They slog through the jungle on the closest lead they've had in months. But honestly? It's bullshit in Jensen's fine opinion, because "closest lead" has gotten them zip and zilch. Yep, that's right. Exactly nada. The Losers' most wanted escapes again, ruining even more lives with his bullshit, but mainly theirs. But whenever Aisha shows up with new intel, they're off, because Clay always tells them this is it. And maybe this time, they'll get a solid enough lead to take Max down.
Except it's been three years, and the only thing they've found have been husks of burnt out warehouses, grounds for weapons tests, and guns. Guns, missiles, knives — you name it — all aimed their way. Oh, and they did happen upon one William Roque, the guy none of them thought they'd ever see again after the whole Cougar blowing up the plane Roque had been standing in. If Jensen saw bestselling author in his future, this'd be the book that'd get him awards.
He daydreams about it — nice, quiet life in front of his computer, regaling the world with the Losers' escapades, cheering on his niece — and then he's brought back to reality when he gets bitten for the one-millionth time by these goddamn mosquitoes, of course at the same time the branch Pooch had been holding back smacks him in the face, and it's all wrapped up in the sinking realization that he can't feel his feet so now he can add boot rot to his list of miseries.
"Jensen," Roque says, and probably not for the first time by the sharp edge in his tone.
"What! Fucking what?" And maybe that comes out less like a "yes, sir, how can I help you this fine afternoon" and more like an extremely pointy branch to the eye like the one Jensen has to shove out of his face.
Everyone freezes to stare at him, of course, and he takes this cinematic pause to adjust his glasses, which are definitely scratched to hell and back.
Pooch leans in close, pitching his voice low, but Jensen's pretty sure everyone hears his, "You okay, man?" 'Cause they're all looking at him with the same concern.
All Jensen's gotta do to set them at ease is some witty repartee, but he just ends up shaking his head and meeting Roque's gaze head on. "What's up?" Doesn't sound as casual and carefree as Jensen intended, but Roque nods, so maybe Jensen was successful.
"Pull up the map," Roque says, looking at Jensen's pack.
Jensen blows out a breath and then gets his ass moving. He points at the blinking red dot that indicates their position and then does the math in his head and…
"We're still about 20 klicks out."
He drops to his ass, shoving a hand through his hair and clutching the back of his head for a few precious seconds that they probably don't have.
"Let's keep it moving," Clay says, ever reminiscent of the past.
Jensen looks up at Pooch, who's mouth bunches up into a frown, and when he glances at Cougar, Cougar's got the same dark determination. Jensen doesn't bother looking at Aisha but a glance at Roque just shows him more dogged exhaustion.
One for all and all for one, Jensen tells himself as he grabs his shit and hauls himself up.
They should've stayed in the fucking jungle.
But what always hangs in the back of Jensen's head is that he should've stayed home.
They reach the target, and as predicted, it's yet another abandoned building in another rundown shithole. Per their well-established routine, Jensen is assigned to pull what he can from the tech. His prediction: there will be nothing, because criminal masterminds don't leave data intact. But there's no room to argue in the routine. Cougar heads to the roof, Roque heads somewhere else, and Clay and Aisha wander off to another room — to fuck or fight or is a coin toss at this point. Pooch stays in the room with Jensen in case any of the bad guys appear while Jensen works his magic.
Except there's nothing magical about it. The drives have nothing he can salvage. All Jensen's got is a miserable groan. He jerks upright when Pooch rests a hand on his shoulder.
"Yo, I know you're not okay, so don't lie to me, man."
"Of course I'm not okay! No one's okay!"
Jensen hurls the useless drive across the room, and it smashes against the wall with the least-satisfying crack.
Still draws in the forces, though, Roque, Clay, and Aisha returning, guns at the ready, expressions wary.
"Yo, yo!" Pooch drops his rifle and holds his hands up. "It's just us!"
Roque sweeps the room 'cause he's Roque, and Clay looks from the drive to Jensen with narrowed eyes. "What'd you find?"
Jensen laughs, the bitterness of it tightening his throat. "Nothing," he says, and slams his fist on the table. "The same nothing I found at the last thousand places we've scoured for info." He stands, chair clattering to the floor, as he whirls on Clay. "So what's next, Clay? Where the fuck are you gonna take us next?"
Roque grabs Clay's shoulder and murmurs something, but Clay stands his ground, fists clenched as tight as Jensen's until Roque shoves him toward the door. Which, of course, means Clay shoves him back to face off against Jensen.
"You got something to say?"
"I've got a fucking lot to say!"
Pooch steps in front of Jensen, holding him back, and Roque mirrors the motion with Clay, pushing him toward the door.
"I'm the guy who can't shut up, remember?" Jensen snaps.
Roque gets Clay out the door and slams it shut, resting his forehead against it.
Pooch rights the chair and grabs Jensen. When Jensen jerks away, Pooch holds up both hands, customary sign of surrender, and there's the same strain around his eyes that Jensen can feel in his chest.
"Look, we're all a little hot—" Pooch begins.
"This is bullshit," Jensen snaps.
"I get it," Roque says.
"Ye—" Jensen's drawn up short and blinks, staring at Roque, who finally turns around. "What?"
"Man, I get it," Roque repeats, crossing the room. "You forget I left the team once?"
With Roque this close, Jensen can't forget. The burn scars— They're pretty bad, thick around Roque's neck and part of his face. Not that Jensen will ever forget, because Roque betraying the team had hurt so bad that his chest still gets tight with the memory of it. And while the fights had been long and bitter, Roque had stuck it out anyway. Thick and thin, jungle to desert — every step, every mission, he proved he wasn't going to make the same mistake again until he was a member of the team again, and taking him to visit Jolene and Becky sealed the deal.
Jensen blows out a breath. "So what're we gonna do?" He glances at Pooch but then jerks around when Aisha reminds them that she's still in the room.
"Stay the course and do our jobs."
"For how long?" Jensen demands.
Pooch blows out a breath, scrubbing a hand down his face. "Jensen's got a point."
"So you're going to walk away, too?" Aisha scoffs. She shakes her head and jams her knife back into its sheath. "All of you deserve each other."
They watch her go and see Clay standing on the other side of it, listening to every word they've said.
"This how all of you feel?" he asks, voice so quiet that it puts Jensen on edge.
There's silence, where even Jensen isn't sure what to say. Saying "yes" means betraying the team and saying "no" is an obvious lie at this point. And the Losers— They're Jensen's family, but he's got Becky and Julie to think about, too, and if this keeps going—
"Jaylen's turning four in a couple of months," Pooch says. "At least Jolene's got Julie to help her out, but I should be there. I should be taking care of my family, not scaring her. I leave with you, Clay, and she doesn't know if I'm going to come back, and this time, there's no one to give her my tags, to let her know I'm gone. It'll just be months of… of waiting."
Jensen swallows around the lump in his throat. "And Becky. I've missed too much of her life, Clay."
Jensen blinks until he realizes Clay's talking to Cougar, not asking about him.
"We've been fighting a long time.". Which, coming from Cougar, could mean literally anything.
Jensen's still trying to work out Cougar's enigmatic message in the silence of Clay's clenched jaw and pointed stare at each of them.
Clay's gaze lands on Roque last. "Take 'em home."
Jensen's jaw drops. He's not the only one who's stunned, because when he's finally able to form words, Clay's gone and Roque's telling them to pack their gear.
"Did that—" Jensen asks.
At the same time, Pooch says, "Is Clay—"
Jensen blinks and then bolts out of his chair when Roque heads toward the door. "Wait!"
Roque turns around but shakes his head. "Take the guys to the pick up."
"Where the hell are you going?" Jensen blurts.
Roque looks at the door again, and Jensen just nods. "Made a promise when I came back. Not gonna break it."
"Yeah, man." Jensen nods. "Yeah, okay. Just…" He rubs the back of his neck. "Keep in touch? Be careful out there?"
Roque smiles. Actual, genuine, lips upturned smile. Then he walks after Clay, which leaves Pooch and Jensen staring at each other.
"Does this make us civilians?" Pooch asks.
"We were kind of civilians after Max framed us," Jensen says, and then shakes his head, looking around in disbelief.
They stand there like idiots, still held in a shocked silence.
Pooch takes a step toward the door, aborts, and turns to Jensen. "What the fuck are we going to do?"
Jensen shoves his hands through his hair, staring at the dirty floor. He chokes out a sound and looks up to the ceiling. "I dunno, man. Open a bakery?"
Pooch laughs. "Sure, man. Sure."
Jensen shoves himself up. "No," he says. "No, we could. We could open up a bakery!"
Pooch shakes his head, but Jensen's not going to let this go as Pooch steers him out the door.
"Come on, Cougar!" Jensen knows Cougar's been listening over the comms this whole time. "You got my back, right? You always got my back."
But all that he gets is a soft chuckle, which, again, isn't exactly a no.
A few months in, they've got a routine. A few years in, it's just Jensen finishing the last sip of his first coffee of the day, contained in his favorite Petunias-pink 24-ounce thermos. Christmas gift from Jules and Becky, and Jensen doesn't care what anyone says, he's not parting with it or hiding it away. He's damn proud of his niece.
The second phase of the routine after dragging his ass out of bed is pulling into his unofficial parking spot, right next to Jolene's and Pooch's four-door sedan. He fistbumps Pooch while Jolene pulls him into a hug.
She says, "Good morning," because she's a morning person.
Jensen points at the dark, distinctly night sky above them. "Can we really say it's morning if the sun isn't even up yet?"
Jolene's answering laugh is soft and sweet, and she reminds him, "It's still a bright new day." Because morning people. Jensen loves her but dear god.
With poor lil' still-sleeping Jaylen secure in Pooch's arms, they all head to the door to find Cougar's already inside, because he also doesn't have any problem waking up in the middle of the night like a… Jensen can't think of anything funny, because he hasn't had enough coffee yet.
Cougar and Jolene head to the kitchen to start on the pastries while Pooch and Jensen head to the office to settle Jaylen on the couch and grab cash for the registers.
"Still can't figure out what's worse," Pooch murmurs, shutting the door and following Jensen back to the front of the store. "Waking up this early to bake or staying up so late on Clay's damn missions. Which, you know, when we said we were gonna retire, I thought we meant kick back. Chill on a beach somewhere."
Jensen snorts. "And get sand in really uncomfortable places?" He shook his head and nudged Pooch with an elbow. "Plus, it's not so bad. At least no one's shot at us—"
"Yet. You know these kids got guns."
"Yeah, but they haven't used them on us."
Jensen grins in the face of Pooch's annoyance.
With the register good to go, they head to the kitchen, where Jolene and Cougar are already covered in flour, the first batch of dough rising in two huge bowls behind them. Even after three years, Jensen loves the smell. It's like what he imagines a grandma's kitchen smells like, all yeasty and warm. With the way Jolene gently nudges Cougar's side and the small smile they share between them, it definitely feels like a family kitchen. And maybe some day, Clay, Roque and Aisha'll stop their crusade and join them.
"So what d'you need?" Jensen asks, slipping on his apron.
Jolene nods toward the stove. "Stewed pears, and Linwood, baby, can you get the almond filling ready? Then whoever finishes first can start on the crumble topping for the muffins."
"Yes, ma'am," Jensen and Pooch say in unison, complete with a snappy salute. Pooch, of course, walks over and kisses Jolene's cheek before he gets to work. Jensen uses those crucial seconds to put on their morning playlist.
When they finally open up shop for the breakfast crowd, Jensen's on his sixth coffee, Cougar and Jolene have transitioned to working on the special orders, and lo and behold, speak of the devils, the trio walk in like they're a protection racket.
"What can I do for you today?" Jensen asks as Aisha lowers her sunglasses just enough to maintain an air of supermodel assassin.
"Still committed to boring suburbia?" she asks.
"Gonna start this again?" Roque mutters behind her.
"You expected something different?" Clay counters, and typical Clay, he grins when Roque shoots him a narrow-eyed look.
She ignores them, because some routines never change despite how close the three of them stand next to each other, obviously bonded over surviving their most recent harrowing mission. It's wearing on them. Jensen can see it in their faces. Grizzled, not just with age, but with the sheer exhaustion of chasing something that can't be caught. He doesn't miss it, but he misses their team.
"Yep, still committed to boring old suburbia," Jensen answers. "Can't get enough of it. You know what I did yesterday? I mowed my lawn, and then Miss Suzie, who lives across the street? Really sweet old lady. I mowed her lawn, too."
Aisha looks disgusted, which only makes Jensen laugh harder as he gestures to the dining area.
"Find a seat. I'll let everyone know you're here and get your usual."
Jensen takes care of the next three customers and then heads to the back to announce, "They're back!"
What always blows Jensen's mind is Jolene hugs Aisha. Like not the one-arm, pat, pat but full on, both arms, bringing it in with a tight squeeze kind of hug. Jensen maintains his healthy distance as he sets their coffees and pastries on the table, plus a little something extra, because it never hurts to try new things.
Roque, of course, stares at it distrustfully. "The fuck is this?"
"William Roque," Jolene says, and everyone freezes. "We are a family restaurant."
There's a good three-second pause while Jensen and Pooch stare at her in shock, because at no point have they curbed their language, and Jensen's wondering if they need to start a swear jar when she suddenly starts laughing.
"Wow," Jensen says, letting go of the breath he'd been holding. "That's a good one, Jo."
And it is, because it breaks that tight thread of tension that always accompanies their unexpected visits. They're still living a rough life, and Jensen just wishes… Well, he wishes they'd come and stay home.
All they get, though, is a little bit of this — all the mundane details about their neighborhood, their latest mission to help a kid out so he'd stop breaking into cars and boosting tires surrounded by the bakery filled with the sweet scent of stewed fruits and warm yeast from their breads and the only family they've got in this world: each other.