For a long time, Clay thought he was broken.
He was a good soldier, fast, smart, loyal. He did everything he was told to do (except the stupid orders, but he couldn't help it if he was constitutionally unable to commit suicide because of a CO that had a death wish), and he did it well.
Still, he'd watch teams shift around him, watch as they stopped talking, started sharing looks and meaningful shrugs and laugh for no reason. Watch as the symbols drew themselves under their skin, all kinds of different marks, no two packs the same, but all without him.
He'd be pulled as soon as it was clear he wasn't bonding with his team, thrown together with another group of strangers to see if that might stick. It never did.
But he kept doing his job, and he did damn good at it, too, so they kept promoting him until finally, they just handed off all the losers that couldn't seem to bond with their teams to him.
It started with Roque. Roque wasn't good with trust, so of course there wasn't going to be any bonding for him. That was okay with Clay; he didn't trust anyone either. Still, it wasn't long before Roque was dreamwalking right into Clay's head.
The first time was scary as fuck. He'd been in a foxhole – a recurring fucking nightmare – and when he'd looked up and seen someone staring down at him, he'd nearly had a heart attack. He woke to Roque's hands pinning his shoulders to the bed, and Roque's face right up in his, and there was a spark of something right in the middle of his chest.
"Okay?" Roque asked, shifting to put even more of his weight onto Clay, like he thought Clay might fight him.
"Yeah," Clay croaked out, going limp under Roque's hands, because he knew it was the only way Roque would let him go.
Roque sat back on his heels, letting Clay scoot up toward the headboard, half-sitting up anyway, and started scratching on his back. Clay could feel a sympathetic itch in his own shoulder blade.
"That was you," Clay said, rubbing his knuckles over his sternum. "In my dream."
Roque made a face that said, who knows?, but answered, "Reckon so."
Clay nodded. That was one of the manifestations, he thought. He was pretty sure. Maybe eighty percent. Could he really be bonding with this cranky fucker? The thought made him crack a smile, and Roque punched him on the shoulder to say whatever it is Roque said with his fists, which was most things, in the end.
The itching got worse over the next few days, until Clay caught a glimpse of Roque's shoulder blade on the way from the shower to his quarters. There was a lightning bolt mark intersected by an arc – part of a circle, Clay felt certain. He finally took the time to examine his chest closely in the mirror and saw the same mark over his solar plexus.
There wasn't even a feeling of relief. Or joy, or happiness, whatever it was you were supposed to feel when you finally started to bond. It was just there. It was everything. It was home.
They kept getting sent losers, but none of them seemed to stick. You had to give it the old college try with new teams, which usually meant six months to see if somehow they'd come around, but Clay's team had a revolving door of recruits until Cougar'd come on board. He was part of a new pack of four, the oldest of a group of road-weary soldiers that believed, much like Clay had, that they were cut out to be alone. Sullivan and Wong had bonded, but not with the rest of them, so they were pulled out right away to see if they could match up with another pair and make a quartet. The army liked groups of four – they were stable, and usually the talents fit together without duplication.
Cougar and Miller had gotten along all right – with each other and with Clay and Roque – but nothing special. No dreamwalking or telepathy or whatever else could manifest. And then Miller had been captured and killed and Cougar had lost it for a little while.
Looking back, Clay was pretty sure they were together, but for Clay, Don't Ask, Don't Tell often ended up more like Don't Fuck Around in Public and I Won't Notice. He was never any good at that stuff.
It was Cougar's grief that changed him. He'd been fairly chatty before, half in Spanish, half in English, and they all knew enough to shoot the shit with him. He had a deep, easy laugh, and Roque could always seem to pull it out of him with ease. After Miller, Cougar shut up tighter than a choirboy's ass, and more than two words at a time was a miracle.
But Clay could swear he heard Cougar whispering behind him sometimes, just out of range of his hearing, and then his damn chest started itching again. Privately, he thought maybe Cougar'd been broken, and that's why he joined the team of the misfit toys.
Their marks itched for another three days, and when it stopped, there was a jagged line like mountains and another third of the circle. Cougar's showed up on the back of his neck, and that's when he started to grow his hair long.
After that, they got thrown every misfit in the army, troublemakers, mostly, people who didn't know how to be part of a team anyway, didn't know how to trust, or watch out for anyone but themselves. None of them stuck, and Clay kept shifting them back out again.
Pooch came in with a couple of new Losers, fresher than most of the soldiers they usually got. Whatever it was, Pooch was good for them, and by the second time he heard Cougar's deep laugh coming from the common room, he started paying attention, seeing just what kind of gift Pooch was going to have. It didn't take long before Clay noticed things flying to Pooch's open hands. Mostly small things, mostly things to annoy Roque or amuse Cougar, but it was only another two days before their marks started itching.
The circle was complete, and now there was a line of waves at the base of the mountain, which showed up at the same time as the mark on Pooch's bicep. Clay was pretty well happy with his quartet. They were good soldiers and good men, and they had each others' backs no matter what the mission.
They settled into each other, developed the in-jokes all quartets had, got sent on most of the worst missions, because even though they'd finally bonded, Clay's team would always be The Losers.
The problem was when they needed a specialist. They could handle most missions on their own, Pooch and Cougar cobbling together tech when they needed it, manning the radios and making sure they could talk to each other. Cougar didn't need a comm and preferred not to have one. Turns out while he seemed quiet on the outside, he was still chatty as fuck on the inside, and offered color commentary on everything going on during the mission that made it hard not to laugh sometimes.
It was tough to bring people into an established quartet. Especially if they were unbonded because you didn't want them to stay too long so they would miss finding their own bond, and Clay couldn't blame them. No one wanted to hang around a bonded group for too long – they all became so insular that it was hard to relate to them.
Still, they needed a tech and they shuffled a few through between missions where they could limp around without one. Rangarajan was pretty good, Li and Brown less good, and Kowalski was a menace. Plus he pissed Cougar off, so the color commentary in their heads got decidedly bloody-minded for a while.
Clay just kept rotating them out, waiting until they'd pissed Cougar off enough for Roque to threaten them. Most of them asked for a transfer when Roque came after them with a glint in his eye.
Jensen was another in a long line of nerdy, nervous techies, and Clay didn't think twice about him once they got through the awkward formal introductions. He backed off to his office to do paperwork and some mission prep, keeping an ear on the common room.
Jensen was excitable, a nervous talker. "Can I see your marks?" he asked, and there was a puff of laughter in Clay's mind from Cougar. He could hear Roque's annoyance and dismissal from the office, and he wasn't surprised when his second in command came into his office and dropped into a chair a few seconds later.
Pooch answered Jensen, something soft and kind, because that's who Pooch was, and then there's oohing and ahhing from Jensen and an amused prattle of comments from Cougar that had him and Roque snorting in laughter.
"So you're a telepath," Jensen said, and Clay registered surprise in Cougar's sudden silence in his head. There's some muffled discussion, and Cougar informed them that Jensen could hear them laughing. He then went on to ask what the rest of them could do, and asking for demonstrations, though everyone was grateful that Roque's dreamwalking only worked on the team, because the damage he could do to people with his mind was downright scary.
They were eating dinner together in a pit, Jensen having settled in with them surprisingly well, Roque's irritation almost completely superficial, which had heretofore been unheard of. Jensen looked down at his MRE in disgust, offering it to Cougar, who could and would eat any thing at any time, and asking Clay what his power was.
There was a deafening silence in his head, the kind that only came when Cougar put up fast walls to keep stray thoughts from spilling out – mostly when he was being tortured. The rest of his team was looking anywhere but at him, and Jensen suddenly looked a bit sick. "S-s-sorry," he stuttered. "It's not that uncommon, though, a pack member with an unusual gift, something they don't even realize…"
Cougar mimed a very discreet "shut up" shake of his head and thankfully, Jensen dropped off, blood rushing to his face to make it pink. He mumbled an apology and hunkered down, resting his chin on his knees and mumbling quietly to himself, like talking itself soothed him. Maybe it did; Clay knew people like that, and Jensen was as much a Loser as the rest of them in some ways.
It was a strained few hours before dark, before they could get Jensen into the building they'd been tasked to infiltrate and steal everything and the kitchen sink from. It was mostly data, so that part was on Jensen, and the rest of them were on a glorified escort mission. It was actually the first they'd been assigned; Jensen was the first techie with enough physical skill to be able to take on a mission like this. Clay appreciated that about him.
He thought about Jensen for the rest of the wait, Jensen and his big mouth and the way he'd stumbled over the fact that Clay didn't inherit any power with his brand like the rest of them did. He'd heard of the phenomenon, too, a gift so weird it wasn't recognized as a gift, or just no gift at all, which was what he always assumed, though it sucked.
He'd also heard that sometimes pack leaders didn't get their gift until their pack was complete, and he thought the circle around their marks being whole meant he'd gotten his quartet, but maybe there was something else. Maybe he didn't have a quartet, maybe he had a quintet. Or a sextet. Hell, there was an octet in the Green Berets that was famous for fucking people's shit up.
He pulled himself out of his thoughts as they got to the middle of the night, dark enough for cover so they could get Jensen in and steal some shit. Jensen did most of the getting in work, too, doing something ridiculously complicated with the cameras and alarms. Clay hadn't joined the army to perform heists, but he had to admit it was pretty fun, especially with Cougar's amused commentary threading through their minds as they sat around waiting for Jensen to do whatever it was he was supposed to do.
You've got company, Cougar says urgently, and then again in their ears, "You've got company. Coming in stealthy. These guys mean business."
Fuck. They hadn't had a mission go sideways on them for a while. Normally their missions were the kind of thing you couldn't fuck up without dying. This, this kind of mission was jacked because his team could be held captive, tortured… Shit, this was bad.
"I got it," Jensen said. "Get yourselves out of here and I can stall these guys long enough to fuck some shit up in here and give you time to get clear."
"Nuh uh," Pooch answered, and Jensen squawked in their ears. Probably hadn't known Pooch was tailing him that close. Pooch was surprisingly stealthy when he needed to be. "We're going now," he said, and then there was a bunch of loud scrabbling in their ears.
"Don't!" Jensen said in a panic. "That drive'll be useless if you take it out now."
"Don't care," Pooch said. "We're not leaving it here, we're not leaving you here, and we are leaving. Now."
More scuffling, some amused laughing from Cougar, and Clay and Roque making their way to Jensen and Pooch while they were busy fighting. When Roque opened the door on the two of them, Clay was more than a little surprised to see Pooch in a headlock.
"How long do you need to get the drive out with anything on it?" Clay asked. He could feel Cougar's rising panic, which was weird because for once, Cougar was stonily silent inside and out.
There was a loud ka-chunk sort of noise, and the power went out. All the lights on the computer, gone, pitch blackness in the middle of this office building. It was weird, the difference between dark and total absence of light. "Doesn't matter now," Jensen answered, making some scraping noises. "I've got the stupid thing, let's just get the hell out of here."
"Picked off about half of them," Cougar said, calm as still water in their ears, frantic as a squirrel on crack in Clay's brain. There's seven more all over that building. Two coming right at you. They'll open your door in about twenty seconds.
A number of things happened at the same time. A rising violence in Roque; it was calm and studied, and honestly, more than a little worrisome. A protective instinct in Pooch, the sound of a little more scuffling between him and Jensen.
"Shhh," Pooch whispered, and the noise stopped. "They're about to open that door." The room fell silent. Expectant.
It took another ten seconds for the door to crack open, far from subtle, and Clay knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the person who opened it was dead from Roque's knife before the door was even open all the way.
The person behind him tripped, probably on his teammate's body, Clay thought, making an ungracious noise as he fell. There was a studied calm from Roque, and then, "Let's move."
"Four more roaming the halls somewhere," Cougar said quietly in their ears, his fear slowly easing off, giving Clay a little breathing room in his brain.
"Copy that," Clay answered. "Radio silence. Cougar, keep us informed. Jensen, stick to Pooch."
No one answered him, but he still felt every one of their yes, sirs. Roque stood by the door, let Clay lead them out, followed by Pooch and Jensen, holding hands like kids on a field trip. Roque followed on their six, keeping an eye on the door to the stairwell behind them.
Something had changed; Clay understood that. He knew his team, knew what they felt and how they worked, even Jensen, but now he actually could feel what they felt, and man, were there some surprises in there. Cougar's panic was not half as worrisome as Roque's smooth nothingness when wielding a knife, but at least Pooch's protective instincts were about what he expected. Jensen's sense of purpose was a little surprising, but probably shouldn't have been. Jensen also had complete faith in the Losers to do their jobs so he could do his. He wasn't worried. He wasn't even thinking about getting himself in or out or… well, no, actually, he was wishing he'd brought a gun. Oh, for fuck's sake.
They hadn't expected him to need one; there shouldn't have been any reason for there to be a team of bad guy ninjas to shoot.
"Give Jensen your sidearm," Clay whispered over his shoulder to Pooch. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness just enough to see his team as hulking shapes in the darkness, but not enough to see what the hell they were doing.
Thanks, Jensen said as they moved down the hall to the stairs.
There was a chink of glass breaking and a gurgling sound from down the hallway that signaled Cougar taking out another bad guy, and Clay felt Roque hold himself back from spraying the hallway with bullets. It would only let the bad guys know what floor they were on.
Move, move, move, Cougar thought urgently at them, and Clay took the stairs at a sprint, using the rails to slide down a flight at a time, hoping his team was doing the same behind him.
Wait, Cougar said frantically in Clay's mind somewhere around the second floor. They're wiring something to all the exits. There's only one clear one for their team to come out – the front door.
"How many are there on the outside?"
I have an idea, Jensen said. Let's blow one of the doors and let them think they got us. They won't bother to dig us out of the rubble tonight to check.
There's a pleased admiration coming from Roque that makes Clay think maybe this won't be as bad as he thought. It's not that he didn't like Jensen, but he wasn't one hundred percent sure he was going to work with them. They had a lot of rough edges, and about eighty percent of them were on Roque.
I should be able to detonate one on the other side of the building, Cougar said. Get down.
Cougar gave them a countdown, a slow three-two-one that led to a huge boom, and then it was waiting, a cacophony of feelings in Clay's brain, hope and fear and desperation and discomfort.
It wasn't long before Cougar was whooping for joy in their heads, saying, they're packing up and give it five minutes and hang on, have to take care of the two they left behind to keep an eye on things.
Finally, Cougar gave the all clear, and they walked out of the building in the deep steely gray of pre-dawn. Another hour and they might have hung around long enough to try and dig the Losers out – luck had definitely been on their side.
That was so cool, Jensen crowed in their brains, and Clay just shook his head. Why did the chatty ones always get telepathy?
"Welcome to the Losers, Jensen."
Pooch was the only one surprised by the announcement. Clay's not sure how Roque figured it out; maybe he realized in the middle of everything that Jensen was talking directly into their brains. Maybe he knew because Jensen didn't make him want to murder him. Or only a little, and more for fun than for anger.
Pooch lifted his sleeve to take a look at his brand, but none of them could see anything different about it.
It wasn't until Jensen's mark came in fully that they realized the marks changed color slightly – depending on Jensen's mood.
"Bringing the rainbow to your sad, pathetic little lives," Jensen told them, and Clay just shook his head and filled out the paperwork to make Jensen a permanent part of the team.