"Did you know that horses can't throw up? It's why so many of the critters die of colic. Awesome musculoskeletal system, shitty digestive system. It's probably for the best though. Can you imagine a puking horse? Fucking gross!"
There was no answer from either Roque or Cougar, which didn't deter Jensen in the least. He grunted a little, shifted the weight on his back, and recovered his narrative thread without losing a beat.
"Wouldn't it be totally cool if we had a horse? I always wanted one. Well, actually, I started out wanting a pony. I think it's a kid thing. Kids love horses. Beth wants a horse, and she's never seen one up close. We should totally take her to the petting zoo next time we're there, Cougar. She'll go nuts for the ponies. Do they have ponies at the petting zoo? Or do they have goats now? Think we can sell her a goat for a pony?"
"Yeah, you're right. She's not that stupid." Jensen sighed and cautiously picked his way around a broken tree trunk so sun-bleached it looked like some sort of bizarre skeleton. "There was a time she bought, like, everything I told her. Everything. Now she's doubting the tooth fairy. The tooth fairy! How does a six-year-old get so damn cynical? What's wrong with our world?"
That one bought him a disbelieving stare from beneath Cougar's hat brim.
Jensen chuckled breathlessly. "Yeah, except for the obvious."
He hunched over and shrugged carefully, redistributing Roque's weight across his shoulders. The back of his shirt was drenched; he wasn't sure if it was blood or sweat, but since Jensen had stopped sweating a few klicks back, it was probably blood. His or Roque's, it didn't matter. They were both pretty fucked up. Figured that Roque would get himself knocked out and make Jensen carry his lazy ass halfway across Afghanistan.
"You need a break."
Cougar was worried. Cougar was a worry-wart. Cougar was also right, but there wasn't much Jensen could do about it right then, so he laughed breathlessly and didn't stop. "No way, man, I'm good."
There was that look again, Cougar's "You're such a liar!" glare. It was the same look Cougar had given him when Jensen had declared that Roque looked heavier than he was, but, hell, what else could Jensen have said? It didn't make sense to let Cougar carry Fainty McFainterson. Roque was a big motherfucker; Jensen was six feet tall and Roque had at least three inches on him and weighed an estimated two-hundred pounds without his knives, most of it muscle. Cougar couldn't match that sopping wet and carrying his rifle plus ammo. Jensen didn't doubt Cougar would've managed somehow (probably dragging poor Roque by his ankles), but who would've covered their retreat then? Jensen's glasses had been the first casualty, and though it didn't make him quite as blind as he liked to make people believe, it still rendered his world fuzzy enough to make it hard to distinguish between a distant rock and a distant guerrilla fighter. No, better to let the somewhat banged-up hacker do the heavy lifting and the uninjured sniper do the sniping. Cougar knew it, too. It was what made him so damn crabby.
"I wish we had a horse," Jensen muttered mournfully. He stepped over a cluster of sharp-edged stones with all the speed and focus of a granny driving through rush hour in a strange city. They couldn't afford a misstep. If Jensen went down, he'd stay down. "Or a donkey. Did you know that donkeys don't shy and bolt? They're made for navigating tricky terrain, so they freeze up when there's danger instead of running off and breaking their legs."
Speaking of tricky terrain, the mountainside they were currently hiking down definitely qualified. Jensen's thigh muscles burned and ached with every step. He wasn't wearing socks and the boots he'd taken from one of their now dead captors chafed. He would've liked to think they felt slippery because his feet were sweating, but he knew better. Give it another day or so and he'd be leaving bloody boot prints.
Cougar had stopped ahead of them to scan their surroundings, eyes hidden in the shadow of his hat brim. He glanced back at Jensen and his lips tightened into a hard line. Jensen grinned weakly and tried to look lively. He must've failed, because the corners of that pretty mouth tugged downwards and Cougar turned away again. He was whispering something in Spanish, mingled curses and prayers from the sound of it. Feeling helpless and translating it into anger, because there was nothing he could do except for what he was already doing. Jensen understood the sentiment, irrational as it was. Cougar had saved both their asses. God knew how he'd found them after the unit had been separated; he must've hunted them down just like his namesake. It was all kinds of sexy, not that Jensen was about to admit it out loud. There was a difference between being completely head over heels with a teammate and letting said teammate know about it.
"That was some seriously badass shooting, by the way," Jensen praised, keeping his voice low and cheerful like he had for the past ten hours, grounding Cougar and himself because they were three Americans way deep in Taliban territory with their backup stuck in a military hospital too fucking far away to do them any good. Two of them were wounded, one of them unconscious, and they were so damn fucked. If Jensen stopped talking, Cougar would assume Jensen had reached the end of his tether, and he simply hadn't yet. Couldn't afford to give in to his body's demands and collapse, because it wasn't only his life on the line. Cougar couldn't carry Roque, much less Roque and Jensen. Cougar wouldn't leave them behind. If Jensen fell, they were all dead, so Jensen kept going with single-minded determination.
A stone slipped beneath Jensen's right foot and he stumbled, catching himself at the last second. Roque's weight shifted alarmingly, but Cougar was there in a flash and shoved his shoulder against their SIC's ass to get him back in position. The move came too sudden for Jensen to compensate in time and something that had already been weakened cracked in his chest. He clenched his jaws against the pain, kept it in, kept it hidden from Cougar's sharp eyes. There was nothing they could do about it.
"I got him," he gasped once he could speak again. "I got him. Thanks."
Cougar didn't move away. "Water break," he ordered, his voice a rough rasp, accent thick as tar with concern and exhaustion.
The few mouthfuls that were left in Cougar's canteen weren't going to make a difference and the thought of swallowing past the new damage made Jensen's belly knot, but he didn't object. He could keep up the light chatter, no problem, but arguing was another matter. "I'll have a coke," he quipped. "Lots of ice."
Something flashed through Cougar's eyes at that, too fast to identify, an emotion so strong it made those usually rock-steady hands tremble for a moment when he unscrewed the canteen. Most people wouldn't have noticed. Then again, most people thought Cougar was quiet because Cougar didn't care.
The water was warm and stale, no surprise there. Jensen rinsed his dry mouth first and had to admit it felt good. He hadn't done himself any favors when he'd kept talking. Cougar waited patiently, watching him like a hawk. No more stalling. Jensen closed his eyes and gulped. It hurt. He didn't dare look at Cougar, for there was no way Cougar had missed that wince, he just opened his mouth and tipped his chin up a little. It wasn't easier the second time. Jensen drank and exhaled, smelled blood on his breath and drank again. He didn't protest when Cougar made him swallow every last drop without taking anything for himself. He'd have done the same. The injured guy who carried the concussed heavyweight needed the liquid more than the mostly undamaged sniper who only carried his rifle.
When he opened his eyes again, Cougar was staring at him. He looked like his heart was breaking, but his gaze was steady as always. "Ready?" he asked.
"I was born ready, motherfucker," Jensen quoted, knowing the Blade reference would fly right over Cougar's head. Knowing it would make him roll his eyes anyway.
Cougar rolled his eyes.
Jensen smiled and got going again. "Did you know that when you drink ice water, you actually burn calories?"
They'd made it close to the Pakistani border when Jensen's body called it quits. He managed to croak out a warning before he was slowly sinking to the ground, Cougar's arms wrapped around him tightly, guiding him down. It was better than falling flat on his face and it definitely saved Roque quite a few additional bruises, but it sure as hell wasn't painless. Jensen came to rest on his knees and stayed there, swaying, only vaguely aware of Roque's weight being lifted off his shoulders. He sighed in relief and then his eyes rolled up as his system shut down.
The last thing he heard was Cougar's voice crying out his name.
Jensen woke up to the sound of someone retching pitifully. The sun was low in the sky, painting the barren mountains in shades of red and ochre. It had been mid-afternoon when he'd fallen. A few hours then. Enough rest, usually, when he wasn't hurt.
As it was, Jensen took careful inventory of his aches and pains before he even contemplated moving. He was propped up against something hard and reasonably smooth - a boulder maybe? – his back cushioned by something soft that smelled like Cougar. Breathing hurt in a way he associated with broken ribs. They'd likely been cracked before Cougar had slammed Roque's knee against them in his effort to keep the unconscious man from falling. Jensen's back burned and throbbed with every heartbeat, which was to be expected after the lashing he'd taken. The rest of him felt black and blue, his wrists and ankles were rubbed raw, his feet were beyond blistered, and he felt dizzy and weak like a kitten after a spin in the dryer. Getting up and walking out was going to be difficult.
He must've drifted off for a while, because the next thing he felt was cool, callused fingers on his face, checking his temperature. The disapproving cluck of a tongue told him Cougar wasn't happy with what he found. It was the incentive he needed to pry open his heavy lids and look at the other man. Now don't go blaming this on me, he wanted to say. It's definitely not my fault this time! What actually came out of his mouth sounded more like a tired, hoarse sort of "Owww..."
"He awake?" Roque asked from somewhere out of Jensen's immediate line of sight, which consisted of Cougar's face and a blurry slice of scenery.
Cougar studied him critically and frowned. "Kind of," was his verdict.
"...'m awake," Jensen slurred, offended by the implication that he might be doing anything halfway. "...'s our status...?"
"We're about ten klicks from the border," Roque's disembodied voice informed him. At least Jensen thought it was Roque. He sounded like somebody had stepped on him. "Looks like we weren't followed. We're armed and Cougar found us some water."
Roque, an optimist? Just how hard had they hit him over the head?
"You sound terrible," Jensen muttered, barely able to keep his eyes open anymore. God, he was tired. He wanted to sleep for a year.
Cougar turned away briefly then leaned in again, this time to press his canteen against Jensen's chapped lips. The water tasted awful. Cougar must've dumped in half a dozen of his water purification tablets to be on the safe side. He looked dog-tired, too, and downright grumpy. "Roque's got a concussion," he reported, since Roque seemed disinclined to share the bad news. "Bullet broke his leg." Which was plain overkill considering how they'd caned the soles of the man's feet. He wouldn't be walking anywhere anytime soon.
"Hey, I'm still alive," Roque threw in good-naturedly. "I'm not complaining."
"Wow." Jensen stared at their SIC, impressed. "You're cheerful."
"Concussion," Cougar repeated dourly and waved the canteen in front of Jensen's face to remind him of his duty. "You're both out of commission."
Jensen might've protested this assessment, but it took all of his concentration to slowly drink the water without choking or aggravating his injuries. Cougar kept a sharp eye on him, taking the canteen away every few swallows so Jensen could regroup and breathe through the waves of nausea that rose up with every tiny sip. He didn't even realize he'd closed his eyes until he opened them again and found both Cougar and Roque hovering with identical looks of concern. Damn it. He must be worse off than he'd thought.
"Oh shit, I'm gonna die, aren't I?" he blurted out, because damn, this was not a good time to kick the bucket. "Jenna's gonna kill me." He hesitated, his feverish mind pointing out the correct order of priorities. "Clay's gonna kill me. And I still owe Pooch a twenty." Come to think of it, he also owed Roque a new knife, but Roque was probably going to die as well, so Jensen figured he was good on that front.
"You're not going to die," Cougar told him, somewhere between determined and irritable. It was a fine line, but he walked it well.
"I'm not?" Jensen asked, skeptically. "Why's Roque look like he's about to start bawling then?"
Cougar rolled his eyes. "Concussion," he reminded them.
Roque glared at them both, which greatly reassured Jensen. "I'm not about to cry," Roque snarled, somewhat defensively. "I'm fucking seeing two of you."
"Oh." Jensen nodded his understanding. "Must be awesome. No wonder you're all teary-eyed."
He could've sworn Roque gasped a little in outrage, but wasn't suicidal enough to make much of it. He did add a point to his mental tally, which brought the score to Jensen 53, Roque 8. One of these days, he was going to make Roque's head explode. Better yet, he'd made Cougar smile – well, smirk – and that was always worth a bad joke or three. Jensen was addicted to Cougar's smiles and Cougar, who wasn't known for being accommodating normally, had turned into quite the enabler.
Jensen dozed after that, skirting the edge of sleep but never crossing over completely. He could tell the sun's passage by the way the shadows started to take over their position, the heat of the day slipping away into the chill of evening. Roque went to puke some more. Cougar disappeared to do his thing and secure the perimeter, but someone was always with Jensen.
Sometimes, the two of them talked in hushed tones; mostly it was Roque. Apparently, he felt the need to fill Cougar in on the parts he'd missed before he'd come riding to the rescue. Jensen didn't pay a whole lot of attention. He'd been there, after all. Had it been up to him, he'd have buried it all and never mentioned it again, but sooner or later he'd have to give his report to the colonel and likely a high-clearance shrink, because military protocol had been devised by voyeuristic vultures, obviously. Wasn't like anybody could learn from their mistakes: a fucking chopper crash was a fucking chopper crash and Roque and Jensen had done the only thing they could've done by drawing the enemy away from their wounded comrades. They could've been killed. They'd been captured instead. It had been both tough luck, because torture was never fun, and good luck, because hey, they had a Cougar to get them out.
At one point, someone pawed at Jensen's face again. Big hand. Very big. Roque. The hand lingered long after Roque must've confirmed that, yes, Jensen was burning up. It cooled Jensen's aching head and stroked his blood- and sweat-matted hair. Jensen might've made a joke about Roque's previously undiscovered motherly tendencies, but he felt like crap and the gentle touches were unexpectedly soothing. Truth was he didn't want Roque to stop.
Cougar came back and settled down next to Jensen. He'd collected more water and spent a ridiculous amount of time dribbling some of it down Jensen's raw throat, all the while talking in Spanish, a steady stream of words that would've astounded most other people, but made neither Jensen nor Roque raise so much as an eyebrow. Jensen was hurt, unable to fill the silence and keep all their demons at bay, so Cougar took over without thinking about it twice. It was how the Losers operated.
When darkness fell, Roque snuggled closer to Jensen in a very manly way and was asleep within minutes. The bulk of his body held off the cold and made Jensen feel stupidly safe. Cougar chuckled quietly and launched into a story about a wild night out in Argentina and how he'd found Roque cuddling Clay the next morning. Jensen smiled and listened. He drifted off a bit, came back awake, drifted off again. Whenever he breached the surface, Cougar was there, wide awake and watching over them. Sometimes he was talking, his voice low and gravelly with exertion; sometimes he was silent, a tense shadow at Jensen's side, listening, staring into the night, weapon at the ready.
It must've been past midnight when Jensen felt Cougar's fingers on his skin, a gentle press against his jugular. Making sure he was still alive. Cougar kept his hand there, resting against Jensen's thready pulse, slowing his own breaths until they matched the rhythm of Jensen's heart. His voice was a whisper in the dark, a glimmer of Mexican heat in the cold of the Afghan night. "Don't die. Don't leave me. Don't leave me."
Over and over and over again.
The next morning, Roque was feverish, too. Cougar muttered something unflattering under his breath and slapped a wet bandana over his forehead. Florence Nightingale he wasn't.
"You gotta go, Lassie," Roque told him, in between shivering and sweating. "Get help. I'll watch Timmy."
Jensen was never going to let him live this down. Ever. Also, the expression on Cougar's face when Roque called him "Lassie"? Priceless.
"I'm staying," was all Cougar had to say about it though.
And that was that.
By noon, the combination of wound infection and concussion had Roque rambling and glassy-eyed. He ranted about a spaghetti conspiracy, waxed poetry about a set of throwing knives he'd seen in a shop in El Paso, and told them in detail just what he and Clay had gotten up to the last time Roque had gotten Clay stinking drunk. So much for DADT. Worse yet, so much for Clay being a toppy bastard.
Cougar was starting to flag, though he fought it with everything he had. He was still up and moving, but his reactions were slower, his eyes duller, lined with exhaustion. He couldn't focus on both their surroundings and his two injured teammates so he switched between playing nursemaid and sentry. It was wearing him down.
"Help me up," Jensen said finally, when it became clear that things were only going to get worse and they'd have to be their own cavalry.
Cougar shook his head. "No."
Jensen rubbed a hand over his face, slightly annoyed by the lack of beard he encountered. Neither he nor Cougar were blessed with an abundance of body hair, so how come people tended to call him "kid" and Cougar "sir"? It was unfair, was what it was. It also wasn't a good sign that he was going off on tangents like this. "They're not gonna find us here, Cougs."
Cougar shot him a stubborn look.
"It's... what? Ten klicks to the border? That's a lazy morning jog. We can make it." They'd have to make another five to the secondary rendezvous, but Jensen didn't doubt Clay was waiting there. Might even meet them halfway, if they were lucky. No way was Clay still hospitalized. No way had he died, and neither had Pooch. Uh-uh. Not an option. Fifteen klicks, tops. That wasn't even ten miles. He could totally do that.
"Broken ribs," Cougar growled, glaring like it was Jensen's fault. "Infected back. Your feet were bleeding."
Jensen ground his teeth. Trust Cougar to make things difficult. Well, Jensen didn't have the strength left to convince and cajole. He glared right back at Cougar and stabbed a finger at Roque to emphasize his point. "Concussion. Infected gunshot wound. Broken leg. Broken fucking feet. We both need a fucking hospital. Difference is, I can still walk. In a few hours, that's gonna change. We need to make a move, man, and we need to make it now."
He could see that Cougar got it. Jensen wasn't telling him anything new. They couldn't stay. Cougar couldn't carry them out. Clay might have a good idea about where to start looking, but he'd have a hell of a time finding them and they couldn't risk a signal while in enemy territory. Cougar knew their only chance was to leave while Jensen was lucid. He also knew what it would do to Jensen to lug two hundred pounds of delirious Roque across the border, and that was the problem.
"Help me up," Jensen repeated softly. "C'mon, Carlos. Ayúdeme. I can't do this alone. I need you." He swallowed, let himself ramble just a bit. "I heard you last night. I feel the same. And I don't want to leave. I don't. You know that, right? I don't ever want to leave you, but I won't have a choice, if we don't get to a doctor soon. I can do this. Let me do this. Please."
It was a low blow and a long shot, to play on emotions he thought were there (don't die don't leave me don't leave me and that voice, oh God, Cougar's voice), wanted to be there, but something broke in Cougar's gaze. Jensen should've felt elated. He'd been right. He wasn't alone in this, wasn't the only one who'd crossed the line between brother in arms and something else, something much more dangerous. It didn't bring him any joy. It was a shitty thing to do, to call Cougar on this hidden emotion between them in order to make him do something that would hurt them both.
The hard line of Cougar's mouth told Jensen that Cougar was well aware of being manipulated, but Cougar still crouched down and wrapped his arms around Jensen, careful not to jar him too badly when he helped the wounded man to his knees. It was much more difficult to get Roque in position, because this time Roque was awake, if not really aware, and he yelped in pain and flailed when Cougar forced him up and over Jensen's broad shoulders. There went the knee again, smack against Jensen's broken ribs. The squashed sound of pain that slipped past Jensen's defenses made Cougar flinch like he'd been slapped. Fortunately, it also cut through Roque's fussing and made him go still.
"Jensen?" Roque whispered, one fever-hot hand patting clumsily at Jensen's face. "You okay, bro?"
The first few replies that came to mind would've been cathartic but cruel, considering that Roque hadn't hit him on purpose. "Imma be fine," Jensen wheezed, focusing on a pretty stone a few feet away so he wouldn't get drawn in by the black swirls at the edge of his vision. "Just... hold still. Please, please hold still, okay, Roque?"
The tension in his voice must've helped Roque fight past the confusion, because his tone grew sharper and much more aware. "What are you doing, Jensen?" Roque shifted then, minutely. He froze immediately when Cougar stepped in to hold him steady. "Shit. Shit. Jensen! You fucking lunatic. You're gonna drive those fucking ribs right through your fucking lung, you fuckwit! Let me the fuck down!"
"Yeah, not gonna happen," Jensen gasped. "Cougar?"
Cougar, white-faced and tense as a bowstring, popped into his field of vision and helped him get a good grip on Roque, then supported both Jensen and his cussing charge when Jensen slowly got his feet under him and stood. It didn't feel good. Matter of fact, for a second or so Jensen thought he might just crumple like a wet lump of sugar. He swayed precariously and Roque made a sound almost like a squeak, which would've been funny if Jensen's ribs hadn't felt like ground glass.
"Damn it," he breathed faintly, and blinked hard in an effort to beat back the black. "This looks easier on TV. I think I'm gonna keel over now."
Naturally, that was when Cougar decided to fuck subtlety and angsting around the subject and moved in to plant a wet one on Jensen. With tongue. And teeth. He leaned back a little while doing it and Jensen followed blindly, and then he was standing, nicely balanced, pain forgotten because Cougar was an amazing kisser.
Roque cleared his throat against Jensen's shoulder. "He's got it now, Cougs. Thanks. You can stop it with the tonsil hockey." There was a long pause that Cougar used to do some truly spectacular things to Jensen's mouth. Roque whined. "I really don't need to see this. Hey! Stop it, you fuckers, I'm right here!"
Roque would've made a good DI; the fucker was loud. Jensen and Cougar drifted apart slowly, Cougar's hands warm and steadying on Jensen's arm and hip. Jensen breathed carefully. His lips tingled. He wanted to stay like this, just like this, with Cougar practically glued to his front and Roque safe in his grip, alive and well enough to complain about the floor show.
"You good?" Cougar asked, low and intimate, the brim of his battered cowboy hat brushing lightly against Jensen's forehead. There was a second's hesitation then Cougar reached up and took it off to place it on Jensen's head instead. Jensen blinked, utterly astonished and frankly a bit terrified. He was wearing Cougar's hat. Surely the world was going to end any second now.
Roque nudged Jensen's shoulder with his chin before Jensen could say anything stupid, proving once again he knew them all very well. "No jokes, Jensen. Can you do this or not?"
Like he had a choice.
"Let's go." He got a quick kiss for that, chaste and sweet, and it gave him the courage to move, set one foot in front of the other even though his body wanted to curl up and die. "Lead on, McCougar," he told Cougar, which was short for get in front of me and pick the easiest path, 'cause I won't be able to do it myself, and just before he started walking, he warned Roque, "If you say one more word about Clay's tight ass or the spaghetti empire, I'll drop you on your head, capice?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Roque muttered, primarily to cover up his grunt of pain when Jensen got going, "but I vote we edit our reports. Give them the Cliffs Notes version."
"Yeah," Jensen sighed, "I think that'd be for the best."
Four queers in a unit of five? Nobody was going to believe that anyway.
Cougar took point, moving at a slow, steady pace as he led them down the least difficult route he could find. It didn't even qualify as a donkey trail, but Jensen was too far gone to comment on it. He felt like he was trapped in a nightmare. Roque was heavy and unwieldy though he tried not to move around and make things harder for Jensen. He didn't talk at all, probably because he was struggling not to throw up. Jensen appreciated it. He'd rather not be covered in Roque-puke on top of everything else.
After a while though, Jensen forgot that Roque was Roque. He was carrying a Package. The Package was important. It had to be perfectly balanced or it'd slip and pull him down with it. Jensen's mission was to keep the Package stabilized and to follow the Boots. The Boots were important, too. He took great care to step exactly where the Boots went, because only the Boots knew the way. The world around him was hot and bright, the air like razorblades in his lungs, and the sun-soaked rocks around radiated heat that bled through the rubber soles of his boots and set his feet on fire. He couldn't see anything beyond the Boots and the narrow strip of ground that separated him from them. His limbs felt weighed down, muscles overtired, every step an uphill battle. His fingers were gripping the Package so hard the knuckles were white and aching. He couldn't move them anymore, they'd become something mechanic, a metal clasp, a safety catch. There was something wrong with his back; it itched terribly, turned hot and cold in the blink of an eye, and it was wet. The wetness was too much for his shirt to hold, it dripped down his spine and into the crack of his ass, soaked his pants legs.
There was a taste in his mouth, like copper and salt, but beneath it there was the memory of a different taste, a new taste; of a good kind of slickness and of intimate caresses. It kept him going like the Mission, like the Boots and the Package.
Once, the Package convulsed and made terrible sounds. The Boots stopped, so Jensen stopped, stood patiently while the man wearing the Boots (Cougar. Carlos. Teammatefriendohgodpleasemore.) did something with the Package. There was a sudden rush of liquid down Jensen's arm, thin and stinking. The sounds (gagging, hacking, spitting) continued for a while as Jensen swayed gently, back and forth, back and forth. Everything spun around him, the Boots were gone, busy at his side instead in front, and Jensen stared off into the middle distance, totally focused on staying on his feet and keeping the Package balanced across his shoulders. The Package tried to curl up around his neck, jammed a bony knee into his side, and it hurt, God, it hurt so bad, he almost fell, couldn't breathe, saw nothing but black and white stars.
He couldn't tell how long that went on, but eventually the pain receded. The Package was still. The Boots reappeared. The man (Cougar. Cougs. Wantneeddon'tleaveplease.) said something to him, but Jensen couldn't hear anything over the buzzing in his ears. Cougar seemed agitated by Jensen's lack of reaction, but there was nothing Jensen could do about that. He couldn't spare the energy.
A hand touched his face, his lips. Begging without words. He pressed a dry kiss against the fingers. The fingers slipped away. The Boots started walking again.
"Stop. Jensen, stop."
Had the Boots stopped? Jensen couldn't tell. His vision had tunneled some time (hours? days?) before, blackness all around, just a grayish bit of focus left that showed him the heels of the Boots and where to set his feet so he wouldn't stumble, wouldn't drop the Package.
"Jake. Jake, stop. Stop, novio."
Cougar. Jensen came to a halt obediently. He thought he heard voices over the rushing of blood in his ears, the slightly irregular whoosh whoosh he'd come to recognize as his heartbeat. They faded in and out, some familiar, some not. He tried to listen, but he only caught fragments.
"...he carry him all this way? Are you telling me..."
"...help me, damn it... need to... fuck!"
The Package shifted and Jensen tightened his hold instinctively and compensated with a shaky sidestep. He lowered his head and rounded his shoulders, but the weight kept slipping and he didn't know how long he'd be able to hold on.
"...let go. Jensen, let go. It's all right, son, we got him. You can let go now, Jensen."
"Shit, his hand. He can't..."
They pried at his fingers, but they wouldn't open. He wondered distantly if they'd have to break them, figured it didn't really matter. He'd stopped feeling the pain long ago. Then Cougar was there, right against Jensen, solid like nothing else. Cougar's fingers rubbed at Jensen's, coaxed them loose bit by bit, held them so they wouldn't snap closed again the second the Package (Roque. Roque had puked on him.) was moved. Cougar held on to the front of Jensen's shirt so he wouldn't tilt over backwards when the Package (Roque, damn it. Roque didn't like spaghetti. Roque had maybe died.) was carefully pulled free, lifted from Jensen's hold, taken away.
"Jesus, kid. What've you done to yourself?"
Nothing. He had done nothing. Other people had done it to him, hurt him and touched him, tried to break him, but he'd never broken before, hadn't broken this time either. Though something might've broken after all, because there was a grinding, sliding sensation deep in his chest that wasn't supposed to be, a hot, ticklish wetness all over his back.
No more Package, no more Boots, no more Mission. Jensen felt light as a feather. Whoopee. He was gonna fly. Look at him go. No reason to yell so much, Clay. No reason to look so scared, Cougar. He could finally see the sky again.
It was black.
Someone was talking, and it wasn't Jensen.
He tried to listen, because if somebody else was talking it meant they might be saying something important, but the bits and pieces didn't make sense. Except that whoever was rambling on there apparently had an intense dislike for pasta.
For some reason, that made him think of Roque, but then his back started to itch again and Jensen let himself sink back into the darkness before discomfort could turn to hurt. He had it with being hurt.
Someone was poking him.
He tried to move away or swat at the annoying bastard, but he couldn't. He felt like he was trapped in sand, unable to so much as twitch a finger. The poking kept up for a while, persistent. It didn't hurt, but it irritated the hell out of him. It was a "You're late, everybody's here and accounted for, move your butt, soldier!" kind of poking. Funny, how much meaning some people could pack into one disapproving finger.
Five more minutes, Clay.
Someone was cleaning engine parts next to him, again.
The cleaning solution smelled bad, and the scritch scritch of the brush against metal wasn't even a step above fingernails on a chalkboard. He hated that. Worse, Pooch knew he hated it. What was this, Pester Jensen Day? He was going to give the fucker a piece of his mind. They'd had this conversation, damn it!
But the bed was soft and – bothersome hobbies aside – Pooch's presence was comforting. Jensen slept like a baby.
Cougar was looking at him.
It was a very distinctive "Acknowledge me!" look. Jensen was extremely familiar with this particular kind of Cougar stare, because he woke up to it a lot. Worked better than an alarm clock, if you asked him. Hell, it worked better than a homing signal. Jensen could feel a Cougar-stare all the way across a crowded market place and follow it to its source before he'd even spotted the hat. It was all kinds of awesome as well as slightly disturbing. It was also why Cougar had become the designated Jensen-sitter. Jensen would've complained, but, well. Spending most of his time with the coolest guy to ever wear a cowboy hat? Not a hardship.
"Morning," he said and opened his eyes.
Actually, "Mmmrrhhhh...," he murmured and blinked like a drugged owl.
The unreasonably bright neon lights dimmed, eclipsed by Cougar's head, the brim of his hat like a black halo around the familiar face. Dark eyes studied Jensen critically.
"...hi." Jensen was proud of himself. A coherent word! Things were looking up. Give him another hour or so and he'd move a finger. Or maybe a toe. But most likely a finger. Fingers trumped toes any day.
Cougar raised an eyebrow.
Jensen blinked again and tried to remember where exactly he was and how he'd gotten there. The only things he could come up with were a dim memory of walking a lot and a strange craving for spaghetti. He cleared his throat, which seemed to be Cougar's cue to shove a sliver of ice between his lips. Jensen sucked on it obediently. He had to admit it felt good and it helped get rid of the slimy, post-medication film in his gullet. So he smiled.
It must've been the world's best smile, because Cougar leaned in and kissed him so passionately the ice chip dissolved like a snowflake in hell and Jensen popped an instant boner.
Jensen was totally okay with that.
They'd been shot down on their way back after a successful mission. Bad luck more than anything, really.
Pooch's flying had saved their asses, but a helicopter crash wasn't a cushy off-field landing. Pooch had broken his left tibia. Clay had damn near broken his head.
Then they'd been attacked, which admittedly was an occupational hazard in their line of work and didn't come as a surprise. The "shot down" bit had been a decent forewarning.
They'd done the math. Two men down and not enough cover to keep them safe. They'd needed to draw the enemy fire away from the wreck, take the fight into the mountains. Cougar was their medic; Cougar had to stay and take care of their wounded until help arrived. Roque and Jensen were comparatively undamaged and quite frankly best suited for this particular type of warfare anyway. They'd slammed through the first line of attack like a pair of Rottweilers dropped into a chicken coop. Of course, in Afghanistan, even the chickens were armed. Not that these particular Rottweilers had cared. They'd killed their way halfway across a mountainside before they'd lost momentum.
The only surprise had been that they'd been taken alive. They'd been dragged back to a bombed-out village in one of the many forgotten valleys. Jensen, who spoke Dari, had riled his captors until they snapped and decided to have some fun with him before the execution. He'd been stripped naked, tied down, whipped and apparently threatened with sexual assault. Roque had strongly objected to the treatment of his teammate and since his hands had been tied behind his back, he'd kicked the whip-wielder in the face. It had bought Jensen a little time while they'd wrangled Roque down, took his boots, and caned his feet.
That was about the time when Cougar had found them and started shooting everyone who wasn't a Loser. Chaos had followed, and a brief but intense hostage situation that had ended bloody for everybody involved. Jensen had gotten hold of the man who'd broken Roque's feet and snapped his neck then barely evaded getting shot by diving into a bomb crater, which hadn't done his ribs any good. Roque had stabbed another man to death with a piece of shrapnel and gotten shot in the leg for his trouble and then knocked out with a rifle butt, which had resulted in a broken thigh bone and the mother of all concussions.
Their exit had been a hasty one. Their march across two mountain passes not so much, though they'd made good time considering that Jensen had carried Roque the entire way. The last seven miles, he'd pushed on feverish and dehydrated, with broken ribs, festering wounds, and abraded feet.
It had all been very heroic. If their mission hadn't been so completely classified, they'd have gotten medals for sure. Clay was proud of them and would maybe even admit it in another twenty years or so, provided they got him drunk enough.
Jensen was suitably impressed.
He still remembered nothing of it except for the press of Cougar's lips against his own and Cougar's voice whispering a steady litany of Don't die. Don't leave me. Don't leave me. As if he ever would. Hello. Genius-level smart here.
Two days passed in relative quiet. Roque was off terrorizing the orthopedics ward. Jensen slept a lot and tried very hard not to dream. Mostly, he was successful. Then one bright and sunny morning (noon, really, not that it made a difference in the endless monotony of a hospital room), he opened his eyes and found Clay sitting in the chair next to his bed, rumpled, unshaven, and looking harassed.
Jensen glanced down at the laptop still humming away peacefully in his lap. He'd slept long enough that it had switched into sleep mode as well, thank God. He still closed the lid as nonchalantly as possible and put it away, just in case. Clay's stare intensified. Jensen sat up straighter until he was as close to being at attention as he could be, given his overall condition. He hadn't done anything too illegal recently, right? Except for... uh. And maybe... damn. How had the colonel found out? Had he found out? No preemptive apologies, Jensen thought, resolute. That's how he'd gotten caught the last time. Clay was scary good at getting confessions out of his men with nothing but the force of his disapproval.
The silence stretched until Jensen was prepared for just about anything, but somehow Clay still managed to throw him a curveball. He leaned forward in his chair, dark eyes sharp and narrowed, drilling holes in Jensen's determination not to crack this time.
"Do you know why we have a DADT policy?"
Jensen's mouth – already open to explain and defend his deeds – clicked shut again. Was that a trick question? "Uhm... because despite all efforts of the more liberal voices in our so-called civilized society, the leading social and political powers are deeply mired in their conservative and extremely homophobic thinking?"
Clay blinked, momentarily rendered speechless.
Jensen blinked back, honestly at a loss.
"No," Clay said finally, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He probably had a headache. He seemed to get those a lot around Jensen. "It's for my personal peace of mind."
Okay. Now that... didn't make a lick of sense. "You lost me," Jensen admitted. He reached up and adjusted his glasses. Maybe seeing clearer would help him decipher Clay's non-sequiturs.
"I don't give a flying fuck about your sexual orientation," Clay clarified with a scowl. "This is called covert ops for a reason. As long as you do your job and don't fuck up the team dynamics, it's none of my business."
That didn't help.
"...okay?" Jensen offered helplessly. Was this Clay's version of giving him his blessing and Cougar's hand in marriage?
Stranger things had happened.
"Then do something about Cougar, goddamnit!" Clay snapped, ruining the moment and totally blowing Jensen's sweet little fantasy out of the water. "The fucker's gloating, for Christ's sake!"
What the fuck? "Excuse me?"
Clay snorted, somewhere between irritated and amused. "Got drunk as a skunk last night and told me all about how his badass totally pwned my badass. What the fuck does 'pwned' mean? What have you done to my sniper, Jensen?"
Jensen was delighted. "Aw, Clay. He actually listens to me. I had no idea!"
"Listens?" Clay snorted. "He's been quoting you verbatim for the past two years whenever one of us pissed him off."
Clay smirked, that infuriating "and this is why I'm the boss" kind of grin that showed off his dimples and usually made Roque do stupid things. "What, you didn't know?"
"Uhm," said Jensen, unusually eloquent.
Clay's grin widened. "Why d'you think we don't let him get drunk?"
That one used to be easy. "'cause he can drink us all under the table and still fleece you at poker?"
Clay winced. "Yeah. That, too. But mostly the fucker tells Jensen stories. In Spanish, if we're lucky. It's embarrassing."
Which was when Jensen's brain finally kicked back in. His eyes narrowed. "Wait," he said. "This isn't an intervention. You're tattling."
Unsurprisingly, Clay was unrepentant. "I don't give a shit what you call it. Make him stop, Jensen."
There were about a million answers Jensen could think of, starting with "Cougar thinks I'm awesome, your argument is invalid!" to "Does that mean I have your blessing?", but in the end, he was too overwhelmed by the implications to be able to get out anything beyond, "Yes, sir."
It seemed to satisfy Clay. Hell, it satisfied Jensen. So much.
Cougar thought he was awesome. Man, Jensen would've dragged the chopper across those mountains had he known Cougar's admiration was a distant possibility. This? Better than his wildest dreams.
If Cougar was hung-over when he came to visit Jensen, it certainly didn't show. He flopped down on the chair Clay had occupied earlier and pushed up the brim of his hat to give Jensen an expectant stare.
"Fever's down, cuts are looking good, lung's fine. The doctor says I'll be out of here tomorrow," Jensen reported dutifully.
Cougar smiled, satisfied, and made to put his legs up on Jensen's bed.
"So, is this gonna be a long-term relationship type of thing or are you just looking for a fuck buddy?" Jensen blurted out, unable to hold it back any longer.
Cougar jerked in surprise. His boot heel slipped off the mattress and thumped down on the floor just in time to keep him from falling over. It was as close to flailing as Cougar got. Jensen thought it was adorable; he'd never seen Cougar so ruffled. He still wanted to hear the words though. This was serious and he needed to know where he stood.
Wide-eyed and scandalized, Cougar nevertheless managed to deliver. "Long-term," he rasped, and then, apparently without thinking, "Para siempre."
Something ached when Jensen heard those words, an unexpected, dull pain that made his smile fade and caused him to reach up unconsciously and press a hand to his damaged ribs. Wasn't that kind of hurt, of course, because that would've been too easy. Forever? Nobody wanted forever with Jensen. Poor Cougar had no idea what he was getting into, how damaged Jensen was beneath the smiles and the cockiness. Then again, Cougar might be the only one who had an inkling. They'd spent the better part of three years now attached at the hip, seen a fair share of each other's physical and emotional scars. Cougar had seen Jensen kill in cold blood and red hot fury, had been there in the aftermath of brutal interrogations and quietly watched Jensen pull himself together again shard by razor-edged shard. He'd stitched him up and gotten him drunk, or sat next to him in silence when Jensen needed it, lending his strength whenever Jensen's wavered.
"Forever's a long time, man."
It was the only warning Jensen could formulate. He wanted this, had wanted Cougar for so long he didn't remember how it felt not to need him like air. He knew it was probably going to end badly, bloody, could sense it like a storm brewing on the horizon, but he didn't care. His sister and niece were the innocent ideal that kept his moral compass pointing to true north. Cougar though, Cougar was right there with him in the fire. Cougar kept him sane. If Cougar wanted him back, Jensen wasn't going to fight it.
Cougar smirked. "Scared?"
And just like that, it was alright. The corners of Jensen's mouth twitched then lifted in what felt like a brilliant and somewhat stupid smile. "Clay says you're not allowed to get drunk and tell stories about me anymore."
Cougar merely sniffed disdainfully. He lifted his long legs and rested them on Jensen's bed, crossed at the ankles. The angle made it easy for him to reach out with his right arm and snatch up Jensen's hand to intertwine their fingers. "Clay can go fuck himself," he grunted, sliding down a little in his chair and lowering the hat over his face. He was clearly settling in for the duration.
"You're such a girl," Jensen chuckled, affectionately. Who would've thought Cougar would go for the whole enchilada, PDAs and everything?
One dark eye opened to give Jensen a thorough once-over. Cougar's thumb stroked over Jensen's pulse point, a tiny, barely-there caress that made Jensen shiver. "Soy tuyo," he said, as if that were self-evident.
Maybe it was.
"Wake me when it's time to go," Jensen murmured. He fell asleep with a big, stupid smile on his face and his fingers still tangled with Cougar's.