"My point is, you don't exist."
"I don't, no. But.... I'm here."
"In my head."
"Well, of course, but... still here."
"Can you go away now?"
"Where would I go?"
"Anywhere that isn't here."
"Okay, so if I'm in your head, how do I get out?"
"God, can’t I just bleed to death in peace!?"
"I hate you."
“That’s from Return of the Jedi."
“See what I did there? You said ‘I hate you’ the way Han said—”
“I said shut up!"
“Yes. Touchy. Stuck in a four-by-four cell and shot up with whatever-the-hell-this-shit-is while I bleed to death from a knife wound that probably punctured my spleen or something.”
“Your spleen’s on the left side.”
“I know that. Figure of speech.”
“And it’s in the front.”
“I am never watching your damn movie again. Ever.”
“See, now you're just hurting my feelings.”
“And it was in Empire Strikes Back first.”
“Yeah. Who watched that movie more than once?”
“I hate you.”
The modern resort town of Ilha Branca was supposed to be a quick stop on their way back to base to wait for further orders—an indulgence that they figured they deserved after three months of hunting drug dealers in the wilds of the Brazilian rainforest. None of them had been on alert in this bastion of civilization, and all of them were cursing themselves for it.
Hell, this was Jensen’s own damn fault, anyway. They'd been showing Iron Man in the local theater, and Jake had a really unnatural affection for the damn thing. He'd seen it fifteen times in five different languages since it was released six months ago, and no one really thought he was going to pass it up here. They were just sick of watching the damn thing.
“Man, you don't even speak Portuguese,” Roque had pointed out when Jensen announced his intentions.
“He can recite it in English, Spanish, and Pashto,” Clay pointed out without looking up from his newspaper. “I don't think it matters at this point.”
“No, it does not,” J agreed. He looked at Roque speculatively. “You speak Portuguese. Don't you want to see what they did to it in translation?”
“Shit, man, I didn't care what they were saying in English,” Roque pointed out.
Jensen gave the rest of them the eye and was studiously ignored. “Really?” he asked. “No takers?” He grabbed his baseball hat and shook his head as he walked for the door. “Your loss, gentlemen.”
And then he just disappeared.
They didn't even notice until dinnertime, when Cougar called his cellphone. Wouldn't have been the first time the geek made it a double feature. But he and Cougar had planned to go bar hopping like they usually did when they were all on leave, so getting Jake's voicemail was a little worrying.
By dawn, it was a lot more than a little. By lunchtime, it was a rescue operation.
Cougar was keeping it together, surprisingly. The boss, not so much. Pooch was just doing what he did and hoping it paid off sooner rather than later.
“Pooch, so help me, God—”
“I can’t give you what I don’t have, Colonel,” Pooch said, damning himself for the answer as he banged away on Jensen’s keyboard. “I’m not the computer whiz in this outfit.”
Clay turned away, his growl deadly. “That’s exactly the problem.”
“Take a walk, Clay,” Roque ordered him sharply, leaning back in his seat but keeping a close eye on the search Pooch was running. “You’re driving the rest of us fucking nuts.”
The colonel looked a little like he was going to break Roque’s jaw (again), but instead turned tail and stalked out of the room. Pooch took a deep breath and tried to relax.
“Thank you,” he murmured to Roque, wishing for the four hundredth time today, that he was the guy they were looking for. J had taught him a lot about cracking municipal camera systems in the last year or so, but what would have taken their friendly neighborhood tech minutes was slow going for the grunt who kept the car running. And since they had no idea who had Jensen or where or why—“God damn, finally,” he whispered as the security portal gave way to a cascade of camera feeds across the screen. He typed in the address of the movie theater and started scanning nearby videos.
Now that he was in, it took all of thirty seconds to find where and when J was taken. “There he is. Or was.” Right outside the theater and ten minutes after the post-movie crowd thinned out. The jerks had balls.
“CLAY!” Roque yelled, calling the boss back before he’d even left the house.
Cougar was suddenly leaning over Pooch’s shoulder and Roque had rocked forward in his chair. Clay was all but breathing down his neck to watch a traffic camera showing a pair of thugs escorting Jensen toward a nondescript white van. J was stumbling, his head heavy on his neck.
“He doesn't look so good.” Roque’s voice was dry as dust and angry.
“Drugged, maybe?” Clay muttered.
Drugged or not, when they tried to shove him in the back of the van, Jensen objected, though his struggles were uncoordinated. Cougar cursed lightly as Jake froze and stiffened in response to a jab at his flank. Pooch cursed more colorfully when he saw a glint of knife as the thug drew his hand back and slammed the door on Jake's ass.
“License plate?” Cougar demanded quietly.
Pooch was already on it, zooming in, blackly unsurprised when he found the back license plate gone.
“What’s that?” Clay asked, pointing at what was left of a sticker on the left bumper. Pooch blew that up and ran one of Jensen’s crazy programs that cleared up video feeds—he didn’t understand a bit about how it worked, but it worked.
That was all the remains of the sticker said, but they all recognized the fragmented design and what it meant. The company imported more Asian smack that anything else.
“Pacote Asiático,” Clay announced as he straightened up. “Fucking Rodriguez and his crew.” Pooch almost pitied the assholes.
“They wouldn't take him far,” the colonel continued, all business. “Find the nearest warehouse,” he ordered, though Pooch was already hunting for it. They’d hit Miko Rodriguez’s heroin operation hard when they were working up north. Hard enough for him to come after them a thousand miles to the south. Hard enough that Jensen was probably in a world of hurt right now.
If he was even still alive.
“You can lose the fetal position. They're gone.”
“I figured from the sizzle of electricity.”
“Jacked cages are a bitch.”
“But not impossible.”
“Um, in case you didn't notice, they didn't leave me with much past my shirt and boxers. And they just beat the shit out of me. Again. What exactly am I supposed to use to short-circuit it?”
“Oh no. No, you are fucked, Marvel figment of my imagination. I am not throwing myself at an electrical fence.”
“If you used yourself as a bridge in just the right places...”
“It's not as bad as you think. Being electrocuted.”
“Says you. Besides, yours was all special effects and dramatic music. In the real world, it would be all pain and death.”
“Aren't you already working up to that anyway?”
“Point. Except that Clay’ll be here soon.”
“They've always been soon enough bef—See!? Guns. Lots of guns.”
“Well, good then. Problem solved.”
“Never had a doubt.”
“By the way, I was lying. Being electrocuted hurts like a bitch.”
It felt like Pooch and Roque were mostly just along for the ride.
When they'd busted in, Clay was a little… overly enthusiastic in his search. They figured, since they'd already received orders to hit Rodriguez’s operation through any means necessary, that killing the shit out of all these guys wouldn’t be a problem for the good ole US Army.
Cougar was more methodical about it but his body count was pretty much the same. He was the one to find where they’d stashed Jensen, and he might have killed more guys coming out than going in. Not that Pooch begrudged him. When he saw Jake, he was a little sorry he hadn’t taken down more of them himself.
“I told you they’d find me.” Even as he spoke to someone who wasn't there, Jensen sort of seemed to understand what was going on as Cougar shoved him in the back of the van and Pooch gunned it for their safe house. Their messed up tech had suddenly smirked. “Well at least I didn't have to wait three months, did I?”
“Jensen?” Clay asked, the tense sound to his voice making Pooch’s gaze flick to the rear view mirror. The colonel leaned over Jensen on one side while Cougar checked him out from the other. “Jensen, can you hear me?”
“Look at his eyes.” Cougar’s whisper was barely audible above the roar of the diesel engine.
“Blown to hell. Shit.” Clay sat back and made room for Cougar to work. “He's high as a kite.”
Cougar nodded, his eyes never leaving his patient. “Just makes this easier.”
The knife they’d caught a hint of in the camera outside the theater hadn’t punched through anything fatal, but Jensen had lost a fair amount of blood by the time they got there. Add in the beatings and whatever damn drug he was still raving from, and he was rough enough for them to consider taking him to the hospital.
“But then you’d have to explain yourself,” Jensen had commented to no one when the subject was brought up as Cougar tried to sew him up. It was clear that he still wasn’t talking to them, but he was hearing some of what they were saying. “What doctor is going to buy that? ‘Strange thing, Doc. See, I was just minding my own business when…’”
Which was a point, but a problem they’d gotten around before. Roque—pragmatic and realistic and just plain more ruthless than the rest of them—pointed out that if Rodriguez’s men could grab one of them here, there was no reason to believe Jake’d be safe in a local hospital, anyway.
“Yeah, because who do you trust with shit like that, anyway, right?” Jensen had asked whoever the hell he was talking to. "I mean, your best friend, sure, but..."
And so, against all objections, Jensen was laid out on the bed in his and Cougar’s room, having discussions with himself while Cougar just… hovered. It wasn’t the first time Cougar had sewn up his partner, but it was the worst, and Pooch knew that if things went bad here, the sniper was going to kill Roque outright, just for someone to blame.
So Pooch felt a fair amount of trepidation as he walked in with a bag of food from the local fast food equivalent.
“How’s he doing?” he asked in a quiet voice. He started to hand off the bag and stopped at the look on Cougar’s face. Alvarez was smiling. Pooch looked at Jake, but he didn’t look much better than the last time he’d seen him. “What?” Pooch demanded.
“I finally figured out who he’s talking to,” Cougar replied with that evil grin. Pooch returned it. It was the grin that promised that whatever Jensen had done, he was never living it down. A damn sight better than the cold anger and worry Cougar had been radiating for the last 18 hours.
“... not even a superhero,” Jensen murmured. The drug was getting out of his system now, finally—a mixture of shit that had fucked up his brain but good—but he probably wouldn’t be with it for a while. “...stupid ass with a car battery in your chest.”
“And you know that would never work anyway, right? ...have to take out half your lungs just to make room for it.”
Cougar nodded, chuckling. Jake had made that argument to them the first, second, and third times he'd seen the movie. Until Roque pulled out a knife and started sharpening it in J's face.
“...build a freaking electromagnet ... use it to drag the shrapnel out of your chest? Because there’d be no franchise, that’s why.”
Pooch laughed loud enough that Jake fell still and completely silent. Cougar started eating his dinner as Jake slept on and Pooch took the seat beside him and hung out for a while.
That lasted all of thirty minutes. He had no idea how Cougar could sit here hour after hour and just watch the geek breathe. That was love for you, huh?
“Fucking Iron Man,” Pooch murmured with a grin as he rose. Jensen’s eyelids twitched. “Leave it to Jensen, huh?”
“Leave what to me?” Jensen asked weakly, his eyes popping open and blinking too many times before he focused on each of them in turn. His pupils were still a little blown and he definitely wasn’t all there. He went suddenly green. “Damn, I have a hangover.” He tried to sit up and was stopped by the pain, so he just looked at his bandaged side in confusion. “Okay, what the hell happened?”
Pooch snorted and dropped a hand onto Cougar's shoulder, giving the relieved sniper a squeeze. “I’ll go tell the others he’s awake,” he assured him. He looked at Jensen and grinned. “Just be glad you didn’t come out of this with a magnet in your chest.”
Pooch didn’t bother waiting for the rest. He’d let Cougar answer. If he chose to.
Either way, it was going to be fun—and a damn sight better than the alternative.