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Jensen remembered all too well, the day the Earth built a wall around itself.

It had been the New Space Era year 38, and he was all of twelve at the time. Old enough to be obsessed by the idea of stars and galaxies and space travel, old enough to have soaked up the basic data and mechanics of it like a sponge, but only on the verge of being old enough to comprehend the politics involved. His parents had happily encouraged his enthusiasm, however, buying him all the holomodels of planetary systems and spacecraft they could find, and then mapping out further diagrams for him when the holomodels weren't comprehensive enough for his eager mind. Like most people of their age group, his parents had grown up knowing more than their fair share of astronomy and general space science. Theirs was a generation that had been saturated in it out of necessity, that hadn't been old enough to know anything different – they had only ever existed in a world where travelling to and exploring deep space was a very real and attainable goal.

His father had only been a year old when First Contact was made and the NSE Year Zero was proclaimed. His mother's parents hadn't even met yet.

And there they all were just a few decades later, watching the world recoil from its child-foolish ventures. Like a kid with a new toy too delicate for their clumsy hands, their intent was reckless, something was bound to break. They were reaping the reward of stamping their wilful feet all the way out there in the next galaxy, when instead they should have thought to tip-toe.

From what Jensen understood, the Earth had always acted too big for its boots. And now they had been forced to withdraw into their shell, form a cocoon around themselves in an act of calculated submission, and hope that the Pandora's Box they'd disturbed would eventually leave them be.

That's where the SPUD had come in.

It had only been him and his mother at home that day, and they'd watched it on the holoscreen in real time. Jensen would never forget it. The image had been burned into his retinas in those moments, sparking something deep within his young soul.

All over the Earth strategically placed SPUDs were deployed from within the WASP stations that dotted the land and sea – zaps of electric blue travelling up thirty-storey high poles, then blasting into the outer edge of the stratosphere. The energy spread over the sky like a giant umbrella being opened, the circumference of it connecting with that of the next 'umbrella' positioned a few hundred miles away. It all happened so far up they were only able to see it thanks to footage from low-flying news station satellites.

It had been something to behold, especially so for an impressionable kid like Jensen. The SPUD was a great feat of both modern science and engineering, and worldwide coordination and cooperation – the first example of such in more years than anyone could remember (as Jensen had later found out). But while it had been amazing watching it all go down in the news streams, his understanding of the reasoning behind it had not been quite so immediate. He'd practically grilled his mother with questions about it, followed by every other adult he'd come into contact with over the next few days when her answers hadn't proven adequate.

All he'd really managed to weasel out of them was that the SPUD was for their 'protection'. To Jensen, that was not enough to suffice. The very fact that the SPUDs had been erected by the Worldwide Anti-Alien Safeguarding Program (better known as the WASP) was enough to raise a whole bunch of red flags as far as he was concerned.

He'd seen what footage there was of humans interacting with the various alien races they'd encountered so far, even the really dated stuff from the First Contact all those years ago. Not all of them had been what you might call 'friendly'. In fact, some of them had been downright hostile and continued to be so all these years later, but that’s what the military's EDOT units and the WASP programs were for. What more protection did they need?

But then again, he'd also seen footage of the strange happenings within his own race.

His mother hadn't liked him looking at such terrible things, so he'd had to do his digging on the sly. He'd gone on to make a detailed timeline of every incident he could find even the slightest mention of, and it hadn't taken all that long to find the key connections – his timeline ended up looking more like a spider web.

Mere weeks after the blue-skinned Leonisians had made their first Earthly appearance, the first mention of a 'freak accident' had occurred. They'd happened sporadically in the two years since, killing dozens, and then suddenly, days after an Earth ambassador was scheduled to visit Leonis, the SPUDs had been activated…

It was too much of a coincidence for a too-curious kid like Jensen to believe that that was all it was.

He'd been thirteen(-going-on-thirty) by the time he'd figured out enough of the truth to place the blame. But while his parents may have raised him to value honesty and integrity, he'd known in his gut that it was something he would have to keep to himself, despite its importance. If he was to really make something of his revelation he would have to play it close to the vest, play the long game. It wasn't as if anyone would believe a thirteen-year-old kid's rantings anyhow.

But his youth-inspired conviction was what had led him there, to that night.

He was nineteen now, and perhaps too determined and too intelligent for his own good.

People had short attention spans. No doubt they would think it incomprehensible that the revelations of a thirteen year old could breed such goal-driven intensity – an intensity that had never waned in all the years since and had little chance of doing so any time in the near future. He'd always been a bit of an oddball, but his single-minded focus had sometimes come at the cost of other more teenage-level matters. In many cases it had left Jensen an island.

He had friends, he supposed, but not the kind he could (or would) whisper secrets to in the dark of the small hours – not like his peers did. He always kept his head despite what they might have been drinking or smoking. It was probably no surprise that he'd always gotten ribbed for being too uptight.

He could hold a decent conversation if he had to, sure, but it was namely his appearance that had allowed him to keep up with the usual milestones – sex, and the like. Something about his lips or eyelashes or the green of his eyes… He could never get a straight answer about that, but in his mind it was beside the point. He got to know what worked, what the signs were, and used it to his advantage when he needed to. But otherwise… there was an emotionally charged barrier around him. And he liked it that way.

People tried to get to know him occasionally, but more often than not they let themselves be pushed away by his brush-offs. His aloofness could be alienating, or so he'd been told. As a man on a mission, he accepted the downsides. He'd been planning too long to allow himself to be side-tracked by other baser things.

Perhaps such character quirks were why he'd fit into the armed forces so well.

His mother had always thought teen-Jensen a bit of an obsessive conspiracy theorist and had been shocked at his decision to jump into the army while he was still fresh from high school. But his father had talked her around. He and Alan had never talked much, period, but Jensen had always felt that they just didn't need to. He'd always had a sneaking suspicion that Alan knew exactly what he was up to, but he'd never put a stop to it. For all Jensen knew, maybe he thought the same. Alan essentially worked for the military, too, after all. Albeit in a 'non-serving' capacity. He was a specialised technician, one that travelled to various places around the country to perform checks on particular devices – devices like the SPUD. Over the years he'd answered every question Jensen had ever had about the SPUDs. Even the obscure ones that no one except a technician or engineer would ever need to know.

Which was partly what had brought him to his current situation:

It was nearing three in the morning, as cold and dark as Neptune's asshole. Earlier that afternoon he'd completed his first mission with his new group of advanced-standing second-level Privates and was supposed to be back at the base recuperating. And as far as his team and superiors knew, he was.

So long as he could help it, none of them would ever know that he was actually in a sectioned-off area a mile adjacent to the base. It was all fenced off and monitored, but he knew his way around such things by now. Hell, it was part of his current training. And with the hefty competition he was surrounded by? No one batted an eyelid when you proved just how exceptionally good you were at whatever crazy mission they threw at you.

Jensen had been waiting for such an opportunity as this. Had been preparing for months. He knew precisely how long he had to get in and get out before the system detected him, and he'd even forged a fake 'getaway trail' in advance should big brother become aware of the tampering and go looking for the culprit.

But his calculations should be sound – it shouldn't have to come to that.

Jensen knelt at the base of the connection box and opened the access flap – the one that had Space Protection Utility Device (aka SPUD) stamped across the top. He settled his night vision eye-shield on his nose and pulled the plastic case from his pocket, very carefully removing its content.

The chip was barely half as big as his pinky fingernail, not to mention a bit 'home-made' looking, but it was sure going to pack a punch. With the utmost care (and a pair of plastic tweezers) he slipped it into the correct slot and replaced the access flap as he'd found it. He wouldn't know if it had worked until he got back to his room, to his laptop, and he only had seconds to spare before the next surveillance drone flew by, so he hightailed it back to the base, covering his tracks as he went.

He was just slipping under the laser-lined fence of the base perimeter – tutting to himself about the lax security – when he heard a low snap. He turned to see the faintest surge of blue-lit energy sliding up the length of the SPUD pole, all the way up toward the sky. And he figured that it was either a really good sign, or a really bad one.

~

"Ready to go, Sarge?"

Jensen looked up to find Genevieve's head poking into his room. Casually he closed the lid of his laptop and slipped it into his case of belongings. Every mission-level soldier got a Safe Case – sturdy, lockable, with your ID number punched into the side – and anything and everything inside was considered private and untouchable. All of his stuff was packed into it and one other bag since they would be on the move again shortly. He took extreme measures with his data encryption anyway, his natural paranoia coming into play. Most people had paper-thin tablets or handheld devices with holographic capabilities these days, so Jensen's methods were a little 'old school'. But it wasn't as if he was the only one – one of his juniors, Adrianne, still had a laptop, too. She was probably the best hacker and code writer Jensen had ever seen (besides himself) and over the course of things, and the mutual quirk of owning laptops, they'd forged a pretty airtight respect of each other.

He slid off the bed and secured his case closed, picking up his uniform jacket as he turned to face his teammate.

"I'm no Sergeant yet, Gen."

"Oh, please," she scoffed, "Literally everyone knows that so long as there's no major fuck ups on this next little jaunt that they're going to promote you. You're a good leader with great ideas and you've got more credits to your name than any other one of us, blah blah blah. It makes sense."

Jensen hedged, "It's not like I'm the only Corporal with good leadership qualities on the team."

"Hey, if you think they'd actually choose Steve or Ruthie over you, well… maybe you just aren't as fuckin' smart as I thought you were."

She elbowed him hard enough to make him wince, and then laughed. He'd made a couple friends in this particular team – the higher in rank you went, the more there seemed to be a focus on mutual respect rather than things like 'joining in', which pleased Jensen greatly – but Gen was one of a small few who had managed to get him to open up a little in the six months they'd been training together so far. And he couldn't say he really minded the connection he felt, either. It was… oddly refreshing.

"You know once they promote me I'll probably be shipped off somewhere else."

"True," she said as they left Jensen's room, heading down the hallway, "But we were going to get split up sooner or later. Everyone here gets that. And you've got bigger fish to fry. Seriously, you'll be a Master Sergeant and compiling your own pro team before you know it."

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves, hmm?"

She turned on him with a fierce look. "I know you know how fucking good you are, Jenny. The modesty thing is cute, but you don't fool me. You're the favourite here, and no one begrudges you for that believe it or not, but your ability reflects on us too, and we're counting on you to do right by us. Don't let us down, you ass. Do it for us as well as yourself."

They stopped as they reached the transport platform and Genevieve muttered something about 'breaking a leg' before she punched his arm and ran off. Jensen had been about to head toward his usual craft to retrieve his combat gear when a hand grabbed his elbow, stopping him in his tracks. He turned to find Adrianne looking at him strangely.

"Hey, Addy, what—"

"Can I talk to you? Privately? It'll only take a sec."

He led her over to an area he knew was spare on surveillance and bid her to speak.

"This is probably going to sound strange, but I know you like strange, so… I just have this… feeling. You're going to be promoted for this mission really quickly, too quickly – I know that's not that much of a leap to make at this point. But I've just heard some things that make me think they're going to try to push you up the ranks in a hurry. I worry they're trying to make a statement with you or try to control you or something. The Generals really like you for numerous reasons, but…"

Jensen wanted to butt in, point out that there was no way in hell they'd let someone under thirty be a Master Sergeant, let alone someone still under twenty-five. It was weirdly reminiscent of what Gen had said to him just before, and Adrianne had this almost trance-like fear on her face, so he dared not interrupt her.

"Jensen, I know you've got other stuff going on. We're kindred spirits in a way, so I get it. But don't freak out because I honestly don't know anything, I just know patterns. And your pattern tells me you have ulterior motives for doing what you do. I choose to believe they're good ones, because I've come to believe in your methods and actions, and you're no fool. All I'm saying is… you're going to have a lot of attention on you very soon. Like a bug under a microscope. People are going to be watching and plotting… You'll be a good target. So maybe… try not to do anything rash, okay?"

Forcing himself up from whatever level of shock he'd plummeted to, Jensen managed a nod.

Moments later he was alone.

He could hear them readying the supply carriers in the background, performing last minute checks on the v-jets that would whisk them off to the site of their next mission. It was supposed to be simple and straightforward – raiding a storage facility that was allegedly stockpiling illegally obtained munitions. At Specialist level (that being the majority of the team) that was about as easy as it got. But now… Jensen doubted whether he'd be able to keep his head screwed on straight. Adrianne had thrown him completely for a loop. Her words had been spoken with a complete conviction that had well and truly spooked him, and she'd said them as if she knew for a fact that they would come to pass. Yet there was no way she could know for certain. Not unless she'd been eavesdropping…

Adrianne might have only just made Specialist rank, but she'd been in their team for a while now. There were a number of them skilled with breaking open technology – Jensen included – but Addy just had a particular knack for getting into tight spaces when it came to information gathering and code breaking. She was a natural. And it struck Jensen that they were the only two around that kept laptops, just as they were potentially the only two with real secrets to hide.

She had to have seen something. What had she hacked into that could expose such plans as Jensen being promoted? They had retrieved encrypted military data on their previous mission – had she somehow managed to keep some of it for herself? Or had she actively hacked into EDOT correspondence logs? Neither answer gave Jensen much comfort.

He worried for her safety now. She was still a couple of years younger than Jensen and he felt a sense of protectiveness over her. But he couldn't deny that they both existed on a similar wavelength, meaning he should trust that she was smart enough to not get caught so easily. She was better than that – as was he. Whatever she did or did not know about Jensen's 'ulterior motives', he knew she would guard it safely. She was more than capable. He hoped he'd have the chance to have her in his team again one day.

And it was that thought which shook him out of his daze.

He had a unit to lead. He didn't have the luxury of allowing other matters to cloud his thoughts.

Taking an absolving breath, he turned and strode back toward the transport platform like he meant business. He located the container with his personalised armour and weaponry, checking and double-checking everything before arranging it upon his person. Soon after, the warning siren sounded, prompting all of WASP Mission Team 6 to board their assigned jets. There were twenty-eight of them in the team, five of whom were on the jet with Jensen. Richard was the one to take the pilot's seat, Rob riding shotgun, and within minutes they were in the air.

They were headed for somewhere on the East coast, but Jensen ignored the flight plan in exchange for tactical specs. He set a palm-sized device on the floor and activated the holographic documents stored within, using his hands to manipulate the images until he had the outside landscape of their target location in view. Richard set the jet on auto and all six of them gathered to discuss their preferred entry plan, Jensen taking any and all points on board as it would ultimately be his decision in the end. Alona had just begun to speak when an alarm blared through the cabin, Richard and Rob immediately turning back to the instrument panel, comm. units coiled into their ears.

Jensen ignored the back and forth between Richard and whoever was on the other end of the transmission, though he did jerk in surprise when the jet suddenly took a turn in a different direction. Rob was the one to eventually leave his seat and move back into the cabin.

"We've been given a new mission."

"So I noticed," Jensen said with some impatience.

"An attack was just launched on a research lab in the East. Mission Team 3 is closer but since we were already mobilised and in the air they called us in instead. Team 3 will get there as soon as they can with back-up artillery." Rob seemed to hesitate. "Command said that reports list the attackers as the Kajamites…"

Gasps circled around the cabin.

"Is that confirmed?"

Rob shook his head. "No. Only that the technicians who called in the attack said that they had arms like tree trunks and shooting them with normal guns didn't take them down."

"Sure sounds like Kajamites," Nick piped up, "But I thought that all the ones still on Earth had been detained?"

Jensen sighed. He knew better than to ever expect every single one of a present hostile race to be so easily bagged up by the government, no matter what the reports said. "Those guys are pretty comfy in human skins. It wouldn't have been that hard for them to hide out for a bit, formulate a plan." He turned to Rob. "Let the others know that we're ninety percent sure. Leave any metal-based ammo behind, only use lasers or voltaics. Oh, and they hate water."

Alona stared at him from across the way. "How do you even know that?"

Jensen just shrugged, denying the team any further (and unnecessary) information. It wasn't like his source was a legitimate one, after all.

The v-jets moved at hyper-speed and they were disembarking within fifteen, weapons at the ready. The research facility was smoking at one end, doors and windows were smashed in, the cacophony of thuds and screams and cracking walls filtering out toward them. All twenty-eight of them stood exposed in the parking lot they'd landed in, and Jensen immediately divided them into four teams with a few gestures of his hands; Steve, Ruthie, and Gen taking leadership of each of the other three.

They surrounded the building from all sides, ready to charge, but before they could even get near the doorways the Kajamites poured out to meet them. Most seemed to advance on them without thought, and they were taken out easily with a few well-aimed shots. Others came out with the battered bodies of technicians being used as makeshift shields, but Gen's team had managed to scale to the second floor of the building and took the club-handed beings down from behind.

Their partial-human skins seemed to fizzle and melt as they perished, their limbs unfolding out into their normal elongated state and revealing the reddish colour of their real 'skin'. The onslaught came to a halt as the last Kajamite appeared to be defeated, but then a loud rumbling emanated from within the facility.

Everyone pulled their weapons back up, taking aim, tension hanging taut in the air. An animalistic growl cut through the silence, so deep and dense that it caused the very ground to shake beneath their feet, some even losing their footing where they stood. More rumbling, and then cracks began to appear in the outer walls of the facility, puffs of brick and plaster dust tumbling down. Jensen could only hope that anyone still living had managed to either get out or take shelter, because he didn't like the chances of the building remaining upright for much longer. But then Alona shouted, sighting movement inside, and a bare chested man in ragged sweatpants barrelled out through the middle of a wall, debris flying everywhere. His body was obscenely thick with muscle, pulsing veins popping out from the surface of his skin, to the point that it could not possibly have been natural.

The earth rocked with each step he took, and after a frantic pause he began to run for Ruthie's team like a rabid dog off his leash. Shots were fired. Bursts of laser light and bolts of energy hurtling toward their target. But nothing seemed to faze the creature. Every attempt to down him with their high-powered assault weapons made no difference – rather, it only angered him more. His limbs swung around wildly as he attacked everyone and everything in his path – mindless and impulsive and crazed. Pared of any shred of his humanity.

It suddenly clicked what Jensen was witnessing.

There hadn't been a (known) sighting in nearly two years, and it had been on the other side of the world. A hiss squeezed from between his teeth. No wonder their guns did nothing. And now… he couldn't exactly run all the way back to the v-jets to exchange munitions. Meaning he was left with no other option. So he immediately dropped his gun and ran.

He paid no mind to the fact that his own team remained behind, some standing frozen in shock while others called at him to stop and come back. But he couldn't do that.

"Hey, you! Come at me, motherfucker!"

Jensen watched as the man turned his sights on him, eyes fevered-yellow with the need to kill. He swiftly pulled out the knife he always kept tucked in his boot and threw it with a precise flick of his wrist. The man suddenly stopped, glaring down at the handle now sticking out of his chest as if he had no idea how it had gotten there, and then dropped to the ground like a ton of bricks. Jensen pulled up from his run and moved to stand over the man-shaped creature. Strange how in death it still somehow looked as human as Jensen or any one of his teammates.

He didn't move until he heard the calling of his name, and he turned to find the whole of Team 6 looking at him. Ruthie's lot looked like they'd been beaten to a pulp, many of them cradling likely broken limbs, but thankfully none seemed beyond help.

"Well, Sarge," Steve said with a smirk, "If anyone doubted you deserve that promotion… Say, they can't promote you twice in one day can they?"

Jensen snorted, pointedly paying no mind to Steve's taunt harkening back to both Gen and Adrianne's words earlier that day. "You asshole."

In the distance he could hear the arrival of the incoming Mission Team 3 with the back-up weaponry.

So much for not doing anything rash.

~{//////}~

It was cold out. There was a breeze but the air was clear, only wisps of clouds here and there to interrupt the broad expanse of sky that stretched from horizon to horizon.

Jared was laid out on the roof, too engrossed in the deep indigo veil above him to notice the night's chill. Watching the stars was more important to him than the threat of hypothermia anyway. The sky – the promise of the sky – was his hope and refuge. His love of 'looking up' was pretty much the only point of consistency he had left these days.

Currently he was staying with a couple who claimed to be third (or was it fourth?) cousins of his father's. He had no idea whether it was the truth or not (not that he cared) and the town was as dry and empty as Venus' snatch, but he'd lived in worse. Martin and Deb didn't seem to give much of a shit about him either, only keeping him around for the monthly welfare payouts, but at least they left him alone. Fending for himself, he could do.

And as many nights as he cared to, he'd climb up onto the roof from the second-floor balcony and just stare into the great beyond. It was peaceful, for one thing, whilst also stoking the long-burning fire in his belly.

He imagined he could see the seam of two SPUDs up above. Supposedly you could if the light was just right, catching the fibres of the energy shields at just the right angle. The edges wouldn't meet up, though. He knew this for a fact. Jared didn't consider himself a 'space nerd' per se, but he'd still done the calculations – he knew precisely how far the 'umbrellas' stretched, and knew precisely how far away the nearest two SPUD stations were. And there was no way they met. He remembered vaguely mentioning something about it to his Astronomy professor once, and the way she'd suddenly looked at him as if he'd spontaneously grown a second and much more intelligent head. 'If you devoted half the amount of energy to the rest of your schoolwork as you apparent devote to that', she'd said to him with a stern look, 'I suspect that there would be little in this world that could stop you, Mr Padalecki.'

Her words had affected him profoundly, though perhaps not in the way the Professor had hoped. His grades had remained as average as always, but his thirst for poking holes in the government's lies only grew. As did his desire to get closer to the sky. Nutting out the secret of the SPUD was just the first rung on his newly-assembled ladder. But there was no way to know if was like this everywhere, not when the Device supposedly covered the whole entire world and the exact coordinates of many WASP base-stations was classified. Still, he could say with certainty that in that particular spot there was a gap of at least fifty feet between the two shields. More than enough wiggle-room for someone – something - to slip through if they knew which slice of bumfuck nowhere to go to.

His fists clenched at his sides.

Just how many somethings had managed it? Slipping through the glaring cracks under the eyes of the military's miracle watch dog – which was apparently no miracle after all.

Likely there was no possible answer to that question. No way to know if the SPUD had purposely been planned that way. How widely aware the governing bodies were. If they were using it to send things out just as often as they were probably bringing things in. And how many uninvited guests might have managed the same?

For Jared, in the end, his anger always came back to one underlying source.

How could it not? When it had fucked him up that much…

His parents had died at the hands of an Infected. And he'd seen the whole nightmare go down with his own two eyes.

But he hadn't been fool-headed enough to blame the Infected itself. They were like that because of one reason.

And he'd cursed the Leonisians every day since. They deserved to suffer, and one way or another Jared was determined to have a hand in that.

Once upon a time he'd thought of being a Fighternaut – flying through deep space in hyper-rockets and taking his vengeance directly to the source – but he'd eventually grown up and seen his childish fancies for what they were. No, he could be of more use down here on the surface. There were private contractors who had adaptable teams, specialist groups that hunted specific types of threats. But then, there was no way they'd take a completely untrained novice like him.

His only other option was government-sponsored military. They took the young, the inexperienced, rich or poor. It wasn't Jared's ideal, necessarily, but there was no shame in it. The stats these days for military entry was something like forty-one percent – nearly half the population was either in on the fight or in some way directly supporting it.

Perhaps most important of all was that it was a means of true escape. Jared was practically counting down the days now – just a few more months and he'd be of minimum age to join. No more foster homes, no more dragging his feet…

His heart leapt in his chest just thinking about it.

He'd seen video of it just the other day, the first public sighting of an Infected in almost two years. The ground had shaken for miles around, crevices opening up into the earth, people screaming… Until the military had gotten there. Some fancy team had taken down the culprit in little more than a handful of minutes.

Jared wanted in so badly it physically hurt. He wanted to be there, taking down those toxic motherfuckers from the front line. He needed to be there.

Forcing himself to take a breath, Jared relaxed his limbs, unclenched his teeth, and stared up. Back up at the sky.

It could be almost dizzying sometimes. Not just the fact that there were seemingly almost as many satellites up there as there were stars, but just the overarching emptiness of it all. And he could relate in some ways – there was a vicious hollowness inside himself as well, gnawing away at his fears and hesitations.

He had a pretty good idea how to fill it.

Just a few more months…

~

Jared shouldered his pack and picked up his compressed-voltaic rifle as he jumped down from the carrier-craft.

He was taller than the twenty-or-so men and women that stood around him, broader in the shoulders than most, but also younger. His size was the only armour he had at that moment, especially when his jailbait face gave him away completely. He could count on one hand the number of peers and superiors that hadn't called him 'kid'. It had taken everything in his power not to hiss and spit at them – which was probably not the best response regardless.

Still, his youthfulness didn't make him any less adept than the soldiers around him. He'd been through all the required basic training courses plus a few extra that he'd specifically been chosen for, and he'd passed the lot of them with flying colours. He'd felt the jealous stares from the other trainees at the time, but he had bigger things to worry about. Like being tossed in with a bunch of other guys and girls who'd been found to be as 'well equipped' as Jared. The competition would be fierce. And he welcomed it.

"Gather round folks."

They all huddled around the senior officer – his insignia marked him a Staff Sergeant – waiting to see what came next. They were all still a bit green around the ears, so there was an air of excitement and apprehension in the air.

"You're all here because you've proven yourselves to be the best amongst your respective training groups. Some will be more experienced in certain areas than others, but I can guarantee you have all been hand-picked to be part of this team for a reason. You all have skillsets that are considered valuable. So please be respectful and understanding of each other. Any kind of defiant or disobedient behaviour will not be tolerated. And we expect you to be one hundred percent committed. If something is stopping you from performing, we need to know about it, and if you don't want to be here for any reason – quantifiable or otherwise – then I suggest you get your ass out of here now, not later. There is no excuse for wasting our time. Clear?"

"Yes, sir!"

"Yes, sir!"

Jared joined in, truly believing his own words. He'd never felt this committed towards anything before, not until he'd first arrived at the base training compound a few months before. But then, even if he did want to leave, he had nothing to go back to on the outside anyway. Only emptiness.

"At ease, rookies."

Jared's head had dropped to stare at his feet, but the sound of a new voice had him looking back up in a flash. The older man that had greeted them had moved away to the side, and now there stood another comparatively younger man, one that couldn't have been all that much older than Jared. Possibly he was even younger than some of the other trainees that stood around him. Yet his uniform clearly marked him as their superior.

"I'm Master Sergeant Ackles. You may address me as Sarge or Sir, unless I say otherwise. It was by my asking that you have been brought here today. I am the one who picked you all out from amongst the crowd and I trust that you will work hard to prove that my faith in you was not unfounded. You have a great opportunity here. Within this group you will gain not only specialty skills, but also camaraderie. Once you're proven mission ready, these men and women around you will be the only thing standing between you and a whole lot of hurt. Trust, teamwork, and intuition will be your foundations for success and survival. Now off to the barracks with you. Move your asses!"

The other superiors present began herding them towards the so-called 'S1 barracks', but Jared couldn't help but turn back to get one last look at the Master Sergeant. His expression was hard and emotionless, much like every other Sergeant (and beyond) that Jared had so far come in contact with. Yet something told him that there was more to this particular man than met the eye, and it wasn't just his unexpectedly stunning appearance that had Jared intrigued.

Jared knew a mask when he saw one. He would know, after all… That awkward, young-and-stupid 'Jared guy' everyone seemed to love? Total farce. But it was the greatest protection he had.

Letting himself be pulled along by the small crowd, they were soon ushered into moderately sized rooms with two double bunks a-piece. Jared ended up taking the bottom of one while a guy named Chris took the top. The two guys taking the other bunk introduced themselves as Rosey and Tom. They all shook hands and Jared got the strangest feeling – they'd only just met, but somehow he could imagine himself becoming actual friends with these guys.

~

Things were no picnic in the advanced standings club, but Jared hadn't expected them to be.

For all that he might have initially thought the Master Sergeant 'stunning', the man's training was brutal and dirty and relentless. Jared had never felt so exhausted in his life. Still, it wasn't like they were being run into the ground or punished or something. If someone needed help, the Sarge would actively help them, and if anyone ever gave the impression that they thought the guy had no idea what he was on about, he'd immediately prove them wrong. Throughout the obstacle courses and combat training and target practice, the computer science, the space science, and the lessons in munitions and specialised chemistry, Jared watched Ackles like a hawk. He was a hard-ass with a glorious ass, and it seemed that there was nothing he couldn't do better than any single one of them. Jared found himself floating in a constant state of limbo, stuck somewhere between jaw-dropping awe and being incredibly turned on.

But while it was a terrible mental place to be in, it only made Jared try all the harder. Ackles made a point of doling out terse praise where is was due, and the couple of times Jared had felt the prickle of awareness as Ackles passed by at his six, the brief 'good' that registered from that low, potent voice… it had taken all his efforts not to go completely weak in the knees and turn an embarrassing shade of red.

It was a quandary he'd never faced before. He hated the seeming weakness that came over him at the mere sight of the man, yet he craved this new and foreign excitement – the way his pulse picked up, the flutter of his stomach… He decided eventually to treat it as a new mission. An obstacle to overcome. Rosey and Chris had cottoned on to him all too quick, however, and from then on never let him hear the end of it. But Jared tested himself, made himself stronger against this new opponent, and learned to put on a new kind of mask. Weeks passed, and his roommates still hedged him about it from time to time, but they'd backed off once their teasing started to lose its desired effect. It made Jared pleased to know that he'd succeeded in managing to keep his emotions to himself.

Not that it was a bad thing… It was normal for others – growls of anger, shouts of joy, the usual sort of stuff. But that just wasn't Jared. Not really. Not since he was a kid.

And yet. Something about not being able to express himself to the Sergeant made him hurt. He wanted to show the guy a genuine smile, wanted to touch him – as in, just pat him on the shoulder or something. Something with a positive feel. But Jared was too caught up in his own anxieties to let out these unfamiliar impulses, not to mention that Ackles was so far his superior, so fucking amazing at everything, why would he ever consider Jared any more than he considered anyone else. Fucking dammit.

Another thing Jared had learned, between all the foster families and shitty so-called 'parenting' he'd endured, was how to suck it up.

~

He settled the butt of the gun along the inner-edge of his arm pit, aiming the cylinder and breathing through the ache. The flesh from his collarbone to his sixth rib was black and blue from the recoil on the fucking things, but goddamn they were effective.

He lay in wait as the field before him remained still and clear, pushing his usual impatience to the side. Minutes ticked by, his shoulders just barely starting to burn, but then he saw it. He swung easy to the left and fired. A bolt of bright blue galvanic energy shot forth and obliterated the 'enemy' target, and Jared could feel the heat of its power wash over his face.

He pushed back and stood, joints cracking as he stretched, and suddenly there was a hand clasping tightly at his shoulder.

"Seventeen out of seventeen targets. Well done, Private. Top of the fuckin' class."

He clung to that one interaction for a matter of weeks.

He was lovesick, and oddly enough, he'd come to accept it.

All the more Jared found himself searching for a glimpse of the Sarge at any random point in time. Sometimes a moment would pass when he'd find Ackles looking back at him, too. Just for a moment. But then, logically speaking, the more he looked – or stared was probably more accurate – the more likely it was he was going to get caught now and then. He didn't mind it so much, he didn't quickly turn away as if he'd been discovered doing something wrong, but the expression Ackles seemed to have on his face whenever it happened… Jared couldn't for the life of him figure if it was interest or irritation.

~

The barracks during break times were a hive of activity, chatter, and space-talk. Between them all they shared two large holoscreens and five communal tablet computers (for those that didn't have their own) that were kept in the lounge area, so there was no excuse for not keeping tabs on the news. And in their line of work, news was knowledge, and knowledge was a leg-up. By being brought into the advanced training group he was currently in, Jared was already in preparation for a position in either the Earth Defence against Outer Threats (EDOT) corps or Worldwide Anti-Alien Safeguarding Program (WASP), which would put him exactly where he wanted to be. WASP was his ultimate goal, though, since they were involved in more specialised and offensive approaches. Being part of their ranks would mean having detailed knowledge of tech and strategies and science. WASP fighters were the ones who had the real secrets, or so everyone said.

Just being in his current group had let him in on enough tidbits, though. Some things were open secrets amongst their ranks, things that civilians would never hope to know. The SPUD, for instance. Not too long ago he'd thought himself so clever for figuring out it had problems. It had been such a revelation when it was first enforced, but apparently any half-decent student of the astro sciences knew how imperfect it really was. Indeed, much of their current tech had its imperfections.

He remembered his first days as a rookie Private. His shock at hearing some of the gossip of those around him. His outrage. Not unlike what he'd felt that day years before, when he'd finally dug deep enough to reveal the SPUDs truth.

But then, mindset-wise, he'd matured a lot as he'd passed from teenager into his twenties. Realised the nature of faults around him as well as within himself. Realised that perfect was never.

Jared stood in one of the doorways leading to the lounge area, just enough out of sight that he was unlikely to be bothered. His teammate Anna had switched the screen to footage of one of the nearby launch stations, two hyper-rockets taking off for an internationally-sanctioned peace-keeping mission in Alphardia. The first (publicly acknowledged) trans-planet travel in eighteen months or more.

Once, such a thing had been as commonplace as a full moon, but since the launch of the SPUD such events were strictly limited and heavily monitored. For decades now intergalactic travel had been stable and accessible, and contact with other beings was made regularly, but it had also opened up a gateway for Earth to a whole new world of problems. Technology, diseases, raw materials, warfare… For every positive that deep space exploration gave them, the negatives it brought far outweighed them. All over the globe, dozens of launch sites were now essentially abandoned.

Everyone and their dog knew that it was the Leonisians that had been the final straw. The official story went that they had brought a 'gift' – some sort of token that could grant that power to those that touched it. Whatever outcome the Leonisians had been hoping for no one really knew, but their so-called gift backfired when it resulted in the death and suffering of dozens of people.

Having since dug a bit deeper for information, Jared figured it was more likely to have been some sort of weaponised virus that just happened to manifest as 'powers', sending the victims insane in the process. If it didn't instantly kill them, that was. Of course, then there was the alternative theory that their gift had been just that – a gift from one planet to another in good faith, which unfortunately just happened to be very lethal to humans.

Either way, when Earth publicly rejected their deadly gift, the Leonisians had not been happy, and had proclaimed that they would not suffer such insult.

Jared had no clue how true any of the known theories were. No one did. Military-based research labs had apparently tried to contain and eradicate the virus (or whatever it really was) but by the time they'd realised how unpredictable said virus was, it had already spread too far for them to ever know for sure that it was all gone.

Thus, every now and then there would be stories. People going mad and killing everyone in their path, strange instances of fire, explosions, bizarre accidents that should have been impossible…

On the one occasion that there was a live newscast about a supposed Infected attack, the whole of Jared's team gathered round to watch. He wondered if any of them had seen one up close and personal before, and stared into its mad-crazed eyes, just like he had.

He might have been better informed now, and not so quick to judge as he had been during his volatile teenage years, but that youth-borne anger still boiled somewhere deep down inside.

~

"Jared. Come with me"

"Uh. Yes, sir."

Ackles' voice had snapped him out of his daze and he dutifully followed the Sergeant off to an isolated room. He was still thinking about the video link Tom had just sent him, one that had been going viral over the past few hours. It had contained amateur footage of an ordinary looking person standing in an ordinary looking street, but doing unexplainable damage to the surrounding cars and buildings and people whilst barely moving a muscle. Something about it had shaken him to the very core, and only the Sergeant's repeated calling of his name managed to jolt him back into blinking and breathing normally again.

"You good?"

"Yeah, yeah. Fine. Uh… Thanks, Sarge."

Jared trailed him into an unoccupied dorm room and sat down on a bunk while Ackles seated himself on the one opposite.

A few moments ticked by with Ackles sitting there perfectly still and Jared trying not to fidget awkwardly, though no words passed their lips. When Jared finally managed to settle himself he began to wonder what the Sergeant wanted with him. More so since in all their interactions up to that point, Ackles had been the one to instigate the conversation. Yet he wasn't talking. Only looking curiously at Jared.

"So," Jared said, breaking the silence, "I'm thinking that with your pulling me aside like this… something important must be on your mind."

"So far, so good."

It was a response Jared hadn't expected, but he would keep guessing if that was the game in play. The only thing was, Ackles wouldn't have called him aside like that just for kicks. That was one thing he'd picked up about the Sarge from the beginning – he always had an agenda.

"Okay then. So I'm now thinking that you must have a job in mind for me. Maybe something specifically fitting my skillset, or…"

The Sergeant wasn't quite quick enough at wiping the vaguest grin from his lips. "Oh? And what else do you think?"

Jared thought a lot of things, some of them not entirely appropriate, but if he was going to be serious about it… his particular skillset involved precision, strategy, and a mindset unique to himself – a mindset geared toward bringing down the Infected. His thoughts drifted again to the video he'd watched earlier and he snorted.

"Don't suppose it has anything to do with a video, does it?"

He'd said it half as a joke, but when the Sergeant got that thoughtful look on his face, he couldn’t help but show his surprise.

"Wait, seriously? Everyone and their mother has seen that link by now. Why would you need to talk to me about some random footage of an Infected attack?"

Ackles cleared his throat. "Firstly, you and I both know that 'random' is hardly the right adjective to use. Secondly, while the population at large might call them 'Infected', wouldn't you suppose that calling 'super human' isn't exactly wrong either? It does ultimately get the point across."

Jared's jaw worked but no sound came out.

He'd never thought about it like that, but perhaps Ackles had a point. Still, Jared couldn't get past the fact that, yes, he had been pulled aside by the Sarge about a video he'd watched once all of ten minutes ago.

"So I'm right, then."

"You're not wrong."

Jared huffed a laugh and looked away, trying not to look his superior dead on in the eyes, lest he start staring. There was a time and place for everything, but this was not it.

"I climbed to this rank through my own efforts in the way of the Infected. I actually made Sergeant by stabbing one in the chest – I realised our target was unaffected by lasers and voltaic energy, and I was quick-thinking enough to take him down the old fashioned way, so-to-speak." Ackles went on, "Hence why I was allowed to take charge of this taskforce."

Things suddenly clicked. "You've been training us to go after the Infected specifically?"

"It's why I've tried to incorporate more practical things like hand-to-hand combat as well as the usual required stuff. I've found that their overall weakness tends towards blades and old-school bullets more than anything else. Energy blasts and taser-shots are particularly useless. But more to the point, I was the one who asked to create team S1 in the first place. I was allowed a certain amount of time and resources and asked to conduct my 'little experiment' in secret. Honestly, some of the higher ups think I'm wasting my time, but I guarantee they won't when they see what you're capable of—"

"Wait," Jared cut in, "What do you mean by wasting your time? They can't really be so stupid—"

"Jared, let me tell you right here and now that you have no idea of the stupidity and corruption that runs rife in the upper echelons of this force. You may be here now but you were still an ordinary trainee like everyone else, and you know that the majority of military teams are dedicated to either protection of national borders or protection from the skies. In my mind there is not nearly enough focus on protection from internal threats, and I'm pretty goddamn sure you can figure out why."

He ran his fingers through his hair, heaving a sigh in the process. "There's only two options that I can think of: ignorance or knowledge."

Ackles crossed his arms and nodded, his eyes dark with intensity.

"You're not wrong."

"So… This is all pretty blunt, even for you, Sarge. Why are you telling me all this?"

The Sergeant hesitated a moment, then leaned forward, elbows on knees, like he was divulging a secret. "I want to raise you to Sergeant. I want to split our current band of eighteen into two smaller teams. We're about as mission ready as we are ever going to get and we need to start putting some definitive results on the board, a-sap. I've tried to appear as patient as possible with everyone, but like I said, I was only granted a certain amount of time to make this happen. We need to prove that the S1 team and the army's expenditure toward it is not unwarranted."

"What…? Wait. I mean, you…" Jared took a deep breath, hoping to prevent himself from hyperventilating. He worked hard to be the best, to be deserving of his advanced standing, but this was something else. "You're making me a Sergeant? I'd be skipping Corporal rank altogether? Can you even do that?"

Ackles' lips twisted into a smirk. "Jared, did you hear anything else I just said?"

"Oh. Totally. Every word. I swear. But, really? Me? Have you seen me ever? I may be a good shot but my anxiety's gonna get me fucking killed one day, and not to mention I'm one of the youngest in the whole group. Who would take me seriously enough?"

As the words poured from his mouth, Jared did his best to swallow the subsequent mortification. He didn't know what kind of sorcery Ackles was weaving, but Jared had probably never spoken so honestly in front of anyone before.

"I do," Ackles reassured, "I take you seriously, Jared. I believe I know what drives you to do what you do, and I've seen enough over these past weeks to discern what kind of person you are. I don't make these decisions lightly. And I have little doubt your teammates will think similarly. Not to mention that you’re a great all-rounder, you’ve got a good head for strategy, and despite that mask you put on to pretend otherwise, you do genuinely give a fuck about people. That’s a fairly rare trait these days."

"Huh."

Between the unexpected praise and the notion that the Sergeant somehow seemed to know about his parents, Jared was lost for words.

"Jared?"

"Hm?"

"You good, Soldier?"

"M-hmm."

"You know, since you're going to be of senior rank now, I was going to ask you to call me Jensen. Just in non-professional instances. But, I mean, if you can't even speak… well…"

"I… what? Jensen? That's your name?"

"Don't wear it out."

Jared gaped for several long moments before he got control of his jaw again. He then attempted to wave the whole thing off as if it were nothing.

"Gee, I'm not sure what I'm worried about then when you're clearly not all that serious yourself. I mean, dragging people off to secluded rooms, revealing military secrets, telling them your name… Completely unprofessional."

Honestly, he didn't really know where this flippantly humorous attitude was even coming from. Jared was… really not a flippant nor humorous kind of guy. Most of the time.

Jensen shook his head with amusement, but then seemed to shake off his light-heartedness all of a sudden.

He looked Jared straight in the eyes and Jared immediately found himself teetering on the edge of a line he hadn't realised he'd been so close to.

"You're right, though. This is completely unprofessional of me." Jensen's hands clenched where they lay on his knees. "But I can't lie to you Jared. I'm… fairly sure I know how you feel about me, and I don't feel… dissimilar."

Saying it threw him for a loop would be the ultimate understatement.

Taking a shuddering breath in, Jared tried to process the words.

He'd been pining over this man he barely knew for the past six months – longer than any of his few past relationships had ever lasted. As well over a man who was a bit of a celebrity amongst the ranks. Someone who had accomplished a great deal in such a small amount of time, and who garnered respect from so many of his peers and superiors. He was military disciplined, yet with this wild gleam in his eye. And it was (at least partially) that gleam that had dragged Jared down into this hopeless and unrelenting crush. Tom and Rosey still prodded him about it whenever he was having a 'not so serious' day as they put it, but Jared had adjusted enough to be able to let it roll straight off his back. He'd kept it thoroughly buried just how deep he'd really fallen, and now, without even the slightest sign of what was coming, Jensen had just up and said it out loud like that? Like it was so easy?

"If you're about to say something about how we can never," Jared said steadily, trying to contain his ire, "I'd really rather you just didn't say anything at all."

Silence ensued.

~

“Sooo, Jay... You and the Sarge were in that room - alone, together - for quite some time...”

“Knock it off, Rosey.”

“What were you up to, hmm?” Tom teased, poking Jared in the arm, “Holding hands? Gazing longingly into each other's eyes?”

“You do look decidedly unrumpled, though... Ackles manage to keep it in his pants this time, huh?”

"Rosenbaum."

“Fine, fine. Take it easy, Jare. But for the record, we weren’t the only ones who noticed,” Rosey pointed out, “Anything you wanna tell us?”

Jared sighed forlornly. These motherfuckers he called his friends just wouldn’t quit.

“You’ll find out soon enough. That’s all I’m gonna say.”

Chris grasped melodramatically at his chest. “Dude, you’re killin me!”

“Blue balls, man! Blue balls!”

~

He was promoted within the week, and then the real missions began.

They were split into two teams, one each with Jared and Jensen at the helm. Things started off small - intelligence gathering and raids on previous known locations of suspected Infected. A few things turned up, but nothing of the calibre they’d been looking for. So they continued on.

Jared took to his new status as Sergeant with tentative enthusiasm. It took some time to get used to being the one his team turned to, but he felt more at ease with it as the weeks wore on. And admittedly, the new dynamic seemed to bring him out of his shell a little. He never let himself venture too far though (emotionally speaking), since he had made a promise to himself to work harder than ever before. Jensen had put a shitload of faith in Jared, and Jared had every intention of proving he was a worthy recipient of it.

The missions stacked up and before long they’d moved on to even bigger game. They were granted the use of two WASP-team grade v-jets, allowing them to be early on the scene if ever another sighting came to pass. And soon they were being siphoned specialised intel direct from Mission Command as well – 'As it should be,' was all Jensen had to say on the matter.

That connection to Mission Command proved to be their turning point.

Jared’s initial contact with an Infected in the position of Sergeant – and the first one since he'd been witness to since his parents’ and sister’s deaths - had been difficult. In fact, he’d almost choked right there and then, right in the line of fire. A crucial error. He just hadn't been able to stop the onslaught of images from bombarding his mind – the saturation of red, the sickening crunch of bone, the sound of his little sister screaming… The couple of scars on his thigh and chest pulsed with phantom aches. For a long time he'd hated that that was all he'd been left with – two scars. He would have been happier being covered with them, wearing them like some kind of symbol of his inner anguish.

He struggled to keep his breathing even, his eyes clear, gun steady, but then that voice…

They’d been all wired up, earwigs tucked deep in ear canals, and Jensen’s voice had come loud and clear over the group comm line.

Keep it steady, Jared. Get ready to move.

It was (much to his relief) a wholly unassuming phrase and something they would have expected Ackles to say. But it was all he'd needed. Thanks to that voice, calm and composed, he’d remembered to breathe again, and was able to pull his shit together before his distraction became a problem. Jared could have kissed him.

"Yes, Sir."

Their intentions were always to capture where they could, take the subjects in for questioning and medical attention if at all possible. But after several instances of direct contact, not once did they manage to take a single one alive. Their power was too great, their madness too complete, the destruction too threatening. Twice Jared had gotten close enough to look them right in the eye, but never was there a moment of recognition. These Infected were simply too far gone. Their humanity stripped from them, and lost in a haze of psychosis. He tried to think of killing them as an act of mercy.

'Whatever helps you sleep at night,' Alona had said when he'd told her that. And not with even the slightest hint of sarcasm.

But in the end, it was the how that bothered Jared most.

Their missions soon started popping up nearly every month - where were they all coming from? Were there always this many? Had they just never had the right intel? Or were they genuinely becoming more common – the virus spreading once again?

It had been so long since the Leonisians had brought this fate upon the earth – intentionally or otherwise – and yes, there had always been reports of such madness for as long as Jared could remember, but the rate of instances appeared to be increasing. It couldn't possibly be a coincidence.

"You're not wrong," Jensen had said again when Jared mentioned his thoughts on the matter. He knew for certain that Jensen knew more than he was telling and it bothered him, but by the same token he had to hold out faith that Jensen would have told him if he thought it worthwhile knowing. The Sarge hadn't failed him yet.

They brought down two more Infected before they finally got wind of something solid.

One of the girls – Adrianne, a highly skilled hacker and code breaker that Jensen had belatedly brought into the team – managed to pull some scraps of encoded messages that (once decrypted) mentioned something about an underground hideout. It had immediately been forwarded to some higher-ups in the hope of getting the approval to investigate further.

As it went, they were denied as a group and were offered no explanation.

Jared tried his best to let it go and move on, prepare for whatever mission came next, but the suspicion still lingered. Some of the most significant information they'd ever procured and their mission plan was nixed before it even left the page? Yeah, no way Jared was fucking buying that.

Jensen had been right that night they'd been alone in the dorm room. And the longer Jared played Sergeant for his team, the more he discovered that the 'upper echelons' of the military had far too many ulterior motives for his liking.

~

It was sometime after dinner that Jared headed toward the back door, intending to get himself some fresh air. His roommates were challenging a couple of the other guys to a 'high stakes' poker game – the winner gaining all the others' weekly rations of sweets. Once, Jared might have been up for joining in, but of late he was finding it hard to feel any kind of real motivation outside of being in the field. It had been two months since S1 team's sudden shut-out from Mission Command, and two months since they'd been on any kind of mission of import. It was like they'd been demoted or something. And shit, for all he knew maybe they had. All Jensen would tell him was that his Base Command contacts were hedging, trying to evade any direct questions or answers. And considering it was Jensen they were doing it to, of all people, Jared had every notion to be suspicious. And that suspicion was slowly grinding his insides to a pulp.

Hence the need for air. And perspective.

The end of the barracks building he was heading through was empty now, and had been for three weeks. Ever since Jensen had nominated five of their nineteen to be transferred to a separate advanced-standing team. His reasoning to the rest of them had been that this other team had requested additional support. His reasoning to Jared had been 'trust me'.

And he did. Probably to a fault. But Jensen hadn't steered him wrong yet, hadn't given him reason not to trust.

Jared was just passing the last lot of bedroom doors when an arm wrapped around him from behind, a hand clamping over his mouth to stop him from calling out. He'd been so close to fighting back, barely a second away from elbowing his assailant in the gut with all his strength, but then he caught wind of it – he knew that smell. Perhaps he shouldn't, but he did. Unashamedly.

So he let Jensen drag him backward into the room he'd emerged from. It should have been empty. Officially, Jensen's room was about ten doors down, but for whatever reason he was apparently stowing away in this one. He could make out that there were two beds (not bunks) to one side, with a desk and chair occupying the opposite wall space. The room was devoid of any personal items, but there was a canvas bag on the floor, an open Safe Case on one of the beds – paper and notebooks spilling out of it – and a laptop on the desk. The overhead light was out, so as soon as Jensen moved to pull the door closed they were left with only the pale blue-grey light of the laptop screen.

Jared breathed through the waning swoop of adrenaline, and couldn't help but notice that Jensen was still standing close enough that he could feel his body heat.

For a long moment they just looked at one another, and Jared was struck by the play of light and shadow over the planes of Jensen's face. He'd done more than his fair share of staring at this man, but to see him up close like that, unhindered, near enough to point out the faintest of freckles across the bridge of his nose, the beginnings of a five-o'clock shadow over his lip and jaw, and the deepened creases beneath his eyes that spoke of sleepless nights…

What exactly had Jensen been doing in there? And had he dragged Jared in there for some kind of confession or just extra-curriculars?

"Jensen, what—"

"Gimme a second," Jensen shushed him with a harsh whisper. "I'm just… trying to reconcile my desires with my duties right now. I've done my fair share of reckless things – I wouldn't have made Master Sergeant if I hadn't – but this is by far the most… you know…"

Jared blinked. "No, I don't know. You haven't really given me any idea of what's happening right now, so-"

Before he knew it Jared found himself pushed back against the wall. Jensen's chest pressed in close against his own and his lips covered Jared's in a not-entirely-chaste kiss.

Jared froze. But Jensen didn't move. Didn't pull away. He just waited for Jared to finally let go, let down the walls he'd built up over the last however many months of living in close proximity, but never allowing them to get truly close. Ever since that conversation they'd had, the first time they'd ever been alone in a room together, things had been tense between them. Which shouldn't really be that much of a surprise. If only Jensen had kept his mouth shut, kept his 'not dissimilar' feelings to himself, then maybe Jared wouldn't have had to pull himself back so completely, and force himself to keep his feelings in check every time they had to speak – mission-related or otherwise.

It still bothered him to think about it, that Jensen had let his thoughts at the time slip so easily, but Jared couldn't deny that his desire for the Master Sergeant hadn't weakened one iota. If he were to be honest, with all the time they now had to spend together as the two commanding officers of their team, all the instances Jared had been able to closely observe Jensen's skill and strength in his position, it had only caused his feelings to grow deeper. Meaning that, despite the mutual denial between them up until that point, wasn't this everything Jared had wanted?

Dammit all to hell.

With a pained gasp, Jared gave in.

He parted his lips and let Jensen inside, let their tongues slide together, moans and desperation passing back and forth between them. The release of all that pent-up energy had them both getting rough with their hands and mouths – belts and biceps and shirt collars were gripped with bruising intensity, and Jared caught the tang of blood on his tongue when someone's lip caught a tooth. He had no idea if it was his own.

Jared's hips rolled and Jensen leaned in more heavily against his front, humid breaths heating the curve of his neck. And as Jared reached down to take Jensen's waist in his hands, bringing them more firmly together, he caught the hard length of Jensen's cock pressing blatantly into his thigh.

"Fuck damn," Jensen cursed, breaking through the chorus of heavy breathing and the scritching of their uniform fabric. He had one leg pointedly edging in between the gap of Jared's thighs, only to start shamelessly rubbing himself off against Jared's growing hard-on. He groaned so deeply Jared could feel it resonating through his chest. "Knew you'd be big, Jay. Knew you would."

The words fed his ego like nothing else he'd ever heard, and within seconds Jared was hard enough to pound nails.

"Like that, Jen?"

"Shit, yeah. Want it in me so fuckin' bad."

Jared growled at the carnal images the words conjured up in his mind. But there was no time to indulge in them when Jensen suddenly started pulling them towards the bed, dropping down on the mattress and pulling Jared up over him. At this angle, with only the laptop screen's light emanating from the other side of the room, Jared had to feel his way down the buttoned column of Jensen's shirt, the zipper of his pants, very nearly resorting to tearing them open instead. Jensen only laughed at his frustration and finally decided to help out, and they both scrambled in the dark to pull their own clothes off.

Still with half a leg in his pants, but too eager to wait any longer, Jared crawled back on the mattress and took his time running his palms over Jensen's naked body. He only wished he could see it in its full glory. But with his nearest teammates only a couple of rooms away, they were going to have to keep quiet and keep a low profile, lest the wrong person discover them. Jared leaned down to mouth along the planes of Jensen's chest, and he could sense the movement of muscle under his lips as Jensen fished around for something in the canvas bag by the bed. He heard the flick of a plastic cap, and he followed Jensen's hands by touch as they skimmed past his cock and dropped somewhere down between his thighs. He could only imagine what it must look like – the perfect flush of Jensen's cock and balls hiding the furled muscle of his hole… Though, between Jensen's hitching breaths, the squelching sound of lube on his fingers, the bump of elbow and forearm against Jared's stomach as Jensen's hand moved about – it proved erotic in its own right.

"Okay, okay, that's enough," Jensen said, more to himself than anything. And then he was pouring more lube and wrapping his fist around Jared's hard dick, guiding him in the rest of the way. Flesh met flesh, and Jared made a dive for it, pushing himself inside an inch at a time. The tight heat wrapped around him like a glove, and he didn't stop until he was buried to the hilt – Jensen's thighs resting on his hips, his balls lightly pressing against the lower edge of Jared's stomach. The perfect fit.

A low whine sounded deep in Jensen's throat, body squirming on the bed sheets.

"Fuck fuck fuck, Jared, Jesus Christ."

He settled, Jensen biting down on his own arm to quiet himself, and then he started to move.

He wrapped his arms around Jensen's shoulders and used the position to pull Jensen back down against him at the same time he thrust forward. The slap of flesh on flesh was the loudest sound they made, Jensen's teeth bearing down hard enough that Jared wondered if he'd broken the skin yet.

Somewhere in the midst of the chase Jared felt Jensen's hand crawl in between their bodies, his rhythm faltering just for a moment. He could tell the instant Jensen took his cock in hand since he felt the immediate reaction, Jensen's ass contracting so tightly around his dick he nearly lost it then and there. But he breathed through it, kept on with the fierce pounding of his hips, kept on chasing until Jensen's body suddenly pulled tight like a bowstring, and only then did Jared finally let himself go.

Jared's hips stuttered to a halt, filling Jensen's hole with his load. He pulled Jensen's arm from between his teeth and kissed him through the aftermath, playfully dragging a thumb through the mess on Jensen's stomach.

Yes, it had been a rough, scrappy affair with barely enough time spent to enjoy it, but no, Jared wouldn't have changed it for anything. Somehow he decided that rough and scrappy suited them perfectly.

Eventually Jensen pulled back from the kiss and gave Jared a nudge, both of them gasping as Jared withdrew. He grabbed one of their undershirts from somewhere on the floor and gave each of them a quick wipe clean, before settling back on the mattress and pulling up the blankets from where they'd been almost kicked completely off.

"So."

"So?"

"What brought this on?"

Jensen snorted and then barked out a sudden laugh, quickly muffling the sound with his hand.

"That's what you're going with?"

Jared shrugged. "Could be worse? But, I mean… I don't want to ruin the mood or whatever, I just feel like your jumping me didn't just come out of nowhere? After all these months of nothing… I feel like your self-control is better than that."

With his hand looped over Jensen's chest, he could feel the rise and fall of it as the Sergeant sighed.

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised… And yes, something did bring this on. It's true – my self-control is excellent."

Jared couldn't help the fist he put into Jensen's side. He really couldn't.

"Okay, fucking ouch. I deserved that. Son of a bitch… Okay, then. So. I may have been called away to the WASP base camp."

"Meaning you're leaving." Jared pushed down the hurt. "For how long?"

"I don't know. There's no way to answer that."

"When?"

"Tomorrow."

"Fuck."

Jensen shifted against him, burrowing his head against Jared's shoulder and nodding.

"Got no choice. You know how it is."

"Even if you did, would you stay?"

"I…" Jensen heaved another sigh, warm breath skirting over the surface of Jared's skin. "Probably not, no. I wasn't given details but—"

"It's probably some sort of special ops mission, right? I've actually considered this scenario, and I figure that's probably the only thing your superiors would fight you over."

"There's a good chance," Jensen admitted with a tired groan. "I think it might even be related to that lead that Adrianne decoded before."

Jared's head spun. "The one that basically got our team decommissioned."

"Yeah. So I can't really ignore an assignment like this. Not when it could be something worthwhile for once."

"It’s okay. I get it. I'd go too if I could."

"I know you would. I would want you by my side, fighting the good fight and all that."

"Whatever," Jared muttered, brushing off the sentiment. "But just… do something for me, would you?"

"Name it."

"Just… try not to be your reckless self if you can help it? I'd really like it if you came back, you know?"

"Jay, I'm the star child here. If anyone's going to make it out it would be me."

Jared could see Jensen's deflecting for what it was, and he didn't like it one bit.

"Don't, Jensen."

"Jay—"

"You don't think you're coming back at all, do you?"

Meaning that this had been a goodbye fuck? Was that it? Jared wanted to be angry about it, he wanted to lash out, he really did. But the ache of Jensen leaving was so much worse than the hot flash of his own anger. He lamented under his breath, "Stupid motherfucker. I hate you but I love you but I hate you."

Jensen's hand was gentle as it squeezed his where it lay around his waist. "Yeah, ditto."

~

It was weeks before they heard anything.

Jared had called through to the base communications department nearly every day. He only had to hear the beginnings of those rote monotonous 'explanations' to know they were stonewalling.

When they finally began to get the smallest of trickles of information coming down from above, Jared could see why'd they'd been trying to keep things quiet. As it was, the only news that was for certain was that the whole of the strike team, Jensen amongst them, was gone. Disappeared into thin air.

It took both Rosey and Tom's combined efforts to hold him down and keep him from breaking something, including himself.

The whole of the thirteen remaining team members were on his side though, they even said as much. And every single one of them wanted answers. But even with Adrianne's skill at breaking into classified files, they were at a loss. No one had a clue where Jensen's team had really been sent to, much less where they might have disappeared. There was literally and figuratively no trace of them. But they kept looking.

The Staff Sergeants that oversaw their barracks eventually returned to officially disband the S1 unit. Jared had known that Jensen left things behind for safe-keeping – namely his Safe Case – but Jared couldn't bring himself to retrieve it. Couldn't bring himself to even go into Jensen's room at all. So he picked up his own case and left the place without a second glance. He'd been informed that the barracks were to be shut down and sealed once they'd left, so he figured that was that. It wouldn't stop him looking for answers, though.

Time passed and Jared's heart crumbled. But his resolve only grew.

~{//////}~

Jensen woke.

Peeling open his eyes, he acknowledged the words carved into the wall just by the mattress. He'd managed to pry a screw loose from the bedframe and write with the pointed end.

He knew where (vaguely), who, and what he was, which meant today would be a good day.

Metallic thuds echoed from out in the hallway, faint faraway screams bouncing off the hard walls. Eventually they worked their way down to his door and a tray was pushed through the slot in the middle. His meals were little better than salted cardboard, but at least they were mostly edible. They'd been stupid enough to try to poison him in the beginning, but he'd left a trail of bodies behind in protest. They hadn’t put anything untoward in his food since. Some of the others there weren't so lucky.

Sometime later they returned to collect his empty tray and pass him a clean set of clothes – or pyjamas, more like. Jensen recognised the hands of the guy doing it. He was the tall one with the hair that hung past his ears. It reminded him of Jared. Which was why he was usually the one to attend to Jensen, since he was probably the only one Jensen hadn't attacked yet.

Thinking of Jared made his heart hurt. In good and bad ways. Jensen wondered what he was up to, and what had become of him and the team. Where Jensen was… it was hard to keep track of time. He was pretty sure he was underground somewhere, neatly packed in this lovely concrete box. It had definitely been years, but by now there was no way to know exactly how many.

Had Jared looked for him? No doubt the team had been told some kind of useless lie, but Jared would have been smart enough to see through it. Even if they'd named him dead, Jared would know. But again, it had been years… How long could a person keep searching when there were no clues and no answers and nothing to stop him from moving on.

Jensen shuddered.

Sometimes he had dreams about Jared looking for him. Finding him…

But even should someone manage to blast their way through the proverbial front door, would Jensen be able to bring himself to go? He wasn't what he had been. He was different now. Outside might be a place he couldn't exist any more. It was a grim reality, but Jensen was a realist. He'd been a senior officer. Before. It was in his interests to make decisions 'for the good of the people'.

He got to his feet and pulled the paper packet from the door slot, opening it up. He frowned when he saw the grey clothing inside. He preferred blue. Because grey meant he would be expected to comply.

Jensen didn't realise until the pain set in – he was on the ground, curled up, his own fingers digging into his face. He could scarcely breathe.

Don't make me do it, don't make me do it, don't make me…

It seemed today wouldn't be a good day after all.

~{//////}~

"Let's go."

Jared gave the signal and watched his team fan out around the building's perimeter. Their steps were near silent, agile and well trained, ready to strike at the slightest provocation. Each member was linked by an in-ear comm unit and digital eye shield which showed their location to each other, but Jared had been with these guys long enough that he had a feel for them now, knew that they would be in position by the estimated mental count he kept up in his head. He let everyone settle for just a moment and then tilted his chin, giving the go ahead into his collar where the comm link was set.

He heard the distant whirring from around the side of the building – one of the laser drills working on the door jamb. And then Chris, who was standing next to him, busted down the front door with a small electric pulse device. It was just one of the new gadgets granted to his team by their employer – some under-the-radar rich bastard with a military-kink and a taste for guns and revenge. Jared had never met the man face to face, but Eric had always been supportive of whatever missions Jared and his team chose to take on on his dime, so Jared figured that made him an okay guy.

Jared couldn't help but wonder what Jensen would think of him now – and the majority of the S1 unit for that matter – bowing out of the army and hitching a ride with a private contractor. It was all the rage these days. They'd tried to keep things up with the team back then, but the army was turning out to be a lost cause. Wouldn't listen to reason. Going after the wrong targets – targets that were so very clearly not what they should have been wasting their precious time on. Nor were they the only group to notice the suspect shift in military 'priorities'. So they'd left. As a team. And when word had gotten around about it, they'd had offers coming in from all sides. Apparently they'd made a bit of a name for themselves without even knowing it.

Hunting the Infected would do that to you. No team in all of known record had taken down as many as their S1 unit had, not anywhere in the world. Not that it was a statistic Jared was particularly proud of. He was proud of his team and their accomplishments, sure, but what sick sons of bitches would they have to be to take such pride in putting down rabid dogs. Jared had almost grown to hate the whole thing. What they'd seen by now, the horrid sights they'd witnessed because of the Infected… the screams, the rivers of blood, the exploding bodies…

Jared snapped back to the present as they began storming the building, guns raised, prepared to shoot to kill. Because that was their mission. This poor excuse for a house was reportedly hiding some kind of illegal medical facility – one possibly associated with research on Infected – and any life within it had to be cleansed. And surely, they found more medical equipment than they knew what to do with, but not a single sign of life.

"Jay-bird reporting," Jared grunted into his comm unit, linking to the operations liaison, "Location is a bust. Orders?"

"Catalogue and return to base, Jay-bird," came the voice.

"Roger that."

Jared rounded up his troops and had them heading back toward their pickup point. He tried not to look as dejected as he felt. Despite the opportunities that had come their way, it had been five years since he'd last felt like he was doing some meaningful and relevant. Five years since he'd last felt like he mattered.

Jensen had been missing for five years.

A reputation to kill for, every weapon at his disposal, high-priority missions for miles, but Jared just didn't feel like himself any more.

~

Another thread of hope followed by another fail.

This time the facility had been completely empty. Not even a table or chair to be found. So they'd packed up into the v-jet and headed off.

Rob and Richard where at the wheel, so to speak. They had apparently been former teammates of Jensen's, so when they'd turned up on Jared's doorstep looking for a new unit to be a part of, he couldn't say no. Turned out to be one of the best decisions he'd made so far. The two of them together were masters in the front seat of a jet, and Jared trusted their judgments from all facets. Which was why they were flying low on this occasion. They were cutting through old military territory which was still monitored, albeit barely. They hovered little more than fifteen feet above the ground, and followed what appeared to be old roads. Jared was staring out the narrow window, taking in the barren scenery, when something caught his eye.

"Stop."

Rich turned around to give him the eye. "Eh? Seriously?"

"That structure to the East, pull up there."

"You're the boss," Rich turned back with a shrug and did as ordered.

Within minutes they were disembarking, and Jared could hear the exclamations of surprise from the rest of his team. He left it to someone else to explain where they were to Richard and Rob, while he strode forward and kicked down the perimeter fence – finding that it wasn't even armed. He moved to the front door and took out the locks with a quick shot from a heat-type galvanic handgun, and pushed his way inside before he could think better of it.

The S1 unit barracks looked just the way they'd left them. It was eerie.

He could hear the footfalls of the others as they followed him inside, someone getting the overhead lights going again. Jared let his feet take him where they would, so perhaps it was no surprise that he ended up in front of the door to Jensen's room. That one door he hadn't been able to make himself walk through five years back.

But he would now.

He took the handle in hand and turned, letting the door swing back with a subtle creak. A fine layer of dust covered everything, and it kicked up around his boots as he walked in, disturbing the years-long calm. And there, on the bed, just as he must have left it, was Jensen's Safe Case. He could sense someone was standing behind him but he didn't turn to acknowledge them, only kneeled down on the floor by the bed and pulled the case towards him. Without even hesitating, he punched his own birthday into the keypad and heard the immediate snap of the lock as it opened.

Jared snorted. "That motherfucker."

Looking inside he was surprised to find nothing but tech and paper. There were small boxes of computer parts, enough plastic and wires and silicon to make a whole bunch of homemade chips, probably even enough to make a small motherboard. Then there were the notebooks. Jared had seen some of them before, but he'd never noticed just how many there were, nor what they contained. He flipped one open only to find lines and lines of letters and numbers – to the untrained eye it would have looked like nonsense, but Jared knew a location code when he saw one.

Pulling out the books, all twenty-something of them, he uncovered the grand prize underneath – Jensen's laptop.

He was almost shocked to find it. Jensen had been so secretive and protective of the thing, but it just served to drive home how sure Jensen had really been that he wasn't coming back from that last mission. Jared felt his limbs go numb with shock.

"Jared, Jared, hey hey hey!"

Adrianne appeared in his field of vision, a worried frown on her pretty face. She kept on saying his name, trying to get him to respond, then finally resorted to a hefty slap when he wouldn't react.

"Ow, godammit."

"There you are. Back with us now, Sunshine?"

"Yes, yes. Fuck."

She left Jared to comfort his cheek while she took the laptop from his hands and hooked it up to a power source. She booted the thing up and ran a lite decrypt to get through Jensen's main password screen and firewall.

"If I need to get through more password entries are you gonna have all the answers?"

Jared grimaced. "Best guess? Try my name or my birthday. It's already worked once today…"

"Christ," Addy choked, "Excuse me while I gag a moment."

Sitting idly by, Jared just listened to the clacking of computer keys as Adrianne wormed her way through Jensen's files. She probably knew as well as he did that Jensen had always been hiding something massive. They just had to find it.

Minutes passed, and Jared started to get worried. But then Addy's fingers seemed to freeze, hovering all of an inch above the keyboard.

"Holy fucking Swiss cheese, Batman."

Jared shuffled over on his knees and glanced over her shoulder. He stared at the screen, trying to get his head around what he was looking at. Until it suddenly clicked.

"That's… That's the SPUD system?"

"It's the SPUD, but not the official system. Or, not the one I've seen. To me? This looks like he's mapped out the whole entire map by himself. That would take some serious time and patience, and some very serious smarts, Jared."

Jared breathed through his shock. "But how? And, more to the point, why?"

"No telling for sure… But there would be no way to retrieve this level of detail without actually bugging the system."

"…You're telling me he hacked the SPUD?"

"For all intents and purposes, yes." Adrianne glanced back over to the bed, where all Jensen's things were now spilling out of the Safe Case. "All that stuff in the plastic boxes there? That's more than enough to make a reprogramming chip. If he managed to stick enough of those in enough of the actual SPUD towers? There's no telling how much information he could pull, or how much he'd be able to manipulate the system without detection."

"I don't even know what to say."

Addy turned to him with a grin. "You know, I always knew he was up to something. I confronted him about it once. When I first came into Jensen's unit, I managed to clone a message stream belonging to one of the Sergeant Generals, and so I'd been watching all his incoming and outgoing correspondence. I knew from there that they were going to try and manipulate how and where Jensen worked, get him under their thumb. So even though I was massively freaking out I managed to warn him, and he was able to escape that fate at the time. But I guess he couldn't escape it forever."

"So you've both been spying on our own military?" Jared could barely get the words out. "I don't know how to react to this."

"Don't be so shocked. You know as well as I do that they're corrupt as they come. Someone was going to have to infiltrate, and I guess Jensen was it."

"Yeah… you're not wrong."

A knock on the door interrupted both their thoughts, and a moment later Chris was sticking his head in the door, looking at them both curiously.

"Something you guys wanna share with the class?"

"Uh, yeah," Jared decided, clearing his throat, "Get everyone in here."

Adrianne kept tapping away at the keyboard while Jared pulled the notebooks towards himself, flicking through the pages. The location code he'd found was clearly something to do with the location of the SPUD towers, but then there was a whole lot of other calculations that just made no sense to his uninformed eyes. He kept looking as the rest of the team filed into the room, either sitting on the opposite bed or finding a place to stand. When they were all at ease he turned to face them.

"So it turns out that Jensen was even more of a maniac than we took him for."

"Not news to me," Rob piped up with a grin.

"But you broke into his computer?" Alona crossed her arms over her chest, clearly sceptical of their motives.

"Yes," Jared admitted with a heavy-hearted sigh, "If only I'd done it five years ago… But it's too late for that now. Addy and I have found more than we bargained for. Jensen's apparently been spying on the SPUD system for as long as he's been in the military. One of his notebooks dates back to NSE 44, which means he's been working on this since before he even enlisted."

"What exactly do you mean by 'spying'?"

Adrianne took over, moving aside to show the team the laptop screen. "He hacked the SPUD from over a dozen locations, and was able to create a fully digitised map of it – umbrellas, gaps, tears, high and low power areas. The whole shebang."

"And then some," Richard responded, moving closer to get a better look at the screen. He reached down to type something in, and suddenly the 'map' came alive, coloured lines pinging from one side of the image to the other. "Not only did he manage to map the thing, but we can actually remotely detect various signals being bounced off the umbrellas."

"Signals?"

Richard turned to face the rest of the unit. He was the oldest among them and had been in the military the longest, so his knowledge pool was a deep one. "You might say it was the 'happy accident' of the SPUD deployment. Of course it was designed to keep things out, or at least make a big ol' fuss if something tried to get in, but it deflects just as well from the underside as it does from the topside. Basically, if you get the angles right, you could bounce almost any kind of signal to almost anywhere you wanted."

"Like in that old-timey game with the flippy things," Rosey said, looking terribly pleased with himself, "Pinball, I think?"

Richard nodded. "Just like that. So when the EDOT cottoned on to this, they had to find a way both to monitor it, and to exploit it. What Jensen has happened upon is something like the monitoring system. But what they also managed to do was use the umbrellas to detect things that aren't being bounced anywhere – not just signals, but concentrations of people or energy as well. All of this stuff was practically common knowledge back in the day, but they hushed it all up somewhere along the line."

"So essentially they can track and monitor us whether we like it or not."

Jared clenched his teeth and felt the tension pinch in the side of his jaw. It was an endless supply of betrayal – the EDOT, who controlled base operations like mission command and housed the 'upper echelons' (as Jensen had always put it), just continued to let them all down with their continuous lies and deceit. As a kid, he'd always thought the military would be his saving grace. If only he'd known how wrong he would turn out to be.

"Jay?"

He turned to Adrianne, who had brought something new up onto the screen.

"I've just started rolling back the clock on this thing. If we can get to the right date we might be able to track Jensen and his special ops team."

It was difficult holding his heart in his throat as he waited, but for the first time in as long as he could recall, Jared felt genuine hope. Minutes passed, then hours. The team dispersed, but Jared refused to leave, parking himself next to a pile of Jensen's notebooks. Richard and Addy took turns at the keyboard, pointing things out to each other as they searched, but eventually, mercifully, they hit jackpot.

With Richard's shout of success, everyone came stumbling back into the small dorm room, peering at the tiny blinking blobs on the laptop.

"These are the bio signatures of the team," Addy explained, "So we can see that they hit this building here, but something rushes outta there in one hell of a hurry and gets the better of all them."

The red and orange blobs Jared took to be people, but the blob that mows them all down was neither colour.

"What exactly—"

"I think it's an Infected," Addy cut in.

Jared's stomach dropped.

"But look – then more people appear. The assumed Infected is still present, but it's idle. The whole mass travels to somewhere nearby and disappears, most likely underground."

A hush came over the team. Apparently base communications hadn't been completely talking out their asses when they'd said Jensen's team just disappeared into thin air. But Jared still wanted to crush them with his bare hands.

He found himself momentarily lost in the conflict of anger and desperation, but after a long moment the haze cleared, and Jared looked up to find the every other occupant of the room staring at him. Waiting for orders, Sir!

"What'll we do now, Sarge?" Chris asked, earnest as ever.

There was really only one thing they could do. "We go to this location and find 'somewhere nearby', wherever the fuck that is."

~

Their employer found the idea of their quest to be a curious one, so he got them a fully kitted-out, military-grade helicopter.

Needless to say, Rich and Rob were in heaven.

They hit the ground running and Jared didn’t have to say a thing this time. With the addition of the two pilots, there were sixteen of them altogether, and they all had their respective and well-practised parts to play. Adrianne and Mark (their blonde-haired tech geek) were stationed nearby to their makeshift landing pad. They had Jensen's laptop as well as various monitoring equipment set up, allowing them to relay suggestions and directions through the comm units.

Richard had managed to land them in precisely the last location that had registered on Jensen's map, but it wasn't until they were there, ankle deep in ash-grey dirt, that they could see the partially-buried building. Tom and Alona swept for motion sensors and energy fields but strangely found nothing. They advanced in formation, approaching the building front, and it was hardly surprising to find the visible part of it to be a façade. They all made their way up the creaking stairs and the through the rotting wooden door, but it was just as Jared was passing over the threshold that he was overcome with the most intense sensation of vertigo that he'd ever felt.

He must surely have been about to tip, but suddenly there were strong hands grabbing him from either side, holding him upright. He could hear their voices talking to him, about him, but it seemed as though they were far away. His head pulsed, like he'd been struck, but from the inside. And he dropped whatever it was that he'd had in his hands, clutching at his temples.

"Jay? Jay! Talk to me, man!"

Jared hissed, clumsily attempting to slap away whoever was yelling at him.

"Crap dammit, Jay!"

"Fucking loud," he groused, forcing his eyes open only to find himself kneeling on the dusty floor. Everything felt impossibly heavy. "What hap'n?"

"Nearly passed out on us, Jay."

"Rob got a little weird on us, too, but at least he stayed upright!"

Groaning with the effort it took, Jared forced himself back onto his feet. Didn't they have a job to do?

"I guess all this weird shit means we're in the right place then."

Alona looked concerned. "You sure you're good?"

"I'll be fine. Small beans, 'lona."

She huffed and stepped to the side while Jared put himself back together, gathering the gun he'd dropped to the floor. Once he was good to go he immediately started to feel better again, so he gave the signal, and Rosey moved to an oddly placed section of wall, aiming at it with one of Mark's specially made pulse devices. The wall seemed to shudder, then pause, before rolling back to reveal a metal-lined stairwell. Again, Tom and Alona went first, scanning for hidden security measures or anything that might be seeking out intruders, but still they didn't appear to find anything. Jared dutifully moved to follow, and was all of three steps in when he heard it:

You can't be here.

He stopped dead, eyes darting around as if he might someone other than his teammates. But of course there wasn't. He knew there wasn't. So he took a breath, paid no mind to Richard standing at his six, looking at him strangely, and continued down the steps.

You can't be here.

The voice came again, this time more forcefully.

But he grit his teeth, ignored it, and kept going. It clearly wasn't Mark or Adrianne's voice. It wasn't even like the voice was coming in through his ears. It was just… in his head, of all things. For a split second he could almost pretend it sounded a little like Jensen – that tone that he used to love hearing, that easy strength he could convey with a single word… But that would just be ridiculous, right?

No!

Ignore.

You can't!

Ignore.

Stop!

WHY? Jared suddenly shouted back at the voice, not able to stand it any longer.

Not safe, came the answer. And Jared nearly tumbled over his own feet, right on top of Alona.

"You alright, buddy?"

Jared wasn't sure he could get his voice to cooperate, so he just spotted Richard out the corner of his eye and gave him a quick nod.

Why is it not safe? he dared to ask, half fearing that even after everything he'd been through, he'd finally cracked.

They're going to come back. They'll kill you.

Jared could practically hear the distress resonating through the disembodied voice.

Who are they?

Military. But… secret.

His gasp slips out unbidden.

Why would they…? How? What are they doing here?

The best thing you could possibly do here would be to bomb the crap out of this hellhole and get away as fast as you can.

Somehow Jared just knew that he was hearing the truth. That for whatever reason, it was what they should do. But he couldn't. And maybe (probably) it was selfish of him, but he needed answers first. He refused to leave this place without answers.

I'm not going to do that. Not yet.

Please, listen—

Who are you?

The silence stretched as Jared continued to make his way down the stairs. All he could see were the backs of Tom and Alona's heads and stairs and stairs and stairs. He was just about to wonder if they might reach the centre of the Earth when they finally came to a plateau, the floor spreading out into a hallway full of more hallways. It was a fucking maze.

Who are you? he asked again, wondering if he'd chased the phantom off.

…You already know, Jared.

He barely made it away from the rest of the team before his breakfast came straight back up to meet the floor. He coughed and spluttered and grabbed at his water flask to rinse out his mouth. Whoever it was that was supposedly coming back to kill them would find his vomit before they found him, at least.

"Dude," Chris said with impatience, "What the fuck is going on with you?"

Jared pushed himself back onto his feet and sighed.

"If only there were words to explain it…"

You're not going to leave, are you.

The words were resigned. Tired.

Not without you. I'd never forgive myself.

That's not going to happen, but I know how bull-headed you can be. I guess I should give you a chance to fail. So do as I say.

"Hey," Rosey perked up, "Anyone hearing Mark or Adrianne at all?"

"Fuck," Chris muttered, "Comms are down. We must be pretty deep down here."

Why can't you speak to the others?

I've got a personal connection to you, Jay. I could find you anywhere. The others… not so much.

"Do you guys trust me?"

Jared found himself staring out at thirteen pairs of questioning eyes. The 'right now?' was obvious, and he didn’t blame them after his 'dizzy spells' and the whole vomiting thing. But he knew in his heart that they would follow, no matter what he did. He just hoped he wasn't leading them into oblivion.

"Awesome. This way, then."

He listened to Jensen's instructions as they passed through his mind, leading his teammates through door after door, hallway after hallway. It nearly made him dizzy all over again.

Take the far door on the right.

Jared didn't question it, his feet instantly moving to follow.

"Tom, take that door. Over there." He pointed.

Tom and Chris both looked at him strangely but managed not to argue. The door brought them into yet another long hallway. More doors lined each side, all the way down. But unlike previous versions, these were made of reinforced metal, numbers painted on the front. It reminded Jared of an old-school prison. Like something out of the history books.

Every second door is safe.

He caught Rosey just in time, his hand already on the locking mechanism.

"Not that one. The next one."

Rosey did as he was bid, opening it to find an empty room. Except, not exactly empty. It was lined with with electronic equipment and one way windows embedded the walls. In what must have been behind the first and third doors, they could see rooms that looked like something out of a hospital, and there was someone on the bed in room one, and someone curled up and shaking on the floor of room three.

They're not safe. Don't disturb them.

"Leave them be," Jared said out loud.

"Jay, you're scaring me, dude." Chris had his concerned face on.

"Just… trust me. Please."

It was all he could say.

Jen?

Come to the last door. Come alone.

He gestured for everyone to stay put. Heart thudding in his chest, he moved to the last door and manoeuvred the locking mechanism, the heavy metal swinging open wide. He almost dared not look, but Jared's eyes moved of their own accord, and there. Sitting curled on the bed. A man nearly swallowed by pale blue pyjamas. Holding himself.

Was Jensen.

"Oh, fuck." The words barely passed his lips. "Oh, fuck." Again, but louder.

It happened too fast, too slow, but in the space of a moment Jared was at the bedside, pulling a shaking Jensen into his arms. He felt like skin and bones.

"I got you."

Jensen said nothing, only clutched at Jared's shoulders hard enough to break the skin. And that probably said enough.

"Jensen—"

"I'm not me anymore, Jared."

The words were muffled, said into the padded front of Jared's uniform jacket. They still managed to convey everything he needed to know, however, which was that Jensen had been pushed to the very limit, probably even over that limit altogether. Jared could practically taste the damage. And he wanted to make these people bleed for what they'd done, but only after Jensen was safely away from it all.

"You can't, you can't," Jensen insisted, shaking his head against Jared's shoulder.

"Can't what? Take you away from this place?"

A nod.

And then that voice again.

I'm one of them now, Jared. You can't let me out.

"What? One of what? Jensen, talk to me."

An Infected. They've turned me into an Infected.

"That's impossible. It's an uncontrollable alien virus. They can't just—"

"That's the part we never figured out, Jay." Jensen's eyes stared up at him, dark and bruised and so fucking tired. "It was all a mistake. The Leonisians did nothing but make a mistake. Humans are the ones who ruined everything, Jay. The gift was a plant – some sort of flower. The oil that comes from it is what causes the Infection. These scientists… they've weaponised it. They've been experimenting with it the whole time."

Jared didn't know what to say. It was a possibility he'd never properly considered, but only because he'd never known what the 'gift' was. A flower, of all things… And they'd been growing it right there on Earth, experimenting with it… on innocents… making them into—

"But you're…?"

"Lucid?" Jensen nodded like his head weighed a hundred pounds. "Much more than I'd like. In control? Mostly. But… I'm still different now."

"Like how you were in my head."

"There's a lot of explaining to do, I know. But we don't have much time."

"Come on. I'm getting you out of here."

"Jared, no. They're coming. You—"

Jared dragged Jensen out into the hallway and there was a collective gasp as everyone realised who it was that was wrapped in Jared's arms.

"Oh, fuck me."

"No way."

"You all need to leave," Jensen urged with all the strength he could muster, "Right fucking now. They're already coming back. There's no… There's no time!"

Except that nobody moved. The whole team merely stood there, weapons in hand, determined looks painting their faces.

"I…" Jensen shook with irritation, glaring back at Jared. "I see that they've all learned your bad habits."

"Guess I'm just a fashionable guy?"

"Oh, please," Chris scoffed.

And as easy as that, the mood broke. Jensen finally resigned himself to whatever fate came upon them, while Jared suddenly had all the hope in the world. He would get them all out of there if it killed him.

"Time to start talking, Jen."

~{//////}~

So he did.

He drew a map of every exit that he knew of, including the vent shafts, which would allow them to send a signal to Adrianne and Mark at the surface.

It made him happy to know that Addy had stayed with Jared and his team, and that she'd helped so much in discovering the truth. In all honesty, he'd forgotten about his Safe Case. And the laptop. All his research. He supposed he'd had bigger problems to worry about while he'd been locked in that concrete box. And he wasn't home free just yet.

But Jared. Just seeing him gave Jensen strength.

It had barely been two days since he'd last had to comply. He still had no idea where they got the subjects from, whether they were criminals or other people they'd been experimenting on… In any other circumstance he might have felt sorry for them. But not there. All he could think about were the horrors he'd see. All the pain that he'd have to endure when they forced Jensen to reach into the subject's mind and pluck out all the little things that he was told to. 'Training' they called it. He could've laughed.

He still had no idea how they figured out his ability. All he could think of was that they'd managed to push him into a delusional state at some point. Maybe they'd drugged him to the gills. Had him dreaming awake and talking while he hadn't even been aware of it. They must have. Because he went to great lengths to keep them away, to keep them from poking and prodding him like an animal. It made him wonder how unique he was, whether he was the only one to stay this coherent after being 'turned'.

Several of the ones he'd been witness to either exploded on impact, or went instantly manic and killed themselves and everyone in the room. Most tended to seem okay at first, but took anywhere from days to weeks to work up to the same point – mania and destruction. Through utilising his ability here and there, he'd managed to find out that those were the ones he'd once been responsible for hunting down. The research teams would purposely let them loose from their labs and then track them, waiting and watching to see when and how it all went down.

It might as well have been a game to them.

And shit, if only they hadn't kept him locked up, hadn't kept him starved to the point of exhaustion, he would have killed them all by now. All of them. With his mind or with his hands – it wouldn't have mattered.

But now, he had half a chance to make his wish come true. With Jared and the remnants of the S1 unit on his side…

Doubt still threatened to creep in, though. Once upon a time he'd been filled with everything but doubt. Five years later and he barely went a moment without it.

Taking a breath, he sent his feelers out. He'd made enough contact now to be able to sense Richard, Rob, Alona, and Chris, so he could tell they were making good time and that Addy and Mark were on the surface, ready to fight. Jared was elsewhere – in one of the research labs. He would alert him when the time was right, but for now Jared was collecting as much evidence as possible, taking video and photographic footage via his eye shield. Soon the world would know.

He could sense the moment that the scientists returned, back-up troops in tow.

He felt the panic from Rob and Richard, the irritation from Chris… There were more soldiers than they'd bargained for. Shit.

Jensen went out into the hallway and unlocked the first and third doors. Samantha and Steve immediately walked out, as though they knew.

Sam was focussed, as lucid as she'd ever been, her hands already beginning to redden with molten heat. Steve was on the edge, though. But with a touch of Jensen's finger he settled, the mania abating for now. Steve rolled his shoulders with a smile and a cool breeze kicked up out of nowhere.

These two – both of them from Jensen's special ops team – somehow they'd held on. Perhaps Jensen was partly to blame (to thank) but they'd still held on through their own force of will. He couldn't leave them, and he couldn't let them not be part of the fight. They had as much desire to be out in the world again as he did.

He reached out again, stretched his mind to the limit to locate the closest team members, only to pull immediately back.

"We're overrun. Two of S1 team are already dead, and the rest are struggling."

Sam and Steve headed in the directions Jensen guided them to, while he headed towards Jared.

He immediately met two enemy combatants in the hall, but with a flick of his hand they fell. The mind could be so delicate – all he had to do was pull lightly on just the right string and…

~

A string of bodies left in his wake, Jensen stumbled into the research lab.

He was teetering on the edge, body on its last reserves of strength. He didn't know how much more he could aid in this fight. For all that it could appear so easy at times, doing what he did required energy, and energy was something he hadn't possessed much of all of the past five years.

But what he happened upon when he pushed open that last door, was a scene he could never have imagined. He'd known Jared was fighting hard, attacking with both his weapons and his body, but is his distraction Jensen had failed to notice that Jared no longer had the upper hand. It was over twenty well-equipped soldiers against one, and they had Jared backed into a corner. His guns were left on the ground, and there was no way he could retrieve that pulsers from his belt without having someone shoot him first. His only options were whatever was left in plain sight – some medical supplies, a couple of near empty chemical containers, and the medication fridge which had fallen open in the fight.

Jared hadn't spotted him yet, naturally too preoccupied by the guns trained on him, but just as Jensen attempted to slip back into his mind, Jared started to move.

It seemed to happen in slow motion – Jared's hand reaching for the fridge, fist wrapping around the ready-use injections on the top shelf.

It was only as he pulled them toward himself that Jensen realised what they were, what Jared was attempting to do…

He screamed as Jared forced two of the injections into his neck, violet liquid draining into his body even as the blasting of energy guns went off around him. Jared's eyes seemed to cloud over, muddled green-brown sinking into black.

And then it happened.

Every part of Jared's body, every little piece, vaporised in an instant.

Tiny black granules held suspended in the air for a too-long moment, and then tumbled to the ground all at once. They pulled all together like metal shavings to a magnet, forming a murky sea of black, slithering around on the vinyl floor. It had the thickness and opacity of oil, yet it glittered and swayed like the ocean.

Jensen had seen his share of newly 'turned' spontaneously exploding. But never had it looked like that.

The soldiers were looking around with confusion, unable to comprehend what had happened, nor how they should proceed. That was, until one of them finally spotted Jensen. Next thing he knew he was their next best target. Twenty minutes ago he perhaps could have dealt with them, but after everything that had just happened, there was simply no way.

Closing his eyes, Jensen prepared for the end. Yet once the sound of the galvanic guns going off met his ears, all he felt was… nothing.

Blinking open his eyes, Jensen could barely bring himself to breathe.

Before him stood a shield.

A shield made of oozing black diamonds.

~{//////}~

Jensen was never going to forgive him. Or so it felt like.

Exposing yourself to weaponised alien flower venom and getting turned into tar-coloured mercury was apparently just not something a person could be so easily forgiven for.

Jared was still hopeful, though.

Six weeks had passed since that day. A day that would never be forgotten. A day where they all both won and lost: Jared had won Jensen, but lost a significant portion of his humanity. They'd won the battle against the research facility's combatants, but they'd lost three of their own in the process.

So bittersweet.

His recovery of evidence had worked out well in the end. Adrianne had leaked just enough onto the netstream to expose the truth, while keeping just enough back for the military research divisions to be taken to the international courts. It was an exciting prospect, if a damning one for their country, but it was out of Jared's hands now, so all he could do was sit back and watch.

And that was something he'd done quite a bit of lately.

With Jensen.

Jensen who was getting stronger by the day, and slowly getting the help he needed to assimilate back into the real world. Jared wished he could do more – despite Jensen's insistence that he was doing more than enough already – but it was true he had his own issues to worry about. Largely, learning to control his newfound ability. Because spontaneously dissolving into a viscous liquid tended to lose its shine after a while.

He was getting better at it, though. Already he was down to just two 'episodes' a day.

And in order to help both of their healing processes, he and Jensen had taken a break and moved house. To the great wide wilderness of… Portland.

According to Jensen, the largest tear in the SPUD in the whole of the world sat just over the western side of Oregon. Meaning there were plenty of alien races hanging around, since obviously they were there for a reason. But more to the point, they'd fit right in.

Still, making a 'home' together, being outside of the armed forces… It was new territory for them both. They would have to get to know each other all over again. (Not that that was a bad thing.) They'd have to find new comforts, new hobbies, new habits—

You need to stop thinking so loud.

Jared pursed his lip.

Well, considering I'm usually alone up here in my head, you'll have to forgive me for not being as accustomed as you.

Sorry. I'm going to have to get used to the whole blocking people out thing. I spent so long in that place where there was hardly anyone in reach except Sam and Steve. And they weren't always 'all there', y'know?

"That's why we're here," Jared said out loud, "And we'll stay here as long as you need."

Jensen hedged, picking at his nails and refusing to look Jared in the eye. "But what if it's forever? What if I'm never okay,"

"Then we'll stay here forever," Jared said with finality.

Jensen's fingers slowly entwined with his own, and Jared took the greatest of comfort in that small gesture. He always did. Jensen could get so twitchy now when he was close to people, but he was almost always fine around Jared, and that was as much as he could possibly ask for. It meant they could share a bed together, even if Jared would end up waking alone for the most part, but it was all a starting point. That was all this was – a new start.

So many things were different now; the whole fucking world was a different and unfamiliar place.

"Thank you for coming to get me back then."

Jensen would get like this sometimes – despondent, guilty, timid, falling back into that headspace he was always trying so hard to climb out of.

"Yeah, five years too late."

And Jared had his own issues, of course. Though his mostly focussed just on guilt. Survivor's guilt, if they were getting into specifics. Between his parents and Jensen, it was one hell of a deep-rooted tree.

"Better than ten years too late," Jensen sing-songed, "Or even six years, you know?"

"You're terrible."

"You're amazing. And terrible."

Jared pulled him close. They were out of the military perhaps, but this was them setting out on mission: recovery.

~end~