 15: Flavor
In which the Super Secret Candy Stash is robbed. Repeatedly.
1. It started only a few weeks after Summers joined them on their perpetual jungle-crawl. She said she had the metabolism of someone twice her size and she needed to eat, thanks a lot, or she’d get even skinnier. So she kept all kinds of candy around, because fattening up with sugar and food coloring was faster than getting a real meal and way, way, way better than looking like a skeleton with skin.
“Super Secrets Candy Stash,” she informed the men, shaking a bag of M&Ms for emphasis. “Touch it and suffer my boot up your butt.”
2. They tried to respect the Stash. They really did, out of a healthy dose of fear, if nothing else. But the thing is, they were men. They were big men, with a lot of muscle and stomachs like black holes and MREs weren’t really all they were cracked up to be. And the stuff she had? It was good. Like, sinfully good, tasting of luxury and home and naughty things. Dark chocolate and Twizzlers.
So the Stash started shrinking faster than Summers was eating it and she noticed.
“Guys. Seriously. Final warning. Touch it again and die.”
3. Clay maintained, to this day, that it was the entire bar of Belgian chocolate Roque stole that made her flip her lid and start booby-trapping the Stash.
4. He also maintained that it took someone exceptionally evil to mix fakes into the Quality Street chocolates she knew he loved. He snagged one when she wasn’t looking, unwrapped it as quietly as humanly possible and stuffed it into his mouth, expecting rich, chocolate-y flavor.
What he got instead was a flavor charmingly called ‘rotten fish’.
She watched him spit it out, rinse his mouth twice, cursing like a drunken sailor the entire time, before patting him on the back and informing the room at large, “Hands off my candy, boys.”
5. Mars bars were her favorites. Getting her some was a surefire way to get back into her good graces.
6. Somehow, Snake never got any of the booby-trapped stuff. He had a system for avoiding the fakes she mixed into the real thing, and it worked one hundred percent.
Roque was panting like a dog from the super hot chilly-flavored chocolate, Texas was spitting garlic Twizzlers across the camp, Clay was having a staring contest with what he was pretty sure was handful of fake Jelly Beans. They probably tasted of rot, or snot, or something similarly disgusting. He had absolutely no idea where she got that shit from, but it had long since turned into a game beyond keeping them away.
He was pretty sure she enjoyed the expressions of abject disgust and defeat on their faces when they fell for her tricks again.
And all the while Snake watched them and laughed and never once ate any of the shit.
7. Sometimes, when someone got shot, or stabbed, or blown up, she shared. A bullet in the shoulder usually warranted at least a bag of Skittles.
8. Whenever they had a solid base of operations, she took to adding another layer of protection to the Stash. She hid it.
These are some, but not all, of the places where Mom hid the Stash over the years:
In the broken radiator in Clay’s bedroom in a safe house in Russia.
In the ventilation shaft of her hotel room in Brazil, which had the added advantage of keeping the chocolate from melting to shit.
In the guitar case Texas used to transport his rifle in crowded areas.
Under the loose floorboard in the kitchen of the safe house in Spain.
In the freezer.
In the ceiling.
In the toilet tank, wrapped safely in three layers of plastic bags and a shitload of duct tape.
In a metal box, buried under an oak tree in the garden of the B&B they stayed in for a week in Poland.
She was like a squirrel, hiding her goodies all over the place. Usually, they only found out where when they were packing and she retrieved the Stash to put it back in her pack.
9. When Pooch and Miller joined the unit, they decided not to warn them of the Stash. It was their very own version of hazing. Aside from the usual, that is.
Pooch got a mouthful of the, by then infamous, rotten fish flavor. It had him hacking over the toilet for five minutes. Once he was done, he walked up to Mom, apologized for not knowing the Stash was private and asked if he could have something to please get rid of the flavor.
She gave him a Twizzler, much to everyone’s amazement.
After that, Pooch, the loser, never played when they went Stash Hunting. But then they were after Jolene’s cookies almost as much as they were after the Stash, so maybe there was some kind of kinship there, between their driver and their slayer.
10. Miller fell for the fake Jelly Beans. Three times.
11. Once, when Clay almost got blown up by one of his crazy women, he woke to find his entire hospital bed covered in Quality Street in every color of the rainbow. It was Summers’ way of apologizing for letting him get hurt.
He ate half, shared the rest with the nurses and the team and kept a handful of the wrappers in his pack afterwards, carefully smoothed out and hidden.
Cougar was the only one who ever knew they were there and he never said a word.
12. The Stash saved their life once, when they were pinned down by the enemy and a blizzard and without food for almost two weeks.
None of them could look at a Snickers bar for months after that without feeling sick.
13. One year, for her birthday, they gave her a machine gun made of chocolate and an entire box of ammo, cut from blue Twizzlers.
She shared the bullets, but not the gun.
14. After she left, they kept buying candy when they came across it, almost out of reflex. They hadn’t even noticed how used they had gotten to just buying her stuff in hopes of occasionally getting some back.
It would have been smarter to simply buy their own candy, but that never even occurred to them. It would have ruined the game.
15. But with the grand-dame of the Stash gone, the shit just kept lying around their safe houses, scattered and free for all until Jensen came along and started hoarding the stuff like it was gold and he some demented dragon.
16. He was also the one who found one of Mom’s forgotten hiding places, abandoned when they had to abandon the safe house. He was messing around in one of the empty bedrooms and stumbled across it, hidden in an old suitcase under a broken down bed and wandered into the kitchen with the whole thing, slamming it on the table between them.
“Look what I found!” he announced, grinning, excited, like he could almost taste the sugar already. “Wonder who hid it there?”
They spent the evening telling about Stash adventures and eating what hadn’t gone off yet, laughing every time someone got a fake and ran to the sink to spit it out.
17. Later, after Bolivia, Clay thought of the Stash a lot, of the woman that started it, of the game it turned into, of all the laughter they got out of it. He thought about those things and, bitterly, wondered if Mom would have been able to save those kids.
If she’d have been able to save them.
Sometimes, during those ugly months of being dead but not dead, some brightly colored, sugary shit caught his eye from a street vendor’s table and he always bought it or stole it.
He never ate the candy, though, knowing with absolute certainty that it would all taste like rotten fish and burning flesh.
18. Elsewhere, a blonde woman and a geeky looking man were walking toward a shared lunch, talking about Council business and making small talk until, suddenly, they passed a candy store with a display bright enough to make you flinch and sugary enough to make your teeth rot from afar.
Automatically, both of them stopped and stared, transfixed.
“I miss them,” Snake said suddenly, quietly and surprised. He’d been so glad to get out of the unit, so happy to find a job with the Council instead. He hadn’t thought he’d ever miss those men, who hadn’t ever really been friends.
Beside him, a short, blonde woman curled into herself a bit, staring straight ahead. “Do you believe it?” she asked, out of the blue. “What they’re saying about them?”
Snake considered her question for a minute before carefully shaking his head. The Losers he knew, the men he’d worked with, were brutal and they were cold, but they wouldn’t do what they’d been accused to doing. They’d rather die first.
“No,” he admitted and his former team mate gifted him with a brilliant smile for it before grabbing the sleeve of his shirt and tugging on it.
“Come on,” she said, pushing all the sadness away, “Lunch can wait. Let’s see what they have.”
Chapter 16: Bang Bang
In which Buffy needs a gun and gets a second chance.
“I need a gun.”
Clay looked up from where he was going over some files at the kitchen table of their latest safe house. He was supposed to be writing a report on their last mission, but since there had been demons involved, he had to be very, very careful with the details.
In other words: He needed to bullshit like a pro, and for that, he was going through the files again, smoking and drinking and more than a little annoyed. Why couldn’t Mom do this shit? She was the one that killed the fuckers, she could write up the reports.
He shoved away the files and studied her standing in the doorway, hands clenched at her side. He frowned. “You hate guns,” he pointed out.
She nodded. “Exactly. They won’t be able to connect it to me when I shoot my sister’s boyfriend with it. So gimme a gun.”
Thing was, she sounded dead serious. Snake raised a hand from the sofa. “Hold on. I thought your sister was with one of your best friends?!”
She nodded again, hands clenching and unclenching rhythmically by her hips. “He is. I trusted him with her. Ad he knocked her up. That fucking irresponsible asshole knocked up my baby sister!”
Pooch, sitting next to Snake, dared to chuckle a bit at her overreaction and got a death glare for his efforts. “She is only twenty-one!”
Then she rounded on Clay again and held out one hand expectantly. He bit back a chuckle of his own and shook his head gravely. “I’m not giving you a gun. And you’re not going to kill your buddy for knocking up your sister. That kid is gonna need its dad.”
Her eyes narrowed as he denied her request, then widened as he went on. She gaped. “Oh my God, that kid is going to have Xander for a father!”
She sounded utterly horrified, and this time, everyone within earshot laughed. Right up until she said. “I’ll kill him. I’ll kill him and find her someone else to raise the kid with. Giles maybe? I didn’t know Giles as a kid, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t pull half the shit Xander pulled, even with the dark magic and the demon worshipping and stuff. That was just a phase. And he’s, like, old. They wouldn’t have sex. Ever.” She nodded to herself, a bit crazy. “I’ll kill Xander and hook up Dawn with Giles, who will hopefully lock her away in a tower somewhere and never let her out again and then…”
O-kay. Someone was seriously losing the plot here. Clay put down his cigar and made his way over to his liaison, carefully and slowly. Startling a stressed-out slayer was a bad idea any day and doubly right now. When she didn’t kill him with her ninja skills, he put his hands on her shoulders and shook her a bit until she stopped ranting and looked up at him. “You will not kill anyone. You will not lock up your sister. You will not ruin this kid’s life before it’s even born. Now, deep breath, calm down and stop being so fucking nuts. That’s an order.”
Yeah. That snapped her out of it, like he’d known it would. Mom was nothing if not allergic to the word ‘order’. She visibly deflated and took a deep breath. Clay, who had no real plan of action apart from stopping her from flying back to the States and causing a bloodbath, waited her out.
Roque entered the room while they two of them stood there, but he simply nodded the man towards the others, telling him wordlessly to stay out of the way. After a minute or five, Summers looked up at him, blinking big, green eyes in his face.
“My baby sister is going to have a baby,” she said, like it was news.
When she started slumping against him, he whirled her around and managed to deposit her in his abandoned chair just in time for her to just sort of… drop. Shock, he guessed, as he watched her stare unseeingly at the file he’d left open on the table. He didn’t know all that much about her past, but he knew she’d raised her sister, knew some of the shit they’d gone through. And he knew that she had never, ever expected to have anything resembling a normal life. She’d told him once, that the average life expectancy of slayers was less than two years after they were called. Since most of them were called between fourteen and sixteen, that little fact had pissed him off to no end.
Clay had seen child soldiers in his day and, to his shame, he’d killed more than one. It had always felt like mercy more than murder. Children shouldn’t be anywhere near war, much less fighting it and looking at Summers now, shell-shocked by the news that her sister was going to have a child, that she was going to be something as mundane as an aunt… yeah.
For a long while the four men watched their sole female team member, waiting for her to blow up again, but it didn’t happen. Instead, after a long time, she raised her head, looked straight at Clay and said, “I need to go home.”
The colonel, having expected that, nodded. “Alright. We’re done here, so you can just take a few weeks and…”
“No,” she cut him off. “I need to go home, Clay. Really home. I can’t… I was never there for Dawn. Not ever. There was always something more important and I have to… now that I have the chance to make it up to her, I need to take it. I need to be there for my sister. I’ll move back stateside and take the job Ri’s offered me.”
The men, one and all, looked like someone had taken their favorite gun from them. “What?” Pooch asked, “You just… up and…” he trailed off, shrugged. “I get that, I guess. Family and that shit.”
Mom nodded and stood, brushing her hands down her shirt. “I’ve gotta do this,” she informed them and then turned to Clay. “Can you get things rolling on your end? I’ll make some calls.”
And with that she was gone. Literally.
It took less than a week to get her out of the unit and back to the States. Her contract had always had a special clause that allowed her to pull out for ‘more important situations’ and with Finn calling the Brass and telling them that one of those had popped up, she was gone. Done. Finished.
She’d always be a Loser, but suddenly she wasn’t part of the team anymore.
It all went so fast there wasn’t even time to give her a goodbye hangover. She just packed her things and caught the next flight out. Pooch hugged her, Miller grunted at her and Snake clung to her like a limpet.
“Who’s gonna watch my ass now?” he asked and she patted him on the shoulder, a bit teary-eyed and promised to ‘do what they’d talked about’. Clay knew then, that he’d lose another man within a couple of months. He was glad, because Snake, for all that he was a good man, wasn’t cut out for this life. He belonged behind the lines, out of direct line of fire and Mom could pull the strings to either get him a safer job with Para, or with her Council. Still, losing a man to reassignment sometimes wasn’t better than losing them to a hand grenade. Not when you were a selfish bastard.
Roque and Mom… were Roque and Mom. They stared at each other for a long minute and then grinned briefly before Roque simply spun on his heel and walked away like he didn’t give a shit when Clay was sure he was going to be hell to live with for months.
And then he suddenly found himself at the receiving end of Summers’ hug and squeezed her back a bit tighter than he perhaps meant to. She was a woman, though, so that was okay. “I’ll keep an eye on you guys,” she informed him. “Don’t think I won’t.”
He smiled as he released her. “Counting on it. Don’t go to soft while you’re living the life. And tell your sister congrats on the brat from us.”
She grimaced a smile, still not entirely on board with her baby sister having a kid, but getting there. Then she snapped a crooked salute at him, the first she’d ever given him.
He laughed and kept on laughing until she’d disappeared past the checkpoint.
Just like that.
He tried to be happy for her second chance, but it felt false. So instead he rounded up the men and told them to get their shit together by sunrise. There was an extraction waiting for them in Afghanistan and terrorists didn’t wait.
Chapter 17: Slot and Lock
Approaching movie plot. Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.
Slot and Lock
In which both Cougar and Jensen get integrated, more or less willingly, and there are care packages.
The thing with Cougar and Jensen was that they just clicked, okay?
First meeting, bang, there it was. It wasn’t that one was calm and the other regularly skipped his ADHD meds, or that one was quiet while the other talked like words were cheaper by the dozen. It wasn’t that they were both the newcomers to a tightly knit unit, even though that helped. It wasn’t even that Cougar’s need to obsessively protect meshed well with Jensen’s stunning ability to get his ass into trouble at least three times a week and twice on Sundays.
It was just… them. Jensen talked and Cougar listened and Cougar moved and Jensen saw and saw and Jensen perfected looking harmless but was really as deadly as any of them and Cougar blended into the background until you forgot he was there and then shot you in the face. They were both damaged in their own ways but strangely okay with that, okay with their places in the world.
And when calling Jensen an idiot was sometimes the only word Cougar said all day that was fine and when Jensen could only really, actually stop himself when he knew Cougar was right on his six, covering his back, then that was fine, too.
Bang and done, three months into Jensen joining the unit everyone stopped talking about Jensen and Cougar and they just became JensenandCougar and Clay did a lot of not asking and they did a lot of not telling and Roque made disgusted sounds all the time and Pooch sometimes looked like he really wanted to coo.
It was cool.
And before and while and after they fell into each other, they sort of also slipped into the unit like they’d always been there. Jensen’s tech equipment kept turning up in everyone’s packs and space and no-one minded much and they all started to rely on there always being a shadow with a hat nearby to bail their asses out.
They passed all those weird tests, like the one where they made you get dead drunk and tried to get you to tell stories and they took Jensen’s digging into their past well enough even though he knew they didn’t really like all the questions he asked about Mom and where she’d gone and what she’d been like. They missed her.
She’d been special to all three of them for some reason that went beyond her being a woman and sometimes, late at night, the two of them, Cougar and Jensen, shared their observations about the whole situation, about what they knew about her because she was an anomaly in a world where people came and went all the time. It wasn’t quite logical for three hardass special ops soldiers to miss one woman that much but they did and Cougar and Jensen watched it, not quite from the outside but not entirely inside either and over time, it turned into a bit of a thing for them.
Especially after, you know, the Thing. After Jensen talked down Roque and everyone admitted to openly missing Mom and it was suddenly this festering wound between the three of them: She’d left them. She’d chosen suburbia over them and Jensen thought that was okay because hey, chicks had this whole biological clock and baby thing going on, right, and shit like that, well, it took its toll.
But that wasn’t it, Cougar said one night, said that they all knew she hadn’t wanted to leave, had done it out of a sense of duty. Pooch had said so, told the sniper that they were sure she was bored out of her mind and hating it back stateside but she’d still gone.
Jensen, who knew all about abandonment issues, suggested sending the three of them to therapy. Our mommy left us and we don’t understand why.
Still. They were all manly men, so they didn’t exactly talk about it, okay? They just, Jensen and Cougar, that is, they kept gathering their bits and pieces, sorting them out until they thought they had an idea. She’d given Clay shit for his shitty plans, but unlike Roque, she’d offered alternatives. She’d been friends with Pooch and with Jolene, too, and that made everyone awesome in Pooch’s book. And Roque. Jensen had no idea what Roque did with women, aside from making them watch while he made kinky love to his blades, but sometimes it sounded like he’d been a bit in love with her only not, because, eew. Like, seriously.
“Can you imagine Roque with a woman?” Jensen asked Cougar while he stripped down to his boxers to fall into his bunk with an exaggerated sigh. “Like, a real one? Not a blow up? Although, come to think of it, Roque would probably do really badly with a blow up doll, what with all the sharp, pointy objects he keeps around and that would be a real downer, wouldn’t it, when you accidentally deflate the woman of your dreams mid-coitus and don’t even laugh, I’m sure Roque couldn’t even get it up without a knife in his hand and it’s totally feasible that he’d – “
And that was another reason why Cougar and Jensen clicked: Sometimes Jensen’s mouth got the better of his and he just couldn’t stop and then Cougs swooped in and put a hand over his mouth and watched him with dark eyes until he managed to shut up and then, as a reward, he usually got a kiss. Unless Clay was around to, you know, ask. Then he got more of the eyes, smoldering with promises for later.
And he was totally okay with that.
Cougar kissed him quiet and when he was done, he said, “There was nothing between Roque and her.”
And, okay, that’s sort of… when had ‘her’ become ‘Mom’ and why did it matter who she’d fucked and anyway, why was this so important? When had that happened? Here they were, two sexy, super-soldier guys with a healthy sex life, collectively obsessing about a woman they’d never met.
“That’s probably not healthy,” Jensen remarked, more to himself than the sniper. He got a nod anyway.
Roque chose that moment to come marching through their room, an enormous box, wrapped in… well, the most blindingly neon green Jensen had ever seen, actually, paper.
He grimaced at the two of them, in the same bunk, mostly undressed. Jensen would have started babbling about the heat, bla, bla, but he knew the SiC really didn’t give a shit as long as they kept it out of his space and, “Bite the fucking pillow, Jensen, for fuck’s sake!”
He put the giant box – Jensen sort of couldn’t look away it was so green - on the kitchen table and hollered, “Care package,” through the entire house.
Cougar looked at Jensen, who shrugged and they got semi-dressed again, knowing that bed-time had just been postponed. Clay and Pooch came through different doors within moments of each other, looking a bit too eager.
Clay took one look at the green monstrosity and laughed, while Pooch just grinned fondly and Jensen had to ask, “Who’s it from?”
It was easier than asking, “How the fuck did it get here, we’re in hiding, this is a safe house, no-one should know we’re even in this country, what the fuck?!?”
He got three identical grins back and a disturbingly chipper, “Mom,” from Roque, which come on, was just wrong. Chipper should never carry this many knives. Ever.
And because that didn’t really answer anything, he asked anyway, “How the fuck did it get here?”
Clay, looking supremely unconcerned for such a large breach in security, shrugged. “She was Para before she was a Loser. And you don’t really wanna know what she was before she was Para.”
“Ain’t nothing that woman can’t find out, if she puts her mind to it,” Pooch agreed, before turning to Roque and demanding, “Come on, open!”
Roque flicked the knife he was using to cut the box open at the driver, who kept grinning. Jensen watched, somewhat disturbed, as their resident crazy peeled layers and layers of radioactive green wrapping paper off the box and finally hit jackpot with a yell of triumph, that turned into a growl when, instead of finally being able to cut it open, he was faced with an envelope taped to the top of the box with Read First written on it in bold, curly letters.
Underneath, in smaller font, was, That means before you raid the box, boys!
Jensen looked at Cougar and Cougar looked at Jensen and did that eyebrow thing that meant what the fuck? and Jensen agreed with a nod. Then Roque peeled the envelope open and unfolded a semi-neat letter, skimming it before handing it off to the colonel, who took it, cleared his throat and started reading.
“Hey Losers,” he read, making Pooch chuckle. “Yes, Clay, I stole your line. Sulk later. Right now, I want you to celebrate the birth of Elizabeth Joy Harris. Yes, you read that right. Somehow, my asshole of a best friend managed to convince me that, on top of knocking my kid sister up, he also had to marry her. Hence her being a Harris. Little Ellie has ten fingers and ten toes and Dawn’s eyes and my nose and she’s absolutely gorgeous and I’m sure I will be the most obsessive aunt. On the planet.”
Clay stopped so the team had time to eyeball Jensen and appreciate that whatever Mom did, she couldn’t beat a grown ass man walking around in his niece’s bright pink soccer team shirt. The entire team looked at him like a prom date with herpes every. Single. Time. He wore it. And then they made him explain why he wore it and then they rolled their eyes and walked away. Pussies. None of them had nieces, obviously.
Once everyone was done snickering, Clay cleared his throat for dramatic effect and kept reading. “To make sure you actually do celebrate little Ellie’s existence, I added booze to the care package. Don’t tell Jolene, mkay? Oh and, speaking of booze, there’s some of the good stuff in there, as an apology for stealing Snake from you guys. And congrats on losing Miller.”
Eager noises all around when the alcohol was mentioned and then a few chuckles at the joke about the former sniper. Apparently, he’d been an asshole of the first order.
“Apart from that, I got a few new stars and a few new scars and a brand spanking new house. A house. Me. On my own. There are plants. I think I probably know why Clay always kills his. Those things take actual work like you wouldn’t believe.
“So…. What else to say. I miss you boys. And your guns and your crazy and quite possibly even your body odor after five days marching through the Brazilian jungle. Good times. There are boxes in the package for each of you. Yes, that includes you, new guy, and you, new new guy.”
Clay shot looks at Cougar and Jensen in turn.
“Enjoy them. Don’t blow up too much shit. And stick to the first rule. Signed, Mom.”
Jensen’s hand shot up before anyone else could form half a thought. Their CO sighed. “Yes, Jensen?”
“What’s the first rule?”
This time Pooch was faster with the throat clearing and declared, after some posturing, “First rule: Don’t fucking die!!!”
Everyone jumped at his high-pitched imitation of a female voice and then Roque had finally enough of waiting and cut the box open, spilling its contents onto the table. First thing out was a few bags of potato chips, which were always in high demand. Then came an assortment of other junk food, including pop tarts, which made Jensen coo just a bit. Then a few recent movies on DVD, which was pretty useless, since Jensen had long since downloaded them, illegally using military channels to do so. Roque followed that up with no less than three bottles of cheap tequila, three bottles of JD and one bottle of pricey scotch that Clay would no doubt hide away from them. It was probably the ‘good stuff’ she’d added as an apology.
They all appreciated their bounty dutifully and cracked one of the bottles to toast little Ellie for being born and her aunt for making kickass care packages. Even if there were no Snickerdoodles. There were always Snickerdoodles in Jolene’s care packages and the entire unit treated them like contraband items, smuggling, hiding, stealing them.
Then Pooch took over the distribution of goodies, throwing a wrapped shoe box at each of them before grabbing a bag of chips and stealing away into the night rather dramatically. Although that may just have been Jensen’s interpretation of things. He chuckled anyway before grabbing his own box and making his way back to the room off the kitchen that he shared with Cougs, the sniper following close behind.
They each sat on their own bed as they unwrapped their care package inside a care package, which made Jensen giggle and imagine another, smaller care package inside this one. And then another. And another. Like those Russian dolls. What where they called? His Russian sucked. He needed to brush up on that, probably.
In the end he simply tore the box open, finding a note on top, addressed the same way as the box had been: New New Guy.
It wished him happy times and good luck with the Losers and asked him to please stop digging into her history because it was sending up all kinds of red flags with her people, which first of all, oops, and secondly, damn, because he hadn’t thought he’d been noticed. Weeeeelll. Who cared. There was more candy in the box and a stack full of comics, which were apparently meant to be a sort of bribe to get him to ‘stop driving my hacker crazy. She’s getting a nervous tick. Please leave her alone.’
He looked through the comics, ten of them, according to the note, picked by a friend who was ‘the original geek or something like it’. They were good. Not the real collectors’ items, but the ones with good stories and art. Real nice stuff and Jensen had only three of them stashed at his sister’s place back home.
As far as presents for complete strangers went, this one was pretty damn awesome. And she’d bothered to actually get help to figure it out, which got her extra points. He was impressed and said so out loud before putting down his prize and throwing himself across Cougar’s bed to look into the sniper’s box.
He didn’t bother looking at the note because he could soooo respect personal boundaries, just so that was clear, and went straight for the goodies. There was another bottle of tequila, but this one the pricey, Mexican stuff. Don Julio the label said. Some chocolate bars, which was dead on for Cougs. So dead on, in fact, that Jensen felt the stirrings of paranoia.
He pushed them away in favor of carefully picking up the last item in the box. It was way more expensive than his own gift, but he didn’t really give a damn. It was a sniper scope. Minus points for a work related gift, but since they basically had no life outside work, okay. It wasn’t anything special, just a replacement scope in case Cougs lost or broke his. But there was an extra note attached to it with a rubber band that said, in very small, precise handwriting, like the author had paid a lot of attention, Look after them. And yourself.
Jensen put down the scope, looked up at the sniper, who looked a bit blindsided and said, “Cougs man, I’m terribly sorry, but from right this moment on?”
He waited until Cougar met his gaze to continue. “From this moment on? I got one hell of a crush on a woman I never met and I really hope you’re okay with that, because you’re awesome but I think this chick is probably awesome too, like, from a distance even and-“
He was ready to offer a whole speech, but Cougs cut him off with a hand over his mouth and a slow smile that always made Jensen think of hot blood and slow sex. “Me, too,” the shorter man admitted gravely.
And that was… sort of cool, actually, because he and Cougar? They just sort of clicked, falling into place around each other like they were made of matching pieces, but somewhere out there was a woman who had rules about dying and who was badass and who loved her family as much as Jensen loved his, and who gave him comics and Cougs a sniper scope, like she knew them, like she could see inside of them, and he hadn’t been joking, okay? Crush. Major, big, fat, stubborn crush. On her. On the woman on the other side of those thoughtful notes and those awesome care packages. The woman who had made Roque not quite mad and Clay not quite reckless and Pooch almost happy. The woman who was, quite simply, a badass chick.
Quirking an eyebrow at Cougar, Jensen waited. When he got a simple nod back, he slowly relaxed.
Chapter 18: Bleed
In which Roque does not justify his choices.
Roque knew, when he made the deal with Wade – with Max – that from here on out, there were only two possible ways for this to end.
Death or cash.
Death had always been an option, and hey, why not shoot for the cash? It wasn’t like anything else mattered, like anything else was going to work out.
Twenty years, almost, with a gun in his hand, more than ten of those with Clay and what did he have to show for it? Besides a few ugly scars and a shitload of nightmares?
He had nothing, was the same street rat psycho he’d been at sixteen, almost knifing another kid just because he insulted Roque’s shoes. The only difference was that the knives had gotten bigger.
Death or cash.
He’d been loyal for so long, and Clay kept throwing it in his face, kept fucking every good thing up. Volatile women, bad decisions, his goddamn heroic streak.
Roque was tired.
He was so fucking tired of the fighting, of the blood, of people leaving and dying and of him and Clay being the last ones standing. Being the last one standing with someone who didn’t even fucking look at you was pretty damn shitty.
Maybe Aisha was the last straw, maybe Miami. Maybe Bolivia or maybe Mom’s leaving. The shit she pulled, leaving the unit for a life they all knew she didn’t want, that had been hard. Fist right in the fucking face, like they weren’t worth as much as the shitty desk-job life she was leaving them for. Maybe, probably, that was a big one.
But, shit, maybe he’d been there for a long time, teetering on the edge, waiting for a chance to topple over.
He didn’t know.
He didn’t care.
Death or cash.
He wasn’t even really angry with anyone, except maybe Clay. He tried to get Pooch and Jensen to back out, because they had family and it wasn’t… they were good people. He’d never thought in terms of good and bad until Mom had come along, until she’d told him some people were like this and some people were like that and in between, in the grey, were the people like him and her, who tried and struggled and wanted to be better.
He never tried very much at all, but he didn’t tell her that.
He tried to get them to back down but they were good, so they didn’t.
Roque regretted that, but he couldn’t change it.
Story of his life. He stood in the background, watched and cleaned up messes and never changed a single fucking thing. Mom would have told him differently, but Mom had picked a life she hated over being here with them and that meant her opinion didn’t count anymore.
Death or cash.
Those were the options.
He was going to try for the cash because he wasn’t suicidal, but in the end, he really didn’t care which way it ended as long as it did end.
He was fucking tired of this shit.
He asked Clay, early on, to call Mom. “She’ll help us out, man,” he said.
And Clay shook his head, said, “She made her choice.”
Didn’t even listen to Roque. He never fucking listened. Roque kept talking and talking and talking and it didn’t matter how often he was right, how many times not listening ended with them all in deep shit. Clay never fucking listened to Roque.
But he was right. Mom had made her choice.
So had Roque.
Death or cash.
As long as it ended, he really didn’t give a flying fuck anymore.
Chapter 19: Welcome to the Jungle
Welcome to the Jungle
In which there is a dead special ops team in Buffy’s living room. At three in the morning. (Or: Congrats, we’ve finally made it past the movie!)
Aisha held herself very still and kept a look-out for anyone that might have followed them while they all waited for Clay to pick the lock. They were crowded together in a quaint little backyard in suburbia after a break-in gone wrong.
They’d had some intel on a firm that supposedly kept some of Max’s dirty laundry packed away in its basement and had tried to get at it. Only their informant hadn’t been quite as informative as they’d thought and shit had blown up in their faces. Par for the course actually, these days.
Still, Aisha was not pleased, especially since their exit strategy had been changed by Clay in mid-flight. Instead of scatter and go to ground it was now Mom lives an hour from here, let’s go.
Aisha had no idea who Mom was, apart from what Pooch had mumbled, which was that she was a former Loser. A retired army woman. Great. Not that Aisha had anything against kickass women, being one herself, but anyone nicknamed Mom couldn’t be all that helpful when shit got hot.
Right now, shit was very hot.
“Boss,” Jensen muttered out of the corner of his mouth, “With all due respect, I’d really feel better if we could get the fuck out of the open. Sir.”
She snorted quietly. Jensen was a total goof ball and annoyed her to no end most of the time, especially with shit like this, but he’s saved her life tonight by stabbing a guy to death, so she tolerated him. He had his uses.
“Soldier,” Clay snapped, “Shut the fuck up.”
Then he finally managed to move the last tumbler and the glass door slid open. They all crowded into a moderately sized living room. It was dark, but Aisha could make out a stylish mix of modern and old, pictures on the mantle. It looked very quaint.
The men all shuffled around as soon as the door closed behind them, their straight postures fading as they finally relaxed, feeling safe. Aisha, who wasn’t that naïve, quickly and quietly lowered the blinds on the door and the window next to it, providing some additional cover.
By the time she was done, Clay and Pooch were hissing at each other in the middle of the room, apparently trying to figure out their next move. Jensen and Cougar were standing near-by, shoulder to shoulder, waiting.
Aisha was the only one who noticed the slight movement at the far end of the room, where it opened into a hallway and by then it was already too late. She brought her gun up, ready to fire, the same instant someone hit the light switch. Instantly, all weapons in the room were aimed at the figure leaning against the wall, arms crossed under her chest.
“You know, a simple ‘Hey Mom, we’re not dead’ would have been totally enough. There’s absolutely no reason to break into my house at three in the goddamn morning in full gear.”
She was blonde, tiny and wearing a man’s t-shirt and little else. It said I’m a pirate, ask me how and very obviously did not belong to her. She looked more amused than threatened by all the firepower aimed at her. Clay snorted at her words and Pooch and Jensen laughed outright. Then the colonel did something Aisha hadn’t expected of him. He tucked away his gun, took three steps forward and engulfed the woman in a hug.
She seemed to hug back tightly before shoving him away and socking him in the jaw. He took a step back, grunting in pain, rubbing at his cheek. “You fucking assholes,” she hissed, spitting fire at Clay. “I almost got another star because you can’t be bothered to pick up a fucking phone, Clay!”
Aisha had no idea what stars had to do with anything, but Clay looked contrite. “Sorry,” he apologized, sounding like a boy who got chewed out by his mother, “There was no time. But we’re here now and we… we sort of need help.”
She snorted, crossing her arms again, apparently unconcerned with how the motion made the shirt ride up higher, leaving her half-naked. Clay and Pooch didn’t seem to care, but the rest of the boys was definitely noticing. Men. Mom frowned at Clay and Pooch chuckled.
“Linwood Porteus,” she snapped immediately, rounding on him with a fierce expression. “I’m as pissed at you as I am at Clay. And you better tell me that Jolene knows your ass is alive and in one piece or goddess help me….”
The blonde deflated. “Good. Is she…”
The driver smiled, goofy as always when someone brought up his wife. “She’s fine. Junior’s fine, too. Didn’t you…?”
She shook her head. “Last time we talked was right after… She yelled a lot. Was pissed at the military like you wouldn’t believe and I guess that extended to me. She told me she didn’t want to see my face ever again.” She looked sad, but not like she was angry with Jolene, who Aisha had met and could imagine could be quite vicious if she wanted to be. Lashing out was an understandable reaction for a pregnant woman that had just lost her husband in a hinky black-ops mission that reeked of bullshit.
The blonde seemed to think so too, even as Pooch cringed. “I tried to keep an eye on her from a distance. Made my girls run their patrols past your house. She seemed fine, so I left her alone.”
Pooch rubbed a hand over his head. “You didn’t have to do that.”
All he got in response was a raised eyebrow, so he stepped forward and hugged the blonde, too. She hugged back, let him go and turned to the room at large. “So. Introductions?”
“Right.” Clay took a step backward toward the rest of the team and pointed at them in turns, “Aisha, Jensen, Cougar. Guys, meet Summers. Call her Mom.”
Summers. Aisha filed the name away, flat out refusing to call the woman by her nickname out loud. Jensen waved and grinned like an idiot, Cougar tipped his hat at the blonde. Aisha simply nodded and didn’t take her hand off her gun. Clay was vouching for her, but Clay had vouched for Roque and the informant that had just fucked them over, too.
Speaking of, the blonde looked around the room briefly, then frowned. “Guys, where’s Roque?”
The whole unit stiffened as one, anger and grief stinking up the place like cheap perfume. It was Clay who answered, sounding like someone was dragging the words out of him. “He died very badly.”
From the look the blonde gave the colonel she thought he was lamenting that fact, but his tone and expression clued her in faster than Aisha had expected.
“What happened?” she asked, sounding teary; wretched.
“He went for the money,” Clay said, like that was any sort of explanation at all. He seemed to think so.
Summer shook her head. “Betcha he didn’t,” she contradicted.
Aisha would have liked to say of course he fucking did, but she hadn’t been a Loser then, wasn’t really one now. Roque’s betrayal meant nothing for her except some extra clean-up. To the men, it meant a hell of a lot more.
Clay nodded, accepting her words, which meant something beyond the obvious. Summers closed her eyes, inhaled deeply and then wiped her fingers over one cheek, quick and angry. She was crying for the traitor.
“He was a fucking traitor,” Aisha snapped in a dead voice, unable to help herself. They needed to get the fuck out of here and the girl was having a cryfest for a dead asshole.
Summers’s eyes flew open, narrowed at Aisha. “He was also my fucking friend, so shut it.” She rounded on Clay, demanding, “Now what hell are you doing here? Because I know you, Franklyn Clay, and you’re not here for cake.”
Jensen giggled, but it was a weak sound. He had, out of all of them, taken Roque’s death hardest, or at least he’d been more obvious about it. He sounded edgy. The dangerous kind of edgy.
“Oh, you know,” he said before Clay could, “The usual. Angry security personnel and an insane CIA spook on our asses. Occasionally some police or other alphabet agency thrown in for additional pep and every now and then, we piss off a mob, or Aisha, which is probably worse than a mob because, can you believe it, human ears, she collects human ears and that’s just not sanitary and you can’t tell me it’s sane either because I am a genius and I know shit and I know that that’s not – “
“Breathe,” Summers barked, a bit wide-eyed at the avalanche of rambling BS.
Jensen shut up, gulped and nodded, looking almost grateful at being stopped. Cougar shifted slightly, brushing their shoulders closer together. It was a very good thing they weren’t military anymore because there was just no way to not ask with those two idiots.
“Different question then: Is anyone about to kick down my front door?”
Clay shook his head but it was Pooch who answered. “Got away clean. Just need to lay low for a bit.”
Summers stared at him for a moment, then at Clay, then at the rest of them. “Alright. I got a fold-out couch for one, a guest room for two and a bedroom for two. Two showers. You guys bunk down, I’ll hustle up some info and breakfast. Sound good?”
Clay nodded, looking relieved. Pooch said, very quickly, “Dibs on the couch.”
“Not-?” Summers motioned toward Aisha, who shook her head and nodded toward Clay, who was (honest to God, she hadn’t known he could) blushing. Summers laughed.
“Dirty old man,” she said. “Then you two take the guest room. Boys, you get my bedroom. Just give me five to put on something I didn’t steal from my sister’s closet and I’ll leave you to it. Everything else we’ll figure out tomorrow.”
With that she spun on her heel and walked back down the hallway she’d come from, Cougar and Jensen hesitantly trailing after her. Pooch dropped his gear by the couch, folded it out and threw himself on it, gun in hand. He was down for the count on five, much to Aisha’s disbelief.
“That’s it?” She asked. They just broke into the woman’s house and let her take over?
Clay hooked a finger into one of her belt loops and started towing her to the back of the house. “That’s it,” he confirmed. “Tonight, we’re safe.”
Aisha didn’t really believe it, but this was better than sleeping in a stolen van, so she kept her mouth shut.
Chapter 20: Bedtime Stories
Gore warning. And Jensen warning.
In which Cougar and Jensen really need sleep. (Warning for some gore, described in Jensen’s lovely voice.)
The door behind them wasn’t quite closed yet when Cougar pounced on Jensen, and not in the fun way.
Jensen knew to hold still and let the sniper look him over because, yeah, he kind of looked bad. Apart from the stroke of luck of the mission going south so close to where Mom was and could take them in, the night had been absolutely shit.
On Jensen’s Oh Shit We’re Gonna Die Scale, it was a solid seven.
Security had been tighter than expected, with more people and less electronic measures than they’d been led to expect. Jensen’s toys had been all but useless, Jensen and Aisha had gotten cornered while Cougs and Clay had been busy fighting their own way out and Pooch had driven them all mad by yelling at them to get a fucking move on over comms. And while Jensen totally knew how much sitting outside and waiting sucked, Pooch really needed to stop doing that, for fuck’s sake.
Jensen couldn’t think when Pooch got like that.
So he and Aisha had gotten cornered, his favorite laptop had gotten shot and then some asshole punk bitch guard had managed to almost break Jensen’s right hand with a thrown desk chair and bye-bye gun.
Aisha had been un-fucking-helpful, what with bitching and snarking and calling him useless again. Badass chick or not, the woman was seriously starting to grate on his nerves.
So, gun gone, hand busted, laptop shot to shit, Jensen had gone for the nearest available weapon which had happened to be a screwdriver. Yeah. Messy. He’d stabbed the guy that’d gone for his hand, gotten into a bitch fight with two more and then had to pull a fourth off Aisha, who’d let herself be wedged in in a total rookie move. Maybe that’d make her back off.
All in all, Jensen had gotten away okay. He wasn’t dead, his hand wasn’t broken, his bruises would heal. Ribs felt a bit tender, but he’d gotten worse playing a pickup game of football. However. Screwdrivers were not going to become his new murder weapon of choice. Me-ssy. The blood was caking and flaking all over him, dark and rusty and itchy and he looked like he’d gone seventeen rounds in a slaughterhouse against dead pigs or something. Well, probably not.
“Not my blood, dude,” he finally said when Cougs started getting too worked up. He grabbed the sniper by the neck, held him still and repeated, “Not my blood. I’m absolutely peachy and still as beautiful as I was when we were young. Chill out.”
Cougar growled at him because, yes, Cougar occasionally did such stereotypical things. Jensen let go of him with a roll of his eyes and demanded, “Now how about you let me see that graze you’ve been trying to hide?”
Cougar growled again and twisted his torso so Jensen couldn’t reach the bullet graze along his lower ribs. Jensen snorted and opened his mouth to complain about quid-pro-quo or some such shit, when Cougs stepped in too close and kissed him.
Not just Hello, you’re alive but full-fledged Hello, you’re alive, I’m alive, we fucking made it, live another day, I might be dying, fuck me now. Okay, so maybe not the last part. But the rest was totally legit because Jensen had Cougar’s tongue in his mouth and hands on his waist, under his shirt, smoothing along his flanks, making the dried blood itch even more and he was running out of air but Cougs wasn’t letting up and god, god, god, they were alive and this was good, this was hot and fast and distracted him from his ouchies and the people he’d killed with a screwdriver, talk about needing extra therapy, goddamn, and –
“Whoops,” Mom said from the doorway and Cougar and Jensen jumped apart like scalded cats, which wasn’t too far from the truth, at least in Cougar’s case. The cat jokes just never got old.
She didn’t seem to care what she’d interrupted, just shoved into the room with a chipper, “Didn’t mean to disturb you boys. I just forgot to grab clothes.”
She slipped around them without so much as a look at them and into the walk-in closet. Cougar and Jensen watched as she grabbed a pair of jeans and pulled them on before slipping off the over-sized t-shirt and replacing it with one that fit her. She didn’t seem to care that they were watching and, in Jensen’s case, not so subtly drooling. Damn, but that was a fine, tanned back. Scarred, too, which, let’s face it, major turn on. A chick who could kick ass and prove it? Age-Oh-Tee. Hot.
She slipped into a pair of colorful flip flops and turned back around just in time for Jensen to catch something bright disappearing under the hem of her shirt. Ink. Scars and ink. Definitely in love.
Brushing her hair out of her eyes, Mom winked at them. “I’ll leave you gents to it,” she said with an impish smile. “If you need to change the sheets in the morning, hall closet, second door from the left.”
With that, and a jaunty little wave, she was off again, leaving two special ops soldiers staring at her like idiots.
“Did she just?” Jensen asked, pointing at the closed door, the closet and the bed in turns.
“Si,” Cougar confirmed.
“Just like that?”
“I mean, not that the others aren’t all kinds of cool about this, but that was kind of, and in her bed, man?”
Cougar was nodding along, because agreeing verbally twice had used up his allotted words for the next forty-five minutes. Jensen just kept pointing and rambling and finally came to the conclusion, “Someone needs to put a ring on that chick.”
Because, no, really. You didn’t find women like that on the street. Okay, maybe you did, but not really, because, thing was, Mom was awesome. And kickass. And pretty and inked and scarred and flirty and happy-go-lucky in the way Jensen kind of was and she loved her niece and she didn’t mind two strangers doing the horizontal mambo in her bed at three in the morning as long as they changed the sheets afterwards.
Seriously. Fuck. Brain broken.
“I’m taking a shower,” Jensen announced, shaking off the confusion because it was way too late and he was way too bloody to actually think about sex, despite the blatant invitation to test the mattress.
The bathroom was… unexpected. No trace of pink or blue, for one. It was all whites and beiges and luxury right down to the rugs on the floor. Jensen felt like he was messing the place up just by being there. He carefully toed the light rugs to one end of the room and started stripping off his grimy clothes. Cougar joined him a moment later, made sure to close and lock the door.
A minute later they had a pile of ruined clothes to burn. The only salvageable thing were Cougar’s jeans, which were filthy as hell from crawling around God knows where, but not stiff with blood and not torn and these days, that absolutely counted for a win. The shower was big and awesome and hot but they just got down to business, and not the fun, dirty kind.
Mom had sort of broken what little of a moment they’d managed to scrounge up. Alive and kicking and not bleeding to death only carried a guy until the adrenaline ran out. After that it was all, ick, bloody, and ouch, hurt, and damn, another set of clothes ruined, and shit, I need a bed to conk out in for twelve hours and hopefully forget the past day ever happened. Amen.
Jensen got done first, climbing out of the shower with a snicker at the fact that Cougs was washing his hair with girly shampoo that smelled of vanilla or some such shit. Still, vanilla definitely beat eau-de-brain-matter. Apparently, Cougs had shot some fucker at really, really, really close range.
And of course he hadn’t thought that worth mentioning, noooo. Why would he mention to Jensen that he’d blown some random dude up in his own face? It wasn’t like that kind of shit was dangerous and freaky and gave anyone nightmares. Nope. Not at all.
Sometimes Jensen wanted to strangle Cougs. A lot. So really, he totally deserved the ribbing he was gonna get for smelling like…, like… cake. Really girly cake.
Jensen grabbed some clean clothes out of the duffel he’d dumped by the door and then stared at his gear for a very, very long moment. He should clean that shit, get it back in order, ready to run.
But they were safe here. Clay had said so and Mom was kickass and he was tired. So he just shoved his gun into the back of his boxers and his favorite knife under the pillow he planned to bed his pretty head on in a moment.
Then he sat at the end of the bed and just stared around the room, not really seeing much of it. Light walls, dark furniture. Classy. There were pictures on one wall, of a brunette with a baby, a dark haired guy with the same baby. Of Mom with yet another brunette, who looked seriously hot, too. A redhead and an old guy with glasses. Mom with a few of them. Rinse, repeat. There was one of a rag-tag band of guys in camo, Clay and Rogue among them. The Losers, pre-Jensen days then. And pre-Cougs and even pre-Pooch. Early days. They looked dirty and smelly and annoyed, glaring at the camera and yeah, Jensen had a few of those pictures. Pissed off soldiers forced to hold still.
Jensen’s sister had them all up in the hallway, along with pictures of his niece, of their own childhoods, of friends and parties, candid shots of a dozen people. Jensen thought that’s what Mom was trying to do here, make a picture wall. It looked bare. Too few pictures, too few faces.
Life of a soldier.
There were two swords mounted on the other wall, which was awesome and freaky shit and his fingers were tingling but he was sort of scared of touching them. Mom would probably know and use them to chop his head off. She was that kind of woman. Aisha always knew when someone had so much as looked at her knives and then all hell broke loose and Aisha wasn’t very much like Mom, really, but, still. Point. Somewhere. He had one.
God, he was tired.
Cougs padded out of the bathroom in all his naked glory, went for his own bag. He put on boxers, grabbed his first aid stuff, walked over to Jensen and offered his side. The graze really wasn’t all that bad. Burned, mostly. It had already scabbed over. Jensen made a point of disinfecting it and taping it up neatly.
In exchange he let Cougar prod at the cut on his temple for a bit. Smaller than it looked, hadn’t bled much to begin with, he wasn’t gonna die, yay.
His eyes were already falling shut when Cougar pulled his hands away and the last thing he really heard was a soft, “Jake, lie down,” before everything got soft and warm.
Mom’s bed was possibly the most comfortable Jensen had ever slept in. He might never leave it.
Chapter 21: Supermarket Blues
In which Buffy does some midnight grocery shopping.
Buffy was standing in the dairy section by the time the past two hours finally caught up with her.
Clay. Pooch. Jensen and Cougar, whom she’d never met before. Aisha.
And Roque, like a paper cutout, a black hole between them. Roque had sold them out. Roque had betrayed them.
She still had a hard time believing it. Not that she doubted what Clay had told her but… it was Roque. Roque who loved knives and fought dirty and held her hair when she puked and laughed at every stupid thing she did and hid critters in her bedroll and slung an arm around her shoulders when they were on leave and she was getting too much attention from drunk assholes.
That Roque was her friend.
That Roque would have never sold out his unit, his family.
But she’d left, hadn’t she? Two years, almost three now. Things changed. She hadn’t thought that people changed, too. Not this fast. Not this fundamentally.
But then, she thought as she stocked up on milk, she remembered being beyond exhaustion after a three day march through the desert and too wired to sleep. She’d climbed on the roof of their hide-away and found Roque already there, sharpening his knives manically, as unable to sleep as she’d been.
They’d spent the whole night up there, talking. About living and fighting. And about dying. About the crazy stupid stunt he’d pulled that had saved their lives. She’d bitched him out for being reckless and he’d told her that he knew the risks.
“Rather go out in a blaze of glory than get old and bitter.”
She’d laughed at him, told him he was old.
Blaze of glory.
She knew Roque. And she knew he’d known that he wouldn’t get away with selling them out. Physically, Roque could have kicked the asses of the collective unit. But there was more to fighting than the right kind of punch and Bolivia must have been hard.
God, she wished they’d called her. If she’d known they were alive, that they were stuck, she would have moved heaven and earth for them. Didn’t they know that?
Bolivia must have been shit and Roque had what? Decided it was time to clock out? Get done with all this shit?
She dumped two containers of milk in the cart, moved on. Toast. Stuff for sandwiches. Enough candy to keep a kindergarten afloat for a month. She dumped coffee and tea and sugar in the cart, meandering through the aisles without a plan. She kept criss-crossing her own path, just moving.
Why’d he done it?
She thought she understood some of it, understood Roque at a basic level. She knew who he was – had been. A lot of the time, back then, it had felt like she was the only one who knew him at all. Maybe if she’d been there…
Had she gotten coffee already? They’d need a shitload of eggs. And she should probably start calling her contacts, putting out a few questions.
She didn’t know. Didn’t know if she could have stopped him, if she would have even noticed. If it was her fault or why he’d done it at all.
Blaze of glory.
What a bullshit excuse.
Buffy jerked around, hand going for the knife in her waistband. Jumpy. Fucking jumpy. The guy who’d spoken almost jumped out of his skin. He was just a kid, goth to the toes. His eyes were painted black, his nails, too. He wore a ripped band shirt and enough piercings in his face to freak out a metal detector. But he was blinking at her sweetly, worriedly.
“Are you okay?”
It was five in the morning and he was probably here to buy booze with a fake ID or feed his munchies or something and he was still worried about the confused chick who kept wandering around with an overflowing cart. It made up for calling her ma’am.
She smiled, nodded. “Sure am.”
He winced a bit, pointed vaguely at her face. “You sure? You’re kinda… erm… crying.”
Automatically, Buffy palmed at her cheeks and found them wet. Huh. She’d gone a bit teary-eyed in the living room earlier, but that Aisha woman had pulled her right out of it. She’d thought that was it. Apparently not.
Roque, you fucking asshole, she thought, glaring at the ceiling. You never made me cry when you were alive. She sniffled a bit and then tried another smile at the kid. “I’m really fine. Just got some bad news. A friend died.”
“Oh,” the boy was scarlet in the face. “I’m… I’m sorry then. I’ll leave you alone. You just… you kinda looked like you might need some… you know, help.”
“I’m fine,” she repeated and to prove it, she grabbed hold of her cart and pushed it in his direction. He stepped out of the way, about to run off, his courage deserting him in the face of the crazy, crying lady. She just managed to grab the edge of his sleeve.
“Hey, kid,” she said, “Thanks for asking.” Then she stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek, just so he’d have something to tell his friends in the morning.
She didn’t think of Roque again until she was loading her booty into the trunk and found that she’d grabbed a whole bunch of twizzlers. They’d been his favorite.
Why? She wondered again as she got in the car, started it. Why had he done it?
Sometimes soldiers got tired. Sometimes they went bad. Sometimes a guy who said he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory actually meant it.
Fact was, she’d never know.
Whatever, she thought, forcing herself back on track. Roque was lost. He’d made himself lost. But Clay and the boys were still there, still alive and kicking and she’d cried enough in the past couple of hours to last a year. So she’d better get a move on and figure out a plan of action.
Because nobody, absolutely nobody, touched her boys and got away with it. Ever.
She thought that would have made Roque proud.
Chapter 22: Breakfast at Tiffany's
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
In which breakfast is being had and Cougar-y thoughts are being thought.
Cougar wandered into the room just after six in the morning, quietly so he didn’t wake Pooch on the sofa. He was still bone tired, but his friend insomnia was keeping him awake. He’d sack out later with Jake rambling next to him, feeling safer than he did when Jake was sleeping.
It was idiotic, but that’s how it was. They slept in turns, mostly. They survived.
Mom – Summers – was moving through the kitchen almost soundlessly, putting away things, pulling out others. She looked like she’d been crying, her eyes red-rimmed as she met his gaze and nodded in greeting.
He nodded back, recognition of some sort. Gratitude.
“Coffee in a minute,” she offered and then her hand went to her hip, where her phone was vibrating in her pocket. She shrugged at him and quickly let herself out the patio door to take the call.
Cougar watched her go and then spent a minute hunting down mugs. He pulled out two, prepared his and, on a hunch, dumped a load of sugar in the other mug, but left it black.
Summers came back five minutes later and he nodded toward the mug. She accepted it and, after a quick sip, grinned at him. Nailed it. She sat across from him at the kitchen island and for a while, they watched as the room slowly lit up with the rising sun.
Then, abruptly, she reached behind her and pulled a knife out of nowhere. Big hunting knife, serrated edge, black handle inlaid with gleaming steel. Not overly pretty, but functional. The kind of knife Roque had preferred.
She twirled it between her fingers with skill and then put it on the table between them. “Won that off Roque,” she said quietly, almost whispering. “The fucker was my best friend.”
She didn’t ask what had happened, how it had gone down. Cougar was glad, because he didn’t want to tell her that he’d been the one who’d eventually done the deed. Roque was dead by his hand, his bullet. Indirectly, yes, but still. He didn’t want to tell this woman the truth, the facts.
“Lo siento,” he said anyway.
She nodded after a while, putting the knife away again and standing. She refilled both their mugs and then started pulling eggs and bacon out of the fridge.
“Aisha eat breakfast?” she asked and he nodded, leaning back to watch her as she worked. She cracked eggs, handled skillets and managed another pot of coffee while she was at it, moving smoothly and unhurriedly. She was at home in this kitchen.
Clay was the first to come stumbling in, bleary eyed and working his jaw the way he did in the mornings. Mom wordlessly pointed him toward the coffee and then plated a pile of bacon and two eggs for him, just as he liked it. She held the plate out and he took it in passing, bumping her hip with his familiarly. Cougar felt his eyebrows rise a bit. Clay rarely was this friendly with anyone. She held out her hand again, pointing at a drawer, and the colonel found cutlery inside before sitting down across from Cougar and digging in without a word.
Pooch followed two minutes later, rubbing his scalp and sniffing the air. “God, woman,” he said, “I love you so very much.”
Summers laughed, repeated the motions she’d gone through with Clay and received a kiss on the cheek in gratitude along with a slap on the ass.
She looked sad then, for a moment, and the sniper found himself trying to imagine Roque slapping anyone’s ass. He couldn’t. He thought that maybe the Roque he’d met hadn’t been the same one she’d known.
Aisha and Jensen arrived at the same time, both drawn by the scents permeating the house. Jensen got handed not one but two plates, which made Clay snort something about subtlety. Cougar ignored his CO, getting up and getting a clean mug for Jensen, who dumped his breakfast in front of him just then. They sat shoulder to shoulder and started shoveling food before Mom turned off the stove, grabbed the last plate and slipped in next to Cougar.
She pointed her fork at the colonel and ordered, “Don’t even. I can smell what you two did half an hour ago. Hell, I could hear it. You don’t get to talk about obvious.”
Grinning, Clay saluted as Jensen stuck out his tongue at him. “I have no idea why anyone ever thinks I’m in charge of this unit.”
“You aren’t,” Mom calmly informed him. Then put down her fork despite not having eaten more than two bites and took a deep breath. “I’ve got people trawling for your Max guy and a guy I know is going to send over anything the police finds on your little B&E adventure from last night. I’ll need mugshots of all of you to get to Clem, for ID. Won’t be perfect, but should hold up for a while. Give us some room. Willow is working her mojo to try and track Max, too. Anyone finds anything, they’ll get back to me ASAP. Until then, I got a place in the middle of nowhere in Montana that we usually use for wolves. We’ll hole up there until something gives.”
Silence. Complete and utter silence. Everyone was staring at her like she’d grown a second head. She gave them all a shit eating grin, a stark contrast to her red-rimmed eyes. “Not bad for four hours of phone calls, is it?”
“Marry me,” Jensen blurted. Cougar elbowed him, got a yelp in return and an indignant look. “No, man, Cougs, you gotta understand this. Were you listening? That’s like… hold on,” he suddenly turned from Cougar to Summers. “Did you say wolves? As in werewolves!?”
“Don’t be scared,” the blonde teased, “I’ll protect you.”
Jensen audibly gulped and Aisha laughed at him. Cougar wanted to growl.
Just then, the doorbell rang. Everyone tensed up, going for guns and knives, ready to kill at a moment’s provocation. Everyone except Summers. She rolled her eyes and shot a smile at Jensen. “Careful,” she said, “That’s a werewolf at the door. He might eat you.”
Then she stood to let the newcomer in, not at all concerned. Cougar wondered how she’d known who was that the door before opening it, just like he wondered how she’d heard Clay and Aisha. He had been with her and he hadn’t heard a thing.
A moment later she was back, a baby-faced guy in a beat cop uniform following after her, fiddling with a USB drive in his hand. He waved at them briefly, then turned back to Summers. “Uhm… you know that these guys are sort of wanted for… everything, right?”
She nodded. “Yeah, I do. But they’re mine, Derek, so keep your mouth shut.”
He jumped a bit, skittish. “Of course. I wasn’t gonna blab to the humans. Sorry, Alpha.”
She rolled her eyes. “Not your alpha, kid.”
“No. But you’re the alpha. So, uhm, here. The report. I should get back to work now. I… see you?”
Summers took the drive from him and they watched as he left skid marks on his way out the door. She snorted as soon as they heard his car fire up, shaking her head. “Saved his ass once. I’m pretty sure he’ll get over it. Eventually.”
She didn’t look convinced. “Anyway. Mugshots?”
“Did that kid just call you Alpha, Mom?” Pooch asked, half-laughing, half-curious. It was a good thing he was asking, because the rest of them definitely wanted to hear the answer.
“Shut up. It’s a stupid title my girls gave me. Now. Mugshots. I need them ASAP, so make it snappy.”
With that she turned on her heel and walked out of the room, blushing a bit under her bravado. After a moment she cursed quietly and the USB drive came hurtling at Jensen, who caught it, still staring stupidly at where she’d been standing.
Cougar hid his expression behind his coffee and felt something inside of him uncurl and relax a bit. This was the most fun any of them had had since Bolivia and in less than a day, Mom was already moving heaven and earth for them.
For the first time in a long time, Cougar found himself thinking that maybe this Hail Mary mission wasn’t going to end as bloody as he’d always thought it would.
Chapter 23: Alpha
In which Aisha gets slapped down. Just a little.
The next few weeks were the most relaxing the Losers had had since before Bolivia. Mom stuck to her promise of getting them squared away in a remote cabin in Middle of Nowhere, Montana.
What wasn’t part of her promise was that she made a call to her sister and then packed a bag, coming with them.
She distributed rooms, pairing them up in twos and then cracking a joke about how it wasn’t fair that she and Pooch were the only roomies that weren’t getting any, and maybe Jolene would share?
Clay watched as Mom effortlessly slid back into the group like she’d never been gone, despite the years in between and the fact that she had never even met more than half of the current Losers. She flirted with Cougar and Jensen, much to everyone’s amusement, she played sounding board for Pooch’s rambling about Jolene and Junior and she let Clay rant at her in the dead of night.
She kept everyone calm and content. She smoothed things over. In short, she took over the job that had once been Roque’s and maybe that was just Clay getting old and bitter, but there was a big, black shape hovering next to her whenever he looked at her.
The ghost of Roque and the way he’d been, long before Bolivia, with Mom there to keep him balanced.
Clay missed his best friend. He missed the man he’d been before he’d gone all wrong.
He grunted, poking at his lunch with more force than necessary. Aisha, sitting across from him, raised a pierced eyebrow at his behavior. He snarled at her and she snarled right back.
Out of the whole team, she was the only one that wasn’t happy with Mom and he knew exactly why. Between Los Angeles and Mom’s house, it had been Aisha who filled the slot of SiC. Now that Mom was back, she’d been kicked down in the pecking order, all the way to newbie status.
That, and the men were being more obvious about their dislike of her. Jensen rambled at her endlessly in a way Clay knew he reserved for people he couldn’t stand. It was slow working psychological torture. He just talked and talked and talked. Cougar had taken to stroking his gun maniacally every time the dark haired woman was close by and Pooch? Well, Pooch had been known to refer to her as ‘Clay’s hotpocket’ within her hearing.
And Aisha, being who she was, stewed quietly and did nothing to alleviate the situation. Mom, meanwhile, had gotten Jensen a high speed internet connection, helped Cougar set up a nest in the rafters of the old farmhouse and watched Pooch tinker with the ancient Ford Pickup he’d found in the dilapidated barn.
“Is this a new kind of flirting I haven’t heard about yet?” Mom suddenly broke the silence in the kitchen, looking between Clay and Aisha, both of which were still glowering at each other.
“Stay out of it!” Aisha snapped, earning herself a skeptic look.
Clay, who’d known Mom for a long time, knew what that look meant. Mom was at the end of her patience and someone’s ass what gonna get whooped. It was almost funny, how Aisha had seemed like one scary chick, right up until Mom showed up for comparison. Suddenly Aisha lost a whole lot of intimidation points simply because she couldn’t aim her scary. Mom switched between mostly sane and don’t-mess-with-me. It was effective. Aisha only had one setting: fuck that shit up.
And the unit was, frankly, getting fucking tired of it.
Jensen, who was always a lot more perceptive than anyone gave him credit for, interrupted the impending smackdown loudly. “Anyway, and then there I am, with a crossbow, okay? Actual fucking crossbow, so fucking badass, and I shoot and bang, the doors are locked and there’s banging from the inside, I swear I heard banging and then comes the Pooch from above and –“
“Jake,” Mom said, very softly. Clay blinked. That was new. No-one but Cougar and, occasionally, Pooch, ever called the hacker by his first name. Hell, Clay was sure there were people that thought Jensen was his first name.
What was less surprising than the name was the way Jensen’s jaw clicked shut without another sound. Mom had had that power over him ever since the first night, when they’d invaded her living room. She said shut it, Jensen shut it. It was every bit as effective as Cougar’s hand on the blond’s neck.
Mom turned back to Aisha. “What is your problem?”
Not a provocation but an honest question, one that demanded an answer right now. She may not have liked the title her girls had given her, but there was no doubt that she really way Alpha.
The scary was being aimed.
It had never worried Clay before, knowing that she could usurp him if she wanted to, because he’d known she hadn’t wanted to, content to play third in command as long as it suited her. But Clay wasn’t blind. He knew the men weren’t happy being away from their families, chasing a ghost, working with Aisha. And he saw the look in Mom’s eyes when she studied him some evenings. She didn’t think he was doing the right thing, either.
Hell, at this point, after a week of quiet living without constantly having to look over his shoulder, Clay wasn’t sure anymore that he was doing the right thing.
Aisha looked from face to face, found only quiet passivity in the men. She turned to Clay, expecting him to stand up for her as he always did.
Over Mom’s shoulder, Roque’s ghost smirked at him and offered a laughed, “You and your fucking volatile women, Clay. Gonna get us all killed if you don’t listen to us every now and then.”
Should have listened to Roque, maybe.
“You got anything from your contacts?” he asked Mom, turning his whole body away from the glowering woman across from him. Making a point. Making amends.
Mom snorted and rolled her eyes, half amused, half annoyed with his obvious declaration. Aisha stood, her chair scraping loudly, and marched out, slamming the door behind her.
Jensen laughed under his breath and offered a quiet, “Ding dong,” to Cougar, whose lips twitched.
Pooch fist-bumped the hacker.
“Willow called yesterday. Oz is coming up this way for the moon and he’s got some interesting files for us.”
Jensen eeped. “Is Oz a werewolf?”
Mom scooted their chairs closer together and hooked her arm into his. “Don’t worry. I’ll look after you. I promised, remember?”
Jensen frowned, torn between gratitude and indignation. On the one hand, werewolves freaked him out the same way zombies and being internetless did. On the other hand he was a big manly man that could fend for himself perfectly fine, thanks a lot. He ended up giggling indecisively.
Mom cooed at him and then turned to Cougar. “Gosh, he’s adorable. Can I have him?”
Cougs shook his head sadly. “No. Lo siento.”
Head cocked to one side, the sniper considered her very carefully. “Maybe,” he hedged.
Pooch laughed loudly and grabbed his plate and glass, standing. “O-kay. I’m relocating to the porch. You coming, Colonel?”
It was, Clay realized with a start, the first time in a while any of them called him by that title. He weighed his options. Make sure Aisha didn’t kill them all in their sleep in a fit of pique, or have a quiet lunch?
“Sure,” he answered, pushing to his feet, too. He could always deal with the beast in his bedroom later.
As he and Pooch vacated the premises, he could barely make out Mom leaning across Jensen to ask Cougar in a very serious voice, “Conditions?”
He shared a grin with Pooch. And then walked faster.
Chapter 24: Move
So, this is it for the old parts. I might add some new ones, because I just reminded myself I love this verse, but it's sorta-kinda complete as is.
In which the Losers get drunk and someone gets laid. Finally.
The Losers were getting drunk.
They were in what had once been an upscale colonial hotel in the middle of the hottest part of Africa, sitting in the lounge, celebrating.
They’d just cleared out one of Max’ more important weapon stashes, blown shit up, ruined someone’s day, and gotten away perfectly clean. It was a good day.
The overhead fans were working lazily, turning over the syrupy air. The barkeep was a tall, skinny man, so black that his teeth seemed to glow in his face. He smiled a lot at them and kept them in booze, seemingly unperturbed by their badly concealed weapons.
And the best part?
The best part was that Aisha had declared them all idiots an hour ago and taken her knives outside to compulsively clean them and keep an eye out for danger.
They might have appreciated her staying sober to watch their asses, if she hadn’t been blatantly using it as an excuse to get the hell away from them.
“You need to deal with that,” Mom had told Clay point blank as they’d watched the other woman stomp out.
Clay had sighed, nodded, and then waved the ‘keep over for more scotch. Since he was paying, he might as well have some of the good shit. He’d need it, if he planned to sleep in the room he shared with Aisha tonight and not in the lobby.
That had been three hours ago.
By now they were all listing slightly in their seats and getting progressively louder as they shared embarrassing stories about each other. Rogue just finished the story of the day Mom got shot in the ass and Jensen was reduced to tears and random giggle fits.
Their coping mechanisms weren’t healthy, and they definitely weren’t sane, but they got by.
“And then Rogue had to dig the thing out while we were moving. Gravel road, if you can call it that, Mom flat on her stomach, Roque trying to aim for the bullet, and Miller making lewd fucking comments the whole time.”
Buffy threw her arm up, demanding to take over the story. “So Clay hauls back and punches his lights out. No warning, no nothing. Fist to the face, Miller goes down like a sack of flour. And Pooch yells about how Clay can’t just knock out our sniper, even if he is a piece of shit, and Roque asks if we can ‘lose’ the guy and there’s still a bullet in my ass and suddenly we’re surrounded by insurgents. Since I was drugged up at that point, I’m still not sure how the hell we got out of there.”
Clay clanged his shot glass against the nearest bottle. “You two freaked the rebels the fuck out, that’s how we got out.”
Pooch snorted into his glass, “Right. That was….They ordered us to give up our weapons and Roque and Mom start pulling out knives, right? First it’s a small one, then a bigger on, and a bigger one, and at one point, there was a fucking machete on the floor, but they still kept pulling out more knives and shit, I don’t know where they’re hiding them, but there’s more, and more, and the rebels get shifty-eyed and one starts praying quietly, and before you know it, they turn tail and flee back into the woods.”
“And I still had a bullet in my ass,” Buffy added.
“And you still had a bullet in your ass,” Pooch echoed.
Jensen was, at that point, lying half on the table, giggling helplessly and hugging his glass to his shoulder. Cougar had one hand on the hacker’s neck, whether to keep him from falling from his chair, or to steady himself was anyone’s guess.
His hat was pulled low, but he was definitely smirking. Pooch was chuckling and mumbling into his glass and Clay just sat at the head of the table, legs long in front of him, enjoying the moment. He was also enjoying the view of Mom kneeling on her chair, groping her own ass to try and find the scar.
Since she was staring at Cougar while she did it, and Clay knew for a fact that she knew exactly where that scar was - different cheek, for one – he knew she was putting on a show.
Sometimes running a unit of highly trained soldiers was like running a high school. Hormones everywhere.
“Alright, Losers,” he finally said, downing the last of his latest drink. “Time for us to head out. I want everyone ready to go at 1000 hours tomorrow morning.”
Groans all around and a snicker from Jensen, followed by, “Just because you’re not getting any tonight, boss, doesn’t mean the rest of us was planning on racking out immediately.”
Before he could dig his grave any deeper, Cougar pulled the hacker to his feet and started dragging him toward the stairs. Pooch followed, listing drunkenly. Mom rolled her eyes at them all, pecked Clay on the cheek and then ran to catch up with the boys.
Clay, shaking his head, went to settle the tab and maybe have another drink or two. There was a rugby match on thee shitty TV in the far corner. After all, Jensen was right. It wasn’t like he was getting any tonight.
Cougar was busy hefting a flailing, giggling Jensen up the stairs. The hacker wasn’t nearly as smashed as he appeared, he knew. Jensen just got loud and easily entertained - more easily than usual – when he had something to drink. And company tended to make any level of inebriation worse.
Cougar knew that and suffered in silence. Mostly. Drunk Jensen also made for horny Jensen, so he didn’t see a reason to stop it.
Except that flailing, giggling Jensen was kind of hard to get up two flights of stairs, especially after Cougar had to take his glasses to keep him from losing them.
Flailing, giggling and blind.
Then Summers was there, suddenly, slipping past Jensen’s other side and up ahead, palming Jensen’s room key as she went. By the time Cougar had the giant lump in front of the right door, it was already open, Summers standing in the doorway, waving them through.
She was still in the jeans and t-shirt she’d worn for the mission today and her hair was a complete mess. Her cheeks were bright red from laughter and alcohol and her grin was too wide to pass for sober.
Jensen leaned forward to focus on her. “How are you still running around, little girl?” he asked, sounding honestly curious.
Her grin got brighter. “Haven’t you heard, I’m Wonder Woman.”
Jensen sighed and used Cougar to right himself before dramatically slumping on the bed. Cougar waved the blonde inside and then closed the door.
“Kicks ass,” Jensen mumbled to himself, “Puts Aisha in her place. Cooks food. Fights monsters. Knows comics. Holds her liquor. Marry me!”
He started patting the bedspread around him for his glasses and Cougar patiently turned them over to his boyfriend’s searching hands. Sometimes, he wondered why he couldn’t have gotten stuck with someone a little saner.
Summers turned to Cougar. “Was that seven or eight?”
“Proposals. Seven or eight. I lose track.”
Cougar, who had heard no more than four proposals out of Jensen, frowned. Summers watched him for a moment, then suddenly raised both hands, palms out. “Look, tell me if I’m reading this wrong, and I’ll be gone.”
Cougar blinked. Jensen made a questioning noise from the bed.
Reading this… Oh. Cougar had to admit, he hadn’t actually expected that she’d be the one to make a move. He’d been sure he’d just get up one morning to find Jensen in bed with her and then have to deal with it.
This was… unexpected. He shot a look at Jake.
Who was half sitting up, looking between them, suddenly a lot more alert.
Summers’ hand shot out, snagging Cougar by the jaw, turning his face back toward her. “Hey, no. I’m asking you, not him. He’s pretty damn obvious about this. So. Am I leaving?”
Cougar didn’t do her the disservice of blurting out an answer.
He thought about it. About care packages, thoughtfully packed by a complete stranger, about the candy stashes, about the stories, about breaking into her living room at three in the morning and receiving a warm welcome anyway, of the cabin in Montana, of Jensen’s obvious crush, of how she smiled and handled knives and had a spine made from diamond and steel.
He shook his head. “No. You’re not leaving.”
Her smile was radiant as she took a small step closer, tugging him down a little. He went, willingly.
“Uhm,” Jake asked, “Whatcha doin’?”
Summers – Buffy – stopped moving with their noses only a breath apart and looked at Jake. “Me? I’m kissing your boyfriend. Whatcha gonna do go about it?”
She winked at him.
And then she turned back to Cougar, stood on tiptoe and kissed him.
For a brief moment, Cougar held himself very still in shock. He had, somehow, up to this second, not believed she’d go through with it. They’d been flirting for months and they’d all known where they were headed but now it was happening and finally, Cougar kissed back.
It was a slow kiss, and sweet for a pair of special ops soldiers about to have a threesome, but Cougar was patient. He wanted this to be good.
Eventually they parted, Buffy planting a last, small kiss on his chin and then pulling back. She hummed in pleasure and then turned to look at Jake, who was sitting on the bed, fisting the bedspread, staring at them, slack-jawed.
“So?” she asked, sassily, one eyebrow raised.
Jake licked his lips, swallowed, shrugged. “Gimme a moment. My brain just broke.”
Buffy threw her head back and laughed and then apparently decided that a moment was too long to wait. She grabbed Cougar’s left hand – not his gun hand even though it was closer, he loved her a little for that – and pulled him forward. Once they reached the bed, she changed her grip on his hand to twine their fingers together and then climbed into Jake’s lap, knees on either side of his thighs.
She used her and Cougar’s joined hands to hold herself steady on Jake’s shoulder, and her other one to grab his neck and tilt his head toward her.
She kissed him the same way she had Cougar, and okay, he sort of understood why Jake had needed a moment to reboot his brain.
He finally came back online in time to hook his hands under the blonde’s thighs and pull her closer. Cougar put one knee on the bed, pressed into their sides and didn’t even try to reboot his own brain.
They didn’t even try to make Clay’s deadline at 1000 hours the next morning.