Jensen couldn’t decide whether he was having the best week ever, or the worst.
“The best,” Aisha said immediately, helpfully cluing Jensen in to the fact that he had been thinking out loud again. Aisha was wearing the cool and collected expression that was her version of spinning around in a delighted, excited circle, or perhaps an enthusiastic fist pump. Fist bumps. Victory arms. Aisha’s blank face was a lot more eloquent than most people’s.
Faintly, from somewhere deep in the jungle, high and to the east, was a call of “INCOMING,” followed shortly by a popping noise, then a boom, and then a sharp, inhuman scream, cut off abruptly.
“That kid is gonna be so pissed when we find him,” said Jensen. “We're killing all his research subjects!”
Cougar’s blank face had had an awful lot to say about dinosaurs. None of it had been good.
The message popped up during a Petunias game. The girls were kicking a seriously impressive amount of Marigold ass, but it was halftime, so Jensen fished his phone out of his pocket.
“Go for Jensen,” he told no one in particular, and opened the bobbing little envelope at the corner of the screen.
His phone said,
I NEED A FAVOR. LIFE OR DEATH. CALL ME.
It was from Blue Canary. Six years ago he'd found a back door into her at-the-time corporation's security system, and she had traced him to a bunker in Siberia and sabotaged six weeks' worth of coding work, and out of the ashes a beautiful internet friendship was born. He'd worked with her a few times since then, although never in person.
He called her. She picked up on the second ring.
She said, “You're still with that gun-toting, bomb-blowing mercenary team, right?”
“I am indeed,” said Jensen. He adjusted the pink petunia backpack on his shoulder.
“I need a favor.”
“My dearest darlingest Blue Canary, I think I still owe you one from the Melbourne job a while back. Give it to me.”
“You know my handle,” said Blue Canary, “but I think if you know my real name it will help you to understand what I’m asking for, here.”
“Shoot,” said Jensen.
“My real name is Lex Murphy,” said Blue Canary. “I need you to find my brother.”
Scene: the jungle. Present: the usual suspects. Not so usual: there were fucking dinosaurs everywhere.
“This is sauroposeidon,” Aisha said, like she was undercover hosting a black-tie dinner party and graciously introducing guests to one another, rather than six feet off the ground with an elephant gun strapped to her back.
“Sauroposeidon,” Clay repeated, and nodded very seriously. He was wearing his fascinated face, the fucker. Jensen was so not sharing a tree with them tonight.
“Sauroposeidon is an enormous walking stomach,” Aisha crooned. “It has barely any brains to speak of and spends its entire life eating and shitting and laying thousands of eggs.”
“Thousands,” Clay said. From the next tree over, Cougar gave Jensen a Look. Cougar had been giving Jensen a lot of Looks that said, broadly, “This is TERRIBLE,” since Mission: Dinosaur Adventures got the official Claisha go-ahead.
Jensen was never allowed to use their smush couple name out loud ever again, but inside his own head was safe enough.
The problem was that Jensen had been having way more difficulty than usual reading the more specific issues contained within Cougar’s “This is TERRIBLE” face. Jensen was usually an excellent Cougar-to-Words translator, but now? Not so much. When he explained this to Pooch during the last Petunias practice, Pooch had whacked him in the shoulder, called him a dumb-ass, and then stuck a five-er in the swear jar. Jensen was obviously having an off-month, but goddamn, Emily was gonna have an Ivy League education funded almost entirely by his team’s potty mouths, so there was that.
Jensen was well aware that his own contributions to Pooch Junior’s college fund would probably make them even in the long run.
But he digressed. The point was: Cougar. The team had always been close, but in the aftermath of the whole … Max thing, and the kids thing, and the getting shot thing, and the Aisha thing, and above all, the Roque thing, the team dynamics had shifted a little. Jensen wasn’t always certain what the team dynamics had shifted to, but he knew that something had changed. After a period of being even better than usual at getting a read off of Cougar, his abilities had suddenly plateaued, and then tanked. They had tanked hardcore.
There was something going down a few yards to the east. A rustling in the undergrowth. Cougar made a quick hand signal from the next tree over, reaching up and setting his hat a little further back on his head. They all settled in, quiet again, and readied their guns.
The sauro-things made truly unpleasant noises when they died.
“Those were a lot of enormous teeth,” Jensen said, later. “I’ve seen a lot of shit, okay? But that was truly disturbing.”
“Hmm,” said Cougar. They stood side by side, giving the trees around them the sort of gaze that usually had rent-a-cops and assassins alike carefully putting aside their big scary weapons and backing away slowly.
Fun fact number one: dinosaurs did not give a shit about how scary your manic grin or intense stare looked.
Fun fact number two: dinosaur grins are way the fuck scarier than any expression your own face can make.
“So, hey,” said Jensen. “We’re okay, right?”
There was a pause that Jensen was tempted to describe as ‘ominous.’ “You --” said Cougar, and stopped. He gripped his rifle tight in both hands. “We --”
“GO GO GO,” screamed Clay, and then they were running.
Lex Murphy, in person, was a few years older than Jensen, blonde-haired and extremely pissed at her brother. Well, that and worried. She was also apparently filthy rich, which meant they didn’t even have to steal a helicopter this time, because she had one already.
He made the introductions, and she emailed him an information package about dinosaurs that were the approximate size of the island they were about to trundle onto. When she saw them off at the helipad, helicopter blades thundering over her head, Lex stuffed her hands into her pockets, looking like her only brother was stranded on an island full of dinosaurs and now she had to wait for Jensen’s team to try and bring him back.
“We’ll get him,” Jensen said.
“Please do,” she said. “And don’t get yourself killed either, okay? I think your boyfriend would kill me.”
Behind him, the team were strapping themselves in. They all paused. Jensen laughed, and then caught up with what she said. “Wait, what?”
“The one in the hat? Are you two not...?”
“Look, never mind. Good luck,” said Lex, and then waved them off.
Jensen had liked dinosaurs as much as the next kid when he was growing up, which was to say, monsters were cool but motherboards were better. Being stalked through the jungle by giant jaws with legs was not helping the dinosaur side of the Cool Shit equation.
The big cow-like ones were pretty neat, but fuck, the way so many of them screamed just before they tried to eat you. Pooch totally agreed. He said so when he bundled up Jensen’s freshly claw-o-saur’d arm.
By the time they located Tim Murphy, Jensen was officially no longer feeling the dinosaur love.
“I’m so glad we found you!” Jensen cried. “This is amazing! This is great! Look how not eaten by dinosaurs you are, Lex’s Kid Brother Timmy. I know you are somewhat experienced at not being eaten by dinosaurs, but I gotta say, man, we were a little worried there for a minute, ha ha ha. Which hey, reminds me of a really good question I thought of while we were running from giant teeth through the jungle!”
Jensen tucked his gun under his arm to more efficiently mime dinosaur jaws with his hands.
“Uh,” said Tim. “Is it - is it why am I on an island full of dinosaurs?”
Four pairs of glittery mercenary eyes all turned simultaneously to stare at Tim. The guy stared right back at them, unblinking. He looked a little like he’d taken a dip into a pool of blood and dirt and crazy, which, Jensen reflected, was not all that far from the truth.
“I’m furthering the scientific community’s knowledge of --” Tim started, but Aisha, despite her professed love and knowledge of dinosaurs, visibly rolled her eyes, and Clay frowned.
“Time to go,” Clay said.
“Go where?” Tim said. “I’m not going anywhere. I don’t care what you do, but I’m not done here, yet.”
Tim told them this in a very intense, quiet voice, not dissimilar from what every successful soldier/mercenary/scary-ass parent Jensen had ever interacted with used when shit got real and they wanted to be taken seriously. It was a voice that said it would like be shouting, instead, but in this particular case was a little nervous about the aforementioned giant teeth no doubt surrounding them right now. Waiting. Hunting.
Jensen was pretty sure he was developing a dinosaur complex.
“Kid, we are not leaving you behind,” Clay said, obviously exasperated. “If you stay, we stay, and if one of us gets killed, I am taking it out of your fucking hide.” Clay either immediately liked you, or immediately didn’t, and his opinions were thus far unchanged by inconveniences like bombs and minor betrayals; Roque was, as ever, the exception to the rule. Cougar and Jensen had developed an overly complicated system of hand signals for the purposes of betting, in real-time, which way Clay would go when meeting new people, but Cougar was frowning off into the distance. Jensen tried, and failed, to catch Cougar’s gaze.
“Also,” said Jensen, feeling disappointed but putting on a brave face, “I feel I should mention at this juncture that Lex told me to tell you that she knows where all your research backup files are, and that if you don’t come with us she will start to systematically delete everything.”
“Come the fuck with us if you want your research to live,” Pooch said. The team had watched the Spanish dub of the original Terminator six times when they were in Bolivia. Those had been dark days.
Tim sufficiently cowed by Lex’s threat, they set off into the jungle again, aiming themselves back toward the helicopter. Cougar slipped past Jensen without a word to take point, and Clay brought up the rear. Jensen fell into step beside Tim.
“You did well, young grasshopper,” said Jensen. Tim gave him a questioning look. “With Clay,” Jensen clarified, dropping his (quite excellent) kung-fu master voice. “He enjoys some healthy disagreements. I know he can be...intense.”
This made Tim actually laugh out loud. Clay, Jensen was informed, would probably be frightening except for the fact that when Tim was ten he spent two days experiencing regular bursts of abject terror. The gauge had been re-calibrated.
“Right,” said Jensen. They walked in silence for a few moments, and then he said, “So hey. You’re an outsider. You have eyes.”
“Both those things are true,” said Tim, gamely.
“Do you think that guy --” Jensen jerked a thumb forward in Cougar’s direction -- “is upset with me?”
“Well,” said Tim. “No?”
“That didn’t sound very certain.”
“I’ve really only just met you guys,” said Tim.
“This is what I mean by outside perspective.”
Tim gave him an incredulous look for one long, searching moment. Then he laughed again. “You’re on an island full of dinosaurs,” said Tim. “Seize the day. Don’t be an idiot.”
Jensen pulled to a halt as the group continued forward. Clay gave him a shove in the middle of his back. “What does that even mean,” Jensen demanded.
Cougar did not look back, even when everyone else did.
They set up camp for the night at the base of a very, very tall tree, perfect for climbing in case of dinosaurs. They shared several packages of self-heating MREs around the fire they did not have, and Jensen, for once, didn’t have very much to say. Pooch produced a deck of cards from somewhere on his person, and started to deal everybody in.
“Go ahead,” said Jensen. “I’ll take the first watch.”
He returned the uneventful, agreed-upon three hours later, and found Clay and Aisha waiting for him. They were sitting in lightly chewed folding chairs of unknown provenance. Clay had his arms folded. One of Aisha’s guns was across her lap.
“Oh no,” said Jensen.
“Jensen, we need to... talk,” said Clay, like the words pained him.
“We’ve noticed that you seem...” Aisha began.
“Please stop,” said Jensen. “Please, please, stop.”
“Your head is up your ass,” she finished, matter-of-fact. The kind of matter-of-fact that meant Aisha was about wade into topics that made her deeply uncomfortable, like feelings. Shit. “Tell us why.”
“Would you believe me if I said I didn’t know?”
“Sadly,” said Clay, “yes.”
Things went moderately all right until they approached the river. The helicopter was only a couple miles away, and the river was a helpful landmark, but Tim immediately said “We really need to be not near the water” and then it was too late to do anything, because amongst all their other talents dinosaurs also seemed to have impeccable timing. Impeccable timing of DEATH.
Aisha was screaming about a T-Rex, and something about its field of vision and sense of smell, and then Jensen’s entire world was whittled down to a lot of screaming and running and the faint and awful scent of blood. The enormous fucking dinosaur with enormous fucking teeth did not seem to be immediately interested in Jensen, so he grabbed Aisha’s fallen elephant gun -- where had she gone? why had she dropped it? -- and started to scale one of the trees overhanging the river. He couldn’t see anyone else, but the T-Rex took up most of his field of vision.
Fifteen feet off the ground, Jensen swung the elephant gun around to bear on the thing that was trying to eat his team, just in time to see Cougar take a massive hit from a car-sized snout, batting him through the air and into the river, where he sank immediately.
Things went a bit funny for a few minutes, but Jensen had vague memories of breathing very carefully and very slowly and aiming directly for one of Tyrannosaurus Rex’s eyes. There was a strange feeling coursing through him, something that -- it was possessive, and terrified, and Jensen loved everybody on his team, okay, but Cougar. And -- oh. So that was what everyone had been trying to tell him.
He pulled the trigger.
Jensen wouldn't pretend that getting involved with someone who had just as dangerous a job as he did wasn't asking for ulcers and premature gray hair. But Cougar had completely disappeared under the water and the only part of Jensen's brain that was not filled up with white noise thought: wow, even if he was ever maybe going to be emotionally responsible about this, it was way too fucking late now.
T-Rex took a glancing blow to the face and turned, roaring, to stomp back the way it came. He was vaguely aware of Claisha reappearing and laying down their version of some cover fire – which basically amounted to fuck everything, and especially dinosaurs – while Jensen and his inconvenient epiphany launched themselves into the river.
Pooch and Clay and Aisha fished them out, alive and breathing and miserably wet, Cougar only a little worse for the wear. Jensen, watching Cougar carefully put his hat back on his head, could feel his heart start beating again.
Aisha looked mildly sympathetic, which as a rule was not a facial expression she deployed very often. Jensen needed better friends. Jensen needed better acquaintances. Jensen needed humanity in general to be better. “To be fair,” Aisha said quietly, as Tim and Pooch helped Cougar to his feet, Clay keeping watch, “it is an island full of dinosaurs. Attraction blossoms in high-adrenaline environments."
“I am in near death situations all the time,” said Jensen.
“Exactly,” she said.
“Yeah,” said Jensen.
Lex was waiting for them on the roof of an InGen corporate building, signalled by Jensen’s victorious “\o/” text message.
The touching sibling reunion between Lex and Tim consisted of a lot of whisper-shouting and sucker-punches to shoulders, and then a heartfelt hug during which both of them said vicious, unkind things about the other’s intelligence.
“I can’t even believe you,” Tim said, when the hug was over and they had both taken a step back.
“It gets better,” said Lex, gleeful. “I told everyone.”
For the first time since they’d met him, Tim looked horrified.
“Jensen, Jensen's team,” Lex said, “I thank you. Since none of you died, I think we're even for now. Please feel free to contact me if you need someone to do some serious coding damage, or uh. Need a helicopter or something.”
“Sure,” said Jensen, and Team Losers slunk victoriously off the roof in search of hotel rooms and comfy beds and showers and a million cartons of take-out.
One shower later, but pre-comfy beds and sleep and food, Jensen barged into Cougar’s hotel room. He caught a glance of his face in the mirror: wild-eyed and determined. Yes. He was totally determined, and totally out of his mind. “So as it turns out,” said Jensen, “I’m kind of a dumb-ass.”
“Really,” said Cougar, not moving from the bed where he’d been sitting, carefully cleaning his rifle, when Jensen burst in.
“Everyone’s said so,” said Jensen. “Even the dude who almost got eaten by dinosaurs at age ten and then willingly came back for more called me a dumb-ass. Everyone.” Something niggled at the back of his mind. “Except for you.”
Cougar frowned at him.
“Okay,” said Jensen. “Normally I would be able to carry on a conversation like this, because God knows I talk enough for five people, but I’m sorry, I’m sorry, my brain has glitched or something and I am no longer able to read your facial expressions, like that - what does that frowny face mean! I don’t know anymore! I thought you were upset with me and it’s been driving me crazy and then Pooch made Claisha sit me down for a heart-to-heart and if that never happens again it will still be too soon and --”
“Jensen,” said Cougar. Jensen stopped. “Why would I be upset with you?”
“Because,” Jensen tried, “we were on an island full of dinosaurs and I've had to take a little time? A little time to think things over? Read- read between ... the lines – oh.”
“Oh?” Cougar asked.
It was not too late to change tactics. Jensen decided to pretend that it was. “I can't stop now, I've traveled so far to change this lonely life!”
Cougar finally saw the chorus coming a split second before Jensen barreled in. “Jensen-”
“I want to know what love is!” Jensen said, grandly. “I want you to show me! I wanna feel what love iiiiiis-”
“Ya me tienes hasta acá-”
“-and I know you can show me.”
He polished it off with a few bars on air electric keyboard. Cougar stared at him, eyes narrowed, and here, this, this was an expression Jensen recognized.
Someone banged on the wall. “KEEP IT DOWN,” a voice shouted, muffled. Jensen suspected it was Clay.
“Wanna make some noise?” said Jensen.
Cougar carefully moved his rifle out of the way and set his hat on the nightstand, grinning.
Pooch held up his hands in mock surrender. “Okay, hang on, hang on. How about Cougen?”
The suggestion was greeted with a chorus of booing. Aisha threw a beer can at his head. “Fuck no,” she said, “that's fucking awful.”
“They're all fucking awful,” said Clay.
“Yes, that's the point. Ah,” said Aisha. “Gentlemen, I've got it. Jennar.”
Pooch cackled in approval. “Cheers,” he said. Clay went back to trying to ignore them.
BONUS EPILOGUE II:
The caller ID said ‘Alan Grant.’
“You’d better pick it up,” said Lex. She was making intense faces at her computer screen. It might be one of her MMORPGs, or she might be deconstructing a vicious, malicious code. It was hard to tell.
“But I don’t wanna,” Tim said from the floor. “What if he gets shouty?”
“This is what scares you?” said Lex. It was rhetorical. “You know what this means?”
“MORE WINE,” Tim cheered. Lex obligingly poured him another glass, then topped off her own. The phone continued to ring.
“Ugh,” said Tim, and answered it. “Hi, Alan.”
“Hello Tim,” said Alan. “Lex told me a very interesting story last week.”
“I’m sure she did,” said Tim, playing it cool.
“I’m well aware of your current research, Tim, but I have to say I’m surprised that you’re treating the dinosaur carnival as a legitimate biological throwback.”
“Er,” said Tim. He covered the mouthpiece and glared at Lex. “See what you did! He’s being disappointed at me! Dr. Alan Grant is disappointed in me!”
“Stand your ground,” Lex mouthed at him, then, distracted, jabbed viciously at her keyboard and spilled half a glass of red wine on the floor. If this were Tim’s condo, he’d have to kill her, but this is Lex’s place, which she has thoughtfully redone with easy-to-wipe hardwood floors for occasions such as this one.
When Tim put the phone back to his ear, Alan was still talking, in a calm, even voice. “--a completely reckless endangerment of life and limb -- and not just yours, either, but of anyone who --.” Tim carefully set the phone down and hit the speaker button, then made his way to the kitchen to find some paper towels.
“--Can’t believe anyone would go back to those death traps, anyway --” Alan was saying when Tim meandered back into the living room, possibly (hopefully?) winding up, but then there was a new voice in the background.
“Yeah, who does that,” the voice said, faint.
“That was completely your fault,” Alan said, going a bit muffled, as though he had gotten distracted and forgotten he was holding a phone to his ear.
“You learned some cool stuff, though,” said the voice, coming closer. “You wrote an entire paper about velociraptor vocalisations that was grounded on --”
“I used the fossil record to set the groundwork for my paper, Billy; I did not rely on InGen’s ridiculous --”
The phone went dead.
Tim leaned over, holding out his fist, which Lex obligingly bumped without looking away from her screen.
“More wine,” she said.