The helicopter was crashing. He remembers that. He remembers the fire, its smoke licking his neck and his eyes and his lungs; he remembers the sound of the engine, roaring ever louder as they descended towards the ground. He remembers shouts around him and tears in his eyes. He remembers dying.
His abuela had always told him reassuring stories about how the dead went with Dios, in Heaven, where everything was filled with joy and far away from sin. He had imagined angels, and light and clouds, stunning love filling his soul when death would finally take him. Even after everything, after the army and growing up, Black Ops and Bolivia, he had never lost faith, always believed in that cliché death, entering Heaven with singing and happiness. It feels almost childish now. If he is indeed entering Heaven, it is with booming explosions and a dreadful free fall.
The helicopter crashes and the pain goes away before he has time to register it. Blinding white fades to black, the buzzing sound of the explosion silenced down to nothing. The smell of smoke disappears last.
He remembers dying.
Then he hears voices.
“You have failed. Go back.”
Mamá wanted to leave. She said she missed Mexico and abuela who was still there, along with a half-ton of sisters, cousins, neighbors-turned-family, and most of all a place to fit in. Except he didn’t miss this because he had never known it, and he fit in pretty well here. He had friends – allegedly not that many but who was counting – and a future: his college plan was made, plus he’d get a scholarship because he was a damn good long-distance runner. He just couldn’t bring himself to tell that to his mother.
He didn’t want to disappoint her by preferring the States to Mexico. She often said that she had raised an American in her family, and sometimes it didn’t hurt to hear it; most of the time it did, mainly because it was brought up during arguments and her voice said you are forgetting your roots, hijo, this country is not our country. Please don’t trust it blindly.
He also didn’t wish to keep her here. He knew she wasn’t happy, not as happy as she’d been back in Mexico. He just wanted to see her smile, not ashamed to speak Spanish, not hiding a cringe at the disrespect she witnessed on cinco de mayo.
He didn't want to leave.
So here he was, secretly looking for a flat that wasn’t too expensive. Leaving home hadn’t been part of the plan – at least not the financial plan – because state money only got you so far. Far enough if he stayed with Mamá, as he wouldn’t have to worry about bills, but it was clear after half an hour of craigslist searches and overpriced flats that he could not afford going solo on top of going to college. He was stuck.
He kept up his research for a couple of weeks, and no, he was most definitely not avoiding his mother, until he had maybe three options: a room in an old woman’s house, a flat shared with five other guys, and going to Mexico after all.
He knew enough students to realize that option number one was, in fact, not an option, because they always ended up acting as caretaker for whoever owned the place. He didn’t mind doing groceries, but he didn’t particularly enjoy cleaning the entire house, cooking, walking the dog and massaging feet.
He was just walking away from visiting option number two. Meeting the five guys left him with mixed feelings : most of them were completely, uninterestingly bland, but also very loud. He was certain he’d go crazy after three hours with them, let alone an entire year listening to their sex stories and after-party briefings. There was only one thing that had made this meeting worth his time. One guy named Jake.
As soon as he had seen him, he had felt a weird sense of deja vu. The glasses were different, the hair longer, but he was sure he knew Jake. There had been something lingering between them, which had turned to a shock of electricity when they'd shaken hands. Jake had apologized, going off about how he was used to it after working for years on computers, grinning as he'd done so. Carlos had stopped listening to the words, concentrated on the voice and blinded by the smile.
One of the guys – Frank? Was it Frank? – had put his arm around his shoulders to lead him to the kitchen because hey, he was here to see that damn flat, right ? The only thing he'd seen had been Jake retiring to his room, taking all the air in the building with him.
And after Frank had shown him every inch of the apartment and he'd been expected to leave, he hadn't dared ask after Jake.
Damn him and his reluctance to express himself.
He allowed himself to stop, close his eyes and breathe only when he was two blocks down from the flat. Then he started running.
He ran all the way to his house. He ran until his legs burned, his lungs ached and his thoughts were silenced. He even ran up the stairs to his room.
He tried to relax, took a shower and collapsed on his bed.
He knew the flat was another non-option. One boy wasn’t worth it. He had to be sensible. He would go to Mexico, work for a year or two to earn some money, and then go back to the States and finish his studies. He just needed money to get going. And yeah, maybe it would be nice to see the family, understand Mamá better, learn about his roots. Besides, Jake might have a girlfriend, or wouldn’t be interested, or hadn’t felt what he had, or or or.
He was being ridiculous. He had met the guy for a total of a minute, two at most.
He heard his mother’s car outside. He would tell her tonight that he was going to Mexico with her after high school was over. She would slap the back of his head, but gently, for all the grief he made her go through. And she would smile, finally.
They left together in July, him driving, luggage filling the trunk and the backseat and ever his mother’s lap. And as he passed the street where the flat was, he almost didn’t feel regret.
“You have failed. Go back.”
“Alvarez, where the fuck are you ? ”
He didn’t answer. Any noise would give his position away, and he was so close to the target he couldn’t afford anyone noticing him now. It was something important, or the suits wouldn’t have sent them out on the mission.
Casey’s team had recovered a program a few weeks ago – computer stuff he hadn’t exactly understood – that supposedly could hack any security system east of the Atlantic. Apparently, Europe had discovered a new way to protect their databases, an hypothetically unbreakable shield created by a programmer allegedly from MI6 – though the English government had denied. They were all very happy with their brand new program except an American kid had managed to decrypt it, and had written another program to override their security. Then he had went and got himself kidnapped, along with his program, because it turned out that all of Europe was using it, even Russia, with whom it didn’t sit well to redo everything. Casey had found the program, but the kid was somewhere, held by the Russians and probably at least four other countries. And he was the only one who would be able to run his program since writing the damn thing hadn’t been enough, he’d had to encrypt it so damn well that the service couldn’t use it.
The kid was good.
And maybe it hurt to think that if that hadn’t been the case and the program alone was enough, the higher-ups would have left him to die a hostage somewhere in Europe. Carlos knew from experience that it was better not to think too hard on some things.
So here they were, in Switzerland of all places, because if you’re going to hide a hostage worth the entire security net of the major European companies and governments, you might as well do it in a neutral country – neutrality being a question of context, really – filled with mountains and banks.
The place was nice, nicer than most of the countries they had missions in; not too hot or too cold, actual phone service, and no weird animals/insects that could bring you death with a bite. Intel had said the programmer was held in the industrial zone of a town hidden in the Alps, in some sort of warehouse, because of course it had to be a warehouse. How original.
It turned out it was way more heavily guarded than Intel had predicted, and so Carlos had followed his team in the field instead of watching them from above through his rifle’s crosshairs. He was the closest to the target, a door away according to the data they had, and thus he didn’t waste time answering his CO.
He opened the door, took in the three guards inside, shot one in the back before anyone had time to react. He crossed the space between his gun and the two others in four long steps, just enough time for the thugs to unholster their weapon. He shot one in the shoulder, kicked the second in the sternum, shot the first one again, this time in the chest, and aimed a headshot at the one who was still alive, trying to rise to a standing position.
All in all, the three bodies were on the floor in less that forty seconds.
He heard a slow whistle, and whipped around, gun cocked and ready to fire.
There was his target, tied to a chair, looking at him with awe tinted with a sort of interested fear. Carlos lowered his gun, and stood in front of the kid, frozen. He knew he was staring, and that the guy was starting to fidget because hey, the man who had just killed three men in cold blood was now looking intently at him. Anyone would be somewhat freaked out. But Carlos couldn’t help it. They had seen pictures, of course, but seeing the kid in reality, in front of him… It just wasn’t the same.
One look at the man brought back memories that weren’t memories, more like feelings, or something very weird and very not normal, and he saw in his mind a pair of broken glasses and a figure illuminated by the glow of a white screen. The air smelled of fire and hair gel for half a second.
“Are you going to untie me or something? I know you’re the good guys since I recognize the uniform – yeah I’m not supposed to be able to do that ‘cause you’re Black Ops and all but anyways, I guess you’re here to rescue me and get my ass back on US soil, or so I hope because honestly, those guys you just killed were less than friendly, plus I bet my sister’s all worried about me and I hate it when she worries because she gets annoying and well, you know how they are, fretting over details and always asking about you and – ”
The guy shut up as the door slammed open behind Carlos, who had his gun at the ready moments before the men started entering. He relaxed when he realized it was his team. His CO was the first to speak, as usual.
“You know comms are made to communicate, Alvarez. Next time you don’t answer, I’ll put you in charge of writing reports till you’re a general.” He shook his head in the direction of the kid, still tied up. “This our target?” Carlos nodded.
The programmer smiled then, a goofy smile, and started talking again.
“Sir, yessir. Name’s Jacob Jensen, I designed the program so please don’t kill me or you’re probably going to get in trouble with your bosses because then it would be unusable and that would be a shame really, such a fine program, so useful to your people–“
Carlos let the voice fall to background noise, and wondered if the kid had been drugged. That was the only explaination for the smallest thought-to-mouth filter he had ever witnessed.
He was wrong. Oh, so, so wrong. It became apparent four hours into the flight back to the States. The guy just never shut up. At first it was kind of fun in a the-mission-went-well-let’s-relax type of way. Abe talked video games with him, and Xavier started a DC comics versus Marvel debate. Not that Carlos was listening. Still, it wasn’t long before the team just wished to doze off and catch some sleep.
But the kid would simply not shut up.
When Carlos decided to sit down next to him, it was only for the well-being of his team, and absolutely not to investigate the things he had felt back at the warehouse. Sitting there hearing him ranting about something he couldn’t bring himself to understand, Carlos realized two things: a) the kid was scared to shit and b) he and his team were a bunch of sorry assholes. Honestly, now that he paid attention to it, it was perfectly clear, and pretty understandable: the kid had been kidnapped, held hostage in the middle of Europe by what had totally sounded like the Russian mob – it wouldn’t be the first time the government used them to do the dirty work – then was promptly rescued by five Black Ops dudes, including one who had savagely killed three men in front of him. He had every right to be a little stressed out right now, and his way to relieve that stress had to be by talking.
So naturally Carlos put a hand on his shoulder and whispered a low “Relax, Jake. It’s over, we’re getting you back home. It’s safe now.”
Magically, Jake stopped talking. When Carlos looked at him, a small smile was on his face, a real one, unlike the big grin in the warehouse. He nodded slowly, fidgeted for a while in his seat, and looked out the window for the rest of the flight. Carlos stayed next to him until the plane landed.
There were people, important people, waiting at the airport. Jake would be taken by some guys of the FBI to decrypt his program and no less than teach them how to use it. The team would be called for a debreifing with a General – probably Soderberg since he was one of the few who put up with their original methods and thus didn’t cut them off with questions at every sentence. Carlos knew all of this, but still hoped he would see Jake later, when everything had calmed down.
He wished he could tell Jake all this.
He didn’t, and as they shook hands and Jake thanked him, it felt too much like a farewell. It was, and Carlos knew that.
He watched as Jake went and hugged his sister, and turned to follow his team to the briefing rooms.
“You have failed. Go back.”
“… Excuse me?”
“I’m sure that’s your spirit animal or something. A cougar.”
Carlos most definitely did not have time for this. The bar was already too crowded for his liking, the music too loud, the people too drunk. He had followed his friend Sofia there because she had insisted, telling him that she’d go with or without him, and that there were many boys who’d flirt with her if he wasn’t here to watch her. Faced with such arguments, he hadn't had a choice but to play along, and as always guys had come and gone around her, him being there or not. She was currently talking with a Canadian about politics, of all things. Carlos knew it wouldn’t be long before their tongue ended up in the other’s mouth, considering how good-looking the man was. He was used to going out with Sofia, and it didn’t really bother him anymore, if he was perfectly honest.
So he'd been sitting alone at the bar, perched on a stool, looking intently at his beer – with a shot of tequila, please. Everything was fine until the guy next to him started talking about cougars.
“You got some mystery going around you, so it’s only fitting.”
Carlos didn’t even answer. The guy would tire and look for another victim after a few failed attempts at starting a conversation.
“At first I thought about an eagle, but that’s too…” He made a gesture with his hands, looking for the right word. “American. Yeah.”
Not knowing whether he should be offended or not, Carlos looked up at the man’s face.
A strange sense of deja vu overtook him; the glasses, the hair, even that ridiculous shirt, everything about that guy looked familiar. If anything happened between them when their eyes met, the other guy seemed oblivious to it.
“You’re not really the talkative type, are you?” he said with a knowing smile, the type Carlos could get used to. “Well I’ll have you know I can talk for two. People even told me I talked enough for a small class of nine-graders.” Carlos wondered what it took to have so much self-confidence. He himself knew his strenghts well, and how to play with those, but meeting someone who took pride in a trait most found annoying – and probably told him so… It was unusual.
Carlos found himself smilling, too. Maybe it had been the right call to follow Sofia in that bar.
He slowly found himself addicted to Jake’s voice. It was deep, but not overly so; it flowed freely and took up all the space between them despite the blazing music of the bar. Or maybe it was just that Carlos was completely mesmerized and so his senses, those traitors, amplified evrything they registered was Jake.
Plus, Carlos could not lie, the guy was hot.
He still didn’t know what had prompted Jake to start talking to him, but he was very glad that he had, though he’d probably never tell him so. His lack of talk was not only a way he portrayed himself, it was just how he was: quiet, not very open and overall reluctant to talk about any subject. He wasn’t sure why he was like this, though it might have something to do with his childhood, as most things do. Well, he’d rather not spend any of his time thinking about that. Still, a few more tequila-infused beers and his tongue would loosen a bit. Probably.
Something in Jake’s voice made him pay attention to the conversation – well, 'monologue' was more appropriate. The man was looking expectantly at him, eyebrows raised and eyes saying ‘well?’ and damn those eyes were too blue to be real.
“… You were saying?” and yes perfect, way to go, Carlos, make it obvious you were totally not listening to him.
Jake’s eyes lit up in a smile he hid in a sip of his beer. “Would you accompany me outisde for a smoke?” he repeated, still smilling.
Carlos didn’t smoke, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t stand outside watching Jake burn his lungs. He nodded.
The late spring night welcomed them, the sudden silence relaxing. They were in the old part of town, paved streets and lights hanging between short, long buildings. There were four bars on the block, three of them still open. Outside, people bonded over cigarettes and beers, enjoying the fresh air and quiet darkness.
Jake lit up a cigarette, the flame reflecting on his glasses. He had offered Carlos one, which he had politely declined with a smile. Jake had smiled too in return, and it felt like when he had come back home to Mexico that first time, after being away for years.
“What are you thinking about?” Jake asked in the most innocent way. Carlos hated it when people asked him that, because either it was highly unimportant, or very personal. Either way he usually didn’t feel the need to share, especially if it was prompted like this. But hey, maybe he could answer this time, just with Jake, just tonight under this streetlamp outside this ragged bar, with the smell of cigarette smoke in his throat.
“What about Mexico?”
Carlos hesitated. He really wasn’t good with words to begin with, and he was even worse when words involved feelings and private.
“Come on, Cougar, none of that with me. You don’t have to answer or anything, it’s just that I’ve talked a lot and usually by this time people are gone, so I figured I should know a little about the person who broke the record of time spent listening to me on a first meeting.”
The contagious, sunny smile was back.
Carlos started talking, and maybe the tequila helped, but he told Jake about abuela and his sister, about weddings in the quiet of the desert, the heat, the poverty too, him wanting to get a degree but who was he kidding, he needed money, they needed money. He went on for a long time, Jake listening intently, smoking cigarette after cigarette, the little flame of the lighter punctuating his words at regular intervals. When he was done, it felt like something in his chest had unlocked and okay, he was not going to dwell on that. Not right now.
He didn’t have time to not-dwell on it though, because suddenly Jake’s lips were on his and he couldn’t remember if he had started the kiss or if Jake had. Yeah, tequila. The kiss didn’t last long, but when it broke Carlos tasted lemon and vanilla and cigarette.
The door of the bar opened, and a man walked out. His eyes darted from Jake to Carlos and back to Jake.
“Jacky-boy, there you are. We’re about to leave, you coming?”
“Yeah, give me a minute, Lin. I’ll meet you guys by the car.”
The guy smiled, nodded and promplty walked back into to bar. They caught a whiff of music and people, quickly disappearing as the door closed.
Jake smiled, gave him a piece of napkin with his number scribbled on it, and followed his friend.
And for the first time in his life, Jake Jensen didn’t need to say a word.
“Good. You can rest, now.”