Miracles happen every day. Stillborn babies suddenly cough and breathe and cry. Devastating storms skip right over houses and towns. Women lift cars off their children and men survive falling off buildings.
Mostly any miracles that involve the Losers get chalked up to skill, bravado, or Fate’s bitchy sense of humor. Jensen once jumped out a window, managed to miss the dumpster of rusted scrap metal in favor of the bin of cardboard—only to give himself the mother of all concussions when his pant leg caught on the edge of the bin as he was getting out. Pooch has a record of finding exactly the vehicle they needed (or he wanted), only for it to come to a fiery, dismal end.
As for Cougar, he counted being able to drag himself to a bunker just before a nuke went off to be something of a miracle. In true Losers fashion, he expected he had maybe five minutes before his lung finally collapsed.
That was fine. Fuck, he wasn’t just going to give up, no matter how much easier it would be. God was going to put a bunker in crawling distance, he’d go ahead and crawl.
When the shockwave made his ears pop and knocked him out, he figured that was just about the best thing he could hope for.
It meant Jensen had listened, and hadn’t been stupid enough to come back, and that was another precious little miracle.
Jensen and Pooch were safe, the bad guys were blown to hell, and he was finally—finally—going to die a decent death. Everything was going to be done, going to be over with. The kids in Afghanistan, and the crazy pendejos who just about ruined their lives, and the crazy puta who damn near finished the job…
Honestly, it was a relief. It felt like laying down a backpack full of bricks.
He awoke some indeterminate time later, to bright lights and beeping and a tube in his throat and an IV in his arm.
Thoughts of rebirth crossed his mind briefly, but he was sure that third chances at life didn’t really happen, and everything hurt, so this was probably hell.
A few nurses scuttled about, obviously military, but they didn’t sound American. They cranked his bed upright, checked his pupillary reactions, gave him a notepad and a pencil.
“Can’t extubate juuust yet,” said the fussy white woman who seemed to be the doctor on call. She had an accent—maybe British-educated near-east. “Not sure what shape your lungs are in. I’m Dr. Nasaad, head of the coma ward.”
He watched her as she picked up his chart from the foot of the bed and flipped through it. She had good, steady hands with short nails, and she held her pen like a scalpel—it was comforting, somehow, to be able to tick off the list of giveaways, to make sure she wasn’t some goddamn assassin.
“If I’m reading this file right, you are very lucky to be alive. UN rescue troops immediately sent a team to check all the emergency bunkers at ground zero of the detonation. You had a great fat hole in one lung and a nasty little bullet right under it. Managed to get that out and patch you up, but you didn’t show any signs of waking up until today.”
She scribbled things on his chart, eyed the beeping machines and the IV bag. Her hair was tied back neatly at the nape of her neck, and she smiled at him.
“I suppose you might like to know that it’s been almost five months since you were brought in. We couldn’t find any identification, so I’m afraid no one’s been notified, and you didn’t match against any of the MIA lists for the area. Ah, but don’t trouble yourself if you don’t remember; after all, your brain was out of oxygen for a bit.”
But he remembered all of it; he just didn’t tell her that.
He scrawled ‘thank you’ on the notepad.
It takes a week before Nasaad is ready to discharge him and starts to ask inconvenient questions.
He grabs his hat and vanishes while she’s responding to an emergency.
He lost a lot of muscle to that coma, and his lung capacity isn’t what it used to be, but he’ll do shit nobody else will do, and he’ll do it without bitching. There are a lot of odd jobs for a patient man who’ll work all day long and speaks English. It takes about a year to save up enough money and make the right contacts to get himself a clean passport and a flight back to the States.
He isn’t sure why he bothers, except that his oldest sister once told him that second and third chances were God’s way of saying ‘no mames, cabrón.’
For all he knows, everyone’s dead. For all he knows, Stegler let Max’s people get to Jolene and Jasmine and Ashley, to Beth and Holly.
As he steps out of the taxi in front of a little split-level in the heart of suburbia, he makes himself believe that even Fate isn’t enough of a bitch to spare him once again, only for everything he knew and loved to be gone.
He raises his eyes to the sky in a silent prayer, and rings the bell.
Jensen—no, Jake, it’s a whole house full of Jensens—answers the door.
They stare at one another for five seconds.
And then Jake bolts for the stairs, screaming something about the zombie apocalypse.
“Bethie, what the hell is your uncle on about now?” Holly calls from somewhere in the house.
“He said something about zombie boyfriends, and ‘the apocalypse is upon us,’” Beth replies, coming down the hall. “Sorry, my uncle’s kind of a spaz, and…”
She’s gotten tall, he notices. It’s been almost two years since he saw her, and she’s shot up twelve inches.
“Well, don’t just stand there like a stranger,” Holly says, catching her daughter by the shoulders and tugging her back indoors. “Come on in. And remember what I told you about hats in the house.”
It feels strange to be in this domestic space, to have left killing and conspiracies behind (he hopes), to be standing with the closest thing he has to family. He takes his hat off and holds it in his hands, fidgeting slightly while Holly closes the door behind him.
She steps back to look him up and down with that stern, long-suffering face she always gives the Losers. “You look good for dead,” she tells him. “Your hair’s gotten long. He’ll like that, assuming he ever forgives you.”
Jake runs back up the stairs with a shotgun in each hand and a flak helmet on his head. “Hols, Bethie, get behind me, it’s gonna eat your brains!”
“Oh-em-gee!” Beth shrieks, hugging Cougar around the middle. “Uncle Carlos is not a zombie, and if you shoot him, I’ll hate you forever!”
Slowly, Jake lowers one shotgun. With the other, he reaches out and prods Cougar’s shoulder. “Not a zombie?”
He shakes his head with a helpless grin.
“Ghost, lich, wight, wraith, or other form of undead?”
He raises his eyebrows and shakes his head again.
“Oh,” Jake says, suddenly sheepish. He carefully sets the shotguns down and puts his hands on his hips. “So you, uh…you’re late.”
“Oh, good. Right. And, uh…where’ve you been?”
“Oh.” Jake nods, but Cougar spies tension around his eyes and mouth. “So. What, you couldn’t…call, or write, or email, or telegram, or, or send a fucking carrier pigeon or something?” And Jake’s crying, and it breaks Cougar’s heart with guilt.
He glances down to Beth, presses his hat into her hands and nods just slightly in the direction of her room.
She gets the picture. Little feet thump away over the hardwood floor.
He reaches up and tugs the helmet off Jake’s head (it has ‘Brain-Guard 5000’ stenciled on it), sidles close like old times. “Lo siento, amor mio. Perdóname?”
Jake just gulps down tears and stares like he’s never seen Cougar before.
“Just kiss him already, Jacob,” Holly calls impatiently. “Supper’s almost ready, and God knows Cougar looks like he could use some real food.”
He wishes like hell she hadn’t said anything, because Jake stumbles back a step and looks away, hands fumbling at his glasses. “Supper, awesome, great, I’m starved, is that chicken pot pie I smell?” he babbles.
“Oye,” Cougar says tartly, hooking his thumbs into Jake’s belt loops. “I was in a coma for five fucking months, and then I spend more than a year raising money and making deals before I can get myself a plane ticket and a fucking little book of paper so they won’t arrest me at the fucking airport, and you think you gonna get away without kissing me?”
Jake blinks. “Hey, wow, I think that’s maybe the most words I’ve ever heard you put together in a period of less than, like, a week.”
“Béseme, idiota—” Cougar growls, steals his kiss. When Jake’s hands settle, one at his hip and one in his hair, it feels like coming home.
“God, you’re so skinny,” Jake mutters disapprovingly, leaning back to glance down and fit his hands around Cougar’s hips.
“Coma?” Cougar reminds him with an arched eyebrow.
“Well, we gotta fatten you back up, stat. I want my Latin bootie back. A task this epic is gonna require Jolene’s help, and you know her—she’ll stuff you full of soul food and say ‘baby, getchoo s’more o’ that chicken befo’ you turn sideways an’ we lose track o’ ya.’”
Cougar laughs, both because it’s ridiculous to hear Jake doing his Jolene-impression, and because it’s almost word-for-word the first thing the woman ever said to him (followed by a muttered remark about ‘damn scrawny little Mexicans’).
Jake makes a fragile little noise and hugs him tightly. “Missed you. Are you mad I didn’t come back?”
“Would’ve knocked your fucking teeth out,” Cougar sighs.
“How the hell did you survive that, anyway?”
“Save it for later, lovebirds,” Holly says. “Beth, supper! Wash those grubby little hands, and don’t you dare wear Cougar’s hat to the table.”
“Awww,” Beth whines down the hall.