They’re in the motor pool when Hotchkis from requisitions brings their new sniper. Pooch fine-tuning their ride, Jensen handing him tools and Clay coming out to check the work while he procrastinates the mountain of paperwork sitting on his desk.
“The hell is this?” Clay barks and Jensen looks up. Sees Hotchkis first and then the other man and it’s not hard to tell why Clay is pissed. The guy looks like shit, shuffling along in heavy manacles with a short chain between them, hands bound in front of him. Dark, chin-length hair curls around his face and hides his eyes. He’s too thin, all bony shoulders through the mustard-yellow jump-suit they’ve put him in. The matte black collar looks obscenely heavy around his slim throat, a red LED blinking ominously on the front of it.
“Take him back,” Clay orders, like that’s the end of it, before it’s even started. “We need a sniper, not a mutie.”
The man in question doesn’t flinch, doesn’t even seem to notice he’s being talked about.
Hotchkis shrugs. “This is what they sent you. File says this is what you get, take it or leave it, but the brass wants you to have a sniper who won’t request a transfer out of your team in three days. If you don’t wanna work with a freak, you can do without.”
“I’ve got no problem with mutants.” Clay’s glare would melt glass and Jensen’s a little awed that this pencil-pusher seems immune. “What I’ve got a problem with is putting the lives of my men in the hands of a slave who never volunteered for this shit.”
The sniper sways on his feet, just a little, but Jensen sees, wonders just how drugged up he is.
“Look,” Hotchkis says, “The thing is tame. Broken to collar years ago. Give him clear orders and things to kill and you’ll have no complaints. Just keep him drugged or busy on your downtime. Here.” He pulled a wrist-mounted control box off of his arm and went to pass it to Clay. “It’s wired into his bloodstream and nervous system. You’ve got your pain and reward here, sedative and stimulant here, and flip that cover up and that button blows his head off. Wouldn’t do that if I were you because the paperwork is a bitch.”
“Just give it a try,” Hotchkis wheedles as he hands Clay a second controller. Clay absently passes it back to Jensen. The box is heavy in Jensen’s hand, weighed down with the responsibility for a helpless person’s life. He takes another step forward, putting himself between the bureaucrat and his charge.
Hotchkis is still babbling. “Run it through some exercises. Use the collar and give it limits. Positive and negative reinforcement. Nobody has ever complained about its performance in the field and you should see its stats.”
“One week,” Clay finally agrees. “And if I don’t trust him, back he goes.”
Hotchkis grins and passes Clay a clipboard to sign then a file folder to keep. “Oh, and Colonel? I’d use the chains if you want to fuck it. That critter is feisty.”
Clay grimaces and Hotchkis beats a hasty retreat , and all three Losers gather around their new “piece of equipment.” Pooch has a penlight out and is the one to brush the hair back from the man’s face and shine it in his eyes. Clay flips through the folder, scanning for the most pertinent details and Jensen examines the controller.
“This boy’s high as a kite,” Pooch announces.
Jensen looks over and is struck by how fragile the guy looks. Not exceptionally young, probably older than Jensen is, but vulnerable. All sharp cheekbones and narrow chin, dark eyes and long lashes.
“I’ve got to take this apart, but on the outside it’s a five-button remote control. Simpler than for a TV on the outside at least. Not sure of the frequency.”
“Shape-shifter,” Clay summarizes from the paperwork. “They’re calling him Cat. Imaginative. Enhanced senses, sound , smell and especially sight. Claws and teeth when he shifts, but less controllable so it’s better to keep him out of close-quarters combat than risk him tearing into friendlies.” He flips through some more papers. “Looks like drugged and chained is SOP for transferring all muties, until they can get used to a new commander pushing their buttons. Let’s get him back to quarters and sobered up and see what we’re working with.”
The walk across the base has never felt so long. Even after Clay takes the manacles off of their new sniper, his steps are still slow and shuffling, even though Jensen can see how hard he works at putting one foot in front of the other, grimly determined to follow even the simple order of “Follow me,” that Clay gives him.
They’re crashing in a small spare barrack, the three of them rattling around in a room made for twelve, while Clay has the whole officer’s suite to himself. Jensen sits Cat down on the bunk next to his own and pulls his shoes off when it looks he’ll fall over if he does it for himself.
“What the hell did they give you?” Jensen asks as he gets him a bottle of water and a pair of Ibuprofen.
“Sedative three, sir.” His voice is quiet and rough. “It’ll wear off soon, sir. A few hours at most. Sir.”
Jensen smiles and shakes his head. “We’re not all that formal, when it’s just us. I’m Jensen. Jake Jensen.” He leaves a conspicuous pause, and even drugged up, the other man gets it.
“Carlos. Alvarez.” The name whispered, like it’s forbidden to use it. Maybe it is.
“Get some sleep, Carlos,” Jensen urges, and watches as he lies down, slow and careful. Not just drugged but hurt maybe, Jensen thinks. He watches for a while even after Carlos is asleep, but it looks like he’s comfortable enough, and the only mark Jensen can find without touching him is a fading green bruise along his cheekbone.
Cat wakes to Corporal Jensen’s voice, freezes for a second and realizes it’s not him the tech is talking to when he says “Yeah, yeah, I’m in. Get me the uh, red curry with beef, couple of spring rolls, extra rice.” He glances over and grins when he sees Cat’s eyes open. “You hungry?” he asks as he puts his hand over the phone’s mouthpiece. Cat shakes his head. He’ll find something in the mess or get an MRE if he has to.
“Something for later then?” Jensen asks and annoyance prickles under Cat’s skin and he frowns. Jensen has to know he has no money. “Roque’s out in town, he’s bringing us back Thai.”
Cat shakes his head again and Jensen rolls his eyes, says to the phone: “Add on a pad Thai, one star, Tom Ka Gai, two stars, a couple more spring rolls, and two orders of the stuffed turkey wings. What? Yeah, I’m good for it.”
He hangs up the phone and turns the spark of his attention back to Cat. “How’d you sleep? You were pretty out of it. Clay went down and raised some hell, got you kitted out at least.” He gestures to the pile of gear on the trunk by Cat’s feet.
He’s starting to get the feeling that Jensen spews out so many words he doesn’t really expect anybody to keep up with replying to them all, and it’s a relief not to have to figure out what to say to his half-questions.
The pile of gear seems like an invitation, so Cat stands (careful until he’s sure the sedatives have worn off) and starts to sort through it. There’s nothing there that he hasn’t used or been assigned before, just usually not all at once. Jensen settles nearby on a laptop but Cat can feel his eyes on his back.
He saves the gun for last, easing it out of the lightweight storage bag. It’s an M-24. Serviceable, Cat decides, if not his first choice. The bag is heavy even without the gun, and he looks in to see boxes of ammo and a cleaning kit. “Can I…?” he gestures with the gun towards the bed and Jensen looks up at him.
“Yeah, sure. Just don’t load it until the range tomorrow, okay?”
Cat takes the rifle apart, down to the last screw and moving part. The smell of gun oil is almost a comfort. Something he understands, something predictable. Almost a meditation as he reassembles the pieces one by one.
“Dinner’s still about twenty minutes out,” Jensen tells him as he’s running his final checks on the rifle. “You wanna grab a shower, maybe change clothes? I mean the pajama-chic thing is working for you and all, but it’s not really dinner attire.”
Jensen nods towards a door that’s probably showers and toilet, and Cat would like to, can feel the itch of too many days in the same clothes on him. Something in him balks though, at the thought of being naked around a new team, of slippery floors and close quarters. He tries to tell himself it doesn’t matter. That if they want that, they’ll take it whether he’s the one to take his own clothes off or not.
“Hey,” Jensen’s voice is quieter, less hyper. Like maybe Cat’s thoughts showed on his face. “Go ahead, I’ll watch the door for you.”
It shouldn’t make him feel any better, but it does, and he pulls a black t-shirt and dull green BDU pants from the stack of gear, and he goes. Jensen’s already on his feet, laptop in hand, and he settles on the floor by the door as Cat goes in.
The room is made for a team to go through in a hurry. Communal showers at the back, sinks lined up on one side, toilets on the other. Cat chooses a shower in the corner and steps into the spray. The water’s nice. Warm and powerful, but the privacy is even better. Feeling alone and unwatched for the first time in ages, Cat soaps up and scrubs down, washing away the flop-sweat of being over-drugged and helpless.
He dries off and pulls on his new clothes, feeling more a man for it. Comes out of the bathroom to the sound of angry voices, a large black man in Jensen’s face saying “What the hell do you mean, Corporal, I can’t take a piss?”
Jensen glances over his shoulder at Cat and splits into a grin. “What?” he asks the other guy who, out of uniform or not, carries himself like a superior officer. “I didn’t say that. Why would I say that? That’s crazy talk,” a nd he grabs Cat by the upper arm and steers him deftly around the conflict and over to where brown bags have spewed white styrofoam boxes all over the table.
The others join them as Jensen’s opening the dishes and sorting them out. Three end up in front of Cat and he’s hoping the guy doesn’t get pissed when he can’t eat that much food. “Colonel Clay and Pooch you’ve met before,” Jensen tells him, but Cat doesn’t begrudge him the redundancy because he was pretty drugged up when it happened. “Captain Roque, meet our new Gato.”
The look Roque gives him is appraising, and Cat straightens in his seat, staring back at him. The big man glares at him for a long moment and then nods. “Yeah, he might work out.” And after that they all eat, like some hardcore version of the Brady Bunch, the guys recapping their day and Clay letting them know he’s gotten them a full week to get used to the new guy.
He turns in when the rest do. Tired without sedation, his stomach full, a mattress under him, a rifle at his feet. “’Night, Carlos,” Jensen whispers from the next bunk over, and Cat sleeps.
He is six years old.
At night, he sleeps in the big bed in their little house. Him and his mami and papi, his little sister Ofelia and the new baby Maria. In the day, he helps his papi plant the corn in their garden, or herds the goats to new places to graze while Papi goes to the village to find work. The sky is his roof and the rocky wall of the valley behind their home is his playground.
He is a good boy. He obeys his parents and says his prayers. He tries, so very hard, to pay attention to the goats when he’s alone with them, to make sure they don’t wander off or get into the patch of weeds that make them sick.
A blue butterfly flutters past his nose, bright as the stained glass in their church, like a jewel in the air and he has to follow it, to see where it goes. Along the clumps of thistle, he follows, wanting to touch but knowing his fingers would destroy it. Then it turns, going up the valley wall, where the rocks are huge and smooth, where a little boy cannot find a place for his fingers to grab or his toes to push.
He needs to leap, to claw, to climb, so he does, four feet better than two, sharp claws finding the smallest cracks in the stone. He hears the goats bleat behind him but he is so close now, close enough to see the tiny rainbows on the butterfly’s wings where the boy could only see blue.
The butterfly flutters over a gap and the gato follows, muscles springing, claws catching.
“Carlito!” he hears his father calling, fear in his voice.
He realizes he’s far from where he should be, that the goats have run off home. He is so very high up now, and the gaps seem so very wide. He cries his distress but it comes out a forlorn yowl. He sees his father coming and he needs his papi to come get him down. Climbing is not fun anymore and he wants to go home.
Papi runs towards where Carlos was watching the goats, his ancient rifle in his hands.
“Papi,” Carlos tries to call but this voice is not made for words.
“Mother of God,” Papi swears and raises the rifle and fires. The bullet chips off of the stone just feet from Carlos’ paws and startles him so badly that he falls from the rock, twisting in the air and rolling over and landing on two feet and two hands and he’s all scraped up, he’s bleeding and it hurts.
“Carlito?” his father gasps and then he’s dropping the gun and stumbling to Carlos’ side, a prayer to the Virgin on his lips.
“My son, my son, I almost killed you,” he says and he hugs Carlos so hard it hurts even more. “Oh my boy, what are we going to do?”
Cat wakes to the sound of rapid-fire typing, opens his eyes to see Corporal Jensen sitting at the little table near their bunks at his laptop. The controller is beside the computer, wires hooking the two together. A frown line creases the skin between his eyebrows but disappears as Cat’s slight shift diverts his attention.
“Hey, you’re up. How’d you sleep?”
Cat makes an “Eh” gesture and shrugs. No worse than he expected to.
“Clay wants you to hit the range. Get comfortable with your new rifle. The rest of the guys are tied up today so it’s just you and me until dinner, thought I’d let you catch up on some sleep. I was just checking out this thing while I waited, hope I didn’t wake you up typing. Sorry if I did, so hey, breakfast?”
Cat gets dressed and they head to the mess to eat. It’s between the main rushes of breakfast and lunch. The place isn’t deserted, but quiet enough they can find a table alone off to the side. Cat can feel the stares of the other soldiers, hostile or merely curious, but Jensen’s chatter is a good distraction.
After the meal they go back to the barracks for his rifle and ammo, and then they make the long hike out to the sniper range. “You just do your sniper thing,” Jensen tells him with a vague gesture as he sits down beside Cat’s station and pops open the laptop again. “I’m gonna get some stuff done.” He pulls on goggles and ear protection, does a quick sound-check to make sure Cat can hear him through his, and turns his full attention to the computer.
So Cat gets to work, checks over the rifle again, sights on his target, fires a few rounds. It takes less than three shots to suspect the rifle is a piece of shit, three more to confirm it. A stripped screw that holds the scope in place moves with each recoil. He tries tightening it after each shot, but a half a degree on a scope is yards by the time a bullet hits a target half a mile away. He aims at the corners of the target, sighting in on where the outer red circle comes closest to the point of the corner. Old instinct to hide his skill, to improve himself without sharing that knowledge with whatever unit owns him this week.
He catches Jensen watching a few times, binoculars in hand and a frown on his face.
He’s just about to give up, to resign himself to informing his superiors that he cannot do the job they’re asking with the weapon he’s been given, risking being thought of as incompetent or a trouble-maker, when a shadow crosses over him and Jensen both. He slides one side of the ear protection off and tightens that damn screw one more time.
“Your sniper’s for shit but at least he’s got a sweet ass. You Losers share?” The voice is mocking and lascivious, and isn’t one he knows.
Cat keeps his breath steady, tries not to show the tightening in his shoulders. Turns to look past Jensen and sees another Corporal standing there looking over them.
“Nah,” Jensen drawls. “We’re possessive fuckers, haven’t you heard?” Then he pauses, thoughtful. “You that hard up, Willis? I’ll make a bet with you.”
Cat’s stomach turns. He’d thought Jensen was better than this. That he at least valued him as an asset if not a person.
Jensen climbs to his feet as Willis looks wary.
“I’ve heard about gambling with you assholes.”
“Hey,” Jensen says with mock offense. “That’s Roque, not me. Look, simple terms, nothing slippery. Your next ten shots against his. He wins, you two trade rifles.” Cat’s never seen the man shoot, but he hates Jensen a little less for gambling for a prize that’s more to Cat’s benefit than his own.
“And if I win?” Willis asks, and he’s looking over Cat with undisguised attraction.
Jensen shrugs. “You win, you get to fuck me.”
And that gets their attention, Willis and Cat both.
“Come on, you know you want this,” Jensen says and does a ridiculous little shimmy with his hips, turns and bounces his butt and no, no. Cat can’t shoot for those stakes, can’t let someone else suffer if he fucks up, especially since he’s so uncertain of his equipment. He catches Jensen’s eye and shakes his head but the idiot just grins back at him.
“You’re on,” Willis says and moves his gear over to the station next to Cat’s.
“You got this,” Jensen whispers to Cat as the other shooter gets situated.
They take their first couple shots, and Cat knows he’d have no chance if Willis was any sort of a shot, but he’s about as bad with a good rifle as Cat is with this crappy one, and even though he’s compensating for the bad sight, the spread in their scores is never insurmountable, always within a few bands on the target of tied again.
They get down to the last shot, half a dozen guys gathered around to watch, and Willis hits it in the first white band. Nothing but a bullseye will make it a win and Cat wants to call it off. To offer himself instead because he can’t do this to someone else, can’t fail his new teammate this way.
“I trust you,” Jensen’s voice comes over his headset. “I trust you, man, you’ve got this guy. You take your shot, just let it happen, just let it go there.” And the babble calms him when it should be a distraction, centers him when it should grate on his nerves. He takes his time, aligning the sight and target. Checks the wind and compensates. Three quick breaths and then a big one in and holds it. Slow squeeze on the trigger.
The puff of dust rises from the center of the target before the sound of the impact bounces back to them and then Jensen is screaming incoherent joy into the mic, dragging Cat to his feet and then lifting him from them in a jubilant, crushing hug. “Oh yeah, oh yeah, that’s my boy! Cat my ass, you are a Cougar, my friend, you are a Cougar!”
He sets Cat on the ground again and grabs the defective rifle, tossing it at Willis and then hands Willis’ rifle to Cat. “Come on, Cougs, let’s pack up and go, I got some stuff to work on back at the barracks.”
It’s a strange thing to have one’s name taken, stolen, changed. This is something else. Like Jensen has discovered the secret behind the lie, like he’s seen something nobody else ever has. Cougar. It fits. It feels good. Right.
Cougar stuffs his gear into his bag and follows as Jensen makes a hasty retreat from the irate Willis and his grumbling teammates.
“I can’t wait to tell the guys about this, you were epic, man.”
Cougar tries not to let his enthusiasm affect him, tries to keep his hopes down, but it feels good to be seen, to be trusted, to be valued. Yeah. This might just work out.
Clay’s in the process of climbing Mt. Paperwork when he hears the boys come back to barracks, Jensen whooping and excited, Pooch’s tone sort of awed and Roque grumbling over the noise. There’s no sound of their sniper, but he’s struck Clay as the quiet type and so Clay doesn’t worry.
It’s an hour later that he gives up on the stack of forms and reports. He feels like he’s gotten the most important of it, requisitioning a few more items for their next job, some computer parts Jensen “needs” but doesn’t expect to get. He stands and stretches and walks out to the common area of the barracks they’re crashing in between jobs. He’s just deciding that yeah, pizza sounds better than whatever they’re serving in the mess for lunch when the door opens and the MPs come in.
“Is there a problem, officers?” he asks, even though it’s probably more accurate to ask what the hell Jensen’s done this time.
“There’s been a report of a theft,” the one on the left answers and points over to the rifle at the foot of the sniper’s bunk. “Corporal Willis has accused the mutie and Corporal Jensen of taking his weapon.”
“What?” Jensen’s voice is sharp and startled. “That can’t be right. That rifle was assigned to this unit. Is Willis crazy?”
“I’m sure we can sort this out,” Clay says. Jensen might be too creative with the rules for his own good, but he never does something like this without a reason and Clay is willing to let him take it as far as he can without stepping in.
“Look,” Jensen says and he pops open his laptop. “C’mere, I’ll show you. Cougs, bring the rifle, let these nice men check the serial.” He turns the computer so everyone can see what he’s doing, clicking through screens to show the team’s equipment lists. “Here.”
So the MPs check the numbers, check the screen. Shrug to each other. “Looks like everything is in order.”
“Damn skippy it is,” Jensen snaps back. “You might want to talk to Willis. Maybe a drug test. The stress of being so incompetent might be getting to him.”
Clay cuts him a shut-the-hell-up glare just as Roque steps up and thumps a heavy hand down on his shoulder.
“Thank you officers,” Clay tells them, “If there’s anything else we can help you with, please let us know.” And he shows them the door before Jensen can talk himself into a hole he didn’t need to be in.
When they’re gone, Clay sighs. “Corporal Jensen, my office, now.” He thinks about it for half a second and then points at their resident mutant. “You too.”
When he’s got them in his office, standing at attention while he sprawls in his chair, he lets them stew for a full minute before asking, “Okay, what the hell was with the weapon, and why didn’t I know the details before we had MPs at our door?”
“That was Willis trying to take back a bet, sir,” Jensen answers. “And I was going to tell you as soon as you came out.”
Clay sighs. “Why were you gambling with Willis?”
Jensen’s off like a shot, mile a minute, “So the M-24 they assigned us was shit. Something wrong with the sight, I dunno. And Willis comes up, running his mouth. So I thought ‘Hey, this sniper-wanna-be doesn’t really need a rifle like that, and our boy Cougs does, and there’s not much chance of a hobbyist like Willis winning, even with the difference in weapons,’ it was like he was offering it up to the cause.”
“What, exactly, is a Cougs?” Clay asks and it’s half stalling to give him a chance to figure out what part of Jensen’s fucked up side-mission to question first and half not liking it when the kid makes up new terminology on him.
Jensen grins. Points to the still-silent sniper. “Cougs. Cougar. ‘Cause a housecat don’t shoot like that.”
Clay has his next point of attack then, “So what were the terms that you put an untried sniper with a shitty rifle up against Willis’ weapon? What if ‘Cougar’ had lost?”
Jensen shrugs and looks shifty. “Nothing we couldn’t stand to lose.”
Clay turns to the sniper then, curious to see if he’ll carry Jensen’s bullshit or roll over to authority. “What were the terms of the bet?”
Only a slight flare of nostrils betrays his nerves. “The rifle against a humiliation. Possibly a painful one.”
Clay’s eyes narrow. “And who’d bear the brunt of this humiliation?”
The mutant’s eyes flick over to Jensen. “Him, sir.”
“It was no big deal,” Jensen protests. Clay waves at him to shut the hell up.
“Let me get this straight. You engaged in illegal gambling with another soldier, that you had to hack our inventory to cover up, with a personal injury to yourself if your sniper had either been not good enough to out-shoot Willis, or had just wanted to see you hurt because you’re the guy with his life in your hands? And if you screwed up with the MPs, our sniper would be out in the courtyard getting the skin whipped off his back right now for stealing?”
Only the last makes Jensen pale, but then he flushes in anger. “I wouldn’t have had to if you didn’t keep pissing off the guys who assign our gear. Jesus, Clay, you couldn’t make nice just once?”
“You’re out of line!” Clay roars at him but Jensen doesn’t back down.
He points at ‘Cougar,’ “I gave him no reason to fuck me over. And yeah it was close, but you should have seen the shot, Clay. And I didn’t have to hack to cover it up, I just photoshopped a series of click-through images with the numbers changed.”
Clay feels the last shreds of his self-control tearing apart. “You’ve known this man two days, Corporal, he doesn’t have to have a reason to fuck you, you don’t know anything about him! He’s not your damn mother!”
Jensen snarls back and Clay half-expects him to come over the desk at him. “That’s none of your fucking business, that’s a sealed file.”
Clay snorts out a sad laugh. “You think you’re the only one with secret ways to get to the bottom of things?” It’s just too much, this conversation has gotten too far off track.
“Three miles PT for gambling, in full pack for insubordination. Gear up and go.”
Jensen storms out and the sniper looks likely to follow him. “Not you,” Clay says and calms himself. “It wasn’t your job or within your authority to keep him out of trouble. I’m just sorry he risked your hide in his wild scheme. Go get some lunch with the guys.”
He doesn’t expect Cougar to hesitate still. “Is that an order?” he asks even though Clay’s pretty damn sure it sounded like one. “To not take the PT with Corporal Jensen?”
Clay just watches him for a long moment. Evaluating their new member. Stoic, strong, loyal. Clay is not fool enough to stomp on budding camaraderie like that so he gestures at the door. “Go. Eat when you get back.”
Jensen grabs his gear while Clay is still questioning Cougar. Pooch looks up as he’s pulling his pack on like he’s going to ask a question but Jensen just shakes his head. “PT.” It explains it all, at least to Pooch and Roque, who know how often Jensen’s mouth gets him into trouble. They let him walk out without comment.
In front of their barracks, Jensen takes a moment to tighten his bootlaces and adjust the straps on his pack. He’s more annoyed than pissed, that Clay didn’t get what he’d been trying to do, how little he’d thought the risk to benefit ratio was. Clay should trust him more, because Jensen might get in more trouble than all the others put together, but he has real contributions to make to the team. People skills the others just don’t have or don’t bother to bring to bear. He thinks Clay’s out of line bringing up Jensen’s mom too, because it’s one thing to get in a man’s closed file but another to throw that sort of stuff in his face.
He works really hard at not thinking about that last thing Clay had pointed out, that Cougar could have been the one to suffer if Jensen had fucked up the cover-up. That he’d have been taken from Jensen and hurt and nothing Jensen could have done would get him out of a public whipping.
He’s surprised when Cougar comes out of the barracks, half-glances Jensen’s way and then starts a short series of runner’s stretches. The smoldering anger in Jensen’s chest flares bright and hot again, fucking Clay, sending Cougar out for this like he’d had any damn choice in what Jensen had done.
He waits until Cougar looks done with his stretches and nods his head towards the track. Jensen starts a good steady pace and Cougar falls in smoothly at his side. Unencumbered, Jensen is glad to see, at least Clay had only given him the miles for gambling, not the pack for insubordination.
They’re half a mile into their punishment before Jensen gets near to being able to speak without dumping even more of this shit on Cougar, and his “Sorry, man,” sounds a little bitter even still.
“For what?” Cougar asks, and Jensen doesn’t even know where to start, so they jog a little further before he picks one.
“I didn’t think about them taking it out on you if I fucked up,” Jensen answers at last. “And the shit with Clay. I didn’t think he’d give you PT.”
“He didn’t,” Cougar answers and if Jensen had been a little less skilled at multi-tasking he’d have tripped in surprise.
“Then what are you doing out here?” he asks and Cougar shrugs.
“For the rifle,” he answers, and then, “To see if I had angered you.”
Jensen shakes his head, his anger starting to fade. “None of this is your fault. You made that shot and that’s all I could ask for.”
“When the Colonel asked…” but Jensen cuts him off.
“You were fine. Clay. Okay, maybe we piss each other off, and sometimes I don’t always tell him the whole truth, because I don’t want him to worry, but I don’t lie to my team, and I didn’t want you to either.”
They run on for a while, and Jensen’s not sure if Cougar is processing that or if he just has nothing to add.
Jensen’s never been good with silence, even one as companionable as this. Words just have a way of falling out of his mouth when things are too quiet. “So, my mom,” he says, and surprises himself by going there, but by then it’s too late to take them back without Cougar thinking he’s a dick.
“I never got sick when I was a kid,” Jensen says, choosing his place to start this story. He’s never laid it out like this. Everybody in his life has either known or had no reason to know, before Clay went and told Cougar just enough to make him wonder, and keeping half a secret from someone just seems damn rude. “My sister either. Never thought anything of it, really. I mean I was eight, and I’d never had a cold, never had a scraped knee or bumped head last longer than it took for mom to kiss it well.”
Cougar is quiet, and it feels right to share this here, on the road, where Jensen doesn’t have to look at him.
“When I was eight, we were in a grocery store, and a hound team came through. Lined everyone up along the dairy aisle and they had this—this little girl on a leash, and they had her sniffing everyone as they went up the line. Just about everybody was sort of blasé about it, but my mom, she was shaking, and she tried to stand between me and that little girl, and then the girl pointed at her and they dragged her away.”
Jensen takes a moment to just breathe, wondering why he’s so damn winded from less than two miles, why his chest is so tight.
“My sister and I, we ended up in this special foster care thing. Cultivating our talents and watching us in case one of us came up with powers. Saw mom once a year for a while, but then the visits stopped.” He can’t stop his traitorous brain from reminding him why that was, the secret nobody at the home would tell him, the secret he had to dig out of the government computers on his own. That she’d been assigned to a hospital, using her gifts to heal the sick and important, to give accident victims the slim edge of healing that gave surgeons time to save lives. That everyone she touched started having problems sooner or later, tumors where she’d healed them, everyone but her blood relations. That the body count had risen and they’d pulled her from her job. That she’d pieced together strips of her sheet and hung herself in her rooms.
“So yeah,” Jensen continues on, trying to remember quite why he started this conversation, what he had intended to say. “I don’t think you’re my mom. I just. I think I’m assuming you’re the man that I hope I would have been if I was the mutant.” He almost loses himself with that bit of convoluted dialog. “I wouldn’t fuck someone over without a reason .”
“Don’t give me a reason,” Cougar says as they make the last turn, and Jensen figures that’s fair enough.
They get back to barracks and the others are already gone. They eat lunch that the guys left for them and then Jensen gets back to his computer. He seems lighter, less wound up, and Cougar figures the run helped him, and the talking too. Things are easier between them, Jensen singing to himself as he types and Cougar field striping the SR25 to make sure it’s as good as he thought. Won’t know until the next time he gets to go to the range, but it looks clean at least, tight.
He’s starting to feel the first twinges of the cramps as he’s putting the rifle back together. Gets himself a drink of water. He should tell Jensen, he knows. It’s the other man’s responsibility to take care of him in this, and he trusts Jensen enough to know he’s not neglecting him on purpose.
Cougar just can’t bring himself to speak up, to shame himself with his dependence. He knows he’s been made purposefully weak, but his pride urges him to fight and instead of telling Jensen what he needs, he retires to his bunk, closes his eyes against the burgeoning headache and tries to ignore it. Jensen’s quiet typing falls into white noise like rain and he sleeps.
He wakes to the rest of the team coming back, pizza tonight and Jensen calling over “Hey Cougs, you eatin’?”
“No,” he replies and curls a little more on the bunk. Jensen lets that go and nobody else speaks up. They eat and catch up on their day, teasing the colonel for spending half his day in meetings, getting Jensen’s report on whatever vaguely worded project he was doing on the computer.
After they eat someone breaks out the cards and Jensen calls over again, “You in, Cougar?” and Roque smacks him on the back of the head, “What the fuck is he gonna gamble with, asshole?”
Cougar closes his eyes and listens to their banter, to Pooch bidding his wife’s cookies in the next hand, to Roque flirting with his own knife, to Jensen bragging on some Petunias thing to do with his niece.
The colonel is the first to retire, back to his office. Pooch is next, gonna send his wife an e-mail, look at the sonogram pictures again before he turns in.
Roque heads back towards his bunk and Jensen heads to Cougar. “Hey, Cougs? You okay man? It was only three miles…” and he puts his hand on Cougar’s forehead like a mother checking her offspring for a fever.
“Jesus, are you sick? You’re all clammy. Shit, should I go tell Clay?”
And that’s close enough to a direct question that he cannot put it off any more. “The collar,” he says, “It’s been thirty hours since the last Reward.”
“Oh. Oh! Got it. Sorry, Jesus, they should make these things clearer. Seriously.” Jensen fumbles with the controller and finally pushes the right buttons.
Cougar’s body tenses with the first sharp bite of it along his nervous system, and he bites his lip to not sigh out in pleasure. His eyes close at the relief of it and his tense shoulders sag.
“God damn it,” Jensen growls and Cougar forces himself to look up. Jensen’s blue eyes are dark with sorrow and anger but there’s nothing Cougar can do about this, nothing he can do to be anything other than what he is. He wonders if Jensen is seeing his mother or himself in this, if he’ll pass the controller on to a different team mate to avoid the pain of it.
“Lo siento,” Cougar whispers, but Jensen just shakes his head, fingers twitching like he wants to touch.
“Not your fault. We’ll talk about this more tomorrow. Don’t let it get so bad next time, okay? Just…just tell me.”
Cougar nods and Jensen backs off to let him have the small amount of privacy he can. Still frowning, Jensen plugs the controller back into his computer and starts another round of furious typing.
Carlos curls up on the bed, his tiny baby sister in his arms, Ofelia huddled against his back. In the other room they can hear their parents, the fear in their voices as they discuss what Carlos has done, this thing he has become.
“If we bring him to church, the gato may show,” Mami says, “And if we stop going, the priest will come here to find why, with the Inquisition close behind.”
“I know,” Papi says, and his voice is sad. “He cannot stay here. I will not see my son burn. We will send you and the girls to stay with your sister. I will take Carlos north, across the border, find a job and send you money when we can. It will be easier there, to hide a strange child, where nobody knows us and there are so very many people.”
“If he’s caught…” Mami says, but Papi interrupts her.
“If he’s caught there, he will not burn. That is what matters most.”
Mami cries and Papi’s voice drops soft and low. Angelina holds so tight to Carlos’ side that she’s pinching him but he doesn’t complain. His fault, all his fault.
He prays, all night and all day, for this to all go away, but it doesn’t. Mami and the girls leave a few days later, with the goats and dishes and all of Mami’s pretty things packed in the back of a truck that his uncle borrowed. The few things that are left, Papi folds into careful packs for the both of them, and they go to meet the coyote who will guide them across the border.
Clay goes with Jensen and “Cougar” to the sniper range the next day. To see what they got for the taxpayer’s dollar, to see if he’s really the advantage the brass claims or a liability in a collar.
Jensen had told him, about the kid hitting the DTs at thirty-some hours in. He’s gotta see if their mutie shoots like a junkie. Personally, he thinks having drug-addicted conscripted soldiers is a bad idea, but the higher ups are treating it like an asset management problem and his fault if the sniper can’t get the job done.
He watches the kid put twenty rounds into the target and knows that he has to call the whole thing off. Not a single shot is anywhere near the bull’s-eye and Clay has no idea how Jensen didn’t end up paying whatever default Willis had had in mind. He gets up to go, catches Jensen’s eye as he stands.
Jensen holds up a finger to stall him, and he looks nervous, like he knows Clay is on his way to return their sniper. Jensen does something with the comms and when he talks next, Clay knows that Cougar can’t hear what he’s saying.
“Clay, wait. Watch. Look at his face.”
And so Clay does. Cougar has a hell of a poker-face, but there’s this little flicker of satisfaction when the shots hit. Clay checks down-range with the binoculars. The holes are far from the center, but the groupings make tight little spatters on the target; most are smaller than a hand’s breadth apart. He glances to Jensen, to say that he sees what Jensen was talking about, but the man’s lips are moving and Clay is chagrined to realize he’s the one who’s been cut out of the loop this time.
Cougar looks up at Jensen, just the briefest of glances followed by the smallest of nods, and then he puts five rounds in the dead center of the target, as pretty a grouping as a commander could ask for.
“I’ll leave you boys to it, then,” he tells them.
He walks away and wonders if he’s handling this right. If they’re keeping the sniper, he needs Jensen close to Cougar so he can figure out the collar—what it does and who it reports to. They seem to have clicked, and it’s better that Cougar have some sort of attachment within the team, someone he’s invested in. He wonders if Jensen’s getting too close though, too tied up in this guy. If he should give the controller to Roque or Pooch for a couple days. In the end, he leaves well enough alone and lets it ride for a while longer.
The night before Cougar’s first mission with the Losers, the guys all head out for drinks and pool to let off steam. Jensen protests that Cougar should come with them, but Roque calls him an asshole, tells him taking Cougar off base without a mission is like taking a rocket-launcher. Not to be done without a good reason, previous clearance and a shit-ton of paperwork.
“I’ll bring you back a souvenir,” Jensen promises, and he still looks reluctant to go. He sets up a laptop for Cougar to use before he leaves, shows him how to find tv shows and music stations on it and Cougar is actually looking forward to having a few hours alone, to relax and just be for a while.
The team is gone for less than half an hour when the door opens again. Cougar looks over and flips to his feet. Fuck. Willis and his cronies slip in like a pack of jackals.
“Take my weapon? Make me look like the idiot? Gonna fuck you with that rifle, y’ god-damn mutie.”
The gato in him bristles under his skin, twists around and wants to come out. And he’s afraid, so damn much to lose. Visits with his family that can be taken away, the conditional residency his parents were given because of what he is and his obedient service. If he shifts, there will be no stopping. The gato will have them. Will kill them all and purr as it licks its claws clean.
They fan out around him, and the one on his far left strikes first, a wild punch that Cougar ducks under. And then it’s on, trying to dance around them, getting his own jabs in where he can. Knowing that unless he lets the beast free, they’re going to win eventually, going to take him down and cripple him, maybe kill him.
A lucky strike catches him on the mouth. Blood spills down his chin. A boot kicks the side of his knee and he stumbles to his knees. He’s fighting himself more than them now, trying to keep the gato inside, trying to remember why it was so important, arms wrapped around himself like he can physically hold it in.
“What the fuck is going on here?” The booming voice cuts through the violence and the room goes still. Cougar looks up through his hair and sees Roque in the doorway with a thunderstorm of anger on his face. “We leave you for one minute and you have a wild party, Cougar?” he asks, but he’s looking at Willis’ men.
Roque strides over, looks Willis in the eye and then punches him straight in his face. There’s a crunch of cartilage and he goes down screaming. He kicks another and smashes the third into the wall. The other two run for the door and he slings the half-conscious man into them, knocking them to the ground. “Pick this shit up!” he orders, pointing at the guys that are down, and the least-injured of them are quick to drag them out of the building. “Anybody asks, you fell, assholes! You do not want my side of the story on your record.”
“Motherfucker,” Roque grumbles when they’re gone. “You need a medic?”
Cougar shakes his head. Pulls himself together. So close, Jesus, he was so close to losing all he holds dear.
Roque offers him a hand and pulls Cougar to his feet, then turns and strides over to his bunk, digs out his cell phone (Cougar thinks that’s what brought him back unexpectedly soon) and dials.
“Clay. I’m stayin’ in. You guys have fun without me.”
Cougar goes to the sinks to wash up. Wishes Jensen was there so he could shower. Roque is cleaning his weapons when he comes out again, a long line of knives and guns spread out on a towel on his bed. Cougar curls up on his own bunk and debates asking permission to shift, needing the comfort of claws and fur, but he knows Roque the least of any of them and can’t afford to show any weakness.
“Shit ain’t right,” Roque finally mutters. “I’m not having it in our own damn barracks. Those guys ever fuck with you again, you tell me, you hear?”
“Yes, sir,” Cougar replies.
Roque stares at him for a painfully long time.
“Sure you don’t need a medic?”
“I am sure.”
“Fucking with a team right before a mission,” Roque grumbles to himself and Cougar still isn’t sure if his anger is that a person was going to be hurt, or just the team’s efficiency.
Hours later the rest of the team stumbles in, Pooch mostly sober, Clay grinning and weaving, Jensen bouncing with energy, a cowboy hat swinging from his finger.
“Cougs!” he hollers and frisbees the hat the last few feet to Cougar’s bunk. Cougar plucks it out of the air.
“Told you I’d get you a souvenir,” he beams. Cougar looks the gift over. Worn and well-loved, it smells like another man and faintly of Jensen, like he’d worn it on the ride home. “Won it for you playin’ pool. You like it?” Jensen grins, stinking of alcohol, as Cougar slips the hat on his head. It feels good, won’t fall off and it’ll hold his hair back, keep the sun out of his eyes. It’s perfect.
“Si,” he answers and Jensen blinks, his smile fading.
“Cougar? What happened to your face?” He reaches out like he’s going to touch the bruise around Cougar’s left eye, brush the split in his lip. “Roque? What the hell happened to our Cougar?”
“Willis and his boys,” Roque answers without looking up.
“When we get back,” Jensen promises, “They are officially fucked with.”
Clay shambles over, taking Cougar’s chin in a surprisingly gentle hand and tips his face so he can see the damage better. “That gonna fuck with your shooting?” he asks and Cougar shakes his head, as much as he can with Clay still touching him. The man looks angry.
“Soon as we get back, Jensen, fuck away.”
Cougar pays as much attention to the briefing as any of the others and more than Jensen, Clay is glad to see. Sharp eyes memorize the satellite photos, evaluate angles and elevations. “We’ll give you a twenty minute head-start to move around the south side of the camp over to position here,” Clay says, indicating a rise in the rocks overlooking the objective camp, two hundred yards from the razor wire and chain link fence. The landscape was all once farmland, given over to scraggly brush and pitiful trees. “There will probably be a guard up in there somewhere. You’ve got clearance to do whatever you need to to clear your way. You should have line of sight here, through to here. Hold off until we’re spotted before you start shooting and then cover us. Once we’re inside, churn as much chaos into the situation as you can.”
The sniper nods and Clay is sure he understood. He studies the map, the five buildings and a radio tower that make up the combat zone.
“Roque, Jensen and I are going to evade the perimeter guard if we can, eliminate them if we can’t, come in through the North and out South towards you. We may need you to punch us a back door on the way out if we’re runnin’ hot. Pooch picks us up here and we all go home.”
Jensen is fucking with his hand-held computer-thing, but Clay knows better than to call him on it, knows the kid would be able to quote back the entire briefing word for word.
“The objective, the main objective, is to get Jensen in there before they can figure out they’re hosed and blow the main computer. There should be files on their organization. Names, plans, the location of other training camps. This is valuable information. Jensen sweet-talks their system, grabs the data. If we’re already shooting by that time, we take as many of them down as we conveniently can on our way out of Dodge.”
It should have been that easy. It should have been clean in and out.
Instead, Clay is looking South across the camp through his night vision goggles and there’s a fucking building in the middle of the clear center yard that his sniper was supposed to shoot down. Fuck, probably painted up the roof to look like dirt and weeds. He hates it when the bad guys get creative. Hates it when intel is this fucked up.
“Cougar?” he asks into the throat mic.
“Moving,” the mutant answers. “Secondary location,” even though Clay hasn’t given him one. “I can cover the South-east angle.”
Radio-tower then, Clay thinks. Inside the perimeter. And that’s a shitty, shitty spot for a sniper. Once the shooting starts, he’ll be too exposed, just the struts and cross-bars to guard him and even a lucky shot from a pistol could end him.
“Sixty seconds,” Cougar tells them. He has to already be inside then. Already at risk, clearly willing to do his part.
“You watch yourself,” Clay orders. “When we get parallel to you, I want you on the ground and running.”
“Yes, sir,” Cougar replies and they can do this.
Clay gives the signal and Roque cuts the fence, holds back the chain link while Jensen shimmies through, assault rifle in hand, covering them as Clay pushes through and then Roque. Somehow they’re lucky enough that they don’t hit resistance until they’re in the building that was supposed to be the headquarters but looks to be a garage instead. A mechanic runs up on them with an oversize wrench in his hand and Roque plants a knife in his chest. Clean. Quiet.
“New building,” Clay orders and they move that direction, covering each other as they go around corners. They move around the south-east side and Clay looks up. Night-vision is great, but he can’t see the sniper. Hopes to God he’s where he said he would be and the three of them aren’t walking into a dead end.
They move towards the door to the new building, and there’s a crack from his left and up and a body falls out of a shadow behind them. “Go!” shouts Clay and Roque hits the door, weapon firing.
“Clear!” calls Roque and Jensen rolls around him.
“Got it,” Jensen says into the radio. Must have found the room they want. Clay ducks inside the door. Listens to the intermittent firing of the sniper rifle.
“Roque, I’m gonna need you,” Clay says.
“Go,” comes Jensen’s voice. “I’ll watch my back. Two minutes, tops.”
Clay listens for the lull in firing, for Cougar to run out of targets or bullets. For the enemy to realize that the guys with assault rifles are nowhere near the danger to them that the sniper is. They’ll regroup. At least four, maybe more of them and they’ll rush him at once and shoot him out of his perch.
Right on time, he sees movement under the scant cover between buildings. “Here they come,” he says and moves to intercept, to shoot them down before they can get up under the tower. He hears Roque firing three-round bursts, Cougar’s single precision shots. Takes down two himself.
And then it’s over. He looks up at the tower and sees Cougar braced in a cross-point forty feet up, leg locked around one of the bars, arms free. He’s got the rifle, that damn hat that Jensen gave him, the ever-present collar, and not a damn stitch of clothing on him anywhere. No night-vision, no flack-vest, no god-damn boots.
A door bangs open on one of the buildings and three sights turn that way but nobody fires. Just a kid, maybe sixteen, wide-eyed and bare-handed. Staring in shock at the bodies and then he starts to scream and the wind twists, spinning a circle on the ground at his feet.
“Mutant!” Clay yells and fires, but the wind is a miniature tornado now, the roar of it muting out his voice. He shoots again, knows the others are too, but it doesn’t matter. The tornado pushes towards the tower and the metal whines as the force of the wind hits it. The whole structure sways and Cougar has to grab on to keep from being thrown out. The sniper rifle clacks its way down, bouncing off the structure and then lost in the wind.
And then Jensen is out with them, running up between Clay and Roque, rifle slung across his back. “Grenade!” he shouts and pitches one like god-damn major league baseball, right into the thing. There’s a boom and then a sudden deafening stillness.
A low groan in the air turns to a shriek of metal giving way. The tower starts to lean and Clay’s stomach goes sideways because he has a man up there that he can’t help in any way. He looks up to see Cougar untangling himself from the bars he’d been clinging to a second ago. Then he kicks off of the tower, jumping hard to clear the base of it. One second there’s a naked man and the next it’s a lithe cat, arching for landing, feet out and spine bowed up.
Cat or not, a forty-foot fall is no fucking joke and Cougar hits hard, smacking the ground with a ‘whump’ that makes Clay flinch and he stays crouched where he landed like he’s doing inventory to figure how much that hurt. Head down, ears flat against his head. Jensen steps forward like he’s gonna go pet the nice kitty and Clay and Roque both grab him before he can get his face bitten off.
The tower crumples to the ground in a crash of metal and cloud of dust and then everything is quiet. Roque covers the buildings, but if anybody is still alive there, they’ve decided not to come out and visit.
“Cougar, you with us?” Clay asks.
The cat shudders and flicks the tufted black tip of its tail. Nods its head once, like it takes intense concentration to make so human a gesture, and then it limps towards the south fence, leading them out of this cluster-fuck and towards Pooch’s extraction point. Away from the boy’s shattered body and the bits of the rifle Jensen and Cougar had worked so hard to acquire.
“Holy shit,” Jensen murmurs as he follows him out.
“Let’s move it, Losers,” Clay barks and they pick it up to a brisk jog.
Cougar takes point through the scrub-land, four-footed and so perfect for the environment that even with night vision, Jensen still loses sight of him a time or two. He hurries to keep up, Clay at his heels and Roque covering their backs.
The cowboy hat he won for Cougar dangles from the lanyard around the big cat’s neck, and he wants to take it off of him before he gets tangled, trips and chokes on it, but he doesn’t dare. The time he tried, he’d gotten a seriously scary show of teeth and a growling hiss that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
He knows it’s easier for Cougar this way. That it would be hell walking barefoot and buck-naked through this mess, but if he would, then Jensen could see that he’s alright, that he’s not walking on broken bones or hiding a concussion.
The blocky silhouette of the Humvee rises ahead of them and Jensen picks up the pace a little more. The interior glows green in his goggles, all the little lights amplified. Doors open, Pooch ready for a hot exit. The cat hits a low lope, dashing the last few yards and then out of the brush and into the transport. Pooch swears and flails and Jensen would laugh except that Pooch is pulling his side-arm.
“Wait,” he says, knowing Pooch can hear him over the comms. “Just Cougar, man.”
“Jesus Christ,” Pooch swears, hand on his chest.
Jensen ditches most of his gear into the far seat and looks for Cougar. The cat has climbed over the seats, back behind them and in amongst the cases of equipment, in the highest spot he can find and still be behind stuff. All Jensen can see of him is the flicking tip of his tail and the light reflected off of his eyes. He pulls off the goggles and can see even less.
“Some light back here?” he calls and Pooch flicks the switch and the overhead comes on, weak and yellow in its protective cage on the ceiling, the world suddenly flat after the green contours of night vision. Roque swears and takes his goggles off, Clay tells him he’s getting old and slow.
“Cougs,” Jensen calls, soft and gentle. “I need you to come out of there and shift for me, man. I need to get a look at you, make sure you’re not fucked up.”
The cat hisses at him and Jensen frowns. A hurt kitty is a pissy kitty.
Reluctantly, he takes out the controller. “Shhh,” he soothes when the cat hisses again. “Not gonna hurt you.” He presses the reward button. It doesn’t look like it did anything, so he pushes it again.
“That better?” he asks. He’s not sure what they’re using in it, but anything that triggers the pleasure centers must distract from pain at least. He climbs over the seat and moves some gear around to make room for his ass. He sets aside some of the cases that the cat was hiding behind and gets a better look. And god, he’s spent the past week being very careful not to pay too much attention to how beautiful Cougar is, and his cat-form is just as magnificent, if not more so. He’s not any creature that exists in nature, Jensen knew that from the file. Longer through the body than an African lion, broader head. Facial markings almost like a cheetah, stark tears that never dry. Dark tufts stand up at the points of his ears and the sides of his jaw, the tip of his tail. Short tan fur elsewhere, except for the faint shadows of stripes over his shoulders. There’s something primordial about him, like he’s the ancestor of all cats.
Slow, slow, Jensen reaches out. His hand shakes, adrenaline crash in the aftermath of the fight, or just because those teeth are so damn big, he’s not sure. The cat meets him halfway, leaning to sniff his fingers and then nuzzle into them. Jensen can feel the purr more than hear it, and he thinks he should maybe not have hit that button twice. “You are so very high,” he murmurs and he cannot stop himself from scritching behind those soft ears when Cougar turns his head into it. He slips the hat string off of the cat’s throat and sets it safely aside.
“This is good and all,” he says, “Not-biting my hand off is good, because I need both of those, but I need you to do me a favor and shift back to Carlos. I need to make sure you’re okay and I’m not exactly a vet, you know?”
The cat huffs at him, turns away and shivers, skin twitching as he shifts, fur receding and body changing. It’s slower than it had been falling off of the tower, and Jensen’s stomach tries to rebel at the sight.
Then Cougar is there on the pile of boxes, and Jensen really should have planned this a little better because he’s naked and high and pliant and a bump in the road rolls him off of the boxes and into Jensen’s lap. “Fuck,” he swears and there’s nowhere he can touch that isn’t warm skin. Cougar looks up at him, dazed brown eyes more open and trusting than Jensen knows he would ever be if he wasn’t drugged up.
“Can I get a blanket back here?” he yells and Clay and Roque both look back at the near panic in his voice.
“He need emergency evac?” Clay asks and Jensen shakes his head.
“Not sure yet, don’t think so.” Roque passes him the blanket from the first aid and Jensen tucks it over all the nudity. Cripes, that image is gonna linger.
“Cougar, you gotta tell me if you’re hurt somewhere,” he says. Cougar shakes his head, a slow grin spreading across his lips.
Fuck, that’s not useful. “Come on, man, were you hurt before I dosed you? Before the reward?” He finds a penlight in his vest and checks Cougar’s eyes for a concussion. He knows basic field medicine, but he’s no fucking medic, has always been careful to never be the medic.
“Sore,” Cougar admits, “Not injured.”
Jensen can’t find anything obviously wrong, no swelling, pupils equal and responsive, no place that Cougar seems hurt when he touches it. Not that it’s easy to check with Cougar still on his lap, but still.
“I think we’re clear,” Jensen announces and settles back, Cougar’s weight on top of him, warm where the flack-vest isn’t separating them. The dark eyes close, lashes long and soft against Cougar’s cheeks. Jensen should sleep; it’s another four hours until they get to the safe house, but he finds himself just holding Cougar, feeling him breathe, making sure his assessment was right and he’s not bleeding internally.
Pooch turns off the back light and the night falls quiet.
The empty milk jug bangs against the back of his legs with every step, sand and gravel crunch under his sneakers. Heat rises up from the ground, baked hot all day by the sun. Behind them, one of the women stumbles in the dark. Nobody talks, not after walking half of the night. Not this close to the border.
The coyote makes a soft whistle ahead of them, and they stop, those with family huddle close to each other, those without crouch alone in the dark.
“It is too late to cross tonight,” the coyote whispers when he gets back to them. “I will hide you, in small groups until nightfall, and then take you over a few at a time.”
Nobody is happy to hear that, but they’ve come too far to turn around. The coyote scatters the groups, a few here at a patch of scrub, another couple behind a rock. Small patches that will be shade come daytime.
“Rest,” he tells them as he leaves Papi and Carlos under a twisted mesquite. They sit and wait. Sip from Papi’s gallon of water as the sun comes up hot and dry overhead. Carlos has given up on praying, but Papi’s lips move in another Hail Mary.
The sun goes down and nobody comes. “We must wait,” Papi says when Carlos becomes restless. They wait, and the sky becomes light again.
“Carlos,” Papi says when the sun is up. “The gato is stronger than the boy.” And so Carlos lets himself slide back, lets the gato come up and stretch.
The sun goes down again and Papi stands up. “We must cross alone,” he says, and even being caught is better than dying in the desert. Carlos can lead him, can follow the path of two-day-old footprints to where the coyote split them up. He follows the coyote’s scent to another of the hiding places, and from there north, through narrow gullies and over rough ground. They cross water, and Papi refills the jugs there.
Once, a helicopter thrums overhead. Papi huddles in the scant shadow of a scrub and Carlos crouches low in the open, hoping his stripes hide him, hoping they are looking for people and not little gatos shaking with fear.
When the lights have faded they move again. North, always north, until there is a little town, and Carlos changes back, walks on two legs again. They buy food there, and hear that they have made it to Texas.
Cougar sleeps to the hum of the motor, the rocking and rattling of the worn road beneath them. He sleeps to the sweet buzz of reward in his system, making everything soft around the edges, soothing his aches and distracting him from his worries. He falls asleep, knowing he’s lying on top of Jensen but it doesn’t seem to matter much.
He wakes up in the sudden stillness of the engine being turned off, to a body pressed against him, the feeling of being naked and tangled and he fights before he can stop himself, jack-knifing his body and thrashing against his bonds. His head hits something solid and Jensen swears. “Fuck! Cougs! Cougar! You’re okay. Jesus, I think you broke my nose.”
The back door swings open and the gato in him is snarling before Cougar can crush it down. Clay just stares at Cougar, then turns and looks over at Jensen holding his bloody face.
“Jensen, stop fucking around and get in the safe-house. Cougar, come on in when you’re ready.”
Cougar nods, coughs out a “Yessir,” and he won’t wait long. Better to take his punishment (and he’s more than earned it, Dios, Jensen is bleeding ) as soon as he can. The Losers have been good to him. More than fair, and he wonders if Clay will use the collar or take a more hands-on approach.
Clay digs a change of clothes out of one of the cases and leaves it on top of the box, telling Cougar with a glance at his blanket that those are for him.
Jensen shuffles around and climbs out of the truck, one last look over his shoulder that Cougar can’t decipher, hands covering his nose and eyes watering.
“Let me see that,” Clay says, and then Jensen is howling “God damn it, that hurts! Warn a guy next time, mother fuck!”
Alone, Cougar takes the time to breathe, to stuff the gato back until it’s not trying to eat anyone. Fighting will not help this. He’s learned that lesson over and over and over. Stiff and sore, he pulls on the clothes. Pooch’s things, they smell like his sweat and engine oil and the base’s laundry soap.
Barefoot, he crosses the short distance to where the team has gone, the side door of an old barn. Slips in quiet. They must have heard the door; heads turn his way and then they ignore him again. The barn is mostly empty, an ancient tractor with its tires rotted to the ground along one side, stacks of broken hay bales on the other, a ladder up to a loft near the center.
Jensen’s already got a laptop open, some sort of headset on. His nose has been taped and the beginnings of a pair of spectacular bruises are starting to shadow under his eyes. He’s smiling though, “Hey Kara, how’s my best sister? Yeah? That’s awesome. Huh, no, just allergies. You wouldn’t believe the pollen here.”
Cougar sits down against the wall, waiting for him to finish his call before he bothers Clay, before raised voices might interrupt Jensen’s family time. He rarely screams during his punishments, but Clay may shout. He tries not to eavesdrop, but the joy in Jensen’s voice is impossible to ignore, as he chats with his sister, her day, her job, renovations they’re doing on her house.
“Lay-Lay there?” Jensen asks, and then laughs. “Sorry, you’re Elaina now? Jeeze, a kid turns eight and suddenly she’s too good for her uncle Jake.” They talk for just as long as Jensen had with his sister, about soccer games and science fairs and Cougar thinks of his own sisters, Ofelia’s children that have never even met him, and wonders what his life would have been without the gato.
Finally Jensen says his goodbyes and breaks the connection. “I’m gonna…go see if it’s inhabitable up in the loft,” he announces to the room. He looks Cougar’s way but his expression is just as unreadable as it had been in the Humvee.
Better with him further away, Cougar thinks. One less witness to his pain and humiliation. He stalks over to where Clay and Roque are sitting, Clay pecking at a laptop with two fingers and Roque cleaning knives.
Clay looks a little puzzled as Cougar makes himself bend, one knee touching the ground, hands fisted at his sides. “Something I can help you with?” he asks and Cougar never thought he was a cruel man, to make Cougar say the words.
“Get it over with,” he growls. Fighting, still, knowing it’s a mistake to antagonize the man before his punishment and unable to stop himself. Not his place to decide when or how but he’s gonna be sick with the waiting if Clay doesn’t release him from the horrible anticipation. Pushing, maybe making it worse, but making it sooner too so the trade-off is one he can live with.
The steady scrape-scrape of Roque’s knife on the whetstone stills and Cougar can imagine his eyebrow creeping up.
“What is it I’m supposed to be doing?” Clay asks, half annoyed and half perplexed.
“Punishment,” Cougar answers and soon, it’ll be soon and then it’ll be over and he can curl up and lick his wounds.
Clay huffs out a laugh, but it sounds more sad than amused and Cougar breaks form to look up at him. Clay shakes his head, runs a hand over his stubble. He gestures up to the loft where Jensen disappeared. “For what, for that?”
Cougar swallows and nods. Maybe Clay wants to be sure he understands what he’s done wrong. “Si. For striking a soldier. For injuring a teammate.”
“No,” Clay says, firm and sure and Cougar isn’t sure exactly what else he’s done wrong.
“And for losing assigned equipment.”
Clay sighs and leans forward, elbows on his knees as he looks Cougar in the eye.
“No, I mean no punishment. We had a shit mission with shit intel, and we pulled it off without a single casualty, all because of you. If the worst I have to report is that Corporal Jensen got hit by a rifle butt turning a corner and some gear got misplaced, believe me, I’m happy to write that report.”
“You think any of us has no problems with sleep?” Roque asks, “I wake up with Jensen that close to my face and he’d have a hell of a lot worse than a bloody nose.”
“Go find a place to crash,” Clay tells him, “You’ve got third watch.”
Jensen finds a pile of hay in the loft and throws his bedroll out on it. It smells like dust and rats but he’s had worse, and he needs a night of distance, a chance to get his head on straight. To acknowledge that what he feels about the situation is maybe not at all what Cougar feels. That maybe they aren’t friends, that Cougar may just be avoiding conflict and doing his job.
Looking back, Jensen can admit he was out of line. That cuddling the sniper while he was high and injured was not the best plan he’s ever made.
What he’s not sure of, is what the hell to do about it, how to make amends, how to regain Cougar’s trust (if he even had it in the first place). It’s not like he can give him a lot of room. They’re gonna be up in each other’s space all the time, there’s just no help for it. He wishes he’d been able to tell Kara about this, to get his sister’s opinion, but she needs reminders about what they are, what they could be if they follow their mother’s footsteps, even less than he does, and he can’t bring it up.
He should sleep, but between the pain in his face and the circles his brain is turning, he’s still awake when Clay pops his head up and tells him it’s his watch. “Cougar after you,” Clay says, and smirks, “You think you can wake him up without losing an eye?”
“Ha ha,” Jensen mutters. “I am never hearing the end of this, am I?” But Clay’s already climbing down.
He takes his watch, awake and listening, making a few patrols around the outside of the barn when he gets too tired to be alert. He wakes Cougar up from four feet away, hissing his name until he wakes up. “Your watch,” he says, and Cougar just nods and gets up. Jensen climbs the ladder back to his bedroll, and this time he’s tired enough to sleep.
He dreams of dark eyes and a soft mouth under his lips, of sharp hipbones in his hands and strong, calloused hands stroking him.
He wakes to the soft whispers of someone walking across the scattered hay, opens his eyes to a view of Cougar’s bare feet just out of arm’s reach. A shiver dances down his spine, a tingle of fear and arousal making him twitch in a way he’s not sure he likes.
“Cougs?” he asks in the near-dark. And Cougar just — folds. Goes to his knees with his hands in his lap. Jensen can see the muscles along his jaw jumping with the strain, nostrils flared and eyes turned careful to the floor.
“You would not need the restraints,” Cougar says like they’re already in the middle of a conversation. “If you wanted to fuck,” he adds, annoyed like Jensen’s the one who isn’t keeping up and he should. And god, Jensen’s hard already, from the dream, and Cougar right there and so beautiful. He’s trying to be a decent guy about this but if there was any glimmer of attraction in Cougar’s face it would be impossible for him to say no. Part of him is almost glad that there’s no sign that Cougar wants this, wants him.
"If I thought this was just about post-combat horniness, I'd totally suggest you fuck me instead," he says, and it may not be the best thing he could have blurted out, but it’s honest and still a no. The last thing he expects is for Cougar to look at him, to have a spark of warmth in his eyes, curiosity, shock, the glimmer of desire.
The flare of want lasts less than a second and then Cougar grits his teeth. “I cannot. It—the reward. I am not able.”
“Holy shit,” Jensen breathes, because he can’t even imagine. “Not ever? For how long?”
“Damn you!” Cougar spits. “Fuck me or punish me or send me away.”
Jensen’s heart pounds. Fear. Something else. “Cougs, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Why would you want that?”
“I broke your nose,” Cougar growls, “I lost the rifle. You are…the first to be kind. I will not have you angry at me.”
“I’m not angry at you,” Jensen says, soft, soothing. “I’m not pissed. It was an accident, none of that was your fault. You think I’d rather it was you smashed to bits on that tower?”
It occurs to Jensen that the easy thing, the quickest, would be to do what Cougar’s asking for in his own fucked up way. To punish him. A few quick pushes of a button and they could be back to what they were. Except Jensen would always know what he’d done. That he’d hurt a good man because it was easier than talking.
Cougar’s shoulders hunch in tighter and Jensen wishes he was better with words, better at knowing what to say. “Hey,” he murmurs and rests his hand on Cougar’s shoulder, fully expecting to have it shaken off. Cougar relaxes under his touch instead, leans in an infinitesimal amount towards Jensen. Touch-starved, lonely and probably realizing he nearly died today.
Petting is probably the best word for what Jensen does then. He pets Cougar’s hair back from his face, strokes his hands down between his shoulder-blades. “Here,” he says and scoots back to make room on his blanket. He’s not sure why it works, but Cougar shuffles over and sits, and after a few minutes of Jensen’s slow touches, he lies down. Stiff, yes, and awkward, but they stretch out together and eventually they sleep.
He is twelve, just another little Mexican child in an elementary school half-full of them. Dark eyes and dark wavy hair, painfully thin and shy with his smiles. A quiet boy, never drawing attention to himself, never making trouble. Mediocre grades, average at sports.
He is a careful boy. He keeps the gato tight inside his chest, even when a bully shoves him, even when the girls laugh at him, even when the teacher sighs in exasperation at him “Carlos, we’ve been over this, are you paying attention?” He tries, he does, but there is so much else going on, so many scents and sounds, other teachers in other rooms, dancing motes of chalk dust so pretty in the air. And the gato. Always the gato, wanting to come out, wanting to play, to catch the loose thread on Teacher’s sleeve, to hide under the desks, to leave this place and run and climb and never come back.
It is the last day before Easter vacation and the restlessness of the other children crawls under his skin, and he looks out of the window instead of at the chalk board. He’s watching as he sees the black vans pull up, men with guns and a tall guy in a collar, hands bound and weaving drunkenly.
One of the runners from the principal’s office brings Teacher a note and she straightens. “Class? It looks like we have a surprise assembly today!” Her smile is fake and her scent full of fear.
Carlos shakes as the children all line up. He leaves his book bag at his desk and puts himself in the last half of the line and when the class moves down the hallway and out of the building, heading for the gym, he turns and runs. Behind him Teacher shouts his name, but he doesn’t go back, can’t go back. He strips off his clothes and lets the gato free, claws grabbing as he climbs a tree and out onto a branch and drops down outside of the school’s fence.
He runs then, hiding when he can but desperate to get home, to his Papi, so they can run again, to a new town, a new school.
He hears the voice on the megaphone before he sees home, “Carlos Alvarez,” the man calls, “You must turn yourself in. We have your father.”
He leaps from the hood of a car, to the top of a wall and up onto the roof of a house, terrified of being taken but not able to leave his father. He looks down on the scene, the black vans at his house now, the men with guns. His father on his knees on their little patch of yard, hands behind his head.
The man with the megaphone turns towards him, spots him there against the sky. “It will all be okay,” he says, “If you turn yourself in, everything will be okay. Your father won’t be beaten. He won’t be arrested. He won’t go to jail, he won’t be deported. Come down now, Carlos.”
And there is nothing else he can do. He slides to the edge of the roof and drops down, tail flicking as he forces himself to take each step. His fur bristles and he wants to fight, to bite and claw. A little closer, he just has to get a little closer.
There’s a soft pop to the left and a sting against his shoulder, another on the right bites above his hip. He bites at empty air and his head is becoming heavy, too heavy to hold up, his paws too heavy to lift and he’s falling, falling forever .
Clay has put a commendation on Cougar’s record for his performance on their first mission together, and as a reward they add a second familial visit for the year. Three days after they land, a pair of officers from requisitions come for him. They take the controller from Jensen, and Cougar tries not to meet the young tech’s worried gaze as he’s led away in shackles. He tries to look unafraid even though his stomach twists at being taken from them, from his team. He can recognize this trust he has in them as dangerous, a weakness that could break him, he just has no way to stop himself
The guards sedate him only mildly. The logistics of the visit are complicated enough that they want to be sure he remembers it, that wanting another visit has power over him.
The room they lead him to is plain. White walls, three chairs, one table. A mirrored window along one side, door on the other. A ring in the floor that they fasten his chains to. He sits. Waits. It seems like a long time until at last the door opens and his parents are rushing to him, his mother taking his face in her cool hands and kissing his cheek, his Papi hugging tight around his shoulders, both of them overcome with joy and relief and sorrow to see him like this.
It hurts, his mother’s tears, his father’s apologies, always blaming himself for Carlos’ capture.
They tell him the family news. Both of his nephews are in junior high now; his niece has had her quinceañera. All the things he has missed, and that hurts too.
It is only an hour that they stay, but after, he is glad of the quiet of the room as he puts his face in his hands and cries, not caring who may watch through the one-way glass.
Clay takes Cougar’s visit with his parents as an opportunity to talk to Jensen about his progress on the collar without a chance of the mutant overhearing them.
“Here’s what I’ve got,” Jensen starts, and Clay braces himself for a torrent of jargon.
“Controller talks to collar, collar delivers the dose and then tells the controller that it has. The controller talks to the wireless on any military base or mobile command and updates the files on what Cougar has been given, when, how much, where, everything.”
Clay nods. “Following you so far. So this thing is reporting to command the details of how we’re micro-managing the asset.”
“Right. The controller does most of the communication because it’s easier to change out batteries. The collar is mostly passive, listening. There’s a tracker in there, but I haven’t seen it active, even when we were out of the country. I’m guessing the brass assumes everything is fine as long as the controller is getting regular ping-backs from the collar.”
“What of all that can we get around, should the need arise?”
Jensen rakes a hand through his spiky hair. “I can use a scrambler so when the controller gives the collar a command, the collar can’t ‘hear’ it. And then I can spoof back a reply as if the collar has done what it was told to. It’s not a perfect system, but it keeps our business our business.”
“You have some change in mutant-handling protocol in mind?”
Jensen pauses and looks down at his hands and Clay has rarely seen him quieted like that. “I think having him fucked up on drugs isn’t good for him or us,” he says at last. “I think the appreciation we’d gain from letting him kick if he wants to would gain us his respect. I think he’d be more valuable to us in the field.”
Clay mulls it over, wonders again if Jensen isn’t getting too close to the sniper. “I’ll talk to Roque,” he promises, although his gut is saying the tech is right, that Cougar’s performance, his ability, could only be enhanced if his head is clear all the time.
“Go walk the requisition guys back with Cougar,” he orders Jensen, “I don’t like what happens when he’s out of Loser sight.”
Later, when he talks to Roque about the situation, the SiC agrees with Jensen’s evaluation.
It’s four months later though, before they get the down-time to try it. In the meantime they go on missions and solidify Cougar’s place in the team, Clay fending off requests to borrow him while Roque runs them through drills and Pooch puts together a kit of what Cougar actually needs for the missions as opposed to what the rest of them carry — what helps him out and what just weighs them down.
When the time comes, two weeks before their next scheduled action and another week if the whole team gets some convenient food poisoning, he’s almost reluctant to go through with it, to risk shaking up the near-perfection that they’ve become.
Cougar groans, feels like his body is tearing itself apart from the inside out. Like shifting into the gato while bound from shoulders to ankles, muscles burning and his voice hoarse from screaming. The sick agony of it goes on and on, like punishment from the collar without end, without rest.
He writhes on the cool tiles of the showers and Jensen lays a wet towel on his forehead. And Dios, if he had known, when Jensen had told him Clay had approved getting him clear of the addiction but it was Cougar’s choice to do it or not, if he had known how much it would hurt, how many days he would be throwing up and sweating and cramping, he would have said no, he would have killed himself rather than go through this.
He feels the gato inside of him, struggling against the pain, wanting to come out, to find the source, to tear apart whatever is hurting them.
“Cougs,” Jensen murmurs, wiping his lank hair back from his face. He pulls Cougar halfway into his lap. “Hold on, man.” The last time the gato slipped free it had taken Jensen pushing the button for punishment to stop him from attacking the tech. That the man will still even come into the room with him amazes Cougar when he’s calm enough to think about it. He grits his teeth and stuffs the gato back inside of him.
“Please,” he begs, beyond pride. “Please Jake, Dios, it hurts, please.”
“I’m sorry,” Jake says back to him, lips pressed thin and face tight. “It’ll get better. I promise you, it’ll get better.”
Better takes another day, before the pain and cramps and shitting himself finally eases. Good isn’t for almost a week, not until he’s built his strength back up, until he’s adjusted to operating without the constant minute interference of the reward in his system. A dulling of his perception that he never noticed is acutely obvious in its absence.
He feels clear when it’s over. The world is suddenly crisp, sharp. They go on their first mission since they cleaned him of the drugs and he feels like a thing of magic, strong and fast and uninhibited. The gato listens to him without fight now, “go here” he tells it and it climbs, carries the rifle, protects Clay, allows Jensen’s touch. He can see further, smell more delicate scents, hear sounds he knows he would have missed a month ago. Sounds like Roque masturbating in the shower or Clay talking low and sexy to some woman on his cell phone in his office.
He tries to ignore his own body’s awakening. He has vague memories of sticky sheets and sweaty nights, but it was so long ago. He rubs against his mattress that night, after a day of running and fighting and killing and he all but whines with need and frustration.
The army has moved them to a different base, to a dorm-style barracks, pairs of two bedrooms linked by a shared bath and a large common area for eating and socializing. It was designed for pairs of soldiers to share the rooms, but they’re so few that they each have their own. Cougar hates it, hates the distance between his team, how quiet it is at night without them all breathing the same air. His body shivers, too awake with the latest mission only hours ago finished. Restless and itching he peels off his clothes, and when he can’t stand it anymore he crosses the shared bathroom and checks the other door, Jensen’s door.
The knob turns, unlocked.
“Jensen,” he whispers as he opens the door. The tech is as much a soldier as any of them and Cougar knows better than to startle him awake.
“Cougs?” Jensen’s voice is muffled, half-asleep. He shifts around, rolls over and sits up, probably blind in the darkness as he gropes around on the bedside table. He taps his phone and the faint light fills the room. “Cougar, are you naked?”
Jensen is quiet for a moment and then asks, “Whatcha need?”
It wouldn’t be the first night he crawled into Jensen’s bed, to feel those talented fingers carding gentle through his hair, to luxuriate in a touch that isn’t meant to hurt, to fall asleep to another’s heartbeat, slow and steady. That isn’t what Cougar needs this night.
Cougar can smell him, the warm soft scent of his sweat, deodorant and toothpaste. Jensen fumbles for his glasses as Cougar steps towards the bed, wracked by the strength of his need. He gets to the foot of the bed and crawls up Jensen’s body before he can find his glasses, hears him squeak a startled “Cougar? What?” but he doesn’t try to escape and Cougar covers him, leans down and nips him on the side of his jaw, hard enough to sting.
Jensen makes a muffled yelp and twitches under him, hands dancing to the sides like he’s not sure at all where to put them.
“Please,” Cougar whispers, low and rough, because he needs, so bad, and Jensen had said once that he would, and if Jensen turns him away now he thinks the need might burn the man out of him, leave only the gato, hungry and wild.
Jensen gulps under him and then nods. “Yeah. Yeah, okay,” and Cougar can smell the desire rising in him. He pulls back enough to flip Jensen over onto his stomach, to drag the boxers down his ass. He spreads Jensen’s legs open, keeps them that way with his knees pressed between. He takes himself in hand, drawing back the foreskin and rubbing some spit on the head with the other.
Jensen wriggles under him, trying to look back and see. “Wait. Cougs, wait.”
It’s hard, but Cougar does, stops when he just wants to push inside, to be closer to Jensen than he’s ever been.
Jensen tries to scramble to the bedside table but Cougar can’t bear to let him go, reaches and pulls the whole drawer out instead, dumping it on the mattress beside them. There isn’t much there in this borrowed room, a box of tissues, a tube of something, a dog-eared magazine with glossy pictures of oil-slick skin. Jensen hands him the tube, “Here. Use this,” and Cougar pops it open, clear gel squirting over Jensen’s back and he hisses at the cold of it. Cougar scoops a gob of it from the dip of Jensen’s spine and slicks it against his hole, hears Jensen moan at the feel of his fingers there.
Jensen’s phone goes dark and leaves Jensen blind again.
Cougar can’t hold himself back anymore, can’t make himself wait or go slow. He lines his dick up against Jensen and pushes into the hot and slick. Tighter than he could have imagined, surrounding him, clenching tight as Jensen makes a high whimper and his fingers grab onto the sheets. Cougar pulls back, grabs Jensen by his hips and lifts him into a better position and thrusts in again, slamming hard, his body pressed tight against Jensen’s ass. The collar thumps against Cougar’s collar bone as the force rocks them both forward.
It doesn’t take long. Half a dozen deep thrusts and then he’s biting down on Jensen’s shoulder as the orgasm washes over him, a wave of relief and sensation that leaves him limp and panting on Jensen’s back, slick with sweat.
It takes longer to come down than it did to get there, and Cougar’s in no mood to hurry, just feeling Jensen breathing under him.
“Fuck,” Jensen groans at last and Cougar reluctantly pulls out of him. Jensen flinches and his breath catches in his throat and he lays face-down on his sheet like he’s trying to catch his breath. Cougar frowns and scents the air. There is no release but his own, and Jensen is hiding from him and he remembers all too clear the nights when it was him pushed face-down on a bed or over a table, him trying to curl up afterward.
“No,” he whispers and goes around the bed to Jensen’s side, combs his fingers through the short spiky hair and tries to gently turn Jensen’s head so Cougar can see him.
Jensen opens his eyes, gives Cougar a tight smile. “We gotta work on some finesse next time, man. That…little too fast, you know?”
“I hurt you,” Cougar says, stating the obvious.
Jensen swallows and shrugs, lets Cougar roll him over onto his side. “First time?”
“Everybody’s first time is pretty shitty in some way. We’ll work on it.”
Cougar presses his face against Jensen’s shoulder and doesn’t know if they will, if he will ever trust himself to touch Jensen like this again.
“It’s okay,” Jensen says like he can read Cougar’s mind. “Come on, let's get cleaned up; can you grab me a wash-cloth?”
Cougar goes to the bathroom to get it, leaves the light on so Jensen can see. He washes himself quick in the sink and brings back a warm, wet cloth for Jensen. He climbs back on the bed and Jensen holds out a hand for the cloth but Cougar pushes him away. He needs to do this, to see that he hasn’t hurt Jensen too badly. Guilt knots his guts in a way he’s not used to. He spreads Jensen’s legs again, gentle this time, and wipes at his hole, light delicate touches. And slowly, slowly, Jensen relaxes under his hands.
“I really am okay, Cougs.” Jensen sounds better too. Drowsy. Cougar leans down, sniffing for the scent of blood under the lube and sex smells. He flicks out his tongue and licks. Jensen’s taste under his own. Faint coppery tang but not like an open wound. Jensen moans, a sound that’s not pain and Cougar does it again. Reaches around and feels Jensen’s dick, still soft but stirring, thickening under his touch. He strokes his fingertips along the underside, a feather-light touch that makes Jensen squirm.
“Cougs, you don’t…” his words break off as Cougar laves the flat of his tongue against his hole at the same time his hand grips and slides down Jensen’s dick, a single firm stroke.
“Shit!” Jensen gasps and squirms, trapped between the sensations. Cougar rolls him onto his back and puts his tongue to work on his dick, long licks before he takes him fully into his mouth, swallows him so deep his eyes water. Shallow bobs of his head and then deep ones. Lips tight over his teeth and Jensen’s fingers in his hair. The smell of him in Cougar’s nose, on his skin and he’s hard again against the sheets. Hungry sounds and Cougar isn’t sure which of them is making them. His own harsh gasps for breath as he pulls back just enough to catch some air before devouring Jensen again.
“Cougs,” Jensen says through clenched teeth. “Cougs, I’m gonna…” he pushes at Cougar’s shoulder and Cougar grabs his wrist, pins it to the bed. Shoves Jensen’s dick as far back in his throat as he can, feels the pulse of it along his tongue and swallows as he comes, choking on it, eyes stinging and wet.
Jensen is still and quiet and Cougar humps at the mattress, ineffectual, frustrating more than anything. “C’mere,” Jensen says and draws him up, guides Cougar to straddle his hips, takes Cougar’s aching cock in his hand and strokes it. “Come for me,” Jensen pleads and Cougar does, stuttering spurts across Jensen’s muscular abs.
He collapses down, half-covering Jensen’s body and they breathe together. Jensen chuckles in the semi-darkness and then turns to face Cougar, going quiet again as he wipes Cougar’s cheek with the heel of his hand.
“Fuck, are you…did I?”
Cougar shakes his head. Words have never been his strength but he needs to tell Jensen. Needs him to understand. “I thought it would only hurt you if I tried to hurt you.”
Jensen sighs and reaches over and grabs a corner of the sheet, tries to pull it over them. Cougar shifts around a little to help. Lets Jensen buy the time to form an answer if he needs it.
“Cougs. If you want… This, with me. If you want it, we can work on it. I can show you how to fuck me so I don’t get hurt. And if you want, we can try it the other way around. See if I can make it good for you. Let me show you how it’s supposed to be.”
Cougar can’t answer that, can’t face the trust and affection in Jensen’s offer. He presses tighter and hides his face and Jensen strokes his hair until they fall asleep together.
The jangle of Jensen’s phone ringing wakes them both to the pale rays of dawn sunlight creeping through the room’s standard-issue curtains. Cougar closes his eyes again, presses in against Jensen’s warmth. If it concerns him, Jensen will tell him soon enough.
“Kara?” Jensen answers the phone, and Cougar wakes up enough to listen. He’s close enough to the phone that he can hear a woman’s voice, tight with stress and tears.
“They took her! Jake, they took her, oh God,” she cries and Jensen sits up, his body tense, as Cougar falls away from him, his scent going acrid as adrenaline hits his system.
“What? Kara, slow down, took who?” Desperation in his voice, begging without words to not hear the name he’s dreading.
“Elaina, Jake, the hounds, they took her out of school.”
Jake sits up and wraps himself in a sheet, goes into the bathroom and locks the door behind him, leaving Cougar to hear only one side of the conversation, Jake’s voice asking:
“When? Okay, okay.”
“What did she…fuck. Oh, fuck.”
Jake makes a pained sound, a scream caught between his teeth and behind his hand. A quiet suffering that Cougar wishes he was trusted to share, to offer what comfort he can.
“Shit, shit, shit.” Already Jake’s starting to pull himself together, to plan, to figure out how to fix a situation that’s gone to hell on him.
“Kara. I’ll…I’ll do something. I’ll fix this.”
“I have no idea.” His laugh is only a little hysterical.
“I’ll call you. I’ll need you sober and strong. You hear me?”
Cougar pulls the blanket over his lap and wishes his clothes weren’t two doors away. He waits for Jensen, hears him sniff and wash up in the sink. He meets Cougar’s eye as he steps out of the bathroom, sighs “Fuck” at him and then goes to get his laptop out of its bag. Cougar isn’t sure if that’s a dismissal or not, but he goes, back to his own room to get dressed and then out, out of the barracks, out to the open air. He doesn’t go far, keeps the building in sight, but the long loops he runs on the surrounding roads add up to miles before he comes in again.
He looks for Jensen, but his door is still closed, the sporadic tapping of his keyboard the only sound from within.
Clay isn’t stupid. Looking back on it, he can see after their first mission with Cougar, after that night in the barn, that things were building between Jensen and Cougar. He’s seen how close they are, sharing a desk and bumping shoulders as Jensen types and Cougar cleans his weapon. He’s seen Cougar sleeping in Jensen’s bunk, laying head-to-foot so the width of their shoulders doesn’t shove them off of the narrow bed and empty cots on either side of them. He’s seen the way they look at each other, track each other, watch each other’s back.
He expected he’d have to have a conversation or two at some point, much as he’d like to put it off forever.
What he didn’t expect was that it would be Jensen walking stiff and sore still in the afternoon, hiding in his room half the day and only coming out when he must be starving, eyes red and throat scratchy. He didn’t expect Cougar to be the one looking guilty and wary, running laps around the barracks to burn off nervous energy.
“Jensen,” he says after the kid has his coffee cup filled and in hand. “My office.”
Jensen follows him with shuffling steps, eases himself down into the guest chair by Clay’s borrowed desk.
“You don’t look so hot, soldier,” seems like a good opening gambit.
Jensen shrugs in return. “Catching a cold maybe.”
And that’s how it’s gonna be, is it?
Clay lets the silence stretch. Jensen sips at his coffee.
“Look,” Clay says at last, “You’re a grown man, and who you fuck is your own business.” He had really planned to give this speech to Cougar. “But if you need help. If you’re being pressured into something, if he’s using guilt or…”
The tips of Jensen’s ears turn pink and Clay has never ever seen the man blush before. It’s fucking disturbing.
The kid looks up and Clay knows something is wrong. Wants to shoot or punch or sic Roque onto the problem, whatever it is. But he can’t, not unless he knows what the enemy is.
“We got your back,” he finishes lamely. “Talk to me. Anytime.”
Jensen nods. “Am I dismissed?”
Clay has seen Jensen at sixty hours without sleep, has held him bleeding in his arms, walked twenty miles together with the kid concussed and babbling and he’s never heard that dead voice before.
“Dismissed,” Clay sighs. Tomorrow he’ll talk to Cougar. See if he can figure out what the hell has happened to his team.
Jensen rubs his hand over his face. Eighteen hours at the keyboard, except for the brief sojourn to get coffee and share an awkward talk with Clay, have left him feeling stiff and stupid. Planning was never his strong suit, and this…so many balls in the air, so many variables.
Kara is already on the move, bought a by-owner used car off of Craigslist with cash, no paperwork to track since she won’t file the change of title forms. Heading north, to Canada, where Jake will meet her with Elaina or die trying. He studies the transport route again, just grateful that Elaina’s powers make her low-risk, mid-value, batched up with a couple others to be driven to the federal training facility in Michigan instead of flown there.
He checks the manifests again, the vehicle allocation forms. The agent work schedules and medical personnel rosters. He can’t…there are too many. Too many boots on the ground (or riding around in big black vans, but whatever).
He sighs and stands. He crosses the bathroom and taps on Cougar’s door. He’s not even sure what time it is. 0-dark-30.
“Si,” Cougar answers immediately.
Jensen opens the door, and Cougar is sitting cross-legged in the middle of his bed. He looks calm and composed, but his eyes betray his anxiety, and Jensen feels bad, for the false sense of security he’s given the man, for the request he’s about to make.
“They took…they took my niece,” Jensen says, and the words catch in his throat. “She. There was an accident, at school. She was on the slide with a younger kid and they fell. Or something. The boy broke his arm and she stopped the pain. He never even cried.”
Cougar is still watching him, silently waiting.
“I’m gonna get her back. Try, at least. I just. There’s so many of them, three vans, four ‘patients’ , three security and one nurse in each one.” He rubs at his eyes again. “I can’t…God, this would be so easy with the team, but I can’t ask them this. Pooch has Jolene, Clay and Roque, they have their careers.”
He looks up and Cougar is already nodding. Jensen holds up his hand. He can’t accept Cougar’s help, not yet, not without him knowing what’s at stake.
“If we pull it off, we’re going to Canada, and from there to Singapore. We’re never coming back. You’ll never see your family again.”
Cougar nods, solemn but sure. God, he doesn’t deserve this, Cougar’s trust, Cougar’s help. He wants to believe he’s offering the man a hope for a better life but he knows it won’t be, that they’re facing years of struggle and fear, trying to build a life in a foreign land (but at least one where mutants aren’t burned at the stake, aren’t requisitioned by the government). But a free life, and Jensen has to think that counts for something.
Jensen takes a deep breath. “We’ll have to get the collar off. Or they’ll track us by it and it’ll all be over before we hit the state line. I might. I might blow us both up. I have a plan but no idea if it’ll work.” He clenches his jaw to keep from losing it. “I’m no bomb squad guy, you know?”
“I trust you,” Cougar says and Jensen nods. He just wants to fold himself small in Cougar’s arms and never come out, but there’s so much to do, so little time.
“We need a rifle and a vehicle; I’ll get the collar off of you and we’ll go.”
Cougar is trained in the art of holding perfectly still, breathing slow and even, heart rate steady in the face of danger. Lying on Jensen’s desk while the tech drills tiny careful holes in the explosive device attached to his neck is the single most difficult challenge to that professional calm he’s ever had. Jensen’s constant babble while he does so has to be a close second.
“Seriously, whoever came up with these has seen too much damn Star Trek, Cougs. Freaky 60’s fetishists. I’d rather fight three aliens and a chick with green hair than be here with your life in my hands, I’m not gonna lie.”
Cougar takes a careful breath as Jensen rocks back a little, surveying his handiwork. He brings in a tiny light on a bendable neck and shines it into one hole. Very carefully he inserts some sort of metallic probe, sighing in relief when neither of them dies. “One more.” And he repeats the action on the other side. “Okay.”
If Cougar thought his babble was distracting before, the utter lack of it is even worse, Jensen’s expression tight and intense as he picks up the Dremel tool, slides a piece of cardboard between the collar and Cougar’s neck, and starts to cut. The spinning disk hums to life, whining as it hits the collar. Tiny bits of melted plastic and heated flecks of metal singe into Cougar’s exposed neck where they miss the guard. He clenches his hands and does not move. This will be worth the pain, to be able to go with Jensen, to not be left alone. He thinks even if Jensen’s plan fails (and really, it is a shitty plan and the two of them not enough manpower to pull it off without a miracle), it will be worth it.
He’s never dared even dream of this. The collar coming off. He stares up into the blue of Jensen’s eyes. Grateful as hell that Jensen needs him, but that’s nothing at all to do with why he wants to lean up and brush their lips together, to flick his tongue out and taste.
The collar falls open, an anti-climatic click as it lands on the desk. “Easy,” Jensen warns and carefully eases the wires over Cougar’s head. They both breathe freer when it’s done, when Jensen gives him a hand up, Jensen’s fingers trembling now, now that it’s over. “Fuck,” he laughs, and draws Cougar against his chest for a shaky hug. He feels naked, the fall of his t-shirt like air over his collar bone.
“Okay,” Jensen says when they pull apart. “I’ve got my stuff packed. Go ahead and get yours together. I’m gonna check out your rifle for target practice and get a vehicle. I’ll meet you here, half an hour or less. The guys should still be asleep. We’ll hide you in the back until we’re past security.”
Jensen tucks the collar and the controller into a desk drawer and tapes it shut with a note that says “DANGER! EXPLOSIVES!” on it—not visible from the door, but they’ll see it before they jostle it. Cougar is glad because he isn’t willing to have these men who have been so fair to him maimed any more than Jensen is.
“Okay,” Jensen says again, psyching himself up. They’re already committed; Cougar will be taken from the Losers if they’re caught, re-indoctrinated, re-addicted.
Jensen takes a deep breath and then he’s in Cougar’s space, lips crashing together with desperate urgency. Cougar lets him, as unsure as any other time that a man has kissed him. He parts his lips and allows Jensen to deepen the kiss.
Jensen breaks away just as suddenly as he had rushed in, puts on his cocky smile like a mask and turns to go.
Getting off of base is just as easy as Jensen planned. In the dark of the trunk, Cougar feels over the rifle cases, pops the catches and traces the weapons with his fingers. SR-25 in one, the big 50 cal. in the other.
Jensen stops the car behind a grocery store to let him out. They head for the airport, park the Army’s sedan in long-term parking and steal a car that Jensen says looks fast. They head north, five miles over the speed limit, Cougar driving as Jensen sleeps against the window, long legs tucked uncomfortably against the dash.
Jensen pulls over and Cougar slips out of the car. A ten yard sprint puts him into the tree-line by the interstate. From there he moves through the brush, up to the top of a hill that was sliced in half when the road went in, a rough and sharply sloping rock face in front of him. It will be impossible for anyone to climb up it to get to him; they’ll have to come through the trees, hopefully slowing them and forcing them to make enough noise that he’ll be able to finish his mission before letting the gato free. He’ll use the gato’s strength and grace to go down that impossible slope, to join Jensen in the getaway car, and pray they can displace fast enough to ditch it for less conspicuous wheels before they pick up aerial pursuit.
He sets up the 50 cal first, in case the convoy is earlier than they expect, the SR-25 next to it, faster fire and quieter, harder for men on the ground to spot him, better for taking down personnel. When it’s done, he sights down the scope to where Jensen stands beside the car, hood up, pretending to talk on his phone.
“How’s it going, Cougs?” he asks over their stolen communications unit. Cougar sees him turn to look up the road, the sidelong glance up at Cougar’s position. He knows Jensen isn’t questioning his preparedness, just talking to fill the time, the silence.
“Done,” Cougar answers and Jensen paces.
From his position he can see the state trooper’s car before Jensen can, and he drops his respiration, lowers his heart rate. Sights the trooper’s head in as the man gets out of the car. At this range he cannot miss. Their fast car has been missing for long enough that it has possibly been reported stolen. Jensen has two guns on him. They are officially AWOL by now, Cougar considered a dangerous fugitive.
“Problem, son?” he hears the officer ask, muffled over the comms.
Cougar decides that the officer touching Jensen will be his signal, the point at which Jensen cannot possibly talk his way out of it. Shooting the man reduces their chances of success even further, but Jensen getting searched would make the mission impossible.
“Hey,” Jensen answers, a grin in his voice. “The thing just died on me. Timing belt looks loose, probably broken. I don’t want to try turning her over, just waiting for Triple -A to get here and give me a tow.”
The officer peers in the windows, but there is nothing suspicious to see. He walks back to the police car and sits in the driver’s seat. Cougar keeps the rifle pointed at him. If he checks the license plate. If it’s reported stolen. Cougar wonders if he should take the shot now. If the hole in the windshield would be small enough that nobody would notice the man behind it was dead.
He hesitates too long though, and the man stands up again, walks to Jensen and hands him a card.
“Here. If Triple-A doesn’t come and get you soon, you call Singer and he’ll come pick you up.”
Jensen takes the card and beams at the trooper. “Awesome, thanks.” He holds out his hand to shake. “I really appreciate it.” The officer goes back to his car and pulls away.
“Oh fuck me,” Jensen huffs into the comm. “I just about pissed myself.”
Cougar has just a second to be relieved he didn’t kill an innocent man for nothing and then he sees the black vans coming up on them and there’s no more time.
“Here they come,” he says and Jensen steps behind the cover of the car, pulls his pistol and holds it down at his side, hidden from the view of oncoming traffic.
Jensen hears Cougar swear over the comm. “Mierda! Jensen, there are four.”
Four vans. At least three more armed guards. More space between the first and last vehicle. A fourth vehicle to breach and search. The state trooper on his way back as soon as shots are fired and someone calls it in. The world slides into a strangely sharp vision. This cannot be done. Not with two men.
“Cougar,” he says with utter calm. “Blow the engines, take down what men you can, but when they come up the slope at you, you shift and run. Keep going and don’t stop. Get to the rendezvous with Kara. Tell her what happened. Tell her I tried. Keep her safe.”
“No!” Cougar shouts at him. “Damn it. Come away. We’ll try again, somewhere else.”
But Jensen is already stepping towards the road, pistol swinging up, sighting in on the face of the first van’s driver. His finger squeezes the trigger until the safety glass shatters, the van fish-tailing wildly and he dodges to the side to avoid being hit.
"Carlos…” he starts to say, but bites down hard on the three words that would follow, a selfish declaration that could bring Cougar no comfort, no strength.
He hears the crack of the 50 cal from the hill, and the second van skids to a stop, a bullet through its engine block. He gives himself over to the plan then, to the trust he has in Cougar to do his job and watch Jensen’s back. He shoots out the side window of the first van, kills the passenger-side guard before the man can arm himself. He reaches through the glass and pops the door open. The third guard is there, struggling to get his seat belt off, his gun free of the holster. Too close for Jensen to shoot without the bullet going through, back into the passengers, the screaming kids locked into their seats.
He swings the pistol instead, awkward in the crowded space. Hits the man in the temple with the side of the gun, five pounds of metal, again and three times and the fight is out of him, he lies limp in his seat, bloodied and slack-jawed, eyes staring into nothing.
Jensen points his gun at the nurse then, a plain woman in pale blue scrubs. “Don’t move. Don’t…” but his attention isn’t on her, and he searches the faces of the terrified children, the youngest maybe six, the oldest in his mid-teens.
“Elaina?” he calls but she’s not here, and there’s no time, and he hadn’t thought of this part, what to do with the ones that weren’t her.
“I’m sorry,” he says, and he has no way to save them, no way to take them.
He leaves the first van. There are two dead guards on the highway, heads bloodied and limbs splayed like puppets with their strings cut, discarded playthings. He sees the fourth van go off of the road, straight to the tree line and disgorge its passengers there.
“They’re in the trees,” he tells Cougar, knows there’s only three minutes at most that Cougar can continue to cover him before he’ll have to fight or run. A shot pings out, one of the guys from van four and Jensen has to cross behind the second van to hide from the shooter that Cougar can’t get in his line of sight.
A hand with a pistol reaches out of the driver’s side of the second van and Jensen shoots, hears a man scream as a finger comes off and the gun is ripped from his hand. Jensen turns the corner and fires into his face, a clean double-tap and then he’s opening the door, dodging the falling body.
The second guard is already dead and the third fires from the back row, the bullet catching Jensen just above his left hip, so clean that it feels like fire through his side, so fast it doesn’t even punch him back. He’s got the angle on this one though, so he shoots, blows out the man’s throat and blood sprays everywhere.
He slaps his left hand down over his wound and presses. “Keep going, keep going,” he tells himself because there’s nothing else to do. He’s losing blood, knows this is not good.
“Elaina!” he calls and hears back “Jake! Uncle Jake!”
The nurse cowers back as Jensen tries to shove the guard’s body over enough to get to his niece, to cut her out of the straps holding her down. The kid beside her is crying, the one behind staring like she’s in shock. He gets to Elaina and puts his gun down, God she looks so scared. He draws his knife and then there’s the cold hard muzzle of a pistol under his right ear. The nurse no longer looks frightened, just calm and professional.
Jensen’s half-deaf from firing inside a vehicle, but he hears the low thrum of a chopper, coming closer, the shrill sound of a police siren.
“Drop the knife and turn around,” the ‘nurse’ says and nudges him in the direction she wants him to go. “Step down, nice and slow, call your sniper buddy down off of that hill.”
And he’s so damn close. He had Elaina inches away from him. He just needs a tiny slip-up and he’ll take this woman down, isn’t ready to throw himself on her bullets yet. He looks up the hill even though he knows the woman is using Jensen’s body as a shield, that Cougar can’t possibly get a bead on her, even if he was still at the rifles. Her gun digs into the base of his skull and her other hand has a hold of the back of his belt.
“Cougs!” he yells, because Cougar has probably already lost his comm, is probably already running around on four paws. “Cougar, run!” God, he hopes Cougar is already in the wind.
“Son of a bitch,” the woman swears. In the van, Elaina is calling for Jake and he’s just standing there bleeding. There’s gunfire but he’s not sure who is shooting at whom.
He jerks to the side and the woman’s pistol fires, a line of fire across his scalp that makes the world twist and buck under his feet, hearing and equilibrium shot to shit and even though she’s smaller he’s having a hard time moving, much less fighting her. She aims at his face and it’s all he can do to twist the barrel away. His stomach twists and he’s utterly desperate.
He can feel pressure rising behind his eyes, an alien feeling, slick force throwing itself against an invisible wall. He wonders if he’s bleeding into his brain. Then it’s like the force finds a crack in the wall, the smallest seam gives way and then a rushing torrent tears the wall apart. The woman chokes, and her right eye swells, like a balloon being inflated. Him, he’s doing this, pouring energy into her body. Her gun fires one last time as her finger fills the trigger-guard. She gurgles and goes still and Jensen pushes her off. Tumors, there are tumors all over her, misshapen lumps, some bigger than his fists. If he wasn’t already in shock, he thinks the sight of it might make him puke.
It’s quiet then, or he’s completely deaf, he’s not sure which. He scrambles lop-sided back into the van, cuts Elaina free and pulls her against his chest, loses himself for a moment in the jackrabbit patter of her heartbeat against him, her body so tiny and fragile in his arms. The knife he drops to the floor. The grip of his 9mm is slick with sweat and blood and his left hand is shaking so hard he can barely hold it. He feels rattled, dizzy and weak, but nothing hurts, the pain drifting away from him, Elaina’s power siphoning off the agony.
He climbs down from the van and there’s a man out there still on his feet. “Jensen,” says a voice he’d know in his sleep. It’s coming from in front of him and over the comm too. He raises his head and his firearm and Clay is in front of him, assault rifle in hand. Jensen feels himself shaking, the power building in his head again, ready to reach out, to tear into Clay’s flesh, to warp it beyond function until the man dies choking. His CO. His friend, his brother.
“Clay,” he says, voice broken and distant. “Don’t…don’t stop me. Please.” The car is right behind Clay, shimmering bright glossy red in the afternoon sun like a mirage. He doesn’t want to kill Clay. Doesn’t want Clay to shoot him either. He tries to put Elaina down, because he won’t use her as a shield, but her little arms and legs are locked tight around him and she won’t allow it.
There’s movement behind Clay: Roque and Cougar stepping out of the tree-line at the base of the hill, Cougar stumbling, Roque half-carrying him. And fuck, he never wanted this. He thinks, just for a second, of tipping the 9mm up, shoving it up under his chin and pulling the trigger. He’s a mutant now, and he’s had twenty years to think of what that would mean for him. He can’t do it though. Can’t let that be Elaina’s last memory of him.
“Damn it, Jensen!” Clay swears and Jensen realizes he’s missed something. “We’re not here to stop you, we’re here to get you out.”
The thrum of the chopper is pounding into his chest like the drums at a parade, and the downdraft sends sand and debris flying into his eyes. He wants to believe. Wants to think he’s safe, that his team has his back. Clay slings his rifle and holds out his hand, ducking as the chopper sinks down in the space in front of the first van.
“Move, soldier!” Clay orders. Cougar and Roque are already running. Jensen takes a step. Stumbles. Drops his gun and wraps both arms around Elaina, and he runs. Clay catches him six steps in, arm around his shoulders as he takes some of Jensen’s weight.
The aircraft is small, not a military bird at all. Crop-duster or traffic-copter, all naked structure, dragonfly-light. One pilot’s seat and two passenger. Clay shoves Jensen up into a seat, and he sees Roque do the same with Cougar on the other side. Jensen buckles in on instinct, putting the straps over Elaina too, locking them together. Clay steps up onto the runner and wraps a wrist into Jensen’s harness and Pooch takes off. The rotors strain and the ground falls away and the last thing Jensen sees before he passes out is the plastic dog on the dashboard nodding yes yes yes.
Roque bodily lifts Cougar into the helicopter, presses him back into the seat with one hand while he yanks the straps around Cougar’s body with the other, buckles him in and grabs on. Cougar’s fingers still twitch with the after-effects of the tasers the guards had used on him as he’d laid there with the rifles, trying to clear Jensen’s way at the cost of his own escape. He remembers the sting of the barbs shooting into him, the body-twisting jolts of electricity shooting down the wires. And then Roque had been there, stepping through the trees in the other direction, bullets spraying and the guards jerking and falling.
The smell of Jensen’s blood is thick in the air but it fades as the chopper takes off. The tech’s eyes are closed, a little girl fastened in against him in the seat. Pooch banks the helicopter a hard right and Jensen’s head rolls limply around on his neck, the gunshot wound on the back of his head oozing steadily down his neck and into the fabric of his shirt. Cougar rips a strip off of his t-shirt and balls it up, leans over and presses it hard against the wound, feeling Jensen’s heartbeat under his fingers.
They fly. Sickeningly low to the treetops, below the radar.
Cougar holds on to Jensen until they’re landing. Clay unbuckles Jensen and Roque unbuckles Cougar. His legs hold steady when he climbs down from the helicopter. Pooch takes a minute with Jensen, prying the girl off of him for long enough to slap a trauma patch on the entry and exit wounds on his side and tie Cougar’s makeshift bandage to his head to hold it on tight. Jensen moans when the girl is forced away and quiets when she’s back at his side.
Roque torches the helicopter and Clay pulls up in a maroon mini-van. They all load in, Elaina, Jensen and Cougar in the very back, Roque in the middle seat, Clay riding shotgun and Pooch driving.
They drive. It feels like hours, slow speeds down back roads, two-lane ribbons of asphalt between walls of trees. Cougar holds Jensen against his chest, the child against Jensen’s other side. Nobody talks.
When the van stops, it’s dark and there’s a fence in front of them. Clay and Roque get out, bolt cutters and hacksaws in hand.
“We’ve got some time,” Pooch says and climbs back with the medical kit and a bright light. He checks Jensen over, and Dios, Cougar hadn’t realized there was so much blood in a person. It soaks Jensen’s side and the back of his shirt, Cougar’s clothing is sticky and heavy with it and the girl even worse. Pooch doesn’t seem to find anything more urgent than the obvious wounds so he threads a needle and Cougar holds the light and the girl holds Jensen’s head, a look of concentration on her little face.
“Hey, sweetie, don’t look,” Pooch says as he stitches the back of Jensen’s head, but she does anyway. They roll Jensen on his side and he gets the front of Jensen’s hip stitched, entry and exit wounds close enough together that the bullet can’t have gone deeper than skin and muscle. Pooch ties off and re-threads the needle to go after the exit wound. Jensen groans and takes a ragged breath.
“Get ready to hold him,” Pooch tells Cougar, and Cougar gets a grip on blood-slick skin, ready to keep Jensen down.
“Cougs?” Jensen asks, trying to lift his head.
“Be still,” Cougar tells him. Jensen’s eyes roll around as he attempts to take in his surroundings. He seems confused but not in pain, and Cougar remembers what Jensen told him about his neice and the boy with the broken arm.
“Where are we?”
“The border. Canada. Clay and Roque are cutting us a hole in the fence.”
Jensen relaxes and smiles. “Shit.” Pooch pushes the needle in and pulls it through with the needle-nose pliers. Jensen doesn’t flinch, but he looks back at Pooch.
“Pooch? What’re you doing here?”
Pooch rolls his eyes. “Saving your ass, idiot. What were you going to do, outrun the cops and the handlers all the way to Canada?”
Jensen huffs a laugh. Pooch grabs his hip to hold him still. “That was the plan, yeah. With Cougar shooting to clear us a path.”
“Your plan was crap,” Pooch says and finishes the stitches. “Why the hell didn’t you tell us, Jensen? Why didn’t you ask for help?”
Jensen goes quiet, his jaw clenches. “Jolene. Your lives, your careers.”
“God-damn it, Jensen,” Pooch sighs. “You’re like family, you and Cougar both. You think I could have lived with you two going out in a blaze of glory in some B-movie suicide run? You think any of us could? And yeah, Jolene is pissed, but not at you. She’s meeting us as soon as we have a location for her.”
“I’m so sorry,” Jensen whispers, and Pooch snorts.
“For what? Going after your niece? That had to be done, man. No way around it. Us coming after you? Just as certain. If anybody is to blame it’s the system taking her in the first place.”
“How’d you know?” Jensen asks, “That I hadn’t just eloped with Cougar. How did you find us?”
“The brass called Clay to tell him to break the news to you that your niece had had a ‘change of status’ and your sister was missing. When you were gone, Clay raised hell to get us assigned to bringing you two back. Just for the record? I don’t think he was kidding at all about the ass-kicking he wants to give you. The man was pissed. I think you hurt his feelings.”
Jensen winces. Cougar squeezes his arm. Nobody is beating Jensen while he’s still breathing.
“So anyway,” Pooch says as he tapes new gauze over the bullet holes. “We took the next flight up to Detroit, ditched the vehicles we’d been assigned, stole a car and a chopper and came looking for the traffic jam.”
The side door opens and Clay pops his head in. “Fence is down, time to move again. We’re not safe yet.”
Pooch gives Jensen’s arm one last squeeze and climbs back into the driver’s seat. Clay and Roque pile in and they drive.
Cougar dries his hair and steps out of the shower. Jensen calls the hotel a “fleabag,” but it’s nicer than most of the safe-houses they’ve crashed at during missions, and Cougar isn’t sure what standards Jensen is holding it to. Maybe it’s just that his sister and niece have been in places like this for ten days now, as the Losers and their civilian women make their way across Canada, by bus, train and sometimes airplane. Never in a straight line and never all of them traveling together, although they manage to regroup almost every night. Jensen’s original plan for getting out of the country was easier, but losing everything that had been in the trunk of the getaway car (clothes, Jensen’s spare glasses, tickets, fake IDs and two laptops) had hurt them, all of it taking time to replace.
Cougar is okay with slow going. Jensen is healing; Pooch has pulled the stitches and declared him fit for light duty but Cougar still catches him wincing if he moves too fast or lifts something too heavy.
He opens the bathroom door and steps out, towel around his hips and his damp hair curling against his neck. Jensen is in the bed, their bed, glasses perched on his nose, laptop on a folded sheet on his stomach. Bare shoulders and beautiful skin, he’s the only man Cougar has ever wanted to touch, wanted to touch him. He smiles, slow and crooked, and Jensen looks up, eyes wide like he still can’t believe that Cougar would want him.
The towel falls and Jensen snaps the laptop closed and shoves it onto the bedside table.
“Cougs…” he starts, but Cougar is on him, crawling up his body and pinning his wrists to the bed, dripping cold water from the tips of his hair onto Jensen’s face before he leans down to nip at Jensen’s neck.
“Fuck,” Jensen moans and turns his head, angling for a kiss, and Cougar gives it to him, nuzzling and licking and gently biting. He feels strong with Jensen, in control. He loves that he can take the man apart with a touch.
“Cougar, Cougar, wait…” Cougar freezes, searches Jensen’s face for signs of pain. Jensen licks his lips, and Cougar can see the indecision on his face. Something is wrong. He’s done something wrong. He releases Jensen’s wrists and pulls back, his pulse thudding in his ears.
“Hey.” Jensen sits up and catches him before he can go completely off of the bed. “I just—I just need to talk to you for a second, okay?”
Cougar nods but he doesn’t feel any better; words have never been his friends.
“I need to be sure,” Jensen says, looking down like he can’t meet Cougar’s eyes. “When we started this, you were in the collar and just coming out of a lifelong addiction and I need to know that you want this. Me. That I’m not taking advantage.”
Cougar glares at Jensen, for thinking so little of him, even though he can acknowledge the concern might be fair.
“Carlos,” Jensen says and he does look up then. “I’m yours, man. For as long as you want me. I love you and I never want you to leave. But if you don’t feel the same, now or later or whenever, just tell me, and I won’t expect…this. Us. I’ll still have your back.” That is a firm promise. “I’ll do whatever I possibly can to get you what you need. Freedom, money, papers, anything. Anything.”
“Jensen,” Cougar sighs and pulls him in, pulls their foreheads together. “I don’t want freedom. I want you.” He has no idea what freedom would even look like or what he’d do with it.
“Oh thank god,” Jensen laughs and then he’s kissing Cougar. They fall together and this, this was worth everything .