Roque's not picking him up.
Looks like no one else is either, because they stand in a loose circle and stare down at the screaming baby kicking its feet in the nest of Clay's fatigues.
"This is …" Jensen opens and closes his mouth, frowns, points at Pooch, and then frowns again. When Jensen doesn't have shit to say about this—
Roque shakes his head. "This is bullshit."
"Maybe, but someone should—" Pooch steps forward, and they all take a step back to leave this to him. He only picks up Clay's rifle.
Jensen laughs. "Oh god don't tell Becky I let a baby around weapons. She'd kill me."
"As long as you don't tell Jolene," Pooch agrees. They fist bump in solidarity, but that doesn't deal with the fact that they walked into a cave with a team of five and walked out with four grown men and a baby.
The thought alone pisses Roque off. He's glad Jensen doesn't clue in, because he'd never drop the joke. Fact is: someone's gotta deal with this situation, however improbable it is.
"Okay," Jensen says, handing his weapon to Cougar before he crouches on the ground and pokes the baby's stomach. "So obviously Clay's turned into a baby, and—" Jensen shakes his head, looking up at them. "I watch a lot of sci-fi, but nothing's prepared me for this. Becky has, though. Sweetest little baby, guys, you remember, right?" Jensen grins as he rubs Clay's stomach. "So we should feed him, get a diaper on him before he shits all over Clay's clothes, and rock him 'til he falls asleep."
"Then he's yours," Roque says. Everyone looks at him, Jensen with his mouth open, Pooch stepping forward like he's going to say something, too, but Roque sets his jaw. "Secure him, shut him up, and let's get the fuck out of the open."
"Uh," Jensen says, but one look shuts him up. The same look doesn't work on the fucking baby, but Jensen manages to get it to sleep.
"Roque," Cougar says in the same even, quiet tone that he always has. Everyone stops, weapons free.
Cougar tilts his head to Jensen, and Jensen makes a face. "He shit on my back, didn't he?" With a groan, Jensen starts to unstrap the kid. "Of course he did. Because when I say 'you shit on me all the time' what I needed was literal shit. All over my back." Jensen crouches. "Yo, a little help here, guys?"
Roque steps forward. The fuck is going on?
"Jensen, you didn't notice him getting bigger?" Pooch asks.
"What?" Jensen swivels his head around. "What do you mean he's bigger?"
Pooch helps Jensen free the kid, and yeah, two hours into this walk, he's definitely bigger. Toddler size, kicking his stubby legs as he talks without saying shit that's useful — like how the fuck this even happened.
Roque rubs his forehead. "Cancel the pick up."
Jensen nods, reaching for his comm, but still asks, "You sure? 'Cause that means we could be—"
"Fucking do it."
With another nod, Jensen calls mission compromised to rescue alpha and coordinates a new rendezvous, time to be determined.
It gives Roque a moment to take a breath and think. He crouches while Pooch holds the kid, who kicks his legs up with a squeal of laughter. With a nod from Roque, Pooch lets the kid go. Kid's bigger but still can't walk apparently, because he lifts one foot and then drops on his ass, slapping the leaves. The kid examines them seriously for a moment and then tries to shove it all into his mouth. Pooch swoops in pretty damn quick to stop Clay, laughing as he says, "At least this is good practice." Pooch sticks a finger into Clay's mouth to fish out the stray bits of debris that might still be in there.
When Pooch shouts, barely biting off a curse, Roque isn't surprised. Of course Clay's a biter, because grown man or baby, Clay's an asshole.
"Okay, this is crazy," Pooch says, staring at his finger to make sure he isn't bleeding.
Roque ignores Pooch and Jensen and their bullshit back and forth, focusing on the kid, who drools and reaches for Roque with stubby little fingers.
"If he's growing this fast," Roque says, and pauses, waiting until all eyes are on him, "we'll wait this out. Forty-eight hours."
"Yeah, okay," Jensen says to Roque's left, "but how are we gonna feed him?"
"And clothes?" Pooch asks.
Roque tilts his head toward Jensen's pack, where he's stored all of Clay's shit.
"And enemy fire?" Jensen asks.
Roque scans the treeline, doing a full 360. He looks at Clay, inhales, and then rolls his shoulders back. "We keep him fucking safe."
Three hours later, they all want to kill Clay. Business as fucking usual.
Four-year old Clay — Roque estimates Clay's growing a year every hour — is a fucking biter. They stop picking him up, but the trade off is that Clay screams, which compromises their position. Roque nearly gags him, but Pooch steps in. "Not down for child abuse, man. We should let him run out the energy."
In the fucking woods. They're lucky both four-year old and five-year old Clay have no coordination, but again, tradeoff is that he trips and falls and has jagged crying fits when he hurts himself, even though he won't stop poking at the fucking scratches.
Fuck is appropriate here, but Roque bites back the word, because Clay's first word led to Jensen wincing and saying, "That's a quarter for the swear jar, Roque."
Roque pushes aside that annoying memory and crouches in front of the kid, grabbing his wrist.
"Stop," he says.
Clay sniffles. "Hurts."
"Because you keep touching it."
Clay fucking pokes it. "No, I don't."
Roque exhales through his nose and opens the med kit, which makes Clay scramble up to bolt. Roque grabs his arm and forces him to sit.
"No!" Clay screams, over and over and fucking over again.
"Shut up," Roque says, and uses the antiseptic wipe on Clay's knees, even though Clay tries to kick his face.
With that done, Roque tapes gauze over Clay's knee.
"Batman," Clay says.
"Sorry, baby-Clay, but we don't have any Batman band-aids," Jensen says, and of course, that makes the kid fucking cry again.
Roque glares at Jensen, who holds up his hands and retreats several steps. Roque looks at Clay again. "You're fine. Stop crying."
Clay sniffles, tears spilling down his cheeks anyway. His face shines with snot from him rubbing it all over. It's on his mouth, and Roque breathes out when Clay licks it away. Kids. Fucking disgusting.
Clay shakes his head and holds up his arms, opening and closing his hands.
"F—" Roque clenches his jaw, blows out a breath, but when he stands, he scoops Clay up in one motion, fireman carrying the kid, even though it makes the kid squeal. At least he's not fucking crying.
When Clay can finally, talk, walk, piss, shit, and eat on his own, it happens overnight and it's a fucking relief.
They debrief with a hill at their six, Cougar on watch while Pooch, Jensen, and Roque huddle around Clay, whose shoulders are drawn up until he explodes and shoots to his feet.
"I don't know! I don't know what happened!" Clay shoves Roque, and it knocks Roque off balance but not enough to make him lose his bearings. After dealing with this fucker as a screaming, sprinting little shithead, Roque reaches out, snags the back of Clay's shirt, and jerks Clay back. "Let me go!" The punch rocks Roque back, and he's fucking had enough of this shit.
Cougar touches Roque's cocked back fist, gives it one squeeze, and then lets go. When Roque looks at him, Cougar shakes his head, and— Jaw tight, Roque lowers his hand.
"Okay," Jensen says. "One, it's dangerous out there. We're on a mission, remember? Two, your hormones are messing you up. We're—"
"I hate you, you stupid—"
Roque jerks Clay back and out of Jensen's face to shut him up. "Feeling's mutual," he says, and shoves Clay down, making him sit in the dirt. Roque makes eye contact with Cougar, who confirms with a nod, and then Roque takes a long fucking walk.
Roque looks up and feels his shoulders automatically tense as a frown twists his face, making him feel the tight pull of his scar over his eye. Clay winces, looking down at the ground as he kicks at nothing. Doesn't help ease the tight coil in Roque's shoulders.
"I—" Clay kicks again. "I don't know what happened, okay?" He kicks, using the motion to move closer and closer until he plops down in front of Roque. Clay stares up at Roque, and it's the most honest, open look he's ever seen on Clay's face. Different person, but beneath that youth, Clay's supposed to be in there. "If I could figure this out— I don't want to be like this. I don't want to stay like this."
Roque nods. "You know you're not. You're growing."
"I am," Clay says, and there's Clay. In that smirk. "And you know I didn't do this on purpose."
Roque shakes his head. "I don't fucking know. What do I know? This isn't supposed to be possible, Clay."
The moment Roque says his name, Clay shifts, pulling himself up and sitting beside Roque on the branch, thigh to thigh, shoulder to shoulder. "We're Losers. We do the impossible all the time."
Another shake of his head, but Roque cracks a smile and looks at Clay. Clay smiles back, but Roque freezes when Clay strokes the inside of Roque's knee, licking his lips as he leans in. Roque stands and ignores the, "Roque, wait!" that trails behind him where it belongs.
"Hey, Roque," whispered right in his ear.
Roque immediately scans the area, but it looks like Clay walked out here alone. The fuck is the point in a team if they can't keep an eye on him?
"Go back to camp," Roque says.
"And what? Watch Cougar cheat at cards?" Roque shakes his head, and Clay laughs as he adds. "You know he cheats, too."
"We all cheat," Roque says, and continues sliding his Ka-Bar along the whetstone, the only steady point in these woods.
"You don't." Clay sits next to him on the ground, leaning over Roque, staring at the blade. "I remember that."
"Yeah, even me."
They both go silent, just the scrape of the blade between them, the usual noises from trees and scurrying animals. It's in the silence that the questions creep in. Whether Clay'll even have his scars. Or his tats. The memories are there. They drilled Clay with enough questions to figure that much out. Somewhere in there is Clay.
Roque automatically lifts his head and turns toward Clay, because that uncertainty? That's not Clay. It doesn't belong, even though it fits the smooth lines of a dirt-smudged face with a five o'clock shadow that's suddenly too fucking close.
Roque rears back, but Clay moves fast, moves in, and even though Roque gets a hand on Clay's shoulder, Clay's weight is bearing on top of him, toppling him over and onto his back. Clay's teeth cut his mouth, Clay's mouth—Fuck—Clay's tongue as Clay wraps a hand around Roque's hip and slots a knee between Roque's thighs. Roque plants both hands against Clay's shoulders and shoves, getting the kid's mouth away from his, at least.
"Roque," Clay says, pushing against Roque's mouth, grinding his fucking hips against Roque's groin.
"You're a fucking kid." Roque's voice is rougher than it should be. Fuck, this isn't happening right now.
"I'm 44-years old," Clay snaps.
Roque wishes he had a goddamn mirror to show Clay right now, wonders if Clay can see himself in Roque's eyes.
"What do I have to do?" Clay asks, pleads as he lowers his mouth to nip the line of Roque's jaw, even though neither of them have showered and they both have morning breath. "How can I convince you I'm still me?" Fuck, and this is Clay, too. But it's not. It's fucking not.
Roque shakes his head and pushes Clay up again. "Not the point—"
"What the fuck is the point then! You've been an asshole since—"
The twist in his chest, the burn in his muscles — that gives Roque the leverage he needs to shove Clay off.
"I fucking carried you," Roque says, hands fisted in Clay's shirt when he's got Clay beneath him this time. "Keeping you safe. All of us changing your dirty fucking shitrag, and you comin' at me like this right now?"
Clay closes his hands around Roque's wrists, but his eyes flash as he whispers, "Fuck you," and that right there is the fucking problem.
Roque lets Clay go and goes back to camp, barking at Jensen, Pooch, and Cougar to do their one fucking job and keep a fucking eye on the kid.
For the twentieth fucking time, Jensen announces, "Teenagers, dude!" He kicks a tree and then leans against it. "Okay, so what do we do if we can't find him?"
Roque, eyes narrowed, stares at the trees, examining every inch of them that he can. "We'll find him."
"But what if—" Jensen swallows when Roque looks at him. "Yeah. Okay. There's no option B. Got it. God, I hope Becky is more reasonable than this when she's a teenager."
They have to fan out. No one likes it, but it's the only way to cover more ground. Five hours later, finding Clay is— It's either a fucking miracle or the hormonal asshole wanted to hide but his adult brain kicked in so he could be found.
Roque pulls down the strip of cloth wrapped around the branch and crouches next to Clay, who's curled into a ball, which is good. Camouflaged by the woods with his jacket over his face. For a moment, though—
Roque holds his breath as he pulls the jacket away and releases it when he sees that Clay's fine, just sleeping. Roque raises his hand and freezes when Clay's eyes briefly open. Clay's smile is a lazy stretch across his face, and then he closes his eyes again, and Roque focuses on his breathing as he sweeps away a couple of ants crawling up Clay's neck. Roque tugs Clay up, but the kid is mostly dead weight as Roque half carries him to rendezvous with the rest of the team.
"Where—" Jensen nods when Roque looks at him. "Right. Glad he's okay. No man left behind and all that. Least of all our fearless leader."
As the hours tick by, Clay's grizzled voice steadily begins to emerge, but when Roque looks at Clay—
At least the tat is still on his hand. Roque's not looking for the rest.
They all have eyes to the sky, searching out the bird when Clay bumps him. Roque draws his shoulders up and shields his eyes as he continues scanning the sky.
"Leave it behind," Roque says. He lowers his hand and looks at Clay, who stares back with the same unflinching stare.
"Not everything," Clay says, and his gaze flits to Roque's mouth.
Roque shakes his head, looks back up, but doesn't pull away when Clay's shoulder presses against his, Clay's fingers brushing his palm. He lets his fingers twitch to touch Clay back.
"I'm going to miss baby-Clay," Jensen says. "He was kinda cute. Wish we'd taken some pictures."
"Nah," Pooch says. "Let's keep this between us."
Jensen laughs. "Yeah. Who'd believe us anyway, right?"