Once, three months after Jensen joins the Losers, Roque shoots him a glare and tells him to shut the fuck up, for the love of God, can’t you please just shut up?
They’re camped in a makeshift military base somewhere in the ass-end of Pakistan, waiting for orders to move on a suspected arms convoy. It’s been six long, hot days of nothing, waiting for intel to come through and orders to be handed down so that they can get their asses in gear and just finish this damned mission already before they all go nuts.
It’s stressful and annoying, and Jensen’s never dealt especially well with being stressed and annoyed, and it’s possible he’s starting to shoot his mouth off a bit more than usual, but he can’t help it; it’s not like there’s anything else going on. Roque clearly disagrees.
“Seriously, kid, do you even know how to breathe without talking?”
And really, that’s just a stupid question, and it’s possible Jensen just said that out loud, because now Roque is looking like he maybe sorta kinda wants to kill Jensen, but Jensen knows he won’t actually do it. And shit, maybe he’s just said that, too.
“You keep blabbing, kid, and I might just end up fixing my boredom with a knife in your face.”
“Aww, c’mon, don’t be like that! Besides, you’re the one who took away my laptop. I mean, seriously, it wouldn’t keep me quiet, but at least I’d be distracted, and then I go all mumbly, you know that, and then you couldn’t hear me talking all this time! But no, you took it away and said I couldn’t use it until we actually got out there! So really, Roque, it’s your fault I’m still talking.”
Roque’s glare is sharp enough Jensen almost wonders if he should start checking himself for cuts, because seriously, why does Roque even bother with all the knives and shit if he can just whip out that stare. He could probably kill a man stone dead with that thing, and Jensen’s definitely not saying that one out loud, because Jesus Christ, the last thing he needs to do is give Roque ideas.
There’s a movement in the corner of his vision, and Jensen’s eyes flick to Cougar, just in time to see him shake his head, a tiny, nearly-motionless thing that Jensen’s sure no one else has noticed. But Jensen’s spent a long time learning to hold conversations with Cougar; he knows all his little ticks and shrugs and the multitudes of different tips of his hat, each of which means something different. It’s why Jensen likes Cougs so much, because, when it comes right down to it, the man talks nearly as much as Jensen does. He’s just a hell of a lot quieter about it.
Don't push it, Cougar means, with that tiny shake of his head.
Roque leans forward, and there’s something not quite right about the way he’s smiling, and Jensen feels his train of thought derail, and then Roque is speaking again.
* * *
Cougar’s always had good eyes, and he’s always been good at seeing things that other people miss. It’s what makes him a good sniper. It’s also why he prefers to stay silent so much of the time; when you’re quiet, people forget you’re there, and that lets you see the things they’d rather you didn’t.
He thinks, sometimes, that maybe that’s why Jensen talks so much; everyone gets so focused on his voice, on the meaningless things that pour from his mouth like water, that no one pays attention to the man, to the things he isn’t saying.
“You keep blabbing, kid,” Roque says, “and I might just end up fixin’ my boredom with a knife in your face.”
He’s got said knife in hand, tapping it against his thigh like he might actually cross the table at Jensen with it.
Cougar rolls his eyes, hidden behind his hat. He’s got Roque’s number, the measure of him; he’s had it for a long time. Roque’s a crazy motherfucker, really, and it’s something if a mystery to Cougar why Clay’s kept him around all this time, but then Clay doesn’t have Cougar’s eyes or his instincts. Cougar trusts Roque to have his back, so long as there’s a mission, an objective, things needing to be done. But times like this, when it’s downtime and there’s no action in play, Cougar keeps his guard up.
Jensen’s talking again, wide, shit-eating grin firmly in place, about how Roque took away his computer. Cougar would have happily installed the hacker in a corner somewhere and given him a pet project, some little program to create, or told him to try hacking into something harmless; the Playboy Club member registry, say. But Roque seemed to be under the impression that if he had to sit still and wait and be miserable, then so did everyone else.
“So really, Roque,” Jensen is saying, voice all bland passive aggression, “it’s your fault I’m still talking.”
“You know what I would love, Jensen?” Roque leans forward, knife dangling between his knees from loose fingertips. “I would really fucking love to go an entire day without hearing your fucking annoying voice. I would love to go for a whole day, a whole 24-fucking-hours without you sayin’ a damn word.”
He grins, and Cougar tenses slightly, because there’s something hinting at unhinged in the line of that grin. Roque doesn’t look away from Jensen. “That would be about the best fucking day ever.”
And Jensen’s smile goes sharp and just a little jagged at the edges as his eyes turn hard. “Trust me,” he says, and there’s a hint of iron in his voice, and that’s something new, something Cougar’s never heard, and it makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
“I ever stop talking, it won’t be pretty.”
* * *
When Jensen is eight, eight years old and still just Jake, he learns how to bandage broken skin, splint broken fingers, hide ugly, splotchy bruises with his mother’s forgotten makeup. He learns to count the empty bottles in the kitchen, learns to recognise the deeper fury underneath ever-present anger. He learns how to protect but never quite manages self-preservation.
Jessica is seven, younger and smaller and weaker, and right now she’s huddled in a corner, crying, trying to apologise, trying to say she’s sorry for her C- in math, she’s so sorry, she’ll do better, I promise, Daddy, I’m sorry!
“Get away from her!” Eight-year-old Jake yells, stands in the hall behind them and ignores the tears in his eyes, and yells. “Fuck you, old man, get the fuck away from her!”
His father turns, eyes red-rimmed with drink, belt still dangling from his fist as he looks away from his daughter and turns eyes on his son.
“What the fuck did you say to me, you little shit?”
“I said you’re old, and fat, and stupid, and I told you to get the fuck away from my sister!”
The crack of the belt across his cheek isn’t unexpected, but knowing it’s coming does nothing to ease the pain, the line of fire running across his cheek. He wonders, vaguely, if he’s bleeding. Then his father is swinging the belt again and Jake brings up his arm to block is, feeling the leather crack like fireworks across his skin.
He ducks, steps back, knowing, like always, that his father will follow as he turns tail and runs. His father stops when Jake reaches the front door, but Jake keeps running, down the block and around the corner until he reaches the park a few blocks away. Jess is waiting for him, tear-tracks drying in salty lines down her face when she stumbled out from behind the swings to catch him in a hug. This is how it always goes, with Jake hurting and running, and Jess cowering and running the moment their father’s back is turned.
Jake is eight and already he’s figured out that if he just talks for long enough, if he doesn’t shut up, if he makes himself a bigger, louder problem, eventually his father will turn on him instead. He thinks of his bruises and cuts and occasional broken bones, and he thinks it’s not too high a price to pay for not seeing them on his little sister.
* * *
A year and a half after Jensen joins the Losers, Cougar gets shot in a warehouse in a backwater hovel in Colombia.
They’ve taken a break from their normal routine, sending Cougar in undercover to gather intel, because the drug lords-turned-arms dealers that they’re supposed to be flushing out are paranoid little fuckers, and Cougar’s the only one of the five of them who looks like he might belong among dealers and gun-runners in this part of the world.
The rest of them are holed up in the remains of an old farmhouse a quarter mile farther up the hillside, hooked in with audio from the throat mic Cougar’s wearing, and video from the camera he’s got set up two hundred feet from the warehouse, rigged to a tree and strapped with one of Cougar’s rifle sights in lieu of a proper zoom lens.
Everything looks good for the first twenty minutes that Cougar’s in, posing as a mercenary in need of better equipment, speaking in rapid Spanish with five men all standing in a half-circle around him while two more guard the door.
The man in the middle seems to be the one in charge, clearly asking questions that Jensen can’t translate, relying on Cougar’s body language to tell him if there’s a problem. Cougar seems fine, relaxed, even, but Jensen knows him better than that; Cougar is never truly relaxed, not ever, but he seems fine here for now. He even gets them to laugh, once, and it’s such a rare, strange thing, and so odd given the context, that Jensen finds himself blinking, leaning forward just a bit so that he can better see Cougar’s grin on the grainy video feed.
Then the door opens and another man walks in, and everything goes to shit as the man hurries over to the leader’s side, yelling something in Spanish that has Cougar’s back tensing like a wire seconds before all eight men turn their guns on him at once.
Then there’s a flash on the screen and the video feed dissolves into static as someone shoots out their camera.
There’s still audio coming in from Cougar’s mic, voices shouting over each other, covering up any sound of Cougar, and Jensen may not understand Spanish but he doesn’t need to know what they’re saying when they’re clearly yelling threats. He’s got no way to contact Cougar, no way to know what’s going on, and he’s half out of his chair and turning to Clay for orders when he hears the shots and the sound of Cougar falling to the ground in the silence that follows.
There’s a moment where the world seems to slow, almost to a halt, and everything goes silent, all sound gone except for the ragged edge of Cougar’s breath across the comms channel. In that moment, Jensen sits, shocked into stillness, half-turned away from the still-crackling video feed, staring blankly at Clay without seeing him. He can feel the pounding of his heart in his chest, can hear the blood rushing in his ears, feels the tightness in his chest where he’s stopped breathing.
Then the world rushes back, lurching into motion, and Jensen rockets forward off his chair, pistol already in one hand, the other reaching for his rifle. Clay is barking orders, but they bounce around Jensen’s brain without making any sense; he doesn’t really care.
He’s out the door, ignoring Clay’s shouts behind him, and running down the hillside before he realises what he’s doing, and by then it’s too late. It seems like only seconds before he reaches the warehouse, breaking through the trees and onto open ground, startling the two guards standing the perimeter in front of him. He shoots them both without breaking his stride and lets the momentum of his run carry him past their bodies without a backward glance.
Behind him he can hear gunfire, Clay and Roque, and maybe even Pooch, clearing their way past the rest of the perimeter guards and onwards toward the warehouse. Jensen just keeps running.
Twenty feet to the door, which bursts open, expelling two more armed guards. They open fire and Jensen hears the bullets sing past him, but doesn’t slow. One of them manages a lucky shot, a line of fire slicing across Jensen’s shoulder where the bullet grazes him, but he barely feels it, too full of adrenaline to register anything except the way the guards’ eyes go wide when he doesn’t falter. He shoots the first one in the chest as he nears, then flings his arm out, cracking the butt of the rifle across the other’s temple, sending him sprawling onto the ground, unconscious and bleeding from the head.
By the time he’s reached the second set of doors, Roque and Clay have caught up with him. They flank him, skirting ahead to take up position on either side of the door. Clay nods, Roque kicks in the door, and Jensen is past them both and shooting the guards on the other side before he even realises he’s moved.
Later, when he replays it in his head, Jensen will remember looking around, taking in the room with only a moment’s glance. Later, he will remember that Cougar was already on the ground, thrown against a side wall with one man standing guard while the other five took cover behind the large desk and a couple of filing cabinets on the other side of the room.
At the time, all he remembers is that the man standing over Cougar keeled over suddenly, bleeding from the hole in his head. Then gunfire ripping past him as Jensen ducked back behind the doors, peering around the frame and watching as, one by one, the five men fell, bleeding to the floor.
He doesn’t really remember firing his gun, but Clay tells him later that all six kills were his. Jensen isn’t really sure how to take that. Still, when he thinks about it later, he remembers the way his heartbeat drowned out all noise, the way he could feel himself trembling except for his hands, the way his vision narrowed until he wasn’t aware of anything but what was right in front of him, passing over everything that wasn’t Cougar. And somehow, he’s not surprised.
The air goes still, the concrete walls still bouncing faint echoes, the sudden silence broken by the muffled cry of pain from where Cougar is still lying against the wall. Jensen crosses the room in two strides, dropping to his knees beside Cougar. There’s a bullet hole in his leg and another in shoulder, both seeping red into his clothes, and his eyes are glassy with pain. His hat lies on the ground next to him.
Jensen reaches out a trembling hand and lays it gently against Cougar’s uninjured shoulder, then sweeps it carefully down the man’s side and across his chest, checking for other wounds. There’s nothing urgent besides the two bullet wounds, which is good; the one in Cougar’s shoulder is a through-and-through, but the one in his leg is worryingly close to his femoral artery, and the bullet’s still lodged in there somewhere. Jensen reaches out and picks up Cougar’s hat, holding it awkwardly as he carefully folds Cougar into his arms, picking him up slowly to avoid causing him any more pain.
With Cougar half-lying against him, Jensen fumbles for the man’s scarf, ripping it in half. Cougar will probably yell at him later, by means of a very well-placed and scary-looking glare, but for right now Jensen needs the material so he can bandage the wounds enough to make it back to base. He doesn’t have the time or the tools to remove the bullet in Cougar’s leg himself; Cougar is most often their de-facto medic, and while Pooch is great with sprains and wrenched muscles and general patching-up, none of them are equipped to deal with minor surgery in the field.
Cougar cries out once, faintly, when Jensen stands, but he’s silent again by the time Jensen reaches Roque and Clay at the door. They glance at him, at Cougar, and Clay opens his mouth to speak but Jensen just walks right past him without a word. Cougar’s bleeding, obviously seriously injured, and they knew that before they went in, and Jensen’s already heading towards the trees, moving fast; that’s all the situation report Clay needs, and Jensen doesn’t feel like wasting time with useless words when Cougar is bleeding in his arms and they’re still too far from a hospital for Jensen’s comfort.
It takes him twenty minutes to get back to base, and Jensen can hear Clay and Roque muttering behind him all the way. He thinks maybe he catches his name once, but he doesn’t pay them any mind. He knows he’s acting strangely, and he knows they’ve noticed, but he doesn’t much care.
Pooch is waiting at base with the truck already running. He stares from the driver’s seat as Jensen carefully lays Cougar out on the back seat, trying not to jostle him. Cougar’s barely holding onto consciousness, his eyes rolling back and his forehead beaded with sweat.
He’s going into shock, Jensen thinks, and tries to ignore the way his pulse jackhammers at the thought, because he needs to stay calm, for Cougar’s sake. He takes a deep breath to steady himself a bit, and then folds himself in behind Cougar, leaning the other man’s back against his own chest and bracing him with his arms around Cougar’s chest, avoiding his injured shoulder, and his knees bracketing Cougar’s legs. The hat, still gripped on one hand, lays against Cougar’s stomach.
The truck rocks slightly as Roque steps up onto the truck bed, slumping down by the open window in the back of the cab while Clay climbs into the passenger side next to Pooch. He glances in the back, meeting Jensen’s eyes for a moment as he hands over the med kit. Then he looks away and turns to Pooch.
“Let’s get the hell out of here.”
The drive is tense, Jensen silent and occupied with trying his best to clean and bandage Cougar’s wounds while the truck bounces slightly on the road. Clay gives Pooch a quick run-down of the situation, which Jensen ignores despite hearing his name more than once, and then there’s nothing but the rush of the road going by and Cougar’s occasional tiny noises of pain. Jensen clenches his jaw and stares out the window and doesn’t let up his careful grip on Cougar.
At the hospital in town, Pooch volunteers to help Jensen get Cougar to what passes for the ER while Roque and Clay take the truck back to the warehouse to clean up and try to contact Command for instructions.
They support Cougar between them, although Jensen makes sure he takes most of the weight, still half-carrying Cougar on his own while Pooch hovers and helps hold his legs to avoid doing any further damage to the wound. The woman manning the tiny admissions desk doesn’t blink an eye at Cougar’s injuries, and, thankfully, doesn’t ask any questions.
“I have seen a lot of bullet holes in people,” she tells them in accented but clear English. “I don’t care what your story is; your friend is hurt, and you brought him here to get help. We don’t ask any more, we don’t get involved, everyone is better off.”
She pages a doctor, who arrives with two nurses in tow, and they carefully lift Cougar up onto a gurney and wheel him off to surgery, and they’re left with nothing but restless sitting in the tiny waiting area. They claim the two chairs closest to the door and settle in; Pooch settles sprawled in his seat, tipping his head back against the wall, but Jensen can’t sit still.
He leans forward, hands trembling and fingers twitching for a gun the way they’re always twitching for a keyboard. Except this time it’s not coding that’s running through his head, it’s all the ways the world won’t be the same if Cougar dies.
He’s not thinking about the men he’d killed, or the mission they’d probably botched by going in the way they did. He’s not thinking about the graze on his arm, bleeding slowly through his shirt. He sits in the waiting room, flingers playing along the edge of the cowboy hat in his hands, spinning it in slow circles.
Pooch notices, glancing at the hat first and then up at Jensen’s face, and there must be something of his thoughts showing in his expression because Pooch sighs, leaning forward, catching Jensen’s gaze, making him blink away from the empty stretch of wall he’d been blankly staring at. There’s an odd, almost thoughtful look on Pooch’s face, but all he says is, “He’s gonna be fine, you know that.”
Jensen nods, but doesn’t say anything.
Roque and Clay come back two hours later, wearing different clothes but still smelling faintly of gasoline and ash. For a moment Clay looks like he wants to say something, but Jensen sees Pooch shake his head slightly and Clay drops into a chair without a word.
Jensen tries not to be grateful; he knows that by now the others are starting to worry about him, what with his bizarre silence. But there’s a storm brewing in his head, worry and anger and desperate, clutching fear swirling in his head and crowding out everything else. There are words and images and memories, mis-matched and confusing, things he’s thought and things he’s tried not to think about, and he’s too afraid to open his mouth for fear of what he might say.
* * *
They’ve been waiting for nearly two hours, and Pooch is starting to get antsy. He’s aware that bullet wounds are trickier than they seem, and he knows that the one in Cougar’s leg was already way too close to being fatal, but after the sudden rush to get Cougar out and the hurried drive to the hospital, this business of sitting around and waiting seems to be taking far too long.
Jensen’s sudden silence isn’t helping. Pooch can’t count the number of times they’ve found themselves sitting in hospital waiting room, waiting for news about one or more of their group with any number of injuries.
At the time, Pooch had always found Jensen’s constant stream of dialogue even more irritating than usual, speculating on how quickly their teammates would recover, and what kind of stupid things they’d do to re-injure themselves by not waiting until they’d healed, and wondering if the hot nurse who’d just walked by would be at all interested in going to dinner with him.
It was always twice as annoying when Jensen was the one the rest were waiting on, because, invariably, they’d walk into his recovery room to find him awake and chatting, in varying states of coherency depending on what medications he’d been put on, but talking nonetheless.
Pooch misses that, now. The absence of his voice now is startling, like constantly missing a step going down stairs. The air seems heavier, as though it’s used to being held up by all of Jensen’s chatter; without it, the silence itself seems to press in on them.
From what Clay told him in the truck, Jensen hasn’t said a word since they first hear Cougar get shot, nearly five hours ago. Pooch has never heard Jensen go so long without speaking; even in his sleep he mutters to himself.
And it’s not just silence; there’s a strange restlessness to him that’s unusual. Jensen’s always been a fidgeter, always needed to tap his fingers or do something with his hands, and they’re used to that. Pooch isn’t used to this new, silent Jensen and the way he seems to be trying to hold himself still, practically vibrating in his seat but essentially motionless except for his fingers, twisting and flicking along the edges of Cougar’s hat.
“He’s gonna be okay,” Pooch tells him, leaning forward and forcing Jensen to look at him. “You know that.”
Jensen blinks, but doesn’t say a word, and soon enough he’s back to staring at the wall with unseeing eyes.
Pooch sighs and leans back in his chair, watching Jensen; he doesn’t seem to notice. He doesn’t look like he’s about to break down or anything, Pooch thinks, but there’s something oddly fragile about him nonetheless. There’s worry in his frown, nervousness in his twitching fingers, a hint of fear hiding in his eyes behind layers of other emotions that Pooch can’t quite figure out.
He keeps his eyes on the younger man even after Roque and Clay come back. Clay clearly wants to say something, probably to ask what’s going on and try to get something out of Jensen, because they can all tell that something’s wrong there. But Pooch thinks about the weirdly vulnerable look on Jensen’s face, and he shakes his head at Clay before he can say anything; it can wait until later.
Finally a nurse comes to find them, and something in Pooch’s chest seems to tighten at the way Jensen tenses slightly, clearly bracing for bad news.
“Your friend is fine,” the nurse says, smiling when Jensen jumps up suddenly. “He’s asleep for now but you can go see him.”
She’s barely finished speaking before Jensen’s stepping forward, gesturing for her to lead the way while the rest of them get out of their seats to follow. She leads the way down the hall, stopping at an open door.
Jensen pauses for a moment right in the doorway; Pooch, right behind him, looks over his shoulder as Jensen takes a few steps forward. Cougar is lying with his eyes closed, the heart monitor beeping softly next to him. There’s a white bandage on his shoulder, peeking out under the collar and the short sleeve of the hospital gown he’s wearing, contrasting weirdly with his slightly pale face. He looks strangely small, surrounded by white sheets and blanket and his dark hair fanning out slightly across the pillow.
Jensen immediately claims the chair next to the bed, and Pooch tries to ignore the way he seems to collapse slightly, like his knees suddenly can’t quite support him. Roque and Clay follow close behind, Clay talking with the nurse, asking how long Cougar will be there, what kind of care they’ll need to give him once he gets out.
The answer is two days, to make sure the wounds start to heal up properly and he doesn’t re-injure himself (Entirely likely, Pooch thinks; the Losers don’t like having to sit around and be careful, and injured Losers like it even less.) As for care once they’re allowed to spring him, the know the usual drill: don’t let him walk on his bad leg, don’t let him do anything with his bad arm, get him to take the painkillers when it gets bad, and wait for everything to heal before starting PT.
Clay thanks the nurse, and then it’s just the four of them staring at Cougar’s motionless form. Jensen’s moved the chair closer until his knees are brushing the neatly tucked-in blankets on the bed. His elbows are resting on his knees, clasped hands dangling between them as he watches Cougar.
The worry and the fear are gone from Jensen’s face, the little of it that Pooch can see from where he’s standing mostly behind him, but he still looks fragile, holding himself still like he’s afraid he’ll break otherwise. His hands are still twitching, even though he’s put aside the hat, laying it carefully on the table next to the bed. Now he’s twisting his fingers together as he sits, and Pooch wonders suddenly if Jensen is trying to keep himself from reaching out for Cougar, if the little shakes going up his arms are aborted attempts at reaching for Cougar’s hands, lying against the blankets at his sides.
Clay clears his throat, making Pooch turn. He’s watching Jensen as well, something soft in his eyes as he looks at the younger man.
“Cougar’s fine for now,” he says. “We don’t all need to be here.”
He glances over at Pooch, then Roque, who shakes his head, a small smile twisting up one side of his mouth as he looks at Jensen. Clay clears his throat.
“Pooch, I want you to go back to base and get the rest of our gear and then come back here.” He fishes in a pocket and pulls out the truck’s keys, tossing them over before turning to Roque. “You and I are gonna call Command and report in, and then we’re finding us a hotel or something to hole up in until we can move Cougar and get the hell out of here.”
“What about Jensen?” Pooch asks, gesturing to where the younger man hasn’t even turned, clearly not paying them any attention.
“Getting our gear shouldn’t take more than half an hour,” Clay says. “I’m assuming Jensen’s still strapped since he didn’t ditch his gun in the truck, and he might be ignoring us, but I trust him to be alert enough to protect himself and Cougar if anything goes wrong before you get back.”
Pooch nods, heading for the door. “Alright, then. Let’s get going.”
* * *
The drive back to the building they’d been using as a base is a short one, just a few miles. It had seemed so much longer when he’d had to make it with an injured and bleeding teammate in the back seat, it’s less than ten minutes before he’s pulling up in front of the door.
Their mission for the day was only supposed to be recon, so their stuff is still spread out across the main room. Roque’s pack leans against one wall with his gun cleaning kit open on the ground in front of it, a partially-stripped rifle still lying on the ground next to it where it’d clearly been dropped in their rush to get to Cougar.
Clay’s bag lies nearby, kicked half under the table where he’d spread out their map, pencil circles drawn around several local areas they were supposed to scout, including the warehouses down the hill where the plan had gone to shit. They hadn’t known for certain which location their gun-runners were using as headquarters, so they’d planned on checking all the locations. Guess we didn’t have to after all, Pooch thinks. Just wish it hadn’t been like this.
The table across the room is covered in Jensen’s usual tangle of wires and electronics, computers and speakers and various bits of home-made equipment all hooked together into one giant techno-mess that Jensen alone can operate. His laptop screen is still showing the fuzzy, static-filled feed from the busted camera; Pooch switches it off, the hissing white noise grating on his nerves.
It only takes a few minutes to get most of their stuff together. Jensen’s takes the longest, and Pooch is careful about shutting everything down before he starts unplugging wires and cable and cords, because Jensen will kill him later if anything’s been damaged.
If he even still cares, some small part of Pooch’s brain says, dourly, but Pooch shakes the thought away. Jensen is worried about Cougar, but Cougar will be fine, and once he’s back on his feet then Jensen will be fine as well, and once that happens, he will go back to fawning over his equipment like an over-protective parent.
Pooch loads everything in the truck, gives the room one last check to make sure nothing’s been left behind, and then climbs into the driver’s seat and heads back into town.
* * *
“So,” Roque says as Clay turns out of the hospital parking lot and onto the main street. “This is just weird.”
Clay huffs out a laugh. “Yeah, tell me about it.”
“You know, there was a time,” Roque says, “when I honestly thought that boy was incapable of talking. Like, I mean, I was starting to think it was vitally important to him being still alive.”
“He doesn’t look like he’s in shock or anything,” Clay says, half in agreement. “But I’m still tempted to haul a doc in and get him checked out or something, make sure he’s not about to have some sort of nervous breakdown.”
“I don’t even get it,” Roque says, shaking his head. “I mean, it ain’t like it’s the first time one of us’s been shot. Hell, it ain’t even the first time Cougar’s been hurt, remember that time in Korea when he busted his knee and Jensen went around the whole time sayin’ we should just cut off his leg and give him a peg ‘cos it’d look cooler?”
Clay snorts. “He was so disappointed when we didn’t. Jensen’s obsession with pirates will never make sense to me.”
“So what makes this time any different?” Roque asks, turning in the passenger seat to look at Clay. “I mean, I know they’re friends and all, but it’s not like it was even that bad. Hell, this is downright easy for us. We’re not having to hide, no one’s chasing us, only one of us got hurt, and that even got taken care of nice and fast and easy. What the hell made this time so hard for him that he’d actually stop talking?”
Clay shakes his head. It’s true that Jensen and Cougar are close, probably closer than any of the others, and Jensen does have a tendency to fuss whenever Cougar gets hurt, but as far as Clay knows, it’s because Cougar is a terrible patient. Cougar is the one who usually takes care of their injuries, but when he’s injured himself, he has a terrible habit of refusing to take the advice he always gives the rest of them about letting things heal and not rushing back into full active duty.
They’d been resigned, after the first time Cougar was injured, to the fact that he wasn’t going to sit still and let himself heal any time he got hurt, and odds were high that he was going to do something stupid and re-injure himself at some point.
And then Jensen had come along, and suddenly, the next time Cougar got injured (a cut along one arm from a knife), the Losers found themselves with a nagging mother who hovered around Cougar and keeping him from picking at the stitches or doing anything that might pull them, and forcing him to keep the wound clean and bandaged long after Cougar would have ripped the stitches out and toughed it out until the wound closed.
So it isn’t strange that Jensen would be the first to want to help Cougar or the first one into the room to see him. But the silence and the stillness, that’s something new.
“I guess we’ll just have to wait,” Clay says finally, “and see what he says when he starts talking. I’m hoping he’ll drop the silent thing when Cougar wakes up, but I don’t know.”
Roque nods, staring out the window at the passing cars. He smirks suddenly, turning to Clay.
“What d’you wanna bet,” he says, “the first word out of that boy’s mouth is Cougar’s name.”
Clay looks sideways at Roque, considering. “Seriously?”
Roque shrugs. “What? He’s already doing the whole ‘sit by the bed and ignore everything else’ routine. What’s another cheesy movie cliché on top of that?”
“Even Jensen isn’t that ridiculous.”
“You sure, man? ‘Cos I swear, he was about half a second from grabbin’ Cougar’s hand and telling him Please wake up, oh please, oh please like some stupid girl in a damn movie.” He snorts, laughing, and turns away, looking back out the window.
Clay shakes his head and doesn’t answer. He thinks about the look on Jensen’s face when they heard the shot over the comms, the way his entire face shut down, going blank as he stood, gun already in hand. He thinks about Jensen’s arm rising, gun pointed at the men who’d pulled their gun on Cougar before the camera feed went out, and his juggernaut run towards his friend.
He thinks about the way Jensen hadn’t even seemed to register the shots he’d fired, eyes sparking fury, enough that Clay and Roque had both stepped back, letting Jensen take care of the problem and (only slightly) half afraid that he might shoot them, too, if they tried to get between him and his targets.
He thinks about Jensen’s clenched jaw in the truck, tension written in the lines of his face, his shoulders, his arms, every time a dip in the road bounced Cougar even the tiniest bit. That tension had still been there when they left Cougar’s room, pulling the angles of him tight and square and motionless except for his hands.
It’s nothing like a movie, Clay decides. It’s something a great deal more real and more complicated, tied up in the strange, easy friendship Jensen has with the older man, all one-sided conversations that aren’t really all that one-sided, Jensen’s puppy-dog affection for Cougar, always wanting to impress or to have his attention. But it’s deeper than that, something more in the way that Cougar looks out for the younger man, reins him in carefully in such a way that Jensen never seems to realise. But he must, Clay thinks, in some way Jensen must know that Cougar looks out for him; he’s trying to return the favour, Clay thinks, by not moving, not speaking, just waiting for Cougar to wake up and tell Jensen what he needs.
There’s something there, something between the lines of what they say and how they act, but whatever it is, it’s nothing Clay can understand.
* * *
The first time Clay meets Corporal Jake Jensen, he nearly decks the kid. Twenty-two years old and cocky as hell, with a disciplinary record a mile long, he’s already a pain in the ass, and he hasn’t said anything more than, “Corporal Jensen, sir, they’ve transferred me here from Communications,” in response to Clay’s question of who the hell was he and why was there.
But there’s something about the kid, maybe the off-the-charts aptitude tests results, or the comments on his rep sheet (arrogant, problem with authority, too smart for his own good) that makes Clay smile.
“You know who we are, soldier?” he asks, looking the kid up and down. He’s tall, taller than Clay, and solidly built, more like a typical soldier than a guy who’d gotten snatched up by the tech guys who stayed on base and generally looked like your typical nerd, albeit with a military haircut and fatigues.
“Detachment F, Operational Arm, B squadron, group designation Tango-Lima.”
The kid rattles off the words with a straight face, every inch the proper little soldier reporting for duty. But Clay’s never been sent anyone who could be called a proper little soldier, so he pauses, waiting. The kid drops the act, grinning, a hint of mockery in his expression.
“I’m told you’re the guy they send people to when they don’t know what to do with them anymore.”
“Is that so,” Clay said, one eyebrow rising as he looks at the personnel file the kid hands him.
“Says you’ve been kicked out of six different units, once for picking fights, once for ‘inappropriate use of military equipment’, twice for mouthing off, and twice for disobeying orders and arguing with superior officers. That sounds about right?”
He looks at the kid, who shrugs, unrepentant.
“Actually, sir,” he says, voice carefully, deceptively bland, “they’re missing the time I decked Peters in the face in the gym and got away with it since we were doing combat training.”
“Outstanding,” Clay says, rolling his eyes. He looks down the list again, this time reading between the lines.
Fighting with fellow soldiers means he’d been saddled with people he’d never get along with, and someone somewhere crossed a line that he couldn’t ignore.
Verbal disregard for authority could be an issue with people telling him what to do, but Clay thinks it’s more likely that the kid just runs a mile a minute and needs to talk to let some of it out.
Verbally refusing direct orders is one Clay knows is on his own sheet, and the meaning here seems to be the same: someone gave him a crap order, and he not only refused to follow it, but also pointed out why it was a stupid thing to do and why the person giving the order should have already known it was stupid.
“What the hell is inappropriate use of military equipment supposed to mean?”
The kid holds up a hand and starts ticking things off on his fingers. “First I took apart one of their radios and re-wired it ‘cos it was running like crap, and then I networked a couple of computers so I could get enough power to access certain satellite which I wasn’t supposed to know about but which I really needed to access for surveillance purposes, and then there was the time I got into the Op Support secure network, because they’ve got horrible security for an intelligence-gathering operation.”
He grins at the way Clay’s eyebrows start to climb up his forehead. “Yeah, that was a good one. Too bad they shut me out, I could’ve really helped them revamp their security. I had some awesome ideas for structuring their databases to make it harder to grab information through a back door. Oh, and there was the robot.”
Clay blinks. “The robot.”
“Yeah,” the kid says, waving a hand. “They had all this old equipment no one was using, and a friend of mine was going on and on about building one, so I figured I’d try my hand at it, you know. I mean, I had some free time, and I’m awesome with coding, and no one was using that stuff anyway, so I really don’t know what their problem was. I mean, it’s not like the thing shot lasers or said bad words or anything.”
He looks slightly hurt, and Clay thinks of the note on that particular offense, saying the “result” of said “inappropriate use of military equipment” had been taken apart and the components moved to a more secure location. Clay wonders if maybe the rest of the tech guys hadn’t secretly been jealous. The kid’s aptitude scores were certainly high enough to probably leave most of them in the dust, and his penchant for running at the mouth probably hadn’t made him any friends.
“You’re six whole pages of trouble that the army can’t afford to get rid of, and enough smarts to know it.” Clay says, still flipping through the file, although he’s pretty sure he’s seen all that he needs to already. “So, the question is,” Clay continues, looking the kid in the eye. “What the hell am I supposed to do with you?”
“Honestly, sir?” Jake Jensen says, and even though his tone is joking, there's something in his eyes that's a lot more serious. “If I were you, I’d point me at a computer and let me do my job.”
Clay thinks for a moment, watching the way the kid shifts on his feet, restless but not nervous.
“I think I can do that,” Clay says finally, stepping forward with a grin and offering a hand for the kid to shake.
“Welcome to the Losers, Corporal Jake Jensen.”
* * *
Jensen hears Clay giving out orders to the others, but the words themselves don’t really filter in, even as the three of them all turn around and walk out of the room. Clay claps him on the shoulder briefly, and then they’re gone and Jensen is left alone, sitting at Cougar’s bedside.
There’s something strangely unsettling, Jensen’s decided, about seeing Cougar without his hat. There are times, he knows, when the man doesn’t wear it, like when they’re on base in comfortable beds (at least compared to their usual, which is hard ground a a hard pack for a pillow) and they won’t have to go anywhere in a hurry anytime soon, but those occasions are few and far between. For the most part they’re in the field, and in the field Cougar sleeps with his hat canted low across his face so it’s hard to tell if he’s awake or if he’s sleeping. Seeing him without it somehow makes him seem younger, his face open and visible in a way Jensen’s not used to seeing.
Taking away Cougar’s hat, Jensen thinks, would be a lot like telling Jensen he wasn’t allowed to use any pop culture references or words that other people wouldn’t understand: it would take away so much of how he communicates, and without it he’d struggle to say anything at all.
With the hat, he’s Cougar, sniper extraordinaire and valued member of the Losers. Without it, he’s just Carlos Alvarez, runaway orphan.
Jensen’s broken out of his thoughts when Cougar shifts slightly, his head turning just a fraction towards Jensen, fingers flexing slightly against the blankets. Jensen leans forward, holding his breath, but Cougar stills and doesn’t wake up. Jensen sighs and drops his head, trying not to feel disappointed. Cougar’s just come out of surgery and he’s still all doped up on meds, and it’s stupid to want him to wake up, but Jensen can’t help it.
He’s aware that he hasn’t said a word since Cougar first got shot, and he opens his mouth now; after all, even if he ends up saying something stupid, giving voice to the muddled thoughts whirling through his mind, the only other person who’d hear them is currently sleeping the sleep of the heavily medicated and wouldn’t hear him anyway.
But he still can’t get words out, can’t find anything to say, and he closes his mouth again without a sound, gritting his teeth against the sudden urge to pound his fists against something, to scream, to pick Cougar up and take him away, put him somewhere safe, somewhere where Jensen can be certain that no one will ever hurt him again.
And therein lies the root of his troubles. It’s not like he’s never seen Cougar get injured before; they’ve all been shot at, or beat up, all suffered broken bones and torn muscles and gouged skin. More often than not, they come out of missions with scraped and cuts and bruises all over, and it’s practically cause for celebration if they all come out unscathed in the end.
So it’s not the first time he’s seen Cougar laid up and in pain. But it is the first time that Cougar’s been the only casualty, the first time they’ve had to carry him, bleeding, while the rest of them walked away with barely more than scratches. In fact, their only other collective injury is Jensen’s graze, currently running a line of dull, throbbing pain across his arm.
Jensen can’t help but feel guilty. He’d been the one to point out that none of the rest of them spoke more than a handful of words in Spanish, and that, except maybe for Roque, the rest of them stuck out like a sore thumb, considering they were supposed to be getting information from paranoid locals who made a point of not dealing with outsiders.
He’d been joking, mainly, frustrated with the lack of information he’d been able to find. They’d had six possible locations to scout, looking for the runners’ headquarters; being a bunch of paranoid bastards, the gun runners had coordinated almost everything via face-to-face meetings, leaving little more than a hint of their activities over anything electronic that Jensen might’ve been able to find.
Cougar had laughed over the comm link from his position on the roof, keeping watch, and Jensen had said something about stupid cats and gone on a rant about all the things he hated about felines: their stealth, their silence, their irritating air of superiority… But Clay had taken it seriously, had given Cougar a rundown on what they needed to know, and sent him in, unarmed but for a knife in his boot, to talk to the group of jumpy, paranoid men with guns.
The knife now sits on a table on the other side of the bed along with the rest of Cougar’s clothes and possessions. Jensen glances again at Cougar, unmoving and still deeply asleep, before standing and making his way over to the table.
Cougar’s shirt lies on the top of the stack. There’s a ragged hole in the shoulder from the bullet and stained red with his blood, although someone had clearly tried to clean it away. Jensen reaches out, tracing the edges of it with a trembling finger, feeling a lump form in his throat.
Cougar makes a small sound and Jensen turns quickly, hurrying back over to the side of the bed. There’s a frown creasing his forehead and his hands twitch slightly, but he still doesn’t wake. Jensen sits slowly, reaching out carefully until just the tips of his fingers rest against the back of Cougar’s hand. He stills instantly, head turning a tiny bit more to face Jensen, frown easing slightly.
Jensen sighs, feeling a bit of the tension bleed out of his shoulders. He’s watched people waking up from this sleep enough times that he knows the signs, the stages of waking. Cougar should be awake soon, hopefully within the next few hours. That knowledge is a relief, soothing something of the raging mess inside Jensen’s head. He smiles slightly, the corners of his mouth tipping up just the tiniest bit, and inches his hand forward, resting his fingers in the spaces between Cougar’s.
* * *
Cougar’s moved a bit when Pooch returns to the hospital room, turned slightly to face Jensen, who’s sitting exactly where they left him next to Cougar’s bed. One hand is stretched out between them, his fingers laced lightly with Cougar’s. He turns when Pooch closes the door, and there’s a slight smile on his face, but he turns back without saying anything. Pooch walks closer, peering at Cougar.
“Looks a bit better,” he says. “Not as pale. Weird seein’ him looking almost white.”
Jensen nods, absently.
Pooch sighs, sinking into a chair on the other side of the room. “Alright, dude, you gotta start saying something soon, because this whole silent thing is really starting to freak me out.”
Jensen sighs, his head dropping down on his shoulders. Pooch sees him open his mouth, looking like he wants to speak, but he closes it again, shaking his head.
“What’s going on with you?” Pooch leans forward, peering at Jensen with a frown forming on his face. “I mean, I get that you’re worried, man, we all are. Cougar don’t get hurt as often as the rest of us, so it’s always hard when he’s the one laid up, but this is simple for us, man. He’s fine now, we’re all fine, we ain’t gotta run and hide…”
Pooch watches Jensen, but the younger man just shakes his head, looking lost, like he doesn’t have any answers, either. Pooch sighs.
“Whatever this means to you, man,” he says, softly, “you better figure it out, because if you’re still like this when he wakes up, you’re gonna really scare the shit out of him.”
Jensen jerks his head slightly, the way he might if he were laughing. His mouth is turned up into something like a grimace as he looks down at Cougar. His fingers slip a little tighter between Cougar’s.
Pooch closes his eyes, rubbing at them with one hand.
“Let me know if you want me to clear out for a while,” he says, and settles in to wait.
* * *
There is a man shouting, but his words aren’t clear, and then suddenly there are guns pointed at him and he only has a knife and no way to get to it. And then there is a sound like a firework and the smell of gunpowder and then fire erupts through his shoulder, his arms are shaking and there’s a scream building in his throat because Jesus-fucking-Christ it hurts. There are men yelling, words lost in the dull roar of his own blood rushing in his veins, seeping through the hole he can feel in his shoulder.
There’s another sound, that firecracker bang, and he knows it’s gunfire, that he’s already been shot, and then he’s on the ground, fallen on his side. There’s pain lancing through his leg, agony in every uncontrollable twitch of his muscles as they fight to get him back on his feet, that fight-or-flight response that he’s trained so well colliding with the physical impossibility of moving. His eyes are wet, the men around him reduced to nothing more than dark blurs. He can feel his blood draining, thick and sticky and too much, onto the concrete from the hole in his leg.
The world wavers, his vision going spotty, and he thinks he hears gunfire, but there are no new explosions of pain shooting off supernovas behind his eyes, so he can’t be sure. There’s noise, sharp and familiar, but it's hard to place, and then a man falls to the ground beside him, sudden like a puppet with it’s strings cut. And then there’s another man walking toward him, so familiar, painfully familiar, but he can’t quite see his face through the black creeping at the edges of his vision. He feels hands on him, large and warm and shaking, running from shoulder to hip, a pair of blue eyes watching from somewhere above him, and then the world tilts sideways and goes grey and he’s lost somewhere in the pain running through his veins, taking up the space where his blood is leaking out of him.
* * *
When Carlos is eight, he hides in the crawlspace beneath his house and listens as the men with the guns argue with his father, shouting angry and loud and Carlos doesn’t know what they’re talking about, doesn’t understand about gangs and debts and protection, but he does understand about anger and violence and he knows that these men aren’t going to just leave his father alone.
The gunshot still startles him, and for a moment he wonders where his father got the gun. But there are no other shots, and only one body hits the floor, and Carlos realises it would have taken more than one bullet to get rid of those men.
So he huddles in a corner, eyes wide and terrified, the knuckles of one hand stuffed into his mouth the muffle the sound of his breathing, the shuddering gasps threatening to break loose from his chest, and listens to the men moving around upstairs, hoping that they won’t find him.
The men tear the house apart; Carlos can hear them throwing furniture across his parents’ room, the tinkle of broken dishes in the kitchen, the scrape of the heavy sofa being wrenched back in the living room. They tear through his room, too, and he hears the crash of his toy box being upended, bouncing bits of plastic and tin across the floorboards. The men clearly don’t find what they’re looking for, because they leave with a crash, the sounds of smashed furniture following their angry shouting through the kicked-in front door.
Carlos stays where he is, curled into a tiny, shaking ball in the furthest corner of the crawlspace until the police show up, hours later, and a man in a paramedic’s uniform crawls under the house and coaxes him out of the corner and into the back of an ambulance. The man drapes a blanket around his still-shaking shoulders and asks him, in a calm, quiet voice, to tell him what happened, but Carlos just shakes his head and stays silent. The man smiles at him, but it looks sad, and pats him on the arm.
“Yo entiendo, chico,” he says, and Carlos looks away, fighting back the tears trying to form in his eyes.
“Sé que no deseas hablar de ello,” the man says, handing Carlos a paper cup full of water. “Pero si nos cuentas quien hizo esto, podemos asegurarnos de que no lo vuelvan a hacer jamás.”
“No llegué a ver ellos,” Carlos says, his voice barely more than a whisper. “No sé quiénes son.” The tears threaten to spill over his cheeks, and he feels himself shaking, terrified and exhausted and confused. He doesn’t know who the men were, doesn’t know why there were there, doesn’t really know what happened. All he knows is that his father has been killed and the men are still out there, and he has no idea what to do now.
“Está bien,” the man says. “Ahora está seguro.”
He tugs the blanket closer around Carlos’ shoulders and gives him another smile, sitting next to him in the back of the ambulance.
“Ahora está seguro.”
Carlos closes his eyes, turns away, and lets himself cry.
* * *
Cougar wakes slowly, in stages. First is the awareness that he's been asleep at all, the brief moment where his brain registers the slide into consciousness. His senses kick in next; soft blankets underneath his fingers, the smell of antiseptic and bleach, the beeping of a heart monitor, the tug of bandages at his shoulder and leg. A hospital then.
The mattress dips down on one side, and he can hear someone breathing, slow and steady, can feel a tiny puff of air against his hand every time the person exhales. There's a hand in his, someone else's fingers slotted loosely between his own.
Cougar opens his eyes slowly, trying not to move at all as he takes in his surroundings. White walls, window on the far side of the room, lights off but there's sunlight streaming in between the blinds. There's no one else in the room that he can see besides whoever's leaning on the bed, so Cougar lets his head fall to the side.
Jensen is hunched over in his chair, back curved at what has to be an incredibly painful angle, his head pillowed on one arm with his glasses askew on his nose, his other arm stretched out, hand lying against Cougar's. He's asleep, and from the way he's sitting, Cougar's willing to bet it wasn't intentional.
Cougar smiles, the small, happy sort of smile that always feels like it's being pulled out of him, and tightens his grip on Jensen's fingers.
Jensen stirs, shaking his head slightly and blinking behind his glasses as he looks up, focusing on their entwined fingers. He frowns for a moment, and Cougar tightens his grip a little more, smiling wider when Jensen jerks, head snapping up to look at him with wide eyes.
"Cougar," he says, softly, his voice sounding ragged and hoarse. "You're awake."
He's staring at Cougar with something a little like wonder, and a lot of relief, and something else, something warm that Cougar can practically feel rushing over him as Jensen keeps staring.
"Sí," Cougar says, softly.
The grin that bursts across Jensen's face is bright enough to light up the whole room, and he stands slightly, leaning over until he can wrap an arm lightly around Cougar's shoulders, his face pressed gently against Cougar's uninjured shoulder.
"You had me worried," Jensen says, voice muffled. "Don't ever do that again, Cougs."
There's something rough about Jensen's voice, like he hasn't used it in a while, and that's enough to make Cougar frown, concerned. "It was just a bullet," Cougar says, hating the way he's not quite sure.
"Just a bullet," Jensen says, still hiding in Cougar's shoulder, "but you were down and you weren't supposed to get hurt, and I couldn't do anything!" He says it fiercely, wrapping himself a little tighter around Cougar's shoulders.
There's something in his voice, a quiet, broken sort of note underneath the words that makes Cougar think that, whatever this is, it's not just about him being shot. There's something else here, something more than just Jensen's usual dislike of seeing his teammates hurt. This is about Cougar being hurt, but it's not about these particular wounds, or this particular mission.
It's tugging at the edges of Cougar's brain, Jensen's tone and the warmth and relief in his eyes, the way he's not showing any desire to let Cougar go anytime soon, and the way Cougar's not sure he even wants him to.
"Esta bien," he murmurs, turning his head so that he's whispering the words into Jensen's hair, his hands coming up to rest against his arms. "Estoy bien, no te preocupes."
Jensen pulls back, smiling slightly, soft and open and somehow sweet, and something about it makes Cougar's breath catch in his throat, his heart stuttering slightly in his chest.
"You're okay," he says, "I'll make sure of it."
Cougar stares for a moment, unsure of what to say, but Jensen doesn't seem to care, still smiling at him, sweet and a little happy and mostly warm, and Cougar reaches out, catching Jensen's fingers again and holding on.
"Thank you," he says.
* * *
Later, after LA, Aisha will ask Jensen why he didn’t leave after Miami, after he got shot, why he stayed. He’ll tell her that it’s simple, really.
“I once shot twelve men in a warehouse in Colombia,” he tells her, “because they needed to be taught a lesson.”
“The same lesson I’m teaching Max right now,” Jensen says, his smile hard and sharp and dangerous, and utterly unlike anything she’s ever seen on him.
“You don’t fuck with what’s mine.”